Well, I asked you guys if you wanted me to update this chapter right away, and every single one of you said yes ^_^' So I decided to comply to your wishes and put this up now. We're finally starting with the romance!

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

The dismissal bell rang at Karakura Elementary as yet another school day ended. The little kids all throughout the building cheered and hurriedly packed up, heading out the front doors to enjoy their weekend of freedom after bidding their teachers good-bye. Hitsugaya's class was no different, and even he sighed in relief, nodding to his students stoically as he always did when they waved on their way out. With the approach of the week's end, everyone had been even more antsy than usual today, so two whole days off were greatly welcomed by everyone.

Putting together his own things, Hitsugaya walked out to his now empty classroom, fixing chairs that were askew and picking up stray trash. He also cleaned off the chalkboards and clapped the dust off the erasers, grumbling to himself about the stupidity of not working at a high school, because then he could pass off such work to the students. Once he was satisfied that his classroom was once again in mint condition for the two days it would be empty, he grabbed his bag and slung it over his shoulder, turning off the lights on his way out. When he stepped out the large, double-door entrance, he found an almost empty courtyard. Parents were picking up the remaining kids, and most of the teachers had already taken off as well. As the last of the cars drove off, however, Hitsugaya caught sight of one last person.

It was Kurosaki Akira, standing alone on the sidewalk and tightly clutching the straps of his backpack with both hands as he looked around hopefully. It had been over a week already since he'd had the conference with his mother, and the child was right back to acting detached and quiet in the classroom, in contrast to his persona at home. There had also been no progress between him and the other kids, and Hitsugaya had watched today as he'd cleaned up his area, tucked in his chair politely, and left the classroom solemnly while avoiding his bustling classmates.

The educator raised his eyebrows at the lone figure, unsure of why he still remained on the compound so late. What was he still doing here? Surely his carpool had left already; after all, if it hadn't, there would probably be more children around, waiting to be picked up along with him. Was this some new form of bullying the children had thought up: telling their mother that he was not at school so she would drive off, leaving the poor boy no choice but to walk home alone? Well, if that was the case, as his teacher, he could hardly let that happen. And he was sure Karin would appreciate it if he took the liberty of dropping her son off at home safely, even if they would have to wait for her return from work before he could go into the apartment – meaning he might possibly have to see her again. With that in mind, he trudged over to the boy.

"Akira-kun," he called, halting only steps away from him.

The boy turned and blinked. "Oh, Hitsugaya-sensei," he acknowledged once catching sight of him. Always a proper and polite child, he hurriedly placed his hands on his knees and bowed deeply before straightening back up and clutching his straps again. "Good afternoon, sir," he added respectfully, tearing his gaze away from the streets to face him properly. With his short height, he had to tilt his head back drastically to make eye contact.

"Aren't you heading home now?" his teacher asked curiously, looking out at the roads himself for any signs of a car heading their way. He contemplated calling Karin himself and asking her for input on what she desired he do about the situation. She was sure to know the gentlest way to handle the boy, especially if he had just become a victim to bullying, and he didn't want to accidentally upset either of them. However, Akira shook his head in an answer.

"Okaa-san's coming to pick me up today," he explained, and his eyes brightened instantly at the thought. It was clearly obvious that he was extremely looking forward to seeing his mother so soon, as he kept fidgeting with his hands when his eyes darted around again. Eyeing his teacher's quizzical look, he explained, "She promised to take me to the park."

Hitsugaya raised an eyebrow, thinking back to how she had only just arrived home when he'd dropped Akira off the previous week. That would mean she was still at work most likely, and he wondered whether the child had misunderstood her words. "Doesn't she–"

"Akira!" He was cut off by someone's yell, and Akira grinned widely as he caught sight of his mother walking down the sidewalk alone, waving a hand over her head and beaming. Hitsugaya took notice of her appearance; her hair had been set in a high and stylishly messy ponytail, and the clothes she wore today were a lot more pressed and professional looking than the ones she had been wearing when they first met. She'd probably worn them to work and switched from her nurse scrubs to prepare herself for picking up her son. He couldn't help but think that she looked even more beautiful than he remembered after putting in just the slightest more effort to spruce herself up. As he was lost in his once-over, the younger Kurosaki ran over and threw his arms around her legs. She chuckled and bent down to kiss the top of his head, resting a hand there afterwards.

"How was school?" she asked kindly, her eyes dancing at the sight of her son so happy.

"Great!" he replied with fervor, slipping a hand into hers and pulling her along towards his teacher. She bent down and allowed him to tug on her arm, chuckling at his enthusiasm. Automatically, she also looked up for a brief moment to check that their path was clear, and she caught sight of Hitsugaya watching them carefully.

"Oh, Toushiro," she called, walking over with her son. She looked up at him, giving him a welcoming smile. He returned it with a smirk of his own. "How are you doing?"

"Fine," he answered, nodding in acknowledgment and taking notice of the way she trailed her eyes over his figure. He imagined a brief flash of appreciation in her gaze, and it caused his smirk to become more pronounced. In return, he ventured, "And you? I thought you worked in the afternoons?"

She laughed at his puzzlement, as well as his astute memory. "Yes, but Akira's been asking me to take him to the park for a long time now," she explained. "So in return for working so much last week, I took some time off today so we could go before it gets dark."

He nodded in understanding, gazing down at Akira to see that the boy was grinning at his mother in warm adoration and gratitude. It made him think back to their previous time together, when he'd witnessed the two practically jumping at the chance to do anything that would make the other even the slightest bit happier. Obviously Karin had given up some very valuable time for her son that could have been spent making a living, and he admired how dedicated both of them were to each other. He had never been that close to his own family, and they'd become completely estranged when they turned their noses away at the thought of him abandoning his intelligence to disappear into a mediocre life. He didn't particularly care to reconnect with them either, though, partially because he knew they could never understand his reasons or fears for doing so – nor would they try to. It made him respect families such as the Kurosaki's that much more when he remembered his own twisted relations.

"Well, I hope you have a nice time at the park," he offered, causing Karin to send him a grateful smile. Akira, however, shook his head furiously.

"I want Okaa-san to see our classroom first!" he announced, looking anxious that he might not get his wish. "She didn't get to see it on parent-teacher night," he explained his reasons before swinging towards his teacher with a crestfallen expression. "We can, can't we?"

He couldn't refuse with that look directed at him, especially when Karin was watching him so closely as well, so he nodded slowly. "I would have to come along, though," he added. "Not just anyone is allowed inside after school hours without supervision."

Karin chuckled and punched his arm playfully. "Of course we don't mind having you around, idiot," she told him as her son nodded along. It sparked something warm inside him, but he shook it off as he gestured with a finger that they follow him inside.

Akira was absolutely delighted to show her everything she had missed out on. With his dainty palm firmly grasping her wrist, he pulled her around the classroom, pointing out all of his projects and drawings with a childish excitement he had never exhibited in this classroom before. But Karin was just as enthusiastic to learn as much as she could about her son's school life. She listened with rapt attention as he described their daily classes, laughing at his boyish descriptions or scolding him affectionately when he accidentally revealed a slip up he had made. It was obvious that the young mother did not raise her voice against her son much, if at all, because he would only grin sheepishly when she reprimanded him, almost as if he knew that she never truly meant her words to be harsh.

Hitsugaya simply leaned against the doorway and watched the familial scene, his arms folded and his lips quirked in amusement. It truly was admirable how close the two were. They had obviously been through a lot together, to be able to keep such close ties in every situation. He wondered if he could ever have such a relationship with his own children, if he were to have any in the future.

"Finished!" Akira suddenly declared into the empty room, giggling as he gladly surrendered his hand to his mother's.

"It certainly is clean," Karin noted, placing a thoughtful finger against her chin as she looked around. Her eyes found his, and they softened. "I wouldn't have thought that a second grade classroom would be so tidy."

"That's because I clean it," he answered with a shrug. He was rather anal about things like this, but he would never expect seven-year-olds to follow his sentiments.

"By yourself?" she asked in return, her face falling in concern. It would have seemed like a mother concerned for her child, except he thought she looked too pretty to be directing such a face at him. His face heated up as she shared a look with her son. "Akira..."

"I know," he cried, puffing out his chest proudly. "I'll help you from now on, Hitsugaya-sensei!"

"That's not necessary," he quickly tried to cut in, but they would hear none of it. Finally, he could do nothing but relent, especially considering how pushy the two could be together. At any other time, such insistent, stubborn people would only have irritated him, but he found he was comforted by the promise that he would be seeing the two of them again – and a lot more often.

Hitsugaya showed them out of the school, as was common courtesy. The sun blinded them once they stepped out, and both adults used their hands to cup their eyes. Akira refused to let his mother go, however, even to shield his eyes. Instead, he tugged on her pants to draw her attention.

"Park now?" he asked cutely, tilting his head to the side to shoot her an anxious glance.

"Sure thing, kiddo," she replied with a chuckle, resisting the urge to croon over how adorable her son could be. Doing so in front of a man as straight-laced as Toushiro would only be embarrassing. Even so, she liked having him around for some reason – maybe because his stoic personality sort of soothed her usually hectic one. So before he could escape to his car, she caught his arm and, genuine about her words, offered kindly, "You're welcome to join us if you'd like."

He shook his head hesitantly, unsure whether it would really be a wise decision to mingle with someone from his class after hours. "I don't really–"

"Yeah, Hitsugaya-sensei. Come with us!" Akira piped up brightly, always in agreement with his mother. "It'll be fun!" When his teacher looked like he was about to decline again, his face fell and he looked up through his lashes. "For a little while?" he asked in a very tiny voice that almost made it seem criminal to refuse.

Karin met his gaze, matching his helpless eyes with insistent ones. "Please?" she added also, almost smirking when he frowned at her words, which were the complete opposite of what he had hoped for. Shrugging, she said, "It's not often he asks for something of his own accord, so it would mean so much."

"All right," he finally agreed. "For a while." Hitsugaya sighed, unable to refuse now and appalled that the Kurosaki family had managed to lure him in again. In the span of one week, he'd had dinner with a beautiful woman and her adorable child and would now be going to a playground, neither of which he had ever done since he had first arrived at this town.

"Yeah!" Akira excitedly reached out his other hand and grasped one of his, effectively sandwiching himself between his mother and teacher. Humming, he pulled the two along with him down the path. They relented easily, following him in the direction of the park, though Hitsugaya knew he would have to walk all the way back later for his car.

With a slight blush, he realized they probably looked like a family, a mirror image of a father and mother holding their son's hand as they had an outing together. They looked like a happy family, he added in his mind, watching Karin and Akira chatter animatedly and laugh. He wondered whether he would ever truly have that one day, but shoved that whim aside for more prominent thoughts.

Now that he had taken a closer look at both of his companions, he began to note the similarities and differences between them. At first glance, no one could deny that Akira looked like his mother, sharing her black hair and gray eyes. But on closer inspection, those were all the traits they shared. Akira's face was rounder, smaller, and his figure was stockier. Those were probably traits he shared with his father.

And for the second time in a week, Hitsugaya couldn't help but wonder exactly why Kurosaki Karin did not have a husband.

Could it have been death? Had her lover been ripped away from her cruelly? But when he'd been in her apartment, he'd seen no pictures of any such husband, or any mementos to show that she had ever loved a man. It had only been pictures of her and Akira, and one lone picture of people she'd introduced as her family. So his mind jumped to divorce. Had she fallen out of love with her husband? Had he been horrible to her? Had he disapproved of Akira? There were just too many possibilities for him to draw an accurate conclusion, and so Hitsugaya was only left to wonder.

But he didn't have a right, he mused in self-disapproval. This was none of his business, and it would be in his best interest as the boy's teacher to stay out of his personal life. Well, as far away as he could get with the child dragging him to the park with him and his mother.

Even so, he tried to detach himself slightly as they reached the park. Akira let go of their hands abruptly, dropped his backpack, and ran straight for the playground, which was deserted, as other kids were most likely just getting home. Karin laughed as he started swinging across the monkey bars expertly, reaching down to grab his carelessly discarded bag. It was a special treat for both of them to spend time together outdoors like this, what with her hectic work schedule, and she adored seeing her son glow so brightly from his excitement.

Shaking her head at his enthusiasm, she finally spared a glance to the man standing stiffly beside her. "Should we sit?" she suggested, gesturing to a nearby bench by nodding over to it. He led the way, keeping a wary eye on Akira to make sure he would not fall. She noticed this small action and couldn't help but feel strangely happy about his concern.

The two lapsed into a comfortable silence, enjoying the cool breeze of the afternoon and the quiet atmosphere. Karin took the opportunity to gaze at Hitsugaya from the corner of her eyes, so sly that he hadn't noticed. His eyes remained glued on her son, though she noticed that his eyebrows were furrowed deeply, as if his thoughts had turned to something troubling. But they were like that a lot.

He really was attractive, she mused, as far as men went. Thinking back, she was sure she remembered many of the mothers squealing over a particularly handsome man when they dropped off Akira every afternoon; it had just never clicked that he was possibly her own son's teacher. But she could finally agree with their notions, especially when she was so close to his gorgeous eyes and unique hair. The last time she had ever found a man so appealing had been Akira's father.

A pang shot through her heart at the sudden thought, and she lurched in her seat. Even after all these years, it was still painful to think about. She'd thought he was the man of her dreams, after all, and that they would be together forever. How things had become so twisted was incomprehensible, and all she knew was that she was exceedingly grateful to have her son in her life.

"Karin," Toushiro suddenly called out to her, and when she flickered her eyes to his face, he looked extremely concerned. "Are you all right? You suddenly turned so pale."

"Fine," she brushed it off easily, though her heart still hammered in her chest. Her gaze whipped to her son, and she excused herself. "Just...worried about Akira."

"I don't think a swing is a particularly lethal weapon," he joked, hoping to lift her spirits. Such a somber face did not suit her, and though he was not one to offer comfort, he was willing to play as small a part as he could to return that smile to her face. Never mind that he was certainly becoming as attached as he had just vowed he would not become with the Kurosaki family; he was simply a friend helping another friend. Karin, at least, laughed finally, and he felt strangely proud of himself.

"And he's always been a careful one," she added, beaming over to her child with an affection only a mother could foster.

"If only all children could be like that," he sighed, shaking his head. Karin elbowed him in the side with a smirk, and they shared a smile. But the light atmosphere was shattered only a moment later.

A group of kids passed by the playground. The pack consisted of young boys, all of them laughing loudly and enjoying their time together. They roughhoused with one another and cracked jokes as they passed by, already making the most of their weekend. Most of them looked young enough to be Akira's age, so they probably lived in the neighborhood.

None of them spared a glance at Akira as they passed, and in turn, he acted as if they were never there.

Both Karin and Toushiro fell silent simultaneously, watching the scene with conflicting emotions. These were children that the boy should have been spending his time with, yet they were so far from becoming a part of his world that neither even acknowledged the other's presence. Akira looked so alone all of a sudden, entertaining himself in a place that should have been brimmed with friends his age. Even if he paid it no mind himself, Karin pursed her lips into a tight line.

"You don't have to say anything, Toushiro," she suddenly spoke up as he opened his mouth to offer words of attempted comfort or assurance. "I've known for a long time now."

"What?" he asked cautiously, keenly aware that of they were not on the same page, he could end up offending her unknowingly.

"I know Akira doesn't exactly get along with kids his age," she admitted, smiling sadly over to him. "It's not that hard to figure out; he never brings home any friends, and he never goes to anyone's house. He just stays with his books." Her eyebrows puckered, letting a hint of her anxiety show through. "I wish there was somewhere better he could be, somewhere more fitting for a seven-year-old kid to hang around than our apartment, but..."

She trailed off and gazed into the distance, lost in her brooding. At the swing set, Akira shrieked loudly in glee as he swung himself higher and higher, unaware of his mother's turmoil. Finally, Hitsugaya sighed, deciding that now was as good a time as any to bring up an important subject they had only broached once before.

"You're right," he admitted slowly, calling her attention. "I've noticed, too. And it's a shame; he's a good kid."

She grinned at him, slightly less upset at hearing the compliment. "Thanks. I'm glad someone else sees it, too."

"This..." He tried to approach the situation delicately, hesitant because there was a chance any small matter could upset her when the topic concerned her son. "This might have something to do with his intelligence. Remember I mentioned his skipping a grade?" She raised her eyebrows, conveying polite confusion, and he licked his lips. "Often times, children are easily overcome with jealousy, especially with school-related matters," he explained carefully. He should know; he'd experienced it first-hand all throughout his school life, marking him as an outcast among his peers. "'Why can't I have good grades like him? Why do I have to work hard while he can do all this so easily? He must be cheating.' They are all things that can lead to bullying."

Her eyes flashed in rage at the message buried under his words. "You're saying the kids are picking on my son because he's smart?" she hissed, her teeth clenched. "How can he help that?"

He hesitated before patting her arm. "He can't," he replied softly, attempting to comfort her. "None of this is his fault, after all. But children can't see that."

She breathed deeply through her nose, still outraged by the thought of her son being ridiculed for something he should be praised for. She'd never had this problem herself. Yes, her grades in school had been exceptional enough, but she'd lived a fairly normal, decent life, and making friends had never been so difficult when she grew up with the same kids from her neighborhood for her entire life. It angered her to know that she could never completely comprehend what her son was going through, but she also realized that blowing a fuse would never help him. Still breathing deeply, she willed herself to calm down.

