And here I am again! Can't get enough of this pairing. It's like crack. (Speaking of which, someday the Zaraki one. I swear. Really.) This one's a little more serious than "Breathing Lessons," which I suspect means it won't work quite so well, since slapstick is generally where I shine. Everbody's a little bit grimmer and a trifle more short-temper (and Nanao is arguably downright bitter.) Still, bein' me, there'll probably still be some amusements along the way...

I play fairly fast and loose with chronology, because who wants to let that sort of thing get in the way? May contain the faintest of spoilers for the Soul Society arc.

You've been warned.

Captain Shunsui of the Eighth leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on the desk, making the chair creak warningly. It was a cold grey day, and the watery light through the window stole most the color from the room. The woman kneeling in front of the desk had little enough color to begin with, but in the cold autumn light, she looked almost monochromatic, a black and white cutout against the amber wooden floor.

"So," he said. "Why do you want to transfer out of your squad, again?"

Fourth-seat Ise Nanao of the Third sat in a military seiza position, fist on the floor between her knees, one hand on the hilt of her sword. It wasn't entirely comfortable, but she could keep it up for hours, and she was hoping that the martial quality of the stance would be off-putting to a captain as notoriously laid-back as Shunsui.

"Sir. I am seeking a rank commensurate with my talents, sir."


The large and absurd straw hat he was wearing covered most of his face—and what the hell kind of hat is that for a captain, anyway? He looks like a refugee from a rice paddy—

but Nanao could see one dark eye watching her from under the brim. She lowered her gaze to the floor and kept it there.

Be unappealing. You want into the Tenth or the Thirteenth, not this traveling circus. This is only a courtesy interview. Be unappealing.

She stared at the floor and tried hard to look uninteresting.

"You know," Shunsui said pleasantly, "generally I like it when beautiful women lie to me, but not in this particular case."

"Sir?" Her stomach knotted unpleasantly. She sat as still as stone around it.

He doesn't know, he can't know, nobody could know, you've never told anybody...No, of course he doesn't know. He's grasping at straws. He can't read your mind.

Calm. Stay calm.

She kept her eyes fixed on the floor. There was a knot in the grain of one of the floorboards that looked like the face of a small, lopsided animal. She could feel Shunsui watching her. It made her feel unpleasantly exposed.

"Ise Nanao…fourth seat Nanao." He sat up and propped his chin on his hand. "Lovely Nanao-chan."

She did not roll her eyes—she was far too disciplined for that—but she definitely thought about it. "That is hardly an appropriate form of address. Sir."

"I'm not a terribly appropriate man."

That was an understatement and a half. God, not the Eighth. Please not the Eighth. Shunsui was famous throughout the thirteen squads, and not entirely in a good way. Sure, the man was powerful—you could feel him drawing his swords from halfway across the city—but only if you could wake him up first. Sleep, sex, and sake appeared to be his only interests, although the order changed depending on the time of day.

The Eighth squad was pretty much divided between those who were fanatically loyal to him and would have walked through fire on his say-so, and those who were waiting for the paperwork to go through to get the hell out of there. He hadn't been able to keep a Vice-Captain around for years. Nanao was pretty certain she knew which camp she'd fall into.

It's better than the Third, though. Anything's better than the Third right now. A captain that undresses you with his eyes is still better than a captain that vivisects you with them.

That was the heart of it, really. Shunsui might look at her as if he was thinking about what she'd be like in bed, but Ichimaru Gin usually looked at her as if he was calculating the cost of her organs on the open market.

"So." Shunsui actually got up and walked around the desk, then slumped against it as if the brief walk had exhausted him. "Why are you really leaving?"

"Sir, I have already stated—"

He waved a hand dismissively. "Try again, my dear Nanao-chan. You've been a fourth seat for years, and you've never shown any desire to advance beyond it. You're ridiculously overpowered for the post. Hell, you could probably be the Vice-Captain of your squad if you wanted—Kira's a sweet kid, but he's all loyalty and no spine."

Be Vice-Captain, and spend her days trailing that psychopath Gin like a shadow? Nanao swallowed and kept her eyes locked on the little wood-grain animal. "Sir." It was a wonderful word, "sir." You could mean anything by it, or nothing at all, but no one could accuse you of not paying attention.

Some days it seemed like it formed the majority of her vocabulary.

"You've never displayed the slightest trace of ambition—and now you wish me to believe that you're transferring because you can't advance any farther in your own squad?" He leaned over. "Look at me, sweetheart."

She raised her head. Her eyes went as far as his chin, which hadn't been shaved for awhile, and she locked them there, because she had no desire to look into his eyes.

Go away. Get this over with and leave. I'll go interview with one of the sane captains. I don't even want to be here, but you were on the list first.

"I'm up here."


He drummed his fingers on his arm. "You're very good at pretending I don't exist, Nanao-chan."

"Sir," she said, as neutrally as possible. Look through him, not at him. That's the trick. Nobody likes to be looked through. Nanao was a master of that particular art. It was particularly effective against the lower ranks of the Third.

"Amazing. You can do it while talking to me, no less. That's talent." Shunsui grinned. He had very white teeth.

The better to eat you with, my dear…no, it's still not as creepy as Gin's smile. Not surprising. You'd have to go scouting the outer reaches of the animal kingdom for smiles that creepy. Sharks. Hyenas. Alligators. That sort of thing.

Nanao was staring so intently through him and concentrating on being uninteresting that she failed to see the hand coming at her until his fingers caught her under the chin. He tugged her chin up, not with any particular cruelty, until she met his eyes.

She did not flinch. She didn't much like to be touched, but her pride was iron and adamant. She would have walked through fire before showing discomfort in front of this annoying man.

His eyes were very dark brown and there was nothing lazy about them at all. Nanao had a sick feeling that he saw both the flinch and the pride that squelched it, that he was looking not through her, but into her, into dark places in her mind that she'd done her best to forget. It wasn't quite the flaying look that the Third's Captain had—there was no malice in it, for one thing, surgery rather than butchery—but it brooked no deception.

Surgery, butchery, you're still splayed open on a slab at the end of the day…

Her thoughts had been unremittingly bleak lately. She was getting good at ignoring them.

"Well, Nanao-chan?"

She swallowed, feeling her throat work against his fingers. Just tell him. No point in lying, whatever it does to your pride. Just tell him and this'll be over, and you can walk out of there and go interview with the Tenth or the—no, damnit, he and Captain Ukitate are inseparable, the Thirteenth will be out, but at least there's still the Tenth.

"Sir," she said, her voice absolutely flat, and with no trace of how much that flatness cost her, "the Captain of Third scares me half the death." And then she dropped her eyes again, because that was humiliating to admit to oneself in the dark watches of the night, let alone to a man you didn't know.

One should love one's captain, or at least respect him. One should not cringe like a whipped dog whenever he looks at you.

She'd had a nightmare the other night that Gin was coming after her. He hadn't even done anything, just kept following her, down corridors that got smaller and smaller and darker and darker, always just a pace behind her. Smiling. She'd woken drenched in sweat, with a scream choking in her throat. Pride had kept it down—pride, and the fact that if anybody screamed in the Third's compound, there was a good chance that someone would come running, and that someone might be…no. Better to stuff a hank of sheet between your teeth and bite down until the horror went away.

She'd actually chewed a hole in the sheet. She'd seen that in the morning and given up. Time to file the papers and be done with it. It wasn't getting any better. It would never get any better. She'd loved the Third, she had friends there, but this was madness. She'd spent two hundred years carving out a solid place to stand, and every day she stayed in the Third, she could feel the ground sliding away under her like quicksand.

Shunsui was nodding. "So you're not an idiot. That's promising." He took his hand away and ran it through his hair.


"I consider being afraid of Gin to be very good sense, Nanao-chan."

Despite herself, her eyes flicked to the corners of the room. There were some things that one simply did not say aloud. You never knew what might be listening.

Shunsui nodded slowly. She guessed he hadn't missed that, either.

"Come on, then," he said, rising and walking past her to the door.

"Sir?" Nanao said blankly, turning her head.

He tapped his fingers on the doorframe. "To the practice ground, Nanao-chan. Do you expect me to hire an officer that I haven't seen fight?"

I don't expect you to hire me at all, you insufferable… Nanao bit off that train of thought. It wasn't productive. "Sir," she said, for the hundredth time, and followed.

The training field in the middle of the Eighth Division's compound was a broad, empty courtyard. The ground was packed earth. Dust picked up under Nanao's sandals as she crossed behind the captain.

His pink haori was flapping around him like garish wings. She wondered vaguely where he'd found a women's haori in his size, then decided she didn't much care.

This is a dreadful waste of time. I'm going to be late to the next round of interviews. I'll probably need a shower. Great. Not only do I have to put up with this idiocy, but now he's going to cost me a position somewhere decent. Why? What is he trying to prove?

"Come on, then," he said, taking up a position a dozen paces away. "Show me what you've got."

Nanao rubbed a hand over her temple. The sky was grey and entirely too bright, one of those overcast days that seem to have a broad, indirect glare coming from all directions. Days like that usually gave her a headache. Having to face this pink-draped idiot was not helping.

She flung a spell at him, underhand. He stepped aside, an expression of clear disappointment on his face. "Come on, you can do better than that."

Nanao stifled a sigh. He was right, she could. She just had no particular desire to. She snapped out a binding kido, and then followed it up with fire while he jumped out of the way.

"Better," he called, "but I'm still not impressed."

"Perhaps I'm simply not very impressive. Sir."

There was a flicker of flash, the smell of ozone. He was suddenly less than six inches away, leaning over her. She started to take a step back, and restrained herself. No pink-wearing drunk is going to bully me, I don't care how powerful you think you are…

"My dear Nano-chan," he purred, "I intend to keep you out here until I am impressed. Keep that in mind."

She narrowed her eyes. The irritation she was feeling was moving rapidly towards anger.

Fine. Let's see if this impresses you…

"Shot of Red Fire!"

He had to leap out of the way of that one, and she followed it up with two more at his feet, turning to track her target, snapping out the gestures. The words tasted hard and metallic in her mouth, like blood.

His footwork was good, she'd give him that. She switched to lightning, which had to be deflected rather than dodged, and he smacked the initial bolt aside with his scabbard, then two more, then had to leap out of the way when she switched back to fire again.

"Better…" he panted. "Much…better…"

What would Gin have said? "You ain't seen nothin' yet…" She could almost hear him speaking. Adrenalin fired her muscles. The next spell had an edge to it. Shunsui dropped hastily to one knee to let it pass overhead.

He opened his mouth, and Nanao knew he was going to say something patronizing—gods, she'd spent twenty minutes in his company and she already wanted to kick his teeth in—so she flung up her hands and rattled off the next incantation—"Mask of blood and flesh…"

Shunsui bounced up on the balls of his feet, obvious ready to dodge again, and Nanao felt a cold slither of triumph.

She'd been able to perform a kido without saying the words for years now. It wasn't hard, exactly--you just lost a fair amount of power. There were ways to compensate. The key was to speak the words inside your head, to carve out every phrase inside your skull. It wasn't difficult, but it required a disciplined mind.

And if you had a very, very disciplined mind, a mind like a card catalog with razor edges, as Nanao did, you could go a step farther.

She spoke the words for the fire kido, which needed to be dodged, but inside her skull, she formed the words for lightning.

It was painful. The spells fought with one another. It was a little like trying to walk and chew gum, when both ground and gum were trying to bite you. Still. Discipline. It was all about discipline.

The lightning came. Nanao snapped her teeth shut on the spoken kido, choking it off unfinished. Power exploded off her hands. Shunsui flung himself sideways automatically, expecting fire, and the lightning crackled after him and lashed across his body like a whip.

She didn't get nearly the force she wanted—it was a half-assed way to cast, god knows—but she had the satisfaction of hearing him grunt in surprise, and seeing his untidy ponytail stand briefly on end. Not a killing blow, but it certainly had to sting.

That was worth it, right there…

Nanao permitted herself a small, cold smile. The inside of her mouth tasted like gunpowder.

"Much bet—" he began, panting, and she dropped another fireball on him.

He got out of the way, barely. Nanao kept up the pressure, spell after spell, throwing in bindings occasionally to make him trip. Shunsui danced between the explosions like a drunken dervish, using flash occasionally when merely human speed failed.

Come on, you bastard, one of us has to wear out first, and I've got two centuries of clean living behind me…

He was quicker than she expected. He ducked behind her and actually got a spell of his own off, a bolt of red fire that was tinged a rather ridiculous shade of pink.

Nanao sniffed. The man might be fast, but his kido was nothing extraordinary—and everybody used flash to step behind their opponent, it was a trick so old it predated books. She spun in place, slapped the spell aside with a contemptuous word, and felt it strike the ground beside her and gutter out like a wet firecracker.

From twenty feet away, she saw his eyebrow go up at that.

He tried it again, with similar results.

You may be overrated, dear Captain.

He flash-stepped again. She spun in place, and—damn!

Well, he learned from his mistakes, anyway. This time he'd come up in front of her, so that when she turned immediately, her back was to him. Her breath hissed through her teeth.

Don't even bother with kido, idiot, I'm wide open, if this were a real fight, you'd just crack me over the back of the head with your scabbard—

Somehow it was almost more infuriating that he didn't. If she'd needed proof that the Captain of the Eighth wasn't taking her seriously, here it was in spades.

"Well," he said, practically in her ear, "I see that I'm not going to beat you on your own terms…"

There was a slithery, scraping sound of metal, and power washed over her, licking the back of her neck and arms, running down the backs of her calves. The sense of heat was as palpable if she stood with her back to a bonfire. She could smell a strange odor, sweet and bitter, like smoke and roses.

Heh. And here I was complaining that he wasn't taking me seriously…

Captain Shunsui had drawn his swords.