It's just an ordinary trip for me this evening, a short jaunt between the Meifu and Earth to do a little after-hours research down in Osaka; but as always I can feel my heart speed up in anticipation. Silly, isn't it? But this always happens to me.
When I came here and they told me my new job, I was pretty incredulous; what did a bunch of spirits need with a medical officer? How do you bandage a ghost? And then I found out just how unspiritual we all were, and how solid; perfectly fascinating, really. I mean, we have bodies of a sort, we eat and sleep and live, more or less. We have houses and apartments- how spiritual is that? You don't expect that sort of thing when you arrive here, you know. And then there's all these wonderful new abilities... especially flight. Flying is a very special thing to me.
They needed my help with the computers, most of all. I don't think hardly any of the shinigami here in Juuouchou had ever worked with a computer before. It was a real shock to see the records of the dead being kept in hard drives, showing on monitors. Computers in the afterlife- you don't hear about that sort of thing when you talk to a priest.
It's enough to go to your head, I can tell you; you die, you arrive in the Meifu, and you find a job waiting just for you. A bit intimidating. I'm doing my best, learning about everything as fast as I can. But there's so much to learn! New rules for biology and healing, new implications regarding the effects of using the magics- do you know, a shinigami can exhaust themselves by doing too many spells too quickly? How the hell do you treat that sort of damage, and with what? So much to learn...
I had to make myself believe in magic, too. Tough proposition. I mean, I was a scientist when I was alive.
So I'm heading out of the lab, walking through the silent building after everyone else has gone to their respective dwellings for the night. Me, I tend to sleep on a cot in the back of my lab as often as not; it's fine, I don't mind. I'm comfortable in my lab. It's familiar.
Cold grey halls... my steps echo off them as I move towards the exit. I've been here, what? Three months now, four? Don't know, don't really care; I've got my lab, I've made a few friends here... maybe not that many yet- it's all so new, it's kind of overwhelming. Guess I'm still a little unsure of myself here in this new place, a little unsure of my new shinigami self.
But I've got all sorts of things to keep me busy here in this particular brand of the afterlife; still, though, the halls spook me. Heh, what a way to put it. I hurry my steps up and head down the stairs, out into the cool night so I can be on my way.
Flight. I love it; it's the best thing, so far, about being dead. I'm hurrying out into the everblooming sakura trees now so no-one can see the grin that I know is beginning to cover my face at the thought of flying (not that anybody's around to see it)... why? I really don't care if they see me grinning like a fool; smiles are good for you. I suppose I'm still just a bit self-concious about some things, that's all; I'm new enough here among the shinigami still that I'm a little uncertain about the details of what we do. I mean, I'm just the rookie scientist/medical whatsit.
New jobs are such a pain to settle into, aren't they? I mean, besides having the added confusions of adjusting to the Meifu and all- and then there was the trauma of getting here- You'd think that I'd hate flying, what with what happened to me. But I don't; I really don't.
I was never reserved or quiet when I was alive. God, I was a real blabbermouth most of the time- I used to drive my co-workers crazy! Talk, talk, talk, practical jokes, you name it. But here, in this impossible place... It's kind of hard to think of how to talk to people.
I mean, sometimes the strangeness of it all kind of silences me; when that happens, I duck for cover and take shelter in my lab. I'm so new here, and some of the other shinigami like Tatsumi-san have been here for ages. I don't know how to talk to them yet.
I'll learn how, I really will; but... In the meantime, I spend a lot of time in my lab.
But right now I'm heading out into the grove, shuffling through the soft sweet-scented litter of petals and spring grass, and as usual the regular line of conjecture starts going through my head: Where do the fallen petals go? I mean, these trees never stop blooming, right? And the petals are always falling, right? So they land on the grass, which never fades, never goes brown or mushy with bad weather- I can accept the idea of eternally green grass somehow... But where the hell do the fallen petals go? I don't know how long the trees have been here- forever, I guess- but there's never any dead brown petals on the grass, never any mulch or raked-up piles or windblown drifts of last week's debris; just sweet, freshly-fallen sakura underfoot.
I shake my head at myself as I kick up a shower of palest-pink with the scuff of a foot, grinning again. Watari, you're a first-class idiot; some things just aren't definable in your science, fool. You're dead as last year's news, but you're walking around with a fine steady heartbeat and a lungful of air in a place that's not on *any* map- and you're wondering where a bunch of fallen flower-petals go?
