written on the wind
Little Nanao made her way across the floor in tiny steps, her small feet silent. She could hear Kyouraku-taichou snoring over in his chair. He smelled of sweat and wine. Nanao knew what wine smelled like, because sometimes Yadomaru-fukutaichou had smelled of wine as well, though never as much as Kyouraku-taichou did.
She didn't sniffle. She was a big girl now and she wasn't going to sniffle.
Kyouraku-taichou had called her here into his office several days ago, and he had told her that Yadomaru-fukutaichou had been very brave, but that something bad had happened to her and that she wouldn't be coming back again.
Nanao was a shinigami. (She was very proud of that.) She knew what it meant when people went away and didn't come back. And so she'd thought of what Yadomaru-fukutaichou would have wanted, and she kept her back straight and said, "Yes, sir," and she hadn't cried, really she hadn't, or at least she hadn't cried till she'd got outside and found a corner to cry in, because Kyouraku-taichou was the Captain and Captains were big and important and they weren't for little girls to cry on.
She had been doing her lessons like a good girl, but sometimes it was hard for her to get to sleep at night. Sometimes she just wanted to be curled up next to Yadomaru-fukutaichou and read a story with her again. And that was why she was here now.
Keeping very very very quiet so as not to wake Kyouraku-taichou, she scrambled up into the chair in the corner behind Yadomaru-fukutaichou's desk. It was too big for her. Her feet couldn't touch the floor. She had to sit curled up in it, holding onto her book. The chair smelt of the perfume Yadomaru-fukutaichou used to wear. The desk was all dusty in the moonlight and piled with papers. Kyouraku-taichou's desk was empty except for his zanpakutou.
She'd get up again and leave before it was morning, and before anyone noticed she was missing, or before Kyouraku-taichou could wake up and find her here. She just wanted to sit here just for a little bit and imagine that Yadomaru-fukutaichou was there and that she was going to tell Nanao a story.
Just one little story before she had to go away again.
Kyouraku Shunsui woke with the dawn and wished that he hadn't. Some fool, probably him, had left the window open, and the fresh air came in with the scents of green willows, rice porridge, laundry starch, and practice ground dust. It didn't go well with his hangover.
In all honesty, he knew that he shouldn't be drinking this much. Jyuushirou would frown. Jyuushirou had frowned. Jyuushirou had frowned very pointedly indeed, but at least he had held off from saying anything as stupid as Yadomaru Lisa would never have let you get away with this, which was about the only thing which had kept the two of them from an open argument last night.
He sighed. Today he would go and apologise to Jyuushirou. Today he would go and do something useful with his Division, or to his Division, or whatever made more sense. Today, first and foremost, he would go and take a hot bath and scrub himself down and maybe then this headache he had would go away.
Rather later than it should have, it penetrated his attention that someone else (non-threat? Non-threat) was in the room with him and breathing. A couple of strides took him over to Lisa's desk, and he looked down to see little Nanao-chan curled up in her chair, a book sandwiched between her and the side of the chair. The sight prompted thoughts of Lisa-chan, and he bit back a sudden surge of rage at the memory. It shocked him a little how easily the emotion came.
Maybe Jyuushirou had been a little more accurate in some of his comments than Shunsui had wanted to admit.
With a sigh he reached down to pick the girl up so that he could carry her back to wherever her dormitory was, already preparing the calming words for when she woke up with a squeak to a faceful of Unshaven Captain.
Then he frowned.
She wasn't waking up.
He touched the side of her neck. Her pulse was steady but fast, and she was running a temperature. And there was a prickle of reiatsu around her, within her, a reiatsu that simply drowned out her own like a single bird in the middle of a typhoon.
He knew that reiatsu. It already filled the room, and it was something so natural to him that he hadn't thought twice about it. He turned to look at his pair of swords on their stand, still cradling the child in his arms. "Katen Kyokotsu -" he began.
Ah, his zanpakutou remarked. You've woken up. Finally.
"Yes," he growled. "What's going on here?"
She fell asleep, the zanpakutou informed him with airy casualness. She was within my sphere of power, sleeping here within your shadow and under my gaze. So I took her soul into myself. In the ensuing pause of Shunsui's shock, she added, What? You're awake? You notice? You care? I'm stunned.
"Let her go," Shunsui said flatly. "Her body's too young to take this kind of stress."
Make me, his zanpakutou retorted.
Shunsui stepped forward and let his left hand fall to touch the hilt of the upper blade: he kept Nanao-chan cradled in his right arm, conscious of her quick breathing as she stirred in her sleep. "I mastered you once already," he said. "Why are you challenging me like this?"
There was a sound at the back of his mind like silken robes being tossed in the wind, a scent like the breath of fragrance that came from a woman combing out her scented hair. I was mastered by the Captain of the Eighth Division, Katen Kyokotsu answered. If you abdicate your responsibilities and abandon your control, I have no reason to obey you. Come and find her, Shunsui, for I won't give her back to you otherwise.
Shunsui stood there for a long moment, looking down at the blades. Then he sighed, and put little Nanao-chan on the desk down next to them, so very still, so absolutely tiny and vulnerable. Without even bothering to swear, he grabbed brush and ink, and scrawled a hasty Do Not Disturb on a piece of paper, which he pinned to the office door before locking it.
He could feel the tensed humming excitement of his zanpakutou in his spirit, rustling like a growing wind in hot air. He could actually smell the flowers in the air now, and the scent of dust behind them.
With a sigh he flung himself down into his chair again, and gathered Nanao-chan into his lap. He leaned back comfortably, tilting his hat to cover his face. "Very well," he said into the darkness. "Let's play."
Nanao opened her eyes. She was sitting in the cleft of a bamboo stalk. A woman was reaching out to help her climb down.
With a little snort, Nanao scrambled down herself without needing to be helped. She was a shinigami now, and that meant she was a big girl.
She looked up at the woman, and somehow she couldn't quite see her. There was a confused impression of tangled wind-blown splendid silk robes, of hair swaying in the breeze, of a fall of flower petals and a drift of smoke and a smell of someting old and dry, and a constant image of motion, as though the woman was always going from somewhere and to somewhere else, even if Nanao couldn't quite see where. Above her, blossoming trees reached up and clasped their branches across the sky. Below her, their roots were tangled in the oddly moulded ground, all bumps and lines under the grass.
The woman (Nanao decided to think of her as a woman) smiled a reckless sort of smile. "Well now. Do you know who I am, little girl?"
This was a dream, Nanao decided, and one of the books that Yadomaru-fukutaichou had been reading with her gave her the answer. "I think so," she said. "You're the Red Queen."
The woman covered her mouth with a flowing sleeve - Nanao could see the ripple of the movement and feel the silk like smoke - and laughed. It was a wicked laugh, a laugh that shared the joke and somehow found a meaning in it that Nanao herself missed. "How right you are, little Nanao-chan. And do you know where we are? We're in the Red King's dream."
Nanao looked around nervously. "What if he wakes up?"
"Ah. Now that's another story. Follow me, Nanao-chan."
There was something in the way that she said it which reminded Nanao of Kyouraku-taichou. She trotted after the Red Queen as they made their way between the trees and along the petal-strewn grass. "Do you know Kyouraku-taichou?" she finally asked.
"Do you know this riddle, Nanao-chan?" the Red Queen answered. "How old am I?"
Nanao frowned, and ran a little faster to keep up. "No," she finally said.
"As old as my tongue, and a little older than my teeth." The Red Queen stopped at the edge of a wide pool. Willows draped themselves around the edge. Lotuses were tangled in the centre, wide pale stars looking up at the flowers above. "It's something like that. Now sit down with me, Nanao-chan, because we're going to tell a story."
Nanao sat down eagerly, doing her best to sit in seiza properly and neatly, while the Red Queen took her time in settling elegantly. The wind twisted cherry blossom from the branches above them, and shook it down in a slow ripple of petals.
"This story is something we're going to tell together, Nanao-chan," the Red Queen said. "Once upon a time, a man came into the wild lands where flowers fall and bones rise, where the winds blow and the gods weep and the demons laugh." She waved her hand over the pool, and as her sleeve swept the surface of the water, Nanao saw an image appear. It looked like Kyouraku-taichou. He was running through the air across a hard land of ridges and valleys, all rocky and dark. "Now tell me, what happened to that man?"
Nanao thought about the stories that Yadomaru-fukutaichou and she had read. "There should be a wall," she said firmly. "A big wall of black marble, from the ground to the heavens."
And in the image, there was.
Shunsui had enough control to stop mid-step on any coin that someone chose to mention (and to pick it up and save it to buy a drink later), so he didn't actually hit the wall, but it was a near thing.
He stared at the sleek black marble. Katen Kyokotsu's imagery didn't usually run in this direction. Well, maybe she wanted to test him.
He wished he didn't still have that hangover.
It looked like the sort of wall which would extend into the sky as far as he could leap, and have its foundations in the earth as deep as he could dig. Brute force was a possibility, but it felt . . . indelicate. There was a time for force, and there was a time for persuasion.
He knocked on the wall. "Ho there!" he called. "Where is the gatekeeper?"
The Red Queen frowned. "A gatekeeper?"
"A tiger," Nanao said firmly. "A big one."
Shunsui doffed his hat to nod politely to the huge tiger. It was on all fours, and its shoulder was level with his forehead. It stood in the wide bronze gateway. "May I enter the lands of your mistress?" he enquired.
The tiger lowered its head to regard him thoughtfully. It had eyes like pieces of smoky quartz, cold and dispassionate. "I can only allow you by if you have an invitation from my mistress," it growled.
"I have it by her own word," Shunsui declared. "She invited me here."
The tiger slowly shook its large head. "No invitation," it rumbled, "no entrance."
"Wait!" Shunsui struck his forehead melodramatically. "How stupid of me. I left it over by the rocks there," he pointed to a cave to his left, "but I had to weigh it down in order to stop it blowing away, and unfortunately I used rocks so heavy that I couldn't lift them myself afterwards. Since you are no doubt a kind and intelligent gatekeeper, could I ask you to come over and lift them for me? I'm sure that you are much stronger than I am."
The tiger thought about this. "I suppose a weak fellow like yourself couldn't be expected to move heavy rocks yourself," it agreed. "Very well. Show me this invitation."
"It's in this cave," Shunsui said. He led the way across, and politely stopped to allow the tiger to enter first.
Two seconds and a successful cave-in later, he was running through the gate before the tiger managed to chew its way through the rockfall.
"What then?" the Red Queen asked.
This was tremendous fun. It was even better than reading the stories with Yadomaru-fukutaichou. "There's a big swamp," Nanao said. "And there are monsters. And there's lots of fog."
This was really not like Katen Kyokotsu's normal landscape. It was swamp. Deep, thick swamp, with mud up to the eyebrows and overhanging trees with huge branches and swollen roots, draped with vines and serpents. The fog was close and unmoving, not broken by the slightest breath of air - and that was the oddest thing of all, because where Katen Kyokotsu was, the winds were never still - and however high up he tried to go, the fog was still there. Shunsui was forced to make his way on foot, step by sodden step.
Fortunately his hat kept off most of the falling snakes.
He whistled a tragic love song as he trudged onwards. There were two ways that this could go. Either he was going to have to prove his determination by a long, hard slog through this terrain, or he was going to encounter some sort of challenge.
He was hoping for a challenge. He didn't like swamps.
From ahead of him came a vast squishing and a hideous blood-chilling roaring. Something huge and horrible came lumbering through the swamp towards him.
Shunsui smiled a knife-thin smile, and slid his blades from their sheaths.
"He won that fight quite easily," the Red Queen said. She sounded a little disappointed.
"Well, he's the hero," Nanao pointed out patiently. "Of course he beats the monsters."
"Hm." The Red Queen shifted position. Dust and petals danced in the sunlight, dazzling Nanao and making her blink. "But shouldn't the hero be in danger?"
Nanao thought about this. "Some of them are," she said. "Some of them are just so good at being heroes that they kill all the monsters and save everyone and don't even get scratched."
"But aren't those stories rather boring?" the Red Queen asked. "Shouldn't there be more of a risk?"
"I suppose so." Nanao knew she was pouting just a little, and she made herself sit up straight again and look polite. She hated getting things wrong. "Should I make there be more risk, then?"
"I think you should," the Red Queen said. Nanao could feel her smile. It felt like a candle-flame against the skin, hot and just about to burn.
"Then there's a storm," Nanao said.
The first howling gust of wind stripped the fog from the swamp, tearing it away in long tatters of stinking mist, and made the trees shake and shudder to their roots.
The second gust of wind carried the scent of rain and roses on it, and brought thick dark clouds to smear across the momentarily-clear sky.
The third gust of wind brought the rain slashing down like arrows.
Shunsui had started running at the second gust of wind, and he was a pace ahead of the rain, but only a single pace. As he leapt across the broken swamplands, he could hear trees groaning and giving way behind him, and the growing roaring of rising waves.
He ran faster. The air sucked at him, trying to pull him backwards, and he gave way to temptation (always a weakness) to look behind for a moment (always, always a bad idea). A great wave was rising, its crest far above his head, moving against the wind and rearing above him, about to break.
The wave crashed down on him, hammering him to the ground. He felt his feet sink into the earth as he braced himself. His hat was lost in a moment, dragged away by the water, and his robes and uniform streamed behind him in the current. In the dark roaring waves, he could not be sure how far down he was: the waters had met above his head, and the pressure on his shoulders was so great that he could barely stand.
A stray seductive thought at the back of his mind whispered that this really wasn't worth the trouble: Katen Kyokotsu wouldn't really hurt little Nanao-chan, she was just making a play for his attention, and that he had better things to be doing than indulging his zanpakutou, such as - well, such as something or other, no doubt he could find a job that needed doing if he looked around, and that Katen Kyokotsu hadn't been this intent on testing him in centuries, but there was no urgent need to assert his mastery, probably better just to slide out of this for the moment and come back later, and . . .
It would all have been very nice if he could have believed that thought. But he knew that he didn't bluff, and neither did his zanpakutou.
If he didn't get her out of here, little Nanao-chan was going to die.
Kyouraku Shunsui slid his feet wider to settle his balance, drew his katana, and struck at the water with all of his strength. Reiatsu gathered and hissed around him, translucent patterns of force flaring and rippling down his arms. The water shuddered and gave way before his blade, driven back in two great walls that reared up on either side of him, leaving his view clear to the rushing clouds high above. Drops of rain came hissing down and boiled into steam as they touched him.
With one jump, he was out of the waters and above the clouds.
Nanao wanted to chew on her knuckles, but she couldn't do that in front of an important lady like the Red Queen. "Is that really Kyouraku-taichou?" she said.
"How could it be?" the Red Queen answered.
"It looks like him," Nanao said timidly.
"Maybe I just like the style," the Red Queen said.
"Shouldn't you tell me why he came here?" Nanao asked. "If this is a story, then the hero has to be coming somewhere for a reason."
The Red Queen leaned forward, and the wind blew her hair round her face. The air smelt of dust and dryness. "Maybe he's come to find his pet sparrow."
Nanao wanted to hide. The Red Queen wasn't just beautiful any more. She was scary. She made Nanao's flesh prickle. She made Nanao want to cover her face so that the Red Queen couldn't look at her like that any longer; so distant, so sharp, so very dangerous. "Then he should find the sparrow," she made herself say. "It's not a fair story unless he finds her in the end."
The Red Queen laughed. It sounded like trees snapping in the wind. "Oh, very well. But he has to face one more danger first."
"Only one," Nanao said, before the Red Queen could change her mind.
The Red Queen nodded. The surface of the pool shivered as wind touched it and tugged at it. "But this time I choose, Nanao-chan."
Above the clouds, Shunsui could still hear the howling of the wind. It had new voices in it now, wolves that ran towards him, invisible wolves of air that could only be seen when the wind ruffled their fur, outlines in the endless wastes of the clear blue sky.
He could feel Katen Kyokotsu's desire in the air now. Whatever had been interfering earlier was gone now. She wanted to hunt him down the wastes of the air, a deadly game of chase and catch, to watch him run and eventually turn when she had him at bay.
He was not minded to indulge her any longer.
But games were games, and rules were rules, and she would fight him until he won. (Why, he wondered, could he not have a zanpakutou that would settle matters in a friendly way by polite negotiation over a jug of wine?)
The wolves were closer now. Their eyes glittered in the edge of his vision like sparks in smoke.
Shunsui folded his arms. He let all the usual shields fall, all the walls that he normally built to keep his reiatsu under control and within the boundary of his skin, all the little lightnesses and jokes and casual foolishness, and he let his reiatsu and his knowledge of his own power blaze out against the wind, hard enough that the wolves would feel him like the heart of a storm. The air recoiled for a moment, then it folded itself against him like silk, draping round him and running through his robes in soft caresses.
The wolves lowered their eyes. They turned and fled.
Shunsui began to pace towards them. A gap opened in the air, and he stepped through it.
Beyond was a grove of flowering trees. Katen Kyokotsu reclined next to a pool of water, and Nanao-chan sat beside her, hugging her knees and watching the pool nervously. As Shunsui joined them, she looked up and gave a little gasp, eyes wide with shock and a kind of guilt.
Katen Kyokotsu passed her hand above Nanao-chan's head, draping the little girl in a drift of wind and petals, and suddenly Nanao-chan was gone, and a little sparrow was sitting in her place. More sparrows came darting down from the trees above, nudging and pecking, and in a moment there were a dozen birds milling around on the ground, tilting their heads and twitching their wings.
"Take your little bird," Katen Kyokotsu said, "if you can tell me which one she is."
Shunsui drew his power back within him, and stroked his chin thoughtfully. "You always do like to play the game to the very end," he said.
Katen Kyokotsu tossed her head. Wind flickered around her, making the birds lower their heads and scuttle across the grass. "Stop playing for time. Name the child or I keep her."
Shunsui chuckled deep in his throat. He knew what to do, with a calm surety that he had not known for days now. Extending his right hand, he said, "Ise Nanao. Your Captain is here. Report for duty."
For a moment the birds all looked up at him, all with the same tiny black eyes, and with the same incomprehension. Then a single sparrow darted up from the ground and fluttered across to his hand, perching on his forefinger and regarding him with tilted head and curious gaze.
"Ah, bah," Katen Kyokotsu said. "Still, I would not want to be a bad loser. Your game - Kyouraku-taichou."
The sparrows darted up in a flurry of wings as Shunsui bowed to Katen Kyokotsu, and the wind caught the trees and flung blossoms into the air.
Nanao opened her eyes.
She was cuddled to someone's chest and he was big and hairy and he smelled bad.
She squeaked and tried to struggle loose. It was a crucial moment later that she realised she was being hugged by Kyouraku-taichou and that she probably shouldn't kick her Captain.
"Good reflexes," Kyouraku-taichou said, pulling his hat back so that she could see his face. "Ah, Nanao-chan, this is too nice a morning for you to be sleeping it away. You should be out there running around and doing whatever little girls do -"
"I'm a shinigami," Nanao said, sitting upright and feeling very annoyed. "I have to study, Kyouraku-taichou. I don't just run around -"
"Then you'd better come and help me for the moment." Kyouraku-taichou swung out of his chair and stood upright, still balancing her in the curve of his arm. "I believe that I'm late for breakfast, Nanao-chan, and I know that you haven't had any yet, so first we'll have a bite to eat, and then you can show me your schedule and I'll make sure you have time for running around."
Nanao stared at him blankly. "But I want to be a really good shinigami," she said. "So I have to study and practice. And I can walk, Kyouraku-taichou! You don't have to carry me."
He thought about that for a moment. "No," he finally said. "I don't." He bent over and gently set her on the ground. "There. You can walk with me now. Isn't that what a shinigami should do?"
Nanao nodded proudly.
He nodded back and straightened. "Come on, Nanao-chan. There's a whole day waiting for us."
"Shouldn't Kyouraku-taichou call me Ise?" Nanao said hopefully. Real shinigami didn't get called by their personal names. She was sure of that.
"Oh, I'm sure I'll remember to do that some day," Kyouraku-taichou said.
He opened the door. Daylight came streaming in, and a breath of wind brought the fresh air with it, and the scent of flowers.