Do not own.

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Chapter 2

The Lure

Abarai Renji just stared. None of his muscles would obey him; no coherent thought would form in his mind. It. Was. Not. Possible.

He had seen Hitsugaya Toushirou killed with his own eyes. Ripped to pieces. He had held Matsumoto Rangiku for the next two months, trying to take the suicidal edge from her grief. Hitsugaya was dead, he was mourned, he was…

He was here. Unquestionably. Much taller – only a head shorter than himself, Renji thought. It was hard to tell as the younger man crouched in the corner, every muscle obviously coiled to spring. He was filthy and … damaged, his reiatsu missing entirely. But no one could mistake those eyes. Those eyes, cool pools of green in a sea of red dust, were boring into his former colleague, weighing him, warning him.

An explosion tore through the hallway, and Renji started. He felt one of his subordinates' reiatsu flicker and fail. Dammit! There was no time for this. His party was to provide the distraction while Ichigo broke into the cell block. He had to make for the Hougyoku; that would draw all of the city's guardians. If they didn't move soon, they would give away the game. Another blast tore through the wall not far behind him. If they didn't move soon, they'd be dead.

Before he could so much as twitch, however, Hitsugaya was in front of him, one hand drawn back. Something white and savage gleamed in that hand. Renji automatically brought up his hands to block the blow, whereupon Hitsugaya dropped, fluidly, into a spinning sweep. His heel caught Renji's ankle just at the nerve center, sending the taller man down with a crash.

In a flash, Hitsugaya – could it be him? – was on top of him, scrambling for Zabimaru. But Renji had not become captain of the fifth division for nothing. Even his kidou had improved over the course of the war. "Bind," he barked, holding two fingers forward.

Not quite incantation-less, but close enough. The attacker's arms snapped behind him, and he fell, awkwardly, to one side.

"Captain!" Renji heard Fukinawa yell, as he struggled to his feet. And then, thank God, he felt the signal. Kurosaki sent out three blasts of spirit power in rapid succession. Time to go.

As his team raced towards him, the red-headed captain bent down and seized Hitsugaya's upper arm. They could sort this out in the Court of Tranquil Souls.

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"I want complete protection," the arrancar whined, scratching at her number in a neurotic kind of way. Bella was a long, thin creature, with violent purple hair. She looked around the spare office with obvious distaste. "A hidden location, a budget, a guard detail. I advise you against stinginess. The information I can provide… " Her voice trailed off, as her self-importance gave way to irritation. "Are you even listening to me?"

Captain Ukitake shook himself a little. He had not been listening, in fact. When Kurosaki and Abarai had returned … he still couldn't believe it. Entirely ignoring the arrancar's demands, he leaned forward. "Tell me what you know about Hitsugaya Toushirou."

The defector blinked. "Aizen-sama's baby dragon? What…" she broke off, sneering. "Oh no, you don't. Not before we reach an agreement. This sort of intelligence ain't cheap."

"We have already paid with the lives of three men," Ukitake snapped. The arrancar shied back from his sudden burst of angry energy. "All to rescue you from your imminent execution, and personally, I'm still not sure that you're not an enemy spy. I suggest you convince me."

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Unohana Retsu folded her hands in her lap as she addressed the assembly. As always, her face and voice were calm, soothing. But everyone could feel the tension in her spirit force, the hardness of her eyes. No one, not even Yamamoto-soutaichou, had ever seen her so angry.

"I have Hitsugaya-taichou sedated," she said, "and I have treated his body to the best of my ability. I could not do much. He has apparently sustained a great deal of injury – stab wounds, broken bones, trauma. But most of these seem to have been … repaired … after a fashion." At this point bitterness crept even into Unohana's measured tones.

The assembled captains did not know where to look. Most of them thought, quite rightly, that silence would be the better part of wisdom. Except, of course, for Kurotshuchi Mayuri. "Unohana-taichou, this … an opportunity to study arrancar healing techniques … perhaps when you are finished with h…"

The Fourth Division Captain barely glanced in his direction, and Kurotshuchi retreated, muttering.

Unohana resumed, as if she had heard nothing. "His reiatsu has hardly recovered at all. I confess we are at a loss. His chain link and soul sleep are intact, and therefore his spirit energy should recover completely. It has improved, very slightly, since he entered my care, but his power is still far below that of a shinigami."

Shunsui Kyouraku stirred, clenching and unclenching one fist. "The spirit and the body are linked, are they not? How has he grown so fast, without reiatsu? Even if he had remained here, he would still look about twelve years old."

When Unohana did not answer, Ukitake coughed slightly. "It is possible that aging process works differently in the Hueco Mundo. Or … though it is hard to contemplate … Aizen could have imprisoned him in a temporal rift. He may have been missing much longer than we have missed him."

With a swift glance at the Unohana, the white-haired captain continued, hesitantly. "More likely, well, according to our informant, his growth may have something to do with the diet forced upon him."

"Which was …"

"It need not be discussed," Unohana said, her mouth in a thin line.

A moment of profound awkwardness followed, broken only by Kurotshuchi's quiet, bubbling giggles.

"Of far more concern," Unohana said finally, her eyes downcast, "is the damage to Hitsugaya-taichou's mind. He recognizes no one. He …." For a second she paused, one slim hand to her mouth. Recovering, she almost whispered. "I would like to request that the captains help us restrain him. Even for my second and third seat, it is difficult to hold him down without hurting him.

"I also feel that no one outside this chamber should be told of his return."

At this point Renji sprang to his feet. "But Unohana-taichou, Matsumoto …"

"Matsumoto does not want to see her captain in this state, nor would he want her to."

For the first time, Zaraki Kenpachi spoke, in his habitual lazy growl. "He wouldn't want any of this. The brat was a warrior, once. Be kindest if you killed him."

This time Unohana turned her head slowly and met Zaraki's eyes directly. "Zaraki-taichou," she murmured, every syllable a threat. "Do not suggest that again."

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Aizen leaned back in his giant bed, closing his eyes. He would never admit it, but the raid had shaken him. Not Bella's defection of course. If he had thought her trustworthy, he wouldn't have ordered her death. If he had thought her significant, he would have killed her himself.

Hitsugaya's capture bothered him, though. Aizen couldn't say why. The boy was amusing, even useful, to Hueco Mundo, but he was hardly central to their plans. In his current state, the broken shinigami would hardly pose a threat. If anything, Soul Society would be distracted by trying to heal him.

Beside him, Hinamori shifted slightly, her hand instinctively finding his. Soothed despite himself, Aizen let his thoughts wander.

The first time he had seen her in the Hueco Mundo, she had fought her way past the lower guards, which was impressive in its own right. Gin had found her after that, a bloody mess, and had brought her directly to Aizen. Why, Aizen wondered idly, had he done that?

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"Renji."

The red-head grunted, unwilling to open his eyes.

"I know you're not asleep."

With a sigh, the captain of the fifth sat up, rubbed his eyes, and walked to the window. As he expected, Ichigo was outside. He sat on the casing, leaning against the wall, looking down on the courtyard.

"What the hell," Renji muttered, though he thought he knew exactly what this midnight visit was about.

"It must have been an illusion," Ichigo said, in a half-whisper. "Hitsugaya's death."

The other nodded, rubbing his hand against the back of his neck. The August night was hot; not a breath of air seemed to move over the Seireitei.

"We left him there."

Another nod. Here it comes.

"Renji… what about the others?"

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"Aizen-taichou," she whispered, tears streaming down her face, "I've come …"

"Why have you come, Hinamori-kun?" he asked, sternly. He felt quite unaccountably angry.

For a moment she flinched, as if he had slapped her. Then she gathered her courage and drew herself up. "I've come to save you, captain. Even if I'm too late, even if it means my death, I know," she swallowed, "I know that this is not the man you are."

For an instant the former Fifth Division Captain had allowed himself, not regret, but grudging admiration. After all those years of conditioning, he knew that this was not hypnosis speaking. This was she, herself. In a way, it had nothing to do with him.

Love, or loyalty – perhaps these things ennoble the giver more than the recipient.

Aizen glanced at Gin, and wondered, not for the first time, what secret plans his lieutenant harbored. But his course was clear. The ryouka had already entered his world, and he felt the reiatsu of Kuchiki Rukia and Abarai Renji not far behind. Some inner intuition told him that Hitsugaya and Matsumoto would not be far behind.

"Hinamori-kun," he said softly, drawing her close, drawing his katana beyond her vision, "come and talk with me."

TBC