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Practicing Marriage, Chapter 20

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.

The pre-dawn air was cool and still. Nanao wandered through the abandoned garden with no destination in mind. She bent to pick up a broken chunk of the fountain's decorative rim.

"You're up early." Kasumi's voice startled her and she turned her head to the entrance in the hedge. "Or perhaps you couldn't sleep, Nanao-chan?"

She rose with the piece of stone, walking to the fountain and setting it on the rim. "It's not unusual for me. I can't ever sleep before important battles, even though I know the rest is useful."

"This is a wedding, Nanao-chan, not a battle."

"It feels the same."

Kasumi clucked at her. "Perhaps it would be best to keep that thought contained. I can't imagine that Captain Kyōraku would appreciate the comparison very much."

"I've said it to him before." Nanao dusted her hands off.

"The level of honesty you appear to have in your relationship with him is rather rare. Polite distance is often an important buffer in noble marriages." Kasumi chuckled. "I think my husband and I went entire months discussing nothing more significant than the weather and his boars."

"Captain Kyōraku and I don't have that kind of relationship. Our work precludes that, but even if it didn't—"

"He's not the kind of man that would accept such a distance from his wife, I know. But for the sake of our reputation within noble society, if you could endeavor to be as graceful and elegant a society bride as possible today, I would deeply appreciate it," Kasumi said.

"I know how important today is for you and our family. I'll do my best to make a good impression on everyone." Nanao rubbed her arms to ward off the chill of morning.

"Thank you, Nanao-chan. Let's go back to the house and get an early start." Kasumi turned back to the hedge entrance, but paused before stepping through. "Today is important to you, too, isn't it?"

"I'm trying not to think about that too much." She smiled wryly.

Kasumi's eyes softened. "I suppose you haven't had too many examples of happy marriages in your family. Successful ones, but that's not exactly the same. Are there any among your friends or coworkers?" She went through the hedge and Nanao followed.

"Not many. The Gotei 13 is a military organization. There aren't too many marriages at all." Nanao slowed when she reached her great-aunt, matching her pace.

"Then you'll just have to find your own path. Something honest, something not-too-distant, something warm—" Kasumi broke off, a question in her voice.

"A partnership." Nanao thought of Shunsui: hiding in a file room with her, leading her through a dance without music, promising to return to the abandoned garden after it was restored. "That's what we agreed on, and I don't think there's any other way it would work."

"A partnership? I think that's a good approach. Sensible, but with space for the softer sentiments."

"The softer sentiments," Nanao murmured, thinking of the love manual Lisa had given her.

"Yes. Nanao-chan, you must be aware of Captain Kyōraku's feelings for you. A man does not tie himself to an estate requiring a huge influx of funds, take on a difficult project like the restoration, and marry below his social standing unless there are strong feelings involved. He's in love with you. There is no other reason to go this far."

Nanao shook her head. "That's only speculation. Captain Kyōraku and I have a long history together. We are compatible in many critical areas. We have a close personal and working relationship. We're important enough to each other that you can't simply say there is only one possibility for his motivations."

Kasumi sighed, a short, exasperated sound. "What part of that doesn't fit with the notion that he's in love with you? I don't understand why you wish to deny the obvious possibility. It's something positive to start your marriage with."

"But he hasn't said it."

Kasumi stopped, pressing her hand to Nanao's arm. "Oh, Nanao-chan. You wanted him to say it to you," she said softly.

"Something like that isn't necessary. We've already agreed on how our marriage will work, and our relationship is founded on concrete principles and shared goals." Nanao adjusted her glasses.

"Of course. That's a solid foundation for a relationship, and it's very sensible." Kasumi lowered her voice. "But if you did also have warm feelings for each other, that wouldn't invalidate your foundation. It would be an enhancement."

"I would prefer not to discuss this further right now, Kasumi-bāchan." Why would her great-aunt want to speculate on this topic even after a marriage had been arranged? Surely she could consider things settled today.

"It's just that I would like you to be happy, Nanao-chan." There was a trace of guilt in her voice. "This is a day that a woman should have her parents beside her, and you don't. But perhaps you don't feel that loss as much as you could."

"I was still very young when they died, and I hadn't spent much time with them."

"I know, and that is my fault. I was the one that insisted you be sent to the Shinigami Academy. I separated you from your family at a very tender age, and you were never able to know your parents as you should have. I am very sorry for that, Nanao-chan." Kasumi faced her squarely, seeking judgment. But she'd already decided her own guilt.

Nanao shook her head. "You were right to send me to the Academy. I was a danger to everyone around me. It's true that I wasn't close to my parents, but it's wrong for you to blame yourself for that. They never asked me to come home for visits, and I never asked them to let me come back. I knew that they didn't want me here, and I was too proud to beg, even then."

"I should have made sure that you were able to visit."

"You couldn't have made them love me. Kasumi-bāchan, it's alright." Nanao took her great-aunt's hand, to Kasumi's obvious surprise. They were not a very demonstrative family. "I found another family, a second one, in the Eighth Division. I was happy there."

"I want you to be happy now, too, Nanao-chan. You're doing something very important to our family, but I feel as if I am taking something away from you again."

