Chapter 3: Reflections I
"Sit up, Yoruichi."
It took only the slightest emphasis, the merest hint of anger in her mother's calm voice to make the 7-year-old comply. Yoruichi straightened at the table, not even realizing she'd been slouching, and as her cheeks flushed with embarrassment she offered a low bow.
"I apologize, Mother."
Shihouin Kiyoko made a slight movement-- what could have been a nod-- then turned back to her dinner, delicately grasping a clump of rice between a pair of laquer-stained chopsticks. For her part, Yoruichi was simply glad that her father hadn't noticed her gracelessness first-- the idea of those hard brown eyes casting even the slightest degree of disappointment in her... she would have shuddered at the thought if she hadn't been taught not to stay perfectly still at the dinner table. A few moments later, however, the imposing patriarch spoke, an unknown servant swooping down to pick up his just-cleaned plate.
"...You start the Second Grade tomorrow, correct?" His daughter gave a quick nod; she knew better than to speak more than she had to. "Your mother will take you so that she can meet your teacher, but after that I'll have someone drive you. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some business with the Shiba family to resolve." Without another word he got up, both women standing as well to respectfully bow him out.
Yoruichi felt a bubble of anticipation at the mention of the Shibas, who, like them, were a very old and very rich Tokyo family. While Sosuke had worked steadily to become the CEO of Seireitei Incorporated (Yoruichi had no idea what her father did exactly, only that it involved computers; she sometimes wished that she was allowed to speak more frequently), the head of the Shiba clan had made a more precarious rise to fame by playing the stock market. Her father was wary of people like Kaien in business, but his full pockets were more than enough to convince him to join their families by means Yoruichi marrying the son Kaien had named after himself.
For her part, Yoruichi had no desire to attend school, and her mother was equally disapproving-- but Sosuke had insisted that she at least have a standard education. It would look bad if his daughter was completely ignorant upon coming of age and finally meeting her fiancee. But as far as Yoruichi was concerned, she'd be better off practicing the tea ceremony, on preparing meals neatly and beautifully, to impress her future husband. It was the least she could do, to make up for being born a girl to her parents; to provide a picture of elegance and grace that would reflect on the Shihouin family as well as her mother did.
The girl, already dark as her father but with her mother's silken black hair (though short and a bit untidy) stood beside kimono-clad Kiyoko as she handed the usual packet of instructions to the intimidated-looking instructor, feeling uncomfortable in the horribly ordinary clothes she was in. Glancing about the room with her goldenrod eyes, she found it a little cleaner than her First Grade classroom, but unfortunately, it was also quite a bit more rambunctious-- other children were running about, teasing and giggling and staging mock fights with notebooks for schoolwork. Looking away in annoyance and already feeling exasperated, she looked up at her mother still talking to the teacher, a pillar of beauty and poise and grace in this all-but-uncivilized room.
Glancing out the open door, she blinked as someone walked by, an arm furiously rubbing at her eyes. It struck Yoruichi as odd, on recollection, that she followed the unfamiliar person and spoke to her, having never once before been the curious or compassionate type.
"Hey, are you..."
The girl (Yoruichi now saw that she WAS a girl) turned abruptly at the sound of Yoruichi's voice, her mop of straight black hair shifting over her shoulders restlessly, a hand quickly wiping her eyes as if ashamed to be seen weeping. She might have been a year younger than the Shihouin, maybe two; when she spoke, however, her voice was surprisingly calm and collected.
"I'm fine. I just..." the girl was quiet for a moment as she considered something, Yoruichi noticed her dark eyes, obscured by straight-cut bangs, shifting around a bit anxiously. "...You seen a b-backpack anywhere?" When Yoruichi shook her head, the girl continued. "It.. it had a bee on it? All black an' yellow?" The Shihouin heiress shook her head again, and this time noticed a raw red spot on her arm, like she'd been forced to the ground hard. The long-haired girl noticed Yoruichi looking, and quickly covered the spot with her hand, an embarrassed flush coming to her cheeks as she glared at the dark-skinned girl defensively. Before another word could be said Yoruichi felt a sharp tug on her arm, abruptly pulling her away from the stranger and back into her mother's presence.
