Though I'm only posting it now, this was actually written prior to "Departures" and is something of an alternate take on that, as well as the question: What if Rukia's choice to go to Hueco Mundo had very different consequences?
Ichigo faced off against his father. "No. No way."
"BUT MY STUPID SON, IT IS—"
"It is not a demonstration of family loyalty," Karin interrupted. "I'm with Ichigo. We are not getting matching face paint jobs."
Yuzu blushed. "I think it would be kind of fun."
Karin grabbed her hand. "Never mind that. Come on, Yuzu, the Turbo Death Twister is right over here."
"But Karin, I don't want to get sick on it—"
Isshin looked crushed for just a minute more before hollering after them. "DON'T WORRY, MY SWEET DAUGHTER! DADDY WILL COME PROTECT YOU!" He took off running after them.
"Oi!" Ichigo called, feeling torn between relief and indignance at being forgotten so quickly. "What about us?" Isshin's tossed wallet hit him in the head.
"Well. That went better than these things usually start." He rubbed his head and turned to Rukia. "So what do you want to do?"
She smiled. "You're the expert here, Ichigo. I have never seen an amusement park." She pronounced the words carefully, as if it was a foreign term she was learning how to use.
"It's just a bunch of rides. Some go up and down, some try and make you sick…it's not really that fun." He scratched his temple. "I think Pops just wanted to take their minds off of everything that's happened." He flinched as soon as he said it, but she didn't react.
"Yes, that sounds like a good thing," she said. "So where do we start?"
"I guess we just walk and see what you like."
"All right." She walked. After a few seconds, he followed.
After everything that's happened. After everything that had happened, it was a miracle the world was still standing, much less a run-down theme park that was a little too far from Karakura but cheap enough that a single clinician could cover expenses for his family.
A family that had recently expanded to five.
stared at Ukitake from the edge of his sickbed, barely able to swing
his legs over the edge even after two days of healing from the 4th.
"What did you say?" Ukitake looked back at him with
mournful eyes. "She will not be harmed, but in the absence of any
formal appeals process with an empty Central Chamber 46, I'm afraid
Yamamoto's decision is final. I'm sorry." He looked like
he meant it, but Ichigo was too furious to care. "That's just it?
After all she's done for you, after almost KILLING her, you're
exiling Rukia?!" "It is not by my choice, I assure
you—" "That's supposed to make me feel better? That's
supposed to make HER feel better?" "Ichigo!" Ukitake's
voice snapped through the air. "I am not telling you this to
absolve myself of guilt. I am telling you this to let you know there
is still hope. Soul Society has nearly collapsed. Yamamoto is
clinging to what he knows—the old ways. He feels he has no other
choice than to exile her. It is the law. But we are going to have to
rebuild, and with the reconstruction will come changes. There will
have to. Yamamoto does not listen to me now, but I have his ear. Give
me Ichigo took a breath.
"But as far as he's concerned, right now it is." Ukitake's
silence was his answer. "Does Rukia know?" "Not
yet," Ukitake said. "She's been so worried about you and your
friends, I couldn't bring myself to take her aside until you were
all healed." "Don't." He swallowed heavily. "Let
me." The older man nodded. "Yamamoto has agreed to let her
say until you are well enough to return to your home. She will come
with you, if she is welcome." "Don't be stupid,"
Ichigo said. " "I know," he said. "She
is going to need you, Ichigo." "Yeah." He dropped his
Ukitake looked back at him with mournful eyes. "She will not be harmed, but in the absence of any formal appeals process with an empty Central Chamber 46, I'm afraid Yamamoto's decision is final. I'm sorry."
He looked like he meant it, but Ichigo was too furious to care. "That's just it? After all she's done for you, after almost KILLING her, you're exiling Rukia?!"
"It is not by my choice, I assure you—"
"That's supposed to make me feel better? That's supposed to make HER feel better?"
"Ichigo!" Ukitake's voice snapped through the air. "I am not telling you this to absolve myself of guilt. I am telling you this to let you know there is still hope. Soul Society has nearly collapsed. Yamamoto is clinging to what he knows—the old ways. He feels he has no other choice than to exile her. It is the law. But we are going to have to rebuild, and with the reconstruction will come changes. There will have to. Yamamoto does not listen to me now, but I have his ear. Give metime, Ichigo. This does not have to be permanent."
Ichigo took a breath. "But as far as he's concerned, right now it is."
Ukitake's silence was his answer.
"Does Rukia know?"
"Not yet," Ukitake said. "She's been so worried about you and your friends, I couldn't bring myself to take her aside until you were all healed."
"Don't." He swallowed heavily. "Let me."
The older man nodded. "Yamamoto has agreed to let her say until you are well enough to return to your home. She will come with you, if she is welcome."
"Don't be stupid," Ichigo said. "I wouldn't turn my back on her like that."
"I know," he said. "She is going to need you, Ichigo."
"Yeah." He dropped his head. "Yeah."
Renji had been furious. Byakuya had been—icy, but icier than he usually was, if that was possible. Renji had immediately volunteered to exile himself along with her, and if Byakuya had wanted to he hadn't said, but in the end Rukia hadn't allowed either of them to do anything more.
Renji had faced enough punishment of his own for accompanying her to Hueco Mundo, but Rukia had insisted that it was her idea and he was only protecting her. Half-truth, half-lie—in either case it hadn't bought him much leniency anyway, but he had escaped exile. As had she, for that crime.
It had been her own choice to stand with Ichigo and the visoreds when he'd needed her. She'd reminded him of this the day they stepped through the gate together and run the passage of the dangai. There would be no more hell butterflies for her.
It wasn't so bad, she'd said. Even if she didn't have access to Soul Society, Shirayuki was still with her. She could still do the work she lived for—and had almost died for. They'd made a current bed for her in the clinic, even if it did go unslept in most nights. His family never inquired about the propriety of her sleeping in his closet. For once, his father hadn't even swung into action with jokes about the dirty minds of teenage boys and lectures on responsibility.
He followed her down the boardwalk until she stopped in front of a vendor. "What is this?"
She leaned over and peered at the bags of pink and blue fluff as the vendor grinned, anticipating a sale. "It does not look like any candy I have seen."
"That's cuz it's made of sugar and air, and you don't need more of either," he said. "If you're hungry, let's get something else."
"All right." She stood up and stepped back.
He eyed her warily. "That's it?"
"You said we don't need it," she said. "And it is your money."
"Yeah but—you—" He glared. "One bag," he snapped at the vendor. "A SMALL one."
"Thank you," she said when they continued on.
"Yeah, yeah. We're just not going on any fast rides for a while. I don't want you freaking out on top of a sugar rush."
"What is it this time?"
"It melts away in my mouth." Cautiously, she placed another hunk between her lips. "This is very strange."
"Then it suits you." He turned down a side path.
He waved a hand. "Come on already, would you?"
They ended up at a carousel, one of those old jobs with faded paint and ridiculously cheerful, jangly music. He eyed it suspiciously, but it didn't seem to be going so fast she'd end up hurling her sugar puff or anything. He jerked a thumb toward it. "You wanna ride?"
"What does it do?"
"Goes around in circles. You sit. You ride." He led her quickly through the maze of fencing to the entrance. "Okay, just pick a—Rukia!"
She scampered through the animal seats. "Where do we sit?"
"Wherever. It doesn't matter."
"Here?" She stopped beside what looked like the biggest pink bunny Ichigo never wanted to see. It was one of those bench things they scattered among the horses on these things.
"Sure, if you want," he said. "It's just sitting down as the thing spins, though. It doesn't move on its own."
"This doesn't go up and down like the others?"
He shook his head. "It's for the older folks and people who don't wanna deal with that much motion."
"Oh." She looks disheartened, just for a moment. "Then I would rather have a horse."
She stood and made her way to the nearest plaster pony, which was decorated with a chipped pink and green bridle. He looked back at the abandoned bunny before joining her.
The ride she'd chosen was one of those extra-long double-seaters. She gestured impatiently at him as the carousel slowly started to move, creaking at its gears, and after hesitating he climbed on.
He wasn't sure where to put his hands. On her waist? On her shoulders? He'd touched both before, in a variety of situations. But somehow it seemed inappropriate now, which was stupid, since it wasn't like he was gonna get all perverted in public, or at all. He settled for gripping the tiny metal bar between the seats that was sized for smaller, younger hands.
He was silent as they rode, content to listen to Rukia's slight squeals as the ride achieved its momentum until she got used to it and returned to her usual quiet dignity (or reasonable facsimile thereof.)
"School starts again next week." He didn't know what made him say it, but the words were out anyway.
She nodded. "I will need a new uniform."
"You don't have to go," he said. "Not if you don't want to."
"Where else would I go?"
"Nowhere," he said. "You're kind of overage, and you probably learned more than you would in high school back in—you've been to school already. Wouldn't be hard to get Urahara to forge you the right papers to say you already graduated. He owes you."
She was quiet for a moment. He watched the world go around them, again and again. "I will go to school," she said. "I have much to learn if I am to live here."
He wasn't sure what to say to that, so he didn't say anything.
They took a circuitous route around the rest of the park, wandering wherever they felt like going and stopping at the rides Rukia found interesting. She didn't throw up when they went on a roller coaster, but he wasn't sure if she liked it, either; her eyes were wide and her mouth was closed when they got off, so Ichigo just took it as a blessing in disguise and enjoyed the reprieve from their bickering.
No matter where they went, he kept his eyes on her the whole time, even when they met Pops and the twins for lunch at some obnoxious American-themed diner. She seemed to be having fun. Yuzu loved having a new big sister, and Karin and Rukia got along fine now after a rocky start. Sometimes he felt like they got along a little too well, but he tried not to think too hard on that.
Pops clapped a hand on his shoulder. "She seems to be doing well," he murmured, watching the girls go up for extra dessert.
"I guess so."
"It's not an easy thing, losing your home like that, but she's a strong person," he said. "We've had a few talks."
Ichigo dragged his gaze away from Rukia and blinked. "You have? When?"
"Now and then," he said vaguely. "When she's felt ready. I haven't pushed her. She doesn't open up easily; a lot like that damn brother of hers. But it's clear she trusts you."
Pops clapped him on the shoulder again, then kneed him in the back. "So you'd BETTER BE RESPECTFUL AND A GOOD ROLE MODEL FOR HER AT SCHOOL!"
Ichigo was still rubbing the sore spot ten minutes later when they separated. "Ichigo?" Rukia stood waiting. "Let's go this way. I want to go on the log ride Yuzu told me about. They've already done it."
"You even know what that is?"
"No." She punched him lightly in the arm. "Which is why I want to go find it."
He sized up what she was wearing. Her dress wasn't too thin—she could probably make it through the ride without looking too scandalous as long as they didn't sit in the front. "Okay. Follow me."
In any case, she'd dry off eventually.
By the time the sun went down and the stars came out, Rukia was looking more relaxed than he'd seen her in a while. Of course, Rukia was also an accomplished liar. She'd never had much luck fooling him, but who knew when she might start?
So the amusement park was fun. So what. How can this be okay for you? he wanted to ask her. You're kicked out of your world and this is all we can offer you—thrill rides and cheap candy?
It turned out that her wide eyes had, in fact, indicated enjoyment, or at least bizarre Rukia-esque fascination. They'd gone on every roller coaster in the park once. By the time evening came, they only had time for another ride before meeting the rest of the family, and Ichigo picked the ferris wheel on the basis of while it did go in circles, they were slow ones and unlikely to make his stomach flop sideways.
Rukia leaned forward eagerly once they were seated and their carriage shifted back for the next couple. "When does it start?"
"This isn't a fast one," he said, slouching against the seat. "Just sit down and relax."
She sat back beside him but still looked uncertain. "The other rides we went on were fast."
"And that's why we're on this one now," he said. "I like going fast as much as anyone else, but after a while I need to stop before I get dizzy. This one's good for chilling."
"But what do people do on it?"
"Sit, mostly," he said. "A lot of couples come up here to make out." His face heated up. "Er. I've heard."
"Oh." She considered that. "I see." Before he could say anything, she was close beside him, pressing her lips against his.
"Mmmph!" He grabbed her arms and pushed her away. "Rukia!"
"What?" She sounded as annoyed as she looked.
"What was that!"
"I believe in some circles it is known as a kiss." She looked at him like he was the one acting crazy here. "I thought you were leaving a hint."
"I'm not—it wasn't—we're in public!"
"You said yourself that this behavior is expected here." She crossed her arms and looked away. "It isn't as if we haven't done it before."
"I—" He flailed for a suitable reply. "That not—that's not the problem."
She was right. He hadn't had a problem kissing her before, not during that last lull period before they went all-out for the final battle. The back of his mind noted that there was probably something weird about being okay with giving and receiving kisses in the matter of a war for all realities but not on a ferris wheel where half the riders were probably doing the same thing.
She moved as far from him as she could, which wasn't very. "I did not mean to repulse you," she said. "My apologies."
"Rukia." He sighed. "I'm the one who should be saying that to you. You didn't repulse anything. Just—do you really think this is the right time for this sort of thing?"
She glanced around them. "What is wrong with this time and place?"
"What's right about it?"
They stared at each other. There was a clunk and a whirr as the last of the riders entered their carriages and the wheel began to turn in earnest.
Rukia was the first to speak. "You think it is wrong for us to…?"
"I…no. That's not what I meant." He rubbed his temples, already feeling the beginnings of a headache, real or imagined. "What happened before—you don't gotta follow through. It was weird enough before. We had to go fight, and then everyone was recovering, and then…"
"And then I was exiled," she finished his sentence for him.
"Yes!" he burst. "It's fucking wrong! And it'd be wrong of me to come back here with you and say oh, hey, let's make out even though you gotta deal with losing your entire world. It's just—it's not fair to you." He shook his head. "You're sitting here all calm like it's no big deal. I wasn't hinting at anything, Rukia. Not like I'd be any good at that anyway." He took a breath. "I don't know what you're dealing with right now. But whatever you do, do it because it's what you wanna do. Don't do what you think you're supposed to."
She was looking down at her hands, which sat tense on her lap. When she looked back at him, he couldn't quite read her expression. "What I want to do," she said quietly. "You're wrong about one thing, Ichigo."
"I know it is not fair," she said, expression darkening. "I know I did what was right when I chose to side with you and the visoreds. I knew it was our best chance at victory. And it worked. But I also knew that there would be consequences. Exile is not the worst of them."
"It shouldn't even have been an option," he said. "They tried to kill you. They owe you."
She shook her head. "That's not the way it works," she said. "Even if my intended execution was part of Aizen's plan, I did commit a crime by giving you my powers. I committed another by following you to Hueco Mundo with Renji, and it is only because of the information we brought back that both of us escaped punishment at the time. When I rejected Soul Society as they called for me, that was the third. I was prepared for what might follow."
"Then you shouldn't have done it. It wasn't worth it."
"It was." She smiled briefly. "Don't look at me like I'm a saint, taking this with perfect serenity. I'm not. I miss my home, my comrades in my division. I miss training with my brother and Renji. I even miss listening to Sentaro and Kiyone fight, though you and your father have done your best to pick up on their behalf. But I had time to understand it might happen and deal with it. And if I let myself dwell on what I could have done differently and what others should have done…I don't know when I would stop. And I think I've spent enough time looking at the past instead of the future."
"I still don't know," he said. "If it was me I don't think I could be this…this…dammit, Rukia, aren't you even mad?"
She closed her eyes for a moment. "I am alive," she said. "So are you. So is my brother. So is Renji. No one died because of my inaction. I think I can make my peace as long as this is true."
"Moron," he said affectionately. "You really need to get your priorities in order. You need to think about what you need for once. And if you need to travel or just…go somewhere else, I'll understand."
"I could do that." She leaned back. "There are no limitations on where exiled shinigami can go as long as it isn't Soul Society. I could travel the living world, decide who I want to be here, try and forget what I was."
"But I choose to be here. No matter what else has happened," she said. "I like this world. I do not know how to be of it. In time, perhaps I can learn.
"I dunno about that. You're pretty damn strange for this world. But with the proper training, we might be able to make a few improvements—oof." Pain blossomed as her elbow met with his ribs. "Yeah," he grunted. "Forget what I was saying. You're gonna be all right."
She looked down at the world spread below them. "I will be."