by Kellen

A Bleach fanfiction

Summary: Hitsugaya and Karin find more trouble than they bargained for during a late night walk. Manga-verse, vague spoilers for current chapters. Completed story.

Rating: T, or PG-13

Disclaimer: Bleach is the creative geniusof Kubo Tite. I am merely using these characters and settings for my own amusement, nothing more.

Author's Notes: Blame a severe lack of action fic, a love for Hitsugaya and too many late nights. Set during current manga timeline, so I suppose spoilers might abound, though there's nothing too specific. (This will probably be rendered AU once the next few chapters hit; then again, it might not be.)

He was still sitting there, perched on the edge of the roof and staring at the phone in his hand. Matsumoto frowned; she'd yet to see him actually enter anything into the phone, and she'd been watching for a good fifteen minutes. She had entertained the possibility of physically dragging him inside for a little companionship and rest, but she knew better than most the dangers of trying to make Hitsugaya Toushirou do something he didn't want to.

Matsumoto had only made that mistake once. Never let it be said she didn't learn quickly.

Still, she was concerned. Hitsugaya had taken a beating, and, Orihime's healing powers notwithstanding, he was still recovering. Orihime herself had told him to take it easy, that he'd still be tender.

He'd only given her that scowl that sent most junior officers running, and Orihime had only grinned and chirped a "you're welcome".

It was not his injuries, though, that had Matsumoto so concerned. Her captain had not taken his near defeat well. Even though she'd pointed out at every given opportunity that he'd fought most of the battle under the limitations imposed by Soul Society, Hitsugaya still dwelt on the fact that an arrancar that was supposedly made from a weak hollow had dealt fatal wounds. Matsumoto pursed her lips as she watched him roll his neck, impossibly light hair catching the moonlight. The gigai must be sore, and she winced, feeling for him. He sighed, and put the phone down next to him. Matsumoto stiffened, sure he was about to turn in her direction and give her the "spying on superiors" lecture.

Instead, he looked out over Karakura, chin resting on his hand. Matsumoto immediately knew what he was thinking; it had taken firm root in her mind as well.

Kurosaki was missing, the shinigami had been proven weak, and, overall, things looked bleak. Matsumoto sighed softly and started to turn away. The last thing she needed to see was her captain starting to despair.

It tickled the edge of her consciousness as she turned away, and she immediately whirled back around. She caught Hitsugaya standing, staring in her direction. The word escaped her, unbidden.


Hitsugaya nodded in her direction before pulling the soul candy from his pocket. In an instant, his gigai stumbled and Hitsugaya was free of it. The captain of the tenth division looked back at her for a moment, and Matsumoto smiled at what was there. It was half entreaty, half order.

Let me do this.

She let him go alone. He needed to prove himself, even if it was against the weakest of enemies. She nodded, smiling, content in the knowledge that her captain would be back soon, and with a mind less troubled.

He was free, for the moment. Berto flit across rooftops, seemingly careening through the air with no purpose whatsoever, but always finding his feet and never missing a step. He was fast, and he reveled in it. The wind whistled against the jagged edges of his hollow's mask and teased dark strands of lank hair. He smiled, a feral glint in his eye; the wind whistling by always made him feel more like the predator he knew he was. For a moment, his hand rested upon the sword at his hip, and then he fisted that hand.

He was a predator, pure and simple. He enjoyed the fight, enjoyed the hunt. When his claws extended, he never lost his prey.

He laughed.

He was free, for the moment. He'd always loved the living world; so many souls ripe for the picking here. It was a perfect hunting ground. His superiors, should they find out he was here, would be angry beyond measure, but Berto knew the risk was worth this.

A caged predator was nothing at all.

Berto stopped suddenly, and a slow grin spread across his features. He rubbed his hands together, and then changed direction.

He could feel the soul of a shinigami, and it was too tempting to just pass by without demanding a taste.

Karin had slipped out the window earlier in the night, tiptoeing across the roof of the Kurosaki Clinic and easing herself to the ground. She couldn't stay in; there was no way. Too much was going on, and Karin knew – she absolutely knew – that much more than she could comprehend was going on. She did know that Ichigo could explain things to her, but the last time she'd seen him, his soul was leaving his body and she was yelling at him.

