Well, here's another one-shot for all of you to enjoy! I find it funny how none of these one-shots I've been putting up recently are the ones I've been planning and writing for months. :P Anyway, the inspiration for this one came to me a few days ago, when I re-watched the episode where (*spoiler*) Gin dies. So sad! :(

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

Things were never peaceful in Zaraki.

Being the eightieth district meant it was the most filthy, most vile, most violent area in all of Soul Society. And the people that inhabited this crazed district were among the most heartless, cruel persons you could ever hope to never encounter; some had been that way from the beginning, enjoying the ruthless battles immensely and actually moving in by choice, while others who were not so lucky to have a chance at escape had to adapt and learn to survive in the hardened environment. Otherwise, everyone knew there wasn't even the slightest chance that you could live. Children pick-pocketed without a hint of the conscience that made one human, and women easily murdered others for the smallest morsel of food they could find. But the most prevalent structures within the hostile area were the packs. People teamed up when they could, hiding devious plans to slaughter one another in the recesses of their mind as they fought for food together and reluctantly shared what they could salvage. Greed ran rampant in Zaraki. No one really cared for another, and any partnership was only temporary. Lasting friendships were a rare entity – but not completely unheard of.

On the very outskirts of the eightieth district stood a rickety shack, pathetic in the sense that it could never protect anyone living in it from pillagers or devastating disasters. But it had housed a group of desperate youths for years now, who had all come together as a result of less than ideal living conditions. And it was towards this little shack that a certain snow-haired taichou shunpoed, hopping over rooftops and eyeing the grimy streets below, with his hands burdened by the heavy load he carried. Landing gracefully outside the creaky door of his destination, he grunted while shifting the package over his shoulders, and skipped knocking altogether in favor of simply marching right in.

Things were just as he had last seen them, with slight changes that made themselves apparent when he bothered to look more closely. The floors were slightly grimier and the furniture covered in a thick coat of dust, and he deduced that this was most likely because of the lack of a certain someone he usually spied among the somber faces. Settling the large package on the floor at his feet, he scanned the area one last time and came up blank.

"Where's Yoshida-san?" he asked softly, breaking the prolonged silence with his wispy voice. The boy had always been the most anal of anyone living in the home, so his presence was what kept the shack clean on a regular basis. Some kids jumped at the sudden words, previously ignorant to the fact that someone had walked in unannounced. Their expressions lit up drastically at the sight of his figure in the doorway, their eyes flitting rapidly from his face to the bag at his feet with cautiously hopeful glances. Two small children, who had been playing together in a huddle in the corner of the room, broke away from their make-shift toys and made a dash towards him.

"Oh, boy! Hitsugaya-taichou," the little boy cried, beaming as he paused by his legs. It had taken painstaking months of icy glares and snappy retorts to finally convince them to address him by his proper title. Once they'd complied with his wishes, he'd let himself admit that both were rather adorable children, and it was a real shame that their luck had landed them in the most corrupt district in the Soul Society.

"Did you bring us food?" the little girl questioned, eyeing the package with unbridled excitement, which was always the result of his arrival. He gave a curt nod and untied the knot at the top of the bag, opening it up farther and revealing the pile of packaged food he had hastily thrown inside. The teens packed inside the small shack all let out small cheers and hoarded themselves around it, picking through everything to divvy it up fairly amongst themselves. With a small smirk of satisfaction at their sudden happiness, he side-stepped around all of them to stride farther into the small house. Once again, his gaze assessed the obvious lack of one person.

"Where's Yoshida-san?" he asked once more, his deep voice ringing with curiosity and, if one listened very closely, a hidden fear. One of the girls, who had been leaning against a wall at the opposite end of the room, snapped her head up to glower in his direction, her filthy hair more rumpled than usual.

"Dead," was her harsh reply, and he took notice of how her eyes were bloodshot red. She had obviously been crying. While he felt his insides suffocate from the unexpected news, she spat out, "He starved to death just a few days ago." And she sent him a sharp glare, as if accusing him for causing the unfortunate incident by not bringing food around earlier. Before he could fathom any sort of appropriate reply, there was a slight creak from the direction of the bunk beds lined up against the wall, and both looked over to see another girl standing up from the mattress, her face no longer so shrouded in the shadows. They instantly took notice of the fierce scowl on her face.

"Lay off him, Airi," she shot back in the girl's direction, instantly coming to his defense. "It's not his job to bring us food. Just be grateful that he does, and don't throw your anger around on people that don't deserve it." She came to stand in front of him, almost taking up a protective stance. When they exchanged quick glances from over her shoulder, he sent her a tiny, barely noticeable smile of gratitude.

"Oh, sure. Come to his defense, Karin," the other girl sneered, folding her arms haughtily. "Everyone knows you'd practically grovel around in the dirt for that boyfriend of yours."

Karin's face adopted a pink flush, much like his own, but she remained steady. The exchange had caught the attention of the others in the room, and they all began whispering to one another as they watched, afraid that a brawl might break out at any moment. Airi was a pretty hot-headed girl, and everyone knew she and Yoshida had been the closest pair of anyone in their group. It had devastated the poor girl to find him dead, his body practically bone and his face sunken into a hollow mask. Since then, she'd been growing exceedingly edgy with just about all of them, lashing out at anyone who tested her. But the Karin they knew was always a cool, calculating person, never rushing into anything or purposely angering another – qualities that made her an excellent leader for them. So she simply shook her head, her ponytail bouncing.

"You need to cool off," she said carefully. "I won't pick a fight with you just because you want one." And she marched past everyone out into the streets, him following behind closely. Over his shoulder, he watched Airi clench her hands into tight fists and look away from everyone staring at her, her eyes pooling with tears once again. He didn't realize that Karin had noticed his gaze until she stopped, smiling softly, and muttered, "It's sad, isn't it?"

He gave a small nod, slow and unsure, and swung back to face her. Unconsciously, as he always did, his eyes ran over her form, assuring himself of her health and that she would not end up like Yoshida. Though her small kimono was caked in grime in many different places, and both her hair and fingernails were matted with dirt, there was a slightly noticeable glow to her skin that suggested her wellbeing was far from threatened. Her feet were bare as usual, but unlike the scratches and scabs he had observed the first time he had found her, the skin had toughened over the years and no longer made her feet appear mutilated. Satisfied that she had been keeping herself healthy and safe, he finally looked back into her eyes. She was peering at him carefully, a small smile playing at the corners of her lips.

"Am I to your satisfaction, Toushiro-san?" she teased, causing him to flush at having been caught once again. But Karin never seemed to mind when his looks lingered far too long upon her figure; she understood his concern and persistent need to protect another, as she felt that way towards many of her younger house-mates herself. And Toushiro's heated gaze always made her feel like the woman she truly was, underneath all the years of surviving Zaraki. She even seemed to forget it herself sometimes, when tough situations within her group forced her to step in like a valiant prince. Even so, he slightly tipped his head into a bow.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled, always the respectful gentleman he had been raised to be. Years of dealing with men leering at his fukutaichou had taught him the value of treating a woman properly; he did his best to give Karin the right treatment, though it was particularly harder at certain moments, like when he hadn't seen her for long periods of time. Deciding the proper mannerisms were best in this situation, he hesitantly asked, "How have you been doing?"

She shrugged casually. "All right," she replied, as she always did to his inquiries. Looking up through her lashes, she returned his question. "And you? You took a lot longer to visit this time around."

"I had work to finish," he answered simply and honestly. The anniversary of Aizen's defeat was drawing near, which meant many of the officers were choosing to skip out on work and get drunk instead. At times he could hardly blame them, remembering the horror that had been the Winter War, but work needed to be finished on time, whether his subordinates were in their right minds or not. But it also meant he had to adopt the task of editing all of their paperwork, making sure no one had drawn inappropriate pictures in their stupor like Matsumoto once had.

Shuffling on the spot, he finally looked at her meaningfully, stepping a little closer. She understood his intentions immediately and settled into the side of his body to give him easier access. He delicately wrapped his arms around her waist, using the proximity to analyze her one last time. The top of her kimono was far too parted for his liking, like it always was, and it revealed the swell of her perky breasts nestled against the fabric. In a few decades, he was confident she would mature into a wonderful woman, and he sincerely hoped she would grow out of her Matsumoto-like habit to "give her ladies breathing room." His body heated up as he noticed the way his scarf was brushing against the exposed skin above her chest, and his eyes remained fixated on that one spot for too long. It didn't help that her skin gave off the subtle aroma of soap; he assumed she had recently found a stream to wash up in, as that was the only way to bathe yourself in Zaraki without using up scarce drinking water.

