The Taker

fall to infinity

Hitsugaya is not open-minded nor is he one of those racist bigots roaming around the cities in a return worthy of the Dark Ages. He's just a little jaded—a little hurt on the inside, becoming undone seam by seam. But that's another story for another time and right now, the spiritual wounds have yet to heal. He can see them in his mind's eye, raw and burning, scratched and red with grief and anger.

He wishes he weren't so introspective.

He picks himself up off the floor slowly, ignoring the rock and cursing at his own carelessness. The city streets are unsafe. He should know better than to step outside, alone, with nothing but his thoughts to carry him forward bit by bit. He sighs and brushes the hair from his eyes, hands shoved in his pockets, head angled towards the sky. It's okay, he tells himself then and there. It's alright. Tomorrow will be another day and maybe the wounds will be a little less painful to carry with him. Maybe.

He turns and stops.

There's a girl lying by the side of the street, limp and unmoving with eyes the color of lilac. She reminds him of an abandoned doll, all bruises and pale skin, but lovely just the same. He takes a step closer even though warnings are going off in his head, cynical comments surfacing: she's dead. You can't bring back the dead, better leave her there. Stop caring, Hitsugaya. Remembered the last time you cared? It's better to stop. Stop. Leave. Let her lie there. Leave her be.

But he doesn't.

He crouches by her side and reaches out a tentative hand, placing it on her neck where he knows there should be a heartbeat. There isn't one. Dead. There's a sudden welling of extreme sadness when he stands up again, looking at her—discarded and abandoned. She's beautiful. There's a strange twist to his heart as he takes a step away, something indescribably heartrending.

He hisses as a sweep of coldness takes a hold of his lungs, lodging there and he feels so, so cold. Something is flowing out of him, his burdens and his shame, the wounds of his imagination are sealing and mending impossibly fast. Stop. He pleads inwardly, grasping desperately at the last threads of his sadness and grief. Give my feelings back to me.

"Why?" The voice is slow and hazy, tinged with resignation. He lifts his eyes and finds that girl standing now, leaning on a lamppost for support, her hands held up in front of her—palms open and facing the sky. The coldness is still within him, but it's suspended, as if unsure of what to do with itself now.

"I need to heal. By myself. It's a part of who I am." He answers shakily, feet rooted to the spot. So this is who the government is looking for. The Grief Taker, the odd one out, the strange person in an already strange world. He tries to draw in a breath and chokes on the ice that feels like it's encroaching on his heart.

"I see." She answers and lets her fingers curl inwards, hands coming to rest by her side. The chill evaporates and his sadness slams back in full force into his body. The wounds, healed so unnaturally before, rip apart again and he can hardly stand from the onslaught. "I'm sorry."

"Please. Go away." His fingers are digging into the spot above his chest, right where the heart is. "I can't..." see you, look at you, accept you. He doesn't finish his sentence. He doesn't need to.

She smiles, forlornly, the lights glimmering in her eyes. "I understand." But behind her words is a promise:

Because I could not heal you, I will guard you.

His sadness has revitalized her body, even though only the faint impressions remain, she believes in the dim dream and promises that it brings her. She lifts her eyes to his gaze one last time and turns, walking away in steady strides. Teal eyes, a shock of white hair, with a tragedy too heavy to carry alone but too private to share. He has a story with him. She feels an urgent need to go back, but she doesn't. She keeps her gaze ahead of her and walks and walks.

The path before her is one made from broken dreams.

Two weeks later, she meets someone like her, but so very different.

It's by accident. She stumbles into a musty shop with ancient wares, just to see an elegant man drawing the thin, glowing strands of happiness from the shopkeeper into his heart. There aren't many to begin with, for the shopkeeper has lived a life of isolation and failed career paths, forever living an unfulfilled life. These meager strands quiver in the air as she steps closer into the shop and she knows (beyond a doubt) that when the last thread fades, this nameless shopkeeper will be but an empty imitation of what he once was.

She hangs onto that last thread for the poor human, fingernails digging into her palm with effort. She hasn't recovered. It's far too soon for her to even try going against another older, more powerful Taker. But she watches with satisfaction as a thin sheen of ice encases the final strand of happiness.

"What do you think you are doing?" The voice is apathetic, devoid of basic emotion.

She studies the other Taker's blank, gray eyes and sweeps into a low bow. "You cannot kill him. He has not lived a happy life and to take his last hopes would be too cruel." Her eyes are closed, but her concentration is unbroken, and the ice makes beautiful patterns in the air.

"You are weak." He states calmly, without resistance.

"Yes." She acknowledges, rising gracefully to a standing position.

The ice in the air catches his attention and he pauses, hesitant. "You are the different one. The Grief Taker, so the humans have taken to calling you. You are the one who survives off of their grief rather than the warm spirit of this happiness." He says this almost to himself and with a sudden motion breaks his connection to the shopkeeper. The thread disappears back from whence it came, protected within its cocoon of ice. "So be it. I have much to ask you."

She smiles distantly. "If you want to."

He takes her hand and pulls her outside, underneath the streetlights and the dark, dark sky with the moon hanging so low tonight. "My apologies, I seem to have neglected introducing myself." He turns to look at her, letting go of her fragile wrist almost reluctantly. His features are softened by the glow of the moonlight and she thinks that he's handsome in a way that no one will ever be able to imitate.


"Rukia." She replies after a silence.

"Why do you take their grief and pain?" He asks finally, and this conversation is awkward and unfitting and it's wrong for all the reasons she can't say. She's never had anyone question her actions before. She doesn't have a right answer, doesn't have an explanation.

"I don't know." She answers truthfully. "But if I don't, my body shuts down. I can't move. Why do you take their happiness, their joy?" She doesn't mean to sound accusing, but she does anyways. She can't help it.

He has an answer ready. She can tell he's had an answer ready for a long, long time. "Because it makes me feel alive, for just a moment. And then it fades and I'm left like I am now." He doesn't mention that he has a reason for talking to her when he's never talked to another Taker before. He doesn't mention that he needs her ability to justify his actions to himself. He doesn't tell her that he hates who he is, someone who can kill his loved one, someone who survives like a parasite from day to day.

There are some things that he just can't share.

"Why me?" She asks, and it can mean many things: why did you have to talk to me, why am I the odd-one out, why are you standing here looking at me like I'll be able to save you when I can't—I won't? She doesn't elaborate further on the meaning and Byakuya's lost, standing there and feeling like the world is caving down on his shoulders.

"Because I can't hurt you." He replies honestly and reaches for her hand. She gives it to him mechanically, turning questions inside and out and inside again within her head.

"What do you want from me?" She asks, his hand radiating warmth against her icy cold fingers. This is the shopkeeper's happiness running through his veins, mimicking the flow of blood, the beat of a heart. She'll never have that. For her, there is only the cool, liquid rush to propel her forward. She will never be warm. She will never give warmth away. Not as a human and not as a Taker. This is what it means to be different. It's a curse.

"Live with me. They won't be able to find you and you'll never need to run again." It's obvious who they really is, the government, the bounty hunters, the overly zealous maniacs who think this is the great apocalypse. "You have nothing to lose from coming with me." He wants to say that he can protect her. She's weak right now, so pale and thin that he thinks she might disappear with the slightest touch of the wind. She looks like someone else and he so desperately wants to believe that she won't fade, that he won't end up killing her—taking the life from her slowly but surely.

She looks at him, violet eyes luminous and large with a thousand forgotten hopes and dreams. All she's ever wanted in life is right in front of her: understanding, companionship, a place to call home.

She intertwines their fingers together and smiles sweetly.

(This is her answer)

Byakuya's home is nothing more and nothing less than a mansion. With her first glance, Rukia can feel the awe overtake every single emotion. It's a gorgeous white mansion, complete with a small koi pond and dozens of cherry blossoms trees that sway with every gentle breeze.

"Who…who are you?" She asks, stepping forward, letting go of his hand to gaze upwards at the brilliant display before her.

His smile is a little sad when he replies, but her back is turned towards him and so she doesn't see. "In the real world, I am an advisor to people from all walks of life. As a Taker, I have been one for a long time." He looks down at his flawless, ageless skin and smiles that same peculiar smile again. "I'm not quite what I'm supposed to be either."

She doesn't understand. He doesn't expect her to.

"I am an unwilling Taker. Where I walk, their joy flows into me. I don't want to take it, I try so hard to survive on the bare minimum, but it can't be helped. The longer the exposure time, the more of their happiness I take until after a very long time…I will have taken every last thread from them." She can sense the surface of a deep guilt within him and it's a little tragic, a little maddening.

"You live in isolation now." She comments, gazing back up at the mansion and thinking of it as a self-imposed prison now. A beautiful gilded cage for him to retreat behind.

"Yes. I never do my business in person now." He hesitates, but throws caution to the wind. "It's been…too quiet for me." Disturbing, he wants to say. I can't sleep anymore without seeing her face, he wants to say that too. But that's for later. He doesn't trust her yet.

The weight of his sadness is crushing, as if with his sudden memories, he can no longer bear to keep it all at bay. She can hardly breathe past the suffocating mixture and it's pure instinct when she reaches out a hand to hold in front of her, eyes glowing a rich shade of amethyst. Take it away. This feeling inside her says urgently. Take it all.

The recoil is violent and soul-searing.

Something is on fire inside of her. It's eating at her skin, lapping away at her bones like a ravenous dog—just gnawing and gnawing. It's insanity of the highest degree and there's something crawling in her head, screaming and screaming. It's eating her from the inside out, greedily ripping her skin off and make it stop.

She screams, vocal chords shredding.

He can't help her.

"Have you heard?" Gin drawls, stirring the coffee and making a face at the bitterness. "There's a new Taker out there, a girl from what I can catch on the streets. But get this, she ain't quite like you and I. She takes sadness, fancy that! I wonder if she's pretty."

"Hm," Aizen replies noncommittally, taking a deep drink from his cup (black coffee, hold the sugar and the cream). "I wonder if she's powerful. People these days have so much more grief than they do happiness…" He trails off and stares out the window aimlessly. It's raining today. "See if you can find her, Gin. While you're doing that, I'll be looking into this other Taker I've had in mind for quite some time."

"Eh?" Gin asks, his interest piqued. "You mean the guy? The one who people think is actually human? What was his name again?" He frowns momentarily, snapping his fingers impatiently as the name refuses to come. "Aw shoot, I think I forgot his name."

"Byakuya," Aizen supplies helpfully.

"Right! That one." Gin's smile is incredibly wide and disturbing. "You think he'd want to come with us? He doesn't seem like he hates them people out there."

"It doesn't matter. I doubt he'd be able to match up to me and if he refuses, well, the world will just have one less Taker to worry about—wouldn't that be nice?" He smiles serenely behind his glasses, refilling his cup of coffee and sitting back in his chair. "After all, I've got a fountain of happiness with me." A pause. "Speaking of which, we ought to replenish ourselves. It's terribly dank outside and I find that this sort of weather depresses my spirits."

Gin smothers a laugh behind his sleeve. "Should I go get her then?"

"Please do."

It doesn't take long for Gin to return with a petite girl clinging onto his arm. Her eyes are masked with delusion and her skin is a sickly color. But she smiles when she sees Aizen, lips curving up into a soft expression reserved only for him. "Aizen." She murmurs, happiness forcing its way past her heart, up her throat, to wrap around her words. "I was so worried about you." Relief. Strands from her loose bun fall to outline her face. Gin's snicker goes unnoticed.

"Hinamori." Aizen acknowledges, adopting a kind and loving look. "I'm terribly sorry for worrying you so, but I had matters to attend. I'll be leaving in another week, but until then, I promise I will not leave your side. But I am rather tired from my trip…" He trails off artfully and watches with mild satisfaction as the threads in her heart grow numerous.

"Please." Hinamori whispers. "Please, take it."

He dips his head in acceptance and feigned modesty (she will never know that she is but a tool) and breathes in her joy, bright and uplifting like the sun's warm summer rays. Delusion is the mother of feigned happiness and feigned happiness is inexhaustible. She is his ultimate success. She is the reason behind his immortality.

In the background, Gin's laughter mingles with the sound of rain.

(They are all connected, the deluded one, the one made of snow, the guilt-ridden, the guilty, the one who was never meant to be, the controller. And together, they will fall.)

Author's Notes: Sorry for the long wait! Ichigo will make an appearance next chapter and more of Byakuya's back-story will be revealed. Histugaya and Rukia will meet up once more and in the background, Aizen will lurk. Thank you so much for all the wonderful reviews! It's really amazing. You all really provide the encouragement that I need.

For all those who want to read Punishment's last chapter, I'm working on it! I really am. It's just proving to be a really, really long chapter. I swear to god I'll update it before this month is through. Ugh.