queenofchalices: (Dragon Cuisine OMM NOM NOM!)
[personal profile] queenofchalices
Title: Moon Over the Tower: Chapter Three
Series: Bleach
Rating: R
Warnings: het (IchiHime), blood, scariness. Should be read with the lights off.
Spoilers: This is AU. We don't need spoilers where we're going.
Disclaimer: These characters belong to a lot of Japanese people, namely people like Tite Kubo and Shonen Jump. You'll notice how none of those are me. The LiveJournal format that you'll probably be reading this in (if you're one of my friends) is rough draft and is subject to revision. Consider this a 'sneak peek'. If something sits the wrong way with you, let me know. This will probably (never) be updated weekly, until I eventually drop it like every other project ever. Not responsible for epileptic seizures or allergic reactions. May contain eye-and-brain-bleeding levels of radioactive ANGST and/or peanut products. Please sit a reasonable distance from your computer screen.

Author’s Note: I hope everyone had a happy winter holiday! And will have a happy New Years, too! The next chapter is almost done and should be out shortly after New Years!

____________________________________________________________

"This is patently ridiculous!"

The maid arched one fine black eyebrow in response.

"What is ridiculous is your coddling of the master's cowardice," came the reply. Tatsuki folded her slender, muscular arms over her chest. "It's bad enough you two decided to drag that poor village girl up here," she continued, following the valet as he paced, "But if he just hides from her, she's going to get suspicious. He at least needs to eat dinner with her."

"Do you understand what you're saying?" Uryuu asked, his words clipped, "It's... It's ridiculous!" Tatsuki was unmoved. She watched as he turned to her from the other side of the drawing room. It was situated in the servants quarters, so there was no chance of their guest overhearing.

"You're ridiculous," Tatsuki jeered, "How do you think this looks to her? No fires burning, hardly any light, and now you want him to avoid dining with her? It's bad enough we obviously don't have a cook here. I know for a fact she cooked her own breakfast." Uryuu stiffened.

"I'll ask Nemu," he said coolly, "If the girl asks, we can say she's the regular cook and that she was ill recently." Tatsuki looked unimpressed.

"This is really inexcusable," she said quietly, "If you were going to keep a human here, you should've planned better." Uryuu shook his head.

"I was against this lunacy from the start," he protested firmly, "But the master is being his usual stubborn self." Tatsuki's stern look didn't waver.

"He's only doing this so he doesn't have to deal with what happened," Tatsuki continued, "You should never have allowed it in the first place. But now that he's started, he needs to grow up and face his problems. Dealing with this girl would be a good start." Uryuu looked as skeptical as ever.

"It's something you can't understand," he explained. When he saw Tatsuki's look darken, Uryuu's eyes narrowed. "Don't give me that look. You know perfectly well why he's acting like this." Tatsuki's hands trembled as they balled into fists. In one quick movement, she had bridged the distance between them and slammed her fist into Uryuu's jaw.

"I don't understand?!" she bellowed, "Don't patronize me, Ishida! I'm not some uninvolved bystander here! He can't hide from his shame forever! If he wants to make amends with me, he can start by acting like a man and facing his problems!" Uryuu had barely been moved by the punch; it was Tatsuki's yelling that had the greater effect. It rendered him speechless and slack-jawed. He stood staring at her wide-eyed, his hand covering his jaw where he'd been struck. Tatsuki simply tutted and shook her hand; striking him was like punching a brick wall.

"I... apologize," Uryuu finally said, his look softening, "You are correct. It would be better if he recovered from this... fear of his. But I worry for this girl. If it happens again..." Tatsuki cut him short with a glare.

"It won't," she said simply, "I'll make sure of that." Uryuu nodded in understanding.

"I have already promised him as much," Uryuu replied before turning to look at the clock on the mantle. "He'll be up soon. Perhaps we should begin preparing."

"Preparing for what?"

Uryuu turned around slowly. Behind him stood their master, slightly groggy and still in his bed robes. His tousled red hair stuck out at odd angles and his eyes were puffy from sleep. Uryuu hesitated when he saw him; he knew of a surety that Ichigo was not going to like this.

