Pandora's Key

Four

Author's Notes: First and foremost, a most heartfelt thank you to everyone who reviewed last chapter. I worked really hard to finish the chapter quickly, and I hope you all enjoy it as much as the last.

Standard disclaimers still apply.

Four Centuries before deadline

The first soul was back in the medium, resting. Many of the ties from its previous existence had been burned and shredded. It shuddered painfully. How had it rushed so foolishly so recklessly into the world of the living? Such a cruel awful place.

Another soul drifted by, offering a thread. The first orb shuddered again, refusing. No more ties. That had been a mistake.

The other soul hummed in pity, not approaching the injured orb but not leaving it either. It offered its thread again, no, insisted. Warm, healing, a promise it offered.

Not a blue string and not a green or red. A strange color.

This time it accepted the offer, tentatively taking the other soul's hand, and the pair ascended, rising up, up, up, joining the kingdom of the dead.

Four Years before deadline

For as long as she could remember, she could see the strings, the treads that bound two people together.

Around her heart, the colors were familiar. Three threads of sky blue, two of which trailed off towards different rooms, one to her sister's bedroom, one to her fathers. The third trailed off somewhere in the distance, fading in visibility as it went. It was her brother's thread, off somewhere where she couldn't see.

There had been another blue sting, but it had been cut years ago, the edges frayed and worn. Her mother's. She never touched that one.

Green threads for her friends, spreading out in all different directions. Hiro and Maro and Shinji among the others. They weren't as strong as they used to be, the cords not as thick, but they had not vanished or left her behind.

Then there were the ugly grey-brown threads, colors of death and decay. Those led to hollows. She had always assumed it was reserved for monsters such as that, the relationship between hunter and prey, killer and victim. Never had she been more surprised when she saw it on another human being.

She was not sure what the cords were exactly, threads of fate that bound different souls together. Purple for companionship, pink for young couples, maroon for those who were married. Oranges for crushes and blushes, yellows for those who flirted with the boundary between friendship and more.

Black was for enemies. She had a few of those too, but most of them tied back to girls at school, the preps, the cheerleaders, the perfect wannabe's. The girl did not touch these strings either.

Then there was the last thread, a strange golden color. It had actually been the first thread she had seen, back when her spiritual awareness was still growing and the threads were harder to discern.

It always filled her with warmth when she touched it. It felt like sunshine and completion and wholeness.

She wandered what it could mean. She very rarely saw the gold threads on anyone else, not on her family and not on friends. Sometimes she would pass strangers and would see it on them, a gold thread trailing back behind them, but they were almost always alone, never with the person the thread connected them to.

Once she saw it on an older classman and inquired about through her network of friends. Apparently, he was a bit of a loner. Oh he had friends, she could clearly see the dark green threads, but despite his good looks and charming personality, his dating record was severely lacking. Sure, some girl's trailed after him, orange threads tied to their chest, but he hardly glanced their way outside of casual conversation.

She wondered why.

What was the pull of the gold threads? She had no particular interest in the opposite sex. It was not that she didn't think guys were cute or Shinji's six pack wasn't drool-worthy; just that she had no desire to date those guys.

She used to wonder what was wrong with her. Yes, she was attracted to guys, and yes, she knew that eventually she would end up with one, but she had yet to find one she wanted to be with, one that she wanted to call 'boyfriend' or introduce to her father or show that soft side she kept hidden away.

None of the boys fit that bill. There was always something wrong with them. Shinji was a pig, Maro's whining drove her nuts, Jal was nice but she wasn't attracted to him, and Koru, well she couldn't even imagine kissing Koru without wincing.

None of them worked. None at all. What was wrong with her? Karin never thought she would end up being the picky type. What was it? The gold thread? Should she try and cut it off? Would she be normal then?

No, that just felt wrong. It felt like so much a part of her in ways that she could not explain. This connection, or whatever it was, was important, crucial, in ways she had yet to realize.

….

The tenth captain sighed over the mountain of paperwork that threatened to topple onto his lap. It really was a shame. There was a perfectly good rainstorm to practice in, and he was trapped here picking up Matsumoto's slack.

He really should have requested a different division after he passed his captaincy test, but after serving for years as a fukitaicho under Captain Isshin, he already knew all the seated officers, their strengths and weakness, and how to command them in a fight so it only seemed natural that he stay within familiar territory. That had been his first mistake.

His second mistake was actually listening to all of Matsumoto's excuses, many beyond the qualifications of ridiculous, and finally giving in, just this once, if the Shinigami Women's Association was that important to her.

That had been his downfall.

He didn't mind the paperwork, not really. He was used to filling out the forms and documenting reports since his days as fukitaicho. It was the fact that his lieutenant was consistently pulling up excuses, tardy on the days she didn't walk in half-drunk, showing off her assets in the most inappropriate of manners.

He would have to be a fool not to notice something was wrong. Her errant behavior started shortly after Isshin's disappearance, but that had been nearly a decade ago, back when he really didn't mind working himself to death if it meant he didn't have to think about the captain's betrayal.

No, Matsumoto's more recent behavior was deviating beyond her usual reckless antics to the point of stupidity at best, insubordination at worst.

He had his suspicions that this… development… coincided a bit too neatly with Ichimaru Gin's promotion. And that Gin had yet to pick a lieutenant.

Perhaps it was her inadvertent way of asking for a transfer. It hurt to think that she didn't respect him enough to simply ask. Even if her pride would not allow her to submit a formal, documented request, did she really need to go to such lengths to get her message across? Was he really that intimidating.

Opening a drawer, he leafed through folders, picking out a form he had never needed before. A transfer form.

He filled out the appropriate boxes signing his name on the bottom stating that he, captain of the division, approved of the transfer of his fukitaicho not for her lack of ability but due to their clashing personalities.

Matsumoto would also need to sign it.

He left the form face up on her abandoned desk with a note.

'I understand. Next time just ask.'

He left, the tiny office already feeling much too crowded. He abandoned the large stacks of yet to be completed reports and order forms that still needed his signature, needing some air.

He opened the bamboo door to the pouring rain, the sky as black as night. Lightning slashed through the heavens followed by the primitive roar of thunder. He leapt, using his reiatsu to carry him into the heart of the storm.

Wind ripped at his small body, tearing at his shinigami robes as icy hail pelted his back. He raced across the sky seeing how many of those ice crystals he could slice in half before they met the ground.

