On a warm day in mid-July, Captain Hirako begged off the rest of the day to spend it with his wife. Truth be told, in those days Sosuke was new to the Fifth, and he hadn’t yet assembled a full profile of his Captain. He hadn’t even known he had a wife. He knew next to nothing about the suspicious, disarming man except that he hated him.
Sosuke was almost surprised to learn he was married. Hirako maintained an appearance of detachment, an illusion of freedom. He flirted with every new girl he met, and some he already knew. He went out alone with the other Captains, never outright turned down an offer, though Sosuke had also never seen him accept one. So on this particular day, the first time Sosuke had seen his new Captain take a day off, he enlisted an unseated officer to do his duties, using that particular charm he was now known for and a quick illusion to ensure his presence wouldn’t be missed.
He followed his Captain to a quiet neighborhood in the First district. Slipped into an alley across from a high-profile bakery. The scent of cooking sugar and yeast drifted into the street, the sound of metal clanging echoed like laughter. And Hirako walked right up to the front door and kissed the young woman coming out. She was unassuming, a few inches shorter than Hirako, in a dark dress with her hair pulled back. But the way Hirako swept the tray she was carrying from her hand, smiling at her before kissing her like it was all he’d been thinking of for hours- that meant something. She meant something.
He followed them out of the city, observing the way Hirako’s hand twined easily with hers and the way she shifted the basket of food from one arm to the other, the way she looked at him like he was the very sun. The way Hirako held her hand like it was at once both fragile and eternal.
They eventually came to a meadow in the rukongai, on the edge of the second district, cotton-white flowers and tiny golden blooms mingling with wide, soft grass and the occasional tree. She sat promptly, patting the ground beside her. Hirako rolled his eyes and shucked his white haori, folding it and laying it on the basket. She laughed at something he said, and he fell back over her lap, accidentally-on-purpose.
She sat in the field of flowers, Hirako laying over her legs, his head resting in her lap. Her hands were gentle on his face, thumbs rubbing lines into his cheeks. He said something that made her laugh, and her fingers moved to his hair, carding through the thick gold like it was precious, movements gentle and familiar. One of his own hands reached up to tug affectionately on a lock of her hair, which hung over her shoulder. The tugging became leading, and she bent over to kiss him. Sosuke felt a pang of… Something. There was a strange twisting in his chest, and his brow furrowed. Sosuke had never felt like an intruder when he watched others. He had never felt envy or sadness in watching others interact. He had never felt like their lives didn’t belong to him
But he felt that way now.
She began picking flowers from the grass around them and weaving them into a crown. Hirako made a face and made a token argument that was quickly ruined by his easy acceptance of the circlet. She smiled again, at him this time, and there was something paralyzingly soft in his Captain’s eyes. Something Sosuke had never seen there before.
It was a sharp knife in his chest, and the feeling confused him.
He wanted what they had, and it shamed him. Softness. Sentiment. An aching, empty loneliness in his chest. He watched his captain smile at her like she was the loveliest, most precious thing in the world, watched her run her fingers through his hair, sneaking in a plait or two when he was distracted by their conversation. He watched the way her eyes grew sad and soft when she noticed the time, and the wistfulness in her face when Hirako sighed and moved to stand.
“I love you,” Hirako said quietly, solemnly. She smiled up at him, a small, private thing.
“And I you,” she replied, taking his face between her hands so she could kiss his mouth, then both his eyelids, with that same unbearable love that she had treated him with earlier. She snatched the circlet off of his head and moved to pull away. One hand came up to the back of her neck to press their foreheads together.
“I wish I could see you more often, darling,” he said, regret in his voice, in the lines of his face.
“You’re a Captain,” she shrugged. “You’ve got more to worry about than me.”
“I wish I didn’t,” he said, voice heavy. She looked confused, and he shook his head, hands coming up to cup her face. “You’re the light of my life,” he said with a strange, pensive seriousness. “And you deserve more time than I’ve got to give ya.”
“All due respect, Captain,” she said teasingly. “I’d rather have two hours of your time than two hundred of someone else’s.”
“Flatterer,” he shot back, but the soft, relieved edge of his grin told Sosuke all he needed to know. This was the Captain’s wife.
