Pandora's Key

Two

Author's Note: Thanks for being patient with me. I'm sorry it took so long to update, but moving involves a lot more work than you would expect. This story is coming to a close, sadly, but what an adventure it has been. This is the last real chapter before the epilogue, and I hope it was worth the wait.

Standard disclaimers still apply.

..

Two Centuries before deadline

Normally, when a soul's human essence died, it would pass on directly to the spirit world, but for some reason, this one hesitated, lingering in the medium. Her threads were divided, pulling her in different directions. One of the parent threads was in the spiritual world while the other was preparing to be reborn on earth. The souls of her earthly siblings were also divided; the boy had rushed off to the spirit world to join their father, but her sister, her closest friend could not bear to depart from the earth side until her children and grandchildren had grown.

Caught in the middle, the young soul did not know what to do. Should she sink back to earth again and join her mother and sister? Should she let her spirit rise up to heaven to fight alongside the males of her family? Would they even remember her? Remember the threads that they shared? Or would the effects of rebirth have already caught up with them, past lives fading and forgotten?

No, she would wait. She had to. There was plenty of time, no need to rush, and if they forgot their past, she would be here to remind them so they could go back to earth together once more, a family.

Yes, she would wait, her soul was brimming with determination. She would be the glue that kept her loved ones together. Loyalty was in her nature, and while she was curious about the spirit world and dying to learn more about the places on earth she had yet to see, she would not let her family fall apart for her own wishes to be granted. She would wait. As long as it took. She would wait.

Two Years before deadline

When she first saw him, she instantly knew something was different. She felt connected to him, pulled, and the surprise of seeing a golden thread not only coming out of his chest but also finding it connected to hers surprised her so much that she didn't even notice which way he ran off to after he kicked her ball back.

Not that she had trouble finding him again.

She sought him out, trying to understand what the golden cord meant. She liked mysteries, or solving them anyways, like taking secretes out of the dark corners they were kept.

But the boy didn't seem interested. He was cold and distant, though he seemed like that with everyone. Uninterested.

She saw a grey-brown thread appear when his phone blinked. It must have been a message from his parents telling him to come home for he immediately took off walking, following the path of that grey-brown string.

She grabbed his arm, an instinct to stop him, and pulled some lame excuse about it being a bad idea to go that way because of… traffic and all.

That was the first time he looked at her, really looked, and she fought the heat that pooled to her cheeks, thinking all the while it was so lame to be caught blushing over some boy.

He studied her closely, and for a minute, she wondered if he could see the threads too, but his eyes weren't focusing on the place near her heart where the threads originated. No, he was looking at her face, listening to her bumbling over excuses and traffic reports, watching as that pink stain spread over the bridge of her nose and tingled near her ears.

"Will you be coming to the game tomorrow?" she asks, looking for a change in the conversation.

He shrugs. "Who knows."

..

He sat on the sun-baked tile of the roof watching the exchange. White hair bristled in the breeze as he idly tapped his finger against his leg. Nose wrinkling in disgust, he listened to the glorified buffoon strut around the grassy field.

"You babies think ya can handle the big boys, eh?"

The four teammates that cowered behind the dark-haired girl seemed very certain about their own demise, but their ringleader hardly seemed fazed. Hand on her hip, she appeared more annoyed at the older boys' attempts at intimidation. Her hands twitched, eager to put upperclassman in their place.

"Because nothing screams big and bad like threatening a group of kids." Her sharp eyes narrowed. "I bet you love bragging about that accomplishment. What's next? Stealing toys from a baby?"

"Tough talk for such a puny girl."

Another player snickered. "Is she even a girl? My kid-brother is prettier than she is." The other uniforms echoed his catcall, jeering at the girl in the crooked baseball hat.

"I'd rather be a puny girl than a brain-dead ape" she growled in frustration. "At least I don't have to bully other kids to get practice time on the field."

"Aw, wittle snot-nosed, bugger bear gonna run home cryin' to mama cause she can't get any field time."

The girl growled clenching her fists. "You're the one who's going to be crying when we kick your sorry butts across the field." She looked mad enough to hold up to that promise.

The older boys sneered. "No respect for their betters, eh Shinji? Let's put these little punks in their place."

The girl ripped the ball from the older boy's hands. "Brains before ugly. We get to kick off first."

Up on the hot roof, teal eyes watched the scene unfold. There was something off about that girl, something different, something he couldn't quite put his finger on.

There were questions he needed to ask her. Had she sensed the hollow the day before or had she merely been trying to detain him for what, to convince him to play on her soccer team? Though one look at the competition, and it was obvious that the rag-tag team could use all the help they could get.

This was ridiculous, he huffed. He was a shinigami, a captain. It was his job to protect the oblivious humans from hollows, to perform soul burials on the deceased, to keep his division up and running and prevent Matsumoto from going over the deep end. Not to entertain children by kicking a checkered ball around.

Yet here he was, rising to his feet, already leaping to the next building to retrieve his gigai.

Two Months before deadline

She was standing in her brother's empty bedroom. How long had it been? Months? Years? It was hard to say. A cloak of dust covered everything, his alarm clock, his desk, those playboy magazines he kept hidden under the bed.

If he was coming back, he would have already been here by now.

It was time to pack up his old stuff into boxes, move the clothes from his adolescence into the garage, or the attic, or a storage unit just so they wouldn't have to see it every day. It was time for her and Yuzu to start living in separate rooms; they weren't exactly little girls anymore, and the space was beginning to feel crowded.

But she couldn't get herself to move. She could stand there, staring at the gaudy green curtains and moth-eaten blue comforter, but she couldn't get herself to move. A desk, a bed, a closet, it really was a small room.

This was her third attempt at the room, and she was making about the same amount of progress as the last two times. She just couldn't bring herself to do it, clear out her brother's stuff. It was like giving up, admitting that he was never coming home. She had held on the longest these past few years, refusing to throw in the towel, refusing to accept that he was, she swallowed, hard, that he was gone.

His thread was still there, barely. It was thin, easily severed, but still present. It didn't mean he was alive, not by a long shot. She had seen humans attached to their deceased relatives—Orihime was a shining example of that one—all it meat was that his soul still existed in one form or another, was still bound to hers.

She sighed, backpedaling out of the room. Not yet. She couldn't give up yet. Yuzu's thread had almost faded completely, her father's too, but she couldn't walk down that road, couldn't let the last tie her brother had for home fade away. She would be his anchor, holding him steady, hoping and hoping that whatever forces were keeping him away could be overcome.

..

He sighed, head bent in frustration. Another hour spent on the practice field wasted. He was no closer to mastering this change in his reiatsu as he was before; in fact, he was starting to suspect that it was only getting worse.

If the officers of his division noticed his increased reliance on his swordplay and on kiddo, they kept their comments to themselves. It had been over a week since he had called upon his shikai, and he had not dared to draw his bankai since the incident.

Matsumoto noticed. She had been his fukitaicho for years and knew his habits from his lunch breaks to his fighting style and would notice if something changed. Despite her typical eccentric behavior, she had always surprised him with her perceptiveness. Most of the time she used it to her advantage, striking her captain when she knew he was the most likely to go along with her antics or give into her begging. This sudden change in his usually strict routine caught her off guard.

So it really was no surprise that she had followed him.

Training field number fourteen had seen plenty of damage. Craters were littered everywhere, and due to its proximity to the ninth division, no one was surprised to hear the occasional explosion coming from the vicinity. Conveniently enough, the battle cries and screams of horror coming from the building nearby kept otherwise curious passersby from investigating the cause of the earthquakes. It was the ninth division after all, that in itself was explanation enough.

It had been why he had chosen this field. His own officers wouldn't look for him here, too terrified of Kenpatchi. None of the officers in the ninth division had enough brainpower to have any idea what he was up to (much less the diligence to spy on him when there was fights to be had), and none of the unranked shinigami would dare speak to him having learned through their captain to never challenge or question what someone of clearly superior fighting skills was up to in their free time. Especially if they were on the training field, least they be used as a test subject.

The added bonus of being near the ninth division was that Matsumoto tended to get…distracted by all the muscle and testosterone and challenging opponents for a drinking contest.

Unfortunately today she seemed focused, interrupting his quiet meditation.

"Captain!"

"Hai Matusmoto. What do you want?"

"We have our own training grounds so why are you all the way out here?"

"Why do you care where I train?"

"You're my responsibility, and your acting weird has me all worried."

"Between the two of us, I'm not the one who needs a babysitter."

She did her best not to appear too insulted. This was just his way of pushing people away, putting them on the defensive, making them angry until they stomped off and left him in peace. She let the comment roll off her, used to jibes about her irresponsible behavior.

Her eyes narrowed. "What are you hiding?"

Instead of answering, he got to his feet staring her blank in the eye. The captain of the tenth division still was not as tall as his fukitaicho, but his eyes were just as sharp as hers. "And what are you hiding still wearing that pink scarf around?"

She reeled back as if slapped.

His eyes remained as sharp as steel, pinning her down. "Don't pry into my private life unless you want me prying into yours."

And without another word he spun on his heal, and marched away. Not looking back at his stunned lieutenant.

He didn't dare tell her that the large crater she was standing in was his. Didn't tell her that it had been caused by a small leakage of his spiritual pressure while he had been meditating. No, he refused to look back. They each had their demons, hers a pink scarf and a fox-faced man, and his… he clutched his hand…he had his too.

Two Weeks before deadline

"I got it!" she shouted leaping up from her math homework. The brunet punched the air victoriously at her brilliant idea.

"Got what?" asked her sister, spinning around in her chair.

"The perfect plan to get back at those guys for kicking me off the soccer team. It's perfect! I need to find Toshiro."

Her sister glanced at the clock on the wall. "Isn't it a bit late?" Her eyes were droopy with exhaustion, and a large yawn was threatening to overtake her.

Karin threw open the door to their shared bedroom. "Sorry Yuzu, but genus waits for no one." She bolted down the stairs, jumping the last few, and practically went flying out the front door.

Karin had never been a very creative individual, so it really was a surprise that such a masterpiece of pranks manifested itself to her of all people. Most humans couldn't see ghosts, and since her brother and his friends had gone off to "college" she was pretty sure she was the only one within a twelve mile radius that could see even the most basic of specters much less a reiatsu-suppressing captain. It was perfect, and she almost wondered why she didn't think of it before.

..

He eyed the envelope with a cool expression. Shingami were not supposed to feel fear. They were supposed to look death in the face, be willing to sacrifice the very essence of their souls, lay down their lives in the protection of others. Not cower in one's office.

Test results, that was all it was, just some test results. Blood samples, reiatsu typing, nothing fancy. So why was he so worried?

..

"Well if it isn't my favorite student! What are you doing up so late Karin-chan?"

"Can I borrow your trans-communicator. I need to talk to Toshiro…san." She added the formality to his name almost as an afterthought, as if she suddenly remembered whose company she was in. "Please Urahara-sensei, it's important!"

"But what if our darling little Toshiro-san is not up at this hour?"

"Pshh, please. That workaholic is probably still up to his ears in paperwork."

"Point taken." The man with the striped hat began leading her to the back of the shop. "You owe me for this."

"Meh," she waved off the promises of favors, "put it on my tab."

He laughed, waving her into a room. "Very well, but if you break my beautiful machine, I'm afraid I will have to return the favor."

"Got it old man. Thanks."

Since her back was turned, she didn't notice the eyebrow twitch at her referring to him as an old man, and shutting the door for some privacy saved her from facing the wrath of an insulted former captain.

..

Decaying. His mind seemed stuck on that word. Disintegrating spiritual pressure. Demonic reiatsu poisoning. Hollofication.

Dying. That registered. He was dying.

How long, that was always the question. How long did he have left? How long had the symptoms been progressing? How long had he been fighting it off. How much longer did he have?

Unbidden, his feet carried him to the fourth division. It was after hours, closed to receiving visitors, but he was something of an exception. It was his sister in that room he stood outside, his sister in everyway but blood.

On the other side of the viewing window, a young woman stared blankly at the wall. Her hands were moving, slow circles, her lips opening and closing as if she was describing something, smiling at someone. At no one. A sister, a loved one, lost in a place he could never find her, lost in her own mind. Giving up when kindness gave up on her, leaving her brother to pick up the pieces, leaving her friends to sort through the mess she left behind.

"Coward." He whispered the word from behind the glass. "Coward," he spoke louder, condemning them both. She hid from reality, and he hid from her, hid his reality from everyone.

"I guess the world's full of them."

Would he end up like her? Giving up on life? It seemed tempting for a moment, letting someone else deal with the bad hand he had been given. Why not? He was going to die anyways.

His pocket buzzed scattering his thoughts. He pulled out his phone wondering who would be calling him at so late an hour. He stared at the green numbers, none of them registering. Earth. A call from earth.

Two flash steps later, he was standing on the roof of his division, a silver mobile device pressed to his ear.

"Hello?" he asked it tentatively.

"Toshiro!" The receiver was full of static, but he would recognize that voice anywhere.

"Karin?" he half-asked his phone, half-asked the voice on the other end, surprise lacing his tone.

She laughed, but through the static it came out all garbled and messy. "The one and only. Listen, I have a favor to ask…"

He groaned. "Another one. Really, if your team is that bad, then you should consider getting another one."

There was a moment of silence, and he feared he had somehow lost the connection. "Karin? Hello?"

"Yeah I'm here." He could hear her deep intake of breath. "They kicked me off the team."

He started, feeling like a fist was clenching in his gut. With bad news, when it rains, it certainly pours. The things they had to sacrifice to those who weren't even in touch enough with their spiritual essences to realize they even needed saving. It was almost heart wrenching.

She kept talking, a mile a minute and picking up speed, as if she was trying to get it all out in one breath. "So I was thinking about how to get back at those losers, and I came up with this perfect prank that's going to knock their socks off. You see since they can't see ghosts, I thought it would be a great way to pull a number on them, and I know how good you are at hiding your spiritual pressure, just in case, but this would be such a huge favor for me, and I would really appreciate it if you could help. I know you're busy and all, but Matsumoto-san said you were bound to get some time off, overdo I think she said, and since you'll be coming here anyways to check on Granny-Chiyo—"

"Wait, wait, slow down, I can barely understand you." The static certainly wasn't helping either.

"Please, please, please can you help me prank those guys!"

The youngest captain sighed, listening as the rush of air caused a resulting buzzing sound in his ear. Why did she insist on dragging him into her childish schemes? What good would come of this so called prank? Revenge was petty and hardly self-satisfying. The girl on the other line was old enough to know better.

But then…'please'… she never asked for favors either.

He was silent for a long moment, staring at the moon and listening to the buzz of static in his ear. What path would he choose? Retreat like his sister into a world of her own imagination? Drown his sorrows in sake like his lieutenant? Get even with those who dealt him this nightmare like the dark haired girl from the human plane? Or, perhaps a different path of his own choosing?

..

Karin held on to the receiver, the hum of static reassuring her that he had not hung up yet. He was thinking; she could practically see the way his eyes would glaze over, focusing on some distant point like the moon or the stars, his anchors of thought. Interrupting wouldn't help her cause, as she had learned through previous trial and error. He needed time to weigh the pros and cons for something that was not as instinctual as unsheathing his sword.

Finally, after the patient minutes had ticked by, the line buzzed, and her grip on the receiver tightened.

"Alright, I'll see what I can do."

..

He winced, holding the phone away from his ear as she let out a very girlly, and very uncharacteristic squeal. Well, maybe not a squeal (that came from the part of his mind in which he categorized the fan girls which followed him around—not Karin) but at the very least it was a very high-pitched whoop of excitement that left his ears ringing and a small smile tugging on his lips.

Two Days before deadline

Karin blinked when she entered the cafeteria. All the work she and Jinta had been putting into the project had been completed. The strobe lights had been rewired, the shaving cream filled water balloons had been set, the streamers packed, the banner positioned, the trigger artfully, and meticulously centered in the optimal position.

It was just as she had envisioned.

But it was not her hands that had done this. They had been running behind schedule, struggling to get everything in place before the day of the big game with their rival school, and Karin had just began to admit that maybe this wasn't going to work out the way she wanted. She had spent most of the afternoon deciding what projects needed to be abandoned in favor of those that they could complete on time and certainly had not been happy with her conclusions.

But this. Who had done this?

..

He stood outside the General's office, waiting for his turn to speak with the first division captain. Also to collect a certain "package."

It was still early in the morning, the air crisp, the grass laden with dew. It was his favorite time of day, when the world seemed freshest and cleanest and opportunity seemed its finest.

It was a bit of a strange sight to see the crimson-haired shinigami up and about this early, but Renji had been assigned to him by Captain Yamamoto to help him carry out his mission. He and Yuri would be opening the portal to Las Noches for him, stabilizing it until he was through. Then, it would be there task to destroy it ensuring that no one would be coming in after him and nothing would be getting out.

Alone, that is how he wanted it. No one else but him. No one would die but him.

The bamboo door to the General's office slid open, and the two shinigami stepped inside, Renji standing slightly behind the tenth captain. He was backup, reinforcement. He needed the details, the bare outline not the story or motive.

The first division captain sat straight in his chair. Despite his age, or perhaps because of it, the aura that surrounded him was potent, wrapped tightly about his iron-clad will. He did not blink as they entered nor did he bow his head in acknowledgement.

"Enjoy your time off Hitsuguya-taicho?" asked the wizened shinigami.

The younger shinigami nodded. "I did."

It was strange the things he sought out towards the end of his existence: pranking human children, rebuilding his grandmother's house only to tear it down, visiting his favorite places in the Rukongai (there weren't many), and leaving many of his old possessions for the less fortunate to find. He still had his phone, his sword, his haori, but there wasn't much else.

"Are you ready to fulfill this task?"

"I am."

An old woman appeared from seemingly nowhere. A small, square object wrapped delicately in tissue paper rested in the cradle of her arms. She handed it to the boy with snow-colored hair as if it were an infant passing between them.

"Do not touch it," she murmured, "until the time is right, and then only with your demon hand and only briefly."

Reaching into her obi, she pulled out a small scroll that looked as old and as ancient as she did herself. It was sealed with a thick layer of black way, the kanji for hope stamped deeply into the black seal.

"This will tell you what you must do when you reach the dark gates," spoke the old woman, "For your eyes only, destroy it when you are finished least your work be undone."

He nodded, sliding the scroll inside his haori where it rested firmly against his chest.

"It will steal your soul," the woman said, "your life energy, but the box will be closed, the demons made pure. The balance of the guardians will be made pure once more, their souls will be set free." She bowed at him, deeply, her nose nearly brushing the floor. "Peace will be ours once more."

He swallowed, uncomfortable with the gesture of respect, and returned her bow, though not nearly as deeply nor as long. When he straightened, the general caught his eye and made a slight nod of his head. This shocked the tenth division captain more than anything else. Never had he seen captain Yamamoto so much as incline his head towards any of his subordinates, and he suspected the man had not done so in centuries. Quickly, he bowed again at his commander, Renji following suit.

The pair retreated, backpedaling out the way they came until the bamboo door shut behind them. For a moment, they exchanged incredulous looks having both been caught off-guard by the General's admission.

"What now?" Renji thought out loud.

Hitsuguya felt the leathery paper of the ancient scroll brush against his chest. "Now, we prepare for what lies ahead." He turned intent on returning to the privacy of his own barracks before opening his latest acquisition. "Until tomorrow."

"Wait! Hitsuguya!" called the taller man. "You still don't have to do this. They're giving you a choice y'know."

"I know," he said, "but I never asked for one."

A flash of shunpo, and he was gone.

"Damn," mumbled the red-haired lieutenant, rubbing the back of his head uncomfortably, "I wonder if Matsumoto knows."

"Knows what?" came a feminine voice before a very well-endowed woman leapt down from the roof, landing in front of her fellow vice captain. "Do I know what my little taicho is up to? No, I have no idea, but I get the feeling someone is going to tell me unless he wants me to beat it out of them."

"Hey, hey," he raised his hands defensively, "no need for violence."

Blue eye were sharp and pierced right through him, a mask of determination that booked no room for resistance or compromise. "Spill."

The other lieutenant sighed. Hitsuguya was going to be pissed at him for this.

Two Hours before deadline

He watched her from the rooftop, watched her charge after hollows in his stead. She was strong, resilient, She didn't need him.

Human. She would grow, she would change, and after tonight, when she didn't have to fight monsters any more, she would be free.

Free from fighting monsters, free from bearing loads that were not her own, free from shinigami, free from that ugly responsibility, free to rejoin her teammates, her classmates, her friends. Free to be normal.

Free to forget him, free to move on.

Deep down, if he dared admit it to himself, he didn't want her to forget everything. He wanted, selfishly, to be remembered, and not just by anyone, but by her.

But moving on, growing up, living—that was inevitable. It was one of the things he admired about humans, how they changing, molding, adapting, rallying against challenges, and growing when growth was needed. He was already doomed to become a faded memory, a bittersweet recollection, and she would change and grow, bit by bit, living, learning, without him. In time…in time she would learn to care for someone else. Someone much more alive than he was.

Ichigo would look out for her, or Kuchki, she owed him after all, or Matsumoto, because in between the anger and tears and everything, she still promised. And he trusted her, completely, desperately, to keep it, and knew that his trust was not in vain.

Promises, hope, trust, it would have to be enough.

The figure rose from his crouched position in the shadows, moonlight revealing a face that was young, boyish, and yet somehow quite old. No captain's jacket tonight, no black robes. His outfit was plain and white, not designed to blend in with the silhouettes of the night.

But it would help him to blend in somewhere else.

Black energy swirled around him as he called upon his reiatsu. The demonic presence, the taint of darkness, was getting stronger, and his left hand always burned fiercely whenever he reached for it.

Humans, had any been passing by, would have instinctively altered their route as their sense of danger prickled. Visible or not, anyone within a three mile radius would feel the prickling sensation on the back of their neck, a chill down their spine, goose bumps on their skin, such was the dreaded presence of beasts of the underworld.

And the box. He blamed the box most of all. This amplification of demonic aura, had he been any less capable, any less powerful, anything less than what he was, he would have long been ripped to shreds, his soul splintered, his face covered with a hard white mask. But he was Hitsuguya, captain of the tenth division, more than strong and more than capable for this task.

He raised his arm, fingers replaced by gruesome black claws, skin turning into sharp, ebony scales that flaked off as he adjusted his sleeve. The smell of blood, the smell of death, filled the air, and the boy grit his teeth biting back the vicious pain.

Souls, whole souls, were not meant to sign contracts with hell. Pain, agonizing, excruciating, but he hadn't expected anything different.

With a slash of claws and scales, the air ripped like a fabric being cut, a black seam expanding in the sky. The seam widened, stretching outward like a bat opening its wings.

The air tasted like dead roses, and his gut turned at the gruesome sounds arising from the portal he made. Demons growling in anticipation, victims wrapped in chains, partial souls drifting with mind-numbing expressions, tearing at their own flesh, sucking their own blood with crazed eyes. Jagged screams tore into the night, the tortured souls of hell, and although the boy's cool expression did not falter, his eyes grimaced.

Faster than the human eye could follow, the boy vanished, the seam ripping closed behind him. One moment there, one moment gone.

The inhabitants of the area breathed a sigh of relief, relaxing now that the demonic presence was gone. The shadows didn't feel nearly so threatening now, and they didn't know why they had been so afraid before. The people of the small town of Karakura slept peacefully that night, a sense of security rolling over them like a blanket.

..

A dark haired mortal girl was leading a troupe of spectral beings through monster-infected streets. Their destination was clear: a quaint candy shop on the corner of Barnes Street and seventy-second avenue. As they passed through one of the sketchier regions of town, it was clear that the girl was serving as both a guide to the small entourage and also a guard. She ushered the transparent spirits along, urging them to quicken their pace while firing off the occasionally energy bullet at the more daring of the white masked fiends stalked after the party.

It was a strange sight indeed: large beasts sporting hideous white masks, a small group of souls hurrying away from the mindless frenzy, and the mortal girl whose fingertips were alight with energy as she disposed of the attackers with cool efficiency. Her air was almost of that of detachment as if her mind were elsewhere, and while indeed her blows were swift, her shots lethal, the spirit of fight seemed absent, the usual determined expression absent.

Her body stood still as the others passed her, now within sight of their destination, but the girl made no move to follow. Hands fell to her side as the creatures nearest her backpedaled, retreating into the shadows of alleys and the darkness of man's hearts.

There was a legend, her teacher told her, of the birth of such creatures. Back when the earth was young and the heavens were peaceful, a great darkness came and spread across the land. Humans, vulnerable and unable to see it, were easily infected. They became hosts, the darkness feeding off the ills of their hearts. Love turned to jealousy, jealousy into envy, envy into hate, hate into rage, and rage into madness. Souls were turned this way, corrupted and consumed by the dark plague of grief and sin, and the darkness gained power. And from power, it drew its followers. The blackened hearts twisted into dust leaving behind a hole, a hollow, in one's chest. The monsters, the demons, the consumers of spirits and souls—once souls themselves, betrayed by their own hearts.

As the girl's eyes traveled up the clock tower, she wondered of her own fate. Would her heart, now beaten and crushed, would it too dissolve into dust?

Brown orbs settled on a desolate looking figure, balancing on the railing with the ease of a tightrope walker. A man, well dressed. A black suite and a hot hat. Yellow teeth behind a sickly smile, he swept into a graceful bow, tilting his hat in a disrespectful, mocking manner.

The girl clenched her teeth standing her ground. No, she decided, her heart would not fade into dust; she was a Kurosaki, a breed made of stronger stuff. She fought against the swelling panic, against the knowledge that not only was this an opponent beyond her capacities to handle but also one who was already supposed to be dead. She had seen his body disintegrate in Toshiro's explosion.

She schooled her expression into one of calm and doused her frenzied thoughts to the back of her mind. Later. Worry about logic later.

The man leapt from his perch, his arms spread wide like an eagle. Polished, gentleman's shoes landed on the pavement with a feather-light touch, his grin Cheshire like a cat ready to pounce.

"Greetings chica? A bit late in the evening for a lady to be strolling about unguarded."

"What do you want?" The teen returned sharply. Energy pooled around her feet, ready to spring as needed. There would be no white-haired hero this time.

"I want what every self-respecting man wants," he drawled conversationally, "a good paying job, the chance to see the world, and, of course, a particular sort of company to, ahem, pass time with."

The girl hoped the group of souls she had been escorting had enough time to make it to the candy shop by now, but she kept talking to give them more time. "As much as I would love to be your entertainment, I am actually rather busy at the moment—"

"No little nina, it is you who misunderstands me. Tonight I come for business, not for pleasure."

Karin swallowed. Would this be how she would die? In the middle of the road, mile from home? Who would tell her family? What poor soul would find her body? Yuzu would cry, and Dad and Ichigo… would her death bring him home? It was sad that it had to come to that, but maybe it would be the one thing to save her tattered family, as grief pulled them together instead of pushing them apart.

"I know what you are chica. You cannot hide before me. Though your flesh be mortal, your spirit is hardly so ordinary. I smell you through that bag of bones. Guardian, they have hidden you well."

"Guardian?" Confusion laced her voice. "What are you talking about?"

"At the birth of this homely little planet, the guardian spirit was made to protect the world from imbalance.

"Imbalance," he gestured at his own person, "comes in many forms; anarchy, chaos, things that would lead to the destruction of that world. Guardians prevent imbalances from having free reign, from becoming the dominant power in a world.

"For a long time, you kept the world balanced, not peace but not war, neither limitless joy nor bottomless sorrow. Indeed, you were rather cleaver about it, creating and end to life, giving your subjects mortality, ensuring that happiness was never pure nor pain unending. Clever. Until the Shingami came.

"I am uncertain of their origin, but these powerful beings capable of setting the world in imbalance. You had no choice; you had to split your soul. One part to went to heaven to keep an eye on these shinigami and one part to earth to dwell amongst the mortals.

"But being split weakened you to the laws of mortality and regeneration. Through the passage of time, you lost sight of your past, your powers, your true identity. Effectively, you became human.

"They tried to hide you, protect you through the flesh of man, but I found you at last. Your spirit cannot hide from me."

For a moment, a long moment, the girl was silent, contemplating his words. It was true that her powers were different, a far cry from what might be considered traditional of the shinigami, but she was nowhere near the power of the captains or even the vice-captains. Did she seek balance? Yes, in a way. She balanced her school, her friends, her duty to defend the town. She tried to balance her family, tried so very hard to keep them all together. But she failed. All across the board, she failed. And quite frankly, now that she thought about it, she really didn't care if things got out of wack or didn't follow the plan or work out just right. She didn't care about balance. She cared about her family. She cared about soccer. She cared about Toshiro and protecting her friends and defending her town and making sure hollows didn't eat her sister in her sleep.

"Your wrong." She spoke with conviction, without even a hint of doubt.

There was someone who was willing to sacrifice his family, say goodbye to those he cared about. He was friends with humans and hollows and shinigami alike. His reiatsu was near bottomless, regenerating faster than he used it, who started off human but was also a shinigami, also a hollow. He was obsessed with order and balance, with justice. Good was good, bad was bad, straightforward and simple and easy. He followed his instincts even if it meant leaving his family and friends behind, even if it meant playing for the wrong team.

Her brother, her Ichigo—she always knew he was something else.

"It is a shame you still posses a child's mind. Youth makes you unprepared."

"I am not a child." Karin huffed indignantly.

Black beady eyes gleamed at her from underneath the brim of a hat. "When you are as old as I, even the guardians look like infants."

Her gaze swept over greasy black hair and an unlined face. "You hardly look old."

He shook his head laughing. "Oh mortals! Using only their eyes! Ha. Ha." His gaze shifted to the candy shop before centering back on her. "But I have little time to digress; perhaps some other time. Now, chica, on to business.

"I come bearing a message from my master, my maker, Lord over the darkness, the cruelest of the cruel. He speaks of the little dragon's death. He is the key that turns the lock, yet it is she, the niña who sees, who grasps the handle. You can withdraw him. You can save him. My master asks that you do."

"I can't," she choked. Did he really think she hadn't tried. She pulled and pulled, but he hadn't budged. She couldn't even go to him; that wall between worlds wouldn't let her pass.

The gentleman's shoulders stiffened, the fake little smile dropping from his face. He leaned forward as if to whisper in her ear, and it took all of Karin's willpower not to flinch or leap away. He smelled like old paint and dead roses, and she wrinkled her nose in disgusted as stale breath tingled the hairs in her ear.

"Have you tried drawing your sword?"

She blinked, and suddenly she was staring at an empty street. The bells of the clock tower began their hourly sonata, chiming the hour. A stripped grey cat crossed the street, its green eyes appearing to glow. It flicked its tail in her direction, irritated at the girl's presence, before continuing on its way.

"Karin-chan?" It was the shopkeeper's voice. "Are you alright?" He sounded concerned.

"I'm fine." She didn't turn to face him. Her expression, she didn't trust it right now, and the brunet really was not feeling up to playing another round of questions and vague answers. "I got to go."

Without another word, she wrapped her hand around the closest string, Yuzu's, and gave it a careful pull. Zipping through space, her mind felt numb.

Have you tried drawing your sword?

Two Minutes before deadline

She walked into her house. All the lights were off, the kitchen and living room were empty. Even though she knew she didn't have much time, she couldn't help but pause, her eyes floating around the room taking everything in. The old couches, the large than life poster of her mother, Yuzu's favorite yellow cup left on the counter. The large table, always ready for more guests and bearing the rambunctious lot with impressive fortitude. The doorway to her dad's office, something that had always been an unspoken off-limits.

Fingers stretched towards the photographs on the shelf, wanting to trace the outline of those smiling faces, but she pulled up short, shaking her head and remembering the task at hand.

The stairs. How many times had she run up and down those? How many times had the jumped the last three when she was running late? How many times had she skirted around the squeaky step, second from the top, when she was sneaking out? She walked up them this time, one hand dusting the handrail, a goodbye touch.

Her mind was set, her intentions clear, but that didn't mean she had any idea what would happen. Tearing a hole through space was one thing, but tearing a person?

Still, she had to try. She made her silent goodbyes though, just in case.

..

Indeed his flesh was pink and his blood was red. He could only dodge so much without putting the box and the seal array at risk, and he dared not use any of his reiatsu on the off chance he blew the area up before his task was complete.

When they finally had him pinned down, arguments broke out over who was going to eat what part of him, who got the honor of the killing blow, and so forth. An impatient bird species was knowing on his shoulder, and when the bull-mask hollow noticed, and obliterated the usurper, a whole new round of arguments, intermingled with physical brawls, broke out anew.

The boy coughed, holding as still as he was able. Breathing was painful, and he was sure he had cracked at least a few ribs. The world spun for a minute as he was jerked upward by his ankle, dangled like a ragdoll. He grit his teeth, doing his best to keep his stomach contents where they were.

"No, I eat his legs. They make me faster" growled the one holding his ankle, shaking the shinigami for emphasis.

"You cannot have both legs!" shouted a shorter, insect-like hollow.

"Nahuel is the strongest so Nahuel gets what he wants" bellowed his captor.

"Fine," said the bull-mask, "Keep his legs, but I get his arms and neck."

There were cries of outraged by the rest of the group. "Greedy bastard" "Why you get the choice cuts when it was I who pinned him down?" "I say no meat for him with no manners."

The grip around his ankle tightened. "Nahuel agrees."

The number and volume of the angry shouts only increased, until a snake-like hollow wormed into the group's center. She flicked out her tongue, and the rest were silenced. "The strongest choose first, as is their right. Nahuel gets the legs, Rorjesh takes his arms. Next is I and I shall take his heart."

Her golden eyes, sharp and cold, found his. "I shall be his killer. I shall be his mask-maker."

Two Seconds before deadline

A room for two sisters sat dark and silent as the edges of night crept amongst it keepers. Sisters, twins, bound to one another by fate, yet so different. In olden days it was believed that twins shared a soul, but this pair was hardly identical; they were not destined to be a matched set. Differences set them apart, like night and day. Only the bonds of family, of love kept them close, the ties of sisters.

Two girls could never be more different. Even the moon observed this, a room, a shared space cut into two equal parts, so separate, so different, so peculiar. The stars, hanging by their window, had watched the pair grow and change, one by leaps and bounds, one slowly and sweetly. One had hardened while the other softened. One growing strong for the other's sake, the other being strong, truly strong, when her sister's back was turned. Protection, an instinct they shared. Determination, hereditary.

Destiny? So very, very different.

These two had been sisters for the eight lifetimes they had shared on earth. Fates had been twined together, twisted, touching, but they had never been the same, were never meant to be the same.

Dark grey eyes gazed at the golden thread protruding from her chest. When she had first started seeing the threads, back when she had wondered over the mystery of her golden friend, it seemed like such a pure color.

Now, finally, grey eyes could see all of the colors, so many, so different, all the different things that tied them together. Green friendship, yellow trust, orange crush, and pink love. Light threads and dark threads all woven together to form a glowing golden rope. Beautiful. The most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

The girl, the teenager, the woman with strong grey eyes stepped out of her human body for the last time. She knew what she needed to do.

Reaching for the sword on her hip, she released a silver blade. It danced in the moonlight and stars and she sang its name, its true name, its full name, the name that meant everything.

It was not a mortal name like Karin, its wielder, it was celestial, imperishable. It was a song, the song of everything, of life, of death, of struggle and meaning, a language beyond what humans were capable of hearing.

'Ryu…'

And everything that it meant, everything that it stood for, everything it defined from its beginning to its end stretching forth in purpose, came to this. This moment, this girl, this wielder, and yet so much more. It had waited for this, thirsted for it, had sang her song, her name, and finally, finally, the time had come, the chorus returned, the call, she called

If blades could speak, whispers beyond what their wielders could discern, this particular weapon would have only had one thought as it was unsheathed: 'Finally.'

Arching her blade, a metal that had never tasted blood or felt the sweat of its wielder's palms yet moved with the grace of water sliding against silk, the girl twirled in a circle. Ribbons of blue and green, yellow and orange, brown and violet and black fell before her, limp against her side. How easily they cut.

She sang her sword's name with tears in her eyes, knowing her twin, her beloved sister would never hear her, would never see what she had done.

One last thread, sky blue. The moon and stars watched the bond formed centuries ago finally come to an end, two sisters, parted eternally.

She did not cry, her eyes watered, threatened to spill, but she had no time left, no breath, no energy to spare.

The clung to the one thread left, the golden rope, and pulled with everything she had, everything she was worth, promised the heavens, the deities, the devils, gave them everything, her soul, her spirit, her memories, her love. She gave up soccer and her friends, gave up school and her dreams and ambitions, gave up her family, her father, her brother, her sister, her mother, gave up her humanity, her morality, her strength, her courage, her doubts, her fears, her love, her life, her everything that made her Karin…

'I won't let you die for me.'

…and pulled.

..

The boy, the captain, the shinigami, the man who bled into the sands of the black desert and bore no resentment to his attackers, merely disappointed resignation, felt a sudden pull on his navel, felt his body sliding backwards on the hot, blood-soaked sands, felt his eyes widening in surprise.

'What—?"

The seal array around the small black box begin to glow, white-hot angry energy, pulsing and beating and trashing. The white haired shinigami blinked against the sudden brightness, raising his hand to shield his eyes.

The box was opening.

He was going to die here; he knew it, knew it from the moment the box's existence was made known. He had filled their request, had traversed the lands of the soul eaters, he painted the seal of heaven and the seal of hell, fed the thing his demonic reiatsu, soaked it his blood, watched it slowly devour his spiritual energy, watched it turn a death god into a meek pedestrian.

He had done it all of his own free will. He had sealed the gates. He had made sure no soul, damned or otherwise, was getting out and no foolhardy rescue was coming in.

He still felt that tug, felt his feet dragging, sand sliding into his shoes, but he didn't care to fight it. So what if a hollow ate him now. In a few seconds, it wouldn't matter.

The true death, the last death, the final death of a soul, he was not afraid to face it. It was the acceptance of finality. The freedom of silence, of nothingness, of completion, it was calm peaceful. He felt light and free as the wave of light washed over him and he was dragged out of the plane of existence.

..

A/N: Only "One" to go. Anyone else excited? I promise this next update won't take nearly so long.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Anything you are dying to tell me? Please leave a review and let me know what's on your mind.

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