67, 68, 69…

Hours later when he returned, soaking wet and dragging a trail of puddles to his office, he was surprised to see his lieutenant crowded around his desk scribbling madly on an errant document.

She looked up at the sound of his entry. "Taicho! You're soaked!" She stood rushing to get a towel.

He raised an eyebrow when something white and fluffy was dumped on his head. "Here I'm worried sick and you're off playing in the rain." She scrubbed his head with furious abandon.

"And what's with this transfer nonsense? Are you sick? Why would I want to leave? I've got the best taicho in the Gotei thirteen!"

He smiled, taking the towel from her hands. "Hai."

Four Months before deadline

"Look buddy, you really picked the wrong girl to mess with." Her fingers curled into fists.

The man in the strange topped hat smiled, as if he found her bravado amusing. Dressed in a vintage suit out of the sixties complete with golden cufflinks and pocket-handkerchief, he hardly looked like the type to go for girl half his age.

"Oh contraire, little niña, I can see you are not the damsel in distress type." He wasn't backing down and that unnerved her.

She planted her feet in a loose defensive stance, knees bent, ready to spring. Good thing she had the foresight to put her hair up in a ponytail before she left the house or else she would have to worry about her hair getting in the way.

"That's because I don't need protecting."

If anything, his predatory smile only widened. "I've been watching you, chica, watching you fight, and I have been dying to make you squirm." He leaned forward, as if to whisper a delightful secrete. "You won't cry or beg or scream."

She leapt back, dodging the blow, her back ramming into the sharp corner of the dumpster. He was fast. She was already dodging again, poorly executing a tuck and roll. He was practically on top of her before she even got to her feet.

He hadn't even drawn his sword.

Since she was practically on the ground anyways, she rolled into a sweeping kick, but he just danced out of her way. He didn't even look like he had broken a sweat.

'He's toying with me.' She realized with a jolt.

He smiled. "Spunk. I admire that in prey."

To human eyes, the black suited figure appeared to vanish, moving even faster than Karin could track.

She was jerked backwards by a sudden force, and it felt like her hair was tearing out pieces of her skull do to the strength of his pull. Then she was airborne as Mr. top hat leapt across the rooftops at such speed that her eyes could not keep up and it felt like all her internal organs were sinking down to her feet.

'What is he?'

Desperate, she blindly grabbed at the cords around her chest, pulling on the first one she came in contact with.

Blue thread, Yuzu's eyes's. 'Shit.' She released it at once. She did not, could not risk her twin like that. Strong bond or not, she didn't know how much it could handle given her current velocity especially when she could very well rip her sister out the second floor window if Yuzu wasn't centered properly.

She reached for the other blue, Ichigo, strong, he could take it. but the thin line slipped through her fingers like sand. She cursed. Always out of her reach.

Her hand grabbed onto something solid and warm. Gold glow, teal eyes. She pulled for all that she was worth.

It was like moving a mountain with a plastic toy shovel, impossible, impractical, but not entirely pointless. Like a spring coiling back in on itself, her soul shot from her body, rocketing off towards her mountain.

It was not the first time she had used the threads, but it was the first time she used his.

And he felt it. Damn, she could feel him feel it, feel his head turn. No, she didn't want to put him in danger, just to get away…

But she was already zooming by the man in the black hat, his eyes wide and surprised, still dragging along her limp form by the ponytail. Beyond his reach in less than a heartbeat, she grimaced. There was no way she was going to be getting her body back.

Her feet dangled behind her, air whipping past her face. She felt so light. It had been so long since she was last in her soul form, months since she had taken that oath in Urhara's shop to never leave her body except in the most dire of circumstances.

She hoped getting taken hostage by a hollow counted as dire enough as she really didn't feel like sitting through another one of those tea-time lectures (theatrics included).

Several miles of black pavement flew under her, but it was not until she was nearing the bridge that she eased her grip on Toshiro's thread, gradually coming to a stop.

She had never crossed this bridge, and she wasn't going to start now.

He was coming; she could feel it.

She couldn't outrun him, not without calling out the use of threads, but she didn't trust her control right then, didn't trust herself to have the precision necessary for that kind of maneuvering, not with the state of mind she was in.

She needed to calm down, deep even breaths. Years of practice helped her school her features into a nonchalant expression.

The sword at her hip thrummed comfortingly. The girl had never drawn the blade, but then she didn't think she was meant to. Still just a human, she wasn't ready to learn its name, wasn't ready to tangle in that world of shingami.

In a weird way, she think it understood, respected that decision even. A time would come when she would be ready and she would draw that sealed blade, just like one day she would be ready to—

"Karin?"

She twisted doing her best to look casual and unconcerned, to keep that easygoing smirk.

"Hey there Toshiro!"

He would not die because of her. Not today. Not ever.

….

He had never seen her raw soul walking around. He knew she had access to it, but for some reason it seemed as though she preferred to stay within her human body. Understandable for someone like Ichigo who needed all the advantages of shielding reiatsu that a human body offered, but for Karin whose spiritual pressure was not nearly so ridiculous and to whom control came as natural as breathing, it seemed a bit pointless. Especially considering the additional limitations of speed and, well, the fact that any stray human could see her. But now he wondered what brought the sudden change.

He had so many questions to ask her. That pull on his abdomen, the flood of fear, the rush of panic, the need to find her, the certainty that she was in danger, how he just knew where she was. What was that? Why did it happen?

What on earth was she even doing out here at this hour, so far from home. She couldn't have been fighting a hollow; otherwise he would have felt the traces of her reiatsu.

It was strange. He could still feel her, knew her heartbeat was still going a mile a minute under that calm expression. How did he know that? But he was certain, as sure about he had ever been about anything.

And now that he knew what to look for, the warning signs were all there, the rigidness of her stance, the dilation of her pupils, the absence of the wrinkle in the skin next to her eye when she smiled.

He frowned. The sudden abandonment of her body, her random appearance near the bridge, his sudden insight that she was in danger, it couldn't all just be chance. But before he could open his mouth, before he could voice any of these thoughts, there was a flair of reiatsu behind him, the sound of something landing on the bridge.

He turned facing a figure dressed in black. The man, if it could be called that, was dragging something heavy behind him, and it was with a start that the boy realized it was the battered version of Karin's body.

