Disclaimer: Bleach and all its characters are property of Kubo Tite, not mine.
Author's Notes: IchiRuki AU during the later half of 19th century Japan. Rated M for sexual themes. Inspired by and dedicated to the wonderful art and person of peca from Bleach Asylum.
Once Miracle, Twice Fate
Chapter One – Twice Chosen
The rain was pouring heavily, washing the blood tainted plains near the northern shores of Seiretei Island, where the Russian army was giving its last breath trying to successfully occupy enough terrain to build a fort. They had sailed there unopposed, but, once in land, the fierce Japanese forces, with their skilled warriors, reminiscent from the samurai glorious days, were stealing all the illusions they ever had of victory, on that far reached stretch of land.
Rukia was among such warriors, defending her home island, repeatedly stretching her bow to shoot precise white feathered arrows into the enemy charging cavalry. She was a witch among her people, member of the noble Kuchiki clan, fabled by both their warrior prowess and the healing capabilities that flowed in their long ancestry. Her older brother, head of the clan, didn't let her engage in close combat, reverting her to the archery in the rear and the caring of the wounded, once the battle was over. And it would soon be over, she concluded while lowering her bow, watching the last of the Russian forces being overpowered by the mounted spearmen. Swiftly, she ran to her horse, already equipped with a leather stretcher, and began to lead it down the mountain side towards the battle swept plains below.
A few dozen yards from her, she recognized Aizen Sousuke, clan leader from one of the southern households, throwing a Russian cavalry soldier off his horse, with the spear. The young man was badly hit and had lost his helmet on the fall, but he slowly stood up and raised his sword. There was something odd about the soldier, somehow Rukia felt as if she had seen him before and narrowed her eyes to focus. His hair was orange, she had seen hair like that once in the past. No… she had seen that same boy in the past, she realized, widening her eyes and clenching her teeth, as the memories of their meeting, some fifteen years ago, assaulted her senses.
Byakuya would always bring her with him, when he had to travel from the island to the mainland, to take care of business. During their long stays in the capital, he would often walk her through the woods and mountains, teaching her about nature and the arts of witchcraft. She loved to find hideouts in high places and would often run away during Byakuya's tedious meetings and hide somewhere up in the hills.
And it was during one of such escapades, deep into the hills, that she heard loud voices in a language she couldn't understand. She ran down the high grass and hid when she saw three warriors with unsheathed swords pointed at a couple. There was a small hut near them, she knew that construction wasn't there last year, and the couple had weird features and clothes.
Byakuya had told her that the Portuguese, many decades ago, had arrived in Japan, with their trade and their religion, and that their religion caused Japanese to fight among themselves. Thus, to prevent other nations from corrupting Japan, all foreigners found in the land must be killed. Are these people Portuguese to make them fight among themselves again? When looking at the man trying to shield the woman from the swords and the golden haired woman crying gripping his shoulders, they didn't look menacing. … but, then again, she looks like a normal child too, while in fact being a witch…
A fourth warrior torched the hut, setting it on fire. The man kept talking on a strange language, holding his palms up in the air. The warriors kept asking if there were any more of them, but neither side seemed to understand each other. Then a scream came from the woods, Rukia turned her face and that's when she saw him.
A small boy, roughly her age, with hair as orange as the setting sun and eyes the color of an exotic drink Byakuya had bought from the Dutch once. And that's when all hell broke loose. The boy dropped the wood he had been gathering and ran to the couple, the woman reached for him, but a sword pierced through her before their hands managed to meet. The man tried to stop the warriors and shared the woman's fate. And only the boy was left, grabbing the woman's blood soaked clothes, screaming words Rukia couldn't understand. But his pain, she could understand. She too had lost her parents, some years ago, during the wars in between clans. And something inside her chest ached, as she saw herself reflected on those pained chocolate eyes.
The boy wasn't crying. With a strength of character that made him age years in seconds, he stared at the one holding the blood tainted katana, resolute on showing no fear of his executioner. But that's when they heard light footsteps on the grass to their left, and all turned to see a raven haired little girl, with a sleeveless short purple dress with tribal motifs, bowing low and mumbling with a singing voice.
"… earthly spirits within fire and blaze, cover all the eyes that I seek with my gaze." and she raised her head, staring at each of the four men with intense violet eyes. As they looked at her orbs, they saw them turn from violet to pitch black, spreading the darkness like a blooming poisonous flower, until they were all deprived of their sight, trying to rub the darkness off their eyes and swinging their swords against imaginary enemies.
The boy was seeing all their agony, ignorant of what exactly happened and astonished by their sudden behavior. Rukia pulled his hand, trying to persuade him to run with her.
"Come! Come, I can't hold the spell forever!"
The boy looked at her surprised, then back down at the bodies of his parents, frowning his forehead and clenching his chin. Rukia was trying to pull him in despair, she has gone this far to save him, she wasn't going to let him stay and die now.
"COME! There's nothing for you to protect here anymore! You can't save them! Come and live!" Tears have started rolling down her cheeks in frustration, and she knelt down beside him."Please… let me save you!" They stared at each other for a moment, before the boy got up and let her lead him through the woods, down heavy foliage and rocky scarps, finally entering a dark passage through a partially hidden cave.
Once inside, Rukia chanted a spell to create a blue crystal of light, to the boy's astonishment, so that he could see his footing. The natural erosion of the rocks had caused it to resemble an uneven underground slippery staircase, rising drastically within the heart of the hill. The climb was long, but they finally reached the opening in the end, coming to a plateau with low grass and large trees, high enough in the mountain, for them to sight the outskirts of the city.
"Don't worry, you're safe here. This is one of my hideouts, probably only me and Nii-sama know about it. The mountainside is too steep to climb and the cave gets flooded during the cold seasons, even I took years to find it." And she approached him to better admire the strange facial features of the boy, so different from what she was used to see. "You have no idea of what I'm talking about, do you?" she whispered sadly. Was this a Portuguese? No, maybe Dutch… But the Dutch were allowed in the mainland, when on business, why would the warriors kill them instead of bringing them back to Dejima? "Look, I'm Rukia." she pointed to herself "RUKIA. Kuchiki Rukia. RU-KI-A. Now you tell me your name." she demanded, while poking his chest.
"Ru-ki-a." His voice was low, Rukia couldn't tell if his throat was sore from the effort of the climbing, or from the pain of having lost his parents just minutes ago.
"No, no, no. That's my name. See, I'm Rukia." She pointed at herself again, before resuming the poking on his chest. "I want to know YOUR name now. So, your name is…?"
"… I give up." she dropped her head in defeat.
On that moment, rain started falling in cold fast and large drops and the two children ran to take cover underneath a generous tree. Rukia didn't like to wear the regular Japanese clothes, taking pride on showing she was a child from a clan of masters of the spirits of the elements, but it was a bad idea to wear such tribal simple apparels under stormy weather. The boy was better clad in western clothes, though still not sheltered the enough, with his cotton shirt and woolen vest. But he noticed the goose bumps on Rukia's arms, as they sit under the tree, and started to unbutton his vest and his shirt, to cover her with them. He was halfway through the task, when she understood what he wanted to do and had a better idea.
"No, no, no. You'll get sick if you do that, there's a better way for both of us to stay warm." And she dragged herself to sit in front of him, supporting her back on his chest, tugging her knees to herself and taking his hands from the buttons of his shirt, to wrap his arms around her. "See? Now we're both protected from the rain and warm." And he was really warm, warmer than she expected. Again she remembered the hot chocolate her brother had bought from the Dutch. His eyes looked like chocolate, he was warm like chocolate, she wondered if he tasted like chocolate as well, and she turned her face to better scrutinize him. But, no, he would probably take offense if she would try to bite him... and calling him chocolate wasn't appealing anyway.
"I know! I'll call you I-chi-go! It means to protect one thing, so that you can always protect the one thing you want. ICHIGO. Can you say it? I-chi-go?"
The boy kept silent, watching her with eyes that looked more clouded than the pouring sky above and Rukia had to remind herself he had just seen his parents die, it was not the best time to try to play with him. And she became serious again, before tugging her head back to his chest, underneath his chin.
"Ichigo… I'm sorry about your parents. You can cry now, those men can't see it anymore and I won't tell anyone. So, cry. No one will know, no one can tell apart your tears from the rain, Ichigo."
She knew no spell to take away that pain. She too wouldn't let herself be seen crying, when she suffered, ashamed of her own weakness and not wanting to burden others with her hurting. She knew nothing would ever take it away, but she was glad she was with him, glad that he was neither dead nor alone to bear his loss and she wished he could share his sadness with her. Though she didn't know why. Maybe it was part of her witch nature, Byakuya had told her that, with growth and maturing, the witches become further in tune with all beings. Maybe that's why she wanted to help that boy so much. … or maybe it was because he reminded her of chocolate…
Suddenly, the boy's head fell over her shoulder, startling her at first, but she soon smiled, realizing he was asleep.
"And what might be so funny?" A familiar aristocratic voice was heard.
"Nii-sama!" She noticed the rain had stopped and her brother was standing in front of her, with an eyebrow slightly raised. As she unwrapped herself from the boy, he fell limp to the side, making Rukia shake him in concern. "Ichigo! What's wrong? Nii-sama, what have you done to him?"
"Just a sleeping spell, as I have no patience for children, you already use all I have. Now, will you mind stopping with the grabbing of that fellow, and tell me what's going on instead?"
Rukia replied, but kept her hold on the boy. "He's foreign."
"I can see that. Who is he and why were you here with him?"
Rukia's face turned serious, erasing the last reminiscences from the lively expression she featured previously. "They killed his parents, and set their hut on fire, near Karakura Town. I saved him and ran here."
Byakuya sighed and lowered his face with concern. "How did you save him?"
"I blinded the warriors for a while. I didn't harm them!"
Byakuya was just slightly relieved. "Yet you interfered with the enforcement of the Law, with helping a foreigner escape justice."
"What justice is there on killing this child?"
"And who are you, but a child, to so easily question the Law?"
Her voice lowered and paused, unwilling to hide the sadness. "Laws change. When they do, who's going to bring him back from the dead?"
"Rukia…" oh, she's growing up… fast.
"Can I keep him?" Too fast.
"Rukia, he's not a toy for you to keep."
"Don't let him get killed. Please… Nii-sama… don't turn him in."
"I'm not bringing him to Seiretei neither."
"Why not? On your side of the island, you're the Law."
"The King's Law still holds higher than my own. I'm not a child like you, Rukia, I can't go around breaking rules by will. My position is also my responsibility, I have to set the example to all the people in our land. In Seireitei, I would have to kill him myself."
"NO!" she held him tighter, protectively.
"Why are you making such a big deal out of this boy, Rukia? What is he to you, to make you so easily forget the proprieties of both your position and heritage, and choose to run rampant against rules and rulers, just for his sake?"
She finally let go of the child and walked to her brother. "… I don't know for sure, Nii-sama. … You taught me the way of the spirit master is to help those around you when no one else can, because our lineage was entrusted with powers greater than the common man, so that the common man can spare the gods from some of their troubles. I saw his parents be executed. I chose to help the boy and I saved him. Don't let it all be in vain, Nii-sama. Don't let it all be in vain…" she pleaded, while hiding her face against his sleeve.
Was she crying? No, she couldn't be. Though she was still a child, Byakuya didn't see Rukia cry for years now, and surely she wouldn't do so for a boy she just met. Even so, it was close enough for Byakuya to bare it any longer, and he sighed in defeat.
"Fine, we'll save the boy." Rukia looked up at him with exulting eyes. "There's a Dutch caravan traveling through town. I've done business with them before and they are decent people. I'll leave the boy to their care, for them to take him out from Japan safely, with the Dutch ships in Dejima." And Byakuya used his coat to hood the lad, hiding his unusual features, proceeding to carry him back through the cave, their voices echoing once inside.
"Thank you, Nii-sama!"
"You'll thank me with no more escapades, during the rest of our stay in the mainland."
"Yes! Anything you want, Nii-sama!"
"You'll endure all the boring business meetings?"
"You'll wear a kimono?"
"… Frankly, what's so special about this boy…"
"He reminds me of chocolate, Nii-sama!"
"… No, I definitely don't want to hear you elaborate on that."
Back in town, they found the Dutch caravan refreshing the animals near the drinking fountains and Byakuya left Rukia with the horses, while he went to speak with the Dutch tradesmen. It took some coin, but the Dutch accepted to take the "extra merchandise" back with them to Dejima, and board him on a ship to more friendly lands. Byakuya unwrapped him from his coat and laid him on the hay wagon. He didn't need to stay hidden anymore, he wouldn't stand out so much among Dutch people and the sleeping spell would still hold for many hours. Maybe he was even Dutch himself, Rukia thought, as her brother was leading her away from the caravan.
"I hope I get to see him again." she let out, while looking back.
"That… would be a miracle."
Suddenly, she let go of Byakuya's hand and ran back to the wagon, laying a soft kiss on the boy and whispering "I saved your life, you owe me a miracle." before running back to her brother, that couldn't believe the child's lack of decorum. Too fast, she was really growing up too fast, he thought, while gripping her hand with a stronger hold.
And now, so many years later, she was granted the miracle she asked for, just to be forced to see the boy she saved die a young man. The Law that forbade foreigners in Japan had fallen years ago, but now the Russians were trying to gain terrain down the northern islands, and he had to be Russian, of all people, and fight in Seiretei, of all places.
He was completely overpowered. Aizen's spear had lashed most of his body already, but now, like back then, the boy with the mane of the setting sun wouldn't let his enemy see his fear nor his defeat, getting up every time, not letting go of his sword. She knew Aizen was just playing with him, testing how far the boy could shake before breaking.
She once asked a miracle for the choice she made, and now the miracle presented her the choice again. And her choice was to end both of their miseries. With trembling arms and eyes clouded with tears, she armed her bow with three arrows. She didn't want to do that again, so she was making sure one shot was enough. She stretched the line and aimed, clenching her teeth together and taking a deep half caught inhale. The moment her hands stopped shaking, she let go of the arrows, making them cross the distance in a breath, and steal the last gasp of the one they were aimed for.