I am ecstatic!

The two latest Bleach chapters had me squealing! To anyone who hasn't read 459 and 460 yet, do yourselves a favour and go read them now. Yes, right now. Scurry along.

A word of warning: This one-shot of mine, inspired by Chapter 460, has some spoilers in it. It doesn't give away too much of the manga plot since I go off on a tangent anyway, but if you're the type who hates spoilers, I recommend that you go read the manga quickly and then come back to read this.

Credit goes to ToshiroLover1991. We were discussing the newest Bleach chapter and ideas sprang to life. She also did a rush job of beta-ing this lovely one-shot in record time and also, as a totally new cool and spiffy feature, added the awesome dashed 'o's in for me! You rock K! Go check out her DeviantArt account guys; she's getting really handy with digital editing programs.

Now, enjoy!

Title: The Staircase not Taken

Author: MeteorLeopard (HoneyBadger)


Curse the lack of stairs!

Karin fumed silently as she stood at the edge of a huge pile of rubble, the pieces and chunks still vaguely resembling banisters or the occasional hunk of right-angled step. From somewhere upstairs, she could hear the shouts and yells, the clashing of steel and the roar of battle. She gritted her teeth as she remembered the haunted look on her brother's face as he fled the room where they'd all planned a surprise party for him earlier. He'd run upstairs, Ginjo following after him a moment later. Tsukishima had also vanished.

Stupid men and teenage boys. All the same; acting without thinking first. And then, to top it all off, Ginjo had destroyed the stairs; the only way for Karin to get to her brother and find out why he was acting so strange.

Just peachy. Exactly how she'd wanted to spend her afternoon: almost crushed by an avalanche of chunky staircase.

Another blast of energy shook the room, the shockwaves from whatever explosion had taken place up there strong enough to make the floor beneath Karin's feet vibrate.

"Sheesh," Tatsuki muttered from beside the younger girl, her arms crossed. "What the hell is that Ichigo doing?"

"Do you think he's finally lost it?" Keigo asked, a hint of uncertainty in his voice, "I mean, he's been down and out of it for almost two years now. Pretty much since-"

"Yeah, we get it," Karin interrupted, scowling at the older boy hard enough to make him flinch away. Nobody insulted her brother; not in this manner. "Ichi-nii's not crazy," she said, hardening every syllable with her resolve in that statement. Her brother was many things, but never crazy. He'd toughed things out before and made crazy decisions, but he hadn't lost his mind. He'd never lost his mind. If anything, Ichi-nii was confused. Why had he attacked Tsukishima like that?

Another explosion erupted upstairs and a wafting air current of fresh dust swept down into the hall, making Yuzu and Keigo choke and cough. Karin narrowed her eyes, pressing her lips more tightly together.

"Forget this," she muttered softly. Turning on her heel, she stomped down the passage.

From behind her, she heard Yuzu calling after her once the dust cleared. "Karin-chan! Where are you going? Karin-chan!"

She didn't bother to answer her twin as she stalked into a nearby hall, following the passage. If this staircase was destroyed she'd just have to use another one. And if there wasn't another one then she'd find a rope and climb upstairs if she had to. Karin hated feeling confused about anything. She liked her world in black and white, simple terms and clear lines. This muddled perspective of hers was making her irritable. Why was Ichi-nii acting so strangely? Why would he want to hurt Tsukishima? It didn't make sense. Tsukishima was a good guy. He'd come over a few times already since both her and Yuzu had been small. He'd given Yuzu her strawberry hairclips once to remind her of her big brother and how much Ichi-nii loved her. Karin remembered how Tsukishima had helped her to win a soccer match against a couple of bullies once who'd wanted to take the whole field…

She stopped herself as she entered a room, standing in the center of it. From up above she could hear more shouts. She was right below the fight.

Tōshirō had helped her with that soccer match, not Tsukishima. Tōshirō had been the one playing on her team… Why was Tsukishima in there? Had Tsukishima just been standing on the sidelines then? No… Her soccer team had a total of five players and Tōshirō had substituted for one of her friends. That had left three of her guy friends, Tōshirō and lastly her, giving them a team of five in total. Tsukishima couldn't have been playing. Yet she remembered that he had. Had he substituted for someone too?

…Or had he even been there at all?

Of course he'd been there, stupid Karin. But why was she doubting herself now? Was Ichi-nii really crazy? Or was Tsukishima really a lying bastard like Ichi-nii said he was?

She huffed in annoyance as she tried to force her memory to clear. Why couldn't she get her own facts straight? It wasn't rocket science!

