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Title: Journey Into Dreams
Pairing: Shunsui/Nanao
Genre: Romance/Drama
Rating: M
Status: Multi-Chapter, Ongoing
Contains: Spoilers for the Lost Substitute Shinigami Arc, consensual adult activity.
Summary: Nanao's vacation takes an unexpected turn when Captain Kyōraku follows her to the Fourteenth District.


Back to Chapter 1.

A/N: I tried to work some of my slots on my fanbingo card into this story. Fanbingo is a community at Dreamwidth. This is chapter three of five; this story will be around thirty thousand words total.


"Calling that a cave is too generous," Nanao said.

"Limited options, Nanao-chan." He gathered up some of the branches and other debris that littered the cave. "Do you want to start a fire?"

Nanao nodded and began arranging the materials, using kidō and persistence to start a sputtering fire. "We'll need more wood," she said, and he arrived shortly with an armload.

"It's not all completely dry, but I didn't want to scout too far away, given the circumstances." He deposited the wood in a sloppy pile near the fire and went further into the cave.

She built up the fire, turning to him when she caught a glimpse of his bare back. "What are you doing?"

He held out the white shitagi that he'd been wearing next to his skin under his kosode. "You should change out of those wet clothes. This is the driest thing I can offer you, unless we go back to the inn."

"We're not going back there right now." She hesitated, but she was cold and her beach clothes were soaked. His clothes were not nearly so wet because of his hat and pink haori. He'd worn this garment next to his skin, so it should be warm. She snatched it out of his hand. "Do not turn around."

She moved behind him, stripping off her wet bathing suit and beach cover-up with economic movements. He slowly stretched, the muscles in his back and arms shadowed by the firelight. She swallowed, her mouth dry. Nanao pulled on the shitagi and tied it with dull fingers. There was a longing in her belly for him that had started in the lake and hadn't disappeared. Spending this much time with him might be hazardous for her heart, but her body desired his company.

He'd put his kosode back on, although his appearance was even more rumpled than usual, since she had his shitagi and one of his sashes. She took her clothes and brought them close to the fire, anchoring a few branches in the pile of wood to hang her clothes on. She was grateful for the dim cave; the shitagi was thin and fine, likely translucent in the right lighting.

Her Captain dried his haori near the fire. Nanao sat between the fire and the back of the cave, warming her hands, her knees drawn up to her chest. It was much better than things had been outside, but small shivers still went through her.

"This will take a while to dry," he said, draping the haori near the fire. He began to untie his clothes again.

"What are you doing?" she snapped, but couldn't quite draw her eyes away.

He removed his kosode with a flourish. His hakama dropped dangerously low on his hips. "Hold that up," she hissed, but he only smiled.

"You're still cold, lovely Nanao-chan. I like you in blue, but not on your lips." He settled behind her, pulling her back against his chest, his legs on either side of hers. The kosode he draped over her like a blanket. She sat stiffly in his hold at first, but gradually her tension eased as her chilled limbs tingled to life. He wrapped his large hands around hers under the kosode. "Relax."

"How are you still this warm, with the weather and your lack of clothes?" Was there a kidō or a technique for that? She'd have to learn it.

"It's the heat of my love for you," he said, and she made a disdainful noise in response.

"You're ridiculous." The words were sharp but marred by a yawn. She was warmer now, but the cold of the cave floor still seeped through her thin clothes. "I'm only doing this for your heat." She shifted until she was sitting in his lap.

He arranged himself around her. "Nanao-chan may use me in any way Nanao-chan pleases."

"You shouldn't make such sweeping offers." She lay against his chest, drowsy.

"As if I'd deny you anything," he murmured, and she stayed silent; it was too tempting to ask him for things that she could not have.

"Do you remember the Valentine's Day Incident?" She tucked her chilled fingers against his sides. He shivered. "Sorry." She withdrew her hands.

"Put them back, it's fine."

She returned her hands to his skin.

"Of course I remember that day. My cute Nanao-chan gave me chocolates without 'obligation' written on them for the first time."

"I'm surprised you remember the day for that and not for the fire that burned down half of our office."

"The chocolates were the most important thing." He kissed her hair.

"Do you really think so?" She thought back to that day.


Last February

"Just give it to him already." Rangiku waved a wooden spoon at Nanao. "You wanted to do this last year, but you chickened out."

