Title: Lady in Waiting, Chapter 5 - The Lesson

Warnings: AU, het (IchiHime), historical geekery

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.

Author's Note: I should apologize for the horrible cliffhanger I left this story on last time. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this chapter! See, I didn't forget about it!

Ichigo crossed one long leg over the other, sighing as he lay in the cool grass. He'd been readjusting himself like this for the better part of a watch now, and with good reason. He was completely unable to get comfortable.

It wasn't a physical thing, though. Oh no, the grass itself was perfectly soft and comfortable. Whoever maintained the grounds did an excellent job. And the night air wasn't too humid or too chilly; it was just right. No, this was a completely mental thing.

He'd been unable to think, much less eat or do anything more strenuous all day long. The reason why was obvious; she was currently undressing for bed before her half-opened blinds. Ichigo watched her longingly in silence. Who knew a girl could be the cause of such malaise?

He figured this was the worst he'd ever felt in his whole life. Worse than being tired or hungry. Worse than the time he ate poisonous mushrooms by accident. Worse than wading into a stream in winter. Objectively, the current situation might even be worse than what had caused him to leave home in the first place.

He could tell that Orihime herself wasn't doing much better. As he watched her, he could tell she was absolutely miserable. She had turned her friends away and was in the process of turning in early tonight as well. Even more condemning, she'd been crying off and on all evening. What was worse, Ichigo had no idea why.

She was the one who had turned him away, so shouldn't she be happy? Why was she sad instead? What had he done to upset her? Perhaps she regretted what they'd done together? Or what if she had been told she had to marry someone else? His mind ran in circles with the possibilities until he was dizzy. It was a good thing he was laying down on the grass.

"What the hell is your problem?" A snide feline voice came from Ichigo's right, causing his ears to perk up. "You look like someone beat you."

Ichigo looked over to see the steel gray bakeneko padding across the grass towards him, his twin tails waving in the night air. He really wasn't in any mood to deal with Grimmjow right now.

"Shut up, Grimmjow," he grumbled, tucking his chin between his hooves. The cat seemed to be smiling, if that was at all possible. He walked around him, surveying him with twitching ears and tails, before speaking again.

"So that girl kicked you out?" he asked, finally coming to sit on his haunches, "Eh, who needs her? You can do better anyway."

"I don't want to 'do better'," Ichigo grumbled, trying his best to ignore the cat. Grimmjow simply began bathing his paw.

"Don't tell me," he said around a mouthful of fur, "She saw that horn of yours and got scared and ran away." To say this was a sore subject at the moment was a bit of an understatement. Ichigo's hoof came down hard on the cat's tails.

"It's not like you've ever done that with a human girl, so shut up!" Ichigo nearly roared. He figured that was the one thing he had as leverage against Grimmjow. The nekomata simply shrieked in indignation from having his poor tails abused so. Ichigo was rewarded for his trouble with a slash across the face from his claws.

"Don't get cocky, asshole!" Grimmjow hissed before turning to soothe his bruised tail, "Just because I haven't yet doesn't mean I won't. I've almost got this human form stuff down. Watch."

With that, the cat began to change, his form rippling like water as the change coursed through him. The fur fell away from his face and his limbs lengthened, small feline toes unfurling into the long, strong fingers of a man. His ears shortened and migrated down his head, retaining a small point on the ends. And as the fur atop his head transformed into a full head of shaggy turquoise hair, he gave it a small shake, causing it to stand on end. As he completed his change, the only thing besides the color of his hair that gave away his supernatural leanings were his teal-colored eyes; the pupils were oval and glittered in the low, evening light.

"Well?" he asked with a toothy smirk, "What do you think?" Ichigo snorted.

"You still look like a freak," he grumbled, earning a kick to his ribs from the turquoise-haired man. He butted him with the edges of his horns, throwing him a few paces in retaliation. The cat quickly shifted back and landed upright with a growl.

"At least put some damn clothes on," Ichigo huffed, settling himself back on the grass, "And do something about that hair." Grimmjow simply sneered.

"I can't help the hair," he retorted, pacing just around the edges of Ichigo's reach, "And I can't just wish up clothes like you. I'll have to steal some." If a kirin could shrug, that's what he was doing.

"Just get some," he instructed, "You won't get very far naked." As he lay his head back down, though, an idea occurred to him.

"Hey, Grimmjow," he asked, "If I can get you some clothes, would you ask that Rangiku lady what's wrong with Inoue?" The cat grinned.

"If you get me some clothes, she'll be too busy to talk," he said boldly, "But I think I can fit it in..." Ichigo perked up a bit at that.

"Thanks, Grimmjow," he rumbled, "I'll get 'em first thing in the morning."

Ichigo cursed his promise to Grimmjow the night before.

The laundry ladies were currently absorbed in their work, washing the palace's robes, belts, and hakama. Oh, there were certainly plenty of garments Ichigo could choose from, but he found himself confronted by a couple of problems.

First and foremost were the laundry women themselves. They were busily buzzing about, heating the washing kettles, stirring the laundry, and hanging the garments out to dry. Even though they were all occupied, there were simply too many of them. If Ichigo tried anything, he was sure to be seen.

The second problem was Ichigo's ignorance of human clothing in general. He'd chosen to disguise himself as a guard mostly because their outfits were simple to remember, both in color and design. But the guards' laundry was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there were a plethora of robes, kimono, and jackets that Ichigo knew belonged to women. The men's clothing, if indeed there was any to be had at all, blended in with the rest so flawlessly that Ichigo couldn't find it.

Worse still, even if Ichigo managed to locate a man's hakama, kimono, overrobe, and belt, there was no guarantee they'd all match properly.

Finally, after hours of watching the women tend their work, Ichigo was brought out of his reverie by noticing that the women seemed to be doing something a bit different. The sun was directly overhead, and the kirin figured it to be close to the beginning of the seventh watch; a moment later, the sound of the court onmyouji striking the time confirmed his suspicions. [1]

At the sounding of the time, the women began to chat animatedly and move into the shade of their quarters. Ichigo imagined they were going to eat or take a break from the midday heat. Either way, his ears perked forward at his stroke of luck. Now was his chance!

The kirin darted out of his shady hiding spot, hooves pounding the well-manicured grass hard as he descended the hill. Finally finding himself at the bottom, he searched for the garments he'd already decided on. They were all the same shade of green and looked to be made for a man, so Ichigo figured they'd be his best bet to find something that looked right.

He darted and pranced, gently pulling the coarse silk off the drying racks with his horns and teeth. He didn't want to stretch or tear the fabric. As he examined the garments up close, he could tell the seams were nice and tight, and that the fabric was a decent weight. Yes, these would do just fine.

Finally satisfied at his conquest, Ichigo held the slightly damp garments firmly between his teeth and took off from the bottom of the hill like a shot. He could hang them on branches in the woods to dry them, but the important part was that he just get away with them first.

Ichigo paced nervously at the edge of the wooded lawn, pawing the soft earth in impatience. He knew Grimmjow would probably be all night, but he hardly wanted to wait that long.

He had watched Orihime turn in early again that night, a miserable expression on her pallid face. It was hardly late yet - barely past the start of the twelfth watch [2]- but already she slept soundly beneath her small mound of thin robes. Just the sight of that unmoving lump of cloth made Ichigo's heart ache. This scheme of his and Grimmjow's was taking far too long. At this rate, she was going to think him completely heartless.

Ichigo was so absorbed in his pitiful thoughts that he failed to notice the soft pitter-patter of cat feet as they approached. It wasn't until Grimmjow flopped at his feet with a wet 'thud' that Ichigo registered the ayakashi.

"O-Oi," he grunted, looking the battered cat over, "You're back early! What happened?" Grimmjow cracked an eye open wearily.

"Damn woman," he growled, "She saw those green clothes and freaked out! Said they weren't good enough for her or something. [3] Dammit all!" Ichigo suddenly felt very self-conscious.

"So what does that have to do with you looking like you fell down a mountain?" the kirin asked, worried. Grimmjow flopped to his other side with a grunt.

"When I wouldn't leave, she started hitting me with a flowerpot," the cat grumbled, "And a clothes rack. And her fan! And a shelf! And she said my hair was stupid!" As much as Grimmjow normally liked to be aloof and even somewhat cruel, Ichigo could tell his pride was wounded. He almost felt sorry for the angry cat.

"That's harsh," Ichigo conceded, laying his head back down on his legs. Grimmjow flopped onto his back, obviously trying to find the position that would relieve his bruises easiest.

"Human women," Grimmjow snorted, "Why're they so damn complicated! Cats are easy! When they move their tails over, you know they want some! I just don't get these humans!" As crass a sentiment as it was, Ichigo somehow found himself agreeing against his better judgment. He just didn't understand human women as well as he thought he did either.

"Tell me about it."

Things continued in much the same vein for several days. Ichigo was unhappy, Grimmjow was unhappy, and Orihime was unhappy. In fact, the only one who seemed even remotely happy was Rangiku, and Ichigo figured that was just because she didn't have to put up with the nekomata's near-constant complaints.

One night about five nights after the incident with the green clothes, something different happened. Unlike the other nights since Orihime had dismissed Ichigo, she didn't return to her room before sunset. In fact, as the eleventh watch gave way to the twelfth, the lights in her room remained unlit. And when the first watch was finally struck, Ichigo genuinely began to worry.

He checked the open verandas of the ladies' wing. Rangiku was in her room, reading and writing letters. The girl with the short, black hair, Tatsuki, was playing Go with someone on the opposite side of her screen. And the girl Ichigo recognized as the princess was fast asleep in her robes, fluffy guardian curled up by her face. He could even feel the dog watching him as he passed by.

Dejected and utterly worried by this point, Ichigo mulled over his options. It seemed there was only one thing he could do now.

Several minutes later, he let the blinds noisily fall back into place in Rangiku's doorway. [4] He watched nervously as the stately blonde woman sat up from her reading and turned to face him on the other side of her curtain. If he wasn't careful, he was sure she'd hit him with a flowerpot, too.

"Shuuhei, that's not you, is it?" she called from behind her curtain, "I thought you had duty tonight?" Ichigo cleared his throat and swallowed his nervousness.

"Err, sorry," he said slowly, "I'm not him." Rangiku sat still for a second, as though she was thinking of something.

"You're that awful red-headed boy!" she finally declared, causing Ichigo to flinch, "If you think I'll make an exception for you just because Orihime-chan rejected you, you are sorely mistaken!"

"Exception?" he asked, having a feeling that he already knew what the feisty woman meant, "No, it's... it's not that!" This didn't exactly seem to placate her.

"Then what is it?" she huffed, "I don't have time for rude little country bumpkins!" Ichigo was already feeling this might be pointless.

"Inoue," he said firmly, "Why isn't she in her room?"

"Why do you care where she is?" the sharp-tongued woman answered, "You didn't care enough to write her after you deflowered her!"

Now Ichigo was well and truly stumped. Write her? What did that even mean? How did one 'write' another person? As far as Ichigo knew, one only wrote kanji and kana onto sheets of paper with brushes and ink. Whatever it was, Ichigo had the feeling this was what he'd done to get himself rejected.

"Wait," he finally told the angry woman, "How do I 'write' her?" The silhouette paused and cocked its head to the side.

"What do you mean, how do you write her?" she asked in disbelief, "You find some paper and you write her a letter! What are you, stupid?" Well, Ichigo certainly felt stupid right about now, but that didn't mean he was going to just take that. She'd gone too far now.

"Look, lady," he finally barked, "I can't help it if I don't know this crap! Do you think I wanted her to get mad at me? You think I wanted her to kick me out? We're both miserable right now, and I didn't even know I was supposed to write this letter thing for her! If I knew how, I'd have done it already!"

There was a pause as Ichigo caught his breath and the woman on the other side of the curtain was very, very still. He felt somewhat satisfied at her silence; that would teach her to mock him.

Finally, she burst into peals of laughter.

"Wh-What's so damn funny?" he demanded, nearly yelling again.

"You... You really don't even know what a letter is?" she asked, gasping for air, "I bet you don't even know your naniwazu!" [5] Ichigo had to think back for a moment to where he'd heard that word before. The last time he'd heard it was when his mother had taught it to him.

'A real gentleman,' she'd said, 'knows how to read and write beautifully.'

"I... I do, too!" he protested, "I just... haven't done it in years. That's all." This did nothing to quiet the laughing blonde.

"Is that why you didn't write poor Orihime-chan, then?" she finally said, dabbing at her eyes with the hem of her sleeves, "She was just devastated, you know. She waited all day for you to write her, and when you didn't, the other girls made terrible fun of her." Ichigo felt his cheeks burn with shame. No wonder Orihime had kicked him out.

"I don't... I don't know how to write a letter," he admitted, the words tasting bitter on his tongue. Perhaps he imagined it, but it felt like Rangiku's expression softened a bit.

"That's a poor excuse," she said with a hint of amusement still in her voice, "But you certainly have to learn if you want Orihime-chan to forgive you. It won't do for her to carry on an affair with an illiterate hillbilly." Ichigo huffed a bit, but he knew it was true.

"How do I... go about learning?" he asked sheepishly. The woman behind the curtain brought the hem of her sleeve to her mouth.

"Can you not get one of the other guards to teach you?" she asked. Ichigo's mind raced for an appropriate excuse.

"That's... That would be too embarrassing," he grumbled, "And I'm not sure they know anyway." Rangiku chuckled knowingly.

"A good few of them do," she said, "But I can understand your hesitation. Hmm..." Ichigo finally thought he might've struck upon a solution.

"What if... I tell you what to write, and you write it for me?" This caused the blonde to break out into uncontrollable giggles again.

"In the first place," she started, holding up a slender finger, "Orihime-chan will be able to tell it's my writing. And in the second, I sincerely doubt you could compose a decent letter if you don't even know how to write." [6] Ichigo felt indignant, even though he again knew that it was quite true.

"Then... can you teach me how to write?" he asked hopefully. Rangiku looked as though she was considering it.

"Do you even know how to hold a brush?" Rangiku asked skeptically, "It's not like holding your bow or sword." Ichigo felt his cheeks color at that remark.

"I... I know that!" he sputtered, "And I know how to hold one! I can even write my own name!" Somehow, saying it out loud made it sound ridiculous. Rangiku sighed in response.

"I suppose I could teach you enough to write a letter I've composed for you before Orihime-chan comes back," she finally said, causing Ichigo to go still with anticipation. Then, he realized something that he'd been too caught up in the moment to notice before.

"Wait," he said, a bit of apprehension creeping into his tone, "Where is Inoue? You never told me." Rangiku paused for a moment before answering.

"She's having her monthly visit with her brother," [6] she said delicately. The double-meaning flew right over Ichigo's poor head.

"O-Oh," he replied, blushing at Rangiku's tone even without knowing why, "So... how long do we have before she comes back?"

"Oh, about five to seven days," Rangiku answered, causing Ichigo to wonder why she didn't know how long the visit would last. Eh, maybe she lost track of time while she was having fun with her brother.

Those seven days passed quickly enough. Ichigo spent every evening after dark in Rangiku's room, practicing the shapes needed to write his letter. Rangiku would explain to him the meanings of that day's kanji and kana, and then she would put him to work. Most nights he didn't leave until it was nearly dawn.

