Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach or any of its characters. Oh, and I do not own Kodak either!


"Hitsugaya-sama, you're on in ten minutes."

"Thank you, Nanao-san. I will be right out."

As he hears Nanao's heels clicking away down the hall, he sighs, running his hand through his signature white hair, specifically styled to be even spikier for the day, as it is his trademark.

Only ten minutes until he has to go out there and pretend like he cares about music or the people gathered out there in the theater.

After all, his entire career is really a show. He pretends to still be interested in the instrument he plays, and he acts as if he really cares for the hoards of obnoxious rich people, who plague him constantly with offers of friendship, most likely for the fame he has acquired at such a young age.

There was once a time when he had loved it; the fame, the publicity, the people, the music. But he had been youthful, fresh, and new to the scene, and now that time has long since passed.

He looks at himself in the mirror and frowns. He is in a bad state. His shirt is in a disarray, his black waistcoat is unbuttoned, his bow tie is hanging untied around his collar, and his jacket has been flung on the sofa he can see reflected behind him in the mirror. There are bags under his eyes; he wants to sleep.

Matsumoto will have a fit if she sees him. She probably will not even let him on the stage looking like this, seeing as she has informed him this recital will be televised live. There is no chance she will allow the public to see him in such a sloppy fashion.

With a disheartened effort, he rearranges his shirt and tucks it into his trousers, buttons up his vest, ties his bow tie and slips it under the collar, and slips on his jacket after grabbing it from the couch, fastening each button carefully.

When he looks in the mirror, he sees a young adult staring back at him with a bored expression on his face. He sees not Hitsugaya Toushiro, but Hitsugaya Toushiro, the World Renowned Pianist.

Pretty soon, he hears heels clicking on the floor again and, a moment later, his manager enters, her bright orange hair in a neat bun at the nape of her neck and her usually unrestricted bosom trapped under her formal dress.

"Oh, look at you all dressed up," she coos. "You look so handsome."

He scowls.

"Don't push it, Matsumoto," he growls. "You know I have no desire to be here, and I will walk out right now if you push me too far."

Matsumoto simply rolls her eyes.

"You say that before every recital. And have you ever actually walked out? No."

There is a pause before she steps towards him and slips his tie into her hands. As she rearranges the slight crookedness of the garment, she smiles gently.

"You know, you really do look handsome," she says softly. "It's so amazing to see you like this. I sometimes still have trouble picturing you as anything other than the cheeky brat who used to spit watermelon seeds at your sister, but seeing you all dressed up like this really reminds me how talented you really are."

His eyes soften slightly.

"I guess I have you to thank for the discovery. After all, you were the one who pushed me into taking lessons, even though I kept refusing."

Matsumoto laughs.

"Oh wow! You, actually thanking me. Now this is a Kodak moment. Where's a camera when you need one?"

The soft look in his eyes is replaced with irritation. Trust Matsumoto to ruin a moment with her tendency to tease.

"Don't I have a recital to play?" he snaps, hoping to get away from her.

"Oh right! We better get out there, before Nanao-chan blows a fuse. The poor girl's been arranging this for weeks, and now that the day is finally here, she looks ready to pull her own hair out. Or ours," she adds as an afterthought. She suddenly looks panicked. "I think it's best not to make her wait."

"Now hold on," Hitsugaya says, smirking. "A bald Matsumoto? I don't want to miss that."

"Oh, hush up, you," she says, though she is smiling, and he allows her to drag him out of the room and down the hall by his wrist.

"There you two are!" Nanao cries, looking hassled as she sees them emerge from the dressing rooms area of the theater. "You're on in three minutes, Hitsugaya-sama. Please get into position."

As he rushes to the side of the stage where he will make his entrance, Matsumoto rushes after him, adding last minute fixtures to his clothing. He knows this is her way of relieving her anxiety about the upcoming performance, so he lets her smooth out creases and straighten his clothing.

