The roar of music and cheers bombarded Ichigo the moment he entered the stands. There was a chill in the air that bit and nipped at his skin. The shinigami's hair stood on end as the trepidation he felt increased tenfold. He couldn't help reaching for the hilt of Zangetsu, the safety of its presence calming him considerably. Despite not being well, Ichigo decided to dress for the occasion. Instead of the kimonos that filled his wardrobe as of late, he wore light brown slacks and a maroon sweater, with Zangetsu proudly on display against his hip. With such unforeseeable events about to unfold, there was no way Ichigo was going to be without his blade.
Winky noticed her master's distress and pulled him along to gather with the other professors. He took notice of Fleur and Harry standing by their respective sponsors. Ichigo eyed Moody like his life depended on it, and it very well could have, but quickly turned away when he heard someone approach.
"Ichigo, what are you doing here?"
"My job, Albus." Ichigo sighed. He knew this confrontation was inevitable, but that still didn't mean he wanted it to happen.
"But Lo- Ichigo, it's just, you're not well!" Ichigo could tell the man was just as agitated as he was. "You should be resting."
"Albus, you summoned me here for a reason, and I'm not going to go back on my word. I'm going to protect Harry Potter from anything that threatens his fate. He is going to face Voldemort, that much I can not change, but I will not let it be by anyone's hand other than his own."
He took a deep breath to calm himself. "And once this is all over and done with, no matter the outcome, you will seal me away again."
Despite the noise erupting in the air, the silence between them was deafening. Ichigo stared into the man's eyes, past his crescent-moon glasses, and straight into his soul. If Ichigo was going to be awake at any period in time, he was glad it was when he could meet this man, and Harry Potter, and Fleur. What would he tell Fleur when they fixed his soul back onto that cross? What would she say? She'd object, surely, but he'd cross that bridge when he got there.
If they survived this, that is.
Dumbledore was pulled away by the beginning of the event. He called out his speech, one that Ichigo barely listened to. His eyes were drawn back to Moody as he stood by Harry's side. When had they become so distant that Harry had Moody by his side instead of himself? When had Harry begun to see the Moody imposter more dependable than he?
"It was probably when ya broke the great hall."
'You're not helping… how are you feeling?'
"Off. There's something pulling me to that maze, and I don't like it."
The sound of cannon fire made him jump. Ichigo watched as Harry's back disappeared into the puzzle as well as Fleur's a few minutes later. If he was feeling anxious before, he had no idea what was going on inside his chest at that moment. His own back remained tense and his hand ready to grab Zangetsu at any moment. The cheers from earlier have dissipated into normal chatter as they waited for news on the champions.
Within minutes he heard the sound of hedges moving and readjusting, creating the ultimate puzzle. His eyes caught Moody's figure again as he watched the man chug another gulp of polyjuice. Who was the man behind the glass eye? Foe, surely. Ichigo wondered what the man had done to the maze, what he had done to alter Harry's fate. The shinigami knew he had done something, the man's hands were twitching and his tongue continued to dart across his upper lip. Ichigo's head tilted to the side in thought; he had seen that before, but where?
Moody was shaking and beginning to sweat. Ichigo took long strides and closed the distance between them quickly.
"Ah, Professor Moody, are you feeling alright? You seem a bit shaken."
The speed at which Moody's eyes met Ichigo's must've been strong enough to break the man's neck. But then again, was the person before him really a man?
"I should be asking you that, boy. Weren't you in a wheelchair at the beginning of the week?"
"Indeed, but I am stronger than I look," Ichigo smirked as he drew attention to his legs. "See? My legs are as fit as a fiddle, so to speak. How are yours doing? They're probably doing just fine, taking into account all that polyjuice potion you've been gulping down all year."
The man's color drained from his face and he seemed more alert than before. His tongue darted across his lip again, more aggressively than before. The imposter opened his mouth to speak but quickly closed it as he took a glance at the maze. "I told you to mind your business, but I suppose there's nothing you can really do, can you?" And with that the man limped off, effectively ending their conversation. Ichigo's eyes focused on the retreating figure until he was distracted by other students.
