Title: How Far Is Too Far?
Summary: Five years after the war has ended, can old friendships be rekindled, or have they drifted too far apart?
A pair of sandaled feet landed silently on the streetlight, not even disturbing the moths whizzing frantically around the bulb. The figure of a shinigami standing tall, his white captain's robe fluttering around him, was silhouetted against the night sky. Blue-green eyes, half-shrouded by their owner's lids, glanced around the dark streets for signs of life. Nothing. The death god sighed, letting his silver hair fall over his face. He let his eyes drift across the rooftops and trees around him, this time actually allowing himself to absorb the scene.
Karakura Town. He hadn't been here in five years. The last time he'd seen these familiar streets, he was fighting Aizen alongside Ichigo and Rukia. In that time, Ichigo and his friends had all gone off to college. Most were modest universities, although Ishida had gone all the way to Harvard on the other side of the world. He'd always been pretentiously intelligent. And Rukia, well, she hadn't been fighting much since she and Renji had had their first child – a girl named Aiko. The baby had caused quite a stir among the higher-ups. A birth in Soul Society was unheard of. But the girl had grown quickly and was strong for her age, though constantly coveted by the Bureau of Research and Development, to be sure.
It was just him and Matsumoto now. His lieutenant had been as excited as ever to hear about their trip to the human world, though he suspected she was more enthusiastic to be reunited with her shops and boutiques than to be fighting Hollows. Hitsugaya thought back to his briefing on the mission.
"You wanted to see me, sir?" the 10th Squad captain said as he was ushered through the doors of the General-Commander's meeting room. The elderly man looked up, surrounded by the aura of formality that was typical in his captains' meetings.
"When was the last time you went to the human world, Captain Toushirou?" Yamamoto asked, fingering his long beard.
"During the war. I was sent to protect Karakura Town with Kurosaki Ichigo." Hitsugaya watched the General-Commander carefully,waiting for an explanation to this strange line of questioning. Would he be going to the human world again?
"It's good that you're familiar with that area. That's why you were chosen, in fact."
"Has something happened in Karakura Town?" he asked quickly, his mind instantly flashing to the reason why Aizen had been after that specific place. The one area in the world with such concentrated spirit energy that it could fuel the creation of another King's Key. Could someone else be targeting it?
"Not yet, but there has been some strange Hollow activity lately. I want you to investigate and report back to me as soon as possible. It may be nothing, but one can never be too sure. Take as many people as you need, but remember, this is a reconnaissance mission. We don't want to drag Kurosaki out of his studies, now, do we?"
"It's exciting to be in the human world again, isn't it, Captain?" Matsumoto's playful voice interrupted his musings. The lieutenant glanced around the streets, quickly spotting all of her favorite shopping spots. Hitsugaya rolled his eyes. Always the same with that woman.
"You don't seem happy to be back. Aren't you glad to be getting some real practice instead of those boring drills they give us at Soul Society?" She made a pout with her lips and tousled his hair, only earning an exasperated sigh from the captain.
"We have a job to do. And right now, all the stores are closed, so I suggest we find a place to stay." Matsumoto sighed, putting her hands on her hips.
"You're no fun now that you're all grown up and tall." It was true. He had grown in the last five years. In fact, he was now at a much more manly 6', compared to his previous height of 4'4". He had to admit, it was nice not to be getting whiplash looking up at his subordinates. But at the same time, he also had to be more serious about his duties than ever. There had been quite a few rebellions in the last few years of surviving arrancar who had managed to keep themselves hidden during the final fight and weren't thrilled at having their leader taken away. He'd spent most of his spare time refining his abilities to maintain his Bankai for longer periods of time. Many of the captains were letting themselves get lax, but not him. He would always be ready for battle. If not, any casualties would be on his head.
"Well, where are we supposed to stay?" Matsumoto sighed, looking up and down the avenue. "All of our old friends have gone off to school."
"Urahara's still here."
"Ooh, not him. That redheaded kid that's always with him annoys me to no end. What about Kurosaki Isshin? He's still around, isn't he?" Hitsugaya pondered the suggestion for a moment. The old captain had gone into hiding in the human world for years after the death of his wife. He'd only come back to his duties as a shinigami during the war, and even then, only temporarily. Once the threat had been put down, he'd let himself drift back into obscurity. There hadn't been any news on him in years.
The beeping of two spirit phones ended the conversation for the moment. They both checked the screens for the blinking blue light a little over three blocks away.
"It doesn't look too powerful. I'll take this one. You find Isshin and brief him on the situation," Hitsugaya said, taking off into the night.
"Got it!" Matsumoto called back, heading in the opposite direction.
Karin looked up from her rice, instantly aware of the hollow in town. She cocked her head, trying to sense it's power. It wasn't that big of a threat, but still, it could cause some damage if left unchecked. Wait. There was another spirit energy in the mix. It was familiar, but – no, it couldn't be him. Why would he be in Karakura Town? Karin stood up, grabbing her bag and heading for the door. She'd kill the hollow, and find out what was so important that it called for a captain of the 13 Protection Squads to come all the way to the real world.
