Notes: I bet this will be my only story for this fandom. In part because it's so depressing despite the many bright spots. I've seen far darker stuff, but I think it's worse here because the characters are so likable, despite surviving incredibly frequent child abuse (maybe it's that last part that turns me off). Anyway, this story makes a slight change to the curse.

Summary: By passing a Trial, any Zodiac member can earn God's Favor: a lifetime of peace, and a prize they are free to name. And what is a life of peace worth? To anyone who lives in fear of Akito's cruelty: absolutely everything.

The Favored Ones
A Fruits Basket Fanfic by
Nate Grey (xman0123-at-aol-dot-com)
Chapter 1: Trial of Selfless Love

It was hard to say what part of getting dressed was most uncomfortable for Kyo: the blood-red kimono, obviously made of expensive fabric with a dozing cat embroidered in gold on the back, or the fact that Kagura was the one helping him into it, and not being at all shy about copping a feel every chance she got. Despite all of that, she was being remarkably well-behaved, in that she hadn't hit him in the face or head once all evening. Kyo being rendered unconscious, and Kagura being responsible for it, would have been among the worst things that could happen to either of them, on this night.

And this night, in particular, was the main reason why Kyo was truly uncomfortable. He had lost the wager with Akito. Kyo had never once defeated Yuki in anything. Well, as Kagura had pointed out that, that wasn't technically true. But the one thing Kyo had defeated Yuki in, was something that Akito would never acknowledge as having been a valid contest.

Kyo had won Tohru Honda's heart. Yuki could claim that he only saw Tohru as a mother figure all he wanted. It might have even been true, and having met Yuki's mother on a few occasions, Kagura certainly believed it. Furthermore, that their mother had not been a proper parent was one of the few things that Ayame and Yuki agreed on. Even so, to the less informed, it certainly appeared as if both Kyo and Yuki had been competing for the same girl, and that the girl had given her heart to Kyo, while still keeping Yuki as a close friend.

But it didn't matter. Akito hated Tohru, and Kyo would never reduce his bond with Tohru to being a prize in a bet. Not even if it would free him to be with her. But it wouldn't, of course. Kagura and Kyo had a long talk on their way to the main estate. And Kagura had done her best to make Kyo understand the role that he had been longing for. She had tried to make it very clear, what it was like to be one of Akito's personal possessions. But most of her knowledge had been secondhand. Akito had never had much direct interaction with Kagura, and that was generally to Kagura's benefit. But it also meant that everything Kagura had to say, had happened to others. And that was problem: most of the people who had experienced Akito's cruelty firsthand either weren't close enough to Kyo to convince him, or he refused to believe that their horror stories were worse than his current state of existence. Even Kyo didn't miss what it meant that every member of the Zodiac that he was on speaking terms with had in some way warned him, at some point.

Yet, he was convinced that as bad as they seemed to think their lives were, his had been and was worse. And tonight, it was going to end. Tonight, he would be locked away for the rest of his life. None of the others ever had to fear that possibility. They could never have understood how Kyo felt.

And Akito was going to drag this out. There was a huge banquet tonight, and for the first and only time, Kyo was actually invited. Supposedly, it was to celebrate he and Yuki graduating from high school. But it was really about Akito announcing the results of the wager. If the rumor was true, every member of the Zodiac would be in attendance, even the elusive Kureno. Akito would want them all to witness Kyo's defeat and ultimate fate.

Having never attended a banquet before, Kyo had no idea what to expect, and Kagura had gotten special permission from Akito to help Kyo prepare. She appeared to be happy about it. But Kyo suspected that any mistakes he made, Kagura would pay for, either later or immediately. And he didn't like to think what Akito would do to Kagura, especially if she was receiving a punishment on his behalf.

All too soon, Kagura declared that he looked perfectly handsome, and that they were both ready to go. She was wearing a pink kimono with white flowers along the sleeves, and a running boar on the back. Having learned a bit more about how to properly treat women, Kyo almost told Kagura that she looked nice, but realized that, in a fit of "shyness", she might nearly take his head off with an ill-timed shove. So instead, he silently took her hand as they left the room, and to his immense relief, he wasn't shoved through a wall for it. She did squeeze his hand tightly, but not enough that he lost feeling in it, as in the past.

