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Title: Moon Over the Tower: Chapter Nineteen
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 tension was thick enough to cut with a knife.

All of the ladies had been dismissed for the evening. The drawing room consisted only of Ichigo, his father, their valets, Aizen, and his valet. The only servant allowed to intrude had been decided to be Nemu. As Chad was still recovering from his injury, and Tatsuki was susceptible to the Duke's influences, she was decided to be the safest choice. There was also the fact that no one present really thought she posed any threat of carrying information outside of the room.

She went around the large table situated in the center of the room for the occasion, filling elegant goblets with viscous red liquid. The whole while, Ichigo's eyes never left Aizen. Staring openly over the rim of his cup, only a blind man could have failed to see the vicious anger present on the young redhead's face.

For his part, the brunette seemed not to see the younger noble at all. He smiled cordially and swirled the contents of his cup as though he was a wine connoisseur. He made small talk with his valet, who seemed absolutely uninterested in everything, and with the Marquise. The black-haired vampire seemed to have sensed his son's steadily-rising temper and kept his answers polite, but suitably succinct.

"This is quite fine," Aizen remarked with yet another swirl of his glass, "You must have brought a meal with you." Isshin simply shook his head.

"Oh no," he replied, waving his hand nonchalantly, "I've had a wonderful storage system designed for us for when we travel. It works best in winter." Aizen showed just the appropriate level of polite interest, causing Ichigo to quietly grit his teeth.

"My, my!" the Duke exclaimed. "You'll have to give me the name of the creator, so I might call upon him!" Finally, Ichigo could take no more.
"Perhaps you'd like to tell us why you have called upon us," Ichigo said bitterly. "We're too far out of your way for this to be a social call." Isshin patted Ichigo on the back with a very firm swat before grabbing his shoulder and bearing down. Ichigo didn't even flinch at the very clear warning.

"Yes, Duke," the Marquis continued on, sounding very much the friendly host, "What brings you out all this way?" Aizen smiled warmly and put his glass down, his eyes glinting cleverly all the while.

"I seem to have misplaced my favorite valet," he said in an almost-joking way. "Although we were separated farther west, we heard he had come this way." Ichigo was intensely aware of the Duke's gaze on him. He held it firmly, not caring if the older vampire saw it as a challenge.

"And what makes you think there is anything of interest to him out here?" Isshin smoothly replied, well aware of the previous night's goings on - Ichigo had already informed him privately. "These are merely our ancestral lands. It is only by chance that they happen to be occupied this Christmastide. We usually remain further west, in Vienna." Aizen smiled, the expression not reaching his eyes. Ichigo thought he looked rather like a cat who had just gotten a canary.

"Ah yes," the Duke prattled pleasantly, seizing on the bit of conversation, "You're here for the Count's wedding, yes?" Ichigo felt his eye twitch, and if he wasn't mistaken, there might have been a bit of blackness creeping into the corners of his scalera. "The Lady Inoue is quite lovely, isn't she?"

"Can you get to the damn point already?!" Ichigo snarled. The hand on his shoulder tightened, pressing him down into his seat hard enough to keep him from coming across the table at Aizen. The brunette across the way from Ichigo looked unperturbed at the father restraining his son.

"Very well, then," the Duke went on smoothly, "I'll be blunt. We already know that Gin has been here." Ichigo's stern gaze didn't waver.
"What has that to do with us?" he nearly snarled.

"Isn't it obvious?" Aizen asked simply. "Not only has Gin definitely been here, we are also aware that he has fought another vampire... and lost." Ichigo felt his blood chill at this. Of course Aizen knew. It would be ridiculous to assume he didn't. The only thing that had kept him pleasant to this point had been some misguided notion of civility on his part.

"That's unfortunate," Isshin said slowly, casting a warning glance at Ichigo. "But we're the only vampires here." Aizen simply smirked.

"Of course, Marquis," the younger man replied blithely. "It was no trouble at all to determine exactly who fought with him." He cast a piercing look directly at Ichigo. The redhead didn't back down; he met Aizen's challenge head on, unblinking.

"He was killing our humans," Ichigo spat, causing Isshin to startle. "You know very well that's an open act of hostility. Ichimaru deserved everything he got."

"Ichigo," Isshin hissed. Ichigo cast him a scowl before turning his attention back to Aizen. The Duke seemed completely unfazed by Ichigo's declaration. In fact, his smile was downright pleasant.

"But surely you know that's improper?" Aizen drawled, swirling the dark red fluid in his crystal goblet. "You should have turned him over to me. As his lord, he is my responsibility." Ichigo could barely contain his snarl.

