Contains: Spoilers for the Lost Substitute Shinigami Arc, consensual adult activity in later chapters.
This will be a five chapter story, around thirty thousand words. I tried to work some of my slots on my fanbingo card into this story. (Fanbingo is a community at Dreamwidth.)
"I'm going to the Living World for a little while, Nanao-chan."
Nanao looked up from her paperwork, surprised. Captain Kyōraku leaned against her desk. "To the Living World?"
He smiled. "Yes. I'm going to visit Lisa-chan and our other friends."
She studied his face, waiting. He looked tired, and needed a shave—she hadn't seen him well-rested since he'd come back from the battle at Karakura weeks ago. She suspected his injuries had taken more of a toll on him than he would admit.
He didn't say anything else, and she realized that no invitation for her to come with him was forthcoming. Her eyes widened. He was always inviting her along with him, to all manner of things, no matter that she generally refused his offers. But now he wasn't inviting her on a trip to see Lisa? An ugly feeling coiled in her stomach, like a snake. She turned back to her paperwork.
"I'll be back with you soon, Nanao-chan." She glanced up at his eyes, and saw that he knew she'd expected an invitation, that she was surprised not to get one. Perhaps he could even see the snake in her belly.
"Goodbye, then. It's not as if you are needed here, Captain," she said, her voice icy. She flipped through her paperwork, ignoring him.
"I know my Nanao-chan will run the division beautifully in my absence." He covered her cold hand with his warm one.
She smacked him hard across the knuckles with her fan. "I am not your Nanao-chan."
He withdrew his hand. "When I come back, we'll have to talk—a real talk, Nanao-chan."
Her brow creased. He looked sad, and that made fear curl around her heart. "I don't know what you mean."
"Yes, you do." He tipped his hat at her and walked toward the door.
"Captain Unohana said you should avoid strain, so don't get into any fights or anything like that. Take—" Take me with you. "Take care, Captain."
He waved at her over his shoulder as he left. There was a weight pressing down on her, and she slumped back in her chair.
There'd been a strange silence between them since the Winter War, and it was only growing deeper. It'd started after the battle in Karakura, when she'd supervised Captain Kyōraku's transfer to a stretcher. He was unconscious, and she'd allowed herself to grasp his hand in a moment of weakness, tears pooling in her eyes.
"Nanao Ise? Nanao-chan?"
She'd turned at the sound of her name. "Vice Captain Yadōmaru."
Lisa's eyes had dropped to Nanao's hand, curled around Captain Kyōraku's large one. Lisa's eyes narrowed.
Nanao sighed at the memory. The conversation that followed had been civil, of course. The one that followed a few days later was just as courteous. Still, Nanao found herself looking down sometimes to make sure that the ground was solidly under her feet; everything seemed to be shifting around her. The stasis that her relationship with Captain Kyōraku had existed in for so long was dissolving, but it was not melting into the material of her dreams. Instead the silence cut a chasm between them. And now her Captain had gone to see Lisa—without Nanao.
She stood, bracing her hands against the desk and then marching out of her office. "Third Seat Enjōji," she said, and the officer jumped up from his slouched position behind his desk.
"Yes, Vice Captain Ise?"
"You will be in charge until Captain Kyōraku returns. You will throw no parties, skip no work, and cause no property damage, or you will be most regretful."
"Yes, Vice Captain! But, ah, what will I tell the Captain when he asks about you?" Enjōji was clearly uncomfortable, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
She paused, already turned away from his desk. "Tell him that I am unavailable." She took off down the hall at a brisk pace.
"For how long? Vice Captain Ise, how long will you be away?" She ignored Enjōji's calls as she walked out of the Eighth Division.
Nanao followed the scenic trail through the forest. Her eyes took in her surroundings without really seeing them. It was her second day at this picturesque vacation spot in the Fourteenth District, and she was almost certain coming out here had been a mistake. She felt no better about her situation with Captain Kyōraku than she had back at the Eighth. Physical distance had not granted her the emotional distance she desired.
She heard the sounds of a scuffle up ahead, and sped up her pace. Three men surrounded an elderly woman and a young girl, tearing items out of baskets and satchels. The men carried swords but were poorly dressed; Nanao thought they were likely bandits.
"Release them, now," she said, centering herself on the trail.
The bandits looked up. "Eh? You're a pretty one. Why don't we add you to our fun?" One of them smiled, displaying his unkempt teeth.
Nanao held up one hand, summoning a blue flame with a wordless kidō. She slipped off her glasses with the other hand, and let her spiritual power rise. Her eyes glowed with power, she knew, and her aura washed over the immediate area in drowning waves. It was a trick she'd learned from Captain Kyōraku, who preferred to avoid fights when possible. Although she told him often that he was too lazy, this trick didn't fall into the category of avoiding work. This was an excellent practice she was proud to have learned from him: it was always better to avoid a fight and not risk any casualties, especially when innocents were involved.
"She's a shinigami or something! Let's go!" The bandits dropped their pilfered goods and fled. Nanao let them go, settling her glasses back on her nose. The blue flame faded from her hand. The trail returned to the idyllic state it'd had moments ago.
The elderly woman and the girl bent to try and restore order to their spilled items. "Thank you for your help," the elderly woman said, struggling to stuff cloth back into a basket.
"Please, let me." Nanao hurried forward and crouched down to assist her.
"You're a shinigami?" The woman's eyes were a thin hazel, strong in her wrinkled face.
"Yes. I know the shinigami are unpopular in the Rukongai—"
"That's not as true in this area, since we depend on visitors to enjoy their tours here, staying in our inns, going to the hot springs, and buying souvenirs. Shinigami and others from Seireitei that come here usually have money to spend." The woman smiled, her teeth white and sharp.
Nanao smiled back. "I'm Nanao Ise, Vice Captain of the Eighth Division."
"We're very glad to meet you, Ise-san, and even gladder you came along when you did. I'm Chiyo, and this is my granddaughter, Misao-chan."
"It's nice to meet you." Nanao nodded at Misao. The girl had a narrow face with high cheekbones and eyes the same odd color as her grandmother's. Nanao judged her to be about fifteen. She smiled at Nanao, but did not speak. "Are incidents like this common?" Nanao asked.
"Not at all. Those men must be from outside the area. No one local would do anything like that. They'll regret it." Chiyo glanced in the direction the men had gone.
"You must have a strong local government."
Chiyo nodded. "Appropriate punishment is always done here. But there's no need to go on about such unpleasant topics. Are you staying at the Laughing Fox?"
"Yes, since yesterday. It's a lovely inn."
They gathered everything and put it back into reasonable order. Misao helped her grandmother to rise from her bend. "It is. This is considered one of the most romantic areas in the Rukongai, you know. It's an ideal spot to get away with your husband." Chiyo distributed the satchels and baskets around, allowing Nanao to carry one when she gestured for it.
"I'm not here with a husband. Actually, I'm alone." Nanao adjusted the weight of the basket as they walked toward the Laughing Fox.
Chiyo shared a look with her granddaughter. "You don't have a man with you? You know, I'm just a nosy old woman, but I thought when I saw you that you had a sadness to you. Having trouble with the man you love?"
"He doesn't—that is, there's no one like that," Nanao said, flushing.
"Don't be embarrassed, Ise-san, I understand perfectly. I may not look it now, but I turned heads in my day."
Nanao glanced at her silent granddaughter. "I can believe that very easily."
Chiyo smiled. "I've also raised many daughters and granddaughters. I have a lot of experience in matters like these. If there's anything I can do—"
"Thank you, Chiyo-san, but I don't think that there is anything like that."
"You're a sweet girl. Oh, perhaps there is something—we should thank you for your help, anyway. Let me give you a gift." Misao reached into one of the satchels. "We sell a variety of unique and powerful items. Take this." She gestured to Misao, who shyly held out a dull red ribbon.
Nanao accepted it hesitantly. "Thank you."
Chiyo laughed. "It's not just a ribbon. You take this, and tie it around your wrist and the wrist of the man you love, and he'll be yours."
Nanao eyed the ribbon warily. "It's a love spell?"
"Not quite, but that's close enough, in this case. Please accept it with our gratitude."
The ribbon lacked sheen and looked cheap, but it had an unexpected weight in her hand. Nanao shook her head. "Even if you gave me something like this, and I believed in the effects, I could never use it. That would be unethical. I'll accept your gratitude happily, but I have to refuse this ribbon."
"Oh? But it's just something to guide a man in the best direction. Men can be a bit dense sometimes, Ise-san." Chiyo smiled again.
Nanao didn't want to hurt the feelings of the woman, so she chose her words carefully. "That's true, but—I just can't accept something like this, Chiyo-san. If this could create false emotions in someone, then that love and any relationship that resulted would be based on a lie."
"If you use this, the one that you desire will want you in the same way. Doesn't that tempt you? A gift like this is a rare magic. We wouldn't sell this to just anyone, much less give it away to someone."
Nanao turned the ribbon over in her hand. If she were honest with herself, she could admit the idea of a love spell was tempting. To have her feelings returned by Captain Kyōraku—she shook her head. She didn't believe in love spells, and even if she did, using one would be manipulative. Any relationship obtained would be tainted; the victim couldn't truly consent, after all. "No, thank you. I deeply appreciate your offer, and I understand that this is a valuable item for you, but I can't accept it."
Chiyo took the ribbon from Nanao's outstretched hand. "No? We'll have to see if we can find something else to gift you, perhaps." She handed the ribbon to Misao, who accepted it with a downcast look.
The inn appeared as they rounded a bend in the trail. Fox statutes stood in front of the building, which was large and somehow whimsical, as if the architect had been playing a joke on everyone. "You're very kind, Chiyo-san. But there's no need to give me a gift. Are you staying at the Laughing Fox?"
"We'll be set up there this afternoon, seeing friends, relatives, rivals." She laughed.
"Rivals?" Nanao asked.
"Oh, yes." They entered the Laughing Fox and were led to by a pretty woman through the confusing corridors to a large room with low tables set up. Chiyo and Misao began industriously emptying their baskets out onto the tables. "Now, Ise-san, you must let me know if anything catches your attention."
Nanao unpacked the basket she'd carried in for Chiyo. There were all manner of ribbons, hair pins, dishes, and items she couldn't identify readily. Her eye was drawn to a sake set with a pattern of foxes on it—laughing, dancing, running across the ceramic. It was whimsical and fun and she thought if she were bringing a souvenir to Captain Kyōraku the dishes would do nicely.
But why would she get him a souvenir? He didn't even know she was gone, since he was away in the Living World.
"Nanao-chan is so pensive."
She jumped at the sound of his voice in her ear, containing a surprised squeak before it could escape. "Captain Kyōraku! What are you doing here?" He wasn't in uniform, though the pink haori still sat on his shoulders.
"Our Third Seat told me you'd gone, but he didn't know where. Luckily I knew you'd never leave without giving your information to someone. Rangiku-san told me where you were." He grinned, and a twinge of soreness fluttered through Nanao's heart.
"I left that information with the Women's Association in case of a budgetary crisis or other emergencies," she hissed.
"Being without my Nanao-chan is an emergency." He pouted.
She opened her mouth to argue further, but saw Chiyo and Misao watching them with avid interest. "Captain Kyōraku, this is Chiyo-san and her granddaughter, Misao-chan."
"I'm pleased to meet you. This area is so resplendent with beautiful women."
"I've heard that the Captain of the Eighth Division was a man of the most romantic sensibilities." Chiyo beamed at him.
"If you mean that he's a notorious flirt, that's certainly true," Nanao murmured, studying one of the sake cups. She felt his eyes on her face, but refused to look at him.
"I think I've fallen out of favor with my lovely Nanao-chan." She could see him making puppy eyes, but turned away.