With one last whiff, he scooped her against himself and shunpoed away.

.. ღ ..

The first time he found her in Zaraki, she was in less than perfect condition. Her kimono was tattered in many places, drawing the attention of men who had gone far too long without appealing women to look at. Her feet were bleeding profusely because she had no shoes, and her skin was covered in so much filth that it was impossible to tell who was underneath. Because of this, when he found her, he didn't even realize the importance of their meeting, or that he had just discovered the dead sister of Kurosaki Ichigo.

The news of her death had been shocking, to say the least. Word came from the distraught substitute shinigami, though Hitsugaya, pained enough already at the loss of a dear friend, had chosen not to listen to the gruesome details. But too many of the shinigami were busy rebuilding Soul Society after Aizen's betrayal, and so no one could volunteer time to find her. They assured him that they would all stay on alert for reiatsu as large as hers was sure to be, but could offer no greater assurances. In the end, years and years passed, yet no one had heard word from the missing Kurosaki. And because so many had already given up on her, she was left to survive Zaraki for herself.

He was sent on a mission to the eightieth district when reports filed in about multiple Hollow sightings. The soutaichou ordered him to make quick work of the disturbance and return to his post, and so he raced out to the targeted location with Hyourinmaru in hand. What he found was a filthy girl in a little clearing, on the verge of death as a Hollow loomed over her figure. He wasted no time in swinging his zanpakuto through its mask, effectively killing him with one strike and saving her life. Sheathing his katana, he held out a kind hand to the one he had just saved.

"Are you all right?" he asked seriously, and when she nodded and took his offered hand, a feeling of familiarity crawled up his spine. However, he shrugged it off, eyeing her disheveled state instead. "Do you want me to drop you off somewhere?" he asked carefully, wondering whether she had a spare change of clothes hidden in a place she could call home. This was Zaraki, after all, and just the staggering number of homeless people could shock just about anybody. His fears were confirmed when she shook her head quickly and took up a defensive stance, causing him to sigh heavily.

"Wait here," he commanded sternly, backing away from her and throwing a glare over his shoulder for good measure. "I'll be right back."

He shunpoed to the nearest store he could find, purchasing a small bar of soap and a fresh kimono for her to wear. He'd noticed the ratty thing she had adorned at the moment, and it did nothing to protect her modesty. The one he had just bought wasn't a whole lot better because the stall owner only had child sizes left, and he was sure that would hardly cover her up to her knees, but he preferred she not dress in rags. When he returned, she blinked at him in confusion when he handed both items to her, looking at her expectantly.

"They're for you," he explained slowly, as if speaking to a particularly stupid person. A flash of annoyance passed through her eyes at the action, but she accepted the items anyway, itching to clean up properly. He gestured down a small dirt path. "There's a small stream down that way. Go clean up. I'll wait here and make sure no one goes down this way."

The irritated scowl on her face was prominent, and he realized with much amusement that she didn't appreciate being given such blatant orders. Even so, his words were practical, leaving no room for argument. So, grumbling to herself, she marched off towards where he pointed while he folded his arms and waited patiently, cursing that voice in his head that always seemed to jump at the chance of helping damsels. He heard light sounds of splashing soon after and grunted in satisfaction that she had complied to his instructions. Just from her physical appearance alone, he could tell that she was in her early teenage years, much like his own looks, and he'd learned that girls at that age could be quite difficult – his only proof being Karin.

Soon afterwards, the girl returned from washing herself, now dirt-free and significantly less snappish. She was tugging the kimono into place, trying to pull it down farther onto her legs, though she paid no mind to the revealing bosom area. When he turned back to finally face her once again, his words failed him.

There were minute differences in her appearance. Her hair was now sleek and shiny, wet from the water but still pulled back into a ponytail. She shined brightly, revealing that she actually had rather milky skin that looked soft to the touch. Her feet had been carefully treated and washed out, looking significantly less painful. But he found himself very conscious of her legs, much longer than he remembered, and the bumps on her chest that had definitely not been so prominent. He was suddenly very aware of the fact that he had just found Karin.

"Why do you keep looking at me like that, creep?" she snapped, secretly self-conscious when he kept staring at her with such appalled eyes. To mask her timidity, she tugged on the sleeves of her new kimono to smooth out imaginary wrinkles. But the action drew his gaze towards her hands, and his eyes sharpened at how skinny her wrists looked. In one swift motion, he captured her wrist in his hand and promptly shoved back the sleeve, peering at her bone-thin arms with an intensity that almost scared her.

"Hey!" she protested, trying to pry herself free from this stranger. Her other hand swung back as a fist, ready to punch him out if he even seemed to be thinking of violating her; she'd learned the hard way that men could be ruthless, especially when it came to uncontrollable hormones. But his grip was relentless.

"When was the last time you ate?" he asked gruffly, ignoring her tugging and keeping his eyes on her extremity. When she couldn't even answer such a simple question, he abruptly threw her over his shoulder and took off running, so fast that the trees only looked like green blurs. She kicked and fussed against him, repeatedly punching his broad back or tugging on his scarf, but he never let her go.

They stopped outside a small, rather shady-looking restaurant. Delicious aromas and sounds of laughter drifted by and hit them in the face when he strode in, still carrying her over his shoulder. It was a tribute to how unorthodox Zaraki was that no one shot them any strange looks. Instead, they were seated at one of the finest booths in the establishment at his insistence, left with small menus and each other's company. He set her down in the inner seat, taking his position beside her so she couldn't escape by running off.

"I'm paying, so eat," he commanded, coolly flipping open his menu. Her jaw slackened at his casual posture, as well as the rapid twists to her day. While he debated between two dishes, she sat there in a slight daze, unsure of how to feel about this or even act around him. She had no proof that she could trust this boy, who dressed so professionally despite his seemingly young age. And she found herself suspicious of how he could afford such luxuries as food or new clothing in a place like the eightieth.

When the waitress came back around, she had decided to refuse his offer of food and stubbornly denied being hungry at all. He shot her an irritated, sideways glance. Truthfully, he had already eaten earlier in the day and he had no appetite himself. But he knew from past experiences with her that if he didn't eat, she wouldn't either. So he placed orders for the both of them, ignoring her protests and the profanities she sprouted while they waited, almost acting as if she wasn't there at all. Of course, when the food finally arrived, fixed in an appealing arrangement and smelling divine, she scarfed it down in seconds flat.

"Don't think this means I trust you," she managed to force out between monstrous bites. He nodded along in amusement, enjoying her enthusiasm while he ate quite regally himself, in complete contrast to her nonexistent table manners.

He returned back to Seireitei reluctantly. The soutaichou would grow suspicious of his absence if he stayed any longer, but it also didn't sit well with him to leave her behind so easily. However, he had no choice; regular souls were not allowed inside the shinigami home, and for some reason, he wasn't quite ready to reveal that he had found Kurosaki's sister. After all, she obviously did not remember her life in the living realm, and not only would that devastate her family, but bringing her back to too many familiar faces would only be overwhelming for the poor girl. So he left with a vague promise to return, memorizing her reiatsu for future reference.

When he finally did return, which took much too long for his liking, she had formed her little pack. Though he eyed the young boys with distaste, afraid they might try something on her, he also found himself relieved that she had found a permanent settlement and would no longer have to scour the streets. Unable to completely appease his overprotective quirks, he struck up a habit of sneaking her food with each visit, ensuring he would have enough to last at least her until the next time he could see her again.

Months later, when the two had grown closer and he'd explained his true identity as a taichou to her, he revealed that their group had no doubt formed because of the small amount of reiatsu each of them possessed. It was not significantly powerful spiritual pressure, but it had most likely brought them together subconsciously, guiding them towards others they could sense were similar to themselves. Karin's reiatsu was unsurprisingly quite high, though it was nowhere near what it had been when she had been living. Now that her brother's own pressure was no longer causing hers to leak, she had lost some of that strength in her own, and he doubted she even had enough to pass the entrance exam for the Academy. However, he was confident that over time, it would cultivate and grow to its previous glory, just like his had.

At that time, and no sooner or later, he had resolved to finally bring her back with him to Seireitei.

.. ღ ..

