What to Expect When You're Not Expecting

Author: WhipOfLightHeartOfSword

Rating: M/R

World: Semi-AU, Orihime wasn't captured and the Fake Karakura Town arc didn't happen. The Winter War continues.

Pairings: Renji/Byakuya, Izuru/Shuuhei (more to be announced)

Feedback: Yes please, but no flames.

Warnings: Mpreg, Yaoi, childbirth, medical themes

Disclaimer: Bleach belongs to Tite Kubo, Shonen Jump, etc., not me. This is a not-for-profit fanwork.

(For full warnings/disclaimers please see Chapter 1.)

A/N: Finally! Okay, so it took me way longer than a week to finish this, but at least six weeks and change is better than five months. Right? At any rate, this chapter decided to be annoying and not want to come together, and school was getting in the way horribly, but a recent change in my schedule looks to severely lighten up my workload from now until the end of the semester. That's not to say I'm not going to be studying like crazy, but it does mean that I'm expecting to have at least one more chapter (more if I can) up before I hop on that plane home for the holidays. At least then the only interruptions I'll have are the times I'm hanging out with friends or family.

For those of you who don't check my profile but are interested in reading future stories of mine (including a sequel to this fic), you may want to! From now until the 16th of Dec. I'll be keeping my new poll open so readers can choose the new WIPs they want to see me post after the semester ends. There are 18 bunnies chosen from the 100+ on my list, so I can get a few more out of my head and posted for your enjoyment. So please, feel free to stop on over, take a look, and if you see a bunny you like—vote!

Lastly-the italics on this site are still giving me problems by removing the spaces between the words. I think I re-edited them all, but if I missed one I'd love it if someone pointed it out to me so I can fix it. Thanks!

~*~Chapter 10~*~

When most people think of children they imagine cute little cherub faces, chubby limbs, and healthy-colored skin. The scrawny limbed, mucous covered, grey-skinned, squished-face thing that had eased its way into Shuuhei's hands with Byakuya's final efforts was decidedly not in keeping with that description. Slightly dazed from the backlash of having to withstand the taichou's final reiatsu flare, he decided that for the moment it was enough that the little one seemed to have at least come through the ordeal intact, and that he should be more concerned with seeing to its needs than critiquing its looks. As he balanced the babe in one arm and began toweling the fluids away with his cloak, the fukutaichou had to admit to himself that despite not knowing exactly how a newborn child should look—having only the vaguest expectations himself—the fact that it at least seemed to be correctly formed was of some comfort.

One thing that did strike him though, as he cleaned the little body, was the baby's size. Personally, he could hardly believe this so-called 'little one' had managed to fit through such a small space on its way into the world, which thus made the baby seem 'large' so far as his perspective was concerned. The insidious little voice that kept reminding him it was only a matter of months before he would be called upon to help his own child achieve a similar feat tempted him to pray that his own baby would be of similar size, as he couldn't imagine being able to squeeze anything bigger through his poor pelvis.

On the other side of the coin however was the sobering fact that he had no idea what size baby he should be looking at, which meant that despite his feelings that the baby didn't seem abnormally tiny, the reality might be that the lack of baby belly on Byakuya had meant that the child really was too small. If that was true, then he just hoped that it wouldn't be a factor that would threaten the little one's chances of surviving, and so far as his own kid was concerned he'd just shut up and deal with whatever he had to when the time came for the sake of he or she being born healthy.

But that 'blessed' event was months off, while this child and his father's problems were the here and now. And right now, 'not out of the woods yet' was a never-ending understatement in describing their ongoing situation.

Despite these shadowed thoughts, the fukutaichou couldn't help but widen his eyes in astonishment and joy as the blood and mucous came away and revealed the skin beneath, and the very unexpected markings covering it.

"Well, whadya know…" he said softly, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

'Renji, you sly dog!'

"What is it?" Mihane, still shaky and barely recovered from being hit by Byakuya's reiatsu, scooted closer and tried to see what had Shuuhei so amused.

"Hold on one moment," having been rubbing at the baby for the last couple of minutes, Shuuhei was beginning to grow alarmed as he noticed he wasn't getting any response. Now squirming, no crying… Weren't babies supposed to start screeching right after they came out of the womb? Suddenly frightened that the child might be in trouble, the fukutaichou began frantically rubbing at the tiny chest.

'Come on, you can do itPlease!' he pleaded mentally, refusing to say anything that might cause alarm unless he was sure it was called for. Byakuya was still slumped against Rikichi, panting and half-unconscious from his efforts, and Shuuhei didn't want to put him through any more stress if he could avoid it. But inside his fear and dread were mounting.

How could he look Byakuya in the eye and tell him that after all they'd just gone through, the child hadn't made it anyway? How could he go home and tell one of his best friends that he'd had and lost a child before he'd even known about it?

He bit his lip and begged whoever was listening to please not make him have to do that.

Unsure of what a healer would do to stimulate a newborn, and afraid he might hurt the tiny being if he tried patting it on the back like he would a choking adult, Shuuhei simply settled for continuing to rub the small chest, hoping that would be enough.

Mihane watched closely, having realized what was going on the moment she saw the still, silent infant, and the desperation in the fukutaichou's eyes. Her heart was in her throat as she watched him persistently try to get some sign of life out of the little one, pleading silently that it wasn't already too late.

A few seconds of nauseating worry later, the child finally began to stir. A soft whimper emerged from the tiny mouth, followed by a clipped squawk.

"That's it, get angry at me. Let's see if you've got half the lung power your dad has when he's upset."

A scratchy wail rose up and echoed off the walls of the cave.

"Now that's what I'm talking about! Keep going, you might even put Zabimaru to shame!" Shuuhei praised.

"Put Zabimaru…" Mihane stared at him and the child with wide-eyed astonishment. The fukutaichou grinned, and shifted both his cloak and the babe so she could see.

She gasped and broke into a wide grin, putting a hand over her mouth for a moment as her eyes misted and she couldn't decide whether to burst out laughing, or start crying with joy. "I don't believe it!"

"Believe what?" Rikichi asked, peering curiously at them. Byakuya still lay bonelessly against him, lightly gasping for breath exhaustedly. His head rested against his subordinate's shoulder, skin soaked in sweat and tears, and his hair was damp and disheveled. Beside them Rin was hunched over rubbing his throbbing temples.

Bloodshot, tear-darkened grey eyes cracked open, as the combined sound of voices and the infant's crying brought Byakuya back from the edge of passing out. He weakly turned his head towards the sounds, energy from some reserve he didn't think he could possibly still have flooding him as the pain faded, and was replaced by the desperate, unbridled urge to see his baby with his own eyes, to confirm for himself that he or she was alright.

Weakly he tried to sit up, but Rikichi quickly put an arm around his shoulders to stop him from struggling. "Easy, Taichou. Just stay there."

"No, I want my child," Byakuya unsuccessfully tried to get the restraining limb off of him, his exhaustion making it easy for even an unseated officer to hold him down with little trouble.

"It's alright, I'll bring the baby to you," Shuuhei reassured him, overhearing despite the continuous screams. Mindful of the still-attached umbilical cord, he carefully shuffled around Byakuya's leg.

Gently he placed the screeching bundle onto Byakuya's chest, guiding the quivering arms as they reached up and wrapped around the tiny form.

"Kuchiki Byakuya, I am absolutely thrilled and honored to say that you and Abarai Renji have a son," he said, eyes misting as he found himself blessed with the unexpected privilege of presenting his friend's firstborn to the child's birth father.

"Wait… did you just say…" Rikichi stared wide-eyed and openmouthed in absolute shock at the dark-haired bundle as he was handed over to the taichou. A dark-haired bundle whose forehead and outer arms from the shoulder to the wrist were covered with very familiar black tribal markings. Next to Byakuya, Rin too looked as though his eyes were about to pop out of his head.

There was no mistaking where those birthmarks came from.

Swallowing, Rikichi closed his mouth and turned to Rin, his voice tight and calm as he asked "Rin, could you take my place and hold Kuchiki Taichou up for a moment? …Rin?"

Startled, the scientist blinked as it registered that he was being spoken to. Nodding numbly, he put and arm between Rikichi's chest and Byakuya's back, supporting the noble's upper body as the Squad Six shinigami eased out from behind him. Once he was clear Rin scooted into place, grateful for the mound of sand offering his back support as the new father's weight rested against him.

Rikichi got up and walked a few steps away from father and son, watched curiously by all but Captain Kuchiki, before his fist shot up in the air, his feet left the ground, and he let out a huge whoop.

"Abarai Fukutaichou's a father! Yes! Whoohoo! Abarai Fukutaichou's a daddy!" he jumped around in excitement, crowing triumphantly. Rin, Mihane and Hisagi all laughed, relief and elation flooding every one of them that finally, after all the fear and drama, there was something truly happy and joyous to be celebrated.

The only one not laughing and smiling was the birth father of the little miracle.

The moment the baby was in his arms, Byakuya found himself overwhelmed at the emotions that flooded him. He hardly noticed when Rikichi switched places with Rin. In a fraction of a second his entire world had shrunken down to nothing but the tiny being he held. After all that pain, all that agony, all that fear of the myriad of things that could have gone wrong—that should have gone wrong—he was here. His son was here, and he was okay. Tears began to flow again unchecked from the noble's already sore and puffy eyes. He couldn't find it in him to care, nor did he think he could stop them if he tried.

The baby had all four limbs and all ten fingers and toes. His face was smushed and his skull somewhat cone-shaped, but Byakuya was willing to forgive that considering the tiny space he'd just been squeezed through. His blue-grey skin was starting to turn pink, and he was shrieking like a banshee. At that moment in time, the noble didn't give a damn who was watching or not watching him. He clutched the child as close as possible, uncaring of the ringing in his ears as the infant made good use of his new lungs. Shaking lips pressed a kiss to the sticky wisps of black hair plastered to the small skull, before he pressed his forehead gently to the babe's, hand cradling the back of the tiny head, and sobbed hysterically.

He didn't know how long he stayed like that, letting the pent-up terror and dread that something horrible might have happened bleed out of him. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew they weren't out of danger yet, but for now nothing else seemed to matter beyond the simple, undeniable fact that his baby boy was alive. After all the loss and grief he'd weathered throughout his life, he felt as though he could have drowned in the sheer relief that flooded him at that moment, eclipsing everything else.

If in all his long life there was just one experience that could end in joy instead of sorrow… one moment that he would rejoice instead of mourn… one opportunity that he was not left staggering under the crushing heartbreak of loss… he could not be more grateful that this was it.

Eventually the emotional tsunami subsided, and he raised his head to meet four pairs of bewildered and concerned eyes.

"Kuchiki Taichou… are you okay?" Mihane questioned softly, sounding as if she were afraid to ask.

Byakuya nodded, the corners of his mouth finally curling upwards in a soft, tired smile. "I am now."

"But what's wrong?" Rikichi asked, completely confused that the noble would greet his new baby with what to all of them looked like heartbroken anguish. "You were crying as though someone had died."

Byakuya sighed, resting his head on Rin's collarbone as he gazed down lovingly at his firstborn, who had finally stopped shrieking and snuggled peacefully in his arms.

"Because I have never—ever—been so afraid of death or of losing someone, as I was trying to bring this baby into the world."

Everyone stared solemnly at the child in his arms for a moment, not one of them able to think of an appropriate response. Because there wasn't one. Every person in that cave knew that no matter how hard they had tried, there would have been almost nothing they could have done had anything gone seriously wrong. Even the removal of the forgotten seal on Byakuya's powers was nothing more than a basic quick-fix for anyone suffering reiatsu depletion. Had anything that required more serious and specialized medical attention come up at any point in time, they would have been helpless. They could have been forced to watch as either parent or child was taken from them by an entity far beyond any of their control; the very force they themselves represented. And every single one of them couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief and offer a word of gratitude to whatever benevolent power had chosen to show them grace and spare the lives of both father and son.

The quiet, solemn moment ended when Byakuya flinched, his brow furrowing in bewilderment as his eyes finally came away from his newborn and stared down between his legs.

"What is it, Byakuya?" Shuuhei ventured to use the noble's given name for the first time since the baby had finally come out of him.

Byakuya looked at him in confusion. "I feel like I need to push again, but… there can't be another baby, can there?"

Mihane giggled, drawing the attention of the other four shinigami to her. "I may not know many facts about childbirth, but I do know this one. That's not another baby your body's telling you to push out. I can't believe you managed to hide the one, considering your stomach stayed as small as it did. I think I might die of shock if somehow there was another little one in there. What your body's trying to say is that the placenta, the birth sack the baby grew in, is ready to come out now that it's not needed anymore. Once the baby's born it starts to break down and if it's not expelled you could get seriously infected."

"Ah," Byakuya didn't know if he liked the sound of that, but it made sense.

"We also need to tie off and cut the umbilical cord," Shuuhei said.

"But what do we tie it with?" Rin asked. "We don't have any clamps or sterile thread."

Rikichi chuckled. "Rin, nothing in this whole cave that we can use for the baby is sterile. And there's nothing we can do to sterilize it. All we have is kidou, and that would just reduce whatever we wanted to sterilize to ash. We'll just have to figure out something to get the cord tied off so the baby doesn't bleed, and not be surprised when the first thing Unohana does is give him a bath in infant-safe disinfectant."

It was not a pleasant thing to admit, but the young shinigami was right. Byakuya was loathe to let anything come anywhere near the baby he'd fought so hard to give birth to that could get the child sick, but they couldn't leave the umbilical cord as it was and they couldn't cut it until it was tied. The baby had already been wiped down with Shuuhei's cloak, which in its present state would never have been allowed anywhere near a Fourth Division delivery room in a million years. And anything they swaddled him in after would only be cleaner by virtue of the fact that it wasn't covered in mucus and amniotic fluids.

"It can't be helped," he admitted, fighting the urge to push as he had no idea if it was safe for his son to still be attached to the birth sack when it came out. "What do we have to use?"

"My hair tie, maybe? No wait, I've got the perfect idea!" Rin exclaimed. Byakuya hissed at him as the loud noise made the baby wake and start fussing.

"Sorry," he said, blushing sheepishly. "But can somebody switch places with me?"

"Here, I will," Rikichi replied. "I've stayed behind you throughout the whole thing so far, Taichou. Might as well see it through to the end."