"Don't EVER walk away from me like that again," the Japanese woman said fiercely under her breath as she brought her daughter close, casting a hateful glance over at the girl, who left without a second glance. "And didn't you notice that girl was filthy?!"
Yoruichi blinked, realizing that she hadn't. She'd been aware of that horrible, pained look on her face, but somehow it hadn't mattered.
"I... I, uh..." Yoruichi began, but her mother swiftly cut her off.
"That is EXACTLY the sort of reason these private schools are going down the drain. Never mind profiling; they'll just let in ANYONE who can scrounge up the money... I don't want you around THAT sort, understand?"
It only took a moment for Yoruichi to slip easily back into her element, nodding obediently as she followed her elder back into the classroom.
True to her word, Yoruichi didn't so much as give the other girl a second thought-- or at least until lunchtime, when she suddenly noticed the backpack so accurately described by the stranger stashed behind a row of garbage cans. Her first impulse was to ignore it and just continue walking until she got her tray to the nearby table, where a gaggle of 'friends' she'd acquired last year had made a space for her, ready to compliment her clothing and wish fervently they were in her shoes. Instead, on a sudden, indescribable whim, she grabbed the bag and moments later found the long-haired girl again, quietly eating her lunch as she stared down at the carton of milk before her.
The girl looked up, her indescernable eyes widening as she caught sight of Yoruichi, and the bee-shaped bookbag that now lay between them on the table.
"T-thank you," she muttered uncertainly, looking flushed again as she turned her attention back to the meal at hand. Yoruichi was quiet for a moment, eyes going furtively to the table full of girls waving her over to them, some pushing each other aside to make room or keeping others from taking her seat. "Um... did you wanna sit here?"
It was the stranger's quiet voice, full of forced bravery, that made Yoruichi turn to face her again. Yoruichi considered the sudden desire she had to sit by her, because she looked so miserable and lonely that it even managed to affect HER. She worried, for a moment, about what her mother had said, before a sudden, utterly forbidden concept occured to her.
She didn't HAVE to tell her mother about this. Besides, who would it hurt? The poor girl looked lonely, and Yoruichi knew she'd still be respected after this by everyone else.
"My name's Yoruichi," the heiress said evenly, taking a seat on the girl's opposite side. "What's yours?"
"...Shaolin. Shaolin Fon," the black-haired child answered after a moment's pause.
"Here-- I don't get Eleven."
"Are you serious, Yoruichi?! You solve it the exact same way you do problem Nine... you ARE paying attention, aren't you?"
As the twelve-year-old Shaolin leaned over and began scribbling furiously on the slightly older girl's paper, mumbling mathematical steps under her breath all the while, Yoruichi had to stifle a bit of a chuckle. The girl had grown a smidge taller but other than that she had changed very little: her straight-cut mop of ebony hair still swayed uniformly as she tilted her head this way and that, and she was still almost uncomfortably quiet. And while Yoruichi had already had a big growth spurt and was starting to develop early, she had been more surprised by the ease with which laughter had grown out of her, as she'd always been taught that it was a horribly trivial and meaningless thing.
She kept this, like their friendship, a secret from her parents though, and after the first-hand encounter with Yoruichi's mother three years ago, Shaolin had expressed no concerns with that arrangement. Part of Yoruichi had never understood this instinctive urge not to inform the elder Shihouins about Shaolin; apart from her financial situation, she was a perfectly sweet and polite girl, but even so Yoruichi was certain they would not approve.
Other than that, she was not very different herself-- still otherwise focused on making her parents happy, and the time she didn't spend at Shaolin's home studying was used in preparation of her future as a prim-and-proper lady. And once the Chinese girl had finished explaining the problem for the fiftieth time, Yoruichi got up and put on her coat.