Eating out had become a sort of tradition between them in the years he had been secretly meeting up with her. After that first time, he had slowly managed to convince her to try visiting restaurants in the higher numbered districts. Though she always insisted that they return to Zaraki – she would not abandon her family, no matter how much he prompted her with offers of a home in the second or even first district – he enjoyed giving her small tastes of the more exquisite luxuries in life.

Today they stopped in the third district, as he was sure the risk of running into anyone who recognized him would be minimal there. Karin breathed out deeply when he finally set her down again, never having gotten used to the insane speed of shunpo. He smirked at her slight daze, keeping his hands firmly on her hips to steady her until she pulled away herself. Before stepping back, however, she placed gentle hands on his shoulders, sending him a shamed look.

"Listen, I'm sorry about Airi," she muttered, her posture sagging. "She's just in a bad mood these days."

"It's perfectly all right," he assured her, gently pulling off her hands and taking them in his own. He was used to others shooting him strange looks or treating him with hostility. It had taken decades of ridicule for him to learn that what others spoke of him was nowhere near as important as how he viewed himself. What mattered most to him at the moment was not his relationship with insignificant children who played no part in his life, but how he carried on with Karin. So he patted her hand reassuringly, enjoying the way her eyes softened from the gesture.

"Okay, then!" she exclaimed brightly, pulling back but keeping one hand in his. "Let's go get some chow."

He chuckled lightly, nodding in agreement, and they wandered down the streets together. He had never been to this area himself, so they basically followed their sense of smell to the best appetizing scent. He was well aware that if Matsumoto ever learned of their monthly outings together, she would tease him endlessly about him finally dating a girl after all his years of snubbing the academy girls that swooned over him. But they really did seem like a couple. It had become a sort of subconscious habit to hold hands when they strolled together, intertwining their thin fingers loosely yet with just as equal possessiveness. When stall owners stopped them in the streets to croon over the couple and offer flowers for him to present to his girlfriend, rather than negating their assumptions, both accepted the presents graciously. Once, he'd even copied the young couples he had spied spending time together and placed a small flower into her hair, nestling it between her tidy strands. And Karin, contrary to popular belief, had accepted with a shyness that had sprouted with her growing feminine whims.

Their small adventure led them to a cozy-looking building tucked into the corner of a long street of restaurants. Of all the stores, this was the only one that offered a peaceful environment; while the others hosted rowdy customers, this seemed like it had been built for those that appreciated the rare gift of a silent afternoon. When the two spotted the elderly couple working behind the counter inside, there was no doubt in their minds that their afternoon would be best spent here. They were met with polite greetings from the owners when they stepped in together, but Toushiro took notice of how many of the customers shot Karin looks of disgust, eyeing her soiled clothing with haughty disapproval. Though they graced him with nothing but respect, it seemed his presence was not enough to earn Karin the same treatment. He resisted the urge to send them all a threatening glare as the elderly woman showed them to a seat.

"You dodged my question earlier," he accused her once they had been seated. Karin raised a questioning eyebrow, so he elaborated, "How have you been doing?"

"I told you that I'm fine," she defended herself, and he shook his head at the answer. This was the question he asked without doubt during his visits, and both were aware that he expected in-depth, detailed answers. When she evaded the answer like this, it only alerted him that something troubling had nested in her mind. So he simply watched her expectantly, conveying his frustration with her through a raised eyebrow until she sighed in defeat.

"Kioshi-kun got accepted into Shinō Academy," she finally revealed, looking downcast at the news. His eyebrows met in the middle as he struggled to remember which boy she was speaking of; apparently he hadn't left enough of a lasting impression, like Yoshida-san, but he berated himself for forgetting someone who seemed to have such an impact on the girl seated across from him. Though it seemed to the taichou that she fretted more over the news itself than the actual person.

"And this is bad?" he prompted, coaxing her to continue. He'd actually forgotten that the entrance exam took place weeks prior. On top of his hectic schedule, the fair-headed taichou usually only had to worry about the graduating students rather than the new inductees.

"He tried to convince me to try, too," she admitted, watching him closely to gauge his reaction. Despite the fact that his hands tightened into fists so tense she could see his veins popping out, he allowed no other reaction to shine through. "He said I have reiatsu even stronger than his," she continued, "and that I should use it to earn a better life for myself."

"What did you say?" he asked softly, his voice controlled even as his lips thinned out into a straight line. He silently cursed this Kioshi boy, who seemed to take pleasure in hindering all of his careful planning and timing concerning the talented and powerful friend he was only trying his hardest to protect. He sincerely hoped Karin had not succumbed to his impulsive words; everyone at that house was well aware the consequences they would face by stepping into their relationship, which he'd made perfectly clear was off limits.

"I said no," she answered easily, much to his relief. Even so, the reply only heightened her somber mood, and she explained, "He didn't like that. He got mad at me and kept trying to convince me to come with him, so we could escape Zaraki together. But I told him that you didn't want me to join until I was ready." She closed her eyes, remembering the incident with both the pain of loss and the irritation of being ordered around. "He told me I needed to stop listening to every word you said and think for myself." Her lips quirked up into a smile, and she shot him an amused look. "He said you were bad for me, Toushiro-san."

Hitsugaya almost snorted at the statement, which sounded rather like lines from the romantic movies Orihime and Matsumoto had enjoyed together years ago, when they'd been stationed in the living world and the peculiar human had offered them her hospitality. Karin's smile widened at his reaction, happy that he seemed to find humor in the situation rather than the anger she had expected, and both finally let the subject drop. It was one of the quirks he loved about their relationship; neither of them had to speak a word to understand that the topic had been closed, saving him from an embarrassing reply while still conveying his approval of her handling of the situation.

The rest of their meal passed peacefully. Karin regaled him with her tales of the eightieth district, and even managed to weasel out information on his missions from him. Time always passed so smoothly and fairly too quickly when he was spending it with her, since he paid no mind to anyone entering or leaving the restaurant as they chatted for hours. He wasn't much of a talker, and neither was she, but a month apart had given them plenty of stories to tell. The elderly couple seemed to have taken a liking to them, as they kept pushing more food onto their plate to try.

"You're too skinny, sweetheart!" they lectured a sheepish Karin, aghast at the sight of her bony arms and legs. The woman pursed her lips sympathetically when she seemed to realize that the girl had the luck of residing in the most boorish district of them all, and it only prompted her to pamper the Kurosaki even more. Karin made unsuccessful attempts to deflect all the attention on her, uncomfortable under the spotlight, but they wouldn't hear a word of it. Toushiro simply locked his fingers together and enjoyed the scene unfolding before him, rather reminded of his own family.

When the time came for payment, he gladly emptied his wallet, firmly believing that the couple had earned every yen he paid them. Rather than leave afterwards, however, he ordered a small but expensive bottle of fine wine for the two to share. Just because he scolded his fukutaichou routinely for her habits, it did not mean that he did not enjoy a drink himself every now and then. The haori he wore atop his uniform was proof enough that he was much older than he physically appeared, so the owners graciously abided by his request, bringing them small cups as well. Karin did the honors of opening the bottle, as she had always found that to be such an interesting task, and poured them both a generous amount. He chuckled at her enthusiasm, especially remembering her reluctance the first time he had asked for a drink after their meal.

"I was under the impression that everyone in Zaraki enjoyed drinking," he had said, appalled by this new revelation that opposed his long standing belief. She'd assured him they did, but her worries lied elsewhere.

"I'm not of age," she'd fretted, biting her bottom lip. He'd simply shaken his head and explained that, though she looked so young, she had already reached the proper drinking age, technically speaking. So, with his encouragement, she'd tried wine for the first time, taking reluctant sips from her glass and making faces at the strange, unfamiliar taste. Over the years, she'd slowly learned to enjoy the experience of the liquor he presented her with, spurred on through his presence. The small act of communion had just become another part of their monthly sacred tradition.

Karin carefully handed him a cup of wine and wrapped her fingers around her own. Holding hers in the air, she beckoned he do the same. He brought his inches from hers, waiting for her toast.

"To Kioshi-kun," she declared, giggling when he rolled his eyes. "May he become a shinigami worth remembering, and may he learn when to mind his own business where he's not wanted!"

He repeated her words under his breath, and the two clinked glasses. Satisfied with their small toast, both took a sip together, smiling slightly against the rims of their cups.

.. ღ ..

Hitsugaya shivered pleasantly when Karin deeply sighed against his neck. The two had polished off the entire bottle of wine, and when her cheeks had adopted a red tinge, he'd decided it was time to finally return her to her home. Now, he shunpoed over the rooftops, keeping her firmly pressed against himself as he did so. The sun was finally beginning to set, making way for the feeling of an approaching day's end that usually accompanied early evening. Bars seemed to be opening in the streets below, and many men were already strutting inside, prepared to drink themselves into a stupor and hopefully pick a legendary fight. Hitsugaya nodded in satisfaction when he noticed that the weak-willed women and small children had made themselves scarce in the light of danger.

He landed right outside Karin's shack, relieved to find that all of her house-mates had shut themselves inside; good-byes between the two of them were always kept private. Karin settled her feet back onto the ground, steady since she was not drunk from their drinking. In fact, she seemed completely aware of her surroundings, as a sad smile played on her lips when she realized their parting was drawing close. Just as she had early on in the afternoon, she placed her hands on his shoulders gently.

"See you next month?" she whispered, her eyes saddening as the meaning behind the words hit her full force. From the moment he left, the two would have to wait a full month – a painstaking thirty days – before they could see one another once again. The thought left a bitter taste in her mouth, and she almost wished he wasn't a taichou of great importance who had duties to attend to.

"Of course," he replied, noticing her somber mood and attempting to appease her. The parting was unbearable to him as well. Until their next meeting, he would be left to worry over her safety, to wonder whether she was still safe or if someone had harmed her in any way. The possibility of hunger never escaped his mind, either. Right now, in this moment, he held her in his arms and had no qualms over her wellbeing. It was selfish, but this was how close he always wanted her to be.

Karin's smile did grow slightly bigger at his answer, as she realized that he was trying to make her happier in the last moments they were together; it was his roundabout way of providing comfort. Neither were emotional people, and it had taken her a long time to come to the realization that he was actually attempting to lighten her mood in the times she found him to be most harsh. And she couldn't help but observe his gruff manner of speaking, or the lightly embarrassed tinge to his posture, or even the way he couldn't meet her in the eyes as he stepped out of his comfort zone for her. She had never known what she had done to deserve such kindness from him, but she was fully aware that her life would never be so fulfilling if he was not a part of it. That blatant truth always filled her with a happiness that almost made her feel that she could burst from it, and the feeling returned at the very moment. So, grinning softly, she leaned over and pressed her lips lightly to his.

His eyes widened at the sudden action, but unlike the first time she had done it years ago, he did not jump away in shock. Instead, he returned it with a soft pucker of his own lips, putting a gentle strength behind the action.

Their kisses were never vulgar, never any more passionate than the simple touch of her mouth against his. She had been the first to initiate the intimate action, using the gesture as a silent thank you for all he had done for her. It had mortified them both when he had pulled away from the unexpected act, but the next time he had visited, they found themselves kissing good-bye. And since then, it had become their parting gesture, much more meaningful than simple, spoken words ever could be.

Hitsugaya had never been one to become so intimate with a girl on a whim, but Karin always managed to make it feel right, like it was only natural to have such an exchange between them. He came to understand her curiosity behind kissing, her desire to explore this new sense of sexuality that came with the task of growing up, and so he obliged her with himself. There was no one else she could perceive these strange new feelings with, and no one else he would want her to. In return, he enjoyed the churning of his stomach and the goosebumps that erupted over his skin when she touched him.

They pulled away mere moments later, their eyes fluttering open, and exchanged soft looks of rare, unhidden happiness. The sun was beginning to set farther, and both realized that their time was up. She would never ask him to stay longer, though she always wanted to, and he never offered to stay, because he couldn't. So the two pulled away quickly, letting meaningful silence wash over them. She held up a hand in farewell, stepping back towards her front door as her eyes never left him. Before taking off, he turned back once more and sent her a curt nod of the head, reassuring her that he would definitely return as he always did. Then, he finally shunpoed away.

Karin watched him disappear from her place by the door, already longing for the arrival of the next month.

Did you enjoy the random fluff? :D I hope so!

Anyway, I usually depict Karin using the energetic, tomboy side of her that we see when she interacts with Toushiro in the anime. But this time, I decided I wanted to write her as the mature and collected girl she seems to have become since entering middle school. She's more feminine and grown up, and I tried to capture that part of her in this one-shot. :)