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

_____________________________________________

The red flames flickered in the early morning darkness of the castle grounds, reaching skyward. Two pairs of eyes watched, spellbound, as the pyre bore its contents onto the wind. Shadows flickered across their faces as they stood side-by-side with hands intertwined.

This was Gin Ichimaru's funeral pyre. The Count had insisted the body be disposed of in this manner, lest it somehow recover. Orihime had been unable to do anything but agree since she had no idea how these creatures worked. Still, she trusted the Count and knew that what he was doing was for the best.

With heavy heart, she had recounted to him what the white-haired vampire had told her earlier, from his youth in their town to how he'd come back and what he'd been doing. While the Count seemed angry, his fury was dulled by something Orihime was sure was close to sorrow.

"This really is all our fault," he'd finally said, squeezing her hand, "This is our territory, but at every turn, we failed this town." Orihime squeezed back; she knew that what she had to say next wouldn't be pleasant, but it needed to be said.

"I won't disagree with you," she said quietly, "It's the nobility's job to care for their people, isn't it? But... I don't hold any ill will towards you or your family. You aren't malicious. But... you still need to make sure this doesn't happen again." Her words were soft, but firm. She showed the Count a steely determination she rarely exhibited, but to Orihime, this was important. No matter where she lived, the village was still where she came from and where her sister lived; she wanted to make sure it was safe. As his eyes met hers, though, they were tender.

"It won't," he promised, "Not if I have anything to say about it." Orihime searched his face for the meaning of his words.

"What do you mean?" she asked. He broke eye contact to look back into the flames.

"I'll inform my father of this and let him know I and my entourage will be staying," he said firmly, "Aizen is sure to come back through for a snack eventually. I'm not going to let him have even one more of our flock." Orihime let out a little sigh as she looked off to the side.

"We aren't sheep, you know," she pouted. The Count simply gave her an amused grin.

"You're as wobbly and innocent as a lamb," he teased, "Does that count?" Orihime tried valiantly to maintain her pout, but the mental image of a newborn lamb wobbling around on its knobby legs finally made her crack a smile.

"No," she said with playful firmness. The Count simply looked back toward the fire with his small smile.

"I have one condition, though," he finally said softly, "If we are to stay and look after the town, I want you with me." Orihime's eyebrows knitted together at this.

"I'm not going anywhere," she said skeptically, "I'll still be here." The Count gave her a searching look before he continued.

"No, I mean...." he began, a sluggish blush rising to his cheeks, "I mean I want you here as my wife. As the Countess of this castle." Orihime's eyes grew round. They had been so wrapped up in taking care of Gin and all of the problems he'd brought attention to that Orihime had forgotten entirely about her own problems. She opened her mouth to form words and shut it again silently.

"I-I don't know yet," she said softly, looking up into the Count's sad eyes, "I wanted to talk to the priest first..." He nodded, squeezing her hand.

"He's in the chapel," the Count replied, "He was writing the ceremony for Rukia's and my wedding when we left to get you." At this information, Orihime's brow knitted.

"Your wedding?" she asked skeptically. The Count's face pinched in annoyance.

"As soon as he heard you'd gone, the old man told me he'd brought Rukia as a replacement," he clarified, "She was livid. In fact, she insisted I fetch you right away, even before we learned you'd been attacked." Orihime blinked as she took it all in.

"I imagine she would be," she said sympathetically, "She said her valet was trying to gain her brother's approval." The Count snorted.

"He's been trying for years," he responded, "That poncy bastard can't stand the idea of marrying his sister to someone of common blood, let alone someone who isn't a born vampire." Orihime contemplated this for a moment before she asked the next question that crossed her mind.

"Do you think that'll be a problem for us?" she asked sincerely, "Your father won't be angry if he finds out I'm not really a noble, will he?" At this, the Count grinned.

"Who says he's going to find out?" he asked cheekily, "And anyway, once we're married, he can't say anything about it." This answer satisfied Orihime; once they were married, the church would allow nothing short of an annulment, and that was easily enough avoided. Besides which, as she thought about it, the Marquis really should have been the last person to complain. As she remembered the Marquise's story, her face colored slightly. The Count noticed and his mischievous smile widened.

"You know, if you're already thinking about it," he leaned down far enough to speak quietly in her ear, "You should go ahead and speak to Urahara." Orihime caught the gist of what he was getting at and her mouth dropped open in protest.

"Count Kurosaki!" she exclaimed, only about half of her embarrassment just for show, "We aren't married yet!" Encouraged by her discomfort, the Count nipped at the lobe of her ear, letting a sharp canine graze the flesh.

"That doesn't mean I can't think about when we are," he purred. Orihime thought she might have been blushing down to her toes.

"I-I have to go now," she squeaked, walking quickly and mechanically toward the garden door. The Count didn't follow, instead opting to stay behind and watch with a lopsided grin as she moved toward the stone walls.

"Make sure to change into your gowns," he called after, causing Orihime to stop and turn back toward him, "It isn't fitting for the wife of a Count to wear such things." Mortified, Orihime suddenly remembered that she had been standing there in the garden in her woolen petticoats and brown peasant dress the entire time. If his family saw her, they both would be in trouble.

As she rushed through some quick back passages Tatsuki had shown her some weeks back, an odd thought occurred to Orihime. When she first arrived to this castle almost a month ago, the lovely clothes frightened her. They were too fine and too expensive for her to even want to touch, let alone wear on a daily basis. Now, though, her peasant dress felt almost as odd to her as those fancy gowns once had. It was loose and comfortable and the fabric coarse and light. Something about it was still freeing, but at the same time it had become awkward, like it didn't fit her anymore.

Orihime put such thoughts aside as she reached the safety of her room. There would be time for rumination on her changing tastes later; for now, she had to make herself presentable for the priest and any of the Count's family that happened to be nearby.

_________________________________________________________

Orihime had barely finished twisting up her hair when a knock came at her door. She turned from the vanity to see it creak open just a hair's breadth.

"I'm telling you, Ichigo probably waylayed her and they're off in his chambers!" a male voice said heatedly. After a few seconds of searching her memory, Orihime recognized it as belonging to the Marquise Kuchiki's valet, Renji.

"Don't be ridiculous!" the Marquise whispered back, "He cannot do anything personal until she has been turned. And he would not dare while surrounded by his family, anyway." Orihime felt her persistent blush returning; never in all her sixteen years had her love life and the state of her body been discussed as much as it had been in the last week. Fortunately, that was the last the Marquise had to say on the subject before cracking the door further open and projecting her voice.

"Miss Inoue, dear," she called, "Are you here?" Orihime smiled at the address as she turned in her seat.

"Yes, I'm at the vanity," she answered, watching as Rukia and Renji entered. She noted the redhead's pale blush as the black-haired girl ran to her; he must have realized he'd been overheard.

"We heard Ichigo brought you back," the petite woman said excitedly, "But we hadn't gotten a chance to see you ourselves! Are you well?" Orihime beamed at her, grateful for her concern.

"I'm as well as can be expected," she said, "It was pretty scary, but the Count saved me. I'm glad I came back, though. I heard the Marquis was going to make you marry the Count..." Rukia took the bait and her countenance immediately became fierce. Orihime didn't blame the Count one bit for shrinking from marrying the small woman; she was incredibly frightening when she was angry.

"That lowly country bumpkin!" she hissed as she began to pace, "He presumed to arrange this all without my consent or knowledge! Can you imagine?! The nerve! The outright gall!" Renji smirked a bit as he watched her pace and curse the Marquis Kurosaki with every word in her highly educated vocabulary. A thought struck Orihime as she watched the tirade, and when Rukia had finally come to a good stopping point, she finally spoke up.

"Mr. Abarai?" she asked innocently, "Do you like forceful women?" The question had taken both Renji and Rukia by surprise, causing them to stare at Orihime openly. Orihime was simply proud of her deduction and smiled as the pair blushed at her.

"Well, I suppose he does," Rukia muttered as Renji cleared his throat in mild amusement.

"I think it's sweet," Orihime remarked with a smile. Those two really did seem to be perfect for one another. Presently, though, Rukia's eyes snapped open as though she'd just remembered something.

"Ah, that reminds me," she said, regaining her composure, "I wanted to thank you. For returning with Ichigo." Now it was Orihime's turn to blush.

"I-It was nothing," she murmured shyly, her cheeks coloring, "It was just a misunderstanding. That's all." Rukia gave her a warm smile before coming over to embrace her.

"Do not worry," Rukia whispered to her, still loud enough for Renji to hear, "Ichigo told me everything." Orihime's eyes went wide.

