When I woke up this morning, I made a goal for myself that I would finally finish this chapter today. And I'm so proud of myself for accomplishing it!

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

"All right, let's see it!"

"W-What? Here, now?"

"No, in Hokkaido, three days from now. Yes, here and now!"

With that demanding glare on her face and her hands on her hips, he can't refuse the request. So, trying to hold back his embarrassment, he unsteadily rises to his feet. They're already off to a bad start when he has to try twice, and the impatient tapping of her foot can only mean she's growing more agitated by the second. He takes just one step, and she stomps in front of him and slaps his shoulder.

"Wrong!" she exclaims, going as far as to wag her finger. "Why are your legs so shaky? That's a dead giveaway. Kami, did you practice at all?"

"Yes, I did," he retorts irritably. "All night, in fact, as you asked."

She snorts. "Then how come there's no improvement?"

"Because it's only been one day!" he bites back, gritting his teeth and glancing away. "And I've only been waddling all over the place. What kind of practice is that? I need a reference, at least."

"You want a reference?" she barks. Whipping around, she marches to a tree three feet away before stomping back angrily. "There's your reference. Now, I expect you to be walking like that by the end of the week, got it?"

"Only if you're okay with the villagers thinking I have a stick up my -"

"Don't finish that, you little..." She breathes in angrily, and then spits out, "I'm a bad influence on you."

He scoffs in agreement, gazing at her sharply from the corner of his eyes. She seems to be calming down; her breathing is no longer as ragged and her stature is finally straight again. He had never really been angry with her – only defensive when she'd doubted his devotion. He had practiced all night for her! It would be nice to get some appreciation.

'From Karin?' he scoffs, even in his own mind. 'There's a better chance of Madarame suddenly announcing that he's taken a vow of peace.'

"All right," Karin breathes out slowly. Her eyes close for a moment, and when she opens them again, she seems significantly more serene. "Let's try this again." With a smile, she politely asks, "How was your practice, Toushiro?"

"Better than the first time I attempted to walk," he replies coolly.

She snorts, remembering that horrible soccer game. "Well, that's a relief, at least." Crossing her arms, she smirks. "Okay, if you're doing any better, then I guess it's good for me. But you've gotta practice more, 'kay? So, get to it!"

Grumbling to himself, he puts one foot in front of the other and tries to take a step forward, holding his arms out to his side as support. Karin bites back a chuckle at his childish tactics and determination, settling down underneath a large tree to watch him under the shade. Truth is, she knows she's a horrible teacher. She's always lacked the patience it takes to instruct another and not blow her top at every mistake, especially with something as simple as walking, which everyone should know how to do since their toddler years. Of course, she's been trying to ease up towards Toushiro, who must face some special circumstances, but it doesn't help that he looks like an adult. Even he'd noticed, however, that she's gotten better at repressing her temper, like she just had.

She's quite convinced that the reason for her sudden control is her renewed relationship with her family. It had taken far too long for her liking, but Yuzu had been the first to crack. Though she'd been ignoring her brash twin at first, she'd been unable to resist the temptation of learning that Karin had actually found a mysterious date to the romantic festival that was fast approaching.

"Who is it?" she'd squealed, clapping her hands together and sighing over the boiling stew. "Someone I know?"

"No," Karin had replied, attempting to hide her glee over the actual conversation and break in the long silence. With a scowl, she'd carefully recited the excuse she'd conjured to explain Toushiro's future, sudden appearance at their village. "He's a boy I met when I went to the city that long time ago. Remember we all went together with Urahara-san's family, and I got lost?" At Yuzu's nod, she'd continued, "Well, he helped me back then, and we've been secretly writing to each other all this time. I invited him to be my partner last month."

Yuzu had pouted. "Why did you never tell me about him!" she'd exclaimed.

"Please, Yuzu," she'd deadpanned wearily. "We both know you would have made too big a deal over something that isn't." Seeing her eyebrows scrunch in distaste at the accusation, she'd also explained, "Besides, he's...shy." Toushiro had lost his temper with her when she'd recalled this part of the conversation to him later, but had let it slide because it had been crucial in keeping his true identity a secret.

"But I can't believe it!" Yuzu had cried, drawing attention from both their father and brother. "I mean, Karin and a...city boy." To Karin's amusement, her voice had dropped to a hushed whisper, as if voicing some scandalous news. Well, in their village, it partially is, as the city boys are notorious for their mature adventures with women and atrocious behavior. But Yuzu should know that Karin would never involve herself with a man in such a way. However, ignoring that characteristic of her sister's, she'd instead asked, "So, what's his name?"

Contemplating whether his true name would be smart to divulge, she'd finally decided it would cause no harm, and had truthfully answered, "Hitsugaya Toushiro."

"Wow. Hitsugaya...Toushiro," Yuzu had slowly tried out the foreign name on her tongue. Then, the squealing and giggling and questions had commenced, and the amount of joy oozing out of her very aura had been too much for Isshin to resist. He'd been the next one to break down and give in, chiming in about grandchildren and a heinous boy defiling his baby; he'd been just a little too excited about the latter to be categorized as a good father.

The only one who had refrained from forgiving her had been Ichigo, who'd scoffed and looked away as if he had never heard anything in the first place. Though it had disheartened Karin for some time, she'd allowed the stress of preparing for the festival to sweep her away, far from his condescending behavior. So, since she'd partially gained back some of her past happiness, Hitsugaya had fortunately been treated to slack.

She watches now, as he wobbles his way down a straight path. There's a blazing determination in his eyes that Karin secretly admires; she's never appreciated when people have things handed to them. Trial and error, after all, build character. It's what she's had to do all her life, learning the dos and don'ts of her anti-feminist society; don't wear things too revealing, even for a sports match, as that would earn her a one-way ticket to about fifty disapproving murmurs and glares, but staying out just a tad later was allowed, as long as she was smart enough to cover up and keep attention from herself. Little things like these had taught her the tricks and trades of getting away with at least some things she desired to do.

Toushiro keeps his arms steady for balance and puts one leg in front of the other again. That makes a total of three actually balanced steps, and Karin beams at his progress. Of course, she'll be breathing down his neck soon enough when he's not ready for the festival, but for now, she's enjoying his patience in learning something new. She takes in the tightened jaw and furrowed eyebrows, and can't help but think to herself that there's a certain rugged handsomeness in a man willing to try for simply her sake.

However, it doesn't take long for his patience to snap. There's a small cry of surprise from his lips, and he finally stumbles backwards, landing hard on the ground beneath. That, apparently, is the final straw, as he simply huffs and crosses his arms, refusing to get up again. Karin can't help but chuckle under her breath.

"Okay, okay! That's enough," she calls out to him when she notices his face souring even more. It's never a good idea to allow him to get too far into his moods, or nothing would ever get done. Scrambling to her feet, she pats dust off of her knees before jogging over to him. "How about we try dancing instead – see if you take to that better?"

His breathes out in irritation. "What on earth would make you think that to be a good idea?" he questions incredulously. He can't even stand properly, and she wants to try something as fast-paced and complicated as dancing? Sometimes he worries that her belief of determination and sheer willpower being enough to get you through anything will trap her in serious trouble.

She shrugs, understanding his doubt, and explains, "Dancing has more rhythm. Maybe that's what you need."

He considers the suggestion, still not quite understanding the logic behind it. When he takes too long, she glares at his hesitation and finally just grabs his hand forcefully. Ignoring the shock apparent on his face, she calmly scoops the other into her hands as well, so that the two are face-to-face with their hands clasped together.

"So, the dance is simple but complex," she begins easily, as if he had never protested. "The steps are easy, but it's pretty long and hard to remember. You're a smart dragon, though. I'm sure you can get it." Her lips pucker into thought as she realizes they're lacking something rather crucial. "Music usually makes this easier, but we don't have any right now..."

They both fall silent, and as they contemplate this dilemma, Toushiro's ears perk up at a familiar, soothing sound; it's the lake's water, swaying with the wind and creating splashes against the shoreline. The rippling of the water over the surface creates a rhythmic beat, one that always sets him at ease no matter the situation he is in. Unconsciously, he feels his body begin to push and pull along with the tide, swaying with the waves so slightly that one would hardly notice it. However, as Karin is attached at the hands, she feels his body being to move and eyes his form; he doesn't realize it himself how he's reacting, but a smirk overtakes her face as she notices the water's call. She strokes the back of his hand with her thumb, drawing his attention.

"Who needs music, anyway?" she exclaims in response to his quizzical look, and gestures towards the lake with a flick of her head. "You're practically dancing already."

His eyes soften at the observation as he realizes just what she had noticed about him. It's not really his fault that he physically cannot resist the water's call; dragons use the rhythm of their elements in their dances, anyway, so this reaction elicited from the whispers of his home is only natural. It tugs at his stomach, urging him to further his response by swaying more forcefully, more in tune to nature. In response, his eyelids droop until his gaze is more hazy and free than she's ever seen it.

"Are you all right, Toushiro?" Karin asks carefully, stepping closer so that their faces are practically touching. At any other time this would have resulted in a particularly strong and embarrassed reaction, but now, the waves lull his emotions, dulling his weaknesses and calling forth his courage.

His hands slip from hers almost routinely, and taking advantage of their close proximity, he lazily ghosts them over her hips. The shock of the sudden action causes her to gasp lightly, but nothing more so than when he loosely wraps his arms around her waist, pulling her respectably close enough that they can dance without their fronts actually touching. His head finds the junction of her shoulder and neck, and he buries himself in her scent, breathing in deeply at the smell of fresh grass she'd no doubt obtained from playing outdoors all morning. Karin peeks at him sideways from the corners of her eyes, meeting only the messy spikes that are his hair. They are both so dead silent that the sound of his voice breaking the tranquility causes her to lurch against him.

"You wanted to dance, correct?" he mumbles against her, his voice the most slurred she has ever heard him allow it to be. He sounds so surreal that she's almost afraid of this sudden change in his persona – enough to stand straight-backed and frozen in her spot. It is Toushiro that causes her to move by pulling her closer, urging her to mirror his actions. Almost automatically, her arms, hanging uselessly at her sides since he had dropped them, slither around his torso. Hooking under his arms, they rest on his shoulders from the back like an embrace.

"Let's dance," he mutters against her, and she finds herself unable to disobey. It's almost as if they're intoxicated by the other's presence, easily discarding their inhibitions without a second thought.

Carefully, they begin to sway together. It's awkward at first, as they're out of sync and unable to find a mutual rhythm, and their bodies brush lightly every now and then when their individual movements clash with each other's. But as the breeze becomes stronger, the trees' leaves join in with the music of the water, and Karin finds herself falling under the same spell that had captured her partner. The serenity of their silence washes over both of them, and soon their dancing harmonizes heedlessly. Only their upper bodies move; his feet stay firmly planted on the spot so there are no chances of his clumsiness ruining the moment, of breaking the mystique of their shared embrace. Though she would have berated him avoiding practice at any other time, she finds herself unable to do so now. In fact, she never even notices, too caught up in the sparking electricity of the enchanted moment.

The sun begins to set on them as it always does, but neither ceases their swaying, too engrossed in each other to pay any attention to the surrounding world apart from the leaves and the water. It's only when the breeze finally settles and their impromptu melody finally ends, making way for the stillness that comes with the end of the day, that they pull away. His head ventures away from her neck, his eyelids flutter as he attempts to clear his hazy mind, and his arms loosen. However, he still holds onto her, unwilling to separate after their hours of unity.

She reaches reality first. Wordlessly stepping away, she finds herself unable to tear her gaze away from him. With her hands fisted tightly, she begins to slowly walk backwards, keeping their eyes locked until he disappears from her sight by the many trees surrounding her that obscure her path. Finally turning tail, she sprints back to her village in the dark evening without so much as a good-bye, painfully aware that she'll have to face him again the next day.

Planted firmly across her cheeks is a deep redness she's quite sure has been present since the very beginning of their dance.

.. ღ ..

Both of them wisely avoid any discussion of their previous encounter when she returns the next day. The grin on her face is just a little too wide and the scowl on his face is just a little too bitter, but neither point out the obvious show the other is putting on. However, both do keep their distance from the other, not getting any closer than necessary; therefore, Karin decides it best not to try dancing together again for a long, long time. Thinking ahead to the dilemma created by this decision, she brings a remedy to the situation in the form of a make-shift Karin doll.

"It's a sack of potatoes!" she explains with too much cheer. She would have used something more human-like, such as a broom, but she doesn't quite know where Yuzu keeps all the cleaning supplies, not being one for housework. Holding up the bag, she chuckles at his less than enthusiastic expression as he eyes it. "I sneaked into the town stables and stole some hay to stuff inside. It'll be just like me!"

"I highly doubt that..." he mumbles, even as he takes the offending object from her hands. Today's practice involves working with his feet – that had been overlooked the day before – so he awkwardly grasps the sack against himself to learn how to walk steadily with the added weight of another "person." Neither will take the chance to allow their surroundings' music to weaken their awareness, so Karin brings another solution to their problem; in her hand lies a white, carefully carved flute.

