The Shihouin family grounds are vaster than any estate Soi Fong has ever imagined. She does not understand how one family can hold such a twisty labyrinth of gardens and pools. More than that, she does not understand how even in this maze the princess inside it paces as if confined. She watches her, and she tries to understand.

Yoruichi stalks the length of her family's property like a large cat caged. That is what Soi Fong remembers most: not the days at her side attending to duty, but the evenings fading into nights when she goes back home. More and more, Soi Fong comes with her.

There is a pond the princess's pacing takes her to quite often, a little thing on the edge of the estate, hemmed in by sheer rock and fed by a waterfall bubbling out from cracks in the stone. Yoruichi stands in a nook behind the fall and traces the back of the alcove with her perfect fingers.

"This is where the secret passage should be," she says. "This is where the princess could escape in stories."

Soi Fong watches the ground every time Yoruichi crosses it. She imagines that same stone a hundred years from now, worn into a rut by those soft feet. It is the thought of that track worn in stone that prompts her to speak up during one visit to the pond.

"Yoruichi-sama," she asks, "are you happy here?"

Yoruichi turns and cants her head to look back at her. Soi Fong meets her eyes, and as always, she feels a thrill of response. It's a light current shivering up from her belly to the tip of her tongue.

One light step on the stony ground, and the princess stands next to her servant, her head bent so that her mouth is next to Soi Fong's ear. "I have more power than nearly any other single person in Seireitei. I am the heir to the noble family of Shihouin. I can have everything I could dream of wanting. Why wouldn't I be happy?"

Soi Fong is having trouble with her legs. She can't keep standing, with her head so close to Yoruichi's. She sinks to her knees. It feels natural, to be on her knees before the princess. Staring fixedly at the ground with her head bowed, she says in a low voice, "Perhaps Yoruichi-sama does not have someone to love."

One dark hand fastens on her shoulder, wrenches her to her feet. Yoruichi is staring at her with puzzled eyes. "That's a strange reason to be unhappy." Her grin is a white flash, like a pale silk scarf fluttering in the middle of the night. "Are you unhappy because you don't have anyone to love, Soi Fong?"

Soi Fong opens her mouth, but she cannot say anything. The warmth of Yoruichi's hand on her shoulder distracts her. Finally, she manages to shake her head: no. After a long moment, Yoruichi lets go of her and turns away.

"Are you unhappy because you can't leave here, Soi Fong?" she asks in a low voice that hides conspiracy between its words.

"Yoruichi-sama misunderstands me," Soi Fong says. She is mildly surprised that she can speak. "I am not unhappy at all."

The princess stands perfectly still for a long moment. Then one hand moves in a blur. "First restraint: obstruction!"

Soi Fong barely has time to breathe before she is on the ground with her hands , the waterfall rushing at her back. A faint spray of water reaches her, dampening her clothes. "Yoruichi-sama!"

One bare foot settles between her shoulderblades. "Are you happy now, Soi Fong?"

Yoruichi shifts her weight, and Soi Fong almost can't breathe. She can barely speak, but she does so anyway. "Yes," she says. "I am happy now."

Yoruichi settles on her hands and knees next to the bound figure. Out of the corner of her eye, Soi Fong can see a very strange expression on her princess's face. Then Yoruichi grabs her by the waist and throws her.

Soi Fong lands in the pond. She barely floats; she's not sure how long she can keep her head out of the water. But she's less interested in that than in hearing what Yoruichi has to say.

"How can you be happy when your life is about serving others? How can you be satisfied doing what you're told? You are bound and tied, Soi Fong. Why don't you want to break free?"

She pauses at the end, and finally, she seems to see Soi Fong struggling to stay afloat. The wild desperation in her eyes fades for a moment. She waves a hand, and Soi Fong can move once more. She grabs hold of a rock at the edge of the pond to keep herself afloat.



Soi Fong looks down into the water and sees only the broken reflection of her own face. "I am happy because I serve you."

For a trembling instant of time, only silence greets this revelation. Soi Fong closes her eyes, afraid although she does not know why.

Then there is laughter. Yoruichi crouches at the side of the pond, amusement dancing in her dark eyes. "Is that all it takes to make you happy? You're so strange, Soi Fong. Who goes swimming with their clothes on, anyway?"

"Yoruichi-sama, you--" Soi Fong cuts off as the princess's perfect hands reach down to grasp her collar and pull the wet fabric away from her skin. The cool air flows in, down her breasts and to her belly. Yoruichi stares intently down at her, her dark eyes wide and curious, her mouth slightly open. Soi Fong is not sure exactly where her gaze is directed. The world is frozen, though the water still laps around her. She is a pinned butterfly.

Yoruichi's hands slide from fabric to skin, her fingers resting on the back of Soi Fong's shoulders. She clasps them hard. Tiny spots of pain sting Soi Fong under her princess's fingertips, and blood trickles down along with the water still dripping off her hair.

She doesn't say Mine because she doesn't need to.

Then something bright retreats to the back of the princess's eyes, and the world moves once more. She laughs, lets go, and turns away. "If that's what you like, I won't stop you."

Even when she emerges from the water, Soi Fong feels like she might float away on secret currents in the air.