Chapter 12: No Goodbyes
"Captain Commander," Toshiro offered in hasty greeting before his eyes fell on Karin, sitting quite comfortably in front of Yamamoto with a cup of green tea and a shogi board between them. He suddenly felt a little perturbed that he had actually been concerned over her well being until now. The corner of his mouth twitched at the irony.
When she met his gaze Karin's mouth opened in greeting and she wanted to run up and meet him. But a whirl of thoughts and feelings detained her. She remembered where she was and in whose company, first of all. Relationships between shinigami and humans are not favored in Soul Society, the Captain Commander had admitted. Don't interfere, were Hinamori's words. Could she choose to stay with him as shinigami? If she chose to return to her world as a human, she would never be a part of his. Karin turned away without saying anything, unable to maintain eye contact.
"Captain Hitsugaya, please escort her to your home outside of Seireitei, where she can await my message."
Toshiro bowed in assent, still puzzled as to why Karin would not look at him. Even as they were walking down the hall side by side she remained equally distant and completely submerged in thought. He listened to the sound of her kimono folds shifting as she walked. He listened to the sound of their even footfalls. He listened to the sound of his steady breaths and heartbeat. He heard everything but the one thing he wanted: her voice. He glanced over in her direction and saw her eyes clouded over with deep concerns. Shinigami were good at a lot of things, but they couldn't read minds. Toshiro felt his anxiousness overflow. His emotions got the better of him and him turned around to face her with one arm outstretched to block her path. She looked at him in question.
"Why didn't you come to me?" he asked in a low voice without looking in her eyes. She was half expecting to be scolded, but she could tell he was withholding that part of the conversation. It somehow made her feel worse. By the reflection in his eyes Karin recognized immediately that her actions had hurt him.
"I didn't want to be your burden," said Karin carefully, unable to comfort him.
He let out a little mirthless laugh. "Since when were you ever this polite to me? Did you think I valued my position over you? Do you actually think I care if others find out about us?" said Toshiro with a pensive expression on his face. It's true that she had misjudged him, underestimated the severity of her situation and overestimated her own capabilities. But his words were not making her choices any easier.
"I'm sorry," was all she could answer. "I'm not used to relying on others." Karin looked away again with the intent to end the conversation there until they were both in better spirits. Toshiro surrendered a sigh and lowered his arm. He wanted to ask her what the Captain Commander had said. He wanted to stop her and shake her and reprimand her for being so careless and making him worry. Most of all, he wanted to hold her and feel her breathing softly against his chest, just like on the day they exchanged their feelings under that vast, golden expanse of afternoon sky. But he didn't have the ability to do any of these things, and remained silently by her side as they walked forward to meet the others.
Kurosaki Karin, Kurosaki Ichigo, Kuchiki Rukia and Hitsugaya Toshiro sat in a semi-circle facing their hostess in the main room of Granny Hitsugaya's home in awkward, uncomfortable silence. Like them the old woman sat traditionally and arranged their tea in ceremonial fashion. Toshiro, closest to the open sliding door that led out to the garden, glowered at the scenery outside. He was extremely irritated with the company but kept his tongue in check to avoid being reprimanded by his grandmother. Next to him, Kuchiki Rukia closed her eyes and politely enjoyed the sounds and smells of the tea ceremony. Next to Rukia, Karin sat eyeing her brother Ichigo warily. Ichigo sat quietly with a stony face and his mouth upturned in a persistent scowl. Granny Hitsugaya turned to him first and presented a bowl of bitter powered green tea for Ichigo, along with a piece of amanatto she had made earlier that morning.
"So, you are Karin-chan's elder brother, Ichigo? What adorable names you have," smiled the old woman.
"Ah," was Ichigo's response and his face seemed to crack a crooked smile. Karin however, would not permit him to be rude to the old woman and immediately reached over from behind to violently pinch his foot closest to her. Tears came to her brother's eyes as he stifled his cry of pain.
Doubled over, it almost seemed like he was bowing, and Ichigo managed to say in a strained voice between clenched teeth, "As a representative of the Kurosaki family, I thank you for your hospitality extended to my wayward and obnoxious little sister."
Toshiro huffed in annoyance but his grandmother shot him a look that made him feel like he was twelve again and the shinigami captain immediately looked away.
"Karin-chan was no burden. She did a month's worth of housework in only a few days and was a great help. She will make someone a very good wife one day," said Granny Hitsugaya with a smile and a nod. Her grandson gawked in mortification but she ignored him. Granny Hitsugaya served Karin next.
"Thank you very much for the tea," said Karin respectfully, changing the subject. She reached for the bowl rather unceremoniously and gulped the tea down so quickly that she almost choked and turned a little blue. But she managed to swallow and chase it down with the amanatto. Next, Granny Hitsugaya served Rukia, who turned the bowl gently and took a series of polite sips until the tea was gone. With the bamboo skewer she sliced the amanatto into smaller pieces and ate them one by one. Lastly, the old lady served her grandson. Toshiro bowed to his grandmother from the waist, turned the bowl towards him and drank the tea in one gulp. Then, he poked the confection with the skewer and popped it into his mouth.
"Well, then," smiled Granny Hitsugaya. "I am happy that Karin will be staying with me until she receives word from Seireitei about her predicament. Will you also be staying with us, Kurosaki-san?"
"No, he won't!" was the immediate and simultaneous response from Toshiro, Karin and Rukia. Ichigo was about to protest but Rukia cut him off, reaching back and pinching his other foot. Ichigo colored and made an extreme effort to not start cursing.
"I will be returning to my family's estate and Ichigo will be accompanying me," smiled Rukia. "In fact, we will be leaving shortly and will not be imposing on you any further."
"Well, I-" protested Ichigo but it was Karin who cut him off next.
"Please, brother dearest," she said through clenched teeth and a hostile grin. "Let me escort you out." Ichigo glowered at his sister. He turned to his hostess and bowed slightly. "Thanks for the hospitality." Granny Hitsugaya smiled broadly and inclined her head in return.
Rukia followed by Karin ushered Ichigo into the front of the house where they had left their shoes. He grumbled the entire way until he was out of earshot from the main room.
"There's no way I'm letting you stay in his house," began Ichigo in an authoritative tone. "I trust him as far as I can throw him. When old man Urahara told us what had happened, we were told to wait. But when nothing happened for weeks, I came here to kick his ass for taking so damn long! And then he had the gall to tell me that he only just found out about this? What kind of boyfriend is that?"
"Ichi-nii," Karin insisted. "I've never asked you for anything, but I'm asking you now. Will you please just let me handle this?"
"That's not fair," sulked Ichigo, resentfully backing off. Karin took one hard look at her brother and then turned back into the house.
"They grow up before you know it," smiled Rukia.
"You're not helping," insisted Ichigo.
"Let them have some time alone. Clearly they have things to work out."
"What if she decides to-" started Ichigo.
"Whatever she decides," interruped Rukia. "It will be the best choice for herself, I think. She's sensible. Moreso than some people I know." She shot a piercing glance at Ichigo.
"Kon," said Ichigo, pulling the stuffed animal from his knapsack. "Keep an eye on her and report everything to me. I'm going to have to kill him if he touches her."
"Grow up, Ichigo," said Rukia shaking her head with a sigh.
The little stuffed animal snuck back towards the main room, clinging to the walls and hiding in shadows. Just as he turned the corner he saw Karin and the old lady outside by the tangerine tree, picking the ripened fruit for dessert. He attempted to sneak into the main room again when he was suddenly caught by the neck and lifted upward to come face to face with a stern, forest green glare.
"Not very good at this, are you?" smirked Toshiro. "I can sense your reiatsu from miles away." Kon took a few swipes at him, but naturally his punches fell short as his arms were only a few inches long.
"Put me down," the stuffed animal demanded.
"Not without doing this," said Toshiro with a vengeful gleam in his eye. He hogtied Kon's feet and hands, gagged and then put a blindfold over him. The modified soul muffled his indignation and Toshiro stuffed him in a sack and left him by the door.
