Sorry for the lengthy delay gettin' this up, gang...life intervenes, as usual. Enjoy!
Shunsui was angry.
He didn't get angry often. He tried to avoid it whenever possible. He didn't like the results. Fortunately, the older he got, the less there was in the world that seemed worth getting angry about. Most things that used to make him angry just made him sad and weary beyond telling, and left him wondering if he'd lived too long after all.
Betrayal could still do it. Fear for one of his people, pretty reliably.
He wondered which one this was.
He wasn't quite as white-hot furious as he had been thirty seconds ago, when he'd shredded Gin's shield like it wasn't there. That had taken a good bit more power than he'd expected, and it was as good a place to dump all that rage as anything.
Seeing Nanao kneeling in that office hadn't made him any angrier, it had just made him sick. She looked like death warmed over. Her power signature was a ragged shadow of itself. If she'd gone to Gin to report, she'd gotten a lot more than she'd bargained for.
He had hold of her collar now and there was no resistance, no nothing, just a limp weight. They paused on the rooftop outside of Third—Shunsui was almost hoping Gin would give chase, it would be lovely to have an excuse, and damn the paperwork—and he glanced down at his burden. The wind went tugging at his haori and teased the sweat-soaked strands of Nanao's hair.
She looked conscious—her eyes were open, anyway—but that was about the best you could say. He'd seen corpses with better color. She had a death grip on her sword, but she hadn't drawn. He didn't know if he should be wrapping her up in his haori and begging forgiveness for having failed to keep her safe, or shaking her until her teeth rattled and demanding to know what she'd told her old Captain.
Humans, muttered Katen Kyokotsu in the back of his head. You think two different things at once, and find it normal. It is astonishing your species survives at all.
Shunsui was rather inclined to agree.
The air flickered twice. Gin materialized in front of him, smiling. Down the rooftop, off to his right, Ukitate caught his balance on the tiles.
"Well, well, well…" purred the Captain of the Third.
At Shunsui's feet, Nanao's breath rasped out like a dying woman's. The fingers of his free hand closed around one of Katen Kyokotsu's hilts.
"I wasn't quite done talkin' to her," said Gin.
"Yes," said Shunsui, voice like sweetened acid, "you were."
They stared at each other. Very, very slowly, Gin's fingers drifted towards his own zanpakuto.
"You know," said Ukitate, in a conversational tone from farther down the roof, "if a pair of captains were to get in a pissing contest in broad daylight, in the middle of the city, and if they were so foolish as to draw their swords, or god forbid, release them…"
Shunsui flicked a glance down at his friend, who was standing with his back to them, hands clasped behind him, and appeared to be addressing no one in particular.
"…well, I imagine there'd be an investigation. Lots of questions asked, lots of things dragged up, Yamamoto-sama would probably have to get involved, if not the council themselves." Ukitate gazed up at the sky, apparently considering the weather. "It'd be a mess, really."
Gin and Shunsui looked at each other. They looked at Ukitate. They looked back at each other.
Gin shrugged, flicked an ironic little salute with his fingers, and vanished.
Shunsui stared upwards for a minute, to a heaven that probably wasn't there, and his thoughts were not dissimilar to those that Nanao had had when she'd discovered her quarters full of shunga.
"Out of curiosity," he said, pleased at how absolutely even his voice was, "how do you stay that calm?"
Ukitate shrugged. "Fourth keeps me pumped full of more drugs than a champion racehorse."
"Come on. Let's get her to my office."
"Your office?" Shunsui frowned at him, getting a better grip on Nano's unresisting form. "Why your office?"
"Because if I lock the door, no one will disturb me. Try that with your crew, and they'll have a battering ram up in five minutes to make sure you're not passed out in a pool of your own vomit again."
"Oh, one time…"
The wind skittered along the rooftop, and a moment later, went sighing through the place where they'd been standing.
"Are you hurt?" asked Shunsui, settling Nanao in a chair in Ukitate's office. It was clean but cluttered, mostly with paperwork and mementos. A humidifier in one corner exhaled moist, herbal-scented air. Ukitate closed the door firmly behind them.
"Sir," whispered Nanao, slumped back in the chair.
"Nanao, you have to tell me what happened."
Ukitate studied her thoughtfully, and nodded once, almost to himself.
"Why did you go to Third? What was Gin doing? What did he say?"
"What did you tell him? What did he want to know?"
"Nanao, are you in there?"
Shunsui put a hand over his eyes. Either she was bloody near catatonic or she was stonewalling him. Very successfully, he might add. Frustration was beginning to swamp his initial panic. (He would not have been at all consoled to know that Gin had been just as frustrated an hour earlier, for pretty much the same reason.)
"Enough," said Ukitate wearily. "This is pointless."
"You're not going to get anything out of her by badgering her, Shunsui."
"I am not badgering—" Shunsui began, heard his own voice, and snapped his teeth shut on the rest of the sentence.
"I think," said Ukitate carefully, "that we should all calm down. And that I am going to make some tea."
"Will that help?"
"Tea never hurts anything."
There was a lengthy silence, broken only by the clink of teacups. Ukitate lifted the tray from the sideboard and brought it back to the table. He pushed a cup into Nanao's hand, and nodded approvingly when her fingers closed on it.
Shunsui slouched back in his chair and sipped.
A long few minutes passed, while Shunsui tried not to drum his fingers on the table or grip his sword or start screaming or anything else that would make things any tenser than they already were.
Very slowly, Nanao loosened her fingers from the hilt of her sword. Her hand crept up to cradle the teacup and she lifted it with both hands to her lips.
Shunsui was torn between hope and a desire to bite something.
Nanao drank deeply, exhaled, and lowered the cup. She kept her fingers wrapped tightly around it, as if for warmth.
Ukitate caught Shunsui's eyes, flicked his gaze to Nanao briefly, and made an almost imperceptible jerk of his chin.
You didn't have a friend for that many centuries without learning the language. Shunsui shrugged quickly out of his haori and draped it over Nanao's shoulders. When his fingers brushed her arms, he could feel her shivering.
He opened his mouth to say something—he wasn't sure what—and Ukitate silenced him with a glance. Shunsui dropped back into his chair and tried not to fume.
It seemed like most of an age had passed before she lifted the cup to her lips again. When she lowered it, some indefinable madness had passed out of her eyes, but she did not meet his gaze.
"I didn't tell him anything," she rasped. "I swear."
"Why were you—" His voice was as harsh as a crow's call, and he cut himself off, not even needing Ukitate's glare, until he could gentle it down. "Why were you in the Third Division, Nanao?"
"I—I did not mean—Iswear—"
He reached over and grabbed her wrist. Katen Kyokotsu, can you speak to her sword? Find out if she's telling the truth?
His blades stirred. We can lie, brother. "Honest steel" is a cliché, nothing more.
There was another of those maddening jittery feelings of distant conversation, and then his sword was laughing again. The owl spirit says—I quote, brother—"Tell your master to get his filthy hands off my mistress, or I will unmake even his bones."
This was not the reaction Shunsui had been hoping for.
She is quite agitated, brother. She wishes to protect her wielder, and she has been denied that chance. I do not think 'berserk' would be too strong a word.
Can you calm her down?
I am a sword, not a therapist. We have no hierarchy, so I cannot 'pull rank' or anything similar. However, I would suggest that you begin by doing as she requests.
Doing as she…
I would not call your hands filthy, brother…although would it kill you to pumice some of those calluses occasionally? My hilt wrapping is watered silk, you know, and it does catch occasionally…
Shunsui carefully removed his hand from Nanao's wrist and concentrated on breathing deeply and counting to ten.
"I swear," said Nanao, staring down into her tea.
"No one is accusing you of anything," said Ukitate kindly. "It will be all right."
Shunsui thought glumly that it wouldn't be all right, it might never be all right, but he also knew perfectly well that sometimes you have to say it anyway.
Steam drifted off the teacups, and rose silently towards the ceiling.
"How did you know?" Nanao asked, and finally met her Captain's eyes. "You came. How did you know?"
Ukitate began laughing softly, that whispery laugh he had when he was trying not to cough. He dabbed at his lips with a handkerchief. "He knew because he's been checking up on you a dozen times a day. I think he reaches for your reiatsu in his sleep."
Shunsui glared at him. Nanao looked blankly at Ukitate, then back to her Captain.
"I tried to find your power signature," he confessed. "I do…well, occasionally, yes. To make sure you're not…well, anyway. You were somewhere near Third, and something felt...wrong."
That was almost a lie. It had been well beyond wrong, it had felt like a mortal wound, like something pushed to the breaking point, a candleflame flaring to the brightest point before guttering out completely.
It had frightened him badly. Much more so than he expected to be frightened, at his age.
Katen Kyokotsu snickered at him.
"I—you—but—" "Nanao stammered something unintelligible, and then sagged back in her chair, looking vaguely surprised.
"Ah," said Ukitate pleasantly, "that'd be the muscle relaxants kicking in."
Shunsui blinked a few times, then said, in a remarkably controlled voice, "Ukitate, did you just drug one of my officers?"
Ukitate shrugged. "I had extras. Figured I might as well share the wealth a little. She is looking more relaxed now, don't you think?"
Shunsui tapped his fingers on the hilt of his sword, an indescribable expression on his face. "I—" He looked over at Nanao.
Nanao did look a good bit more relaxed. Unfortunately, she also looked only about half-conscious. Her eyelids fluttered.
"I really don't approve of this, Ukitate."
"Oh, relax. I barely gave her half a dose—"
Nanao slid bonelessly out of the chair and only Shunsui's quick reflexes kept her from hitting the ground in a heap.
"—although perhaps I should have considered the differences in our body weight and tolerance," Ukitate allowed.
"This is not cool, Jyuushiro," said Shunsui, from somewhere under his limp vice-captain.
Ukitate shook his head. "You were going to try badgering information out of a woman who'd just been tortured and is just barely this side of catatonic. Think,Shunsui. Give her a couple of hours of rest and a little space where no one is demanding answers from her. Trust me."
I agree with him, brother.
Thus outnumbered and outvoted, Shunsui got to his feet and picked her up in his arms. His back twinged. Sure, it was a romantic gesture, but Shunsui generally liked to make it on the threshold of the bedroom, say, rather than several blocks away. Even someone as birdboned as Nanao got damn heavy when you were leaping from rooftop to rooftop.
Oh, well, no help for it… He settled her across his chest. Her body was warm and pliant against his, and it was a terrible thing how attractive that was, when she was half-dead and doped to the gills. Down, boy…
"It is an odd thing." murmured Ukitate behind him.
Shunsui paused in the doorway. "What is odd? Other than everything?"
Ukitate indicated Nanao with his chin, and met Shunsui's eyes warningly. "She never shed a tear. Not once. Not in front of Gin, and not in front of you."
Shunsui blinked down at his armful. Her face was pale, and while there were still traces of sweat across her forehead, there was no redness to her eyes, no dried snail-tracks down her cheeks.
"What do you think that means?" he asked. "She faked the whole thing? It was a set-up?"
Ukitate shrugged. "It's possible." He reached out a hand to adjust Nanao's glasses, which were sliding down her nose, and Shunsui felt a sudden and astonishing flash of jealousy. He squelched it instantly—this was Ukitate, for god's sake—but was glumly aware that his friend had almost certainly caught that brief, involuntary flare.
The Captain of the Thirteenth gave a small, rueful smile, and took his hand away. "It might have been a set-up. But I don't think so." He massaged his fingers idly with his other hand. "I think…I would advise you not to underestimate your Vice-Captain's pride.
Shunsui gave him a short, sharp nod, and took himself and Nanao away before he could say anything that he might regret later.
"You let them get away?" asked Aizen, very calmly.
"'Let' isn't exactly the word I'd be usin'…"
Aizen smiled his pleasant smile, which warmed the hearts of many who saw it, and did not warm Gin, who knew better. "They got away."
Gin took refuge in silence, and merely smiled up at the ceiling. Had Nanao been in the room, she could have read the tightness around his eyes and recognized that Gin was worried.
The captain of the Fifth drummed his fingers on the table. Gin continued to study the ceiling.
"We will do nothing," said Aizen finally.
"What?" Gin dropped his eyes from the ceiling.
Aizen gave him a mildly annoyed glance, which raked across Gin's brain like the edge of a naked sword. "What do they have? One woman's word. You left no marks, I trust?"
"'Course not." Gin was offended at the very notion.
"The Third is loyal to you, is it not?"
"'Course they are."
"Then what will they do? If they go to Yamamoto, the Third will provide testimony that she is mentally unbalanced, that she left under a dark cloud, and would say anything to bring you down. You will be sympathetic—so sorry, such a tragedy, such a fine officer to have been brought so low—and all charges will be dismissed, she will be discredited, and that will be all."
Gin rubbed at the back of his neck. "Can't you just…do…" He made little waving gestures with his fingers.
Aizen looked at him coolly over the edge of his glasses. "I see no point in exerting myself to clean up your mess."
The thought crossed Gin's mind—far down, deep, where it couldn't betray itself with so much as a twitched eyelash—that Aizen might not want to risk tipping his hand to Shunsui and Ukitate. That the other captain might—possibly—ever so slightly—be a little wary of them.
And that was…interesting.
"Sir," said Gin. He paused almost imperceptibly at the sound of his own voice saying that word, then left the room.