"So how does skipping a grade help him?" she asked softly, closing her eyes.

"If he could be challenged," he explained, wary of her mood but impressed nonetheless that she had managed to keep her emotions at bay for now. "If he could be given work that even he has to pause and think about, or that he might not complete so easily, that would eliminate the need for jealousy, and the kids might view him as their equal."

She bit her lip, understanding the basis behind the plan. But Akira's comfort was always the first thought in her mind, and skipping a grade brought on just as many problems as it solved. "But...the age difference," she voiced to him. "He'd be younger than all the other kids."

"It wouldn't be too much of a difference," he assured her, feeling encouraged when he noticed that he was succeeding in swaying her decisions. "Just one year. He's already quite mature for his age, so I don't think he would have too much trouble fitting in with older children." He paused to think of anything else he could say to placate her. "Actually," he suddenly remembered, catching her attention, "there is already a child in our school who's skipped a grade."

"Really?" she asked, perking up. "And how's he holding up?"

"All right," Hitsugaya replied, shrugging. "I've never known him personally. He was a third grader who was sent to fourth grade last year, so he's a couple of years older than Akira. But boys around this age are normally of the same maturity, so I don't think there's much difference. From what I've heard, he's doing pretty well." He met her hopeful gaze. "I could arrange a meeting with him and his parents for you, if you'd like. I'm sure they could answer questions for you about this."

She let out a shaky laugh. "I'll think about it," she told him, pursing her lips. "After all, this is just as much Akira's decision as it is mine. I don't want to go and make all sorts of plans before consulting him first."

"Fair enough." He leaned back into the bench, strangely satisfied after successfully appeasing her anger and worries. "Please, take your time and think it over. It's never a good idea to rush into these thing anyway."

She smiled gratefully, and the gesture was one of the softest expressions he had seen on her face yet. "Thanks, Toushiro. If..." She suddenly turned hesitant, unsure of whether she should continue. He immediately straightened and looked at her directly, silently urging her to continue. "When we talk about this," she tried again, "do you think you could be there with us?"

She couldn't meet his surprised eyes. He hadn't been expecting that. She wanted him to be a part of the decision? They hardly knew each other, and yet she seemed to want to include him in her son's life. There was no logic in that.

"To answer questions," she went on hurriedly when he was silent. "I don't think I could be the best to help him with this since I know nothing about it." She bit her lip and added, looking hopeful, "It would mean a lot. I just want the best for my son."

He sighed, hardly able to deny her when she had her son's best interest in mind. "If you really think my presence will be helpful," he relented, and she beamed at him gratefully. He returned it with his own, unsure smile, which was obviously poorly used but quite becoming on him anyway.

"Okaa-san!" Akira suddenly called from the swings, drawing both of their attention. He gleefully waved at her, pumping his legs to fly higher, and looked as elated as if he were really flying. "Come join me, Okaa-san!"

Karin laughed at his enthusiasm. "Sure!" she agreed cheerfully, already scrambling up to comply with his wishes. As she set his bag down on the bench carefully, she caught sight of Toushiro's amused gaze and couldn't help but laugh again. "You wanna come, too?" she asked teasingly, already aware of what his answer would be.

He blanched. "No, thank you."

With a smirk, she nodded. "I had a feeling you'd refuse." She settled her hands on her hips and looked down on him as she met his gaze straight on, almost as if she was about to scold him as she would a misbehaving child. But suddenly, her face fell a bit, and her eyes clouded over.

"Actually, Toushiro," she said softly, so low that he almost didn't hear, "I think I'd only feel edgy if Akira was to skip a grade. Even after we've just talked about it and you promised to be there, it seems like everything would be so different. New class, new students, new curriculum, and most importantly...new teacher." She smiled at him shyly. "You know, the only way I'm at ease with Akira being in school all alone without friends is because I know you're there to watch over him. It might sound crazy since we've only known each other personally a week, but I've heard wonderful things about you from all the mothers, and I know I can count on you." Her voice dropped to a low whisper. "I trust you, Toushiro."

And then, with a meaningful glance in his direction, she ran off to play with the delighted Akira. He was left to only gape after her, strangely warm in the cheeks.

.. ღ ..

He should have known that, after all the times they had lured him in already, the Kurosaki family would find another way to rope him into an evening together. This time, they took advantage of his generosity when he offered to drive them home, and once they had reached the desolate apartment, both of them insisted relentlessly that they wanted to invite him in and return the kindness. Truthfully, he complied much easily than the last time, though he played an act of frustration perfectly.