"You can play?" he asks in shock. He would never have considered her the type of woman to play any sort of instrument, especially one as calming and serene as a flute.

She shrugs, trying to play off her embarrassment at revealing such a feminine detail about herself. "They taught us in class and I guess it stuck with me," she explains, meeting his eyes with a determination to not allow herself to turn shy now. "I mean, I was always always really bad at everything we did in class, but – and don't you dare tell Otou-san," she threatens him with a finger in his face, never mind that he has never met the man, and that the subject of her flute playing would probably be the last thing they would speak about if he did. "The truth is...I always liked the flute," she admits softly.

"Really?" he asks in surprise, unable to even imagine her playing such a serene, beautiful instrument and actually enjoying it. When she scowls dangerously at his tone, he hastily plows on, "Not that it's too great of a surprise. It was simply a shock because I play, too."

She crosses her arms in irritation that they're still talking about this. "Well, are you going to play for me some time, then?" she asks. "I mean, you'll hear me play."

He considers her. "Would you like me to play for you?" he asks quietly, and the tender tone causes her to scowl to cover her chagrin. She just snaps a 'whatever' in his direction and stomps over to the tree she had sat under to play for him under the shade. Placing the flute against her lips, she begins to play a slow, soft melody that resonates across their clearing. Her eyelids flutter as they periodically flicker towards him, observing her future partner's skills. Today's lesson lacks the strict prowess of the last; he simply waltzes, almost in place, with his partner in his arms, keeping his moves simple so his feet may adjust to the increase in speed. It seems a highly embarrassing moment was all it needed for Karin to gain some patience in her teaching. She never even objects when he pauses for a brief break, and he takes advantage of it while he can. After all, Karin never lets anything hold her down for long, so he's sure she'll return to her spit-fire ways soon enough.

Crossing his legs and leaning back against the bark of the tree, he settles in beside her. She takes great care in placing her flute away, rubbing her thumb over any smudges and nestling it carefully over the potato sack to avoid placing it in the dirt. When she finally runs out of excuses, she turns her head towards him.

"Have you been practicing?" she asks, her eyebrows raising in a threatening way that promised pain if not given the right answer.

He nods immediately. "Of course. What do you take me for?" he retorts, causing her to smirk rather proudly.

Satisfied with the answer, she gets comfortable against the tree herself, keeping mind of avoiding contact with his shoulder. Any form of physical contact is forbidden right now after the confusion it had roused just yesterday, and she decides keeping her distance from the lake for a while might be an intelligent idea, too. Letting things get heated would only complicate their relationship; something like that had never happened to her before apart from Grimmjow, and remembering how well that turned out only reassures her that all of these preventative measures are the right method for protecting their friendship.

Toushiro glances at her sideways as her face flickers with different emotions, finally settling on firm resolve. What she's decided, he's not quite sure, but knowing Karin, she would follow her plan to a tee. It's something he admires about her, as he's rather big on discipline himself; hopelessly trying to teach Matsumoto some had eaten up his childhood, after all. And when Karin had run off yesterday, he'd had to force himself to remember his own. That horrified expression on her face had convinced him it would be a bad idea to fall victim to the water once again, and so he needs to keep his mind sharp and focused.

He's never fought against his own element before, never had to, as it is his partner in everything he does in life. But he would try just about anything to avoid Karin making such an expression because of him again. Perhaps that's why he hadn't transformed back into a dragon again last night, or slept in his own home for that matter. Instead, he'd resisted the seductive calls of the lake, sleeping far from the shoreline as a human boy, to strengthen his own resolve. If he ever wants anything more than just friendship with her, after all, she needs to whole-heartedly believe she can always be comfortable around him.

This awkward, prolonged silence, however, is doing nothing to appease the outcome of the previous day's mishap. In fact, the heavy atmosphere only seems to be ripping them farther apart. Karin refuses to look at him properly or even inch any closer to him, and he's sure slipping closer himself would only elicit a wedge in their friendship. Besides, he's never been one for comforting or long talks and avoids them like the plague most of the time. But it's different with Karin, who's not the same when she doesn't badger him with her need to break the silence or wrench him out of his comfort zone. So he scrambles to find some way to remedy their tension.

"How are things with your family, Karin?" he asks, already aware that things are going well, so it would most likely cheer her up. And indeed, she beams over at him.

"Great!" she cries. "Yuzu even promised to make me my favorite dinner later today, and Otou-san tried to choke me in a hug, too." She holds up a fist with a self-satisfied smirk. "Well, I showed him."

He chuckles under his breath. "And how are things with this Jinta?" Those are apparently the magic words, as her face splits into a wide grin that dominates her face.

"Perfect!" she snickers. "You should have seen the look on his face when I told the class I had a date for the dance. He thought it would be impossible for me, and you know what? Showing him was even more satisfying than beating the crap out of Otou-san."

"Your family is rather...strange," he comments, thinking back to what she had told him about them.

"Yup!" she agrees easily. "And you'll see for yourself first hand at the festival. They have some pretty weird traditions." She finishes on a note of exasperation, no doubt thinking about all of her humiliating memories. She constantly complains about their antics when their conversations bring about some memory, and most of the time, they involve public outbursts. He can understand quite easily, thinking back to his own family's traditions that had left him agitated and under too much public scrutiny for comfort. Trying to push away his dark, twisted past, he attempts to steer their talk into another direction, and by association, he suddenly thinks back to a small detail Karin had ghosted over when asking for his help for the festival.

"Karin, you mentioned a legend about this dance, didn't you?" he remembers, placing a hand over his chin as he thinks back to her slip of the tongue. She suddenly scowls darkly at his attempt, punching his arm to pull him back from his memories. The mood abruptly shifts back to how it had been before.

"Yeah, yeah," she grumbles. "That stupid legend that always has all the girls squealing. It never comes true, anyway." She splays her legs out before her and places her hands on the grass behind her, leaning back on them and turning her glower to the sky.

"What is it about?" he asks, his curiosity overtaking him easily; it always does when it comes to Karin and her human life.

She glares over at him. "Just the usual crap about dancing and soul mates," she snaps, keeping her gaze firmly planted above her. "Just drop it, Toush. It's all just fake, anyway."

He inclines his head to the side, bringing his face into her view so she can see the carefully puzzled expression on his face. "Why are you so against this tradition, Karin? Or upset with those girls?" he asks softly. She'd turned so bitter at the mention of the legend and of all the girls swooning over it. Though it seems a Karin type of reaction, he also can't help but wonder why the response is so strong when he broaches this subject.

"You just can't drop it even when I tell you to, can you?" she retorts. When her eyes finally catch his, he can easily decipher the frosty look that had taken over them. Somewhere deep behind the rage, however, he imagines he can see an inkling of hidden hurt, too. "Fine. The truth is...I used to want to believe that stupid legend too, okay?"

"You did?" he repeats, just as shocked as when he had learned her flute secret. He backtracks when her face sours even more, realizing his lack of tact.

"Yes, me," she quips back. Her mood darkens instantly as she turns back to the sky. She maintains a brief moment of contemplative silence, and when she speaks again, her voice has dropped to a low, softer tone that is uncharacteristic of her. "Me and Grimmjow were together for a long time, you know. With him around to dance with every year, the idea of soul mates didn't seem too far fetched, okay? I guess...I just thought..." She trails off, her fists clenching as she fights to gain back her steady control. Finally, she sighs heavily and drops her head in defeat. "Now I know that it's just a bunch of crap, anyway. There's no way Grimm could ever have been the one. And that stupid, corny legend just isn't true."

The bitterness laced so heavily in each and every word stabs his chest repeatedly, reminding him how much this girl before him had lost by just one simple act of a foolish man. If it had been him, he would never have let her go so easily, and especially not in such a horrific way. Now, he would spend as much time as needed to help her pick up the shattered pieces of her past relationship. He isn't like those men who would easily throw away women without so much as a thought; he treasures those he holds close, and Karin occupies one of the highest positions in his heart. He would do anything to win back that cheerful disposition of hers, as well as her trust in men.

Glaring at the sky along with her, he promises, 'I swear, Karin, that one day, I'll make you believe in that legend once again.'

Well, I hope you enjoyed this latest installment. As you can see, the two are definitely growing closer ^_^

And I just realized that I'm about to reach a hundred reviews for this story! That makes me so excited, since I've never reached that mark before. I've always felt it's like a rite of passage on this site (without writing, like, a bazillion chapters), so I want to thank all of you from the very bottom of my heart for taking the time to leave your thoughts :D Though I don't think this story's that great myself and can't really understand why it's the first. I'll never get you guys and your tastes... -_-