"Indeed, sir, it may be so. Should you wish to regain the favor of your lady, might I humbly recommend one of our fine items? Beautiful women enjoy beautiful gifts." Chiyo waved her hand over a selection of hair ornaments.
"An excellent idea, Chiyo-san." He cooed at the items and flirted shamelessly with the elderly woman. Nanao ignored him, turning the sake cup over and over in her hands.
"A wonderful choice, Kyōraku-kun. So delicate and refined, a perfect complement for the lady." He chuckled while Chiyo gushed about his good taste.
"What do you think of this one, Nanao-chan?" He leaned down, close to her face.
His nearness sent a shiver down her spine and a wince through her heart. "I'm sure my opinion is unnecessary, Captain; you'll act to please yourself, anyway."
He was silent for a moment and then spoke very brightly. "This is the one, Chiyo-san." He exchanged money for something from the table. "Nanao-chan."
Her fingers tightened on the sake cup, and then she set it on the table with great care. She turned to face him, her eyes focused on the chest muscle visible through the opening in his kosode.
"Lovely flowers for my lovely Nanao-chan." He lifted the hair ornament in his hand and Nanao's breath caught. It was a fine piece, with delicate silk flowers in white and pink. He tucked it into her hair slowly, drawing his hand down her cheek. Her skin blushed when he touched her. "Lovely," he said, and there was something in his voice that made her eyes slip closed.
A clank pulled her eyes open. She drew away from his hand. Misao righted the jar she'd knocked over while Chiyo scolded her quietly. Nanao's face flamed. She wanted to be away from him, from them, from everyone, immediately. "Please have a good afternoon, Chiyo-san, Misao-chan." She turned to leave.
"Wait, Ise-san, please accept this with our thanks," Chiyo-said, handing her a wrapped package.
"Thank you, but I couldn't—"
"I must insist, after what you did for us this afternoon."
"What did Nanao-chan do for you, Chiyo-san?" Captain Kyōraku sounded highly intrigued.
"Thank you, Chiyo-san." Nanao took the package and escaped as Chiyo began a recitation of the day's events.
She sighed deeply as she stepped into the hall. Her room was at the end of one of these corridors, or was it up some stairs? She'd almost say that the route to the room changed every time she stepped into the inn, but that was ridiculous; the building was just poorly designed. Still, she couldn't seem to find her room.
One of the inn's workers appeared from nowhere. All of them seemed to be beautiful women with narrow features and shining black hair. "Good evening, Ise-dono. We've prepared a romantic dinner for you and your husband, as requested."
"What? He's not my husband, he's not even staying here, and I didn't request any romantic dinner—"
"Don't be rude, Nanao-chan." He was next to her again, his haori sliding against her arm. Her Captain pressed a hand to her back, walking with her into the room the worker indicated.
"There's clearly been a mistake," Nanao said, but the worker only smiled and closed the screen behind her. "Did you do this, Captain?"
"No, I didn't. But you were going to eat dinner, and so was I, so why not enjoy the food that's already been prepared?"
She stepped away from his hand. His argument was reasonable, and she couldn't find a way to refuse without rudeness, though she still felt suspicious of the whole thing. "Very well."
She sat and began to eat, watching him. He sat with a flourish and ate with enthusiasm. But she knew him too well to be fooled. As she'd anticipated, he couldn't resist an interrogation. It was cheerful and well-disguised, but she recognized it immediately. "I was so happy when I heard my Nanao-chan was taking a vacation. How long have I been trying to get you to go away to the Lake District in the west?"
"You have been trying to get me to go away with you to the Lake District for many years." She sipped her tea.
"My family has a home in a particularly lovely spot. I think you'd like it there." He smiled, but his eyes were sharp.
"It's inappropriate for your subordinates to vacation at your family's home."
"But my Nanao-chan is so much more than my subordinate. And staying with my family isn't inappropriate, if it's right for our relationship."
"Most of our relationship is inappropriate," she said, intending to chide him, but a note of sadness crept into her voice instead.
"That depends entirely on what the nature of our relationship is, Nanao-chan." His eyes were gentler now.
She sighed. She did not want to discuss their relationship; that was a conversation she'd been dreading since the silence had grown between them when Lisa reentered their lives. She'd always been confident of her place as the Vice Captain of the Eighth, and for the first time she'd felt fear that she'd be replaced when the Vizards were offered a pardon and some of them resumed their old positions. Nanao was an excellent Vice Captain, she knew that; but Lisa had held the position before her, for much longer.
Nanao had always been comfortable with the slow progression of her relationship with her Captain. But Lisa had been intimate with Captain Kyōraku, something Nanao had suspected before, and Lisa had confirmed during conversation with a bluntness that made Nanao wince. Lisa had already had everything that Nanao wanted, and Lisa could easily take it back again. Nanao's confidence and comfort with her place in the world were shaken by Lisa's reappearance.
"And no matter how inappropriate it may be, I have to proclaim my love for Nanao-chan. If you'll remember last Valentine's Day—"
"Don't bring up the Valentine's Day Incident," she said, but she was grateful he'd moved them away from the dangerous waters they'd been swimming in. It was true that most of the closeness she'd allowed him was not something that truly belonged to a Captain and Vice Captain relationship; she very much doubted that Captain Kuchiki, for instance, had ever serenaded Renji from a balcony, or that Renji had ever needed to smack Captain Kuchiki in the face with a book for inappropriate contact during budget meetings.
And the Valentine's Day Incident—surely Renji would never have set Captain Kuchiki's office on fire with Hadō 31 during that frivolous Living World holiday, and if he had, Captain Kuchiki would likely have cut him into very small pieces.
Certainly he wouldn't have done what Captain Kyōraku had: walking around for weeks proclaiming, "The love between Nanao-chan and I burns so hot, we lost most of the office to it last week!"
"If you have a burning sensation, I would suggest a visit to the Fourth Division. They have treatments for that sort of thing," she'd hissed at him, though she'd eventually given up hope that he would stop discussing the Valentine's Day Incident, as it had come to be known in Seireitei.
She shook her head at the memory.
"What is it, Nanao-chan?"
She laughed a little. "I can't imagine Captain Kuchiki and Renji-kun having an incident like that one."
"Maybe you'd be surprised, Nanao-chan." He grinned wickedly.
"What? Really?" She leaned over the table.
"What people do in their private time is their own business. This is an unexpected interest in gossip, naughty Nanao-chan," he murmured, leaning in toward her.
"Think of the photo book sales that the SWA could get with romantic photos of them." Their lips were only whispers apart. He smelled good, like pine trees and spice and home. But he was home, wasn't he? She'd missed it, and missed him.
"I don't think you'd ever get them to agree. But the basic idea is excellent. Perhaps if you tried it with different targets."
"Different targets? Would you do something like that?" His eyes were on her mouth, and her tongue darted out to wet her lips.
"I could be persuaded. If Nanao-chan directed the shoot, took the photos, and provided motivation for me." He drew closer.
"Motivation?" Her eyelids slipped half-closed.
"Yes. You know how unmotivated I can be. You'd really have to apply yourself to me, Nanao-chan."
"I can be very diligent," she whispered. His hand brushed her cheek as he had when he'd given her the hair ornament. She wanted to kiss him. She craved the contact with him, the intimacy that would build a path over the deep silence between them. This was easy, physical attraction. They wanted each other; it was obvious. But she wanted so much more with him than that.
If she kissed him now, it would hurt so much more when they had the conversation about the silence between them. He was attracted to her, she was certain of that much. But her conversations with Lisa had made it painfully apparent to Nanao that his feelings for her were not a unique romantic love that would end in roses and forever.
When they did have to talk about the silence between them, it would be more than humiliating for her. Not only would he decline her love for him, but he would do it gently, carefully, which was utterly unbearable. He did have feelings for her and perhaps even loved her, just not in the way that she desired.
She pulled back from him, from the lingering desire between them, from his warmth. "I'm going to my room. Good night, Captain."
His eyes were watchful. "I'll walk you. I need to see about getting a room."
He smiled. "It's quite late now, isn't it? Staying the night seems like the best thing to do."
"I'm sure it won't be a problem for you to get a room. There are very few guests here at this time of year." She slid the door open. "What?"
Guests and inn workers swarmed the halls. Nanao stopped one of the inn's workers. "What's going on here?"
"Oh, we're very busy now, Ise-dono. Many guests have unexpectedly arrived." The woman smiled, her high cheekbones prominent in her face.
"I needed to get a second room, for my—" She gestured over her shoulder at Captain Kyōraku.
"You have such a handsome husband, Ise-dono! How wonderful!"
Another woman from the inn stepped over. "I'm sorry to say, there are no more rooms. We have so many guests."
"So many," the narrow-faced woman said.
"But you misunderstand. He's not my husband, he's my Captain." Nanao gave Captain Kyōraku a stern look, but he did not intervene.
"Oh, you're so lucky, Ise-dono!" The women tittered behind their hands.
"Listen, please, we really need some accommodation here. Can we please at least get a screen and additional bedding?"
"We'll try!" The women darted off through the hall, ducking into different rooms.
Nanao rubbed at her temples. "I do not feel confident that we will receive a screen or more bedding. It's very strange that they've gotten so busy, isn't it?"
"Don't worry sharing about the room, Nanao-chan."
"It's inappropriate," she said. She was annoyed that she would not get a reprieve from his presence. She could demand that he leave the resort, but that would probably plunge them into the conversation he'd likely come out here to have, and she most definitely did not want that talk now.
"We've slept together in more intimate scenarios than this." He followed her to her room.
"Battlefields and training don't count. Those are professional situations." She looked around her room for some solution, but the furniture was sparse. Her Captain would likely appreciate the lovely trees painted on the walls, though. "We'll make it work, I suppose. Could you please wait outside?"
"Of course, lovely Nanao-chan." He stepped out of the room.
She prepared for bed and then sat on the large futon, which could easily fit two people, even if one of them was as large as Captain Kyōraku. "You can come in, Captain."
He reentered the room, and when he saw her on the bed with her hair down, something lit in his eyes. She adjusted her glasses, uncomfortable. "I am prepared to offer you two concessions."
"I'm interested." She had the distinct impression he was interested in a number of things, none of which she intended to give him.
"You can have this pillow, and one of the blankets. In return, you will do nothing inappropriate, and you will not stare at me while I sleep." She forced herself to hold his gaze as she laid out her requests. She held out the pillow.
He accepted it from her hand. "You know, Nanao-chan, the idea is not for me to take advantage of you, but for you to take advantage of me. It's much more fun that way." He winked.
"You sound like you're already dreaming." He took the pillow and stretched out on the floor a few steps from the bed. "Will that be comfortable?"
"I can sleep anywhere, my considerate Nanao-chan. It's a skill I've developed."
"You've certainly had years of practice," she said, thinking of the various odd spots she'd found him relaxing: in fields and parks, on roofs and porches, and once on top of a bookcase in the library. She turned out the light. "You'll leave tomorrow?" she asked, her anxiety creeping higher.
"That's for tomorrow, isn't it? Good night, Nanao-chan."
She removed her glasses and lay down on her side, facing away from him. "Good night, Captain."
Nanao stared at the ceiling, abandoning any pretense of sleeping. Captain Kyōraku's breathing was deep and even across the room. Having him here made the room seem small and intimate although it was quite spacious. She pushed back the covers and rose quietly from bed, grabbing a haori and leaving the room.
Nanao stepped out into the garden behind the inn, the moon bright overhead. Water flowed in a thin stream beside the path. She found a bench in an open area with a few flowers scenting the air, even at night.
A sound on the path brought her eyes to Chiyo, who looked surprised but not displeased to see her. 'Are you also a nocturnal creature, Ise-san?"
"No, I'm not really. I generally go to bed at a reasonable time and get up rather early. My Captain is the nocturnal creature."
Chiyo nodded and shifted slowly toward the bench, sitting beside Nanao. "He's a charming and handsome man, your Captain."
"Yes, he is," Nanao said. Ordinarily she would have denied noticing any such qualities in him, but she couldn't see the point of the lie now.
"He's the man you love, isn't he?" When Nanao's eyes closed Chiyo hurried on. "Please forgive me if I've caused offense, but your feelings seemed so clear earlier, when he gave you the hair comb. Please forget that I mentioned anything."
Nanao's eyes opened. 'No, it's fine." She smiled faintly. "You are not the first person to tell me my feelings are too obvious recently." And Lisa had been much less apologetic about it.
"Oh, I see. You've confessed to Kyōraku-kun? I don't mean to pry. It's only that you seem so sad. It pains me to see such a weight on a young woman. I've had many daughters and now granddaughters of my own, so I have a good amount of experience in matters like these."
The warmth and concern in her voice felt genuine to Nanao. "You're very kind, Chiyo-san. I have not confessed anything to Captain Kyōraku. But—he's a very perceptive man, and as you said, my feelings are not particularly well-concealed."
"And he hasn't said anything to you?" The sympathy in Chiyo's voice made Nanao's eyes sting; if it was difficult to hear pity in an old woman's voice, how painful would it be to hear it from Captain Kyōraku?
Chiyo was silent for a minute, and Nanao stared at the moon, round and heavy. It was the kind of moon he liked, the kind he'd pulled her out of bed to come and see with him before. They wouldn't be able to do things like that after this trip, she was certain. How could she bear to sit on a roof beside him, listening to him talk about the stars, when she could hardly bear to be in the same room with him?
She might not even be able to bear being in the same division with him.
"Are you so sure that he would not react favorably to a confession? Men can be denser than you'd imagine. He's obviously attracted to you and fond of you. Perhaps you could have something more in your relationship than you think."
Nanao was a bit surprised at how off-handedly Chiyo insulted all men again. "It's inaccurate to say men are dense like that. And Captain Kyōraku in particular is not dense. He's very, very clever. Maybe he would react well to something like that. He's a romantic man. But the gap what more he would offer to me and what more I would want is too large. It would not be fair of me to expect so much from him."
"Fair?" Chiyo scoffed. "What does fair matter in love? So he's a man that likes women, that's clear. But is it really so much to ask him not to chase other vixens? You told me not to call him dense, but which of us is underestimating him here? You would not even consider pursuing him, because it would be too much to ask him to stay true to you. That is a very low expectation, in my opinion."
Nanao's lips pressed together, and when she spoke, her words were clipped. "I have it on the best authority that he has not had the kind of exclusive, serious relationship that I would want with anyone successfully in the last two thousand years. That is the fact of the matter. It has nothing to do with underestimating him, or setting low expectations. It's about his history."
"Of course he hasn't succeeded," Chiyo said, smacking her knee.
"What?" Nanao asked, startled.
"If he'd succeeded, he wouldn't be available for you to pursue at all, would he? He'd be in a relationship with someone else, or he'd be widowed, which isn't the case."
"What is your point?" Nanao's eyes narrowed.
"Someone has to take that risk on him. Why shouldn't it be you?" Chiyo smiled.
"The risk is too great. I'm not comfortable taking a risk like that." The potential for Nanao to be hurt was just too high.
Chiyo sighed. "Do you really think you'll be less hurt if you don't pursue something with him than you will be if he has the relationship you want with someone else?"
"I don't know," she said, but thought of the jealousy she'd felt when he went to see Lisa without her.
Chiyo chuckled. "That's difficult, isn't it? If you're in a situation where not acting doesn't spare you anything, why not act?"
"This risk is too great." Nanao's hands fidgeted and she clutched them together in her lap.
"It's disappointing to hear such caution from someone so young. Listen, you can be cautious when you're old and a misstep could break your hip. But when you're young, you should take risks. Time will ease the hurt of bad experiences, and the memories will warm you in your fading years," Chiyo said.
"I don't know." Nanao looked up at the moon.
"Well, if you're set on being cautious, there's always the ribbon Misao-chan tried to give you earlier. If you used that, then you could be certain you'd get a positive response to your confession. The effects would likely only last a few weeks or months, but by then, he'd already be accustomed to being in a relationship with you, and would probably never even notice the effect of the ribbon had worn off. That's a very common outcome, in my experience."
"That's—" tempting. "That's unethical."
"It's a small thing, a small spell. Any lasting relationship would be to your credit, not the credit of the ribbon." Chiyo smiled.
Nanao shook her head.
"Well, I hope that you reconsider. Or at least make some memories on this trip, hmm? This area is famous for its romantic settings," Chiyo said.
"He'd like this spot." Nanao glanced at the moon, the flowers in the night garden, and stream running nearby.
"You should be enjoying the garden with Kyōraku-kun, and not with an old lady like me." Chiyo rose, patting Nanao's hand. "You remind me of one of my daughters. She had such anxiety over everything."
"A healthy amount of worry is perfectly normal," Nanao said, but without any weight behind the words. "How is your daughter now?"
"Oh, she's doing very well. I made sure of that. All of my attention is focused on Misao-chan now." The old woman laughed as she turned down the garden path. "Have a good night, Ise-san. Or should I say, have a memorable one?" Chiyo's laughter floated back to Nanao on the bench.
"Good night, Chiyo-san," Nanao murmured, rising from the bench.
She walked slowly back to the room, making her way through the winding corridors of the large inn. For all that the inn workers had said the inn was busy, she saw and heard no one. Perhaps it was just very late. At the door to her room she paused before entering. She made her way back to her bed, collapsing on it.
"Nanao-chan?" Captain Kyōraku's voice was low.
"I was outside." She lay on her side, facing him, but with her eyes closed.
"Is it a beautiful night?"
"You should go and look, if you're awake anyway. It's warm enough outside, and the moon is full and low. You always like that kind of moon," she said, opening her eyes a crack.
He was watching her face with his head propped on his hand, supported by his elbow. "Pregnant."
"What?" she asked, surprised by the word.
"On nights when the moon is low and full, she looks pregnant." He sat up, stretching his arms over his head. "Will you go and enjoy the night with me, Nanao-chan?"
She rolled to her back, staring at the ceiling for a few moments. "I don't want to talk," she said, but gave no reason.
"We won't talk. We'll just take in the atmosphere of the night." He stood and stalked to the bed, reaching his hand out to her.
She ignored his hand and slipped off the bed, standing. "There's a garden."
"Wonderful. Lead the way, sweet Nanao-chan." If he felt slighted she hadn't accepted his hand, he didn't show it.
They passed through the still corridors Nanao had just traveled, arriving at the garden path and the bench without any further discussion. She sat near one end of the bench, leaving him plenty of room, but he still sat close enough to her for his thigh to brush hers. She didn't complain; it would take too much effort to get him to move over, and she liked to feel his warmth seeping into her through their clothes.
"Lovely," he said, gazing at the moon.
She said nothing. Time passed around them; she was aware of it but not concerned with it. She enjoyed being with him like this, with the night surrounding them and no one else nearby. If they didn't speak it was possible to pretend that things between them were the same as they'd always been.
But that was not the truth.
"Good night, Captain." She stood, turning to the path back to the inn.
"Nanao-chan," he said, clasping his fingers loosely around her wrist.
"What is it?" she asked, frozen.
"Thank you." His fingers slid down to her hand, squeezing briefly before he let her go.
She was still for a moment. Did the silence between them bother him the way it bothered her? Did he miss her as she missed him? What did any of that matter, when what he might offer her was so far from what she wanted? But still—her head tipped in a bare nod, and then she hurried down the path, back to the room.