Sophia Prester (sophiap) wrote in presterpress,
Sophia Prester
sophiap
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Child's Play [Bleach]

Title: Child's Play
Fandom: Bleach
Characters: Nanao, Shunsui
Rating: PG
Warnings: None
Word count c. 5,500
A/N: Originally written for the springkink prompt Bleach; Shunsui/Nanao: encounters with the darker side -- "she knows his shadow" Many thanks to aishuu and incandescens for serving as sounding boards, nitpickers, and cheerleaders.

Summary: In the course of trying to learn more about her own zanpakutou, Ise Nanao also learns far more than she ever expected to learn about her captain.


"Ah, my poor Nanao-chan! You are unwell?"

Nanao pulled the damp cloth away from her brow, and gingerly turned towards the voice. As expected, a blur of pink, white, and black approached. Her memory supplied the necessary details in the absence of her glasses.

"I would appreciate it if you would speak more quietly, sir," she croaked. "And no, I am not unwell. I simply pushed myself harder than I had anticipated."

"Ah." It was little more than a breath.

She pulled the cloth back over her eyes. She thought about asking him to leave her alone, but he had drawn closer, and his shadow fell across her face. The dimming of the light felt much better than she would admit.

"You were able to get your zanpakutou to manifest again? Were you able to challenge it?" He did not whisper, but he spoke softly, and it was gentler on her ears than the harsh sibilants of a whisper would have been.

Nanao nodded and wished she hadn't. She could imagine his look of concern, and she braced herself for the offer of a day off she didn't really need. Twenty minutes' rest and she would be fine. Really.

The light spiked again (well, it felt like a spike--one going right through the center of her forehead), and she heard his footsteps receding. There was a slight scrape, then she heard him coming towards her again. Then, a gentle thump and a familiar creak as the comforting shadow fell over her again.

He had carried his desk chair all the way across the room so he could sit watch by her bedside. Couchside. Whatever. Idiot.

"He's being difficult, then, I take it?" The question was atypically straightforward, and there was no sign of the usual silly philosophizing about how odd it was that he had a female zanpakutou and she had a male one, and how either alone was rare, and therefore it must hold some meaning that they both...

"Difficult? I think you and he are rivals in that accord, sir. Although, today, I think he wins."

Kyouraku-taichou let out a bark of laughter, then immediately apologized when she hissed in pain.

"I remember those days all too well. I wish I could tell you it gets easier." He sighed. "Even now, Katen Kyoukotsu and I have our... moments. She's particularly difficult when she discovers a new game."

"Are there any new ones?" Surely, after several centuries Katen Kyoukotsu would have run through nearly every game that ever existed.

"All the time." There was an unfamilar wryness to his voice, and her memory tried to find an expression that would fit it. Nothing came readily to mind. "Chants and rhymes, mostly, fitted around an older game--or pieces of games. You know how it goes."

She did. She recalled Kusajishi-fukutaichou using a counting-out rhyme when picking members for a Women's Association committee. The cadence of the words was one she remembered, and the refrain was very close to the one she knew, but the other words had been twisted out of recognition. At first, Nanao had thought it was just Kusajishi being Kusajishi, but both Hinamori Momo and Kotetsu Kiyone had looked at each other mischievously and mouthed the words in perfect unison with Kusajishi, leaving poor Kotetsu Isane befuddled and embarrassed when she found she was echoing the wrong words.

"Still, she insists on having a look." There was a back-and forth whisper of hair across fabric as he shook his head. "So fickle, that one."

Nanao was surprised when there wasn't some follow-up comment about the nature of woman-kind. Grateful, yes, but still surprised.

"I hope my Nanao-chan isn't so eager to leave our Division that she is pushing to gain one of the vacant Captain positions." The statement was entirely teasing, despite the mournful tone. She liked to think she knew him well enough to know when he was masking genuine worry behind his levity.

"Hardly. If I left, you'd suffocate under your own paperwork." She was feeling somewhat better now, good enough that it did not hurt to speak, or merely exist. Still, she knew that if she sat up, she would regret it. "I simply thought that given the current situation, the more power we had, the better."

There should have been praise for her taking initiative and a gentle but serious chiding for not taking better care of herself.

Instead, she only got a low, rumbling sigh, and the sound of protesting wood as he leaned back in his chair. They were not pleased sounds, and she felt a too-familiar twinge in her gut.

It took her memory a moment to place it, and when it did, it did so vividly. It was of a time when she was ever so much smaller, and her captain ever so much larger.

