A few days—that was how long Hisana had been in the Soul Society, and already she was faced with more of a burden than she could bear.
Her feet ached, the bare flesh having been scrapped against broken flagstone. Though she had been cautious in watching her footing past the fifty-fourth district, there had been no way to avoid them all. At this point, she would give almost anything for a pair of sandals.
Her arms were numb too, strained from holding the bundle in her arms that slowly rose and fell in silence. But the worst pain was in her stomach. She hungered, the lining turning inwards and consuming itself at this point.
Weary legs gave out after only a few more minutes of walking—pain, exhaustion, and hunger taking their toll. The only saving grace was that she managed to sit on her own accord, rather than collapsing where she stood. Leaning against the side of a building that served as part of a small alley, she exhaled and brushed aside the bundle of worn cloth that had been taken from a corpse and swaddled around her little sister as a blanket.
Rukia slept now, having cried along the long journey she undertook to reach this point. Hisana was grateful for that, since it wouldn't do for her to wake someone now that night had fallen. But the silence itself allowed for horrid thoughts she had pushed to the back of her mind to surface—doubts and fears that came about upon finding themselves in the afterlife.
It had been her fault. Their parents had left on business and trusted her to watch over her little sister. But she had been so tired that she fell asleep while lulling Rukia to do the same, and that moment of rest allowed the unattended cooking fire to run rampant.
The next thing she knew they both were inside of a charred and collapsed room, with a figure in black kimono standing over them. She asked what had happened. The figure told them they suffocated from the smoke before sending them on their way, where she had been told they were assigned to a district and had no choice but to walk there.
The rules of this world were different from what she knew in a lot of ways, especially when it came to needing food. While Rukia seemed to not suffer from hunger, Hisana did. It stabbed at her stomach over and over, gnawing at her to the point that she was feared she was going to die again.
And that terrified her more than anything else. If she couldn't survive by herself, what chance did she have with an infant to take care of? That thought haunted her, dying for a second time without experiencing the happiness that she once sought in life.
If there was just someone who would take them in then she would be at peace. But everyone in the district had their own problems and couldn't be burdened with doing so. There was nothing to be gained for taking in an unskilled woman and a child, not when they weren't able to contribute anything towards surviving. It didn't help that food was scarce for those who needed it either.
Hisana's lithe fingers gently brushed the almost-gossamer strands of dark hair on her sister's head. At the same time, her sad smile was joined by tear trails on either side. She knew what she had to do if she was going to survive.
Rising to her feet, she left the alley behind to return to where she had last received a bit of rice. The old pottery-maker seemed to look upon Rukia fondly. She would most likely be willing to take in a child that didn't need food. It would be better that way.
"I'm sorry, Rukia," Hisana said softly, kneeling down in front of the old pottery-maker's door. With a delicate grace, despite her trembling hands, she laid her sister down as gently as possible on the doorstep and stroked her hair a final time. "I'm so sorry."
Then, she rose to her feet, knocked violently against the door to wake the old woman, and ran without looking back.
Her legs carried her surprisingly far, allowing her to run away from her shame at leaving her sister behind and burdening someone else with her responsibility. However, the pain of doing so stabbed into her chest like a blade with every step she took, leaving hot and stinging tears to run from her eyes. No matter how many times she tried brushing them away, they would return to obscure her vision.
Only once she was outside the buildings that made up the district, and into the wilds that bordered it, did her legs fail her. She collapsed into the grass at the base of a tree, her forearms bracing against the ground as her hair covered her face from view. Unable to move, Hisana let the tears fall unbidden now.
"Hey—" She turned at the abrupt voice to see an orange-haired young man there, dressed in a cloak that barely obscured a tattered and battle-worn black kimono. His lips were set in a scowl, bandages clinging to his cheeks, and he glared at her in a manner that left ice crawling along her body. "—you weren't really going to just abandon her like that, were you?"
The words didn't register until she heard the soft, unmistakable cries filling the air between them. Her eyes drifted down to his torso where they came from. In his arms was the little sister she had said goodbye to forever, glistening violet-eyes fixed on hers as they wept.
Space unfolded, filling the empty room with a flare of azure light. A pulsating sphere expanded from nothing, kicking up a gust as it swelled. The wind displaced everything within range as a silhouette appeared in the core of the sphere, reaching out from within.
The tips of calloused fingers touched the boundary of the sphere, delicately like glasswork. The touch may as well have been a sledgehammer. It brought the sphere cascading down until it vanished at the soles of his sandals.
He took in his surroundings. The aged and ratty building he found himself in was whole, rather than a smoldering pile of ash and splinters. From the crevices in the ceiling moonlight spilled down, shining down upon the worn and dusty floor. The splintered frames of what had been a window allowed him to peek outside to see the wild, uncut grass.
It was… peaceful. There were still innocent souls abound, and it was devoid of the Hollows that feasted on them to try to fill the void within themselves. That was a far-cry from the state the Soul Society had been in before he had left it. Now, he had time to make sure it stated this way.
However, he needed to make sure he wasn't detected on entry. Despite donning a cloak that hid his spiritual energy, he imagined such a feat of forbidden Kido couldn't have gone completely unnoticed. Having to explain himself without proof, or even with it given what little he knew about the court system, would only make things more complicated than they needed to be and force an encounter with Aizen before he was ready.
In his current condition he doubted he would be able to get past the gates of the Seireitei. Let alone reach the traitorous Captain. He was recovering what was lost after the Final Getsuga, adjusting to the new foundation of power that replaced it. And then there was the matter of what had been revealed of his Mother….
Ichigo Kurosaki brushed the stray thoughts aside and stood there in utter silence, eyes closed as he expanded his senses. The absence of the guttural prowling of Hollows and cries souls begging for help were an almost foreign experience at that point, but soothing to his ears. It made it easier for him to sense that which surrounded him….
It was a forest of white, closing in from all angles as spiritual energy became tangible ribbons. All of them lacked the colors of Soul Reapers and Hollows alike, not one to be found within the range he could sense. There were only innocent souls that lacked any noticeable spiritual energy or pressure….
His chest tightened as recognized one of them. He reached out gingerly, grabbing the ribbon that was as white as the others. It wasn't red like he would have expected, but the signature of it was unmistakable. It manifested as a cool and comforting texture that had once acted as the catalyst to his becoming a Soul Reaper.
"Rukia…." A pain nagged at Ichigo's chest when he recalled her death, like so many others. She had died in the aftermath of the war itself, fallen to a horde of Hollows as they crossed into the Soul Society unhindered. They won the battle against Aizen, but not without costs.
The Vizards, who had welcomed him into their ranks at one point, were slaughtered before he could come to their aid. Joining them were the Captains and Vice-Captains of the Thirteen Court Guard Squads. After them were the friends he left to their ordinary lives, ripped apart by the overwhelming spiritual pressure of the Hougyoku-empowered madman in a successful attempt to anger him.
Aizen's death had spelled the beginning of the end for the Soul Society, Hollows entering en masse, guided by their hunger and the lack of deterrent. No matter how many Soul Reapers there were, Hollows outnumbered them by a vast number. And, with the strongest of the Soul Reapers dead, the Vasto Lorde and Arrancars proved to be too much.
The souls that were purified went to the Soul Society, no matter where they were slain. But, when the Hollows claimed the Soul Society for their own with superior numbers, there was no safe place for them to go. They were devoured and became more of their kind, doing the same and perpetuating the cycle.
By the time Ichigo was in a position to do anything it was too late. So, through the machinations of the Royal Guard, he had been sent back to the past. Not because of strength, but because only an existence that wasn't in the past could traverse it without committing a paradox.
Ichigo was moving before he realized it, traversing the distance between the ribbon's source and himself in as few steps as possible. He could do that at least. If there was one thing that hadn't left him, despite his lack of power, it was his expertise in the use of Flash Step.
In a few steps, he found a baby resting at the foot of a door. He was confused for a moment. Then, he recalled the fact that he was in the past, looking at Rukia who had only arrived in the Soul Society.
It seemed so unreal. He crouched down and picked her up carefully, fearing her to be fragile. The warmth from her body bled past the makeshift bundle and into his arms.
The old wooden door opened at that moment, revealing an elderly woman. Her forehead creased with wrinkles, leaving her eyes squinted. She was obviously less than thrilled at being awoken at the current hour. "What do you want, knocking on my door at this hour?"
"…Have you seen this child's caretaker?" Ichigo asked, after a pause. From what he remembered from the tale of her past, Rukia had been abandoned by her sister, Hisana. She grew up in Inuzuri, with Renji, until she was taken into Byakuya's family. He assumed that was where and when he had landed in the past.
The old woman reached up to the makeshift blanket and touched the child's head, stirring her awake. When she saw the violet eyes she recognized them. "I remember a young woman with similar eyes, new to the Soul Society. An older sister, I believe. I have to assume she left the child here for me to deal with."
Ichigo frowned. "She abandoned her?"
"It wouldn't be the first time someone has done so, though that was twenty or so years ago." The wrinkles on her cheeks rearranged themselves as she swallowed. "Regardless, I only gave the girl a bit of the rice that I had. There's no crime in that, no matter what trouble the girl has gotten herself into."
Rukia started squirming in his grasp, trying to get free of the strange pair of arms that held her. Unlike her sister, his arms were far firmer and he smelled different. Discontent squeals began to bubble in her throat.
Ichigo rearranged his grip to try and put her at ease. "Why do you think she's in trouble?"
Frail fingers reached up and pulled aside the edge of the cloak, catching a glimpse of the dark colors beneath it. "Because your kind is never around this far out unless there's been trouble within the Seireitei or the monsters have come around. Since I don't hear screams, I can only assume it's the former. So, what was it? Did she offend a noble? Pick their pocket? Turn down their advances?"
"I don't…" Ichigo let a tired breath slip through his lips, trailing off in light of the shriek Rukia let out. He gently rocked her, trying to quell the crying before it began in earnest. "You said someone knocked on your door, waking you up. How long ago?"
"A minute or two at best," she said.
Not far then, he guessed. "I see. Thank you."
Giving the old woman a bow of his head, he secured Rukia in his arms and then vanished from her sight with a Flash Step. If Rukia's sister was still there, he needed to find her. Ascending in the air, hardening the spirit particles beneath his feet, Ichigo loitered above and cast his gaze over the dark maze of buildings and alleys that made up the district.
Rukia stopped squealing at that moment. Instead, she looked out at the landscape below with curiosity. She grunted at the sight, her hands and feet shifting beneath the cloth covering her.
After a minute of searching he caught the sight of movement. It was a woman, running away clumsily. The hair was undeniably similar to that of his timeline's Rukia. It was her.
He took the time to memorize her spiritual energy, manifesting it as a translucent ribbon that slowly solidified. The texture was gentle, but not frail. He would never forget it, meaning she could never get away.
Ichigo held Rukia tighter, just to make sure she didn't slip, continuing to rock her as he pursued the fleeing young woman. An older sibling's duty was to protect their younger sibling. That was something he firmly believed in to the depths of his soul, which only made the guilt he felt after failing to save his own even more agonizing.
No matter what he did here, in the past, the pain of losing them and the others would never go away. He would be damned before let someone else run from their responsibility.
She wore herself out, collapsing outside the district. Ignorant of his presence, she wailed into the grass. It was disconcerting on some level for him, seeing someone with a face like Rukia being so weak and frail.
Rukia had been compassionate enough to surrender her power, so that he could save his family. She even walked off towards death to save him. At the same time, she was brave enough to face any threat that could do her harm.
The woman before him was crying about what she had done, rather than trying to make up for it. It was a contrast to the warrior he had known. Even though he knew that she wasn't the Rukia he knew, he couldn't help but scowl as he called out to her. "Hey."
Her head snapped around, revealing reddening eyes that were glistening with tears.
"You weren't really going to just abandon her like that, were you?" he asked, but the tone could have been taken for demanding. Some of the displeasure he felt had crept into his voice.
It frightened Rukia. She began squealing again. The cries were softer than before, but they were growing louder.
Hisana forced herself up and reached out for her sister on reflex, only to recoil once she realized what she was doing. The guilt she felt at what she had done became a wall between them, keeping her away. What right did she have to embrace Rukia after abandoning her? She backpedaled, coming to a stop when she hit the tree.
His eyes narrowed further. "Answer me. Were you really going to abandon her to the old woman?"
"I… I had no choice," she said, her body trembling. "It was better that way."
"You don't believe that," Ichigo said as Rukia continued to cry. "If you did, you wouldn't be fighting against the desire to hold her right now."
She didn't say anything to try and refute his words. Instead, she turned her head towards the ground so she didn't have to look at either of them. But, as the cries of her sister grew louder, it became more difficult to stand it. She fell onto her knees and covered her ears, futile as it was.
Ichigo walked up to her and dropped into a cross-legged position. The infant stopped crying, her violet eyes glossy as they stared at her older sister. His voice came out clear as day. "How long are you going to ignore the truth?"
Hisana glacially forced her head up, looking at Rukia with watering eyes. Tears began to trickle down her face. "I'm scared. We died so... suddenly, only to end up in this strange place. Everyone we knew and loved are gone, a world away. We have no one or nothing!"
"All the more reason you shouldn't have tried to abandon her." He held Rukia between them. "You have each other, and she needs you as much as you need her. If you had gotten away, I guarantee you would have regretted it for the rest of your life."
The words rang true. Her hands trembled as they reached out for the small bundle. The crying stopped as soon as they wrapped around her tiny body and pulled her in.
Holding her little sister to her chest beneath the tree, stinging tears left her eyes freely once more, even as she kept her voice low to avoid stirring Rukia up again. "I'm so sorry, Rukia! Forgive me!"
Ichigo just watched in silence as she wept, thinking back to how he lost everyone himself. There was very little chance he'd see any of them again this far back. But, this was something he could do. He could give Rukia a life with her sister, helping her grow up to be happy.
And, once that was done, he could set out to kill Aizen.