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Bleach Fanfic: Under The Willow Tree

Title: Under The Willow Tree
Pairing: Shunsui/Nanao
Genre: Romance
Rating: PG
Status: One-shot
Contains: Spoilers for manga chapter 511, mild canon-typical violence, mild foul language.
Summary: When Nanao was a child, she spent a day with a young boy at the invitation of someone unexpected.



Nanao helped Captain Kyōraku through the open doors to his bedroom. He leaned heavily on her, and even with her support the strain of his efforts showed on his face. She maneuvered him to his bed. "Now, slowly—no, your legs first—"

It didn't work out as she'd planned. They fell in a heap on the bed, Nanao on her knees, her Captain's back pressed against her chest. He slid lower, until his head rested on her lap.

"Captain Kyōraku."

His eye met hers. He only had one eye now, at least until the Twelfth completed generating a new one for him. "Please, Nanao-chan."

Her heart twisted painfully in her chest. If he wanted to rest on her lap, she couldn't deny him now. She shifted her legs to be more comfortable. "Only for a little while," she said without weight.

He nodded, his eye slipping closed. "Thank you, Nanao-chan."

She looked out at his undamaged garden. So much of Soul Society had been leveled or burned to ash by the Quincy invasion, but this spot was untouched. There was a small pond fed by a rippling stream a short distance from the house, surrounded by gardens and trees. A large willow hung over the area. There was something about that tree and pond—something familiar—but Nanao couldn't quite place the memory. She'd been here before, but never had this feeling of history pressing up under her thoughts this way.

Captain Kyōraku made a sound of pleasure and she glanced down at him. She was stroking his hair absently. When had she started doing that? She should stop, but the enjoyment on his face was too precious to her. Her other hand came up to remove his hairpins and unknot his hair tie. If she was going to stroke his hair, she might as well do it properly.

"You're very kind today, Nanao-chan. Do you feel sorry for me?"

She studied his face, always rugged but today looking worn. "I am sorry about Captain Commander Yamamoto. I know that he was very important to you." Her free hand came up to rub at an ache in her chest. She hesitated. "It is—uncomfortable for me to see you like this."

His hand came up to cover hers where it rested below her collarbones. He squeezed once, gently, and drew his hand away.

She was relieved that he'd understood what she couldn't quite say.

"I don't like to see you in pain either, Nanao-chan." Feather-light, his fingertips traced the right side of her jaw and cheek.

"That's just bruised. It's nothing." The Quincy she'd fought had gotten a good strike to her face. It was Nanao's own fault. She hadn't expected that incredible quickness, and her attention had faltered for a moment when the Captain Commander fell.

"It was a hard enough hit to give you a bad black eye, Nanao-chan. Did someone look at this? I don't remember." He'd been in and out of consciousness at the hospital.

"Isane-san looked at it. I'm fine." She didn't mention that it was only a quick brush of diagnostic kidō and an offer of pain medication before Isane started working on Captain Kyōraku.

He regarded her with some suspicion, but said nothing. She imagined he thought that it would be easy to keep watch over her while she was tending to him. The hospital was damaged and overloaded. As soon as he'd been stabilized, she'd offered to take him home. He'd do better here at home than he would at the hospital, anyway.

He dropped his hand from her face and shifted to look out at the pond and the willow. A long time passed in silence, Nanao stroking his hair. It was night and the hour must be late, but there was no moon in the sky tonight. The memory lingering at the edge of her mind finally flowed to her in a wash of images.

"I can't quite believe that Yama-jii is gone. I know it, but I can't believe it." He sighed.

"He always seemed invincible and frightening," Nanao said with a shiver in her voice. She'd never stopped being wary of Captain Yamamoto after he'd nearly suffocated her with his reiatsu during the Ryoka incident.

"I'm sorry that he frightened you that day. You were never able to know his kinder side. He was like a father to me, Nanao-chan."

She nodded. "I know. But it's hard to imagine him being kind and gentle."

"Kind, yes. Gentle? I don't think he was ever that, really. He never smiled much, but he did care." Captain Kyōraku smiled.

"Do you know—" she started impulsively, wanting to see his smile stay.

"What is it, Nanao-chan?"

"I had a dream about him once."

His eye widened. "Nanao-chan, I'm thrilled to learn of your nocturnal interest in older men, but Yama-jii? Really?"

"Not that kind of dream." She shuddered and a small laugh escaped at the thought.

He chuckled. "Do you often have that kind of dream, Nanao-chan? Please tell me everything in detail, with lots of description."

She shook her head. "Absolutely not."

He opened his mouth to protest and she covered his lips with her palm until he quieted.

"It wasn't that kind of dream. Actually, he was only in it for a few minutes. This happened when I was a child, but I'd forgotten until now. The pond, the tree—it's like a place in my dream."

"Tell me about it, Nanao-chan." He was focused on her now.

"I'm sure it's not that interesting to you, it was just a child's whimsy." Now that she'd remembered the dream fully, she wasn't sure that she wanted to tell him.

"Serious Nanao-chan's whimsy? Now I have to know."

How could she disappoint him today? The relief this distraction might give him was worth any discomfort over her childhood foolishness. "I'll tell you. It was a long time ago and I've only just remembered, so please let me tell it straight through to the end."

"I'd love to hear a story in your voice, Nanao-chan. I won't interrupt." He shifted to see her face more fully, still resting in her lap.

She smoothed her free hand over his bandaged chest, her thoughts far away. "It was the first of the month, and the Captain's and Vice Captain's shared office was empty."


Over One Hundred Years Ago

Nanao peeked in the window, but there was no movement inside the office. She moved to the porch door. "Hello? Vice Captain Yadōmaru?"

There was no answer.

She tentatively opened the door a crack. "It's Nanao Ise. I've come to read with you."

There was a faint whisper of sound.

Nanao opened the door, standing in the opening, her book of stories clutched in her arms. "Is someone here?"

Silence.

She stepped into the office. The Captain's chair was empty and he was not sleeping on the floor as he sometimes did when Nanao came to see Vice Captain Yadōmaru. Her chair was empty, too. Maybe there was a meeting?

Nanao turned to leave. She'd come back in an hour, and maybe Vice Captain Yadōmaru would be here then.

Over here.

She froze. "Hello?"

Come closer, the voice urged.

Nanao tiptoed across the floor towards the Captain's side of the office. The voice was coming from over there, though it wasn't really a voice as much as a presence. She hesitated when she reached the Captain's desk. She'd never come over here before, and maybe she shouldn't be here now.

Come here.

She crept forward. The voice wasn't coming from the desk, but something beyond it. An ornate sword rack sat on a low bookcase against the back wall of the office behind the Captain's desk. Two swords sat in the rack; they had to belong to Captain Kyōraku. Nanao had never seen them out before.

Come closer.

"Are you a zanpakutō spirit?" She'd heard about them at the Academy and read about them, but she'd never spoken to any, not even to her own yet. Her tantō communicated in wordless pictures only. It was a bit frustrating for someone as fascinated by words as Nanao.

Yes. My name is Katen Kyōkotsu.

"I'm Nanao Ise. It's very nice to meet you." She bowed a little, awkwardly. She wasn't sure if the sword spirit could see her or not.

Would you like to play a game?

She glanced around. "I don't think that I should. It would be rude for me to play with the Captain's swords while he's not here."

He wouldn't mind. Will you play?

She shook her head. "Even if it would be okay to play with the Captain's swords, I'm a shinigami. If I can't read with the Vice Captain now, I should be working."

You're too serious for a child.

The sword spirit sounded cross. Nanao sighed. "I have to be serious. I have to be a shinigami."

Have you ever hurt anyone with your powers?

Nanao gulped. How had the sword known about that? "Once. I didn't mean to do it, but they took me away to the Academy anyway. So I have to be a shinigami."

Do you play with your friends?

She shifted her book from one arm to the other. "No. There aren't a lot of kids, and—" she continued in a smaller voice. "I don't think they want to be friends with me. Gin-kun said that if his friend Rangiku-san finishes at the Academy, she might be my friend."

Gin isn't your friend? He doesn't play with you?

"He's busy a lot. He's really strong, and he doesn't want any friends. He told me so." Nanao stared at the floor, miserable.

Do you even know how to play any games?

The sword was clearly annoyed with her. "No. I'm sorry."

If you learn the games, then we can play.

"What? I can get some books out of the library—"

No. He'll teach you the games. Come closer.

Nanao stood directly in front of the sword rack. "Do you know someone that wants to be my friend?" Her voice rose on a hopeful note.

Yes. Put your hand on me.

"Um, I don't know if I should do that while the Captain is away—"

He won't mind. Touch my handle, just a little.

Nanao extended her fingers. Maybe it would be all right just to touch one of the handles. The sword said it knew someone who would be her friend. It would be so nice to have a friend, and the Captain wouldn't mind if she'd touched his swords to make a friend, would he? He had lots of friends.

Her fingertips brushed the silk wrapping the handle.

The room wavered around her. She felt sick, her stomach rolling, and she shut her eyes. Maybe she'd made a mistake.

But the room stilled and her sick feeling passed. She opened her eyes.

She wasn't in the office anymore. This room was small and messy, a Go board with pieces falling on the floor in one corner, puzzles half-finished with pieces scattered everywhere, wooden toys and books piled on each other in another corner. A futon was laid out, untidy—someone had slept there and not put it away. The sword rack holding Katen Kyōkotsu was smaller and simpler.

This was someone's bedroom.

She should leave; she could figure out what happened later. Nanao eyed the book titles with some interest as she hurried to the door and slipped out. In the hallway she glanced behind her to see if anyone noticed her coming out of the room.

Suddenly she ran into something and fell back on her butt, rubbing the side of her head.

A boy mirrored her pose in front of her, rubbing his forehead. "Ouch. Hey you—you're a girl." His eyes widened in surprise.

"Yes. I'm sorry. I wasn't watching where I was going." There was another hallway crossing the one Nanao had been walking down. The boy with dark, curling hair must have been coming from there.

"That's okay." He grinned easily, standing and extending his hand for her. "I don't think we've met before. I'm Shunsui."

Nanao accepted his hand, so that she could hold onto her book and get up. She stood with his help. "I'm Nanao. It's very nice to meet you. Thank you for your help." She released his hand, bowing her head to him once.

"Are you from one of the families by the river? You talk like them." He watched her, his gray eyes bright and curious.

He didn't seem to be teasing and there was no cruelty in him, the way there was sometimes was in Gin when Nanao talked to him. "No, I used to live somewhere else. It wasn't by a river."

"You don't have to tell me, I was just wondering. Do you know anybody else here?"

She wasn't sure what to say, since she wasn't quite sure where she was. This wasn't Eighth Division—the halls and floors and smells were all wrong. "I don't have any friends," she said honestly.

He looked very solemn for an instant and then he smiled. "We'll be friends. Are you hungry? Come on."

She blinked at his easy offer of friendship and the sudden change of topic. "You want to be friends?"

Now he was surprised. "Sure, why not?"

She adjusted her glasses. "I'm not very much fun."

His eyebrows went up. "What? How do you know if you're fun or not?"

"Other kids told me that I'm not."

He tilted his head to the side.

"So it's okay if you don't want to be friends. I just thought I should tell you, so that you won't be mad later. I'm not fun." She clutched her book tightly to her chest.

He laughed. "Who told you that? What a weird thing to say. Everybody can be fun sometimes. We'll have fun together, anyway. Let's go."

She stood still. "What? You still want to be friends?"

"Yes, and I'm hungry."

"I'm sorry?" She wasn't sure what to do; she didn't have any food.

He looked a little exasperated. "Come on, Nanao-chan." He grabbed one of her hands, leading her through the winding halls.

"Where are we going?" She'd never held hands with someone her own age before. Adults sometimes lead her by the hand, but it wasn't like this. They rushed and then snuck as Shunsui checked the corridors before darting down them.

"Kitchen. It's not lunchtime yet. I slept through breakfast again. Yama-jii tries to get me to wake up earlier by not letting me eat until lunch if I miss breakfast, but I have a way around that. Did you miss breakfast, too?"

