Woo-hoo! I just love the smell of a new story :D

So, HitsuKarin finally delves into the parent-teacher relationship :) This might be a rather cliché plot (of course, since we all know I adore those), but I've never seen it done before for this pairing, so I gave it a go.

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

Hitsugaya Toushiro sighed deeply as the school bell finally rang. He gathered up the papers scattered upon his work desk, placing them in a neat and organized stack after paper-clipping them together. The children around him were packing up as well, crumpling homework assignments into their backpacks before racing out, chattering and laughing with one another. He waved some of them goodbye halfheartedly when they sent a cheerful farewell his way, his expression stony after a hard day's work.

"Bye, Hitsugaya-sensei!"

"See you tomorrow, Hitsugaya-sensei!"

"Goodbye, children," he muttered back absentmindedly, still trying to pack up. It had been a long day, full of mishaps and outbursts, and he was physically drained and exhausted. He could never quite understand how children could be so rowdy, or feel that constant need to exert their energy by taking out their liveliness on their surroundings. He was positive he had never been that way when he had been their age. In fact, those who knew him from childhood often teased him for being a poker-faced stick-in-the-mud. And with such a mindset, he really didn't know what had prompted him to become a second grade teacher near his home town. Everyone who had ever been acquainted with him had muttered that it was such a waste. With his intelligence, he could be stopping wars or cancer, but he just didn't want all that pressure caging him in; he'd seen what it did to people. Maybe that was why he'd just disappeared after university, brashly choosing to come back to a small town like this and take up a boring, simple job. Many of his past friends hadn't the slightest idea where he even was anymore, and he found that he preferred it that way, as there were no surprise disturbances in his simple yet pleasant life so far.

As the last of the kids shuffled out, groaning about the work load or the weight of their bag, he finally stood off his chair, stretching slightly with his arms above his torso as it rolled away from him. Swinging his extremities back down, he flexed them a bit before stuffing his papers in his bag. He'd have to grade them all when he got back home tonight, and that would be a terribly long task. Not to mention, he'd have to stick a gold star on all of them, since the school had a policy of "positive reinforcement." Not that the work load that came with such a job was anything outrageous. It just required constant effort and care, as putting down a child even accidentally could lead to horrible circumstances in their future confidence or skills. Children at this age were delicate, after all, and needed to be treated rightfully so. He didn't particularly condone handling even younger children with kiddy gloves, as that destroyed character and paved a way for an enabled future, but the school he had chosen to work for certainly held that belief firmly, and he was in no position to object.

"Hitsugaya-sensei?" A timid voice cut across his irritated musings, and he looked up curiously to find a little boy with raven hair gazing at him shyly from the other side of his desk. He stood so small for his age that the backpack slung over his shoulders seemed comically bigger in size, not to mention that his head barely made it past the top of the desk. Even he only recognized the boy by his voice and the shaggy mop of black hair covering his head.

"Akira-kun," he acknowledged, nodding over to his student. He paused in his tidying up to present the child with his full attention. "What can I help you with?"

"Um..." The boy scuffed at the floor with his shoe, almost flushing in embarrassment because he wasn't used to speaking up so much in the classroom. "Did you forget you have to meet Okaa-san today?"

Hitsugaya paused for a moment, letting the reminder sink in, and then sighed deeply once he properly registered it. Yes, he had forgotten. And he had all those papers, too. There went his sleep schedule. And he was almost out of coffee at his apartment as well, so he would have to make an unintended stop on his way home to pick up some more. It was troublesome, but he knew he would never make it through the night now without some strong caffeine for assistance. That, coupled with this sudden extra plan in his day, meant he wouldn't arrive home until much later than usual.

The meeting in question was nothing out of the ordinary. Last week, the school had held a parent-teacher conference, as they did every six months to discuss behavior issues or problems with a child's studies. He had particularly loathed it. If he thought dealing with second graders on a daily basis was torturous, it was even worse facing their obnoxious parents, who thought their little angel was perfect and any misconduct on their part was his fault, as he was "too young" to properly handle a classroom by himself. What was worse was that the school was strict on all meetings they held; every conference was mandatory for each parent, and if they failed to show up, the teacher was held responsible for finding some way to arrange a meeting, no matter what. His class had done a pretty good job, though. Each guardian had showed up on time and slandered him in the short time interval they had. Then he had fought a scowl, wished them a pleasant evening, and welcomed the next set of parents, right on time. But this one child, Kurosaki Akira, had posed a problem.

His parent had failed to show up. He knew from the boy's file that he had only a single mother, and she'd been extremely busy with a work emergency to have time to come in that evening. She'd even emailed him especially, apologizing for the dilemma but explaining that there was absolutely no way she could possibly find time to make it. That meant he had to find some way to see her, or else he would face consequences from his boss. A home meeting had seemed the most easiest solution, and after a couple of exchanged notes sent back and forth between them with Akira as the carrier, they'd finally arranged a private meeting at her home this evening. Normally he would have suggested she come in after school one afternoon, but seeing as how she'd already missed one scheduled appointment, he thought it best to take matters into his own hands to avoid a second time.

"I suppose we should head out, then?" he suggested to Akira, zipping up his bag after filling it with the necessary papers for the night and slinging it over his shoulder.

The boy nodded shyly, still not looking at him. This child was actually one of the better ones, maybe because he was so quiet and shy. He was also mature in words and actions, so there were never any problems with him acting out in class, and he was intelligent enough to make exceptional grades that hardly needed to be addressed. So, of course, the meeting itself would be short. The only problem was that Akira lived far out of the way of his own home – in the opposite direction, actually – meaning driving there and back would be a waste of time on his part. The drive might be short, but the minutes added up slowly, especially when he already had a particularly long journey and would have to stop at a convenient store. But Hitsugaya was an honorable man, and this meeting was crucial in protecting the integrity of his position in the school, so he bit back all of his complaints as he gazed down at Akira.

"Let's get going," he ordered as kindly as he could manage, and his student trailed after him heedlessly. He normally carpooled with the other mothers in the area because his own parent worked in the afternoons, but today Hitsugaya would drive him home. It only made sense, after all, as they would be heading for the same destination, though he'd had to run the decision by both his mother and the school for safety reasons.

As they passed through the parking lot, many of the younger female teachers giggled at him, whispering to each other behind their hands as they sent him longing looks. He ignored them all. Though he knew it was a cause of great irritation to all of them that he had never so much as looked at any of them the way they wanted him to, he just wasn't interested. Besides, he hadn't moved to this town to start a relationship with a country woman who only knew how to do housework.

Once they reached his car, he buckled the boy in and then seated himself on the driver's side. Searching through his briefcase, he found Akira's file tucked into a pocket, which he'd put there weeks ago so, ironically, he would not forget the meeting. He took one look at the address before setting his things aside and revving the engine, already sure of where they were going. He was a man who did his research, which meant he'd already looked up the apartment building on a town map.

As they drove down the narrow streets, Hitsugaya chanced looking at the boy beside him out of the corner of his eyes from time to time. He had his elbow propped up on the door handle and his chin resting in his hand, always looking quietly out the window at the flashing scenery. Not a word escaped him, nor a movement, and Hitsugaya remembered that this behavior perfectly mirrored the one he adopted in class, too. What a peculiar child.

He knew he and his mother had moved into the area not long ago, though he had never met her. Instead, he had only heard, from the gossiping mothers who picked the boy up every day, about the scandal of her not having a husband. Apparently, she'd shown up out of the blue with a little boy one day, and though she was nice enough if not a bit short-tempered, her son was a strange one. Though Akira had graduated to second grade along with the other students, Hitsugaya also knew that during the previous year, he was the new kid. He had never quite succeeded in making many friends; that much was obvious by the way he sat in the corner during recess and read books while the other students laughed and played and excluded him. Hitsugaya would be inside working at the time, so it was always just him and Akira alone in the classroom for half an hour, and neither ever offered to make a peep. He couldn't help but think that was a dreadfully lonely existence for a seven-year-old. What was his home life like, then, if it had sapped such a young boy of his exuberance?

Rather than voice these thoughts, Hitsugaya just glided smoothly into a parking space near a small but cozy-looking building that was apparently his home. It was a rickety apartment building of a fading, dull brown color, hardly worth noticing if one hadn't been looking for it because it stood small and secluded. Though there was a modest patch of greenery out front, it was rather pathetic and hardly added any charm. This was where a seven-year-old was growing up?

