Cheating Hearts

Summary: Toshiro and Nanao secretly yearned to be together, but could never find the courage to leave their respective partners.

A/N: Fukutaichou means vice-captain; haori is the white captains' robe. I explain these things because you're such a beloved jujube.

x.x.x.x.x.x

The 10th was a privileged division. Those that valued tits, loyalty or a due-tomorrow-do-tomorrow boozer routine felt blessed to have a lieutenant like Matsumoto Rangiku. The reapers that respected discipline, cuddliness or ringing, ice-cold authority delighted in their captain Hitsugaya Toshiro.

Rangiku liked cuddly things. She hated being disciplined (not even in the good way; Rangiku had a healthy libido, not a weird one) or indeed restrained in any manner.

"Ah yes," some of the seated officers might be found to remark, salivating slightly, "No restraints. Matsumoto-fukutaichou generally goes bra-less."

Toshiro occasionally required more than loyalty in his deputy, detested procrastination, and was finding it difficult to nurture any interest in breasts when constantly in danger of being suffocated in marshmallow hell. He didn't hate Rangiku, but had developed a sick aversion to inefficiency and a fondness for organization.

"Ah yes," some of the seated officers might glance over their shoulders nervously, "I definitely filed form HQ-d-12 correctly. I think."

Hitsugaya Toshiro owed his grandmother's life to Rangiku. He owed a small piece of Hinamori Momo's sanity that his sweet-hearted lieutenant guarded. He owed even his own rigid crankiness to the fulsome, foolish foil she provided, and he was often grudgingly grateful for every last bit of the life Rangiku had wrought around him. Sometimes, though…

"Matsumoto." He stood over her head as it rested on the arm of the couch.

"Mmyep, Captain?" She shifted her neck to look into his eyes, hair spread under her in shiny waves of burnt sienna satin.

"I'm going to ask you a question. I want you to think about it very carefully before you answer."

"No problem, Captain."

"Where the devil do you get off sleeping in my office during working hours?"

She pondered. "Is that a rhetorical question, sir? Is it likely that I'd actually get off to something like that?"

"Matsumoto."

"Captain."

"Get. Out."

She snuggled the cushions of the couch and batted her eyes at him. "Lemme snooze for just five more minutes. I'm so tired."

Maybe he would've bitched about how tiring her unperformed duties were; maybe he would've just turned the room into an ice cube until she begged to leave. Before he could set his heart on a course of action there was a knock at the Western style door, and Ise Nanao requested permission to enter. Immediately Toshiro's demeanor changed from peeved to preening. He was conscious of his minutely displaced white haori (he tugged it into place), the unruly strand of hair sticking sideways from his scalp (he tugged it into place) and the skewed position of the inbox on his desk (he tugged it into place). Then he slapped his screwball deputy lightly on the cheek and seated himself before calling out to the visiting vice-captain.

"Enter, Ise."

000

The 8th Division was a special workplace. Those that valued cock, loyalty, or a devil-may-care boozer routine were graced by the ever-intuitive and always questionable presence of Kyoraku Shunsui, the captain. The reapers that respected proficiency, dignity, or the hot-librarian look sought solace in the steadfast stolidity of Ise Nanao.

Shunsui could be competent when he felt like it and had no use for dignity. The last hot-librarian looker to attract him was now an abomination under the command of Hirako Shinji. It was to Yadomaru Lisa that Nanao bore significance, and it was for her sake Shunsui kept the slender virgin by his side. Of course, he dug Nanao in her own way, in the way he dug every woman worth her salt. But no one wore the black shinigami robes like Lisa, no one pulled off thick-rimmed glasses like Lisa. No one handed his balls to him on a platter like Lisa…

"Shit," new recruits of the division were prone to laughing, "No one pulls off a pink kimono like the Captain."

Nanao, like nearly every other woman Shunsui had ever taken the time to charm, used to have a crush on her captain. Before the unshaven great, though, there was Yadomaru Lisa whose voice was a genre of erotica unto itself. The crush on Shunsui had been snuffed out after Nanao realized cock meant less to her than a single smile from Lisa, her girlhood idol. She still used the whilom vice-captain's breaking-in techniques for fresh inductees.

"Shit," week-old recruits of the division were prone to falling over in exhaustion, "No one puts you through the grinder like the Lieutenant."

Shunsui and Nanao owed each other nothing. They both were simply biding their time. As such, they might have been expected to not bother each other, but often…

"Nanao-chan~" it seemed he floated after her on the very air. The gaudy kimono created some truly bizarre illusions; this was not even one of them.

She forced herself to a halt to listen to his latest inanity. "Captain?"

"Eh, nothing. I'm hard up for some entertainment."

