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Bleach Fanfic: An Invitation To The Past

Title: An Invitation To The Past
Pairing: Shunsui/Nanao
Genre: Romance/Drama
Rating: T
Status: One-shot
Contains: Description of canon-typical violence.  Spoilers for the Arrancar Arc.
Summary: Nanao invites Captain Kyōraku to share an important day with her.


"Tomorrow?" Shunsui tipped back his hat to see Nanao's face.

His Vice Captain stood over him as he reclined in the grass, a book clutched in one of her slender hands. Her uniform was set in crisp lines, though the effect was marred by the breeze flipping up her sleeves playfully. "Yes. I have already informed Enjōji-san."

"Where are you going, Nanao-chan?"

"That's not your concern, Captain. I may do whatever I like on my days off."

"But what if there's an emergency?" He sat up, leaning back on his hands.

"If there is a Hollow attack, I am certain you can handle it. If there is a paperwork attack, you would run away and leave it to me anyway, so I will handle it when I am in the office again."

"You wound me, Nanao-chan." He pouted up at her, but she only raised an eyebrow.

"I doubt that, Captain." She turned away from him. "Enjoy your afternoon."

He rose from his lounging position and loped along beside her, settling his pink haori over his shoulders. "You know, Nanao-chan, there are a few days a year that you take off from work, and no one knows where you go then."

She stiffened. "So?"

"Well, it's just interesting, isn't it?" She sniffed and he leaned down to murmur in her ear. "What's most interesting is that one of the days you disappear on is always the same date. The other days change, but not that particular one. It's important, isn't it?"

She stayed silent, maintaining her brisk pace towards the division.

"Is it an anniversary of some kind? Will you tell me, Nanao-chan?"

She frowned and rubbed at her temples. "It has no importance to the division or to our work."

"But it's important to you, isn't it?"

"Why are you so curious about this? I am entitled to a day off."

He studied her downturned mouth, the crease between her brows. "I want to know my Nanao-chan better. Tomorrow is important to you, so it's important to me."

"You should respect my privacy, Captain."

"I do respect your privacy, Nanao-chan, which is why I'm asking. You can tell me as much or as little as you want." She sighed, and he could feel her bending, so he pressed on. "I will keep your secrets safe, Nanao-chan."

She studied his face, and he could almost see the question in her blue-violet eyes. How many secrets do you carry?

He smiled, but knew it did not reach his eyes. She dropped her gaze to the path beneath her feet.

They reached the division, returning greetings from their members as they walked to their shared office. Inside, he dropped himself on the sofa and Nanao sat at her desk, stamping documents. He knew she was still considering his words by the tension in her fingers, clutched around the hanko, and the way she glanced off at the window occasionally.

"I don't think I can explain here—I've never tried before, and this is the wrong place—" she stopped, frowning.

He nodded. Since Nanao had little regard for atmosphere generally, it was likely difficult for her to fully articulate her feeling, but he understood. The Eighth in mid-afternoon was boisterous, busy, and radiated cheer. Long-held secrets would sink from the air like cawing crows at a summer picnic. "I understand, Nanao-chan."

She bit her lip. "But I think it might be alright if you knew."

"I'd be happy to listen, whenever you feel like telling me."

Several moments passed in silence. Then Nanao straightened in her chair, her hands clasping each other on the desk. "You can come with me tomorrow if you want, Captain."

"Where?" He sat up straighter on the sofa.

She shook her head. "If you want to come, meet me at my quarters just after dawn tomorrow. It's not a secret, but it is private, so—"

"I won't tell anyone."

"And please dress casually. Your uniform would be a hindrance."

"I'll dress casually. Of course, if lovely Nanao-chan wants to come over and help me pick an appropriate outfit, I'd be overjoyed."

"No thank you, Captain. You can dress yourself." She eyed him skeptically, however. "Nothing too expensive," she said as an afterthought, and his brow rose. Where were they going?

"I'll try to look cheap, Nanao-chan." He grinned.

She nodded, a slight bend of her neck, and then resumed stamping forms. There'd been a waver in her voice when she made the offer to let him come—she was nervous. He suspected half of the reason she'd been willing to invite him was that she didn't believe he'd wake up in time to meet her at dawn.

She was wrong, of course. The prospect of learning one of his private Nanao's secrets was more than enough incentive to pull him out of bed at the first gray light on the horizon.

It wasn't that he couldn't have found out her secrets before—he could have spent a favor with the Second Division and learned where Nanao went years ago, or tailed her himself; he had the necessary skill. But there was a difference between stealing someone's secrets and being invited to share them, and it was the invitation he'd desired, and the steps into Nanao's heart he'd coveted.

He reached Nanao's door with a small jump into shunpo. She'd just come out and was closing the door. He saw the moment she became aware of his presence; her head tilted slightly and her lips formed a circle. "Good morning, Captain Kyōraku."

"Good morning, lovely Nanao-chan. Please let me carry that for you," he said, indicating an oversized basket covered with a cloth hanging over one of her arms. She handed it to him without an argument, which surprised him; but given the weight of the basket, perhaps Nanao's practicality had won out.

"Thank you." She walked away from her door with an easy pace. This, too, was unusual—rare were the occasions that anything Nanao did could be described as languid.

"Where are we going, Nanao-chan?"

"To some shops, first." They walked side by side through the mostly-deserted streets, stopping at a cart for some fruits—a bit expensive, and very fine quality—and she added these to the already-weighty basket, secreting them under the blanket.

He paid for the fruits while she was focused on the basket, and her shoulders stiffened, but she said nothing until they were well away from the vendor. He'd always liked provoking her in different ways, forcing her to drop her cool demeanor to scold him. He preferred to think that he was one of the few people to see any heat from Nanao. Even if it was nearly always the heat of anger, it was still passion.

"That was unnecessary." She eyed him severely over her glasses.

"As a man, how could I not pay for the foods we'll enjoy on our glorious day of love together?"

"No one said that they were for you," she murmured, but a smile tweaked her lips. "And who exactly is spending a glorious day of love together? This is the first I've heard of such a thing."

"You and I, of course," he rumbled near her ear. She shivered gratifyingly, and then frowned.

"You might not enjoy the day. It's—I don't—" she trailed off.

"It's fine, sweetheart. Whatever the day is, there's pleasure enough in being invited by my lovely Nanao-chan. You don't have to entertain me."

"Don't call me that," she said, but nodded.

They entered a confectioner's shop, where his brows rose in astonishment at the quantity and variety of the candies and treats she selected, acting with the precision and consideration of a general planning a battle.

"Perhaps some of these?" the shopkeeper asked, presenting a tray of delicate dark chocolates.

"Thank you, but I think I'd like a bag of the candy sticks instead." Nanao gestured to the desired treat.

Shunsui raised a brow. How odd it was for Nanao to select messy and large candies over the sophisticated and small sweets she ordinarily favored. He paid at the candy shop, this time not even receiving a glare from Nanao. She must have decided—rightly—that it would be a waste of effort to argue about it now.

They made several more stops—for flowers, for a large package with her name on it at the toy shop, for a pair of children's sunglasses at Dragonfly Eyewear—Nanao methodically overloaded the basket, finally carrying the package from the toy store in her arms when it wouldn't fit inside. The flowers lay on top of the basket, scenting the air as he walked.

Now the streets were more crowded, and the shinigami they passed stared openly at the two of them together in casual clothes, carrying packages. "Everyone is looking at us," he said. "It must be because Nanao-chan is so beautiful in her yukata." She sniffed, but her cheeks pinked, and he smiled. Her yukata was a dark blue with small purple flowers, and she was lovely in it.

"They're surprised to see you awake at an hour like this, I imagine."

She led them through one of the Seireitei gates, entering one of the rougher districts of the Rukongai. They walked at the same easy pace they'd used since leaving Nanao's home, and he resisted the urge to comment. If he said something, she might become self-conscious about it, and then the pleasure of strolling beside Nanao would be lost.

They walked through a large forest, the trail moving steadily uphill. Suddenly four armed men leaped out from the brush to block the path. "Good morning," Shunsui called cheerily. He hadn't noticed their presence until they were within a few feet of the hiding spot; when out of Seireitei he was always aware of possible threats from Hollows, but these men simply didn't register as threats, as they completely lacked spiritual pressure. Given the rust on their weapons, they wouldn't present any challenge in combat, either.

"Good morning. Give us everything you're carrying and your woman, and we might let you live." The largest bandit sneered at Shunsui in a way that suggested he was lying.

"That's pretty impolite, isn't it? Did you hear that, Nanao-chan? He called you my woman." He grinned at her, watching the bandits from the corner of his eye.

"That is an inappropriate way to refer to me." She shook her head at him.

"It doesn't nearly express your value, but it does have a nice sound. 'My woman.' I like saying it about you, Nanao-chan."

"I don't like hearing it." She adjusted her glasses on her nose.

"Perhaps Nanao-chan would like something more descriptive, like 'my lovely, sweet, cute, precious—'"

"Hey, you bastard! Stop ignoring us!" The bandit leader waved his sword wildly as he shouted.

"There's no need to be rude," Shunsui said, turning back to the bandits. His smile didn't drop. He let his spiritual pressure rise, just enough to trigger fear in the men.

"Don't spill anything." Nanao gestured for the basket, but he didn't give it to her.

"It's very heavy, Nanao-chan."

"Don't be ridiculous—" she began, but broke off as the bandits charged. Shunsui didn't move, didn't reach for a weapon. He just raised his spiritual pressure to a level that crushed the air from the bandits' lungs. They fell to the ground, their untended weapons clanking against the rocks.

"Nothing spilled, Nanao-chan," he sing-songed. She studied the fallen bandits with a frown. "Do you want to bring them to the local magistrate?"

"Don't bother, Captain. This is the Seventy-Fourth district; out here the magistrates are corrupt as a rule. The odds are that these bandits are already bribing the magistrate, or that one of them is the magistrate." She sighed. "There's nothing to be done."

He nodded. "You seem to know the area well."

Her eyes darted up to his and away to the bandits. "I lived here for a few years. I'm from the Seventy-Seventh, but we moved here, because it was safer." She smiled slightly, but there was no happiness in it. "It is safer. But walking on the roads in a district like this is asking for trouble, unless you're very strong. I didn't start taking the roads in Rukongai until I was a Fifth Seat."

She took a few steps up the path, away from the bandits, and then hesitated. "I shouldn't have asked you to come. I'm sorry. I can take the basket if—"

"No. Do you think I would be put off by a bandit attack? On the contrary, it gave me the chance to impress lovely Nanao-chan with my victory." He grinned at her, and she narrowed her eyes.

She sniffed. "I am already aware that your spiritual pressure is enormous, Captain."

"Oh? Well, if you aren't impressed by the size of my spiritual pressure, you must surely be impressed by my skill in wielding it." He raised a brow suggestively.

"I am not discussing the size or skill of anything with you."

"But Nanao-chan, if you'd just—"

"I will not."

He pouted. "Nanao-chan should relax a little," he murmured, brushing her fine cheekbone with his fingertips.

She glared at him, then turned to face the road and started walking. Her steps hesitated again after a short distance. "If you want to shunpo, we can. I've always walked, but—"

When her words faltered he studied her delicate features. She wanted to walk, to follow her routine, but she was trying to accommodate him. Whatever they were doing, it was important to her, and she wanted to share it with him. "Then we'll walk. We've established that there is no danger to us. And anyway," he said, grinning, "I want to enjoy the beauty of my Nanao-chan in the exquisite backdrop of nature as long as I can."

She made a disdainful sound, but resumed walking. "What an exaggerated sentiment, Captain."

Shunsui leaned down to murmur in her ear. "I can't exaggerate about you, because my Nanao-chan is the loveliest of all women to me."

Her cheeks pinked again, but she gave no other sign she'd heard him. "We'll be there soon."

He nodded. They walked in companionable silence for several minutes. He enjoyed the warmth of the sun on his skin as they left the heart of the forest to climb to a higher elevation.

Nanao glanced at him often, and he wondered if she was as interested in his casual appearance out of uniform as he was in hers. There was no point in asking her; Nanao would deny feeling any attraction to him until all the breath left her body, but the truth was that they were both drawn to each other like magnets.

When the ground leveled off again they turned off the path and headed up a small hill. Grass and wildflowers covered the area. Nanao stopped abruptly in front of three stones at one end of the hilltop. She drew the cloth covering the basket out and spread it on the ground a short distance away from the stones.

He put the basket down on the fabric, brimming with curiosity, but he did not ask her anything. Nanao had brought him here, and she would tell him why when she was ready.

"I need to unpack this," she said, and began pulling things out of the basket and ordering them into neat piles: bento boxes and other food in the center of the cloth, items from the shops to the side, and a pile of flowers and incense sticks in front of her.

He realized before she knelt in front of the stones arranging the flowers and incense that these were graves. They were marked with uncut stones, small enough for a child to have moved. He rubbed at his chest, as if he could chase away the aching in his heart with his hand.

Nanao finished with the incense and the flowers, half-turning towards him. "I don't know how to do this with you. I've always come alone." Her eyes dropped to study the pattern on the fabric spread over the grass.

He stepped closer to her and then sprawled out beside the food, leaning back on his hands. His posture was relaxed, and he made sure his voice was as easy when he spoke, though the ache in his chest was undiminished. "Why don't you do what you would normally do, and tell me about it a little?"

She considered that for a long moment, her eyes flicking up his body, stopping at his mouth. "I'll try. I've been doing this since I was very young, and I understand that it may seem strange or inappropriate to you."

"Honoring the dead in your own way is perfectly appropriate. And anyway, it's one of my longest-held dreams to see you act inappropriately, Nanao-chan."

Her lips turned upward. "You really—" Her voice lifted in a question, but she let it fall away, unasked.

"Yes," he said, although the question was unknown. The way she'd leaned towards him unconsciously, her lips parted and her eyes lit with something warm—no matter the question, the answer was yes.

She smiled and shook her head at him. "How do you know you weren't agreeing to do months of paperwork? You should be more cautious."

"No one, not even a woman as delightfully diligent and effective as you, makes an expression like that when thinking of paperwork."

"You're so knowledgeable about women," she said in a chilled voice.

He smiled, refusing to let her slip them into an easy argument and put distance between them. "I've always liked women, and I've known many women over the years. But the woman I want to know the most about is my Nanao-chan."

She looked down at her hands. "When you say that—"

"I mean it."

She looked up to search his eyes for several seconds. Finally she nodded and turned her head toward the graves. "I'm glad you're here." Her voice was barely more than a whisper, but the meaning of her words reverberated through his body.

Minutes passed in stillness. Finally Nanao shifted and began sorting through the items they'd picked up from the shops, picking out a few and setting them precisely on the blanket, in front of the graves. She sat back on her heels next to the large pile of food, opposite Shunsui, and he realized the items—the child's sunglasses, a doll made of fabric, and a pile of wooden blocks—were positioned as if they were guests at this picnic.

"We used to come here, because it seemed as if you could see the whole world from the top of this hill." She swallowed and looked down at her hands.

He glanced out over the graves. The forest was smaller from here, and he could distantly see a tiny village and a few houses scattered in high meadows. "It's a good view, and a lovely spot."

"The four of us would come up here and picnic. But usually I was the only one that ate, because we never had much, never enough, and the others always fed me first. I was the youngest, and even though Kenichi and Yumi both felt hunger, they tried to take care of me. Gorou didn't feel hunger, but that doesn't mean he didn't want to eat. We'd come up here and talk about all the things we'd eat when we were older and we'd made it somewhere better. We'd come up here and dream."

There was gentleness in her voice that he had rarely heard before. "Kenichi and Yumi—they were children, too?"

She laughed a little. "They seemed so much older and stronger to me then, but yes, we were all children. Kenichi and Yumi would invite all the kids they came across to join them. Other children would join us, some for a few days, and some for months or years. They'd stay for a while and then drift away, looking for something better. Everyone out here is always looking for something better. But the core of our group, the four of us, we were together from my first memory until—" She looked at the graves without really seeing them.

"You must have been very close."

"The people in towns always called us a pack of feral brats, or said we were a gang, but—" She stared at the sunglasses, blinking rapidly.

"You weren't a gang. You were a family."

Her head came up, and she turned to him. "We never called ourselves that. But that's what we were, I suppose. I thought that you might understand," she said softly, and he was caught by the emotion in her eyes.

"Nanao-chan," he murmured, and cupped her cheek in his hand. Her eyelids fluttered closed. He stroked her cheekbone with his thumb, savoring the silky texture of her skin.

"I'd thought of bringing you here for years. But how could I ask? 'Please come and picnic at the graves of some Rukongai children?' It was impossible."

"Not so impossible, since I'm here now." He brought his left hand up to mimic his right, cradling her face with his palms.

"Because you asked. I couldn't, but you did. You're so bold," she snapped, her hands closing around his wrists. Her eyes opened at last, violet and bright with tears and annoyance.

He smiled at her.

She huffed and turned her head to gaze at the graves. He dropped one of his hands from her face, stroking down her neck and shoulder until she slapped him away without looking at him. She hadn't pulled his hand from her cheek, though, and he enjoyed the contact as the rare pleasure it was even while her hand shackled his wrist. He liked that too, Nanao holding onto him, though he'd deny it if she asked. Nanao seemed to view it as one of her duties to deny them both any closeness that could be between them.

Her lips parted on a sigh. "I wanted you to ask. I wanted you to come. It's irrational—I don't know why I would want something like that—" she made a sound of irritation and rubbed at her temple with her free hand.

"I see. You wanted me to meet your family, Nanao-chan." Her eyes narrowed, and then a pink flush lit up her face as she grasped his meaning. Meeting her family was not something required by their professional relationship as a Captain and Vice Captain. Meeting her family was something that belonged to a more personal, intimate relationship. It could have been friendship as well—he was well-acquainted with Ukitake's family—but the color in Nanao's cheeks and the way she avoided his eyes suggested a different motivation entirely. He smiled again.

"That's not—" she started, but stopped. She coughed. The color in her cheeks was approaching scarlet.

"Didn't you?" He leaned back on his hands again, pretending relaxation, but he knew if she saw his eyes the illusion would fail—he was too intensely focused on her.

Nanao breathed deeply. Her mouth opened and closed. Finally her head dipped and then rose in a tiny nod he might have missed if he hadn't been watching her face closely.