The scream of a terrified spirit greeted Hitsugaya as he reached the park. The boy was tripping over himself to get away from the hollow chasing him. The creature was menacing, even for a petty hollow, with eight thick, long legs that stuck out from what looked like the body of a spider and a mane of antenna feeling for spirit energy. At Hitsugaya's appearance, the thing stopped in its tracks, turning toward him with its feelers. He took a fighting stance, preparing himself for a quick fight.
"My, my, you're awfully calm for a man who's about to die!" the hollow cried, lunging forward. Two long fangs grew out of his mouth, aiming for Hitsugaya's chest. The captain jumped, easily avoiding the attack as the hollow's face made contact with the ground.
"Too slow, hollow. You're the one who's about to die," he said, bringing his blade up for the final blow.
"Tilt the goblet to the west – Emerald Grail!" What looked like a metal soccer ball whizzed past, hitting the hollow in the center of its mask. The explosion knocked Hitsugaya back, sending him flying across the park as the hollow dissolved. He managed to land on his feet, eyes flashing wildly to find the source of the attack. Another hollow? No. Why would they attack one of their own? And that wasn't a hollow attack. It was almost like the ginto Ishida used after he'd lost his powers. But there was no way he could be in Karakura Town. Could he?
"Sorry, I just couldn't help myself," a female voice said from across the park. As the smoke cleared, Hitsugaya could make out the form of a girl, probably in her teens. Was she the one who'd killed the hollow? She looked familiar, but her spirit energy was too strong to be anyone left around here.
"So, what's 10th Squad Captain Toushirou Hitsugaya doing here in Karakura Town? The war's been over for years, you know," the person said, standing with one hand on her hip as the ball rolled toward her.
"How do you know me?" Hitsugaya asked, glancing around warily. She wasn't a hollow or vizard. And not an arrancar, either. She was just human.
"You'd better hurry up and do the konso before he runs away again," the girl said, nodding to the boy who was now cowering behind the swing set. Hitsugaya sighed at the interference and distractedly tapped the spirit's forehead with the end of his zanpakto.
"Now, who are you?"
"We met before the war. You know my brother, actually – Kurosaki Ichigo." So that was why she had such high spirit energy. Ichigo was her brother. That would make her -
"Karin," he murmured, still not believing this was the same person. She had obviously grown in the years, but there was something else. She looked almost...feminine. Her hair had been pulled into a raven black ponytail, leaving just her bangs to frame her face. Her figure had filled out, as well. She wasn't quite up to Orihime's body, but there were definite curves beneath her plain black tank top and jeans. Aside from her looks, something else had changed over the years. Her eyes. She had always been cynical and sarcastic, but now – now, she seemed angry. That black expression in her eyes was what made him sure she was Ichigo's little sister. It was the look that never seemed to leave his face, even when he was around Orihime. Was it just a part of her maturation, or had something happened to make her like that?
"You've grown," she commented, her voice devoid of the usual nostalgia at meeting an old friend. "You don't look like an elementary student anymore. In fact, I think you might be taller than Ichigo." He forced a laugh. The thought of looking down on Ichigo was certainly an amusing one.
"You've grown, too. You look like a..." Would it insult her to say she looked like a girl? "...woman."
"Why are you here?" she asked, taking no notice of his semi-compliment.
"I've been sent for information. Apparently, there's been some strange hollow activity lately."
"I'll say. They've been showing up every five minutes. I've had to start filling in when your shinigami can't handle them all." There it was. That bitterness. What could have possibly made her like that?
"Well, you won't have to work so hard now. It's convenient that you're here. Matsumoto just went to ask your dad for a place to stay." She flinched. Something passed through her eyes. A pain that had been pushed down to the center of her being and was forcing its way to the surface.
"Captain!" Matsumoto landed on the grass next to him. Her eyes fell on Karin, instantly recognizing her as a Kurosaki.
"What is it, Matsumoto?" he asked when she stayed silent. She glanced at him, then back to Karin, unsure of what to do.
"Captain, I just spoke to Kurosaki Yuzu," Matsumoto started delicately. Karin flinched again, locking her jaw.
"She said that Isshin is...he's-"
"Dead," Karin finished, grinding her teeth. Hitsugaya's eyes grew wide. So that's what had happened.
"When?" he asked. Karin kept her eyes fixed on the ground, refusing to respond.
"Three years ago," Matsumoto said for her. "He had brain cancer." She tried to say it as quietly as possible, but there was no way to keep Karin from hearing. Without another word, she turned on her heel and walked away, carrying her ball on her hip.
So Kurosaki Isshin was dead. And what a way to go. A great shinigami like that, not taken out by an unnaturally talented enemy, but by the weakness of his own body. That's why she was bitter. She'd watched her father die a slow, painful death, and he'd probably gone mad in the process. His poor daughters.
"And there's something else. Apparently, Yuzu is the only Kurosaki taking care of the clinic. Karin left after Ichigo went to college. Sir, are we really going to stay with someone who has no spirit power?"
"It doesn't matter. I'm sure she'll enjoy your company," Hitsugaya said, getting ready to leave the playground.
"My company? Oh, Captain, are you really going to sleep on the roof again? It's too cold out for that," Matsumoto pouted.
"I'll be fine. You go on ahead. I'll make sure there are no more spirits here.." Matsumoto nodded and headed off, quickly hidden behind the trees and buildings. Hitsugaya sighed. No, he wouldn't be sleeping on the roof this time. But he wouldn't be staying with Yuzu, either.