What to Expect When You're Not Expecting

Author: WhipOfLightHeartOfSword

Rating: M/R

Pairing: Renji/Byakuya (more to be announced)

World: AU after Rukia is rescued and it is discovered that Aizen is going to try to create the Ouken and kill the Spirit King.

Warnings: (Yaoi, Mpreg, Childbirth) This fic contains yaoi (aka slash) and Mpreg (male pregnancy—think Arnold Schwarzenegger in the comedy 'Junior'). Yes, I get a kick out of saying 'screw you' to the laws of nature, taking a white-out pen to them, and re-writing them as I please. This is a fictional story; therefore I am allowed to do this. However, I completely understand that this may not be something everyone wants to read about, which is only fair since there are genres I sure don't like and avoid. Hence the long and elaborate warning in which I tell you that if you don't like the idea of reading about two men in love or a guy giving birth to his own kids for a change (thus giving the poor ladies a long-awaited break!) then please hit the back button and leave now.

Also, this particular plotbunny describes some of the more nitty gritty parts of childbirth, so if that squicks you, you too may want to skip this one. I don't think it's too graphic… but different people have different levels of sensitivity.

Feedback: Yes please, but NO FLAMES. I don't read them so it would be a waste of your time. You were fairly warned what this story contained. Constructive criticism is very welcomed though. If you tried it anyway and still didn't like it, then don't blame me—that was your choice. Just hit the back button and go find a story you do enjoy.

Disclaimer: Bleach and all the characters and events you see in the anime and/or manga are owned by Tite Kubo, Shonen Jump, and various others—myself not included. Anything else such as but not limited to any original characters and the story premise are mine. No copyright infringement is intended, and no profit is, has, or ever will be made off of this story. This is purely a fan-work done for nothing more than the simple enjoyment of myself and anyone who cares to read it.

Full Summary: For Kuchiki Byakuya, the last thing he ever expected was to find out that he had unknowingly been pregnant for the past nine months, or that he would be trapped in Hueco Mundo with no healer and way home when his baby decided it was ready to be born… Meanwhile, a traitor in the Seiretei has damaged the senkaimon and communications system, leaving a worried Renji uncertain if his captain is still safe, and unaware that he's about to become a father.

A/N: This little gem was quite the random one as far as plotbunnies goes. About a year ago I happened upon an episode of such-and-such (I can't remember which) channel's show "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant". At least I think that was the title. Whatever. You'd think that, being an mpreg fan and writer, I'd have gotten the plotbunny back then. Nope! It's only now, more than a year later when I'm not even in the U.S. and haven't seen the show in who knows how long, that this bunny comes along as I was in the middle of finals. *sigh* Oh well. Let's see if I can still get any studying done while hiding underneath my desk. Byakuya's going to kill me by the end of this fic! Lol.

*Update *

Sorry guys, gonna change things up on you a little. For the better, I swear! When I wrote the original version of this story I made myself use OCs for Byakuya's team because I couldn't come up with an idea to get some of the series' main characters together for a simple recon mission. They are after all mostly high ranking people in different divisions with their own responsibilities. Well, apparently That Damn Muse was holding out on me! Right after I posted Chapter 1 and convinced myself to stop nit-picking at it… she gives me the ideas I was looking for in the first place. So, for anyone who was really attached to the original version, I still have it, and on request I'm willing to re-post it (though I'm thinking on Livejournal since Ffnet supposedly has a thing about the same story being posted twice... have to look that up).

Anyway, Chapter 1 has been split into two halves, since after the rewrite it was quite the monster in length. Part 1 is new, and shows the events leading up to Byakuya departing for Hueco Mundo, but with some descriptive and explanatory elements from the original transplanted into it. Part 2 is mostly what was posted originally, with the appropriate alterations to names. Chapter 2 is already rewritten and completely new.


~*~Chapter 1, Part 1~*~


Sunlight streamed through the windows, casting a barred pattern of shadows across the surface of the desk and the report in front of him. To his left the light fell on a small bowl of fresh raspberries, making them glow an even brighter crimson.

Kuchiki Byakuya carefully perused the document in front of him, thoroughly evaluating it for error before he placed it down flat and reached for his brush. He added his own notations and signed it before setting it aside to dry and reaching for the next report to be read.

The amount of paperwork on his desk was at least triple what it would have been a year before. It was further increased by the absence of the red-haired fukutaichou who should have been sitting at the desk on the other side of the room.

It had been over seven months since Renji had been stationed in Karakura, and just a bit over six months since Aizen was to have made his attempt to destroy the town, and create the King's Key. Since the end of December had come and gone it was obvious something was delaying him, but what that was they had yet to figure out. In that time Aizen had never stopped harassing the Gotei 13, resorting to regular attacks designed to further weaken them and deplete their forces while he either came up with a new plan entirely, or worked to fix whatever went wrong with the first one.

Despite its name the Winter War was still raging well into June. After all this time, they were still three captains short, and with Aizen hounding them at every opportunity and the remaining intact squads working double-time to make up for the holes in the Gotei 13's structure, there was no time to train replacements and get Squads Three, Five, and Nine operating again at full capacity. Lieutenants Hisagi and Kira were doing fantastic jobs but they just weren't quite ready to take on a captain's haori. With a bit of training they would be, but no one had the time to devote to them consistently enough to be effective, and they certainly didn't have the time to spare to train themselves. For now Kyouraku Taichou and Komamura Taichou were sharing the task of keeping Squad Five intact until a more permanent solution to their situation could be found. But unless Hinamori recovered or someone stepped up and managed to gain the trust of that broken and demoralized squad, it was not inconceivable that the Fifth might simply be disbanded and its members sent to other squads rather than being kept in a permanent holding pattern.

Then there was the lingering threat to Karakura Town. Protecting it had to remain of utmost priority in case Aizen attempted to destroy it after all, but keeping teams of higher ranked officers constantly stationed there was further taxing their resources. Byakuya couldn't fault Yamamoto Soutaichou for his decision to send Renji where he felt that he'd be of the best use, but it wasn't doing the noble himself any good not to have his lieutenant around.

His brush lifted and moved in graceful curves as he signed the paper, set it aside, and reached for the next one.

Life these days was a blur of long working hours, little rest, and even less leisure as the squads divided their efforts between covering their weaknesses, fending the arrancar off, and figuring out what the traitor would do next. The attacks were buying Aizen time so when he did make his final move against them, they'd still only have an incomplete and exhausted force to oppose him with. Unlike him, they couldn't breed replacement shinigami like he did arrancar.

It was deviously clever and sound strategy on Aizen's part. It was keeping one of their biggest weaknesses against him intact and giving him far more favorable odds of winning.

On a more personal note it was also tearing Byakuya's health to shreds. Before the war, he'd thought stress was an inconvenience that was easily overcome with simple discipline. In fact, it was such a regular part of his life that he hardly acknowledged it anymore.

The effects he'd felt for the last eight or nine months had given him a whole new outlook, and made any stress he'd experienced before look insignificant.

He'd fallen into a routine of working endless hours at his desk, only taking a break for meals. Some days he didn't even manage to do that. Exercise was a thing of the past, except in the rare cases where he himself was required to take part in a mission. He recalled the time he and Renji journeyed together to Karakura to retrieve Rukia, and consequently ran into Ichigo for the first time. He'd told his lieutenant then that even he needed to train, to fight, or risk getting rusty. It seemed now those words were coming back to haunt him. The sporadic bouts of activity coupled with long periods of doing nothing but desk work had resulted in him falling severely out of shape.

He hated looking down at himself these days and seeing the pudgy curve that had once been a set of beautifully defined abs. He especially hated it when he was attending meetings with the taichou from the other squads. Among the captains there was always a certain level of rivalry and constant peer pressure. Any failings were swiftly and brutally brought to the attention of all as a way to encourage each of them to always maintain their guard and keep to the high standards set for those of high rank such as them, lest they—and by extension their squad—be humiliated and made to look inferior.