"I'm flattered," Byakuya said dryly. There had been a time when he would have been mortified had anyone made such a joke about his situation in front of him, but after having spent hours naked, spread-eagled, screaming and crying as his subordinates watched him birth a baby, he doubted if his idea of 'dignity' would ever be the same again.

Everyone chuckled, and Rikichi once again situated himself in his place as the noble's support. Fortunately the baby chose to settle down to sleep again, so they weren't treated to a second round of wailing for the time being.

"So what's your idea, Rin?" Mihane asked the question on everyone's mind.

"This," Rin jogged over to the shredded form of his survey module, and reached into the exposed components. Giving a few tugs, he pulled out several inches of wire. Carefully, he slit and peeled away the sheathing. Then he lit a small kidou flame and ran it over the wire, sterilizing it as much as possible.

"Rin, you're a genius!" Shuuhei praised.

"I agree," Byakuya said, nodding his approval.

The scientist blushed and brought the wire back over to the group. He knelt and reached out a hand towards the umbilical cord laying across the top of Byakuya's stomach, but paused and met the taichou's gaze, wordlessly asking for his permission.

Byakuya nodded his consent, and Rin gently lifted the cord. Choosing a spot a few inches from the little boy's body, he folded the cord into a small loop and wrapped the wire around it as tightly as he could, wincing until he realized that it wasn't bothering the baby. Breathing a sigh of relief that it hadn't provoked another round of crying, he sat back.

"So who's going to cut it?"

Byakuya gazed at the cord regretfully. "Traditionally it would be Renji's right as the sire to sever the baby's tie from me, but his absence can not be helped. However, I think he will forgive me if I ask you to do it, Shuuhei. First of all you are his friend, and secondly you were both brave and bold enough to confront me with your suspicion I was pregnant and in labor, and to catch the child when he came free. I think Renji would agree that you are the best substitute."

Shuuhei was deeply touched. "It would be my honor," he said huskily.

"We'll have to use a zanpakutou. We can run a kidou flame over it first like Rin did with the wire," Rikichi said.

"Byakuya, I could use yours if you'd like Senbonzakura to have the honor," Shuuhei suggested.

Byakuya summoned his connection to the zanpakutou spirit.

:Of course I'll accept the task. Tell Hisagi he may wield me.:Senbonzakura replied warmly.

:Thank you, Senbonzakura.: Byakuya said, relieved that the zanpakutou hadn't gone back to being irritated with him now that the birth and immediate threat on his life was over.

:These last months might have been rough for us, but as I've said before; I'll never forsake you. You gave me your apology, and I accept it. Let this put the past to rest.:

Byakuya blinked to keep the tears from returning to his eyes, silently blaming it on hormones.

:Besides, it's only right that the clan leader's zanpakutou gets to sever the clan heir's tie from his birth parent. Not to mention that once we get back Zabimaru might very well throw a fit if he's not allowed to cut the cord of your next child.: Senbonzakura added cheekily.

:If there even is a 'next one'.:

Honestly. He'd just given birth to one child. Of everyone he knew he'd thought his zanpakutou at least would give him a few years before bringing up the subject of him ever having more offspring. Right now he didn't think he could speculate about such a thing if he tried. He was too tired and sore and overwhelmed from having his first.

Ignoring any further response from the zanpakutou, Byakuya carefully balanced his son in one arm and picked up the blade from where it had been resting at his side.

"He accepts the task," he said simply.

Shuuhei nodded. Standing, he smoothly unsheathed Senbonzakura, gripping taichou's blade with much more care than he would if it was his own. Lighting a kidou-flame in one hand, he ran it down the blade to sterilize it like Rin had the wire. Returning to seiza, he picked up the cord and made a second loop of it near the first, and slipped the blade through. With a quick upward tug, he severed it, and tossed the end still attached to Byakuya down on the sand in between his legs so it wouldn't leak blood onto him. He then wiped Senbonzakura clean and placed it back in its sheath, staring thoughtfully at it as he did.

"I don't think I'll ever be able to see this blade in quite the same way again. Just like I couldn't with Kazeshini when he saved that child in the Rukon," Shuuhei met Byakuya's eyes. "Thank you. It means a lot to have done that for Renji, since he isn't here."

Byakuya simply nodded. "It means a great deal to me to know he has such loyal friends who would stand in for him without question. Besides, you've more than earned it."

Shuuhei blushed. "I really didn't do anything that spectacular except talk back to you, hand you a pregnancy test and sit between your legs for a few hours."

Byakuya waved him off. "Nonsense. You and I both know you've done far more than that. Now, if someone could hold my son, my body really wants to be rid of this 'placenta' thing," as he said the last few words, he couldn't help but squirm a bit as the urge to push again was making him uncomfortable.

Mihane tentatively raised a hand. "Taichou… if I may? That is, if it's alright with you…"

Byakuya gave her a slight smile. "Yes, Mihane. You may hold him."

The young woman gave him a look of absolute wonder, as the noble—with some reluctance—loosened his hold on the baby and placed him in her outstretched arms. She cuddled the small being close, gazing at him in pure delight. "I'm getting to hold my taichou's son…" she whispered. Byakuya found he was touched that she thought it to be such a privilege. Of course prior to this experience the noble in him would have considered it so, but after the events of the last few days his perception had altered quite a bit. The gratitude he felt to all of them went far beyond his and the child's social status. For the devotion and loyalty all four of his companions had shown him throughout the whole ordeal, and continued to show him, it seemed only appropriate that they each get their chance to hold the new life they'd helped him bring into the world.

But that would have to wait, as he bore down once again. Aching muscles screamed in protest, and he squeezed his eyes shut against the discomfort. When the afterbirth slipped from his body it didn't hurt nearly as much as his son's shoulders had, but it was still far from pleasant to his much-abused nether regions.

"Ugh, okay. That somehow bothers me more than anything else we've dealt with," Shuuhei grimaced.

Byakuya opened his eyes and made the mistake of gazing down. The fukutaichou was one hundred percent correct. The bloody mass laying on the sand had to be one of the most disconcerting things he'd ever laid eyes on, and decidedly among the most disgusting. He wanted to be far away from it, and quickly.

"Eww," Rikichi and Rin said simultaneously.

Byakuya's eyes met Shuuhei's and they both nodded.

"Here, Rikichi help me get him up. Let's get him away from this mess."


The young shinigami's hands pressed against the back of Byakuya's shoulders, pushing him upright so Rikichi could once again scoot out from behind him. Both he and Shuuhei each put a hand under one of the noble's arms, and heaved him up.

Byakuya tried to help them, tried to stand under his own power, but he quickly found that his body had decided enough was enough. His knees began to buckle, and if it weren't for the two men holding him up, he might have fallen forward on top of the gruesome mess in front of him.

"Easy there, Byakuya. Just lean on us and put one foot in front of the other. We'll worry about keeping you up," Shuuhei said. Byakuya simply nodded his agreement. Even leaning on them, his entire body ached fiercely. The lactic acid buildup in his stomach, legs and back made it impossible to balance on his own, and as they guided him around the afterbirth and over to the other side of the cave, he found himself having to bite his lip to stop from whimpering in pain. Never in all his years as a shinigami—training, and officership combined—had he ever felt so miserably sore and beaten up. Even being stabbed by Shinsou had not left him feeling so completely wretched.

