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Title: The Trials of Nanao Ise
Genre: Romance/Drama
Pairing: Shunsui/Nanao
Spoilers: Through manga chapter 423
Status: Ongoing
Rating: PG-13.
Summary: Nanao will face the consequences of her decisions during and after the Arrancar War.  Can she overcome these trials, or will they divide her from Captain Kyōraku forever? Canon compliant through manga chapter 423.

Back to Chapter 1

When Nanao arrived at the office it was still early. Division members had only begun to arrive, but this was not an unusual experience for Nanao—she was often the first to arrive at work. What was unusual was her inability to focus. She stacked the manuals from the First neatly in one corner of her desk, next to the new paperwork for the day, and began to read the top book.

She closed it with an irritated sigh when she realized she'd read the same line four times. Can I really do this? Am I ready for this? She left her desk to wander to the window. Shinigami were walking across the courtyard, exchanging greetings, trading paperwork, waving goodbyes. A pair of recent recruits practiced with wooden swords on a patch of grass away from the paths.

"I don't know," she whispered.

"What don't you know, Nanao-chan?" Captain Kyōraku's voice startled her, and she spun around to face the office door. He slid it closed behind him and stood there, watching her. His eyes were serious and his mouth straight. She knew immediately that he'd been informed that she would be staying behind in Seireitei while he went to battle. He was standing several feet away, but he was large and imposing when he wasn't being ridiculous, even with the straw hat and that pink haori.

"You're in early today," she said, and turned back to the window. It was hard to look at him and keep her professional demeanor intact when he seemed so serious. Even worse, she couldn't tell him about the order from Central 46.

"How could I stay in bed after hearing such important news about my Nanao-chan?" His steps forward were quiet, but Nanao stiffened with every movement.

"Did you know about this before?"

"No, not until this morning," he said, and then he was just behind her, looking out the window at the courtyard. She felt the warmth of him even through their clothes and the space between them.

"But you suspected."

A small pause. "I thought it was a possibility, yes, but I thought it more likely that he would leave his vice captain behind."

"But you didn't think to tell me about the possibility that it could be me?" Her words were clipped out and sharp.

"Nanao-chan, if I had told you that you might need to stay behind, you would have tried to plan and train for that possibility just as hard as you have planned and trained for the battle. I didn't want you to exhaust yourself unnecessarily just to prepare for tasks that you could very likely do with no preparation at all."

"I don't need to be prepared, because of my natural affinity for paperwork?" She finally looked at him as she snapped the words out, and her anger at being coddled faded as she saw the sad tiredness in his face. How many times had he experienced the preparations for battle, the surging of emotions before the fight, and the impossible weariness of always surviving? How many wars would be fought over two thousand years of life?

She was filled with sadness for him and embarrassment over her emotions and turned back to the window, putting her palms against the sill. "It was better that you didn't tell me. I was naïve about what the war would be."

"What do you mean, Nanao-chan?" He leaned his head against the wall, facing her profile as she stared out at the world.

"I thought that the things we've done would matter—that the training, and the research, and the extra kidō courses and first aid courses and all the work that we did—that our whole division did, without a word of complaint—that these things would make a difference in the war, that they would have some meaning. Instead the course of the coming battle and the whole war will be decided by the strength of a few people, by the might of the captains. I—" She stopped, clenched her hands on the windowsill.

He rested one large hand on her shoulder. "Nanao-chan—"

"No," she said, and shook off his hand, spinning to face him. "And I'm sorry. When I think of all the training sessions I made you lead, all the lectures and courses I made you attend, when you would have been better off laying in a field somewhere sleeping for all the difference it will make in the battle. You would have enjoyed it more, at least."

She rubbed at her temples in frustration, blinked away the tingle of tears. "Why did you let me? Why did you let me load up the division's schedule with training that wouldn't matter? Why did you let me force you to events that will be so unimportant?" She looked up at him, her face naked with her sadness and anger and shame, and he crossed the distance between them, standing close with his hands on her shoulders.

"Nanao-chan. That training, those courses, they weren't unimportant. They were important to you and they gave our troops a sense of purpose. Everyone has improved their strength in this time. That's because of you, and it does matter. Not every war is the same. Sometimes preparations like yours can make an impact on the outcome, especially in extended conflicts."

He tipped her face up from where she stared at her hands clasped in front of her. "I am glad that this war will likely be decided in one battle. There are few things more terrible than leading your troops into battle after battle, knowing that most of them will die, and then watching it happen, unable to stop it."

She watched his eyes harden and darken with remembered pains. Sometimes, in the depths of the night, she would entertain the idea that she could have a romantic relationship with this man; dream that he loved her in truth and that they could grow as close as two souls can be. At other moments, like this one, she felt the gulf of years and experience between them so keenly that she was certain he had never thought of her as anything but baby Nanao-chan, the youngest girl in their division, and that teasing her about his affections was only a small game to pass his endless time.

Nanao pulled away from his touch, moving to stand beside her desk. "I'm sorry."

"About dragging me to training? I would do anything to spend time with my beautiful Nanao-chan." He deliberately misunderstood her, avoiding talk of the past. She'd expected nothing less, but it was still disappointing.

"You refused to go each time and made me threaten you."

He grinned at her. It did not quite reach his eyes. "I was just extending the pleasure of my Nanao-chan's company."

"You won't be enjoying my company when you go to Karakura town."

"No, I won't." The smile fell off his face. He moved to the seating area between their two desks. Some other divisions, like the Sixth and the Second, had separate offices for their captain and vice captain, but the office in the Eighth had always been a shared one, for all of Nanao's time at the division. He sank down into the sofa, the picture of relaxation, but his eyes stayed serious.

"Are you glad I won't be with you?"

"Yare, yare, Nanao-chan, talk about a trap."

She stalked across the floor to stand in front of him. The straw hat was hiding his eyes so she tipped it back lightly, just enough for it to fall off his head. It bounced onto the floor and rolled drunkenly before flopping to a stop. He might rebuke her for that, but she would be grateful for a fight to put them into more comfortable territory. She crossed her arms under her breasts. "Please answer the question, sir."

"I'm glad that you'll be safe here. I'm glad that I won't have to worry about my Nanao-chan's health while I am in battle."

"You don't think I'm capable in combat?" Nanao built up her icy anger, letting it crowd out the sadness and the hurt that this conversation caused her.

"Sit down, Nanao-chan." He patted a spot next to him on the sofa. Nanao nearly refused, but it would be childish to do so and she already felt her lack of years and experience strongly. She sat.

"You are good in combat, Nanao-chan, but you've never faced enemies like this. Battles of this type are very different from the Hollow hunting you've done in the past. So yes, I am glad to have you out of this fight, so that I will know with certainty that you are still alive in Seireitei."

"You speak as if most of the other vice captains that are going to battle have a great wealth of wartime experience, but you know that's not true, either." She watched him run a hand down his face and sigh.

"Frankly, I don't believe the presence of the vice captains will have a real impact on the outcome of the battle. It may save the captains some fighting at the beginning, but there is little possibility of a vice captain standing against the Espada or Aizen, Gin, and Tousen. And those are the battles that will really matter to the final outcome."

Nanao nodded and looked down at her hands. They were small and unscarred, just as all of her body was; her captain had always been exceptionally careful with her missions, and she was never hurt if he could prevent it.

He drew her right hand into his left. His hand dwarfed hers; it was tanned, with brown hairs furring the back, and there were several faint white scars visible on it when Nanao looked closely.

"This isn't the combat experience I want you to have. I don't want you to be easy prey for an Espada. I don't want you come out of this with new red scars and nightmares. I want you to be safe, Nanao-chan." His eyes were dark and searching on hers. That intensity he had was showing again, and it was hard for her to remember to breathe.

Her voice was soft when she reminded him, "Captain Kyōraku, I am a soldier of the Gotei 13. I am a vice captain. I must enter battle sometimes, and I must gain experience if I am to be of real use to you."

"You will gain experience in this war, valuable command experience. Yama-jii must have told you that he chose you over all the other vice captains for this. It's not nothing, precious."

She looked down at their joined hands and shook her head. It wasn't nothing, but it wasn't what she wanted, either, not really—not with the order from Central 46 that she couldn't tell him about stuck in her throat. She swallowed hard.

"You are already of use to me; you are an excellent vice captain. You are very important to me, Nanao. Never doubt that." He pulled the hand he held up to press it against his cheek. She felt the brush of his whiskers as he swept her hand to his mouth and kissed it.

She pulled away immediately, rising from the sofa and moving to stand behind her desk. "You say that to all the women."

He watched her with a small smile and sad eyes. "There are no other women like my Nanao-chan."

"I have a kidō course to teach in twenty minutes. Please excuse me, Captain Kyōraku." She stepped out of the office, hugging a kidō manual tightly to her chest, as if it could press back the aching in her heart.

Next chapter.