This was the Captain’s everything.
He watched them, again and again over the next few decades, watched Hirako carve out time for her with a fierce, angry determination. Watched her watch him with eyes full of soft darkness and gentle light. Watched the way she moved, and talked and laughed, and loved, how fiercely and kindly she lived her life.
He wanted her to look at him like that. He wanted her to look at him.
He wanted that life to be his and not Hirako’s, wanted her soft lips on his and her warmth around him. He wanted her. He wanted Hirako gone. He wanted her.
He decided, eventually, that it was Hirako he wanted to try the hollowfication process on. He wanted to break him apart, shatter him, tear out his love and his life and his wife and make them his own.
Maybe when she saw what a monster he was, she’d let him go. Maybe seeing the hollow rear its head would break their marriage, end the love between them.
Maybe it would be enough for her to see Hirako as Sosuke did.
The idea really set after he saw how Hirako treated her inside of the division.
She’d come to fetch her husband, and Sosuke moved just so, so she would walk into him. He stepped back and she fell backwards onto the ground, looking rather surprised.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he said with a shy smile and a false concern. He knew exactly how hard he’d hit her. She’d need someone to help her up. He reached out a hand. “It was an accident, ma’am, I’m sorry, I had no idea,” she laughed and shook her head and took his hand. Her fingers were strong, an iron grip curling around his own, and when she used it to pull herself up he could feel the heat of her palm.
“It’s alright. Honestly,” she brushed herself off. “I’ve had worse happen for less.”
“Still, ma’am, you’re a civilian and-” she snorted and shook her head again.
“I’m perfectly fine,” she assured him, plucking her basket up off of the ground. “You shouldn’t let me distract you.”
“No distraction at all,” he purred, and she rolled her eyes.
“(s/o)!” Hirako’s voice called from his office on the second floor. “You’re early.”
“Lieutenant,” she said, with a bob of a curtsy, and a flash of smile, and he wanted her. She began making her way towards the stairs, and yelled back companionably, “No, Captain. You’re late!” He watched her climb the stairs in quick jumps, stepping briskly to her husband’s door and sliding it open with no care for what she might be interrupting. “Should it be a working lunch?” She asked with a laugh in her voice, and her husband immediately stood and moved away from his desk.
“Fuck no,” he muttered. She actually giggled, and he deflated. “Don’t scare me like that.”
“The paperwork isn’t going to kill you, Captain,” she reminded him, looping her arm through the crook of his elbow and pulling him towards the door. He reluctantly unhooked their arms once they reached the walkway, banishing all trace of the comfortable intimacy between them.
He couldn’t say he loved her here. Couldn’t show it. It didn’t seem to bother her at all. As if she was used to it, well-practiced in the art of keeping her distance from Hirako. It made Sosuke’s hands twitch. She was a thing of beauty, to be shown off and held above the rest, not ferreted away in some shop on the edge of town where no one would see her. He even made her call him Captain in these walls, where he’d heard her call him a thousand more affectionate, lovely things outside of the division. Darling, she said, letting the word spring free of her tongue, and dearest, a ring of teasing and deep-seated love, and always, always Shinji, her mouth cherishing each letter and letting it fall with something like wonder and devotion.
He wanted to hear her say his name like that, as though still surprised it was hers to say, still in awe of him even after however many years. He wanted her to love him. He wanted Hirako gone. He wanted.
“Oi, Aizen,” Hirako called as he turned the corner of the stairs, his wife trailing behind him with that grin still set in place. “I’m going to be gone for a while. Don’t bring me anything that’s not life or death, yeah?”
“Yes, sir,” he said, no sign of the darkness welling under his skin. “As you say,” and then, to his wife, a softer bow. “Ma’am.”
“Lieutenant, she said, with a short bow of her own and a flash of smile.
Sosuke made up his mind. Soon. Less than a week. Hirako would be gone, whoever else he took with him, they’d all be gone.
And she’d be his.
The night it happened was glorious for Sosuke. To watch the panic on their faces, the agony when they realized what had happened to Muguruma, what they might have to do to him. And then, when the hollowfication really began to set in, when Sarugaki sliced open Hirako and the others began to fall, one-by-one… their screams were like music in the night.
