queenofchalices: (Kiseru)
[personal profile] queenofchalices
Title: Moon Over the Tower: Chapter Twenty
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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A soft blanket of snow reflected the moon's pale glow while slivers of golden firelight sprinkled the silvery expanse. The smell of firewood and some incomprehensible mixture of fruit, vegetables, herbs, and sausages hung hazily around the small wooden home. There was even a pretty evergreen bough wreath decorating the door for Christmastide.

Orihime smiled. For as much as Rangiku detested menial household chores, their home certainly seemed to have missed her presence very little. She couldn't help but wonder with a sad smile if her sister would soon feel the same.

Even so, the soon-to-be Countess fairly thrummed with excitement. In an earlier bout of self-consciousness, she had even wondered if the Count could sense her nervousness; indeed, he had been giving her a few quizzical looks along the way there. But then she reminded herself that he was no mind reader and could probably only feel her excited heartbeat through the thin material of her gloves.

The carriage had been stopped for several silent minutes before she finally said, "Is this really alright?" The Count's eyebrows tugged toward each other as he gave her a pensive look.

"Chad is a more than sufficient chaperone," he pointed out, his voice thick with confusion. "And I know you've a clove of garlic in your bodice. The whole carriage reeks of it." Orihime's cheeks nearly glowed as he pointed these things out, all of them precautions for their solitary ride to her sister's cabin. But that wasn't what she had asked about.

"No, I meant..." she began, studying her hands as she spoke. "I meant, is it alright for you to sneak away from your mother and father like this?"

The Count's cheeks colored a pale red as he cleared his throat. He looked away in clear embarrassment at having misunderstood the subject. Worse yet, his sudden embarrassment affected Orihime, causing her to blush and look away in return.

"I told them we were going to your father's land to collect some things in secret, if that's what concerns you," he responded, his voice a shy grumble. Orihime's eyebrows shot up as she lifted her head to look at him.

"But I don't have a father," she innocently corrected. "He passed away when I was three." The Count turned to stare at her with something akin to astonishment.

"You may not, but Lady Inoue does," he corrected with a small grin while Orihime blushed again at her own naivety. "But it doesn't signify. Father is too busy indulging in flights of fancy over imaginary grandchildren or what have you, to worry much about where we go." This only assuaged her worries part-way, as was shown when she drew her eyebrows together and her little bow of a mouth assumed a cute pout.

"And your Mama?" she asked. Orihime was truly solicitous of the Marquise's good opinion; she had always been fond of the beautiful older lady, but now that she was honestly going to be her daughter-in-law, Orihime was even more determined to keep herself in the great lady's good graces.

"Mother is busy with Karen and Yuzu," the Count replied while scratching his cheek. "And I believe Tatsuki and Rukia will keep her busy as well. We'll scarcely be missed."

Orihime's mind was eased by this. Having no other family but Rangiku and her late brother, she had little understanding of the workings of a larger and better bred family. She had assumed that after not having seen their son in several months, the noble couple would bristle at being once again separated from him. But this seemed not to be the case, and it relieved her to know that the two of them were more or less free to do as they pleased - within reason, of course.

"Alright, then," Orihime said with a nod, regaining some of her enthusiasm. "Will you be coming in with me?" The Count blushed, clearly seeming to recall something of which Orihime remained ignorant.

"That's quite alright," he nearly squeaked. "I'll be out here if you need me. All you have to do is call." Orihime gave a small pout; she had very much wanted her sister to meet her husband-to-be and for the two to be as close as brother and sister. She knew it was likely an impossible dream, he being nobility and a vampire while her sister was as far from either as possible. But she still had nursed that tiny hope nonetheless.

"I'll try not to keep you waiting," she finally said, reaching over to plant a warm kiss on his cool cheek. The Count cleared his throat, as he now seemed to be aware he was blushing, and looked anywhere in the carriage but at Orihime. His charming awkwardness made her smile, but she dared not linger any longer. She opened the carriage door, letting in a burst of cold air, and in a flutter of skirts was gone.

As soon as the door was shut behind her, Ichigo blew out a breath he'd been holding and slumped against the seat. He could finally relax. Aside from his own nervousness, the stench of garlic in the tiny carriage was almost overpowering.

Odious women! He knew Tatsuki and Rukia had put her up to wearing it. They saw it as an amusing diversion to use such treacherous tactics on him. Ichigo made a mental note to write to Rukia's brother soon with some menial tidbit to land Renji in hot water as payback.

He was just deciding between whether to claim Renji had damaged a bit of china or had spooked one of his hunting hounds when the curtain on the carriage window fluttered. The delicate sound of flapping wings filled the cabin as Ichigo's eyebrows rose. He recognized the little golden bat that had entered his carriage, and upon seeing her he knew one thing indisputably.

He was going to be in deep trouble.
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Orihime rapped on the heavy oaken door with the heel of her hand. It wasn't a very loud sound, so she wasn't at all sure her sister would hear. She was rapidly losing the heat she'd managed to maintain in the Count's carriage and only hoped her sister would answer the door soon.

Just as she raised her hand to knock again, the door swung open with a loud creak. Before Orihime could even process what had happened, she was tangled in an enthusiastic pile of blonde hair and breasts.

"Orihimeeee!" Rangiku cried, tears streaking her happy face. "You're back! Why did you wait outside so long? You're going to catch your death out here, come inside!" Rangiku pulled her little sister across the threshold, chattering happily until they were situated before the warm fireplace. Then the older girl stopped and put Orihime at arm's length to admire her new clothing.

"You look so... rich!" Rangiku observed happily. "That cute Count must have really taken a liking to you!"

Orihime blushed, suddenly becoming very aware of the difference in dress between her and her sister. While it was true that Rangiku was dressed better now than Orihime had ever seen - she reckoned this was due to the Count - Orihime still outshone her in her simple riding clothes.

"Yes, I..." she began, still worried about her sister's approval, "I came to tell you that we... We're getting married, Rangiku! Now you don't have to worry about me anymore, and you and Mr. Hisagi can start a family of your own!" Orihime smiled to cover her awkwardness, but the penetrating look in Rangiku's eyes told her the other girl wasn't fooled.

"Oh, you silly girl," her sister said, hugging her once again to her oversized bosom. "Stop thinking you're a burden. You've done more for all of us than you know." Orihime couldn't help but think that her sister might be right, but for entirely the wrong reasons. And that, in turn, caused a familiar prickle at the back of her sinuses.

"Shh, shh," Rangiku soothed as Orihime sniffled, then burst into sobs. "There, there. Why are you crying? This is wonderful news!"

"B-But..." Orihime began, "We won't be able to see each other now! It won't be the same anymore! I'm so sorry, Rangiku!" Rangiku simply shook her head and smiled.

"Don't be absurd, Orihime," she chided. "That's what happens when you grow up and get married. I'll have Shuuhei to keep me company, and you'll have that ridiculous rich Count and his houseful of servants to dote on you, right? And you can always come visit whenever you feel like." Orihime didn't dare contradict her on that point; how could she explain that she wasn't going to grow older anywhere near as fast as Rangiku would? Instead, she chose another part of Rangiku's speech to respond to.

"Ri-Ridiculous?" she asked without a hint of anger. "Why do you say he's ridiculous?" Rangiku released her little sister and gave her a naughty grin. Orihime recognized the look and began to blush.

"That hair of his for one thing," Rangiku noted, raising a finger as she spoke. "And he's so shy and innocent! I was worried at first that he might be a devious old pervert that takes advantage of poor young girls, but then I came to find out that he hasn't the first idea what to do with a girl!" Orihime stared, wide-eyed in mortification. Her sister really had no idea of exactly the depth of the situation, but her observation still cut to the heart of the matter. Rangiku merely stared off into the room with her finger on her chin, reasoning it all out to herself.