"E-Everything?" she stammered in return. Rukia nodded and broke their embrace to look directly at Orihime's face. She even cupped the younger girl's cheek with one pale, porcelain hand.

"Yes, everything," she affirmed, "Your secret is safe with us. We will aid you in any way we can." Orihime simply stared for a few seconds before finding her resolve and nodding strongly.

"I'll help you, too," Orihime vowed, "All you have to do is ask!" Rukia smiled again and drew back, offering Orihime the hand that had been on her cheek to help her up.

"Where were you headed?" Rukia asked, pulling her over to Renji's side with her. The redhead grinned as he took both their arms automatically and tucked them into the crooks of his elbows.

"I was about to go see the priest," Orihime answered from across Renji, "I-I wanted to speak with him before I go any further." Rukia looked satisfied about something, but Orihime couldn't begin to guess what.

"Did Ichigo suggest that?" she asked smugly. Orihime blinked once or twice before shaking her head.

"He did, but I was already telling Mr. Sado to turn around when we were attacked," she confessed, which brought another question to mind. "Oh no! How is Mr. Sado doing?"

"He is recovering," Rukia answered across Renji's chest, "Miss Kurotsuchi is tending to him." Orihime smiled shyly, glad their large friend was going to be alright.

The journey to the chapel passed pleasantly enough. The two girls chatted happily, occasionally asking Renji's opinion on one matter or the other. Finally, when they reached the chapel, Orihime parted from the couple.

"Oh, you don't have to wait for me," she said, turning from the chapel door when she realized they weren't moving. Rukia simply smiled while Renji blushed a bit.

"Actually, we have business with Urahara, too," Renji said shyly. Rukia nodded, her grin turning mischievous.

"We wanted to wait until you were done," she agreed, encouraging Orihime to go with a wave of her hand, "Do not worry. This is a private matter."

"Oh!" Orihime exclaimed in sudden understanding, even though she still wasn't sure what they wanted with the priest. She gave a polite little bow and turned back to the door, blushing.

The chapel was much the same as she remembered it from her last visit, although as Orihime looked around, she could see subtle changes. Now the alter was decorated with candles and fine cloth, and gold and bronze ornaments hung from the walls. The lonely pewter candelabras that used to hang from the rafters had been replaced with gold and crystals. And the pews had been decorated with long swaths of cloth and ribbons bunched into flowers. Orihime realized belatedly that the chapel had been decorated, probably by the Count's sisters, for a wedding.

"Oh my, Miss Inoue!" an overly cheery voice called from the other end of the chapel, "You've come back after all! I was afraid you'd deserted us forever!" Orihime peered out into the dim light to see the father that had accompanied the Count's family, Kisuke Urahara. He had emerged from the curtains leading into the priest's office, directly behind the alter.

"I'm sorry," Orihime apologized reflexively, "I-I was hoping I could have your council, if you weren't too busy, father." He released the curtain behind him, letting it fall with a flutter as he stepped out to approach the human girl.

"Oh, I was only writing the silly wedding service," he confessed half-seriously, "It can wait. What is it you wanted to ask me?" Orihime's eyebrows rose; the blond man seemed so cheerful and unserious about everything. He was a far cry from the solemn priests she was used to seeing visit their small village.

"A-Ah, how should I put this," she started softly, "I-I'm not sure... about becoming one of you. I mean! You're a vampire, but also a priest, s-so... Is it... Is it right?" The blond tilted his head and peered curiously at her for a moment before answering.

"You mean spiritually?" he finally asked. Orihime nodded shyly. The older man took a seat on one of the pews and motioned for her to join him. Obediently, Orihime took the seat beside him.

"If you're worried that this is a form of demon possession, I can tell you for certain that it is not," he began seriously, "No amount of casting out of spirits, holy water, or crucifixes will reverse it or even harm us. So you can rest your mind at ease on that count." Orihime actually found that she'd released a breath she'd been holding when he finished that part. But for as much as it answered, it still left many questions unanswered.

"But if it's not demonic, then... what is it?" she asked, genuinely curious. "You're still dead... Right?" At this, the priest smiled warmly.

"Yes," he answered honestly, "I won't pretend that I understand the mechanics of it, and I've studied it for years. For all we can tell, it's a type of blood-borne virus, or a magical curse." Orihime's attention was held enrapt.

