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There May Be Some Collateral Damage

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The instant everyone gets back to school and drops off their bags, Ichigo manages to convince Ron and Hermione that he needs to talk to Harry alone. “Bodyguard stuff,” he says. And they accept that. Harry feels a bit abandoned. Also deeply concerned, because he’s never seen this level of grim purpose in Ichigo’s eyes, and a part of him is wondering if, despite Ichigo’s reassurances, he’s secretly being dragged off to be killed.

He knows he should’ve told Ron and Hermione about whatever scream-inducing thing Ichigo’s planning to do to him. He knows that. But he just couldn’t bring himself to say anything, because he knew he’d sound mad, and he’s so tired of people looking at him like he’s mad.

Ichigo never looks at him like he’s mad. Or, for that matter, like he’s a savior or a liar or a budding Dark Lord, either; Ichigo only ever looks at him like he’s a slightly annoying puzzle. It’s nice. Or possibly Harry’s standards are worryingly low.

In any case, Ichigo’s dragged him to the Room of Requirement before he’s had too much time to overthink things. The room’s as bare as Harry’s ever seen it, which isn’t comforting. Bare and unusually clean, with high windows and…is that padding on the floor? It is.

Oh, help, is this going to be some sort of unholy training session? With screaming? Aren’t the upcoming Occlumency lessons with Snape punishment enough?

“Okay, Potter,” Ichigo says seriously. “We’re testing something out, and if it works, you won’t have Tom in your head anymore.”

“…Tom?” Harry asks faintly.

“Yeah, Tom—soul-splitter Tom Riddle. Pretty sure you’re familiar. He’s the one fucking up your spirit ribbon, so you definitely want him gone. That said, this is probably going to freak you out, so I need you to stay calm and not panic, okay?”

This is not something you ever, ever want to hear from Ichigo. “What do you mean by ‘we’?” Harry demands.

Ichigo ignores him and nods at the air to his left. And then something invisible slams into Harry’s forehead, and he pitches backwards.

He pitches backwards leaving his body behind.

He hits the floor several feet behind his body, which crumples straight down into an ungainly heap on the padded floor. It takes him a few seconds to work out what this means. “Did you just kill me?!

“No,” Ichigo says shortly, and turns back to his left, which is where…Rukia is standing, all of a sudden, dressed in funny clothes and carrying a sword. Isn’t she supposed to be in Japan? Was she wearing an invisibility cloak before? Why does she have a sword? Harry has more questions every second, each more worrying than the last.

Ichigo and Rukia start talking in Japanese, and without Hermione’s translation spell, Harry has no idea what they’re saying. And they seem happy to ignore him. Why not? It’s not like he’s been kicked out of his own body or anything. Not at all. Nothing to see here.

He doesn’t feel brilliant, either. There’s an odd pain in his chest that definitely isn’t normal. He gives himself a once-over and discovers that there’s some kind of…giant, pus-colored bug thing on his chest. No, it’s in his chest. His chest has a small hole with a chain hanging out of it that leads to his body, which would be scaring him under other circumstances, but as it stands, the bug thing’s head is stuck in the hole, beside the chain, and that’s definitely winning the terrifying contest.

“What the bloody hell is that?!” Harry screams.

Rukia scowls at him and snaps something in Japanese.

“She says get a grip,” Ichigo tells him. “That’s a piece of Tom’s soul.”

Voldemort’s soul?

“That’s the one. So we’re gonna go ahead and kill it.” Rukia says something else, waving to the place where Voldemort’s…head is…buried in Harry’s chest. He is never going to feel clean again. “She says she thinks he’s kind of like a tick, so maybe we can set him on fire to get him to let go. Hold still, she’s gonna try something.”

Harry scrambles to his feet and takes a few steps back. “Will this hurt?”

“Probably,” Ichigo answers, unconcerned.

Harry hurriedly takes a few more steps back, but he’s not fast enough. Rukia holds up her hands in a weird position and calls something out, and then, yeah, fire shoots from her palms and hits him right in the chest.

It hurts like being mauled by dragons, and Harry screams until he’s got no breath left to scream with, aware of nothing but the burning, tearing agony. After what feels like hours, it finally stops, and he finds that he’s collapsed on the floor, gasping. That was unpleasantly similar to the Cruciatus. If this is honestly Ichigo trying to help, Harry would hate to see him deliberately causing harm.

“There,” Ichigo says calmly, completely unmoved by Harry’s agony. “It worked.”

Harry opens his eyes, dizzy from pain. But the thing isn’t in his chest anymore, so that’s something—it’s crawling frantically around on the ground beside him instead. It looks like a slightly scorched, evil beetle the size of a bludger. And its head was in his chest for years.

“Hollow.” Ichigo turns to Rukia and says something in Japanese. She steps forward and draws her sword with a smirk, then stabs the beetle thing right through the middle. It dissolves into bright sparks and nothing.

“One more down,” Ichigo murmurs contentedly. “And…hey, your spirit ribbon’s the right color now. See? That wasn’t so hard.”

Wasn’t so hard?” Harry howls in a scream-torn voice. “I’m dead because of you!”

“You are not dead.” Ichigo rolls his eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic. Come over here and get back in your body. You’re fine. Shake it off.”

“Shake it off?

Rukia asks something and Ichigo answers, and then she gives Harry a distinctly unimpressed look. Harry is fed up with these people and everything to do with them.

“No, really, though,” Ichigo says. “Get back in your body. It’s not good for you to hang around outside it too long.”

“How…how do I do that? How do I get back inside my body?” Harry can add this to the long list of questions he can’t believe he’s been forced to ask.

“It’s easy,” Ichigo claims, straightening Harry’s body out from its uncomfortable heap so it’s lying flat. “You just kind of lay down on top of it, and you get reabsorbed.”

It sounds simple enough. Or at least it does until Ichigo ruins everything by adding, “Probably.”

“Probably?” Harry demands in an embarrassingly high-pitched voice.

“Probably,” Ichigo agrees blandly. “We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. Let’s see if the easy way works. Come on.”

Since Harry isn’t exactly seeing other options here, he tries it. Amazingly, it actually does work. It’s painful, which is hardly surprising at this point, but at least he ends up successfully back inside his own body. With his current perspective on life, that seems a great success.

“There you go,” Ichigo says cheerfully as Harry hauls himself to a sitting position and clutches at his aching head. “No more freaky snake dreams.”

Harry blinks and looks up. “That…that bug thing was sending me the snake dreams?”

“It was a piece of Tom’s soul, so, yeah, it was sending you all kinds of nasty dreams,” Ichigo confirms. Only Ichigo, because—Harry checks the room—Rukia has somehow vanished again.

“Where’s Rukia gone?”

“She’s busy,” says Ichigo, as if that’s any kind of answer.

“Oh. Well…” Harry almost asks Ichigo to thank her for him, but then realizes that would mean thanking a person for throwing fire at his chest, and that’s not the sort of behavior that wants encouragement. “All right.” He considers the last thirty minutes. As usual in his life, after months of nothing in particular happening, everything has decided to happen all at once, leaving Harry no time to process it. “So…I’ll never be able to tell what Voldemort’s thinking again?”

“That’s right,” Ichigo agrees, eyeing him.

“Oh. That’s…it’s a shame we didn’t wait a bit longer, then.”

“You mean you wanted that thing to have its head buried in your chest?” Ichigo demands, revolted.

“No! No, it’s just…when I had a connection to him, I knew what he was up to. I was, I was like a spy. And there was this room—”

“Yeah, we’ve talked about this, and I told you why it was a stupid idea,” Ichigo interrupts rudely. “Anyway, it’s too late now. The thing’s dead and gone and I’m not sad about it. Find another way to spy on him. Or, you know, just kill him and get it over with so I can go home.”

Harry has a sudden vision of choking Ichigo to death—and it’s all him, no snake-influence whatsoever. The daydream is so vivid he can almost feel Ichigo’s neck under his hands. Ichigo would knock him out long before he got close enough to do that, though, and he knows it. Which makes the whole thing even more maddening.

And speaking of maddening things. “How am I going to explain this to Snape?”

Ichigo shrugs. “Don’t.”

“I can’t avoid it if he’s teaching me Occlumency. He’ll want to know the state of the thing I’m meant to be blocking out.”

“Um, no he won’t. Because you don’t need that Occlumency thing anymore,” Ichigo informs him. “I just fixed the whole problem. What did you think I was doing?”

Oh. But… “Snape won’t believe that,” Harry says with conviction. “He never believes anything I say.”

Ichigo seems annoyingly unconcerned. “Then I’ll tell him. Not tonight. Maybe after Potions.”

“You’re not exactly his favorite person, either.”

“Then I’ll prove it to him,” Ichigo declares with an unsettling grin, and strides off to create his havoc before Harry can argue with him. Not that Harry really wants to. The idea of Snape suffering even a fraction of what Harry’s suffered this evening is too appealing to pass up.

* * *

Harry falls through the portrait hole after his talk with Ichigo looking halfway to mental, which, fine, isn’t especially odd these days, but this seems worse than usual. He grabs Ron and Hermione and drags them to a corner of the Common Room, babbling, “Ichigo and Rukia just shoved my soul out of my body and then burned a piece of Voldemort out of my chest.”

“You what?” Ron yelps, shocked, because yeah, Harry’s life is bizarre, but getting shoved out of his own body is a new low even for him.

“Apparently Voldemort really did split his soul into pieces,” Harry rambles on, a tad hysterical. “And one of them was…was biting onto me. Onto my soul. It was disgusting.” He grimaces and rubs his chest hard, eyes wild. “But Rukia set it on fire and it let go. And then she stabbed it. And then Ichigo told me I was fine and that I should shake it off.”

Okay, that…does sound like Ichigo, Ron can’t deny it. “What was Rukia even doing at school?” he asks, bewildered.

“I don’t know,” Harry wails. Right, they’re in for nightmares tonight. Ron knows the signs.

“They shoved you out of your body?” Hermione practically shrieks.

Yes,” Harry answers, not much less shrill than Hermione. “It was awful.”

Awful, right. Ron reckons you could call it that, yeah. “But you’re…you’re fixed now, aren’t you?”

“I guess?” Harry does not sound particularly sure about that.

“Then…” And even Hermione is looking all stunned now. “If Voldemort’s gone, then do you…do you still need to learn Occlumency? He won’t be able to get to your mind anymore, will he?”

“Oh, right, I don’t need Occlumency anymore. Or at least, that’s what Ichigo says,” Harry mutters resentfully, and Ron thinks he could sound a bit happier about it.

“Less greasy git, less You-Know-Who gnawing on your soul,” Ron points out, since nobody else seems to have noticed the bright sides to this. It’s worth it, isn’t it? Even if Harry did have to go through a little fire and temporary ghostliness. “That’s good news, yeah?”

“It is if Ichigo’s telling the truth,” Hermione argues, because she always decides to be suspicious at the most inopportune times.

“But he definitely killed something that was hanging onto Harry, didn’t he?” Ron persists. “And if it wasn’t You-Know-Who…I mean, it had to be You-Know-Who. It’s not like there’s anybody else who could’ve left bits of soul stuck to Harry. Unless there’s something you’re not telling us, mate.”

“Yes, Ron, stray bits of soul are forever latching onto me,” Harry snaps, but at this point Ron’s counting it as a good sign that he’s calmed down enough to be sarcastic.

“I suppose Ron’s right,” Hermione allows, and yet, still not sounding happy about it. “It’s only that I’m suspicious because I don’t understand how Ichigo managed it. Or why Rukia was here at all. Or how Ichigo knew about this in the first place.”

The way Ron sees it, Hermione’s problem is that she’s incapable of taking an unqualified win at face value. If a piece of You-Know-Who is dead, as opposed to gnawing on the soul of their best friend and giving him nightmares? That’s a good thing, and Ron refuses to question it. “All turned out for the best,” he tries again.

“…Burned it with fire…” Harry is muttering to himself off to the side, rubbing his chest again.

“Honestly, though. What do we know about Ichigo Kurosaki?” Hermione demands, because if she can’t bring herself to worry about You-Know-Who dying off in bits, she’ll find something else to worry about.

“Not much,” Ron has to admit. He figures insisting he likes the guy anyway won’t win him any points, since even Ichigo’s habit of killing off evil hasn’t won him points.

“We do know that Dumbledore and McGonagall trust him,” Harry says, finally stopping with the chest rubbing and the panicking. “That’s a good thing.”

“We know the ghosts are afraid of him,” Ron puts in, because that is a bit troubling. “And he’s dead frightening at hand-to-hand combat. What kind of wizard even uses hand-to-hand combat? I ask you!”

“And uses it at a level that can beat Harry Potter using magic,” Hermione agrees, while Harry looks embarrassed. “That’s incredible.”

“He knew Voldemort had split his soul even before this whole…thing,” Harry adds, eager to move attention away from himself.