Funny, how sometimes she remembered her first years in the Eighth as being scared all the time, while other times, she could not remember a time when she felt safer.

The sound, and the face she knew he was making were from the times when she didn't get something right. It was entirely different from when she got something wrong. If she got something wrong, it was a simple matter of fixing it, learning from the experience, and moving on. Not being right meant she was missing something subtle but vital, that she wasn't all the way to where he thought she should be--and that he was disappointed in her.

The worst part of it was, Kyouraku-taichou would never tell her what it was she was missing. It was as if she were a child who was too young to understand, so why bother trying to explain?

When he spoke again, he spoke slowly, as if giving each word proper consideration. "Power is important, yes." Then, another long, long pause. "I wonder what your bankai might look like, when all is said and done."

The obvious answer would be that it was like her shikai, only writ large. Expanded range. Increased size. More power.

Obvious, yes, but not right. While her captain would never supply her with the missing answers, she had eventually learned that he was very good at tossing out the right questions.

She remembered the glimpse she'd caught of Abarai's, and how it looked like a much larger version of his shikai, only... bonier. And alive. And Abarai himself had changed, too, with that fur cape and what she hoped was a sleeve. Something similar happened with Hitsugaya-taichou, if Rangiku could be believed. But still, those were close enough in appearance and behavior to their shikai that it wasn't too surprising.

Her mind followed that track, running through the few bankai she had seen for herself or heard about from reliable sources, and trying to extrapolate based on that to come up with a picture of what hers might look like. It was not easy. Her shikai was not one that could be easily modified by words such as larger or stronger or more. Some of the images she came up with were silly, or disturbingly surreal, like the one with the wings, and oh, she was starting to doze off, wasn't she?

No, she couldn't do that. Not right now. She wanted to know what it was she wasn't getting right--something about bankai. Bankai, and power, and what it looked like. Right. She was not arrogant enough to think she could figure out the right answer then and there, but she could at least figure out the first step in the path to that right answer.

"No. Not now," he said firmly, and it startled her into full wakefulness with a jerk of her body that set her head to ringing again.

For one horrifyingly embarrassed moment, she wondered if he had read her mind, but no, that was silly, and besides, he was already apologizing.

"I didn't mean to speak aloud." He sounded amused at his own folly. "Katen Kyoukotsu was trying to make her opinion known."

"Ah." And he had more or less told his sword to shut up. Interesting. "What did she say?"

There was a long enough pause that Nanao thought he was refusing to answer. But eventually, she heard a low, wry chuckle that was not at all amused.

"She thought the four of us should play a game."

Nanao was not sure if Katen Kyoukotsu counted as two out of that four, or if her own zanpakutou was included in that count. For a moment, the faint humming that was at the back of her headache slipped into a rolling, teasing melody before fading into the background. She groaned and shifted the cloth so that a cooler portion rested over her eyes.

That's enough from you, she thought at the humming, but it was already gone.

As for the suggested game, Nanao couldn't blame Kyouraku-taichou for refusing the offer. She had seen Katen Kyoukotsu's 'games' a few times before, and they had not struck her as fun in any way.

(She still remembered playing some of those games as a child, jumping and skittering frantically to avoid stepping on a shadow only to fall backwards into the biggest shadow of all, or taking so long to pick just the right color on her turn that her friends started to yell at her to hurry up, hurry up...)

On the surface, it sounded like such a funny power to have, and such a frivolous one. Risible, almost.

"May I get you anything, Nanao-chan?"

He always was so casual of rank, and position, and responsibility...

"No, thank you, sir. I'll be fine in a little bit."

So childish in his laziness and in the way he would put pleasure before duty if given a chance. It should be no surprise he had a zanpakutou who insisted on playing childish games.

She had told him so once, on a day when the paperwork had piled up beyond all reason and he didn't show up until sunset, bursting with pride although he had only one meager fish to show for an entire day's fishing. He had laughed hard and long at that, so loud that she clenched her teeth at just the memory of it.

"Why do you constantly shirk your duties like this! Why are you wasting your time?" she'd yelled, once he was finished laughing. He merely looked at her, so somber he had to be joking, and said, "Because it's a nice day, Nanao-chan. And because I can."

Of course, his shikai was anything but silly, just as hers was anything but useless or limited in its application.