Hirako lay splayed across the ground, blood-spattered and struggling.
“I knew,” he said through gritted teeth. “I knew.”
“Yes, you certainly came closest,” Sosuke allowed, smiling. “But you didn’t notice everything, did you? Hm?” He tilted his head, and Shinji wanted to kill him. He’d always felt on edge around Aizen, always felt like there was something fundamentally wrong with him, but now- now he wanted him dead with a fury that sliced at his soul.
“Notice what?” He huffed, that squirming, uncomfortable feeling like something was alive in his stomach was spreading up to his throat.
“Why, how I feel about your wife, Captain.” The words hit home, and Shinji saw red.
“Don’t you dare,” he hissed, a snarl wracking through his whole body. “I’ll kill you, don’t you fucking dare touch her-!”
“Oh, hush,” Aizen drawled, reaching into his kosode and pulling out a blade. “She won’t even know what really happened to you.”
“What?” Shinji clung to his every word, latched onto the ideas he presented, but they were coming slower, his mind was stalling, and his throat was burning with something foreign and thick, like putty, like clay.
“Do you really think she’ll believe you survived, Captain?” Aizen asked, that sickening smile still wide on his face. He held up a familiar sword- the red lacing, the hourglass tsuba. “How devastated she’ll be, to hear of your death.”
“But I-” Shinji looked between the sword in his own hand and the one Aizen was holding. He could feel a stirring, a shifting in his stomach, a burning in his lungs. He wasn’t going to last long like this. “You stay away from her!” He spat through the thick, painful fluid in his throat, world narrowing down to two points: (s/o), and Aizen. “I swear,” he panted, fist clenching around his sword. “I will kill you if you so much as speak to her.”
“Oh, Captain. You’re resisting remarkably well,” Aizen observed him, like an experiment. A pinned insect twitching it’s last before it’s framed. “Is it (s/o), do you think? If I was to push you…” He stepped down, closer to where Shinji was sprawled. “This is all your fault, you know. Because I was your Lieutenant, because I chose to be. You’re the one responsible for this.” He knelt, and Shinji’s fingers itched to bury Sakanade in his throat, to watch the blood flow, the shock twist his face. “She’ll weep for you, when you’re gone, Captain.”
“Ach!” The white… something began flowing from his mouth, his nose, his eyes and ears. It quickly covered one side of his face. Latched on, like a parasite, like a second skin. It flowed from the wound on his shoulder, solidifying, creaking as it covered him.
“Yes,” Aizen said thoughtfully, watching him choke. “I think you’ll make a convincing corpse. Central 46 will hardly want to spread the news of what happened to all of you. And when I give (s/o) this sword… There will be no doubt in her mind.” His smile softened, and somehow it was worse. “I’ve never comforted a widow before. But I’m sure the reward will be…delectable.” He looked contemplatively at the false Sakanade he held. “Do you think she’ll weep again, when I have her? Have you tasted her tears before?” He watched Shinji’s face twist, physical and emotional agony melding into pure fury. “Do you think she’ll still cry your name when I fuck her? Or will she scream mine?”
“You-” Shinji’s voice disappeared into a wordless scream of rage, the hollow shattering his mind into a thousand pieces. The mask solidified over half of his face, and Aizen stood, stepping back again.
“Interesting,” he murmured. Gin eyed him, that sharp smile turned down just a touch. There was something like disgust in his face, but Aizen didn’t turn to look. Tosen stared stoically ahead, but the twitch of his hand gave away what he thought of Aizen’s plans for Hirako’s wife. Neither of them said a word.
“You were all… Magnificent pawns,” he said, and smiled as Shinji fell back to his knees. He watched Shinji writhe on the ground, the mask spreading its poison throughout his body, the hollow fracturing his mind and taking control. Gin watched him watch Shinji, and that slight frown deepened. He was beginning to get the feeling he’d have to wait an awfully long time to reach his goal.
Aizen raised his sword, ready to kill Hirako now that he’d served his purpose, and was stopped dead by a rush of air behind him. He turned, just in time.
“Lieutenant,” Kisuke said.
Shinji was fading fast, could exchange only a few jokes, tempered by burning pain and the swelling of that nameless white fluid in his throat, his skin, his eyes. He lost track of what they were saying, and fuck, it had to be important, but he just couldn’t hear, he couldn’t focus, and (s/o), god, why hadn’t he said goodbye? He could feel his legs giving out again, could feel the white fluid reverberate through the others, too, could feel whatever it was slowly taking over and he struggled to breathe.
“I was hoping nobody would come,” Aizen sighed, and Kisuke frowned.
“Did you truly believe nobody would notice?” He asked, his usual carefree smile replaced with an intent frown. “You didn’t shield yourself here.”
“Shield myself?” Aizen laughed. “Is that what you think I’ve been doing?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Kisuke said, stepping between Hirako and Aizen. “You’ll be taken to Central 46, and you’ll be tried.”
“Will I?” Aizen sneered, sheathing his sword. “I don’t believe that that’s how things will go, Captain.” Kisuke’s brow furrowed, as though thinking this through. He reached for his sword.
“No,” Tessai said. “Let me.”
And maybe the attack would have done something, if it weren’t for Aizen’s own kido prowess.
The clash of spells, the burst of energy from Tessai and Aizen both was enough to set the trees aflame, to spark a miasma of power in the air that spread.
The white fluid spread from Shinji’s lungs again, reaching out in all directions this time, and the white was closing in over his other eye, his hair, his limbs, reaching out with white ribbons of ice-cold hatred, burning him, burning into him, and he couldn’t control it anymore.
It hit, and he turned.
“You know about this ‘hollowfication’,” Tessai said, and it was no question. “If I can get you to the barracks, will you be able to save them?” Kisuke looked at him with fear and anguish and horror in his eyes.
“Yes,” he said, “But how, when-”
“Jikan Teishi, and Kukan Tenni. They are both… forbidden spells.”
“There is no time,” he said.
“Leave it to me!” Tessai looked over at him with latent horror. “Now! You must hurry, or they’ll-” He was cut off by a sharp, animalistic cry, and he had to turn his sword to block Shinji’s attack. “Captain,” he choked out, trying to hold up under the onslaught of power. “Shinji, please.”
“Do it,” he shouted to Tessai, fending off the whirling, wild swings of Shinji’s blade. He could only hope Tessai knew. Could only hope Tessai was capable.
Tessai staked down the others, began to set boundaries. When he came to the edge, he stopped.
“We have no choice,” he rumbled, looking up at Kisuke with sadness. “You know this.”
“We have no choice,” he said firmly, between the clashes of steel. “We’re already out of time. We cannot lose any more.”
Tessai nodded, and ripped open the seams of space and time.
After, things were different.
After Aizen. After hollowfication. After banishment. After (s/o).
There wasn’t supposed to be an after. Shinji had married her long enough ago that he’d forgotten what it was to not have her, but recently enough to burn at him. A few decades. Was that all they got? Was that all he deserved? Was it more than he deserved? He hadn’t even noticed. Fuck. All that time watching Aizen, and he hadn’t even noticed the man wanted his wife. He grit his teeth against the thought. Images flooded his head, his Lieutenant kissing his wife, smiling at her, killing her, fucking her. He had been so wrong about so much, he couldn’t even predict what Aizen might do to her.
He couldn’t predict what she might do.
If she truly believed he was dead, he wondered, would she move on? She loved him. She loved him, and she thought he was dead. Would she move on in time? Would he want her to? If he were dead, or if, as she did now, she believed him dead, would he want her to find happiness in someone else?
Yes. The answer surprised him a little. He would have expected more jealousy from himself, more spit and anger. But the thought of her alone, standing before his grave with no one to lean against but cold stone… It ached in him more than the thought of her with another person. He could see it, a future spiraling ahead of her, another person to love, to love her, to give her all the kindness and devotion and strength that she gave them. All the times he was caught up in missions and paperwork and things that didn’t fucking matter at the end of the day- she wouldn’t have to have that anymore. She could have somebody, somebody who could lie beside her every night and eat breakfast with her in the morning and kiss her before they went to work.
Somebody who wasn’t him.
And his heart strained against itself, burning with sorrow, screaming with loss and love and the agony of knowing what he should have had. Who he should have been.
And then it snapped.
The cold, measured voice of the hollow echoed in his head.
“Most people would call that kindness, y’know,” he said, sitting up from the pitch-black floor. The hollow stood across from him in a vast, empty darkness, one eyebrow cocked and hair shorn to above his shoulders.
“Weakness,” it corrected him. “To release the thing you love most? Foolishness and weakness.”
“Yeah, well,” he sighed, standing. “Fuck you, too, man.”
“If I were in charge, I would return to Soul Society immediately and renew my claim on her,” the hollow said stiffly, as though he wasn’t all but telling Shinji to get back there and fuck his wife one last time.
“There’s a reason you’re not in charge,” he sniped back. His shoulders dropped, and he leaned forward. “She deserves a life we can’t give her.”
“We?” the hollow asked, taken aback.
“Yeah, you crazy fucker,” Shinji sighed. “Or am I wrong in thinking you give a damn about her?”
“She’s your wife,” the hollow said, as if confused. “She bears your heart, and therefore mine.”
“You love her, too. Well ain’t that just fabulous,” Shinji snorted. “I was even gonna be fighting myself for her if I’d stayed.”
“There would be no fight between us on that count,” the hollow said, strangely gentle. “You and I both know that battle was long won.” Shinji shook his head, the movement of his hair a marked difference between the two of them. It flowed past his shoulders, down his back, and every time it moved he felt phantom touches where once her fingers had been. He looked up again, beginning to wonder.
“If only they were all so easy,” he murmured.
“If only,” the hollow agreed, golden-black eyes steady on him. His hair was short, Shinji had noticed. His hair was short. There was no such thing as coincidence in his inner world, nothing that didn’t mean something.
“You wouldn’t mind, would you?” He asked, after a moment. “If I cut it?”
“It is your hair to do with as you like,” the hollow sniffed. “I suppose I should be glad you’re aligning yourself with me.”
“You’re the future,” he said sadly. “I don’t have much choice.” The hollow nodded, merciless in agreement.
“No,” he said. “You don’t.”
The light was almost too much when Shinji opened his eyes. Soft morning light, and he felt a pull at his heart when there was only cold where once she had been. These sheets, this bed, this life… they were only his now, alone. He stood slow, measured. His hair whispered against the back of his neck, the spread of fabric between his shoulder blades. He walked into the small bathroom they all shared, looked into the mirror. He looked at himself.
That long, long hair, a mark of carelessness or vanity or a testament to some unknown promise. People saw different things in it. He saw her. The first time they met, she’d told him it was beautiful. It wasn’t quite so long, then, but he grew it out further after that. Her hands, combing through it with gentle fingertips and a strange, careless reverence. Her lips on the crown of his head when she left before him. Her hands twining in it when he crept down between her legs, the fall of it over the pillow between them in the mornings, the way it fell around his face, around hers, when he fucked her. That last night, when she’d pushed him off to the Captains’ meeting with a kiss that missed his cheek and landed on his temple, where his skin turned to scalp.
All those happy, golden moments that he’d never get back.
He picked up the scissors and paused.
“She’ll weep for you, when you’re gone.”
He began to cut. Harshly, but slowly. Watching the gold strands fall to the floor and splay open like something dead. Straight and even, he told himself. Above the shoulder. To the neck. Short. The cold air on his shoulders, his back, his neck was a shock. It had been so long since he’d felt so much. His hair had been a shield to that part of him, hiding his spine and all the weaknesses he couldn’t bear to face. His hair lay scattered on the ground, like soft amber snowdrifts hacked away from a whole. It looked soft. It looked beautiful.
Hiyori’s face crumpled when she saw it.
“How could you?” She asked in a voice more betrayed, more sad than he’d ever heard from her. “Shinji, how could you?”
He shook his head. What was he supposed to say? I can never go back? I can never be that man again? I didn’t deserve to keep it? Whatever I lost, this is just a reflection of it?
The hollow sighed, melancholy and critical.
“You didn’t lose anything,” he reminded him, echoing and stern. “You’re the one responsible for this.”
“You took it from yourself.”