They say that people see their loved ones and life flash before their eyes in a near-death experience.
Aizen didn't remember almost dying but, if he had, he might have been disappointed with the result. He received no Top Ten Moments or This Is Your Life montage; instead, he received a stabbing headache and a weakness that rattled through his bones.
There was, however, light. Too much of it and not the sort found at the end of any tunnel.
He groaned, mumbling a complaint, and winced against the harsh light beaming through the window. He'd really done too good a job creating Hueco Mundo's fake sun. Right now he'd settle for an overcast winter sky.
"Oh, thank god, yer awake…"
Aizen's attention snapped to the figure standing across the room, startled that he hadn't even noticed his uninvited guest. The voice was familiar, but the concern was not. He recognised the shaking form of one of his subordinates, Ichimaru.
"How long was I out?" Aizen asked.
"A day and a night."
Not long enough for such concern.
"You lost consciousness," Ichimaru continued. "When I found you, you were in a very scare lookin' pool of blood…"
Maybe enough for a little concern, Aizen mentally amended. He exhaled and started to sit up, and almost jolted back when Ichimaru's hands found his shoulders and helped him up. Unnecessarily familiar, Aizen thought, and had to bite his tongue from saying so. He hadn't got this far by vocalising every stray little thought that ran errant through his mind. Ichimaru's hands released him, but he didn't move away. Aizen focused on the more pressing issue of the immediate state of affairs. Namely, his. "There was a fight?" he prompted.
"Prob'ly. I didn't see it. I just found you."
Short, sharp sentences, Aizen noted. Unusual for the soul reaper whose normal cadence was one of rising and falling humour, as if tempered by a joke only he knew. Aizen had never paid much attention. Him or Tosen. They both had their uses, but that was as far as the space they took up in his mind. Pros and cons.
But still, Ichimaru looked at him like he expected something more.
Aizen smiled, that same smile that had once worked so well on his previous lieutenant, Hinamori. "Well then, thanks for looking after me."
Ichimaru didn't move. Didn't follow the rather obvious dismissal. Aizen would have walked out himself if he'd had the strength. Also, Sousuke Aizen was not the type to walk out. Usually he didn't need to.
"Are you… feelin' okay?"
There it was again. That concern. Aizen felt a stab of irritation at the insolent persistence, but smoothed it over with an amused smile. Ichimaru wasn't the only one who could hide behind humour. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"Ya just don't seem… yerself."
"Well, who else would I be?"
Ichimaru looked at him like there was an eternity in that answer, but smiled – the same species of smile that Aizen wore, double-faced – and said, "I dunno, but yer not bein' you."
And still he stayed. Aizen was considering a more overt dismissal when Ichimaru reached over as if to pat his cheek. Only the hand stayed, touch gentle, thumb softly brushing along his jawline. Foreign. It took all of Aizen's self-control not to snap immediately at the insultingly intimate touch. Sousuke Aizen did not flinch.
"Where's my Helios gone?" Ichimaru murmured.
That shield of a smile rose up, the changing expression loosening Ichimaru's hold. "Helios?" Aizen echoed, unable to hide the confusion, but injecting just enough amusement to unsettle the situation and any claim Ichimaru was making.
The two of them were alike in some ways, Aizen considered. Ichimaru did not flinch, but Aizen saw the unease his words brought, the shifting of his head, the flicker of an eyebrow. Ichimaru's hand retreated slowly. As if he was doing it of his own accord and not because Aizen's words had burned him.
Alike, but not alike in the ways that mattered, Aizen noted.
"Yeah," Ichimaru said, slowly drawing out the word in an uneasy drawl. "Helios. You know. The Sun God." His other hand – the one that had not caressed his cheek as if they were something more – gestured to the window. "Cuz ya made that sun for me?"
Aizen kept his amusement under tight rein. His subordinate had clearly lost it. He had been the one who had missed the sunlight of the Soul Society and… what? He tried to recall the exact circumstances he had woven the faux star together, but nothing. Just another moment lost to time. Even so, he would never have done it for such a trivial reason as to please a subordinate.
Fingers brushed his hand, and Ichimaru was looking at him like sparks should be flying at the touch.
There were none.
The contact irritated Aizen; the unasked touch crawling like ants over his skin. He didn't look at the hand. Didn't even acknowledge it. "And… when did that appen?"
There was a stillness now in Ichimaru's already still form that Aizen could almost take for terror. The breath he took before speaking was shaky. "Few months after we got here," Ichimaru manged. "I said I missed the sun from back home, and you took it on yerself to make one. It… It took ya weeks. You… don't remember?" His words were quickening, his sentences lengthening but giving up coherency in the trade off. Hasty. Edged. Emotional. "Ya said you would after we got married. I thought you were joking at the time, but…"
"Married," Aizen echoed, almost laughing, and Ichimaru silenced immediately at his words. "When did that happen?"
There was the sound of air being sucked through clenched teeth. Oh. So he was reaching a breaking point. "Yes," Ichimaru said, and he was back to his short sharp sentences. "Married."
Aizen looked at the mess of a man before him, all emotion and irrationality bound into a human shape, and he tried not to laugh. "Really?" he asked. "I married you?"
Ichimaru did flinch then.
Maybe Aizen had been wrong then. Maybe they were nothing alike.
The contact broke, and Aizen felt the control shift in his favour, even as Ichimaru reached for a reaction and fell back to his usual insincere humour. "Ouch, Sou. Ouch."
Aizen did allow a glimmer of emotion to slip through then – no, not allow, for he would have quelled the shock if he could – at yet another show of baseless familiarity. Still, he could have misheard. Maybe Ichimaru hadn't called him by his given name, a nickname of it too, and Aizen might have believed it more easily if he was in the habit of mishearing. As things went, he wasn't.
An apology, Aizen thought. Maybe that would quieten his subordinate. "Look, sorry, I didn't mean it like–"
"S'alright," Ichimaru said, and Aizen couldn't help but be glad for the interruption. He wasn't sure how he had planned on finishing that sentence. I didn't mean it like you mean nothing to me. Like the idea that I would put my plans on hold for anyone is laughable, that I'd be distracted by someone like you is downright insulting…
Aizen didn't say any of that. He still had uses for Ichimaru after all; deranged or not he was a powerful Soul Reaper on his side, more than that if this was any indication.
Ichimaru was still talking. "I know you put yer foot in yer mouth a lot."
Aizen twitched to keep the laugh at bay. Him? Put his foot in his mouth? Maybe occasionally back at the Soul Society when he had needed a gentle, unassuming persona to appeal to his fellow Soul Reapers, but here? In Las Noches where he reigned? He had an entirely different role and not one prone to tactlessness.
Ichimaru was still looking at him like he was expecting an answer.
"Sorry," Aizen said, his tone gentle but his mind already racing onto other things. "I don't remember anything."
He was already assessing the situation again, breaking it down into the new complications it threw up, but it wasn't entirely without merit. He would have to tread carefully, sure, but he was very good at that. And a Soul Reaper whose devotion ran deeper than belief in the cause, however deranged the notion was? He could use that. He had already done so once before with Hinamori.
Ichimaru was waiting for Aizen to continue, and he appreciated that. Maybe there was some reason left in his subordinate after all. "You said we were married?"
"Are," Ichimaru corrected. "We are married."
Not great, a slip-up so early. "Right. When did that…" Tread carefully. "When did we marry?"
"A long time ago," Ichimaru said softly. "In a chapel. On a rainy night in March."
Aizen wondered if he could fake it. Feign memory of something so absurd, and yet this fool seemed to believe it with every fibre of his being. He discarded that thought almost immediately. The world, the life that Ichimaru had invented felt too detailed for him to navigate without misstep. Especially when he had so many other strings to pull. He dipped his head. "Sorry, I don't remember that."
Laughter cracked the air, as fraught as its owner. The edge of madness skulked at the corner.
When the laughter died, there was a new fervour in Ichimaru's gaze. "Come on, Sousuke, this ain't funny. Drop the act now."
Aizen didn't say anything for a long time. There was that backhanded familiarity again. Not a nickname this time but still, the endearment was clear. He should really nip it in the bud now, useful or not. Dismiss him now, send him far away, where this madness couldn't interfere with his carefully constructed plans. Ichimaru's temperament was clearly erratic, a loose cannon that could go off in any direction, Aizen included. And yet…
This had been dull in Hueco Mundo. The local inhabitants didn't offer a challenge – at least not anymore – and the Soul Society hadn't come looking for them. Not yet, anyway. They would eventually come, but in the meantime…
In the meantime, Aizen could do with some complications. A challenge. A Role to play. The Arrancar followed him out of fear and grudging respect for the Hogyoku he held, and those who were tempted to think otherwise, he knew how to deal with. But this was a different kind of string to pull, and one that could make things interesting.
Ichimaru had somehow paled beyond his usual deathly pallor. "Oh god," he croaked. "You… really don't remember, do you?"
Aizen shook his head slowly, careful to give a gentle let-down. "No."
Ichimaru floundered. He looked like fish drowning in the open air, his mouth searching for words. The comparison was almost comical, but Aizen firmly kept the thought from slipping onto his face.
"Why," Ichimaru eventually managed (oh good, he could speak), "don't you remember?"
"I don't know," Aizen replied. He considered teasing a little bit of hope before his subordinate, but decided a banal excuse would ring more true. "Maybe you dreamt it?" he offered. One last chance for this fool to back down from this fruitless claim.
Something broke in Ichimaru right then and there, although Aizen wasn't sure what. "Maybe I did," he murmured.
Maybe that was all it would take, although Aizen was disappointed it had taken so little to break this man. He thought he had chosen his underlings carefully. Not carefully enough, it seemed. He could let it end this way, believe that Ichimaru's delusions had been shattered. It would be easier.
But even broken puppets had their strings.
He reached forward, hand just falling shy of contact with Ichimaru's arm. Designed to look haltering, in reality a tactical avoidance of more contact. He thought of Hinamori and the gentle tones that had won her over so easily, and he found that persona was still ingrained into his repertoire. "Are you okay?" he asked softly.
Ichimaru looked at him. Through him. And, in that moment, Aizen knew that he was seeing past the skin-deep sympathy and through to the hollowness beneath.
"Yeah," Ichimaru lied. "I'm fine."
In the silence that Ichimaru's absence left, Aizen pondered.
It was better that Ichimaru had seen through his false kindness. He wouldn't want this to be too easy, after all. If it all it took were two-faced smiles and hollow sentiments, it would be no different from deceiving Hinamori. And he had already done that.
No, if Ichimaru was smart enough to recognise Aizen's lies, then Aizen would just have to be patient. Find another way. Find what made him tick. Become – at least to Ichimaru – the Aizen, the Sousuke, Sou, who he believed he knew. Loved. The man who pulled stars down from the sky on a lover's whim.
The notion was laughable. But not impossible. He could play the part. See where it took him. In time, he would learn how to play these new strings to sing.
This… was going to be interesting.