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Title: The Trials of Nanao Ise
Genre: Romance/Drama
Pairing: Shunsui/Nanao
Spoilers: Through manga chapter 423
Status: Ongoing
Rating: R
Contains: depictions of sparring violence, injury, a small mention of implied child abuse, and some crude language courtesy of the Eleventh Division.
Summary: Nanao will face the consequences of her decisions during and after the Arrancar War. Can she overcome these trials, or will they divide her from Captain Kyōraku forever? Canon compliant through manga chapter 423.

Back to Chapter 22.
Chapter 1.

“Do you remember the interdivisional training with the Eleventh?  The year that we sparred together?”  The memory was one of Nanao’s most important, and it was as fresh to her as it had been the day it happened.
Two Years After Nanao Became Vice Captain          
The interdivisional training was a living nightmare for Nanao.  By the third day of the week-long training, her stomach cramped at the thought of entering the practice field for sword sparring matches.  Although she was the vice captain of the Eighth, she’d held that position for a scant two years, and her sword, a tantō, was poorly suited to battle, even against other sealed zanpakutō.
She’d left the practice field after a humiliating loss to the Seventh Seat of the Eleventh Division, and now sat up in the high branches of a tree overlooking the training.  She wasn’t hiding exactly; she just didn’t want to be found.
Below her three shinigami from the Eleventh Division strolled towards their barracks, laughing and talking.  She could only see one of them through the leaves of her tree, but she could hear them all.  “Did you see how easily our Seventh Seat took her down?  Is that really the power of a vice captain?”  It was a fat man with a large mustache who asked.
“You know captains can choose their own vice captains.  Maybe he picked her for some other reason.”  She couldn’t see the speaker, could only hear their reedy voice.
“Well, she can’t use that tiny sword worth a damn.”  This voice was raspy and low.
“She’s not that cute and she seems really cold.  Didn’t even laugh when Higurashi told that joke about the whale and the princess.”  The fat man offered this opinion with a wave of his arm that sent ripples through his body.
“Captain Kyōraku must keep her around for some reason.  Maybe she’s really wild in bed,” said the raspy voice.
“Why would he go to bed with someone that cold?  He’d get frostbite on his balls.  Anyway, a captain could get better women than that for sure.”
Nanao drew in her reiatsu as tightly as she could when the group of shinigami passed directly under her tree, trying to make herself invisible.
“He probably gets bored in the office.  Maybe she’s really good on her knees,” the reedy voice said, ending in a laugh.
The others laughed with him.  Nanao held her breath until they were halfway to their barracks.  She felt a prickling in the back of her eyes but ignored it.  She wasn’t going to cry.  That would give those fools from the Eleventh too much power over her.
And it wasn’t as if this was the first time she’d heard whispers along similar lines.  She’d heard numerous variations on the theme:
“Captain Kyōraku likes dark-haired girls with glasses.  One of his other vice captains was almost exactly like her.  That girl’s just a cheap replacement.”
“She doesn’t care about anything but work.  I can’t imagine why he keeps her around.  I’ve never met anyone so dull before.”
“There’s no way she deserved to be a vice captain before me.  She must be sleeping with Captain Kyōraku.  It’s so twisted though, because she’s been in that division since she was a kid.  I heard he had her trained by that vice captain who disappeared, so that she’d grow up to be exactly what he likes.”
Nanao had heard many different takes on the relationship between her and her captain, but they all drew the same conclusion: she didn’t earn or deserve her current rank as vice captain.  She felt sick sometimes when she inadvertently heard new gossip about herself.  The things people said about her and about her captain could be disturbing, especially when they implied strange things about her childhood.  Nanao didn’t really know what constituted a “normal” childhood in Soul Society—half of the people she knew had grown up orphaned waifs on the streets of Rukongai—but her life in the Eighth Division hadn’t been bad, and it definitely hadn’t been anything like what people imagined in their gossip.
She’d hoped it would be easier for her to gain the respect of her peers when she looked older, but so far she’d been deeply disappointed.  Her sexual skills and prowess were the talk of Seireitei, and she’d never even been kissed.  In the Eighth Division she was safe from gossip about sex with her captain and from commentary about her inadequacies as a vice captain, but this interdivisional training week was a rude awakening.
She’d heard more cruel remarks about herself in three days than she had in her past two years as vice captain.  Sometimes she wondered if any of this talk ever reached the ears of Captain Kyōraku, but she doubted it.  People were a lot more careful of what they said around a captain than they would be around her.  She wasn’t nearly as noticeable as he was.
A blur of pink surprised her as her captain appeared in her vision under her tree and flashed up it to sit on a branch across from her.  “Nanao-chan!  Here you are.”  He grinned widely at her, tipping back his straw hat.
“Did you need something, captain?”  Nanao wondered if he’d heard the men from the Eleventh Division talking about her.  She didn’t think he had; his expression was warm and cheerful.
“I was concerned about you.  You took a hit to the head in your match and then you disappeared.”
Nanao fought down a flush.  She’d been pathetic in that fight; completely outmatched in swordsmanship and hand-to-hand combat.  The Eleventh Division didn’t use kidō ordinarily, and since these sessions were intended to focus on the sword, no kidō was permitted during the training.  Since Nanao’s only decent combat skill was her kidō, she was at a significant disadvantage in all her sparring matches.  In the previous match she’d barely lasted two minutes against a much lower-ranking officer of the Eleventh.  “I’m fine, sir.  Your concern is unnecessary.”
“Is it?  Tell me, Nanao-chan, are you enjoying the interdivisional training?”  He leaned one shoulder against the tree truck.
Nanao thought of the lost matches, the overheard gossip, the stares and the snickers.  “It’s been educational,” she said.
He watched her closely with his cheerful eyes.  She’d realized early in her tenure as his vice captain that he was much more perceptive than he let on, so she’d learned to keep her face in a frosty mask as much as possible.  “That’s nice, Nanao-chan.  Learning is always a good idea.  That’s why you and I are going to have a sparring match.”
“Are you serious?  What could possibly be the point?  My sword can’t stand against yours, captain.”
“It’s just an exhibition, Nanao-chan.  It’ll be fun.”  He jumped out of the tree and gestured for her to follow.  “Come on.”
“Now?  You want to do this now?”  Nanao landed gracefully next to him on the ground.
“Now is an excellent time to do this.  Everyone is back from lunch, so they can all see our match.”  He walked towards the practice field, Nanao taking three steps to his one to keep up.
“Sir, this is not a good idea.  I can’t possibly win against you in a fight.”  Nanao was feeling more and more desperate as they approached the field.  Gathered shinigami of the Eighth and the Eleventh noticed her captain and turned to watch them approach.
“This is an excellent idea.  I don’t know why I haven’t sparred with you before.  It’s very neglectful of me.  You can use any technique you like, Nanao-chan, including kidō.”  He smiled at her.
“Sir, I can’t—”
“Of course you can.”
They were at the practice field now, and Nanao followed him to the center like a prisoner bound for execution.  “If you want me to resign as your vice captain, you should just say so, sir.  A complete humiliation is really unnecessary.”
“I don’t want you to resign.  I want you to spar with me.  That’s not so much to ask, is it?”  He stopped walking, having reached the area designated for matches.
Nanao’s palms were sweaty and her body cold.  “As you like, sir,” she said, resigned.  Soon he would destroy her on the field, maybe put her in the Fourth, and she’d hear newer, uglier gossip about herself because of his sudden whim.
He raised his voice so he could be heard by everyone.  “My vice captain has graciously agreed to a sparring match with me.  There are no limits to techniques or kidō that can be used.”  Amid the cheers from the troops of the Eighth, who rarely got to see their captain or vice captain fight, he leaned in close to Nanao.  “Come at me as if you want to kill me, Nanao-chan,” he murmured, his voice low and his eyes intense.
Her eyes narrowed.  At the moment, it was not hard to pull up some serious intent to harm him; this match was going to make her life even more difficult afterwards.  She slipped her tantō out of her sleeve and tucked it into her sash.
