Guys, I am so, so, so, so sorry! I have absolutely no idea what happened, or why this took so long; I think I just lost my muse for this story, even though I was bursting with inspiration when I first started it. Really, I have no excuse :(

On a brighter note: This is finally finished! (You have no idea how good it feels to finally mark this story as complete). To anyone who's still going to read this after I took a ridiculously long time, I thank you for clicking on the second chapter. Though you might have to re-read the first chapter to refresh your memory ^^' Once again, I'm sorry!

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

Still four years ago.

Karin stretched lazily as she opened her eyes the next morning, purring in pleasure as a yawn broke out across her face.

"Enjoy your night?" a husky voice whispered directly into her ear, and she grinned as she twisted to kiss Toushiro. He bent down from his sitting position to oblige her waiting lips.

"Definitely," she answered, laying her head down in his lap. "You?"

"It was enjoyable," he replied easily. It wasn't exactly a lie. He had enjoyed his night – at least, the parts he spent with her. His time in the Twelfth Division was an encounter he would rather forget, though. At least it had amounted to something in the end.

It had taken a lot of persuasion and self-control on his part, but he had finally convinced Kurotsuchi-taichou to partake in the small favor he had asked. Anyone could have seen the excitement in his eyes, however, so Toushiro could only assume that he had been difficult on purpose. But Toushiro was well aware of how to handle the man best.

Back when he and Karin had started dating, he'd taken a good look at both of them; Karin had been more than twice his height, and it had driven him insane. He'd grown tired of the jokes and the teasing looks, as well as his own insecurities, even if Karin had remained respectfully, and strangely, quiet about the issue. So he'd marched right into the Twelfth division the next day, and when he'd come out that evening, he's been almost a foot and a half taller. He refused to tell anyonewhat had happened in there when asked, and he hadn't let himself think of it again either.

So things had gone pretty smoothly for him. Well, there had been some genuine troubles when he had set the time limit for a week.

"My younger self will be returning by the end of this week," he had argued hotly. "Any time later would only be unnecessary and troublesome."

"Don't go setting restrictions on my experiments, boy!" Kurotsuchi had argued. "You'll take what I give you, when I give it to you."

"I can always find another scientist," Toushiro had taunted him. "Someone with abilities greater than yours, who would be confident they could complete this in a week."

"You won't find anyone more brilliant then me," his colleague had hissed. "Fine, then. A week it is. I'll show you who the brilliant scientist is."

Toushiro smirked at the memory, and only shot Karin an innocent look when she asked what he was grinning so maniacally about.

"Fine. Don't tell me." She crossed her arms, grinning slyly. "Then I won't tell you about what I was planning to do to you just now."

"You have such an endless supply of energy," he sighed in exasperation, though he could feel tingles running up his spine at her words. He, of course, remembered this morning after, too. The dialogue wasn't exactly going as he remembered, for obvious reasons, but he assumed that the events that would soon take place would. It almost completely destroyed his control. Damn. And he had kept it together so easily when facing an infuriating Kurotsuchi.

"You never seemed to mind before," she pointed out, finally sitting up herself so she could put her arms above her head and stretch herself out once more. He enjoyed watching the muscles of her back move and pull along with her. Soon, she was slipping out and reaching for her discarded clothing on the ground, bunching them up in her hand and carrying them with her to the bathroom adjacent to their bed. "So, what's on the agenda for today?" she called from inside.

He rubbed his chin. "Anything you would like to do?" he asked her graciously. There was a pause, and she stuck her head out, a towel and bottle of shampoo clenched in her hands.

"Well, duh," was her answer. "I wanna do you. I thought I made that obvious just, like, a minute ago?" He smirked as she rolled her eyes, slipping back into the bathroom and not bothering to close the door behind her; they were waypast the modesty issue. "But I figured you'd have paperwork to catch up on or something." He could hear her grumbling even as she stepped into the rushing shower and pulled the curtain roughly across the rod.

She made a good point. Normally, the first thing he would do upon returning from a mission was check just how large the stack of paperwork waiting for him was. Then he would hunt down Matsumoto to chew her out, and thenhe would sit at his desk and do his paperwork, as that was logical. But he had no desireto do such a thing right now. He had a limited amount of time to spend with Karin, and he didn't want to waste even a bit, especially with something as insignificant as paperwork. Not to mention, he did not remember coming back from this mission to find a week's worth of paperwork miraculously done; thatwas answer enough.

He pulled away from the bed and wandered into the bathroom. Karin's old clothes were on top of the laundry basket, and her towel was hanging from the rod of the shower, from where he could see slight steam drifting to the ceiling from inside. Without hesitation, he slipped in with her, grabbed a brush, and started scrubbing her back.

"You're staying?"she asked incredulously, taking the answer from his action.

"Yes," he answered nonchalantly. "This whole week, actually. There is nowhere else I would rather be right now than with you."

Before he met her, he would neverhave thought of saying such things to someone else, much less a woman. But they had been through so much together over the years, and he had learned it was okay to let his guard down around her, just as she had learned to do the same with him. So he was used to speaking such soft words to her from time to time, but he forgot that she was not. Not yet, anyway. Which was why he got to see the most beautiful of blushes dust across her cheeks. It was also why the events of the morning after in his memories played out exactly as he remembered.

.. ღ ..