He is indifferent to the situation. Right now, all he really wants is some sleep and some solitude, and all he really cares about is that he will not be getting it anytime soon.

When the announcer calls his name, he bats away Matsumoto's hand and tries to lift his bored expression before walking out on the stage.

The polite applause comes instantly and he, in turn, gives a polite bow, as is expected of him. As always, simply a show.

When he settles at the piano in the center of the stage, he feels no spark ignite in his fingers, as had often happened in the early years of his career, and he feels no excitement at the sight of the cameras focusing on him, as he had felt during his first performances; instead, he tries his best to ignore them.

Despite his cold attitude towards the music, he is still very talented. He lets his fingers flow smoothly over the keys, hitting each note lightly to create the effect he desires. It works; he feels the atmosphere in the room lighten, and he can see the audience members begin to relax into their seats, letting the music overtake them. He wishes he is still able to do that.

.. ღ ..

It is while he is looking out at the audience at this time that he catches his first glimpse of her.

She is seated in the front row of the seats on the balcony. There is nothing really very special about her; she is dressed in formal wear, as all the others in the room, yet her dress is simple, without ruffles or sparkles, as so many of the females in the room have chosen to wear. Her hair is cropped short, and it has been styled to curl in and frame her face. There is no makeup on her face.

But it is not her state of dress that catches his attention, but the serene expression on her face. She has leaned back in her chair like many others in the room, but, unlike the others, her eyes are closed softly, no creases on her face to show the slightest state of discomfort. A small smile is playing on her lips as she takes in the music and her small hands are folded lightly in her lap, one laying on top of the other. She looks content.

Perhaps it is the tranquil state she is in that draws his eyes towards her constantly. So much so that, when he is not looking at the piano keys to change notes and pace, his eyes flicker towards the balcony consistently, drinking in the sight of her. She looks like she is enjoying herself very much; he feels envy at her peace, and pride that it is his music that has inspired the expression on her face.

It is not until his composition reaches a quicker stanza that he notices the strangest observation about her; perhaps the observation that engraves her into his memory forever.

A movement at the bottom of the seat draws his eyes; she is tapping her foot to the beat of the music, and he realizes her shoes have been kicked under the seat.

She is barefoot.

.. ღ ..

When he finally ends his last composition, polite applause rises again, and he sighs in relief as he is finally allowed to exit the stage, though not before a quick bow.

As he rushes to the curtains, his eyes flicker one last time to the woman in the balcony. He sees her bend over, grab her shoes from underneath her seat, slip them on, and then slip her arm through that of the gentlemen who has been seated next to her throughout his performance.

Her lover, perhaps?

He is given no chance to ponder, however, as Matsumoto suddenly crushes his head to her chest the minute he exits.

"Oh, Shiro!" she squeals, forgetting, in her excitement, to address him properly, as he so frequently demands of others. "That was so beautiful. I almost had tears in my eyes! And that applause! They loved you!"

He pushes himself out of her choke hold.

"Matsumoto!" he growls in irritation. "Please behave yourself." She has the sense to look sheepish. "If you would please excuse me, I would like to go change now."

"Oh no, Hitsugaya-san," Matsumoto says suddenly. "You can't leave now. There's a party scheduled after this. A lot of the audience members want to meet you."

He raises his eyebrows.

"And when exactly was this decided?"

"Ages ago! Didn't I mention it to you...? Oh."

She looks sheepish once again, and he turns a full-scale glare on her.

"Oh, I am so sorry! Please, please, please don't skip out. Nanao-chan is scary! And she's been planning this for so long."

"One hour," he compromises through pressed lips. "And then I'm leaving, no matter which high corporate sleaze ball I'm talking to."

She knows this is the best she will get.

"Deal."

.. ღ ..

It is her.

That is the only thought that is running through his head the entire hour from the minute he catches sight of her across the room, laughing with the gentlemen from before.

He pays no attention to the business men and investors and corporate hotshots that make their way to him, but, for Matsumoto's sake (because she is shooting him pitiful looks from not too far away), he acts as if he is listening.