"Then again, if I think of it that way, you two are perfect for each other!" Rangiku exclaimed joyously. "Two blushing virgins! You both need someone to gently take you in hand... Of course, if you're feeling too shy about it, I could always teach him for you!" Orihime's complexion had gone absolutely scarlet.

"Rangiku!" she chided, the embarrassment obvious on her face. Her older sister simply laughed.

"I'm kidding, I'm kidding!" she cried, barely suppressing her laughter.

"You're awful!" Orihime scolded, her face now buried beneath her hands. There was no real tooth in her voice and Rangiku could tell she wasn't really angry; she was only mortified. After a good, small chuckle, she allowed her face to grow more serious.

"Honestly, Orihime," she began, "I'm glad. He'll be able to give you all the things we couldn't. Don't make that sad face at me - you deserve to be showered in riches. You're a good girl." Orihime could see the beginnings of a sad smile on Rangiku's face and reflexively responded with a determined look of her own.

"You do, too, Rangiku!" she insisted, hearing the implied self-depreciation in her sister's voice. "Mr. Hisagi had better treat you well! Has he made you an offer?" Rangiku smiled brightly, lifting a single finger as she did so.

"Oh no," Rangiku replied, "I told him we would be married with the money your Count left us! He didn't argue at all!" Orihime reasoned that she would've found it incredibly odd if he had argued; it was common knowledge that the blacksmith was over the moon for her blonde sister. To her, this just followed a normal pattern in their relationship - Rangiku called and Mr. Hisagi dropped whatever he was doing to answer her.

"Speaking of which," Rangiku continued, her voice growing serious, "I know I'm not expected to attend your wedding, and I'm sure the Count doesn't want the other nobility to know where it is you came from..." Orihime could see that even though her sometimes flighty sister had resigned herself to this mundane reality, she was still a little put out by it. Still, she wanted her to be happy, and there was no one she'd rather have with her on her wedding day.

"It doesn't matter!" Orihime said, determination shining in her eyes as she grasped her sister's hands. "I'll ask the Count if you can come, too! He's already told his father that I'm a lady from a noble family, so we'd just have to give you a nice dress to wear, right?" Regardless of the logic in such a proposal, both girls smiled broadly at each other, their eyes dancing with love and joy.

"If he'll have me, I'd love to be there," Rangiku said happily. A moment of understanding silence, the kind reserved only for sisters, passed between them before Orihime remembered the other reason she'd come to her sister's house. Her face revealed her thoughts as she startled, then reached into her pelisse for what she'd come to deliver.

"Here," she said gently. "I think this is yours." Rangiku looked quizzically at the tattered little rag doll that Orihime placed reverently into her hands for a moment before recognition dawned on her face.

"Where did you get this?" she asked, voice full of quiet awe. Orihime couldn't hide the faint sadness on her face.

"The... There was a man with white hair," Orihime started, "He helped the Count kill the wolves in the forest - the ones that had been killing people!" Rangiku's eyes widened as Orihime spoke. The younger girl rarely lied to her sister and felt guilt lance her as she told this one. Still, she wanted to shield Rangiku from the ugly truth. Whatever else he may have done, she thought Gin would at least want Rangiku to remember him in a good light.

"How strange," the older woman said pensively. "That night I passed out, it seemed like he was the one who grabbed me, but I thought my mind was playing tricks on me..." Orihime's heart raced as she remembered that Gin had said something like that to her. She hadn't thought of it since the night she was kidnapped and the Count hadn't mentioned it, so she had put it out of her mind. But now she was regretting that oversight.

"You passed out?" she asked nervously. "Were you hurt?" Rangiku seemed to be thinking, eyes narrowing on the doll she held in her hands.

"I can't remember it clearly," she said softly. "I thought he grabbed me right before I passed out, and Shuuhei said I lost a lot of blood. I know there was a fight outside, though - the shutters are a mess now." Orihime's mind whirled, trying to think of a story believable enough to convince Rangiku not to think too hard about this.

"I bet those wolves attacked you," Orihime volunteered, getting into the spirit of the yarn as she told it. "They attacked you and Mr. Ichimaru saved you from them!" That sounded suitable, and Orihime's perseverance was rewarded when Rangiku's mouth stretched into a reflective smile.

