Disclaimer: Bleach? Totally not mine. I just like to
abuse Kubo's characters. Contains rampant speculation on the nature
of souls and an assortment of other things. Almost certainly AU.
Opening lines from a Yom Kippur machzor.
Notes: Most trite ending line ever. fails I hate when my brain runs away on me. This one was a serious case of WTFery -- and yet somehow it still wound up winning for "Most Creative Story" in the '07 challenge on LJ's shunsuixnanao community. Challenge required the phrase "are you certain, Nanao", as well as one of several words; I used "red". Not speculative as much as it is perhaps crackishly AU.
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
The taste of dust and ashes as still thick on her tongue, but it is safe here, and quiet, and as she tucks her back up against a tree and huddles deeper into the folds of blanket, her racing heart slows. Her breath makes faint visible puffs in the moonlight, ghosts of dragons that fade into shadow. She is very tired; the days and nights had blurred together as all she knew burned, and now that the frenetic need to do something – anything at all, so long as it helped – has passed, she feels limp with weariness.
The tree is solid behind her, the dimness surreal. She exhales, draws in another slow breath, surrenders to the urge to yawn.
Her eyes slip closed.
She dies peaceably the first time, for all the violence just before. It is only a vague memory by then; she remembers the fire and then the cold, and if she is afraid of both thereafter, then it is just as well this new world is mild for most of the year.
When she wakes, she is hungry, and puzzled by how this seems strange to those around her. Until she is found and taken to the school, she does not understand. There, other things are stranger yet: she was a proper young woman, and proper young women did not hold swords, but the blade sings in her hands, and she thinks perhaps that she was never terribly proper to begin with.
She meets him there, and he cements that realisation. Drowsing beside him in the summer sunlight, she finds herself smiling and thinks, no, I could not have been.
She dies when she is just finishing at the Academy, a Hollow's claws through her stomach and his stricken face all she can see.
Life is ordinary, but for the dreams that come with increasing frequency as she grows older. She wakes most mornings with the nagging suspicion that she has forgotten something terribly important – or, sometimes, looks at her husband uncomprehendingly and cannot discern why it is she thinks him a stranger, when they have known each other since childhood. But with the dreams fresh in her mind, he is not the one who she thinks to find in her bed, and so she rises to pace the terrace just outside, looking up at the stars overhead.
She is still young when war comes, for all that she has borne him four children, but young and old die alike that spring, and she among them.
This time – though she does not realise she has been here before – no one finds her in the Rukongai. She glimpses the black and white clothing several times, and even the white of a captain's coat, but they never stop, and she – like many of the denizens of that outer fringe – does not trust shinigami, and so she passes this time without ever setting foot inside those walls.
The hunger that claws at her belly is disconcertingly familiar, and perhaps it is that which drives her to try to steal food from a man on the street, despite the sword at his hip. As that same blade comes at her, bites deep into her flesh, she sees the surprise and dismay in his eyes.
It does not seem so strange that his horrified expression should be familiar, she thinks, with the surprising lucidity that being on the edge of death brings. Everything runs into itself.
He holds her as she dies, and whispers broken apologies, and she reaches one tiny pale hand up to pat his shoulder, because she remembers that someone told her once to forgive people.
Pain-hazed red clouds her vision; black follows. She knows where she will awaken.
She faints in the seventeenth district of Rukongai, hungry beyond anything she can remember, but this time someone finds her.
"Do you ever feel like you've heard it all before?" she asks a classmate one day, after a particularly stultifying lecture on tactics. She herself spent most of the lecture surreptitiously reading a book she'd checked out of the library, but the girl at the next desk over had stared out the window and, several times, fallen asleep.
"Not everyone's as smart as you, Nanao," the blonde says, yawning and stretching. The few boys still in the classroom watch, fascinated.
That's not it, she wants to protest, but she's not sure what it is, and so she keeps quiet.
They are taught hand-to-hand fighting and kidou, history and strategy, logistics, logic, shunpo, and – most importantly, the teachers stress time and again – zanjutsu. Like so much else, wielding a blade is dimly familiar, but she has accepted the déjà vu by now and does her best to ignore it. This does not diminish the surprise when she learns her zanpakutou's name, because the sound resonates in her soul with a familiarity a thousand times greater than anything before.
I will not be the loudest, the blade whispers to her in her sleep.
Nanao studies kidou with redoubled fierceness, and does her best to ignore the words. She does not like to be unsettled.
When she is assigned to Eighth, and meets her new captain, she understands.
She tells herself it is just the experience of meeting a powerful reiatsu, though none of the others have inspired the same reaction.
Time passes, and she finds herself lieutenant of Eighth, and dealing with Kyoraku-taichou on a regular basis. She takes refuge in formality, trying to hide just how off-balance he makes her feel behind sharp words and admonishments, and puts up with his eccentricities because the thought of going to another division feels wrong. As trite as the thought is, and as much as she chides herself for being a fool to think it, she belongs here.
Somewhere along the way, she realises that's wrong, too.
She belongs at his side, and it frightens her.
She doesn't realise until long afterwards, when she thinks back to that day when everything in Seireitei turned upside-down, why he seems so familiar. It takes her even longer to confront him, but one night, when he is more drunk than usual, she asks him.
"Was it you who found me in Rukongai, all those years ago?"
He smiles at her, soft and a little muzzy from the sake, but his eyes are suddenly suspiciously clear.
"A gentleman would never abandon a lady in distress."
She dreams that night of being held safe in his arms, and is not sure if the dream is of the past or something which might yet be.
"Nanao-chan," he says, the next morning, "spar with me," and she does not want to, but she finds herself nodding all the same.
It has been too long, the voice whispers in her mind as she unsheathes her zanpakutou. I am glad of this.
She does not reply, though she understands; it has been years since she crossed blades with another, even sparring. Masumoto stopped asking shortly after graduation, understanding that her friend preferred other forms of combat, and Kyoraku-taichou never did.
They spar in the early sunlight, out in the courtyard of Eighth, and before long Nanao has lost herself in the rhythm of it, the flash of steel and the ring of swords and the fluidity of the motion, so like a dance. She circles, watches his body for the telltale signs of gathering for a strike, the play of muscle beneath skin that betrays the next blow. As he catches her in a particularly skilful parry, her blade sliding up and over his as he steps in towards her, she can't help but laugh at the sheer delight of it.
He is very close now, though, and she thinks that if he had both blades drawn, the other would have killed her by now, but it is a fleeting thought. They are both breathing hard, but even over that, she fancies she can hear the racing of his heart – or is that her own pulse that sounds so heavily in her ears?
"I knew you," she says, suddenly.
"Are you certain, Nanao?"
She almost misses the omission of the usual diminutive – almost, because it cements the realisation. She disengages, draws away to slide her zanpakutou back into the scabbard. Even with her back to him, she can feel his eyes on her.
"We've done that before," she says, with certainty. "Here – before there was an Eighth. I knew you then."
"You were very young," Kyoraku-taichou sighs, and he sounds unexpectedly weary, "and so was I."
Nanao steps back in. The summer sunlight is warm and golden. For the first time in years, there is no weight on her shoulders.
"We are still young," she says, and kisses him.
It feels like coming home.
- finis -