Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach.
I wrote this after chapter 426 and multiple requests for a sequel to Growth. Thanks guys!
"Captain!" Matsumoto cried. "Oh, you just look so adorable!"
And once more, Toushirou was subjected to the bone-crushing vice that was Matsumoto's embrace. Luckily, he was just a little higher than her chest now, so it wasn't quite as awkward. However, the fact that he now looked like a teen made up for the relocation of his face during such events.
"Matsumoto!" he reprimanded, pushing her away. "We have work to do!"
Toushirou slipped on the black baseball cap that Urahara had provided him. Now that the scientist wasn't being chased by Soul Society anymore, he'd tried to be particularly helpful. After all, he had two strikes against him as it was. A third might be his downfall.
Matsumoto pouted. "Why do you have to wear that ridiculous thing?"
"The gigai or the hat?" he drawled.
"The hat, of course," she answered.
"You know perfectly well why," he growled back, pulling it tighter on his head. "Also, I hope you recall that no one is supposed to recognize me on this mission."
"Besides Karin, you mean," Matsumoto said.
"That's a purposeful direct confrontation," Toushirou replied. "It doesn't count. Now, Matsumoto, please just do your job and survey the area. Try not to let any gifted humans see you. The only one you have been authorized to speak to is—"
"Orihime," Matsumoto finished. "I know, Captain. So off you go!"
"If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were trying to get rid of me," he remarked in suspicion.
She gave him one final push out the door. He heaved a sigh, letting the subject matter drop. He would deal with whatever disasters Matsumoto had caused when he was done.
The air outside was starting to gain a slight chill. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. After the first wave of refreshing air, he was able to pick up Karin's reiatsu without a problem. In fact, it was even stronger than last time.
Which was, essentially, the reason he'd been sent back so early.
A month from when he'd last seen her, her reiatsu had triggered an alert in Twelfth Division. Kurotsuchi had reported it immediately, as he was instructed to do. Soon after, Toushirou was called to First Division and handed a mission to the World of the Living. Most of the captains had come to believe it would be easier for Karin to talk with someone who looked to be about her age.
Giving Kurotsuchi yet another excuse to procrastinate on his development of a cure to Toushirou's human rate of aging.
Toushirou began the long trek to the soccer field where he sensed the girl. He cursed the gigai. His Shinigami form would get him there so much faster. However, the gigai would be required for his other mission while here. He hadn't even told his Lieutenant why. Instead, he'd created the excuse that it was to prevent Karin from talking to what appeared to be empty space.
The girl was now leaving the field and heading in his direction. He wondered if it was because she sensed him or because her destination just happened to be this way. Could she even sense reiatsu that well? Her brother never could.
Not that Ichigo could sense much of anything anymore.
He pushed the thought away. She would be coming into view soon. He had to make sure that no one was with her before approaching. Pulling his cap over his eyes, he steered himself to the side. There was now a good-sized clearing on the path in which he would be able to monitor her clearly.
Karin's form came walking into the area…with another person. Toushirou moved into the shadows. The older boy she was with was spinning a soccer ball in his hands gracefully. His smile was bright and warm. Hers became warm, too, as she laughed at something he said. Toushirou took another step back, pulling every ounce of his reiatsu in. He'd have to try later.
As luck would have it, the two chose that moment to stop. The boy tossed the ball to Karin and waved. "You sure you don't want me to walk you home, Kurosaki? It's getting kind of late and I hate to break it to you, but you are a girl."
"Keep on walking, you sexist," she retorted.
"I didn't mean it that way!" he defended, flustered.
"I know." She was amused. "I'll be fine. See you at practice on Monday, Captain!"
Sure, Toushirou thought. She called him "Captain."
He waited for Karin to start walking, but she did no such thing. Instead, she turned to stare at him. "The baseball cap is a nice touch."
Toushirou sighed and emerged from the shadows. "You could tell?"
"I sensed your reiatsu earlier," she answered. "Why is Soul Society here this time?"
"Same reason as last time," he supplied. "Surveillance. Your reiatsu has been spiking drastically as of late."
"And they sent you?"
Her eyes drifted down to the pavement. "Soul Society doesn't have anything to worry about yet. Ichigo still doesn't have his powers back."
"I know," Toushirou answered. "I passed by his high school earlier. He doesn't have even a trace of reiatsu."
Karin's expression tightened. "Yeah."
"You sound disappointed," Toushirou noted. He took in her behavior and it suddenly clicked. "You were hoping he would, weren't you? After I told you that he might regain his powers by being in contact with so much reiatsu, you increased the amount you were releasing around him."
