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[personal profile] queenofchalices
Title: Moon Over the Tower: Chapter Ten
Series: Bleach
Rating: R
Warnings: het (IchiHime), blood, scariness, religious topics, sexual situations. 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: We're nearing the climax of the story! There's a lot of background in this chapter and I hope it doesn't come off as too convoluted or trite. Anyway, I hope you'll all enjoy this chapter as well!

________________________________________________________________

Orihime sat watching the girl on the edge of her bed, enrapt. Tatsuki had cast her several nervous looks already and was doing so now, as well. The black-haired girl sighed and grasped the skirt of her dress until her knuckles turned white.

"Tatsuki?" Orihime asked, worry in her voice, "What... What's going on? What do you mean, the truth about you? You're... You're just Tatsuki, right?" When her friend refused to meet her eyes, Orihime sat up on her elbows to get a better look at her; she still felt faint, but after a few moments, she regained her equilibrium.

"No," Tatsuki finally answered, turning to face Orihime with a pained expression, "Orihime, the truth is... you're the only human being in this house." Orihime blinked for several seconds before painting on a nervous smile.

"D-Don't be silly, Tatsuki," she chided nervously, "You're just as human as anybody." As much as Orihime had already had her doubts, she truly wanted to believe this. But one look at Tatsuki's stern expression was enough to tell her she didn't actually know the truth.

"No, I'm not," she said softly, "Orihime, before I tell you this, I need you to understand - none of us want you to come to any harm." Orihime looked at Tatsuki curiously, but already she felt her apprehension growing.

"Okay..." she said skeptically. Tatsuki simply gave her a piteous look.

"All the men in this house," Tatsuki finally said, nearly blurting the words out in her nervousness, "All of them are vampires."

Orihime felt her blood run cold. Of course she had heard the stories from the old women in the village, of corpses that rise from the grave after three days and feed on the flesh of the living. And while she'd occasionally entertained notions of these stories being true, they had always taken a backseat to her daily life. In a way, it occurred to her that when she was finally confronted with something truly phenomenal, the fact that she would miss it so spectacularly was heavily ironic.

Then there was the fact that none of these men, including the Count of which she had found herself so enamored, were likely to have souls. After all, wasn't vampirism supposed to be the result of the possession of a corpse by a demon? But as far as that went, none of them had hairy palms or smelled like a rotting corpse, either, so how would she really be able to tell?

But beyond that, did that mean everything she'd seen and experienced while she was here had been a lie? She had no way of knowing exactly what power the Count literally had over her, and it was clear from their last encounter that he had the ability to make her unable to resist him. Had he been bewitching her, making her think impure things and leading her astray this whole time? How could she trust that her mind was her own around him now?

"Orihime?" Tatsuki finally called her back to her senses, "Are you okay?" Orihime stared at her blankly for a moment before a guilty look washed over her face.

"Y-Yeah, I'm... I'm fine," she lied pitifully, before blurting out the first thing to cross her mind, "Does this mean the Count was trying to steal my soul?"

Tatsuki stared at her wide-eyes for a second before her eyebrows puckered together.

"I should've known," she sighed, before casting Orihime a nervous look again, "No, he doesn't want your soul. And your rosary won't do anything to him. He's not religious."

This truly left Orihime puzzled. How could someone not be religious? Everything in the whole world was created by God in some capacity, even bloodthirsty vampires, she supposed - although those were probably created more by Satan himself, but he was also created by God.

"But... Why not?" she asked, confused, "Aren't... Aren't vampires agents of Satan?" Tatsuki shook her head.

"If they are, I've never met him," she said, "And I've met a lot of vampires." This brought another question to Orihime's mind.

"But what about the priest here?" she asked sheepishly. Tatsuki gave her a strange look.

"What priest?" the black-haired girl asked, "You've met everyone here." Orihime's face momentarily took on a pained look, but she hid it as best she could.

