always something to learn

Ise Nanao was sorting the forms on her Captain's desk when Ukitake-taichou appeared, draped like a snowfall over the couch under the window, between the rustle of two pieces of paper.

She twitched. The papers in her hands jumped and nearly cascaded out over the floor before she could catch them. "Ukitake-taichou." She swallowed. "If you're looking for Kyouraku-taichou --"

"Ah." Ukitake-taichou smiled warmly at her. "I believe he's halfway across Seireitai. And if you're wondering how I know that, it's because I reminded him that candy makes an excellent present for the morning after."

She could feel herself blushing, and looked down at her feet. "Um," she said, and tried to think of appropriate conversation to make to a Captain on the morning after. It wasn't in any handbook. "Can I get Ukitake-taichou some tea?"

"That would be very kind of you, Ise-kun," he said.

Nanao could feel the gentleness in his voice, and she had no idea how to react to it. She busied herself with the business of making tea, and tried not to think about last night. About quite how it had been. About what she was supposed to think or do now.

"Ise-kun?" Ukitake-taichou prompted her, and she realised that she was staring at the teapot. "Perhaps you could --"

He started coughing, and she rushed across with the cup of tea, horrified, and knelt next to the couch while he pulled himself upright and sipped the tea. His hair fell in long sheets around his face as he bowed his head, white as silk and twice as soft.

She knew that from last night.

He finally put down the cup and patted the couch next to him. "Have a seat, Ise-kun. I think we need to talk."

"Ukitake-taichou --" she scrambled for a reflex denial. "I --"

"I promise not to tell your Captain that you were so willing to sit next to any other Captain," he said gently. "But we do need to talk."

Nanao carefully sat down next to him, on the space between him and the rise of the couch. She would have preferred the other side, but there wasn't enough room there.

She suspected this was two thousand years worth of tactics being used against her.

"You're being very nervous this morning," Ukitake-taichou began. "Normally you're so very collected and poised."

She folded her hands in her lap. They were tiny. She was small. "I'm not sure what to say, Ukitake-taichou," she answered. "It, it's not that --"

"You didn't feel forced into last night?" he asked earnestly. She glanced up. His brows were drawn together in concern.

She shook her head. "No. Not at all, sir. Both you and Kyouraku-taichou made it clear that it was entirely my own choice, Kyouraku-taichou wouldn't even let me have more than a cup of wine beforehand because he didn't want me thinking that it was because I'd got drunk or something."

"The cad," Ukitake-taichou observed. "I wondered why he'd managed to get hold of so much of the stuff. Remind me to have words with him about sharing a bit more in the future."

The thought almost made her laugh, and she bit it back as improper behaviour, looking down at her hands again. "I really don't drink that much, sir," she said meekly.

"Then -- Ise-kun, it's obvious that something is the matter. Would you like to talk about it?"

Every fibre of her being utterly revolted at the thought of talking about it. She'd rather crawl away into a corner and curl up there. A deep corner. The deepest corner of Seireitai. "Nothing's wrong, sir," she said in a little voice.

He sat there next to her. He didn't try to put an arm round her or anything. She'd have been swatting her Captain with a book by now.

"Really," she tried to fill the hole in the air that his silence left. "It's all -- all understood, Captain. I do understand."

Still the silence.

"I do realise that it was purely temporary and that I shouldn't make any sort of assumptions because of it." She was able to bring that out cleanly and correctly, and was pleased at the crispness of her tone.

"Oh," Ukitake-taichou said, a little mournfully. "I was rather hoping it was more than that."

"But --" She flicked a glance at him from under her lashes

"Well, unless you're suggesting that Iwas forced into it?"

She hesitated a moment too long before replying, because what else could she think? Why else would he have been there with her? No doubt Kyouraku-taichou had talked him into it, and last night had been quite . . . she sorted through words and decided thatonce in a lifetime probably covered most of it, though erotic was certainly involved, and educational couldn't be ignored either. Very educational. Yes. But not something which was going to happen again, because really, why would he? "I can't -- that is, it's not my place to --"

"Ise-kun." She was grateful that he was still calling her that, rather than any variant on Nanao, and it wasn't till a moment later that she realised he'd draped an arm round her shoulders. He smelled of tea and herbs and dry grass. "You're doing me far too much credit if you think that I'd get involved in something like this out of some sort of kindness. Or far too little, if you think that I just lay back and let it all happen. I admit that Shunsui suggested it. But I wasn't in the least averse to it."

She drew her elbows in to her sides and tried to ignore the warmth of his body through his robes. Last night wasn't helping. "There's no reason why you should want me there," she said, thinly and miserably.

"Well, you do need some more experience," he said thoughtfully.

"Ukitake-taichou!" Nanao sat up, enraged at the very assumption that . . . actually, she wasn't quite sure which of the possible assumptions she was enraged at, but she was quite sure that what Ukitake-taichou had said was offensive, if she could have a moment to work it out. "If you think that I --"

He raised an eyebrow, cutting her off in her tracks. "Ise-fukutaichou. Intelligence is one of the required attributes for a vice-captain. You have that. Ability is another. You have that as well. Loyalty is expected. I do not doubt your loyalty to your captain, or to Seireitai. But as for a certain level of expertise . . ." He trailed off, letting it hang in the air.

Nanao blinked at him. It warmed her, it really did, to have him say that he thought she was intelligent and able and everything else, it made her uncurl a little bit from where she was coiled up and tense inside, but this sort of conversation was what she expected and regularly had to fend off from her own Captain. Not from Ukitake-taichou. But as to what she was supposed to say in answer to that --

He kissed her, silencing her with his mouth on her own, letting her sink back against the couch, and her body treacherously remembered last night, because she returned the kiss without thinking about it.

When he broke the kiss, she blinked up at him, having to refocus her eyes. He must have jarred her glasses askew. That was it. She tried to raise a hand to fumble with them, but it was tangled in the silks of his sleeves and robes. "Ukitake-taichou --"

"But I think you're worth it," he said, smiling down at her with a flicker of lightning in his eyes. "Of course, I don't expect you to be able to manage immediately. The two of us are rather older than you are, and --"

"That's not what I meant!"

"Oh? I thought you were unhappy because you wouldn't be able to match us in -- that area." He stroked a finger down the side of her face (somehow his hands weren't inconvenienced) and shifted position so that the two of them were sprawled more comfortably on the couch. "It'll take a little time, of course, but I've always thought that you were an excellent student. Quick to learn." He kissed the side of her neck. "Stamina. Intelligence. Imagination."

It wasn't possible to think straight under these conditions. "Ukitake-taichou," Nanao protested more feebly, but her heart wasn't in it.

"And with enough sense to wear her collar high and tightly closed when she wanted to hide a mark that her Captain left there the night before." Ukitake-taichou stroked a finger under the collar of her inner kimono, pushing it back to show the lovebite that Kyouraku-taichou had left on the side of her neck last night. "Mm?"

She looked up at him, trying to control her breathing.

"I appreciate that sort of discretion." He bent to touch the other side of her neck, then kissed her there, and she could feel that it would leave a mark as well.

It's a good thing that I'm so discreet, she thought giddily, and shut her eyes.

The door banged open. "Nanao-chan!" her Captain called happily. "Here I am for my beloved Nanao-chan with some of the best bonbons in all Seireitai --" He broke off. "Jyuushirou," he said severely. "There is a word for people who send their friends halfway across the city just to get them out of the way, and it is not a nice word."

"Blame it on two thousand years of strategy," Ukitake-taichou said, sitting up gracefully and leaving Nanao to try to pull her neckline into order under her Captain's amused eyes.

"I'd blame anyone except my lovely Nanao-chan," Kyouraku-taichou said. He went down on one knee next to her, and offered her a large box with a pink bow on top. "For my beautiful vice-captain."

Nanao hesitated, thinking of all the other times he'd tried to press gifts on her and she'd responded with a well-timed stroke of her fan.

"Nanao-chan?" he asked, looking up at her with those deep melting eyes.

Nanao took the box. "I was just thinking," she said, her voice still a little shaky, "that I needed experience. Sir. Sirs."

Ukitake-taichou reclined back on the couch. "Well," he said, tapping a finger against his lips. "It's good to have a vice-captain who knows what she wants."