He kept his eyes glued on Karin a majority of the time, trying to gauge any sort of change in her character after the intimate declaration she had made at the playground. But he noticed nothing, much to his curious disappointment. Her smiles were just as wide and her concern for her son equally spectacular to the usual. She would punch his arm playfully or tease him during their banter, and he was left with no choice but to think that he had blown everything out of proportion. Because Hitsugaya was so used to women averting their gazes from his in flustered embarrassment, he failed to realize it was completely uncharacteristic of Karin, who had yet to look him straight in the eye since they had left the park.

Once again, the three shared a dinner from the restaurant down the street. He endured a second look of warning from the same delivery boy, whose eyes screamed for murder after finding him inside the Kurosaki apartment twice. Akira proudly showed off his skills with the chopsticks, and Karin stifled a laugh against the palm of her hand.

"He's been practicing every day," she informed him with a hush in his ears, and they shared a private smile. "You're a good influence on him."

Oddly enough, Akira bounced off to bed not long after, yawning widely and rubbing at his sleepy eyes. Toushiro found his drowsiness strange considering it was still early in the night, but Karin shrugged it off.

"He's always been more of an old man than a seven-year-old," she joked with a chuckle once she had returned from tucking him in. She began to pick up their stray trash from the table, declining his offer of assistance as she headed to the kitchen. "He always sleeps early and wakes up early," she called from there, and he heard the clinking of dishes.

Overlooking her past protests to his help, he wandered into the kitchen himself. It seemed she had mostly finished cleaning up already, though, but he enjoyed watching her bounce from cabinet to cabinet with so much liveliness to spare as she put the last of the dishes away. Right away he noticed that she wasn't humming as she usually seemed to do, and to his surprise, he found that he greatly missed the sound. She may not have had the most perfect vocal cords, but he still thought it was pleasant to listen to. No one before her – not even his own mother – had sparked such warmth in him before.

"Would you like a drink before you go?" Karin suggested once she noticed him standing in the doorway, completely unaware of his softening character. Standing on the tips of her toes, she reached for the very top shelf of a cabinet and pulled out a bottle of what looked like wine. Noticing his raised eyebrows, she was quick to blush and defend herself. "I don't drink in front of Akira, of course! And I keep it safe and far away from him at all times. I just have some in case I ever have people over."

"I'm not blaming you for anything," he pointed out, trying hard to hide a smile. "I didn't even say anything."

She huffed, trying to conceal a smile herself but failing.

"But I have to decline," he carried on. "I have to drive home, remember?"

She shrugged and gave a soft, tinkling laugh. "Well, then, I'll have wine and you can have some of Akira's apple juice."

They both knew she was only teasing, yet that was exactly what they ended up doing. Filling their glasses with ice and a drink, they took their previous places on the couch and she dimmed the lights so as not to disturb her slumbering son. She tucked her feet under her legs like the first time they met and clinked her wine glass against his filled with apple juice. After taking a small sip, she smacked her lips and sighed contently.

"I haven't had wine in so long," she breathed. He arched an eyebrow, and she smirked and said pointedly, "Contrary to popular belief, not all single mothers are alcoholic slobs, you know. I take pride in being sober for Akira when he needs me."

"That's admirable," he complimented her, and his voice was kinder than she was used to. "I wouldn't have expected anything different of you."

They settled back on the couch, and the atmosphere surrounding them was one of the lightest Toushiro had experienced with another person. Normally, he kept himself on guard, afraid to reveal too much of himself or even become attached to another. Only a handful had ever occupied a piece of his heart, but even they had drifted away during his years of desired solitude. But Karin fell into a defenseless lull so easily, completely open to him and anything he might have to offer; she was welcoming, with nothing to hide. With her laid-back attitude, it was difficult not to succumb and follow her lead.

"You know," she suddenly piped up, a soft smile on her face as she gazed up at him, "I think this is the first time I've ever had a man over in this apartment. There was just never any time to think of things like that, especially with Akira in the house."

"I'm sure Akira wouldn't mind if it made you happy," he pointed out, keeping his voice light and careful even as his chest twinged at the thought. Treading too far into such a topic was dangerous, after all, especially with the mother of his student.

"I'm sure you're right," she agreed with a shrug, settling back in her seat. "But I need to be sure he would be someone who makes Akira happy." She flashed him an encouraging smile. "Someone he would talk about as happily as he talks about you."

He fidgeted in his seat, suddenly uncomfortable in the previously welcoming living room. He didn't like the turn this conversation seemed to be taking. What had started out as a simple communion had turned into something more intimate with just a few words, and he was wary of proceeding in any such direction – especially if the atmosphere was so touchy and prone to change.

It would not be appropriate, he had to constantly remind himself. She's my student's mother.

"So what about you?" she suddenly asked, placing her chin on her fist and leaning towards him expectantly. "You don't have a special lady, do you? You probably wouldn't have stayed for dinner twice otherwise."

"No," he replied stiffly, taking a long sip of his apple juice. "No such person right now."

"I don't blame you." She made a face down at her wine. "Some of the women around here are as drab as a dish towel. All they like to talk about is clothes and housework...and men," she added as an afterthought. "They're always talking about men. You've come up a few times, you know," she informed him with a suggestive wink.

He was not fazed by her teasing, however, because he was well aware about how much the women liked to talk about him. He was someone different than he was used to; all the men around here had grown up in the same area, so many of them had similar traits and habits. He had moved here from somewhere far away, however, so he was foreign, and that made him interesting in their books.

"Don't worry, though," Karin hurried on, taking his silence as a bad sign. "It's always good things, like how you're a good teacher." She batted her eyelashes at him exaggeratedly. "Or how you're so yummy-licious."

He narrowed his eyes. "They don't say that. You just made that up," he accused her.

"Guilty," she admitted with a snicker. "But seriously, I wouldn't put it past some of them to actually say something like that."

When she did things like that – making jokes so easily and acting as if they had been friends forever – it was too easy to let his guard down around her. He felt himself being pulled into a lull of security and peace, and her living room suddenly seemed like an oasis – a place where he could stay by her side. Those were dangerous thoughts, but in her bubbly presence, they seemed impossible to keep away.

She was so bright and sunny, the complete opposite of him. She liked constant noise like her humming or whistling, and though he usually valued silence over any sound, her voice was the warmest he had ever heard. She acted like a child while he maintained an air of dignity, but her juvenile antics always kept him so captivated because he had never met anyone like her. Their everlasting list of differences should have pulled them apart, and yet those foils drew him towards her even more strongly. He couldn't allow himself to let this continue.

She's my student's mother, he reminded himself feverishly, trying to banish any lasting interest. It would not be appropriate.

.. ღ ..

They ended up kissing on her couch.

He wasn't quite sure just how something so intimate had suddenly happened, or even who initiated it. He would have liked to believe it was her, because then they could blame the alcohol, but somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he knew there was no viable excuse out there to explain what they were doing. Because he was responding back, rather eagerly, and the apple juice he'd abandoned on the coffee table in favor of holding her hips could never have prompted such an action from anybody.

He had her pinned to the side of her couch, and she was desperately trying to claw him closer with each passing second. Locked in this moment with her, he could finally admit to himself that he found her to be especially attractive. And he was almost completely confident in stating that she seemed to have a desire for him, too. Their relationship had just never been orthodox.

Hell, their relationship should have never even come about! They'd met completely by chance – and a last minute emergency from a patient who would never know the chain reaction his injury had caused. What should have been an insignificant, brief meeting became a blossoming relationship between them, even in the time span of one week. And suddenly being thrust into each other's lives had probably ignited the tension between them on high, resulting in this abrupt and less than ideal release of hormones being the only outlet. Even as he held a beautiful woman and attacked her lips, Hitsugaya wondered if this would ever have happened if she'd just come to that damn parent-teacher meeting.

"Wait, wait," Karin suddenly gasped against his mouth, pulling her face away. He raised an eyebrow, almost surprised that the more headstrong of the two of them had come to her senses first, but certainly complied to her wishes. She panted slightly before shaking her head. "This isn't right."

"You're right," he agreed hesitantly, shifting away from her. She unwrapped her arms from around his torso, and they separated, each fixing their own clothing hastily. He focused on his tie, diligently looking away from her as he attempted to rearrange his thoughts on what had just occurred between them. Karin broke the silence first, and he looked over to her quizzically at the weak chuckle.

"Oh, Kami," she rasped, running a hand through her tousled hair roughly. "What were we about to do?" There was an uncomfortable silence that ensued as he tried to think of a proper reply, and then he finally shrugged.

"Let our emotions get the best of us," was his stoic reply, and she bobbed her head in agreement, still not completely collected again. Hesitantly, he placed a gentle hand on her arm, trying to appease her when she gazed at him with wide eyes. "For what it's worth," he murmured, "though I know I should feel regret for what just happened, I don't think I do."

She breathed out deeply, and the sound was strangely relieved. "I don't think I do, either," she replied weakly, quirking her lips into a small smile. He returned it easily after hearing her reply. Though he had long since passed the school boy faze of feeling his heart beat uncontrollably near a woman he liked, he couldn't deny that something sparked in him just then, as it had been doing quite frequently since he met her.

"So," she continued, drawing out the word, "where do we go from here?" She placed her hands on her knees and stretched her legs out in front of the couch. Another quiet moment passed as he pondered over her question, knowing that things couldn't just return to the way they had been before.

But, damn it, screw decorum. He didn't want to push her away after the explosion that had just happened between them. He had never been the type to soil a woman and run, especially one he found as alluring as he did Karin. A voice in the back of his head urged him to forget for a moment that she was the mother of one of his students. It coaxed him into viewing her as just another person, and the person he was seeing was too appealing to cut ties with.

"Well," he began slowly, a hand on his chin, "if you'll permit it, I would like to do things the right way." Intrigued, she raised her eyebrows curiously, and he felt himself actually turn bashful under her scrutiny. "A date," he elaborated, almost in horror from the uncomfortable situation. It had been a long time since he had asked out a woman, after all.

Karin, however, simply beamed at him. "That sounds good," she agreed cheerfully. "Though you'll have to be patient with me. It's been a while since I've gone on a date." Such opportunities were rare when she was so devoted to her son.

"Me, too," he assured her. No women had really caught his eyes since he'd moved to this small town. He'd always thought that all of them were the same: gossiping, shameless women who cared for nothing more than his exotic looks and finding a man who would take care of them. But Karin had been managing so well on her own, even with a son in tow. He admired that independence of hers, which was so different than what he was used to dealing with.

After their little outburst of emotions, both decided it would be a good idea for Hitsugaya to finally head back home. Karin walked him to the door, significantly less awkward now that they had decided to properly deal with what had happened spur of the moment.

"Tomorrow night?" he suggested. He was already free of school, and she would have no work the next morning.

"Sure," she agreed easily, flashing him a carefree smile. "But don't expect anything good from me at the end, like what just happened. It's only the first date, and I'm not that kind of girl." Unable to resist teasing him, she leaned in and grinned slyly. "We don't need another Akira running around anytime soon."

He practically choked on her words, and he could hear her booming laugh even as he stumbled away down the hall.

.. ღ ..

Akira watched the exchange quietly from his room, peeking through a crack in the door. His mother thought he was already asleep, but the truth was he'd faked his drowsiness to give the two time alone together. Since then, he'd been observing them anxiously from the dark hallway, hoping for the outcome he had been planning since the very beginning.

When he'd finally deemed it safe to crawl out of bed and peer into the living room, he'd spotted the two on the couch. Strangely enough, they'd been red in the face and panting heavily, though he couldn't fathom why. But such matters were trivial considering the events that followed.

His teacher had asked his mother on a date. Through his passion for books, Akira had read all about dates; apparently, they were a time for two people in love to be alone together and build on their relationship. His mother had never let him read anything that went into further detail about these so-called dates – once again, he didn't understand why – but he understood the basic gist of them.

Obviously, Okaa-san and Hitsugaya-sensei had already fallen deeply in love.

He proudly watched as his mother shut the door after his teacher, and he couldn't help but grin when she leaned against it, grinning giddily and trying to catch her breath. Her cheeks were flushed much like a young girl with a crush. Akira had never seen her this way before, but there was no doubt in his mind that she deserved this happiness more than anyone else in the world.

Content with his meddling and the desired results that had come about, Akira skipped off to bed. By now he really was sleepy, as it was quite late in the night. Tucking himself under the covers, just like his mother did for him every night, and snuggling against the pillow, he fell asleep to an exceedingly comforting thought.

Hitsugaya-sensei will make a good Otou-san.

So, wow, the response I received for this story was phenomenal! I think this is the first time I've gotten so many reviews for the first chapter of a story :D And I'd like to know what I'm doing right, so my future works will be just as interesting to you. So to those of you who are going to review (which should be all of you, but we all know that's not going to happen :P), I'd like to know what you like about this story. Was it just the plot? The pacing? The writing style? The character interactions? I'd really appreciate it if you let me know! :)

I am finally free for the summer! I graduated this morning (this is me while I walked: "Don't trip. Don't trip. Do not trip"), so now I have three months of freedom before university in which to write :D