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Do Not Go Gentle

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Asuka didn’t leave immediately. She could have, probably, could’ve snuck right out the front gate and slammed out the other side, but there was something she had to do first. Shinji’s voice echoed in her ear, he’s not right, and quince blossoms and throatwort, and she couldn’t bring herself to leave without doing this first. It was a familiar building, the steps second nature after years of fetching Shinji from it, and she almost walked past the clerk before she remembered she couldn’t do that anymore. So she turned back, smiling politely.

“Would it be possible for me to speak to Lieutenant Hinamori?” The clerk was overworked, undoubtedly, overrun with paperwork in the wake of the mess Aizen had left, with no Lieutenant to pick up the slack and a whole mess of offenses to sort out on the part of everyone involved. Really, he couldn’t be blamed for simply waving her through, but a part of Asuka took note. That sort of security was probably a reason for Aizen’s being able to run roughshod over all of the Gotei. She’d have reported him, if there was anyone left to report to. Her thoughts settled, though, pulled back at the sight of the small, tired slump of the Lieutenant sitting in a cell across from the door.

“He did a number on you, too, didn’t he?” Asuka sighed, and the poor woman jumped so high she felt bad. “Sorry,” she said sheepishly, at the other woman’s shocked glare. “I probably should’ve started with ‘excuse me,’ huh?”

“It would have helped,” the Lieutenant frowned, and it might have had a greater effect if she had looked a little more alive. As things were, the dark circles under her eyes and the way she leaned against the bars for balance gave her away. The bandages went up to her throat, and Asuka was reminded forcefully of why she’d come.

“I came to talk about Lieutenant- excuse me, Captain Aizen.” The poor girl looked at once both hopeful and afraid, and the emotion flooded her with a vitality Asuka hadn’t expected.

“Do you think he’s innocent, too? I knew he was! Oh, I just knew he had to be. He would never- not of his own free will, anyway. It had to be Captain Ichimaru. He must have forced the other two of them to- and of course he’d never-” Asuka watched her speak with a sort of half-sadness. A tired understanding.

“Is that what you believe?” Asuka

“What?” She stopped, struck silent.

“Is that what you believe? I mean, it seems to me you’re telling yourself a story.” She took a step back, as if Asuka had hit her, and her face drew close in anger. “That’s alright,” she continued, leaning one shoulder against the wall. “We tell ourselves all kinds of stories. That’s not what I want to know.” She looked at Hinamori again, her face as calm, as even as it had been when she’d first walked in. “I want to know if you truly believe your Captain is innocent of everything he’s been charged with.”

“Captain Aizen was- is a good man.” Her fists were clenched at her sides, and she stood, trembling. With fury or pain, Asuka couldn’t have said.  “He trusted me!” Hinamori’s voice broke a little, on the word trust. Just enough to ache.

“Yes, from what I’ve been told he entrusted you with avenging his death. On your best friend.” Asuka shook her head, meeting the other woman’s gaze. “If he truly cared for you, would he ask you to murder your friend for his sake? Why not ask you to arrest them? To bring them to justice in the right way? And,” she continued, “had you succeeded in avenging him, wouldn’t you have been arrested for murder yourself?”

“Because-” Hinamori began, paused, stepped back, and Asuka had to look away to keep speaking. The poor woman looked lost. She looked as if someone had taken everything true and real from her and thrown it in her face. There was a pang in Asuka’s heart that felt something like regret.

“Because he didn’t care. If you died, he wouldn’t have to do anything more. If you lived, you’d only continue to suffer with the knowledge that your best friend was responsible for your Captain’s death, and you, in turn, were responsible for theirs.” Asuka swallowed. “Maybe he did care for you, I don’t know. But I very much doubt he cared enough for it to change anything.” Hinamori sniffled, shook her head, made a small, keening noise that sank into Asuka’s heart like a knife. “And for that matter,” Asuka continued, her own, pricking questions welling up. “If you think so highly of Captain Aizen and Captain Tosen, do you truly think it would be so easy for Captain Ichimaru to force them into such a scheme? Are two Captains suddenly lesser than one?” Hinamori sat again, leaning forlornly against the bars. “Do you think it would be kinder? If he didn’t mean it?”

“Why are you doing this?” She asked, and Asuka could hear the tears in her voice, the slow loss of hope. She closed her eyes and let her head rest against the wall, too.

“Because I am firmly of the opinion that if you’re going to tell yourself a story, it should be one you believe. And, begging your pardon, but you don’t seem to believe your own story.” She thought of Shinji, of burning flowers and the cold touch of steel. “Because someone tried to tell me the same story a hundred years ago, and I couldn’t bring myself to disbelieve it.” The Lieutenant sniffled, and Asuka pushed herself off of the wall to hand her a handkerchief. “You deserve better than that,” she said gently. “You deserve the truth, and to be able to move on from it.” Hinamori wouldn’t lift a hand for the handkerchief, seemingly content to let her tears fall.

“How could I move on knowing my own Captain ha- hated me enough to do all this?” She asked, her breath faltering in her chest. Asuka dabbed at her face, gently wiping at her nose. The girl looked up at her with miserable eyes, a bruised look that spoke of utter hopelessness and deep pain. Asuka knew she must have looked much the same, a hundred years ago. Just as sad, just as small, just as lost.

“I’m not sure,” she admitted, reaching through the bars to pull a piece of hair from where it was stuck to Hinamori’s cheek. “But I believe you’re strong enough to find a way.” She smiled wryly at the young woman, tilting up her chin with one hand. “Not many people take a sword to the heart and live to tell the tale.” Hinamori rolled her eyes, and a flicker of exasperation entered the curve of her frown.

“Is that what you believe?” the other woman asked, her words edged with a gentle, mocking, tease.

“Well if you’re healthy enough to get snippy with me, I think you’ll be fine,” Asuka responded dryly, pulling away. She lowered herself to the floor and crossed her legs, sighing. “Aizen was Lieutenant of the Fifth under my husband,” Hinamori’s eyes widened, her lips parted as if to question, but Asuka kept talking. “They’re not… certain of what he did to my husband, how he did it, but they believed the lies he told them for over a century. They let me believe them, too. I thought he was dead.” She looked up at the window, at the slivers of sky. “At the very least, he’s been banished.”

“Who let you believe that?” Hinamori asked, straightening up and leaning on the bars. Asuka smiled bitterly and shook her head.

“The other Captains,” she shrugged. “Central 46.”

“How could they?” Hinamori seemed aghast. “If they knew- he was turning against them that long ago?”

“I believe so,” Asuka said. “I suppose we can’t truly know, but… Well. Maybe I always knew. No man gives a widow courting flowers in six months of the funeral unless he’s the one who killed her husband.”

“He wanted to marry you?” Hinamori seemed outright furious on her behalf, and Asuka couldn’t help but laugh. “He got your husband banished, lied to you about it, and then tried to marry you?”

“I’m not- I’m just telling you this because I’d like you to understand that you’re not- you aren’t the only person he managed to do this to. You’re not alone in it.” She sighed, looking back at Hinamori. “You have me. And one day, maybe Shinji, too.”