"I believe the senorita has lost something." The hollow, he was certain of it, released Karin's head, and the two other souls winced at the painful crack of skull meeting pavement.

"I trade you body for spirit. The chica has a nice flavor no? Es muy delecioso."

It wasn't hard for the white haired shingami to fit the pieces together. His teeth ground together. "Stay here."

"Sit atop the frozen heavens, Hyorinmaru!"

The arrancar grimaced. "Must we fight? I really don't like boys."

The soul reaper responded with a downward slash that swept Mr. top hat away from Karin's body.

"My name is Toshiro Hitsugaya, captain of the tenth division."

"Ah the dragon pequeño. Yes, I heard you killed my most hungry amigo. I am Fernando, espanda de ocho."

His graceful bow was mocking. "Killing a lady's entourage is most ungentlemanly, but if I must dispel of such unpleasant company then so it must be." He spread his arms wide in a false gesture of hospitality. "I shall slay the dragon, then the chica is mine, yes?"

A great crack sounded from underneath the bridge, and the steel support beams groaned in agonizing protest. Even in the dim moonlight the sheen of lapping water had been visible as black waves tossed the reflected light.

But as the well dressed man finished his speech, the water swelled, crackling. Spikes, white and deadly, impaled the inky surface, rising both in number and height above the even the tallest arch of the bridge. White frost spread outward from the boy's feet, his turquoise eyes darkened in anger.

Downwind, a ponytailed soul was bent over her abandoned body, attempting to drag it away from the inevitable destruction zone. Dark eyes glanced at the icy pillars in concern. At this rate, the entire bridge was coming down.

Gripping her body over the shoulder (because she was in no hurry to feel that inevitable headache), she focused her center. She could do this.

A light tug on Yuzu's thread pulled her to the safety of the park where she quickly hid her body behind the bleachers of the stadium. Hopefully it would be safe there. Racing back to the bridge the old fashioned way, via foot, she felt the ground trembling underfoot and nearly doubled over at the intensity of Hitsugaya's spiritual release.

Her sword thrummed at her side, a warning. The brunet quieted her zampakto with a reassuring pat. She was not naïve. At this level of fighting, she knew she would be less than useless, not when she could barely stand up against the heavy reiatsu. Instead, she would keep close watch from the sidelines, not because she was a damsel in distress, but because she was not stupid enough or reckless enough or lucky enough to blunder into a fight way over her head the way Ichigo did.

She still powered up her spirit bullet, just in case.

Meanwhile, the boy, captain or otherwise, was having the duel of his life. This arrancar, the eighth espada had yet to release his blade, and yet he was matching the little white flake blow for blow, evading his attacks with ridiculous ease, then parrying with unreal speed.

"You are holding back dragon pequeño. How do you call it? Bankai? Is the chica not worth full strength? The knight shall slay such an arrogant dragon."

"Will you shut up!" The shingami captain shouted. Without fail, he always seemed to get the opponents who didn't know how to stop jabbering.

Leaping, he hurled his chain with herculean speed at the tuxedo man's neck. Under the brim of his dark hat, lips quirked into a smile as the chain sliced through his afterimage.

Further down the pavement lingering near cement medium, dark eyes widened as they followed the path of precious red fluid sliding down the tip of a thin sword, dripping, falling, staining the white ice bellow.

A thin blade sliced through his kimono, gutting the black fabric like a fish. He grit his teeth as pain slid through his senses, but he refused to let the red haze cloud them. Releasing the chain, he took hold of the blade piercing his torso, preventing its user from easy withdrawal. Sharp edges sliced his palm, cutting through the thick skin.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the girl moving, saw her channeling reiatsu into the tip of her finger.

No, she could not be involved. He had to be quick.

"Bankai."

Icy wings erupted from his back as his power merged with that of the dragon. The dark suited man abandoned his sword, cart wheeling back to avoid being impaled. He could feel Karin being thrown back at the near explosion of reiatsu sent her petite form flying off the pavement, haphazardly landing in the ditch meant for runoff water, red glow on her hand vanishing.

All this he processed in less than a second as he flew forward in pursuit of the unarmed espada. He slashed, and the tuxedo man raised his forearm to block. The boy smirked as it was encapsulated in ice, he pulled back for a second strike, anticipating of the frozen limb to shatter.

A crack appeared in the icy surface, and the young captain felt a rush of dark energy. In his hand, Hyorinmaru pulsed, his only warning.

A flash of white, blinding explosion. The bridge shook, metal grating and melting, threatening to buckle. It was like a domino effect. The ice on the river lit up, erupting in an identical blast, thundering so loud his eardrums shattered, so bright he feared his retinas burning, shaking the earth with the power of a bomb meeting an earthquake. He felt his outer skin burning and pealing, his internal organs being spared from boiling only my the last moment wall of protection his dragon threw up, instinctively protecting his young wielder.

Thoughts of battle were momentarily forgotten as his eyes sought through the inferno and his barrier of ice, seeking that ditch, the girl had rolled into. 'Karin.'

The wave of destruction passed, and there was no sign of the man with the top hat as he raced over steaming pavement and the curdled remains of what used to be a bridge, praying that the girl had the foresight to put up a kido shield, even if it was only a weak one.

It seemed she had though the protection had been minimal at best. Her left leg splayed at an unnatural angle while her hands, the part that had fought to maintain the shield raised against the rocking explosion, he could see white bits of bone beneath the red twitching muscle. Her arms were covered in blisters, blood dripping at her elbow, angry black scorch marks ripping across her shoulders. Panting through cracked lips, dark grey eyes gazed up at him, expression blank with cold horror. She wobbled, barely conscious, hands still raised, not crying but not screaming either.

He was afraid to touch her, afraid to make things worse.

Blue light of healing kido lit up his hands in an unearthly glow. He had never been much of a healer, had never attempted anything beyond the basics. He held the light near her hands, not touching, but letting the gentle healing energy sink into her flesh.

She whimpered once as the nerve fibers reconnected but stayed silent as pink tissue covered her fingers, grey eyes fixed on him as he worked.

He didn't say anything, didn't know what he could say. He didn't look at her either as disgusted as he was with himself. What would she say if she knew that dark energy, the spark that swept the whole world on fire, came from him? If she knew that he who had sworn on a number of occasions to protect her had been the one to put her in this state?

He should have just left her with the hollow. She would have been safer.

