So, I wanted to thank everyone who reviewed the last chapter :) You were the ones who inspired me to write a second one for this story (as well as this one scene that would not leave me alone). I hope you'll enjoy this one just as much :D

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

Matsumoto hummed a tune without a melody as she strutted down the halls of her division, swaying her hips and grinning widely. In her hands was a large manila folder, so ridiculously thick that just one glance at it could bring about a sense of exhaustion. But the fukutaichou felt no qualms over the matter, skipping along on her merry way. All this work was for her taichou to overlook, after all, and seeing as he loved to nitpick over every little detail, she was fairly sure that by the time she received it on her desk, the size would be considerably smaller – or she may not even receive the file at all in the end, if he decided it contained nothing of value. So her spirits were high as she frolicked into the office, sliding the door shut behind her.

Hitsugaya was situated behind his desk as always, furiously signing papers. Every once in a while, he would flick his wrist out to the side to work out cramps, dip the pen in his ink pot once, and return to his papers again. He worked much like a well oiled machine, and Matsumoto wondered if she would admire that sort of diligence much more if she didn't value the art of deceiving her boss and skipping work so much.

"More papers?" her taichou sighed gruffly, sparing her a quick flick of a glance through his lashes. She hummed softly in the affirmative, bouncing over and holding it out to him. He snatched it without looking up, stuffing it on the already insanely high mountain of work that needed to be completed by the day's end. Matsumoto blinked at his sudden action, delayed in realizing she no longer held the file. She eyed it, carefully balanced on the pile that threatened to spill over if any more weight was introduced.

"You might want to look at it right now," she advised her superior. "The soutaichou wants them turned in more quickly this year." The notion was almost laughable; one of the laziest fukutaichou to ever have graced the thirteen squads was offering her opinions on how the most workaholic taichou should execute his paperwork. But Hitsugaya, taking no offense, simply hummed and nodded along in agreement, scribbling one last signature on the packet of papers before him after reading it speedily.

"I was just about to," he assured her. "But these papers are top priority, too, so I just wanted to finish them first." With a relieved sigh, he flexed his shoulders, trying to relax the tense muscles that had coiled up from hunching over too long. Once he was more comfortable, he compiled all the completed papers into one stack, tapped them against the desk top to straighten them out, and held them out to her. She accepted them curiously as he ordered, "Take those to the ninth division. Hisagi-fukutaichou is expecting them within the hour."

She agreed gleefully, delighted that she had such a solid excuse to leave the tenth and sneak out to a bar more easily, perhaps with Hisagi as company too. Hitsugaya watched her go with a grimace; he was well aware of her intentions, but years of the repetitive cycle between them had taught him she would find some way to skip out on work in the end. This way, he could at least weasel an errand out of her before she did so. When she had shunpoed away with his work clutched tightly against her chest, he finally turned towards the new arrival she had brought in with her.

Flipping it open, he found himself facing the new recruits' forms for admittance into his division. The graduation was fast approaching, and students were eagerly awaiting the days they would be considered full-fledged shinigami. He remembered his own with dry humor, thinking back to those feelings of nothing but shame at having abandoned his beloved grandmother. He'd refused to admit he felt slightly proud of himself for accomplishing such great achievements in a short time - and at the school that so many older students had to drop out of at that - but it had been there. Now, he shuffled through the list of students who had been presented a chance at the tenth, whether it be because of their skills on the battlefield, work ethics, or their own preferred choice. With a methodical pace, he breezed through each and every candidate, finding one fault or another that made them too unsuitable to harmonize with his squad. Though he appreciated the hard work many of them had put into making it this far into their academy years, he also refused to take in someone who might sully his division's carefully constructed reputation, especially simply for a moment of pity. Besides, last year he had been more than generous with the number of his recruits, though only at Karin's insistence.

Once he neared the end of the large stack, however, a familiar name and face made him halt his diligent rhythm. He eyed the paper cautiously, unsure of how to react to the abrupt appearance of this blast from his past. The name brought back an inkling of that previous resentment he'd felt all those years ago, enraging him with the way the boy threw around such mutinous words so carelessly. A part of him longed to deny the student an easy route to the thirteen divisions, but another reminded him the benefits of stationing him so close. Tapping a finger against the paper, Hitsugaya carefully mused over this dilemma before finally scribbling his decision down and moving onto the next graduate.

Matsumoto returned well into the night, surprisingly not as drunk as he would have assumed but still horribly tipsy. With crossed eyes and a pathetic moan, she flopped down onto the couch in their office, nursing a bottle of liquor against her stomach. He rolled his eyes over to her, slightly bitter about his growing exhaustion and remaining work. But, as he would finish soon enough himself, he decided to let the careless attitude slide. Tomorrow, he decided, he would be extra hard on her.

