A/N: Written for the October round on Bleach Flashfic at LiveJournal. Early to be in time for my requester's birthday. :)
The night wind was cool, though the city lights made the sky look aflame with hot neon orange.
The stars were invisible behind the thick, glaring carpet of clouds, but he stared resolutely upwards anyways, as though he could see through it, or perhaps as though he were looking at something else entirely that she couldn't see. His sword lay at his side, pillowed on his folded white captain's cloak, as far from his hand as she'd ever seen it but still close enough to draw in a heartbeat.
There were lines on his face and bags under his eyes. He was still fairly small (though taller than her by two inches), and his face still had not reached full adult angularity, but tonight Hitsugaya Toushirou still managed to look his age.
Kurosaki Karin took a deep breath and pulled herself silently the rest of the way up onto the roof.
Though she had not seen him move, there was suddenly a blade a hairsbreadth from her throat, malignantly reflecting the harsh glow of the sky. It dropped back to his side as soon as he saw who she was, but her thundering heart refused to slow down.
"How did you know I was up here?" he asked, not looking at her. "I'm masking my reiatsu."
She snorted, unable to help herself. "Is that a serious question?"
Anybody else would have smiled, or at least had the grace to look abashed. He did not, only nodded thoughtfully once. "Of course. Arisawa-san."
Karin settled herself onto the crown of the roof next to him and wrapped her arms around her knees. Her short hair fell forward, reaching for her eyes and not quite making it.
He didn't tell her to leave him alone, which was as good as permission.
"How come you're here?" she asked curiously. "Last we heard you were in Bulgaria sealing a dimensional gap and killing off all the nasties that came through it before you got there."
"I was. Now I'm done."
She waited for more, but none seemed forthcoming. "...And? That doesn't answer my question."
"...And my next assignment is here," he finished reluctantly, looking at the streetlights, the road, the sky, anywhere but at her.
Karin looked for a moment like she'd been kicked in the gut. Then she pulled her knees in tighter to her chest and lowered her face. "Yuzu," she whispered.
He nodded, but didn't say anything more.
She hated crying, really hated it, but she'd had to do rather a lot of it in the years since the war began. She was nineteen now, and an honourary member of the fighting forces. Her specialty was long-distance elimination of enemies... sniping, basically, with a spirit rifle of her own design. It functioned much like a Quincy bow, but had longer range and pinpoint accuracy. Her trusty soccer ball was a long ways away now. Tatsuki, her partner, specialized in reiatsu detection, and served as Karin's aiming function. She pointed where to shoot, and Karin shot, and Hollows died.
They were not the only ones that died, however. Their side had taken its fair share of casualties at the hands of Aizen's minions.
"Do you have to?" she asked him plaintively, already knowing the answer but compelled to ask anyway.
He turned to meet her eyes calmly, then nodded.
Karin closed her eyes and grimly fought the pending flood of tears.
Hitsugaya shifted beside her. She felt a hand on her shoulder-- a concession for him, who didn't like to touch people or let them touch him. "You don't need to worry about her," he told her. "She is needed in Soul Society. They will not let someone with such a gift for healing languish away in Rukongai untapped. She will be found, and trained, and you'll probably see her again sooner than you think."
"And if she dies again, then...?" Karin asked, reaching up to cover the hand on her shoulder with one of her own.
"She'll be reincarnated," he answered gently. "She will never be gone forever. No one is. It's just a matter of finding them again."
She laughed humourlessly. "There are billions of souls. What's to say I'll ever find her again even if I spend a lifetime looking? She won't look the same. She won't talk the same. She probably won't even speak the same language. I could spend a hundred lifetimes searching for her and never find her."
"Do you give up that easily, then?" he asked sharply. "If you're looking for pity, you won't get it from me. I still haven't found my family, and I've been looking for them for more than a century. I have no intention of giving up."
"I wasn't looking for pity," she snapped, stung. "It was an honest question. I was hoping you'd have some ideas."
"If I did, I wouldn't still be looking," he replied simply, without malice. "I wish I did. How about this-- if I learn any tricks, I'll tell you first."
Karin twisted sideways to smile at him. "Thanks," she said. Then her smile faltered as she looked past him at a sky suddenly streaked with grey and gold. "It's almost morning."
"I know," he said. "I have a gate opening for me in less than an hour."
The hint was implicit, but Karin got it. Squeezing his hand one more time, she let go and dropped back into the house. It was time to say her goodbyes.
Yuzu was in her room, where she'd been since Halibel had crushed her body beyond recognition. She played with her dolls, smiled and laughed, and didn't seem to notice the chain trailing from the center of her chest. Her inability to move more than very small, light objects bothered her, but she usually appeared to forget about it moments later.
To Karin's eyes, she looked nearly as alive as she'd always been, but for the chain. It was nearly impossible to think of her as a ghost... as dead.
When she came in the door, Yuzu was sitting on her bed with a stuffed rabbit on her partially-insubstantial lap. She was stroking its ears and mumbling softly to it, seemingly unaware that it was five in the morning and that she should have been sleeping. She was seventeen and softly pretty, but some part of her had never managed to grow up entirely.
"Yuzu," Karin called softly.
"Good morning, Karin-neechan!" Yuzu cried joyfully, jumping out of bed. The plushie, forgotten, fell through her legs onto the coverlet. "Do you want to play?"
"No, Yuzu," Karin answered regretfully. She was determined not to be upset in front of Yuzu. It would only make it more traumatic for her to see her stoic sister crying. "Listen, kiddo, you remember Hitsugaya-taichou?"
Yuzu nodded enthusiastically. "Shiro-chan!"
Karin grinned despite herself, knowing how much Toushirou hated that name. She'd done her fair share of teasing in the beginning when she'd been assigned to his unit, but stopped immediately after their first battle proved to her that he was anything but a child. It was hard to call him by silly names when she'd seem him drenched to the elbows in Arrancar blood, cloak stained by the grey miasma left by the dissipation of Hollows, grim-faced and blue eyes blazing.
"Yes, him. He's here to visit, and he's going to send you on a trip."
"A trip? Where to? Are you coming too?" Yuzu asked brightly. She'd always loved family outings, and had been terribly lonely after Ichigo had left for Soul Society permanently, unable to leave the battlefront long enough to maintain his body. Isshin had managed to help from his body on earth, not willing to leave his daughters alone, but he'd still been away from home a lot of the time. Yuzu was the only one who always stayed at home, waiting to heal their wounds when they staggered in from the battlefield.
"No, I'm not, but it's a nice place. You'll like it there," Karin told her thickly.
Yuzu clapped her hands gleefully. "Okay! I haven't been on a trip in ages!"
As if on cue, Hitsugaya came in through the window and landed silently on the carpeted floor. "Hello, Yuzu-chan," he said, smiling for her though Karin knew it had to be costing him. "Are you ready to go?"
"I don't have my toothbrush," Yuzu replied worriedly, looking around for it. "I can't go anywhere without my toothbrush, Daddy'll get mad--"
"It's all right," he interrupted. "You won't need it. They'll give you a new one."
"Oh, okay. Then I'm ready."
Hitsugaya turned to Karin, wordless volumes in his eyes.
She walked forward and gave Yuzu's ghost a lingering hug, kissing her on the forehead. "See you soon," she said, and then pulled away to give Hitsugaya room although it was the hardest thing she'd ever done.
"Karin-neechan," Yuzu said, and suddenly her eyes were much clearer than they'd been. She smiled knowingly. "They'll probably put me in fourth squad, right? I'll wait for you there."
Karin gasped and reached out, but the hilt of Hitsugaya's zanpakutou was already descending. A flash of white, and Yuzu's smiling figure dissolved into beautiful glowing blue motes of light.
"She knew," Karin whispered. "She knew and pretended not to so I could let her go more easily. Oh, god." The room swam in front of her eyes. "Don't cry," she told herself fiercely. "Don't cry, dammit." She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes until blinding spots of colour wheeled in them.
A pair of arms circled her unexpectedly and pulled her into a familiar chest. "You did well," he said into her hair. He was not usually given to displays of affection, and she was more thankful for this one than she could say in words.
She threw her arms around him and buried her face in his neck, gasping for a full breath and trying to swallow past the lump in her throat. "I just... can't get over the idea that I might never see her again."
"Don't be stupid," he said brusquely, burying the fingers of one hand in her hair and tightening the other around her waist. "You know you can see her anytime you want. All you have to do is--"
"--die," Karin finished for him. "I know."
"You also know that it's hardly the ordeal it's been made out to be." He paused. "And you know I've been holding the lieutenant spot open for you since Matsumoto got her captaincy, and that I'm willing to keep it open indefinitely."
"Are you inciting me to suicide?" she asked him dryly, the urge to weep thankfully subsiding.
She felt rather than saw his blush and chagrined expression.
"No! I'm... just...
"I know," she said. "But I'm not going to let myself die just yet, I don't think. Dad would never forgive himself if all three of his children died early. Mom would kill him."
"Then live," he said indifferently. "I just wanted you to know that you'll have a place there when you come. Whenever you come. I have to go now, the gate is going to open."
"All right," she said, stepping away. At the last second she caught his hand. "Toushirou."
She rarely called him by his given name. He stopped dead and looked back at her, gaze carefully guarded.
"Thank you," she said. "Wait for me."
He held her gaze for a long, long moment, then tightened his hand around hers. "Always."
Then there was nothing in the room except her and the morning air, streaming in through the open window.
When it happened, it came as a total surprise.
There was no Hollow, no blast of crimson cero light, not even an Arrancar's sword. Just a human man with a gun.
Her last thought was oh shit, Aizen's finally decided to use humans too. They'd been expecting it for years, but until then he'd viewed them as beneath him and chosen to use exclusively spiritual armies. That had apparently changed.
It didn't hurt at all. He'd had decent aim, and the bullet had passed directly through her braincase and lodged into the back of her skull. Her vision narrowed rapidly to a point of light. Everything went dark.
An indeterminate amount of time passed. It could have been a split second, it could have been hours, she wasn't really sure and didn't much care.
Then she opened her eyes onto a dusty, rutted Rukongai road. There was dirt on her face, in her mouth, and now in her eyes. She decided then and there that she disliked Rukongai deeply.
"Welcome to District 68, Aokin," said a bored voice above her. "Nice ass."
"Thanks," Karin replied, then kicked the feet out from under the speaker with probably unnecessary force. Staggering to her feet, she looked down at the rat-faced man lying winded in the dirt and made a face. "I really don't like this place."
"Bocchan!" yelled a higher voice. "What the hell did you do to him, you whore?" A rail-thin man skidded up to her, followed by four others of varying shapes and sizes. They were invariably ugly as sin.
"Okay, now I'm impressed," she said thoughtfully. "Did you have to order those faces in special? I think I've seen prettier Hollows."
With inarticulate shrieks of rage, the gang leapt on her, clearly intent on beating her to bleeding pulpy mud.
Unfortunately for them, Karin was now twenty-two and had been fighting a war against inhumanly powerful enemies for nearly half her life. Even before that, she'd always been good in a scrap, and she was faster and cannier than them. There were too many of them to escape entirely unscathed, but she knew how to present as little of herself as a target as possible.
Two of them she took out by cracking their heads together, something she'd always wanted to do but had never found the opportunity for. The third she kicked so hard his knee turned backwards. He fell down screaming in pain and was no longer a threat. The fourth pulled out a jagged knife. She hit his wrist so that it fell from his suddenly limp fingers into her hand, then dropped to the ground and cut his right Achilles tendon with one neat sweep.
She wasn't aiming to kill. They probably weren't evil people, just stupid and marinated in the nasty energy of lower Rukongai for far too long.
The last one, the thin one who'd yelled, produced a pair of sai-- long ornamental daggers with forward-sweeping hilt-guards-- out of nowhere and lit into her. He was somewhat skillful, and she only had a knife. He scored several glancing hits on her within the first few minutes, two on her left arm, one on her right, and one to the forehead that was leaking copious amounts of blood into her left eye.
"Stubborn bastard," she muttered. "If you're going to play dirty, I can too."
She wasn't sure if it worked differently for spirits than it did in a living body, but figured it was worth a try. Clapping her hands together, she focused her reiatsu, dodged a whirling attack from the sai, and thrust her palms into his chest. "Way of destruction number four: white thunder." A soundless clap of pressure on her ears, and he suddenly flew backwards with far more force than she'd been expecting.
Karin stared at her hands, stunned by how much better kidou worked in a body composed purely of spirit particles, and thus missed the moment when the man she'd assumed unconscious pulled himself into a sitting position and threw one of the sai at her with brutal speed.
It thudded into her chest neatly between the fourth and fifth ribs, missing her heart but puncturing a lung so that air whistled out around the blade as she gasped for breath in shock.
Not again, she thought as her vision narrowed alarmingly. I just did this. A thick fog wrapped around her mind and she felt the overpowering urge to go to sleep. The world tilted crazily around her. She didn't feel the impact with the ground, though she knew fuzzily that it had to have happened sometime within the last half second.
"Don't you dare," a familiar voice said somewhere above her in a tone tight with fear.
She was too tired to care. She just wanted to sleep.
Hands prodded painfully at her wound for a moment. "Oh, hellfire," said the voice she couldn't seem to place.
Suddenly she felt herself moving somehow. There was air on her face, but even that was numbing out to nothing.
"If you die, I swear I'll kill you."
There was something wrong with that statement, but she couldn't quite figure out what. Everything was turning white... this was different, it had been black last time. Maybe the blood was leaving her eyelids and running out the hole in her chest. For some reason, the thought struck her as funny and she gurgled out a messy laugh, tasting metallic blood in her mouth.
She was so cold.
Karin was honestly surprised to open her eyes.
She surmised immediately that they had been wrong after all and there was another afterlife after the first, a Soul Society beyond Soul Society. The next thought she had was that she liked this one better-- instead of a hard, dusty street, she was waking up on a soft white bed, and the air smelled like Yuzu's favourite strawberry soap.
On the downside, she seemed to be somehow restrained. She couldn't lift either of her hands.
The room, previously a pleasant white blur, resolved itself into sharper focus. Karin turned her head to the left and was presented with a disheveled head of hazelnut-brown hair splayed across the coverlet. She knew that hair.
"Yuzu," she breathed, and abruptly altered her assumptions on where she was. That was Yuzu asleep in the chair next to her, holding her hand, and that had to mean she was in Soul Society after all, in the infirmaries of the fourth squad.
Instinctively she tried to lift her right hand to touch Yuzu's hair, but remembered instantly that it was also restrained by something, and turned to look.
"Welcome back," said Hitsugaya. There were enormous bags under his eyes. He looked awful.
"You look like shit," she told him.
He stared at her for a long moment, then laughed. "You, on the contrary, look just about half-dead enough to be a hit on the catwalks," he jibed back.
"You learned insults in Paris!" she proclaimed delightedly.
"Among other things," he dryly agreed.
Awareness of the fact that she was really alive and really sitting in an infirmary with Yuzu and Hitsugaya at her bedside holding her hands finally hit home, and she was surprised by a rush of tears. "Oh god," she muttered, "I hate crying. Make it stop."
"Promise me you'll accept the position as my lieutenant when you get through the Academy."
She stared at him through her tears, wishing desperately that he or Yuzu would let go of her hand so she could wipe them away. "That's so random."
"Promise me," he repeated insistently. His face was blurry to her vision, but she thought there was an expression there that was somewhat startling.
After a short pause, she replied "...All right then. I promise."
"Thank you," he said fervently, then leaned over and shocked her senseless by kissing the tears off her face.
Well, that worked, she thought bemusedly as the tears stopped as though shut off at the spout, unable to get past the lingering warmth on her cheeks. "Uh," she said articulately.
"If you break that promise," he whispered fiercely, eyes blazing, "I will hunt you down and make you pay for it a hundred times over. I waited six years to get you here. I will not be pleased if you change your mind now."
"You really love me, huh," she teased to cover how taken aback she was, fully expecting him to blush and stammer and pull away.
"Well actually, yes," he said, looking almost calm except for the nervously jumping muscle in his jaw, thus blowing her out of the water for the second time in as many minutes. "I do. Despite all my considerable efforts not to. You're a madwoman, you fight dirty, you talk like a heathen, and you're Kurosaki's sister, which means that by all logic you should annoy me horribly... but you don't. There's no one I'd rather have at my back in battle, and more tellingly, no one I'd rather do paperwork with for hours on end."
"You're shitting me," she said disbelievingly, hand unconsciously clamping down on his like a vise. "Did Yuzu put you up to this? You're the most unromantic, stonefaced bastard I know, there's no way you came up with that on your own."
This time he did blush, gratifyingly. "It cost me a lot to say that. You can make fun of it if you like, but I wasn't joking."
"Oh," was all she could think of to say to that. "Well, I love you too, you dumbass. You should have said so earlier."
"You do?" he said, soundly genuinely surprised. "Since when?"
"Oh, ages," she replied airily. "I think it was the second or third time you came down to earth. It was winter, there was snow. Rangiku-san threw a snowball at you. You looked so pissed, but then you made one of your own and started the best snowball fight I've ever been in. You were cheating horribly, using your zanpakutou to manipulate the ice, but nobody minded because everyone was having so much fun and Rukia was cheating too anyways. You had snow in your hair and your eyelashes and you were almost smiling, and... yeah."
"That long?" he said, clearly shocked. "Why didn't you...? You never struck me as the shy type."
"Yeah, well, I was just a kid, and even though you looked like one I never forgot that you weren't really. I wanted to be standing on even ground to meet you, not looking up at you from the bottom of the hill."
"You were never--"
"Save it. It's in the past anyway. ...Out of curiosity, when did you...?"
He smiled. "For you? It was the next time I met you after Ichigo explained to me how you fight. I looked at your face and thought this is a girl who kills Hollows by bludgeoning them with footballs. You were so small and thin, but the fighting spirit was so powerful in your eyes. You didn't even have a proper weapon but you still found a way to get the job done."
Karin groaned. "That is so unromantic," she told him woefully. "You should have said something like you had such beautiful eyes, or you walked so gracefully, or god. Something. Anything but you were a little hellion who liked beating things concave."
"I didn't say that," he protested. "Besides, you're the one who just said you loved me because I was a cheater."
Yuzu stirred sleepily on Karin's left. "First lover's spat already? Goodness, and you've only been together a grand total of five minutes."
They both blushed this time, shooting furtive disgruntled glances at each other.
"Long time no see, Yuzu," Karin said hastily to draw attention away from their humiliation. "Are you already done with school? I thought the program was four years?"
"It is," said Yuzu. It was her turn to blush prettily. "It's my last year, but Unohana-taichou pulled me out early to take me into a direct apprenticeship. She said she didn't want the 'half-incompetent teachers at the Academy' ruin me 'like they do half the students'. There are a couple of other apprentices too."
"Wow, Yuzu," Karin said appreciatively. "I'm impressed. Special treatment?"
"No less than you're going to get, I'm sure," Yuzu demurred. "I'll be surprised if they make you do more than two years. You've already learned more on the battlefield directly than they can teach you. It would just be theory and kidou, mostly, and you already know a lot of that thanks to Rukia-san."
"Further to that, I don't plan to wait another two years for a lieutenant," Hitsugaya put in. "Whatever schooling you do will be in the evenings or on your days off, in between your activities with me."
Karin grinned delightedly and waggled her eyebrows at him. "Activities, you say?"
He didn't rise to the bait. "As in paperwork, you heathen."
She scowled and slumped, but only managed to maintain it for a moment. She was far too happy. She had her sister back, she had a boyfriend, and she was finally going to be a proper shinigami.
Being dead was definitely not as awful as it had been made out to be.
"Will you marry me?" he panted, chest heaving and Hyourinmaru curling protectively around him.
Karin laughed, high and joyful. "You seriously have the worst timing in the world, you idiot. Couldn't you at least have waited until I washed the blood off?"
The high, stark walls of Aizen's throne room loomed around them, no longer looking half as imposing as they had an hour ago. At least if one ignored the artistic sprays of blood spattering the walls and the littering of corpses across the floor. Aizen himself was nowhere to be seen. All there was in place of his throne was a gigantic, sharp-edged swath cut out of the stone, tearing a gap through half of Las Noches far off into the darkness.
If Soul Society had kept records of Most Powerful Explosions, whatever it was that Ichigo had unleashed to finish this battle would have set a very-nearly unbeatable record. He lay prostrate on the floor at the narrowest point of the swathe, quite unconscious but alive.
Unohana was making her way around the battlefield with her lieutenants Yuzu and Orihime, the latter only a streak of flaming hair in the partial gloom. There were a few casualties, but very few so far gone that Orihime's Shun Shun Rikka couldn't bring them back now that she'd learned to use them to their fullest power. The Overcaptain had incinerated himself to take out Tousen, so he was beyond help, as was Kiyone, Ukitake's lieutenant. She had thrown herself in front of a cero to protect him and there wasn't anything left of her to reconstruct.
None of them had expected to come away so cleanly. They were thankful that those were the only friends they'd lost, and the joy of winning the war at last greatly outstripped the grief.
They'd been fighting for nearly fifteen years, a war of piecemeal attrition. And now it was over in a storm of blood and glory. They felt utterly free for the first time in all those fifteen years.
"Well?" he insisted. "What do you say?"
Karin made her way across the field of bodies to stand before Hitsugaya, grinning. Her zanpakutou had returned to the form of a sword, and hung loosely from her hand. In lieu of answering his question, she threw her gory arms around his equally gore-streaked neck and kissed him fervently. "Okay. Who do you think they'll name Overcaptain?"
"Wait," he sputtered. "Don't change the subject. Was that a yes?"
"Yes, that was a yes, you dumbass. What else did you think I'd say? Now seriously, what do you think?"
Hitsugaya grinned, sliding his hand down to grip hers, heedless of the blood and grime. They were warriors. This was their element. "Hmmm. Byakuya's probably the favourite, but I wouldn't rule out Ukitake. He's sick, though, so probably not him."
"I wouldn't be surprised if they appointed you," Karin said playfully. "You still look like a kid, but who's going to question the manlihood of someone who took out Ichimaru Gin?"
"I don't want it," he said truthfully. "Even if they did, I'd refuse. I'd rather stay captain of the tenth division with you as my lieutenant. The Overcaptain does nothing but paperwork ninety-five percent of the time."
"You like paperwork."
"Not that much, I don't."
Karin leaned her head onto his shoulder and sighed. "So, now what?"
"Aside from the wedding?"
"I didn't even think they did weddings in Soul Society."
"Something I picked up from the mortal world."
"You just want to see me in a dress," she accused.
He nodded equanimously. "Yes, and eat cake."
"If I must."
Leaving the students pouring in through the main doors to clean up the mess, they wandered out arm in arm into the vast white desert of Hueco Mundo, staring at the starless black sky. There was no wind, but the air was not stifling. Instead, there was a sense of vast, boundless space all around in every direction. It made breathing somehow easier.
"You know, I kind of almost like this place," Karin remarked quietly. "I've always thought of it as evil because of Aizen, but it's really quite beautiful in its own way. Very... peaceful. I'd be bored stiff after a week, of course, but still... it would be nice to come here sometimes when the chaos of Soul Society gets to be too much."
He nodded in silent agreement.
There should not be any dawning in this place, but on the horizon there was an amethyst glow, and the black sky no longer glared as hard.
There should not be a dawn, but they would wait for it anyways.
They were not cold.
A/N: Hope you enjoyed! Comments are welcomed but not whored for. There will not be a sequel, prequel, or a sidequel, so please don't ask lest you drive me to something I might regret. :)