Chapter 1: Warming Up
My new story after a longggg hiatus. =) (several years, actually...)
AN: I guess it's a little hard to stay away. But after a couple of years, I guess it's time to hit the keyboard again. I had originally developed this story a while back… before the Fake Karakura arc, so Aizen's motives may seem a bit different.
"How many remain?" Asked the voice. It was a cold voice that inspired fear, a voice that the arrancar obeyed.
Yet arrancar number 38 had qualms about answering the simple question. Particularly since he knew the answer was a bad one.
When he did not receive his answer, Aizen turned around. "You must have not heard me. I asked, how many remain?"
Crumpling to the floor in prostration to Aizen's weighty spiritual pressure, the numeros struggled to move his mouth to give an answer. "Only 26 numeros remain. And a single Espada."
The mastermind of Karakura's near demise showed no dismay at this. Instead, he looked down at the shattered remains of the hougyouku and smiled. "A setback indeed."
The arrancar swallowed. From Aizen's tone, the setback obviously wasn't a large one.
And so Aizen disappeared from the spiritual world.
"Yeah, right." A silver haired boy, looking to be in his mid-to-late-teens, threw down the magazine that his lieutenant had left on his desk. It glorified the shinigami and arrancar battle, making it seem like Soul Society's epic victory, vanquishing Aizen forever.
Hitsugaya Toushirou thought of it as more like Aizen's "going underground." From the reports, he was sure Aizen Sousuke was still alive. And he wasn't the only one to think so. Any shinigami seated 3rd or higher had been informed of the probability that Aizen was plotting away somewhere, biding his time. Four years had passed relatively quietly, however, and some of the shinigami were beginning to relax. Toushirou knew better. Four years was a short duration of time compared to a century back, when the signs of Aizen's defection and hollowfication experiments had first appeared.
A rumble from his stomach interrupted the captain's thoughts. He'd sent Rangiku out to get his lunch over an hour ago, and she hadn't returned yet. The young captain groaned. She'd probably forgotten about his lunch and gone to some bar to skive off paperwork.
Well, someone had to get the paperwork done, he thought regretfully as his stomach gave another resentful grumble.
A large piece of white canvas sat before her. As if it were staring. The girl stared blankly back.
Meanwhile, the art teacher looked on, unimpressed. "Kurosaki, we don't have all day, you know. The theme is 'fear.' Get crackin'."
Seeing her most obstinate student open her mouth to retort, the teacher glowered, "And before you tell me you're not scared of anything, I'm going to inform you right now that I don't care. Got it?"
"Loud and clear, Sensei…" sighed Karin.
"And don't just pull anything out of your ass for this. I swear, I'll fail you if you do."
Students who overheard the teacher's choice language twittered as the teacher sauntered away, satisfied that she had pulled one over on one of the tougher students. Which left Karin to glare at her canvas as if her lack of inspiration were its fault. She wasn't exactly a fountain of creativity, either.
Resisting the urge to put her foot through the problematically pristine canvas, Karin balanced the paintbrush on the tip of her index finger, thinking.
What did she, Kurosaki Karin, really fear? Death was too obvious an answer. Besides, she'd faced death before, and she hadn't been overtly scared; just resigned.
"Oi, Yuzu." Maybe she could just borrow one of her twin's fears. A fair proportion of gut instinct and pure logic told her that this would not help her, but it was still worth a try. "What are you afraid of?"
Twisting a lock of her butterscotch hair around her finger, Yuzu pondered a moment, "Well, let's see…" and then began to list, "Bugs, snakes, slimy things, dentists, zombies, the dark, the toilet bowl at night -"
Okay. That obviously wasn't going to work. No way would she draw a bug, label it as her greatest fear, and turn it in. She'd never hear the end of it from the guys.
Karin knew one thing she was afraid of, but she wasn't about to draw it. Losing her family was a terrible fear, but drawing pictures of her family members lying dead was just asking for a bad omen. She didn't even want to think about it.
Sullenly, she mixed a bunch of secondary colors - the product of this mad science looked like mud. Karin smeared a dab of this obscurely dark paint onto the canvas and swiped her paintbrush across it. Maybe she could turn in some splatters and call it abstract art; at least there'd be something. If all else failed, she could just fob it off as the fear of the dark, though the teacher was sure to call her bluff.
Then it happened again. Karin felt a tingle go down her spine as she felt a familiar spike of spiritual energy some ways off.
It had been four years – she was a high school student now – since she'd found out about her brother's shinigami duties. She was fairly sure her brother could take care of himself, but it still worried her whenever her brother went against the creatures called hollows.
Well, there was her answer, then.
Pulling back her thick, jet-black hair and snapping a hair band around it to hold it up, Karin rolled up her sleeves and started mixing paint in earnest. Old Beardy (her father) would skin her alive (or perhaps just hug her to death claiming it to be "comforting" her) if she failed any assignment, even if it was just art.
"Dang. Kurosaki, I never knew you were into this kind of stuff."
Shrugging, Karin continued to juggle the soccer ball with her foot. "It's just art, senpai."
"Best art I've ever seen from a highschool kid."
A junior year soccer teammate, Seta, held Karin's A+ painting in his hands. He jabbed a finger at the figure portrayed on the painting. "The guy in the black hakama's got orange hair. Did you base him off your brother or something?"
Seta was too observant.
"Something like that." She began to jump and switch juggling feet. Maybe he would forget about the painting if she did enough showy soccer tricks.
He didn't put down the painting like she hoped. In fact, Seta didn't even look at her as she juggled away at the ball in vain. He continued to examine the stupid painting. She should have burned the painting as soon as she'd gotten the marks back…
"The composition is really well done. The whole painting is just swirls of dark colors, so the bright orange really pulls the viewers' eyes. Like the single spark of hope in a really creepy place." What was he, some sort of art connoisseur? "Because no offense, this painting is good, but it's pretty creepy."
Snorting, Karin started bouncing the ball off of her head.
Indicating the large sword in the picture, he asked, "Why didn't you just draw a regular katana? It looks like an oversized kitchen knife."
A particularly strong splutter of laughter made Karin miss the last bounce off her head, and she caught the ball with her heel instead. So long as he didn't ask about the hollow, she thought.
"What's this big skull thing he's facing off against?"
Luckily, right then, the coach clapped his hands and called for a huddle. "Gather up, you brats!" Putting his hands on his knees, the coach said, "Alright folks, I know this is just a scrimmage, but give it all you've got! Show 'em that we'll pull this team right to the nationals!"
After the chorus of agreement, Coach Sasaki looked over at Karin. "Kurosaki, a word?"
Wordlessly, Karin followed him, expecting a separate pep talk.
Sure enough, here it came. "Kurosaki, even if you're a freshman, everyone knows you're a talented kid. You're our number 9. Our 10, even.* The soccer star of Karakura High."
Deadpanning, Karin corrected, "My player number is actually 6, Coach. I'm a midfield winger. Captain Hiko's number 10."
The coach impatiently waved Karin's comment aside. "That's not the point. The point is that you're our top player. So focus! We bent the rules for a girl to join this team, so you have to live up to it!" The coach always got worked up so easily. "Don't think I haven't noticed your head-in-the-clouds attitude on some days. Now get out there and hustle."
Seta patted her shoulder sympathetically as she walked out into the field. Coach had a point; Karin did get distracted once in a while - jogging up field when she should have been sprinting to take a pass; absently nutmegging* the ball when she could have safely passed to another teammate… the list went on. But it made little to no difference to the game: it was just that she was on autopilot instead of playmaking like she usually was. Only hollows got her that distracted.
*To my knowledge, the most skilled player is often given the jersey number 10, while number 9 is for the primary goal scorer.
*Nutmeg: dribbling and slipping the ball past and between your opponents' legs.
They had crushed the opponent, the scores 6 to 2, Karin noted with satisfaction as she took a swig from a bottle of water.
"Two goals in each half time! Getting better every time, Kurosaki!"
"Keep up that kick, Kuro-chan!"
Her teammates, mostly upperclassmen, acknowledged her this way, thumping her on her back, or knuckling her head.
Saluting them half-heartedly, Karin finished off her bottle of water and chucked it into a recycling bin. Still thirsty, she looked around. Having grown under the philosophy that any unclaimed sustenance was fair game (countless times, she'd returned from late practice to find that her portion of food devoured by her father or brother) she had no qualms about taking the nearest water bottle she spied for herself.
Twisting the cap open, Karin drank about half of the water. The rest she emptied over her head.
"Oi! That was mine!" The poached bottle had apparently belonged to the team captain.
Karin grinned cheekily. "Finders keepers, Capt."
"Whatever." Hiko snorted, before he did a double take and stared at Karin for a moment. Abruptly averting his eyes with a hint of a roll, he reached into his duffle bag and threw Karin a towel, which she caught, bemused.
She gave him an odd look. "The heck's this for Capt? I have my own towel in my locker."
The soccer captain raised an eyebrow. "I just thought you might want to cover up a bit." Karin stared blankly at him, not comprehending. After a split second, Hiko muttered, "White jersey."
Finally understanding, Karin immediately fought back the blood from her cheeks and scoffed, draping the towel around her neck to hide the worst of the patches that showed through her wet jersey. Forcing a grin, Karin covered her embarrassment by teasing the captain, "What, it can't be the first time you've seen this, can it?"
Hiko shook his head as if caught between amusement and dismay. "Absolutely shameless. You. Cannot be a girl."
Though this struck a nerve, Karin said nothing in return, only adjusting the towel to cover more area of the wet patches.
Wheeling around to the direction of the voice, Karin saw Yuzu waving vigorously from the sidelines. Yuzu's short hair did nothing to make her look less feminine, and all the guys had noticed. Sato, the goalie, elbowed Karin and winked. Catching on quickly and disapproving, Karin, in turn, elbowed Sato in the face.
"No way are you getting your paws anywhere near my sister, buddy." Karin couldn't believe she was already slipping into the big brother role, swatting guys like Sato away from her attractive twin like flies. She had no doubt that soon they would be turning into wolves. That would be the day she'd bring her kendo sword to school.
Without a care for her wet hair, Hiko looped an arm around Karin's neck in a headlock. Karin squirmed, a bit too aware of his exercise-warmed skin against hers. Grinning roguishly, Hiko joked, "C'mon, you're practically one of us now, so it'd be weird, but we'll settle for second best, huh?"
Usually, Karin would have taken the joke as a compliment in stride, but that day, she felt unduly annoyed by the captain's words. Especially when she saw a tall and slender figure waving from beside Yuzu. So her words carried a slight bite. "Capt, you've got your girlfriend waiting for you in the stands next to Yuzu, so why don't you settle for her?"
Maneuvering out of the headlock by driving her elbow into Hiko's stomach a bit harder than necessary, Karin headed towards the locker room. Rubbing his stomach, Hiko peered at Karin's retreating back. He asked Sato, "Was it something I said?"
"Stupid Hiko." Karin muttered as she entered the locker room huffily. Even she herself couldn't completely understand why she felt irritated. She'd never cared about being treated like a girl before. In fact, she'd avoided it.
"So it's your own fault, then." Karin told her wet reflection flatly.
That did nothing to improve Karin's mood as she changed back into her makeshift school uniform.
As she pulled on her clothes, Karin wondered, as she examined the gray colored pants that were supposed to be part of the boy's uniform, if she should actually wear the unused skirt hanging in her closet. It was she who had filched several pairs of the pants from her older brother in the first place - he hadn't needed them since he graduated. She had to fold them a bit, but with a belt, they fit better than expected. She was on the tall side. And if Ichigo noticed the pants that she wore had previously been his, he gave no sign of it.
She shrugged off any thoughts of wearing a skirt. Why should she try to fit in now? People had always accepted her for who she was, even if it took some time.
Even at the beginning of the year, she hadn't been the younger sister - nay, brother, she'd realized today - on the team. Most of her team members had resented the fact that a freshman girl had made it into the soccer team.
"A girl's trying out? Are you serious?"
"What does she take the soccer team for?"
Karin ignored the dirty comments and even dirtier looks. She was used to that sort of treatment. When she was younger, it had only taken minor beatings to teach the boys that cooties didn't exist. As the daughter of a doctor, she didn't condone such biased treatment based on an urban myth circulating exclusively among children. It shouldn't take that long for them to get used to her, right?
"You can do it, Karin-chan!"
"Go get 'em, Kurosaki!"
It helped that Yuzu and other friends from elementary school (among them those who had formerly believed in cooties) cheered her on. She'd passed the team tryouts in flying colors.
But after she'd made the team, all the other members gave her the cold shoulder. Well, except for Seta, but Seta was friendly to everyone. They avoided passing her the ball, even when she was open and unguarded.
"If you want it, then you'll have to take it, brat." Hiko told her coldly.
Along with ostracizing her, the team had benched her as well, for at least the first half of most games.
"Sorry kid, since I recruited you and all, but teamwork's important. As long as the team doesn't get along with you, it's gonna be hard to keep you on the team, much less get you into the games." The coach had told her apologetically.
So Karin could only practice on her own, forced to run along the sidelines during intra-team scrimmages. There seemed little she could do. She could hardly beat them over the head like she had the boys back in elementary school, for discriminating against her. All she could do was prove herself.
Finally, one match when they'd been losing three to nothing, Karin got her chance. The captain had gotten injured in a slide tackle. During the pause in the game, overseen by a referee, Hiko, wincing, peeled off his shin guard to reveal an already purpling bruise. Immediately, he slapped the guard back on, and said, "I've had worse. I can still play."
The coach overruled him, "That's not just a surface bruise. It could even be a fracture. Don't push it. Live to fight another day. The opposing team's already scored three goals."
Hiko caved, allowing himself to be applauded off the field. Then, the coach ordered, "Kurosaki, get in. Center midfield."
Skipping over a slide tackle similar to one that had felled the team captain, Karin took the moment of distraction to sprint ahead through the defense with the ball in her possession. With the goal in sight, she aimed at the goalpost, as if to pass to the teammate near it, but intending to let it rebound right back to her; when it did, she immediately scored it in.
"And player 6 scores again! Four to three, with Karakura High now in the lead!"
After switching in as a midfielder, Karin had turned the game around, allowing Karakura to win, four to three. That game had finally forced her teammates to acknowledge her.
"Damn, and I'd really thought that you made the team by dumb luck."
"Nice playmaking there, kiddo."
"Welcome to the team, for real this time." Seta smiled.
The captain alone, with an ice pack on his leg, gave no word of compliment. Hiko asked, "Are we done fawning over the newbie?"
Even the other members were taken aback by the seemingly blatant hostility that still remained.
"But now she's really one of us –"
Rolling his eyes, Hiko cut in, "Shut up. She's been on the team this whole time, you idiots. She's always been one of us. Let's get some pizza." He winked at Karin, who couldn't help but grin back.
"Thanks, Capt." Glancing at his leg, however, she pointed out, "But shouldn't we get you to a hospital first?"
End of flashback
The newfound camaraderie with her teammates had made for a welcome change. Well, she'd figured that they'd all warm up at one point or another anyways. Late night soccer game reviews and sports get togethers were all pretty fun.
"Hypocrite," Karin chided herself, "You wanted them to treat you like a guy, and now you're complaining because they won't ever see you as a girl."
Besides, Hiko had a girlfriend, anyways. A pretty one.
Seta was waiting for her outside the locker room. Karin raised an eyebrow. "Do you know how weird it looks for a guy to loiter around the girl's locker room, senpai?"
Grinning, Seta replied cheerfully, "What, no thanks for waiting?"
Despite herself, Karin grinned back. "As always."
They walked together until their routes home diverged. But Seta hesitated. "You don't look so good, Kurosaki. What's up?"
Though slightly startled he would voice his concern, Karin knew that she should have expected the upperclassman to notice. As always, he was most perceptive when she didn't want it. Wavering over what to say, Karin decided on blunt denial, "Nothing's wrong. Just tired. I scored four of the goals today, you know." After half a year of acquaintance, she knew that even soccer wouldn't distract Seta from a topic in conversation, but she plowed forward anyways. "That's better than the Capt. today."
"Are you still mad at Hiko from earlier today?"
Spot on, as expected of Seta. Aggressively, Karin kicked at a nearby pebble. "What's there to be mad about? He was just goofing off, wasn't he? The usual foot in the mouth syndrome."
She avoided Seta's eyes, which she knew were filled with pity. Pity for her. Pity she didn't want or need. Unable to stand the sudden turn the discussion had taken, Karin noted it was almost at the point where Seta would have to take a different turn. Abruptly, she said, "I'll head home now, senpai. Thanks for walking with me."
She walked straight forward without looking back at the figure of Seta, whom she knew was still probably looking at her. To keep herself from thinking about Hiko, Karin talked to herself, something she usually avoided; she liked the down-to-earth image of sanity she embodied.
"Yuzu should be at home cooking by now… Ichi-nii is probably still studying at the university… "
Just to make sure, she cast a feel around, scanning silently for the familiar spiritual energies in Karakura.
Sure enough, Yuzu was at home, or somewhere near it, Tatsuki already back from the university, and Ichi-nii and the rest of his friends, excluding Rukia-chan the shinigami, some distance off.
There was one unfamiliar spiritual presence nearby, however, and Karin frowned, concentrating on it.
A/N: I wonder how people will like how this goes? :D For those who think it's boring so far, no worries, it'll take off pretty soon.