"Dinner," Tatsuki said firmly, crossing her arms, "You'll be eating with Orihime tonight." Ichigo looked genuinely startled.

"Why would I..." he began before fading into silence at Tatsuki's stony look.

"So that she doesn't start wondering why she never sees you," Tatsuki started, eyes narrowing, "And so you can get over your ridiculous fear. Ishida, get him ready. I'll go supervise Nemu." Both men watched as the forthright maid walked out of the drawing room and towards the kitchen.

"Who died and made her lord?" Ichigo grunted. But neither he nor Uryuu protested too loudly.

________________________________________________________________

Night had fallen all too quickly for Orihime's tastes. Before she knew it, Tatsuki had called her for dinner. To say she was nervous would have been an understatement. She was petrified.
As she entered the dining hall, she saw for the first time how it looked when it was lit in all its splendor. The fireplace was lit (finally!), the chandelier glowed brilliantly, and a fine, polished service was laid out for her and the Count on the table. The dishes were intricately detailed with pale blue paint that complemented the sparkling crystal of the wine goblets and the shining gold of the utensils.

As Orihime entered, her eyes widened at the change in the room over the course of the day. Just the simple act of bringing light into the room had made such a difference! Her pale pink and red-trimmed skirts danced around her feet as she turned to take it all in.

"Please, be seated."

Orihime startled at the pleasant voice that had come from the kitchen. There stood a tall girl, about her age, with pale skin and heavily lidded eyes. Her black hair was cut straight across her forehead and framed her cheeks in little wisps; in the back, it hung in a thick braid. It complimented the black maid's dress she wore, which swished around her legs as she wheeled a serving cart out of the kitchen.

"Ah-?" Orihime breathed, "I didn't see you there this morning when I came to get breakfast! I hope it wasn't any trouble!" The girl began arranging things from her cart onto the table, her expression unchanging.

"It was no trouble," the girl replied, her voice a steady, melodic monotone, "You may come and go here as it pleases you. I will not always be here to cook for you." Orihime took her seat, not taking her eyes off the odd girl. There was something about her manner of moving and speaking that simply sat the wrong way with Orihime. It almost reminded her of a puppet of some kind.

"Oh, thank you," Orihime said sweetly, masking her misgivings, "I don't think we've met before. I'm Orihime Inoue. It's a pleasure to meet you." Secretly, she was a little glad to have mastered the art of introducing herself in such a short time. Hopefully, she would be able to get past that with the Count's family as well.

"I know who you are," the cook intoned dully, "We have not met yet, though. I am Nemu Kurotsuchi." Orihime's expression fell a bit; aside from the odd impression her speech left, she was disappointed the girl didn't seem to appreciate her introduction.

"I'm honored to meet you, Miss Nemu," Orihime said, holding onto her composure through her growing feelings of anxiety. Nemu's green eyes held a slightly predatory look, but Orihime dismissed it as her overactive imagination.

"Do not waste your manners on me," she softly intoned, "I am nothing but a lowly maid." Orihime looked stricken.

"Don't say that!" she chided, "I'm just as lowly as you! I'm only a peasant!" The black-haired maid looked completely impassive. Orihime fancied she was actually speaking to a doll.

"Kurotsuchi," a firm voice came from the doorway of the dining room, "Please tend to your duties."

The maid bowed her head and hurried back to her serving cart as Orihime turned to see who had just arrived. It felt as though all the air had been knocked out of her chest as she laid eyes on him. The Count had dressed well for the occasion, it seemed. He was clad all in black to compliment his pale complexion and fiery hair. His eyes seemed to glitter as they lighted upon Orihime; there was some vague emotion there that she couldn't quite read. Whatever it was, his stare seemed to have the same mesmerizing effect on her as it had the night before. She could hardly look away as her mouth formed a perfect "o".

"Good evening, Miss Inoue," he said as a small smile replaced his customary scowl, "How have you found your stay so far?" Orihime could feel her cheeks light up as he drew nearer her seat. She wasn't sure she'd even be able to form coherent words with him looking at her like that.

"I-It's been fine," she stammered, "Miss Tatsuki has been helping me with my etiquette, a-and I've been able to find my way around well!" The Count nodded a bit as he made his way behind Orihime's chair, trailing a fine-boned hand over the high wooden back. A shiver raced down her spine at the near-contact.

"I'm glad to hear it," he said, pausing just behind her shoulder, "If you need anything, she can get it for you. She's my family's most capable maid." Orihime smiled up at him, lifting her chin. Tatsuki felt like a good, safe topic. A neutral conversation would keep her mind from running away with itself with silly ideas while he was around.

But as she met his eyes, she saw something else flit across them. He wasn't looking at her face; no, his eyes had drifted lower. They were half-lidded and unfocused, hazy with something that made Orihime's heart race. His look made her feel exposed, the bare skin at her throat and collar feeling more naked than when she'd been undressed completely. When Tatsuki had first dressed her, the low collar of the dress and the flesh spilling over it had felt particularly scandalous, but she had gotten used to it over the course of the day. Now, though, she felt like she might as well have been sitting there naked. And the Count's heated look gave her the impression he agreed.

"Sh-She said she's been with you since she was a little girl," Orihime tried to continue as Nemu reentered the room with a bottle of wine. She poured a glass for each of them before vanishing back to the kitchen. Orihime stared at the glass skeptically, not knowing if she should drink.

"She has," he replied, after seemingly snapping himself out of his daze, "She is as trustworthy as Sado or Uryuu." Then his cinnamon brown eyes lighted on Orihime's glass, noticing the nervous looks she was casting at it. "Have you never drunk before?" Orihime shook her head, cheeks burning.

"I've never had wine," she confessed, suddenly feeling like a little girl, "Rangiku wouldn't let me. And we couldn't afford any, anyway." The Count gave her a devious smirk.

"You're not going to tell on me for giving you some, are you?" he asked, propping his chin up with his hand. Orihime's hands went straight to her lap as she sat up straight in surprise.

"Oh, no, my lord!" she exclaimed sincerely, "I-I wouldn't repay your kindness like that!" He couldn't help but laugh a little at her honest, childlike reaction.

"I didn't think you would," he answered, almost warmly, "Go ahead, take a drink." Orihime gave him one last look, as if asking permission, before delicately picking up her glass and bringing it to her lips. She lowered her eyes, breaking his mesmerizing gaze; if she kept looking at him, she'd be too embarrassed to do anything while he watched.

The wine was bitter, burning a bit as it went down. It made her scrunch her nose in wonder. How did people drink this stuff? Especially with dinner! If anything, it would be good for keeping the late autumn chill at bay. Perhaps it would be better warm? Still, Orihime didn't want to seem rude, so she kept her features schooled and placed the glass back on the table.

"It's an acquired taste," the Count said, a little amusement peeking through his voice, "I'm not a big fan of wine, personally." Orihime nodded dumbly as she refolded her hands in her lap. For as much as Tatsuki had taught her today, she still failed immensely at making conversation. Or maybe it was just the Count who had struck her dumb.

But then Nemu wheeled in her serving cart again, and all thoughts of conversation fled Orihime's mind. Whatever roast meat was on the cart, it made Orihime's mouth water. The rich smell filled the room; Orihime found herself unable to take her eyes off the cart. Even worse, though, was that her stomach reacted the same way. The loud growl was audible all the way across the table. She was suddenly very sorry she hadn't stopped to eat since breakfast.

"Sorry," she apologized sheepishly. The Count, however, seemed to have problems of his own.
He was also watching the cart, but with a different expression than Orihime had. Unlike the predatory look he'd given her when he'd entered the room, now he looked positively green. Orihime thought that whatever was on that cart seemed to be making him fairly ill.

"Roast chicken, ma'am," Nemu intoned evenly, causing Orihime to cast a fleeting glance back towards the Count. As the maid drew the cover off the bird, the delicious smell nearly overpowered Orihime. The Count was nearly overpowered in another way; he brought his napkin to his nose as something Orihime was sure was anger flashed across his eyes. As her plate was set before her with the delicious meat, she looked at him hesitantly. Was it really alright for her to eat when he couldn't?

"Don't mind me," he said, his scowl firmly back in place, "I have my own cook, and he gets irritated if I don't eat his cooking. You go on ahead." Orihime looked skeptically at him for another moment before her hunger got the better of her and she picked up her knife and fork. She cut into the bird with abandon.

"This is wonderful," she exclaimed after a bite, "Did Miss Nemu make this?" The Count gave her a wry smile.

"I doubt it," he said dryly, "It was probably Tatsuki." It seemed like there was a double-meaning there that Orihime was missing, but she was too famished to care. The chicken was absolutely succulent; it had been roasted with rosemary, paprika, thyme, a whole lemon, a potato, and several cloves of garlic. She couldn't help but think that if she had a dollop of honey for it, it would be just perfect.

Her ecstasy must have shown on her face, because the Count's slight smirk came back, tugging at the corners of his mouth. He picked up his crystal goblet and swirled the wine around a bit before putting it to his lips. Orihime quickly glanced down towards the fine linen tablecloth before he caught her openly staring again.

"So..." he began, glancing off to the side as he lowered his glass, "Tell me a little about yourself, Miss Inoue." Even though his voice was hesitant and a little awkward, Orihime still thought he was perfectly charming.

"U-Umm, well," she said thoughtfully after swallowing, "I live with my older sister Rangiku. She supports us by working at the tavern in town. I-I work, too, just... not as much as she does. She won't let me help her in the tavern, so I mostly tend sheep and feed chickens for the farmers in town." Saying it out loud like that, Orihime felt like a little girl. But when she looked up at the Count, he was smiling as though she had told a joke. She wasn't sure if she should be embarrassed or flattered.

"She sounds like a devoted sister," he noted. Orihime nodded shyly.

"Ever since big brother passed away, she's done her best to take care of me for him," she said softly, "I hate not being able to help her more." She took another bite of the chicken, breaking eye contact and looking down.

"And that's why you agreed to help me so easily," he observed evenly. Orihime looked back up, nodding.

"She didn't want me to," she replied, "But if it means she can stop working and finally get married, I'll gladly do it." Then she paused, wondering how to bring her next topic up without sounding ungrateful.

"Umm, we never discussed, ahh..." she began before losing her nerve and trailing off. The Count's eyebrows rose for a moment before he figured out what she was getting at.

"Your payment?" he asked, causing her to nod shyly, "If you like, I can have Ishida bring her the first installment tomorrow. It'll help offset your absence." Orihime smiled in relief.

"Thank you," she breathed, some of her apprehension evaporating, "I was... really worried about her. I hope she'll be able to get along without me." She gave the Count a broad, open smile then, which was met with a halting, awkward one. He looked a bit wistful, as though she had reminded him of a pleasant memory. Orihime blushed lightly and brought her glass back to her lips, only to find it empty.

"Ah?" she asked in surprise, "It's empty!" She had drunk all of it during their conversation without even noticing. After the initial shock of the taste, she had found the flavor complimentary to the chicken and had been using it to wash it down. Now, after having had a few minutes to get used to it, she felt her body alight with pleasant warmth and a mild numbness.

"You sure finished that fast," the Count said with a mischievous smile, "Are you sure this is your first time drinking?" Orihime's mouth hung open in surprise for a moment, but she found herself momentarily unable to form words coherently. As she sat there dumbfounded, the Count's countenance slowly changed from one of mischief to one of concern.

"Miss Inoue?" he asked, rising from his chair and making his way over to her. She looked up, her vision blurring as she watched him walk to the side of her chair and kneel beside her. When he did, though, his look shifted. It moved from genuine concern to something else. She could swear he was once again giving her the same predatory look as when he'd first entered the room, eyes half-lidded, glazed with some indescribable emotion.

As her eyes drifted shut, the last thing Orihime's befuddled brain made out were the sharp, glistening white canine teeth behind the Count's lips.

________________________________________________________________

If Ichigo had been closer to being in his right mind, he would've questioned this turn of events.

As it was, he simply took the unconscious girl beside him to be a lightweight. The single glass of wine she'd had clearly had knocked her out. And the great deal of concern he'd had for her well-being had flown away at the sight of her head lolling back, baring her slender throat for him. Her eyes had fluttered half-way shut into a seductive sort of hazy gaze, almost distracting him from the part he found most enticing.

In fact, he found this whole scene suddenly very erotic. The light pink blush upon her cheeks; her pulse beating gently beneath her creamy skin; her slightly parted, flushed lips; and those glorious breasts of hers, the tops peeking roguishly above her collar, pressed together firmly. And her scent! Even behind that noxious garlic Tatsuki had cooked - and Ichigo had no doubt she'd done it to discourage him from just such an impulse - he could still smell her clean, lovely scent. It was too much for him.

He could feel it then. His other side, the one he only showed to his prey, was coming out. He would certainly regret this later, but at the moment, that hot, impatient impulse was driving him. There was no thought of his larger plans or of any promises he'd made to himself; the only thought currently in Ichigo's mind was of the gratification he was about to get from this girl's throat.

As he leaned in, he schooled his impatience, taking a moment to inhale the scent of her skin. By now, his lips were grazing her hot neck, the strong pulse of her jugular just one thin layer away from him. The coolness of his kiss must have registered with Orihime, because she stirred a bit beneath him, moaning as she stretched her neck for him. Ichigo growled deep in his throat in response, clutching the armrest of her chair almost hard enough to break it. He drew the flesh of her throat into his mouth, sucking it gently before letting the sharp tips of his canines graze it.

As suddenly as those impulses came, they vanished. Ichigo felt as though a bucket of ice water had been dumped down his back. His vision cleared as his eyes shot open. Looking down, he saw why; a string of garlic had been dropped onto his shoulders. He thought for sure the smell alone would suffocate him.

"A-AHHH!" He pulled the offending herb away from his neck and flung the loose string across the room. No matter how disgusting he found it, or how badly it burned him, it always brought him back to his senses.

"Thought so," he heard Tatsuki growl from behind, "I thought it was a little too quiet in here." He turned to see her glaring down at him, hands on her hips. Nemu stood behind her in the doorway of the kitchen.

"Sorry, I just... I..." But how could he explain it? Now that he was coming down from his euphoria, he knew he'd done wrong. It had almost escaped his control, again.

"It's not your fault," Tatsuki said, her countenance relaxing a little, "Not entirely. Nemu apparently thought she would help you out by drugging Orihime's wine." Ichigo looked at Nemu wide-eyed.

"Kurotsuchi?"

"My apologies, master," she said quietly, "I thought she was to be the meal." Ichigo ran a frustrated hand over his face. This was what he got for not letting all the staff in on his plans.

"Then why on earth would you think Tatsuki was feeding her garlic, of all things?" He gave a small, rueful laugh, although to be honest, he felt like expelling his last meal there on the dining room rug. Nemu simply shrugged. He should have known complex thoughts like that were beyond her now.

Ichigo rose from his spot beside Orihime's chair, groaning as he did so. That noxious weed really could work a number on him.

"Tatsuki," he grumbled, "Get rid of that... garlic. I'll put Miss Inoue to bed." As Ichigo bent down to pick her up, though, he noticed the look of disbelief Tatsuki was giving him.

"Nemu, give me the garlic," she commanded, never taking her eyes off Ichigo. The long-haired girl nodded and moved to do as she was told. Ichigo's eyebrows knitted together as Tatsuki continued to stare at him. Nemu offered her the strand of cloves, which Tatsuki gladly closed her hand around.

"What?" he finally asked, scooping the sleeping girl out of her dining chair. Tatsuki arched an eyebrow.

"Do you seriously expect me to just let you take her to her bedroom after what just happened?" Tatsuki asked incredulously, "No offense, Ichigo, but I'm not that stupid or careless."

Ichigo could feel color coming into his cheeks at her admonition. He hadn't been thinking of another such encounter with the auburn-haired girl in his arms, but Tatsuki was right. It wasn't safe for him to be alone with her right now, no matter how much his predatory side yearned for it.

"I didn't think you could carry her," Ichigo admitted sheepishly. Tatsuki's expression softened a bit.

"I might not be able to," she admitted, "Alright. Let's go together."

Ichigo nodded, curling his fingers into Orihime's dress as he tried to ignore her enticing smell.
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Crystal Dawn

February 2012

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