a serial romance

There were many kinds of blush. There was the blush of suppressed anger, and the blush of shame, and the blush of modest pride, and the blush of sincere modesty, and the blush of "I know he'll never look at me but I can at least dream", and a few dozen more. For a while, Kyouraku Shunsui had been hoping to discover at least one of them on the cheeks of his adorable Nanao-chan. (Other than the blush of "I am about to beat your head in with my book". That one he was sadly familiar with.)

He was greatly surprised one day, while strolling past a vice-captains' meeting, to catch his Nanao-chan flaming with the precise shade of "I am desperately yearning for you but hope you never realise it". He leaned next to the door, tilting his hat in an attitude of extreme boredom, and scanned the room quickly.

Abarai-kun: no, it wasn't him that his Nanao-chan was darting sideways glances at. (Good, he was sure she had better taste than to go for someone so callow.) Sasakibe-kun: no, and also a good thing, because he was a bit too staid. Little Momo-chan: no, definitely too young. Kira-kun: definitely too callow, too shy, and too intrusive a captain on top of it.

It couldn't be . . .

It was. It was Rangiku-chan who his Nanao-chan was sighing for. Rangiku-chan with her glorious body, her lovely personality, and her selfless sharing of alcohol.

Shunsui tugged his hat down further, into full "I am asleep but trying to hide it" position. This was going to require deep thought. And a lot of wine.

The logical next step was to subtly probe Rangiku-chan and see if she had any inclinations in that direction. He was aware of some of Rangiku-chan's inclinations (sleek, elegant, witty, and a touch of sharpness), and he also knew that with Rangiku-chan it was more an issue of personality than gender, so it wasn't an impossible liaison. Just a very unlikely one.

He started the subtle probing a dozen drinks later, while delivering one of his usual rhapsodies to the beauties of his Nanao-chan. This time, however, he kept an eye on Rangiku-chan for any betraying reactions, instead of going for poetic metaphor.

Rangiku-chan displayed no more emotion than usual. With a sigh, he scratched that avenue of approach (it was, after all, one of the more pleasant ones) and went for a different vein. "Of course, I love my Nanao-chan, but I'm concerned about her being on the forefront of any missions. Her kidou may be good, but . . ." He hesitated artfully.

Rangiku-chan slammed her cup down. "You take that back, Kyouraku-taichou! Your little Nanao-chan is one of the most vicious, nasty, cold-blooded infighters I've seen in years!" Her eyes went misty with suppressed passion. Her cheeks flushed. Her bosom heaved. "She's purely lethal. Shame on you for not realising it!"

Shunsui refilled both their cups. "Shame on me indeed."

Rangiku-chan sipped her wine. "She really is a pearl. That speed, that elegance, the way she looks when she doesn't think she's being watched. I like her, you know." She gave him a half-challenging, half-shy look. "She deserves to be liked more."

"But you can't blame me for wanting to protect my Nanao-chan," he said. "To keep her safe from the harsh world, to nurture her in my bosom -"

"Has that ever worked?" Rangiku-chan asked, in a cold and unfeeling tone of voice.

Inspiration whispered at the back of Shunsui's mind. "I'll stake five jugs of wine that you manage to gather her into your bosom and give her a hug before I do."

"Deal," Rangiku-chan said promptly.

When his Nanao-chan stormed into the office the next day looking highly rumpled, Shunsui could guess what might have happened. He even offered to unrumple her (and got the expected response) before asking for details on who had dared assail his beautiful Nanao-chan.

"Absolutely nobody," his Nanao-chan sniffed. "Nothing of any importance whatsoever happened. Anyone who says it did is lying through their teeth and will pay for it."

"Oh?" Shunsui enquired hopefully. "Do tell."

Nanao-chan stalked out again.

Fortunately, Yachiru-chan was willing to pass on the details in return for a few candies. She explained that Rangiku-chan had "grabbed her and done the bouncy-bouncy thing" and that Nanao-chan had stood there for a solid five seconds before "grabbing her back and doing the kicking thing".

Shunsui regarded that five seconds as highly promising.

It wasn't as if he hadn't made a few matches before. Well, prodded gently. Lured. Pushed. Whatever one wanted to call it that ended up with two people happily in the same bed. The question was what would be the best tactic in this case.

It wasn't really plausible to forge love poems from Rangiku-chan to Nanao-chan and set them up that way. For one thing, Nanao-chan was too likely to recognise his handwriting, and for another thing, Rangiku-chan's sense of poetry was along the lines of:

"Shall I compare thee to a cup of wine?
Thou art more sweet and softer to the lip,
Your slender form is fairer than the vine,
And from your mouth I would far rather sip . . ."

which he didn't think would really appeal to Nanao-chan very much.

The real problem was getting one of them to make an approach on the other. Certainly he could try the classic approach of locking the two of them naked in the bathroom or bedroom together, but it was too likely to result in Nanao being shy and retreating. Similarly for accidents involving water and soaking clothing.

Perhaps he should steal into Nanao-chan's bedroom by night and secretly replace all her clothing with short skirts and the sort of upper-body wear that Soi Fong-chan liked. (That woman had the sort of shoulders you only saw once in a thousand years.) Or maybe he should creep beside her bed and whisper into her ear as she slept so that she'd absorb the message hypnotically. He was sure he'd read about that somewhere. Or maybe his Nanao-chan had read about it and told him.

He chewed on a stem of grass meditatively. Then he took it out to check that it wasn't poisonous. Then he chewed again.

Perhaps he should go for the oldest possible tactic. "Jyuushirou," he suggested, "suppose we -"

"No," Jyuushirou said. He had been apprised of the situation, and was sitting in as an advisor and sharing Shunsui's wine. "I will not dress up as a Hollow and attack Matsumoto-fukutaichou so that Ise-kun can heroically save her and they will make passionate love."

Shunsui frowned at him. "You can't be sure that was what I was going to say."

"Care to bet?"

Shunsui sighed, and went back to chewing the stem of grass.

There had to be some way to inspire his Nanao-chan to declare her passion. Verbally and physically. Perhaps he should exchange her usual reading matter with a few classics of erotica. No. She might notice that.

Aphrodisiacs might work. He could prepare a dinner for the pair of them. Or maybe chocolates. Chocolates were always good. Chocolates and silk robes and the removal of same . . .

Really, the most important thing was inspiring the connection and then making sure they didn't realise it. Nothing would spoil their romance worse than finding out he was trying to push them together. His Nanao-chan might even be contrary enough to think he was responsible for her wanting Rangiku-chan at all. (And in that respect he was totally innocent, though he had to admire his Nanao-chan's good taste.)

Inspiration abruptly visited. He sat bolt upright. "Jyuushirou, how much does it cost to bribe the Shinigami Women's Auxiliary to produce a women-in-swimsuits calendar?"

"More than we've got," Jyuushirou said, a little sourly, "since their last production of a men-in-even-less calendar."

"Drat," Shunsui said, and reclined again. Then he sat up again. "You are still writing that series of yours for the newspaper, aren't you?"

"Yes," Jyuushirou said. "Why?"

"How does this sound . . ." Shunsui said thoughtfully.

"I would like to request leave for this afternoon, Kyouraku-taichou," Nanao muttered. She had the air of one who was virtuously put upon and yet not displeased by the turn of events.

"Of course, of course," Shunsui said, waving a lazy hand. He waited the crucial second that would signify his utter lack of interest and involvement before asking, "Why? Does my Nanao-chan intend to take an afternoon by the beach? Perhaps she would care for someone to rub her back -"

"Nothing of the sort!" Nanao snapped, then added a hasty, "sir. It's just that - well - Ukitake-taichou wanted a couple of people to do the voices for the hero and the heroine he saves this week in the radio broadcast of that serial he's writing for the Seireitei News, and he was asking Matsumoto-fukutaichou and Hitsugaya-taichou if they'd do it just as I went by. And Hitsugaya-taichou, ah, he wasn't very enthusiastic about it, and he said, couldn't someone else do it? And Ukitake-taichou said that he wanted someone with the right sort of voice, and he was just going into how youthful and boyish Hitsugaya-taichou's voice was and how he was just right for the part, when Hitsugaya-taichou remembered a really urgent engagement at the other end of Seireitei. And Ukitake-taichou stood there muttering about how he needed the voices for this afternoon, and Matsumoto-fukutaichou said couldn't I do it? And, um . . ." His Nanao-chan was not the sort of person who shuffled her feet, but if she had been, she would definitely have shuffled them at the moment. "It did seem very rude to refuse. And it is for the children," she added nobly.

Shunsui mentally doubled the size of the bribe he'd promised Jyuushirou. "How very charming and kind of my Nanao-chan!" he enthused. "I look forward to hearing the recording later. Or perhaps I could come along and listen . . ."

"No, no, Kyouraku-taichou," his Nanao-chan said very hastily. "That won't be necessary. Let me just bring in the forms so you can make a start on the filing while I'm gone . . ."

Alas. Virtue was such hard work.