"Be quiet." Nanao stared down at the box in her hand. A pink bow was wrapped around the box, and she agonized for a few more minutes over whether she should leave it on the box or not. "The bow—"

"Leave it on, it looks nice. And it's obvious that you tied it yourself. He'll like that." Rangiku mixed chocolate in a bowl.

"I don't know if this is a good idea." She looked up at Rangiku, her brows drawn together.

Rangiku set the bowl on the counter. "Oh, Nanao." She walked over and tapped the bow on the box. "Give it to him. It'll make both of you happy. The dancing you two have been doing for years is amusing, but you don't want to be stuck dancing when the music ends and the lights go out. Give him the box. Then you can do some horizontal dancing." She laughed.

"Rangiku-san," Nanao said. "Are you sure?"

"You're the one that he really wants. I'm sure of that." She smiled and then brandished the chocolate-covered spoon at Nanao. "Now go!"

Nanao stepped back to the door. "Thank you, Rangiku-san."

When she reached the corridors of the Eighth she slipped the small box into her sleeve. The last thing she wanted was nosy division members trying to peek into the office when Nanao gave Captain Kyōraku the chocolate.

In their shared office her Captain lounged on the floor in a patch of sunlight, stretched out like a cat. She hesitated before coming closer to him. The box was small but felt heavy in her hands.

"Nanao-chan was gone for a long time." He turned his head to see her, and his eyes snapped to the box in her hand.

Panic rose in her throat. She dropped the box in a collision course for his head and all but ran to her desk. There was no thud, so he must have caught the box before it hit him. His reflexes were excellent. She resisted the urge to look up, focusing on her paperwork with an intensity that it did not deserve.

"Nanao-chan."

He was at the side of the desk, leaning toward her. She didn't look up.

"Nanao-chan." His fingers caressed her cheek, but she didn't move. She could feel the blush rising on her face. "Look at me, lovely Nanao-chan."

She stayed frozen, her fingers so tight on the brush that the wood began to crack.

"Please? My cute, cute Nanao-chan," he sing-songed.

Her hair fell suddenly across her face. "What?" She finally looked at him, but he was dancing away from her desk with her hair clip in his hand. "Give that back." She left the safety of her desk and strode toward him.

He gave up the clip easily to her snatching hand. She tucked it into her sleeve. "Nanao-chan," he murmured, and the tone of his voice made her freeze again. "You gave me chocolate this year."

"I gave you chocolate last year." She stared at his chest.

"That chocolate said 'obligation.' But this chocolate is blank. This chocolate is not an obligation."

"I could have forgotten." She swallowed.

"You don't forget." One of his hands curved around her hip. "Everything you do has meaning." His other hand curled into her hair.

Her head tipped up and her eyes met his. "What does the chocolate mean?" she asked, with a spark of challenge in her voice.

He smiled, slow and easy. "I want it from your lips, Nanao-chan. Tell me the meaning."

Her eyes darted to the window and back.

"Show me, then." His fingers stroked small circles on her scalp and back.

Her breath caught. He waited, unmoving, his eyes burning with a hunger that made her heart jump. "From my lips?"

"Yes."

Her hands fluttered over his chest, circling around the back of his neck. She drew him down and he came willingly, the hand on her hip sliding to her back.

"The meaning—" she whispered, her lips the slightest touch away from his lips. She could feel his heart beating fast and marveled at that. Perhaps this was as exciting to him as it was to her, this new exploration of their relationship. Her eyes closed. All of the noises of the division faded away. They were the only people in the world, and this moment was the only moment that mattered. After this kiss, everything between them would change.

The door opened, and a gaggle of women spilled into the doorway. "Captain Kyōraku, you're late for the Valentine's Day Romantic Kisses and Sake Party! Captain—" Whispering and laughing broke out like a rash when the women saw Captain Kyōraku and Nanao embracing.

She dropped her hands from his neck immediately, trying to step back from him. His hands didn't move. "Nanao-chan, it's just some fun—"

Her face burned with embarrassment and anger. She drew a wordless kidō into her hand that flamed just as hot. "Let go of me now," she said.

He dropped his hands, jumping away from her with a flash step; it was wise that he had, because the kidō blasted through the space he'd been standing in and cracked his desk in half, lighting it and most of the back wall on fire.

"Nanao-chan, please—"

"Go to your party. You will find women more receptive to your advances there." A kidō flame rose in her hand.

"We'll talk later, Nanao-chan." He left the office crowded by the avid audience of women. "The fire of love has burned a little too hot today, everyone! We need to evacuate this area for a while. Please follow me to the party!" His voice was cheerful, but she knew him well enough to recognize the insincerity.

Nanao put the fire out with a forceful wave of water that broke the back wall of the office completely down. She returned to her desk and dropped her head into her hands. What was she thinking, taking him seriously for even one moment? It's just some fun, he'd said, and she wasn't sure he was talking about the party. Was she just a fun toy for him to play with when he was bored?

He'd tried to talk to her about the chocolate after that. He'd pleaded, begged, stolen her hair clip a dozen times, but she stayed icy and remote from him. On White Day he filled their office with flowers, chocolates, poems, and anything else he thought might persuade her to step into his arms one more time. She refused everything, sitting at her desk and working as if it was an ordinary day and she was not surrounded by a sea of flowers.

Even after she'd thawed enough to treat him normally, she'd never let them come close to the kind of situation they'd been in that day. It would be too much of a risk. He was too much of a risk. It was only when he'd been wounded so badly in battle that she'd exposed her heart again, and that hadn't been deliberate; her heart had all but fallen out of her chest when she'd seen him like that.


"Nanao-chan."

"Yes?" she asked, pulled out of the memory.

"If those women hadn't come—if I can't planned a party—what would have happened between us?"

She sighed and shifted to look at his face. "What do you think would have happened? I would have kissed you, obviously." She shook her head. "I'm an idiot."

"You're not. You're my clever and brilliant Nanao-chan." He rubbed her back.

"How can you say that, at least in reference to the Valentine's Day Incident? If I'd kissed you, I would have to be an idiot, given that you were later going to go to a party and kiss numerous women. There's nothing wrong with that, and there's nothing wrong with you. But I, of all people, should know the kind of man you are. I should know better than to do ridiculous things like give you chocolates and kiss you in the office." She smiled slightly, but without amusement.

"What kind of man do you think I am, that I can't have your kisses?" His voice was relaxed, but this was a dangerous depth for her to swim with him.

"You like to have fun. You like to play around. You like women. All of those things are fine. But I can't—" She rubbed her temples. "I can't talk about this clearly."

"You're exhausted. You walked enough to cross Soul Society today, I think." He cuddled her closer to him.

"I gave it to you because I wanted you to have it." She yawned.

"What?"

"I gave you the Valentine's Day gift because I wanted you to have that chocolate, without any words. The meaning was already in the chocolate. "

"I know, sweetheart. And I am thankful for that. But I still wish I could have tasted the meaning on your lips."

"If you wanted to have a special day for the two of us, you shouldn't have planned a huge party full of women." Her voice had snapped a bit at the end; she still had some of the anger and embarrassment of that day inside.

"It's true. But I'd never dreamed Nanao-chan would want me to herself. And as Valentine's Day has gotten more popular in Seireitei, more pressure is applied to everyone to give chocolate and get dates and show affection. Some of the young girls in the division were sad because they thought if they gave chocolates to the men they were interested in, they wouldn't get anything back on White Day, and some of the other girls didn't have anyone special in mind to gift. I thought if there was a party, everyone could come and when people asked about their romantic holiday, they could say, 'Oh, I was at the party at the Eighth Division, it was great!' instead of feeling lonely."

She glanced up at him. "That's rather thoughtful of you, actually."

"If I'd known you wouldn't really speak to me for months, I would have cancelled." He grinned.

Her hand slipped behind his neck. "If we are interrupted by a crowd of women out here, you won't be able to dodge my fire. The cave is too small."

"I like your fire," he murmured.

Her lips touched his, in the kind of gentle, slow kiss she thought he might have given her for Valentine's Day. He returned her kiss, but kept it light, using licks and nips at her lips.

Nanao deepened the kiss, sinking in closer to him. His lips left hers to travel across her jaw and down her throat. Her head tipped to the side; her body felt warm and liquid. One of her hands slid down the bare expanse of his chest, tracing each line of muscle with the tips of her fingers. At the barrier of his sash she explored the boundary before her fingers snuck under it into the fabric of his hakama pants.

He shuddered and his mouth stilled against her bare shoulder—her robe had fallen down her arms. "Nanao-chan—here?"

She understood his hesitation. This cave was hardly an idyllic spot for romance. But she was aching with need and her love softened her unyielding edges. "With you—anywhere."

"That you'd say that to me delights me. That you mean it—that makes me love you even more." He kissed her lips once, lingeringly, before drawing her robe closed and gently tugging her hand up. "But if we do this, I wouldn't notice if a kitsune came after us. Without knowing their motivations, it's too risky. I wouldn't be aware of anything but you."

She was still frozen from his unexpected declaration of love. It wasn't the first he'd given her—it wasn't even the tenth. But to hear him say it with so little artifice and so much tenderness was a shock. He wasn't joking. Confusion and hope bubbled in a potent mix in her blood.

"You're right about the situation. But I still—" She pulled his hair a little and he groaned. "I'm sorry." She removed her hand from his head, blushing.

"Don't be sorry. I like it. When we get home you can be as rough with me as you want to be. Tie me to my chair and have your wicked way with me." He grinned.

"As if I could do something like that." She scowled at him.

He gave her a look that intensified the desire burning through her veins. "I have no doubt that you can do that. In fact, I'm really looking forward to it."

She swallowed and rested her head against his chest. He was looking forward to sex in the office, to having the kind of relationship with her that he'd had with Lisa, the kind that he'd had with so many women over the years. Casual, fun, easy—none of which were adjectives most people would use to describe Nanao.

Serious, rigid, difficult—those words were used to describe her by others, and she was forced to admit that they were more apt for her. Lisa was right. Nanao wasn't capable of the kind of relationship Captain Kyōraku ordinarily had with women.

But he'd planned the Valentine's party so that no one would feel lonely and hurt. His heart was big and generous. He'd said he loved her, and it was a genuine moment. Perhaps he could give her enough of himself that she would feel satisfied. Even if he didn't love her as she wanted, if he would just be hers, exclusively, that could be enough.

That might be too much to ask, but the hope had taken root in her heart. It could be possible. But it was too confusing to sort through now, when she was exhausted. She smothered a yawn.

"Why don't you rest for a little while? You'll feel better when you wake up." He stroked her back in soothing motions.

"What about you?"

He drew her glasses off and set them lightly on the floor. "I'll be fine, sweet Nanao-chan."

She wanted to argue the question further, but her drowsiness was amplified by his heat and the relaxing movements of his hand on her back. She fell asleep listening to the slow beat of his heart.


When she woke she struggled to orient herself. She pushed herself away from Captain Kyōraku, blinking.

"Easy, Nanao-chan. You only slept for a couple of hours. How do you feel?"

Night was settling over the forest, but the sun hadn't fully dropped out of the sky yet. The rain had stopped and the fire was low in front of her. She glanced back at him, still blinking sleep from her eyes. He grinned at her. He didn't have the look of a man who'd been poked and drooled on by a sleeping woman, but she narrowed her eyes at the spot on his chest she'd had her head on.

"You didn't drool on me. But if you had, I wouldn't mind. It would be so cute, Nanao-chan!" He made a kissy face and she pushed him away with her spread fingers, standing.

She eyed her bathing suit and cover-up with distaste. Instead of putting them on, she rolled them into a small bundle and tied it up. The pink haori was dry, and she put that on over the white shitagi. It wouldn't be decent to wear underclothes only.

"It looks good on you." Captain Kyōraku rose, stretching. His hakama slipped so low she nearly ran over to pull them up, but stayed where she was instead.

"It's far too large. Put your kosode on. After one step of shunpo, you won't be decent in those pants."

"Nanao-chan just wants to hide my rugged good looks so that the other women don't admire me too much." He waggled an eyebrow.

"When those other women are kitsunes in disguise, I would hope that you would not want to be admired by them." She busied herself putting out the remains of the fire.

"You didn't deny it. Nanao-chan wants me all to herself." He grinned.

"Put your clothes on," she said, fussing with the dead fire.

"You can have me," he murmured next to her ear, and her eyes closed. He made it impossible not to want him.

She swallowed. "We should go."

He wrapped an arm around her waist. "We wouldn't want to get separated."

She frowned at him. He stepped into shunpo easily, and they arrived at the doors of the inn within moments. The fox statues in front of the inn looked as sly as before. Nanao drew in a deep breath. "Are you ready?"

But the inn doors opened before Captain Kyōraku could answer. Chiyo came out, waving to them, followed by Misao, who lifted one hand in shy greeting.

"Ise-san, Kyōraku-kun, there you are. How lovely to see you again. We were just about to head out to search for you." Chiyo smiled.

"How very considerate of you. Do you always attend personally to the inn guests?" Nanao asked, adjusting her glasses.

"Any time a guest of the inn is out after dark without proper supplies is a concern to all of us, Ise-san," Chiyo said.

"Thank you for looking out for us, Chiyo-san. It's the strangest thing, we found ourselves unable to leave the Fourteenth District today. Have you ever heard of anything like that?" Captain Kyōraku was just as friendly as Chiyo, but the tension in the air notched higher.

"Well, this district does have many fine attractions that could detain guests." Chiyo smiled wider, but her eyes were sharp.

"Oh, certainly. I found your lake to be quite enchanting. But that isn't the type of detainment we experienced," Captain Kyōraku said.

"Did you encounter bandits? Why only the other day Misao-chan and I were detained by scoundrels. If it hadn't been for Ise-san, I don't know what we would have done."

"Enough." Nanao reached into her Captain's sleeve and withdrew the love spell ribbon. "Let's speak directly now, Chiyo-san. Why have we been held here?"

"Ise-san, I'm sure I don't know what you mean." Chiyo still smiled but there was a hard edge under her voice.

"I'm quite sure that you do, actually—"

Captain Kyōraku placed his hand on Nanao's arm. "Chiyo-san, we'd like to resolve this as friends, so why don't we just come clean with each other? Nanao-chan and I are aware that you are kitsunes, that you have given us this love spell ribbon for unknown reasons, and that you are likely preventing us from leaving the district."

Chiyo's smile dropped, and she sighed. "This has not been our best work, I must admit. Normally you would have received a much more skillful treatment, but this is a bit of a special circumstance."

"A special circumstance?" Nanao asked.

"Yes. It's a test for Misao-chan. It's a coming-of-age event. To pass, she must do something important for or something important to the person that she's selected. That person is you, Ise-san, which is a very rare honor."

"I'm sure that it is, Chiyo-san," Captain Kyōraku said before Nanao could respond with the indignation she felt. "But Misao-chan hasn't directly done anything here, has she?"

"Misao-chan wrapped the love spell into the ribbon. She tried to give you the ribbon in the forest, and then she gave you the ribbon in the sake set. As it's difficult for her to hold her human form and speak, many of her relatives have agreed to help her pass this test, including me." Chiyo raised her hands in an apologetic gesture.

"But isn't that cheating? If this is a test for Misao-chan, shouldn't she pass it alone?" Nanao frowned.

"We're kitsunes, not shinigami, Ise-san. Helping Misao-chan is not explicitly forbidden by the rules."

"Even if it's not explicitly forbidden, it still seems inappropriate for you to help her with her exam." Nanao crossed her arms over her chest.

"Nanao-chan has rather strict ethical standards, Chiyo-san. I can certainly understand your desire to help your granddaughter," Captain Kyōraku said.

Nanao glared at him. He didn't need to make her sound so unsympathetic.

"Unfortunately we didn't realize that she had such standards until she refused the love spell Misao-chan made." Chiyo shook her head.

"Her refusal is a problem for Misao-chan?" His tone was relaxed enough that he could have been discussing fine weather instead of the trap the kitsunes had sprung on them.

"Ordinarily these tests use men as the subject, because deceiving men into things is usually very easy for our kind. But at least a small amount of talking is necessary for that, and I can hardly speak for Misao-chan in such a situation without arousing the suspicion of the subject. She would have failed the normal test."

"So you devised an alternative plan?" Captain Kyōraku asked.

"Yes. When we saw a young woman come to the inn alone, I thought it was a good opportunity for a love spell. Even if a young woman is alone, there's usually someone she longs for secretly. We used those bandits to gain an introduction and offer up the love spell, but Ise-san refused it." Chiyo looked more puzzled than anything else.

"But I would never use something like a love spell. It's highly unethical." Nanao held out the ribbon in the palm of her hand. "Please take it back."

Chiyo shook her head. "I can't do that, Ise-san."

"Please take it then, Misao-chan." Nanao held the ribbon out to her.

The girl looked flustered and shook her head.

"We're not going to take it back, Ise-san. The ribbon has been accepted by you when you took the sake set, and it must be used." Chiyo's eyes narrowed.

"I will not use it." Nanao flipped her hand and the ribbon dropped toward the ground.

Captain Kyōraku caught it before it hit the earth. "Chiyo-san, wouldn't it be best to let this attempt at the test go and try again another time? Nanao-chan can be very resolute in her convictions."

"No, we can't do that. You must understand, if Misao-chan fails this exam, she won't have another opportunity for a very long time. She'll be surpassed by all of her peers, and treated mercilessly by our people. She's already behind, but this failure would be impossible to recover from." Chiyo squeezed Misao's shoulder comfortingly.

"Misao-chan," Nanao murmured. The girl looked down at the ground, blinking rapidly. "I'm very sorry, Chiyo-san, but I still can't use this ribbon."

"Please continue to enjoy the hospitality of the inn and the attractions of our fine resort district. I'm sure that, given enough time, even the firmest of convictions will melt in the fine sunshine of this area." Chiyo smiled brightly.

"You're going to keep us here until I use the ribbon?" Nanao asked, disbelieving.

"As I said, you are welcome to enjoy our hospitality for as long as you'd like."

Nanao exchanged glances with her Captain. "You know, Chiyo-san, Nanao-chan and I are prominent members of the Gotei 13," Captain Kyōraku said.

"I do know that. And there is a certain risk involved in this for us. I'm sure you could kill us all if you wanted to do that. But the Eighth Division does not have a reputation for heartless murder outside of war. We intend you no harm. All that we require is the use of the ribbon, and then you are free to leave as you please." She raised her eyebrows at Nanao and Captain Kyōraku.

"What exactly is the effect of the ribbon, Chiyo-san?" Captain Kyōraku asked.

"No—don't tell me you're considering this," Nanao hissed at him.

"Nanao-chan, if we don't return, eventually others will come looking for us. There could be a lot of trouble and bloodshed over this. But if the effects of the ribbon are minor, using it might be a good solution."

"It's a love spell. Even the name implies the effect is not minor." Nanao rubbed at her temples.

"You're a very open-minded man, Kyōraku-kun. The love spell effect for the ribbon Misao-chan made will create a bond between the two united by the ribbon, and spark feelings of affection, attraction, and connection, which can be described as love." Chiyo watched their faces closely.

"How long does it last?" Nanao asked, curious in spite of her opposition to the love spell.

"That depends on a number of factors, from the strength of will of the target, the existing bond between the two, and the power of the kitsune that made the spell. Misao-chan's work is very good, although she is quite young. It could last for weeks or months, and very rarely, it could go on for years," Chiyo said.

"You can't give a more exact estimate than that?" Nanao restrained the desire to pace.

"This is magic, not science, Ise-san." Chiyo shrugged.

"There's no such thing as magic. There's only science that hasn't been adequately researched and documented." Nanao's brows drew together.

"You're a rather unromantic woman, aren't you? I thought that when we spoke at the garden you were open to the possibilities here." Chiyo sighed.

"It's been a difficult day, so let's save our regrets for another time. Chiyo-san, what are the exact conditions to fulfill this test?" Captain Kyōraku rested a hand on Nanao's back, massaging her through the haori. It was a good question, and Nanao wished she'd realized sooner—there could be some loophole or easy exit that would resolve things.

"The love spell ribbon must be used, and Ise-san must be one of the two tied by the ribbon," Chiyo said, and Nanao's hope deflated. Those were very specific conditions.

"Thank you, Chiyo-san." Captain Kyōraku turned his head, smiling wryly at Nanao. "Well, I'm already proclaiming my love publicly on a weekly basis, sometimes in song, so it isn't as if using the love spell would change anything for me."

"No. Absolutely not. Don't joke about this; we don't even know what it would do to you." Nanao crossed her arms in a strong posture, but her voice quavered when she spoke.

"Chiyo-san, Misao-chan, could you excuse us? I'd like to speak to Nanao-chan alone. If you would be so kind as to arrange for some food to be brought to our room and have the baths prepared, I would appreciate it." Captain Kyōraku smiled at the kitsunes.

Chiyo considered this for a moment and then smiled, looking relieved. "I knew the Captain of the Eighth Division was a man of the finest romantic sensibilities. I'll make arrangements for you with the inn workers. Thank you, Kyōraku-kun." The old woman turned toward the inn.

Misao began to follow her, but turned back. "I'm sorry," she said in a near-squeak, and then there was a small fox in her place, surrounded by the clothes she'd worn in her human form.

"Misao-chan, really," Chiyo scolded, picking up the clothes and walking into the inn, the small fox following behind her.

"They think you're going to persuade me to use the love spell. That's why they were so happy." Nanao watched the kitsunes disappear into the inn. Night had fallen fully now, though she and Captain Kyōraku were illuminated by the lights of the inn.

"Nanao-chan—"

"No, don't." She took a few steps away from him. "Don't ask me to do that to you, I won't."

He closed the distance between them, caressing her cheek with one hand. "Nanao-chan, I love you, and our relationship is already going to change. You know that, don't you? So this little ribbon, it doesn't matter. Nothing is going to happen to me if you use it. I already want you, and nothing will change that."

She closed her eyes against the persuasion in his eyes, but still endured the persuasion of his voice. "You say those things so easily, and perhaps you do mean them now. In this moment, perhaps you feel that way. But if I use this love spell on you, how will I know that if you say that you love me in six months or a year from now that it's because you genuinely do still feel that for me, and not because of the artificial influence of the love spell? How can you ask me to do that to you?"

"Nanao-chan, what I feel is genuine."

"I don't doubt that you feel something for me. But I've known you for a long time. You've felt a lot of things for a lot of people. I don't doubt that those feelings were all legitimate. But they passed, didn't they? I can't use a love spell on you, because I know that. Even if using it meant that I could have what I'd wanted with you, I don't want it if it's a lie. I could never believe in it."

She hadn't realized she was crying until his thumbs brushed the tears off her cheeks. "I understand, Nanao-chan. And I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry. You haven't done anything wrong."

"You keep saying that, but somehow it's hard to feel that way when you won't believe in me."

She flinched, though his voice was gentle. "I wouldn't use that ribbon on anyone. And I can't believe you're disappointed that I won't use a kitsune love spell on you."

"When you put it like that, it does seem a bit ridiculous, but somehow I am disappointed." He smiled at her, but his eyes were sad.

"I'm sorry. I can't."

He pulled her into an embrace. "I know. Don't worry about it, Nanao-chan." He kissed her temple. "Forget about the love spell. We'll just have to find another way out of the situation. For now, let's go inside. We'll have some food and hot baths. Everything will seem better after that."

"Hot baths," she repeated, longing in her voice.

"It sounds even more appealing when you say it, Nanao-chan." He guided her into the inn, one arm around her waist.

She didn't bother to push him off; what would be the point now? She wanted his closeness, and it wasn't as if the kitsunes would be shocked or gossip about the inappropriate behavior. Instead, the faces of the two kitsune inn workers broke into wide smiles when they saw Nanao and her Captain.

"Ise-dono, it's so good to see you with your handsome husband again," one said.

"You're so lucky, Ise-dono, he's so considerate," the other said.

"I'm so lucky," Nanao echoed.

The women laughed, appearing delighted. Captain Kyōraku led her through the maze of corridors to their room. True to her word, Chiyo had gotten food sent up, mountains of it, all smelling and looking delicious.

Nanao sat with the banquet spread before her, dropping the pink haori off of her body. The sleeves were much too long to eat in. She ate with single-minded focus; she hadn't realized how hungry she was until now.

He sat across from her, watching her eat. "Are you alright, Nanao-chan?"

"Haven't you heard? I'm a very lucky woman. That's what everyone keeps telling me." She popped an octopus fritter into her mouth. "You should have one of these, they're very good."

He obligingly ate one of the fritters. "Did those women upset you? Nanao-chan, it's a deliberate part of the way that they lay the trap for you. They want to increase your temptation to use the love spell, that's all. You can't take them seriously."

He would be a handsome and considerate husband, though. She laughed slightly. He was not her husband. He would never be her husband. But if the foxes had gotten her to entertain the notion for a moment, they'd succeeded, at least a little, hadn't they?

"Nanao-chan?" He had concern in his eyes.

She shook her head. "I'm just tired."

"If you want to go to sleep—"

"No. I'm not going to bed without washing first. I'm much too dirty." She looked down at herself in distaste.

"Nanao-chan is always lovely to me." His expression was soft.

She stood, stretching, and padded over to pick up the things she wanted for her bath. "You're just saying that because this robe is a little transparent."

His eyes rounded in surprise, and she laughed.

"Nanao-chan, you knew? Why didn't you—"

She paused on her way to the door and leaned down to his ear, biting the lobe softly. "Maybe I wanted you to look."

She strode out into the hall, ignoring the "Nanao-chan?" that followed.

A smile of satisfaction climbed onto her face. Maybe the kitsunes were getting the better of her, but she could still get the better of him, and that was something.

On to Chapter 4.