Pandora's Key

Eight

Author's Note: First, I'm sorry it took so long for me to post this. I had been working on this for quite some time, but due to the nature of the story and the way it is written, I could not post anything until the timeline was almost completely filled in (as you shall see shortly).

I wanted to thank everyone who reviewed the story previously; you were my inspiration to continue writing this fic, and are the reason it will see completion.

Without any further fanfare, I present the next part of Of Course:

Eight Centuries before deadline

In the great swirling mass of the in-between, where there is neither life nor death, neither joy nor pain a massive white orb split apart, two souls linked by chains. They immediately threaded off with other souls as all functional spirits do.

Settled, weighted, and balanced, they approached the medium. The first one, the lighter one, shot forward without delay, eager to taste the world of the living, the freedoms, the chains, the challenges of life.

The second orb doddered, waiting. Many of its connections were not ready and it was woe to go without them. Another soul approached, a glow of kinship between them, the promise of family. A second followed the first, then a third and fourth, the last two with chains binding them together.

The last two were older souls and descended into the world with practiced ease while the other three waited, floating at the barrier, waiting for the call of the two older souls.

They did not have to wait long. First they called the soul of the boy, the brother, more masculine than the other two.

When they called again, this time for the split soul, the other soul, also new and fresh and young, reached for the other, afraid of descending alone. So they went together, sisters.

Five souls, brother, sisters, family, tied to the world in ways they could not possibly imagine. The threads of fate pulled, and like a rubber band, the five responded.

Eight years before Deadline

A girl with short black hair was putting flowers on a sun-bleached grave. The numbers burned into her eyelids, a date imprinted on her very soul, under a name that was carved into the polished rock far too soon. Her sister stood to her right looking solemn. Her father was quite, uncharacteristically so, staring at his oldest child who had wandered away from the group, preferring to mourn alone.

Lilies, rare, beautiful, and difficult to grow in this part of the world, lay against cold stone. They were her mother's favorite.

She had cried when she heard what had happened. Her mother had gone to pick Ichigo up from the dojo, and the two were walking back. It had been raining so visibility wasn't the best, but it was still no excuse. Some driver had swerved off the road, slamming into her mother. Maybe he was drunk, maybe his tires slid, maybe his brakes were shot. Excuses, apologies, explanations wouldn't bring her mother back, and she was in no mood to entertain them.

The coward had sped off, leaving behind a blood-spattered street, a pink umbrella, and a boy with bright orange hair screaming at the rain. Death was instant. At least she hadn't suffered.

After that day, she swore never to cry again. Tears would not bring her mother back or fix any of her other problems, and she refused to be a burden to others.

Yuzu sniffled, wiping her eyes. The fair haired sister could cry; she was always the softer one. She would burry her sorrows, Karin knew, in work, trying to fill the gap left by her mother. Yuzu had been their mother's shadow when she was busy about the house, one hand on her skirt, the other on a spoon. Taking over those tasks would be the youngest Kurosaki's way of honoring her mother's memory.

Her brother's path would be different. He was distancing himself; she could see it already. A loner by nature, Ichigo was already wandering off, already drifting away. He blamed himself for what happened, and the guilt, irrational though it may be, was eating away at him. One day, he would leave. Leave the memories, the guilt, the fear, leave and never look back.

Her father, well, she didn't know what would happen to him. He was the strong one, the unstoppable force, the unbreakable wall, unfaltering, unwavering, protective and strong. She had never seen him so, so vulnerable, so lost.

What would happen to them? This little family of misfits? Would they get those looks of pretend pity, those comforting pats from people who didn't understand? They didn't know what it was like to lose someone you needed so much, to pretend that you were fine, that you weren't actually hurting.

She looked away, not wanting to stare at that stone a moment longer. Everything within her was screaming to run, to just spirit away and never look back, to run and run and run until she couldn't breathe, until her legs gave out, until that ache inside her chest subsided. But her sister's arm was locked around her own, her anchor. She wouldn't leave, no, she couldn't. Yuzu needed her, her father needed her, but she did not want to stay.

Something shimmered in the air above a tombstone farther down, the blurred outline of a person in funny black pajamas touching a grave. She squinted, but the figure was no easier to make out.

Weeks later, she would realize that she had just seen her first ghost.

…..

In a parallel world, a boy stretched out his hand. It was that call again, stronger now, so tangible he could feel it.

It was sad and lonely and looking for something. Waiting, it had been waiting so long, and it was yearning for this moment to come. So close, so close he could grasp it. He reached forward instinctively, trying to wrap his hand around that something. Cold. Freezing. It called. It beckoned, needing to be found, needing him, and without understanding how, the boy knew that he needed it too.

His fingers touched something hard. It began to slip away. No! He had it in his grasp, pulling it back towards him.

Images flashed across his mind of things he did not understand, a girl with black hair running down a street, a dragon flying across an icy plane, a strange device, black tentacles wrapping around his wrist, and laughing yellow eyes.

He ignored them, pulling, straining. He would not give up; he needed it to—

Whatever force that was restraining it, released its hold. The boy tumbled backwards, landing on his backside as messy white hair fell into his eyes. Brushing it back, he stared at his prize, a rare smile creeping on his face.

A sword. He felt it singing in his palm, that calling voice ringing in his ears. A name.

It was a long blade, easily rising above his own short stature. He was still too small to carry it on his waist like the shingami, but it would fit well enough on his back.

Heavy, but he had born worse. Many would be surprised that the things he could carry, at the things he would come to carry. His frame may have been small, his wrists slender, but just because he looked young didn't mean he was helpless.

To a child, the world is pure. Black and white, good and evil. Innocent, naïve. Love is pure. That simple need to protect, to defend. His granny, he would not be her killer, but more than just her, Momo and others precious to him, even that stranger with the warm smile.

He felt a power coursing through his veins, like a tidal wave pressing against the boundaries of his restraints. With this blade, he could protect them, protect all of them, his family, his fellow street rats, even the angry shop-spitters. He could, and he would. Protect all of them, his home, his world. Everyone.

In his hands, the sword hummed in approval of its new master. Hyourinmaru had been waiting centuries for this wielder, for this boy. He had looked into his heart and saw the boy's destiny. He was not disappointed. No lesser soul would have him.

Eight Months Before Deadline

"I'll be right back." It seemed like something she had been saying more and more lately.

"Where are you going?" chorused the boys.

"Sorry, but I just realized that I have to run an errand for my sister."

A collective groan. "Can't you do that later?" they whined. "How are we supposed to practice if our captain's running errands all the time?"

She did feel bad about lying to them, but that creeping chill was not going away, and she needed to stop it before it actually hurt anyone. "I'm really sorry, but this is important. You know, girl stuff. Just runs some more drills until I come back."

They waved her off, not wanting to argue. They were starting to get suspicious, she knew. It was only a matter of time before she ran out of excuses. She was pressing their measly patience thin already.

Jogging off the practice field, she began shooting out spikes of spirit energy, trying to draw the creature towards her. It usually worked for the dumb ones.

As soon as she was out of sight, she began running. That thing wasn't moving. Either it wasn't interested or was already eating. A tremor in the ground. Most people would blame the construction company working on the new bridge or perhaps think it was only a mild earthquake, but she and the few 'aware' humans still on earth would know better.

Left at the stoplight, she ran past a pileup of honking cars. A smashed fire hydrant was shooting up a column of water, and she slowed her pace only to avoid slipping. Whatever it was trying to eat was putting up a fight.

Rounding a corner, she could see what looked like a massive preying mantis making slicing motions at a humanoid shape. It was dodging with varying degrees of success, but its chain of fate was making things difficult. It wouldn't be able to keep it up for much longer.

She whistled, attempting to distract the beast. The humans, the ghost of a teenage boy, and the mask of a hollow all turned in her direction.

She put her hands together in a gun shape, focusing her spiritual energy. She may not have a sword, and she may not be a shingami, but she was not helpless.

"Hey you there, girl! What are you doing?" one of the drivers shouted. "Get out of the road!"

She ignored him, the tip of her finger turning red. The hollow cocked its head, raising its razor sharp appendages.

"Girl! I'm talking to—" There was the sound of running footsteps.

A bright red beam of energy, invisible to the humans, shot from her fingertips, racing toward the hollow. An explosion, a roar of pain and anger.

'Crap.' She thought, 'I missed.'

Instead of hitting the mask, her shot went wide ripping apart two of the creature's scissor-like appendages. The attack was still to new for her to be wielded with the accuracy that she needed. And did she ever need that extra precision, especially with all these oblivious bystanders surrounding her.

While She had not hit the ghost boy, my blast had hit the light pole his chain had gotten wrapped around, effectively cutting it down. He was screaming in agony as the ends began to eat themselves. Shit, shit, shit. Where were the shingami when you needed them?

Right, fighting a war. Typical excuses.

A firm hand latched on to her shoulder, and she instinctively ripped out of its grip. She caught a flash of blue-grey uniform out of the corner of her eye. A police officer.

"You need to get out of the road miss. You are holding up traffic."

There would be more serious problems than bad traffic if he didn't get out of the way. Sometimes she curse the normal humans and their inability to see spirits. If he only knew.

She grit her teeth, weaving around the immobile cars. A few drivers honked, yelling at her to get out of the way. Stupid mist must be making them think she was the cause of the pile up not some raving monster trying to eat their souls. No, that would be too easy.

The hollow screeched, razor sharp appendages swiping at her head. She ducked; black hair fell around her shoes. Looked like she would need another haircut when this was all through. Yuzu would be thrilled. A new hairstyle for a new lifestyle.

Her brother wouldn't be, but he was too busy to notice who was guarding his hometown in his absence.

She rolled around the far side, using the yellow taxi as a shield. She aimed again.

Hadn't she always wanted to be a hero? Wasn't that her dream? She couldn't remember. Wouldn't it have been nice though to be given a choice? Well, she technically had a choice: pretend you don't see anything, pretend you don't see ghosts or monsters with holes in their chest or boys with white hair, pretend you can't actually do something about it, play "I can't see you, you can't see me" the rest of her life, pretend she wasn't actually being targeted, that her family wasn't being targeted. But then, she was never any good at pretending.

Cars honking, people screaming at her to move, a police officer moving towards her, this wasn't the way she imagined it. Her hair was shorter, her friendships were wavering, grades were slipping and skipping class was becoming more regular, but she didn't have to pretend. She could see, and she knew exactly who she was and what she was supposed to do.

Her hands were steady, red light burning at her fingertips.

Boom.

Perfect shot.

The next day, the newspaper's headline would be about how terrorist planted a bomb in the Kuara Bank. The explosion could be seen from miles away, and many residents would claim they felt the resulting terrors throughout the city. The bomb was set to go off during the middle of rush hour, and the casualties and injuries would have been much higher if it hadn't been for a young girl holding up traffic.

Coincidental hero? She would take it. After all, it was the closest any normal being had come to finding out the truth.

She dug through the rubble, looking for the soul that had been so unfortunate to draw the hollow's attention. She found him next to the light post, relatively unharmed, but still shaking from the experience.

He clutched his chain helplessly, sagging in pain.

"Come on," she urged, "let's go get you some help." The poor soul was still under shock, and let her drag him away.

The humans were screaming, but now for a different reason. Part of her wanted to go back and help, after all she was at least in part responsible, but she couldn't afford to draw any more attention to herself. The police officer would undoubtedly remember her, and that was bad enough.

It was time to pay a visit to Mr. Hat and Clogs. He would know what to do.

…..

"You're staring again."

He blinked, surprised. So he had.

"It's not every day I see a human take on a menos grande." True, so very true, but he really had been wondering about the skirt. Since when did Karin wear skirts? Since when did Karin even own a skirt?

She shrugged, stuffing her hands in her pockets. She was half tempted to say 'I'm a Kurosaki, it runs in the family,' but she didn't want to be compared to her brother, especially now of all times. Especially by him.

Instead she said, "So are you going to tell me where you've been the past few months?"

He fiddled with his phone. "Nowhere important."

"Ah, so we've reverted back to being all secretive and mysterious."

"Knock it off Kurosaki."

"And back to surnames too. I told you its Karin."

"You're the only Kurosaki here." He pointed out.

"Ka-rin." She insisted.

Why was he being so cold now, so stubborn? Had something happened?

"Fine." He bit out. "Ka-rin."

Her frown eased slightly. It was always like pulling teeth with this guy.

"How did you do it?" He asked.

"Hmm?"

"Kill the hollow," he clarified.

"I sweet talked it into submission, convinced it that it should be my new pet, then brought it home on a leash so Yuzu could cover it in frilly lace and pink bows." Her lips twitched, trying not to smile.

He didn't look even remotely convinced, but raised a single white eyebrow at her explanation. "Your pet?"

She rolled her eyes. "Of course the only other explanation, highly unreasonable though it is, is that I somehow managed to magically break that stupid frog mask which we all know I can't do since I'm just a human."

She didn't mean for it to come off sounding bitter, but it did just the same. Maybe it was all that resentment from being kicked off the soccer team that was finally rearing its ugly head.

"Karin, it was a menos grande."

"What's that a fancy term for big wuss?"

He shook his head exasperated, and she wondered if it was a bad thing that she was getting this much entertainment at the expense of his own frustration. It was almost… cute.

"You really want to know?" She egged him. She was suddenly standing much closer to him than he was comfortable with, a mysterious smile on her face. Reaching up, she tapped his nose with her index finger.

"Tag!" She sang, zipping away.

He blinked, caught off guard for the second time that day, and losing precious seconds that could have been spent catching the wayward teen.

'When did she learn shunpo?' He took off after her, zooming across rooftops at high speed. 'How did she learn shunpo?'

She laughed up ahead, a blur of black hair. "Can't catch meeeeeee!"

When he filled out a mission report later, he would mention how Kurosaki killed the menos grande, taking advantage of its slow speed (do to its immense bulk) to out maneuver it in a tight urban area. He wouldn't mention which Kurosaki of course, and left the finishing blow up to interpretation. The higher ups would just assume Ichigo pressed his advantage with his usual forceful style and nothing more needed to be said.

Her human body served as a barrier for hiding her spiritual pressure, add that to her natural control, and she was practically undetectable. But he couldn't keep her secrete forever. Not when she was showing off like this. It was only a matter of time before someone else noticed and reported the strange hollow-fighting human.

When he caught her, he would have to give her a stern talking to.

He was closing in on his target, narrowing the gap.

She stopped, and he almost blew past her. Sneaky, but then he spotted the other sister. The twins linked arms, smiling and laughing as they walked home. Yuzu didn't seem to notice the white haired soul reaper crouching on the fence while Karin shot him a warning glare. Without a gigai, the fair-haired sibling could not see or hear him, but she would notice her sister talking at to herself or staring off into space.

Toshiro's cell phone blinked. It was just as well.

Karin twitched but kept walking. "Hey, let's take the longer route back today. It's so nice out."

Her twin readily agreed, and the two crossed the street, out of the way of the impending battle.

Hitsuguya drew his sword, flash stepping towards his newest adversary.

This hollow had a peculiar appearance. If it wasn't for the way it was crouching down, its body curved like a cat ready to pounce, it would have passed as… human. It's mask was carved in a laughing expression, a too bid smile that reminded the tenth captain of a clown.

"Ah, little dragon-kun, so we meet." The thing rolled its head from side to side in a disturbing, crazed manner, demonic yellow eyes flashing in excitement. "Perhaps you can teach me that which is most magnificent." It purred. "Hungry. Hungry. Always hungry."

Ice blue eyes narrowed. "Sit atop the frozen heavens…"

The hollow lunged, all jagged teeth and sharp, curved claws. An icy dragon exploded from the end of his sword as he slashed. It raced forward, mouth open in a furious roar, red eyes intent upon the hollow.

And was swallowed whole.

"Hungry. Hungry." The beast chanted, taking a moment to regroup. Its eyes swiveled back the previous target, a boy wearing a stunned expression. "More!"

It launched at the boy, snarling when he dodged. "Hungry. Mine!"

He dodged again, spinning to the left.

"Claws and teeth. Dig in with claws and teeth. Hold it still." The hollow was shaking, roaring, lolling its head to the side as his jaws smashed together. "Fill the hungry. Eat for fill."

A crack in the mask, a tiny chink, a flicker of white falling to the ground.

The boy had no time to think once again on the move. It was no doubt one of the strangest hollows he had ever encountered. It was not necessarily powerful in the same way the arrancar were powerful, but its strange ability was indeed troubling.

What a perplexing case. It expressed the unstable, mindless hunger of the lesser, weaker hollows, but exhibited more agility and fighting prowess than could be explained by a lower class species. A transition state perhaps? A mutant?

It sprang towards him again, and he sidestepped, raising his sword. Time for a different approach.

Metal claws scratching on his blade. He winced as though he himself had been wounded, a dragon's angry roar in his ear. Finish him. The crack on the mask widened.

It was surprisingly strong, pushing the boy back against the pavement, but the experienced captain did not seemed alarmed, his face hardly flickering. A sickle dangled from the end of a chain, bumping against his knee. The hand that had previously possessed it was raised, glowing lightly, a kido spell.

"Hado number sixty-three—"

It bit him. Razor teeth sawed through skin, red tongue lapping up the blood, crazed yellow eyes baring into his.

He stuttered. "Sōren Sōkatsui" (Twin Lotus Blue Fire, Crash Down)

The air exploded in white light. The hollow vaporized in an instant, the remaining shreds dissolved in unholy golden sparkles, vanishing into the sky.

His arm throbbed fiercely as he sheathed his blade. When his left hand moved, already glowing the light blue of a healing spell, he froze, arm still raised, stunned.

While it wasn't entirely intact and the edges were cracked and frayed, still biting on his arm was the hollow mask, lips still turned upright in eternal laughter.

Eight weeks before deadline

A slight buzz in the back of her mind, shingami, she could feel them. Three.

The rest of the class didn't so much as twitch, not even the few who were more spiritually aware. Instead they were busily scratching down the equation Mrs. Bard had put on the board, oblivious to the obvious invasion of their town.

Perhaps even she would not have picked up on that suppressed spirit pressure had she not been so intimately familiar with them, had she not spent hours analyzing their specific patterns, the ebb and weave of their spiritual flow.

She doubted her fool brother would have even noticed, but then again he struggled to locate any spiritual pressure that was anything short of his own (nothing else would break through that block head's barrier).

Idiot brother.

She tapped her pencil against the side of her leg, willing the clock's hand's forward. Someone had to investigate the presence of the soul reapers in the town even if that someone had to be late for soccer practice. Again.

Gawd. Of course this was the one day she chose to wear a skirt. Stupid idiot father dismantled the washing machine two days ago and had yet to reassemble it into some sort of working order. As she had stubbornly refused to give in to the madness she had the choice either to wash everything painfully by hand, go naked, or wear a skirt. Admittedly going naked had some sort of appeal to it, but she saw no reason to upset the dress code more than she already did. Plus Yuzu would probably keel over and die if she did that, and she really didn't want to put up with her father's rant on her "rebellious" nature.

Was there time to change into her soccer shorts? Maybe, but then it would be harder to make an excuse to the boys. She could always go the "womanly changes" route, that always shut them up, but the excuse was starting to get old even to her ears.

She might be able to pull off a 'left my practice jersey a home' or 'I had to walk Yuzu home because she forgot her key' excuse.

Or she could just say that her brother was home.

Everyone assumed he was some sort of vigilante, and never asked her questions about what he was up to or why he suddenly returned out of the blue. Half the team was terrified of him. It didn't help his image that Karin often came back with minor cuts and bruises from these "visits," and they let her go, albeit reluctantly, when she implied that it would be worse for everyone if they tried to keep her.

Everyone expected her to fall into the same pattern, to follow her brother's shoes: high school dropout, working odd end jobs, disappearing for months at a time.

Never. Never ever would she be like him.

He was impulsive whereas she looked before she leaped. His spiritual pressure was wild and uncontrollable, monstrously huge, and leaking everywhere. She was not so big, not so strong; her supply was not so bottomless.

Compared to his blaze, she was a mere candle. But what she lacked in raw, brute strength, she more than made up for in her control, in her tactics, in speed. Maneuvering a battlefield to her advantage was practically second nature. Hyper aware of her surroundings, it was that same third eye that helped her excel on the soccer field. It was a necessity, she didn't have her brother's ability to crash through solid buildings or take twenty hits before landing the final blow. She had to be more careful, more conservative. She didn't have time for flashy moves—there were far too many active hollows for that nonsense—she had to plan on the fly, strategize to give her the most bang for her buck, and still have enough energy left over to run those extra laps at soccer practice for being late (again).

Unlike her brother, she was not known to be a troublemaker. She made high marks in all her classes and was well behaved so long as no mentioned she was wearing a skirt. When the bruises started appearing, the teachers started asking questions, personal, private questions. At first, she dismissed it, hiding behind her soccer being a contact sport excuse, but when the coach got involved and the child services representative showed up on her doorstep… well, it became apparent that she needed to step up her game.

The bell rang, and the Kurosaki girl sighed in relief. Finally.

Shoving her notebook in her bag, she practically flew out the door. Rather than her usual route to the locker room, she made a sharp left, darting for the main entrance.

"Oi! Kurosaki!"

She bit back a groan. She had been so close. She spun on her heal, facing her pursuer directly. "Hey Shinji."

Her teammate jogged up to her. "Where are you going?"

She rubbed the back of her neck looking sheepish. "My old man forgot to do laundry yesterday so he said he would do it today, but I have to run home to get it."

It was the partial truth at least. Playing in a moderately smelly jersey had never stopped her before, but what with the clothes cleaning device out of commission (obvious given her current appearance in a skirt).

Obito, their goalie, joined them. "Ne Kurosaki, are you skipping again?"

"Looks like it," responded Shinji before she could respond.

Ugh, that buzzing again, they were moving. She had to leave now or she would never catch up.

Shinji folded his arms across his chest. "We've put up with your excuses for a long time."

The buzzing continued, and she felt trapped, her attention divided between the two forces, friends and responsibility. Not being able to give her full attention to either without loosing the other was driving her nuts.

Jiro, Kenji, and Maro, the team captain, joined the pack, blocking her exit.

But the shinigami were still moving, farther and farther, barely within her radar.

Maro spoke for the team. "I hate to say it, Kurosaki, but you're out."

She blinked, losing track of the soul reapers. "What?"

The boys avoided meeting her gaze. "You're joking right?"

Again, it was Maro who spoke. "It's not fair to the other guys who actually show up to practice." He scuffed his shoe along the tile floor. "We've been really patient, but we can't play this game anymore."

Her eyes were blank and unbelieving. 'This is not happening. This is not happening.'

"Turn in your jersey tomorrow at coach's office." They were backing up, still not meeting her eye. Why wouldn't they look at her?

Didn't they understand? She was trying so hard. She wanted this more than anything. She was the one who pushed and pushed to join the team. She was the one who endured a whole year of being benched despite being much better than the starters, who did not complain at their obvious resentment. She was the one who had to earn every second on the field, who dragged her way to the top of the starting order because she had every right to be there. She fought and fought every hurtle, every obstacle, disproving their belief that girls had no place on the field, shutting up the whiners by proving her skill, her mastery of everything involving the checkered ball.

For the first time in years, Karin felt like crying, like stamping her feet, like shouting at their retreating backs. But instead she just stared, statue frozen.

She never asked to see ghosts; she had pretended for years that they didn't exist. She had tried to ignore the screams of those being chased, being eaten by monsters with white faces, struggling to keep a straight face in class.

But one day she snapped. One day she realized she could prevent those screams, could fight those masked freaks using the same skills that made her so formidable on the soccer field.

And she cared. She really did. Maybe that was the problem, that she cared too much, about soccer, about her friends, about protecting Yuzu and the ghost people and her crazy brother.

She wanted everything from school to quiet nights to safe monster-free streets. All of it. And she had been trying to hard to make it work that none of it was working at all.

She didn't know how long she stood there, minutes, hours. It didn't seem to matter.

"Well," she sighed, adjusting the strap on her backpack. "That's just one less thing."

"Karin." Yuzu stood a few feet away, a look of deep concern etched into her soft features.

Karin hated to make her sister worry, hated that uncertain, worried expression. She mentally kicked herself for the slip up, slapping a silly grin on her face. "Eh Yuzu, I just remembered that I left my jersey at home, and I was worried I'd be late to practice."

"Oh." She fiddled with the stings of her apron, and I could see she was torn between wanting to walk me home and going to her cooking club.

It was our unspoken rule that they would always walk home together. It's why Yuzu even joined those frilly homemakers clubs like sewing and cooking so she didn't have to wait around until soccer practice was over.

"Ah! I better run or I'll be late! I'll see you after your club meeting!" called Karin from over her shoulder. She ran, leaving no room for her sibling to catch up.

She ran and ran and ran.

She was numb, not feeling anything, not the brush of wind, not the slam of sneakers on hot pavement, not pain, just cold, empty nothing.

She stopped at the bridge panting hard. This was the farthest she had ever ran from home, the farthest she had ever come on foot.

It would be so easy, to cross that bridge, to keep going, to never look back. Ichi-nii did it so why couldn't she?

Why did she have to be so different? Why did she have to be the one to stay? Pops and Yuzu needed both of them so why did he get to leave? Leave her to clean up this mess? Why did she have to be the responsible one, protecting Karkura, protecting the remains of her family? Why couldn't she be selfish for once?

The buzz again, angrier this time, louder, a hollow, in a neighborhood back the way she came.

She didn't move.

Why couldn't she leave? One step on that bridge is all it would take, the first of many. Why did she have to care?

Why couldn't she be normal?

She didn't want to be the hero—that was supposed to be her brother's job—but if he wasn't up to it someone else had to step in.

She closed her eyes in resignation turning her back to the bridge. Maybe some other time.

…..

He hated this place. Hated that it had to come to this.

"Doctor" Mauri was a pain to be sure, but the fact that he, a captain in his own right, had come seeing the doc's help (anyone's help for that matter) regarding a very personal, very private issue, was almost too much for him to bear. He almost turned around. Given time, he could work it out himself—a much more preferable option given his derision for the man and the amount of pride at stake—but he didn't have time. Not enough of it anyways.

Matsumoto would cover for him. She trusted his decision, and no one else had to know.

Nemu saved him the trouble of knocking. Saved him the trouble of standing outside, looking stupid, as he tried to make up his mind.

If he saw any other option, he wouldn't be here.

It's just a test, he reminded himself. Just a test.

Nemu pushed a button on the device around her wrist. "Mauri-sama, Hitsugaya-taicho is here."

A tiny screen lit up, displaying the image of the 12th division captain. The white haired boy suppressed the urge to shudder. As a general policy he tried to keep his distance from the 11th and 12th division. The 11th because they were just a little to eager to get into a fight with anything that breathed (much less presented a challenge), and the 12th he avoided because of Mauri.

It was not that he didn't respect the 12th division captain. In fact, Hitsugaya had a very healthy respect for the man, and had absolutely no desire to ever interact with him or any of his experiments beyond the professional level required.

"Bring him to the back room, and make sure he is, ah comfortable."

Nemu nodded robotically, and the screen flashed black. Without a word, she began to lead in further into the lab.

Doors lined the dimly lit hallway. Nails scrapping against metal behind one such portal, the sound of dripping liquid from another, and some sort of purple puss oozed from underneath a door farther down. The boy was extra precautious to avoid this one even if it did bring him marginally closer to a door labeled "Toxic Disposal Unit."

Finally, the lieutenant opened the second to last door on the left. He followed her inside.

It reminded him of the Kurosaki's clinic, clean and sterile, stiff white sheets pulled over an examination table.

"Have a seat."

The voice was different, softly worded rather than demanded, but the command was familiar and he obeyed without question.

How many times had he sat on an identical looking table in the human world? How many times had he had to endure that stinging alcohol swabs or being bandaged up like a mummy? Even though he told her that he was fine, that shingami healed faster than normal humans, and that really this was all ridiculous; it was that glare, that defiant tilt in her chin, and that soft, "You're hurt" as she gently wrapped a roll of gauze around his arm.

Familiar room, request, or otherwise, he still jumped a foot in the air the instant he spotted the needle.

Nemu tilted her head, perplexed by the boy-captain's reaction. "Mayuri-taicho said I am to make you comfortable."

Emerald eyes narrowed. "Perhaps you misunderstood my purpose for coming here."

The door reopened with an ominous click as the captain of the 12th division joined them in the small, whitewashed room.

"My apologies. She was only following standard procedure." Now there was a smile that didn't even pretend to be friendly. "To what do we owe the pleasure of your company Taicho?"

He should leave. There were other ways to go about it. After all Urahara knew his way around a lab even if his primary focus was presently diverted. No, he couldn't do that. He already owed him enough favors already.

Hitsugaya held out his hand, regretting his decision already. He focused on the particles of water in the air as they zoomed about the room, pulling them towards him. Particle by particle, they appeared in his hand, adding to the frozen mass.

His eyes never strayed from the other two beings in the room, especially the one with the needle. Neither appeared too impressed, already well versed in his abilities.

"My reiatsu," he stated as the size of the levitating, white orb grew, "has changed."

When it reached about as big a baseball, a crack appeared, spreading across the smooth surface. Perhaps the others did not notice, but being so intimately aware of his element as he was, he could feel it, like a crevice upon his very soul.

Without warning, the sphere burst into flame, hissing and snapping at all the other air-breathers present, an explosion, an eruption of light.

The youngest captain in six centuries hardened his expression. To the stunned scientist and his female creation, he simply asked, "Why?"

Eight Days before deadline

"Are you in?"

Hard grey eyes were focused intently on the boy in question. Their owner held her back straight, a show of how she was still taller than her red-haired companion, still considered herself to be his better.

The teen with the unruly amber locks heaved a sigh. "Do I have a choice?"

"You still owe me for that date with Yuzu," the girl reminded, hands automatically resting on her hips.

The boy sneered unpleasantly. "It doesn't count as a date if she didn't even know she was on one."

"It's not my fault you suck in the romance department Jinta. The fact still remains that you owe me."

"Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time."

"So are you in?" She reiterated.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm in." The red head stretched his stick-like appendages, making a show of looking around the abandoned classroom. "So wait is it just the two of us?"

"We can handle it."

"Aw man!" the boy complained, "It's going to suck putting up all those streamers and gas bombs if there's only two of us."

"We have a week."

"Ugh, there's no way we are going to able to pull this off in a week!"

The girl cracked her knuckles threateningly, a dangerous, black aura surrounding her. "What's that Jinta? You want to rig the cafeteria by yourself? To prove your manhood?"

"Eh, um, I…"

That was one way to render a guy speechless.

The girl threw a roll of duck tape aimed her companion's head with a speed no human should have been able to manage. "Well then you better get started." She said in that same deadly tone, a maniacal gleam in her eye.

The boy quickly darted out the door, arms loaded with the required "surprise" materials, eager to escape the vicinity before she could throw anything else at him.

…..

The most senior shinigami eyed the package curiously.

It was a small box. A box of intricate design. It had been crafted from ebony, the edges lined with copper. Delicate panels, crafted with the upmost care, had been coated in black lacquer, both to dull the colors of the box's components and to enhance the mirror finish. It had been crafted and assembled with masterful skill and polished with loving care.

The captain of division one wondered at the origins of the box, never before had he seen something of such intricate delicacy, such profound design and mastery of craft. Where had it come from?

He cast a deliberate glance at the so-called discover of such a thing, a soul nearly as ancient as he himself.

The woman smiled, wrinkles curtaining her eyes. She was dressed in simple brown robes of undeterminable origin that appeared to sag on her stooped shoulders. She gestured with a pruny hand.

"Look closely, General. It is not as it fist seems."

His gaze returned to the box, studying it carefully.

Abruptly, the image shifted, dark wood sliding into darker planes. At first, it appeared as though shadows danced across the polished surface, but as the details grew, the image turned gruesome. Appalling images swept across the box's faces, people, souls, bound by hooks and blades, enwrapped in chains, more defined by blood and agony than by faces. Bare flesh torn open, pink and pulsating, mouths wide with silent screams.

Then, it was gone. A simple black box sitting innocently on his desk. The careful shine remained the same as before, but the beauty had been lost. The captain sat back in his seat, stomach churning uncomfortably, deeply disturbed.

"What is that thing?" A man of few words, he had always been blunt.

The ancient soul across from him was still smiling. "Ah, my dear General, this is Pandora's box."

Beady eyes grew dark. "Centuries ago, the box was opened by a little girl," She placed a hand on her chest as if in pain. "foolish enough to think it would bring the end of death."

"As a soul of light, the box easily opened at her touch, and, unwittingly, she released the dark plague upon the world. Monsters, soul eaters, and worse, black, poisons hearts.

"Realizing her mistake, she tried to close the box, but alas, such a thing can only be closed by he that wields a demon's hand in the heart of the dark land itself. She was not he.

"She tried to destroy the box. Failed. Tried to lose the box. Failed. She became its keeper, its unwilling guard. She kept it safe, waiting for he with the demons hand to relieve her of her burden, and after all this time, the box finally calls for another's hand. It brought its keeper here. It brought me to you."

A bushy white eyebrow rose, the only indication of surprise. "It seeks me?"

"Don't be foolish. The hand is not yours or the call would have come centuries sooner. No, it is one of your kind, one of your like, a soul much younger than thine."

"A new recruit perhaps?"

The old woman rewrapped the box delicately. "Neither young nor old, neither strong nor weak. Not of power, not of pride. Young but not foolish, old but not wise.

"Not a fresh soul, no, not new, but a changed soul. Willing spirit, poisoned hand, ugly purpose, good man."

There was a knock on the door, three concise raps. The two ancient spirits did not move.

"Even now destiny seeks him." The old woman crooned.

The shinigami captain eyed the door curiously, wondering on the identity of the shadow. "Enter," he called, watching the bamboo frame slide open.

A head of white hair bowed respectively. "Yamamoto-san," Teal eyes flickered over to the woman hovering near his desk. "Am I interrupting?"

'Ah,' thought the seated shinigami, 'the prodigy. Unexpected, but not surprising.'

The woman beside him beckoned, her cold smile unwavering. "Join us young captain."

The new arrival nodded politely, but as he entered the room, his steps were wary, his posture guarded.

The soul reaper behind the desk watched him, studying the young captain with new eyes. His soul type was rare, appearing only once every few century or so, and, if the woman were to be believed, the loss of this captain would inevitably be a permanent one.

When the first division captain had first seen the boy and witnessed his potential, he knew a great destiny lay before him. At the time, it appeared as though he had finally found his successor, young, inexperienced, but could only improve with time. He had watched the young soul grow with the same critical eye he passed over all his shinigami and was not disappointed.

Until now.

"What brings you here this evening Captain Hitsuguya?"

Only years of practice kept the boy's discomfort from showing. He glanced at the woman again, uncomfortable with her crow-like smile and not pleased that he had to make such a request in front of her.

"With permission, I would like to take a week off my duties at the tenth division. There is training Hyorinmaru would have me do."

"Indeed," replied the general, subtly eyeing the woman at his left. "I would grant your request after you listen to this woman speak. I believe she has a mission pertaining to you upon your return."

The boy nodded in acquiescence.

Under piles of wrinkles and sagging flesh, a smile turned malicious and the colors of the room darkened. "Ah, little dragon-sama. Did you know that in the ancient days man could not tell if dragons were heavenly guardians, sent by the angels, or demonic beasts given wings." She picked up the box tenderly with motherly care. "Perhaps they are a bit of both ne? What do you think?"

Eight Hours before deadline

Karin tapped her pencil against her desk.

After her stunt in the cafeteria, the boys had finally stopped avoiding her. She wasn't sure if she was excited to have them finally come around or depressed that all it really took was a good "magic" show. Figures.

And what did she get for her troubles? Detention and a phone call to her dad. Lovely.

…..

He didn't want to talk to them. He didn't want to talk to anybody. Right now he really just needed to me alone, a quiet place to think. He wasn't interested in a big dramatic goodbye.

"Aren't you a little old to play on the swing set?"

He looked up from his musings, gaze landing on the fukitaicho that was nearly impossible to miss with his blood red hair.

"Renji."

Said shingami helped himself to the swing next to the tenth captain. The seat was much too small for his broad frame as he awkwardly settled in. Had it been any other time, Hitsuguya would have done more that simply raise and eybrow. Had it been any other time, he would have initiated a verbal spar as to who exactly was being the most childish as the fukitaicho tested out the strength of the chains and the extent of what they could handle when it came to "swinging" or whatever it was he was doing. Had it been any other time, the leader of the tenth division, youngest captain in eleven centuries, would have simply walked away, embarrassed to be associated with such... peculiar antics.

But he said nothing. He hardly even moved. Didn't even blink when his companion attempted a twisting somersault handstand—and failed miserably.

In a few hours he would be dying. No, he would be dead. That's all there was to it.

"You know," Renji said as he tried to disentangle himself from the loops of chains, "you don't have to go through with it. I know everyone expects you to, but it's still your choice and all."

It didn't matter. The way his reiatsu was changing lately, even Matsumoto had noticed. He might as well put a use to it.

But he would have done it anyways even if they hadn't asked.

The silence stretched on between the two companions, and they both knew what it meant. He wouldn't change his answer, but then, Renji hardly expected him to. It was funny how much he was hoping he would. He knew how stubborn the white haired taicho could be, especially when it came to protecting the people he cared about, but for him, personally, he never wanted it to happen this way. He understood how the sacrifice of one could do so much for so many, but he never wanted the one to have to do that in the first place. Never wanted it to be necessary.

The red head understood—he knew what his decision would be had their roles been reversed—but he knew he wouldn't be the only one supporting the tenth captain if he changed his mind. Far from it.

Renji said nothing of this, respecting the other's decision.

He was just here as backup, to seal the portal on the side of the human world once the taicho had passed through, to make sure nothing happened to him between now and then. It wasn't his job to interfere.

Matsumoto was trying, taking the responsibility personally, raising as much hell and interference as she could.

It wasn't working as she had hoped. It was only pushing her taicho farther away.

So Renji didn't try. If the captain's mind was made up, then so be it. He knew what he was getting into. Now was the time for quiet contemplation, for peace, for understanding, for goodbyes. It was not Renji's place to stop him.

Just to remind him that he could stop himself, that he was not alone or didn't have to be.

Eight Minutes before deadline

Karin looked up as the night sky started to glow with energy. From every house, every sleeping soul, from windows and balconies, from office buildings and dorm rooms, from apartment complexes, from the man blearily walking his dog, from the souls who stood quietly in the cemetery, from her sister's heart and from her own, the white strings that stretched forward, stretching on to a different plane of existence, they glowed, humming softly in the night air.

In all the years that she had seen the different threads that connected people, never had she seen anything like this. There were so many of them coming from all across the city, maybe even the towns beyond, coming from all different directions. Thin white ribbons stretching across the sky.

Her heart ached as she realized what they were for. If black was the color of enemies, hatred, repulsion and violence, then white, pure, beautiful white like that, it must mean…

The girl's hands trembled. He's going to do it. He's really going to do it.

She would not cry. She swore she would not cry. Not now, especially not now.

Damn it, wasn't he supposed to be better than this? Wasn't she?

She cursed as yet another hollow faded into the human plane. Running after that grey-brown thread she wondered when her feet became so loud.

…..

He wondered how something so small could be so heavy.

The weaker hollows hardly paid him any attention; one sniff of his demonic reiatsu and they left him about his business, believing him to be a fellow servant of the dark kingdom. The boy was cautious though, constantly scanning his surroundings. The stronger warriors, the arrancar would recognize him, sealed shingami reiatsu or not. It would be trouble if they found him too soon.

Planting the device was easy enough. It was the sealing that caused so much trouble.

The design for the seal array was beautiful, and he almost wished he had gone into sealing instead of swordplay. It certainly would have been a simpler, more peaceful lifestyle. After he got control of his monstrous reiatsu, he could have just returned home and taken up that apprenticeship in sealing under Master Gatsu.

But he swore to protect Momo, his sister, wanted to protect his grandmother, his friends, his precious people.

He watched his classmates in the academy, measured their progress, estimated their potential. As he breezed through the coursework, easily mastering everything they offered from swordplay to kido, he worried for them. They weren't going to be strong enough to purge the world of hollows, maybe the smaller species, but a menos grande was way out of their league. They couldn't protect Momo or his grandma, could hardly even defend themselves.

His superiors called him a protégé, but they failed to understand what made him so. Yes, he had a natural affinity for kido, and yes, he already knew his sword's name. They saw it as inborn talent, impressive despite his soul's young age.

They didn't see how hard he worked to earn every measly skill. Kido was the easiest for him as all he really needed was the basic theory behind the spells to get him started. After that it was like following a formula, each spell only a slight variation from the other.

His control though, it was pathetic really. How many hours had he spent meditating in his room? Not many students knew, but he initially had to have wards placed on his room to keep the leaking reiatsu from freezing them to death. When they applauded his control, how easily he was able to suppress his spiritual pressure, how precise his uses of it were, the teachers shared a knowing look. How much more did he have to work until he finally, finally was at a state where he didn't have to worry about accidentally killing someone? Diving deep into his subconscious, chasing his wild reiatsu until it was tame and calm, obeying his will with the precision he demanded?

Swordplay did not come easy either. In fact on the first day of training, he had nearly impaled himself due to his clumsy footwork, meanwhile his sensei tried his hardest not to laugh.

He supposed one of the reasons he improved so rapidly was due to the long trips into the depths of his mind. First it was to wrap a handle around the massive spiritual pressure, but then, when control came more easily, it was to talk to the dragon.

The sword master who lectured in the dojo witnessed firsthand the peculiar transformation in the boy's fighting style. His blade had already taken on a specific design, but the boy had yet to release his shikai. In addition, he had taken up a different style than that which they taught at the academy, indicating that he either had outside assistance or was already learning from his sword. When the teacher inquired about the boy's circumstances, he received a cryptic answer.

The boy wanted to master the sword at the most basic level, completely and totally, before moving on. He understood that shikai and bankai increased a shingami's abilities, but what was the use if he could not hold his own in a swordfight.

He was a quick learner, the teacher noted, able to put theoretical concepts to practical use. It helped that he was already quick on his feet, no doubt the result of living in the Rukongai where such evading thugs and outrunning street vendors was just a part of everyday life.

The boy was aware of his disadvantages such as sheer strength but was also certain about his abilities, his speed. More often than not, he had been able to beat stronger sparing partners simply by outmaneuvering them.

Then when the class moved outdoors, a more realistic scene for fights, it was like opening a door for him, allowing him to exceed using his greatest weapon: tactics.

But it was still strange, his sensei thought, how quickly he developed. It was like he was getting five times the fighting experience as everyone else in the class, growing in leaps and bounds. Though he inquired the other staff, it appeared as though no one else was teaching the boy, privately or otherwise. A true protégé indeed.

What pretty thoughts, silly, blind opinions. If they only knew.

But the boy didn't dwell on the past now, completely engrossed in his task. Swirls of black ink patterned the rocky floor, spiraling out and away from the black box. He traced the characters from memory, cautious that they were just so. Sealing was messy work; one wrong move and boom, game over.

He stood up, task complete, whipping his blackened hands against his white haori. He paused, observing his masterpiece with a critical eye.

It seemed as though his work had drawn a crown. A curious horde of lower hollows gathered nearby, giving the boy enough berth to work yet not so far off that they could not observe. Never before had they seen anything so complex.

The boy was a powerful one; they could feel his pulsing demonic energy from a good distance away. Instinct said they were not strong enough to kill him, at least not without overwhelming forces, and the survivor attribute told them not to try. He had no mask, and they had learned to be wary of those who walked without it.

They lingered though, half hoping a stronger opponent would come by and weaken him. Consuming his remains would add his power to their own, perhaps enough to remove their own masks, maybe even strong enough to going the legions of chaos and become a numero.

Several left for the human plane, unable to contain their desires to feed. Better to risk encountering the shingami than go up against one of the mask-less.

The stronger ones remained, having greater power over their hunger. But for now they watched, golden eyes fixed on his bent frame.

Eight Seconds before deadline

Damn it. God f-ing Damn. There was no time.

…..

He closed his eyes feeling the blood trickling down his chin. It didn't matter anymore.

"Oi! Shinigami! Ain't ya gonna fight back?"

Turquoise eyes stared back into the hungry gold, flashing with an unidentifiable emotion. The other hollows backed up slightly, feeling a wave of spiritual energy wash over them.

'Seven… Six…'

A/N: I will be on vacation for the next week or so with questionable internet connection. If I can update I will, if not then please be patient. Hopefully you will be getting a lovely email notification next Friday if all goes in accordance to the prophecy.

Like it? Love it? Helpful criticism? Please leave a review.

Thanks for being my inspiration!

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.