A few of those nights, she sent him to Orihime's room to practice in private. Rangiku had regular visitors and she made no secret of the fact that she didn't want him seen in her room. Aside from his very obvious inferior class, she didn't want any rumors about the two of them having a relationship to start. Ichigo understood very well why; Orihime would be devastated if she heard something like that and Rangiku had at least one suitor of her own.

Finally, at the end of those seven days, Rangiku gave Ichigo a few sheets of fresh, pale blue paper.

"Tonight, you're actually going to write your letter," she instructed him from behind her screen, "I gave you extra paper in case you mess up. Once it's written, we'll practice folding it appropriately on other sheets of paper, and then we'll fold your letter."

Ichigo thought for sure this was the hardest lesson yet. He had gotten used to writing so many characters in a row over the past six days, so that part passed without incident. His script was neat and legible and totally restrained in the way that someone who's only just learned to write can make their characters. But the writing was the easy part.

No, what had him utterly frustrated was folding the damn letter. Rangiku had insisted that nothing less than a perfectly knotted letter would suffice, and as such had him practice tying knots until he could get it just right. He tied knots until his hands ached. He must have tied at least a hundred over the course of the night. But finally, he tied several in a row that were absolutely flawless and Rangiku deigned his folding abilities to be sufficient to tie his letter to Orihime.

As a finishing touch, the blonde had him tuck a few sprigs of baby's breath and a small spray of tiny blue flowers into the knot. [7] Once that was done, he laid the letter behind Orihime's screen on her small, square pillow and breathed a sigh of relief. It was finally done; now all he had to do was wait.

Orihime arrived back at the palace the next day sometime around the beginning of the seventh watch. Ichigo had concealed himself behind some underbrush to watch for her arrival; as soon as he saw motion in her room, he perked his head up, ears flicking forward.

Almost as soon as she came into view, though, Ichigo could tell something was wrong. Something about the way she was moving seemed uncanny somehow. As he continued to watch, he realized she was favoring her right side just a bit, as well as paying special attention to her right shoulder. Her expression also hadn't changed during the time she'd been gone; she still looked as miserable and depressed as ever.

Ichigo's heart ached. Maybe she had just been in an accident of some kind, but if that was the case, why did she still look so down-hearted? The thought that someone may have harmed her entered his mind. He wanted to believe the best of her brother, but what if it was him? Or someone in their household? The mere idea of anyone laying hands on Orihime made his blood boil.

All that was soon pushed aside as he watched her discover his letter. He saw her face cycle through several different emotions upon picking it up; first surprise, then curiosity, then joy, then tears. Ichigo worried a bit at that last part until he heard her shout happily. She tucked the flowers behind her ear, then dashed unevenly towards the doorway of her room, waving the letter like a little flag before her.

He watched as her friends - Rangiku, the princess, and the other black-haired girl - flooded into the room, poring over the letter and chatting happily as Orihime read it out loud to them. And if he wasn't mistaken, he thought he saw the black-haired one give her blonde friend a knowing look.

After that, the watches couldn't pass by quickly enough. Ichigo knew that in future, he'd have to find a way to procure paper, a brush, ink, and actual writing talent if he wanted to keep visiting Orihime, but at the moment, he didn't care much. He was happy enough that she was pleased with what he'd given her.

Finally, the sun began to sink and dusk fell. After prancing around on wobbly legs for the hottest part of the day, Ichigo watched eagerly as the girl who'd haunted his thoughts for the past month disrobed and got ready for bed. Before he could sprint down to her room, however, he saw something that gave him pause.

As she turned her back to her open veranda, the breath caught in Ichigo's throat. There, all down her right shoulder and hip, was a dark purple bruise. He fretted, pawing the ground in place. There was no way something like that was accidental, right?

Finally catching hold of his thoughts, Ichigo spurred himself across the lawn and to her room. It felt like he couldn't get there fast enough. He wanted to hold her and make sure she was alright and apologize for the past two weeks. And for once, he didn't really care who saw him.


The shout and the noisy clatter of blinds caused the girl sitting behind the curtain to jump a bit.

"Kurosaki-kun!" came the cheery response, "You came!" Even knowing she might be hurt, Ichigo couldn't suppress a grin at her tone. She really had missed him as much as he'd missed her.

Pushing the screen aside (and almost toppling it altogether in his eagerness), Ichigo drew the much smaller girl into his arms for a tight hug. Upon feeling her squirm in discomfort, he recalled her injuries and stopped hugging so hard, but did not release her. Instead, he pulled back to get a good look at her.

"I'm sorry, Inoue," he whispered, laying one hand on her cheek to draw her face up to look at it, "I didn't mean to hurt you. I didn't know, I..." She silenced him with a finger to his lips and a small smile, tears in her eyes.

"It's alright, Kurosaki-kun," she said, smiling through her tears, "I'm sorry I hurt you, too. You didn't know. I-I'm sorry..." Ichigo silenced her needless apologies with a short kiss.

"I missed you," he breathed happily, pulling away to take a good look at her.

"I missed you too, Kurosaki-kun." She was wearing that same thin, open robe she'd worn the night they made love. Her pale skin was exposed between its collars, drawing his eyes down to the apex of her creamy thighs. He quickly looked back up to her smiling face, fighting down a light blush as he did so.

On the way back up, he glanced the dark bruises on her hip and shoulder through her robe. Now was as good a time as any to ask her about them.

"What's this?" he asked, brushing the collar back over her right shoulder. He knew his face had contorted into a grimace at the sight of that horrible bruise. Orihime's fingers curled into his over robe as she looked away, eyes lidded.

"U-Umm," she stammered, "I-I got kicked by my brother's horse." The weak tone of her voice told Ichigo she was definitely lying. His brows knitted in concern as he reluctantly decided not to press the issue. If she didn't want to talk, she wouldn't. He would just have to find out on his own.

"You need to be more careful, Inoue," he murmured, slipping the rest of her robe off. As much as he wanted to worry about that bruise, her bare body was very distracting. The excited fluttering in his stomach certainly wasn't helping anything either. He wouldn't lay her on her back tonight, either way.

"I will," she said with a warm smile, looping her arms around his neck. Ichigo's worries melted away as she kissed him lightly and began peeling away his robes.

"You lied in your letter, you know," she muttered, eyes cast off to the side as she worked his red overrobe off. Ichigo let her undress him, confused as to what she meant.

"Lied?" he asked, "About what?" He hoped she hadn't realized that Rangiku had told him what to write.

"I don't think your ivory spire is insignificant or disappointing at all," she said with a small grin, "I thought it was very satisfying."

Ichigo was certain he heard that damned blonde laughing somewhere nearby.

[1] One of the duties of the court's onmyouji were timekeeping. At every quarter of the watch, they would go out into the courtyard, mark the time on a table, strum their bowstrings to ward off any bad spirits, announce the time, and strike the corresponding number of strikes on a gong. The beginning of the seventh watch was roughly noon.

[2] Around 10pm.

[3] Members of the sixth rank wore green robes. Since Rangiku is a higher rank than that, she would find his blatant advances more than a little insulting.

[4] Being noisy with a lady's blinds was considered somewhat crass. Not surprising since Ichigo has no manners!

[5] Naniwazu was the Heian equivalent of the ABCs. It was a small poem used to learn writing:

Ah, this flower that bloomed
In the port of Naniwa
And was hidden in the winter months!
Now that spring is here
Once more it blossoms forth.

Rangiku is basically implying that Ichigo is illiterate (which isn't far from the truth).

[6] Menstruating women weren't allowed to share a roof with the Emperor, since they were considered 'impure' by Shinto standards. Hence, Orihime is visiting her brother for the week.

[7] They're well into the fifth month by this point, so an appropriate color would be light blue for both the paper and the flowers.