Summary: It's a good thing Karin only took after Ichigo in some respects. AU futurefic.
Disclaimer: All heroes, anti-heroes, villains, mentors, big brothers and good men who only want to love you belong to Kubo Tite.
Notes: Thanks to the inimitable Pei Yi for the title.
Someone Else's Hero
She let Chad piggyback her home, partly for old times' sake, and partly because even Kurosaki Karin would find it difficult to walk with a gash in her chest the size of the Grand Canyon. He was a steady silent strength under her, dependable as the earth beneath his feet, and he smelled of sweat and cologne. He would have made a good big brother. If she were Yuzu, she would have told him so.
"I'm sorry," Karin said instead. His shirt clung uncomfortably to her wound, glued to her by the steady trickle of blood.
"Mm," said Chad.
"He's an idiot," said Karin. She was surprised to find tears in her eyes. She'd never cried from pure anger before. It made her even angrier, her fists tightening. "He's a fucking asshole and -- and he's going to be in so much trouble!"
Chad was quiet. It was funny how easy it was to read his silences, how transparent he was -- nothing like Ichigo, whose moods had been as opaque as they had been familiar. Stupid, stupid Ichigo, who was in so much trouble he was going to be sorry he'd ever thought being a bad guy was a good idea. Not that that goat-man would do anything, not that Yuzu could do anything, but Mom --
Mom wasn't here, and Karin was alone, and her brother was an idiot. She put her head down and did not tremble, did not weep.
"Maybe ... " said Chad, and went quiet some more, thinking. It wasn't hard to read him if you understood that Chad didn't think like normal people, little twittering nothings passing one after the other in quick succession, all messed up with emotion and impulse and the occasional flash of an idea. Chad thought in big, slow truths, deeply felt and difficult to explain. Yuzu was a little scared of him because he was so big and he never smiled, but there was nothing to be scared of in Chad. He was good all through.
Not like some people. Karin turned her head on Chad's shoulder and waited, calming as the silent moments passed.
"Maybe it's not him," said Chad finally.
Karin thought of the white mask and the black holes of his eyes. That stupid laugh, like he thought he was cool or something.
"No," she said. "He's like -- did you ever see Ichi-nii when he was mad?"
"Yes," said Chad.
Karin gave a little shudder of impatience, kicking a sandalled foot.
"Not like that," she said. "When he was getting into fights with you, that was just normal. That wasn't mad. He didn't -- when he got older, he didn't get mad anymore, 'cos of Mom. But sometimes, when we were little ... "
It was hard to explain, the more so because Ichigo'd hardly ever been angry with them after Mom died. He'd been a heroic big brother, not because he defended them from bullies and unkind teachers -- Karin could do that for herself and Yuzu both, easily -- but in the little things. Rights over the remote, the question of who got to ride shotgun, the job of reading bed-time stories --
"He was still doing all the voices for Yuzu when we were ten," said Karin. "Who the hell even does that?"
But it had worried Mom, his temper. Sometimes it had flared even after Mom died; it couldn't have been easy for him, burdened with a dead mother and two little sisters to be kind to. And when he got really mad, he could be another person -- not their ordinary cranky Ichigo, but somebody vicious, mercurial, mean, laughing when Yuzu cried and snarling when Karin tried to fight back. Somebody who would tear Karin's baseball posters and Yuzu's dolls to pieces just because he could.
Somebody who would lay his own sister open to the bone, and laugh while he did it. Oh, Karin knew him. He was no stranger.
"That's my brother," she said now to Chad. "That's just my brother being an asshole."
"Mm," said Chad.
"I'm sorry," she said again. "I know he was supposed to be your hero."
"He was my friend," said Chad simply.
"He still is," said Karin. She felt more blood uncurl from her chest, and breathed through the pain. She wasn't going to cry just because it hurt. She hadn't done that since Mom died, and she wasn't going to start now.
"No," said Chad, after another of his massive silences. "I see. We have to fight him now."
Karin put a hand on his shoulder, but she couldn't think of anything to say. It was worse for him, wasn't it? You expected cruelty from your siblings, but you chose your friends in the hope of something better.
"Stupid," she said, and coughed. Her blood was black in the moonlight.
Rukia was there when she got to her room. Of course.
Karin propped herself up by the door and tried to arrange her expression into something suitably sullen, rather than merely exhausted. Chad was okay, but Rukia ...
Well. With Rukia the best defence was an offence. Karin tried to look like she was totally in the mood to kick stray shinigami out of her bedroom -- gaping chest wound? What gaping chest wound? She was perfectly fine. Never better!
"The Arrancar have left," said Rukia. She wasn't looking at Karin. "I can't sense them anymore."
Karin hadn't been able to sense them at all, but Rukia probably hadn't meant it as a dig. Even so ...
