Happy Earth Day! Here's an update to celebrate.
DISCLAIMER: The works incorporated in this story are the property of Mr. Kubo and Ms. Rowling and their respective publishers. I make no profit from the following, which was done purely for my own entertainment purposes.
IN OTHER WORDS: If you recognize it, it isn't mine. And if you don't recognize it, it still probably isn't mine.
EDIT (4/28/12): New scene added to the end.
WARNING: Now contains minor OCs.
Harry Potter and the God of Death
Chapter the Eighteenth
Breaking and Entering
"This is utterly insane," muttered Hermione, shaking her head of bushy hair. "Mad. If we're caught—"
"But if we aren't," Ron argued, "It'd be a big step—"
"But she's a teacher, we can't just—"
The redhead rolled his eyes. "Hermione, you can't seriously still consider that toad a teacher, can you?"
She hesitated. "I – no, of course not, it's just – stealing—"
"Keep it down," Ichigo murmured, eyeing Dean and Seamus sitting a few spaces away on the long benches. It was lunchtime, and the four of them were seated at the Gryffindor table. "Granger, if you're not feeling up to it, you can always back out now."
"It's not that I'm – that I'm afraid, exactly," Hermione said slowly, "It's just… we'd be going in completely blind. We have no idea what sort of spells she's put on her office. What if there's some sort of ward or curse? Knowing her, it'd be something really nasty," she added darkly.
The other three frowned slightly at this – none of them had considered that possibility. "…Can't have done," Ron replied at last. "Bill says most of those sorts of spells can take days or weeks to set up. Not unless she's got a wardstone, and those are really rare. She wouldn't have had the time for anything too horrible, I reckon."
"But she's a teacher, there must be something – even a Class V ward would alert her if we broke in. What do you think will happen if she catches any one of us near her classroom, right at the time one of those – those awful quills of hers goes missing?" Hermione demanded. "The risk—"
"—Is one we'll have to take," Ichigo said firmly. "There are risks involved with any operation. In this case, though, I'd say the benefits definitely outweigh them." He smirked. "What's she going do to me anyway, put me in detention?"
She bit her lip anxiously. "But what if—"
"I'm in," Harry said softly, interrupting her latest argument. The other three looked at him; he had been quiet ever since Ichigo had first laid his rough plan on the table. He looked up, green eyes determined, and repeated loudly, "I'm in. I say we go for it."
"Seconded," Ron agreed. "Ichigo's right, what've we got to lose? Count me in."
Three pairs of eyes turned to focus on Hermione, who looked distinctly uncomfortable. "I – well, alright," she said. She took a deep, shuddering breath. "I'll – I'll help. However I can."
"Good." Ichigo leaned forward in his seat, glancing up and down the table for any eavesdroppers. Finding none, he continued, "Now, the first thing we'll need is…"
"I need your help."
Fred raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
Ron's ears turned pink. "I'm serious."
"I'll bet you are," George muttered, accepting a single gold coin from a sixth-year Ravenclaw. He palmed the galleon, slipping it neatly into a hidden seam on the inside of his sleeve while the Ravenclaw walked away, a rolled-up Extendable Ear tucked into her pocket. He smiled brightly as the next customer cautiously approached. The two of them had set up 'shop' in the narrow alleyway between Greenhouses Four and Five. Within moments, silver had once again changed hands and another student – Hufflepuff, this time – slunk away back toward the castle, a fake, rubber-chicken wand securely hidden in his school bag.
Ron rolled his eyes. "Seriously. I need your help. I need to make a distraction big enough to keep everyone's attention away from the second-floor corridor."
The twins exchanged looks. "Do mine ears deceive me, Gred?" Fred asked incredulously.
"Surely they must, Forge," agreed George. "A Hogwarts prefect asking us for help breaking rules?"
"Surely, the world must be ending." Both of them glanced upwards at the cloudy sky.
"Nope, not falling," Fred said. "Perhaps an earthquake?"
George shrugged. "Nah, I don't feel the ground shaking."
"Hmm… well, it is rather wet, but…"
"…Giant squid gone on a rampage?"
George nodded sagely. "I reckon you may be onto something there, o brother mine."
"Why thank you, dear brother—"
Both stopped their discussion of impending doom to look at him with identical expressions of amusement.
"I'm serious here," Ron repeated irritably. "Will you help me or not?"
Fred and George exchanged glances. "…What're you planning? 'Cause we've got to know what we're getting ourselves into before we agree to anything," said George.
"It's just common sense, y'see," agreed Fred.
Ron sighed. "Look, Harry and Ichigo've got this mad plan to break into Umbridge's office—"
The twins immediately made loud shushing noises. "Be quiet, Ron," Fred hissed. George had his wand out and was waving it around the little space, whispering a long incantation. "Do you want to get caught? Merlin's pants, I thought you knew better."
"Ron, even we know better than to go discussing our pranks in public," George said exasperatedly, stowing the wand back in his pocket. "Honestly, haven't we taught you anything?"
The youngest brother glared. "You two gonna listen or not?"
"We're all ears, Ronniekins."
"Right." He took a deep breath before continuing. "Like I said, Ichigo's come up with this mad idea to break into Umbridge's office and steal something out of there. If he and Harry are going to get in and out without anybody noticing, they're going to need a distraction," he explained patiently. "All I've got are some stink pellets and a couple of Fillibuster's firecrackers, so—"
"—You came to the experts," George finished.
Ron nodded. "Yeah. D'you think you can help?"
"Of course we can, little bro," Fred said amiably. "But the question remains—"
"—What's in it for us?" finished George.
"Well, what do you want?" Ron asked, almost afraid of the reply. With the twins, everything came down to business. They would expect some form of reimbursement for their services… they might ask him for money or charm his hair blue for a day or make him drop a dungbomb in the middle of Potions class. You could never know for certain which one it would be.
They seemed to consider it before reaching a decision. "Three galleons."
Ron blanched. So much for a family discount. "No way, that's much too high! Besides, you know I don't have that kind of spending money…"
"One galleon, then."
"Bollocks, seven sickles!"
"Twelve sickles, and that's as low as we're going," Fred insisted.
Ron thought about it for a moment. "Ten sickles, and me and Hermione'll get you off a detention."
George raised a skeptical eyebrow. "You can do that?"
Ron shrugged. "The Prefects have to consult with McGonagall before any of the detentions we give are finalized. We could probably get you off, so long as you haven't gone and blown up another toilet or something."
Fred frowned. "I don't buy it. McGonagall'd call conflict of interest in a heartbeat."
"Maybe not me then, but she'd listen to Hermione," Ron argued. "You know how she is about the rules."
"Fair point," Fred conceded. "Well then, I reckon we've got a deal. What say you, Gred?"
"I do believe we do, Forge." They stuck out their hands, and Ron shook them both without missing a beat.
"I can't do anything with the other professors or prefects," he warned, releasing them. "Just with McGonagall."
"Better than nothing," George said cheerfully.
"Maybe it's not so bad having a Prefect in the family after all," Fred agreed.
Ron scowled at this.
George clapped his hands together, suddenly businesslike. "So. Details. What exactly do you need and when exactly do you need it?" he asked.
"I dunno," Ron said with another shrug. "Just… a distraction. We need everybody away from the second-floor corridor around… oh, about four o'clock, I think. They're planning on breaking in around then. And it'll have to last at least half an hour, just to be safe."
Fred nodded. "Why four?"
"Well, by what we can figure, Umbridge's in the Great Hall eating dinner right about then," Ron answered. "Not much point in breaking into her office if she's already in there, right?"
"True," George muttered. "What're you lot trying to steal, anyway? That fluffy cardigan of hers?"
Ron's expression immediately turned grim. "…You ever hear of blood quills?"
Fred frowned. "Might've heard Bill mention it once. Something about goblin contracts. Those're the ones that use your blood as ink, right?"
"Yeah, but that's not what she's using them for," Ron said darkly. "She's got Harry and Ichigo writing lines with them every night in detention. Harry's hand looks like it's been on the receiving end of a really nasty shredding hex. It was damn near dripping blood last night, and he still had trouble packing his bag this morning." He shook his head. "Ichigo reckons if we can get ahold of one, we might be able to get Umbridge – well, sacked is a bit optimistic, but at least in some serious trouble."
The twins were silent for a moment, digesting this information. Then they exchanged angry looks. "What do you think, George?" Fred said crisply.
"I reckon she's crossed a line, Fred," George replied.
"That's precisely what I was thinking."
"Nobody messes with our friends."
They glanced at Ron. "We've got just the thing. Umbridge won't know what hit her." Identical, sadistic smiles spread across their faces. "Just make sure those two can cast the bubble-head charm. They're going to need it."
It was a simple plan, all things considered, Hermione decided as she stepped into the library later that afternoon. Get in, get the quill, get out. Simple. Piece of cake.
It was too simple, perhaps. And that made it absolutely terrifying.