"The... The priest I gave my confession to," she whispered, "That day in the chapel." Tatsuki's eyebrows went up into her hairline. Before she could stop herself, she blurted out the first thought to cross her mind.

"The only person in the chapel that day was Ichigo," she thought out loud. As soon as she said it, she regretted it. The look on Orihime's face said everything - whatever she'd had to confess, he'd been the one to hear it. But she quickly collected herself, even though her little hands were shaking, and pushed on with her questions.

"You're not a vampire, though," she noted quietly, "From what you said before..." Tatsuki shook her head, giving her a stern look.

"No," she answered succinctly, "I'm not. I'm something different entirely. And Nemu isn't like any of us." Orihime continued to cast confused looks in Tatsuki's direction, so she continued on.

"I'll tell you about me," she finally said, "It'll probably help explain some of the things that have been happening here."

_____________________________________________________________

Tatsuki had been with the Kurosaki family since the day she was born, over eighteen years ago. And in some ways, she had always been treated just like a member of the family.

Her mother had been a young Parisian noble and something of a libertine. Being young and free-spirited, she'd had many lovers, human and vampire alike, and little interest in settling down with any proper vampire lord, although many had made her offers. And finally, after a few years of this, she found herself with child.

Seeing as the father was certainly human, the lady was sent to stay with the Kurosaki family, who were residing in Budapest at the time. As soon as the half-breed child was delivered in private, the young mother went back to her family. Tatsuki heard some years later that she'd married some vampire noble or other, although it didn't have much impact on her life either way.

Of course, the Kurosaki family had their own motives as well. While most vampire clans wouldn't bother with a half-breed bastard, the Marquis and Marquise had other ideas. Since her mother was of good stock, there was no reason to reject her outright. At best, Tatsuki could grow to adulthood just in time to marry their adolescent son, who was a perpetual disappointment to the Marquis in romantic matters. At that point, she could be made into a full vampire and officially join the family.

This was the plan for Tatsuki's life. She hardly resented it; the Kurosakis were kind enough, she never wanted for material things or affection, and she was given a first-rate education. She was groomed to be a Countess, although her pursuits mostly lay in more masculine areas like hunting and horseriding. Even those were indulged from time to time when the Marquis and Marquise thought she was doing well enough in her studies.

As for her betrothed, he did well enough. Ichigo had been a good sport about it for as long as Tatsuki could remember. Oh, she was sure he'd resented being engaged to a baby at some point, but that was long before Tatsuki was conscious of it. As it turned out, though, he became more of a brother and confidant than a lover. It made no difference to her; marriages weren't built on love, after all, and there was nothing to be ungrateful about in what they were giving her.

Ichigo aged much slower than her, though; in her earliest memories, he was a young, awkward teenager, still struggling with the last remnants of puberty. Soon she was old enough to go riding with him, but he'd hardly changed at all. And eventually, her own growth had caught up to his, putting them at roughly the same age physically. It wouldn't be much longer until they could be married and she could become a full-blooded vampire.

Fate, however, had other plans.

For various reasons which had since been forgotten, Ichigo hadn't been able to feed in over a week. Tatsuki, genuinely worried for her friend, had decided to call on him in his quarters; although she knew he would refuse any offer she made to hunt for him, she could at least keep him company until Uryuu or Sado returned with his meal. What she found when she arrived, however, was not the Ichigo she had come to know.

His eyes were wild, the whites filled with black ichor and the irises completely golden. He moved more gracefully than she had ever seen him, with all the deadly precision of a hunting hound. His voice was distorted as though he were underwater. And most prominent of all, the fangs which usually remained hidden above his gumline had descended, protruding down over his bottom lip. This Ichigo was feral, operating solely on raw instinct and base desire.

Later, they would all come to find that these instincts of his were decidedly warped. Most vampires, when they became hungry enough, would revert to a similar state, interested in feeding and nothing else. Some would shut down completely, hibernating until a servant brought a fresh meal. But for some reason, Ichigo functioned differently. Instead of just drinking, he had a secondary desire; the scent of virgin blood caused him to become deliriously aroused.

In truth, this trait was quite destructive, not only for any virgins Ichigo might encounter, but for Ichigo himself. It virtually assured that any human woman he met that could be a likely candidate for vampirehood would be robbed of any chance of that, should he get too close.

This was the case with Tatsuki, as well. He was much faster than she, and much stronger. She had never been bitten before, and she had never experienced a bite-induced swoon before, either. Before she had any idea what was happening, she was unconscious.

The next thing Tatsuki knew, she was waking in her own bed in her night dress. Her tattered and bloodied clothes had been discarded nearby, a visible indication of what had happened. She was light-headed and hurt all over, especially between her legs. It only took a few moments for her to register what had happened, the shock slowly spreading across her features.

Ichigo's mother and sisters were there when she awoke, monitoring her condition and tending her wounds. The piteous looks they gave her made her want to cry at the same time as they made her want to hit something, preferably something Ichigo-shaped.

It took her a while to forgive her friend. In fact, Tatsuki wasn't entirely sure she had forgiven him yet, a whole year later. Yes, she knew he had a problem that he had no control over, and she knew he suffered for it. But that wouldn't bring her virginity back, and that wouldn't make her a full-fledged vampire. Nothing would now, and Ichigo knew this; what Tatsuki had planned for her entire life was now gone.

The Kurosakis were kind enough to her for it. Knowing now that she'd be permanently stranded with a mortal lifespan and unable to enter their family once and for all, they still provided for her. Like Sado and Uryuu, she was made a servant, but it was mostly in name only. Yes, she was head of the household staff, but the hired human help did most of the work in the house in Budapest. Really, although it didn't compare to what she could've had, it wasn't bad, either.

As for Ichigo, after initially rushing to her room to apologize, he avoided her for a while. After a fortnight of this, Tatsuki had had enough and stomped into his room, swearing and bludgeoning him about the head. As it turned out, he was mortified by what he'd done, and afraid he'd do it again. His way of dealing with it had been to avoid all of his female friends and family, and not just Tatsuki.

As it turned out, avoiding the problem was just what Ichigo intended to do. After his father had sent him to several specialists, and they'd finally figured out what was wrong with him, he had no desire to risk another attack. His father's solution had been to find him a wife as soon as possible, but Ichigo was understandably averse to this proposition. So instead of working to fix his problem, or addressing it in any way, Ichigo simply ran away, back to the family's mountain home.

While Ichigo claimed this was mostly to protect his sisters - and Tatsuki recognized it as a valid point - Tatsuki mostly saw it as pure cowardice. Not only was Ichigo running away from his father's insistence that he marry as soon as possible, but he was running away from his problems. Tatsuki resented this more than she could ever express; she wasn't allowed to run away from what had happened, so why should Ichigo get that luxury?

That was why she'd been so insistent that Orihime stay in the first place, even when Uryuu had wanted her to go. She knew it was wrong to put her new friend in such a dangerous position, and she felt immensely sorry for it. She thought she and the others could keep things under control, and with the exception of two close calls, they fairly well had. But she also knew that Ichigo wasn't going to address his problems without being forced to, and this was a damn sight better than shoving him into a marriage neither he nor the Kuchiki heiress wanted.

But that also brought them to where they were today, with a shell-shocked Orihime sitting in her bed, listening enrapt to Tatsuki's story.

__________________________________________________________

"I'll understand if you want to go back," Tatsuki sighed, hanging her head. Much to her surprise, Orihime didn't yell or hit her or anything like that. Instead, she put a trembling hand on Tatsuki's shoulder. When the black haired girl looked up, she saw her friend's eyes swimming with unshed tears.

"Ta-Tatsuki," Orihime sniffled, "That's... That's so sad!"

Tatsuki was dumbfounded. No one had ever come right out and shown her pure pity before. Yes, Ichigo's family had been understanding enough and kind enough, but none of them had ever come right out and said that what had happened to her was sad or awful. In truth, Tatsuki felt a little gratitude for Orihime's concern. All she showed to the other girl, however, was a simple hair ruffle.

"It's alright," she said quietly, "I'll live. You don't need to worry about me." Orihime seemed to be thinking for a moment before looking back up to Tatsuki sheepishly.

"So that's why the Count didn't want to get married," she observed, "Maybe... Maybe he doesn't want to marry anyone but you?" Tatsuki couldn't help but notice the light blush spreading across Orihime's cheeks. Part of her wanted to burst out laughing; after hearing all this horrible stuff, Orihime was apparently worried that she'd intruded on someone else's relationship.

"No," Tatsuki said warmly, "That's not the case at all. He's too chicken to even look me in the eye now most days, let alone want to marry me." Orihime's pout told her that she didn't believe that assessment, though.

"But Tatsuki!" she protested, "That might just mean he's nervous because he likes you! When Mr. Hisagi used to call on Rangiku, he couldn't look her in the eye, either!" Tatsuki snorted with repressed laughter; it was an odd feeling, like she was holding back tears with her laughter.

"No, Orihime," she finally said, "I grew up with him, remember? He doesn't think that way about me." Orihime gave her something of a sad look, but didn't press the issue any further.

"Do you think I should leave?" Orihime asked quietly after some moments of silence, "It might... It might not be alright for me to stay here anymore..." Tatsuki's eyes softened as she regarded her new friend.

"I don't know, Orihime," she answered honestly, "That's between you and Ichigo. If I had my way, you'd stay with us forever." She looked away as the words left her mouth, feeling a bit shy after having admitted it out loud. She didn't notice the look of discomfort that crossed Orihime's face at her sentiment.

"I don't... I don't know, Tatsuki," she whispered.

Before Tatsuki could reply, though, there came a heavy knock on the door. Both girls turned to look at the heavy wooden slab warily, as though it might jump off the frame and bite them at any second. After a few more seconds with no response, a voice came from the other side of the door.

"Tatsuki? Can I come in?"

Tatsuki's expression turned sour. What the devil did he want? She expected he'd be here sooner or later to apologize, but she wasn't sure if she was ready to leave Orihime alone with him just yet.

"Have you fed yet?" she replied sternly, hoping Uryuu hadn't been stupid enough to let him loose without feeding first. He seemed to take the hint, because there was an awkward shuffle behind the door for a few seconds before his uncomfortable answer.

"Yeah..."

"Then yes, you can come in," Tatsuki said imperiously. She noticed Orihime draw her knees up to her chin as Ichigo entered, huddling beneath her comforters. Ichigo himself was a bedraggled mess, hair sticking out at odd angles, clothes askew, and eyes bloodshot red. Tatsuki couldn't remember the last time she'd seen him so disheveled and clearly distressed.

"May I... May I speak with Miss Inoue alone?" he asked hoarsely. Tatsuki cast Orihime a glance to measure her response. The redheaded girl looked a little afraid, but as soon as she saw Tatsuki's curious face, she nodded shyly to her.

"I suppose so," she said, rising and smoothing out her skirts, "Orihime, if you need me, I'll be right outside." Orihime nodded silently as she watched Tatsuki go.

As soon as Tatsuki had gone, Orihime watched trepidatiously as the Count approached her bed. He never took his eyes off her, his pained expression gnawing at her. Part of Orihime wanted to embrace him and reassure him, but the other part didn't dare. As soon as he reached her bedside, he dropped to his knees and hung his head.

"I know I have no right to ask your forgiveness," he began, speaking to the floor, "But I still want you to know how utterly sorry I am." Orihime felt her heart squeeze painfully in her chest. She knew she should forgive him, both as a Christian and as a friend. But the words stuck in her throat; she was afraid.

"Count," she finally addressed him softly, "Is it true? Everything Tatsuki told me?" He lifted his face to her, small streaks of water lining his cheeks.

"Tatsuki wouldn't lie to you," he said, his voice rough. Then, after a moment, he spoke again. "Did she tell you all about us?" Orihime nodded.

"She said... you have to drink blood to live," she whispered, "That you're a vampire. And... And I know you listened to my confession." The Count flinched at hearing her come right out and say it, but he didn't look away.

"Do you hate us?" he finally asked, "Do you hate me?" Orihime felt tears prickle the corners of her eyes.

"I don't know," she answered, holding back a sob, "How can I... How can I trust you again? Were you... Were you the one who's been preying on our village?" The Count looked shocked for a moment. Orihime briefly wondered if it was because he didn't know about the deaths at all, or if it was because he'd been caught.

"Preying on?" he asked, eyes scrunched, "He's killed in my village?" Orihime's expression grew puzzled.

"He?" she asked, "Something has been killing people in that village for years! My brother--!" The tears that had threatened to escape just a moment ago were now overflowing, running down her cheeks in little rivers. She choked down a sob as the Count continued staring at her in agonized confusion.

"I'm sorry, Miss Inoue," he said quietly, "This is my family's land. I should never have allowed anyone else to hunt on it. We always hunt outside of our territory, unless there's an overpopulation problem." Orihime simply stared at him, face full of pain.

"Listen to yourself," she sobbed, covering her face with her hands, "You're talking about people like they're... they're deer or rabbits! Even if you didn't kill my brother, the others you've killed might have had brothers or sisters, too! It's... It's wrong!" If she had been looking, she'd have seen the Count flinch.

"Miss Inoue," he said softly, reaching up and pulling her hands away from her wet face, "We can't help what we are. This is how we have to live. I can never ask you to accept it, but... please understand that it's not out of maliciousness. It's out of necessity." Orihime looked into his eyes; they were earnest and pleading. No matter what kind of monster he might have been, the Count was still a man and he still sought her approval. She bit her bottom lip as she thought her next words over carefully.

"Do you have to kill?" she asked softly, "Can't you only take a little?" A flicker of grief passed over his face.

"It's very difficult to stop, once it's begun," he answered, "And there's always the risk of leaving a witness." Orihime nodded quietly, giving him a sniffle as she did.

"Would you try? Please? For me?" The Count looked briefly pained before opening his mouth again.

"I... can try," he said, flinching. But when the corners of Orihime's mouth tugged up, his expression eased into an awkward smile.

"Thank you," she said, tugging the hands that were holding her closer to her chest. And after another few moments of looking at them, she spoke quietly again. "I'll stay," she whispered, "Until the end of the month, to meet your father. I did agree to it, a-and I want to help you."

And a tiny, foolish part of her was hoping that just maybe, she could help the Count change his ways.

But if the Count noticed any of that, he didn't show it. Instead, his eyes lit up with happiness.

"Thank you," he said breathlessly, "You don't know how much that means to me. Thank you."
As soon as the words had left his mouth, their eyes met. Orihime felt something peculiar then; as though she wanted to lean forward and meet his lips. This wasn't anything she could remember feeling before, either. Her eyelids fluttered over her eyes, lowering until the lashes almost rested on her cheeks. Maybe it was the strong outpouring of emotion on his part, but something made her just want to kiss the Count. And from the slight blush on his pale cheeks, she thought it a good guess that he wanted the same.

Before their lips could meet, however, the shuffle of feet echoed briefly down the corridor before Orihime's room. Her door was slung open with enough force to bang it loudly against the opposite wall. Both Orihime and the Count jumped apart, startled, as Uryuu stood in the doorway, gasping for breath.

"Sire," he panted, "He's here!" The Count regarded him with a look of confusion for a moment before speaking.

"Who?" he asked bluntly. Uryuu grimaced.

"Your father," he said with considerably less cool than usual, "He's a week early! His carriage just pulled into the courtyard!"
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Crystal Dawn

February 2012

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