Upstairs, another blast of energy sounded and then, suddenly, the ceiling collapsed.


When he'd first crossed blades with the people holding the odd 'Fullbring' powers, he hadn't anticipated them to be so volatile. One blow from the woman with the high boots told him that he had to be more cautious with his attacks and movements. He'd driven her back after that, swinging in calculated motions after finding her weak spot and finally gaining the advantage. It hadn't been hard. Around him, Tōshirō caught glimpses of his other team mates pushing their opponents back too. Were these 'Fullbring' powers really that dangerous? Or was there something that he didn't know?

The blow to the back of his head was swift and unpredicted and sent him crashing from the air on which he stood, straight downwards. There was no sufficient time to correct his path or even slow down; he plummeted and smashed through the floor, falling and finally landing in a heap on the floor amongst the concrete, stone and wooden floorboards that rained down after him. A stone smacked him on the head. "Shit."

Another presence in the room decided to make itself known then. "Midget!" she exclaimed. "You've grown!"

It took only a moment for his mind to catch up with the situation and recognize to whom the voice belonged. He gritted his teeth as he shoved a stray floorboard from his chest and scrambled to his feet. Of course he'd have to meet her again right now at the most inconvenient of times and inappropriate places… Also his dramatic entry had left something to be desired. Subtly, he tried to remove as much of the dust from his uniform as possible. Then, turning his head only slightly towards her so as to appear only somewhat interested in the fact that it was her in particular standing behind him, he gave her his best scowl. "Shut up, Kurosaki."

Karin huffed, as he'd expected, and crossed her arms, returning his frown. He idly noted, despite himself, that she'd grown over the past months. Grown up, actually. She was bordering on becoming a teenager. The look on her face was the same however and he still saw the same tomboy from before. Knowing that she hadn't changed much despite almost two years having passed since their last meeting made him feel relieved. But of course, her very first words toward him should have let him know that much. Even after all this time, she was still making fun of his height and young appearance. He turned to face her fully, intending to give her a lecture on proper respect.

Karin made her way over to him then, picking her way through the dusty and grimy room. The overhead light bulb had been destroyed when Tōshirō fell through the ceiling, leaving the room dim and murky yet with enough light from the overhead hole to see. In the shadows that were thrown on his face, Karin could tell that he'd grown. Did souls even change their appearances over time? Apparently so since Tōshirō had obviously had a growth spurt since the last time that she'd seen him. That and he'd changed his hair. "You know," she began as she came to a stop a little way away from him, "It's kind of confusing when you call both Ichi-nii and me by the same name. If you're too stiff to call me by my first name, why don't you try adding an honorific?"

Tōshirō pulled a face at her suggestion and Karin briefly wondered what had been so distasteful about what she'd suggested.

"I'm not calling you 'Kurosaki-kun'," he muttered. "Inoue calls your brother that and I know I can't stomach an imitation of her happy tone."

Karin raised her eyebrow and shrugged. "Fair enough."

Tōshirō hoped that she would drop the subject for the time being and move on to another topic. To be perfectly honest with himself, he wasn't sure what to refer to her as either. He didn't know her that well – he'd only met her twice – but each time when he did see her they managed to get on well. Kurosaki-chan sounded… odd. It didn't feel right. It didn't suit her, yet that left him with only a few alternatives of variants on her surname, forcing him to move on to her first name, which was far too intimate and suggested a level of understanding that he hadn't had with anyone in far too long.

A rumble from upstairs got their attention again, reminding them that the fight still continued. Tōshirō glanced up. He should probably get back to the fight…

"Oi, Tōshirō," Karin asked, her eyes also on the Toushirou-shaped hole in the ceiling. "What's going on up there?"

He waited a moment before replying, making a quick decision that the others could do without him for a minute. "A fight."

Karin merely rolled her eyes and sent him a withering glance. "No shit, Sherlock."

He frowned at her, irritated. He remembered her using a similar expression on him once before in the World of the Living in passing and upon him asking who or what in the world 'Sherlock' was, she'd merely laughed at him. He kept his mouth firmly shut now, resolving to instead ask someone else later who wouldn't deliver a blow to his pride.

Karin snickered at his expression, only serving to annoy him further and prompting Tōshirō to take a deep, calming breath.

"I need a bit more information than that I'm afraid," she needled. "My brain is going haywire with two different opinions and I wanna know what's happening." She turned her head away, the frown on her forehead deepening still further as her dark eyes grew distant and clouded. "It's horrible when you start to doubt your own brother."