Hermione was not called the brightest witch of her generation for nothing She could recall information almost instantaneously after hearing or reading it once, perform complex charms and transfigurations correctly within a few tries, brew textbook-perfect potions, and had an insatiable curiosity that led her to know more about obscure magic than was probably healthy for a girl her age. Or of any age, for that matter.
But her brilliance also made her very much aware of her own limitations. Painfully so.
She knew, with horrible, gut-wrenching clarity precisely what she could and could not do. She did not have Ron's natural skill at adjusting his plans to fit the circumstances, nor Harry's ability to come up with ideas on the fly, nor Ichigo's… Actually, she wasn't entirely sure what exactly made him so confident the tenuous plan would succeed. Experience, she supposed.
She could usually compensate for her lack of practical skills by preparing. When she'd first received her Hogwarts letter, she'd had no idea what to expect from the teachers - so, she'd made sure she could do all the first-year spells flawlessly, even going so far as to memorize the textbooks. She didn't know what sort of spells might come in handy at some point or another, so she made a point to learn everything she could. She could never be sure what the world of magic – this strange, wonderful world where up was sometimes down and two and two could, in fact, make fish – would throw at them next, so she studied and studied and planned and planned, in the hope that – no matter what happened – she wouldn't be caught unprepared.
Not, of course, that her efforts always helped. The 'Are-You-A-Witch-Or-Not' incident was no less embarrassing now than it had been in her first year. She liked to think she had improved since then, even if only a bit, but she couldn't deny that a tiny part of her was very grateful that the easiest, least dangerous part of the 'plan' (if it could be called that) had fallen to her.
Still, the lack of concrete plan unnerved her. Her mind buzzed with the myriad ways something could go wrong – and there were many. What if Umbridge had had time to put wards – serious wards – on her office? What if she caught them entering – or worse, exiting her office? And it didn't even have to be her – if anybody saw them leaving and reported…
Ichigo had been wrong, Hermione thought. Umbridge could do far more than simply give them all detention, or take away house points. She was a teacher – a horrid one, but a teacher nevertheless – and that meant she had the power to expel students. Of course, it would all have to be confirmed by Dumbledore, but even the headmaster couldn't afford to sanction the theft of personal property, no matter how well-intentioned it had been. At the very least, they would all lose House Points and get several months' worth of detention. She, Harry, and Ron had gotten away with a great deal of rule-breaking in the past, but if they were caught red-handed—
Stop thinking about it, she told herself sternly. This did nothing to settle the uncomfortable feeling of dread churning away in the pit of her stomach.
She sighed, earning herself a disapproving look from Madam Pince, who was re-shelving a stack of books labeled Edward the Enlightened's Encyclopedia of Everything, vol. V – XV. Hermione ignored her. If only there had been more than a scant hour to plan – it was all so very sudden. What she wouldn't give to have her old Time-Turner back. While she never wanted a repeat of the fiasco that had been her third-year course schedule, she had to admit the little device would have been much appreciated right now.
But she didn't have it anymore, and there wasn't anything she could do about it. There wasn't time to consider all the what-ifs and if-onlys – she had a job to do, and she'd be damned if she didn't get it done.
With this in mind, she squared her shoulders and marched straight towards the rear of the library.
The shelves were abnormally quiet – nearly everyone had gone outside, celebrating the end of the first week of class. None of the few remaining students gave her a second glance as she passed. Which was to be expected; Hermione had a reputation throughout the school as one of the premier bookworms in the castle.
Which was exactly why she had been selected for this particular task.
Furthest from Madam Pince's desk were the shelves dedicated to that most esoteric of subjects: Wizarding Law. There were even fewer students here than in the rest of the library – only students planning on joining the legal branch of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement ever came here, and they were few and far between. At the moment it was quite deserted.
Hermione paused, scanning the book titles. Her familiarity with this section was limited to her experiences founding S.P.E.W. and Buckbeak's trial, but it shouldn't be too difficult to find what she needed… Her eyes landed on one particular weighty volume: Protocols and Regulations of the International Confederation of Wizards.
Half an hour later, Hermione staggered under a stack of books that very nearly towered over her head. Craning her neck to get a better view over the pile of books in her arms, her eyes glanced over the shelves, looking for anything potentially useful she might have missed. With nothing jumping out at her, she nodded to herself and headed back to the main portion of the library.
Precariously balancing the tower of books on one arm, she glanced at her watch; there were only ten minutes before the other aspects of the plan were implemented. She hefted the books and hurried over towards Madam Pince's desk. She had to be quick. It would not do to get trapped in the hallways or the library once they were – she wasn't sure what it would involve, but given that Ron had gone to Fred and George—
Pages flew every which-way as Hermione toppled to the floor. "Oh no, I'm terribly sorry, I should have—" she babbled, trying to pick all the books up before Madam Pince came to investigate the source of the noise. The old librarian was very protective of her books, and if she saw them scattered all over the ground, spines bent and pages torn…
Best not to think about it.
"It's no trouble," the other girl said. "I should have been more careful – just a moment, let me—" she drew a thin wand from her sleeve and swept it over the fallen books. At once, they flew into the air and stacked themselves neatly on a nearby table.
"Thank you," Hermione muttered, getting to her feet and brushing dust off her skirt. "I—" she broke off, catching sight of the green and silver crest pinned to the other girl's robes. "…I suppose I should have watched where I was going."
"Well, it certainly wouldn't hurt," she said mildly, straightening her glasses and slipping her wand back into her robes. "But I should have been more careful myself. Do you need help with those?" she asked, gesturing to the pile of books. It tottered dangerously on the table top. "It's an awful lot for one witch to carry by herself."
Hermione hesitated. They were rather heavy, but then again… "If… if you're willing," she said tentatively. She hoped her voice didn't sound as confused as she felt.
"It's no trouble." The brunette placed her own book – a comparatively thin volume – on the stack and took several from the top. "I'm Tracey Davis, by the way. I don't think we've ever been properly introduced."
Hermione flushed redder than the Prefect's badge pinned to her robes. She had indeed seen the Slytherin in her Potions class and around the school for years, but had never once spoken to her. It was with a jolt that she realized how few of her classmates she'd ever really talked to. "Ah – no, I don't think we have. I'm, er, Hermione Granger."
Tracey smiled slightly. "Yes, I know. Most of the school knows who you are."
If possible, Hermione blushed an even darker shade of scarlet. Tracey laughed quietly, but it was not a condescending laugh; it seemed more amused than arrogant. Hermione quickly cast around for a change in subject. Her eyes landed on the book atop Tracey's pile. "Magicks of the Far East? What're you reading that for?" she blurted, completely surprised. A split second later she remembered who she was talking to and paled dramatically. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't be asking, it's none of my business—"
The Slytherin girl frowned slightly. "No, it isn't," she said, shaking her head. "But I'd have thought you knew. You're friends with the new transfer student, right?" At Hermione's hesitant nod, she continued, "A friend and I… saw him use one of his spells the other day. It was… interesting."
Hermione nodded slowly. She felt an odd sense of jealousy; she'd spent months over the summer practically begging to see a kidou spell with no success. That Davis – a complete stranger – had gotten a demonstration so easily was… There had to be some sort of story behind that. Hermione's curiosity burned to know, but for once her better judgment won out. "…I see," she said at last.
They had reached the front desk. Tracey unloaded her half of the books on Madam Pince's desk, taking the copy of Magicks of the Far East. Hermione followed suit. "Thank you," she muttered, tucking a lock of bushy hair behind her ear. "For your help, I mean." The words sounded strange to her ears; the concept of actually having to thank a member of the House of Snakes was… rather strange, to say the least. Her past experiences with that particular House hadn't exactly been overwhelmingly positive, after all. The world wasn't quite flipped around on its axis, but it certainly wobbled dangerously.
If Tracey noticed her discomfort, she ignored it. "No trouble," she said. "Good luck with your studies."
As the bespectacled girl walked away, however, Hermione burst out, "Why?"
Tracey turned, regarding her with a raised eyebrow.
Hermione felt her face heat up again. "I mean," she said defensively, "Why are you being so… nice to me? I'm in Gryffindor, and you're… well…" She gulped. "…Not."
Tracey gave her a small, sad smile. "Your friend helped me out when I needed it, Granger. I'd like to think this is a small part of my paying him back."
And she left, leaving behind a very confused Hermione Granger. Hermione stared for a several moments, her brain – for once in its existence – not quite sure what to make of it all. She was broken out of her reverie by the bell to signal the end of class echoing through the hallways.
"Oh, damn," she muttered, quickly shoving the stack of books toward the annoyed librarian. If everything was still on schedule, the 'plan' was due to begin in less than five minutes. She needed to get back to the Common Room quickly, or else run the risk of being caught in… whatever it was Ron and Fred and George had set up.
Knowing the twins, whatever it was would not be pleasant.
"You're sure about this?"
"Of course I am."
"It'll be risky."
Ichigo paused, his foot on the stone step of the marble staircase, and fixed his younger cousin with a level gaze. "I mean it. I don't know what'll happen when we're in there, but spell backlash can be really, really dangerous."
Harry glared right back. "Like I said, I don't care," he said heatedly. "You're not the only one with a bone to pick with Umbridge. This is as much my problem as yours."
"I know that," Ichigo protested. "Trust me, I know exactly what you're talking about. It's just that…"
"Just that what?"
Ichigo hesitated. "…I don't want you getting hurt, is all," he muttered at last, looking away. "If you wound up in the hospital because of something I did…"
Harry was silent. He wasn't quite sure whether to feel touched at the concern or annoyed at Ichigo's over-protective tendencies. "I'm not sitting this out," he said after a moment. "I'll be okay. Don't worry about me."
Ichigo gave a sour laugh. "I'll try. Just… if I tell you to run, run. Alright?"
"…Fine," Harry conceded grudgingly. "I suppose I can live with that."
Ichigo's shoulders sagged in relief. "Thanks." They started back up the stairs, headed for Gryffindor Tower. Harry had mentioned there were a couple of things in the boy's dormitory he wanted to grab, but his explanations of what they were had left Ichigo rather confused. A map and some sort of cloak? How would those be of any help?
As they reached the Fat Lady's portrait, a group of fourth-year students were climbing through the portrait hole on the way to dinner. Several of them shot Harry and Ichigo looks of mixed curiosity and fear as they passed, but one broke away from the group, grinning widely.
The wizard in question waved weakly. "Uh – hello, Colin."
"How was your summer?" Colin asked, practically bouncing on the balls of his feet. "Mine was okay I guess. What're you doing? You want to come eat dinner with me and Dennis?"
"Er – thanks for the offer, but I've got detention tonight," he said. He gestured to himself and Ichigo. "We were just going to drop off our bags, so…"
"Oh." The young boy's energy seemed to evaporate almost instantly. "That's right. I heard about what you said to Umbridge," he mumbled. "And – well, I believe you, and so does Dennis. We're behind you, all the way."
Harry looked oddly touched. "I… thanks, Colin. That means a lot."
"I mean it," Colin said seriously. "I don't get how the Prophet's been managing to publish all those awful stories about you and Dumbledore. My mum says it's absolute rubbish, and she doesn't even follow magical politics."
"Pretty smart lady, your mum," Harry agreed. He glanced at his watch. "Um – look, Colin, I'm sorry but we're kind of in a hurry, so…"
"Oh – yeah! Not a problem. I'll see you later. Hey, maybe next time we can get some photos! That'd be so cool!"
Harry fought the urge to roll his eyes. Typical Colin. "Yeah, maybe."
"Awesome!" Colin grinned. "Well, bye Harry!" And he sprinted off down the hall.
"Bye, Colin," Harry echoed tonelessly after his retreating form. He turned back to Ichigo, who was controlling his smirk with some difficulty. "Don't. Say. A. Word."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Ichigo said, though he couldn't quite keep the laughter out of his voice. "Though I must admit, I'm glad my fans never did that."
Harry quirked an eyebrow as they climbed into the portrait hole. "You have fans? What'd you do?"
"War hero, remember?" He shook his head. "That lasted all of two months."
"Yeah? How'd you get rid of them?"
A shadow seemed to cross Ichigo's face for a moment before settling back into its usual neutral scowl. "…I guess they found out I wasn't as perfect as they thought I was."
Harry nodded thoughtfully. "…That makes sense," he said at last. There was more to the story, he was certain – but perhaps now was not the time to ask. They climbed the spiral staircase in silence. Once they reached the dormitory, Harry opened his trunk and rooted around for a few moments before extracting a smooth, silvery cloth and a worn piece of parchment.
Ichigo raised an eyebrow as Harry cleared his bedside stand of its contents (Flying with the Cannons) and unfolded the parchment.
"I solemnly swear that I am up to no good," he said, holding his wand to the blank page.
Before Ichigo's eyes, thin, spidery lines spread from the center, bending and connecting together in an elaborate pattern. The diagram nagged at something in the back of his brain, but he couldn't quite place… Sprawling text appeared at the top of the parchment bearing the slogan:
Messrs. Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs
(Purveyors of Aids to Magical Mischief-Makers)
are proud to present:
THE MARAUDER'S MAP
"…A map of the castle?" Ichigo guessed. Now he got a good look at it, he could identify some of the locations on it – there was the Great Hall, and the corridor leading off to the dungeons, and the staircase leading to the upper floors… And everywhere he looked, there were these strange, oddly-shaped spots that moved all over the page, almost like ants. As he leaned in closer, he could see that each of the spots had the same shape. They were rounded at the top, widened a bit and then tapered off again – the silhouette was distinct, almost like—
"Not just any map," Harry said. "The Marauder's Map. This shows the location of every person in the castle and grounds at any given time."
"Impressive," Ichigo muttered. Sure enough, if he looked closely, he could see each of the dots – tiny human figures, really – had an equally tiny label beneath its feet. He spotted Hermione Granger's dot flitting around the library, while Fred and George could be seen loitering near the Charms corridor.
Shiro nudged his eyes towards the top left corner. Look.
Ichigo did. The space Shiro had indicated showed a small, circular room with two tiny figures, and when Ichigo squinted he could make out one of the names as Harry Potter, but the other kept flickering back and forth so quickly it looked like several words written on top of each other, a confused jumble of letters and lines that was utterly unreadable.
That's… weird. "You said this shows everyone in the castle?" he asked.
Harry nodded. "With this, we'll be able to see if anyone's coming," he explained. He held up the cloth. "And this'll help us get around if they do."
Ichigo eyed it curiously. "What is it?" It very clearly wasn't normal, whatever it was – the fabric rippled and flowed like water beneath wind, despite the fact that the air in the dormitory was quite still.
That, and the fact it very nearly glowed with power.
"My dad's old invisibility cloak," Harry said, a hint of pride in his voice. "You could stand a foot away from someone and they'd have no idea you were there. It's big enough for both of us, if we need it."
Harry grinned, and with a flourish, the cloak was over his shoulders. A flick of his wrist brought the hood over his head, and both Harry and the cloak vanished.
Ichigo's heart immediately skipped several beats. Not only had Potter disappeared from the visible spectrum, but his reiatsu was completely gone as well. It was like he'd just… vanished off the face of the Earth. A few traces lingered in the air near his trunk and bed, but the main source, the beating heart of it that was undeniably Harry, had… simply stopped existing. Like he'd…
"Ichigo?" Harry's disembodied voice sounded concerned. "Are you okay? You look a bit pale."
He shook himself. "I – I'm fine. A bit… surprised is all."
"I did say it was an invisibility cloak," Harry muttered, reappearing and draping the cloak carefully over his arm.
Ichigo frowned. "I got that. I just wasn't expecting it to be so… thorough."
Harry paused, mid-way through the process of refolding the Marauder's Map. "How d'you mean?"
Ichigo fidgeted uncomfortably. "…Have I explained what reiatsu is?"
Harry shrugged. "It's a bit like magic, right?"
"Sort of. It's… well, it's closer to life force. Shini – my school teaches its students how to feel it. Sort of like an extra sense, I guess." Ichigo gestured to the silvery cloak. "When you were wearing that – that cloak… it was like you'd died."
Harry swallowed, feeling distinctly uncomfortable. The light material suddenly felt a great deal heavier than it usually did. "Oh," he said after a moment. "Yeah, I guess that would be kind of – er – strange. Um. I can leave the cloak here, if you'd rather…"
Ichigo shook his head. "No, keep it. You're right, it's too useful not to take. It caught me off guard, but next time I'll be ready." He glanced at his watch. "We should get going, it's nearly time."
Harry nodded. He refolded the map and – with a split-second's hesitation – the cloak, stowing them carefully in his schoolbag. "Right. Let's go."
Lightning flashed as the portrait of the Fat Lady closed behind them, rain pounding heavily against the high windows as they walked through the halls. Harry sighed.
Ichigo glanced at him inquiringly.
"Sorry. Just thinking about Quidditch tonight," Harry said, gesturing vaguely at the rain-soaked sky. "Wondering whether or not Angelina'd postpone tryouts if the weather doesn't let up."
Ichigo frowned as thunder rumbled off in the distance. "Wouldn't she have to? Flying in the middle of a storm's dangerous." He certainly had enough unpleasant memories of trying to track down Hollows in the rain – lightning was an additional hazard that made the normally routine task much more complicated. Spirit or not, electrocution hurt, and zanpakutou had an unfortunate tendency to act as impromptu lightning rods, usually at the worst possible times.
Harry shrugged. "Not necessarily. Quidditch doesn't get called off for much other than a hurricane, so—"
"I think that's our cue," Ichigo muttered as several loud shouts erupted from downstairs. Harry nodded, and they ducked behind a nearby statue of a one-eyed, humpbacked witch, waiting hidden while a crowd of students ran past, all looking rather green in the face.
When the last of them had disappeared around the corner, the pair of them emerged from behind the statue and crept down the hall. Upon approaching the second-floor corridor, it became immediately obvious why it had been so thoroughly vacated.