With a reassuring deep breath, he shut off his engine and stepped out of the car along with his bag in his hands; he would need notes to present to his higher-ups as proof of the visit. Akira unbuckled himself also, still silent, and Hitsugaya locked the car before the two made their way to the steps. There was no lock on the front door. Anyone could have walked right in, and that's exactly what they did. The boy pulled with all his little might, and Hitsugaya raised an eyebrow when he politely held the door open for him, though his hand was shaking from the effort of keeping it from banging shut. There were no elevators either, so the two walked up two flights of stairs while Akira clutched the railing to help him. Hitsugaya nervously walked behind him, hoping he would have the reflexes to catch the boy if he fell. Finally, they reached a narrow hallway covered in a yellow carpet, and Akira led him to the closest apartment on their right.

"This is it," he informed his teacher, and he rapped on the door three times, stepping back afterwards to await a response. There was no answer at first. They stood there waiting for a moment, listening for sounds, and heard none. Just as Hitsugaya was starting to grow irritated at the complete lack of a reception, they heard rustling from inside.

"Coming!" someone decidedly female called out, and he listened closely in amusement as someone bounded across the floor. Suddenly, a loud crash sounded from the other side, and he heard the same someone hiss furiously, "Son of a..."

The door swung open. On the other side stood a woman in a T-shirt and shorts who could have hardly been older than her early twenties – younger than even him. He took in the short but flowing raven hair and shimmering gray eyes, and there was no doubt in his mind that this was Akira's mother. Her cheeks were flushed an attractive pink and she was breathless, probably from the peculiar crash, and the first thing her eyes did was latch on to her son.

"Oh, Akira, you're home," she noted, brightening instantly. The boy beamed and nodded, scurrying inside. With her hand still resting on the doorknob, she twisted her bare feet to keep him in sight and brightly said, "Sorry I took so long to answer. I just got home from work myself, and I was changing. How was school?"

"Fine," he replied breezily, shrugging out of his backpack and placing it next to a chair sitting in the hall. Patting off his shoulders, he returned his mother's attention with a cutely wrinkled nose. "I finally finished my book, but the ending was terrible. Could we please go to the bookstore and buy another one?"

His mother beamed in return, already bobbing her head in agreement. Her white teeth flashed against her pink lips as she grinned. "Of course we can, Akira. I'll make some time this weekend."

She was apparently so engrossed in her conversation with her son that she failed to notice she had an unfamiliar visitor standing patiently at her door, gazing at her with raised eyebrows. In fact, she was unconsciously about to shut the door on him when Akira suddenly pointed out, "Okaa-san, there's someone at the door."

She blinked rapidly in his direction before spinning around in curiosity, only to find herself face-to-face with Hitsugaya, who was watching her with much more humor than before. "How did I miss you?" she exclaimed, jumping a little and turning breathless all over again. With scrutinizing eyes, she gave him a once over, and then finally scratched the back of her head sheepishly. "...Uh, who are you?"

Akira rolled his eyes and wandered over to stand behind her. From his position, he sent his teacher an apologetic look. "It's Hitsugaya-sensei," he informed her in slight exasperation.

"Your teacher?" she questioned, looking back and forth between them. He briefly wondered how many other Hitsugaya-sensei's she knew, if she could still remain confused after the introduction. However, she overlooked that matter in favor of scratching the top of her head this time. Still slightly ignoring the visitor, she directed her questions at her child. "Why is he here?"

"You two have a conference today, remember?" the boy reminded her pointedly. She paused abruptly at his explanation, raking her brain for any such appointment. Akira rolled his eyes again. He was obviously the less scatterbrained of the two, though Hitsugaya could hardly talk. He had forgotten, too, after all. Finally, it seemed to click, because she snapped her fingers and flashed them both a look of dawned understanding.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, rapidly flailing an arm at him and brushing it against his chest repeatedly. He resisted the urge to grimace at her enthusiasm over everything; she was almost as lively as his second-graders. Finally, her hand simply ended up resting on his chest as she continued. "I completely forgot! You're here for that parent-teacher thing." And then she beamed up at him, so brightly that her whole face seemed to light up. She suddenly shot out her hands and cupped both his cheeks in a friendly manner, causing him to flinch back in surprise. He'd never met anyone so comfortable with strangers before. Perhaps the fact that he was the boy's teacher had softened her up, but she still maintained an air of cheer as she breathed out, "Kami bless you for doing this. I don't know what else I could have done. Come in, come in."

He really had no choice as she pulled him in by his face.

.. ღ ..

They had a simple home, with just the basic furniture decorating the living space. From what he could see from his position by the front door, there was a kitchen and a living room, and down the one hallway there were doors leading to obvious bedrooms. Bright and happy pictures were hung up on the walls, and he could see quite easily that they weren't exactly swimming in poverty. He was a rather modest man himself, and his own home even slightly mirrored their sensible tastes and possessions. Really, it wasn't a bad living arrangement – definitely better looking than the outer decor of the building – and he found himself actually admiring the simple taste.

As he politely slipped out of his shoes and settled them against the wall, Akira suddenly ran into his room, loudly claiming over his shoulder that he wished to finish his homework first and would definitely be out before dinner, as he only had two addition worksheets; staying inside during recess meant he completed most of his homework in class, leaving him almost free when he returned home. After hollering back her agreement to his plans, Karin led the teacher to their living room, gesturing to the large couch and offering him a seat. Though Hitsugaya situated himself professionally with a pen and notebook in hand, she pretty much threw herself onto the sofa, tucking her feet under her and leaning back on the cushions.

"Let me introduce myself," he began crisply, eyeing her careless stature and wisely choosing not to comment on her laid-back attitude. "I'm Hitsugaya Toushiro, a second grade teacher at Karakura Elementary."

"Kurosaki Karin," she supplied, grinning at making a new acquaintance. Leaning towards him slightly, she held up a finger in warning and said, "Call me Karin, okay? Almost everybody does, and I don't answer to much else."

He nodded easily in agreement, jotting down her name at the top of a fresh page of his notebook. Next to hers, he also wrote out Akira's, followed by the date and time to document the meeting. "Karin, then. Should we begin?"

"Ready as I'll ever be," she replied, still grinning widely.

He, however, didn't crack a smile. "All right. This will be relatively short. Your son is very well behaved for his age."

She chuckled. "I get that a lot."

"His grades are above average, too," he continued as if she had never said anything, quickly scribbling down short bullet points on what they were discussing. Reaching the latest topic, he tapped the note he had written with the back of his pencil before flitting his eyes to her. Straight-faced, he curiously asked, "Can I ask what kind of previous schooling he's had?"

She frowned and shrugged, perturbed by the question. "Just a normal elementary school. We lived out in the city before moving here, but the schools are pretty much the same." He'd excelled in the city too, making exceptional grades that always sparked her pride in him. She constantly teased that he'd inherited it from her, but she also taught him to take his own pride in his accomplishments and decisions. It was how she had been raised, and she liked to believe such a mindset was the cause of her present confidence and liveliness.

He nodded and jotted down her answer. "Well, he's doing very well. If he continues down this path, I could say that he might even be eligible to skip a grade." What he didn't tell her was that the kids might even be less likely to pick on the boy if he did so. Jealousy was quite often the motivator for bullying, and some of the boy's classmates were really struggling with their work while he cruised through it. Many threw him bitter glares or scowls when he settled back in his seat with a bored sigh while they found themselves stuck on a particularly difficult question.

Karin whistled low, seemingly impressed by the news. "Damn."

He dryly raised an eyebrow at her. This wasn't the kind of reaction one expected. Many would either stutter in shock or shriek with joy, delighted that their son or daughter had achieved such an amazingly advanced level in both their intelligence and skills. But Karin offered no further reaction to his announcement, only lazily picking at her nail as she waited for him to carry on. Clearing his throat, he pressed on, "Would you be willing to try it if the opportunity presented itself?"

"Beats me," she replied, shrugging again. Glancing up from her nail, she flashed him a soft smile. "It's Akira's choice. If he wants to, I'll be all for it."

"And you're willing to let a seven-year-old make important life decisions?" he asked, incredulous. Forget the peculiar child – what a peculiar mother. He wondered in amazement how a child could end up as mature and serene as Akira had with a mother that was willing to let him run wild. Any other child would have taken advantage and caused themselves seriously permanent damage by now, but the Kurosaki family had apparently found a miracle cure to those urges in young boys that enjoyed destruction.

"Hey, you said yourself he's above average," she justified her decision. Despite what he may think, she knew exactly what she was doing when she gave so much responsibility to her son. She credited it with building his respectable character. "I don't see why he can't make decisions for himself. That type of independence is one of the most important qualities I could teach him."

Hitsugaya jotted that down too, though she seemed perfectly unaffected by it. Instead, she picked at a loose thread on one of her cushions and hummed a small tune. He watched her for a moment, taking in the grubby clothes but nice skin and sparkling, shoulder-length hair. Her figure was lithe and womanly, accenting the feminine qualities that the rough expressions of her face seemed to detract. She was decent looking. He couldn't help but wonder for a moment why she was a single parent.

