Tite Kubo owns Bleach and the characters depicted therein. The characters in this story are not mine, except for the original characters. I make no money from the publication of this work.

The Hostage

More people arrived and there was no allocation of turns, not that battles were usually decided by the drawing of lots or someone deciding who fought whom. Instead, the scene in front of me was one of the usual confusion, as arguments about who was fighting who began. Did it really matter? It seemed everyone, except me and possibly Starrk, were eager to shed some blood but there was the difficulty in agreeing who had the biggest reason to fight Ichigo or Zaraki or anyone. Most of the Arrancar seemed divided between which person was their opponent of choice. Zaraki, I noticed seemed to wish to fight the big one who kept referring to people as trash. I wished he would do so soon as the man was annoyingly loud and constantly repeated himself for no perceivable reason. He seemed confident in his abilities and referred to everyone, including the other Arrancar, in ways that indicated he held none of them in high esteem.

He also scared me every time I saw him look in my direction. Not that he looked in my direction often but the few times he did made me nervous. His expression didn't indicate much of what he planned for me but from the small twist to his lips, it was obvious I wouldn't enjoy anything he planned. Yammy was big and it seemed was prone to using his size and strength to overcome any obstacles.

"I don't like the way you are looking at my wife," I heard Zaraki say to him.

"Wife," Yammy smirked. "Why marry one when you can fuck and maim all of them? They're only here to pleasure us."

I heard gasps from a number of the Shinigami at this comment and a whimper from Orihime as she cowered slightly behind Ulquiorra.

Due to all the arrivals, the area was becoming slightly crowded and I quickly looked around to see who was here. Ichigo, Yachiru, Captain Kuchiki, my beloved, Rukia, Nell and her friends, Isane, Arai, Nemu, Chad and the Quincy were here. Renji wasn't here and I wondered if he and Rukia were talking to each other or if that friendship might never be repaired. Some of my friends were glaring at Yammy; others seemed to be sizing up those around them for their potential to fight. Isane was staring at Orihime in astonishment and almost appeared to be preparing to walk over to her to examine her to determine the extent of her injuries but Ulquiorra stood in front of her. It was difficult to make out if she was protecting her or keeping her hostage. Due to the nature of the offer from Aizen, it was more likely she was a hostage and he was awaiting the chance to make an exchange.

"I am to protect you, no matter what," a voice told me.

"And I am here to make certain you don't run away again, Matsomummy. Ken-chan was very unhappy you left him again. Arai promised to stay with you until we were home," Yachiru added.

"My abduction was not my choice," I said tightly. "Once I get home I'm going to find some charm or blessing which I can wear to prevent me from being abducted again. It gets tedious and annoying when you have to be rescued all the time."

"You didn't mind when my Captain abducted you," Yachiru said with a smile.

"That was different," I mumbled as memories of the events after the abduction returned to my mind. Why were we still here? There were so many other pleasant ways of spending time than arguing with Arrancar's or fighting them.

Shouting and steel ringing on steel drew my attention away from the memories. Grimmjow and Ichigo had locked blades and were glaring at each other over the swords, apparently neither were prepared to stop the staring contest at this early stage. It was a pity their intelligence didn't match the size of their egos. I wondered why they were locked in a staring contest rather than fighting and yelling insults at each other, but maybe one would concede defeat if he blinked first.

A female Arrancar was facing the Arrancar with the big hat. I'd never seen her before and she reminded me vaguely of someone but I couldn't tell whom. Her long hair was pale blue and the red marking under the eyes was the thing, which was making me try to remember where I had seen a similar marking before. Yet why were two Arrancar setting up to fight each other? It made no sense.

"We have a score to settle, Nnorita," I heard her say and it made me briefly wonder what had passed between them.

Distracted by what sounded like laughter I turned my attention to Chad who was facing Starrk but they seemed to be talking rather than fighting. This wasn't a normal battle. Starrk seemed to be smiling, but the smile contained an equal amount of bitterness as well as humour. Chad had his arms crossed and appeared to be frowning and it made me wonder what was under discussion between them.

With Yachiru clutching my hand, I walked toward the Arrancar who had demanded the exchange. I wanted to talk to Orihime as she was not acting in her normal manner or even responding to seeing Ichigo. I had expected to see Isane there shortly due to her reaction when she had first seen Orihime but to my surprise Nemu simply walked up to Ulquiorra. "I would like to speak to Orihime."

He looked startled at the request for a second, then his face assumed it's normal bleak expression. "No."

"Why not?"

Was that Nemu speaking? Instead of the usual cowering and remaining in the background, until her father needed her she was being assertive. I felt a pang as I recalled she might not know he was dead. I thought she knew how he had betrayed those he was meant to protect on the assurance of a traitor and it would have hurt. It wasn't the time to tell her but the last time I had seen father and daughter together had indicated a turning point in her life.

"That person is my hostage."

"Hostages have some rights and I need to talk to her to see if she is well. At present she is not responding normally and appears to be either drugged or traumatised," Nemu said firmly with a confidence, which was new to me. "I heard you offer to exchange hostages but we need to be certain the exchange is worthwhile."

"Are you a medical practitioner? What would you know?" he said. From another person it might sound as if he was sneering, but this Arrancar simply sounded flat.

"I am a scientist well versed in the physical form of Shinigami, humans and Arrancar. The Commander General has requested information concerning the human girl." Nemu was standing straight and was more determined than I had ever seen her.

Ulquiorra studied her for a moment. "I have no interest in letting you speak with that person. Not that I will enjoy the experience, but as so many of the others are battling, I feel you should fight me."

I had never seen Nemu fight. I wondered what her response would be when Ishida interrupted. "I will fight you." I hadn't really noticed him until now, wondered why he was here, and then recalled a few glances I had intercepted while in the human world. He appeared to have feelings for Orihime but she was only interested in Ichigo who appeared to be interested mainly in fighting.

Nemu said immediately," Why are you interfering? This is my battle and I do not take kindly to people thinking I am unable to defeat anyone without their assistance."

"My concerns..." Ishida began.

"Find another battle. Do not fight mine," Nemu said briefly as she drew her zanpakuto.

"Urrr, okay," Ishida said, obviously surprised by this reaction as he walked toward the group of Arrancar and Shinigami who were watching my husband and Captain Kuchiki toy with Yammy. Why they were watching rather than fighting was possibly because it was amusing. Yammy occupied in this manner no longer scared me. He seemed foolish and not so frightening.

At this point, no one was using their blade but Yammy was swinging both arms at them and both Captains were moving quickly from the places he swung. It seemed either his aim was off or they were very good at predicting his trajectory. It was easy to see he was becoming angrier each time his fist or stump failed to connect with the Shinigami target.

"I would prefer to fight the one facing Grimmjow but for now I will fight you to prepare for the more important battle," Ulquiorra said, drawing my attention back to him.

Nemu stared at him for a minute. "All my life one man insulted my abilities, whenever he could. Now I no longer need to listen to him I will not accept that sort of treatment from anyone else."

Her words made me wonder if she knew her father was dead or she was referring to his disappearance from the ranks of the Shinigami. When this was over, I would consult with Retsu as to the best way of informing Nemu of her father's death. It seemed she might not be too upset at his death but I didn't want to take the chance.

"I am not insulting you, merely making an observation."

"You know nothing about me and are simply judging on appearance. You see a female and immediately dismiss my abilities," Nemu had changed incredibly since my most recent abduction.

Yachiru tugged on my hand and I bent down to her. "Rukia, Nell and I have been talking lots to Nemu. Without her perverted father hanging around we managed to make her start thinking for herself. It hasn't been easy, but Retsu helped. I also gave her the letter you brought from Baldy. I wanted to read it but Ken-chan wouldn't let me. He said it was private, " she pouted slightly as she said the last.

It explained some of the changes but not all and not why the changes were so wide reaching. Before I could ask any questions, Ulquiorra replied to Nemu. "Female Arrancar have proved themselves to be worthy opponents, but most of the female Shinigami's I've encountered," here he looked directly at me, "do not appear to provide much of a challenge."

My cheeks flushed at the insult. "You've never fought me and don't know me."

"I heard about you in the human world how you had to be saved by your boy Captain," he said and shrugged. "You rely upon others coming to save you each time you get into trouble. This knowledge indicates I know enough about you to dismiss your abilities."

"That isn't fair. You go around abducting people, drugging them, harming their abilities and then you twist the truth to fit your beliefs. On top of that you've done something to Orihime," I said raising my voice.

"I simply demonstrated to the hostage, her abilities were of no account and told that person the Shinigami were using the rescue as an excuse to invade my home. Retrieving a female was less important that killing a few of the weaker Arrancar and saving you once again. You've been freed twice and the hostage is still in our custody."

I gulped. I had been rescued twice by Zaraki and I'd felt guilty about the first time I'd been rescued while she was left behind. "Zaraki tried to rescue Orihime the first time and th..."

"Don't bother explaining anything to this man," Nemu said coldly. "He has his opinion and appears to be of the type who will not listen to reason or accept facts."

I was shocked. Nemu had never been brusque. Most of the time she had barely spoken and her comment made me look closely at her to see if she was the same person.

"Facts are only facts until they are disproven by experience," Ulquiorra said sadly with a look on his face as if he were staring at the past. "No fact is free from analysis.

Why did people talk like this? It made my brain ache. As Nemu and Ulquiorra exchanged their thoughts about the importance of facts, I tried, discretely to move closer to Orihime. She may have noticed the movement and hid behind her 'protector' even more than before. She didn't look up, her eyes appeared unfocused and her face showed no expression. When I remembered her reaction every time she'd seen Ichigo in the past and compared that girl with this passive and strangely withdrawn creature it made me wonder if it were drugs or if Aizen had tried some of his special methods to affect this change.

Ulquiorra was now engaged in a cold verbal argument with Nemu, while Zaraki and Captain Kuchiki continued to dodge and taunt Yammy who seemed to be growing larger as his anger grew. Ichigo and Grimmjow were still in a blade clinch staring into each other's eyes, threateningly, possibly or because neither of them wanted to stop the staring competition, or whatever it was. I turned my attention away from them and back to Orihime. Now was the chance to free her and take her away from the abductors.

"Orihime," I said as softly as I could. She flinched at either her name or my voice but her eyes remained staring at a point that meant I could not make eye contact. "I'm sorry I didn't help rescue you last time," I sad and felt the guilt clench my heart.

I'd been saved but she'd been left here and who knows what she'd experienced? For a moment I considered the possibility that Aizen had permitted Nemu's father to 'experiment' on the girl. If he had, I feared for her sanity. She had always tried to appear strong and independent but underneath it was easy to see she was shy, scared and fearful of the world around her. She had been devastated when her defence and attack had been so easily shattered and even though she'd trained and worked hard to improve her abilities, it seemed she always felt as if she was lacking. She'd clung to her love for Ichigo as if it had a redemptive quality and he was her saviour as well as her focus.

I am not saying that women cannot live without love or a focus for their emotions. Some women are quite happy to forsake emotions, or appear to do so, but Orihime was not one of those women. Her emotion was an essential part of her personality, her love for Ichigo partly defined her and without that love, her self-confidence might shatter and it wasn't possible to determine the other problems, which might result.

I walked a little closer, ignoring all the noise around me, walking past Ulquiorra who seemed to be intent on winning the verbal battle. It was odd to see two such emotionally withdrawn characters determined to suppress their opponent, but it was to my advantage. "Orihime," I said again.

I heard a whisper. "This person is not called that anymore."

She still couldn't look at me and as I drew closer, her trembling became more obvious. I had to break through to her. "You are called Orihime by the people who care about you."

A few twitches of her head indicated she might be shaking it in denial. "No one cares. This person was left here. This person is of no use to anyone. This person depends on Aizen sama for existence."

I tried to ignore the guilt and anger which besieged me. Whoever had tormented Orihime had tried to remove her name, any confidence and hope she had and had even made her believe her life was Aizen's. In the circumstances, her life may have been threatened and she was constantly assured Aizen was the only reason she lived. It seemed like the sick, sadistic man I'd known.

"Your name is Orihime. Please, Orihime, come with me now. We can get away while everyone is busy." I kept my tone low but gentle.

"This person cannot leave this place. There is no other place for this person."

Her voice was soft but sadly adamant.

"Big boobies, stop acting like a brainwashed dummy. I'm missing out on watching Ken-chan fight while you witter on about 'This person'. Snap out of it," Yachiru had appeared beside me and I hadn't noticed.

For a second Orihime's eyelids flickered and I think she quickly looked at Yachiru but it only lasted seconds before she was again staring at nothing and she said nothing.

"Ichigo is here. You can watch him fight Ego-man," Yachiru persisted.

A small twitch of her shoulders at Ichigo's name indicated Orihime might still be affected by her feelings for him.

Who was Ego-man? I looked over and Ichigo and Grimmjow were still staring at each other. Grimmjow must be Ego-man and my lips twitched as I tried to stop the smile. The name could have been applied to many of the Shinigami and Arrancar, but possibly, she had chosen the best recipient for the name.

"This one is not permitted to watch fighting as this one cannot fight," Orihime said without inflection.

Unfortunately, a break in his argument with Nemu allowed Ulquiorra to notice what was happening. "Get away from the girl," he said with cold dignity. "She is no longer your concern as she belongs to Aizen sama. She depends on Aizen sama for her existence."

Before I could do anything, Yachiru had jumped on his shoulder and slapped him hard. "Stop speaking rubbish, No Fun," she said as she jumped away quickly.

His mouth opened in surprise, while his hand reached to his cheek where the small red imprint of Yachiru's hand showed clearly. "You hit me," he said. "No one hits me."

"And I am waiting to fight you once you have run out of words," Nemu said fiercely. "You talk and insult but you do not act. Are you like that one?" she said pointing to Grimmjow who was still staring at Ichigo who was still staring back. I wondered if either of them had blinked or if they kept surreptitiously applying eye drops. No one could stare for that length of time without problems.

"I am nothing like him," Ulquiorra said with a tinge of anger in his words at the possible insult. "He is all action, no thought." He turned to Yachiru. "Little girl, you will regret slapping me."

"I'm so scared, No Fun," Yachiru jeered. "And you are like Ego Man. Not much action happening from either of you," Yachiru laughed. "Ichi is an idiot but no one expected him to get stuck into a staring contest rather than swinging that obscenely large blade around and causing problems."

"Ichigo is not an idiot," a voice said and I looked at Orihime. She was staring angrily at Yachiru.

"Remember who you are," Ulquiorra instructed her, his attention once more shifting from Nemu. That was a mistake as her blade whistled past and he had to quickly draw his own to block.

It seemed I had been right. Yachiru and Nemu had been working together to distract Ulquiorra so we could attempt to get Orihime away from him. My attempts had been failures because the conditioning was strong and I hadn't said the one name which might affect her. While the conditioning was strong, it was not enough to really break the strong bond of love she felt for Ichigo.

To my astonishment, Orihime stepped in front of Ulquiorra, making it impossible for Nemu to fight him. What was going on? First, she refused to look at anyone and now she was both glaring at Nemu and occasionally sneaking glances at Ichigo.

Ichigo and Grimmjow had finally finished their staring contest and were trying to hit each other, while trading the usual insults about abilities, intelligence, the parentage each had and the imagined size of genitals. Ichigo heard Orihime's quiet statement over the noise, parried a thrust and pushed Grimmjow away as he turned toward his friend. Leaving the fight, he ran over to us and went directly to Orihime.

"Why are you protecting him?" he demanded with all the arrogance of a young male knowing he is loved by the person he is addressing.

Orihime looked at Ichigo, her eyes wide and almost shocked. "Why am I protecting him?" she asked. It was a relief to hear her say 'I' instead of "This person" but she seemed very uncertain and confused. "Because I..," she faltered and stopped. "This person is to serve Aizen sama and Ulquiorra serves Aizen sama so this person must..." Orihime broke off again and looked from Ichigo to Ulquiorra as if looking for some sign of what she should do or say.

Ichigo pulled her away from Ulquiorra and tried to walk away from the Arrancar but Orihime seemed to resist a little. "You don't need to do anything for him. He kidnapped you, remember? He made you leave and kept you here. You don't want to be here, do you Orihime?"

At first Orihime relaxed as his hand held her shoulder and then tensed her body growing taut as she tried to pull away but Ichigo tightened his grip. "You did not come to rescue this person. You came to kill and hurt because you feel your pride was damaged." The voice didn't sound like Orihime. She was repeating everything by rote as she stared at Ulquiorra, bending toward him as though she wished to be near him.

Grabbing her by both shoulders, Ichigo spun her around to look at him as Ishida moved to stand between Orihime and Ulquiorra as if shielding her from his gaze.

"Leave the woman be. It should be her choice," the green eyed Arrancar said.

"You seem to like giving orders," Ishida noted.

"And you seem to like to become involved in things which are not your business," Nemu said, her irritation obvious. "First you tried to fight this Arrancar when I was already poised to do so and now you are talking. Go away or I will regret saving you from my father."

"Orihime is my friend so it is my business," he retorted. "I don't know what is going through your head since your father left, but I preferred you before."

"Meek, weak, without a thought of my own or an opinion I was permitted to keep. Interesting, but I prefer to think for myself," Nemu said with a large amount of disgust.

"Orihime, you don't want to protect that guy. Look at you. Look at what you're wearing," Ichigo was intent on trying to communicate with Orihime and she stop trying to pull away as she looked deep into his eyes.

"This person was instructed to wear this uniform by Aizen sama to show allegiance," she said with no inflection. Ichigo shook his head in frustration and again.

"You were nice," Ishida said to Nemu.

"Pathetic and trying to please," Nemu sneered back at him. "And what did I receive in return? Another agonising session of being taught how to obey that man who called himself my father." Her top lip twisted as if she were re-living a painful memory and the little I knew about the Captain meant it would have been excruciating.

Some of Ishida's confidence was wiped away with those words. "I didn't know," he said slowly as he failed to meet her gaze.

"You didn't ask," Nemu said.

Ishida looked stricken as his shoulders sagged.

"Come with me. We'll leave this place and return home. Everything will be the same as always," Ichigo tried to persuade Orihime.

Some of Nemu's words might have penetrated Orihimes's mind as she stared at Ichigo. "You said you'd protect this person. You didn't."

Ichigo went white and swallowed noticeably . "I tried."

"When that man, Captain Kurotsuchi, came to try and experiment on this person you weren't there to help."

As Ichigo shook his head either in denial or disbelief the bickering between Ishida and Nemu stopped at the mention of the Captain's name.

"He didn't..." Nemu muttered with sadness and fear in her voice.

"He did," Ulquiorra said. "Many times."

My heart sank. It was as I feared. Alone and unprotected, Orihime had been subject to abuse from which Gin had protected me by the mere act of killing the man and preventing him from making any further demands.

"This person was scared."

"Did he...?"

"Ulquiorra sama protected me. He stopped the Captain after the first time. He ignored Aizen sama's orders and told the Captain anything he did to me he would do to the Captain." Orihime said, her voice quivering with tears and shame.

A.N.

Anything said is an excuse, no matter how valid.

Soundtrack

'Twinks Revenge' Friendly

'Nothing Left to Lose' Alan Parsons Project

'Another Version of the Truth' Nine Inch Nails

'Standing To Defend You' Kentaro Ito (Beach Beat Collection)

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