Half an hour later, the crowd silenced as red sparks were seen lighting the sky. Ichigo watched with both worry and relief as Fleur was returned to the makeshift arena. He couldn't help but make his way towards the dazed woman, needing to see for himself that she was truly alright. As he approached her he noticed Madame Pomfrey attending to the witch, feeling her forehead and checking her eyes. The healer didn't pause in her examination but didn't ignore him either.
"She looks alright for the most part. She's got some superficial scrapes and bruises, and it looks like she's been knocked out, but nothing too serious. She should feel fine within the hour."
"Thank you," he said as Pomfrey straightened up.
She smiled and patted his arm. "There's nothing to thank." The woman looked around and threw her arms in the air at the few who gathered around them. "What are you lot still standing around here for? Give 'em some room for Merlin's sake." With that, the group dispersed.
No one defied Madame Pomfrey.
Fleur looked at him, seeming more coherent than before. Ichigo credited that to the healer that had just left.
"Ichigo! I'm afraid I didn't win…"
Ichigo shook his head and pulled the young woman close. "No, that's alright. You're safe, and that's really what matters in the end." He pulled away to look at her as he spoke but was still connected to her. "As you continue to grow and learn, just like I do, you'll realize that these competitions for sheer strength are meaningless. Unless you have something you're fighting for - to protect, to save, it doesn't matter - you'll never win."
"Once again, Monsieur, you've surprised me. Are you sure there's something you're not telling me?"
Ichigo couldn't help but smirk, "Mademoiselle, there's a lot of things you don't know about me."
"It appears so," Fleur laughed.
Ichigo shifted his weight between his feet. "So, what was it like, in the maze?" Fleur's back stiffened in response to his question.
"It was tres dark. As soon as I walked in, it was like I was a different person. All I could think about was finding that stupid goblet, everyone did. Victor found me and it was like we forgot that we were comrades, and we fought. He won, obviously. I do not hold it against him, the fog in our eyes was too great for us, I am afraid."
Ichigo's eyes dropped. "I'm sorry you had to go through that."
Fleur shook her head," Non. I choose to put my name in the goblet of my own free will. It is a good lesson to learn."
A chill ran down Ichigo's spine before the pain arrived. A throbbing, burning sensation bloomed in his chest and breathing suddenly became a difficult endeavor.
Ichigo's gaze strayed from Fleur's concerned look to the maze. "Something's wrong... they're in trouble." The shinigami scanned the yard for Dumbledore, but his movement was incredibly hindered by the gnawing in his chest.
Feeling someone grab his arm, he looked over to find Fleur pulling his arm over her shoulder, supporting him with her own frame. "Thank you," he said.
"Harry is my friend too. He saved my sister, it is only right that I help him," she explained.
Ichigo nodded as they continued their trek across the lawn. Ichigo could feel eyes starting to collect on their forms, but he pushed them to the back of his mind.
The pain continued to increase as time progressed and it quickly came to the forefront of his thoughts. His sweat clung to wool of his sweater, slipping down his face and back and onto Fleur's skin. The breaths that escaped his lungs were curt and forced, huffed and puffed in an attempt to get enough oxygen to function. His heart was trying to claw its way out of his chest; where to, he didn't know.
As quickly as it had come, the searing pain dissipated into a dull throbbing. With the disappearance of his pain came the reappearance of Harry crashing into the floor with what looked to be Cedric in his arms.
The stench of death that wafted Ichigo's direction was unmistakable. The fumes filled his nose, stung his throat, and encompassed his already oxygen-deprived lungs. With the last of his strength, he pushed forward, off of Fleur's shoulders and onto the ground next to Harry. Several people surrounded the two in a flutter of chaos, Dumbledore and Moody included.
Ichigo took in deep gulps of air as he looked at Harry's face, twisted in grief and fear. The boy was near hysteric, crying out inaudible words. Ichigo released a small portion of his spiritual energy to quiet everyone and get them to back off the boy. The shinigami kneeled next to Harry and placed a firm on the boy's arm to ground him.
"Harry, what happened?"
Harry's body loosened as he heard his friend's voice. His eyes focused on his. "He's back, he's back - Voldemort's back. Cedric asked me to bring his body, I couldn't leave him there…" Ichigo hushed words of comfort, but the boy continued, "The port key took us to-to a graveyard... the same on in our dreams. There were death eaters, tons of them and I was pinned to that statue and then they cut my arm and then they spoke this spell and then I saw... He's here - he's back - and he k-killed Cedric. It's my fault, if I had ju-"
"Harry!" Ichigo cut him off as he cupped the boy's face with his warm hands. Harry's skin was slathered in sweat and grime, but Ichigo didn't mind one bit. "It is not, nor ever will be your fault. Ever. Do you understand me?"
"No!" Ichigo stood up and wiped the grass stains off the knees of his pants, not that it did anything. He unsheathed his zanpakuto, the sound of the metal sliding out of the sheath seemed to silence everyone in the area.
After all, who had ever seen a warrior such as he take arms?
He held out Zangetsu to where the hilt of the katana was perpendicular to his body, almost touching his chest. He looked behind him, catching Fleur's confused look. "You'll want to catch me," he said as he slammed the hilt against his chest, shoving his spirit out of his gigai.
Ichigo jumped back, managing to catch himself on his feet before he fell along with his body, which Fleur had managed to catch at the last moment. Fleur laid him down and looked at his body, confused and worried about what had just happened. Instead of focusing on his gigai, he noticed that a small portion of the student body was staring at his soul, revealing all those who had witnessed death.
'So young to have such burdens…'
His eyes roamed over to Cedric's body. His clothes were torn and muddy, much like the other contestants. His skin was drained of all its color, the blood no longer pumping from the halt of his heart. For now, his body was still pliant, rigor mortis hadn't set in. His clear blue eyes were frozen open.
Not if Ichigo had anything to do with it.
With a deep breath, he pushed himself off the ground and into the air. While in the air he calmed his body down and honed his senses. Slowly, several strips of white cloth began to appear around him - Reiraku, the souls of the living - flowing and ebbing around him. He was able to locate Cedric's among the hundreds around him. The shinigami latched his hand onto the strand and knew where his soul was.
Using the ability that came second nature to him, he was able to flash step to the graveyard that haunted his dreams. The closer he got, the worse he felt. The throbbing returned harsher, and then came the burning, the difficulty to breath. He hardly noticed when he touched down to the ground, but that didn't mean that those there hadn't.
He came face to face with dozens of death eaters pointing their wands at him. On instinct, Ichigo took a defensive stance, placing Zangetsu between himself and his enemies. He was severely outnumbered, but Ichigo wasn't worried. He wasn't here for them, he was here for the soul that he could see out of the corner of his eye.
"Step aside," a man demanded, inside the throng of wizards. They parted like the red sea, and a not-quite-human man appeared before him.
If Ichigo thought his chest was hurting before, it was exploding now.
"Well, well, well," the man soothed. "What do we have here?"
"I'm not here for you. Voldemort, I assume?" Ichigo asked. The collective gasp for the direct name was heard amongst the crowd.
"You assume correctly. If you're not here for me, then why are you here?" He asked as he took a step forward.
Ichigo tried not to gasp as a familiar urge filled his body.
"That boy you murdered in cold blood."
The dark lord chuckled. "You'll have to be more specific, I've killed a lot of boys in cold blood." He took another step towards the shinigami, and it seemed to flip a switch.
"King, I don't know what's going on, but it's not me!"
Before Ichigo could question what Shiro meant, he felt it. Calcified reishi began to form on his face, conforming and melding with his skin.
'How is that possible? I thought," Ichigo paused in his thoughts, eyes drifting to the unconscious soul behind him. 'It doesn't matter right now. I have a limited window to get Cedric's soul back to his body before Death shows up. Although I have no plans on fighting Voldemort, I can't guarantee he feels the same.'
By this point, his mask was beginning to envelop his right eye and his time was running short. Ichigo ignored the keen focus Voldemort paid to the mask appearing on his face and used the momentary distraction to turn and dash for Cedric. He heard shouts and saw spells flash over his head. Ichigo sheathed Zangetsu and bent down to grab the boy.
Even after picking up his soul, he remained unconscious, so his soul had endured some sort of strain. The shinigami hurriedly maneuvered him onto his back and hooked his arms under the boy's legs, supporting him as best he could. He heard the shuffling of feet and robes and knew he didn't have any more time.
He tensed his calves and shoved himself into the air. Ichigo was only supported for a few moments before it seemed as though the floor was pulled out from under him. He turned his body so that Cedric's soul wouldn't take any damage, ensuring that he himself landed on his chest with a thud. The little breath he had was knocked out of him and he groaned fitfully.
The separation from the dark lord seemed to slow the manifestation of his mask, but it was short-lived. He could feel them approaching with every passing second. Ichigo heaved himself back up and tried to flash step again, only to fall once more.
"King, that's obviously not working. Try using Sonido, since it seems that our power has taken over."
'I'm working on it for Merlin's safe!'
Taking another mouthful of air, he tried again and took power from a different part of himself than before. He was able to stay in the air well enough to make his escape. While in the air he clamped down on his spiritual pressure, destroying any chance the death eater's had to track him.
After a moment the mask's progression stopped completely with his left eye and cheekbone uncovered. The shinigami, or vizard at this moment, could feel his strength waning the farther he went. He still wasn't well and his body wasn't up for the bewildering confrontation he had just endured. Ichigo's legs began to go numb, and he could not support their combined weight in the air anymore.
With the arena in view, he gave one last push before he prepared for impact. He turned his own body around so he could cradle Cedric's; souls were a fragile thing, especially in this world, and Cedric's seemed strained already. But instead of landing on his side like he'd intended to, Ichigo ended up crashing into the ground on his back, certainly snapping a few ribs in the process.
When Ichigo had the energy to look up, he noticed that Dumbledore and other adults were hovering over him, looking fearful and pointing their wands at him. They were saying words he couldn't quite understand at the moment.
Ichigo tried to move Cedric's soul and stand up, but with everyone around him, he quickly became flustered. "Move, get out of my way! I need, I need, ugh, damn it! Just move!" He shouted, and everyone seemed to back up instantly.
With the room he needed, he was able to move his cargo to the ground and stand, albeit very very carefully. He held his injured torso and looked, but couldn't find the body.
"Where is Cedric's body?" He asked, and suddenly the wands were back in his face.
"Why would you want to know?" A man he had yet to meet asked. Judging from the tears on the man's face, he was the father of the deceased, also pointing at the shinigami with his wand.
"What do you mean? I'm trying to help!" Ichigo replied.
"And how are we supposed to know that?"
"What do you — oh… that's why." Ichigo raised his arm, startling those around him. He slowed, but didn't stop, and slid his fingers under the edges of his mask. With a great amount of effort, he was able to pry it off and reveal his face. They watched as it disintegrated back into the air.
"I'm sorry, I hadn't realized I was still using my mask. I'm sure that was frightening." Most of them seemed to visibly relax but were still wary of this new Ichigo. He took this time to notice that his own gigai was missing as well as Fleur. Ichigo shook his head, it wasn't important right now. "Albus, I can save Cedric, I just need to restore his soul to his body. The window is limited and if this is going to work, I need to do it, now."
The father was the first to lower his wand and step towards the man. "You can save my boy?" he asked, and Ichigo nodded in return. "They've set up a tent, behind the stands and away from the students, where they took Cedric's… and your well, whatever it is that's going on."
"Okay, thank you," Ichigo said as he smiled at the man. The shinigami carefully bent down and lifted the soul off the ground where he had laid it. He maneuvered out of the small divot he had created during their landing. He noticed the confused stares his way. "No one other than perhaps Albus and I can see Cedric's soul, which is in my arms. You simply aren't strong enough, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Now, I must hurry."
Ichigo made his way to the tent as fast as he could. It looked to be the same one they had used during the first task to house the champions. Ichigo slipped inside and took note of its contents. He saw his own gigai in the corner with Fleur next to it, and on the other side was, what he assumed to be Cedric's body, with a sheet pulled over it. His heart broke when he noticed Madame Pomfrey looking at him.
'I wonder, as a physician, how many deaths she has seen?'
"Ichigo, why are you so damn pessimistic?"
'It's a habit.'
She walked up to him. "I don't even want to know why there is two of you right now, but you look dreadful." Ichigo was sure he did. He was covered in sweat and mud, and underneath his shihakusho there would be deep purple bruises beginning to form.
"I need to see Cedric's body, please," he explained. Pomfrey seemed to evaluate him for a moment before pulling back the sheets covering Cedric's still form. He had been cleaned, but not changed, and his eyes were now closed.
