Title: To Hell and Back | Chapter 09 x The Pretext of Difficulty
Authors: furiosity & incapricious
Fandom: Harry Potter & Bleach
Genre: Crossover | Drama
Rating: R [overall] (this part, PG)
Pairing: Harry Potter/Draco Malfoy
Disclaimer: JKR and Kubo own. We only play. You do not sue.
Length: 4300 words (this part)
Summary: In which Harry is crap at apologies, words have measurable power, Sugita misses a well-deserved kick, the properties of butterflies are discussed, and Draco can't quite master the vanishing act.
Concrit: Always welcome and appreciated.
09 x The Pretext of Difficulty
Four years later
Harry stood on the roof of Building 42, staring off at the distant Seireitei.
I can do this.
He took a deep breath, cleared his mind, and took a step, willing his body to flash forward. He repeated the mantra they'd learned in theory class: I see but I am not aware. The world blurred for an instant, and when it came back into focus, he found himself... on the roof of Building 42.
"Damn it," he muttered.
Of all the things he had learned in his four years at the academy, flash-step was the hardest. At least, doing it the right way was: to move great distances with a single step required a total lack of concentration. In other words, it was the opposite of Apparition, not to mention completely weird. It was a lot like trying not to think of a pink elephant, and even a year after the first theory lessons, Harry still didn't get it.
Last time he'd practised, he'd thought maybe he'd made a breakthrough, but apparently not. He would again need to use what Malfoy referred to as "the bollocks technique for losers", officially known as the intermediary technique. The flash-step instructor had assured Harry that his body would learn what it needed to do eventually if he just had a little patience.
Those who couldn't clear their minds of thought had to instead preoccupy their minds with memories. It didn't take you as far or as fast, but it was better than going nowhere. Down below on the lawn, a first year bowed deeply to an upperclassman, his books scattered on the ground.
Harry swung his shinai wildly. His hair was still wet from his visit to the bathhouse, but sweat was already starting to gather on his brow again. The practice field was dark, lit only by trickles of lamplight from nearby buildings. He could barely see what he was doing, but he continued to hack away at invisible enemies. Not that a bamboo sword would've been any helpful against visible enemies.
He had been so close to seeing his friends again. If that stupid barrier hadn't been there, he could have escaped from this place, from all its strange customs and unfriendly inhabitants. His anger was a flailing, helpless thing he couldn't control. As soon as he acknowledged that, his movements began to gain structure, and he flowed through the kenjutsu forms without conscious thought.
By the time he'd gone through the forms a second time, his jaw had unclenched.
By the end of the fifth repetition, he had admitted to himself that they hadn't been that close to escaping. Even if the barrier hadn't been there, they might have been caught before even getting on the train. Or they might have boarded the wrong flight and ended up in Zimbabwe. Or Los Angeles.
Over an hour later, Harry dropped his shinai to his side, panting. Malfoy had actually tried to say something encouraging before Harry had stormed out, hadn't he? It was true that once they graduated, there would be no more barriers in the world of the living.
Malfoy had been kind of decent, and Harry had been kind of an arse. That wasn't the way things were supposed to go.
When Harry got back to the room, all was dark and still. Harry knelt down next to the dark lump under the blankets of Malfoy's mat.
"Malfoy?" he whispered. There was no answer. "Malfoy," Harry said, poking the lump experimentally. "Are you awake?"
"For fuck's sake, what do you want?" groaned Malfoy, his upturned face a pale blob in the darkness. "Of course I'm not awake. It's the middle of the night."
"I just wanted to say I'm sorry. For earlier. I mean... you know."
Malfoy didn't move; his breaths remained slow and even. "You're crap at apologies," he said finally, rolling over to present his back to Harry.
Harry decided it was the closest he would ever get to "apology accepted" from Malfoy, so he retreated to his mat and slept, his mind eased a little bit.
The next morning, he woke up late and had to skip breakfast to get to his theory class on time. He sat at the back, wincing every time his stomach grumbled. At the end, as he gathered his books, he contemplated skipping the first ten minutes of kenjutsu to nick something from the kitchen. Even if Ozu did make him scrub a Demon Arts range wall or four later, it might be worth it. Otherwise Sugita would wipe the floor with him. And gloat for weeks.
"I could hear your stomach from the front of the classroom," Malfoy said, joining Harry in the walk down the corridor.
