By the time Shinji arrived at the coffee shop Aizen was already there; sitting at a table alone, an empty coffee cup in front of him, his fingers twitching in that subtle, almost unnoticeable, nicotine-craving manner that only Shinji knew him well enough to pick up on. The blonde was not surprised to see him there; arriving early was one of Aizen's habits, one that he himself had never bothered to try to match. Shinji was a lolling latecomer, a habit that he had developed mainly as a means of irritating the brunette. But this morning he had curbed that habit, knowing that further irritating Aizen in the mood he was in today would not end well.
"Hey." Shinji grinned widely as he pulled out the seat across from him, flopping down into it and draping his arms across the back of the seat. Aizen didn't say anything, just regarded him with the cold, calculating look that was his default expression. Eyes narrowed, neither in contempt nor disgust but in a sharp kind of inquisitiveness. Lips drawn, not pressed tight together but sitting comfortably against each other. Brown hair smoothed back, save for that one unruly strand that always fell down between his eyes. His usual pair of sharp, silver framed glasses sat upon his nose and Shinji could not help but think back to remember how he looked without them. He used to wear contact lenses, back in what they had both come to think of as their past life, and the switch to glasses was one that had come along with his transition, his rebirth as Shinji liked to think of it as. It suited his college lecturer persona, but Shinji was not quite sure what had led to that particular change. He supposed it was part of his mission to change everything about himself, no matter how small. An outward, superficial change reflecting the desperate attempt to alter the things on the inside.
Shinji whistled softly as he gestured to the waitress, ordering a cup of coffee for himself and a refill for Aizen. They sat there in silence until the coffees arrived, they were not in a hurry nor were they running the risk of being overheard. There was only three other people in the café, a couple sitting a few tables over who looked so engrossed in each other that they barely registered the outside world and an older man sitting alone buried in a newspaper, hearing aids planted firmly in both ears. Neither seemed to pose any danger, but caution was in their blood and they would follow it as instinct.
When the coffee arrived Shinji took his time spooning sugar from the pot on the table into his drink; one, two, three, four spoonfuls of fine white granules along with a healthy splash of milk. Aizen's lip curled ever so slightly at his exaggerated motions and Shinji laughed, gesturing at him with the spoon.
"Glad to see that some things never change."
"Some things do." Aizen said simply, sipping sophisticatedly at his coffee, black and bitter, the polar opposite of Shinji's.
"Hmm." The blonde hummed noncommittally as he stirred his drink.
There was another soft silence as the waitress passed close to the table. Shinji finished fussing with his coffee and took a preliminary sip to test the taste. After a moment of deliberation he settled on adding one more sugar to the mix. His masterpiece complete, he sat back in his seat, lacing his fingers behind his head as he regarded Aizen.
He began to speak.
"He called me yesterday morning, asked to meet. I was surprised, of course." a mischievous smile quirked his lips, "He never did like me much."
"I can't imagine why." Aizen's tone didn't change, but the briefest raise of his eyebrows betrayed a humorous edge to the sarcasm in his words. Shinji made a face at him as he brought his arms back down to rest his elbows on the table, leaning in closer.
"Funny. Anyway, we spoke last night, briefly."
"At 'The Ninth'."
"Yep. Where I also saw…" He waved his hands, after their conversation last night he was reluctant to mention Ichigo again, particularly in this context.
"Don't." Aizen cut him off, his eyes darting swiftly about the almost empty room. He didn't know how Shinji knew who Ichigo was, but this was not the place to ask. He certainly didn't want his name mentioned in any conversation that strayed into dangerous territory.
"Right, sorry. Anyway that doesn't matter." Shinji paused to take a sip of his coffee, playing the spoon between long fingers as he spoke. "I knew from the start that something had him rattled, he didn't give much away of course, you know what he's like." Aizen knew, perhaps better than anyone. Reading people was his speciality.
"Why is he here?"
"Straight to the point, got it." Shinji tapped the spoon gently against the side of his cup. "He's worried."
"Because of him?"