Several comments about his weight had been made lately, especially when someone brought up the topic of how thinly spread and overworked the divisions were getting. The majority and most vicious of these came from Kurotsuchi—always eager to point out another taichou's shortcomings—and Zaraki—always eager to goad the Kuchiki noble for his own entertainment. Regardless of their motives, though, they weren't the only ones. Hitsugaya had put in a couple of his own remarks the few times he had reported in by video-link from Karakura, something about it not being fair that he should be run ragged trying to man a post in both the Living World and keep up with his Division in the Seiretei while others got to sit around and be lazy. Even Soi Fon had voiced her opinion once that it was hard to argue that the squads were overworked when one of their taichou managed to be so inactive that he couldn't even stay in shape.

Equally as shameful as these remarks to Byakuya was his reaction to them. It was testament to how stressed he was that a few times he'd barely managed to hold it together long enough for the meeting to end. Afterwards it was all he could do to shunpo as fast as possible to his private quarters, before the tears began to flow. For him to be so affected was damning to him. As a noble he was used to cutting remarks as his family criticized his every move. The words of his fellow taichou shouldn't have fazed him at all.

Another signature, another report set aside, another one picked up.

Unfortunately, with the current situation as it was there was little he could do about his schedule that would allow him more time to train and get back to being properly fit. At least when Renji was around the two shared the deskwork between them and usually managed to get it done with enough time to spare that they could take to the training grounds together. His fukutaichou was really the only one in the squad who could keep up with him and give him the real, challenging exercise a shinigami of his caliber needed. Trying to get that same workout by himself was time consuming, bothersome—and as he was discovering—boring. Used to training primarily by himself since he was a child, Byakuya never would have thought that he could get spoiled of all things by having a consistent sparring partner, especially after enduring hodou mentorship by Shihoin Yoruichi and her constant taunts and baiting.

Then again, getting a legitimate excuse to see his lover minus shitagi and kosode, muscles rippling, chest heaving and tattoos glistening with exertion and sweat was definite incentive to make an exception and even more incentive to forego working late. Especially since the aftermath of such training usually involved retiring to the hot springs together, followed by even more hot, sweaty action between the sheets.

But that was then. Now his routine had gotten so exhausting that he didn't even bother going home anymore except to check in on his relatives and make sure they hadn't killed each other. He still kept in contact with the Kuchiki Elders, but thankfully nothing had come up that required a formal counsel meeting, so he was content to send his wishes and instructions to them by correspondence and then let them take care of it. With consideration to the war and the threat to the King, they were not opposed, though definitely not pleased either.

So long as they didn't make a mess of things, he was too busy tending to other matters to care.

Graduation day was coming up for the Academy. All of the taichou were hoping for a good turnout this year, as the only other time they ever got new recruits was when someone was promoted to an officer position in another squad, or for some reason transferred. Aizen had that advantage over them in his ability to simply breed his subordinates. Their saving grace was that despite the hogyoku's ability to create arrancar from adjuchas, not all of the results were powerful enough to become Espada.

He wished Renji could be there to help them promote the Sixth. His charisma drew people in like a magnet, and the squad could certainly use that to help them as they tried to bolster their numbers. It also meant Byakuya himself would be slightly less on display, having his taller, more exotic-looking fukutaichou standing next to him…

The noble resolutely pushed that train of thought aside, refusing to let thoughts of how much he missed his fukutaichou sidetrack him as he set the report onto the pile of completed work and began to read the next. If he'd thought Renji was a distraction before, it was nothing compared to the aching, ever-present yearning to have his lover back that had settled into his heart and mind the moment the man had left.

Between the heartsickness, stress, and exhaustion, his ability to work as long and hard as was needed to get everything done was declining. Stress was a killer, someone had once said. Byakuya didn't have any experience to quite back that up, but he could testify to how much it could mess up his already deteriorating body.