Doesn't mean she wasn't worried, though.

Something big was going on and her brother was part of it, and he wasn't talking to her.

She was a bit further from her house than she'd anticipated going; her thoughts had gotten away from her. (Ironic, she knew, because her thoughts were moving in nothing but circles.) It all came back to the same thing: Ichigo was missing, and something was happening and he was part of it.

Damn it, he was her brother. He owed her an explanation.

Karin seethed, fists clenched and stomping her foot on the pavement. "He just…left," she muttered. She continued walking, kicking at the ground and the occasional rock in her path. Before long, she had wandered several blocks from her home. She stopped walking, and pulled her baseball cap down over her eyes. She's come out with every intention of tracking down Ichigo and had climbed out the window and started walking before she realized she had no idea how to even start looking for Ichigo.

She sighed. This was going well: it was the middle of the night and she was out brooding over her idiot of a brother. She threw her hands into the air. "I swear I'll beat him bloody when I see him next!" Her own rant was cut short by a sound she hated.

An unearthly scream cut through the night, much too close for comfort. Karin whirled around, sure it had come from behind her. She didn't see anything. "It's close," she whispered. "I know its close. Where is it?"

She took a step backward. As her foot hit the sidewalk, a lamppost to her right and behind her shuddered and twisted. Karin turned to face it, eyes wide. She tried to call for her brother, but her voice caught in her throat.

How'd it get so close?

A white mask with empty eyes stared down at her. A huge clawed hand started moving. It screamed and the claws sliced through the air toward her.

Karin tried to move, but it was faster than she was.

Ichigo, please.

A flash of white knocked her to her knees, and a sound like grating metal cut through the night. There was a thud, and a body slammed into her shoulder. Everything seemed to stop for a moment and Karin took the reprieve to look up, almost sure she'd find Ichigo standing over her.

Instead a boy no taller than she was with the lightest colored hair she'd ever seen stood between her and the monster. Her shoulder was planted in the middle of his chest, and one of his hands was on her arm. His other hand was wrapped around the hilt of a sword strapped to his back. Over his shoulder, she could see the monster's claw pushing against the sword and the sheath on his back.

Hitsugaya shoved against the hollow, unable to do much else at the moment. He tightened his grip on the girl's arm. Later, he'd question her ability to see the hollow and interact with him; he'd suspected that a sister of Kurosaki Ichigo would have the ability. Right then, though, it was an advantage. "When I tell you," he said, "move and do so quickly."

Her eyes narrowed, but she nodded. Hitsugaya took a breath. The hollow let up, pulling the claws back for another swipe. Hitsugaya let go of the girl's arm. "Now."

She dashed forward. The hollow's claws came down on the pair. Hitsugaya stepped between the human and the hollow and started to draw his zanpakatou. As the large claws swung toward him, he swung Hyourinmaru, deflecting the blow away from the girl. The hollow roared and attacked him. Hitsugaya leapt over a wild swing.

He hit the ground hard and rolled, letting momentum have its way with him. Hitsugaya braced his ankle and pushed off, leaping toward the hollow, sword raised. He dodged a claw, not looking back as it ripped through a fence behind him. Hitsugaya brought his zanpakatou down, cleaving through the hollow's mask. The shinigami dropped to the ground, landing in a crouch, as the hollow disintegrated. He slid Hyourinmaru back into its sheath and turned to regard the girl.

He had to quirk an eyebrow at what he saw.

The Kurosaki girl – he couldn't remember her given name – stood with her arms crossed, her brow furrowed and one foot tapped the sidewalk in an impatient rhythm. In that instant, Hitsugaya decided to treat this as he would have any other encounter in the living world: pretend the human couldn't see him at all and leave without a word. She was being an ingrate; the least he could do was ignore her. He turned away, and leapt, landing on a fencepost. He was poised to leap again when she spoke.

"Oh, no you don't."

Hitsugaya blinked and looked down at her. No one had taken that tone with him in a long time.

He looked down in time to see her jump up, knee raised. Hitsugaya threw himself backward, and her knee came almost within striking distance of his chin. He somersaulted backward, landing on his feet and threw her an angry glare as she landed just a few feet from him.