Noxious fumes filled the hall, a mixture of bad eggs, cheap perfume, manure, and the overpowering stench of week-old fish. The odor was cloying; the very air itself seemed somehow denser than it usually did. Harry fought the urge to gag – he could feel bile rising in the back of his throat, and he had to force himself not to empty the contents of his stomach onto the flagstone floor right then and there. Off to the side, Ichigo seemed to be faring little better.
"This is worse than Seireitei's sewers," he muttered, looking vaguely ill. The rotten seafood, he could deal with – but there was another scent beneath that, one that smelled distinctly of decaying, burning flesh. No matter how many he came across it (which was relatively often, given his line of work), it was one he could never get used to.
Tell me 'bout it, Shiro groaned. Ichigo winced; for all that they shared their senses, Hollows were much more… adept at picking out certain scents than other spirits. As bad as it was for him, he didn't even want to imagine what Shiro was experiencing.
"Definitely worse than cleaning out Aunt Petunia's compost pile in July," Harry agreed. He pulled out his wand and tapped himself on the head. "Bubligaleam." At once, a thin film, not entirely unlike a soap bubble, appeared over his head. He looked rather like he was wearing an upturned goldfish bowl as a hat. He did the same to Ichigo a moment later, and he immediately inhaled several lungfuls of suddenly-clean air.
"Thanks," he said appreciatively. Ordinarily the idea of having a giant soap bubble on his head would have been off-putting (to put it mildly), but at the moment he didn't care. Not having to breathe the foul-smelling air was worth the inevitable embarrassment this would cause. And judging by the lack of amused laughter, even the Hollow was grateful.
The corridor was quite deserted. Even the portraits had fled – apparently, they still possessed their full olfactory abilities, even in paint form. As they approached Umbridge's office door, Ichigo spotted a small, brownish cylinder nearly hidden under the plinth of a nearby suit of armor.
"What's that?" Harry asked, as Ichigo picked up the tube. His voice was oddly muffled by the bubble around his head, but still quite audible. The ends of the canister were still smoking slightly, and it left a grayish-green, powdery residue on his hands. Words were messily scrawled on the side in what looked like permanent marker.
"'DD v.5.2.6 . #153,'" Ichigo read off the side. "'Danger: Do not under any circumstances expose to heat, bright lights, blasting spells, loud noises, or fairy dust. Do not drop. Handle with extreme caution. If found please return to F&GW.'"
"Must belong to Fred and George, then," Harry said. "Well, give it here. They'll probably want it back." He wrapped it carefully in an old handkerchief and buried it deep inside a pocket of his bag. He raised his wand to the door. "Alohamora."
The lock clicked softly and the door swung open. Harry and Ichigo crept inside. The doe-eyed kittens mewled piteously from their plates, noses buried in their painted paws and satin bows. Ichigo ignored their evident distress and walked over to the desk.
"It's in here," he muttered, running a hand over the smooth, wooden surface. The quill's distinctive dark, almost slippery reiatsu was definitely emitting from inside somewhere inside.
"You find it?" Harry asked from where he stood near the door, watching one of the painted plates with a sort of morbid interest.
Ichigo nodded. "Yeah. Give me a minute…" He crouched down, tugging at one of the drawers. It didn't budge, but he didn't see a lock…
"Let me try," Harry said. He pointed his wand at it. "Alohamora," he repeated. The drawer remained firmly closed. "Dunamis." Still nothing. "Liberare. Emancipare. Annihilare."
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Ichigo's eyes narrowed. There was a faint barrier around the entire desk, buzzing against the edge of his senses. He frowned, shoving his reiatsu at it.
The desk drawer remained resolutely closed.
His frowned deepened. His face screwed up in concentration, he gathered up as much power as he could and battered at the spell again.
The reiatsu cloud seemed to waver, but otherwise remained very much intact.
Damn. Whatever it was, it had to be at least mid-level. "There's some sort of shield," he announced. "It's too solid to break through. Not easily, at least, and not in the time we've got."
"But Ron said she wouldn't have had the time," Harry said, confusion evident in his voice.
Ichigo shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe there's some sort of anchor." He'd heard Hachi mention the concept of ikariyou a few times before; from what he understood, they were very useful for maintaining long-term, powerful bakudou spells. It created, in essence, a sort of portable barrier. Once tied to the stone, the spell could be almost instantly re-cast, and required far less energy to maintain once erected. Hachi himself had used one with his Hachigyo Sougai; that was how the eight of them had managed to survive for over a hundred years while constantly on the run.
"Could be," Harry conceded. "I don't know much about wards – Hermione would, she's studied runes. But if there's no way to get through…"
Ichigo scowled, glaring at the resolutely shut desk. Dammit. I'd hoped not to have to do this…
Ya mean—? Shiro grinned. 'Bout damn time.
They'll find us.
Shiro scoffed. We ain''idin'. Let 'em come.
A grim smile spread across Ichigo's face. Point. "There's a way," he said. He glanced at Harry. "Keep an eye on that map of yours and get ready to move."
"Just check the map."
Harry frowned. "Fine," he grumbled irritably. He unfolded the map and looked at it critically. Apart from Peeves bouncing around the trophy room on the floor above, most of the black dots were still clustered in the Great Hall. A few people had crept closer to the corridor, but were still keeping their distance; Umbridge was among them. "Looks like Umbridge's trying to head this way, but can't. Maybe she's not having much luck clearing out the stink bomb or something. We're safe for now, but you should probably hurry it up with whatever it is you're doing."
"Got it. Might want to hold on to something."
"What d'you—" But before he could finish the question, something burst like a white-hot fireball across some sense that Harry didn't even know he had. His brain felt like it was going to implode and his pupils shrunk to pinpricks as he curled in on himself, hands shaking uncontrollably. It was so strange and horrible and terrifying all at once – he felt so small and weak and helpless… He felt like—
And then it was over. Harry was slightly surprised to find himself curled up on the floor. He raised himself up on trembling limbs, surveying the damage. The windows had burst, scattering glass all over the floor, and the many kitten-covered plates had broken, their occupants hissing and spitting at the abuse. The rows of shelves behind the desk had fallen, their contents landing in a jumbled pile. Even the little lace-covered table where they'd been serving detention for the past week was ruined, having been blown unceremoniously into the rather unforgiving stone wall. And the Bubble-Head Charm had burst, the awful smell from the hall returning in full force. Harry clamped a hand against his mouth, forcing the remains of his lunch back into his stomach.
About the only object in the room still intact was the desk itself. Well, unharmed but for the small tongues of what looked like black, red-tinged flames that still clung to the surface. Ichigo stood beside it, his breathing slightly heavier than it had been before but otherwise quite unharmed. In his hand, he clutched a white, beaded bracelet. Harry frowned at that – Ichigo had taken to wearing one on each wrist ever since that Urahara man had come to Grimmauld Place, but he hadn't thought it anything other than some sort of odd fashion statement. That didn't seem to be the case, now.
"Shit – are you okay?" he asked, helping Harry to his feet. He seemed utterly unconcerned by the destruction of the office itself, nor by the wisps bits of black fire that littered the ground where he had stood.
Harry nodded, not quite trusting himself to speak. The ringing in his ears hadn't quite yet diminished, either.
Ichigo visibly sagged in relief. "That's… that's good. I thought – I didn't think the buildup would be that bad, I – I'm sorry," he mumbled. "I should have realized…"
"I'm alright," Harry said. His voice sounded hoarse and weak, even to his own ears. "Really. Just a little shaken up." He gulped. "What… what was that?"
Ichigo shifted uncomfortably, slipping the bracelet back on his wrist. The weight on Harry's chest vanished instantly. "Reiatsu. Mine, specifically."
"But you said…"
"I – it'll take too long to explain right now. Just… let's just grab the quills and get a move on. That noise will have alerted the whole castle."
"R-right," Harry mumbled. "Er – Accio Umbridge's quills!"
Something inside the desk shook, and a hidden compartment on the bottom sprang open. Two very familiar pointed black quills flew out. Harry snatched them out of the air. "Okay. Let's go."
They left, hurrying towards the upper floors. The smell in the hallway seemed thinner – the windows in the corridor had been shattered as well, letting in fresh air. Voices could be heard from the staircase leading to the floor below.
"…whether or not I should be concerned, Headmaster," Umbridge's sickly-sweet voice came floating up the stairwell. "If you are letting that awful Cerberus or some other monster near the children again—"
"I can assure you Dolores," said Dumbledore mildly, "That no dark creatures have taken up residence in this castle. I am sure your office is quite unharmed – perhaps this was merely a prank pulled by one of our more… ah, adventurous students."
She let out a little huff of disbelief. Their footsteps were drawing closer.
"Quick," Harry hissed, throwing the Invisibility Cloak over their shoulders. They disappeared just as the tip of Dumbledore's hat came into view, followed swiftly by the man himself and the much shorter, pink-clad figure of Umbridge.
"Be that as it may, Headmaster," she said, drawing out the professor's title in such a way as to make her disdain for him clear, "I daresay the discipline in this school is severely lacking…"
Ichigo held his breath, certain they would be spotted. Stealth had never been an area he particularly excelled in. Quite the opposite – between his vibrant hair and more-or-less untamable reiatsu that marked his location like a neon sign, he'd never been able to really hide in any sense of the word. It was something that caused Yoruichi no small amount of exasperation, and more than a few failed missions before the higher-ups had finally figured out that he was better suited to being the distraction, rather than the infiltrator.
But neither Umbridge nor Dumbledore seemed aware of their presence. They passed without ever even glancing at the two teenagers hidden beneath the cloak.
"That was close," Ichigo muttered, as the two professors vanished around the corner. "Remind me to never, ever doubt your magic again."
Harry shot him a wan smile. "Duly noted." The pair of them crept back up the stairs. They were just passing the trophy room when an enraged shriek echoed up from the floor below. "Looks like the toad's found her office."
Ichigo opened his mouth to reply, but whatever he was going to say was interrupted by a door banging open and a brightly-colored little man in a bell-covered jester's cap burst into the hall. Peeves turned several somersaults in the air, cackling like a madman, before he froze upside down near the ceiling, dark eyes flicking up and down the corridor.
"Who's there?" he said, speaking to the empty corridor. "Peevesy knows you're there, should call a teacher, he should, if there's invisible intruders stalking around… come out, come out, wherever you are, Peevesy doesn't bite…" He giggled. "…Much."
Harry cursed under his breath. They'd almost made a clean getaway… Damnable poltergeist. But maybe – it'd worked once before… "Peeves," he croaked, lowering his voice in a poor imitation of the Bloody Baron's, "The Bloody Baron has his own reasons for being invisible…"
The poltergeist gave a fake little scream. "Oh no, Mr. Baron sir! I didn't realize – whatever shall Peevesy do?" he moaned, placing a hand to his forehead dramatically. He flipped himself right-side up, his terrified expression evaporating. "Nice try, but Peevesy won't fall for that one this time. Fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice… Peeves'll scream."
"Sorry," Harry muttered under his breath. "It worked before…"
"It was worth a shot," Ichigo whispered back. "Don't worry about it."
"Peevesy can hear you, you know," he sing-songed, flipping himself once more on his back.
Ichigo grimaced. "I'll deal with this. You get back to Gryffindor Tower and drop off the quills. I'll… meet up with you."
"…Alright," Harry said hesitantly. They didn't have much time; a glance at his watch told him it was nearing a quarter to five already, and he and Ichigo had to be back at Umbridge's office, sans cloak and quills, at five to avoid arousing her suspicion. "Just don't take too long."
Ichigo shot him a reassuring look as he ducked out from under the cloak. "Congratulations, you found me," he drawled, his arms spread wide in a gesture of surrender. "Now what? You going to report me to the Headmaster?
"Perhaps I ought to," Peeves said coolly. "Considering what you are. Who's the other one?"
Ichigo's expression remained carefully blank. "There's no one else. Just me."
The poltergeist snorted disdainfully. "That's likely. You're not exactly known for your… subtlety, Reaper. Or was it Godslayer? I forget what they've taken to calling you these days."
Harry, who had just set foot on a hidden staircase that led to the seventh floor, paused at this. What…? He crept back to the tapestry hiding the secret passage, peering through a small moth-hole in the threadwork.
Silence reigned in the empty corridor for several seconds. "…Where did you hear that name?"
Peeves laughed. "There are hardly any of us who don't know who you are, even here in the living world. The one who refused the Moon Demon his due? Lunatics like that only come around every couple thousand years, and the ones who actually get away with it… well, that's never happened. He wasn't very happy with that, you know."
Ichigo scowled. "Isn't my fault he couldn't uphold his end of the bargain."
Peeves came to a dead halt. "That is a very serious charge."
"I'm aware. Doesn't mean it isn't true."
Peeves laughed again, returning once more to his somersaults. "Keep telling yourself that, little Reaper. Though I must admit, it took me a while to recognize you. I was expecting someone… taller."
"Sorry to disappoint," Ichigo said dryly. "So, what are you going to do with me?"
The poltergeist made an odd little hmm-ing noise. "Well, I could report you to Dumbledore. It's very poor taste to destroy a professor's office like that, you know. Oh yes, he felt that little display of yours, Peevesy did. The whole school did. Imagine what dear old Dolores will do when she finds out…"
"I've seen scarier than anything she could ever dream of throwing at me." There was no hint of arrogance or pride in that statement, just a calm assuredness that spoke of already having been faced with the worst the universe had to offer and living to tell the tale. "Let her try."
Peeves cackled. "You – you really have no idea what they're capable of, do you? You think all there is are you pathetic little Reapers and your pet Hollows?" He laughed again. "Oh, think again, Godslayer. Think again." His voice dropped to a quiet murmur. "You've no idea what they're capable of. She can do things to you that would leave you broken like those plates in her office… What did you think happened to your comrades in arms, hmm? And then it'd be so easy to just—"
He broke off with a strangled hrk sound. Ichigo had grabbed Peeves by the front of his brightly-color suit, dragging him closer so they were face to face.
"What do you know?" he hissed, his voice taking on a strange, distorted tone. "Tell me!"
"Won't say nothing," the poltergeist choked out.
"Do not try me, spirit," Ichigo, his voice so low Harry had to strain his ears to hear it. "I don't want to cause more trouble for you or your kind, but do not try and play me. Tell me what you know."
"Talk. Or I will make you."
"You – you can't – an empty threat," Peeves squeaked out. "For all your power, you're still—"
"I might not be able to kill you, but I can hurt you. It'd take you decades to consolidate yourself once I'm through with you."
Peeves made an odd, choked noise. "You wouldn't dare – you won't – you don't have the—"
"You said it yourself: I defied Getsuga. If I'm not scared of him, what makes you think I'd be afraid of you?"
The poltergeist said nothing.
"That's what I thought."
He released his hold on Peeves' shirt, and the poltergeist flew backward, taking deep, hacking breaths. "…You're a fool," he said between coughs. "A damned fool."
Ichigo grunted. "Talk."
Peeves glared. "No."
Ichigo became very, very quiet. "…What?"
"You heard me," Peeves repeated. "Peevesy won't be telling you nothing. Or the other one, if you're stupid enough to try that."
His only reply was a long, loud raspberry that faded as Peeves zoomed off down the corridor.
There was a crunch as something impacted stone, followed by a string of words that Harry couldn't understand, but was sure would have earned Ichigo a Scourgify to the mouth if Mrs. Weasley had heard him. "Damn it. We were so close to finally…" He trailed off with an angry huff. Still grumbling expletives, he walked off, passing Harry's hiding place behind the tapestry and up the staircase.
Harry didn't release his breath until the sound of Ichigo's footsteps had faded away completely. He hadn't even realized he'd been holding it. His heart pounded wildly in his chest. What had that been about? Godslayer? What kind of name was that? And – and what had Peeves meant by 'Reaper'? Ichigo… he was a wizard, wasn't he? He had to be – what else could he be? Maybe a 'Reaper' was a kind of wizard, like a warlock or a sorcerer. That made sense. But it still didn't answer the question of how had he managed to touch the poltergeist in the first place, never mind actually catching him. And…
He shook his head, doing his best to shove his confusion off to the side for the moment as he resumed his climb of the stairs. There were other things to be doing. But still, the back of his mind buzzed with unanswered questions and insane possibilities.
Merlin, he needed to talk to Hermione. Maybe she could sort this all out.
And if she couldn't, she'd certainly have a better idea of where to start.
To say Dolores Umbridge was unhappy would have been an understatement.
A severe understatement.
She surveyed the ruins of her office, fuming silently. Everything she had brought with her from the Ministry was utterly destroyed, smashed to pieces by some invisible force. Dumbledore had offered to assist in the clean-up, but she had waved him off, saying she was perfectly capable of doing it herself, thank-you-very-much. And while it was true she would never want to rely on the batty old coot to do her spellwork for her, she also wanted to take stock of the damage herself. It would not do, after all, for the headmaster to uncover some of her more… unsavory artifacts.
The headmaster had promised a full investigation, but she did not entertain for a second the thought that he would actually catch the culprit. The destruction of her office had all the hallmarks of a prank gone bad, but it was out of character for the Weasley twins to go after a teacher's office itself. Their style, from what she could gather from listening to the other members of staff, was far less mean-spirited; they tended to set off their pranks in classrooms and hallways, where they could entertain more people. This sort of thing was too vindictive for them; even Snape's office had never been the target of one of their attacks.
No, this had not been the work of Hogwarts' resident pranksters. Dumbledore's investigation – if he did one at all – would lead nowhere.
But that was alright. She had a very good idea of who the culprits had been. A very good idea.
There were only two things missing, after all. And only two people in the entire school – apart from herself – knew they even existed. It would be a simple matter to replace them – the Department of Magical Law Enforcement had several of them, locked up and unused – but the fact that they had been stolen at all…
Oh no. The question was not who, it was how.
The wards that had kept her desk locked had shattered. Not unraveled – that wasn't too uncommon, Curse-Breakers did it every day – but shattered. It had not been a freestanding-ward, either – it had been anchored to a wardstone, which should have made it impossible to break without serious skill and effort, something she knew neither of the perpetrators possessed. And the stone itself had cracked as well, a single, deep fissure marring the rune-engraved surface.
The loss of the wardstone was particularly aggravating. They were notoriously hard to replace – the odd white stone was incredibly rare, but very good at holding magic. Far better, in fact, than any other material known to wizardkind. If prepared properly, it completely absorbed the first spell cast in its vicinity, but had a nasty habit of repelling everything else, which made handling it a difficult, tedious project. None of the Ministry's geomancers knew where the stone came from – merely that it could be found in ancient ruins and tombs. The Gringotts goblins were rumored to have a large cache of the stuff, hidden away deep in their vaults… perhaps she should send them a requisition notice.
And to top it all off, her plates were smashed. Those things were collector's items, for Merlin's sake. It'd taken years to obtain the whole set!
Oh, whoever had broken those would pay. Dearly. She wondered whether or not she could convince some of the Ministry's experimental potioneers to let her – er, borrow one of their untested products. It would certainly be more informative than testing them on, say, house-elves…
A knock at the remains of her office door broke her out of her revenge-fantasy. She turned around to see Kurosaki standing in the doorway.
"What happened here?" he asked, looking around at the damage with a look of mild surprise.
Umbridge had to bite her tongue to keep from sneering. "Some students thought it would be… amusing to make a mess of my office," she said. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about it, would you?"
Kurosaki shook his head. "No."
"Anything at all?" she pressed, coming to stand in front of him. The top of her head barely reached his shoulders. "You're absolutely certain?"
His expression remained deliberately neutral. "Yes."
Umbridge made a little noise of disbelief. There were some days when she really wished she were better at the finer points of legilimency. "It's very curious, you see," she continued. "My office wards have been completely broken. Do you happen to know of any spells that can do that, Mr. Kurosaki?"
She stared at him for a second longer before nodding. "I see," she said, with an air of false lightness. "Well, if you do hear anything, you will of course let me know, won't you?"
"I'm sure you will," Umbridge muttered to herself. Out loud, she asked, "And where is Mr. Potter?"
At this, a look of genuine confusion passed over Kurosaki's face before one brief second more melting back into a disinterested scowl. "I don't know. We were supposed to meet in the Entrance Hall before coming here."
As if on cue, pounding footsteps echoed from the hall and Harry burst into the room, panting heavily. "I'm sorry I'm late, professor, I—" He broke off, staring around at the wreckage. "Um, professor? W-what happened?"
Umbridge gave a disdainful little laugh. "Mr. Kurosaki and I were just discussing it, actually. Someone decided it would be an amusing joke to make a mess of my office and steal some of my belongings. Would you happen to know anything about it, Mr. Potter?"
His eyes flickered briefly to Ichigo. Umbridge suppressed a smile, her suspicions confirmed. So, they had done it. That just left the little question of how unanswered…
"N-no," Potter answered shakily. "I – I've no idea, Professor."
She gazed at him for a moment, disbelief written plainly across her face. "Hmm. Very well, then. Now, as you can see," she said, gesturing at the wreckage of her office behind her, "Our normal detentions will not be able to continue tonight."
"Should – should we come back another night, then?" Potter asked, not quite able to keep the hope out of his voice.
Umbridge's lips curled into a sickly-sweet smile. "Oh no, Mr. Potter. Oh no, no, no… this is your punishment, remember. Your task this evening will be to collect everything that's been broken into these—" a wave of her wand and two wooden boxes appeared, "—And catalogue it. Without magic," she added. With a flick of her wand, two pink clipboards, parchment, and quills (normal ones, alas) appeared. "And do be sure to label it all, won't you? Off you go, now."
The two teens took the clipboards with dubious looks, exchanged glances, and set to work.
Dolores watched them for several moments before conjuring a plush chair for herself and settling down to read the report from the Minister that had arrived with the evening post. She smiled as she flipped through the first several pages – apparently, Educational Decree Number Twenty-Three was coming along quite nicely, although a few senior members of the Wizengamot were making noise about it. She made a mental note to review Madam Marchbanks' most recent voting record – she was certain the Wizengamot Elder had voted in favor of a goblin caught in possession of a wand a few years ago. Perhaps… Yes, that would do nicely. It didn't matter that the goblin in question had only been holding the wand in the first place because the wand's owner had wanted it put in a safety deposit box – no one would remember that particular detail, and if anyone tried to bring it up… well, that was a problem easily dealt with. A little word here, a little word there, and that journalist's career would be over faster than you could say Evanesco.
It really was wonderful to have the Prophet so closely connected to the Ministry. Cornelius' creation of the Department of Magical Media Management had truly been inspired.
The second part of the report, however, gave her pause. The Department of International Magical Cooperation had finally gotten around to translating Kurosaki's school records… and had come up with essentially nothing. Oh, there were a few things, to be sure – apparently, the brat was reasonably good at history, and very bad at something called kidou (whatever that was) – but otherwise very little. It seemed, according to one of departmental undersecretaries, that someone had gone to the trouble of encoding most of the papers, and it was rather difficult to crack without a key or countercharm. They weren't certain why this was the case, but put it down to the usual secrecy that existed between the various wizarding schools; it was not uncommon for foreign schools to go to great lengths to hide themselves from the others – Durmstrang, for instance, refused to divulge even what country it was in – and the same applied to the students. It was not the encoding itself that was the issue, it was the lack of corresponding key.
Fortunately, that was problem quickly and easily remedied. The Department had initially assumed 'Shinou Academy' to be some sort of subsidiary to the renowned Mahoutokoro, and had sent request for the decoding spell accordingly. They'd received a very surprised note from the Deputy Headmaster in reply, stating that there was no such person as Ichigo Kurosaki enrolled, no such school existed (to their knowledge), and that furthermore none of their students had studied a year abroad in nearly fifty years.
Any and all attempts to find some trace of Shinou Academy had fallen flat. While the Department's files on non-European, American, and Commonwealth wizarding schools were fairly slim, all magical academies and institutions were required to register with the International Confederation of Wizards. It helped to standardize what was taught, as part of a movement to try and keep the worst pieces of Dark magic from being widely known. That the academy didn't appear in the I.C.W. records was troubling – while registered schools were by and large prevented from teaching students some of the fouler aspects of magic, unregistered ones had no such limitations.
Umbridge seriously doubted Kurosaki was a Dark wizard. The brat had been sorted into Gryffindor, and theirs was a house not well-known for its dark tendencies. Besides, he didn't have the temperament – he was far too brash and noble-minded for it.
But if he was well-informed on Dark Magic, it would no doubt put a damper on her plans. No one was better at spotting – and identifying – Dark spells than those with detailed knowledge of them. If he brought her before the Board of Governors… She shook her head and dismissed the thought. Though Lucius Malfoy might no longer be a member of the Board himself, he still had enough influence over them to keep her at her post. Nor would the Minister allow her to be removed from the position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.
Still… The lack of any record of Shinou Academy – even anecdotal evidence – was suspicious. It was like Kurosaki had simply… appeared out of thin air.
Umbridge closed the report, mulling over its contents. Curious. She glanced up at the two students, still sorting the fragments of her precious kitten plates into boxes; they had both rolled up their sleeves as they worked. A flash of white caught her eye, and she blinked in surprise. The bracelets on Kurosaki's wrists looked to be made of the same material as the now-useless wardstone. It was hard to tell for certain, or course, not from this distance, but still… even a fragment the size of her little fingernail was worth several dozen times its weight in gold. Where – and how – would a student have gotten a hold of so much of it?
Her lips curled into a sneer. Curious indeed.
Just what are you hiding, Mr. Kurosaki?
The rumbling thunder had long since faded as Ichigo and Harry worked late into the night. Harry glanced blearily at his watch – already past midnight. He hoped the toad would let them go soon; Angelina would no doubt want him to be up bright and early for Quidditch practice with the new Keeper the next morning. As it was, he was already having trouble keeping his eyes open long enough to—
Searing pain flashed across his scar. Harry vaguely registered the sound of something breaking, but he couldn't tell what it was. It felt like his head was going to burst, he wanted to yell, to scream in agony, but instead he was…
His head jerked, and immediately Harry felt himself return to his senses. The pain in his scar had dulled now, a low throbbing in the background, easily ignorable. Not so ignorable was the distinct feeling of elation – that was most definitely not his – he'd just experienced. His heart pounded madly. What in Merlin's name had that been?
"W-what?" he asked shakily.
Ichigo's eyebrows creased in concern. "Are you alright?"
"I…" Harry's eyes flicked to Umbridge, who was watching them with narrowed eyes. "Yeah. Why wouldn't I be?"
"You're bleeding again, for one thing."
Harry glanced down at his hand – the plate piece he'd been holding had broken, one of the shards lodging itself deep in his palm. The plate's furry occupant – a particularly awful brown tabby in a blue bow – hissed at him. "Oh."
Ichigo shook his head exasperatedly, but before he could say anything further, Umbridge cut in sweetly, "Is something the matter, Mr. Potter?"
"Potter's cut his hand on one of the plates," Ichigo answered swiftly. "It looks pretty bad, I should take him to the Hospital Wing."
She held out her hand. "Let me see." Reluctantly, Harry presented his own, shuddering at the feel of her stubby fingers. "Hmm. I suppose that is enough for tonight," she conceded after a moment. "You may go. And Mr. Kurosaki, do be sure to return on Monday. Five o'clock, remember."
He grunted in her general direction before scooping up their discarded bags and departing. As soon as they were out of earshot, Ichigo turned to Harry. "What happened?"
Harry shrugged. Truth be told, he wasn't entirely sure himself. "I… I dunno," he said uncertainly. "My scar hurt, and then…" He trailed off, not quite sure how to explain it.
Ichigo raised an eyebrow, silently prompting him to continue.
Harry grimaced. "…It was weird. I felt so happy, but it wasn't… I wasn't… It wasn't my happiness. Does that make any sense?"
Ichigo nodded slowly. "That… that doesn't sound good."
"You don't say," Harry said dryly.
"But if you are, then…"
"But that doesn't make any sense," Ichigo continued, apparently thinking aloud. "You aren't like… and there isn't really another way to… So then how…?"
Harry scowled. "Are you actually going to bother telling me what the bloody hell you're going on about—"
Ichigo's attention snapped back to him. "It's… Urahara calls it reikyou. If that's what it is… that's really not good. I don't know if I can explain it," he added hastily on seeing Harry's murderous expression. "It's just… I don't want to worry you in case it turns out to be something else."
"It's a little late for that!"
Ichigo shrugged apologetically. "I'll let you know the minute I do. Deal?"
Harry hmphed. "I'm gonna hold you to that, then."
The continued on in silence. The Fat Lady was sleeping soundly in her portrait when they arrived at the seventh floor; it took several minutes of prodding at the frame for her to wake up enough to swing forward and let them in to the Common Room… where they were immediately greeted by a roar of sound. There must have been some sort of party going on, for the walls and armchairs were festooned with confetti and colorful banners. Ichigo ducked under the streamers draped over the door and walked over to Hermione sitting in the corner, hunched over a very thick, dusty book. Harry made to follow, but before he could Ron bounded over, hair plastered to his face and robes sopping wet, but grinning wildly like he'd just won the lottery.
"Harry! Harry, I made it, I'm Keeper!"
Harry tried to smile, but it felt more like a grimace. "Oh – brilliant, congratulations, Ron."
Ron was beaming as he shoved a bottle into Harry's hands. "Here, have a butterbeer – I can't believe it – I mean, me! You should've seen the look on Fred and George's faces when—"
"That's enough, little brother," Fred said irritably, emerging from the crowd.
"No need to go telling him that," agreed George.
"We get it—"
"—We were wrong—"
"—Now will you stop reminding us?" they finished heatedly.
Ron pouted. The three of them were saved his tirade by the timely intervention Katie Bell, one of the Chasers, calling Ron over to try on his new uniform.
Fred rolled his eyes as Ron walked off, practically bouncing on his heels. "Honestly, he's gotten so full of himself—"
"—Rather annoying, it is."
"Oh, give it a break," Harry said tiredly. "He just made the Quidditch team. He's got every right to be happy."
The twins exchanged glances. "Well, of course he does. And really, it's not like we're not proud of him, or anything—"
"—It's just, he doesn't need to keep going on about it—"
"—Especially in front of us. Right embarrassing, it is."
Harry rolled his eyes.
The expression on their faces turned serious. "How'd your little escapade this afternoon go?"
"We got them," Harry answered. As though suddenly remembering something, he dug around in his bag for a moment before extracting the brown cylinder. "I reckon this is yours."
"Ah, our prototype," George said gleefully, taking it from him. "We thought we'd lost it. Thanks, Harry."
"Not a problem. What is it, anyway?"
Fred grinned. "Ah, this was a bit of a surprise, really. We've been thinking about branching out into other areas. Other than strictly joke items, I mean."
"We're thinking of making some fireworks, you know – A couple Roman candles, some sparklers, Catherine Wheels, that sort of thing. Explosive Enterprises, we're thinking of calling it."
"And one of the compounds didn't mix like we thought it would. Wouldn't ignite at all, but it did make one hell of a smell."
George laughed. "Mum thought something'd gone wrong with the ghoul in the attic. She kept owling Charlie to see if he would come and have a look at it. Didn't seem to quite understand that he worked with dragons, not ghouls. But that's Mum for you," he finished fondly.
"Anyway, thanks for returning this," Fred said. "We'll see you tomorrow, yeah? Angelina says practice is at noon!" And they sauntered off towards Lee Jordan, who was entertaining a crowd of first-years by juggling empty butterbeer bottles.
Harry smiled and moved over to sit by Hermione. She looked up at his approach, shoving several books aside to make room at the small table.
"Oh – Harry, have a seat. I've been doing some reading on wizarding law – good about Ron, isn't it?" she said distractedly. "Anyway – how'd it go this afternoon? Ichigo said you'd gotten the quills but…"
"It went… fine. Where is he, by the way?" Harry asked, glancing around the Common Room. The distinctive head of orange hair was nowhere to be seen.
Hermione shrugged, suppressing a yawn. "Said he was going to go write a letter. I asked why it couldn't wait until morning, but he didn't say…"
"Good," he said quietly. "Listen – there's something I wanted to ask you about…" And he told her about the break-in of Umbridge's office, the explosion of power that had shattered the wards, the feeling of irresistible helplessness that had accompanied it, and the overheard conversation with Peeves the Poltergeist – who maybe wasn't even a poltergeist at all.
Hermione was biting her lip worriedly by the end. "You said… he didn't use a spell or anything? But…" she trailed off uncertainly. "…Yes, I suppose that would make sense," she muttered to herself, staring blankly out the window at the dark grounds.
"What makes sense?"
She jumped, startled out of her reverie. "I – Earlier today… You remember on Tuesday, when he smashed that desk in Charms? And how afterwards he wasn't at all worried about having overloaded it?"
Harry nodded. It was a bit difficult to forget that incident, especially when stories about it were still cycling through the school's rumor mill.
"Well, in the courtyard today, he and I were talking about those awful quills of hers," she continued. "He said he'd been trying to overwhelm the curse on them. Do you know how difficult that would be to do?" At Harry's blank look, she continued, "It's impossible. Or it's supposed to be, anyway. Raw magic is supposed to be impossible to work with on any sort of scale, even Dumbledore can't – but if he's been manipulating it so easily, then maybe that's what he used to break down the wards."
Harry frowned, thinking. "It didn't feel anything like magic," he said after a moment. "Not at all like Priori Incantatem, or like using that Time-Turner of yours. It was more like…" he struggled to find the appropriate words for several seconds. "I don't know what it was," he admitted at last. "But it wasn't magic, I know that much."
"Well, if you're sure," Hermione conceded.
"I am." He hesitated for a moment before plowing on. "D'you have any idea what Peeves meant? It was like they knew each other…"
"I haven't the foggiest," she confessed, looking thoroughly disturbed by this fact. "The library is a bit… unforthcoming about the subject obviously, but none of the books I've read on daemonology ever mention a demon specifically of the moon. Lots of ones who have links to it, but…" She bit her lip. "If we had a name…"
Harry's mind drifted back to a day long past. A memory of a darkened alleyway, of unseasonable cold, an arc of inexplicably dark light that had killed the unkillable – yes, it was certainly hellish enough to belong to a demon.
"…Getsuga," he said quietly. The name felt odd on his tongue, but at the same time inexplicably right. He looked at Hermione. "I – I think that's what Ichigo called it."
She frowned, wracking her brains for any tug of familiarity, but there was none. She shook her head.
"Well, what about the other things? You've any idea what a 'Reaper' is? I was thinking… maybe it's a kind of wizard, like a warlock or a sorcerer, or something."
She shook her head again. "Warlocks and sorcerers get those titles from academic achievements – warlocks have a mastery of Defense Against the Dark Arts, for example. I've never heard of a 'reaper' before." She grimaced. "Well, aside from the obvious, but nothing that's actually real."
"I mean the grim reaper, Harry. But that's just old Muggle superstition – it doesn't actually exist. Even Muggles don't believe in it now."
Harry tilted his head to the side pensively. "Well, Muggles also think unicorns are a myth, don't they?"
She let out a disdainful little snort. "I think if it did, there'd be a mention of it somewhere in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them or The Monster Book of Monsters or in Encyclopaedia Magicka. A skeletal figure wielding a scythe who goes around killing people is a bit hard to ignore. Besides, we've all been around Ichigo for months now, and none of us has died yet."
He nodded, allowing the point.
The clock in the corner chimed twice. The party was starting to wind down, now – the first years had all been shuffled off to bed, and most of the older students looked tired as well.
Harry yawned widely and stood. "I think I'll head to bed. Tell Ron for me, will you?"
Hermione nodded. "Of course. I'll be up a bit longer, I think," she said, suppressing a yawn of her own. She gestured to the open book on the table in front of her. "I'd like to finish this before turning in… did you know that in Norway it's illegal to tether a hippogriff to an oak tree on Sundays?"
"No," Harry answered. "'Night, Hermione." He left her to her studies, traipsing up the spiraling staircase to the fifth-year boys' dormitory. Neville's quiet snores could be heard from behind the curtains around his bed. Harry didn't bother to remove his clothes, only pausing to kick off his shoes before flopping unceremoniously down on the mattress. He lay there for several long moments, mulling over the most recent events, trying to make heads or tails of any of it. For once, talking to Hermione had only made him more confused than he'd been before. He'd write to Sirius in the morning – his godfather always seemed a good person to turn to. Maybe he could make sense of it all.
With that in mind, he tugged the covers over his head and fell asleep.
Far to the south, two figures sat camped on a hill over a crackling fire. The lights of some large city twinkled in the distance, and the light of the moon illuminated a large sign that read:
LONDON – 47 MILES
LITTLE WHINGING –10 MILES
One of the figures looked up. "Sir?"
The other huffed. "How many times, Alex? How many? I keep telling you, call me Jack. None of this 'sir' nonsense."
"This makes two hundred and forty-two times this year, sir."
The one called 'Jack' sighed. "How the bloody hell did you end up with us again? You should've gone off to Miriam's lot. You'd fit right in with all them uptight bastards."
"…You selected me, sir."
"Oh, yeah. Huh. Forgot about that."
'Alex' heaved a sigh. "Sir, how much longer are we supposed to wait? We've searched this area five times already. He's not here."
"I'm surprised at you, Alex," Jack scolded. "You of all people should know we've got orders to follow. Until we hear otherwise, we're staying put." He settled back against a rock, arms folded and hood pulled low, covering his eyes. Now I'm going to get some sleep. We've got another patrol tomorrow morning, so I suggest you do the same. The shields'll hold up 'til then."
"Not now, Alex. I'm sleeping."
Several minutes passed, the silence of the campsite only disturbed by the crackling of the fire and the chirping of crickets in the fields. Without warning, the fire roared and flared; Alex scrambled to his feet, hand resting on the hilt of the sword sheathed at his waist and looking around frantically for an intruder, fearful one of their barrier spells had been broken – but the hillside was just as quiet and peaceful as it had been all night. He turned his attention back to the fire, and slowly, a figure appeared in the smoke, arms crossed and foot tapping impatiently on some invisible floor.
The figure opened its mouth and spoke, the words echoing as though speaking in some great, empty chamber. "Sir Jonathan? Can ye 'ear me? Dammit Jack, where are ye?"
"Hold onto your horses, Doug, I'm here," Jack mumbled sleepily. He cracked open an eye and yawned, regarding the hazy shape of Doug with some degree of annoyance. "What can I do for you this fine evening?"
"I got orders from the boss," Doug said sharply.
Immediately, all traces of tiredness vanished from Jack's face. "What happened?"
Doug shrugged. "'Ard tae say. We been gettin' odd reports – one o' Ariana's scouts said there's bin sum odd activity up in th' 'ighlands."
"There's always 'odd activity' up in the highlands," Jack said dryly.
Doug grinned. "Aye, but thes 'un's apparently even odder than th' usual, if'n ye can believe tha'."
Jack was silent for a moment. "You reckon it's him?"
"Migh' be, migh' no' be. Either way, we're goin' tae find out," Doug replied. "We're tae meet Bobbie in Edinburgh an' 'ead North from there."
"Understood. Was there anything else?"
"Naw. Boss jist said tae 'urry yer lazy bum up, an' tae no' dilly dally 'round in London again. Especially when ye know th' ladies 'round Piccadilly cannae even see ye anyhow."
"Love you too, Boss," Jack muttered. He shook his head. "Alright. We'll head out now. We'll be there in about – oh, about seven days, if Alex here doesn't slow us down too much." He grinned over at the younger man, slapping him heartily on the back. "Reckon you can keep up, kiddo?"
Alex huffed at his superior and turned to Doug in the fire. "We will arrive within the week, Sir Douglas."
Doug smiled. "Well said, Alexander. Well said indeed. We'll be expectin' ye, then. Godspeed, lads."
"Aye. Safe travels, mate."
Doug's figure dissipated in a flurry of sparks, the fire fading down to little more than embers. Within moments, however, even those were gone, the ashes doused with water and scattered to the four winds.
Jack cast one last, cursory glance around their former campsite. There was no sign that anyone had ever been there, save for the footprints in the dust and lingering smell of smoke in the air. He glanced at his companion; Alexander stood nervously at attention, his expression a mixture of excitement and apprehension.
bubligaleam - from English 'bubble' and Latin 'galea(m)', meaning 'helmet'.
ikariyou (錨要) - roughly, anchor key.
reikyou (霊響) - roughly, soul resonance/reverberation/echo.
Greetings to you all!
A THOUSAND THANKS TO EVERYONE WHO READ/REVIEWED! Special thanks to mist shadow, Zarosian Chaos, Obiki Doragon, Ri696q, Violet Shadows, Basia Orci, Midnayuki, ladyyuuki16, Ciekawa Osoba, moonlightrurouni, deathnoteno1fan-codegeasslover, Octol, Shirosaki-Yuki, MisplacedSanity, Jiyle, SeanHicks4, Slayer End, 10th Squad 3rd Seat, Mesonoxian, ephemeral violet, Blinded in a bolthole, Furionknight, Victoriousvillian, CrossoverxToxThexDarkxSide, MeltedsnowFlake, Merkwerkee, StrawberriesAndCinnamonJAM, weee, Upsilon Forty-Two, arandomreviewer, PikaSilver-Moon, KaTyXLoves, Yuu-chi, KitElizaKing, xxserafinxx, raven angel of dispair, phoenixyfriend, sama-chan, Loella, mauraluxky6, Tsume28, Symbol of forever, reality deviant, georgina3101, A lilmatchgirl, asredwer,xXSweetestXAngelXNightmareXx , Hebi R, CrimsonKitsune333, Masked Bard of Chaos, Sypher14, anon, Kuroi Kokoro 09, Linnorria, Kenkyo-kun, me, TheMysticalFett, fancyfairy, Dyani91, HarryPotterForLife7, erindolphin91, LightDarkandChaos, Fantasy's Reflection, Dragonshinigami 5, Autobot traitor, Sleeping World (x2), Senator-X, ichilun, hydrianway1013, gimmefood, Memory Wolf, Mistress Zhou, Flower in the River, SaphiraEragon, mysticmoon1331, Love Psycho (x2), hello goodbye my spider fly, otodog, Jigoku no Yami, Alliyieh, Magic Kirby, Maverick14th, HappyFestus (x2), Ixcall it karma, Strawberryfunsized (x2), The Dark Leviathan, MusicalMuse, dwelian, SkywalkerT-65, Rizaidym (x2), scorpioneldar (x2), Black Firelight, Morte Cacciatora, Ruby Silken Sun, Caitriona695, SoI'llKillYou, reuben*w, fokker333, Cynthia the white wolf, Deeply Creepy, Darkbolt1, Higitsune, Kylip, and M for your lovely reviews! You all have my deepest thanks.
This chapter was supposed to come out in late February. It is now nearly two months after that, and for that you have my apologies. In my defense, this chapter ended up about twice the length I had originally planned. And with a lot more hints to Ichigo's backstory than I thought there would be (what do you call that, pastshadowing? Whatever the opposite of foreshadowing is). So there's that at least.
That means the chapter is bound to raise a lot of questions, not all of which I will answer here. But for the sake of clarity, Peeves is not a poltergeist - or rather, 'poltergeists' in general do not exactly fit the traditional model of trouble-causing spirits. It's a bit more complicated than that.
With regards to the next update, I can safely say it will not be until at least July. I'm doing a summer study abroad overseas this year that will last from May to about mid-June, and after that I'll be visiting some relatives in Europe. It will be a lot of fun, but the countries where I'll be going do not exactly have fantastic internet service. From what I understand, the only WiFi hotspots in the city where we'll be staying are the McDonalds and the local pancake house, though that may be an exaggeration. Again, my apologies - I would love to have faster updates as much as (I presume) you readers do - but it's unavoidable.
As always, please follow the little blue link if you wish to leave a comment. Love it, hate it, or think it should burn in hell, let me know.
Much love and so long for now,
PS. A plate of cookies goes out to Linnorria for being the 900th reviewer! Thank you and enjoy!
PPS. This story reached the 200,000 hits mark last chapter. Thank you to everyone who has read, and I can only pray you continue to enjoy it into the foreseeable future.
PPPS. Also, an entire cake goes out to PeppermintWinds, who recommended this fic on TV Tropes. I've no idea if you'll ever read this, but THANK YOU! It was quite a surprise to be scrolling through the fanfic recs pages and suddenly stumble across mine. Seriously, it made my week.