So this is very much a first draft, which means it needs the shit beaten out of it. (And as it's unfinished, I know you guys will have questions about where it's going, which I will do my best to answer. I know the emotional beats I want to hit and I have some future -- er, later in the story -- scenes half-written, but I'm still working out some of the technical details. Which in no way means you can't ask about those, making me think about them can only help.)
On to the story:
Rukia stepped out of the gate into pouring rain. She squinted up at the sky in surprise; the latest status reports on the human world had listed sun and high temperatures. A raindrop struck her in the eye.
"Ugh." She dropped her head quickly, shaking it as she stepped away from the gate. She had work to do.
She was almost on top of Ichigo's power before she sensed it. Only twice in memory had Rukia had to identify his power from such faint pressure, and on both those occasions a barrier had stood between them. She would have suspected the presence of a barrier now, except—
Except across the street she saw a boy with orange hair. He could not have been more than nine years old.
Beside the boy was a woman Rukia recognized from posters in the Kurosaki living room. Ichigo and his mother were both smiling as they walked.
Rukia spent a moment wondering if she were caught in some kind of illusion before she remembered a conversation she had had on her last visit to the human world. "Urahara," she muttered.
She should have gone straight to his store and demanded he send her home. But a stone's throw away from where she stood, a little boy laughed. She watched his face; she could not look away.
"Has Rukia been by here?" Ichigo asked, poking his head in the shop.
"I'm afraid I haven't seen her today, Kurosaki-san," Urahara said as he emerged from the back. "Why?"
"We're supposed to have a job or something this afternoon," he said with a shrug. "It's not like her to be late." He turned to go. Maybe she'd gone to his house.
"Oh," Urahara said in a pleased tone that made Ichigo turn back to face him warily, "I don't think she's late, Kurosaki-san."
"What? What do you mean?" he asked. Then, suspiciously, "What did you do?"
Urahara made a thoughtful noise and leaned an elbow on the counter behind him. "Kuchiki-san and I had a delightful chat when she was here the other day. I was pleased – but you know, not really surprised – to learn that she believes it would be the duty of anyone in the hypothetical position of a time-traveler to preserve the timeline. I'm sure she's making every effort not to change the past."
They were walking up the street toward her. Rukia wanted to cross to them, but she could not be sure they wouldn't see her. Ichigo had never seen a shinigami before the night she walked into his room, and that would be six or seven years in this boy's future. His power was probably not yet developed enough to enable him to see her, but his mother might be another story.
A truck rumbled by, blocking her view of Ichigo and his mother. She heard a shout, and then the truck was past and she could see that Ichigo was soaking wet.
Rukia put a hand over her mouth to cover a laugh at the look on his face. Misery was etched on his little round cheeks, as though he knew it was his terrible fate to be periodically splashed with cold water. But it was a look that had no scowl in it anywhere.
"What a naughty truck!" Masaki said, bending to dry Ichigo's face with a handkerchief. Rukia could hear the laughter in her voice. "Are you okay, Ichigo?"
The sound of his name jolted her. She had been perfectly certain that this, this embarrassingly adorable boy was the same Ichigo she knew – or would know – in her own time, but somehow she had not believed it until she heard his mother call him by name.
What was she doing, standing here gaping where they might glance over and see her at any moment?
As Masaki offered to be the one to walk on the roadside, Rukia leaped up onto the sidewalk rail, then over the street and onto the top of the wall on the far edge of the opposite sidewalk.
She was not surprised to hear Ichigo insist that he would stay on the roadside. "I'll protect you from now on, Mama!" he said as his mother scrubbed at his cheek. A hero born, Rukia thought. Or an idiot.
Then she remembered what was to become of Ichigo's wish to protect his mother. It would be soon, if Rukia was right about his age.
The scene was not so funny anymore.
Masaki teased Ichigo about being unable to beat "Tatsuki-chan" in a fight, and Rukia could not help smiling, but it only made her sadness heavier. And she wondered: was Masaki honestly just giving her son a hard time? Or was she trying to push him to fight harder, become stronger, because she knew what fate would find him one day?
"I got a hit in last time!" Ichigo cried, indignant. If his mother was deliberately pushing him, Rukia thought, she was right to. A single hit. This boy was not the fighter she knew.
His laughing mother ruffled his wet hair, and he asked to hold her hand. Ichigo smiled so completely when she agreed and held her hand out to him that Rukia's throat constricted. She could not imagine her Ichigo – the future Ichigo – holding anyone's hand. She knew she would never see him smile like that. She wondered how many more such smiles this boy would have.
She wondered if she could change things so that that smile would not be lost.
Even before the thought was complete, Rukia knew the answer. There were reasons one must not disturb the timeline. She could, perhaps, follow Ichigo until the Grand Fisher appeared, and freeze it where it stood. But sooner or later another Hollow would come, and another, until she made a mistake or simply wasn't strong enough. Maybe no one else would die, maybe he would be strong enough by then, but if he went on the way he was now… He was softer than she had ever imagined, softer than she could remember ever being herself. If his mother hadn't died, he wouldn't be—
"Mama, wait here!"
Something familiar in the tone of his voice cut through her thoughts, and Rukia turned automatically, following Ichigo's look to the girl who stood by the riverbank.
Time seemed to pause, like a ball at the height of its arc, just before it begins to fall. Rukia had a moment to take in everything: the rain-slick street and gleaming grass; the line stretching from the girl's head to the Hollow that must be crouched just out of sight; Ichigo poised on the rail, brow furrowed now like a glimpse of things to come; Masaki looking up in surprise, then comprehension; the press of the Grand Fisher's poorly concealed power.
No, she thought.
Ichigo sprinted across the street.
Masaki's heel caught for a moment on the rail as she vaulted over it. She hopped a little as she landed, already running, shouting and reaching for her son.
Rukia saw the Hollow leap, its face split by a savage grin. Her hand was so tight on her sword hilt her fingers ached, but she did not draw.
Masaki dove for Ichigo, and in the spray of blood, Rukia could not see whether she had made it. But she knew, and trembled with the certainty.
For a moment there was no sound but the rain. Then a low, satisfied rumble began just behind her. Rukia drew Sodeno Shirayuki as she turned.
"That woman was unexpectedly filling," the Grand Fisher said. "But I saved room for dessert."
"Not tonight," Rukia replied. Her voice was flat. She released her zanpakutou.
The Grand Fisher obviously expected her to go for its mask, but Rukia knew she could not kill it tonight, no matter how badly she wanted to. She put her sword through its chest instead, and twisted.
It howled; Rukia gritted her teeth and drew her sword down through spirit muscle and bone. The Hollow pulled itself back, off her blade. It was yelling something, but she did not hear the words. She darted behind it and sliced through a leg. As she swung for the other leg, it leaped away, over the trees and out of sight.
Rukia knelt and wiped her sword on the grass with shaking hands.
She knew she should go now. Should not look toward the riverbank where a little boy lay under his mother's empty body.
"Ma… Mama?" He sounded so frightened.
She was across the street and at his side before she knew it. She did not care about the timeline.
"Mama! Mama, get up!"
Rukia sank to her knees behind him as he struggled to sit up, small hands lifting his mother's body and shaking it. Her own hands were on his shoulders. She could not help it. "Ichigo," she said. She heard a sob in her voice and realized she was crying – had been crying. She didn't know how long. "Ichigo." He couldn't hear her anyway.
"Mama, Mama, Mama, MAMA! Wake up!" His voice cracked and his shoulders shook under her hands.
Who was she to cry? She could have prevented this.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered, as if it mattered. As if she had any right. "Ichigo, I'm sorry. But you will be all right. You will be—" the Ichigo I know, you will be strong, you will protect everyone, you will save me.
She should let him go. She should not be here. It was not for her to decide who he would be. Her forehead fell against his hair.
"I'm sorry." She rubbed his shoulders and tried not to taste the salt on her lips. "I wish I could have been strong enough. I'm not. But you will be."
"Maamaaaaaaaa-aaaa!" He clawed at her bloody shirt, voice dissolving into sobs.
"She saved you," Rukia whispered. "This is not your fault, Ichigo. I know you can't hear me but you are going to blame yourself for years and it was never your fault!" A choking laugh escaped her. "It was mine." She pressed her lips against the back of his head. "I'm so sorry. So sorry."
"Not your fault," a familiar voice rumbled as large hands pulled Ichigo from her arms.
Rukia's head shot up. "K-kurosaki-san. I…" Stupid, she shouldn't have said his name. But it didn't matter – he wasn't even looking at her. She stood, stumbling backwards as she rose. Her hands were still shaking.
Isshin cradled Ichigo to his chest with one arm as he reached to take his wife's pulse with his free hand. After a moment his eyes closed and he wrapped both arms tighter around his son, pressing his face into Ichigo's shoulder.
End Part 1
And I know a lot of you are working on ichi_ruki contest entries at the moment, which of course you can't post here (not before the contest, anyway), but if anyone has fic they'd be willing to submit for the Sponsored Critique, the next session is open!