"Ichigo is miserable without his powers," she answered. "The World of the Living….it's not his world anymore. I want him to be happy again, even if it means he's placed in dangerous situations."
"Karin Kurosaki," he sighed. "Doing that may attract more Hollows to your area."
She frowned. "One of Ichigo's friends always takes care of them."
"Look," he said, "everyone wants your brothers' powers back. I understand. But you can't put people in danger in order to achieve that."
"Well, what if—"
"Kurosaki," he cut in. "Let things progress naturally."
She reluctantly agreed. "Fine."
He watched as her shoulders slumped. He tried not to let it affect him. Just because he was the one who ruined her earlier happiness didn't mean that he had to feel…guilty about it. He tried to distract himself from those thoughts. "Do you still have the device I gave you?"
She removed it from her pocket. "Never leave without it."
"Toushirou," she began, "how often are you going to be coming here?"
"I don't know," he answered. "Whenever Soul Society decides to send me."
"So, it could be years before you come back again," she concluded.
He nodded. "Yes, although it's unlikely. I would say that every few months to once a year might be a better estimate with the rate your reitsu is growing at. Soul Society is cautious about the matter."
"Mm," he confirmed. "Congratulations, you are currently one of the most frequently discussed people at the Captains' meetings. They are concerned that you may become more like your brother."
"I don't want to be like Ichigo," she responded. "I don't want to make my family worry about me."
"What about him?" Toushirou asked. "Do you think he may be growing concerned about your abilities?"
"No." Toushirou noticed she seemed somewhat frustrated. "Ichigo doesn't notice anything even as a full human."
"You make it sound like he doesn't care," the white-haired boy pointed out.
"I know he does," she answered, "just probably not about all the things we wish he did. Like back on the day of our entrance ceremony, Yuzu was so excited about showing off her uniform and he barely noticed. I don't think he even really cared when I was the only girl to ever get on the soccer team considering we only have one for boys. It's like he's still running by Soul Society time where nothing ever changes."
"I beg to differ," Toushirou mumbled.
Karin attempted a light laugh. "I guess in your case. By the way, Toushirou, I never did ask why you're wearing that baseball cap."
"It should be obvious," he answered. "White hair would attract attention to myself."
"And…?" She knew there was another reason.
"And Matsumoto gave me a bad haircut."
This time, her laugh was more genuine. "Seriously? C'mon, let me see."
"No," he protested, swinging out of her way.
"Toushirou!" She chased after him, eventually grabbing the edge of the hat. In one swift movement, she was able to pull it off. It was the closest she'd ever seen Toushirou to pouting.
"It doesn't look that bad," she assured. "Actually, I kind of like it."
He still seemed displeased. His hands moved to try to create some semblance of order amongst the shorter spikes. Just because Matsumoto thought he'd "outgrown" his old hairstyle didn't mean she had to chop it all off! It still made him twitch whenever he looked in the mirror.
He was shocked when Karin had the audacity to reach forward and mess it all up again. That one stubborn strand fell back into his face and she smiled. "No, really, it looks good."
"Whatever," he mumbled, pressing the cap back on top of his head. "I should leave. We will be getting close to your home soon."
"Are you going back to Soul Society?"
"Not until Thursday."
She nodded. "Maybe I'll see you around."
Her house was now visible. Toushirou paused to take something out of his pocket. A letter, Karin realized.
"I shouldn't be doing this," he said, "but can you give this to Ichigo?"
She examined the paper. "This is Rukia's handwriting."
"She requested that I deliver this," he informed.
Karin turned the paper over in her hands. "I thought Soul Society was cutting off all ties with Ichigo?"
He shrugged. "We're supposed to be, but she was so disappointed when they declined her request to be made Karakura's representative Shinigami again. It was obvious that she planned to reclaim her old gigai in order to visit Ichigo. The least I could do was deliver her letter."
"Don't tell me you are wearing the gigai just to deliver this letter," Karin said.
"A floating piece of paper would be suspicious," he claimed. "Besides, I told everyone else that it was to prevent you from talking to empty air, which is partially true."
She rolled her eyes. "Well, thanks." She fingered the edge of the envelope. "Ichigo will really appreciate it."
Both teens nearly jumped out of their skin as said orange-haired ex-Shinigami appeared at the front door.
"Ichigo." To her credit, Karin's voice was perfectly level. "Shouldn't you be studying?"
"You're late," he stated. He turned suspicious instantly. "Who's your friend?"
This wasn't going to end well, Karin mused. She glanced at Toushirou. The boy was as cool as ever. Figured, considering he was practically the embodiment of ice.
"Just someone from school," she lied, "who will be leaving now. Bye!"
Ichigo raised an eyebrow as the boy began to take a few steps away. "Hey, kid, what's your name?"
"Drop it," Karin hissed.
"You're being awfully defensive," Ichigo commented. "What, is he like your secret boyfriend or something? Or that soccer team captain you keep talking about—what's his name?—Takeo or something?"
"Ichigo!" Karin was blushing furiously now. She glanced over to Toushirou. Although, she thought, he is a captain, even if not one for soccer.
Toushirou pulled his hat down lower both to avoid recognition and hide the redness creeping up on his face. Ichigo managed to be a menace even without his powers. The younger boy was so glad that Matsumoto wasn't here at the moment. She would never let him live it down.
He decided to give a quick wave to Karin before walking away.
"Wait!" Ichigo called.
Karin drove a well-aimed kick to his stomach. Due to his distraction, he was unable to dodge. She sent him a heavy glare, not caring that her reiatsu was rising. "Why are you…so…"
She trailed off as a headache attacked her. Hey onyx eyes whipped to the sky. No. There it was. A crack. Close by, Toushirou's attention was caught by the same thing. He fumbled in his pockets quickly for his Soul Candy. There was absolutely no possible way he'd left it at Urahara's shop.
Meanwhile, Ichigo was looking around in confusion.
"Karin," he asked, standing up, "what's wrong?"
"Nothing, just go inside," she ordered.
His eyes widened and he whispered, "A Hollow?"
Karin's fingers gripped her ball tighter. Toushirou was still looking for his Soul Candy.
"You can't go after it," Ichigo warned. "I'm not going anywhere without you."
"Ichigo!" she screamed. "There's nothing you can do."
The guilt hit Karin as pure pain flickered across his face. He couldn't do anything. There was a monster right there and he was completely powerless. She didn't even have time to apologize before the Hollow landed. The force shook the ground and formed a small crater.
Karin ran off. It only took Toushirou a second to realize that she was heading toward it, soccer ball at the ready.
"No!" he shouted, abandoning the idea of finding the Soul Candy. But it was too late. Karin's foot was already propelling her ball forward and toward the being. The mark was hit squarely. However, it was only able to crack the mask, not obliterate it. This would take another shot.
Another shot she didn't have.
The Hollow became aggravated and made to swing at this pest. Karin dodged it just in time. But it was persistent. With a mighty roar, it slammed its fist in her direction again. It missed her, but she was thrown back by the force. The girl paled as she stared up at the creature from the ground, defenseless, while it prepared its final attack.
The voice couldn't get her to look away from her oncoming doom. She couldn't scream. Couldn't close her eyes. Only stare as the moment passed in slow motion.
Twenty meters from her.
She was staring.
She didn't even register the shadow flying over her head from the top of the nearby escape ladder until the figure's foot struck the Hollow's head a second time. The blow caused the mask to crack all the way and the Hollow to dissipate. She gasped as Toushirou landed right in front of her, the hat falling from his head. His intense eyes locked onto hers.
And she stared.
The boy broke eye contact first as he glanced over to the ex-Shinigami. He straightened up. "That's Captain Hitsugaya to you."
"Are you kidding me?" Ichigo shouted. "All of you d— Shinigami vanish for seventeen months and that's the first thing you say?"
Toushirou helped Karin up from the ground.
"Who said we didn't come back?" he asked. "It's not like you would know."
Ichigo ran outside to the pair. He stopped short. "You're taller now! But what's with the crappy hair cut?"
Karin thought Toushirou was literally about to explode. "What is it with you Kurosakis?"
The look on Ichigo's face clearly said that he was missing something.
"I have to go," he announced. "You weren't supposed to see me."
"What about the others?" Ichigo insisted. "Is Rukia here, too?"
But Toushirou ignored him and sprinted away. Karin sighed and began to head indoors. She shoved the letter at Ichigo. "This is from her."
He looked from it to her before following. "…Karin?"
She stopped at the doorway. "I can't believe you, Ichigo."
"What do you mean?"
"You haven't been paying attention to anything lately," she raged. "Just now, I got attacked by a Hollow and you didn't even ask if I was alright. To you, if it's not Soul Society, it's not real."
He placed a hand on her shoulder. "That's not true."
"Then prove it." Her eyes tried to burn him alive. Ichigo almost winced. Since when did Karin turn into such a moody teenage girl? He blinked. Maybe that was her point exactly. He hadn't noticed that transition. He was too focused on what wasn't anymore. His expression softened and he wrapped her in a hug.
"I'm sorry," he said. "You're right. But can I ask one question?"
"Why were you walking with Toushirou?"
He found her fist in his stomach as her face went red again. "Ichigo!"