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Title: The Trials of Nanao Ise
Genre: Romance/Drama
Pairing: Shunsui/Nanao
Spoilers: Through manga chapter 423
Status: Ongoing
Rating: R
Summary: Nanao will face the consequences of her decisions during and after the Arrancar War. Can she overcome these trials, or will they divide her from Captain Kyōraku forever? Canon compliant through manga chapter 423.
All the way up to Chapter 30! ^_^

Back to Chapter 29.
Chapter 1.

Nanao woke on Friday with a hammer drumming in her head and a dry lump of cotton stuffed down her mouth and throat.  She slapped her hand down on the alarm clock she’d finally brought over from her quarters—Shunsui didn’t own anything that could wake him up on time for work, as far as she could tell—and nearly moaned as she sat up in bed.
 
“Take the day off.”  It was a muffled mumble from the pillow.
 
That sounded like a really excellent idea, but today could be Nanao’s last day as the Eighth’s vice captain, and there were a lot of things she wanted to get done.  “I can’t do that.”
 
A heavy arm snuck around her waist and tugged her gently back down on the bed.  “Nanao-chan, your work ethic is, as always, very admirable, but there’s no need for such heroics today.”
 
His large hand cupped the back of her head and rubbed her scalp in small circles.  Each touch dissolved a piece of her willpower to go in to work.  She pulled away from his massage and rose from the bed, walking carefully towards the bathroom.
 
“Stubborn Nanao-chan.  At least take some of the headache tablets.”
 
Nanao waved this away.  She sat on the bath stool, washing slowly in the half-lit bathroom.  The door opened and she turned to look, but Shunsui was already next to her, holding a glass and some pills.  “Unnecessary,” she said, but took the pills from his hand.
 
“You’ll feel better soon.”  He crouched beside the stool, stroking her back.
 
“I’m fine.”  That was so obvious a lie he didn’t bother to respond to it, dropping a kiss on her temple instead.
 
It was another hour before Nanao went into the office, and she did feel better than she had, although if there’d ever been a day she wished to roll back over in bed and pretend the office didn’t exist, it was today.  Shunsui had even offered to go in to the office instead of her, if she insisted someone had to be there in the morning.  She’d stared at him with her mouth gaping open for several seconds before finally gasping a tiny “What?”
 
Ultimately she’d refused his offer, which left him visibly relieved, but still, he’d offered to go into the office early for her sake.  For a man like him, it was a notable sacrifice.
 
One of the Eleventh Seats brought her tea.  She sorted through pages of instructions, splitting them into packets for individual division members.  When she was certain of the time of her judgment she would distribute these orders.  Hopefully it would help the division maintain some semblance of normalcy through the transition to a new vice captain.
 
She set the finished packets aside and flipped through the manual she’d assembled for running the division.  Portions of it were not as detailed as she would like, and some areas had been left out entirely, but everything that was important to the running of the division was inside.  Nanao had learned her job mainly through incomplete orders from the First Division and trial and error; she wanted to make sure her replacement didn’t go through that confusion.  Still, the next vice captain’s experience would depend largely on how cooperative Shunsui decided to be.
 
Nanao considered writing out a letter to Shunsui, asking him to help her replacement, but she couldn’t find a way to keep the missive business only.  Each time she lifted the brush to the page she felt apologies and confessions and lost dreams welling up in the ink.  So she would leave him no message.  He would know what she wanted for the division anyway; there was no need to explicitly say it.
 
As for the rest, she would tell him after the judgment, if he was willing to listen then.
 
But there was nothing to do about that now.  She shook her head and began to empty and organize her desk drawers.
 
In the afternoon she went out to the practice field to meet Shunsui for their weekly sword training session.  He’d left the office earlier to prepare, which was unusual, but she didn’t question him; whatever he was doing would be clear soon enough.
 
At the distant practice field they used, she detoured to the large tree he favored for rest breaks.  He sat under it with his pink haori spread out under him, two bento boxes and a tray of sake and tea sitting beside him.  “Nanao-chan!  Lovely, lovely Nanao-chan!”  He waved to her, even though she was already walking towards him.
 
“What are you doing, captain?”  She stopped short of the pink cloth and crossed her arms under her breasts.
 
He raised his eyebrow—she knew it was because she’d called him captain—but didn’t comment.  “I’m having a late lunch with my cute Nanao-chan, of course,” he said, grinning.
 
“We are supposed to spar today, not lounge around.”  She narrowed her eyes.
 
“But you didn’t have any lunch yet, Nanao-chan.  Have you eaten at all today?”  His tone chided her gently.
 
She sat stiffly on the fabric next to him.  “Personal matters are not supposed to affect division business.”
 
He handed her one of the bento boxes with a flourish.  “As an ideal, it’s very nice, but it’s impossible to put into practice.”
 
She sighed and began to eat.
 
“Cheer up, Nanao-chan.  When was the last time we missed a sword sparring session anyway?  We deserve a break.”  He sipped sake from his dish.
 
“We missed it just last week.”  She eyed him balefully over her glasses.
 
“That’s hardly fair.  I was on medical leave.  When was the last time we missed one of these sessions when we were both well and in Soul Society?”
 
She considered for a moment.  “Years.  Not since that time—” She broke off and took a bite of her food.
 
“That time you scolded me for drinking too heavily.”  He leaned back against the tree and studied the sky.
 
“That’s happened too many times to count,” she said, but she knew exactly the time he meant.  It’d been only four years ago. 
 
Four Years Ago
 
Nanao waited at the practice field for a full hour.  She’d searched for her captain’s reiatsu and found it at his house, but she stayed at the field, waiting.  He was late sometimes for their sparring, but in all the years they’d been doing these private sessions, he’d never failed to come at all.
 
She waited for several more minutes before springing into shunpo.  At his house she hesitated.  “Captain?” she called at the gate, but there was no answer.  She stopped again at the door, to knock and call out again.  Silence.
 
His reiatsu was in the house; he should be responding to her.  She opened the door and entered the house.  At his bedroom she hesitated again, but her concern for him overrode her misgivings about stepping into his bedroom uninvited.
 
The room was dark; the windows were covered and there was no lamp on.  Faint light slipped through the panels to the back garden.  The air felt stale, as if it hadn’t been opened to the outside in days.  Her captain was on his bed, his chest bare and his decency maintained by a pair of uniform pants slung low on his hips.  “Captain?”
 
There were bottles and jugs scattered around the room, which meant he’d been drinking, but the quantity was alarming.  What if he’d drunk himself into a coma?  “Captain,” she said again, shaking him.
 
He didn’t stir.  “Captain!”  It was a shout.  He did not move.
 
Nanao backed away from him, going into the adjoining bathroom.  She’d try one more thing and then she’d send for Captain Unohana.  She didn’t want Captain Kyōraku to be embarrassed, but if he couldn’t be roused he might be in real jeopardy.
 
The cold water splashed down his face and onto his futon.  She’d have to change his bedding, but that would be a small price to pay if he woke up now.  His eyelids lifted and his hand came up to wipe at his face.  She sighed in relief, her panic fading.  “Captain?”
 
“Nanao-chan?”  His eyes focused slowly on her.  “Why is Nanao-chan drowning me?”
 
“You wouldn’t wake up.”  Her relief turned to alarm as he tried and failed to sit up.
 
“Nanao-chan—I need to—”
 
She helped him to a sitting position and then braced him with her arms around his waist and his arm over her shoulder.  They staggered slowly into the bathroom, Nanao breathing heavily under the press of his weight.  She helped him to a kneeling position and then left the room, leaving the door half open.
 
Retching sounds followed her back into the bedroom.  She rubbed her temples with her fingers, feeling the onset of a headache.  Why?  Why did he do this to himself?  Her teeth clamped together with a snap.  She shook her head and began to clean up the room, opening the panels to the outside and uncovering the window.  The bottles she gathered up and put into his trash.  His wet bedding went into his laundry, to be picked up later by the Fourth Division.  She dried the lingering wetness in the bed with careful kidō and laid out fresh linens.  She started cooking some plain rice and soup in the kitchen.
 
After there’d been quiet from the bathroom for several minutes, she entered cautiously with a glass of water and some headache pills.  Her captain always had those on hand, though she doubted they would be much help to him now.
 
“Here,” she said, leaning down to where he rested against a wall.  He glanced up at the water and the pills but didn’t move.  “Take them.”  A thread of steel entered her voice.
 
He tipped his head back and she slipped the pills into his mouth.  He sipped water from the glass in her hand.  His eyes, always so aware, looked dull and glassy.
 
A burning wave of anger flowed up her throat, but she pushed it back down.  “Captain, can you clean yourself up?  I’ll get you fresh clothes.”
 
She rose and moved to the door.  “Nanao-chan.”
 
“Yes?”
 
“You don’t need to stay.  Go and visit with your friends.”  The bleakness of his tone struck her hard in the chest.
 
“I’m already making dinner.  Please wash up.”  The anger rose again, and with it hurt as well—she was trying to help him, and he didn’t even want her here.  Did he want to suffer? 
 
Moisture pricked the back of her eyes.  Of course he did.  It was that day, after all.  Well, if he thought she would leave him alone to crawl back into a hole with several jars of sake, he was mistaken.  This behavior couldn’t continue.  It was affecting his work.
 
It was affecting her.
 
She dropped a fresh uniform inside the bathroom door and went to check on the food.  When he emerged from the bathroom some time later she was sitting on the porch with a lamp, reading a guide to bakudō.  A large tray sat beside her with covered bowls and a tea set.  He strolled outside, but his movements lacked his usual carefree feeling.  He sat with the tray between them, watching her but not speaking.
 
She closed the book and poured tea for him.  “Here.  This dish is soup and this one is rice.  Please try to eat something.”  She did not meet his eyes.
 
He sipped the tea, poked unenthusiastically at the rice.  They didn’t speak, just watched each other, the weight of things unsaid dropping their eyes.
 
“You don’t have to stay, Nanao-chan.  I’m fine.”
 
It was as close as he could come to asking her to leave; her captain was nothing if not polite to women and especially soft with Nanao.  “No.  I’m not leaving.”
 
“Nanao-chan, I will not be good company tonight.  Surely your friends could offer you better companionship.  Don’t you usually meet Rangiku-san?”  She felt his eyes on her face, but she would not meet his gaze.
 
“Eat something, please.”
 
He sighed.  “If Nanao-chan will not leave, perhaps you would kindly fetch me something stronger to drink.”
 
She did raise her head then, and her eyes were narrow and violet in her anger.  “You’re so selfish.”
 
“What do you want me to say?”  His voice was that even and curious tone, which only heightened her anger.
 
“You want me to leave so that you can drink yourself into the Fourth.”  Her hands tightened into small fists.
 
“Yare, yare.  I wouldn’t go that far.”  He leaned back on his hands.
 
“But you would.  You have gone exactly that far before.”
 
He grinned at her, insolent and empty, and she snapped.  Her fan cracked across his face.  The fan broke in half, and his nose began to bleed.  He’d seen it coming, she knew he must have, and he hadn’t moved.  He wanted to hurt. 
 
She dropped the broken fan and turned her face away to hide the dampness of her eyes.  “Do you imagine that I am unaware of why you do this?  Do you think that I have never realized what days provoke this reaction from you?  That I would forget this anniversary and never find out what the others are?  You do this three times a year, but this is the worst.  You can’t go on like this.  It’s affecting your work, affecting everything.  It’s hurting—hurting our division.”  Her voice caught on the last and she swallowed hard.
 
“Nanao-chan,” he murmured, his hand on her shoulder, and she knew he’d heard what she hadn’t said out loud.
 
She stood and crossed her arms, squeezing her biceps with her fingers.  “Do you think you’re the only one that misses her?”  Her tears were barely held back now.
 
“It’s not just that, Nanao-chan.  What happened with Lisa was my fault.  All of the loss you’ve felt, all of the loss everyone has felt, all of that is my responsibility, my regret.”
 
“So you want to drink yourself to death?”  She turned her head to see him answer.
 
His face softened at the sight of hers.  “No, Nanao-chan.  I don’t want to die.  I just want to sleep.”
 
She blinked several times.  When she thought she had enough control of herself she asked, “To sleep?”
 
“When one of these—what did you call them—anniversaries?  When it comes up, I can’t sleep for days around the date.  Sometimes it will go on for weeks.  The things that I’ve done—the losses I’m responsible for—it’s not a surprise that I can’t sleep sometimes; it’s more of a surprise that I can ever sleep at all.  I’ve lived so long, Nanao-chan.  The memories are so strong at times.  It’s not just one thing.  It’ll start with Lisa, but then I will remember—so many other things.  It doesn’t stop.  I just want to forget for a little while.  Forget and rest.”
 
She moved behind him and sat on a cushion.  Her hands reached up to his temples.  She tugged at him slightly and he leaned back for her.  “I understand.  I do.  I can’t imagine how hard this time is for you.  But you can’t keep doing this.”  Her hands lit with healing kidō.
 
He groaned and leaned back farther for her touch.  She pulled him towards her once, very slightly, and he hesitantly slipped down until he lay on his back with his head in her lap.  “Nanao-chan?”
 
Her tears had escaped her control at his confession and now ran in unruly paths down her cheeks.  “Please don’t do this anymore.  If you need rest, please let me help you.”
 
“I’ve made you cry.”  His thumb brushed her tears away gently.  “I never wanted to cause you tears, Nanao.”
 
“Idiot.  What would—what would our division do without you?”  Her unspoken words hung between them.
 
“I won’t drink like this, Nanao-chan.  I promise you.”  His voice was dark and serious.  She tried to focus on his face through her tears.  His eyelids were heavy and his eyes—were they wet?  Were those her tears on his lashes?  She couldn’t tell.
 
“Thank you,” she said softly.  Her hands stroked his head, the healing kidō blended with a mild sedation spell.  His eyes closed, his hands clasped over hers loosely.  Soon his breathing turned deep and even.  He slept, though a shinigami of his strength could easily shrug off sedation as light as hers.  But he wanted, needed this rest.   He’d succumbed willingly to her touch.
 
She thought of the questions unasked, the words unsaid, and wondered if any would ever be spoken allowed.  But tonight he slept in her lap.  Tonight he’d given her his promise that this wouldn’t happen again.  Tonight, that was enough for her.

**********************************************************
           
Nanao’s displeasure at their broken routine dissolved at the memory.  “You kept your word to me.”
 
He reached out a hand to stroke her cheek.  “I told you that I never want to see you cry, Nanao-chan.”
 
She looked down at that.  “We never talk about it,” she said, partially in disbelief that he had resisted for years bringing up those private moments they shared.  Several times a year since that day she’d let him sleep near her—in the office, in her quarters, even, rarely, on her lap—and he’d never said a word about it after. 
 
She’d never said a word, either, but that wasn’t such a surprise.  Nanao knew it was a line crossed in their relationship, but she didn’t want to return to how things had been before, and she didn’t know how to move forward, so she left it alone, privately treasuring those times that he trusted her to give him the rest he needed.
 
“I didn’t want to lose that closeness with my precious Nanao-chan, and I wasn’t sure how you would react if I brought them up.”
 
“I wouldn’t have known what to do if you had brought it up.”
 
He pulled her pliant body into his lap.  “Isn’t this better than sword practice?”
 
“Skipping out on work is inappropriate.”  But her fingers played with his hair.
 
“Next week we can do an extra hour, if that will satisfy you.”  He unclipped her hair and stroked a hand through it.
 
Next week she wouldn’t be his vice captain.  Next week she might be in exile or prison.  “I don’t think we have to make it up.  After all, we’ve been doing this for a very long time.”
 
They sat for several minutes in the quiet of the day.  The sound of swords striking echoed distantly—one of the intermediate sword classes was practicing outside today.
 
Something rose in Nanao’s mind.  She tried to push it back down, as she had all of the other times it had tried to press into her consciousness, but it was too demanding with the memory of that anniversary fresh in her mind.
 
“When you were in the battle with Aizen—” she hesitated.
 
“What is it, Nanao-chan?”
 
“You saw Vice Captain Yadōmaru.”  She turned her head into his chest.
 
“Yes.  Lisa-chan is alive.  She’s been living in the Living World with the others from that time.”  His voice was easy and calm.
 
“Are they going to come back?”  The words were very small.
 
“I don’t know.”  He smoothed his hand down her back.
 
She darted a glance at his face.
 
“If they did, it would be difficult for them.  There aren’t enough positions available for them, and it isn’t as if they could simply take their old ones back.  Things have changed.  And having a hollow inside their souls would undoubtedly subject them to some very unpleasant scrutiny.”
 
Nanao considered this.  “Do you want them to come back?”
 
“That’s not up to me, and as I said, it would be difficult.  Do you want to see Lisa-chan?”
 
She hesitated.  “Do you think—would she want to see me?”
 
“You’d know that better than I would, Nanao-chan.  You know how close you were to Lisa-chan before.  But I am sure that she would see you if it’s something you want.”
 
Memories of Vice Captain Yadōmaru flipped through her mind in an emotional jumble.  She shook her head.  “I have to think about it.”  She shifted on his lap, her fingers fussing at the lines of her uniform.
 
He tipped her chin up.  “Nanao-chan, what do you want to ask me?”
 
“People have said—well, it’s the truth, that Vice Captain Yadōmaru and I are very alike.  I never thought about it when I was a child, but I have considered it sometimes since then.  I have even wondered if we might be related.”  She cringed inside.  Even these words were so hard, and none of it was quite what she wanted to know, but she couldn’t seem to form a coherent question out of the mess of memory. 
 
“I don’t know if you have a blood connection with Lisa-chan; I never asked her, and she wouldn’t have told me if I had.  It’s true that you have some physical resemblance.  But that’s just the surface.  The two of you are very, very different people underneath.  My Nanao is only Nanao to me.”  He cupped her face in his hands.  The warmth in his eyes reached a part of her that was very cold.  Somehow he knew what she needed, even when she didn’t.
 
Her eyelids fluttered down.  “Thank you.”
 
He kissed her, playfully biting at her lip.  “It’s natural enough to wonder.  I want you to ask me whatever you want to know about anything.  I don’t know what kind of relationship you may want to have with Lisa-chan in the future, but I’m sure it’s something we can work out.”
 
“I’m not ready to speak to Vice Captain Yadōmaru yet.”  She sighed.
 
“It must be because cute Nanao-chan wants to give all her attention to me right now,” he teased, and made kissy faces at her.
 
“Hardly,” she said.  But she reached up and clasped the back of his neck with her hand, pulling him back to her lips.  There were other questions about Lisa—if they’d been lovers, if they’d been close—but she didn’t feel a need to ask them.  He and Lisa might have been lovers and they might have been close.  But he’d said that Nanao was unique for him, and she believed him. 
 
She believed in him.

On to Chapter 31.