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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, mild foul language.
Summary: When Nanao's family asks her to consider an arranged marriage, Captain Kyōraku decides to interfere.





At the First Division Sasakibe led Shunsui to a room overlooking the stately garden. Shunsui knew that Yama-jii liked to use this room in the afternoons, to drink tea in the sunlight. He was there, just as Shunsui expected, sitting on a cushion facing the garden. "That will be all. Thank you, Chōjirō," Yama-jii said, and Sasakibe left quickly. Yama-jii didn't turn away from the view when Shunsui approached. "Sit down, Shunsui."

Shunsui dropped to a cushion next to the tea tray with a pot and two cups on it, also facing the garden. He glanced at Yama-jii's profile, trying to measure the old man's mood. The gruffness of Yama-jii's speech didn't signify anything; he often sounded that way, whether he was giving praise or blame.

Shunsui poured hot tea into his cup, refilling Yama-jii's at his nod. "It's a beautiful day."

Yama-jii grunted. "It is." He sipped from his cup. "Do you know why you're here, Shunsui?"

He'd heard that question thousands of times over the years, in response to mischief large and small. Shunsui smiled. That question could make him feel like a boy with a frog in one hand and an excellent plan for hiding it in the mean watchman's bed in an instant. "I'm not sure," he hedged. It was always best to know exactly what he was accused of before admitting guilt.

Yama-jii sighed. "I have been told you are marrying your Vice Captain. But I know that can't be the case, because you wouldn't do something like that, against regulations, without checking with me first, would you?" He pinned Shunsui with a hard stare.

"You're absolutely right, Yama-jii, I would check with you before marrying anyone," Shunsui said. That blurred the lines of the truth a bit, but it was close enough. He would have talked to Yama-jii before he actually married Nanao. "But the Ise family has retained a matchmaker to arrange a marriage for Nanao-chan, and I am one of the potential matches. The negotiations between our families are still in the earliest stages."

"Both of your families are involved?" Nobility was an area Yama-jii did not like to tread, Shunsui knew. Interfering in noble affairs could have unexpected consequences with the Central 46.

"Yes. We'll visit my mother at the Kyōraku estate tomorrow." Shunsui saw the old man's lips press together. "I was going to talk to you soon, Yama-jii. I wanted to wait until I was sure that Nanao-chan would give you the same answer as I would if you asked her about our marriage."

"Would that girl even have a say if both of your families decided marriage was best?" Yama-jii asked. There was a layer of distaste in his voice that was for the practices of the nobility; Yama-jii must have seen some of the worst abuses of their power over the long years. As a man who'd built himself, the Gotei 13, and the Shinigami Academy from nothing, he retained a suspicion of those that shrouded their lives in a veil of superiority and glory that was inherited and not earned. The power structure of Soul Society might require his deference to the Central 46, but it did not mean that Yama-jii liked the nobles themselves.

"Yes, she would have a choice." Shunsui met his gaze firmly.

Yama-jii nodded once. "That's only because it's you, isn't it?" he asked, turning his gaze back to the garden. The members of the Gotei 13 were largely exempted from Yama-jii's distaste for nobility; their years of service in the military earned his respect. His closeness to Shunsui added that certainty that Shunsui heard in his question.

He sipped his tea. Shunsui wasn't sure what Nanao or her family might have done if he hadn't pushed his way into the arranged marriage plans, and he didn't care to contemplate the possibilities.

"Why are you marrying her now? She's been your Vice Captain for years," Yama-jii said, his eyes locking Shunsui down.

Shunsui resisted the urge to squirm, the way he would have as the boy with a frog. "There are a lot of good reasons—"

"Is she with child?" Yama-jii swept away Shunsui's evasion brusquely.

"No. Nanao-chan is not pregnant," Shunsui said. He almost felt heat rising towards his cheeks and fought it back manfully. He was far too old for that, but if there was anything more mortifying than discussing his sex life with Yama-jii, he'd never found it.

"Are you certain, Shunsui?" The tone of his voice was the same as the one he'd used when Shunsui told him he'd found the frog in the hallway and was just returning it to the pond where it belonged.

