Author's note: I make no claim over Bleach, it's characters or its copyright/trademark concepts or rights currently owned by the author (Tite Kubo), the manga publisher (Shounen Jump/Shueisha/Viz), or tv series/studio licensors (Studio Pierrot/Aniplex). I just thought this was a cute couple. Apparently, I'm not alone! Yay! Just some nonsense I'm not really going to commit to or even promise to finish anytime soon since I have other projects right now. But I think Toshiro rocks. Love it or hate it; you decide. -Kero (10/13/09)
Chapter 1: The Quest For Oolong Tea
Karin checked her wrist band, tightened her cross training laces, turned up the volume to her mp3 player and took off for the vending machine down two streets from her house for the oolong tea her sister Yuzu had asked her to get. As the sun was setting a cool breeze blew back her smooth black hair cropped evenly above her shoulders. Eyes set in determination she stared only ahead, matching the rhythm of her footfalls with the beat of the latest theme song from Naruto, she began her usual afternoon jog just as the sun was ready to set on this late summer day. She was all business to anyone who happened to notice the pretty and athletic high school sophomore running in her mid length sports shorts and t-shirt that read, "Get out of my way" in katakana. If anyone looked closer though, they would have wondered about the patch on her wristband her sister had stitched on that greatly resembled the stuffed lion her older brother Ichigo kept in his room.
As the youngest captain of the female soccer team for Karakura High School, she was eager to lead her team to win the next tournament to take her team to the regional finals for the first time since the girls team was established. Training was essential for that goal on a daily basis, even during summer break when soccer camp had already ended. Her determination was often the topic of conversation at the dinner table with her father's lamentations that she didn't have any time for dating boys and her sister's admiration.
Her older brother, along with his friends and their houseguest Rukia were currently away on some training camp to hone their battle skills. Karin honed her own skills in the real world but her brother Ichigo was her role model.
As she ran down the street she notice of few of her classmates on the other side waving at her.
"Go Karin-chan! " said her friend Michiko Kurabata.
"Fight, Karakura High! Fight!" shouted her classmate Shige Matsudaira.
"Take us to the regionals, Kurosaki!" cheered the class representative Tetsuya Hanabishi and over-all good looking male object of desire from class 2-A through 2-F. Karin was glad her exercise covered up her blush and grinned at them as she went by. Her rise to team captain had certainly raised her status in school popularity. Though Karin never wanted to be in the spotlight, her leadership skills, good grades and talent for athletic activity often threw her back in it. To her father's chagrin, her tomboyish demeanor but kind personality would often get her letters and gifts of admiration from freshmen of her sex.
Karin pushed on to the end of her block and finally to the only vending machine in Karakura that she knew had her sister's favorite passion fruit flavored oolong milk tea. Though it was a little too sweet for her tastes, she often bought one for herself and one for her fraternal twin sister when she passed by, just out of novelty. Her sense of accomplishment at reaching her goal quickly faded as a tag in front of the display can of oolong tea read "Sold Out." A little deflated, Karin checked the evening sky. It would be a five minute jog out of her usual route to the nearest convenience store that sold this exact drink. Deciding she didn't want to see Yuzu's disappointed face, Karin pressed onward towards the Karakura Mini Mart.
Just as she pushed the button to cross the street, she thought she heard a long, echoing howl. But this was no wolf or animal. It was a familiar sound to Yuzu who had the ability to see, hear and feel paranormal things in her hometown that in recent years seemed to be ground zero for all things paranormal. Her stomach turned a little and the hairs on her neck stood straight up. It sent a chill down her spine. She took out her ear buds and listened closely. It was close by and Karin thought she heard children screaming from the direction of the neighborhood park. Stuffing her mp3 player in her jacket pocket, she leaped across the guard rail fencing off the edge of the park and the street and made her way up the grassy embankment towards the park playground.
"Crap," said Karin under her breath as the screaming came more frequently and became louder. She hated monsters that picked on children the most. She raced past the low cement wall of the park and sprinted at top speed towards the sickening howl. The park was almost empty now, but a trickle of people ran towards her with wide eyes and people were confused and yelling out randomly.
"What's going on?"
"There's some kind of explosion in the park."
"Someone call 1-1-9!"
Karin was the only one who could see it. A giant monster the size of a small house wearing a white mask with a mouth turned upwards in a wicked sneer, and a giant hole in its chest. Her brother's stuffed animal Kon once explained to her that the monsters got their name as "Hollows" because of that hole where their hearts, and apparently their conscience and reason used to be. They became cursed spirits driven only by instinct to consume and destroy. A little cry for help made her glance at the play equipment. A little boy was too afraid to run from the approaching monster. A closer look at the little boy made her notice that he had a chain attached to his chest. Though he wasn't alive anymore, he was still an innocent.
"Bastard! Don't pick on little kids!" cried out Karin at the Hollow. She looked around for a weapon but settled for the soccer ball some human kid had left behind. Karin grabbed it as she ran towards the monster and started to charge it with her reiatsu, or spirit energy. The ball started to glow with a blue-violet aura. She stopped short, kicking up dust and debris at the base of her sneakers and set up the ball for a magnificent banana kick aimed at the monster's mask.
The ball gained energy and speed and then burst into spiritual flames as it approached and popped a hole in the monster's mask.
"Run kid!" she shouted. "Don't let it eat you!" The boy snapped alert, part surprised that someone actually noticed him and partly from being yelled at. He got up and started to run towards her.
"You gotta run, Big Sis," said the little boy ghost. "It's gonna crush you!" he said frantically. The monster howled at her.
"Go kid, go!" she shouted as she and the monster had a face off. She saw a kickball nearby. Would she risk it? The monster leaped towards the little boy and Karin made a mad dash and slid down underneath it just as it was jumping over her. The world moved in slow motion as she slid across the dirt floor as if sliding towards home base. With an expert roundhouse kick she sent the spiritually charged ball into the Hollow's leg, taking a chunk of it out and causing the monster to fall forward, nearly missing the little boy. The little boy let out a yelp and raced out of the park.
"Aw...crap," said Karin as she noticed the Hollow was regenerating fast. She got up and sprinted in the opposite direction as fast as she could. Karin cleared the kiddy merry-go-round in a single bound and just kept running. The Hollow released it tentacle like tongue and Karin suddenly felt her left leg jerk back. She lost her balance and fell face first into the grass. Her body lurched backwards as she was dragged back towards the Hollow. She heard a violent "clang" and realized her head had struck a nearby pole. Then all she saw were stars.
Then she heard a young man's voice as clear as ice and deep as water.
"Soten ni zase."
And suddenly, she was falling. Karin opened her eyes and saw the ground racing up to meet her face. But then, a blur of black and white caught her and stopped her. The air went cold and she thought she saw snow flakes in the wind.
When Karin opened her eyes again she was lying on her back on the floor staring up at the clear starry sky. The air was warm again and there was no Hollow in sight. All was quiet. Adrenaline still coursing, Karin shot up to a sitting position and quickly regretted it.
"Oolong tea!" were the first words that stumbled out of her mouth. Her brain synapses weren't functioning properly.
"Ow, ow, ow..." she moaned as she clutched her head. She felt like throwing up. Just as her father had taught her, she gently probed her skull for fractures. Miraculously her head was not cracked open upon impact with the pole.
"Now isn't the time for tea. You're lucky you didn't die," said a woman's voice in gentle reprimand. "Your head is about as hard as your brother's." Karin blinked and looked up to see a woman dressed in a black kimono and hakama with grass sandals and long wavy hair the color of honey. Was there a film set somewhere? No, this was a shinigami. Karin had seen her somewhere before.
"Are you ok?" asked the woman.
"I feel like throwing up," Karin managed to say and doubled over again. "But yeah, I don't think any thing's broken."
"Those were some pretty amazing attacks. What do you call them?" she asked.
"I was thinking about calling it 'Ultimate Banana Kick" or something like that, but it takes away from the emotional impact. Heh," she laughed in spite of herself. When she was little, she refused to acknowledge the existence of spirits, but now she was making up names for her specialty moves to attack them. Weird.
"Argh, my head," she moaned again. "That pole should not be there."
"I don't think anyone anticipated that your head would be running into it," said another voice. It was soft and deep, like snow. She had heard it before. Karin looked up and realized that he had been standing on top of the jungle gym the entire time. She squinted in the dim park lights to notice a wild spiky crop of snow white hair. She felt her heart pounding with anticipation.
"Toshiro?" she asked. He looked a little older now, and seemed a little taller, but he had the same part cynical, part nonchalant expression on his face. She had not seen the Shinigami 10th Division Captain for at least four years but she recognized his reiatsu immediately. He gracefully jumped down from his perch and landed noiselessly next to her, offering his hand.
"Can you get up?" he asked.
"I think so," she said, taking his hand. But the motion of him pulling her upward made her stomach queasy and her vision blurry all over again. Karin stumbled into him and he had to prop her up with both hands on her arms.
"Aw man...the ground is wobbly again," she said, resting her head on his shoulder.
"I'm going to burst out laughing if you throw up on him," grinned the woman, whom Karin now recognized as Matsumoto Rangiku, Toshiro's subordinate. The 10th Division captain shot a dark look at his vice captain. He took another look at the unsteady Karin and sighed.
"It can't be helped. We should get you back to your father's clinic as soon as possible," said Toshiro, scooping her up and lifting her into his arms. Wide eyed, Karin suddenly felt embarrassed-a feeling she wasn't accustomed to.
"Wait," she protested. "You don't have to...I can-"
"You'll take forever on your own," said Toshiro, cutting her off abruptly. Karin looked at him and wondered if he was too impatient to watch her go home on her own, or concerned enough that he wanted to make sure she got home safely...or perhaps both?
"I have to get some passion fruit oolong tea for Yuzu," she added. "It's at the corner market. They're going to wonder what took me so long if I come back empty handed." Captain Hitsugaya sighed in exasperation.
"Matsumoto," he said in his usual commanding tone.
"I'm on it, Captain," said the vice captain, disappearing from sight. He leaped into the air with Karin secured and headed back for her house. Karin looked down as they bounded over rooftops and marveled at how quickly the shinigami could travel on foot.
"Don't look down," he said, a little more gently now. "It will only make it worse." He was right. Karin closed her eyes and buried her face in his kimono collar, waiting for the light headed feeling to pass. Though she had never envied or wanted to be the helpless damsel in the stacks of shoujo manga she hid under her bed, the feeling of being carried by a pair of strong arms wasn't that bad after all.
"We're here. You can let go now." Karin opened her eyes and noticed they were safely on the ground again, on her porch. She looked up at him and noticed her arms were still wrapped tightly around his neck. Her sudden movement caught them both by surprise as their faces were now extremely close to one another. Caught in his green gaze she felt the color rise in her face and saw the same color in his. Almost as a reflex, her arms pushed him away violently, which caused him to let go and Karin landed rather ungracefully onto the floor mat. She wondered if her reaction was the "feminine modesty" her father was always telling her she lacked.
"Hey you," she said, rather angrily. "Is that anyway to treat an injured person?"
"Is that any way to speak to your savior? You're the one who pushed me away, idiot," he muttered defensively.
Just then, she heard footsteps inside and the latch to her front door move just before it opened. Karin looked up from the floor to see her sister Yuzu looking down at her, quite puzzled at her older sister's position.
"Karin-chan," said Yuzu in surprise.
"Ah, ha ha ha..." laughed Karin weakly. "I fell," she added lamely.
"Oh, you brought me my oolong tea!" exclaimed her sister happily leaning over her to retrieve the small convenience store bag sitting next to her. Karin stared at the bag and looked around. She was alone again. Karin then remembered that she had forgotten to thank him.