Toushiro made sure to remain ever so careful that he would not run into anyone else he knew from his work. Too many people learning of his sudden appearance despite a mission would rouse suspicion in his direction, which even respect would not nullify. Matsumoto especially needed to be avoided; not only would she make an unnecessary show about his return, probably celebrated with a party because she loved social gatherings, but he knew all too well that, in a drunken state, she would brag to all of Soul Society about her captain's amazing strength and conquer. Considering the vast diversity of her drinking buddies' squads, the news of his victory and return would spread like wildfire, and for just that reason, his own vice-captain could not be trusted on this particular matter. Besides, he could see her any day even in his own time; he full well planned to track her downfor her punishment. Karin was the one he desired to see most, and so he stuck close to her instead.

"I have my own work, too," she pointed out later that morning, when he voiced his disapproval of her leaving him for her own squad. In the true time line, she had taken extra time off work to look after him and remain with him after their days apart.

"I'm sure you would stay if I was injured," he shot back, using the truth to his advantage. She flushed a light pink, covering her reaction with a roll of her eyes.

"That's different," was her argument.

"So I'm not good enough to skip work for if I'm not hanging near my death," he summarized, raising a frosty eyebrow at her. She slapped his arm huffily.

"Kami, what has gotten into you?" she griped. "When did you get so anti-paperwork, anyway? Well, fine. If it means that much to you..." Still grumbling to herself, she summoned a Hell Butterfly, sending Ukitake-taichou a message that she would be using up her saved vacation days this week. It disheartened her slightly, because she'd been planning to save up enough so that she and Toushiro (who was always working and had an infinite amount) could maybe go away somewhere together. But maybe it wasn't so different staying with him for this week, as long as they were with one another. And if it made him so strangely happy, than she was more than willing to oblige his request. She nestled against his chest on their couch afterwards, her arms tight around his waist. He stroked his gentle hands down her back, eliciting small hums of appreciation from her.

"What really has gotten into you?" she repeated, placing her chin on his chest and leaning her head up to gaze at him. He used the advantage to lightly kiss her, contemplating a response while his lips distracted her momentarily.

"I guess near-death experiences leave you with a new appreciation for life," he remarked coolly afterwards. He watched as her face fell slightly at his words, thinking back to the reminder that her lover had almost died a few days ago. But then she reminded herself that he was here – next to her, and safe and sound – and she instantly felt better. And, fortunately for him, she took his words as an expectable answer to her musings, as she did not ask again.

That evening, the two never once left each other's arms. They were intertwined and inseparable, no matter where they were or in whose company. Toushiro refused to let Karin go even once, and though she commented many times that he was acting suspiciously out of character, he turned a deaf ear to her questioning. For him, it felt like returning home after years away, and he was unwilling to let the feeling end for even the slightest moment. And the Kurosaki finally admitted to herself that she rather enjoyed the attention from her usually stoic boyfriend.

But his sudden attachment continued throughout the week, and she grew exceedingly worried. It might have seemed strange to anyone else that she would question her own lover's lavishing attention, but she knew Toushiro too well. This was unlike him.

"Are you sure you're all right?" she asked between breathless kisses, worried even as he pushed her back onto their couch. He paused to send her an incredulous glance.

"Karin," he reprimanded her gently, "you're being ridiculous. I assure you, there is absolutely nothing wrong with me." When she looked as if she was about to protest, he placed a finger over her lips, effectively silencing her. He traced her mouth, and she shivered pleasantly under the touch. "We've been apart for too long," he told her gently, and for him, the interval was years longer. "Just let me love you for this week."

She welcomed him with open arms after that, finally taking her lover's words seriously and giving him what he asked for. No matter how strange things seemed to her, she had always trusted Toushiro, and she did so now also.

Toushiro, meanwhile, was having one of the best weeks of his life. Well, since Karin had left him, at least, because the times he had spent with his true Karin – when he knew the illusion would not shatter in a week – had been even better. Things had never been better between them, and he vaguely wondered whether he should actually reward Matsumoto for her insubordination. Of course, he whisked that thought away soon after; being lenient with her was never a good idea.

As a result, the week passed by so exceptionally quickly that Toushiro almost felt the entire time might have been just a part of his fleeting imagination. Surely the seconds hadn't passed so fast, because his craving for his girlfriend had only grown stronger by the day. With the start of each day and her face beside his, he never even came close to the satisfaction he thought he would have felt by carrying out this charade – of finally getting his small fill of Karin, enough to return to his time in peace.

Letting her go a second time would be... more than just unbearable, he realized with a pang. The first time around, it had been a mutual agreement – a decision on her part to run and a choice of his to leave her be. But now, when this Karin still craved him so badly and insisted on his company, he came to fear the idea of forcibly having to leave her. He didn't think he was capable of denying her himself, not when he had never wanted to in the first place. It would be like cruelly ripping away the first sight of food from a man who had spent the last three years starving, and even just a week would never be enough to sate his desire.

But the day came inevitably, as he had known it would from the start.

When Kurotsuchi-taichou called him into his lab that evening, cackling through his message that his genius could never be denied by a single soul and far exceeded what Urahara could ever hope to accomplish, the ice taichou was well aware about the content of their impending meeting. He sneaked away when Karin took a quick trip to the thirteenth division to check in with Ukitake-taichou, keeping his reiatsu suppressed so no one would be any wiser. The twelfth division's taichou, who despised the company of others that would not benefit his horrid dissections, would never invite him for anything other than business matters.

The small bottle the man thrust into his hands was proof that his time was up.