Shinji nodded. Aizen felt a bubble of something rise and pop in his chest, but shook it off without letting anything show on his surface. His arms were folded, his body relaxed but its language defensive. His fresh coffee sat upon the table, untouched since the first sip.
"Why? What's happened?"
"Nothing?" Not quite what Aizen had been expecting to hear.
"Nothing at all." Shinji shook his head. "Not for weeks. No shipments or packages of any kind have exchanged hands under his mark, nor under any of his subsidiary companies for that matter."
"I see." Aizen spoke slowly, calculatingly. His expression did not change.
"Things have been steadier these past few years; he's been getting back on his feet ever since… ever since everything got screwed up. But this radio silence all of a sudden, it's odd. And it's not because of the cops and it's not down to any of his rivals getting involved. He's chosen to go under the radar now for some reason."
"He's done that before." 'I've done that before' Aizen couldn't stop his prickly little inner voice from slipping that thought into his mind. He took a sip of his coffee to distract it while Shinji spoke.
"Yeah, but it's different this time, there's been nothing going in or out of the inner circle. I mean nothing. No packages, no communications, no bodies, nothing. From the sound of it I'd say he's gearing up for something. Something big. Like stockpiling before the outbreak of war."
'Or the calm before a storm.' Aizen thought. He took a moment to process this information, pulling it apart and analysing it before putting it back together and filing it away in his mind. This could mean a thousand terrible things or nothing at all; there was no telling with him until it happened.
"Why didn't Kaname come to me with this information?"
"You know why." Shinji snorted. "He probably didn't even think you'd agree to meet with him."
Aizen did know why. There had been a lot of history between the two men, and though he could perhaps never call him a friend they had been close in a sense, as close as a master can be with his subordinate. But after everything that had happened there had been a great rift ripped between them that would never fully close. Tōsen's sense of justice meant he owed Aizen a great debt, and a heavy burden of guilt that could never fully be forgiven by either man still laid upon his shoulders.
"What do you think is going on?"
"I don't know." Shinji sighed softly as he lifted his cup to his lips. "But I'll tell you this Sōsuke, I don't like it one bit. Maybe you should think about moving on again."
"No." Aizen shook his head softly, the loose strand of hair swaying gently from side to side as he moved. "I've gotten settled here, things are going right for me for once. I finally feel… normal."
Shinji snorted again. They both knew that Aizen would never be just a normal everyday guy. But this attachment to a place was unusual for him, and Shinji had an inkling that he might just know where it was stemming from.
"Is this because of the kid?"
"Shinji…" The cautionary tone was back in Aizen's voice, the one that warned him not to push the subject any further.
"I'm being serious." Shinji put on his best serious face. "I know you're not one to let your emotions control you, but it has happened before and it nearly destroyed you." He paused to tap his fingernail against the lip of his cup. "I never want to see you go through that again."
"I'm fine." Aizen nearly let a small expression break his mask. Having someone care about him was different and difficult for him to process. He wasn't so sure if he liked the strange feelings it stirred in his stomach. "If anything happens I'll take care of it."
"I know. But still, maybe you should go away for a while, just in case."
"He knows where I am." Shinji blinked in surprise, a small look of worry flittering across his face.
"How do you know that?" He spoke in hushed tones now. "Has he been in contact with you?"
"No, but I'm sure he must know. I've not been hiding from him for a long time; there was never any reason to." Aizen shrugged softly before pausing for a moment, as though thinking something over. "He has no hold over me any longer."
"Perhaps not, but you know he'll exploit any leverage he can. If he sees something he can use against you, no matter how small, he'll jump on it like a ravenous dog." Shinji bit his lip as the waitress approached, but she passed by their table without so much as a glance at them. He sighed softly in defeat as he leant back in his chair. "Look, I don't know what's going on with you and this kid, but just be careful, okay? Don't get too attached to him. For his sake as well as your own."
"You know," Aizen's voice had a scolding edge to it as he spoke, "you are the one who convinced me that it was a good idea to get involved with him in the first place." Shinji laughed.
"Yeah, but, you should know better than to listen to me when it comes to relationships. You know I'm just a hopeless romantic at heart…" Aizen rolled his eyes at him. "Besides," Shinji continued, "that was before all this business started up again. I'm just telling you to be careful, that's all."
"Aren't I always?" Aizen smirked as he raised the coffee cup to his lips. But deep down he felt those small bubbles of worry building and bursting. He had not been very careful recently, particularly when it came to Ichigo and particularly when it came to getting attached to things. He had been taught never to become involved with something that you could not drop in an instant; a job; a home; a friend; a lover, everything was disposable and that was the philosophy by which he lived his life. He had only broken that rule once before, and as Shinji had so astutely pointed out, he had nearly destroyed himself in the process. But now, now he wasn't so sure about anything.
Shinji fixed him with a pointed stare.
"I still think you could use a holiday, go away for a bit, get some perspective, clear your head." His face cracked in his usual shit eating grin. "You know, I didn't want to be the one to say it but you look like you could use one."
"Shut up Shinji."
The blonde just smiled.
Aizen checked his watch, it was nearly 10am. Still early, Ichigo wouldn't be coming over for at least a few hours more, but he had things to take care of, particularly in the light of the conversation he had just had. There were people he should call; it was about time he got his ear to the ground again, just in case Tōsen's paranoia turned out to be something more. And perhaps he would give some serious thought to Shinji's vacation idea. It had been a long time since he had taken a break, and after this morning's revelations it might in fact be a good idea to get out of the town for a little while. He could even take Ichigo away with him if the redhead so desired. He supposed that wasn't really what Shinji had in mind when he told him to get away from things, but damn him. He was the one who had convinced him to give things with Ichigo a shot in the first place and now he was trying to warn him off. Shinji always did have his best intentions at heart but sometimes Aizen wished he'd just make his damn mind up and stick to one point of view.
But little did Aizen know that, at that moment, as much as Ichigo was on his mind, he was on Ichigo's, but not for the same reasons. For while the two men had been engaged in their serious conversations over dark dealings in the corner of a coffee shop they had both managed to miss the redheaded teen who had passed by the shop window while they brooded over possibilities.
But he had noticed them.
Ichigo leant against a wall, feeling the cool outlines of the bricks in the mortar against his back, pressing gently through the thin cloth of his shirt to create little block shaped patterns on the surface of his skin. His mind had stopped spinning now, but he had not quite gotten over the small shock that had sent his skin crawling when he saw his lover engaged in what seemed to be a serious conversation with the very same, creepy looking blonde he had caught staring at him in the bar the previous night. This had sent a flood of questions spiralling through Ichigo's mind. Who was this man? How did Aizen know him? And most importantly, had he actually sent him to spy on Ichigo last night? It was too coincidental, that he received that text from him after seeing the blonde haired man staring so intently at him. But he didn't really believe that Aizen would do such a thing. He was hardly the jealous, needy type that Ichigo supposed did these sorts of things. But then this brought him back to his previous question, who was this man, how did Aizen know him and why was he at the bar last night? Did he know that Kaname Tōsen character too? Most importantly, how could he be so involved with his life without Ichigo even knowing it?
And then there was the incident with the thugs. At first he had thought that he must have misunderstood what had happened that day outside Aizen's flat, he had assumed that he had taken one too many blows to the head and had gotten confused over what had taken place but last night had confirmed his memories of the incident. Karakura's toughest gang had been scared off by a teacher, and even now quivered in fear at the very thought of him. He had somehow managed to explain the situation away to his friends, though he could tell that they were not entirely convinced by his joking about the situation and suspicious over the swift departure he made to return home.
He sighed heavily as he let his head fall back against the bricks. 'Just what the hell is going on here?' The more he thought it over the more it made his head spin and the more he realised that he really knew nothing at all about the man whose bed he had been sharing.
It was a little after 2pm now, and he was standing just around the corner from Aizen's flat. He had been loitering there for a while now, trying to build up the courage to go in and confront him. He wasn't even sure how to raise the subject with him. A man like Aizen would surely not respond well to hostilities, but Ichigo had to admit that he felt pretty damn hostile right now. Angry and confused and a little saddened by the odd sense of the feeling of being used. Was this how it felt to be betrayed? Or was he just reading too much into it? There was probably a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this that he had overlooked. He wanted to believe that.
'Only one way to find out…'
A few minutes later he was standing at Aizen's front door. He took a deep breath and shut his eyes, holding the air in his chest for a moment, feeling the tension like a tight knot in the pit of his stomach. He exhaled heavily and felt the knot unravel ever so slightly. It was enough. He rang the buzzer.
Aizen's voice crackled a greeting over the intercom, the familiar smooth mocking tone sparked shivers across his skin and he felt the knot tighten up again. The door buzzed open in his hands, the harsh noise reverberating through his body.
Aizen opened the door to a scowling Ichigo, his face set coldly beneath shaggy orange hair. The look of defiance on his face was at once adorable and exciting, yet worrying. Aizen was far too hardened a man to be intimidated by such a look, even from someone twice Ichigo's size, but seeing the anger barely contained on his young lover's face still set off a small spark of concern in his stomach.
"We need to talk." Ichigo didn't quite meet his eyes as he spoke. He brushed past Aizen in the doorway, his blatant dismissal doing nothing to quench the apprehension in the elder's stomach. He pursed his lips in an unseen gesture of annoyance as he shut the door behind Ichigo and followed him through into the living room.
Ichigo was sitting on the sofa, hands on his knees, shoulders squared, face set, eyes cast downwards. Aizen raised an eyebrow as he sat down at the couch opposite, sensing that physical closeness was not something the young man wanted right now. Ichigo looked up as Aizen sat down and their eyes locked. He wasn't even sure how to begin, so many questions buzzing in his head like flies. He bit his lip as he tried to get his thoughts in order.
"How old are you?"
Not quite what Aizen had expected. But he had been waiting for this for a long time. The confrontation. The questioning. And he knew that this was only the beginning of what would become a dark, tangled web of confessions.
But that didn't mean that he was going to make it easy for him to get those answers.
"Does it matter?"
"No. I suppose not." Ichigo muttered as he regarded his fingernails. The hurt in his voice startled Aizen from his defensive position. He sighed softly.
Ichigo looked up. His eyes soft and shining.
There was silence for a while, the soft tapping of Ichigo's fingernails against each other. And the next time he spoke the reply came quickly.
"When's your birthday?"
"Where were you born?"
"In Kobe, Kita-ku prefecture to be precise."
"Do you have any family?" Ichigo winced as soon as the question left his lips, remembering that this was a sensitive topic for both of them. "Any brothers or sisters I mean?"
"What about cousins? Uncles? Aunts? Grandparents? There must be somebody."
"Who are you really?" He snapped. Angry words split like fluid from his lips as the dam overflowed. "You know so much about me but you won't ever talk about yourself. How am I meant to trust you when I don't even know you?"
"It's better that you don't know…" Aizen sighed softly but did not turn his gaze from that of the redhead.
"Right. Like it's better that I don't know about why that gang was so scared of you, or about that creepy blonde fucker."
"You know who I mean. That blonde man, the one who was in the bar last night, the one you were with this morning."
"Who is he?"
"Remember when I told you I had a friend who likes to irritate me, and you wondered what sort of person I'd be friends with?"
"That was him."
"Oh." It was Ichigo's turn to pause in thought for a moment, considering this new information. His rage calmed a little, a soft expression pushing at the corners of his mouth. "Figures you'd be friends with a creepy looking bastard like him."
"He's not so bad once you get to know him." Aizen smirked softly in response. "Though admittedly, he can be a bit of a bastard."
"Did you tell him about me? Is that why he was staring at me in the bar?"
Aizen silently cursed Shinji's blatant lack of subtlety. He'd have to have words with that man.
"Yes, though I must admit I was unaware that he knew your appearance."
"How did he know that?"
"I don't know." Aizen shook his head, turning his palms upwards in a defeated gesture. "But as you so astutely put it, he is a 'creepy fucker' at times."
"So what was all that about this morning?" Ichigo's brow furrowed in interest, the anger fading away into curiousness. "It looked serious."
"Well? What were you talking about?"
Aizen sighed softly. He removed his glasses and touched his fingertips to his brow.
"You can't just dismiss me!" The rage returned swiftly, fists clenched as Ichigo shifted forward in his seat. Aizen's reply was calm and quiet, his eyes suddenly soft and tired without his silver frames.
"Look. I'm not used to all… this."
"To this… closeness. " Aizen bit the inside of his cheek. This was it, the tipping point. The point where he had to make a decision. Admit something he had never admitted to another living being before, or push Ichigo further away and risk losing him. "I'm not the kind of person who opens up to others."
"I don't need you to tell me everything; I just need something, something that's not so secret and superficial."
Aizen made his decision.
"It's more than just that. It was never like this before, it was just… physical." Ichigo twitched, surprising himself by how much he disliked the idea of Aizen being with someone else, even in the past. "I never really cared. About anyone. But you…"
For the first time ever Ichigo found Aizen at a loss for words. He could see in his face that it was truth, could hear it in his voice, because it was raw and because it was painful and because he looked so incredibly vulnerable in that moment. For the first time a part of the mask had eroded, crumbled to pieces in his hands, and he could finally see a fragment of the man beneath.
"There's one more thing." Ichigo spoke softly now, his anger blown away in the face of that admission. "I have to know what happened that day, when you saved me?"
Aizen swallowed hard, his glasses twirling beneath long fingers.
"I'm not a good person Ichigo, that's something which you need to know about me. I've done terrible things, things which I have been running from for a long time. Things which still resonate in the minds of people like them. Things which…" His voice almost cracked as he spoke, the words catching uncharacteristically in his throat, "would make me hate you if you knew them."
Ichigo lent across the coffee table and took Aizen's long fingered hands in his own, squeezing them gently. For a moment silence reigned and Aizen was the naughty child awaiting judgement before a superior.
Aizen looked up and was caught unaware in Ichigo's amber gaze.
"Okay?" He questioned softly, not daring to hope that his paltry admission would be accepted.
"Really?" He found that hard to believe. It was more than he deserved, to be so easily accepted, to be subjected to such little questioning.
"We all have secrets right?"
"Do you?" Aizen couldn't believe that there was anything which Ichigo had to keep from him, so pure and young and innocent he was. But certainly he knew that the teen's secrets could not match those of his own demons. He had gotten off so lightly that he did not dare to press Ichigo on the subject. Not now.
"Believe it or not I do." Ichigo huffed softly in response.
Aizen laughed, the expression crossing his face like an antidote to all the fear and anger that had been expelled. He took Ichigo's face in his hands and pressed his mouth to the teen's soft lips. The recoil he had feared from him did not happen and he smiled gently as they relaxed into the kiss. Slow and soft and warm, the opposite of everything he had feared would come forth in this conversation.
As they parted Ichigo blinked softly in the afternoon light, the sun creeping across his face like bright shadows across his lines and curves.
"There's one thing you're wrong about though." He said as he blinked sunlight from his eyes.
"What's that then?" The small smile still lingered on Aizen's face as he brushed vibrant strands back across Ichigo's forehead.
"You're not a bad person." Ichigo swallowed a lump in his throat as he tried to articulate his feelings. "And I could never hate you. Whatever you did in the past doesn't matter. All that matters is the person you are now. Here. With me."
And that was it. The crux of the deepest secret of Aizen's deepest fear. Acceptance. He had almost half hoped that Ichigo would reject him, at least then he would be safe from his demons and Aizen would be able to let go, return to the cold miserable bastard, the mask which kept him safe. But now he was hopelessly caught within that trap one more.
But this time it would be different. He would not let things run the same course, like time endlessly repeating itself on an inevitable loop. A collision course that tore everything to pieces.
He made that silent promise to himself as he pulled Ichigo towards him, across the coffee table, into his lap. Mouths locked, bodies entwined, he swore that oath over and over in the darkness of his mind.
Not this time.