Kurohyou Keikan

A Crimson and Gold Maze

Yoruichi always dreamt about a palace. Not the noble Shihōin palace but a beautiful mammoth thing of crimson and gold marble.

She'd been dreaming longer than she'd had the ability-well been aware of its existence-to become a cat, as long as she had solid memories almost seven years. For almost every night of those seven years Yoruichi explored every room she could. There were still locked rooms and hallways she hadn't gotten to yet proving to her that the dream palace was endless.

It was at the entrance of the tiniest of passageways where she'd first thought to shift forms. She'd had no specific shape to achieve, just a size to aim for. And wonder of wonders, somehow it had worked outside of dreams. Begging the question, had the dream just given her the idea, had she always had the ability?

Sometimes being the only Shihōin left was inconvenient as well as lonely.

Recently she'd started finding previously locked doors now open. And last night there had been scary scratching noises.

As she dreamt in Ryūken's arms they carried her back across Rukongai to the palace, and she used the time to seek out the sound's source. Her heart hammered a fearful tune in her chest as she searched but she wouldn't bow to the emotion. The only thing to go from dream to waking was the shape-changing, no monster could hurt her; she could always wake up.

And because this was a dream she didn't hesitate to repeat that reassuring mantra before gathering her Shihōin courage to open every door and turning any corner. No one would know of this weakness she was succumbing to every few minutes, she was always alone in her dreams.

She found the door she was sure was the last barrier to the noise and as she lifted her hand to the handle she squeezed her eyes closed. "It's my dream..." She whispered encouragingly to herself when the sound stopped.

Before she could even open her eyes a terse voice came to her ears. "Yoru-chan you've been sleeping this whole time I was talking!"

Ryūken hissed in pain when Yoruichi awoke in surprise-on defense-which meant claws out in feline form. "Ack!" He growled and instead of dropping her to the ground he squeezed her close until she woke up all the way and declawed.

"Sorry, you can put me down!" Yoruichi wailed, filled with guilt.

"Were you having a nightmare?"

"No," Yoruichi answered stiffly. The only thing Ryūken had rudely and harshly informed her he didn't speak of-besides his family-was his dreams. "You were saying something while I nodded off?"

"Kentetsu offered to mentor me so I could become a guard," Ryūken grumbled. The original rendition of the events that had occurred while she was outside the palace had included the entire interlude in the princess's courtyard, including the old warrior's motives. With the time left in their journey back to the palace he could only give her the gist of it the second time around.

Jealousy curled in her body but she made sure to keep it contained, again happy at the unnoticed expressions on her tiny face. "That's good Ryū-kun!" She cuddled into his arms. "When you get older you can join Onmitsukidō!"

The boy remained silent since they were within earshot of the side gate. Keishu and Boyaku glared at him but didn't notice the black ball curled in his arms, half-hidden in his haori.

Yoruichi started to fidget as he carried her through her courtyard silently. She wanted to know what else had happened, she knew he wasn't going to say anything because she'd fallen asleep on him when he'd tried the first time.

"Geboku was looking for you, I sent her on a goose chase," Ryūken crouched down to deposit her on one of the pillows arranged around her table. "You should have a few minutes to change."

With a soft growl Yoruichi watched him turn to leave. "Then you have time to tell me your answer to Kentetsu!"

"I'll be back when Geboku leaves," Ryūken answered without turning, something in his voice propelling Yoruichi after his slim form.

"Are you okay Ryū-kun?" She meowed softly. It was moments like these that she wished Ryūken didn't keep his spiritual energy so close to his chest. She wasn't sure she would be able to tell when he did relax his hold since she'd never had the opportunity to feel it; she was sure she wouldn't even recognize it.

He was like Kisuke, in that he was able to completely hide his spiritual energy. She definitely needed to hone her detection skills.

"Yoruichi-hime?"

With a soft curse Yoruichi peeked into her room to see Geboku wasn't yet past the inner sitting room, while she was looking Ryūken made his exit. She shunpoed across her room to her closet and quickly made herself presentable.

"Yoruichi-hime!" Geboku must have been looking for her longer than Ryūken thought because her voice was already worried.

If one could shunpo into clothes she could, the simple yukata helped to speed up the process as well. "Gebo-chan!" She sang as she exited the closet in time to vault onto her bed before Geboku appeared at her door.

"Where have you been Yoruichi-hime?" Geboku chastised. "Ryūken-kun said you were in the royal orchard."

Yoruichi giggled, "I was."

"Yoruichi-hime-"

"I was in a tree in the orchard," She watched Geboku bow her head.

"I was sent by Furui-san, who wishes to have a few words with you. Allow me to escort you," She moved to disappear into the closet returning with a kimono.

"I can make it alone thank you," Yoruichi let her put on the thicker kimono.

If she hadn't gone missing so much Geboku would have heeded the assertive tone of her statement and left without a word. Instead she shook her head, "Furui-san told me I had to make sure you arrived personally."

"I will make it in one piece, I promise," She had gotten her daily excursion out of the way already.

"Sumimasen-"

"Tch," Yoruichi threw her hands up and started out to her outer sitting room, toward her garden. "I'm going this way."

"Furui-san is not in his office," Geboku called but she didn't take chase soon enough. She was tripping through the shoji door to the garden where Yoruichi was already hidden in some thorny shrub having ditched her clothes behind a rock. "Yoruichi-hime!"

With her attuned kitty ears she heard the collision of two people. She took a peek out to see Geboku sprawled on the ground in a nasty pile with Ryūken. She saw him glance up and straight to where she was hidden in the brush and she hissed, that boy and his distractions!

Quickly she shunpoed to her clothes before shifting, now she was slower-something she swore she would rectify-but large enough to carry the cumbersome kimono inside. She kept moving as she started tugging on her clothes. She was in the inner chamber by the time she finished by cramming her tiny feet into slippers.

"Hurry!" Ryūken took her by surprise as his arm curled into hers. They practically floated over the ground, they made no sound.

Once out of earshot Yoruichi giggled as she let Ryūken lead her to a small hallway far removed from any Geboku would be looking in. She threw her arms around him until he was wheezing protest.

"That was brilliant Ryū-kun!" She pressed quick kiss to his cheek only to watch said cheek turn a vibrant red. Her heart jumped into her throat as she realized what she had just done, and she followed it up with a quick jab to his upper arm. "Now tell me!" She growled.

"Yoru-hime-"

Yoruichi didn't let him put a more formal space between them, even though she could feel the tension in his muscles. She held his arm in hers, her other fingers firmly around his wrist. "Here we go, to Jiji-san's private quarters. Now talk, I want to have an idea of what I'm headed for."

Ryūken glanced around the hall they were in. "I'm shamed to admit to not knowing all the ins and outs of the palace like you."

"That's why I'm here," She admonished giving his arm a squeeze, an arm he hadn't relaxed yet. "Now, talk!"

"Only...Only if you tell me about that boy," Ryūken made himself say.

"Boy?" Yoruichi felt a little guilty, the words she'd had for Kisuke hadn't been pretty the last time she'd voiced her opinion to Ryūken. "He seems nice actually, I think he has a bit of spiritual energy but he hides it as well as you do."

"He was born in Soul Society?"

"Um," Yoruichi shook her head softly. "I don't think so at least."

"You're going to see him tomorrow."

Yoruichi hesitated before answering, mostly because of the way the boy had stated the words, not asking, and stiff and indifferent like he probably wished he could be now with a formal physical distance. She was sure her cheeks were blushing about the stupid cheek kiss and she was glad she had darker skin, not like Ryūken's pale skin that sported even the faintest of blushes like roses. "I promised him I would."

"Why would you promise a stranger something?"

"He," She bit her bottom lip and moved her eyes to look around as if figuring out where to go next when she wanted to keep her face away from his, resisting the urge to give him that formal space, so that she could stop feeling...guilty? Why did she feel guilty? "He was going to try to enter not only the Seireitei, but the palace-"

"How?" Ryūken scoffed.

"I didn't want him to try at all; I didn't care for his methods!" Yoruichi frowned. "He said he wouldn't come close to the Seireitei again if I went to answer all his questions tomorrow."

"And?"

She was worried to find they had stopped in a small alcove off an even smaller back hallway. "I don't know what you're getting at."

"Are you going to go spend time with him when you leave the palace?" Ryūken was surprised to find he was suddenly struck with the urge to tell her secret, take that escape from his friend. He knew it would hurt her, and she would stop talking to him. If she found out he had done it. What are you thinking?

"As soon as I tell him everything he wants to know he's gonna leave," Yoruichi murmured with a reassuring half hug, and she realized he had relaxed because at her hug he went tense again. "Don't worry," She murmured. "Even if I find interesting acquaintances, you are my best friend."

"Interesting?" Ryūken scowled in irritation even though his heart was buoyed by her affirmation.

"Yes, I told you...you'd like him," She looked around the hallway and he didn't take the prompt to continue walking. "No one is going to separate us Ryū-kun, I won't let 'em."

"But..." He surprised her when he curled his arms tighter around hers in his own type of hug and he started to tug her down the hallway and she plodded along with him as he tried to gather the words he needed. "Furui-san is trying to separate us."

Yoruichi cried an objection but then Ryūken told her of the long and loud speech Kentetsu had given the staff of the palace. She couldn't keep the anger from her eyes and Ryūken took notice.

"I said the only way I would even pretend to be fooled by his shell of a scheme was if he allowed you to join with me," Ryūken finally revealed and she gasped.

"He said no," Yoruichi had no doubt.

"But now he wants to talk to you," Ryūken whispered as they entered one of the larger main hallways and entered the wing that held Kentetsu's modest quarters.

"And?"

"He's trying to get me away from you."

Yoruichi shook her head as they stopped within sight of Kentetsu's quarters, lowering her voice to a whisper. "You are so sure that he is trying to steal you away with promises of training, training you don't even want. If you think he's called me here to talk so he can try something on me don't worry...arrogant Quincy!"

"He might offer to train you."

"That," Yoruichi looked over toward the unmarked door; no one would know it belonged to anyone important. "That would be a cooperative miracle work of kami and my Okaasan." She turned and took him by surprise when she threw her arms around him and hugged him, her chin just high enough to rest on his shoulder as she whispered, "But it wouldn't be enough to separate us, not for long anyhow."

Ryūken gave a soft sigh and let his arms come around to hug her back. He had been thinking over Kentetsu's offer and how he might be able to get what he wanted with the appearance of giving Kentetsu what he wanted. "It means I'll have to stop taking care of your courtyard."

"Atsuryoku has hired three assistants since you started taking care of the garden," Yoruichi pulled back a little and met his soft brown eyes, the reflection of the nearby lamp on his glasses obscuring one eye. "Think about what we could learn!"

Suddenly Ryūken's body went tense and Yoruichi was worried a moment that he might have realized how close they were, but then in the silence she heard footsteps. "I'll wait for you."

"I'll see you in the garden," Yoruichi pulled back and started quickly toward the door, even as it started to open. She glanced back but the boy was nowhere in sight as Kentetsu looked around before he looked down to see her at his doorstep.

"Shihōin-chan," The relief on Kentetsu's face was obvious even to Yoruichi and she gave him a bright grin. "Where is Geboku-chan?"

"She just left," Yoruichi glanced over toward where Ryūken had just been standing and he nodded. "What did you want to talk about Jiji-san?"

"Come inside," Kentetsu murmured with a serious expression on his face, usually she didn't want to be anywhere near him when he had such a look. "Have you talked to Ryūken today?"

As the door thudded ominously shut Yoruichi made herself move across the room to flop down on the pillows piled around a short-legged table, already set for tea. "A little bit."

"Did he tell you about the offer I made him?" Kentetsu moved after her and sat across from her at the table. "Tea?"

Yoruichi nodded and stood to lean over the table. She stopped with her fingers curled around the wooden handle of the pot, "Shall I pour Jiji-san?"

"Shihōin-chan," Kentetsu gave a cluck of his tongue as he shook his head reproachfully. "If you so wish."

She reminded herself not to show how anxious she was as she met Kentetsu's dark wrinkled gaze. She recalled one of the few frustrated outbursts Ryūken had chastised her with during their friendship. 'A princess doesn't pour tea for their inferiors!' She had always wondered if such a strict code of behavior was a trait born to all Quincy or if hers just had a bug up his butt about it.

Yoruichi frowned as she quickly poured two cups of tea and then found herself sitting mutely looking down at the steaming liquid without drinking it the sting of Ryūken using such a word in reference to himself hadn't lessened with time even in memory. "He also told me about the counteroffer."

Kentetsu closed his eyes and nodded, "If only Shihōin-chan-"

"Why not?"

"My Lady we have been over this," Kentetsu protested.

"Not in so many words actually," Yoruichi argued as she curled the tip of her finger over the brim of her cup to test the liquid's temperature.

"Well," Kentetsu's back straightened, as if he were steeling himself for something. "I have asked Shihōin-sama and he has strictly forbidden passing down the Shihōin style, at least at your current age."

Her mind had been mulling over the information she had gotten in the last few minutes from Ryūken and now at Kentetsu's words she found her first question. "You were going to teach Ryū-kun the family style?"

"No, but-"

"Then what is the problem?"

Kentetsu shook his head and expelled a frustrated huff of breath. "Princess I do not split hairs."

"You don't split hairs when you fear getting caught," Yoruichi shot back and she saw the fury that the old warrior reined back so she held back the smug smile. His reaction told her that she had spoken truth. "I have my own counteroffer Jiji-san."

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