“Can we ask him how he knew about that?” Ron wonders.

“We can ask,” Hermione replies sourly, “but another thing we know about him is that he’s positively allergic to straight answers. He won’t even admit to his favorite foods!”

“Sirius knows something about him and his friends that we don’t,” Harry says. “He was giving them odd looks the entire holiday.”

“Yes, his friends are another issue,” Hermione agrees. “Children don’t starve to death in Japan. I read that adults do, sometimes, but children? That would be very newsworthy, but they made it sound as if whole neighborhoods were starving and nothing was being done about it. I don’t think they’re from Japan at all.”

“…They speak Japanese, though.” Ron’ll give Hermione that there’s a lot to be suspicious of, but if people speak Japanese by preference, surely you have to accept they’ve at least spent a fair amount of time in Japan. “Your translation spell said so.”

“I’m staying up and waiting for Ichigo,” Hermione decides, ignoring Ron’s comment the way she ignores anybody who says a single bad thing about SPEW. “Harry, you must be tired. You should go to bed. Ronald, you watch over him. I’ll make Ichigo explain himself.”

Ron doesn’t expect she’ll have much luck with that, but he wishes her all the best.

* * *

By the time Ichigo gets back to the common room, he’s utterly done with wizards in general and Dumbledore in particular. He’d decided to stick with the plan of courtesy-informing Dumbledore whenever he knocked off a soul piece, so he told him about killing the one inside Potter. And without killing Potter, even! He’d expected at least a freaking smile or something, but no. Guy looked like Ichigo had just murdered his grandmother in front of him. Then he swore Ichigo to secrecy, but wouldn’t specify who he was keeping it a secret from. Just secrecy in general. Tell no one anything ever.

Ichigo doesn’t know what Dumbledore’s damage is, but he knows people who’ve lived like five times longer and yet are only a fraction as fucked up. If he were in a better mood, he’d probably see that as a kind of achievement. But he’s in a shitty mood, so.

Basically, the last thing he needed tonight was to walk through the door of his temporary home and run headfirst into the Inquisition. At least the Inquisition only consists of Granger—there’s that. Although, on second thought, maybe that’s worse than a crowd.

“Harry says you burned Voldemort out of his chest,” she accuses coldly, and goddamn, what does a guy have to do to get some gratitude around here? Like, he understands Potter having mixed feelings about the process—it did look pretty painful—but Granger? Granger should be buying Ichigo goddamn flowers and candy right now.

Also, so much for keeping it a secret. Seriously, what did Dumbledore think was gonna happen?

“Technically,” Ichigo points out, “Rukia did it.”

“Why was Rukia even in the country?” Granger demands.

“She was doing me a favor,” Ichigo answers, collapsing onto the nearest couch with a sigh. Might as well get comfortable; he can tell this’ll take a while.

“So Rukia has magic, too?”

Ichigo snorts with amusement. “Oh, she’s all kinds of magical.”

Granger scowls at him, baffled but unwilling to admit it. “How did you know Voldemort had split his soul into pieces?”

“Like I told the guys on my first day, it was in my introductory pamphlet.”

“I don’t believe you,” Granger informs him.

Well, if she doesn’t like the truth, he’ll try the first lie that comes to mind, see if that makes her any happier. But it has to explain why he knows about souls. Who knows about souls other than shinigami?

“My father’s a part-time exorcist,” Ichigo free-associates randomly, then decides he likes that story and he’s going to stick with it. “He’s training me to be one, too. It really upsets exorcists when people start chopping their souls into pieces, so the local exorcists asked me to investigate that on the side, while I’m bodyguarding.”

“Really?” Granger asks dubiously.

Sure, why not. “Why would I make that up?”

“True,” she allows, and Ichigo struggles not to roll his eyes. “If that’s the case, then…oh. So that’s why ghosts are afraid of you!” She seems pleased to have a plausible explanation.

“Yeah,” Ichigo agrees, pleased with himself for picking such an excellent lie. “They must be able to tell.”

“I didn’t know there were exorcists—I mean, not real exorcists,” Granger burbles on. And that’s okay, because neither did Ichigo. “But I suppose, why wouldn’t there be? There are clearly real ghosts, after all.”

“The Hogwarts ghosts don’t need exorcising, though,” Ichigo tells her for the sake of verisimilitude, and also because it’s true. “They’re amazingly stable.”

“Oh.” She narrows her eyes, thinking that through. “What happens when ghosts aren’t stable?”

“They go on a rampage and try to eat all the souls around them.”

“Ah. Yes, that does sound a bit…completely terrible. Oh, so you exorcised Voldemort! Er, and you pushed Harry’s soul out of his body? Is that sort of thing related to exorcism?”

“Right.” Ichigo can’t think of a way to avoid admitting to shoving souls out of bodies, not with a witness running around. And they can’t replace Potter’s memories—he needs to remember that Tom’s gone. So…does expelling souls seem like a thing exorcists might be able to do?

“Is that what happened when we found your body in stasis?” Granger asks, eyes gleaming with interest. “Were you spirit-walking?

Apparently it does seem like exorcists could do it. “I guess.”

“Wait, does this mean your friends are exorcists, too?”

“We’re all in the same line of work.” Look at all this truth coming out of Ichigo’s mouth. It feels weird.

“Even Toshiro?

Hah, especially Toshiro—or Captain Hitsugaya, as he is also known. But yeah, that’d be pretty messed up if Toshiro were anywhere near as young as he looks. Well, crap. “Even Toshiro. Toshiro’s childhood was Potter levels of lousy, though, so this is actually a step up for him.” Ichigo has no idea whether this is true or not. He’s never asked about Toshiro’s childhood, mostly because he thinks that would be a quick way to die.

“Toshiro is still a child,” Granger informs him severely.

“Granger, you’re still a child,” Ichigo counters, exasperated. “But I’m teaching you how to kill people anyway, because that’s something you need to know right now. The world’s not great about letting people learn things at an ideal pace.” Exhibit A: Ichigo’s entire life.

Granger responds to this by blinking a lot and opening and closing her mouth a few times. It’s not often Ichigo gets a reaction out of Granger other than righteous indignation; this is exciting and new.

“Does that mean,” she says eventually, “that…that you had to learn to kill people at a young age?”

“Well, people were trying to kill me,” Ichigo explains. “Seemed silly not to fight back.”

“…I’m so sorry,” Granger whispers, looking, weirdly, a little teary-eyed. Didn’t she hate him a minute ago?

“Nothing to be sorry about. Sometimes it goes that way. Sometimes…” Ichigo trails off, wondering if he’s really going to say this to Granger, of all people. And then he figures, what the hell, it’s not like she doesn’t think he’s a creep already. “Some of us just have to accept that we’re weapons. That that’s what we were made for. You can decide whether you’re gonna be used to destroy or defend, but you can’t change what you are. A weapon is always a weapon. It exists to cause pain. And if you try to lie to yourself about that, you end up hurting the people you wanted to protect.”

Granger looks utterly horrified. Yeah, he shouldn’t have said anything. But now that he’s started, he may as well finish. “Potter’s a weapon.”

“Harry is not like that!” she insists. But Ichigo can hear the doubt in her voice.

“Potter is a wrecking ball of rage and fear and low self-esteem, and we both know it,” he corrects her firmly. “It doesn’t have to be a bad thing. You just need to make sure he stays pointed in the right direction.”

“You want me to manipulate my friend?” she demands.

“Um, no.” What is wrong with these people? “I think you can just tell him the truth. You know, every so often you say, ‘Hey, maybe you should worry a little less about your fellow students’ imaginary Death Eater sympathies, and a little more about keeping me and Ron alive.’ It’ll work because he cares about your safety more than his own. See? It’s perfect.”

“His fellow students don’t have imaginary Death Eater sympathies,” she says severely, totally missing the point yet again.

“His fellow students mostly don’t even understand what Death Eaters do,” Ichigo insists. “And that is not the point. The point is, keep his mind on protecting his friends and off enacting gory, terrible revenge. Get what I’m saying?”

“…Yes,” she mutters quietly.

“Thank God for that,” Ichigo says, standing. “I’m going to bed.”

“Wait—Ichigo! I have more questions!”

“Too bad. I’m fresh out of answers for you.”

Ichigo.” She’s all enraged again. How is that fair?

Ichigo shrugs and escapes. Ungrateful little monsters, these wizard kids.

* * *

“Professor Snape,” Ichigo says, cornering the man in his classroom after double Potions.

“Kurosaki,” Snape replies, immediately suspicious. “I presume this is not about Potions, as you are utterly incapable of—”

“You presume correctly,” Ichigo cuts in before the guy can really get going. “I’m just here to tell you Potter doesn’t need Occlumency lessons anymore because I’ve got that covered. So you get a free night. Congratulations.”

Snape appears speechless.

“Right. That’s all I had to say.” Ichigo tries to escape before Snape can collect himself. He makes it two whole steps out the door before Snape yells at him to get his ass back in the classroom, or words to that effect.

“What do you mean you have it ‘covered’?” Snape demands.

“I mean Potter’s mind is safe. I’ve got it covered.”

Snape scowls and makes uncomfortable eye contact for a weirdly long time. It’s creepy. Or at least it is until Ichigo hears a distant scream and Shiro’s laughter and realizes he’s got company in his head—then it’s just hilarious. It gets even better when Snape starts looking pale and traumatized and jerks his eyes away from Ichigo’s with a gasp.

“Did you just try to get inside my head?” Ichigo asks, thoroughly amused. “Man, that was a terrible idea. It’s not always safe for me in my head; I don’t even want to think about what happened to you.”

Snape is staring at him in shock, looking a little grey. Which, yeah. That’ll happen when you mess with the hollow in somebody’s head.

“Plus, that was seriously rude,” Ichigo goes on. “What if I’d had a deep, dark secret?” He considers. “Another deep, dark secret, I mean. Besides the one you already knew about, and the other one that probably just tried to stab you in the face.”

“What is wrong with your mind?” Snape hisses, horrified.

“So many things,” Ichigo informs him. “But that’s not your business. What is your business is the fact that I clearly know how to get people out of my mind, so it’s only fair to conclude I can help Potter do the same thing.”

“You can’t make Potter’s mind like yours,” Snape insists. “I’ve never seen a mind like yours. I’ve never even heard of such a…mental condition. You aren’t human, and that is not a human mind.”

Okay, so that’s. Accurate. Harsh, though. Very harsh.

Fine,” Ichigo sighs, deciding Dumbledore can screw himself, because why should this be a secret anyway? “I killed the soul piece Potter had attached to him. What do you call ‘em? Horaces?”

“…Horcruxes?” Snape suggests faintly.

“Yeah, that. So, problem solved. He doesn’t need this brain-blocking training, because he’s got no connection to Tom anymore. Dumbledore said I wasn’t supposed to tell anybody, but he’s kind of full of shit.”

“Mind your language, and show proper respect for the Headmaster. Twenty points from Gryffindor,” Snape snaps. He’s just talking on auto-pilot, though, so Ichigo doesn’t hold it against him. Besides, Ichigo’s already dragged Gryffindor into negative house points. Now it’s just a contest (mostly between Ichigo and the Weasley twins) to see how low they can go. The Hufflepuffs are placing bets.

“Is that…a normal state of mind for a grim reaper?” Snape asks eventually, looking seriously disturbed.

“Not exactly,” Ichigo admits. “Still, I wouldn’t mess around with our heads as a rule. Maybe they’re not all as blatantly hostile as mine, but…well. Some are hostile in a sneakier way, and that’s probably worse.” Ichigo imagines invading Urahara’s mind, and shudders.

“…Tell Potter if he’s already fixed the problem he was complaining about, he needn’t waste my time. It’s impossible to teach the brat anything in any case.”

That was the least gracious concession Ichigo’s ever heard. He’s impressed. “I’ll tell him.” In different words, though, because Ichigo’s not in the mood for yelling. “Thanks.”

Snape scowls at him, but Ichigo’s pretty sure it’s just out of confusion at being thanked. Which is sad, when he thinks about it.

* * *

Ichigo swings by the library and informs Potter and company that Occlumency’s cancelled, which Potter and Ron greet with great joy and Granger greets with great suspicion, because it’s her way. That accomplished, Ichigo goes off to find Longbottom and deliver Rukia’s present, because if he doesn’t get that done today, Rukia will beat the crap out of him.

He’s lucky enough to find Longbottom fairly quickly—on the third floor of the castle, on his way to the greenhouses. It’s a nice thing about Longbottom: if he’s not in class, then he’s in the greenhouses, the Gryffindor common room, or somewhere between the two. Ichigo appreciates that kind of predictability in a person. Even if it does make him easy to ambush.

“Hey, Longbottom,” Ichigo calls down the hall.

