OK, so … this is a dip into this new form I've discovered called Hitsu-whumping. I'm afraid this story might be a little dark even for fans of the genre. Hope you enjoy it. Or, well, hope you don't enjoy it, if you know what I mean. Flames accepted; I deserve them.

Oh, and I think I borrow pretty heavily from some other fics I've read, but I'm not sure which. There's one in particular about Hinamori and Aizen… but I can't find it anymore. If you recognize your work, shoot me a line, and I'll acknowledge the debt.

Do not own. Not at all.

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Chapter 1

The Cage

Arrancar 14. Not too bad, he thought, picking his way through the littered bones. It meant a lot more than it used to. Five years after the Hougyoku's awakening, the Espada had expanded, and there was naturally more competition. Still…

He paused, and cast an eye over his shoulder. Over there.

The half-hollow grunted, and pulled out his long knife. This was ridiculous. If only they had held the trials the old fashioned way: blood to blood. He would have sorted out much higher. But the war had raged too long in stalemate – Hueco Mundo couldn't afford the losses of pure competition. Instead, he had endured some clinical tests, a few desultory sparring matches. Then they had handed him a number. 14. Catorce.

Not too bad.

Only one formality left, before the branding. Catorce adjusted his collar, trying to breathe a little easier. It was so damned hot in this hole. He ran through the rules in his mind one more time.

The shinigami was weaponless, no reiatsu worth speaking of. The candidate just had to find him, catch him, make him cry uncle. That was all. No killing, Aizen-sama had warned. No crippling. Nothing that couldn't be patched up.

Aizen's voice had been gentle. He had smiled. The memory sent a shudder down the new arrancar's thick frame. Those orders, he sensed, were not to be disregarded at any cost.

The giant figure started moving quietly towards the pile of rubble to his left, below the ruined archway. The dim light made it hard to see, and this place – this sprawling, abandoned stone prison – provided far too many shadows.

The blow came out of nowhere, with no warning. A weight landed squarely on the arrancar's shoulders, knocking him to his knees, then pain blinded him for just a moment. Instinctually, he swatted the air above him with one massive forearm. It made contact, knocking the attacker to one side. He could hear a body crash against a pillar not far away.

Catorce staggered, clutching his throat. A whitened bone had dug into the neck muscles, nicking an artery. Blood gushed in a slow beat through his fingers as he straightened, cursing.

The shinigami was trying to push himself up, elbows against his knees, still dazed from the force of the impact. Catorce regarded the smaller figure with a sneer – so this was Aizen's dragon. He barely looked seventeen years old. His shinigami robes hang torn around his waist, leaving his shoulders bare. He looked half starved, torso crossed with scar tissue and open wounds. His long hair was matted and filthy, but seemed to glow slightly. It must have been white, once.

No reiastu. None. Barely as powerful as a human ghost. How the hell had he managed to pierce steel skin with no spirit power?

Once again, there was no warning, no sound or wasted motion, when the shinigami launched himself forward. The arrancar smirked. The kid had lost any advantage of surprise, and without shunpo, his attacks were easily dodged. Catorce caught one wrist and twisted it hard against its natural arc, bending the young shinigami's arm towards the ground.

The motion produced a harsh cry that echoed eerily through the dungeon. The cry changed to a scream when Catorce wrenched the bone out of his own throat and plunged it into his opponent's hand, pinning it to the earth.

The half-hollow grunted, then squatted, weighing his options. What was the purpose of this ceremony, he wondered. Ambush aside, a hollow kitten could defeat this child. And yet, all arrancar wishing to join the army had to have a go.

Perhaps, he mused, as he watched the shinigami tremble beneath him, candidates were meant to … show off … their innate cruelty. Catorce leaned forward, a smile flickering across his broad features. He could oblige.

The arrancar never noticed that his knife was gone, never saw it clenched in one shaking hand, hidden beneath his opponent's body. He barely felt the blade as it crushed into his right eye. The huge mouth opened as if to protest, and then he was gone.

The victor lay there for a moment, breathing with effort. Finally, with a rasping whimper, he freed his impaled left hand. Standing, he didn't even glance at the corpse beside him. Instead his eyes turned, wary, to the observation deck above them.

He was there, of course. Calm, smiling, unruffled by the gore, his arms folded neatly into his sleeves. Behind him, a little to the left, the other watched as well, wide grin never leaving his face.

Staring at the pair of them, the shinigami snarled low, the red half-light playing in the depths of his pale green eyes. Then, clutching his wounded hand, he stepped back into the dry, dusty shadows, and vanished.

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"Well," Aizen said lightly, stepping out into the corridor. "That was entertaining."

Ichimaru Gin chuckled. "Gettin' to be costly, though. Third one this month, that is. And this last one packed some punch."

The overlord of Hueco Mundo shrugged. "Three out of ten is an acceptable loss. This test does not filter for power, after all. It brings out more … intangible qualities in a candidate."

Gin snorted. "It surely weeds out the dumb 'uns."

"Sousuke!"

Both men, turned, surprised. A woman was bearing down on them, alarm on her delicate features. Her black hair, caught in a bun at the nape of her neck, was beginning to unravel slightly.

"What is it, sweetheart?" Aizen stepped forward into Hinamori's embrace.

"Didn't you hear that? What was it?" The small woman gazed up into his eyes, searchingly. Ignoring Gin altogether, she gestured to the empty space to her right. "The children were frightened."

Aizen distractedly patted the air in the direction she had indicated. "There, there, Shirou. A wolf in the forest, that's all. Hurt, I would guess, from the howls. I'll take care of the poor thing." His eyes flickered to his lieutenant over the small black head. "Run along, there's a good boy, and fetch my medicinal herbs from the house. You too, Ran-chan."

Gin rubbed his long hands together, wordlessly. The arrancar healers were among the most vicious creatures he had ever encountered. That was always a show worth watching.

"Oh darling!" Hinamori buried her face into Aizen's robes, then smiled up at him. "You're so kind."

On hand caressing her face, Aizen reached down and kissed her lightly. "Thanks to you, my dear."

She did not answer for a moment, content in his arms. Her eyes rested on the plain wall of the passageway. "It's lovely here, isn't it," she said after a while, "with the poppies in bloom." She took a deep breath. "Sousuke … " she breathed, her beautiful black eyes filling with tears, "… after all this time, I just want you to know how glad I am … how proud …"

Aizen straightened, taking her hands in his. "Momo, Ichimaru Gin was a twisted, evil, sadistic bastard." The silent man beside him smirked. "If you hadn't come for me, if you hadn't shown me the error of my ways … I might still be under his control." His somber eyes gazed down at her. "I owe you everything. This place, this peace. Thank you."

As Hinamori walked away, Ichimaru spoke again. She couldn't hear him, anyway. "No matter how often I see it … that's pretty amazing, ya know. How much energy does it take, keepin' her that far under?"

"Not much, anymore." Aizen stared after her, his expression unreadable. "There is no part of her, after all, that wants to know the truth."

"She seems happy." Gin watched his captain intently through slit eyes.

"She is," Aizen snapped. For a brief second he glared, then returned to his ordinary unruffled composure. "I would make a poor husband if I didn't make sure of that, wouldn't I? Besides," he gestured to the chamber they had just left, a smile on his lips, "I did promise."

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Shielding his face from the desert sands, Kurosaki Ichigo ground his teeth. He didn't want to be here. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't forget their last excursion into the Hueco Mundo. Inoue, Chad, Hitsugaya, Rukia, all dead, and for what? To watch Aizen grow stronger every day. To lose the last five years of his life to this stupid, endless war.

"Pull your head out of your ass, idiot." Renji appeared next to him suddenly. "We're about to move."

"Who are you calling idiot, moron?" Ichigo snapped back. The two men were older, steadier, battle-tested and battle-weary. But some things never change.

Renji brushed off the habitual insult. "Look," he said, tensely. "This is a pure smash-and-grab job, you remember? Get in, find the defector, get out."

"Of course." Ichigo wasn't particularly good at stealth. He was just one of the few who could hope to return from such an operation alive. Besides, Mayuri had fitted them out with some nifty world-portal devices. If everything went well, they could theoretically retreat at any time.

"Just," Renji stared off into the cold setting sun, "don't go off looking for revenge. Not yet."

Ichigo closed his eyes. "I know," he murmured. Behind him, his team stirred restlessly. Somehow he knew, he could feel in his bones, this wasn't going to be that simple.

TBC