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Pandora's Key

By Kist

Romance / Adventure

Three Hours prior

As always, I do not own the characters or the so-called universe they reside in. Just the ideas.

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A soccer ball rolled down the hill, and she cursed the boy responsible. It was always look at me, look at this, a big show of macho charisma. But it seemed like all the boys had the disease these days. She had known them for years and years, and now, just now, they decided to turn into worthless goons. Great.

She skid to a stop, helpless to prevent the ball from rolling into the street. Short black hair swishing by her ear, she brushed it back, thinking "Those idiots!" as her brand new soccer ball bounced in front of a car. She edged down to the sidewalk, mindful of the oncoming traffic.

When the last car had driven past, she was surprised to find that her new ball had not been completely flattened. She was surprised, however, to see a boy with the strangest colored hair. White like snow and standing every which way like her brother's, yet, softer somehow.

Her ball! The boy had caught it with his foot. He seemed surprised by its sudden appearance as though he had simply raised his leg and suddenly there was something underneath it.

He cast a glance up the hill, not a searching scan to locate the owner; his eyes shot up to her like a laser-beam as if he already knew she was there. A chill tore through her, goosebumps rising on her arm, but what made the experience even more bizarre was that appearance warm flush that rose in her cheeks.

As those serous teal eyes stared through her, all she could remember thinking is how strange this boy was, how different. His eyes spoke of far off places, of worlds and journeys and experience, and they were so cold. Somehow she, in her eleven years of wisdom, knew she was meeting a creature which was beyond her.

Before she could shake off the feeling—she had no right to judge a total stranger—he had kicked the ball, up, up, and she followed its path with her eyes, stretching out her arms to catch it. When it was securely in her possession once more, she looked back at the stranger to thank him, to ask…but he was gone. She blinked, the entire street deserted, no cars or anything.

Behind her, three other boys called her name, "Karin! Karin!" eager to get back to the game, but she lingered just a moment longer, eyes staring at the spot the boy had been, mind spinning.

.

But that was three years ago.

A lot can happen in three years. She found that boy again, hounded him to play for her team, and in the end, made a really good friend. She had been right too; he was different.

A lot can change in three years. Soccer wasn't the same any more. It felt almost childish, to hang around a deserted field, kicking a ball around. She wasn't exactly sure what had changed. The grass was still green, the goals as open as they had ever been. The boys were still stupid, and she still dragged them around by the ear. But somehow it wasn't the same game she remembered it being. It wasn't fun anymore.

Now that she knew about soul-eating monsters and that other world of death reapers and demigods, it just felt wrong to keep hanging around the soccer field.

A few days ago, she had been practicing her penalty kicks, just as a way to knock out her frustrations with school and the idiotic morons she called friends, when she felt that familiar chill of something sinister sliding into the human plane. She turned her head to the east debating whether she should investigate when three more appeared.

She left her soccer ball in the middle of the field. She was aware enough of her own spiritual energy that she knew how to deal with those monsters without it. Her old method to break their masks by the shear force of her kicks seemed almost laughable now. She wouldn't need it.

Hours later, she limped past the park on her way home, her eye swollen and her left arm bleeding. Her ball was still sitting in the middle of the field where she left it. She stared at it, feeling suddenly so old and tired. She didn't bother to pick it up as she shuffled past. Just kept on walking.

.

If anyone saw her running, they would just brush it off. It was her habit to run in the evenings before dinner, sometimes on an errand for her father or her sister, sometimes on her own private mission to protect as much of the city as she could, sometimes just because the house was too loud or dad was being too stupid or her room was too quiet or the homework too mundane. Sometimes, she just needed to just go.

If anyone saw her running, they wouldn't spare her a second glance. That was just the Kurosaki girl running off again, regular as clockwork that one.

But it they had looked back or spared a second to study her face, they might have caught the wrinkle in her brow, at the fear in her eyes, the wildness in her tangled, unbound hair. If they had just waited a second longer then they would have known that something was wrong. They might have worried then, that if Karin looked upset, something must have happened.

At that moment, she wouldn't have cared if they had looked, wouldn't have cared what they thought. She was too busy cursing the limitations of her human legs. Fast as they were, they weren't fast enough.

She was going to kill him. If she found him. When she found him. She would find him even if she had to haul him out of the grave, drag him back to the world of the living, just for the satisfaction of, of…she didn't know.

He had dropped off the face of the map for a week, not contacting her or Matsumoto or anyone. And then Matsumoto drops on her out of the blue and says that he is going to...

She swallows that thought. Toshiro won't be doing anything, once she gets her hands on him.

So what if Matsumoto couldn't find him anywhere in Soul Society, he couldn't hide from her, not on Earth at least. She knew his habits, knew that he would want to see the river, to see the sun's setting rays cast red against the sky. One last time.

Panting desperately, she smiled in relief when she spotted his figure casually leaning against the railing. He held his phone loosely in his hand, but his attention was focused on the sky like nothing had changed.

In some ways, nothing had.

His emerald eyes flickered in her direction revealing neither surprise nor satisfaction with her company. She wasn't sure if it was because he could sense her spiritual energy (she still hadn't figured out how to mask it) or if it was because he expected her. Maybe that was why he came here, because he knew she would find out and would look for him.

She squashed that thought, not daring to hope; she had always known that her feelings had been one-sided.

No, they were friends, and she knew he wouldn't leave it up to someone else to tell her. Of course, he couldn't seek her out, she realized, as that is exactly where Matsumoto would look. Yet his presence, here, in the one place she always seemed to find him spoke volumes on how he must have regarded her.

His hands retreated to his pockets as she approached, and while he tried to appear casual, she could see the tension in his shoulders, the way his gaze lingered on her a second longer than it should have. He was nervous.

She honestly wasn't sure what he was expecting from her, anger, shouting, crying, desperate pleas? Matsumoto would have tried all of these methods already to no effect. Suddenly, Karin felt off-centered. What was she hoping to accomplish here? What could she say or do that could change his mind?

Matsumoto was convinced that Karin could turn the tide, to force him to reconsider, but what were a few human years compared to the hundreds he spent with his lieutenant in Seireitei?

She griped his shoulder for balance as she jumped over the railing, but he didn't complain, didn't even twitch.

For a long time, she just stared at him, grey eyes full of pain. He met her gaze openly, but their was a certain quietness to his expression as though his emotions had been dampened down, yet there was a certain yearning there as he stared at her, waiting for her to say something. Anything.

"Why?" She whispered, breaking off their staring contest.

"I have to."

A choking sound escaped from her throat, and she doubled over clutching her chest as though her heart were being torn out. Toshiro squatted next to her, hesitating as though he was afraid to touch her.

"You," she moaned miserably, "You want to die Shiro-chan?"

'No.' But he didn't say it, didn't want to make this any harder than it needed to be. He was the only one who could plant the device, the only one who could end the war. What was one life compared to the many? What was his life worth compared to theirs, compared to hers.

He put a hand on her shoulder awkwardly. It felt as though there was a great wall between them that had never been there before, and he didn't know how to cross it. He didn't know what to do with this Karin; he had expected anger, expected her to yell and shout and throw her best punch. Not this.

This... this was almost unbearable.

She was trying to hide it, the small salty water building up in the corner of her eye, blinking rapidly to keep it from falling, and his heart sunk to his knees just watching her try to fight it.

She was only human. She would change and grow, and her heart would lead her into different directions, away from him and his troubles. With the Las Noches gone, she would be free and normal and human like everyone else. In time, all the ugly memories would fade. Even this one.

The small black box would do more than just eliminate Las Noches; it would purify it. It would change its fundamental nature. Las Noches would not be a land of darkness filled with empty, hungry souls, but just another gateway, a different route souls that were still attached to the human world could take. It would soothe that hunger, soften their violent nature, until they could enter soul society, until they could return home.

No more fighting, no more wars.

No more paperwork, no more yelling at Matsumoto to lay off the sake.

No more training session with his division, no more random candy binges from Jushiro, no more sparing with Renji, no more correcting his peers that its Captain Hitsugaya, and no more height jokes from, well, everyone.

No more trips to the human world. No more Karin.

Karin had stopped clutching her chest but now all she was doing was staring forward. Arms held stiffly at her side, her hands were tightly clenched into fists.

"You don't have to do this," she said stonily, glaring out at the water, "not for them, not for me."

He shifted so that he was facing her

"We'll find another way," she insisted, a note of desperation creeping into voice.

Hands reached out to still her arms, careful to avoid the bandaged areas; his grip was tight but not painful. She didn't fight, but her eyes were alight with something desperate.

"I'll help! There's no need for you to-"

He leaned forward, catching her off guard. Her eyes widened as their lips met.

She was so warm, so alive. Kami forgive him for kissing a human.

He wanted to stay, wanted to hold her, wanted to keep her forever. Why couldn't she understand? He had to protect that, had to protect her.

The stunned Karin responded sluggishly, red flooding her face. She had dreamed about this, a quiet fantasy she kept locked in her heart. Her first kiss tasted all wrong. It felt like goodbye. 'No, please no, don't let this be goodbye.' She wrapped her arms around his neck, tangled her hands in his hair. It couldn't be goodbye.

But just like that it was over, Hitsugaya pulling back. "I have to go."

"No, don't!" she begged, her hands curling into his shirt, trying to hold on to him, trying to keep him here. "Please don't." she whispered, hating the way her voice cracked, sounding so vulnerable and defeated.

He was avoiding her gaze again.

"Why?" she asked for the third time. "You still haven't answered my question."

He pried her hands off of his shirt, and she let him, watching as he peeled open each finger with a tenderness she had never seen in him before.

He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, the notification light was blinking, a hollow nearby. He ignored it, not even bothering to flip it open.

A tear trickled down her cheek. Why?

He put the device in her hands. Why?

She could feel the monster now, the familiar chill washing through her. Why?

"You won't have to fight anymore. No one will." Because life is precious. Because life is worth protecting.

The phone slipped through her fingers, a flash of silver falling to the ground.

She let it go, let it slide away. No. NO! Arms reached for him ready to hold him as tightly as she could. Not for this, not for anything.

"Trust me." He breathed.

They wrapped around empty air. She stumbled, her center of gravity thrown off balance. Her knees bent, and she sat, no energy left to stand.

A few feet away, a silver phone blinked. She told herself that she didn't care. She didn't care if one hundred hollows were attacking.

It was a lie. Of course she cared.

She hauled herself to her feet, whipping the moisture from her eyes. Stupid dust, making her cry. She stooped, picking up the phone, black hair hiding her face.

Of course she cared.

She flipped it open, following the little red dot as it moved across the screen. Ember Street, only a block away. Hoping over the railing, her feet carried her down the street.

As she ran, Karin glanced back up at the sky. Orange and red, pink clouds and a golden moon, beautiful.

She gripped the phone tightly in her hand and abruptly changed directions. Not yet. It's not over yet.

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A/N: If you read this far, please leave a review. I'm not asking that you put any more that "nice fic" or "This is crap." It's just nice to know that someone was reading, and my story had enough of an impact on your day to merit a quick comment or reply. If you have time to write more, please do.

Thanks for reading :)

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