No, not tomorrow, he suddenly realized with nervous jitters erupting in his stomach. The day after tomorrow. Tomorrow, he had an important appointment to keep.

"I finished the paperwork for the new recruits," he informed her, clipping some papers together. "Look it over and send it off tonight, and then you can leave for the day."

She grumbled at his orders and her loss of rest, but even so, she pulled herself away from the couch and slugged over to her desk. Finishing fast would be much wiser than prolonging the agony of staying in the office. To her immense satisfaction and relief, the folder on her desk was dramatically thinner than the one she had brought him earlier in the day. As she had expected, he had ruled out so many of the candidates that, at first glance, one would almost think the file was empty. But once she flipped it open, she found nine papers waiting for her, stacked neatly on top of each other. It wouldn't take long to brief through them, she knew, as she trusted her taichou's decisions without doubt. It was just protocol for both the taichou and fukutaichou to approve the new recruits. So she sat herself down and lazily looked through the nine lucky graduates, signing their files off-handedly next to Hitsugaya's name. One of them, however, caught her eye, and she peered at it more closely.

"Himura Kioshi," she read aloud, and the scratching of Hitsugaya's pen on paper paused for a second. Wrinkling her nose, she continued, "Decent grades, no misconducts." Skipping over the extra information, her gaze landed on the one gruesome detail that had captured her attention. "He's from the eightieth district."

Toushiro felt heat creep up his neck at her words, and he bent even lower towards his desk to hide the sheepish expression he knew had fixed itself there. The taichou side of him was well aware that accepting a graduate simply based on personal grudges was strictly unethical and frowned upon. But the calculating part of him formulated that keeping the boy close would ensure his dominance over him. When stationed in his division, this Kioshi would be forced to follow his orders, and Hitsugaya was determined to teach him the consequences of treading on dangerous, restricted territory. If he was being completely honest with himself, though, he could reluctantly admit that the bitterness over his attempts at swaying Karin's bond in their friendship had lasted even all these years. He simply wished to keep a close eye on him, and as far away from the Kurosaki as possible. If that meant denying him days of leave or assigning him to gruesome missions, then so be it.

Himura Kioshi had made a powerful enemy that day six years ago. And Hitsugaya full well expected to win this battle, no matter how petty the cause.

Deep in the recesses of his mind, he heard Hyourinmaru let out a small growl – a disapproving, yet almost amused sound. Toushiro scowled at the spirit's unwelcoming input, and especially his words of common sense. He did not need an ancient spirit to scold him for his decisions or restate what he already knew was a shameful grudge. But rather than snap at him, the ice taichou found himself presenting an excuse to the less than impressed dragon – a childish reply he would never have allowed before anyone but a part of himself and Karin.

He started it.

.. ღ ..

The residents of Karin's home all sent her shifty looks, irritatingly hopeful yet suspicious at the same time. She did her best to ignore all the attention graced upon her, but as she had never been one to appreciate being in the limelight in such a way, the anxious looks on their faces only annoyed her to no end.

She knew they all awaited the arrival of Hitsugaya, who would bring them their food. (She almost worried they were growing soft after being spoon-fed every month, and soon they would completely lose their survival instincts). Using her happy gazes as an indication, they had rightly deduced that she was looking forward to an upcoming visit from her friend and self-appointed guardian. It was true that she and the icy taichou had agreed today to be the date for their next meeting, and now she was just searching for a sign of his reiatsu heading her way while trying to ignore the anticipation ballooning up in her stomach.

It was well into the afternoon when he finally showed up, and she waited for him by the front door. He smirked once he caught sight of her form, and she returned it almost nervously. She also couldn't help but take notice of how his eyes assessed her, as was his routine. While his calculating gaze softened at her well-groomed figure, she anxiously smoothed out her kimono, afraid that he would take notice of it and that it would upset him. To her dismay, once he had fully checked her over, his gaze indeed landed on her clothing, and his eyes narrowed.

The kimono had been a birthday present from her house-mates a couple of weeks ago. No one quite remembered their actual dates of birth after so many years of skipping celebrations, so they used the oldest date any of them could remember since arriving in Soul Society. For Karin, that had been a little over fourteen days ago, and her friends had surprised her by presenting her with a freshly bought kimono to replace her old one, which they'd saved up for. Though she'd accepted with a delighted surprise at the time, the thought of Toushiro had lingered in the back of her mind. What would he think of this?

Karin was well aware that her friends saw Toushiro as some sort of rival for her affections, and in return, her savior thought them to be a nuisance in their relationship. The two conflicting sides had a lasting rivalry, and though she cared for each of them deeply, it was tasking to worry over their reactions all the time. In this case, she fretted that Toushiro would only view the new kimono as a hindrance in their strange connection. After all, in all the years she had known each one of them, he had been the only one to ever buy her clothing, thinking himself responsible for providing her with all her physical needs. So she held her breath while he eyed her, afraid of his anger.

"Nice kimono," he commented carefully, but the distaste was apparent behind his words. His gaze hardened at the obvious change in her clothing; the baby blue designs on white fabric, marking her with the color of his element, had been replaced with orange blossoms. He had always thought the color as too obnoxious to suit her, and he silently cursed now over how lovely it looked on her.

"Thanks," she replied with an encouraging smile. "Everyone bought it for me for my birthday." His eyes flashed at the words, and she grimaced inwardly as she realized her mistake. Setting the usual bag of food at his feet, he crossed his arms and glared over at her.

"I thought I already told you that your real birthday is on the sixth of May," he commented, almost sounding like he was accusing her of something – probably disregarding his words, which he would view as a sign of distrust. She shrugged, scrambling to think of the correct words so as not to upset him further.

"I didn't think it would be good to tell the others about it," she explained, wary of his souring mood. "They wouldn't, you know? How would I tell them that you were a friend from when I was alive, or that you tell me about my living life?"

After years of cautious steps and carefully worded conversations, he had finally revealed the true origins of their friendship. It was a life-changing shock, to say the least, to learn that the boy who had always watched over her like she was his top priority had been hiding such a large part of their life together. Her thoughts spiraled off into a frenzy of doubts and distrust, leaving her unsure of whether he even visited without fail because he chose to, or because he felt it was an obligation to someone he'd met in passing. She didn't kiss him that day, and though her lips felt strangely cold and lifeless once he left, she refused to forgive him so easily. It seemed like the end of their relationship after that, but the next month, he returned without fail.

"We need to talk," he demanded, standing proud in the doorway and refusing to back down from her heated glares. She scowled as she followed him out of earshot of the others, keeping her expression cool and steady as she waited for him to speak. He ran a hand roughly through his locks before meeting her eyes with his own.

"You used to love football," he said softly, slipping into his memories while he kept his expressions honest so she would believe his urgent words more easily. She gaped at him at the abrupt topic, but he carried on as if he didn't notice. "You used to play it all the time when you were little, and though everyone said it was because it allowed you to be aggressive towards others, it was actually because you accidentally scored a goal the first time you kicked a ball, and that made you feel proud."

"That's crap!" she cut in, hissing as her face puckered. "I've played football, and I suck at it."

"You're simply out of practice," he defended her, shaking his head at the drastic change in her love for the sport. But it was true that there weren't many chances to play in a place like the eightieth, and that was a shame, because she might never rediscover just how much she shined with a football under her foot. He'd always admired that sparkle in her eyes as she practiced.

And from there it had spiraled off, shifting their relationship into one from merely strangely close acquaintances to two people that shared a deep past – a girl desperately searching for her true self in the afterlife, and a boy who held the key to all the answers.

He never once told her of her family. He could tell that the question was just at the tip of her tongue, burning her lips as she hesitated each time from asking. But he never offered the truth about the Kurosaki family himself; she could never see them, after all – not unless they passed on themselves, which would only devastate Karin after she had finally learned about their existence. And though Ichigo was a different matter entirely, Hitsugaya decided that he was much the same in too many aspects. Plain and simple, she knew nothing of him, and he refused to plant false hopes into her head that she could reunite with her brother when it would not be so easy. She was nothing but a simple soul, not allowed into the Seireitei, even for the sake of their savior. So he would wait for the right moment, when he felt she was ready to be part of her real family again.

Instead, he regaled her with tales of the smaller, more minute details of her life; their first meeting, their second meeting, their third meeting, and every meeting after that. After moving past her previous anger, she was completely awed by the thought that they shared a much deeper connection than she had initially thought. He enjoyed spoiling her with small details that sent her head spinning, yet brought a smile to her face at the same time; that, at least, only he could give her.

There came times when he refused to answer her questions. She was still a juvenile girl, too easily swayed by her emotions to understand his reasoning behind keeping secrets. She might let her temper loose at these moments, demanding responses to her inquiries. But he would simply shake his head, determined to keep a specific piece to himself.

"You are not the same girl you used to be," he would explain simply. "Don't think you have to force yourself to act the way you used to, just because I've told you stories about the past."

That was really his biggest fear about sharing her history with her. He feared she would take his words to mean that perhaps she needed to change, to revert back to the way she had been. The only thing she would be doing then is mirroring a girl she had just heard of in stories. He was well aware that Karin was slowly maturing, molding herself into a young lady through her experiences in the Rukongai. She was meant to mature and grow, not shrink back to the child she once was. Even if remnants of her old self remained rooted in her personality, in reality, she was this budding young woman, and he felt that she was perfect the way she was.

But her birthday was a different matter. Rather than celebrating on that false date, he wanted her to grow accustomed to her real date of birth again – because he had told her the truth about it. And celebrating with her for the first time on the right date had been a precious memory for him, one only he had shared with her.

"Anything you would particularly like to receive?" he had asked, trying to soften his expression so she would know that he was open to any suggestion. But she'd shaken her head anyway, flustered even just by the question.

"You already do so much," she argued, smiling at him in gratitude. "I can't ask for anything other than that."

But he knew, from years of learning with Matsumoto, that a woman never truly meant it when she said she desired no present. It had gotten him in quite some trouble with his fukutaichou the first time, when he'd foolishly believed her polite words and let her birthday pass without getting her a gift. She was cold to him for weeks afterwards, and he had to pry the explanation out of her. Girls wanted men to figure out a suitable present themselves rather than relying on them; it meant more that way, she explained, so if a woman ever said she didn't want anything, don't believe her obvious lie. So he was already well-versed in the game when Karin tried the same trick on him. Luckily, unlike Matsumoto, once he prodded her far enough, she finally revealed her secret desire.

She wanted something to color her lips. She did not know if she had ever adorned such a thing when she was living, and if she had, then she had no memory of it. But she'd seen women walking around the district before, sporting bright red lips and catching attention easily. Though she was well aware that these women had made it a job to win the favor of a man willing to pay them for their services, she wanted it not for the men, but for the illusion of maturity.

He received his fair share of dirty looks later that week, when he cautiously walked into a women's shop in one of the first few districts, looking for something suitable for Karin. The female customers all glanced at him with shifty eyes, while others subtly stepped in front of the more risqué items to block them from his line of sight. One of the owners reluctantly gave him her attention, hiding disgust that very quickly changed to understanding when he explained he needed a suitable present for a female friend.

And then he was whisked through the shop and given a tour of everything on display. The sales woman blathered on and on about any advice she could think to give him. He learned everything he had never wanted to know about female face paint; it not only mattered what shade you bought, but whether it matched your skin tone; the time of day was crucially important, because wearing something dark and heavy on a sunny day would only send the wrong message to others. She also threw in dating tips in between the flurry of words, amused by his flustered protests.

He couldn't exactly pinpoint Karin's "skin tone," as the woman had called it. Despite the endless amount of time he spent gazing at her face when they were together, he had never particularly paid any attention to such details further than how beautiful and expressive her eyes were, or how adorable her small nose made her look. As a result, the sales woman thrust every shade of lip color under the sun into his hands, tittering on about how it wouldn't do to buy the wrong color and upset the girl, so why not buy them all?

"No," he retorted, a little rudely when he realized she was suddenly trying to take advantage of his lack of knowledge on the subject. "Just one will suffice."

No matter how much he would have liked to actually buy her all of them, he knew Karin would never accept. She already frowned upon things being handed to her, and many times, he listened to her rant on about how her house-mates had completely lost their skills to fend for themselves. She had asked for one, and so she would only accept one.

On the sixth of May, he presented her not only with the usual food, but he also secretly gave her what she had asked him for. It seemed silly to wrap just one little tube with wrapping paper, so he had simply rolled it in a newspaper and tucked it into his sleeve. Excited, she ripped apart his handiwork and uncapped the lid, twisting out the color he had painstakingly picked out for her.

"The sales woman called it... light coral pink," he remembered, screwing his face up as he filed through his memories. She'd been so grateful that their good-bye kiss had lasted just a few seconds longer than usual – enough to make his head spin – and the next time he visited, he found that she had carefully wrapped up the lipstick and kept it safely hidden under her mattress.

Perhaps it was the sight of her wearing it now that calmed his agitated nerves, reminding him that even if she accepted gifts from others, he would always be the first to ever have made her so happy. No one else knew of her secret femininity but him, and it made him rather smug to know that her house-mates would probably never learn of it, as she tried to keep up a reputation around them. Besides, he decided, anger over a simple kimono was just too petty.

As is holding a six-year-old grudge, Hyourinmaru rumbled in his mind, but he shoved the annoying thought away as if he had never heard it.

"Shall we head out, then?" he asked Karin, who was watching him nervously to gauge his reaction to her explanation. She sighed in relief when it was apparent that he was no longer angered over her acceptance of the clothing.

"You're not mad?" she asked cautiously as he dropped the food off outside the front door.

"You were due for a new one, anyway," he replied casually with a shrug, scooping her into his arms to head off to dine together. As she wrapped her arms around his neck, he smirked down at her. "This way, I can spend the money on something you want rather than something you need."

.. ღ ..

Today they chose yet another restaurant in the eightieth, as per Karin's request. He would have taken her much farther up into the districts if left to decide, but the Kurosaki actually had a place in mind herself, and she directed him through the streets as she struggled to remember the directions. He was suspicious of taking her someplace someone he had never met had suggested to her, but she assured him that the man was a very trustworthy one; he ran a fruit vendor in Zaraki, and though he was rather crabby and never took pity on the children enough to offer them food, Karin had also never seen him indulge in any sort of violence.

It seemed his judgment might have been slightly valuable, because Karin's instructions found them actually shunpoing straight out of the district, instead heading towards the thin boundaries between the eightieth and the next district; in this case, they ended up stopping at Kusajishi, an area that was definitely not much better, but an improvement nonetheless. They drew some heads in their direction, as they had never visited the seventy-ninth before, and the people were not used to seeing their strange coupling. They certainly contrasted heavily, Hitsugaya noted, what with her dressed in rags while he adorned clothing that obviously implied he lived in riches.

They joined hands as they wandered through the streets, noticing small differences between this new district and the one Karin called home. But Toushiro, more often than not, found himself entranced by her lips. Each time she colored them, he could never help but take note of how it changed her so much. And, to his mortification, he would constantly catch himself staring at how glossy and inviting they looked.

Not to mention, he had to be sure to wipe his mouth before returning to Seireitei, afraid that she had stained his lips with her kiss.

The restaurant they ended up at doubled as a bar, which meant it was rowdy and filled with men inside. No one really spared them a glance, so the two occupied a table near the center, away from the drunkards. At least the food was quite agreeable, and they had no worries when they finally ordered their traditional bottle of wine. They sipped slowly, enjoying the other's company as they always did.

When they had reached halfway through their wine, their lovely outing plummeted in the worst possible way.

"Toushiro-san, would you excuse me?" Karin asked him at that time, leaning towards him to mask her voice. "I need to use the ladies' room." It came out as almost a whisper, and behind her usually bored gaze, he saw a slight embarrassment from breaching such a topic with him. He just gave her a curt nod in assent, leaning back in his seat to get comfortable while he waited for her return. She dashed out of her chair, turning her head about in search of her destination in the crowded room. As she rushed away from their table, his eyes lingered scandalously on her exposed legs... and just slightly higher to an area she had filled into quite nicely. He would give her house-mates at least that much credit; the kimono they had chosen was wonderfully fitting at the hem, which meant he wouldn't have to strain his imagination any longer when he looked at her.

He quickly snapped his gaze away at the improper thought, slightly ashamed of himself for his ungentlemanly leering. He couldn't fault himself for it, though; he was a budding young boy, after all, bordering on becoming a man, and he found himself in pleasant female company every month. His intentions were bound to stray.

But Karin was not prepared for such a shift in their relationship just yet. He knew not whether she had ever explored such territory with anyone while living, but since her arrival in Soul Society, she had been forced to push such feminine inquiries to the back of her mind, making way for a woman worthy of being a leader to youths that were less able than her. And now she was slowly allowing herself cautious steps in that inevitable direction while using him as her anchor, and he would not betray that trust.

He would keep his hands to himself until the day Karin ventured for them herself.

Hitsugaya began tapping his foot against the floor as he waited for his companion, suddenly feeling stuffy surrounded by all the heat in the restaurant. Perhaps he could convince Karin to grace him with a walk through one of the safer, more beautiful districts. The sun had yet to set, but it was teetering close to the horizon, and the thought of a moonlight stroll with a pretty girl on his arm did wonders to sate his boyish desires. Normally he would have no extra time beyond the early evening to grant her with, but they were due for a longer visit than usual, and he felt he deserved it after his foul run-in yesterday with the 'Kioshi' name again.

"Oh, Hitsugaya-taichou, you were here, too?"

The familiar voice made him freeze completely in his seat as a wave of panic tore through him. Slowly, he turned in his chair - acting as if he was about to face his impending doom - and faced that rough grin and flaming hair.

"Abarai," he returned coolly, hoping that his voice would not waver and betray him. The fukutaichou seemed perfectly unaware of his turmoil, as he easily slid into the seat across from him that had previously been occupied by Karin. It was obvious by the way he did not tuck his legs under the table that he only planned to stay for a respectful greeting, but even that set Hitsugaya on edge. His eyes nervously flitted towards the ladies' room, hoping that Karin would not return too soon.

He cursed inwardly. Up until now, he had been extremely careful not to go anywhere where they could have an encounter with another shinigami, and Kusajishi had seemed safe of that threat. So what was Abarai doing here? He had no ties to this district, and as far as he knew, no one had been dispatched to a mission in Rukongai recently. And their luck was simply the worst. Of all the people that could have ventured upon them, did it have to be the one who was exceptionally close to the substitute - who would not take Karin's reappearance lightly? He needed to keep the man away.