"Yeah, yeah, I saw them leave," said Karin. She sat on the bed, unable to stop a sound escaping her throat. Her chest hurt.
Rukia turned to look at her, and her eyes widened.
"Why didn't you -- " She cut herself off, and came over, putting an efficient hand on Karin's shoulder and pushing her down.
"Lie down," she said briskly. "I'll fix this."
"Aren't you going to ask who did it?" said Karin.
That stopped her, like an arrow through the heart. Her eyes were stricken for a moment, and Karin's mouth twisted: thanks so much, Ichi-nii. He had left her his friends, toys he'd grown out of, and like his old toys they were all broken. Damaged goods. And if he expected her to clean up after him ...
He was the one who'd thought of being a doctor. Karin had wanted to be an astronaut.
"Who else could?" said Rukia, and something about her voice made Karin want to heal her anyway.
"I'm the better fighter," said Karin, as Rukia's hands moved over her, peeling cloth from the wound. And it was true, too. Karin was smarter, sneakier, and she'd had good examples to learn from. But Ichigo --
"He's gotten stronger," she admitted reluctantly.
"He was always strong," said Rukia. "Stupidly strong."
"Stupidly stupid," muttered Karin.
"The Arrancar must have helped him grow stronger," said Rukia. The work of treating the injury seemed to calm her; she spoke now with an odd detachment, as if she was talking about somebody neither of them knew, somebody they'd only heard of. "But you're strong too, Karin. You can defeat him. You cannot let your feelings get in the way of -- "
"He said he was doing it for Mom," said Karin.
Rukia's hands stilled.
"He said they told him they'd save her. They said he could see her again." She hadn't even told Chad this. It would be easier for him to fight Ichigo if he didn't think Ichigo had a good reason.
She carried the omission -- not easily, but without guilt, at least. It was war. They needed all the help they could get.
"Is it true?" she said, when Rukia wouldn't speak. "Can they do that?"
Rukia smoothed a hand over Karin's chest, in an absent-minded gesture. Karin shivered.
"I will not lie to you," Rukia said: her voice was low. It seemed as if she was talking more to herself than Karin. "I do not know. They might. They know more than we have discovered -- unless," and her tone grew familiar and waspish, "that Urahara is keeping something from us, which is more than probable. I always said we should drag that corrupt merchant to Soul Society and shake all his information from him. I say an hour alone with the 11th division would do it -- "
Rukia let out a breath.
"It isn't worth it," said Karin, staring at the wall. "Not at that price. Mom would kill him if she knew."
Rukia's silences were prickly, sharp-edged and shimmering with danger. She was no Chad, no slow-moving stream in a green valley. Karin thought of rushing white water, the hidden terror of submerged rocks, the glint of river-gold.
What was it the goat-man had said that time those dumb boys had come with flowers for Yuzu? "Youth is too early for peace." He was an idiot, of course, being creepy to Yuzu about the boys going after her, but -- Karin was fifteen, and she already knew she was going to die. She was too young for peace.
"This is not your war," said Rukia quietly. "Chad and Ishida and Orihime -- they have reason to fight. They made their choice a long time ago. But we chose you. I will not ask you to fight with us."
"Nobody else could beat him."
"You can't either. Not as you are now," said Rukia. "I know this is more than you ever asked for. Your brother -- "
"My brother protected me," said Karin. "And now he's being an asshole and my family is a mess and my father ... that goat-man won't do anything. He thinks brother is going through a phase! You think I can lay down my sword now?"
"I think you should stop before you get yourself killed!"
"Or before I betray you?" said Karin. Rukia went white.
There was a pause, balances shifting, the world resettling.
"I'll die with my sword in my hand," said Karin, then she laughed. "Or with my sword in my brother's heart."
"To kill a loved one -- " said Rukia, and stopped. Her head was bowed, and her voice came out in a ragged whisper.
"Why did I ever bring you into this?"
"Who else could?" said Karin. She dragged herself up, wincing slightly at the pull of her wound -- fast-healing now, but it would leave a scar. It was funny when you thought about it, that she should have a scarred soul in fact as well as metaphor.
Rukia's hand was small and dry in hers. This close to Karin could smell her, a scent faint and sweet and strange like sandalwood.
"I'm not my brother," said Karin. "And I'm not whoever this 'him' is who looked so much like him. I won't promise not to let you down. But I will fight on your side. If you'll let me."
The look in Rukia's eyes was half grief, but half self-mockery, as if pain were grown so familiar she could not take it quite seriously.
"You shouldn't have to," she said. "Oh, Karin."
Karin bristled. "What, you don't trust me?"
"I trusted Ichigo," said Rukia.
"Good enough," said Karin, and kissed her: that was one deal made.