Characters: Karin, Kon, Jinta, Ururu, Hinamori
Rating/Warning: PG-13 for language, references to character death
Word Count: c. 3,700
Notes: This is a rather dark AU co-plotted with incandescens and liralen. The war against Aizen's forces went very badly. Nothing is sacred and no one is safe.
Index post (Be sure to check out the index post to see the lovely banner by ravens_rising!)
1. Nanao: Winter
2. Ukitake: Waking Up
3. Ikkaku: What Is, What Was
4. Kuukaku: Holding Ground
5. Nanao: Morning, Interrupted
6. Ukitake: Chance
Summary: Karin's life would be so much easier if she didn't have to pretend everything was normal.
Everything would be so much easier if he wasn't here.
"Stop following me, already! Jeez..." Karin tugged her cap lower over her forehead and pulled her scarf up over her nose. The wool itched, but the warmth of her own breath felt good against the numbed tip of her nose. She picked up her pace, hoping to get some distance between them. With all the dodging she had to do, it didn't really work.
"How can I be following you if we're both going to the grocery store? Yuzu did ask us both to go. I'm here to help you, right?" It was clearly and aggravatingly reasonable, but Karin still dismissed the protest as whining.
"I don't need your help."
The disgusted chuff of breath sounded so much like something Ichi-nii would do that Karen looked over her shoulder before she could stop herself.
It wasn't Ichi-nii, no matter how much it looked like him. It was only stupid Kon, trailing just a pace behind her no matter how fast she walked. He simply ignored most of the people Karin sidestepped. Or maybe he just didn't see them.
It wasn't her brother, and Karin wished he would stop pretending he was. He wasn't even doing a very good job of it any more. He had even let his hair start to get too long and floppy. Yeah, old goat-chin didn't seem to notice anything (like he ever would), but Yuzu looked like she might be getting suspicious now.
Two of Ichigo's friends waved at them from across the street. Karin studiously ignored them, but Kon was quick with a 'Yo, Keigo! Mizuiro!' and to reassure Keigo yes, they were still on for tonight.
It probably shouldn't surprise her that most people didn't see that the thing wearing her brother's body wasn't her brother. After all, most people probably thought the sidewalks were pretty empty for a Saturday.
To Karin, though, they were hellishly crowded. If she didn't know better, if she didn't know what she was looking at, she would have thought that wearing a big chain dangling from the middle of your chest was the latest fad.
Karin really, really hated walking through them. Hated it to the point where she didn't care if the living thought it was weird if she took a very crooked path down the sidewalk or sometime stopped in her tracks for no reason at all.
The other day, at a crosswalk on the way to school, she had to wait through two cycles of the light to cross because the intersection was just that crowded.
It wasn't just ghosts, either. Karin barely flinched when a too-familiar shriek cut through the cold air. Some of the savvier ghosts scattered, a few even running into the streets. Most of the cars just cut right through them, but a couple swerved to avoid people who weren't really there.
Karin looked around, mostly up, straining to hear another shriek and waiting to feel a tug of nausea in her belly. This was happening four, maybe five times a day, now.
There was another nails-on-chalkboard howl, but it came from further away and was trailing off. She sagged in relief, but then nearly shot ten feet up in the air when a hand clapped down on her shoulder.
"What the heck do you think you're doing, jackass!" Karin held a mittened hand to the base of her throat, willing the racing pulse to settle down already.
Kon was not at all apologetic. "There's a Hollow out there. I'm supposed to look after you two," he said. "Your bro--"
"Well, go look after Yuzu, then!" She pushed his hand away and started walking again. "She needs it. I don't. And what could you do against a Hollow, anyway?"
"I could kick it in the head!" he boasted.
Whatever. Knowing him, he'd run away first.
The shopping took twice as long as if she had been on her own. After they paid, she took just one bag, leaving the other three with Kon. Served him right for stopping to flirt with the checkout girl.
Karin was nearly a block from the grocery store when she realized something was missing. She did an about-face and marched right back to the store. Sure enough, Kon was loitering at the newsstand next to the grocery, contemplating a thick, glossy magazine.
"If you're going to stop, then tell me, dummy! I could have been halfway home before I knew you were gone!"
Kon just got a sour look on his face (he couldn't even scowl properly), then turned back to his magazine. "I thought you wanted me to stop following you. Make up your mind already."
Karin jumped at the magazine, but Kon lifted it out of reach. "I don't want you messing up my brother's reputation because you can't stop perving all over the place!"
Kon gave her an affronted look. "It's just a copy of Vogue. They keep all the good stuff in the back."
Karin tried not to connect the dots to figure out how he knew that. She really did.
"Besides, how can I perv over this?" he groused, smacking the magazine with the back of his hand. "She's a fashion model. Please. They don't have any tits worth speaking of. See?"
He held the magazine in front of her, but she wasn't looking. Or listening. She had her eyes crunched shut and the heels of her hands pressed tight to her ears.
"If you start going 'la la la I don't hear you' again, I'll tell Yuzu you were being a pill." He sniffed. "I might tell her, anyway. You were being mean to me in the grocery store."
"You kept talking to people." Ichi-nii would have just grunted and moved on. He also wouldn't sound so whiny.
"Friends of the family," he pointed out. "And they talked to me first."
Friends of my family, Karin wanted to say, but that was an argument they'd had too many times already. She always won the argument, of course, but it didn't seem to make any difference.
Maybe things would have been different if Ichi-nii had simply told her he was leaving someone behind to take his place while he was off... wherever. But no, he'd left her to figure it out and have to be lied to for weeks by Kon and Urahara and everyone else until she'd finally got Ururu to spill the beans.
Kon put the magazine back in the rack, all but petting it goodbye. He picked up his share of the grocery bags, not whining about it for once. "C'mon Karin-chan. Let's go home. It's cold. Too cold to be looking at bikini babes." He squinted up at a dead gray sky. "I think I just saw a snowflake. Hey! I did! Can you believe it? Snow in--hey! Wait up!"
Maybe if she pretended he didn't exist, he'd just go away. They were only a few blocks from home. Once they dropped off the groceries, she could go up to her room or maybe go out and see her friends. Maybe have dinner over at one of their places instead of having to sit through another session of watching Dad and Yuzu treat this bozo as if he really was Ichi-nii.
Couldn't they see? What was the matter with them? Couldn't they tell that everything was all wrong? Even Yuzu was seeing ghosts more clearly now, getting agitated and jumpy on the way to school, constantly saying 'excuse me' to people who weren't there.
And Dad... Yeah, Dad was an idiot like always, but Karin sometimes wondered if he knew something was off. Some days, she barely saw him at all and in the mornings, she would see his dinner in the refrigerator where Yuzu had left it, untouched. He didn't joke around as much anymore.
Or maybe he could tell she wasn't in the mood for his stupid antics. The last time he tried that, she'd run up to her room instead of kicking him in the head.
He hadn't joked around in front of her after that. Well, a little. Sometimes. But not the way he used to. And one day, after she'd walked through the kitchen and heard him laughing, and Yuzu scolding, she almost ran up to him to tell him it was okay--she didn't mind him horsing around and acting like a clown and trying to get them to laugh.
But yeah... The old goat was a lot quieter now. Karin brushed a melted snowflake away from her eye.
And Yuzu? Yuzu was Yuzu, but fretful, absentmindedly pulling dishrags to pieces as she told her family to hurry in to dinner.
If Yuzu thought anything was off about their 'brother,' she didn't show it. In fact, she sometimes clung to him like he was an overgrown version of one of those stupid stuffed animals of hers.
If only he would just go away.
She ignored him calling out after her as long as she could, but he caught up with her and pulled her to a halt.
"What is wrong with you?" he hissed, almost whispering. "I've been trying to get you to stop before you walk right into them."
"I'm looking where I'm going," she snarled back at him.
"No, you're not. See?" He plunked a hand on the top of her head and forced her to look a bit up and to the left, at an apartment building on the street she was just about to cross. "Betcha that's why we heard the other Hollow getting its tail out of here."
Karin started to protest that she wasn't about to walk right into them, but then she really looked at what Kon was showing her. The snow, though barely more than a flurry, now fell steadily enough that she kept having to blink away flakes. It made it hard to focus properly, so at first, Karin thought the apartment balcony was crowded with ghosts. Not too unusual, these days. And besides, they looked like people--sort of. But some of them had horns coming out of their heads. And the dark things on their chests and bellies and necks weren't chains. They were holes.
"Hollows? Those can't be hollows," she protested. "Can they?"
They looked too human to be hollows. And they were intent on something, so intent that they might not notice if she crossed the street just like any other person on her way home with groceries.
"Karin." Kon grabbed at the back of her parka as she stepped forward, nearly causing her to fall back on her butt. "Those aren't regular Hollows."
She twisted out of his grip easily enough. "I just want to see what they're doing. They don't look as scary. They're only small ones."
"That means they're stronger." Something in his voice made her turn to look up at him. He looked intent, focused, and almost angry--and uncomfortably familiar. He studied the group on the balcony through narrowed eyes. The softness that marked him as Kon disappeared for one horrible second. "And that's Chad's old apartment building. They're right in front of his door... and shit, one just went inside. I don't get it. Why here? Why now?"
"Well, let's find out what's going on." The light at the crosswalk changed and she trotted off across the street.
She didn't even see Kon move. But he was right there on the other side of the street before she got halfway across.
"No. You are not doing this," he hissed. He held out the grocery bags. "You are going to take these back to Yuzu-chan and I'll go find someone else who can actually deal with this and maybe not get killed."
She tried to sidestep him, but he blocked her path. "You're just being a coward. That's Ichi-nii's friend's place. You said so yourself."
"And he's not there." Feint. Block. "C'mon Karin-chan. Ichigo wouldn't want you to get involved with that. He'd want you to stay safe."
Karin swung out with her grocery bag, catching him square in the chest. She thought she heard something go squish.
"Stop it! Just stop it!" she shrieked. "Stop calling me Karin-chan, you stupid freak! Stop pretending you're my brother! You're just a... you're not even real!"
Kon's shock lasted long enough for her to push past him and take off down the sidewalk and around the corner. She turned down the first side street she found, hoping that he hadn't caught up with her enough to see where she had gone.
Her hiding place was a service alley more than a street, and it smelled bad, like old vegetable trimmings and cat pee. It was also cold back there, with no sunlight reaching down to melt the skin of ice on the puddles. That didn't stop her from hiding behind a pallet of boxes and sitting down on the filthy asphalt. She hugged her knees to her chest and ducked her head.
Stupid. So stupid. Now she'd have to explain to Yuzu about the groceries. And explaining meant lying.
If Ichigo had just been gone, it would have been easier. Then she could just tell Yuzu how much she missed him, and how not knowing what had happened to him make her stomach twist like there was an army of Hollows outside.
Stupid Kon. She hated him. Hated him so much she had to bite down on her fist to keep from screaming.
She crowded back as far as she could, counting her breaths and trying to ignore all of the ghosts who wandered past. Some sensed her, and paused out of curiosity, but eventually went away when she refused to notice them. If she focused on her breathing, she could keep from crying.
Explaining ruined groceries to Yuzu was bad enough; Karin refused to explain tears.
Maybe a couple of minutes passed--just long enough for her butt to get cold, but not so long she was tempted to get up again--when another ghost came by. This one stopped right in front of her and didn't seem to be inclined to leave. She tried ignoring it, but it breathed awfully loud for a ghost, and when she finally lifted her head, she saw that its feet were in a puddle, displacing the water. The snow fell in front of him and on him, and not through him.
Not a ghost.
"I swear I checked this alley twice already," Kon said, panting. "I must have looked in dozens of stores and twenty alleys."
Liar. Karin hid her face again. "Go away."
"Nuh-uh. Your brother asked me to look after your ungrateful hide while he was off... wherever," Kon snarled, "leaving you without a word. And I'm going to do what he said, okay? Hell, I'd do it even if he hadn't asked."
Kon's barely restrained annoyance with Ichigo prickled something deep inside her. Something dark and squiggly that she didn't want to think about too much.
"C'mon, Karin-cha... Karin. Let's go home, okay?" he said wearily. He held out a hand, but she didn't take it. She sat absolutely still, listening.
Kon sighed. "Just for once, can you not--"
She held up a hand, shushing him.. "Can you hear it? Hear them?" she whispered.
Kon went still, looking around slowly, wide-eyed.
There was something... came close, then retreated--not far... over here... you sure?... just coincidence... want to be the one to explain to Aizen-sama if it is not? Over here...
The voices, all different, but all having that howling note that she could feel in her gut, grew closer.
Do you feel it? Over here?
Kon mouthed something incredibly obscene.
Yes. Over here....
Why did she have to pick a blind alley? The pallet of boxes wouldn't protect her for long. Kon looked up, but Karin didn't see any fire escapes or anything.
She stood up and looked around for a rock, a length of pipe, anything. Maybe even a door that wasn't padlocked.
Kon scooped her up without warning, one arm under her knees and the other around her back, and as she squirmed and hit and tried to wriggle free, he spoke in a rush. "Okay, Karin, for once you are going to do exactly what I tell you to do and what I'm telling you to do is hang on."
The ground fell away beneath them. So did Karin's stomach.
She would have liked to have been able to say that she didn't scream.
"Stop squirming," Kon said through gritted teeth. "My arms aren't as strong as my legs, okay?"
Given the way rooftops were flashing past beneath her like yellow lines on a highway, Karin thought that maybe not squirming was a good idea.
At these speeds, the chill air cut horribly and the snow stung like chips of ice. She told itself it was only for warmth that she curled closer into Kon's chest as they zigged and zagged above Karakura.
Because--and she admitted this to herself only a little grudgingly--under other circumstances, this would have been fun.
"Here's hoping those things don't think to look up. And that I confused the trail enough." Another long jump, one that felt like falling, and they were coursing along a lower section of rooftops. The taller buildings of the business district were now well over a mile behind them. "And that they weren't built for speed," he panted.
Karin tried to laugh, but it was hard to get a breath. "Knew you'd run away if you saw a Hollow."
Kon spared a second to glare down at her. "That almost sounded like a joke. Now hold on--we're coming in for a landing."
He came to a stop so quickly Karin knew she'd have a headache for days. Kon turned and set her down gently, steadying her until her legs stopped wobbling.
Okay... wasn't expecting this," he muttered, but only to himself. "You okay?" he asked Karin.
"Yeah. I guess." Karin recognized where they were at once, although the location wasn't quite the same as the last time she'd been there. Even so, Urahara's shop looked as if it had been in its present location for years. The roof now had a fairly even dusting of snow, barring two still-dark footprints on the roof. The way the snow was falling now, the prints would disappear in a few minutes. The snow was also starting to stick to the ground in places.
It didn't take her long to see what it was that Kon wasn't expecting.
Jinta was standing on the porch, talking to a young woman Karin had never seen before. She wasn't that much taller than Karin herself, and had dark, rough-cropped hair that would have made her look like a boy if it weren't for the fuzzy pink sweater and close-fitting jeans.
She could have fit in with Ichi-nii's classmates if it weren't for the katana she had at her side. Or the stray flickers of a snapping, burning power Karin could see around her--and her sword. It reminded her of the cold, sharp power she had sometimes felt from Rukia, only inverted.
"Hey! Karin!" Jinta turned and waved. Ururu peeked out through the open door. "If you're looking for the boss, he's not here."
"He said he would be back for tea," Ururu said. It sounded like she was predicting a plague of frogs.
"I'll wait, then," said the woman. She sounded cheerful and tense at the same time, and the look she cast at Karin was both welcoming and suspicious. Warm brown eyes held more than a hint of steely cold. "Are you two friends of the shopkeeper?"
"We know Urahara, yeah." Kon was unusually on guard, and Karin couldn't tell if he wanted to step in front of her or hide behind her. "We've got something we need to tell him."
"You're a shinigami?" Karin asked.
The woman blinked in surprise, but nodded. She then looked at Jinta and Ururu for confirmation. Ururu nodded solemnly.
"They're okay." Ururu might have been saying they were a couple of zombies and that they were all doomed to die horribly.
"Hey, if you're looking for something to do while you're waiting, missy, there's a pack of Arrancar about a mile and and a half back," Kon said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. "They were sniffing around Sado Yasutora's place for some reason, and then they got a whiff of Karin here. Can't tell you more than that, but we had to take off in a hurry."
"Arrancar?" Karin didn't miss the way all the warmth left the woman's eyes. "What's an Arrancar?"
"Bad news. On two fronts." The woman stepped down from the porch and walked over to Kon and Karin. Snow caught in the fuzz of her sweater and the rough spikiness of her hair. "Bad enough they're here at all, but now it sounds like they know Sado has escaped. We may have less time than we thought."
Escaped? Escaped from where? And if Sado disappeared at the same time Ichi-nii did...
The woman bowed, old fashioned and formal in a way that made her modern clothes look like a costume. "My name is Hinamori Momo. I'm sorry we have to meet like this, but I think we both got here at just the right time."
"Yeah. Sounds like it." Her voice was shakier than it should have been. "Nice to meet you, Hinamori-san. I'm Kurosaki Karin."
She had been about to introduce Kon, but she heard Hinamori's sharp intake of breath the instant she said Kurosaki.
"You know what happened to my brother," Karin said flatly.
She thought she would feel something more than this. She thought she would have yelled the words, or pleaded, or something. Instead, there was a question that wasn't a question, and Hinamori refusing to look her in the eye.
Kon's hand was still on her shoulder, and Karin leaned back against him, for once glad he was there.
"Would you all like to come inside and join the others for tea?" Ururu asked. Then, even though it was perfectly obvious and becoming even more obvious with each passing second: "It's snowing."
It sounded like a warning.
No one was in the mood for tea, but they all went inside anyway.
8. Yoruichi: Hunting
9. Momo: Trust No One
10. Soi Fong: En Garde