"Lovely, lovely Nanao-chan."

She did not look at him.

"I'm glad, Nanao-chan."

"Why?" She turned back to him, her eyes widening when she saw his face.

"It's an honor for me to meet Nanao-chan's family."

She swallowed. "Thank you for saying that, and for meaning it, but it isn't as if you can actually meet them." She gestured slightly at the graves, her brow furrowed.

He considered that. "Then tell me about them. Introduce me to them through your memories."

"Kenichi was the oldest. He could even remember his life before Soul Society. I was a little jealous of him for that, for remembering a different and better life. And because he had those memories, he knew things could be different, and he didn't simply accept the fate of those trapped in these outer districts. Those memories made him brave. He couldn't stand the treatment of children out here, and he did his best to save as many as he could."

"It's a very hard life for everyone, especially those who aren't strong enough to protect themselves."

"He fought constantly—he rescued Yumi from a merchant who'd taken her as a slave. I admired Kenichi, so much. He could have been a shinigami—he and Yumi had the spiritual power to go to the Academy—but he wouldn't leave us to fend for ourselves."

"He sounds like a wonderful brother," Shunsui said. He was glad Nanao had enjoyed a simple and strong relationship with Kenichi—his own relationship with his brother could be a labyrinth.

"I never called him that. We never defined ourselves that way; we always just used our names. But you're right, he was wonderful." She picked up the sunglasses. "He had eyes like a pale sky, and he squinted constantly in the sun. Yumi made him a hat." Nanao tapped the edge of Shunsui's hat, smiling. "But it wasn't as nice as yours, and he talked about sunglasses often when we came up here. He remembered them from his life in the human world." She replaced the sunglasses carefully on the blanket.

"So you bring him sunglasses every year?" He wondered that her practical nature could bend enough to buy items that were never to be used.

"Sunglasses, goggles, sometimes things for fishing—things that he would have enjoyed. I don't leave them here," she said, as though he'd asked his second question out loud. Her face grew pensive.

"Oh? But that's something you would do later, isn't it? For now, please introduce me to lovely Yumi-chan."

She gave him a look that was simultaneously annoyed and relieved—annoyed he'd read her face so easily, probably, and relieved he would let things proceed as she preferred. "You—" She shook her head.

He smiled. "Nanao-chan."

She gathered herself for a minute before speaking. "Yumi was strong. She had a will that allowed her to survive terrible things and unbearable treatment, and still believe that people could be good. I admired that about her, and I've tried to emulate that in my own life, but it's very hard. Truthfully, it goes a bit against my nature."

"Seeing people as bad and good, all in black and white, it's much easier than accepting them as the flawed and layered beings they actually are." It was unusual for Nanao to discuss philosophical things in such a personal way with him; she ordinarily brought a cool manner that suggested great removal from the topic, no matter how he tried to engage her more emotionally.

"Yes. I can be harsh sometimes—but it's difficult to try to believe in the goodness of people's intentions when you come from this place. Those bandits we met are not unique—they are the ordinary here. People live such a bare existence that it seems these districts scrape away at their humanity or just rob them of their lives outright."

She stared down at her hands. "Nanao-chan," he murmured, dropping one hand lightly on her shoulder.

"Yumi would be sad to hear me say that. She tried so much to give me some semblance of childhood. She had a doll that she thought had come through with her when she entered Soul Society. I tried to research that later in the Gotei 13 library, but I couldn't find anything."

He tipped her chin up with one finger. "It's possible, Nanao-chan. Supremely rare, but beloved objects can pass with souls that have received konsō."

She nodded. "Yumi did love that doll. She treasured it as a piece of a life she couldn't remember, but she believed deeply that her other life was a better one. And she gave the doll to me. She smiled when she gave it to me, but she cried later, when she thought we were sleeping. I didn't give it back—somehow that would have been worse."

"She gave you her most precious thing as a gift, with love—something like that can't be returned. I'm sure you took excellent care of the doll, Nanao-chan."

"I was very diligent," she said primly, but her eyes were wet.

He thought of her quarters, where he'd occasionally been permitted for tea, and of a scarred doll displayed on top of a bookcase next to an elegant wooden sculpture. He'd thought it curious, but had guessed then that it was a beloved memento.

"So you bring a new doll for Yumi-chan every year. Always made of fabric?"

"Sometimes wooden ones. It has to be practical. This isn't a place for fragile things."

He nodded, although Nanao herself looked quite delicate to him right now, with her vulnerability showing in the shine of her eyes and the hesitation of her words and gestures. This was an unspoken bond shared between them even as her past was given to him in quiet words. She trusted him to see her as she had never permitted anyone else to see her. The weight of that trust settled squarely in his heart, but he was not disturbed; this was a weight he would gladly carry.

"The wooden blocks are for Gorou. He and I fought all the time. We were very close in age, though he insisted he was older than me. Kenichi and Yumi might have found him first, but that doesn't necessarily mean he was older." She shook her head.

Shunsui smiled. It was easy to imagine Nanao as a small child, arguing in that same prim voice, with the same crease in her forehead.

"He always wanted to play—sword fighting with sticks, building tiny forts with mud and rocks, trying to make bows and arrows out of junk—we didn't have a lot of materials to work with, obviously."

"It's good for children to play, even if—or maybe especially if—it's only with sticks. It's important to be able to be a child, to use imagination and become resourceful."

"I suppose that it is. We were resourceful, certainly—survival out here would be impossible without that." She pushed her glasses up. "I bring toys for Gorou, because he would have loved the opportunity to play with something other than rocks and sticks." Her expression became pensive again, her body tensing, her hands clenched.

"Nanao-chan." She glanced up at him. "You don't have to say anything else. We can just enjoy our picnic, if that's what precious Nanao-chan wants. I'll feed you the sweetest bites, and recite the finest love poetry about your eyes, and—"

She covered his mouth with her palm. He reached up to draw her hand into his, clasping it gently. She did not pull away. "Thank you." Her eyelids fluttered down and lifted slowly. "I wasn't sure if I would tell you the rest. I've kept this secret for a very long time. But since you said that, I think I can tell you now. It's enough that you would want to spare me bad memories, even if it meant that you would never know why we'd come out here today."

"We came to visit the graves of your loved ones. I'm honored that you brought me here, and I don't need to hear about their deaths, unless you truly want to tell me, Nanao-chan." He rubbed the tender skin of her inner wrist with his thumb.

She drew in a deep breath. "These graves are empty. There weren't any bodies."

He nodded; this was not unusual for people in Soul Society. Many times at death, people simply dissolved into spirit particles before any arrangements could be made.

"We were living near here, in an abandoned house. It was a decent place, and close to the forest and the river, away from the road. There was an elderly woman named Kaede who lived a short distance away. She would take in children and foster them, but she didn't have the space for all of us and we wouldn't split up."

"Families want to stay together."

Nanao nodded. "Yes. Back then, I'd just started exploring my spiritual power. It was new and exciting for me. I would go into the forest, still close to the house, and make lights and other really basic things. I kept it secret, because Gorou didn't have any spiritual power, and I didn't want him to get jealous."

He understood now where this story would go, but he stayed silent; it was her story, and she needed to tell it in her own words.

"The Hollow came one night after I'd returned to the house. I hadn't been careful with my power, not at all, and I'd attracted it to our home. Kenichi told Yumi to take us and run to the village. His face—I could never forget how he looked. He was so afraid, but he stayed to fight the Hollow. He wanted to give us as much time to get away as he could. Yumi took us into the forest, but Gorou and I were too young. We couldn't run fast enough, and she couldn't carry both of us."

Her hand trembled faintly in his, and he tightened his hold. Some terrors remained frightening even after a hundred years. He knew that well.

"The Hollow caught up with us quickly. Yumi told us to keep going, and she turned back. The Hollow had fangs, curved and sharp. They made such a terrible sound when—" She swallowed hard.

"Nanao-chan." Her body was so tense he thought he could hear her bones creaking under the pressure. Everything about her posture signaled her withdrawal, but she had not pulled her hand away, so he slid closer to her on the blanket.

"I can hear that sound in my dreams," she said, shivering. "We didn't get far before the Hollow was after us again. I could smell it—fresh blood and something dark, rotting—the scent of a monster. It was behind me, and I knew that I would die. But Gorou pushed me out of the way, so hard, and I fell against a tree. After Gorou—after—it came for me, but I didn't run. What would be the point? Everyone was gone."

He slipped his arm around her back. It was not an embrace, precisely—Nanao was too stiff, too frozen in her memories, to respond in denial or acceptance—but the contact eased him, and he hoped the warmth of his body would also ease her.

"The shinigami came then. He'd been tracking the Hollow, since it had destroyed a few villages already. It only took one strike to cleanse it—all of those people killed, all of that suffering, and the monster was so quickly stopped? I thought that shinigami must be very powerful, to be able to do that."

"Is that when you went to the Academy? Did that shinigami bring you?"

She made a disdainful sound. "No. That man told me that he didn't have time for dirty Rukongai brats and I should get out of his sight. I ran away to Kaede-san's house."

"I'm sorry, Nanao-chan. That's not what should have happened. He should have been kind to you, or at least taken you to safety."

She glared at him over her glasses. Tears still glistened in her eyes, but they did not fall, and there was an annoyed crease between her brows. "Don't apologize for him. He was a rude man, but it isn't as if the Gotei 13 considers compassion a necessary virtue in their recruits."

"It is in the Eighth Division."

She shook her head. "He saved my life. That was compassion enough. I wouldn't have gone willingly to the Academy then, anyway. But after a few years at Kaede-san's, I decided that I wanted to go to the Academy, that I wanted to be a shinigami. They were strong, and I wanted strength for myself."

"Why?" he asked, though he thought he knew.

"My family—they all died to protect me. And I could do nothing. I wanted strength to protect people, and I thought I would be able to do that if I was a strong shinigami. But I was wrong."

"What? You were wrong? But you've saved many souls, Nanao-chan."

She let out her breath in a hissing sigh, and he realized she was angry—very angry, judging by the way she turned out of his embrace and ripped her hand out of his. "Strangers. You let me protect strangers with a crowd of other shinigami. When have you ever let me protect your back in a manner befitting my position? Never."

"Nanao-chan, I want to protect you—"

"I know that! You and Kenichi and Yumi and Gorou—all of the people that I want to protect most, the ones that I—" Tears slipped down her cheeks. "I am still being pushed aside and held out of danger. I watched everyone else of my rank and above go to war—I watched you go to war, because someone has to stay behind, and that someone is always me. Isn't it strange, how it's always me?"

"Nanao—"

"No. You held me back and said I was needed here, and that you would be fine, but that was a lie. You came back on a stretcher, more than half dead, and your eyes were so sad." She rubbed her tears away with her fists.

"But I came back, and I was fine."

Her fan cracked across his knuckles. "Liar."

He shook the sting out of his hand. "Yare, Nanao-chan."

She clenched her hands in her lap, and when she spoke ice dripped from her voice. "When will you respect me as a shinigami? I want to be useful to you. I want you to trust me enough to let me protect you. I am your Vice Captain." She flicked her eyes to his, and he saw that it was not anger making her voice cold—it was hurt, deep and bleeding.

But this was an old wound for her, wasn't it? Protected by her family at the greatest cost, she'd survived, alone, left behind in this existence. How often had Shunsui dug that scar open without realizing it? She still bled from the latest scratch—the Winter War, when so many of her friends had come back barely alive, damaged in body and spirit. And she'd not set foot on the battlefield, left behind to tend schedules and triage assignments and logistics.

"Nanao-chan." She did not look at him. "Nanao." She turned to him, her eyes wide. "I have held you back from battle. I don't treat you the same way that I've treated my Vice Captains in the past. I've protected you from every credible threat that I could reach. If you've felt stifled or smothered, I'm sorry for that. I've done those things to you. But I can't say something like, 'I'll change.' That would be a lie."

"Why?" she asked softly.

"When you told me about your family—when you told me that they died to protect you, I was grateful to them. Because of their sacrifice, you are alive. And your life is the one I want to protect most. Your life is precious to me."

Her brows drew together. She shook her head. "Stifling me? Smothering me? You idiot."

"Nanao-chan," he murmured. She was angry—of course she was angry, he'd all but sabotaged her career—but a pang of disappointment still punctured his heart.

She rose up on her knees. One of her small hands tipped his chin down and then slid to his cheek. "Do you imagine I could be so easily crushed? Idiot." She slapped him lightly, with the tips of her fingers.

He reached up to press his hand against hers. Relief flowed through him, but he had to be sure that she fully understood. "Nanao-chan, I'm not going to stop protecting you."

She sniffed. "Obviously. You're much too old to immediately change an ingrained behavior like this one. But you'll have to work on it, Captain. Eventually a situation will arise that will require me to enter battle, whether you want that to happen or not. So you should think about the level of experience that you want me to bring to that battle."

"Just bring me," he said instantly.

She shook her head at him.

He sighed and pouted at her, which earned him an amused glare. "I'll think about it. I don't want to, but I will. Eventually." He pouted again. "Nanao-chan said that I'm old. Am I too old for Nanao-chan?"

"I don't know what you mean." She tried to pull her hand away from his face. He let her, but kept a loose grasp on her hand.

"Am I too old to court lovely Nanao-chan?"

"I've never thought about that. It's inappropriate." She twisted away from his gaze.

"Now Nanao-chan is lying. Should I rap your knuckles, too?" He drew her hand to his face and kissed her fingers until she finally succeeded in slipping from his grip.

"Stop joking around," she snapped. He studied her stiff back, her bent head.

"Yare, yare, Nanao-chan." She relaxed faintly at his slow words. "I don't know if you'd be very happy with me if I got serious now."

Her head tilted slightly towards him; she was curious. He wanted to kiss the delicate curve of her ear. "Try it, and we'll see."

"There are lots of ways to protect people, Nanao-chan. You must know that already. Even when you were a child, your family protected more than your life, didn't they? They wanted to protect your happiness and your faith in others."

She nodded.

"While you've been a shinigami, you've protected lives, but not only in battle. You've trained our troops very well, which protects their lives and the lives of those they save. But you also protect their pride and happiness as soldiers and as people, because you help them succeed in battle and in missions. That's important, Nanao-chan, and it does matter."

"Maybe that's true. But it changes nothing about my failure to be useful to you. I've never protected you, and you don't want me to, anyway."

"That's not true." He shifted behind her on the blanket and brought his hands up to rest on her shoulders. "Besides making the Eighth run and the members of the division strong, which does matter, and is very useful to me, you do other important things. You let me follow you through the division reciting poetry about your beauty. You play this game of words with me, and play it well. My life as a Captain in the Gotei 13 is grim. Yama-jii almost never brings me out for anything that doesn't end in a river of blood."

"It's because you're so strong that you are only called for the heaviest duties."

"Yes. But duty like mine is cold and dark, Nanao-chan. You give me something bright and engaging and wonderful."

"It's my duty to support you and make our division work, but whatever means necessary."

"By whatever means necessary? That's somehow terrifying and thrilling at once." He stroked the fine bones of her shoulder blades with his thumbs.

"Stop that," she said, but there was no heat in it, and she was leaning into his hands slightly.

"So when you came to the hospital at midnight when Ukitake was in critical condition and stayed all night, it was because you desperately needed me to approve a stack of paperwork? It was for duty?"

"They were very important documents."

He leaned in close. "You didn't even bring my stamp with you, sweetheart. That makes it hard to get my approval on very important documents." He nipped playfully at her ear.

"I deny it," she said, her voice choked.

"What are you denying?" One of his hands drifted up the smooth curve of her neck.

"Everything. I deny everything. Unequivocally." She crossed her arms under her breasts.

He laid his fingers against the racing pulse in her throat. "This isn't the heartbeat of someone feeling nothing. I don't believe you, Nanao-chan," he whispered in her ear.

Her fan slapped sharply across his hand. "It doesn't matter if you believe it. I have to say it, Captain." She put extra weight on his title, as if reminding them both of his position.

"It's your duty, is it?" She nodded. He withdrew his hands from her shoulders and pressed on her arm until she turned around, her eyes focused on his chest. "I want to ask you something, Nanao-chan, but I want you to understand that it has nothing to do with duty. This is not about our relationship as Captain and Vice Captain."

"But that is our relationship," she said, frowning.

"Some of what's between us is about work, but not all of it. Listen, Nanao-chan. You want to protect me in battle. This is a common duty for an officer of the Gotei 13, and it may yet happen, in spite of my opposition. But do you want to protect me only out of a sense of duty?"

"What?" Her eyes met his, curious and confused.

"If you only want to protect me because it's your duty, that's fine. But if you want to protect me for other reasons—because my life is important to you personally, because you care about my happiness, perhaps because you love me—then I can offer you something of myself to protect."

She spun away, putting her back to him again. "Don't talk about things like this so casually, as if it's easy and uncomplicated."

He smiled. "I never said anything like that." He leaned over her shoulder. "Aren't you curious about what I want to give you?"

"What you want to give me can't be mentioned in polite conversation," she said with a sniff.

His smile widened. "Nanao-chan is so naughty. Although that sounds like a delicious conversation, and I would be utterly delighted to lavish hours on that subject, it isn't what I'm offering you right now."

Her body shifted towards him a scant inch; she did not turn around. But it was enough to encourage him. Nanao had no difficulty in telling him to stop when she didn't want to continue with any activity.

"I'm offering you my heart, Nanao-chan."

"An exaggerated romantic sentiment," she said in a vicious whisper. Her fingers clutched her arms tightly.

"I understand, Nanao-chan. Let me put it into different words for you, then. I want you to be there when the nights are long and the memories won't rest. I want you to brighten all my hours, as the sun brightens the day."

"I am not sunshine."

He smiled. "No? Perhaps Nanao-chan is the moon, pale and lovely." He brushed his knuckles over her cheekbone.

"Equally doubtful."

Shunsui chuckled. "This is how I see you. If you disagree, I'll have to persuade you. Just give me time."

"Time?"

"If Nanao-chan wants to protect me, please protect my heart. Anchor me in the present. Perhaps I've lived too long, but loneliness and memories seem greater opponents than those I meet on the battlefield. But maybe you've felt that too?"

She nodded.

"So if you want to protect me, please accept my heart. I'll give it over to your care. I need that more than I need anyone to block an enemy's sword for me."

"You—you really—" She stopped speaking, looked away.

"Nanao-chan." He wrapped his arms around her tense body, resting her back against his chest. "I love you."

Her hand locked around his wrist. She took a few shaky breaths. "I can't—"

"You don't have to say anything. Just think about it. If you want to say something to me later, I'll listen. And if you never want this to come up again, you can say that, and I'll abide by your wishes."

"I can't talk about this."

His heart dropped. He swallowed hard, and then smiled, though it took an effort. "I understand, Nanao-chan. I won't mention it again."

"No." Her hand tightened around his wrist. "I have to think about it."

"I see." His smile turned genuine, widened. "In the meantime, why don't we enjoy our picnic? I'll feed you the juiciest bites, and you can tell me stories about your family."

"You may not feed me," she said. "But the rest—yes, we can do that. I'll tell you more, if you like. Although I can't promise only happy stories—this is still the Rukongai."

"Tell me. I want to know the sweet and the bitter."

"It isn't as poetic as that." She extracted herself from his hold, but she moved away from him only enough to not be surrounded by him. He took that as a good sign. She served the bento boxes and told stories of her childhood. It was difficult not to wince at moments—she hadn't exaggerated when she'd said they were not all happy stories—but he'd wanted this closeness, and the steps into her heart she'd allowed him to take today. If she hadn't accepted his love, she hadn't refused it, either. Thinking about it for Nanao could mean seconds or years of consideration, but he could be patient.

They spent a long time lingering over their food. She let him feed her a few bites, to his great enjoyment, and her cheeks colored in the most charming way. He helped her pack up the basket after they ate, and knelt beside her while she contemplated the graves.

She rose from her knees and began to fold up the blanket. "We'll bring these things to Kaede-san's house. She still fosters children out here."

"Does she? I'm glad to hear that. The children will enjoy these things. How often do you see her?" He carried the basket while she carried the package from the toy store. They reentered the forest trail.

"I come here four or five times a year, and I see Kaede-san on those days. I don't want to come too often, or it might attract attention to her from some of the more unpleasant locals. But this is the most important day. You were right about that. This is the anniversary."

"I'd like to come with you when you come out here." He rested his hand on her back above her sash.

She glanced at his face. "You haven't seen all of it yet. You might change your mind."

"I won't." His fingers traced small patterns on her back.

Kaede's house was a ramshackle place, worn and repaired with random materials in many spots. Children played in front of the house, but they ran inside when Nanao and Shunsui approached. An old woman emerged from the doorway and limped down the stairs to greet them.

"Nanao-chan. It's good to see you again. You've brought someone with you this time?" Kaede's face was worn as the house, her age impossible to verify.

"This is Captain Kyōraku, of the Eighth Division. Captain, this is Kaede-san."

He greeted her, and the old woman led him to the porch to sit with her as Nanao began to distribute the toys and treats they'd brought to the children.

"I'm surprised that she brought someone here." Kaede shifted on her cushion with great care.

"Is that unusual?" He watched Nanao mediate a dispute over a bag of candy sticks. She treated the children with the same voice and attitude she used regularly; she didn't seem to have any special tone for them. But the children didn't seem to mind. They were clearly fond of Nanao, and craved her attention as much as they wanted the things she'd brought.

"She's never brought anyone before. Many of my children end up as shinigami. The strong survive out here, and those with the power to be shinigami are stronger than most. But after they leave this place, nearly all of them never return. They won't even admit that they come from here, much less come back here to visit. They want to forget the past, even if it means forgetting people that loved them." Kaede reached for a tea cup with her gnarled hands, and Shunsui hastened to give it to her. "Thank you. You're a kind young man."

He wondered how many years it'd been since he'd been called a young man, but this woman, with her presence as heavy as the mountains, did have a way of making him feel like one. It was rather similar to the feeling Yama-jii gave him at times.

"People want to forget the darkness. But that one, she doesn't forget. She remembers, and she comes back here with things that bring hope of better times to the children. Nanao-chan is one of my favorites, Kyōraku-kun." Her dark eyes narrowed at him.

"She's precious to me." He smiled at Nanao as she spoke very seriously to a small girl about a fabric doll, pointing out the various features and merits.

"Hmm. Is that enough? If you hold people too tightly, they can break, sometimes." She sipped her tea.

"She's strong, in many ways. I'm going to help her become stronger, as well." What she'd said to him before—about a battle he couldn't spare her from—it was possible. It would be prudent to increase Nanao's ability in combat. "She's always been strong enough to push me back."

"There are many kinds of strength, and many ways to protect people. I have been out here, protecting children in my own way, for more years than I can give number to. Sometimes I have considered the worthiness of this effort. Many of my children die. The ones that get out to a higher district or to Seireitei do not return. But Nanao-chan always returns. Even my old heart can take strength from that."

He reached into his sleeve, withdrawing a small pouch. "She's a very special woman." He slid the pouch across the scarred wood of the porch. "If I'd known we were coming here—"

"It's better like this. Having too much is a liability here. The children are protected by our poverty, at least a bit." She tucked the pouch into her sleeve. "Thank you, Kyōraku-kun."

"If there's anything else I can do—"

"Come by again with Nanao-chan. It makes me smile to see her with a young man." Kaede laughed, her teeth small and bright. The laugh fell into a cough, and he handed her the tea cup.

"My friend takes a medicinal tea for his cough. When I come again, I'll bring you some of the mixture, if you'd like."

She nodded. "Thank you. But you should go and play with the children now. There's no need to devote your time to an old woman like me. And if you could bring me one of the lemon candies, I'd appreciate that too."

He grinned.

The afternoon slipped away at Kaede's house, and the sun was hanging low in the sky when Nanao and Shunsui left. Nanao held one of the candy sticks, and she licked it as they walked. He watched her pink tongue circling the candy with longing.

"Do you want half?" she asked, when she caught him staring.

"No, just a bite." It wasn't her enjoying the candy that he'd envied; it was the candy touching her tongue that stirred his jealousy. He grasped her hand and brought the candy to his mouth, breaking off the piece she'd been licking and rolling it over his tongue. "Delicious."

