A special thanks to the person who left me my one-hundredth review! It was an anonymous reviewer, "Guest," so sadly I can't thank you personally. But I'm sure you know who you are, so THANK YOU! :D

Well, we're finally here, guys – the end. Just to warn you, I do a bit of time-skipping in this chapter. I tried my best to make it clear just how much time has passed, usually by using Karin's schooling, so I don't think it should be too hard to make sense of it. Well, enjoy!

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


Toushiro walks briskly through the crowds, side-stepping several people in his way and mumbling apologies when he is not quick enough. Some shoot him irritated looks as they exaggeratedly brush themselves off, but he doesn't spare them a backwards glance. He's in too much of a rush.

'Damn Matsumoto!' he thinks furiously, definitely not for the first time in his life. She'd kept him so much longer than he had planned at their meeting that morning. No matter how important the content had been, or how much they had decided, he curses himself for not keeping a closer eye on the clock. 'I'm not gonna make it!' he groans desperately, even as he turns into Karin's neighborhood.

He and his manager had eaten lunch at a restaurant nearby as they had discussed their life-changing decisions, and so he'd made plans to walk to Karin's home with plenty of time to spare. But Matsumoto had insisted on ordering practically every dessert on the menu, and since he had promised that he would treat her, that meant he was obligated to sit with her until she finished and he could pay. And if he really thinks about it, he's quite sure she'd done it with a mischievous smile on her face.

Finally, after dodging several of her neighbors and their pets, he slows down outside his girlfriend's family home, breathing heavily to calm his racing heart. Wiping his forehead impatiently, he rings the doorbell. Yuzu answers, and she shoots him a sympathetic smile.

"You...didn't make it," she admits softly, stepping aside to allow him entry. He does so with a groan; despite coming to terms with that on his way, he still can't help but feel a rush of disappointment. It might not have been of the utmost importance that he be here, but it's still something he had set his heart on, especially to properly support his girlfriend of three years.

"But she's still here," Yuzu offers helpfully, leading him into the kitchen. "And I know she understands."

"I'm sure she does," he agrees with a grimace. "But, still..."

They finally wander into the kitchen, where they find a group of people crowded around the table. From the doorway he can see Isshin sitting in one of the chairs, beaming proudly at everyone. Ichigo and Rukia are also part of the group, and they're deep in conversation with a red-headed man he's never met before. Their hands are clasped together tightly, as if they're afraid of letting go. For the first time, and just for the briefest moment, he wonders what their story is.

But his eyes are only for one person, and he finds her sitting across the table from her father, chin resting on a hand propped up by an elbow on the table. She looks over when they walk in, and her eyes narrow when she locks her gaze with his.

"So, you finally decided to show up, huh?" she booms loudly, and everyone in the area suddenly turns silent. He offers her a pained grimace, but it only makes her glare that much more heatedly. "Kami. Couldn't even find one minute to drop by and offer your girlfriend your congratulations, could you?"

Every head turns in his direction, wondering with extreme amusement what his answer will be. But he keeps his eyes on Karin, and the longer he looks, the easier it is for him to realize that she's clearly messing with him. (That small smile twitching on her lips, despite how hard she tries to fight it, is definitely one indication). So he marches over to where she's sitting and, disregarding her watching family, pecks her on the lips lightly.

"Congratulations," he signs, and she grins up at him in return.

It's miraculous how quickly the others seem to suddenly think of somewhere else they need to be. Isshin remembers some forms he needs to fill out for a patient, Yuzu needs to look over the monthly finances for the bakery she works at, and Rukia just gets a sudden urge to find a computer and show their friend – Renji is his name – the apartment she and Ichigo are thinking of purchasing. To her credit, she also forcefully drags her boyfriend away before he can protest to leaving the two alone.

"And we didn't even have to leave a hint," Karin muses with humor in her voice once they're alone. "They must really like you, Toushiro."

"That's always good to know about a girlfriend's family," he jokes, pulling up a chair beside her. She simply grins at his attempt.

"Look. We saved you some cake," she tells him. There is indeed a very large cake sitting in the center of the table, and she reaches for a bowl she had already cut a slice into and hands it to him. As he accepts it, she makes a face.

"They're blowing all this out of proportion," she complains. "I only completed my undergraduate work. I still have law school to go, but they still felt the need to get me a cake. This isn't even the first celebration I'm going to have, since Kiyone also wants to take me out, and her sister will probably tag along, too."

"This is a big deal, though," he counters, setting down his slice of cake. "You know how hard it is to even get into college here. And now you're one step closer to achieving your goal of becoming a lawyer."

"I guess," she relents with a sigh. Her hand slides from under her chin to her cheek, and she smiles at him softly. "Oh, yeah. We just keep talking about me, but you have some pretty big news, too, don't you? What did you and Matsumoto decide on?"

He freezes at the question, much to Karin's confusion. With a sigh, he runs a hand through his hair and sets the bowl down on the table. The words are particularly hard to get out. This will be the first time he will say them out loud, and he's almost afraid to, because it's like accepting his fate. But he knows there's nothing anyone can do to change it now, so he steels himself for the words is about to say. At least the first time he says them, they will be for Karin.

"We decided that...I'm not going to be a pianist anymore."

Karin's hand slips from her cheek, and she catches herself an instant before her head collides with the tabletop. Silence hangs in the kitchen after that statement. Toushiro keeps his hardened eyes on the cake, drumming his fingers against the bowl. And then, finally, she breaks through the quiet.

"What!"

He sighs, more from his own resignation than anything, but can't bring himself to say anything more. He doesn't have to, though, because Karin begins spluttering broken sentences at the shocking news.

"Y-you're going to...You can't! I-I mean, you only just fell in love with the piano again. This isn't fair! You shouldn't have to..." She trails off helplessly, unsure of what words to use but unable to just stay silent. He smiles over at her sadly, touched by her attempt at comfort but still overcome with a sense of loss. Finally, in her desperation, she yells out, "You can't let that bastard Ayane win!"

He can't help it; her words make him laugh, despite the seriousness of the situation. She looks so scandalized by his decision, and buried deep under all those emotions, he can also make out an inkling of sympathy. If it had been anyone else, it would have only sparked his anger, but he understands just how important his music is to her, too. If there's one thing he regrets about this inevitable decision, it's how badly this is sure to affect her.

"We had to face facts, Karin," he finally explains, eyeing her encouragingly. "I haven't received any new jobs in a long time, and we realized that it could very well be years until I do. I can't just go my whole life waiting for some opportunity that might never arrive again." He drops his hands to take hers in his hold, prompting her to look at him. "It's all right, Karin," he reassures her. "It's not as if playing the piano is all I know. It's just what I've known the longest."

"But you didn't do anything wrong," she mumbles. "You were only doing what was right."

"I know that," he replies gently. "That's why I have no regrets about leaving the piano this way."

She still looks as if she wants to protest his choice, but he sends her a pointed look, asking her not to. This is hard enough without having to go through the guilt of causing her pain, too. So she relents hesitantly, backing away for the moment after sensing his rigid feelings. They let silence hang in the air once again, until Karin decides she's too curious.

"Well, what's the plan, then?" she finally asks him, tucking her fist under the chin again and leaning towards him.

He shrugs, and though it would have seemed an apathetic gesture, she can tell it's the exact opposite. In his eyes is a faraway look as he gazes at some future that has yet to happen, but was only built because he let go of the past.

Then again, he only did just rediscover his love for the piano again, and he would never put all of Karin's efforts to waste.

"Who knows?" he replies, but flashes her a reassuring smile. "But, just so you know, I'm not ready to let go of music just yet."

.. ღ ..

A motorbike pulls up outside Otoribashi Records, and it roars menacingly right before the driver pulls up in a parking space and switches it off. Swinging her leg around the seat, she grabs her black helmet and tugs it off her head, shaking her hair down. Leaning the protective gear against her hip, she stalks to the front door of the enormous building, her steps quick and impatient.

A receptionist at the front desk looks up when she enters, flashing a grin at the familiar face. "I presume you're here to see Hitsugaya-san?" At her nod, the woman shuffles through the papers on her desk. "He should be in studio three today."

"Thanks!" With a grateful smile, she waves to the receptionist and scurries off to studio three.

When she creaks open the door to the right room, she finds Toushiro seated inside. He's pouring over a dashboard of buttons and switches and levers, a thoughtful expression on his face. Beyond him, past the big, glass window, Hisagi and Sado are seated on stools in the next room, guitars perched in each of their hands. They strum a few strings while she slips inside.

"This a bad time?" she whispers, shutting the door behind her quietly. Toushiro looks over immediately, his expression softening at the sight of her.

"Of course not," he signs, waving her over. She gladly takes the empty chair next to his, kicking the ground to spin the seat as her boyfriend presses a button and leans into a microphone. "Uh, fellas? Why don't you take a lunch break for now?"

Both men in the other room readily set their guitars against their stools and head for the door. They jerk their heads at Karin as they stride past, and she nods in return before they leave the two of them alone together.

"How's the composer life treating you?" Karin asks, setting her helmet down. It's the same question she wants to know every time she visits, but rather than teasing him, he knows it's a genuine inquiry. He knows that she worries for his happiness now that he's left the piano.

"As good as always," he assures her, and she relaxes.

He had gone through a rough patch for the first few months, constantly double guessing his decision. After all, this has been very different than falling out of love with his music, like when they had first met. This time, despite his attempts to reconnect with the instrument and those who enjoy it, circumstances prevented him from doing what he loved. It had been an upsetting experience, and he had to put his practiced control to good use many times.

He'd held a public interview to officially announce his decision, and the reporters that had flocked had been shocked, to say the least. Many had claimed to be fans themselves. But there were some who reported that they had seen this coming, as his career had apparently been dwindling for quite a few years now. Some clever journalists had even made a connection between him and Ayane Records, creating theories on their possible fallout since the owner so obviously did not support the pianist.

He hadn't exactly jump right into the job hunt, either. Hitsugaya had never been poor by any definition of the word. He'd been a musical prodigy since young, performing in famous theaters for rich audiences for years. That money meant that he could be secure for a long time, so he knew that choosing to quit the piano would affect nothing more than his toiling emotions.

And then, only months after, an old classmate of his from college, Rose, had contacted him with a brewing scheme in mind. Rose had watched his interview as well, and just like thousands of others, he'd been surprised by the sudden announcement. Hitsugaya, after all, had been one of the most talented musicians in their classes, and many had predicted that he would go far in life. To think that his career would just abruptly end this way – it had been most unsettling. But he had an offer in mind that would bring the retired pianist right back into the music industry.

"I'm starting my own record company," he'd explained over the phone, and Toushiro had raised both eyebrows in interest. "I just left the one I used to work for; they had nothing more to teach me, and I decided that I could run my own now."

"What does this have to do with me?" he'd asked in confusion, even as Karin and Matsumoto, who'd been on either side of him on his couch, had leaned in and waited with anticipation.

"Well, during your piano career, you were well known for writing your own compositions," Rose had gone on. "Some might even say they're the reason why you were so famous. The reason why I'm calling you today is because I would like to ask you to become one of the composers for my company, and possibly help make it a success."

He hadn't even properly registered the request before Matsumoto grabbed the phone from his hand and screeched into it, "Yes! He definitely says yes!"

He'd snatched the phone back angrily and instead assured his old classmate that he would think over the offer, but in the end, it didn't take long for him to begin work at Otoribashi Records as its first composer. He spends his time making musical scores for new artists to play, and as it's not much different than writing music for himself and playing it on the piano, he enjoys the work fairly well enough. It easily fits into his life.

To Karin, it means that she can still enjoy his music, even if it's played by someone else.

"Hey, do you want to go grab some lunch, too?" she asks cheerfully, jumping off the chair and patting her thighs to brush off imaginary dust. "I was thinking we could go to Ikeda's, since it's not far from here."

"I was actually planning to take you there for dinner," he tells her, setting down his pair of headphones and following her to the door. "He asked me to play again this evening, so I thought I could take you with me."

Ikeda had quickly become one of their close acquaintances since the first time he had performed there, despite Matsumoto's rampage about her boss refusing money for his recital. Toushiro had paid for all the damages, of course, and the older man had taken everything with humor. Not soon after Toushiro's public announcement, he'd contacted the pianist and offered his restaurant's piano anytime he wanted to play.

"Any man who plays as passionately as you played could never quit and not miss the piano," he had reprimanded the musician. "If you ever want to play, my piano's open. Of course, you'd be giving my customers a show, but I'd be more than willing to pay you." He'd ended with a warm laugh.

Toushiro had taken him up on that offer. It's thrilling to know that he can still put on performances for others, even after giving up on that part of his life. Normally, he would have refused taking money from the kind man for such a thing, especially as he has another solid source of income now, but Ikeda had insisted. After all, his restaurant had become extremely popular since people learned it was the one place they could still listen to Hitsugaya Toushiro, retired music prodigy, play his famous pieces.

"Great!" Karin exclaims. "I haven't seen him in a long time."

"I just played there last week, and you were there with me then, too," he corrects her pointedly. She simply shrugs playfully, and he shakes his head at her actions before a thought pops into his head. "Oh, yeah. Is there any specific reason you came to see me today?"

She takes a moment to ponder over it, momentarily confused by the sudden change in the conversation, before she gasps and her face lights up. To his amusement, she starts slapping his arm in excitement, unable to get the words out.

"You'll never believe what happened today!" she finally manages. "Ukitake-san and I had breakfast this morning."

"Ukitake-san?" he asks in shock, and she pauses her story to childishly glare at him for interrupting. He holds up his hands as an apology.

"Anyway, me and Ukitake-san were having breakfast," she continues. "He just showed up and said he wanted to treat me, so I thought, why not? Well, we had the food – which was great, by the way, since he's so rich and all – and then he told me some amazing news! He told me..." She pauses for dramatic effect, and then takes a deep breath. "His company wants to hire me!"

He gapes at her and the unexpected news. "W-what?"

She beams, her cheeks flushed with happiness. "Yeah. Remember how when we were in New York, they were all joking about hiring me one day?" He nods, thinking back to that party. "Well, Ukitake-san said that they actually started looking at my grades, and they were so happy with them, they want to offer me a position in their company after I graduate next year!"

"That's...excellent," he says, wrapping an arm over her shoulders. "Congratulations."

She grins up at him, her smile so much wider after finally telling someone. She'd just been bursting with excitement since Ukitake had first told her the good news, and much to the man's horror, she'd almost choked on her drink from surprise. After a few thumps to the back and loud coughs, she'd finally calmed down enough to smile his way and express her gratitude.

"So, that's why I wanted to take you out now," Karin teases her boyfriend. "To celebrate."

It's while he's playfully squeezing her shoulders against himself that he hears the sounds of heels clicking down the hall, heading closer to them with each step. Just by the familiar sound, he can venture a guess as to who the person could be before she even rounds the hall, and sure enough, Harumi-san runs into them a moment later.

"Oh!" she cries in surprise at the sight of them, placing a few delicate fingers against her bright red lips. "Hitsugaya-san, you surprised me! I didn't see you there."

Karin eyes her critically, put off immediately by the bright clothes and heavy makeup. Even underneath all that, though, she can see this person is actually a genuinely beautiful person. And judging by the thick folders tucked in her hands, she most likely works at the record company, too. And she and Toushiro seem to know one another.

While she appraises her, Harumi-san does the same to her. Her eyes roam over the baggy clothes and unstyled hair, and her lip girls in contempt. She clearly sees herself as the more superior of the two, at least in matters of beauty.

"Karin, this is Harumi-san," Toushiro introduces, and the woman raises an eyebrow at his hand movements. "She works here as a songwriter. And Harumi-san, this is Karin, my..." He trails off, assuming their relationship is rather obvious by the way he has an arm draped around her. Harumi clearly sees it, because her eyes narrow at their close proximity.

In the next moment, she smiles prettily. "Well, it was nice meeting you, but I should get going. Lots of work to be done! And you, Hitsugaya-san, don't forget that you have a meeting today."

He groans at the reminder, having forgotten about it some time this morning. Harumi laughs at his reaction, and after throwing a look in Karin's direction, she places a hand on his shoulder – clearly an intimate gesture. Karin glares at it, receiving the message the writer is trying to send her. Their eyes meet, one smug and the other outraged, and she can see the challenge written plainly across Harumi's face.

There's no thought of decorum in her mind. Instead, she yanks Toushiro to herself, pulling him away from the offending hand, and leans towards the woman to growl dangerously, "Back off, bitch."

"Karin!" Toushiro gasps in shock, even as Harumi recoils abruptly. It's obvious she's just itching to retaliate with something even nastier, but with the object of her affections standing before her, she doesn't dare. Instead, to save face, she just shoots Karin a nasty look and stalks off down the hall.

"What was that about?" her boyfriend demands once they're alone, shocked at the animosity between the two. He'd known the two wouldn't become best friends by any means, but he certainly hadn't expected such a reaction.