...but where the hell do they go? They should be miles deep by now...
Idiot. Time to quit woolgathering and move; you haven't got all night. So I fix the image of my destination in mind and make that peculiar, delicate adjustment of self that comes so easily now; the Meifu streaks away into greyness, and I am falling free into flight.
The wind of the strange place between the land of the dead and the world of the living whistles past me as I spread my arms, lab coat flapping madly; in this white, shining void there is movement but no momentum, a fact that strikes me as impossible but oddly right every time I travel through it.
I laugh soundlessly, falling towards Earth without fear. Delicious feeling. When you die, you lose so much that you love; it's only right that you should lose something hateful, like the fear of falling. Beautiful.
My heart is pounding so hard, throbbing like a drum in my ears. I love this so much.
It's cold here; I guess that's why we shinigami all seem to favor trenchcoats, jackets, that sort of thing; why is it cold? Is it just that there's no life here and never has been? Where does the light come from? It's white, brilliant white, no matter where you look- and ahead, as my hair streams behind me, I can just see the gleam of my goal shining even against the brilliance.
My arms are stretched wide, like wings; the rush of movement beats in my head like wings. When I fly, I feel like I have wings.
I've tried over and over since I came to the Meifu to change the altitude I arrive at- I mean, shouldn't I be able to change that since I can change my destination? Seems fair to me... Some of the others can vary their arrival heights as much as they want, that Tsuzuki guy can- of course, he's been here quite a while, fifty years or so from what I heard. Seems like a nice guy; maybe I can dig up the courage to talk to him at lunch tomorrow- I could use more friends. As for the altitude bit, no matter what, I always come out *no* more than ten feet or so above wherever I intend to land. Damn it, if I could I'd pop out up high, way above the clouds... That'd be fantastic... It wouldn't kill me, would it? Would it? Don't think so- we can hover, too, with practice.
I'd do it if I could...
But no; I'm dropping out of flight and back into the world, the Chijou, falling silently down from the sky to alight on the grass of the municiple park just across from the main Osaka library-
-CRACK! *WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!*
... I hit something- something hit me hard, right on the chest as I fell- I land in an ungainly sprawl as something small and soft bounces away from me. Blinking and stunned, I slowly pick myself up and brush the blond hair out of my eyes. Where the hell are my glasses? Oh, there they are- good thing they're okay, Tatsumi-san would be pretty damned pissed if he had to buy me a new pair- now, what the hell did I hit?
Oh, poor little thing... It's a bird.
So much for research. Here I sit on this parkbench feeling guilty as can be and cupping this poor, broken ball of feathers in my hands, trying to keep it warm, trying to keep it alive. Pretty damned ironic, that, hmmm?
It's an owl, a tiny, soft-feathered little bundle of hollow bones and eyes more golden than anything I've ever seen. So beautiful, the delicate feathers all crumpled now, the tiny heart beating and beating and beating so hard; it didn't even struggle when I picked it up.
I'm so sorry, little bird. I wish I could help you but I'm a god of death, and I can only heal the dead. I don't know what to do for you.
Poor thing- it's in so much pain... There's blood on the breastfeathers, and I can tell that at least one of its wings is broken.
Well- maybe I can at least make you comfortable until you go on your own journey to the afterlife. I know animals and birds and things go somewhere- I've heard that there's a shinigami or two that specialize in animal cases, and we have birds all over the sky around Juuouchou. Doves and swallows, mostly; I've never seen an owl there anywhere.
So I manage to find somebody's discarded fast-food container, and I nest the pathetic little scrap of feathers there, wrapped in a forgotton hairscarf from one of my pockets. The golden eyes blink up at me, slitted in pain; it hisses, a sad sound like steam escaping. Poor little thing, I broke a few bones when I slammed into you, didn't I? Internal injuries too, and shock; birds are so fragile... I'm so sorry. Guess you're not long for this world. Don't worry, little owl- the next one's not so bad, really.
Cradling my sad little soon-to-be-casualty against my chest, I head towards the library. I've got some after-hours research to do; nobody minds, 'cause nobody sees me when I do this. Heh; invisibility has its advantages, doesn't it? And I put the books back. Really, I do; I'm much more tidy here than I am in my lab.
So I get busy, trying to ignore the guilt that follows me around like an insistant child and tugs at my sleeve. Let's take a look at the newspapers, shall we? Hmmmm; new findings regarding DNA; new evidence that tobacco smoke really is damaging to the body; more articles regarding that American president that's been causing so much trouble with that Watergate scandle of his. Ass. Whatever. Now let's get down to brass tacks, as the Brits would say; I need information regarding blood types and the care of burns. Shinigami do get injured, and sometimes the injuries are too bad to heal swiftly.
When I was alive, I wasn't really a medical doctor- I was a research assistant at a university. Pretty damned bright, so I was told; I got my Ph.D. in record time- I had just had it for a few months before I died. I would have had a good career had I lived, I suppose. It's nice to know that all that college is actually coming in handy, even now when you'd think I wouldn't need it. Funny thought, that.
I'm deep in study regarding the proper growth of post-trauma cell structures when there's a sound. Behind me the owl makes a breathy little noise from where I've placed its box on a table, and I hurry over to take a look. God, I feel so bad about this- I love birds, always have; they can fly and they're so beautiful, intricate little marvels of design and technique. Golden eyes look up at me, so wide, without blame or fear- I guess it's too far gone to be afraid.
It's so small... What kind of owls live in Japan that're so small? Hell, I don't know- I'm a deceased scientist/medical whatsit, not an ornithologist. It doesn't look like an immature specimen, it looks fully adult from the little I can tell. No idea. I smooth a feather carefully between my fingers and the golden eyes blink at me, filled with pain.
Maybe I can write down a description and look it up later? I want to know what kind of owl it is. Note paper, note paper... oh, here we go. Pencil? A nicely-sharpened #2 pencil from the main desk. Let's see: tan barring on the feathers, pale breast, maybe ten or twelve centimeters tall, greyish shading on the wings, dark tips to the pinions, striped tailfeathers... Beautiful golden eyes.
I wish I could draw you, little owl. My drawing skills are pretty much nonexistant- I couldn't do you justice, little feathered miracle that you are.
But my hands are already moving, one smoothing the paper as usual before I start and imbuing it with that peculiar *talent* of mine that Tatsumi-san found out about for me, that touch of 'life' that I can give my drawings. Why? I don't know, habit, I suppose. I don't mean to animate this one- but the pencil goes into action, beginning to make a vague owl-shaped outline on the page, just an oval really...
I wish I understood my own ability better. Tatsumi-san tells me that when I touch a piece of paper with the intent to draw on it, I infuse the paper with a certain amount of my own soul, my own spirit. When I draw something, it becomes animate because of that piece of me that inhabits it. I don't know- wouldn't I feel a bit of my soul gone? I mean, wouldn't there be a loss? That's something that science can't quite measure. Yet, anyway. Shinigami districts have always had medical officers, but it's only in the last few decades that they've been paying attention to science. There's so much to learn! In the meantime, I carefully complete the outline on the paper and prepare to add two circles for eyes. Damn, it's going to look like most of my drawings do... I always have such good intentions, but a seven-year-old could draw better most of the time. I concentrate fiercely, nibbling on the end of the pencil.
And that's all I have time for. I hear the sudden rustle of feathers, the shuddering hiss that my tiny charge makes as the great eyes squint shut in pain and the damaged wings try to flap- oh, poor thing, I'm so sorry, hold still and it'll be over soon-
It quivers under my stroking fingers, thrashing weakly; I still have the paper clutched in one hand, and as it convulses I feel something strike against the sheet, feel something soft as a breath tremble against it-
And the bird falls motionless and limp beneath my touch. The feathers are still soft against my skin, still warm... but there's nothing there, no brilliance of straining life or beating heart. I close my eyes as a wave of guilt washes through me and I draw back, wiping my hand unconciously against my labcoat.
The owl is gone. Poor little thing. I wish you well, wherever you're off to. Fly safe; stay away from shinigami, okay?
I don't feel like reading anymore. The library is suddenly as oppressive as those silent gray halls back in Juuouchou. So I put the books away and gather up my things, including the sad little box of silent feathers. I'll find someplace out in the park for it, by a tree maybe; nature will send the little body back to the elements, just as it should.
I wish I didn't feel so guilty. It was so alive, with those coin-gold eyes and that mad little heartbeat... Shit.
Time to go back. As I take a deep breath and step into the shining whiteness of the void, I feel the crackle of paper in my pocket. The drawing of the owl; didn't realize I had kept it. Too damned depressed, probably.
So I move forward without moving and now I'm falling again, falling upwards into the brilliance. Rising like a balloon, like a hawk in an updraft. Like an owl.
Poor little thing. Can't stop thinking about it. I didn't mean to hit it, it was just there right where I came out-
I'm not enjoying flying nearly as much as usual, not this time. The trip seems both too short and too long. Coldness wraps around me, not the refreshing, reassuring chill of my flight to Chijou- no, this is a sad coldness, the empty iciness of death. You'd think I'd be used to that, wouldn't you? But I'm not.
I don't recall feeling this before, either- well, not since the first time I made this trip, anyway. Back after the plane crash...
But I won't think about that. It doesn't do any good, I know; what happened, happened.
The folded-up sketch in my labcoat pocket rustles in the wind of my noiseless flight; it's a strange movement, almost like something alive. After a moment it subsides. Must've been tugged loose.
I see my destination before me, and I reach out for it, both flying and stepping forward in one action to walk smoothly across the soft green grass beneath the sakura trees. Good landing. The night is silent, and I take a moment to pause and look up towards the stars. They burn down at me, countless diamonds scattered on the blackest of velvet.
My scientist's mind rattles on even through my sadness, and I wonder: are they real? I mean, are they the same stars that you see from the living world, or is this another universe altogether? The rules are different here- but how different? I remember when I was a teenager, when the Americans put the first man on the moon... There's no moon tonight, but the one we have holds to the same schedule as the one in Chijou. Is it the same?
Why am I wondering this? Because it's what I do. I spent my life asking questions and hunting the answers down myself when nobody could tell them to me. That's what I'm doing now, too.
Hunting. Like an owl, circling. It's what I'm for.
It's late; I trudge in through the great bronze doors and through the cold, grey halls, shoulders slumped. I'll bunk on my cot tonight; I don't really feel like walking back to my home through the starry dark. I'd keep listening for the flap of small, barred wings.
I'm a bit bleary-eyed, but I'll manage. I've got a toothbrush and the necessities in a locker, a comb and whatnot for my mop of hair; even got a clean change of clothes. So I take care of making myself presentable while the earliest of my co-workers strolls in: Tatsumi-san, of course. Even Konoe-Kachou comes in later than the Secretary From Hell.
Does he even sleep? Inquiring minds want to know... Yawn.
Tea, I need tea. Caffeine is a good thing, when you brew it strong enough to wake the dead. Heh.
There we go, the pot's heating on a bunsen burner. I stretch one more time and shrug myself into my labcoat, frowning at the memories of the night before.
Damn. Wish I could've helped that poor little owl; it was so small, so pathetic. All my life I had pets- dogs, cats, birds- when I died I had to leave my pets behind, and I miss them. That little wild thing last night was so beautiful. I wish it had lived-
I would have set it free, of course.
I scald my lips on the too-hot tea and have to wait a minute for them to heal; handy ability, that. The sting fades while I check the morning's schedule, and I groan at the notation there: Staff Meeting, 8:00 a.m. Damn! I hate staff meetings, always have; what a waste of time. The others are trickling in- I can hear Tsuzuki-san's cheerful voice calling out to Tatsumi-san- somebody told me they used to be partners, I think...? God, what a combination!
It'd be nice to have a partner- a human one, I mean. Right now I spend most of my time in the lab, so I don't really have a partner. When I go down to Earth on a mission, I usually have one of the Gushoshin with me, and that's okay- I like them, now that I'm used to them. They sure freaked me out when I first got here, though. Chickens in clothes... I can hear them chattering back and forth at each other as they drift down the hall outside, their shrill voices sharp against the growing mutter of office noises.
Hmmmmmm... I wonder where they sleep? In beds or nests? Urrgh. More tea.
Guess I'd better get to the meeting. Ummm, notepad, notepad- there it is, sticking out from beneath a rack of test-tubes. I shove it in my pocket and duck out the door, nearly running down that Tsuzuki guy in the progress. He staggers back a bit, catching his balance while I yelp stupidly in surprise. "Sorry, sorry!" My face is burning in embarrassement.