He gulped heavily at the sight of the plastic, resisting the urge to shake it and listen to the cackling of the pill inside. Such a small, overlooked object, and yet it would cause him such heartbreak in only a few hours. He almost couldn't wrench his eyes away, secretly petrified of the bottle on the inside. But the mask he was so accustomed to putting on in front of others allowed him to finally give Mayuri his proper attention.

"Seeing as how you're the one who came to me for this," the scientist was saying, an excited glint in his eyes, "you won't mind being my first test subject." Toushiro grimaced at his words, suddenly worried for a whole other reason. But Mayuri seemed unconcerned as he continued, "If this works, you should end up right where you came from. And if it doesn't" – his already scarring face twisted into a terrorizing grin so wide that the ice taichou could see all of his golden teeth – "then I have new data to play with."

On his way out, Nemu quietly pressed something into his other hand. He recognized it immediately, and his eyes hardened at the sight.

Needless to say, Toushiro was more keyed up than usual when he landed outside his barracks later that evening. Of course, he bottled up the turmoil inside himself, allowing only his cool facade to show through. But inwardly he wondered whether returning to his own time would be worth trusting that shady scientist. And there was nothing appealing about returning to his dimension; here, he had a girlfriend who still loved him unconditionally, as he did her. He'd even contemplated marriage one day, back before they'd ever had their fight, and the thought had left him giddy and light. He didn't want to give that up.

Karin had already returned from her quick visit with her superior, so he shoved everything he had just received into the table set beside his bed before striding into his living room. It was amazing how just the sight of her, wonderfully warm as she lounged on his couch so familiarly, could set him at ease from the most fierce worries. When she flashed him a small, welcoming smile, he wasted no time in planting a kiss on her inviting lips.

"Where have you been?" she mumbled lazily, scooting over to let him sit down beside her. He shrugged, muttering something about a short walk as he pulled her head down onto his lap. Almost unconsciously, he began sifting his fingers through her hair, and she hummed in appreciation. The two were content to remain that way for the longest time, enjoying the company even after days together. But finally, Karin's eyebrows knitted together, and she thought to ask a question that had been gnawing at her mind all day.

"Hey, Toushiro?" she finally called out into the silence softly. He tilted his head to offer his attention, and she glared at him lightly. "How come you've been gloomy all day? Don't you try to deny it," she exclaimed when his eyes widened in shock. Pouting a little, she flicked his forehead with her thumb and finger. "You think I can't tell when something is bothering you? You're acting like the world's coming to an end soon."

He offered not a peep in return, and she frowned and huffed, "Fine, don't tell me."

"It's not that I won't tell you," he explained with a weary sigh. "It's just that I don't know how. So I'm content with just spending time together like this for the time being."

Karin took a moment to mull over that for a while, trying to decide whether she should be satisfied with such an cryptic response. Finally, she smiled at him gently. "Okay, Toushiro. If you can't tell me, then don't." She flipped off the sofa, standing before him with a smirk on her face. "But if you think for one second that I'm not going to do something about this attitude of yours, then you've got another thing coming! It's my job to cheer you up."

She tugged on his hands until he relented and left the couch himself. When she pulled him along, he frowned in confusion. "Where are we going?" he asked curiously.

"For the best night of our lives!" she declared.

The best night of their lives apparently took place in the Kuchiki mansion. Karin saw no problems with sneaking into Byakuya's turf, though Toushiro was slightly worried at the chance that they would be caught by the humor-less captain. But Karin's hand in his quelled anything other than happiness, so he followed her willingly as she pulled him to the secret entrance Matsumoto had readily shared with her. She led him to a small lake buried deep within the gardens.

"Come on, Toushiro!" she called back, racing towards the water at full speed. Rolling his eyes, he used his shunpo to step right next to her.

"What exactly is the hurry?" he murmured, though he knew what it was. She only caught his hand in her own and pulled him along. The two slowed as they neared the water and halted at its edge. Toushiro took notice of how it was completely devoid of any fish, and he concluded that Yachiru must have been dropping by all week; no wonder Byakuya was always so paranoid about his fish. Karin stared at it with an excited gleam in her eye, the moonlight reflected in her orbs.

"We're alone now," she pointed out. "If we don't hurry, someone will see us."

He raised a confused eyebrow. "See us do what exact – Karin!" His jaw almost dropped as she casually untied her sash and let her uniform drop to the ground, bare for the world to see. Before he could get a good look, she had jumped into the rippling water of the pond.

Swimming out farther, she finally stopped as she reached the other edge. Placing a hand against it, she steadied herself before dunking her head. He waited anxiously for a few moments, and then she re-emerged, shaking her wet head and splashing water everywhere. Bracing her back against the pebbles lining the water, she turned to face him, as he was still standing flabbergasted at the lake's other end.

"Come on in, Toushiro!" she cried, waving an arm over her head. "The water's fine."

"Karin," he hissed, hunching over a little and flitting his eyes around to catch any movement of other shinigami. "Come out this instant. This is inappropriate, and you'll only catch a sickness."

She rolled her eyes, casually wading through the water as she ignored his worries. "It feels great!" she tried to tempt him again. "Don't be such a stick-in-the-mud. No one's around. Can you feel any reiatsu?"

He bit his bottom lip. It was true that they seemed to be quite alone, and the closest reiatsu he sensed was far in the mansion. Karin seemed to be enjoying herself, so he assumed the water was an acceptable temperature. What did he have to lose? Discarding all inhibitions, he untied his sash as well, carefully pulling off his uniform and folding it neatly before placing it next to Karin's discarded clothing.

"That's the spirit!" Karin hooted, grinning wildly. Just to embarrass him farther, she placed her fingers against her mouth and let loose an ear-splitting wolf-whistle. When he edged closer to the water, however, she shook her head disapprovingly. Her gaze traveled to his boxers. "Those, too!"

Flushing horridly, he jumped into the water first, and then threw the dripping cloth next to his clothes with very accurate aim. Karin pouted angrily. Well, until she dived under the water again.

.. ღ ..

Toushiro breathed out deeply into the night air, pleased by the light breeze drifting in from the open window in his bedroom. Once again, Karin was tucked into his arms, relaxing in content after their small bout of passion. It was, he knew, the last time he would share with her, and so he had treasured it more than any other – even if it had been the result of an adrenaline rush.

Back at the lake, after hours of swimming in dangerous territory, the two had finally called an end to the night.

"That was fun," Karin had mumbled with a snicker, and Toushiro had felt heat creeping to his ears. She was definitely getting braver.

"We should go," he'd finally said with a sigh. "It's getting very late into the night, and it wouldn't do for someone to come along and see us."

"Yeah, babe, I can't do that until you let me go," she'd reminded him, grinning wickedly. Huffing, he'd stepped back and unpinned her from the rock he had been keeping her pressed against. She'd untangled her legs from his under the water, though still keeping her arms wrapped around his neck and locked from behind, and pulled him into a kiss. He'd eagerly obliged, and at the same time, he had wrapped an arm around her waist and waded them both towards their clothing.

They had crawled out sloppily, a little unbalanced after staying in the water for so long. Toushiro had supported them both, determined not to let her fall and possibly hurt herself. The two had slipped on their clothes in a quiet rush, still a little giddy from their small act of mischief.

Gathering her in his arms, he'd shunpoed to their shared barracks at an insane speed. Karin took delight in zooming through the air in his arms, so she'd wrapped her arms around his neck to enjoy the passing wind until they finally reached their destination. Rather than drop her off at the front door, however, he'd kicked his way in and down the halls, carrying her to their bedroom. They had both been sopping wet and shivering from the night's suddenly cold air, and he'd refused to be responsible for her catching cold.

He'd confidently strutted to their bathroom and, after nudging the hot water tap up with his foot, had plopped her into the warm bath, jumping in himself afterwards. Both of their clothing had still been plenty wet anyway, so he'd seen no reason to bother removing it for the time being. Besides, she'd seemed to have no protests as she squealed happily at his sudden action, splashing her arms and sighing contently at the heat surrounding her.

"What a night!" she'd sighed, wading over to him and laying her head against his chest. He had only grunted in agreement, rubbing her back to give her extra warmth. Her shivering died down soon after, and he had finally relaxed for the first time since they had returned from the lake, because he knew she was less susceptible to catching an illness. And soon after that, they'd removed their useless clothing and slipped under their shared covers.

Toushiro knew he was simply delaying the inevitable. This was it. The time had come for him to leave; any more, and he would overstay his welcome. Tomorrow, the real Toushiro would return from his mission, and Karin would forget all of the wonderful memories he had relived with her, only to repeat them over again with her true lover. Though he felt nothing but bitter resentment, he also couldn't help but wish her nothing but happiness after he left.

"Toushiro?" Karin mumbled sleepily, running her hands soothingly against his chest. He hummed a response, returning her gestures. She looked up with a hazy smile, and a mumble fell from her lips. "I love you."

His eyes softened considerably, reminded of the first time they had ever said those words to each other, a long time ago. "I love you, too," he easily replied, patting her head. 'And that's why I have to do this.'

For some reason, those words were the catalyst; they kicked him into gear, finally pushing him to follow through with his plan. They reminded him that all he was doing right now was robbing Karin of so many first experiences with her true lover – the one who hadn't foolishly broken her heart for the sake of his own pride. She deserved more than him; she deserved a young man who wasn't simply running through the notions with her, for the sake of his happiness; she deserved the real Toushiro.

It was finally time for him to go.

She angled her head up to look at him curiously when she felt him move. He reached into his bedside table, shuffling through its contents until he came across what he had stuffed in there earlier in the day. Setting the pill bottle aside, he pulled out what Nemu had handed to him: a memory modifier.

"What's that?" Karin asked curiously, tilting her head in an adorable way.

"Karin, I want you to remember that I'll always love you," he told her instead, clutching the modifier tightly.

"Toushiro, why are you acting so–"

She hadn't even finished her sentence when he set the flash off. She stopped abruptly, and in the next instant, she slumped down, unconscious. He caught her before she hit the mattress, laying her down tenderly instead. He pushed her hair out of her face, admiring her beauty up close for the last time. He could never get over how lucky he had been to ever have earned her love. It hurt to know that she had just forgotten everything that had happened between them this week, but it lulled his sadness to remember that she would soon be sharing them with the right person.

Cupping her soft cheek, he murmured sadly, "I promise, Karin, that I'll make things right with us."

Unable to bear staying close to her any longer, he left the bed, pulling on a fresh uniform from the closet. Then he finally took the bottle into his hands, popped open the lid, and turned it upside down in his palm. A single pill fell out from inside, rather large and colored white. He eyed it cautiously, though he had no previous reference to compare it to. Hopefully Mayuri had managed to duplicate whatever it was that had brought him here in the first place.

Taking a reassuring breath, Hitsugaya spared one last glance at the sleeping Karin on his bed before popping the pill into his mouth and swallowing it roughly.

It was like someone had grabbed the front of his uniform and harshly jerked him forward. The sensation was identical to when he had first landed in this time, and he shut his eyes in preparation for the rush he knew was coming next. Pitch black darkness surrounded him, and he felt a strong gust of wind rushing past his form, fierce and unrelenting. The notion that he was being forcibly dragged through the air never subsided, and it felt like he was literally being pulled through the dimensions.

Then, as abruptly as it had started, it stopped. He felt himself slam into the ground at a neck-breaking force, landing on something hard. But he was in a sitting position, he realized, rather than plummeting to the ground below. Though he was still surrounded by darkness, he noticed that the wind had stopped, as had the tugging, andthat could only mean he had reached his destination.

He opened his eyes, and before him stood Matsumoto, tapping her foot impatiently as she eyed the steaming cup of tea in his hand.

.. ღ ..

Four Years Later.

He was now in his office, seated in his chair once again and holding a small cup in his hand – he could comprehend that much. He slowly analyzed his surroundings, trying to get a steady grasp on the situation after the sudden shift in environment. Before him was a stack of unfinished paperwork, and even farther beyond that was his glaring fukutaichou. Matsumoto, however, grew impatient at his lack of words and leaned into him.

"Well?" she demanded haughtily, crossing her arms now. Her eyebrow practically reached her hairline as she assessed her taichou, who was acting mighty strange. They'd only just been having a simple conversation, and now he was so detached. Had thinking of Karin upset his mood? He didn't seem upset though, per se; instead, he almost looked confused.

"Well, what?" he mumbled out, placing a hand on his face and shaking his head to clear it. Had it worked? All the evidence pointed towards his plan working out in the end; he was quite sure this was his own time line, as everything was the way he remembered leaving it.

"How was the tea?" Matsumoto asked, rolling her eyes at his ignorant reply. Why was her taichou suddenly so out of it? It almost scared her, as she let her mind ghost over the idea of after effects concerning the drug in the tea. But she pushed the thought away, unwilling to come to terms with the idea that she could ever cause him such harm.

"The...tea?" he repeated in confusion, forgetting what was in his hands for a moment. He looked down and found himself staring straight at it, the liquid sloshing around inside the cup. Raising an eyebrow at it curiously, he finally answered, "It was...good."

She breathed out at his first steady answer, and then smiled. "That's good." She suddenly leaned towards him, eyes narrowed and expectant. Carefully looking him up and down, she gingerly asked, "And do you feel any different?"

He looked down at himself, and then back up at her. "You know," he began, almost in wonder, "I kind of do. That's strange."

Matsumoto beamed, looking extremely excited. "So, tell me," she squealed. "How do you feel? Do you feel like chatting with me for a bit?"

"Hmm... No, I don't think so," was his reply. He shook his head up at her, his expression as blank as a young school boy's. He carefully set the teacup on his desk, skipping the task of elaboration altogether. She raised her eyebrows, greatly taken aback from the answer. She'd assumed that a truth pill would urge him to spill his guts immediately upon taking it, but her taichou was acting frighteningly strange.

"Then, what do you feel like?" she finally asked in puzzlement, peering at him with more caution.

"Well, it almost feels like..." His eyes narrowed dangerously up at her, and he abruptly growled, "Like I want to demote you down to an unseated officer and then send you off to Fourth Division to clean the sewers for the rest of your career!"

"T-Taichou?" she stuttered, gulping and backing away. But it was too late; the beast had been unleashed. Toushiro slammed his hands on his desk, standing up in one fluid motion, and snarled at her menacingly. It was a look she was used to, but now his eyes gleamed more threateningly, and she felt her knees weaken in fear.

"Did you think you would get away with this, Matsumoto?" he demanded loudly, flustering her further. His eyes flashed menacingly, way more angry than the usual she was used to receiving from him. "Spiking my tea with some sort of time-traveling pill?"

She blinked a couple times, utterly confused and breaking out of her fear for a moment. "Time travel?" she repeated slowly, bemused at the random words.

He ignored her, standing up and walking around his desk. "Did you even pause to think of the repercussions of what you did?" he scolded. "Never mind how well it went; what if I had found no way back?"

She backed up, still not completely sure what he was blathering on about but understanding that he was very angry. "I-I'm sorry, taichou," she apologized automatically, pressing her back flat against the wall as he still advanced forward. His blazing eyes were furious.

"And you think an apology is sufficient enough to make up for this?" he grunted.

She backed up a little more, trying to blend into the wall. "W-Well, I..." she stammered, breaking off helplessly. When he was only a hair away, his lips thinned into a straight line as he glared at her. And then, to her complete surprise, he abruptly backed away and headed for the door. She watched his broad back stride away in confusion, completely lost about the events that had just occurred. He didn't offer any explanations for his peculiar behavior, either. But before he slid open the door and shunpoed away, he turned his head back to her one last time, and she saw his eyes soften.

"You just count yourself lucky that your stupid plan worked," he murmured grudgingly. And then, he was gone.

.. ღ ..

Toushiro peeked into the window in front of him rather anxiously, craning his neck in the hopes of looking around the curtain blocking his view. The light shining through the drapes informed him that there were indeed people inside, but with such an obstruction in his path, the hopes of him glimpsing upon his dream woman were seemingly nonexistent. He sighed, pulling back from the ledge and running his hand through his hair; this was too unlike him, spying on someone's home, but Karin had always caused him to shove his icy personality aside when it counted.