At least back then he'd had the guarantee that he would get a bath.

As if he'd read the taichou's mind, Shuuhei turned to Rin. "Hey, could you get my cloak, and see if Kuchiki Taichou's is still usable?"

Rin nodded and retrieved both cloaks from where they'd been left lying in the sand. Shuuhei took his. "If it's okay with you, Taichou, I'll wipe you down while you lean on Rikichi. Then we'll get you settled.

"That would be fine," the noble replied.

Using the parts of the cloak that weren't covered in fluid from the baby, Shuuhei worked swiftly to get Byakuya's lower half cleaned of sand and body fluids. He frowned when he noticed that the new father was still bleeding from the unhealed birth canal.

"Hey, Mihane?" he called softly, so as not to startle the little one she was cooing at.


"Is it normal for a birth parent to keep bleeding after the placenta's out?"

Mihane finally took her eyes away from the baby. "I'm not sure. I know too much blood could mean something got torn internally."

"But you don't know how much is too much," the fukutaichou guessed. She nodded solemnly.

Shuhei sighed. "Well, we'll just have to set you up with your lower half on the sand like we did getting ready for your son to be born, and hope this isn't a sign of trouble."

"Indeed," Byakuya certainly hoped he wasn't in more trouble. Things were bad enough with them having no food and water and very little in the way of supplies to begin with. The last thing he needed was to make it through childbirth in one of the worst places he could have imagined for it, only for his life to be threatened by complications after.

"How's his cloak looking, Rin?" the fukutaichou asked the scientist.

"For all the mess that's on the sand, the cloak didn't get anything on it."

"Good, then help me make another sand mound for Kuchiki Taichou to lean on, he looks about ready to fall."

Indeed, the noble felt as though he could sleep for the next week at least. The only thing keeping him up was Rikichi, and the fact that his son still needed his care.

Working together the two pushed sand into another mound to prop his upper body on, as there was no way his abdominal muscles would have anything to do with him trying to sit up for long periods unaided. They then eased him down, and Shuuhei wrapped the cloak around his shoulders and draped it over the tops of his legs.

"Could you also hand me my shitagi and kosode?" Byakuya requested. The fukutaichou nodded, and brought them and Byakuya's obi over. Shrugging off the cloak for a moment, the noble was able to redress in the upper half of his uniform, before replacing the cloak for added warmth. He was feeling chilled as his body cooled down from its exertions and the sweat dried.

As he dressed he noticed his chest felt extremely tender. Curious, he rubbed at it to try and ease the slight discomfort and a couple of white beads of fluid dripped from the nipple. He sighed in resignation. After everything else that had happened, he really couldn't be surprised. As unenthused as he was by the thought of breastfeeding, he tried to console himself with the fact that at least the child would be able to eat.


His 9th seat looked up and saw he was ready to take his son back. Reluctantly she stood and came over, looking slightly disappointed at having to give the baby back, until the little one began to squirm and fuss. Tiny lips curled back and a loud wail echoed through the cave, making all of them wince and wish the barriers were still intact to keep that sound from reaching the outside. Earlier the boy's crying might have been a relief, but now it was one more thing that might hasten their discovery.

The young woman was startled. "I didn't do it!" she declared reflexively.

"I know," Byakuya had no complaints about how she had handled the child, but the baby hadn't eaten, and though he'd never imagined he might have such nurturing instincts hidden away somewhere, he had a gut feeling that his son was not going to be very patient waiting for his first meal for much longer.

Pulling open his shihakushou, Byakuya cradled his son's head in his hand so he could slip the babe beneath the cloth. Once the tiny lips touched his nipple, he grunted in surprise at how quickly and eagerly they latched on and began sucking. It was a decidedly strange sensation, and not exactly one he enjoyed. His much-battered masculine pride was not at all happy at being put in yet another image damaging position, but what made him particularly self conscious was that he surprisingly didfeel comforted by the fact that he could nurse the newborn. In a situation where he was unable to provide so much of what a baby should have, being able to at least offer nourishment soothed the guilt a bit, and the last thing he needed was to be made fun of simply because it made him appear maternal.

"Well," Shuuhei's voice made him look up. "You seem to be doing alright. Can't believe you're taking to this so well," the tattooed shinigami came to sit next to him. "I think if it were me I'd just be staring at the kid cluelessly."

Byakuya looked down at his son thoughtfully. "He needs care. It's just like when Soutaichou hands me a mission and tells me to 'figure it out' if I ask him how he'd like me to accomplish it. I don't have a choice; I just have to do the best I can as I go along."

"Makes sense," Shuuhei said. "But please, after he's fed I think it's best if you let us take care of him and you get some rest. I'm worried at the amount of fluids you've lost since we got here, and we still don't know why the senkaimon hasn't been restored. You're going to need sleep if you're going to be up to this parenting thing."

The noble nodded his agreement. "As soon as he's had his fill, I'll trust you to watch him. But before I do, there's the matter of our security that we need to discuss."

Shuuhei ran a hand through his hair and rubbed the back of his head.

"Yea… to be honest, that last reiatsu flare packed quite the knockout punch. I'm thinking it's a good bet our time of being unnoticed is over."

Byakuya nodded grimly. "And that's going to be a problem. Aizen will know where the energy signature originated from, and he won't be long in sending someone after us. Even if we had the reserves to reshield ourselves, all they'd have to do is start firing ceros into the area, or apply kidou-seeking techniques and eventually they'll score a hit."

He let out a long breath and set his mouth. "The reality is that we're too depleted. We can't allow ourselves to be drawn into a fight if we can avoid it. We have to make a run for it and hide somewhere else."

"But you're in no condition to stand, let alone move," Shuuhei stated. "They'll expect us to run and we won't stand a chance…" he trailed off, unwilling to point out the obvious. Byakuya however wasn't in the mood to be so diplomatic about his own condition.

"We won't stand a chance moving at the snail's pace we'd need to for you to support me," he finished.

"We could send someone out to recon for another hideout," Mihane suggested.

Byakuya blinked as his body began to feel weighted and his eyelids drooped. The third wind brought on by his son's need for care was beginning to wane, and he felt the first tendrils of exhaustion creeping in on him. He blinked again and steeled himself against the sensation, determined to keep his mind clear and calculating possible solutions.

He looked down briefly at his contentedly suckling newborn. Despite being the single most unexpected development of the entire disastrous mission—actually, make that 'of his entire life'—and a scandal waiting to happen the moment they reached home, the clan leader was utterly and completely smitten with the surprise miracle he found himself nourishing. True, his family might try to disown him or take the child from him. Sure, Renji could decide he didn't want to be a family man yet and break off their relationship. But to Byakuya, all of that paled in comparison to the immediate threat of his baby either being killed by a hollow, or captured by Aizen. So far as he was concerned, nothing mattered so much as making sure none of those beasts even got so much as the opportunity to even look at his son. And if they managed to anyway, it would only be the briefest of glimpses—he'd make deadly sure of that.

Sleep and exhaustion would have to wait. Before he could relax enough to rest properly, they had to have an effective plan.

His mind tuned back in to his companions in time to hear Rikichi make a suggestion.

