Title: This is War
Series: The Beautiful Lie
Characters: Kurosaki Isshin, Kurosaki Karin
Warnings: AU, Language, Implied Slash
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach. That honor belongs to Tite Kubo.
Summary: Years after the painful end, the echoes of war still prove their influence. Ichigo comes home to find a dead man in his kitchen.
Part of The Beautiful Lie by dracoqueen22.
Isshin often wonders where he went wrong. When life started to hate him. When his kids started to hate him.
Maybe it's just a recent thing. Maybe it began when he told his daughters about his former life as a Shinigami. When Yuzu blinked at him with large and wet eyes. Disappointment so evident that Isshin felt like a kid again, being lectured by his grandmother. When she just shook her head and went upstairs without another word. Karin, however, was far from silent. She delivered a firm punch to the gut followed by a glare and informed him in clipped, icy tones that she'd already known. That her little boyfriend had told her when it became apparent that she had no clue about her own father.
Perhaps it was then. Maybe that's when it all fell apart. But it could've been earlier.
These days, Isshin can't tell.
Actually scratch that.
Isshin's pretty sure he knows exactly when and where it everything went sour. It was when Masaki died and he let Ichigo drift away. When he let Ichigo go his own way, convinced he'd eventually come back, and didn't insist on following. When he stood back and to the side. When he should've taken Ichigo by the arm and brought him home. When he should've put his foot down and said no. Said that enough was enough.
But Isshin knows as surely as he still breathes that if he'd done that Ichigo wouldn't have listened. That his son would've walked out and not returned. That their only contact would've been through the twins. That he would've lost Ichigo forever.
Ichigo has too much Shiba and far too much Kuchiki in him. And neither of them has ever been good with ultimatums. Handing them out certainly. But not taking them from others.
Or maybe Ichigo is just too much his mother's son. Too much the woman who stood up to bullies big and small, weak and strong with her chin lifted and her resolve firmed. Too much the woman who was kind to everyone and willing to help whenever needed, even if it cost her. The woman who sacrificed her time and energy for others without thought to herself. The woman who would die for her son without hesitation and actually did.
That was Masaki. That was his wife. And really, that is Ichigo and Karin and Yuzu. All three of them are her reflection but in different ways. Wonderful and beautiful and strong. The part of her that didn't go away when she did. The part he'll always treasure.
Isshin loved Masaki from the first moment she called him an idiot and stomped on his foot. And he knew then with a surety that should've frightened him that she was meant to be his wife. It'd taken a while to convince her of that fact, or maybe she just enjoyed watching him struggle and make a fool of himself, but he hasn't looked at another woman since. Not even after she was gone. Not even when he was overwhelmed and alone and dying inside.
And Isshin hopes that Ichigo can find that, too. That all of his children can. He has his suspicions about Karin. And say what he will about the kid – who will of course never be good enough for her in a million years – Hitsugaya Toushirou loves her. He might not have come out and said it yet, but Isshin knows. Can see it in the way his eyes follow Karin regardless of where she is in the room. How he always finds her first no matter who else is there. That he'd risk his job and his freedom and probably even his life just to send her letters.
Isshin also wants that for his other kids. For Yuzu, who practically has to beat the boys off with a stick most days. For Ichigo, who has suffered and lost so much already. He thought maybe the Kuchiki girl could be that for him. Maybe even cute Orihime-chan, though Isshin seriously doubted that one. But nothing ever happened. They were never anything more than friends. And yes, Isshin watched whenever they came around just to be sure.
Later, he believed it could be dear Haruhi. She was so normal and practical and calm. She suffered his theatrics without a word of complaint and didn't look the slightest bit put out. She just ignored it and kept going. She was good for Ichigo. And he was good for her. And Isshin hoped that they would get back together, settle, and maybe even give him grandkids a bit earlier than he'd dreamed.
That didn't happen, however. And now, it never will. Not with Seireitei out for Ichigo's head and Kon living in his body. Not with Ichigo on the run. And certainly not with Kisuke fucking him. Isshin's so-called best friend!
And he knows Kisuke. Knows what he did in the past. For the second division. For the Shihouin. For Yoruichi personally. Knows that he's at best a casual lover and never keeps anyone longer than a few months. Knows exactly where he's been and with whom. Knows that Ichigo is better off without him.
Gods be damned, he hadn't even realized that Ichigo likes other men. That his first love was a man! He missed Ukitake entirely. Wouldn't have known without Urahara fucking Kisuke telling him and then Lisa, Love, and Rose all confirming it. Isshin hadn't noticed at all. Hadn't even seen a hint. No long sighs or staring into space. Not even a damn smile. No signs of a lovesick teenager. Ichigo was the same as always. Focused. Driven. Impossibly tired from fighting.
But he wasn't beaten down. He wasn't giving up or falling apart. And maybe that should've been Isshin's first clue. Should've told him that someone was taking care of his son. That Ichigo had found a true and solid support. Something different than his friends, who were in similar and oftentimes worse straights. Something deeper than help from brothers in arms or a casual shoulder to lean on.
Ukitake though. Never would Isshin have guessed that one. That his son was even receptive to him.
Seriously, come on! Ukitake's practically asexual. Isshin can't remember him so much as going on a date the entire time he's known the guy, which is quite a bit longer that even he's willing to admit. He supposes that Ukitake did, and he just didn't notice or care to see. But still, Ukitake should've known better. Should've known that Ichigo was just a kid. Just a boy, a teenager. That he wasn't even old enough to drink!
Isshin can't comprehend what the hell Ukitake was thinking. How it even happened in the first place. Or what his son saw in a two thousand year old man. Why he thought it a good idea.
But then, Isshin never could figure out Ichigo's motivations. Why his son does and says certain things that make absolutely no goddamned sense until after the fact.
And kami on high, his mom was right; boys are hard. So much harder than his two little girls. He can pull faces and smile and play the idiot. And they're always ready to laugh. For different reasons to be sure, but it's there all the same. Yuzu because she thinks he's silly. Karin because she loves fighting back and getting one over him. And maybe because it means he's still paying attention. Underneath the sarcasm, she's still the same girl with doe eyes who hid behind his legs.
But boys… But Ichigo? He was always so hard. Even from the beginning. Even when he was just a baby and would cry if Isshin even tried to hold him. And then later on as he became a toddler and always looked for Masaki first. When he'd only take his dad if there was no other choice. Gods above and below, he even liked Ryuuken better. That bastard Shinji got grins and giggles more easily.
It only became worse after Masaki died. Honestly, Isshin sometimes thinks he died, too. Thinks that all of this is just a dream and the chasm in his soul really did swallow him whole.
And truth be told, this was when it went wrong. When Isshin screamed and ached and hemorrhaged until there was nothing left inside of him at all. When there was only emptiness and the sound of his daughters crying in the background. When he could hardly crawl from their bed and he only did because the kids needed him.
When he looked at Ichigo and could only see his wife. Not because she died for him or because it was Ichigo's fault – it wasn't and still isn't; it won't ever be his fault. But because Ichigo was and still very much is so much like her. Not in looks. But he has that same spirit. The same fire that drew Isshin to Masaki in the first place. That let him know the day they met that this was the woman he'd spent centuries waiting for, that there'd never be anyone else ever again.
He loves Ichigo; he does. But Isshin doesn't understand him. Not really. And he's coming to realize that more and more with each passing second. He understands his son even less than he thought he did. Ichigo was always different, always did things beyond comprehension. And even from the beginning, Isshin didn't understand how he could know the Kuchiki girl for a few months and then be willing to die for her. To risk everything to save her from people strong enough to wipe him from existence. To later on fight a war simply because she asked it of him.
Perhaps he just spent too many years in the Gotei 13 or in the Royal Guard. Too much time among the intrigue and the lies and those who'd knife him in the back whenever it suited them. Or maybe simply because he wasn't useful anymore. But Isshin just doesn't think that way. He can't be so self-sacrificing for proverbial strangers. For people who aren't his family or friends or nakama. For his children, yes; he'd die a thousand times over. For his friends, even that bastard Kisuke, definitely. But for anyone else?
And as much as he hates to admit it – loathes to even think of the possibility – Kisuke and Shinji are right. Isshin not only fails to understand his son. He doesn't know Ichigo either. He recognizes the face and the reiatsu and the sound of his voice, but when he looks in Ichigo's eyes, there's a veritable stranger gazing back.
A strong man. An honorable one even. Smart. Driven.
Someone worth knowing. But someone Isshin doesn't know. Not anymore. Not at all.
Masaki dying killed Isshin. Realizing that he's all but lost his son is beginning to destroy him.
Her first kiss was with a dead boy. His lips and hands were cool, which actually had nothing to do with the fact he was a ghost. And the thing she recalls most about that moment isn't the mintiness of his breath or the tingle of power to the air. Instead, she remembers his eyes. A deep blue-green that was both surprised and very much pleased.
Karin was fourteen. And she doesn't really want to consider how old Toushirou was. Less than a hundred. But over fifty. That's all he'll say about the matter, and she can't decide if it's supposed to be for her peace of mind or his own. If it bothers him that much that he's decades older. She mostly thinks he's just embarrassed that it was his first kiss, too. And that it took him so long to have it.
Yuzu teases her about having an older boyfriend. Old Goat-Face bleats about his new son, and she's half-convinced that he's already planned their wedding. Ichi-nii still snickers about it. In fact, he laughed for a full ten minutes when she finally told him. It was the happiest and lightest Karin's seen him in ages, too.
And somehow, she's not that embarrassed about any of it. Certainly not enough to end their… thing. To tell Toushirou to hit the road or demote him back to friend. To not be excited when he came over once a week and slept in her brother's otherwise unused bed. Always on a day that her dad picked up a shift at the hospital or attended meetings or went out with what friends he has. Sometimes, they'd watch movies together on the couch. Occasionally, they'd just walk around town. Other times, they'd go down to the soccer field and play pick-up games with whoever they could find.
But Toushirou doesn't do that anymore. Doesn't dare. The most contact she has with him now is through the letters that Tessai-san from the candy shop smuggles her. Letters that still somehow show up in the mail even without him around anymore. Letters that are good but not nearly as much as the real thing.
And a knot of unease fills her stomach most days. Worry about Toushirou and all the things he doesn't say. Concern about Ichi-nii and the fact that he smiles even less these days than he did after their mom died. Even some anxiety about Yuzu, whose abilities are strong enough now that she can see Hollows and have them see her. The only one Karin doesn't worry about is Goat-Face, and that's because nothing short of the apocalypse could keep him from bouncing back all daisy fresh.
Then, Ichi-nii doesn't come home one day.
Yeah, he lives on his own now. But he still comes by, and he's always there on Thursdays since that's when their dad is the least likely to be around. However, he doesn't show, and Kon is the one walking around in his body. None of them know where he is. Not Karin. Not Yuzu or old Goat-Face. Kon is clueless, too. And she can tell that he wants to go search but only holds back because he doesn't want to leave them behind with nobody but Isshin for protection. That and he can't skip class if Ichi-nii still wants to be a doctor. But at least, Kon's filled in enough for him over the years that he doesn't even need help with schoolwork anymore.
Ichi-nii seems to have vanished from the face of the earth.
And as the days stretch on, Karin only feels that knot in her belly grow until it feels like all of her insides are twisted together. There's a shiver to her spine and prickling at her skin that means something bad has happened, and that's confirmed when she gets a note from Toushirou. Telling her that her brother has been tried by the Shinigami and found guilty of a crime she doesn't even understand.
Plan one involves finding Ichi-nii, hitting him over the head, and then storming Soul Society to give Ukitake a piece of her mind. Only it fails before it can even get off the ground since her brother is nowhere to be found. Urahara-san's shop is missing, too. And if that doesn't clue Karin in, the tenth division's unannounced visit does.
She's not happy about it. About them going through her family's stuff and asking her all sorts of questions about Ichi-nii. But it could be worse. It could be someone other than Toushirou and his people, who don't look nearly as hard as they should. Just giving a cursory glance before becoming mesmerized by the TV. Toushirou, in the meantime, takes her out to the park and catches her up on what he knows.
Which is dishearteningly little.
After they're gone, Karin then tries door number two. She catches Inoue at the middle school she now works at, drops by Ishida's university, sees Tatsuki in the police station, and finds Sado at his restaurant. All of them have already been questioned by the Shinigami, and none have a clue where the hell her brother is. Even worse, she notices some of the bastards lurking about on her way home. Doing jack shit as usual and barely even stirring when they hear the screech of a nearby Hollow. Karin's half-tempted to go after it herself, even without her soccer ball. Toushirou's taught her enough that she can usually get by, and she doesn't only because there's too much of a chance they'll see her.
Option three is the one she hoped not to use, and Karin confronts her dad with Yuzu at her back and a gleam of death in her eyes. As usual, she comes away disappointed. And stays that way when Goat-Face finally gets off his ass and goes out to find his only son. But it's too little, too late.
And then, Yuzu and Karin are left to themselves. They're old enough to more than handle it now. And she's not worried about being left alone in the house. She can protect them if need be, and Toushirou told her where she can go if they need to stay low for awhile.
But there's something to the air that makes Karin nervous. That makes her lock the doors with more than just the latch. And get Kon to stay in the house with them. And for Karin herself to patrol through the neighborhood before bed. Waiting. Searching for something she can't name.
But it doesn't come the first several days Goat-Face is gone. Doesn't come until Karin is getting ready for bed and is just changing into her pajamas. Her head snaps up just as she pulls her shirt on, and her eyes focus on a spot below her of their own accord. Trying and failing to see through the floor.
It's just a tingle. Just a hint. Not even enough to get Yuzu to roll over in her sleep on the other side of the room. But Karin would know that reiatsu anywhere.
She feels him before she sees him. An icy bite to the air that she's always found more refreshing than chilling, and Karin races downstairs, taking the last four in one jump before hurtling into the living room. Toushirou's there, just as she knew he'd be. Dressed in black and sans his usual haori. He doesn't smile when he sees her, but his eyes soften and the lines on his forehead disappear.
"Toushirou, what… What are you doing here? Are you trying to get caught?" she demands as she strides up to him. Since really, Karin has no idea what else to say.
"I'm won't be. I'm supposed to be here. Well," he admits after second, "tomorrow anyway."
"What?" Her brow furrows as she processes. "That doesn't make any sense." And her tone is not only confused but impatient.
He sighs, deep and very long. "They sent me here to bring you in for questioning. I'm supposed to fetch you tomorrow morning. You. Yuzu. Even Kon."
Karin feels the blood drain from her face. Feels the world sway around her. And only his hand on her forearm keeps her steady.
"I… But… What are we going to do? What are you going to do? They had to see you go through the gate. They'll be here any minute."
"They won't be," he interrupts before she can go on. "They didn't see me."
"They couldn't have missed you, Toushirou!"
Karin can't help that her voice rises with each word. With her heart rate and stress level sure to follow.
But a squeeze to her arm quiets her.
"A… friend of mine's on gate duty tonight," Toushirou explains with a patience he usually lacks. "And if asked, over a dozen witnesses put me at the eleventh division. No one saw a damn thing."
She gapes at him. Karin can't help it. She just so surprised. Not that he'd help her; that one's pretty much a given. But that he could be so sneaky about it. That he'd get other people to help him out. To lie for him. For her and Yuzu. And not because they're Kurosaki Ichigo's sisters either.
But the words don't come. Not even minutes later. Karin is still reeling from shock. Only this time she's too busy thinking about what they're going to do. That they're going to have to run. That if they're taken in for this so-called questioning that chances are they'll never come back. They'll be used as bait for her brother. And probably killed the second he shows.
And make no mistake, Ichi-nii would show.
Karin's nearly dizzy as all of that races through her head. Flashing through at shunpo-like speeds. Leaving behind a roil in her belly and bile in her throat. Her spine stiffens right after that, and her shoulders square. Preparing. Readying herself. Putting away distractions and gearing up to do what needs to be done.
"What's the plan?" she asks, and her voice is steady and unwavering.
Toushirou doesn't reply. Instead, he kisses her. Hard and almost sharp. Not even caring for their current situation. That he's just dropped a bombshell and that they need to be doing a dozen other things. Or that she's taller than him now and he has to tilt his face up to reach. He just leans up and forward, hands sliding over her arms to cup her head and neck.
She's almost breathless when he pulls back. Mouth still tingling as he studies her face. Fingers falling away and momentarily clenching into fists. But then, his hands ease and go loose at his side as she watches with confusion.
"Do you trust me?" he finally questions. Soft but with an edge. Eyes impossibly bright and all too close to a true green.
And Karin doesn't even hesitate.
"Idiot, you know I do," she replies with her head cocked and a hand going to her hip.
That earns her something all too much like a smirk. Teeth white and gleaming as his lips curl up.
And Toushirou steps back, holds out his hand, and beckons her to take it. Karin slides her fingers in his grasp before he can even complete the motion. He just looks at her for a long moment, and she looks back. Only at him and nothing else.
Then, Toushirou squeezes her hand and takes her back upstairs to get dressed.