Disclaimer- I do not own Bleach

A/N- This is a prequel to my story Reincarnation and begins just as the Winter War with Aizen ends. Many perished and those who remain attempt to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. My first ever attempt at an IchiRuki fic.

Chapter One - War's End

The battle had raged on for what felt like an eternity however Aizen had finally fallen and Substitute Shinigami Ichigo Kurosaki was certain that this time he wasn't going to get back to his feet. The red and white mask that had covered his face exploded and his gaze shifted from the body of his enemy and surveyed the scene of complete and utter destruction.

"Ichigo!"

Ichigo's gaze immediately went to Rukia, who was running toward him. When she reached the spot where he was standing the young woman threw her arms around him and buried her face in his chest. Ichigo wrapped his arms around her in a protective manner and said, in a soft voice, "It's over."

Rukia nodded as she fought to pull herself together. The Winter War had at last came to an end however the cost of victory was high. Her thoughts flashed back to the moment when Aizen had aimed an attack at her and Hinamori and her gaze shifted over to the spot where the small body of Squad Ten Captain Toushirou Hitsugaya lay in a crumpled heap.

Ichigo followed her gaze and he swore softly when he saw Hitsugaya's body. Together he and Rukia walked over to the spot where he lay and Ichigo knelt on the ground next to the young, white-haired captain. The Substitute Shinigami punched the ground hard with his fist, spreading a spider web pattern of cracked earth several feet around his fist. "Dammit Toushirou. . . This shouldn't. . . I wasn't fast enough."

Rukia also felt the loss of the young captain tremendously, even though neither she nor Ichigo had been particularly close to Hitsugaya. They had both considered him a friend, although they were unsure of whether or not he returned the feeling, and he had died defending her and Hinamori from Aizen's wrath. She was sure that he'd known that Aizen was forcing him to sacrifice himself for them and yet he'd done it anyway; without hesitation he'd jumped in front of the attack that had been meant for them.

Hinamori had lost it when Aizen had kicked aside the body of the fallen captain and Rukia had been forced to call upon Hisagi to take her to the Squad Four medical tent. She knew that Hitsugaya's death would be hardest on the young woman, Hitsugaya's best friend since childhood. And the fact that Hitsugaya had sacrificed himself in order to save their lives would not make the loss any easier to bear, for either Hinamori or herself.

"I'm sorry," she whispered in a voice that was meant only for him.

Even though Ichigo was weak from the blood loss caused by his own injuries he pulled the body of the young captain into his arms and then slowly got to his feet. He staggered slightly, even though Hitsugaya wasn't heavy, however he forced himself to remain standing.

"Ichigo," Rukia said, a concerned expression in her violet eyes.

"We can't leave him here," Ichigo said, his voice filled with determination as he focused an intense gaze on Rukia. "He deserves better than that."

Rukia nodded and together they made their way across the Rukongai to the spot in District One where the other Shinigami had fought against the Espada. The battle had ended here as well and now members of Squad Four were dashing around the battlefield, attending to the wounded.

As they walked toward the others Ichigo's eyes fell upon the vice-captain of Squad Ten, Rangiku Matsumoto, and as her eyes fell upon the body of her fallen captain tears began streaming completely unchecked down her face. She just stood there, watching their approach and crying silently.

"I'm sorry Rangiku," Ichigo said in a quiet voice as he came to a stop in front of the weeping vice-captain. "If only I'd. . ."

Ichigo wanted to apologize for not getting to the scene in time to save the life of Captain Hitsugaya however he was becoming increasingly weaker with each second that passed and he swayed slightly to the side. Noticing that Ichigo was on the verge of collapse Matsumoto rushed over and, tears still streaming down her face, took the small body of her fallen captain gently into her arms.

"I'll take him Ichigo," Matsumoto said in a quivering voice, forcing herself not to break down. "You should go and let someone from Squad Four tend to your injuries."

Ichigo nodded and, after one last look at his fallen friend, the Substitute Shinigami allowed Rukia to help him over to the spot where Squad Four had a medical tent set up. The vice-captain of Squad Four, Isane Kotetsu, immediately noticed the severity of Ichigo's injuries and ushered him inside the medical tent, where they were treating the wounded before taking them back to the Seireitei.

Isane motioned toward a cot and Ichigo lay down without protest, a signal to all of just how injured the teen truly was. Under any normal circumstances Ichigo would have protested the fuss that was being made over him however he merely closed his eyes and allowed Isane to treat his injuries.

"Ichigo. . ." Rukia whispered, fear for him appearing in her eyes. She'd known all along that his injuries were serious however she hadn't realized until then just now exactly how serious. His shihakusho was covered with blood, not all of which was his own, however a large amount was indeed from his own injuries and his face was a deathly shade of white.

Isane glanced over at Rukia and offered her a comforting smile. "He'll be fine," she assured the younger woman.

Rukia nodded, desperately hoping that Isane was right. Despite the fact that she denied it to everyone, including herself, she had grown desperately attached to the orange haired Substitute Shinigami since she had met him and couldn't imagine how her life would be without him. "Please be okay Ichigo. For me."

As though he'd heard Rukia's thoughts Ichigo turned his head toward the spot where she was standing and offered her a small and somewhat forced smile. The moment was brief however and Ichigo closed his eyes once more.

Rukia knew that this had been his attempt to reassure her and she forced herself to believe that he would be okay. He would pull through this, after all he was just too damn stubborn to die.

"Rukia," Isane said over her shoulder, breaking into the other woman's thoughts. "I think you should go and let someone tend to your injuries."

"I'm fine," Rukia said quickly, not really wanting to leave Ichigo's side, just in case something unforeseen happened. She knew that the vice-captain of Squad Four was extremely capable however didn't think that she could bear to lose Ichigo on top of everything else that had happened.

"All the same you should let someone check you out," Isane persisted. "I promise he's in good hands."

Rukia debated arguing further but in the end decided that Isane had a point. Ichigo was in good hands and her presence wasn't required. With one last glance toward the man she'd come to care for dearly in the past several months Rukia turned and left.

Isane had told her that she needed to let someone from Squad Four treat her however she didn't have any serious injuries and felt that the time of the Squad Four members would be better utilized helping someone who actually needed their skills. So instead she went for a walk.

District One of the Rukongai lay in ruins and the true horror of the battle that had been waged here hit Rukia in this moment. This was the spot where her fellow Shinigami had battled with the Espada, the spot where she herself had fought until she felt the reiatsu of Captain Aizen and then saw Hinamori abandon her battle and flash step from the scene. Having just defeated her own opponent Rukia chose to follow Hinamori, knowing that nothing good could come from her encountering Aizen.

Rukia's thoughts went back to the moment that she and Hinamori had arrived in the clearing where Aizen stood, as though waiting for someone to appear and challenge him. He had an air of confidence around him as he gazed over at the two women.

"Hello Momo," he said in his velvety smooth voice.

Completely speechless Hinamori had made a move to take a step toward her traitorous former captain however Rukia had grabbed her upper arm, preventing her from doing something fearless not to mention completely stupid.

"And Rukia," Aizen said. "I must admit that I wasn't expecting you but am none the less happy that you're here. Now I can give you some important news that I was sure no one else would be interested in. The Substitute Shinigami is dead."

In that moment Rukia had felt as though her entire world had shattered. Ichigo dead. . . but that simply wasn't possible. Ichigo was one of the strongest people she knew and had already beaten impossible odds to rescue her from execution. There was just no way that he could be dead.

"You're lying," she snarled, glaring at the former Captain of Squad Five.

"I have no reason to lie," Aizen said calmly as he continued to gaze over at the two young women. Deciding that there had been enough talk Aizen drew his sword however before he could go any further the trio felt an icy wind begin to swirl around them.

"Well Toushirou it seems you made it in time to save your friends but tell me, who did you abandon so that you could come after them?" There was a cold expression in Aizen's brown eyes as he asked the young captain this question.

Matsumoto's face briefly flashed before his eyes before he banished the thought. "Aizen, this time I swear you're going to die."

"Didn't I warn you before about such threats?" Aizen asked, looking completely unconcerned by the boy's threat. "They make you sound weak."

In answer to the taunt from Aizen Hitsugaya had drawn Hyourinmaru from the sheath that he wore secured across his back and held the sword out in front of him. He was determined that this encounter would turn out different than the last time that he faced Aizen.

A fight between the two of them had ensued and much to Rukia's surprise Captain Hitsugaya had actually managed to hold his own against Aizen. The former Captain of Squad Five had also seemed somewhat surprised by the young prodigy's increase in power and had gazed at the boy with a smirk on his face. "It seems you've improved since last we met Toushirou."

At this point Aizen raised his sword and pointed it's tip toward the spot a few yards away where Rukia and Hinamori were standing. His intentions became painfully obvious as he made a move to swing the sword and without hesitation Hitsugaya launched himself toward the two women, appearing before them a split second before the attack reached them.

Without so much as a cry of pain Hitsugaya had fallen to the ground at which point Hinamori had gone ballistic. She leaned over the limp form of her best friend since childhood, crying out for him not to leave her, that she couldn't bear life without him.

Hitsugaya had gazed up at his friend for the briefest of moments before the light had gone out of his vivid, blue-green eyes. The young captain took one, final breath and closed his eyes, leaving Hinamori and Rukia alone to face Aizen.

Rukia had thought that the two of them would soon be joining Hitsugaya however Ichigo had shown up at exactly the right moment. Despite her sadness over what had happened to Captain Hitsugaya she couldn't help feeling joy at the knowledge that Aizen had been lying about Ichigo's death. "I knew it wasn't true."

Without a word Ichigo had engaged Aizen in battle and the two fought furiously. The battle hadn't progressed very far before Ichigo was forced to call upon his ultimate power and assume his Hollow persona. Rukia had seen this transformation several times however something about it was different this time.

Aizen also picked up on the change. "So that's why you survived. You've managed a perfect merger between Shinigami and Hollow."

Ichigo neither acknowledged nor denied Aizen's claims but instead raised his sword and once again engaged the traitorous former captain in battle. His new powers defied description and, although it was by no means easy, Ichigo managed to defeat Aizen.

Rukia's thoughts shifted back to the present, back to Matsumoto holding her deceased captain in her arms and Ichigo lying on a bed in the Squad Four medical tent. So much sadness on what should be a happy occasion. The Winter War had been won but where would they go from here?

A/N- and thus ends the first chapter of the prequel. Heinously depressing wasn't it? I mean it was horrible in reincarnation when you only vaguely knew what happened the day Hitsugaya died. Anyway this will eventually get happier. . . I hope. Hope you enjoyed this chapter and I sincerely hope that you stick with the story. Feel free to review and let me know what you thought. Til next time this is Hitsu-taichou signing out.