“Shinji?” She asked, that teasing edge back again.

“My husband,” Asuka agreed, something unbearably light in her face, in the way her shoulders set, the soft edge of her eyes. Her mouth quirked up in a rueful half-smile.  “If I can find him.”

“You can,” Hinamori assured her.

“You’re sure of that?” Asuka laughed. “I’m not.”

“I am.” Hinamori leaned on the wall, her legs still trembling under her. “You can ask him if it really was Captain Aizen.”

“We’ll figure it out together, I expect.” There was quiet between them for a moment, Hinamori looking back at her contemplative and confused, still a little lost. “Am I the first person to tell you about this?” Asuka asked suddenly. “About what happened a century ago?”

“Nobody talks about that. Something happened, we all know, because half the Captains and Lieutenants were replaced, but they don’t teach us about it. They don’t talk about it.” Hinamori looked past Asuka, running through six years of Academy material. “Captain Aizen never talked about his predecessor.”

“He wouldn’t,” Asuka snorted. “I’m surprised Ichimaru never did.” Hinamori’s face clouded.

“You say that like you liked him,” she said suspiciously.

“I did,” Asuka allowed. “For personal reasons, I suppose. I never got to know him all that well. Captain Tosen, I know, is looked on very highly in the Rukongai. I heard lovely things from every old woman, every young boy who came into my shop.” She met Hinamori’s eyes again, even against the other woman’s brown. “I heard very nice things about Captain Aizen, too.”

“He-” Hinamori burst out, then clammed back up, swallowed her words with a soft whine, pressing a hand to her chest.

“Be careful,” Asuka reminded her, rising to kneel, reaching through the bars to help her back to the bench. “Sword to the heart, remember?”

“I wish I didn’t,” she muttered, gasping as she eased herself up against the bars once more.

“Would that make believing easier?” Asuka asked with a rueful smile, and when she was met with silence she huffed a laugh. “It’s difficult, isn’t it, losing someone.”

“I didn’t lose- He-“ Hinamori searched for words, looked somewhere between angry and defensive, her eyes clouded with confusion and her face crumpled with doubt. Asuka stood, walked across the room to the wall opposite Hinamori, slid down it until she was perched at the bottom.

“Have you ever made Kkultarae? Or seen someone else do it?” She settled in, stretching out her legs and sighing contentedly. The floor was cold, but the support was nice. She was never much good at standing without something to do.

“I- no, I don’t think so?” Hinamori searched her memories and shrugged.

“You’d know,” Asuka assured her, looking up. “It’s mesmerizing. They do it in street carts over by the Twelfth. Start with a boiled sugar dough, thick and bubbling and dangerously hot, and let it cool until it’s about half-solid. Roll it into a slab, punch a hole through the middle.” Asuka could feel Hinamori listening, could feel her confusion in the weight of her eyes. “And then they pull it out until it’s a circle. Roll it into a long, closed loop. Rolling it in starch the whole time, keeping it soft so it doesn’t break. And then they double it, so it’s two, smaller loops, and they pull it out again, roll it out, and loop it. Over and over and over, until the sugar’s been pulled into string, until that slab is sixteen thousand threads of sugar, soft and beautiful and thin as hair.”

Asuka paused, looking past Hinamori, distant and tired. “That’s what lying is like. You start with one lie. Just one, thick and painful, hard to manage. As time passes, one lie becomes a hundred, smaller and thinner, harder to keep track of, but you’re getting better at it. And then a thousand, five thousand, sixteen thousand tiny lies, thin as thread, and you have to keep them all straight, all separate, all in line. Aizen was, is, a masterful liar. He breathes them. But even sixteen thousand lies don’t make up a man.” She looked back to Hinamori, alert and keen-eyed. “It’s alright to miss what you knew of him. I don’t doubt some measure of that was real.”

“How could any of it be real?” Hinamori said, more than asked, in a small, broken voice. “How could he- if it was, how could he-”

“He’s human, too,” Asuka said, pressing her back to the flat, white wall.

“What?” Hinamori’s brow furrowed, she leaned forward a little. “

“Kkultarae is wrapped around a spoonful of crushed nuts,” Asuka said, looking at the ceiling. The wooden rafters were lovely, the same as the ones in the barracks. Familiar to her, after all the nights she had spent sneaking into Shinji’s room to talk. “You cut a measure from the threads with your hands, quickly, and fill it, you make a small cocoon, bury the nuts in the sugar. If the threads are lies, the nuts are truth. Just because they’re hidden, doesn’t mean they’re not there.” She shifted. “Even Aizen can’t lie every moment of every day. It’s just plain impossible.” She let her head fall back to the wall, waiting out the silence. When Hinamori was done thinking it through, she’d speak, and-

“You really like candy, don’t you?” Hinamori finally asked, and Asuka started with such surprise that she smacked her head against the wall. The girl was laughing at her, a rusted, spasming sound that spoke to the fact that there was a still-healing hole in her chest.

“Shut up!” She protested, rubbing the back of her head. “I make candy for a living. I’m trying- stop laughing- I’m trying to get my point across.”

“It kind of worked,” Hinamori snorted, and Asuka had to fight back a smile of her own at the look on the girl’s face. “Except I think you lost a little meaning around ‘the nuts are truth,’”

“Would you rather I used daifuku?” Asuka retorted, smiling. “You beat the rice dough fourteen thousand times, and each time you do a lie is told.”

“I’m begging you,” Hinamori said. “Do not.”

“Do you at least understand what I mean?” Asuka asked, the laughter fading from her voice.

“Yeah,” Hinamori whispered, a ghost of a smile still on her face. “I think I’m starting to.”


 

Going home was harder, knowing what she knew now. Before, it hadn’t seemed empty. It was lacking, of course, Shinji torn as cleanly from the space as if he’d never been there at all. Gone were the warmth and vitality of her husband, the soft touch of his hand, the quiet footfalls that woke her no matter how he tried to sneak in in the dark hours of the morning. Before, she had been haunted, his absence a presence of its own, a ghost of space that filled as much as it left empty.

Now she was entirely alone.

It had been a lovely home, when they had shared it. It had been lovely before that, too, just a half-dreamed vision of the future. When he’d just been made Captain and, soft-eyed and hopeful, he’d asked her if she’d like to find a house somewhere. When she’d been given the bakery, and they had gleefully greeted each other that night with the news that she’d be running it, that he’d found a place nearby. When he’d asked her to marry him, sitting side by side on the deck and watching the rain fall. When she’d said she wanted to meet his family, trembling and determined, his hair in her hands as he knelt between her knees. When she’d kissed him, breathless and pink-cheeked with sake, in the doorway on their wedding night. All the nights after, all the days, all the years.

And then, with a painful suddenness, it had become a monument, an empty-halled testament to their love, haunted and hallowed with her pain. Standing there, composed and cold and thin with anger, Asuka wasn’t sure if she wanted to come back to it. Maybe it would be better left alone, deserted and decaying on the edge of town, reclaimed by the trees and the animals and time.

Maybe it was time she left.

