Spoilers: Soul Society arc
Rating: T. Contains mild violence, gore, and death.
Shunsui strolled into the offices of his division, humming a tune. He was greeted by everyone he passed with the trademark good cheer of the Eighth. Outside of the door to the private office that the Captain and Vice Captain shared stood the Tenth Seat, a short redhead that served primarily as Nanao's assistant. Her fingers fidgeted and her eyes bounced between the floor and his chin. "Captain?" Her voice was a thin whisper and he leaned down to hear her. "Vice Captain Ise is in this morning, sir."
"Is she?" He spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. "Don't worry. I'll take care of it." He smiled at the girl, and she nodded and hurried away from the door.
He hummed the same song as he entered the office, shutting the door with a flourish. At the sight of Nanao at her desk he did an exaggerated double take. She ignored him. "Good morning, lovely Nanao-chan."
"Good morning, Captain. You're in early today." She frowned down at some photos spread across her desktop.
"I thought I should come in sooner than usual, since Nanao-chan was taking the day off." His tone was mild, but a slight flush appeared on her cheeks and her mouth tightened as if she'd been rebuked. He sauntered over to her desk and leaned a hip against the wood.
"It wasn't an order," she said. Her eyes darted up to his and then dropped guiltily back to the photos.
He sighed. Her black hair was pulled back as neatly as ever, her uniform fresh and creaseless, but there was an air of weariness around her that could not be disguised. Her pale skin was smooth and clean, but purple shadows marred the flesh under her eyes. "I didn't think it needed to be an order."
"I had some things to do today, and it was easier to do them here." Her words were crisp and coated with ice, but when she looked up at him her eyes were tired and faintly pleading.
He wondered how many weeks had it been since she'd had a good night of sleep. She'd been spending upwards of sixteen hours a day in the office lately, not because the work demanded that she go without sleep, but because she likely longed to escape her lack of sleep. Shunsui knew what a prison the night could be when sleep refused to embrace him. It must be worse for Nanao, since she was too orderly to nap in the middle of the day or whenever the impulse struck.
What could disturb her enough to keep her from sleep? He'd considered all kinds of possibilities, from a broken love affair to a fight with her friends, but could find no evidence that anything had happened. He'd asked Rangiku, but the blonde said that Nanao refused to acknowledge there was any issue at all. He'd even gone to the library to ask her friend from the Fifth Division about it. "Nanao-san said there's been a lot of work lately at her division. That is, your division. Not that she suggested you were overworking her, Captain Kyōraku, I didn't mean that," Hinamori had said, smiling and waving her hands a little. The girl was sweet and easy to read, and if she'd been hiding Nanao's secrets he would have seen it.
He'd inquired around the Eighth then, to see if there'd been any incidents between Nanao and the troops that had somehow escaped his notice, but there was nothing out of the ordinary, except that Nanao was doing a lot of busywork around the barracks. She'd cleaned out the storage rooms herself and reorganized all of the contents. Menus for the mess hall and training schedules for kidō and sword courses were now available six months in advance, thanks to Nanao's late night efforts. At this rate she'd run out of things to do in their division. He was sure that one day soon he'd get a hell butterfly from a concerned Ukitake informing him that Nanao had started organizing the Thirteenth's storage rooms, alphabetically and by date, with color coding.
Something had to be done. Since she'd discarded his gentle suggestion of a day off, he'd have to try another approach.
"What's all this?" He asked, picking up one of the pictures. In the photo Kira and Hisagi struck muscular poses wearing nothing but their loincloths.
"Unusable material for the Shinigami Women's Association fundraiser." She waved a hand at the photos arranged into rough piles. One was composed entirely of the near-nude shots of Kira and Hisagi and another seemed to feature artistic interpretations of Captain Zaraki's hair. Nanao saw his raised brow. "These are Yachiru-san's photos."
"I don't know, Nanao-chan, it seems like you could sell a lot of copies of the ones of Kira-kun and Hisagi-kun." He grinned, waving the photo in his hand at her.
She snatched it out of his hand. "We can't sell this. It's indecent," she snapped.
"That's why it would sell so well."
She shook her head and sat back in her chair. "This is impossible. So few of these can be used we can't possibly put out a calendar, much less a full set of trading cards."
He flipped curiously through a few of the papers on the corner of her desk; it was a stack of new assignments from the First Division. "Have you considered using photographs of your members instead of trying to take pictures of reluctant or unknowing participants? There are many more male shinigami than female. You could easily put together a calendar. I think it would sell a lot of copies."
"A calendar of SWA members?" She tapped her fingertips on the desk. He could see her considering it. Her brows drew together in concentration and he thought she might be calculating the potential profits in her head, as she had a marvelous skill with numbers. "But then—"
"Then I'd have to buy at least ten copies, and put them up everywhere with cute Nanao-chan's picture," he sing-songed. He bent over the desk with a kissy face, but she tapped him away with a fan.
Her brow arched when he pulled back. "I had thought that you would purchase at least fifteen copies, Captain."
"Then I'll get twenty. I can't disappoint precious Nanao-chan." He clasped his hands dramatically over his heart.
She smiled. The small curve of her lips was a relief to his mind. "Twenty five copies at the least, perhaps even thirty."