She either ignored his look or was completely unaffected by it. "I've got some questions for you."

At this, Hitsugaya crossed his arms and gave her the same look that usually sent Matsumoto running to fulfill his requests. The girl flinched and swallowed but held the gaze. Hitsugaya hardened the look; her mask had cracked. Now it was time to send her packing. "You should go home."

Speaking was, apparently, the wrong thing to do. The girl's chin rose. "It speaks," she intoned dryly. "I'm glad. Otherwise questioning it would be difficult."

Hitsugaya's hand was halfway to the hilt of his sword before he pulled it down and crossed his arms again. "Go home," he said again.

"Or what?" Her hands went to her hips. "You'll do what? You saved me, so I really doubt you'd hurt me."

Hitsugaya's expression didn't change. Talking was out of the question; this girl was obviously a little too much like her brother. He thought briefly of leaving her in the street, but discarded that thought almost as soon as it came. She was too tempting to the hollows around, and he was not one to simply leave some kid wandering around at night.

He wouldn't even entertain the thought of what Kurosaki would do if he left the child on the streets.

The girl sighed. "So you're just gonna stand there?"

Hitsugaya raised a brow.

She bit her lip before speaking again. "All right. Maybe we got off on the wrong foot here. I'm Kurosaki Karin. Thanks for the help. Now tell me what you are and what you have to do with my brother."

"Go home, kid."

Karin's jaw dropped. "Kid! You don't look any older than me!" She kept talking, but Hitsugaya's attention was elsewhere.

Something was coming.

"Hey! Are you listening?"

Her words broke his concentration. He held up a hand. Karin stopped talking immediately and Hitsugaya was relieved he didn't have to forcibly shut her mouth. He closed his eyes, ignoring her as she took a couple steps toward him.

It was close. Not a hollow. Not quite.

Hitsugaya's eyes snapped open. He sidestepped, grabbed Karin and jumped back.

The something he was tracking landed where Karin had been standing. It had landed in a crouch and slowly seemed to unfold as it stood up. Hitsugaya stepped in front of Karin, hand going to the hilt of his sword. Karin stepped to the side, watching with wide eyes. She looked up at him as Hitsugaya whispered a word with such derision she shuddered.


"What's that?" she asked.

It looked at them, half of its angular face covered in a hollow's mask, with jagged edges that teased the corner of its mouth and eye. Wisps of greasy hair framed dark, narrow eyes. He smiled and held out hands with long, slender fingers. "It's something very strong," he told her.

Hitsugaya shifted, settling into a defensive stance. "What do you want here?"

Karin's gaze shifted from the arrancar to Hitsugaya, her eyes widening even further at the harsh tones of his voice.

The arrancar spread his arms wide. "Nothing, actually. I got a little bored where I was and decided to take a stroll." His grin widened. "I never thought I'd actually run into a shinigami while I was out."

"Get out of here." Karin's voice was clear and hard.

Hitsugaya glanced at her, brows furrowed.

The arrancar laughed. "Come now, child. You don't know a thing about me." He rolled his neck and pulled the edge of his robe back, revealing a sword's hilt at his hip.

Hitsugaya started to unsheathe his zanpakatou.

"Do you really want to try and fight me, little death god?"

Karin watched as her companion brought the sword to bear, its tip pointing at the arrancar. His gaze slid to her. "Find cover."

She hesitated for a second before nodding.

Hitsugaya turned to watch the arrancar and waited for Karin to move. As she stepped away, he did as well, keeping himself between her and arrancar.

He laughed. "Do you honestly think I care about that human?" He drew his sword.

Karin gasped as he disappeared from her sight. She backpedaled, tripping over pieces of the mangled fence alongside the pavement. Hitsugaya seemed to disappear as well, and before Karin could blink, a clang of metal against metal heralded their reappearance. Hitsugaya had blocked a high swing, and countered with his own attack. The shinigami's blade slid over the arrancar's and into the flesh of his arm.

The arrancar jumped back, holding up his arm to inspect the shallow cut. "First blood," he commented. "I owe you." He took another step back, smiling wickedly. "You can call me Berto."

Hitsugaya sneered.

Berto held up his blade. "And let me introduce you to my sword."

Hitsugaya brought his sword to a guard position as Berto whispered a command. The arrancar's blade seemed to disappear, and Berto's long fingers lengthened and sharpened. His mask expanded to shield his neck as armor as white and empty as the hollow's mask covered his chest. Berto held up his hands as each finger became a sharp white claw nearly the length of Hitsugaya's sword.

Berto, however, didn't give the shinigami time to appreciate the change. He charged Hitsugaya, bringing his claws to bear, and Hitsugaya found he didn't have the time to dodge them all completely. He backpedaled, blocking what he could with his zanpakatou, and turning so that what talons he missed only speared cloth. Berto caught and tore at Hitsugaya's captains' robe, grinning cruelly as he tore through the white material.

Berto whirled, a backhanded strike aiming for Hitsugaya's face. Hitsugaya turned his head away, baring his teeth as the tips of the claws opened cuts on his cheek. He continued his spin, swinging Hyourinmaru in a wide arc that forced Berto to backpedal. He pressed his advantage, attacking quickly and never withdrawing.

Berto defended as quickly as he attacked, and Hitsugaya quickly found that taking the time he needed to call upon Hyourinmaru would have been a fatal mistake.

It wasn't until he was only a few feet away from her did he realize that he was forcing Berto toward Karin.

Karin watched the fight, but really couldn't follow individual movements; they moved too fast. She crouched as they came closer. She shifted, ready to run as quickly as she could – it wouldn't be fast enough, she already knew that – and her foot caught in the debris. Her hand closed around a thick chunk of concrete.

She picked it up, testing its weight, and smiled grimly.

Maybe that earlier attack by that monster hadn't been a bad thing.

Berto was patient, but he couldn't afford to be. Waiting for the little shinigami he was fighting to call on whatever powers his sword possessed would have been a mistake. This needed to end. Berto ducked under one swing and then sidestepped another.

This death god was fast, and smart.

Berto just needed one opening, and he knew where it would be.

Berto stepped forward, ducking one swing and then darted forward. One clawed hand hit the death god's right arm, knocking the sword off its intended path. Berto brought his other hand to the death god's throat, teeth bared and growling in satisfaction. The growl changed to a frustrated, pained cry as his arm was stopped abruptly. A chain had wrapped around his wrist and Berto looked down to find that chain connected to the hilt of the death god's sword. Hitsugaya pulled the chain with his left hand and Berto stumbled forward. With his right hand, Hitsugaya brought his sword up, ready to make the final blow.

Berto stepped forward instead of pulling away, and that was all that was needed to knock Hitsugaya slightly off balance.

It was all Berto needed. The arrancar pushed forward, blocking the shinigami's sword and grabbed the hand holding the chain. Berto smiled at the death god's stunned expression. He squeezed his hand, grinning at the sounds of bones cracking.

The chain fell slack, and Berto was ready for it. With a flourish, he grabbed the chain and let fly, howling in triumph as it connected with the side of Hitsugaya's head. Grinning, Berto brought the chain back around. Berto's grin faltered as the chain tangled in his claws. Still, he managed to manipulate it, and send it flying toward Hitsugaya's neck. The captain brought his left arm up, crying out at the chain wrapped around his already abused hand and the scythe on the end bit deeply into his forearm.

Something hit Berto's back, and he jerked and spun, dragging the shinigami with him. He snorted at the sight of the girl gathering up more rocks to throw in his direction.

"Let him go," she yelled at him.

Berto harrumphed. "Girl," he asked quietly, "do you really want my attention on you?"

Karin's eyes narrowed, her gaze flitting to Hitsugaya. "I told you to let him go."

Berto nodded. "Well, then." He threw Hitsugaya to the side, grinning in satisfaction as he saw the shinigami lay motionless. He turned back to the girl and advanced on her.

She threw another rock.

He held up his claws and laughed as the rock shattered on them.

Karin backed up a step, stealing a glance at the boy who'd saved her earlier.

"Just because," Berto told her, "I said I wasn't interested in you before doesn't mean I won't gut you." His claws clacked together and he brought them to her face. "I will kill you. Don't forget that."

"Not while I'm around."

Berto looked up at the interruption and blinked. "Little death god? You're still spoiling for a fight?"