"It's melon," she said, slightly flushed. She licked her lips and tugged her hand back, bringing the candy back to her mouth. "What did you think of Kaede-san?"

"I gave her all my money."

She laughed. "I knew you would. That's why I let you pay earlier, so you wouldn't have too much left to give her. It's safer not to have too much. If you only have a little, you don't have much to lose."

"I suppose it's a good rule for surviving in a place like this. But I hope you don't apply it too much to your life now."

"What do you mean?"

"It's important to reach for what you truly want, so that you have a life that gives you some happiness, even if it means you have a lot to lose."

She tilted her head. "It's a risk."

"It's a risk worth taking."

She said nothing, but pulled the candy from her mouth. Her hand hesitantly rose towards him, offering him a taste.

He took another bite of the candy, savoring the flavor. Her hand drew back, but he grasped it with one of his. "Nanao-chan."

She swallowed. Her hand trembled faintly, and she seemed to stand on the edge of something. Emotion swam in her eyes, and her lips parted. He stopped breathing, focusing all of his attention on her mouth; he wanted to hear these words more than he'd wanted anything in a very long time.

But she didn't speak. Instead her lips pressed into a firm line and her body turned away from him. She flipped the candy stick into the bushes beside the path. "We should get back. It'll be dark soon."

It was hard to speak through his disappointment; he waited for a few breaths. "Of course, Nanao-chan, if that's what you want."

She nodded and stepped into shunpo without facing him. He followed her to the door of her home. There would be no romantic good night kiss at her door, as he might have imagined possible a little earlier; still, she'd invited him to share one of her secrets, and let him see her vulnerable. It was progress, and he would remember that.

"Thank you for inviting me today, Nanao-chan. It was an honor for me to meet your family, and Kaede-san and her children."

She half-opened the door. "I'm glad you came," she whispered. He wished she would look at him, or at least turn a bit, so that he could see more of her mood.

"I'd like to come with you next time."

She nodded, and opened the door fully.

"Goodnight, Nanao-chan." He moved to step into shunpo, wanting to end the evening on a good note.

"Would you like to come in?" She leaned over in the entryway, removing her sandals.

He stepped into her doorway, intrigued. She padded across the room to stand near a low table. He took off his sandals and lined them up beside hers.

She held out her hand, wavering a bit. He crossed the room and wrapped his hand around hers. The setting sun illuminated the room with an orange glow. Nanao was beautiful in this light, softened and warmed. The fading day highlighted her eyes, dark with emotion and lit from within.

Her free hand drifted up the triangle of bare chest revealed by his clothes. He held his breath, not wanting to break her out of this new boldness. Her hand curved behind his neck, tugging him down. He went willingly, bending until his face was close to hers. Her lips tipped up to touch his. The kiss was tentative and slow at first, but her hand pressed on his neck to bring him closer, and then the kiss was fierce and urgent, laced with melon sweetness.

He brought his hand up to her cheek, angling her face to change the kiss. She moaned softly at the bolder dance of his tongue, and he felt that sound resound in his body. He'd imagined it could be like this between them, but the reality of it was more than he'd hoped.

She drew back from the kiss, breathing deeply. "Will you stay?" she asked with her eyes half-closed.

"Yes." He pulled her glasses away from her face gently and set them on the table. She watched him with wide eyes as he cradled her face in his hands. He kissed her again, trying to convey with his lips the feeling of his heart. Kissing was something he was skilled at—arousing and pleasuring, teasing and savoring—but it was the emotions of a kiss that really mattered, not the mechanics of it. Nanao kissed him with her heart opened, and the emotions he read there made him pull her closer—longing and hunger, need and love—her heart was a mirror of his own.

They parted for air, and Nanao's hands slipped around his wrists. "Will you stay with me?" she asked, and he understood that this was a different question. The other question asked only for hours, but this question asked for so much more. She could not give him her love in words, but he did not need the words when he could have her.

"Always." He smiled, leaning his forehead against hers. He told her again with his kiss. She responded to his declaration, her lips moving against his in a wordless reply. She led him into her bedroom, and he accepted this invitation, too, just as he'd accepted the invitation into her past and into her heart. The night descended around them, but neither of them noticed.



Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Mar. 29th, 2012 06:30 am (UTC)
I absolutely loved this story. The interaction and chemistry between Nanao and Shunsui is priceless. They are portrayed wonderfully. This one and The Trials of Nanao Ise are my two top favorites!!!! I've read it a dozen time and I never get tired of it, and this will be another on the list. Keep It Up!
r_dahlia
Mar. 29th, 2012 09:10 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed this story, and I'm happy you enjoy the characterization of Nanao and Shunsui. Thanks for reading my other Shunsui/Nanao stories, and it's great to hear that The Trials of Nanao Ise is a favorite for you. I'm currently working on a couple other one-shot or short-chaptered Shunsui/Nanao works, so those should be forthcoming over the next few months. ^_^
(Anonymous)
Mar. 31st, 2012 07:02 am (UTC)
aWesoME!!! I look forward to reading them. ^0^
meroko26
Mar. 30th, 2012 05:01 pm (UTC)
Loved it!
Wonderful. Nanao's past almost made me cry. But I like that she goes back to honor her loved ones and not so good past. Like the above comment said. You always portray Shun and Nana like themselves and don't mess with thier personalties which I love. If you didn't it wouldn't be Shunana story. Loved it and will reread again and again.
r_dahlia
Mar. 30th, 2012 08:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Loved it!
Thanks! I'm glad that you liked Nanao's backstory here, I wasn't sure how people would react to that. The Rukongai is an interesting place to me, and I like to explore the effect it might have had on Nanao's development.

It's wonderful to hear that you think the characterization of Shunsui and Nanao is right - I always try to bring them together in different situations without making them act out of character. Thanks again!
lillithschild
Apr. 12th, 2012 08:30 am (UTC)
Wonderful, I think that you kept them well in character. I like Rukongai Nanao as well.

Love ya
r_dahlia
Apr. 12th, 2012 03:40 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I'm glad you liked the characterization of Shunsui and Nanao in this story, and that you enjoyed Nanao's Rukongai past. It's an interesting place to explore, I think; i find myself wanting to go back to it time after time. ^_^;

Thanks again!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )