He always wondered what she did on her days off. In fact, trying to solve that puzzle was one of the things that had gotten him through his healing in the Fourth Division after the Winter War, not that he had had much of it because Unohana was a good combat medic. But she had demanded he stay for at least three days to take care of the damage Aizen had done to his leg, or else he would have a limp. Nanao had visited, kept him updated on what was going on in their division, and that was that. Perfunctory and to the point, just as his Nanao-chan always was.
He had spent a lot of time thinking, too. It was good to see Risa again, see that she had controlled the Hollow powers Aizen had forced on her. During his healing time she had come to see him, told him that Yamamoto had allowed them the opportunity to come back and reacclimate into Soul Society, but they had declined. They were now allowed to visit, though, so he wouldn’t be seeing the last of her. That was good news.
Of course, the second time Risa visited Nanao was around, and she was even more curt and abrupt than usual. He had an inkling that his current lieutenant did not forgive his former lieutenant, and it would take time. After all, wounds inflicted on children are buried far deeper and take much longer to heal than wounds inflicted on adults, and Risa’s unwilling absence had left a deep scar on his lieutenant.
So during his three day stay he decided to mend their breach. After all, he cared for them both; he had hand-picked Risa to be his lieutenant, and when Nanao had shown promise early on she had been groomed for the position she now held. They were both special women to him and he just wanted them to be able to be in the same room and talk. So he devised a plan.
But first, he had to find out what Nanao did on her days off.
He couldn’t follow her, and he couldn’t rely on any sort of secrecy from her friends; after all, he knew firsthand that she hated it when he pried in her business. But this was important. It would be to her detriment if he didn’t help. So he finally decided to ask for help in a roundabout way. Rukia Kuchiki had seemed so sad and lonely when she returned from the living world after young Kurosaki had lost his powers that he figured he would kill two birds with one stone and encourage Ukitake to have his young charge befriend Nanao, and then Ukitake could covertly ask what sorts of things they did. After all, Ukitake had a vested interest in his division member, and this would hopefully help both young women.
It was hard, the first day they spent together. He waited for Nanao to come back to the barracks, and then gave Ukitake a few hours to converse with young Kuchiki, and then he went to visit an old friend, ostensibly for a late tea and sake session. There was no sake that evening, just tea, and Ukitake had a smile on his face.
“I have not seen her this happy since she returned three weeks ago,” he said with a smile, blowing his cup of tea. Kyoraku was pouring a cup for himself and he paused. “She said they went shopping for books. Rukia had loaned her copies of shoujo manga the last time she was here and had brought more for her, and Nanao had promised a book of Shakespearean poems in exchange.” His smile faltered slightly. “Ichigo liked Shakespeare. I think this is her way of staying close to him, despite the distance.”
“Did they do anything else?”
“Wandered around Seiritieti and talked, mostly. Your lieutenant is a good listener with good advice.” Then his smile broadened. “She is also very intelligent. I believe she did things differently today than she normally would do. She thinks you are up to something. She is right, of course, and so she’s cautious.”
“That’s my Nanao-chan,” he said with a smile.
“I can see why you want to help her mend her problems with Yadamarou-san, but what is in it for you, if I may be so bold as to ask?” he replied.
“I worry about her. I watched what Risa-san’s absence did to her,” Kyoraku said quietly. “I did not think her reappearance would cause her to put up so thick a wall around herself, and one so high.”
“She knows what happened?”
Kyoraku nodded. “She knows. Perhaps she is working it through in her own way, but Risa-san is coming back next week and I want Nanao-chan to be okay with her.”
“Might I offer some advice?” Ukitake asked after he took a sip of his tea.
“It is a new year, and the end of the Winter War, and a time for new beginnings. Talk to her. Do not sneak around or send others to find out for you. Simply talk to her, without your usual demeanor.”
Kyoraku tilted his head slightly, and then nodded. “Tomorrow. I shall talk to her tomorrow.”
She did not look up from the pile of paperwork she had in front of her, but she did slow her writing. “Yes, Captain?”
“I would like to talk to you.” He waited a moment, and got no response. “About Risa-san.”
Nanao’s head jerked up and she made a mistake on the form she was filling out. “I do not want to talk about it.”
“It was not her fault. It was not anybody’s fault except Aizen’s, and perhaps my own, for letting her go. It was a trap, a trap we had no clue was being set, and Aizen was very good at pulling things over our eyes. We just didn’t know it yet.”
Her hands were bunched in fists as he spoke, and she relaxed slightly. “I missed her so much,” she said quietly.
“I know,” he replied, moving his chair from behind his not often used desk and placing it in front of hers. She did not look up at him, and had instead moved her hands in front of her, and was staring at them. After a moment, he covered hers with his. He had never really compared the sizes of their hands before, and hers were dainty and small and easily encompassed in both of his. They were also hands that showed they worked, and were not nobleman’s hands. Somehow, this fact pleased him. She did not pull away, and that surprised him as well as delighted him. “I tried to fill the void she left, but there are times I think I did not do a good job.”
“There were times you didn’t,” she said, and he could see the slivers of a wry smile on her face. Then it was gone. “I should hate Aizen for all of this, but I still hate her. Or maybe not hate, but…I don’t find it easy to forgive her. She left me.”
“She had to, or else she would never have been given a chance to be close to normal,” Kyoraku said. He watched as a tear slid down her cheek and he wiped it away before lifting her chin up with the knuckle of his index finger. “Talk to her, Nanao-chan. She has missed you very much over the last hundred years and would like to get to know you now, as an adult who has been saddled with me for far too long.”
“Saddled is right,” she said, a real smile forming on her face. “You’re brilliant, but lazy. And you drink too much sake.”
“I will make you a bargain. You let me accompany you on one of your days off and I won’t drink sake for a week.”
“A month,” she said, her eyes narrowing slightly. “I enjoy not having you know where I am every waking minute, and if I’m going to give that up I want a longer term of sobriety.”
He winced. “Two weeks?” he asked plaintively.
She thought, then nodded. “All right. Two weeks. And no sneaking off to the other captains for sake, or else I will have to hit you in the head a few times.”
“And you will talk to Risa-san when she arrives next week?”
“Yes,” she said with a nod. “I will.”
“Good.” He smiled warmly at her. “Is there anything I can do today to help you out?”
She looked at him skeptically. “You can go over the field reports,” she said.
“Then that is what I shall do,” he said, getting out of his chair and carrying it back to his desk. “Where are they?”
“The thick stack to your left,” she said, looking back at her form and sighing, then opening a desk drawer and pulling out a blank one.
“I must convince this division to be less wordy,” he grumbled as he sat down and pulled them towards him.
“Why this sudden change of heart?” Nanao asked, setting down her pen.
“You’re volunteering to work. You’re treating me like an adult and not acting like a lovesick puppy.”
“Perhaps the experience of the Winter War has convinced me to turn over a new leaf,” he said, looking at his paperwork.
“We’ll see if it sticks,” she said, but she had a smile on her face as she said it.
Four days later it was Nanao’s day off again. She had told her Captain to meet her at the office at eleven. He was horrified at the thought that she worked on her days off, but when she got there she handed him a basket and a jug of water and told him to follow her.
They walked quite a long ways, veering near the Kuchiki manor. On a hill overlooking the orchard she stopped and spread out the blanket she had been carrying. It was crisp, but there was not snow yet. It seemed more like fall than winter, like a thawing point. But the trees were bare, and he had suspicions that she had planned this for a reason he did not know yet.
“I’m rather boring,” she said, sitting down and pulling a book out of her bag. “I sit here and look at the trees and read for a few hours, and then I take care of the shopping I need to do and perhaps buy more books.”
“Did you make this food?” he asked, taking a bite of the cold tankatsu he had pulled out.
“Some of it,” she said. “Other things I bought prepared this morning before we met.” Then she blushed slightly. “I do not cook often. What do you think?”
“I would like more of this if you would make it,” he said, smiling at her as her blush deepened. “You look very nice when you blush, Nanao-chan.”
“I look too young when I blush,” she said, turning her head.
“You are young, but not too young. Sometimes it is nice for a woman to blush.”
“Do you really consider me a woman?” she asked, quietly.
“Then why do you call me Nanao-chan? That’s a child’s honorific.”
“It is also used for someone you feel especially close to, that you care very much for. But if you like, I can call you Nanao-san.”
“You could just call me Nanao,” she said, her voice sounding almost hopeful.
“No honorific? Does this mean you consider me a dear friend?”
“I…forget it,” she mumbled, sighing.
“No, I want to know how you feel towards me,” he asked gently, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“I have often thought maybe there does not need to be formality between us. I know you very well. Or at least I think I do. This new side of you has surprised me.” She paused. “And the way you whine Nanao-chan when you aren’t getting your way is very annoying.”
“I can call you simply Nanao, if you would prefer,” he said with a chuckle. “But I think I do not know you as well as I should. I would like to learn more about you.”
“All right,” she said, looking up and meeting his eyes. “What would you like to know?”
“Anything you feel like telling me. But I must warn you. I will tell you many things about me in return. Deal?”
“Deal,” she said, a warm smile on her lips. And then they began to talk, really talk, for the first time since they had met. The sun was setting and the food was gone by the time he noticed his surroundings. He had been so engrossed in conversation that time had simply flown by. She brought it up first, though. “It is getting late.”
“Perhaps we could continue this conversation over dinner? I know a good noodle house in the Rukongai that has the best noodles and most fragrant teas.”
“I would like that,” she said with a nod. “Is it far?”
“Not too far from the gate that Jidanbou guards, in the first district,” he said, standing up and beginning to collect their things by the waning sunlight. “I have had a very enjoyable day.”
“I have too. It was very nice. Almost like a--” She cut herself quickly, and put her hands over her mouth.
“Date?” he said, pausing in what he was doing. He turned to see her nod slowly. “I felt much the same way.”
“Oh,” she said, lowering her hands. “That was not my intention when I planned this day. I had not thought we would spend so much time talking. I had hoped to bore you and get the day to myself,” she said, and he could see her flushing just slightly.
“Well, if you would like to consider it a date, I would too,” he replied, finishing what he was doing. “Of course, this date isn’t over yet. I still think we should have dinner.”
“Okay,” she said with a smile, picking up the blanket off the ground and shaking it before folding it. “Let us put these things away first and then you can take me out on a proper date.”
“I don’t know,” he said with a chuckle. “I think this was a proper date you arranged, even if it was not your intent. I certainly had a good time.”
“I’m glad,” she said.
He rearranged things and offered her his hand. Tentatively she took it, and he squeezed it once before they began their trek back to their division’s barracks. As the sun dipped below the horizon he felt himself filled with a curious warmth, and he enjoyed that feeling very much.