Tomorrow and After
Chapter 17: The Threshold
To all of the readers who have stuck with me from the first words of Tossed Aside, to the very last ones of this story.
Shunsui paused outside the office door as a voice called his name. He turned to survey the petite brunette who was perched on the office stoop, her knees drawn up to her chest. Her generally smooth brow was pinched with worry. The dancing light of the kidō lamp next to the doorjamb made the line between her eyes seem more severe.
"Are you alright, Okuni-san?" he said, crouching down until they were at eye level. It was incongruous with his sense of joy that anyone should be unhappy. After all, his Nanao-chan had just returned home yesterday.
"Nanao's buried herself in paperwork," Okuni explained.
Shunsui gave a signature earthy chuckle. "It doesn't surprise me. The paperwork hasn't been touched for a week." He tilted his head to the side, taking in the concern in Okuni's large chocolate eyes. "I'm missing something, aren't I?"
"She's been working nonstop since she returned from the Fourth Division earlier today," Okuni whispered. "I've been too afraid to ask," her voice broke slightly. Shunsui's inflating bubble of joy burst like a balloon that had just met a needle. Whatever had Nanao preoccupied could not be good.
"I'll go talk to her," Shunsui said, standing up. "Don't worry, Okuni-san. Nanao isn't going anywhere." He ruffled her hair affectionately. "Why don't you see if you can find anything out from Yamada-san?" Okuni nodded, grateful for something constructive to do, and hurried off to go find the young healer.
"My industrious, Nanao-chan," Shunsui called in the sing-song voice he used especially to annoy her. He nudged the door open with one foot. "You should surface for dinner, little Okuni-san is worried about you."
Shunsui surveyed the familiar scene. Nanao's immaculately neat head was folded over a pile of paperwork as high as her shoulders. He moved around the desk to pluck the pen out of her fingers. He frowned when he felt how cold her fingers were under his grip. Could Unohana do nothing for her then? he though miserably.
He pulled her chair back from the desk, surprised when Nanao did not issue a singe word of protest. "Come, Nanao-chan. Why don't we go and enjoy the blossoms before they fade?" he asked, holding out a hand. Nanao slid her frosty, delicately long fingers into it silently. She followed behind him as he led her out of the office door and around the back of the building, toward the small grove at the back of the Eighth Division grounds.
- - -
"The blossoms pale in comparison to my Nanao-chan," Shunsui commented, pressing a kiss against her palm as he folded himself into a sitting position near the base of a large plum tree. Nanao sat facing him and tucked her legs beside her gracefully.
"Shunsui," Nanao began, but the words meant to follow stuck in her throat. Shunsui, an unaccustomed wrinkle of worry adorning his brow, brushed a soothing kiss against the knuckles of the hand he still held.
"Tell me what Unohana said, Nanao," Shunsui said softly. "It won't change anything between us," he tried to assure her.
Nanao closed her eyes hard. "I'm…not so sure about that," she responded after a moment. She shivered even though the weather was quite warm. Frowning, Shunsui wrapped his favorite garment around her form.
"Would sake help you to build your courage?" he asked with a smile. It was an old joke between them, but it failed to relieve the despair and confusion that were rolling off of her in waves.
"I don't think I'm allowed to drink it," Nanao responded, opening her eyes and meeting his. Shunsui was surprised to see fear lurking in the blue-violet depths.
"Nanao, what exactly are you trying to say and why do you look so frightened to say it?" Shunsui murmured, pulling her closer to him. He brushed a stray blossom out of her hair tenderly, waiting for her to respond.
"I'm trying to tell you that the…parasite Urahara… diagnosed me with is really…" She trailed off unable to finish.
Nanao had never been so nervous in her entire life. Not for her final exit exam from the Academy, nor during her first battle. Panic had never strangled her like this, threatening to overwhelm her. It was almost akin to the time she had thought that hollow was going to kill Shunsui. At least you knew what to expect when diving in front of a rampaging beast… but this? She had no idea what to anticipate.
Would he still want her…want them?
His hands slowly trailed up and down her arms as he attempted to warm her. "It's really what?" Shunsui asked, his gentle eyes probing.
She took a shaky breath. "It's a child. I'm…I'm pregnant," Nanao managed to choked out. Shunsui froze at her confession, staring at her tormented eyes.
"And I'm frightened because… I didn't plan this and you're not…" Her voice wavered as she gestured feebly in his direction.
It's over, Nanao thought miserably. She should have known it was too good to be true. All good things come to an end sometime, wasn't that the old saying? Births were so rare in Soul Society. Why did it have to happen to her?
What was she supposed to do now? She was so scared she couldn't move and― his lips swept over her hers. She was in his lap before her spinning brain could comprehend her change in position. His hands were in her hair, tossing the pins into the grass where they would never be found. His fingers traced the lines of her face, removing the tears she hadn't even known were falling.
Her name fell from his lips as his nose skimmed across her cheekbone. "I'm so sorry," she whispered, clinging to him. "I didn't mean to…" He chuckled and she felt the vibration shoot through her.
"Nanao-chan," Shunsui said, kissing away a tear. "I do hope those are tears of joy," he admonished lightly.
"That depends," Nanao responded, her eyes flicking to his, "on whether you're pleased or not."
He kissed her again, gentle but firm. She could feel his smile against her lips. "I've never been happier in my entire existence," he answered her. All she could read from his blinding smile was certain truth. Nanao tucked her head into the curve of his broad shoulder, feeling lighter than she had in weeks. She felt delirious and disoriented.
Shunsui's large hand splayed across her stomach, the warmth so comforting it caused Nanao to sigh at the simple pleasure. "How long have you been carrying my little surprise?" Shunsui asked after a moment of contented silence.
"About two months," Nanao answered promptly. "It's hard to pinpoint when exactly…" Shunsui laughed as he could feel the slight warmth of her flush against his skin without having to see it. He stiffened underneath her, a sudden, unpleasant realization crashing over him.
"Botan," Shunsui grimaced, thinking of the incident for the first time in weeks. "You fought him when you were… You were injured, he could have…" Shunsui trailed off, the implications of what might have been making him feel slightly nauseous.
"I didn't know," Nanao said defensively. "I felt fine. Unohana Taichō thinks that it was the stress of the fight that triggered a reaction from the…baby," she hesitated before saying it. The concept was still unreal to her in many ways. "It's formed a kind of shell around itself for protection. It's taking more of my reiatsu than usual but Unohana said that it might just be how much energy it needs to sustain itself," Nanao continued, attempting to explain away her body's odd behavior. "She's only had to deal with a few pregnancies before, none of which were cases dealing with―"
"Fantastically good-looking and incredibly powerful parents?" he interrupted her, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively. "How could the child not be special when I am its father and you, my beautiful Nanao-chan, are its loving mother?"
"I never said that you were the father," Nanao stated, her expression serious.
Shunsui paused for a moment as if to consider the idea and then exploded into his rich, earthen laughter. "You've always been a terrible liar, Nanao-chan," he informed her for the millionth time.
Nanao could not suppress her own laughter in response. Nothing had ever prepared her for the direction her life had taken. Yet she doubted that she could ever be ungrateful for the turn.
"Come, my fertile, Nanao-chan," Shunsui said, lifting her in his arms as he rose to his feet. "We must get some more food into you. You have to nourish our child!"
"Fertile?" Nanao said dryly, arching an eyebrow.
Shunsui kissed her forehead, the immovable smile etched into his eyes. "Ah, I missed that expression."
It was true, for no one could look quite so stunning while giving him a look that read, 'Shunsui, you are so ridiculous.'
- - -
Nanao signed one last piece of paperwork, adding it to the pile with a satisfied sigh. She stood and stretched. Her knuckles cracked satisfactorily, slightly relieving the cramps in her fingers.
It was almost five-thirty and if she didn't hurry she would be late to the division meeting. She thought it was odd that Shunsui had called such a late meeting, let alone suggest that it be held in the middle of the Eighth Division compound instead of the squad's common room.
It probably isn't a meeting at all, Nanao thought. He might just be planning another one of his escapades, like the candlelit star gazing picnic he had forced them all to go on three years ago. Still, Shunsui had done stranger things before.
She went to remove the violet haori she was currently wrapped in, a gift Shunsui had breezed in and deposited on her this morning, but thought better of it. She didn't relish shivering. Besides, she would have to bear teasing about more than just breaking the dress code before long. Nanao cringed at the thought.
Nanao emerged out of the door and into the brilliance of the setting sun, her fingers brushing absentmindedly over the pendant at her throat. She smiled as the fiery orange light picked out the hidden luster of the paving stones, revealing a subtle sparkle. It made the rose petals look romantic.
Blinking, Nanao stared upwards to the balcony above the division office, where pink and scarlet blossoms were drifting lazily downward to the enchanting timbre of a samisen.
Nanao craned her neck upward to see the source of the raining blossoms. Matsumoto was gleefully tossing petals from a large basket. Beside her, a glaring Hitsugaya reluctantly helped, throwing blooms out of his own container. On Matsumoto's other side, a partially obscured Okuni strummed her instrument with graceful movements.
"What are you doing?" Nanao demanded. Neither one of her friends saw fit to respond to her queries. Irritated, Nanao turned her attention back towards the ground, seeking the one person she knew had to be responsible for this little display.
He was not difficult to find, standing in his habitual rose-colored raiment. She vaguely wondered why Ukitake, standing behind Shunsui, was present at these proceedings. The entirety of their division was assembled, Nanao realized with a glance at the gathered shinigami. Though they were all observing the scene in various postures, Nanao realized with a start that all of the attention was focused on her.
"Taichō, what exactly is going on?" Nanao addressed Shunsui. She strode toward him briskly, falling into the crisp professional demeanor she always maintained in front of her soldiers.
Once she was close enough Shunsui threaded his fingers through hers, his eyes glittering. "Nanao and I have a special announcement to make!" he announced jovially, turning to face the division
A blush spread from the tips of Nanao's freezing cold toes, dying her cheeks scarlet. He wasn't going to tell them all right now, was he? She tried to yank her hand fingers out of his, mortified. She hadn't prepared herself for this.
"Nanao and I are soon to be married," Shunsui boomed. Nanao froze. She certainly hadn't been expecting that.
"Pardon me?" Nanao said, bemused. "I wasn't aware that you had proposed." Her eyes narrowed dangerously. Shunsui just couldn't just go and make life-altering decisions on his own…
"That's because I haven't yet," Shunsui replied quietly. The division, which had erupted into cheers previously, was suddenly silent, every ear straining to hear. Shunsui took her other delicate hand into his, smiling softly at her stunned expression. It wasn't everyday one managed to shock his Nanao-chan.
"Nanao," he began, loud enough for the assembled crowd to hear, "I once told you that some things in life are inevitable. Call it fate, call it destiny, whatever your intellectual heart desires." Nanao's breath hitched as he repeated the words he'd said right before they had kissed for the very first time. "I still believe we fall under that category," Shunsui continued.
"It's true that we've danced around each other for many years, but we always end up beside each other. It is my sincerest wish that I only have partner from now on. Will you be mine, Nanao-chan, as I will be yours, tomorrow and after?"
Nanao stared up at his tanned, honest face. She was completely unaware that there were no more petals falling and that the romantic music had ended abruptly on a jarring note. She barely registered that every eye was glued on her face, waiting for her answer.
Nanao was captivated by the man before her. Despite the soft smile on his face, there was fear in his eyes. Fear that she would reject him. The combination of the rare emotion and the love there completely undid her. What choice did she have? What other answer could she give?
"Yes," she whispered, nodding her head stiffly in case her voice had failed her.
Nanao found herself suddenly surrounded by the familiar strength of his arms and the cheers of their division. His mouth eased over hers and Nanao could not think well enough to care that she was behaving quite unprofessionally, or that she just been showered in petals because Matsumoto had accidentally caused Hitsugaya to overturn his basket in her excitement. Nanao had never felt more content in her entire life.
Shunsui picked her up and twirled her around, his lips finding hers once more. "You had me concerned for a moment, my Nanao-chan," Shunsui murmured in her ear over the cacophony. "I thought you were going to refuse me in front of the entire division. But I knew that my Nanao-chan could not be so heartless and cruel."
"No doubt that's why you brought them," Nanao returned, but she could muster the usual bite behind the comment.
"I figured it couldn't hurt my chances," Shunsui admitted with a grin. Nanao rolled her eyes and pulled his face down to hers.
"Are you sure you're just not doing this because you got me pregnant?" she demanded in a heated whisper.
"Of course not, Nanao-chan, you know―," Shunsui began but he was cut off by the second basket of petals colliding with his head accompanied by a shrill shriek.
"I suppose it's not much of secret anymore," Nanao groaned with a long-suffering sigh. Matsumoto Rangiku, the sharpest ears in the Seireitei had overheard the news.
- - -
"It's perfect," Matsumoto cooed, smoothing the silk covering Nanao's shoulders. Nanao rolled her eyes as Matsumoto and Okuni, both dressed in their own elaborate kimonos, high-fived each other for a job well-done.
Nanao turned to appraise their handiwork in the mirror. The elaborate garment was not the traditional design for a wedding dress. Although, Nanao supposed, she and Shunsui had broken so many traditions already, it was almost laughable.
Nanao had refused to wear white, for she was nowhere near virginal anymore. Therefore, the top of the kimono was a rich cream color that faded into pink and red flowers dancing in a windstorm of crackling violet-gold lightning. It was supposed to be representative of the bride and groom, according to Okuni, who had overseen the rushed decorating process. Nanao had wanted to be married before she had begun showing.
Nanao adjusted the sparkling ornament Okuni had woven into her onyx hair, her heart twisting with nerves.
"I've got to go get ready to play," Okuni said apologetically, pulling Nanao into a quick hug. "You look fantastic." The small girl gave one extra squeeze before hurrying out of the tent.
"Do you have your zanpakutō?" Matsumoto asked, as she secured Nanao's armband around one floor-length sleeve. It was traditional that officers wear the sign of their rank at their wedding and ceremonially bear arms during the service.
"You tucked it in my sash earlier," Nanao informed her friend quietly. Matsumoto double-checked to make sure the weapon was visible before she pressed Nanao's carefully made-up face into her cleavage.
She planted a sisterly kiss on the top of Nanao's head. "You can't escape destiny, Nanao. And I really called this one, didn't I, little guy?" Matsumoto crooned, tickling Nanao's stomach. With one final wink, the strawberry-blond disappeared.
Nanao took a deep breath gathering her courage. Part of her longed to rip off the kimono and run away, but when the soft strains of Okuni's samisen coupled with the lilting of flutes sounded the beginning of the ceremony, the desire to see Shunsui turned the music into a Siren's song she could not disobey. It seemed like it took her miles to cover the distance between the side room she had prepared in and the base of the stairs leading up to the shrine.
She studiously ignored the eyes of their friends and acquaintances, their gasps, sighs, and hushed whispers as she came into view. She only wanted to see one person… and there he was. Dressed in midnight blue and his white captain's haori, Shunsui was every young girl's dream of what their groom should look like.
Nanao swallowed uneasily and her hand gripped Shunsui's arm instinctively when they met. He raised her hand to his cheek and pressed a tender kiss to the underside of it. Nanao wondered if he could feel her pulse racing just beneath the surface of her skin.
"Tomorrow and after, my Nanao-chan," he murmured gently. She nodded, her own gentle smile answering his. Together they silently ascended the steps.
The ceremony passed in a blur. Nanao barely registered going through the motions. She vaguely remembered sipping out of the ceremonial cups as Shunsui handed them to her and carrying out her own obligations in turn. She remembered snippets of the priest's traditional blessings and faintly hearing Okuni strumming an elaborate version of her original composition, The Ballad of Shunsui and Nanao.
But, Nanao would never forget when Shunsui turned to her, his eyes dancing with mischief. He unsheathed Katen Kyōkotsu as Nanao stared at him in bewilderment.
"I Kyōraku Shunsui, Taichō of the Eighth Division of the Thirteen Court Guardian Squads, have accepted this woman with my heart. Now I subject her to the judgment of my blade," he declared in a loud voice.
Nanao gaped in horror. She had read these words before. She resisted the urge to groan. How had he found that book?
"I will accept the decision of the manifestation of my soul without fail whether she is deemed worthy or unworthy and acknowledge that this union is void without its consent."
A gasp rose up from the older members of the audience, punctuated by twitters of confusion from the younger ones. This ancient rite had not been practiced for centuries as so many couples had been devastated by the decision of their blades. A zanpakutō would physically prevent its wielder from returning to the rejected partner.
Nanao had known this. It was what had caused her to be rightfully afraid. They had chosen each other, why wasn't that enough?
"Take it Nanao," Shunsui said quietly, his voice too calm for the enormity of their present situation. "Erase any lingering doubts you have, or prove them right." She bit her lip at his words, anger and fear coursing through her. He would have it his way, then.
Nanao withdrew her zanpakutō from where she had tucked it into her obi. She unsheathed the blade, her heart hammering. Slowly and deliberately she repeated the words back to him. Then she proffered him the handle. Shunsui took it without hesitation.
Nanao's hands closed around the unfamiliar handles of Katen Kyōkotsu, testing their weight. She stifled a gasp as warmth shot up her arms. Then she was blind.
- - -
She was in a meadow, surrounded by vibrantly colored flowers. A gentle breeze ruffled the long grass. She stood still, taking in her surroundings. She watched, frightened, as finger-like blossoms waltzing on a strange wind, prodded her forward. As she was shown toward the center of the meadow, Nanao saw that there were two people sitting in the clearing, back to back. As the filtered sunlight illuminated their bodies for a brief moment, Nanao realized that they were fused, sharing the same back. Their faces were concealed by the trees' shadows.
"You have come to be judged," one voice, low and raspy commented. Something cracked and Nanao realized that it was one gracefully skeletal hand ushering her forward.
"Do not be afraid, Blossom Bringer" a soft tenor voice added. A gentle wind caressed Nanao's hand causing her to proffer it. "You have made the blossoms bloom where once many were withered and dark," the gentle voice continued. A hand, soft as the blossoms she was kneeling on caressed her open palm. "You have caused the growth of the soul."
"You risked death to save our wielder," the raspy voice intoned. The skeletal hand slid underneath Nanao's, trapping her between one hand's cool hardness and the other's velvet skin. "You love our wielder more than life."
"Brother and I have deemed you worthy," the soft child-like voice sang softly.
"Doubt our bearer no more," the raspy voice concluded. And Nanao was blind again.
- - -
Shunsui squinted against the darkness that had suddenly overwhelmed his eyes. He was rocking gently side to side. Carefully, he pressed his calloused palms against the surface he was sitting on, and felt weathered wood beneath his finger. His hand trailed to the side and slid into…water? Light split the blackness before him like a warning.
He opened his eyes, squinting against the harsh glare. Golden lightening illuminated the placid waters of a sea that gleamed blue-black under the crackling electricity that seemed to be coalescing into the form of…a woman.
"Welcome, Kyōraku Shunsui," a deep, echoing voice rolled across the tranquil water like a quiet peal of thunder.
"I am Kininazuma," the voice intoned. A whip-like crack sounded as the lightning woman appeared to toss her long gold-violet hair. "You have come to be judged."
"You must hold passion and conviction in your soul to have initiated this ritual. You also have persistence for you quelled the tempest that raged in Mistress' youth with your presence." Shunsui wished that the strange creature would turn and face him but she remained facing the other way.
"My face is for Mistress alone, as your brethren's faces are only for you," the woman admonished him quietly. "Your soul is of the earth," the blade declared. "You have seen many things and endured many battles. You wish to protect Mistress, whom you love. You would give your life to accomplish this."
The strange creature raised her arms, gesturing to the world she dwelled in. "Your love is deep like the waters of my home. I deem you worthy. Your efforts are rewarded."
The form of the woman exploded and the darkness returned to cover his eyes.
- - -
"What are we waiting for?" Matsumoto whispered urgently, leaning over Hitsugaya to address Ukitake.
"Some outward sign of approval apparently," the white-haired captain responded in a similar tone.
"He did know what he was doing, right?" Matsumoto asked, threading her fingers through her hair nervously. Hitsugaya stopped her mid-motion, wrapping his fingers around hers. She glanced appreciatively at him and then quickly back to the dais as a surprised gasp rippled across the assembled crowd.
Shunsui and Nanao had opened their eyes, staring at each other. Unable to read their expressions the audience watched as they returned their respective weapons to their sheaths delicately. A wind whipped across the square, ripping fans out of unsuspecting spectators. It moved to circle the couple, visible only by the blossoms that seemed to dance with glee as it whipped around the couple. Their clothes were caught in its embrace; it freed Nanao's hair from its confines so that it caressed Shunsui's face. Shunsui let out a euphoric laugh and Nanao reached for him.
When they kissed, golden violet sparks erupted between them.
The crowed went wild.
"Don't get any ideas," Hitsugaya muttered. Matsumoto's hand tightened around his as she tearfully watched her friends embrace.
"No," Matsumoto agreed. Marriage would come one day but for now she was just enjoying being with the man beside her. "I'm not the marrying type."
Hitsugaya frowned deeply as he stared at the happy couple descending the staircase. Matsumoto had no intention of ever marrying him?
The strawberry-blonde tried valiantly to quell her devious smile as she sensed the confusion emanating from her Taichō. She had planted the thought in his brain. Now the rest was up to him.
- - -
Shunsui wrapped his arm around Nanao's waist. He drew her to her side as they walked through the quiet streets of the Seireitei toward the Eighth Division. In the distance, the mingled sounds of the continuing celebration were carried to them on the early summer breeze.
"I love you, Kyōraku-fukutaicho," Shunsui said with a smile, gazing down at his beautiful wife. The thought made him want to sing. But he quelled the impulse for he knew Nanao would not appreciate it.
Nanao looked up at her new husband, surprised by his sudden formality. "Are you finally going to give me the respect I deserve?" she asked playfully.
"No, you'll always be Nanao-chan to me," Shunsui replied with a grin. "But I am rather fond of the name change."
"I never said I was going to take your name," Nanao reminded him. He laughed, his hand tracing circles on her hip.
"Amusing as always, my clever Nanao-chan," he returned. "But I think it may already be too late to decide against taking my name," he stated as they finally stopped outside their office door. The weathered nameplate had already been replaced. It now read
Kyōraku Shunsui: Taichō
Kyōraku Nanao: Fukutaichō
"I suppose it's not so horrible," Nanao remarked. Her heart gave one joyous thud as she looked at the shining brass plate.
"Of course not, there are all sorts of advantages to being a Kyōraku," Shunsui said evenly.
"Such as?" Nanao asked dryly.
"Increased stamina," Shunsui replied, lifting her effortlessly into his arms. "For as you know my Nanao-chan, celebrations in the noble house of Kyōraku start at least three hours prior to the event and last―
"Well into the early hours of the morning," Nanao finished for him as he kicked open the door.
Shunsui kissed his wife ardently as he carried his family over the threshold. It would be the same one they would cross together…tomorrow and after.
A/N: Well, there you have it folks. It's been a great honor to have you wonderful people read and review my work. This is probably the last story I will post on my own because once Points in the Right Direction is finished, I am planning on writing some original fiction. Thank you very much for your support and I hope you're willing to give me one final review.