"Then you should've kept him away from our land!" Ichigo declared, slamming a fist on the table. Finally, Isshin had had enough, pulling Ichigo back against his chair hard.

"Enough!" the Marquis nearly bellowed at his son. Then, he turned back to Aizen, who looked as though everything was going according to his plans. "Dear Duke," Isshin continued, "Please forgive my son's impertinence. We regret the loss of your valet, but it was unfortunately necessary to preserve our ancestral lands."

"Of course, Marquis," Aizen replied smoothly, setting his glass onto the well-polished table. "But of course we could agree here that the life of one of our kind is worth immeasurably more than those of a human flock." Ichigo could see the set of Isshin's jaw; he clearly disliked where this was going as well.

"Of course," Isshin replied reluctantly. "Although I would rather not have it come to that." Ichigo could see that Isshin was just as wary as he of Aizen's train of thought. If Aizen was after their land or their flock, Ichigo didn't care a whit for his father's opinion; he'd fight the Duke tooth and nail. Not only because it was their ancestral land and duty, but for Orihime as well. He would never be able to face her if he allowed her town to default to this monster.

"Of course you wouldn't," Aizen said pleasantly. "But you must also concede that I am owed some sort of recompense for the loss of my property?" If Ichigo didn't know Isshin would have immediately shushed him, he would've called Aizen on his ridiculous request. Logically, the Marquis and his family didn't have the standing to challenge this request. Neither their social nor physical strength would be enough for them to challenge Aizen on this matter.

What was worse, they both well knew that there was no way that Aizen's current valet was his only traveling companion. He had probably stationed the rest of his men just outside of the range of their noses; if he did indeed have a contingent set up just on the other side of the mountain pass, Ichigo well knew they could descend upon the castle quickly and efficiently. Even more unconscionable was the fact that the castle was currently occupied by women and children, as well as a castle town full of helpless humans that Aizen's contingent would doubtlessly use as food. Aizen had limitless hostages they were both unwilling to risk here, and both Ichigo and Isshin knew it.

"What exactly did you have in mind?" Isshin asked shrewdly, his look skeptical. The Duke looked as though he'd already gotten whatever thing he was after. "If it's monetary compensation, I assure you that it's no problem."

"Oh no," Aizen said with a shake of his head. "That simply won't do at all. Gin was much more than a valet. He was also my personal companion. There's no amount of gold that could recover that." Ichigo felt his blood chill, even with the cold already permeating the heatless room. Somehow, he had an inkling what Aizen was getting at. And he didn't like it one bit. Isshin didn't seem to have quite caught on yet, though.

"You see, he was very young," Aizen continued slyly, picking his goblet back up to study the contents again. "I had only had him for three years, and he had been human for six and ten afore that. So sad to see such a bright boy's future cut short. It's only fitting that I get something equivalent, isn't it?" Isshin's brows knitted and Ichigo could tell that he was also becoming very uneasy with the direction of this conversation.

"I suppose that would be reasonable." Isshin's words were measured, aware that Aizen was most likely trying to trap him with something absolutely unreasonable.

"I'm glad we see eye-to-eye," Aizen replied. "In that case, I don't think it would be too much to ask for another, do you?" Ichigo felt as though he had been dipped in ice water. He knew exactly what the next words out of Aizen's mouth would be. His fingers twitched, spasming as he wished they could wrap around Aizen's neck.

"I think Lady Inoue would be a good substitute," Aizen continued, pinning Ichigo with a hard gaze. "Don't you?"

Before Ichigo knew what he was doing, he was on his feet, palms slammed flat into the polished surface of the table. Cracks spread beneath his palms in a web-like pattern. Had he been rational at all, he'd have realized he was well on his way to breaking the whole table.

"I refuse!" he bellowed. "I'd rather die than let you--" The words withered on his tongue. A cold grip tightened on the back of his neck, sharp nails digging into his flesh. Ichigo bared his teeth as he slowly slid his eyes to look behind him.

Aizen's valet, Ulquiorra, stood behind him, arm outstretched and gripping him by the back of his neck firmly. He hadn't even noticed him move. The pale man's grip was as firm as stone, and Ichigo knew struggling would do him no good.

"That can be arranged, Count," Ulquiorra droned, his voice dull and monotone. Ichigo hissed, knowing he had no choice but to stay still.

"I had a feeling you'd say that," Aizen sighed in mock disappointment. "That's quite alright, though. I did come prepared." Isshin's jaw was set firmly as he watched his restrained son out of the corner of his eye. Ichigo was so intent on watching the exchange between his father and Aizen that he barely registered his father's valet slipping out of the large room.