Ivory skin rolled back over her digits, and he shifted, moving down to her wrists, then arms, a slow patch job. She said noting, didn't even move, uncharacteristically still.

He didn't know what to do about the black burns on her shoulders or how to splint a broken leg so he just left them alone. It was a quick patch job anyways; the real healing would have to occur on its own the old fashioned way.

It was just as well that he was taking her home. Her father was a doctor right? Didn't her family own some sort of clinic? They would know what to do, but first…

He was still afraid to touch her, but it was irrational to expect her to walk on her own. Slowly, he bent, wrapping his arm under her legs as carefully as he would a newborn child. His other hand slid behind her shoulder blades as he cradled her against his chest. The brunet hissed as her injured leg moved, and the dragon boy froze, feeling helpless. He didn't want to hurt her, but he needed to get her to a safe place where someone more experienced could handle her wounds.

"It's fine," she growled. "Just get me back to my body. It's under the bleachers next to the soccer field."

He nodded, readjusting his grip under her legs in what he hoped would be a less painful position. The girl carefully wrapped her arms around his neck as he stood. They still hurt, but by then she was growing numb to the sensation.

She wasn't angry at him, just frustrated at her own weaknesses and failings. Always getting in the way, causing him trouble, she hated being so dependant. She wanted to be strong enough that not only would she not need his protection but that she could protect him.

Closing her eyes, she nuzzled his neck, half hoping he wouldn't notice and half hoping he would. She needed to keep him safe too. He was the only one she would show that soft side to, the only one she needed to need her too, and she was not going to let that go. Not now, now when she was finally understanding what that gold thread was for.

Four Weeks before deadline

She was glad her father had never been the type to worry about grades because she certainly was slipping now. It's not that she didn't care just that she didn't have time to give to the idiosyncrasies of homework.

Jinta had been covering for her splendidly, claiming she had joined this elite soccer team across town. Practices ran late so she really couldn't get back in time to walk Yuzu home, but he, the disgusting pig, was more than happy to step in for her.

It couldn't be helped though. At the very least, she owed him for seeing her sister home safely since she was so clearly unavailable.

She still felt bad about leaving her sister in the dark; she hated it when Ichi-nii did that, even if it was for their own protection. But if Yuzu knew what she was really up to, balancing precariously on that tightrope between realities, there was no doubt the fair haired girl would lock her twin up and never let her see the day again.

Urahara was going to kill her, no doubt, when he found out what she had been up to, but then, so what. If this worked then it wouldn't matter what they did to her.

Lately, she had been experimenting with her threads, growing them artificially. The brunet had been careful, testing her abilities on the artificial souls Urahara had commissioned for her before daring to touch her own.

Granted, he believed she was working out a way to make them combat effective, and, to a certain extent, she was, but that wasn't her main goal.

She wanted to know how to grow the threads artificially, say from an existing thread that had been sliced, and what the consequences would be on the soul that had a re-grown attachment.

At first, the results looked positive, no immediate side effects beyond lightheadedness and emotional exhaustion, easy, fixable things that she could deal with. It was when she started directing that emotional energy, pushing in her reiatsu to change the nature of the threads, green turning into red or blue, violet changing into gold and silver, that the alarm bells started going off in her head.

Cutting a more richly colored thread was much more devastating, leaving the artificial soul's physical form strained and it's spiritual form scarred. Colors like silver and gold, rare and difficult to create, were practically impossible to sever without killing at least one of the souls, and merely cutting it left both parties sore and spiritually wounded.

Lighter colors, blues and pinks, worked better, mending easily when she pulled the stings back together. It gave her hope.

It took all of her convincing to get Urahara to capture a low level hollow for her, the weakest breed he could find. If he wasn't so curious as to the results of her experiment, she wasn't sure she could have brushed off his prying questions.

While she wasn't exactly thrilled about having him watch her work, he insisted upon his presence given the added danger a hollow brought. She called it spying; the man was well aware of her own abilities and knew she could handle herself. But he was firm, stating that her research would not continue unless she accepted his terms. Finally, begrudgingly, she agreed.

In the underground basement of a deceptively innocent appearing candy shop, a young girl, short for her age, stared down a rather plain looking white mask, sizing up the unimpressive figure bound to a wooden chair by three different types of kido spells. They would be taking no chances.

The artificial souls, already placed in nondescript gigai, stood behind her obediently, blank eyes waiting for instructions. What their eyes did not show, their bodies did. They trembled, arms crossed protectively over their torsos instinctively recognizing the presence of a predator.

A topped hat, stripped green and white, sat atop a head of thick blond curls. Peering beneath its shaded brim, a pair of dark eyes watched the proceedings with unrivaled intensity. While his posture reflected that of nonchalance, tne hand gripped his cane betrayed him. It was difficult to say if that flickering emotion was that of concern…

Or excitement.

Maybe it was a bit of both. The girl pretended not to notice. Not to care. Pretended she could not read her teacher so easily. Pretended she couldn't hear the hollow howling at her, shaking against its restraints to get at her, greedy eyes wild with hunger.

She stepped forward, pulling along her first test subject, a young male. She had high hopes as this particular subject had been quite hardy against her previous tests, withstanding her thread breaking and rebuilding procedures with minimal damage.

Urahara had named him Jimmy. The girl had argued against the name, reminding the elder that these were test subjects, experiments, and naming them would only lead to attachment which called for unhappy endings when their inevitable expiration date rolled around. But the seasoned veteran had only tipped his hat frowning.

"Ah, Karin-chan, but then you forget that they are alive, even if but for a short time, and they can feel pain, just as you and I."

She let him have his way as he danced about naming the others Sarah and Wendy and so forth, waving his white fan about in the most unorthodox manner.

'Jimmy' didn't seem to care either way. Of the three artificial souls present, he seemed the least threatened by the hollow.

It's why she chose him first.

Blank brown eyes stared at her dully as she worked, coaxing a thread into existence between the gigai and the immobile monster.

The girl knew there was technically no such thing as creating threads; they were there already, invisible perhaps, just connections waiting for chance or opportunity to be discovered.

All that was need was the right push.

Color burst underneath her hands, dark brown racing to join the two souls. Brown, she frowned, a tricky color but not unexpected. At least it was better than black. She focused her reiatsu on the thread once more, channeling warmer colors, softer colors, gently pressing her will on the relationship.

The artificial soul responded easily, letting its thread flow from brown to blue. It appeared outwardly indifferent, but it eyed the hollow more thoughtfully as if reevaluating its initial impressions.

The hollow fought against the changed, growling at her as if it found the color change painful. The girl had to pour more and more reiatsu into keeping it subdued as blue slowly pressed back on the brown. The thread was darker on the hollow's side, never quite reaching that shade of light blue that ran from the gigai.

It would have to do. Gripping the thread with both hands, the girl pulled sharply. Brittle, easily broken, she tore the thread in half. Jimmy grunted, twitching minutely in response to the pain of separation, while the hollow cocked its head to the side, no longer straining against its bonds. Curious.

The middle region disintegrated until only a short, frayed strand hung from the end of each soul. Walking over to the artificial soul, the brunet examined the severed thread. Indeed, it looked quite similar to her own broken thread.

She felt eyes, Jimmy's, Urahara's, even the hollow's, watch her hand slide forward. There was a certain amount of elegance in the way it moved, gliding through the air with uninhibited grace, touching the abandoned thread in an almost intimate manner.

This is what she had been waiting for.

'Mom…'

For the second time that day, she pushed her reiatsu out into her fingertips. Eyebrows furrowed in concentration, such precision it required wasting blue particles rise from the nothingness of the air, twisting together, weaving her masterpiece.

The thread grew in length, stretching towards the masked monster. 'It's working!'

A shadow seemed to pass over the room, the thread in her hands fading from blue to grey to charcoal black. Hot, burning pain, she released it in surprise.

Jimmy's mouth was open in a silent scream, eyes flickering from brown to gold and serpentine, blood sliding down his cheeks like tears. Horror, the likes of which the witnesses had never seen, ripping through Jimmy's gigai; something, tearing and ripping and slaughtering mortal appendages, fighting to get out.

Suddenly, she was on the ground, Urahara standing in front of her protectively, sword drawn, metal glinting at his side, but he could not block her eyes, could not make her un-see the grotesque mutilation of Jimmy's body as it shredded, layer by bloody layer. Ripping from the confines was a ghastly white face, a black body, long fingers sticky and red, and a hole slashing through its torso. The beast roared, an unearthly scream that wracked her bones and left her shaking cold.

It was over quickly, the candy shop owner quickly disposing of both hollows, both the test subject and the altered sou. She was still trembling by the time he turned back to her.

"Whatever you just attempted Karin-chan, I don't think it would be wise to try it again."

Nodding dumbly, the girl wrapped her arms around herself, unable to rid herself of the grotesque images trapped on the back of her retinas.

….

It was not that he was avoiding her specially; he was avoiding everyone so she really shouldn't take it personally.

His soul was rotting away, being consumed by that hollow's demonic reiatsu. Apparently, this is not the first time such a thing has happened—after all, it was well know that certain hollows had certain means of…conversion—but it was the first time it happened to a captain.

The hollow he had fought had not been high level at all. That is what made his case so peculiar. There had only been a rare handful of hollows that were capable of turning other souls into their like, but those were old hollows, those who had survived long enough to learn not only how to manage their hunger but the deadly art of patience. The one he had fought was young, of a weak species, and had virtually no control on its need to feed. It hadn't even sensed it was out of its league when it attacked a captain level shinigami. Even the more mindless ones had been capable of that.

He brushed his bangs of out his eyes in frustration. There was no use dwelling on it now; what's done is done.

"Taiiiiichoo! Where are you?"

He kept still, not wanting to be found. The roof was not a particularly good hiding spot all things considered, but his fukitaicho rarely thought to look up. Indeed, this instance proved the rule as he heard the clack of her shoes slowly fade away as she wandered away.

He closed his eyes against the sunlight.

"Why are you still following me?"

She scuffed her shoe against the sidewalk as grey eyes glared at him fiercely. "I'm not leaving if that's what you're implying."

He muttered something under his breath about the stubborn nature that plagued all Kurosaki's.

"Go home. Your family is probably worried."

"Nah, they don't worry about me. They know I can take care of myself and still have plenty left over to keep an eye on you."

He stayed silent. There was no sense arguing with her when she was inevitably going to do whatever she pleased regardless of his wishes.

"Ne Shiro, Have you ever noticed there is something different about us?"

"Hmm?" He quirked a single eyebrow.

"The way others treat us… it's different from most."

He shrugged, indifferent. "Different people get treated differently."

"No, it's not that." She struggled to find the right words. "You treat me different too."

He stopped, turning to look at her, teal eyes unreadable in the moonlight. "It's Hitsuguya-taicho then."

She rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean."

Indeed he did.

She was the human that could see ghosts, the killer of hollows and the friend of shinigami. For a human, her spiritual pressure was phenomenal. For a Kurosaki, her control was unbelievable. It was no wonder she was treated different.

And he, he was the youngest shinigami captain in centuries, one of the few, rare souls capable of wielding a ryu (dragon). He woke up in the Rukongai, a child left in an abandoned lot. His early death in the human world and humble upbringings in the roughest district in soul society should have seriously stunted his spiritual growth, and should have, at the very least, cut down on his expected lifespan. Who knows, maybe it had. But Hyorinmaru still came to him, still called to his soul.

She treated him differently not only because he was the first soul reaper, with the exception of her brother, she had encountered but also because he was the only one, in appearance at least, of being her own age. She sought him out, talked to him, asked him the questions she didn't feet comfortable posing to the other, older shinigami, questions her brother refused to answer and the others danced around because she was human and shouldn't even see them anyways.

He treated her differently because, initially, he had been surprised. Humans that could see spirits were far and few in between. Only a fraction of those ever admitted it, and even less actively interacted with them.

She was not afraid of him or intimidated by his white hair. Growing up, he was used to being avoided by his age mates because he looked mean or "scary," and it really came as no surprise when her soccer buddies saw him in the same light. She wasn't bothered; if anything she thought his gravity-defying hair made him look cool.

He was older than her, time passes slowly in the spirit world, but she still went from calling him an old man for liking candy beans to demanding that he go to school like the rest of the kids.

His fukitaicho was not the only one to point out that while the girl wasn't the only one to tease him about his apparent age, she was the only one the captain let get away with it.

"Ah, I see. You came down to visit your grandma."

"She's not my grandma. I met her when I was stationed in the human world."

"You were stationed here?"

"Several years ago, before I got promoted. It was to help me gain more experience, but, like you, she was able to see me."

"All those spirits in her house… Are to keep her company?"

His eyes took on this distant look. "Yeah, humans thought she was crazy, talking to herself. They avoided her, and she houses wayward spirits to keep her from getting lonely."

A puzzle really. Frustrating as much as it was amusing. Playful one minute, deep and thoughtful the next, a fighter when she had to be, unafraid and fierce, but a friend when she was needed most.

"Ne Granny, can I come visit again? There's a soccer field nearby so I can bring my friends too."

Fixing problems she didn't need to, doing things she didn't have to, caring when no one asked her to. He never asked for help, never asked to be her friend or to care about his precious people, but she acted without asking, understanding what was needed whether it was spoken or silent.

She was who she was, and he was who he was. It was as simple as that.

"Taaiiichoo!" came the sing-song voice of his lieutenant.

The boy-captain cursed as he was crushed to the buxom woman's chest, arms of steel preventing his escape.

"He he! I found you!"

Finally he was able to kick her off, putting a few good feet of space between them. "What do you want Matsumoto?"

"You're lucky I found you first. Mauri-taicho has been turning the whole division over looking for you." She beamed, clearly proud of herself. "But I'm not going to let my little taicho be turned into a test subject for doctor whack-a-doodle."

He kept his face calm, his composure cold and casual. "Indeed."

Four Days before deadline

It wasn't hard, snitching the master key from the principle's office. In fact, it was almost disheartening how easy it was. It had just been sitting there on the loop of car keys and gaudy key chains. She doubted Mrs. Vaden, or "Vader" when her back was turned, even noticed its absence.

Sneaking into the school afterhours filled her with a certain amount of excitement. Breaking the rules, knowing she would get away with it, almost made up for all of Jinta's whining as she dragged him to the cafeteria by the ear.

Well, yeah, maybe that was a bit harsh, after all he was willingly helping her get revenge on those losers who kicked her off the soccer team, but she could hardly help that bubble of agitation that twisted in her gut.

Shiro stood her up.

He was supposed to be here, helping her pull of the master prank. He was getting a week off of work from his division, and he promised to help her.

He lied.

So now all she had was obnoxious red head to help her turn the cafeteria into a mess of shaving cream, steamers, and water balloons filled with war paint artfully placed around the team's table. Granted the working was going smoothly, and they were making more progress than she initially anticipated, but she certainly hadn't been happy about having to worm though the rafters last night to set the trigger when a certain shinigami could have just done it with a hop and a skip.

But the bastard hadn't shown up.

Where was he? The jerk had completely vanished. The few times she had tracked down some of the other shinigami stationed in the human world, their responses had only served to agitate her further. The bloke with the funny eyebrows thought he was on a mission of some kind. The strange bald guy was worse; first he refused to answer her questions, insisting that she fight him, and then, after he practically pulverized her, he shrugged them off, saying he didn't know anything about the tiny taicho's whereabouts.

Finally, she managed to track down the busty lieutenant wandering between the shopping center and the local pub, but she seemed just as confused as the human girl. Yes, her taicho had requested a leave of absence, partially to train, partially to travel, but she would have thought he would have been here by now. Wasn't he helping Karin on some sort of project? No? Maybe he got caught up in his training? Men, always worrying about proving their macho-ness.

Remembering just made her angrier, and she twisted her companion's ear with a bit more force than was necessary, nearly ripping it away from his skull.

"Ow! Ow! Karin! Stop it!"

She growled dangerously, but released his throbbing ear. "Get the strobe lights set up while I finish up with the water balloons."

She'd show him. She didn't need him. She could get along just fine without him. She stomped through the double doors not looking back.

….

He knelt before the small house, appearing for the first time in years without his harori, the robes that defined his status as a soul reaper. Indeed, he felt very naked without the familiar weight of Hyorinmaru on his back, but coming armed was out of the question. It would dishonor her memory.

To think such a shack once housed three people; it looked so tiny to him now. Painfully empty too, now that his surrogate grandmother had passed on.

She had taken him in, given him a home. She didn't have to, not when she already had Momo to worry about, but when she found him in the vacant lot, sitting amongst the other piles of garbage, she picked him up. No questions about where his parents were or curious glances at his unique hair color, the elderly woman simply marched home, a young boy on her hip and her other curious charge trailing behind.

Fed him, clothed him, gave him a place to stay. A place to call home.

The boy stood, noting the thick layer of dust. Filthy. It would not do.

Rolling up his sleeves, opened the door, propped the windows, and grabbed the broom. Dust went flying in all directions as he swept and scrubbed scoured those uneven floorboards and off-white walls until his hands pulsed and his knuckles were bleeding. He wiped the grease from the windows, buffing them until they shined. He chased spiders out of the rafters and repaired the leak on the roof. He swept the cold cinders out of the fireplace and shook out the bedrolls. He plucked the weeds from the garden that grew around the house, and set to work on covering the house on a new coat of paint.

When he finished, panting, exhausted, and smelling like a pig, the old shack gleamed in the fading sunlight, glowing as though it were brand new.

For a moment, he sat back, admiring his handiwork. Still a bit cramped for three people, but at least now it looked habitable.

He didn't smile though. The frown, the wrinkle in his brow, the hardness in his eye, they never left his face, not when he was working and certainly not know. All those years of struggling, of listening to shingles fall off the roof, of falling asleep to his grandmother's labored breathing, he could have fixed it. How much better would everyone's lives have been if he had had the power he had now?

He raised his hand, arm parallel to the ground. A flicker of reiatsu, a whispered incantation.

Fire burst from his fingertips, curling around the house like a demonic embrace. It caught quickly, smoke soaring into the sky like a dark phoenix.

He felt eyes on his back, neighbors and curious onlookers watching from a distance, back behind the safety of walls and windows. It didn't matter, he told himself. He didn't care what they thought. Not anymore.

Turning around, he walked down the path, returning the way he came as the abandoned house hissed and cackled behind him.

"Three more days," he mumbled. "Three more."

Four Hours before deadline

A startled yelp escaped her lips as a heavenly portal opened above her head and a shinigami all but fell on top of her. A flutter of black robes, a pink scarf, and platinum hair flashed across her vision. The girl had no doubt who it was that graced her presence, the lieutenant of her favorite taicho, and she would have shoved the larger woman off of her immediately if it wasn't for the fact that she was terrified of her hands coming into contact with those abnormally large… assets.

She struggled to disentangle herself, hands held firmly at her side, but the fukitaicho of the tenth division clung her shoulders with unearthly tenacity.

"Matsumoto-san, would you please—"

The taller woman shook against her, her hold only tightening. "Oh, Karin-chan." It was then that the human girl realized her companion was crying, sobbing violently into her school uniform, her words practically indecipherable.

"Matsumoto-san?"

"It's awful," the older woman blubbered, "terrible, and I didn't even realize… I couldn't stop… Oh Karin-chan! My little taicho, I couldn't stop him!"

Ice, a cold, numb feeling spread across her chest, making it difficult move, to breathe. "Shiro-chan?"

"He's gone. He's gone! My little taicho, he left his captain robes behind!" The buxom lieutenant sobbed all the harder, and the younger girl stumbled in an effort to keep them both balanced upright.

Finally breaking free of the shingami's grip, Karin spun on her heal to face the fukitaicho directly. "Okay, first you need to calm down. I can't understand you when you are hysterical."

Only after the other woman had taken a few deep breaths and looked more in-control did the girl finally ask the question that was burning at her heart. "From the beginning this time, what happened?"

The older woman straightened her shoulders, and in a much steadier voice began reiterating her tale. "I noticed my Taicho has been behaving strangely the past few weeks, going off on his own more and spending long hours in the training area by himself. At the time, I didn't think much of it, just another part of growing up or training to get a deeper understanding of his bankai.

"But then a week ago, I noticed a report from Mayuri-taicho sitting on his desk. Well, I shouldn't say sitting on as he did try to hide it, but I was looking for the secrete compartment where I hide my sake stash when I found it. Er, anyways, I was concerned. I know Mayrui-taicho has been lusting after my taicho's reiatsu since he entered the Gotei thirteen. Ice type reiatsu's are rare, and my captain's zanpakto is the most powerful ice-based sword. It's supposed to be legendary, only a select few souls have ever proved worthy enough to call it master, and since he learned this, Mayuri-taicho has been pestering my taicho to come down to his lab so he could run a few tests.

"Naturally, my taicho wasn't interested, but that never stopped Mayuri-taicho from sending him 'love letters' on occasion. So when I first saw that the paper was from Mayuri-taicho, that's what I assumed it was.

"I was wrong. It was a patient-history of sorts, documenting recurrent incidents, responses to various tests, blood work, DNA analysis, and just about everything under the sun.

"Needless to say, I was furious. I chased my taicho down, waving the paper in front of his face, demanding to now how he could do something so stupid. I kept going on and on about how Mayuri should be court marshaled for performing experiments on shinigami, and on an officer no less, but then Taicho interrupted me, saying that he wanted Mayuri to perform those tests, that he had willingly participated.

"And that's not even the worst part! He gave some vague story about his reiatsu changing and his chakra points closing down, and I could hardly understand any of the medical mumbo-jumbo. I had to go to the fourth division just to get someone to explain to me what spiritual decay is."

The older shinigami looked like she was ready to start crying again, and not knowing what else to do, the dark-haired girl, patted her shoulder. Internally, she was going over her own memories. The boy had been acting a bit off, but she had been so selfishly wrapped up in her own world to notice that something was wrong, awful, oh Shiro-chan, why didn't she see it before now.

The girl's throat felt dry and raspy as if she hadn't used it in a hundred years. "What's spiritual decay?"

Across from her, blue eyes watered. "It's a rare occurrence. Some hollows, rather than eating souls are infectious. They never live very long since they eventually starve to death, but they have to be treated very carefully least they contaminate a soul. A normal soul that doesn't have much spiritual pressure will either die instantly or turn into a low-level hollow, but when a Shingami gets infected, their whole spiritual pressure changes, tainted with the dark energy of hollows.

"It's not a pleasant story from there. Most of the time, the infected shinigami doesn't have enough reiatsu or enough control of their reiatsu in order for it to make any difference. If they catch it early enough, sometimes surgery can remove the tainted area at the cost of one's shinigami abilities. But if the infection is realized too late, even death won't save the soul; it would only speed up the process of hollowfication."

The girl tried to swallow the lump in her throat but found that it didn't move. Worry spread through her like a fever, her heart pounded in her ears, her knees beginning to tremble. "Why doesn't he just get the surgery?"

"And sacrifice his zanpakto?" She shook her head. "No, he would never endanger his partner, not after everything they've been through. Surgery would also mean surrendering his captain robes, sitting on the sidelines and watching the rest of us fight his battles."

"But he would be alive!" The girl interrupted.

The fukitaicho sighed in frustration. "But my taicho doesn't care so much about his own life. Not compared to protecting yours. It would kill him to be helpless, to be powerless to defend those he cares about." The shinigami continued, "But don't forget that my taicho though has excellent control over his spiritual pressure, and he has enough reiatsu to fight off the hollow's energy.

"He was going to take a week off, try to learn how to manage it and keep the demonic energy at bay."

So that's why she hadn't seen him, the girl thought. She felt guilty at her past anger at him now.

"But then earlier today, I heard the most awful rumor. A lot of the unranked shinigami were at the bar, singing up a storm. When I finally pulled one of the more sober ones away, I found out why they were celebrating.

"General Yamamoto discovered a new weapon that would rid us of hollows forever, and at first, I was excited. But before I could get through my first round of sake, Renji caught up with me and told me the truth. He was leaving on an escort mission with my taicho, to take the weapon to Las Noches, the lair of the hollows."

She started to choke up again. "He said that… he just wanted me to know that it wasn't like it seemed. My taicho… because he has some demonic reiatsu, he can pass through Las Noches undetected. His job was to plant the weapon. A bomb." Her voice raised an octave taking on the hysterical ring once more. "My little taicho! It's going to shred his soul! That stupid black box! It's going to kill him! He left his haori in the office so I know he's serious, and he won't listen to me; he's being so stupid and stubborn! And now I can't find him anywhere!"

Words were started to blend together, colors blurring behind the hot liquid pooling around her eyes, and she was pushing past the tall woman, shoving her out of the way as her feet skid around the corner. Running, running, fat hot tears that she blinked away—she would not cry—running as if time meant something, as if the space she occupied mattered, running as if she could just force the world into order, turn her wishes into answers, her needs into reality, her will into something tangible. White hair and blue-green eyes. Lost and found. A golden thread wrapped around her heart. Her anchor, her soul, her partner, everything and nothing, and something she could not afford to lose. Running as if it made a difference. Running as if she could find him.

A headache blossomed in her temple, a hollow sliding into existence. She fired blindly, barely able to breathe in air that felt too thick and heavy. A perfect shot that hit dead center.

Running because everything depended on it.

….

Five minutes. Was that too much to ask for? Just five minutes alone? Apparently it was. He really didn't want to spend his last few hours fighting hollows, weak species though they were. Not that he really was complaining, the distraction was probably for the best, but it's just that his heart wasn't in it. As if fighting them had lost all meaning.

Rooftops ranged in color from blue to grey to black and brown, some were flat and stiff, others appeared to have a rolling gait to them. To guard against rain or hail or the formidable strikes of nature at its wildest, man created the buildings, the roofs, the storehouses and sheds. First it was to keep out the dangers of the beast, then locks and bulletproof windows were created to protect against the dangers of man.

Balanced precariously on a light pole, he wondered of the change in technology, beautiful in its own way yet so hideous at the same time.

Spending time in the human world made him miss the simple beauty of the spirit world. The rolling hills covered in trees, the clean lakes and the icy rain. Spending time in the spirit world made him miss the human world, the buzz of people, the conveniences of cell phones, and the fascinating glow of the television screen. When he was here, he missed his division, the clean, quiet order of his office, the chaos his fukitaicho brought. He missed napping on the roof and occasionally dropping by the academy as a guest teacher or to evaluate the progress of potential recruits.

When he was in Seretai, he missed the humans he left behind, the antics that amused him (even though he would never admit it) and the "egg-rice" dish that the youngest Kurosaki made.

But now… now those days were over. He was done chasing hollows and filling out the division's paperwork, done playing soccer games and waiting for Matsumoto to sober up. He was done with everything. He didn't want to be, didn't mean to be, yet knew, with the same certainly that if he lost his balance he would learn how hard the pavement could be, that he was finished and more than ready to lay his sword down and end this pointless fighting.

What was life anyway but a struggle from one drama to the next?

'I don't want to die.'

Death was inevitable. He shouldn't try to fight it. Rather, he should accept it.

'I don't want to die.'

After all death was his duty. He had sworn to protect those souls even at the cost of his own.

'I don't want to die.'

Come hell…

'I don't want to die.'

Or hunger…

'I don't want to die.'

In both triumph and defeat…

'I don't want to die.'

This he did swear to uphold.

'There is still so much to do. I'm not ready to die.'

To protect those who could not protect themselves.

'But I shall…'

His job, his honor, his oath, "I do solemnly swear," he muttered under his breath as he moved, "that I will support and defend the free souls and the Gotei thirteen against all enemies," His feet smacked against the pavement. "that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same."

He was walking, faster, jogging now. "I swear to protect and serve all souls as is within my power, even at the cost of my own life. I take this obligation freely, without mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the position I am about to enter."

He stopped walking, teal eyes flashing, taking in his surroundings.

"This I do swear," he whispered, breathless.

His feet had carried him to the familiar spot, where there was a break in the trees, opening it up to the sky. He stopped walking, taking in the broad expanse of sky. It looked so much bigger now, so much larger than he remembered ever seeing it before. Puffy, swollen clouds, grey like her eyes, were suspended high above him. It seemed like an endless space stretched before and above him.

'I am going to die.'

There. Deep breath.

'I am going to die.'

He could accept it.

Four Minutes before deadline

Her foot arched downward, heavy with reiatsu, the mask of a bulldog splintered in half, but she didn't wait to see the beast dissolve. Twisting in midair, she shot one, two, three spirit bullets, each ripping through white skull masks.

She growled, pushing back her hair with a sweaty palm. Where were they all coming from? This was getting ridiculous. Kicking another one in its pig-like snout, she spun on the balls of her feet, adrenaline high, awaiting the next contender.

But they were retreating. Strange. Since when did hollows retreat?

She grabbed onto one of the white strings overhead, sliding down it like a zip line. She shot a few of the slower ones as she went. They were all running in the same direction as the strings, going back the way she had last seen Tosh—oh shit.

She slammed into an invisible barrier, and the white thread slid from her fingers. Taking a hard tumble onto the pavement, she watched as parade of hollows marched passed her, disappearing into a void she could not follow, not even bothering to spare her a bloodthirsty leer.

She trembled as the gears clicked in her brain. 'Toshiro. They're going after Toshiro!'

….

The seal lit up, dancing across the desert sand like fireworks. The hollows behind him howled in dismay.

"Tricked," one hissed flexing its claws.

"Let's eat him" said one with a bird shaped mask.

"No, let's watch him burn. I bet this one sings pretty."

The boy bowed his head as the seal array danced behind him. It was done. Killing him would not stop it now. The box of the damned was already bringing this measly place to an end.

Black energy wrapped around him protectively turning the weaker species in smoldering piles of ash. No wonder there was so much sand in the desert of Las Noches; it was the build up of centuries of the fragmented souls of the damned. A bitter thought.

"I bet his flesh is pink and his blood is red."

"Let's find out!" As one, the pack lunged.

Four Seconds before deadline

Her sword hummed at her side and suddenly she understood. Abandoning her body, her physical form collapsing with a soft thud, she reached for her hilt.

….

His blood dribbled into the sands, and the seals soaked it up, taking as much of it as he would give them.

Teeth pierced his shoulder, claws dug into his calf. If the hollows had not wasted the last few minutes arguing about which one was actually going to eat him, he would have been dead already. As it were, bleeding himself out was a much slower, much more painful process. Suddenly the sick dizzying feeling was overwhelming, and he swayed, his feet threatening to collapse.

The seal hummed, and the square lock tiny black box at the center of the array of glowing symbols cracked. The lid, polished black lacquer, gleaming morbidly amidst the shimmering seals, slid back like a mouth yawning wide, sharp teeth ready to pierce, jaws spreading to swallow the world.

A/N: Well folks, we are over half-way done. Only two more chapters to go. Be excited. Be very excited. I know I am. The next chapter might take a little longer as I will be in the process of moving. I will try to update as quick as I can, but please be patient with me.

I hope this chapter answered some of the questions about the mysterious aspects while still leaving you hooked enough to read more.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Please leave a review and let me know what you think.

Thanks!

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