Always and Forever chapter 16

Bleach; IchiHime RenRuki

Word count: 6735

Warnings: T; cursing

Disclaimer: all characters herein are the property of Kubo Tite.

Summary: While attending Tatsuki and Chad's engagement party in the living world, Rukia realizes that the place she really needs to be is back in the Soul Society, immediately. Her baby was tired of these cramped conditions and was ready to be born. Not wanting to give her husband the satisfaction of being right, Rukia convinces Orihime to help her return home before their husbands can catch on to their impetuous plan.

~o0o~

"Dammit, where in the hell are they?"

Ichigo stopped just past the threshold of his dad's clinic and threaded his long fingers through his hair in irritation. Tugging on the short bright strands, he could tell the second he stepped foot inside that neither his wife nor Rukia were there like he had hoped.

Shoving Ichigo in the shoulder, Renji's nostrils flared as he came to a dead stop, realizing at the same time as his friend that their wives weren't here. "You dumbass, I thought you said that they'd be here!"

Ichigo gritted his teeth and took the well-deserved insult. Dammit, just where in the hell could they be if not here? He'd known the moment he'd seen that pint of ice cream melting in the middle of the floor in Tatsuki's kitchen that something was wrong. Orihime would never abandon her ice cream without a very good reason. Even then, she'd still try to take it with her.

Trying to be the bigger man, he bit back a curse as he took another blow from Renji in the shoulder. Ichigo understood and shared his frustration, but he sure as hell wasn't going to be the idiot's punching bag just because Rukia wasn't here as he said. Besides, it wasn't his fault. It was hers for being stubborn and sneaking off to have the baby.

His eyes snapped open when Renji smacked him yet again. "That does it." Ichigo muttered under his breath, giving his temper free reign. If Renji wanted to burn off some frustration with a brawl, he'd be more than happy to oblige. The jackass had no one to blame but himself for when he ended up in the hospital bed beside his wife.

"This was a stupid idea from the …" Renji began, and stopped when Ichigo's fist met his jaw.

Slamming him against the wall, Ichigo pressed his forearm to Renji's throat. "Oh shut up, you whiny bastard. Rukia's resourceful, I'm sure she's fine." He said, ignoring the wild look in his friend's eye as he growled. "However in case you haven't noticed, your wife isn't the only one missing. Orihime took off without a damn word to me, too."

Renji's tattooed forehead connected with Ichigo's with a satisfying crack, knocking the substitute shinigami back and to the ground. To hell with being rational. He was ready to tear this town apart brick by brick in an attempt to find his pregnant wife. And he would be damned if he was going sit around meekly waiting for Ichigo to come up with another half-assed plan.

Paying Ichigo back in kind, his fist plowed into the orange haired man's jaw as he tried to rise from the floor. Renji flicked the loose hair from his eyes and dropped to straddle the dazed ginger's waist before he had a chance to recover. Pinning Ichigo to the floor by his wrists, Renji bared his teeth at the struggling fool. "Rukia is in labor and I don't even know where she is, and you have the balls to bitch to me about your wife sneaking off?"

"You know, I've had questions about the two of you for years now."

The two men tangled on the floor froze, their animosity melting away in an instant as they looked up in surprise.

Isshin cocked his head, watching them in return and made a vague gesture with his hand. "You do understand, there's male bonding, and then, there's male bonding." He stated with special emphasis on the last while wiggling his brows suggestively.

Flipping Renji off him while his guard was down, Ichigo rolled to the side as his friend collapsed in a cursing heap. "Shut up, Dad." He muttered, cheeks flushing with embarrassment as he stood.

"I understand that with both your wives being pregnant you might not be getting the…action that you were before, but that is no reason to go to this extent." Isshin declared before continuing with a careless shrug of his shoulders, "It's perfectly fine to grab hold of the stick and fly solo."

Their jaws dropped in unison and Renji and Ichigo could only stare at him, speechless and wholly disturbed by his crude insinuation and subsequent solution. Did he honestly think they were secretly gay for each other, or was he only questioning their self-control? They were grown men, not a couple of horny teenagers led around by the wrong damn head.

They weren't taking him seriously; Isshin realized and wrote them both off as hopeless. Let them suffer. Ichigo especially would find out the truth of the matter for himself before too long. Ready to leave the idiots to whatever argument brought them here in the first place, his brow furrowed at the repetitive tone coming from his son's direction.