"No, but I didn't eat much." She'd usually have tea and snacks with Vice Captain Yadōmaru when they read.

"We'll get enough for both of us. Stay quiet and follow my lead, okay?" Shunsui glanced around a corner. "The kitchen is over there."

Nanao nodded. "Okay." His hand was warm in hers and he smelled like grass and cedar. He was a little taller than her and she wondered if he was older, but since age could be tricky in Soul Society she couldn't be sure.

He led her to an open door. He peeked inside and then darted forward. Rice balls were laid out on a high table in the large space. Shunsui grabbed one, handed it to Nanao, and reached for another.

A large hand closed around Shunsui's wrist. "Caught you, brat! You want to get me in trouble with the boss?" The voice was booming.

Nanao hid behind Shunsui, daring a look at the speaker. He was a man nearly as wide as he was tall, a pristine apron covering a vast expanse of belly. When he spoke, his body rippled like a pudding.

Shunsui gestured innocently with one hand, his other still trapped. "You won't get in trouble if he doesn't know, Shimura. I'm a growing boy, I need food. You don't want me to faint in the hallway, do you? And everyone will say, 'oh, that's the boy that used his last bit of strength trying to reach Shimura's delicious food—'"

"You won't get out of this with flattery, kid. Not this time. I'm going to—" he broke off and Nanao froze when she realized he'd seen her. "Who are you?"

Shunsui pulled his wrist away from Shimura and shifted to the side, revealing some of Nanao. He dropped his hand reassuringly on her shoulder. "This is Nanao-chan. She didn't want to take food, I made her come."

She turned her head to Shunsui, surprised. Was he trying to keep her from getting in trouble with him?

"Nanao-chan? You've found a girl, Shunsui? I didn't know you were making new friends. How long will you be here, Nanao-chan?" The large man leaned over the table, his cheeks jiggling.

"I don't know," she said, because it was the truth and she didn't know what else to say.

Shimura's face turned serious. "Don't know? That's all right. You're here today and that's what matters. I'll tell you what, kids. I'll make you a little picnic lunch and you go and play today, okay? I'll take care of the boss."

"You're the best, Shimura!" Shunsui grinned.

"Oh, but—shouldn't we be working instead?" Nanao asked.

Shunsui shook his head. "No way. When someone offers you a picnic, you should take it, Nanao-chan."

Shimura turned around in the kitchen, depositing items in a basket. "You sound like a good girl, Nanao-chan. Normally you'd be right. Working is the best thing to do. But today you're here, and you don't know how long you can stay. You should enjoy the day with this brat. Kids should get to play sometimes, even kids stuck in this place."

What was this place, exactly? It wasn't a part of the Gotei 13 that Nanao had seen before, but she didn't want to ask and be told she shouldn't be here at all and she was in a lot of trouble. "Are there other kids here?"

"Just me, right now." Shunsui shrugged.

Shimura rifled through a cabinet. "When does that other boy come back again?"

"Ukitake won't be back for at least eight weeks. He'll come back for a week then, if he's not sick." Shunsui looked a little glum.

"Well, you can play with Nanao-chan today, and work hard at your lessons until your other friend comes back." Shimura closed the picnic basket, turned to the high table, and opened it again to add a few rice balls.

"We'll go to the best spot," Shunsui murmured to Nanao.

Shimura held out the picnic basket with a flourish. Shunsui accepted it with a smile. The huge man rested his chin on one hand, leaning his elbow on the table. "First love is so sweet. Have fun today, kids."

"Thanks, Shimura!" Shunsui strolled out of the kitchen with the basket.

"Um." Nanao held out the stolen rice ball.

"Keep it." Shimura waved her off.

"Thank you, Shimura-san." Nanao bowed her head quickly.

"Come on, Nanao-chan," Shunsui said, sticking his head back in the kitchen.

Nanao hurried out of the kitchen. "Sorry, Shunsui-kun."

"It's okay. Let's go. Until we're out of the compound, we're not free. If Yama-jii catches us, we'll probably still get spanked." He grabbed her hand, surprised by the rice ball there. He took it out of her hand and took two big bites. "Finish the rest fast. We need to get out of here."

Nanao pushed the remaining rice into her mouth, chewing quickly. Shunsui took her hand again and ran through the corridors until they burst out of an open doorway into the bright sunlight. He set the basket down to pull his sandals onto his bare feet, glancing at Nanao's feet to make sure she had sandals on.

"Yama-jii is teaching a sword techniques class in the main courtyard at this hour. We'll go out the back way." Shunsui stood, grabbing the picnic basket with one hand and tugging Nanao off the porch with the other.

They walked at a quick speed, trying not to attract interest. A pair of older boys, almost men, noticed them. "Hey Shunsui, is that your girl?" one of them called.

"Yes," he said over his shoulder without slowing. "If we stopped to explain, we might get caught." He lowered his voice for Nanao.

"I understand," she said, although she wasn't quite sure that she did. Still, no one at home was willing to claim her as a friend, so it was nice to have someone claim a connection with her, whatever it was. Maybe it was like dating? Vice Captain Yadōmaru read magazines taken from the Living World that said dating was a popular thing for boys and girls to do.

"There are only a few girls here, so it's unusual to see a new one," Shunsui said. His pace slowed as they exited an open gate in a high wall.

"Where are you going, Shunsui?" a rough-looking guard grunted from a barrel he sat on just outside the gate.

"To the east pond."

The guard nodded to them and Shunsui and Nanao walked away through the woods, Shunsui wearing a triumphant smile. He released her hand to lift branches out of the way of their path.

"Is your friend Ukitake-kun related to Captain Ukitake?" Nanao watched Shunsui's back as he cleared the trail for her.

"Maybe. I don't know of any Captains or whatever from their clan, but the Ukitake family is huge."

"I see. Do you stay here all the time, Shunsui-kun?" Nanao was curious about the boy, but not sure how much she could ask about him without being rude.

"Yes. I don't get to visit my family very much." His words were a bit clipped, as if his throat had tightened.

"I see." Was he like her? Did he have to be here because of his powers?

"This is it." They entered a clearing in the forest. A sparkling pond fed by a smaller river and shaded by a large willow tree sat in the center.

"It's pretty." Nanao liked the burbling sound of the water, the smell of wildflowers, the way the leaves of the willow tree were heavy like a canopy.

"This is the best spot in Soul Society. I want to live here." They walked side by side to a spot under the tree. Shunsui laid out the cloth Shimura had packed in the basket.

"You want to live under a tree?" Nanao eyed the willow dubiously.

"Not right under the tree, just here. Nearby, so I can see the pond and sit under the tree." Shunsui sat on the cloth, rummaging through the basket. "He even put sweets in here."

Nanao sat on the cloth, putting her book down next to her. "What kind of sweets?"

"Konpeito candy. Do you want some?" He turned to see her face.

"We can't eat the sweets first," she said, scandalized.

He grinned. "Do you always follow the rules, Nanao-chan?"

"Mostly." She didn't want to tell this boy who so obviously liked to break rules that she always followed rules, but that was the truth. "Why doesn't your friend Ukitake-kun stay here all the time? Is it because he's sick?" she asked, mostly to change the subject.

He stopped searching the basket, his eyes shadowed. "He is sick. But that's just one part of the reason. His power isn't as strong, isn't as—dangerous as mine, at least for now. He can stay at home because he's not a threat to others. I am." His tone was matter-of-fact, but Nanao still felt bad.

"I hurt someone," she said impulsively. "I didn't mean to, but I hurt someone, so I have to serious and careful and work hard, so I don't hurt anyone else." She stared at her hands in her lap.

She heard him moving and then felt his hands on her shoulders, firm and warm. "It's not your fault. You hurt someone, but it was an accident, and now you're trying to control your powers. That's something good, Nanao-chan."

"Is it enough? I try hard, but I'm not very good at sword work or martial arts or anything but kidō, really. Sometimes I feel like adults are only interested in me because I might set something on fire by accident, and other kids think I'm too weird and scary to want to be friends with me." She huffed a little sigh.

"Nanao-chan."

She looked up at him.

He flicked her forehead lightly with one finger. "You worry too much. You're doing the best you can. Who cares what other people think? The people that are important to you wouldn't think like you said, so why should the thoughts of people that aren't important to you matter?"

"Shunsui-kun."

"You're not weird and scary. You're my friend." He scowled at her and she felt better.

"Will you stay my friend even if I don't get to stay here?" It would be so nice to have a friend, even when she was back at the Eighth Division and Shunsui was here, wherever that was.

He smiled. "Yes. Now you can't ever say crap like, 'I don't have any friends' again."

Nanao glanced around and leaned closer. "That's a rude word."

He mimicked her glance and leaned in. "I know. That's why it's fun to say. Do you want to try?"

"No. I want to eat." Food would be distracting enough to keep Shunsui from trying to make her curse.

They ate slowly, picking through the many delicious things Shimura had packed in the basket.

"What games do you want to play this afternoon?" Shunsui asked with his mouth mostly full.

She thought of Katen Kyōkotsu's disgust at Nanao's lack of knowledge of games. "I don't know any children's games. Can you teach me a few, maybe?"

"You don't know any?" His eyes widened.

She frowned, embarrassed. "You don't have to teach me if you don't want to do it. We could do something else."

He shook his head. "We'll play some games. Not all of them work with only two people, but some of them are still fun."

She nodded. "Thanks, Shunsui-kun."

They played for hours. He knew all of the games, and he was good at all of them. Nanao suspected he'd let her win a few times so she'd have fun playing, but she couldn't be sure.

Finally he brought her to a fallen log at the edge of the pond. "This is the best spot to rest your feet in the water. The little fish will nibble on your toes." He grinned, rolling up his hakama and throwing his sandals at the picnic basket.

"Is it dangerous?" Nanao sat on the log, looking at the water cautiously.

He laughed. "Not at all. The fish are too small to hurt."

She removed her sandals and socks, setting them neatly beside the log. She rolled up her hakama and dipped her toes tentatively into the water. It was cool on her toes, which were hot from playing, and she sank her feet in up to the ankle. "That feels good."

He made a sound of agreement, looking out over the water. His hair was messy from their games and his face bright. He really was a cute boy, Nanao realized, and it made her uncomfortable.

Vice Captain Yadōmaru had told her a few times about what Nanao should and shouldn't do with cute boys, but it all seemed muddled together in Nanao's mind, since Vice Captain Yadōmaru's advice was often beyond Nanao's grasp of boys and relationships. But it had to do with dating. That was the word, wasn't it?

Vice Captain Yadōmaru would be proud of Nanao if she was bold, wouldn't she? "Shunsui-kun?"

He turned his head to face her.

"I was just wondering, do you have a girlfriend?" She couldn't believe she'd actually asked. "I mean I'm sure that you do and even if you didn't I wouldn't be—that is—"

"What's a girlfriend?" he asked, when she trailed off.

Had he never heard of dating? Maybe he wasn't as aware of the Living World as Nanao was, thanks to Vice Captain Yadōmaru's interest. "It's a girl that you go places with and sometimes you hold hands and kiss. If you had a girlfriend, that's what you'd do with her."

"I get it. It sounds a little like courtship. I think some of the guys have someone like that, but they've never used that word. I don't have a girlfriend."

Courtship was an old-fashioned idea, wasn't it? But at least he didn't have a girlfriend. "I see." He was watching her closely and she wiggled her toes in the water, tense and embarrassed.

He narrowed his eyes. "Do you want to be my girlfriend, Nanao-chan?"

She felt panic rising in her stomach. "Well, I just thought if you didn't have one already and you wanted one, maybe it could be me." Her heart pounded loudly in her ears. Why had she thought this was a good idea? What if he rejected her and laughed at her and didn't even want to be friends anymore?

He was silent for a few moments and then he grinned widely. "Sure, why not?"

Nanao blinked rapidly. "What?"

"You can be my girlfriend. I like you, and it might be fun."

Her hands fidgeted in her lap. She felt relieved and victorious, though she wasn't sure of exactly what she'd won. "I see. That's nice."

"There's a lot of stuff that I'm curious about. I've heard the older guys talk about girls and kissing, but they don't really explain stuff well. I don't think they want to tell me. So I want to find out for myself." His eyes were lit up with excited curiosity.

"Learning things through your own work is always good, but I'm not sure kissing works like that." Nanao adjusted her glasses. As someone that loved learning, she could understand his impulse, but she thought he might be wrong in this case.

"What do you mean?" A fat frog jumping into the pond caught his attention for a moment, but he turned back to her.

"It's in my book. Let me show you." She lifted her feet out of the water and picked up her socks and sandals on the way to the picnic cloth. Her book was still there, and she flipped through to the story she had in mind.

Shunsui followed her and sprawled out beside her.

"It's in this story, see?" Nanao pointed at the page.

"I don't recognize all of the characters," he said, his brows drawn together.

That was odd, since Nanao had found him to be a smart boy so far. Maybe he didn't read enough? "I'll read it to you, if that's okay."

"Sure."

She read the story aloud, and it confirmed what she'd thought about kissing. "You see, Shunsui-kun? Kisses are something that gets given as a reward to a person for doing something impressive or heroic, and there should be lots of flower petals and romantic stuff, too."

"Is that in all the stories?" Shunsui looked skeptical.

"It's in all the stories," she said firmly.

"I still think curiosity is a good enough reason for kissing." He raised an eyebrow.

"The stories say kissing is important, and people should have a meaningful reason to do it." She closed her book with a thwack.

"Nanao-chan—"

Snapping sounds from the trees interrupted him. Shunsui stood, facing the source of the sounds, still hidden in the trees. Nanao stood up, too. "What is it?"

"I don't know yet. Stay behind me." Shunsui stayed focused on the trees.

An inhuman shape burst into the clearing, long spidery legs digging deep into the earth. The leering white mask was instantly recognizable to Nanao. "Hollow!"

It charged towards them. Fear flew up Nanao's throat. The words for Bakudō Number 4 rang in her head. She wasn't sure if she'd gotten them right, but then yellow ropes circled the Hollow, binding it.

The ropes weren't going to hold, Nanao could see them cracking already. Shunsui was shouting the incantation for another kidō, a much more difficult one. "Ye lord! Mask of blood and flesh, all creation, flutter of wings—"

The kidō ropes creaked and snapped, the Hollow roaring as it charged towards them.

Shunsui stood in front of her, unmoving. "—march on to the south! Hadō Number 31, Shakkahō!" The fire kidō flared out at the Hollow. Two of its spindle legs dissolved. The monster howled in outrage, striking out and hitting Shunsui. He fell a few feet away.

"Shunsui-kun!" Nanao ran towards him. The Hollow chased her and she knew she should summon up another kidō, even as she knew there wasn't enough time before it would catch her.

A rush of hot air knocked Nanao down next to Shunsui. She looked back, expecting to see the Hollow ready to strike, but instead she saw the back of a shinigami. He cleansed the Hollow with a single strike of his blade.

"Fan out and find the rest of the pack," he barked. Nanao realized they were surrounded by shinigami. They disappeared in flashes of shunpo.

"Yama-jii, what are you doing here?" Shunsui sat up, rubbing his chest.

"What are you doing here?" the shinigami countered. He had two crossing scars on his face, adding to his intimidating appearance. "You had lessons today."

"But Nanao-chan was here today, so we went for a picnic. I told the guard where we were going." Shunsui winced.

"Are you hurt, Shunsui?" The man bent down on one knee to look at Shunsui's chest.

"It hit me, but I'm fine," Shunsui said.

"But it hit you hard, Shunsui-kun." Nanao frowned at him.

Yama-jii eyed her and she felt his reiatsu brush over her, taking her measure in a way that many people had done since Nanao was taken to the Shinigami Academy.

"Carry on here, I'm returning to the compound," Yama-jii said to a nearby shinigami.

The shinigami nodded.

"We need our stuff," Shunsui said. The waiting shinigami handed Yama-jii the basket, tucking the cloth and Nanao's book inside.

Yama-jii hung it on his arm and then scooped up Shunsui with one hand and Nanao with the other. "Hold on."

"Yama-jii, don't carry us like little kids." Shunsui frowned.

"You are kids." There was a disorienting sweep of the landscape and then they were back on the porch of the compound. He deposited the two of them and the basket on the wood. "Little girl—"

"She's Nanao-chan, my girlfriend," Shunsui interrupted.

Yama-jii gave him a severe look. "Nanao-chan, where did you—"

"Sir, there are more Hollows appearing to the East!" A breathless shinigami appeared, shouting.

Yama-jii nodded. "Shunsui, get your chest looked at by the medic." He turned to Nanao. "You stay with Shunsui. This is a good place for someone like you to be."

Nanao nodded. The man was intimidating and brisk, but he didn't seem cruel or cold. He'd been careful when he'd carried them through shunpo.

Yama-jii disappeared with a flash step. Nanao picked up the basket.

"Let me do that," Shunsui said, reaching for it.

"No, you're hurt. It's not heavy. I can carry it." Nanao tightened her grip on the basket.

"I'm fine." He blew an exaggerated sigh when she refused to yield the basket.

"We have to go to the medic, Shunsui-kun."

"Yare, yare, Nanao-chan. I said I was fine." But he took off his sandals and waited for her to do the same.

She removed her sandals, setting down the basket to do so.

He snatched it up and started down the hall.

"Hey! That wasn't fair," she hissed when she caught up.

He shrugged.

She pulled her book out of the basket as they walked; it was the heaviest thing in there, since they'd eaten so much of the food.

He ducked into an open room where a shinigami was arranging jars in a cabinet. "Hey, Yamada. Yama-jii sent me to be checked."

Yamada turned to face them. "Come and sit on the exam table. What happened to you two?"

Shunsui hopped up on the exam table, leaving the basket on the floor. Nanao followed suit, clutching her book to her chest.

"There was a Hollow attack at the east pond," Shunsui said.

"I'm fine, but Shunsui-kun got hit in the chest." Nanao studied Yamada. The shinigami had kind eyes and a gentle demeanor.

"I see. Can I take a look, Shunsui-kun?" Yamada asked.

Shunsui nodded and Yamada opened Shunsui's top to check his chest, calling up a kidō.

"Were you playing out at the pond?" Yamada spoke in a low murmur as he applied the kidō to Shunsui's reddened skin.

"Yes. Nanao-chan and I had a picnic." Shunsui's fingers drummed on the table.

"How lovely. That must have been fun." Yamada shifted the kidō slowly around Shunsui's skin.

"It was a lot of fun. Nanao-chan is my girlfriend."

Nanao frowned at Shunsui. Was he going to tell everyone they saw that?

"We're almost done here. Let me get a salve for the bruising." Yamada checked the cabinet. "I'll have to go to the storeroom. I'll be right back."

Nanao turned on the table to face Shunsui, pulling one leg up under her. "What you did back at the pond was really brave."

His brows rose. "Do you think so, Nanao-chan? But I have to protect you, since I'm older."

"How do you know you're older?" Nanao tilted her head.

"Well, how old are you?"

"I don't know," she confessed.

A flash of surprise ran through his eyes. "That's okay. I'm taller and bigger, so I'm older."

"That's not proof at all," Nanao protested.

"Sure it is. I'm older, and I have to protect you." He smiled, his white teeth straight and shining.

Nanao decided it was better to let the argument go. "Anyway, what you did was really brave, and you did Hadō Number 31, which is really impressive."

"Hadō Number 31 is the best one I can do. You were impressed, Nanao-chan?" He turned his upper body to face her fully on the table.

"Yes. The highest Hadō I can do is Number 19."

"That's pretty good, Nanao-chan. And I would never have had time to do Hadō Number 31 if you hadn't tied the Hollow up right away." He was earnest in his praise and a warm feeling spread through Nanao.

"It was like this in the story, wasn't it?" She opened her book to the story she'd read to him, setting it down on the exam table.

He glanced at the page. "It was a little bit like that, but I didn't do very much."

Nanao shook her head. "No, you were really great. I was impressed. So I thought that if you wanted, maybe—um—"

His forehead wrinkled while he tried to follow her words, but his confusion cleared when she trailed off. "You think I earned a kiss, Nanao-chan?"

"If you wanted a kiss, this would be the right time." She adjusted her glasses, trying to be cool even as she felt her cheeks blushing pink.

"I want a kiss," he said immediately.

"I know how it works. First we both close our eyes, and then we touch mouths, and it's a kiss." She thought so, anyway.

"I'm ready." He was resolute and serious.

"We'll start on three. One, two, three." She closed her eyes and leaned closer, but how would she find his mouth if her eyes were closed? Nanao opened one eye and saw he was also cheating. "You're peeking!"

"I wasn't sure how to find your mouth without looking."

She sighed, even though she'd had that exact problem. "We'll start from closer together, then. We both close our eyes and no peeking," she said sternly.

He nodded. "If we're close enough, that should work."

They leaned in closer, until she could feel his breath on her cheek. "We both close our eyes." She closed hers first, but wasn't sure when to move, so it was a relief when she felt his lips touch hers, warm and soft. It lasted only a few seconds and neither of them dared to move or breathe. But they'd definitely done it right. They'd kissed.

She pulled back, wiping her glasses on her hakama—they'd smudged against his skin.

"So that's what a kiss is like," he murmured, looking dreamy. "It's kind of nice."

"I guess so." Nanao didn't think it was as big of a deal as the stories had said, but it was nice enough.

He grinned at her and she smiled back—his good mood was catching. "I'm having a really good day, Nanao-chan. I'm glad you came."

Her eyes widened. "I'm glad, too."

Yamada appeared in the doorway. "I'm sorry that took so long, kids. I had to go all the way to the south storeroom for the ointment." He had three identical jars in his hands. Two he put into the cabinet and one he brought to Shunsui. "Put this on before bed and in the morning after you've washed, for a week. It'll help with the soreness."

"Thanks, Yamada." Shunsui took the jar and hopped off the table.

Nanao picked up her book and followed Shunsui.

"If you need any help, come back any time," Yamada called after them.

Shunsui led her through the hallways to the kitchen. "Shimura will want his basket back."

The kitchen was empty. He left the basket on the high table.

"Let's go to my room, Nanao-chan." Shunsui brought her to his room, opening the door with a flourish.

Nanao was surprised to see it was the room she'd first been in when she'd arrived at this place. The sword rack holding Katen Kyōkotsu stood against the wall. "Are these your swords?"

"Yes. I know it's unusual to have two. Do you have a zanpakutō?"

Maybe his swords only looked like Captain Kyōraku's; they couldn't both have the same swords. "Yes, I have a tantō. It won't talk."

He laughed. "I'm sure it'll say something eventually. It takes a long time for a lot of people to get their zanpakutō to talk."

"I hope so. Can I look at your books?" They were the most interesting objects in the room to Nanao.

"Sure, go ahead." He sat on his futon, slouching against the wall. "Nanao-chan?"

She looked through his books. He had a lot of different things: stories, art books, and textbooks. "Yes?"

"Can you stay here? I'd really like it if you could stay, Nanao-chan, even if it's only for one more day." There was a yearning in his voice that Nanao understood well. He didn't want to be alone.

She adjusted her glasses before turning to him. "I don't know, Shunsui-kun. I'd stay if I could."

He nodded. "I understand." He smiled, but it wasn't as light as the smile he'd had in the medic's room.

Nanao didn't know what to say. She didn't know how long she'd be here, and she didn't want to mislead him. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry, Nanao-chan. I'm glad you were able to stay today."

She nodded, looking through his books again. He had several stories with interesting titles. She opened the story book she'd selected, but was dismayed to find after half a page that she couldn't read all the characters. "Shunsui-kun."

"Yes?"

"Can you read all of the characters in this book?" She held it out so he could see the title.

"I can, Nanao-chan. Are you having trouble with it?"

She was reluctant to say that, although it was true.

"I'll read it to you. It'll be like when you read to me earlier." He patted a spot on the bed next to him.

She sat down next to him, handing him the book. It was strange that she didn't know all of the characters in his book, and that he hadn't known the ones in hers, but she forgot that as he started reading aloud and she was absorbed in the story. His voice was soothing and she caught herself yawning several times. Eventually her eyes slipped closed and she leaned against his shoulder, but she was still listening.

Finally she fell deeply into sleep accompanied by the sound of Shunsui's voice.


"Vice Captain Yadōmaru found me asleep on the floor of the office when she returned from her meeting. I must have fallen asleep while waiting for her." Nanao's lips curved up.

"Nanao-chan, I remember that day." Captain Kyōraku looked serious, but she couldn't believe him.

She shook her head. "I know that the boy in the dream was named Shunsui, but you don't have to tease."

"I'm not teasing. I have a clear memory of that day with you." He sat up with difficulty, and she steadied him with her hands.

Uneasiness crawled through her. "But that's not possible. You can't remember that day. It's not possible for us to have been children together, and it was only a dream."

He narrowed his eye. "You wouldn't let me catch frogs, even though I told you I'd bring them back to the pond. You though it was mean to take them away in the first place."

She brought her hand up to her mouth, covering it as if that would hide her shock. "I didn't tell you about the frogs."

"No, I remembered it. That day was real, Nanao-chan." He watched the emotions running across her face.

"It's not possible," she whispered.

"I think that it would be a mistake to call it impossible. Soul Society is surrounded by the dangai, and time here sometimes runs in different speeds compared to time in the Living World or Hueco Mundo. Time is a tricky thing, Nanao-chan." He looked contemplative.

"Does Katen Kyōkotsu have that kind of power, though? Perhaps she pulled me into your inner world, and we lived that day there." At least that would make a greater amount of sense than the idea that his swords could bend time.

"It could be possible, but that day was real. You left your sandals, Nanao-chan."

She shook her head. "I thought I'd lost them somehow. It was very strange, because I was always so careful with my things."

"The sandals were yours, Nanao-chan. There was no one else with feet so small at the compound then."

She considered that. His sword did have some distinct powers, so perhaps it was possible. "She lets you move through shadows. Isn't that a kind of dimension bending?"

"You're not wrong. Either way, it's frightening to me. When I think of what she could have done to you—" He shuddered.

"She's never hurt me," Nanao said. "She wouldn't hurt me."

"Nanao-chan, that makes it sound like it wasn't the only time she talked to you." The tension in his face upset her; she'd wanted to share a cute story, not make him worry.

"Come back here and lay down. I'll tell you everything, but please rest." She gestured at her lap.

He looked like he would protest, but he lay back with his head in her lap instead. "You'll tell me everything."

"Yes. Katen Kyōkotsu never spoke to me again while I was a child. Perhaps she lacked the desire or an opportunity."

"I should have been more careful. I shouldn't have left my swords in the office unguarded." His voice was full of self-recrimination.

"Stop. Zanpakutō spirits seek contact with outsiders so rarely that it's barely been documented. There was no way for you to know that she'd have an interest in me. She's never hurt me, and I don't believe that she would ever hurt me." She stroked his hair soothingly.

"You know what kind of games she likes to play. She's not entirely stable, and she's definitely not safe for children." Bitterness leaked into his voice.

She sighed. "Would you forgive her if she'd hurt me seriously?"

He breathed in deeply. "No. I might still have to work with her, but I wouldn't forgive her for that."

"And she knows that. Whatever her flaws are, she knows you, because she's a part of you. There are lines that she won't cross. She wouldn't hurt me."

He smiled faintly. "You're so sure of her."

"No, I'm sure of you." She flicked his forehead lightly, the way Shunsui had done when they were children.

"Sweet Nanao-chan. Tell me the rest." He sounded easier, the bitterness absent from his voice.

"That afternoon with you was like a dream. The next time she spoke to me I was already your Vice Captain. She wanted to play, but I thought that would be unwise, so I offered to read to her instead."

"If you weren't afraid of her, why didn't you agree to play with her?" he asked, sounding curious.

She hesitated. "I wasn't sure if she'd pull me into your inner world, and I thought that it would be a terrible invasion of your privacy if she did."

He brushed her cheek with his fingertips. "I wouldn't want you to see my inner world, Nanao-chan. I think it might disturb you."

"Perhaps it might. But it wouldn't change the way that I feel about you." That was much too revealing, she realized, and hurried on. "Katen Kyōkotsu spoke to me several times after that. I read her children's stories sometimes. She never said or did anything particularly frightening. I think she was just lonely."

"Lonely?"

"Everyone gets lonely sometimes, don't they? She doesn't speak to anyone else. She told me that, and I do believe her, because other people would have told you or reported it to the First Division."

"But you wouldn't tell on her, Nanao-chan. Not even to me?" There was surprise in his voice, and she couldn't blame him for that. Nanao always followed the rules.

Except when she didn't follow the rules. "You would have made her stop. You'd think she was a threat to me—and she is dangerous, I wouldn't dispute that—but she's not a threat to me. What she wanted was so minor, but it made me feel that I was doing something for you, because she's a part of you. It made me feel close to you. I didn't want to give that up." She stared at the pond and the willow as she spoke.

It was a confession, but she thought they'd passed the point where she could hide her feelings away. She wanted to be close to him, and in his house with the willow and the pond nearby, with the warmth of their shared childhood memory between them, with the bloody bandages covering his wounds beneath her hands, she no longer wanted to pretend otherwise. He was what she wanted.

He traced the contour of her lips. "My first kiss was with you, Nanao-chan."

She shook her head, smiling. "I thought I knew exactly how kissing worked."

"Your fundamentals were sound. If we closed our eyes and touched mouths, it would be a kiss." He smiled at her.

"The fundamentals don't lead to a very good kiss."

"You didn't enjoy our kiss, Nanao-chan?" He pouted.

She laughed. "I was very proud of myself. I'd kissed a boy for the first time and gotten a boyfriend, all in one day. I thought Yadōmaru-sempai would be pleased."

"Was it Lisa-chan who'd given you the idea of boyfriends and girlfriends? I thought you were from far away, because you used words I hadn't heard and the characters in your book were unfamiliar."

"She told me about dating, but I couldn't remember the specifics. I wasn't that interested at the time." Her brows drew together. "We couldn't read each other's books because hundreds of years of language evolution were separating us."

"Hundreds of years were separating us, but we still managed to connect. I was sorry that you were gone when I woke up. I wanted to spend more time with you, and Yama-jii wanted to keep you at the compound, as much for my sake as for yours, I think." His voice was heavy with nostalgia.

"He wasn't frightening in my memory of that day. I'll try to remember him like that from now on."

He nodded. "Yama-jii would like that, I think. The Ryoka invasion was not a proud moment for him. He apologized in his own way to me and to Ukitake afterward."

They sat quietly for a while. Nanao watched the willow sway in the breeze. "You didn't recognize me when you met me again at the Eighth."

"No. There were too many years between the meetings, and it didn't occur to me that the events could be connected. I recognized your name and it made me think about that day. I hadn't thought about it in a long time then, but I thought about you a lot when I was still a boy at the compound." He found her free hand and clasped it in his. She allowed the contact without acknowledging it.

She thought of the boy he'd been, outgoing and yet lonely, and hated the thought of him wondering where she'd gone. "Would it have been better if we hadn't met then? If Katen Kyōkotsu had never interfered?"

"No," he said immediately. "That day was precious to me. I made a friend, sweet Nanao-chan became my girlfriend, and I earned my first kiss. I'm glad you came, even if it was for a short time."

"I would have stayed, if I could have. I was happy." People had cared for her during her childhood, but it'd still been years after that before she'd really started to make friends.

He grinned. "You know, Nanao-chan, we never broke up."

"What?"

"You're still my girlfriend, Nanao-chan." His eye was bright with mischief and pleasure.

"That's ridiculous." She shook her head, but she liked the idea, liked that he'd thought it.

"We could be happy together now, Nanao-chan." He brought her hand to his lips and kissed her palm.

Words escaped her. She swallowed heavily.

He seemed to take her silence as an answer, and released her hand. "Of course, I'm not a young boy anymore. It's been hundreds of years, and parts of me have been tarnished or lost completely. I am not entirely whole. Some would say I am not entirely sane, given the prevailing theories on zanpakutō soul connections. Nanao-chan is still so young and clever and beautiful. Of course you deserve more." His voice was resigned, calm, as if it was easy to dismiss the possibility of their romantic relationship.

Fury washed over her in a cold wave. "Don't talk about yourself that way. Don't put me on a pedestal and say that I can't have you. If you don't think that a relationship between us could work, just say it. If you'd give up on us so easily, we would never have a chance to succeed." She lifted his head off of her lap, rising and stalking out to the porch and then towards the pond. Her eyes burned. It was anger, she told herself, anger that he would reduce them both that way. If he didn't want her he should just say so, instead of pretending that she was too good for him, that he was letting her go for her sake.

He'd put a bench under the willow, close to the water. She sat, allowing herself to sink into the despair of the day. Soul Society had fallen, Captain Commander Yamamoto had died, and Captain Kyōraku had been maimed. But it was the memory of her happiness on that day in her childhood that made her close her stinging eyes. It seemed so far away now.

"We could catch frogs. If we hide one in the medic's room, Yamada will be shocked when it hops out." He sat down heavily on the bench beside her.

"It's a different Yamada at the Fourth Division now, and I think he's too busy to be shocked. Besides, it's mean to take the frogs away from their home." Her voice was little more than a whisper. She kept her profile to him; she didn't think she could look at him without breaking down.

When he spoke his voice was low and heavy with weariness. "I'm in love with you, Nanao-chan. This isn't the way I wanted to offer myself to you. I wanted it to be romantic, with flower petals, the way Nanao-chan said it should be. I wanted to look my best, so that you'd forgive my age. But this is the spot I would have chosen."

"This is the best spot." She took several deep breaths, trying to remove the tremor in her voice. "I was thinking that if you didn't have a girlfriend already and you wanted one, maybe it could be me."

"We never broke up, Nanao-chan." His hand cupped her chin, turning her head to him gently. "And I can still do Hadō Number 31."

She laughed, a pair of tears escaping her eyes. "That's impressive, and you were very brave today." Her hands came up to cradle his face.

"Do you think I earned a kiss, Nanao-chan?"

She nodded. "If you wanted a kiss, this would be the right time."

"I want a kiss." His hands caressed her shoulders.

"We both close our eyes, and no peeking."

He closed his eye and she studied his face. He was not a cute boy, as he'd been the first time they'd kissed. His face was damaged and worn by loss and age. He was a man, and she loved him. She pressed her lips against his softly, only for a moment.

She pulled back slowly. "The fundamentals are sound, but I think we can improve on them."

His arms wrapped around her, his hands large and warm on her back. "Can you stay here? I'd really like it if you could stay, Nanao-chan, even if it's only for one more day."

This time she could give him the answer she'd wanted to give him before. "I can stay. I can stay with you for as long as you want me here."

"Stay with me always, Nanao-chan." He kissed her in the moonless night, while the willow swayed and the frogs sang in the pond.

She thought she heard the sound of children laughing and playing, and smiled against his lips.


Notes: After we saw young Shunsui in the recent manga flashback, I couldn't resist writing this story.  I hope people enjoyed it! ^_^

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Oct. 22nd, 2012 07:37 am (UTC)
This has got to be the most adorable and most innocent story of Nanao and Shunsui. This is wonderful and what a fun contrast from your last story. You never cease to amaze. Ten thumbs up!!!
r_dahlia
Oct. 24th, 2012 03:08 am (UTC)
This is so different from the last story, it's almost whiplash. XD

Thanks for your comment, I'm glad you enjoyed the story!
meroko26
Oct. 23rd, 2012 04:54 pm (UTC)
LOVE it so much! It's fantastic! There's also a pic kinda like this on Hidastuki http://yaplog.jp/hidakatatsuki/image/1076/673 . and someone did something similair on DA. Yay for all the chibi Shunanao love.
r_dahlia
Oct. 24th, 2012 03:11 am (UTC)
That fanart is so cute! Young Shunsui and Nanao are just adorable together, and I really love the idea of these two together as children. Thanks for reading, I'm glad you liked this one!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )