Disclaimer: Do not own, spoilers abound, and unbeta-ed.
Two years earlier.
Just as quickly as Karin had shouted her name – she was there, by her vice-captain's side, shoving the hollow back with her sword. And all Rukia did was gasp, clutching her side with the hand that wasn't gripping Shirayuki, and dropped to her knees.
She coughed out blood.
The younger woman - who stood by her - growled, glaring at the remaining hollows in front of them. Surrounding them.
"Playtime," hissed Karin, and anyone who knew her would be startled at how clear the fury was in her voice, "is over."
Her sword lifted, and she angled it horizontally to her face - her left thumb brushing the length of it to the sharp edge – "Storm them, Minaze."
A wild, furious, haphazard wind blew.
"Shit!" Someone cursed. "A little warning beforehand would be nice, Kurosaki!"
A fierce wind surrounded them, much like a typhoon, with her and Rukia in its curiously calm center. Even through the haphazard wind, she could see some of her nearer comrades retreating hastily.
She spared a quick glance down at her injured friend – and she could see Rukia looking back at her from the corner of her eyes with furrowed brows and dark violet eyes that burned blue.
Karin knew what that look meant. She could recognize that look anytime and anywhere.
And she found herself marveling – for a very short moment – at how her superior could still remain upright and give her that look, even when blood was steadily being soaked into the ground and pain was clearly sketched on her face.
She gritted her teeth, working furiously to control her emotions.
Anyone who knew her would agree that she was nowhere near as reckless as a certain brother of hers. She may be easily irritable, but the control she had on her emotions was far better than her sibling. Both her siblings.
Yet, when she was provoked enough, and nothing would provoke her more than seeing someone she regarded dearly injured –
"Karin," Rukia's hoarse, warning tone that was filled with pain demanded for her to pay attention. "Breathe."
She forced herself to breathe in, slowly; and her eyes closed momentarily.
The haphazard wind blowing now may have bought her time, but it was not something that would last more than a short few minutes. It would also be dangerous to her allies if kept up.
What she had wasn't as deadly as Ichigo's. Or stronger, even if she had far more reiatsu than an average shinigami. All the same, however, her zanpaktou still rarely saw action, because it was a double-edged sword.
Because if Yuzu's was a sharp and graceful and focused blade – Kurosaki Karin's zanpaktou was wild and furious and chaos redefined.
At its peak, Minaze would see no friends or enemies, save for the ones in the eye of the storm. It may change perhaps, at a later date, but as it was – the mastery Karin had on her weapon was far from perfect.
It could not be tamed. It will not.
It simply was.
She exhaled, and gazed at the Hollows coldly.
"Begone, you bastards," she hissed.
"Just stay still," she muttered, holding her carefully in her arms; the wind almost a howl in her ears as she sped.
"I will be fine," Rukia mumbled, leaning on her completely, eyes closed. Her soft words were raw with pain and exertion.
Karin gritted her teeth. "You are an idiot."
She could feel sticky warm liquid on her hands.
"You are a fool," the other bantered back. Like your brother, she didn't say, but Karin heard it anyway, and felt the familiar stirrings of anger tug at her.
"I'm not the one who got speared in the stomach!" And just as quickly as she snapped those words out, she shut her mouth, cursing.
She had meant for her words to come out harshly.
But she hadn't meant for her voice to tremble.
Dark violet eyes that bordered on blue opened to slant towards her.
That gaze burned into her.
She was losing her bearings, she knew. And she shouldn't. Unlike her brother, she was not one who let emotions rule over her. She was Kurosaki Karin. She didn'tdo emotional breakdowns and would never do them. And yet -
Rukia had grown almost as dear to her as Yuzu was.
There were many times when she wondered if Rukia had realized that. And sometimes, she had concluded that her friend didn't know. But other times, like now, she couldn't help but think, she knows, you idiot. She knows, and she knows you know she knows and -
"Karin," Rukia said. The fire in that voice wasn't gone - but it was muted, replaced with a different kind of fire. It was soft, calming, and layered with all sorts of things that made Karin feel as if there was something like an ethereal fist clenching around her heart.
It made her feel like a child.
And in so many ways, compared to the small woman in her arms who was so much more older to her, she was.
"I - " she cut herself off, then continued again. "I know. I know. So just don't - don't."
She could feel Rukia sighing against her, settling once more as those eyes closed again.
"I'm not going to die, Karin."
For a moment, Karin couldn't help but wonder why it felt so strange to have something twist and uncoil in her chest at the same time.
But she didn't respond.
She didn't trust herself to speak.
.. .. ..
"The soul does not forget, Kuchiki-fukutaichou."
That was the first thing Unohana felt inclined to tell the young woman (girl) standing before her, and she eyed the shinigami with a calm gaze and a faint smile.
"All that it learnt, experienced, gained - it will remember," she said, "the mind and the soul are connected, but they are still two different things. Do you not think so?"
Rukia didn't answer, for a moment.
There was some confusion. There was also some weariness. Some resignation. Some lingering regret.
And ghosts of guilt that lurked behind dark violet eyes that would've given away nothing to nearly anyone who wasn't Unohana.
"...Unohana-taichou," Rukia begun hesitantly, "is there a reason why we are talking about this?" A pause. "And I apologize, but I can't say I really understand where you're going with this..."
Her lips curved further, just a little.
"Just some words I would like to ask you to to pass on to Karin-san," she said amiably. And to you.
Unohana had foregone the use of Karin's last name completely. It had, after all, been the one thing the younger Kurosaki had requested; and now that there were three Kurosakis' residing in Seireitei, well.
"I...see." Rukia said, sounding uncertain. "Is there anything else you would like me to say to Karin?"
"Kurosaki Ichigo may have forgotten his history," she told her gently, "but the scars his soul bear will not disappear, nor would the memories and feelings imprinted on it be gone - and if it was apparent to me during the check-up I did on him yesterday, it should have been even more so to you, and to his sister."
It was another minute where all Rukia did was eye her with growing confusion.
Hm, she mused in faint amusement. Was that too cryptic?
"If you will explain further please...?" the hesitant question came.
"Some things are nurtured," she smiled, "and some aspects of him, as you should know more clearly than I do, Kuchiki-fukutaichou, were things that come to be because of the things he experienced." A pause, and she continued. "For instance - would I be correct in assuming that he is still strongly overprotective?"
Rukia visibly twitched at that.
Ah. So she was right. While it was true that Ichigo had no reason to show that part of him to her, it was a trait of his that was...very well known. And she was far from surprised to see that he had retained that side of him.
Though she must admit she was immensely curious on how a nine year old exhibited his overprotective tendency.
Unohana hid a smile.
"And that is a characteristic of his that grew to great proportions after certain choice events in his former life, yes?"
"...That is true," Rukia admitted after a moment, her voice just that little bit more quiet. meaning.
"That is what I meant," Unohana pointed out gently. "Even if his mind does not, his soul remembers, and thus his characteristics, to a large degree, is still what you know and remember it to be."
And most certainly, the overprotective tendency of his would not be the only thing that the young boy carried over to this life. There would be more and beyond, feelings and bonds included.
One in particular stood out to her. There had, after all, been more than one reason why power transfer was considered a grave crime in Soul Society.
But, then again, she mused, who could say it wasn't something that was already there before that fateful event?
She looked the younger Kuchiki in the eye, and noted that the girl didn't entirely comprehend what she was saying; though there was understanding, to some degree.
Briefly, Unohana considered explaining further, but decided against it.
These were things that the young ones would learn, eventually, and in their own time. Her words, as it were, would mean little on its own.
And as a healer who had watched all sorts of souls walk into her office, day in and day out; she must admit she looked forward to seeing how they would grow, and learn, and adept.
Wasn't that what it meant to be young, after all?
She smiled lightly.
"That being said," Unohana begun, clearly indicating a change of topic as she scanned the paper on her table briefly once more, "Kurosaki Ichigo, physically, is fine."
And she went on at length about his current state, with Rukia giving the older woman her complete attention.
.. .. ..
Toushirou sighed - growled - under his breath.
Curse that Matsumoto for disappearing again. There were big piles of papers to be documented and stamped on his table, and it was all her fault.
"You're going to get wrinkles if you keep that up, Toushirou," was the sudden jibe that came out of nowhere.
He glanced up, and glared daggers at the intruder; who, by the way, had not deigned it necessary to knock before entering his office. Though, that didn't mean he was surprised by her presence - he had sensed her approaching before she had even entered his office with soundless footsteps.
"Hitsugaya-taichou," he ground out at her for the umpteenth time, his grip on the brush tightening.
"Yes, yes," Karin's response was a non-committal absent mutter (which irritated him) as she dropped yet another stack of papers on top of the already large piles on the table, and patted at it once. "Ukitake-taichou told me to pass you these."
He scowled more. Great. He was going to be here all day, and when Matsumoto returned, he would wring her neck. He spared a glance at the papers stamped with the Thirteenth Division seal, before turning back to stare (glare) openly at her.
She frowned back at him when he said nothing for a full five seconds. "What?"
Karin looked a little tired, but otherwise fine.
A little distracted, as well.
But after all these years, the white-haired shinigami knew better than to be deceived by her mild expression.
Especially with the news that spread like wild fire yesterday.
Karin snapped her fingers in front of his face. "Don't space out on me now, Toushirou."
His eyebrow twitched. "I was not. And it's Hitsugaya-taichou."
The woman snorted at him, "if you say so."
"Well," she went on to say, her back already turned to him as she walked, hand lifting in a backward wave - "if there's nothing you need me to say to Ukitake-taichou, I'm going. Still got things to do."
For a very, very long two seconds, he said nothing as he watched her.
Then he spoke.
She paused in her steps.
Not Kurosaki. Karin. Karin.
When was the last time he had called her that?
He groped for words, but came up with nothing. There were a lot of things he wanted to know. Such as how she was feeling. If she was alright. If she was dealing with her amnesiac brother just fine. If she was okay about Yuzu. If, if, if.
He wondered if she had forgiven him.
Karin sighed. Her shoulders sagged. Marginally.
Toushirou honestly had no idea what that body language meant.
She turned, again, dark grey eyes and poker-like face meeting his; and crossed her arms, staring back at him. "Well?" She was phrasing it like it was a challenge.
He forced himself to hold down the grimace that was threatening to form.
"I don't have all day, Toushirou," she told him, and her words were quiet. Soft. Almost kind, even. It was such a contrast to the unreadable, calm look sketched onto her features. "And I don't think you do, either."
He exhaled, and for just that moment, did not feel the instinctive response of Hitsugaya-taichou coming out from his mouth.
"Will you be okay?"
She looked mildly surprised by the question.
That wasn't quite the words he expected to say, though it was part of what he wanted to know.
Hell, she was rubbing off him with her bluntness.
Karin lifted a brow. "Exactly who do you think you are talking to, Toushirou?" she asked dryly, as if the answer should be obvious. And it should be, because despite everything, she was Kurosaki Karin.
But that wasn't quite an answer to his question, either.
He eyed her critically, silent.
And he didn't know what he did to irk her, but clearly, he somehow did so, and it was apparent when Karin's gaze narrowed, eyes now a hue of grey that was dark enough that they seemed black.
"Will you - " she cut herself off, then scowled irritably. "Stop giving me that look."
He frowned. "That look?"
She gestured wildly in the air with one hand. "That look."
He just sort of stared at her with knitted brows and confusion.
Karin rubbed at her face in frustration, eyes closing momentarily, and sighed.
"I'm really, really not in the mood for this," she said, and the irritation in her voice was replaced by something world weary and bittersweet.
He could feel another scowl forming already. What mood what?
Then her dark grey eyes was directed back at him, again; and her voice was low and even. "For once - for once, will you just knock it off?"
He could feel his throat turning dry even as his frown deepened. "What the hell are you talking about, Kurosaki?"
"Me?" The black-haired woman shook her head, laughed a little, and looked at him like she found this entire debacle funny. It made him want to bristle, for some reason. "No, Toushirou, you. Will you ever stop giving me that damned guilty look?"
His grip on the brush tightened.
"What - "
"Don't you dare act dumb in front of me."
Her calm words felt like a cold whiplash that made him go still.
Karin's expression, to him, looked like it was a combination of something soft and sad and disappointed.
It made him feel like he had failed her again.
"I've said this before," she said, her voice quiet but clear, "and I'll say this one more time."
Toushirou felt ice drape over him.
He knew he wasn't going to like what she was going to say next.
"What happened to Yuzu, it wasn't your fault."
He could feel his shoulders tense; the grip on the brush tightened further. "She's my subordinate," he felt the need to say. "My responsibility."
"And it doesn't change anything," was Karin's even response. "What happened has happened. Quite frankly, my sister is not a helpless damsel in distress. As her captain, Hitsugaya-taichou, are you telling me she has entirely no ability to protect herself?"
That question stung.
"I didn't say that," he growled. And more to the point, she wouldn't have been promoted to the fifth seat in such a short span of time if she had no abilities to speak of.
"There we go, then."
"That changes nothing," he bit out, then stopped short when he realized he had echoed her words.
For two heart beats, she said nothing.
And it felt like an eternity.
Karin's eyes closed momentarily, before she let out a sigh.
"I am not going to argue with you about this again," she said, her words a cross between muted weariness and resignation, and something twisted low in his gut at the finality in her soft tone. "I don't blame you for what happened to Yuzu, but that just isn't ever going to be enough for you, is it, Toushirou?"
He didn't even need to say it - the look on Karin's face told him she knew.
This time, the sigh that she exhaled was slow, and long.
And why did it make him feel as if he had just made something tear at its seams again?
"Well," she said after a moment, then paused as if she was considering what she was going to say next.
It made him tense.
When Karin felt the need to think if she wanted to say something, it meant that whatever she intended to say would hurt, and it wouldn't be just a prickle or a sting in the skin. It'd be so much more than that. So, so much more; like a twisting stab to the gut, and it'd rip right into him -
And from the completely and utterly calm look on her face, she could tell that he knew what was coming.
"I," she went on to say, voice betraying nothing; and her eyes were piercing into him with something burning deep in the depths of her gaze - "will admit that I do blame you for what is left of our friendship, just because you couldn't get over yourself."
The brush in his hand snapped into two.
Dark grey eyes glanced over at his hand, slowly and deliberately, before returning to look at him.
He could feel the broken wood stabbing into his palm.
"Hit a nerve, didn't I?" was the soft, murmured question.
He didn't respond.
It was another long moment before Karin did speak, again.
"I still have work to do," she said, tone quiet and unreadable. "Have a good day, Hitsugaya-taichou."
And she left, door sliding shut behind her with a soft, definite click.
It was a few more minutes before he no longer sensed her presence within the vicinity of the Tenth Division.
In the dead silence of his office, Toushirou slammed his hand - that held the broken brush - against the table hard enough to make his skin burn;and crack, the furniture went -
His curled fist was tight enough that it drew blood.
.. .. ..
How, she wondered, should she break the news to him?
Rukia observed the little boy who was sitting by the edge of the wooden floor; legs dangling idly in what she supposed were caused by apparent boredom, eyes staring up at the sky.
Would he take the news well, or badly?
But, she supposed, given the attachment he already had to Karin - not to mention he had been staying close to Yuzu (like now) when Karin had to go, and Rukia had not been there - he might take it in a good way.
She took in a deep breath and stepped forward carefully.
He startled and turned his head; now staring at her.
It was interesting to see the array of emotions that was sketched onto his face; while the older version of Ichigo was at least able to suppress it to some degree (which really wasn't even much), this one could not at all.
Surprise, elation, then panic, then nervousness, then hurt, wariness, and then...shuttered.
Rukia knew he was still bothered by the conversation she had with Byakuya.
It was something that made her both amused and bemused, for many reasons.
"Ichigo," she repeated when he just stared wordlessly, and gestured at the empty spot beside him. "Can I sit?"
He seemed to hesitate, and for a split second, Rukia wondered if he was going to say no.
But then he nodded.
She felt the tension she didn't realize she was feeling uncoil. Just a little.
"Thank you," she murmured, took in another deep breath, and sat.
-Part V End-
A/N: Mm, yes, Toushirou's in the story. Yuzu, too, will eventually have her role. Common fanon trend seems to dictate she'd be a healer or something like that, but c'mon! She's a Kurosaki, and it's far more likely that there's something very lethal underneath that sweet exterior. That's my logic and I'm sticking to it.
On the note of Shirayuki - I went around googling for how she'd look like in the anime. And now, I'm sorry to say, that I'll not be referencing her looks (or possible personality, for if there is, it will be mere coincidence as I didn't watch the Bounto arc). It's really mainly because her appearance doesn't particularly appeal to me.
Please do keep the speculations coming - I must admit it's a guilty pleasure of mine to see the gears moving in the readers' brains. Nonetheless, I hope the story's been entertaining so far - despite the sporadic and random updates (sorry!) - and reviews are always encouraging.