Of course, he stealthily leapt across the rooftops to Ninth as soon as his Nanao-chan could be assumed to be safely inside the recording studio. Carefully muffling his reiatsu, he crept inside to find Jyuushirou pacing back and forth, running one hand through his hair, while Tousen tried to calm him down.

"Still having the usual authorial nerves?" he enquired cheerfully.

Jyuushirou threw his hands in the air, sleeves flapping morosely. "Why did I agree to do this? I should have known it'll be appalling. The words are bad. The sentences are worse. This isn't going to inspire anyone. It'll be a disaster. A total disaster. I'll be a byword and a hissing in every home in Soul Society. Nobody will ever read my writing again. I -"

"There's nothing to worry about," Tousen said stolidly. "The chapter is just as good as usual, Ukitake-taichou, and I'm sure the children will love it. Now Matsumoto-fukutaichou and Ise-fukutaichou have been practicing the script, and I'm sure that they'll be very good indeed with it. In just a moment I'll turn on the red light to start the recording. We'll be able to hear them in the next room, but they won't be able to hear us."

"What a good idea," Shunsui said warmly.

"To stop them from being disturbed, of course," Tousen said. It was amazing how suspicious his stare could be.

Shunsui adjusted his hat. (Always a good diversion during stressful moments.) "Where did the series leave them last week?"

Jyuushirou stopped pacing for a moment. "Ah! Sougyo had just rescued the beautiful Kaguya from the soldiers of the evil daimyo at the edge of the marshes, and they'd fled together into the depths of the marsh to evade pursuit."

Tousen nodded. "There are several trays of mud in there for sound effects."

"Well then." Shunsui draped himself in one of the chairs. "I'll just sit here and listen to my Nanao-chan's debut. I promise not to distract her."

Tousen gave him that dreadfully suspicious stare again, then nodded. "I'll go and start the recording. It should be about twenty minutes, if nothing goes wrong."

He left. Shunsui waited for the door to be safely closed behind him before giving Jyuushirou a cheerful thumbs up.

"Perhaps I should have left in the comic relief rabbit," Jyuushirou fretted.

A loudspeaker in the corner of the room crackled on. "Testing, testing, one two three," Tousen's voice said. "This is the first recording of the sample chapter of the Sougyo Refuses serial. Is everyone ready?"

"Ready, Tousen-taichou," Nanao's voice said.

"Ready, Tousen-taichou," Rangiku's voice drawled.

"Very good," Tousen's voice said. "After I close the recording studio door, the red light will come on, and you are clear to go."

A click.

A pause.

Shunsui found he was holding his breath.

The sound of squishing mud.

"I think we should be safe here from those soldiers, Kaguya-hime!" Nanao's voice declared. "Sit down here a moment and rest."

Robes rustling. "Oh, thank you, Sougyo," Rangiku's voice sighed. "I'm so very tired. I'm not used to running like this. You were so brave, fighting off the soldiers like that!"

"Think nothing of it," Nanao said firmly. "How could I possibly abandon you when you were in trouble? I only did what I had to do."

"Nevertheless," Rangiku sighed, "if there is anything I can do for you . . ."

"That's supposed to be delivered in a much chaster tone," Jyuushirou muttered.

Nanao sounded a little ruffled. "My lady, let us concentrate on escaping for the moment. I am on a mission, and I would be grateful if you can help me -"

"Anything at all," Rangiku said with significant meaning and heavy breathing.

Jyuushirou ran his hands through his hair again, muttering something inaudible but probably homicidal.

"How kind of you!" Nanao said hastily. "But look! The sun is sinking in the east - um, that is, in the west -"

"You always get that one wrong," Shunsui said reminiscently.

"- and we must be on our way. Let me bind up your robes so that you can move more freely."

"Of course," Rangiku said huskily. "And - oh dear, I've lost my sandal in the mud." There was more hasty squelching mud noises. "It's so muddy here! But you seem to know your way so well!"

Rustling clothing noises in the background. "When I was a boy," Nanao said, clearly doing her best to sound cutely reminiscent, "I used to come here and play with my friends. Of course, that was long ago. Before - the overlord came."

Rangiku gasped. "Not - that man?"

"The very same," Nanao said ominously. "His dark shadow now stretches across the land. It is only together that people like you and I can hope to resist him, Kaguya-hime! But I have faith in you. Ever since I saw you that first day . . ."

"I knew something about you was special when I first saw you," Rangiku answered huskily. "The way you faced down his soldiers in the market place and saved those poor children who'd been accused of being thieves. Nobody else dared stand up for them, but you were there for the innocent -"

"You were there to save the innocent," Jyuushirou groaned.

"- just as you were there for me," Rangiku whispered. "Oh, Sougyo -"

"Kaguya-hime!" Nanao protested. "I am just a poor man, a wanderer, merely doing what I must in this dangerous world."

"But let this poor maiden give you what reward she can!" Rangiku gasped.

Jyuushirou tilted his head. "Is that noise oscillation?"

"No," Shunsui said cheerfully. "Osculation."

The door swung open. Tousen looked in. "We're getting some odd interference noises," he said. "Also, Ukitake-taichou, I know I approved the script draft, but isn't this for a slightly older audience than your usual work?"

Jyuushirou began pacing the room again, muttering to himself.

"Perhaps they're about to be interrupted by a monster," Shunsui said. "It'll be an important lesson about how all young heroes should remember their priorities when they're lost in the middle of a swamp."

"I suppose so," Tousen said dubiously. He shut the door again.

A scream crashed into the room, making the loudspeaker on the wall vibrate so hard that it almost fell down. "Look!" Rangiku shrieked. "A monster!"

"There you go," Shunsui said, pleased. "I know how these plots work."

"Not a lesson I've ever noticed you taking to mind," Jyuushirou muttered.

"Eeek!" Rangiku elaborated. "It's all big! And horrible!"

"Stand back!" Nanao commanded. There was the sound of a sword being drawn. "I shall protect you!" In the background, there were swishing noises and thumps.

Rangiku gasped theatrically. "Be - be careful, Sougyo!"

"I will never fall so long as you need my protection!" Nanao declared. "Monster, back! I refuse you!"

Shunsui glanced sideways. Jyuushirou was mouthing the words together with Nanao. He grinned.

"Oh, no!" Rangiku narrated. "Sougyo, look out! It's got you in its tentacles!"

"Claws," Jyuushirou muttered.

Nanao was grunting and panting artistically. "Kaguya-hime . . . stay back . . . it's too dangerous!" More ripping noises and thumps.

"Sougyo, be careful!" Rangiku shrieked. "Don't let it crush you in those huge tentacles!"

Tousen opened the door. He was frowning. "Wasn't it supposed to be claws?"

"Tentacles are more frightening," Shunsui said, not very hopefully.

Tousen sighed and closed the door again.

"Down, monster!" Nanao called. "Your own mistake - bringing me close enough - to strike for your head!" There was a huge cleaving noise and much sizzling.

"There you go," Shunsui said. "You couldn't do that if you were being held by claws."

"Oh yes you could," Jyuushirou said firmly. "Besides, I've already established that Sougyo has an unusually long reach."

A loud thump. The sound of running feet. "Oh, Sougyo!" Rangiku gasped. "Please say you're all right! Please tell me you're not hurt!"

"Only . . . stunned," Nanao muttered. "Just let me get my breath back . . ."

"You slew it! Oh, Sougyo!" The sound of ripping cloth. "Let me bind your wounds!"

"But I - gnh," Nanao said.

"The character does say 'Oh, Sougyo!' a lot," Shunsui commented, hoping to divert Jyuushirou from what sounded like a noticeable departure from the script.

"Well, what do you expect her to say?" Jyuushirou asked. "The character as written is supposed to be a virtuous healer. She can hardly make comments on sword technique. At least this way the audience knows she's still there."

"You're very badly hurt," Rangiku stated firmly. "Lie back and let me tend to you."

"They're never going to make it across the swamp at this rate," Jyuushirou muttered. "And they were supposed to meet the ancient Fire Sage who -" He caught Shunsui's look. "Who would have provided valuable lessons and wisdom in a manner totally unrelated to anyone we know in real life. For the record."

"May I see the script?" Shunsui asked.

"No," Jyuushirou said.

Tousen wandered in again. "I'm getting radio silence," he said. "Shouldn't there be some dialogue?"

"Oh dear!" Nanao gasped. There was a fizzing crackle. "I accidentally set off a kidou and have melted the lock on the door!"

"That is not in the script," Jyuushirou said firmly.

"Oh no!" Rangiku declared. "We'll have to pause the recording for a few minutes while we get the door open again!"

"We will!" Nanao said. "How unfortunate! We'll be back recording again in just a -"

There was something that sounded like a squeal and a collapse into a mud puddle, then the radio link cut off.

Tousen frowned. "Perhaps we should have picked some other shinigami to read the script," he said.

"Oh, I don't know," Shunsui said. He couldn't stop himself from smiling. "I think I just heard some very impressive voice acting."