Nanao hefted the files in her arms, aware that he had no paperwork left to tend to for today. "Go take a walk."

"Come with me!" he latched onto her elbow with lightning speed. "We'll visit Unohana, that scary sempai!"

Slipping away with equal parts expertise and annoyance, the woman shook her head. "I've got to get Hitsugaya-taichou's signatures on some of these. And plan out a chain of command for when patrols from our divisions encounter each other. And get Matsumoto to attend the vice-captain meetings. You might say I'm busy. In fact, the more I think about it, the more definitely I'm convinced I have work to do."

"Words like acid from a mouth like a tulip," Shunsui grinned; indolent eyes blazed with intelligence under heavy eyelids, "I work hard too, Nanao-chan."

Maybe she should have issued a catty remark about the inferior quality and quantity of the work he got done; maybe she should've thrown the files where she stood and quit her cumbersome position. Instead, Nanao set her heart on taking the highest road, and bowed, and walked sedately away two doors down to the 10th Division. Waiting outside the captain's office to be allowed in, she took a moment to adjust her glasses to the perfect glinting angle and tucked her hair neatly behind her ears to exude a picture of perfect aptitude. After all, no one in all the squads appreciated a good lieutenant like Hitsugaya Toshiro.

000

"Enter, Ise."

So she did, taking small, brisk steps towards his desk. As she placed the files in her arms down in a neat pile, Toshiro swept his gaze upwards and caught her eye. A rosy blush rose in her throat and she cleared it with a cough. The jaded jade-eyed jellybean kept his gaze to himself. She got on with her life.

"These are testimonials for a new captain candidate, sir, sent to you for approval from Divisions Eight and Thirteen." Until Jyuushiro had manned up and made Rukia his w/i/f/e deputy, Nanao had carried out the majority of duties for his Division as well, and would continue to do the lion's share of work while she mentored Rukia to a position capable of handling it herself. It was unusual for someone to be chosen for the office Kuchiki Rukia had without ever having held a seat. In all honesty Nanao thought the cantankerous 3rd seats were better suited, but Jyuushiro had his way as captains always did.

"Captain~" Rangiku rolled over and over on the couch without ever falling off. "I think I need a vacation."

Toshiro never had his way.

"Go to hell, Matsumoto," he told her without much venom or even interest. Nanao glanced at the woman, who propped her chin up on her palms and smiled back at her. Nanao shook her head and returned her attention to Toshiro. Rangiku, well-accustomed to disapproval, stood up stretching.

"I think I'll go have a cup of tea," she said. Toshiro's eyes burned with censure as he watched her go.

"Look. See how she saunters? A few weeks' workload waiting for her and she could hardly give a damn. Ise, tell me why I'm plagued so."

Captains hand-picked their plague and bore the burden with the sick pleasure of a masochist. Most times the choices left Nanao confused. Take for example the curt leader of the 2nd Division and her gargantuan vice-captain. Where was the logic in that partnership? Also questionable was Kuchiki Byakuya's appointing of Abarai Renji. Still, those couplings were moderately successful, the deputy sufficiently cowed by the captain. Rangiku couldn't be cowed; wouldn't quail before an avalanche. Toshiro knew. He'd launched one against her once in a frenzy of frustration.

"A few weeks' workload? Sir, I can stay and lend a hand if you need it."

She'd spoken without thinking because it had long been a dream of hers to sit side-by-side with a hardworking captain to slave late into the night, sharing cups of coffee and sighing in mutual exhaustion, and leaving the work place just before dawn while smiling thankfully at each other for each other. Toshiro had worked long hours many a lonely night and was well accustomed to taking help whenever it was offered. He grunted at her.

"You're a godsend, Ise. As you will. These documents require Matsumoto's actual signature, so give them here. I'll get it out of her later." And his eyes glinted like steel when he said it; she did not fancy Rangiku's impending appointment with her responsibilities. "This stack needs some thorough reading. Legislature the nobles want us to draft…just give me solid reasons to deny them, alright?"

"Ah…" Nanao took the folders into her arms and blinked. "Of course. But sir, where shall I conduct my work?"

He set his outbox down on the floor and gestured to the space it had occupied on his desk. "Draw up a chair and sit. And give me some quiet. I get it so rarely…"

The aureate afternoon sun shone through the windows and daubed the room the color of daffodils. When an hour passed in peaceful pen pushing, a shinigami entered with a tea tray. Toshiro looked up in some surprise.

"I didn't ask for tea, Ishikawa."

"No sir, but Matsumoto-fukutaichou asked me to bring you some if Ise-fukutaichou was still here in an hour. Er, and to tell you that…that she's taking the evening off. Sir." The tray bearer quivered a little, and Toshiro's expression grew colder and colder until Nanao stood up to take the tray from Ishikawa.

"Thank you, subordinate. You may go." She set it down on their overcrowded desk and poured for him first. He thanked her and drank deeply from his cup. She made to do the same, and he grasped her wrist to stop her.

"You might want to think twice," Toshiro said lightly, "She's spiked it."

Nanao stared into his eyes, and then at the tea pot. "I am surprised to find myself surprised. I should've known better to think this sort of behavior was only exhibited by her at the Shinigami Women's Association meetings."

"She finds her hand slipping over all sorts of liquids," Toshiro agreed, "Once the men complained their shower water was contaminated; it was coming out discolored. I checked. Turned out she and Kusajishi had emptied some of Kuchiki's oldest port into the waterways. To cover it up I—anyway, that's the tea ruined. Shall I send for a fresh pot?"

"No," Nanao was loath to be disrupted again at their important work. "Let's not talk about her."

"You're right," he murmured, "There's too much I want to do with you while you're here."

A pleasurable shiver raked her spine from the promise in his words, and then she felt a little ill. This seat beside him was Rangiku's; the right to work with him was Rangiku's. Nanao was doing nothing short of usurping her throne. She ought to be ashamed. She was feeling guilty…

But why should she? If Rangiku was so interested in her vocation she would actually carry out her duties. If she so badly wanted to be Toshiro's strong right hand she would be by his side. All Nanao was doing, really, was helping out a beleaguered superior. And why shouldn't she? She ought to be proud. She was feeling pleased…

"Thank you, Ise," Toshiro said some time later, "That's all there is."

And a fierce rush moved through her. She bowed to him, and they escorted each other to the door. There Toshiro halted and hemmed a bit.

"It's been a very productive evening," said the captain slowly, "I wonder if I haven't taken you away from some other work?"

Nanao's heart leaped as she remembered that she had had errands on her itinerary other than him. She told him he was the last visit of her day. What was she going to tell Shunsui? Who was she kidding? Her captain wouldn't notice work left undone.

His great turquoise eyes were on her. "Maybe you could stop by again soon. I doubt Matsumoto will have a change of nature in the interim; files are always piled up here. Of course, I understand files are always piled up in Kyoraku's division as well…"

"Not as badly as they are here," she assured him, "I'll drop by whenever I can."

000

She dropped by the very next day.

He wasn't waiting for her, but the sight of her moved him to stand from his seat and stalk to her side. Gripping her arms, Toshiro whispered:

"You really came."

Nanao averted her gaze. "I couldn't stay away."

He guided her to the couch before calling up the kitchens and requesting lunch in the office. Then he called the 3rd seat of his division and ordered absolute uninterrupted peace. The 3rd seat said he would comply, Rangiku notwithstanding. Toshiro locked the door himself and turned to Nanao with impassioned eyes.

"Is it…is it really all right?"

She took a deep breath, her heart fluttering in her chest. "Yes. Please. Let me…"

They hardly knew how the afternoon passed, but pass it did. When Nanao walked out she was flushed and aching sweetly inside. Rangiku met her on her way in.

"Nanao-chan! Did you come to see me?"

The sweet ache vanished. Nanao stared at the buxom woman that Toshiro belonged to. "Um, yes. I came to inform you that the SWA meeting tonight is cancelled."

Rangiku chuckled. "Good. I didn't even know there was a meeting scheduled, and made plans with Iba to go drinking."

"Right." Nanao's heart was pounding; she hoped Toshiro had sent out the reports she'd typed in Rangiku's stead. The 10th's deputy didn't seem to be the sort who would take offense to having her work done by someone else, or even notice that it was done at all, but Nanao felt guilty for doing it anyway. She had her own reports to write, but she couldn't check those over with her captain as she typed them. She couldn't take a ten-second break to just stretch and sigh and meet someone else's eyes, sharing a small moment of similar pain. In her Division, Nanao did all the work. Just because she was good at it didn't mean she enjoyed it.

She enjoyed Toshiro.

And Toshiro enjoyed her.

He had told her to her face that he took pleasure in travailing together. His honest, blunt words sang in her head as she walked towards her apartment. She unlocked her door, entered, and shrieked.

Shunsui Kyoraku looked surprised. "Nanao-chan, is everything all right? I thought you were getting used to me breaking in."

"Captain, it is not something anyone should have to get used to. And I pose the same question as last time: why?"

"I missed you," he murmured, moving over to her, "You weren't anywhere to be found this afternoon. Where did you go?"

A panic rose in her heart. She hadn't told anyone she was going to Toshiro, but she hadn't taken any pains to keep it secret either. He would find out about today, so she told him the truth. Then she wondered if she could sneak into the diminutive captain's office unseen next time, and berated herself. They weren't having an affair. They had no need to hide anything.

Yet (Shunsui engaged her in flirtatious small talk that taxed her brain not at all; it was so tedious in its predictability) Nanao felt as if an affair was exactly what she was having.

And (Shunsui took his leave with a kiss on her cheek and a rather somber look in his eyes; she would make more of it later) Nanao was already planning to return to Toshiro more discreetly.

000

Matsumoto Rangiku said, "Captain, you haven't yelled at me lately."

Lately, Ise Nanao had been aiding Hitsugaya Toshiro at indecent hours to avoid detection. Though his first instinct had been to be scandalized at her coming to him at one in the morning, his overwhelming secondary reaction had been excitement. Just thinking about his nights made his heart thrill. Just looking at his real lieutenant made him sick with himself.

"I thought I was being too harsh on you, Matsumoto. If it's in your nature to be a slacker, I can't change you. Or did you enjoy my temper?" he smiled falsely to put her at ease, but got a nasty shock when he found hurt in her expression.

"I did," she sulked, "I was the only one you treated specially. Now I feel common."

Toshiro knew he had never treated anyone the way he treated Rangiku, but he had also never imagined that she cherished that treatment and thought it special. He gazed helplessly at her.

"Matsumoto…"

"Captain?" she looked at him hopelessly.

His heart was pounding. He didn't know what he would say to Nanao, but he knew that if Rangiku was willing he didn't want to turn to anyone else. "Do you want to stay back at work with me today?"

"Oh. Haha, no." She leaped to her feet and headed for the door. "On second thought I enjoy the freedom I have right now. Happy working hours, captain! Don't forget to get some sleep."

He stared at the door long after she was gone. Nanao entered, as had become customary, by the window. She brought her own work and some snacks, as usual. She saw Toshiro's blank face and stopped short.

"Captain…?"

"Ise," the white-haired wonder stood and up and pinned her with his gaze, "I want to make us official."

"Captain…"

"I want to leave Matsumoto."

"Captain!"

"I'm going to talk to Kyoraku in the morning. But first I want to ask you something. Will you be my vice-captain?"

The proposal took them both only half by surprise. She stood, stricken, as if a wave had just thrown her from a ship into the sea. He waited, bobbing in the waters between the horror of Nanao's rejection and the humiliation of Rangiku's rejection. They watched each other shrewdly for a minute, and came to their senses together.

"It would be more than a scandal," Nanao whispered faintly, "It would be betrayal."

"Kyoraku would never let you go," Hitsugaya croaked hoarsely, "It would mean a fight."

"Oh, Captain…"

"Ise. Ise…"

"We have work to do."

"Yes." He sank slowly back into his seat. "Yes. I'm sorry."

But the night crawled by, and not a great deal of work was done. They sat and simply watched each other, wretched with want and gaunt with guilt. Toshiro wanted to tell her everything, everything: he wanted her to know him as well as Rangiku did. He wanted to work with her all day and be her boss and comfort her openly when she needed comforting and protect her from Kyoraku's harassment. It was madness, and a disgraceful way for a captain to behave. He was slipping back into the madness though, and thinking that if she said the word now he would challenge all of Soul Society to tie his career to hers.

Nanao just wanted him to know one name, and that was Yadomaru Lisa's. She just wanted him to know one story, and it was the one where she'd had to accept Shunsui. She just wanted him to know one thing, and that was that he was the only captain she'd ever wanted to work under.

000

Nanao was behaving like a cheating wife.

Shunsui was more than cock, loyalty, and booze. He was more than met the eye, and his eyes met more than anyone else's. When Nanao told him she had worked with Toshiro, he had detected a nervousness in her that suggested crime committed. When within the week she had suddenly learned to smile at his obnoxiously flirtatious behavior and his truant tendencies, his heart chilled. He detected in her warmth a flame nursed for someone else. In her indulgent care he saw intolerable cruelty.

When Rangiku showed up on his doorstep a week later, he saw that he was not alone in seeing these things.

"Yeah, they're definitely cheating on us." Rangiku fell into his arms as if to weep on his shoulder, but instead stuck her hand in his robe for the flat flask he kept on his person. Taking a seat next to him, she poured herself a shot in the cap and downed it. Shunsui took the flask back for a shot of his own.

"But why? I would never object to Nanao lending a helping hand to a colleague. And you are the most reasonable, spite-less woman I can think of," Shunsui complimented her, "You wouldn't get jealous over sharing a man."

Rangiku, who had had to share Gin with Aizen Sousuke for many long years, snorted, "Cheaters cheat regardless of their partners' reasonable attitudes. They cheat because of an inherent cheating quality within that drives them to be cheaters, the bloody cheats."

"What if it's not them," Shunsui asked gravely, "What if it's because we were inattentive, and they thought us charmless in the interim?"

Rangiku stood and thumped her chest. "Charmless!? Have you seen me? I am the most charming creature on the planet. Do you think he asked me to be his vice-captain for my talent? No. It was because I am a slick fucking charmer. No, Kyoraku-taichou, please do not let their behavior bring your self-esteem down."

But Shunsui, whose charm had not been the reason Nanao assented to be his deputy, could not be shaken out of his gravity so easily. "Matsumoto, you're so lucky. To have faith in yourself, you're lucky. What attraction can I hold against a younger man, though? No, I should let her go gracefully." His jaw set in an awful way. He did not want to let her go gracefully. He wanted to raise hell. He wanted to ask Nanao what sin he had committed against her that she would not even face him, but sneak behind his back with another man and do his accounting.

"What should we do, captain?"

They gazed forlornly at each other, her bravado and his blitheness crumpled at the feet of their tragic circumstances. No matter how poorly they had fulfilled their duties, they had always thought their partners would put up with them. With their neglect facing them in the form of betrayal, they could not help but blame themselves. It wasn't logical, but what matter of the heart…? It hurt, but what matter of healing…?

It was hell, but how would they escape it…?

000

Rangiku chose confrontation, surprising absolutely no one.

"Captain! How could you?" she wailed one night, drunk as she needed to be and clutching his haori in full view of two other captains and at least ten passersby, "I loved you so honestly all these years! I never—never looked at another man all these years. Not even Gin! And now he's gone and you'll leave and I'll have no one but Kira. Kira! Kira's a terrible drinker."

"Matsumoto!" Toshiro was absolutely mortified. He had no idea how she'd cottoned on when he'd been so good to her and indifferent to Nanao outside of their tryst hours, but it was abhorrent to him that she had been forced to bear the brunt of his betrayal in such a lonely way. It was abhorrent also that Kuchiki Byakuya and Ukitake Jyuushiro were witnessing this calamitous scene as his faithlessness faced him with Matsumoto's weeping countenance. He didn't think he could live with the awkwardness of it all. Taking his lieutenant by her shoulders, he raised her from her knees until she was looking down at him as usual. Byakuya and Jyuushiro shifted uncomfortably and the passersby ceased to pass on.

"Matsumoto, stop it." His voice was colder than he intended to; fear always froze it. In battle it made him appear ferocious. Tonight it made him seem merely callous. Matsumoto's tears fell on his face, and he felt just enough remorse to not repent for what he said next:

"Matsumoto, I don't know what you're talking about. Just go back to the barracks; you've overstepped yourself."

He gestured to the bystanders that wished they had been passersby, and chose two from his own Division plus Hisagi Shuhei to take her home. With her safely away, he turned to his colleagues.

"I apologize. You know how her habits are."

"She seemed distraught," Jyuushiro fretted. It was in his nature to fret. "Was she always such a sad drinker?"

"She has her moods," Toshiro assured him.

Byakuya said, "We should continue on our way to the Shinigami Men's Auxiliary meeting."

"There will be no further interruptions," Toshiro assured him.

Except there was, not two minutes later. Shunsui showed up and for once his eyes were not mellow, not mild, and not even moderately pleased to see his best friend, bygone junior, and back-stabbing colleague gathered together.

"Where's Matsumoto?" he demanded, "We were drinking together moments ago!"

"Kyoraku," Jyuushiro said with some alarm, "Calm yourself. Matsumoto-fukutaichou was just here, and Hitsugaya-taichou sent her home with an escort."

Toshiro, who was having misgivings about this whole night, concurred. "There's no need to worry yourself, Kyoraku. She's in good hands."

Shunsui snorted rather magnificently. "Any hands that are not yours are good, I suppose." His face darkened, as if acknowledging that he had said too much, but there was no way to take it back or to stop the comments that it gave rise to.

"Kyoraku," Jyuushiro reproached, "Hitsugaya-taichou is very considerate of her, and you know it."

"Kyoraku-sempai, is there any reason for you to feel that way?"

"Kyoraku-taichou," Hitsugaya rumbled, "I feel we should speak privately later on."

Byakuya looked on both their expressions with mild interest, while Jyuushiro frankly stared. Shunsui laughed a mirthless and maligned laugh, and agreed, and asked Jyuushiro to make his excuses at the Men's Auxiliary meeting. They would speak privately later on.

000

Privately, later on, Toshiro attacked first.

"How dare you, Kyoraku. Is it not enough that Ukitake foists candy upon me as if I was a child whenever he gets a chance? Now you must attempt to drag down my dignity too? Exactly what, exactly why is it that you think you can make snide comments about my treatment of Matsumoto to my face? To my very face!"

Privately, later on, after the Men's Auxiliary meeting, Toshiro had rendezvoused with Shunsui at a small teahouse near the 6th Division. It had a reputation for cozy, private rooms, and unpalatable bitter gourd tea. Steaming cups sat in front of both men as they coldly calculated each other. Shunsui simply said,

"You're unbelievable."

Toshiro, who firmly believed in himself, who always thought that offense was the best defense, who did not feel guilty except when faced with Rangiku's crying face, replied, "That is not an answer, captain. Please tell me whose hands my lieutenant would be better off in. A superior officer like yourself, who will do no work and hamper his only competent subordinate? In what way have I offended your clearly higher moral ground, and your irreproachable work ethic?"

Shunsui was not smiling. His eyes were tempered steel tempted to draw blood, but Hitsugaya Toshiro had indomitable eyes too, and used them to cut faster and deeper than the captain of the 8th.

"If this is about Nanao, and I suspect it is, then ask yourself why she had to come to me for satisfaction. No; maybe you are deep into your cups and cannot think that far? Let me help you—it is because she was desperate for relief of having someone to depend upon. Before you air dirty laundry, try to pinch your nose and brave the wash water. Talk to your own damn lieutenant about why we do what we do, and do not. Do not presume you can lay the blame for your unhappiness at my feet. Matsumoto may. You may not. Matsumoto I will answer to. You may find another drinking partner."

There was a silence. Shunsui was a slow talker, and a thorough thinker. Toshiro left him to think, paid for his vile tea, and made to leave the building. To his deep suspicion, he found Abarai Renji skulking around the entrance of the teahouse. He could hardly voice the suspicion, or find fault in the way Renji jumped smartly to attention to greet him, but nonetheless Toshiro reflected with misgiving upon the nosy nature of Kuchiki Byakuya, and his own imprudence in choosing a teahouse in another Division's district just because it had felt like neutral ground.

000

Publicly, soon after, Nanao met with Toshiro to walk the painstakingly crafted gardens of the 13th Division on their way to Ukitake Jyuushiro's quarters. The afternoon sun beamed down upon the pink parasol she held over both her head and Toshiro's. The spring breezes stirred the hem of her robes and fluttered her sleeves. A rivulet ran along the path they took, and Nanao felt like jumping in to drown herself.

"Hitsugaya-taichou, what should we do?"

Toshiro's heart gave a lurch at the way she called him captain. It gave another lurch at the way Rangiku had called him captain last night. He knew what he had to do. If Rangiku had been hurt because of him, then he would have to throw himself at her feet and grovel for forgiveness. He would have to retake his vows to protect and guide her, to work with and respect her. He had to make it right to her, or die trying. If Rangiku had been hurt because of him, the least he could do was be hurt alongside her…

And yet Nanao had said 'we'. He knew what he had to do; no doubt Nanao knew her duty too. But the two of them, though weighed down by remorse, were in fact still aware that they had found with each other a rare and precious bond that they were reluctant to cut and cast aside. They had to return to their positions. They did not want to.

"Did you talk to Kyoraku yet?" Toshiro asked.

"That is not an answer, captain," Nanao said like an eerie echo of himself, "I will speak to the captain only if I know what I want from the conversation. I will decide what I want once…once you tell me what we should do."

She was wonderful at cutting to the point. Toshiro expected that it came from years of having to catch Shunsui by the scruff and sidestep all his distracting wiles. He regretted more deeply his speech to the hairy brute last night. Toshiro had thought of exactly these things, that many of the qualities he admired in Nanao came from trying to house-train Shunsui, and had gotten angry. He might have said more than was strictly necessary. Nanao would have to face Shunsui, and Toshiro did not think he had made it any easier by inciting the older man's insecurities.

"Ise…"

"Captain?"

Toshiro came to a halt, and Nanao halted to look down at his snowy white hair and perspiring brow. Hitsugaya Toshiro was wrong. Nanao did not know what her duty was. She had long thought it was to stay at Shunsui's side until Yadomaru Lisa returned, but Yadomaru Lisa had not returned. Nanao had long thought she enjoyed working alone, but after enjoying it with Toshiro she did not know how to return to the lesser plane of gratification. Nanao had long thought that she would never stay with Toshiro, because it meant displacing Matsumoto Rangiku who had been displaced long enough, and she still thought that. But now she did not know how to reconcile all these thoughts, and she did not know how to go back to Shunsui and act like she was not being pressured into it. She had looked politely to Toshiro to help her find the way, because she had thought that was what captains were meant to do, but found him quite as lost as she was.

"Captain, I do not want to return to Kyoraku-taichou. At least not now."

Toshiro looked up at her in alarm.

"Having said that, I do not mean to come under you either. I think we both know where your true feelings lie."

Toshiro looked down at his feet in dumb agreement.

"I would, however, ask you to…support me. I cannot think of an instance where a lieutenant has left her position in anything but disgrace. I would like to leave with my dignity intact."

Toshiro looked into her eyes in searing inquisition. Nanao smiled and walked on to Jyuushiro's wrap-around porch, where three people and a well-laid tea table waited for them.

"Kuchiki," Toshiro grunted at the stoic noble seated on Jyuushiro's right side, "I am unsurprised and displeased to find you here."

"Ukitake-sempai asked it of me," said Byakuya primly. Jyuushiro had asked him to tea, but it was Byakuya who had asked him to have tea with Rangiku and her master and Ise Nanao in the first place. Rangiku sat on Jyuushiro's left, sober and seeming not to know how to feel without alcohol inside her. As they took their seats opposite her, she surveyed Nanao's serene face, and Toshiro's tetchy one, and took it upon herself to serve them fragrant tea in the faded green porcelain cups.

"Captain," she muttered as she handed Toshiro his tea. He took it without a word, seeking to make eye contact. She twitched her gaze away, and Jyuushiro wondered just what Byakuya had gotten him into.

"How is it?" he asked Nanao kindly, "It's a dust mix, not brewed leaves, so you'll forgive me if it's not very strong. Unohana-taichou prohibited me from taking strong tea."

"Unohana-taichou has some strange ideas about how to cure your cough, sempai," Byakuya sipped at his beverage, made a face, and put it back down, "I suppose she must have started getting creative after the first hundred years."

"Byakuya," Jyuushiro said tiredly, always ready to defend the good woman who was so bad at fixing his ailment.

"Captain," said Nanao, "it's quite strong enough for me. I've always liked milky tea better than the decoction. But I have something to say that's slightly more momentous than the strength of your tea." She put down her cup on the table and caught Rangiku's attention with her steady gaze.

"I'm sorry, Matsumoto," she said, and Rangiku promptly burst into tears.

There was a flurry of activity. Jyuushiro made a startled noise and started pulling tissues from his person immediately. Toshiro leaped to his feet and scurried over to her side, raising his hand and then curling it into a fist by his side like he didn't know whether to touch her or not. Noticing his hesitation, Rangiku wailed all the louder. Byakuya lifted his cup to his lips to hide his small smile.

"Captain are you kidding me I'm crying and you won't lift a finger why should she apologize what has she done to me she's not the one that broke my heart how could you how just what is happening why are you doing this to me—" and she stopped there to take a deep, shuddering breath and blow her nose into gentleman Jyuushiro's graciously offered tissues. Toshiro looked stymied, and then chagrined. He knelt and seized Rangiku's shoulders. She looked into his green eyes and sniffled, her face an absolute mess.

Toshiro said, "You fool, it's because I feel guilty. I'm lousy with it. It's crushing me. You're right, she doesn't have to apologize. I should. Matsumoto, I'm sorry. A thousand times, I'm sorry. Don't ever forgive me. Make me stay with you forever to work off my debt."

Rangiku sobbed all the louder, Jyuushiro startled all the harder, and Byakuya watched Nanao get up quietly and walk away under her pink parasol. The afternoon sun did wonders for her figure as she walked. The spring breezes blew around her, and Rangiku cried rivulets into Toshiro's shoulders as she simultaneously decried him for an awful pig-headed potty face.

000

Abarai Renji loved his captain, revered him, and had never thought of straying from him. Yet, as he carried out his orders to entertain Kyoraku Shunsui, he thought he could happily strangle Byakuya with the scarf the aristocrat always wore.

"Abarai," drawled Shunsui, "Let's sing again."

Strangle with glee. Quite obscene glee. Strangle him and then hide the body and then feel bad about it but then at least he would not be under Shunsui's arm, mike to his mouth and regaling him with lovelorn ballads. Renji was not a good singer, but Shunsui was too drunk to care. Renji was a very good little vice-captain, but failed to understand why he was under his boss' thumb so completely. Byakuya had actually charged him with keeping Shunsui away from Jyuushiro all day, and Renji had thought it would make his task easier if the captain was drunk and more malleable to suggestion. Poor boy had never been told of Kyoraku Shunsui's drunken mastery of stubbornness, or the way his whims would be wielded as weapons.

"Abarai, sing it in C-minor this time."

Renji had no clue what a C-minor was or how to sing in it. Nearing his limit for bullshit and also dying to pee, he somehow slipped out from the karaoke room that Shunsui had in his quarters and stood catching his breath in the corridor. The day was over. The sun was almost set. Surely he could go home now. He felt Ise Nanao's taut reiatsu come close, and hailed her. She raised an eyebrow at his presence.

"I'm, uh, just hanging out. You know how I like to drink with captains?"

"Does your captain know how you like to drink with captains?"

Renji saw red for a brief moment. Then he considered that Byakuya rarely asked him to perform pointless tasks (unless he was exercising that really uncomfortable thing he called his sense of humor) and that Nanao had probably put up with a lot more of Shunsui than he had. He muttered something vague in reply and Nanao gave him a cue to leave. Quite gratefully, he left to go see his captain about some things. Nanao contemplated his retreating back and thought that she had never pegged Byakuya for the interfering type until Toshiro implicated as much. Turning her back on all of those thoughts, she entered her captain's room and spent the night there, waiting for him to sober down so she could tell him that she had made a decision.

Shunsui seemed ready to near dawn, not that he liked what he heard.

"So in the end, you are leaving me?"

"I've never been the lieutenant you wanted, have I? Please, please don't think me cruel. I was a coward, perhaps, but I won't be ashamed of what I did. I needed that time with Hitsugaya-taichou to realize how we had trapped ourselves in our roles for a promise neither of us ever spoke. Kyoraku-taichou, regardless of what you may believe, I think the world of you. But I will be your vice-captain no longer. Sir, I submit my resignation and ask for a demotion. Failing that, please reassign me to another Division. Failing that…" Nanao met his eyes, and they were just drinking her in, "Don't fail me in this. Just this one last paper, and I won't ask you again."

Shunsui was an adult. A man who knew how to let women go gracefully. Nanao was not his woman, though. She was the subordinate he had relied on for more than a hundred years, and now she was removing herself from his life because she had never gotten the chance to rest. There was only disgrace, and it was all his. He signed the paper and sighed as she left, knowing he was doing the right thing and hating that he wasn't the right thing for her.

000

Once upon a time, young shinigami were told, Seireitei had been a place of rigidly structured rules that couldn't be broken without causing a large scandal. Then Kurosaki Ichigo had happened, and now everything was turmoil and topsy-turvy and a lieutenant resigning her post and taking up Eighth Seat in her division hardly stirred the jaded masses to rumor. Nanao returned to the field that she had not had any frequent chance to occasion for the last hundred years, and also spent all her new spare time in the library she had long left unloved. Shunsui threw the burden of finding a new lieutenant to Jyuushiro, who complained to Kisuke, who mentioned it to Shinji, and all of a sudden Yadomaru Lisa showed up one day in the City of Tranquil Soul to demand Shunsui for her job back. He seemed quite glad to let her have it.

Lisa took stock of all the seated shinigami in her Division, and gave a wink to Nanao that sent her heart skittering like a fawn on an icy pond. The charismatic old deputy of the 8th Division dealt a hard hand to slackers, and unlike Ise Nanao she dealt the same hand to the captain. That meant that Lisa would find time to herself, and she would choose to spend it with Nanao looking for books outside Seireitei.

"I didn't come back right after the war because I didn't want to take the job from you," she admitted on one such trip, "I thought you'd resent me. Soifon certainly resents Yoruichi-san."

Nanao had nothing much to say to that, except, "I'm not Soifon."

Lisa stayed silent for a while and said, "No, I guess you're not."

Things didn't come back to being the same between them, because a hundred years changes a lot of things, but it was a lot more comfortable now than it would have been without that small dialogue between two women sitting down for lunch under a blossoming apple tree.

Toshiro tried devoting himself to Rangiku, but once she had satisfied herself that she did indeed have power over him, she repeatedly and egregiously abused it for trivialities until Toshiro snapped and went right back to being the sourpuss he always was with her. Weirdly, Rangiku liked that even more than him using his zanpakutou to make her snow cones. The last Nanao had seen of them both, he had been aghast at the shoddy job she'd done on her paperwork while she seemed to think he should be grateful it was done at all.

The last time Nanao saw Toshiro, he stopped on the street to smile at her, and told her to come by for tea one day soon.

"I will, captain," she promised sweetly, and was quite certain that she saw it in his face…

His heart had given a lurch.

x.x.x.x.x.x

Just goddamn tea everywhere man why do these assholes drink so much tea I don't even know it's my first fic in aaaaaaaaaaaaaages just take it just take it and don't ask about that pile of unfinished stories I'm resolutely ignoring.