Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach but I do own this story.

While the Blade Rusts by notnow

Ch 1. Places and Boundaries

The precipitant season starts again—but for today, at least, only the smell of rain hangs in the air.

"You've changed."

Two words and one contraction in between. It's simple, yet effective enough to make her pause and absentmindedly touch the ends of dark hair resting below her bosom's curve. The glossy black strands lay sleek against her with the weight of its length. Already, three years have passed since her last duties as a Shinigami, one who hunted Hollows in a practically timeless adolescent body. For a faux human shell she traded, to live permanently as an ephemeral. Though three years it may be, an aging gigai still takes time getting used to—or rather—it is aging she is getting used to. No matter how many times she glimpses herself in the mirror, the reflections never cease to surprise her. New contours and curves now replace the boyish attributes on her petite frame. So much has changed; it is apparent without her old childhood friend telling her so.

"Renji? Wha—"

"What am I doing here? Visiting. You expect a captain to work all the time?"

Her face relaxes with a smile. "I see." So he has become a captain. Rukia looks at him for a little longer, before adding, "On the other hand, you haven't changed much. You're still boastful and sport the same impossible eyebrows."

He scowls in return. "Always looking for an opportunity to mock me, aye?" Turning to the side, he folds his arms across his chest. It's hard to look at her. Changes in her appearance, he had anticipated, but there is a new sharpness in her visage that he hadn't come to expect. Neither did he expect to see dullness partially clouding her once bright, sapphire eyes. The changes are well beyond physical; he does not like it.

Not that he'd voice it out loud. He has adopted a bit of sensibility these past few years. "So anyway, how are things? Apparently, you've turned a little domestic," he says without looking at her (but sensibility doesn't always help him pick out the best words).

Rukia glances down at the grocery bags she holds in one hand. The plastic crinkles under the tight grip that turns her knuckles white. What is it she feels now? Nostalgia? Embarrassment? She wonders how one can muddle two completely unrelated feelings.

Before more can be said, shrill beeping slices the quiet air around them. Renji plunges a calloused hand through his black kimono's opening, digging out the source of disturbance. "What? You've got to be kiddin' me," he exclaims after one glance at the small device.

"New orders?"

"So you do remember a thing or two about Soul Society?" Seeing she isn't amused, he answers straight to the point, "Was an unexpected call. I barely step out and they need me already. Che! Guess I won't be seeing you for awhile."

She faintly nods in understanding.

"Well then, take care." He inserts his soul cutter, a sword strangely resembling steel spinal cord, into empty space and a white papered door appears. He turns his head back—just slightly—before the thin parchment slides open and rattles in its wooden frame. She watches Renji as he steps over the same boundary she can no longer cross, disappearing into the vast world behind it, the one she is shut out of.

She wasn't the type to settle down. Not the type to get married. Neither was he, or at least not at that age. But sometimes people make choices that are out of character.

From the doorway she sees him hunched over a child. She approaches him quietly, watching as he tends to the young patient's knee. Seeing nothing but the back of his head and his warm orange hair, which glows both brilliant and soft against the fading light of day, she muses on how he must be frowning as he works, that same deep crease forming in the middle of his forehead.

Upon noticing her presence in the clinic, the boy marvels at Rukia with doe-like eyes. "Sensei? Who's that pretty onee-san? Is she your wife?"

After one glance behind him, Ichigo turns back to the boy and thrusts a thumb over his own shoulder, pointing towards the only other person in the clinic. "You mean the short, scary looking one behind me?" The remark earns him a bump on the head.

"See what I mean about scary? Is why I'm telling you now, don't ever get married. Ignore how pretty they are. The prettier, the meaner—or in this case, the shorter the meaner." Ichigo flinches when he hears the slightest shuffle Rukia makes behind him.

Questioningly, the child looks at him. "I don't understand."

Ichigo shakes his orange head in resignation. "Never mind, it'll be a few more years before you can understand. But probably be too late by then," the young stand-in doctor says forebodingly.

"You say some strange things, Sensei." The boy stops for a moment to ponder at the ground. When he looks back up at Ichigo, he points towards his doctor's head. "Ahh! Sensei needs a bandage too!" he beams.

Grabbing the bandage from his little patient's hand, Ichigo retorts, "Worry about your own cuts and scrapes, shorty."

"Bye bye; I'll see you later."

"You better not, shorty. That body of yours may be small, but it uses up enough gauze to put us out of business. So stay out of trouble, understand?"

"Understood! Bye bye!" The boy grins widely at his mother, who has recently arrived. He proudly shows her the bandaged knee as if it were a trophy.

The couple responds in contrasting ways, Ichigo's sighs meeting with Rukia's smile. "Last one?" she asks.

"Yup. Closing time."

"Good. I'm starving."

"Good—my ass. You mean to say that I have to cook." He gives out an exaggerated sigh. "Poor Ichigo. Laboring in the clinic all alone 'cause his old man ran off to some hot spring. Then he comes home to slave away in the kitchen. What a thoughtful family he has! None of them understands the concept of rest."

"Geez, if you're that tired, why don't we just go out to eat?"

"'Why don't we just go out to eat' she asks. Is this Ichigo person made of money?"

"You sound like an old man." He deadpans her. "What? Do you want me to cook then?" she challenges.

That last statement cause two scenarios to play out in his mind. One: The house burns down. Two: He spends the next couple of days with a bottle of antacid glued to his fingers. "Never mind. I'll cook." The only choice, really. Save money, save house and save stomache.

She jumps off the mattress and picks up her crumpled pajamas off the ground by the side of the bed. He had tossed it there, next to the horror manga he snatched out of her hands earlier (the manga he flung rather than tossed). "Where the hell you going?" he asks grimly when she proceeds towards their bathroom.

"Where do you think? I want to wash up and brush my teeth. Why do you look so threatened?" Rukia doesn't hide the smirk from her face at all.

Ichigo eyes her skeptically with one brow raised. "You better not come out with that stupid cream." Last time she did, he found—no—felt acidic sludge melting his face off. 'For de-wrinkling,' the she-devil had claimed, while jabbing her index finger at the deep crease on his forehead. 'Because you frown too much.' A load of crap. It was really for pestering purposes; Rukia thoroughly enjoyed irritating him.

"Keep frowning and maybe I'll bring it out."

"Keep being funny and you'll be applying it to my footmark on your butt." She doesn't hear it; the bathroom door has already slammed shut.

When she passes by the mirror she catches sight of her flushed face and the faint red marks above her breast. She reddens further, blushing with the intensity of a bride.

"Oi! Ichigo!" Her tiny hands shake his shoulders fiercely, jerking Ichigo from his much needed sleep.

"What do you want?"

"Go put some clothes on."

"So annoying."

"You're gonna catch a cold if you sleep bare."

"Let me sleep already. I'm tired," the grown man whines.

"How can you be that tired?"

"I'm old." It comes out muffled through the pillow.

"Ridiculous! You're only nineteen, Ichigo."

"Cuz of you. You quadrupled my age." He receives a repeated whacking from an oversized pillow.

"Kay okay, I got it. Geeez…" Ichigo staggers out of bed, both disgruntled and heavy footed.

"Hurry up."

He grunts as he grabs a new tee-shirt and pair of shorts from the drawer. "See what I mean? Putting up with this kind of stuff. I live a hard life now because of you."

"Good," she says satisfactorily as she eyes him, now fully clothed, climbing back into bed.

"'Good,' the she-devil says." Before Rukia can remark about his new habit of speaking in third person, he mumbles something incoherent and snores away.

"Brat." She pulls the thick, ecru, daisy patterned blanket (a small sacrifice for Ichigo to make, upon finding floral less emasculating than Chappy) closer to her husband's body. It is forecasted to rain with an expected drop in temperature.

A sick patient couldn't be looked after by a sick doctor, after all.

Lying down next to him, she waits for slumber to take over her body too, but her mind is restless for a bit. A small shower begins to fall outside when she starts recounting facts. About four years since it all began. Three of them (roughly) spent inhabiting a new gigai. And two months passed in marriage. She lulls herself to sleep thinking about her progress in adapting to what Ichigo calls, a "normal life." A normal life without all that "Shinigami business."

On the other side of the bed, Ichigo dreams.

Release the grip on the hilt. It's okay for the blade to get rusty. There is nothing more to defend against.

End Chapter One

AN: Thanks for reading this far! As far as updates, I'll try to do one at least every 2-4 weeks... Please review! Flames accepted if constructive (in other words, helpful not hateful).

Oct 16, 2005---Revised & Reposted