Series: Winter War
Characters: Karin, Yuzu, Isshin, Keigo, Mizuiro, Tatsuki, Kon
Summary:In Karakura, the Kurosaki sisters try to walk home from school, and find the going far more difficult than usual.
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach or its characters and I do not make money from these writings.
Author's Notes: This is a chapter in the dark Bleach AU that sophiap, incandescens, and I are writing. In this AU Aizen won the war in Karakura, and it diverges from canon somewhere in the Hueco Mundo and Fake Karakura arcs.
"Nothing is sacred and no one is safe."
33. Ensemble: Splitting the Party
The late evening light slanted gold through the streets of Karakura as Yuzu and Karin began their walk home from school. Karin had stayed late for soccer practice while the sewing club kept Yuzu, and the feistier of the two twins had jogged over to Yuzu's school to pick her sister up for the walk home.
Ghosts, which had crowded the streets for days, still thronged deep. Their mist-cool forms made Karin shiver every time she touched them. Yuzu seemed oblivious, chattering away about her day at school, how she'd done in cooking, what she'd made in sewing, how well she'd done in calligraphy class, and how much her teacher had admired her copies of Buddhist scripture.
Still, Karin knew that Yuzu was usually quiet when she was comfortable; she only talked like this when she was trying to hide nervousness, fear, or disquiet.
Only a block away, when they crossed the first driveway, something crunched under their feet.
"What is that?" Yuzu hopped back in fright.
Karin bent and frowned as she picked up what she'd thought was a red pebble. "Beans. They're beans."
Yuzu blinked at the sidewalk before them, which was covered beans. "Why would they throw beans?"
Karin blinked quietly and murmured, "Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!"
"Oh..." Yuzu said softly. "That's soon, isn't it? February third is the day to bash Oni... throw them out the door. Oni out, good luck in!" She mimed the ritual of tossing beans out a door.
Karin looked at the house, and saw the arc of beans scattered across the front lawn, walk, and yard. Lamps were lit in the windows, with real fire, candles behind paper, not electric cheats. A mirror hung on the front door, to reflect evil back on itself. Karin could see that the ghosts obeyed the strictures, staying away from threshold and lintel, seething in a mass at the bottom of the stairs.
Picking her way through the crowd, Karin sighed when they got to the far side, and a string of firecrackers went off. Startlingly loud, the ghosts surged away, like a wave rippling through a pond. Karin grunted as one fat ghost elbowed her in the side. "Watch it," she muttered, and the ghost looked at her in surprise.
She growled, ignored the feeling of the ghosts going through her, grabbed Yuzu and hustled her down the deserted street. The streets were completely deserted, and at the intersection stood a kitsune shrine and a travelers' shrine opposite. Karin had to go around the huge crowd of ghosts that thronged about the structures. Coming as close as she dared, she saw that the shrines were filled with offerings. The kitsune shine was piled with sake, flowers, and fried tofu, and the travelers' shrine held scattered coins, tiny gifts, and food. The ghosts crowded close, muttering softly to themselves. Karin wondered if they found comfort in the thoughts of those that had left things there.
Yuzu shrank away from the gathering, looking confused and forlorn. "It doesn't feel right to go that way. What do we do?"
"Go around," Karin said shortly. "Or..."
She frowned at a doorway off that same intersection. Paper strips were plastered all about the door, and the ghosts stayed well away from the entryway, even as they seethed and shifted everywhere else. "Do you have your homework from your calligraphy class?"
Yuzu nodded meekly before slipping out of her backpack and opening it. "Yes. Here it is."
"Give it here," Karin said, and Yuzu handed Karin a long strip of paper that fluttered in the breeze.
The ghosts retreated in a panic, pushing and shoving to get away from them. Karin breathed a sigh of relief, and wrapped the sutra about Yuzu's torso. Yuzu looked rather startled by that, but when Karin motioned her forward, she went forward and the packs of ghost parted before her silently.
Then Karin felt reality crack, and Hollow badness poured into her world, her town. It didn't just do it in one place, either. It did it in two. One was across town, in the general direction of Urahara's Shop. The second rent pouring hungry ghosts into Karakura opened half a block away: right on top of Karakura Middle School.
Karin's first thought was Run back and kick their heads in. Her second thought, on hearing Yuzu whimper when even her blunted spirit powers could feel the forces gathering, was Run home with her and protect her there.
Then all thoughts blew away when a large, familiar figure, dressed in black hakama and kimono, landed beside her with a thump that shook the ground, parting the flood of frightened, lost ghosts that streamed away from the middle school. Real, live teachers, the last remnants of students, and the overachievers of the day scrambled from the school as well.
"Daddy!!" cried Yuzu, running to fling herself at Kurosaki Isshin. The big man caught her effortlessly and tucked her under one big arm. Yuzu dangled there, completely comfortable, and asked, "Why are you dressed funny, Daddy? What's happening?"
Karin stood back, one eyebrow raised at seeing her Dad in the official robes of a shinigami, a zanpakutou over his shoulder and a rakish grin on his unshaven face. She'd never suspected this, and the implications behind his appearance floored her, as did the unmistakable reek of reiatsu, a whole lot of reiatsu, something she'd never associated with her stupid Dad in her whole life. He had power, a whole lot of it, and he'd hidden it from them all for their whole lives.
Even as surprised as Karin was, when Isshin lunged at her she saw the move, sidestepped and tripped him. Dad roared, falling on his face, but he managed to make Yuzu land on him instead of the other way around. No doubt about it, this man was still Karin's Dad.
"You're coming with me, young woman," Isshin growled. "I have to get you home, where it's safe."
"But what about them?" Karin tilted her head at the middle school. Someone started screaming, shrill and terrible, but it was even worse when the screaming stopped.
"They're collateral damage, I can't help it." Dad clipped the words short, but Karin saw him tremble in their wake. The revulsion at what he'd said made him look angry, but even though he was now shinigami she knew him, knew Ichigo, knew their family well enough to understand.
"I can," she said, chin going up.
Karin ran back toward the middle school, dodging with what will she had, as she felt more than saw or heard Dad coming after her to grab her as he'd grabbed Yuzu. The impact of Dad's head running into an embellished iron fence didn't bother Karin, and she only sprinted faster.
When Karin reentered the school grounds there were more screams, coming from the seventh year floors. She ran faster. Heavier footsteps followed hers, and when Dad drew his zanpakutou, she felt the rise in reiatsu all about her and the attention of all those things went from the hapless students to Dad.
That scared Karin. Scared her enough that she fumbled in her school bag, pulled out her soccer ball. When it came to her hand, suddenly all those Hollows started looking at her.
The Hollows that thronged through the playing fields and in the hallways weren't quite right. Sure, all Hollows missed something to begin with, but all of these seemed to be missing more than just their hearts. Some moved, every limb in synch like they had one controller, others had tiny bug-like spirits crawling all over them, others had metal helmets on top of their masks of bone. A few looked like they'd been taken apart and put back together a lot less carefully.
They looked like they were all in pain, and they were doing their best to make the few remaining teachers and students feel their pain. Frowning, Karin dropped her ball, let it bounce once, and then with all her intent she kicked it right at the head of one of the limping Hollows.
White dust flew everywhere, and the thing nearly exploded. Karin kicked another into pieces, and then another on the rebound. Dad stood behind her and the blizzard of dust blew about them in a cloud that blinded.
But there were still more. More flooding into the courtyard as if driven there, and fighting them was like fighting the tide. For long minutes, Karin tried. She kicked and kicked and kicked, and the sword whistled behind her, but there were so many that their sheer numbers pushed Karin and her Dad toward the school entrance.
Her Dad's huge hand wrapped about her upper arm. "Karin, we have to get out of here: we'll be trapped inside the school walls if we stay."
Tears flowed from Karin's eyes, and dripped from her chin, as she realized they had no chance at getting into the school, even with the help of a high-powered shinigami. Karin refused to acknowledge the tears, refused to wipe them from her face, instead she snorted, "Dad, it's really weird to think of you as a shinigami."
"It's also pretty weird having you know, Karin-chan," Dad replied, setting his jaw.
"All right, Dad, let's get out of here."
Together, they fought their way out, cut through the swath of white like a shadow through sunlight, and when they reached the outside Yuzu looked up from where she was surrounded.
Ichigo's classmates, Keigo, Mizuiro, and Tatsuki, frowned at them from where they stood about a sutra-wrapped Yuzu. The ghosts stayed at bay. Tatsuki ran forward and scooped Karin into a hug. "You all right?"
"Y... yeah... I think so."
"Eek!" Keigo screeched, as Hollows started pouring from the entrance of the Middle School. "What are those?"
"You can see them?" Dad frowned.
"Of course we can." Mizuiro's cool tone matched the steady hand that pushed up his glasses. "They're everywhere. What can we do?"
"You can hear and see me, too," Dad sounded resigned, and shrugged his black-clad shoulders. "All right, then, do you have anything to defend yourselves with?"
Keigo's arms trembled as he brought up a bamboo bokken. "Uhm... maybe?" He swiped at one of the Hollows, but it dodged easily and laid a claw against Keigo's shoulder. Red lines appeared as the boy yelped and jumped back. "Agh!"
"Heeeyah!" Tatsuki's flying kick knocked the thing back, and Dad's flashing sword made short work of the staggering Hollow.
"Right. How about you?" Karin thought that her Dad's eyes should have bored a hole through Mizuiro, but the suited boy shrugged and pulled out, of all things a gun!
Dad yelped, the other kids fell back, and Karin's eyes went wide.
"How in hell's name did you get..." Dad started.
Mizuiro leveled the weapon at a Hollow and pulled the trigger. Despite knowing that it was going to happen, Karin jumped in fright at the explosion. What was a kid doing with a gun? They were highly illegal for anyone in Japan, for a child to have one...
The Hollow blew away, but the spang-whine of a ricochet made Karin jump again. Empty sockets turned toward the group, and several dozen started making their way toward them even as the rest made their way with single-minded intent down the street.
"Where are they going?" Dad sounded worried.
"Well, some of them are coming for us," Mizuiro said, frowning.
Indeed. Claws and teeth reached for the small band about Yuzu, but Karin's soccer ball, Tatsuki's hands, and Mizuiro's bullets took care of them. That was when Karin noticed that Dad hung back, watching all around them for more groups of attackers. None came, and she saw him visibly relax.
When they were completely clear, Dad put his hands on his hips and looked at Karin and Yuzu. "I have to take all of you home."
"No way!" Karin's objection was nearly a reflex.
Keigo's knees knocked together, but he said, "Shouldn't we do something about all of these Hollows? At least warn someone or tell someone that this is happening?"
Tatsuki frowned. "And I'm wondering where they're all going. Why are they all headed in the same direction?"
"And isn't that in the direction of your house anyway?" Mizuiro frowned. "You'd have to get through a sea of those things to get home anyway."
"Details, details." Dad waved his hands.
Karin gave a snort.
Yuzu, however, leaned against Dad and blinked eyelashes up at him. "Daddy, if we have to go through them anyway, why don't we follow them and see where they're going? Then we can call Mr. Urahara to tell him where they're going and what they're doing, right?"
"Uhm..." Dad blinked besottedly at Yuzu, and Karin rolled her eyes. But Yuzu was getting them where they wanted to go. Karin sighed, rolled her shoulders, and then hit up Dad on the other side.
"Right. Hey, Dad, you're going to get us home safe, so why not take a look anyway?" She tried batting eyelashes as well.
"Awww... how can I refuse my beautiful girls anything?!" Dad cried, scooped them both up and started running toward home.
Isshin had to duck and dodge quite a few of the hungry ghosts, delaying Dad just enough so that Ichigo's classmates could just barely kept up with them. As they went, Karin looked around Dad's arm and saw that the whole neighborhood was deserted. People left out mirrors and offerings, and there were far more of those blessing-sealed doors, as if they'd sensed what was going on and were desperate to keep the ghosts out.
The Hollows streamed through the empty streets like water down drains, twisting and turning as they did.
Until they didn't. The street toward home suddenly loomed completely clear. Dad gave a shout of joy and started to speed up, but Karin began wiggling as hard as she could. She kicked Dad in the knees and pulled at the thumb of the hand wrapped about her as hard as she could, until Dad gave a growl and dropped her.
"We have to see where they're going, Dad!" she shouted, and started running in the direction of the ghosts.
The Hollows ignored her, heading steadily on their course.
The teenagers, Ichigo's nakama, came on steadily behind her, and her father called out plaintively, "Karin! Come back!"
The flowing river of white on white, deadly and pale, turned again. Karin stopped as they saw them flowing into and filling the parking lot before they headed into the shining glass and steel building of Karakura Hospital.
"Oh, Gods of Man and Pain," Dad groaned as he caught up, with Yuzu still under his arm. "They're attacking the hospital."
Light exploded from the top floor, and dust and ghost screams floated down in a flurry. A figure clad in a gray suit and tie hovered in the air over the parking lot and a thousand arrows of light rained down on the advancing mass of Hollows. They all burst into dust, but still the tide of lost, dead humanity flowed, lapped at the feet of the hospital, and the shining building began to crumble.
For an instant Karin squinted at the figure. "Uryuu?" she whispered, wondering if her brother's friend had come back, which might mean hope for Ichigo as well.
Dad squared his shoulders, shook his head, and sighed. "No. That's Ryuuken. I'd know that technique anywhere."
Karin stared at her father and then back out at that silent figure raining destruction on the oncoming horde. "That's Uryuu's father? The Director of the Hospital?"
"He's protecting what's his. I can't blame him." Dad's voice was rough.
"We have to help."
Dark eyes turned to Karin.
"We can this time, Dad. Really. With him and you and everyone here, we can save the people in there. They're helpless, Dad. Most of the teachers and students got out of the school, but these people can't even run! We have to do something!"
The hesitation was palpable. Then all of Ichigo's friends turned toward the building, attacking as they could: even Keigo, who trembled with every swing, set his chin and moved into the fray to protect Tatsuki and Mizuiro's backs. They moved forward and were swallowed by the crowd.
Yuzu squirmed in the hold Dad had on her, and when she couldn't work herself free she said, "Daddy! We have to help. It's the only way. Besides you can't hold me and use your sword at the same time."
Sighing, Isshin let Yuzu go. He frowned at Karin and Yuzu. "You'll take care of your sister, right, Karin? Keep her close to you all the time."
Sighing, Dad waded out into the stream of Hollows. When he was in the midst of them, power ballooned from him, far more than Karin had sensed at the school or outside it: Dad had been holding back.
An immense stream of blue light flashed into existance from where he stood, fraying all the bone-masked ghosts into dust and tatters. He then did it, again and again. Each one made Karin's teeth stand on edge, but they blew huge holes in the massed ranks.
She watched, fascinated and bewildered. This was her father, the loving buffoon and idiot of their family, who'd laughed loud and long at everything, but here he was, jaw set, eyes intent, and turning hundreds of Hollows to dust.
A slender finger tapped Karin shoulder.
"Karin-chan! Karin-chan! Hey, sis! What's that?" Yuzu fluttered a hand at the skyline of Karakura. "There!"
A hauntingly familiar orange-haired figure leaped impossibly from rooftop to rooftop, coming straight at them.
"Is that Ichigo?!" Yuzu cried.
Karin was about to answer, when Yuzu started to wail.
A seething flow of white followed that bounding figure, and even from that far away, Karin could sense that those were Hollows following him. Hollows whose numbers rivaled those that had flowed from Karakura Middle School.
They were all following him, and he was headed straight for them.