Longbottom jumps and whirls to stare at him with a hunted expression that Ichigo feels is unjustified. If he were about to test Longbottom’s self-defense skills, he wouldn’t announce his presence, for God’s sake. “I hear you met my friend Rukia in the hospital.”

“…Yes.” Longbottom’s expression, though still hunted, is now developing a hint of some other, less obvious, emotion. Dread, maybe. People have so little faith in Ichigo, it’s depressing.

“Well, she said to give you this.” Ichigo holds out the awkwardly wrapped package from Rukia. You’d think that after decades of practice, she’d be better at wrapping things, but no. Still terrible. Present wrapping must fall under the general category of Art Skills.

“Oh.” Longbottom blinks in apparent shock. Whatever he was expecting, it wasn’t presents. “Can…can I open it now?”

“Sure. I’m kind of curious about it myself.”

Longbottom quickly rips open the package, which is the best thing that could’ve happened to that wrapping job. It’s a book on origami. Ichigo doesn’t get it. Longbottom does, though, or at least, so Ichigo judges from the way he immediately tears up.

“Are you crying because you like it, or are you crying because it’s so awful I need to go beat Rukia up for you?” Ichigo asks suspiciously.

Longbottom laughs a little, quickly wiping away his tears like he’s embarrassed. “No, it’s…it’s perfect. My mum always gives me these—it doesn’t matter. Just. Tell Rukia it’s perfect. Or wait, I’ll…I’ll write her a note. If you could…?”

“Sure, I’ll pass it along.” And he’ll probably end up having to translate it, which is a shame, because he can already tell he doesn’t want to know the details. The terrible thing the kids and Rukia saw during the hospital visit must’ve been Longbottom-related. Great. “Enjoy it, I guess.” Ichigo turns to walk away.

“Aren’t you going to ask what this is about?” Longbottom calls after him, quietly curious.

“Do you want me to?” Ichigo counters without turning back.

“…Not really.”

“Then, no.”

Ichigo reaches the end of the hallway and jumps over the railing onto the stairs a floor below. He finds this kind of thing puts a stop to most uncomfortable conversations. Among these people, anyway. Every single one of his actual friends would’ve followed him right over the railing, but that’s what makes them awesome.

Still, now that Ichigo’s seen Longbottom cry over his presumably hospitalized mother and all, it seems like he should probably start calling the kid Neville.

* * *

Ichigo expects his day to be quiet post-Neville, what with Potter being (hopefully) safe in his afternoon classes, so he goes up to the dorm to read about wizarding medicine for a while. After all that intense Christmas togetherness plus soul fragment killing, he figures he’s earned a one-day break from Potter.

He quickly discovers, though, that quiet just isn’t in the cards.

“Ichigo,” Dean Thomas interrupts after Ichigo’s been reading for maybe ten minutes. Thomas is lurking uneasily in the doorway, and cutting class to do it, which isn’t like him and doesn’t bode well. “Could I talk to you outside for a bit?”

“Sure,” Ichigo agrees easily, standing and dropping his book onto his bed. Thomas so rarely asks anything of anyone, it seems like a good idea to go along, even if this is turning into Uncomfortable Conversation Day. Ichigo silently follows him all the way to the observation deck of the Astronomy Tower. So Thomas likes it up here, too. Even if it is freaking cold and uncomfortable at this time of year, it’s a good place.

Well, that, and it’s really hard to successfully eavesdrop out here.

They stand in silence for a while, but Ichigo knows better than to interrupt. Thomas is trying to work himself up to say something, and it’s best not to sidetrack him. That might kill the conversation altogether. Ichigo knows how it is with the quiet types.

“…It’s about Harry,” Thomas says eventually.

Ichigo figured that might be the case. “Okay.”

“Seamus, you know…Seamus is sure he’s gone mad.”

Pause. Ichigo is still waiting for something that requires a response.

“…Is he mad?”

Ah. “I hate to tell you this, but he’s really not.”

Thomas sighs, disappointed but not surprised. “Things would be much simpler if he were just mad.”

“I know.”

“So, You-Know-Who?”

It takes Ichigo a second, but he eventually remembers that that’s what they call Tom when they’re not calling him that unpronounceable V-name. “Yeah, still alive. Sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“Like I say, he split his soul into pieces. Some of them are dead, some of them are alive. He’s wreaking havoc with the administration in the afterlife.”

Thomas laughs because he thinks that’s a joke. Then he stops laughing in favor of fatalism. “We’re all going to die, aren’t we?”

“Sooner or later.”

“It’s looking like sooner, if You-Know-Who’s around.”

“Not necessarily,” Ichigo argues. “I mean, somebody’s already killed some of his soul pieces. Nothing to say they can’t kill the rest before the guy has time to work his way around to murdering random school kids.”

Thomas gives a noncommittal nod. They’re quiet for a while, looking out over the grounds, contemplating life, freezing their asses off. “How do you know about all this, by the way?” Thomas asks eventually. Cautiously.

“My dad knows people in the business of managing wandering spirits.” This has the advantage of being both true and misleading, and it also checks out with the exorcist story Ichigo fed Granger. He’s getting really good at this lying thing, probably because he’s been spending too much time with Urahara.

“You know the people who’ve been killing the soul pieces?” Thomas demands in a shocked whisper.

“Yes.”

“Wow.” Thomas blinks. “Can I meet them?”

“Trust me when I say you don’t want to. They’re good at their job, but they’re also weird, violent, creepy liars. They visited over Christmas, so you can double-check with Granger on that.”

Thomas smiles. “Yeah, I think I heard a little about that already. You know some strange people.”

“True,” Ichigo admits. Everyone he knows is strange. He’s strange himself. He’s more or less given up on worrying about it.

“…That. That dream Harry had,” Thomas goes on. “What was that about?”

“One of the soul fragments was stuck to him,” Ichigo explains, because why not? He’s taken to dismissing most of Dumbledore’s orders out of hand, anyway. “He was dreaming somebody else’s reality.”

“You-Know-Who’s reality?” Thomas demands, shocked. “He said he was a snake!”

“The snake has another soul fragment stuck to it.”

“So what you’re saying is that Harry’s not mad, but he is possessed?

“Not anymore,” Ichigo says with some satisfaction. “That’s one of the soul fragments my friend killed. Potter’s free and clear. No more snake dreams.”

“…But he was possessed.”

Thomas seems very hung up on this, and Ichigo isn’t sure why. “Well, sort of. It’s more like his soul and the soul fragment were sharing space in his body. The fragment was dormant until this year, when Tom—or You-Know-Who, whatever—got a new body. Apparently Potter’s nightmares got pretty freaky at that point.”

Thomas is staring at him in total horror now. Ichigo doesn’t get why people are so precious about this kind of thing. Soul merging is creepy as hell, but just sharing? No big deal. Ichigo’s been sharing body-space with two other souls for years. Sort of. Technically they’re parts of his own soul—whatever, anyway, it’s not like sharing space is all that unusual, and in a school where ghosts chill in the hallways, you’d think people would learn to relax about it.

“I’m sorry I asked,” Thomas says at last.

“People generally are,” Ichigo tells him.

Silence.

“…Is his name really Tom?”

“Tom Riddle,” Ichigo confirms. “It’s really fucking bothering me, to be honest. What kind of evil overlord is named Tom?

Thomas laughs again, but it seems like he’d prefer to be crying.

* * *

Ichigo comes down to breakfast the next morning just in time to learn there’s been a mass breakout from wizard prison. He’s delighted to hear this, because it might mean his life is finally getting less boring.

Then it occurs to him that he’s a total failure of a bodyguard.

“These people,” he asks, “how likely are they to try to kill Potter?”

“Very likely, mate,” Ron answers wearily, pushing the nearest food dish toward Ichigo in apparent sympathy. “Almost bound to happen, really.”

“That’s not the problem, though,” says Potter, whose priorities have always been strange. “The problem is that the Minister of Magic still doesn’t believe Voldemort is back.”

“That’s politicians for you.” Ichigo shrugs and reaches for the pumpkin juice, which he’s starting to think he’ll miss when he goes home. “Cheer up, though—maybe someday Tom’ll kill the Minister, and it’ll be like he actually died of irony. Tell me that won’t make you smile.”

Maybe it’ll make Potter smile in the future, but not at the moment—at the moment he’s giving Ichigo an appalled look. Whatever. The twins would’ve thought it was funny.

Fortunately, Susan Bones—one of the many Hufflepuffs who never say die—chooses this moment to walk over and interrupt the awkward silence.

“Harry, Ichigo,” she says. “Um. I had a question about practice?”

“Okay,” Ichigo replies while Potter eyes her suspiciously. Ichigo’s intrigued. While it’s true that Bones never says die, this is still the first time she’s willingly talked to him outside the Room of Requirement.

“Could we do more practice?”

This puzzles Ichigo for a second, but then he glances at Granger’s newspaper and notes that a lot of the Bones family are prominently listed as victims of the escapees. Suddenly it all makes sense. “Sure. We can do doubles, if you want. Go for a run at five, head to the Room at six, train until seven, go to breakfast. Then meet up in the evening every day, or at least every other day, have Potter teach you to maim people with magic for a couple hours. How’s that sound?”

“Like you should’ve asked me first,” Potter mutters, but quietly enough that everyone’s allowed to ignore him.

“Yes,” Bones says firmly to Ichigo. “Let’s do that.” And she marches back to her table to spread joy among Hufflepuffs, who are never happier than when they’re being worked half to death.

“I think you’re honestly trying to kill us with exhaustion,” Granger says sourly. “And when exactly do you suppose we’ll have time to do our homework?”

“When you should be sleeping?” Ichigo suggests. She glares at him. He shrugs. “What? Do you want to learn to brew a perfect potion, or do you want to live to graduate?”

“I want both,” she insists.

“Yeah, well, you don’t go to that kind of school. Sorry.” Ron snorts agreement, but Granger looks infuriated. “But hey,” Ichigo goes on, “cheer up and imagine having your very own army of Hufflepuffs. Because it’d all be over once that happened. You could just say, ‘Bring me a nation,’ and they’d do it, no matter what it took. Remember this if you decide to try for world domination, Potter: Hufflepuff army.”

“I am not trying for world domination,” Potter hisses. He doesn’t need to be so cranky about it; it’s just an observation.

“Maybe you should,” Ichigo suggests. “You’d be terrible at it, but hey, still better than anybody else currently in the running.”

Potter actually smiles for a second before Granger ruins everything by announcing that some guy got murdered in the hospital by a plant.

Freaking wizards.

* * *

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Umbridge doesn’t like her students discussing the mass jailbreak of people who killed their relatives. It interferes with her argument that the world would be a paradise full of sunshine if not for all these damn half-breeds hanging around the place. Pureblooded murderers are a real threat to her carefully constructed alternate reality.

So she bans the teachers from talking about anything but schoolwork. As you do.

Ichigo was willing to let that slide, but then the woman gave Lee Jordan detention. Obviously she can’t give the kind of detentions she’d prefer, because Ichigo keeps destroying all her stuff, but she thought about it, and Ichigo won’t stand for that. This isn’t like hassling Potter, which is a political move, even if it is fucked up—this is just random, undirected spite. Besides, Jordan is a good guy who’s managed to hang around with the Weasley twins for years and still mostly retain his sanity, and that’s an impressive feat, worthy of respect. Umbridge hasn’t even had Ichigo around for a year, and already she’s losing it. She of all people should respect the hell out of Jordan. The hypocrisy of it gets to Ichigo.

And of course, the Weasley twins take any attack on Jordan extremely personally. So it was also a stupid move to go after him.

“Hey guys,” Ichigo says to the twins at breakfast. “I’ve decided I’m officially done with Umbridge and her whole oppression, repression, violent racist routine. I mean, she’s messing with Jordan now; that crosses a line. So I’m thinking I’ll take her down. What do you think?”

“We approve,” George replies firmly. “Messing with Lee is like messing with us, and messing with us is like hexing yourself in the face.”

“We are extremely good at revenge,” Fred puts in. “And we also enjoy revenge. So what’s the plan?”

“Well, I’m technically not allowed to kill her,” Ichigo admits, disappointed. It’s easier when he can just kill his problems. He doesn’t do it very often, in practice, but it’s nice to know he could.

“…True,” Fred agrees.

“Because technically we would call that murder,” George goes on.

“And murder is wrong.”

“Or at the very least illegal.”

“Everyone’s told us so.”

“Repeatedly.”

“So yes, technically, we can’t go that far.”

“Can we knock down a wall on her?” Ichigo wonders. “She’s a witch; she could protect herself. It probably wouldn’t kill her.”

“We can’t knock down a wall, unfortunately,” George says, eyeing Ichigo in speculation and alarm.

“They’re incorporated into the school’s wards, and the wards are unbreakable,” Fred explains.

“I mean, how sure are you about that?” Ichigo asks.

