A few maple leaves were caught up in the gentle autumn breeze. They were swept across the narrow footpath and danced around the feet of a lone figure hunched on a small park bench. His back was bent under the stress and his fists clenched in suppressed frustration. His silver hair contrasted astoundingly against the background of flame coloured trees and dark trunks.
Toshiro sighed and leaned back, moving his hands from his knees to rest on the back of the bench. The crisp autumn air swirled around him, nipping at the large coat he had acquired from a store in the living world. He was used to these temperatures, however, after many a training accident with Hyourinmaru. The garment was obviously 2 sizes too big, and as Toshiro thought of Rangiku earnestly holding it out for him, he gritted his teeth.
"Damn it, Matsumoto! Were you trying to make me look like a fool?" He muttered to no one in particular.
Despite Rangiku's assurances that clothing too big for the wearer was 'totally in at the moment', Toshiro still felt ridiculous as he rolled the ends of his sleeves up so that he could actually see his fingertips. There was nothing he could do, however, about the length. It seemed, he would simply have to get used to the back of the coat hanging almost a quarter-ways down his legs.
Toshiro heaved another sigh. "Humans. . ." he murmured in bewilderment.
Everything was quiet and calm in Karakura Town. That was bothering Toshiro. There hadn't been a Hollow attack in weeks which could only mean trouble. A sense of foreboding was enveloping Toshiro with each day and slowly, he was getting more and more suspicious. Ever since Aizen had been imprisoned, all of Seireitei had been somewhat relaxed. Toshiro knew that if someone was looking to attack the Soul Society, that would be the best time, and therefore he was on alert. It was for this reason that Matsumoto suggested they take some time off and clean up any remaining issues facing the real world, such as any arrancar that had survived and the general despatching of Hollows.
A lady walking along the footpath, pushing a stroller caught sight of Toshiro and gave him a warning look and hurried forward. Toshiro caught the words '…it must be bleached…' before she moved beyond his hearing. He watched her give him another glance as she moved further down the path and leaned forward on his knees again. 'It seems my hair is still out of place, even here. . .'
Soon enough, Toshiro was lost in thoughts again, until he was roused by a loud voice.
"Yuzu! Don't just go petting ANY random dog you see! It could be dangerous!"
Toshiro's head snapped up, immediately.
Sure enough, there was no mistaking that voice- or that crop of orange hair.
"Kurosaki" He grumbled as he watched the carrot top lean anxiously over his little sister as she enthusiastically petted a small black dog. The owner was obviously in the process of gushing her life story to Yuzu as she stared intently down at the fur-ball. Off to one side, stood Karin, looking intensely bored. Almost as if she sensed his gaze, Karin looked over towards the small figure.
Before their eyes met, Toshiro dropped his head again and focused on the black and white stripes of his shoelaces. Though before long, Toshiro couldn't help but glance up again to see if the trio had noticed him. It was against the rules, he knew, to make contact with Ichigo intentionally, but there had been no mention of a chance encounter like this. If Toshiro had been in his Shinigami form, he knew that there would be no problem hiding from Kurosaki, but now that he was using a human body, there would be little chance that Ichigo wouldn't see him.
It seemed that none of the Kurosaki children had noticed him yet. Ichigo was still trying to coax a reluctant Yuzu away from the dog, and Karin was still- Toshiro froze.
The confident voice came from right next to him.
Toshiro jumped and whirled around, expecting Arrancar or the likes, however, what he saw surprised him even more.
"You're jumpy today. Something wrong?" She asked, smiling as she took a seat next to him on the bench.
"No, everything's fine," Toshiro replied as he settled back down, '. . . and that's what's bothering me' he added in his head. "What about you? How are you doing?"
Karin gave a small gesture by shrugging and nodding at the same time. "Yeah, I'm alright, I guess"
Toshiro's eyes narrowed.
"You guess? Karin is there something-"
"Toshiro? Is that you?"
Toshiro clenched his teeth again. 'Dammit Ichigo, you pick the worst times to interrupt!' he thought venomously.
"Yes, Kurosaki?" He said, looking up at the teen.
Kurosaki was grinning down at him, "What are you doing here? I thought you captains only came down…when…" Suddenly, his smile was replace with lines of worry etched in his face. His casual, happy demeanour was replaced with a much more serious one, and he spoke with renewed urgency, "Is something wrong? What's happened!"
Toshiro shook his head.
"No, there's nothing major going on," Toshiro paused for a second, "then again, if something big happened, I could hardly tell you"
Ichigo frowned, "That's not funny, you know"
"I wasn't telling a joke, Kurosaki," Toshiro stared him right in the eye, "You don't have your powers anymore, which means you would be no help to us. The 13 Court Guards are aware that without you, Aizen's defeat would have been near impossible, however since you haven't a shred of reiatsu anymore, we can't expect you to remain Karakura Town's guardian"
Ichigo looked a little taken aback for a moment before pulling together the old carefree, teasing attitude he usually had around Toshiro.
"You're right," he admitted, "I may not be very good at protecting this town, but you know. . ."
There was an edge to his voice that Toshiro didn't like the sound of. He studied his face looking for a hint of what Ichigo was thinking.
". . . this park can be pretty dangerous," Ichigo continued, "and since I already have two sisters, I've become pretty apt at baby-sitting. . ."
Toshiro felt he knew where this conversation was heading and he was aware that it wouldn't end well for Ichigo if he continued.
"Well, if you wanted, you could come with us, and I'll protect you from all those big meanies who want to hurt a child, such as yours-"
Toshiro was on his feet, hands balled into fists glaring at Ichigo as the carrot top bolted down the path, dragging Yuzu along with him.
"C'mon Karin! Let's get going" He yelled over his shoulder.
Toshiro continued staring after Ichigo with a fierce expression on his face.
"Actually, I was . . . going to stay here a while, Ichi-nii. I'll be home later, okay?"
Ichigo actually stopped in the middle of the path so quickly that Yuzu ran headlong into him.
"What?" He asked.
Toshiro, who had been death staring Ichigo's back, also turned in surprise.
A soft blush crept up over her cheeks and she lowered her voice a little. "I was just . . . going to stay a little longer. . ." She trailed off, avoiding Ichigo's questioning look and looking anywhere but Toshiro's face.
Ichigo looked from Karin to Toshiro a few times before he stopped on Karin, smiling a little.
"Ooooooohhhhhh, okay Karin. You stay as long as you want," He crooned in a teasing manner.
Karin whipped her head up and glared at Ichigo.
Ichigo took Yuzu's hand and started the long walk home, chuckling as he went.
Toshiro let his withering gaze shift from the leaving figure and instead, he noticed that Karin was still blushing.
"What was all that about?" He asked.
For the first time he could remember, Toshiro heard Karin stutter.
"I, uh, Ich- Ichigo was just messing around…"
'She's still avoiding my eyes,' Toshiro thought, his curiosity growing with each word she said. It would have to wait, though. The sun was sinking already and Toshiro had to find Matsumoto and hear if anything had happened on her watch.
"Okay, well, I should probably get going," Toshiro started, then stopped when Karin looked up quickly.
"Yeah, um, okay…I'll see you around, Toshiro…" There was a note of sadness in her voice which had Toshiro desperate to figure out more.
Toshiro was turning to leave, when suddenly Karin grabbed his wrist.
"Wait," She said, her blush growing redder, "I was just, ah, wondering if, maybe, you'd like to go get…uh ice cream or something…you know, with- with me?"
Toshiro looked at her, a puzzled expression on his face. 'What's so embarrassing about ice cream?' he wondered. He was about to say no and that he had an appointment with his vice-captain, when he saw the look on her face, and something made him hesitate. 'Matsumoto is always late' he thought, 'and if something had happened, I would have felt it…'
"Okay, sure," He said and Karin smiled.
"C'mon, I know a great little shop. It should still be open!" Karin took his hand and began weaving through the onlookers who now didn't glance at Toshiro out of the corner of their eyes with suspicion written on their faces. Instead, as Toshiro and Karin strolled through the backstreets of Karakura Town, people watching smiled at the prospect of love finding children so young.
Toshiro noticed these differences and shook his head in bewilderment.
'The human world sure is strange, after all…'