[Bleach] A Silence in Winter

Their first kiss takes Toushirou by surprise. One moment they’re walking along a crowded street, Karin boldly slipping her fingers into his, when she draws him to a halt. He’s confused, turns to question her. But she squeezes his hand and rises up on her toes. There in front of all and sundry, she steals his lips and makes away with his first kiss.

It’s just like her to do that, too. She grins at him afterward, looking up with bright eyes. Her tongue runs over her lips like she’s sampled something she’d like to try again.

“That all right?” she asks.

It’s more than all right, but for once Toushirou is absolutely speechless.

“You…”

“Yeah, I thought you’d say that,” she says with a wink and starts forward again, tugging him to follow. “Wonder what else I can surprise you with.”

“You…”

Karin laughs at his flabbergasted expression, completely unrepentant.

She’s always been like that, completely shocking, shoving him out of his comfort zone, but honestly, it’s what Toushirou has always needed. She’s so not Hinamori, and Toushirou has never been so grateful for that. Karin is his saving grace. She’s what he wants. She’s everything he needs.

She’s also human.

Toushirou knows better than to ask, though the request dances on the tip of his tongue through her twenties and thirties. He watches as she ages before his eyes, and Toushirou only grows incrementally.

Part of him wishes he were brave enough to ask her to abandon her human shell, to go ahead and join him in Soul Society. Another part of him fears her answer. She doesn’t want to be like her brother. Though to be fair, Ichigo hadn’t been given much of a choice. He didn’t have a body to return to, unless he wished to live out his human span in a gigai.

Toushirou knows her too well. He knows that Karin wouldn’t want to leave her sister behind or her father. That it would be unfair for him to even ask. So he doesn’t. He tells himself that they have a lifetime, once Karin’s human form has returned to dust. He reminds himself that as a Shinigami, they can have centuries. Millennia even.

He can wait these few decades.

He doesn’t ask her to marry him for that very reason. Toushirou argues to himself that it can wait until they are together in Soul Society. That she can’t very well tell her friends in Karakura that she’s married to an intangible spirit. Or that she’s even married to the short teenage-looking man they always see her with.

It’s something else to wait for.

He contents himself with visiting as often as he can. With being by her side even when their age difference becomes ridiculous. When they start confusing him for her grandson. Toushirou endures because that means he hasn’t much longer to wait.

Soon, she’ll be his alone.

Toushirou just has to wait, to be patient.

Fortunately, patience is something he’s developed a knack for over the years. His fiery pique has tempered itself, shifting to a calm that serves him well. Oh, he can react with cold fury if a situation presents itself, but he’s no longer so quick to anger. He’s matured, though his appearance is only gradually catching on to that maturity.

Karin teases him about it often. She jokingly calls him her grandson when he’s holding her wrinkled hand, veins so prominent. He calls her a bag of bones right back, and they might as well be pet names. No one else gets it, but that’s okay.

In Toushirou’s world, everything’s all right.

Until the day that Toushirou comes to visit, and Karin can’t remember his name.

He feels like he should’ve seen it coming. Alzheimer’s, the doctors in the living world call it. It’s a degenerative disease, one that worsens with age. It’s incurable. Toushirou’s read that it can cause memory loss, but for some reason, he thought that it wouldn’t affect Karin as badly. He thought that her Shinigami abilities would protect her from the worst of it.

Everything started when she couldn’t find her keys. Considering she always put them in the same place, that should’ve been a clue.

Then she started forgetting appointments and important dates. She didn’t show up for two dinners Toushirou reserved for them. She forgot Ichigo’s birthday. She lost time, forgetting what day it was.

And then one day, Toushirou walks in to see her, and for a moment, she doesn’t recognize him. She smiles, holds out her hand, asks why such a handsome young man would be visiting an old woman like her.