He considered simply knocking on the front door and steeling himself for whoever might answer. There was no telling how he might be received after years of silence and keeping his distance, but he was quite knowledgeable about the family by now, so he knew not to expect any sort of hearty welcome. Unfortunately, he was so busy contemplating the many outcomes that might result from one simple action that he missed the crunch of gravel behind him. By the time he sensed that all too familiar reiatsu, any decision was out of his hands.

"Toushiro?" that voice he knew so well whispered, and he could only turn slowly to encounter the face that he had spent a week with, yet had never seen look so different. Those three years apart had been nothing but kind to Karin, he observed with a tenderness he had never thought possible of himself before he met her; those wide, smoky eyes were filled to the brim with wisdom that came with age, and her lips had filled out to create the smooth curve that formed a shocked oval now. Unmistakable surprise shadowed her face for only a moment, and then a gut-wrenching kind of rage overtook her features.

"What are you doing here, Hitsugaya-taichou?" she spat out with a tongue dripping with malice. Hanging from her arm was a plastic bag, and he could only assume she had stepped out to the convenient store they used to visit a lot during summer to purchase ice-cream. He allowed his eyes to soften at the memories before they sharply adopted that stony gaze that was so characteristic of him.

"Kurosaki," he replied curtly in greeting, fully aware that the use of her first name would be something she would prohibit at the moment. Her eyes flashed at the formal greeting, however, seeing it as only a fresh reminder of how estranged they had now become. Haughtily, she tried to bump her way past him into the house, but he reached out and grabbed her arm, pulling her back. The action caused her to drop her bag onto the road.

"Listen to me?" he asked rather than ordered, still not turning her head to face her. His intense stare practically burned a hole through the opposite wall.

Karin violently ripped her arm out of his grip. "Why should I?" she demanded – more like snarled. But he didn't hear her walk away, and that alone caused his heart to swell.

"Because you want to." It was a simple statement, clear of any malice or the hint of smugness. He was well aware the hurt she was cradling, had been enduring for years now; it was the same unbearable feeling he had been burdened with since their break-up. It must have taken her such great courage not to bolt into the house immediately upon seeing him, escaping the pain as so many would have done. Despite the dire situation, he couldn't help but feel proud of her. Her words in response, however, were dripping in sarcasm.

"Oh, you just have me all figured out, don't you?" she jeered, purposely letting an uncharacteristic venom drip from each syllable. She had never known herself to be consciously hurtful of another, carrying that Kurosaki trait through her blood to protect everything in sight, but reopening fresh wounds made her adopt a defensive bite.

"Yes," he answered simply, far from trying to anger her. It was just a simple truth. Their relationship had lasted so long because they'd understood one another better than anyone else could ever hope to, had respected each other's strengths and weaknesses, had taken extra time and care to learn of the other to the best of their abilities. He didn't want to pretend any different than what was true – he'd been lying to himself and everyone around him for too long – and the honest truth was that he knew, as she had said, that he had her figured out. Karin fell silent at his answer, unable to think up a comeback to something both knew was far from a lie. Even so, she couldn't bear allowing him to win this so easily, letting him off scot-free.

"I'm seeing someone else!" she blurted out, her breathing heavy once the words had left her tongue. She resisted the urge to clap a hand over her mouth at her impulsive reply, berating herself on the inside. The shock of the words was enough to finally make him swing around to face her, and she took notice of his wide eyes of surprise. It was there, in the depths of his gaze, and it passed in a flash – an inkling of confused hurt. But then he wiped it away for his usual frostiness, and she felt a small spark of guilt wrench her stomach for causing him any sort of harm.

'That's ridiculous! I don't have any reason to feel guilty,' she attempted to appease herself. Even so, it grew inside of her when he silently watched her with a plea, blatantly obvious on his face, for her to take it back. Even after three years of aching and heartbreak, she still couldn't stand to ever hurt him in any way. It made her sick, this lasting weakness of hers when it came to him. So she set her face into one of nothing but determination, and her mouth went off almost automatically.

"We've been seeing each other for a while now," she blathered on, forcing herself to meet his eyes. "He works with me, so we see each other every day, and he knows me really well. Things are actually getting kind of serious now." Her voice dropped, and her expression darkened. "You didn't really expect me not to move on after three years, did you, Hitsugaya-taichou?"

She threw the words at him accusingly, laced with built-up bitterness. He didn't answer her question, though. Instead, his grip on her arm tightened, and his gaze assessed her closely, as if trying to find something specific. He took in her resolute expression and noticed how she was practically forcing herself to keep up the act. She'd put her defenses up, he could tell, and he easily found the signs in her posture that proved him to be true; the skin around her mouth was tight, suggesting she was desperately trying to hold herself back from something – probably blurting out the truth. After years of unconditionally loving her, he could tell when she wasn't genuine.

"There's no one else," he concluded, saying each word slowly and clearly into the night air, where they lingered for her to process. Her face instantly scrunched up into one of protest, and he remembered with amusement that usually meant she was purposely going to try and be difficult. He'd endured enough of it, after all, when she'd attempted to coax him out of his office all those times.

Her words were haughty. "What! You... Yes, there is–"

"No," he shot back coolly, shaking his head and fixing her with a sad little smile. "We both know there isn't, Karin." Adopting her first name once again just felt so wonderful, so right, and his smile grew just the tiniest bit at the feeling. He leaned towards her, keeping his grip strong so she could not escape, and murmured in her ear, "We both know there was always only me."

