NINE – Crossroad
Karin stared blankly at her lukewarm chocolate, the brown liquid swirling and distorting her reflection whenever she twirled the mug around. Faint white steam billowed out of the cup, only to disappear in a heavy exhale extricated from between her lips. And just as the vapor cleared and her vision with it, her eyes caught Urahara Kisuke's.
In their brief eye contact, the blonde's gray orbs didn't emit any sign of the usual wittiness. Although shadowed by his striped hat, Karin could still catch intensity and seriousness coursing in them — a rare sight. However, the signs left as abrupt as they'd come, and she found herself staring at the familiar candy shop owner again; a broad grin, friendly gestures, back to the rambunctious veneer she was used to seeing.
"Why don't you drink your chocolate, Karin-chan? It'll be cold if you don't hurry," Smiling wider, Urahara sipped his tea before he resumed schmoozing, "Ah. Warm drink is always better, don't you agree? Once it gets cold the taste won't be the same anymore. Oddly bitter, usually."
Karin didn't respond immediately. Gaze downcast, she played with her mug again. Wordless yet intent to be polite, she returned the man's hospitality by finally taking a sip of her drink, albeit reluctantly. The warm liquid surprisingly eased and placated her mind, if only temporarily.
Once the warmth was gone, her thoughts inescapably left her body and began to drift in an aimless attempt to reassure herself that Hitsugaya Toushirou was fine.
For God knows how long, she had been sitting here and waiting, as quiet as she could, straining her ears so she could catch the sound of doors sliding open, probably the white haired boy's low grunt in tow. But the silence was deafening and anxiety kept ticking in her head, a boisterous and catastrophic clock.
Although she used to be only capable of sensing hollows from a distance, her ability seemed to have grown for reasons unknown. She, as always, had been ignoring this — feigning obliviousness as spirit pressure fluctuated and resonated within the fringe of her senses. While they sometimes gave her headaches, all she did from time to time was disregard them.
Yet she couldn't ignore this anymore; the flux of Toushirou's spiritual pressure had been unstable. Sometimes it had been high enough for her to sigh in relief, but just a moment ago it dropped terrifying low — almost unnoticeable but thankfully still perceptible; an adequate proof to clarify the boy's life. For now.
What happened to him? She could tell his enemy was dangerous, but Toushirou was a resilient fighter (and a qualified captain at that), so he couldn't be losing, could he…?
She didn't know anymore. Begrudgingly, she had to accept the fact that when it came to demise, be it human or hollow or the Death God himself, death was never impartial.
Her train of thought and concern faded in a creak of sliding door; Karin snapped her head up with anticipation, the transient glow in her eyes dimming almost too instantly as Tessai stepped into the room. She mentally chastised herself: she would have felt Toushirou's presence had he arrived.
"Ah, finally!" Urahara gleefully greeted the dark haired man. "We've been waiting for the cakes!"
Tessai stared down at both of them before settling the tray down on the table. "I'm sorry for taking so long," He bowed his head, swiveling around and heading for the exit. "Please, enjoy." And the door slid close once again, letting silence to linger and buzz in Karin's ears like pesky insects.
After another minute of silence, Urahara was first to break the quiet; "Why don't you eat your cake, Karin-chan?"
Karin jerked her head up. "Um. I'm… I'm not really hungry."
"Ah, but you must be. Don't be so shy, Karin-chan. Ayasegawa-san baked these cakes for everyone to enjoy, so the least you could do for him is to eat it, hmm? To appreciate his effort?" Urahara's tone was jaunty, but there was something persuasive about it, riveting her attention and prompting her to take the spoon beside the plate. "Good, good, kids have to eat a lot to grow, after all."
Karin absentmindedly prodded the cake, suddenly feeling queasy. Deciding the food could provide at least a little bit of diversion, she brought the spoon to her mouth. The cake hadn't even made its way into her stomach when noises came from outside, disrupting the pregnant silence. She involuntarily averted her eyes away from the plate towards the door.
Even though the shouts were faint, she knew one of the voices belonged to Madarame. The other one was calmer and silkier, Ayasegawa's.
"My, my, those two are bickering again," Urahara expelled a heavy sigh and rose to his feet, sparing her a glance as he opened the door, making the yells and the urgency and heated dispute carried within them clearer.
"Urahara-san said it'll be fine, Ikkaku. So why don't you—"
"Please excuse me as I try to calm my boys down." A smile ghosted over the blonde's pale face, waning as he adjusted the striped hat on his flaxen hair before leaving her alone.
However, the door hadn't been shut properly — there was a big enough crack for the voices to waft into the room. Karin edged closer to the door and eavesdropped on them.
"Urahara-san! I don't understand you!" Came Madarame's livid voice. "What do you mean by us staying back while Hitsugaya-taichou and Matsumoto are out there, fighting that guy?"
"I'm afraid you don't understand the situation as you should, Madarame-san." Urahara's tone was even. "They will be fine."
"Fine? Fine my ass! It's Gin, the traitor, the man who betrayed Soul Society! I don't understand you at all."
"As I already said, it is completely unnecessary to chase after him. And they're almost done even as we speak."
None of them spoke for a while. "Tch. I still don't understand you at all. You better explain why we shouldn't go after the guy later." Madarame scoffed. There were rustles, and heavy stomps indicating the man's aggravation followed as his voice began to ebb. "A pretty good reason for that."
"You're just itching for a fight, Ikkaku." Ayasegawa's light steps followed Madarame's. There was a grumble, and after that all was finally still once again.
Karin hurriedly shifted to her previous spot, pretending to drink from her cup when Urahara came back. The man set down wordlessly, flashing a smile before it was drowned in a blur of whites, his fan drawn up again.
She tried to steady her trembling hand.
Soul Society? Traitor? So that silver haired man was indeed dangerous. A criminal.
And Urahara Kisuke had forbidden the others to help Toushirou. She didn't understand. How could this guy be so sure of Toushirou surviving? How could—
Her thoughts raced and chased one after another in a frenzied circle. And then realization struck her. Who was Urahara Kisuke? How could he know such things? Could he be linked to Soul Society? The Shinigami—?
Karin forcefully gulped another bite of her cake, a futile distraction to hold off swarming possibilities and theories already starting to besiege her mind, like ants over sweets.
Come to think of it, Toushirou and his comrades seemed to gather at this place a lot. She remembered him mentioning how Matsumoto and the others passed out after having a big 'party' here (which indubitably involved sake). She remembered Ichigo's frequent visits to the candy shop, despite spicy food being his favorite. And their conversation earlier…
Karin peeked at the blonde from over the rim of her cup, almost squinting in disbelief.
Could Urahara Kisuke be a… Shinigami?
This self-proclaimed handsome businessman, humble candy shop owner? A Shinigami?
She couldn't believe her discoveries.
This goofy man whom people around the town often called 'hats and clogs'? This eccentric man who—
"What's wrong, Karin-chan? You seem anxious about something."
Urahara's words nearly made her regurgitate the food from earlier. "N-nothing!" She mentally berated to herself for sounding so squeaky. Plastering a wide smile across her face, Karin beamed up at him. "I mean… nothing, really."
"Oh? But you seem to have something on your mind." The blonde lowered his fan, cordiality still apparent on his smile, but his movement was careful and his roll of eyes vigilant.
Karin gazed back at the man; her grip around the cup was very tight, her fingers turning white.
"You can tell me, if you want."
She scrunched her brows. Notions gushed and surged at her, lashing out questions which answers kept running away from her grasp. If she wanted to get answers, she better queried the man in question.
Karin opened her mouth.
The silver haired man didn't extend the blade any further, but it remained impassive and hovering in the air, almost like a route that bridged him to her. Matsumoto stood motionless where she was, hands trembling despite Shinsou's powerful force having subsided.
All twisted cheerfulness was gone from Gin; his pale face didn't even exhibit his trademark creepy smiles. But there was a faint streak of emotion on his visage, defying his usual intimidating bearing: longing. However, it vanished entirely as Shinsou withdrew ever so slowly from Matsumoto's zanpakutou, every second and swoosh of wind whizzing with deafening reluctance.
Matsumoto inhaled deeply. Still shaky, she dared to look directly at her friend and mouthed his name in a barely audible whisper, as if it was a mantra that would move her mobility deprived limbs. "Gin…"
His wide grin was back. "Ah, long time no see, Rangiku. Ya seem pretty healthy, hmm?"
The strawberry blonde woman didn't sheath her sword, but she dropped it to her side, her defensive stance gone. "Why are you here, Gin? I… I want to ask you a lot of questions—" She took some steps forward, but they weren't enough to cover the gap between them, their gaping maw of broken promises and unspoken goodbyes and silent heartbreaks.
"Answerin' questions ain't my hobby, Rangiku." The silver haired man smiled wider, now pointing Shinsou at the 10th division captain. "Seems like we forget somethin' over here, eh?"
Only when the wind blew stronger and brought the reeking scent of blood into his senses did Toushirou snap out of his trance; turquoise eyes widened in shocking alarm as his hand instinctively brought Hyourinmaru higher. "…Ichimaru."
"Glad to have ya back to the party, Juubantai-taichou! Ya shouldn't space out like that, y'know? Ain't I say it's rude to ignore your friend?" A waxing grin. "Shoot to kill, Shinsou."
Matsumoto jerked her head around, terrified. "Taichou—!"
Toushirou barely dodged the attack as he swerved to his right in the last second.
"Why?" Shinsou retreated to its owner. "Why the face, Hitsugaya Toushirou? Givin' up? Ain't like ya, don't ya think?"
"Sh… shut up."
"Why don't ya move? Fight me back? Ain't the Juubantai-taichou supposed to be strong-willed and tough?"
"Shut up! You don't know anything!" Toushirou readied his sword, but he didn't move even an inch, his legs trembling.
"Ain't it a shame to always be protected by your fukutaichou, Hitsugaya Toushirou?"
"Gin, stop it—"
"What do ya protect, Juubantai-taichou?"
Protect? Toushirou didn't know. He didn't know anymore.
He protected people because it was his duty — a pale word everyone had buried themselves under, the graveyard to their true desires and heart cries. And they walked away from their tombs, marching forward as living corpses.
He protected Hinamori because he wanted to revive those ephemeral halcyon days. He wanted to restore her blossom and return those plucked, shredded petals to their throne. But he couldn't do it. Bloom was something she had to allow herself to do.
Memories of the past scattered in the breeze like torn petals smelling sweet and putrid, dead and decayed in their fleeting flight.
"Gin!" Matsumoto had once again jumped before her taichou, Haineko drawn up. "I don't know why you are here, but I have to ask you something—"
Instead of answering the buxom Shinigami, Gin deliberately ignored her and addressed the young taichou. "Too bad my time's up," he made a disappointed face. "But I guess I'll be seein' ya soon, Juubantai-taichou. Careful not to get yourself killed, 'kay?" His condescending grin receded as he turned around, a large hole emerging and welcoming him with eerie darkness.
"Gin! Wait!" Matsumoto dashed forward, trying to haul the man back but it was too late.
The former captain of Division 3 was engulfed by utter blackness, and just before the Garganta closed and devoured Gin entirely, he turned his head slightly to capture Matsumoto's figure — and for the briefest moment, their eyes locked together.
"Ya go that way, I go this way. Ja ne, Ran-chan."
Flustered, Matsumoto reached out a hand, grasping nothing but air as the Garganta shut completely, setting him and her apart. All over again.
She stared down at her hand, her mind reverberating with why why why until she lost track of everything. She tried to rake around her head for sanity, but it was nowhere to be found. Why, Gin? Why do you always leave me?
"Matsumoto." The strawberry blonde twisted her head to meet her captain in the eye. "I… We need to go back to Urahara's place."
Matsumoto's azure eyes flew to his stomach. "You… you're injured, taichou—"
"I'm okay. Let us not… tarry here."
"What is it?"
"Do you know… do you know why Gin suddenly came here and—?" Matsumoto couldn't bring herself to look at him. Her voice drowned in the wind that started to pick up.
Toushirou, lost in his thoughts as well, could only shake his head.
His wounds prevented him to shunpo effectively, and he had given up telling his fukutaichou to just go on ahead to Urahara's shop; Matsumoto had insisted on being by his side, however slow their walk could be. In his torpor, he could only nod acquiescently.
They didn't exchange words much, both plagued by the preceding event and their own thoughts.
Toushirou wasn't sure of himself anymore. Duty stripped apart, revealing the person he really wanted to protect: Hinamori. But if he was mistaken all this time… What if what he truly protected now was only memories? The past that had been tethering and rendering him static, the days he would always look back on because they were sweeter and kinder and nicer, because reality was too blinding and cruel to see.
He wondered if memories could ever come back to life. He wondered if he could revitalize them.
No. They had passed, they died, which was why he was here, wielding these memories around because he could never bury them and move on. He had always believed that he would be able to see those euphoric days once again, worries and tears excluded.
But he should have known.
Choosing to become a Shinigami cost him a lot of things. And being one of them was a life without bloodshed and death.
A life he — they — could have had.
But he and Hinamori had decided to abandon their peaceful life, embracing death even tighter and swearing to protect countless, nameless people. Was everything worth it? Were those saved strangers worth the pain and blood and tears?
Toushirou didn't choose to be a Shinigami because he wanted to save people; it was something he had learned in the academy, a lesson implanted in his mind and recited over and over.
He remembered the real reason why now: to protect Hinamori.
Yet what was he doing now? In this reality, he could only turn his head around, relish and revel in the jubilant past, stalking shadows of faraway dreams and what could have beens and what ifs.
He was supposed to protect Hinamori.
Not the girl from those days. Not the girl who baked odd shaped cookies and called him Shirou-chan. Not the girl whom he used to call bed wetter Momo. Not the girl who would always sit by his side and eat watermelons with him.
No. Not one of them. Hinamori was Hinamori. The girl she was today, had always been.
The sister he would die protecting.
Could he move on and say goodbye to those days? Would he… be brave enough to do that?
Would he be able to do what he must, what he wanted without faltering?
Toushirou snapped out of his trance, realizing they had reached their destination. Matsumoto was already in front of Urahara's shop, ready to enter. Concern was apparent on her countenance. "Aren't you going to come in?"
He could only give a slight nod of head as Matsumoto opened the door for him. Toushirou averted his gaze skyward, golden rays of light dimming while the sun made its sluggish descent toward the horizon.
Would he be able to forgive himself someday?
For what seemed like eternity, he just gazed at the darkening skies, wondering where he could find the sun, the ray of light to his world of perpetual darkness.
Karin's dark eyes gleamed with determination as she opened her mouth and—
The front door slid open. She could feel it. His presence.
Terrified by Toushirou's low spiritual pressure, forgetting the question she had been meaning to ask, Karin sprang to her feet and ignored the blonde, opening the door and flying to the front of the shop. "Toushirou!"
The boy was followed by Matsumoto; as Karin entered their vision, surprise skipped across Toushirou's uncharacteristically pale face. "Karin?" He blinked. "Ah. Good thing you're alright—"
"Don't 'Karin' me!" The dark haired girl stomped her foot as Matsumoto stared down at both of them, a gentle smile playing on her lips, her blue eyes softening. "I'm the one who's supposed to ask that—" Karin's gaze went to his shihakusou, where Toushirou's bloody hand was. "Toushirou. You… you're bleeding." Panic clamored in her head, ringing obnoxiously as she approached the white haired boy.
"I'm fine." Toushirou grumbled, trying to sound collected and summon his smug victory smirk but couldn't. He just let Karin, with dilated eyes, scrutinized his injuries in frantic apprehension.
"Would you stop trying to act tough?" She asked, annoyed, but her tone wasn't all that sharp — it held a slightly trembling edge, and her dark eyes flashed with genuine concern, looking pearlescent all of sudden.
"Acting tough? No way in hell—"
"Now, now, what have we here?" Both Karin and Toushirou turned their heads, only to find the candy shop owner approaching them slowly, his clogs clumping and echoing stridently in the silence that followed. "Ah, glad to have you back in one piece, Hitsugaya-kun," his coy smile flashed once before being concealed by the fan again.
Toushirou muttered something under his breath, looking away.
"Now if you please excuse him, Karin-chan. I believe Hitsugaya-kun needs an imperative treatment." Urahara moved to the side and beckoned for Tessai to come over; the gigantic dark haired man made his way toward the young taichou and ushered him to another room. Karin could only stare as the door closed, Toushirou and Tessai vanishing from her sight.
Beside her, she could hear Matsumoto sigh. "I need to clear my head…" And she too was gone through one of the doors behind Urahara.
Her mind inadvertently went back to Toushirou. His injuries looked grotesquely grave, at least to her human's eye. She didn't know if it posed an imminent death or mortal threat for him — she wasn't sure, and realized how very little of the Shinigami world and life she understood.
To say she wasn't horrified when she saw the blood and his hunched shoulders — his confident aura oddly shrinking — would be a lie. Although she was used to helping her father at the clinic, there were still certain boundaries between life and death erected around her.
But earlier… the sight of a close friend with blood gushing out, claret spreading like perilous virus on his dark kimono… Death felt ever nearer. It always did, especially when death pried upon someone close to her.
Karin finally acknowledged the blonde's attention on her; she stared back at Urahara, gray and brown colliding as she contemplated on the circumstances.
This man undoubtedly had a connection with Shinigami. He could see both Toushirou and Matsumoto in their Shinigami forms. And his helper, that Tessai too. She wondered how many more appalling facts were waiting for her. She wondered if she wanted to find out.
The blonde dropped his fan, his countenance solemn. "Yes?"
Karin didn't know if the memory-wipe could work on her, or if it only worked on humans without high spiritual pressure — but she was certain of one thing: after witnessing all this, she didn't want to get her memories modified.
"Can I request something?"
Urahara's lips stretched, his ardent friendliness and hilarity didn't radiate from his simulated smile. "Of course you can, Karin-chan. Go ahead!"
The raven haired girl fidgeted with her clothes for a while. She braved herself to look at the man in the eye, and with what she hoped a confident enough voice, she declared, "Please don't modify my memories after all this."
The man was taken by surprise. Lowering his fan, fake joviality all gone, he finally asked in a low voice, almost to himself, "Why?"
Karin inhaled deeply. "Because… I'll hate myself if I forget how to move on and face the ghosts I've been running away from."
Urahara's response was only a somber expression, shadowy eyes glinting with tacit empathy.
It was about time she faced herself and walked in the right direction.
After Tessai was done with healing Toushirou's injuries and bandaging them, the dark haired man sauntered out of the room and let Matsumoto in. The buxom Shinigami walked toward her taichou, her shoulders hunched, the sheen of her strawberry blonde hair losing its allure, and her pace lethargic.
"How is it, taichou?"
Toushirou propped himself against the wall, sighing. "I'm okay. The wound is anything but fatal. I wonder why... Ichimaru even bothered to hold back." The white haired boy grumbled and Matsumoto avoided his eyes.
Silence shrouded them with intense blanket of swirling thoughts. All he could do was stare blankly at the ceiling, his mind elsewhere. He knew his fukutaichou was also struggling deep inside; it was shown through her downcast gaze and clenched fists.
"I… failed again."
Matsumoto jerked her head up. "Huh?"
"I couldn't even protect you." The words poured out of his mouth like blood, rancid and nauseating.
"What do you mean?" Matsumoto was trying to smile, but her voice betrayed her. "It's what I must do. To fight with you, support you — that's what a fukutaichou is for, right? Not simply doing the paperwork!" The blonde beamed at him, trying to joke, but her high-pitched voice perforated the air with empty reassurance.
Toushirou didn't answer. Back then, it was Matsumoto who had been there for him, encouraging him to become stronger so he could protect those he loved. She had watched him grow, helped him throughout years of companionship and hardship. Yet what did he return her unyielding support with?
He couldn't even protect her. Gin, her close friend, betrayed Soul Society and abandoned her, and Toushirou couldn't even replace the silver haired man's role to protect her.
He hated himself. Why couldn't he do anything? Why couldn't he change anything? Why did he always fail those he held dear?
What should he do now?
Was there still something he could do?
He wasn't sure of himself anymore.
Who… who was he?
Hitsugaya Toushirou was his name. But maybe… he was only a shadow. A shadow that stalked behind the boy he didn't know and couldn't see anymore. The boy he had forgotten.
It was only a matter of time until the darkness itself claimed and engulfed him. Formidable darkness that would swallow everything whole and make them cease to exist, forgotten and forsaken in utter oblivion, nothingness.
Was there still a shaft of light somewhere in this world?
A knock on the door was all it took to break his train of thought, and a low, female voice resounded in the lingering quiet; "Toushirou? Can I come in?"
It was Karin.
Toushirou and Matsumoto exchanged glances. The strawberry blonde woman pivoted on her heels and headed for the door, opening it. "Please come in, Karin-chan."
"M-Matsumoto-san? Um, I'm not sure if I'm allowed to interrupt, but—"
Matsumoto pushed the raven haired girl inside, chuckling a little. "I'm sure you can lighten up our dejected taichou!"
To which, Toushirou replied with a disapproving grumble. Karin stared at them, still unsure until Matsumoto left them alone, their gazes piercing the blonde's back for a moment, quizzical. The door slid close again, and both resigned to another pregnant silence.
"Um. Toushirou… are you okay?"
Still leaning against the wall, Toushirou stared at the girl from the corner of his eye. "Yeah."
She wrung her t-shirt, something he rarely saw. "I'm just worried. I mean, that guy from earlier… Did you—"
"I'm fine. He got away." His reply was curt and concise, and he closed his eyes. He couldn't bear the sight of her now.
Karin. A human. Someone, he realized, he had let to come close to him, and was now an important person in his life. Someone completely different from him and others, someone who still seemed to shine and be true to herself.
He liked that about her. She always seemed genuine and passionate about what she did. He liked how she introduced him to her world and appreciated him.
And seeing her sincerely concerned about him now only made him… the more attached to her.
He always liked how she saw and treated him as equal. Just him. Unembellished by title or duty or haori. It used to always make him feel better as a person.
"You know, Toushirou. You can… tell me anything." She started reluctant at first, but her voice grew steady as she continued, "I know I'm not a Shinigami; I'm just a human. But hey, have you ever heard of this saying?" She smiled and something fluttered inside him. "I think it goes like this; 'the vitality of friendship lies in honoring the differences, not simply enjoying the similarities'. So, you can tell me what's troubling you — I'll help you as best as I can."
And it broke his heart to see her earnest smile, support.
Because he couldn't return them with something equally the same.
And only then did he realize how much he wanted to protect Kurosaki Karin. Her honest words, her smile, the friendship she offered, her self.
And it broke his heart because he wouldn't be able to see any of those soon. Anymore.
"Karin." Toushirou croaked, trying to get rid his throat of lumps.
She blinked. "Yes?"
"Whatever happened earlier… it doesn't concern you."
Befuddled, she crinkled her eyes. "What do you mean?"
He tried to keep his voice even. "Shinigami's business will always be our business alone. Two different worlds can hardly ever merge together. It is best that you stay away from all of this."
Silence. He hated it. It was deafening. Ridiculing him. Guffawing at his choices. Mockingly.
"…I don't get it." She finally managed to muster. "You're… saying…" A shake of head. A forced laugh. "And just a few days ago you started to… open up and regard me as… your friend?" It didn't sound like a statement — it was a question full of incredulity and disbelief.
He looked away.
If that was ever an answer, it caught Karin off guard; the girl took a few steps back. "…I don't understand."
Toushirou dared to divert his attention back to her, and almost regretted it immediately.
She looked hurt.
But he couldn't back out now. "Please leave,"
It echoed 'goodbye' in their ears.
And she finally did. No snarl, no protest, no... nothing.
Just an immediate action full of disappointment and anguish.
Her figure was soon out of the room, leaving him to a space hardly capable of containing his solace, howling eerily and forlornly in his ears.
He'd already said it. That was all he could do to protect her.
Distance was always the answer. So she wouldn't have to get hurt. This was the best for both of them. It had to be.
a/n: Here's chapter 9 for all of you. And a separation? Yes, this is... a crossroad for both of them (in many ways). There will be a time for them to reflect on everything that has happened, and it will make them see things clearer. As for now... Oh poor Toushirou. He thought this would solve everything, ne? They'll reunite soon. Very soon. I'm not that cruel. I promise a good resolution for both of them in the next chapter (and how they mean so much to each other).
Spoilers aside, hints of romance? Yep. They're there. Subtle or not.
Last but not least, thank you so much for the recent alerts/favs! Special thanks to those who shared your thoughts/opinions with me; you know who you are, and I'm very grateful for your support. Words cannot describe how much I appreciate it.
Thanks for reading, please let me know what you think about the chapter.