Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach, but I spent awhile coming up with this idea. So don't you dare take it without my permission.

Summary: It is inevitable that in a city teeming with humans, mistakes will happen. Crashes. Collisions. She takes because she has to, absorbs the pain and takes until there is nothing. AU HitsuRuki, B/R, I/R

Future Pairings: Hitsugaya/Rukia (main), minor Byakuya/Rukia, Ichigo/Rukia

Music: Imogen Heap's The Walk

The Taker

Prelude to the Madness

The world is falling apart.

There's fear everywhere, whispers and ghosts of would-be infections, undesirables, the takers of all that is good and right with the world. It's a sudden crash, a seeping of people's desires into one entity on the brink of life and death. Madness, the public calls it. Incurable, the doctors say with the touch of terror in their eyes—winking and glimmering in the pale, yellow lights of solitary confinement. Cars are abandoned as the governments bond together, struggling to deal with something that cannot be dealt with, cannot be brushed aside like a gossamer curtain or a stray cobweb.

It takes a simple human being, a collision, that thin thread of life, and a million dreams to create one. A Taker. Something out of nothing. A rewinding thread of vitality that spins a new life out of a dying breath so that this new creature can be born and live to take and take from the world and its people. They come in different forms, some bright and boisterous, others quiet and thoughtful. But it doesn't matter in the end, because Takers take the best in people, take the happiness and joy and cradle it in their still hearts that do not beat. They are forever trying to fill this emptiness inside them, hoping that one day the joy will start their hearts, make them human again. For in the end, isn't everyone just striving to be accepted?

Minimal losses, the governments say. Report any Takers so that they may be quarantined and left to die. Others push for slow, systematic executions. It's survival, some argue. A human without happiness is a shell. The needs of the public outweigh the needs of one inhuman thing, politicians state. Xenophobia. Terror. They come together in the cities and twist into murder, a return to the Dark Ages, and no one knows if they'll ever see the light again.

It's a dream, she wants to believe. She's only a small thing of the world, a fragile human made of blood and skin and streams of consciousness. But in a city of teeming thousands, accidents are bound to happen. A stray, leftover car. A reckless driver. A pause for too long, the glare of headlights, and she's on her back. This unnamed girl with blood spiraling down the roads and dimming eyes. Night is falling and no one stops to look at this tragic scene, no one dares to touch her. She could become a Taker, she could quietly fade away, she could do anything and nothing at all.

At twilight, before dawn and after dusk, the dreams come to her. Soft whispers of a lamented love long lost, wishes for a better tomorrow, aspirations from an orphan who dreams of touching the sky and seeing mother again. They take the place of blood in her body, run through her veins and intertwine around her soul.

Her heart stills and turns to ashes.

…a new Taker.

Rukia is an empty name. It is something to call this thin, waif-like slip of a girl by. She is different, the other orphans know. It isn't that her eyes are a shade of intense, lovely lilac or that her hair is darker than the bleakest of nights. It isn't her moon-white skin or her perpetually pensive silence—as if the words are there, but her spirit is not. It's just her. She drifts in the orphanage, someone without a beginning and without an end. No one remembers her birth or why she came to be at all.

She's only seven when it happens. The dam that breaks, the sudden and decisive strike.

"Why are you sad?" It's a simple question with child-like innocence (and isn't she just a child after all?).

He smiles weakly and pats her head gently. His name is Kaien and he'll change her world just as she will surely change him forever, permanently, without a mark to announce her presence. "My wife went to the stars." He answers at last, gazing at the celestial heavens and wondering if there's a God or a deity. He wonders if she understands, somewhere in her open face and small, small hands. Maybe she does.

She turns her luminous eyes to the brightest star. It's an instinctive move as she places her child fingers above his heart, as if it's natural in a society bound by rules and laws. He doesn't pull away, knowing without really knowing just who (what) she is.

She breathes in his pain as he exhales, pulls it over her like a blanket and into her like it's a part of her that she cannot lose. She takes it from his heart and pulls away only when there is nothing left to remind him of that chasm of sadness and grief. He stares, astonished, watches as the world is slowly turning back into something bearable—livable.

She doesn't say anything. He can't find the words.

At seven, Rukia realizes who she is and why she'll never feel her heart beat.

Thirteen finds her standing on a roof, arms flung outward like she wants to fly and fall until she's just a beautiful mess on the sidewalk before her. A heap of tragic memories and fateful touches. Her soul is a too-filled basin, overflowing with pain that she's taken into herself. But she can take more than emotional pain now. She can take lives. Hearts. Everything and anything to ease a person's suffering. She can erase the past, reinvent the future. But she will never be able to take enough.

"Don't fall." She looks up at the quiet voice and sees a man with violently red hair and tattoos that cross his skin like scars. She doesn't say anything, just smiles vaguely and steps off the roof.

He grabs her as she falls, their hands clasped as she's weighed down by gravity, hanging on the edge of a chasm. She doesn't know him. He doesn't know her. But it doesn't matter because she won't die. Not today. Maybe not tomorrow. He pulls her up, barely exerting any effort because she is lighter than air—made of dreams and sadness. He thinks that she'll disappear if he lets go, even if it's only for a second.

He thinks he's useless. She knows. She can feel his desire to be someone, to do something. It's why she stepped off that roof, so that he can lose that fear of being worthless. She presses a hand to his heart and adds a little more to her overflowing basin. He watches her, mesmerized by her clear, tranquil violet eyes.

A Taker.

"Who are you?" He asks as she takes his shame and his despair into herself, drawing it like the ancients drew water from a bottomless well.

She smiles, withdraws her hand and paints the sky a lovely shade of lavender for him. "Rukia."

He wants to ask why she won't take his happiness like all the other Takers or why she's chosen to help him of all people. But by the time the words form, she's walked away. He'll understand later that he never really saved her on that day by the roof, but that she saved him—with a vague smile and a hand over his heart.

At seventeen, she's lost some of that child within her. It's been eaten away from too many dark feelings, too much sadness permeating her little corner of the world. She's slender as ever, but her eyes are indigo now and her smiles are less vague and more and more substantial—coated with foreign feelings.

It's at seventeen that they begin to hunt for her.

Too many deaths, the government explains. She may not be a true Taker, but she's still a threat to society. They issue an announcement, but no one will tell them what she looks like, who she is. She wanders through the streets, appearing calm and quiet, never failing to garner intense looks of interest. Today, there's a soul calling to her from the hospital, so she walks towards it. Feeling for the throb of life and separating one life strand from another until she can see a picture of the patient—white hair and dying from tuberculosis. Physical pain rather than mental and she cannot cure his illness. She cannot heal. It's the last stage and when she pushes the room to his door open, she resolves in her heart do what must be done.

He has a kindly face, this Ukitake. But it is worn from too many years spent fighting a losing war against an invasion of his body. He doesn't ask why she's here, just extends a thin arm to the chair by his side reserved for visitors.

"Candy?" He offers, holds back the cough threatening to spill past his lips.

She wants to say no, but she doesn't. Pity, perhaps. Atonement, a part of her whispers. She reaches for a tiny wrapped candy piece, wrapped in colorful foil and pockets it quietly. "Thank you." Her voice is hazy, blurred over as if she is speaking in a perpetually smoke-covered room.

"I'm a dying man."

She nods, glances at the heart monitor with the steady green line and the eternal beeping. He doesn't look surprised that she knows. Age has brought him wisdom and illness has given him perception. He understands and a part of him wants to apologize for placing his insignificant life on her shoulders.

She stops him with a hand before he can speak. From afar, she draws his life's string into her. She doesn't want to feel his heart fading underneath her touch, can't bear it, so she does it from the chair—worn in from too many well-wishing visitors and bearing the ghosts of people past. The same hopeful wish of getting better. The get-well cards with hastily scribbled messages in different colored crayons.

"You were loved." She comments softly, dimming the presence of his aura gradually. He's slipping away, but he can hear her and her words comfort him, let him exhale that final breath of life with ease. He is no longer holding onto something. He is letting go and she is helping him.

The monitor flatlines.

She is empty at nineteen.

Too many nights spent avoiding the public areas, running from those who wish to quarantine her, stop her from living as she should. There is the government, who has a price on her head (a general sentence that goes something like this: Wanted, a Taker who can draw people's lives away. Caution, she or he is known to capture sadness and may use it as an advantage. $20,000 for live capture). There are the nondescript bounty hunters, who want the money more than they want the glory. There are the extremist groups, who see that their world is being taken over and so retaliate with hysteria. They are the ones who want to kill her.

And there is herself.

Perhaps that is the most dangerous obstacle of all.

The basin inside her soul by now is still, dry where it once teemed with the cool liquid of sadness. There are times when she cannot overcome the fatigue or her body does not work as it should. Moments of paralysis. Like she is standing but her feet are rooted to the spot, the life lines of the world suspended in the palms of her hands like threads of silk. She cannot survive without their despair.

Winter is sinking into the marrow of her bones and her skin is slowly blending in with the gray, lackluster surroundings. Completing the cycle—ashes to ashes.

Her eyes close.

A few feet away from her, a white-haired youth with turquoise eyes trips over a stray rock and curses.

They will meet and this is where the story begins.

Author's Notes: I return from a hiatus! Fantastic, isn't it? Don't worry, I haven't abandoned my other stories. From here on out, I'll be rapidly writing for Punishment so I can finish it and have it over with. Once I've completed Punishment, my priority will be completing Tension and the Spark as well as Eros and Psyche. I may or may not dabble in a humorous fic, but that's debatable. For those of you who are curious about my sudden drop off the face of the earth, blame it on junior year. Taking 5 APs was probably the worst decision I've ever made in my life. Enough said.

As always, read and review! It'll make me especially happy to know that people haven't forgotten about me. :O