Hitsugaya brought his sword up. His left hand was held close to his chest and blood ran down his face.

Berto smirked. "Don't worry, little one. I'll get to you." He brought his hand up and shot forward, aiming for Karin's chest.

Karin ducked, though she knew it was useless.

But, instead of claws, all she felt was a rush of cold air.

She looked up as Berto screamed. Blood blossomed in the air beyond a wall of ice. Karin blinked as the ice seemed to move and take shape. Her jaw dropped. "A dragon?" she breathed.

Berto fell, his clawed hands splayed across the pavement. Karin could see blood staining them, and blood pooling on the sidewalk. As the arrancar disappeared, the ice around her crumbled. Soon, as she could see was the boy who saved her standing there, with his head bowed and holding his bloody sword to the side. Blood dripped not only from the sword, but pooled around his feet and Karin knew instantly that Berto had injured him badly in that last attack.

When he fell, she moved.

When she insisted that he come with her to the Kurosaki Clinic, he hadn't argued. Orihime was the more prudent choice, but that meant going further and Hitsugaya had gone through all this trouble to keep her safe: he would be damned if she didn't get home after all this. So, he'd let her help him up and he did his best to ignore the wounds in his chest and stomach Berto had inflicted.

He wasn't about to tell her that he'd taken the attack meant for her. All she needed to know was the Berto wasn't around anymore.

After he'd stumbled once or twice and pressed his good hand against his still-bleeding head, she'd carefully taken his left arm and placed it over her shoulders. He let her.

After all, he'd saved her. The least she could was help him out a bit.

"Hey," Karin grunted as she shifted under the arm slung over her shoulders. Her companion tensed, and looked up, watching her warily, Karin frowned, knowing that it wasn't pain that caused him to tense. "What's your name?"

He turned away, weakly wiping at blood on his brow and limped forward, dragging her along with him. She stumbled, and they both nearly fell. "Hey, now, I'm the one helping you, you know!"

"You just have to yell, don't you?" he muttered, the heel of his right hand pressed against his forehead.

Karin growled and grabbed his left wrist – the one resting on her shoulder – and pulled forward. He yelped, pulled his hand away and backed off a few steps. She turned to face him.

Her eyes were narrowed and her fists clenched. His lip was curled, and he was swaying on his feet. "Fine," she yelled. "It's obvious I don't have to help you."

"More than obvious," was his answer as he turned. He took two steps and then pitched forward. Karin winced at the sound as he hit the pavement. She crouched next to him as he rolled onto his back. They were both silent for a moment, each studiously not looking in the other's direction.

"Truce?" Karin finally said, sticking out her hand.

He grunted and grabbed her hand. She helped him up and, once again, carefully put his left arm over her shoulders. They had taken two or three shuffling steps before she spoke. "Look, I'm sorry about messing with your broken hand."

He nodded, and sagged against her. Her free arm went around his waist, and she winced when he hissed. When he spoke, his voice was breathless. "Hitsugaya."



"Hitsugaya?" she repeated. "That's an arrogant name."

He snorted. "Noble."

Karin grinned. They took a few more shuffling steps. "Whatever." She adjusted her grip as she watched his eyelids flutter; he wasn't far from losing consciousness altogether. "Fits ya anyway," she told him.

He fell and she went to her knees beside him. "Hey, now." His head was bowed and his breathing ragged. "Hitsugaya?" Karin barely refrained from shaking him. "Come on now, you. Answer me." He was still silent, unmoving. Karin's voice rose in panic. "Hitsugaya?" Panicked, Karin did the only thing she could think of: she grabbed his left hand and squeezed. His cry was soft and strangled, but there, and he stiffened, trying to pull away. Karin let go of his hand, smiling in relief as she watched his eyes open slowly. "We're almost there," she told him, trying to ignore the accusing look he gave her. "You see? Just around that corner and down the street. That's where I live. We're not far at all." Her voice caught.

Hitsugaya looked up at her, frowning. "Stop."

She looked at him, surprised. "We're almost there."

He shook his head slowly. "Panicking."

Karin blinked. "Oh. Was I?"

The look he gave her answered the question clearly. She smiled at him. "It got you awake and talking again."

Hitsugaya snorted. "Let's go."

Karin nodded, and then helped push him to his feet. With every movement, he hissed and she winced. Before long, though, they were moving forward again. They had only gone half a block when Hitsugaya fell again and no amount of shaking or talking on Karin's part would wake him up.

She rocked back on her heels, considering her options, one hand resting on Hitsugaya's shoulder. She was close enough to the clinic that she could leave and get help and be back in only a few minutes' time. And no regular person would walk by and see an injured… whatever he was laying on the sidewalk.

"I can't just leave him, though." She smacked his shoulder, lightly. "Damn it, Hitsugaya."

"Took the words right out of my mouth."

Karin jumped and whirled around, hands up and ready to defend herself. She blinked, faltering as she took in the sight of a buxom blonde woman clad in black and wearing a worried expression. Her blue eyes narrowed as she crouched next to Karin. "What hap- No, don't tell me now." She turned a serious gaze onto Karin. "I'll bring him. You run ahead of me, wake Rukia and tell her we need Orihime here now."

Karin bristled. "Who are you to – "

"There is no time for arguing, child." The blonde's voice was hard and sharp. "You do as I say and do it quickly, or Captain Hitsugaya's death will be on your hands and I will not take kindly to that."

Karin hesitated only a second, but the woman turned her eyes onto Hitsugaya's prone form, worry playing over her features. "Please hurry," she said not unkindly. Karin did as she was told; only taking time to look back over her shoulder before she rounded the corner. The sight of the woman gently gathering the small form into her arms reassured her more than she could say.

He woke up and knew instantly something was very wrong. He had not fallen asleep in a bed and, as far as he knew, no quilts had been present on the sidewalk, and yet, here he was, curled on his side on a nice mattress with a warm blanket tucked around his shoulders. Hitsugaya blinked, somewhat nonplussed at the mass of dirty-blonde hair obscuring his vision. Ignoring Matsumoto for the moment – her head rested on the mattress next to his, propped on her forearms, her knees on the floor – he glanced out the window. The stars were still bright; whether it was the same night, he wasn't sure, but once he caught sight of Orihime resting in a corner, he felt sure it probably was.

Hitsugaya took a deep breath, wincing a little at the residual pain and tenderness in his chest and stomach, and curled his hands into fists. His left hand was sore, but usable. His head was still aching but he could at least see and think clearly. Orihime had done a good job healing him again.

He sighed. Still weak as a kitten. Ineffective. A liability. He didn't notice movement in the room until a weight settled itself on the foot of the mattress. He glanced up. Karin sat there, not looking at him. "Thank you," was all she said before she disappeared again, but it was enough, he supposed.

He saved one person tonight.

Hitsugaya laid his head on the pillow, only to get a mouthful of Matsumoto's hair. He swatted at the strands half-heartedly before Matsumoto shifted and looked at him, a smile on her face. "I can't breathe with that mess in my face," he groused.

She smiled and shifted a little further away. "Sleep well, Captain."

Hitsugaya settled in, intending to sleep well indeed if she was so intent on not bothering him. After a moment, though, he finally figured out the lingering wrongness he'd been trying to place. "Oi, Matsumoto… why am I in Kurosaki's bed?"

She laughed quietly.

"I expect explanations," he paused, "in the morning, of course."

"I do, too," she answered around a yawn. "I want to know how my captain ended up like this when, the last I saw, he was just going after a weak little hollow."

He ignored the jibe. "Gigai?"

"Stashed," she told him.

He sighed. "I heard you, you know."

Matsumoto raised an eyebrow. "Heard me?"

"Threatening the girl. 'Captain Hitsugaya's death will be on your hands.' Melodramatic, aren't we?"

"I doubted," Matsumoto said primly, though something else – a deep concern – shone in her light eyes, "that you wanted to spend much more time bleeding on the sidewalk."

He snorted. "Shut up, go to sleep and maybe I'll tell you what happened in the morning."

Matsumoto smiled and closed her eyes, asleep again in just a moment or two. Hitsugaya's gaze rested on the open door that Karin had slipped through.

It was enough, he supposed.

It would have to be.

The End

I hope you've enjoyed the ride.