Hey everyone! How have you been? Good I hope! Thanks to all those who reviewed, it really makes my day to read them all.
I have to say, I'm probably just as surprised as you that this is actually an update.
Thanks to everyone who contacted me through PM'ing or Tumblr during the hiatus. Even you, mysterious commenter, who insulted my honour, and set a curse upon my house.
He yawned tiredly as he settled back down, hoping to catch a few more hours of sleep before he needed to get up. He slowly drifted off again with the sound of laughter still quietly ringing in his ears.
News broke over breakfast on Monday that Angelina had offered Ginny the now open Seeker's one had really expected that, but upon further thought it wasn't all the surprising; anyone close to her knew that she was a talented all around player, able to give her elder brothers a run for their money. It went unsaid that Ginny had accepted.
"I'm happy for her," Harry said, stabbing a piece of bacon viciously with his fork. And maybe he was, but he sure as hell didn't look it and judging by the way Ginny was avoiding their section of the table she'd certainly noticed the tension bleeding off the teen.
"She's brilliant," he continued as his fork screeched shrilly against his plate. "She'll be bloody brilliant."
"Why don't you go talk to Dumbledore?" Ron suggested; wincing as Harry tossed his fork down with a loud clatter.
"The man won't even look at me. You think I'm going to go right up and talk to him?"
The redhead shrugged, looking back to his own food as Hermione sent a sympathetic look in his direction. She'd been smart enough to keep out of it, paying more attention to her newspaper than the angst that was happening across from her; when Harry was in a mood it was best to plough through it and hope for the best.
"Don't take out your frustrations on Ron," Toshiro said flatly as he stirred his tea, hoping the caffeine would help perk him up. "If there's something to be done about this, it certainly isn't that."
"So what should I do, oh great protector? What do you suppose is the answer?"
The taicho rolled his eyes as he calmly set aside his teaspoon. "I think that considering it's almost Christmas break, you should relax, take some time to regroup, and come back in January ready to fight it."
"She banned me for life!"
"So I've heard," he answered blandly. "I trust you'll still be banned for life after the holidays. So calm down before you manage to give yourself an aneurysm."
Harry looked affronted for a moment before he sighed, all the anger seeming to slip out of him. "I'm sorry. I- it's not that I'm mad at you all. It's just frustrating. I can't stand her. And she's taking everything good away."
"It is frustrating," Toshiro agreed. "But, this isn't a time for arguing amongst the ranks. Besides, we have other things to worry about at the moment."
"Umbridge is evaluating Hagrid today," Hermione said at Harry and Ron's confused looks. "And in case you were wondering, He didn't care to accept my help on drawing up a lesson plan."
"Bloody hell. He's doomed," Ron groaned, his head banging down onto the table with a clatter of cutlery.
While Ron and Harry had spent the weekend catching up on their schoolwork, Hermione had spent the better part of Sunday trying to convince Hagrid to follow a sure fire lesson plan that she had made for Umbridge's evaluation. Obviously, it hadn't gone so well.
"You'll have to prepare yourselves for the possibility that he'll be asked to leave," Toshiro said. "But you've also got to remember that Dumbledore won't abandon him. Once everything is settled, he'll be able to come back."
"That's if everything is settled," Ron grumbled.
"Things are in the works," the taicho promised him.
"I still don't get why you get to be in the Order and we don't," the redhead complained.
"I'm over one hundred and twenty years old, I've been tasked with your protection, and I have previous military experience," Toshiro told him succinctly. "What's not to get? This isn't some isolated struggle anymore. It's a war, which none of you have any idea how to deal with- and frankly, you shouldn't. If I can do my part to prevent you from getting involved, then I have an obligation...as your friend," he added hesitantly.
He knew that Neville was his friend- his best- and Luna was a close second, but he'd never been sure where he stood with the others. They had a way of closing themselves off from everyone else. He knew they didn't hate him- he knew Harry sometimes disliked him, but being friends meant more than toleration. Acquaintances might be more apt, he thought in hindsight.
"Was that a question, or a statement?" Ron joked as he shoved aside a basket of scones.