Karin collected the tangerines in a small basket while Granny Hitsugaya directed her. As soon as Toshiro came back into view, their eyes met and Karin couldn't help feeling uncomfortable again and turned away to hide the blush on her face. He stood stiffly next to his grandmother, though he never too his eyes off Karin.
"Have you been well, Toshiro?" asked his grandmother.
"Ah," he responded with an indifferent shrug. When she raised an eyebrow at him, he responded properly, "Yes, Grandmother."
"Um," said Karin, feeling a little awkward. "I'll go wash these and prepare them for an after meal dessert." She took the basket of tangerines and headed back into the house. Certainly Toshiro and his grandmother would want to catch up after being separated for so long. This place was where he grew up, a part of the world he would always belong to and somewhere she did not intend to remain. Karin suddenly felt a little out of place, and that disquieted her. Toshiro eyed her strained smile with concern and quietly excused himself to follow her. He did not notice the wry, knowing smile that his grandmother sent after him before she sat down again with a contented sigh and looked up to admire the cloudless sky.
While in the kitchen Karin reveled in the busy work at hand and the fact that she didn't have to converse with Toshiro while she sorted out her feelings. Their last exchange had made her very uneasy, almost as if it had been a lover's quarrel. He was both reprimanding her and expressing his resentment that she had not come to him first. Karin poured water from a bucket into a small basin and dropped a tangerine inside. She gently rubbed the dirt off with her fingers and quietly contemplated the things that weighed in her mind. If she considered how long Hinamori Momo and Toshiro had known each other, it seemed like they were a better fit than she would be for Toshiro. In her own way, Momo relied on Toshiro's strength and he was the type who wanted to feel dependable. Karin was not used to depending on anyone.
She absently dried the first tangerine and moved on to the second. Karin thought about how time consuming and how important his work was to him, something she hadn't considered until she took a glimpse of the 10th Division barracks. Those responsibilities and obligations filled his time. The more she thought about it, the further the distance seemed to grow between them in her mind. She would never ask him to leave that behind.
When the second tangerine was clean, she carelessly dropped in a third into the basin. Karin may have briefly considered the Captain Commander's offer for her to permanently join the ranks of the 10th Division but the thought of leaving her family behind made her heart ache. She swore to her mother's gravestone that she would live out her life to the fullest...however long that would be... But if she gave up and stayed in Soul Society, she could be with Toshiro forever. But her brother, father and sister would not be happy as they would not be able to see her again...especially Yuzu, her sweet fraternal twin who was always by her side. She let out a deep sigh and moved on to the next tangerine.
If she wanted to return to her family as a human, she would be bound to the world of the living. She would be without the option of ever living in Soul Society upon her death. The only way for her to die was for the Spirit King to release her, and her soul would be reincarnated anew. Karin wondered if that was something she would decide for herself many, many years from now when everything she knew and everyone she loved was gone. If Toshiro couldn't always be with her, would her heart feel the same through the passing time? Would his? Would it be better if she and Toshiro ended it now and remained apart? Her unease increased and in frustration she dropped the rest of the tangerines into the water with a big splash.
Reaching out with one hand absently for a paring knife she accidently cut herself when it slipped through her fingers. Karin drew in her breath and watched the tip of her finger as the thin red line grew thicker and became saturated with her blood.
Without even realizing that he was behind her, she blinked in surprise as his hand took her finger and placed it gently in his mouth while the other wrapped around her waist. Karin couldn't help getting goosebumps as she stood there dumfounded. She turned and took her hand back, staring at him in shock from what he had just done.
"Silly woman. I thought I taught you to be more careful with cutlery," he gently reprimanded. "Do you even have any experience in the kitchen?"
"I pack my own lunch," she asserted.
"But isn't that just left overs from your sister's cooking?" he suggested.
Karin made a face at him and was about to retort when his face broadened into a smile. It was so dazzling that she faltered.
"There you are," he said with a droll smile. "I was wondering when I'd see you again."
"Don't be absurd," said Karin blushing defensively as she turned around to collect the tangerines from the basin. But Toshiro's arms wrapped around her tightly from behind, preventing her from moving at all. They stood there in silence and Karin didn't even realize that she had been holding her breath.
"Don't," he requested softly. She turned her head towards his face but could not see his expression. "Don't suffer in silence."
"Toshiro," she said, her voice growing thick with emotion. She swallowed and pushed her feelings back down.
"Whatever it is, no matter how minute, if it bothers you I want to know about it. I want to know everything about you. No matter how far apart we are, no matter how long it's been since we saw each other last, I want you to tell me. I want you to rely on me. I don't want you to ever feel alone," said Toshiro. He kissed her gently on the cheek and Karin squeezed her eyes shut to brace against it but her defenses were crumbling.
"I don't want to decide, but I have to choose," she said a little sadly. He squeezed her tightly.
"I'll go with whatever you think is best," he responded. She winced a little at the sensation of his breath against her skin.
"Hinamori-san is in love with you," she blurted out.
"I've already addressed that with her," he replied. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Maybe..." she hesitated. "I was a little worried."
"Let's not discuss anyone else right now," dismissed Toshiro. His arms were still holding her tightly.
After a pause, she added, "I wonder if others are going to start confessing to you now that they know you have a girlfriend," she mused. "That's what usually happens in the comics."
Toshiro's brow twitched with displeasure. "Don't curse me like that."
Karin laughed a little. "You're not the type that wants a harem, right?"
"I'll try not to be offended by that question," said Toshiro indignantly. After a moment's pause he added, "I can't imagine choosing more than one woman...ever..."
Karin's blush deepened. "Me?" she whispered.
"Yes, you," he answered gently. "No one's ever...as much as you have... Being with you makes me feel..." his voice trailed off into a soft breath, "...alive." Karin's hand found its way to his face and gently touched his cheek. "I'm almost tempted to follow you to the real world," he smiled in spite of himself.
"You love being a captain, and you couldn't abandon your grandmother here. This is where you need to be."
"I want to support you, no matter where or how," she said resolutely. "I got this from the Captain Commander a few hours ago," Karin said, pulling a note from her sleeve.
"He gave me the choice to choose between life and love; and so I chose love." She stepped up to him and kissed him lightly on the lips. It was Toshiro's turn to change color.
"So you're..."he began.
"Captain Yamamoto has given me a sort of compromise. He said it wasn't against the Rules, per se, and it was still within the confines of the King's Pardon. If I choose to be shinigami, I will be specially assigned to Karakura and I will be able to use my body as a gigai for longer periods of time since it is my body. That way I would still be able to stay with my family, but as shinigami I must adhere to the Rules and obey my Captain completely. I must perform soul burials and I cannot tell my family, and if the time comes, I must perform burials on people I know. My added responsibilities include report writing and recruiting, giving me less time to do anything else." She smiled a bit ruefully. "I may never go to the nationals since I won't have time."
"Karin," said Toshiro with mixed emotions as he held her close. "I really am in love with you." She let out an uncharacteristic girly giggle and squeezed him tight.
"Will our feelings change with time, I wonder?" she asked tentatively.
"If we both face forward together, then our feelings will remain together," he said thoughtfully.
"I'll have to keep sending you those silly messages, then," Karin concluded, "since I won't be spending much time in Seireitei."
"And I'll never stop telling you how annoying you are," Toshiro finished. He leaned in to whisper into her ear, "Or how much I love you." He moved in to gently kiss her.
Karin immediately felt like she was melting from her ears to her toes and her knees buckled. She could feel the last of her defenses give way and the only thing holding her up in the aftermath was Toshiro. He let out a mischievous laugh.
"This is amusing," he said. She turned around with a provoked scowl.
"Not half as amusing as the stories your grandmother told me," quipped Karin, regaining some of her composure.
"What stories?" demanded Toshiro, his face becoming serious again. Karin put a coy hand to her lips.
"Heh. Like that time when the time when all the other children made fun of you for an entire summer because you were shaved bald, or when you were small and a stray dog snatched away your loincloth in the street. So embarrassing," she mocked. Karin ruffled his hair playfully. "Little Shiro-chan was so cute!"