"Yeah," Rangiku responded, "That sounds like my Gin."
_____________________________________________________

Ichigo could feel cold beads of sweat gather on the back of his neck. Of course, any man or vampire would begin to perspire when looking straight into the smiling brown eyes of their doom.

It washed over him like the tide then. How pointless this all had been. How foolish he'd been. How much trouble he was about to be in. He suddenly felt himself drowning in his own helplessness.

Masaki Kurosaki sat across from him in the suddenly too-small carriage, giving him a look that was entirely too placid for his own good. Ichigo swallowed as inconspicuously as he could, hoping in vain that his mother couldn't see his nervousness.

"Ichigo, dear," she said sweetly, "Aren't you going to go inside? It's very rude to snub your future in-laws like that." He scowled unconsciously, distracted from his fear by puzzlement.

Was she angry with him? He had more than expected her to be, but something about what she'd said and the way she spoke made him think otherwise. With his mother, it was always hard to tell when she was upset at first; she would either bite her tongue and wait for the situation to pass, or she would find it so intolerable that she would give everyone in the room a firm yet polite set-down. So while her initial words seemed encouraging, Ichigo didn't want to get his hopes up. He'd much rather remain wary for when she went in for the kill instead.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he lied lamely, looking away from his mother's piercing eyes. Masaki's face changed in that instant from a smiling mask to one of clear sympathy.

"Ichigo," she began gently, "Come now, I was only teasing. You needn't get into one of your sulks. I'm not angry." Knowing that his mother wasn't angry with him lifted a weight off of Ichigo's shoulders and allowed him to cross his arms with a sullen 'hmph'.

"I'm not sulking," he said, nearly pouting. Masaki's laughter rang through the carriage like tiny silver bells.

"Then what is all this?" she asked, still smiling. "Are you upset at being caught out by me? Rather me than your father, at least." Ichigo visibly winced. His mother reacted with sympathy, reaching across the carriage to lay her hand over his. Ichigo still refused to meet her eyes.

"I have no objections, so you may rest easy on that account," Masaki said gently. Ichigo finally raised his eyes to see the tenderness in hers.

"Unlike your father, I do not have to adhere to certain public standards," she continued with a small smirk. Ichigo's face contorted in confusion.

"Of course you do," he said, puzzled. "You're a Marquise and a gentlewoman." Masaki hid her smile demurely behind her fan, as well as the faint blush she was now showing. It was her turn to drop Ichigo's gaze.

"On that last count, you are quite mistaken, Ichigo," she said quietly. As Ichigo's eyebrows drew together, his mother sensed his confusion and continued. "Has your father ever told you how we met?"

Ichigo's mouth was open for only a moment to allow the "yes, of course" to fall automatically out, before he realized something. No, his father really hadn't said how he'd met his mother. Ichigo had always simply assumed they'd met at some ball or rout. It was obvious that Masaki had been human-born; his father's father had always been chilly and stern towards Masaki and her children, and he'd never seen his maternal grandparents. It was easy to see that his parents' match had not been approved by at least the Kurosakis, but he'd never known why. Isshin had never been shy about extolling his wife's many virtues, but even with all the background noise, Ichigo couldn't recall that particular item ever being discussed. Therefore, Ichigo had figured it to be of a sensitive nature and hadn't pried.

"I'll take your lack of response as a no," Masaki continued after nearly a full minute of silence. When Ichigo still didn't reply, she spoke again.

"I was not born to a noble family, Ichigo," she said softly. "My family were farmers and I, myself, was a milk maid." Ichigo's eyebrows were hovering somewhere near his hairline. All these years and his father had never once mentioned it. Even still, some part of Ichigo wanted to deny that; it wasn't right at all to think of his mother as some common milk maid! His mind scrambled to find any evidence that she was pranking him.

"But... I've seen your lineage!" Ichigo protested, referring to the documents he'd seen verifying his mother's parentage. Surely she'd been some nobleman's by-blow and just left to the farmers to raise. But all Ichigo's protest did was draw a sad smile across her face.

"Forgeries," she said simply. "Your father and Ryuuken had them made to fool your grandfather. I doubt he was ever really fooled, though. It was all clumsily done - you know how enthusiastic your father gets." He knew all too well how enthusiastic his father could be in the entirely wrong direction at least. But then something else occurred to Ichigo, something that had been the crux of his problem with his father for the past year.

"But if that's the case, then why was he so adamant that I should marry Rukia?" he asked, eyebrows drawn. For someone who was willing to marry a common milk maid, he seemed awfully eager to make sure his son married a pure-blooded aristocrat. Masaki's eyelashes lowered to fan prettily across the apples of her cheeks.

"I imagine he doesn't want his son to receive the same censure he did," she replied in nearly a whisper. "He only wants your happiness, Ichigo. He felt so sure that once you were happily settled, your... illness would resolve itself. And of course that Lady Kuchiki is a woman of a stout enough constitution that she could wring it out of you, if not." The slight change in subject brought a genuine smile back to her face, and a frosty blush back to Ichigo's.

"Too stout if you ask me," he grumbled. "I love Rukia dearly, but I could never live with her, let alone make her my wife!" Masaki giggled behind her fan.

"We have both of us been very silly about the whole deal, I believe," she confessed, laying a hand upon Ichigo's coat sleeve. "I do think you would have gotten along comfortably with Lady Kuchiki, and perhaps even grown to love her as a man loves his wife. But it is now clear to me that you respond better to a gentle hand than to one holding a whip." Ichigo's blush abated enough for him to crook an incredulous eyebrow.

"You just now realized this?" he asked, only half teasing. "You never noticed that I'd rather obey you than Father?" Masaki now looked genuinely curious.

"Well, I suppose I never thought of it that way," she confessed. "In any case, I only wanted to tell you that I support your union wholeheartedly." The embarrassment came back full force, causing Ichigo to glower again. He truly appreciated his mother's support, but he'd rather not hear this from her.

"I thank you," he replied automatically. "But does that mean Father doesn't? I thought he'd be happy so long as I was safely married off." Ichigo left out the obvious tenet that the marriage be to a noblewoman for his mother's sake; it was to be understood without being spoken, anyway.

"Oh, I would assume so," she said with a dismissive flick of her hand. "If not, he'll find his study a lonely, boring place to sleep come morning." Ichigo ruffled a bit at this off-handed remark. His parents both had the most tiresome way of acting like love-struck puppies over one another. He wondered if they might have outgrown their fawning if they had both been humans. And then he realized they'd have just been two old, decrepit fawning human love birds instead. The idea was enough to make him shudder.

His mother brought him out of it with another pat to his arm and a smile.

"I should go," she said quietly. "Your bride will be back any second now, and I'd rather not embarrass her." Ichigo looked a bit abashed as his mother began the process of turning back into a tiny golden bat. The thought occurred to him that he'd soon be teaching Orihime how to use that same trick.

The now-fluttering form of his mother swooped down to Ichigo's cheek, giving it a small kiss. A second later, the pretty little bat was rustling the carriage curtains on her way out. Ichigo watched as his mother's light form winged its way back in the direction of the castle until it was out of sight. A second later, the carriage door swung open.

"Count Kurosaki!" Orihime exclaimed, thrusting her head inside the carriage with a wide grin on her face. Ichigo hid his surprise with an affectionate scowl.

"You can call me Ichigo now, you know," he corrected his fiancee as she climbed into the carriage. She brought the scent of garlic wafting into the confined space with her. Ichigo simply crinkled his nose in disapproval to show his discomfort.

"I-Ichigo," she said slowly, softly. If he weren't so disgusted with the smell of the garlic right now, he might have enjoyed the sound of her voice. Until the next words she said caused his eyebrows to slide up, in any case.

"I have a favor to ask of you."

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Crystal Dawn

February 2012

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