Karin looked up from the top of her eyes to peer at the strangely stoic man, who hadn't spoken for a moment too long. "So, is that it, then?" she asked, noting his silence.

He immediately cleared his throat, embarrassed that he had been thinking such personal thoughts about a woman he had just met. "Uh, yes," he replied carefully, standing up and snapping his notebook shut. "Since you have no clear decision on his skipping a grade, it would be pointless to continue until you want more information. I'll have to report to the principal that we've finished tomorrow morning, though."

"You had to drive all the way out here for a friendly chat?" she asked in disbelief while he packed his notebook and pencil away. It seemed a waste of time to her, who could think of countless more productive things one could be accomplishing in this time. And by the way he pressed his lips into a thin line, she assumed he agreed with her sentiments.

"It was either this or make you come in despite your work," he reminded her, slinging his bag back over his shoulder.

She chuckled sheepishly, rubbing the back of her neck. "I guess I appreciate it, then. At our hospital, it's not often that a nurse gets called in specially along with the doctor, but when you do, you know it's best to make it."

So she was a nurse. That explained the desolate apartment. Nurses didn't get paid badly, but it was most definitely not what full-fledged doctors made. And depending on the job and hospital, the salary could be even lower. He figured an apartment building such as this was all she could afford to pay rent for at the moment, though she'd done a decent enough job sprucing up her own private quarters. Considering all he had observed since arriving, he retracted his previous disapproval about Akira growing up around here. Though the outward appearance was too bleak and dreary to exactly encourage gaiety, the warm atmosphere he shared with his mother seemed a wonderful encouragement in his proper growth.

Karin led him to the front door again, leaning against the wall as he reached for his previously discarded shoes. Thankfully the meeting had been even shorter than he had anticipated, which meant he could have a chance of adding an extra hour to his non-existent sleep schedule. As he grumbled the calculations to himself, they suddenly heard a door creak open, and Akira came bounding in.

"Hitsugaya-sensei, are you leaving?" he cried out, looking from the man to his mother with a dissatisfied pout overtaking his mousy face.

"Yes," he answered quietly, pausing with his shoes still in his hand. "I have a long drive home, after all." That was an understatement, but they didn't need to hear all the gory details.

"But you just got here," the boy whined, clutching his mother's leg and gazing up at him with a small huff that shook his entire frame.

"Exactly how long of a drive are we talking about?" Karin asked him curiously, ruffling her son's hair. Her eyebrows dipped at the center at the thought of causing him inconvenience. She had never liked remaining in anyone's debt, but if Hitsugaya had really gone out of his way to ease this meeting for her, then she felt she owed him something in return.

"I live in the Rukongai district," he told her with a sigh, closing his eyes to control the weariness he almost let seep through into his tone. Just thinking of the drive was draining.

She gaped at him, lurching forward in her shock. "You're kidding. That's so far – a thirty or forty-five minutes drive, at least. You drive that far every day?" Her arms practically flailed at her sides with each word.

"I'm dedicated," he replied solemnly, and she nodded with wide eyes in complete agreement.

"Okaa-san," Akira spoke up timidly, tugging on his mother's shorts to catch her attention. "Can Hitsugaya-sensei stay for dinner?"

She beamed at her son, swooping down to pick him up and cradle him close. She rested him on her hip, shifting her weight so he could place his legs on either side of her and latch on more easily. "That's an awesome idea, kiddo," she exclaimed, and then she raised an eyebrow at Hitsugaya. "Stay?"

He really didn't want to, as he had never been one for idle chat and friendly visits. Though he didn't want to be rude, there really was no option rather than refusing. Besides, he had papers to grade and tomorrow's lesson plan to go over. Plus, now there was a short stop for coffee, and he briefly wondered whether purchasing gas would also be a good idea. "I couldn't possibly intrude," he began hesitantly.

"Don't worry about it," Karin cut across him, grinning warmly and shaking her head. "We just invited you, didn't we?"

"Well, I wouldn't want to put you out -"

"You're not putting anyone out," she protested, and then she made a face. "Between you and me – and Akira – it's just gonna be take-out anyway. I can't cook to save my life, and the boy's too young to be let near a stove." She chuckled as Akira stuck out a tongue at her dry humor. "Besides, there's this really nice old couple who own a restaurant down the street that we always order from, so at least it'll be hot and home-cooked."

Holding up his fully stuffed bag, he gave one last excuse. "I have all these papers to grade."

"Do that here," she offered cheerfully, patting her son's head as he laid it against the crook of her neck. "We'll stay out of your hair and you can do that while we wait for dinner. Oh, come on. I made you come all the way here and that's going to add another ten minutes to your ridiculously long ride. I don't need that eating away at my conscience."

"Come on, Hitsugaya-sensei," Akira added, hugging his mother tighter and peeking out of her hair at him with his big eyes.

It was troublesome, but he knew that refusing now after all those excuses already would only be rude. He tried to suppress another sigh as he set his shoes back down. "All right," he finally relented, dropping his bag. "A quick dinner, then."

The two Kurosaki's cheered, and he almost smirked at their enthusiasm.

.. ღ ..

As he graded papers in the living room, Hitsugaya made two very important observations.

One was that the two Kurosaki's were inevitably one of the closest mother-son pair he had ever had the pleasure to witness. It was obvious Akira absolutely adored his mother by the way he clung to her whenever she was around. If it wasn't a glomp of the leg, it was a request to be picked up. And when he was up there, he was always wrapping his arms tightly around her, or kissing her cheek, or smiling as he breathed in her hair, or burying his head into her neck. The boy he was seeing was the complete opposite of the shy second-grader he knew; he was outgoing and friendly and always had a smile on his face when he was with his mother. And Karin wasn't any different. She doted on her son any chance she got. When they were ordering take-out, she only worried about what he wanted, always cupping the receiver and asking her son if there was anything else he was in the mood to eat. Even Hitsugaya's food was an afterthought, and her own order was remembered at the last minute. Next was how she spoiled him. The one time he had glimpsed inside Akira's room, he saw shelves upon shelves of books, each of them different in shape and content. It was like if she got her way, her son would never have to repeat a book in his life.

The second observation was that Karin had been lying through her teeth when she'd said they would stay out of his hair as he worked. They had offered him a coffee table in the living room to set up a workspace, so he had settled down cross-legged on the carpet and splayed his papers over the tabletop. As he was pouring over them, both Karin and Akira sneakily sidled up beside him, gazing at his work from over his shoulder and humming in an impressed manner. Somewhere along the line, the conversation turned to his hair. Though he firmly stayed out of it, the two seemed perfectly content with discussing him openly with only each other. At first they wondered if it was natural, which led to their venturing if he was an albino. This caused them to observe that his skin was too tan, and Karin came up with some convoluted story that he was addicted to tanning salons. Then Akira recalled an article he had read about some teenager contracting melanoma from the same obsession, causing them to gasp melodramatically, throw their arms into the air, and cry out, "Cancer is not the answer!"

"We'll love you even if you look like a ghost, sensei," Akira reassured him rather anxiously, going as far as to pat his back comfortingly.

Hitsugaya could feel his vein popping out of his forehead. Though he was trying his best to ignore them, it was rather difficult as they were sitting cross-legged right beside him and gazing at him intently. It was a relief when the doorbell rang and the delivery boy from the restaurant presented them with their food. As Karin paid him, Hitsugaya watched in amusement as the middle-school kid blushed, gazing at her with a star-struck expression. So he had a schoolboy crush on a single parent. How unfortunate, though it made sense, since he probably came to deliver a lot and had gotten to know her. What was even more hilarious was the way he caught sight of Hitsugaya making himself at home and sent him a warning glare. Karin was clueless, however, as she shut the door and presented them with the food.

"Let's dig in," she said cheerfully, and they seated themselves in the dining area right outside the kitchen. She happily passed around bowls of food and chopsticks, after dumping out everything from inside the cartons.

It was cute watching Akira attempt to handle chopsticks. The boy obviously had not learned properly yet. After a few failed attempts to balance them on his finger and pick up something, he finally took to just stabbing his food and popping it into his mouth. Many families would consider such an act crude, but Karin paid it no mind. He had the feeling she would let the boy get away with murder with the way she spoiled him. But, because the two refused to make a big show of his table manners, Hitsugaya chose to ignore it as well. However, his teacher instincts finally won over and he sighed, placing a hand gently over Akira's fist around the chopstick.

"Here," he offered, holding out his own to the boy. "Watch me." With deliberate slowness, he tucked one against his thumb and slipped his middle finger in between the two. Akira watched with bright eyes as he used his forefinger to push the utensils together, effectively picking up food with them.

"Let me try!" he exclaimed eagerly, diving for his own as Karin chuckled and leaned over to ruffle his hair. His tongue was almost sticking out in his concentration, but he ended up trying to use his two finger to hold one of them stationary. Hitsugaya shook his head and, abandoning his food completely, gently rearranged them for him.

"Now try," he offered kindly, and the cheers from both Kurosaki's were deafening when he succeeded. The little boy beamed in self pride, finally chomping on his food happily, and Hitsugaya returned to his own meal again in satisfaction.

"You're a really good teacher," Karin complimented him later when the two were washing dishes together. Akira was deeply engrossed in his television program, watching one of his cartoons in the living room. Hitsugaya shrugged at the compliment, trying to downplay it. It was his job, after all. But Karin would have none of that, and she nudged his side with her elbow, careful not to let the soapy water on her gloves run down her arm. "Hey, come on. That was pretty good. I never had the patience to teach him, and I bet not just anyone else would, either. You've definitely got a talent."

Toushiro felt heat reach his ears at her words, not used to getting praised so directly. Karin, however, just returned to her dishes while humming a quiet tune. She didn't understand the large impact she could have made. To her, compliments were only facts. She would never say something she didn't truly mean, but she did believe in giving credit where it was due. Toushiro came to acknowledge that while taking in her blithe form from the corner of his eyes, and he offered her a softly mumbled thank you. She just flashed him a grin, switching from humming to whistling as she handed him another plate to dry.

"Okaa-san, is there dessert?" Akira asked in boyish excitement, running into the kitchen when the two had finished. Karin placed her hands on her knees and ducked down closer to his height.

"You bet, sweetheart," she replied cheerfully, cupping his cheek in an affectionate manner and trailing her hand down until it slid off his chin. "I have some ice-cream in the freezer to celebrate you learning something new today."

"Oh, boy!" he exclaimed in return, rushing to the cupboards to grab three bowls, and then to a drawer for three spoons. Hitsugaya was too busy drying his hands off on a towel to notice their tasks, though he was lightly smirking at the cute little exchange he had just overheard. By the time he had turned back to offer his gratitude and a good-bye, he finally noticed the number of bowls.

"No ice-cream for me, thank you," he quickly told them, understanding dawning on him. "I should get going -"

"Too late!" Karin cut across him, even as she was just scooping his dessert out of the ice-cream tub. "I already have some for you here, so now you have to eat it."

He proceeded to decline the treat profusely, holding up a hand and shaking his head. Karin then clucked her tongue in disapproval and came at him with the bowl in her hand, holding out a spoon with ice-cream. He clamped his jaw shut and shook his head almost childishly as she attempted to persuade him to open his mouth, even going as far as to repeatedly press the cold spoon against his pressed lips.

"Come on," she insisted. Lowering her voice, she murmured, "Akira's watching, and I really don't want to teach him to waste." Unable to deny such a sound reason, he finally relented and opened his mouth for her. She laughed brightly as she fed him, leaving the spoon for him to pull out himself while he accepted the rest.

Then, Toushiro did something he had not done since his very early childhood: He sat down on a couch with a bowl of ice-cream in his hand and watched cartoons on television. Karin settled in next to him, cheerfully explaining the characters and plot line she had become acquainted with through Akira's obsession with the show. He actually found himself paying attention to her words, if only not to offend her. It surprised him, because he usually chose not to give so much time just for someone else's sake. He wasn't a rude man, per se, but he firmly disapproved of wasting time and effort on something trivial. Perhaps he felt he owed her for feeding him dinner and showing him such a good time. Yes, that must be it.

Even so, when Hitsugaya finally left the apartment that evening to two cheerful grins and animated waves, he found he had a very good feeling about the Kurosaki family.

Okay, when I first started writing this, I really didn't mean for the beginning to turn out as depressing as it did. Or am I the only one who's getting that vibe? o.O

So, this is just a one-shot right now, but it will eventually become a three-shot that will delve into a romance between Karin and Toushiro. :) I didn't plan on putting it up (I never do, do I? ^^'), but I came back from my prom (at six-thirty in the morning, mind you) and I wanted to share my happiness! I'm marking it complete for now, since it can stand alone. At least, I think it ends on a rather final sounding note. But the next chapter is almost done, and I plan to write only one more after that, so look out for those. :D

So... drop a review? I even spent all this time dolling up my "please" to make it extra pretty for you! ;D