For a long time, she had thought that Katen Kyoukotsu's shikai had merely been a pair of strange, large swords. Many zanpakutou were simply melee weapons in released form, after all. The first time she saw the swords' true power, she had not known what she was seeing. Her squad was clearing out a nest of Hollows, and it turned out to be much more than they could handle. She sent for help, and was just thinking that it was too long in coming when the largest of the Hollows was cut in half by its own shadow. Two others fell just as rapidly, taken down with clean but brutal efficiency from the darkness.

No challenges, no showmanship. No pretense at a 'fair' or 'honorable' fight. Just the gift of an opening that she barely had the presence of mind to take.

In less than a minute, it was all over, everything happening hard on the heels of everything else, so fast that when she wrote up her report she had to rely on logic and her zanpakutou's peculiar and barely comprehensible insight as much as on her own memory to reconstruct events.

Out of it all, there was only one clear memory, one image that she recalled as suspended in time even though in truth it could only have lasted a fraction of a second.

No, no... Nanao pressed her mind back to the task at hand. Tangling with her zanpakutou always left her wrung out and feeling as she had been doing base-seven calculus backwards and in another language. But if she let herself relax and drift off, she would lose this fragile thread of memory and reason.

Shikai. Bankai. Power. What was she missing?

"If not the power that comes with it--and, well, pride I suppose--what is the advantage of mastering one's zanpakutou and attaining bankai?" She posed the question to herself as much as to him. "From what I've seen, bankai hardly means better control."

"Mmm..." The chair creaked again as he leaned back. The sound was pleased--pleased, and curious. Beyond that, however, there was no answer to her question.

That meant it was the right question. She suppressed a grim smile as a host of other questions she could ask followed in succession.

For example, why was confrontation--no, conquest--required for bankai? Her zanpakutou, maddening and male as it was, was an extension or a fragment of her own soul. Why the long struggle to learn its name? Why the additional struggle to bring it to heel to unlock the remainder of its power?

There was the distinct impression of someone rolling his eyes at her, but she told him to stop it--he of all beings should know rhetorical questions when he heard them.

Even so, she answered her zanpakutou in the guise of talking to her captain. "Mastering shikai represents the attainment of self-knowledge--and yes, I'm quoting my textbooks and I don't have to see you to tell you to stop looking at me like that." She cleared her throat. "It's putting a name to the hidden part of the wielder's soul. One would think the silly things would simply tell us what we needed to know--it would be the sensible thing to do. It would be far more efficient, especially given the danger we're in, you'd think they'd know their own existences were in jeopardy, too..."

She stifled a yawn, biting down lightly on her knuckle to shock herself out of the ramble-babbling that came with fatigue.

Efficiency. Yes.

Again, she recalled three Hollows rapidly, brutally, efficiently cut down from the shadows. By the shadows.

"'The hidden part of the wielder's soul.' Interesting..." Had she been not-right once again? "Perhaps I should let you sleep, Nanao-chan."

The chair scraped back, and before she could stop herself, she sat up. Too fast, and she hissed in pain and lowered herself back down.

"No! Don't go. Please?" Oh, that sounded whiny and pathetic, didn't it? She re-covered her eyes more out of embarrassment than anything else. "Sir."

She heard the sounds of settling in, and a gentle thump as he picked the chair up and moved forward slightly. "Would you like me to stay with you until you fall asleep?"

It was a suggestion as much as it was a question. "Yes. That would be nice. And if you could listen to me think," she said sleepily. Her zanpakutou informed her that it would be happy to listen, but she retorted that her captain had a much less exhausting way of listening. "That always helps me."

If she weren't so tired, she wouldn't have said as much, but it was true. And perhaps her captain was tired as well, because instead of something teasing and provoking (perhaps something about how she was too worn out to think properly, or how happy he was that she relied on him), she got a low, warm chuckle.

"You and Ukitake-taichou were some of the first students at the Academy," she said.

"Yes. Us and Unohana-taichou."

Nanao made a mental note to talk to the other woman at some point--or perhaps talk to Isane to judge whether or not Unohana-taichou might be willing to talk to her, or if talking to her was even a good idea to begin with.

"What did they teach you back then? About your zanpakutou? About shikai?"

Even if the original thinking was wrong, and current thinking was still wrong, they were likely wrong in different ways, and the truth might be lurking in those differences.

Her zanpakutou's comment of wrong? who said anything about wrong? was matched by another low chuckle from her captain. This laugh, however, held something that wasn't quite warmth. And when he spoke, he sounded casual enough, but Nanao knew him too well.