"Yare, yare. If Nanao-chan is pregnant, it would be near-miraculous." He hunted for a phrase that would make things clear to Yama-jii and that Nanao wouldn't skin him alive for saying to the old man if she ever found out. "Nanao-chan takes her personal relationships as seriously as her work, and she has the sensibilities of a woman from a more sheltered noble household, Yama-jii."

Yama-jii grunted in acknowledgment. He sipped from his tea.

Shunsui leaned back on his hands, relieved. Yama-jii had understood. At least things would get better from here.

"It would be easier if she was with child," Yama-jii said.

"What?" Shunsui sat up quickly. He wasn't sure if he'd heard that correctly.

"Something like this will have me called up in front of the Central 46. I'm going to have to explain why this proceeded against regulations and without requesting their approval. Some prattle about your noble obligations and your family will probably work, but it would have been easier to tell them that she's carrying your child." Yama-jii sighed.

"You're going to defend me to the Central 46? Thank you, Yama-jii." It meant a lot to him that Yama-jii would put himself into that unpleasant situation for Shunsui. He'd imagined he'd have to make his own defense to the Central 46 at some point, but it would be better coming from Yama-jii's position of greater authority.

Yama-jii shook his head. "It's nothing much. You've always been a headstrong brat. This isn't the first time I've had to make excuses for you."

Shunsui smiled. "Thanks, Yama-jii." He tipped back his hat. "But why would it be easier if Nanao-chan was pregnant? Wouldn't that compound the offense to the Central 46? Getting my subordinate pregnant violates a lot more regulations."

"If you were someone else, yes, it would make it worse. But any child you have is likely to be gifted with strong spiritual powers, especially if the mother also has spiritual powers of note. A child makes your marriage more important to maintaining the power of the Gotei 13 in the long run, enough to ignore any temporary disturbance in the Eighth Division's functionality."

"I see." It made sense. The Sixth Division's Captain had been a Kuchiki since the inception of the Gotei 13 in its modern form. A family line with strong spiritual powers could be a backbone of the Gotei 13. Nobles were marinated from birth in the customs and traditions of Seireitei and the Gotei 13 in a way that the Rukongai recruits that made up most of the troops could never be. The Central 46 had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of Seireitei, and so they had a vested interest in maintaining and growing noble bloodlines.

Shunsui sipped his tea, studying Yama-jii's profile. The old man looked as hearty as ever, but he had lost one arm in the Winter War and never had it restored. It was pride of a kind Shunsui didn't accept. Shunsui would have had the arm restored as soon as possible, as the loss would weaken him in battle. Pride was useless without victory.

But Yama-jii had lived thousands of years. Losing one arm wasn't debilitating for a man of his experience and power. Shunsui would probably hear that same question and sit in this spot with Yama-jii hundreds of times more.

A bright scene flashed through Shunsui's mind, surprising him. He could see himself sitting on this cushion, holding a baby, showing his boy off to Yama-jii. The old man would grunt about how small and loud the baby was, but his eyes would gleam in the sun, full of pride and warmth. It was a more tempting vision than Shunsui would have expected.

He rubbed at his chest. "You can tell the Central 46 that Nanao-chan and I will try to have a child when we're married, Yama-jii."

"What? You want me to tell them that?" Yama-jii raised his eyebrows.

"You said that they'd find it persuasive. It'll make things easier for you if you tell them that." Shunsui looked out at the garden, letting his thoughts drift further into the vision of himself with a son. The small pond outside hadn't been here when Shunsui was a boy. It wouldn't have too many fish, but there should be some frogs, perhaps even a nice fat one for a young boy to catch.

"You want me to lie to the Central 46?" Yama-jii scowled.

"I didn't say that. But it isn't as if anyone is going to monitor my private activities with my wife. Pregnancy is rare, anyway. Even if you tell them that Nanao-chan and I will try to have a child, it doesn't mean we'd succeed immediately or at all." Good frog-catching technique was tricky. It might take a little boy a while to master, even if Shunsui taught him carefully. It'd taken Shunsui weeks to perfect the fine art of snatching frogs from a pond.

"And what if you actually had a child? Have you given this any thought at all?" Yama-jii asked, skepticism peppering his voice.

"I haven't thought about it much before. But it would be fine, Yama-jii." Shunsui could see the triumphant moment when that boy caught his first frog, could see him running up to this room, eager to show Yama-jii and Shunsui what he'd done.

"You don't know anything about raising children." Yama-jii frowned at him.

That boy and his frog would both be covered in mud, splashing everywhere. Shunsui could see the frog slipping out of his boy's hands, knocking over Yama-jii's tea and springing into the room to escape. Yama-jii would shout, Shunsui would laugh, and his boy would chase the frog into the room as Sasakibe rushed in to help. The noise and the chaos would be a glorious mess.

I want to see that, Shunsui thought, and smiled. It was a little strange and wonderful to imagine, foreign and familiar at once. "You're right, Yama-jii. I don't know much about raising children. But you do."

Yama-jii turned his head to Shunsui, his eyes widening. There was a silence of several seconds. Warm emotions chased each other through his eyes. "You're such a pain in the ass," he said finally. "And if you think I'll be easy on your kids, you're wrong. I'd teach them discipline and order, since you obviously won't."

Shunsui laughed. "Between you and Nanao-chan, I'm sure they'd be fine, Yama-jii."

Yama-jii snorted. "Maybe you should talk to the woman you intend to marry before you make any plans for children. She might have something to say about it."

"I will, eventually. First I need to get Nanao-chan to marry me, though." He rubbed his chin. "She likes to make lists. I can't imagine the number of lists she'd give me before she'd have a baby with me." Lists of things she'd want him to do before she'd consider a child, lists of things she wanted to get for their child, lists of places he must not take their child, lists of people who were acceptable caretakers, lists of work accommodations she'd need, perhaps even a master list of her lists so that he wouldn't drown in them.

He chuckled. Some people might find Nanao too demanding or precise, but he'd always understood her lists as one expression of her need to break down things that were too large or frightening for her into smaller, manageable pieces that she could handle. He understood her approach to marriage practice, with her list of points for him and her efforts to be sensible, in the same way.

"Do you want some fresh tea?" Shunsui asked. It was a beautiful afternoon, and he wasn't meeting Nanao until much later. He could spend a few hours here with Yama-jii, lazing in the sun.

Yama-jii nodded. "Have Chōjirō make it. The other officers that make the tea are always making it too weak."

Shunsui smiled as he picked up the tea tray, carrying it to the door. Yama-jii and Nanao had more in common than either of them probably realized, down to their pickiness about the division tea.

It was best not to say anything to either of them, though. He doubted they'd appreciate the comparison.




"That guy said things like that to you?" Rangiku asked.

Nanao nodded. "I was rather perturbed. We only met once, and it wasn't a particularly good meeting."

"Huh." Rangiku leaned her chin on her hand. "Actually, it makes a kind of sense, when I think about it."

"How so?" Nanao asked. The odd encounter with Imaoka didn't make much sense to her, even after an hour. The two of them were in Rangiku's quarters at the Tenth. Nanao had ended up here without guiding her feet in particular after she'd left the Eighth, mortified by her meeting with Imaoka.

"He's a young guy, and his family tells him he has to get married. He never really leaves his home province, and the most exciting thing in his life is boar racing. Which can be interesting, to be fair—"

Nanao waved her hand in a denying gesture.

"—but the boars aside, his life is ordinary and already set on a path it'll follow forever. But imagine he meets a woman during his matchmaking sessions that has a glamorous and exciting career as a Vice Captain in the Gotei 13."

"Glamorous and exciting? What is it that you think I do in my office, exactly?" Nanao narrowed her eyes.

"I'm saying what it looks like from the outside, Nanao. So this Imaoka guy meets you, a woman with a more exciting life than he'll ever have, and he's interested, because you're attractive and mysterious. He investigates a bit and finds out about Captain Kyōraku, and he constructs a scenario that lets him play the hero, something he'd never get to do in his ordinary life," Rangiku said.

"Playing the hero," Nanao murmured, thinking.

"Yes. He thought this was his chance to swoop in and save an exciting woman from a terrible fate. It's not so rare for a young man to want to rescue a woman." Rangiku shrugged.

"But I don't require any rescuing." Nanao frowned.

Rangiku chuckled. "You say that like it matters. If a man decides to rescue a woman, how often does he really take her wishes into consideration?"

"It's unacceptable," Nanao said, adjusting her glasses.

"People don't ask the opinions of the ones they care about nearly often enough. If you would go to great lengths for someone, you should be willing to stay near them instead if that's what they want." Rangiku glanced down, her eyes shadowed. She wasn't talking about Imaoka anymore, Nanao knew.

"You're right, Rangiku-san." Nanao didn't know what else to say to her. Rangiku hadn't mentioned Gin directly, and Nanao didn't want to bring him up if her friend didn't want to talk about him.

Rangiku shook her head, pasting a smile on. "Anyway, don't worry about that guy. I'm sure his illusions were crushed by the reality of actually trying to rescue you."

"I really hope so," Nanao said. She hadn't considered how awkward things might be if Imaoka was undeterred. But she'd been very clear with him, and there was no room for ambiguity in what she'd told him.

"Besides that, how are things going with the arranged marriage? Are you and Captain Kyōraku getting close?" Rangiku wagged her eyebrows suggestively.

"I was upset with him about the article. I'm so embarrassed now, since I all but accused one of his old lovers of writing it, when it was actually Imaoka-san." Nanao rubbed her temples. "And I'm meeting his mother tomorrow at the Kyōraku estate—"

"Meeting his mother?" Rangiku interrupted. "Why didn't you say so earlier?"

"Because of Imaoka-san. But yes, I'm meeting her tomorrow morning."

"Nanao, this is important! What are you going to wear? Do you know what you want to tell her? What kind of woman is she?" Rangiku held up her hand before Nanao could answer, whipping out her phone. "Wait, I'm going to get the girls together. We need more people for this."

"I suppose it might be nice to talk with our friends. But we all have work this afternoon."

"Don't worry about that. We'll call it an SWA meeting, and no one will question it." Rangiku grinned, already sending messages with her phone.

Twenty minutes later Nanao and Rangiku had moved to a conference room in the Tenth. Nemu arrived shortly after them, and then Hinamori hurried in.

"Sorry I'm late. I came as soon as I could. Which committee is this?" Hinamori asked, sliding into a seat at the table.

"It's the committee on Nanao's marriage." Rangiku banged the gavel. "This meeting is brought to order."

"Oh, what a great committee! I'm excited to be here." Hinamori smiled at Nanao.

"Calling it a committee is a bit much," Nanao protested.

"Nonsense. I knew as soon as I saw you this morning that a committee was exactly what we needed." Rangiku turned to Nemu. "You might find this to be interesting material for your research on emotions."

"Yes, Rangiku-san. Thank you for including me in your committee." Nemu entered notes into her tablet computer.

"The Twelfth Division can sometimes provide useful solutions and ideas, so we're lucky to have you on the committee," Rangiku said.

Nanao felt slightly guilty to have called her friends away from work. At least Rangiku hadn't summoned the whole SWA. It was the middle of the day and she didn't want her friends to get in trouble, so calling it a meeting was a decent workaround.

"What happened? You look upset, Nanao-san," Hinamori said.

"One of the men from the match meetings came to the office this morning." Nanao sipped her tea.

"Really? That seems odd. I didn't think it worked like that." Hinamori leaned over the table top, interested.

"My research suggests that it is an unusual deviation from the match making process." Nemu glanced up from her tablet.

"You're right, it was all very strange." Nanao told them about Imaoka's visit. When she finished the story she glanced at her friends' faces to gauge their reactions.

Hinamori's eyes were wide and held a sort of disturbed fascination, her hand covering her mouth.

Rangiku's eyebrows were raised and she took a drink of tea before speaking. "So he's a jackass." Apparently the retelling didn't improve Imaoka in her eyes.

"I don't know, Rangiku-san, he was misguided, but I don't think he actually meant any harm," Hinamori said.

"Does that even matter?" Rangiku asked. "What matters most is what he actually did, not only what he intended."

Hinamori nodded. "I suppose you're right, Rangiku-san."

"I really tried to keep things civil, but it was challenging. Kasumi-bāchan and the matchmaker may be disappointed, though." Nanao sighed.

"I doubt it. He really deviated from the process, which the matchmaker won't appreciate, and he was somewhat insulting to you, so your great-aunt shouldn't be happy about that, either," Rangiku said.

"It's strange, because I read books with the kind of sentiments that he expressed in them, and they seem really romantic when I read them. But the way he said them to you was not romantic at all." Hinamori's brows drew together.

"What is it that makes such sentiments unromantic?" Nemu asked.

"That guy Imaoka ignored Nanao's wishes and feelings. There's nothing romantic about that," Rangiku said.

"I've read some of the same books, Hinamori-san, and I thought the sentiments exaggerated in print, but Imaoka-san really seemed to believe in what he was saying. It was mortifying." Nanao pressed her lips together.

"Some people just get wrapped up in a fantasy and can't face the actual reality of something. That guy wanted to rescue you, and he didn't care if you actually needed rescuing or not." Rangiku shrugged.

Nanao pulled Imaoka's profile out of the matchmaker's file. "He is no longer in consideration for another meeting."

Rangiku snorted. "Obviously. You may want to tell the matchmaker what he did, in case she would like to stop working with him. If he's going to investigate her clients and show up at their places of work, it'll damage her reputation as a matchmaker."

"Yes, it might be good to let her know that he behaved improperly." Nanao studied the earnest young face of Imaoka and then tore the profile neatly in half.

"There's an expectation when a matchmaker is involved that the people she introduces you to will be good possible matches. You should definitely tell her, Nanao-san." Hinamori picked up the torn pieces of Imaoka's profile and burned them to ash in the palm of her hands with a surgically precise fire kidō.

Rangiku pushed the empty cookie plate under Hinamori's hands for the ashes. "That's good, Hinamori."

Nanao stared at the ashes. "I thought Captain Kyōraku was trying to rescue me when he showed up for a match meeting, because he has romantic inclinations. But he would never do what Imaoka-san did. He would never ignore what I want in favor of what he wants."

"Then Captain Kyōraku is the good kind of romantic, isn't he?" Hinamori asked.

Nanao swallowed. "Yes, he's the good kind."

"What is the distinguishing feature of the good kind of romantic?" Nemu's brows drew together very slightly.

"Well, there's a lot of different ways to be a romantic, but the main thing is that you can't overrule another person's wishes and choices," Rangiku said.

"So romance is intended as a form of persuasion?" Nemu tilted her head.

"I would say that is accurate, Nemu-san," Nanao said.

"Captain Kyōraku is obviously at the top of Nanao's list." Rangiku closed the matchmaker's file decisively. "And that's what this meeting is actually about. Nanao is going to the Kyōraku estate to meet Captain Kyōraku's mother tomorrow."

"Yes, I am." Nanao could hear the worry in her own voice.

"Oh, that's a big deal," Hinamori said, perking up.

"His mother regularly invites the women he's brought home to spar with her in her dojo." Nanao's fingers fidgeted against the tabletop.

"Seriously?" Rangiku asked. "This is a more critical meeting than I thought, in that case. We're going to need fortification. Let's go to the noodle house and have lunch. We can work on this while we eat and then go to Nanao's quarters to pick out an outfit for tomorrow." Rangiku rose, leading the way to the door.

"We'll work hard, so Nanao-san's meeting is a big success!" Hinamori said, clasping her hands together as she stood.

"I'll pull up some research on meeting with potential relations by marriage, and hand-to-hand combat." Nemu pushed some buttons on her computer, walking to the door without looking up.

"Everyone—" Nanao started. She looked at their faces, bright with affection and determination to help her, whether she needed the assistance or not, and felt very warm inside. "Thank you." She moved to the door with them.

It didn't matter whether they could actually make her meeting with Shunsui's mother go smoothly or not—what mattered was that they cared enough to try. She smiled and walked out into the afternoon light with her friends.




Nanao arrived at Shunsui's house a little early. She hesitated at the door, uncertain whether she should just go in or not; she'd expected Shunsui to be waiting for her.

She felt for his spiritual power and found him in his garden. He hadn't come to the door because he wasn't in the house. She walked around the wrap-around porch to the back of the house, where most of his gardens were.

He appeared on a garden path, his face registering pleasure. "Nanao-chan! You're early, but it's perfect, because I've just finished the dinner arrangements."

She stepped off the porch, glad that she'd taken the time to wash and change into a yukata with butterflies fluttering down the fabric. "Are we eating in the garden?"

He grinned. "Will you let me surprise you?" He held out his hands.

"Yes," she said, certain that his surprise would be more pleasant that Imaoka's surprise had been. She extended her hands, brushing his fingers, and he clasped her hands gently in his large ones.

"Walk with me, but only look at me, please." He started walking backwards on along the path.

"It is a lovely evening for dinner outside." The air was warm and the night would be well-lit by the moon.

"It is. You look beautiful, Nanao-chan. If you wanted to impress me, you've succeeded." His eyes were teasing and affectionate.

Her lips curved up. "You're rather easily impressed."

He stopped moving. "Close your eyes for a minute, sweetheart."

She raised an eyebrow but closed her eyes. He shifted beside her, one of his hands coming around her shoulders, his other still holding one of her hands.

He walked them around a bend in the path. "Open your eyes."

It was worthy of being called a surprise. Dinner in the garden didn't begin to describe it. He'd transformed an open spot in his garden that she'd seen many times into something beautiful and new. Fabric draped the branches of the trees, the panels creating the feeling of an outdoor room. Lanterns hung from the trees and candles shaped like flowers floated in the fountain designed to look like an organic part of the garden. Nanao hadn't even known floating candles could be found in Seireitei, but of course Shunsui knew and had some.

A low table sat in the center of the clearing, laden with covered dishes and candles. Fat cushions and pillows circled the table, which sat on a plush carpet. Pots of overflowing flowers anchored each corner. The effect was extravagant, beautiful, and romantic. It was not the patronizing and deluded romance of Imaoka, which had repulsed her. This was romance that asked, persuaded, indulged, romance which drew her in.

This was Shunsui. "You must have spent hours on this," she murmured, her eyes surveying everything.

"I finished all my work first. I want to impress you, Nanao-chan." He smiled.

She turned to him. His face was shadowed by the fading day and the candles, his mouth smiling, his eyes dark and glittering. There were things she should tell him, unpleasant events to recount, plans to make, but she didn't want to do that now, in this beautiful garden.

Instead she grasped the back of his neck with her hand, tugging him down enough to kiss him. She pressed her lips against his with the force of all the unnamed feelings heating her blood and heart. It was a fierce kiss, greedy and hot, and he dived into it with matching fervor.

His arms wrapped around her, raising her up higher and closer to him. Her fingers dug into his hair, her lips tingling when the kiss broke. "I need to apologize to you," she said, breathless.

"I'll accept any apology that you give me like that, Nanao-chan." He smiled.

She bit at his lips, nibbling at him until he kissed her. "You can't accept an apology until you know what it's for," she murmured.

"Tell me, and then I'll accept it." He feathered kisses along her jaw, her ear, the curve of her neck.

She tilted her head to give him better access to her skin. She should tell him about Imaoka and the article, but she was reluctant. The ugliness of what she needed to say didn't belong in this moment, in this garden, in the air between them. It could wait until after dinner, at least.

"I'd rather not spoil our dinner. Can we talk about my apology afterward?"

He came back up to her lips, just brushing a light kiss on them. "Of course, Nanao-chan. I want you to enjoy yourself tonight."

"Thank you."

He led her to the table, helping her sink down on a cushion with a smile. "Here, Nanao-chan." He poured her a drink and then revealed the dinner dishes by removing the lids with a flourish.

They ate and drank and talked, about work, books, and nothing in particular. She relaxed into the cushions, drinking a sweet wine and eating chocolates. Either Shunsui had a secret love of chocolate or he really believed it was a romantic food—he had it in some form nearly every time they'd eaten together during the marriage practice. Or maybe he knew that Nanao liked it and brought it for that reason. He was observant of small details.

"Our plans for tomorrow still stand?" she asked, watching him eat chocolates.

"Yes, unless you want to change them. We'll leave in the morning and return in the evening. You'll be deeply impressed by my family and decide to marry me right away." He grinned.

She laughed. "I thought I was supposed to do the impressing tomorrow. I had an entire SWA committee meeting about that today."

"Did you? How intriguing. What was the advice on impressing my mother?"

She assumed a serious expression. "Well, it was a bit jumbled and contradictory. Nemu-san had statistics on what mothers like in potential spouses for their children; Rangiku-san thought that I should be nice and if your mother doesn't like me, it's not my fault and I shouldn't worry about it; Hinamori-san thought I should be myself and of course your mother would like me. I should be charming but not flip, sincere but not cloying, warm but not overly familiar, affectionate towards you but not inappropriate, and attractive but not too plastic."

"Is that all?" he asked.

She laughed again. "I've reached a conclusion about meetings longer than two hours. No matter the topic, a meeting that runs longer than two hours is counterproductive."

He moved around the table to sit down beside her. "I agree with Hinamori-chan. Be yourself, Nanao-chan."

She smiled. "If it were that simple, the meeting wouldn't have been so long."

"Which committee of the SWA covers meetings with my mother, I wonder?" He tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

"The committee on my marriage." She shook her head. "That's not the official committee title that will appear in Rangiku-san's note to Captain Hitsugaya, but that's the committee."

"If you had a committee meeting about meeting my mother and our plans to go tomorrow are unchanged, does that mean that you're still considering me for your husband?" he asked softly.

She looked down at her lap. "I never stopped considering you. The issue with Yadōmaru-sempai regarding my recruitment to the Eighth Division is my own personal problem. I need to resolve that, but I don't want it to impact the relationship between you and me. I can't promise that it won't though."

He took her hand. "Nanao-chan, no matter the problem, it's not something you have to deal with alone. If it affects our relationship, we'll work through it. But nothing about your recruitment will change your identity. You are who you are, and that's something I love about you."

"Thank you." She sighed. "The other issue—with the newspaper article—that's what I need to apologize to you about."

Surprise shone on his face. "Why would you apologize to me for that?"

"It was Imaoka-san. I don't know all of the details, but he arranged the article. He seemed to have a bit of a fascination with me. It was very odd." She felt heat on her cheeks; it was embarrassing to admit that a man had acted so badly because of her.

"Nanao-chan, you aren't responsible for his interest in you, or for any actions he might have taken because of it. He's responsible for his choices."

She shook her head. "But I am sorry for accusing you of being the cause of the article, and for being rude about your previous relationships. I said those things to you when it was my fault that we were targeted, when it was my acquaintance with Imaoka-san that caused it."

"It's not your fault, Nanao-chan. That man reacted to a single meeting too intensely. Whatever his motivations, it doesn't have anything to do with you, not really. He may have treated any woman that way."

"Not any woman. Only a woman that desperately needs rescuing from her lecherous Captain." She exhaled a short breath.

"He said that to you?" Shunsui asked, and his tone was low and even—a dangerous neutrality.

"He did, in slightly more pillowed terms. Don't make that face. You aren't going to do anything to him, because there's no need. I made my position on his statements very clear. He will not return to the Eighth Division, and he will not contact me again. I'm certain."

"Did you hit him with a kidō?" he asked, obviously hoping that she had.

"No, I didn't fire a kidō at him, and I thought that was marvelously restrained." Her lips twitched. It was easier now to see the humor in the mortifying situation than it had been this morning.

"My Nanao-chan is a woman of admirable self-control. I wish I'd been there." There was still a ribbon of that dangerous neutrality in his voice.

"I wouldn't have let you do anything to him. He's just an ordinary noble. He doesn't have a chance against you." She gave him a level look.

"We aren't ordinary nobles, are we, Nanao-chan?" He wore pleasure and satisfaction on his face, and it looked good on him.

"No, we aren't." She didn't want his head to swell too big, though. "A man of your great age and experience has a vast advantage over someone like Imaoka-san."

He winced and clasped his hand over his heart dramatically. "Great age? That's mean, Nanao-chan."

"It's true," she said, and sipped her wine.

"Does it bother you?" he asked, his tone shifting to seriousness. "My age and my—experience."

She didn't pretend not to understand the reference to his previous lovers. "It didn't before the newspaper article. I was upset then, but that wasn't a particularly fair reaction."

"Fair doesn't really matter here. What you feel is what's important." His mouth was tense.

"You are who you are because of your age and experience. There's no point to being upset by it, as it can't be changed." The stars were coming out, bright in the sky.

"I don't want you to feel disturbed or upset by my past, whether you find the feelings meaningless or not." He rubbed circles on her palm with his thumb.

She sighed. "There is a serious imbalance of relationship experience between the two of us. Obviously you have vastly more experience than I do, in all manner of things. That's just how it is."

"Nanao-chan," he said, and she shook her head.

"Do you know what I thought of your experience when I first began to consider you for my husband?"

"What?"

"I imagined you in a fundoshi and hiking boots, climbing across a gulf separating us." She smiled and looked away from him as the ridiculous image filled her mind.

"With my hat, or without it?"

She burst into startled laughter.

"I have to get the details right to please precious Nanao-chan." He was grinning when she turned to him, a wicked amusement gleaming in his eyes.

"Don't you dare show up like that, with or without a hat on." She scowled fiercely, her lips twitching.

"But if Nanao-chan wants me like that—"

"I do not. They are symbolic hiking boots, a symbolic gulf—"

"—A symbolic fundoshi?" he suggested.

She raised her eyebrows. "Certainly not a real fundoshi. Aren't they a bit old-fashioned now, anyway?"

"They are still very popular with the men in Seireitei, Nanao-chan. If you're calling me old-fashioned, I would assure you that I adapt well to modern ideas. For instance, women's panties have been one of my favorite recent developments in fashion. And my Nanao-chan has such lovely panties."

She eyed him darkly. "What do you know about my undergarments?"

"Not as much as I'd like. I did see your cute panties when you were packing, though. I'd be delighted to see more of your panties."

She shook her head. "I'm sure that you would."

"I live in hope, Nanao-chan." He grinned.

She looked up at the stars, content. "In any case, your greater experience is not an issue for me, because the relationship that I care about most is the one between us. I believe that if we did get married, you would be faithful to me. In that context, your previous relationships have no bearing on our current one."

He tipped her head gently to see her eyes. His face was full of a tenderness that caught her breath. "Yes. I would be faithful to you, Nanao-chan."

She swallowed, nodding her head the barest inch.

"If you're willing, I'd like to resume our marriage practice."

She lowered her gaze for a moment. It wasn't that she didn't want to resume the marriage practice—she'd enjoyed it, enjoyed their growing closeness, despite some awkwardness. He was proving to be a good choice, even a sensible choice for a husband. He had the qualities she required—including the money—and he had a lot of apparent affection for her. He was a better candidate than the men on the list, and continuing this journey with him was a reasonable decision.

But she wanted to resume the marriage practice for another reason, one hoarded close to her heart. She couldn't name this reason, even to herself, but it was what parted her lips now. "Yes," she said.

"I'm glad, Nanao-chan." His hand came up to cradle her cheek. Her eyes slipped closed and he kissed her. It was a soft kiss, gentle and endowed with all of the tenderness he'd shown earlier. There was a wonderful sense of possibility between them, something fragile and thrilling, and she allowed herself to feel it fully now, the way she had at the picnic yesterday.

She took in a shaky breath when he broke the kiss.

"Nanao-chan?" he asked.

She shook her head. "I'm fine. I was just—I'm glad, too."

He leaned his forehead against hers. "Lay down with me." He fell back into the cushions, looking up at the stars. "Come here." He tugged playfully at her hand.

She shifted back on the cushions, lying stiffly next to him. The stars were bright and beautiful in the sky, but she watched him out of the corner of her eye.

"You should give me a point, Nanao-chan." He propped his head up, smiling.

"For what?" she asked, curious.

"You should give me a point for being the best companion for stargazing on a night like this one."

She relaxed against the pillows. "You'd have to demonstrate that before I'd give you the point."

"I will." He moved closer to her, so that their sides were pressed together, sliding his arm around her easily. "Which star is your favorite, Nanao-chan?" he murmured near her ear.

She considered briefly and pointed at the sky.

He told her about that star in a low velvet voice that she drifted on as if they were at sea. She felt that they were alone in an ocean of stars. Her hand fluttered across his stomach, seeking his hand, and her slender fingers wove between his larger ones.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
meroko26
Mar. 23rd, 2013 05:18 pm (UTC)
"he manly fought down a blush." I would LOVE to see Shunsui blush! Sp swwt imagining him and yama-jii togther. It's so sad he died. I always imagined that when Shun and nanao got togther Shunsui would show off his child/children to yama who would grunt but be pleased like a grandfather. I guess it wasn't meant to be, but i could still draw a fanart of it. Another thing to go into the idea bucket.
r_dahlia
Apr. 6th, 2013 11:26 pm (UTC)
It is really sad about Yama-jii being dead; I felt a lot of sadness after we got the flashback of Shunsui as a boy. It would be really sweet to see art of that. ^_^

Thanks for reading!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )