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[personal profile] queenofchalices
Title: Moon Over the Tower: Chapter Seventeen
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 rustle of silk skirts and the soft pad of slippers filled the hallway as the small party rushed through the stone corridors. As soon as Orihime had emerged from the chapel and been informed of their guest, Rukia had insisted that they shunt her back to her chambers as soon as possible. Thus she, Orihime, Renji, and Karin had begun their flight through the castle's passageways. Orihime had some idea as to why.

The Duke was the man who had turned Gin Ichimaru and kept him as a pet for more than a decade. He was the one responsible for the silver haired man's madness. And he was the one who had been directly responsible for most of the deaths in the village since Orihime had been born.

She could only imagine what he was like. In her mind, he was ancient and decrepit, all bony hands and sallow skin. She was sure it was as thin as parchment and translucent, showing dark blue veins pulsing feebly beneath. His hair was most likely white and thin, only hanging on in wisps and sprays. And the whites of his eyes had to be yellow with age, the irises a ruddy brown, the color of blood-stained dirt. And even though he would look frail, Orihime knew he'd have a grip like steel and iron muscles. He would be as strong as five horses and able to overpower anyone who disobeyed.

And he would be utterly, utterly evil.

Orihime's heart beat hard as they neared the entrance to the great hall. They'd have to pass over the balcony to return to her chambers. Sensing her hesitation, or perhaps just her speeding heartbeat, Rukia slowed beside her to a walk, never letting go of her hand.

"Just walk normally," the Marquise said softly, "And ignore them. Act completely uninterested and they may overlook us." She pulled Orihime to a stop in the shadows of the great hall's entrance and paused, waiting on the younger girl's breathing to slow.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, "Give me a moment to catch my breath." Rukia nodded.

"You do not want to appear flustered or nervous," she explained further, "It will only attract their attention." Orihime's eyebrows quirked in distress.

"They?" she asked uncertainly. Rukia gave her an even look.

"Nobility never travel alone," Rukia commented. "As he is a Duke, and a wealthy one at that, we would be lucky if Aizen did not bring an entire army." Orihime winced. That was the last thing they needed right now.

"He's really powerful, isn't he?" she asked softly. This time, Karin spoke. Orihime hadn't even registered that she and Renji had caught up to them.

"About as powerful as they come," she muttered darkly. "Big Brother will be angry if he even looks at you. And there's not much he could do about it if he did." Orihime paled at this thought. She knew a good part of the reason the older vampire had taken Gin was for an intimate companion; a blush crept to her face at the distressing idea that he might take a liking to her as well.

"Come now," Rukia pushed forward, sensing Orihime's heart had slowed sufficiently and her breathing was once again normal. She still held the redhead's hand, pulling her with her into the light of the great hall.

As they entered, Orihime could hear the sounds of genteel conversation and polite greeting. It was almost dawn, she knew, so Aizen and his entourage would be staying the day with them. She figured they must have been ironing out the accommodations just then. Against her better judgment, Orihime looked down, curious to see how many there were.

Strangely enough, there were only two - a pallid man with unbelievably white skin, black hair, and shocking green eyes, and a slightly darker man with handsome features, wavy brown hair, and dark eyes. Orihime found herself mesmerized by the latter. There was something about him that drew her to stare, although she couldn't quite put her finger on just what it was.

Worse still, he caught her looking. Almost as if time had slowed down, he looked up toward her on the balcony and gave her a smile. Orihime was struck by just how strange it was - she couldn't tell if his smile was warm or cold. It seemed open enough, but something about his eyes was hungry and predatory.

Then, as quickly as it had come, the moment passed. Rukia continued tugging her along behind her as they finally made their way to the safety of the opposite landing. They were quickly joined by Karin and Renji. Then they continued on through the corridors toward her chambers.

The thing that bothered Orihime, though, was that she hadn't seen Aizen anywhere. Perhaps he was being shown to his accommodations elsewhere, or simply hadn't arrived yet. But the two downstairs both seemed too young and unassuming to be the Duke. And the Count's posture and tone of voice hadn't suggested he was in the presence of a superior; in fact, his temperament had been worse than usual. Orihime could tell he was clearly annoyed at the two visitors' presence.

When the door to Orihime's room was finally closed behind the group, Rukia spoke.

"It is past dawn already," the petite noblewoman observed. "We will have to retire to our own chambers shortly." Orihime nodded in understanding, but a heavy weight had settled into her stomach.

"When we retire," Rukia continued, "Please keep to your own rooms. Miss Arisawa will stand watch over you. Hopefully Aizen and his man will be too weary of traveling to cause any trouble." Orihime's lips pursed as she took in what Rukia had said.

"Do you think he would?" she asked nervously. Rukia gave her a sympathetic look.

"Considering your looks and demeanor, as well as your relationship to Ichigo," Rukia began, "You would be a valuable commodity to any vampire. Particularly to an unscrupulous one out for revenge. As you are, as a human, you are particularly vulnerable."

Orihime felt distinctly uncomfortable at these observations. She didn't want to place Tatsuki in any danger, and she seriously doubted she'd be able to stand up to any of the powerful vampires that were visiting them. Suddenly, for the first time, she found herself wishing she was already a vampire in her own right.

"We will take our leave now," Rukia said softly, smoothing her skirts. "Please wait for Miss Arisawa before you do anything." Orihime nodded mutely, watching them go. She settled forlornly on her soft bed and folded her hands into her lap; it was going to be a long day.

____________________________________________________

Orihime was roused by Tatsuki slipping into her large bed with her. She'd just barely managed to change into her night shrift before a wave of dizziness overtook her and she fell back against her pillows. Now, she wasn't sure just how long she'd been asleep before Tatsuki woke her, but judging by the light in the windows, it couldn't have been long.

"Go back to sleep, Orihime," Tatsuki said quietly. "We had a big night." Orihime realized her friend was right and let her eyelids droop shut again.

She didn't stir again for several hours. When next she woke, Orihime was certain it was nearly noon. This time, however, what woke her was not quite as innocent as Tatsuki.

While her friend snored softly beside her, Orihime rubbed her eyes and tried to focus. There was something in the room with them, although she had no idea what it could be. Her senses were telling her it was something small and unobtrusive; a mouse or rat, perhaps. But something else was telling her there was another layer to it. It was sinister and threatening, hiding great power despite its small size. Orihime's heart was pounding in her chest.

As her eyes flitted around the curtained room, she glanced from corner to corner. She expected to see a big spider or maybe even a snake. What she actually saw, however, made her breath catch.

It was a bat, its body barely bigger than a barn mouse's. It was shifting its wings, picking at them and occasionally fluttering them; indeed, the motion was what had drawn Orihime's attention in the first place. Its fur was glossy and black, catching the late morning sun in streaks of blue. Strangest of all were its eyes; they were a green so dazzling that she could see them from clear across the room. As soon as she noticed them, she realized exactly who this was. This was Aizen's man, the one with the alabaster skin and black hair.

She watched the bat trepidatiously for several minutes, trying to move as little as possible to attract the least amount of attention. What was it doing there? Was it watching her? How long had it been there? Would it bite her if she went back to sleep? Should she wake Tatsuki? Finally, after turning the problem around in her mind for what seemed like an eternity, she decided on a course of action.

"Tatsuki," she whispered, causing the groggy girl to snort and begin to wake, "I need to relieve myself..." Her friend blinked blearily at her for a few moments before her words registered. Then, she began to rub her eyes free of sleep. With Tatsuki now awake, Orihime felt safer almost immediately.

The two girls slid out of bed and slipped on their slippers, yawning all the while. The entire time they spent waking up and shuffling toward the door, Orihime cast surreptitious glances at the bat in the corner of her room. If he noticed her, he didn't let on; in fact, he had settled quietly and appeared to be asleep. Still, Orihime couldn't get out of his unsettling presence fast enough.

After a call to the chamber pot and then the wash room, Orihime told Tatsuki of their morning visitor. Tatsuki didn't seem surprised.

"It's just like something Aizen would do," she muttered darkly. "He's having his creepy valet spy on you." That was exactly what Orihime didn't want to hear.

"Are you sure?" she fretted, "Maybe he was just going to bite me while I slept!" Tatsuki gave her a look of disbelief.

"That's not better!" the black haired girl exclaimed, giving her friend a light bop on the head. Orihime's expression sank to a frown.

"Then... what do you think he wants with me?" Orihime asked, afraid of the answer. Tatsuki's scowl wasn't encouraging, either.

"He probably already knows Ichigo killed his lover," Tatsuki observed. "If he found where they fought, there was blood everywhere. He'd be able to smell all of us." This did nothing to assuage Orihime's fears.

"He'll probably try to get to him through you."

Orihime's eyes widened as she met Tatsuki's steady gaze. That was the last thing she wanted to hear. She had already been enough trouble for the Count in the past two days; she didn't need to cause him anymore heartache.

"M-Maybe I should go," she said timidly, looking at Tatsuki through fear-stricken eyes. "If I go somewhere Aizen can't get to me until he leaves, then--" Tatsuki cut her off.

"There is nowhere he can't find you, Orihime," she said seriously. "He was probably only playing with the guy that kidnapped you by letting him think he'd gotten away. Don't you think it's strange he'd show up while we were still burning the body?" Orihime nodded mutely, waiting on Tatsuki to finish.

"You're far safer here, where we can all keep an eye on you and he won't dare try anything," Tatsuki concluded. "We aren't going to let anything happen to you." Orihime felt her cheeks burn with shame. Her first instinct had been to run away. Even if it was just to try and protect everyone in some misguided way, it still felt mighty shameful.

"Alright, Tatsuki," she said with a shy smile. "I trust you."

_______________________________________________________

By the time Orihime and Tatsuki returned to her room, the little bat was thankfully gone. Orihime sighed in relief, grateful for his absence. She disliked the feeling that he was watching her, and disliked even more what he might do with whatever information he had gained.

The bat's absence also allowed her and Tatsuki to dress in their proper day clothes without fear of intrusion. Getting dressed would've been nearly impossible with Aizen's furry little spy watching over them.

That thought brought a flutter of disapproval into Orihime's heart as she dressed. She belonged here now; she already felt like this was her own home. She didn't deserve to be spied on in what would very soon be her castle.

"Ichigo's going to be angry, you know," Tatsuki observed. "He doesn't even trust himself around you while you sleep, let alone someone like that." As Orihime's cheeks colored at Tatsuki's words, she vaguely wondered what she meant by "someone like that".

"You aren't going to tell him, are you?" she fretted. "What if he picks a fight? Miss Karin said he isn't as powerful as Aizen..." Tatsuki huffed at Orihime's worry, but Orihime saw it as a very legitimate concern. The Count had a horrible temper, especially where she was concerned; she didn't want him to hurt himself for her sake, or worse.

"Probably not right away," she conceded at last. "They're going to talk about Aizen's man tonight, and he'll probably want Ichigo and the Marquis to compensate him to keep the peace. I don't want to screw this up for Ichigo." Orihime nodded. If that was what was at stake, she would keep silent as well.

"It's not fair," she said quietly, more to her vanity mirror than to Tatsuki. "He's terrorized our town for years, killed so many of us, and now... The Count has to apologize to him for it?" Tatsuki simply shook her head and crossed her arms.

"That's their politics," she said regretfully. "It's probably a good thing I can't become one of them. I'd never be able to stand apologizing to a bastard like that." This gave them both a little smile.

"I should just stay out of the way tonight, shouldn't I?" Orihime asked, picking up her hairbrush and running it through her hair. She cast a glance at Tatsuki's reflection in the mirror, who offered her a smile.

"That'd be for the best," the black haired girl answered. "The more he sees you around, the more likely Aizen is to try something. Don't worry, though. As soon as it gets dark, Ichigo's sisters and Rukia and Renji will come guard you." Orihime's eyebrows quirked as Tatsuki picked up one of her fine combs and began twisting her hair into acceptability.

"What about you?" she asked, noting her friend's absence. Tatsuki shook her head.

"I'll still be here," she said. "But I need sleep, too. They'll be able to give me a break." Orihime's mouth formed an 'o' in understanding. As soon as the last hairpin was in place, Tatsuki grinned, admiring her handiwork.

"Alright, that about does it," she said confidently. "Let's go get lunch."

The two girls went about their business quietly, going to the dining room to eat and chatting in low tones along the way. A nervousness underpinned their entire conversation, brought about by the unsettling new presences in their midst. As the day wore on, Orihime found her stomach churning at the idea of somehow being involved with the Duke in any way.

After lunch, they busied themselves in a nearby parlor with needlework. When that grew tiresome, they took their leave back to Orihime's room to pass the few hours until the sun set. On the way there, however, another surprise greeted them.

It was the brown haired man Orihime had seen early that morning. He had already dressed himself in a fine, creamy white waistcoat and breeches, the suit cut in just exactly the way that would flatter him best. And Orihime found herself mesmerized by his hair; it was tousled in such a way as to look effortless, but it also had every wavy brown curl put perfectly into place.

The strikingly handsome man was strolling idly down one of the passages they needed to take to get to Orihime's room, as well, so there was no avoiding him. At the moment, however, he was studying some of the hallway's decor - lightly running slender, graceful fingers along it - and had not yet noticed the two girls. Orihime hoped they could pass him quietly with a minimal greeting and no fuss. But those hopes were dashed as soon as he looked up, turning calculating brown eyes toward them.

"Good afternoon, ladies," he said warmly, gracing them both with a smile. He bowed his head, eyes never leaving Orihime's. Even though he sent a chill up her spine, she found she couldn't look away. She curtsied awkwardly from her nervousness while Tatsuki stood straight as an arrow.

"G-Good evening, sir," Orihime stammered, not actually knowing the man's name. "You're up early..." The man simply chuckled deep in his throat while still fixing Orihime with his eyes. She felt like a small animal that had been pinned by a wolf; she could hardly breathe. Worse, the low rumble of his laughter was doing something to her on a visceral level, something that only the Count had managed to do so far. It made her stomach feel funny, sending an odd tingle through her lower body. Realizing this, she even felt a light blush creep up her face.

"I always rise early," the brunette replied kindly. "I'm frequently busy and can't afford to sleep too long." Orihime pushed all of the awkward feelings aside and concentrated on what he was saying.

"What is it you do, sir?" she asked. "Are you the Duke's valet?" At this, the brown-haired man broke out into full-fledged, genuine laughter. This distressed Orihime a bit; as unsettling as these two men were, she didn't want to embarrass herself, or the Count, in front of either of them.

"Oh no, no," the man said, giving her a genuinely amused smile. "My dear, charming girl! Did the Count not tell you?" Orihime fretted. She hadn't spoken to the Count since the previous evening, before she even went to see Urahara.

"No?" she said uncertainly, worried she'd missed something vital. Instead, the man simply offered her a toothy smile, his pointed canines drawing her eye.

"My dear, I am Sousuke Aizen, the Duke of Escalona."
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Crystal Dawn

February 2012

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