"Y-You're just so full of it!" she snapped back, glaring at him lethally. She didn't try to break away, however, because they both knew he was ridiculously stronger than her and always would be. Instead, she used the proximity to let him see the anger building up in her eyes, marked with heavy contempt. "Did you think that just coming back here would change everything?"

He shook his head easily. "No, I did not," he murmured quietly. He was blessed with a genius mind, and so he knew before he even arrived that she would not willingly take him back after having three years to brood over his slip-up. But, even so, a part of him hoped, a part of him just wished that at least something could change – that they could be civil with each other again.

Karin scoffed. "Good," she spat out. "Because it won't."

He gritted his teeth, feeling frustration build up inside of him. The Kurosaki family had yet to notice that Karin was taking a strangely long time to return from a shop merely down the street, so thankfully no one had come looking just yet. The last thing he needed was for Ichigo to burst through the door and catch them pressed together so tightly.

"Please, Karin," he finally whispered, his voice almost pleading. He tried to nuzzle his face closer to hers, but she pulled it away angrily, so he just rested his nose against her hair. "Please just tell me what I did."

She remained silent, not even offering a peep. It was a stony quiet, because as long as he had known her, she had never been the type to have nothing to say. It was obvious that she refused to help him out of his spiraling confusion; instead, she would make this as hard as possible for him. So he tried to pry, attempting to nudge her into the right direction.

"Was it something I said?" he asked, trying to think back to that day when she'd stormed out of his life. "Did my words make you upset when you came to find me in my office? If I had abandoned my paperwork for you, would you never have left me?"

The desperation in his tone finally elicited a response from her. She looked up through the hair on her face, catching his eyes with her sharp gaze. His breath caught at all the pain etched onto her face, laid out bare for him to see clearly. With a tight jaw, she shook her head sadly.

"This was never about that stupid fight, Toushiro," she admitted. "I don't hold petty grudges like that." Her eyes saddened even further, and she turned away so he wouldn't see. In a tiny voice, she whispered, "It was about how you never chased after me."

"Karin..." He reached out a hesitant hand to try and turn her chin, but she just jerked it out of his grasp, shaking her head.

"I waited for you, Toushiro," she went on, her voice shrill and accusing once again. "I waited for you to come to me, to ask to have me back. And I was all ready to agree, too. But you never came..." Her voice wavered at the end, and his shoulders drooped as she took in a sharp breath to steady herself.

"I wanted to," he countered quietly. She shook her head at his words, refusing to believe him, but he continued anyway. "Believe me; I wanted to. But how could I come after you when I thought you didn't want me anymore? It wasn't something I could take, so I didn't."

"And after all that time," she cut in, her lips quivering with her anger. "After all those years together, you really thought one stupid fight was enough to make me go back on everything we had?" He dropped his head at her words, ashamed that he had not trusted her now that it was obvious, and that answer was too much for Karin. "I'm out of here," she snapped, already reaching for the bag she had dropped so she could run inside.

On instinct, he grabbed her shoulder to pull her back. Letting out a growl, she jerked him off.

"Don't, Toushiro," she threatened. "Don't think that you coming back now changes everything. I don't know what changed your mind, but mine is still the same."

"It doesn't have to be a relationship," he offered desperately. He took her confusing look to mean that she was listening, and hope bubbled up inside of him. "We don't have to go back to being lovers just yet. But I miss our friendship, Karin. Could we be civil to each other again? I can give you all the time you need to get to where I am. And if you don't..." He swallowed thickly. "Then I deserve that."

"I..." She hesitated. The offer was tempting. Even if she was in pain right now at his appearance, she had hurt more when living without his constant presence. Even so, she couldn't let go of her heartbreak altogether; it was that Kurosaki stubborn trait of hers. "I don't know," she finally decided, gnawing at her bottom lip; he knew that was a nervous habit of hers that meant she was seriously torn, and he took that to be a good sign. It meant that some part of her, no matter how small, was willing to give him a second chance.

"That's all right," he quickly tried to appease her, running a hand through his already messy hair. Trying to make the best of what he had been given, he assured her, "I can wait as long as you need me to, Karin. I'm not going anywhere."

Her lips quivered again, at his sweet words this time. Clutching the shopping bag closer to herself, she helplessly shuffled on the spot. Neither of them was very good at handling emotion, so she was at a loss of how to reciprocate. Finally, she just jerked her head towards her house, chewing on the inside of her cheek.

"Well, I'm gonna go," she told him.

He noticed that it wasn't a direct approval of his words. There was no way the Karin he knew would instantly take him back, and in a way it made him happy, because it meant she hadn't changed in their time apart. He would have to work hard at crawling back into her heart, no matter what position she decided to grace him with in the end; he would just have to be patient with her, as she had been with him for waiting three years. So he nodded at her words, sending her a small, hopeful smile.

"Of course. I wouldn't want to keep you from your family."

She breathed out in relief that he wouldn't try to force her to stay and answer his suggestion. She needed time to mull it over in her mind, to calm her inner turmoils. In the state she was in now, she would only make brash decisions that would hurt them both in the long-run.

She skipped up to her front door, finally free of tension now that she was heading back to familiar territory. But just as she had set her hand against the doorknob, Toushiro called her back one last time.

"Oh, and Karin?" She swung around, sending him an inquisitive, and slightly anxious, glance. He let his lips melt into a soft smirk, reserved only for her. "Happy twenty-sixth birthday."

Karin couldn't even deny how ridiculously happy it made her that, even after three years, he had still remembered.

.. ღ ..

Three years later.

Karin fumbled with the keys in her hand, almost dropping them in her haste to unlock the door to her apartment. It really was not helping that Toushiro was drawing seductive circles on her hip from behind with his free hand, keeping the other firmly in her grasp while he waited. She could practically feel his smirk radiating from behind her, no doubt appreciative of the effect he always seemed to have on her.

"Need some help there?" he teased. She just huffed as she finally unlatched the lock, shoving the door open and pulling him inside by the hand. The second it closed behind them, he pressed up behind her, sucking on the back of her neck in a way that drove her absolutely insane. She dropped her keys from the surprise, but neither made any attempt to pick them up as she sighed happily over his ministrations.

Each and every day, she awoke to his face besides hers on their bed, and she could never get over how absolutely grateful she was to have him in her life again. At first, she had simply allowed him to call himself a friend again, and even just that had made him so obviously happy that she couldn't help but flush at the moment. But those first few months had been hard, as the two had slowly learned to trust the other once again. She treaded carefully in every conversation she had with him, almost expecting him to slip up and destroy her heart once again. And many times, he would grow exceptionally hurt and bitter over how little faith she had in him. This would lead to arguments and frustration, and more than once it seemed they might finally cut each other out of their lives again.

But they never did. Somehow, they always managed to find the other again, sometimes thinking back to how horrible the first separation had been; neither was willing to let things escalate that far again. And after quite some time, both came to realize that perhaps their unwillingness to let the other go completely was a sign of the strength of their bond. Maybe they were meant to be together after all, to be as content as they had been the first time around.

Remaining friends didn't seem like much of an option anymore. Sometimes, during the most random conversation, Karin would unconsciously lean forward to kiss him, so used to acting in such a way with her ex-lover. Though she would catch herself at the right time, a little mortified by the slip up, when she reluctantly pulled back, a fresh wave of disappointment would rip through her. It didn't help that she always caught the longing looks Toushiro sent her; though he tried to hide them so she wouldn't feel uncomfortable, she had always been too good at reading his emotions. That was when guilt would overtake her, making her realize that she was only hurting him. But, as selfish as she was when it came to him, she refused to let him go. She had to remind herself constantly that they were in different places, but one day, that idea became laughable; they obviously weren't.

Karin had to be the first to reach out. Toushiro had done so already, when he'd made an attempt to welcome her back into his arms, albeit three years late. He'd already made his stance on his desires clear to her, and both just had to wait for her decision to heat things up again. So she barged into his office one day, marching around his desk while ignoring his inquiries, until she loomed over his chair. She threw herself onto him and kissed him senseless, relishing in the way it just felt so right, or how happy it made her when he eagerly reciprocated.

She could never believe she had actually refused to take him back as her lover after that. He knew how to treat her right. After all those years of dating, he knew her preferences best; that flowers were never her thing, but candy would be eagerly accepted and polished off before him only seconds after; that she appreciated the benefits of a formal dinner at a fancy restaurant, no matter how much people wrongly believed she hated the stuffy atmosphere; that she thought any date to be a failure if there was no alcohol at the end, whether it be a small sip or dozens of bottles. Granted, he was cautious at the beginning of their make-up, out of practice with handling her and afraid he would upset her again. But they'd finally grown comfortable with the other again, even returning to exploring each other in the bedroom after years of a dry spell (for her, at least).

And it was to the bedroom that they stumbled now, almost breaking down the door in their rush. Hours later, they laid down together under the covers with their eyes closed, her on her side and him snuggled up behind her as they cooled down. His front was pressed against her back, his arms wrapped tightly around her waist and his face buried in her neck and hair. She was lightly tracing patterns on his arm, running fingers up and down its length lazily.

"Toushiro," she mumbled hazily through the silence.

"Hmm?" he replied in content, his eyes closed as he breathed in her scent.

"Tell me you love me," she ordered softly, and he could hear her slight embarrassment at the request. He cracked open his eyes and raised his eyebrows in surprise, lifting his head just slightly to try and catch a glimpse of her face. But she refused to turn her head and look at him, too mortified by her romantic words. He felt the smallest of endearing smiles touch his lips.

Fisting a hand into the pocket of his shirt discarded nearby, he nestled his lips close to her ear and whispered huskily, "I love you, Hitsugaya Karin."

A tremor passed through her body, and when she looked at her hands, there was a glittering diamond ring settled on her fourth finger. She gasped, and Toushiro just knew that, like every other experience they had ever shared together, the joyous look on her face was a memory he would treasure forever.



The End.

Okay, 'clearing up confusion' time. For those of you who remember, yes, Matsumoto called Ichigo last chapter about her taichou going missing after taking a pill from the twelfth. But that took place while he was in the past, meaning it happened while he was gone. In this chapter, he returned right at the instant he left, so it was like he actually never left; basically, that erased the 'missing Toushiro' part of the story from ever happening. Confusing, I know, but just go with it :P

That swimming in Byakuya's lake was inspired by that one chapter I wrote all the way back for AUS, when they play around in his lake and smash watermelons :D I've had that part written since I first began work on this second chapter, then I took it out at some point, then I put it back in.

So, finally done with this, and it feels great! (Though I think my writing style has changed a bit, compared to the first chapter). The guilt was eating away at me. Now I just have to get to Akirobrat ^^' *sigh*