Sasakibe greeted them at the First. "Good morning, Captain Kyōraku, Ise-san. It is most pleasant to see you again, Ise-san."
"Thank you, Sasakibe-san. It is most pleasant to be back in Soul Society."
He led them through winding corridors along a different route than Nanao had taken on her recent trips to the First. They entered a warm room lit with old-fashioned lamps. Faded landscapes decorated the walls. Captain Yamamoto sat at a low table, taking tea. He glanced up when they entered but continued to drink his tea. Shunsui knelt on the other side of the table and helped Nanao into a sitting position, with her legs out to one side to avoid putting pressure on her wound. She found the posture a bit informal for the circumstances, but it couldn't be helped.
"Thank you, Shunsui. Please leave us for now." Nanao was surprised by the warmth in Yamamoto's tone.
Shunsui shifted behind her, wrapping his hands around her shoulders. "I'll be just outside, Nanao-chan." He and Captain Yamamoto exchanged a long look. Nanao wondered what exactly they'd spoken about earlier. "Call for me if you need me," Shunsui breathed beside her ear.
She nodded slightly and his hands drew away from her shoulders as he rose.
Captain Yamamoto sighed when Shunsui and Sasakibe left the room and closed the door. "To be that young again," he said, shaking his head.
"Have some of the tea, Nanao Ise."
Nanao poured a cup of the tea and sipped. It was powered green tea—she disliked it, but drank anyway. "Thank you, sir."
"You're a well-mannered girl. Responsible. Dedicated to your duties." He drank from his cup.
"Thank you, sir."
"Shunsui thinks I used you." He opened his eyes to pin her with his gaze.
"Sir?" She set the cup on the table and clasped her hands in her lap to disguise the shaking his stare caused.
"He's right, of course. I did use you."
Nanao's mouth opened and closed. "Sir?"
"That is what a leader does, isn't it? Decides when and how to best use the resources at his disposal, be they soldiers or equipment? There's no fundamental difference, is there?"
She frowned. "Soldiers and equipment are not the same, sir."
He grunted. "That's the mark that shows you grew up in Shunsui's division. If I made the same statement to someone from the Twelfth, do you think they would disagree with me?"
She swallowed. "It is difficult to say, sir. I am certain it would depend on the individual—"
"Humph. Evading the question. But if I said that statement to someone from the Eighth, do you think they would disagree with me?"
"Then you understand why I chose you for that order from the Central 46." His eyes closed again, and Nanao breathed deeply.
"I don't, unless you are saying that you did not intend for your order to be obeyed, sir." Nanao picked up her cup and wrapped her hands around it. She was cold.
"But it wasn't my order, was it? Not in truth. And so I needed someone who would place value on lives, who would wait until there were no other choices to take that most drastic step of destroying souls."
Nanao looked down into her cup. Yamamoto had used her. He'd never intended for her to succeed at her command. "Yes, sir."
"You're a strange girl."
"Sir?" She glanced up, startled.
"Why aren't you angry? This decision cost you your position as a vice captain and perhaps your place in Soul Society. Being angry would be the anticipated reaction."
"I've wanted to know why I was chosen since the first time I heard the order, sir. I am certain Captain Kyōraku would have known the reason, sir." But Nanao hadn't been smart enough.
"It's Shunsui's years of experience with me and with war that would have given him the necessary insight. If you are thinking that you should have been cleverer and seen it for yourself somehow, I would simply say you are too young for it to have been possible."
Nanao's eyes widened. How had he known the rebukes she'd been throwing at herself?
Yamamoto's lips moved, and she thought it might have been a smile, but it passed too quickly to be sure. "You are very young, after all."
Her eyes dropped to her tea. "Yes, sir."
"Shunsui has been most explicit in informing me that you belong with him and with the Eighth, and that you are to be returned to your home." Was that amusement in his voice?
He chuckled. Nanao's heart jumped in shock at the sound. "He reminded me of what it is to be a young man. It's been so many years since I thought of that feeling."
Nanao's head tilted. She couldn't think of anything to say; this was the strangest conversation. "Sir?"
"Perhaps he seems very old to you, but Shunsui is a young man to me." He sighed. "Those two boys have always been my favorites. And they've stayed all this time, never attempting to achieve promotion to the Royal Guard. They never will. They are key pillars of the Gotei 13."