“I promise,” she murmured once more, looking at the bed she’d shared with him, at the untouched half of the room where she’d left his things. She’d hoped, for a time, that he’d come back. She’d dreamed it, waking weeping in the night as she recalled over and over again that he was gone. Her fingers fell softly to the mirror, to the table beneath it, tracing furrows in the thin dust. He wasn’t gone, though. Not yet. She looked to the bed once more, and walked to the wall behind it.

The sword hung there, flickering and shimmering. Falsely projecting the image of Sakanade. The illusion had begun to fade since Aizen left, the ribbons around the hilt more grey than red, the scabbard turning dull for a moment every now and then. She kept it, though. Clung to it. She hadn’t known what else to do. She’d kept it with her, cared for it, carried it and wept over it and held it to her heart for over a century. She reached for it, and when she was just an inch away, it rattled against the wall as if it were alive. She pulled away, took a step back. It stilled, and she leaned forward, reached out once more.

“You were Aizen’s, weren’t you?” She asked, touching curious fingertips to the now nameless sword hanging over her bed. It shivered, shook, and the truth of it burned away the illusion, the red scabbard blooming to a worn brown, then a soft brass under her hand. “You were never Shinji’s.” The hourglass tsuba thinned, flattened, the filigree she knew as well as her own name filling in. It shifted, twisted, as though searching for a shape, then settled on a circle. There were lines carved into it, striking out from the center like a sunburst, radiating. “Does that make you mine?” Asuka asked, and the ribbons strained, tightened, loosened about the handle, then settled back in, bright, shimmering copper bleeding through the red like blood through silk.

The sword settled, and when she wrapped her hand around its hilt, it hummed for her. Touching Sakanade, even for a moment, had felt like lifting off the ground, the taste of soap and spun sugar in her mouth. Shinji had pressed it into her hands once, wrapping himself around her back, draping his arms over hers. He’d curled her fingers over its handle, pulled her palm down the sheath and laughed when she swayed on her feet, fell back further into him. It had been intoxicating, playful, like gentle touch on her shoulder, a breeze of jasmine in her hair.

Whether it was Aizen’s influence or her own, this sword felt… different. Colder. It felt like sunrise, the flash in her eyes, the burn of cold air on her cheeks, the catching of her breath in her lungs. It felt like devotion, like broken glass and broken bones and touching fire. It felt, most of all, alive. Awake, in a way it hadn’t been before.

“I suppose if you weren’t then, you are now,” Asuka said, with a half-smile. It hummed again. The edge of her eye caught on the red ribbon she’d hung it with, and she untied it, letting the ribbon fall to the floor. She went rummaging through drawers, flicked through her clothes, found a spare sash in her closet. With a faint smile, she tied it about her waist, feeling awake, herself, for the first time in a century.

Feeling, if not whole, then well on her way to it.


 

She expected to leave alone, unremarked and unmissed, but when she came to the portal she found Kyoraku waiting for her. She’d been content, hopeful, but her face hardened at the sight of him.

“Captain,” she greeted him crisply, not stopping. He reached out an arm in front of her, as if to block her way, and she stopped, looking blankly up at him.

“Now, now, that’s no way to speak to a Captain,” he chastised her, but there was no smug purr in his tone, no playfulness. No force.

“What do you want?” She asked, and the fake smile he had patched up on his face disappeared.

“Nothing,” he said quietly. “In fact, I came to help you.”

“I don’t think I want your help, Captain,” Asuka said, and there was no sneer there, no laughter. Only cold deflection.

“I wouldn’t expect you to,” he agreed easily, a tired smile returning to his face. “But I thought you might want this.” He held out a sheaf of papers, thick and tied well with red string. They fluttered, just a little, in his grasp. “It’s the account of what happened that night, as recounted by everyone they could speak with. Urahara, Tsukabishi, Tosen.” He paused, eyes flicking away. “Me.”

“Thank you,” she said, reaching out to take it gingerly from his hand. “You didn’t have to.”

“I did,” he replied, and she cracked a half smile as she shrugged.

“Okay,” she agreed. “You did.” She took the papers and walked past him, clutching them to her chest and laying her other hand on her sword. The doorway opened, slow and cavernous, and she looked back only once to smile, wistfully, at the blue of the sky.

And then, heart pounding, heart hopeful, she stepped into the darkness of the passage between worlds.


 

There were two men on the other side, each dressed eccentrically in an outfit that could surely belong to nobody but either of them. She wasn’t entirely certain of where she was, surrounded by sun-warmed stone and barren ground, spindly black trees and a blue, blue sky. The two men stood, waiting for her.

“Lady Hirako,” the shorter one greeted her, with a soft voice and a gentle bow. “We weren’t sure when to expect you, so I’m afraid you’ll have to give us time to prepare you a room.” Asuka raised an eyebrow at him and smiled.

“I’ve been ‘preparing my own room’ since I was a child,” she told him easily. “I wasn’t born a Lady, and even if I had been, I’m fairly certain you would outrank me, Captain Urahara. There’s no need to act the servant.”

“I’m no Captain,” he sputtered, squashing his hat down on his head. “A simple shopkeeper like me? No! Couldn’t be!” It was a faulty defence, not in the least because she could feel his sword, razor-sharp and hungry like a leech, prickling at the back of her neck. And his eyes… they reminded her of someone else with the way they took her in, even as he rattled off a dozen reasons why he couldn’t be anyone of any sort of importance. They were warm, certainly. But empty. Empty in the same way a vortex is empty, or a black hole- devouring all around them without care nor thought.

“Please don’t,” Asuka said, unmoving. He paused, as if taken aback. She knew the smile on her own face was gone, and she sighed, taking a step forward. “I’m here to find my husband. I don’t need to deal with all this.”

“No,” he agreed cordially, stepping aside. “I suppose you don’t.” He looked up, at the burning sun, and then back to her. “Well. This way, then.”

Asuka allowed herself to be led through the strage desert, wondering vaguely where the city was, only to be stopped dead at the sight of a trap door in the sky. There was a ladder hanging from it, too, but it was more than a little unnerving to realize that the sky she’d been walking under was a false sky, the desert artificial, the trees fake. Ascending the ladder was strange, the sky appearing no less distant, no less real, even as she moved up into it. Coming out the other side into a lovely house, quite close to the ones she was used to seeing in the Seireitei… that was no less strange, though much nicer.

She was handed off to the taller man, whose name she learned was Tessai. He was quiet, but quite kind, and very polite, for all his appearance suggested a roughness of spirit. She was shown to a bathroom, and she took the opportunity to bathe and redress, and ate a late dinner with the residents of the shop. The sun beneath the shop never set, but she had emerged into late evening, and the two bickering children and the Lady Shihoin had caused nothing but trouble the whole night through. She sat up late that night, poring over the file Kyouraku had given her, tracing threads of faint and fragile truth through Aizen’s lies.

A knock on her door announced Urahara, so late that she had to blink away the imprints of words on her eyes to look at him. He slid open her door, leaning against the frame and watching her attempt to find something in the sheaf of papers she held.

“Is that the file in question?” He asked, stepping into the room.

“The full account of that night, from everyone pertinent and conscious at the time.” Asuka looked down at it, the weight of it heavy in her hands, in her heart. “Even you, Captain.”

“Please don’t call me Captain,” he asked wearily. “I’ve never enjoyed it.” A smile found its way onto her face, and Asuka had to bite her lip to hold it back.

“Of course, Captain,” she answered, some of it leaking into her voice. He made a slight groaning noise. “It’s not a pleasant story, is it?” She ran her fingers up and down the sides of it, fidgeting. “It breaks my heart.”

“Does it tell you what you hoped it would?” His voice was strange, nervous and empty.

“It tells me enough,” she said, looking up. “Though I know for certain some of it is… untrue.”

“Some of it,” he allowed. “Some of it is true in a different way. What occurred that night… It was my doing, but not in the way they believed.”

“I know enough about Aizen to know it was his fault, regardless of what the Central 46 believed. You, I’m sure, had very little to do with it.” He flinched back, just a moment, before shooting her a rueful smile.

“I suppose they wouldn’t have told you the full story, would they,” he said. He took his hat from his head, pressing it to his chest. “I have everything to do with it.” He swept into a deep bow, and didn’t move out of it as he spoke. “I created the hogyoku, Lady Hirako. I sent my Lieutenant out that night, necessitating the Captain Commander to send back-up after her. I set… a great deal in motion through my foolishness, my arrogance.” he paused, swallowing. “It was only through luck that i managed to save the eight of them. Luck, risk-taking, and Tessai’s kido. Otherwise… “

“They’d all be dead,” Asuka finished for him, voice hollow and cold.

“They’d all be dead,” he agreed sadly.

“Do you know where Shinji is?” She asked hopefully, and he stopped in the doorway, considering. “Please, Captain. Please tell me.”

“I don’t know for certain,” he said quietly. “I know only a little, and I’ll tell you that tomorrow.”

“Why tomorrow? I’m awake, you’re awake-”

“Because you should be awake when you find your husband again, Lady Hirako.” His voice was softer, kinder, and he looked over his shoulder to smile at her. “I’ll tell you in the morning.”

He did, over a breakfast of rice and small fish that Urahara insisted Tessai had caught in the river. They were all quiet, at first, eating silently and slowly in the pale morning, but after a time Urahara cleared his throat and looked across the table at her. 

“You’re set on finding him, then?” Asuka glared at him.

“He’s my husband. I’m not leaving him.” Urahara nodded, swallowing.

“I’m not sure which one, because they’re quite paranoid, but they’re in one of the warehouses near the edge of town, pas the city center and the river. They shouldn’t be easy to find, but I believe you will be able to find them.” His eyes narrowed, keen and sharp. “After all,” he said, chopsticks hanging loosely in one hand. “With that sword of yours, you should be just fine.”

She said nothing.


 

Urahara had left her a gigai in her room, or had had someone else do so, because there was a body lying on the floor, limp and empty, with her face. Her hands, her burn scars from the ovens, the tired, dark circles under her eyes. Her. Lying there, looking for all the world to be her corpse. Asuka felt a shudder of revulsion fill her, and closed her eyes. She breathed slowly, trying to banish the stranger fear, the sudden sadness that had welled up in her.

She wondered, vaguely, horrifyingly, if Shinji had looked like that. If Urahara had brought him to this world unresisting and pale, corpselike and broken. She sucked in a lungful of air and let it go again. It had to be done. She lay down over the gigai, let herself sink into it, let it take possession of her spirit in a way no body had since a time she couldn’t remember.

It felt heavy, at first. A mortal body was weighted, carrying so much with it, and Asuka had to relearn life. She stretched, swung her sword- which had helpfully remained tangible, thank the heavens- did a spin or two. She reacquainted herself with gravity, touched on grace. She stood, moved as naturally as she did in her own form, and resolved to leave.

She cleaned up the room they’d lent her, closing up the bedroll and sweeping the tatami, leaving one of the doors open a crack to let in fresh air. They let her make her own way out, and standing outside for the first time, she began to understand why Urahara kept his house the way he did. This city was different. Grey, falling up-and-down on the horizon in a manner that seemed strange compared to the rambling sprawl of the rukongai or the regimented organization of the Seireitei. There were tall poles, connected by wires, strange yellow and white lines dotting what she believed were black roads. This city was made from a different time, a different spirit. Not unfriendly, but nevertheless unkind in its suddenness.

“You’re a brave one,” a deep voice purred, and she looked to her left to find a sinuous black cat curling its way across the deck.

“Am I?” She asked, raising an eyebrow. “It seems… much less dangerous than the world I come from.”

“It is,” the cat said, and something in the way it bared its teeth said ‘smile.’ “It’s a nice town.” Asuka reached out cautiously, hand hovering over the cat’s head.

“May I?” She asked, and the cat made a rumbling, irregular sound that she supposed must be laughter.

“Please,” the cat nodded, arching up to rub its back along her palm, tail flicking to curl around her wrist. She began to stroke, from the center of the cat’s face all the way to the tip of its tail, smiling at the happy noises it was making.

“Are you trying to warn me?” She asked, still petting it. “Are you a spirit in disguise?” The rusty, rumbling laugh began again.

“More than you know,” the cat grinned. Asuka nodded, scratching at the ruff of its neck.

“I imagine nothing in this house is what it seems, is it?” She looked again at the world ahead of her, grey and solid, the sun melting the last of the mist between tall buildings.

“Nothing in this world,” the cat said, some of the glee leaving its voice. “Be careful, your Ladyship.”

“Well, who am I to disagree with a spirit,” Asuka said teasingly, with a final scratch between the cat’s ears. “Thank you, oh great and wise feline.”

“Your praise is accepted,” the cat purred, shaking itself quickly from head to toe like a small, disoriented dog. Asuka stood, adjusting the sash around her waist. “You should put that at your back,” the cat said, even as it turned to the door of the shop. “It would suit you better.” Asuka looked back, eyes narrowed, but untied it anyway, looping the loose end through the hook at the base of her sword’s scabbard.

“That’s why this is here, right?” She sighed, grimacing at it. “Because it ‘suits me better’ this way.”

“Your soul knows itself,” the cat shrugged. Or would have shrugged, if it had had shoulders. Asuka shook her head.

“I hope it does,” she muttered, slinging the sash across her chest. It did feel more comfortable that way, felt right to have the weight hang the way it did. But a part of her was already far away, waiting at the edge of town for her to catch up to it.

This town was quieter than the Rukongai. There were no bustling markets, no back-and-forth of carts, no wandering groups of children. Everything seemed quiet, peaceful, orderly. Everything was in its place.The sun rose heavy and hot in the sky, tempered only by a breeze that spoke of the shore. She followed it, passing teenagers wearing strange uniforms, adults talking in doorways, stray cats and flowers growing from cracks in the sidewalk. In some ways, it was like any other town she’d been in before. In others, it was… less so.

The metal pods, which Urahara had informed her were the latest reaches of automobiles, though they looked very little like the ones she’d seen in books before now, were foreign and annoying. They looked like the carapaces of beetles, with wheels instead of legs. She nearly got hit by one, crossing the street, and made a point to look back at it and glare. The driver made some sort of honking noise at her (with his mouth, perhaps?) and then shouted. She kept walking.

