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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.

"What about this one?" Hinamori pointed at one of the profiles spread out on the table in a quiet section of the library. "It says he likes reading."

"It doesn't say what he likes to read. He could only read boar racing magazines," Nanao said, her chin resting on her hands.

"Maybe, but he could like to read some of the things you like. You could have a lot in common." Hinamori held up the profile over the empty space she'd designated for To Meet.

Nanao didn't think one possible thing in common equaled 'a lot' but she nodded and Hinamori dropped the profile in place.

"Great! That's one. How many more do you need?" Hinamori asked.

"There wasn't a set number, but the matchmaker suggested there should be at least three prospects to meet, and she would make further arrangements if I couldn't come up with enough."

Hinamori smiled. "That shouldn't be too hard. What about this one?" She flipped a page to face Nanao.

"He's too young."

"What? He's the same age as you."

Nanao shrugged but said nothing.

Hinamori leaned across the table. "Nanao-san, is something wrong? If you don't really want an arranged marriage, why are you going to match meetings?"

Nanao looked at Hinamori's earnest expression and guileless eyes. She smiled slightly at her friend, shaking her head. Nanao had wanted Hinamori's help with this selection because she would be upbeat about the process. Unlike Rangiku, Hinamori would not immediately reach the conclusion that the Ise family was in dire financial trouble. That was the truth, but Nanao hardly needed a repeat of the scene she'd had with Captain Kyōraku this morning. "I'm fine. I'm going through with the match meetings." She pulled the profile Hinamori had flipped closer, as if interested. "You said he's the same age as me?"

The worry cleared from Hinamori's face. "He is, and he likes boar riding. Isn't that adventurous?"

There appeared to be no escape from boars. "I suppose it is."

Hinamori moved the boar racer into the To Meet pile. "I'm sure that one of these guys will be a good match for you. And everyone says that arranged marriages can be the best ones."

Nanao smiled faintly. "People do say that. Do you think it's true?"

Hinamori rested her chin on her hand, propping her elbow up on the table. "I think it's possible to have a good relationship out of an arranged marriage, because people do. If a matchmaker chooses people that you're compatible with, and you hit it off in your meetings, then you know that you're both interested in the same goal of marriage, so that makes it easier. Maybe it takes a bit of luck."

"I hope I have some luck, then." Nanao shifted the profiles on the table.

"I don't really know what it would be like to have an arranged marriage, though. I've known Toshirō-kun forever, and I couldn't imagine being close like that to anyone else. It would be hard for me to try to have a relationship with someone that didn't know about my scars." Hinamori rubbed her chest.

The scars on her body had faded with time, but Nanao knew she didn't just mean the physical scars Aizen and the Winter War had left on her. "I understand. It's a challenge to try to build intimacy with a stranger. I think it's difficult."

"Yes." Hinamori looked down for several seconds. "But I also think it's brave of you, Nanao-san. Striving for a new relationship takes a lot of courage."

Nanao smiled. "I don't know about that, but thank you, Hinamori-san."

"We'll pick out some great guys, Nanao-san, don't worry." Hinamori smiled, with her eyes bright and cheerful.

"Let's get to it, then." Nanao bent over the profiles, pretending an interest that she didn't really feel.

An hour later Nanao left the cool of the library and stepped into the warmth outside. She'd been grateful for Hinamori's help, for her optimism and cheerfulness, but it was a relief not to have to feign interest in the dull dossiers any longer.

Nanao walked through the street, deciding to cut through a park on her way back to the Eighth Division. In the grass and trees her steps slowed. She didn't want to go to the Eighth when Captain Kyōraku might be there; she didn't want to face him yet.

She sat on a bench under a shady tree. Perhaps she'd take the afternoon off and avoid seeing him at all before she went to the Ise estate tomorrow. Maybe she'd go over to the Tenth and see Rangiku; she was someone that Nanao wouldn't need to pretend happiness about the match meetings to and that could be a relief.

But maybe Rangiku would feel pity for her, and that would be unbearable. Captain Kyōraku must have felt something like that when he'd offered her money. For a moment she'd hoped he'd offer her something else, which made his offer of money all the more humiliating.