"Well, if you'd woken me up, I might've spared you the inconvenience," Harry said lightly. He knew it was his own fault, but he couldn't help but be annoyed at Malfoy -- on any other day, Malfoy would've delighted in kicking him awake. So what was different?
"I'm not your butler," Malfoy scoffed. He took something out of his pocket and threw it at Harry, who caught it on instinct.
It was a rice ball.
Harry focussed on the pickled plum flavour, his mouth watering, and stepped forward. With a rush of air, he was on top of the sixth years' barracks, overlooking a training field. A row of students swung their swords in unison, metal gleaming in the sunlight.
Harry craned his neck to see why the line was moving so slowly. At the front, Ozu was handing Malfoy an asauchi. Malfoy bowed and deftly slid the practice sword under the belt of his uniform. As he walked away to take his place in the column, he touched the hilt with a slight grin.
When it was finally his turn, Harry had completely forgotten what he was supposed to say. Ozu raised his eyebrows, and that was enough -- as always.
Harry bowed and said, to the sword, "I swear to earn the right to know your name."
From that day forward, kenjutsu practice felt like it finally had a real purpose. All the hard-learned forms were new; Harry had to re-learn them to compensate for the greater weight of the sword and for the altered balance. Then there was the business of drawing out the sword's spirit, of letting the asauchi become zanpakutō.
But he was far from that yet -- first he had to be able to use it as a weapon. The idea of swinging the asauchi at a Hollow was surreal -- Harry didn't know if he could do it. Cutting through flesh -- even spirit flesh -- was nothing like flinging a curse or a jinx; a wand didn't meet any resistance when you used it, its grip didn't tremble and there was no blade to swing down. When Harry had led the practice lessons for Dumbledore's Army, he'd never felt his opponents' breath on his face. Magic was cold and distant. The sword was personal.
Remembering the unfamiliar feel of his asauchi during that first practice session, Harry stepped forward again. He was on top of a long row of buildings in Seireitei. Down in the street, a half dozen black-robed Shinigami walked, bantering, and Harry crouched to avoid being seen. Behind the main group, a bald man strolled next to a shorter one who had brightly coloured feathers glued to one eyebrow. Baldy laughed and clapped Feathers on the back. Feathers glared at first, then broke into a reluctant smile and leaned in slightly, pushing Baldy off balance.
"Do you know why she invited us?" Malfoy asked as he and Harry hurried through the maze of paths that led to Block 2 of the common area.
Sugita had cornered them in the corridors that afternoon and invited them to a study session. Harry had been grinning ever since -- off and on, of course, since constant grinning was a sign of being either soft in the head or Ichimaru Gin. But he could have grinned nonstop.
"Because she wanted to?" he suggested. "I mean, she's kind of my friend. Well. She talks to me, at least..."
"Come on, Potter," Malfoy said with a dark look. "Nothing's ever that simple." He pushed open the door. Inside, five of their classmates sat in a circle on the floor, their books open in front of them. Spotting them, Sugita scooted to one side.
"Hello, Harry-kun, Draco-kun. We are discussing the incantation for Way of Destruction Thirty-Three. Please, join us."
Harry sat down next to Sugita, nodding to the others. Malfoy knelt down on the other side of him, staying just outside the boundary of the circle.
"So... blue fire, crash down," Sugita said. "I was thinking about how it compares to Way of Destruction sixteen. It is 'unleash the wrath of your claws' in 33, but just 'unleash your claws' in 16, and yet 33 has got to be a hundred times more powerful. The word 'wrath' has such potency."
"Please forgive me," Malfoy said, "But the incantation for 33 ends with 'unleash but slightly the wrath of your claws.' Without the 'slightly' you have Way of Destruction 81."
"What does that do?" Kihara asked. Harry looked at him, startled. That might have been the first time he had spoken directly to Malfoy.
"Blue fire of death," Malfoy answered.
Harry turned to him. "How do you know about that?"
Malfoy's cheeks went pink. "I'm sorry, what was that?"
"How--" Harry began to repeat, puzzled. "Oh. Right." He had spoken English, but Malfoy had responded in Japanese. Across from them, Kihara's lips were a flat line.
"Nothing," Harry said, and the subject was closed.
When they returned to their room after the study session, Harry braced himself for the inevitable Malfoy tantrum. They had agreed to only speak Japanese to one another whenever anyone else was around to avoid reinforcing their 'otherness', as Malfoy put it.