"Those of us from noble families were mainly being taught not to kill each other over grudges our grandfathers held. Learning the name of one's inner soul was considered a nicety--you were strong enough to do it, or you weren't. The Academy likes to believe it was founded out of a simple love of knowledge and a desire to train up honorable soldiers. In fact... Well, let's just say that some of the noble families believed in Yama-ji's vision." He paused, and the pretense of casual amusement simply fell aside like a dropped cloak. "More than you would think did not."

That raised so many questions. Questions she wasn't entirely certain she wanted to have answered.

"It was a gamble," Kyouraku-taichou said, with nostalgia and admiration. "A mad, crazy gamble that never should have worked--except that it did."

"I'm glad it did," she said, taking refuge in honest simplicity. There was more she wanted--needed--to know about those days, and that mad, crazy gamble.

A game. A crazy game, with high stakes. Yes. Something frivolous with such a potentially dark outcome... and yes, I'm getting distracted again.

"But you received no training about your zanpakutou? None?" She, of course, had received very little. There was theory of course, some of it based in philosophy, and precious little of it based in rational observation. There were meditative exercises, but none that were guaranteed to be helpful. There were some things that Nanao, even as a child, knew were little more than quackery.

"We spent more time learning swordsmanship and offensive kidou--essential in those days." The nostalgia was still there, but without the admiration. "I'm certain your history classes made sure you understood why."

Yes. They did. Clearly, and with a loudly unstated message of 'we must never become this again, and it is your responsibility that we do not.' Odd, though, that until now, she had merely thought of those lessons as, well, lessons.

"As for me, oh, I preferred the lessons in poetry, and painting, and calligraphy. Not that this would surprise you." He sounded more like himself again. "They don't teach those as much today. Not enough time, not with everything else you need to know, and..." Here, he sighed, with great and theatrical longsuffering. "Hardly anyone sees the value in a good poem any more."

"I see the value in good poetry," she informed him.

"But you always disdain the poems I write for you."

Nanao refrained from answering for a moment. Then she sighed. "Honestly, sir, I cannot think of any possible response to that statement that wouldn't be painfully obvious and unsporting."

"You're tired. I was simply trying to make things easier for you."

She remembered reading those history lessons with appalled fascination, innocently wondering how in the world anyone could have let things get so bad. The noble families at each others' throats, with the Kuchiki and the Shihouin in a blood feud so vicious that it had left large swaths of Rukongai impassable. Hollows running unchecked through areas now thought of as peaceful and prosperous, with nobles and their mercenaries levying punitive taxes in exchange for keeping Hollows from devouring those living in their territories.

How strange, that she could now sit here in peace, even with all the havoc that Aizen was threatening to rain down on them, and banter with her captain. That he could waste his time fishing and writing appalling poetry and drinking...

"Why do you constantly shirk your duties like this! Why are you wasting your time?"

"Because it's a nice day, Nanao-chan. And because I can."


Her history lessons had been his childhood.

She held the thought for a while, carefully, like something that was precious and broken. It was heavier than she thought it would be, and she had no idea how it had landed in her arms. She had only wanted to know more about zanpakutou. Perhaps sleep was the wisest course right now, after all.

Here, her zanpakutou said. Allow me this liberty.

She pictured a field, and in the middle of that field, sticking way up above all the other grasses, a large tussock of flowers. Bright, gaudy, bobbing this way and that in the wind. They seemed out of place among the fine silver grasses that bowed in defined waves with each gust. Her zanpakutou talked to her in this way, sometimes, when it had thoughts with too many layers, too many switchbacks, to be expressed in words.

Her eyes were drawn to the flowers, and how pretty and how frivolous they were. The flowers were blue and violet like the sky, red and gold like the sunset, white and shining like the moon. Smaller blossoms winked like stars among the deep, dark greenery. Larger roundels on tall stalks rose and set like the sun with each roll of the wind. It was what she was meant to see, even if she didn't understand what her zanpakutou was trying to say.

When Nanao said she appreciated poetry, it would have been fairer to say that she appreciated rhythm, and allusion, and verbal cleverness. Sometimes, she even saw the surprising accuracy of an unexpected metaphor. She appreciated the history and place poetry had in their culture.

What she did not understand, however, was how the verbal tricks in a poem that wasn't really about anything important could lead to a gasp of honest and surprised delight from her captain, or a lengthy, contemplative silence (sad and not-sad at the same time) from Ukitake-taichou.