"Oh, come on, Toushiro!" Karin hisses, rounding on him. "Are you blind? She was clearly coming onto you, and you just stood there and let her. It was so obvious with the way she was acting that she – Hey, wipe that smile off your face!"

He can't help it, though, as he realizes the true meaning behind her words. "Karin, were you jealous?"

"It's allowed," she instantly defends herself, glaring at him. "Honestly, with all the women that get crushes on you, I once really considered shaving off all you hair while you were sleeping."

He grimaces, exceedingly grateful that she had decided against that urge. No one would ever take him seriously, otherwise.

"You're really that bothered by it?" he asks incredulously. Of course, he's flattered and oddly touched that she would even feel strongly enough about this; Karin has never been the type to envy another, after all, because she's always believed in respecting what she has and what she's earned. "You know I don't think of anyone else like I think of you."

"It's your fault, anyway, for being so clueless," she snaps with a huff. Even so, she looks up at him weakly at his words, suddenly feeling ridiculous for that little bout of rage when she knows how loyal her boyfriend has always been. Noticing how ashamed she looks, he immediately brings her closer to his side.

"You have absolutely nothing to worry about," he assures her, and then smirks, leading her towards the parking lot by the waist. 'I only want to spend the rest of my life with you, after all.'

As they head off to lunch together, he thinks back to that special ring he'd bought for her a long time ago, and wonders if today might just be the day he finally gives it to her.

.. ღ ..

Years Later.

Karin sighs as she finally steps into her home, tossing her keys on a nearby table and kicking off her shoes. After unbuttoning her blazer, she wanders into her bedroom, planning to change after a day at work. On her bed, however, she finds her husband, who looks over as she enters and returns her smile.

"I'm home," she mutters, and he returns the greeting with the customary, "Welcome back."

Tossing her blazer onto her pillow, she shuffles around the bed to plant a kiss on his lips briefly. Pulling open their closet, she shuffles through it until she finds a nice sundress to wear for the rest of the day; she might had detested them only years prior, but it's gotten exceedingly hot outside with the approach of summer, and even Karin can mature after all this time.

Toushiro watches as she unbuttons her blouse and tosses it onto the bed, as well as unzipping her skirt and letting it fall to the ground. The dress goes on afterwards, and it's only after she's finished throwing her work clothes into the laundry basket that she turns back to him and asks, "Where are the kids?"

"Playing outside with the neighbors," he answers, and both head out to the living room. "They said they would finish their homework after dinner tonight."

The Hitsugaya household is a representation of both Karin and Toushiro. There are enough pictures covering the wall that they emit a warm atmosphere, but the house is bare enough decoration wise that it speaks of simple tastes. Each room has some form of a cluttered mess littering the floors, yet it seems like an organized mess; nothing gets in the way of anything else, as if everyone had been wary of the controlled order of the house.

And in the corner of the living room rests a black, polished piano, acting as a testament to the family's musical underlining.

"How was work?" Karin asks her husband even as she makes her way to the instrument. She sits on the bench facing away from the keys, placing her hands on the glossy seat to lean back and gaze at him expectantly.

"Same as always," he answers with a shrug. Karin, however, scowls at the anwer.

"Is Harumi still hitting on you?" she sneers, and her mood instantly darkens at his lack of response. The woman still could not let her husband go, despite the years it's been since the Hitsugaya marriage.

Feeling the atmosphere turn foul, Toushiro rolls his eyes at his wife. "It's been years, Karin. You need to let that go. We hardly even talk anymore, aside from greeting each other in the hallways."

"Good," she spits out, feeling her lower lip stick out. "Let's keep it that way."

"Yes, yes," he deadpans just to appease her, but it seems to cheer her up regardless. At the very least, she stops scowling so heavily, and instead spins on the bench to face the instrument behind her.

She presses down on the piano keys, playing up a scale that she cannot hear. With an expectant pat on the space of the bench beside her, she tempts him over. He crumbles and settles in beside her, and with a smirk, he takes over her melody by playing his own random, nonsensical keys for her. As he drapes his other arm around her waist, she leans against the side of his body and gets comfortable. A hand crawls up to his chest to settle down in the middle, and she sighs in contentment, eliciting a grin as he gazes down at her softly.

"You know you can't resist me," she teases up at him.

"Well, I married you," he jokes, and she scoffs, rolling her eyes and ducking her head out from under his arm to give him a proper view of the action.

"But I refused the first time, didn't I?" she reminds him with a mischievous grin. When he had first presented her with that glittering, beautiful ring, she'd taken one look at the overconfident look on his face and flat out refused, secretly snickering when his face fell. However, she'd leaned forward immediately after to attack his lips, assuring him that the two were still a loving couple despite her answer. After that, he'd obviously gotten fidgety about bringing marriage up again, much to her amusement, and it had taken another half of a year for him to finally find the courage to propose again. "And you still came crawling back for me," she finishes with a lick of her lips.

He grimaces as he remembers, feeling that drastic drop in his self confidence firsthand even now. "I still think you only said no just because you thought my reaction would be funny," he rightly accuses her with narrowed eyes, and she looks up at him innocently. After so many years together and all the challenges they have faced, he knows her amazingly well.

"Just play me a song," she commands rather than addressing his accusation. In fact, she always ignores this conversation altogether whenever he comes too close to discovering the truth, aware that if she actually confirmed his suspicions, he would grouse about it for weeks. Just as he knows her, she knows him perfectly, too.

He shrugs, letting the matter drop for now as he always does when she wants to change the subject. The last thing he would want is for his own wife to grow uncomfortable around him.

"Any requests?" he asks, already shifting his hand to the first keys in the melody he suspects she will ask for. And his guess is correct, as always.

"How about the one for our little fighter over here?" she suggests tenderly, patting at her still rather flat stomach and softly smiling down at it. He does the same as he turns back to the keys, immediately replacing his nonsensical playing for a slow, light-hearted rhythm. It's a tradition in their home that when a new baby is on the way, he writes their new son or daughter a piece just for them, and then every evening, he will play it to Karin's abdomen so the baby may hear it and grow strong; after all, they say music is wonderful for a yet-to-be-born.

Karin leans against his shoulder and continues rubbing her stomach. She is not showing as of yet, but the two are already ecstatic for the baby's arrival, despite this being their third time already. She sighs pleasantly as the song comes to an end, and he swerves on the bench to face her again.

"Do you think the baby enjoyed it?" he asks.

"I think the baby adored it," she reassures him.

With the most breathtaking upwards twitch of his lips, he cups her chin in his large hand and guides her forward, planting his mouth on hers. The two kiss slowly, gently, always treasuring these moments they have. They've only just gotten lost in one another when he hears a door slam, and two very loud voices ring out across the house.

"You cheated!"

"I did not. You just suck."

"Nuh-uh."

"Yuh-huh."

"Nuh – look!"

"Ewww..."

He cracks open one eye to scour the area and finds his and Karin's look-alikes standing in the doorway, staring up at them in disgust yet awe. While her brother flounders over where to look, his young daughter meets his eyes.

"Otou-san, why're you eating Okaa-san's face?" she asks, blinking up at him confusion as he looks at her sheepishly.

Her older brother nudges her, snickering. "He's kissing her, stupid," he sneers.

Her face goes red with anger. "I'm not stupid!" she screams at him.

Karin, who has her eyes closed and is completely unaware of the spectacle their audience is making, grabs his shirt and pulls him closer, kissing him hotly now. He returns the gesture, though both his eyes are open now and almost glaring at his children. When they meet his gaze once again, he makes a zipping motion next to his mouth and gestures towards the door. His son and daughter giggle and nod and run out, giving them privacy. And Karin – who is none the wiser – spends a blissful ten minutes kissing her all-too-willing husband.

.. ღ ..

"Otou-san, dinner time!"

He looks up from his desk to find a beaming Mizuki leaning over the desk, a doll clutched in her hand. She has Karin's beautiful blue eyes, and just as it is with his wife, he can't resist them. With a sigh, he immediately pulls off his reading glasses and rubs his weary eyes before standing up out of his chair.

"All right," he says, taking his daughter's hand. She skips along happily as they exit the study, closing the door behind them. "Did you help Okaa-san today?"

She shakes her head as she skips along with his steps. "Kei did. They made espegotti," she tells him in a matter-of-fact tone.

"Spaghetti," he corrects her, trying hard not to chuckle at her childish language.

"Right." She nods solemnly in agreement. "Espegotti."

They make it to the dining room, and he doesn't bother to correct her this time. Instead, he tucks her into a chair, and then helps her settle her doll into the seat beside her. He can hear sounds coming from the kitchen and smells something wonderful wafting through the air; not long before their wedding day, Karin had finally sucked up her pride and had her sister teach her how to cook, despite his insistence that he doesn't mind handling the kitchen. It took many tries and brave swallowing on his part, but now she has an acceptable technique with food.

He ruffles Mizuki's hair before he seats himself opposite her at the table. She giggles, squealing in protest and combing through her hair. Karin and Kei emerge from the kitchen, then, and each set a plate at the table. As they seat themselves, they continue signing rapidly together and laugh contently every now and then. The sight warms his heart.

There had been a time, when he and Karin had first learned they would be expecting their first child, when she had feared so greatly that her own children would never accept her.

"I'm different, Toushiro," she had voiced to him one evening. His strong, brave, confident Karin had a tremor in her voice. "What if they can't accept that?" she had whispered. "What if they ask me why? What am I supposed to tell them? And what if they think I'm weird?"

"Don't be ridiculous, Karin," he had told her sternly. There had been no way he was going to be gentle with her when she had been acting so absurd. "If that's the opinion you have of our kids before they're even born, then how are we ever going to raise them right?"

It had been sort of funny that he'd had to be the voice of reason during their pregnancy. Him, who had never once even considered in all of his years the possibility of having a child of his own one day. But Karin had been weak, especially with the pregnancy weighing her down, so reassuring her had been his job.

Of course, when Kei had been born a couple months later – healthy, pink, and the most adorable thing either of them had ever seen – any thoughts of her fears had flown straight out of her mind, replaced instead with a childish awe that had been apparent on her face as she held their son for the first time. He'd been tiny and red and precious, and looking around at all the other new, proud mothers on their hospital floor, it had been obvious that she wasn't so different. So what if she couldn't hear his soft breathing? His first coo? His first words? She had a baby of her own now, and just the thought that he would have those experiences had been enough to placate her.

And the biggest upside had been that she hadn't had to listen to Isshin's incessant bawling, though her cheeks had still tinted red as all the nurses and patients had looked their way curiously.

Kei had been absolutely wonderful growing up. He'd never once looked at his mother strangely, never recoiled at her touch, never voiced any dissatisfaction. He'd been a little boy, after all, and all that had mattered was that she was always taking care of him and he loved her for it. He'd picked up on sign language remarkably quickly, and there had never been a language barrier between mother and son after that.

When Mizuki had come along a couple of years later, things had been different. Not entirely in a bad way, but there had been times when she'd been too curious for her own good, and the question had inevitably crossed her lips.

"Why can't Okaa-san hear what I'm saying?" she'd asked one warm evening, clutching her doll and looking up at them innocently. Both he and Karin had frozen for a moment, but with an amused smile, Karin had placed her hands on her knees and bent down to talk to her daughter.

"Because, sweetheart," she'd explained pointedly, "Okaa-san's just a little different from other Okaa-san's out there. She's just so great, she doesn't even need to hear to know when her little girl's tummy is making funny growls."

Mizuki had blushed and crossed her arms over her stomach defensively, looking over at their cooking dinner longingly. Kei had stomped over, then, and jabbed at her forehead.

"Duh," he'd exclaimed. "She's special, stupid."

"I'm not stupid!"

"Yeah, you are. And you're a baby." He'd made a face at her.

"I'm not a baby!"

And the family had just waved off the question without further discussion. But the kids had become rather...defensive of their mother after that. Toushiro instantly began to note how they acted so different when they went out; Kei would run ahead of Karin and keep a wary eye on everything, as if making sure the path was safe for her, and Mizuki would slip a hand in hers and stick a thumb in her mouth, glaring viciously at anyone who so much as looked at them funny. Toushiro couldn't help but think they'd inherited that from him.

Of course, there hadn't really been a need to go to such extremes. The Hitsugaya family was well acquainted with the neighborhood, particularly those families with small children. Many knew of Karin's disability, but she handled it so well that one could hardly remember she had one. But then, one day, something had occurred.

The children had a special event at their elementary school, and both Karin and Toushiro took time off of work to go. So, the family had immersed themselves in the day's activities, bonding with one another and talking with other families – though Toushiro had settled for aloofly observing and watching over his wife from under the shade of a large tree with his arms crossed. Kei had proudly joined him until the pull of a nearby soccer game with the other boys had been too great and lured him away.

Mizuki stuck close to her mother throughout the day, and she'd been playing happily in the school's sandbox when Karin had turned her back to talk to some of the other mothers who'd caught her attention. But once she'd turned away, a little boy in Mizuki's class had made a beeline straight for the girl. With a mischievous grin, he'd kicked at the pile of sand she had gathered.

"Hey!" Mizuki had protested as dust flew everywhere. Angry, she'd gotten to her feet and placed her hands on her hips, administrating the famous Hitsugaya scowl on him. "Whatcha do that for?"

"Only babies play in the sandbox," he'd taunted her. The remark had hit a little too close to home, reminding her of her brother, and she'd stomped her foot.

"I am not a baby!"

"Yeah, you are," he'd countered, enjoying the strong reaction, and pointed a finger at her accusingly. "And your mom's weird."

Kei, who'd looked over at his sister's yell, frowned and abandoned his game, running over to them to stand behind Mizuki.

"No, she's not," Mizuki had defended Karin.

"Yeah, she is," the boy had insisted with a smirk. "I mean, she can't hear." But his obnoxious laughter had been cut clear off when both Mizuki and Kei had pushed him roughly, causing him to fall to the ground and blink up at them in fear. They'd stood side by side with their arms crossed, towering over him together.

"What of it?" they'd demanded with harsh snarls. Rather than answer, the little boy's lips had puckered, and he'd started sniffling and crying and ran off to hug his mother.

And though a clueless Karin had scolded them furiously for acting in such a manner, Toushiro had never been more proud of his children.

.. ღ ..

The doorbell rings halfway through their dinner, and Mizuki jumps from her chair in excitement.

"I'll get it," she screeches, running for the door with Toushiro chasing after her wearily. She's still at that age when every new thing is as exciting as your birthday; the phone ringing delights her just as much. With a skip to her step, she cheerfully stands on the tips of her toes, cups the doorknob with both hands to turn it, and pulls it to her chest with all of her might. Her face lights up when she catches sight of their mysterious guest standing at the other side of the doorway.

"Hello, hello!" she cries happily, even going as far as to wave with both hands even though she has no idea who the person is.

He does. He remembers this face so clearly that it might have just been yesterday that he had wanted to spit in it. It takes only but seconds for the blinding fury to start coursing through his system, conveyed through the frosty glare of his eyes.

"Hitsugaya-san," his frighteningly familiar visitor greets him, bowing just slightly. "Good evening. I'm sorry to disturb you so late, but I was hoping that we could perhaps talk?"

He says nothing, but that cold-blooded murderous intent in his eyes doubles, and the tense atmosphere thickens.

"Otou-san, Otou-san!" Mizuki pipes up just then, grabbing onto his legs and jumping up and down. She points to the man, gazing up at her father with large and innocent, doe-like eyes. "Do you know him?"

"It's rude to point, Mizuki," he reprimands her, finally tearing his eyes away and letting his gaze soften as he looks down at his daughter. She immediately drops her hand with an ashamed pout on her face. "Why don't you go back to the dinner table?" he suggests gently. "Your food is getting cold."

"But -"

"No buts," he cuts across her, and though she whines and stomps her foot, she still runs off and does what she was told.

"She's lovely," his guest offers, and Toushiro's eyes harden as he looks back up and nods stiffly in acknowledgement. "So," he continues on, looking hopeful, "could we talk for a bit?"

"...Of course," Hitsugaya finally replies icily, stepping aside to allow the man entry, and he sighs in relief as he rushes inside.

"I know it's been quite a few years," he continues, taking off his shoes and following Hitsugaya to the living room, "but I'm hoping you still remember me?"

"Of course," Hitsugaya says again coldly, his expression stony and particularly unwelcoming. "I could never forget you, Ayane Kazuhiro."

.. ღ ..

"What's wrong, Mizuki?" Karin asks with a chuckle as her daughter plops down in her chair, looking miffed about something or other. She's always had a tendency to want her way no matter what; Toushiro has always said she gets it from her.

"Otou-san won't let me meet his friend," she complains, picking at her food angrily. "He made me leave."

Karin looks at her in surprise. Toushiro has never pushed her away before, always so proud of her desire to explore and learn. Not to mention, he spoils her at any chance he gets. Something must have been wrong for him to act in such a way, and given the fact that he has yet to return to the table, she assumes it has something to do with their visitor.