Nausea, for one. There where some days all he could manage was tea if he didn't want to end up being sick in the trashcan next to his desk. Fortunately by listening to what his body wanted he'd managed to avoid that so far. Eating was important; he didn't skip a meal if it could be helped because hunger meant both diminished energy and concentration, neither of which he could afford. But if stress was making him nauseous he would wait for it to pass before he attempted to eat anything.

Heartburn was another stress-induced problem. Fortunately it could be kept manageable if he stayed away from the spicy foods he normally loved. It was a nuisance, but it was that or ask Unohana Taichou for some kind of medication. Personally he felt it was better to simply change his diet than resort to taking drugs that weren't absolutely necessary, so he'd stoically sucked it up and found alternative foods to enjoy.

A hell butterfly fluttered in, and he obligingly held out a finger for it to alight on.

"Kuchiki Taichou, this is to inform you that as of today Abarai Renji Fukutaichou has been selected to return to the Seiretei, as it has been deemed by Yamamoto Soutaichou unwise to keep the same team stationed in the Living World on a permanent basis. Instead a second team will be assembled, and the two will switch off every four to six months as needed for the duration of the war. These replacements will be selected and dispatched in the coming weeks, starting with your lieutenant. Expect his return within the workday."

A rare, albeit tired smile tugged at the corners of the noble's mouth as the butterfly lifted off again and flew away to rejoin its fellows.

Renji was coming home.

It was testament to how raw his nerves had gotten that the thought made his eyes mist and his surroundings blur. A well of sorrowful longing bubbled up in his chest.

A moment later it was swiftly followed by irritation. His reiatsu pulsed agitatedly.

'Enough, get a hold of yourself! War was never meant to cater to people's desires and sending him away was a necessary sacrifice. Be grateful that he's coming back alive and instead think about what you are going to do once he returns. Stop pining like a child!'

As he settled and went back to reading the document in front of him, Byakuya could hear the soft sound of someone stumbling, followed by the sound of papers hitting the ground.

'Clumsy. Whatever they dropped better be put back in its proper arrangement. Whoever it was will be doing drills in the courtyard until midnight if anything gets delayed because one more file got mixed up…'

He looked over at the clock.

Eleven-thirty. If left to his own devices, Renji would only just be getting out of bed around now. Especially if Matsumoto fukutaichou and his Eleventh Division companions had convinced him to go out drinking. It was entirely possible he wouldn't actually report to the office until the workday was almost ended.

He turned back again to the report he'd almost finished with. There was still the entire afternoon and evening left before work hours were over, and more paperwork than he cared to really think about that he would need to get done if he was to actually finish his day on time and be able to celebrate his lover's return. Whenever that lover decided to finally show up…

Absently, as he read the next report his left hand reached out and plucked a couple of the raspberries out of the bowl sitting next to him.

Those were probably the strangest stress symptom he'd experienced thus far. Not long after he'd found he was unable to stomach spicy cuisine anymore, he'd suddenly found himself with a desire for raspberries instead. At least they weren't an objectionable alternative. They weren't unhealthy, and while fruits usually weren't a favorite food of his thanks to their abundant sweetness, at least raspberries had a nice, sharp tartness that his tongue appreciated.

The best thing about them was that so long as they didn't get crushed they weren't messy. He could keep a supply of them on his desk and pick at them as his finicky stomach allowed, thus making sure that despite the on-and-off nausea he'd suffered, he was still getting some sort of nourishment.

'Although,' he thought ruefully, looking down at the moderate curve of stomach that had once been a beautiful set of washboard abs, 'Considering the amount of sugar found in fruits, and the lack of opportunities to get out of the office and onto the training grounds in the last few months, it might be prudent to cut back.'

There was a time that he could have eaten anything, not moved for a month, and still not gained any weight. His metabolism had driven his servants up a wall trying to keep enough calories in him that he didn't go underweight. Looking at himself now it was apparent that his metabolism and stress were not friendly acquaintances.

He wasn't proud of it. His health was something he took great care with, to keep himself in the best shape to serve his clan and the Seiretei. It reflected poorly on everyone around him that he was—dare he say it?—getting fat, and as much as the vicious remarks of his peers had hurt him, he didn't feel entirely undeserving of them. The noble suppressed the urge to sigh miserably. His physical condition was getting out of hand and needed to be dealt with, but he tried to consol himself with the knowledge that as soon as Renji got back, they would coordinate something together so he could get himself back into shape and functioning like he used to.

That is, once the fukutaichou picked himself up off the floor and managed to stop laughing. Byakuya had no illusions that he would probably find the image of an overweight taichou to be utterly hilarious. He just hoped it didn't carry over into the bedroom. He wanted to believe Renji wasn't the kind of person who would hold his lover's appearance against him, but experience had always taught him to brace for the worst.

The threat of ridicule from the person he'd come to care about the most was enough to make him feel nauseous again.

Another hell butterfly flew towards him, and once again he held out a finger for it to land on.

"Kuchiki Taichou, please assemble a team of three to accompany a member of Division Twelve to Hueco Mundo, to act as guards and assist in gathering information on a new type of hollow believed to have been discovered. We leave the selection of personnel to your discretion, but advise the assigning of seated officers as the area is within 16 kilometers of Las Noches, and this same hollow is believed responsible for the severe injuries sustained by the Squad Nine unit last sent on reconnaissance to that area. This mission is also recon and observation only. Do not engage in battle unless attacked first. Squad Four is unable to send personnel with you at this time as they need all available healers in triage. Please have your team ready to leave by 13:00. This mission will take no more than six hours, so only standard mission essentials are necessary."

The butterfly flew off and Byakuya noticed the unseated shinigami that was waiting with the folder containing the mission specs in hand. He took it and scanned the contents.

'A hollow that can create a projected image-clone. The clone being made of reiatsu means that it cannot be injured, but can cause damage just as the original can. It was able to kill half the unit and severely injure the rest, and they were only able to kill it by accident because they could not figure out which was the original before it and its clones outmaneuvered them and struck a killing blow.'

The patter of footsteps around his office made Byakuya look up. The unseated shinigami was darting around after the hell butterfly, which refused to come anywhere within two feet of the man. Listening to his plaintive whining the noble couldn't exactly fault the insect.

"Come on, get back here! We're gonna need you in a few minutes and we can't use you if you don't get down here. Come on, please! What do I have to do to make you listen?"

'Be assertive and stop looking like a two-year-old who's not to be taken seriously,' Byakuya thought. Ignoring the other, he finished reading the mission specs. When he looked up again, the unseated shinigami was still chasing the butterfly around the office.

A wave of irritation rose in him. Was it too much to ask that, in times like these, the newer recruits work just a little harder at shedding that youthful inexperience and grow up so that maybe if the occasion arose that they found themselves on the battlefield facing Aizen's forces, they might actually come out alive? This shinigami's antics were completely unbecoming of an Academy graduate, and incompetence was not something any squad could afford to entertain right now.

"Rikichi, get that hell butterfly under control. Now," he said.

"Yes sir," he replied, darting left as the butterfly feinted and banked to the right. A normal butterfly might not have been able to maneuver so agilely, but the hell butterflies were bred to be able to keep up with a shinigami traveling at shunpo-speed. It was imperative that every recruit learn how to command them, for the simple reason that if one couldn't, their ability to simply communicate effectively with their comrades was severely hampered.

The taichou turned back to the mission specs and ran through potential candidates to give it to. There were several people who could be depended on to undertake it, but an idea was forming in Byakuya's mind that would allow him to finally get out of the Division and do something besides paperwork.

'Senbonzakura would be able to show which hollow was real and which was a fake. Send blades flying at each of them and then concentrate on killing whichever was the one to get cut…'

But he still needed to select two others to accompany him. He pulled out the mission log and looked through the current listed status of each of his seated officers. Several were already out on assignment, Renji wasn't back yet, two were still recovering from injuries sustained in the field… Then his eyes alighted on the name of his 9th seat, Shirogane Mihane, daughter of Renji's predecessor as fukutaichou. Ginjirou had resigned his lieutenancy to run The Silver Dragonfly, the popular eye-glasses boutique, full-time. Mihane was co-owner of the business, but chose to split her time between helping run the store and continuing her career as a shinigami. She hadn't been out in the field in almost a month.

'She'll do. Now for the other two…'

A thud sounded as Rikichi's latest lunge at the hell butterfly sent him impacting with the wall. Byakuya's patience came to a swift end. He was the kind of captain who left it to the recruits to choose the proper squad to join when they graduated from the Academy. Once in his squad, he expected them to prove their worth as shinigami under his command. If they couldn't fit in, then an assessment would be made and they were recommended another squad to transfer to.

Rikichi had been a member of Squad Six for over a year now, having joined not long after Renji had been promoted to fukutaichou. Byakuya knew he'd joined out of a desire to be near his idol, and amazingly, Renji had actually taken an interest in the young shinigami, something that had surprised their captain as Renji usually just left an open challenge for recruits that indicated they wanted to best him. He even went so far as to make a note of it on the squad's recruitment brochure. Never before nor since had he turned around and mentored one such recruit.

Though, looking at the man currently chasing a hell butterfly around his office, Byakuya had to wonder if perhaps pity hadn't caused Renji to make an exception.

Despite his own doubts, his fukutaichou had sworn that Rikichi had potential, and just needed some one-on-one mentorship to develop it. Byakuya had respected his judgment and held off on writing up an evaluation sheet to give the two of them time to prove Renji was right.

But he couldn't hold off forever, and with the war draining them as it was, he couldn't afford to have personnel on the squad who couldn't show improvement and grow.

A quick glance at the mission roster showed that Rikichi had been cooped up in the office for months with only sporadic patrols, not unlike Byakuya himself. If that was the case then he couldn't be blamed for not improving any more than Byakuya could be blamed for his fitness deteriorating, so he was going to do a favor to both of them and kill two birds with the same kidou by getting them both out of the office.

The taichou held out his hand, and the hell butterfly immediately swerved and came to land on his finger.

Rikchi followed its path with his eyes, and blushed in embarrassment when he saw it gracefully settle onto his leader's hand. One look into Byakuya's cold eyes had him casting his own gaze to the floor, trying not to fidget in discomfort as he hoped that whatever his punishment was, it wouldn't be too severe. What exactly did the rulebook say about shinigami who couldn't control hell butterflies? Was there even a rule, or was he just going to get in trouble for distracting his taichou from work? For the life of him he couldn't remember, and it made him nervous not to have some idea of what he was in for.

Byakuya took his gaze off his subordinate long enough to murmur his orders to it, before sending it winging out of the office on its latest mission. Then he regarded the young shinigami standing in front of his desk once more.

"Get your weapon and a mission cloak."

Rikichi was startled. "Wh-what?" That wasn't anything like what he was expecting to hear. Was he not in trouble?

Byakuya gave him a baleful look. "Did I stutter? You are to go get your zanpakutou and one of the hooded cloaks from the mission supply room, and meet me at the front gate in ten minutes. Then you and I will join the 9th seat and one of Squad Twelve's scientists on a recon mission to Hueco Mundo. There we will seek to gather information on the self-replicating hollow that attacked the Squad Nine unit that was just brought back."

Rikichi paled. Oh, he was in trouble alright. A field mission with the captain? He gulped. Kuchiki Taichou had been more moody lately than anyone in the squad dared say out loud, for fear of the repercussions that would follow if they were overheard. To have to accompany him on a mission where his every move was to be closely watched and evaluated…

Was nothing less than a nightmare. Oh, why couldn't Abarai Fukutaichou get reassigned to the Seiretei already? At least when he was around Kuchiki Taichou was far more amiable.

"Rikichi."

"Um… yes sir?"

"You now have eight minutes to retrieve your mission gear and meet me at the front gate. Get moving."

"Right away, sir!"

Byakuya watched him barely restrain himself from flash-stepping out of the room. 'Good. At least that part of his training was successful. The last thing I need is for some idiot to use shunpo indoors and knock everyone and everything over.'

He spent the next few minutes sorting through the paperwork on his desk. Anything that could be delegated to Renji was set on the man's desk, and the rest would have to wait for his return. His brush and inks were cleaned up and stored away, and the 3rd seat summoned and given instructions to relay to Renji when he arrived. He then retrieved a cloak and hood from the closet in his quarters and slid Senbonzakura into place in his obi, the weight of the zanpakutou at his side a welcome one after the long periods of absence the last months had brought where the blade did nothing but rest in a stand either next to his desk or in his room.

Not surprisingly the spirit within was asleep, dormant after months of inactivity.

'Not for long though,' Byakuya thought, allowing himself a small smile at the idea of getting out and reconnecting with his spiritual best friend and partner again.

He gave the spirit a mental Wake up.

It was unnecessary to goad Senbonzakura to wakefulness like some shinigami had to do with their zanpakutou. A simple touch was enough warning to get the spirit within stirred and on the alert. Once roused Senbonzakura would remain quiet, but at a moment's notice would snap to full wakefulness and be ready to do as his master commanded.

Ready to go, he left the office and made his way down the hallways to the exit. As he walked he was discontented to find that that damned ache that had settled in his lower back the other day was still persisting to bother him.

'It'll go away. You just need to get moving again. Sitting in that chair for as many hours as you've been would give anyone a backache eventually.'

It was odd though that the ache was not only in his back. His hips themselves felt heavy and weighted down.

'Just stiffness and being out of shape. It'll go away too.'

Rikichi was standing out in front of the gate, zanpakutou and cloak in hand. Byakuya motioned to him to follow, and the two made their way through the streets to the central senkaimon.

"Well, well. Look who finally decided to get out and enjoy the sunlight. We were wondering if maybe you'd developed some kind of allergy."

Byakuya turned to see Zaraki Kenpachi leaning against a wall, grinning gleefully as his looked the Sixth Squad Taichou up and down.

"Going on a mission? You think that's wise? The way you look, some hollow's going to think the Seiretei just served them up one of those Living World holiday hams."

The reference to his weight stung far more than it should have, but the noble shoved the emotional effects away and fired back with a comment of his own.

"I'm shocked a ruffian such as yourself is even aware of what the meaning of the word 'custom' is, let alone has any knowledge of traditions from the World of the Living."

Zaraki laughed. "Aww, first the Princess thinks I can't figure out how those hoity-toity noble households work, and now he says I can't read my own subordinates' reports? Careful Kuchiki-hime, or one day you may end up underestimating the wrong opponent."

"I have full confidence that day will never come," Byakuya said dismissively, turning and walking away, Rikichi a few steps behind.

The Captain of the Eleventh continued to snicker. "And I have full confidence that the day that does happen, I just might end up laughing so hard I wind up on my ass, seeing someone hand you yours."

They reached the central senkaimon a few minutes ahead of the scheduled departure time. Mihane was already there, attaching a band to the temple-tips of her glasses that would wrap around her head to hold them onto her face, so she wouldn't loose them in the event they met with harsh weather.

Next to her was a small, pale, brown-haired youth with a small ponytail sticking straight up from just above his forehead. He was wearing a Division Twelve lab coat and at his feet was a huge pack that was presumably filled with research equipment.

"Hi there!" he chirped as they drew nearer. His eyes widened with surprise as he recognized the famous Taichou of Squad Six.

Byakuya ignored his startled look. "And you are…?"

"Tsubokura Rin," the young scientist managed not to stammer. "But, sir, not to be rude… I know that they requested seated officers to go with me… but I didn't think this mission required a captain's participation."

"While we accompany you, I though this mission would be a good opportunity for Rikichi here to gain field experience. I believe I make up for him not being a seated rank," Byakuya answered.

Rin nodded, not about to argue and clearly intimidated by the idea of working alongside one of the Seiretei's famous captains. "Yes, sir."

Rikichi set his cloak around his shoulders and secured it. Byakuya likewise donned his own.

"Oh, before we go, I was instructed to give everyone these," Rin said, pulling several contraptions out of his pack and handing one to each of the Squad Six shinigami. "I've already got mine on."

Byakuya took the device in hand and studied it for a moment before pulling up the sleeve of his shihakushou and strapping it around his bicep. Division Twelve had developed the nifty little devices only recently, creating them to key teammates into each other's reiatsu signature, allowing them to find each other even if they were in a situation where they would have to hide their reiatsu entirely. Called a "Stealth Beacon", or SB, this would allow them to regroup and maneuver while still staying invisible to enemy eyes. The device itself was small and watch-like, and was worn underneath the shihakushou where it couldn't be seen by Aizen's minions. Soi Fon's forces had been all over them when they were first developed. Now, several prototypes and design schemes later they were occasionally being offered to other squads for use during missions such as the one Byakuya and his team were about to embark on.

Rin explained their use, finishing up just as Byakuya noted it was time to depart.

The shinigami managing the gateway's controls adjusted the setting, and the massive gates creaked open. The air within turned fuzzy and black as the connection was altered and a pathway to Hueco Mundo was formed.

Before the gateway could finish establishing the connection, Byakuya found his attention drawn away to a voice which was calling out behind them.

"HEY! Hold up!"

The noble turned and had to hide his surprise at the sight of Hisagi Shuuhei, the Squad Nine Fukutaichou, running up to them, zanpakutou and cloak in hand. The lieutenant skidded to a halt in front of him, and paused for a moment to catch his breath.

"To what do I owe the pleasure, Lieutenant?" Byakuya asked.

Hisagi straightened, and met Byakuya's eyes with a determined gaze. "I want to be part of the mission that seeks out the creature that slaughtered my men. I want to see for myself if there are any more of those beasts out there, and see to it they don't take any more lives."

"That is unnecessary. We have no need of extra personnel," Byakuya replied.

"I seem to recall you attending a fukutaichou meeting once in Renji's stead, despite that being unnecessary," Hisagi countered. "With all due respect, am I at fault for wanting to see the task my men began is finished? They were surveying that area for Kurotsuchi Taichou's scientists when they were attacked. I would see to it personally that the next time I have to deploy them to that region, it is not with a failed mission hanging over their heads."

Despite himself, Byakuya both understood and sympathized with the protective spirit that inspired the other's logic. He also internally acknowledged that Hisagi was an accomplished shinigami, and in a dangerous area like Hueco Mundo his skills would not go unappreciated, so long as he wasn't simply out to avenge his fallen men.

"This is not a mission of revenge. If all you seek is to kill the beast, then I suggest you stay behind."

"I won't attack anything that doesn't attack me first," Hisagi said. "I only want to protect my Division's honor and finish what my men started."

"I am not your Taichou, but this mission was given to my squad. If you come, you defer to my command. Is that acceptable to you?"

Hisagi nodded, and with a swirl of tan fabric set his cloak into place and pulled the hood over his dark hair. "Affirmative."

The pathway to Hueco Mundo was complete, and the guards were starting to look impatient for them to get moving.

"Then let's go," Byakuya said, leading the way into the gate.

When all five had entered, the massive portal swung shut behind them.

The shinigami sitting at the controls smirked, and pulled a small orb out of the folds of his shihakushou. Pulling the pin, he lobbed it at the guards standing on either side of the gate itself. When it impacted the ground, a cloud of smoke burst free, sweeping across the area. The guards began coughing furiously, and within moments found themselves unable to stay on their feet.

By the time the smoke cleared a few minutes later, every one of them was out cold.

The man sitting at the controls grinned, pulling off the mask that he had worn underneath the stolen uniform of the kido corps, which had protected him from the smoke. He then set to work, typing in commands, and watched gleefully as the gates began to swing open once again.

"Gentlemen," he spoke into the consol's comm. unit, "welcome to the Seiretei."


~*~TBC…~*~