Kyo's worst fears were confirmed when he stepped into the banquet room, with Kagura behind him. Akito was already seated, which left only twelve places open. And as Kyo and Kagura were the last to arrive, and every other member of the Zodiac was already present, there was no place for Kyo. Kagura had only said that he should do whatever Akito ordered, no matter how humiliating it might be.

By some unseen signal, the others began to take their seats in the circular formation. Kyo stood there, frozen. It wasn't simply that he had no idea what to do. It was like something invisible, yet impossible to disobey, was holding him in place.

Finally, Akito lazily looked up and smiled. "Kyo, don't be a stranger. You sit here, next to me."

That was, indeed, the only open spot. But only because Kagura was still standing. And yet, when Kyo looked at her, she nodded and gave him a little push. Whatever had been holding Kyo in place was now pulling him forward, and though it felt very strange to do so, he sat in Kagura's seat. He could not help throwing uneasy glances over his shoulder at her: she was the only one still standing. But no one commented on it, or seemed to notice at all.

No, that wasn't it. No one was looking at Kagura at all. They obviously knew she was there. But they were ignoring her. Almost as if-

Akito shifted slightly, and all other noise in the room seemed to vanish when that mouth opened.

"We are here tonight to celebrate several things, but we should address the most important first. Some time ago, Kyo and I made a wager. If he could defeat Yuki in any way, before they finished high school, Kyo would not only earn his freedom, but a place at our eternal banquet. And Kyo... failed, of course. No one can say he didn't try. But it is pointless to fight fate, a lesson Kyo has learned well. But that's okay. You all make mistakes. Kyo's was trying to force his way in, when all he had to do was ask the right person."

Kyo couldn't help it, he stared at Akito in sheer disbelief.

"That's right, Kyo," Akito said, laughter in those cold eyes. "You forgot the old story, didn't you? The animals were invited. All you needed was someone who cared enough to include you. And at long last, someone has. You lost the bet, but you won't be locked away. Someone has graciously given you a spot at our table. You couldn't have forced your way in, anyway, because the table was full. But we've recently had an opening."

That made no sense to Kyo. Every Zodiac member was in the room, and none of them had died. There had been no open spaces. He was in Kagura's seat, and only then because she-

It settled upon Kyo with horrible finality, the awful knowledge of what had been done, what was happening in this very moment. But it was too late: Akito was standing, moving out of Kyo's sight, to where he knew Kagura was standing. He couldn't turn his head, not until Akito was standing right next to him, dragging Kagura with one hand.

"Give me your arm, Kyo," Akito commanded, and Kyo moved to obey without hesitation or thought.

And Kyo could hear the scream of protest in his soul as Akito seized the Juzo beads on the extended arm, slid them off, and tossed them away. But the scream had nothing to do with the fear of his own transformation. On some level, even if his mind had yet to fully accept it, he understood that he would not transform upon losing the beads, because he no longer had a true form. The scream was for the knowledge that could not be denied, as Akito shook back Kagura's sleeve, revealing an entirely different, new set of Juzo beads, made and attuned solely for her. The scream which only grew louder, as Akito yanked the beads off of Kagura's arm and shoved her backwards.

The terrible odor hit them all, even before the transformation began. Several voices cried out Kagura's name, despite the control that should have prevented them from doing so. And Kyo finally understood, that this was the only way he could have ever gained his life's ambition, and now that he had it... he'd never wanted anything less.

The Cat would have surely missed the banquet entirely. But the Pig visited the Cat and requested, "Please go to the banquet ahead of me, and tell them that I might be late. I'm always the last to arrive, and I wouldn't want the other animals to waste their time waiting for me to get there, when they could be having fun." The Cat was surprised, that according to the Pig, the banquet was to take place that same day, a whole day earlier than the Rat had told him. But the Cat decided to trust the Pig, and agreed to the request. And even though the Cat ran as fast as he could, he was still the last to arrive. He begged the other animals to wait for the Pig, but the Rat said, "Anyone who would rudely arrive late, should not be allowed in." So when the Pig arrived, he found the gates shut and locked. But the Cat kept his promise, and so did the Pig.

Tohru had no idea what happened at the banquet, but she knew things had gotten worse.

Kagura had vanished. Tohru tried looking for her, but hit only dead ends. Kagura's immediate family had been told that she was performing an important duty for the clan, nothing more. But if anyone else within the clan knew anything, they weren't talking.

Kyo was now formally recognized as a full member of the clan, and he no longer fought with Yuki. And, for no reason that Tohru could guess at, Kyo barely said two words to her anymore, and did everything in his power to avoid being in the same room as her for longer than a minute. Yuki assured Tohru often that she had done nothing wrong, but he either couldn't or wouldn't explain Kyo's behavior. Still, Kyo finally had what he'd desired for so long. He could now inherit Kazuma's dojo without any major obstacles, unless one considered that both Yuki and Kagura had regularly overwhelmed Kyo. But Yuki had no desire in that area, and Kagura was nowhere to be found.

The most startling change, however, was that Kyo moved out of Shigure's house, and into a house at the main estate. There could be no question of his status, given that. But even more shocking was that he now had a roommate: Ritsu. Tohru actually fainted when she learned of it. She had never noticed any firm indication that Kyo might prefer males in general, males who dressed as women, or Ritsu in particular. Not that she would judge either of them, if that were the case. But it was... so surprising. Ayame made the shock worse by sending Tohru countless photos of the pair: they were almost always holding hands, and never posing, a sure sign that the photos were taken without their knowledge. And Kyo didn't look... happy, exactly, but he didn't seem terribly unhappy, either. Reserved, maybe.

Knowing how easily Ritsu tended to be shocked, and trying to be considerate of Kyo's feelings, Tohru made a point not to visit. And when Tohru learned that Ritsu had inherited his mother's job at the hot springs, Tohru never went there, either. Even so, Ritsu wrote to Tohru often, and Tohru was happy to see that the number of apologies in each letter gradually decreased over time. And without prompting, Ritsu always included a few sentences on what Kyo was up to lately. But Tohru also noticed that Ritsu never invited her to visit. And no matter how Tohru wished Akito was to blame for that, she had a strong suspicion that this was something Kyo and Ritsu had decided for themselves.

Tohru had seen Akito only once after graduation, and the experience had left her feeling more confused than disturbed. Akito had actually apologized for their previous encounters, and extended to Tohru the unheard of honor of an open invitation to the main estate. In short, Tohru was allowed to come and go as she pleased, and so long as she called ahead, she could stay there as long as she wanted. It was a priceless gift, one that had not been given to an outsider in generations. But Tohru could only see it as a taunt. Akito had won, and there was nothing Tohru could do about it. If Tohru wanted to verify that for herself, then Akito was all too happy to rub it in her face. Tohru hadn't gone to the estate since, which forced any Souma she was on friendly terms with to visit her, not that they ever complained. And why would they? They, who knew better than anyone, how cruel Akito could be.

Fortunately, Tohru did not have to look far for a job after graduation. Rather than retiring outright, Kazuma opened a second dojo, with a focus on serving at-risk children. He invited Tohru, Arisa, and Saki to work for him, because he felt their invidiual backgrounds would help them reach kids thought to be unreachable. Tohru was both flattered and amazed, because he was absolutely correct. Her boundless optimism, Arisa's desire to save kids from gangs, and Saki's need to see kids with unique gifts not be punished for them, was all the qualification any of them needed. More importantly, it was worthwhile work that made them happy, and they would have done it for free, but Kazuma wouldn't hear of it.

According to Arisa, it only made sense to pool their money and share a small apartment. Saki agreed, on the condition that their end goal should either be to marry well, or become independent enough where the arrangement was no longer necessary. Tohru went along with it, but privately, she did not feel she had strong prospects in either area. At the same time, she didn't wanted to be separated from her friends, and fortunately, the feeling was mutual. And the only real danger to the arrangement, for some time, was Saki's interest in Kazuma himself, but that eventually resolved itself into an overly polite friendship that both parties declined to discuss with others.

"Dinner was great, Tohru," Saki murmured as she finished drying the dishes.

Tohru gave her friend a bashful smile and continued wiping down the kitchen counter. "It was nothing special, Hana-chan."

With a loud sigh, Saki slipped behind Tohru and hugged her gently. "You really should have more confidence in your own abilities. You're an amazing person."

Tohru closed her eyes and leaned back slightly, savoring the embrace. "Thank you for saying that."

"Of course."

They stayed that way for several moments, neither one feeling the least bit uncomfortable, until they were interrupted by a loud cough.

"Bath's free," Arisa called from the hallway, "if you two can tear yourselves away from each other long enough."

"And what if we decided that we want to bathe together?" Saki demanded, causing Tohru to blush.

"Then I get to bathe with Tohru tomorrow," Arisa replied without missing a beat. "And you the day after that."

"I suppose that is the fairest option," Saki admitted.

Tohru said nothing, her cheeks still red from embarrassment.

"By the way, Tohru," Saki added, "I asked Megumi to bring me a sweater from home, and he should be along any minute now. Do you mind waiting for him while I take my turn in the bath?"

"Okay, no problem," Tohru said.

Saki smiled and placed a kiss on Tohru's cheek. "Thanks."

Ten minutes later, the doorbell rang, and Tohru was easily able to confirm Megumi's slightly gloomy face staring at her through the peephole. She opened the door with a bright smile. "Hi, Megumi. Come on in."

Megumi shook his head and handed her a small shopping bag. "I can't stay, Tohru-san. I promised my mother I'd be home by a certain time. But I ran into someone outside who says they know you." He stepped aside to allow his unseen companion to step into view.

Tohru's eyes widened as she recognized the second visitor, less by their face and more by that familiar green kimono. "Y-You...?"

"Hello, Tohru-san," Ritsu said softly, nodding at her. "It's been a while, hasn't it?"

"Um, yes. Yes, it has. Please, come in... Ritsu-san."

Ritsu blinked and smiled sadly. "Thank you."

Tohru's mind was whirling as she allowed Ritsu in, said farewell to Megumi, and closed the door. They had been keeping their distance from each other, through unspoken agreement, for Kyo's sake. Why would Ritsu change that without even a warning? Did Kyo know Ritsu was here right now?

"I know this must be a shock for you," Ritsu began. "I would apologize for that, but-"

"You're trying to do better," Tohru correctly assumed.

Ritsu smiled faintly. "Yes. This is not the first time I've stood outside your apartment, trying to build up the nerve to knock on the door. But when I was approached by a second visitor, I didn't want to be mistaken for a stalker, so I couldn't avoid visiting any longer."

"Was there something too personal that you couldn't put in your letters?" Tohru asked.

"That is one reason. The other being, you deserve to hear this directly. You'll have questions that you want answered immediately. So, the most important part first: Kagura isn't missing. I... no, we, the Zodiac only, know exactly where she is."

"Is she all right?!" Tohru cried, grabbing Ritsu's hands.

Ritsu's face fell as his eyes searched Tohru's. "I knew you would be worried, but there was no choice. At first, Akito would not allow us to tell anyone what happened. And when it finally was allowed, we were afraid of how you and certain others would react, so we still hid the awful truth of that night. But, not knowing has clearly caused you great suffering. That, I do apologize for. Even Kagura herself did not want those precious to her to be told. She didn't want to increase their pain. But it has been long enough. And I might feel differently, if the lack of knowledge had only cost you your bonds with Kagura and myself. But to also lose Kyo, without knowing why, isn't fair at all."

Tohru blinked. "What do you mean? Kyo won't talk to me, because of what happened to Kagura?"

"It's more complicated than that. First, I need to tell you what happened at that banquet, on the night you graduated."

Continued in Chapter 2: Trial of Loyalty

"Kureno didn't do anything wrong. He has been incredibly loyal to me all this time. He is a shining example of how you all should be. I mean, if I had to come up with even a single complaint about him, it's really nothing he had any control over."