Well, it's finally done! How many of you are about ready to skewer me for taking so ridiculously long? ^^' As an apology, this chapter is considerably longer than the last.

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach or any of its characters.

Karin insisted that she wanted to meet the little girl who had been with him last evening at the circus. She'd been so pushy that he'd been unable to refuse her request, so the two found themselves cruising down the street he remembered too well. He only hoped that Kenpachi wouldn't kill them for dropping in so early – and unannounced at that.

Karin didn't seem at all bothered by her sudden whims and approaching visit to a stranger. "Who is she, anyway?" she wanted to know, swinging her legs in his car as she looked at him curiously. A smirk overtook her face at the next thought. "Your daughter?"

"My employee's cousin," he explained stiffly, not really bothering to allow his irritation to grow, because he knew that would only encourage her to tease him more. He had come to know her surprisingly well in the few hours they had been together; at least, he knew what not to do around her to keep his short temper in check.

She whistled low at his answer, shooting him an impressed look. "You're some boss," she muttered in slight awe. With a sneer, she explained, "Kon only cares about the money...and women. He definitely fits the stereotype of corrupt ringleaders in all those horrible, animal poaching movies." At his raised eyebrows, she continued quickly, "Not that our animals are poached, of course."

He only rolled his eyes at her nervous laughter as she sheepishly scratched the back of her head. It wasn't long after that they pulled up right outside that small home he'd thought he wouldn't see again. In fact, he could already feel himself suffocating at the mere thought of seeing Kenpachi again. From what Ikkaku had told him that morning, because of his knee, he wasn't allowed to do his usual exercise routine and was now in a very destructive mood. He wasn't quite sure how the man would react to unexpected visitors; he should have asked Ikkaku to call ahead for them and ensue their safety, but it was too late for any of these sensible thoughts now. Perhaps that was why he walked extra slowly up the driveway, despite Karin's incessant complaints to walk faster. To his immense relief – for the shortest time, until he remembered who she was – Yachiru answered the door when they knocked and waited patiently at the patio.

"Shiro-ojisan?" the little girl asked curiously, tilting her head back to look up at him. She blinked her doe-like eyes repeatedly in a deceptively cute way, eliciting a small giggle from the woman peeking from behind his shoulder. "What're you doing here?"

"Shiro-ojisan?" Karin snorted, unable to just keep quiet. He grimaced heavily, just knowing that wouldn't be the last of the teasing he would have to endure from her. The sound caught Yachiru's attention, however, and she craned her neck around his figure to fully see who was on the other side rather than just a forehead peeking over him. Evidently, she recognized the infuriating woman that gave her a small wave, because her eyes grew as wide as saucers before she shrieked in surprise, scaring the wits out of them.

"Akirobrat-san!" she squealed in glee, throwing her arms in the air excitedly, and ran up to hug the rather bemused acrobat, who sent Toushiro a puzzled look. He shot her a gaze that plainly read, Just go with it. At his answer, she gave a nonchalant shrug and returned the embrace around her legs, much to his amusement. As a result, it took much giggling and many questions and blathering compliments for them to be finally invited in, and Toushiro wondered whether Kenpachi was fully sane if he was letting his constantly sugar-high daughter answer the front door.

She led them down the hall he had never seen himself, and from the brightly colored walls and childishly drawn pictures hanging on them, he easily concluded that Yachiru had been allowed to decorate. He almost felt a new sort of respect for Kenpachi, who so obviously adored his daughter enough to let her get away with anything, but he couldn't help but wonder what the man did when his friends visited. Karin grinned at the decor, though, giving the girl a polite compliment that he was horrified to realize she actually meant. It made sense, in his opinion; she was an eccentric performer for a career that involved her dressing in clothing that was just as bright and eye-catching, and he supposed it had rub off on her.

Yachiru dragged them to their living room, cupping her hand over her mouth and happily hollering out, "Otou-san! Company's here." Then she innocently gave a high-pitched giggle and hopped onto the couch, swinging her legs in an exaggerated motion.

There were thundering footsteps that practically shook the house, though the way one was a weaker thud than the other suggested that the man was obviously walking with a limp. He heard Karin whistle low beside him when Kenpachi first stepped into the room, staring out at them stoically from his one visible eye. He grazed over Yachiru in favor of eyeing his two guests. Hitsugaya was ignored after a quick look, as they had met before, and his eye landed on Karin in a narrowed fashion, analyzing her. The first thing he did was latch his gaze onto her cast. His mouth widened drastically into a deranged grin.

"Nice cast," he grunted, sending her an approving nod. Toushiro rolled his eyes as he followed the man's thought process; he obviously assumed that Karin must have been in some sort of killer fight, resulting in his respect for the pleased acrobat.

Yachiru laughed delightedly at her father's obvious approval of her beloved guest. Jumping off the couch, she ran over to the man, grabbing onto his hand and tugging on it as she smiled brightly at Karin. "You match 'Tou-san!" she exclaimed, gazing back and forth between the cast around her arm and the one around Kenpachi's leg. Grabbing onto his pants, she started jumping up and down in excitement, pointing to the plaster around Karin's injury as if it was on display. "Otou-san, this is the aki-ro-brat I was telling you about. And that's the arm I told you about!"

"Cool," Karin said with a grin, not at all perturbed after learning that the little girl had been passing along stories about her. Instead, holding out her injured extremity, she stated rather proudly, "I'm famous."

Toushiro sighed wearily, collapsing on the couch behind him to let the others carry the conversation. He was convinced he wouldn't be able to keep up with the two females anyway, who both ran on completely different frequencies than his own. It didn't help that he'd never had a way with the opposite sex, and the only ones he truly interacted with were Momo, Matsumoto, and Granny. From years of tolerating them - well, not so much his grandmother, whom he loved to bits - he'd learned the tricks to handling women were different for each one. And he was in no mood to upset anyone today, so he simply sat back and let Karin introduce herself properly.

"Did it hurt?" he heard Yachiru ask her in a hush, staring at the cast with wide eyes. He grimaced, thinking back to the actual fall that had terrified the child so greatly at the moment, and he felt himself feel slightly better about agreeing to bring Karin here on such short notice; she could reassure the girl.

Sure enough, Karin simply rubbed the bottom of her nose and put on a brave face. "Nah," she replied offhandedly, puffing out her chest in a smug manner. "Didn't feel a thing. I didn't even realize it was broken at first." This caused Yachiru to put her dainty hand over her chest and breathe out in relief. Kenpachi, who seemed to have slightly lost interest in the acrobat once learning she had not been in any sort of brawl, gave a grunt in response at her attempts to comfort the child. Toushiro only thought back to all her cursing with disbelief, sure that she was stretching the truth a little to save face.

"What about you?" Karin carried on, ruffling the pink-haired preschooler's hair. The two seemed to have bonded quite easily. "Did you enjoy the show?"

Yachiru beamed and bobbed her head ecstatically. "Uh-huh! I enjoyed it lots."

Karin's eyes lit up brightly at her answer, obviously pleased to hear that her performance had kept the bubbly little girl entertained. With a sly smirk that obviously suggested she was planning something, she bent down and whispered to her secretly, "How would you like to see it again, then?"

The child tilted her head to the side cutely in puzzlement, sending her a blank stare. Even Kenpachi looked over curiously. "Huh?"

Straightening up and grinning from ear-to-ear, she elaborated for the little girl. "Actually, I brought you a present." There was a self-satisfied smirk on her face that Toushiro didn't particularly trust. At the very least, he had a dreadful feeling coiling in his stomach that this would end badly for him, or that he would end up being forced into doing something he did not want to do. Trying to keep silent, he sank back into the sofa in the hopes that they would forget he was even in the room.

Rather than look confused or suspicious, as would be appropriate of the situation, Yachiru's eyes lit up immediately upon hearing the news. "Oh, boy! A present?" she squealed, clapping her hands together. Zaraki grunted in interest, wondering what this woman could have possibly brought his daughter, whom she had just met today. He didn't really seem cautious, though, which just strengthened the accountant's belief that he let his daughter run too wild.

"Yup!" Karin replied cheerfully. "You see, the Karakura Ring Circus will be back in town in two weeks. By then, I'll be healed up enough to perform again, so my boss Kon gave me two extra tickets to give to my friends." She rustled through the pockets of her shorts until she procured said tickets, and continued, "But they can't make it. So I had Toushiro bring me here so I could give them to you." Toushiro nodded, suddenly understanding her spontaneous desire to visit Yachiru earlier that day. He watched as the girl's eyes grew comically in size, gazing at the tickets in the acrobat's hand in awe, as if they were made of gold.

"For me?" she managed to squeak out in childish delight, going as far as to place both hands on her chest to gesture to herself.

"What do you say?" Karin asked softly instead, beaming in pride at how well her gift was being received. "Come see how great I am when the pillar's not a piece of crap?"

The young accountant snorted from his place and rolled his eyes. "Oh, sure," he drawled sarcastically, earning Karin's annoyance. "Blame the pillar."

Karin instantly shot him a death glare. "Shut it, Shiro-ojisan," she snapped with mirth, ignoring his murderous scowl before turning back to Yachiru and grinning like nothing had happened. She certainly was good at putting on a show, he grumbled to himself gruffly; he would give her that. Maybe that was why she had joined the circus.

"'Tou-san, can I?" The pink-headed preschooler immediately swung towards her father, looking beyond delighted while he simply raised his eyebrows in return. When he didn't answer right away, she prodded him further, pouting that she wasn't immediately getting her way. "They're free!"

Karin boomed a laugh at her monetary sense. The girl was obviously talented in spotting a good deal when she was offered one. Well, if she agreed, this would actually be helping out both of them. After all, it was easy for her to admit that Kon was a damn cheapskate; any of the performers in their circus could back her up on that, as well as regale others with bitter tales of his past evidence they had accumulated over the years of working along with the man. So she knew it had really been a sweet miracle that he had actually managed to part with two whole tickets without expecting payment for them in return. She also knew he had only done so to placate her for her broken arm and leaving her behind. Well, she wasn't going to just let them go to waste. If she could take advantage of Kon's rare generosity, she would, so she sincerely hoped Yachiru could come. Besides, she rather liked the bubbly child; her wild personality almost reminded Karin of herself when she had been that age.

Zaraki, meanwhile, snatched one of the tickets from her and turned it over in his hands, as if searching for any sort of catch that came with the offer. Well, he didn't find one of those, but he did catch a glimpse at the date of the event. He shook his head down at his daughter with a deep frown on his lips. "That's the day I go back ta work," he informed them. "The chief ain't gonna let me go after all the time I just got off."

Karin pressed her lips into a thin line as she thought furiously, watching Yachiru's face fall and her eyes lose their spark in dejection. If she could come up with a solution to the problem, then she would be both eliminating a waste of rare generosity from a man-weasel, and giving a little girl a small bit of happiness. She would have picked up the girl and brought her over herself, but the performers had an early, last minute practice that same morning as they always did before a show. Besides, she knew no one in this city, and her two friends had plans that day. However, as she contemplated different scenarios in her mind, Karin caught sight of someone seated quietly on the couch behind them, his arms and legs crossed and his eyes shut. She immediately brightened up at the sight of him.

"No worries!" she exclaimed grandly, skipping over to the sofa as everyone watched her curiously. She threw her good arm around Toushiro's neck and, ignoring his cry of protest, volunteered, "Toushiro wouldn't mind coming along, would you?" She also threw him an extra grin to persuade him to her side, but it had the opposite effect.

"Excuse me?" he snapped in return, grabbing her hand gingerly and unwrapping it from around him. When she didn't back away any farther, he threw her a scowl. "I did not agree to this."

"Oh, come on." She nudged him in a friendly manner, even getting closer to his face to make her eyes seem bigger and more like they were pleading. But the action only incited another glare from him as he leaned away.

"No," was his simple answer, and he closed his eyes once again in finality. Karin huffed in aggravation and smacked his shoulder.

"So you're perfectly okay with letting down a little girl?" she demanded, hoping she could play on his sympathy to change his mind. He simply ignored her plea and acted as if he had heard nothing. When there was no reaction from him, she sighed heavily and tried, "If you're not going to do it, then who will?"

At that precise moment, they heard sounds of the front door opening and shutting immediately after, and a whistled tune floated down the hall. They all waited in bemused silence as it came closer and closer in unison with thudding footsteps, and as they watched curiously, Ikkaku walked into the living room, his hands tucked lazily in his pockets and a gleeful smirk on his face. The whistling stopped abruptly, however, when his gaze landed on Hitsugaya.

"What are you doing here!" he cried out, pointing at his glowering boss in utter shock. What the hell was his uptight boss doing at his uncle's place? For all he knew, the two had only met once very briefly, and they hadn't even hit it off enough to warrant a sudden visit so soon.

"Shouldn't you be at work, Madarame?" Hitsugaya demanded in a dangerously low voice, and the chrome dome immediately began to sweat profusely under the heated gaze, looking sheepish.

"Uh, well, ya see..." He trailed off, unable to think of an appropriate excuse that would not get him in trouble. Yachiru watched him struggle with a sadistic twinkle in her eyes, just waiting for him to be punished for his stupidity.

"Just tell me exactly how many of my employees decided to take advantage of my departure and leave an hour early?" he asked in exasperation, rubbing his eyes wearily with his index finger and thumb. He should have known this would happen; the only reason his workers were so diligent was because he was constantly breathing down their necks to be so. The second he'd left, they'd probably cheered and packed up without a second to spare.

"...All of us," Ikkaku admitted, looking away sheepishly and rubbing the back of his neck in slight shame – most likely for getting caught.

Karin, feeling the need to add her two cent's worth, snorted. "Your job is so boring, even the workers can't stand to stay," she teased, ignoring the fact that he really didn't seem to be in the mood. "Now, what does that tell you, Toushiro?"

"Karin," he replied with a sigh, rounding on her with frustration. "Please." She held up her hand defensively and backed away, letting him return to interrogating his employee. He did so with defeat, unable to find energy after the exhausting day to really do any scolding. So he simply crossed his arms and declared, "I'll punish the rest of them tomorrow, but since you're here now, I suppose I can decide on yours." While Ikkaku gulped, his boss jerked his head to Yachiru to call everyone to her attention. "Your cousin wants to go to the circus again, and you're going to take her." Secretly, he patted himself on the back for coming up with a genius solution to his reluctance. But there was just one hitch in his plans.

Before Ikkaku could even protest, Yachiru threw her hands into the air and just started shrieking, "No, no, no!" Shaking her head furiously, she leaped from her position onto Ikkaku's back, thumping on the top of his head with her fist. "I don't want to go with Baldy. I don't want to go with Baldy!" Her reaction caused everyone to fall into a state of shock, but none more so than Toushiro, especially when she pointed a finger at him and announced tearfully, "I want to go with Shiro-ojisan."

When Toushiro finally arrived back home that day, his pocket held an adult ticket to a performance from Karakura Ring Circus.

.. ღ ..

Two weeks since Karin had first forced her way into his life passed, and Toushiro found himself in a situation he should have prayed he wouldn't end up in again: Yachiru was in the passenger seat of his car, and the two were headed off to the circus once again. He once again had to endure her constant complaining about the so-called "Haruhi-chan" in her class, who was apparently her arch nemesis in vying for their teacher's affections.

"Have you ever thought of not competing with her?" he suggested once, and the look of absolute horror on her face at just the thought made him shut up for the rest of the drive. He even clammed up in the parking lot as Yachiru marveled at the number of people who had shown up to watch. It was even more crowded than their previous visit to the town arena, and he immediately locked the little girl's hand in his own so she wouldn't wander off into the throng of people. Once he had ensured her safety, they began their tasking search for a sign of Karin among the sea of families.

"Karin said to meet her by the back of the stadium..." he remembered, tightening his grasp on Yachiru's hand as they wandered through the crowd. It would not do to lose her, and the chances were extremely high when even he wasn't quite sure of where he was going. "Do you see her anywhere?"

"Toushiro! Yachiru-chan!" An obnoxiously familiar voice suddenly called out for them, interrupting his inquiry.

Yachiru squealed in return. "There she is!" she also called out joyfully, but Toushiro could already see the smirking acrobat waving them over ferociously once they caught her eye, situated in front of a bright red door that no doubt led to the back of the arena. The crowd started murmuring as they wandered towards the backstage area, probably wondering who they were to be given such special treatment. Toushiro gritted his teeth and ignored them, pulling the little girl attached to his hand along as quickly as he was able.

"You guys made it," Karin cheered, beaming at them. However, he ignored the greeting in favor of eyeing a completely bizarre detail she seemed to disregard so nonchalantly.

"Um, Karin? There's a monkey on your leg," he noted dryly, blinking down at the furry creature that had latched onto her ankle and rolled up in a ball. It was rather cute, with its tiny body and even smaller face, and especially with its tail curled around her as well. But it was glaring at him suspiciously from beneath all its fur.

"Huh? Oh, yeah!" she exclaimed, smiling down at the primate. She lifted up her leg and coaxed the animal into her arms, allowing it to coil his tail around one; it did so rather protectively, in his opinion, though he had to tell himself that was ridiculous. But Karin didn't seem put out by its presence as she held it close. "His name's Hebi," she informed them. "He's one of Renji's show monkeys, and he sort of latched onto me when I came in this morning." She smirked proudly. "I guess he just really missed me after two weeks."

"Wish I was so lucky as to get a chance to miss you," he sarcastically mumbled under his breath, and Karin stuck her tongue out at him, knowing his words were in jest rather than true malice.

"Cu-ute," the little girl whispered in awe, reaching out her fingers to pet the animal. Karin held down her arm to her height in order to make it easier. At the same time, she ruffled the pink-headed girl's hair, causing her to giggle. With a grin, the acrobat suddenly reached for Toushiro's head next.

"Don't even think about it," he growled, swiftly pulling his hair back out of her reach. He was quite used to people attempting to stroke his hair – Matsumoto, Momo, Granny, to name a few – and now it was just a reflex to pull away when he saw fingers coming at him. She rolled her eyes but let her arm drop.

"Well, come on back," she suggested instead, gesturing them over with her now cast-free extremity. The exaggerated motion caught Yachiru's eye, who gasped dramatically.

"Your arm's all better," she pointed out cheerfully, which had been overshadowed by the monkey's appearance at first. Karin held it up again, rotating it and showing it off with smugness.

"Yup! Had the cast taken off a few days back, and I've been practicing my routine ever since. You'll have to tell me how I do after the show, 'kay?"

They both nodded, though the younger one was significantly more enthusiastic. Satisfied with their response, she purposely shoved open the door and marched in, with the two of them following behind. On the other side of the doorway, they found a whole another world, and Yachiru gaped at the scene in awe and squeezed his hand tighter. Even Hitsugaya was rather impressed, as he had never seen anything like it. Circus performers were scurrying about, all in a flurry to prepare for the show that would soon be underway. The accountant counted flocks of people dressed in brightly-colored tights, applying finishing touches on their make-up. Some were loosely practicing their routines in the corners of the room, standing on their hands or doing back flips. Cages of animals lined one of the walls, and each of them was shrieking in anticipation. Karin gave off an aura of superiority when she took notice of their obvious amazement, happy to see even Toushiro seemed to be enjoying the sight.

"Oh, thank Kami! There you are, Hebi," an exasperated voice cried from behind them, and a towering figure jogged over to where they stood. Hitsugaya recognized the man as Renji, the crimson-haired performer who trained the monkeys and brought them out for show. He rushed over to Karin in a fluster, breathing out deeply in relief at the sight of Hebi in her hold.

"Sorry. He wouldn't let me go," Karin explained to him, rubbing the back of her head sheepishly. She'd forgotten that there were places even the monkey needed to be, and that there were people whose job was to ensure he stayed safe and in sight.

Renji simply smirked. "It's all right," he assured her, ruffling her hair with brotherly affection and a playful grin. "The little bugger has a knack for causing trouble, after all. He just loves running away on his own."

"I'll put him back in his cage," she offered as a way to earn forgiveness, skipping off to do so. As they watched, Hebi immediately began to shriek loudly, uncoiling his tail and wrestling with her arm to pull away as they got closer to his cage. Karin clucked her tongue in annoyance, grabbing onto him while trying to avoid his sharp nails. "Stop fidgeting, Hebi. Kami, you're such a dumb monkey."

Toushiro raised an eyebrow even as Renji boomed in laughter beside them. "So much for missing her," he commented dryly, and the trainer shrugged.

"Hebi and Karin have a love-hate relationship," he explained, looking thoroughly amused. "He gets upset when she takes away his food because he's pigging out too much, but you should see how he's practically drooling at the thought of playing with her. Probably 'cause she helps sneak him out of his cage every once in a while." After considering him for a moment, he finally stuck out his hand. "Abarai Renji, by the way."

Hitsugaya politely introduced himself in return, shaking his head furiously to explain that, no, he was not Karin's date, but yes, she had invited him here. He even hastened to show him Yachiru, but the man seemed more interested in him more than anything else. He eyed the accountant with a calculating gaze, unsure of what to make of him. Finally, he swung is head to the eccentric crowd behind him.

"Hey, guys!" he called out, gaining their attention. "What do you make of this guy?"

"Who is he?" a woman he remembered to be called Tatsuki asked in curiosity as she wandered over to their group.

"He's Karin's boyfriend," he replied, ignoring Toushiro's scoff. Instead, he jerked his head towards said acrobat, who was making her way back to them and looking thoroughly confused about all the looks everyone was suddenly sending her. Her face dawned in understanding, however, when Tatsuki stepped up to him, sizing him up with a scowl. He didn't like that amused gleam in her eyes, but he kept his focus on the problem right in front of him.

"So you're the accountant she told me about?" the martial artist wondered, placing a finger on her chin and leaning towards his face. She hummed in thought as she considered him for a moment, and finally, she swung towards her gymnast friend. "He's kinda young and puny," was her tactless review. "Never thought you would go for a guy like that, Karin."

Karin snickered quite happily at his expense, but at least she had the sense and foresight to attempt to stifle her chuckles behind her hand; the others listening roared in laughter at Tatsuki's bluntness, and Toushiro felt his rage boil as he eyed the woman. He even contemplated whether it would be worth it to attack the strongest woman in the region for the sake of appeasing his pride. However, his brief hesitation roused the others, who seemed to create the impression that he was the type of passive man unable to bite back with scathing retorts – someone they could take advantage of. The first idiots to follow the actions of the woman, who could actually back up her vexing bark with her viscous bite, were the four clowns sprucing up for the show.

All four were already dressed in their performance garb, complete with the big shoes and fluffy wigs. The insanely bright threads used to produce their clothes resulted in a blinding neon effect; Toushiro assumed the ostentatious apparel had been designed to be visible even to the audience members sitting the farthest from the rings in the center. What elicited his disgust, however, was the heavy amounts of make-up all four men were caking onto their faces. He could never disregard his dignity simply to earn a few laughs from children, and he could easily admit that he held no respect for men who could. So when the performers attempted to hassle him, they only guaranteed their own humiliation. The first to step up was Pinta, smirking as he swung his arm over the accountant's shoulders and crossed eyes with Ryohei.

"What do you think of this punk, Ryohei?" he drawled at his friend, giving Toushiro a look of appraisal.

"I don't know," he answered, placing a thoughtful finger on his chin as he copied the once-over. "Could we really let Kurosaki run off with this kind of bland guy? I mean, the only thing he's got going for him is that hair of his, which is so obviously fake."

Toushiro felt something inside him snap at the taunts, and he lowered his head towards the ground. Anyone who knew him well enough could pinpoint it as the moment when his anger was reaching breaking point, and that meant anyone within the vicinity should ready themselves for a biting insult or be intelligent enough to back away slowly. Donny, however, only interpreted it as a sign of defeat and jumped at the chance to join in his friends' fun.

"Dying your eyebrows doesn't make it any more realistic, Toushiro," he teased easily. "You know, guys, I don't think he's man enough for our Kurosaki."

Toushiro felt his vein finally pop on his forehead, and without so much as a warning, he shoved all three men away with one swipe. They stumbled back in shock, and when they dared to look him in the eye, the promise of a painful revenge was apparent enough to make them gulp heavily. Toushiro, however, was the kind of man who was above petty fights, so he simply growled in their direction.

"You're smearing an entire tube of bright red lipstick on yourselves, and you think I'm not man enough?" he snarled, crossing his arms as he so often did when furious. All three clowns felt their faces heat up in embarrassment at the insult, spluttering nonsensical protests they were having trouble piecing together into full sentences. Finally, everyone in the vicinity burst out into uncontrollable laughter, bending over and wiping the tears out of their eyes at the words they had thought themselves many times. The accountant's eyes locked onto Kazuya, who was slapping his knee as he snorted along at the expense of his friends, who did not have the sense he had to leave the man alone – though he had only done so at the prospect of Karin's wrath. Toushiro's eyes narrowed on him, determined to end his currently elated mood, more out of his association with the other three than anything.

"You too, Chuckles," he snapped, and everyone roared even louder as Kazuya's face turned red, and he pouted at the injustice of the verbal attack. In contrast, Karin beamed brightly in her new friend's direction, sauntering over to him and linking one of her arms with his stiff one.

"Couldn't have said it better myself," she exclaimed proudly before sticking out her tongue at the four defeated clowns. He huffed but didn't push her away. Instead, he was rather enjoying the approving look she was directing at him; she was probably the first to do such a thing in a long time, and the way she seemed to be flaunting him to her friends was nothing but flattering. The crowd murmured in appreciation at their apparently close relationship before dispersing, leaving the two alone. Karin took the chance to send him a breathtaking smile that clearly stated she was impressed with his bite.

"You're enjoying it too much," he halfheartedly reprimanded her, though the way he rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly said the complete opposite. Even so, being the modest man he was, he tried to brush away her affections. "I could have done worse," he pointed out. "I just didn't think it would be wise with Yachiru around."

Karin rolled her eyes, seeing right through his attempts to call attention away from himself. She would have called him out on it, but the mention of a certain little girl made her pause abruptly.

"Hey, where's Yachiru?" she asked him, her eyebrows crumpling as she looked around and noticed that the preschooler accompanying them was nowhere to be found. "I haven't seen her since Renji came over."

Toushiro felt his heart practically stop in his chest as a cold fear washed over him. With wide eyes, he immediately whipped his head around the area, trying to spot anything of a bright pink color. She was indeed nowhere to be found. Please, Kami, tell him he hadn't lost her! She was only four, and he shuddered at the possibility of her getting seriously injured. Karin bit her lip as she realized something serious had just happened, and she joined him in his search.

"She couldn't have gotten far," she attempted to console him. "Any one of the performers would have brought her back." Even so, she gripped his arm in a deathly lock as she craned her neck. But the eccentric costumes and eye-catching activities happening all around them made even pink hair blend into the background, and both allowed themselves to panic slightly. At the very least, they eyed the animal cages warily, keenly aware that if one of the over energetic creatures broke free, it could cause serious harm to a four-year-old.

A commotion in the opposite corner of the room caught their attention just then. It was the ringmaster Kon, his bright hair slicked back professionally to complement his suit. He had just entered backstage from the second entrance, and when he chanced a glance at his feet, he came across the most heinous creature he had ever glanced upon. There was no other way to describe it; he let out a high-pitched shriek of fear.

Karin and Toushiro rounded towards him, watching as he slammed a hand over his chest and cried out, "I don't remember hiring this!"

It was Yachiru, but she had obviously gotten herself into someone's costume kit and created quite a mess while everyone had been preoccupied with testing Karin's "date." There was what seemed like entire tubes' worth of glitter smeared all over her hair, giving the locks a greasy, shiny look. But that was nothing compared to the atrocity that was her face; she'd caked her eyelids with globs of dark blue eyeshadow, giving her the appearance of some sort of raccoon with deformed eyes, and her mouth, as well as the area around it, was covered in bright red lipstick. She'd also apparently used the same tube to draw circles on her cheeks. All in all, she looked more like some sort of hooker gone wrong than a preschool kid. Nevertheless, Karin and Toushiro both let out deep breaths of relief as they ran over to her, feeling their arms go weak from the small scare the girl had given them.

Meanwhile, Kon, who seemed to have calmed himself after the first shock, pursed his lips and eyed Yachiru critically. "What is she supposed to be, anyway?" he mused. "Some sort of clown and monkey combination?"

Karin smacked the back of his head roughly when she finally reached the two. "No, you idiot," she retorted, ignoring his pout from the unjustified bout of violence. "Why are you back here, anyway?" she grumbled as Toushiro picked up Yachiru and scolded her for running off without a word. One of the performers kindly brought him a wet wipe to clean up her face, which he accepted gratefully. She giggled and did her best to hold still while he cleaned her face up, but absolutely refused with a glare to have her hair washed out; she thought the glitter looked too pretty.

Kon ignored Karin and turned towards the entire crowd. "Maybe you idiots have forgotten, but the show is starting soon," he announced. "The stadium's filling up fast, and you'd better be ready in time. Renji, you're up first!"

The animal trainer grumbled but nodded in assent, already shuffling off to prepare his monkeys. The others dispersed to prepare as well, and the hectic atmosphere picked up again as show time drew closer. Kon turned towards them, directing a quick glare towards Yachiru before resting his eyes on Karin.

"I know, I know," she griped before he said anything, holding up her hands in defense. "I'll go get ready, or else it makes you look bad."

Satisfied with the answer, he marched farther into the room, his eyes lingering on a group of females preparing for their act, ready to strip out of their clothes and into their costumes. He didn't get too far before Tatsuki nailed him in the face with one swift punch, stomping away moments later and leaving him with a bloody nose, howling on the ground.

Karin just shook her head at the scene, while Toushiro was left to wonder whether all circuses were so eccentric, even behind the scenes.

.. ღ ..

The show began at seven on the dot, just as scheduled. Toushiro commended them for their punctuality, at least, even if some of the cast wasn't exactly to his liking. Well, he managed to power through it for Karin's sake and feelings, but many of the characters he came across were just too bizarre for his tastes. Between a gigantically tall man who spent his life cleaning up after monkeys, and a woman who flipped several of her teammates over her shoulder, he was beginning to think that Karin was the most normal of all of them, despite how impossible that seemed when he had first met her. Now, he found himself sticking close to her in order to maintain a certain level of sanity.

"Just stay out there!" she yelled from behind a changing curtain after finally finding a way to escape from him a moment. Not that she minded that a devilishly handsome man was following her around so closely, but she needed to prepare for her own performance. Toushiro grunted in assent, leaning against the wall beside him and crossing his arms. Yachiru was finally safe and sound, playing with a group of monkeys while Renji supervised her apprehensively. He hoped that she would never mention to Zaraki that they had so easily gotten separated in such a foreign place.

"Hey, Toushiro?" Karin called out from behind the curtain, and he grunted to show he was listening. "Can you hand me my costume? It's hanging on the hook over there." When he retrieved what she had asked for, she gingerly stuck out a bare arm to take it from him, careful not to let anything else show. He flushed horridly, realizing abruptly that she was most likely not wearing anything right now, and tried to step away as far as possible from her changing area. Karin seemed not at all bothered, however, as she started humming in a low tone while slipping on her tights.

When she roughly shoved the curtain aside and stepped out, it felt like somebody had sent a shock straight to his heart. He stared at her figure as she pranced past him, unaware of his heated gaze. He couldn't understand how he could have possibly missed it before, but Karin's costume was so...tight. From the stands, so distant from the performers themselves, the suit hadn't looked so fitting, and her incident had shocked them all enough to focus on nothing but her injury. But now, he rubbed his nose to hide the blush blossoming across his cheeks when he realized he had a horribly clear view of every luscious curve or feminine dip of her body.

Karin seemed not to have realized the kind of reaction she was eliciting from the accountant. She was too busy carefully smearing a tube of body glitter across her face, eyeing her work from all angles in a backstage mirror. Once satisfied, she screwed the cap shut and tightened her ponytail one last time. Then she beamed and swung around to face him again.

"Ready!" she exclaimed brightly, sticking her tongue out at Kon when he scoffed impatiently.

The circus was already in full swing. Renji had gone out to wild applause and cat calls, returning with a bright grin that was accented with shyness. Tatsuki had amazed the crowd with her strength, exiting the stage with a satisfied smirk and a threatening fist in Kon's direction. The ringmaster himself ignored her; he was too elated by the sight of so many beautiful females in the crowd, providing him with rapt attention. In his own mind, it was because each and every single one wished to take him home with her.

Karin's turn arrived quickly after that, but she convinced Toushiro and Yachiru to remain backstage.

"What's the point of going out to your seats now?" she argued with a casual shrug. "I'll be back lickety-split, anyway." To his amusement, she proceeded to drag two chairs to the side of the curtain, setting them down with a huff. "There," she announced proudly, wiping at her forehead. "Now you're my own personal audience."

Yachiru cheered and hopped into her seat, excited to be given such special treatment. A little embarrassed by the attention the others backstage were giving them, he followed suit.

The applause was deafening when Karin stepped out to the ring, waving an arm excitedly as the audience cheered her on. He couldn't help but notice how small she suddenly seemed to look, surrounded by enormous decorations and hundreds of people.

Her routine began just as he remembered. She climbed the new pillar easily, waving once she had reached the platform at the top. He held his breath as she, smirking confidently, walked out onto the balance beam. His eyes were on nothing but her newly-fixed arm, surprisingly anxious that it would cause another accident like the last. But it seemed his fretting was in vain. Karin seemed perfectly at ease as she did the usual tricks; the flips and kicks were executed perfectly, and she even swung from the beam with a careless swing. The audience loved every second of it, cheering her on and watching with undivided attention. Then she added the same trinkets as the previous act, throwing rings into the air and catching them at the last second.

"She's so good!" Yachiru squealed beside him, getting caught up in the audience's excitement and clapping along. Some of the performers watching from behind her chuckled at her enthusiasm, reaching over to muss her hair playfully.

Karin seemed to be having a blast. The grin hadn't left her face once, and he wondered if smiling any wider would possibly crack her face in two. She seemed as far from worried as she possibly could be, as she never once paused in her act to reconsider a certain move; she had complete faith in her arm and her abilities. Spurred on by her laid-back attitude, he finally allowed himself to relax, too.

And then, just as he had let his guard down and stopped worrying, it happened.

Karin's legs went up into the air, and she easily flipped into a hand stand. She walked across the pillar, smirking as her arms supported the rest of her body. But then, her smirk suddenly faltered. Toushiro, who was watching her like a hawk, noticed the change first, and he lurched forward in his seat. Her previously injured arm had buckled under the weight!

'Not again!' he cried out in his mind in horror. He knew it was too early for her to be performing gymnastics stunts! He watched it all happen in slow motion; her arm gave under the extraneous weight, and her body toppled over sideways. Her sideways, however, was nothing but air. With nothing to support her, she plummeted. The audience let out a collective gasp as, once again, Karin's lithe body cut through the air, unsupported and unlikely to make it. She flailed her arms in the air helplessly, her expression one of nothing but terror.

He felt himself abandoning his chair, almost toppling over from his frantic attempts to get at her. He shoved aside anyone in his path, ignoring their yelps and the fact that he was about to run out to a crowd of hundreds of people. All he could think of was his friend, who needed his help right now, and whom he would never forgive himself for losing. But two arms suddenly looped around his middle, effectively preventing him from running out to save her.

"Abarai," he growled dangerously, scowling back at the man who had him captured. The red head simply shook his head at his actions.

"Just watch," he advised the accountant calmly, jerking his head towards the stage. Still trying desperately to break free of his grip, Toushiro glared out into the arena instead, where Karin was slowly reaching the hard ground below. There seemed to be no one to help her, which brought about a fresh wave of rage.

But then, two men dressed in black suits shot out onto the stage, meeting in the middle and holding out their arms calmly. Karin, who had been previously trying to desperately claw her way back up nothing, suddenly stopped her random flailing. Instead, she angled her body straight, like the first time she had fallen and landed in the net to break her fall. Sh cut through the air cleanly, and just before she hit the ground, she did a back flip by kicking her legs against the wind. As she spun around, the two men caught her quite easily, and then they set her on the ground, perfectly safe.

She gave a flourishing bow to the thunderous applause in response to her act, keenly aware that two turquoise eyes backstage were attempting to burn a hole through her with a single glare.

.. ღ ..

Karin left town that evening.

He had known it was coming, that her departure was inevitable. But even after a week of putting up with her insanity, he could admit that he would miss her. Of course, when she first walked out from the ring, sadness was the last thing he felt towards her.

It turned out the entire fall had been a trick. After her first injury, the town had simply gone crazy with excitement at seeing something so shocking at the circus. Their second performance had sold out in one day, and Kon had seen nothing but dollar signs dancing through his mind. Surprisingly, Karin had agreed with his crazy scheme, enthused by this thrilling new change to her usual act. So she staged a fake fall to the death, planning to give the audience a small delight before landing safely and winning over their hearts.

Toushiro was less than amazed. His heart took too long to finally settle from the scare she had given him, and he even had to sit for a moment to support his shaky legs. Once she walked backstage and caught sight of her friend almost dizzy from the adrenaline rush, Karin burst out into poorly stifled laughter at his expense. When he shot her a scathing look, she simply threw an arm over his neck and ruffled his hair playfully.

"Fooled ya!" she cried cheerfully, ignoring his unimpressed scowl. Only he heard the slightly guilty apology she murmured to him in a low voice afterwards, rightly ashamed for upsetting him so much. No one else seemed as terrified as him, anyway. But he appreciated it all the same, and finally sent her a small, reassuring smile in return.

Now they were all packed after their performance, and the Karakura Ring Circus was heading out for the last time. The parking lot had emptied long ago, as the show had ended early in the evening. Now there were just the performers, who were all loading up the last of their equipment into their vans, and Toushiro and Yachiru left. The little girl's shoulders drooped as she took in the scene.

"Will we ever see you again?" she asked Karin with a pout, sniffling slightly.

Karin bent down to her level, patting the girl on the head with a soft smile on her lips. "Of course you will," she assured her quietly. "I mean, there's only so many places in the world. At some point, we're going to run out and will have to travel a full circle again." He smirked secretly at her matter-of-fact tone, slightly surprised that it had succeeded in cheering Yachiru up. She caught sight of his grin, though, and sent him a teasing look. "So, what?" she demanded, hands on her hips. "You're not going to cry for me?"

He scoffed at the question, sending her an incredulous look that had her batting his arm playfully. Despite their light joking, however, a subdued feeling settled over their little group of three. Soon, they would be just two. Even Toushiro had a little thunder cloud over his head. Despite their unlikely friendship and her excess of energy, Karin had been a welcome addition to his life - a fresh change from the norm. He wasn't a completely heartless soul, as so many of his employees believed. He would miss her.

"I'll look you guys up next time I'm in town," Karin assured them cheerfully, patting his shoulder. "And my act will be even better than before!"

"Well, you're not gonna get much work done with Jinta in the next town," Renji called out, pausing with a box in his hands. Karin groaned at his words, rubbing her forehead.

"He's this boy who's the bane of my existence," she explained before they could have a chance to ask. "I swear, his life goal is to trip me up so he can come out on top. Thankfully, I only see him once we go to his town."

He couldn't help but smirk at her words. "You just have a man in every city, don't you?" he joked. Her eyes lit up considerably when she realized he was actually trying to lighten the mood for a change, and she punched his arm again.

"Damn straight," she was quick to answer, a twinkle in her eyes. He returned her soft grin with a very small one of his own, but the fact that he had tried only made her smile that much wider. They caught each other's eyes and stood there smiling for a while. Yachiru looked between them, confusion etched onto her face at their strange moment. It reminded her of those gross, mushy books her teacher was always reading; the cover always seemed to feature a man and a woman smiling at each other, just as the two before her were now.

"Are you going to do kissy stuff?" she finally blurted out, tilting her head innocently at the question. The two of them tore their eyes away from each other to gape at her words, surprised that her young mind would even jump to such a suggestion. Maybe her father did need to keep a closer eye on her. Toushiro merely blinked down at her, unsure of what to say, but Karin burst out into loud laughter.

"Not today, hon," she answered with a wink, and he choked at her cryptic message. And he would have retaliated once catching sight of her amused smirk, but Kon suddenly called her over, snapping crabbily that it was time to go and she was holding them all up. She whipped her head around just to stick her tongue out at him, turning back to them afterwards with a sad smile.

"See you next time?" she asked softly, melancholic in their final moments.

"Only if we get free tickets again," he teased, though he nodded seriously as well to let her know that she really would be missed. Karin gave him a playful shove and Yachiru an affectionate pat on the head before hopping into the van waiting for her. Renji was settled in beside her, and he placed a comforting, brotherly arm over her shoulders.

"Get us out of here," Kon snapped to the driver, getting cozy with the wad of cash in his hands that he was counting.

They stepped back as all the vans drove out of the lot, watching the acrobat get farther away. She looked back one last time, sending them reassuring smiles, and they lightly waved. Cheered up by their gesture, she placed the palm of her previously injured arm against her lips and blew them both an air kiss. Yachiru giggled and jumped into the air, making a show of "catching" the kiss and slapping it against her cheek. Then, sending him a disapproving look for not reacting like her, the little girl pulled him down and slapped one against his lips.

The last he saw of Karin before she disappeared into the distance was her making exaggerated kissy faces at him, just to enjoy the flush creeping across his cheeks.



The End.

Yep, I made Hebi a monkey in this one. ^^ Call it "artistic freedom." Besides, the scene wouldn't have looked quite as cute in my head if Karin had a snake wrapped around her leg. And his entire part was a reference to the episode when he meets Karin, if you noticed - when all he wants is to eat and be free.

So I couldn't resist writing in little HitsuKarin moments, but you'll notice that I didn't make them get together in the end. That's because, from the start, this has always been a friendship story. And Karin leaving was unavoidable; it is her job, after all.

Now I've finally finished both of the two-shots I practically abandoned! Lesson learned: Finish short stories like these before posting them :P