The vast majority of the fourth division had relocated to Karakura for the predicted battle, but one of the few remaining healers was found to check on Nanao after Kyouraku-taichou had carried her into the Seireitei. All appearances aside, she had just taken a direct hit from a moderately powerful cero blast. Although he was worried enough to insist on a once-over from the officer on duty at Fourth, Kyouraku-taichou knew that she was fine – only a very strong confidence in her health would have persuaded him to leave her momentarily to make his report to the soutaichou. That was where he was now, while she sat on one of the beds in Fourth, waiting for the birdlike eleventh seat to return with the test results.
It was probably time to give up that title. She was no longer in his division, and their relationship was clearly moving beyond that of a subordinate and superior – or rather, she was finally willing to admit that it was. After their reunion on the barren fields of Rukongai, they had not had time to speak. Orders had been given, the wounded had been treated as best as they could on the field – fortunately, all injuries had been fairly minor – and the company had hurried on to the Gotei headquarters. Nanao, the only one who could not use shunpo, had allowed herself to be carried away from the field, (just this once, of course) by Kyouraku-san. For the sake of efficiency.
The words sounded strange on her tongue, unfamiliar. They had known each other for a century, but she had never thought of him – never allowed herself to think of him – as anything but her captain. It would be strange to change their relationship so much now; but if it worked out it would all be worth it.
If it doesn't work out...
She was very grateful to the man in question for distracting her from that train of thought as he swept into the room, grinning broadly and swirling his haori dramatically behind him. The plain white room seemed so much brighter with him there, as though he could bring life to the world around him just by his very presence.
She had always loved that about him.
"Ah, my lovely Nanao-chan! Fujitaka-san said that you're healthy, so I can take you out for lunch!"
She resisted the urge to roll her eyes, but the impulse was too great: vice-captain or not, old habits die hard.
"Sir, Aizen's forces could attack at any time. We need to be on constant alert, ready to-" he hadn't wasted any time; the second she had started to nag, he had moved his face closer to hers, staring at her, his eyes huge and warm, but still sad.
Those puppy eyes could get him anything, and he knew it; at least, she hoped that was what he was going for. Love or not, she didn't think her pride would survive him knowing what his closeness did to her – to start, her entire lecture had been forgotten.
"Just a quick lunch then – but we can't leave the Gotei! And I can walk just fine, put me down!"
The cherry trees in spring were a flurry of pink and new life, but Nanao loved them in autumn too. The small flowers were stained with reds and oranges, foliage becoming crisp with the coming winter. It was near the end of September now, and the first of the browning leaves created a crunchy carpet on which Kyouraku-san (she would never get used to calling him that) spread his haori, before flopping down dramatically and beckoning for her to join him.
"Don't you want something to eat, my lovely Nanao-chan? Look, I brought the ones with mayonnaise and turkey, just for you!" And true to form, he had mysteriously pulled a large wicker picnic basket from somewhere behind his back, followed closely by a large jug of sake, which he wasted no time in opening with an impish smile.
She sighed, but joined him, cross-legged, on their personal island of silk amongst the sea of leaves – she did love those sandwiches. It was unnerving to realise how closely he had been watching her for the past several decades; what more did he know about her?
What didn't she know about him?
"What did Yamamoto-taichou say?"
"Ah, Nanao-chan, straight to business as always – you should relax more, or you'll turn out like that old geezer himself... Anyways, he understands that those hollows attacked you to get to me-" his voice paused, for less than a second, but she could read the guilt in his eyes; she had been watching him for a while now too. It was very like her captain to blame himself for her own stupidity – and it had been stupidity, wandering defenceless in the Rukongai in the middle of a war. "So you'll stay in the Seireitei, where we can protect you."
His eyes said what his voice didn't: where I can protect you.
"So I'm supposed to sit here, doing nothing, and let others fight for me?" She was proud of the ice in her voice: it didn't show the traitorous emotion welling up inside of her – the feeling of weakness, of incompetence.
And she was incompetent, of that there could be no mistake.
"Nanao-chan, I'm so sorry. But it's the only way to keep you safe..." His eyes were filled with sadness, but his voice was firm: curse him and his overprotectiveness! Was she supposed to just sit around? Do some filing while her division fought? While they died?
Please, please don't let him die...
Nanao felt her anger fade away, replaced by a deep sense of helplessness. It had been a long time since she had been so powerless to protect the people she cared about, since she had been so weak.
Overprotectiveness isn't even a word...
The rational side of Nanao's brain slowly regained control. From a strategic standpoint, there really was no other place for her. She had lost her power, but she was still only beginning to see how that would affect her future. It wasn't just spiritual energy she was lacking in now; it was strength, competence. The only spot remaining for her was one in a gilded cage, supporting the Gotei from the sides so that they could keep a close eye on her.
She looked up, meeting his eyes. He had been watching her for years, and the understanding in his gaze came as no surprise to Nanao. True to form, he started speaking, his voice steady and warm, but without the usual teasing – he always knew what to say, and she hadn't realized before now how much she had come to depend on that.
"When I was in the academy, I was injured while sparring with a classmate. The sword wound became infected: if Retsu-chan had not discovered her shikai then, I probably would have died; as it was, I was in the Fourth for two months. At any other time, I would have been grateful for my life, but those during those several weeks, Soul Society was being attacked by one of the outcaste, a fallen noble leading a hoard of hollows much like Aizen's army. The Outcaste, as he is known now, was the second great megalomaniac of our time, the last one since Aizen – indeed, he inspired many of Aizen's current tactics.
"To watch my classmates go into battle was very hard, but not nearly as much as watching so few of them return; not as difficult as meeting the eyes of the survivors." He shivered slightly, and a shadow passed behind his eyes at some memory – Nanao knew him well enough to see that he was editing his story for her; knew herself well enough to be grateful for it.
She hated seeing him in pain.
" There aren't many people who understand what Yamaji is asking of you Nanao, but I do. I understand, and I'm asking you anyways... For me, Nanao; promise you'll let me protect you this time, for me..."
He was looking at her now, using those accursed eyes, and Nanao already knew that she would give in.
She knew that she would do anything, to see him smile again; a genuine, carefree smile, without the weight of worry that always seemed to lurk behind his eyes now.
But she was Nanao, and it took her another minute or two to swallow her pride and nod briskly, trying to keep her composure.
"I'll stay here then."
"And after, once this is over?"
He knew what she wanted, but he needed to hear it.
He knew she needed to hear herself say it.
"And after the war is over, I'll stay with you."
There was that smile she had been looking for...
Nanao blinked, her eyes protesting against the sudden light – she hated waking up in strange places. But she was comfortable: she could feel warmth all around her, which meant she was in his arms. And the comforting feel of a mattress beneath her...
She bolted upright in the bed, startling a laugh from her tall captain: her tall, gloriously good-looking captain, who was still in his uniform. A quick glance revealed that she was not only dressed, but had somehow gained clothing: the infamous pink haori draped over shoulders.
The pink haori – I can see it now.
The last time she had seen pink had been in the fourth division, after he had told her that he loved her... She had given her pink to him, to his soul; that they could share this sort of made sense, in the same way that only he could make her feel warm. When you loved somebody, you were giving a piece of yourself to them, trusting them not to break you.
She really and truly had his heart; just as he had hers.
It wouldn't have worked with spirit power, which more tangible – an organ, Unohana-taichou had called it. This was about souls, and love: what couldn't be seen or felt, but was exchanged nonetheless.
That was a little corny for her tastes, but it wasn't like she'd be admitting this paradigm shift to anyone soon.
"Did my Nanao-chan think I would take advantage of her?" His voice – laughing and seductive at the same time – brought her out of her thoughts, back to the present: back to the bed she had shared with him for the night. His arms were around her again, pulling her close to him, his eyes bright and mischevious. It didn't surprise her that the man liked cuddling; it surprised her that she did.
"Maybe I wanted you to take advantage of me."
She snuggled closer to him, smiling as she felt his lips ghosting over her ear.
"I love you, Nanao."
"I love you too, Shunsui."
The words felt right on her tongue, like they completed her, like they belonged together; like his hands on her skin, like his voice in her ear, like his lips on hers...
AN: I beg for your mercy and forgiveness in how long this has taken. It was supposed to be finished before I went to university, and then I got caught up here (did you know engineers are crazy? Apparently, we're all nuts, especially at my school) and then midterms came around (actually, they still aren't done – no rest for the weary), and I'm really sorry! I hope it was worth the wait, but it was really hard to write – there was no suspense to really drive it, you know? I'm still not sure I'm satisfied – this is actually the third draft. Are you guys happy with it? Once again, I am so, so, so, so sorry. I beg a thousand pardons and offer a thousand thanks to everyone who has been with me throughout this journey.