Her face was a mask, the expression cool and distant as she watched Beatrix lower herself to her knees and bow before her. Beatrix hoped that her own face was as expressionless, although she doubted that it was true. When Bill had told her that she'd be meeting a member of his crime syndicate she had hoped that they could be friends, not realizing that he meant for her to be the subservient student of the other young woman instead. Bowing would rankle her at the best of times, but that expression just made Beatrix want to stand up and punch the other assassin for not even seeming to care about the display that felt so degrading to her.
After staying silent just long enough for Beatrix to realize she was making a point, O-Ren softly asked, "Tell me, why are you here?" Although Beatrix knew from what Bill had told her before she'd boarded the plane to Japan that O-Ren knew how to speak English from her American parents, she chose instead to speak in the Japanese of a high-class woman. A test, Beatrix thought, to see if she would understand, and how she would respond.
At any other time she would choose to speak Japanese in the way she'd learned from listening to Bill, a way, she felt, of being closer to him even though she knew it made her sound like a coarse male. But, just this once, she called to mind the lessons she'd had with the tutor who'd originally taught her the language and replied to her just as politely and femininely as she'd addressed. "Bill had told me that he already spoke to you about me."
"Our mutual acquaintance has told me that he had sent a foreigner to me to be trained in the art of the samurai sword. But that is not what I asked." Slowly, with a grace that Beatrix knew she couldn't match, O-Ren lowered herself to her knees in front of her, then reached out to grasp Beatrix's chin and force her to look up into her face. "Why are you here? If it's the sword you want to learn, Bill could easily train you. Is it because you thought that it would be better to learn from someone in the land of the samurai? Or has Bill found a new pet to play with, and you wanted to run halfway around the world to keep from seeing him with her? Tell me."
"Bill is too busy to train a beginner student. And..." she tried to trail off, but O-Ren's eyes still held hers, and they promised that she would be shipped straight back home and forced to explain to Bill why she'd failed to receive any training if she avoided mentioning any part of the truth. "When I heard that there was another woman of my age working for him, I wanted to know her."
"Did you." It might have been a trick of Beatrix's eyes, but she thought she saw O-Ren's perfectly painted lips curve up the smallest bit. "I believe that you'll soon find that age had little to do with anything. I have trained to be an assassin since I was nine-years-old, while you..." her mouth curved the tiniest bit more, enough this time for Beatrix to be sure of it, and O-Ren softly swept the thumb of the hand still holding Beatrix's chin down her cheek while her language turned smoothly into English "...well, we'll see what you are soon enough, won't we?"
She stood in one smooth movement, as gracefully as she had knelt, and turned her back on Beatrix. Whether it was a sign of trust, certain superiority, or simply dismissal Beatrix didn't know. "Sofie will show you to your room."
And so Beatrix knew that she had passed her first test.
She was speaking to Bill on the phone, trying not to sound as giddy as she felt at just hearing his voice so there wouldn't be the risk of him thinking of her as just a silly young girl, when Sofie suddenly entered her room without even bothering to knock. Before the other woman had even finished opening the door Beatrix was on her feet, her gun in her hand and trained on the other woman's face and the phone falling, forgotten, to the store.
Sofie acted as if she didn't even notice the gun, instead glancing from the phone to Beatrix with an expression of disgusted anger flickering over her face for the space of a heartbeat before being smoothed away. "O-Ren asked me to tell you that your training begins in ten minutes in the main courtyard. Don't let your phone call keep you," she said, her voice cold, then turned and left.
"Is everything all right," Bill asked when she picked up the phone again, and the laughter in his voice was wonderful to hear after the woman she had just faced.
"It's nothing, Bill. I just need to go now; O-Ren is waiting," she replied, even though she was certain that he had somehow heard the conversation through the phone and was only feigning ignorance to be polite.
"Show her why I chose you," Bill said instead of offering luck. If she was worthy of him, she wouldn't need it.
"I will," she said, feeling a grin stretch across her face. "Bye, Bill."
She found her way easily to the courtyard, glad that she'd made sure to explore the yakuza complex the day before after unpacking. She arrived a full three minutes early, and if O-Ren didn't compliment her for her promptness, at least her silence was better than the lecture on punctuality Beatrix was certain she would have gotten had she been late.
When Beatrix looked around, there seemed to be no sign that she was supposed to be training there except for the single wooden practice sword O-Ren held in her hand. When she noticed Beatrix looking at it, O-Ren held it out to her. "Show me how you hold this."
Beatrix grasped the sword by the hilt, raising the false blade, doing her best to imitate the way she had seen Bill wield his Hanzo sword during the few times she'd been lucky enough to see him use it. From the slight frown that formed on O-Ren's lips, she could tell she'd made a mistake somewhere.
"No. Like so," was all that O-Ren said as she began rearranging Beatrix's body. She didn't waste words explaining where she'd gone wrong, just allowed her to feel the difference in her body when O-Ren pushed her fingers into different positions on the hilt, forced her arms down so the sword's tip was pointed forward, nudged her leg forward with the press of a slippered toe. "Now," she said when she was at last satisfied, "hold that position for an hour. At the end of that time, I will show you another way to hold it."
An hour? For a moment Beatrix entertained the idea of throwing the sword at O-Ren's feet, but instead she grit her teeth and forced her voice to be as respectful as she could make it as she asked, "I thought we were supposed to be training."
"And don't speak. Your muscles must remain still, " O-Ren added calmly, crossing the courtyard to where a pot of tea was set out and pouring herself a cup. She took a sip while Beatrix glared at her silently, closing her eyes and savoring it for what seemed to be far too long for one drink of tea before finally swallowing it. When she opened her eyes again she finally explained her order, far to late in Beatrix's opinion. "There are people who begin training in the exquisite art of the samurai sword when they are children and yet never master it. Yet, you wish to learn it in however many months you may have here before Bill decides that he wishes to have his newest pet return to him. Perhaps I can teach your mind the skills it needs to know, I couldn't say yet. But I will make sure that your muscles memorize every move that I show you, whether your mind does or not."
She began to raise the her cup to her lips once more, pausing just before the cup touched her lips and adding in a voice only slightly louder than a murmur, "I will hope that walk away from here a credit to my parents' nation. Try not to disappoint, will you?"
A week and a half after Beatrix arrived, O-Ren took her gang out for a night at a club. Sofie, as cold as ever, had come to Beatrix's room just minutes before they left and told her that she was allowed to come too, not even leaving her enough time to change into fitting clothes.
Although her entire body ached from repeating the single sword thrust O-Ren had shown her that day from dawn to dusk, only pausing for a half-hour lunch, Beatrix didn't even need to spend a moment thinking about it before she was on her feet and walking as quickly as she could toward the entrance hall. She hadn't been allowed any real time to relax since she'd arrived in Japan, her days broken into waking before the sun rose, going straight to the courtyard to practice a single move all day, being allowed into the communal baths for a brief soak before dinner, and then going straight back to her room until she fell asleep. It was a routine that left her constantly tired and sore. But it was worth it, if it made her worthy of Bill.
At the club, she was allowed to sit at the spot furthest from O-Ren and those she was closest to, as befitting to her place as the last and least member of the gang, a foreign outsider who wasn't even yakuza. So far from her new teacher, she allowed herself to study her teacher openly, more than a little surprised by the change that seemed to come over her teacher outside of their training ground.
Before that night Beatrix had thought that there was a stick rammed so far up O-Ren's ass that it would take a whole team of spelunkers to find it, but at the club, with no business to take care of and nobody to impress, she seemed to blossom. She smiled and laughed openly for the first time in Beatrix's presence, having whispered conversations with Sofie (who herself seemed greatly changed from the person Beatrix had mentally labeled an ice-cold bitch), and often calling out requests of favorite songs to the band playing that night.
Beatrix was pouring herself a fresh cup of sake and reflecting on the fact that maybe, just maybe, there was a little more to the other woman's personality than she'd thought when O-Ren looked up and spotted her across the room. So fast that Beatrix hardly had time to realize what was happening her teacher stood, crossed the room, and knelt on the opposite side of the table from her. "You like sake?" she asked, delicately lifting the bottle Beatrix had just poured from between her fingertips, still wearing the same smile she'd been directing toward Johnny Mo a moment before.
If Beatrix's tired mind wasn't already hazy from alcohol she might have been wary, but as it was she just nodded, swallowing the mouthful she'd just taken. "I've had it with Bill before, but never warm. It's different. Good."
O-Ren made a soft humming noise in the back of her throat, still smiling, and gently shook the bottle, feeling the way the liquid sloshed within it. "And am I right to believe that you've been enjoying this bottle all by yourself? I see that there's another bottle in front of Shiro to your left, and Jomei to your right, so this one must be yours."
Beatrix realized that as they were named Jomei and Shiro shifted slightly away from her, although neither looked at her and they continued speaking to the people on their other sides. As she nodded, more slowly this time, first the one of them and then the other picked up their own bottles to pour for their companions.
O-Ren's smile dropped in an instant as she tilted the bottle upside down and let what sake remained in it splash out onto the floor. "I will not allow a student still in training to get drunk when I have kindly allowed her out for a night's entertainment."
After spending over a week holding her tongue at every slight, Beatrix patience finally shattered with the help of her lower inhibitions. She slammed her hands down on the table, half-rising from the cushion she sat on, and in English said, "Then you should have mentioned that when we left the compound! How should I have known that when everybody else is drinking as much as they want?"
Here and there around the room members of the gang began to rise, their hands twitching towards their weapons at this display of disrespect, but O-Ren calmly raised a hand to halt them. "Are you telling me that I was wrong for assuming that anyone sent to me by Bill would be wise enough to realize that risking a hangover would not be a clever idea. Not only because I wouldn't allow you any time off from your training for that reason, but because it would be an insult to myself, who has been giving up her own days to watch your skills grow." She rose to her feet, not giving Beatrix a chance to argue back again. "For the rest of the evening you will refill Jomei and Shiro's glasses when they need it, to repay the insult you gave to them when you served only yourself earlier. You!" she suddenly called to a nearby waitress, who jumped to attention, trembling hard at being singled out by the yakuza leader. "Bring her tea, and see that she doesn't drink anything else for the rest of the night. And clean up this mess."
As O-Ren walked back to her place at a much more sedate pace than she'd used to cross the room to begin with Beatrix glance up at the head table once more.
She wasn't especially surprised to see the cruelly amused smirk Sofie was now directing at her.
"You've gotten sloppy since returning from lunch," O-Ren said abruptly one day a few months later. "Why?"
Beatrix was so shocked by the question that she paused in mid-move, although she quickly got back into the groove of her training when she saw the look of dissatisfaction flash across O-Ren's face so quickly that she knew she wouldn't have caught it back when she first arrived. She was beginning to get good at reading the occasional cracks that appeared in the other woman's mask.
The entire time she'd been training, she hadn't really thought that O-Ren was paying that much attention to what she did. She would show her what she wanted to do in the morning, then settle down and drink tea, do paperwork, conduct meetings with members of her gang who wouldn't feel slighted by being called out to the courtyard, and otherwise seeming to completely ignore Beatrix aside from the few times when she would glance up and make a correction to her form. Those were the only times that she ever spoke to Beatrix during a day's training, and she certainly never asked questions; Beatrix was still forbidden from speaking as she practiced. It was the most mind-numbingly boring manner of learning that Beatrix had ever encountered.
"Well?" O-Ren prodded, after Beatrix waited for a minute before answering to make sure that the question hadn't been meant as rhetorical.
"I ran into Sofie at lunch. She was..." Beatrix squeezed her practice sword so tightly that the wood began to splinter under her hands, forcing back the urge to vent out every angry thought she had about the lawyer. As time passed she had gone from merely being cold towards Beatrix to being outright catty, and not-so-occasionally cruel. But she was O-Ren's dearest friend and confidant, and it would be a very stupid thing to insult her in front of O-Ren. "What is her problem with me?" she settled on asking, assuming that she couldn't take offense at a simple question about an obvious fact.
"Ah, poor Sofie. You must forgive her for the way she acts toward you." O-Ren rose and walked to stand before Beatrix, gently pulling the sword from her hands and holding one between her own, examining a splinter that had dug its way into her palm. "She's jealous, I'm afraid."
Beatrix was unsure what response she'd expected, but the one she'd just received baffled her. She was too distracted by it to even think she should pull away when O-Ren began carefully stroking the splinter up out of her flesh with the edge of one fingernail. "Of what, my bruises?"
"You haven't figured it out yet? I thought you were supposed to be clever." When she had plucked the splinter she was working on out, she dropped that hand and reached for the other. "She was Bill's favorite pet before you. The only reason I even agreed to join forces with him is because she loved him so much and wanted to make sure we'd never fight each other. Then when his interest started turning towards his newest girl, she came back here to get away from it. And then he sent you here, to steal all of my attention from her as well." Her touch moved to the end of Beatrix's hand, her well-calloused fingertips finding the similar thickening of skin developing on Beatrix's. "You're beginning to have the hands of a samurai. You may take the rest of the night off. Tomorrow, I will join your practice."
Beatrix had assumed that finally getting to practice against another person, especially one of O-Ren's skill, would finally make her days interesting. Instead it was more of the same, and, if possible, more uninteresting since she once again had to repeat moves that she'd been taught weeks before. When she entered the courtyard in the morning O-Ren would tell her a counter she wanted her to perform that day, and then strike at Beatrix with whichever attack she wanted her to block. If Beatrix couldn't recall immediately which move it was that she was supposed to use O-Ren wouldn't hold back from hitting her, and would continue to do so until she remembered what she was supposed to do. At which point they'd fall into the rhythm they'd maintain for the rest of the day.
The only positive to the change in routine was that Beatrix could now read O-Ren well enough to realize that she was just as bored by the constant repetition. She never complained about it, never became sluggish towards the end of the day as Beatrix sometimes had on her own, but she still wasn't able to hide the way she felt.
When a change was finally made to the routine, it happened so quickly that Beatrix wasn't even aware of it happening. Hours into their practice, after Beatrix's mind had long since all but turned itself off, O-Ren suddenly changed the course of her sword in an instant between strikes, lashing out at Beatrix with an attack she'd practiced blocking weeks before. Even before her mind recognized the change her body was reacting, knowing exactly what she was meant to do in this situation and stopping O-Ren's sword before it could touch her body. For the first time Beatrix truly understood what O-Ren had meant that first day of training when she'd told her that her muscles would memorize her training.
O-Ren stayed silent as she returned immediately to the attack of the day, not offering a single complimentary word, but the smile that appeared on her face told Beatrix what she thought.
Now that she knew that change was allowed, Beatrix considered O-Ren's attack more closely than she had before, examining where she left herself open when using it and thinking back through the attacks she'd learned during her solitary training to decide which would work best against O-Ren's weaknesses now.
And then she struck, her sword a blur in the air which wasn't enough to keep O-Ren from blocking it with ease, her smile growing. When she attacked again, it was another from weeks before, and that set the tone for the next half hour; Beatrix trying to get past O-Ren's defenses, O-Ren only lashing back in ways she knew Beatrix could defend against. It was the most fun Beatrix had had since coming to Japan, and the first time that she'd really felt that she'd been given the knowledge she'd come for.
Soon enough it changed again, O-Ren using an attack Beatrix had tried against her a short while earlier, one that Beatrix had had no practice defending against. She tried to remember what O-Ren had done to block it, but remembered a fraction of a second too late to stop O-Ren's wooden sword from connecting hard with her ribs.
"Very good," O-Ren said, lowering her blade, "although you would be dead now if my sword had an edge. Try to remember what you should do more quickly tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Beatrix let her own arm drop to her side, ready to raise it again at any sign that O-Ren was attempting to trick her into lowering her guard. "It isn't even noon yet."
"Would you rather we continue for the rest of the day?" O-Ren didn't wait for her to respond, turning to walk back to her room, indicating with the slightest tilt of her hand that she wanted Beatrix to follow her.
Beatrix had never been to the section of the compound that O-Ren lived in. Her own room was on the opposite end from it, and she still wasn't allowed to explore at will. She knew where O-Ren's rooms were, but only from the blueprints of the building Bill had produced for her before she left them, both of them believing that it was important for her to have information like that, just in case the yakuza leader wasn't as loyal to him as Sofie swore she would be. So she at least knew enough to realize that it wasn't her own room that O-Ren was heading for before she slid open a door and revealed a streaming-hot bath within, so large that it was all Beatrix noticed about the room for a moment.
"This is my own private bath," she said as she stepped inside, already beginning to shrug out of her clothing. "I thought you could do with somewhere more relaxing than the public baths."
"Consider it a reward for never complaining no matter how much your body ached, if you'd like. Or for doing so well today." O-Ren neatly folded her clothes and put them on a shelf near the door, then began washing her body off at a tap in the wall, not showing any hint of shyness. "Or perhaps I just want to see more of this strange girl who's spent all these months with me when I thought she'd go running home to Bill before a week was out."
"You obviously don't know Bill well," Beatrix said dryly, finally beginning to follow O-Ren's lead and strip down. "He doesn't respond well to failure. I couldn't--"
"Of course you could," O-Ren cut her off quickly. "Try not to lower my opinion of you by acting as if you've only stayed for a man. Every weapon does not suit every person, and Bill would understand that if you left. The last person he sent to me did before the end of the first day. If you'd really hated it here, you would have thought of that and disappeared long ago." Her body clean, O-Ren slid into the bath, unable to hold back a soft sigh that escaped her when the hot water touched her body. She closed her eyes, savoring the sensation for a moment, then looked at Beatrix once more when she entered the water across from her. "I'll admit, it was quite awhile before I starting to believe you would be there each morning instead of expecting you to run during the night."
"I never even thought of doing that," Beatrix answered, and when she thought back on it she realized that it was true. She'd been terrified that she'd disappoint Bill now that she was away from him for the first time since she'd fallen in love with him, but only at the possibility that she might be sent away in disgrace if she did anything to displease O-Ren. Despite what she'd said a moment ago, she'd never even thought about how he'd react if she decided to quit on her own. It just wasn't something she would do; the more she hated learning something, the more she would contrarily refuse to give up until she'd perfected it to the best of her ability.
"And that is why you may someday be my equal." It was the first time O-Ren had ever complimented her with words. While she was still reeling from that, O-Ren pushed herself away from the wall of the bath, the water deep enough to allow her to float across until she was beside Beatrix, pulling gently on her shoulder. "Turn around and rest your arms on the edge."
"Why?" Beatrix asked, warily, even as she automatically followed O-Ren's instructions in spite of how vulnerable the position left her.
"I'm afraid that I've wreaked havoc on your poor muscles since you've gotten here. I've seen the way you flinch at times when you move or are touched wrong. Allow me to help." Her hands came up to rest lightly on Beatrix's back, slowly beginning to move. She only barely touched her at first, judging how Beatrix reacted each time she gently brushed her skin. She only gradually began to press more firmly as she decided where she needed to focus her attention.
Even though bursts of pain flashed through her when O-Ren found especially bad knots in her muscles, it didn't take long for Beatrix to relax. She knew that it wasn't the smartest thing she'd ever done; O-Ren was one of the most dangerous women in the world, and anybody would be wise to stay wary around her. But she'd also had a thousand chances to killed Beatrix if that was what she desired, and had been a patient, if not kind, teacher to her who had given up almost all of her time for that job. It was hard to believe she'd suddenly want to harm her now.
Maybe she had some bizarre form of not-exactly-Stockholm Syndrome, she reflected as she felt herself begin to drift off. She had been living a life similar to that of a hostage ever since she'd met O-Ren; cut off from the rest of the world unless she was allowed outside with members of the Yakuza, never given a chance to become close to anybody, never even seeing anybody other than O-Ren on most days, except for Sofie when she was sent to give her an order and anybody who happened to be in the baths when Beatrix's training each day was over.
It was while she was thinking this that O-Ren's hand slipped around her side and to one of Beatrix's breasts, lightly skimming across a nipple.
In an instant Beatrix went from dozing off to sitting up shock straight, slamming into O-Ren behind her. She froze then, intensely aware of the other woman's chest pressing against her back. "What are you doing?"
"I think the answer to that is very obvious," O-Ren whispered into her ear, her other hand gliding up Beatrix's thigh under the water. "If you want me to stop, just tell me. I'm not a monster, who would take advantage of you against your will."
"Would have had another woman in his bed by the night you left. Bill is not a man who likes leaving his cravings unfulfilled just because his favorite pet isn't around. So why should you?" Her lips brushed Beatrix's shoulder. "Don't act so surprised. It's not as if I didn't tell you how I felt weeks ago. What sort of attention did you think Sofie was jealous of?" Her hand moved from Beatrix's breast to her stomach, almost light enough to tickle. When she spoke again, the tone of her voice made her words a challenge. "Tell me to stop."
It had to be some strange sort of Stockholm Syndrome, Beatrix thought again. That had to be why she closed her eyes and moaned when O-Ren's hand at last dipped between her legs.
Many, many, years later, Beatrix knew in an instant what the first name should be on her list. The one who had hurt her personally the least, focusing her attention on the other members of the wedding party until the very end. The only name of the first four which made her heart hurt the tiniest bit as she wrote it down, even after all that had happened.
She would be the easiest to find out of the group, of course. In the years between the time she had trained Beatrix and the last time they had seen each other her fairly small yakuza family had swelled until she was one of the most important bosses in Japan, and it didn't take much investigating to discover that she had gone on to become the head of them all. But that was not the main reason Beatrix chose to find her first.
Only if she could bring herself to strike the final blow against O-Ren Ishii would she know that she'd steeled her heart enough to kill Bill.