Nanao's clothes are folded neatly at the foot of the bed. Her glasses lie on top of them, together with the clip that usually holds her hair in place. Now her hair is down over her shoulders, shaken carefully away from her face across the pillow behind her. The threads of cotton in the pillow leap out at her, vivid to her short-sighted eyes, a weave in and out that somehow seems to make sense in her exhausted state, that seems to imply she should be here and that her body is woven together with the other two in the bed with her.
She curls against her Captain's body and is conscious of his warmth.
Of course he has a right to ask her to join him in his bed, but he has never behaved as though it was necessary. His flirtations are on the surface. The fact that he values her enough to put his hands on her shoulders and slide her robe aside to bare the nape of her neck, and to let his lips brush there in a moment's promise -- that is something which is not a joke between them. He trusts her enough to have her at his side, waking and sleeping, and to let her ease his hungry body, and to let her lie beside him now, undefended, unarmed.
Ise Nanao can differentiate clearly between romantic love, which is something she has enjoyed in the past and may enjoy again at some point in the future; and respect for a spouse, which is something that will probably happen eventually; and passion, which has at times torn her more than she cares to admit; and friendship, which is a tie all of its own, and which she knows binds her Captain together with Captain Ukitake deeper than she can touch; and affection, which is gentle and harms no-one; and devotion, which is what warms her now, as much as her Captain's flesh.
She is aware that other Captains use their Vice-Captains less gently than hers does. She is not blind. She can see the chains that run between Captain Ichimaru and his follower, and between Captain Aizen and his own pet; and everyone witnesses the beaten humility and despair in Kurotsuchi Nemo's eyes, and tries not to look away at the sight of so much pain.
Flesh is a small thing. Loyalty and faith are large ones.
It had startled her the day that he asked her to join Captain Ukitake and himself --
she had just laid a stack of folders on his desk, and he rose to walk round behind her, and laid one large hand on her shoulder, and slid his arm around her waist, and she tolerated it with just a spark of interest because she knew that he would go no further than this here, and yet the closeness was a promise, and he said, "Lovely Nanao-chan, would you object if I asked you to share a bed with Juushirou and myself?" and
-- naturally, it had not been her place to refuse, or to comment --
his presence overshadowed her, his reiatsu burned against her, and she might have declined on the grounds of fastidiousness, or discretion, or jealousy, but the two Captains were both so gloriously bright, and she knew they loved each other, one would have to be a fool not to, and she said, eyes turned down, "I would not object, sir," and
-- and so she had not.
and she wondered what Captain Ukitake had said when he asked him, but only for a moment, as her Captain's arm tightened around her, and she was his Vice-Captain, and he was her Captain.
She can hear the rustle of Captain Ukitake's breathing, the faint rasp from time to time as he suppresses a cough. It wasn't the same with him as it was with her Captain, of course, but he was gentle, and watching him with Captain Kyouraku she had thought for a moment her heart would break with warmth for the two of them.
Ise Nanao is aware of what she should have. She is grateful that she has more than that.
Ukitake Juushirou holds back a cough so as not to disturb the other two in the bed with him. There is nothing new in sharing a bed with Shunsui, or even particularly new in sharing a bed with one of Shunsui's other lovers, but he has an affection for Ise Nanao. She is like sandalwood, like ivory; calm and composed and precise, polished and beautiful, undemanding of what he has, certain in what she has.
Of course, she would be a terrible Vice-Captain for him. He wouldn't be able to endure it for more than a day. No, he needs someone less precise and finicky. And when he has decided who it will be (for in a way Shiba Kaien's shadow still haunts the Division) he is sure that everything will work smoothly and he will not have to deal with noisy attention-seeking subordinates who drink too much and shout too much and make him clutch his head and develop coughing fits just to get them to leave him in peace for five minutes . . .
. . . he's quite sure of that.
He lets his hand drift over Shunsui's sleeping body next to him, a fraction of an inch away from the flesh, and bends his fingers to model the swell of Shunsui's hip, the smooth curve of his waist, the rise of his chest, the broadness of his shoulder. There is something utterly reassuring in being able to sleep beside him and know that he is there, something which they have had since the Academy days, which has only deepened since then.
You understand me, he had once said. It might as well have been, you complete me.
Shunsui would write poems to the women he was flirting with in the Academy days, and Ukitake would sit there at his desk, looking up from his assigned work to listen to Shunsui read the poems. Lamplight on parchment, lamplight on uniforms, lamplight on skin under the uniforms. The girls would giggle and Ukitake would draw a long-suffering breath and then start coughing, and they would flock round him with fluttering hands, while Shunsui's arm supported him and Shunsui held a drink to his mouth.
Calmness came with perfection; on the practice field, in combat, in the knowledge of his zanpakutou, in the serenity of the strike. Between the moment and the motion comes the illness of his body, but beyond that is the smoothness of things which are done properly, beautifully. Shunsui laughs at ideas of elegance. He doesn't realise that he is elegance itself; he is the painting done with only a couple of strokes of ink, the ideograph written by a master, the perfect strike in combat, the perfect poem that goes with wine and that needs no answer because it is the answer.
Ukitake has not tried explaining this for some centuries, because Shunsui interrupts too frequently.
His body makes him aware of impermanence more than the other Captains. He is too painfully conscious that even this second life will not last, and that one day he will be gone, and worse, that Shunsui will be gone as well -- that there will be memories, stories, but never again a shared cup of wine, a joined poem, entangled bodies in a single bed. So he will enjoy this while it lasts, this gift out of eternity; duty, friendship, honour, trust. Two swords together.
Shunsui's eyes flicker open, glinting in the half-light. He reaches up to tangle a hand in Ukitake's long hair, and pulls him down to kiss him, mouth against mouth, tongue against tongue, rolling over to press him down against the bed, and in the background Ise Nanao sits up, the moonlight pale on her flesh, and leans across to kiss her Captain's shoulder.
Shunsui leans against Juushirou's body, and lets the kiss deepen, tasting the wine they shared earlier. No matter that they had kissed before that and after that, enough to wash away any traces of wine, to leave the lips bruised and hungry; he can still taste it.
There will be more wine later. There usually is.
He feels Nanao-chan's hands on his shoulders and her lips against his skin, and he arches his back at the sensation. It's taken a while for her to become this spontaneous. At first he was worried that she was reading some sort of guide in her spare time to find out how to entertain him. He appreciates the thought, but is glad that she's finding it easier to relax.
He does care about her. He cares so much. She's lovely, affectionate, loyal, hard-working, gorgeous in her stark simplicity, more attractive in her harsh robes and glasses and restraint than a thousand other women who deliberately worked to draw attention, delightful in her seriousness, complex as origami, graceful as steel. Her tiniest indrawn breath is more expressive than a hundred words. The flash of her eyes when she is angry is more lovely than a hundred dimpled smiles. Her little gasps, the movements of her body, the intimacy of her company, all of these are gifts he cannot repay.
Beneath him, Juushirou's hands move lower.
Instead he will enjoy, and share that joy, because that is what the moment is. There is no time. There is only now. This place, this world, Soul Society, Earth, all of it; they all act as if time is going somewhere like an arrow in flight, from what has been to what will be, but in reality there is only the present, where all of them act according to their natures. Where he can share a bed with his dearest friend and his most loyal follower, where he can share a bottle of wine, where he can sit back and watch the sunset and live. It's not even a case of living till he dies. It's just living. But there's no just about it.
His thoughts become disconnected as Juushirou's hand closes around him and Juushirou kisses down the length of his neck and Nanao-chan moves distractingly behind him and it does all come together somehow, all the joy and all the pain, the wine and the bitterness, the friends and the enemies, the knowledge that there are people who you can lean upon, who you can risk your life for, and it balances, hands, lips, kindness, caring, the beating of another person's heart.
For a moment he remembers a single instant in the Academy, when Juushirou had been coughing and had relaxed as Shunsui held him, and he had been surprised; that something he could do could mean so much to another person. That he could help. That he mattered to Juushirou.
His body arches for that moment of light, of release, and he relaxes slowly with the other two pressed against him, and it doesn't matter what they call it in their hearts, what he might call it to other people, what other people might have called it in the past; this is now, and they are here with him, and as his breathing slows, this is the only time there is. This room, these people, a moment in eternity.