'1981: First there was that tentative friendship'
"Hey, be careful!"
"A-ah… I-I'm sorry…"
Shannon's face flushed bright pink as she felt arms- Jessica's arms- encircle her waist from behind; and the strange sensation of Jessica's breath against the back of her neck blew her hair about gently.
Shannon had never been that close to Jessica before; not since they'd been young children, and they'd played together on the beach building sandcastles and getting sunburns.
Shannon wasn't too sure how she'd ended up like that; it had happened too quickly, and when her heart finally stopped racing and her breathing evened out Jessica had already released her.
She'd… nearly fallen over, hadn't she?
That was probably why the bed sheets she'd been carrying- she same ones she'd folded up so neatly only a few minutes earlier- were crumpled at her feet in a haphazard mess.
If Jessica hadn't been there- hadn't caught her on time- Shannon knew that she, too, would have collapsed on the floor like those crumpled sheets.
She'd worked so hard trying to fold them, too…
A wasted effort.
Shannon bit her lower lip, looking at the scene of chaos on the floor. Worry began to well in her eyes, at the same time irritation at her own clumsiness bubbled in her heart, and embarrassment stained her cheeks.
Shannon seemed to fall over a lot.
Far more than a maid should have done.
How ridiculous was that; a maid who couldn't complete the simplest of household chores? It was no wonder Miss Natsuhi scolded her so much; Shannon was always misplacing things, losing her keys and shattering the fine-boned china with her clumsy fingers.
Things like that happened to Shannon a lot.
It was almost as if she were possessed by some demon; but Shannon knew, in reality, the strange force that compelled her to do stupid things was simply her own incompetence.
She was too old to blame demons on her shoddy skills now.
And yet admitting that- even if it was only within the confines of her own head- hurt a little.
Shannon tried her best; she really did.
But her 'best' never seemed to be good enough.
Especially as she was always lost in daydreams.
Shannon daydreamed a lot. She walked around with her feet on the floor and her head in the clouds; moving through life as though she didn't really belong there.
And, often times, Shannon felt like she was merely in the way.
There wasn't much else to do on Rokkenjima save completing chores, reading books (Shannon adored mystery novels- she always had done, ever since Kumasawa introduced them to her at a young age) and fantasizing.
And so Shannon did just that.
But she always ended up paying the price.
It was a good job Miss Natsuhi hadn't seen her trip over her own feet and spill that spotless (or, at least, it had been spotless) white linen on the floor, or else she would have been scolded for sure. Miss Natsuhi could be a very harsh woman, and she was incredibly strict; far more so than Jessica.
Shannon knew Jessica wouldn't scold her.
Jessica was so kind.
Even if Shannon didn't deserve it.
Even if- as a servant- Jessica really shouldn't have caught Shannon when she fell; or excused her when she messed up (which happened with alarming frequency).
"You don't need to apologize," said Jessica, giving Shannon a two-fingered salute. She was grinning. "It's cool. Everybody makes mistakes."
Shannon felt her face flush again at this display of kindness. It was strange, unusual; why was Jessica so friendly towards her when she was only a lowly maid?
But Shannon wasn't just a lowly maid to Ushiromiya Jessica, was she?
They were… 'friends'… weren't they?
In all of Shannon's childhood memories- sepia-tainted now with age (for Shannon was older now, even if she was still barely a teenager)- Jessica was there, smiling.
It had been the four of them back then- always the four of them.
Jessica and George and Shannon.
'I'll come back for you on a white horse!'
Battler and his childhood promises, wide smiles, red hair that wouldn't lie flat and his love for mystery novels.
Still blushing, Shannon looked down at her feet. Her bangs hid her eyes; covering her face- and, with shaky legs and trembling fingers, Shannon bent down. She began to gather the fallen bed sheets against her chest.
It wouldn't do to become so sentimental now.
The Ushiromiya family conference was looming- only a few days away- and there was still so much to be done (no matter how hard Shannon and the other servants worked it never seemed to be enough; especially around this chaotic time of year).
Miss Natsuhi had seemed almost ready to pull her hair out in frustration and panic- and her skin had looked so pale lately.
Natsuhi was an Ushiromiya only by marriage; Kinzo's blood did not flow through her veins, and, as such, the other relatives (especially Eva) were critical of her.
Everything had to be perfect for the family conference.
Natsuhi was in a very precarious position- and the slightest error could ruin her reputation (or what little 'reputation' she actually possessed; because Shannon had heard what Eva said about her, and it wasn't very nice).
In some strange way, Shannon felt she and Miss Natsuhi were very similar. Natsuhi was always striving to please the Ushiromiya family; sometimes even driving herself to sickness and ill health whilst attempting to do so. She took too much upon herself, working her own body almost as hard as she worked her servants, until she nearly collapsed.
And Shannon, too, always strived to please the Ushiromiya family; to prove her competence to the others.
She wasn't so dissimilar from Miss Natsuhi- not at all.
In fact, Shannon sympathized with her poor Mistress.
But it would probably have been insolent to say such a thing (merely thinking it was bad enough), and Miss Natsuhi would surely be angry if she had known a lowly servant believed herself to be comparable to a member of the great Ushiromiya family- even if it was only through marriage (a tenuous link, but a link all the same)- so Shannon said nothing.
Shannon tried to perform her duties as a maid to her full abilities, hoping to ease Miss Natsuhi's workload somewhat; but that was all she could do.
And she couldn't even do that very well.
It was no wonder Miss Natsuhi snapped at her so often.
Jessica knew how stressed her mother was; she had seen Natsuhi press her fingers against her temple multiple times throughout the day, as though her skull were about to shatter from some heavy, unimaginable pressure.
Surely Jessica should have been angry with Shannon- the silly, clumsy maid that she was, always daydreaming (never working hard enough)- for increasing her mother's workload? For increasing her worries; abundant though they already were?
But Jessica never seemed bitter about it.
Shannon couldn't imagine Jessica being bitter about anything.
Instead, she always smiled.
Her smile was so bright…
"That looks kind of difficult for one person," said Jessica, watching as Shannon tried to gather the bed sheets against her chest- but they were so heavy, there was too much material, and Shannon's arms could hardly reach around them.
Even so, Shannon shook her head.
"N-no- it's alright," she said. "I can manage…"
Jessica only rolled her eyes in response.
"Like hell you can."
Then, in one swift movement, Jessica bent down- her blonde ponytail bouncing- and…
Shannon's eyes widened.
Her lips parted in a small 'o'.
Ushiromiya Jessica- the daughter of Miss Natsuhi, her Mistress- was sat on the floor, getting her knees dirty as though she were a common scullery maid, helping her- Shannon- pick up the sheets she'd dropped.
That shouldn't have happened.
In no universe should Shannon have been helping her.
Miss Natsuhi would be furious if she found out. Her daughter- her flesh and blood (a real Ushiromiya; the oldest of Kinzo's grandchildren with a claim to be his successor)- crouching on the dirty floor, doing a servant's work?
That was unacceptable.
And Shannon knew it.
"A-ah… Y-you don't have to do that, Milady!"
Jessica's eyes narrowed at this. She pouted- puffing her cheeks out like a blowfish.
"Don't call me that!"
"That!" Jessica said again, stabbing a finger at Shannon's face- and, subsequently, dropping the sheets she'd been picking up. Jessica didn't seem to care, though. "Don't call me 'Milady!' It makes me feel so oldddd."
"B-but that's how I'm meant to address you…"
"Yeah, around mom," said Jessica, still pouting. "But not when we're alone! I thought we were meant to be friends?"
Shannon looked down at the white sheets in her hands (or, at least, they had been white- once upon a time. But their past cleanliness was a mere memory now. Even though a normal person wouldn't have been able to spot the dirt and dust on them, Natsuhi- with her eagle eye- would have been able to with ease.
Natsuhi was so perceptive it was just a little scary).
Shannon's voice was soft- almost a whisper- when she said, tremulously, "I-is that so…?"
"Yes, that is so!" Jessica declared, prodding Shannon in the forehead (Shannon flushed). "Unless you wanna say you don't want to be my friend? Are you trying to get rid of me…?"
Those words struck a chord inside Shannon.
The small, clumsy servant lifted her head- moving so quickly strands of brown hair fluttered in the breeze- and her gaze met Jessica's.
Even though Jessica was smiling (make that smirking), there was something… a little 'off' about her expression.
Shannon might have been imagining it (Shannon was good at that; she imagined a lot of things), but she could have sworn Ushiromiya Jessica looked… hurt.
If she wasn't much mistaken.
And… that expression didn't suit.
Jessica was usually such a cheerful person; smiling in a typical happy-go-lucky way that suggested she didn't have a care in the world. To see her wearing anything other than simple, straight-forward smile on her face was disconcerting.
Shannon shifted uneasily- well aware of how strange the situation was. She was crouched on the floor of the dining room, a bundle of cloth gathered in her arms (but far more of those linen covers were spread across the floor), looking at Jessica with a blush across her face.
She knew she should have moved; got to her feet.
Those bed covers wouldn't wash, iron and fold themselves without her; and Shannon needed to complete her tasks before Miss Natsuhi suffered from some kind of stress-related meltdown.
But Shannon's body was frozen; she couldn't even move her fingertips.
Despite her teasing smile, Jessica looked upset; and Shannon was sure it was her fault.
"I thought we were meant to be friends?"
"I-is that so…?"
Had she been insensitive?
But servants weren't meant to be friends with their masters. That stepped over some boundaries- boundaries that weren't meant to be broken- and Shannon was sure it was unprofessional.
Miss Natsuhi would have been angry…
It was true that they had been friends, even played together, when they were much younger; when Shannon had only just arrived on Rokkenjima, and Jessica had eagerly dragged her round like a rag doll (a new toy- a new friend!), showing her the mansion and telling her horror stories about strange, misshapen creatures that lurked the woods that Shannon knew Jessica had just made up to scare her (and even though the logical side of her brain told her this, those nightmarish tales had still kept her up at night, shuddering with fear).
But Shannon was older now.
She should have known better.
But… Jessica looked so forlorn…
"N-no… I-it's not like that…" said Shannon softly, pressing her fingers into the bed sheets. Their warmth was comforting; it helped calm her nerves. "W-we… can be friends…"
"We always were friends, stupid," Jessica corrected- but her eyes had softened, and her smile looked more genuine.
It made her whole face light up.
Jessica's eyes were dark blue- but they seemed even warmer when she was smiling.
Just like the ocean.
Almost like Battler's eyes…
"Ah…" Shannon's face began to flush at that memory, and she looked down at the floor- at her own knees. "I-I'm sorry, Milady."
"I already said, don't call me that!"
Shannon's vision was soon eaten by a vast expanse of darkness.
Jessica had pulled her hat over her eyes.
"A-ah…" Shannon stammered, her fingers going to her head- rearranging her hat (but her hair was all messy now; and, with a wide-eyed expression, Shannon watched as Jessica began to laugh). "T-that was mean!"
In response, Jessica stuck out her tongue.
"I don't care! You deserved it!"
"N-no I-I didn't…" Shannon muttered, voice soft- her fingers still threading through her hair. "I didn't…"
"You called me 'Milady'," Jessica replied. "I hate it. I told you not to do that. I had every right to do that!"
"Tch. Fine." Jessica got to her feet- folding her arms- and looked down at Shannon from her new height; a rather cruel smile playing across her lips. "If you want me to abuse my power I can totally do that, too!"
"U-um…" Shannon blinked up at Jessica from under her eyelashes, worry playing across her face. "Y-yes?"
"Shannon!" Jessica declared, her voice taking on the same kind of authoritative tone as her mother's; but she was smiling- not being serious.
At least, not that serious.
"I order you to call me by my first name!"
"B-but…" Shannon floundered, the words sticking in her throat, as she tried to think of some objection; some reason as to why she could disobey this command. "B-but…"
"Uh uh!" Jessica shook her head. "I won't let you worm your way out of this one! Nooo way! It's an order, remember? Don't you have to do that I say?"
Shannon's face flushed light pink.
But she still managed to spit the words out.
"O-okay… U-um… J-j-jessica…?"
Jessica's name sounded foreign on her lips; it caught her tongue, and came out badly broken (just like that teacup Shannon had dropped the other day).
How long had it been since Shannon called Jessica that?
She couldn't remember.
It seemed to be enough.
"There~ That wasn't so difficult, was it? I know my name's weird and difficult to pronounce, but… Ahaha~ You dummy."
Jessica's smile became more sincere; and Shannon could help but think it was strange. Bizarre, even.
How could such a simple gesture make somebody so happy?