She refused to name the something else she'd wanted.

Her eyes were tired and she pulled off her glasses to rub at them. She felt a breeze and a familiar reiatsu, but when her eyes opened a blur of colors was in front of her. She grasped her glasses and put them on quickly. It was a bouquet of flowers in front of her, many colors and textures, tied at the bottom with a flourish of pink ribbon. "Captain."

"Nanao-chan." Captain Kyōraku leaned over her, holding out the flowers he'd undoubtedly plucked from his garden. "I'm sorry about our argument earlier. I didn't consider appearances when I offered you money. I didn't intend to insult you or your family."

Nanao wet her lips and swallowed. It was always difficult to know how to react to these grand gestures. Her hands reached for the flowers of their own accord and pulled them into her lap. "Thank you for the flowers, and for apologizing." She felt a little as if she should apologize too, but she wasn't sure why. It wasn't as if they had a romantic personal relationship that she'd violated by agreeing to the matchmaking, but she still felt some guilt. "I know that your intentions were good. You were trying to be kind."

"The offer still stands, problematic as it may be. I want you to have the option available if you want it."

She nodded, acknowledging that. "I can't accept your money, because unfortunately the perception of my honor is more important than whether I have actually behaved honorably or not. And the standard of honor that noble society uses is archaic and based on appearances."

"I know. What people think happened has more importance to social standing than what actually happened. I don't like it, but I do understand it, despite my actions earlier."

She smiled slightly, gesturing at the bench.

He sat beside her and stretched his arms across the back of the bench. "Ukitake said that I'm an ass."

She laughed at that before coughing in a failed attempt to cover it. "I wouldn't want to disagree with Captain Ukitake's thoughts. He's esteemed for his wisdom, you know."

"Is he?" Captain Kyōraku grinned at her.

A wave of relief ran over her body. The two of them would be all right for now, and maybe they could still be friends, even after she took vows with another man. "I read it in the Seireitei Bulletin, and you know that you can trust things that are printed there."

"You're only saying that because they print your column." He turned on the bench until he was facing her, one of his arms still resting on the back of the bench. She could feel the warmth radiating off of his hand on the nape of her neck.

"They are an exceedingly trustworthy source of information," she said primly.

"Well, it's not as if they have any competition to compare them to, so you could say that they are the most trustworthy source of news, since they're the only one."

"Competition doesn't necessarily increase the quality of something." Nanao's fingers played with the vibrant orange petals of a flower.

"No? It's interesting that you say that, given that you are initiating a competition for your hand in marriage." His tone was light, but she glanced away.

"It's not a competition." She looked back at him, but there was only warmth in his eyes. Perhaps he was trying to be a friend to her, even in this situation he had been evidently uncomfortable with earlier.

"No? And how do you find the quality of your suitors in this non-competition?" He raised an eyebrow.

"They are all rather young and none of them have any apparent profession. Nearly all of them list boars as an interest, which is baffling." She opened the file and flipped through, reading as she went. "Raising boars, breeding boars, training boars, racing boars, reading boar magazines—I just don't understand it." She twisted to face him more fully.

"It's a sport for rich people, Nanao-chan. Men spend their money trying to outdo each other at the boar race track." His eyes were amused.

"At the race track? These are regularly held events? I wouldn't have to attend them, would I?" Her eyes widened at the thought.

He chuckled. "If you married someone who really liked boars and raced them regularly, it would probably be courteous to go to some of the matches."

She shook her head. "No. Hinamori-san's picks are out, then. I'll just put myself at the mercy of the matchmaker."

"Hinamori-chan picked your choices for the match meetings?" His brows rose. The pad of his thumb was touching her neck very lightly.

"Yes." She let the file slip out of her hand. It landed between them on the bench, a few pages peeking out.

"Why? Shouldn't you choose which men you'd like to consider for your husband?"

She traced the shape of a red rose in her bouquet. "If these are my choices, I don't think it matters very much. All of the men in the file are very similar. I wish—" she stopped.

"What do you wish, Nanao-chan?" All of the fingertips of his right hand were softly touching the nape of her neck, although she still pretended not to feel it.

She kept her eyes on the flowers. "If there would have been someone from the Gotei 13—someone who would understand and respect my work—that would have been better."

"There was no one the matchmaker could have asked?" There was interest in his voice and his eyes when she glanced up.

"Well, the candidates are self-selected—that is, everyone in the file is a man that's agreed to the initial match meeting, if I want to have one with them. So if there's no shinigami, if everyone in the file is dull and boring, that's because those are the kinds of men that are attracted to me." Her shoulders dropped slightly and she forced herself to straighten.

"You've got it wrong, Nanao-chan." His tone was low and silky and his fingers rubbed small circles on her nape.

"What?" she asked, surprised. She should tell him to stop touching her, but even this small caress sent electric sparks through her. She would be untouchable for him soon enough. For now she wanted to savor this feeling, as it would be lost to her in a few days.

"If the men in the folder aren't interesting to you, then the matchmaker has cast her net too narrowly. It's no fault of yours. It means that a man who should be in the folder is missing."

"Missing?" Her brows drew together.

He leaned in, drawing her towards him with a soft press on the back of her neck. She shifted closer. Her heartbeat was rapid and her breath caught when his cheek brushed hers. "Nanao-chan, will you do something for me while you're at your match meetings?" He murmured the question into her ear.

"What is it?" she whispered. She swallowed, barely breathing.

He was so close the warmth of his breath stroked over her skin when he answered. "Keep an open mind when you meet the matchmaker's selections."

"What?" She startled and pulled back to see his face.

His eyes were mischievous. "Will you try, Nanao-chan?"

The disappointment she felt at the nature of his request made her want to refuse, but that would be childish. He was trying to be her friend, and it wasn't his fault that she'd hoped he'd say something very different. "I'll try," she said, her voice tinged with annoyance.

He smiled broadly and she batted his hand away from her nape. "Thank you, Nanao-chan. I hope that your trip is rewarding."

"Thank you, Captain." She huffed out a sigh.

"I'll see you soon, sweetheart." His lips kissed her cheek momentarily before he flash stepped out of sight.

"Don't just do anything you want! You—" Nanao said to the empty air of the park. She scowled at the flowers and the file. Her skin tingled where he'd touched her with his hand and lips. She set the flowers on the bench and stood, straightening her hair and uniform ruthlessly. The file she tucked under her arm.

She took one step before she stopped, turned around, and picked up the flowers. They were beautiful, and it wasn't the bouquet's fault that the man who'd given it to her was a confusing, distracting problem.

Her feet turned in the direction of the Tenth; she'd feel better after relaying the day to Rangiku over dinner.

But really, what was he doing to her?

"What did you think of Imaoka-san? You spent quite a lot of time with him." Kasumi Ise sipped her tea, her eyes sharp on Nanao's face.

Nanao smiled at her great-aunt. Kasumi had survived losing her husband, daughter, grandchild and many others over the years. She'd witnessed the slow decline in the fortunes and standing of the Ise family as she'd aged into her twilight years. But Kasumi's will was still strong, her posture proud, her advanced age visible but worn well. She was an iron beam that the rest of the Ise family and the tenants of the Ise estate relied on for support and direction.

Nanao admired Kasumi for her strength. She'd been shocked when Kasumi came to her for help.

"He was very talkative. He told many stories about boars." Nanao rubbed her temples. The match meetings today required Kasumi's participation, as the candidates drank tea and made conversation with the matchmaker, Nanao, and her great-aunt. After tea Nanao spent some private time getting to know the individuals.

"Hmm. A self-absorbed man?" Kasumi asked.

"He did ask me if I followed boar racing, but otherwise he did not seem to take much of an interest in me."

"No? That's unfortunate. Do you think you'd like a second meeting with Imaoka-san?" Kasumi opened the file at her side to Imaoka's profile. "It says that he enjoys reading, did he mention that?"

"He mentioned it, but we do not enjoy the same types of reading material." Nanao hesitated. "I will not eliminate the possibility of a second meeting, but—"

"But he was a bore and the two of you have nothing in common." Kasumi smiled knowingly.

Nanao nodded, relieved.

Kasumi closed her file. "Nanao-chan, I know that I asked you to consider an arranged marriage, but if you truly do not like any of the candidates, you don't need to go through with this. We'll find another way. Your plans for diversifying our family's holdings and modernizing the estate are very good ideas."

"Ideas that require a large financial investment." Nanao sighed.

"We will survive, regardless of what comes from these match meetings. It will simply take longer to implement your plans." Kasumi's voice had a steel thread running through it.

Nanao did not doubt that her great-aunt meant what she said, but it was an unrealistic position to take. "We could raise the funds to enact perhaps one or two things on the diversifying plan, but those things alone would not be enough to turn things around here. The estate would continue to decline, and by the time Yoshi-chan and Naoki-chan are old enough to take over, it might be impossible to regain our lost social standing." Her cousin's children were still very young.

Kasumi looked away, at a fine tree painted on a screen. The room they were in looked well-maintained and would have fit in any wealthy home, but it was all that was unseen that was decaying. The roof leaked in several places and the repairs needed were expensive and labor intensive; the garden directly behind the house had been tended carefully in preparation for those matching meetings, but the gardens beyond were neglected and overgrown.

Tenants had left for more prosperous estates or jobs in Seireitei shops and houses, leaving behind small homes in desperate need of repair or tearing down. The Ise estate was famous for its excellent silks, but even that work and reputation had suffered of late as they were unable to reinvest the profit from the silk into new equipment and personnel.

It was an old and common story about the decline of the lesser nobility in modern times, but it was a story Nanao did not want to see written about her family.

"Don't worry, Kasumi-bāchan. That was only the second meeting. There's another meeting this afternoon. The matchmaker you selected has an excellent reputation. We'll continue this process and see what happens. I want to continue," Nanao said with her voice firm and her chin high.

Kasumi nodded. She smiled, but looked a bit sad. "You're a good daughter to this family, Nanao-chan. I'm grateful for your efforts."

There were weights between them—old, heavy things that could not be spoken. "Don't worry. We still have plenty of time." The corners of her mouth turned up. "We're on a slow decline, remember?"

Kasumi chuckled. "Indeed. Perhaps you'll be able to obtain a promotion in the time remaining instead of a husband. The base pay of a Captain is much higher than that of a Vice Captain."

"There aren't any openings currently." Not that Nanao would seriously consider leaving the Eighth. She'd accept a marriage with Imaoka the Boar Bore before doing that. But it was best not to think too closely on the why of that choice.

"That's not true, Nanao-chan. The Kenpachi position is always available to anyone who can take it. Whether or not it would be wise to pursue such an opportunity, the possibility is there for the ambitious."

"Or the foolish," Nanao murmured and Kasumi chuckled again.

"There's still a little time before your next meeting. Do you want something to eat?" Kasumi shifted to stand.

"No, thank you. I'm going to go out to the garden for a little while." Nanao rose and walked toward the door.

"What should I tell the matchmaker about Imaoka-san?"

Nanao paused. "Imaoka-san is still in consideration for a second meeting, at least until the last initial meeting is over."

"Then I hope the third man is one that you're more interested in, Nanao-chan." Kasumi watched Nanao closely. "The matchmaker didn't name the third man yet. She was still making the arrangements this morning."

Nanao nodded. "We'll find out this afternoon." Unlike her great-aunt, Nanao did not hold out much hope. She left the dimness of the house for the brightness of the garden, her head bent.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 14th, 2012 09:53 am (UTC)
I thought we'd have to wait another week -- thank you so much for posting this so soon!

Lovely to see Hinamori in this; I always like to see the Bleach girls hanging out and being friends. The park bench scene was a perfect set-up for the shenanigans and sexiness to follow.

She's gonna kill him lol.
Dec. 16th, 2012 04:26 am (UTC)
I like to see the Bleach women being friends, too. We don't get too much of that in the manga.

Nanao might kill him before it's over. XD

Thanks for your comment!
Dec. 14th, 2012 03:42 pm (UTC)
>DDD you are killing me here!

Great chapter!!! :D
Dec. 16th, 2012 04:28 am (UTC)
Maybe! ;)

Thanks for reading, glad you liked this chapter!
Dec. 16th, 2012 12:32 pm (UTC)

No problem at all O' Queen!
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )