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Title: Practicing Marriage
Pairing: Shunsui/Nanao
Genre: Romance/Drama
Rating: T
Status: Multi-Chapter, Ongoing
Contains: Spoilers through Bleach manga chapter 515.
Summary: When Nanao's family asks her to consider an arranged marriage, Captain Kyōraku decides to interfere.




Nanao had only been outside for ten minutes when she saw her great-aunt hurrying out into the garden. Kasumi waved her over and Nanao came quickly, falling into step beside her as they returned to the house.

"What is it? What's wrong?" Nanao asked, worried.

Kasumi shook her head, trying to catch her breath. "He's early."

"The man for the third meeting?" Nanao bent to remove her shoes on her porch.

Kasumi nodded. "Yes." She slipped out of her shoes. "Nanao-chan, why didn't you tell me?"

Nanao blinked. "What should I have told you?"

"That he was this fond of you. If I'd known, the matchmaker could have arranged this much better."

"Who is fond of me?" Nanao asked as they moved quickly through the hall.

Kasumi gestured for her to lower her voice. "The Captain of the Eighth Division, obviously."

"Obviously? He's here—Captain Kyōraku is here?" An odd fluttering of emotion and panic rose in her throat. Her feet lifted as if to run, but Kasumi had latched onto her arm with an iron grip and pulled her into the room she'd left earlier.

The matchmaker, Takahashi, was there, a professional woman in brown. And he was there, dressed more finely than usual, with the pink haori on his shoulders an excellent silk and his hat absent. Captain Kyōraku turned to Nanao, smiling.

Takahashi made introductions, Nanao responding automatically. They sat for tea. Kasumi and Captain Kyōraku made easy small talk, responding to the matchmaker's occasional prompts with grace.

Nanao said nothing. She couldn't look directly at her Captain's face—if she saw any amusement or teasing there, she'd make a scene that would shock Takahashi and Kasumi. Instead she focused on his hands, his long fingers surrounding his tea cup, the scars on his palm that were visible when he gestured, the tanned skin of his wrists disappearing into his sleeves.

The others were staring at her. She hadn't been listening, and had missed a cue to speak. Her hands were clenching each other and she forced them apart; she was nearly shaking with fury. Still, she rose from her seat with her icy expression intact. "Would you care to tour the garden with me, Captain Kyōraku?"

Kasumi coughed. "Nanao-chan, isn't it a bit soon for that?" Private time for conversation between the couple was a part of these structured meetings, but the tea hadn't even been finished yet.

"I'd love to tour the garden," Captain Kyōraku said, rising and smiling easily.

"They have known each other for quite some time." Kasumi made excuses to the matchmaker as Nanao marched out of the room, followed at a more leisurely stroll by Captain Kyōraku.

"How far are we going, Nanao-chan? It's hard to take in the atmosphere of your garden at this pace." His voice was easy and amused. It was clear that he didn't feel any of the stress Nanao was under.

She didn't speak, leading him to the very back of the tended garden, far from the house. They could be private here, which was fortunate as several choice phrases were clawing up her throat. She spun on her heel to face him.

He strolled over until he was only a couple steps away. "I'm pleased, of course, that you're so eager to be alone with me, but I think you skipped a few steps, Nanao-chan. I've never participated in one of these meetings, but the matchmaker almost swallowed her tea cup. Your aunt is lovely, though, and there's a strong resemblance between the two of you—"

"What are you doing here?" She cut him off ruthlessly.

He tipped his head slightly, studying her. "I'm in the middle of a match meeting with my Nanao-chan. A rather intense match meeting, actually. Please be gentle with me, it's my first time." He smiled.

"This is funny for you? I'm glad you're entertained. What are you doing here?" Her voice spilled out, hot and bitter.

"Nanao-chan." He pressed a hand onto her shoulder.

"Don't touch me." She smacked his hand off of her. "This is a long way to travel for a joke. I suppose the temptation of laughing at me in my home in front of the matchmaker and my family was too much to resist? But this is serious for me. Leave, please." Her eyes stayed on his chest; her self-control was on a fine thread, and it could snap at any provocation.

"Nanao-chan." He reached for her again, pulling her closer.