He just waves a hand. "No problem- you're Watari-san, right? The new medical officer?" Those absurdly violet eyes are as candid as a child's. I nod and start to answer back, but then I catch a glimpse of Tatsumi-san heading towards us from behind. Better get to the meeting. Tsuzuki sees him too and speeds his steps; we both sit hastily down just as the Secretary From Hell arrives.
It's a fairly boring meeting, just the usual reports regarding cases from the different partners. Some of the details are probably actually interesting- but I hate staff meetings, so I suppose I just don't pay attention, not really. It's a small meeting anyway- more than half the staff is out right now on assignment. My thoughts keep straying towards my lab and its experiments, and I wonder how I can manage to persuade Tatsumi-san to fork over a bit more money towards computer equipment. I'm considering this when the silence in the room finally manages to catch my ear, and I look up to find all eyes fixed on me.
"Watari-san? Your report, please?" From the impatience in his tone, I can tell that Tatsumi has already said my name a time or two already. Wonderful- as if I needed anything else to make me feel conspicuous. Flushing, I reach for my pocket and my notebook. "Ah, sorry... I've begun an examination of shinigami cell cultures after undergoing burn trauma- " As I start my delivery, a folded piece of paper falls from my pocket onto the floor; "- with an end in mind of speeding recovery from major injuries that exceed our natural healing factors-" Absentmindedly I reach for it, bringing the sheet up to the table and unfolding it there.
Well, that's sort of what the sound is like- it's indescribable, really- a rushing, a fluttering, a beating, a flap-flap-flap of wings as *something* bursts from the paper and heads for the ceiling, shrieking loudly. What the hell?! We all duck; Tsuzuki takes refuge beneath his trenchcoat, I yelp and fall backwards in my chair to sprawl on the carpet, and even the Secretary From Hell throws an arm across his face and flinches back a little, razor-sharp blue eyes tracking the creature that circles madly through the conference room...
Circles briefly, that is, and then dives straight for me. I make a sort of 'yeep!' noise as it flings itself at me, claws outstretched and terrible eyes gleaming-
- and then it lands with a THUD! on my shoulder and burrows into my hair. I freeze.
We all freeze, even Tatsumi-san. The Gushoshin peek from around the edge of the doorway.
Slowly I raise one hand to touch the trembling thing that seems to have taken up residence behind my left ear; my fingers touch soft feathers, warm feathers. And I feel- something? Something strange... something like-
- something like fear, like my own emotions, my own thoughts- but not mine, and so vague, so dim and faint.
Tatsumi is the first to speak. "Watari-san," he says quietly, "are you injured in any way?" I shake my head, drawing a reproachful hiss from the ball of feathers on my shoulder. He leans down, reaching a hand towards my new attachment; it hisses louder, and he draws back frowning. Gushoshin the Elder squawks, sounding more chicken-like than ever.
Tsuzuki-san steps forward, his face curious. "It's a bird-" He reaches out a single finger towards the creature that is even now trying to edge completely behind my head. Surprisingly enough, it only hisses slightly as he strokes the tiny bit of visible feathers with his fingertip. "It- I think it's an- owl? Watari-san, what're you doing with an owl?"
I know my jaw is hanging open; I can feel it. It's my owl.
Barely realizing what I'm doing, I reach back and cup the creature in my hands, loosening the scratchy claws and bringing it around where I can see it. It protests, hanging onto my hair tightly; it takes a moment to pry it loose, but it never even tries to get away.
Oh, beautiful. Coin-golden eyes blink up at me; every feather is perfect, unbroken, unbloodied. Little owl, you died last night- what the hell are you doing here with me?! It shifts in my hands, round head turning from side to side as it takes in the room and my staring co-workers, who are only now easing back into their chairs. I stand up carefully, cupping the owl close to my chest.
"Watari-san?" The Secretary From Hell is looking at the bird in my hands with a really remarkable expression. I don't imagine he gets startled often. Well, hell, I've just had a miracle happen right in front of me. Might as well go for broke and say the words that are bubbling up from inside of me, fueled by laughter:
"Ummm... it followed me home; can I keep it, Tatsumi-san?"
I'm back in my lab. So's the owl. It won't leave.
I guess it's pretty evident what happened; I drew the beginnings of the owl's picture onto paper that I had imbued with 'life' just as it died, so its little spirit was trapped in my scribble until I unfolded the paper. Sounds mad, really- but how else can you explain it? I mean, the poor thing was dead, it should've gone on its way to wherever dead owls go. And instead, it came back with me, folded up neatly in my labcoat pocket.
Talk about a souvenir.
So the first thing I do is open a window and try to shoo the bird out. I mean, Tatsumi-san was really pretty good about the disruption of his meeting once explanations had been made (and it was really amazing, that look on his face). Tsuzuki-san actually got the owl to step onto his wrist- he seems to really have a rapport with non-human things, I heard that he can call shikigami- but the owl came straight back to me at the first opportunity. It did, however, deign to accept a bite of donut from Tsuzuki's fingers. Then it hissed at the Gushoshin (who squawked again and fled in twin feathered huffs) and fluttered right back onto my shoulder.
It seems to like me. And it won't go out the window.
It's perfectly content to sit on its perch (me), hooting softly in my ear. And every now and then I can get the faintest hint of a feeling from its little birdy mind and heart- satisfaction, curiosity, sleepiness- Tsuzuki-san hazarded a guess that it's because of that bit of myself that went into the paper the owl sprang from, a connection of sorts. For such an excitable type he's pretty bright, though you might not think so at first... So part of me is in the owl, and the owl is part of me? Something like that, maybe.
In the meantime, I guess I have a- pet? No; more like a companion. I guess I can forget about being reclusive, too, from now on anyway- I broke up the meeting in a fairly spectacular fashion, and shyness would really look stupid on me now. Oh well... Novelty is always entertaining. That Tsuzuki guy seems pretty nice- he chattered at me all the way back to the lab. Guess I made more than one friend today.
Heh. Good. I'm tired of being a hermit- it's a waste of time.
The owl walks its way down my labcoat sleeve, small sharp-taloned claws gripping the cloth. It steps off onto my desk, barred wings mantling slightly for balance; hmmm, didn't know owls were pidgeon-toed, but they are. Balancing on my stapler, it hoots softly and blinks up at me. Why aren't you afraid, little one? You were a wild thing, not a tame bird. Is it the small part of me inside the larger you that tells you not to fear? Do you even know that you're a ghost?
What the hell; you wouldn't care, would you? And you don't care what I am, either. That's good; that's fine with me.
Tatsumi-san didn't say I couldn't keep you... Welcome to Juuouchou, bird. Not a bad place, not bad at all.
You need a name, don't you, if you're going to stay with me? Uhhhh... I was never really good with names, or so my friends always said; I tended to name my pets after things around my house, or around my workplace (I had a dog named Futon once, and a pet rat named Specimen). So what'll I call you, little owl?
You were born into this world from a piece of paper and a drawing from a #2 pencil. Paper? Pencil? #2? Urrgh. None of those, please, though the last one sort of sticks in the mind. But not #2... maybe #3, since you came next. No, that's not quite right either.
You look up at me with your round, round eyes, like tiny golden moons, round as noughts. Noughts... zeros, two of them. Zero? Horrible name. Zero-zero-... three? Oh-Oh-three? 003?
Why not? I say it out loud, using the English pronunciation, just as I usually write numbers in Romaji (it's quicker, you know): "003."
You hoot back at me, blinking inquisitively. "Silly bird..." I say softly, smoothing the feathers on your breast with two fingers. You lean into my touch with a hiss of pleasure. You are so warm, and you feel so alive, my little feathered ghost. Can a bird be a shinigami? Don't be stupid, Watari- of course not.
But it's a nice thought, isn't it? And I'm not so alone anymore. A tiny gust of emotion blows across my thoughts from 003 as it watches me from its stapler-perch: contentment; nesting.
I sigh and turn back to my lab, ready to start on phase two of my shinigami cell-culture experiment, ready to dive back into the depths of Science. Behind me my new lab partner falls into a doze, tiny owlish snores rising from its beak. I smile to myself, thinking that I'll need to head back to Earth this evening again for a little more research, looking forward already to flying again.
I'm looking forward to showing 003 around the Meifu, too. It'll be different from now on, better even than before- I won't be flying alone.
There's a part of me now that has wings.