"I need to get going. Thanks for the help!"
"Oh," Shaolin said after a moment, hiding a sudden look of disappointment with incredible ease, "...I thought you didn't need to leave for another few hours..."
"Sorry-- I need to get ready. I'm meeting my husband today!" Yoruichi answered enthusiastically. Shaolin smiled as she spoke, though her tone wandered a bit as if she was lost in thought.
"Oh, right...I forgot."
Had Yoruichi been raised to pay attention to the feelings of others, she would have noticed how utterly distraught her friend looked at that moment, would have offered a few words of comfort, or else would have at least sworn that they would still be friends after she got married, empty promise though that would be. But she paid Shaolin only a wave 'farewell' as she clambered up the stairs, hoping her parents would believe that she was busy with her Student Council duties.
Fortunately, Yoruichi was early-- the Shibas hadn't arrived by the time she snuck into her room from the back window, and the midnight-blue kimono was just barely on when her father knocked, beckoning her to the dining room. When she solemly walked out she was met with Kaien at last; he looked a lot like his father but much younger, and admittedly his sharp features and smirking grin made him very handsome, at least. Yoruichi supposed that her parents could have done worse.
That, however, was the last time she saw Kaien alive. His parents were very quiet about how it had happened and why, but the car accident had been terrible enough to attract prefecture-wide attention. And with only a rambunctious daughter and an equally rebellious son left to the Shiba name, Kiyoko and Sosuke had decided it best to not attend the funeral, as there was nothing more to gain from their liason with the noble family. And though it made her feel immensely guilty to think so, Yoruichi could not help but feel a wave of relief wash over her, and to make it worse she wasn't even sure why she felt that way. But it felt strange, that she should be preparing her whole life to marry a boy she didn't even know and now it was never going to happen.
And when her parents announced hours later, returning late into the night, that they'd come to an agreement with the Kuchiki family now, she did her best to hide the sudden pang of dread-- something she'd never before associated with her intended fate before-- that hit her.
"Yup," Shaolin grinned as Yoruichi cast aside the wrapping paper emblazoned over and over with 'Happy Birthday' in bold letters to find a small cardboard box, inside of which were rows of misshapen, oddly-proportioned chocolate-chip cookies. "I know that they look weird (the Chinese girl blushed in embarrassment, and Yoruichi smiled as she recalled the first instance the younger of the two had ever done so)... but they're good, really!"
"No... I mean, I'm sure they are," Yoruichi corrected herself, "It's just... I'm not sure. My mother said they weren't becoming of a lady." Shaolin chuckled at the slight mocking tone in which her friend had said the last words, especially since Yoruichi didn't seem aware that she'd done so.
"Mom helped me a... well, a lot, but... come on, just try one." Shaolin held a chocolate-chunk covered treat up even though Yoruichi felt hesitant; what if her parents could smell the chocolate on her when she got home?
"...I... I really sh--" Yoruichi never got to say what she 'really should' have done, because in the moment before she closed her mouth Shaolin snuck a cookie between her lips. Forced to chew, the heiress did all she could to remain composed as the sudden clash of texture and sweet and salty and bitter exploded in her mouth, yet for all her efforts she couldn't hold back the sudden 'mmm' that escaped her.
"Like it?" Shaolin asked, though she seemed to blush a bit, embarrassed and surprised by her own boldness.
"...Wow," the older of the two managed after she'd recovered from the wonderfully unfamiliar sensation, then began to eat cookies in earnest. The idea that her mother could be so wrong about something-- it shocked her a little bit, but not enough to inhibit her elation. It felt odd, but of even though they were never terribly expensive, none of her birthday gifts could ever hold a candle to the ones she recieved from the Fon girl.
Yoruichi sighed as she waved goodbye to Byakuya, who nodded solemnly as he headed to class. While it did make her feel better that her new betrothed was in the same school as her, and thus she could get to know him a little better, it didn't make her any more comfortable. She hadn't been aware, until Kaien's death had put the prospect of her original marriage to an end, of how much she'd been dreading the event. But why she should feel so ambivalent about it was a mystery even to the Shihouin heiress-- she'd been raised to be ready for that moment, had trained to become a poised and quiet and dutiful bride until she knew it by heart. Why couldn't she brush away this odd pang of fear at the idea now?
She brightened at once as the sound of a familiar Freshman's voice hit her from behind, and glancing about she found Shaolin walking toward her steadily, on her way to the next class. The short-haired Sophomore walked in-step with her younger friend, feeling a little better now that her best friend was here.
"Hey, good to see you Shaolin! Which class are you goin' t--"
"How are things going with Kuchiki-san?" Yoruichi paused in mid-phrase at the hastily-asked question, trying to get a better look at the Chinese girl's face that was unsuccessful thanks to her inscrutable sheet of shoulder-length ebony locks.
"Oh... all right, I suppose. Still as quiet and tough as always, but... well, I guess I'll have to get used to it."
"Listen, Yoruichi," and at Shaolin's inquisitive tone, Yoruichi paused in the middle of the packed hallway and turned to face the girl head-on, "...I wanted to ask you... are you really h--"
Hello there," a honey-laced voice called out as a head full of short red hair appeared out of nowhere and the body it was attached to reached out a hand and pulled Soi's wrist, dragging her slightly in the other direction before Yoruichi acknowledged her.
"Oh, hi Chizuru!" The Honshou girl cast a slight nod (and a strangely appraising gaze) in Yoruichi's direction before turning to Soi, a rather sly grin on her face.
"Haven't seen you in a while... avoiding me, eh?" Shaolin smiled oddly at Chizuru, looking away furtively as the spectacled redhead gave her (what Yoruichi assumed was) a friendly hug. She also leaned her face closer to Shaolin's for a fraction of a second before the younger girl pushed her back, whispering something about 'not out here' as she blushed deeper, but Yoruichi had been glancing at a flyer on the nearby wall for the Homecoming dance and hadn't noticed.
"Shaolin," Yoruichi said upon turning back and finding things no different than before she'd looked away, "...I was wondering if I could come over tonight? Those Shakespeare translations are really getting complicated..."
"Oh... Sorry Yoruichi, I can't! Chizuru and I are... well, I promised her we'd see this movie. But I can help you tomorrow, okay?" Though Shaolin did look terribly sorry, Yoruichi couldn't help feeling a little disappointed, even after she'd nodded her acceptance and the two girls had left for Biology.
She and Shaolin had been best friends for so long, and though she knew it wasn't right to stop the Chinese girl from making other friends, Yoruichi couldn't help but feel a little neglected. Since Chizuru had approached Shaolin they'd been nearly inseperable, and plans that Yoruichi had made with the younger girl weeks before often got pushed to the wayside as they... well, she supposed the only word for it was 'hung out,' she didn't know anything about what Shaolin and the redhead did together other than they preferred to be alone.
But they were getting older anyway, and though Yoruichi's marriage to Byakuya had been pushed back until they were both 18, there would still come a point at which she would have to leave Shaolin-- and her old life-- behind. Maybe it was better that it was happening now, Yoruichi thought, though it certainly didn't feel quite that way.
Yoruichi glanced around the locker room, wondering if the girl was still inside. She'd finally managed to arrange a get-together with the girl again, and groaned a little as she pulled the bookcase with the heavy Math text higher up her shoulder. Shaolin had promised to help her with Geometry but now the girl was a good fifteen minutes late, and Yoruichi was starting to worry that if they took to long studying then her mother would get suspicious of where she was. As Yoruichi listened, the sound of a running shower echoed throughout the room, drifting lazily over from around the corner of the opposite end of the room.
The chocolate-skinned girl walked hastily over to the showers, pausing as she passed the pile of Soi's clothes. It took her a moment to realize that mixed in with her friend's Karate gi was a school uniform; it struck her as odd because Shaolin never wore her uniform to Karate practice, or at least on the instances that she'd been able to watch. And indeed, on approaching she caught the faintest and most unintelligible, but unmistakable, snatches of a voice other than the Fon girl's.
Yoruichi felt a sudden, almost primal dread grip her for an instant as she hesitated at the tile wall that separated the locker room from the showers, but ignored it as she decided not to knock, then peered her head around to the first stall, where flecks of water spitting onto the outer tile revealed her friend's location.
It took her a long time to realize she was staring.
Shaolin was pinned to the inner wall of the shower, and blocking her from view was a bare body with ruby hair she only belatedly realized was Chizuru. The Chinese girl, despite being in a position where she could have seen Yoruichi watching them in blank shock, remained oblivious to a presence beyond her lover: her eyes were shut tight as Chizuru greedily kissed and bit at the side of her pale face while her left hand lazily caressed one of Shaolin's slight breasts, her right was hidden between the two of them; Shaolin had a leg wrapped around Chizuru at the waist and the hand massaging the back of the hungry-eyed upperclassman's head encouraged Chizuru onward, accompanied by the endless string of quiet, pleasured moans coming from between her flushed, swollen lips.
And then Yoruichi made a noise, or Shaolin opened her eyes (Yoruichi wasn't sure)-- but in the next instance the Chinese girl gasped her name while Chizuru turned about, horror on the face of the former while the latter merely looked as if she'd been inconvenienced. Yoruichi blinked and turned away, disbelieving, wanting to run away but at the same instant she felt something unknown and undisturbed growl in protest within her, a strange, angry and choking sort of deprivation.
After a moment Shaolin ran out to Yoruichi wrapped in a towel and looking ashamed; the Shihouin heiress only caught a glimpse of her friend before the strange rush of agitated hunger swelled in her again and she looked away, not daring to let her eyes linger. Shaolin seemed to stutter for a moment before she finally spoke in a tiny voice.
"I... Oh God... Y-Yoruichi, listen, this is... well... I'm sorry, I meant to tell you, but... I... I didn't want you to--"
"It's... It's fine." Yoruichi was a bit startled by how forced and strangled the words came out of her, at the overwhelming urge to turn around at look at what she knew was a barely covered, very wet Shaolin, but she kept her back to the girl. It wouldn't be proper to look at her...like that, she knew, but even so the urge to do it was strangely overwhelming. "H-how long have... you two been... uh..."
"...Almost five months," the Fon girl answered sheepishly. "Yoruichi, I wanted to tell YOU more than anyone, but... I didn't think you would... understand." Yoruichi wanted to ask why, but then she remembered. Her parents. As if they'd need another excuse to hate a girl like Shaolin. At that moment Chizuru stepped out, leaning impatiently against the side of the wall, not bothering to cover herself. Shaolin's eyes distractedly drifted to her girlfriend's body for a moment, and suddenly Yoruichi felt an immense, red-hot loathing of Chizuru, though she didn't know her well and it was gone as quickly as it had been intense.
"Yoruichi... I know it's a lot to ask," Shaolin said imploringly, forcing Yoruichi to turn and look her in the eye, "...b-but you can't tell anyone, okay? I'm just... I'm not ready for people to know yet. Please?" Shaolin added the plea when Yoruichi hesitated, unaware that Yoruichi was staring at her eyes, suddenly aware that they were grey, as bright and tulmultuous as rain-heavy stormclouds. She realized in a moment of odd clairty that she'd never noticed before now. Yoruichi realized she must have nodded without realizing it, because then Shaolin was giving her a grateful smile, squeezing her arm gently in thanks before turning back to her girlfriend and gathering up her clothes. Yoruichi stood there for a moment, eyes rebelliously following her friend, until Chizuru said something in a whisper with a devilish grin that made Shaolin blush, and then Yoruichi turned around, leaving the way she'd come, still feeling as if something strange had broken within her.