"Ichigo, aren't you going to answer your phone?"

Blinking at his dad's question, Ichigo held out a hand to help Renji to his feet. "What?"

Ignoring the proffered hand, Renji's eyes widened when he realized what that sound was. "Your phone is ringing." He murmured before practically crawling up Ichigo's leg. "That's your phone, dammit. Answer it."

Ichigo knocked Renji's hand away as the idiot tried to dive into his pocket. Glaring in warning at the impatient redhead, Ichigo pulled it free and sighed in relief when he glanced at the caller's number.

"Chad, did you find them?"

Trying to listen while Renji breathed in his face, Ichigo's brows furrowed and he zeroed in on a name. "Urahara's? He did what? Not the dangai?" He lifted his eyes to meet Renji's shocked gaze. And Ichigo wondered if his faced paled like his friend's just did.

This day suddenly went from bad to worse. He couldn't believe it. Their pregnant wives just ran through the precipice world without the Kidō Corps to keep open the gate. How stupid could they be? Ichigo was going to strangle Orihime when he finally got his hands on her.

Well, maybe not strangle her, but he might yell, and most definitely scowl at her a whole lot. And then he was going to carry out his prior threat. That woman of his was going to be tied to their bed this time.

Clenching the phone in his hand, Ichigo pulled his substitute pass from his pocket as Renji popped a soul candy into his mouth. "One more favor, Chad." He continued, keeping his temper in check as he burst from the clinic with Renji fast on his heels, both in their shinigami forms. "Don't let that shifty bastard sneak off before we can get there."

~o0o~

Evening shadows stretched out across the soul society as Rukia and Orihime exited the dangai. Breathless from their run, they stood with their arms around each other and took a moment to recover. It wasn't nearly as bad as Rukia thought it would be. Tiring and a bit nerve-wracking, but nothing worthy of the disaster-laden lecture Kisuke gave them before he opened the gate. The man wasn't only a seedy shopkeeper; he was also a scaremonger of the worst sort.

"Are you all right, Rukia?"

Shoving Urahara to the back of her mind, Rukia glanced to the side to see Orihime watching her with concern. "Yeah." she replied with a small smile before curiously asking, "How about you?"

Orihime pumped a fist in the air, her cheeks still flushed pink from their run. "I'm fine."

Wondering -yet again- where she got her energy from, Rukia smiled indulgently at her friend before turning to the street on her left. "Ready then?"

"Yep, let's go."

They hadn't even gone ten steps when Byakuya appeared at the junction up ahead for an instant before flash stepping directly in front of them. He greeted Orihime in his customary manner and then turned questioning slate-gray eyes towards his sister.

"Rukia?"

Hearing his unspoken question, Rukia bowed her head and replied simply. "It's time, brother."

A young man, dressed in Kuchiki colors and pulling a shiny black rickshaw, rounded the corner and came to a stop beside his master, panting, clearly winded. Gesturing for them both to board the carriage, Byakuya's mouth drew into a thin line and he coolly asked. "And where is your husband?"

"He's coming." Rukia answered immediately, without even a hint of doubt as the servant helped first her, then Orihime take their seat. "I need to send a message to Captain Unohana as soon as we reach the manor." Rukia murmured before grabbed the side rail for support as carriage tilted backwards.

"I will go."

Rukia looked at her brother in surprise as the carriage jerked into motion. He didn't need to go himself. It wouldn't take but a moment to dispatch a hell butterfly. "Nii-sama-" she began, but Byakuya was already gone.

Orihime tracked his progress for a moment with the ease of one used to following a person's flash step before turning back to her confused friend. "It was like he was expecting us." Lacing her fingers through Rukia's, she nodded her head firmly and concluded. "He's obviously very worried about you."

Deep in thought, Rukia let Orihime chatter excitedly over the unexpected carriage ride without really hearing her as the rickshaw bounced quickly down the lanes. Instead, she wondered if what she said earlier was true. Byakuya worried? Her brother congratulated her on her pregnancy when they first found out she was expecting, but he hadn't shown any real interest since. She never imagined that he would worry about her. Maybe it was like Renji said. Byakuya just might not know how to express himself, emotionally or physically.

