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[personal profile] queenofchalices
Title: Moon Over the Tower: Chapter Twelve
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.

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As Orihime came back to consciousness, she was vaguely aware that she wasn't alone. The other presence in the room was warm and comforting, and she began to wonder if she wasn't already home in her own bed with her sister.

"Rangiku?" she asked blearily, turning her face in the direction of the other person in the room. She felt a gentle hand swab a warm washcloth across her forehead, before withdrawing with a pleasant sigh.

"You're finally awake," the sweet voice said, "No, dear, I'm not your Rangiku." Orihime's eyes fluttered open to reveal the hazy picture of the lovely golden-haired woman she'd met briefly before - the Count's mother. She blinked a few times to focus, clearing her eyes of sleep, and found herself staring at the older lady's warm, brown eyes. They weren't much different from the Count's, actually.

"I-I fell asleep," Orihime acknowledged sheepishly. She noted that night had already fallen outside; it had been near dawn when she fainted, and now it was darker. She even wondered for a moment if she'd slept for more than one day. She could tell a blush had started to creep up her neck at the idea. Tatsuki had told her that nobleladies weren't exactly possessed of the best constitutions, but she still couldn't help but be embarrassed at her own weakness. The Marquise simply smiled.

"You fainted," she corrected, "Tatsuki informed us that Ichigo had been... snacking, before we came." The blush overwhelmed Orihime's face entirely, causing the Marquise to chuckle behind her hand. Orihime wanted to hide under her covers for some inexplicable reason. It wasn't as though she and the Count had actually made love, but what had transpired seemed like it might have been almost as personal.

"It's embarrassing," Orihime muttered, pulling her comforter up to her chin. The older lady simply patted her head.

"Come now, child," she cooed, causing Orihime to feel oddly soothed, "It's natural he'd want to feed on you. Although you're very lucky. Did Tatsuki tell you that?" Orihime's eyelids drooped a bit as she recalled all that had transpired the night before. Just thinking about it was enough to make her sad.

"Yes," she said softly, "Tatsuki told me about the Count's condition." She could tell that the Marquise shared her sadness, although hers was likely much keener than she let on. The Count was her only son, after all. Still the woman nodded to her with a sad smile.

"I believe he'd be quite bereft if he couldn't keep you in spite of it," she said kindly, "He's hardly slept a wink today. He's too busy coming up here to check on you." A large part of Orihime was surprised and flattered at the news; it was strangely nice to realize he cared that much. But the other part of her felt a pang; it was dangerous for him to be that attached to her. She knew logically she couldn't stay with him.

"The Count is really wonderful, isn't he?" she finally said quietly, trying to keep the lie together. But she would need to speak to him as soon as possible. There was no way she could go through with this wedding. Perhaps Masaki sensed her hesitation, but she didn't note it. Instead, she turned the conversation to a different track.

"Oh, I'm so glad you think so," she nearly gushed, showing much the same enthusiasm as the Marquis, "He's just like his father was when he courted me!" Orihime suspected the Count would find that comparison less than flattering, but was enchanted by the Marquise's enthusiasm nonetheless.

"What was the Marquis like?" Orihime asked, sensing the older woman wanted her to follow her lead along the conversation. At the question, the brunette hid her laughter in her sleeve.

"Oh, he was so very charming!" she continued, "He saw me working as a milk-maid and stole me away from the farm in the night! Before I knew what had even happened, he'd fed on me several times, made me into a vampire, and seduced me. It all happened very fast." Orihime's mouth was open wide - the Count's mother wasn't even nobility? In fact, it sounded like her situation wasn't that different from Orihime's.

"Then you were... you were human once, too?" she asked carefully, "Just like me?" The brunette smiled warmly as she wrapped an arm around Orihime's shoulders.

"Just like you," she echoed, "Although I doubt you were a milk-maid. Ah, but... Let's keep that just between the two of us, shall we? Isshin had to hide me from his own father until he'd forged a passable pedigree for me - the elder Mr. Ishida had to convince him there was no nobility in the Americas - so the children are none-the-wiser." Orihime's eyes were wide from this information - it was probably why Tatsuki and the Count had been so insistent she learn proper etiquette. They had also been fooled into believing it was important to the Marquis.

"A-Ah, yes ma'am!" Orihime said seriously, her face a stern mask. The Marquise laughed at her sudden change of demeanor.

"Please, call me Mother," she offered kindly. Orihime felt her eyes water as her face went back to normal; she couldn't remember her own mother. She and her father had died while she was just a toddler, struck down by the beast - now known to be another vampire - that had been threatening their village. She felt keenly now that she'd never really known what it was like to have a mother. And she hated the idea that she had to lie to her.

"Y-Yes, Mother," she sniffled, holding back tears. The brunette cooed softly at her, folding her into her arms and gently rubbing her back for a long moment. As they were just pulling apart, the heavy door to Orihime's room swung inward, causing Orihime to startle at the sound. As she looked up to the doorway, she saw two of the strangers from earlier enter. The tall, red-haired man was carrying a tray in his hands, while the petite, black-haired girl swished into the room in her full violet skirts.

"Hoooh, she's awake?" the girl asked, wide-eyed. The Marquise smiled at them both before rising to envelope the black-haired girl in a hug of her own.

"She just came to a few minutes ago," she said, "I'll excuse myself so you and Renji can get to know her better." The black-haired girl curtsied to her elder before she swished out the door. As soon as the older woman was gone, the younger exhaled deeply before turning back to Orihime with a crooked grin.

"So you're the human girl that stole sour old Ichigo's heart?" she began, causing Orihime to stare in bewilderment. She hadn't met anyone who spoke like this so far, and she wasn't all that sure that the girl wasn't challenging her. It was all Orihime could do to give her an intimidated answer.

"Y-Yes, I am," she said shyly, "I'm Orihime Inoue." The black-haired girl curtsied briefly.

"I'm Rukia, Marquise of Kuchiki," she said with a clear hint of happiness now, "And this is my valet, Renji Abarai." The red-head tipped his head towards Orihime, motioning toward the tray in his hands.

"Miss Arisawa said you'd be hungry," he rumbled, "So she gave this to us for you." Orihime finally noticed that she could smell the delightful scents of roast chicken and herbs from beneath the cover of the tray. Her mouth began to water as she looked at it.

"A-Ah, thank you!" Orihime blurted out, grateful for the food. Renji situated the tray over her lap as Orihime looked on in wonderment; she'd never dreamed of being served like this before. As she unrolled her golden dinner service, Rukia began to speak.

"We were told you would understand that we aren't quite used to this," she said, eyes sparkling, "But I hope this is sufficient?" Orihime nodded gratefully as the dish was uncovered; she could fully smell the delicious aroma now.

"It's wonderful," she breathed, finally noticing something, "Oh! Tatsuki left the garlic out this time!" Rukia and Renji blinked in unison for a second before they looked at each other with similar grins.

"She cooked your food with garlic?" Rukia asked, hiding her utter amusement. Orihime was too preoccupied with her meal to notice much, but she at least remembered to chew and swallow before answering.

"Oh, lots and lots!" Orihime responded happily, taking a drought of the water she'd been given, "It was really delicious! N-Not that this isn't, this is wonderful, too!" At this, both Renji and Rukia burst out into peals of laughter. Orihime stopped, mid-chew, to wonder at them.

"Did I... say something funny?" she asked. The black-haired girl was clinging to her escort's arm, nearly gasping for breath now.

"Did he not tell you?" Rukia asked, "We are, all of us, highly allergic to garlic. Ichigo in particular cannot even bear the smell!" Orihime's eyes widened. It made sense then, why Tatsuki insisted on seasoning all of her meals with it; she had been trying to dissuade the Count from losing control around her. Orihime blushed at the realization.

"He must've been having trouble keeping off of her," Renji went on with a knowing smirk. Rukia didn't seem to think that was too funny, though - and all things considered, Orihime thought it probably wasn't. She slapped him lightly in the midsection before tugging at his ear; the look she gave him could wither the courage of the bravest of men. Instead of running, however, the redhead simply took it and only whined a little.

"Oww, Rukiaaa!"

"Behave yourself, Renji," the black-haired girl commanded before releasing his ear. Orihime watched the exchange in fascination. She'd only ever seen some of the harsher wives in town act like that to their husbands, usually when they were in Rangiku's presence. And they seemed very informal towards each other for a noblelady and her servant.

"You two seem very close," Orihime observed with a small smile, in-between bites. She watched curiously as the pale Marquise's skin turned a sluggish pink and her valet cleared his throat and looked away.

"Renji has been with my family for many years," the Marquise explained with something of a nervous smile. Orihime wondered at all of this; she thought perhaps there might be something between these two, but she wasn't exactly sure what. Perhaps Renji was Rukia's half-brother, begotten by a tryst with a married woman and unable to claim his rightful place as heir? Or maybe he wasn't a vampire at all, but a werewolf or some kind of demon who was contractually bound to Rukia through magic? Or what if Renji was a wizard who was trying to magically enslave Rukia for his own diabolical purposes? Orihime's imagination entertained several possibilities as she ate, each farther removed from reality than the last. Finally, Rukia spoke again and snapped her out of her self-induced trance.

"Actually, we... wanted to thank you," Rukia said, folding her hands over her full skirts, "The Marquis had been entertaining the idea of wedding me to Ichigo several years ago, and renewed his interest in it over the past year. He had almost won my brother over before you came along. Neither of us wanted that." Orihime listened curiously until Rukia was done speaking before asking her question.

"O-Oh," she began, "I'm glad you don't have to, then. But... you both wanted to thank me? Why?" Rukia turned even redder than before as her violet eyes widened and Renji nearly choked from embarrassment.

"I guess Ichigo didn't tell her," Renji muttered, scratching the back of his neck.

"At least we are not as horribly obvious as we feared we might be?" Rukia responded hopefully.

"Obvious about what?" Orihime asked innocently. Rukia gave her a shy smile before explaining.

"Renji has been trying to gain my brother's approval for us to wed for years now," Rukia said, "After it was decided that Miss Arisawa would be betrothed to Ichigo, Renji decided he would try to win my hand. He's been trying to convince Brother ever since." As she spoke, Renji took her hand in his and held it tight. Orihime felt as though everything had suddenly become clear to her. There was nothing strange or fantastic about the relationship these two shared. They were simply two young people in love, regardless of social rank and status. Instead of being fantastic, Orihime thought it was horribly romantic. She only hoped there would be a way for them to stay together without her and the Count having to wed.

"A-Ah!" Orihime finally exclaimed, cheeks pink, "Good luck, Mr. Abarai! I'm sure you'll win him over!" The man in question blushed a bit before giving an answer.

"I hope so," he finally grumbled, letting a small smile grow on his face, "He can be a real mean ol'--" But Rukia's elbow met his side again, causing him to gasp for air. "Oww! Rukia!"

"There is absolutely nothing wrong with Brother," she corrected him quickly, causing him to wince.

"Your brother's one of the stodgiest people I've ever met," a familiar voice came from the doorway. Rukia and Renji turned in unison to look at who'd entered while they were talking. Orihime looked around the two of them to see the Count leaning against the doorway and giving them a stern look.

"Well, it's a good thing you will not be related to him, is it not?" Rukia huffed, arching one fine black eyebrow at him. The Count rewarded her with a pale blush, causing Orihime to blush in turn. Sometimes it felt like the boundaries of their charade were blurring into reality.

"I prefer it," the Count said, regaining his composure, "Now if you'll please excuse us, I need to speak to Miss Inoue alone." Renji and Rukia exchanged looks before they each had a grin spread across their faces.

"Control yourself, Ichigo," Rukia chided as she shuffled out the door. Renji gave him a slap on the back and a chuckle as he passed.

"It's just a few more days, you can wait," he joked, earning a stiff glare from the Count. Renji brushed it off and trailed out behind Rukia. Once she was sure they were gone and the door was shut, Orihime finally spoke.

"What are we going to do?" she asked miserably, "Your mother is so nice a-and your friend can be with the one she loves i-if we..." Tears were welling in her eyes as the Count came to her bedside and knelt.

"My father brought them on purpose," he said sternly, taking her hands, "To play on our emotions. He knows I can't deny Mother anything." Even as he said this, his eyes were calm and unwavering, his mouth a thin line. She could tell he was unhappy.

"Somehow, he caught on to our plan," he continued. Orihime's eyes went wide in shock.

"H-He knows?" she asked, trembling, "B-But he seemed so friendly..." The Count snorted.

"Oh, he is," he assured her, "But he's also invested in getting what he wants. I don't think he knows our whole plan, but I think he knew enough to be suspicious. That's why he's pressuring us like he is, by bringing all these people." Orihime felt like the room had turned upside down on her. How did he find out? He obviously came prepared, so he had to have been tipped off beforehand. But how?

"It's not fair," she whispered, "We did everything right." The Count reached up to brush her unruly hair out of her eyes, his whole face sympathetic.

"Parents have a way of finding things out, I guess," he mused with a sigh, "Tricky old devil. But that leaves us with a problem." Orihime nodded. She knew exactly what he meant.

"What do we do now?" she asked miserably, looking to him for answers. A flash of pain crossed the Count's face, but before she could register it, it was gone.

"Exactly," he answered, "What do we do now? We... can do this one of two ways." Orihime listened to him, enrapt. "The first way is, I can send you back home early."

Orihime knew she'd have to go back sooner or later, but still hearing it said like that seemed unpleasant. She loved her sister, but she also cherished her new friends. As she thought about it, she even adored the Count's mother and the Marquise. It was hard to think she'd never see these people again.

"What's... the other way?" she finally asked, dreading what he would say.

"You could marry me?" he asked, lifting his eyes to meet hers. Just from the look on his face, Orihime could tell he was serious. She was sure she looked absolutely aghast, even though part of her was tempted.

"We could get it annulled as soon as they leave," he muttered, eyes flickering downward to look away from her face, "Or ignore it entirely after they're gone." Her lower lip trembled as she held back tears.

"I-I'm sorry," she whispered as his grip flexed over her hands, "I just... I can't..."
She wanted to tell him all the reasons why - how she couldn't bear to commit such a lie in the face of God, how it wouldn't be right to either of them to engage in such a sham, and most of all, how badly she would have wanted it to be real if he were only human. Such a falsehood would simply be too much to bear.

"It's alright," he finally said soothingly, brushing her hair out of her face again, "I didn't really expect you to say yes. It's a little sudden, isn't it?" Orihime wondered at his tone of voice; was that a hint of sadness peeking through? Either way, he didn't look her in the face. He simply gave her hands one last squeeze and stood, giving her a strained smile as he gained his footing.

"If you can bear one more day," he went on, "I'll have Chad take you down tomorrow afternoon, before everyone wakes." Orihime nodded sheepishly, unable to meet his eyes now. She was afraid of what she'd see. Instead, she heard soft footsteps pad toward her door before it opened and closed again, leaving her alone with her thoughts, a tray of half-eaten food, and a weak appetite.

____________________________________________________________

The day passed uneventfully, Orihime mostly keeping to herself and her own chambers while the Count was nowhere for her to see. Tatsuki brought her meals, and she entertained the Count's younger sisters for a time. Even they were lively and charming, the black-haired one being more of a scoundrel than her blonde twin. They helped lift the pall that had settled over the room and cheer Orihime a bit, even though she knew she'd never see them again.

Soon enough, daylight came, and then the afternoon. She knew the Count wouldn't normally come outside in the sunlight, but the shadows were growing longer over the courtyard as twilight approached. Finally, Tatsuki summoned her to the front of the courtyard where Sado awaited in the same carriage that had brought her to the castle.

"I'll miss you," Tatsuki said, pulling the other girl into a tight hug, "If you ever want to come back, please don't hesitate." Orihime smiled when she finally let go of her.

"Don't cry, Tatsuki," she soothed, "I-I'll never forget you." Tatsuki had been managing to hold back her tears until then, but the admonishment was too much.

"I'm not crying, dummy!" she sniffled, rubbing at her face. Instead of arguing, Orihime simply hugged her again.

"You should get a move on," a voice came from the doorway of the courtyard. Orihime looked up to see the Count, just as splendidly dressed as when she'd first met him, all in black and holding a black parasol. Orihime suddenly felt very self-conscious; she'd changed into her old plain brown dress for the trip home, so she no longer looked the part of a Countess-to-be. The Count's face was a grim line as he stepped up to the girls.

"I wanted to see you off," he explained, looking down at Orihime with lidded eyes. She was sure her cheeks and nose were as red as a bushel of apples now, and not because of the cold.

"Thank you," she whispered, "I-I'm sorry it turned out like this." He touched her shoulder lightly and began leading her up the carriage steps.

"It's not your fault," he replied softly, helping her settle in, "It's my father. He really is impossible." As soon as Orihime was comfortable, he shut the door and pulled open the window to continue talking to her.

"I know you probably don't want to hear this a second time," he whispered, leaning into the carriage to look her straight in the eyes, "But I meant what I said. If you ever change your mind, please..." Orihime could barely keep from crying. She leaned forward, gently stroking the side of his cold face as she did so.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, "I'm so... so sorry." Those were the only words she could even think to formulate. The Count's eyes filled with pity as he leaned a little farther into the carriage.

"Shh," he cooed, causing Orihime's eyelids to fall to half-mast, "It's alright." Before she knew what had even happened, she had closed her eyes and leaned in to kiss him.

His lips were much colder than she'd expected, especially considering he was standing in the snow, but it still felt good. They moved against hers, seeking her warmth, and she shyly obliged. Even his cool skin was no deterrent; instead she found herself tingling from head to toe and reeling by the time he pulled away.

"There's a trunk in the back of the carriage with clothes for you," he said quietly, barely a hair's width from her lips, "And enough gold to last you the rest of your life." Orihime startled and pulled back to look at him. He was giving her a small, satisfied smirk as he pulled his head back from the window.

"Count, you... you didn't have to," she said numbly. But he wasn't listening to her protests now. Instead, he had backed all the way out of the carriage and had his hand on the window to close it.

"Farewell, Orihime," he said, sliding it shut, "Be well."

As the horses began to move, she found her face pressed to the glass, desperately trying to keep the Count in sight. But after they'd gone a few paces, he'd vanished completely.

__________________________________________________________

Ichigo had immediately gone to the window of his bedroom, overlooking the courtyard where the orange light of the dying sun stretched across the snowy tracks of the carriage that had just left. He'd wanted to watch her go until she was completely out of sight, but for some strange reason, he found himself lingering by the windowsill.

This was a completely new experience for Ichigo. In all his sixty-nine years of life, he had never felt something like this for anyone else. Yes, he loved his mother and sisters and even his infernal, meddling father. But this was different. It gnawed and pulled at him. He knew that he had a long life ahead of him, and that in the grand scheme of things, this was nothing. It was a speck of sand falling through an otherwise full hourglass. So why, then, did he feel so miserable at her loss?

Perhaps it was the fleetingness of it all. She would get married to a human, have children, grow old and die, yet Ichigo would look much the same as he did just then. And he would have nothing to do with any of it - a passive bystander to another man's happy life. It left a bitter taste in his mouth like none other.

He touched the window pane, trailing a finger down it as the sun crept ever slower towards the horizon.

"There you are, my boy!" an enthusiastic voice boomed from behind him.

"What are you doing in my room, old man?" Ichigo answered succinctly, looking at his reflection in the window pane. His father's face fell into an unbecoming pout.

"You're so harsh to your father," he complained, "This used to be my room, you know." Ichigo snorted and rolled his eyes.

"About sixty years ago," Ichigo noted, "What do you want?" At this, Isshin's face perked right up, as if he'd been waiting for a chance to explain.

"Your mother and I have picked the perfect place for Miss Inoue in the family tomb. You should bring her down for a tour!" The old man happily carried on, ignoring the way Ichigo's posture went ramrod straight at the mention of Orihime.

"She's not here," he muttered, interrupting his father's ramble.

"I'm sorry, what was that?" he replied with a sheepish chuckle, "It sounded like you just said Miss Inoue isn't here!" Ichigo shut his eyes, blocking out the reflection of his father's face falling.

"She isn't here, old man," Ichigo continued, "I sent her back to her family." Just saying the words twisted something inside him, and his father seemed just as crestfallen.

"Why?" the older man asked, "Why would you send her back? You got along so well!" Ichigo's flat hand became a fist against the pane of glass.

"I couldn't do it," he murmured, "I couldn't subject her to this kind of life." His father looked utterly confused for several more moments before his face set into a stern line, pallid and grim.

"Then I'm glad I invited Rukia," he said softly. Ichigo was confused enough that he turned to look at his father's serious countenance.

"What?" the younger man asked. His eyebrows knitted together, certain his father was about to say something unpleasant.

"In case you didn't follow through with your marriage to Miss Inoue," Isshin said evenly, "I contacted the Marquis Kuchiki and asked for his sister's hand for you. He agreed."

Ichigo felt the bottom fall out of his stomach. This was precisely what he had been trying to avoid, and he was certain Rukia had no idea. If she had, she certainly would've been less thrilled than she was when she arrived.

"We'll meet with Kisuke tonight, to work out the details," Isshin said firmly as he made his way out the door.

Date: 2011-03-06 08:49 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] giethe.livejournal.com
Well, shit. Now everyone's in trouble.

Date: 2011-03-06 08:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cappuccinolady.livejournal.com
I felt bad when I went and re-read this chapter. Like "WAAAAH THIS IS SO SAD" :(

Date: 2011-03-07 06:22 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] giethe.livejournal.com
I like that their first and only real kiss is also the last, in a way it's wonderfully bittersweet.

Date: 2011-03-07 08:02 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] inuyatta.livejournal.com
I actually expected Ichigo to plant his fist in Isshin's jaw for the chapter end. XD

Date: 2011-03-07 06:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cappuccinolady.livejournal.com
I think Masaki's going to do that by the end of the fic. 8D Stupid husband, get back in the kitchen.

Date: 2011-03-08 03:02 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] inuyatta.livejournal.com
Lol, so that's where Ichigo gets it from. XD

Date: 2011-03-07 12:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alice-candy.livejournal.com
I-Ichigo. SOB. it's such a sad chapter, kind of sweet - because of that kiss - but still it's very, very sad.

Date: 2011-03-07 06:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cappuccinolady.livejournal.com
I had to throw in the kiss. It wouldn't have been complete without it :(

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Crystal Dawn

February 2012

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