But instead of yelling, Malfoy sat down on his mat. "Kihara is such a git," he said. "He looked like he'd choked on a lemon. But I don't think the others minded so much."
"Maybe in a few years, we'll have friends other than each other," Harry said, grinning.
A funny look flitted across Malfoy's face, and Harry realised what he'd said. "Well, you know what I mean," he added.
Harry grinned ruefully. He and Malfoy were friends now, in a way -- the sort of friends who insulted each other a lot and couldn't agree on a thing. The memory took him past another blur of scenery, right to the wall separating Seireitei and Rukongai. He landed with a thud near the sprawling complex of the Shinigami Research and Development Institute, or, as Malfoy preferred to call it, "that awful breeding ground for freakish purple rabbits".
The Institute was rumoured to go deep underground, and Harry was sort of glad he could only flash-step across a single plane right now. What if he'd ended up in a research laboratory? The Institute was home to much more than Academy entrance exam paraphernalia and some of the things Harry had heard were enough to send the bravest man running for his life. In one of the windows, a vague shape loomed, white and strange -- it looked like a man with an octopus for a head.
Eager to get away from there, Harry cast about for another memory hurriedly. Besides the bunnies, the SRDI produced Hollow simulators for the Academy, too -- their kenjutsu group was scheduled to fight against a simulation next week, actually.
Third year meant more lessons, more hours of combat training, more theory -- leaving precious little time to do anything other than eat and sleep -- and even those things happened too rarely for Harry's liking. But the monthly free-day let the students do as they pleased; most slept, lounged, soaked in the baths, and otherwise avoided unnecessary movement.
"Why don't you want to come along?" Harry asked. He was lying on his mat in the middle of the day. It was glorious. "It's not like bathing is strenuous."
"I just don't feel like it," Malfoy said from his own mat.
"You never feel like it."
"Whatever. I go more often than you."
"So you say," Harry pointed out. "But never with me. You could be lying. Maybe you just take your towel, go for a stroll around campus, stick your head under a fountain, and come back."
Malfoy turned his head to one side and gave Harry a look full of incredulity. "Right, because that would be a reasonable thing for me to do."
"Right," Harry returned, "because you're always so reasonable." He paused and scratched his chest. "Are we arguing again?"
"Nah. Too much work." Malfoy turned his head back and resumed staring at the ceiling.
Harry sighed. "I wish they delivered food to our rooms on freedays. And maybe had someone feed us. Then I could just lie here and... digest."
"It is not the least bit surprising that you would want to be an infant," Malfoy said. Harry didn't even have to look at him to know that he was smirking.
"Or a python," Harry countered. "Pythons... digest."
"Ah, a Gryffindor who aspires to become more like a Slytherin. Never would have pegged you for the type."
Harry opened his mouth to retort, but someone knocked on the room door.
"Come in," both of them called.
The doors slid open, and Sugita poked her head in. "Lazy, lazy. Let's go for a walk in Rukongai."
"I was sort of not planning on moving today," Harry said. "At all."
"He lies," Malfoy said testily. "He was just now trying to entice me to go to the bathhouse with him."
Sugita laughed. "Bathhouse or no, I don't believe Harry-kun would ever skip a meal."
Harry was glad to see her. Last night she'd asked him to call her by her given name -- Ryoko -- and he'd had to explain about the mix-up with his and Malfoy's names. She'd seemed incredibly embarrassed that she'd been using his given name all along, and Harry had worried that the fragile bond they'd developed might break. He realised this invitation was probably Sugita's -- Ryoko's -- way of saying she wasn't going to fault him for not having told her the truth sooner.
"You are right about that," he said quickly, deciding that this friendship-thing with Ryoko was more important than rest. He scrambled up to his elbows and knees. "Let's go, then."
"We're going to South District 16," Ryoko said. "I grew up there, so you'll meet my family. And you are going to walk on just your two legs if you know what's good for you."
"Sounds like fun," Harry said, grinning as he crawled towards the door. Ryoko aimed a kick at him, but he rolled aside. Then he got to his feet. "Fine, fine, no need for violence." He turned to Malfoy. "Why are you still impersonating a sack of rice? Let's go."
Malfoy raised an eyebrow and sat up. Harry could've sworn he was hiding a smile.
Harry strolled along the dusty path, enjoying the sun's warmth on his face.
Next to him, Ryoko was telling Malfoy about her arrival in Rukongai after her death during the American invasion of Okinawa in 1945.
"I was hoping my brother would be waiting," Ryoko was saying. "But the two boys I met said I would probably never see my brother, no matter when he died."
"Maybe he didn't die," Malfoy suggested.
Ryoko's eyes clouded over. "A bomb hit our house. I heard it. I do not think any of my family survived."
Harry turned to her. "Will you go back and look for your old house after we graduate?"
Ryoko shrugged. "I want to now," she said. "But I don't think I will when I become a Shinigami. In fifth year, we will learn to let go of our human past."
"So even though we can't be reborn, we still forget where we come from," Malfoy concluded. "The Central 46 have thought of everything."
"No, not forget," Ryoko corrected him. "Our spirits cannot be reborn, so we must learn to let go despite remembering. A Shinigami must put duty first."
The sunshine didn't seem so warm anymore. Were the fifth-year teachers going to brain-wash Harry into no longer caring about Ron, Hermione, Sirius, Dumbledore, Ginny, Luna, and everyone else? About Hogwarts? The thought alone made something inside him tremble with defiance.
"Help! Help! Somebody save us!" squealed a voice from the alley they'd just passed.
"Hollow! Hollow!" cried another voice.
Harry's head snapped up and his hand flew to his belt, but his sword wasn't there. They weren't allowed to carry weapons outside kenjutsu lessons -- even fifth-years weren't allowed weapons outside the Academy grounds.
But Ryoko was already sprinting in the direction of the screams, and Harry followed. He heard Malfoy's footfalls thudding behind him as he ran.
The Hollow rose above the tiny huts at the end of the alley, a giant wormlike thing with six arms sprouting from its pale belly. A black hole gaped in the middle of its neck, and a vaguely birdlike bone mask covered its entire face. He had never seen anything quite like it in his textbook pictures -- all Hollows were different. When it opened its mouth and bellowed, it was a deep, discordant sound that filled Harry with all-too-familiar hopeless dread. It was the sound Dementors would have made if they could; he knew.
"Get its attention," Ryoko gritted. "We have to protect those people."
Harry had just noticed the cluster of Rukongai civilians cowering against one of the hut walls. Of course: the Hollows fed on spiritual energy, and three Shinigami Academy students were much better prey than a bunch of regular spirits.
"That's right!" he shouted, waving his arms wildly as he backed away. "Come and get me, you ugly git!"
Ryoko was mumbling the incantation to Way of Destruction thirty-three, her hands ready to complete the spell. Behind him, Malfoy was muttering too, but Harry didn't know that one -- something about the sacred ground beneath the wasted lands...
The Hollow seemed distracted, and Harry realised it was being drawn to the spiritual energy coalescing around Ryoko as she prepared to fire the spell. "HEY!" he screamed. "OVER HERE, YOU DUMB BEAST! I'M RIGHT HERE! COME AND GET ME!"
The Hollow's lumbering movement slowed even more as it swung its head to stare in Harry's direction again, eyes glittering black beneath its mask. Waves of revulsion hit him as he continued to back away and shout. This thing wanted to consume them. To absorb their spiritual power. Harry had never realised how wrong that was until now, until he could anticipate the spirit scales losing balance if the Hollow got even one of them. The seventh sense, their Hollow Studies instructor had called it: the final sense after taste, smell, sight, touch, sound, and spirit power. Every Shinigami had to have it. And Harry had never realised he already did.
There was a blur around the Hollow, and suddenly four Shinigami appeared around it, hemming it in. The monster screamed again and lashed out with its arms, talons trying to grasp all of its attackers simultaneously. Four blades flashed as one, and the Hollow disintegrated into a black mist that vanished instantly.
The Shinigami landed and faced the three students. "Was anyone harmed?" one of them asked.
"Not that we observed," Ryoko replied, bowing.
The man nodded. "Good. What are your names?" They told him, and he bowed slightly. "The Fifth Division will request a formal commendation for your assistance with neutralising a Class C Hollow." With that, the four Shinigami vanished.
"Captain Aizen's men," Malfoy said, his tone a bit awed.
Harry didn't know why that irritated him, but he couldn't dwell upon it; he still felt stricken by discovering his seventh sense. And just after he'd been thinking bitterly about never wanting to give up his longing for home: which would win? He had never thought the sense of spirit balance would be this powerful -- hell, he had even doubted its existence.