"You two finish your dinner," she orders her kids, standing up. "I'll be right back." She scurries into the living room once she hears light sounds from inside, worry etched onto her face. "Toushiro," she calls, rounding the corner, "who -"

She halts, her words faltering as her eyes land on the new arrival. "You!"

Kazuhiro has gone through many changes throughout the years, looking much more like a respectable man now. He's cut his shaggy hair into a style appropriate for an adult, and she notices that the stud he'd worn in his ear is no longer there. He's still wearing a suit like the first time they had met, but now it actually builds on his maturity rather than depicting him as an arrogant adolescent. But the biggest difference is his face; the cocky, challenging eyes are no longer present, and without his signature smirk, he looks much like a cool business man.

The atmosphere in the room, however, is extremely tense, with electricity sparking through the air. Her husband's face is twisted into an unpleasant scowl, his eyes narrowed on their uncomfortable guest sitting across from him. The man looks so relieved when she walks into the room, breaking the awkward silence.

"Ah, good evening," he says, inclining his head in respect. "It's nice to see you again, Kurosaki-san."

"It's Hitsugaya-san now," Toushiro corrects him immediately; they're the first words he has spoken since they sat down, and they're coated with a defensive tone.

Kazuhiro chuckles sheepishly. "Oh, of course. Your daughter," he remembers. "Well, congratulations."

Neither answers; Karin is still to surprised by his sudden appearance after all these years; Toushiro just purely despises his very being. Finally, he decides to break the silence, if only to ease the atmosphere.

"You're probably wondering why I'm here today," he guesses, chuckling uneasily. When Toushiro simply glares at him heatedly, he scratches the back of his neck and stumbles on. "Well, I have something very important I wanted to discuss with you."

"And you felt the need to disrupt my dinner with my family?" Toushiro hisses, just looking for something to chastise the man about. Karin clucks her tongue in disapproval at his hostility. He sends her an incredulous look, stunned that she could defend this despicable man, but she simply takes a seat beside him and places a comforting hand on his shoulder.

"What did you want to talk about, Ayane-san?" she asks calmly, and Toushiro marvels at this sudden change in his wife; she would have normally already let her spitfire personality loose on the man. Seeing how reserved she is, despite how strange he finds it, he begrudgingly prepares himself to sign the conversation to her.

"Uh, right," Kazuhiro stumbles, shooting Karin a quick, grateful glance. "Well, I know this must come as a shock to you after so many years, especially with all the changes you must have gone through beause of my father...and me," he adds on, looking slightly ashamed. Toushiro leans in, suddenly a lot more interested in where this is going. "So, first and foremost, I know this is years late, but I wanted to apologize to both of you for my terrible behavior that night we first met."

Toushiro opens his mouth furiously, but Karin cuts across him. "We accept your apology. Thank you, Ayane-san."

His smile grows by just a fraction at her answer, the relief apparent on both his face and sagging posture. "I knew you would be a forgiving person," he praises her softly, "especially after you helped me that night. I've never forgotten that."

"Is that all you came for?" Toushiro snaps, suddenly very aware that the man is smiling just a little too gently at his wife, and not liking it one bit. This must be how she feels about Harumi.

"Um, no. Actually, the apology was mostly just for my own conscience." He laughs sheepishly at the admittance before sobering up. "The truth is, I did a lot of horrible things when I was younger. I took my father's money for granted, I guess, and I used to think that I could do and say whatever I wanted. It would get me in a lot of trouble, like that fight we had, but since Otou-san would always buy me out of it, I kept on doing what I always did."

Both wife and husband purse their lips at this declaration, mentally making a note to never spoil their children too much, lest they end up like this man had.

"But I've grown up a lot since then," he continues, his face hardening into a serious expression. "My father retired a few years back and I was given control of the company in his place, and all that responsibility really helped me to mature and see the error of my ways."

"That's all good for you," Toushiro interrupts, "but what does this have to do with us?"

"Ah, right. Sorry." He fumbles with his hands, clearly still unpracticed with dealing with such uncomfortable situations. "Well, even with all the people I messed up, I always remembered you two. It wasn't that easy to forget you, really, since you were on TV a lot, and those cuts and bruises you gave me took weeks to heal. But when I saw that interview you held, where you announced that you were giving up the piano, I knew it had something to do with that incident." His face falls again. "I tried to appeal to Otou-san to help you out, but he wouldn't hear of it."

"I still don't see where this is going," Karin cuts in.

He gulps heavily a few times, obviously uneasy about the whole exchange. "When I became the new owner of the company, I realized this was finally my chance. I've screwed over a lot of people in my life, I'm now sad to say, but I wanted to make it up to you two, at least."

The two of them freeze at his words, stunned by what he is trying to say. "You mean..."

Finally at the end of his tale, he straightens his posture, squaring his shoulders as if preparing for battle as he eyes Toushiro with determination. "Hitsugaya-san, what would you say if I told you I can give you a chance to play the piano again?"

.. ღ ..

Late that night, Karin finds her better half in his study, poring over a book in his lap. She tip-toes inside, wary of her slumbering children, but he still looks up as if sensing her presence.

"How are you doing?" she signs, looking unsure of how to approach him. The evening's events had been taxing for him, without a doubt, and he'd had to come to terms with so many of his past decisions and a possible new future.

"Fine," he assures her. Some might take that to mean the opposite, but Karin knows that her husband has never been one to make half-hearted decisions. He's stuck by her faithfully all these years, just as he had promised, and he'd never once allowed himself to regret the choice of becoming a composer. If he says he's fine, then she knows he is.

"That was a pretty big choice you had to make today," she states cautiously, gauging from his reaction whether he's ready to speak of it.

He smiles briefly, pulling off his glasses. "And I'm sure it was the right one."

She returns his smile with a grin of her own. "Yeah. It was the right choice because you made it."

Even so, nothing had surprised her more than when he had looked at Ayane's offer right in the eye and said no.

"A-are you sure?" the man had stuttered, appalled by his unexpected decision. "I"m offering you gigs, recitals, theaters, bands! You can have it all back, Hitsugaya! Just say the word and I can make it happen."

"I don't want it all back," he'd stated coolly. "I'm perfectly fine the way I am. So, thank you for the offer, but no."

The man had protested all the way to the door, still sputtering as they bid him a good life. Here had been a chance for the musician to gain everything – fame and fortune, and all the glory he'd always had as a renowned pianist. And he'd turned it down so easily!

"It was the right decision," Toushiro says now.

Karin smirks. "I know it was."

"I'm happy with the way things are in my life," he goes on, as if he feels a need to justify things to his wife. "I don't want to travel all over the place now that I have kids. And I'm happy with my job; it's something I love to do, and it keeps us supported."

As he keeps rambling on, Karin moves behind his chair and squeezes both of his shoulders soothingly. Really, she knows that the words he's saying are more for himself than for her. He'd let go of his past today, and she can only fathom how difficult it must have been.

And it had. Despite the split second it had taken him to answer Ayane, the decision in his mind had seemed like it took an eternity. In that instant, when he'd first heard the question, two images had flashed through his mind. In one, he saw himself awaiting to play at a recital, miles and miles away from his family he hadn't seen for weeks because of countless performances, looking out at a crowd of strangers as he wondered whether he had enough time to quickly call his wife and kids. And in the second, he saw himself leaving work early and picking up Karin from her work, so they could take their children out to a family dinner and spend the evening together.

The answer had been obvious after that.

With a heavy heart and an even heavier sigh, he takes his wife by the hand. Placing his spectacles and his book on his seat, he leads her out of the study and into the living room. The piano sits in the corner, where it always has, and Karin grins as he drags her over eagerly to sit side-by-side on the bench.

"It's okay to regret it just a little, Toushiro," she tells him gently, watching as he fingers the keys.

"Yeah..." he mumbles to himself, and presses down on one. The sound echoes through the silence of the house, sweet and pure, yet laced with sadness. It sounds lonely, so he presses another, and another, and another. Karin waits patiently for him to finish, and he's grateful for it.

When he finally finishes, he folds his hands in his lap and fiddles with his thumbs. His fingers suddenly feel more strained than they ever have before, as if he'd played his longest recital yet.

Cool fingers ghost over his, and he hides his surprise as Karin carefully and soothingly rubs away the discomfort. Taking each one into her grip individually, she treats them with care, as if they're something precious but fragile and need to be treated as such. He feels the discomfort instantly fly away at her ministrations. How had she known?

"It's okay to regret it just a little, Toushiro," she repeats as she continues, more sternly than before. She looks up at him with raised eyebrows, almost as if daring him to give her a half-hearted reply after that obvious display of longing. Even now, she feels his fingers twitch as if itching to return to the music he loves so much.

But, to her surprise, he smiles softly and shakes his head at her. "How can I regret it, Karin, when I already have so much I will never regret?"

He has his wife and his kids, and a beautiful home for them to live in. He has a job that he loves, with friends that support his every decision. He has Matsumoto, who has been with him every step of the way. He has his family, who love him unconditionally, no matter how many recitals he will never get a chance to play.

And he has the piano. No matter if he plays in his living room for a child that has yet to be brought into this world, or a crowd of snotty business men who jump at the chance to endorse him, he will always have the piano and the melodies he plays.

"I won't regret it," he states with determination, patting Karin's cheek. "I might feel sad now, but not forever."

She stares at him in awe at his sudden shift in mood, especially that confidence he's exuding only moments after he'd looked to be overwhelmed with sadness. But then a smile breaks out across her face, full of relief for her husband's happiness, no matter what the cause, and pride in his decision.

"So, how about I play you a song?" he offers, clenching his hands into fists as if to prepare.

"The kids are asleep," she reminds him, lowering her voice.

"Then let's hope the sound of the piano gives them pleasant dreams," he replies, smirking down at her.

She chuckles lightly, shaking her head at his answer. "Well, when you put it like that..." Her hand goes straight to her stomach, just like that afternoon. "How about you play the baby's song again?"

Toushiro gives it a second of thought, but then he shakes his head. "No, I think I want to play the one I wrote for you."

And he lets his fingers fly over the keys, replaying the tune he'd presented to her on their wedding day. She'd been a true blushing bride that day, after knowing how much thought and emotion he had put into it, just for her. That look on her face has always been a treasured memory for him, and keeping it in mind now, he pays with nothing but his feelings of love for the woman beside him, hoping it'll reach her with the right amount of passion.

And perhaps it does, because she smiles at him in a special way that instantly takes his breath away, silently thanking him for a melody she would never hear, but would always cherish as if she could.

.

.

The End.


Well, here we are – at the end of this story after over a year of writing it. Really, I can't thank you guys enough for asking me to make it more than just a one-shot, because I had so much fun writing this and sharing it with you :)

I've decided to go ahead and write the IchiRuki one-shot, since most of you seem to want to read it. I've started it, and even if you're not an IchiRuki fan, I'd still suggest you read the beginning, which focuses only on the Kurosaki family, and the very last scene, which will be a HitsuKarin one. Then again, this one- shot won't be at the top of my priorities list considering how much I have in-progress right now, so I'll put it up whenever I get the chance to finish it.

So, before I finally end this story for good, I want to take one last chance to sincerely thank each and every one of you who reviewed, added this to your favorites/alerts, or even just read this. I never would have even thought I would make it over a hundred reviews for this story, and you've made me so happy :) So thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!