Nanao shook her head. "You aren't. This is a choice that I've made. I know that you haven't seen the best of me in the last few weeks of wedding planning, but I am happy in my life now, and I believe that Captain Kyōraku and I can be happy together. You haven't taken anything from me. I chose him."

Kasumi looked down at their clasped hands. "You're kind, Nanao-chan. Thank you for that." She squeezed Nanao's hand and released it gently, moving into the house.

"I wasn't being kind," Nanao murmured to the empty garden. The sun peeked out over the horizon. "I'm getting married today." A bead of anxiety hopped in her stomach, but it was smaller than she'd expected. Seeing Shunsui last night had soothed some of her pre-wedding nerves. The time and care he must have put into the study told her, again, how invested he was in her happiness.

She would invest in his happiness, too.

"Nanao? Oh, it's cold out here. Kasumi-san woke us up. She wants to get an early start." Rangiku shivered on the porch. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine. I'm sorry that she woke you up so early. Let's get some breakfast." Nanao stepped onto the porch.

"You're not as nervous as I expected. That's good. We won't need those emergency escape routes I scouted out." Rangiku winked at her.

Nanao laughed. "Did you really do that?"

"Absolutely. It's a bridesmaid's duty to support the bride in any circumstances."

"We won't need that escape route, but thanks for the thought."

"I even brought a change of clothes for you, just in case. Shunpō in a kimono is very tricky." Rangiku's tone turned serious. "Your friends want you to be happy, regardless of what your family requires."

"Thank you, Rangiku-san. I think that Shunsui and I can be happy together."

"I agree. I just wanted to make sure," Rangiku said.

"I wonder if Shunsui is awake yet. I wish I could see him again before the ceremony." She shook her head. "Let's get inside and make sure Kasumi-bāchan doesn't forget about breakfast."

"They're going to be late."

"That's normal for something like this. Getting ready for a formal event takes time, and then organizing the carriages properly—it's natural to run late," Ukitake said. Shunsui appreciated his friend's effort to reassure him, even if it couldn't work.

"Nanao-chan hates to be late." He scratched the back of his neck, resisting the urge to pace. His mother would notice if he seemed worried, and that would be worse than Ukitake's concern. Members of his family milled around the shrine. Ukitake was the only one not related to him here. The ceremony would be small and short and the party large and long.

"Well, it's probably not up to her—it's likely her great-aunt is making these decisions and arrangements. Being late to the ceremony probably isn't something Ise-san has any control over."

"I know," he murmured. Nanao's frustration over the wedding planning and the constant interruptions by their family had obscured from him what she'd really felt about marrying him. Last night she'd been playful and vulnerable when she'd asked to be in the dark with him. He'd wanted her confession, wanted to have that intimate time with her, wanted to give her anything she asked for then. If he'd had that chance he wouldn't have a knot in his stomach now. Nanao left him last night wearing the stiff resignation of a soldier instead of the eager excitement of a lover.

She would come to the shrine; he had no doubt about that. The carriages were nearly here—he'd been tracking the progress of her spiritual pressure since early this morning. She kept her promises, and she would keep this one, too.

Whether she really wanted to marry him or not.

"I should have found a way to give them the money. Kasumi-san is more than clever. We could have come up with a transfer method secret enough to keep the Ise family's honor intact." Shunsui rubbed a hand over his face.

"But I thought you wanted to marry Ise-san," Ukitake said, tipping his head to the side.

"I do. That's the problem."

"Ise-san is on her way here. At the least, marrying you must be agreeable to her, too."

"I want this to be more than just agreeable to her." He looked out into the mountains around the shrine, unseeing.

"That's what courtship is for," Ukitake said, much too cheerful.

"Then my courtship was inadequate, but it's a bit late to lament that now."

"Nonsense. Why does your courtship have to end when you get married? If you want marriage to be more than agreeable to Ise-san, make it more than agreeable for her. Court your wife, Kyōraku."

A smile cracked through his worry. "That's a good idea."

"I know. I'm sure you would have gotten there eventually." Ukitake was generous, as always.

Shunsui laughed. "It's harder to think clearly when it's Nanao-chan. Thanks, Ukitake."

A short while later the group of boar-drawn carriages arrived at the shrine. Shunsui started toward the long set of stairs to the shrine, but Ukitake stopped him. "It'd be unusual for the groom to go down to meet them, wouldn't it?"

Shunsui stopped. "It might be." But he wanted to see Nanao one more time before the ceremony. Shunsui's mother herded his family back to their positions and he started back to his appointed place to wait.

Rangiku bounded up to the waiting group in a deep pink kimono and an elaborate obi in green. She smiled dazzlingly. "The Ise group is here, but the stairs are very long, so it'll be a few more minutes before we're all assembled." She turned to Shunsui. "Nanao's garments are quite restrictive, so maybe you could help her up the stairs? It's challenging."

"Of course." Shunsui walked toward the flight of stone steps. "I notice that you made it up here very quickly, Rangiku-chan."

"Shunpō in a kimono is an art I mastered a long time ago." She leaned close, whispering. "You should bring Captain Ukitake to help Kasumi-san with the stairs. You wanted to see Nanao, didn't you?"

"Thanks, Rangiku-chan." Shunsui waved Ukitake over. "Can you please assist Nanao-chan's great-aunt up the stairs? Be as charming and distracting as possible."

"Charming and distracting. I can do that." Ukitake stepped into flash and reappeared at the bottom of the stairs next to Shunsui.

A row of pink boar-drawn carriages sat cheerfully at the foot of the sober shrine.

Kasumi was giving orders with military precision. Hinamori and Nemu stood to the side, nodding. Nanao faced away from the shrine, swallowed up in a red uchitake covered in a pattern of flying cranes and a traditional hood. "Kasumi-san, we've come to escort you to the shrine. I brought a very handsome Captain of the Gotei 13 for you." Shunsui made further introductions, his focus drawn to Nanao. She hadn't moved at all since he'd come down.

"Thank you, Captain Kyōraku." Kasumi turned her attention to Ukitake, who offered her a brilliant smile.

"Nanao-chan," Shunsui said as he came up beside her. She finally turned and he could see her face—bare of her glasses, her eyes made up with a delicate touch, her lips lushly painted pink. They stared at each other for a silent moment. "You look beautiful."

"Thank you. You look good in those clothes, although they're very serious."

"My mother was very serious about not deviating from the noble standard. Don't worry. I'm the same on the inside, Nanao-chan." He smiled, hoping to reassure her that he wouldn't change when they were married. She'd worried too much about that.

She smiled back at him, and his breath caught. She was so lovely, brighter and less tense than he'd dared to hope for after last night. "I know. The same is true for me, although I am drowning in cranes, and I feel like one has made a nest on top of my head."

"At least there aren't any cranes on the hood. But even if there were cranes, brocade ones or real ones, you would still be beautiful." He took her hand, hooking it on his arm and leading her to the stairs.

"Real cranes?" She raised an eyebrow.

"It would be good luck if a crane came to you."

She shook her head carefully. "If you go much further I'll start to think you're attracted to cranes."

"If you were a crane, Nanao-chan—"

She laughed. "Don't finish that sentence. I have no wish to hear about any predilections you may have for birds."

"I have a predilection for Nanao-chan," he said, leaning down to her ear.

She shook her head, looking up the stairs. Her breaths grew shallow and quick.

The worry he'd felt earlier reappeared, stronger than before. Whatever Ukitake said about courting his wife, he didn't want Nanao to make a choice she felt forced into by her family or her promises. He glanced back at Kasumi's group, safely distant. "Nanao-chan, if you don't want to do this, we don't have to—"

She squeezed his arm, stopping on the stairs. He met her upturned eyes. She studied his face, her free hand rising to his neck, tugging him down until she could whisper in his ear. "Please don't make that face. If you wear an expression like that, people will think I'm forcing you to marry me."

His chuckle had her smiling when he pulled back enough to see her face. He pressed a quick, relieved kiss on her mouth. "Why would you have to force me? I can't resist a request from my sweet Nanao-chan's lips."

"I'll remember that the next time you refuse to do something for work." She rubbed her lips together to make sure the color was still even.

He smiled. "I was always under the impression that you enjoyed tying me to chairs. I was trying to make sure your work was fulfilling enough."

"Somehow I think I could manage to be adequately fulfilled by work without tying you to the furniture."

He gestured as if weighing that. "Well you can always tie me up at home now, I suppose."

She opened her mouth, but stopped short of speaking as they reached the top of the stairs and the shrine came into view. "Shunsui."

"I've got you. Don't worry. Just keep your eyes on me, Nanao-chan." He wanted to reassure her that marriage wasn't something to worry over or fear, but it wasn't as if he could speak from experience about this. He'd make sure their marriage was good for her. He'd make her breakfast in bed and fill their house with her books and plant her favorite flowers in their garden. Whatever it took, he would do it. But there was no more time to tell her that now, in words or deeds.

Perhaps vows like these were always an act of faith.

The ceremony began almost as soon as they reached their positions and Kasumi's group had settled in. Shunsui kept her hand in his, unconcerned for the propriety. He never took his eyes off of her, registering every expression that crossed her face. Her breaths were shallow and quick again. Her hand clutched his, her nails biting into his palm. But when the time came to make her vows, her voice was clear and strong.

It was over quickly. They were married in less time than it had taken to come up the stairs. Their families offered congratulations and good wishes. "Kiss, kiss!" Rangiku said, clapping her hands together.

Shunsui kissed Nanao's cheek softly. They made their way back down to the carriages, Shunsui helping her into the first one. He climbed in after her and closed the door.

She fished in her voluminous sleeves, finally coming up with her glasses. "Did you order more carriages to avoid riding with our families?" she asked, putting her glasses on with a sigh of relief.

"I wanted to be alone with you."

"That's a yes, then." She leaned back against the cushions of the carriage, making a disgruntled sound when her hood stopped her from getting comfortable. The slick fabric of the uchitake slid against the seat, dropping her to the side. She caught herself with her hands.

"I think that's enough of the cranes." He helped her out of the uchitake, his breath caught by the kimono hiding under the cranes. It was a soft pink, barely colored, with cherry blossom trees and falling flowers in varying shades of pink and white. The white obi was covered in an elaborate flow of cherry blossoms caught in the wind. She'd dressed for the wedding in his colors and symbols. Everyone who saw her would know that she was his. Pride welled up in his chest. "It's perfect."

"Kasumi-bāchan picked it out before the engagement was even set." She sat back down, poking at her hood.

"It's an exquisite kimono, made even lovelier because my Nanao-chan is wearing it. Do you want this hood on?"

"No, but it's not as if I can just take it off."

"Yes, it is." He reached for her hood, feeling for the pins.

"Kasumi-bāchan will be annoyed," she protested.

"You wore everything they wanted to the ceremony. But the party will be much longer, and I don't want you to feel like you have a crane nesting on your head the whole time." He removed the hood, setting it on the opposite cushion with the uchitake, but to his surprise it wasn't Nanao's satin hair underneath. "Is that a wig?"

"My hair wasn't thick enough for all of the hair ornaments that they wanted and the hood."

"I can see why." There was an impressive quantity of pins and decorations in the fat bun of her wig. "Are you comfortable in that?"

"It itches miserably, actually." He removed some of the pins holding the wig on. "Kasumi-bāchan will really be annoyed if you do that."

He took the wig off, putting it with her other things. "She can direct her complaints to me. I don't want my lovely wife itching in an unnecessary wig all day."

"I'm sure the wig is the finest boar hair available," she said. He tugged the last pin out of her hair and it tumbled down over his hands in a dark waterfall. She made a sound of pleasure.

He wanted more of that sound, so he began to massage her scalp. "It's probably hair sold by people in the Rukongai."

"Everything else has boars, so I just assumed the wig would, too."

"About the boar-drawn carriages—"

"They're fine, even the boars. But how did you find so many pink carriages?" She moaned deliciously again, leaning back against him as much as her obi would allow.

"We paid to have them painted."

"How unnecessary," she said without heat, her eyes closed.

"You'll probably enjoy the party more if you don't think about the expense. It seems wasteful, but certain expectations of noble society are in play here, so a show of wealth is necessary."

She waved a hand in a benevolent gesture. "I won't mention any of the unnecessary things if you keep doing that."

He smiled, moving to rub her neck. "You're too tense, Nanao-chan."

"Getting married is stressful. But it wasn't as difficult as I thought it might be."

"No? Why not?"

She didn't answer for a long time, and he thought she might not answer at all. "Since it was you—I could do it because it was you. Talking about cranes and work and ropes—but you would have stopped everything if I'd asked." She opened her eyes, tilting her head to see his face. "Because you would have stopped the wedding if I couldn't do it, I could do it. That's confusing." She shook her head once.

He swallowed hard. "No, I understand." He drew her up into his lap so that he could reach her lips. He kissed her, sweet and light, following it with a string of kisses down her neck. He resisted the urge to lick and bite, to leave marks on her delicate skin. "My wife," he said against her throat.

"It sounds strange." She leaned against his chest, her hands playing with the unfamiliar edges of his formal clothes.

"Does it? I'll say it until you get used to it. Nanao-chan is my wife." He kissed his way to her jaw. "My wife." His breath made her earrings tinkle softly. "My wife," he whispered in her ear.

"It could take weeks to get used to it." She smiled. "I'm looking forward to having time off. It will be nice to sleep in and relax."

"I can hardly believe that my industrious Nanao-chan wants to sleep in, but I heartily endorse the idea."

She shook her head, still smiling. "This process was difficult, but we're almost done."

"The party should be easy."

"Kasumi-bāchan would disagree. The party is very important, you know. Many nobles will be there, and I must be a graceful and elegant society bride."

"You don't need to do anything extra to be graceful and elegant. You're those things naturally."

She tsked at him. "You've made it more difficult, you know. You took my hair down. I won't look the part like this, no matter how wonderful your hands feel now."

"I'll help you put it back up before we arrive at the party. In the meantime, please tell me more about how wonderful my hands, or any other part of me, are to you. Wax poetic, if you'd like."

He grinned when she poked her elbow into his chest. "There's no need for me to feed your ego."

He nibbled at the fine shell of her ear. "But I'm so hungry," he whispered, letting his desire into his voice, and she caught her breath, swallowing.

She licked her lips. "How long is the carriage ride to the Kuchiki estate?"

He pressed his face to the perfumed skin of her throat. "Not nearly long enough, unfortunately." He pulled back, shifting her to the seat beside him regretfully. "I need to fix your hair."

"Yes, please." She turned to give him her back. "Use as many of the ornaments as possible, for Kasumi-bāchan's sake."

"I'll try," he said, although he wouldn't use more than half of them. The full collection was too much, even for his taste.

"I'm beginning to see the appeal of the boar-drawn carriages now."

He grinned. "Do you want a boar-drawn carriage of your own for regular use? It could be arranged."

"Absolutely not. Boar-drawn carriages are strictly for special events. It's impractical when we could use shunpō, and there's a driver." She stiffened suddenly. "Do you think he heard us? We were talking very freely, and I was—enjoying your neck massage."

He chuckled. "Relax, Nanao-chan. The interior is well-insulated. Your sweet little moans were only for me."

"I wasn't moaning," she said, and he could hear her blush, if not see it, with his attention focused on her hair.

"No? Yare, yare. I was sure that those were moans, but if those delightful little sounds weren't moans, I'll have to keep trying to get your real moans. I want to hear them," he murmured in her ear.

"How long will the party be?" she asked, but whether she was changing the subject or measuring the time between now and bed, he wasn't quite sure.

"Hours. Sorry, Nanao-chan, but you'll have to wait for more of my wonderful hands." She scoffed and he grinned. "I think that's as good as I can do with your hair."

She shifted on the seat to face the front again, reaching into her sleeve for a small bag. She pulled out a compact mirror and checked her hair, turning her head this way and that way. "That's decent work, actually. Perhaps you do have talented hands."

It pleased him that she was comfortable enough to tease him like that. "I do. You could even say that I have magical hands." He waved his fingers at her and she shook her head.

"I wouldn't say that."

"Yet." He ran his fingertips along the curve of her neck. "But the day is young."

She raised an amused eyebrow at him. She searched in the small bag for a lipstick, and started to lift off the cap.

"Wait." He tipped her chin up, kissing her leisurely and thoroughly. This would be his last opportunity for several hours, and he wanted to take full advantage of it. She made one of the sweet sounds she'd insisted were not moans into his mouth and he swallowed it greedily. "Nanao-chan," he murmured when she drew back for air.

"You have lipstick on your face." He lifted his hand, but she stopped him. "Let me get it." She pulled a white cloth out of her sleeve, rising on her knees to reach his face easily. He steadied her with his hands on her waist. She wiped neatly at the corners of his mouth, her eyes heavy-lidded. "Let me," she whispered, leaning into him, her lips brushing his softly.

Now he was the one making a sound of pleasure, and she could call it whatever she wanted as long as she kissed him first. Physical affections initiated by Nanao were still rare and he savored every touch.

"I made it worse." She wiped at his face with the cloth, a secretive smile on her swollen lips.

"Your kisses could never make anything worse. I would wear your lipstick with pride, Nanao-chan!" He made kissy faces until she laughed. He watched her apply lipstick with his heart lightened by her ease with him. He'd worried that she might revert to heavy stiffness, overwhelmed by the gravity of marriage, but if she felt that weight, it didn't show much.

The carriage rolled to a stop. "Already?" she asked, putting away her makeup bag and frowning.

She must have lost track of time while they played. "It's a party, Nanao-chan. The hard part is over."

She shook her head at him. "It's a party, but it's a party at the Kuchiki estate with many prominent nobles in attendance. It's not the same as the engagement party at the Eighth's common room."

"The nobles don't matter."

"Don't say that, they're an important future customer base for the Ise silk shops."

He grinned. "Then I'll make sure they get plenty of the Kyōraku charm."

"The Kyōraku charm, such as it is, should probably be applied in careful doses to the nobility. I don't think they're quite prepared for the full force of it."

He opened the carriage door and helped her out. "The full force of my charm is reserved for my Nanao-chan. I'm a married man now."

She didn't respond, instead staring at the Kuchiki grounds. He tried to see it the way she would, since she hadn't been as familiar with the plans. Cherry blossoms bloomed on both sides of the path to the main house and throughout the grounds.

"It's not the right season for cherry blossoms," Nanao said. "How did you manage that?"

"The Kuchiki clan has a special affinity for cherry blossoms, and Byakuya-kun was kind enough to make sure they were blooming for our wedding party." Shunsui smiled, but he kept his eyes on her face. The arrangements for the reception were tasteful and calibrated to noble sensibilities, thanks to Kasumi and his mother, but he still wanted Nanao to like them.

The Kuchiki grounds sparkled, flowers serving as the primary decorations for the reception. Long tables with cushions offered comfortable seating and lanterns hanging from the trees invited the curious down neat paths. A virtual army of servants would provide the discreet and anticipatory service the Kuchiki clan expected.

"You must have worked so hard to arrange this," she said. "Thank you for planning the wedding with my great-aunt and your mother, even when it must have been tiresome." She reached for his hand, her eyes violet in the shadows of the carriage.

"I won't say it was easy all of the time, but it was worth it. To have Nanao-chan as my wife—I would have done more." He wrapped her hand in his. "I would have done anything."

She stared at their joined hands. "Kasumi-bāchan said something like that." She raised her head to meet his eyes, her gaze filled with vulnerability and a hint of longing that took his breath away. Whatever she asked him for next, he'd give her. Anything, everything. "Shunsui, I—"

The other boar-drawn carriages pulled up behind theirs, Kasumi, popping out and gasping at the sight of Nanao. "What did you do to your hair?"

Shunsui squeezed Nanao's hand. "Nanao-chan?" he asked, but she shook her head, biting her lip.

Privacy. He'd have Nanao to himself soon, and he could coax her back to her question. He hoped so, anyway—how often had they taken a step toward each other, only for Nanao to take two more back?

But now they were married.

"I took down Nanao-chan's hair, Kasumi-san." He forced a grin onto his face, spinning to face Nanao's great-aunt. "I couldn't wait to see the lovely ornaments you'd chosen."

Kasumi's brows creased. "There was a wig—it's no matter now. We must prepare for the arrival of guests. Nanao-chan, come here." She waved Nanao over and attacked her hair, making tiny adjustments to the positions of the hair ornaments. "Attendants, to your places."

Nanao's bridesmaids hurried off between the tables. Shunsui sighed low when Kasumi led Nanao away, murmuring about her glasses.

Ukitake clapped him on the shoulder. "Congratulations." He smiled. "Don't look so glum. You'll see your new bride again soon."

"I think glimpses are all I'll get during the party," Shunsui said. He grinned, a real one this time. "But I can share her with everyone for a little while longer. I'll have her forever after this."

"Generous of you." Ukitake chuckled.

Shunsui raised his hand to the first set of arriving guests. "Let's start the party. I want this to be a good time for everyone, and a good memory for Nanao-chan."

The hours of the party flew faster than he'd hoped. He did only catch his bride in quick glimpses and light touches as they passed each other, their time occupied by the huge number of guests wanting to talk to them.

But those glimpses of her stayed with him.

Nanao, her eyes widening and her lips curving up at some undoubtedly outrageous thing his father had said; Nanao, nodding earnestly at his mother, absorbed in their conversation; Nanao, elegant and cool as she spoke to the nobles that she hoped to entice to the Ise silk shops; Nanao, laughing with her SWA friends as Rangiku waved a drink around.

Nanao, catching him staring at her and mouthing his name silently, her eyes sparkling in the sunlight.


He would never forget this day. He could never forget this woman. In this life and the next, it would always be her waiting for him in his dreams, her that he'd reach for when he awoke.


The sun was sinking down in the sky when Shunsui could finally leave the party with Nanao. He led her to the boar-drawn carriage and helped her in. She leaned back against the cushions with a sigh.

"Nanao-chan," he murmured, sliding onto the seat next to her.

She surprised him by resting her head against his arm. Her eyes slipped closed. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, drawing her against his chest. How long had he waited to hold her this way?

She wanted the quiet, and he enjoyed it too, after the noise and energy of the party. He closed his eyes, pressing his lips against her hair.

The carriage rolled to a stop several minutes later. Shunsui kissed Nanao's temple. "We're home, sweetheart."

She sat up quickly, smoothing the folds of her kimono. She hadn't been sleeping—she'd been enjoying their cuddle, too. He couldn't suppress his smile.

He thanked the driver, and Nanao even gave the carriage a little wave as it drove off.

"I can still get you one," he said, gesturing enticingly at the retreating carriage.

"Somehow, I think I can manage without one." She arched an eyebrow. "But perhaps, on some very special occasion, if we needed formal transport, I would consider a boar-drawn carriage."

"I can think of many special occasions that would call for a carriage, Nanao-chan! Why, there are dozens—"

"A carriage wouldn't be called for more than once a year, at most." She held up an index finger. "Once."

"Our anniversary, then." He bent to kiss her hand with a flourish. "The perfect occasion."

She took a deep breath, her eyes on the house behind him. "We're not practicing marriage anymore."

He straightened slowly, holding onto her hand. "No, we're not practicing. This is real, Nanao-chan."

She nodded. "This is real." Her lips parted and then pressed together, as if she had more to say, but didn't know how to say it. His Nanao, at a loss for words?

"Let's go inside and relax. All of your things are here, the boys from the Eighth helped to bring them over while you were at the Ise estate." He strolled to the house, keeping up a light patter of conversation and a lighter clasp of her hand.

In the entryway he knelt to slip off her wooden sandals, his fingers massaging the arches of her feet. She allowed his touch, a small moan escaping her lips.

"Welcome home, Nanao-chan."

She ran her hand over his hair, her eyes glimmering in the moonlight. "Thank you."

He rose and they walked together to the open bedroom doors. Nanao hesitated at the threshold to the bedroom and then stepped through slowly. Shunsui followed, moving to face her when she stilled.

"You were magnificent today, Nanao-chan." His hands came up to cradle her face.

Her eyes widened. "I didn't do much."

"You were so sweet, so beautiful." His hands drifted over the silk covering her shoulders. His lips pressed against hers in a soft kiss. She parted her lips for him, allowing him entrance to her mouth. His hands slid to her back. He was surprised to find her back stiff, even as she returned his kiss, her hands resting on his chest.

He drew back. "It's been a long day. Do you want to get out of your wedding clothes?"

She swallowed, licking her lips. Was she worried about going to bed with him? "Yes." She turned to present her back to him.

His hands worked at her obi. When it came off her body, he removed the outer layers of her garments, leaving her in a thin white robe. "Beautiful." His lips swept a kiss on the nape of her neck.

"I want to take a bath."

"Of course, lovely Nanao-chan. Take your time."

She hurried into the bathroom. He picked up her kimono layers and put them away. She was more nervous than he'd expected. She'd all but admitted to not having a lot of experience with men, but she'd been relaxed and playful in the carriage. They'd been alone on the drive to the Kuchiki estate, but the setting had limited what he could have expected from her.

If she was worried about his expectations, he would set that right soon. He made up a tray of wine and light snacks, bringing it to the bedroom. Nanao took several more minutes in the bath, and he hoped she was relaxing. He changed out of his clothes and into a robe, lounging inside the bedroom with the doors open to the porch and garden.

When she came out of the bath, his heart skipped. She wore a short garment of a gauzy white fabric, nearly transparent, with pink cherry blossoms embroidered on it in a pattern very similar to her wedding kimono. She crossed her arms, her hands rubbing her biceps. "It's chilly."

The temperature in the bedroom was comfortably warm by Shunsui's measure, but he rose to wrap her in his pink kimono. "Is that better, Nanao-chan?"

"Yes, thank you." She sat on the cushion he offered her, fussing with his kimono, her cheeks a darker pink than the cherry blossoms on her nightgown.

It hadn't been her idea to wear something like that for him. Maybe Rangiku—but Nanao would have been fine refusing it, then. It must have come from her great-aunt. "Would you like a drink, Nanao-chan? It's the plum wine that you enjoyed on our picnic."

"Yes, thank you." She accepted the wine from him, drinking a swallow right away.

"Did you enjoy the party?"

"Yes, it was lovely. Thank you again for all your work on the wedding." She took another drink.

"Nanao-chan." She squared her shoulders before meeting his gaze, and his heart sank. She was the resolute soldier again. He wanted to see her sweet blush in that delicious nightgown, with tantalizing glimpses of her luminous skin underneath. He wanted her so much.

But not like this.

"I'm glad that you enjoyed the party. I know that it wasn't what you would have chosen for yourself."

She tilted her head at him. "It was very good party, Shunsui. Thank you."

He smiled, but it felt strained on his face. "I'm a lucky man. I married my precious Nanao-chan. This is what I would have chosen for myself, and I'm happy. But I want you to be happy, too. Please don't feel that you owe me anything tonight or any other night."

"Shunsui." He stilled when she crossed the distance between them on her knees, her hand hovering close to his face. "I'm very lucky, too. You're the third person today that has said they want me to be happy. I'm glad that so many people care about my happiness."

"Nanao-chan." He pressed his face to her palm, rewarded when she caressed his cheek.

"I had choices. To consider a marriage or not, to take a loan from you, to look at other men. All of the choices led to different places, had different consequences, but the choice I made was to marry you. I chose you."

The impact of her words was a lightning strike inside him, burning hot through his veins. He hadn't let himself hope for any declarations from Nanao beyond what she'd given him already. But now he could admit to himself how much he'd wanted more from her, how much it meant to get these words. He would never let her regret them.

He pulled her close, kissed her hand, her fine jaw, the curve of her neck. "I'll do anything I can to make you happy. I promise," he whispered against the delicate pulse in her throat. He grazed her skin with his teeth, soothing the mark with his tongue when she gasped.

He kissed her, intending to be gentle and easy, to hold back the flame of his desire. She invited him into her mouth, parting her lips for him. His tongue swept playfully against hers. She moaned and the sound was more arousing than anything else because it was Nanao, responding to him.

Nanao, who'd chosen him.

He deepened the kiss, his hand running down her back over the kimono. Her arms crept around his neck, one of her hands knotting in his hair. She moaned again and he swallowed the sound, savoring every moment. What kind of moans would she give him when he brought her pleasure with his mouth, his hands, when he was deep inside her? Would she say his name in that delicious breathy tone, full of urgency? He slipped his hand under the haori and ran his fingers over her waist, up the bands of her ribs. The fabric of her nightgown was feather-light over her skin.

"Shunsui," she whispered, pulling back slightly.

"What is it, Nanao-chan?" The nightgown was beautifully crafted, the embroidery satiny under his fingers, although it couldn't compare to the silk of her skin.

"I made a list for you." Her brows drew together.

"We don't have to look at it now," he said, absorbed in the curve of her hip.

She shook her head. "I think it would be better to give it to you now." She rose, hurrying to a corner of the bedroom and pulling books out of the bag she'd brought from the Ise estate. He leaned back, sipping some of the plum wine. Wherever she wanted to go tonight, he'd follow her lead. She pulled a page from one of the books and marched purposefully back to him. She sat on her heels, the pink kimono slipping away from her shoulders, leaving the lovely design of her nightgown exposed.

"Nanao-chan? Would you like to show me your list?" he asked after several seconds of silence.

"It's not the list you asked me to compose initially. I think I mentioned that to you yesterday." She shifted, the folded paper pressed to her lap and covered with her hands protectively.

"That's just fine. I'm happy to look at any list my sweet Nanao-chan has for me." He smiled, extending his hand encouragingly. She didn't move. "Whenever you want me to see it."

"I compiled it from a close reading of several books recommended by Lisa-san. These items are consistently present across several texts, and it's my understanding that together they form a reasonably complete outline of a respectably varied sexual encounter." She adjusted her glasses. She was blushing, but her voice was crisp.

He sipped from his cup, buying time. A list was very like her, but there was something a little odd in her wording. He would tread carefully to avoid stepping on her pride. "You did a lot of research for this list?"

She shook her head. "Given the nature of the material and the constraints on my time, and the frequent presence of my great-aunt, the survey was not as wide or as deep as I might have preferred, but I did my best to prepare with the books that I had on hand."

"You studied to prepare for—maybe you should show me the list, Nanao-chan."

Her blush deepened, but she squared her shoulders. "Of course I studied. I would have studied for anything else that involved a joint activity with someone of vastly more experience. Why should I approach this differently?" She crossed her arms, a touch of defiance in her voice.

"There's no need for you to worry about my greater experience, sweetheart." He cradled her cheek with one hand. "I don't know what your previous experiences may have been, but those things don't matter now. We'll build our own experiences together. I want you to be happy and comfortable in bed with me."

She took a deep breath and then pushed it out, speaking quickly. "I don't have any previous experiences. You must be aware of the societal expectations for women of noble birth. Although my family is not as high-ranking as yours, those expectations for virginity still applied to me, and I never found any compelling reason to break with that tradition."

"I see." Although she'd been a shinigami for nearly all of her life, she'd still followed the will of her family, just as she'd consented to their wish to see her marry to save the Ise estate.

"It never seemed worth the risk. What if I'd chosen a partner poorly? If things soured between us, they would have had the ability to damage my family's standing with only a few words to the right people." She scowled, but it wasn't directed at him.

"It would have given someone a lot of potential leverage over you. It's hard to give up control that way." He understood; he'd never worried about having his sexual relationships exposed, but there would have been no material consequences for him or his family beyond a scolding by Yama-jii or his father. Nanao and her family occupied a much more precarious position in noble society.

"And if things had gone badly, how could I have fixed the situation? When I considered it, it was obvious that you would be the one most likely to help me, but to have to explain that I'd had such poor taste in partners to you—" she shook her head sharply. "It would have been humiliating."

"I would have taken care of it for you, Nanao-chan, and I promise that I would have been sensitive. I would never want to see you humiliated by anyone," he said, pressing his hand over hers.

"I know. But the possibility of a bad outcome was enough to deter me." She slid the paper off her lap and across the floor towards him. "I don't think that my lack of previous experiences is a problem. As I said, I studied extensively, and I have a list. There are supplementary charts and diagrams, if necessary."

He smiled, resisting the urge to chuckle; she might take it the wrong way, but she was so sweet and earnest. "Diagrams? Well, let me take a look at your list first." He unfolded the paper with one hand, raising it up to read it in the half-lit room. There were ten items on the list, all of them things he was certain he could handle without any references, but he'd still get a look at her charts and diagrams later. They could be fun, too. "This is a good list, Nanao-chan."

She relaxed a little, sinking into her cushion. "Do you think so?"

"Yes. But it's a bit ambitious."

"Ambitious?" Her brows drew together.

"I like to take my time with things, Nanao-chan. You know that. There are activities on this list I want to spend hours and hours on. I think the first four things here will take most of the night." He set the paper down, turning it so that they could both read it.

"That's not even half of the recommended items," she protested.

"It's still a bit ambitious, I know." He closed the distance between them, tipping her head to expose her pale throat. She smelled like fruit and soap, a fresh and sweet scent. "The truth is, number four is a favorite of mine. I want to linger on that one." He drew a lazy line down her neck with his tongue, circling her pulse. His hand drifted to her thigh, caressing the skin below the short hemline of her nightgown. She caught her breath. "Will you indulge me?"

Her fingers rested on his head. "This isn't because of my—my lack of previous experience?"

"No," he said easily, and she laced her fingers through his hair.

"Perhaps my list was a bit ambitious as constructed," she conceded. "The timetable could be relaxed."

He'd never cared much for timetables. "I could spend days on number four, and you might want me to, Nanao-chan."

"You're just bragging now," she said, chiding, but she laughed and ruined the effect.

"I'll let you be the judge of that." He drew back enough to see her face, her eyes glittering and her lips full from his kiss. She was beautiful, and she was his. Her hands clasped behind his neck and a rush of heat crackled through him. "Do you want more to drink?" he asked with his voice rough.

"No." She waited with her lips parted. He lifted her into his arms, carrying her inside to the bed. She took off his kimono, sliding into the blankets. He partially closed the doors to the garden and lowered the lights to a dim glow. She had the blanket tucked under her arms and her eyes followed him as he came to his side of the bed and climbed in.

"Nanao-chan," he started, and stopped. There were so many things he wanted to say to her, so much he wanted to give her. But he would be careful and go slowly. There would be time enough for everything, and he wanted her to be comfortable in their marriage. Too much intensity might make her skittish. Instead he grinned. "I have hiking boots in the closet, if you want me to get them out."

She laughed, startled. "You don't actually have those?"

He pressed his hand to his heart. "I do. I wanted to have them on hand, in case they were needed."

She shook her head at him. "They're not." She tilted her head. "I have supplementary diagrams, if you want me to get them out."

He chuckled. "Let's save those for later, lovely Nanao-chan." He lifted his hand to her face, cupping her cheek.

"We can manage without them." She licked her lips. "But we should definitely start at number one."

"I love a woman with a plan," he murmured, drawing her close for a kiss.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 12th, 2015 09:20 pm (UTC)
OOO! A new chap! YAY!
May. 7th, 2017 03:50 am (UTC)
Стимул Dream Cruises ™ Вокруг земного шара в круизе за пол-це
Work from home. TOP 5 projekt 2017.Wellcome!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )