This chapter is dedicated to: All my readers, who have put up with irregular updates and late replies; All writers, who through writing have lived so many lives; And to Mare, who steadfastly believes beyond my own doubt.

Bleach does not belong to me.


[C]

One moment, she was wrapped in a warm, soothing cocoon. The next—

Karin woke gasping, rolling over onto her side clutching her chest.

She heard her name called, but she shoved it aside. Between the moment it took to draw in her first desperate breath and the next, she had reached into the reishi to pull out her spirit thread, still carefully entwined with his.

"Oh," she breathed, rolling back onto the futon. She let her eyes close again. "Oh, thank goodness."

In the back of her mind, Karin heard the sound of a door sliding open. She felt more than heard the footsteps that followed. She barely registered the questioning voice.

"Karin-chan?"

Talking only to herself, Karin continued, "I thought something happened… that maybe I only dreamt he was okay…"

But the voice in the background persisted. "Karin-chan?"

Slowly, she lifted an eyelid, peering through a fan of dark eyelashes to meet Yoruichi's concerned expression. "How long have I been asleep?" Karin asked quietly.

"Only half a day. But—"

"I know," Karin interrupted. Her fingers finally relaxed, and the curled piece of red ribbon faded away once more. Her eyelid slid shut again. "He's returned to Soul Society."

"He said sorry," Yoruichi supplied as she sat down across from Karin.

"He would, wouldn't he?" Karin murmured. She wasn't sure if she was speaking to her companion anymore, totally lost in her own thoughts. "That idiot," she said out loud. Then, she lapsed back into silence as she struggled to gather her thoughts.

Yoruichi waited silently.

It took effort, but finally Karin opened her eyes and pushed herself up. She had to get home, she decided. Everything that had happened the past couple of days — from her sleepover at Orihime's apartment to that crazy moment she stabbed Hitsugaya Tōshirō… It was too much. She needed to go home, needed a break from the Shinigami world, needed to pretend to be an ordinary girl for just one bloody day.

Karin needed to get out, and she knew that wouldn't happen unless she could convince Yoruichi that she was going to be alright. She needed to play it cool, couldn't let the woman suspect how close she was to… spontaneous combustion or something. Normalcy, that was the key. Go slow, she reminded herself, Then, as soon as my feet touch the dirt outside the store, I'm going to run like hell.

Taking a breath, Karin turned to Yoruichi, and with forced nonchalance asked, "Everyone's okay, right?"

Yoruichi's tone matched Karin's, conversational voice belied by narrowed eyes and scrutinizing gaze. "Everyone is fine, now."

"That's good," Karin said, mentally cringing at the exaggerated cheer in her voice. Forging on, she asked, "So, what happens now? Is it okay for me to go home? If I've been here overnight – it is the next day now, right?" Despite her best efforts, the words came out a little too fast, too overeager. "Wouldn't Yuzu—"

Yoruichi placed a hand on Karin's wrist, silencing Karin's rambling.

"You should stay here a little longer," Yoruichi said sternly. "At the very least, you need to eat."

"Eat?" Karin repeated in surprise. She had expected Yoruichi to lecture her about safety, about running off to save Tōshirō, about needing rest because she had pushed herself too hard. But food? Karin wasn't the least bit hungry; the thought of food made her nauseous. "But I'm not— " she protested, fumbling, "I mean, Yuzu would be—" Karin swallowed hard and forced what she hoped was a sheepish smile onto her face. She deliberately kept her eyes fixed on the woman before her, fighting the urge to shoot a look to the door. "I'm sure Yuzu has leftovers for me."

Yoruichi gave a slight shake of head. "Karin-chan," something about the patient, gentle voice had Karin's stomach sinking. "Look at your hands, your wrists."

The girl didn't want to, not really, yet her eyes were already darting downward to look at her hands.

"Oh," Karin managed as she stared at her emaciated limbs. "Oh."

"You need to eat. You're too low on reiryoku."

Karin didn't — couldn't — look at the woman. Her voice was tiny when she yielded, "Okay."

[C]

She ate the ramen as she was told and didn't protest when the second bowl was placed before her. It didn't taste like anything, although she was vaguely aware it ought to have, considering Tessai prepared it. But she understood why she was eating, and so she continued without complaint.

It would take at least half a day for her body to replenish her reiryoku; longer for her to regain the weight she had lost. If not for the warmth spreading through her body, Karin would have been skeptical the food was doing anything for her at all. The mountain of bowls and plates laden with food intimidated her; she didn't think it was physically possible for her to eat everything prepared for her.

Beside her, Yoruichi sat, undoubtedly there to ensure Karin ate her meal. But the woman was blessedly quiet, leaving Karin to her thoughts.

I almost died. That thought echoed in Karin's mind as she went through the motions of eating. But he is alive, and in the end, it was worth it.

Karin now realized that even after her long talk two nights ago with her zanpakutō, she hadn't truly known what sacrifice was. Conceptually, it was easy to accept the burden of doing anything to save a person's life. But having pushed herself beyond her limit, having made a decision that could have killed her, and being confronted with the fact that she could have died… Karin had not expected how badly the truth of her own mortality would shake her. But ultimately, it was the strength and determination behind her decision to save Hitsugaya Tōshirō that left her terrified.

Would I really do anything for him, then? Her mind flashed back to that moment she felt his reiatsu sputter out. I know now that if I had to, I would have killed for him. If it had been absolutely necessary… I would have taken that risk. But is that normal? To be that… reckless? Or desperate?

Would I... will I destroy myself for him?

And she had a feeling the answer to that last, haunting question was a definitive yes.

As she pushed away the second bowl, it suddenly hit her.

Dear god, she thought. Is this what being in love is like?

"There's nothing wrong with being in love."

The sound of Yoruichi's matter of fact voice startled Karin so thoroughly she upset her bowl. The girl felt blood rushing to her cheeks as she realized, utterly mortified, that she must have spoken out loud… that, perhaps, she had done so the entire time.

Still, there was no use denying the "L" word. Not knowing what to do or else to say, Karin could only busy herself, mopping up the soup splattered across the table.

If Yoruichi sensed Karin's embarrassment, she chose to ignore it, speaking while the girl fumbled with a ratty napkin. "Love's a powerful emotion, and at its finest, it is a beautiful thing. But love is hard to appreciate at your age. You need more time, more experience, some perspective, perhaps some heart ache to truly understand its value — priceless."

Reluctantly, Karin glanced up from the table to meet Yoruichi's gaze, and judging by the gravity in her gold eyes and soft but serious tone, the woman clearly meant for Karin to hear her out. Regardless of how intensely uncomfortable the subject made her feel, there was nothing Karin could do but nod.

"We didn't want to see this happen. Kisuke and I… we had hoped to shield you from our world a little bit longer. I know we've been pushing you to train, but that's only because we wanted to be prepared in case… Well, you've seen the danger of our — your — world. You were forced to make unexpected decisions because we tried to preserve your childhood. We should have discussed love and death and sacrifice..."

Yoruichi flashed Karin an apologetic smile. "We should have anticipated these events, yet we didn't... didn't want to. It's not our place to protect you from life, from growing up. And regardless, you have grown. I can see it in your eyes, and even now, I regret what it cost you. We should have prepared you for it instead..."

A lot was said in those short moments — too much, perhaps, because Karin found herself curiously numb, staggered by how little she understood yet how much of it felt right. Almost funny how not too long ago, she had longed to be a child, to be simple-minded, to view the world in black, white, and vivid color, no muted shades. But with Yoruichi's words, Karin realized that after all that had happened in the past month… She had grown, and whatever the change inside her… it had touched something fundamental. It was irreversible.

There was no way for Karin to stop seeing shades of grey anymore. And she realized that despite it all, there was a part of her that was grateful for the experience.

At the very least, she thought, this would have had to happen sometime, right? I mean, I suppose not to most people. But Ichi-nii and Otou-san are both connected to the Shinigami world. And even all those years of me pretending I couldn't see spirits didn't change the fact that I did. The fact is there is danger in the spiritual world. I can't ignore it now. I'm not a coward, damn it. I'm not weak. I can learn to handle it. I survived yesterday; I saved a life! I'm going to make the most of all this. No way I'm going to turn down a chance to protect everyone.

And, most importantly, I can't deny the connection Tōshirō and I have. I don't think I can give up what he's brought — given — me.

God, if Otou-san were to hear all this… In spite of herself, Karin found her lips curling up, the beginning of a smile forming as she thought of her father's overly animated reaction. He would probably work himself into a pathetic, hysterical fit about how his baby girl was growing up.

But then, the smile faltered as she thought back to Yoruichi 's words.

"Yoruichi-san," Karin started, swallowing thickly and forcing herself to meet the woman's patient gaze, mustering the courage to ask the question on the tip of her tongue. "What… what is it like, being in love? What was it like with you and Urahara-san?"

"Natural," the woman said immediately. She smiled faintly, as she continued, "I… We met when we were children; the first real friend either of us had, best friends. And we just… we understood each other so well. It was exhilarating, that feeling of complete acceptance. Although… we had our ups and downs. Sometimes, we have… Our personalities are obviously different, so there have been times when we've taken different routes, each of us struggling to get our own way without realizing we both were fixed on achieving the same goal. But that is the point: the goal is the same. We are on the same page. True, his strengths are different from mine, and I'll never suggest that I understand even half of what he does, but there are other things my things — that he doesn't understand, though he might suggest that he does. Love isn't about carbon copies. It's about compatibility. We complement each other. You need to understand that being together doesn't make you 'whole.' I'm whole with or without him. But together… together we are altogether something more.

"Neither of us really knew, not like you and Hitsugaya-kun who knew from the start, what was happening to our souls. We don't really know when it happened either. But when we found out about it, it just… it made sense. Everyone has that desire to be accepted and validated, but with him, I don't need to worry about the rest of the world. I have my acceptance. He is… He's home," the woman said, just the faintest hint of embarrassment on her face, "and at the end of the day, that is all I need."

"And me and Tōsh—Hitsugaya-kun," Karin ventured hesitantly, "That's how it'd be with us?"

To this, Yoruichi shrugged. "No two relationships are the same," the woman said. "What it will be between you and Hitsugaya-kun depends on who the two of you become. But will that connection be there? That perfect understanding I mentioned? I don't doubt it." The woman leaned in, reaching across the table to press her fingertips over Karin's heart. "I know you feel it in there. And the beauty of it is he feels it too. There's no uncertainty about the matter. Your bond is simple fact. If you really care to know, I can have Kisuke explain the theories behind soul bonds. But I think you're more like me, that all you need to know is that what you feel here is real. Trust, don't doubt, it."

"And even if you won't admit to feeling it," Yoruichi added with a cheeky grin, "All of us can see it clearly anyway."

Immediately, Karin's cheeks flushed at the thought of her so-called "love life" being scrutinized by the people around her.

"But, I -we-there's nothing—" the girl fumbled, the words she needed slipping further and further from her reach as Yoruichi snickered.

"What are you talking about?" Karin finally cried. "What have you seen? I mean, I've just figured out that… maybe, I… you know. And now, you're telling me it's been obvious all along?"

"Oh, Karin-chan, relax," the woman said, a large smile on her face in spite of her exasperated tone. "And no, not love, but the way you two seem attuned to one another. It's not glaringly obvious, but when you know to look for it, it's there. Little things, like how you intuitively know when he's thirsty, or how he can complete your sentences. Although," the woman teased, "You should be a little more subtle about when you're oogling him with those big, lovesick puppy-dog eyes."

"Yoruichi-san!" Karin all but yelled, stopping herself only at the last minute from throwing something at the woman.

"Ah, Karin-chan, you're just too fun to tease."

Karin glowered as Yoruichi chuckled.

But when the moment had passed, Karin spoke up again. "But, if you don't mind me asking," she said slowly, "Neither you nor Urahara-san seem very… in love." "Not that I doubt that," the girl added in a hurry, "But I mean, you're nothing like the movies or the way Otou-san was – is – about Okaa-san."

"We have different ways of showing it," Yoruichi said simply. "Both of us are fairly apt at keeping up walls when in public. For so long, we have had all these duties, and keeping our private life private was a necessity. Aside from that, we are naturally private about it, I suppose. Before we knew the connection between us or understood what it meant, we were children building that bond... away from other people. No one even saw us together for... maybe twenty years." She looked Karin straight in the eye, the intensity of her gaze strengthening the gravity of her voice. "While it isn't a secret that we are together, neither of us advertises how deep the bond goes. Don't misunderstand, I'm proud of him and my relationship with him. But we have had stretches of... complications in life, and I refuse to have him hurt because of me, and vice versa.

"But if you want to know about love — what it really is — I can't explain, can't really show you or anyone else. It's for us to enjoy; our relationship is about us. It's impossible to explain to someone else the significance in all the little things we might do. But I suppose if you watch us… you'll see what we see in you and Hitsugaya-kun. Being in love, being around the person you love, it doesn't necessarily have to be those dramatic, exaggerated affairs you see in theatres… or when you watch your father. A quiet love can be just as, if not more, potent."

The soft, contemplative expression on Yoruichi's face fell away as she shifted, eyes darting to the closed doors.

"But, anyway," Yoruichi said, changing the subject, gesturing at the bowls of food yet untouched, "you should finish eating. There's more where that came from, I should go check on that. You're still too skinny, although your reiryoku feels healthier. You've no idea how lucky you are be alive instead of depending on a gigai. Your body is able to metabolize food so much more efficiently. You should be looking a lot better by the end of the day if you keep eating."

The thought of food – a lot of it – made Karin suddenly queasy. She opened her mouth to protest, to say that she wasn't quite hungry in that moment, that she wouldn't mind an extra day to get better because she really had no appetite anymore, but was cut off as Yoruichi continued, "Kisuke's going to be here shortly, and there's going to be more to discuss, decisions to make." Yoruichi smiled, and the expression was only ever so slightly strained. "Please eat the food," she said seriously. "You're going to need it. You don't want them to force the nasty brewed stuff on you." Then, Yoruichi stood, and for a moment Karin thought the woman would bend over and hug her. Instead, she found her hair being ruffled in a fond gesture uncharacteristic of the Shihōin princess.

"Kisuke probably won't say it, or at least he's going to say it like he doesn't mean it, but we're very proud of you, Karin-chan."

[C]

She watched quietly as Urahara Kisuke stood at the doorway, finishing up his quick, quiet conversation Tessai.

Yoruichi-san is right, Karin thought. It's all these little things that give it away… if you know what to look for.

Like how Urahara had shared a single look with Yoruichi before stepping out to catch Tessai as the man passed by. Or how Yoruichi shifted ever so slightly to make space for Urahara as he sat back down. How his eyes seemed to smile with a genuine fondness, artificially belied by the exaggerated thanks he showered upon her for pouring him tea. And even as Yoruichi's golden eyes rolled and a slender brown hand snuck up to rap the man on the side of the head, Karin could see the fond smile on the woman's face.

Familiar routine, familiar gestures, silly, seemingly meaningless little things steeped in so much affection.

And Karin… Karin could see herself falling into such a routine with Hitsugaya Tōshirō. Certainly neither of them would ever be quite as falsely dramatic as Shihōin Yoruichi and especially Urahara Kisuke could be. But those little things – knowing when Tōshirō was getting tired or hungry, reading him with a look, knowing when he preferred conversation over silence. Or even the way it was almost a game to her, to make him smile, and the little victory she felt when his lips would struggle to stay downturned at something she had done.

It wasn't quite… romantic. And she wasn't sure if or when there would come a time when she and Tōshirō would be more… romantically inclined. But as surely as she loved her family, she loved him. And the more she thought of it, the less the thought scared her.

And Yoruichi-san says he feels the same way?

But her thoughts were interrupted as Urahara cleared his throat. Karin realized that the two adults in front of her had finally finished bickering.

"Karin-chan," the man said lightly, addressing her as her eyes darted to meet his.

It was Karin's first time seeing this side of Urahara Kisuke – the no-nonsense, solemn, normal side of the man. He was also not wearing his hat – another first – further emphasizing that something was different.

She didn't like how his pleasant expression was skin deep, how foreboding his eyes were with their cloudy gray. "You probably want this back," he said, retrieving a cloth-wrapped object from the floor.

The slender appearance told Karin what it was, her suspicions confirmed as a familiar hum of energy seeped into her palms when she accepted it.

"My zanpakutō," she breathed. She unwrapped the fabric to reveal the sheathed blade, and after the briefest hesitation drew her sword. The blade gleamed silver under the light. "It's… you fixed it for me?" Karin asked.

"You fixed it," the man corrected. "It's a part of your soul, after all. To sacrifice its reiatsu for you, it shattered. You had consumed the entirety of your reiryoku; the energy from your zanpakutō was all that was keeping you alive. But when you restore your strength, you restore it also. Relationship between a Shinigami and their zanpakutō is mutualistic; You are both stronger for it." And then he smiled, "Or should I be referring to your zanpakutō as 'her?'"

There was something familiar to what Urahara was saying, but her thoughts were distracted by the question posed. "Her name is Hoshikuzu," Karin said, oddly proud of her sword that moment. She ran a finger along the flat of the blade, soothed by the feel of her zanpakutō's own reiatsu. "Arigato," Karin said, "for returning her. I had thought…"

And her thoughts drifted back to that moment when her zanpakutō's voice had whispered in her mind, barely comprehensible over all the pain.

When her sword has asked, "Your life for his?" and Karin had chosen Hitsugaya Tōshirō.

Now Karin clearly remembered the sound of her zanpakutō shattering, remembered how it felt as though she was being ripped apart.

The phantom pain stole her breath away.

But you understand, don't you? She silently asked her sword. You who from the start encouraged me to follow my heart. Are you happy with the decision I made?

There was no answer Karin could hear, but the steady reiatsu she felt even as she placed the sheathed sword onto her lap was all she needed.

"You're startlingly young to have achieved Bankai," Urahara said when Karin looked up to face him. "Yet I don't think you truly have, have you?"

The question baffled the girl. "I… I wouldn't know?"

"She shared her true name with you when you transitioned physical states. Do you still remember that name?"

"I…" and Karin frowned. "I remember the first… but I know there was a second."

"Do you remember what she said to you while you were in your inner world?"

Once again Karin had to think back, sieving through memories that were disconnected and hazy. "She said… she had told me once before that if it came to it, we would fight. And then, when Tōshirō fell… She said… she said that my body wasn't ready, but she acted anyway. Can she — can they do that?" Karin asked. "All this time, all I've heard is that a Shinigami's zanpakutō won't reveal itself until the Shinigami was ready. But I wasn't, and…"

"You are not ready," Urahara Kisuke stated genially. "I'm sure you would agree. Yet a Shinigami may unlock previously dormant abilities to survive peril. Our souls have this innate desire, this basal instinct to survive – when necessary, it lends its wielder strength beyond the Shinigami's normal capabilities. Nevertheless, I would concede that you were taken to a rather unprecedented level."

He look on his face was speculative and the eyes pinned on Karin were shrewd. "It makes sense, all things considered. Your zanpakutō does tend to take initiative. It's no more normal for a zanpakutō to come out of dormancy in a living soul, even one with as strong a spiritual sense as you. But why she chose to do so, why she chose you, I believe was a matter of careful deliberation on her part.

"Perhaps, she loaned at you her strength because of her vested interest in Hitsugaya-kun. After all, the bond you share with Hitsugaya-kun is exceedingly rare. I doubt she would wait lifetimes for the connection only to have him die. And while you were safe from physical harm, her residence within your heart and soul was threatened by Hitsugaya-kun's condition. Naturally, she wouldn't want your heart or soul breaking."

"But," he added. "In all of that, we did learn something about you."

"What?" Karin asked, head still spinning.

"That your zanpakutō thinks you're ready to handle her Shikai."

"But…" Karin started. "I don't… I am?"

"There were two names," Urahara prompted. "I believe you recall the first?"

Karin frowned. "I do, but… but I don't know how to use it. It was just one thing after another—"

"That's okay, Karin-chan," Yoruichi said, finally speaking up. "That's what we're here for. To help you train. If you still want to."

Before the girl could speak, Yoruichi continued, after a sidelong glance at Urahara Kisuke. "I assume you know what we think," the woman said, her voice steady. "But this decision has to come from you. Don't let our expectations dictate your actions. Because while you've had a chance to experience our world, you must understand yesterday was only a fraction of what you will face. A war is happening in the spiritual world. If you want to get involved, we will do everything in our ability to prepare you. But it has to be your decision."

The woman sat back and let out a soft sigh. "I wish there was more time for you to really consider this, but things have come to a head. Ask questions; I know you must have them. And I promise that we will do our best to answer them."

I… I really don't want to know the answer to the questions I have, Karin thought resentfully. I thought… just… Why do I have to make all these decisions? Can't I just… But there's no time. There never does seem to be any time!

And there they were sitting, watching her, and Karin couldn't even blame them. Not Yoruichi, whom Karin truly believed meant the best from the earnest look on her face and the regret in her golden eyes. And not even Urahara, because Karin somehow had the feeling that he wasn't normally the type to give her such options. That he truly would allow her to step away from all this.

Frustrated, Karin slammed her head against the table.

"We, uh… Karin-chan, why don't we give you some time alone?" Yoruichi said quietly. "I- we didn't mean to upset you, but… why don't we just come back later?"

"No, don't." Karin's voice was muffled against the table, but she pressed a hand onto the wooden surface to help push herself back up to face the two adults. "I- you're right. There isn't that much time, is there?" She forced herself to put on a smile. Her voice wavered, but Karin knew it was imperative she remain strong. "Either I decide to be a part of all this Shinigami stuff, or there really is a chance that there might not be anything to be a part of later, would there?"

The two adults that had already gotten half up from the floor paused. Karin waited, not failing now to notice how they needed nothing more than a glance at each other, before they sat back down – with Urahara waiting to make sure Yoruichi was settled before he took his seat.

The talk with Yoruichi earlier, and being able to watch those little things in action… It made Karin wish, seemingly irrational though it might be, Tōshirō was there with her that moment. To have someone to support her and her decisions at a time like this...

Watching the interaction between Shihōin Yoruichi and Urahara Kisuke, whose relationship was centuries old and still so strong, helped Karin make up her mind.

"I want to train," she said clearly. "I want to get better. I want to be able to do what I can to protect those I love." And in the forefront of her mind were her father, her sister and brother, and Hitsugaya Tōshirō.

"But," the girl continued. "You said it'll be hard." She took a deep breath. "I want to know what is going on. I don't want surprises. If I'm going to do this, you need to believe I can handle it. I need to know I can handle it, I need to prepare myself for all this."

"Right," Yoruichi said.

And Urahara asked, "Where would you like us to start?"

"With the present," Karin said firmly. What did it matter what caused the conflict anymore? She just… she just needed something, a goal, to work towards. Baby steps. She could handle that. Focus on what needed to be immediately, what to currently expect. The rest of the blanks could be filled later. "What is happening right now? Now that Tōshi- Hitsugaya-kun and Rangiku-san and all the other Shinigami have returned to Soul Society and-"

She broke off mid-sentence, eyes widening. "Ichi-nii!" She exclaimed. "Oh my god, after all that, how did I forget... is he ok? Was he hurt? Where is he now? Is he home?"

Karin did not like the way Urahara Kisuke's face darkened.

"He's ok," the man said swiftly. "He received an injury of some significance but the damage has been reversed." It was in the way he seemed exceptionally deliberate in his words that let Karin know he was making an effort to tell the truth. "However, he will be leaving tonight."

"Why?" Karin cried. "Why does he have to rush off again?"

"In the past hour," the man started with an even tone that told Karin he wasn't going to sugarcoat the truth, "We have received confirmation that Inoue Orihime has been kidnapped by Aizen's agents." The words hit Karin like a sack of bricks, but the man did not wait for her to catch her breath before he continued. "Your brother is aware of the situation. Given his personality, he will likely depart this evening to rescue her."

"But wait!" Karin protested. "What? How- wouldn't that mean he would be going to that.. Hue..." She waved her hands about. "Whatever that place is called? You can't let him go! It's too dangerous!"

"Karin-chan," Yoruichi interjected. "I believe this is something your brother needs to do. He isn't going to stand by idly when he knows Orihime-chan is in danger. And the reality is... he needs to go. Like you, Ichigo has to grow as a Shinigami. But he walks a different path. What he will face in rescuing Orihime-chan has to prepare him for what is to come. It is necessary for him to face such challenges for him to survive."

"Aizen has a plan for your brother," Urahara added. He raised a hand to cut off Karin's sputtered protests. "Your Onii-chan is going to be safe. If Aizen Sōsuke had meant to kill him, Kurosaki Ichigo would have died months ago."

"So... so I'm just supposed to let him- I haven't seen him in a month-" Karin took a deep breath, trying to keep her calm. "I want to go with him. If going after Orihime-chan will make him grow, I-"

Yoruichi's response was immediate and absolute. "No! You must stay here."

Cutting off Karin's protests, the woman continued. "All this time we have taken so much care to protect you and your sister from Aizen's attention. Your brother is caught up in that mad man's game, but not you. We want to keep it that way. Especially because you are different from your brother. Aizen would revel in manipulating your strength and your bond."

There was silence, as Karin took it all in. Finally, in a low voice, she asked, "Will I get to see him?"

Her heart sank as both adults shook their heads. "I'm afraid not," Urahara said. "You would be too much of a distraction to Kurosaki-kun. Ichigo needs to do this. And with you-"

The man paused, penetrating eyes capturing Karin's full attention.

"You are his to protect. That is his perceived role as older brother. But he cannot protect without growth. Neither can you. To deny him this opportunity is for him to deny yours. Stop Kurosaki-kun, and you tie yourself to your family, and this world. "

Her eyes followed, transfixed, as he pointed solidly down at the floor.

His words washed over her. "You increase the chance that all of you may die."

What was it, Karin asked herself, that Tōshirō said about detachment? That in the end it boils down to priorities, about what I can allow myself to care about. About what is important enough that I have to care about. And to decide what would hurt me if I worried about them.

She could remember his eyes, not dull, not defeated. Startlingly aquamarine, the riveting intensity refined by millenia.

Urahara Kisuke had once made the comment that Hitsugaya Tōshirō was an old soul. Then, the girl had took the words to mean the boy had a couple decades on her. Now, as Karin recalled Tōshirō's eyes, she wondered if the man was suggesting instead a sum-total karma.

She wondered how old her soul was.

So what can I allow myself to care for? What is most important, right now? What would hurt me, if I focused on right now?

She felt something inside her quieting. She felt herself make up her mind.

Clutching onto that image of flashing turquoise, Karin braced herself. Vaguely, she wondered what they saw in her plain brown eyes as she opened her mouth.

"What happens now?"

Surely, she thought with detachment, they can hear him in my voice.

Karin could see the change in Urahara Kisuke's expression, the flash of recognition, followed by something… darker she couldn't understand it.

"Now," the man said, "we prepare for war."