Upstairs, a smashing sound, followed by the jingle of tinkling glass, stirred in the background.

He listened to her soft, almost whispered words and gave Karin a long, hard look, remaining silent as his eyes bored through her. He saw her shift a little under his scrutiny and unconsciously her arms tightened over her ribcage where she'd folded them again. Her face was defiant and proud, as he'd come to expect from her, but her eyes betrayed just a hint of her fear and uncertainty. His quick mind came to the most logical and horrible conclusion and his lips thinned into a line.

Tsukishima's ability was truly despicable, bordering on Aizen's ability to cause complete deception of the senses. Tsukishima's power was, in a few words, able to deceive the mind and memory. And now this young girl – Karin – was under that power. A bitter anger rose up in Toushirou's stomach as the two cases of Aizen and Tsukishima connected in his mind. He regarded Karin again; trying to be strong and brave yet suffering from that lie that Tsukishima had implanted in her head.

Tōshirō found his voice. Fisting his hands, he made sure to glare at the wall behind Karin instead of her directly. "I see. So you were stabbed."

Karin's eyes sparked then and she trained them on him intensely, making his skin crawl. "And once again you know more than me. What's going on, Tōshirō?"

He deliberated with himself as he held her gaze. He knew that look in her eyes very well. He'd felt the desire – the utter need – to take action and simply do something about a situation before. He himself had felt helpless to help a person dear to him in the past and now Karin was in the same position. It was almost worse in a way. Who knew what Tsukishima had inscribed upon Karin's mind? All that Karin knew to be true was that two very important people in her life – Tsukishima and her brother – were fighting over something that she didn't know. That sensation of being left in the dark would be near suffocating for her by now.

He sighed as he briefly closed his eyes, breaking the eye contact first. She'd hate him for this. "Sorry. This is classified information and I am not in any position to share-"

The flash of steel in her dark eyes should have warned him of the danger, yet he recognized it a vital moment too late.

"Oh no, you don't," Karin snapped as she surged forward and grabbed a fistful of his uniform. The sharp yank that it took for him to come, quite literally, face-to-face with her made his neck snap in an uncomfortable way. The pain however was quickly forgotten when he realized that his nose was practically brushing Karin's. His breath hitched.

Karin narrowed her eyes, looking positively ferocious as she drew her lips back over her teeth, nearly snarling at him. She twisted the hand that was fisted tightly in his uniform top, jostling him a little. "No, Tōshirō, no. Not now. Don't you dareuse the classified-information excuse crap on me." Her voice was carefully, unnervingly controlled, though it was rising with each syllable that she spoke. He kept his own mouth firmly closed; he was much too close to Karin to even shift the slightest bit without brushing her smaller, hotter body. He could barely breathe.

"Just because you stole Byakuya's scarf and holier-than-thou look," she ranted, "doesn't mean that you can start treating me differently! And need I remind you that you shared 'classified' information with me twice before?"

Tōshirō uttered a quiet curse. He was toeing a thin line right now and Karin's excruciating closeness was not helping him at all. The hard set of her jaw left him with no doubt that she was determined to get the information from him and he found his traitorous tongue moving to give it to her. He restrained himself though. She was right; he'd told her military facts and secrets twice before that a normal human or anyone outside of the Shinigami should even know, yet he'd told her nonetheless. She'd always managed to silently compel him to please her. Now was no different and he bit the inside of his lip to steel himself. "I was out of line," he began, trying to speak while exhaling the smallest amount of air possible. Unfortunately it resulted in his voice sounding breathy and he forced more volume into his tone. "Now let go of me, Kurosaki."

Karin was about ready to kill him, he knew that, yet he couldn't tell her. He couldn't. He wasn't allowed to. 'But,' a little traitorous voice in the back of his mind whispered enticingly, 'if she pulls you any closer you just might.'

He flushed at that thought and was grateful that the room was so dark. Karin growled through her gnashed teeth. "I need to know what's wrong in my head. Tell me, Tōshirō, or I swear I'll change your name to 'midget'."

Dammit, did that girl come with the innate ability of knowing exactly what would set him off? With great difficulty, he restrained himself from shoving her into the nearest pile of rubble and drew a long, rattling breath. "I am… not a midget."

Karin saw her chance in his temper and pushed her advantage, hitting her words in deep with a stinging, innocent air. "You're right," she told him quietly, fiddling with his uniform in her hand. "You're not a midget anymore. But you're not exactly tall yet either."

That drove the last metaphorical nail into the coffin.

With a vengeance burning in his veins, Tōshirō grabbed onto the front of her shirt, yanking her right up into his face. His nose crashed against hers but in his flash of hot compulsion, he barely noticed. He heard her breath leap in her chest as he pressed forward. "Don't push me, Kurosaki."

A staggered heartbeat of perfect silence thudded in their ears.

Neither moved.

Only now did Tōshirō really comprehend what position he'd gotten them both into. He could feel her – warm and soft – against his chest. In places he felt her thighs against his; they stood toe-to-toe; nearly toppling. He could smell her – what was it, cinnamon? His eyes flicked to Karin's lips just the merest hair's breadth away from his own. He wanted-

The break in eye contact let Karin break free first and her brain, on overdrive, latched onto the last word he'd said. "Honorific change," she snapped at him. "Not 'Kurosaki'! Use an honorific or something!"

Secretly, he was glad that she'd managed to drag herself from whatever they'd… fallen into only a second ago. He was quick to follow her train of thought and allowed his own temper to flare up again. "I'll call you something else once you quit referring to me as a midget," he seethed.

Karin tightened her hold on his uniform, reminding him that she still had a grip on him. He shifted his hand on her shirt too, in mutual understanding. She lowered her voice to a caressing, deadly whisper. "Not happening."

His spine tingled. Why did her breath have to fan out so tantalizingly…

Curse his hormones! They made him want to-

"Oi! Hitsugaya-Taicho!" The loud bellowing shout from above, where the hole in the ceiling was, made him instinctively snap his head upward. He almost yelped when a thrill of static shock sprung to life – starting from his mouth – and coursed down his spine, singeing all his nerve endings and freezing his muscles.

It took a second for his brain to catch up to the sensation but when it did his face flooded a brilliant shade of red. The abrupt movement of his head to look up at whoever had yelled had tilted his chin at an odd angle and his lips had…

His lips had…

Oh.

Oh.

That wasn't how he'd pictured his first kiss to happen.

After identifying the offending person who'd yelled before as Madarame, Tōshirō chanced a glance at Karin. Had she noticed? Did she hate it?

Karin however, was either woefully oblivious or a very good actress.

Up above, Renji appeared beside Ikkaku. Tōshirō wanted to groan. The red-head scratched his neck as he looked down into the room below. "Well," Renji began, "I was going to ask if you were okay after falling down there, Hitsugaya-Taicho, but it looks like you're doing just fine so…" Tōshirō restrained from snapping at Renji too, though it was a tempting prospect to simply cut the red-head's tongue out.

"Actually," Renji continued, looking more closely at Karin, "scratch that. You're doing more than fine. Nice catch there, Hitsugaya-Taicho!"

Tōshirō almost choked from shock. Abruptly, he realized that he was still holding onto Karin's shirt and was inappropriately close to her. He let go immediately, stepping away as quickly as he could and silently thanking Karin for loosening her fingers on his uniform. Even as Tōshirō was wordlessly pleading that nobody else in the team had seen him, another voice joined in from above and as Tōshirō looked up again to meet Byakuya's eyes, he had a foreboding feeling that the noble had seen everything.

"Abarai…let him be," Byakuya admonished his subordinate, keeping his own eyes firmly on Tōshirō 's. "It is only natural for the young captain to grow into puberty. He chose a fine specimen to be attracted to."

Tōshirō, ironically, froze.

Say… what?

Renji's face split into a smirk when he realized that his serious captain was, in his own subtle way, making a joke. "Of course! Speaking of which, you've grown into quite the fine lady there, Karin! Ya' up for a milkshake later?"

Abarai's words were spoken in a friendly, teasing manner, yet Tōshirō felt an unbridled urge to strangle the man.

Troubles just kept multiplying when Ichigo himself popped his head over the edge of the hole, his eyes staring at his little sister. "What the… Karin, why are you in a dark, isolated, empty room with…?" Ichigo's eyes then travelled to Tōshirō before widening in surprise. "Tōshirō! Did you grow?"

If his patience had any last treads to snap, that would have been the last one. "Kurosaki!"

"Yes?" Karin chirped up from two steps over.

Tōshirō pinched the bridge of his nose. He did so not need this right now. He did so not…

But he knew he'd been asking for this the moment he'd chosen not to return to the fight upstairs and instead get into an argument with the fire spitting Kurosaki girl.

The very pretty fire spitting Kurosaki girl.

…oh.


*grabs hapless plot-bunny by the ears and shakes it furiously* You stupid thing! Why did you sound so much better in my head?

I hope you enjoyed my little bout of fantasy. Leave a review on your way out please!