Her zanpakutou told her to go up and look more closely. In her mind, knowing that she was more than halfway asleep, she walked up to the exuberance of flowers. The scent was heady, almost overbearing, and she couldn't help but reach out and run her hands along some of the blossoms to feel the cool silkiness of some and the strawy stiffness of others. The flowers danced at her touch, and she smiled.

"Are you asleep, Nanao-chan?"

"No," she said, suspecting it was a lie. "It's very pretty."

"Excuse me?"

"Nothing, sir. Just thinking." Thinking about how the flowers in their gaudy exuberance were so like him. Were so like his sword's name. If this was meant to be the hidden part of his soul, he certainly wasn't making any effort to hide it.

"Mmm. Anything in particular?" He sounded quietly happy. No urgency, nothing to do right now but be with her. It irritated and comforted her at the same time.

"About what we hide, and what we show. And bankai. I still don't understand."

"You won't until you get there." He was one of the few people she knew who could say that and not sound patronizing. "It's hard for everyone, but in different ways. I still don't understand how Ukitake did it or why it was so difficult for him, and I think I broke his brain trying to explain mine. I don't want to know how Kurotsuchi got his. As for Abarai... Hmm. I wonder if he would have attained it as quickly if he had not been pushed to the breaking point the way he was."

Nanao snorted even as she cupped her hand behind a lotus blossom to pull it close enough to smell. "It's a shame we can't get hold of whatever it is Shihouin Yoruichi used to trigger Kurosaki's bankai."

"I trust you would not attempt to use such a thing, Nanao-chan."

The coldness of the words came with a chill wind through her zanpakutou's mindscape. The grasses bowed nearly flat, and the flowers thrashed so violently she feared the stems would snap.

"No! Of course not! I... simply thought we could learn something from it. Perhaps."

"Perhaps that there is a price to be paid for rushing into certain things too fast and without the proper preparation? You've heard what happens to the boy--and he is a boy--when he uses his bankai."

She'd heard only second or maybe third hand, but it had been enough to make her wonder if Kurosaki Ichigo would one day be more of a liability than a help. Still, if she could only see how it worked, or why it had certain side effects...

And thinking like that was why Kurotsuchi Mayuri was Kurosutchi Mayuri. She did not care to think that there was a part of her that could-- No.

"In any event, Ukitake and I made sure it was destroyed," Kyouraku-taichou said cheerfully. It was a distinct contrast to his earlier tone, but the flowers still swayed and the wind still had a bite to it. This was a long time for her zanpakutou to show her one of these riddles, and she wondered what else she was supposed to see.

"Hmph. Easy decision for you to make," she said, grousing even though she largely and gratefully agreed with their choice. She knew her role in this banter. "You two already have bankai."

Clearly, she was looking at the wrong thing. She turned from the bright, bobbing flowers to look up. Nothing but a clear summer sky. She looked around. Nothing but silver grass and gently rolling hills and a line of shimmering blue sea not too far away.

"Yes. And that is why we knew it needed to be done." He was not bantering.

At last, she looked down. Down among the stalks and leaves and chaff that were easy to ignore in favor of the flowers they supported.

There was a white stone down there. No, many white stones. She pushed the stalks and stems aside so she could look more closely at the stones.

No, not stones.

Bones.

Big bones, little bones, all in shattered disarray but not so much so that she couldn't tell there was a complete skeleton under those flowers.

In her mind, she shrieked and jumped back, hoping against hope that she hadn't actually shrieked. Her zanpakutou's gently mocking laughter wrapped around her, comforting and annoying her at the same time.

They are very pretty flowers, aren't they? he said.

Yes. They were. They still were, but she could only think about the bones. Splintered bones and a fragmented skull. She knew, somehow she knew, that those bones and bone fragments were the result of something violent, something painful. She didn't want to look at it again, didn't want to think about it.

"Nanao-chan, are you all right?"

No. She didn't think she was. Thoughts shifted and rearranged themselves as the mindscape fell apart and faded.

"Taichou?"

"Mmm?"

"Children's games are brutal, aren't they?"

She got a knowing chuckle by way of response. "What? Brutal? With the mock death, the deliberate exclusion, the desperate chases, the charming rhymes about plague or about birds being pulled to bits? Why would you think that?" It sounded far less sarcastic than it should have.

"But they're fun." They'd had a good laugh over that counting rhyme at the Womens' Association meeting, especially when a red-faced Soi Fong-taichou had reluctantly chanted the version she remembered. And from there, it had gone into a whole round of gleeful do you remembers? about all the games Nanao ever played and more. Even Kuchiki-san and Rangiku-san joined in, although Nanao could remember them letting slip more than a few hair-curling stories about their own childhoods.

"Yes. They are."

He reached out and with a breath-light touch stroked her hair away from his face. She almost grumbled on principle, but she liked him best when his silliness was tempered with seriousness like this. He may or may not have released a tiny bit of healing reiatsu when his hand passed across her forehead, but her headache did feel much better.

It made the times when he asked her to do things like toss baskets of flower petals down on top of him a bit less irritating than they might be otherwise.

But really, he was so silly.

Silly, and yet...

Three Hollows rapidly, brutally, efficiently cut down from the shadows. By the shadows.

Back then, in that fight, in the seconds between her surprise and her gathering her wits about her, she had seen him. He had come out of the shadows, and though they poured off him, they also clung to him, darkening the folds of his pink haori, clumping in his hair, smearing his blades like blood. They pooled in the hollows of his eyes so that he did not look like himself.

It was easy to think of that person as someone other than her captain. The cold, pragmatic butchery. The darkness that fit him like a well-worn gi. It didn't fit in with all the rest. The gleefully awful and earnest poetry. The days spent fishing. The kindness and generosity to the junior members of his division, nudging them upwards so gently they were barely aware of it. Marathon drinking sessions that were filled with anything but moroseness. A sincere pleasure taken in things like naps and food and pretty women.

"I don't understand how they can be both."

He laughed. "Don't you?"

The man she'd seen in the shadows was the sort of person she could imagine populating one of the cautionary tales in her history books. The man she knew now was a silly poem about cherry blossoms in the rain. The thought, though hers, seemed like something her zanpakutou would have said.

Shattered skeletons and pretty flowers. Blossoms and bones.

"Maybe."

The flowers bloomed nowhere else in that field. The broken body gave them life and nourishment. The flowers, in return, covered the bones. The flowers would not exist without the bones, and the bones would have no peace without the flowers.

"It's not that it's the hidden part of your soul that you have to master," she mumbled. "Sometimes it is hidden, but... oh, I can't explain!"

"That doesn't mean you don't understand." She could hear the pride in his voice. She was no longer 'not right.' Or maybe she was just further away from it than she had been.

"I know." And she knew why so few shinigami achieved bankai, and why none of them achieved it easily. Abarai had to be almost completely broken before he could attain his. "It was frightening for you, wasn't it?"

He was such a kind man, for all that he was annoying. A good man. Horrified by that darkness and by that capacity for cold cruelty, and horrified to find they were a part of him. It was almost too much for her to think about, and she only had to think of it in the abstract.

No wonder he had destroyed Urahara's device.

"Very. And it still is." She heard a rustle of fabric that suggested a shrug. "Maybe not for others, or maybe it's frightening--or difficult--in other ways. There's no way to tell. Or to tell what it would be like for you."

No. And the glimpse of him her zanpakutou had shown her was almost too much. Amazing, how an analogy could be so much like an invasion of privacy.

"No, I can see that." She might have said more, but chose to stifle a yawn instead. "It does feel better, knowing why it shouldn't be simple."

She wondered if her zanpakutou would show her an analogue of her own soul and her own darkness if she asked.

The whispered perhaps in the back of her mind rang like a challenge even as it pulled her closer to sleep.

"You'll still pursue bankai, then?"

"Yes." But not for the reasons she originally had. She trusted she did not have to explain this to him. "I may concentrate on kidou for a while instead--sorry, don't mean to yawn at you--that will be of more help in days to come."

"Good." His approval covered her like a blanket, and she smiled softly. "Do you still want me to stay until you fall asleep?"

"Please." She was becoming pleasantly lost in the rhythm of her own breathing. It was like being carried off to sea in a small, small boat.

"Should I wish you sweet dreams?" There was an unspoken offer of a wish for productive dreams, one echoed by her zanpakutou.

"Mmm. No dreams. For now." She wasn't sure if she spoke out loud or not, but she felt a bow of acknowledgement in the far reaches of her mind.

Later, then, her zanpakutou said.

Yes, later, she thought back to him. She said nothing of how much later it might be. Quiet a while later, she suspected. There were too many questions she didn't want answered. The darkness of sleep washed away the residual ache from her earlier struggle. Her captain's shadow covered her and sheltered her.

In time--maybe--she would be ready to face a less comforting darkness.
Tags: bleach
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