The manor servants met them at the gate, excited that it was finally time for the baby to be born. The celebratory mood spreading through the manor helped Rukia push her puzzling brother from her thoughts, as did the contraction causing her slight body to cramp uncomfortably. Orihime stayed glued to her side, holding her hand and whispering encouragement until it passed. A senior servant noticed her discomfort and clapped her hands together for order, dispersing the others before escorting Rukia and Orihime to the birthing room.

Standing off to the side while several housemaids finished preparing for the coming event, Rukia leaned against the windowsill and watched as Orihime rubbed a hand over her own swollen stomach. The evening light coming through the window painted over the redhead's face and drew attention to the dark circles under her eyes. Rukia looked at her friend, noticing the telltale signs of exhaustion and felt terribly selfish. She wasn't the only one pregnant after all.

"This was a dumb idea from the beginning. I never should have asked you to leave with me."

Orihime's brows scrunched together as she glanced Rukia's way, shrugging. "Pfft, you have bigger things to worry over right now." She said with an airy wave of her hand before leaning forward to whisper. "Besides, I wanted to be here when the baby was born anyway."

She blew out an exasperated breath, knowing that Orihime didn't understand she was trying to apologize for dragging her along in her condition, plus probably making trouble between her and her husband. "But Ichigo, he's sure to be furious."

Orihime smiled gently at her friend and patted her hand. "Yeah, he's probably very angry with me right now." She said, sounding cheerful about that prospect instead of dreading his temper like everyone else. Although, not everyone else had the powerful orange hair man wrapped around their little finger either.

Rukia groaned, but not from her friend's blasé attitude. A clawing pain gripped her body, one that reached from her back clear around to her stomach. Orihime was thankfully there to hold her up as she doubled over from the sharp intense pain. Her earlier contractions were child's play compared to this one. She leaned heavily on Orihime's arm, biting back a moan, as the constricting band around her middle seemed to tighten more.

With her friend's support and gentle hand rubbing over her lower back, Rukia was able to ride through the pain. About 60 seconds, start to finish. That wasn't so bad. She gave Orihime a small smile, one that was supposed to be reassuring and confident. However, Orihime continued to look at her with her brows puckered as tears welled up in her eyes.

"It's all right, Orihime. I'm not going to lie and say it doesn't hurt, but-" She trailed off suddenly as she felt a warm trickle from between her legs. No, no, no. Rukia hesitantly gazed down, feeling her cheeks burn with embarrassment as she watched the puddle at her feet grow.

Unohana and Isane arrived at just that moment. Taking in the situation, the fourth division captain set her squad to work and politely made requests of the manor's servants. Everyone sprang into action, wishing above all else to please the soft-spoken captain. Smiling, Retsu nodded in Orihime's direction before she went to Rukia's side.

Orihime folded her hands over her swollen stomach and stepped out of the way as a servant cleaned the floor and another gathered a change of clothes for Rukia. Several 4th squad members worked under Isane's quiet direction, setting equipment in place while Captain Unohana questioned Rukia on her labor.

"Come, Kurosaki-san."

Orihime looked up in surprise to see Captain Kuchiki standing at her side. She hadn't even heard him enter over the commotion in the room.

"I ordered tea to be served on the veranda for you." Byakuya said as he ushered her towards the door.

She allowed him to sweep her from the room, but not before looking anxiously over her shoulder at her friend. Rukia looked so alone and confused by everything that was happening and she didn't want to leave her side. "B-but I promised Rukia I would be there."

Silently walking down the shadowy hall, Byakuya left Orihime little choice but to follow. "The infant won't arrive for some time yet. Let Captain Unohana finish her examination and then she'll call you back in."

Byakuya led her to a wide polished engawa that overlooked the gardens. A low black lacquered table sat in the waning evening light, complete with tea service and small plates of wagashi and daifuku arranged around that. Nodding to the servants standing beside the table, Byakuya helped steady Orihime as she kneeled while a young woman stepped forward to pour the fragrant tea into a small enameled cup. "Take this time to relax. You need your rest as well."

Inhaling the steam rising from the pale green brew, Orihime closed her eyes and felt some of her tension ease. Captain Kuchiki was right. Rukia was in good hands now and her baby would be safely born under their watchful eyes. She could relax for a few minutes and return to Rukia's side refreshed and ready to support her friend in the coming hours.

Belatedly realizing only one setting was laid out; Orihime looked up at her host in surprise. "Will you not be joining me, Captain Kuchiki?"

Byakuya dismissed the two serving women with a silent swish of his hand before giving his guest his full attention. "Not this time." He politely replied, "There are others waiting for news. Rukia's captain in particular. Ukitake is embarrassingly eager for this child to arrive."

"I fully understand his impatience." Orihime said with a beaming smile, knowing that the kindly white haired captain wouldn't be the only one make a fuss over Rukia and Renji's baby. She suspected that the aloof man in front of her would do his share of spoiling, too.

But that was in the future, and right now she was keeping him from his duties. Placing her hands on her thighs, Orihime dipped her head in a well-mannered bow. "Thank you for your hospitality, Captain Kuchiki."

He nodded in acknowledgment and invited her to make use of his garden is she so desired before leaving his guest to her refreshments.

Sipping her tea in silence after his departure, Orihime dreamily looked out over the meticulously tended grounds, picturing children jumping off the large rocks scattered around and giggling among the bushes, giving their hiding place away. Maybe someday in the future Rukia and Renji's child and her and Ichigo's children would do just that.

Finishing her tea with a greedy gulp, she pushed a few sweets into her mouth before getting up, feeling drawn to explore the garden just a bit. Orihime slipped her feet into the sandals set on the wide stone step off the edge of the engawa and eagerly set off on an adventure.

The gardens were so peaceful and wonderfully cared for with neat gravel paths and a river that flowed into a lake filled with brilliant gold koi. A red bridge arched over the water, connecting the two halves of the garden and leading Orihime further from the manor.

The quiet beauty of the grounds almost made her forget that she still had to face her justifiably angry husband later on. Nevertheless, she wouldn't worry about that right now. Her thoughts and prayers were focused on Rukia and the baby alone. Surely, Ichigo would understand her reasoning and forgive her for leaving so suddenly.

Well, she could dream, couldn't she?

"So that is the inhibitor Kisuke made."

Thinking she was alone, Orihime gasped at the unexpected voice and automatically covered the bracelet circling her wrist with her hand. Her body tensed instinctively, primed for fight or flight, as she cautiously turned on the narrow path to see the owner of this oily singsong voice. Blinking and trying to hide her surprise, Orihime's eyes moved up, over a white haori and garish makeup to meet a pair of piercing golden eyes.

Kurotsuchi Mayuri, the captain of 12th company.

What was he doing here?

Pulling a pale hand from his sleeve, Kurotsuchi extended it in the former ryoka's direction and beckoned her forward with a flick of his long blue nail. "I would very much like to see that, if you please."

~o0o~

At the same time, back in Karakura, Chad closed his phone, disconnecting his call to Ichigo. Rolling his shoulders, he loosened up for a possible fight. He regretted that he was too late to stop Orihime and Rukia from leaving through the dangai, but they didn't have that much of a head start. Luckily, Ichigo had gone to throw a bottle away in the bin -and secretively check on his wife- and found them both missing not long after they left.

Guilt stabbed at him and Chad couldn't help but once again feel partially responsible for all of this. Tatsuki wasn't certain if they should issue an invitation to their engagement party for the shinigami couple or not, knowing that Rukia was close to her time. But he had anyway. They were their friends and Chad didn't want to leave anyone out.

And now look where that decision landed them.

Seeing movement from the corner of his eye, he pushed his guilty feelings aside and tucked his phone back into his pocket, ready to make amends and carry out Ichigo's request. "I'm sorry Urahara-san, but I'm going to have to ask you to stay where you are." Chad stated calmly as he stepped in the shopkeeper's path.

Kisuke froze in place with one foot comically held in the air, smirking. "What? Don't tell me they're mad." He murmured disbelievingly while peeking out from under the brim of his striped hat.

Crossing his arms over his broad chest, he frowned down at the shopkeeper's attempt to make light of the situation. "While Renji and Ichigo trust their wives to make their own decisions, it doesn't mean they always agree with them, or the people that help carry them out." And in this instance, Chad thought they had every right to be mad.

However, before he had to act further, Chad felt a mass of heavy reiatsu drawing ever closer. They got here quicker than expected. And he thought it would be wise to step out of range just as he saw a flash of orange and scarlet streak by. Their explosive flash step stirred up a thick cloud of dirt, blocking Kisuke completely from view.

The dust cleared to reveal a sword pressed to each side of Urahara's throat and Renji and Ichigo standing before him like avenging angels bent on destruction. Breathing heavy and glowering, they bellowed in unison. "You let my pregnant wife go through the dangai?"

Gingerly holding the gleaming edges of their swords between his fingertips, Kisuke swallowed loudly, feeling the murderous intent rolling off the two red haired men before shakily asking. "And who will open up the gate if you kill me now?"

Renji wanted to draw blood so badly. He was practically twitching in readiness as his grip on the hilt firmed. However, he calmed slightly when he saw his furious expression reflected in Kisuke's widened eyes. This was stupid. Threatening Urahara served no purpose at all. Clenching his teeth, Renji reined himself in, knowing he didn't have time to screw around like this and slowly withdrew Zabimaru. He needed to get to Rukia, now.

Giving the shopkeeper one last glare, he turned and stuck out his zanpaktō to open the senkaimon while speaking over his shoulder. "None of this matters to me. Ichigo can cut your damn throat if he wants. I'm going on ahead."

"There's no need for violence. The gate is ready. I knew you'd be here shortly." Kisuke boasted cheekily and sighed as Ichigo also lowered Zangetsu to argue with Renji instead of raining mayhem down on his head.

Flinching from a quick burst of heat against his thigh, he rummaged around in his pocket for the source of his discomfort. Kisuke stared at the small stone in the palm of his hand and rubbed his thumb over the smooth surface, reading the signs.

Clenching his hand around the stone and its troubling news, he snapped his fingers to activate the gate without any further argument. "And not a moment too soon it seems." Kisuke declared, tucking the sensor stone back into his pocket for safekeeping. "Your wife needs you."

Renji whipped around as a black Jigokuchō came through the gate to flutter around his head. "My wife, what's happened?"

Kisuke held his hands in front of him in reassurance before the redheaded captain came for his throat again. "No, not yours," he was quick to point to the scowling man beside him with his furled fan, "His."

Ichigo stared blankly at the storekeeper, only to feel his stomach drop as Urahara's words penetrated his mind. What happened to Orihime? Not something with the babies. It was still months too soon. He frantically wondered as he stared unseeing in Kisuke's direction, feeling distinctly weak in the knees.

"Orihime's waiting."

Snapped out of his darkly spiraling thoughts by Chad's deep voice, Ichigo looked up in time to see the senkaimon's shoji doors slide close with a resonate clatter. A large hand squeezed his shoulder in reassurance and gave him a little push.

"Get going, Ichigo" said Chad, giving him his signature thumbs up. "Renji said he'd see you on the other side."

Ichigo stumbled forward on wooden legs before pulling himself together and nodding in thanks. Turning to run inside the gate, he would wait and punch the chuckling shopkeeper when he came back through, after safely retrieving his wife.

~o0o~

What did Captain Unohana mean that she still wasn't ready? Rukia was more than ready to have this baby. So what was the hold-up? Fully dilate already you lazy body. She grumbled as she slowly walked along the edge of the room. Being on her feet helped her deal with the pain and gave her something to do besides just lying in the bed, waiting.

Rubbing her palms on each side of her distended stomach, she glanced out the window, curious as to when Captain Unohana would return. A training exercise gone wrong in the Eleventh division drew the healer away not long after she finished her examination on Rukia. It would probably take awhile considering the grim report of the swathe of carnage Kenpachi left lying in his wake.

That man would never change. Rukia thought as she stretched and sighed, drawing the attention of the squad Four members left to watch over her. Waving away their concern, she sat on the edge of her bed and let her feet dangle in the air. Looking around the brightly lit room, her brows drew up in surprise. Where is everyone?

"Orihime?"

Rukia listened for her friend's light step and soothing reply and frowned when there was no answer. Feeling slightly abandoned, she called for her brother.

"Nii-sama?"

No reply. Were they both still drinking tea? Couldn't they of had it in here, with her? Rukia wanted someone familiar around at such a vulnerable time. But everyone seemed to have deserted her, even Isane left to gather a box of necessary supplies.

Rolling to her side, Rukia squeezed her eyes shut as her stomach tightened yet again. Her breath blew out in short little bursts as she counted the seconds down. Damn. Oh, damn. Why did no one tell her just how bad these contractions were? She understood that having a baby was painful, but no one could ever explain how it really felt. Well, now she knew. It hurt.

One of the squad members hesitantly came to her side and patted Rukia's forehead with a cool damp cloth. Emotional tears welled up in her eyes at that small act of kindness. Ashamed of her show of weakness, she ducked her head and daubed at her eyes with the edge of the sheet as her muscles unlocked and her body relaxed.

In the interval that followed, she rested, conserving her strength and preparing for the next contraction. "Renji Abarai, you'd better hurry your ass up before I get out of this bed and come kick it!" Rukia threatened under her breath, her indigo eyes watching the wood and paper door for any sign of her husband's arrival. Just how long does it take him to get here anyway? Did he think she had all day?

Groaning, Rukia tensed as she felt another contraction begin and glanced at the clock. Less than five minutes since the last one? They were steadily getting closer together, but she wasn't yet ready.

Ready or not, her swollen abdomen tensed and the persistent ache in her lower back felt like it developed claws. Oh damn, this was the strongest one yet. It felt like her body was twisting and being rearranged. "I don't think I want to do this anymore." She announced to the room at large, no longer caring if everyone thought she was weak. She was starting to get scared; the pain was not letting up.

Soothing words were whispered from behind her and softly feminine hands wiped her sweat-streaked brow. But they weren't the hands she needed the most. "Renji, I need you." Rukia murmured before groaning as her pain only seemed to increase. "Hurry, I need you now."

Meanwhile, at the far edge of the garden, Orihime was unaware of her friend's advancing labor and growing fear. Instead, the human girl was backing further away from the manor and from unsettling presence of Captain Kurotsuchi.

"I do hope I didn't surprise you." Mayuri said, his jubilant tone sounding anything but. "I'm just curious, you see."

"I understand." Orihime replied kindly, but still instinctively took another step back for each one he took towards her. "But Urahara-san told me not to remove it for fear of attracting hollows."

"You stupid g-" the captain cleared his throat hastily and stretched his mouth into what he hoped was a reassuring smile, one that inspired trust and a willingness do as he requested. "What I meant was, silly girl, there are no hollows here. You're perfectly safe."

Her lips curved into impassive smile and Orihime wrapped her arms around her middle, wincing as her babies gave one swift kick after another. "I really should get back. Rukia might need me. Another time, maybe?" She suggested in apology while rubbing a hand over her roiling stomach. She nodded in farewell and turned to cross back over the bridge, wanting to return to the manor as quickly as possible.

A small yelp escaped her mouth as she instead came face to face with Captain Kurotsuchi and that stiff disconcerting smile of his. Orihime glanced back over her shoulder, genuinely surprised not to see the captain still standing where he was just a moment ago. Apparently, he had used flash step, but she hadn't even seen him move. And that was saying something. She was married to Ichigo, the man with a bankai of pure unadulterated speed, after all.

"One minute is all I need." He pressed while continuing to hold out his hand, clearly waiting for her to obey.

It was obvious that he wasn't going to let her pass without first examining the inhibitor. Maybe it wouldn't hurt if it were only for a minute or two. Then, she could return to Rukia's side. Slowly removing the twisted bracelet from her wrist, Orihime hesitantly held it out to Kurotsuchi and dropped it into his waiting open palm.

There was a crackle of light on contact, along with what sounded unmistakably like Kisuke's laughter coming from the inhibitor. It floated on the breeze, taunting them as it echoed throughout the garden.

Kurotsuchi frowned and flicked his haori back as he crouched down to retrieve the silver inhibitor from the ground. "That idiotic comedian." He grumbled under his breath and attempted to pick it up from the grass, but that same burst of light from before left his fingertips smoking.

Steadily moving backwards, Orihime watched as the captain next drew his sword and poked at the bracelet before growling frustration as that strange flash of light now traveled up the blade to his hand. What just happened? Her eyes grew wide and she retreated further from the 12th captain's wild expression and coarse muttering. Was this Urahara-san's doing?

Glancing down at her bracelet, lying innocently looking on the ground, she bit her lip as a familiar wave of dizziness assaulted her. Not now, Children. She silently pleaded. Now is not a good time. She couldn't afford to be weak right now. Orihime tried to stay calm and keep her wits about her as her babies moved restlessly under her trembling hand.

"You girl, pick it up this instant."

Breathing heavily, she moaned at the swirling of her senses and felt her heart trip as Kurotsuchi's eyes lifted from her inhibitor to stare at her with almost maniacal fascination. And Uryuu-kun's oft-repeated warnings about Nemu-chan's father rushed through her mind with the terrifying force of a cyclone, making her recoil from the thought of what Mayuri might do to her unborn children all in the name of science.

Humming, Kurotsuchi rubbed his hands together as he quickly cataloged the unique spirit pressure dancing madly around him. "It seems I've found something even better." He murmured with glee, the bracelet at their feet all but forgotten. This girl's body housed a gold mine of riches just waiting to be analyzed, picked apart and examined.

Advancing towards his new target, he narrowed his eyes as the impertinent girl continued to back away. "It was strongly suggested by the Captain Commander that I not harm you or these children in any way. But what real scientist would allow such trivial warnings to impede important research?"

Her normally soft brown eyes hardened and her mouth drew into a tight line. Her children were not research subject, nor would she stand to hear them referred to as such. They were her precious babies and she already loved them both desperately. "Stay away from me!"

"Come now, I'm willing to be generous and only take one."

Orihime's eyes widen in horror as the captain took another step closer, his pale hand outstretched. "No," She shouted, pressing a hand to her stomach in an attempt to soothe her babies, letting them know their mother would protect them without fail. "I will never let you touch my children."

Hinagiku Baigon and Lily streaked forward, sensing their mistress' intent and activated her defensive shield just as Kurotsuchi grabbed for her. The trio of spirits beamed proudly as the glowing barrier appeared three times its normal size, strengthen by Orihime's resolve and repelling the captain with ease.

Mayuri glanced down at his charred hand curiously as tendrils of smoke rose from his ruined fingertips. Pain, such delicious pain. She would pay for that. He looked towards the redheaded woman in front of him and forgot about his paltry injury. His golden eyes narrowed and he tilted his head in observation. This was new. The top point and both sides of her shield now curved protectively around the girl, almost fully enveloping Orihime in a bright golden sphere.

How very interesting.

However, her defense wouldn't last much longer. Orihime stared calmly at him from behind her shield, but she was already sweating and trembling under the strain as a strange glow grew to encompass her shoulders. Clicking his tongue, Kurotsuchi evaluated and discarded several possibilities. He needed to hurry and immobilize his subject without doing her or her spawn any real harm. He preferred his specimens be as close to pristine as possible before he started dissecting.

One thing was for certain, Kurotsuchi decided as he detached his smoldering hand with a pained hiss. This former ryoka wouldn't get as generous of an offer from him this time as his research subject as when she was a teen.

~o0o~

Only minutes previous, in another part of the Seireitei, two separate gates opened within seconds of each other. A scarlet haired man burst from one, soon followed by an orange haired man racing through the second. Now on his own turf, Renji knew exactly where Rukia would be and jumped to the nearest roof, taking the most direct route.

Ichigo hurried down the quiet streets, thankfully void of people and focused on his wife's warm reiatsu. Blowing out a harsh breath, he was relieved that Orihime's reiatsu was like normal and there was no sign of her being in trouble. Other than the trouble she is already in with me. Ichigo griped as he leaped over the wall in front of him. He yelled an apology over his shoulder to the squad members he frightened when he landed practically on top of them before he disappeared in a swirl of dust and reappeared further down the road on top of the storehouse roof.

Jumping from roof to roof as if he were playing hopscotch, Ichigo noticed a flash of scarlet on the building ahead. He gathered reishi under his feet to shunpo and pushed off, coming to land beside Renji in an instant. They simply nodded at each other and continued onward, side by side.

They were closer now and Ichigo could sense a flare of strong emotion twining through his wife's reiatsu. It was nothing more than what Ichigo expected. Orihime had obviously overdone it. Yet another thing he would grumble about when they got home later. She needed to realize that she couldn't do all the things she did before.

Following Renji as he leapt to the ground, Ichigo dropped down in front of the gate to the Kuchiki family manor. Servants threw open the large hinged gate immediately, allowing them both through without question while even more servants held the manor's doors wide. Slowing to a more decorous pace, but still moving at a quick clip, Renji led the way inside with Ichigo fast on his heels.

Pausing only long enough to rip his waraji from his feet, Renji left Ichigo behind in the entry and moved through a number of familiar reception rooms before heading to the back wing. "Rukia, where are you?" he called out with his hands cupped around his mouth, wishing he'd paid more attention to which room Captain Unohana prepared for the birth.

A door halfway down the hall opened with a clack and the sound of someone breathing heavily and rhythmically reached his ears. Renji strode down the corridor like a man condemned, sweating profusely. Byakuya stepped out into the hall, looking pale and uncharacteristically strained. With a glare that promised a painful death, he pointed Renji into the room he just exited.

Stepping around his brother-in-law hesitantly and skirting the box dropped on its side just outside the door, Renji brightened considerably when he saw his wife sitting up bed. "It's about time you showed up, you jackass." Rukia exclaimed with a sob as tears threatened to spill down her red flushed cheeks.

Going from worried to irritated in an instant, Renji stomped into the room, staring at his wife like she was insane. "It's not my fault someone decided to run off and try to do this all on her own." He countered, ducking the wooden pitcher hurled at his head. "Not so tough now, are you, crybaby?"

"Crybaby? You try squeezing something this large out of your-"

Sighing, the 6th division captain slid the door closed behind him with a snap, shutting off the escalating illogical argument as what sounded like glassware pelted the wall. He would excuse Rukia's coarse language this time; his sister was evidently not herself at the moment.

And who could blame her.

Staring at his hand resting the door's handle, his eyes moved over the half moons cut into his skin where Rukia had silently gripped his hand as her tiny body attempted to expel her child. Byakuya never before witnessed the pain and suffering associated with childbirth, and he silently reflected that whoever said women were the weaker sex obviously hadn't either.

Byakuya hated to see Rukia in such a state and know there was nothing he could do to ease her pain, other than to castrate her selfish husband for causing this. Actually, that would only make him feel better, not her. His shoulders slumped forward in exhaustion, his composure clearly in tatters if he was even thinking of such crude things.

What he wouldn't give for just a few minutes of peace and quiet to pull himself together before his emotions got the better of him.

"Oi Byakuya, where's Orihime?"

And so ends his moment of silence.

Byakuya glanced over his shoulder to see Ichigo skid to a stop, craning his neck to see around him and looking for some sign of his absent wife. "Lower your voice in my home, Ichigo Kurosaki." He said with more heat than was necessary, not liking that this man especially saw him in a moment of weakness.

Hearing the irritation in Byakuya's tone, Ichigo's expression hardened as he pulled his attention from the door. He straightened to his full height and replied, his voice purposely growing louder with each word. "Not until you tell me where my wife is."

"Now see here, while you're a guest-" The sudden burst of reiatsu coming from the back garden froze Byakuya in place. If the ill-mannered substitute shinigami wasn't standing directly in front of him, he would have thought it was his reiatsu leaking out all over the place. However, on closer examination, while it was almost identical to that of Kurosaki's, it was different in some nebulous way, lighter, brighter.

And from the orange haired man's anxious expression, he recognized it too.

Feeling a deep visceral tug in his gut, Ichigo's head snapped to the right and his heart began to race as adrenaline flooded his system. Dammit, something's wrong. That was the twins just now. But wasn't that inhibitor supposed to stop this kind of thing from happening? His feet started to move his body forward without conscious thought as Kisuke's earlier warning played repeatedly in his mind. Orihime needed him.

"You're not going anywhere until you tell me what is happening."

Coming to a stop as Byakuya yanked on his shihakusho, Ichigo reached up and firmly removed the captain's hand from his sleeve. "Your questions can wait." He said coolly, his eyes never leaving the door leading to the outside and to Orihime. "My wife and children can't."

With that said, Ichigo surged forward, disappearing in a streak of black and orange. And after an infinitesimal pause, Byakuya followed.

~o0o~

A/N: Yes, I know I've been terrible about updating. RL –plus a lack of motivation- has a way of upsetting even the best-laid plans. Forgive me, please.

Thanks for reading. ~Rairakku