AN: Anyone still out there? Still interested? Time and motivation are hard to come by these days, but anyway…


Chapter 20

Zero sat on her bed and closed her eyes. Her jacket was on the floor, lost in the haze of the cool mist that floated right above. It was almost a week since her visit with Ichimaru-sama and Aizen-sama had still not summoned her. She frowned. He was still upset with her. No training, no treatments, no interaction with anyone. This was her punishment; being left to rot.

At least the others were still alive.

But for how long? Aizen-sama had already admitted that he had no use for the woman. Menoly and Loly were nothing like Ulquiorra. Although they were sweet in front of Aizen-sama, Zero knew they had many faces. Orihime was kind, but there was something about her that was also strong. Surely she could take care of herself?

Her frown deepened.

Once Aizen-sama gained whatever information he wanted from the others, he would have no use for them either. She was very familiar with what happened to those he had no use for. They were sent to the arena or just disappeared. Her nose wrinkled. The humans wouldn't last very long. The Shinigami would have a better chance, but eventually…

This was wrong.

Zero gasped. Who was she to question what Lord Aizen wanted? Indeed. She was no one. She herself was here only because he had a use for her.

And what was that exactly?

She did not know. She was sure it was for something important. The way he would come into the lab and make sure Granz was doing everything a certain way, following his instructions. She shook her head. He all but ignored her since Wonderweiss was created. He even admitted to her that his plans had changed. Maybe now it was a matter of time before he no longer had a use for her. That thought was unsettling. Just as unsettling as a few others she had buried away. One being that Tosen-sama let Wonderweiss attack her on purpose that night. Another was Granz. Ichimaru-sama had once told her that there was little they did not know in Los Noches. Everything everyone did was monitored. So how much did Aizen-sama let Granz get away with when it came to her care?

Her thoughts drifted to the day she woke up in Ulquiorra's room. He must have found her after Granz drugged her. Aizen-sama must have known what Granz was after that night. If that was the case – Her door flew open, interrupting her thoughts. Nnoitora stood in the door way and looked her over.

"Aizen wants to see you," he said. He watched as Zero unfolded her legs and stood. She grabbed her jacket and put it on all under his watchful eye. Ulquiorra did not like this man and in turn, neither did she. He blocked the doorway and sneered at her. "Maybe later I'll come by. You must be lonely with Ulquiorra dead and all." Zero narrowed her eyes.

"Get out of my way," she said slowly and deliberately so her words would be clear.

"Huh," he replied. He stood there defiantly. Zero let her reiatsu flow and balled her hand into a fist. Shards of ice gleamed off of her knuckles as she stared him down. Nnoitora was visibly uncomfortable, but grinned and took a step back. "Feisty women are such a turn on." Zero ignored him and walked past him out into the hallway. "That woman Ulquiorra was so fond of was pretty feisty." Zero froze. As his words sunk in she spun around. Nnoitora was still in her doorway, still grinning. He was baiting her. She cocked her eyebrow and turned back around.

"Aizen-sama is waiting," she said and continued to the throne room. He followed behind her and laughed.

"I could tell you what I've done to her, but I wouldn't want to make you jealous," he continued.

"You speak as if I care," she replied.

"Oh?" he snorted. "I don't believe you." Zero continued on and ignored him. Infuriated this wasn't going as he predicted, Nnoitora grabbed her and pushed her up against the wall and pressed his hard body against hers, pinning her to the wall. "I think you care very much what happens to them. Do you want to know why? You're one of them and that's how it will always be. I don't care what Aizen did to ya, you will never be one of us." Zero narrowed her eyes. "I'm not the only one who thinks this way. The other Espada? We will destroy you." He smiled impossibly wide at her.

"Then you will die," Zero said, facing him. His smile only got wider at the absurdity of her claim.

"Is that a challenge?" he asked, excited.

"Do I have to go over again with you the importance of following orders, Nnoitora?" Aizen said as he emerged from one of the hallways close by. Tosen and Wonderweiss flanked his sides although they were a step behind him. "If you had bothered to follow my instructions that last time, I wouldn't have had to save you from a mere Shinigami." Nnoitora's grin faded as he turned his head. "Don't tell me you are being ungrateful after I have shown you my generosity?"

"N-no. Not at all," he said as he took a few steps back, freeing Zero. She looked at Wonderweiss and Tosen before her eyes settled on Lord Aizen. She fell to her knees and looked at the stone floor. Her heart doubled in speed automatically. "I-I was just bringing her to you like you asked…"

"Leave," Aizen said as he walked towards Zero. Not daring to look up, she heard Nnoitora's footsteps as he scrambled away. "Well now, Zero. It seems we have a bit of a problem now, don't we?" She focused on the floor and said nothing.


"Kurosaki!" Ishida yelled from his position. He had just taken down another hollow out of countless others and was trying to see how his friend was fairing.

"Ishida!" Ichigo yelled back as yet another hollow dissolved in front of him, clearing the path to his friend. They met and stood together, waiting on the next batch of hollows to arrive. They were in the arena, as they were brought there every morning since their capture. They fought, healed their wounds and fought more until whoever was in charge deemed they could rest; at which point, suppression collars and chains were put on and they were brought back to their cells only to be brought back to the arena to do this again the next day.

Ichigo looked over his shoulder at Ishida's battered and bruised body. "You're not looking so well."

"Speak for yourself. At least my head isn't bleeding all over the place."

"Humph." Ichigo wiped the blood from his eye and looked at the blood that was pouring out of Ishida's hand. He wouldn't be able to shoot for much longer. "Have you thought of a way out of this yet?"

"Finally acknowledging the fact I'm smarter?" he quipped. Ichigo frowned. He hated looking like he was stupid, but it was painfully obvious that after giving it everything he had the first few days of capture, something else was needed. Brute force wasn't going to get them out of this cycle they were in especially since he was now limited. His hand absently touched a small metal device that was implanted under his skin near the base of his skull. He wasn't sure what it was, but it prevented him from releasing his full reiatsu and from going Bankai. The one called Starrk had warned him of trying to remove it. Apparently it was attached to the base of his brain. Remove it and he would turn to ash, like Ulquiorra.

Then there were the others to consider. Starrk had told them that Orihime was kept not in the 5th tower as Aizen had told them. No, that was a complete trap they fell into. She was actually being held elsewhere and was unharmed…for now. Starrk didn't know where Toshiro and Renji were; only that they lost to Zero and Aizen had them in another part of Los Noches.

Zero…

Starrk wouldn't talk about her; her whereabouts, her status, nothing. In fact, no one would. Even Lynette, who would chatter on endlessly about how annoying Orihime was for days on end, would clam up and leave the cells if Zero's name was even mentioned.

"ISHIDA!" Ichigo yelled as he noticed, a bit too late, a hollow come from under a pile of dead bodies. It had claws for hands and immediately gripped Ichida across his midsection. Blood bubbled out of his mouth. His glasses flew to the ground and broke. Ichigo grabbed Zangetsu and slashed the hollow across its face instantly killing it.

As it released Ishida, blood poured out of his gut as he fell to the ground.

"Ishida!" Ichigo said as he ran to his friend.

"End exercise," a voice called out from above. The doors opened and several Arrancar came in. One gently pushed Ichigo aside and started attending to the wound on Ishida. Another attached the suppression collar to Ichigo's neck and took Zangetsu before turning to Ishida. His body was placed on a hovering stretcher and was taken away. Ichigo felt a shove and numbly let himself be led back to the cells. This was the first time in weeks he was heading back there without his friend.

As the door closed behind him, he sat on his cot and put his head in his hands. How were they going to get out of this? Ishida…

"Your friend will be ok," said a voice across the room. Instantly, Ichigo looked up and tried to focus his eyes in the dim light.

"Who…who are you?"

"Hmph," said the tall Espada as he walked the few paces to Ichigo's bed. "I am Zommari Leraux, Kurosaki Ichigo. I am here to take you to Ichimaru-sama."

"How do you know Ishida will be ok?"

"Because Aizen-sama is allowing it."

"Che, that doesn't mean anything."

"Aizen-sama is a great leader! Do you doubt his powers? That's not surprising coming from a lowly human like you."

"And the fact you follow him blindly says a lot about you," Ichigo quipped.

"I do not follow blindly. He has powers of his own and what he can not accomplish, he controls others who can."

"Control? Yeah, I've seen how he controls people," Ichigo said with a note of disgust. "He tears them apart, uses what he can and discards the rest. He is no great leader."

"That is your opinion. Which, I am sorry to say, does not amount to much."

"Where is Ishida?"

"He is two levels above us. The woman who can heal is with him." Ichigo's eyes widened as realization kicked in.

"Inoue!" He jumped and grabbed onto the Espada's collar. "Inoue is with him?"

"Relax!" Zommari said as he shoved Ichigo away who landed on his cot. "She is healing your friend as we speak." Knowing Ishida was safely with Inoue Ichigo felt a little calmer… Ishida would be ok. He let himself breathe.

"What about the rest of my friends?"

"They are in other areas."

"Are they alive?"

"As far as I know."

"What about Zero?" Zommari walked to the cell door.

"It is time to see Ichimaru-sama."

"What about Zero?" he repeated. "How is she?" Zommari said nothing which only infuriated Ichigo. "Why won't you tell me about Zero? Where is she?" Ichigo demanded. The cell door opened.

"Aaah, Kurosaki-kun," Ichimaru said as he walked into the cell. Zommari stammered and sputtered an apology for his lateness only for Gin to wave him off. "Go back to your room. I am sure Aizen will be calling for a meeting soon." Zommari bowed deeply before leaving. Gin turned to Ichigo and smiled.

"Where is Zero?" Ichigo asked. "Is she ok? What have you done to her?" Gin looked at him and smiled.

"You are somethin' else, Kurosaki-kun. It isn't a wonder why Aizen is so interested in ya."

"Why won't anyone tell me about her?"

"Because they don't know."

"What?"

"What Aizen does with his experiments are on a need to know basis. Ya don't need to know."

"Like hell I don't!" Ichigo curled his fingers into fists. "You're the one who took Rukia in the first place. You're the one who did all this to her!"

"Oh, now…Don't ya like what we've done with her? She's oh so much more powerful this way. She was able to keep up with yer hollow without too much damage. She's quite impressive."

"Where is she?"

"I'm shocked that ya keep asking about the only one who ya can't save and not about the others who ya can." He walked over to the bed and grabbed Ichigo's wrist and quickly twisted it behind his back, forcing him to his knees. He let out a grunt as he fell. Gin produced a syringe and injected its contents to the side of Ichigo's neck. "No more questions. It's time we had ya healed. After all, you're part of Aizen's plan."

Ichigo started to protest but found everything in his world went dark.


Toshiro opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. He had looked at it so many times over the years since he became a captain. He would stare for hours waiting for the solution to his latest problem to appear there somehow. Although it never did, he stared none the less. Today was no exception. Momo had checked in on him for what seemed like the hundredth time that morning and left to tend to her own duties. Abarai had not shown up for work yet. That in itself wasn't entirely unusual. He had heard from Kuchiki before that he was known to be late on occasions. Kuchiki… He blinked. Although that is what he always called her, today it seemed…wrong.

Kuchiki Rukia.

His dreams as of late were about the little raven haired woman. He sighed as his mind returned to the latest installment...

"Hitsugaya Taicho!" Rukia said as she stood at attention. She had been training and had missed when Toshiro walked over.

"At ease, Kuchiki," he replied as he walked past her and sat down beneath a tree at the edge of the training ground. He looked at the sky and sighed. Puzzled, Rukia walked over.

"Are…are we going to train or would you like me to continue what I've been doing?" She asked. Several minutes went by and she was about to repeat herself when his gaze shifted and his eyes met hers. They looked troubled, conflicted. Curious, Rukia took a step closer and sat across from him. "Are you ok, Taicho?"

"I'm not sure," he replied.

"Is there anything I can do?" she asked noticing his eyes never left hers. She felt warm under his gaze, but not uncomfortable. On impulse, she reached out and touched his hand. A bolt of electricity shot through her as his eyes widened. She blushed and retracted her hand. "I..I'm sorry," she mumbled. He reached out to her and put her hand in his.

"Don't be," he said as he looked at her hand. It was small, delicate and fit nicely in his; which only fueled his confusion even more. He closed his eyes and felt how his body seemed to respond so easily to hers. A simple hand holding and he was on fire. "Rukia…"

Then there was the other dream. Violet eyes stared coldly at him; pale skin with traces of hollow bone; a hole where her heart should be… Toshiro shook his head. He sat up and frowned as he thought back to his last real memory. It was shortly after the human invaded Soul Society. Kurosaki Ichigo, the one who saved Rukia from execution and then again from Aizen, was talking to Ukitake about becoming a Substitute? Hinamori was at the 4th after her own ordeal with Aizen.

Aizen.

What happened after he left? He couldn't remember. What happened to Kurosaki? He couldn't remember. What happened to Kuchiki?

Be happy, Toshiro…

He couldn't remember. He supposedly went on several missions since that time but he couldn't remember any of them. As Hinamori filled in his history he found himself listening to the words, but they didn't feel right. They felt rehearsed.

"Shiro-chan!" Momo said as she entered his office without knocking. Toshiro frowned. It had been a week since Matsumoto and Kuchiki…Rukia went to the living world for "retail therapy" but there had been no contact. Oddly, every time he mentions them to Hinamori, the subject quickly gets changed or she brushes the matter off as being something minor.

She was acting strange as well. When they were alone, he felt uncomfortable. A feeling he tried to blame on his amnesia, but even that felt like a lie. The other evening she brought dinner to his office after Abarai had left. She started talking about their time together when they were young. He remembered those feelings he used to have for her but there was something else. Something…off. Again, he tried to ignore it, but when she moved to hold him, it didn't feel right.

"Are you ok? You know, you should be relaxing in your room. You would be so much more comfortable there."

"I'll relax where ever I want."

"Are you feeling better?"

"You mean since ten minutes ago when you asked me last?"

"Okay, okay," Momo said as she laughed lightly and sat on the opposite end of the couch. "You're a grump. How about we go for a walk?"

"I have things to do. Abarai hasn't come in yet."

"Oh, yeah…I forgot to tell you this morning. Abarai-kun had a bit too much to drink last night and is in the 4th."

"Great," Toshiro said as he rubbed his eyes. He could feel his pulse throb as the tension headache started to increase pressure. Abarai wasn't known to be an avid drinker. Even Matsumoto would complain how he would shirk going out with her in order to train.

"Are you ok?" she asked as she stood behind the couch. She placed her hands on his shoulders and started a massage.

"I'm fine," he said as he shrugged her hands off.

"Can I get you anything?"

"Matsumoto."

"Huh?"

"Matsumoto. Why is she still not here? Why have I not been able to reach her? Why has she not checked in?" He looked at Momo who smiled at him.

"I'm sure she just got caught up in the fun of the living world. That's what happened to Kuchiki-san when she first went there. Remember? She was several weeks late coming back."

"That's not acceptable. They both should be here where they belong," he said as he stood up.

"Where are you going?"

"To see the old man," he replied as he reached the door.

"For what?"

"For permission to retrieve my Fukutaicho!" and Kuchiki. His mind added. Confused he looked at Hinamori. Something in his mind clicked. "You know something, don't you? That's why you're always here, looking in on me. It's not just because of what happened on the last mission, is it?"

"Shiro-chan…."

"There's more going on. Tell me!"

"Yes," she replied softly. "There's a lot more, but – "

"What is it?" he asked as he crossed the room and put his hands on her shoulders. "Where are they?"

"Shiro-chan…" Momo said.

"Where?" he demanded and slightly shook her. Tears started to form in the corners of her eyes as she looked at him. She threw herself at him and draped her arms over his shoulders. She buried her face in his haori and let her tears go. "Hina…mori?"

"I'm sorry…." She sobbed.

"For what?" He asked as he held her. "What have you done?" He didn't have a chance to say anything else as he felt a prick stab him in the shoulder. Soon, everything went black.