He loses sight of her countless times, and only manages to catch glimpses every once in a while from across the crowded party. She is always laughing, and he wonders just what is so funny.

He finally gets a chance to find out. Near the end of the party, he catches sight of her and her escort in a conversation with Nanao. Plucking up the courage, he makes his way over.

"Nanao-san," he greets her.

She turns from her conversation and sends him an invite to join them. Of course, he accepts.

"This is Kurosaki Ichigo," she introduces him to the gentleman. "He is a friend of mine and Kyoraku-san's, and we invited him to come view your performance today on our behalf."

He remembers Kyoraku to be the lazy owner of the theater, though he has not seen him at the theater even once, because he is known to skip work whenever the urge arises, leaving poor Nanao to handle everything – no wonder she always looks stressed.

"And this," Nanao continues, and he feels himself tensing at the introduction he knows is coming, "is his sister, Kurosaki Karin."

He gives her a quick bow with his head, and she does the same, although there is a curious gleam in her eyes. He cannot fathom why.

"Karin here," her brother says, grinning, "is a huge fan of yours. She begged me to beg Nanao for the tickets when she heard you would be playing here. It's our first time seeing your performance live, and you've definitely got talent, kid."

"Thank you, Kurosaki-san," he answers crisply," but I would prefer you address me as Hitsugaya."

The flame haired man simply chuckles.

"Well, Karin," he turns to his sister, and the pianist notices that he is speaking each word clearly and slowly to her, "you want to say something, too? Or did you drag me out here this late just to stand around and stare?"

He does not understand that strange intensity in her eyes; when her brother speaks to her, she focuses intently on his lips, as if afraid of missing a single word.

But perhaps he imagines it, because when she turns to him, there is no sharp focus in her eyes.

"You are very talented, Hitsugaya-san," she compliments. "I enjoy your music very much."

He is startled by her way of speech. It is a mix between a lisp and a slur, punctuated with short breaks between each word, as if she is forcing out each one. Is she foreign? If so, why is her brother without any sort of accent?

"Uh, thank you very much, Kurosaki-san. I am glad you enjoyed my performance."

There it is again; the fixated gaze, on his lips this time. However, when she speaks again, there is only a slightly pensive look in them, her brows furrowed.

"Oh, I think you have misunderstood me," she says. "I said I enjoy your music. But, I did not say I enjoyed your performance. In fact, I would say it was a disappointment."

.. ღ ..

When the awkward group departs from the silence after that statement, he is the only one still fixated on his spot.

A disappointment? He is? Is he?

His technique had been perfect, his mind clear and focused. So why is he a disappointment? That word will not leave his thoughts.

And suddenly, the confusion is replaced with anger.

Who the hell is she to say he is a disappointment?

After all, she is just a captivating woman with strange speech impediments and honest words. Aside from that, she is nothing special, and nothing separates her from a crowd.

He is the famous pianist, the one who is recognized wherever he goes, he knows he played perfectly, and he will not take this lightly.

He needs to find her again, and set her straight.

"Hitsugaya-san!" he hears Matsumoto calling for him. "Your hour is over. Thank you so much for staying, or I swear Nanao would have found some way to sterilize me. But, you can go home now."

"Matsumoto, it would be rude of me to simply leave in the middle of the party. I will go converse with some others. In fact..."

He spots her again, as he has been frequently throughout the night. Her brother is still speaking to Nanao, and they have been joined by others, but she is heading out the door. Perhaps for fresh air. No matter the reason, he makes to follow.

"But, you said you would only stay for an hour...?" His manager is completely confused by the 180 decision.

"I said no such thing." He smirks at her bewildered expression. "Stop putting words into my mouth." And he departs, leaving her without an explanation.

.. ღ ..

"I knew you would come again," she says in her strange way.

"Oh? And why is that?"

"Because you have too much pride. And you let it control you." There is a sneer in her voice, and he feels himself flushing.

"We all have pride. It's not as if I am some sort of oddity for letting it make decisions for me. People do that all the time."

"But you are different from "people," because you let it control you too often, and you know this too."

"I know no such thing."

"Oh? So tell me then, Hitsugaya, if you say it was not pride, then what led you to come and play tonight when it is so obvious that you did not want to?"

He freezes. How could she possibly have known, possibly have seen through his mask? He is sure he was not obvious.

"...commitment," he finally answers.

She smirks again, her eyes holding the hint of a jeer.

"See? There is your pride again. You just cannot bear to admit it, can you?"

"Who are you?" he blurts out.

It is a stupid question – she is Kurosaki Karin, of course – but he feels that there is something more to her; why can she see through him so clearly?

"I'm sorry?" she says, the focus in her eyes going immediately to his fast moving lips; she looks slightly lost.

A little confused, and slightly embarrassed at having to repeat the question he knows is ridiculous, he asks once more. Understanding dawns on her.

"I am...just a concerned fan, you could say." The look in her eyes softens. "I am part of the group that wants to see you make a comeback. Your music used to be so inspirational, and it has changed so recently. When I heard you today, I knew your heart was not in it. It was a disappointment."

There is that word again.

'How...could you tell?" he finally asks.

She gives a sad smile.

"It did not move me, like it has for so many years. It was beautiful to listen to, of course, but apart from that, there was nothing special about it."

"But how do I make it special? I've lost my spark already."

She shakes her head in amusement, the sad smile still on her face. Slowly, she reaches for his hands, and holds them palm up in her own.

"In these hands is the power to move people, to inspire them. I know, because you have already done this. All you need is to simply find a way to love the piano once again."

He is exasperated, because he does not understand the message she is trying to convey.

"But how do I do that?"

"Well, think for a second. What drew you to the piano in the first place? What was the reason that you decided to pursue it, to practice, and to become great?"

And this question does not stump him.

Instantly, his mind takes him back to a time when he was young. When he and his sister and his grandmother had all lived such carefree lives. When he had seen the pride in his grandmother's eyes as she bragged to her friends about her grandbaby's wonderful talent. When he had seen the joy light up his sister's face as he played a piece just for her.

He wanted to be someone they could look up to, and admire, and be proud of. He still does.

But times have changed. His grandmother passed away years ago, and his sister is married, too busy with her new life to stay in touch. The muse in his life is no longer there, and now, neither is the spark.

He realizes she is still watching him intently, and sighs.

"It does not matter what reason. All I know is that that reason is not in my life any longer."

And to his surprise, she smiles widely. He flicks his eyes away, calming his heart, which had chosen this absurdly random moment to beat faster than the fastest stanza he has ever written.

And he is still fully aware that she still has his hands in her grasp. She is warm.

"Well then, Hitugaya-san," she says cheerfully, "the simplest solution to your problem is to find another reason."

Just like that? It is not possible. At least, he does not think it is.

"You are too simple-minded."

She rolls her eyes.

"Tell me, what was your reason?"

He pauses only for a moment before replying, "To make my family happy."

This is when her face falls.

"Oh. Well, I suppose it would be impossible to replace your family. But.." and she suddenly lights up again, "you can still make people happy."

"What-"

"Would it not be enough, Hitsugaya-san, to know that your playing whole-heartedly would make me happy?"

What?!

"What?"

"I know this is a long shot, but I am sure you have some devotion to your fans, right? I mean, you played today and came to the party, even though you did not want to."

"That was only for my manager. She insisted."

"So you're saying that you do not care about your fans at all?"

When he does not answer, she smiles.

"I could be your reason Hitugaya-san," she says softly. "Forgive me for being so bold, but you have lost someone to encourage you, and if being the one to push you means that you will continue to play as beautifully as you did years ago, then I will gladly be your critic."

"Why does this matter to you?"

She sighs, drops his hands, and steps away. He feels frightened, thinking he has offended her in some way, but when he sees her more clearly, he notices the melancholic look on her face.