“That’s good, Nanao-chan,” he said, and moved back several steps.  They bowed, and the match began.
He drew the longer sword in his daishō pair and came at her directly.  Nanao drew her tantō, but hit him with a quickly murmured “Hadō number 1: Shō!”
The spell pushed him back, but barely.  He sprung forward over the short distance between them and she blocked his sword with her tantō, gritting her teeth at the force of his strike.  Her sword would not survive many hits like this.
“Hadō number 4: Byakurai!”  Captain Kyōraku jumped away to avoid the path of her lightning.  Still, this was not working well.  She needed a strategy.  “Bakudō number 4: Hainawa!”  The rope of yellow energy wrapped around his arm and body.
He broke it easily and swung at her from the left.  She thought quickly and dropped a seki bakudō onto her tantō, hoping to keep it from snapping under the pressure of his sword.  The small repulse spell reduced some of the force of his strikes as he came at her continually from different angles.  She was already sweating and panting and he wasn’t even trying very hard, which was both obvious and galling.  She needed a better plan.
“Hadō number 11: Tsuzuri Raiden!”  The flash of lightning ran into her tantō and up into his sword, giving him a sharp jolt.  He grinned at her and flashed away.  She snapped a few fast shakkahō fires in his general direction and then dropped a smoke bomb kidō at her feet.  A thick cloud of red smoke disguised the practice field.  She knew that he could still sense her presence but the intent was not to hide her location, only her actions.
Nanao had read about techniques like this, but she hadn’t tried it in battle before.  She cast the unfamiliar fushibi spell, combining it with a shakkahō, and threw it behind her at him with as much force in the kidō as she could muster.
Captain Kyōraku’s face registered surprise—the fushibi spell hid the shakkahō until it was already too close for him to dodge.  Nanao was under no illusion that he could be felled by a hadō in the thirties, so she leaped away from his position.  “Hadō number 58: Tenran!”  The wind blasted out from her tantō and blew the concealing smoke away.  The spell roared like a tornado as it crossed the field.
Nanao felt a small thrill of triumph when she saw her captain.  He was undamaged by the shakkahō, but his pink haori had fallen victim to the fire and was now half eaten by flames and caught in the blasting wind of the tenran spell.  It flapped across the practice field until the tenran blew out and the haori fell to the ground, burning to ashes.  Captain Kyōraku grinned again.  “Very good, Nanao-chan,” he said, and drew his wakizashi with a flourish.
He struck faster, more engaged in the fight than before.  Nanao blocked his speedy wakizashi with her tantō braced by a seki kidō, but for his katana she called up a paltry enkosen.  The shield of reiatsu took one hit and cracked, breaking on the second.
She’d anticipated that and shouted, “Bakudō number 62: Hyapporankan!”  She threw the first rod at him and it broke into a hundred short ones, all of which he dodged.  Still, he was at distance so she shot several sōkatsui at him, hoping to have more luck with the wider range of the blue fire than she’d had with the red fire of shakkahō.
He avoided them all, slipping into shunpo when his regular speed wasn’t enough.  Sweat rolled down Nanao’s neck.  She was burning her energy at an alarming pace.  Soon she wouldn’t be able to pull together a good kidō without doing an incantation, and at that point, she’d be completely defeated.  Captain Kyōraku was simply too fast to match if she had to chant out each spell.
“Bakudō number 61: Rikujōkōrō!”  The six rods of yellow light caught him, incapacitating him, but they were already cracking under the force of his spiritual pressure.  “Hadō number 33: Sōkatsui!”  He broke free of the rods before the blue fire could hit him.
“Bakudō number 63: Sajo Sabaku!”  Thick chains of yellow light snapped around him, stopping him only a hairsbreadth from her.  She jumped back, chanting the incantation for sōren sōkatsui.  Even as she said the words for that hadō she pulled up lightning in her mind, preparing a raikōhō.  Holding two kidōs at the same time was a skill she’d long developed, but usually she kept to low-level spells like the seki, not two powerful destructive spells.  It took a level of concentration that drained her power even faster.
“Hadō number 73: Sōren Sōkatsui!”  She released the two balls of blue fire as Captain Kyōraku broke free of the chains.  He dodged both fires, but she’d expected that.
“Hadō number 63: Raikōhō!”  The blast of lightning from above was a surprise to him.  Nanao hadn’t just prepared the spell, she’d altered the starting position from her hand to above the spot she’d expected him to move to dodge the fireballs.  The lightning struck him in the shoulder; it was aimed for his head, but he was still too fast to hit directly.
He flashed behind her, blocking her tantō with his wakizashi and pulling his katana up to her throat, though a few inches safely away from her skin.  “It’s over, clever Nanao-chan,” he murmured near her ear.
Nanao didn’t answer, couldn’t—she was panting and trembling, pushed to the outer limit of her ability.  He sheathed his swords one at a time but he continued to stand behind her, letting her lean on him.  Nanao was grateful for that.  She wasn’t sure that she could stand on her own and she didn’t need the added humiliation of falling to her knees on the battlefield.
A cheer went up from the collective members of Eighth Division.  Nanao spotted the Seventh Seat of Eleventh who’d easily beaten her earlier staring at her, dumbfounded.  Several members of the Eleventh had the same expression.  “What’s wrong with them?”  She’d expected some jeering from the onlookers, but there was just that dumb look.  No one was even laughing behind their hands.
“I think they’re impressed that you made a captain bleed,” he said.
Nanao jumped, startled.  She turned to examine his shoulder.  He was bleeding but she couldn’t determine how serious it was with his captain’s haori and black uniform obscuring the wound.  “Maybe you should go to the Fourth.”
“For something like this?  No thanks.”
“Then you’re going to have to let me look at it, sir.”  Nanao marched off the practice field.  Captain Kyōraku followed very closely.  She knew it was because he was concerned she might fall, not because he desired medical attention.  She was glad for his closeness and gladder still that he didn’t mention her weakness.
Members of the Eighth surrounded them, clamoring for attention.  Nanao was shocked to hear their comments.
“That’s our vice captain!  She’s the best kidō user in the Gotei 13!”
“She didn’t even use shikai for that!”
“This is the strength of the Eighth Division!”
The words were so different from the ones she’d been hearing for the last few days she felt confused by the sudden change.  She shook her head and grabbed one of the Eleventh’s officers, asking where they kept first aid supplies.  He told her in a shout, the crowd around them all talking at once in a confusing jumble.
Nanao was pushed back against her captain and he took hold of her wrist.  “So much energy.”  He grinned, waving at the crowd.  He raised his voice, and said, “That was fun, wasn’t it?  Still, everyone should have a chance to have a match, so let’s return to the scheduled events.”  He grinned as the crowd dispersed around them.
“Come on, captain.”  Nanao walked towards the Eleventh’s barracks, letting him hold her wrist.  She figured the contact was worth getting him to the first aid area without a fight or a lot of whining.
Inside of the Eleventh it was completely silent.  Being a division best known for fighting and always led by a Kenpachi, absolutely everyone was outside at the sword sparring matches. Nanao pushed open a door to an office space converted to a first aid station.  “Sit, please.”
Captain Kyōraku obligingly dropped to the floor.  “That was good, Nanao-chan, especially that bit with the secret shakkahō and then the unexpected raikōhō.”  He grinned.  “You surprised me,” he said, gesturing to his shoulder.
Nanao frowned at him.  She pushed the clothes on the upper part of his body off of his shoulders and he shrugged out of them.  The wound on his shoulder was a jagged slice with charred edges.  It bled sluggishly and it was much closer to his neck than she’d expected.  A suspicion struck her and she narrowed her eyes at his face.  “Did you get hit on purpose?”
“What?  Why would I do that, Nanao-chan?”  He endeavored to look innocent, which he wasn’t capable of even when he was actually innocent.
“You felt sorry for me,” she spit the words out, cheeks flushing a high pink in her anger.
“Yare, yare, Nanao-chan.  Even if you were right, which you’re not, and I was willing to sacrifice my body for you, I wouldn’t have let you hit my hat.”  He smiled at her.
She plucked the straw hat off his head and examined it.  There was a thin slice missing where her lightning had penetrated it.
“You killed my haori and wounded my hat, Nanao-chan.  Those are serious accomplishments.”
She rolled the hat over in her hands before snapping it into two pieces along the line of the missing slice.
And now you’ve killed my hat.  That’s mean, Nanao-chan,” he said, but sounded amused rather than angry.
She knelt beside him and lit one of her hands with healing kidō, pressing it to his wound.  “Why did you want to spar with me?”
He didn’t answer for a long moment, studying her face.  “Interdivisional training tends to be very lopsided.  Certain skills get highlighted while others get ignored.  I thought it would be good to remind our troops, and the Eleventh Division, that swinging a sword isn’t the only path to victory.”
“I’ve lost all of my matches.”  Her voice was even but she watched his face out of the corner of her eye.  Had he been ashamed of her failures?
“So you have.  But if these matches allowed kidō, you could have put your opponents into the hospital if you wanted.  That last sōren sōkatsui was strong enough to vaporize a weak shinigami.  That’s assuming they survived a disguised shakkahō, which isn’t likely.”
Nanao’s cheeks went pink at his evaluation.  “Kidō is my only decent combat skill.  I have to be good at it, because my sword gives me nothing.”
“Why didn’t you use your shikai?” he asked.  His tone was only curious, but she flushed further, because the topic was embarrassing for her.
“I can’t.”
“You can’t?  I know you have shikai.  You demonstrated it in the vice captain’s exam.”
“My sword can be…difficult.  She has refused to participate in these exercises.”
“Refused?”  Now he sounded amused.
Nanao’s brows drew together.  “She’s temperamental.”
“We’ll have to spend some time working on it.  It’s important that you be able to do shikai whenever you want, at the least.”
“Why?  It isn’t as if I can do much with my sword, even in shikai, captain.”  Nanao sighed.
“It’s a skill every shinigami with a shikai should have.  And you may yet develop more sword-based powers.”  When she didn’t speak, he added, “Believe me, Nanao-chan, I know how you feel.  I have a difficult sword myself.  But it isn’t something you can ignore.  We have to work on it.”
She nodded.  They sat in silence as she healed his shoulder.  After the kidō light faded, she began to bandage the wound.  Her fingertips trailed lightly over his skin with the bandage following behind.  She felt a tingling in her nerves and an awareness of the way his heavy muscles tensed under her hands.  The hair on his body interested her, as it made his skin feel so different from hers.
She tied off the bandage, but left her hands on his skin.  There were strange feelings collecting in her stomach, nervousness and something else, something hot and achy.  Her cheeks pinked again, though she didn’t know why, and she licked her lips.  Her captain’s eyes focused intently on her face.
She raised her eyes to meet his, feeling compelled and confused.
“Lovely, lovely Nanao-chan,” he said, and his voice was deep and smooth, full of mysteries beyond her reach.
She pushed herself away from him, afraid of the new tension between them, and the needs she could not name.  At the door she paused, staring at him.  Without his haori and hat to soften him, he seemed darker, more dangerous.  His bare upper body was banded with muscle and covered with golden skin and brown hair that enhanced his masculinity.
His heavy-lidded eyes were dark and inviting.  He watched her stare at him with a smile, his teeth very white against his skin.  She wanted to touch him, to brush her hand over the planes of his face and the hair on his jaw.  He wasn’t as handsome as some men in Soul Society, but he was more attractive to Nanao than any other man she’d seen.  She flushed a deeper pink when she realized that the reactions of her body were signs of sexual attraction.
She wanted to flee, but there was something she needed to say first.  After all, he’d salvaged her pride with the exhibition match, and even been injured to do so.  She felt warmth in her chest—different from the heat in her belly—when she thought of what he’d done.  Whether or not he’d heard the things that people said about her, he’d known what she felt and given her what she needed, even against her protests.
“Thank you,” she said.  She smiled at him, cheeks pink, eyes glowing violet, genuinely happy and willing to show it to him.  His eyes widened in surprise and then filled with pleasure.
“Anything for my Nanao-chan.”  It was the first time he said those words, to be repeated a thousand times over the years.
For the first time she saw him as a man and not only as her captain.
In the years after, they would repeat different parts of this scene, moving towards each other at a pace so slow it looked like standing still, but each time he moved deeper into Nanao’s heart and pushing herself away from him became more and more difficult.
She did not fall in love with him that day, or any other day she could name.  Instead it came to her through a process so gradual that she could not perceive the moment it became love.  What she did know was that it started the day he’d protected her pride at the cost of his blood and bone.  It was the first time she held his name back from her lips, the first day that she felt his magnetism as a man.  And he wasn’t just a man, but the man she wanted, the only man who entered into Nanao’s secret and cherished dreams.
If she was colder to him after that, if she worked harder to stay professional, it was because of his secret place in her heart.  Nanao Ise had never been loved by anyone.  She had never loved anyone before.  She did not know how to give love, or to accept it, and her fear of ruining what she did have was so great that she greeted each new intimacy, each attempt to draw her closer, as something that could destroy everything.  It was why every step forward Shunsui took was often met with two steps backwards by Nanao.  She did not know what to do, and doing nothing was much safer than doing anything.
She felt both pain and relief at each liaison Shunsui had with other women.  Pain because it was not her, and she wanted it to be her; relief because if it was her, she would be destroyed, since there were always more women.
Love to Nanao was something secret and painful; she never believed Shunsui’s proclamations of love, because they were light and happy.  Nanao had wished for many things in her time as Shunsui’s vice captain, but there was nothing she wished so often or so fervently as her wish to be freed of her love.  She loved a man who flew from lover to lover as a bee visits flowers.  But Nanao’s heart was not fickle, and she never wavered.  He slept too much, drank too much, gallivanted too much, but her heart would not be moved.
Shunsui spoke of how he had waited for her, but it was Nanao who had waited for him.

On to Chapter 24.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 2nd, 2011 02:32 am (UTC)
Oh, wow. Nanao's hesitation is so much clearer now, and I love the twist in Nanao waiting for Shunsui.

I also enjoyed the battle scene! An antidote to the cruel words of the other shinigami. It was good to see Nanao's talents as a vice-captain on show - and her difficult sword made me laugh :P
Sep. 3rd, 2011 12:56 am (UTC)
I've had a lot of questions in writing this story--it's the longest work I've ever done, and it's been difficult sometimes to decide when the most appropriate moment for X scene or X revelation is. So I hope the placement of this scene for Nanao is not too far into the story as to render her unsympathetic before this, and not too soon as to be too much information. I hope that the story works as a whole.

I really liked the idea of Nanao loving Shunsui first, and it making things harder for her, because emotions are harder for her generally.

Nanao's difficult sword--I thought that might be something she and Shunsui have in common. :P
Sep. 2nd, 2011 02:33 am (UTC)
And I LOVED the 'killing' of Shunsui's hat and haori :D

Edited at 2011-09-02 02:33 am (UTC)
Sep. 3rd, 2011 12:57 am (UTC)
I think he's probably lost a few hats and haoris to the wrath of Nanao-chan. ^_^;
Sep. 2nd, 2011 07:22 pm (UTC)
Weee~ New chap! :D I liked so much how you written battle. It was done so proprly that I could almost see it :) I liked how you explained all that Nanao had to endure from other Shinigami and how Shunsui protected her pride. Intentionally or not but he did it :)
Sep. 3rd, 2011 12:41 am (UTC)
Thanks! I'm glad the battle worked. I'm inclined to believe he protected her pride intentionally. I think he's a perceptive and intelligent man, and he likely observed the behavior of other shinigami towards Nanao and chose to act for her sake.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )