"I don't see why my Nanao-chan couldn't grow it a little longer," her Captain said, and gave her the sort of melting gaze which was supposed to induce weakened knees and immediate compliance.

Nanao had experience resisting that gaze. Her knees merely wobbled slightly. "Individual length of hair in the Gotei 13 has always been left to the individual in question, sir," she said, and poured tea for Ukitake-taichou, then for her own Captain. "Except possibly in Twelfth Division if it's considered a lethal experimental weapon."

"There's nothing wrong with long hair," Ukitake-taichou said pleasantly. He wasn't part of this skirmish, but was just sitting back and throwing in occasional comments. "Unohana looks very well with her hair as it is. Even Soi Fong has long hair, so it can hardly be a strategic issue."

Nanao was aware that the usual counter-move under these circumstances when discussing her hair with men, that of pointing out that they had short hair so it was hardly fair for them to make suggestions -- not that the situation tended to occur for her in any place -- would be cut down at first attempt, given that both the Captains in question had long hair.

(Very lovely long hair, but that wasn't part of the argument.)

"I don't think that it'd suit me, sir," she said, retreating to her usual backup position.

"But you should try," her Captain urged. "How are you ever going to know, if you don't try it? Just think, in a few years you could be sitting on it, and in a decade or so you could have it as long as a Heian lady . . ."

Nanao sniffed at the sheer unlikelihood, improbability, and inconvenience of that image.

"A new fashion," Ukitake-suggested, sipping his tea. "Of course, you couldn't wear the full robes, but maybe several layers of kimono, with an increasing depth of colour to the sleeves -- the Shinigami Women's Association might like it . . ."

"No, sir," Nanao said with some force. "Not even if you want us all wearing single layers of gauze in the summer." She thought about that. "In fact, specifically not if you want us all wearing single layers of gauze in the summer."

"Tragic," her Captain sighed, and held out his cup to be refilled. "But my lovely Nanao-chan should experiment a bit more. Everyone else does. We did. Why, Jyuushirou had his hair short once, and look at it now."

Ukitake-taichou inclined his head modestly.

"Have you ever worn your hair any other way, sir?" Nanao asked, curiosity tempting her into what would probably be used against her. But it was so difficult to imagine these two Captains as anything other than how they always were.

"He did have it tied back once," Kyouraku-taichou said, "but it was still long then. You haven't worn it short for centuries now, have you, Jyuushirou?"

"No," Ukitake-taichou said. "I prefer it long. Though you're right, Shunsui. I was wearing it tied back a few decades or so ago. That was -- well, you know." He shrugged. "It wasn't a bad style, but I decided that I preferred it loose."

"What about you, sir?" Nanao asked her own Captain.

"Not since Academy days," he said. "Wait -- what about that time you had it in a braid, Jyuushirou?"

Ukitake-taichou frowned thoughtfully. "I was never entirely convinced by that."

"It looked very good," Kyouraku-taichou said. "As thick as a woman's wrist, a few strands escaping to trail around your face, but held back enough to let us see your bone structure and the lines of your cheeks --"

Ukitake-taichou silently held out his cup for more tea. Nanao filled it, blushing.

"See!" her Captain declared. "It'd raise you to the top of the Shinigami Women's Association league ratings."

"We have no such thing!" Nanao lied.

"Well, just to set a good example . . ." Ukitake-taichou said. "Shunsui, would you mind?"

"Not at all." Her Captain shifted his position till he was sitting behind Ukitake-taichou, and weighed the other man's white hair in his hands. "You know, I think this has grown since last time."

"A healthy lifestyle," Ukitake-taichou said, "and pure thoughts, pure living, and a pure mind."

Nanao bit her lip and just managed not to flush. She might be discreet. She wasn't blind.

With far too knowing a look, her Captain smiled at Nanao, then began to braid Ukitake-taichou's hair; his large hands were deft and experienced, stroking through the white hair (it was so soft and untangled, it didn't even need brushing, Nanao thought with a touch of jealousy) and dividing it into three long parts. He started the braid at the back of Ukitake-taichou's neck, working down smoothly, and Ukitake-taichou sat still for it, not even sipping his tea, his hands folded around the cup.

"There," Kyouraku-taichou said, "-- oh, wait. Just a moment." He held the end of the braid with one hand, and reached behind his head, unclipping the clasp that kept his own hair in place. He tied it round the end of Ukitake-taichou's braid, and sat back with a satisfied air. "Come and look, Nanao-chan. Isn't that beautiful?"

With a suppressed sigh, Nanao rose and moved around to see the braid better. She had to admit that it made Ukitake-taichou look -- well, the man was handsome in any case, but there was something about the way that it brought out the bones of his face and his profile, the lines of his neck . . . She could feel herself beginning to blush again. "It looks very elegant, sir," she said hastily.

"Turnabout is fair play," Ukitake-taichou said with a cheerful smile. "Your turn, Ise-kun."

"Sir!" Nanao protested.

"Well, after I went to all this trouble to set a good example, the least you can do is let Shunsui braid your hair as well. That seems reasonable to me."

Nanao should have known she'd regret getting into this situation in the first place. She supposed she might as well take it gracefully. "As you wish, sir," she said, and bowed her head. "Does Kyouraku-taichou require me to kneel in any particular position?"

"You're not taking this in the right spirit," her Captain chided her, removing the slide from her hair. It fell around her face and down just past her shoulders, and she shook her head to try and get it away from her eyes. "Would you take your glasses off a moment, Nanao-chan? It makes it hard to get the style right when I have the side-pieces of your glasses in the way."

Nanao removed her glasses. "I'm not sure what the 'right spirit' is, Kyouraku-taichou," she said frostily. It helped her not think about how many other women whose hair he might have braided. "There are more important things for a vice-captain to be than decorative, sir."

"Of course there are," he said soothingly. His fingers stroked along her temples, gathering strands of her hair. "But I like to be able to tell my Nanao-chan that she looks beautiful, and I like her to be able to tell me that it doesn't matter. And I like it very much when she permits me to do something like this for her."

Nanao could feel her cheeks burning. She dropped her eyes, looking down at her hands in her lap, holding her glasses.

Kyouraku-taichou's fingers worked smoothly along the sides of her head, twitching her hair into thin braids that curved gently up and round. "And while I would like it even more if my Nanao-chan were to go out of the door looking like this, I will quite understand if she wants to take a hairbrush to all my hard work, and wipe out this little evidence of my admiration for her lovely hair . . ."

"Kyouraku-taichou," Nanao said, stifled, "please."

He didn't say anything for a couple of minutes, but continued to braid her hair down to the base of her neck, folding more hair into the braids as they went down, then twisting the ends together so that the rest of her hair fell smoothly down her back. She could map the lines of braiding across her scalp without seeing them.

"Nanao-chan, you can put your glasses back on now," he said gently.

Nanao swallowed, and slipped her glasses on again. She glanced around the room, looking for a mirror, but there was none in sight. But she couldn't just sit there and not try to look at herself. It would be an insult to her Captain. (And, to be fair, something of an irritation to her own curiosity.)

"Here," her Captain said. He tilted his head at Ukitake-taichou, who nodded and reached out to where Kyouraku-taichou's zanpakutou were lying on their stand, picking up the katana of the pair and passing it across by the sheath. Kyouraku-taichou rested the zanpakutou in his left hand, grasped the hilt in his right hand, and slid it a few inches out of the sheath. "Look at yourself, Nanao-chan."

Nanao leaned forward, feeling the prickle of controlled reiatsu against her skin. The few inches of clear polished steel let her see a tiny reflection of herself, as small as a miniature. Two braids curved back from her forehead in a coronet and round to the base of her neck, leaving her hair to fall free behind them; in the reflection her neck seemed more slender and her face more vulnerable, but also somehow more proud.

She looked up at Kyouraku-taichou, and for a moment she saw her reflection in his eyes, before his eyelids drooped to his usual heavy-lidded gaze. "What do you think, Nanao-chan?" he asked.

Nanao swallowed again. "I . . . think that I will go out of the door looking like this, sir. Even if I'm not necessarily going to grow my hair."

"One does these things by stages," Ukitake-taichou said, and poured her some tea.