Toushirou’s heart stutters in his chest. His reiatsu surges before he can dampen it, and he stares at her, certain he must resemble a madman. The walls rattle, Karin blinks, and then she tells him to get the hell out of the doorway; he’s blocking the entrance.

She recognizes him again. Perhaps it has something to do with his reiatsu, unmistakable when it twines with her own. Toushirou doesn’t know. But he breathes a sigh of relief, plants a smile on his lips, and strides into the room. If a touch of reiatsu is all it takes, then that’s what he will use.

It works for the next couple of months. Every time she gives him a blank look, a confused stare, every time she forgets his name or how they met or forgets him, Toushirou lets his reiatsu gently tangle with hers and everything is all right again.

Not easy. Not perfect. But all right for now.

He reminds himself to be patient. Humans don’t live forever, and soon, they can both be happy in Soul Society. It’s only a matter of time.

One day he comes to visit. He brings a bouquet of lilies, her favorite, and a copy of the book they’ve been reading together. Just something to pass the time since her strength doesn’t stand up for much else. Karin’s bedridden now, though there’s still a fire in her eyes. She hasn’t lost her wit either.

Toushirou walks in, and he can’t help smiling at sight of her. Her hair has gone thin and white with age, cut short for easy maintaining. Her face is lined with wrinkles, eyes a bit sunken from insomnia. She’s still the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.

She wakes when he comes in. Her head tilts a little to the side.

“Who are you?” Karin questions, sounding confused but not concerned.

Toushirou smiles. This is a dance they’ve done before. He putters around the room, putting the flowers in a vase, and flares his reiatsu. Lets it spill through the room, soak into the walls, pulse from every corner.

He sits in the chair by her bedside, permanently reserved for him, and takes her small, wrinkled hand.

“It’s me, Karin. Toushirou.”

He waits for her acknowledgment. For the way she scowls at him like he’s an idiot for thinking she’s forgotten. He waits for the flash of memory in her eyes. For her demand for a kiss.

Toushirou waits for a recognition that doesn’t come.

“Should I know you?” she questions and then chuckles softly. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. I should be lucky that an adorable young man is visiting me.”

A lump develops in Toushirou’s throat. His heart does that shaky stutter thing again, uncertainty coiling in his gut. He tries again with the reiatsu, whispering prayers in the back of his mind.

“We’re friends,” Toushirou answers, clasping her hand between both of his, gently warming her chilled fingers. “And have been for a long time.”

“Don’t be silly,” Karin shoots back, her beautiful eyes blank as they look at him. “Why, you’re no older than a teenager!”

Toushirou swallows thickly. His throat is tight. Painful.

“I’m a bit older than that,” he replies quietly and grasps for a semblance of normalcy. “I’m a friend of Ichigo’s, too.”

Karin hums for a second. “Hmm. Sorry I don’t remember you. I don’t think Ichigo’s ever talked about a Toushirou.”

He abruptly stands. Her face is so blank. So unrecognizing.

He can’t do this.

Toushirou wants to say that he’s the better man. That he has the courage to sit here and listen to Karin talk to him as though he were a stranger, but he doesn’t. He’s wholly unprepared for this.

He makes up an excuse, babbles something that makes no sense, and flees from the room as though Hollows were chasing him. There’s a heat banking in his eyes, and he viciously forces it down. He feels he should’ve seen this coming but even knowing didn’t make it any easier to bear.

Ichigo finds him in the living room, sitting on the couch. His face is buried in his palms, drawing shuddery breath after shuddery breath.

“She doesn’t remember me,” Toushirou states before Ichigo can even ask. “I don’t even know if she can sense reiatsu anymore.”

Ichigo sits next to him. He’s spent the last year on leave from his position for the sole purpose of taking care of Karin. Toushirou had wanted to do the same, but they’d refused to lose two captains at the same time. Particularly over a mortal woman who they believe half-dead anyway.

They aren’t brothers-in-law. Not really. Not technically. But they are friends, and Ichigo’s voice is soft when he speaks.

“She can feel it, but she doesn’t know what reiatsu is anymore. She calls it a tingle. It tickles apparently.”

Something inside Toushirou crumbles.

“How long?”

“It’s hard to say.”

Ichigo lets out a sigh. His hair is still so orange, so vivid, and he looks so young. Karin mistakes him for a nephew most of the time. But that’s still better than Toushirou gets.

“It’s different for everyone,” Ichigo tells him. “She’s already bedridden. Months? Weeks? Days?”

Does it even matter at this point? Toushirou isn’t sure, and he dreads finding out.

“Will she ever remember?” he whispers more to himself than anyone else.

Ichigo’s quiet for a long moment, as though he’s searching for a fair answer to give.

“Not in this lifetime,” he finally says.

Toushirou shudders, sliding his eyes closed. “What can I do?”

“Nothing really. Keep visiting her. She might not remember you, but she’ll appreciate the company,” Ichigo replies, and he lets out a tired breath. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

“I should be saying the same thing to you,” Toushirou counters, but there’s no bite to it. Not really.

Ichigo’s not the one who’s been forgotten. Still, the sentiment is appreciated. To know that even if she doesn’t remember him, her family does. They know him. They want him there.

Ichigo leaves him alone after that, and Toushirou ruminates on what he should do. He debates with himself for a long hour.

In the end, his love for her wins out.

Over the next months, Toushirou continues to visit. He brings her flowers every week. He reintroduces himself time and time again. He watches with an aching heart as his dearly beloved loses her connection to reality, as she slips further away with each rise and set of the sun.

It gets harder to plant a smile on his lips. It’s even worse telling himself to be patient. He feels like a villain for wishing she’d pass into Soul Society sooner rather than later. He doesn’t know how much longer his strength will last.

But he keeps visiting. He holds her hand, and he tells her stories, fairy tales as she rasps at him in her rare moments of coherence. She forgets her friends, her family. Sometimes, she slips into a distant past. Sometimes, Ichigo is her brother still. More often, he’s a nephew. A stranger who cares for her.

Then, one day, she starts coughing. She doesn’t stop. A week later, the cough comes with blood. Doctors tell them that there’s nothing they can do. Her immune system no longer has the power to fight. It’s only a matter of time.

Toushirou stays by her side for the duration, holding her hand, heart clenching at every broken wheeze. The old man is kind enough to put him on a medical leave of absence. Everyone agrees. This pain will be brief, and afterward, there will be happiness. Karin will wake in Soul Society, her reiatsu will blossom, and of course, she’ll remember.

Of course she will.

Toushirou is there when she draws her last breath and her heart pumps its last beat. He’s there when her spirit form shimmers into life, rising from her inert body. She’s young and lovely and everything Toushirou remembers. A lump forms in his throat. When she smiles at him, Toushirou can’t help but smile back.

Because of her Shinigami heritage, there is no need to perform konso. Toushirou can simply walk hand in hand with her through the gate.

He rises to his feet, aware of the eyes of her family watching their interaction, of the bated breath in the room.

“Karin…” he murmurs, wanting nothing more than to pull her into his arms and never let go.

She chuckles. “That’s my name.” Her eyes skip past him, glancing at her body, glancing at her family members, then back to him. “Who are you?”

The world drops out from under him once again. Behind him, Toushirou hears several quick breaths. His own smile freezes on his face. He feels like he’s stumbled, but he hasn’t taken a step.

“I’m…”

“A friend,” Ichigo says when Toushirou falters. “We’re all here to help you, Karin.”

She looks at Ichigo, at her twin sister, at her father in his shihakushou as though she’s struggling to remember who they are, too. It’s only a small comfort to Toushirou. Her head tilts as she looks at her aged body.

“I know that I died,” Karin muses aloud. “So this is what’s next.”

“Not quite,” Ichigo continues when it’s obvious that words have failed Toushirou. “You still have to go to Soul Society. We’ll take you.”

Toushirou takes one step back and then another. He collides with someone, who gently places their hands on his shoulder. Yuzu. He’d know the gentle thrum of her reiatsu anywhere.

Yuzu had been the lucky one. Alzheimer’s hadn’t claimed her memories. She was still the same. Just as vivacious but soon to join the rest of her family anyway. Soon to join her lover and never look back to such a depressing time.

Toushirou hates her just a little for that.

“Soul Society?” Karin questions but shakes her head. “I’d like that. This place seems pretty dull anyway. Though the flowers are nice.” Her eyes focus on the lilies. “They’re my favorites.”

It’s the last that Toushirou can take.

For the second time, he flees from the room. Karin doesn’t know him, but she’s comfortable with Ichigo. He’ll take her to Soul Society where she’s certain to be accepted into the Academy. It’s a new life for her.

Toushirou flees to Seireitei with a gate of his own making, taking refuge in his office. Matsumoto tries to ask him what’s wrong, but he just stares at the floor until she leaves. He’s not interested in any more false promises or comfort.

He sits at his desk, one hand on Hyourinmaru, and wonders where it all went wrong. Which deity he pissed off to be tormented so. Why everything is so unfair.

Karin doesn’t know who he is. That thought rings round and round in his mind. He regrets not asking her to marry him now. At least they’d have that tangible reminder. He regrets letting her win the argument to live out her mortal life. He regrets a lot of things.

Not convincing her to come sooner. When she first started having symptoms. She hadn’t forgotten much then, but it’d been enough to terrify them both. It would’ve been so easy to get to come then. She nearly had on her own. But there’d been Yuzu, and Karin hadn’t wanted to leave her.

Not realizing she’d left everyone else. Just in a different way. A worse way.

Being there but not being there at the same time. A body with no one home. A soul stuck with a mind rotting away. They might as well have thrown her to the Hollows. It amounts to much the same thing.

The sun has long set, but he isn’t surprised when Ichigo comes to talk to him.

The most Toushirou can give is a grunt in greeting, surprising himself with the hoarseness of his tone. He hasn’t cried, only dancing on the edge of it all afternoon. There aren’t enough tears for this. Never will be.

“Toushirou.” Ichigo sits across from him, looking uncomfortable and concerned and filled with sorrow, too. “Her reiatsu is as strong as before you know.”

His eyes shift to the window, to the puffy clouds that are drifting by. “She doesn’t remember me.”

“Sometimes, that happens,” Ichigo says, as though Toushirou hadn’t known as much for himself. “For what it’s worth… I’m sorry. Sorrier than you’ll even know.”

Is he really going to go down like this? Broken-hearted, holed up in his office? Letting Karin get away from him without a fight?

She doesn’t remember, but is this really the end? He stayed with her throughout it all. He hadn’t cared when she went from teenager to adult. To someone who looked like his mother and then his grandmother. He’d loved her all the same. He hadn’t cared.

Was this really the end? Was he really going to give up.

Toushirou shook his head to clear it.

No, he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t give up. He wouldn’t surrender. He hadn’t then. He hadn’t to Aizen. To Hinamori’s shrieks as he died. To any of it.

Not to this either.

“Don’t feel sorry for me,” Toushirou says, and a new resolve forms within.

His shoulders set straight, and his reiatsu curls and coils around him like the dragon he is in truth. He won’t surrender. He won’t submit.

Ichigo looks at him, confused, his brow drawn taut.

Toushirou shakes his head and stands with building determination. “All it means is that I have to make her fall in love with me again,” he declares and watches as orange eyebrows hit an equally orange hairline. “I managed it one time. I can do it again.”

After all, this time he has the upper hand. He knows the things she likes. He already knows her fears. Her weaknesses. Her strengths. Her passions. He still loves her, and that’s more than enough for him.

He can do this. He will do this.

He won’t let her go again.

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