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[personal profile] queenofchalices
Title: Moon Over the Tower: Chapter Eight
Series: Bleach
Rating: R
Warnings: het (IchiHime), blood, scariness, religious topics. 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: Sorry to make you guys wait, but I just finished this very late last night and needed to sleep before posting it! But here it is now! XD

_____________________________________________

Uryuu came down the snowy, wooded hillside all in a tumble, the very early morning light filtering through bare branches and glancing off the spray of snow. As he finally arrived to Orihime's house, he saw the signs of struggle around the side. The wooden shutters were splintered, long scratches gouging the outside of the house. There were small, fractured pieces of wood littering the snow, as well as bright red splashes of blood.

As his eyes followed the trail of blood back to the house, Uryuu realized the fight was already over. He had no doubts Ichigo had prevailed, but the blood was certainly worrying.

He followed it around to the front of the house and up the steps to the front door. The blood trail went through the closed front door, but that was no impediment to Uryuu. He had already been invited inside once; there was nothing stopping him from entering again.

Uryuu pushed the door open with no fanfare, swinging the heavy wooden slab aside as though it were made of paper. It scraped against the cold, wooden floor as it swung inward, revealing the chaos inside.

Orihime's blonde sister lay in the middle of the floor, straw hair ringing her head and spread out on the blankets that had been lain beneath her. He could see the rise and fall of her generous assets, and the faint flutter of a weak pulse on her throat. And beside her sat Ichigo, clutching his side as a bright red stain seeped into the fabric of his shirt. Uryuu could tell from the look on his pale face that he'd lost a lot of blood; judging by the wound, it was probably inflicted by something silver.

And standing over both of them was an irate black-haired man with three jagged scars running the length of his right cheek. His eyes landed on Uryuu as he entered, his expression cold and stony as he sized up the valet.

"Who are you?" the angry fellow asked pointedly. Uryuu didn't bother looking up, instead kneeling at Ichigo's side to inspect his master's wound.

"Uryuu Ishida," he replied mechanically, uninterested in the black-haired human's ire, "I am the Count's valet. What happened here?" Ichigo, who was still conscious, grinned tiredly at him.

"I found him," he ground out hoarsely, "He got me good, but I made him pay for it." He chuckled weakly, although neither of the other two men smiled.

"I don't know what the hell is going on here," the other man piped up, "But I'd like an explanation. What were you doing out there? What happened to Rangiku?" Uryuu flashed the scarred man an impatient look.

"We were hunting the person who's been lurking around this house," he replied coldly, "It looks like he was after Miss Matsumoto." The black-haired man looked unimpressed.

"You expect me to just believe that?" he asked, crossing his arms, "All I've seen is the Count here dragging her in, unconscious."

"It's true," Ichigo panted, his eyes flashing a subtle gold, "I interrupted him and he stabbed me." And then: "Uryuu, where's Chad? I sent him to get you..."

"He's bringing the carriage down," Uryuu said shortly, "You interrupted the attacker... So the woman is alright?" Ichigo's eyes fell to the blonde lying prone in the floor.

"She'll be fine," he muttered darkly. This didn't seem to assuage the scarred man's fears.

"Are you serious?!", the dark-haired man barked, trying to restrain the edge of hysteria in his voice, "She was lying out in the snow, in the dead of winter, for no conceivable reason, and now she's unconscious!" As his voice rose, though, the woman in question's eyes began to flutter. As he began to launch into a second rant, she brought a hand up to cover her eyes.

"Shuuhei," she groaned, "Keep it down..." The man named Shuuhei looked immediately chastised, not at all unlike a small, scolded puppy. Then, after realization finally dawned on him, he knelt down to Rangiku's side and took her hand.

"How are you feeling?" he asked quietly, causing Uryuu to suddenly feel like he was watching something intimate. From the look on his face, it seemed that Ichigo was having the same thought. Either that, or he was on the verge of passing out from blood loss.

"Tired," Rangiku moaned, sitting up and holding her head, "What time is it? One of the shutters came loose last night, and then someone grabbed me..." Shuuhei cast a sharp glare at the two other men in the room.

"It wasn't him, was it?" he asked pointedly, drawing Rangiku's attention for the first time to the two newcomers. Her blue eyes widened as they focused on Ichigo and Uryuu.

"Oh, the Count!" she exclaimed, "What are you doing here?" Ichigo smiled weakly at her while Uryuu cast Shuuhei a smug look. The latter turned away, blushing and abashed.

"There was something lurking behind your house when we came by the other night," he said succinctly, "My driver noticed it." Rangiku blearily focused on him, nodding dumbly as she went.

"Don't worry," Ichigo continued, "I scared him off. But... you would do well to stay inside after dark and don't let anyone you don't know in." Rangiku rubbed her eyes in agreement, still not quite processing what was going on around her.

"Shuuhei," she finally muttered, "I don't think I'll be going to work today. I don't feel so well." Uryuu's sharp blue eyes turned to Shuuhei as he helped Rangiku lie back down.

"It would probably be best if you stayed with her until she's better," he addressed the other man, "Arm yourself, preferably with a silver weapon." Now the black-haired man turned to him with a look of confusion.

"What?" he asked skeptically, "Why silver? It's too soft..." Uryuu gave him a silencing look.
"Just trust us on this," he said dismissively, "That's what you'll need to handle that thing." The scarred man said nothing, but his expression showed his displeasure.

"Chad is coming up the drive," Ichigo breathed, drawing the men's attention.

"How do you know that?" asked Shuuhei, "I don't hear anything." But sure enough, the other men turned to the door.

"No, he's there," Uryuu confirmed, stretching Ichigo's arm over his shoulder, "I hear him too." He hoisted the redhead to his feet and started dragging him toward the entrance. Before Shuuhei could protest again, the two were out the door and into the shadows of the front porch.

It was a bright early morning, the sky cleared of the day before's snow clouds. Ichigo wearily lifted his hand to shield his eyes; both their eyes and skin were extremely photosensitive. Even the glare from the snow hurt.

Chad was just pulling the carriage up and had only barely stopped the horses when they emerged from the house. The two men rushed to the carriage, Uryuu flinging the doors open and nearly throwing Ichigo inside. As soon as the door was shut behind him, Chad spurred the horses into action, sending them speeding up the hill, throwing showers of snow in their wake.

______________________________________________________________

The house had been preternaturally quiet all morning.

As Orihime sat in the large, empty dining room and ate her morning porridge, something felt very odd to her. It felt as though a presence was missing, or the house was emptier than it normally would've been at this time of morning. Even though she rarely saw anyone before mid-morning and had never encountered anyone at breakfast, it still felt as though the whole house were eerily empty.

Just as she was about to get up and put away her bowl, she heard a commotion coming from the front foyer. She could hear Uryuu shouting orders and Nemu and Tatsuki's sleepy voices calling in response. Instead of cleaning her bowl, Orihime jumped to her feet and ran to see what the fuss was about.

She stopped short of the front hall, concealing herself behind the corner as she watched the scene unfold. Uryuu was commanding the other three household staff while he and Sado bore the Count's weight stretched between them. Tatsuki took one of his orders and nodded succinctly as she scurried off with Nemu in tow. Uryuu and Sado slowly followed her, careful not to jostle the Count's unconscious body.

Orihime watched, mortified, as they took him away. They were moving in the general direction of the chapel, if her memory served her. She fretted as they carried him out of sight, worried that she should follow, but also worried that she would be unwelcome. But her concern for the Count and what may have happened to him overrode her better judgment and she followed along at a distance anyway.

She had only followed the procession down two hallways when Uryuu turned and whispered something to Sado. The tall Spaniard relinquished the Count's limp body to the valet before turning and walking back the way he'd come, directly toward Orihime.

Orihime's eyes widened; how had they known she was there? No matter how it happened, she didn't want to be turned away. Without thinking, she dove into an alcove, hiding herself behind a large, barren urn. As she heard Sado's footsteps approach, her heart hammered in her ears; maybe he would just overlook her and pass right by?

Orihime had no such luck. The tall brunette stopped right before her alcove and looked down at her evenly. As she looked sheepishly up at him, she knew she was in trouble. She was grateful that he at least didn't look angry.

"This is no place for you, Miss Inoue," he rumbled gently, "Master Ichigo has been hurt and needs his rest." Orihime hung her head, blushing in shame.

"Can you tell me what happened to him, at least?" she asked quietly. The giant's expression softened a bit as he looked down at her.

"I'm sorry," he said with a shake of his shaggy head, "He can tell you himself when he gets up." Orihime kept her half-lidded eyes on the floor, peering in the direction they'd gone. There was a thin trail of bright red blood leading down the hall to where Uryuu and the Count were now. Orihime frowned a bit; he was bleeding heavily, but Sado was so sure he would be fine later.

The tall man hooked his thumb over his shoulder to indicate that Orihime should start heading back to her room. Orihime nodded sheepishly and slowly began trudging her way back down the hallway toward her room. Sado followed her, resembling nothing more threatening than a watchful puppy.

After some few minutes, they reached the door to her chambers. Sado stood at a respectful distance, opening the heavy door for her. She stepped inside and turned to face him, eyes swimming with questions.

"Miss Arisawa will be by for you in a bit," he said, turning to go back the way he came. Orihime watched him walk slowly down the hall until he disappeared around a corner. Sighing, she trailed back to her bed to sit and wait.

The message was clear enough. She was to stay in her room and wait.

_____________________________________________________________

The morning drug slowly by for Tatsuki.

First of all, there was Ichigo to attend to. The young lord had done a good job of hiding it, but he'd been wounded pretty badly. And as with any wound inflicted by a silver weapon, it refused stubbornly to stop bleeding.

It wasn't just the danger of him losing blood. No, that was the tip of the iceberg. Certainly it was dangerous; the loss of blood, if left untreated, could eventually kill him. But there was no real worry for that. They had a perfectly fine remedy on-hand to prevent it.

No, the truly dangerous part would come afterward, when they tried to feed him. He wouldn't be able to hunt on his own tonight, and he needed to feed in order to regain his strength. That was where the real danger lay, and Tatsuki knew that all too well. Oh, she and the rest of the staff would be fine; the only real threat would be to Orihime.

It was essential that Orihime not move around too much after dark. That would be about the time Ichigo would awaken, and about the time his healing would be complete. And Tatsuki would most likely be the one to keep her occupied. As long as she stayed in her room, everything would be fine.

As for Ichigo, preparations had already been made. As soon as Uryuu came through the door with him, Tatsuki and Nemu had sprung into action setting the family crypt up for him. A mound of freshly turned earth had been prepared, as well as a slab to lay him out on and a casket to seal him into for the rest of the day. When Uryuu finally arrived with him draped over his back, Tatsuki and Nemu immediately took his limp form and laid him out on the cold stone slab.

The two girls went to work, cutting away his shirt, retrieving bandages, and preparing the mud mixture. This was the earth Ichigo had been interred into when he was a baby, and it still had healing properties for him because of that connection. Even his father and the rest of his family kept some of it with them in Budapest; part of the reason they returned to their mountain estate once a year was to replenish their supply and reconnect with their burial place.

Once the dirt was mixed into paste, they slathered it into the wound, a wicked gash running down the length of his ribcage. It was at least as long as a human hand, and about half as wide as a finger. The blood still flowed freely from it, staunched only when Tatsuki finally stopped the wound with the mud pack. Nemu then bandaged it tightly and fastened the gauze around their master's waist.

The next part was left to Sado and Uryuu. The two stronger men lifted the redhead into his coffin then moved the heavy lid over the open top. They didn't nail it down or latch it into place; instead, they simply laid it into the fresh patch of newly turned earth and threw a few handfuls on top of it. When Ichigo awoke later that evening, he would simply push the lid away and emerge.

As the others prepared to leave and rest for the day, Tatsuki headed toward Orihime's room. She knew she had a long day ahead of her; as soon as the others awoke, she'd be tasked with babysitting both Orihime and Nemu while Sado and Uryuu went hunting.

She only hoped nothing went wrong.

____________________________________________________________

Orihime had been gnawed by worry all day long. She knew making another attempt to see the Count would be futile while everyone was busily tending to him, so she decided to wait until later. Hopefully by early evening they would have relaxed some.

Alas, that was not to be. Tatsuki joined her by mid-morning and kept her so busy with diction, etiquette, and posture that she barely noticed the sun setting behind the trees. She drove her relentlessly, allowing her to stop only long enough to eat. And then, when it was finally dark, she dismissed Orihime to her room. That didn't mean she wasn't still watching her, though; on the contrary, Orihime was well aware that Tatsuki was just in the room next to hers and would hear her if she tried to leave.

She couldn't really blame Tatsuki for her sharp behavior today, though. She knew the other girl was worried about her master; the whole house was, she was sure. And it was certainly in Orihime's nature to worry for those she cared about. To her, the entire estate had a pall over it this morning, and it would only be lifted once she saw with her own eyes that the Count was truly going to be alright.

As such, she bode her time, waiting patiently for the house to grow quiet and settle. Well after dark, she heard the front doors of the great hall open and close. She figured someone had gone out for something, as the carriage soon pulled out of its shelter and went rattling down the drive. Curiously, Orihime peered out the window, wondering where the men below were heading to. Were they going to find a doctor?

She fretted for what seemed like an eternity, lying back on the bed and trying to outwait sleep and Tatsuki both. Surely she would fall asleep soon? But if the men were going out for something, wouldn't she be likely to wait up for them?

Orihime's dilemma plagued her until she lost all track of time. Before she knew what was happening, she heard the slam of doors and the sound of horses rebelling coming from the courtyard. Orihime wasn't exactly sure when she'd fallen asleep, but now that she was awake and there was a commotion downstairs, this was her chance to sneak over to the Count's quarters to see if he was there and really alright.

She slowly pushed open the door and looked left, then right. The hallway was clear, although the commotion was still coming from the front hall. Orihime had a vague idea of where the Count's rooms lay, and she figured that was the best place to start looking for him. If he didn't happen to be there, she could always check the chapel; they had been going in that general direction earlier.

She crept around the landing overlooking the great hall, being careful to keep down and out of sight. The residents of the house, minus the Count, seemed to be dealing with an emergency with the horses and completely oblivious to anything Orihime might be doing.

Silently, she sneaked into the darkened hallway leading to the Count's chambers. It was cold and damp, the only light shining in through the starlit sky outside. Orihime could still hardly believe how drafty the castle was and how the residents didn't seem to notice. It was no great surprise, then, when their suite was much more barren and colder than hers.

She shivered as she made her way down the hall, looking left to right and back again as she searched for the Count's chamber. She figured it would be a grand room, the master suite, and should be easy to recognize. And in due course, she wasn't disappointed.

The door to his room was large and ornately carved, made of heavy oak and adorned with gold fixtures. The arch above it was made of heavy stone, possibly hewn from the surrounding mountainsides. It was absolutely ancient and intimidating and fitting of the rest of the castle.

Hesitantly, Orihime rested one hand on the cool wood. She took a deep breath, hesitant of what she might find on the other side. Her imagination started to take hold as she pictured the Count, tousled and shirtless, sleeping in his bed. Before the vision could fully form, Orihime shook her head, reminding herself that she was there for something important. She didn't have time to be distracted!

Squeezing her eyes shut, she pushed hard on the door, causing it to swing inward. After several long moments, Orihime released the breath she'd been holding and slowly opened her eyes. As she stepped inside and took in the starlit room, she could barely believe her eyes.

The Count wasn't there.

Orihime's brows puckered. She was sure he'd be in his bed by now. As she moved toward the center of the room, and the large, elaborately carved wooden bed, she hardly registered the sound of the door swinging closed. The only thing that alerted her that something had happened was the sound of the heavy wooden slab sealing the portal she'd just come through.

Orihime jumped in place, turning to see the shut door. The room was still empty, so she couldn't fathom how it would have shut by itself. As she stood there contemplating this apparent paradox, she didn't notice the movement in the shadows of the room. It was subtle at first, a breeze shifting the gauzy curtains on the bed and a slight change in air pressure.

And if she had turned around just then, she would've seen the two burning golden embers right behind her.
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Crystal Dawn

February 2012

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