"My Nanao-chan is so enterprising today." He reached for her arm and drew back with his hand stinging.
She slipped her fan back into her sleeve. "I am trying to price the added level of difficulty posing for a calendar would bring to my life into the number of copies you'd have to purchase for me to consider it." She shook her head slightly, still smiling.
"There is no price I wouldn't pay for images of my Nanao-chan, perhaps in an elegant yet skimpy bikini, or maybe a dignified yet small schoolgirl costume, or—"
"I would suggest you stop now, Captain, before you make the idea so awful no amount of money raised for the SWA could tempt me to consider such a calendar."
"So cruel, Nanao-chan! My loving admiration should be welcomed by you, not treated as a terrible burden," he teased. He rested his forearms on her desk and laid his head on them, looking up at her. "How do I prove my love to you?"
If she heard any undertone in the last words, she gave no sign. "You are ridiculous, sir. Please get off my desk." She raised a heavy kidō manual off the edge of her desk and held it menacingly over his head.
He pulled himself off the desk but leaned over towards her. "What is the fundraising for, Nanao-chan? You're so serious about it."
She looked away to the bars of sunlight entering through the window. "It's not serious. It's just a trip to the beach. I thought it would be nice for our members to get away for a day."
"That sounds delightful, Nanao-chan. Leisure is important, too. I hope I'm invited this time."
"SWA members only," she said absently, still staring at the sunshine.
He lifted a few of the papers from the First off the desk and plucked out one that had caught his attention earlier. "Now, isn't this interesting? Three squads have been sent to investigate reported hollow sightings and resident disappearances in the Seventy-Fifth district of Rukongai, but none of the teams found anything. Perhaps we should go and have a look, Nanao-chan."
She turned her head, startled. For the first time since he'd come into the office, she met his eyes for more than a moment. "You want to go into the field? With me?"
"Why not? Three teams have failed. It's been assigned to our division and your reiatsu sensing skills are superior." He smiled at her, but her eyes narrowed.
"We haven't gone together into the field for a long time, Captain." Her voice was frosty, but he knew from the tilt of her eyebrows and the softness of her lips that it was caution rather than denial chilling her words.
"That's true, Nanao-chan. It'll be good for us to go on a mission like this."
She glanced towards the window again. "Our Third Seat could handle the office for a day, and it may reduce further casualties to send an overpowered team out, however—" she paused.
"We should work together in the field again. And it's nice to take time away from the office, isn't it? There's more to being a Shinigami than paperwork and training courses."
She raised an eyebrow at that, since they both knew that he kept her out of fieldwork as much as he reasonably could. "I am aware of that, Captain."
"If you don't want to go on a mission, we could go on a nice picnic out at the lake. We'll sit in the sun and I'll read love poetry to my precious Nanao-chan, feeding you sweet fruits with my own hand—"
"I'll go on the mission," she said, cutting him off exactly as he'd expected.
He smiled. If Nanao wouldn't talk with anyone about her issues, perhaps a break from routine would jar her loose from whatever held her back from rest. And if it didn't, there was always the lake and the poetry. After a few hours of that Nanao might confess her secrets just to escape the unwanted activity.
They didn't speak on the way out to the Seventy-Fifth district. Nanao had reviewed the mission file before they left and from the concentration on her face she was considering the case while they flash stepped.
On a small hill overlooking a battered and rough village, they came out of shunpo. Nanao drank from a container of water and offered another to him, but he shook his head. She'd brought what he considered to be an unnecessary quantity of supplies with her. They should be out for only an afternoon, but it was her preference always to prepare for multiple outcomes and he'd let her pack a bag without comment.
She returned the water to the bag slung across her back. "According to the report, one of the attacks was in the forest adjacent to the village, and the other attacks radiate out from this point. If it is a pack of hollows, I believe that this is the center of their hunting territory. There's no obvious hollow spiritual pressure, so we should split up and check all likely hollow dens."
"My Nanao-chan makes excellent observations, as usual. We'll search for hollow dens, but we won't split up." He studied the layout of the area from their raised vantage point. "Let's start in the forest there; it looks like it would provide a lot of possible hiding places."
"Not splitting up is inefficient, Captain." She stared at the village below.
"We're hunting something that has appeared out of nowhere and killed several people and managed to evade three shinigami teams. If we split up, hollows could surprise lovely Nanao-chan."
Her mouth puckered into a slight pout and her brows drew together. "Don't call me that, sir."
Shunsui knew she was annoyed and that she thought he didn't trust her competence in battle, but it seemed she did not want to have that discussion today. It was for the best anyway, since they'd had it many times before and the outcome was always the same. He would not allow Nanao to be harmed in battle if he could prevent it. On this issue, he was immovable. Her competence as a warrior was irrelevant, although she never saw it that way. "Shall we go?" He reached for her elbow with his hand.
She pulled her arm away and gave him a glare. "I'm going." Nanao stepped off into shunpo, stopping at the edge of the forest. He caught her with a single flash step. "Let's begin here," she said, and he nodded.
They searched any areas that could conceal hollows, but found no evidence of any in the first two hours. Nanao pulled out the report and the map, studying them intently. Shunsui took the water from her pack and drank, handing it off to Nanao, who sipped a few times without looking away from her papers. He took the water back out of her outstretched hand and drank a bit more, just for the taste of Nanao's lips on the container.