Harry stepped back towards campus, lighting on the same row of buildings where he'd seen the Shinigami earlier. The white tower of the Shrine of Penitence gleamed in the distance. Don't think about your surroundings, he reminded himself, but now that he'd dragged that particular memory back up, it would be difficult for him to focus on anything else.
Even a year later, the two feelings struggled within him: should he go home to his friends or stay here to uphold the spiritual balance? The decision had been easy before he'd known -- felt -- how precious that balance was. Now, there were days when he wanted to request the brainwashing sessions -- officially, meditation lessons -- out of turn, just to stop the war in his own mind.
A Hell butterfly bobbed overhead, black wings silent as it headed to the heart of Seireitei, perhaps carrying a message for one of the captains -- or even for a member of the Central 46.
The dank cave was silent but for the footsteps and whispers of Harry's class. Her lantern aloft, Instructor Tsunoda turned around.
"We are now entering the growth chamber," she said in a carrying whisper. "Please do not touch the walls. The algae there are the primary food source for young Hell butterflies, and you must not contaminate it."
They filed through a small opening in the cave wall, and Harry could not help but gasp as he took in the growth chamber. The walls were a patchwork of black rock and green, eerily glowing moss. Thumb-sized Hell butterflies carpeted the ceiling. Their wings flapped lazily as though they were trying to fly.
"Observe," Tsunoda said. "These are young hatchlings drying their wings. When done, they will fly to the walls, where they will feed until they are fully grown."
Harry squinted at the wall. The black patches were not rock at all, but butterflies of different sizes, here by themselves, there in a cluster, unmoving.
Tsunoda dimmed her lantern and the algae glowed even brighter. "Time for a voluntary pop quiz. Who can tell me the importance of Hell butterflies to the Shinigami? Kihara-kun?"
"Only Hell butterflies can go through a senkaimon without passing through the dangai. A Hell butterfly must always guide a spirit to Soul Society. Without a butterfly, spirits are consumed by the dangai currents or by the Janitors."
"What does the World Penetration Gate look like to someone guided by a Hell Butterfly? Sugita-kun?"
"The senkaimon is like a waiting room then," Ryoko said. "When the Hell Butterfly passes into Soul Society, a new door appears on the other side of the room, and the spirit may go through."
"And what is the purpose of the dangai? Draco-kun."
"The Severing World exists to keep out intruders," Malfoy said. "It's the first line of defence for Soul Society."
"Doesn't always work, apparently," Kihara said, his tone acid.
"Detention, Kihara-kun," Tsunoda said mildly. "You may not interrupt my lessons."
Harry wore a stony expression, but inside, he felt like he would burst from glee.
That gave him the push he needed to get back to campus, and Harry sat down on the edge of Building 42, gathering his thoughts before he could flash-step onto the ground. He was still reluctant to ask Tsunoda about how ryoka managed to make it through the Severing World unharmed. Then he thought back to the Hollow encounter in Rukongai, and it occurred to him that maybe he ought to ask about Hollows, not ryoka; surely the answers would be similar, if not the same?
Down below, he caught a glimpse of familiar white-blond hair. Malfoy was heading away from the dormitories, and the bathhouse didn't seem to be his destination.
Harry woke to the sound of the door sliding open and sat up, heart galloping as he groped for his sword. Ryoko had told him that Kihara would probably come after them for that detention.
"Malfoy," he called, but there was not even a sleepy "leemelone" from the other side of the room. Harry looked over at Malfoy's sleeping mat and saw that it was empty. Oh. The door opening had been Malfoy going to the loo, not Kihara coming to get revenge. Typical. Harry shut his eyes and fell back asleep instantly.
He woke again to a room grey with dawn and loudly silent. It was the sort of silence that sets in after a noise. Harry rubbed at his eyes, disorientated, and saw Malfoy climbing under his blankets.
"Where were you?" Harry asked.
"Loo," Malfoy said.
"I went for a walk afterwards. It was a nice night for it."
Harry had certainly gone on his share of late-night campus walks, so he had thought nothing of this until it happened again. And again the next week, and again the week after.
Now, months later, Malfoy was still disappearing at least twice a week. Harry stepped forward and landed on the path with only a small stumble.
"Does this daytime walk mean you're going to stay put tonight?" he asked, falling into step next to Malfoy, who yelped and leaped two feet into the air.
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