"Rin and I could scout, while you get some rest. We can see if there's anyplace suitable around to move to, and because our reiatsu signatures are the lowest of all of us to begin with, we'll have a better chance of staying hidden while we search and getting back again unnoticed. Meanwhile you'll have a seated officer and a fukutaichou to watch your back and the baby in case anything nasty comes along," he said with a nod at Mihane and Shuuhei, before he looked at the scientist for his opinion. "What do you think?"

Rin looked nervous, but he nodded. "Sure, I'll go. I don't like the idea of going back out again, but I don't want to wait around to be captured and I'd be much better at finding caves than fighting Aizen's goons."

"I can't think of anything else we might try" Mihane said, not looking too happy. "Other than stay here and hope no one bothers us or that if we all left at once we'd stay unnoticed for the time it took to find another place to hide."

"Yes, but what then? We'd still need to make the move, and our reiatsu's diminishing by the moment. Every moment we delay the enemy could be closing in on us. We run a greater risk of being found and cornered, you being cut off from us, or all of us being caught trying to leave again after you return," Byakuya countered.

"We can limit our wait time. Say you two go now and make sure to recon for no more than two hours. I think Byakuya needs at least that much rest at minimum before we attempt to go anywhere. After that if you're not back we'll assume something happened to you and make the decision to leave right away or risk another scouting attempt," Shuuhei put in. "I don't want to waste much energy, but I'll use enough to replace the sound-shield kido so the baby at least doesn't alert anyone to where we are while you're out."

Rikichi and Rin both nodded. Rikichi looked to his taichou for confirmation. "Taichou?"

Byakuya let out a slow, thoughtful breath as he scrutinized the young shinigami for a moment. Finally he spoke.

"I don't like it, but it is logical and we don't have any choice. I don't want to admit to being the weakest person here at the moment any more than I wanted to admit I was in labor, but it's true. You finding a new hideout before we abandon this one will at least give me the opportunity to regain a little strength so I'll be able to leave here on my own two feet, if nothing else. Just please, at least pretend you're a Squad Two stealth expert for the time being and keep out of sight."

Rikichi quirked a smile and Rin chuckled.

"I think Soi Fon Taichou would probably laugh herself to death if she saw us, but we'll give it our all, Taichou."

"See to it you do," Byakuya smirked back. "I'd hate to have to tell Renji he's going to have to find a replacement protégé."

At that moment his son finally let go of his nipple and gave a contented hiccup. Turning a gentle smile on his newborn, Byakuya removed him from his shihakushou and tugged the folds of cloth back into place. The infant snuggled against him and dropped off. The noble himself felt as though he could easily do the same, but he resisted. He didn't want to fall asleep and lose his grip on the baby, and he really wasn't ready to give him over to anyone else yet. For the moment he was completely content to gaze at his son… and daydream of receiving an elated response from Renji when they got home. After the redhead picked himself up off the floor, that is.

"I think we should get going."

Byakuya blearily looked up in time to see Rikichi and Rin stand and put on their cloaks.

"Agreed," Shuuhei replied. "Byakuya looks ready to drop and the clock's ticking before they find us anyhow. Hell, they might have even found us already."

"Let's hope they haven't," Byakuya said, too tired to protest being talked about.

"Taichou, would you like me to take your son so you can get some rest?"

"Actually, Mihane, I think it's better if Shuuhei takes him while you do what you can with the barriers after Rin and Rikichi leave. His body is going to be rerouting his reiryoku to support his child and it's going to limit his reiatsu conversion and make his kidou unreliable. Yours on the other hand will still be stable, if low."

"Very true," Shuuhei sighed, feeling slightly guilty for not even being trustworthy to set a barrier spell as he reached out for the babe. Reluctantly, Byakuya loosened his hold and allowed the precious bundle to be taken from him.

"C'mere, little—hey, just what are you going to call him, anyway?" Shuuhei queried, looking from the boy to his birth father curiously. At the mouth of the cave, Rikichi and Rin were about to step out, and Mihane was standing just behind them to ward the entranceway as best she could. All three turned back as the fukutaichou's question reached them.

"Oh kami, he's right! We haven't been calling him anything other than 'your son' or 'the baby'!" Mihane looked upset at the realization that they hadn't even had the presence of mind to name the child.

"But him being born was a complete surprise," Rin pointed out. "Do you even have anything in mind that you like? It's not like we spent time asking you about baby names while you were in labor."

"Hmm, considering how overwhelmed I was I might have killed you if you had," Byakuya mused. "And no… I hadn't given any thought yet as to what he might be named. Call me a bad parent but I was simply happy he was alive and safe."

"I don't think anyone could call you a bad parent. Look at how well you've coped! In the past two days you've found out you were pregnant while stranded in enemy territory, gave birth with no real medical care, and didn't skip a beat dovetailing parenting and strategizing so we can hopefully all get out of here alive," Shuuhei argued. "Anyone who tries to tell you you're a bad parent, is going to get a broken jaw courtesy of me."

"And me," Rikichi chimed in.

"Same here," Rin said decisively, while Mihane gave a single affirmative nod.

Byakuya almost smiled, but he was exhausted and mentally tired of the extreme range of emotions he'd displayed in the last hours. "You all make it sound like I'm some kind of super hero. I thank you for your positive feedback at least."

He turned his head to gaze at his son, who was still sleeping soundly in Shuuhei's arms. Self-doubts aside, his companions were right that the child needed to be called something. His heart twinged with guilt that Renji wasn't there to help him choose, but considering how indefinite their situation seemed, he'd simply have to offer his lover the olive branch of being able to veto any name that he didn't like. Naming the child on a temporary basis just to show courtesy towards the boy wouldn't do any harm. He and Renji could decide on an official moniker when they reunited.

"Give me a moment and I'll see if I can't come up with anything for him."

Looking at the sleeping infant, Byakuya was struck by how innocent the boy seemed. It was hard to believe that this little being was the cause of all his discomfort over the last months, and all his agony over the last few days. So innocent, so disarming, and yet he couldn't allow himself to be taken in by what appeared on the surface. Even a temporary name had to be chosen carefully, as the Kuchiki clan felt very strongly about the influence the meaning of a name would have on the child and how he or she was perceived by others. His own name was a perfect example of this—White Question. A fitting title for a child who spent his days defying the rules of nobility because he just couldn't see how they could be at all beneficial to anyone when they were so unbending and severe. It was that same doubt that had plagued him as he'd debated with himself over the true justice or injustice of Rukia's attempted execution. Because of the restrictive nature of his social status, his allies were always left wondering if they could count on him, if he'd find a back door to help them even when the rules said not to, or if he'd turn them away simply because noble policy or custom had to take precedent. His family as well considered him aptly named; as they couldn't for the life of them decide if he really was as reformed as they thought, or a caged hawk just itching to break free and return to his wild roots again the first chance he got.

'I think this baby proves that the hawk argument is the correct one,' he mused wryly as he called to mind all the name lore he'd picked up over the years of officiating over clan naming ceremonies and reading through the vast annals of Seiretei and Kuchiki clan history. There were so many attractive ones that came to mind, but to choose the right one he'd have to momentarily stop looking at the baby through the bias of a loving parent, and try to see through to the little one's true self.

Forcing himself to break the filter of parental adoration that had settled over his eyes the moment the child had been handed to him, Byakuya gave his son an intense, appraising look like he would a shinigami presented as a candidate for promotion or entry into his squad.

Dark hair characteristic of the Kuchiki clan. Skin a shade darker than his own, but still pale. Eye color unknown as he was too young for them to have set into their proper color; and Byakuya wasn't willing to bet that the birthmarks were Renji's only stamp on the boy. They would simply have to wait and see if he developed the characteristic Kuchiki grey, or favored the influence of Renji's bloodline instead. Ink-black tribal markings that both resembled Renji's and yet were interspersed with what looked like drifting sakura petals—markings that reflected the untamed soul of the boy's sire, and gave honor to the hidden spirit that lay beneath the noble title born by his birth parent. Beneath the surface, Byakuya sensed a well of vast, untapped reiryoku that lay quietly, like the still, untouched waters of a lake on a windless night. As he reached out with his own reiatsu, a tiny ripple ran across them, and a flicker of reiatsu sparked as the little body acknowledged it had far too much energy to ever keep contained, and proceeded to make its first attempts at converting that energy into power. It would be fascinating to see what his son's zanpakutou would be, and if those markings had any relation to it like they did with Renji.

Byakuya felt his heart swell with pride, more than satisfied by what he'd seen. This boy was going to be a fine shinigami candidate one day, though it was too early to tell how far he would go, as life had a way of throwing curveballs that could prevent someone from achieving their full potential. At first glance Byakuya was willing to entertain thoughts that he'd at least be officer material, but looking deeper, unless his own senses were completely thrown out of whack by having just given birth, what he had seen of the child's reiryoku told him the baby was more than going to pass the test to determine if he had the minimum power level required for clan leadership. If Byakuya had to guess, he was looking at the first consecutive generation ban kai candidate his clan had ever seen.

But ban kai potential was virtually an insult added to injury, when the child was a half-peasant bastard. And therein Byakuya had to once again face the grim truth. Powerful potential or not, his clan was going to fight tooth and nail to deny this child the chance to see that potential through.

The rules were very clear—no children born out of wedlock, and NO bastards were ever to be elevated to such high a status as Clan Heir. This baby—born out of wedlock, sired by a peasant, birthed by a clan leader with a history of rule-breaking, pregnancy unconfirmed by a clan physician—was going to have one hell of a time trying to claim what was rightfully his.

And it was rightfully his. Had the child been a girl, the clan might have let Byakuya keep her as a kindness and ordered him married off so he might procreate again and provide a suitable male heir, as it was their family's tradition to be lead by a man. But by being born male, having the proper reiatsu potential, and having come from the clan leader's own body, this little man was going to cause quite an uproar. Never before had any clan leader in possession of a ban kai produced a child who was also a strong candidate for being able to use ban kai. The best his clan had ever achieved was a ban kai user every second generation, and that only a few times throughout their history.

This child met every characteristic his clan desired, with the exception of his birth-status as a bastard, and his mixed heritage. Perfect heir in Byakuya's eyes or not, they would still see it as a shame on them that the boy's birth father was so incorrigibly disregarding of their policies, and dared produced an heir that absolutely embodied that disregard, right down to his exotic, unhideable birthmarks.

And yet, Byakuya couldn't bring himself to be diplomatic enough to care about how such a scandalous heir might affect his clan. Two days ago, back when his labor pains had been mere cramps and he was blissfully unaware of the great event they heralded, he would have died trying to uphold his clan's laws and policies and played the part of dutiful leader right to the end in his efforts to make up to them all the embarrassment and frustration he'd caused in his youth. Now, those things meant little in comparison with the injustice that his family would try to saddle this innocent boy with. This child was not to fault for his entrance into the world being unannounced and unofficiated, that was his birth-father's fault for not recognizing his symptoms, and refusing to see a healer when he was feeling out of sorts for such an extended period of time. The child was not to fault for his half-peasant blood, it was his father's choice to give in to the burgeoning love he felt for his peasant fukutaichou, and lay with him without taking the proper precautions. The child was not to fault for his parents being unwed prior to his arrival; they had not even come to a decision to tie the knot yet, let alone figured out how to get around the rules and convince his family to agree to another peasant marrying their Head of House!

But Byakuya could blame the child for giving him a reason to take a stand against those rules in favor of doing right by him.

If there was one thing this little boy had quite sneakily, handily, and irrevocably done simply by forcing the noble to fight to bring him into the world, it was that he'd shown Byakuya just how little the rules could mean when it came down to the important things in life. Of course the rules were needed so people could coordinate their lives and live peacefully together, but that didn't justify how overboard his family had a tendency to take them.

He hadn't held back in his fight to give birth to the babe just because there was going to be trouble when his family found out. He wouldn't deny his child life or a home with his parents just to save face. He wasn't going to attempt to hold him back just so a child with an accepted birth status and bloodlines took what he was more than qualified to inherit.

The lesson that Kurosaki Ichigo had imparted to him when the youth had fought so hard to save Rukia from a very legal and yet very unjust death, was finally driven home by this precious little one that had unapologetically barged his way right into the noble's life.

It was far more important that he fight for his son to have a fair chance at taking his rightful place in his own family, rather than allowing a prejudiced rule to shut him out and limit him. If the clan wanted to punish Byakuya, then so be it. But they would not take his son, they would not hurt his lover, they would not break up their family (should Renji choose to stay), and they would not deny this child the right to fulfill the role that he was meant to fulfill.

This child would be Byakuya's heir. This living embodiment of his refusal to see peasants in his heart as lesser beings, even though the noble behavior required of him might indicate otherwise. This new life who proved the wild spirit he had as a youth was only hidden, not gone. This proof that his heart had finally been healed and restored, after so many years of it laying broken inside him.

That thought caused a small twinge in his chest as he wished for a moment that he would have had the chance to see what offspring he and Hisana might have produced. He tried to picture it, but nothing came to mind except her beautiful smile and expressive eyes. And rather than feel the familiar rending ache of his heart breaking all over again, he simply basked in the warmth of the image for a brief second before letting it go as though it were a petal being blown away by the wind.

For fifty years he had mourned her, grieved for her, woke up drenched in tears, and lost countless hours of rest as he gazed at the stars and begged the universe for answers. Answers to that ever present 'why?'.

But looking at his sleeping child, he couldn't keep asking that anymore. It would always remain amongst the many unanswered questions in his life, but it would rest with those he had accepted he'd never get answers for, and moved on.

This boy was one hundred percent him and Renji, and he wouldn't change that or trade it for anything. And he would do anything to see to it that the three of them had the opportunity to become the family he'd always thought he'd been denied.

She was right, after all. Those five years with her had been a wonderful, beautiful dream. But now it was time to let that dream become a wonderful, beautiful memory, as he moved on to embrace the next dream.

When he got home—when, not if—the first thing he was going to do was make certain Unohana dragged him nowhere until Renji and his Squad were summoned. The redhead wouldn't have to wait a moment if he had anything to say about it before being introduced to their son. From there, the Squad could keep watch while he and the redhead decided what to do about their situation. Byakuya would personally prefer to simply take the plunge and make their union official, but if Renji still desired his freedom he'd honor it. From there, he would begin the fight to convince his clan to accept his son as his heir-to-be, to become his official heir upon completion of the required prerequisites.

