the boys are back in town

They managed to navigate through the soup and into the main course (duck with parsnip and noodles with raspberry sauce on the side), with appropriate wine to go with each course. Kyouraku was having far too much fun playing the expert, and Lisa would have taken him down a peg or two, except that she was enjoying watching him having fun. It had been too long. It really had. Nanao was sitting there and eating quietly, watching the pair of them like a spectator at a sparring match, keeping her head down and her presence unobtrusive. Time was no doubt going by outside, and the other Vizards would probably make rude comments about how long it took Lisa to buy manga, but at the moment she really didn't care.

She was chewing on a particularly succulent piece of duck when Kyouraku leaned forward and asked, "So, what next?"

She coughed, and had to gulp some wine to clear her throat and to buy a few seconds to think. That had been the question he wasn't supposed to ask. It was far too intrusive and prying into her private life. (Not that that had ever stopped him in the past. He'd always been very good at chivalrous reticence except when he genuinely wanted the information.)

"I'm still considering alternatives," she finally said.

It didn't work. Kyouraku just leaned back with a tell-me-more expression, and Nanao leaned forward with such eager hope shining in her eyes that Lisa didn't have the heart to stop there. "I mean, you know. There are a lot of things open."

"There are three Captaincies open," Nanao said shyly.

Kyouraku shook his head. "It'd be difficult. Not because of you per se, and not so much because of the bankai situation, but because there are several Vizards who are already Captains. People would ask why they weren't stepping forward to take the positions."

"Perhaps they don't want to," Lisa said sulkily. But she could see his point. Even if Shinji had made it clear that he wasn't going back, people would look at her and think that it should be Kensei, or Love, or Rose. "Well, hell. Okay, so that's not really an option." And she hadn't really been considering it. Much. Even if the image of her in a Captain's gear had been something to enjoy. "So perhaps someone else needs a vice-captain –"

Kyouraku was shaking his head again. "Ukitake's got his eye on Rukia-chan, and the only other position empty at the moment is Fifth, with Momo-chan still in medical care."

Nanao was pursing her lips unhappily. "You could take that, and I admit that Fifth does need someone at the moment, but what would Hinamori-fukutaichou do when she was well enough to take her position again?"

Lisa could see that there was some sort of friendship there. "All right," she said. "So that's not going to work."

"There is a possibility," Kyouraku said thoughtfully. "If Renji-kun gets promoted to captain in the near future, which isn't impossible, then Byakuya-kun's going to need a new vice-captain. The position's tailor-made for someone experienced . . ."

A long pause hung in the air.

Lisa started giggling. Nanao was having a polite coughing fit, but she looked as if she'd like to be laughing. Kyouraku just snickered.

"Let me get this straight," Lisa said, when she'd got her breath back. "You see me as second-in-command to the brattiest aristocratic brat in Seireitei. Well, sure, I've got plenty of experience in clearing up after big kids, but I'm not sure I can handle this one."

"I'm hurt," Kyouraku said, and sloshed more wine into her glass. "And he's all grown up now. Mature. Sensible. Forward-looking. Romantic."

"He came to the latest Shinigami Women's Association meeting because his sister couldn't attend," Nanao said, working hard to look sincere about it.

"Now I could take that over," Lisa said thoughtfully.

"You could argue the point with Unohana-taichou," Nanao said.

"Mm. Maybe not." She sipped her wine. "All right. Scratch captain and vice-captain off the list. I don't know, perhaps we could get some sort of officially recognised position as Soul Society representatives in the living world. Roving troubleshooters. That sort of thing."

"That would be wonderful!" Nanao exclaimed.

Kyouraku didn't look quite as enthusiastic. "I sympathise with the urge to be roving troublemakers – troubleshooters, that is," he said. "But there's the question of oversight."

"Why should there be?" Lisa snapped.

Kyouraku simply drooped an eyelid and looked sideways at her. It was the sort of expression he'd had in the past, once or twice, when she'd gone just a little bit too far in expressing her opinions in public. It wasn't exactly a warning, so much as it was a signal that she might want to think carefully about her next statement before opening her mouth.

Lisa took a breath. "We're all adults. We've stayed loyal to Soul Society for the last hundred years, even after they cast us off. We've done our duty in the world of the living. How anyone could have the – the gall - to suggest that we were somehow traitors like Aizen –"

"Oh, they wouldn't do that," Kyouraku said. "But they might suggest that you were unreliable. They might, for instance, say that you left some people for a hundred years, and never once tried to let them know that you were still alive."

Lisa felt her cheeks flare crimson. She looked at the table in front of her. "They were going to execute us," she said. "As Hollows."

"I would have held the blade myself," Kyouraku said quietly. "To cleanse you."

"It wasn't fair!" she snarled at him, looking up again. "Why should we have gone back, after that? Why should we have said anything to anyone, when they – they – "

"Lisa-chan," Kyouraku said, "we were wrong. We were lied to. But now that we know the truth, someone has to take the first step."

It would be easier if he'd just plain tell her to do it, rather than expect her to be some sort of damned hero about it. The Vizards weren't any sort of heroes.

She flicked a glance sideways and saw Nanao sitting very small, pulled in on herself, hands clasped together, obviously wanting to slide under the table or find an excuse to leave the room, and her stomach twisted. She couldn't bring herself to say some of the things that sprang to mind, like Like hell or yeah, and I'd do the same for you or . . .

How much did Nanao know, anyhow? They'd never tell the vice-captains everything, and Nanao wasn't the sort to listen under a windowsill to find out the rest of it.

"What would you do, Nanao?" she asked. "If you were me. What would you do?"

Nanao swallowed. "Well . . . Soul Society does need Yadomaru-sempai. We've lost three Captains. And the whole Chamber of 46." Her tone suggested that while she felt this was a loss, it wasn't quite as significant a loss. "We've found out that Aizen Sousuke has been lying to us all this time. We don't know what else he might have been lying about. We've got people who were injured and who are still recovering. Not just captains and vice-captains, but regular shinigami too. The balance between the worlds has been shaken. Aizen turned loose a number of powerful Hollows that are still roaming Hueco Mundo and the world of the living. This is not a situation where anyone can – please forgive my language, Yadomaru-sempai – where they can just flounce off. The emergency isn't over. And if, if you really want Soul Society to apologise to you, then you have to give them the chance to do so."

Lisa turned that over in her mind, not looking at either of the others. "But we can't just walk back in," she said, knowing that she'd already yielded her position. "It's not just Shinji. There are people in Seireitei who aren't going to want us round either. You know that, Kyouraku."

Kyouraku nodded. "True." Was there a note of relief in his voice at her concession, at the fact that she'd moved from denial to bargaining? She thought so. "But there are enough people who know that you fought on our side in Karakura. We could . . ." He gestured vaguely. "Get around it."

"Perhaps you could," Lisa said. "But could we?"

"Well, that's up to you, isn't it?" He held up a hand. "No. Think about it. Give me an answer over dessert."

"Just like that?"

"I'm relying on another bottle of wine to help the decision on," he said blandly.

"Kyouraku-taichou!" Nanao exclaimed. "I can't manage another glass of wine!"

"Then it's a good thing we're here to carry you home," Kyouraku said, and let Lisa draw back to think about it while Nanao scolded him.

Desert arrived, involving complicated layers of sorbet; roast pineapple, vanilla caramel, and coconut. Lisa buried herself in it with an air of fascinated gluttony which she hoped would put Kyouraku off a little longer. The truth was that she didn't have an answer.

She couldn't just walk back in.

But she wasn't sure that she could just stay away, either.

She waited for a moment when Kyouraku had his mouth full, to be sure that he wouldn't interrupt her mid-sentence. "Suppose we go for the troubleshooters in the world of the living approach," she said. "You're right that we'd need some sort of supervision or oversight on the Seireitei side. I suspect that they wouldn't let you do it, because of our old relationship. So who would?"

Kyouraku considered that. "The easiest option would be Covert Operations," he said.

"What? With little Soifon?" Lisa barely remembered her as Shihouin Yoruichi's bodyguard. She knew that Hacchi had been involved in fighting one of the Espada with her, but he hadn't talked about it much. Presumably she was competent. "You think she'd go for it?"

"She'd take the deal if it meant her getting information on what you were up to," Kyouraku said. "The only problem might be that you lot would have to be candid with her."

Lisa thought about some of the other Vizards. "That could be awkward," she said diplomatically. "Anyone else?"

"Ukitake would be like me." Kyouraku licked a bit of sorbet off the edge of his spoon, clearly enjoying Nanao's blushes. "It'd be too easy for people to suspect collusion. Byakuya-kun's too recent. The same for Komamura-kun or for Toushirou-kun. Nobody would be sure that they could keep a firm rein on you." An idea visibly occurred to him. "Come to think of it –"

"We are not serving under Unohana-taichou," Lisa said firmly.

"Nobody would dare argue the point," Kyouraku said.

"It's a matter of principle. She'd just look at us and we'd cave in."

"Well, now that you mention it . . ." He shrugged. "Coffee? Brandy?"

"There's Eleventh Division," Nanao suggested quietly.

"If that's still how it used to be, there's no way we're fighting our way through them to get to the top," Lisa said. "I'm surprised at you, Nanao-chan."

Nanao blushed. "I didn't mean it that way," she protested. "It'd have to be as some sort of technically separate wing of Eleventh Division, totally apart from their main command structure, but that way anyone wanting to get at you would have to go through Zaraki-taichou. And he'd be glad of an excuse to get involved. In, you know, Eleventh Division's sense of getting involved."

Kyouraku was nodding as she went on. "It could be made to work," he said. "But it wouldn't do much for your reputation in the long term."

"Our reputation –" Lisa made a gesture demonstrating what she thought of the Vizards' reputation, but she couldn't bring herself to put that much energy into it. Part of her wanted the chance to go back. "Bah. We just want options."

"There is another possibility," Kyouraku said, and she suspected that he'd been waiting for the right moment to bring it forward. "The Academy."

Lisa blinked. "The Academy?"

"As instructors, of course." He rang the bell for the waiter. "You've got lots of valuable experience to contribute."

"Hm." Lisa thought about it while the waiter silently organized coffee and brandy, and waited till he was gone before speaking again. "It feels like a step backwards . . ."

Nanao, of all people, was shaking her head. "I don't think you've fully considered the implications, Yadomaru-sempai. Working as an instructor in the Academy would get people used to you again. All the younger shinigami would be sympathetic to you in the first place, because it was Aizen's fault, and it'd let them get to know you and see that you were perfectly ordinary people, and not –" She broke off, looking for words.

"Masked lunatics?" Lisa suggested, just to watch her blush.

"Nobody has said that in my hearing," Nanao said firmly, with an implication of and nobody will dare. "But it's an honourable position, and perhaps after a few years –"

"Decades," Kyouraku put in.

"—well, after a while, if you wanted to try out for captain, or if one of the other people who used to be captains . . ." Nanao spread her hands. "You'd have proven that you were trustworthy, to anyone who tried to claim that you weren't."

Lisa smirked. "You've gotten political, Nanao-chan. I'm impressed."

Nanao flushed even pinker. "I'm just trying to be prepared. Like Kyouraku-taichou always says."

"It's an option, though. You're right." She picked up her glass of brandy and sniffed it. "But the problem is –"

Kyouraku raised an eyebrow.

"It's going to have to be all of us. Whatever we do." She took a deep breath, almost relieved at finally admitting it out loud. "If some of us return and others don't, then the ones who don't are going to be unjustly suspected, and the ones who do are going to be unfairly praised. And just sliding off into the sunset isn't an option. Options, options, all these options, but simply doing nothing isn't going to work."

"Well, not for you," Kyouraku said smugly. "I happen to like doing nothing."

Lisa and Nanao exchanged glances. "You could come back for a visit," Nanao said briskly. "I think it would do the Division good to see you sparring with Kyouraku-taichou. Daily. And you can help me make him do his paperwork."

"So I could!" Lisa agreed, ignoring the fact that her favourite method of handling paperwork in the past had always been by burying it or setting fire to it. "And there's nothing to stop me getting the place tidied up, or taking everyone out on regular exercises and encouraging inter-Division practice – I'm sure some of the new boys would like to see how an experienced captain like Kyouraku-taichou handles himself . . ."

"I surrender," Kyouraku said. "I surrender on all counts. Pour me more brandy and let me apologize."

Lisa refilled all three glasses. "I'll be talking to people," she said. "And I'll be in touch."

"I expect no less," Kyouraku said. "And if you aren't, I'll send Nanao-chan to find you."

"Sir!" Nanao protested. "How dare you! I'd have gone myself to find her well before you needed to do anything of the sort."

Lisa smirked, and tapped her glass against theirs.