Title: In Good Company

Characters: Kurosaki Karin, Matsumoto Rangiku and Hitsugaya Toushiro (Friendship fic)

Warnings: None

Spoilers: None, same Fanfiction future universe as most of my previous fics

Rating: K+

Disclaimer: Do not own Bleach, not even bleach

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Kurosaki Karin stared at her shikai in dismay. "A yoyo? Kazenosetsudanki, are you kidding me? A yoyo?" She glared at her right hand, enclosed in a protective glove and at the large steel grey disk looped to it. "Do you hear me, Kazenosetsudanki?" She shook her hand menacingly, but all it did was to slap the disk sharply against her palm. "Argh!"

Her zanpakutou remained stubbornly, and, from the reiatsu emanating from the disk, offendedly silent. She turned to glare at Matsumoto Rangiku, who was hugging her waist in helpless laughter, Haineko dangling from one hand. Occasionally her laughter would be broken by gasps of "Yoyo! Your face, Karin-chan!" when she could find the breath to speak. Her ample bosom was jiggling so, Karin almost feared that her breasts would fall out of her shikahausho, though months of association told her that it was unlikely. Matsumoto never displayed more than she intended to. Not for the first time, Karin wondered how a woman so top-heavy could fight so ably and agilely. Her eyes flickered down at her own infinitely more modest front and tried to calculate the change in her sword swing if she had Matsumoto's chest. Impossible. And her newly minted shikai required even more room to manipulate. Thank goodness for small mercies.

Matsumoto's laughter showed no sign of abating. The frown deepened on Karin's face, and arms set akimbo at her waist, she barked at the last, silent member of their group. "Do something about your fukutaichou, Toshiro! It's not funny! And explain to me why I have a blasted yoyo!"

The white-haired captain crossed his arms, looking bored. "We shinigami have no control over the forms our zanpakutou take, Kurosaki. All you have to do is let her teach you how to master her." Almost casually, with no change in expression, he continued, "And shut up, Matsumoto." His teal eyes matched Karin stare for stare while she glowered her displeasure at his answer. As insubordinate as her brother had ever been. But short-tempered and impatient of tomfoolery as she was, over the past few months of loco parentis, he had discovered a soft spot for her. At the very least, she was nowhere as irritating as her brother.

Karin was still looking disgruntled. "My soul's a yoyo?" She tapped the flat side of her zanpakutou. "Ichi-nii has his kitchen cleaver. I thought you'd be bigger with a long fancy name like yours, maybe some kind of scythe, like Shuuhei's reaper blades." She heard a faint sniff in her mind and a muttered imprecation against overcompensating zanpakutou.

"Wind Guillotine is a rather evocative name, isn't it?" Finally at the end of her bout of laughter, Matsumoto straightened and laid a hand comfortingly on Karin's shoulder. "She does have a sharp blade, you know, as I can well attest. Her edge is deadly all around and she goes right for the jugular. You won't have any difficult splitting a hollow's mask. And that's all that matters, isn't it? After all, zanpakutou, more than anything, are weapons, despite how they might look. Soon, you'll be able to take over your brother's duties in Karakura." An elegant, tapered finger prodded at the furrow on Karin's brow and smoothed it out. The young woman was much too fond of frowning. Really, this was taking brotherly hero-worship too far. And even Ichigo had learnt to smile in the past few years. Matsumoto prided herself on her contribution to a good cause, aiding and abetting Kuchiki Rukia.

With visible reluctance, Karin let go of her irritation. "I guess so," she said grudgingly. "With a father and brother like mine, I should be used to the unexpected happening in my life, after all." Like her reiatsu suddenly expanding when she turned twenty, changing her into hollow bait. Hence her sojourn in Soul Society under the tutelage of the Tenth Division to train her shinigami skills. The men of her family had vociferously protested putting her into Urahara's unpredictable hands, Ichigo being the perfect example of the results of that experiment, though Karin had always suspected that her father blamed Kuchiki Byakuya as the first cause of his son's rather unique state. He was certainly rude enough to the man on the rare occasions he appeared in Karakura, Isshin's wholesale affection of Rukia notwithstanding.

"That's the spirit!" grinned Matsumoto approvingly. "Kazenosetsudanki is going to go like the wind, you know! Her speed's going to replace weight for maximum impact. I think we'll have to get Yoruichi step up your shunpo lessons and work on increasing your momentum." She looked at Hitsugaya. "Don't you think so, Taichou?"

