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

He didn't answer right away so she lifted her eyes to his face.


"There's one thing that I should probably tell you. Not because the premise of the article is true—it's not, I didn't choose you as a child to be my wife—but because I don't want you to hear it from another source and wonder." He looked serious and her heart dropped.

"What is it?"

"Every year before top candidate selection at the Shinigami Academy I would tell Lisa-chan to get the youngest and prettiest girls. It was just a joke. I trusted her to select candidates without any guidance, so I joked about it."

Nanao nodded.

"The year she recruited you she told me she'd gotten the very youngest girl possible, so I should stop asking her to pick up any more girls. I thought she'd gotten tired of the joke, so I didn't make it during candidate selection after that." His hand tightened on hers when her breath caught.

"Yadōmaru-sempai recruited me as a joke?" There was a knot in Nanao's chest that wouldn't ease.

"No, I'm not saying that. I'm sure Lisa-chan had good reasons for selecting you. You were a good candidate, Nanao-chan, and you became an excellent shinigami." His left hand stroked her face gently.

"Why did she recruit me, then?" she asked, voice wavering.

"I don't know her specific reasons." She made a sound of distress and he hurried on. "Nanao-chan, I've never required briefings on why a particular candidate was selected. You know that. I trust my Vice Captains to choose the right candidates for the Eighth Division. Lisa-chan selected you as a top candidate, and I'm sure she had excellent reasons for doing that."

"But you don't know." She shook her head. Each division only received a few slots for the top candidate selection process at the Academy each year. The divisions would select from all of the Academy graduates the students they wanted most for their division, and offer those recruits admission to the division early, with the possibility of a seated officer position. Other graduates at the Academy who weren't chosen as top selections submitted applications to the divisions after that. "My instructors were surprised I was chosen as a top selection. They had helped me prepare recruiting forms to submit to the Kidō Corps and the First Division already. No one thought that I would be chosen by a division as a candidate for a seat."

"Nanao-chan, it doesn't change anything. By whatever path you came to the Eighth, you were a perfect fit. You belong there, and you belong with me. It's fate, Nanao-chan." His thumb smoothed her cheek in soothing motions.

"Or it's a joke." Her voice was fragile when she spoke. "It's always been a point of pride for me that I was chosen for the Eighth. I thought I was special, that I had something that made me worth taking over other candidates who were older and stronger. But I didn't, did I? Yadōmaru-sempai got annoyed with you and picked me to stop your bad jokes."

"It doesn't matter why you came to the Eighth. What matters is that you did come, and that you belong here. I can't imagine you in the Kidō Corps or the First Division or anywhere but as Vice Captain of the Eighth Division. I'm so glad that Lisa-chan chose you. If you're worried about why, ask her, but it doesn't make any difference to me what her answer might be. You coming to the Eighth, to me, it was fate."

"I don't believe in that. It's a pretty thing to say, and I appreciate that you're saying it, but it's not what happened. She had concrete reasons, and one of them could have been as a joke. I will ask her, but—" she stopped, her throat unwilling to move.

"Nanao-chan, don't cry. It'll be all right. If you want to talk to Lisa-chan now, I'll get her and bring her back to you." He pulled her into an embrace, stroking her back.

"No," she said immediately. He didn't fully understand what he'd done. Her identity was built around the Eighth Division, around the events that had formed her path in life, and one of the core events was her selection as a top candidate by Lisa. The possibility that wasn't true—that she hadn't really been a top candidate, but had been some kind of joke—was devastating to consider. If Lisa confirmed Nanao's selection as a joke, it would be too painful now. Lisa wouldn't lie out of consideration for Nanao's feelings and Nanao wasn't sure she could handle the truth at this moment.

"Nanao-chan?" He was surprised, and she didn't blame him. She'd wanted the truth about the culprit behind the newspaper article so much, and now she didn't want the truth about her history, something that could be easily discovered and confirmed.

"I have to think about it. Please don't tell her what to say to me. I want to discuss this with her myself, privately."

"I won't interfere, Nanao-chan. You have the right to the truth. I'm sure Lisa-chan has good reasons for selecting you, and she'll tell you those when you ask. But it doesn't change anything, no matter what the reasons were. You belong with the Eighth Division."

"Shunsui." She let herself lean into him for a few seconds. He was warm and strong and full of concern for her. She pulled away. "I want to be alone for a while. I think it might be best to suspend the marriage practice for now."

A flash of hurt ran through his eyes, hidden quickly. "Nanao-chan, if there's anything you need from me—"

"No, there's nothing I need. Thank you for offering," she said, though it was a lie. His comfort was something she needed, but it seemed foolish to seek comfort from the one who'd caused her pain, however indirectly and accidently.

That hurt him, too, and it didn't disappear as quickly from his eyes. "If you do decide that you need anything, please ask me. I'll be here, Nanao-chan."

She stood, straightening her uniform, picking up her forgotten book from the bench. "Thank you."


She turned away from him. "Good night." She flash-stepped away as quickly as she could, barely making it to her quarters and closing the door before tears finally escaped her eyes.

Nanao stared at the ceiling in her quarters. She felt raw, as if all of her nerves were exposed to the air. To her irritation she'd cried earlier. She rarely succumbed to her emotions like that, but she couldn't get past the idea that her selection into the Eighth Division had not been a moment of Lisa seeing some merit or specialness in Nanao and choosing her as a top candidate, but rather an exasperated response to Shunsui's jokes about girls.

It'd been such an important moment in her life, and it had led her to the Eighth Division, which was now her home.

More than one hundred years ago

"What's your name?" The woman had a hard voice and hard eyes behind her glasses.

"My name is Nanao Ise, Vice Captain." Nanao pushed her glasses up, nervous. The Vice Captain of the Eighth Division wanted to see the ten graduating Academy students with the highest marks in kidō, which included Nanao. She was not in the top five, and it seemed very unlikely she'd actually be selected, but accommodating the top candidate selection was a priority for the Academy, and so Nanao was still presented to this woman.

"I am Vice Captain Yadōmaru. How have you found your Academy courses?" She leaned forward behind the table, her brush poised to take notes.

"Some of the material is challenging and some of it is very easy." Nanao swallowed. "My sword work isn't very good. Neither is my hand-to-hand combat."

Vice Captain Yadōmaru raised an eyebrow. "You admit to your shortcomings quite easily. What about your successes?"

"My kidō is pretty good, but I'm not the best. My instructor says that I'm too young to fully develop my skills yet. I'm good at research, and at written assignments." Nanao winced. It wasn't much of a list, not compared to what the others the Vice Captain would be meeting could say about themselves.

"I was surprised that you were able to rank this highly in kidō at your age. Do you work hard, Nanao Ise?" Her eyes were narrowed and intense on Nanao's face.

"I work as hard as I can, Vice Captain. I always do my best." Nanao clutched her kidō textbook close to her chest.

"I'm curious. When you use kidō, do you feel the power building as you recite the words, or do you feel the kidō's power rising before you say the words?" Vice Captain Yadōmaru asked.

Nanao tilted her head. "I'm not sure I understand what you mean."

"Are the words necessary to create your kidō, or do the words only unlock a final chain holding back your kidō?"

Nanao's brows drew together. "For kidō that's destructive, especially fire-based hadō ones, I can feel the power burning in my hands before I say the words. Reciting the words is just to unlock it. Binding kidō is harder for me. The power doesn't rise naturally. I have to build it with the words." Nanao wasn't sure if that was a good answer or not.

"I see. That's interesting." She wrote something on her paper. "What are you looking for in a division?"

The Vice Captain was interviewing her as if Nanao was really a candidate she would consider. Nanao had expected her to take one look at her and then dismiss her for the next candidate. "I don't know what makes a division good or not. My instructors have told me to apply to the Kidō Corps and the First Division."

"But what do you want in a division?"

Nanao hesitated. "I suppose I want a place that I can work hard and people will take me seriously. I want to do interesting work, and I want it to matter. That's probably not possible, given my age and skills." She dropped her eyes.

"Those are good goals, and while they might not be completely fulfilled right away or all of the time, you can certainly achieve those things at least some percentage of the time in the Eighth Division. At the very least, I can tell you that I would take your work quite seriously." Vice Captain Yadōmaru wrote a few notes on her page.

"What kind of work does the Eighth Division do?" Nanao asked.

"We protect people from Hollows, of course. We maintain some historical records and artifacts of import, but there are a few divisions that have similar tasks. The primary asset of our division is our Captain, as it is for every division. Captains are the strength of Soul Society, and one of our most important duties is to support our Captain." She studied Nanao impassively.

"The Captain of the Eighth Division is Captain Kyōraku. Is he a good Captain?" Nanao wasn't sure if her questions were the kind she should ask, but since she wasn't a serious candidate anyway, she might as well ask what she wanted to know.

"He is a Captain worth serving. He's a flawed man, but it's not necessary to like him personally, only to do your best for him and for the division. Could you do that, Nanao Ise?" Vice Captain Yadōmaru waited for her answer, her brush poised above the paper.

"Yes, Vice Captain. I would do my best for him. I would do my best for you, too, Vice Captain."

"Would you?" she asked, smiling faintly.

Nanao nodded again. "Yes, Vice Captain."

"Thank you for your answers. That will be sufficient. Please send in the next candidate on your way out." The woman nodded to Nanao and then began to write notes.

"Thank you for seeing me, Vice Captain. And—thank you for really interviewing me." Vice Captain Yadōmaru didn't have to take her seriously, but she had, and Nanao appreciated that. Nanao bowed her head and left the room, but she caught the surprise on the Vice Captain's face out of the corner of her eye.

Nanao returned to her classes, assuming she wouldn't be needed for any further selection interviews. She'd been shocked when she received the letter of invitation from the Eighth Division. She accepted the offer immediately and joined the Eighth Division. Vice Captain Yadōmaru must have seen something in Nanao that made her decide Nanao was a top candidate.

Nanao had believed that, and taken pride in that, for many years. It was a large piece of the foundation that her life in the Eighth Division was built on. If it wasn't true—if she'd been chosen as a joke or out of spite—she didn't know how she would respond. The idea that she belonged in the Eighth, that she was specially chosen for it, was important to her. Perhaps it was more important than it should be.

She sat up, resting her head against her knees. She'd never be able to sleep tonight. Lisa could tell her what the truth was, but Nanao needed to be certain that the truth wouldn't hurt her too much if it was negative. If she could feel strong and secure enough in her identity before she spoke to Lisa, then it would be all right if Lisa damaged the core of Nanao's history.

But it was hard to see how to get to that position from here. The stress of the match meetings and the marriage practice weighed her down, making everything harder.

Shunsui could help her.

She pushed the thought away. He could help her by reassuring her of her place in the Eighth and in the world, but she'd broken off the marriage practice, panicked by the thought of breaking down in front of him and wanting space to think.

And even if he told her again that she belonged in the Eighth, that she belonged with him, would that be enough?

She could find out. It would be better than sitting awake all night, worrying. He'd said to come to him for anything. Maybe it was worth finding out what he would say to her, what it would mean to her.

She pulled a haori over her sleeping robe, putting her glasses on and slipping her sandals on her bare feet as she left her quarters. She flashed to his house quickly, but walked quietly on his porch to his bedroom, hesitating. It was the middle of the night. Was it really all right to wake him?

"Nanao-chan?" he called from inside the room. He must have felt her reiatsu at the door.

She removed her sandals and went inside. "I'm sorry for disturbing you. I shouldn't have come at this hour." She hesitated again in the doorway.

"Come here, Nanao-chan." He opened the blankets, leaning his weight on one hand. He looked like he'd been sleeping, and that increased her urge to flee.

"I'm sorry to bother you so late."

He smiled, his teeth bright in the dim room. "Don't be sorry, I'm glad you came. I'm always happy to have you with me, no matter what time it might be. Come here, sweetheart."

She came closer, sliding onto the bed and sitting.

"Why don't you lie down? You'll be more comfortable." He lifted the blankets invitingly, and she slipped into them.

"It's not fair of me to come to you when I've suspended the marriage practice for tonight." She lay down on her side, facing him, her glasses still on her face.

"I don't care much about fair. I care a lot more about you," he said. "Why don't you take your glasses off, Nanao-chan?"

She didn't have a good reason to leave them on, and his coaxing voice and open expression were persuasive. She removed her glasses and set them beside the bed.

"Don't look so worried, Nanao-chan." His thumb stroked her cheek in soothing motions, the way he had earlier in the garden.

"I should really go." She wanted to rest on him, letting him warm and reassure her, but it wasn't fair to him when she wasn't sure of when she'd want to resume the marriage practice. If he'd asked her to marry him at the picnic, she would have been very close to accepting him, but after the newspaper article and the possibility of Nanao's recruitment being a joke, she had some distracting concerns.

He gripped her waist and tugged her close. "Don't go." His embrace was everything she'd wanted, comfort and closeness and the heat of his body radiating into her. "Talk to me, Nanao-chan."

She exhaled a shaky breath she didn't know she'd been holding. Her hands rested against his chest and she hid her face in the joint of his neck and shoulder. "I don't want to feel this way. It's a small thing, really, just a small piece of my history, but if Yadōmaru-sempai didn't recruit me because I was special, because she thought I belonged in the Eighth, I don't know how to deal with that. I don't want to be a joke."

"You're not a joke, no matter what happened or what Lisa-chan's reasons might have been. You do belong in the Eighth. Believe me, Nanao-chan." His voice reverberated with certainty.

"How do you know?" she asked, her voice small against his skin.

He laced his fingers through her hair, tipping her head back gently to let her see his eyes. "Because you are the Eighth Division. You and I are the first people that anyone would think of when they think of the Eighth Division. Our names are synonymous with the Eighth Division."

"Your name is, but mine—has it really been long enough for that?"

"Yes," he said immediately. "It's been more than enough time, and you're very memorable, Nanao-chan."

"I don't know." She dropped her eyes.

"I do. People remember you for your elegant beauty, for your ruthless efficiency, for your devoted service to the Eighth. You are the Eighth Division, Nanao-chan." His voice dipped lower. "I think of you when I think of the Eighth. Lately, you're almost the only thing I can think about at all. You belong, Nanao-chan. You belong with the Eighth Division and you belong with me."

It helped to hear him say those things with the certainty and authority of his position as the Captain of the Eighth, and it sent a ribbon of heated awareness through her to hear the edge of possessiveness in his voice. "The Eighth is the home I've had the longest. It's the center of my life. It's the core of my identity. If that's broken—I don't know who I'd be."

"You'd be Nanao Ise, the best Vice Captain ever to grace the Eighth Division. You'd be my Nanao-chan. The Eighth would still be your home. It will always be your home." His eyes were tender and his voice strong and soft.

"Can you promise that? I don't think you can."

"I promise. If I am the Eighth Division, which you conceded already, then I can promise that the Eighth will always be your home." He kissed her forehead.

"You can't know that you'll always want me with the Eighth Division." There was more that she left unsaid, but it didn't matter, he heard it anyway.

"Given that I'm trying very hard to marry you, I think you're ignoring some important evidence about what I want. My feelings for you are not a fleeting fancy, Nanao-chan."

She winced. "Don't, please." She hadn't really weighed his—his emotion for her into her calculations about a possible marriage to him or one of the men in the file. She didn't trust in such emotion, even from Shunsui, a man she trusted absolutely in many other respects. Emotions could be whimsical, scattered things, unreliable and inconsiderate. She did not trust them and wouldn't rest a decision as important as a marriage solely on any declaration of emotion.

She trusted evidence. She trusted established behavior patterns. She trusted in the knowledge that people were flawed and fallible creatures.

But she did trust Shunsui.

It was a contradiction and a problem. "I need to make a rational decision. I need more data," she said, and thought that a cold and inadequate response.

His lips turned up. "How many points do you need on your list in my favor to believe me?"

"I don't know," she said truthfully.

"Then what will it take for you to choose me as your husband?" He didn't seem offended or surprised by her response to him bringing up emotions, which was a relief. He'd even gone to a more concrete set of questions.

She considered his question. "I would have to believe that you are the best choice of husband from my available options. I would have to believe that the Ise estate and my family would be restored by choosing you." She hesitated. "I would have to believe that I do belong in the Eighth Division, that it is my home and my future, no matter why I ended up there."

He nodded. "We'll get there. I am the best man for you, and your family will be restored by choosing me. The Eighth is your home and you belong there. You belong here, beside me. This is fate, Nanao-chan."

"You believe that?" She wanted to believe it too, desperately, achingly, but she couldn't.

"Yes." He kissed her with all the firm conviction of his voice.

She allowed the kiss, even welcomed it. She'd already been close to believing the first two things she'd asked for, and while the newspaper article was a setback, she was still close to accepting him as the best man to be her husband. The question about Nanao's place in the Eighth and in the world was harder, but she could be persuaded. As he lavished her lips with gentle attention, she found him very persuasive.

He broke the kiss too soon and she made a protesting noise. He kissed the corner of her mouth softly. "It's late, Nanao-chan. Have you slept at all?"

"No. I'll go back to my quarters, so that you can sleep." She pulled back from him, but he stopped her easily with his words.

"Please stay. Sleep here. I want you with me, Nanao-chan."

It was tempting and she didn't want to leave. His embrace was warm and he smelled like pine trees and clean soap and home. She could stay with him tonight. There were only a few days before she would need to make a decision about pursuing marriage with him; she shouldn't waste that time. But she wanted to stay because she wanted to be near him, not because it was the reasonable path to sensible decisions. "This doesn't mean that everything is settled between us," she said carefully.

"I know. We don't have to talk about that now. Let's just be together like this tonight, Nanao-chan."

She nodded. His eyes gleamed in the moonlight, his lips wet from their kiss. She'd hurt him earlier, but he still wanted her with him. She felt tenderness rise in her chest. Her fingertips traced the line of his cheek and jaw softly. "I'll stay." She rolled to her side, away from him.

"I'm glad, Nanao-chan." He kissed her hair and lifted his hands away from her.

"Yesterday I said that you could be close to me tonight, if you wanted to be." She tensed until she felt his hand rest on the curve of her waist and his chest against her back. "Good night, Shunsui."

"Good night, Nanao-chan."

A/N: I'm going to post a Shunsui/Nanao one-shot for Valentine's Day next week. I haven't done a Valentine's Day story before, but it always seemed like fun. Practicing Marriage should be updated next week after the Valentine's story, probably on Friday, but it might slip to Saturday. ^_^;