"What kind of game are you playing, Aizen?" Isshin asked coldly. Ichigo couldn't help but feel a small glimmer of hope; he alone stood no chance of defending Orihime from Aizen's mechanitions, but perhaps if his father stood up to the Duke, there was still a chance.

"Oh, it's hardly a game, my dear Marquis," Aizen said, leaning back in his chair. "You didn't honestly think I came ill prepared, did you? After you and your family arrived, I took the liberty of stationing a contingent of my men in the pass leading to your little village here. In the event that I would leave here unsatisfied, I think you're well aware of what would happen."

Ichigo watched as his father's eyes momentarily flicked toward the door of the spacious room. Obviously not finding what they sought, they flickered back to Aizen, the black-haired man's countenance remaining frozen and calm.

"Very well," he said slowly. "We will negotiate. But first, I'd like your man to let my son go." Ichigo felt a growl building in his chest as Ulquiorra's short, black fingernails dug into his skin.

"As long as he behaves, I have no problem with that," Aizen said smoothly, playing the part of the generous negotiator. Ichigo didn't bother glancing back at Ulquiorra as the pale man resentfully let him go. He took his seat again resentfully, but Ulquiorra didn't move; Ichigo figured he was still waiting for that order from Aizen, and the Duke didn't feel inclined to give it.

"Lady Inoue is not a bargaining piece," Ichigo spat abruptly. Aizen's expression was unchanging, as was Isshin's. The older Kurosaki didn't take his eyes off the Duke as he addressed his son.

"Ichigo, be still," the Marquis ordered, his eyes fixed on Aizen. "We will negotiate to the best of our ability, but her loss may not be able to be helped." He then shifted back to addressing Aizen.

"Surely you must know that dear Lady Inoue is my son's fiancee? Is there nothing else here that would satisfy you?" Aizen took a sip of his drink, his smug expression growing more loathsome to Ichigo by the second.

"It's reassuring to see that one of you still possesses his wits about him," Aizen said smoothly as he swirled the contents of his glass. "But I'm afraid not. A companion of Gin's caliber is exceedingly difficult to come by, and I believe Lady Inoue fits the bill nicely. She is a very rare flower indeed. But of course you'd agree, Count?" Ichigo could muster no reply but a barely suppressed growl.

"Be that as it may," Isshin said slowly, "We're very reluctant to give her over. Is there no amount of gold or jewels we can tempt you with? Regardless of the location of our lands, we want for nothing."

Aizen's smirk got more sickening, if that was even possible. He gestured to Ulquiorra, who left Ichigo and rounded the table back to his master. As he did, he withdrew a piece of vellum and a quill, as well as an ink bottle, from the inner lining of his waistcoat. Aizen took these, his eyes never leaving Isshin's, and then began scratching onto the paper. As soon as he was finished, he folded the paper and slid it across the table to Isshin, who took and unfolded it. The Marquis' eyebrows shot up as soon as he saw what was written there.

"This is quite exorbitant," he murmured, rubbing the scruff on his chin. Ichigo cut a frustrated glance at him.

"Well, Gin was quite an irreplaceable companion," Aizen said smoothly. "I think that's a fair offer for settlement." Ichigo had finally had quite enough and reached over to snatch the paper from his father's hand.

"Just pay the man his damn settlement," Ichigo growled, glancing down at the vellum. "Surely it can't be th--" He stopped mid-sentence as he looked at the figures written there, a sudden queasiness overtaking him. Surely Aizen knew this was more than the entire family was worth, Budapest town house included!

"I think you see the problem there," Isshin grumbled beneath his breath. Ichigo could feel his eyes burning; that angry monster was just on the edge of coming back again. That damnable duke was being obtuse on purpose!

"Surely that's not unreasonable, Marquis?" Aizen said coyly, taking another sip of his drink. Isshin's eye twitched, but his face otherwise remained a blank mask.

"Of course not," he obliged. "However, I am afraid that we will have to find some other arrangement. Surely you wouldn't object to a different servant and a bit less fiscal compensation?" Aizen's smile didn't reach his eyes.

"Oh no," he drawled, "It's Lady Inoue or nothing. I'm quite decided on that point." Ichigo ground his teeth; he wanted dearly to break something. Isshin could see his agitation as well, and placed a hand over his beneath the table.

"Be still," Isshin hissed under his breath; then he turned back to Aizen. "Then I believe we are at an impasse. I would hope there is some reasonable resolution we could reach that wouldn't leave our entire family put out, or my son without his bride." As he spoke, his eyes flickered back toward the door. Ichigo finally saw it move, two familiar men entering. Had his father's furtive glances been because he expected someone else's arrival?

As soon as they entered, he knew his father had been waiting on them.

At the lead was his father's valet, crisp and starched and white as always. And following not far behind, in a swirl of black robes, was that damnable priest. Only this time, Ichigo was sure there was a good cause for him to be here, and he was quite likely going to offer some help. He was well aware that Aizen and the clergyman didn't get along for whatever reason, most likely because Aizen was a shameless libertine and never bothered to hide it. Or possibly because Aizen frequently thought himself above the elders of the church; more than once he'd flagrantly flouted their rules and made it a point to let them know they had no proof with which to prosecute him. Even vampires who were devoutly areligious, such as Ichigo and his father, did not dare such a thing; regardless of one's feelings about God, one did not brazenly fly in the face of the governing body of the church.

"My, my!" the father proclaimed brightly, fanning himself with a piece of aged parchment. "I do so hope I'm not interrupting anything!" Isshin gestured to a seat at the head of the table, welcoming the priest with a warm smile. Aizen's face remained neutral, betraying no emotion other than a quiet bemusement. Ichigo knew he was confident enough in his position to feel not the least bit intimidated by Urahara's presence.

"Of course not, old friend!" Isshin replied jovially before turning to Nemu. "Be a dear, would you, and pour our friend here a drink." The dark-haired girl did as she was asked flawlessly, not spilling so much as a drop outside of the glass. Urahara took it with a grateful smile.

"I'm afraid I'm at a bit of a loss here," Aizen interjected with obvious forced pleasantness. "Is there truly a need for the presence of a priest here?" Ichigo was loathe to admit it, but he agreed with Aizen's assessment; why was Urahara here? As for the sandy-haired man, Ichigo recognized the fleeting, calculating glint in his blue eyes as he took a drought from his crystal cup.

"Delicious!" he exclaimed. "I see the preservation system I set up has worked out well for you!" Aizen's pleasant mask was quickly sliding into impatience as Urahara dissembled over nothing. Instead, Isshin answered his question.

"Well, your grace, as this is a fairly legal matter, isn't it only right that a member of the church join us?" Ichigo thought Aizen looked vaguely uncomfortable at this notion, but the look passed quickly.

"I suppose it is," Aizen said smoothly, disguising any discomfort he might have felt. "Shall we inform the Father of our current situation?" Urahara sat his glass down with a clink, drawing a deep breath and wiping his mouth.

"Ahh, that would be unnecessary," the blond said, his demeanor swiftly shifting from carefree to serious in the wink of an eye. "I'm already well-apprised of the situation." Aizen regarded him, stone-faced.

"And what apprisal might that include?" Aizen asked, his demeanor no longer masking his naked aggression.

"Let's see, here," Urahara went on. "I believe you are quite wroth with the Kurosaki family for doing away with your erstwhile companion, are you not?" Aizen gave a stiff nod and waited for the priest to continue. "In particular, with their son, the young Count."

Ichigo's jaw set as he stared openly at Urahara in defiance.

"You are correct, Father," Aizen drawled, something of a smile making its way back to his face. As he did, Urahara took to studying the swirl of red liquid in his drinking glass. "We all know the boy has something of a foul temper, so it's little wonder he'd do something as heinous as taking the life of another of his kind." Ichigo almost stood before his father's iron-like grip kept him in place.

"Be that as it may," Urahara said smoothly, "I'm also aware that your man Ichimaru has resided for quite a while in this tiny hamlet. I wonder why that might be? It isn't as though he wouldn't have been better off in a larger place like Prague or any of the other cities between your dukedom and here." Aizen gave a nonchalant shrug before addressing the group again.

"I would certainly have no idea," he replied. "And I would say that any human lives he might have consumed while here are quite inconsequential in difference to his own." Urahara smiled diplomatically.

"Oh my, certainly," the priest placated. "Be that as it may, he certainly was poaching here. And while that may not be worthy of a true death in and of itself, a bit of investigation revealed something interesting." Aizen raised an eyebrow at the towheaded man.

"And what would that be, Father?" Urahara unfurled the worn parchment he'd brought with him.

"It seems that a study of the church's local register shows that someone named Gin Ichimaru resided in this town's orphanage roughly fourteen years ago."

Ichigo's eyebrows shot toward his hairline. In the time Orihime had taken to visit Urahara the night before, he had informed his father of everything she'd told him. He wasn't aware, however, that his father had shared it all with the priest. He must have gone during the day to procure the town's records, when he knew the rest of the house would be abed. Quite crafty indeed, and for once Ichigo was grateful for the blond vampire's interference.

Aizen on the other hand, looked none too happy with this news. While his pleasant countenance had cracked to reveal a stony mask beneath, Ichigo didn't think he was truly showing all the anger he really felt at Urahara's proclamation.

"And?" the duke asked airily. "I am sure there are countless other Gin Ichimarus on this continent." Urahara's mild demeanor didn't waver.

"Oh, certainly," the priest acquiesced. "But how many of them were the exact same age as your companion, vanished roughly the same year you acquired him, and had a grudge against the lords of this land? Count, did he not mention that when you confronted him?" Ichigo's focus didn't stray from Aizen's now-snarling face as he answered.

"He did," Ichigo replied, playing along. "He also attempted to openly provoke us in Budapest just a few years prior. And he directly admitted he lived in our territory as a child, until someone took him from here." It wasn't a lie, of course; Ichigo just omitted the fact that Ichimaru had never confessed that particular fact directly to him. Besides which, he enjoyed watching Aizen's cleverly laid trap backfire on him.

"Oh dear, this certainly does change things," Isshin mused, rubbing the whiskers on his chin. "Since it appears he was from our village in the first place, and he seems to have been attacking our flock unprovoked, I would say his death was fairly earned. Wouldn't you, Duke Aizen?"

The man in question was clearly trying to contain his temper, although no one present doubted in the least that he was currently suffering a great fit of pique. His normally stoic retainer even flinched, no doubt because he was well aware of the wrath Aizen's party was sure to suffer once they were away. But even Aizen surely knew by now that he was leaving empty-handed.

"I suppose so," he ground out, the jagged sound of his voice causing the corners of Ichigo's mouth to tug up into a half-smile.

"Well, I believe that settles it!" Urahara chimed happily. "I shall make no report of these proceedings to Rome for the time being. Unless His Grace would like them recorded?" Aizen was no fool; he implicitly understood the priest's meaning. If he sought retaliation, he would bring the governing body of their people down on him from Rome - and many of those vampires were already looking for any excuse to censure him anyway. Instead, he waved his hand dismissively.

"That will not be necessary, Father," Aizen replied, his calm countenance returning. "I believe this discussion is now at an end anyway, is it not?" Even though his words were pleasant, there was a clipped quality to them that belied his true intentions.

"Certainly!" Isshin boomed, cheeks rosy and eyes glinting as he stole a furtive glance at Urahara. "Now that this unpleasantness has been settled, would Your Grace care to join us for a meal or entertainment? It wouldn't be what you're accustomed to in Escalona, but you would not want for pleasant company." Instead of continuing the chatter, Aizen planted his palms on the polished table and pushed himself up.

"Thank you, but no," he replied, straightening his cravat as soon as he'd reached his full height. "It seems as if there will be more snow soon, and I would continue my winter holiday before the roads out of here are impassable." Ichigo well knew this was merely an excuse, but didn't protest; he was glad to be rid of the fellow.

"That is certainly a shame," the Marquis replied, a bit insincerely as well, Ichigo thought. "It promises to be lively here with my whole family in residence this year. But you will do what you must. Perhaps we will see you in Budapest next year." Isshin stood and extended his hand across the table, compelling Aizen to take it for a firm shake. It was clear the younger Duke wanted nothing to do with the handshake, but courtesy compelled him alone.

"Shall my man see you out?" Isshin asked pleasantly, although the implicit meaning was clear. Aizen had overstayed his welcome.

"That's quite alright," the Duke replied, pulling his gloves on. "My valet and I can find our own way out. Ulquiorra, come. The night is still young." On his order, the two Spaniards turned on their heels and left the room with a flourish.

The entire room seemed to exhale at once, the pressure escaping with the two villains. Ichigo glanced to his father, a rare grateful look crossing his features.

"Thank you, Father," the redhead said in a low voice. The Marquis favored his son with a cheeky grin, and Ichigo immediately knew he should've kept silent.

"If you really want to thank me," the older vampire said quietly into Ichigo's ear, "You'll hurry up and make Lady Inoue your Countess. I'd like to have grandchildren before I'm old and gray, you know!"

Ichigo's blood rose sluggishly to his cheeks until he was nearly the same color as his hair. He resisted the urge to pummel his father out of respect for the amount of help he'd just dealt him, but it was certainly a hard-fought battle.

"Shut up, old man," he grumbled, walking stiff-limbed toward the parlor door. Behind him, his father's jovial chuckle rang in his ears.
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Crystal Dawn

February 2012


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