Ichigo heaved the soul onto the bed, his weakened muscles straining with the effort. A soul contained a lifetime of memories, and memories were heavy things. Ichigo watched as they naturally aligned, but knew there was more to be done. With the help of Madame Pomfrey, he was able to hop onto the bed. The shinigami sat on top of the boy's legs but placed his hands against Cedric's chest.
"Are you sure you know what you're doing? It's been almost a millennia since you've done this."
'Hush, I'm trying to focus.'
And focus he did. Within a few moments, a soft white light emitted from his hands. He could see the strands of Cedric's soul, the fine print of his spirit, and weaved them back into his body. He repaired the rips and cuts, the tears and scrapes. Ichigo was never very good at healing kudo, but he was when it counted, when it meant something. He pulled his hands back and was enthralled to see Cedric's skin beginning to color and his chest beginning to rise.
He was so focused in fact, that he hadn't noticed the entourage that had joined them in the tent. He was startled when he turned to find Albus, Cedric's father, Severus, McGonagall, and Hagrid behind him. Fleur and Pomfrey had also perked up.
"He should be fine," he announced. "But he will need time. Avada Kedavra is a curse that forcibly separates the soul from the body. So it's not just his body that needs healing, but his spirit as well."
Ichigo took this moment to re-enter his gigai, changing beds and laying down on his own. Once again with his artificial body, he sat up in his bed, startling Fleur.
"Ichigo! Oh my, are you alright? I knew you were too sick to be here! I-" Ichigo silenced her with a quiet kiss on her forehead to show he was alright.
"I'm fine, what we need to do now is-" Ichigo paused to look around. "- where is Harry?"
Albus replied, "I believe he is with Professor Moody, why?"
"Not good, not good at all," Ichigo said as he jumped out of his bed, albeit a bit too quickly for his injured torso.
"Ichigo…" Fleur began, "are you hurt?"
Ichigo shook his head. "It's nothing serious, we can fix it later. We need to find Harry. Now."
"Are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting?"
"Yes, Albus. I'm sure you've suspected that's not the real Alastor Moody, and you'd be right. He's been using polyjuice."
"Well that explains what's happened to my supplies," Snape scoffed.
"There's no time for that," Ichigo explained as he made his way towards the entrance of the tent. "Let's go."
Albus, Snape, and Ichigo stormed their way into Moody's chambers, seemingly just in time. Albus and Snape discovered the imposter's true identity as Crouch Jr. while Ichigo found the real Moody and comforted Harry.
"Cedric's alive?! But-but how? I saw Voldemort use the killing curse."
"He was, but I was able to use my abilities to bring him back. I'll… explain later. I think right now we should all rest, don't you think?"
Harry nodded. A nap sounded brilliant.
Ichigo and Dumbledore stared at the stone base kept on the third floor of Hogwarts for safe keeping. Ichigo was rubbing the wooden badge he had once used to force his soul out of his body. He had created the same badge on the hilt of Zangetsu, since his wooden one had a different purpose in this world. Dumbledore paced about the room.
"So, you're the Ebon Phoenix? Of all the titles you have, I didn't expect that to be one." Ichigo didn't respond, so the man continued. "The only wizard to ever reverse death. He was, legend says, a vigilante that saved witches and witches from the pyre during the witch trials. That's all they were, though, legends; myths told to children at night. Why would someone like you ever choose to be sealed."
"Immortality is not a gift, Albus, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. When you have enough time to think, to actually see the world around you, you come to realize that decisions have to be made."
"Speaking of decisions, have you made yours, Ichigo?" Dumbledore asked.
The shinigami glanced at the dip in the center of the stone where the badge went. Once Ichigo placed the wooden seal in its place, the cross would appear and Ichigo would take his place on it, and be sealed once more.
"Ichigo?" Ichigo nodded in response and stepped towards the stone.
"The reason I was unsealed was that you were worried for Harry's safety. I told you that I would only be able to do so much because I can't meddle in the affairs of humans, especially those that don't concern me. However," The shinigami took a step back from the stone and handed the badge to Dumbledore.
"Voldemort caused my mask to manifest, something which I haven't been able to do since coming to this world." Ichigo walked across the room and opened the door to leave, but turned back for one final statement.
"It definitely concerns me now."
To Be Continued In,
The Order of the Ebon Phoenix