"Can I ask where it started?" she asked quietly, captivated by the priest's voice.

"Of course," Urahara replied, "The legends say the first vampire was born at the dawn of humanity, just after Adam himself, and that she was ancestor to all. Supposedly, she was cursed by the Lord for her insolence and disobedience."

"H-How did she disobey?" Orihime asked, curious for more details.

"Oh, I think it had something to do with her preferring to be on top in the marital bed," he remarked blithely. Orihime felt herself blush to the roots of her hair; she certainly had no idea that was sinful. "Nonetheless, she was cursed to live by moonlight and feed from Adam's descendants."

"So this is a curse," she said slowly. Did that mean being separate from the Lord forever? She couldn't help but think it was a painfully sadistic choice to impose on someone.

"Well, if you believe that legend, then yes," the priest answered keenly, "Of course, the other going theory is that it's all just a fluke. Or that the original ancestor was a warrior who drank the blood of his enemies and was too brutal to die." Orihime was knocked somewhat off-kilter.

"Th-Then... Which one is correct?" The priest gave her a smile, one that was gentle and sincere.

"Who can say?" Urahara answered wistfully, fanning himself with his unfinished sermon. "The oldest living vampire is a gentleman from China who is roughly two thousand years old, and we were already an ancient race when he was born. But I don't suppose you know where that is?" Orihime twisted her fine gown in her fists and shyly looked up at the blond man from beneath her lashes, shaking her head.

"No, father," she answered.

"Oh, it's quite a trip out east," he answered cheerily, "Past the lands of the Greeks and the Turks and the Arabs." Orihime at least recognized those names from some of her storybooks (and at least one particularly naughty story Rangiku liked to tell).

The two sat in comfortable silence for a few more moments before Orihime asked her next question.

"Then..." she began slowly, "How do you reconcile this life with the word of God?" The priest smiled warmly and patted her head.

"I don't profess to know the mind of God," Urahara said thoughtfully, "And the Good Book offers no guidance on this. What I do know is that He forgives, through baptism and confession. Even though we live longer than humans, we are still fated to die eventually. And when I do, I hope to be reunited with Him. Does that make sense to you?" Orihime smiled in spite of herself. She didn't really understand how this worked, nor did she have much of an answer to the deeper questions of salvation and damnation. But Urahara's words still made her feel better anyway. Even though he couldn't offer her concrete reassurance, he had given her hope.

"Yes, father," she said quietly, "I think I understand now." He returned her smile.

"I believe everything happens for a reason," he went on, "And I believe you came here for a reason. From everything I've seen while I've been here, perhaps it's to help the young Count or your village that the Lord put you here." Orihime nodded, little tears forming in her eyes.

"You flatter me, father," she said with no small amount of embarrassment, "But... if I can help in any way, I want to." He patted her head again.

"I think you can do a lot of good here, Miss Inoue," he replied, his smile mysterious and wise, "Whether you become a vampire or remain a human."

Orihime's heart felt much lighter. Even though the priest had been honest with what he did and didn't know, she had found his uncertainty relateable. Perhaps faith and adherence to it was what really mattered in the end, as well as accepting God's will.

"Thank you again, father," she said, rising, "I feel much more certain now." He grinned, rising as well.

"Then can I assume this sermon is no longer intended for the Marquise Kuchiki?" he asked mischievously. Orihime found his smile infectious and returned it, beaming back at him.

"Yes," she said happily, "I think that's safe to say."

After exchanging a few more pleasantries, the priest led Orihime back up the long central aisle to the broad doors of the chapel entrance. As they reached the doorway, though, Orihime could hear the sounds of commotion from the other side. Urahara stepped ahead of her and cracked the doors open to see Rukia, Renji, and Karin on the other side, talking excitedly.

"Children," the priest chided, causing them to fall silent, "What's all the commotion? You should be a little quieter outside of the chapel." All three turned to him, wide-eyed, just as Orihime moved to the door herself.

"We have a visitor," Rukia spoke first, "He has just arrived downstairs." Orihime's brows pinched together; she hadn't heard of any other visitors that were supposed to come.

"Is that a reason for such a commotion?" Urahara asked keenly. The three young vampires looked one to the other before Karin finally spoke up.

"It's the Duke Aizen," she said hesitantly. "He's here for his man. The one big brother just killed."
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Crystal Dawn

February 2012

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