"What are you doing here, Hitsugaya-taichou?" Renji asked curiously. It came as no shock that he would think meeting the tenth division's taichou in Kusajishi strange. During their Academy years, Momo had often regaled him and Kira about her life with her little brother. It was obvious he had never gone farther than the first few districts, so he had no ties to the seventy-ninth himself. And no sane man would choose to explore such treacherous areas for fun.

"I could ask the same of you," he quipped back, hoping he could distract the man from turning the conversation back to his unexplainable visit to this district.

"Ah, well, Zaraki-taichou recommended this place to me back when I was still a part of his division," he explained. "I've been a regular here for years now."

As if to prove his point, a waited glided over to their table, handing Renji a drink he called 'the usual' and greeting him in a familiar manner. The man returned the greeting with his gratitude as the server returned to work, but when he went to set his cup on the table, he finally took notice of the half-empty one resting before him, which Karin had just recently abandoned. He blinked down at it in surprise, noticing that Hitsugaya already had one before him, too.

"Oh, are you here with someone, taichou?" he asked in shock.

Karin chose that moment to finally exit the bathroom, and Hitsugaya's eyes widened just a fraction as he caught sight of her. It wasn't a drastic change in his expression, per se, as he was practiced in masking his emotions, but the change on his face was foreign enough for Renji to make note of it. Hitsugaya never even had a chance to distract him before he immediately turned his head to catch sight of what he was looking at, and his gaze landed on Karin.

.. ღ ..

Renji was less than thrilled when he learned of what had been happening between Hitsugaya-taichou and Ichigo's little sister for the past few decades. He pursed his lips in tight apprehension and swirled his drink in his cup, contemplating what action would be best to take under these circumstances. Across from him, Hitsugaya and Karin waited anxiously.

When she'd first arrived back at the table, Karin did not realize the magnitude of what had just occurred. All she saw was Toushiro, watching her with panicked eyes, and a young man with shockingly red hair, who was staring at her with his jaw unhinged. Though his staring would have fueled her temper at any other time, she decided to wait for an explanation first, as this man was apparently one of Toushiro's acquaintances.

"Toushiro-san, is this someone you know?" she asked with unveiled curiosity, inclining her head towards the tattooed stranger.

And from there she learned that Abarai Renji was apparently best friends with the brother she did not know of. Toushiro spoke in a clipped tone, revealing the bare minimum to her about the man who had saved all of Soul Society – whom she called 'Ichi-nii.' And this Abarai, if given the chance, wanted to take her back to Seireitei to hopefully gain permission for her to reside there from now on. It would mean leaving behind her house-mates, as well as turning back on everything Hitsugaya had done for her all these years in hopes of keeping her safe until the right time. Needless to say, she had refused.

"Ichigo wouldn't like this," Abarai said with a deep sigh, taking a drink. "And I don't know if I could keep something like this a secret from him." Karin's face fell slightly at his words, and when he took notice of it, he gave her a somber smile. "You don't even remember him, do you?"

It wasn't a question that required an answer, but simply a statement that was as grim as the entire topic of this discussion. They were speaking of keeping things from their savior – important news that would finally give him the small ray of hope he had been waiting for since his little sister died. After so many years, his friends had banded together to finally help him come to peace with it, but nothing would make him happier than to know she was safe.

But she wasn't safe, Renji mused, his eyebrows knitted together. Not as long as she lived in Zaraki, at least, and from what Hitsugaya-taichou had told him, she refused to leave willingly. Her family lived there, she argued, and she would never abandon them so easily. The only time she would depart is when Hitsugaya finally decided she was ready to be thrust into the life of a shinigami, and though the taichou had assured him that time was fast approaching, he also knew that it most likely was not as close as he wanted it to be.

"Abarai," Hitsugaya suddenly spoke up, his gaze sullen, "I've been taking care of her. She's been fed and clothed and protected. That should play no part in your decision."

Karin huffed and punched his arm, complaining that he made her out to be some sort of damsel in distress when she clearly wasn't, but Renji could see the truth behind his words. Her skin was much cleaner than it should have been, considering where she lived, and her clothing, though worn, looked new. Even now, he could tell that the young taichou was keenly aware of her, ready to protect her at any moment if something should happen. When she'd first returned to the table, Renji had been occupying her seat. Rather than pull up another chair, however, she had simply squeezed herself into Toushiro's seat with him. And Renji could see how much the taichou had relaxed once she'd fixed herself so close, because now he could watch over her well-being that much easier.

He still didn't like this, but Renji would be a fool to insist that Hitsugaya couldn't properly protect her - not when it was obvious he put her safety even above his own. So he rubbed his face, finally flashing them both a reassuring smile. In the end, he would leave this up to them to decide and hope for the best. Besides, Hitsugaya-taichou had always been an intelliegnt boy; surely he knew what he was doing, so Renji saw no reason to intervene.

"If it's really what you want," he directed at Karin kindly, and she beamed at him, bobbing her head instantly. Relaxing at the sight of her happiness, he raised his glass to his lips to finally chug down the rest of his drink. However, his hand froze when his eyes landed on the front entrance of the restaurant. "Uh oh," he hissed under his breath, directing a panicked glance at the two of them. Hitsugaya immediately tensed up. "I'm guessing you still don't want others to know about this, do you?"

"What's wrong?" the icy taichou demanded instantly, his eyes narrowed. He leaned forward in his seat in anticipation as Renji rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.

"I, uh, invited some people to come drink with me," he admitted with a wince. Both Karin and Toushiro whipped their heads to the front door, and the tenth division's taichou groaned in horror as he recognized a handful of familiar faces scouring the room for their redheaded pal.

Matsumoto was a sure part of the group – of course – and Hitsugaya spied Kira and Hisagi, as well. Behind them stood the ever lush Kyouraku, who was eyeing the bar eagerly. To his surprise, in addition to the typical sake-drinking group, Ikkaku and Yumichika had joined them, too. Oh, they were trapped with no way to escape, and he knew that if any of them even so much as whiffed Karin, they would instantly alert Ichigo. And Matsumoto would give him endless grief for hiding this from her all this time.

"Toushiro-san," Karin whispered by his ear, leaning into his side as she made suspicious eyes at the group from over his shoulder. "Are those people not supposed to see us?"

"No," he snapped, directing a heavy glare at the uncomfortable fukutaichou of the sixth division. He gazed back helplessly, looking slightly embarrassed at his dangerous mistake. To be fair, he had not known that he would possibly run into Ichigo's long lost sister here, and in Hitsugaya-taichou's surprising company, no less.

"My apologies, taichou," he was quick to cry out, staggering to bow his head. Karin could not help but smirk in amusement as the man attempted to suck up to Toushiro, but the ice taichou ignored him.

"Never mind that," he hissed, tightening his hold on Karin's hand in the case they needed to bolt. "Just get them out of here."

"B-but, how?" the fukutaichou spluttered, flitting his eyes about the room for an escape route. As he fumbled with his hands helplessly, he realized that he still clutched his drink. Looking down at it, his eyes immediately lit up. "I have an idea," he breathed, looking up at the two of them excitedly. At their mistrusting gazes, he waved an airy hand. "Just get ready to run."

And he abruptly jumped out of his chair, gulping down the last bit of his drink. Toushiro hastily ducked and dragged Karin along with him, as his red hair had caught the attention of his drinking buddies. Smiling that they had finally found him, they made their way through the crowd. But Renji acted as if he had never seen them in the first place as he slammed his cup on the table. In fact, he was acting mighty strange in general. He staggered through the crowd, pushing people aside rudely to make way. Ignoring their protests, he, apparently very drunk, stumbled to the bar, heading straight for a gigantic, excessively tattooed man with unfocused eyes. As both the couple at the table and his friends watched, he slapped his hand on his shoulder and roughly tugged him to face his direction.

"Ya tryin' ta pick a fight with me?" he growled dangerously, his words a drunken slur. Toushiro had to marvel at his acting skills, though Karin snorted at the display.

"Huh?" the man grunted roughly in response, glaring despite his confusion at the turn of events. Abandoning his drink, he stood off his stool, revealing that he was slightly taller and more muscled than Renji. But the fukutaichou hardly batted an eyelash at that as he, without so much as an explanation or warning, delivered a swift and brutal punch to his jaw.

The entire bar let out a cheer and surrounded them, egging them on as the man stumbled back, howling in pain. Ikkaku let out a delighted laugh, ignoring Matsumoto's cry of shock as his eyes gleamed.

"You punk," the man snarled, lunging for Renji. He dodged easily, his footing too graceful for an intoxicated man, though no one seemed to notice as he kneed the man right in the gut. Ikkaku hooted his approval and, high from the thrill of a fight, unseathed his katana and jumped right into the circle.

As the third seat hacked his sword at anything in his way and the bar manager shouted profanities and threats, Renji took the opportunity to send them both a subtle wink. With everyone's backs turned, Toushiro slipped out of the restaurant easily, tugging a breathlessly laughing Karin by the hand.

.. ღ ..

Karin's chuckles still had not died down by the time they reached her front door. The bag of food was gone, meaning the teens inside had most likely found it. But Toushiro hardly spared them a thought as he attempted to help Karin balance on her feet. Still laughing hysterically and with tears blurring her vision, she toppled over into his arms instantly, sighing in content when she decided to just stay there for the moment.

"That bald guy just jumped right in!" she exclaimed with another peal of laughter, clutching him tighter so she would not slip to the ground. "Like it was normal. Oh, Kami."

"I'm glad you enjoyed yourself," he replied grimly, though a small smirk of amusement was playing at his lips. His walk seemed like an implausible idea now, as the sun was almost completely hidden behind the landscape, but he decided that he did not care. It was more enthralling to watch Karin enjoy herself so much.

"I did," she sighed, wiping at the wetness in her eyes as she finally calmed herself. Gulping in some air, she smiled up at him softly. "Renji seems like a good man."

He shrugged, agreeing with her in his cryptic way. He was certainly loyal until the end, and his perseverance was something to be admired. The only flaw Toushiro could think of now was that he saw a barbaric bar fight as the only solution to their problem. But their secret was safe again, nonetheless, so he could not complain.

"Hey, Toushiro-san?" Karin suddenly spoke up, and he raised an eyebrow at how she had quieted down so abruptly. When he turned his gaze on her, he found that she was playing with his haori nervously. Hesitantly, she asked, "Will you tell me more about my brother?"

She couldn't meet his gaze easily, but she managed, showing him the determination in her eyes. The truth was, she actually trusted Toushiro-san more than she wanted to learn of her brother, which was why she could not be angry with him for keeping the secret; she rightly assumed that he had his own reasons for doing so. Toushiro-san was someone concrete, someone she shared memories with that she remembered, while she had only just heard of this Ichi-nii today through a story. But something tugged at her to remember him, and the same emotion warmed her when she thought of reuniting with him.

Toushiro could almost see all of her thoughts laid out on her face, as he was so in tune to her now. He could tell how much it would mean to her for him to follow through with her request. And at the moment, while he was still experiencing the ecstasy of their day together, it would be near impossible to stick to his careful decisions when she was looking at him like that. So he sighed, licking his lips and tightening his arms around her waist.

"I have no more time today," he told her softly, patting her cheek. Her face fell slightly as she realized this was not a straight approval of her request. But nor was it a denial, and that thought brightened her up slightly. It meant that Toushiro would tell her, just when he was ready.

"Some other time, then," she agreed happily. And, fisting his haori in her hands, she pulled herself up and locked her lips to his. Though surprised at first by the sudden action, he eventually relaxed and pulled her closer.

Today's kiss was different than any other in that, when she had pulled away, Karin breathed in lightly and instantly kissed him again. The second time was nothing more than a brush of their lips, but it sent a pleasant thrill through his spine, filling him with an unexplainable hope. They had never kissed more than once before.

"Hey, Karin, are you ba - Oh." They pulled their faces apart to find that Airi stood in the doorway to her home, watching them with raised eyebrows. Her eyes lingered over how closely the two were pressed together and how their lips were almost still touching, and her cheeks flushed a deep red. "Keep that stuff private," she hissed, slamming the door shut after. At that, Karin stepped away, and Toushiro cursed the girl who had dared to interrupt them.

Well, if she ever decides to join your division, you certainly have the perfect revenge, Hyourinmaru grumbled in his head once again, still pestering him over the incident with the Kioshi boy. He simply cleared his throat loudly.

"I should be going," he said to Karin slowly, and she nodded in reply.

"Oh, wait!" she suddenly cried. In response to his quizzical look, she jumped forward and brushed her thumb against his lips. A thrill passed through him at the intimate action, but when Karin pulled back, she showed him her thumb as an explanation. There was a subtle pink coloring to it, and he realized that she had stained his lips with her kiss. For some reason, that only made him wish to pull her into his embrace and kiss her once again. He instantly cleared his throat once more, hoping to better control himself.

"Goodbye, Toushiro-san," Karin murmured softly, smiling as she waved as well. Entranced by the curve of her lips, he mumbled back a reply. Inwardly, however, he wondered if she had been naive enough to share such a precious smile with any other boy besides him. It would certainly explain why Kioshi had refused to leave her be.

As he shunpoed back to his barracks that evening, Hitsugaya inwardly planned to be the only boy to visit her next month.

Well, the scene I was talking about was that very first one. It wouldn't leave me alone, and once I wrote it, I really wanted to share it with you - so I wrote out a whole new chapter. Be thankful that I adore making Hitsugaya jealous :P Oh, and hey, give yourselves some credit, too! I want to thank those eleven of you wonderful people who unknowingly became my inspiration ^_^ I hope you like this chapter enough to leave your thoughts a second time.

On a completely different note: Man, I am on fire this month! I don't know what it was about the month of April that just put me in the mood to write. Let's see, I put up three new chapters of FnK, finally completed two of my two-shots, and then published and completed another new two-shot. Let's hope my muse decides to stick with me for a while longer, huh? :D