They sat on a pile of large rocks jutting out of the uneven forest floor. Sunlight leaked down through the tree branches, making Nanao's black hair shimmer against her pale skin. He enjoyed the contrast, mentally composing new poetry lines he would share with her when they were not on a mission.
The silence between them was companionable despite the bubbling up of their old argument earlier. Nanao wouldn't waste focus on something like that while they were actively on a mission; she was a professional, although where she'd developed such standards Shunsui could not figure out. The Eighth was renowned for many things, but a highly professional attitude among its members was not one of them.
"There should be something here." Nanao frowned, turning the map over in her hands. "This area is clearly the center of the attacks. I don't understand why we haven't found any sign of hollows."
He leaned over her shoulder to consider the map. "You're right, Nanao-chan. There should be something here, if the attackers are following normal hollow behavior. We may have to consider the possibility that they are more intelligent than average hollows, and may be acting deliberately off-pattern to prevent detection."
She shook her head. Her eyes closed and her face smoothed into determined serenity. Shunsui waited quietly for several minutes, still leaning over her shoulder. Detecting the spiritual pressures and traces of reiatsu present in an area could require intense concentration. When her brows creased he shifted slightly on the rocks, moving closer to her. "Have you found something?"
"There's no hollow reiatsu, not even residue, but there is something—something slightly off in the north, not far from here."
He focused his spiritual sense to the north and found what she'd puzzled over. There were three spiritual pressures that read as ordinary residents of Rukongai, but there was something slippery about the feeling, as if it was a paper pasted onto something else, and the edges were peeling up.
But there was also a group of five spiritual pressures near a cave that were definitely ordinary people. The slippery pressures slid into that group with a speed unnatural to normal residents of Rukongai. "We're going," he said.
"They're hollows?" Nanao asked, but he jumped into shunpo as his answer. She shoved the papers into her shirt, following him across the forest.
They were too late. Snapped trees and shattered rocks marked a short path from a clearing near a rock formation back into the forest. There were two half-eaten bodies on the path, so obviously beyond saving that neither shinigami stopped. Deeper in the forest a hollow—squat and flat, with a mask shaped like a badger—sat eating the remnants of a third person. Just beyond that were two more hollows intently scratching at something under a tangle of huge tree roots.
Shunsui drew his swords with a shout that attracted the attention of the digging hollows and the badger hollow, which dropped its gory meal to roar in outrage. Nanao ran silently along the edge of the destruction, hiding behind debris as she approached the tangled roots.
He engaged the hollows, slicing easily through the badger's mask. The other two were larger, perhaps even Menos class, and snarled foul taunts as he struck at them. He cut a long streak through one of the hollows and dodged to the left as it fell. "You bastard," it said as Shunsui's wakizashi shattered its bone mask.
"Bakudō number 4: Hainawa!" Nanao's voice drew his attention across the broken path. The second hollow had taken advantage of Shunsui's momentary distraction to go after Nanao. She crouched in the ball of tree roots, using only one hand to throw her kidō. The spell barely affected the huge hollow. It broke the rope of yellow energy easily and reached for Nanao with its claws. Still she didn't summon up a stronger kidō or draw her zanpakutō.
Shunsui cut the claws of the hollow off as he flowed up to the leering mask on its face. This hollow didn't have time to curse before it was disintegrating into ash. He didn't speak until he'd sheathed his swords and slowed his heart—the fight had barely raised his pulse, but Nanao in jeopardy had sent it racing. "Are you alright, Nanao-chan? Were you injured?" It seemed the most likely explanation for her odd behavior.
She shook her head, her attention focused on her arm. "It's not that." Her foot slipped on a puddle of blood as she rose from the tree root.
He grabbed her right arm, steadying her on her feet. Her body turned towards his. His attention was drawn to a bundle held tightly in her left arm—rags? He glanced at the tree roots. A dead woman lay there, curled up as if to protect something she'd held. Nanao drew the bundle away from her chest so he could see it clearly, but he'd already understood.
The baby's face was dirty and tears ran down his plump cheeks. No sound escaped from the tiny mouth, which surprised him. "They were a family group. The older couple tried to distract the hollows so the younger couple and the baby could escape. That failed, so the man tried to stop them long enough for the woman to get away with the baby. But that failed, too." Nanao sighed and pulled a clean cloth out of her bag with one hand and wiped the baby's face.
"Is he injured? There's no sound when he cries." Shunsui could see no visible damage to the rags bundled around the baby.
"It's a girl. And she's not injured. In this part of the Rukongai, children learn very young that sound can get them hurt or killed." Nanao's face was smooth and expressionless, but her voice wavered on her last words.
The baby had a tiny bow made of cheap lavender fabric tied in her hair. He wasn't sure of the age of the child, having little experience with babies, but she was small enough to be swaddled and carried, and old enough to have learned to cry silently. It was a tragedy, but tragedy was common enough here to be normal life and death for people in districts like this one.
He surveyed the damage to the forest, the already disappearing bodies of the victims, and then the baby. "Unfortunately, the family's bodies will be gone before we can do any kind of proper ceremony. There's nothing to be done for them. The damage to the forest can be left as it is. Once we take the baby to that town and find the nearest orphanage, we can see her to safety and then return to the division." He'd be glad to put this mission behind them. He'd hoped to loosen Nanao from her insomnia with a small mystery and a day trip to the Rukongai, not give her fresh nightmares to keep her away from bed. There was a crack of thunder overhead and he rubbed his hand over his face. Circumstances could get worse, apparently.
"If you intend to leave her in that town, it would be kinder to leave her here." Nanao's words dropped like icicles between them.
"Nanao-chan? You aren't serious? We'll take her to the orphanage—" He put a hand on her shoulder but she ripped herself away from him, taking several steps back and holding the baby to her chest.
She raised her head, and he was struck by the cold anger in her eyes. "There is no orphanage out here. Any place you find that says it's an orphanage is a false front used to obtain children for slave labor or perhaps to sell to anyone with enough coin."
And then he remembered, and he was so foolish to have forgotten when bringing her out here—Nanao was from one of these districts, was it the Seventy-Second? It was easy to forget. Nanao herself seemed to prefer that no one remember, and her brilliance and delicacy and formal manner all served to obscure her origins. She had none of the roughness or brassiness that so many who originated in the Rukongai did, and she'd been in the Eighth since she was a young child.
But not young enough to be untouched by this place, he could see that in her frozen face. His heart tore a little to see her standing away from him, gripping the baby tightly, as if he wasn't to be trusted.
Rain fell, hard and chill, as it sometimes was in spring.
"Nanao-chan," he said softly. Her feet tensed as if to run. He didn't think she was conscious of that; it was too instant, too instinctive. "Let's get out of the rain. This family lived nearby, probably where the attack started." He swept his pink haori off his shoulders slowly and approached her with it.
She didn't run. It was a small balm to his heart that she wasn't actively thinking about fleeing from him. He raised his arm over her so that the haori he held protected her and the baby from the worst of the rain. They walked along the ripped up forest floor until they reached the rock wall. As he'd suspected there was a jagged cave mouth in the stone. The remnants of a fire and a slim quantity of blankets and storage baskets confirmed the family had resided there.
Nanao entered and sat down on a blanket near the extinguished fire. He hunched over—the cave was too small for him to stand upright—and gathered some tinder and dry wood stacked neatly in the back of the cave. A small flame kidō was enough to ignite a warming fire, and he draped his wet haori nearby to dry. Nanao held the silent baby, both of them watching him with keen awareness in their eyes.
He explored the contents of the cave, the weight of their gazes firm on his back. "This looks like the baby's bed, Nanao-chan." He picked up a basket lined carefully with soft blankets and crouch-shuffled over to Nanao.
She looked at the basket, shook her head, and tugged the pack off her back. "No, thank you." He sat down next to her, leaning against the wall. The basket he dropped beside him, in case she changed her mind.
Nanao pulled unsuccessfully at the pack, trying to open it with one hand. He opened it for her and she drew out a water container. With delicate movements she slipped a single drop of water onto the baby's lips. The tiny mouth opened, and she began to drip water in for the baby to drink.
There was an innate elegance to everything Nanao did, even when she was stranded in a cave. He studied her calm features, the porcelain curve of her jaw and the smooth line of her neck. Elegant was the best word to describe her movement. He'd decided that after seeing her in combat. Even with her tantō bloodied and her lips shouting kidō incantations, she was grace and beauty.
With her tantō—"Nanao-chan, in the forest earlier, why wouldn't you draw your sword when you were cornered?"
"When I was in the tree roots? I didn't want to put the baby down and risk something happening to her. She'd already lost so much. And there was no need for me to draw my sword." She dribbled water into the baby's mouth. After a long pause she pulled the water away from the baby and set it on the cave floor. "I knew you were there," she said, without looking at him.
His eyes widened, but he only nodded. There were many things he could say: rebukes as her commanding officer for not acting, descriptions about how his heart stuck in his throat when he thought she would be hurt, endearments for the strength of her trust in him, promises to treasure her life in the future; he said none of those words. He could not make his voice light and teasing after the macabre events of the day. His heart rested in her small hands, and he could not pretend otherwise right now.
She glanced up at him through the web of unsaid words, and he saw that she already felt everything he would have said and hadn't. But she dropped her eyes from his as if she didn't. Sometimes he believed he held Nanao's heart in his hands, fluttering like a bird; at other times it was locked away from him as if caged inside her chest, and he could not reach it, regardless of his efforts.
Shunsui rummaged in the bag, digging out some onigiri. He offered one to Nanao. They ate silently, the rain falling in gray sheets outside the cave. After she finished her onigiri, Nanao shifted the baby to her other arm. He studied the child carefully. She'd been cared for and loved, and today was a great loss to her, whether she understood what had happened or not. She deserved a good future. "Nanao-chan."
"Yes, Captain?" She turned her head so she could see his face.
He held her gaze as he spoke. "There is a restaurant in the Second district. It serves barbeque that's by far the best in Soul Society. I've known the owners of that restaurant for many years—they're good people, kind and generous. Over the years they've raised many of the orphans of the Rukongai. I am sure that they would be happy to raise this baby, and that they would be as good to her as they have been to their other children."
"How do you know that they would want another child?" Her eyes fell off his and focused somewhere in the vicinity of his collarbone.
"They've raised many children. They consider it the best part of their lives. When they meet this baby and hear about her circumstances, they'll want to help." He resisted the urge to tip up her chin to see her eyes.
"And they're good people?" Her voice was cool and he could not detect her mood from the tone.
"They're good people, Nanao-chan. I promise."
"How do you know?"
"That they're good people?" He considered that. "They've done many good things, including fostering dozens of children. They're respected members of their community. They never have an unkind word for anyone."
"But how do you know they're good to the children they take? People can have many faces, and the one they show to the weak and powerless is the most important one, and the one least likely to be seen by someone like you." Her eyes came up at her last words, and there was sharpness in them that matched the barb in her words.
"Someone like me, Nanao-chan?" He kept his face and voice open and curious.
Her eyes skittered away from his again, but this time he did reach out his fingers to lift her chin as she spoke. "A Captain of the Gotei 13, and a son of the noble house of Kyōraku."
He'd expected anger or defiance over some cause unknown, but she spoke with a weary sadness that matched the atmosphere she'd carried with her for the last few weeks. The noble house of Kyōraku, she'd said, and the way she'd said it was in the same voice as one might use for a funeral rite. Those words had killed something for her, something in her. She didn't have insomnia because of a fight with her friends, or bad memories of battle, or nightmares about the Rukongai—she wasn't sleeping well because she was mourning. But what? "You've never talked about my origins before, Nanao-chan."
She shifted to stare into the fire. "I didn't consider it significant before."
"But now it is significant?"
"Why do you ask questions when you already know the answer?" she asked, a snap in her voice.
"Because I want to hear what my Nanao-chan thinks and feels, in your own words." She said nothing, so he asked another question. "When did my origin become significant to you, Nanao-chan?"
She shook her head, but this was not a topic he would give up, not when it gave her the voice of a mourner. He leaned back against the wall of the cave, deliberately relaxing his body. Nanao's tension ratcheted up as he stretched casually. She knew him too well to think he'd let it go, so she was obviously bracing for an onslaught. He rose and crab-walked to his haori, now dried by the fire. He picked it up and draped it over her shoulders. "I don't want you to catch a cold, Nanao-chan," he said, smoothing it over her arms, tucking it around her back.
She tolerated his touch, stiffening under his hands. He sat down closer to her than before, his thigh brushing hers. The baby snored softly in her arms.
"When we went together to the wedding at my family's estate, do you remember?" Two months ago, he'd brought her to the wedding of one of his numerous relations. He'd thought that weddings had a special romantic magic for women, and that it would be nice for Nanao to meet his family; perhaps it would even soften her towards him. And if not, maybe she would be impressed by his fine outfit or his family's large estate. He wasn't above trying to appeal to Nanao's practicality.
She'd not been impressed by anything that he had noticed, but she had certainly been impressive to him. Although quiet at the event and the party, she'd been lovely in her kimono, and she hadn't blinked at his more boisterous family members. Nor had she been intimidated by the more ostentatious party guests. She'd been elegant and beautiful and though she demurred to dance, saying she wasn't dressed for it, she had taken a long stroll with him through the gardens. He judged the evening well worth her price: leading the advanced sword skills training for the next quarter. "You seemed to enjoy the wedding, Nanao-chan."
"It was a pleasant experience."
She closed her eyes and rubbed her temple with her free hand. When she opened her eyes, they were focused on his and very violet in the firelight. "I will say this once, and we will not discuss it further. I'm very tired and there are more important things to concern ourselves with now, aren't there?" She stroked a hand over the baby's head. At Shunsui's nod she continued in a tone he'd heard her use for her introductory kidō courses at the division. "The Gotei 13 is a military organization, and as such it creates a certain kind of equality among its members. There is a clear hierarchy of leadership, of course, but otherwise all members have equal standing, equal possibilities. Origin is entirely beside the point in an organization like ours."
After a pause of several seconds he prompted her. "Please go on, Nanao-chan."
She sighed. "After the party, what should have been obvious to me before became clear. The Gotei 13 is your work, but you are rooted in an entirely different foundation. Like Captain Kuchiki, there is another sphere of society that is your home. Those of us from places like this one, those of us who came up in caves instead of mansions, we have chosen to center ourselves as deeply as we can in the Gotei 13, but that does not erase the truth of our roots."
She searched his face, but he stayed quiet.
"Whatever games you choose to play, I am certain they do not erase the weight of your obligations to the sphere that is your true home. In the end, although it appears on the surface as if we could be social equals because of our membership in the Gotei 13, it is a fallacy. The distance between our true roots is vast and deep. It's an ocean. Whatever possibility might be imagined between us—whatever might be considered—the truth is—there is nothing."
Her last words were hesitant and heavy, dropping like crushing stones into the web of gossamer possibilities that hung between them always. Nanao's eyes fell to the baby and she resumed her soft strokes of the baby's head.
How like her it was, to acknowledge at last what could be between them, and to strike it dead in the same moment. He smiled a little. She'd been mourning lost dreams and broken possibilities these last weeks; she'd been mourning him from across an ocean.
But he was not dead.
"Yare, yare, Nanao-chan. You worry too much."
Her spine straightened to a point he thought it might snap and her look was so icy he thought he might freeze.
"You should relax a little, Nanao-chan. Lean back." He opened his arm against the cave wall so that she could rest against him, but she eyed it as she might a venomous snake. He dropped his arm to his side. "Relax, and we'll talk about the baby."
Her brows drew together, but she slid back until she fit against his side, barely touching him. It might have been intimate had Nanao not been as rigid as an ice block. Still, Shunsui preferred to look at the bright side. She'd almost admitted outright to thinking of him romantically, and now he was almost holding her. The rest could be worked out.
But there was still the matter of the baby sleeping against her lap. "Do you want to bring her back to the Eighth with us?"
She turned her head in surprise, her mouth slipping open slightly. "To live there?"
"It could be done, if it's what you want. The difficulty is high, admittedly, but it isn't an absolute impossibility." It would take a lot of his pull as a Kyōraku and as one of the oldest Captains in Soul Society, and probably a few favors he'd rather keep unclaimed, but for Nanao he would do it, if she needed to keep this child.
"If we brought her back to the division with us—" she trailed off, and he could see her considering, measuring.
"She'd be the Eighth Division's baby. I'd be the father and you'd be the mother, and our members would be nursemaids. We'd put babysitting duty on the rotating schedule with patrol and trainings, and we'd put diaper washing duty into the pool of minor punishments."
"And Enjōji-san would always have diaper washing duty, because he's always late with his written work." She smiled slightly, the corners of her lips turning up.
"And where would the baby sleep, Nanao-chan? In the office?"
Her smile slipped. "No, in the barracks with me, at this age, I think."
"And when she gets a little older?" His voice was very gentle.
"She'd be—with me or in her own room in the barracks." She hesitated at first, but her voice was firm when she finished.
"What about her education?"
Her forehead crinkled in thought. "I'll teach her myself. Reading and writing and kidō basics, and you'll teach her the sword a little, so she can go to the Shinigami Academy early."
"And if she doesn't have any spiritual power? She hasn't been hungry at all this whole time, Nanao-chan." Only souls with spiritual power needed to eat, but everyone felt thirst. After the baby had water earlier, she'd never sought anything else and seemed content to rest.
Nanao was frowning now, and his heart twisted a little. "She will. She will have spiritual powers, she's just so small now, and they aren't developed yet. She'll have spiritual powers and go to the Academy early, and then she'll come back to us at the Eighth."
"As a shinigami?"
She glared at him. "Of course."
"And if she doesn't want to be a shinigami?"
Her mouth opened and then closed. She shook her head and looked down at the baby.
"I know," she snapped. "I know already. We could bring her back with us, but we shouldn't. It's not fair to raise a child in a division of a military organization. I know. This isn't our child, and she might not even have spiritual powers. Being in the Eighth as a child was very good for me, but that was because what came before was—" She swallowed heavily. "I know. She should have a real childhood."
What came before for Nanao? It wasn't a childhood; that much was clear. She visited no one in the Rukongai on her days off; she sent no letters, paid no respects to any graves. When she came to the Eighth from the Academy she'd been a quiet, somber child who shied back from any touch. She spent most of her time alone with books. He considered what it would be to be a child alone in the Rukongai for years on end, and he ached for Nanao, for what she never spoke of but still felt. "She'll have a real childhood in the Second district, a happy childhood."
"With those people you insist are good."
"Yes. It's like another world in the Second district, Nanao-chan. You've seen it. It's nothing like this."
She nodded. Her eyes met his, faintly pleading as they'd been at the start of the day. "But how do you know they're good people?"
Shunsui raised his hand to her shoulder. "I know," he said, and the firmness of his conviction rang out in his voice.
Her eyelids fluttered down. She nodded once, slowly, as if her head was too heavy to lift again. Her hands cradled the baby as she drew the sleeping girl off her lap. Shunsui reached out and took the baby from her hands. The small girl's eyes opened. They were a brilliant cyan, and he thought of oceans unexplored. He brushed his thumb over one small cheek. The baby's eyes closed and he marveled at the trust she had in both of them, strangers to her. He tucked her into the basket bed, adjusting the blankets.
Nanao shivered against his side. He turned to her and was surprised to see a pair of tears trickling down her cheeks. She rubbed her hands against her face roughly, flicking them away. "Please forgive my unprofessional conduct, Captain. If you'll excuse me for a few minutes," she said, and began to rise from her seat.
He tugged her back into his side, wrapping an arm around her back. "It's pouring out, Nanao-chan." He pulled her glasses off and set them next to the baby's bed.
"I apologize for my improper behavior, if I could just go—" She pushed at his chest, trying to stand again, but he held her firmly.
"As if I could care about propriety when my Nanao-chan is hurting." He drew her in until her wet cheek rested on his chest. "It's alright, sweetheart, we're alone out here." Her body shook with the smallest of tremors and her few tears fell on his skin, but there was no sound. It was the same uncanny silence that the baby had when she cried, and he knew this was something Nanao had taken from the Rukongai.
What had the Rukongai taken from her?
She relaxed against him by degrees. His hand freed her hair from her clip and smoothed over the dark strands in slow and sweeping movements. His other arm massaged circles on her lower back, easing the tension there. He did not like to see women cry, but he knew that sometimes there was no lifting of mood, no comfort to be taken until tears spilled out. To see Nanao in tears stung at his heart just as it must sting at her pride.
When her tears eased and her fingers drew a random pattern on the white of his Captain's haori he spoke low to avoid startling either Nanao or the little girl. "Will you tell me how it was for you before?"
"It is not an entertaining story. It's not worth listening to. It's a petty and dull story about a pathetic child." Her voice was quietly bitter.
"I don't want to be entertained. I want to understand you."
"It's crossing oceans," she whispered, and the mourning tone was there.
She told him. In barest whispers and cold words she told him of dead children, false caretakers, escapes into the darker corners of the Rukongai. She told him of starving and nearly dying of fever, and not being rescued by the kindness of strangers, but by her own wits and limited spiritual powers. Her life was never safe, and he shuddered to think how easily it could have ended in the Seventy-Second district.
She told him everything. Above all else it was a story of being alone. "The shinigami that brought me to the Academy asked me for my name, but I didn't have one. I wasn't important enough for anyone to bother with giving me one. So he gave me a name made of his favorite places in the Living World. That was when I became Nanao Ise, and that is who I have been since then."
"It's a beautiful name," he said, and something of his feelings must have leaked into his voice, because she raised her head to study his face.
"I told you it wasn't a good story." She shook her head slightly. Her eyes were bluer now with her sadness. A faint flush began to creep up her face as obvious regret entered her words.
Shunsui cupped her cheek in his hand. "You were strong and brave, Nanao-chan. It's amazing that you survived."
She made a disdainful sound. "If I'd been strong or brave, I would have had control over events instead of being at the mercy of them. If I'd been strong or brave, I could have saved other children, or made a group to live in. But I was weak and incapable, so I failed to alter my circumstances. And I was alone."
"You aren't alone anymore, Nanao-chan."
"We are soldiers in the Gotei 13. Everyone will leave eventually, in death or in other ways. That's the truth."
She believed that, he could see it in her eyes; she wished it wasn't true, but believed it at the bottom. He thought of the loss of Lisa and winced. "I won't leave you, Nanao-chan. The Eighth is your home, and I will be your home too, if you'll let me."
"You can't promise something like that, not when our work is so dangerous, not when you're so spontaneous in your actions and fickle in your moods." Her cheeks were flushed deep pink now, and she twisted her face away from his hand.
"Nanao-chan." He grasped her chin in his hand and turned her gently to face him. "I am two thousand years old. I've been the Captain of the Eighth Division nearly that long. I understand constancy—loyalty—and I am constant to the things that are important to me."
Her brows drew together and her eyelids fluttered down, and he could see her considering, turning the evidence over in her mind. He rarely wanted to remind Nanao of his considerable age but it might be an asset here. Her eyes opened and she looked at him in a way she never had before, something frail and hopeful and longing, and he let the moment hang between them, repairing and thickening the gossamer possibilities. She swallowed a few times. "We should build up the fire," she said, and he had the distinct impression she'd wanted to say something else.
He smiled anyway, rising to walk on his knees around the cave, collecting wood and strengthening the fire. Nanao watched him intently. The baby had fallen back into sleep in her bed. He resumed his previous seat against the wall and Nanao curled into his side, her head resting against his chest. "Nanao-chan."
"I'm so tired," she whispered, her cheeks aflame.
He tucked the pink haori around her and curved an arm around her back. "Rest." Her hair was chill and silky under his fingers. He allowed himself to savor the rare pleasure of holding Nanao, inhaling in her scent, touching her skin. She breathed slow and deep, and he knew she slept. He closed his eyes and felt for spiritual pressures nearby. The forest was occupied by animals hiding from the rain, but there were no people or hollows. They were as safe as anyone could be here. He pulled Nanao closer and let himself drift into darkness.
He woke at dawn when Nanao climbed away from him. She was delicate and methodical, and he knew she'd meant to avoid waking him, so he feigned sleep. The baby cooed while Nanao dug in her bag for water to give her. More rustling followed, and the sound of Nanao eating something.
"Why are you pretending to be asleep?"
Shunsui opened one eye and grinned at her. "This isn't really when I prefer to get up in the morning, Nanao-chan. So I thought I would try and sleep some more."
"If you get up now you could be sleeping in your own bed by this afternoon, Captain." He studied her in the orange light of the morning. She was neater and crisper in appearance than anyone who spent a night in a cave should be. It looked like the hours of rest had restored her—her sharp edges and cool voice and hiding heart were back.
He scratched at his head and Nanao produced a small comb from her bag, holding it out to him. He straightened his hair into a rough kind of order while she laid out a breakfast for him: dried fruits, more onigiri, and water.
"I didn't have anything to make tea with," she apologized, and he shook his head that she imagined she might be rebuked for not bringing tea leaves or a pot on a trip meant to take a single afternoon.
"This is delightful, Nanao-chan, thank you." She nodded and turned her attention to the baby. There was a hesitation in her, just one moment where he thought she might have said something or done something different. Perhaps her normalcy was not as firmly in place as he'd initially thought.
They made good time to the Second district with Nanao carrying the baby and Shunsui toting the meager toys and the bed basket. He did all the talking with the couple he'd hoped would foster the baby. He paused and glanced at Nanao often, but she stood silent and chilled. The only words she spoke were a refusal of their offer of lunch.
In short order the couple agreed to take the baby. Nanao handed the silent child to the stout woman, her face locked into polite disinterest. She looked away to the field near the house where small children shrieked in play. He said their goodbyes to the couple, Nanao dipping her head at the appropriate moment and turning away.
She was tucking her heart back into the cage in her chest, and he thought perhaps he should allow her to withdraw after the events of the last day. Yet he thought of oceans, of possibilities mourned, of violet eyes in firelight. "Wave goodbye, Nanao-chan," he said, turning her back to face the smiling couple, the silent baby, and the loud children.
She waved with him as instructed. Her fingers curled in the air, her throat swallowed twice, and her lips shivered. He pulled her quickly into shunpo, stopping near the West Gate in the privacy of thick forest. She tugged away from him immediately. Shunsui said nothing about her near-breakdown, leaning against a tree. He watched the back of her neck as she gathered herself.
When she smoothed her hair and looked in the direction of the gate he spoke. "We'll visit."
Nanao glanced up at him. "What?"
"We'll visit a few times a year. We'll eat the best barbeque in Seireitei and check on the baby. We'll see how she grows up." He smiled at her, because she looked both bemused and intrigued.
"Yes, Nanao-chan." He pushed away from the tree and stepped closer to her.
"But she doesn't know us, Captain." She frowned.
"Yes, she does. She can't articulate who we are right now, but she will be able to later. She'll know us." Her frown deepened, and he leaned down to speak in her ear. "It's good to know that your life has value, isn't it, Nanao-chan? It's good to know that someone cared enough to act for you."
Her eyes widened. She nodded once, crisply, and started walking towards the gate. "We'll visit. Quarterly. I'll put it into your schedule."
Trees bloomed in Seireitei. Blossoms fell into the wide stone street, only sparsely peopled in the early afternoon. Nanao walked with uncharacteristic slowness, to his pleasure. He strolled beside her, disrupting her efforts to walk behind him until she gave up the attempt. "The afternoon is too lovely not to share it with my Nanao-chan."
She sighed, but without much feeling. This was another longstanding struggle between them, with Nanao trying to maintain professionalism and Shunsui trying to break it down. "I will go into the office this afternoon and work on the report for our mission. Are you going to come in?"
"On a day as beautiful as this one?" He spread his arms wide, as if embracing the spring day. "I think Nanao-chan should stay out with me."
She shook her head. "No. When I make the report to First Division—what happened with the baby—with me—"
He detoured into a park beside the road. She followed with a crease between her brows. "Nanao-chan has trusted me, and I will treasure your secrets. There's no need to mention anything that happened after the hollow attack in the report. The First Division is very busy, and they aren't interested in things unrelated to the hollow population. Just say we stayed in the Rukongai on personal business."
A white flower dropped leisurely out of a tree and into Nanao's hair. She didn't notice, bowing her head to him. "Thank you, Captain."
Shunsui stole her hand from where it rested on the strap of her bag. He brought it to his face and kissed the palm. She slipped free of him and scowled, but her cheeks were pink and he knew her to be fast enough to have evaded his kiss or slapped him with her fan if she'd wished; she'd allowed him to kiss her.
"I shall expect you in the office this afternoon, Captain." Her voice was frosty and contrasted with her flushed face.
"Lovely Nanao-chan," he said. She began to walk towards the street. He should let her go while she was smiling; it'd been months since she'd looked this light. But she still believed there was an ocean between them.
How do I prove my love to you?
She started when he slipped in front of her and pressed her back against a tree. "Captain—"
"Nanao-chan." He rested one hand over her head, leaning towards her. His other hand traced the elegant line of her throat, the curve of her collarbone, and rested on her racing pulse.
"This is inappropriate, Captain—" She sounded simultaneously scandalized and fascinated.
He smiled at her. "Nanao-chan. There's something you should know."
She licked her lips, staring at the edge of his hat. "What is it?"
"I'm a very strong swimmer."
"You can't swim the ocean," she said, turning her face away.
He traced her profile with a finger. "Then I'll build a boat."
Her eyes snapped back to his, angry and violet. "Stop acting as if everything is simple and easy."
He laughed softly, which only increased the heat in her eyes. Shunsui loved to see her like this, lit up and burning. "Easy and simple aren't words I would use to describe anything about you, lovely Nanao-chan. But it's easy enough to say it simply: if there's an ocean between us, I'll cross it."
"You—" her teeth clenched with a click and she shook her head. Her face was in profile again.
"I will." He bent until he could lean his forehead lightly against her temple.
She turned her face slowly, until he pulled back enough to see her narrowed eyes. "If you drown, it's your own damn fault," she said in a vicious whisper, and her nails pressed into his back with a matching sting when her arms came up around his neck.
He laughed again. She wasn't wrong—it wouldn't be simple or easy to reconcile Nanao and his family, or to sidestep the expectations of noble society, or to secure an exception to the fraternization rules from Yama-jii—but she was worth the effort. "Anything for my Nanao-chan," he murmured in front of her mouth. He kissed her with a smile still on his lips.