AN: Is this 'update all the HitsuKarin fics' week? I think so! And I've jumped on the bandwagon by foregoing studying and just writing a whole bunch. LOL I'm sorry it took so long, guys. Exams and then a typhoon and then getting back into the rhythm of school has kept me away. But! I've watched a love of anime and I'm watching a bunch of Fairy Tail episodes right now. Also finished Inu x Boku SS, Toradora and Kamisama Hajimemashita. So cute~ I forgot how much I love shoujo. :DDD

Thanks for waiting so patiently and for all the alerts and favorites, guys~

Thank you's for the last chapter:

Guest: I'm sorry! T.T I know, Isshin is love and I hurt him so. I hope you like this chapter. :D

nureen: I'm glad you liked it. Ichigo and Karin meeting was kinda inspired and I loved writing it because it felt so fresh and fun. And Isshin has

STARSHINE: So sorry I haven't updated. Haha. I'm sooo glad and honored that you like my fic. T.T I hope I can live up to expectations and give you something worth waiting for. ;)

Mi-Chan: (I'm not sure but did you review twice? XD I didn't know whether to post two replies or not so I'll jsut do one. Sorry if there are two of you!) And finally 'next time' is here! It took long but better late than never, right? ;D

Liliv00: It was pretty emotional, right?

Culdude: Thank you so much. :D

Emma22kawaii: Aww, thank you, bb~ I'm just so glad everyone is enjoying this story. Really, this is one of my most interesting stories to-date so I'm just glad people appreciate whatever I churn out!

Guest: Unfortunately 'soon' is a word I'm not good with. -_-;; But I do hope the chapter was worth the wait!

Cloud69: That's a huge compliment so thank you so much! :DDDD I'm sorry it took so long but, y'know, life. I hope you enjoy the chapter!

Warnings: Glazing over the Winter War. Read the manga and/or watch the anime for the full story on that. (I recommend the anime just because they're in color and move and stuff. LOL) ;) And... lots of stuff happens.

This chapter is dedicated to djAngelynn for getting my butt in gear and bribing me with her own update. Thank you~ :DDD

Chapter Fifteen: The Winter War

"She's coming back today."

The shuffling of papers stilled at the newcomer's voice. Hinamori Momo, lieutenant of the Fifth Division, stood there in the doorway of the Tenth's office. But her interruption passed without a word, as quick hands filed away the work and gathered up a new batch. And per usual Momo had to admire the way Toushirou held his composure so easily, a skill she both envied and despised.

"Did you hear me?" she asked, knowing full well that he had. Sliding the door in place, she stood before him looking uncertain. When he refused to look up, however, she could feel the exhaustion hit her.

It'd been six months since she had left for her training, six months since Hitsugaya had recoiled into the safety of his shell, six months of her trying to understand just what had happened between them. She should've realized it was a fruitless endeavor. What she'd been able to weasel out of Matsumoto was far from satisfactory and the nothing she got from Toushirou was even worse.

But he'd always been like that, Hinamori mused as she stared down at him, assessing the careful hunch of his shoulders. Even as a child, Toushirou had hidden behind arbitrary words and gestures. The only difference now was the coping mechanism. Instead of brash insensitivity and feigned ignorance, the wall he'd built around himself had become nearly impenetrable, so good at keeping everyone out and himself isolated.

So how had a cross-dressing girl broken in when no one else had?

"Hitsugaya-kun, are you listening to me?" she huffed. Crossing her arms over her chest, Momo did her best stern impression. "Aren't you going to react, even just a little?"

"And what would you like me to say?" The jerk didn't even have the good grace to look up at her. "Is there a proper response to that? Or are you looking for a specific one? If it's the latter, please leave. I have no interest in feeding any delusions you might have."

"Well that was a lot of words for someone who's trying not to 'feed any delusions,' don't you think?" Hinamori shrugged haughtily. Trust a genius to try and outmaneuver her with a few roundabout sentences.

His reprimanding glare would've left another soul frozen solid, the air dropping a few degrees. But she did not cower or stutter; he was fifty years too young to expect such behavior from her. She'd seen him when he was at the bottom rung, picked on and left out. Seeing him at the top now meant Momo was impervious to any of his power plays.

Instead she pushed him harder. "Kurosaki Karin arrives in less than four hours and you're telling me you have no interest whatsoever? After all the things you did for her—"

"And what, Hinamori, have I done for her that's any of your business?" Startling green flashed in annoyance, his contempt for snooping shining through the slithers of his mask. But it was exactly what Momo wanted, as she leaned over the desk and invaded his space.

"Don't play dumb. While I may not know all the details, I know you had something to do with saving Kurosaki-san from her execution. I know that you convinced Kuchiki-taichou to help her, and just because I don't know how doesn't mean I won't find out."

"You're blathering. Please leave before I really lose my temper." Waving his hand, Toushirou went back to his work with every intention of forgetting this conversation. And he'd forget about Karin's return if he could help it, go the entire week without meeting her once. But they only had that much time before they were shipped out to war, and Momo wasn't optimistic that their army would survive it in one piece.

"Promise me you'll see her. Matsumoto is planning a bit of a get-together, just some people from the Tenth and a few of the ranked officers. It'll be small so no pressure."

"Anything planned by Matsumoto is guaranteed to be anything but small. You and I both know that."

"I didn't hear a no," she singsonged, giggling when he glared up at her.

"That doesn't mean it's a yes."

Smile turning downwards, Hinamori did her best impression of a scowl. "Oh, Hitsugaya-kun, you make me so mad I could just…" She trailed off angrily, but brightened when another idea came to mind. "Well fine then. I guess we'll just have to leave Kurosaki-san to the wolves."

Looking positively certain, Momo turned back towards the door at a sedate pace and waited for him to take the bait. He'll stop me in three, two, one…

"What did you mean by that?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, did you say something?" she asked cheerfully, spinning back with a little flourish. His lack of amusement only made her grin wider.

"What did you mean by 'leave Kurosaki to the wolves'?"

"Well just think about it," she shrugged, pretending to be innocent, "Kurosaki-san has taken her rightful place and everyone knows her as the heir to the Kurosaki home, even if it is only until the next successor is born. But there will be trouble, I'm sure. Kuchiki-taichou's name will protect her somewhat but it's not as if he has to be there tonight…"

"Dammit, Hinamori, just tell me. What is going to happen to Karin?" Toushirou growled, slamming a hand against the wood of his desk. The sound seemed to bounce off the walls, making her flinch. There were only so many buttons she could push before he truly got fed up with her teasing.

But the slip of Karin's name was encouragement to keep trying. "People will talk and scrutinize and just, challenge her. And you know she won't be able to do anything about it." Pausing, Momo looked down as she played with her fingers. Her voice wavered with the unfairness of the situation. "If she talks back, then she's ungrateful and undeserving of her life. If she doesn't stick up for herself, then she'd a coward who's unfit to wed Kuchiki-taichou. So you see? It's a no-win situation."

His fists balled tightly, crinkling the papers beneath his fingertips. The propensity to curse wasn't usually a vice of his but if there was any time to change his mind it would be now. Toushirou knew that Hinamori had a point. There would always be those critics who would overlook any achievement she made and go directly for whatever minor offenses she committed. Quickly, he doused the fury as he weighed his options.

"I don't see how that's any of my concern, or your business for that matter," Hitsugaya answered, sitting back down and feigning disinterest. Her indignant gasp was exactly what he wanted. "What happens to Kurosaki is between her and whatever man is stupid enough to pick that fight. I won't get in the middle of it and neither will you, Hinamori."

"But, but… What if she needs help? Who's going to rescue her?" She took a decisive step forward, her eyes shining with compassion.

Her ignorance nearly made him laugh. "Have you met Kurosaki before? Before her identity was revealed?"

"N-no, I can't say I have…"

"Then you'll need to remedy that tonight if you think she'll need someone to guard her from injury or insult." Taking a nearby pen, he neatly signed his name as a smile came easily to his lips. Just the thought of Karin being anything less than assertive was enough to brighten his mood. "No one defends her better than herself. If you think otherwise, then you haven't been listening well to all the rumors the last few months."

The condescension lit a fire under her, as Momo blushed red at his heavy-handedness. However, a moment later and it cooled just as quickly, as she eyed her old friend with surprised understanding. It took her a second to realize that it wasn't her he was underestimating; it was that he had full faith in Kurosaki Karin. And that was a high compliment from a man who trusted no one with his duties, let alone his thoughts.

She couldn't help it. She wanted more from him. "So you're really not going to go? What if she asks about you?"

His pen stopped mid-air, hovering as he tightened his fingers around the middle. It was always the little things that gave him away, Momo mused, his anxieties and insecurities captured in the tiniest flex or twitch. She wasn't surprised that he didn't answer for the longest time. Instead he resumed writing and acted as if he hadn't heard her.

Puffing out her cheeks, she growled in her throat before stalking out with a slam of the door on its wheels. He could trace her moving away, probably cursing his stubbornness or pride or both. Pausing, he covered his face with his hands, willing away the worry worming around his brain. And for once, he was so glad his office was empty, as he murmured angrily to himself.

"It's not because I don't want to see her, Hinamori. I'm just not sure if she'd want to see me."

In the back of his mind, his promise to Byakuya stirred gently. It awakened for a moment before curling comfortably in on itself, a slowly ticking time bomb. A constant reminder that Karin could be nothing more to him than what she already was.

As much as Karin appreciated the sentiment of a 'welcome home' and 'congratulations on completing shinigami training' party, she was never one for big crowds. The fact that she knew only a handful of them proved that the whole thing was at her expense rather than for her. Not that she minded, Karin thought as she watched a tipsy Matsumoto pull someone from the Eleventh into a drunken verbal fight.

On another occasion she might've been worried. The Eleventh wasn't known for their kindness and ability to work well with others, after all. But as upper officers looked on and laughed everyone brushed off the threat, going back to their drinks and conversations. The night was still young and they knew what was approaching in the days ahead. She couldn't blame them if they wanted one night to pretend that the world wasn't about to turn on its head.

After having an early dinner with Yuzu and her mother, both of whom had cried tears of joy when the saw her, Karin had been whisked away by a then-sober Matsumoto. That first step into the hall had kept her busy, brushing elbows with both captains and soldiers alike. In the mix, she remembered hugging Rukia and exchanging a few hushed words of advice. Karin made the conscious effort to not comment on the obvious concern in her eyes, as she mentioned the things she saw, the amazement she felt, the difficulty of it all.

But she bit her tongue when she thought of that strange, orange-haired boy in Karakura. There was no way Rukia would know such a strange person, Karin reasoned as the older woman was forcibly dragged to get a drink with one of her squad members. It would've been a long time ago when they met; the man would've most likely been a child. So she shuttered the possibility away and let it go, turning to find some other nameless person she needed to greet.

Another day she would ask her about him, when people weren't drinking away their fears and living it up when all they wanted to do was cower. She understood that feeling and she'd never begrudge them for having it. However, even someone as well-mannered and patient as Karin could feel her good mood withering, as the gathering turned from somewhat civil to downright rowdy.

When people began dancing on tabletops she knew she had to get out of there. But she hadn't seen Byakuya, even though he'd shown up and had even asked to see her. When faced with the chance of speaking with him privately, she'd made the excuse that she needed to use the restroom, slipping out like the coward she never thought she was. Obviously Karin didn't know herself as well as she thought.

She sought him out eventually, outside in the private garden, honing in on the gentle fluctuations of his power. No doubt he'd been there on purpose. With the energy and noise increasing indoors, the Kuchiki head would have left hours ago, his duty to make an appearance fulfilled. But there was much they had to discuss, business that she would've welcomed later. Preferably months from now, years even, but there was only a week until their self-made apocalypse began and they knew that time was no such luxury.

Pulling it out from somewhere deep down, Karin forced her spine straight and met him in the quiet, unlit yard. It was as nondescript as the building, a dime-a-dozen sort of feeling as she made her way over to him. As still as the stone bench he was sitting on, for a moment she wondered if she was disturbing his calm. Because he said nothing, did nothing, just looked out over the shadowed grass and reflective surface of the pond.

It was Karin who spoke first. "Byakuya-nii-sama."

He chose not to respond right then, just slanted dark eyes at her as he took in all the little changes she'd incurred. Her hair had grown even longer, just past shoulder-length, probably because of the lack of spiritual energy in the other world. It had aged a bitter quicker than the rest of her. Her hands were gently scarred as well, white marks from careless mistakes she'd learned from and a few battles she had no right being in. And he thought how it was strange that six months could be so long in their infinite lives.

"I'm glad to see you're well," he began, watching as she tentatively took a seat behind him. Her uncertainty chaffed at his skin but he understood the reason for it. Honestly, he thought she might not come at all.

"You too. Good to know your greetings haven't changed much," she scoffed sarcastically. When she realized what she'd said and how she said it, it felt like a lightning bolt shot through her. The blatant disrespect made her heat even in the chilly air.

"I apologize. That was uncalled for." Tilting her head forward, Karin berated herself mentally. She hadn't quite learned to curb her tongue and had hoped to keep it under thumb until people became more aware of who she was. No doubt they would expect behavior more like her former self, but she wasn't Kazuto anymore. She'd buried him with the souls of the many Hollows she'd slain.

To her shock, Byakuya didn't respond the way she expected. "No, I don't think you should be sorry. I don't expect you to suffer in silence like you once did." He gave her a onceover, inspecting her as if he was seeing her for the first time. Maybe because he was. "I've always believed that freedom could change a caged bird."

"For some reason I feel like you're not just talking about me anymore," Karin said, as a shine of nostalgia lit his eyes. He turned away before she could discern anything else.

"We're not here to discuss my thoughts, Karin. I believe we have unfinished business to take care of." She winced at his lack of tact, as she curled her hands into fists and dug her nails into her skin.

"This really can't wait until after the Winter War? I mean, our troubles here don't seem like anything compared to that."

"That is neither this nor that. It is time we worked out the details of our arrangement so that I may have something to tell the Elders."

Glaring at nothing in particular, she griped to herself. "I don't understand why they're so interested. They're not the ones getting married."

The acknowledgement didn't take away the sting or bad taste in her mouth. If anything, it soured her disposition more as the reality settled in. And suddenly she wished she was on patrol again, anywhere but here and with a road that was endless and winding. Because things in her life were being carved into stone without her consent and she could do nothing about it.

"I understand your frustration but you must know that I'm not your enemy."

"I know that. I'm not mad at you, Byakuya-nii-sama," she groaned, chastising herself for her misconduct. It felt like decades' worth of frustration were unloading, regardless if she was ready for it or not.

Under his direction, they talked about all the things they hadn't had time for before. Karin's family would be under his care and she'd be allowed free access to the Kurosaki home. If it'd been another man, he might've held her under lock and key, holding her mother and sister's safety over her head. And not for the first time Karin was glad it was Byakuya she'd been saddled with, as unfair as it all was.

They would take up residence in his home and she would learn to care for the house as a properly lady of her station would. It wouldn't take much as she'd been doing the same for her own, but taking on the role of hostess rather than master would be new and trying. In exchange for her compliance, Karin would be allowed to keep training as a shinigami.

Although his council had spoken against allowing her so much freedom, Byakuya had been adamant about this compromise. There was a chance she'd grow strong enough to take over the Fifth's captaincy one day and he wouldn't let some archaic belief keep her from it. He'd trained her too well to expect anything less.

Neither of them brought up the undercurrents of their negotiations, the truths that tainted their pending union. Although she'd been too young to remember, Karin was familiar with Kuchiki Hisana, Byakuya's diseased wife. The fact that he was breaking his promise to himself, to never take another after her passing, didn't escape her. She couldn't quite stamp down the guilt as she continued to listen.

The other hindrance, however, was very much alive, one she refused to recognize as anything more than her former mentor. He didn't even have the decency to stop by and greet her. She knew because she'd spent more than her fair share eyeing the entrance, only to come up empty each time. But the thought had to be put away, as Byakuya finished going over the Elders' and his own expectations for her. Too much was riding on their so-called engagement—her family's welfare, his pride, her life, his heir—so she allowed him his due.

When he left, Karin was a little ashamed that she was relieved to see him go. Their talk had been heavy, so patterned with others' wants that she'd nearly lost her temper. But she knew Byakuya was only a messenger. He wanted no part in this any more than she did, probably less even, but he'd played the part of savior. And now they were both paying the price.



From the shadowed corner, he watched as her face shifted from quiet anger to tired disinterest. And the more Kuchiki-taichou talked, the less she seemed to listen, her focus decidedly elsewhere. He could read it in the way her fingers tightened in her hakama, how she never quite met his gaze, how she never said farewell. After all those months apart, Toushirou was surprised to find that he could understand her still.

However, he hadn't recognized her immediately from afar. A distinctly feminine touch replaced her manicured sheen, more open and inviting but no less fierce. He'd arrived on the coattails of festivities, just before it turned into a raucous affair courtesy of Matsumoto's alcohol. From the sidelines, he observed her laughing and smiling, and for a moment he was afraid he didn't know who she was. This person—this woman—was nothing like the one who left, nothing like the boy he'd trained and befriended.

Strange how she never quite met his expectations. He should've learned by now that it was better to not have any.

Against the voice in his head, he departed without saying a word. There had been no preparation time, he didn't know how to act around her anymore. And after seeing her in the garden, face shadowed as Kuchiki-taichou spoke in practiced detachment, Toushirou wasn't sure he could confront her tonight, tomorrow, anytime at all. So much had changed between them and they had to keep pretending that none of it happened. Right now, he didn't have the energy to search for the words to say so. Seeing her after so long had been more than enough.

Karin fell back into his life the same way she left: a stealthy tiptoe.

"Good afternoon, Taichou. How was your captains' meeting?" From the edge of his desk, she perched with a devious little smirk, so at home on her that he nearly asked her who she was. However, he knew better than to do so. Inciting a Kurosaki's wrath was not how he wanted to play his next move.

"Fine. Welcome back, Kurosaki. I'm glad to see you've returned in one piece." Internally he flinched. The words sounded callous even in his own ears.

"Did you ever doubt me?"

"I worry for any new recruit. Training is only preparation, after all. It doesn't tell you how well someone will handle the stress of real battle." He looked at her directly then, meeting her eyes for the first time in half a year. A part of him wondered how many more times he'd be given the privilege before she belonged to someone else. "I'm glad to see you weren't one of those that couldn't."

For a moment she watched him carefully, tracing the limbs at his sides to broad shoulders and then cat-like eyes. To remind herself that he hadn't changed nearly as much she had. "You kept tabs on me, I'm sure. What, did you not trust my so-called genius to get me through it?"

"I trusted you to follow orders and use your abilities wisely. Seeing as you've been given high marks by your leader I'm assuming you did just that." Reluctant anger flared up inside him, as Toushirou glared outright at her smug smile. He didn't understand what she was trying to accomplish by pushing his buttons but endearment was far from his mind.

So Hitsugaya did what he did best in these kinds of situations. Rounding her, he took a seat in his chair in hopes she'd take the not-so-subtle hint and leave. To the rest of the world there was nothing left between them other than some stale friendship and a strange softness he had for her, a feeling he hadn't been able to smother completely. But Toushirou had paid his debts to her. In fact, he'd incurred more in the form of his favor to Byakuya, a secret he'd do well to keep hidden.

But Karin wouldn't be swayed from her purpose. "Are we not going to talk about this?" The contemplative murmur made the hairs on his skin rise, the alto of her voice a mix between what he knew and what he was still getting used to.

"Talk about what?"

Instinctively he knew it was dangerous to question her, fake disinterest when he knew exactly what she was wanted. When she spun and planted her hands on either side of him, he had no choice but to look up at her. The expression of fury and anxiety had him tensing, desperate to remain impartial.

"About this! About us," Karin growled, leaning forward and stealing his concentration. He'd never noticed her black irises held flecks of blue.

That's because a year ago it wouldn't have mattered. "There is nothing to discuss, Kurosaki. You are safe now, a fact that I'm glad to hear but have no opinion on otherwise. Do us both a favor and leave the past where it is."

Her reply was little more than a tortured snarl. "You're a fucking coward, Toushirou."

His body reacted before he could stop himself. Towering over her, something like electricity shot through his skin as he felt the graze of her breath against his lips. He'd remembered her—Kazuto—being taller but she seemed less so now, perfectly sized as he stared down into a face he knew far too well. It was dangerous to think that she might've been made to fit him.

"That's Hitsugaya-taichou to you. Have some respect, Kurosaki. I'm not one of your handlers. I won't put up with that attitude of yours."

"You only pull rank with me when you know I'm right. What, did you think I never noticed your trigger?" she asked when his eyes widened.

"There is nothing to talk about. You and your family's lives have been spared at the cost of your engagement and you are now a full-fledged shinigami about to be sent off into war. If there's anything to discuss, it's your priorities."

"You're so wrong I don't even know what to say," Karin spoke through her teeth, baring them as she closed what little space was between them. "My life is a mess. But to everyone else I'm getting off easy. I'm going to be some ornament on my friend's wrist, whispered about and watched because I'm, as the Elders like to say, 'breaking tradition.'

"So yes, maybe I'm grateful for Byakuya-nii-sama did, maybe even happy because my family is safe. But we never got to finish, Taichou. Hell, we never even started." He felt his defenses crack with the one in her voice, broken and unsure.

"That's because there was never any 'we' to begin with." Even as he spoke the lie he'd rehearsed over and over again the last six months, it left his tongue sticky and rough, a dry pill he couldn't swallow. And as he watched the light in her eyes flicker out, Toushirou pondered if this was what real sacrifice was. Turning her away would be his last act of gentleness; it was too bad she would never know it.

So when her head dropped, his heart went with it.

"I'm sorry." And he meant it. For lying, for hurting her, for only doing this much when he wanted to do so much more. But Hitsugaya wasn't her protector. He had no right to be, he thought as he finally tore his gaze away long enough to compose himself. One day she would be grateful for this, his cruel kindness. Their paths were never supposed to cross in the first place, not like this. She wouldn't miss him and he had no right to miss her.

The thought was sobering as he sat back down, head just as low as he pretended to concentrate on his paperwork. His dismissal had her stepping back, rejection sipping at her wounds. And it took everything Toushirou had to not look up at her, comfort her, because that wasn't what she would want or what he needed to do. Hopefully he could tell her that someday down the line, would get to hear her thank him for it, as unlikely as that would be.

But Karin wasn't fooled, not by something as cheap as words. Tangling her fingers in Hitsugaya's shihakusho, all she saw was a flash of shock before she leaned down and kissed him. She did it because she knew this could very well be their last.

When he didn't respond, Karin wasn't sure if it was the attack or the fact that it was her that kept him drozen. Her lack of experience made her that much self-conscious, as she clamped her eyes shut in hopes he'd be respond. Either push back or pull away, she didn't care, as long as he reacted. But the moment was passing and she found her heart, jumping in a random pattern, had stopped, as she backed away to look at him.

A momentary pause.

And then he was pressing her to him again and she just didn't care anymore.

Soft and deliberate, Hitsugaya curled his fingers in her locks like he'd imagined more than once. Guiltily because what right did he have to deserve her? Especially now that she was promised to another man, his comrade and friend. But it was something in the way she kissed him back that took away that remorse, as she opened her mouth and asked for whatever he'd give her.

And he gave her everything, knowing it would never be enough for either of them. They were living on borrowed time, as sweet as the taste of her as she dragged him closer with a careful swipe of her tongue. And for a moment Toushirou wished that he could blame it all on a moment of insanity or inebriation, a way to escape responsibility once the spell was over.

They parted in reluctant pants, fingers still drawn in hair and latched onto skin, the space between them hot but far from clear. Common sense was returning along with their air to their lungs, as Karin pulled away and pressed her fingertips to her mouth. Looking at her, he knew she wasn't sure whether to smile or not, be happy for the little pleasure or ashamed of it. And frankly he was just as uncertain as she was.

Settling back into his seat, Hitsugaya's voice sounded choked even to himself. "This won't happen again. You're dismissed, Kurosaki."

However, she didn't move from her spot, just watched him with that omniscience that always left him unnerved. He pretended that the roving of her eyes didn't put him on edge, didn't strip away what little confidence he had left. They were a mistake just waiting to happen and even if he wanted to, he had no means to protect her. Better to leave her in Byakuya's capable hands than let her suffer the stigma of choosing him.

The sound of her light footfalls were just as rattling as they were comforting. It was the right choice. Maybe not the one they agreed on but the one where she would hurt less. And Toushirou wanted that for her, for the girl who sacrificed more than she was willing to take.

It didn't escape him how she had broken that rule for him, making him her single act of selfishness. The thought warmed him until it burned, as he willed the regret for another day when he could mourn his loss.

"Hey, Toushirou," Karin called from the doorway, back to him as she braced a hand on the green wood. "When this is all over, I'm not going to leave again without telling you how I feel. You might be scared of the repercussions but I'm not. I've lived long enough denying myself what I want because of fear."

Feeling her gaze fall to him, confident where he was anything but, he could almost hear the smile in her voice. "Even if you reject me, we're going to talk about this the way it needs to be. I don't have anything to hide anymore. So you shouldn't feel like you have to hide from me."

The shudder of the door echoed, her promise loud in his ears as he scrapped a hand across his face. It was in that moment that Hitsugaya realized that the thing he feared was not the consequences or risks but Karin herself. Not because of what she said or did, but because he knew that he would give in to her if she fought him hard enough.

The week disappeared in the blink of an eye. Embracing her mother and sister, Karin could feel their nails like claws catching onto her cloth. Don't go, the gesture said, just stay here and be safe with us. But the truth of the matter was that there was no real safety. It was either destroy or be destroyed. And while Karin would've liked to think she could tip that balance, she wasn't deluded enough to believe it.

Looking down at her zanpakuto, she wondered if Kikōō had been as disappointed as she was when she returned. She'd promised to attain bankai, partly to reassure Hitsugaya that she was strong enough to master the nearly impossible and partly because she herself had needed the affirmation. Attaining bankai would've given that confidence.

On the other hand, she was pleased to note that her shikai had been fully attained. Matsumoto had asked about her progress before the liquor had made her speaking and listening faculties useless. And she'd been impressed, saying how few achieved a complete shikai even long after they graduated. So she took her shortcomings in stride, as she stood before the large senkaimon that would take her and half of the Gotei Thirteen's officers into the World of the Living.

A shiver of anticipation ran down her spine, the full force of her duty hitting her in that moment. Life or death, that's what Hinamori-fukutaichou had whispered to her. Momo's eyes had been just as tormented as her own when she smiled grimly at her, maybe even more so. The little history she knew of the vice captain's past had filled in the blanks and for a moment a tendril of pity filled her. A woman who could face her fears was a woman worth admiring, she thought.

A familiar presence stood behind her, the wave of Hitsugaya's reiatsu both comforting and jarring. Despite her wants, she kept herself focused and forward, her words from that afternoon echoing in her mind. Even now she considered her declaration bold, something she would've never tried had her life not changed so suddenly. Or maybe it was a long time coming. She'd like to think that she had some control over her destiny.

Neither of them acknowledged each other once they made it through the portal, the quiet, empty city of Karakura spread out beneath them. And at its corners were the four towers holding their plan together, the citizens asleep, safe and sound elsewhere. For now, that is.

It didn't take long for Karin to sense the change in the air, as all eyes went to the cracked opening of a black mouth in the clear sky. Her throat constricted at the tremendous force that beat at her senses, as the captains and their subordinates looked on with mixed horror and fascination. A small comfort, but she took it for what it was.

And out of that garganta came three former captains, men she'd read about in books and scriptures and heard about in hushed voices. Men who had helped destroy her family. The notion had her clenching her teeth, fists shaking at her sides with emotion she thought she had under control. But she could never forgive them, not when she thought of the graves she visited and cleaned by hand each year.

Alongside them came their soldiers, or Espada as they liked to be called. And behind them came their Fraccion, servants that hung on their leader's every word to the point of obsession. None of them gave off any sense of modesty, simply smirking as if their side had already decided the battle. Their cockiness made her fingers itch, as the enemy picked their poisons.

With Hinamori and Matsumoto, Apacci, Mila Rose and Sung-sun approached them with mixed bemusement and self-satisfied expressions. Without warning, they launched their attacks with sonido against their heels, pushing her and her comrades back with ease. Their taunts echoed in her mind, as she fought for her self-control and concentrated on what she needed to do.

Drawing out her blade, Karin called out the release. "Rise from the burning ashes, Kikōō!"

Red garb covered her shihakusho, a coat that looked as easy to slice through as silk but deceptive in its shine. Kikōō had explained that her release separated into the light armor she wore and a double-edged sword, a transformation worthy of its spirit. She'd bled many times during her excursion from her own mishandling, as she poised the sharp tip towards Mila Rose. There would be no room for mistakes here, however.

It didn't take long for Karin to figure out that her training wouldn't be enough by itself. Hell, decades of missions wouldn't be enough to catch up with those around her. But she was smart, crafty in a way that others didn't expect of such a young girl. And she used her skills to her full advantage, moving seamlessly from kidou to swordsmanship to hand-to-hand combat. Byakuya would've been proud if could see her.

However, she wasn't blind to her own shortcomings. The most she could do was defend and retaliate, never gaining the upper hand no matter how many blows she landed. And it looked like Rangiku was having the same trouble, along with a disheveled Momo trying to keep her own opponent from advancing further. They didn't need to look at each other to understand just how unprepared they were.

So when they summoned Quimera Parca, there was no hope.

Panting hard against the strain of her muscles, the sweat beaded before falling to the dirt-thrown ground. Around her factitious buildings had crumbled, the unlucky pins to their bowling ball bodies. The Third's Fraccion had done a number on her, Matsumoto and Hinamori and she was ashamed to say she hadn't been nearly as much help as she'd hoped.

In the distance, the clashing of swords and bone carried through the stagnant air. Her mind was fully aware, conscious of the pain radiating to her limbs and deep beneath her skin. The strewn bodies of her two companions weren't too far but knocked unconscious from the force of the giant's attack. Individually they'd been an equal match for the three Hollows, but the monster they'd created had overpowered them easily. Genryuusai-soutaichou was forced to step in, chastising them for their carelessness. The well of shame didn't disappear even as she fought to force her body up again.

Between keeping her pain in the back of her mind and fighting for movement, she saw shuffling out of the corner of her eye. A brief glance and she noticed the face of a person in a trance, Karin watching as Hinamori-fukutaichou made her way over in slinky, slow movements. And immediately she knew something was wrong, as she pushed herself to her elbows.

Above them Hitsugaya had engaged a serene Aizen in a fight fed on revenge and battered pride, the older shinigami beautiful and deadly in his arrogance. But what shocked her more was the absolute loss of control on Toushirou's face, eyes gone dark in hopes of drawing traitor's blood. It took everything she had to get herself sitting, hissing as she watched Hinamori move towards them.

She swore she only blinked once but when she saw Momo come between the two men, Karin couldn't move fast enough.

Calling on her shikai, she just barely blocked Daigakuren Hyourinmaru from slashing the Fifth's lieutenant in two. Vaguely she was aware of the mild surprise on Aizen's face before it contorted into a soft smile that might've once been handsome. Now it only showed cold interest.

"What the hell are you doing, Taichou? Snap out of it!" She yelled in fervor, pushing him back with strength she didn't have. The light armor of her zanpakuto flickered in the air as she fell into a crouch, blocking Momo from his view.

But one look into his eyes and she understood: Toushirou had fallen under Kyoka Suigetsu's hallucinations. Gritting her teeth, she growled as she shot the brown-haired man a sneer. His amused chuckle had her coming back to the situation, as Hitsugaya charged her again. She was outclassed and outmatched, barely dodging deadly blows as lacerations decorated her skin.

"You've got to get a hold of yourself, Taichou! He's controlling you!"

Another slice, barely missing her jugular.

"I'm not Aizen! He's taken away your sight, he almost made you hurt Hinamori-fukutaichou!" And Toushirou would never do anything to his childhood friend. Not after the hell that bastard had put her through half a century ago.

But he kept swinging, intent to cut her down to size. And for the first time in her life, Karin was scared of her former captain, of that strength that he had never used against her. Except she wasn't her right now, not to him. She was the enemy.

Knowing he would follow, Karin led him away from their true target, hoping that maybe distance would bring him back. Her immunity to Aizen's power would only last this once since this was her first time seeing his complete hypnosis. If he decided to use her the same way, she'd be easy prey. But she wouldn't willingly leave Toushirou at his mercy.

Mistress, he's too strong. You won't be able to stop him. You're only buying him some time. Kikōō's voice was a bitter cry, doing his best to keep her bathed in his power. Not for long though. It would die out soon and she was afraid what she'd do without it.

The hiss of her guardian's voice warned her not to think that way, that he wouldn't let her go so tragically. Kikōō was just as invested in her as she was in Toushirou. In her head, she formulated a plan, something to knock Aizen's all-knowing concentration from his captive long enough to break the spell.

Fending off Hitsugaya was taking every last bit energy she had, as she pushed back against his blade with bleeding hands. Her fingers trembled, arms so close to giving up. But she kept fighting because of that glazed look in his eye, the one that screamed he was anyone but himself.

The blurring of Aizen's form appeared behind him then, smiling so kindly that she nearly loses her grip. Her eyes fall from Toushirou as she snarled at the disgraced captain. The mood changed quickly however, as her eyes widened when she realized what he was about to do. Because nothing on Aizen had changed except the drawing up of his arm and the glint of his zanpakuto against the sun.

Without thinking, Karin reacted before she registered her own reflex. Shoving Hitsugaya away, she intercepted the slash and reflected it back with a strangled cry. But he looked no less pleased as he stood before her. In fact, he looked even happier for some reason and she didn't understand why.

The pain that blossomed along her spine was answer enough.

"You're a brave little soldier, Kurosaki-san. And dedicated too," Aizen sung sweetly, meeting her astonished stare as she felt the splatter of blood soak her shikai. But soon enough that too disappeared with what little reiatsu she had, the blurring of her vision beginning at the edges. She didn't need to look behind her to know what had happened. The pointed hilt protruding through her chest spoke volumes.

"You tricked me." Us was what she meant, as she choked back a mouthful of blood. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction to see her any weaker.

He approached her then, as she felt her left lung collapse with the twisting of Hyourinmaru in her chest. His fingers stroked the side of her face, as if consoling her. But there was nothing more painful to her than his icy touch.

When he spoke, the obvious mocking made her eyes tear helplessly. "A good, honest child. Just like your brother." And then he waved his hand to erase his illusion. She could only imagine what Toushirou looked like.

"Oh my god..." She heard the broken realization in his voice, the regret potent as he pulled his sword from her back and her into his arms. He never noticed Aizen right in front of them, smirking smugly before disappearing into a shunpo.

The warmth of healing kidou filled her but deep down she had a feeling it wouldn't be enough. In her mind, Kikōō's screams had faded into the distance, anguished as he came to the same conclusion. She wasn't going to survive this, not without the Fourth's intervention and they were a dimension away. But she didn't say so, as Hitsugaya cradled her carefully before setting her on the floor.

"I'm sorry, Karin. I'm so sorry," he pleaded, so unlike himself as the blue from his hands covered her front. The bleeding had slowed to a stop, but there nothing to reverse the losses. There was too much gone and her organs were failing, reflecting the visceral pain that shot to the very tips of her dying limbs.

"It's okay, Toushirou. I'm okay," she lied with a smile, feeling her eyes water against her will. Not now. Karin didn't want this moment to be filled with crying. That wasn't how she wanted him to remember her.

"No you're not. You're not okay and it's my fault," he growled, narrowing his eyes at the grin she was straining to keep on. Of course he'd read right through her. Karin forgot how transparent she was to him. It only made blinking back her worries that much harder, as the wetness clung to her eyelashes.

"It's not your fault, Toushirou. It's not..." Was that her voice? She wondered how she could hear through the flowing of displaced blood. It sounded so far away in her ears, as she looked up into his guilt-ridden face. How she managed to still feel shame for putting that look on him, she'd never know.

"Yes it is, dammit! Don't pretend that it wasn't it wasn't me who hurt you." Panicking, he felt his insides tighten as he felt feel her aura web. But the more kidou he pushed in her, the more he understood that it was a lost cause. Like fanning a growing fire. And never had he felt more powerless than this moment, as he held back his own tears.

Her hand wrapped around his wrist, a signal to stop and save his strength for now. Even on her deathbed, Karin was more worried about others than her own well-being. Meeting her eyes, he knew that Karin had understood her fate the instant he'd attacked her.

Only one of them would make it home today.

And he knew this wasn't the right place or time, not with their nakama fighting for the balance of three worlds, but Toushirou just couldn't leave her there to die alone. He smoothed a hand over the curve of her face, gently memorizing the curve of her cheeks and line of her jaw. As a man, she'd been harsh and imposing but as a woman she was all delicate lines, beautiful in her unconventionality. He would find no one like her again.

The bile rose in his esophagus as blood was hacked into her hand, shaking her small, pale form. Blankly his mind registered that there would be no body to bring home to her family. Her soul would disintegrate into particles and feed this world. He wouldn't have anything to give her mother and sister, Toushirou thought as he tucked her beneath his chin and tried to warm her with his heat. The stinging behind his eyes made him clench her tighter to him, willing time to stop, just a moment or two longer.

"Hey Toushirou…" Her voice came out weary, dreamlike.

"Yeah, Karin?" He could feel her lashes tickle his neck, as she placed her hands on top of his and squeezed. Or at least the best she could manage, as she buried her face deeper into his neck.

"I don't think…. I'll get to…" She coughed again and all he could do was rub her back, feeling the warm, sticky liquid coat his hand. "I can't keep my promise…"

"Don't be stupid. Of course you will. We'll take you back to Soul Society and you'll be fine," he told her, the reassurance coming out as a hopeless plea. The coolness of her skin whispered of her impending end, and he hated how he had broken his promise first. Instead of protecting her it'd been the other way around, and now she would die because of it.

"Of course…" she nodded, humoring him. "But I want to tell you everything. Y'know, just in case."

"Save it for then. I want to hear all of it when you're better." But that was a lie.

In reality, he didn't want to hear a thing. Because if he didn't hear her confession, then he could pretend that his feelings were all, a person couldn't regret not having something that was never theirs. Or so he had thought.

As the tears traced down his face, Hitsugaya refused to look down at her and what he was sure would be a pitying, playful grin. He refused to commit her to memory as anything other than what she was, vibrant and strong and beautiful.

As wordless as his wish was, she seemed to hear it, stroking her fingers against his knuckles as she felt the last of her life slip through her fingers. So she wouldn't tell him because that would be cruel, to love him only to leave him behind. And Karin would do anything in her power to stop him from hurting.

Slowly she felt her body began to give in, dissolving so silently and slowly that she was almost sure she could stop it if she wanted to. But she was just so tired now, as she felt the cold turn to warmth and the pain gave way to nothingness. Her last words rang even as she disappeared like sand through his fingertips.

You were special to me, Toushirou. I can only hope I meant something to you too.

And for the first time in decades since he left District One, Hitsugaya Toushirou fell to his hands and knees and cried bitterly. Cried for Karin, who he'd wanted to protect and cherish even when he told himself to stay away, that she would be better off without him.

But no matter how much he wiped atthem, the tears wouldn't stop. After a while he didn't even try to, drowning in his grief even as a second garganta clawed its way through the sky. The stroke of a familiar reiatsu didn't wash away his pain, as he struggled to pick himself up off the ground.

Later he would give Karin the proper burial she deserved, a goodbye he wasn't worthy of giving her. But he had to force the notion out from his mind, as he looked up through blurred vision. The shock and relief he felt were shallow as he saw Kurosaki Ichigo stepping onto the humans' plane. Clad in that infamous black bankai he'd achieved in three days' time, it was as if he'd never disappeared, as if he'd never been left for dead.

And with Ichigo's entrance the tides would turn with it, always following in his favor. But as Toushirou picked up Kikōō, a final token for the Kurosaki family, he couldn't help the resentment that unfurled in his bones. If only he'd arrived a little earlier, it would've made all the difference.

In the end, it was too little too late.

AN: ... Do you hate me? :/

Now before I get some random people yelling about this, I just want to say that there is quite a bit of story left. So don't kill me just yet, okay? :3

As for future updates, I have a list of things I plan on writing before I can get back to this fic. In order: a smutty sequel to Shadow General from In Every Season, a Zutara AU for a good friend of mine, an IchiRuki I keep putting on the backburner and then PC and Unlikely (LoK). So, yes, I will be busy but a review or two might make me work a little faster. *fails at getting people to come to the dark side and comment*

P.S. It's my wifey's (fuckyeahhikari) bday soon and I wrote her a little somethin' somethin'. You'll be able to see it at my AO3 account when I post it, if you catch my drift. Hint hint, wink wink, nudge nudge. ;D Just head on over to my profile and click the link near the top!

Thanks for reading, everybody! Until next time~