Title: Moon Over the Tower: Chapter Twenty-Two
Warnings: het (IchiHime), blood, scariness, religious topics. 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. This will probably never be updated again, because this is the end. For real this time. 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.
Ten Years Later
"And that's how your Aunt Orihime married your Uncle Ichigo and became the Countess of this land."
The blonde said it with such a smug, triumphant air that one would have thought she'd concocted the entire story herself and was especially proud of it. Her son, tucked snugly in his bed, seemed less than impressed. The boy with the snowy white hair regarded his mother with the same eyes that one would regard a particularly silly pet.
"You don't really expect me to believe that, do you?" he asked. He had heard this same tired story many times over the years. He didn't believe it, and he doubted anyone else his mother had told it to believed it, either. That last fact surprised him, in a way. He had no high opinion of the townsfolk's intelligence, but even they didn't believe his mother's fantastic story about the vampires.
Not that she told many of them. She usually reserved that story for his bedtime. But she was a notorious gossip, so Toshiro didn't doubt that it'd slipped at some point. Well, it might have, had the townswomen actually liked his mother. They didn't talk to her much. The men were a different story, much to his father's constant consternation.
The eight year old boy's blue eyes narrowed at his mother as she pouted. Her lower lip quivered as she folded her arms and huffed at him.
"Why does no one ever believe that story?" she whined to no one in particular. Toshiro sighed, pulling his blankets up to his chin.
"Because it's ridiculous and vampires don't exist," he said simply. "Whatever was killing people in the woods was just an animal." His mother's glare was like ice; he returned it in kind.
"They do so!" Rangiku shot back, her tone petulant. "If your aunt and uncle aren't vampires, then explain why they haven't aged in ten years!" Toshiro rolled his eyes and leaned back against his pillow.
"They look the same as anyone else in their twenties," the boy replied, unimpressed with his mother's logic. "Maybe you think they haven't aged because you don't actually remember what they looked like ten years ago." Rangiku looked unhappy that her logic was being dismantled.
"Then tell me why we never see them in the daylight," she said, putting her hands on her hips.
"Because we hardly ever see them, anyway," Toshiro sighed, his eyes narrowed. "It's not like they would spend the night with us. They have a castle and responsibilities." The blonde seemed to be growing a bit more rankled at her son's logic.
"Well... then..." she continued, teasing more questions from her mind. "Why do they have no children after all this time?" Toshiro almost looked offended.
"Why would that mean they're vampires?" he asked, almost disgusted. "Maybe she just can't have a baby?" Rangiku's face fell, tears trembling in the corners of her eyes. "You even made up some Spanish Duke to be the bad guy. And there's no way you can know all of those things about their servants. You don't even know their names, do you?" Now Rangiku was growing angry through her tears.
"Gin was real," she protested quietly. Whether her son took that as a sign to back off or not, Rangiku couldn't tell. Rangiku herself couldn't tell if she was genuinely hurt, or if she was just emotionally blackmailing him.
"Can't you at least pretend to believe it?" she asked, prevailing upon Toshiro's good nature to outweigh his logic. Toshiro simply looked thoroughly tired.
"If I pretend to believe you, will you let me go to sleep?" Rangiku's eyes immediately brightened, her posture straightening and her hands rising in front of her chest.
"Yes, of course!" Toshiro looked away, grumbling.
"Fine," he muttered. "I believe you, Mother." His mother smiled at him like a cat before rising. She bent over his bed before giving him a small peck on the forehead. Toshiro looked like he'd just eaten something sour.
"Thank you, dear!" Rangiku chirped. She then straightened and turned toward the door, throwing a small wave over her shoulder. On her way out, she snuffed out the light. "Sweet dreams!"
As Rangiku descended the stairs, she heard voices coming from the sitting room. The house she and her small family now occupied was much too large for them. All the better, she had reasoned to Shuuhei, for she had enough love for two families. The stipend they'd been given by the Count for their living expenses was more than generous enough to support a house even larger than this, but Rangiku had never been able to convince Shuuhei to make one much bigger than the one they had now.
Still, it put the old three-room cottage she'd shared with Orihime to shame.
A light smile painted her lips as she thought of her younger sister. Ever since she'd gone to the castle on the hill, things had changed in their village for the better. It had gone from being a nearly deserted outpost in the wilderness to being a bustling little way station between mountain passes. Not only had the mysterious killings stopped shortly after Orihime had left home, but the people who had fled the village in those dark days had begun to return. New children had been born, and without the deaths, their parents had actually been there to continue raising them. As people stayed, lived, and returned, there was more labor to work the land, and with more labor there was more to eat for everyone. Times were so much brighter now than they had been ten years ago.
As she descended to the first floor, the voices from the sitting room became clearer. A broad grin stretched over Rangiku's face as she picked up the hem of her dress and dashed into the well-lit room. The woman standing before the fireplace with Rangiku's husband turned and regarded her with wide, honey-colored eyes.
"Rangiku!" Orihime exclaimed, grinning broadly. The older woman enveloped her sister in a hug, drawing her into the crevice of her large breasts.
"Orihime! Oh, are you staying long? What brings you here?" The younger woman looked abashed, a slight blush dusting across her nose.
"Oh, no!" she explained awkwardly. "I'm sorry, Rangiku! We're just passing through, and I convinced Ichigo to stop. We can't stay long." Rangiku smirked, drawing closer to her sister with a knowing look.
"Have a pressing engagement?" she whispered provocatively. Orihime blushed all the way to her ears.
"Rangiku!" she exclaimed, casting shifty glances to Shuuhei. Orihime always was shy about those sorts of things, even around her own husband. Of course, the husband was shy about them, too. And with that thought, Rangiku began to cast glances around the room to see if she could find the elusive redhead in the flesh. He rarely came inside when they did stop, probably because Rangiku liked to tease him really harshly.
"He's back in the carriage," Orihime explained with a smile. "He's very tired. We're just coming back from talking to the village elders about this year's crop rotations. He's just a bit reluctant about those sorts of things, you know." Rangiku had no head for that sort of thing, either. When Orihime lived at home, she handled the practical side of their household affairs. Now that she was gone, Shuuhei took care of those things. Rangiku had no doubt that Orihime was secretly helping Ichigo with it as well.
"How sweet," Rangiku cooed. Orihime ducked her head, her blush haven't completely faded. "You know, I was just telling Toshiro about you two as I tucked him in..." This was one of Rangiku's favorite topics to broach with Orihime, and one that embarrassed her to no end.
"Oh, Rangiku..." Orihime scolded, her face melting into a scowling pout. "Not the vampire thing again..." Shuuhei even sighed when she said this.
"You weren't telling him that again," he muttered, casting his wife a tired glance as he settled into one of the armchairs before the fireplace. Rangiku pouted at him.
"Not you, too!" she huffed. "Now, Orihime, you know I'm not going to let it go until you confess..." Orihime sighed, her lips turning up in a caret of disapproval.
"But there's nothing to confess," she protested weakly. "You're not just saying that again because we haven't had a baby yet, are you? You know how that upsets Ichigo..." Orihime looked genuinely hurt; Rangiku decided a tactical retreat might be in order. She knew there would be no way Orihime didn't blame herself for their lack of an heir.
"Oh, fine," the older woman capitulated. "I just think it's a more interesting story than what really happened." Orihime blinked at her owlishly.
"Well, I guess vampires are more interesting than the Marquis trying to marry Ichigo off to his childhood friend," Orihime said thoughtfully, her finger on her chin. "But next time, could we be werewolves? Ooh, or maybe fairies! Those are supposed to be friendly, aren't they?"
"Now you're just mocking me," Rangiku pouted. Orihime simply smiled serenely. She had learned a lot of clever tricks in the past ten years, Rangiku thought with a curse.
"Of course not!" Orihime defended seamlessly. "I just don't want Toshiro to think anything strange about us!" Rangiku failed at fighting a small laugh.
"Believe me, that won't be a problem." Orihime clearly had no idea just how skeptical the eight year old could be.
"Alright," she said with a smile. "Give him my love! I have to be on my way! I've left you some gifts on the table in the parlor." And with that, Orihime gave Rangiku a hug of her own before fluttering off in a cloud of wispy skirts. And then she was gone.
"You really should stop telling that story, you know," Shuuhei muttered as he stooped to stoke the fire. Rangiku stopped watching her sister exit long enough to bristle.
"But Shuuheeeeeeiii," she whined. She might not be able to outflank Orihime anymore, but Shuuhei was still well within her grasp. His demeanor lightened; he still couldn't deny his wife anything.
"But nothing," he said, giving the best impression of a stern schoolmaster that he could muster. It wasn't very convincing, although it did cause Rangiku to smile.
"Hmm, what is it worth to you?" Rangiku's fine eyebrows arched as she grinned mischievously. Even though the stipend was intended for Rangiku, Shuuhei did control their finances. Both of them knew that was best for everyone involved. Besides, the wheedling gave Shuuhei a reason to crack a smile.
"How about a new dress?" he offered. Rangiku looked thoughtful for a moment before giving him a calculating look.
"That might not be enough to buy my eternal silence," she reasoned slowly. If she was going to bargain with him, she might as well aim high.
"A new dress, and a new horse," Shuuhei increased his bid. Rangiku nodded in ascent, satisfied with his offering.
"Sold," she said happily. "Now, since Toshiro is abed, should I tuck you in, too?" The look in her husband's eye was more than answer enough.
Orihime stepped into the darkened carriage, the springs of the conveyance squeaking ever-so-slightly with her weight. She carefully wiped her traveling boots on the floorboard before situating her skirts. Then, she signaled to Chad that she was safely aboard. With a crack of the whip, their Spanish driver spurred the coach forward.
"How were they?" Ichigo spoke beside her, his eyes glittering. Orihime squeaked, jumping just a bit. She smiled back at her husband, seeing him leaning against the back of his seat in the darkness.
"The same as always," Orihime replied, blowing out a puff of air from her surprise. She settled under the carriage blankets, relaxing into her husband's waiting side.
"So... completely ridiculous." Orihime was briefly torn between giggling and scowling at her husband. It was true, of course, but it was still impolite of him to point it out. She settled on giggling, of course.
"Don't say that," she gently chided, smiling up at him. "She's still telling Toshiro the vampire story, you know." Orihime was sure that Ichigo rolled his eyes in the dark.
"She'll never let it go," he breathed. Orihime couldn't tell if he was genuinely exasperated, or if he was exaggerating.
"No, I'm sure she won't," Orihime said gently. "Once she gets an idea in her head, it's hard to convince her otherwise." Ichigo grunted, which let Orihime know that there was little else to be said on the topic. They traveled in silence for several more minutes, the bump and clang of the carriage their only conversation. Then, like a bolt out of the blue, Orihime remembered that there was something she had to tell Ichigo.
"That's right!" she chirped to herself. Ichigo had long since ceased to be startled by these outbursts. Instead, he looked down at his wife quizzically.
"What is it?" he asked. It was best to let her get it out before she forgot, or got sidetracked.
"Mama reminded me of something the other day!" 'Mama' was what Orihime called Masaki now. The two of them were thick as thieves, like peas and carrots. With the two of them conspiring, no male in their family was safe. With Rukia added to the mix, no male on the continent was safe. So if Masaki was reminding Orihime of something, there was probably no way it could be good for Ichigo.
"What's that?" he asked, his trepidation showing in his voice. Orihime's eyes were lidded as she glanced back at him shyly.
"Well, she said it's been about long enough," she started quietly, "That I should start feeling urges, and..." Ichigo's eyes became wider and wider as she spoke. Orihime watched his reactions; he didn't seem upset so much as nervous.
"I'll be ready to conceive a baby in another couple months."
Ichigo was clearly at a loss for words. Orihime searched his face for some kind of response, but was mostly left without any clues to his mental state.
"It's... about that time, eh?" he finally said, scratching his cheek. Orihime smiled. It was a typical response from him, but she took that as a good sign.
"Yes," Orihime confirmed with a small smile. "She advised me to cancel our plans until it's over. She said when she was ready, she didn't let your father leave their chambers for a whole week!" Ichigo looked as though he'd been hit with a hammer.
"I don't need to know that!" he squawked, ears turning red. "And neither do you! Why was she telling you that?!" Orihime was in full planning mode now, almost blocking Ichigo out entirely.
"Well, we'll need to get some cattle, and that blood purification system that Father Urahara made," she began rattling off, clearly excited by their new prospects. "We'll need to get Uryuu to set up a nursery, although that won't be for almost a year now. Ooh, he can do it when he gets back from seeing his grandfather about his inheritance! And we'll need to get a little place in the family crypt for the baby..."
Ichigo sighed, looking out into the darkness beyond the carriage windows . There was no use trying to dissuade Orihime when she got into one of these moods. She was clearly excited, and how could he blame her? She had always wanted to be a mother, and now she could have that chance. As long as it took them to even have a chance to conceive, there was no way he'd turn her down. A whole week of nothing but enjoying his wife's company certainly wasn't an unpleasant prospect, either. But as a smile crept up to his lips, he realized that he wouldn't want to try and talk her out of this, even if he could.