Her hands came up to his chest like little talons, digging into him as she pushed away. She resisted his embrace, stiff and angry. Her hand shifted to use kidō on him.

"This isn't a joke, Nanao-chan. I came here to have a match meeting with you." His tone was serious.

Her kidō dropped from her hand. "Whatever you think you're doing—this is serious for me. This is my life."

"I know. That's why I came." He kissed her hair.

She stood in the circle of his arms, unyielding, but her eyes closed, her hands flattening against his skin. The texture of him was interesting to her fingers, his chest hair soft and curling under her touch. His skin smelled of soap and his garments of the wood that they must have been stored in. He didn't smell of the outdoors as he usually did, but these were not the clothes of a man who slept under trees.

These were the clothes of a noble.

Her eyes opened. "This is a fine silk." She rubbed his haori lightly.

"Yes, it is. But the silk that you're wearing is more beautiful." His hand stroked the fabric on her back, pale green silk with swirling white flowers.

"The Ise estate makes the best silk in Seireitei. At least, it used to." She tugged away from his embrace. Her anger had fled, leaving chilly resignation in its place. She stared at the dividing hedge that separated the tended garden from the abandoned ones. "Come with me."

She led him through the looping path in the hedge designed to hide the truth. In the next garden, weeds had overtaken the flowers. Grass broke through the stones of the path and dying trees were choked with strangling vines. She brought him to a stone bench next to a fountain with a broken fish statue sputtering water at random. The fish's tail lay on the path, dirty and cracked.

"This is the true state of the Ise estate." She gestured at the coughing fountain.

He drew off his pink haori and laid it on the bench, gesturing for her to sit. "It must have been very beautiful when it was tended. There've been hard times since then?"

She sat on the bench and he joined her. His thigh was warm against hers even through their clothes. "There are long explanations, but the short one is accurate enough: the Ise family ran out of money and our ways of doing business and making money are too old-fashioned to succeed as they are. The estate is decaying slowly."

"What are your plans?" he asked with serious eyes, and she smiled, although the conversation was grim. He knew her so well; of course she had plans.

"Estates like this one are rarely profitable or break-even ventures. The families that continue to live successfully in the old style have either so much money that they couldn't spend it in ten thousand years or have diversified their holdings enough to support the estate."

"So you want to diversify. Shops for your silk? Tailors?"

She nodded. "Yes. At least two shops in Seireitei, and we'd like to offer our fabrics for custom dying or ordering by the private tailors to noble families."

"You'll want a shop in the Rukongai's First District as well."

She drew her brows together, considering. "Do you think so? Expensive silks in the Rukongai?"

"There are some wealthy people that choose to live there, and people from Rukongai who've made a lot of money and spend it in the First District. Something like the best silk has an aspirational appeal for many."

She hadn't thought of that, but he was likely right. He was intelligent always and brilliant when he applied himself, although he rarely bothered with that. Battle could draw that brilliance out of him, as a dark and shifting light in his cold eyes. She did not like to see that.

"Nanao-chan?"

But his eyes were warm and concerned now. "The Rukongai. I never considered it. Thank you, that's a very good idea," she said.

"But the problem with your plans is that establishing that infrastructure is expensive." One of his arms shifted behind her, his hand resting on the bench.

"Yes. And we don't have the money for even one of the shops. We can probably scrape that together with a lot of effort, but the silk looms need repair, the weaving facilities are falling down, and we need better dyes." The list was far longer than that, but he didn't need all of the details to grasp the problem.

"So here we are, Nanao-chan." They faced each other on the bench.

Nanao met his gaze squarely. "Here we are. I am considering an arranged marriage while the Ise name and nobility still have some value. Why are you here?"

He studied her face for a few moments, his eyes soft. "I want you to consider me for your husband."

She nodded. Her hands gripped each other in her lap. "You want to rescue me from my situation. I understand. We've known each other for a long time, and you care about me. This idea of swooping in and saving me from the clutches of a marriage arranged as a business transaction must have a certain romantic appeal to you."

"That's not quite it, Nanao-chan." One of his hands reached out to cover her hands in her lap.

She shook her head but permitted his touch. "Thank you. I'm grateful that you care so much. Thank you, but no."

"What?" Surprise flitted across his face.

"I'm refusing you."

"I gathered that," he said, his lips curved up. "What I'm curious about is why you're refusing me so quickly."

She hesitated, wondering how much to tell him. "It's not fair for either of us. If you married me as a heroic rescuing gesture, I would always feel that there was a debt between us that I could never repay. And if you ever found someone that you genuinely wished to marry out of affection, it would place you in an untenable position. If the shine of the rescue wore off, you might find that you don't particularly enjoy having a wife at all. That's not the way I would want our marriage to be."

"Nanao-chan? Have you thought about our marriage often?" He leaned closer, his eyes intensely focused on her face.

She flushed. "That's not—I was only presenting relevant outcomes to illustrate my reasons for refusing you."

"So your refusal is based on concerns about my selfless motivations?"

It wasn't only that, but that was certainly the biggest reason. "Yes."

He grinned. "Then I have some very good news for our marriage prospects, Nanao-chan. My motivations for pursuing marriage with you are very selfish."

She blinked rapidly. "What?"

His smile widened. "I want to marry you for selfish reasons. It bothered me deeply to think of you marrying someone else."

"It bothered you?" Her fingers curled around his hand.

"Yes. The thought of another man holding you, kissing you, monopolizing your attention and perhaps forcing you to leave the Eighth—I didn't like it at all."

"You didn't like it?" A warm feeling spread through her chest, thawing parts of her that had been cold since the arranged marriage been suggested by Kasumi.

"No." His hand drifted from the bench to the center of her back. He drew her closer and leaned down to murmur in her ear. "I want to be the one to hold you and kiss you. I want to have your attention for myself. I want you to stay in the Eighth. I want you to stay with me, Nanao-chan. I want you to be mine."

She pulled back enough to see his eyes. One of her hands left her lap and hovered over his jaw, although she wasn't certain whether she would to slap him or caress him. "Selfish," she said, her voice softer than she'd expected.

"Very selfish. My motivations aren't heroic at all, Nanao-chan." His lips were so close to hers that she felt his breath touching her lips when he spoke.

Her hand stroked his jaw. His eyes could look like icy rain at times, but now they were heated silver.

"Marry me," he said, and she felt more than heard the words. His eyelids lowered and his lips pressed against hers.

She made a sound of surprise and his mouth slanted over hers, his lips gently persuasive, silky and light. He tasted of tea and something spicy. She liked his taste, liked the hot feeling of his lips on hers. His tongue ran over her lower lip, velvet and wet, and she opened her mouth further. He made a pleased sound in response.

She was absorbed in the kiss, in him, in a way that she hadn't expected. All of her nerves were sparking and alive, her body aware of all of the places they were touching, silk against silk and skin against skin.

In the ruins of her family's garden, they shared their first kiss.

When they parted for breath he pulled back slightly, studying her face. "So lovely." He shifted to draw her in again, and she moved her hand to his chest, holding him off. He stilled. "Nanao-chan?"

"Should we really do this?" Her brows drew together.

"Given that I've just proposed marriage, I don't think your great-aunt or anyone else will mind if we enjoy a few kisses in the garden."

She shook her head. "It's not that. Should we really consider marriage to each other?"

"Yes, we should consider it, and then we should get married." He brought his hands up to cradle her face but she shifted back on the bench, putting some space between them.

"I don't know if it's a good idea. What I'd anticipated out of this process was obtaining a marriage with polite distance between myself and my husband. That is, we would spend the necessary time together but otherwise have separate interests and activities. But with you—" She frowned. "A relationship like that would be impossible with you."

He moved forward deliberately, until his leg touched her knee. "Our relationship has never involved polite distance. Our marriage would be close, intimate." His voice dipped on intimate and her tongue darted out to lick her lips.

"I know. That's why I'm not sure that it's a good idea. Marrying you has a certain appeal." That was such an understatement that she was surprised that the words came up out so evenly. "But I don't know what the structure of our marriage would be. We're very different people. I don't know how a close and intimate relationship would work between us." She'd held it back successfully for a minute, but pink color flooded her cheeks when she mirrored his intimate.

He studied her blushing face for a moment and then smiled. "I understand. You want to know what our daily lives would be like, to experience the marriage before you commit to it. That's a good idea, Nanao-chan, let's do that."

"What?"

"We'll practice." He wrapped his arm around her back and tugged her close again.

"Practice being married?" Both of her hands rested against his chest, but she was undecided about whether to push him back or not.

"Yes. It's an excellent plan. We'll spend a few days or however long you need living together, the way that we would if we were married. And when you're convinced that I'd be a superior husband to anyone in the matchmaker's file, we'll have another match meeting and then announce our engagement." He grinned, obviously pleased with himself.

Her eyes narrowed. "What makes you so sure you'd be a superior choice over the men that the matchmaker selected?"

His eyes were laughing even as he assumed a serious demeanor. "I'm glad you asked, Nanao-chan. It's important that you know all of the ways that I would be the best husband for you."

"By all means, proceed with this list," she said, waving one hand in a magnanimous gesture.

"First, I have a lot of money, more money than one person could spend on his own, more than enough money to enact your detailed and undoubtedly brilliant plans for this estate. And unlike some men, I have no qualms about handing equal access to it to my wife."

"Do you think that the other men would withhold the necessary funds?" It was a disturbing thought—if she went so far as to marry for money, only to be denied money, what would she do?

"I think it's very possible, unfortunately. It would be a point of power that your husband could wield over you, and some men would want that power." The laughter had left his eyes.

"But not you?" she asked, and her hands rested against his chest again, in that same uncertain posture.

"Why would I want something like that? I want my wife to be my equal. Money is good to have, but it's a boring conversation. I only want to have interesting conversations with you."

"That is a point in your favor, I suppose." She pursed her lips, considering.

"A point in my favor? I like that. Then it should also be in my favor that I'd never talk about dull things like boar racing in bed." He gave her a solemn nod.

She scoffed. "What sort of fascinating topics would you talk about in bed?"

His false seriousness broke for a bright smile. "There's so many things that I'd like to talk about in bed with you—"

Her hand covered his mouth. "Don't tell me."

His voice was muffled through her fingers. "But Nanao-chan—"

"I'll give you the point over the boar racers in the file." She drew her hand away slowly, but he only pressed a kiss to her palm.

"Thank you for that, sweet Nanao-chan, though I'm a little scandalized that you wanted to hear my pillow talk on our first date." His eyes widened in mock shock.

"This isn't a date," she snapped, a bit embarrassed.

"No, it's much more important, isn't it? This is a meeting with the intention of arranging a marriage." His hand came back to her cheek, his thumb stroking her cheekbone.

Her embarrassment faded in the tenderness of his touch and his words. "Yes, this is very important."

"Then let me share one of the more significant distinctions between me and those men in your file. I won't ever ask or demand that you give up your place as Vice Captain of the Eighth. I might ask you to stay off the battlefield, depending on the circumstances of our lives, but I would never try to take your work from you. I want you at the center of my life, in all spheres. I doubt you could enjoy that certainty with any of the men the matchmaker chose."

She'd thought about and worried over the possibility that many noble men would not want their wives actively working as a soldier. Even if a man said her job was fine before marriage, she couldn't trust that he would always hold that position. But Captain Kyōraku could be trusted. "Yes, that is significant. You can have that point over the matchmaker's candidates, as well."

He nodded. "Thank you." He leaned in, his voice dropping. "Will you practice being married with me, Nanao-chan?"

She glanced away, at the decrepit fountain.

"Nanao-chan." She turned back to him. "You told me that marriage could be a partnership. That was something that you wanted, wasn't it?"

She nodded, her eyes dropping to his mouth.

"The best partnerships are close relationships, aren't they?"

She considered that for a moment. In the professional realm, all of the Captain and Vice Captain partnerships that she considered high-functioning, good partnerships were close relationships. The exact nature of the closeness varied, but it was definitely a factor. "Yes."

"Then our marriage, which would be a close and intimate one, could be the partnership you want, couldn't it?" His voice was gentle and her eyes came back to his.

"Yes."

"Then will you practice being married with me, Nanao-chan?"

She didn't respond immediately. Her hands crept up from his chest to his shoulders, and he cradled her face with his large hands.

"Nanao-chan?"

"Yes," she whispered.

He kissed her, sweet and slow, and it had the weight of a promise. Nanao savored that weight, holding it close to her heart. Relief and excitement swirled through her and her hands trembled faintly.

"Nanao-chan?" he asked, pulling back, concern in his voice.

"I'm fine. I—I just—" but she couldn't find the words.

"This is important." He understood; of course he did.

Her eyes stung a little. She looked at the spitting fountain, the broken path with the abandoned fish tail, the weeds and the leafless trees. "Yes."

She wanted to tell him how much it meant that he'd cared enough to interfere with her meetings, to offer boldly what she'd been afraid to ask for from him. For all of his claims that his interest was selfish, his later reasons were almost exclusively focused on what she wanted, what her family needed, and what would make Nanao happy.

"I'm glad that you're here," she said. It wasn't enough, it didn't encompass nearly what she felt, but she couldn't name the rush of warmth in her veins.

"I'm glad too, sweetheart." He kissed her forehead and each of her cheeks softly. "My lovely Nanao-chan."

The breeze picked up, and it was dead leaves that swirled around them instead of cherry blossoms, but it made no difference to Nanao. She kissed him once, carefully fitting her lips to his, returning his promise with her own.

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Dec. 18th, 2012 09:13 am (UTC)
Aahhhh yes. You know, I thought I knew exactly how this story was going to go, i.e. here we have Kyoraku declaring his undying love to a resistant, flustered Nanao, courtship hijinks ensue, etc etc.

It's interesting to see this emotional color instead, which I hadn't expected, wherein both Kyoraku and Nanao haven't wasted time on declaring their devotion, deep affection, and possessiveness (the non-creepy version) over the other, but have yet to fully admit or realize that they're in love.

Well, I'm sure Shunsui is ahead of the love-curve here as he always is, but I think you're a writer who metes out dialogue carefully, and the fact that he hasn't outright said "Oh I love you Nanao-chan" strikes me as deliberate, and a wonderful slow-burn set-up for a later, more emotionally intense moment. I think this is an interesting contrast to how you handled their emotional evolution in "The Trials of Nanao Ise."

Anyhoo: wonderful, well-written fic as always. You have me slavishly checking your LJ every morning. I can't WAIT to watch Shunsui seduce Nanao!

r_dahlia
Dec. 20th, 2012 06:56 pm (UTC)
Courtship hijinks may yet ensue. ;) Tropes like "arranged marriage" are fun for me to play with and see what they look like when different characters get caught in them, and whether I can do something that has the appeal of the familiar trope and the pleasure of something surprising from time to time.

Currently, I think that Nanao is focused very much on her tangible needs and emotions are secondary and perhaps somewhat troubling for her in this situation. Shunsui responds to that by offering concrete reasons he'd be a good husband for her, and the concrete idea of practicing marriage when she can't imagine it.

Shunsui really is always ahead on the emotional curve, isn't he? ;) The path Shunsui and Nanao take here will be a different one from The Trials of Nanao Ise, because of the pressing question of marriage and for other reasons. I think this story is somewhat sweeter overall, also.

Thanks so much for your thoughful comment and for reading!
akai_miko
Dec. 18th, 2012 03:27 pm (UTC)
I'm so sorry I can;t be as coherent as Anon is, but....
DAAAAMN *squealssss*
Great chapter as always!! I'm really looking forward to what will happen next :3
r_dahlia
Dec. 20th, 2012 07:02 pm (UTC)
Don't worry about that, I'm happy that you want to share your thoughts and feelings on the chapter! ^_^

Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed this chapter - next, Shunsui persuades Nanao to do something she's dubious about. (Or maybe that's a lot of the story, actually.) XD
akai_miko
Dec. 21st, 2012 05:18 pm (UTC)
..I'm just overreacting foolishly //hides but... OTP I JUST CAN'T HOLD MY FEELS

Sounds good.... >3 Endless posibilities about what it will be.... OwO (...pfff XD)
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )