Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.


Rukia laughs, the high falsity of it irritating Ichigo to no end...he looks back down at his food as his sisters ply Rukia with questions about her "old home". He should be helping her out, but it's satisfying, he thinks, to see her put on the spot, to get flustered, to not quite know what she's doing. Makes up for how seamlessly she blends in at school, how knowledgeable she is about Hollow slaying, how she can calmly go to her death and chastise him for saving her. Baka.

He finishes the bok choi but leaves the broth; Yuzu's cooking is good, but soup has never been his favourite. Instead he pushes his chair away, stands up, gathers up his bowl and glances at Rukia to see how long it will be before she's done her meal (along with the ridiculous story. As if her parents had been acrobats). She's too busy chatting to notice his scowl; he turns to leave and she dips her head to take a bite of noodles, and a shadow moves across her neck.

Ichigo pauses, frowns; she leans forward again and her dress tugs down once more, exposing both the pale skin of her back and the purple shadow of a bruise. Ichigo shakes his head, goes to put the dishes in the sink. Had she gone hollow-slaying without him? Bitch.

Ichigo sleeps soundly that night and wakes up with bleary eyes, really wishing that school didn't exist. Rukia has already left the house by the time he scarfs a cold breakfast; he walks double-time to school, and gets to class in time to see her slipping into her seat, giggling annoyingly at something Keigo has said. She twists to get her school books out of her bag, and Ichigo turns his burning face away as her skirt hikes up, but is forced to double-take: there's a blue-ish shadow just where the hem of her skirt touches.

A hand comes into view, yanks the skirt down: Ichigo meets Rukia's eyes, which promise him death beyond his wildest nightmares before her smiling mask snaps back into place, distracted by Orihime's enthusiastic greeting. Ichigo doesn't talk to her at lunch, instead choosing to brood beside Chad. Chad, to his credit, offers insight into the nature of the text they had been reading earlier, and the subject of Rukia is avoided entirely.

She catches up with him on the way home, giving him a slap on the arm when he doesn't respond to her chatter. He swings to glare at her; she glares back, and he knows that the skirt incident is forgotten, at least to her mind. This is contrariness just for the sake of it.

"Next time, invite me along," he informs her, and keeps walking.

She catches up, voice sharp and inquiring, asking him what the hell did he mean.

"Don't pretend I don't know," he bites back, "I'm not stupid. Next time a hollow shows up, invite me along. Never know when it'll be an arrancar, and then what'll happen if you don't have backup?"

She is silent for a moment. "I can take care of it myself." Her voice is odd, annoyed.

"Like hell. You're getting beat up, Rukia...don't think I didn't see the bruises. You just got your power back; it's not surprising you've lost your edge." He smirks at the barb. I'm so clever. "Take me with you next time; you need to take it slow."

Rukia kicks him in the ankle; he hops in agony as she stalks past him into the yard, slams the door as she goes into the house.

Ichigo doesn't dream that night, but wakes up in the morning exhausted, his hand aching. He shakes it out, curses his odd sleeping postures, stretches to get the crick out of his back. Rukia is gone again; he sees her for a brief moment in the hallway at school, going into the girls' bathroom with Inoue. When he looks at her in class, she turns away from him, to look out the window; Ichigo is instantly aggravated.

"Quit ignoring me!" It is the walk home again, and Rukia is walking in front of him, nose in the air, prim and proper and Kuchiki.

"He says," she quipped snidely. "You avoided me all of yesterday." She walks a little quicker.

"Wait up, baka," he calls, and strides forward, putting a hand on her shoulder and pulling her back to walk beside him. She winces and smacks his hand away. Ichigo is baffled for a moment, then his eyes narrow.

"You're hurt again. You went out again without me." She doesn't answer. "It's dangerous, Rukia. I'm not saying this cause I think you're helpless or anything -"

"I can handle myself," she says snootily, and he bites back the urge to snap at her.

He sleeps uneasily that night; sets his alarm for one am just to make sure she doesn't go off without him. It is hard to get out of his warm blankets and soft bed, but he does so anyways, and shuffles over to the closet before remembering. Yawning, he makes his way down the hall and peeks into Yuzu and Karin's room. The two girls are sound asleep; Rukia is standing by the window in the ridiculous bunny pyjamas she bought the other week.

Aha. She was planning to go out! He knew it...he'd sneak up on her, catch her in the act, and she'd HAVE to apologize! Ichigo quietly slips into the room, careful not to disturb his sisters. Padding over, he puts his hand on her shoulder, whispers in her ear.

"Gotcha!"

He is expecting some sort of reaction: a yelp, maybe, or her furious face as she turned to slap him. Instead, she turns rigid under his hands, but stays silent. After a moment her shoulders droop and she sighs.

"Get on with it," she mutters, and her voice is curiously choked. "Just don't...I'm sorry. I'll stay, just don't hurt them, please."

"Rukia?" He is puzzled; she freezes, whirls, her eyes huge in her face.

"Ichigo!" It's a hiss of shock and...relief?

"Rukia, what the hell was that just now?" He whispers, confused by her body language.

"N-nothing," she turns away from him, walks back to bed. "Go back to bed, Ichigo." She lies down, curling up away from him, the motion hiking up her pyjama top to expose her waist.

Ichigo stares. Rukia hurriedly pulls the material down, but Ichigo has already seen the bruise, blue fingerprints and a reddish palm imprint; she knows this, and piles the blankets on top of herself, wishing he would go away.

Ichigo is at her side in an instant; in an instant he has used the badge to force her soul form out; in an instant they are both in his room, door shut, and his body lies on the bed as he stands in front of her, eyes questioning and furious.

"Who did it?" He demands, when she gives no indications of speaking of her own volition.

She doesn't meet his eyes, looking to the side as if bored and uninterested. His patience is draining away.

"Rukia, who did that to you? I'll kill him, I swear; tell me who it was!"

"No use," she says flatly. "It was a hollow."

"That was not a hollow's handprint, Rukia, and you know it! Unless...an arrancar? You fought an arrancar, and you didn't even tell me?!" Ichigo's face is red, and he's glad he's in soul form; his shouting should have woken the entire neighbourhood. Kon, snuggled in Yuzu's arms in the next room, groans and stuffs his paws in his ears, unable to decipher the words coming through the walls, but secure in the knowledge that Nee-san is probably on the verge of kicking Ichigo into silence.

"Wasn't an arrancar," Rukia says stiffly. "Do you think I would be petty enough to hide an arrancar's presence from you? From Hitsugaya-taichou and Matsumoto-fukutaichou?"

"Then who grabbed you, Rukia? You can't lie to me, even if it was someone...is it someone we know?" He flicks through people in his mind, trying to catalogue the people he has seen Rukia with in the last few days.

Rukia is silent.

"Damn it Rukia, if you won't tell me, I'll start guessing. There's only so many people with hands that size...it couldn't have been any of the girls, and Hitsugaya's still too small..."

Rukia's mouth sets in a hard line.

"Fine then," Ichigo scowls down at her. "Was it Ikkaku?"

She gives him a look.

"Well it wasn't Yumichika; he's got girly hands. Was it Ishida?"

Rukia shakes her head mutely, almost amusedly. Something in Ichigo snarls.

"Fine then. Renji. He's the only other one I can think of that -"

Rukia cuts him off with a slap; his head snaps sideways, and her eyes are no longer dancing. "Don't you ever, ever insinuate anything like that about Renji!" Her voice is low, deadly; Ichigo puts a hand up to his stinging cheek as he stares into her murderous expression. She reaches forward, yanks his hand savagely towards her, lifts her shirt and plants his hand firmly on her waist: Ichigo's face flames automatically.

"Rukia, what-" He cuts himself off; his hand fits perfectly over the bruise; the faint edges of it radiate away from his fingers like some sort of halo, or kidou gone wrong.

"I didn't want to tell you," she informs him, "but I won't have you thinking things like that about Renji."

Ichigo is still staring at his hand, dark against the paleness of her skin, uncomprehending. How...?

"Try going bankai," she suggests sarcastically; his eyes widen in realization.

"What-"

"Oh, I don't know how it takes control of your body," she says, as if it is a conversation, as if they weren't standing in his dark bedroom in the middle of the night, his hand on her waist, his alter-ego her nightmare. "But it comes out and we stand by the window."

Ichigo feels sick. "The bruises, Rukia..."

"It likes me, I guess," she says, her dark eyes unreadable. "I don't think it's very good at showing affection, though. It's like you in that respect, at least." She shrugs, her half-smile humourless.

"And that's all?"

"We talk about things, Ichigo," she said. "Maybe that's what keeps it from actually-" she stops, regains her steady composure "-it has a lot of time to think about things, and it wants to know what I think about them. Sometimes what I think isn't what it wants to hear. That's all."

In the end, Rukia goes back to her bed, leaving Ichigo with a desperate need to kill things and a deep-seated fear of drawing his sword to counter it. He, too, ends up in bed, slipping back into his actual body and into a light sleep full of restless tossing and turning.

He would talk to Shinji in the morning.