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

Back to Chapter 9.

Chapter 1.
There was an incessant, high-pitched chirping poking at the edge of Nanao's consciousness. She wiggled deeper down under the blankets. The warbling symphony of tweets didn't match her alarm or any other sound that she recognized, and her body registered the hour as too early for rising.

The blankets over her ears helped muffle the sound, as did the breathing of the man she was using as a pillow. But the noise was relentless. "What?" she murmured, trying to figure out the nature of the sound without fully waking up.

"Baby birds," Shunsui said, his words rumbling under her ear.

"No." Nanao shifted deeper into the blankets, moving lower down Shunsui's body, attempting to deny the existence of baby birds and their cries. She rested her head on Shunsui's chest, her hands tucked inside his sleeping robe, one of her legs thrown over his thigh. It was so warm and comfortable here. If only the birds would be quiet, she could fall asleep again in Shunsui's embrace.

Wait, what? She jolted up, tipping the blankets back, her hands caught in Shunsui's robe. "What?"

The air outside the blanket was crisp; it was barely dawn. Nanao shivered.

"We're sleeping, Nanao-chan." Shunsui didn't open his eyes, caressing her back with one hand.

"Together? Why?" She sounded shocked to her own ears and winced.

"Marriage practice. Come here, Nanao-chan. It's too early to get up and you need more sleep." His voice was sleepy and soothing. Shunsui pressed lightly on her back with one hand.

Nanao lay back down beside him and Shunsui pulled the blankets back up. She was still drowsy and it was pleasant to be in bed with him, her hands playing thoughtlessly with the curling hair on his chest and his heartbeat steady under her ear.

But the needy chirping outside was relentless. She opened one eye. "This is how you managed breakfast in bed yesterday morning, isn't it? The birds woke you up."

"Yes. It's not cheating, Nanao-chan. You said that we could resume the marriage practice at dawn, and you didn't say anything about alarm clocks or about hungry baby birds." He opened his eyes, heavy-lidded and amused. His hand brushed her hair away from her eyes with soft strokes.

"You used the birds to enhance your performance in the marriage practice." She rested her chin on her hand on his chest. Her other hand was tangled in his sleeping robe under his back somehow, and she tried to extract it without drawing a lot of attention to the problem. Actually getting stuck to the man was embarrassing, although she was still insulated by the drowsy warmth of first waking.

"I wanted to impress you. I suppose you could say I used the birds to enhance my performance in the marriage practice, although I never thought of it that way myself, Nanao-chan." He smiled lazily. His hand came away from her face to loosen his sash, letting her hand flutter free of his robe.

"The birds are not helping you with impressing me at the moment." But she realized suddenly that his robe had slipped when he'd loosened his sash, and now her leg was resting against one of his bare thighs. She was not going to look to see where else the robe had slipped. She extracted her legs from his, pulling her hands away from his skin and slid off him, curling up on her side. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment.

He rolled on his side, his large hands reaching for her and pulling her back against him. "If I'd moved the baby birds, Nanao-chan would have been disappointed in me. Besides, isn't it nice to be together like this, cuddling in the morning?" He pressed a kiss behind her ear.

She swallowed hard, her hands against his chest. "I don't know if this is a good idea."

"The birds will quiet down when they've eaten a bit." One of his hands rested on the curve of her waist.

"Not the birds," she whispered, shifting back from him. Touching him was much too enjoyable, stimulating and comfortable all at once.

He smiled at her, his eyes playful in the early morning light. "Nanao-chan? Are you upset because I know your secret?"

"What?" Her eyes widened.

He smiled. "Nanao-chan is a cuddler."

She exhaled a relieved breath. He hadn't said that she was obviously inexperienced. But he'd called her a cuddler. That was almost worse. "I am not."

"You are. You rolled right over to me and cuddled. I was delighted." He grinned.

Had she? It could be true; she'd certainly been happy and comfortable when she'd woken up on top of him. "I'm sure it was only because you were warm," she said, excusing her unconscious actions.

"I'm still warm, Nanao-chan. Come over here and we'll cuddle." He opened his arms widely. It was an inviting offer, but she was out of the depths of her experience here.

She sat up. "I should be getting up anyway. It's obvious that the birds aren't going to stop, and I won't be able to go back to sleep."

"Nanao-chan, come back to bed. We don't have to sleep." He grinned up at her, his broad chest exposed by his inadequate sleeping robe, his hair loose and curling against this skin.

She shook her head, backing up on her knees before standing. "I do not cuddle." She marched away from the bed.

"Can I have a kiss good morning, Nanao-chan?"

She shut the bathroom door behind her with a firm clack, covering her hot cheeks with her hands. Cuddling? Performance-enhancing birds? He was clearly damaging her thinking.

She washed quickly but lingered in the bath; it was so early she would have plenty of time to get to the office. When she emerged from the bathroom in her robe Shunsui was sitting up in bed, rolling his head on his neck.

"What do you want to do today?" she asked, going to the closet to get her clothes for the day, and trying very hard not to stare at him. She settled for stolen glances out of the corner of her eye. He was nearly naked, his robe barely on at this point.

"I'd like to lounge in bed with cute Nanao-chan." He smiled, stretching his arms over his head.

She selected her clothes quickly, blocking his view of her chosen undergarments and then hiding them in her folded uniform in her hands. "Today we are going to do things that you wanted to do with your potential wife, remember?" She strode back into the bathroom.

"But lounging in bed with you would be one of those things, Nanao-chan," he called.

She emerged from the bathroom, dressed and neat. "It's too late for that now. What else do you want to do?"

He watched her, leaning back on his hands. "Let me think about it. I don't want to waste this opportunity."

She nodded. "Think about it and let me know. I'm going to get breakfast at the mess hall. I'll see you in the office. Remember that your next chapter is due for the Seireitei Bulletin soon, you should work on that today."

"Don't worry, Nanao-chan, even if I can't get my new chapter to Hisagi-kun in time, I'll still let you read it. I wouldn't want Nanao-chan to be anxious over the cliffhanger in the last chapter."

"That's really not what I'm concerned about. Hisagi-kun calls me when you're late with your chapters, remember?" She arched an eyebrow at him.

"Yes, and we had such a good time when I was late with my beautifully romantic chapter last month. With Nanao-chan's gentle encouragement, the words flowed out so easily." He grinned and she shook her head at him.

"I tied you to a chair and hit you repeatedly with a fan when you tried to steal kisses or escape. Gentle encouragement is hardly accurate."

"The power of our deep romance inspires me to write my glorious story of love, Nanao-chan."

"We clearly have very different recollections of that afternoon," she said. She turned to the door. "I'll see you later, Shunsui."

"Don't run away yet, Nanao-chan."

Her back stiffened. "I wasn't running."

"You're so energetic in the morning, Nanao-chan. Come here for a minute, please." He held out his hand, smiling enticingly.

She eyed him suspiciously. "What do you want?"

"I was just thinking that I would like to share a kiss in the morning with my wife, Nanao-chan." He puckered his lips.

"I am not your wife. Stop making that face."

"No, you're not yet—but you asked me about things I'd like to do with my wife and this is one of those things."

She stepped towards the bed, stopping short of his reach. "This is a rather physical request."

He nodded. "That's true, and it would be dishonorable for me to expect physical favors from you during marriage practice. I wouldn't do that, Nanao-chan. This is just for a kiss, like the one we shared yesterday morning." His expression was open and honest.

"We did discuss the possibility of kisses in the morning then."

His lips curved up. "Yes. We agreed that if we were both awake in the morning, we would share kisses."

"We might share kisses," she corrected, but knelt on the bed next to him. He was too tall and had a height advantage in this position. She needed more control. She pressed on his chest with one hand and he fell back on the bed.

"Nanao-chan." He was still as she smoothed his curling hair away from his face.

She bent over him. "This does not mean that there will be more kisses in the future."

"You don't have to say that every time, Nanao-chan. I won't take your kisses for granted." His eyes were tinted silver in the gray light of morning, the lines around his eyes fanning out from the corners. His age did show on him, but she could admit to herself that it was one of the things she found attractive about him. He'd lived so long that she was sure that he would always be there, a strong force at the center of her life.

She leaned her weight on one hand, the other stroking his hair absently. "I don't want to mislead or disappoint you. I am not a particularly affectionate person."

"I couldn't be disappointed with you about anything like that. It's my honor to receive Nanao-chan's affections. Don't worry about managing my expectations."

Her brows drew together. She'd been trying to manage his expectations for a physical relationship with her since the marriage practice started, because she had virtually no experience in this area, and he had so much more. But perhaps it would be alright to let things drift a little and find their own equilibrium. Perhaps she would linger in his bed tomorrow morning. She could think about it.

His lips were wide and full and she brushed her fingertips over them lightly. Sensual lips, lips meant for kissing. She'd been spending too much time with him lately, she was even thinking like him. She bent and her lips kissed his with a confidence that surprised her. The kiss was silky and light and she nibbled at his lower lip, seeking more from him. He responded to her immediately, his hands embracing her, tugging her down onto his chest, his tongue velvet and playful in her mouth. He was good at this, not just at kissing, but at making her feel that she had his complete focus and that he had all the time in the world to spend with her.

She ran one hand down his chest, her nails raking lightly against his stomach, sliding down his side to his back to clutch him to her. The texture of his skin was fascinating to her, the crisp hair covering his hard muscles such a contrast to her own skin. He made a sound of pleasure in response to her touch and she felt powerful.

"Do you like that?" she asked, running her hand across his stomach.

"Yes, very much. Touch me as much as you want, anywhere that you want, Nanao-chan." He smiled, his lips a touch from hers.

She kissed him again, lingering over his lips. "Think about what you want to do today," she murmured.

"I'm pretty happy with what we're doing now, Nanao-chan," he said, raising his head for another kiss.

She smiled against his lips. "I'll see you at the office." She pulled away from him. He lounged in the bed, content to watch her. She stood, straightening her uniform. This could work, she thought, and the idea froze her in place.

"Do you want to come back to bed, Nanao-chan?" He smiled invitingly.

She hesitated. "Not today." It was a softer refusal than she'd normally have chosen and his smile widened.

"Maybe tomorrow, sweet Nanao-chan."

She nodded to him and left the room, her thoughts overflowing. The marriage practice was working. She could imagine herself with him, living in this house, sleeping in that bed. It was exciting and terrifying at the same time. She exhaled shakily and headed to the Eighth Division. Nothing would settle her like the routine of work.

Shunsui considered the contents of the picnic basket with a focus some men would reserve for war strategies. This basket was worthy of this level of attention because it would serve as an important final step to his goal of winning Nanao.

The marriage practice was working. He'd seen it in the morning, when she'd come back to him after jumping out of his bed. She'd bathed, dressed, and returned to him for one kiss that turned into four or five kisses. Not only that, she'd touched him, curious about what he liked.

He couldn't be happier with the way his relationship was developing with Nanao. For all her disclaimers about not being affectionate, he'd discovered to his surprise and pleasure that she wanted to touch him—accepting and now initiating kisses, biting and sucking on his skin in the office, and cuddling up with him in her sleep. She'd curled up on him like a cat, to his delight.

She was everything that he'd wanted and still more than he'd expected. That was why he studied the contents of the basket with such interest. Gaining Nanao's favor was his highest priority right now.

He wanted her to be his wife.

With that determination strong in his mind, he closed the basket and headed for their office at the Eighth. "Good afternoon, sweet Nanao-chan. Are you ready for our picnic?"

She looked up from her work, setting her brush aside. "You were gone for a long time."

"I needed to make sure that I have everything for Nanao-chan's perfect picnic." He grinned.

"Today is for things that you want to do to be satisfied with our compatibility, remember? It's not for impressing me."

"Every day is for impressing you."

Her lashes swept down briefly, her mouth softening, but she spoke crisply. "That's unnecessary. But we can go now, if you like."

He led her to his own gardens, to a grassy clearing surrounded by trees and fragrant flowers, arranged with artful wildness. The blanket he'd packed for this was thick and soft. He would have been fine with using his haori as ground cover, but on the off-chance that Nanao wanted to roll around with him, he wanted her to be comfortable.

He welcomed her to sit with an exaggerated flourish and she watched him arrange food trays and books to his satisfaction with indulgent warmth in her eyes. When he produced an ice bucket and a bottle of champagne from the basket, she laughed. "Isn't that a bit too far? It's just lunch."

"It's a romantic picnic lunch, Nanao-chan." He poured two glasses and offered one to her.

"It is your day." She sipped from the glass. "It's good."

Kisuke Urahara had insisted that this vintage had high appeal for women, and Shunsui had dubiously paid a good sum for the imported luxury. Apparently Kisuke was right. Shunsui would have to buy a case next time, if Nanao liked it. He sampled from his glass. "You're right, Nanao-chan."

"Do you bring champagne and chocolate on all your picnics?" She tilted her head. There was no twinge of jealousy or resentment in her voice, just amused curiosity.

He smiled. He'd been a little worried when they'd started the marriage practice that she would be bothered by his previous relationships, but after their conversation last night, he wasn't worried anymore. She treated their potential marriage as an entirely new endeavor for both of them. "This is a first. But if it goes well, I'll make sure to pack both on our future picnics."

She sipped from her glass as they sampled their way through the picnic foods. He refilled it for her when it was empty, which she allowed. "I shouldn't drink very much, since this is lunch."

"Take the afternoon off."

She shook her head. "I've been taking a lot of time to spend it with you on marriage practice, so I'd like to be in the office for at least half of the day."

"If you insist, although I'd love to stay out with you all day."

"That would be a little too irresponsible for me." She smiled slightly.

"Then let's enjoy the time we do have." He drank from his glass. "I've received a response from my family."

She sat up straighter, tensing. "What did they say?"

"My father and brother are traveling for a martial arts event, but we can go to see my mother if you'd like."

"Tomorrow?" she asked with a thin thread of worry in her voice.

"The day after tomorrow would be better, so that I can send a reply and she'll have time to prepare." They could have gone tomorrow, but it seemed too soon for Nanao. She'd want to prepare as well. Nanao was the kind of meticulous, organized person his mother would like, he was certain.

"That sounds fine. I'll plan for that. What should I wear?"

"You look lovely in anything." She waved off his flattery, so he answered the question another way. "I think you would be beautiful and appropriate in one of your silk kimonos, Nanao-chan."

"That would be fine. But what about sparring with your mother?"

"She might not ask." He could hope that she wouldn't ask, at least.

Nanao raised an eyebrow.

"Why not bring a change of clothes for the dojo, then? Wear your lovely outfit, and if you need to change, you can." He wondered which kimono she would choose. It didn't matter, really, since she was beautiful in anything.

"I'll do that." She nodded.

"Nanao-chan, the truth is that I'm not terribly close to my family. I care about them, and my parents are good people, but Yama-jii was more to me when I was young that they were. He was like a father to me."

"I understand. I am not very close to my family, either."

Shunsui remembered how tense she'd been when he'd asked her if she wrote to her family from the Academy. He wondered if he could draw more information from her. "It was hard for my family when I developed such strong spiritual powers so early. Yama-jii knew exactly what to do with me, though."

"Yes, it was like that for my family. My parents were never unkind to me, but they always seemed surprised by me. I don't think they'd planned for a child. When I developed spiritual powers things became very difficult." She looked down at the glass in her hand.

"What happened?" She'd always been private about her family. He'd never heard any of this before.

"My parents ignored the development of my powers for as long as they could. Generally they ignored me as much as they could. Kasumi-bāchan said I had to go to the Academy, but no one listened to her. Then I had a nightmare and threw lightning into a corner of my room while I was sleeping. The house caught fire. I was lucky that Kasumi-bāchan had insomnia that night."

His heart missed a beat. "She saved you?"

"She saw the smoke from the garden and ran in for me. They were able to save the house, but not my room and the adjoining one. After that, Kasumi-bāchan insisted that I be sent to the Academy, and no one stopped her." There was a heavy sadness in her voice.

"Did you want them to stop her?"

She emptied her drink and he refilled it obligingly. "Going to the Academy was the best thing for me. But there was—is—a small part of me that wishes my parents had cared enough to fight for me, just a little bit. Even if I still had to go, if they would have just considered other options, I would have been happy."

"I'm sorry. Parents should fight for their children, Nanao-chan."

She shook her head. "They weren't the kind of people that would do that. My father buried himself in his books. He was a scholar of obscure languages. I would try to connect with him through books, but as a child my understanding and thinking weren't sophisticated enough to engage his interest."

"And your mother?" He kept his tone neutral despite the feelings her story evoked in him.

"She was beautiful, very beautiful. I can't remember her face, but I remember her hands, her clothes, her smell. She had the softest skin and kept her nails shining. She always wore the Ise silk and smelled of fine perfume. I was small and plain and too messy to please her. I tried very hard to stay clean and neat, it was just—not enough."

"You were a child." He thought of Nanao as she'd been as a child: intelligent, tidy, always following rules and trying her best to surpass expectations.

"I wasn't enough." She read his expression and shook her head. "They weren't bad people. They were ordinary nobles, benevolent if neglectful most of the time. It's possible I might have become someone they would have engaged more as I got older. They just never knew what to do with me." She rubbed at a spot of ink on her hand.

"Nanao-chan." He took her glass, set it down on a tray and clasped her hands in his. She had beautiful hands, delicate, with slender fingers, and neat nails shining with care. Her palms had callouses from sword work—she was too practical to remove those, he imagined—but her skin was soft and smelled faintly of flowers. She'd always been scrupulous about having her scars treated and removed, if possible, by the Fourth Division.

"Don't look at me like that. Don't feel sorry for me, it's unacceptable." She narrowed her eyes at him.

"I don't feel sorry for you. I feel empathy, Nanao-chan. I know what it feels like to be a changeling to your family." He raised her hands to his lips and kissed her fingers.

"I do wonder what they would have thought of me as I am now." She smiled faintly. "I like to think we would have had good conversations now and again."

"You are a very accomplished woman, Nanao-chan. I'm sure you could have good conversations with anyone." He released one of her hands to grasp her waist, pulling her close. "And you're beautiful and elegant. Any noble family would be lucky to have you."

"Do you think you'll get anywhere with such brazen flattery?" Tenderness and amusement lit her eyes.

He grinned. "I have more. Nanao-chan is lovely and sweet and brilliant—"

Her hands clutched his chin, pulling him down enough for her to kiss him. The angle was uncomfortable for his neck, so when the kiss deepened he shifted to lay her down on the blanket. She resisted, pushing him back. He fell on his back easily, tugging her with him.

She kissed him with an enthusiasm perhaps partially from the champagne, but judging by the heat of her eyes when she pulled back, some of it was desire for him, too. "I prefer to be on top," she murmured, and then looked startled she'd said that out loud.

He laughed. "You can be on top of me as much as you like, Nanao-chan. I've always admired a woman who knows what she likes."

She blushed prettily, shaking her head. "This has been more fun than I would have expected."

"Picnicking, or kissing me?"

"All of it. The marriage practice with you has been fun." She sat up, stretching her arms. "When Kasumi-bāchan asked me to consider an arranged marriage, I thought it would be an unpleasant process, with the possibility of a cold and unwanted marriage at the end of it."

He sat up, leaning back on his hands. "I'm glad that you're enjoying our marriage practice, Nanao-chan. But I was surprised that you would consider an arranged marriage at the request of your family at all."

"You were surprised because I'm not close to my family?"

He nodded.

"I can see why you would be surprised. All that's left of my family now is Kasumi-bāchan and my niece and nephew, really. At first when Kasumi-bāchan asked me to consider the match meetings, I was going to refuse."

"But you didn't."

She looked off into the distance. "No. When I thought more deeply on the question, I remembered all of the residents of the Ise estate. More than that, I thought about how glad I am that Kasumi-bāchan sent me to the Academy. Because of her, I went to the Eighth Division, which has become very important to me."

"You're very important to the Eighth, Nanao-chan. And you're very important to me, too."

Her eyes slid to his, liquid and warm. After a pause she spoke. "I thought that I owed Kasumi-bāchan at least an effort at some initial match meetings. But none of those men had much appeal as husbands."

"Do I have much appeal to you as a husband, Nanao-chan?"

She picked up her glass and sipped, breaking eye contact. "You have accumulated a number of points over the men in the file."

"I have." When she didn't look at him, he tried another tactic. "I think you should give me a few more points, Nanao-chan."

"For what?" She turned to him, surprised.

"For the romance of the picnic, for one." He smiled.

She nodded. "I'll give you that point for romance. What other points did you want?"

"I think you should give me a point for wanting you on top."

"On top? You mean on top of you? That's ridiculous. I am not giving you a point for that." She set her glass down to wag her finger at him.

"I'm showing openness for your preferences in bed, Nanao-chan." His grin widened as she made an outraged sound. She was so much fun to tease.

"You cannot have a point for that, certainly not at this early stage of our relationship." She narrowed her eyes at him.

"I could describe all of the other ways I'd indulge you in bed." He let his voice dip suggestively.

"That's unnecessary." She was lovely in her indignation, her cheeks pink, her eyes lit with fire, her lips still swollen from his kiss.

"I'm only trying to provide you with all the information you need to make a good decision about giving me this point, Nanao-chan."

She rose on her knees and pushed on his chest, pressing him back against the blanket. She shook her head at him. "You should want me on top of you. Rewarding you with a point is ridiculous when it's something that you would want as much as I would."

His blood heated at her unintended admission of desire for him. "I want you in any way that I can have you, Nanao-chan. I just want you." He brought his hand up to caress her elegant neck and shoulder.

"And you believe that distinguishes you from the men in the matchmaker's file?" She frowned, considering.

"I believe those men would desire you. A man would have to have interests in entirely another direction not to find you desirable. What I can promise you is that I will always consider your wishes and pleasure above my own in bed. That is something I don't believe those men would offer you."

"The point is not really for having me on top, but for a more general consideration in sexual relations, then," she said primly.

"Sexual relations? You're going to make me blush, Nanao-chan." He tugged her down, closer to his face. "Say it again."

She sniffed at him. "You aren't taking this seriously." One of her hands pushed against his chest for leverage, but her other hand sank into his hair.

"I take making love very seriously, Nanao-chan." He raised his head to nibble at her lower lip.

She turned her head and he released her lips. "I'm not going to give you the point now. I'll set it aside until a later time, when more data is available."

"I'll give you data," he murmured, kissing her. She sank down on him, her upper body resting on his chest, her lips parting for his tongue. He loved kissing her, loved the way she invited him with soft lips and a hint of bite, loved the way her body melted into his.

She pulled back for air, her eyes violet and unfocused. "This could work," she mused in a bare whisper.

He was surprised, but if she wanted to be more intimate with him now, he didn't mind. "It's a beautiful day, and I'm yours, Nanao-chan. We can do anything that you want."

She looked startled, blinking. "I meant—" she swallowed her words, sitting up.

Comprehension struck him. "You meant that you and I—we could work? Our marriage could work?"

She fidgeted her fingers in her lap and he sat up, wrapping an arm around her waist. His lips teased at her neck. "Nanao-chan's judgment is excellent, as always. We'll have a beautiful, strong marriage, Nanao-chan."

"We could have," she corrected, but exposed more of her neck for his lips.

He made a sound of agreement against her skin, too pleased to quibble over language. The marriage practice had worked, better than he could have hoped. He was sure that when they returned to the Ise estate to meet with the matchmaker, Nanao would accept his proposal.

He drew back to see her face. She was flushed from his kisses and the champagne, her eyes heavy and her lips wet. "There's something else on my list for the afternoon."

"What's that?" She allowed him to tuck her against his side.

"I want to read love poetry to you. When you're my wife, I'll do this often."

She raised an eyebrow but waved her hand beneficently. "If that's what you want to do on your day, please go ahead."

He lifted a book, opening it to his desired page with one hand, his other holding her against him. She rested her head on his chest while he read, her eyes closing, her hands curled in his uniform unconsciously.

It was a perfect afternoon, by Shunsui's standards. He'd courted Nanao and won her favor. Soon she would be his wife. He watched her relax against him, confident and happy in their relationship.

On to Chapter 11.