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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
Contains: Discussions of war and sewing.
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 7.
Chapter 1.

Outside of the bathroom Nanao took a few deep breaths, running her hands over her hair and straightening her glasses. Her uniform was wet in spots so she went into the guest bedroom and changed into a dark blue yukata.

Why did he have to be so serious sometimes? At moments like the one in the bathroom, she wanted to give in to him, to believe in him and his ridiculous proclamations of love. But if she did, everything that she had now might be ruined. If he'd been kidding, or if he couldn't sustain a real relationship with her, her heart would be broken. Not to mention that she would lose his friendship, need to transfer out of the Eighth, and have to bear the embarrassment of everyone in Seireitei knowing what a fool she was.

Suddenly a new thought struck her. She'd turned in her report on the events at the command post to the First Division today. In all likelihood, she was already going to lose her position in the Eighth and anything else the captain commander or the Central 46 decided on. There would not be endless time stretching out ahead of her in her comfortable life as vice captain of the Eighth, chasing after the irresponsible Captain Shunsui Kyōraku.

There might be no more tomorrows.

Which would she regret more? Giving her captain an open look at her heart and risking pain and embarrassment, or leaving the Gotei 13 without having ever given him the opportunity to prove the sincerity of his feelings towards her?

What had happened between them four years ago—it changed things, didn't it? Even if they never spoke of it openly, their relationship was altered. She'd asked him for something and he'd done it. That particular situation could just be an anomaly, however. It wasn't as if they were lovers or anything like that. "Just leave that alone." She sighed and straightened her clothes to exacting perfection.

The only real question that mattered, the only thing that needed consideration, was what Nanao wanted out of her remaining time in Seireitei.

If my days are numbered, I want to spend them all with him. Her cheeks flushed but she nodded. That was the truth. But how could she change things between them? If she were more open with him about her feelings—would that be enough? Was that even something she could actually do?

She frowned. Maybe she had the wrong approach. What would be the right one? Perhaps she should make a list of other possible actions she could take. If only she had more data points for consideration; then she could make a chart.

Maybe she would try to talk to him and explore the situation first. Still, she'd acted unkindly to him in the bathroom only a little while ago. Perhaps he would not be interested in speaking to her right now. It would be understandable.

She wandered back through his house into his bedroom, turning on lights as she walked. It was getting dark outside. Had it really only been a few days since he'd left for war? The time had passed both so slowly and so quickly that it was hard to grasp.

The hairpin case she'd made him drew her and she picked it up, turning it over in her hands. How many hours did she spend on this? Was it more or less time than she had left with him now? She made a distressed sound and set it back on the bookshelf.

"Nanao-chan," Captain Kyōraku said from the doorway of the bathroom. He'd dressed in the yukata she'd left in there for him. It was a dark chocolate color, close to black, and it reminded her of his eyes when he was intense. He was ineffectively pressing a towel against his hair with his left hand. The yukata had darker spots where he'd failed to dry off enough.

"Let me do that. Sit down, please." He looked at her in surprise but moved to sit on the floor. She took the towel from his hand and wrapped the length of his hair in it, soaking the water into the towel. After she'd gotten most of the water out of that, she rubbed the towel against his head to pick up the water there.

When his hair was reasonably dried she went into the bathroom and hung up the towel, then came back out with a brush. She picked up the length of his hair with one hand and held it firmly so she wouldn't hurt him while she worked out knots with the brush. For several minutes they sat in silence while she brushed his hair with long, sure strokes.

Nanao dropped the hairbrush lightly onto the floor and threaded her fingers through his hair to reach his scalp. She massaged him with her fingertips in slow circles. When he relaxed his back against her legs she conjured up a small healing kidō and sent it through her fingertips.

He groaned low in his throat, the same sound he'd made while she washed his hair. That sound seemed to reverberate in her belly. She licked her dry lips. "Do you like this?" she asked.

"I love this. It feels amazing. Where did you learn to massage like this, clever Nanao-chan?" His voice was rich with pleasure.

Nanao savored the warmth of his body leaning lightly against her legs and stomach. Her fingers circled in random patterns around his head. "From Rangiku-san. We do a skills exchange at the Shinigami Women's Association every few years."

