Title: Courting Darkness

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

Authorial Notice:

A very late birthday present to the ever-awesome Star. Aka, Star Slightly To The Right. I'm sorry it's so late, my dear. Please kick me at your earliest possible convenience. :) Anyways, this was supposed to be out last Thursday, but being the sleep-deprived, retard I am, I lost all my writing in a random fit of stupidity. FML, much?

And if you speak French and/or love LotR, I am so, so sorry. I butchered both. Just a bit, mind you. You people may also kick me. If you don't care about either French or LotR, you won't notice a thing. :D Blissful ignorance, ftw!

()()()

Chapter Sixteen

Orihime stood motionless, waiting as the teal-ringed, gray gaze swept over the mirror's surface, searching.

Her hair, brushed until it shone, caught fire in the light like streams of stunning, burnished copper, pouring over her shoulders. The fiery color contrasted the paleness of smooth, snowy-white skin and pink lips. Layer after layer of rich fabric wrapped around a slight, delicately boned frame, but it was a fragile façade.

Her aunt's luxurious wardrobe should have made her feel like an empress. But it was far closer to being wound in inescapable, silken ropes, chained to a future she didn't want.

Because Ichigo didn't want her.

After everything that transpired. After what happened between them... She still fell short.

She had been in a state of shock after Sōsuke's death. That was clear now. And the details of that night were fast becoming hazy, but a few things stood out in vivid detail. Like Ichigo kneeling in front of her while he scrubbed blood from her skin. Sado arriving soon after to aid them. And the kind, old doctor Ichigo had insisted she submit to for an inspection.

Orihime had become sick watching them carry what she realized to be Aizen's body down the stairs, and Ichigo had shoved a glass in her hands, demanding she drink while he kept a close eye on her. Things were unclear after that point as Sado left and returned with more men. Men that cleaned and tidied. Then other men came. All the while, Orihime drank more and more of the bitter liquid that filled her with comforting warmth.

Only once did Ichigo leave her side, and then trusting her into Sado's care, he went to speak with a man she couldn't quite make out, and she drifted to sleep listening to the quiet tones of their deep, rumbling voices.

Finally, in the still, early hours of the morning, Ichigo collected her from the chair she was sprawled over, tucking her close to his side while she babbled from sleep and drink, incoherent, and rambling of anything and everything that came into her mind. However, she was no longer certain of what that'd been.

Ichigo didn't speak much, only bundled her up into his coach, silent as they drove through to daybreak.

She was still in a state of confusion when they exited the vehicle, only to recognize the form of her aunt, standing with a gaggle of servants on the steps to her palatial mansion.

Startled, she turned to Ichigo for answers, but he didn't meet her eyes.

"I…" He stopped, jaw tight and mouth set. Then Ichigo shook his head.

There was the brief sensation of his lips pressed to her forehead, but when she blinked, only his back was visible, disappearing into the night.

He'd left her.

Abandoned her back to a life she wasn't certain she could live in any longer.

In the short span of time she'd known him, Ichigo had changed her world. For a few breathtaking, heart-shattering moments, Orihime's life transformed from one of unrelenting, insipid monotony into something more closely resembling the bright, flickered path of a shooting star.

She shook her head, not even having the energy to laugh at her own foolishness.

Lifting a hand, Orihime pressed it to her cool reflection.

What was it? The thing that made her unlovable. The thing that chased away the people she cared about the most. Her brother. Sōsuke Aizen. Now, Ichigo…

Where was it?

Would she be able to see it if she looked hard enough?

Orihime dropped her hand as a servant knocked on the door.

Forcing a frail smile for the two women that entered, Orihime let her eyes fall as they began their task, one with combs and pins to decorate her hair, the other holding a soft powder puff, dusted with corn silk. After it was brushed over her face, and her eyes and lips were painted, Orihime stood so they could slip the last layer over her kimonos and tie the intricate obi.

She watched them work, pushing every other thought away. There was no use in thinking over things she couldn't change, after all.

Straightening as the women finished and bowed their way out, Orihime left to find her aunt.

She would attend this dinner party. Even if all she really wanted to do was stay in her room and cry. It was important to her aunt, and Rangiku had begged and pleaded until she couldn't refuse. And as Orihime approached the sitting room door, she realized with a sinking feeling that her aunt must had some crafty plot up her sleeve.

But what could it be?

Surely, Aunt Matsumoto wouldn't try foisting Orihime off onto a suitor so soon after she'd returned.

Although, it had long since passed the point when she was shocked by the schemes the older woman could formulate in her conspiring mind. But perhaps she was overthinking the matter. Her aunt had been unusually subdued since Orihime's homecoming.

To an uncanny degree.

Orihime had expected Aunt Rangiku to make a fuss, to demand Orihime tell her where she had been, or at the very least, try to swindle all the gossipy details, but there was not a word of the time Orihime had spent in the slums missing and possibly dead.

Orihime was going to have to revise her estimate of Ichigo's sway, especially if even Rangiku had been subdued. That alone should attest to the scope of influence he had when he chose to administer—

She stumbled to a stop.

No... What was she doing thinking of him?

It would only prolong her heartache to continue on this way. Spending every waking moment pouring over their time together… It was the essence of foolishness.

Orihime paused before the door to her aunt's quarters, shaking her head, determined to clear it before she faced Aunt Matsumoto.

"Enter…" Came the sultry voice when Orihime knocked.

Stepping over the threshold, she looked around for the source, but didn't see anyone.

"Aunt?"

"In here."

Moving toward the dressing room, Orihime found her aunt, fresh from her bath and ordering maids about, clad in nothing but her own skin.

Orihime smiled a bit. This she had missed. It had been quite a shock when she'd first come to live with her aunt, but now… She sighed, taking a seat out of the way of the flurry of kimonos.

"Those colors are magnificent on you, Hime. It's almost a shame. No one will be looking at me," Rangiku pouted then flashed a teasing grin before turning back to the procession of her wardrobe. "What do you think…" She reached out and turned two maids to face Orihime. "Sapphire or French rose?"

"They're both pretty, Aunt."

Aunt Matsumoto eyed her. "Hmm…"

Many people assumed that because Rangiku Matsumoto was beautiful she must also be brainless.

They were wrong.

Her aunt could read the emotions of a stone wall with accuracy. And Orihime knew she saw straight through her pretense.

Orihime looked away.

"I'll wear the pink, Isane. And you may leave, Orihime will help me dress."

"Yes, lady."

Orihime stood as the maids left, moving to do as she was bid. Gathering the garments, she slipped them one by one up Rangiku's arms, layering and smoothing them flat.

"He must have been something."

"W-what…?"

"To have you so wound up." Her aunt paused from watching the mirror to give her an unimpressed look. "Do you think I've never been in love? I know the signs. There's no reason to pretend, Orihime." She smiled. "He was quite attractive."

"Aunt!" Her face flamed and she turned away under the guise of gathering another layer. "I… It isn't—" Orihime swallowed. "Even if I were… in l—" Pain flared in her chest and her throat ached with the beginning of tears she couldn't stop. "I'm here. So it hardly matters, does it?"

A hand rested on her shoulder before Rangiku's arms came around her as Orihime choked on a sob. "Silly girl, love always matters."

"B-but he doesn't want me…"

Her aunt pulled back, holding Orihime at arm's length before she smiled at her in the mirror. Grinned really.

"The night brings many things," she quoted, her smile never faltering.

()()()

"Please allow me to present my niece, Lady Inoue Orihime."

Orihime stared at the man, and it was only now she realized she might have paid better attention as her aunt went over the guest list. She looked to Rangiku's smiling face before turning back to blink at Urahara Kisuke.

The Urahara Kisuke.

She'd seen him from afar before at public affairs, but never so close. Certainly not close enough to make out the enigmatic sparkle that lit playful gray eyes.

Orihime could only gape as he bowed to her.

"Ah, the Lady Inoue, at last. I'm pleased to see you're in good health. I've been hearing quite a few charming things about you."

He smiled, his gaze warm, voice teasing.

She didn't know what to say.

This man was Ichigo's connection to the emperor. She'd seen the correspondences herself when she'd searched Ichigo's bedroom. But what could he be doing here now? Was he simply a guest? If so, this was merely a chance meeting and she should work to calm her racing heart before this man thought she was mentally inept.

But… But he didn't seem to mind that she was staring, because he was staring right back. Still smiling, his eyes felt as if they were taking in more than the casual observer could imagine. Or dare.

She wanted to squirm until her aunt rescued her with a chastising purr.

"Urahara-sama, you're being rude..."

"So I am, Lady Rangiku." He laughed. Perhaps a bit too loud, breaking contact and turning to acknowledge the female beside him that Orihime hadn't yet noticed. "Allow me to present my companion Belle Chatte des Ents, Comtesse de Forêt Fangorn."

Orihime inclined her head to the elegant, purple-haired woman that stepped forward, the gesture thoughtless until she noticed to whom she was bowing. Because as she lifted her head, Orihime looked up to meet the twinkling eyes of Yoruichi Shihōin.

She straightened, drawing a deep breath. "You… But—"

"The lady has only just arrived from her chateau in Mirkwood."

Beside him, Yoruichi arched a brow. Aiming a cutting look, she drew a breath to—

"And unfortunately, she doesn't speak a word of Japanese."

Yoruichi's mouth snapped shut and she glared at the man beside her as Orihime continued struggling to make sense of Urahara's words.

She shook her head and frowned. "Mirkwood? But that isn't anywhere near Fangorn…" Realization struck and she gasped. "You're a spy—"

"Oh, Lady Inoue," Urahara sang. "What an imaginative mind you have. But as I said, the Comtesse has only recently arrived. She's an emissary to the emperor, you see, specializing in… insurance matters. "

"But—"

Rangiku's shrill call drowned out her next protest and she turned to find her aunt waving from across the room. Turning back, Orihime found that Urahara and Yoruichi had moved away, leaving her puzzled, standing alone with no choice but to follow Aunt Matsumoto's direction.

The rest of the night was spent in a daze. She kept glancing at the alleged 'comtesse', who seemed to have changed her rank, nationality, and language all in one go. Urahara hadn't said as much, but Orihime was certain her earlier assumption was right. Yoruichi didn't belong to the French aristocracy, and for that matter, she had never truly intended to be courted by Ichigo either.

To that end, Orihime tried to corner the woman, but the lady eluded her every attempt. And with an elusive smile, Yoruichi uttered her farewells in perfect French in an accent so charming the other lords and ladies stopped talking to look. Then she took her leave of Aunt Matsumoto, gave Orihime one last cunning smile, and vanished.

Orihime slumped into a chair, preoccupied with the mystery until it was time for the formal leave taking.

Kisuke Urahara was the last of a long line and Orihime found him chatting with her aunt. When she joined them, he smiled and nodded.

"And here she is. Excellent. Shall we retire to a more private setting?"

The lord took Aunt Matsumoto by the arm and proceeded to the sitting room without once asking for direction. Mystified, Orihime took a seat as they entered and waited for Urahara to do the same.

Her aunt glided to the floor, leaning forward towards their guest until Orihime was worried her chest would spill free. "Lord Urahara, I cannot tell you how thrilled I was when you requested an invitation to our little affair tonight. Do I guess correctly when I say you must have a little communication to deliver from some exulted personage?"

She turned and winked at Orihime who could do nothing but gawk. Her aunt was chirping in her excitement. There was no other word for it.

"You do indeed, lady." Urahara pulled a thick packet from his clothing. "I am here to make a proposal on behalf of Lord Kurosaki Ichigo."

Orihime's heart jabbed sharply at the mention of Ichigo's name.

A proposal?

Oh…

A proposal.

Orihime took a moment to thank providence she was sitting, because now she understood.

Tears stung her eyes, but she pushed them back with deep breaths. That's why he sent her away. So that he could save her reputation and honor, and everything would be done properly. But he could have at least told her… The last week had been utter torture.

"A wedding!" Aunt Matsumoto was almost dancing in her seat, laughing and gripping at Orihime's arm. She hardly heard it.

A proposal. He wanted to… to marry—

"Ah, no. I'm afraid you are mistaken."

Her heart, which hadn't settled, gave a different sort of unpleasant jolt as pain flared.

Her aunt stilled, voice suddenly frosty. "I don't understand, Lord Urahara. Did you or did you not say that you have come to make a proposal on behalf of Lord Kurosaki."

"Yes… but perhaps that was a poor choice of words. You see, Lord Kurosaki wishes to deliver a sum to Lady Inoue so that she may become independent and free to choose her own fate." He leaned forward and placed the papers into Orihime's hands. "Here is the legal documentation, the bank draft, as well as a letter of reference to my own solicitor. This money is to be yours entirely with no conditions attached to it."

He nodded to her in encouragement, and with numb fingers, she opened the paper.

Zeros swam before her eyes.

She drew a quick breath and closed it, continuing to stare.

Ichigo had thought the situation out well. Had provided her with the solution to her every problem. With this much money, Orihime could do anything she liked. Never again would she be an outcast. No one would dare shun her with so much wealth at her disposal. She could dance naked at Aunt Matsumoto's next cherry festival for all it would matter. No one would say a word.

She could move to America. She could move to the moon.

Urahara had flicked out a small fan in her moment of silence and was grinning over the top at her.

"I can see you're just as shocked as I was. It's a hefty sum, to be sure!" Then his eyes took on a different light. "You must take care to avoid people that would use it to their own gain. It would pay many gambling debts, don't you think?"

He looked like he would say more, but after taking in her dazed countenance, he snapped his fan shut and stood with another large smile. "Well, I must be going. The government isn't going to run itself. Or it might. Either way, it's never a good thing."

Rising, he bowed to Rangiku, who failed to return his smile as he made his way toward the door.

"Urahara-san?" Orihime's lips trembled as she clenched the papers in her hands.

"Hmm… Yes?"

"Is this his way of getting rid of me?" Orihime stood, hands curling tightly, no longer able to hold back the hot tears in her eyes. She knew what she was feeling now. "He doesn't want to marry me, so he'll purchase me a husband instead."

He blinked. "I assure you, Lady Inoue, it was meant for the best. He would like to see that you're well protected."

"Yes, well…" She swiped at the streams of tears, grasping the papers in one hand and holding them back to him without looking up. "Please tell Lord Kurosaki that he can keep his money. I'm very good at going away. I don't need to be paid to do it."

Stepping past him, she fled to the door, wanting nothing more than to hide. To escape people who took so much stock in money that they threw it at any problem like a bucket brigade dousing flames with water.

Only she stopped at the last moment. "Wait... No."

Hadn't she learned anything? Hadn't she run enough? And there was the sinking feeling that if she ran from him now, she would never stop. His ghost would follow after her for the rest of her life.

"I…I should do it myself." She hesitated, then moved to take the papers back. "Can you tell me where he is?"

Urahara's grin returned full force.

"What an excellent idea. Lord Kurosaki has returned to Karakura Castle. Please feel free to take my carriage."

()()()

Orihime drove under the great stone gates of Karakura castle, looking up at the sky soaring above them.

It had taken her the entire night to arrive. She was sore, exhausted, but she was finally here. However, instead of feeling relief at having reached her destination, the closer to the castle she travelled, the wearier she became.

The sky grew dark and charcoaled with an approaching storm, but she'd hardly noticed it, trapped in her preoccupied thoughts.

Now it could no longer be ignored.

The wind whipped across the front lawn, tearing the blossoms from trees as it passed. A gardener piled tools in a cart, and elsewhere a groom wrestled a horse waiting by the doors. Servants of all stations scurried in haste to finish outdoor work and prepare for the storms' arrival before taking refuge inside.

As the carriage pulled to the front hall, Orihime was leaning toward the window, and saw Yuzu hurrying down the front stairs waving toward the groom holding the horse and litter. She stopped when she saw the carriage before her face lit with recognition.

Hurrying around the side, she was there when Orihime exited. "Orihime-nee, you came back!"

"Yes… Is he here?"

"He's here, but I can't say it's going well."

Having taken her hair down along the journey, it flew in all directions as soon as Orihime stepped out. She fought to keep it from her face. "I'm sorry I didn't send ahead, but it's important—"

"I know."

"You know?"

"Brother's been in an awful mood."

Orihime stiffened at the news, looking toward the castle, torn between concern and hope.

Yuzu took her by the arms, shaking a bit and having to shout to be heard over the wind. "He can't go an hour without mentioning your name, but he won't listen to daddy or me, or even Karin. He's making himself miserable." Yuzu's cheeks puffed, brows drawing down as she waved a finger in Orihime's face. "And you can't be any better off!"

Stunned, Orihime forgot to hold her hair and it blew into her face before Yuzu shoved it away.

"You love him, don't you?"

Orihime swallowed and nodded. Yuzu smiled, grabbing her arm and pulling her across the drive.

"I knew you did. That's what I kept saying! I mean, he's trying to do the right thing, but how is this the right thing if it makes you both unhappy?"

Yuzu wrenched open the front door and gave her a push inside, and she stumbled as the force of the wind abruptly left.

"And don't let him scare you away. He'll do it if you let him, but just ignore it. That always works best. Good luck, Orihime-nee!"

And with that she found the door shut in her face.

A throat cleared behind her and she spun.

"Oh, Sado-kun." She bit her lip, shifting feet, feeling like an uninvited guest. Which she was. "You're back too."

He grunted in acknowledgment, but it seemed friendly enough. Encouraged, Orihime stepped away from the door.

"Is… Do you know where Lord Kurosaki is?"

"In his office."

"His office?"

"Yes, lady."

He bowed but didn't say anything else, so Orihime took it as her cue and began toward Ichigo's office. Her apprehension doubled the closer she drew to her destination. What if Yuzu was wrong? And Aunt Matsumoto.

What if Ichigo just wanted to be rid of her?

But it was better to know now than to wonder forever, wasn't it? That depended on the answer.

Orihime forced herself to keep walking down the hall and then up the stairs. The fear nagged at her heels and she couldn't stop the whispering voice of doubt that took up residence in the back of her mind.

She was almost certain he hadn't pretended the love he'd shown in his house in Tokyo.

But he could have. He was Hichigo, the legendary thief. A master at manipulation. He could deceive anyone, had been trained to do just that.

Why would he though? There was no reason to deceive her.

Nothing, except the thing he'd been after the entire time. He been trying to seduce Orihime since they'd met. And what did she really know of a man that had been forced to do the things he had?

But that couldn't have been the reason. He'd wanted her love, not just her body.

But then why offer her money?

Orihime stopped at his office door and stared at the golden fifteen emblazoned on the doorplate, reaching out to trace it with her index finger.

There was only one way to get the answers she needed, and it wasn't to stand here arguing with herself.

Gathering her courage, Orihime pushed open the door—and stepped into the sky.

There was no other way to describe it.

The ceiling of his office had been repainted in a dazzling cerulean, but the painter hadn't stopped there. The color extended down the walls, touching everywhere but the carved wooden pillars that held the beams running across the ceiling. And the chandelier that was suspended over his desk had moved. It used to be off to one side, but now the room had been reordered and it hung directly in the center. The glow it cast threw rainbows and clusters of light over the walls. It looked like a miniature sun, lit with a thousand tiny crystals.

The shock of the change startled her, but it was short lived.

Ichigo stood looking out one of the windows, a deep scowl etched over his face. His dark suit contrasted against the paint like a black void and his mood didn't seem any better.

And he still looked so devastatingly handsome that it stole her breath.

Orihime hesitated, remebering that she'd just spent the night in a carriage and her hair was tousled, and her cheeks flushed from the wind, and her once luxurious kimonos were likely wrinkled, but before she could rethink her haste and escape, Ichigo turned.

She watched as he froze, regarding her with an impassive gaze, like he expected her to be nothing more than a half-formed dream.

Orihime waited, distracted by the way the light turned his hair into a dozen different shades and contrasts, aching to touch it before the moment shattered.

He frowned, eyes narrowing as he stalked across the room. "What are you doing here?"

Pain lanced her chest at his harsh words, but she refused to show it.

She had her answer. He wasn't glad to see her.

Straightening her shoulders, Orihime held out the papers.

"Why did you do this?"

Ichigo drew to a sudden stop, glancing at the papers and then up to her face and finally, away. He locked his jaw and didn't answer.

"Are you… paying me to go away?"

His head snapped around, eyes narrowing, serious enough that she could see the dark thief simmering just below the surface. "No."

"Then you pity me."

"No," he said, louder.

"Then I don't understand."

His fragile inactivity snapped and he growled, shoving a hand through his hair. "That's just it. You don't understand. You don't know half the things I've done or who I've done them to."

"But I-I don't care about that."

He looked incredulous. "What?"

"I don't care who you were. I know who you are… and I love you. I didn't mean to do it, but it's true."

She could hardly hold his eyes to say it, but she managed, watching as Ichigo shook his head, anger and sorrow mixing in his gaze.

"You say it like this should be such an easy thing. You could have died—" He stopped, teeth grinding, eyes turning hard. "How long do you think it will be before my past comes fucking tearing our door down? This isn't the life for you. You're…" He waved a hand. "Fucking hell, Orihime. You deserve better than that." He paced, no longer seeming able to contain it. "I didn't even know how to order the damn tea before you showed up. I'm not some gently bred, well-mannered, snob. What are you going to do? Marry a fucking thief? A fake lord?"

"Yes!" Orihime clamped a hand over her mouth, startled by her own outburst.

Silence filled the room as they stared at each other. Orihime with tears at the verge of falling and Ichigo simply frozen in disbelief.

"You would marry me?"

Dropping her hand, she nodded.

"Then… you will?"

"Yes."

She gasped when he grabbed her, the movement so quick, she'd almost not seen it before she was crushed against him. He captured her mouth the same way, initiating the kiss by tilting her head back, thumbs pressing under her jaw, gentle but undeniable.

He overpowered her tongue with his, a fiery onslaught, ravaging her mouth before he gathered himself and gentled it. His hands slipped up to cup her face, taking from her lips, both tender and fierce. He was relentless until she became too dizzy to stand on her own and then Ichigo supported her with one arm tight around her waist.

He released her mouth, but rained kisses down her neck then back up, stopping at her ear.

"Are you sure? There are parts of me…"

His breath tickled the fine hair of her neck and she shivered. "Yes. I'm sure."

Ichigo brushed her lips with the tips of his fingers as she spoke, as though he didn't believe his eyes could be trusted. "Then you have to go back."

"What? No…"

She tried to pull away, but he didn't let her. He tapped her nose.

"A few scrapes in Rukongai and you're ready to forget your reputation even exists?"

Oh. Her ridiculous reputation.

"But—"

"No, listen, Orihime. It's more than just us. It has to be done right. Think of our children."

She drew a breath. "Our…" She swallowed, smiled, laughed. Then finally, Orihime nodded, swiping tears before they could fall, still lightheaded with joy. "Alright, I'll go, but… but only if you give me back my book."

"Hmm? Oh, yeah. I forgot about that. Let me get it."

"Where is it?"

Looking down, he grinned at her. "Where else? The library."

"The library?" She gazed up at his still smiling face. "But…But— You mean it was there the entire time?"

"Funny, huh? If you had spent less time spying on me and going through my things—"

"You knew about that?" Orihime flushed at his blasé look.

"You're not quite as sneaky as you seem to think."

He took her hand, leading Orihime out the door and to the stairs, snorting at her pouting face.

"Don't worry," he said. "It's a good excuse to get you alone up there."

.

.

.

Fin.

A/N

Blah! I still can't do the super sweet romantic scenes… I'm sorry it's so terrible!

Well, I hope you enjoyed this. Especially, this final chapter that had to be written twice. It's about fifty hours of my life you just read, and it probably only took you twenty or thirty minutes. How sad is that? :)

Ah… review?