Warning(s): If you know how Rukia grew up, you're good
Thanks to Sophia for the beta and just about everyone I know but especially Tenebris for title help. This would've been posted sooner if I hadn't popped brain cells trying to come up with one.
All We Know of Heaven
If there was one thing Rukia was good at, it was—
"Get back here, you little thief!"
—running. Dodging and hiding were also important skills she'd mastered long ago, but at the moment, running was key. Around corners, through holes in the crowd, away from the former owner of the onigiri in the sack that slapped against her knees.
Her zig-zagging path took her many blocks away from the site of her theft, but no closer to the shed that served as their current home. That was one thing she had drilled into Renji and the boys when they'd met up. They'd never heard of strategy before that.
When she finally slowed enough to make sure no one was following her, Rukia found herself in one of the nicer areas of the district—that was to say, she was less likely to encounter assault and murder during the day here. She resisted the urge to check the bag and make sure the food was all right. It wouldn't do to get robbed herself while she was distracted, not when she and Renji hadn't eaten in almost a day. At least she didn't have to get water, too; that was his job today, while Masashi looked after Ryo.
She glanced around her, trying to get her bearings. Masashi was capable enough, but she didn't like leaving Ryo alone for very long, as sick as he had been lately. She was no doctor, but the three of them had agreed they didn't like the wet sound in Ryo's chest when he coughed.
The thought of losing him so soon after they'd lost Soshi to a knife in the back during a theft gone bad sent a chill down her back. Renji hadn't wanted to let her go off by herself, but she'd pointed out that going for food and water separately was more efficient and less likely to get them caught. And then when he hadn't listened to that, she'd ground her foot into his face until he'd agreed.
Ryo would be fine. They'd all be fine as long as they stuck together. They were family.
Something caught her eye as she passed a shack on the end of the block. Something colorful, in an area of Rukongai where there wasn't much color. A jar of sugar candy lay on the windowsill, almost hidden by a ragged curtain.
She glanced around, immediately suspicious. Who would be so stupid to leave a treat around in broad daylight, even if it was tucked nearly out of view? Then again, their survival as a group had often depended on the stupidity of other residents of the district. And food was less likely to be an object of theft than water, since so few people had enough spiritual sensitivity to get hungry.
But even if it wouldn't help him physically, Ryo could still enjoy the taste of the candy. It might brighten his spirits. That was enough to make up Rukia's mind. Darting forward, she reached for the jar, ready to grab it and make another dash—only to have her wrist grabbed from out of nowhere.
"Hey!" she yelped, looking behind her and up at the form that loomed over her. "Let me go!"
"And why should I do that?" he chided her gently. He was older, appearing perhaps in his 40s, though who could really tell in Soul Society. She leaned back, throwing all her weight away from him, but his grip was like iron. "You were trying to rob me, miss."
She glared. "So."
"So, I don't like being robbed," he said. "Unless there's a good reason for it. Do you have a good reason?" He frowned when she let loose with a torrent of curses. "That's not proper language for a young lady."
She looked around frantically, but there was no one to help—who in this district would help a stranger? And Renji had no reason to come find her, no reason to even know where she would be.
Then the stranger asked something she didn't expect. "Are you hungry?"
"Why do you care?" she spat.
"I probably shouldn't," he said. "It's been a long time since I've been hungry. But I can remember, a little bit, and I don't think it's something that should happen to children. And I can help you."
She blinked. "What?" This was not the standard response when they got caught stealing from someone. There had to be some trick.
The man smiled wryly, as if he knew just what she was thinking. "All right, let me prove it to you," he said. As she stared, he dropped her wrist and took the candy jar from the window, handing it to her. "There. Yours."
She looked down at it for a moment before taking it. It didn't look poisonous. "I don't understand."
"I told you, I have no need of it," he said. "I probably would've given it away anyway. Better you take it."
"In exchange for what?"
"Nothing," he said. "At least, not this time. But perhaps we could work out some kind of arrangement.
His eyes slid over her, and she felt a shiver run down her spine. "I don't work for perverts!" If he tried something, he wouldn't be the first. People around here knew how to take advantage of desperation.
"I'd be insulted if I didn't know exactly what you were talking about," he said. "I'm talking about real work in exchange for food. That sounds fair, doesn't it?"
For a moment, hope flared in Rukia's heart. For as long as she could remember, the only ways out of the scrap heap of their lives had been death and Seireitei, and neither were acceptable, not if Masashi and Ryo couldn't come. She knew she should take the jar and run; she shouldn't listen to this stranger. But she said "Maybe. What do you need done?"
She jumped back as he leaned in closer. "Calm down, girl, I'm just getting a closer look at you," he said. "You're small. That's helpful. Can you pick a lock? Handle a knife?"
"You want me to be a thief?"
"I don't particularly care myself," he said. "But that might be among the jobs my associates have for you."
She backed away. "I'm not a thief."
The words sounded absurd even to her ears. He laughed. "Then what were you trying to do when I caught you? All of you gutter children are thieves."
"I take food," she insisted. "We just want to survive." Part of her wanted to say yes—was stealing for profit, no matter how meager, that much worse than stealing to live? But some instinct inside her that she'd learned to trust said no, don't do it, they will ask more of you than you can give.
"Then come with me, girl," he insisted. "I can help you."
He made a face and leaped forward, grabbing her arm, and she used the only weapon at hand—the jar. She hurled it at his face before turning and running and she didn't stop, didn't look back when she heard the crash of breaking glass or the angry curses. She just ran—away from the shack, away from a moment of brief, unrealistic hope.
She ran until her lungs were screaming, and didn't stop until she reached the shed they currently called home. Renji and Masashi were crouched around Ryo. He wasn't breathing.
She couldn't even bring herself to gasp in surprise. She'd known this would come as soon as he began coughing.
"He's dead," Masashi choked.
She knew. She had not even allowed herself to hope for any other outcome.