And to show them just how serious he was, the child was going to break one more rule.

The potential heirs of his family were always given names based on a color theme. His son was different from his noble brethren, and yet still one of them, and for that, his name would reflect his uniqueness. Byakuya only hoped Renji would like it. His lover had missed out on so much already, Byakuya couldn't bear to take away the decision of the child's name as well. If Renji really objected, then they'd come up with something else. But Byakuya was hoping he'd like this one, as it perfectly embodied the message he was trying to send to his relatives.

He finally took his eyes away from his son, and returned his attention to his waiting companions. The whole decision had only taken a couple of minutes, and yet it felt as though he'd spent half an eternity searching his soul for that perfect moniker.

"Takahiro. I won't say it's official, as Renji should have a say in what his son's name is, but if he doesn't object then the child's name will be Takahiro."

"Takahiro…" Mihane tested the name on her tongue. "It's very dignified. What does it mean?"

"Great value, nobility," Shuuhei supplied. Byakuya looked at him in surprise. He simply shrugged.

"I edit a newspaper, after all. It's not as though we've never done things involving name meanings or popular names for babies."

The noble nodded. "My clan might see him as a disgrace for his heritage and my being unwed, but I care more about what's in his heart. And if he's anything like his father, he's going to have a very noble heart indeed."

"I think it's great," Rikichi grinned. "Just the stick-it-to-'em kinda name I think Abarai fukutaichou will love. Uh, no offense," he amended; worried he might have offended the noble.

"None taken." Byakuya's lips quirked. He wasn't going to admit to that being the purpose behind the choice.

"I like it too, but we should get going now," Rin spoke up.

"You're right," Shuuhei stopped looking at little Takahiro and turned to them. "Be careful, and remember: two hours. No more."

"You can count on us," Rikichi said.

"Stay safe while we're gone," Rin added, as the two of them crept cautiously out of the cave mouth and up the slope. Once they were clear, Mihane summoned what power she could and began rebuilding the sound-shield barrier, and an illusion barrier. Once both were complete, she sat down heavily.

"Done, and I don't have it in me to add more."

"It's fine, Mihane," Shuuhei assured her. The 9th seat merely leaned against the wall, too used up to argue.

"Mind if I catch some sleep for a few moments? You can wake me and we'll take turns with the baby in a little while. We're gonna need to build ourselves up too if we're going to try to fortify a new hideout."

"Go ahead," Shuuhei stared at baby Takahiro, then at his worn out birth parent. Next to him Byakuya was already sound asleep, his body finally allowing itself to shut down after roughly 45 hours of labor; at least six of them spent actually pushing. While awake he'd managed to put on his usual spectacular feat of not letting on just how much the events of the last two days had taken a toll on him. Now that he was asleep though the signs of extreme exhaustion were finally becoming evident. His skin was deathly pale, his eyes were black circles, his hair was a mess, and he reeked of sweat and blood.

"You know, Kuchiki Taichou may be pulling out an amazing feat of coping and ingenuity with the twists this mission has given us, but you've done an amazing job too. I think I can't wait to see your child a few months from now. If what I've see so far is any indication of your parenting potential, I think you'll be great."

Shuuhei looked up at her in surprise, not having expected such a compliment, but Mihane had already dropped off to sleep.

He returned his gaze to the baby again. Once again he tried to imagine what he'd do when the life nestled inside his body was instead finally nestled in his arms, and quite frankly he couldn't do it. Too much uncertainty lay between now and then, and the only thing he could really commit to was getting himself, his now five companions, and his unborn child out of Hueco Mundo alive. After that, the guessing games of what would become of him and what kind of parent he'd be could begin.

~*~Seiretei, Sixth Division Training Grounds~*~

"Downward strike! Step forward, overhead block! Step back, downward right hand block! Step forward, thrust!

Ten ranks of unseated officers brought their blades out of the block and stepped forward, maintaining their distance from each other as they followed Renji's command.

Fifteen hours had gone by since the call with Byakuya's team had been cut off. The fukutaichou had managed to sleep for about five of those hours, before he'd been woken up by a nightmare. In it he'd run to the central senkaimon, listening to his lover's screams and pleas for help coming from the other side. He'd pulled Zabimaru from its sheath, calling for his ban kai so he could blast the gates open, only for Zabimaru to transform into a giant crowbar instead. Unquestioningly he'd tried to pry the doors apart, but by the time he succeeded the screams had faded to silence, and the opened portal revealed Byakuya's corpse, laying with Kyouka Suigetsu impaled through his chest. A sound had caused him to look past his love's body, where he saw the broken remains of the rest of the lost team. Shuuhei had raised a bloody hand, eyes pleading as he made one last gurgled attempt to speak past the blood filling his mouth, before he too collapsed and went still. Another cry came from behind Renji as Izuru had darted forward to cradle Shuuhei's bloodied form in his arms. He'd turned back to the redhead with tears streaming down his face.

"Why didn't you help them?"

After that there was no going back to sleep. Instead Renji had gone to his desk to try and get some paperwork done, determined that when Byakuya got back enough of his paperwork would already be finished that he'd be able to take a week off for his lover to pamper him, on top of enforcing whatever rest Unohana prescribed.

He'd known the dream was mostly bullshit the moment he'd woken up and realized he was still in his office quarters and that it was still night out. But the horror of seeing Byakuya and his friends dead and hearing Izuru's devastated accusation wouldn't abate. So he made good on his desire to get as much work done as he could until it was time for the unseated shinigami to train, at which point he'd told the officer in charge of leading the exercises to take time off. Getting out of the office and putting his focus into working with the lower ranks definitely helped keep his mind occupied, so that rather than dwelling on the horrible things that might be happening to Byakuya, he was instead merely killing time while he waited for news that the senkaimon or communications (preferably both) were back up and running again. He even had his rescue team all picked out. Aside from himself and several Division Six officers, Kenpachi had ordered Ikakku and Yumichika to accompany him, and Izuru of course had his Division ready to do without him for a few hours so he could go with them to retrieve Shuuhei. And that wasn't even counting what medical aid Unohana might be sending.

He was about to call out the next string of instructions, when a hell butterfly flitted into his peripheral vision. Whirling, he almost took the poor thing's wings off snatching it out of the air so he could hear its message.

"Abarai Fukutaichou, this is Akon from Division Twelve. Kurotsuchi Taichou has had a breakthrough combating the virus disabling the senkaimon. We expect to get communications and hopefully inter-world travel back within the next four to six hours. Please be on standby to come to the Twelfth Division control room to receive whatever updates the stranded team has for us when we get in contact with them, or to go directly to the central senkaimon with your team to commence rescue attempts. Choose your team at your discretion; a team from Squad Four will rendezvous with you to offer assistance."

"Like I didn't know half of that already," Renji grumbled, mixed about what the message had to say.

On one hand six more hours meant that the virus would have been wiped out within 21 hours—much improved over Kurotsuchi's original predictions at the meeting that they only expected to see progress after 24 hours, not a resolution. Then again, the rumors that Soutaichou might have something to do with the fire lit under the crazed scientist's ass might have been to blame. Something about not letting him work on any experiments until Byakuya and the others were home.

Renji mentally shoved the rumor aside, uninterested if it was true or not but appreciative if it was. Whatever got that creepy bastard to pave the way for him to retrieve his lover and his friend and subordinates was fine by him. Not like those poor test subjects would lament the reprieve.

But six hours was still a long time… plenty long enough for horrible things to happen to the stranded team, if the worst hadn't happened already. Renji silently prayed and pleaded with the Soul King and the powers that be that six hours wouldn't be to late.

~*~Hueco Mundo~*~

Underneath the moonlight of the eternally dark World of the Hollows, a cloaked figure stood atop one of the many boulders strewn about the ancient vasto lordes battlefield, and watched as two other cloaked figures scrambled to the top of a depression and slunk off together into the maze.

Trademark smile set in place, Gin stayed exactly as he was.

"Shouldn't I go after them?"

The silver-haired ex-taichou turned and regarded the source of the rasping voice. Experiment 17 was shifting back and forth, eager for blood—shinigami blood, to be specific.

"Now, now, let them get a little further away before you chase them! We don't want them scurrying back to their little rabbit hole and raising the alarm now do we?" he admonished.

The hollow growled, and hung his head in acquiescence. Gin couldn't help the feeling of revulsion that coiled around his gut. This fearsome killer had been so beaten and broken by Aizen, that with the exception of the times he was ordered to attack he was rendered absolutely unable to so much as defend himself or hunt to stay alive, for fear of the tortures that might be inflicted upon him for doing so.

'Just another example of this guy's evil. Not even the hollows are safe.'

Not that Gin had developed a soft spot for hollows—quite the contrary—but every moment he stayed in this vicious world, in the presence of that evil man, he found infinitely more reasons to hate the psycho sonofabitch, and infinitely more reasons to want to kill him, even if it did cost everything he'd ever built and achieved to do so.

But first, he had to see to it that poor Byakuya and his hapless cohorts didn't pay the price for the folly that had lead them to follow on the heels of that last team that Experiment 17 had been sicced on. Especially at such a bad time when Aizen was trying to put his latest scheme into effect!

Judging the two had gone far enough ahead, he raised his arm and pointed with his first two fingers.

"Go get 'em, boy. Just remember—toy with them before you kill them. Might as well get as much bang for your kan as you can, while you can."

The hollow eagerly shot off, and the former taichou shook his head and sighed. The almost pathetic part of Experiment 17's "training" was that when someone asked it to toy with its prey, it almost inevitably forgot to kill them in the end—so eager it was to continue the only activity that provided it with any kind of happiness, perverse as it was.

But then again, that was a hollow for ya.

The cloaked shinigami launched himself from his perch and slowly and silently made his way down towards Byakuya's hideout.

Fortunately for him, that blast of reiatsu from the taichou's efforts to birth his offspring had even knocked out the web of alert lines he and his compatriots had placed into the sand. Which was impressive; normally those things shouldn't have been affected by such flares, unless of course the person's reiatsu was exceptionally powerful.

He snickered to himself. He'd expect nothing less from Kuchiki Byakuya.

Skirting the outside of the boulder, he found a place to settle towards the back of the jutting boulder where he could hang out until the proper time. Of course there always was the possibility that he could be seen if those subordinates happened to come back from the same direction. But theoretically his cloak should keep him hidden well enough to lure them in close enough for a knockout punch.

Making himself comfortable, he resolved to stay as statue-like as he could until Experiment 17 failed to corral the two subordinates and they came bolting back to their precious comrades.

In the meantime he went over the plan in his mind, absently toying with the device he'd brought along that he hoped would allow him to pull off this little charade.

Hoped. Because if it failed, he was not only going to add six absolutely unnecessary deaths to his long list of lifetime kills, but he was also for the first time going to have to add the title of "Baby Killer" to it as well.

Personally, he'd rather avoid that if he could.


A/N: Ah, the plot thickens. I have to say, I'm really getting into this little plot twist TDM has tossed me. Originally I thought I might let the boys and Mihane pull the wool over Aizen's eyes and laugh watching him find out after the fact that Byakuya had a kid right under his nose without him knowing. But this is so much better!

Next time- Gin puts his plan into motion, and the team try desperately to stay alive. But with Byakuya barely able to stand, the baby to worry about, Hisagi at risk of losing his own child, and the other three hardly a match for a former-taichou and his nasty science experiment, getting out in one piece is going to be anything but easy. If they even get out at all…

As always- please remember to review.

Anonymous Review Responses: To those of you who have come back to read again after my long absence, thank you so much! And to you newcomers, welcome to the madness!

GJ- Thanks! Glad you liked the raspberries, they were a favorite detail of mine too. Hope the baby's appearance was just as likeable!

Katz- Yea, he is a little Matsumoto-obsessed, isn't he? But then, I feel like he hasn't had much perspective to really branch out. She was his childhood friend, he committed himself to avenging whatever Aizen did to her, and by the time he got himself into a position where he had other people around that he could have gotten close to it was too late and he was too committed to taking down Aizen. Part of the reason I jumped on the idea of a sequel to this fic (not something I originally intended to do) was because I had a plotbunny that would allow me to explore his character a little more by taking his revenge scheme and throwing a major monkey wrench into it. And yes, Unohana walking in and treating him like he's still one of the good guys would definitely be a laugh, haha. And Byakuya is indeed going to have some fallout to deal with for having gotten himself in such a situation, and not just from his family! Tehee, he might want to take Shuuhei's cue and keep those tests around just so he can whip one out and say "Look, see? No plus sign!" ROTFL!

Random anonymous reviewer- Yes, Senbonzakura has a thinking pose. I LOVED that episode where he and Zabimaru got stuck in the Division Twelve labs, and him plopping down Indian-style to wait to be let out was just too adorable. And yes, one of the curses of trying to be colleagues with people who watched you grow up is that they never let you forget they watched you grow up. Nor do they ever stop seeing you as that little kid they used to watch out for. And yes, I think there's a good many people who are going to be highly enthused that Byakuya has a kid. Ukitake for one… aaannnd the ENTIRE SWA. (Poor Bya. XD) And yes, Rukia was left out largely because her extreme concern for her brother would have possibly led to her stealing the limelight from certain characters that I needed it to be on (plus her after-the-fact reaction seemed to have much greater hilarity potential, hehe). Don't worry, Gin's… well, you'll see. And yea, I'm looking forwards to the reunion too. Gotta start planning now—don't want to get stuck wondering what everyone's reaction's gonna be and delay future chapters!

Oh, and the 哉 kanji. Bravo for pointing out that it was different from the conventional 夜. I think my brain is so conditioned to reading 夜 that I defaulted. ;shame; Ah well, I too went and researched it a bit, and no wonder even my Japanese professor didn't know it—it's not a kanji you see in writing; it's for names only! Sneaky, Kubo-san, sneaky… But it does indeed mean 'to query'. Add the 白 in there and I think 'white question' is about as close as you're going to get for meaning. Unless you want to try something abstract, which I don't think Kubo-san was going for. Using the weird, you'll-never-see-this-anywhere-else kanji is probably about as obscure as he was going for. XD I had so much fun researching it (it's not often I see name-exclusive kanji) that I just had to include it in the chapter. Hope you enjoyed!

Ryo- Aww, here's some cyber-tissues! And personally, I think the easiest answer would be both worry, and happiness. ^_^ At least that's how I feel.