"You are our friend, Toshiro," Hermione assured him. "And you wanting to protect us is a nice sentiment. But we don't need your protection. This isn't your war- it's not your fight. And we won't drag you into it."
Toshiro stared into the depths of his tea, almost wishing that were true. Things would be so much simpler— he cut off that line of thought, knowing only frustration and regret lay down that path. He had time for neither.
"I'm already neck deep," he told her as he roughly set down his cup, ignoring how the earl grey sloshed over the sides.
"It's a little too late for that now."
Hagrid's class was, of course, an unmitigated disaster. Of all the creatures he could use- there were literally hundreds available to him that were year appropriate and ministry approved- he picked the Thestrals that the class had only briefly been exposed to in their third year. The undead horses flocked to the raw meat that Hagrid had used as a lure, a few straying closer to the group of teenagers, many of the students shying away, unable to see, but able to sense that something was there.
Toshiro shooed a young one away as it nipped at the hem of his sleeve, tugging him towards its mother.
"This is going to be awful," Hermione said, her face lined with worry as she watched Hagrid try to tempt some students closer.
Umbridge had arrived late, but Toshiro noticed when she slunk in amongst the students milling at the edge of the forest- the ones too spooked to go near. She floated from group to group, her grating voice drifting over to his ears as she twisted the words of the well meaning few and encouraged the discontented to air their complaints.
Harry was gritting his teeth, trying to ignore her as she made her rounds.
"Just let it go," Toshiro said, grabbing Harry's wrist to stop him from marching over to her. "Leave it."
It was a painful thing, to watch her and Hagrid's interaction; nerves, his normal bumbling personality, and unpreparedness, were his ultimate downfall.
"It's like watching a train wreck." Neville leaned over to whisper in his ear. "It's gruesome, but I can't bloody well look away."
"I've watched men be executed with more grace than this," Toshiro nodded, grimacing as he listened to Hagrid fumble yet another answer to one of Umbridge's loaded questions.
"Exec- you know, I'm not going to ask."
"Better not to, I imagine."
It was definitely one of the most painful things he'd ever watched that hadn't involved intestines pouring out of places where they shouldn't be pouring out of. Many of the Slytherins were watching it like a blood sport, but even those who generally begged for Hagrid's resignation were wincing occasionally.
Neville jumped, startled as Umbridge simpered from behind her clipboard, having appeared suddenly behind his shoulder
"Do you feel that you are being properly educated by this...man?"
"Well- uh, yes? Yes. I-I do," He stammered, never doing well when put on the spot.
"It's alright to tell the truth, dear," Umbridge said encouragingly.
Toshiro crossed his arms, glaring up at her.
"I am. I swear. Hagrid's great- I mean, Professor Hagrid. He's...got a unique teaching style that's...enjoyable."
"Right," she drawled, scratching something onto her paper. "And I suppose you must love being taught by someone you have...something in common with, Mr. Hitsugaya."
When the whole thing was finally over, Hagrid looked dazed and Umbridge pleased, while anyone who remotely liked their professor appeared to all be fighting the urge to bash their heads in on a tree. However, it was Hermione's sad resignation that stood apart from the pack. He could see it in her eyes: the disappointment, and maybe a dash of anger. She'd tried, after all, to help Hagrid. Taken the time to draw up a lesson plan for him and walk him through it.
As the class began to clear of the forest and make their way back up the grounds he strode over to where Hagrid was wiping his hands on some ragged terrycloth with a downtrodden look.
"I hope you're happy with yourself," Toshiro hissed up at the half giant.
"Well, now," Hagrid started, looking offended.
"Don't start," the taicho growled, eyes flashing. "You're going to be fired, and it's no one's fault but your own. But, do you know who won't see it that way? Hermione. If I were in charge I'd—
He inhaled deeply, reigning in his temper as he watched the grass at his feet frost over. "Well, I'm not in charge, so that doesn't matter," he amended. "But I hope you're satisfied with what you've done."
Hagrid had the good sense to look guilty. "I couldn' jus' change who I am for her," he sighed, shoving the cloth into his pant pocket. "If ya' change yourself for everyone who doesn't like ya' or has a problem with ya'...well, before ya' know it, ya' won't know who's lookin' back at you from the mirror. I'm a lotta' things, Toshiro. But I'm not ashamed a' who or what I am."
The taicho considered the half giant for a moment, before huffing as he gave a nod, his shoulder slumping.
"I get it, but she doesn't. So you'd better explain it to her," he said gently, toeing at the frozen blades of grass at his feet.
"I will," Hagrid said, giving him a sad smile. "Before they sack me—
"They might not—
"We both know they will. But, I'd rather be fired fer' somethin' I am, than kept on fer' somethin' I'm not."
Toshiro nodded as he ran a hand through his hair. "Your students are going to miss you."
Hagrid made a face that said he thought otherwise as he grabbed his bag and they started walking in the general direction of his cabin.
"They will," Toshiro assured him. "It's just that the ones that matter will be too shy to tell you so."
Of all the teachers at Hogwarts, Hagrid had been the only one to ever reach out to him on an individual level- to make any real effort to get to know him. And maybe Toshiro had never really needed it, far passed the point where the comments and attitude that his hair and looks garnered gave him any real trouble. But there had been, and would be, plenty of students who'd needed that special attention that Hagrid had given them.
"You're a good man, Hagrid," Toshiro told him as they stood together on the edge of the Forbidden Forrest, the Thestrals grazing around them, watching the students disappear up the grassy hills towards the castle.
"A very good man."
Between the Order, worrying over Hagrid, the DA, classes, and teenage drama which Toshiro tried his best to avoid but somehow still got tangled in, Christmas managed to sneak up on him. Neville had had to walk right into a decorated tree that was hovering in the hallway before either of them even realised that the season was upon them.
"I haven't even thought about gifts," Neville groaned as he pulled pine needles out from the stitching of his sweater.
"You'll think of something," Toshiro told him as he plied a stray needle from the back of Neville's shoulder. "And you don't need to think about getting me anything this year. I've had no time to think of gifts either. We don't need to exchange gifts this year."
"Would be a mite easier."
"Then it's settled."
They shook on it and that was that.
"I don't know what to get Neville for Christmas."
Hermione looked up from the essay she'd spent the day working on. Ron and Harry were off playing a pickup game of Quidditch with some of the other Gryffindors who'd made the collective decision to pull Harry out of his funk before his angst ruined the entire holiday season.
"Didn't you just say that you agreed to not exchange gifts this year?"
"Yes, but I've still got to get him something," Toshiro sighed, wracking his brain for ideas as he collapsed back into his chair cushion. Maybe Matsumoto would come up with something. She was nothing if not imaginative when it came to gifts.
"Since when am I the premiere source of information on gift giving etiquette?" he drawled, picking idly at a stray dot of ink that had coagulated on the wooden tabletop. "It doesn't matterwhat we said. We're both still getting each other something. It's just- it's how it's done."
"Right...Well, you could always make him something," she suggested as she flipped through one of the reference books she was using.
"I'm hardly crafty."
The last time he'd made anyone anything had been his grandmother back when he was still a small child. And even then he'd thought it looked like utter trash.
"Bake him something? I'm sure Dobby would let you into the kitchens for a few hours."
"I don't bake. Or cook."
"There's got to be something you're good at making."
"Unless he wants a cup of tea or a bowl of rice, I'm out of luck."
Hermione set aside her quill and closed her book in order to give him her undivided attention, however put upon she might've looked.
"Alright. You could...buy him a book? I'm sure there are some catalogues around in the library. You could have Madame Prince order away for you."
He thought for a moment, considering the idea. "Well...he has wanted a new book on plants from mountainous regions that thrive in humid conditions."
"That sounds wonderful," she said with a smile.
"It really doesn't, but your enthusiasm, however false, is appreciated."
"I don't know what to get Toshiro for Christmas."
They were walking down the lawns towards the pitch, Dean, Seamus and Harry ahead of them laughing. Seamus and Potter had apparently mended fences, even if it seemed to be mostly because Dean could be a stubborn bastard.
Ron frowned. "Didn't you just say you weren't going to do that this year?"
"Yes," he answered slowly, as if the answer was obvious. "But it was a lie. We're both going to get each other something, and I've got to figure out what."
"How do you kno—
"I just do," Neville said, frustrated. "It's how gift giving works. You both say you don't need anything; 'don't bother'. But you both get each other something anyway."
"If you ask me," Ron started, looking flabbergasted. "That's a lot more bloody complicated than—
"I need to figure out what to get him."
"An ice cube?" the redhead suggested cheekily. "A popsicle? A snowball?"
"That stopped being funny after the first year," Neville told him.
"I don't know. I think it's still got enough life in it for another year at least."
"It really doesn't."
"Everyone's a critic."
"You're really not helping."
"Well, I don't know," Ron shrugged. "Get him some new flavours of tea? That's all I ever see him have without looking like he's going to toss it all over the table."
"He doesn't really like pumpkin juice..."
"Yeah," the other teen laughed, almost tripping into a gofer hole. Neville grabbed his shoulder, helping to steady him. "I got that when he spat it right back into his cup."
"The gagging was sort of a clue I suppose."
"So get him some tea. He'll like that. Not exactly a picky bloke when it comes to gifts I bet. Probably not expecting much, anyway."
Neville heaved a sigh. "Well, I guess it'll just have to do."
"What about Luna?"
Harry collapsed onto the couch in front of the fire, ignoring the glare Toshiro sent his way he as was almost unseated. Being outside in the cold for most of the day had left him achy and tired, the warmth of the common room burning his nose and ears. They'd called their game for dinner, but now that Ron and Hermione were busy decorating the castle, he was at a loose end.
"You could always go and help them if you're that bored," the white haired boy suggested as he calmly turned the page of the book he was reading.
"It's meant to only be the Prefects."
"Never thought you'd be one to follow the rules."
It wasn't so much about the rules as him not wanting to seem desperate or clingy. Which he wasn't. They'd both been busy lately with their duties, running back and forth between meetings and class and back again. It was the first time they'd done something that he couldn't be a part of and it'd be a lie to say it wasn't chaffing.
"Where's Neville?" Harry asked, not used to seeing one without the other.
"How should I know," Toshiro said absentmindedly. "He said he'd be back in time for the meeting."
It was going to be the last DA meeting before the Christmas Holiday and they'd planned a bit of a party. People were going to bring all the contraband food they could manage and they were going to crank up some music and have a great time once they finished practicing. It was sort of a depressing thought- everyone would be heading home on Saturday, Ron back to the Burrow, and Hermione to ski with her parents. Which just left him-
"Hey, what are you doing over the holidays?" he asked, looking over at the other Gryffindor curiously.
"That depends," Toshiro said. "What are you doing for the holidays?"
"Then, I'm staying here."
"Oh God, you're stuck with me over Christmas?" Harry groaned, feeling a bit sorry for him.
"I know. Woe is me. But alas, I shall just have to suffer through," the other smirked from behind his book.
"Might not be so bad," Harry told him, perking up a bit at the thought. "I mean, better the two of us than being all alone during the Holidays. Depressing situation, that is."
"If I normally celebrated Christmas I might feel the same, but regardless, I've resigned myself to being your talisman against loneliness."
"It'll be good," Harry told him assuredly. "A lot of the teachers stay too and there's a dinner for everyone. Can be a little odd, but it's still pretty fun."
"You don't need to convince me, Potter," Toshiro laughed as he turned a page. "I'm staying either way, but I appreciate the effort."
Harry shrugged off Toshiro's nonchalance. "Is your friend Ran staying too?"
"As a matter of fact, she is."
"Wouldn't mind getting to know her," Harry said hopefully.
Rumours about their 'relationship' were still a hot topic- well, when Toshiro wasn't around to hear. Apparently she was pretty popular; had managed to wrangle herself a group of friends that consisted of members of the older or more established families. Harry still wasn't sure what was going on between her and Toshiro, but he knew it had to be interesting.
"She feels the same about you, which is exactly why I'm never introducing you. Never the two shall twain. Individually, you're both a handful. Together? I might have to kill one of you," Toshiro said with a smile that promised very painful things.
Harry sighed as he slumped back into the couch. "Never mind."
"That's what I thought."
That night's practice went well, as it almost always did, but Harry was still struck by how quickly everyone was improving. They'd barely been able to form a cloud of mist when they'd first begun practicing their Patronuses, but now he had to watch his feet or he might just be knocked over by a stray dog, horse, or other animal at any given time.
Perhaps the most startling improvement was Neville, who only ever needed a quick-tip here and there to get the hang of whatever they were working on. At this point, Hermione was the only member able to master a spell more quickly, and Neville was giving her a run for her money. And it wasn't just his spell work that was improving, but also his confidence.
Dumbledore's Army had been meant to teach everyone to defend themselves, but Harry couldn't help but look at how everyone was coming out of their shells and making cross-house friendships and think that maybe the group was doing a lot of good in other ways too.
There were tables lining the walls, all of them covered in piles of candy, drinks, and baked goods that everyone had managed to scrounge up despite the tightening contraband rules that Umbridge and her annoying band of volunteers were enforcing. As practice began winding down people slowly began to gravitate towards the tables as drinks were passed out and music picked up from the corner. The entire room was decked in beautiful wreaths, trees, and garlands that sparkled in the torchlight. Harry was almost positive that he'd have never even thought to imagine anything so wonderful for the Room to summon. Whoever's mind that the decorations were spun from obviously had a flare for that sort of thing.
He couldn't help but smile as the room filled with laughter and conversation while he cleaned up some stray cushions. The fire was crackling in the hearth covered with stockings, casting warm light on the couches and chairs that had begun to appear around the area. He tossed a few onto one of the loveseats and went about shoving the rest into their normal places.
"What about you, Harry?" Cho called over to him from where she was standing with everyone congregated around a round table that had appeared in the centre of the room.
"What are your plans for the Holidays?"
Her hair was down today, and it shone in the candle light like silk. Even her eyes were sparkling. Harry felt his heart rate pick up until he was positive that she'd hear it and know that he was a complete fool, nervous just at the sound of her voice.
"W-Well," he stuttered nervously as he shut the cabinet doors. "Toshiro and I are staying here."
"Ron," Hermione suddenly snapped as the twins let out two identical groans, leaning over to smack their brother across the back of the head as Ginny sighed into her cup of butter beer.
"I forgot!" the redhead shouted defensively, ducking out from their reach. "Bloody hell, hitting me on the head isn't going to help me remember anything!"
"Blimey," Fred huffed as he tossed a chocolate at Ron. "Harry, I don't know how you put up with this idiot. You're supposed to come home with us for Christmas."
"Toshiro too," George picked up, leaving the white haired teen looking surprised. "Mum wrote a month ago about it."
Harry stared at them, stunned. Maybe in the back of his mind he'd hoped that he'd be invited. But he hadn't thought it would actually happen.
"I- uh. Forgot," Ron said sheepishly as he rubbed at the spot where his brothers had smacked him. "Sorry."
Harry grabbed himself a butter beer and made his way over to the group. "Well, better late than never, yeah?"
Ron grinned before subtly shoving him over towards where Cho was standing. "Go for it, mate," he hissed quietly, before turning back to Hermione.
Harry took a steadying breath and walked over to where she was waiting, a shy smile on her face as she tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear.
This might just be the greatest night of his year.
Toshiro lurched awake in the darkened dormitory, unsure of what had woken him. He blinked for a moment, the room spinning out around him. He tugged at the hem of the t-shirt he was wearing, pulling it over his head, and tossing it away onto the floor.
It felt like his skin was burning; it was as though the ice that had run through his veins since he'd woken up bathed in the white of Soul Society was melting. His lungs were tight and his tongue was coated with the taste of fire and ash. He could hear the snakes again, the ones that dogged him in his dreams- his nightmares; the sound of their hissing cresting and waning in his ears like waves, muffling whatever was going on around him.
Toshiro toppled out of bed his bed, relishing the grounding feeling of the cold stone floor against his skin as he laid there, trying to work up the will to climb to his feet. He tried to force himself up- could remember all the times his body had told him no, but he'd forced it to move anyway.
He'd never felt a weight like this- crushing- all consuming. There was a commotion coming from the other end of the room, but he could barely hear it over the rushing in his ears.
"What the hell's goin' on?" he asked, his voice sounding slurred even to him, as he tried to get up.
He couldn't remember ever having felt so sick; his heart was thundering in his chest, his stomach churning as he fought down the bile that rose in his throat, and all the while his lungs felt as though there was a band of iron wrapped around them.
His senses were going haywire, blaring in his head that something was wrong. He was freezing in a storm of white and grey- bleeding out in field, his soldiers fighting around him- staring into Aizen's face- falling from the sky- There were suddenly hands on his shoulders, sitting him up and leaning him against the bed. He couldn't- he couldn't pinpoint what was happening; couldn't track the movement of the others in the room with him.
"S'it a Hollow?" he asked whoever was attached to the hot hands now trying to pull him to his feet.
As soon as he said the words he knew he was wrong. No Hollow felt like this- this wrong. He could sense the dark aura in the air- he could practically feel the tainted spirit as if it were a physical force.
Someone was shaking him and Toshiro was startled to find Neville staring down at him. Words spilled from his mouth but all the taicho could hear were the snakes- all he could see were the slits in Neville's eyes- he could feel the scales against his skin.
He reached to his side for Hyorinmaru only to remember that he was hidden away in the trunk at the foot of the bed. There was a scream as the Zanpakuto took shape- people were shouting all around him, but he couldn't be sure about what. His focus was coming back, the droning in his ears beginning to fade as Hyorinmaru's weight settled in his hand. He shoved Neville behind him and spun around dizzily, trying to find the source of the aura, his vision blurring for a moment before it settled on Potter, sitting in his bed as he yelled at Ron about a snake and his father being attacked.
Toshiro scanned the room, taking in the scared faces of the others, the screaming having died down. Or maybe there'd never been any screaming at all. There wasn't any monster- There was only Potter, trembling and covered in his own vomit. Toshiro hesitated for a moment, eyes shifting to him as he took a step towards the bed, Hyorinmaru a familiar weight in his hand after having to hide him away for so long. He was complete; whole again, and now the answer to everything was lying at his feet.
It was coming from Potter.
Everything seemed to click in that moment- the dreams, the sickness, the odd feeling that something was off- it was all Potter; whatever he'd done to himself was leaching of out him and casting off an aura that was partially masked by the magic in the air.
Toshiro shoved Ron aside, the redhead yelping as he noticed the sword. "Holy shi- put that thing away! Merlin! You could kill someone!"
"That's the idea," he told him flatly.
Harry looked up at him and Toshiro saw something flash behind his green eyes. Something...other. He raised Hyorinmaru, frost collecting along the blade.
"What are you?"
The tip of his Zanpakuto came to rest on Potter's chest, ready to plunge through bone and muscle to reach the heart hidden beneath them.
Harry shook his head, terrified, but Toshiro wasn't fooled- could still see something; feel something; hiding inside him. Rotting him from the inside out like a plague upon his soul.
"I'm going to ask you again," he said calmly, pressing against Harry's clothed chest until blood began to bloom across his shirt.
"What are you?"
So yeah. This chapter was always meant to really be a bridge to that last scene, so it took awhile for me to be happy with how it all settled into place. The delay was pretty damn long, and I have university and a faulty laptop that has probably only been in the same province as me for two months over the past year. If anyone is still reading this, I'm very sorry! I've got the rest of this story mapped out, and most of Discontent- which is going to be a lot shorter than the first two instalments due to the nature of the structure I'm going to use. At least, that's what it seems like so far. Time will tell. Thanks for reading,