They stare at him, incredulous.

“You are honestly—”

“Somehow—”

“Incredibly—”

Worse than we are.”

“I’m actually starting to understand how Mum feels, just a bit. Wouldn’t you say, Gred?”

“I would, Forge, and it’s uncomfortable, and I’m unhappy about it.”

“I mean, there’s reckless, and then there’s—”

“Demented—”

“Suicidal—”

“Homicidal—”

“All right, all right,” Ichigo cuts in impatiently, since they seem willing to go on all day. “So the wall thing won’t work. It doesn’t have to be that big. She’s…well, she’s not all that mentally stable, I don’t think. We could probably just push her mentally until she snaps. Right?” It doesn’t seem as satisfying as maiming her, but it does seem easy.

The twins are staring at him like he’s an undetonated landmine again.

* * *

Eventually Ichigo manages to get the twins to snap out of their stupor and promise him portable swamps and dramatic explosions and generalized chaos, so that’s good. This is Ichigo’s idea, though, so he needs to contribute something to the effort, too. It’s only fair. He just doesn’t know what to do—his innate ability to drive people to madness without even trying is working, sure, but not fast enough.

So he calls an expert.

“You want to psychologically destroy someone,” Ishida says flatly, “and you’re calling me for advice?”

“I have met your dad,” Ichigo points out, stretching up to dust a window frame in the Room of Requirement. “You’ve definitely at least seen people get psychologically destroyed, even if you haven’t done it yourself. And I wonder about that last part. So teach me how.”

“You also know Urahara,” snaps Ishida, “who makes my father look like a rank amateur when it comes to causing psychological harm. Why can’t you ask him?”

“He’s off killing things,” Ichigo grumbles, resentful.

“Urahara’s off killing things and you’re trapped in a school playing mind games with people?” Ishida sounds about as betrayed as Ichigo feels. “What moron organized that?”

“Kyoraku organized that, and if you want to go yell at him about it, maybe shoot at him a couple times, you totally have my blessing.”

Ishida makes a disgusted sound. He has a great repertoire of disgusted sounds, does Ishida; Inoue’s separated them out into like ten different sub-categories. Unfortunately, Ichigo’s ear isn’t as discerning as Inoue’s, so all he’s getting from this is that Ishida’s disgusted, which is more or less his base state, anyway.

“Fine,” Ishida eventually concedes, bad-tempered as ever. “Who are you trying to destroy? What are this person’s weaknesses and fears?”

“She’s a government mole posing as a teacher,” Ichigo explains.

“…Your school has government moles?” Ishida asks incredulously.

“How have I not complained to you about this before?” Ichigo wonders. “Yes. This is basically a military academy that doesn’t take the survival of its graduates very seriously. Also, it’s not my school. I’m just passing through, thank God.”

“How you get yourself into these situations is a constant source of bafflement for me,” says Ishida, sounding a lot more pissed off than baffled. “Fears and weaknesses?”

“She’s afraid of halfbreeds and freaks, and she’s weak to people messing with her control and her skewed sense of reality.”

“Then my advice to you is to be yourself, Kurosaki.” Apparently it’s possible to detect Ishida’s eye-rolling even over the phone. “It sounds like you’re this woman’s nemesis by nature.”

“You’re right,” Ichigo admits, “but I was hoping to speed the process up. Like, she’s creeping toward the edge, but I want to shove her over.”

“Introduce her to your hollow, then,” Ishida sighs.

“The problem is I’m such a freak that normal humans can’t even detect how much of a freak I am,” Ichigo complains. “She can’t see my hollow.”

“It’s a magic school,” Ishida points out, aggrieved. “Surely there’s some way to…I don’t know…show her an illusion of what you look like with the mask on. Maybe you can even give her nightmares about it, then make sure there’s just enough crossover between her dreams and reality that she loses confidence in which is which.”

Ishida can say what he wants about not being good at psychological destruction, but Ichigo calls bullshit. Ishida’s a mind-breaking pro—born and raised. And given Potter’s snake nightmares, Ichigo’s sure Ishida’s right: magic can make this happen.

“Thanks,” says Ichigo. “I’ll try that.”

* * *

“You want us to give someone nightmares?” George demands. “We can’t do that!” Then he pauses, blinks, and turns to Fred. “Can we do that?”

“The daydreaming potion,” Fred suggests.

“Prototype,” George insists.

“We’ll work it out. And if we accidentally poison her, who cares? The trouble is that Ichigo here wants to use his memories as the base. I don’t see how to do that.”

“Legilimency?”

“Not for any length of time. Not a nightmare.”

“Pensieve?”

Pensieve,” Fred apparently agrees, snapping and pointing triumphantly at George. He turns to Ichigo and says, “We’ll need to suck a few memories out of your head; hope you’re okay with that.”

“I don’t want her to see it from my point of view, though. Should I have a friend give you the memories I want her to see, instead?”

“No need—a Pensieve gives you third person point of view. We can just use yours.”

“…But they’re my memories. So how does the third person thing even work?”

Magic,” the twins announce in sync, complete with jazz hands.

The complete lack of any logic ever is starting to make Ichigo tired. “Right. I’m guessing we’re image-only on this, since she doesn’t speak Japanese?”

“That won’t matter,” Fred corrects. “It’s your memory, so if you understand what people are saying in it, so will anyone you give the memory to.”

Ichigo considers this, and decides it makes about as much sense as the third-person point of view thing. He doesn’t bother asking the twins for details, though. He’s had all the jazz hands he can handle for one day. “Can I have the memories back afterward?”

“Not really, no. Not if we’re feeding them to Umbridge in a potion.”

“…So they’ll be completely gone?”

“Nah. Just faded out a bit. Actually used as therapy sometimes, this.”

Well, that’s all right, then. Ichigo can just give Umbridge a bunch of memories he’d be happy to remember less clearly. God knows he has plenty of those.

That’s the bright spot of the week—the twins actively working on Umbridge’s destruction. Unfortunately, it’s the only bright spot. The rest of the week consists of generalized freaking out about prison breaks. And Ichigo gets that, he does. He just wishes the kids would channel more of their energy into training, and less into bitching about everything all day long.

Basically, he wishes everyone could be more like the Hufflepuffs, who are quietly, obsessively training at all hours. Or if they can’t be as cool as the Hufflepuffs, they could at least try for Slytherin. The Slytherins, as the most easily entertained people on campus, are still under the impression that this whole prison break thing is a great joke, and not something they need to worry about. And it’ll continue on that way, Ichigo figures, until at least one of them gets brutally murdered.

He’s impressed by the strength of their ignorance.

Things get even more grim on Thursday, when Granger abruptly decides that Ichigo isn’t taking the situation seriously enough, and forces him to read up on the details of the last war with Tom—he’d only gotten a general outline from Urahara. Granger really should’ve known better, because it turns out Ichigo wasn’t taking the situation seriously enough, and now he realizes it. He’s not playing around in Defense club anymore. These kids need to learn to be killing machines, and they need to learn right freaking now.

Granger seems to regret her choices almost instantly, but it’s too late by then. The Hufflepuffs are on cloud nine, though. As is Neville, who’s come over all Hufflepuff about this. Hell, he out-Hufflepuffs the Hufflepuffs some days. It’s obviously weirding out Potter and company, but Ichigo’s proud.

Potter, meanwhile, continues to fail at prioritizing. At the moment, he seems equally concerned about escaped mass murderers, his Quidditch ban, and his Valentine’s date.

If Potter can’t be bothered to take a proper interest in his welfare, Ichigo doesn’t see why he should have to. Sadly, Ichigo’s sense of duty is far stronger than his sense of fairness, and that’s why he ends up tailing Potter and date to Hogsmeade on Valentine’s Day, when he probably could’ve just gone with Granger for the day and waited for Potter to meet up with them. That would most likely have been safe enough.

On the other hand, mass murderers on the loose, Potter’s fondness for near-death experiences, so on and so forth. Professionalism demands that Ichigo tail Potter on his date.

Potter seems about as happy about this as Ichigo is.

* * *

Potter’s date is also horrified to find they’ve got a shadow, but Ichigo’s actually gotten pretty good at the art of trailing people close enough to save their asses if necessary, but far enough away that he’s not eavesdropping on their conversations. Mostly because he’s so tired of listening to Potter’s conversations. This has the happy side-benefit of making it easy for his bodyguardees to forget about him, and Potter and date quickly do forget—or at least the date does. Potter periodically glances back at Ichigo with a frown, because there’s no pleasing him.

Potter’s date leads them to a coffee shop that’s like…intensely pink and sparkly. Potter casts Ichigo a desperate look as he’s dragged inside, but Ichigo shakes his head unsympathetically. You dig your grave, you have to lie in it. And Ichigo’s not setting foot in that place. Not even to save Potter’s life.

Ichigo wonders if any girl of his acquaintance would ever drag him into a place like that. He’s thinking no, absolutely not. Even Inoue is more drawn to the weird than the insipid. And Yuzu, for all her love of pinks and pastels, would find the decor tacky. She and Yumichika would probably join forces to burn the place to the ground for insulting their aesthetic sensibilities, actually.

Well, Tatsuki might drag him into a place like that just to fuck with him. Yeah, he can see that happening. Real men can handle pink, Ichigo, she’d declare loudly to the entire room. What, is your masculinity so fragile that you can’t deal with a few bows on the furniture? And then Inoue would chime in with something like, She’s right, Kurosaki-kun. Don’t let society dictate to you how to be a man! We all know you’re a strong person, even if you do like pink! And next thing he knew, they’d have gotten Yuzu and Ishida in on it, his entire wardrobe would turn pink and lacy overnight, and his life would be ruined. And Karin and Rukia and Renji would never stop laughing at him.

He leans against the wall of the horrible coffee shop and smiles at the vision of this, while also praying it never comes to pass. The point, though, is that if Tatsuki did that to him, it would be a gleefully malicious, knowing, deliberate choice. Not one made out of blind ignorance of everything about him.

That, he decides, is what’s bothering him about Potter’s date today. They don’t know a damn thing about each other. Ichigo would never date someone he didn’t know anything about, because that’s how people wind up dead in gutters. He knows this because he collects horror stories to warn his sisters with. Also, he’s seen Audition.

It starts raining right then, as if the weather agrees with him. He is now standing in the rain waiting on Potter’s poorly managed love life. This is the worst job he’s ever had, and he worked at Unagiya for months.

Happily, it only takes a few more minutes for the date to come tearing out of the coffee shop in tears. Say one thing for her: she’s reliable.

Similarly to last time, too, Potter staggers out of the building after her looking like he’s been repeatedly slapped in the face with a fish. He checks up and down the street, but his ex-date is extremely quick, and she’s long gone. Potter turns to stare blankly at Ichigo.

“That girl seems to spend a lot of time running away from you, crying,” Ichigo observes. “Maybe you want to consider a new approach. Like, say, dating somebody who doesn’t cry at the sight of your face.”

“I am going to hex your face until you cry,” Potter informs him, going from bewilderment to fury with lightning speed.

“If it’ll cheer you up, you can try,” Ichigo allows graciously.

Bless Potter’s heart, he does try. He doesn’t succeed, obviously, because it’ll be a cold day in hell when Ichigo loses a fight to a human, but Potter’s dedication to the cause is impressive.

It’s basically therapy, anyway. Potter’s such a wacky little ball of rage, a decent fight now and then can only help him. And everyone who’s forced to interact with him, too.

Bottom line is, by the time they roll up (slightly late) to The Three Broomsticks to meet Granger, they’re both in a decent mood. Bruised, scratched up, soaking wet, and covered in mud, but in a decent mood. Luckily Granger’s still there even though they’re late, sitting at a table with Luna and some strange lady. Luna’s the only one who notices them come in, though, so Ichigo nods to her and she nods back, which gets Granger’s attention.

Honestly,” Granger snaps as soon as she catches sight of them. She marches over and casts a bunch of cleaning spells. That’s handy. “The two of you! And Harry, weren’t you meant to be out with Cho?”

“Cho?” asks the strange lady, twisting around and staring with slightly frightening intensity, clutching at her bag like it might escape. “A girl?

“That is a disturbing level of interest you have in Potter’s love life,” Ichigo remarks.

“Yes,” Granger agrees severely—possibly the first time she’s ever agreed with Ichigo. “It is quite disturbing, and also none of your business, so don’t even think about it.”

The woman puts down her bag, looking furious.

“Who is she?” Ichigo asks Luna, who’s ironically the one most likely to give him a straight answer.

“She’s a reporter Hermione’s blackmailed into doing her bidding,” Luna explains.

“Luna!” Granger gasps.

Luna blinks at her innocently, and Ichigo nods to himself. Always good to know you’ve asked exactly the right person. “Wow, Granger. I’d say I didn’t know you had it in you, but actually, I did.”

“No one asked for your opinion!” Granger declares.

“And who are you?” asks the reporter, leaning forward, apparently just as willing to be creepily interested in Ichigo as she was in Potter’s sad, sad love life.

“He’s Ichigo. My bodyguard,” Potter sighs.

The reporter gives a sharp, mean little laugh. “You hired a bodyguard?”

“No,” Potter snarls. “A bodyguard happened to me. He’s bodyguarding me against my will.” He pauses. “Against his will, too.”

Is that sympathy from Potter? Damn, he’s growing as a person.

“Wait. You’re acting as Harry Potter’s bodyguard…against your will?” The reporter looks like her birthday just came early.

“My theory is that my boss lost a bet and put me up for collateral,” Ichigo informs her.

“Difficult to handle, is he?” she murmurs knowingly.

“My boss? Very.”

“I meant Harry Potter,” she snaps, impatient now.

“No, not especially,” Ichigo lies, because he doesn’t like her attitude. “It’s just that I’m not one of nature’s bodyguards.”

“Understatement,” Potter mutters, though he does look pleased that Ichigo lied about how difficult he is.

“Fascinating though Ichigo is,” Granger cuts in sharply, “he is not what we’re here to discuss.”

It turns out that what they are there to discuss is Granger’s plan for a big article, written by the reporter and printed in Luna’s family newspaper, about how Potter’s right about Tom and everyone else is a moron, especially the government. So that should make everyone at the table extremely popular.

Except Granger, of course. Ichigo notices that her name is the only one that won’t appear anywhere in the vicinity of this clusterfuck, despite the fact that it was all her idea. If Hogwarts had a class on being terrifying, Granger would get top marks every time without trying.

* * *

The day Granger’s article comes out in the paper happens to be the same day the Weasley twins start making off with Ichigo’s memories. They must start watching the memories, too, because they take to staring at Ichigo in awe and horror whenever they think he isn’t looking.

“Mate,” George says quietly when they come to collect the third batch, “and I really mean it this time. What are you?”

“With any luck, Umbridge’s worst nightmare,” Ichigo tells him.

“Yeah, no worries there,” Fred mutters, removing Ichigo’s memory of his last fight with Ulquiorra in a thin, silvery strand. It’s funny—all the memories are silver. Ichigo would’ve guessed black or red for most of the ones he’s given. But no one ever said magic had to make sense.

“A few more memories like these,” George puts in, “and you’ll be my worst nightmare, for a start.”

Ichigo is faintly hurt by that remark.

As for the article, it becomes an instant classic as soon as Umbridge announces, in a distinctly unhinged shriek, that she’s banning it. Granger is delighted. Predictably, everyone immediately reads it, and they believe every word, if only because Umbridge told them not to. Ah, spite.

No one suspects that Granger had anything to do with the article, which is the creepiest thing about it. The best thing about it, though, is the way it gets everyone in Gryffindor to finally shut the fuck up about how bad they are at Quidditch.

The Slytherins are taking the article extremely personally, which Ichigo finds disappointing but not surprising. He’s never seen Slytherins furious before, but it turns out that when you name a bunch of their parents as criminals, that gets to them. They’ve completely lost their senses of humor—a tragic turn-around for the most easily amused house in Hogwarts.

Not that Ichigo thinks Potter was wrong to name their parents. Frankly, once people try to kill you, it’s probably your duty to point them out to the general public. Some might even say giving that interview was a brave thing. This is Potter, though, so Ichigo’s inclined to believe it’s really just one more sign of the kid’s borderline suicidal recklessness.

Because of the damn article, Ichigo feels uncomfortable ever leaving Potter’s side. After all, half of Slytherin wants him dead. None of them have gone so far as to actually try killing him yet, but Ichigo doesn’t like their collective tone. In order to convey this dislike, he takes to beating the crap out of anyone who seems remotely serious about their assassination plans.

Still, collective tone aside, individual Slytherins are unusually divided on this subject. The ones whose parents weren’t denounced are pretty apathetic about the whole thing; they’re just going through the motions for the sake of house solidarity. And even among Slytherins whose parents were denounced, there’s a range of reactions.

On one end of the spectrum is Nott, who’s taking it all disturbingly philosophically. That could be because Nott’s a smart guy who’s running a long con, but it could also be because Nott hates his father and is praying for him to be executed. Ichigo can’t tell, so he just keeps training the kid like always. Hoping for the best, planning for the worst.

On the other end of the spectrum is that big kid who hangs out with Malfoy and is possibly actually named Crab, who’s gone quiet and still and cold in a way Ichigo associates with people who are about to seriously lose their shit. So he’s keeping a close eye on that situation.

And then there’s Malfoy himself, somewhere in the middle of the pack, but loudest of them all. He’d obviously love to think of himself as a bold assassin, but really he’s just a mess. Ichigo would feel perfectly comfortable leaving him and Potter alone together, even in a room full of knives.

“I’ll kill Potter for what he’s done to my father,” Malfoy declares boldly and apropos of nothing, confronting Ichigo on his way back from the Great Hall—Ichigo usually makes it to breakfast and back before Potter even wakes up. “And if I have to go through you to do that, I will!

At least the kid’s got self-confidence. Or maybe that’s a bad thing. People always seem to think Ichigo’s self-confidence is a bad thing.

“Will you?” Ichigo asks, curious about Malfoy’s level of self-delusion. “Because you haven’t been doing too well with that so far.”

Malfoy hisses, enraged, and promptly attacks Ichigo. This is progress. Sure, Ichigo hasn’t gotten him to stop talking shit altogether, but at least now he fights while he’s talking. Keeps it from being a totally boring experience.

“Kinda proving my point,” Ichigo observes as he dodges various colored lights before knocking Malfoy’s feet out from under him and dumping him on the ground. The angrier Malfoy is, the funnier he is.

And indeed, Malfoy temporarily abandons strategy and even magic in favor of leaping back to his feet, hurling himself forward, and trying to physically bash Ichigo’s face in. “You don’t know anything!” he screams breathlessly. “You’re nobody! Your family is nothing! I’m a Malfoy! You can’t stand against someone like me!”

Technically, Ichigo comes from nobility on his dad’s side and borderline aristocracy on his mom’s, but this doesn’t seem like the time to mention it. So instead he says, “And yet here I am. Kicking your ass.”

Malfoy howls incoherently and earnestly tries to hurl Ichigo over a stair railing. With no success, obviously, but he gets points for effort.

“I’m just trying to help you out in life, Malfoy,” Ichigo insists, evading an ineptly thrown punch and returning a more effective one of his own. “Because underestimating anyone who’s not a pureblood is gonna come back to bite you. I guarantee it.”

“What would you know? You’re a mudblood,” Malfoy shouts, terrified and enraged with it.

“Yeah, people call me all kinds of things.” Ichigo smiles unpleasantly. “Mudblood. Hybrid. Freak. Monster. You know why they call me all that?”

Malfoy scowls and sends a red light at him—wordlessly. He really is improving. But not enough, because Ichigo still manages to slide around him and twist his arm up behind his back until he yelps and drops his wand. And Ichigo leans in and says, very softly, “Because they’re terrified of me.”

Then he shoves Malfoy away and leaves so the kid can think about that for a while.

It’s time to catch up with Potter anyway. Just because Ichigo left him asleep doesn’t mean the little maniac hasn’t wandered off and found trouble by now.

* * *

Harry is running down to the Great Hall for breakfast, having successfully used the Marauder’s Map to avoid Ichigo (and Ichigo’s enthusiasm for spontaneous training sessions). Unfortunately, Ichigo can usually track him down in under ten minutes, like he has a weird sixth sense, so Harry’s trying to enjoy his freedom while it lasts. He’s in no mood for Malfoy, which naturally means he immediately runs across Malfoy. Malfoy, who is standing on a random landing looking stunned and enraged. This is the look of a person who’s just had a close encounter with Ichigo Kurosaki, and Harry has enough sympathy for that that he’s willing to pass by without comment. But of course Malfoy can’t leave well enough alone, the enormous prat.

“Can’t you control your thug, Potter?” Malfoy demands, and the bitter injustice of that is too much for Harry to handle.

“Control him?” Harry snaps back, outraged. “Control him? No, Malfoy. No. No one can control Ichigo, because Ichigo is a madman. He attacked you, didn’t he? Well, don’t come crying to me about it, because you don’t have to live with him! What, d’you think we’re spared? Do you? We’re the closest people to him! He attacks us all day long. And it’s not just Slytherins and Gryffindors who get attacked, either. He told me he likes Ravenclaws because they have ‘killer instinct.’ And yesterday he jumped over the railing onto a staircase full of Hufflepuff first years, and when Hermione yelled at him about it, he said he was teaching them situational awareness.”

Harry stops, breathing hard. Apparently he’s been needing to get that off his chest for a while. And speaking of his chest, he hasn’t even told Malfoy about getting Voldemort burned out of it abruptly and with no explanation, because that would be awkward, but there’s that as well.

Malfoy is staring with his mouth open. This may be the first time Harry has ever caught him completely off-guard.

“On the bright side,” Harry grates out grudgingly, “I suppose it’s nice that he has no house bias at all.”

Malfoy briefly looks like he wants to laugh, but quickly gets himself under control and scowls instead. “Well, he’s still your…” he trails off, then abruptly changes conversational direction. “He pushed me down the stairs last week and said he was checking my reflexes. Has he ever done that to you?”

“Twice a day,” Harry confirms. “We live in a tower. It’s getting to the point where we’re all terrified of coming down to breakfast.”

“I thought he was meant to be your bodyguard,” Malfoy says indignantly, possibly irritated with the quality of his spy network. “This is not bodyguard behavior.”

“Yeah, he is meant to be my bodyguard,” Harry agrees sourly, allowing his need to complain about Ichigo to override his need to keep secrets from Death Eaters’ children. “So he seems to think it’s his job to make me stronger or kill me trying. And you lot—you’re on the other side, aren’t you?” He realizes he sounds a bit desperate, and he is actually counting on Malfoy to be the voice of reason here. He’s never been this low before, he’s sure. “We’re enemies, aren’t we?”

“Obviously,” Malfoy confirms with a sneer that seems worryingly like an afterthought. “After you went running to the papers with your horrible, cowardly lies about my father, what else could we be?”

Harry decides, for once, to let that go in favor of continuing his more pressing rant. “Well, Ichigo told me he’s training you, too, because if it comes to a fight, I’ll want opponents who aren’t boring.”

Malfoy stares at him, looking more or less exactly the way Harry felt when he first heard Ichigo say that. “He’s mad,” Malfoy concludes eventually. “Utterly, howling mad.”

“That’s what Ron said,” Harry agrees.

“Of course he’d be sorted into Gryffindor.”

“Jump off a bridge, Malfoy.”

“As your enemy, I’m feeling a bit obsolete,” Malfoy says thoughtfully, ignoring Harry. “I mean to say, with friends like that…”

Exactly,” Harry sighs. “But at least he’s not doing anything actually deadly or illegal to us, which is more than I can say for…well. He hates Umbridge, you know. She offends him, somehow. And if he’s doing all this to us, and he likes us…”

“What would he do to someone he hates?” Malfoy finishes, looking equal parts horrified and intrigued. Slytherins.

“She’s a walking dead woman and she doesn’t know it,” Harry confirms. “And the Slytherin thing to do here, it seems to me, would be to side with someone else. Really, anyone else.”

“I.” Malfoy breaks off, blinking. “For once in your life, Potter, you may not be wrong.”

“I still hate you,” Harry puts in quickly, needing to clarify that.

“Oh, I still plan to laugh over your corpse,” Malfoy agrees brightly. “I’m only saying…you may not be wrong. This one time.”

They nod to each other in relieved confirmation of their continuing mutual hatred, and head off about their business. Still, that whole encounter felt strange, and it’s making Harry unhappy. No matter how he looks at it, that was a fairly civil conversation. Ichigo’s driven him so far round the bend that he is actually having civil conversations with Malfoy. Maybe the Daily Prophet is right about him after all: he has gone mad. They just have their timeline a bit wrong.

Also the whole thing about Voldemort not being back. They’re dead wrong about that.

* * *

“Stop. Wait.” Rukia tries to sound stern and not at all like she’s struggling not to laugh. Luckily this is easier to pull off over the phone than it is in person. “Explain to me again why you feel it’s necessary to attack the children.”

“It’s good for them,” Ichigo says sturdily.

Rukia has years of experience in interpreting Ichigo, and she confidently takes this to mean, Because I’m bored to tears and this was the least destructive way I could think of to kill time. It really is a struggle not to laugh. “Aren’t you meant to be killing soul fragments, fool?” Instead of, say, tormenting children.

“I killed all the ones I could,” Ichigo reports, gloomy. “Urahara-san and Yoruichi-san are killing the rest. I asked if that meant I could be the one to kill Tom—you know, the main body—but Yoruichi-san just laughed at me.” He pauses, probably reflecting on the injustice of it all, then continues in a more cheerful tone, “But I think I can get that Umbridge woman to snap and try to kill me within a few weeks.”

“Congratulations,” Rukia says, carefully neutral. “Renji will be very proud.”

“Renji could’ve gotten her to attack him the first week,” Ichigo admits, disappointed in himself for not being as capable of inspiring homicidal rage as Renji. “It’s taking me months.”

“Cheer up,” Rukia orders him briskly. “I’m sure she’ll try to kill you eventually. Almost everyone does.”

Ichigo laughs as if that was a joke and not a simple statement of fact. Then again, Ichigo’s life in general is something of a joke. God knows Rukia is forever laughing at him.

“But back to your new hobby of attacking children,” she says.

“They need the training,” Ichigo insists. “They’re so weak, it’s embarrassing. And it’s not like they’re living safe lives. Sure, we’re gonna kill Tom for them, but his minions will still be running around loose, and we can’t do anything about them—they’re living. So these kids need to toughen the hell up so they can deal with it themselves. Right?”

Rukia sighs, but is unable to actually argue with this. “Somehow I feel there must be a better way.”

“Yeah, I don’t want to hear that from you, violent midget. You definitely trained me by beating the crap out of me every day.”

How to explain the difference between innocent, inexperienced young children and, well, Ichigo? Rukia can’t think of a way that Ichigo would understand. He’s under the impression that everyone is basically like him, and unfortunately (or fortunately), he’s managed to surround himself with friends who support that delusion.

“Never mind, fool,” she sighs, resigned. “Did you give Longbottom his present, or were you too busy beating him up for that?”

“Yeah, I gave him his present. And he cried. I think it was because of your shitty wrapping job.”

“There is nothing wrong with my present-wrapping skills!” she shouts. She doesn’t know what the hell is wrong with Ichigo’s taste, but he never appreciates any of her arts and crafts work. And she works hard at those things! He’s so ungrateful. “Why was he really crying?”

“I don’t know. Because it was perfect or something.” A pause, which Rukia suspects is caused by Ichigo struggling to express emotion in a borderline normal way. “You did good, Rukia.”

The thing is, he so rarely expresses emotion in a borderline normal way that it’s stupidly touching when he manages it. “…Thank you. I’m. I’m glad he liked it.”

“Yeah, well. He did. Man, sometimes it seems like you can’t even come to this school unless you’re homicidal, have a fucked up family life, or both.”

“And these are the children you’re choosing to train through random physical violence?”

“Keeps things interesting.”

For such a smart person, he really is a moron, and Rukia has no idea why she’s so fond of him.

* * *

There’s Defense club the day after Ichigo’s new favorite Malfoy encounter, and the whole experience is weird. For one thing, Potter’s been giving Ichigo side-eye ever since the Malfoy encounter, so presumably he knows about it and has unfathomable Potter-opinions about it. Fortunately, it’s far too late for Ichigo to start caring what Potter thinks.

For another thing, Neville has attained a level of obsessive focus and dedication that is very nearly frightening even to Ichigo, which means Ichigo may have to come up with a speech about reining it in a little. He is so unqualified for that speech. Alarmingly unqualified. God, forget it, he’ll just ask Chad to dictate a speech for him to use, he can’t do this.

And finally, there’s the Ravenclaw girl who sidles up to Ichigo after club’s over, looking furtive. Ichigo’s never had much use for her. She’s somewhere between a Ravenclaw and a Slytherin—not enough calculating, killer instinct to hold her own with the Ravenclaws, not enough feral, self-serving sneakiness to impress a Slytherin. She’s just a weaksauce imitation of a real fighter.

“You’re, er. You’re Harry Potter’s bodyguard, aren’t you?” she asks timidly.

“I am,” Ichigo agrees, unsurprised that this information has made the rounds.

“Oh.” She considers this. “Well, erm. I’ve got a friend—that is to say, what would happen if someone were to, er. My friend has a, a parent working for the Ministry, you know, and this whole DA thing could be very embarrassing, and. If my friend…told the Ministry. About the DA. What would you do?”

“I’d kick your ass,” Ichigo informs her.

“Not me, just…just a friend!” she insists.

“Okay, sure, let’s go with that. I’d kick your friend’s ass.”

“But her mother—!”

“If your ‘friend’ is so damn worried about her mother, she should never have signed up for the club in the first place,” Ichigo says. “Besides, why are you even worrying about me? You signed a magical contract with Granger. Break that contract, and I won’t need to kick your ass. I mean, I will anyway, just on principle. But it’ll be overkill.”

Her eyes go huge with fear. She really is a lousy excuse for a Ravenclaw. “What…what would happen to someone who broke the contract?”

“I have no idea,” Ichigo claims, and it’s sort of true, because he wouldn’t put it past Granger to have hidden some of the gory details from him. “And I don’t want to think about it, because Granger is the most terrifying person under twenty I’ve ever met. Who needs the nightmares?”

The girl shudders and says, “I understand.”

Given the look of sick terror on her face, Ichigo believes she might. As she should. They were all there the day Finnegan insulted Granger’s hair in the middle of a duel and she set him on fire. It’s not the kind of thing you forget.

Granger gets Ichigo’s vote for most likely future Dark Lord.

He does briefly wonder why the Ravenclaw girl chose to talk to him instead of Granger or Potter or Ron. But then it dawns on him—he’s the most approachable. He’s like a teacher, if only in the club, and by virtue of that he’s got some feeble authority and is automatically more available for questions than Granger or Ron. He also willingly interacts with club members outside club hours, which makes him more accessible than Potter. Plus he isn’t part of a tiny, impenetrable clique of three.

Ichigo is the approachable one here. Ichigo is never the approachable one.

He needs to get the hell out of this madhouse before it breaks him.

* * *

Around Easter, Ichigo notices that Umbridge hasn’t been reveling in her power as much as she once did. In fact, she’s more…jumping at small noises and screaming with incoherent rage any time anyone disagrees with her. She’s losing whatever street cred she once had, and even the Slytherins are drifting slowly but purposefully away from her. Pretending, in fact, that they’d never had anything to do with her in the first place. Like cats. It’s hilarious.

It’s not helping Umbridge’s stability that the Grey Lady has taken to silently following her around everywhere for no apparent reason—Ichigo called in his favor. And then, of course, there are the Weasley twins, who consistently go above and beyond, have an apparently unlimited supply of stink bombs, smoke bombs, and slime bombs, and are generally awesome.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Weasley sent Ichigo a chocolate egg for Easter. He has no idea what he’s supposed to send back, but still, the Weasleys in general are high on Ichigo’s list of okay people right now.

The kids, on the other hand, are busy freaking the hell out, as usual. But escaped murderers are so last week, apparently—they’re back to agonizing over Quidditch now, because someone up there hates Ichigo. (Okay, a lot of people up there hate Ichigo.) Aside from Quidditch, exams are in a month and change, which is driving Granger, at least, into hysterics. Then, too, they’re being asked to choose careers for themselves. Given that Ichigo wouldn’t trust these kids to choose his socks for him, he gets why they’re panicking about that one. And on top of all that, they’re fretting over Potter’s sad, drunk godfather.

Who has apparently shaped up a little since Ichigo last saw him. Or at least, so Mrs. Weasley’s most recent letter makes it seem.

“How could he be so irresponsible?” Granger whispers loudly, because they’re still in the Great Hall where Ron got his letter. “Where will the Order move now? I can’t believe he somehow managed to burn down Grimmauld Place, of all the ridiculous—”

Ichigo really does try not to laugh, but a snicker escapes despite his best efforts. And that’s terrible, because it brings Granger’s attention to him with laser-like intensity. “What did you do?” she hisses.

“Nothing!” Ichigo says, then decides that’s too much of a lie even for him. “I just pointed out that if he got bored, he could work off some steam by setting things on fire.”

“Your proposed solution to his boredom was arson?” Granger demands incredulously.

“Is it still arson when it’s your own house?” Ichigo asks.

“Yes,” Granger assures him. “Yes, it most certainly is.”

Ichigo shrugs. “Still doesn’t count,” he decides. “Arson has to be deliberate, right? And this was an accident.” Well, sort of an accident. He’s fairly sure no one can prove otherwise, in any case.

Was it an accident?” Granger asks suspiciously. “Was it really? Because it seems a little convenient that Snuffles and Buckbeak both just happened to be completely clear of the house when it burned down. They’re not even singed.”

“Black must’ve been taking the monster for a walk,” Ichigo suggests. “Or a flight. Or whatever.”

“Don’t call Buckbeak a monster,” Potter cuts in sharply.

“Why not?” Ichigo wonders. “Some of my best friends are monsters. Some of your best friends are monsters. Don’t be so down on monsters, Potter—we’re the most badass people around.”

“…We?” Granger repeats after a long pause.

Ichigo frowns at her. “What, did you think I was normal?”

Everyone stares at him.

“Maybe it’s a sort of English as a second language problem,” Granger tentatively suggests.

Ichigo rolls his eyes and gives up on them. Though the twins, he’s amused to note, are studiously focused on their meals and not making eye contact with anyone. They get him.

* * *

When the time seems right, the Weasley twins take to periodically casting a blink-and-you-miss-it illusion spell on Ichigo’s eyes that turn them black and yellow like his hollow eyes. At this point, Umbridge’s sanity takes an abrupt dive from ‘rapidly declining’ to ‘basically nonexistent’. In fact, by the time she decides to sit in on the Fifth Years’ career consultations, she’s being widely described as raving.

The career consultations quickly become legend. Sadly, Ichigo doesn’t get to experience the wonder first-hand, since Umbridge doesn’t come to his. Apparently she’s afraid to be in enclosed spaces with him these days. So for his consultation, he and McGonagall basically just hang out and chat about his plans to go into medicine, and about the differences between regular medicine and magic medicine. Ichigo explains in detail to McGonagall how truly, deeply messed up magical medicine is, and she laughs at his pain. It’s fun.

Nobody else has fun, though, because Umbridge goes to all their meetings. Rumor has it that she legitimately freaks out on most of the Gryffindors, maybe half the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws, and even a few Slytherins. Potter reports that she got about five minutes into his meeting before diving out of her chair, grabbing his cheeks, and screaming about Sirius Black until McGonagall pried her off and kicked her out of the room.

Potter then demands to know what Ichigo’s laughing about, but Ichigo feels it is not yet time to explain.

The Umbridge situation has gotten dire enough and parents weirded out enough that the Minister actually calls Dumbledore in for a talk about it. When you have to call in the subject of your spying to tell you how your spy is doing, mentally? Yeah, you’ve got a problem.

The Minister’s pain is Ichigo’s gain, though. Dumbledore’s the closest thing to a real adult in this whole castle (which says so much about the place), so with him out of the picture, it’s basically a free-for-all, and Ichigo plans to take ruthless advantage of that.

“I need you to sabotage the entire school day,” Ichigo tells the Weasley twins as soon as Dumbledore exits the building. “Seriously, everything short of death. Unless it’s Umbridge. I don’t care if she dies.”

“You really are disturbing in every way,” George points out, though he sounds unbothered by it. “Why today?”

“Because we’re bringing down the curtain on Umbridge while Dumbledore’s out of the way. Ideally she’ll be in a really unstable state by the end of the day, because at dinner, I want you to wait until she’s looking at me, then cast an illusion to make it look like I’m wearing my mask.”

“If I may ask—what is that mask?” Fred wonders, not for the first time.

“Sure, you can ask.” Ichigo applauds the guy for his persistence. “Will you do it?”

“Of course we’ll do it,” George replies, stung. “We just want to know what you’re trying to accomplish.”

“A really public meltdown,” Ichigo says. “If we’re lucky, she’ll chase me out the door and try to kill me right outside where everyone can hear. Then they’ll have to fire her.”

“Interesting what you consider lucky, young monster,” Fred murmurs thoughtfully.

“I’m a results-oriented guy,” Ichigo informs him.

* * *

The twins are hands-down amazing. When somebody asks them for pandemonium, by god, they deliver. The school is awash in swamps and fireworks and probably hallucinogens in the water, given the things people are getting up to. There are random patches of empty darkness, and also patches of darkness filled with glowing eyes and hollow screams (because apparently the twins find Ichigo’s nightmare of a life inspiring.) They’ve even enlisted the poltergeist to help, not that Ichigo sees it himself, since it refuses to come anywhere near him.

The professors, meanwhile, are earnestly pretending they have no idea how to handle any of this. They may not be real adults, but they, too, are on Ichigo’s current list of favorite people.

It’s the best day Ichigo’s had since he got here. It’s probably the best day anybody’s had since Ichigo got here. Umbridge did a great job pissing off and alienating the last of the student body holdouts with that career day thing, and since the chaos is all clearly Umbridge-directed, even the Slytherins are being good sports about the unfortunate side-effects.

By dinner time, Umbridge is sweaty, hysterical, and genuinely on the feather-edge of madness. Her reaction when the twins cast the hollow mask illusion on Ichigo is everything he hoped for plus a few thrown plates. “Monster!” she shrieks, among other, more incoherent complaints. She goes on for quite a while, actually.

The slight, plastic sensation on Ichigo’s face indicating an illusion-in-progress fades quickly, which is lucky, because everyone turns to look at him the instant after it goes. So no one saw what Umbridge saw, and now it looks like she’s having full-on visual hallucinations.

Although, to be fair, today she would hardly be the only one. The twins are scary.

“You’re surprisingly chatty, aren’t you?” Ichigo interrupts eventually, because he said that once to Ulquiorra and then shared the memory with Umbridge, so he figures she’ll recognize the line, and also that she won’t like it.

She doesn’t, if the howl of rage and terror is anything to go by.

“Those weren’t dreams at all, were they?” Umbridge realizes, outraged. “They were memories. You cursed me to see those memories! You’re a monster! A foul beast!

“Guess you found me out,” Ichigo agrees cheerfully. Seriously, finally she catches on. It’s about time things stopped being boring around here.

“It was you,” Umbridge hisses, foaming at the mouth a little. “Oh, it was you all along! Playing the fool! Pretending not to understand! Oh, I see, I see what you’re up to now, you little—”

“Delores,” McGonagall cuts in uneasily, rising from her chair. “I really don’t think—”

“Silence!” Umbridge shouts, whipping out her wand and waving it at the dining hall in general, the whites of her eyes showing all the way around. “Don’t you see? Don’t you see what he’s done? He’s in league, yes, in league with Sirius Black!”

Uh. Wow. Okay, so, still missing the entire point, then. Interesting. Does she think foul beasts can’t come up with plans on their own? That they need some pureblood to order them around? …Yeah, that’s probably exactly what she thinks. Man, this lady.

“Oh, come now!” Flitwick tries, and good on him, getting the voice of reason out there.

“You will be silent!” Umbridge screams, because no one ever listens to the voice of reason. She throws a shield around herself and aims her wand at Ichigo, who holds his hands up in the most non-threatening style he can manage. This isn’t going quite the way he wanted. Like, he wanted her to crack, but he thought she’d have a little more restraint than to do it right here in a dining hall full of kids. (In retrospect, what the hell was he thinking? She’s never shown any signs of giving a fuck about student lives before.)

So he’s in a stupid position and it’s mostly his fault; Rukia will be so unimpressed when she hears about this. In a mostly futile attempt to minimize the damage, he moves away from the tables and into the middle of the hall. Unfortunately, he still can’t dodge anything Umbridge throws at him for fear it’ll hit some kid behind him. He really should’ve lured her out into the hallway before he tried the mask on her. Hindsight—so useless.

“As for you,” Umbridge hisses. “Crucio!

In the instant before he discovers first-hand what crucio means, Ichigo thinks, So you can fire spells through those shields! Potter really needs to learn how to do that.

And then the spell hits him and there’s nothing but pain. It feels like worms are eating his soul chain, it feels like fighting Kenpachi, it feels like Ulquiorra sticking a hand in his chest.

Ah, he thinks with the tiny part of his mind that isn’t howling in agony. This again.

* * *

Minerva wishes with all her heart that Delores hadn’t had the presence of mind to put up a shield before she started torturing Kurosaki in front of the entire school. It will take time to get it down, and by then, Kurosaki will be…

Well, she has no idea what state Kurosaki will be in. She has no idea what the Cruciatus Curse does to soul reapers. But whatever it is, it can’t be good, to judge from all the screaming.

“How long?” she asks Severus, who grimaces, which isn’t encouraging.

“Five minutes at best,” he tells her.

Five minutes of the Cruciatus. She wonders what effect that has on a mind. “We’ll have to do better than that,” she decides.

“I’m open to suggestions,” Severus snaps.

At this point, Delores pauses momentarily, presumably to check on how her torture is progressing. Ichigo remains on the ground where he’s collapsed, which is the first sensible thing he’s done all evening.

Longbottom is screaming, Minerva registers distantly. But of course he would be.

“Well, traitor,” Delores cries, obviously unhinged—not that this is a new development, but it’s never taken the form of flagrant use of Unforgiveables before. “What do you have to say for yourself now?

Incredibly, Kurosaki laughs. A very unsettling laugh, too—it’s a bit maniacal, and has a strange, cold echo behind it; not like his usual laugh at all. Nearly everyone takes a nervous step back. Eventually he stops laughing, props himself up on his elbows, and meets Delores’s eyes, utterly unafraid. “Ow,” he offers.

The boy has no sense of self-preservation whatsoever.

Delores turns positively purple with rage. “Ow?” she hisses. “Ow?

“What did you want me to say?” Kurosaki asks, struggling to stand. “It’s not like I’m sorry for anything. Oh, and it wasn’t Black messing with your stuff, just so you know. It was me.”

Minerva hopes Kurosaki knows what he’s doing, but she doubts it very much.

“Three minutes and I’m through,” Severus murmurs quietly.

“No,” Delores insists. “Impossible! No child could’ve done that, not even a monster child—no, it’s lies. You’re protecting that blood traitor! Sticking together, aren’t you, all of the same bad blood.”

“Whatever, lady,” Kurosaki mutters, now on his feet, but wobbling slightly. “Potter, toss me a stick.”

“But she’s got a shield up, Ichigo,” Granger argues, frantic. “You can’t just go charging through a shield! Especially not when you’re recovering from the Cruciatus Curse!”

“I can’t?” Kurosaki asks idly, catching the stick that Potter, bless him, tossed over with no questions asked. Actually, it’s a mop, but Kurosaki seems pleased with it. Whatever he’s planning to do with it. “Funny. I thought I could.” He angles the mop against the ground and stomps on it, breaking off the head. And suddenly the air turns somehow…thick. Oppressive. To an alarming degree. Minerva sees that most of the younger students have fallen to the floor, and she’s not sure how much longer she can remain upright herself.

“I thought soul reapers weren’t supposed to interfere with the living,” Severus grates out, clearly struggling, himself.

“Well, he is using a stick, not a sword,” Minerva gasps back to him. “I believe he’s attempting to do this the way a human would. It’s possible he hasn’t even noticed this…”

This,” Severus agrees, resigned. “And a fine excuse that will be if he manages to kill us all.”

“Oy, Ichigo,” Ron Weasley calls out weakly. “I dunno what you’re doing, mate, but…you’re kinda flattening us over here.”

“Oh.” Kurosaki looks sheepish, and the weight vanishes as if it had never been. Everyone gasps for air. “Sorry about that.”

“Monster,” Umbridge growls, wand at the ready. “Half-breed. Freak! Crucio!

Kurosaki moves just enough that the spell misses him and hits the mop handle, scorching it slightly, and then he seems almost to blur out of existence, he moves so quickly. He slams into Delores’s shield at a run, and it crumples around him like tissue paper. It is utterly unbelievable.

Incarcerous,” Minerva, Severus, and Filius all cry in unison, and Delores drops to the floor, bound beyond the ability to move more than her eyelids. And her mouth, unfortunately, but Severus puts a stop to that with a quick stupefy, cast in a tone of such malicious satisfaction that Minerva knows he must’ve been daydreaming about this moment for months. Good to find she wasn’t the only one.

Kurosaki turns to face the teachers with a downright disappointed expression. “I had her,” he complains.

Minerva grabs Severus’s wand hand before he can round out the evening by hexing Kurosaki.

* * *

Cornelius Fudge had not been having a good day even before he was strong-armed into making a humiliating apology trip to Hogwarts with Dumbledore. In fact, the past several months of his life have left a great deal to be desired. It was one thing when the mud—ah, muggleborn students started complaining about Delores. That was only to be expected, really, but it wasn’t as if their parents had a vote, was it? Of course not. So any unpleasantness in that camp could safely be ignored.

The half-blood students had been more alarming, having at least one vote attached to each of them. Voters who suddenly took to writing Cornelius in an increasingly—even alarmingly—hostile manner.

When Lucius Malfoy came to the office to question Cornelius’s judgment in permitting a violently unstable woman to educate his heir, it became clear that the situation had spiraled entirely out of control.

Really, though, Cornelius has worked with Delores for years and found her perfectly reasonable. Very strict in her beliefs, certainly, but that could only have been a positive when it came to the embarrassing Potter situation. A little biased, perhaps, on her pet topics, but honestly—who isn’t? Her quirks weren’t enough to cause a scandal. Or so Cornelius had believed.

Given that she’s evidently taken to cursing children—pureblooded children—in the hallways, it would appear he was painfully wrong about that. Perhaps children are a particular weakness of hers. He’s never seen her around children, so he couldn’t possibly have known that, no matter what various parents have taken to screaming at him in ever escalating tones. This is not his fault!

He is, however, being forced to take responsibility for it, as the conference with that blasted Dumbledore has made abundantly clear. After explaining the situation in considerable, unnecessary detail—gleeful detail, one might say—Dumbledore suggested (ordered, really, the sheer nerve of the man) that Cornelius make a conciliatory sort of visit to the school, to sack poor Delores in person and reassure the student body, or some such rot.

He really would have thought that students who could withstand Argus Filch for years would be strong enough to handle a couple of terms with a reputable Ministry employee, but no, evidently not. Instead, they’ve all run crying to their parents, thereby engendering a political disaster.

Cornelius is convinced Dumbledore is silently gloating at him the entire trip to the school. And why shouldn’t he be? One year of bad press is hardly enough to make a dent in the reputation of the Great Albus Dumbledore. It certainly won’t be enough to save Cornelius from this mess. Dumbledore has every right to gloat.

By the time they make it to the Great Hall, Cornelius’s only remaining hope for the evening is that he’ll get a decent meal once he’s dismissed Delores and given his miserable apology speech. It quickly becomes clear, however, that even that hope is too ambitious. He doubts he’ll be allowed any sort of dinner at all. Not when they step through the doors to find the students on their feet and shouting, the professors on their feet and on guard, and Delores bound and unconscious on the floor.

He is seriously considering not running for another term.

* * *

Dumbledore, predictably, rolls in after the action’s over and takes charge like he has a right. He magically seals the doors to the Great Hall, thereby trapping all the witnesses, and starts making the rounds and interrogating everybody. And all the kids (and even the professors) go back to their tables and obediently sit and wait, like everything must be fine now that Dumbledore’s back. It’s annoying. On the upside, Dumbledore brought along some little round guy who’s loudly panicking and careening from person to person like a malfunctioning Rumba, waving his hands in the air and babbling incoherently. Dumbledore should get some credit, Ichigo guesses, for providing the after-party entertainment.

Or at least the guy’s entertaining until Dumbledore introduces him as the Minister for Magic, at which point Ichigo has to deal with the fact that this dude is seriously running the magical government.

…Actually, it explains a lot.

“Minerva tells me we have you to thank for apprehending poor Delores,” Dumbledore says to Ichigo, because he can’t be straightforward to save his life.

“You’re welcome,” Ichigo replies, refusing to engage.

“Assault on a Ministry official!” the Minister burbles in distress.

“She assaulted me first,” Ichigo points out blandly, declining to admit that he’d spent months goading her into it. “And there a ton of witnesses who’ll back me up on that. Some of them even have ‘Noble and Ancient’ tacked on the front of their family names.” Ichigo’s wise to the ways of politicians.

The Minister makes a gratifying wheezing noise and shuts up.

“It does seem a bit outside your job description,” Dumbledore points out.

“What, self-defense?”

Dumbledore gives Ichigo a severe look that suggests he’s a lot less stupid than the Minister, and Ichigo should not even try that bullshit on him.

Ichigo sighs. “Nobody gave me orders on exactly how to go about bodyguarding, sir.” Not that he would’ve listened if they had. “She was a threat, and this was the best I could do from inside the castle.”

“What?” asks the Minister, wide eyes darting from Ichigo to Dumbledore and back. “What is he saying, Dumbledore? Bodyguarding? Whose bodyguard is he meant to be?”

“Oh, whose do you think, you silly man?” McGonagall snaps impatiently, because she is the greatest.

“If you were only working inside the castle,” Dumbledore says slowly, blatantly ignoring the Minister’s increasing hysteria, “then were your…teachers…working outside the castle?”

With suspiciously perfect timing, Yoruichi and Urahara take this moment to burst through the doors of the Great Hall, presumably shredding fifteen magical wards in the process. Yoruichi’s dragging something behind her, Ichigo sees. A body, in fact. The body of a guy with no nose and kind of snake-like features.

Potter gasps in shock and jumps to his feet. “Voldemort!”

There are sympathetic, echoing gasps from all around the room.

So that’s Tom Riddle. He looks very, very dead. Also bloody, and not the kind of thing you want to see in a room where you habitually eat food. His body’s leaving a shiny blood trail across the dining hall floor; no one will ever feel hungry here again.

Yoruichi drags the corpse right up to the Gryffindor table and drops it at Potter’s feet, enormously pleased with herself. Ichigo sometimes wonders if she’s actually a cat who can turn into a human, rather than the other way around.

“Yoruichi-san,” Ichigo says into the awful silence. “I’m sure there were better, less traumatizing ways to handle this.”

“What?” she demands, folding her arms and looking annoyed. “Voldemort is dead, Potter’s safe, and everybody knows Potter was right all along. I call this mission a complete success.”

That’s the moment the silence tips over the edge, and the entire hall explodes into chaos. There’s screaming, there’s babbling, there’s crying, there’s bellowing for order. It is not a smooth finale to a mission, Ichigo doesn’t care how Yoruichi wants to spin it.

Urahara is just laughing like this is the most fun he’s had in years. It probably is, the sick twist.

In the general disorder, most people don’t notice Tom twitching and starting to sit up, but Ichigo, Yoruichi, and Urahara do, because they’re trained to notice things like that, and Potter and Neville do, because Tom’s sprawled out right in front of them. The boys are the first to act—they dive over the table, and Neville stabs Tom in the gut while Potter stabs him in the throat. He’s for damn sure dead now.

Ichigo’s proud of the response time on that—he’s trained the kids well. Also, it’s lucky they were serving steak for dinner tonight, because that attack wouldn’t have worked with a dull knife. Or a fork.

The Hall’s fallen silent again, and everyone’s staring at Potter and Neville, who look pretty freaked out, themselves.

“This is why everyone tells you not to play with your food,” Ichigo informs Yoruichi, who shrugs unrepentantly. The thing with her is, when she’s on a job, she’s utterly professional, and swift and decisive kills are a part of that. But when she’s decided it’s all fun and games, she…yeah, she definitely plays with her food.

“He was mostly dead,” she drawls, like Ichigo’s being unreasonable.

So Tom was mostly dead, and then Potter helped kill him. Seems like too much of a coincidence, really. “Hey, Dumbledore,” Ichigo calls, turning back to the high table. “Think this was your prophecy being met? Because the whole thing seems kind of, you know. Destiny.”

Dumbledore nods, looking numb and shocked and pale. When, really, shouldn’t he be happy right now? Guy’s never happy when he should be happy. “Told you you didn’t need to worry about it,” Ichigo continues, which, perversely, makes the old man look even worse. Weird.

Just then, the collective shocked pause comes to an end, and the Great Hall descends into chaos yet again. Figuring that’s the end of rational discussion for the moment, Ichigo wanders over to the Gryffindor table to kick Tom a few times and make extra sure he’s actually dead.

* * *

It’s a long day, the day Tom gets killed. Everybody has the fun experience of getting interrogated by magic cops, hassled by Ministry officials, and accosted by random, grim-faced assholes wearing all black whose attitudes Ichigo does not appreciate. It doesn’t help that they seem to hate him right back with interest. The fuck is their problem?

It’s midnight before the whole thing gets wrapped up, so everyone’s tired as hell, and Ichigo still has to deal with the kids and their undoubtedly lousy reactions to him leaving. He should probably wait until morning to bail, but he refuses to spend another night in this miserable school if he doesn’t have to. It’ll be such a relief to be back home, where people have a more reasonable attitude toward property damage and don’t get hysterical over every little thing.

“Wait up,” he calls to his former bodyguardees. “I’ve got a couple things to tell you before I let you go to bed.” He notices that the instant he calls out, all the remaining students start blatantly eavesdropping. He expects this sort of thing from the Slytherins and Ravenclaws, but the Hufflepuffs? For shame.

“Things to tell us?” Granger repeats dazedly. It’s nice when she’s confused. Makes her almost not terrifying to be around.

“Yeah. For one thing, keep up your training,” Ichigo warns them. “Tom may be dead, but all his minions are still free and looking for trouble. And also revenge. Potter and Neville did technically kill the guy.”

Neville beams proudly, as he should, while Potter mutters, “Technically,” unhappily to himself.

“You’re supposed to be Harry’s bodyguard,” says Granger, who must be feeling better because she’s back to acting hostile and suspicious. “Won’t you be protecting him from Death Eaters?”

“Nope,” Ichigo announces happily. “I was only a temporary bodyguard. My job was to protect Potter from Tom, and Tom’s dead, so I’m done. I’m not supposed to mess with the living too much, anyway.”

Ron coughs something that sounds distinctly like Umbridge. If he doesn’t have the guts to say it out loud, though, Ichigo doesn’t feel the need to answer him.

“So you’re…abandoning us, basically,” Potter says, stunned.

Ichigo considers this. “Basically,” he agrees. “You’ll be fine, though. Probably.”

“You…you…” Potter trails off into a cry of rage and attacks Ichigo with the still-bloody steak knife he used to kill Tom. Kind of troubling that he refuses to let go of the thing. Ichigo debates the merits of taking it away from him for his own good.

“Mr. Potter, what are you doing?” McGonagall demands, shocked.

“Stab his eyes out, Potter!” Malfoy screams from the Slytherin table.

Ichigo’s glad to see he hasn’t lost his knack for bringing people together. Also, Potter’s gotten a lot faster. Always nice to see improvement.

* * *

Once his housemates have forcibly taken Potter’s knife away and dragged him off to bed, the rest of the goodbyes go fairly smoothly. McGonagall beams at Ichigo almost as much as Snape scowls at him, while Dumbledore still looks too upset and confused to really be processing anything. And the remaining Defense club kids actually seem sad to see Ichigo go. A few even hug him, which he’s pretty sure shouldn’t be allowed.

The Slytherins mostly pretend to ignore him, but the Nott kid waves with a little smirk, and Greengrass gives him a genuine smile, which is frightening.

The Grey Lady oozes out of a wall, smiles and nods at him, and then oozes back into the wall. Ghosts. But at least she’s happy.

Luna gives him her mailing address and tells him to write whenever he’s not busy destroying other people’s belongings and/or perceptions of reality. She proudly informs him that the muggle postman can find her house every single day but Wednesday. He carefully doesn’t ask for any details on that. It does remind him, though, that he needs to hunt down Luna’s mom and explain some things to her, because the whole Lovegood situation is way too depressing as it stands.

The Weasley twins don’t accost him until he’s left the hall, because they are the sneakiest of the Gryffindors. Yoruichi and Urahara see them coming and beam happily. Obviously they can spot their own kind. They wave at the twins and tell Ichigo they’ll wait for him outside, then they saunter out into the night through what’s left of the main doors. The main doors, which appear to have recently been hit by a missile, or something of similar destructive power.

The twins stare longingly after them. Ichigo’s pretty sure they’re the twins’ idols, which is terrifying.

“Will we be seeing you around?” Fred asks hopefully once it’s just the three of them.

“Not anytime soon if you’re lucky,” Ichigo admits.

“Shame,” George says, seeming honestly sad, which is a surprise, given the whole ‘you’re my worst nightmare’ conversation.

“You were the best entertainment we’ve had in years,” Fred agrees. “Our lives will be so empty now. We may quit school, because honestly, what’s the point?”

They seem upsettingly serious about that. It’s weird to see them anything approaching sad, and Ichigo finds he doesn’t like it.

He really isn’t supposed to tell living people about his job. But then again, the twins are…well, as Urahara would say, they’re outstanding at other people’s secrets. It’ll cheer them up, they already know more than they should, and Ichigo’s always been lousy at obeying the rules. So what the hell.

“When you die,” Ichigo tells them, “move on. Don’t hang around here; you’ll just turn into Peeves or something, and it’ll bore you. Anyway, I think you’ll like the afterlife. Sure, it can suck, but parts of it are…I mean, you guys were made for the Twelfth Division.” Ichigo pauses to consider. “Maybe try to learn some Japanese.”

“…The afterlife,” Fred repeats carefully.

“You told us you don’t know what happens to people when they die,” George accuses.

“I lied.” Ichigo shrugs unapologetically. “Twelfth Division. Try to remember that.”

“Hang on. Hang on.” Fred holds up a hand, exchanging a stunned glance with George. “Among the many, many other things wrong with this conversation—if the afterlife is where everyone who’s ever died goes, it must be huge. How are we even meant to find this…Twelfth Division? Especially if it’s for Japanese people.”

“Well…head for the district where the politicians live and ask around for me, I guess.”

“Because everybody knows about you in the afterlife,” George says incredulously.

“The politicians all do, I bet. Politicians don’t like me. And the researchers know me because I’m such a...an anomaly. So yeah. Find me, and I’ll get you a place in the Twelfth Division.” Hopefully Kurotsuchi will be dead by then. Ichigo bets he can talk Ishida into making that so. If not, he can definitely talk the twins into making it so.

“So the mask thing…?” Fred asks in fascination.

“I’ll tell you when you’re dead,” Ichigo replies.

“And he really means that,” George murmurs wonderingly, shaking his head.

“Ichigo,” Fred declares, holding out a hand to shake, “it’s been wild. And for the first time ever, I’m nearly looking forward to death, so thanks for that.”

“Anytime,” Ichigo says, shaking their hands and waving them off. They’re good guys. They almost made this horrible job fun.

Almost, but not quite. Ichigo stretches briefly, as if to shake off the experience, and walks out of Hogwarts, sincerely praying he never has to see the place again.

Well. Maybe he’ll visit the Room of Requirement sometimes.

* * *

“Your Kurosaki ruined everything,” complains a disgruntled soul reaper slumped sullenly in a chair by the fire in his office. He’s the Merlin—Merlin by title, rather than by name or magical inheritance: the head of the British Isles soul reapers. Amusingly, the historical Merlin refuses to have anything to do with him. Goes so far, in fact, as to refuse to die at all, just to avoid him.

Kyoraku Shunsui, Captain Commander of the Japanese soul reapers, sits opposite the Merlin, hands folded over his stomach, smiling benignly. “Did he? Because as far as I can see, he did everything you asked him to do.”

“You knew this would happen,” the Merlin accuses bitterly. “You knew.”

“Now, now. I assigned some of my best people to the job,” Shunsui responds, mildly affronted. “Which means we’re even now, doesn’t it?”

Honestly, a man helps you kill one giant, sea-monster-type Hollow and does a few thousand memory wipes for you afterward, and he thinks he owns you forever.

“They destroyed the Resurrection Stone!”

“Mm. You know how I feel about those experiments of yours. And you know how the former Captain Commander felt.”

“Yes, yes, the living shouldn’t have that kind of power—”

“That kind of power is actively dangerous to the souls of the living. It damages them. As you know.”

“Most souls,” the Merlin reluctantly agrees. “But a precious few souls, it elevates. It would have elevated Harry Potter’s.”

“And to enlighten one soul, you corrupt a thousand,” Shunsui says, his voice dry as sand. “Interesting choice.”

“You ordered them to do this,” the Merlin decides.

Shunsui laughs. “Them? Oh, no. Ordering those three to do anything specific is a waste of breath and a quick way to undermine your own authority. No, they did what they thought was right. Which is just what they always do, regardless of orders, pleas, logical arguments…” He trails off, smiling fondly.

“Weren’t you originally going to choose one of your captains for this job?” the Merlin demands.

“He couldn’t be spared from his duties,” Shunsui says, approximately honestly. Not that it would’ve made much difference either way. If the Merlin thinks he would’ve been happier with the outcome if Toshiro had been the one to go to magic school, he’s tragically mistaken. Toshiro would’ve done nearly the same thing as Ichigo, just with more vicious political maneuvering and fewer outright fights. Shunsui can’t decide whether that would’ve been more fun to watch or not. Each method has its charms. But Toshiro turned the assignment down point blank with extreme prejudice, so Ichigo it had to be.

It’s so nice when they’re still young and naïve and don’t realize they have the right to refuse. It was such a sad day when Toshiro outgrew that stage.

“I could recreate the Resurrection Stone, you know,” the Merlin mutters sulkily, more childish than Ichigo has ever been.

“Of course you could,” Shunsui agrees. “But do you really have the time for that? After all, you let this Voldemort situation blow up in your face; you had to call in outside help to deal with it. After a performance like that, people might start to wonder what it is you’re doing that’s so important it’s keeping you from your duties. And if you begin yet another project, well.” Shunsui beams at the Merlin’s abruptly pale face. “Some parties might suspect that a complete review of all your extracurricular activities is in order. What do you think?”

Apparently the Merlin thinks that he should thank Shunsui for all of his help, declare their debts cancelled, and hastily show him out.

There, Shunsui thinks with satisfaction as the Merlin’s office door slams shut behind him. That’ll teach the pushy brat to be more careful about calling in favors.