"A skills exchange?"

"Yes. All of us pick something we want to share with the group, and we each get half an hour to teach a class in our chosen skill. It's supposed to be something that improves us as women and shinigami, but truthfully most of the classes are just fun." She smiled at the thought of the SWA. Perhaps she'd be able to schedule a meeting for sometime next week. It was hard to be sure of when everyone would feel up to a gathering, given that several of their members were injured or working overtime at the Fourth.

"What kinds of things do you learn?"

"Well, in the last round of skills exchange, Hinamori-san taught us to do origami flowers—those were quite nice; Captain Soi Fon did a lesson on self defense without weapons—certainly something useful to know; Rangiku-san did this lesson on scalp massage—she said it's wonderful for hangovers."

"But my Nanao-chan has never offered to gently massage me before, and I have hangovers all the time," he said in a teasing whine.

"I don't believe in encouraging your bad behavior. You'd probably drink even more if you thought that you could get a massage out of it," she scolded, but she smiled a little.

He made that pleasured groan again. "Absolutely."

Nanao blushed, grateful that he was in front of her and couldn't see her face. "You're shameless."

"You have to enjoy life where you can, sweet Nanao-chan. Did you contribute a skill to your women's exchange?"

"I did." She didn't say anything else, hoping he would drop the matter. One of her hands moved to the base of his skull, massaging the back of his neck.

"That feels good, Nanao-chan, don't stop."

Improvising, she rubbed sweeping circles on the muscles of his neck. This wasn't a part of Rangiku's course, but it did seem to be distracting him.

"But now I want to know what your course was even more. Was it something naughty that you don't want to tell me?" He was teasing, but she knew he could be relentless when he was focused on something.

"Of course not! What would I teach to the SWA that would be naughty?"

"Well, it could be something like—"

"Don't answer that! It was nothing like that. I taught a zakka sewing project." She hoped he'd leave it at that.

"Zakka sewing? What kind of household project did you do?"

"Drink coasters." His mouth was already opening to ask what kind so she sighed and continued. "Coasters in the shapes of baby rabbits and plump birds."

"Coasters in the shapes of little animals? That's cute, Nanao-chan, why didn't you want to tell me?" He seemed genuinely puzzled, and Nanao reminded herself that she had resolved only an hour ago to be open and honest with him.

"I didn't want to tell you because it's a childish project. Most of my zakka projects are, actually." So far telling him the truth didn't make her happier. She felt a bit regretful that she'd told him. She hated to be teased about her youth; she had since she'd been the youngest person in her Academy class and then the youngest member of the Eighth Division. Even after a century in the Gotei 13 too many people still saw her as a girl instead of a woman. Part of the reason she projected such a cold and serious image as Vice Captain Ise was to gain the respect her position should have.

"It's alright to like things that are whimsical and fun. It doesn't make you childish," he said.

"I have an apron with squirrels and birds sewn on it." Her voice was low and full of misery.

"That sounds delightful, Nanao-chan. I'd like to see it. But why does it bother you so much to tell me this, when all of your friends from the Women's Association already know that you do these kinds of projects?"

Only the strength of her new resolution could pry her jaws open. She let the words slip out in a small voice. "I don't want you to think of me as a child."

At this he spun around to face her. Her fingers tangled in his hair with his sudden movement. "I don't consider you a child. Why would you think that?"

Her tongue darted across her lips. He followed the movement intently, his head tipped up to see her face. If he could wrap his arms around her they'd be embracing, he was much too close. Nanao struggled to string her thoughts together with his eyes boring into her secrets. "You—you call me Nanao-chan, and you have since I was a child, you protect me too much, even when it undermines my position as a vice captain, and you're so much older than me that I'm barely a footnote in your life, so—" she ran out of words.

"A footnote in my life? Nanao-chan, you—" he broke off, sighed, and brought his left hand up to grasp her right hand, tugging it away from his head and holding it gently. The healing kidō fizzled out. When he spoke his voice was firm and slow. "I call you my Nanao-chan because that's what you are to me, not because I think of you as a child. I protect you even when you'd rather I didn't because your life is precious to me, and I value your safety above your pride, even if it angers you. If you've felt undermined by my behavior, I am sorry about that, but I don't believe it's cost you the respect of our troops. They respect you independent of what I do, Nanao. You must know that."

