Well, that was a half-way decent manga chapter this week… looks like the Vandenreich were in a hurry to "Get the Hell Out of Dodge" before a certain pissed off Substitute arrived…. And Byakuya, oh Byakuya… hold on! Where's Orihime when you need her?! I kinda like how the first people Ichigo scoped in on were Renji and Rukia, as if reassuring himself they were okay. And, instead of going to one of the standing captains – he goes to Byakuya. Wonder how Mayuri is going to like Akon's bout of take-charge initiative?

Okay, as always, I don't own anything. If I ever got the rights to Bleach, I think you all would be noticing some immediate changes….

=Hell butterfly message=

==Eavesdropping bug==

||Japanese speaking||

:Zanpakuto speaking:

Ichigo talking to Zangetsu/Hichigo

:Inner hollow talking:

"Parseltongue"


Chapter 28

Tatsuki found that staying at the Burrow was everything Harry had said it was – and more, she mused as she leaned against the fence and watched Fred and George toss gnomes out of the garden.

They had talked about Malfoy – without Harry's presence – and the twins were thoroughly in awe of Ichigo and Snape for pulling it off. They truly wished they could have been present when Malfoy had opted in just so they could see what arguments the pair had used.

"It had to be the ultimate sales pitch," George had said, shaking his head, "we're good, but to be able to lure a Malfoy into the Order of the Phoenix?"

"Did they give him a change of personality?" Fred had wondered.

"No, because he was the same arrogant snot on the train back," Ginny had replied with a shake of her head, "except – he was actually rather decent to Yuzu…"

"Everyone's decent to Yuzu. Being mean to her makes you feel like a real low-life," Tatsuki laughed, "You just can't live with yourself afterwards – you want to go grovel in front of her and beg for forgiveness. Even a Malfoy."

"And that, Lady of Mine," Fred said, suddenly appearing in front of her and pulling her back to the present, "Is how you evict a gnome."

Tatsuki smiled at him. "Interesting technique," she said, remembering what Ichigo had told her about getting rid of the ones in his garden, and her one and only interaction with the Jarveys. She would not mention that to any of the Weasleys, however. She had a feeling they wouldn't approve. She and Ichigo – and Karin – found the ferret-like creatures rather amusing once you got past the coarseness of their language. "But you didn't move fast enough – one is still here."

"Oh – that one bit me, so I have plans for him."

She raised a brow and studied the gnome, currently bound up with kido. So, he had been paying attention to Tessai in those lessons…

He held his hand out to her, and she took it, snuggling into his side for extra warmth. For the past few days, she had been hinting that there was more going on than he'd originally been told… she felt guilty not telling him sooner, it felt as if she was misleading him. She was pretty sure he'd caught on, but he was waiting on her to tell him when she was ready.

She had told Ichigo that she was going to tell him, and he had understood. In her position, he had said, he would feel the same way. After all, he'd kept the truth from all of them for nearly a whole year, so he knew the strain it could put on a person. Then he had surprised her when he told her to tell Mr. Weasley as well – but just those two. Professor Dumbledore had okayed the patriarch of the Weasley clan, but no one else…

Tatsuki decided to tell them at the same time – it would have to be after Christmas, because Mr. Weasley was working long hours at the Ministry.

She could only hope the talk went well and didn't blow up in her face. She didn't know what she would do if that happened.

Christmas Eve saw everyone in the living room, which Ginny and Tatsuki had decorated rather lavishly with paper chains, and she thought that maybe they had gotten carried away... but they had been having too much fun with it. She had to refrain from bursting out into laughter when she saw what Fred and George had done with the gnome… it had been stupefied, painted gold, and dressed in a frilly little tutu with wings, and then stuck on top of the tree.

It was, she thought mirthfully, the ugliest angel she had ever seen in her life.

Lupin had arrived earlier on Christmas Eve; he appeared as poorly off as ever. The unfairness of his situation truly bothered her, and she was reminded again of how Ichigo had been bullied when he'd been a child, just because he'd been born with a different hair color. Now she understood why – his mother was British. Still, the sheer prejudice of it all… it bothered her. Lupin was only dangerous three nights out of the month, and the wolfs-bane potion fixed that by leaving him with his human mind; so what was the problem? Maybe she should talk to him about moving to Japan – they had nowhere near the same kind of prejudices in the magical community; after they had found out about Lupin's condition, they had researched it, and found that Japan had a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. As long as the were-creature (there were too many different types to list) did not let the animal part run lose and harm anyone, they turned a blind eye. With Ichigo and Uryu to brew up the potion on a monthly basis, and Urahara's basement to hide in – no one had to ever know.

Bill and Fleur were cuddling in a corner, and Fred, George and Ginny were teaching Tatsuki how to play exploding snap. Or rather, they were trying to teach her, and failing miserably. She, on the other hand, was trying to keep her mind off of her upcoming talk – and she winced at a particularly high note that Mrs. Weasley's favorite singer hit as Molly played Christmas Carols. Maybe Lupin would help her, as he'd been in the know from the beginning. At least his presence would make the talk easier.

"Sorry about that," Mr. Weasley said softly, "it should be over soon." Apparently he was no big fan of the singer, either.

Tatsuki listened as Harry told Mr. Weasley and Lupin everything that had happened during the school year.

"Well," Lupin said, his eyes widening as he listened. "Well, well."

"Do you… do you really believe it? That Malfoy is for real?" Harry asked, "He knows Occlumency, he was able to keep Snape out, he could keep out Ichigo –"

"He can't keep Ichigo out," Lupin said quietly, "And I know that Snape taught him Legilimency as well as Occlumency."

"But – if he can block Snape – and Moldy – why not Ichigo?" Ron asked, "They're more experienced."

Lupin didn't answer right away, and his gaze met Tatsuki's briefly, before he did. "It's the magical foundation, I think," he said slowly, "the Eastern way of doing things is different; it's why kido works so well against our magic, and vice versa, when you aren't ready for it. Malfoy doesn't know anything about kido; therefore he cannot block someone using Legilimency with a kido base."

"Huh?" both boys looked utterly, completely baffled – and bamboozled - by the explanation.

Tatsuki refrained from laughing. In actuality, if Ichigo wanted to, he could just bulldoze his way in with the aid of Zangetsu and Hichigo; that's what Lupin knew, but wasn't saying. Luckily for everyone, Ichigo would never do so. His morals would never allow it. He might do it to someone like Moldy or Aizen, but not Malfoy. He'd want to scrub his brain afterwards, but he could probably manage it. On second thought… maybe he wouldn't do it, even to them. There were times when Ichigo was just too – nice. Of course, there was also the reverse – she highly doubted that even Voldemort would be able to get into Ichigo's mind, not with that pair standing guard over it. She'd love to see him try – he'd probably find himself fried and filleted before he even knew what hit him. The attempt would most likely leave him as nothing more than a gibbering idiot, a brainless vegetable.

"Eggnog anyone?" Mr. Weasley suddenly asked to prevent a disagreement between Fleur and his wife over the holiday music. Molly Weasley had been playing, almost non-stop, her favorite singer… and Fleur and just made a rather uncharitable comment.

Personally, Tatsuki agreed with Fleur on this one. Celestina Warbeck…was horribly dull. Of course, she also couldn't understand what they all had against Fleur. She rather liked the other woman, and she could tell Harry did too – but he had to tread rather carefully there. He had told her that Fleur was one of the competitors from the Tri-Wizard Cup, and that he had saved her little sister during one of the tasks, which is why Fleur was so fond of him. Tatsuki thought the problem with Fleur and Mrs. Weasley was that the French witch spoke her mind, sparing no one. Tact was not her strong suit.

They gave up their game, and Fred joined Tatsuki, mirroring Bill and Fleur. Neither of them said anything, but she knew Fred was listening just as intently as she was as Harry questioned Lupin, first about Greyback – the werewolf who had turned him when he was a child – and then about the identity of the "Half Blood Prince," at which she nearly groaned. Tatsuki knew who he was, of course – Ichigo had told them – but she was worried about Harry's obsession. He had the book back, since Ichigo had written out all of the spells, so he had no need to experiment. They were watching him closely however, to see what he'd do with them. So far all he had done was look them over rather carefully, and wince a time or two when he saw what they did. Probably he was glad now that Ichigo had taken it from him as forcefully as he had, and stopped him from making a bad mistake.

"Don't make me regret this, Harry," Ichigo had said gruffly when he gave the book and the spell list back to him. "Don't make me kick your ass over this."

Harry had promised to use it all wisely. Ichigo could definitely do what he had said he would.

#

"She's got to be joking!"

Ron's exclamation woke Harry on Christmas morning, and he had to groggily search for his glasses in order to see Ron sitting up in bed and staring horrified at a thick gold chain.

"What is that?" Harry asked him and he finally found his glasses and put them on.

"It's from Lavender," Ron replied, with a queasy expression. "She can't expect me to really wear this…"

Harry took it from him and howled with laughter; at the end of the thick gold chain were the words: MY SWEETHEART in large gold letters.

"Very classy," Harry grinned, "You should wear that in front of Fred and George…"

"Don't you dare tell them!" Ron shoved the tacky necklace under his pillow.

"Or what?" Harry continued to laugh at him. Ron swore him to secrecy over the horrid necklace; they finished opening their gifts – one of Harry's was from Kreacher, a moldy-smelling box of maggots that had Ron howling with laughter. Harry shut him up by telling him he'd rather have the maggots than the necklace. At least the maggots would serve as food for something. Harry's favorite gift, however, was from Ichigo – his own laptop, preloaded with his favorite games, and according to the note he had included, there was a special battery that would power it when he was somewhere like the Weasleys, and he couldn't use magic because he was still underage. He would not have to ask someone else to use the power spell to turn it on for him, the way he had asked for Lupin's assistance with the iPods. Ichigo had apparently thought of everything. Now Harry wouldn't have to keep borrowing Ichigo's in order to play Angry Birds… he could play it on his own computer. Ron looked a little surprised, but since Ichigo had given him a very expensive Quidditch kit – Keeper's boots, gloves, and helmet and a broom management kit, he didn't have anything to be overly jealous about.

Everyone except Fleur had new knitted sweaters when they sat down for Christmas lunch; Tatsuki appeared to be as distracted as Lupin, but she had been listening to a butterfly message shortly before they sat down, so it could possibly have something to do with that, Harry thought. The only person who would send her one would be Ichigo.

"Have you heard from Tonks, Remus? I invited her…" Mrs. Weasley asked as the food was being passed around.

"No, but I haven't spoken to many people lately," he replied, "Besides, she has her own family to be with, doesn't she?"

"Maybe, I got the impression that she was planning to spend today alone," she gave the werewolf an annoyed look, as if it was entirely his fault. Why would she be angry at Lupin about it?

They ate in companionable silence, until Mrs. Weasley suddenly shot to her feet. "Arthur!" she said, staring out the kitchen window, "It's – it's – Percy!"

"What?"

Everyone turned to stare, and Ginny and Tatsuki got up to get a better look.

"Oh – my…" Ginny whispered, gripping Tatsuki's arm tightly. Ichigo was the only member of their group who had 'met' Percy; but the young man striding across the snowy yard was most definitely a Weasley; there was no mistaking that head of hair of his. Tatsuki had not been very impressed with him, given Ichigo's description. She thought he was a right prat for what he was doing.

"Arthur – he's with the Minister!"

Tatsuki turned to look at Harry, then Lupin, whose eyes were also flicking between the two of them. So, it was once more up to Tatsuki to be the group's eyes and ears…

The door opened and Percy entered.

"Merry Christmas, Mother." Tatsuki noticed that Molly was the only one he greeted, although he gave her a rather curious look, as if wondering who she was.

"Oh, Percy!" she sobbed, throwing herself on him.

"Forgive this intrusion," the Minister apologized, smiling faintly at the mother and son, "we were nearby – working – and he wanted to drop by –"

Percy didn't show any signs of wanting to greet anyone else; in fact his mother was the only one he had spoken to. His father and brothers all observed this expressionlessly, while she fluttered about. Ginny was meanwhile threatening to cut off the circulation in Tatsuki's arm.

"No, no really Molly, we can only stay a few minutes," the Minister insisted, "I don't want to intrude, so I'll just wander around the yard. Perhaps that young man could show me around, he's finished."

Everyone turned to look at Harry, who nodded briefly, murmured something to Lupin and Mr. Weasley as he passed them, and touched Ginny briefly on the arm as she turned to watch him. Even Fleur raised an eyebrow at that very obvious ploy.

"I'll go too," Tatsuki said, surprising the Minister, "In case you couldn't tell, I'm not a Weasley either."

There were so many murmured "yets" that it was almost a shout; even Harry had muttered it. Tatsuki blushed, but when she met Harry's eyes, she saw gratitude mirrored there – well, she mused as she followed him, Ichigo would not have let him deal with this on his own, and neither would she. Her conscience wouldn't allow it.

"Very nice," Scrimgeour said as they stopped at the garden fence, to watch the gnomes that had returned to infest the garden; apparently Ichigo's method was more effective – he said the last time he had been to the house, there hadn't been a single gnome in the garden; the Jarveys had been very thorough, and were apparently on good terms with the griffin. She couldn't imagine the Weasleys using them, however. The method was too violent for some very nice people, although she understood that it was just nature keeping balance. "Very nice. Charming." He looked over at Harry. "I've wanted to meet you for some time, Harry. Did you know that?"

So there it was, Tatsuki thought as Harry glanced quickly at her. The truth behind the visit. And it had nothing to do with Percy wanting to see his mother.

"No." Harry's voice was cool, but polite.

"Oh yes, but Dumbledore would not allow it. He's been… very protective of you," the Minister paused, considering, "Very protective. Natural of course, after everything you've been through…"

Well, good for Dumbledore. She could just imagine what Ichigo would have said in this situation. It would have been highly sarcastic, and just as insulting.

Harry stayed quiet, and Tatsuki wondered if he was supposed to have said something. She didn't think so, as she can't imagine what he could have said other than a monosyllabic "Oh?" or "Really?"

"The rumors that have flown around!" he continued, his eyes flicking over to Tatsuki, "not just about you, but your friend, as well…"

"It wasn't the killing curse he was hit with," Harry said shortly, "If that's what you're wondering."

"Ah – I suppose that does clear up that little issue –" Scrimgeour nodded, "but there are still the whispers of a prophecy – of you being the Chosen One…"

Harry and Tatsuki glanced quickly at each other again. Maybe Ron was right and Harry should just hand out fliers to everyone – it would certainly save a lot of time – especially if people were going to beat around the bush the way the Minister was and not just come right out and ask him, the way Ernie had. Of course, Ernie felt he had the right to ask directly – being a 'card-carrying member of the DA' as he put it.

The Minister continued, when neither teen spoke, hinting at whether or not Professor Dumbledore had discussed it with Harry. Harry stared at the garden for a long moment, finally replying, "We've discussed it."

Of course they've discussed it, Tatsuki thought venomously, glaring silently at him, as the Minister did not ask Harry for details – in fact, her ire was growing as it became obvious that he did not consider it even important whether Harry actually was the Chosen One or not! What was important he said, was what people believed.

Harry - by facing and defeating Old Moldy so many times – had become a symbol of hope.

Hope that there was someone out there who could – and who might even be destined – to defeat Voldemort – is what gave people hope. The Minister wanted Harry to stand alongside the Ministry to do this.

That would be, Tatsuki thought angrily, the same thing as Ichigo not going after Orihime when she'd been taken to Hueco Mundo, and instead meekly following Yamamoto's orders to stand down. Or worse, to stand with the fictitious Central 46 when 'they' had ruled that Rukia needed to be executed and not do anything about it.

Not bloody likely. Both decisions would have resulted in a loss – one in a very good friend, or rather two, as Tatsuki would never have forgiven him for deserting Orihime – and the other in the loss of the woman who would become the love of his life… no, not bloody hell likely.

Harry stood silently and did not respond for a long while. He finally asked what Scrimgeour meant by "Stand alongside the Ministry…what does that mean?"

"Nothing onerous, I assure you," he said, "Just be seen coming in and out of the Ministry from time to time. While you were there, you would have a chance to speak with my successor as the Head of the Auror Department. I understand from Dolores Umbridge that you wish to become an Auror…"

Harry turned to Tatsuki, and she saw the same anger in his eyes that she knew must be showing in hers. Dumbridge was still at the Ministry? That bitch was still working there after everything she had done? They hadn't fired her ass? Oh, Ichigo was going to blow the roof when she told him that one… she could even imagine that Dumbitch would be getting another visit from him… he might even let Hichigo out to play fully, this time.

"So basically," Harry said conversationally, "You want to give people the impression that I'm working for the Ministry?"

"It would give people hope, Harry."

"But that will give the impression that Harry approves of what the Ministry is doing, won't it?" Tatsuki spoke up finally, wanting to clarify that point in her mind.

"Well," Scrimgeour frowned at her, "Yes, that's partly why we'd like –"

"No, it won't work," Harry shook his head, "I don't like some of the things the Ministry has done…"

"I do not expect you to understand," his expression hardened, "You are sixteen…"

"Actually, I do understand. You want me to be a – a mascot."

Tatsuki snorted with restrained laughter at the term. Scrimgeour stared at them, frowning. "So – you prefer – like Dumbledore – to disassociate yourself from the Ministry?"

"I don't want to be used!" Harry shot back.

"Some would say it's your duty to be used by the Ministry!"

"And I don't think it is!" Harry angrily retorted, losing all pretense of being polite. Well, finally – good for him. "You people never get it right. We either have Chocolate Bar pretending that everything is lovely while people get murdered under his nose, or we have you, tossing the wrong people in jail, still employing heartless bitches like Dumbridge, and wanting to pretend that you've got 'the Chosen One' working for you!" Tatsuki almost laughed when Harry used Ichigo's nicknames for Fudge and Umbridge – and the Minister's face was priceless when he heard them. He was probably wondering what he was going to end up being called… so far Ichigo hadn't come up with anything, but the subject hadn't actually come up yet. She was sure it would after today.

"So you aren't –"

"You said it didn't matter either way," Tatsuki reminded him, interrupting, "whether he was or not. Did you lie?"

"That was tactless of me," Scrimgeour glowered at her for reminding him of what he had said, "I can arrange for you not to be able to return, you and your friends…"

Tatsuki glared at him. "You need us. You need all the allies you can get right now. Can you afford to offend the only powerful help against Him that you have?"

"She's right," Harry agreed, jumping in, "You can't afford to lose the Japanese, they're the only help against Moldy we have. And it's powerful help – I saw them fight the Death Eaters, even Voldemort was hard pressed to fight them – so I'd rather have their help than yours. They care if I survive. You don't. All you care about is that I help you convince people that you are winning the war, when you aren't. You didn't rush to my defense when I was trying to convince everyone that Voldemort was back. The Ministry wasn't keen on being pals last year."

They all stared at each other.

"What is Dumbledore up to?" Scrimgeour asked brusquely. "Where does he go when he leaves Hogwarts?"

"No idea," Harry replied easily.

"And you wouldn't tell me if you knew, would you," Scrimgeour said, "Either of you."

"Got it in one, Minister," Tatsuki replied for the both of them.

"I see." He stared at the pair of them. "I suppose I shall have to try to find out by other means."

"You can try," Harry said, "But you may want to take something into account. Fudge tried to interfere as well – and he's no longer Minister. But Dumbledore is still Head Master. However you do appear to be a good bit smarter than Fudge."

"Dumbledore's man through and through, eh, Potter?"

"Like I said – you do appear to be smarter than Fudge. So I'm glad we got that straightened out."

Harry turned his back to the Minister and walked back to the house. Tatsuki waited a moment longer before she followed him, her hand pulling a butterfly out of her pocket.

Ichigo and the others needed to know about this – right away.

#

In Japan, Christmas was just another day of the year; however, Christmas Eve had turned into a day for lovers – very much like Valentine's Day was in the Western half of the world.

Unlike the year before where they had stayed at Hogwarts, Ichigo was able to take Rukia out for an expensive, romantic dinner. In this, he had gone to Byakuya for advice as to where to take his fiancée – knowing that whatever Byakuya recommended would be classy and upscale. Her brother had nodded his approval when he heard Ichigo's explanation, then gave Ichigo the name of a dining establishment – and even offered to make reservations.

Ichigo declined the offer, saying he would need to speak with Ukitake first, to make sure of what time he could have Rukia for the evening, and after he did – he sent Cedric to make the reservations, receiving a knowing smirk from his subordinate, especially when Ichigo promised to spar with him if he'd do so. Byakuya had approved of all of his actions.

The eating establishment that Byakuya had recommended was certainly upscale, and apparently it prided itself on giving its clientele privacy as well. Ichigo and Rukia – both in kimonos, not their Shihakushos – were barely able to tell that anyone else was there.

Rukia looked stunning in a dark pink kimono covered with a flower pattern. Her eyes were bright, and her cheeks naturally rosy as they ate their dinner, served by a quiet, yet solicitous server. Her hand kept going up to her neck, where he'd placed his gift to her – a pendant to match her engagement ring. There were earrings as well, but those were for her birthday.

"Thank you Ichigo," she said, smiling at him.

"For what?"

"This," she looked around, "I don't think we've ever had a real date before."

"Hm, that's right," he nodded, "I think the closest we came is that aborted Valentine's Day tea in Hogsmeade…" he smiled back at her, "It's long overdue, and," he added, "you look – beautiful."

She blushed, "Thank you. You look quite dashing yourself." Her hand reached up to her pendant again.

"Do you like it?" he asked her quietly. He had asked his father to see to it; so Isshin had gone back to the same jeweler that Ichigo had gotten Rukia's engagement ring and had them made to order. Isshin had been overly enthusiastic about helping… Chad had gone along in order to control him, thankfully; still watching Ichigo's back, even when he wasn't there.

"I love it!" she smiled at him, her violet eyes glowing.

When they had finished, they walked home in silence, with Rukia tucked up against his side.

"Your mother appears to be very excited about tomorrow," she said quietly when they arrived home. It was probably the only home that was liberally adorned with holiday decorations, courtesy of Masaki and Lily.

"Yes; but you forget my mother was born and raised in England – it's where my hair color comes from," he smiled at one of the wreaths on the gate, "Christmas is – very dear to her. I can remember celebrating it when I was younger, but this is going to be Karin and Yuzu's first time." He paused. "We kept it low key, but there was a small tree, and only one or two presents… but my mother went all out for Christmas dinner." He stared at the massive Christmas tree in the center of the courtyard, which was at least twenty times larger than the one they'd had in Karakura Town. It was also the only tree in the entire Seireitei.

"She and Lily have been working so hard…" Rukia sighed. She had wanted to help them, but her assistance had been refused. They had told her that she was still recovering, and they wanted to make sure she was one hundred percent well. Rukia was coming to adore Masaki as much as her own son did.

"I know. We're going to be able to feed an army. And I'm not sure exactly who went and purchased all of the food, although I suspect it may have been Winky. She's excited over getting to do a 'real Christmas dinner' as well." He suspected Taffy was as well; the family's second house-elf had arrived earlier in the day to assist with the last minute preparations. Although he suspected that Taffy would always belong to Masaki, while Winky's heart would belong to her children. In a way, he thought it would work out better that way.

"Who's coming?" they dropped their voices down to a whisper as they walked quietly through the house to their bedroom. They didn't want to wake his mother up.

"Better to ask who isn't, it's quicker," he replied dryly, sliding the door shut. "Dinner is going to resemble a Captain's meeting, war council, and a staff meeting, all in one."

Rukia chuckled, and slid her arms around Ichigo's waist, untying his obi in order to disrobe him quickly. "So in other words, your mother invited the entire Seireitei?"

"So it seems. All I know is that Kisuke and I have been ordered to keep my father under control until dinner. We have no clue how we're going to do that. Kisuke suggested that I turn him into a rabbit…"

The petite Soul Reaper chuckled again, and then pulled her fiancé's head down for a kiss. "Enough talking about everyone else; I'm not ready to end our night…"

Ichigo laughed silently as he let his lips dance gently over hers. "What did you have in mind?"

"You'll see…"


Author's Note:

Okay, I'll admit it – I'm at a loss. I can't think of a suitable nickname for Scrimgeour. So, any suggestions? The person who comes up with the winner will be invited to the Seireitei's Christmas dinner!