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Bleach Fanfic: Midnight Garden, Chapter 6

Title: Midnight Garden
Pairing: Shunsui/Nanao
Genre: Romance/Drama
Rating: T
Status: Ongoing, Chapter 6 of 7
Contains: Spoilers through Bleach manga chapter 520, canon-typical violence.
Summary: When a relaxing vacation goes wrong, Nanao must confront the danger within.
Notes: This is my sixth entry for the Week of Love giveaway happening July 6th - July 12th at the shunsui_nanao community at Livejournal. My pieces are written as chapters for this story. These last two chapters are a little bit late, because the last chapter got pretty long, but I needed to keep these two chapters together. This chapter has a cliffhanger that I wouldn't put up alone. ^_^;
Prompts for the whole story: Romantic getaway, vacation, travel, and resorts

Back to Chapter 1.

Nanao pushed herself up to her knees, wiping the dirt on her hands on the black fabric of her pants. She was back in her uniform, which she took as a sign that she was in the right place at last. "Are you alright, Sūkikyō?"

"Yes." He ruffled his feathers.

Inside the storm it was eerily quiet. A full moon hung low in the night sky. The storm lit up the darkness with flares of fire, but it was contained to circling the garden. "We have to hurry." Nanao stood, searching for flash step again. She'd been hopeful when she saw her uniform that her powers would return, but there was still nothing. If Captain Kyōraku was fighting here, how would she help him without any powers?

But she couldn't worry about that now. She ran through the garden on twisting paths of crushed stone, surrounded by night blooming flowers and bones hung and displayed as decorations. Skulls filled with flowers swayed from the branches of the trees. Alluring fragrances promised sensual delights down the side paths, but she stayed on the path winding to the center of the garden.

As she'd expected, the trail opened up to the heart of the midnight garden. The space was huge, with benches and a fountain made of towering bones in the center. Three tiers of grinning skulls had originally poured black liquid into the wide bowl at the base of the fountain. But the fountain and benches were broken, with sharp pieces scattered everywhere. A fight had taken place here. Nanao ran deeper into the garden, hesitating near the fountain. What flowed from the broken bowl was not water, it was—shadows?

She gave it a wide berth. "Captain?" she called, a little desperate. She'd assumed once she made it to the midnight garden her Captain would be here and her next actions would become clear. "Captain?"

A rustle in the trees on the other side of the clearing drew her attention and she hurried in that direction. But it wasn't Kyōraku that rose up and snapped the trees in half—instead it was a huge version of the mechanized Hollow. It howled in rage, whipping its tentacles, cracking trees apart in explosions of wood. It was destroying the garden.

Nanao froze. She didn't dare to call for her Captain again and risk drawing the monster to her. "Sūkikyō," she whispered.

"I know." He slipped off her shoulder, flying low, as sneaky as a bright red bird could be.

Nanao watched him without moving, standing near the shadows leaking out of the broken fountain. The shadows almost seemed to reach for her foot, and she took a cautious sidestep away. Sūkikyō circled a spot near the trees to the east of the fountain. The Hollow smashed trees to the north. Nanao dropped slowly into a crouch, crawling across the bits of broken bone and crushed flowers to Sūkikyō.

"Where is he?" she breathed when she reached the bird.

"Straight ahead. He's in the bramble, sinking into the soil," Sūkikyō said quietly.

"Into the soil? What?"

"He's dying, Nanao." Sūkikyō's voice was hard with certainty, but he must be wrong. Captain Kyōraku couldn't die to a Hollow he'd killed in one strike, not when he'd lived so long, when he was so powerful, when Nanao had come so far to save him.

She ran to the bramble, suddenly careless about the Hollow across the clearing. "Captain?" The bramble was thick and thorny, obscuring anything under it. She tore away at the vines with her bare hands until they were slippery with her blood. Flowers bloomed as blood dripped on the vines. Finally she'd cleared enough to see Captain Kyōraku's face. He was bruised and bleeding from minor cuts, his eye closed.

She ripped away at the brambles fiercely. "Sūkikyō, is there any way to get my tantō or a little kidō?" She panted for air, wiping her brow and streaking it with blood.

Sūkikyō hopped closer. He concentrated, but tipped his head down and said, "No. I'm sorry, Nanao. Keeping the connection to this Inner World is taking all of my strength. I can't do anything more."

"I understand. Thank you, Sūkikyō."

"Nanao, the garden is taking him back."

"He's not dead," Nanao snapped. She dug into the brambles, clearing her Captain's face and neck. "Captain?" She tapped his cheek.

His eye opened slowly.

"Captain?" She leaned down into the bramble, struggling to free enough of his chest for her to try and pull him out with an underarm grip.

He blinked, his eye unfocused. "Nanao-chan?"

She smiled, relief crashing over her until she was shaky. "Yes, I'm here. Can you move at all?"

"Nanao-chan. Why are you here?" Genuine confusion blurred his voice.

"I'm your Vice Captain," she said, as if that answered everything. It was only a piece of what had her ripping vines away from him, but he would understand that without words. The Hollow roared and Nanao lifted her head to check its position. It had destroyed half of the northern perimeter of the clearing and was heading towards the eastern boundary.

Towards them.

The dullness cleared from his eye, his gaze sharp on her. "Nanao-chan, you need to go."

"That's not going to happen. I'm going to get you out of this bramble, and then—" What would she do then, without powers, in his Inner World? "—we'll defeat the Hollow infection and we'll go home. Or on vacation, if you're still up to it." She spoke crisply, as if their success was certain.

"It's too late. Please, Nanao-chan, get out of here." His voice was urgent.

Drops of her blood ran down his face as she struggled to get a solid foothold in the bramble above him. "No. Don't you want to go on vacation with me, Captain?" She reached into the soil, fighting to push her arms around his chest, to find a grip on him in the earth and thorns and blood.

The trees around them vibrated with the force of the slicing blows the Hollow delivered at the northeast corner of the clearing.

"Nanao-chan, listen to me. You have to leave me."

She ignored his continued pleas to abandon him, heaving with all her strength. She pulled him a bare inch out of the earth and was exhausted. But she kept trying, straining and fighting to free his limp body.

"Nanao-chan, stop. You can't lift me out. Even if you could, it's not as if you can take me out of my own Inner World. You need to go, please." An edge of desperation roughened his words.

"No. I'm you're Vice Captain, my duty is with you." She smiled but her eyes were wet. She couldn't lift him, not when the garden was trying so hard to drag him under. "Where is Katen Kyōkotsu? Shouldn't she be here?"

The Hollow roared, much closer than before.

"She was hurt—damaged. The fountain was broken." His voice softened. "Nanao-chan, stop. You can't help me now, sweetheart."

She shook her head. "No. The Fourth Division will heal you, and if that won't do, the Twelfth Division will give you artificial parts until you're recovered." Her foot slipped, her grip lost, and she tumbled down with him into the soil. She tried to fall away from his body but landed half on him anyway.

He hissed in pain, his breathing uneven. "The Twelfth Division would make me a machine, Nanao-chan."

"I don't care. It doesn't matter, as long as you're still you. As long as I can stay beside you, it doesn't matter what you look like."

The trees shook, branches falling away as the Hollow closed in.

"Nanao-chan, please, you have to leave me. You're so young. There's so much more life for you. Go, please." He was hoarse from pleading with her.

Her tears ran freely down her cheeks when he begged her to go. She said nothing, digging out the earth around his sides. She wouldn't let the garden take him, no matter what.

Kyōraku didn't give up. "Sūkikyō, please. Take her out of here, now. If you don't close the connection soon, she'll die here."

Sūkikyō dropped to the edge of the bramble. "Nanao."

She wrapped her arms around her Captain's chest again, locking her hands together behind him, straining to lift him. He barely moved. It was as if he was rooted in the soil—and he might really be, given what he'd said. She released him, falling to her knees and straddling the earth over him. The brambles cut her, but she was numb to that pain. The shattering pain of her failure overwhelmed anything else.

"Nanao-chan." His voice was gentle, so gentle.

An ancient tree fell only a dozen yards away. She looked at the Hollow, at Sūkikyō, but not at her Captain. "I'm sorry, Sūkikyō."

The bird stared up at the brilliant night sky. "I know. Losing your life here is a huge waste. But Nanao must always be Nanao, right?"

She leaned down over Captain Kyōraku, propping her weight up with her hands on either side of his head. Still she couldn't look at his eye, instead focusing on his throat, his wide mouth with his lips cracked and pale, and his strong and bearded jaw.

"Nanao-chan," he murmured, and she finally met his gaze. She was surprised to see his eye was wet, the rich gray darkened by pain.

She lifted a hand to his face, but hesitated to touch him. She spoke softly instead. "The ninjas will find a way out soon. They were from the Kuchiki clan. Everyone knows that clan's ninjas are the very best. And the Fourth Division will be able to heal this damage. They've healed much worse conditions than this, remember?"

"Nanao-chan, please."

She shook her head, a weak smile on her face for him. "I'm your Vice Captain. What do you expect me to do without you?"

"Live. I expect you to live. It's an order." His voice was raw and fierce. He never gave her orders so directly, had never needed to before.

"I'm sorry, Captain." Trees fell, very close, but she kept her eyes on his face. She would remember him, remember Shunsui-kun and Kyōraku-kun and Captain Kyōraku. She would remember him until her last breath, and beyond that, if she could manage it. Hesitantly her fingertips traced his cheekbone. "I thought there would be more time."

"What did you want in that time, Nanao-chan?"

"Even though it was selfish of me, when you're important to so many people, I still wanted there to be time for us." Her tears fell on his face, dark with blood and dirt. "But I'm not strong enough to win here."

"Don't cry, sweetheart. You can still save me. Go with Sūkikyō, return to the real world. You've seen the infection up close and you can give the Fourth valuable information. Go, Nanao-chan. Go and save me." He was desperate and clever, but she knew his tricks, knew him.

"It's much too late for that. The Hollow will be here in another minute. Can you dig down further? I'll pull the brambles over you, and maybe he'll miss you while he's focused on the trees." She sat up, piling dirt over him as camouflage, tugging the brambles she'd fought so hard to take off him back down. What could she do to win him more time? There must be something. She was desperate and clever, too.

"I love you, Nanao-chan."

She froze, swallowing hard. Of course he would try to use her feelings for him as leverage. Hadn't he taught her to use any weapon at hand to achieve important goals? It was an excellent tactic, and it made her breath hitch painfully, her heart faltering as if he'd stabbed her. She couldn't look at him. "Don't. Don't be cruel." The Hollow roared, deafeningly close. "There's no more time. Stay still and quiet, Captain." She stood, waving her arms and running across the clearing. "Here! Over here!"

The Hollow twisted on inky tentacles, chasing her down. She ran hard for the fountain at the center, the Hollow gaining ground on her with her every step.

"Nanao-chan!" Captain Kyōraku shouted, and the Hollow turned.

"No! I'm here! Right here!" she called, and the Hollow came for her again. The fountain was close, the Hollow closer. She leaped for a small pile of bone surrounded by the liquid shadows of the fountain. The black fluid lifted up in peaks, seemingly interested in her.

She jumped to the edge of the fountain, surrounded entirely by the wet shadows but not touching them. The Hollow rushed for her without any care for the shadows. They rose up over its tentacles, curling around the Hollow. Still it hunted Nanao, ramming forward until it shattered the fountain.

A sharp tentacle slapped her away and she saw her blood floating up into the air. She landed half in the shadows on her side. Her head hit the crushed stone of the clearing and it was hard, nearly impossible, to breathe. She touched her chest and felt a long tear in her uniform and her flesh. It was strange to feel the edges of her bones exposed to the air. But the shadows were coating the Hollow, drowning it, and its screams sounded more like agony than rage now. Everything felt unreal to her, as if she was watching through a pane of uneven glass.

The shadows crept up Nanao's legs, cool and wet. Sūkikyō fluttered down onto her shoulder. "Nanao! Can you hear me, Nanao?"

She opened her mouth but couldn't speak. Her vision blurred, her ears ringing. She thought she saw a woman rise out of the shadow, but Nanao couldn't be sure if anyone was really there. Quiet fell over the midnight garden, the Hollow disappearing in a pool of darkness.

Captain Kyōraku came to her. Whether it was moments or hours after she fell, she didn't know. The shadows had nearly covered her now. It was comforting somehow, even if they might devour her like they had the Hollow. She thought she might be imagining him, until she felt his hands on her, pulling her gently out of the blanketing shadows. "Nanao-chan?" He laid her on her back, holding her hand between his large ones.

He was alive. She'd gambled that the shadows in the fountain were a center of his power here, and she'd been right. The Hollow had chased her thoughtlessly, and now there was more time. She was so glad. Even though she'd been powerless, almost useless, at the end she'd succeeded.

"Nanao-chan, it's going to be alright. Sūkikyō will take you out of here, and then you'll be fine." He sounded so worried, but he was alive, and that was what was important. She wanted to speak, but her lungs were full of liquid. But it was alright, just as he'd said, because there would be more time now.

Sūkikyō wheezed on Captain Kyōraku's leg, his bright red body disintegrating into the air.

Her hand faded from his hold, her body breaking down. She understood, tried to smile for him.

He would have more time.

Without her.

On to Chapter 7.