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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.

A/N: Kensei and Mashiro appear in this chapter. In The Death Save the Strawberry novel by Matsubara Makoto & Kubo Tite, released in Japan earlier this year, it's explained that Mashiro returned to Seireitei with Kensei, but since the Vice Captain position at the Ninth was already filled, she became a reporter for the Seireitei Bulletin.

I've decided to have Yamamoto appear in this story, even though I've set the spoilers past the point of his death; since the setting already has Nanao and Shunsui in the Eighth Division, I thought it would be nice to write Yamamoto, perhaps for the last time.

Thanks for your understanding on the small delay on this update while I was working on my Valentine's Day story, Honeybees and Chocolate, now posted. Thank you for your comments, and thanks, as always, for reading! ^_^

Nanao woke up with the baby birds after only a few hours of sleep. She burrowed deeper into the blankets, hiding her face against Shunsui's chest. His arm tightened around her. She drifted back into sleep, waking again only when the sun had climbed higher in the sky and the hour was vibrant with morning sounds.

She opened her eyes, confused by the unfamiliar view. Shunsui's house, she remembered, and feeling the deep breathing of the man beneath her, she realized she'd snuggled herself up close to him in the night. Her brows drew together. He was right; she apparently had a secret proclivity for cuddling.

She extracted herself slowly from the bed, trying not to wake him. Silently she moved to the doors of his bedroom, intending to return to her quarters to prepare for the day. She was embarrassed about her behavior yesterday and it might be awkward to use his bath and eat breakfast with him.

"Nanao-chan?" His voice came from the bed, sleepy and warm.

She glanced back, and saw his head still on the pillow, his eyes open and his hair mussed. He looked messy but it appealed to her. "I'm going now, I'll see you later." She waved and moved quickly into flash step, before he could ask her to come back to bed or kiss him or anything like that.

Perhaps she shouldn't have stayed last night, but it had helped—she felt better than she had when she was alone in her quarters, agonizing over the events that led her to the Eighth. She'd go to her quarters, clean up and get ready for the day, and then finish the work she'd left undone yesterday. Nothing would settle her like the normalcy of routine.

At her desk in the Eighth some time later, she inhaled the aroma of her tea. It was perfect—not too strong and not too weak—just the right balance. The paperwork from yesterday and this morning she sorted quickly, finishing the items that only needed a Vice Captain's approval and moving the ones that needed Shunsui's approval to his desk.

She'd was writing her column for the Seireitei Bulletin when Shunsui came in. "Good morning, lovely Nanao-chan," he said with a grin, coming to sit at the edge of her desk, just as he normally did.

"Good morning, Shunsui." She used his name, which obviously pleased him.

"Did you sleep well?" His eyes were open and affectionate; if he was distressed that she hadn't stayed this morning, it didn't show.

"Yes, thank you. Although the baby birds did wake me up—how much longer will they be in the nest, do you think?" she asked.

"They probably won't stay more than a month now. Then we'll have quiet in the mornings, Nanao-chan." He reached out to brush her hair back from her face.

She allowed his touch, allowed the implication that she'd be sharing his bed in a month to pass unchallenged. "They might all move into your garden and still be making noise in the morning."

He smiled. "True, but it wouldn't be as incessant and constant as the baby bird noises."

"There is that." She looked down at her page, straightening it relative to the edge of the desk. "I wanted to thank you for last night."


"I know that I've been difficult at times, but you were really kind about Yadōmaru-sempai, and about me." She stared at her hands on the desk.

He tipped her chin up. "I wasn't being kind, Nanao-chan. What I told you was the truth."

She hesitated. "I've been drifting a little lately, just not centered in the way that I usually am, and that article—the question of my recruitment—it was hard for me. But I am the Vice Captain of the Eighth, and whatever happened back then, I've earned my place here. You're right about that." She met his eyes steadily.

He nodded, smiling. "You've earned your position. Nanao-chan telling me that I'm right—what a rare and glorious feeling." He fanned himself with one hand.

She grabbed his waving hand. "Stop that. You're right often, as you know, but your ego doesn't need to be stroked by me."

"But Nanao-chan, every part of me wants to be stroked by you, yearns to be stroked by you, needs to be stroked by you—" He leaned down to her, making kissy faces.

"You aren't convincing me to stroke anything." She turned away from him, laughing a little, pressing on his forehead with her palm to try and push him back as he loudly dropped wet kisses on her neck.

He slowed his kisses until they were soft and sent a tingle down her body. "I'm glad to hear you laugh. You haven't been doing it so often lately."

"I know. I'm sorry." She twisted in her chair to see his face.

"I understand, Nanao-chan. The matchmaking and the marriage practice are stressful things, and I know you've found some of it challenging. But you're not alone in this, sweetheart."

She touched his face. "If my recruitment was a joke—it will hurt, I can't deny that. But I've proven myself worthy of the Eighth, I do believe that."

He flicked her Vice Captain badge with his fingers. "That's the proof, Nanao-chan. You were a good candidate and you excelled."

"I'm going to give you a point," she said, her fingers absently brushing his beard.

"I'm always glad to have Nanao-chan's points, but why?"

She studied his warm eyes, his smiling mouth. "Sometimes you're very generous with me, more than I probably deserve. I was exceedingly unkind to you last night about the letter, but you were very comforting to me later. I'm sorry for my behavior."

He shook his head. "If my affections were conditional on Nanao-chan's best behavior, then they wouldn't be worth much. You were upset, and reacted to that. It's normal, Nanao-chan."

She looked away. Had she made her affections for him conditional on his best behavior? She hadn't always been fair to him, hadn't always been generous in the way that he could be. Nanao wasn't even sure that she was capable of being generous that way all of the time, but she could try to be more generous. She'd expected him to prove himself as a potential husband to her, but he hadn't really asked her for anything similar.

What if she'd been approaching their relationship, their potential marriage, in the wrong way? Points systems and data and logical reasons made sense to her, but most of the important moments in the marriage practice had been emotional ones for her.

"I want to be better to you." She met his eyes with some difficulty.

"Thank you, Nanao-chan. But don't worry so much, please. If you agonize over every mistake you make, you won't be happy."

She thought about his dark eyes when he came back from war, the heavy regrets he wore like a cloak at times. "What about you? Don't you agonize over your mistakes?" she asked softly.

He smiled, but it was empty of mirth. "Only the ones that can never be changed or redeemed."

What would it be like to have her mistakes fall on each other for centuries, taking up more of her memory? Nanao wasn't sure how she'd handle that. She reached up, cradling his face in her small hands.

He shifted from his standing position bent over the chair to one on his knees beside it. "Nanao-chan."

"You've never made a mistake like that with me. And you won't," she said, hearing the confidence ringing in her voice.

"Why are you so certain of that?" His voice was low and his eyes intense on hers.

"If it's between us, I would get to decide whether a mistake was irredeemable, wouldn't I?" She tried for a lighter tone. "Besides, if you ever tried to do something that bad, I would make sure you really thought about it first. I have several kidō books that usually make enough of an impression on you for you to reconsider your course of action appropriately."

He was silent for several seconds, and then laughed, warm and genuine. "You're the only one who can make smashing my face with a book sound like an act of love, Nanao-chan."

She made an indignant noise, but she was happy to see him smile. "That's—"

He cut her off with his lips pressed to hers in an impulsive kiss, which ended before she could respond. She was still catching her breath when he reached for her hand. "I was thinking that perhaps we could take the day for ourselves, Nanao-chan."

It was tempting, but she hesitated. "Have you seen your desk? There's a lot of work waiting for you. We've been taking too much time off lately, and we're scheduled to visit your family tomorrow."

There was a pause and she wondered if he would call off their trip tomorrow. She raised her eyes to his face. He looked thoughtful but not worried. "That's true, Nanao-chan. We are taking tomorrow off."

It was a relief that he was still willing to commit to their plans after last night. She nodded.

He glanced at his desk. "There is a lot of work there. We could do it this morning."

She raised an eyebrow. "We could do it?"

He grinned. "I would love to have your assistance, Nanao-chan. Nothing focuses me on work like sitting with you on my lap."

"A dubious statement at best," she said, but her lips turned up.

"We could make so much progress, Nanao-chan."

He'd left the type of progress that they might make ambiguous, but she thought he might be right in several ways. "Let me finish this column first, I only have a little bit left to do."

He raised her hand to his lips to kiss her palm. "Of course. I'll get my desk ready." He moved away from her desk, releasing her hand with a last squeeze and walking over to his desk.

She resumed writing the last section of her column, pleased with the way the morning was going. The ink wasn't dry on the last character when there was a noise at the door. "Enter," Nanao called.

One of the Eleventh Seats slipped into the office. "Um, Vice Captain Ise? You have a visitor."

"What? A visitor?" How strange. None of her friends would bother one of the lower seats for an announcement when visiting, so it must be someone unexpected. Perhaps it was Kasumi. What if something had happened to her family or the estate? "Who is it?"

A man, well-dressed and young, stepped into the office. "I hope you'll forgive my unexpected intrusion, Ise-san."

Nanao narrowed her eyes, trying to place him. She'd seen him recently, she was sure of that. "Imaoka-san?" She'd had an uninspiring match meeting with him at the Ise estate before Shunsui had come.

"Yes. It's a pleasure to see you again, Ise-san. You're looking very well." He stepped further into the office.

Nanao looked at the Eleventh Seat, at Shunsui, at Imaoka, saw an impending disaster and decided to take action at once. "Thank you for bringing my guest here. Please prepare some tea for us." She nodded at the Eleventh Seat, who looked reluctant to leave but exited promptly. "Imaoka-san, this is Captain Shunsui Kyōraku of the Eighth Division."

"It's nice to meet you," Imaoka said.

"It's good to meet you, too," Shunsui said, studying Imaoka with interest. "What brings you to the Eighth Division, Imaoka-kun?"

"I was fortunate enough to meet Ise-san recently. I was very struck by our meeting." Imaoka gestured at Nanao.

"Nanao-chan is very striking, isn't she?" Shunsui asked, looking innocent.

"Oh, yes, she is. You are, Ise-san." Imaoka turned to her with an odd half-wave.

"Thank you," she said awkwardly. "Would you like to sit down, Imaoka-san?" Nanao stepped out from behind her desk and gestured to the seating area, welcoming him to sit.

"Thank you, Ise-san." Imaoka sat on the sofa.

"Did you have a good trip in, Imaoka-kun?" Shunsui asked, leaving his desk to lean against a chair in the seating area.

"It was longer than I expected." Imaoka kept turning to see Nanao after looking politely at Shunsui while he spoke.

"Not surprising. Distance is the reason that so many nobles in the Gotei 13 maintain residences in the heart of Seireitei—for a shorter commute. Living at a far-away estate and traveling daily for work here is impractical at best." Shunsui was the picture of friendliness, and Nanao eyed him suspiciously.

"It's hard for me to imagine anyone choosing life in a military organization like this over life at an estate. I intend no offense, Captain Kyōraku," Imaoka added hastily.

"Of course. Most nobles feel the same as you do, I imagine." Shunsui glanced at Nanao and she remembered their conversation outside of Urahara's, about how the two of them were unlike most nobles. He was right about that, if Imaoka was anything to go by.

"Most of the Gotei 13 membership is drawn from the Rukongai," Nanao said, pushing her glasses up.

"Nanao-chan is right, of course, although there are many members of the nobility who choose to spend part or all of their lives in service here." Shunsui smiled blandly. "Would you like to have a drink or go out for a meal, Imaoka-kun?"

"Actually, I would like to speak privately with you if I could, please, Ise-san." Iamoka stared at Nanao.

"I was going to visit the Ninth Division this morning anyway. Please use the office for your visit, Iamoka-kun." Shunsui rose and walked across the floor to Nanao. "I'll be back in an hour or so, Nanao-chan." He smiled benignly at Imaoka. His hand rested briefly on Nanao's shoulder, his fingertips brushing her neck slightly in a possessive gesture as he turned away towards the door.

Nanao frowned. She didn't want to be alone with Imaoka, but she was relieved that there would be no unpleasant scene. "Please take my column with you and turn it in to Hisagi-kun, if you don't mind."

"Certainly, Nanao-chan. Goodbye, Imaoka-kun. Enjoy your little visit." Shunsui smiled all the way out the door, and Nanao hoped she was the only one who detected the predatory edge in his eyes and smile.

She let out a small sigh of relief when Shunsui was gone.

"He's not what I expected," Imaoka said.

"Hmm? He is unique, yes." Nanao moved to the seating area and sat in the fat chair, avoiding the awkwardness of possibly sharing the sofa.

"Do you enjoy your work here?" He glanced around the office.

"Yes, very much so."

The Eleventh Seat returned with tea, breaking off the stilted conversation temporarily before leaving quickly.

"I'm glad I was able to see you again, Ise-san." Imaoka brushed his dark hair back from his high forehead. He was handsome, with patrician if soft features, but Nanao found most men too soft-looking after a lifetime among the soldiers of the Gotei 13.

"It is pleasant to see you again, Imaoka-san." It was more puzzling than pleasant to see him, but she would be polite.

He smiled. "I'm glad to hear you say that."

Nanao lifted her cup to her lips. "Is there anything specific that brings you here this morning, Imaoka-san? I was under the impression that you rarely left the province that your estate is located in."

"Yes, that's true. I apologize for coming here unexpectedly, but I felt it necessary when I didn't receive a request for a second meeting from the matchmaker." He leaned towards her, speaking earnestly.

Nanao blinked. "I haven't yet made any arrangements for second meetings with the matchmaker. I've been quite busy this week." This was getting more and more awkward.

"I understand. It must be very difficult to make arrangements around the constraints of your current situation."

Nanao frowned at him. "I enjoy my work, whatever constraints it may place on my time." She glanced down into her teacup. It seemed unfair to pretend that she had any interest in a second meeting with him. Perhaps if things had been different, she would have found out that Imaoka was someone she could have had a relationship with, could have even married. But she'd never seen any of the men at the match meetings in that light, even before Shunsui had come to the Ise estate.

Her feelings for Shunsui had evaporated her interest in other men, long before her great-aunt suggested an arranged marriage. Guilt rose in her throat when she looked up and saw Imaoka's clean, youthful features and earnest expression.

"Imaoka-san, I am sorry, but the truth is that there is another man that I am considering marriage to at this time. I will not be making arrangements for a second meeting with you. I apologize for not informing the matchmaker sooner, and I'm very sorry that you've come all this way to hear this," Nanao said.

"Another man? Ise-san, if I might be a bit forward, I would like you to consider this more carefully. I have a lot to offer to a wife, and I would be able relieve you of all of your worries."

Nanao shook her head. "Imaoka-san, I am certain that you do have a great deal to offer to a woman, and it is an honor that you would consider me for your wife, but I must decline. I am not able to give you the consideration you deserve. I'm sorry." She pressed her lips together. This was so uncomfortable.

He swallowed, his brows drawn together. "Ise-san, even though we only met once, in that meeting I found you elegant and subdued, truly a lady of noble origin. You asked good questions about my boar racing and seemed interested in me. I was very much hoping that we could have a second meeting."

"I'm sorry to have to disappoint you, Imaoka-san." Nanao didn't know what else to say.

Imaoka nodded, his face sinking into resignation. "After we met, I sought further information about you, Ise-san. Through certain sources, I was able to learn that you'd also had a match meeting with your Captain. He is the man you're considering, isn't he?"

It was strange to her that he'd felt strongly enough about their meeting to find out more about her. It had not been a particularly good meeting, from her perspective. "Yes, Captain Kyōraku is the man I'm considering. I am sorry. I should have contacted the matchmaker and let her know that I didn't want second meetings with anyone else." Nanao struggled not to fidget in her chair. "But surely there are many other women who would welcome the interest of a gentleman like you. I'm certain the matchmaker has no shortage of candidates for you to meet."

Imaoka shook his head. When he spoke his voice was low and full of concern. "I believe that Captain Kyōraku may be taking advantage of you. He is in a position of power over you. He's your superior officer and he's been involved in your life for much of your childhood and all of your adulthood. Can you really enter into a marriage with him of your own free will now?" Imaoka's earnestness was stronger than ever, but Nanao felt cold all over.

"Did you write an article for the Seireitei Bulletin along those lines, Imaoka-san?" Nanao's voice was soft.

"What?" He tilted his head. "I didn't write it directly, but I did request that someone have the information I'd found organized and submitted to that paper. It was for your sake, Ise-san. I never intended any harm to you, but I wanted to expose that man to everyone, before it was too late. I want to save you from him, Ise-san." He touched her right hand on the arm of the fat chair.

Nanao pulled her hand away from his quickly. "I require no saving. Imaoka-san, I understand that you may have thought you were helping me, but that article was without foundation and very hurtful. Your intervention in my life is unwarranted and inappropriate. I am making my own decisions, and pursuing the path that I think is the right one. I think it's best if you leave now."

"Ise-san, please let me help you. What if you aren't thinking clearly?" Imaoka looked determined, as if he had embarked on a noble quest.

But he was very wrong. She stood, pride stiffening her back and her voice. "I am a Vice Captain of the Gotei 13. I will make my own decisions, and I will save myself if I need any saving. I don't believe we can have anything further to say to each other. Please leave, Imaoka-san."

"Ise-san, I can help you. Once you're away from his influence, I'm sure you'll understand why I've acted as I have." His patronizing words and the earnestness of his voice grated on her nerves.

"I understand your intentions fully right now, but you're wrong about Captain Kyōraku, and about me. Please leave." She went to the door, holding it open for him.

Imaoka rose, moving to the door. His expression was sorrowful. "I'm sorry that you won't let me help you. I would have been very good to you, Ise-san."

Nanao shook her head. "Goodbye, Imaoka-san."

He left with a last look over his shoulder at Nanao.

She closed the door firmly, standing still until she was sure he was gone. She returned to her desk and sank into the seat of the chair. What in the world had made that man imagine that he could rescue her, or that she needed saving at all? How baffling. Her hands rubbed her biceps; she felt chilled in the warm office.

She heard murmurs from outside her office and the hesitant steps of Third Seat Enjōji. "Vice Captain Ise? Is everything all right?"

"Everything is fine. I have an SWA meeting very soon, so I will be leaving the office for a while. Please continue to work normally in my absence; the Captain will return soon, I'm sure." She stood and picked up a book, tucking the matchmaker's file into it.

"Yes, Vice Captain." Enjōji sounded relieved by the hard tone of her voice.

Nanao went to the porch doors and slipped out, stepping into shunpo.

Kensei leaned back in his chair in the Ninth Division Captain's office. "Someone sent this for the Seireitei Bulletin?"

"Yes, anonymously." Shunsui watched Kensei flip through the pages.

"Anonymously? Why would we even accept anonymous submissions? If you can't put your name on something, you shouldn't send it to a newspaper." Kensei scowled.

"That's too harsh, Kensei. Some people are shy," Mashiro said from her lounging position on the sofa.

"If they're too cowardly to use their names, they shouldn't write articles. Though I can see why no one wanted to sign this article. This isn't news, it's just gossip." Kensei dropped the pages on his desk with a scowl.

"People like to read gossip, Kensei. We print some social commentary and articles about events all the time." Mashiro leaned her head on her arms on the end of the sofa, looking at Kensei.

"We publish this crap?"

"If you don't like what Hisagi-kun is printing, you could take the Seireitei Bulletin duties back." Mashiro tilted her head.

"Hell, no. I don't want to deal with that. I have real work to do," Kensei said.

"I've always found the Seireitei Bulletin careful and appropriate in its choice of social commentary. The paper doesn't print gossip in the sense that you mean, Kensei-kun," Shunsui said.

"No, we don't, and we won't in the future. I'll make that clear to Hisagi." Kensei nodded for emphasis.

"Thank you, Kensei-kun." Shunsui smiled.

"Are you really going to marry your Vice Captain, though?" Kensei gave him a level look.

"Nanao-san said so at the SWA meeting. I overslept and missed it, but Hinamori-san told me later." Mashiro sat up, seemingly more interested in this topic.

"We are considering a marriage. I hope that we'll announce an engagement soon," Shunsui said carefully.

Kensei raised an eyebrow. "Well, you're both adults and it's not really anybody else's business. The regulations can be exempted. The Seireitei Bulletin won't publish anything about it."

Mashiro sighed. "No, Kensei, you dummy. That's not how you keep something from getting a lot of ugly gossip." She turned to Shunsui. "When you get engaged, have a big party, and I'll write an article about the party and your engagement. If you act like it's a big secret or something that you 're ashamed of, it'll make things worse."

Shunsui could see the logic in that; it mirrored what he'd thought when Nanao told her friends at the SWA. "We'll have a party at the Eighth Division. Food, drinking, dancing."

"Then everybody can come and fulfill their curiosity on your terms. It'll be better for you and Nanao-san." Mashiro smiled.

"Yes. We'll do that, Thanks, Mashiro-chan," Shunsui said. It was a good way to present themselves as a couple to Seireitei, though he wasn't yet positive he'd be able to throw this party.

"Right, that's settled. We won't publish the anonymous crap, you'll have a big party that we'll all have to go to, and Mashiro will write one of her super scoop articles about it." Kensei clearly had other things he'd rather be focusing on.

"Thanks for taking care of this, Kensei-kun. I won't forget it." Shunsui tipped his hat at Kensei and Mashiro and headed out of the office.

As he walked away he heard Mashiro speaking. "I wanted to talk about the party some more. You're too mean today, Kensei. Why don't you come over here and relax with me?"

Shunsui moved away before he could hear Kensei's reply.

He turned towards the Eighth. He didn't want to leave Nanao alone with Imaoka for too long. What if that man made unwelcome advances towards her?

Then Nanao would blast him into very small pieces with a kidō. She didn't need to be rescued, no matter how romantic the idea sounded. Nanao could take care of herself, decidedly and with a certain elegant brutality that Shunsui found very attractive. His lips curved up.

But that didn't mean he couldn't take care of her sometimes. He'd start small, with massages, breakfast in bed, things like that. She'd enjoyed those things. Maybe she'd indulge him and let him do more for her when they were married.

If she agreed to marry him.

His phone chirped and he tugged it out of his sleeve. There was a message from Nanao: At the Tenth Division, SWA committee meeting this afternoon. Would you like to meet for dinner?

That would be a very long meeting, if there was a meeting. He suspected it had more to do with Imaoka's appearance than any pressing committee business. Still, she wanted to meet for dinner and she'd mentioned the visit to his mother tomorrow earlier in the office. Things couldn't have gone that badly. He sent her a message: Come to my house when your meeting is over. I'll cook for sweet Nanao-chan.

There was a wait of several minutes. He was in the office at the Eighth when she responded. I'll come over at six. Please complete the work on your desk. It just needs your stamp.

She'd agreed to dinner. Sure, she'd tacked the bit about work on the end, but she was still Nanao, the best Vice Captain in Seireitei. She'd be a taskmaster about work even if she was wearing a school uniform or a bathing suit.

He daydreamed happily about both of those scenarios while he absently stamped pages. She'd ask if he'd done the work when she came for dinner, and he wanted to be able to tell her that yes, he had.

Shunsui liked the pleased light that came into her eyes when he told her yes, especially now that she was kissing him. He leaned back in his chair, drifting pleasantly on a fantasy of Nanao in a pink bikini.

A hell butterfly landed on his nose, interrupting his imagined beach date. Captain Commander Yamamoto requests your presence immediately, the message said in the polite tones of Vice Captain Sasakibe.

Shunsui rose, rolling his head on his neck. So Yama-jii had found out about the matchmaking already. It wasn't a big surprise, since Nanao had told the whole SWA. He stamped the last few pages of papers quickly before he left—the message might have said immediately, but Shunsui wanted Nanao's praise more than he feared Yama-jii's wrath at the moment.

"You're in charge for the afternoon, Enjōji-kun," he called in the hallway before flash stepping to the First Division.