Pandora's Key

One

Author's Note: This is the last chapter of this story. It has been quite the adventure, and I hope you guys enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it. Do I plan on writing a sequel? Maybe, but what with school starting up, I doubt that will be in the near future.

I wanted to write a story about Toshiro and Karin that did them justice. They are amazing characters both in their own right. Karin is not the damsel in distress type (even if she does occasionally need to be rescued) nor is she all-powerful. The same holds true for Toshiro. They are incredibly complex both in their actions and inactions, and while I wanted my story to be centered around their relationship, I did not want them to be defined by that relationship but rather their own faults and merits.

I hope, in this last installment, I did them justice.

One Second after deadline

"Ne, why do you always come here?"

These moments…

The boy looked up from his phone, eye glimmering in the setting sun.. "It's the best place I can find to watch the sky."

…are so precious.

The golden wash of light made his skin appear to glow, beautiful and unearthly like an angel fallen from the heavens. "It brings back memories."

And time…

She would never forget that touch; a gentle brush along her cheek, fingers softly tucking back her hair. His eyes, so filled with concern, looked almost green under the dim light of the street lamp. One arm under her knees, another on her back, and her hands were wrapping around his neck. She would never forget that moment.

…with you…

She rarely got hurt, and it was always so embarrassing for anyone to see her this way, so weak, so vulnerable, still a little girl needing protection. She had gotten so much stronger since those childhood days. She didn't need a guardian angel watching out for her, and yet…

…means everything to me.

And yet, she loved it when he carried her, loved the ways his arms wrapped around her, gentle, warm, safe.

Now it was her arms wrapped around him, black hair spilling over white. Her black hoodie, his white dress shirt, a tangled mess of limbs, ending where the other started, inseparable. Like yin and yang, they belonged together, the half, the whole, the disaster yet the perfection.

He had never truly understood. She was not after love or happiness or lifetime guarantees. She wasn't chasing promises he couldn't keep; she was chasing him. She didn't want closure; she wanted completion. No goodbyes, never goodbye, she wouldn't let him.

All she wanted. Him. Just him. Her golden thread, her partner, her best friend, her so much more. And he was here, and she wouldn't let him go.

.

He felt as though he had been run over by a train. His head swum, and spots danced before his eyes. It was difficult to focus on much of anything, where he was, how he got here. He blinked trying to wad his way through the confusing, hazy cloud back to reality.

Something was latched to his torso, binding him in place. It was confusing, and yet, and yet, it felt like home.

He swept ebony hair out his face, smiling softly.

One Minute after deadline

He looked at her completely flabbergasted, and she couldn't help but smile at his expression. It was so rare that he was caught so completely off guard.

"H-how?" he stuttered.

Her smile turned into a laugh. "Really Toshiro? I'm a Kurosaki. I'd have thought that by now you would have learned to expect the unexpected"

.

He didn't know when they started kissing exactly, just that he never wanted it to stop. Warm lips pressed against his, hot breath in his ear, hands tangled in her hair, heat pooling between them, needing her as much as she needed him, needing her touch, her skin, her smell, not wanting to waste time with breathing.

Saving her, saving him, that was all that mattered.

One Hour after deadline

She stood outside her father's house, knowing this was goodbye. Her clothes were packed, her backpack zipped shut, a quick note left on the kitchen table. It should have been harder than it was, but she no longer had any ties here, all those threads had been cut.

A boy with white hair stood at her shoulder, his presence warm and solid, comforting despite his silence. It was weird seeing him in her brother's old clothes, but he couldn't stay in that strange white outfit and she wasn't quite ready to see him walking around naked. She wasn't a particular fan of the hat, but his white hair would draw way too much attention to themselves, and attention is the last thing they needed.

It had been hard, stitching him back together, and she had never been that good at knitting. The black parasite had stuck to him like glue, tearing apart the tiny spiritual threads that held his essence together, but she had finally prevailed, pulling the accursed leach off. From there, it had been delicate work, weaving his soul back in place.

At first when the impossible task lay out before her, she despaired. How on earth could she fix him? He was fading before her eyes, the threads escaping into nothing.

She was going to lose him.

No, her mind, her heart, screamed, arms wrapping tightly around the bundles that remained. 'No.'

'Karin,' her sword spoke. The soft voice sent waves of comfort through her, like a hand gently squeezing her shoulder. 'Perhaps I can help.'

She was terrified of messing him up, or ruining him, but Ryu, the spirit of her zanpackto, was there, guiding her. Together, they fed the strings her life energy, keeping them solid. Together, they reconnected the pieces. Together, they brought back they boy they loved.

In the end, it was the gold thread that saved him. The strongest of strings, bearing the least damage, and the most willing to regrow, most willing to accept her strength, her energy, trusting her when the other connections did not.

It was amazing what she could see now that her sword had been released. Not just the threads that bound people together, but the threads that connected everything, the weave of wind through the grass, the ties between the squirrel and his tree. Everything was connected, tied together so irrevocably, so completely in ways she could never hope to describe. It was all she could do not to blatantly stare at her surroundings and gasp at the simplest of things. Threads, energy, life, it was a design so incredibly complicated and still, somehow, unbelievably simple like something she had always been able to feel but was just now beginning to see.

She could see her family would get along fine without her. Safer, perhaps, now that her reiatsu wouldn't be so near. The house would be a little emptier, the rooms a little quieter, another empty chair at the table.

They had been a family once, a blessing of five. In a way, they would always be a family, by blood, by century old connections, by past and history and love and lifetimes of shared experiences. But souls came in pairs. Not fives, not fours. Twos.

Reaching behind her, she grasped the boy's hand. Tugging on it softly, the pair walked away.

She didn't regret it. Somehow, she always knew it would happen, but she had been stubborn for so long, refusing to believe her family was meant to go separate ways. Her brother, her father, her mother, her sister—a fighter, a leader, a lover, a dreamer—all so different. How had such souls ever come together? How had they stayed together as long as they had?

An anchor.

She was not that girl anymore. From the air rushing down her throat to the tingling in her toes to the excitement and air of adventure that pulled on her lips and quickened her step, from the hand holding hers to the heart beating in her chest, she was free.

Free. Free. Free.

A smile too big to fit her face, a heart too wild to be tamed. Bright courage, promises seen till the end, and a new world to face that was just hers. Free, free, free. A spirit unbroken, a harness broken, a life unchained. A hand in hers.

Free. Free. Free.

.

He still hadn't figured out how she had done it, was still at a loss for words.

He was always a planner, thinking ten steps ahead, but he felt lost at this unpredictable twist. He had not counted on being alive, of returning relatively unscathed, and now he hardly knew what to do with himself and was reduced to simply obeying the tug on his hand, the command of her voice.

He should go back; he was still obligated to report back in to General Yamamoto, still had his duties for the tenth division.

Except he didn't. Except everyone thought he was dead. He was supposed to be dead.

He couldn't explain his current state without dragging Karin into the mess, and even then, he wasn't entirely sure how to describe that either. But then if he did that, it would only be opening up another can of worms when it came to the general's attention that there was another human with high spiritual pressure, triggering another investigation, which would inevitably lead to Mayuri attempting to kidnap her, and on and on it went.

And what did he have to go back for? His duties? Without hollows to fight and humans to defend what would become of the shinigami? Janitors performing the occasional soul burial? The police force cleaning up the streets of the Rukongai?

Who did he have to go back to? His grandmother was dead, and he, himself, burned down his childhood home, having no intentions of ever returning ( then again he hadn't counted on living long enough for that to even be a possibility).

She was right. The best thing to do was to disappear, skip the whole confrontation all together. They thought he was dead anyways so there wouldn't be anyone out looking for him, and really no one would be surprised that another Kurosaki ran off—her classmates practically expected it of her anyways.

It still didn't make it any easier.

They walked on in silence, wanting to cut across town the human way in case anyone was watching. Once they hit the less populated areas, they could shunpo as much as they wanted.

She led him to the bridge, the one they always seemed to find, and with sure steps, the pair walked across.

One Day after deadline

Her mind is drifting, not particularly thinking about anything. Her navy blues eyes are drawn out of focus. Headphones jammed into her ears, music turned on full blast, she offered to share, but he wasn't interested, his attention drawn instead to the book in his lap and their interlocking hands.

The world passes by outside her window, flashes of blue and green. They are drawing south, racing towards the coastal cities, towards marshes and mud.

The hum of the train puts her in a kind of trance, and her head flops on his shoulder as her gaze shifts upward, staring at that crystal blue sky and it poofy white travelers. He glances at the mass of black hair, the small body leaning into him, watches as her hand raises as if to trace the clouds.

He doesn't mind the weight on his shoulder, not really, didn't mind this simple form of affection. Dancing, partying, sloppy make out sessions, had never been his thing. Simple gestures, like her head on his shoulder, meant more. Maybe it was the innocence behind them, how they didn't demand anything more than was already being given, or maybe it was because they signified something more, something deeper than was just on the surface, something that was bigger than what any form of physical contact implied. Maybe it was because they didn't need the grand gestures, a big flashy show, just something like, like…something easy, something like them.

The hum of the train was slowly lulling her to sleep. Letting her hand fall back across her stomach, she yawned and the boy turned back to his book.

Simple. Easy. Just like them.

If asked where they were going, the dark haired girl really had no idea. Some tiny town in the middle of nowhere, it was all his idea. He had been really intent about it, going to this place specifically, and while she had grumbled about the ocean smelling awful this time of year, she had gone along with it.

He read his book while she snuggled into his shoulder. Really, this was living.

One Week after deadline

"This is the exotic fishing town of Taiji?"

"Yeah," he nodded, his gut twisting with worry. "You don't like it?"

She cast a long look at the rows of houses on stilts, leaning at precarious angles, at the rooftops that appeared as though they were in a desperate need of a patch job. The smell of fish and salt was almost overpowering. The basic tools the fishermen were using to repair their boats or mend their nets made her feel like she had taken a trip back to pre-industrialized Japan. Was that guy sharpening a spear?

Yes. Yes, he was.

"What are you talking about? I love it!" Picking up her bag, she raced over to spear-man, wondering if he was hiring.

.

Apparently, it was bad luck to have a woman aboard a fishing vessel, even if she was particularly hardy. She could help around the dock if it so pleased her, but she could not go near the boat, couldn't so much as mend the nets least she curse them with misfortune.

Karin sulked all the way back to the tiny shack they were staying at, one part angry at the stupid sailor and his idiotic superstitious, and one part angry at her companion for getting the job she asked for.

Said teenager was doing his best to stay out of her way. When she got moody like this, a tornado of destruction was practically inevitable. He would just have to find some way to make it up to her.

A few choice ideas came to mind.

.

The missing posters spread all over Karakura. Many residents familiar with the Kurosaki name simply shook their head. They had thought the younger sisters to be the most reasonable members of the odd family, but the warning signs had all been there, skipping class, getting kicked off the soccer team, running around the town late at night…really is should not have come as a surprise at all.

But to those who knew her, more than just her face or family name, questioned her disappearance. The note was in her own handwriting, her intentions of running away clearly stated, and yet, it seemed so…odd. Even for her.

What on earth could have caused it? So abrupt as well?

The soccer team made it their personal vendetta to track her down, certain she was only hiding out somewhere. Guilt buried in their chests. It was their fault, they were certain. They shouldn't have been so hard on her. They should have said something while they still had the chance. It was all there in that prank; they should have known. Why oh why hadn't the talked to her sooner?

Meanwhile, Yuzu Kurosaki, the finder of the note and one of the two people who had actually read it, sported a different look these days. Concern, worry, disappointment, dread. Often she was seen biting her lower lip. While she wasn't a ridiculous sobbing mess like her father, she kept insisting, in her quiet way, that more posters be made, kept making inquires on those that had last seen her sister.

What she found, she kept to herself, lips pushed firmly together. Her eyes were stained with dark lines as the lack of sleep caught up with her, but they did not moisten or dampen. No. The two blue orbs stayed dry even as they took on that distant look, staring off into the horizon, staring off at the bridge.

People began to wonder. How long would the next Kurosaki take? How long until there were no Kurosaki's left at all?

The young girl kept quiet. Her thoughts on her sister, whatever they might be, remained hidden behind closed lips and the blank stare of dry blue eyes. From that day on, she would not cry again.

One Month after deadline

Things had finally quieted down in Seretei. Most of the divisions had been disbanded, but those that remained now served more as a police force than as a military unit. Many were stationed in the human world, hanging around cemeteries and parks, performing soul burials as needed. It was hardly the fighting force it had once been.

It resulted mixed feelings. Some had been fighting for so long that they hardly knew how to sheath their blades. The ninth division absolutely refused to disband, but this didn't come as a surprise to anyone who knew the battle-hungry members. Surprisingly, the fourth division refused to dissolve as well, citing that while the fighting may be finished, healers would always be needed.

The fifth division had fractioned, as had the sixth, slowly loosing squadrons until there were hardly any left.

The tenth division had lasted a little longer, a mixture of stubborn faces. They refused to take on a new captain, refused to accept new academy graduates, refused to change the face of their division, but when the reconciliation packages started showing, money, food, clothes, starter kits for normal living, the familiar faces around the division had started disappearing one by one.

One day the fukitaicho walked in to the tenth division square to find it completely empty, deserted of all its former glory. Quietly, with slow, deliberate movements, she stepped back outside, sliding the bamboo door shut behind her. Then, Matsumoto Rangeku stood, blankly gazing at a door that would never be reopened and looking quite lost and unsure of what to do with herself.

She had been sober for a long time now, but for a moment, her legs felt wobbly, her head cloudy and disoriented as she leaned against the wooden frame. Just a moment, just give her a moment, and then she would be fine again.

.

The head of the Kurosaki household frowned. His fair-haired daughter was spending more and more time away from the house, and he had a suspicion on what she was up to.

The number of missing posters had doubled in the last week or so, and his daughter kept coming home looking more exhausted than she had the day before. Running in ever widening circles, asking passersby if they had seen her sister, had she come this way.

But Yuzu always came back, always returned home, always made diner with that smile on her face that was just a bit too tight.

His chest was heavy with regret. If he had just found the note first, plucked it away from his daughter's fingers, she would not be in the frazzled state she was in now. He could have made up some better story, something highly romanticized that his daughter would believe (she did technically run off with a boy).

But curse Karin for her blunt honesty and clipped tone, said she was leaving, didn't know where, didn't know how long, didn't know if she would ever be back. Said she didn't want them to worry, she would be perfectly fine, just needed a change of scenery for a while.

Needless to say, the younger twin had taken the news badly, insisting they file a missing person's report and begin looking for her sister immediately. Karin couldn't just leave, her sister insisted, she couldn't, she wouldn't, and yet, somehow, she had.

Yuzu was sure it was kidnapping, sure that someone had forced her sister along.

Her father knew better. Karin was a Kurosaki after all.

One Year after deadline

A buxom, former lieutenant was paying a special visit to the human world. Her eyes flashed around the tiny fishing village, casting a critical eye over the milling groups of sailors. One in particular caught her attention. Somewhat short, he had a cap pulled over his eyes, hiding his hair. He seemed to be a hurry, darting around carts of fish and merchants selling fruit with surprising ease. She followed after him, careful to keep her own head covered and a safe distance from him.

She had suspected he would be here, his hometown back when he had been a human. When she had herd the rumor that Kurosaki Karin had disappeared just after her captains supposed death, it struck the former shinigami as just a bit too convenient.

It had taken her months to find this place, having forgotten the name. All she knew was that it was a tiny fishing village, hardly worth note, easily missed if you weren't paying attention. But she had been here before, once, on a mission with Hitsuguya before he donned his captain's robes.

She still remembered his stunned expression when he spotted the leaning bell tower with its flecking red paint. The side nearest the ocean was covered with grey freckles, worn down by the spray of salt, but the side nearest to where they stood was scorched black.

She had found herself wondering out loud, what had happened to leave the tower so scarred. She hadn't expected the young trainee to answer.

He explained how there once was another building beside the tower, a store on the bottom, a house on top, where a family had sold their wares. A young couple and their son, they had been well off, doing surprisingly well in a community so deeply lined with poverty.

One night a group of bandit struck the town, targeting the shopkeeper and his wife. They had captured the son, holding a knife to his throat, as they demanded more gold and goods than the young couple could provide. Enraged, the bandits' leader threw the boy back at the couple. Raising a kerosene lantern high over his head, he muttered a single word, "Burn" before smashing it on the ground.

Most spirits don't remember their past lives by the time they reach soul society, and the few that do typically lose most of their memories within a few short years. It's a self-defense mechanism, letting go of the world of the living, replacing old memories with new.

Hitsuguya was still young though, young enough to still recall his former home, his former life, and his untimely death.

What would he have been like, she wondered as she trailed the boy to the outskirts of town, had the bandits not found his house. Would he have grown up normal? Would he have been so cold? Would she have ever met him?

If nothing else, it probably would have changed the dynamics of their relationship. Had he been an adult when he had met her, would she have still had that motherly instinct, that insuppressible desire to keep him safe? Would she have ever tried so hard to see past his frosty demeanor? Would they have even spoken?

The boy with the floppy hat made a sudden, sharp turn disappearing down a windy path. She quickened her pace. Taking a look around to make sure no one was watching, she took to the trees, leaping from limb to limb, keeping the boy in sight, yet staying out of sight. It was not long before they reached his destination.

It was a tiny house, small but well built. The walls looked strong enough to withstand the strongest storms, and the roof appeared as though it had been recently thatched.

There was a girl outside, long dark hair brushed behind her ear. She was bent over, pulling weeds from a garden of vegetables. Deeply focused on her work, she didn't hear the boy's approach. Arms latched around her midsection, and he spun her around. The girl laughed, struggling to break free, knocking the boy's floppy hat off in the process.

Messy white hair escaped from its confines, and the woman in the trees had her suspicions confirmed. So he was alive.

Spinning around, the girl pressed him against the house, kissing the white-haired boy senselessly.

The woman turned, retreating back the way she came. It was not a scene meant for her eyes. She smiled, happy that her captain had survived after all, beyond thrilled that he had found happiness of his own. That was all she needed.

She would not visit, would not bring him back to the world he left behind. He had found his closure, his peace just as she had found hers. Her little taicho was all grown up. He didn't need her any more.

One last thing. At the entrance to that winding pathway that led to the house hidden in the trees, she jumped down from her perch, soundlessly landing on the soft earth. Untying the pink scar, her long time companion, keeper of so many memories, she wrapped it around the nearest trunk, a simple knot to keep it in place.

There were some things she needed to let go of too.

It was time to return home, time to return Renji's calls. It had been a long time since she had gone out to a bar or gotten a well-earned bottle of sake, and she was well overdue for a drink.

She vanished in a flash of light. Maybe she'd come back some day. Not now, not yet, she still needed to get herself straight first, but one day, she promised. One day soon.

One Century after Deadline

Two souls met in the medium, tired, worn. Their smiles were weary as those who had traveled far and had lost much, but they were no less warm, their embrace no less joyful. Finally together, finally complete, finally whole, they joined hand and hand and rose to freedom.

Not to the earth and its humans and hardships. Not to the heavens of heartache or the hells of toil.

They climbed the steps few souls have trod, reaching for the worlds beyond the mortal paths of half humans and half angels, and, smiling, hands clasped, they joined the stars.

.

A young girl found a beautifully ornate box, black lacquer with gold trim. Gentle fingers picked it up, brushing off the dust.

Turning it over in her hands, she wondered what was inside it.

.

A/N: Thank you for making this journey with me. Thank you for seeing it though to the end. *Bows * From the bottom of my heart, thank you for making this worthwhile.

Let us go forth then and be legends. Let us be the stuff that dreams are made on.

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