He huffed his indignation and looked away. "If you really want to know about stuff like that you should ask me yourself. It sounds horrible when she tells it," Toshiro sulked. Karin laughed and turned his face towards her with a gentle hand.
"I like this expression of yours, this look when you let your guard down," she said softly. "Can I be the only one you show this face to?"
Karin had no idea of the impact of that request. Her words affected him deeply and the expression in his eyes reflected it. Without even thinking Toshiro collected her in his arms and kissed her again. The action was so sudden and his touch so passionate that Karin was a little startled. But she closed her eyes and lost herself in that kiss.
After a long moment, he finally pulled away and rested his forehead against hers, leaving both their senses reeling and breathing uneven. "You're such a selfish girl," he whispered as both corners of his lips turned upward in a heartfelt smile.
As she walked behind Ichigo and Rukia she noticed how their shoulders would touch every so often as they walked beside one another and Karin had to smile. She also knew what it felt like to walk with someone who was dear. With poor Kon still slung over her shoulder in a sack and a box of amanatto Granny Hitsugaya had made especially for her in the other hand, Karin glanced behind and took one last look at Rukongai. She marveled at the speed which the Captain Commander was able to procure a "King's Pardon" for her, but as an aside, the old man also whispered it was because they wanted Kurosaki Ichigo out of Soul Society as soon as possible. On a side note, the Captain Commander left an open invitation for her to come and play shogi with him any time.
There in the distance, the figures of her three drinking buddies and fellow 10th Division members were still waving their arms in farewell. One figure was distinctly missing as she, her brother and Rukia set out for the door separating the real world with Soul Society.
"Short little bastard," said Ichigo scornfully. That was his new nickname for Hitsugaya Toshiro. "The least he could do is see her off," he muttered. Rukia shushed him immediately. The shinigami stole a glance back at Karin and smiled. The expression on the younger girl's face proved that she and Toshiro had resolved their differences.
On the night before she left, Karin did have a brief conversation with Toshiro before he had to return to work. He had already apologized and told her that he would not be seeing her off because he had already been assigned a new mission. However, Toshiro did give her a long calligraphy scroll of "do's" and "don'ts" that he had written out in his elegant hand the previous day. He was her Captain, so naturally she could not go against him. Among them were orders to always avoid Zennosuke Kuramadani at all costs, to never take Kon out again on any of their dates, and to respond to his messages as quickly as possible. But just before he stepped through the doorway from his grandmother's house, he had taken one last glance back at her and added, "There aren't any 'goodbyes' between us, anyway." She kissed him with jovial exuberance at his romantic revelation and before he left, with a beet red face Toshiro haltingly stated that the Captain Commander granted him permission to visit her soon for her birthday and Tanabata-and that he was looking forward to seeing her again.
A broad grin spread across her face as Karin remembered his child-like, sheepish expression. That would never get old. She carried that with her as she continued with steady, unwavering steps going forward...always forward.
The real trouble I had with this story was the ending. Before finally tweaking the ending, I wanted to know if she should stay human so she could procreate with Toshiro (how cute) or if she would stay dead and still watch over her family. The choosing "love" over everything ending, seemed to fit the overall tone of the story as being light and fluffy where LOVE conquers all; without actually emphasizing the fact that she made a very Bella/Twilight decision and since I hate Bella, I resisted that ending for quite some time. So the original ending I decided was too serious for the title, and made the new ending more light hearted and hopeful.
I have to admit I really enjoyed writing this story because the characters were really vivid to me for some reason. I ignored most other things (eating, sleeping, work, personal hygiene...heh) and completely immersed myself in this story and its characters. Tite Kubo describes Hitsugaya Toshiro as "frozen passion." I see that now. It's a pity that this couple is non-canon and the author probably never even considered it. They are truly an interesting pair when you think about it. Long live the pairing of HitsuxKarin! Banzai! Banzai!
I'm really grateful for the assistance, advice and encouragement of all the readers of this fic. We had a really fun time, didn't we? I hope you enjoyed it to the end.
Until next time,