Hitsugaya nodded judiciously. "That is a valid analysis, Matsumoto. But in the final count, it will be Kazenosetsudanki who will teach Kurosaki how to use her to advantage." His eyes swerved towards Karin. "Good job, Kurosaki, you have found your shikai." There was a tinge of approbation in his voice. He knew from Matsumoto's reiatsu that she was extremely pleased with Karin's progress. His fukutaichou had also grown very fond of their charge. Somehow, she fit.

"Taichou!" Now it was Matsumoto's turn to frown. "More enthusiasm, if you please! You have to encourage Karin-chan to push on! And I think this calls for a celebration! On you!" Her frown had turned sly. She had yet to induct Karin into the pleasures of sake, and there was no better way of doing so than on Hitsugaya's tab.

A white eyebrow arched up. "Me, Matsumoto? It was you who coaxed Kurosaki's shikai out of her. Surely you should be the one to complete the assignment and treat her."

He received one of Matsumoto's famous pouts in return. "But Taichou, it was hard work!" She shot a wink at Karin. "Karin-chan's a tough opponent! Haineko agrees, don't you, Hai-kitty?" She patted her blade approvingly.

A level, unimpressed look was her answer. "Anything that doesn't involve you supine is hard work."

A slow, provocative grin started across Matsumoto's face. "Lying down can be hard work too, Taichou." Eyes dancing with crystal highlights, she ignored the outraged male gasp, and laid an arm across Karin's shoulder. "Seal your zanpakutou, Karin-chan, and I'll give you a hug."

Karin's brows came together in the familiar Kurosaki frown. "No hugs, Rangiku, or I'll make you regret it."

"But Karin-chan, that's the sisterhood hug!" Disappointment coloured Matsumoto's voice. Not many people rejected her hugs.

"I have a sister, thank you very much, and she doesn't hug me that way." Karin's reply was short and barbed.

"Don't you know, Karin-chan, that chest to chest hugs are the basis of female friendship?" Matsumoto put on her most earnest expression.

Karin tapped her foot impatiently. "This is another of your cockamamie theories isn't it?" Several feet away, Hitsugaya groaned. With all the paperwork Matsumoto refused to do, she had much too much leisure time on her hands available for mental frivolity.

A cunning look crossed Matsumoto's face. "Don't you want to hear it, Karin-chan?" Her voice was pure honeyed sweetness.

The black-haired young woman rolled her eyes. "Saying no won't stop you, will it?" An radiant smile was her reward. Karin blinked.

"Not unless you can beat me at shunpo." The smile turned challenging.

"I think my desire to master shunpo has just received a huge shot in the arm," responded Karin drily.

Matsumoto indicated the ground and they sat down. She twined her arm with Karin's companionably, and Karin did not shy away from the gesture. Months of close association had accustomed her to the other woman's warm proximity. She looked curiously at the immobile taichou. "What about you, Toshiro? Surely you can outrun Ran any day?"

Hitsugaya tilted his head on a resigned sigh. "We share an office. I can't outrun that." Besides, Hyourinmaru would be outraged if he left now and robbed him of some juicy piece of knowledge. But Matsumoto did not need to know that. Or, he corrected himself, she probably did know that. Really, what was it with dragons and cats? "Just get on with it, Matsumoto, then we can all go take a rest."

"Roger, Taichou!" Hitsugaya winced. Matsumoto had picked up some ridiculous terms in the living world and now delighted in plaguing the life out of him with them.

"Begin. Now."

"Well, you know, after years of practical observation and deliberation, I've come to one single most important conclusion." Matsumoto fluffed her glossy auburn mane. "There is one major fault-line that divides the female species and prevents us from being a united force. And that," she paused dramatically, "is the division between the endowed and the streamlined." She hefted her breasts for emphasis and watched her audience's reaction.

Hitsugaya choked and sunk his face in his hands. Karin merely curled her lips around a snark.

Satisfied for the moment, Matsumoto nodded and continued. "Therefore, I believe that it is the duty of all women to reach across that divide, from the endowed to the streamlined, and from the streamlined to the endowed. It is not an easy task, but I believe that in the name of unified womanhood and female friendship, we should all make the effort." She wagged a finger at her captive audience.

Karin gave vent to a loud snort. Hitsugaya's posture had not changed.

"Of course, it is always easier if one didn't try to befriend across that boundary-- look at Orihime and me as prime examples of that. I would say that we had a natural affinity for each other from the moment we met. It's not just about body shape," she patted her upper chest complacently, "there was just something deeper between us that made it a meeting of true minds-- her girlish enthusiasm, her taste in food..." Matsumoto's voice was beginning to acquire a ringing, oratorial quality.

"You can certainly follow her incomprehensible nattering very well," muttered Hitsugaya, breaking the mood.

Matsumoto gazed at him reprovingly. "That's not very nice of you, Taichou. Orihime's one of the good people."

Hitsugaya acknowledged her rebuke with a sigh. Inoue Orihime was indeed one of the kindest, most ebullient people he knew, with a strain of whimsy that was all her own. It was only that he sometimes wished that she wasn't quite so... whimsical.

Matsumoto's next words returned her to her neglected topic, and ploughed new furrows in Karin's brow. "And of course, there's you and Rukia, Karin-chan. The two of you are practically like sisters, and you never have any trouble understanding her, do you, especially when Ichigo's being difficult with Isshin?"

Karin was unimpressed. "Yeah, I kick Goatface and she kicks Ichigo. What's so empathetic about that?"

Matsumoto looked delighted. "That's precisely my point! You don't think that it's anything special, but your degree of coordination is truly a wonder to behold! I've seen the both of you communicate without speaking, in so many ways!"

"Uh uh." Karin's tone was distinctly lacking in conviction. Matsumoto noticed that Hitsugaya, on the other hand, appeared much struck by her observation.

Matsumoto was warming once again to her topic. "You and Rukia, me and Orihime, there's just something inevitable about our friendships, isn't there? But this doesn't signify that friendship is or should be effortless, in fact, many friendships with those who are different well repay the effort put into them, especially friendships where the endowed and the streamlined meet, because not only is one's personal life enriched by a wonderful new friendship and new perspectives, but one is also striking a blow for female solidarity!" She leaned forward confidentially. "You know, that is the true foundational aim of the Shinigami Women's Association, to create a space where the endowed and the streamlined can meet without prejudice!" She paused for effect.

Then, her head tilted thoughtfully. "You know, it just occurred to me that it can sometimes literally be easier for endowed and streamlined to meet? When we hug, we can do a full frontal chest to chest without much trouble, but when two endowed hug, they have to maneuver peak to valley, so to speak, and even that depends on the kind of bras they're wearing, since if they're all scrunched up in a sports bra, then they have to abandon all attempts at a full body hug! There you have it, talk about meeting on common ground!"

"The chest," snarled Hitsugaya through his teeth, "is not common ground." Near him, Karin merely twitched. Both were ignored.

If he was the sort to scream, thought Hitsugaya, he would be bringing down the roof just about now. To add insult to his injured sensibilities, he could feel the tips of his ears turning red. Obviously, the years with Matsumoto had not completely inured him to her startlingly outrageous conversation. Within his consciousness, Hyourinmaru was listening with rapt fascination and nodding in agreement, the perverse, disloyal dragon. A quick glance at Karin showed that she was entertaining similar thoughts as he, the expression on her face aggravated and trapped. But with Matsumoto in the driver's seat, escape just wasn't possible. Gritting his teeth, he brought his attention back to his loquacious fukutaichou, who was now done with exclaiming over her brilliant insight. Instead, she was pointing at Karin like an instructor in a classroom bent on nailing home a much belaboured point.

"Tell me, Karin-chan, who is Orihime's best friend?"

The frustrated glare on Karin's face showed that she knew where this was heading, but felt compelled, despite herself, to respond, "Arikawa Tatsuki. Everybody knows that. They've been working on their friendship for ages, especially since Tatsuki learned about Orihime and the shinigami." Her eyes narrowed menacingly at her breezily impervious interlocutor, who merely acknowledged her response with a cat-in-a-cream-bowl smile.

Then, Matsumoto's eyes fell assessingly on Karin's now sealed zanpakutou. "You know, Karin, your zanpakatou might just be the perfect match for you. Boobs would just get in the way of manipulating that yoyo string, but since you don't have to worry about that, the combinations you can perform could be infinite!"

A tooth grinding sound came from Karin's direction. "That is a very comforting thought, Rangiku!" One that had indeed crossed her mind, but somehow it was much less acceptable to have also crossed Matsumoto's mind.

Her tone did not deter Matsumoto from continuing in the same vein of thought. "I heard that there was once a tribe of women warriors called Amazons who cut off a breast so it wouldn't get in the way of their bowstrings." She shuddered. "I can't imagine doing that!"

"You would look lopsided with just one breast, Matsumoto," her taichou felt obliged put in, restrained malice in his voice.

"Taichou, you're so mean! I was just pointing out that Karin-chan has the perfect figure for dealing with stringed weapons!"

"I'm sure Kurosaki is very appreciative of your thoughtfulness, Matsumoto." The reply was enunciated very, very drily. "But I have every confidence that she will work her way around every impediment." He darted a quick glance at Karin, who was looking as if her teeth had ground down to her gums.

Karin wondered for the umpteenth time why she had been assigned to the care of the Tenth, specifically, the irrepressible Matsumoto. Surely she would have learnt as well at, say, the Thirteenth with the patient and kind-hearted Ukitake Taichou. Then she recalled the vociferous and bickering Kiyone and Sentaro, and her shoulders drooped. Desperately, she cast about for a way out of the conversation, and was rewarded with a sudden illumination. With almost desperate triumph, she demanded, "What about Yuzu? You can't classify her in either group, can you?"

Matsumoto's face softened, but did not evince the kind of confusion Karin had expected. "Ah, Yuzu-chan. She's a darling and a pocket Venus. One of those rare women who straddle the divide, both endowed and streamlined. She's the glue that glues all of us together from both sides."

Karin groaned and began massaging her temples with her eyes closed. Matsumoto's words were certainly irrefutable. Everyone, female or male, warmed to her gentle twin, infinitely tenderer and softer at twenty than she had been at ten. Though Karin certainly did not agree with Matsumoto's assertion that it was a matter of streamlining and otherwise.

Then, Karin felt Matsumoto's strong, firm swordswoman's hands on her shoulders. Looking up, she encountered Matsumoto's unusually solemn expression and her pulse skipped a beat. This was the face of the Matsumoto Rangiku who had overseen her training and one she could not ignore.

"But, after all, Karin, how you came to us at the Tenth, why we're here together, that isn't so important, is it?" The crystal eyes were pellucid with understanding. "What's most important is that we're friends now, we have laughed and cried and fought and bleed and learnt together over the past few months, no?"

Matsumoto's warmth, Karin discovered, could be scorching, if one had the courage to take the plunge. And she was Kurosaki Karin, who had made of herself what she willed even at the tender age of five. On that thought, she was herself again. Crossing her arms, she snorted, "Of course we are." Her brows drew sharply together as Matsumoto made a movement. "But it still doesn't mean you're hugging me, Ran!"

Matsumoto's lips pursed into the familiar moue. "You're more irritable than Taichou, Karin-chan! But it's all right, we'll just hug Taichou more, won't we, Hai-kitty?" A deep tremour rumbled up Karin's spine as she heard Hitsugaya utter a sharp, "Matsumoto, don't you dare!" Turning, she saw a large grey cat curled snugly against her, lazily purring.

Carefully, heart suddenly pounding, she turned back to Matsumoto. "Is that...?"

Matsumoto brushed her fingers down the smooth grey tail. "Yes, it's my Haineko. See, she recognizes you too!" A rough tongue caressed the back of Karin's hand, warm and wetly assuring.

Karin peered at Haineko, then gingerly laid a hand on her head. "Thank you, Haineko, it is an honour to meet you." The zanpakutou were never casual about their manifestations, especially to outsiders. Karin knew that Haineko's appearance was a sign of both Haineko's and Matsumoto's trust in her. She glanced quickly at Hitsugaya to gauge his reaction. In the past months, she had come to realize how frequently the two functioned as a unit, despite their apparent differences. There was a rare smile on his face and he looked approvingly at her, then turned towards Matsumoto.

"A priceless gift, Matsumoto."

"One Karin is deserving of, Taichou."

Silence fell between the trio, punctuated only by Haineko's low purring. Then, Matsumoto pulled herself out of her reverie, and tugging at Karin's hand, announced cheerfully,

"Time to party! Taichou's treat!"

"Matsumoto!"