A/N: 'Ello, 'ello! I apologize again for the long wait for chapters, but the last month has been crazy, and it's only going to get worse. However, the good news for you all is that this is the last chapter of this story. I might write a sequel to Tossed Aside, but the details are sort of sketchy right now. I may take any free time I have to finish a few requests that I was given ages ago. Thank you all so much for your continued support of my stories, it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside!
A Test of Affection
Chapter Seven: Full of Promise
The gentle blue glow washed over the crisp white walls of Nanao's spotless quarters, making it appear as if the small table in front of the room's proprietor was playing host to a large jar of blue fireflies. The light played on the glint of concentration in Nanao's sapphire eyes as she worked on the specimen before her with all the meticulous precision of a surgeon.
Sighing as the tension flooded out of her body, Nanao watched as the remnants of her delicately controlled reiatsu dissipated and the soft chanting of her kidō spell faded into the stillness. She brushed away a rebellious lock of hair which had escaped from the rigid confines of the pins she had been forced to substitute for her ruined clip before smiling in satisfaction at her handiwork.
Handling it as though it were constructed of glass, Nanao placed the perfectly preserved blossom onto the dark background, enclosing both in the simple wooden frame.
Beautiful, she thought as she secured the fastenings on the back. Knowing that she was being rather…silly, Nanao picked up the brush she had brought with her and dipped it with practiced care into the jet black ink. Then, in her absolute best calligraphy, she inscribed on the wood the date and the meaning of the flower, even though she knew it was something that she would never forget.
"Yare," Shunsui breathed, pausing in the dim light of the tunnel while Nanao limped determinedly behind him.
Nanao paused immediately. "What's the matter Taichō?" she demanded, her eyes shifting back and forth, trying to discern the threat in the gloom.
"You are," he said with a great air of martyrdom. "Come here," Shunsui ordered. He slid his arm around her waist and draped her other arm across his shoulders, taking most of the weight off of her injured leg. He continued to walk, matching his longer strides to her smaller ones without complaint. Nanao seriously wanted to protest but remembered his veiled reprimand from earlier.
"Don't say anything," Shunsui added, seeing her move to speak. "I'm going to help you when you need help, so you might as well get used to it. Otherwise, I suggest you go start looking for a new division in the morning."
Nanao remained dutifully silent throughout the rest of their trek. They emerged from the bleakness of the tunnel and into a moonlit grove in the wooded area on the outskirts of the Seireitei.
"There," Shunsui said, placing her gently down on a gnarled old tree stump. "Rest for a moment before we take you to the Fourth Division to get that leg looked at." He allowed his eyes to stray to the glorious appendage.
"Kyōraku Taichō, my wound is not that serious. I highly doubt that it's worth wasting Unohana Taichō's time over," Nanao said heavily as she pulled the white haori closer around herself to guard against the light summer breeze.
"And have your beautiful flesh marred by such an unsightly mark?" Shunsui said in horror, bending over and running his hand suggestively up her bare flesh. He quickly removed his digits away from the danger of Nanao's raised hand.
"Sir," she growled menacingly.
"No, Nanao-chan," Shunsui affirmed, patting her on the head patronizingly. "I could not allow it."
He leant back on the trunk of a large flowering tree adjacent to Nanao's makeshift seat, tucking his arms into his sleeves in a gesture Nanao now recognized as habitual. Shunsui allowed his head to fall back onto the rough bark, his eyes titled upward to look intently at the star-flecked sky. The corners of his usually laughing eyes, tilted downward again in an expression Nanao decided greatly displeased her. It's odd, she thought, that the man can drive me insane with his refusal to be serious, but the moment he is, I decide that I can't stand it.
"Sir?" she said, the second she could not stand the silence any longer.
"Yes, Nanao-chan?" Shunsui said with a slight tone of surprise, glancing up between the red petals which were falling like bleeding hearts between them.
"Would you tell me what you were going to say earlier? Please?" she added uncomfortably when his brow knitted.
"What are you talking about?" Shunsui asked, though he was fairly certain he knew where his Fukutaichō was going.
"Earlier, you said that it was 'almost perfect,'" Nanao returned, adjusting her glasses. "I wondered what might… make it so." He noticed her hand stray to her upper arm, the long fingers trailing over the Eighth Division insignia emblazoned on the pristine badge.
He made an odd sort of sound in the back of his throat, a sort of disbelieving laughter. "Make this… arrangement perfect or make you perfect, Nanao-chan?" he asked shrewdly.
Her head shot up and Shunsui was not surprised to see shock at how easily he had read her in her luminous eyes. He was however, almost floored to see anger and fear in their twilight depths.
What could have happened to his exquisite Fukutaichō to make her close her heart off? To thirst for cold and unattainable perfection that would undoubtedly shatter the half-finished masterpiece of a woman before him? Nanao may have had the highest test scores of her graduating class, but she was definitely lacking an education.
"It was foolish of me to ask," Nanao said shortly as she tottered to her feet. "I'll take my leave, sir, if you don't mind." She bowed and made to hobble toward the Eighth.
"I most certainly do mind," Shunsui stated pleasantly.
Nanao paused in mid-stride. Despite the potential seriousness of the situation, one which he knew he must get the better of if he meant to keep his Nanao-chan planted firmly in his division, Shunsui could not help but admire his Fukutaichō's trim backside.
He approached her slowly, seeing her start to bristle at what she deemed to be a purposeful waste of her time. He felt almost guilty for making her stand on her injured leg but Shunsui knew from personal experience that emotional wounds lasted long after those on the body had completely healed.
"Nanao-chan," Shunsui said, taking hold of one arm and turning her around to face him.
He found himself possessed with the strange notion to risk a harassment charge and kiss her senseless until she either slapped him away or melted into him with the same amount of blistering passion that was smoldering in her cobalt eyes. Her teeth were digging into her slightly swollen bottom lip in an attempt to either hold back tears or a frustrated scream; he hadn't quite come to a conclusion as to which one it was, yet.
"Have you ever heard of wabi sabi?" Shunsui asked, noting with a smile that his hand had fallen down to grasp hers and she had yet to break the contact.
"No sir," Nanao grated, incredibly annoyed at the electric hum that broke out over her skin as his thumb moved absentmindedly over her skin. "Stop doing that!" she practically shouted, jerking her hand out of his grasp.
Shunsui looked up at her flushed face, startled. He knew that Nanao was not overly comfortable when it came to contact, but was she really that sensitive to it? It was difficult to maintain a straight face as the images of Nanao's possible reactions to him touching her otherplaces came to the forefront of his mind.
"Wabi sabi," he continued placidly, as though her outburst had never occurred, "is a concept in Japanese art. It is the belief that imperfect, incomplete, and unfinished things are beautiful. Like this flower," Shunsui said, reaching up and tenderly plucking an ordinary blossom off of the tree behind her.
"It's beautiful, no?" Shunsui said, twirling the delicate object back and forth in his fingers.
"It's a flower," Nanao returned, her eyebrow arched.
"Is there anything wrong with it?" Shunsui asked, his eyes focused intently on her face.
"No," Nanao replied icily. "It's perfect. Taichō, I don't see what this has to do with anything."
"Look closer, Nanao-chan," Shunsui urged patiently, holding the blossom near to her face for better inspection. "Can you not see that the color on one petal is different from the others? Another petal is also somewhat smaller than the others," Shunsui pointed out.
Nanao wondered where he got off criticizing some poor flower when he had more faults than the tree had branches. She watched as Shunsui brought the blossom to his nose and inhaled its perfume as if it were the familiar scent of a lover's skin.
"Though this flower is not perfect, its imperfections make it unique, unlike any other on the whole tree. And, because of that, it is beautiful. You are neither perfect, completely whole, nor finished, Nanao-chan. However, it is impossible to find someone who is all of these. I am admittedly imperfect, unfinished and… woefully incomplete." Their eyes met and the possible implications behind Shunsui's words made Nanao's throat feel unexpectedly dry.
"Even though I have known that you were none of these things since you walked into my office," Shunsui continued, soaking up the delightful reactions playing across Nanao's face, "it is precisely these things that make you intriguing. Perfection is a cruel master, Nanao-chan," he said, tucking the flower behind her ear, taking advantage of her shock to let his fingers linger. "Your beauty must be protected from such a cruel whip."
Nanao decided then and there that every word she'd ever heard about Kyōraku Shunsui being the most skilled lover in Seireitei were all undeniably true. If the man could say things like that and have the end result be a malfunction of the knees, instead of a churning of the stomach, then he would certainly have no problem seducing women into bed. Determined to maintain her professional boundaries, Nanao went to take a step back but her aforementioned romantically inclined knees gave way, accompanied by a jerking spasm from her leg.
Shunsui's arms were around her before she could blink in surprise. She placed her arms bracingly on his chest in an attempt to keep him a safe distance away and balance herself at the same time.
"Yare, Nanao-chan," Shunsui said, preparing to hoist her fully into his arms. "We should get you to the Fourth before that leg gets any worse."
"Not until you answer my question, Kyōraku Taichō," Nanao said stubbornly. Shunsui sighed in defeat when she hobbled out of his embrace and over to the tree, which she leant against for support, clutching the bark and looking at him expectantly.
He was once again struck by the urge to cover her lips with his as she stood under the moonlit shadows of the tree, looking like some ethereal guardian of the night wrapped in the open haori. Her exposed leg stuck out like a graceful invitation. He forced himself not to obey the compulsion to wrap his hands in her tousled hair and discover all the wonderfully unique imperfections she hid underneath her neat uniform.
"I thought I just told you that perfection was an unrealistic goal, Nanao-chan," Shunsui said.
"Then what would solidify your satisfaction with me as your Fukutaichō?" Nanao corrected herself, glittering eyes glistening with curiosity.
Shunsui sighed mightily, turning his head to look up through the ruby branches of the tree. "Affection," he said finally.
"Excuse me?" Nanao choked. He couldn't possibly mean the only way to secure her position was to…
"I don't mean you have to go to bed with me, Nanao," he said with a soft smile as Nanao promptly blushed scarlet in embarrassment. "I merely meant that I would like you to have at least some hint of feeling toward me that is not just loyalty due to duty. I only wish for us to have the trust and respect for one another that is born of friendship. If we are to work well together, fight side by side for what could conceivably be a long period of time, I did not want it to be only cold duty that bonded us." Shunsui turned to face her, and Nanao was sure her jaw had fallen to rest on the roots of the tree, surprised as she was to see the raw hope shimmering in his eyes.
"It is why I volunteered us to go on this mission today," Shunsui explained with a shrug. "It was a…test of sorts to see if that sort of friendship was possible between us." He reached up and secured the flower behind her ear.
"Nanao-chan, I am already more fond of you than I have been of most of my fukutaichōs in my time as head of the Eighth," he admitted. "The only left for me is to ask you if you think you can last longer than the others."
"Taichō," Nanao began but was cut off by a loud feminine voice cutting through the clearing.
"Kyōraku-san! Nanao!" Matsumoto Rangiku shouted as she came running up to greet them. "There you are! We've been waiting for you. We thought something terrible had happened since Kyōraku-san didn't show up for our appointed drinking time!" She threw her arms around Shunsui's neck, who was regrettably too tall when standing to be the recipient of one of the strawberry-blonde's infamous 'Hugs of Death.'
"I'm sorry, Ran-san," Shunsui said in an amused voice. "Nanao-chan and I only returned a few minutes ago. We were resting before we walked Nanao over to the Fourth."
Startled at this pronouncement, Matsumoto whirled around to examine Nanao. Her eyes widened in surprise as she took in her friend's rather un-Nanao-like appearance. Her gaze lingered on Nanao's bare leg and the overlarge white captain's haori which dwarfed her small frame.
"Oh, you poor thing!" Matsumoto cried, flinging her arms around her unfortunately petite best friend. "All cut up by hollows and no sake for the pain!"
Shunsui grinned as he watched Nanao squirm, trying to extract herself from the valley of Matsumoto's generous cleavage.
"Ran-san, perhaps it's best if you let Nanao-chan breathe. I hear suffocation is a hindrance to the healing process," Shunsui said mildly after a few moments when Nanao's barely visible forehead became an alarming shade of red.
"I'm so sorry," Matsumoto said, releasing the rather ruffled Nanao, who glared darkly at her. "Here, why don't you let me take you to the Fourth," Matsumoto offered partly out of curiosity and partly out of desperation to hear exactly how Nanao had come to lose an entire side of her hakama and wear Shunsui's haori.
"Thank you," Nanao accepted demurely. She was too tired to argue anymore. Her leg was now throbbing painfully and she was beginning to fear infection. She pushed off of the tree and allowed Matsumoto to wrap an arm around her without protest.
Interesting, Shunsui mused as he watched his diminutive Fukutaichō lean comfortably on Matsumoto for support. There was no stiffening of the shoulders or hesitation when Nanao was with someone she obviously trusted.
"Oh, Kyōraku-san," Matsumoto said, pausing to call over her shoulder. "Ukitake Taichō was waiting for you, in case you turned up while I was out looking. Will you go tell him you're back? I'll be right there as soon as I get Nanao home." The blonde winked conspiratorially at him, and Shunsui knew that Nanao was in for the third degree concerning her non-existent pant leg.
"Of course, Rangiku," Shunsui agreed readily. He had been planning on going to see Ukitake anyway. "Goodnight, Nanao-chan," he said, going to take a shortcut through the woods toward the Thirteenth.
"Wait!" Nanao called suddenly. Surprised, Shunsui turned around to see her tottering down the path toward him. "You almost forgot this," she said, removing the white haori and handing it to him with a formal bow.
"I thought I told you to cut out that formality crap," Shunsui said with a frown.
"Old habits die hard, sir," she replied and Shunsui could have sworn that she was baiting him. "I'll be in the office at eight tomorrow," she added. "I should expect to see you around eleven?"
Shunsui could not hold back his grin for he knew it was Nanao's way of answering his earlier question.
"My fair Nanao-chan knows me as well as one of her precious books," he said snatching her hand and placing a gentle kiss on the knuckles before she could object. "I'll see you tomorrow, Nanao-chan." And with that he was off, swinging his haori over his shoulder, allowing it to dangle from a finger.
"So… tell me," Matsumoto said with an air of forced casualty, "exactly how did you happen to lose an entire pant leg, your hair clip, and come to wear his haori?"
Nanao smiled to herself as she put the framed flower in a place of honor on her bookshelf. It was the first flower a man had ever given her. And somehow, it seemed fitting that it was her Taichō who held the honor.
Rubbing her eyes, Nanao slid open the door to her quarters and stepped out into the now properly warm-feeling night air. She had returned from the Fourth some hours ago, her warmth fully restored due to the healing prowess of Unohana Taichō and the replenishment of her reiatsu over time.
She leant on the railing overlooking the central square of the Eighth. She blinked, surprised to see a familiar figure crossing the deserted cobblestones. The broad, pink clad frame seemed to melt into the shadows, almost as if her inability to banish him from her thoughts had caused him to materialize in front of her.
- - -
Shunsui paused as he crossed the square to his quarters above the office. Almost subconsciously, he sought Nanao's reiatsu, wondering if she was sleeping peacefully. He glanced up at the door to her quarters and was surprised to find her awake, leaning on the rail of the deck, dressed in an indigo yukata.
The ivory of her skin was gilded in the glow of the lamps that lit the outdoor corridor. Though her face was half in shadow, he knew that their gazes met and held. An emotion he hadn't felt in years swooped in his stomach and he knew that Jūshirō had been right.
"Ah, there you are, Shunsui," Ukitake called from his reclining position on the many cushions piled on the patio of the Thirteenth Division captain's quarters. A few feet away, a fire burned merrily in an old urn to provide light. On the small table in front of him there were five cups and an assortment of bottles as well as a bowl of what appeared to be the white-haired Taichō's favorite candy. "You just missed Isshin-san and Kiskue-san, I'm afraid."
Shunsui made a noncommittal sound.
"Did Rangiku-san find you?" Ukitake asked, sitting up and pouring his eldest friend a drink.
"Yes," Shunsui responded, taking the cup. "She'll be back after she takes Nanao to the Fourth."
Ukitake almost spat out his drink. "What?" he asked. "Ise-san is hurt? Is she alright?" he demanded worriedly. He had only truly gotten to know Shunsui's Fukutaichō recently, but had taken a great liking to her. Not only did she have excellent taste in literature, but she was more than adept at keeping Shunsui in line. It was most amusing to watch them interact.
"Nanao-chan is fine," Shunsui said, leaning back on the pillows.
"Well, I'm assuming she is, or else you wouldn't be smiling like that," Ukitake said, surveying his friend's goofy grin. "I haven't seen a look like that since you got what-was-her- name to talk to you back in the Academy days."
Ukitake inhaled sharply, a look of horror overtaking his calm features. "Shunsui, tell me you didn't seduce Ise-san in the mountains."
"No," Shunsui assured him. "The mountains wouldn't suit her at all. Nanao needs silk and moonlight and dancing candles. Perhaps a waterfall at midnight, but never the mountains."
"So you are thinking of seducing her?" Ukitake prodded incredulously. Though he didn't see Ise-san as the type to be easily bedded, he doubted her resistance when it came to his friend's infamous charms.
"I would if thought she could be swayed," Shunsui said. "But even though she could most likely never give in, I'm more than tempted to try my hand at it."
"Are you sure she isn't just appealing to you because she's resisted you?" Ukitake interjected seriously. "I mean, when was the last time a woman lasted a month against you? The longest record a female fukutaichō has in your office is three months! They all leave either because you break their hearts without meaning to or you skink them beneath the paperwork. When are you going to give one a chance to last?"
"When I've found the right one," Shunsui returned, rolling his eyes jovially. "And Jyū," he said, clapping his friend on the shoulder, "I think I have."
Ukitake placed his cup down on the table in a measured gesture. "And what makes Ise-san so special, might I ask?"
"Of course you can," Shunsui said, taking a large sip of his drink. "She's intelligent, unlike so many of the other idiots they sent me. But, despite the fact that she's probably read all the books in the Academy's library, she still has so much to learn. Things I can teach her Jūshirō," Shunsui added earnestly. "She's also positively fierce in battle and yet, still so unsure of herself."
He flopped backwards onto the multitude of cushions with a dramatic sigh. "You should see the suppressed passion in her eyes, Jyū, it's absolutely breathtaking. Like the twilight after a storm."
"My, it sounds as if you're half in love with her already, Shunsui-kun," Ukitake remarked with a teasing smile which quickly faded when Shunsui failed to respond.
"Shunsui, listen to me," Ukitake said solemnly. "I know that you never set out with the intention to hurt someone when you enter a relationship, but it often ends up that way." He placed a hand on his friend's shoulder. "You said yourself that Ise-san is vulnerable. If you cause her to open her heart to you, you must be absolutely certain that you are not about to break it."
Shunsui looked at his friend with an expression of only slightly melodramatic shock. "What kind of man do you take me for, Jyū?"
"One whose heart is to big for him to manage," Ukitake replied with a smile. "Promise me, Shunsui."
Shunsui heaved a sigh and took a thoughtful gulp of sake. He was not a man who took giving his word lightly. "Only, for you Jyū-chan," he said begrudgingly.
"I promise that I will not make a serious move toward Nanao-chan unless I am certain that I want a long-term relationship. Are you happy now?" he quipped, shooting an unsatisfied look at his friend.
"Yes, I am" Ukitake responded, sipping his own drink.
"Well, that makes one of us," Shunsui murmured loudly under his breath, causing Ukitake to laugh until he was overtaken by a fit of coughing.
Shunsui allowed his gaze to soak up the sight of the once again neat and trim Nanao in the moonlight. There was a softness about her that was obviously missing during the day, when she stepped into the role of (the only) ruthless executer of paperwork in the Eighth Division. She stood with her weight shifted onto one foot, causing her perfectly proportioned hip to stick out just slightly, her forearms resting on the railing of the deck. The effect was that she looked fragile at the same time unwittingly seductive.
As the impulses that he had never bothered to deny before clutched once more in his gut, accompanied by the previous swooping sensation, Shunsui knew already that his promise to Ukitake was going to be an extremely difficult one to keep.
Shunsui reached up and tipped his hat gallantly at her in acknowledgement. He allowed his trademark lopsided grin to blossom over his face as his Nanao-chan gave her own faint nod of farewell in return before she disappeared into the shadowed realm of her quarters.
Whistling, Shunsui swept off towards his own rooms once more, the words Nanao had spoken earlier ringing in his head.
"I am sure that there are many things engraved in your memory that you wish you could forget. Things that…even though you know they affected you more deeply than they should have, you still cannot help how they make you feel…"
Yes, he thought, as warmth blossomed in his chest as visions of Nanao— in his arms, dancing with him, clutching the tree in stubbornness— filled his mind without permission. He was beginning to wish that he could simply erase the deep sense of attachment to his adorable Fukutaichō he had developed over the last month, as he was sure his blossoming feelings would only lead to complications in the future.
On the other hand, Shunsui thought, the grin returning in full force. When had the thought of complications ever stopped him when there was a beautiful woman involved?
And this wasn't just any beautiful woman. This was his Nanao-chan. Somehow, Shunsui knew she would be worth the wait.
A/N: Review or I'll never write another Shunsui/Nanao fanfic again…