Soon enough she reached the edge of town, a maze of warehouses, shipping containers, and broken furniture. There was garbage strewn everywhere, graffitti splayed over every building. She looked around and cursed Urahara profusely. ‘One of the warehouses’ was a misleading phrase. There had to be thirty of them, all large and unoccupied and falling to pieces.

A perfect place to hide.

She started down a row of them, dilapidated but standing, and found nothing. Up and down, she went, looking into each warehouse in turn, searching, searching. Losing hope. There was nothing living in any of them, not even rats, though she did see a few stray cats between two. She gave them a small bow and a smile as she remembered the ‘spirit’ on Urahara’s porch.

Turning to the last group of warehouses, she gave up entirely. All she could do was look in and find them just as empty as the rest.


 

He’d only meant to be outside for a moment, just long enough to call Ichigo and tell him to be back by tomorrow. But he’d felt a shiver of spiritual pressure. Nothing noteworthy, not even anything large enough to be a person or a hollow. Just a flicker. Sakanade had shaken, inside of him, the hollow had stood, and both of them, silently, pulled him back. Wait, they said. Wait.

He heard the footsteps first, slow and measured, scraping quietly over the debris on the ground. Then he saw her, turning the corner, and his heart stopped in his chest. He’d buried that life, a hundred years ago. He’d done his best to forget the good, to cling only to the betrayal, to not yearn for the life he had so loved living. But here she was, like a ghost. Like a beautiful, breathing memory.

“Asuka?” He called, her name caught, strangled in his throat. She turned, as if she’d heard him, but her eyes passed right through him, over him, as if he wasn’t even there. His heart plummeted, thick and frightened in his mouth, before he remembered the barrier. The barrier that kept anyone from seeing them, that kept them safe and sequestered and alone. He stepped forward, outside the bounds of the wards, and called again. “Asuka.”

This time she turned, quickly, fearfully. Eyes wide as if she, too, was afraid to be wrong. She stood, facing him, and he couldn’t move. He thought he had let her go, all those years ago. The day he cut his hair, he had told himself he’d never see her again. That she was safe and unaware, shuttered away in the Rukongai. And yet, there she was, dressed like she belonged here, a sword- a sword- hung comfortably across one shoulder. She looked the same, for the most part. Her hair was longer, maybe she was paler, he didn’t care, it didn’t matter because she was there.

Asuka,” he repeated, and she took a step closer. He did, too, fully leaving the safety of the barrier and moving towards her.

She stopped, just a step away from him, looking up with soft, dark eyes. He was dressed like some of the teenagers she’d seen before, a strange, thin shirt, a dark sort of tie around his neck, and yet. And yet. He was undeniably Shinji. She reached up to brush her fingers against the soft ends of his hair, the torn-silk feeling on her fingers so familiar and so strange.

“You cut your hair,” she said, and Shinji couldn’t help but laugh. He closed the space between them, reached for her. His hands held her face perfectly, long fingers touching and tangling in the hair at her temples. They felt like tiny starbursts of warmth, radiating heat and scraping, callused and soft, over her cheekbones, the turn of her jaw. It was too much, too soon, not enough. She surged forward, leaning up to kiss him, and a hundred years of grief left them, for just a moment. He smiled as she pressed her mouth to his, opening to her, meeting her touch for touch. He tasted like beeswax and some kind of fruit, so different from before, and she hated it as much as she loved it. It was fierce, and painful, longing in every movement of their mouths. His teeth scraped over her lip, bit into it lightly. The suddenness pulled a gasp from her, slight and keening, and the huff of laughter in his chest felt like home. He pressed a kiss to the spot, and when he pulled away, she tried to follow. Both of them were breathing hard, from feeling, from touch, from loss.

He pulled back further to kiss the tip of her nose, to rest his forehead against hers and look at her face- really, truly look- for the first time in a century. Her eyes were tired, dark circles speaking of sleepless nights and pain he wished he could have been there to soothe. Her lips, soft and fervent against his own, had been cold, her nose air-chilled against his cheek. He wanted to take her in, to wrap her in what little warmth and softness and comfort he’d managed in the last century. To pull her into his arms and never let go again. His hands framed her face, still, thumbs stroking over her cheeks in an echo of her old habit. She smiled, sadly, perfectly, happily, and shook her head.

“Is this going to be another dream?” she murmured.

“No,” he insisted, wiping a tear away with his thumb. “No.” He kissed her forehead, quickly. He kissed her cheeks, her eyelids, her jaw, murmuring over and over, “I love you. I love you. I’m here.” Her hands reached up to catch his and he gave a final peck to her cheekbone before she pulled away. This time it was her examining his face. Her hand cold and soft against his cheek,

“I’m here,” she whispered. “I’m here.”  He nodded, and she let go of his wrist to wrap her arms around him. “I found you.” He held her close, breathing in the feeling of her pressed up against him. It wasn’t the same as he remembered, not quite, but it was good. It was so much better than memory.

“Come in with me?” he asked, tangling his hand with hers. Her fingers squeezed his, as if to check once more that this was real. When he took a step, she followed.

“Anywhere,” she said. “Always.”


 

“I’d like you all to meet…” Shinji’s voice trailed off, soft and so earnest they almost didn’t recognize it. “I’d like you to meet my wife.” He was looking at her, still, and in a way it was like nothing had changed. His face had the same curious look to it that had been there, all those years ago, the first time any of them had heard he had a wife. His hair fell the same, even as short as it was, his eyes narrowed the same when he smiled, truly smiled, his hand felt the same in hers, all calluses and bone. She smiled weakly, ducking her head a touch.

“Hello?” She offered nervously, raising a hand in what had to be the most awkward wave known to man. She was a sight, she imagined. Small and tired, dark-edged eyes and a sword that fell unnaturally over her back. Unfamiliar and uncomfortable. She had read about them, their names, their misfortunes, but she couldn’t rightfully pick out who was who by sight. They were an eclectic bunch, but intimidating nevertheless- a girl in red, well-known from stories, a man in green, vaguely familiar. A woman with green hair who squealed like a little girl and had to be held back by a man with white hair. A man with long, curling hair and a woman whose gaze never left her book, yet seemed fixed on Asuka regardless. A man taller than any of them, pink hair and hands which seemed… disproportionately large. All of them, thrumming with power and suspicion, and her, small and inadequate. For a moment she felt young again, standing before Shinji’s family, shaking and fearful of the future.

But the sword at her back hummed, too, white-hot and so cold it burned, and she let out her fears with her next breath. There was a moment of silence, a space where they all looked at her, and she looked back shamelessly. And then the man with the long hair- from the third, if she remembered right- pressed one hand to his mouth before swooping forward to envelop her in a hug

“Welcome to the family, dear.” He patted her back before stepping away, smiling widely. “It’s lovely to find you’re a real person.”

“Oi!” Shinji cried out, indignant. She let out a laugh, and the woman wearing glasses raised an eyebrow at her book.

“You did say she was ‘unbelievably wonderful,’” she said dryly. “It was hard to believe anyone like that would want to marry you.”

“We kinda thought he made you up,” the small blonde snorted, raising an eyebrow. “How much did he pay you?”

“Not enough to cover a century of faking his death,” Asuka replied, shooting him a look. He shook his head, huffing.

“Two minutes it took you to turn on me. Unbelievable. Should never have introduced you.” Shinji twined his hand with hers once more, and tugged her to the left. It felt right, even after so long. His grip was gentle, familiar, loose. “We’re going upstairs. You can introduce yourselves properly later.” He pulled her to a steel staircase, up the side of the warehouse, and began to lead her up.

“What, so soon?” The white-haired man asked sarcastically, valiantly continued to hold back the green-haired woman, who was now openly bawling.

“I’ve waited a hundred years for this!” Shinji called down to them. “You can wait a day or two.”

“Wear a condom!” The woman with the book shouted, tossing one after them. Shinji caught it on reflex, sputtering.

“Shut up, perv!” He yelled back at her.

“You’re just going up there to fuck!”

“We’re married!” he protested. “We’re allowed!”

“Pretty sure we did that before we were married, too,” Asuka reminded him, laughing.

“Yeah, well,” he snorted, pulling her through the last door and closing it behind him. “They weren’t around for that.” He closed it behind him, and stood, taking her in, drinking in the sight of her with tired, disbelieving eyes.

“It’s hard to believe you’re here,” she said softly, reaching up to tuck a lock of hair behind his ear. “I used to dream of this. You, back with me. I used to-” He shook his head, pulling her into his arms with such force that for a moment she couldn’t breathe.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and the words that were in her mouth disappeared. “I’m so sorry, darling.” He buried his face in her shoulder, in her neck, arms curling so tightly around her waist she half-expected him to get lost there. Maybe he wanted to. He pulled her close, and she could feel the shudder of his ribs as he breathed, like a sob wrenched from his throat.

“Shinji,” she said, and his name was forgiveness in her mouth. One hand came up to bury itself in his hair, twining and and tightening, getting to know its feel again. Soft, thin like silk or lies. You cut your hair, and he had, oh he had, and he almost regretted it now, because it felt different like this. He’d never expected to feel this again. The curve of her wrist pressed to his neck, the arch of her spine beneath his hand, the cool curl of her fingers in his hair tugging him up to meet her. It was an awkward kiss, not like the first, lacking the urgency and the joy and the careless spontaneity of a hundred years falling away in a moment. This was softer, sharper. Slow, and filled with the pain of relearning something that should never have become unfamiliar.

The movement of their mouths was hesitant, hers touching his as soft and uncertain as a stray cat, pressing forward a touch, but jumping back before it made any impact. He didn’t push or pull back, just held himself where she had put him, breathing in with short, gasping breaths like he didn’t dare move for fear he might lose her. She pressed forward, though, a light brush of lips that he leaned into with an aching softness. “Shinji,” she said again, her lips brushing his even as she spoke, and a quiet laugh pushed itself from her chest. “What are we doing?” His eyes fluttered open, and the moon tinted them blue in the darkness. Everything felt dreamlike, surreal, and the curve of his mouth fit like a scythe against hers.

“I couldn’t really say,” he smiled, and stepped forward to pull her into his arms again. She fit into him the same as before, and the heat of his arm around her waist, his hand on her chin, that was real. That was warm, and true, and even blue under the moonlight, he was her husband. She let herself be led, step by step, to fall back upon the bed. Shinji pressed himself over her,  His lips opened, his teeth scraped teasingly over her lip, a thread of satisfaction curling in his chest. She let her head fall back, cradled in the heat of his hand. She felt at once lifted and pushed down, braced by trust and the cage of his arms.

“Asuka,” he whispered into her cheek, his lips pressed just at the corner of her mouth. “Feels so good to say your name again.” Like scraping the rust from his tongue, he could have said. Undamming a flood. Uprooting an ancient tree and watching a thousand birds leave it. “Like setting something free.”

“Feels good to hear it,” she sighed, and he rolled over, pulling her so she ended up hovering over him. “Shinji,” she said, voice glowing with joy. “Shinji.” She kissed his eyelids, and he laughed. Collapsing, boneless and heavy, she let her weight pull him down, ground him.

“I missed you,” he murmured, her body over his as comforting and reassuring as any token of her presence. She wrapped her own arm around his waist, pressing herself into him, letting her legs fall against his.

“I missed you, too,” she said, and the flicker of her eyes as they glanced up at him was white with tears and the reflection of the moon. She buried her face in his shirt, the stretch between his shoulder and his chest, her hands tangled, grasping near his waist.

“I thought I’d never see you again,” he said, his hand coming up around her waist to tangle in her hair. “After Aizen, I thought… I thought I’d lost you.” His voice went low, soft with grief and loneliness.

“You’ll never lose me again,” she said. “We swore, remember?”

“Promised,” he corrected her softly.

“We promised,” she agreed. They lay there for a time, the sky darkening further, the light of the room changing, softening from the sharpness of early evening. He kept stroking her hair, filling his heart with the soft coolness of her touch, the scent of burnt sugar, soap and jasmine, the rise-and-fall of her chest against his. 

“Shinji?” She asked, hushed and slow.

“Hm?” She shifted, slightly, pushed her nose further into his shirt.

“Kyouraku gave me the report,” she told him, not looking up. “Urahara told me his version.” Shinji froze, tense and unsettled beneath her. “In both, they said that a piece of your soul had broken off. That you’d been fractured and changed and made into something else.”

“That’s true,” he told her, voice steady but blank. “Part of me is a hollow now, and that can’t be fixed.” He didn’t move, barely breathed, hoping- praying. She clenched his shirt more tightly in her hands.

“Did it hurt?” She asked, face pressed stubbornly into his shoulder. He could feel her tense up immediately after, as though she regretted asking. Shinji sighed, running his hand through her hair. He felt the scrape of it over the lines of his fingerprints, smelled the faint hint of jasmine there, the feeling of each strand, fine and heavy in his hand.

“Yes,” he said, though his heart urged him to say no, to say it didn’t hurt at all, it was easy, we all slipped away and woke up changed. Don’t worry, he wanted to say, don’t weep for me, don’t hurt. “It was agony,” he admitted, and the way her fingertips curled around his side made him sigh. “It’s alright, though.”

“It’s not,” she whispered, looking up to meet his eyes. “Nothing about it is alright, Shinji.”

“No,” he agreed simply. “And it never will be, but I’d rather it didn’t hurt you, too.” She smiled, shook her head, and when he opened his mouth to say something else, she clasped her hand over it.

“I’ve been mourning you for a century, you fool,” she said, and his face went still, his mouth closed. “I’d rather have the truth, no matter how painful, than another lie like that.”

“So you believed him,” Shinji murmured, his fingers curling around her hand, pulling it from his mouth with a gentle grip. “I’m sorry. I should never have let him- I should have done something.”

“You did,” Asuka insisted, sitting up. “You knew, Shinji.” He rolled his eyes and opened his mouth, but she didn’t stop. “You saw what he was, you just... didn’t manage to tell everyone.”

“I was a fool,” he insisted, cupping her face in his hand, gazing up at her with a strange, painful mix of love and regret. “I should have reported him and ended things there. I should never have taken him on as my Lieutenant. I should never have let him anywhere near you. I shouldn’t have-”

“You can’t blame yourself for everything,” Asuka cut him off. “You paid for your mistake a thousandfold, don’t you dare-” her voice broke, and he wiped a tear from her eye. “Don’t blame yourself anymore.”

“How could I not?” he asked bitterly. “I knew what he was, and instead of doing anything about it, I let him into my division. I let him turn my men, alter my comrades, I let him near you-”

“Shinji-”

“If you had moved on, I’d be glad, but I always worried that maybe he’d gotten his way with you, that he’d convinced you-”

“Shinji.” Something in her tone was all steel, and he stopped.

“What?” He asked, shocked into quiet.

“I held onto what I thought was your sword for a hundred years, and you think for a moment that there was ever anyone else?” She looked down at him, something like surprise in her face, before she stopped, wide-eyed, pulling back shamefully.

He looked at her a moment more before he spoke. “You spent a hundred years clinging to my sword?” There was a touch of teasing in his voice, but more of it was soft. Sad.

“You’re my husband,” Asuka said quietly, her face hidden. She looked away from him, her voice low and soft. “I love you.”

“Yeah, but… a hundred years?” This time it was Shinji who was pulling her hair from her face, who was frowning softly. “You must have been so alone,” he said lowly, and she looked up at him, ready to defend herself, but the only thing she found was understanding. She swallowed, then looked away.

“What about you?” She asked, half afraid of the answer. He shook his head, never taking his eyes from her face.

“Who could compare to you?” He whispered, and the scoff that bubbled up from her lungs was enough to force a smile from him.

“Flatterer,” she accused, and leaning down to kiss him, gave him no time to retort.

“Oh, am I?” He asked, laughing, between kisses.

“Yes,” she insisted, moving to his neck. She left a trail down it with her teeth, then moved back up to his jaw. She liked the turn of it, the soft spot between the bone of his jaw and the column of his neck. It was sensitive, and he let out a gasp when she bit at it, sucked a vibrant red mark there. “You’re absolutely a flatterer,” she said, more softly, going back to deepen the color. “You spend a hundred years away from me and you’re telling me,” she scraped her teeth over it and felt him groan, felt the heat of his cock hardening against her thigh. “You mean to tell me that you haven’t met anyone better than me?” She sat back a little, lips wet and hands heavy on his shoulders. He looked up at her, neck tilted, exposed where she’d been at it.

“Not a soul,” he said, smiling, pulling away just enough to sit up. Asuka let him, adjusting herself so she fell between his thighs, over his hips. “Not a single soul,” he murmured, pressing his face into her chest, his mouth splitting widely against the top of her breastbone. “Just you.”

Flatterer,” she said again, but the smile on her face was soft, shy, pleased. Her hands slid up his shoulders, one falling to his back, the other pressing into his hair, holding him to her chest.

“Whatever you like,” he said, hands slipping down her sides. They came to rest on her hips, heated and steady, his thumbs moving in circles that tickled her hipbones, that grazed flesh.

“I’d like you,” Asuka whispered, and he looked up at her with that same, soft smile.

“Yes, dear,” he quipped, and with a rare show of strength, had her flat on her back under him. She let out a laugh, her breath all but knocked out of her, and he began to undo her clothes. Shinji had always been good with his hands, clever-fingered, he’d told her his family called him. And oh, those hands were soft on her. Always playful and soft and loving. He pulled her socks off, one at a time, like a loyal servant, and she had to badger him to let her help him in return. “I’m supposed to be helping you,” he protested.

“And here I thought marriage was about helping each other,” she retorted, sitting up to tug at the tie around his neck.

“Here,” he said, and moved her fingers so she could pull the knot apart. “It’s a skill,” he told her, when she glared at how easily he’d done it.

“I’m sure,” she agreed, freeing the first two buttons from their places. His hand came up to clasp her wrist, light and hesitant. She met his eyes, and they were worried, shifty.

“I, uh, I’m a good deal less pretty than I used to be,” he began, his fingers still soft and warm on her hand. “I’ve been in a lot more fights.”

“I don’t care,” she said, in the same soft tone. “You’re my husband, and I love you.”

“I-” She cut him off mercilessly this time, eyes steady, fierce.

“Shinji, I love you. You could have a hole in your chest the size of your head and I wouldn’t care.” He looked back at her, mouth open, as if lost for words. “I want you. Nobody else.”

“Alright,” he said, voice thin and a little resigned. “Alright, darling.”

She wasn’t sure what to expect, from his reaction, but she meant what she’d said. She’d made her choice a long time ago, and it was him. It was always him. He let his hands fall to the bed, hanging limply by his sides, as if he was expecting something awful. She moved slowly, undoing one button at a time, not looking at anything but her hands. She moved slowly, every now and then laying her hand gently over his thigh. He relaxed in pieces, until he sat, shirt unbuttoned and eyes down, awaiting… something. Her anger, maybe. She peeled away the fabric, pulling it down his arms, baring his chest with care and calm. “Oh, Shinji,” she whispered, her heart twisting in her chest. She understood, now, what he’d feared, but the fact that he’d feared it burned away at her. 

Crossing his chest, silver and pink and dark, were a multitude of scars- most prominently a raised, deep slash that crossed him from shoulder to hip. It was smooth, ridged at the edges where his skin had tried and failed to knit itself back together. She traced it with gentle, pained fingers, her own chest aching. 

“When it first happened, when we were all… turned,” he said, still looking away from her. “I was holding Hiyori back. She turned before I did.” He said nothing else, but the horror of it played out anyway in her head, the betrayal he must have felt- from so many directions, no longer merely Aizen- the agony of bleeding out, another piece of your soul attempting to devour your mind. She pressed her palm flat to the scar, just as warm, just as strong as the skin around it.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said, never looking away from the pattern of lines on his skin, feeling the very real remnant of a thing that might have killed him. “I’m so glad you’re here.” Her hand slid easily around to rest on his back, and her chin rested easily on his shoulder. He leaned into her arms, sighing.

“You don’t mind?” He asked quietly, and she held him tighter.

“You absolute fool,” she said fondly. “I don’t mind at all.”

“Asuka,” he began, “I-”

“Do you think so little of me?” She asked, in that same fond, exasperated tone. “I can accept a hollow in your head and you don’t question it, but a few scars- those must be the dealbreaker.”

“Oh, shut up,” he laughed, relief and hope once more filling his face. “Now you really have to let me help you,” he told her. She made a disgruntled noise, and he kissed her hair. “Please,” he said. “Please let me fuck you.”

“Very romantic,” she replied, letting him tug at her shirt, pulling it away with all the care he could manage when he could be kissing her instead. Shinji stood, struggling with his belt buckle for a minute before shoving it, and his pants, to the ground. He tugged away the loose skirt she’d been wearing, pressing a kiss to her knee to make her laugh. His hands slid slow, teasing, back up her thighs, curling at her hips, pulling her underwear down her legs. Once they were off, he tossed them over his shoulder. “Shinji,” she laughed.  “Those are actually Urahara’s, you know.” 

“Kisuke can bitch and moan about losing clothes later,” he informed her, creeping back up her body to kiss her soundly. “I don’t care about it.”

“No?” She asked, mock-seriously. She tried to hold back her smile, but she couldn’t, and she watched his eyes sharpen, his pupils dilate.

“No,” he breathed, leaning down once more. His mouth was hot, too, his hair fell like feathers in her eyes, brushing her cheeks, her nose. He shifted his weight, moved his legs. She could feel his tip prodding wetly at the apex of her thighs, and she spread them further, let him push forward, breaching her. She let out a sharp exhale, breaking the kiss, and he stopped. 

“Is that good?” He asked, watching the tension in her face, the way her eyes narrowed, her hands wound into the sheets. He felt… heavier, somehow, fuller inside of her, and the way all of her muscles were set on edge wasn’t helping either of them. “Relax, sweetheart. It’s just me.”

“I just haven’t- It’s been an awfully long time,” she admitted, and he chuckled. She looked away and her cheeks flushed with more than exertion. He tapped her chin with one knuckle.

“Hey,” he said, voice lower, all the humor gone. “Don’t worry about it. It’s been just as long for me.”

“I know, it’s just-” She made a noise somewhere between a moan and a whimper, and he paused again. “You’re very coherent,” Asuka said, voice breaking fully into a whimper as he hilted himself inside of her. She felt full, the heat of them pressed together, the warmth of his body like a white-hot softness over her. Every breath shifted him inside of her, every infinitesimal movement sparking her nerves. She reached up with one hand, and he met her in the middle, another brush of lips that stole a moment. He twisted his hips a little, settling in over her, and her arms went lazily to his back, tracing the innumerable curves of his spine, the whisper-thin ridges of scars he hadn’t had before. Soothing, and warm on his heated skin. He kissed her temple, because it was the closest part of her, and her eyelids fluttered.

“I have seven roommates,” he reminded her with a grin. “You think I’ve never had to carry on a conversation while jerking off?” He moved a little, working himself out an inch, and then deeper than before. Easing both of them back into things. “I have mastered the art of talking my way through sex,” he teased her, one hand sliding down her thigh. He wrapped it smoothly around her knee, and tugged gently.

“You’re terrible,” she groaned, hooking her leg over his hip.

“You’re right,” he said, grinning. “Enough talk.” The smile faded, his hips rolling into hers. He watched hungrily as she sighed, moving back and thrusting in so he could bring his face level to hers again. “I have a century to make up for.” He kept thrusting, pushing in and out of her in slow, irregular movements that kept her from getting too used to any one feeling.

“You- oh- you do,” she agreed, her head falling back, and he laughed.

“Gotta show you how loved you are, dollface.”

“Never call me that,” she said dryly, and he thrust into her again, hard enough to push another whimper from her lips.

“As you wish, darling,” he said quietly. She fluttered around him, muscles contracting and releasing, and he had to press his face into the curve of her neck. “You feel so good,” he gasped. She tangled a hand in his hair, pulled him to kiss her again. He felt like the sun in her arms, all heat and sweat and softness, blazing into her, out of her, all over.

“Shinji,” she sighed, and he chuckled into her lips. She arched up into him, twitching

“You missed me that much?” He asked, bucking his hips into her. She dug her fingers into his back, and he hissed at the feeling. “That’s good,” he sighed, burying himself in her. “So good.”

He fell more and more into regular strokes, his chest falling closer to hers until they were pressed together, the ridges of his scars a heated brush over her nipples, her ribs, the expanse of her stomach. They drove each other higher, his thrust growing longer, slower, deeper as she wrapped herself around him. Her arms twined around his neck, and he came with a shuddering cry. He panted into her shoulder, hot breath at war with the heat flowing into her. She could feel his muscles relax, tension becoming liquid over her.

“Just a little more, darling,” he murmured, pulling back. He slipped out of her with a single movement, the spill of him exposed to the air cold on her skin. She moved, and he crept back, his hand still running down her thigh, her calf, her ankle, until the leg that had been over his hip was over his shoulder, and he was burying his tongue between her legs with an energy that almost exhausted her.

“How are you this awake,” she groaned, even as he helped her back to feeling. She sighed, a hand falling to his head, petting over his hair as if to keep him there. His tongue swept full over her slit, and the strange and sudden smoothness of something in his mouth made her twitch.

“It wasn’t that noticeable before, huh?” he snorted, swallowing his own come. “Good thing or a bad thing.”

“I’m not sure,” Asuka said with as much dignity as the situation could offer. “Try me again later.” He laughed, pressed a kiss to her thigh, and then proceeded to do exactly that. He lapped at the entrance of her a few more times, until his spend had stopped oozing out of her and into his mouth. He ran the edge of his teeth over her folds, making his way up to her clit. She made a sharp noise, and he shook with suppressed laughter even as his lips closed around it. “You’re awful,” she told him, breathless. He sucked at her, dipping a thumb into her opening and stroking, overwhelming her, slowly, with touch. His hands, his mouth, his tongue, the piercing in it, just him. Just Shinji, everywhere and everything. her veins were lit up, all white and gold, and sound and thought faded for a moment, his name the only thing leaving her lips.

When she came, it was with a sudden jerk and a strangled, gasping whine. He worked her through it, scissoring his fingers back and forth, sucking at her clit with a calm, unbothered constancy. She forgot, for a moment, everything else. She forgot there was anything else. She opened her eyes again to find him kneeling between her legs, licking his hand.

“Awful,” she muttered hoarsely. He smiled, and scampered to the bathroom for a wash cloth.


 

Lying there, side by side, Asuka found herself returning again and again to his hair. It wasn’t substantially different- all he’d done was cut it. But something about it changed him. The shape of his face, the way the light hit him, the way he held his shoulders- they’d all shifted. She ran a hand through it, sweat-darkened and soft.

“It’s so short,” she murmured, combing through it with her fingers. He leaned into her touch, letting her put it back in order.

“I know,” he said, biting his lip. “.You don’t hate it?”

“No,” Asuka said, running a lock between two fingers. “It just… You look so much younger. Freer.”

“It reminded me of you,” he said, every word lead, dropped heavy from his tongue. “I could feel- I had to let go.”

“I know,” she reassured him. “I know, it’s okay.”

“I’m sorry I did, sometimes,” he told her, earnest and sad.

“I’m not,” Asuka insisted, kissing the edge of his jaw, just where she’d bitten a bruise into his neck. His hair pressed like cool silk against her lips, smooth and soft, damp with sweat where her fingers had twisted it. “You’ve changed,” she admitted. “But not for the worse.”

“You, too,” he said softly. “You’re not afraid anymore. Not of anything.”

“I’m afraid of losing you,” she said, pressing her nose into the heated skin of his neck, feeling his pulse feathered and strong against her lips.

“Never,” he promised, his arms so tight around her she felt as if she was a part of him. “Never again.”