She nodded slightly, her eyes downcast.

His thumb caressed the palm of her small hand. "I've lived a very long time, it's true. Much of that time blends together. There are whole decades I can only dimly recall. I remember all the wars, terrible battles with Hollows where I lost men, and the worst of Ukitake's illnesses with perfect clarity. I try to hold onto happier times with that same clarity. It's very difficult. But Nanao-chan, with you I can remember each conversation we have, each expression on your face, each happy afternoon under the trees. You make life bright for me. I love that about you."

He kissed the palm of her hand. She was arrested by the expression on his face. He was willing to open himself to her, to give her his truth, knowing that she would probably throw it back and run away. How many times had she done that to him? A pang of guilt stabbed her, and it was easy now to say what seemed so hard earlier. "I'm sorry about before, in the bathroom, I shouldn't have done that."

The apology surprised him, his eyes widening at her words. "I understand that you aren't comfortable with expressing emotions in words, Nanao-chan."

Nanao swallowed hard. Her heart was beating quickly and erratically, like the wings of a lost bird. Tentatively she moved her left hand towards his face, but stopped short of touching him. "I—I would like to be comfortable with those things. I am trying—" she stopped abruptly, unable to pull out more words from her fluttering chest. Her brows drew together in frustration at her inability to articulate her feelings.

"You don't have to say anything, Nanao-chan—"

She cut off his gentle words with an impatient noise. "No, I want to tell you. When you left—" She stopped speaking for a long time. He watched her face, running his thumb over the racing pulse in her wrist.

A sudden noise at the door startled her. She made to go into the main room, but Captain Kyōraku tugged at her wrist. "Don't answer it."

Nanao glanced at the clock. "It's our Third Seat. I left orders for him earlier. He's brought dinner."

"Let him leave it outside. We can get it in a little while." He tried to pull her back where she'd been standing.

"I was, ah, a bit severe with him today. I don't think he'll leave without fulfilling his orders exactly," she said, biting her lip.

"Severe?"

"He was passed out under a table in the common room." She knew her captain would easily be able to imagine how she had reacted to that.

He sighed and released her arm. "I'm not going to forget about this, Nanao."

"I know," she whispered. Still, she almost ran to answer the door.

Third Seat Enjōji stood outside, looking uncomfortable. "Good evening, Vice Captain Ise. Per your instructions, I have brought dinner for Captain Kyōraku, exactly as you asked."

"Thank you, Enjōji-san. Please set it on the table." She moved aside to let him enter.

He set the containers in his huge hands down on the table. "Do you want me to do anything else?"

Captain Kyōraku lounged in the door of the bedroom, watching the proceedings without much interest.

"No, this will do, Enjōji-san. Have a good evening." Nanao led him back to the door and closing it behind him.

She stepped back to the table and knelt on a cushion, busily opening containers. "Are you hungry?" she asked, looking up at her captain.

"Starved," he said. But he didn't spare a glance at the food. His eyes were intent on her face and Nanao's heart skittered away again.

Nanao's anxiety skipped up several levels at the intent expression on Captain Kyōraku's face and the burning undertone to his reply. What possessed her to think it was a good idea to try to change her relationship with this man? With his level of experience with women, she couldn't hope to stand on equal footing with him. Moments ago she hadn't even been able to tell him she'd missed him, which was hardly as challenging as a love confession or a difficult conversation about whether his romantic overtures towards her were genuine.

He moved away from the bedroom door into the large main room and Nanao glanced at the house door, her heart pounding. But he only sat heavily on a cushion across from her at the low table, smiling. "What's for dinner? Since I can't use my right arm, sweet Nanao-chan will have to feed me tenderly with her own hand," he said, his voice teasing.

"I will not. I know that you are equally dexterous with both your right and your left hands. You can feed yourself, captain." Nanao felt herself calm as they slipped back into their usual mode of conversation. She knew he'd changed the mood in response to her worry, and was both grateful and embarrassed that he always seemed aware of when she was close to her limits. He didn't want her to leave, so he'd stepped back, at least for the moment.

Over dinner they made light conversation about their division and the SWA. She told him about some of the other skill exchanges and recent fundraising disasters that made him laugh. Nanao felt relaxed and content. Captain Kyōraku was good company, telling entertaining stories, asking interesting questions, and always staying focused on her, but not so intensely that she felt overly conscious of his attention.

It was no wonder that he had so many friends. The one thing that Nanao didn't understand about him and wasn't sure she ever would was why he was so interested in her. She knew she was reasonably attractive, with her small, even features and blue-violet eyes behind her glasses. Her hair was a straight and shiny black curtain when she let it down. But everything about her was so ordinary that it would be easy to find ten or twenty women prettier than Nanao while simply walking down the street in Seireitei. And surely some of those women would be far more receptive towards her captain's advances than Nanao had been over the years.

Still, when she was alone with him, she was aware that they had a strong compatibility between them. The differences in their personalities and their interests only seemed to add flavor to their conversation.

They finished dinner and drank tea companionably. Nanao stifled several yawns, prompting him to ask, "Have you been sleeping enough, Nanao-chan?"

"I slept for a while last night, in the Fourth," she said. But she was very tired, having slept only a few hours each night since he'd left for the battle at Karakura.

"In one of those uncomfortable chairs? I'm sure that wasn't very restful. Why don't you go to bed?"

She shook her head. "First I need to do another healing kidō on you. It'll still be several sessions before you're recovered."

"Then let's do that now." He stood up to walk towards his bedroom.

"Let me put away these things first. Why don't you get ready? I'll need to see your back." Nanao gathered up the remains of dinner and headed to his kitchen. She spent a few minutes putting away leftovers, washing utensils and cups, and wiping down the low table. After she finished tidying up, she cleaned her face and teeth in a washroom near the guest room she'd occupied. She intended to go to bed as soon as she'd healed Captain Kyōraku.

In his bedroom the lights were low and he sat on his futon with the top of his yukata down around his waist. He'd tied his hair back into a rough tail somehow. Nanao was a little disappointed by that. She'd enjoyed washing and brushing the soft waves of his hair and if he'd left it down, she would have needed to touch it quite a lot to move it out of the way.

She kneeled behind him and brushed his hair over his left shoulder to hang against his chest. Her fingers trailed through his hair surreptitiously. If he'd noticed, he didn't say anything.

Pale blue kidō lit her hands. She lifted one hand to his right shoulder, where the deep sword wound from Aizen lay, and the other to the cero wound. He tensed as she touched him and then relaxed as she laced a painkilling kidō into the healing spell. When the kidō was established enough in those wounds she delicately wove her reiatsu through his body, following after with the healing kidō.

"I've had the expanded healing kidō done on me before, but never for my whole body like this, Nanao-chan."

"I thought it might be a good idea, since you probably have a lot of lighter injuries in other places from when you fell after Aizen attacked you. If you don't want me to do it—"

"No, it feels wonderful."

She nodded behind him, though he couldn't see her. The bedroom was warm and quiet. Nanao felt drowsy and content. For several minutes she enjoyed the sensation of the skin of his back beneath the fingers of her right hand, absently drawing circles with her fingertips while her palm sent healing into his sword wound.

"Nanao-chan, how did you know about what happened to me in the battle? Reports can't possibly have been written and distributed by First Division yet." He sounded a little concerned.

"The Twelfth Division built fake Karakura town. They added in cameras while they were doing it."

"Where was the command post for the battle, Nanao-chan?"

Nanao sighed. He was an intelligent man and had already deduced that she'd watched the battle, but he wanted her to talk about it with him. Talking about the command post was tricky; she couldn't tell him about the orders from Central 46 or that she'd attacked the vice captain of the Kidō Corps, so all that she could tell him about was what she'd seen of the battle. It would be acceptable to talk to him about that part since he'd been at the battle. "The command post was at Twelfth Division."

"Were you at the command post during the battle?"

"I was there from the first engagement until nearly three hours after the battle was over," Nanao said. She repressed the urge to sigh again. It would have been nice to go to bed warm and content after healing him, without thinking about the way her heart had burned to ashes when he'd fallen in battle.

Since she already knew what he would want to ask, and that he was looking for the best way to approach his question, she did let herself sigh. Weariness weighed down her body. She leaned her forehead lightly against an uninjured area in the center of his back. Her healing kidō was winding down, the light from her hands fading. "I saw you fall. Both times," she whispered. She shivered with remembered cold.

"Nanao-chan." He turned around and pulled her into his arms. She nearly tugged herself away as she had always done in the past, but there were tears prickling behind her eyes and her time with him was limited, and just once she wanted to know what it felt like to let him hold her. He was warm and still smelled somehow of the outdoors. She tried to climb up closer to him, so he changed his position until she was sitting in his lap, with him wrapped around her.

His hand came up and unclipped her hair so that it fell around her shoulders. He stroked her head softly. She thought hazily the healing session must have been quite effective to have restored so much mobility. Her cheek brushed against his chest. "I thought you were dead, that first time, when the Espada fired the cero at you. I thought you were dead, and it was so cold."

His left arm tightened around her and his hand brushed down her head to caress her neck soothingly. "I'm so sorry, Nanao-chan. You shouldn't have had to see that."

She shook her head. "You should know, and I think you'll hear about it after the confidentiality is lifted. After you fell, I told them to find another camera to show you. And then I had them change the monitor to something else. Captain Ukitake's Third Seats were crying and fussing behind me, but I didn't do anything. I felt so cold. I didn't react at all. Someone's going to tell you that I watched you die and I didn't even blink, so you should know now. You should know," she said, and her voice faded as tears burned in her eyes.

"Nanao-chan," he said in a low voice. He slipped her glasses away from her face and set them down next to her hairclip on the floor. "Listen to me, Nanao-chan. Everyone deals with the stress of battle differently."

"I wasn't even at the battle."

"That's worse, isn't it? If you'd been at the battle, you could have come to me. You could have seen that I was alive. Since you weren't there, you couldn't know. You were in command and you had duties to the shinigami under your command. If you'd fallen apart, you couldn't effectively lead. I know it must have been hard for you, to see what was happening and still do your job." His voice was warm and lit with understanding.

"But I watched the captains and the officers and my friends and you—I watched you fight and fall while I gave orders about cameras and triage teams and excavation—you were dying and I couldn't—" her throat caught on more tears she tried to hold back and she couldn't speak.

"Nanao, you had a role to play that was important, and you fulfilled that role despite what was happening in the battle. That takes a lot of strength. People can tell me whatever they want about you and about what happened at the command post. But I know you, Nanao, and I know how much you care about the people around you. People can tell me that you're cold, but it's not the truth, and I won't hesitate to correct them. I'm proud of you, sweetheart, and I believe in you, and nothing anyone says will change that." He spoke softly and slowly, and Nanao's heart was eased as his words sank into her.

She pulled herself closer to him, her hands holding onto the warm muscles of his shoulders as if he was an island in a violent sea. A few tears finally escaped from her eyes as she relaxed within his arms. The burden of her crimes in the command post faded and she again felt drowsy and content. A small part of her insisted she should climb off him and leave, but she couldn't think of any reason to do that.

Nanao made a small sound of protest when he moved her, but then she was curled on the bed under the blanket and he was wrapped around her. This is nice, she thought. She wondered if being with him would feel like this—warm and comforting with an edge of heat underneath.

He brushed her hair off her face and kissed her temple. "I missed you," she whispered, hovering on the edge of waking.

"I'm with you, Nanao, and I'm not going anywhere."

She drifted into sleep, her hand clasping his.

On to Chapter 9.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
darkmystcompel
Jul. 21st, 2011 10:42 pm (UTC)
At last, she is being honest about her emotions - a hard task for one unused to being so. But very worth it!

I loved how she became just "Nanao" at the close of the chapter. The final two sentences have to be my favourite moment so far! :)
r_dahlia
Jul. 22nd, 2011 11:31 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I'm glad you like that moment--it's one of my favorites as well.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )