She felt… cold.
Like there was something that used to be there inside her, only now it had been cut out with a rusty sword. A cold one, that chilled her down to her bones.
Karin wrapped her arms around herself, stumbling forward in the thick dark. A tickle at the back of her throat promised a cough, but somehow she knew she shouldn’t give in to the irritation. Some things just never stopped once they got started. It would be one of them.
Instead she squinted, straining her eyes to try and make out anything about where she was or where she was going. The ground felt spongy in a way she recognized, but she couldn’t remember where she knew it from; every time she tried to think about it, the thought slid away, dodging her grasp. Or sliding out of it like water. She only kind of registered the way her breath puffed out in front of her like a cloud, slightly paler than the rest of the darkness and pretty much her only clue that there had to be light around here somewhere.
Maybe if she could find it she could get warm, too.
She could feel a pull. Like there was a rope or a chain or something, attached to her right at the heart and tugging her forward from the inside. She’d checked, though, laying one hand over her chest—it wasn’t an actual soul chain or anything. Which would make sense, right? She was technically dead. Or on the side of the world that you lived when you were dead—if that made any sense. She couldn’t hold onto those thoughts, either. The only thing that seemed constant was the pull itself.
Though her legs ached with the cold, she kept shuffling her feet forward. It might not be really helpful right now, but the pull was the only thing she had. If she didn’t follow it, she wasn’t getting anywhere, and it was better to go someway than stand still. It had to be.
Somehow she knew that the only time in her life she’d ever stood still was the one she regretted the most.
So far, she’d managed not to hit any objects in her path. Karin wasn’t exactly sure how that would go if she veered away from the pull, so she kept with it for now. Her skin, bare aside from the oversized t-shirt and athletic shorts she slept in, was starting to numb, prickles of chill fading until there was just… all-over nothing.
In front of her, she thought she could finally make out the source of the light, a pinprick of something up ahead. Picking up her feet, she shuffled a little faster—the pull was almost dragging her now. She had to be there, and she had to be there now.
Her foot struck something; too cold to react quickly, Karin tripped and fell. She tried to catch herself on her hands, but ended up hitting a bump in the ground with her left instead and landing hard on her side. The give in the ground absorbed just enough that her shoulder stayed in its socket, but it still jarred hard, and her breath hissed out between her teeth. Her leg was still wedged against something; she pulled it towards her. Whatever it was caught in wasn’t that heavy, because she managed without too much effort, rolling over onto her back.
Her hand slid away from what it had landed on, dragging over—wait.
That couldn’t be right.
Sitting up, Karin brought her hand to her nose, sniffing. She’s know that smell anywhere.
Almost like the environment was listening, the brightness went up a few notches, just enough for her to make out the wet shine of the liquid on her fingers. But she didn’t feel like she was hurt enough to be bleeding from anywhere, which meant…
Dread snuck up on her and hit, widening her eyes and making Karin suddenly very afraid to look at what she’d just been touching. The pull was so urgent now, like someone was trying to haul her away from this. But she fought it this time, because something else was telling her that she had to know what she’d just tripped over.
All at once, Karin whipped her head to the side, not willing to wait for her courage to fail. Immediately, she gagged, bracing her hands on the ground behind her and scrambling away as fast as she could while still on the ground. The dread turned into horror, clawing at her throat like the hands of a Hollow, squeezing the air out of her and stopping her from breathing.
No, this couldn’t be real.
But there she was: just as Karin remembered her, except not alive, but dead. Bloody, where something had slashed her, tearing through her sweater and carving her skin open in long welts, dark without enough light to make out the redness of them. Her lips were parted, eyes frozen open in pain and surprise. They were dull, even where the light reached, and cold like everything else here was cold. One of her hands stretched forward towards Karin, like she was reaching for her.
“No. No. That’s not how it—”
Karin froze. In her scramble to get away, she’d hit something else, her palm coming down on a wet spot. Something seeped between her fingers, sticky and thick. She knew what it was.
But she turned anyway, unable not to.
“Ichi-nii,” she whispered.
He, too, was exactly as she remembered him. A skinny little kid, with a soft, round face and made of nothing but gentleness and warmth all the way down. Tufts of too-bright hair stuck to his forehead, frozen against his skin. Only now there was a hole in his chest where something had punched right through and… and his heart was gone, scraped out with something jagged and Karin felt sick and she was going to be sick and whywasthishappeningand—
You did this.
An unfamiliar voice cut through the frantic swirl of Karin’s thoughts, bringing everything to a dead halt. It was as cold as the air around her. Colder, even, tones layered over one another but timed exactly the same so it hummed.
She’d done this? No, that wasn’t right, she—
The proof is right there in your hand.
Automatically, her eyes fell. She didn’t know when or how it had appeared there, but there was a sword in her hands. A katana: red tsuka, silver blade. She knew it on some instinctive level—this sword was hers. Thin trickles of blood webbed over the length of it, shedding drops onto the ground. Their blood.
“No—I didn’t. I didn’t.”
The speaker’s voice had seemed to come from all directions, so she didn’t know where to look when she said it. Didn't know what to do at all, really, except she felt so heavy she knew she couldn’t stand and so cold she could barely move at all.
“Don’t lie to me.” All at once, the voice was immediately near, like a poisonous whisper in her ear.
Karin’s eyes snapped to it; her heart stuttered in her chest. Fear.
A figure stood over her, its face a bright, bone-white mask that caught even the faint light. Red lines streaked over the beaked shape of it, the large, round eyeholes letting her see the black sclera and red-gold irises of whatever face was under it.
Before she could process any more than that, the figure raised a sword of its own. The edge glinted dully for half a second; the air whistled low and dark. Pain exploded in Karin’s chest.
She thrashed, trying to escape from whatever she could feel holding her, trying to get away from the blade striking for her heart. Away from the dark. Away from the cold.
Her eyes snapped open. Karin blinked, trying to clear her blurry vision. She knew the voice. It was—Yuzu. It was Yuzu, and she was in their room in Rukongai, from the ceiling. Right. Yuzu wouldn’t have been with her at the Sixth, anyway.
Swallowing was hard; there was some kind of lump in her throat that meant she felt it almost click on the way down.
“Um… can you do something about the heat?”
Now that Karin had the chance to look closer, she could see that Yuzu’s hairline was damp with sweat, a thin layer of it on her face reflecting the light coming in from their window. It took her a few more seconds to understand why—she was doing that thing again. Letting a breath hiss out from between her teeth, Karin tried to get her reiatsu back under control, but it was harder than it should have been. Like it was fighting her.
Still, she got it eventually, groaning and pushing herself up from the futon. She felt something smooth and hard under her hand, and grimaced, shoving it further beneath the covers as quickly as she could.
Yuzu waited a moment, then sat down next to her, looking at her with obvious concern. Karin knew what she was going to say next before she said it.
“Karin… is everything okay?”
Her first instinct was to brush the question off. To say that everything was fine. Because Karin was always fine.
Except when she wasn’t.
Still, she couldn’t quite bring herself to explain what had just happened. “Nightmare,” she said, shrugging slightly. “Nothing major, just—everything’s still in there, you know?”
All that stuff from the war was as good an excuse as she could ask for. It was even kind of true. It just… wasn’t the whole story.
From the look on Yuzu’s face, she saw right through that. But she wasn’t the type to push too far, and Karin watched her face smooth over as she backed down, at least for now. With a soft sigh, she dipped her chin and tried to smile. “Should we go start on breakfast? It’s probably not that much longer before Dad will be up anyway.”
Starting on breakfast pretty much meant Karin would sit around at the kitchen island while Yuzu did all the cooking, but that didn’t sound so bad right now, honestly.
She was opening her mouth to agree when something caught her attention from the corner of her eye. A jigokuchō was on the windowpane, awaiting entrance. Why the heck were they getting one of those while they were on leave? Maybe it was Uryū? He was totally the type to be up at this stupid hour of the morning.
Yuzu stood to let it in—that window was sticky in the frame. It had been for years. Karin had chosen not to say that it might have been her fault. A soccer ball kicked off-course could’ve knocked it out of alignment easy. It seemed like forever ago.
While her sister was preoccupied pulling the window open, Karin flipped back the cover of the futon.
The mask stared back at her with empty eye sockets.
She shuddered and stuffed it quickly under her pillow. Clearly, breaking it in half and tossing the pieces into the garbage was not enough to get rid of it. Maybe if she buried it somewhere in the outer districts.
It was never really going to leave her, though.
She knew that.
The jigokuchō hovered in front of her face; she swallowed and extended a finger towards it, ignoring the taste of bile on her tongue.
Kurosaki-kun. I have some information that may be of use to you. Please come by my office at nine this morning, if you don’t mind.
‘If she didn’t mind.’ Yeah freaking right. She’d have to be out of her mind to ignore a summons from him.
“What is it?” Yuzu asked. The worry wasn’t gone from her eyes yet.
Karin wondered if that would ever leave her.
“Uh… Sōtaichō wants to see me, I guess. Didn’t say why.”
Man, this office really sucked.
It wasn’t bad looking, necessarily, but everything in it gave off a vibe like she shouldn’t touch it because it was too old or too valuable or too… something. She had no idea how the hell Kyōraku could stand the fancy, polished, scuff-free desk in some kind of shiny dark wood that oozed fanciness like it was pus. Or those super-delicate wall scrolls that were probably done on rice paper and then backed in something where real gold looked like an inlay. Even the furniture looked too nice to sit in—if this had been the living world, someone’s grandma probably would have left the plastic covers on.
Actually, she was pretty surprised the old Sōtaichō hadn’t. Was there a word for when you were fussy as hell but also really stern and judgmental? Because that had to be the right word for Yamamoto, and she knew it from nothing but his reputation and then this fucking office.
“Your office sucks,” she said out loud, because she had almost no brain-to-mouth filter and definitely no sense of self-preservation. She still hadn’t exactly meant to. It just came out.
It was probably only years of friendship with people who knew better that made her even realize her mistake in the first place. Getting her to realize the ones like this before she made them was a work in progress.
“I’ve been considering painting it pink,” Kyōraku replied lightly, lifting his head from where he was bent over a stack of paperwork. She had the feeling Uryū had never seen that sight in his life.
“Yeah, that’ll really go with the rest of it.” Her mouth was still several steps ahead of her brain. It was a really good thing he didn’t seem to mind.
Kyōraku grinned at her outright. “Ah, but that’s exactly the point. It’s an excuse to trade out some of the rest of it too. This desk would be an eyesore in a pink room.”
Well, he wasn’t technically wrong about that, she supposed. Karin felt herself relax a little, almost despite herself. Maybe that was what let her get her thinking and talking back in line with each other. “Uh… also. Sōtaichō.” Years of working at the procedurally-strict Sixth Division finally kicked in, and she went to bow. She’d already entered without his say-so, which was something she’d managed to never do with Kuchiki.
But then again, there was something about Kyōraku that was different. Well, a lot of things about him were different, but he managed to give off a more open and comfortable impression without backsliding his way out of any authority. He didn’t fit the room, but at the same time he did, and there was something pretty reassuring about that. Maybe.
He waved a hand at her. “Don’t go getting formal on me now, Karin-san. We were doing so well.”
Karin blinked, then straightened. “Uh… okay?”
The little nod she got backed up the first cue, and so she dropped the last of the formality. It was exhausting anyway. “So… what am I doing here?” He had to be extremely busy, and she was on leave. Not that she’d expect to get called here if she wasn’t, either.
Kyōraku set aside his brush and rubbed at the whiskers on his chin. It was still pretty early in the morning, but she couldn’t help but wonder if he’d even slept the night before. He didn’t look like it himself, but this desk showed the signs of an all-nighter or three: stacks and secondary stacks of papers, an empty bottle of ink next to the half-empty one he was using now, and a faint smell of tea, which would have faded if it had been from yesterday. Since there weren’t any cups or anything around still, it had to have been from a while ago, though. Some hour when most people were asleep.
“I’m guessing Kisuke-san or Yoruichi-san explained what’s happening to you,” he said, dragging his hand down his neck before putting it inside the opposite sleeve.
It made sense that he’d know, Karin figured. He was the Sōtaichō, and unlike the last one he seemed to get along with people.
“I got the basics. The rest of it was kind of hard to understand,” she admitted. Really, past ‘you’re part Hollow now,’ how much could the rest of it even matter? How was she supposed to tell people that some asshole had bitten her and now she was partly something they were all supposed to fight against? Partly the kind of thing that had killed a lot of loved ones and comrades?
“You’re not gonna… am I getting fired?”
But Kyōraku wasn’t looking at her like he wanted to get rid of her. She tried to stand a little taller under his eyes, but there wasn’t really anything for it. The fact that she slept like shit lately had to be showing, even if she’d worn the uniform and the zanpakutō she couldn’t hear anymore to try and feel normal.
He shook his head. “Of course not.”
Well, that made about as much sense as anything did lately.
Not. Fucking. Much.
It must have been obvious, because he elaborated. “What happened to you isn’t unprecedented, Karin-san. I know you didn’t have much contact with them, but Shinji-san and his group are all in a position very similar to yours.”
Wait. Shinji? That was the guy who’d been kind of… around, for a while, in Karakura. By the time he and his goons showed up, Yuzu had been gone, and Karin had been unconscious at the time. She couldn’t say she was a fan, considering that what happened to her sister would have been completely fucking preventable if they’d bothered to get their asses in gear a couple of minutes earlier.
Hell, she was pretty sure they’d been at the battle, too; she hadn’t been paying much attention to anything that wasn’t that Espada and her family then.
“They’re like me?” She crossed her arms, bringing her eyebrows together.
Kyōraku nodded. She didn’t really use ‘sagely’ to describe a lot of people she knew, but she figured it was the right word here.
“They are. I’m going to be asking them to rejoin the Gotei 13. If I’m successful, I’ll also be requesting that one of them work with you for a while. I don’t know if Kisuke-san got to this part of the explaining, or if you remember it, but there are some unique difficulties that you’ll be facing. Also some unique abilities you’ll learn, if you can get the difficulties under control.”
Karin’s mind flashed back to the mask stuffed under her pillow. She grimaced.
“You mean it gets better?”
He tilted his head slightly. “That’s something you’d have to ask them,” he said, lifting his shoulders and letting them fall. “But it gets easier to control.”
Honestly… she’d fucking take it.
Karin left the Sōtaichō’s office halfway in a daze. Someone to work with her. Someone like her, who could help her control the—the thing.
That was good. Right? Probably as good as it was going to get. She’d asked Urahara if there was any way of getting rid of it, and the look he’d given her was enough of an answer on that. It was always gonna be there, and she couldn’t force it out with konsō or by running herself through with a zanpakutō or any of the other ways she could think of.
Not that she’d really wanted to get anyone to stab her anyway, but if there was a chance it would work…
She’d prefer physical pain and a lot of time in the Fourth to dealing with this. Too bad she had no choice. Constant nightmares, that fucking mask showing up at random times. The worst of it had to be the fact that she couldn’t see or talk to Hisaku. That, more than anything, was how she knew it was there. Because it was keeping her spirit away from her.
That was driving her crazy—and not slowly.
Karin stopped. She’d never figured herself for the kind of person who got too lost in her thoughts to pay attention to her surroundings; apparently today was just going to be a different kinda day. A quick scan put her somewhere near the Ninth—one of the containment domes for training was out here. She hesitated for only a second before changing direction and heading towards it.
Maybe she could get Hisaku to talk to her if she practiced.
Her steps were hasty; the idea was in her head, and now she couldn’t get rid of it. It hadn’t really occurred to her that the place might be occupied at this time of day—she’d gotten used to the rhythm of the Sixth, maybe. Drills early, paperwork midmorning, anything extra in the midafternoon.
When she hauled open the door of the dome, though, cold hit her like a wall. Her skin prickled, the hair on her arms standing straight. For a moment, she was back in her dream, breath puffing in front of her eyes and something she couldn’t explain pulling her forwards. It didn’t matter if she wanted to go, she had to. The light was dim, reflecting off the snow and making it glitter. The ground under her sandals had a give to it, even if it wasn’t springy. An icy wind ripped at her hair, plastering the fabric of her shikakushō close to her body on the right side, where it was coming from. It was the same, but also—not?
If she turned and looked, would they be there?
The voice was definitely wrong. Karin’s attention snapped to the speaker almost against her will.
Hitsugaya was wearing almost as much of the snow as the ground was. It sat on top of the ice coating his arms and shoulders, plus the wings and tail his zanpakutō made. There was probably some in his hair, too, unless it was that sparkly all the time.
Somehow, it was that thought in particular that broke the grip her kind-of nightmare had on her. Maybe because it was too ridiculous.
Karin shook her head hard, blinking as it seemed to get brighter. Probably because the clouds were going away. “Uh.”
Hitsugaya narrowed his eyes, sheathing his sword. The ice cracked off him like a second skin, falling onto the snow with soft thuds and a few lighter, glassy sounds where the pieces hit each other. “What are you doing here?”
Oh, right. She’d kind of just walked in on his practice, hadn’t she? That was pretty rude even for her.
That obviously didn’t make anything any clearer to him. Where she was expecting grumpy, though, he went another direction, reaching up and mussing his hair. Sure enough, more snow fell off in a puff. He approached warily, like he wasn’t exactly sure he wanted to. The steps crunched, then came to a stop a few feet away. Hitsugaya huffed, then pointedly turned his head, looking at nothing on the other side of the dome.
“I’m fine.” She brought her arms up, crossing them under her chest. It was still cold in here. Why wasn’t she leaving?
“Okay.” He didn’t exactly sound like he believed her, but he mirrored her posture. “Thanks, by the way.”
Karin did a double-take, but he was still glaring at some fixed point in the distance like it had done something to offend him.
“I said thanks.” Hitsugaya wasn’t happy to be repeating it; his voice got this little extra edge to it, smooth but sharp. Like one of those ice shards. Seriously, if anyone’s zanpakutō powers were stupidly on the nose—
Well—hers too, really.
“Uh, yeah. I got that part. But why?”
His mouth pulled to the side; it was almost a scowl, but didn’t quite get there. Too uncomfortable, maybe. “The battle. I was probably going to charge Aizen. Do something—stupid. You made me think twice about it, so I didn’t.”
It pretty much went without saying that doing that would not have gone well for him. In the end, though, she’d failed to take her own advice and lost her shit when Anzp—
Not thinking about that right now.
“Oh. You’re welcome, I guess.” She shrugged. It wasn’t that big of a deal, she didn’t think.
Hitsugaya nodded. “If there’s ever anything stupid you need someone to stop you from doing…”
Karin wasn’t really great with reading people or any of that stuff. She didn’t have Yuzu’s knack for making friends, either. But she recognized a truce when she saw one. Maybe it was even a bit more than a truce—not that she could put a good label on it.
Of course, the stupid thing she really wished she could not do had already been done. She shifted her weight, new footprints tracking over the old ones as her feet shuffled. “You, uh… yeah. Thanks. I will.” She had no idea if that was true or not, but it seemed like the right thing to say.
It got him to look her in the face, anyway.
“So, uh… I don’t really know how to say this, so I’m just gonna do it: the Sōtaichō wants me to be captain of the Seventh.”
Karin paused with her sake dish halfway to her mouth, blinking across the table at Renji. Rukia outright dropped hers, but luckily Uryū was quick with the napkins before it got everywhere.
“I knew something was weird when you offered to pay,” Rukia declared, prompting the other two to grin.
Karin felt like hers was a little forced on her face, but she was happy for him anyway. Renji worked his ass off pretty much constantly, and if anyone deserved to be a captain, it was him. Raising her cup the rest of the way, she knocked the rest of it back in a swallow, running her tongue over her teeth after she swallowed.
“Congratulations,” Uryū said, the first of the three to find the actual polite response.
Right. “Nice going, monkey-face,” Karin added, feeling her smile get a little less strained when he fake-glared at her.
“Is your bankai demonstration soon?” Rukia asked, helping Uryū clear the napkins onto one of the used plates and pouring herself a fresh drink. Luckily, she hadn’t broken the dish. The restaurant was just this side of too fancy for their normal shenanigans. Not that there was too much to worry about: without Matsumoto here to goad people, dinner had been pretty tame.
Then again, with everyone’s mood lately they could have invited every officer in the Gotei 13 and it wouldn’t have gotten any louder than a dull roar. Probably.
Renji nodded, rubbing at a spot on his forehead where one of his new tattoos was still healing. He seemed to add to the set every once in a while. Karin hadn’t asked him about them directly, but she figured these new ones had to have something to do with the war. What else was anything about anymore?
“Probably,” he said. “I dunno yet. I wanted to get a few things worked out before I gave him an answer.”
“Gave him a—why the hell would you say no?” Karin pulled a face at him.
He shrugged then, kind of awkwardly. “I wasn’t planning to, but I did kind of want to get the fukutaichō thing done first.”
“You have someone in mind?” Uryū did that thing where technically he was asking a question, only it was obvious that he knew the answer already.
Renji drummed his fingers on the table, the third one making a different sound because of a knot in the wood. Karin glanced down at them once, then back up at his face. He was looking right at her. Something uncomfortable clenched in her guts, like they were in a hand and the hand was squeezing them all together.
“I was hoping you’d be interested, Kurosaki.”
As one, the other two pairs of eyes shifted from him to her. Karin swallowed. “I… dunno if that’s a good idea.”
“Why not?” Uryū knew the answer to that one, too.
Karin shook her head. “You guys know why.” She hadn’t told all of them personally, but as her superior officer, Renji would know. And she’d told Uryū, who she knew would have told Rukia. She didn’t mind—it saved her from having to explain things herself, and none of them was gonna go around blabbing to everyone.
“I don’t care about that, Kurosaki. You’re still you, and that’s the person I want for my vice-captain.” She could hear the frown in his voice.
“I’m a Hollow, Renji. You fucking should care.” Karin gripped the edges of the table, squeezing down with her fingers. Even if there was maybe supposedly someone who could teach her how to deal with that, she wasn’t counting on it. Couldn’t let herself count on it. And he shouldn’t count on it, either.
He shook his head; she could tell from the rustle of fabric. “Having Hollow reiatsu doesn’t make you a Hollow. I talked to that Shinji guy. He was as much a shinigami as me or Rukia, even if he didn’t get treated like it.”
The treatment wasn’t what Karin was worried about. People could think whatever they wanted and she’d just as soon tell them to fuck off.
What she was worried about was the possibility that what they thought might be true.
“You don’t get it,” she said. “There’s this… this thing inside of me, and it’s not me but it might be and I don’t want it.” Her knuckles turned white as she redoubled her grip. She wondered what would give first: her fingers or the tabletop? Maybe she’d crack it, and then it would be like she felt. Cracked, right down the fucking middle.
A hand touched her left one, the fingers sliding under her palm and lifting. The angle forced her to let go of the table without really applying any pressure. Leverage. Uryū wasn’t wearing his gloves.
“My inner world is quite literally divided into halves,” he said. “It wasn’t always that way. When I’d realized what else was there, I wasn’t… pleased.”
He didn’t let go of her hand; she let her other one fall back down to her lap. Karin’s jaw tightened before she could get it to relax enough to talk. The water glass on the table in front of her was dripping more than it should have been. Was she doing that? Making it too hot?
“How did you deal with it?”
He exhaled a harsh breath; the frustration wasn’t at her, though. “I’m still dealing with it, but the first step is… realizing that you need two halves to make a whole, I suppose.”
“What if I was whole before, though?” She glanced up at him, her eyebrows pinching together.
Uryū met her eyes steadily, blue to dark grey. “You let the new parts make you better, rather than worse.” His free hand pushed his glasses up his nose; the lenses were fogging.
Karin was definitely doing that; she took a deep breath and tried to rein it in.
“For what it’s worth,” Rukia put in gently, “nobody expects you to have this all figured out right here and now. It’s gonna be tough, but you don’t have to deal with it by yourself.”
Not everything was an obstacle to smash through. Hisaku wasn’t talking to her, but Karin felt the echo of something she’d been told over and over again anyway. For once, she was really relieved to know it, because this obstacle didn’t seem like one she’d be able to get past that way.
Renji nodded. “So you got problems. Not to make light of it, Kurosaki, but we’ve all got problems. And you’ll get through ‘em like the rest of us will. You think I have any idea how to be a captain? Because I really don’t. I’m planning to figure it out as I go, and I was kinda hoping you’d do the same.”
Karin scoffed, giving Uryū’s hand a slight squeeze before she let it go. “Well, I guess someone needs to keep you from fucking it up too badly, huh?”
Renji rolled his eyes, crossing his arms. “Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, birdbrain. We’ll see who’s stopping who from screwing it up.”
“I feel bad for the Seventh,” Rukia remarked into her sake glass.
Karin caught Uryū’s eyes and smiled.