"I know you're awake, Taichou."
A familiar silhouette came into focus when the Eighth Division Captain finally, remorsefully, opened his eyes.
"You're needed in Yamamoto's office as soon as possible."
Shunsui pulled his sakkat down further, hiding his face. "It can wait."
"I really don't think it can."
He flicked the rim of the hat back up and grinned at her. "Yare, Nanao-chan, if he said 'as soon as possible' rather than demanding my immediate presence then it's probably more of a social call than anything else. The man has a terrible time coming across as friendly, but damn it he tries."
Nanao frowned and turned to leave.
"Stay a while, Nanao-chan," he called after her, stopping her in her tracks. "It's a lovely day and I could use the company."
Nanao opened her mouth to decline, but was silenced as a warm spring breeze wrapped its welcoming scent around her, bringing with it delicate pink petals.
After only a moment's hesitation Nanao conceded her captain's request and settled down beside him at the base of his favorite tree. He glanced at her with a smug yet grateful smile and made a show of folding his hands in his lap as to assure her he'd keep them to himself. She didn't know how long that charade would last.
"What do you do to amuse yourself out here all day?" she contemplated aloud. She gazed up at the tree's branches, watching as the breeze caressed each blossom. "Surely, once you've seen one tree you've seen them all."
Shunsui shot her an amused sideways glance and leaned back against the bark. "Not at all, Nanao-chan. These trees have personality, and each one of them is unique. They respond to their surroundings in different ways."
Nanao's brow wrinkled.
"That one over there, for example, sways when the wind hits it in the right direction- looks like it's dancing for joy. There's another," he said, pointing, "that when it rains will shield you almost completely from getting wet, so thick is it's foliage at the height of summer."
"You spend all day thinking about the trees?"
He chuckled. "No. Mostly I spend all day thinking about you."
Nanao's eyes widened and a pink blush blossomed instantly on her cheeks. "M-me?"
He smiled ruefully. "Yes, I am constantly worrying about the moment when you will eventually come and drag me away from my peace."
The redness in her face deepened. "If the work was done, I wouldn't have to bother you."
"If the work was done," he countered, "I'd have nothing to escape from." Nanao scowled, causing her captain's smile to widen. "And where's the fun in that, now, Nanao-chan?"
Whatever grace had kept her there for so long was quickly slipping away, he could tell, and he apologetically tipped his head toward her and nudged her elbow. She afforded him one quick, annoyed glance.
"You're too easy, Nanao-chan," he said with a laugh.
Slowly, a smile of her own replaced her frown. She couldn't help but do so when he looked so warmly at her; there was a light reflected in his eyes—a true happiness—that he rarely displayed except to certain people, and it always made her smile when he shared it with her.
"So what is it you're thinking about when you're not afraid of my impending scolding?" she asked. "You've spent enough time out here that you must have had enough thoughts to fill a whole library of books."
Her captain smiled again and turned his gaze out on the sunny grove. "I try my best not to think of anything at all," he said, smirking. "But I inevitably fail."
Nanao leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees and placing her chin in one of her palms, looking at him in such a way that begged for elaboration.
"I think about change, mostly." He settled back more comfortably against the tree trunk and smiled at her from under his hat. "I'm an old man, so I've seen a lot of it."
The vice-captain's face fell at the solemn thought—she was a mere fraction of his age and she'd seen more change in her lifetime than she was really comfortable with. She couldn't imagine how tiresome it must get for a soul as old as her captain.
"Ne, Nanao-chan, where has your smile gone?" he pouted. "Not all of it is so bad, you know."
She didn't seem to believe him.
"Even the bad ones… Every time Retsu tells me Jyuushiro's gotten worse, it puts our friendship back into perspective. I remember that despite the fact he drives me crazy from time to time that he's my best friend and it'll hurt like hell when he's gone. Makes the time we have yet a little less petty."
Nanao's eyebrows furrowed once again and she dropped her chin onto her knees, pulling her legs tight against her chest.
"Bad example, perhaps," he conceded with a small smile. "You've changed too, Nanao-chan. I think about that a lot."
She tucked her face out of his sight, "I've gotten taller, certainly."
"And stronger, and wiser," he added, "Though you've always been wise; even when you were no taller than my knees."
"I saw no hope of you being so yourself, at the time," she said reproachfully, regretting it instantly and opening her mouth to stammer an apology.
He stopped her with one look—an apology of his own. There were no misunderstandings; both knew they were talking about Lisa's disappearance. "You were so adept at handling conflict, even then."
She shook her head. "I was young and I didn't understand what was going on. All I knew was that Yadomaru-san was gone… someone tried to explain to me that she had been sent away—that she'd done something to betray us, but I didn't know what that meant."
Shunsui's eyes softened as he watched her speak, and finally when her eyes lifted to meet his, he reached out to brush her bangs back, out of her face. To his surprise, she didn't scold him or pull away.
"You never believed them, did you Taichou?"
His thumb brushed her cheek. "No."
Nanao nodded. "I could tell, and I made up my mind that I would never believe them either."
"How could you tell?"
"You weren't angry at her. If you had been, I doubt you would have followed around her likeness as diligently as you did," she said with a slight smirk.
His eyes swept over her expression, and he shook his head quietly. "You've never looked anything like her," he said.
Nanao laughed. Once she had taken offence to people's comments about her being Yadomaru's replacement as more of a place holder than an actual lieutenant, but she'd grown up and grown out of those insecurities. There really was no denying their similarities, after all. "It doesn't bother me anymore, Taichou," she said, still laughing.
She turned, then, moving her whole body so that she faced him. Her feet rested on the grooves of tree roots by his hip and her shoulder touched his knee. Once again, his hand reached out to touch her, and his eyes smiled when she let him. "You and Lisa were like night and day if you were looking close enough," he continued, drawing the backs of his fingers along her jaw.
"And I suppose you were?"
He grinned. "Looking at Nanao-chan is one of my favorite things to do, you know."
She scoffed at him, but there was no hiding the blush.
"The two of you were like these trees. How did you say it? If you've seen one you've seen them all? Perhaps that's true, for some."
Nanao cocked her head to the side.
"But you were both so starkly different. Lisa… she was the dancing tree. Her blossoms are a little richer in colour, and her movements were a wild and erratic and demanded attention."
Nanao glanced at the tree he had mentioned before, wondering not for the first time how this seemingly unaffected nor invested man could really be so observant and perceptive of the people around him. She supposed he used the time he wasn't doing his Division work to make these little speculations about people's characters, and simply due to his nature, he was usually correct.
"I suppose you mean to tell me that I'm also like a tree?"
He chuckled. "Would you like to be a tree?"
"I can't say that I have a preference," she replied.
"If I had to pick a tree for you, it would be this one," he said, nodding up to the branches above them. "It's strong and stands apart from the rest of the grove." He smiled at her then. "Plus, I seem to be drawn to it," he said with a wink. "But I don't think Nanao-chan is very tree-like at all."
"Just so long as you do not try to rationalize my character as, say, the dirt," Nanao muttered. "No amount of poetry could phrase that non-offensively."
"My Nanao-chan is too lovely to be the dirt," he murmured sincerely, and her eyes fluttered shut as his thumb pressed against her bottom lip. He paused in contemplation, or distraction, which she wasn't sure, but it was not until his thumb had left her lips and travelled to her jaw as his hand firmly held her neck that he continued. "My Nanao-chan is the sun."
She laughed, opening her eyes. "I don't exactly boast a cheerful enough attitude to rightfully claim that title, Sir. Try again."
"I have pondered upon this very subject for as long as I have known you, and now that I have put my thumb on it, I will not be dissuaded. My Nanao is the sun," he said again, and she found she could not argue the second time. All she could do was ask why.
"Because she is constant, and she is loyal. She gives life and she takes it back, and every living thing weeps when she goes away. Many a lesser man must divert his eyes, so stunning is her beauty."
A small dent formed in her brow, and she couldn't help but notice that his eyes were not diverted. He stared straight at her; their dark, stormy grey depths soaking her in.
"Because she glows when there are no clouds in her way."
She was silent for a moment, letting his words absorb as he absently drew small circles with his thumb on the skin beneath her ear.
"Then you are the wind," she said with sudden clarity.
The corners of his eyes crinkled slightly, his smile not quite making it to his mouth. It seemed he'd had this figured out before. She should have known, really.
"I do tend to bring the clouds," he agreed, shrugging apologetically.
Nanao's hand reached out and pulled his sakkat off of his head. The sun filtering through the branches above them dabbled light across his face, and she could hear the faintest whisper of his zanpakutou's voice in the breeze, caressing the blossoms that tumbled from the trees.
Her eyes softened. Despite all the grief he gave her, he saved her from the storms of her own making just as often. "You take them away, too."
One eyebrow arched in response. "You haven't always seen it that way."
"I've gotten a little taller. My perspective has changed."
The straw hat landed on the grass at her side.
A shifting of postures, the brush of calloused fingers through dark, pin straight hair.
"Not all change is a bad thing, ne, Nanao-chan?"
Rustle of fabric, exhaled breath. She yielded to the slightest pressure on the back of her neck, guiding her forward.
The wind too, it seemed, urged her toward him.
Maybe she believed him, this time.
A/N: Kyouraku Shunsui and Ise Nanao are property of Tite Kubo and unfortunately not myself.