"You know what it is to be a pillar of strength to your soldiers, don't you, Nanao Ise? You are certainly the best vice captain Shunsui has ever had, and it's not because of your proficiency with paperwork. Do you wish for career advancement?"
"Career advancement, sir?"
"Do you want to be a captain? To lead your own division?"
"How close are you to bankai? Surely by now you've heard a whisper at the least?"
She shifted on her cushion. "I have heard a whisper, sir," she said, reluctant but incapable of lying with his sharp eyes watching her face.
"But you don't want to be a captain."
"Sir—although it would be a great honor to be considered for a position like that, the Eighth—I couldn't leave the Eighth."
He grunted. "Obviously." He sighed. "Do you imagine Renji Abarai is the first vice captain to have achieved bankai?"
"Ah, no, that does seem unlikely, sir."
"Indeed. And then there is that idiot Madarame attempting to hide a bankai. Does he imagine I am blind? It's as if these children imagine I will steal them away in the night and slap captain's haoris on them. But they are missing the point, are they not?"
Ikkaku Madarame had bankai? How strange. "Being a captain is not merely about having bankai, sir." Shunsui had told her this in many ways over the years, but she'd only really understood since the war.
"Shunsui has taught you that much, at least. So he's told you that even if you have bankai, there is no need for you to seek promotion?"
She thought back to a particular afternoon many years ago when the sun had scorched the earth. The Eighth will always be your home, Nanao. "Yes, he has told me that, sir." Though, she hadn't fully understood his words then.
"Good. Then you understand there is no reason not to continue to seek strength in your current position." He held out his empty cup. Nanao carefully poured hot tea into it.
"Currently I have no position, sir."
"There is that detail." He flipped through some pages on the table, finding one and slapping it down next to her cup.
"Citation for valor in the line of duty? Sir?"
"Because of your actions on your mission in Hueco Mundo, which likely spared Soul Society from another painful battle with the Arrancar, you are receiving this citation."
"I am honored to be considered for this citation, sir, but truthfully, it belongs to Nemu Kurotsuchi. Without her taking action against the wishes of Captain Kurotsuchi and risking her life to save mine and to send the message to Soul Society, I would have died and my report would never have been sent. Soul Society would have been endangered. Nemu-san is the one who deserves this citation, sir."
"Nemu Kurotsuchi is a matter I will be considering closely over the coming months. Since Mayuri Kurotsuchi has been relocated to Maggot's Nest, suspicion must necessarily fall on the members of the Twelfth who followed his orders. As Nemu Kurotsuchi was actually created by him, you must realize that she will bear the greatest burden of proof in trying to prove her innocence."
"Nemu-san's actions in Hueco Mundo should weigh heavily in her favor. Isn't it apparent from the brutality of her treatment by Mayuri Kurotsuchi that she acted against his will and at great cost to herself, sir?"
He sighed. "I do not wish to discuss this at present. In any case, I will be receiving petitions and complaints and all manner of documents relating to that girl for months before making any decisions. I am certain I will receive some petitions that have your hand behind them." He raised one eyebrow a bare half-inch.
"Yes, sir." If Nanao was still in Soul Society, she would definitely be working for Nemu's cause.
"And shouldn't you be more concerned with your own fate right now?"
Nanao nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Nanao Ise, in light of this citation you have received for valor in the line of duty, I find it to be the course of action most beneficial to the Gotei 13 to appoint you acting vice captain of the Eighth Division." He reached back behind him and drew out her vice captain's badge, dropping it on the table on top of the citation.
"Sir?" she gasped.
"After an appropriate period of time—perhaps twelve months—I will consider making this appointment permanent, with the consent of the Eighth's captain."
"But why, sir?"
He breathed in the aroma of his tea before taking a sip. "I gave you an order I never intended for you to follow. In consequence, you lost your position as vice captain. But it's best for Soul Society that there is not ongoing upheaval. We must focus on the stability of the Gotei 13 at this time."
"Yes, sir." Tentatively she picked up the vice captain badge, running her fingers over the flower of the Eighth.
"In the matter of the complaint by Vice Captain Takahashi of the Kidō Corps, I have decided to turn you over to Shunsui. He has agreed to appropriately dispense punishment to you."
"Yes, sir." Her voice was flat. Hadn't Shunsui threatened to spank her before? If he so much as dreamed of it, she would strangle him with his own intestines—
"That will be all, Vice Captain Ise." Was Yamamoto smiling?
"Thank you, sir."
He called to Sasakibe and the door opened, admitting Shunsui and Sasakibe. Shunsui strode over to her, kneeling to lift her into his arms.
"There is one other thing," Yama-jii called when they'd reached the door. Shunsui turned back to face him. "I will consider the Application for Special Dispensation of Anti-fraternization Regulations you filed last week to be valid unless I am informed otherwise, Vice Captain Ise."
"Thanks, Yama-jii." Shunsui smiled.
"Yes, sir," she said, the words a bit strangled.
When they were outside the First, Nanao gripped his haori in both hands. "If you even so much as think about spanking me, you're going to be very, very sorry."
"Yare, yare, Nanao-chan. I assumed your conversation with Yama-jii would be dull, but now I'm really interested in what you talked about. It sounds kinkier than I expected."
"As if you don't know that he gave over my punishment to you—it's obvious you know that, it's all over your face."
"That was one of his concessions to me for using you without consulting me. Hold on." He stepped into shunpo, and they were back in her room at the Fourth before she'd fully recovered her breath.
"One of his concessions? Captain Yamamoto gave you concessions?"
He dropped her lightly on the bed, cupping her face in his hands. "You look tired, Nanao-chan. Why don't you go back to sleep for a bit?"
"I don't want to sleep in my uniform. What did Captain Yamamoto concede to you?"
Shunsui opened her outer sash and worked on the other stays of her uniform. "Isn't it obvious? He conceded you to me."
"As if even Captain Yamamoto could offer me to you! The arrogance of it—I am my own person, not some object to be given away." She scowled.
He smiled. "This is entirely about you as a soldier of the Gotei 13, Nanao-chan."
"As if that makes it less of an insult," she snapped. His hands stroked down the outside of her thigh removing her pants. "Shunsui," she said, and her tone was entirely different than before.
"You need to rest, Nanao-chan." He helped her into her sleeping robe.
"I've been resting. I'm not even tired."
He pressed her back into the bed. "No? You aren't even tired?"
She stifled a yawn. "Oh, be quiet. I don't know why I'm still so sleepy."
"You nearly died, Nanao-chan. You lost so much blood. And there was nothing I could do." He turned his head away, to the window.
She reached for his hand, gripped it. "I'm sorry."
He shook his head and sat down on the bed, watching her face. His fingers closed gently around hers. "Sitting in that chair, afraid that your life would disappear if I looked away—"
"I know that feeling. How many times have I sat in that chair, watching you on the edge of death?" She smiled very slightly.
"Maybe you're stronger than me in that regard, precious. It was unbearable to see you struggling for your life. I never want to go through that again." His eyes closed and his head turned back to the window.
"Shunsui, I—" she couldn't continue. Still the words were too hard for her, sticking in the base of her throat. She sighed.
"Stop apologizing, Nanao-chan." He rubbed her palm with his thumb. There was a long silence between them, rising like a wall.
"Captain Yamamoto told me he chose me because I wouldn't act on the order from Central 46. You were right about that. I thought I had merited a command, finally, but it was just because he needed someone who wouldn't follow their orders."
"What Yama-jii did to you was wrong, and he will not do something like that to anyone from the Eighth again. I promise you that, Nanao-chan."
"If I'd told you what had happened in the command post, what would you have done?"
"I would have taken your side, Nanao-chan. I would have gone to Yama-jii and we would have worked it out. Probably it wouldn't have been very different than it was, actually, although I would have never consented to send you to Hueco Mundo."
Nanao nodded. She exhaled a shuddering breath. "I wasn't sure. Sasakibe-san said that if you sided with me, it could destroy the Gotei 13, but that isn't why I didn't tell you, not at the bottom. I wish it was; that would be right, for a soldier to act for duty. But I didn't tell you because I thought that if you stood with the Central 46 and Captain Yamamoto—if you didn't side with me, I thought I might break. I was weak."
He leaned down to kiss her forehead. "That's not weakness, precious. That's normal. We're all protective of our hearts."
"You were never protective of your heart before. But now you're hiding it from me," she whispered.
His face was only a breath away from hers. "I know. But it's hard right now, Nanao-chan. It's hard to always be the one sharing his heart."
She closed her eyes against the pain in his eyes. "I'm sorry."
"Don't worry about it, Nanao-chan. I told you before, I'll get over it." He smiled, but it wasn't his normal easy grin.
Her eyes prickled, but she didn't want to cry again, so she reached for something else to talk about. "Did Captain Unohana give you back your hairpin?"
"I stole it that morning, before the meeting. It was in my sleeve." His eyes studied hers, surprised but wary.
He opened the drawer in the side table with his free hand and lifted out his hairpin. "You took it with you."
Her eyes were very heavy now, and she could hardly hold them open. "Yes."
"I can't tell you."
"It's not that I wouldn't tell you. But I don't know why I took it, either." She tried to see his heart in his eyes, but it was still shielded.
He kissed her cheek. "When you can tell me, I'd like to know."
"Will you stay?" Her eyes were closing.
"I need to check on the division. Rangiku-san has been in charge there for two days now. She needs to be relieved for a while."
"I understand." She did understand, although it didn't have to do with the division. Being close to her was painful for him right now; she'd hurt him, and she didn't know how to fix it, and he wasn't telling her what he needed. Until she could figure out what to do, she'd have to give him time away from her. "Will you come back?"
"Always, Nanao-chan." He stroked her hair back from her face.
Her eyes closed again, and this time they were too heavy to lift, but she could feel his hand on her face and it was enough to ease her into sleep.
Shunsui returned from the Eighth in late afternoon. "The division is still standing," he said, sprawling into one of the chairs beside the bed.
"That is a relief. After you said you'd left Rangiku-san in charge, I was a little worried." She smiled.
"Oh? Lots of people helped, really. And the whole division had notes from you. Except me." There was a small catch in his voice.
Nanao flinched. "I didn't know what to say to you. I couldn't say anything without saying everything. I'm—"
"Don't say you're sorry again, Nanao-chan. I haven't heard those words from you as much in the last two decades as I have in the last two days. It's fine." He looked out the window at the cold sunshine.
It wasn't fine, not really, but she didn't know what to do about it, so she left it for now. "Isane-san says that I can go home today if someone will be staying with me." Nanao sat on the bed, her legs hanging off the side without reaching the floor. She glanced over at Shunsui's face.
"That's good, Nanao-chan." He said nothing else, made no offer.
So he wouldn't make it easy for her. That was fine; she could do this. Hadn't she decided her love and life were worth more than her pride? "Will you take me home? Will you stay with me? Please."
She thought she saw a flash of surprise in his profile, but it was gone too quickly to be sure. "If that's what lovely Nanao-chan wants." He rose from the chair and picked up the bag on the bed beside her. "Better put this on, it's cold today." He pulled off his pink haori and wrapped it around her shoulders over her white robe.
He carried her out of the hospital, striding down corridors and stairs until they reached the front door. Nanao sat in his arms with her bag in her lap and her feet bare, raising her eyebrows at the members of the Fourth that stared at them.
"I'm going to shunpo now." It took them less time to arrive than it took him to say those words. He was really unparalleled in speed. But—
"These are my quarters," she said, sliding out of his arms. "Why? And they're empty."
His face was impassive, his eyes unreadable. "You said you wanted to go home, Nanao-chan. And you packed all of your things up yourself, didn't you? To make it easier on everyone when you were gone."
She swallowed hard, blinking. Her quarters were familiar and she'd lived there for many years, but they weren't home. Standing in the empty room holding only standard-issue furniture with all of her possessions missing, she felt very alone. "This isn't what I meant," she whispered.
"I know. But you didn't even notice, did you? For weeks you've called my house home. You were really living with me, Nanao-chan."
She looked down at the floor.
He sighed. "I can have your things brought back here." He shifted for the door.
"Wait!" She reached out for him. He turned back to her. "That's not what I want. I don't want to stay here."
He moved close to her, standing only a step away. "What do you want, then?"
She stared at his chest. He was so close but so far away from her right now. She pressed her hand against the center of his chest, running her fingertips down the ridges of his abdomen until they caught against his sash. His breath caught and she ran her hand back up to his throat to touch his pulse. He still felt this, at least; the heat between them was undiminished. She licked her lips, raising her eyes to his, and it was easy to say what had stuck in her throat before, now that his eyes were full of her image. "I want to stay with you, Shunsui. I want to go home."
He stroked her cheek, his lips coming down towards hers, and she closed her eyes in anticipation. But he did not kiss her, and she opened her eyes to see him holding out her bag for her. She took the bag and he picked her up again, flashing them to his house. He set her on her feet in the main room.
She dropped the bag beside the table. Something on a bookcase caught her eye and she limped over. She held the picture frame in her hands and studied it, her brows drawn together. "This is mine." It was the picture of the two of them at the summer party, smiling at each other.
"Yes, it is." He scratched the back of his neck.
Suddenly she could see her things all over, mixed with his—books, trinkets, even her sewing project chest standing in a corner. "All of my things are here."
He said nothing. She strode into the bedroom, forgetting her leg and nearly falling, but he wrapped an arm around her waist quickly. "Slowly, Nanao-chan."
In the closet her clothes shared space with his, the chest of her undergarments beside a few racks of his things. "You brought all of my things to your house."
He let go of her to uncover a window. "Yes."
He didn't speak, but gave her a look that scorched her. Her cheeks flushed and she trembled slightly, so she limped to the bed and sat down with her legs curled to the side on the cover. "Shunsui." She held her hand out to him.
"Nanao-chan," he said, but did not move.
"Please, Shunsui." It was several seconds before he joined her on the bed, sitting on his heels. She took his hand between both of hers and he didn't pull away. There was wariness in his face that pained her—he'd so rarely been wary of her, it felt like a stab to her heart—but she'd shown him wariness often, hadn't she?
"Are you feeling alright, Nanao-chan? Do you want to go back to the Fourth?" He'd felt the trembling in her hands and he was concerned. She smiled at that.
"No. I'm fine." She breathed deeply several times. It would be best just to do it before her nerves stopped her. "Marry me, Shunsui."
"I want to have something with you no one else has ever had. It'll be a grand adventure. We'll experience it together. Won't you marry me, Shunsui?" Her heart was going to break through her ribs and run out into the garden any second now.
"Nanao-chan? Are you joking with me?" He was simultaneously worried and wary, and she cursed herself for giving him any cause to doubt her.
"I'm not joking with you. This is the part where you say yes, if you were unaware. Think of all the benefits! I'll stay with you in your house forever, and no one will ever question it, they'll just say, 'Oh, Nanao is so lucky, to have such a handsome husband.' And your ability to get me to relax about work will be unmatched, because of the leverage you'll have as my husband. And—the baths. I can't think of anything about the baths, except that I like them. And I have a strong savings portfolio of my earnings as a shinigami." She stopped for breath. Her hands had gone from trembling to outright shaking.
He clasped her hands in his. "Nanao-chan, you're overtaxing yourself—"
She shook her head. "No, listen to me, please. I love you. I want to marry you, Shunsui." She stared down at their joined hands without blinking. Tears were forming in her eyes, and if she blinked, they'd all leak out.
There was a long silence. Nanao felt her heart cracking under the weight of it, and the tears fell out of her eyes to splash on their joined hands.
"Nanao-chan. Lovely, lovely Nanao-chan." His voice was silky and low, but she couldn't let herself hope, not when it already hurt so much.
She squeezed her eyes shut.
"Look at me, Nanao-chan."
She lifted her head and opened her eyes.
"Say that again, Nanao-chan."
"I want to marry you." She blinked away her tears, trying to see his face clearly.
"That part is very nice, but I want the other part again."
She gripped his hands tightly. "I love you."
He leaned towards her, kissing her lips softly. "Nanao-chan is such a romantic," he murmured near her ear.
She choked on her relief and it came out as a sob.
"Nanao-chan." His voice had concern in it again.
She could see his eyes now, and they were soft and warm with his love. That terrible wariness had disappeared, but—"I'm afraid."
He kissed her lips with so much tenderness her eyes slipped closed. "I know, Nanao-chan. But you've given me a gift, and I'll treasure your heart. I'll treasure you."
"You can be careful when something is important," she said. She lifted one of her hands to wipe at her eyes.
"That's right. I love you, Nanao-chan." He cupped her cheek in his hand.
"Are you accepting my proposal?" She hesitated, smiled.
"Oh? Isn't Nanao-chan accepting my proposal?" He raised his brow.
"You never asked again." Her eyes slid down to his chest.
He tipped her chin up with a finger. "Will you marry me, Nanao-chan?"
She pulled her hand away from his and jumped lightly into his lap, locking her arms around his neck. He caught her easily since she was already so close, taking care to protect her thigh from impact. She nodded against his throat.
"I'd like the words, sweetheart."
"You love to make me repeat myself. I told you before that I want to stay with you. Yes." She nibbled on the skin of his throat. One of her hands traveled down his front, straying scandalously into his pants.
"Nanao-chan is supposed to rest." He tugged her hand away from her explorations, putting it back around his neck.
"No, I'm supposed to avoid exertion, which is an entirely different matter." Her other hand drifted across his stomach. "I want to take a bath, but I don't know how I'll manage without straining myself."
"Don't worry, lovely Nanao-chan, I'll lend you my assistance." He stood, flipping her easily into his arms, dancing with her into the bathroom.
"That's very noble of you." She laughed. "Shunsui." He paused in removing her robe, his hands around her waist to reach the knot of her sash. His eyes met hers. All of the wariness, the hurt lurking around the edges of his face, the distance—they were gone. Both of them were open to each other now, and although that meant he could crush her heart and destroy her dreams, she understood that he wouldn't, couldn't do that to her anymore than she could bear to do something like that to him. "I'm not going to apologize to you again."
His eyes widened. "I'm glad, Nanao-chan."
"But I will hurt you again, eventually. I don't mean to, and I don't want to, but—"
He smiled. "We'll hurt each other now and again. We're flawed beings, and despite our best intentions to be good to each other, we'll fail sometimes. But it's alright. We'll work through it when it happens." His hands resumed their work on the knot, opening her robe when he'd untied her sash. "You know, these are really the most delightful panties, Nanao-chan. The color is lovely on you."
"I knew you would like them." Her breath caught sharply as he slid the straps of her camisole off her shoulders. "I bought them for you," she said, the words slipping from her lips as the fabric of her garments slipped off her body.
He looked at her face, surprised, and then smiled. "Nanao-chan loves me." She flushed but did not look away. He kissed her temple and stroked her shoulders before shifting to prepare her bath things.
She stood naked in the bathroom, stretching carefully. Her ribs were tender and the skin over them was bruised. She unwrapped the bandage on her leg, studying the wound on her thigh. It was long and deep and curved around her leg. "It's ugly."
Shunsui pressed her gently down on the bath stool. "It's a sword wound. They all look like that to start with. It'll get better with time. I have one in a similar spot, you've seen it."
She tilted her head. "You do, don't you? I want to see it again. Please take off your clothes."
He laughed as he stripped out of his clothes. "Anything for my Nanao-chan."
He came back to her and she pulled his hand down until he bent enough for her to kiss him. She kissed him long and deep, trying to convey with her lips the sum of her happiness. "I missed you," she whispered, her breath warm on his cheek.
"I'm with you, Nanao, and I'm not going anywhere." He brought his lips back to hers, matching her happiness with his own.
A/N: This chapter concludes this story. I am considering possibly doing a small epilogue, but at this point it'd just be sappy self-indulgence. Still, Chapter 37 is such an unlovely number to end on-as Yumichika would say. But the story is really finished, and when stories are over, they should end, however much we may want to linger.
I want to thank everyone for their support over the last several months. To everyone who read, added to favorites or alerts, reviewed here or commented at my LiveJournal - thank you. This has been a wonderful experience, and I hope that I brought some small measure of pleasure to our corner of the fandom.
This is still my favorite Bleach pairing (after writing and living with a work this long, I'm glad I can still say that!) and I hope to post more stories featuring our beloved Eighth Division in the future. Please look forward to it. ^_^