"A few years ago," she begins in a whisper, "I was in a bad place. I had...an accident, and it changed everything, not in a good way. Before then, I had never payed attention to anything aside from soccer. And then, one day, I was brooding in my room – that had become my only way of spending my pastime – and...I felt you on the radio."

Felt?

"I still remember putting my hands on the speakers, letting your music flow through them. It was soft, but it was serious. I saw you on TV only a few days later, and I asked my dad about you. He told me about you; how you were a child prodigy with the piano, and that you could play the most difficult pieces, and remember even the longest pieces. I bought your CDs. I used to take them to my room and put my hands on the speakers, and I could "hear" every note. It was the first time since my accident that I felt normal.

"I want to feel normal again, Hitsugaya-san."

.. ღ ..

As they head back inside, he grabs her wrist, and turns her to face him; he is well aware now of her strange need to stare at a person's lips as they speak, though he does not give it much thought. Perhaps it is a foreign custom?

"If you're going to be my muse, you'll have to call me Toushiro. Or else it would feel strange."

She gives a light gasp, and then she beams.

"Only if you call me Karin."

He smirks.

"We'll see."

"Hey, not fair!"

He can only smile as he hurries inside, her following him, still sputtering protests.

.. ღ ..

It gives him a strange feeling of giddiness to know that at his next performance, she – the girl who knows him and his music so well, and takes it more to heart than even he does – will be listening in. He hopes to make her proud, and so he will give it his best.

.. ღ ..

Her brother rushes to her, looking out of breath.

"I was looking everywhere for you," he scolds her. She looks ashamed for worrying him, and he sighs, running his hand through his hair. "Come on. It's getting late. Get your coat; we should get home before Otou-san flips out and reports a kidnapping to the police or something, because Kami knows he's stupid enough to."

She obliges and drapes her coat over her arm, ready to leave.

He does not get a chance to say goodbye; a few friends drop by to bid her and her brother farewell, and so he simply watches from the other end of the room, as he had done earlier.

When she catches his eye, she gives a wave, and he nods his head in acknowledgement, keeping his arms folded across his chest. However, a moment later, he unfolds them, only so he can put a hand over his mouth in shock.

Why?

Because he sees her turn to Nanao, and he sees them hug.

And as they pull back, Nanao touches her lips with her right hand, and puts the back of it down into the palm of the left hand. Then, she makes a "V" with her fingers, and holds them directly in front of her eyes, and moves her hand outwards. Finally, she points to Karin.

"Good to see you," she signs.

And Karin, grinning, puts both her hands on her lips, then extends them out, slightly downward, to Nanao.

"I am very grateful," she signs back.

And suddenly, he remembers her bare feet planted firmly on the ground vibrating from the speakers, her concentration on the lips of those speaking, her strange accent despite her brother's lack of one, and her special way of "feeling" his music. All of his observations from the night fill his mind, and he comes to the one miraculous conclusion:

She is deaf.


Ugh! I've totally butchered Karin in this! But there was no way I was going to actually attempt to write how she speaks, because that would simply be offensive. So I made her speak without contractions to show the way she speaks each word clearly and seperately, and now she sounds too proper to be Karin. Oh well, if you just grit your teeth and read through it anyway, then you are absolutely awesome and I love you.

Though I've marked this as "Complete," and the summary says it is a one-shot, I'm thinking of making this a two-shot, or maybe a three-shot if I get in the mood, but I'll leave that up to the reviewers to decide. Do you guys just want to leave it at his revelation, and leave this mysterious? Or would you like more insight into their lives, and their future?

My inspiration for this was Yiruma, who is an amazing new-age South Korean pianist who composes very beautiful music, and Nightingale by Yanni, because this song is just so breathtakingly peaceful and beautiful. They both remind me of flowing rivers and streams, and chirping birds, and gentle winds, and lying quietly in soft grass. *sigh* If you ever have the time or curiosity, you should check either (or both) out; you won't be sorry if you do!