The Spirit Wish – Chap. 1

A/N: In this story, set in the Soul Society several decades before Bleach begins, Ichigo has been added into the backstory of Rukia and Renji; they are all street kids in Inuzuri, struggling to survive in a brutal environment. One day, Ichigo meets a savvy, mysterious older boy named Aizen Sousuke who soon takes Ichigo and his friends under his wing. But what does this boy really want from Ichigo? Will they escape the harsh life of the streets and make it into the Shinigami Academy? If so, what will they find there, and how will it change them?

AiIchi, M for later chapters. Slightly AU, with a few different rules, and somewhat more like medieval Europe than feudal Japan.

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach. All characters are 18 years of age or older, even if they appear younger.

(Originally posted 7/22/2011.)

XxXxXxX

Ichigo ran, the precious wheel of cheese and loaf of bread clutched in his hands. His bare feet pounded on the dusty street, his breath coming harsh and fast.

Behind him he heard the furious shout of the stall-keeper. "Hold it right there, you brat!"

Ichigo dodged into a narrow alley, twisting and turning around the ramshackle buildings.

"Stop or I'll kill you!" The man's voice was slightly louder than before, and Ichigo redoubled his efforts. He spared a quick glance behind him. The man had a kama and was brandishing it in fury, his face dark and ferocious.

Ichigo redoubled his efforts. He had to get away from the marketplace, lose his pursuer in the maze of dirty, stinking pathways in Inuzuri, the 78th district of Rukongai, the place that some called "the worst of the worst." He hadn't wanted to steal this month, but there had been fewer than usual odd jobs available to a street kid, and his friends were starving. The three of them lived in a shabby warren near the docks, just another group of malnourished kids surviving like animals amidst the gangs of punks, robbers and murderers who roamed the streets of Inuzuri.

If only he could make it back home alive with his food. He gasped, a stitch beginning to burn in his side, but did not slow down. A brief glance back, and he saw the man was gaining on him, his kama still held above his head, his heavy-jowled, toothless face grimacing with anger.

Shit. He was going to catch him. The guy was faster than he looked, damn it. Was there any trick he could play to dodge the man?

Suddenly, he heard a loud thump, and a cry from the man. He looked over his shoulder and saw his pursuer lying flat on his face in the dirt. Beside him stood a tall, brown-haired youth, one foot extended, grinning at Ichigo. He stopped dead in his tracks. The other boy must have tripped the man—but why? Then the youth was running nimbly up the street.

As he passed Ichigo, he called out, "This way! Follow me," and began wending his way along an intricate path toward the docks.

Ichigo wasted no time in following him, with only a fleeting look at the man lying face down in the dust. As he ran, he wondered why the strange boy would help him. Friendship and kindness were rare in Inuzuri, where it was expected that everyone was out for themselves, and there was never enough to go around.

Several minutes later, with Ichigo still gasping for breath, the tall youth came to a stop on a deserted path near the waterfront. Ichigo finally got a good look at the other boy. He didn't even seem to be out of breath; his brown hair hung tousled over penetrating brown eyes, a faint smirk on his face. He leaned against one of the pilings and returned Ichigo's scrutiny, his eyes sharp and intelligent. His clothing was more elegant than most street rats wore, softer, more finely woven, and he carried himself with an almost unconscious arrogance that had made Ichigo wonder at first if he were a noble slumming in the Rukongai. But his feet were bare and as calloused as anyone else in Inuzuri.

"Well," the youth said almost lazily, with a note of amusement in his tone. "That was careless of you. He almost caught you, and then what would you have done?" His voice was deep and resonant, surprising in one so slender. Ichigo guessed he was perhaps a year older than him. He found himself unable to look away from the other youth. His features were even and strikingly beautiful; huge brown eyes surrounded by thick lashes stood out vividly against pale, luminous skin; twin slashes of cheekbones framed a lush, expressive mouth now curled in a slightly superior smile.

"I—" Ichigo stammered, still panting for breath. "Thanks for helping me." Shaking himself loose of what was undoubtedly an extremely rude stare, he scowled at the older boy for a moment, then dropped his eyes. "I thought I was a goner there for a minute." He realized he was still clutching the food, and held it out. "Here, do you want to share?" he asked.

The other merely smiled. "Thank you, no. I have my own supplies." He brushed his hair out of his face with a graceful hand. "I guess you're okay now, right?" At Ichigo's nod, his smile widened. "Well. It was nice to meet you," he said. With a careless, parting wave, he turned and began to saunter down the alley.

Ichigo stood motionless, watching him leave, wondering who he was and why he had helped him.

Then he shrugged. One learned early on not to dwell either on good luck or bad in the streets of Inuzuri. It was time to take the food home to his little group, so they could survive another day. With a rapid, cautious glance at his surroundings, he faded into the shadows and turned down another alleyway toward home.

XxXxXxX

The three of them, Ichigo, Rukia, and Renji, had been together as long as Ichigo could remember. He didn't recall any other life before the one on Inuzuri streets, but he had heard the rumors that they were all here because they had died as children in some other world. He never thought much about the past; he was more concerned with surviving from day to day and feeding the fierce hunger that seemed to bloom in his belly every day. That tendency to get hungry, and weak from hunger, had set the three of them apart from the beginning. It was why they had banded together at a young age. You had a better chance of staying alive if you had someone to watch your back.

Rukia was tiny but fierce, with small but powerful fists, and she was fast. Ichigo was a pretty fast runner, but Rukia could beat him in a foot race every time. She had thick black hair and large violet eyes, and the dirtiest mouth Ichigo had ever heard on a girl. Renji had bright red hair that he usually pulled back in a ponytail. He was taller than the other two, all wiry muscle and scowls.

They lived together in a small lean-to near the docks. Corrugated tin and tarpaper kept the rain off of them in the winter, and they managed to keep their small space by defending it fiercely against all comers. The other kids in the area had learned not to mess with them by now.

Renji was squatting in front of their lean-to when Ichigo arrived, his hands busy sharpening a homemade shiv, while his fierce eyes kept scanning the area around him. Rukia was likely napping inside; she'd been out late the night before, scavenging at the river's edge for goods she had sold early that morning at the market.

Ichigo grinned and held up the loaf as Renji's eyes came up to meet his. Ichigo could see the hungry light in his red-haired friend's eyes. The other boy stood up and held open the canvas hanging at the door of their lean-to and Ichigo ducked inside.

Renji dug a toe into the side of their sleeping friend. "Hey Rukia," he said, "Dinnertime!"

XxXxXxX

A week later, the bread and cheese Ichigo had been able to bring home was long gone. The few coins they had been able to beg or cadge from other Inuzuri denizens in return for minor odd jobs had already been used up and there were no other possibilities. So it was Renji's turn to steal food from the market that day.

Ichigo's stomach growled loudly as he watched from the shadows, acting as lookout and backup for Renji. Rukia was hiding behind a pile of trash on the other side of the street, also waiting and watching. Renji casually sauntered by the baker's stall; then one skinny arm snaked out and snagged a loaf of bread. At the man's shout, Renji lowered his head and took off running.

But he had bad luck. Just then, around the corner, came the carriage of Overseer Omaeda, the local governor of the sector. In front of him walked two guards wearing long swords hanging from their belts. As Renji ran down the street, he barreled directly into the stomach of one of the two guards.

Before Rukia or Ichigo could do anything, the guard had grabbed Renji by the arm with one meaty hand, and snagged the loaf with the other. The baker, red-faced and sweating, came running up behind him, panting.

The overseer poked his head out the window of his carriage. "What's the problem now?" he asked in an irritated, whiny voice.

"Sir!" the baker said with a humble bow. "This ruffian has stolen my bread, as you can see. These street thieves just get more brazen by the week, sir."

Omaeda waved a fat hand studded with rings and glared at Renji out of piggish eyes. "Yes, yes, I can see that. Boy, have you no sense of shame? Stealing is wrong, or are scum like you incapable of understanding basic ethics?" He adjusted his rich robes petulantly; one square yard of that fabric sold for enough money to keep the three of them in bread for a year.

Renji struggled in the guard's grip, saying nothing. He knew there was nothing a street kid could say to a noble that would make any difference. Omaeda's lips tightened. "Nothing to say in your defense, boy?" He grimaced at the guard. "Well, it's trouble and cost for me, but take him to the prison; have him held for ten days and whipped ten strokes per day. We need to make an example of these street thieves, or the others will just get bolder and bolder." He sighed impatiently and made a shooing gesture with his pudgy hand. "Well, well, go to it."

The guard bowed. "Yes, sir. At once, sir."

Ichigo and Rukia exchanged a shocked, terrified glance. They had both known people to die from far fewer than one hundred lashes. The bleeding wounds frequently became infected, and there was no money to spare for medicinal herbs. Ichigo bent his head to Rukia's, whispered harshly, "We have to do something!"

She nodded, her face grim, her eyes measuring the guard. But what could they do? The guard was strong, and there were numerous others spread around the street. She whispered back in Ichigo's ear, "We wait till he gets out of the main street. Then I'll run in front of him, distract him. You come up from behind and attack him, make him let Renji go." Ichigo nodded. There was slim hope of the plan working, but they had to do something. They couldn't leave Renji in the clutches of the town guard.

But as the guard straightened from his bow, Renji took advantage of the movement to pull the guard off-balance, then twisted out of his grip and darted away down the street. He dove into the crowd at the edge of the market and was gone from view.

Angrily, both the guard and baker gave chase, shouting in anger and frustration. Their feet raised small clouds of dust in the dirt road. Ichigo and Rukia watched from hiding, exchanging a quick glance of relief.

Omaeda sighed loudly. "What a bother!" he cried. He growled to his other guard, "When they bring that street brat back I'll throttle him myself. Why these scoundrels think they can harass honest citizens I'll never know."

A few minutes later the guard and the baker returned empty-handed. Omaeda was cross. "Really, so much delay, just because of these ruffians. I think it's time to crack down on thievery in the marketplace." He gave a heavy sigh. "If only it wasn't so time-consuming to serve justice. Ah, the load of a virtuous man is burdensome, so difficult." He gestured to his guards to continue.

As they left, Rukia caught Ichigo's eye and the two of them melted away silently. They rendezvoused in a side street further away from the market. Coming up to him, her face twisted with distress, Rukia plucked at Ichigo's sleeve. "That bastard!" she cried. "I was so afraid Renji was going to get hauled off to prison."

Ichigo's scowl was dark. "A hundred lashes just for stealing one loaf of bread? That's insane. Renji wouldn't have survived a punishment like that. Omaeda's getting worse. The punishments for stealing weren't that bad last year."

Rukia said, "We've got to do something about it, Ichigo."

"But what?" Ichigo asked. "There's nothing we can do, Rukia."

"Maybe we could leave Inuzuri, try our luck someplace else."

Ichigo scowled at her. "Where could we go? Any place better than Inuzuri would never allow three street rats to hang out in their district."

She looked up at him, her eyes fierce. "We all have spiritual energy. Why don't we try to enter the Shinigami Academy?"

He glared at her. "And become one of them, like Omaeda?"

"No!" Rukia said. "Why not try to make this a better place! There's no need for so many to suffer when those guys are unbelievably wealthy and powerful. But we can't do anything unless we have some of that power," she argued.

Before Ichigo could answer, a cool voice came from behind them, startling them both so they whirled in surprise to face the speaker. "That's not really an option for ones such as us."

It was the tall, brown-haired youth that Ichigo had met a week ago, standing on a doorstep at the side of the street. Ichigo had glimpsed him at a distance occasionally over the intervening days, and the two had nodded to each other. He had asked around about the other boy, only to learn that no one knew much about him. He had moved into the district some months ago and had been close-mouthed about his past. He mostly kept to himself, living alone in an equally disreputable hut a few alleys over, but already people spoke of him with respect and some fear; he was said to be very good in a fight.

"What do you mean?" asked Ichigo.

The other boy glanced at him coolly. "I applied once; they told me I needed a sponsor before I would be allowed to take the entrance exam." His eyes passed over them, lingered on their shabby tunics and bare feet. "A noble sponsor," he said.