Nanao stepped inside the common room of the Eighth, closed the door behind her, and leaned against it. She could feel a smile spreading across her face, and she couldn't quite stop it.
Against all expectations, she'd actually had a pretty good time. It turned out that, far from being completely illiterate, Zaraki had read a surprising number of books…all of them related to warfare, of course. Once they'd figured that out, they'd spent most of dinner arguing Sun Tzu vs. Miyamoto Mushashi.
"Hmmmm. Musashi was overrated."
"Overrated? He wrote the Book of Five Rings! He killed his enemies with a sword whittled out of a boat oar!"
"That's nothing. I've done that."
"Killed someone with an oar?"
"He shouldn't have been standing up in the boat…"
Then somehow the conversation got over to applied tactics, and she'd started to illustrate a point using the edge of her plate as a fortification and a carrot stick as a battering ram. By the time they'd hit the third or fourth drink, a pair of castles constructed of water glasses, an empty wine bottle, and the remains of dinner were sprawled across the table, her origami crane was trying to hold the gate against his knife-rabbit, and Zaraki had started breaking up furniture to provide more building materials. (Apparently used to the Eleventh, the Grey Lotus put this on the tab without batting an eyelash.)
It had been…fun.
I would have won, too, if I hadn't gotten flanked by those breadsticks…
They'd settled in a draw, but it had been a near thing. Nanao shook her head, smiling, and headed towards her quarters. The first conversation with an adult she'd had in years that hadn't involved either work or the phrase "Guess how drunk I am!" and it was with Captain Zaraki. What were the odds?
She had no sooner opened the door than she realized that she'd walked into an ambush.
Matsumoto, Ukitake, and Captain Shunsui—who probably qualified as her three closest friends, and how tragic was that?—were arranged on the couch in various stages of consciousness. Ukitake was awake and apparently sober, Matsumoto was at least awake, and Shunsui was disoriented, drunk, and seemed to believe he was at an intervention.
"Nanao!" Matsumoto leapt to her feet, which put dangerous stresses on her uniform. "You're alive!"
"And we've been meaning to talk to you about your drinking…" muttered Shunsui into the recesses of his hat.
Nanao rolled her eyes. "Oh, for the love of…have you three been waiting here to pounce on me the whole time?"
"Nanao-san, it's nearly one in the morning," Ukitake pointed out.
"Oh, really?" Nanao glanced at the clock. "Hmm. So it is. Kind of you to be concerned, Captain, but you see that I'm fine…"
"You don't do enough of it," Shunsui informed her, or possibly his hat.
There was a pause while everyone attempted to re-locate their place in the conversation.
"So?" asked Matsumoto.
"Tell us all the gory details about Zaraki!"
"There aren't any gory details." Nanao pulled the pins out her hair, feeling very tired. "It was intellectually stimulating. He was a perfect gentleman, unlike some people." She glared at Shunsui, who was sliding gently down the couch under the force of gravity.
"Well." Matsumoto attempted to collect herself. "At least you survived, and it's all over now, and nobody died and we can put this behind us…."
"Actually, he asked me out again when the Eleventh gets off the next patrol."
"We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbors," he'd quoted, as they stood in the street outside the closing restaurant. A light fog was making the world vague around the edges and somewhat clammy.
"Do not swallow bait offered by the enemy," Nanao countered, taking her glasses off and cleaning the lenses. Zaraki briefly became a looming, indistinct form in the fog, like an iceberg with an eyepatch.
"Standing on the defensive indicates insufficient strength."
She scoffed. "The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him."
Zaraki's grin was pure pleased villainy. "There is timing in everything."
"I thought you said Musashi was overrated."
"He is. Eleventh is going dirtside tomorrow on Hollow patrol—rematch the day after?"
"Eighth is on patrol that day. The one after?"
They bowed to one another. It wasn't until she was halfway home that she realized she'd given him the bow of one combatant to another, and that he'd given it right back.
Nanao raked her fingers through her hair. Ukitake and Matsumoto turned on the drunken Shunsui and shook him back to consciousness.
"I'm up, I'm up…you don't have to hit me so hard…." He tried to hide under his hat, but Matsumoto yanked it away.
"Tell her she can't go out with Zaraki!" the strawberry blonde ordered.
"Why would my darling Nanao-chan do anything like that…?" He frowned. "Unless it's all that drinking she's been doing…"
Nanao pinched the bridge of her nose and prayed for strength.
"Really, Nanao-chan, dearest, you can't go out with this Zucchini person…" He slid down the couch again and ended up with his head in Matsumoto's lap. "Not that the love between a woman and a vegetable isn't a beautiful thing, but…zzzzz….."
"There, you see? That was an order." Matsumoto looked triumphant.
Nanao threw a look of mute appeal at Ukitake, who was probably the only other one in the room who qualified as an adult. The white-haired captain had the decency to look uncomfortable.
"Nanao-san, you're a grown woman, and I would hardly try to stop you, but…the man's not stable. You know that. It would be safer not to meet with him again."
Nanao put a hand on her own door. "And you think standing him up would be safe?"
Matsumoto blinked. Ukitake inhaled. Shunsui rolled off onto the floor and snored. Nanao took advantage of the silence to flee into her quarters. She did not slam the door—she was a grown woman, damnit, not a petulant child, and anyway the paper screens couldn't slam for beans—but she did stalk across the wooden floor with a heavier tread than entirely necessary.
"A perfect gentleman," Matsumoto said, and sighed.
"Intellectually stimulating…" Ukitake dropped the hat back over Shunsui's face.
"You don't suppose she's dating Zaraki's evil twin, do you?"
Ukitake ran a hand through his hair. "Wouldn't any twin of Zaraki's have to be thegood twin? By definition?"
In the compound shared by the Eleventh, three people also waited. Yachiru had fallen asleep on her favorite blanket, which had a design of happy disemboweled bunnies, and Ikkaku and Yumichika were staying awake by virtue of punching one another at random intervals.
"Nothing will happen," said Yumichika, for probably the fortieth time. He preened his feathered eyebrow back. "He'll come home bored out of his mind, and that'll be it."
"Right." Ikkaku nodded. "Absolutely. Except…"
"It's already awfully late. I would have figured he'd have gotten bored by now."
"He's probably just knocking over a building or something." Yumichika punched him.
"I was awake, damnit!" Ikkaku rubbed his arm irritably. "Yeah. You're probably right."
"It's not like she's even pretty."
"Well, the Captain's no beauty himself."
"Oh, well, yes, but that's different—hey! Not the face!"
"Right." They lapsed back into silence. Their Vice-Captain snored in the corner.
"You don't think…" Ikkaku began, with no clear idea of how to finish the sentence.
"It's just…" Ikkaku ran a hand over his naked scalp. "The Captain likes a challenge, right?"
"She's hardly a challenge." Yumichika sniffed haughtily. "I don't care if she is a kido master, he could pound her into the ground like a tent peg."
"Yes, but—unf! Not the kidneys, damnit!—Vice-Captain Ise's really, really smart, right?"
"If she's that smart, why doesn't she do something with her hair?" Yumichika tossed his own dark hair over his shoulder in a gesture that would have gotten him summarily thrown out of the Eleventh if Zaraki had been around to see it.
"I'm serious. Look, nobody could beat him in a fight, obviously, but…well…if she gets him in a battle of wits somehow…look, quit hitting me, I'm just sayin'!"
Yumichika opened his mouth to explain just how wrong his friend was, when the door slammed open. Yachiru sat up, rubbed her eyes, and crowed "Ken-chan! Kenchankenchankenchan!"
Zaraki stalked in, stomped the water off his boots, and waited patiently while Yachiru scampered up his leg like a hyperactive pink squirrel. After a moment, it occurred to him that two sets of eyes were riveted on him, with near-identical expressions of suspense.
"Well?" breathed Ikkaku.
Zaraki shrugged. "It wasn't that boring."
The silence that followed was broken by a thump. Ayasegawa Yumichika had fainted dead away.
The quotes midway through are all from Sun Tzu's "Art of War" and Miyamoto Musashi's "Book of Five Rings." Personally I agree with Zaraki about Musashi, but then again, I've never killed anybody with a boat oar, so I've got no grounds to talk...