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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
Contains: Depictions of violence.
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.

Back to Chapter 33.
Chapter 1.

The Garganta was a strange experience. The opening dropped off into complete darkness, unlike the clearly defined, if spongy, walls and floor of the Dangai.

Nanao wasn't alone on her trip. Akon, the horned technician of the Twelfth Division, led a procession of members of the Twelfth carting boxes, cages, and instruments of all kinds, stacked high in wagons and strapped to their backs.

The path they walked was a pristine white streak in the blackness of their surroundings, but the exotic effect was ruined by the prosaic chatter of the Twelfth: "I'm hungry. It takes so long to deliver these things and get back to Seireitei, we won't be having lunch until after dinner."

"The sand there gets everywhere. I spend hours washing after these trips, it's a pain!"

"Hey, don't let the captain hear you complaining like this, or you'll really regret it," Akon said.

They arrived after an indeterminable length of time. On the other end of the Garganta, it was night in an endless desert. Hueco Mundo, Nanao thought, and shivered. There was something decidedly wrong about being a shinigami in the home territory of Hollows.

"Come on, don't just stand around. Let's get this done." Akon gestured to the members of the Twelfth milling around outside the Garganta. He led them down a set of stairs cut in the sand and through a winding tunnel.

Nanao knew from the information that the captain commander had given her that the research facility Captain Kurotsuchi had set up here was primarily built out of a pre-existing structure Aizen and his soldiers had used as headquarters. Eventually they surfaced under a broken dome of blue sky. It was contrasted against the night of Hueco Mundo radiating darkness through holes in the dome, and created an odd sensation of existing outside of time.

The doors to a large white building creaked open. Captain Kurotsuchi emerged from the shadows of the doors, Nemu following close behind him. "What are you waiting for? Get my new equipment set up!" He barked orders and threats at his division members.

Nanao squared her shoulders and approached. "Good morning, Captain Kurotsuchi."

He turned to regard her without interest. "Eh? You? You aren't one of mine. Aren't you that woman from the Eighth?"

"It's Vice Captain Ise of the Eighth Division, Mayuri-sama." Nemu smiled very slightly.

"What? Why are you here? I didn't request any additional subjects." Kurotsuchi continued to watch the equipment flow into his dark laboratory.

"I have been sent by Captain Commander Yamamoto to make a review of your facility, Captain Kurotsuchi," Nanao said.

Now he gave her his full attention. An unpleasant sensation crawled on her skin. "A review of my facility? This is most unacceptable. I cannot have my work interrupted so that random females from other divisions can wander through. I refuse."

"This is an order from the First Division. It cannot be refused." She pulled a folded paper from her book and handed it to him.

He read from it, snorting. "Oh, the arrogance—as if I have so much leisure that I can spare hours and hours to lead someone around my facility, explaining my work—this is most unpleasant. How long is this foolishness to last?"

"I regret any inconvenience, Captain Kurotsuchi, but I must fulfill my duty as assigned by the First Division. The inspection will continue until the captain commander is satisfied that a complete report has been made." Nanao adjusted her glasses.

"Feh. Very well. Nemu, see to it. And orders from the First Division or not, I will not tolerate any interference in my schedule, remember that. How irritating this is!" Kurotsuchi spun away to shout at his workers with renewed vigor.

"Nanao-san, please come with me." Nemu turned away from the laboratory to another building, half-demolished, standing nearby. They entered the portion of the building still standing. It was surprisingly intact—if Nanao hadn't seen the outside, she wouldn't have known it wasn't a complete structure. "The quarters for the laboratory staff are here. I will assign you one of the unused rooms."

"When will I be able to begin my inspection?"

Nemu hesitated. "It might be most prudent to wait until Mayuri-sama takes his rest. He goes into an unconscious state for six and one half hours each day. Entering the laboratory for an inspection while Mayuri-sama is working might be dangerous for you, Nanao-san." She opened a thick white door in a hall full of them. "This room is currently unoccupied. You are welcome to use it during your stay, Nanao-san."

"Thank you for your assistance, Nemu-san. It is very important that I conduct my inspection promptly." She entered the small room, containing a large couch, one table and chair.

Nemu nodded. "I understand that you must fulfill your orders, Nanao-san. It is possible for me to bring you to the laboratory while Mayuri-sama takes his rest."

"That would be ideal, but don't you need to sleep as well?"

"I require very little rest. I am designed to avoid wasting Mayuri-sama's precious time with long periods of unconsciousness."

Nanao nodded. "Let's plan to do that, then. Thank you, Nemu-san."

Nemu took a step towards the door, then half-turned back to Nanao. "It is pleasant to see you again, Nanao-san."

"It's nice to see you too, Nemu-san." Nanao smiled.

Alone in the white room Nanao's smile dropped. She tugged the bag off her back, making neat piles of the contents on the table. A clean shitagi, a logbook for the mission, special report paper that could hold kidō, ink and brush, dried meats and fruits, and two water containers. There was nothing of a personal nature.

She rubbed her bicep. Without her vice captain's badge her arm felt oddly light. She hadn't mentioned her recent loss of rank, and she was sure the orders to Captain Kurotsuchi had not, either. It was better if he assumed she was a person of some importance. Although Captain Kurotsuchi was not particularly respectful of position, it was less likely he'd murder her at random to avoid inconvenience if he believed he might get into some trouble for it. Certainly Kurotsuchi would not want to battle Captain Kyōraku over "misplacing" his vice captain.

She sank down into the white couch. What was Shunsui doing now? She'd lost all sense of time traveling through the Garganta and standing under the dome in Hueco Mundo. Had he noticed she was gone yet? She pulled the stolen hairpin out of her sleeve, turning it over in her hand.

He hadn't come to see her at the First. She'd been surprised by that. Whatever Captain Ukitake said, Shunsui had never been someone who gave weight to following the rules simply because they were there. Perhaps he was angry; after all, she'd effectively lied by omission to him for weeks. She cringed and curled up into a ball.

Sleep seemed impossible in this strange place, but she was determined to try anyway. She hadn't slept in her holding cell and there was no way to know how long she might be in Hueco Mundo. Adequate rest could be critical to her success.

She dropped her glasses and hairclip on the table and lay down on the couch. Her eyes closed. The hairpin clutched in her hand bit into her flesh, but she tightened her grip. The edges of the hairpin might hurt, but it gave her proof that the last two weeks were real. With her eyes closed, she could nearly smell the flowers in the secret garden, taste the wine in her cup, and feel Shunsui's hands on her skin.

**************************************************************************

Something very wrong was happening in the laboratory at Hueco Mundo. Nanao determined that within minutes of her first inspection of Kurotsuchi's laboratory. That was hardly a revelation, however; that the Twelfth under Kurotsuchi was doing unethical or inappropriate research was not exactly new information.

"What are these corpses used for?" Nanao asked, studying partially dissected Arrancar bodies. They were very human in appearance, and her stomach twisted.

"Research." Nemu stood next to Nanao, her eyes attentive and her face entirely blank.

"What kind of research?"

"Mayuri-sama has forbidden me to speak to you about the specifics of his work. My apologies, Nanao-san."

Nanao nodded. This was not particularly surprising, either—Nanao wasn't sure if Nemu's free will could override direct orders from Kurotsuchi. She believed Nemu possessed some free will, since she participated in activities for the SWA that Kurotsuchi could not possibly have approved of, but had likely never directly forbidden, either. "I understand you have orders you cannot disobey. I can conduct my inspection without further information from you, please do not worry."

Nemu nodded. Nanao thought she saw relief in the girl's green eyes. "Nanao-san," she said, laying a hesitant hand on Nanao's arm.

"Yes?"

"Nanao-san, it would be best if you would stop your investigation and return to Soul Society. Mayuri-sama will not tolerate any interference in his work and I am concerned that he may become—displeased by your efforts."

Nanao sighed. "I take your point, believe me, I do. Unfortunately I, too, have orders that I cannot disobey. It's very important that I conduct this inspection. Thank you for your concern, Nemu-san. I appreciate it."

"I do not believe this can lead to a good outcome, Nanao-san."

"You may be right."

*************************************************************************

Shunsui sat behind his desk in the office at nine in the morning, considering the brief note Yoruichi Shihōin had dropped off earlier. She is not in the Living World. I have made a very thorough scan, and nothing remotely resembling the reiatsu signature of Nanao Ise has been found. I have double-checked this result via other methods and reached the same conclusion again. Apologies, Urahara.

Unspoken in the note but obvious to Shunsui underneath the words was the rebuke by Urahara: You should be more careful with your vice captains, you seem to keep misplacing them.

He rubbed a hand over his face. Three days and the most he'd been able to do was discover where Nanao wasn't. The handful of locations that remained where Nanao could be weren't places he would ever have wanted Nanao to go. Truthfully they weren't even places he would ever go if he had a choice in the matter.

Yama-jii remained tight-lipped about Nanao's whereabouts. "That girl is fine, Shunsui. I have received information about her only this morning. Your concern is unseemly."

Unseemly. That seemed like something Nanao would have said. "You're ridiculous, sir. This behavior is most unseemly."

A knock at the door drew his eyes away from the politely accusing note. "What is it?"

One of the Eleventh Seats appeared in the doorway. "Ah, the new furniture is here? We have orders from Vice Captain Ise?" All of her statements ended in questions. His good cheer was greatly diminished by the loss of Nanao, and their division members weren't much better off. Nanao had given them all purpose.

He waved them in. Several members hurried through the door and lifted up and out the various pieces of furniture in the seating arrangement between the two desks. This kept happening; Nanao was giving orders from beyond Soul Society. The first time his troops had done something on orders from Vice Captain Ise after she'd disappeared, he'd been shocked and demanded to know how she'd given the orders. The officers showed him their orders, all inscribed with the neat handwriting of Nanao.

She'd left orders for nearly every individual in the division, ranging from ordering ink to leading sword classes. Shunsui had hurried to his desk to see if she'd left him anything, and she had—a seventy-five page manual on her work as a vice captain. Not a single character addressed to him personally, not a single word of affection or apology.

He wondered if he'd really expected it to be otherwise.

The furniture in the center of the room was all removed. Division members hauled in new furniture, large pieces in neutral beige. Nanao did tend to favor the safe choices, didn't she? He watched without interest as the shinigami arranged the furniture, consulting from pages he was sure had been written by Nanao. She'd probably diagramed the furniture arrangement, down to the throw pillows.

The pink throw pillows.

The furniture arranged to Nanao's specifications, the division members retreated from his office. He rose and walked over to the new sofa, considering. There were two new chairs and a new table, as well. He sat in the middle of the sofa. It was deep and comfortable. The throw pillows were an exact match for the color of cherry blossoms. He shifted until he was lying down. The sofa was large enough to accommodate him and the pillows were supportive and firm.

Did she love him or not?

He'd been nearly certain that she did, but she'd refused to answer his proposal and she hadn't trusted him with the truth about her alleged crimes. Yet here he was on a sofa that was undoubtedly chosen by practical Nanao, a sofa large enough for him to nap on, a sofa with unnecessarily pink throw pillows.

Shunsui rose from the sofa and left his office, barely responding to the greetings from other shinigami. At the door to her quarters he hesitated and then entered, closing the door behind him. All of Nanao's possessions were boxed up and stacked in an orderly pile in the center of the room. He remembered the bewilderment of Rangiku, returned from helping at the Eighth's offices: "All of her things are gone from her desk. There's nothing there but some standard brushes and blank paper."

She'd been puzzled, but he'd understood. Standing in this room he could almost hear Nanao's thoughts. It's better if I pack every thing now. It'll be easier for everyone to forget me that way.

"Easier, Nanao-chan?" He took the top box from her stack and opened it. It was items from her desk—a brush set he'd gifted her, lovely wooden desk accessories from Rangiku, a spare fan, and poetry he'd written to her.

Another box and another. He sorted through her life, trying to find some sign that he hadn't been wrong.

It was a plain wooden box, hidden under neat piles of her clothes inside a crate. The contents were all wrapped in plain paper. He lifted out a square item, revealed as a copy of the photo Rangiku had taken at the summer party, the photo of Nanao and Shunsui smiling at each other. Why hadn't she ever put this out with her other pictures? Why keep a copy if she'd not intended to display it?

The other contents of the box were just as odd: river stones, a walnut, a pair of ceramic chopsticks for her hair he'd gotten for her birthday one year, carefully dried flowers, an empty container of melon-flavored beeswax for her lips, pages and pages of things he'd written to her and drawn for her, and at the very bottom, wrapped in three layers of paper, a scorched scrap of pink silk. He pulled that out, turning it over in his hands. It was from one of his old haoris—Nanao always called them that, despite knowing that they were all cheap women's kimonos—one that she'd destroyed on the day of the interdivisional training with the Eleventh long ago.

He carefully refolded the paper over the fabric, replacing the contents of the box as he'd found them, all except the photo from the party. His fingers traced her smiling face in the picture. "Nanao-chan."

Rising, he tucked the photo into his uniform and headed out of her quarters to find some division members. He had a task for them.

****************************************************************************

Nanao was fairly sure that Mayuri Kurotsuchi was trying to kill her. It wasn't anything she could confirm absolutely, of course. There'd been three accidents in the four days she'd been in Hueco Mundo. Once, a large section of the ceiling of the residence building collapsed while she was directly under it. Brisk shunpo saved her life that time, and she silently thanked Shunsui for all of the Friday training sessions that had increased her speed.

The next time, a mechanical arm in the laboratory had malfunctioned, clawing for her throat with a machine's singular focus. She'd blocked that with her tantō, escaping with a pair of bruises to the side of her neck.

Then acid had spilled from a supposedly shatterproof container, landing on her sleeves and pant legs. Nemu had aided her in escaping from her clothes quickly, and Nanao was grateful for the fact she did not have her uniforms specifically tailored to fit, as Rangiku did. The excess fabric of her uniform and Nemu's action had saved her life. Nemu walked her back to her quarters in her underwear and a lab coat, and then brought Nanao a couple of Nemu's miniskirted uniforms. It was not exactly Nanao's style, but she thanked her sincerely anyway.

And then there was the food. Nanao hadn't detected anything off about the meals served in Hueco Mundo, but when fresh fruits began to appear in her room, she felt some suspicion. She'd asked Nemu about it. "It might be prudent to consider the fruit as a decoration, Nanao-san," the girl said, her eyes downcast.

Nanao wondered, not for the first time, how Mayuri Kurotsuchi had continued to be a captain when he was so obviously insane and ill-intentioned. In terms of her report, she'd reached a conclusion about the nature of his work and was prepared to send that conclusion to Captain Commander Yamamoto. Kurotsuchi was either planning to build his own Arrancar army or planning to Hollowfy shinigami. She wasn't positive which he was doing—he could be doing both, actually—but based on all that she'd observed and the reports she'd read as background for this mission and in the past, he was definitely operating outside the boundaries of legal, permissible research.

She marched through the underground corridor towards the location the Garganta would be opening at today. Her report was complete and heavy in her hand, weighed down with intense kidō locks and spells intended to harm unauthorized people who might attempt to read the pages.

Nanao emerged under the eternal night of Hueco Mundo, surprised to see Captain Kurotsuchi and Nemu but no one else. "Where is the Garganta?" she asked.

"It's not coming for another hour. Nemu, now." Kurotsuchi pointed at Nanao.

Nemu leaped behind Nanao and wrapped her in a tight bear hug. "Nemu-san?"

"Please do not struggle, Nanao-san. You might be injured." Nemu's voice was soft.

"Get that report, Nemu. Break her arm if necessary."

"Please drop the report, Nanao-san."

Nanao dropped the packet of pages to the sand. She didn't want to force Nemu to hurt her, and the girl didn't seem capable of disobeying Kurotsuchi.

"Thank you, Nanao-san," she said, and sounded relieved.

Kurotsuchi approached, bending for the report. "Hrmph. So much effort for something so petty as this. Did you imagine I would simply let you walk out of here with this information? My work cannot be interrupted. I don't expect the ridiculous Gotei 13 to appreciate my genius, but I will not allow any interference with my research. You should have died in one of the accidents I went through the effort of arranging. You're so inconvenient." He pulled a red collar from his robes and fastened it around her neck.

Instantly Nanao felt her reiatsu disappearing as if sucked out. It was hard to breathe, and she would have fallen to the ground if she wasn't held up by Nemu.

"Reiatsu-sealing collar. The same type they use for prisoners, except I've made some improvements, of course." He reached into her sleeve and pulled out her tantō. "You won't be needing this."

"You—you won't get away with this. My report is expected. I'm expected," Nanao gasped the words out with difficulty.

He laughed. "You have had an unfortunate accident and died. I will be reporting the incident via messenger when the Garganta opens. Don't imagine anyone will investigate. I'm sending along video of your unlucky death with my report to the First Division. Those fools will accept my evidence and forget about you."

"Then they'll send someone else to investigate you. You can't imagine they will let you work here without oversight."

"It won't matter. I only need a little more time to complete my most important work. I'm going to change everything, absolutely everything, and there's nothing any of the shinigami can do about it." He walked away, back to the underground tunnel entrance. "Nemu, wait until after the Garganta closes, and then take care of her."

"Yes, Mayuri-sama."

He disappeared into the underground. Nemu released her grip on Nanao. "Please come with me, Nanao-san."

"Nemu-san, you don't have to do this." Nemu's hand locked around Nanao's wrist like iron clamp, pulling her along to another underground entrance.

"I must do this, although I am very sorry. Please do not struggle."

They walked down an endless corridor. Nanao tried to summon up kidō, but she couldn't make the smallest spark. Her power was entirely blocked by the collar. Nemu opened a heavy door and led Nanao into a small, empty room. "Please wait here, Nanao-san. I will return shortly."

"Nemu-san--"

The door closed behind Nemu, and Nanao was alone. She tried the door and then felt along all of the walls, but the tiny room had no other exits and no weak points. Even if there had been, it wasn't as if she could take advantage of them without power. She tugged at the collar. "Damn it."

She would die in Hueco Mundo in a miniskirt and collar, killed by one of her friends from the SWA, and no one would ever know. Ridiculous.

She sat down against the far wall facing the door. A plan, she needed to make a plan. Nemu's strength was incredible, and Nanao had no power and no real weapons. There wasn't a plan that would save her in this situation. "Damn it," she said again. She pulled out the hairpin she'd stolen from Shunsui, playing with it in her hands. It wasn't much of a weapon, but it would have to do.

What would he say to her in this situation? Yare, Nanao-chan, your legs are so lovely in that skirt, all of your uniforms should be cut like that. She laughed a little, but her eyes were wet. Nanao-chan must not die before I can mount a heroic rescue. That wasn't going to happen, not this time. He didn't even know where she was; much less that Kurotsuchi intended to have her killed.

Not for the first time since she'd come to Hueco Mundo, Nanao wondered if she'd made a mistake by accepting this mission. Shunsui was sure to be upset with her—angry?—because she hadn't waited for him to help her. It would have damaged her pride to wait in jail for his help instead of taking the mission, but she didn't think her pride was worth her life. "Ukitake feels very strongly about personal honor and pride in battles, but I can't agree with him. Lost pride could be regained, but not if you're dead."

"You were right." Her love and her life were more important than her pride. She leaned her head against the wall. It was too late for a realization like this, but then, it seemed all of her realizations came too late.

Nemu returned after what felt like hours. "Please come with me, Nanao-san." She waited patiently for Nanao to rise and walk to the door. Nemu marched down the corridors for what seemed an endless amount of time. They were out much farther than they'd been to meet the Garganta.

"Where are we going, Nemu-san?"

"It is Mayuri-sama's intention to make it appear that you have died in a laboratory accident in which your body was dissolved. He has planned to have me kill you and then destroy your remains in acid." Nemu's face was perfectly blank.

"Would it not be more convenient to do that at the laboratory? Where are we going?" Nanao felt the hairpin in her sleeve, but did not pull it out. Something was strange here.

"Mayuri-sama has told me to take care of you. He did not specify that I must kill you. He has planned that I should do so, but I will not." Nemu bit her lip.

"Nemu-san?" Nanao stopped walking, surprised.

"Please continue moving, Nanao-san, we do not have much time."

"You're helping me?"

"I am taking you to a distant exit point into Hueco Mundo. I will give you a key for the collar, though I would ask that you not remove it unless you absolutely must; as soon as your reiatsu is detected by Mayuri-sama's surveillance systems, he will act on that information."

They stopped in front of a door to exit the underground. Nemu pulled a sheathed tantō out of her sleeve. "It's not your zanpakutō. Yours has been placed with mine, in a locked case only Mayuri-sama can access. This is just metal, but it may be useful, if this is the weapon you are accustomed to."

"Thank you, Nemu-san. But why are you doing this? It must be dangerous for you."

Nemu bent her head and then lifted her eyes to meet Nanao's. "You said you were my friend."

"Nemu-san, I do consider you my friend, but this is a huge risk for you. What will Captain Kurotsuchi do when he discovers what you've done?" Nanao frowned.

"Captain Ukitake has explained to me that friends must help one another if the friendship is genuine. Your life has value to me, and so I must help you."

Nanao swallowed. "Nemu-san, you—thank you. Is there any way to get a message to Soul Society? I am sure the captain commander will stop Captain Kurotsuchi if he is made aware of his activities."

"I have secretly sent your report along with the courier carrying the message from Mayuri-sama and the video footage of your falsified death."

"Then we only have to make it a few hours, Nemu-san. Is there anywhere you can hide? Maybe you should come with me into Hueco Mundo."

Nemu looked at the door, and for a moment Nanao thought her face held longing. "I cannot. Mayuri-sama has ordered me to return to the laboratory after I have taken care of you. If I do not return, he will become suspicious and activate surveillance immediately."

"What will happen to you, Nemu-san?" Nanao clutched the tantō.

"Mayuri-sama will likely dismember me as punishment, and depending on whether he feels I can be useful in the future or not, he will either kill me or attempt to alter my brain function to eliminate this behavior." Nemu's voice was perfectly even, but her eyes were laced with a thread of fear.

Nanao impulsively hugged her. "Be careful, Nemu-san. We need only avoid Captain Kurotsuchi's notice for a few hours. Everything will be fine," she said, though that last part was far from certain.

"Thank you, Nanao-san. Please be watchful. Hueco Mundo is full of roaming Hollows seeking meals. Although you do not have spiritual power at the moment, if they see you, they will still wish to kill you. You are, after all, a shinigami, their natural enemy." Nemu opened the door and handed Nanao an oddly-shaped device. "The green button will release the collar, but please remember what I said."

"Thank you, Nemu-san. I'll see you soon." Nanao waved and ran out, but her confidence was just for show. Alone in the sands of Hueco Mundo, she heard a distant howl and shivered.

On to Chapter 35.


Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
meroko26
Nov. 4th, 2011 05:57 pm (UTC)
Arggh! I can't even begin to tell you how much I hate Mayuri! And after this! But poor Nemu. I hope she's okay. And if Nanao is in Hueco Mundo will she meet Nel and the others? That would be cool. Waiting eagerly for next chap.
r_dahlia
Nov. 5th, 2011 08:39 pm (UTC)
Mayuri is pretty easy to hate here, isn't he? ;x And Nemu has taken quite a risk here. The next chapter should be up today or tomorrow--I've been having computer issues of late, so there's a lot of additional reformating to be done. Thanks for reading!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )