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Part 3


If Hermione had ever pictured Ichigo having friends, she wouldn’t have pictured friends like this. She should have, though. She sees that now. Given that Ichigo’s favorite people at Hogwarts include Luna Lovegood and the Weasley twins, this group shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Clearly Ichigo prefers spending time with people who don’t respect him at all.

…But no, that’s not quite right, is it? Because for all that his friends are every kind of bossy and irreverent, they do respect Ichigo. Maybe the truth is that he prefers spending time with people who aren’t afraid of him at all, and Hermione can hardly blame him for that.

Rukia is delightful, and she and Ginny are best friends already—they’ve bonded on the strength of a shared love of causing mayhem and blaming others. Renji is a little frightening, but seems good-hearted…a bit like Sirius, that way, but without Sirius’s mood swings. And then there’s the little white-haired boy, Toshiro, who acts much older than he looks and generally makes no sense, but is very well-read and a good conversationalist, when he feels like making conversation. (Of course, when he doesn’t feel like making conversation, he just stares at you with his icy green eyes until you’re sorry you ever approached him.)

It’s making Ichigo seem more like a real person and less like a machine of destruction—the realization that he has friends. And family, too, come to think of it. A father and sisters—he’s mentioned them before, the sisters more fondly than the father. And yet he isn’t spending the holidays with them; he’s guarding Harry, instead. Hermione feels guilty that none of this crossed her mind before, and she finally forces herself to mention it at their Christmas Eve lunch.

“You have sisters, don’t you, Ichigo?” she asks hesitantly, and when Ichigo nods, she goes on, encouraged. “Didn’t you want to visit them for the holidays?”

“I can’t, I’ve got to guard Potter’s body,” Ichigo says, not seeming very upset about it. Ron, the twins, and, disappointingly, Sirius all snicker at the turn of phrase. As usual, Hermione can’t tell whether or not Ichigo meant it the way it sounded. And if she asks, he’ll just pretend he doesn’t understand the question. The prat.

“Well…they could come here, couldn’t they?” Hermione persists. “Like your friends did.”

“No way in hell am I involving my little sisters in the shitshow that is Potter’s life,” Ichigo says firmly. After a moment, he adds, “No offense meant, Potter.”

“None taken,” Harry replies faintly. Poor Harry.

“Surely they could’ve chosen someone else to be Harry’s bodyguard,” Hermione suggests. “It seems a very long-term position to give to someone with a family they miss.”

Ichigo shrugs, frustratingly blasé. “There actually weren’t many options, given how specific the requirements were. If I hadn’t been around to get saddled with the job, it would’ve been Toshiro. And he’s got a lot more responsibilities back home than I do.”

Hermione looks dubiously at Toshiro, who, however mature his behavior, seems far too young to have any responsibilities. But this means he must be the same Toshiro that Ichigo’s been reporting to all this time. How…odd. And Toshiro could’ve been the one to bodyguard Harry. Hermione studies him, considering that. At the moment, he’s giving Harry a cool look, his expression suggesting that Harry’s continued survival is a matter of supreme indifference to him. Hermione’s very glad they got Ichigo instead. And she would never have believed she’d feel that way.

Saddled with the job,” Harry mutters.

“Nothing personal,” Ichigo says absently. “Nobody wants to get stuck with extended duty alone in the liv—so far from home.”

“So…you all live in the same town, then? That’s how you know each other?” Hermione asks, deciding to try a different topic and see if things make more sense that way.

“No,” Ichigo replies. And then doesn’t elaborate at all.

“Then…?”

“I met him through Rukia,” Renji tells her, taking pity, because he’s clearly a better person than Ichigo is. “Rukia and I grew up in the same town.”

“I also met him through Kuchiki,” Toshiro puts in, looking amused, for some reason. “Indirectly.”

“Then…how did you meet Ichigo, Rukia?” Hermione asks cautiously, not daring to hope for much at this point.

“I saved the fool’s life,” Rukia explains, not bothering to look away from her food.

“And then I saved your life,” Ichigo snaps back, rolling his eyes. “We’re square.”

“We will never be square,” Rukia informs him with malicious delight. “I plan to get years of use out of you yet.”

“So wait,” Ron breaks in before the conversation has a chance to get really interesting. “Does this mean you guys are…I mean, are you just friends, or boyfriend and girlfriend, or what?”

Bizarrely, this question seems to stump them. They study each other curiously for a while, then Ichigo shrugs and says, “I don’t know, Rukia. What are you to me?”

“Everything,” she replies promptly.

“There you go,” Ichigo informs Ron matter-of-factly. “She’s my everything.”

Renji chokes on his food, but that’s inconclusive—Hermione can’t tell what it was about that statement that was shocking to him; there are too many possibilities. The delivery alone was shocking. As always, it’s impossible to tell how serious Ichigo is being, and his and Rukia’s untroubled faces give nothing away.

“What is this?” Toshiro asks abruptly, staring at the food Mrs. Weasley’s just served him in confusion. It would appear he hasn’t been following the conversation for a while, which seems…very like him, in fact, at least as far as Hermione can tell from their short acquaintance.

“It’s called toad in the hole,” Ichigo tells him. “I know. But it’s actually good, so this isn’t even—you should taste what they do to rice at the school. It’s not bad, exactly? But it’s not…man, I have no idea. It’s uncanny valley rice.”

“Food is food,” says Rukia, eating happily. “Don’t complain, fool.”

“Three cheers for the outer Rukongai, huh?” Ichigo murmurs, smiling…sadly? “Putting things in perspective.”

“The Ru…kon…?” Ron asks, frowning in bafflement.

“It’s where Renji and I grew up,” Rukia explains, as unbothered as ever. “In Inuzuri. There’s almost no food there. We expected to starve to death.”

“My…acquaintance also grew up in that area,” Toshiro puts in. “She very nearly did starve to death. And now she’ll eat anything, including Inoue’s cooking.”

Ichigo shudders. Hermione wonders who Inoue is, and also what on earth they’re talking about.

“But…Japan is a very wealthy country,” she says, utterly confused.

Renji shrugs. “There’s lousy neighborhoods anyplace you go.”

Well, yes, that’s true, but Hermione wasn’t under the impression that Japan had neighborhoods where children could starve to death. In fact, she’s almost certain it doesn’t. It’s also strange how few of Ichigo’s friends look, well, traditionally Japanese. There’s too much here that doesn’t add up, and it’s making Hermione uneasy.

Mrs. Weasley—who, luckily, missed most of that conversation—managed to walk by in time to overhear the bit about starving to death, and is now surreptitiously sneaking more food onto the plates of all of Ichigo’s friends, which appears to be making Rukia and Renji’s entire Christmas on its own. They’re certainly behaving like people familiar with food shortages.

Hermione is about ready to scream in frustration.

* * *

Ichigo wakes up on Christmas morning to the feeling of his body trying to attack something without his conscious mind approving the maneuver. It takes him a second to work out what set him off—apparently some asshole decided to teleport presents onto his bed.

Fucking wizards.

There is nothing in a single goddamn one of those presents that can possibly make up for the panic attack their delivery almost drove him to. He hates this world so much sometimes.

He hears a shout and a roar from down the hall and smiles in satisfaction. That’d be Renji and Rukia, then. And no doubt Toshiro’s corner of the room is completely iced over. At least it isn’t just him.

“What was that?” Potter demands, because he’s totally unfazed by stuff crashing onto his bed without warning, but people yelling down the hall worries him. For such a high-strung guy, he doesn’t have much in the way of self-preservation instincts.

“That was Rukia and Renji,” Ichigo informs him, “killing their presents to death.”

“Er,” Ron says faintly, peering out from under his covers. “And what had their presents done to them, exactly?”

“Nothing. It’s just that when something randomly fell on their beds they assumed they were being attacked, the way any normal person would,” Ichigo replies. “I almost killed my own presents.”

Potter and Ron give him looks suggesting their doubt that Ichigo has ever even met a normal person. They may have a point there.

As the day began, so it continues—awkward as all get out. It turns out there’s just enough culture shift between Western Christmas and Japanese Christmas to make this experience weird for everyone. Like, in theory Ichigo gets that this holiday is about gift-giving and family, like a less structured New Year’s, but there’s still part of his brain that’s telling him it’s mainly a romantic holiday, so doing all these stay-home, family things seems…off.

Toshiro and Renji are rolling with the whole business pretty well, but Rukia’s given everyone presents wrapped (extremely badly) in pink paper covered with hearts, which at least succeeds in making everyone else as confused as she obviously is. This is doubly unfair on the shinigami, really. They’ve barely finished teaching themselves modern Japanese customs.

After the present exchange weirdness is blessedly over, the Weasleys and Potter go to visit Papa Weasley again, and Rukia somehow manages to convince them that she’s extremely interested in wizard hospitals, and therefore she and Ichigo absolutely need to tag along.

Ichigo quietly demands to know, as they drive to the hospital in an unnaturally expanded car, why Rukia felt they needed to see the place. It turns out she actually is extremely interested in wizard hospitals. Ichigo gives that some thought, then immediately feels like an ass—of course she’d be interested. Her captain randomly coughs up blood some days. What kind of lieutenant would she be if she weren’t constantly looking for a way to fix that?

Getting into the hospital involves sweet-talking a freaky mannequin, and is, therefore, exactly the kind of creepy shit that Ichigo’s come to expect from the wizarding world. Rukia’s delighted by the whole mess, of course, and wants to bring a freaky mannequin back home for her brother. There’s a faint but horrifying possibility that Byakuya might even appreciate that. Ichigo’s trying not to think about it.

Not that he can defend his own choices, either—after they all see Papa Weasley, Ichigo quickly loses track of both Rukia and the kid he’s supposed to be bodyguarding in favor of convincing Mrs. Weasley—and, eventually, any number of interested doctors—that stitches really are an honest-to-God medical treatment, and not just a thing used on clothes. Once they discover that Ichigo’s father is a muggle doctor, he becomes the greatest object of interest on the ward. The Weasleys and doctors bombard him with like five hundred questions so devoid of logic they’re going to give him nightmares, and he eventually staggers out of there completely confused as to how wizards ever survive to adulthood. He’s complaining about this to Ishida at the earliest opportunity. Ishida will understand his pain.

Papa Weasley seems nice, though. A hazard to himself and everyone around him, obviously, but nice.

Unfortunately, when Ichigo and Mrs. Weasley catch up with the kids and Rukia, it’s obvious that something terrible happened in the few minutes they were left alone. All the kids are weirdly subdued, not that that would be a big deal on its own—the kids are prone to random mood swings. The problem is that Rukia’s subdued, too, and that’s not okay.

“What’s wrong with you?” he asks in a low murmur as they leave the hospital.

“Nothing’s wrong with me, fool,” Rukia snaps, rolling her eyes. “It’s a hospital. You’re bound to see terrible things in it, and there’s nothing anyone can do. It’s depressing.”

Ichigo’s suddenly very glad he failed bodyguard duty and wasn’t with them when they saw whatever terrible thing this was. He’s seen more than his share of that kind of awful already. “Got it.”

“When I get home, I’m sending you a gift to pass along to someone,” Rukia informs him. “Take care of it for me.”

“Okay. I thought you said there was nothing you could do, though.”

“I can’t fix it,” Rukia agrees. “But I can make it a tiny bit less crushingly horrible.”

“Fair enough.” Ichigo sometimes wonders if that’s secretly the shinigami job description. But no, it can’t be. Look at all the times shinigami have busily run around making things more crushingly horrible.

“Stop that,” Rukia says sharply, elbowing him in the side. Because she’s basically a mind reader and it’s weird.

* * *

They get back to Sirius’s place to find that Yoruichi and Urahara showed up while they were out, and it’s even more gloriously terrible than when Rukia and Renji and Toshiro showed up. That’s because, unlike the other three, Yoruichi and Urahara need to troll people in order to live. And it’s not like Renji and Toshiro would try to stop them. Obviously, they know better.

When Ichigo walks in, it’s to see Yoruichi clinging to Sirius’s back like a freakishly strong child while Sirius chases Urahara around the living room, trying, without success, to prevent him from messing with every single goddamn thing in the house.

“Don’t touch that!” Sirius yelps. “It’s cursed, you could—or, yes, fine, touch it. Go on and die. See if I care. And would you get off of me?!”

Yoruichi just cackles happily and stays exactly where she is while Urahara twirls the—apparently cursed—letter opener he’s picked up, then makes it disappear up his sleeve, never to be seen again by mortal man, Ichigo’s sure.

“Urahara-san, Yoruichi-san,” he says, tired already. “Why are you here?

“He never seems happy to see us, does he, Kisuke?” Yoruichi asks with a worrying gleam in her eye. “Anyone might start to be offended.”

Ichigo sighs, then hurriedly grabs Granger’s hand when she lifts her wand to cast the translating spell. “Don’t,” he tells her. “You don’t want to know.”

“I always want to know,” she replies blankly, as if she can conceive of no other way to be.

Ichigo, who almost never wants to know, rolls his eyes. “You think that now. Trust me, they’ll find ways to ruin your life even without speaking the same language.” Actually, Ichigo knows that Urahara, at least, can speak English perfectly fluently, and he’d be surprised if Yoruichi couldn’t. If they’re choosing not to, they must have their reasons. Probably twisty, awful reasons, but still, Ichigo feels like he has to respect them.

“Ruin my life?” Granger asks dubiously.

“They have a gift,” Ichigo assures her.

“What are you doing here?” Rukia demands, folding her arms. “I thought you two were supposed to be looking for soul fragments, not slacking off.”

“We are looking, Kuchiki-san!” Urahara insists, pretending to be wounded. “We just needed to consult with Kurosaki-san on a few minor details before continuing our quest. Now seemed like a good time, as we won’t need to break into a school, and you three can distract these wizards while we confer. Assuming that meets with your approval, of course.”

Rukia scowls, but she can’t find anything to legitimately argue with. Renji shrugs and heads to the kitchen, because he’s got priorities. And Toshiro just sighs and rubs his temples the way he always does when he’s forced to deal with Urahara.

“Upstairs, then, Kurosaki-san!” Urahara declares, making annoying herding gestures. Yoruichi finally releases Sirius and bounds up the stairs ahead of Ichigo. So she already knows which room he’s staying in. That’s not disturbing at all.

Ichigo shuts his door on the sound of Sirius angrily demanding explanations. Now that they’ve lost their audience, Yoruichi and Urahara are looking unusually grim, which is unnerving. “Okay,” Ichigo says into the quiet. “What’s up? Did you find more soul pieces?”

“We did,” Yoruichi informs him, then sits on his bed and folds her legs, grabs his pillow, and starts idly kneading it. It’s not a great sign that she’s fidgeting. “But there were complications.”

“Complications?”

“It would appear these magical people have some dangerous hobbies,” Urahara says with the manic brightness that means he’s very, very angry. “The ring the headmaster told us about turned out to be far more than just a soul fragment.”

“It did?” And already Ichigo doesn’t want to know.

“Indeed, Kurosaki-san. It had the power to drag the dead unwillingly out of Soul Society, at least temporarily. And when they were once again freed from the living world…well, there was no predicting where they might end up.”

“Well that’s…” an actual waking nightmare in more ways than Ichigo can count.

“Exactly,” Yoruichi says firmly.

“Where’s the ring now?” Ichigo asks.

“Oh, it’s powder,” Urahara reassures him. “Powder which we’ve scattered across the North Sea. Still, I think Yoruichi-san and I might point this out to the local Soul Society, because apparently they’ve been letting these wizards run wild for centuries, and if they don’t sort themselves out, Yoruichi-san will absolutely sic Soi Fon on them.”

“Harsh.” Ichigo considers his recent conversations with Dumbledore. “But actually? I think the local Soul Society might be part of the problem. Potter’s got this cloak that makes him invisible, and there’s some kind of legend that says it was a gift from Death. It’s supposed to make you invisible to Death, but I can still feel spiritual pressure through it. Anyway, I figured that cloak might be shinigami messing with humans. Maybe the ring was the same deal.”

Urahara and Yoruichi exchange unhappy looks. “Soi Fon it is, then,” Yoruichi decides.

“Perhaps we’ll start with Commander Kyoraku,” Urahara suggests thoughtfully. “And when he’s done with them, we’ll move on to Soi Fon.”

“Psychological destruction followed by physical destruction.” Yoruichi nods approval. “I like.”

Despite everything, Ichigo’s starting to feel a little bad for British Soul Society. They have no idea what’s headed their way.

“But moving away from the problems of the dead and onto the problems of the living, or at least semi-living!” Urahara says, clapping his hands. “This Voldemort character.”

“Did you know his name’s actually Tom?” Ichigo asks indignantly. “His name is Tom.”

“Then it’s no wonder he changed it, is it?” Urahara laughs. “Not exactly a name to strike terror into the hearts of the enemy.”

“The great, prophesied battle of Tom versus Harry,” Ichigo grumbles. “It’s like a bad joke.”

“There, there, once we kill him you can write whatever punchline you want,” Urahara says consolingly, always at his worst when he’s trying to be nice.

“So you got the ring,” Ichigo says, trying to focus. “That’s good. And I meant to tell you guys, I found this…uh…” He chickens out. He can’t bring himself to tell Urahara about the Room of Requirement. The possibilities are just too scary. “This guide kind of thing. And according to that, there are seven soul pieces on top of the one Tom’s got in his body. So eight things we need to destroy altogether: the guy himself, and then a book, a crown, a ring, a cup, a snake, a locket, and Potter. Potter took out the book, you guys took out the ring and the thing in the bank—”

“The cup,” Urahara clarifies.

“—and I took out the crown,” Ichigo concludes. “So that leaves four.”

“There’s one in this house somewhere, Ichigo,” Yoruichi tells him. “Other than the Potter kid, that is. That’s why we’re here. The ring had a thread of spirit ribbon stretching this way, so we knew there was one in this general direction, and now that we’re close we can feel it, but the signature is so weak it’s tough to pin down. Still, we’re almost down to two. Three counting the man himself.”

“And we have good news about Mr. Potter!” Urahara says brightly. “Upon discussion, and after a better look at what Voldemort is capable of and at Mr. Potter himself, we’ve decided that while the two souls—or soul and soul fragment—are sharing a body, they haven’t melded. They couldn’t have without using something like the hogyoku, and this Voldemort character couldn’t manage anything like that. He’s a hack when it comes to soul manipulation. A clumsy hack.”

“So all I need to do is knock them both out of Potter’s body?” Ichigo asks, suspicious of how easy that sounds.

“That’s right,” Yoruichi agrees. “The souls should be distinct, so once they’re out of the body, you can kill one and shove the other one back in.” She pauses for a moment. “In theory.”

Yeah, Ichigo was waiting for something like that. “…And how am I supposed to explain all this to Potter?”

“I always find it easier not to explain anything,” Urahara points out, hiding behind his fan.

“I’m aware of that,” Ichigo agrees sourly. “But let’s assume one of my life goals is to avoid being anything like you.”

Urahara gasps and claps a hand melodramatically over his heart.

“You may not have a choice this time, Ichigo,” Yoruichi says, highly amused at everyone’s expense. “Anything you tell Potter in advance is going to sound so awful he’ll run for the hills if he has any sense.”

“He has no sense,” Ichigo assures her. “None whatsoever.”

“Then his friends will drag him to safety.” Yoruichi shrugs. “Either way, it’ll be easier to strike first and explain later.”

And there’s Yoruichi’s life philosophy in a nutshell. “Fine,” Ichigo sighs. “Are we done here? Because it’d be great if you two could find that soul piece and get the hell out before you make my life any worse than it already is.”

This strains Yoruichi’s fragile tolerance past its limits. She dives off the bed and right onto Ichigo, tackling him to the floor and making a pretty convincing effort to beat him to death. Urahara takes her place on the bed and commences awarding points for style. Sirius bangs on the door and demands to know what the hell they think they’re doing in there.

This is all exactly what Ichigo was afraid of.

* * *

Ichigo Kurosaki is the best thing that’s ever happened to Fred and George Weasley. They were starting to suspect this even before Christmas, but now they know it for sure—because the rest of the circus has arrived. And the circus is amazing.

First, there’s Rukia, who’s as likely to kick people in the face as look at them, and who reminds them delightfully of their own dear sister. Then there’s Renji, who’s lazy and sarcastic and fun, and yet gives the distinct impression of a man who’s killed a lot of people and doesn’t feel bad about it. And finally, there’s Toshiro, who seems the model of politeness, but who somehow causes localized temperature drops whenever he’s annoyed. They’ve caught him rage-freezing his surroundings on three separate occasions so far. They did not even know that was possible, but they’re better people for knowing.

Whatever the hell species they are, Ichigo’s friends are fantastic. But even so, they pale beside Ichigo’s teachers. Ichigo’s teachers are purest chaos in humanoid form, and Fred and George just want to be them.

Reckless, devious, dangerous, and apparently impervious to cursed objects, Ichigo’s teachers haven’t been in the house an hour before they’ve entirely destroyed any sense of order in the place. Mum is more or less prepared for this kind of thing, inasmuch as she’s lived with Fred and George for years, but poor old Sirius’s sanity is taking an especially hard hit. (Not that Sirius’s sanity was ever anything to write home about, but he usually hides it better than this. For Harry’s sake.)

Ichigo’s teachers don’t stick around long, but they fit so much evil brilliance into that small amount of time, it’s inspiring. Tormenting Sirius, who can apparently dish it out but not take it. Messing about with and/or stealing loads of cursed stuff. Dragging Ichigo upstairs and then, from the sound of it, flinging him violently around the room. Chasing Kreacher around the house like cats chasing a mouse, and, ultimately, abducting him—much to Sirius’s confused delight. Causing Toshiro to rage-freeze an entire room with just one murmured sentence. They’re perfect beings.

Ichigo’s teachers have already taught Fred and George so much; it would be selfish to ask for more. They know that, but they’re still so sad to see them leave.

On the other hand, Ichigo seems delighted to see them leave. He’s also been quite adamant about Hermione not casting her translating spell on them, which is a such a waste. He shoves them out the door while saying something sharp in Japanese in response to what is clearly whinging, and the twins would love to know the details, but alas.

Ichigo doesn’t appreciate the riches he has, obviously. The twins may actually have to learn Japanese, just on the off-chance that they’ll run into Ichigo’s teachers again one day.

“We’re leaving too,” Rukia announces as soon as the door shuts behind the world’s most amazing teachers. “Thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Black.” And then Ichigo’s friends all bow to Sirius, who looks utterly taken aback.

“What, already?” Ron demands, turning a betrayed look on Renji, who straightens up, shrugs, and moseys into the kitchen to steal more food. Now that the twins know he almost starved to death at one point, his food obsession makes perfect, depressing sense. They’re not sure they like that. They miss the old days, when it was funny.

“Aren’t you staying for the rest of the holiday?” Ginny asks sadly. She’ll miss her colleague in chaos, and who can blame her? The twins are sad themselves.

“We have to get back to work,” Rukia tells her, apologetic but businesslike. “Because some of us have honest work to do,” she continues, turning scary eyes on Ichigo. “Some of us don’t have months and months free to frolic around Britain.”

“I swear to God I will kick your ass all the way back to So—to Japan,” Ichigo informs her. “You bullied me into this, remember? I was bullied.”

It’s difficult to picture Ichigo being bullied, but if anyone could do it, Rukia could. And what did he almost say before he said Japan? Ichigo is such a fun puzzle. Whatever he is.

“You do realize I’m covering nearly all of your duties until you get back,” Toshiro points out with mild irritation—and they can tell he’s mildly irritated because the floor around him is covered in a light frost. “You’re not the only victim.”

Ichigo is unfazed by any and all random weather changes—he just scowls and snaps, “Do you want to switch? Because we can switch any time.”

“Don’t fight, kids,” Renji drawls, reappearing from the kitchen, arms filled with three huge bags of Mom’s homemade lunches. Even Mom’ll miss these fabulous weirdoes, because they’re the first people since Harry not to take her cooking for granted. “No sense in turning on each other when we should all be ganging up on the Cap—uh, Kyoraku.”

“There,” Rukia says decisively. “Renji’s being more logical than you are, fool. Think about what that means.” And with that, she punches Ichigo viciously in the arm, waves and smiles sweetly at Ginny, and marches out the door, followed by Toshiro, who nods coolly (literally and figuratively), and Renji, who gives Ichigo a cheerful shoulder bump before taking off. Ichigo slams the door behind them, leans back against it, and sighs in apparent exhaustion.

Not big on long, tearful goodbyes, these people.

“Who’s Kyoraku?” Hermione inquires with avid interest. It’s like she honestly believes Ichigo’s going to answer a direct question, despite the fact that, to the best of the twins’ knowledge, that has never once happened.

“He’s sort of my boss,” Ichigo tells her, “but not really.”

Case in point.

“We love your friends and wish to steal them for ourselves, Ichigo,” Fred declares before anyone can pester Ichigo with more questions and drive him away.

“And we’d die to have your teachers teach us to be as unspeakably cool as they are,” George adds.

“Funny you should say that,” Ichigo mutters, looking appalled but also amused. “Though I’m sure they’d love you, too. And that would be the end of this world and the next. I’m going upstairs.”

And he vanishes before anyone can catch him and sit on him and force him to tell stories. Not that that ever works, as aforementioned.

“Honestly,” Hermione huffs, arms akimbo. “You’d think his whole life was classified and he’d been trained to resist interrogation!”

You would, wouldn’t you? the twins silently agree. That’s exactly what you’d think.

* * *

The holidays are finally almost over, but the closer they get to heading back to school, the more obvious it is that Black isn’t dealing with being trapped like an animal in his own house very well. In fact, he’s taken to wandering around looking feral and caged, snapping at anyone and everyone. The man is a tragedy waiting to happen. But then, most people would be, in his place. Especially Ichigo.

Oh, who’s he kidding? Ichigo would never let anybody cage him like this. He’d charge out and attack whatever the threat was or die trying. Not that that’s a good plan or anything. It’s a breathtakingly stupid plan, in fact, but it’s still what Ichigo would do.

“You should destroy stuff sometimes,” Ichigo suggests to Black in a murmured aside the morning everybody leaves. Seems like a good strategy. Ichigo noticed that Black brightened up a lot after Toshiro stabbed that picture of the screaming woman in the entryway. (It had a kind of spiritual energy mixed into the paint. Wizards are disturbing, Toshiro had reported severely, like Ichigo didn’t already know.)

What?” Black snaps, because he’s in a lousy mood anyway and still hasn’t forgiven Ichigo for inflicting all kinds of weird shit on him this holiday, which is fair.

“You’re stuck in this house and it sucks, right? So set something on fire every now and again. Seriously, just—pick the thing you hate most at the moment, and burn it. And if you accidentally burn the whole place to the ground, then hell, they’ll have to move you somewhere else, won’t they? You obviously hate this house with a special hatred. Maybe you can go live with Lupin or something if it’s gone.”

Over the course of that spiel, Black’s face gets lighter and lighter, and by the end he’s grinning maniacally. It’s a little unhinged, sure, but still way better than the homicidally depressed look he was rocking before. “Kurosaki,” he says, “your solution to feeling trapped in a building is to set fire to the building?

“Not while you’re in it, obviously,” Ichigo replies. “But yeah, basically. Whatever works.”

“Wow, kid,” Black drawls. “I’m almost starting to like you again. But now you’ve got me wondering—what works for you when you’re down?”

“Oh,” says Ichigo, “I blow stuff up. Generally.” He’s also given to attacking monsters and invading armed compounds and goading dangerous people into trying to kill him. But there’s no need to go into all of that.

Black nods thoughtfully. After a moment, he says, “Get the hell out of my house.”

“Yes, sir,” Ichigo agrees, and heads upstairs to help Potter pack.

The packing thing goes smoothly at first—Potter nods a welcome at him and shoves a stack of shirts over to be folded, and they work together in peaceful silence. But of course, this is Potter, so it can’t last.

“Last night,” he blurts out apropos of nothing, “Snape told me he was going to teach me Occlumency. When we get back to school.”

“Occlumency?” Ichigo repeats dubiously, mostly because the idea of Snape teaching Potter anything ever is pretty dubious.

“It’s supposed to teach me to block Voldemort from my mind,” Potter explains, not sounding happy about it. Ichigo’s not happy about it either. He’s not sure how you’d go about blocking out somebody who’s attached, leech-like, to your soul. He’s pretty sure it can’t be done, in fact. And if it could be done, it wouldn’t be good for you. Besides, Snape. And Potter. This is the stupidest idea Ichigo’s heard all year, and it’s up against some stiff competition.

“Uh huh,” he says.

“But it seems like…it was really useful, this time. To know what he was thinking.”

And that’s not a happy line of thought, either. “Yeah, this time. Because he didn’t know you could see what he was up to. Now he knows.”

“How would he know?” Potter demands belligerently.

“You had to know about Mr. Weasley somehow. I’m sure the story of your visions or whatever got all around the Ministry, and the Ministry is full of assholes, so no doubt one of them told your soul-splitter guy. And from there, he’ll figure it out fast, because whatever else is wrong with him, he’s not stupid. And then he’ll start using it against you.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. Nonstop horrifying images until your mind breaks? Trying to mess with your memories? Sending you lies—that would be easiest. But the possibilities are endless, with a direct line to your psyche.” Ichigo would know.

“It’s his mind,” Potter insists. “You can’t lie inside your own mind.”

Ichigo likes how he ignored every other possibility, there. This kid’s reality just isn’t like other people’s realities, is it?

“We’re talking about the guy who figured out how to chop his own soul into pieces,” Ichigo reminds him, deciding not to bother swimming against the current. “I’m pretty sure he can send you mental lies if he wants. Probably wouldn’t even be that hard. He must lie to himself all day long as it is.”

Potter scowls at that, but doesn’t argue further. After a while, he glances nervously toward the door, checking no one’s there, then leans in toward Ichigo. “Is that…do you think…? The night I dreamt I was the snake, it. It happened when I was awake, too. When I saw Dumbledore. I, I wanted to attack him for a second. Like I was the snake again. Sirius said it was just a left-over feeling from the vision, and that Dumbledore would tell me if it was important, but…”

Ichigo’s not sure why they’re messing the kid around like this, but he never signed any contract saying he’d go along with it. And he’s never going to get a better lead-in to the subject than this. “Yeah, that’s probably because of your fucked up spirit ribbon.”

Potter’s head jerks back and he blinks at Ichigo, looking shocked, scared, and…a little relieved? Well, makes sense. Any answer is better than no answer at all. “Spirit ribbon?”

“Hard to explain; it kind of identifies the state of your soul. And like I say, yours is fucked up. Tainted with something. Sorry about that. Good news is, my teachers gave me a possible way to fix it. So we’ll try that once we get somewhere with fewer people in earshot.”

“Erm. Why do we need to not have people in earshot?”

“You’ll probably scream a lot,” Ichigo tells him frankly. “But cheer up—they’re almost sure it won’t kill you.”

Potter shakes his head in wonder. “I think I hate you in the strangest way I’ve ever hated anyone. Because the thing is, I almost like you sometimes, but then you start talking, and I remember that I still want to push you off a cliff.”

“You’re welcome,” says Ichigo.


Chapter 3
 
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