Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach. The fabulous Kubo Taito does.

Author's Notes: Ichigo/Rukia. Up to date on all the 173 chapters of the manga and all the 25 episodes of the anime. I have just been a slacker.

And yes, this will be a multi-chaptered story. Yes, this will be I/R. Yes, it will have angst and romance as appropriate for a 15 year old boy and a death spirit. It's a shame. There should be more Bleach fanfics out there. But perhaps, those are just the feverish imaginings of this particular author.

To everyone: Thanks for the patience. I have been a slacker. But here you go. Enjoy. Sorry for the out of characterness and fluffiness but I wanted this story to have more or less a romantic plot, so I am trying to further that idea.

Possible spoilers for episodes 6 and 8-9 of the anime. I can't remember what the manga chapters are. It's been a while.

Chapter 5: Hiding in the Dark

Rukia stares at the closet ceiling, her thoughts a morass of doubts and questions, things she wish she could ask and doesn't dare to. He would never ignore anyone of her questions for long. Ichigo was not the most forthcoming of people, but even she knew that his blustery manner was just a façade, a mask he wore in front of the world.

She knew because it was the same with her. They were two sides of the same coin. She understood him, only because she understood herself. She did have centuries of experience on him and could understand the things he was only beginning to grasp.

But she still didn't ask. She just wasn't sure anymore what she would say to him.

She didn't want to admire him but she did, almost begrudgingly. It wasn't just the fact that he seemed to carry the weight of her duties with a cavalier attitude. It was in his reckless manner, how he just threw himself into everything – from fighting Hollows to fighting for Kon's life. It should be exhausting, to pour yourself so completely into something. Rukia couldn't remember. There had been a time when she had, but that was a long time ago and even now, she didn't like to think about it.

She had never really given mod souls a thought. That was the way of the world. Rules were made to be obeyed. Mod souls were simply an experiment gone awry. They had ceased to be useful, they had to be disposed. She took a look at Kon who was sleeping peacefully next to her, soft snores coming from his cotton nose.

Not to Ichigo. For him, life was not simply something that could be measured in terms of usefulness. Everyone deserved a chance to live. Even a mod soul, something created utterly for the benefit of someone else. Everyone had the right to make choices. And he would give his life for these choices.

She wished it didn't tug at her heart. She wished that it wouldn't make her soft. She couldn't afford to be soft. She couldn't afford to forget that she was just temporary. Even her clothes were borrowed. Her time was borrowed, and it would soon run out. She couldn't afford to forget that she didn't belong here.

And he definitely did not belong to her.

Rukia slid the closet door open noiselessly and her small feet alighted on the floor without creaking, a lotus flower floating on a river would have made more noise. She creeped silently to the edge of the bed and watched Ichigo sleep. It was her nightly ritual ever since that day. When the entire world seemed to slumber, she would move to his side and watch him. As if that could protect him.

She shivered at the memory. The mind numbing, paralyzing fear still came back to her. Even when she knew he was safe. Even when she could see him sleep. She had almost lost him and she had done nothing.

She had gripped her hands so hard at that moment that her fingernails had left bloody imprints on her palms. She had felt every second trickle through excruciatingly slow. Every indrawn breath carried an edge of tension and fear.

Sometimes, she wondered if she had done the right thing. She always wondered about it - Letting him fight the Grand Fisher. Seasoned shinigami had perished by its hand. And yet, his pride was at stake. She remembered those words, spoken so long ago, about two kinds of fights – those for life and those for pride.

And with her heart aching, she knew that Ichigo's pride would never forgive her. Not that it mattered, she could live without Ichigo's forgiveness. But she knew that Ichigo would never forgive himself if she had intervened. And that, Rukia could not live with.

So she had stood by the sidelines, drawn tighter than a bowstring, praying and hoping. Praying in the deepest, darkest corners of her soul, those prayers that are too important to be uttered, sentiments so powerful that they have no sound and no voice can ever say. These are the prayers of the damned, hope with reverbates with every fiber of your being.

He had not given up. Battered, bruised and bloody, he had wanted to keep fighting. But even his own power betrayed him, and he finally buckled from the fight. And even then he had not given up. He would die fighting if he had to. She had to beg him to stop.

And she had nearly cried from relief. He had survived. Bloody and torn, but he was alive. He would live and fight another day.

Ever so lightly, she touched his hair and traced the outline of his chin. She was always afraid that he would wake up but that fear didn't stop her hand. She kept her touch light, even when she felt sometimes a frantic need to touch him, to make sure that he was alright, that he wasn't hiding some wound or some other injury. She kept her hand calm even when her heart fluttered nervously like a caged bird.

There would be hell to pay when she got back. She didn't care as long as she was able to spare him.

She touched his cheek, his flesh unbearingly warm in her palm. She smiled at him and promised herself that whatever the cost, she would fight to give him his life. He deserved no less.

She gives a mental shake. She needs to get a grip. She is Kuchiki Rukia, Shinigami. She is not that weak. She is not that emotional. She will do what needs to be done. She will accept responsibility for her actions and the consequences of them. If there was any wrongdoing, it was her fault. If there was a price to be paid, she would pay it. She doesn't notice it, but even her shoulders square off and she stands straighter as her thoughts continue in this vein. With that resolve, she turned around and closed the closet door as noiselessly as she had opened it.

She never notices Ichigo's dark eyes follow her or staring at the closed closet door.

Author's Notes: After reading chapter 4, this seems a bit incongrous. I wrote it without much thought of the story aside from continuing it. So if the texture feels different, bear with me. Like I also said, I wanted more of a romance story between Ichigo and Rukia instead of all the implied connotations in the manga and anime. Read and review and let me know that you haven't died either.