How could Shannon- a lowly servant- manage to make Jessica smile like that?
Maybe Shannon wasn't the only one who'd missed Battler…
Maybe Jessica had been lonely, too.
"Alright!~" Jessica declared, voice louder- more chipper- than before. "Let's get to work, kay?"
"W-what?" Shannon asked, clutching the sheets to her chest even tighter (if they hadn't been crumpled before, they certainly were now). "W-what do you mean?"
"Huh?" Jessica raised a brow. "What do you mean, 'what do I mean'? I'm going to help you, of course."
"Yeah. I know it's a strange concept for you to wrap your head around, but that's what friends do."
"I know it's weird, but you'll get used to it," Jessica replied, smirking.
Before Shannon could protest (she wasn't even sure what to say; she didn't want to upset Jessica again) Jessica had gathered the remaining sheets in her hands- creasing them so badly it almost made Shannon cry out 'don't do that!'
But she remained silent.
It probably would've been hypocritical to berate Jessica for doing the exact same thing that she was, anyway.
Shannon's mouth opened and closed, but no sound emitted.
"Hmn? Shannon?" asked Jessica curiously. "Are you okay…?"
"I'm fine…" Shannon replied slowly, haltingly- looking at the floor. "But won't Miss Natsuhi get angry? It's not your job to help me…"
"But it looked like way too much work for one person!" Jessica declared stubbornly, crushing those sheets against her chest with too much strength- and if those bed sheets had been alive, surely their entrails would have been expelled from their mouths at Jessica's completely graceless way of handling them. "I just want to help out! We'll get it done quicker this way, right?"
"B-but Miss Natsuhi…"
Shannon thought it would have been tactless to add 'but you're even worse at household chores than me'- though that was still a valid concern.
In all honesty, Jessica's reasoning was a little flawed. Shannon probably would have been able to handle the laundry quicker by herself than with Jessica; but she didn't want to upset Jessica again.
She really looked better when she was smiling.
And Shannon didn't like upsetting people.
"What about her?" Jessica replied, eyes blazing with determination. "I've seen her get all stressed out! I want to feel like I'm doing something productive to help, too! It shouldn't matter who does what as long as all the work gets finished, right?"
"I-if you want to do something productive you could try tidying your room…" Shannon muttered under her breath.
Unfortunately, Jessica heard her.
"What was that?"
Shannon's cheeks flushed light pink.
"Right. Nothing." Jessica frowned. "You liar."
"Well, I don't care what you think!" Jessica shot back, pulling a rather unattractive face to punctuate her point. "I'm going to help you whether you like it or not. Now get off your ass and pull yourself together."
Shannon squeaked in response, getting to her feet- nearly collapsing again (for some reason her knees felt weak; her legs didn't want to support the rest of her body).
Those bed sheets shouldn't have been so heavy; but they seemed to be weighing down her arms.
Or maybe it wasn't a real, physical pressure that felt so heavy in Shannon's heart.
It was something… far warmer than that.
Shannon buried her flushed face against the soft covers in her arms, wishing her erratic heartbeat would calm down; trying to force her breathing to remain regular.
She… had a friend…
"We always were friends, stupid."
"Don't look so surprised," said Jessica, grinning (Shannon couldn't see Jessica's expression, but she could hear the smirk in her words). "We're friends, right?"
Shannon couldn't let Miss Natsuhi find out. She'd be so angry- and she had every right to be. It wasn't 'proper' for servants to befriend those above them; and Jessica's status was so much higher than Shannon's Shannon felt like she had to tilt her head back sixty degrees just to get a glimpse Jessica's face.
But Jessica wasn't just 'Milady'.
She was a human being, too.
And Shannon was sure she'd been lonely.
But she wouldn't be anymore.
Shannon might not have been a good maid- she was clumsy, forgetful, and always dreaming- but she hoped (sincerely hoped, from the bottom of her heart) that she could be a decent 'friend'.
She didn't want Jessica to feel lonely anymore.
Because Shannon already knew just how painful that was.
a/n: And so I start another Umineko fic with an 'interesting' pairing, even though there are a million and one other things I should be doing. Yayyy :D
This pairing isn't crack at all though, you know. It's basically canon.
Well, not quite, but it might as well be XD
I hope everybody's IC enough so far?
If you like this fic thus far please tell me :3