Chapter Seventeen

When Shigure announced that it was time to leave, Tohru made quick work of packing the few items she'd brought back into her bag. Though the weekend had been wonderful, one of the best of her life, the relief she felt in that moment was palpable, to a point where even Shigure noticed.

"Feeling homesick, are we?" he asked, lingering in the doorway, and Tohru looked up from her mother's framed photograph with a stunned expression. She hadn't realized he was still standing there.

"Oh! Um, yes. It'll be nice for things to get back to normal again."

He stared, like he didn't quite believe her, and Tohru froze, all the heat in her body rushing to her face. She was, in fact, fibbing, though just when she was sure that Shigure would call her out, he winked and moved on down the hall.

"Momiji?" he called sweetly outside the next door. "Get your things together. The bus is leaving."

Why did he look at me like that? Does he know? Tohru couldn't help feeling paranoid as she delicately placed her mother's picture on top of the pile of clothes in her bag. It was, of course, a ridiculous thought. Shigure was a perceptive person, but he wasn't a mind reader.

There's no way he knows I'm planning to visit Akito once we get to Sohma House. She'd made the decision less than half an hour ago, after all. No, Shigure was just being his normal cheeky self, and her nerves were getting the better of her.

Funnily enough, he'll probably be the easiest to convince out of all of them. It was the others she was worried about, particularly Yuki and Kyo. They'll never want to let me go.

She took a deep breath, pushing her anxieties down as she shouldered her bag and headed for the stairs. A sleek black SUV awaited her in the driveway, as did Shigure. The vehicle was unfamiliar, and when she asked the dog who it belonged to, he cheerfully replied that it was one of Akito's.

"Hatori sent it our way, seeing as he ran off with our only means of transportation." He cast a mischievous glance over one shoulder, where the driver—a severe middle-aged man in square framed glasses—was waiting to take Yuki's suitcase.

"That was very thoughtful of him," Tohru said, and Shigure nodded along with her.

"Indeed. Although, I would like to point out that none of this would've been necessary if the dear doctor had just let me drive for once."

"And why would he do that?" Yuki asked as he waved the driver off, indicating that he would take care of his luggage himself. "Even if you had a license, the thought of you behind the wheel of a car is terrifying."

"Who says I don't have a license?" Shigure quipped, and Yuki rolled his eyes before turning to Tohru.

"All set?" he asked, brightening, and Tohru grinned back at him.

"I sure am!"

"Now if only the others would hurry up," Shigure muttered, cupping one hand over his mouth before turning toward the house. "Kyo! Haru! Momiji!" he bellowed. "What's taking so long?"

The front door blew open as if on command, and Tohru wasn't the least bit surprised to see Kyo exiting the house. He had a black duffel bag slung over one shoulder as he barreled toward them.

"The hell are you yelling at me for?" he shouted, completely sidestepping the driver's extended hand. "I've been ready for hours!"

Tohru's heart sank as she watched him drop the bag into the back end of the vehicle. She could only surmise that his foul mood had more than a little something to do with what had transpired between them yesterday. They hadn't spoken since, and Tohru still wasn't sure if it was too early to try and reconcile. She knew Kyo didn't like to be pushed, and though she respected his need for space, at the same time, she hated feeling like they were at odds with one another.

Yuki's eyes narrowed. He was clearly preparing to say something smart to the cat, but a pleading look from Tohru silenced him.

"All right," Shigure said, more to himself than anyone else. "That just leaves-"

"Momiji and Hatsuharu!" a boyish voice sang.

The rabbit danced his way down the sidewalk, pirouetting several times before coming to stand near Tohru, who smiled. She was hopeful that his presence would lighten the mood at least a little, though her hopes were dashed mere moments later, when Hatsuharu stepped outside.

Like Kyo, he'd brought a duffel bag instead of a suitcase. He wore an almost dazed expression as he strode toward the vehicle, his eyes coming into focus as soon as they landed on Shigure. The dog was looking at him too, unblinking, and Haru stared back in exactly the same manner. Though neither of them said a word, it was clear that something was being communicated. Whatever it was, it didn't appear to be the least bit friendly.

I wonder what that's about, Tohru thought as Haru handed his bag to the driver, who was visibly relieved at having something to do.

"Thanks," the ox muttered before lifting a fist to mock-punch Yuki in the shoulder. "Ready to hit the road?"

"We've been ready," Yuki shot back. "What took you so long?"

In response, Haru blinked slowly, once, twice. "I, uh...slept too long. Sorry."

Before Yuki could say anything, the driver slammed the hatch closed and cleared his throat. "If that is everything, young masters, then I believe we'd best be on our way."

There were six of them altogether—seven, including the driver—though luckily the vehicle had been designed to accommodate large groups. Tohru climbed into the back, sandwiching herself between Momiji and Hatsuharu, while Yuki and Kyo took the seats in front of them. Of course, they moved as far apart from one another as they could manage before finally settling in and fastening their seat belts, but Tohru was too distracted by her own worries to take much note.

I wonder when would be the best time to tell them I want to visit Akito.

The thought of saying any such thing out loud made her stomach turn, and as the minutes dragged on, she could feel her courage steadily waning.

"Tohru?" Momiji said, his brown eyes wide as he stared into her face. "What's wrong? Are you feeling all right?"

She exhaled, releasing a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. So much for trying not to look miserable.

"You are a little pale," Yuki observed as Momiji pressed a hand to her forehead. "You don't think you're getting carsick, do you?"

Kyo had also turned around in his seat. Though he said nothing, it was clear by his knitted brow that he was equally as concerned.

"No fever," Momiji said, and Tohru cast him a small smile of reassurance.

"I'm fine," she said. "Really, it's just that…"

It was only then that she noticed that Shigure was also watching. "Tohru," he said, "I don't want you to feel like you're troubling anyone. If you need us to pull over-"

"N-no. It's not that. I just…"

She broke off, sighing. There was no point holding back any longer. "I was going to say that I'd like to go with Momiji and Hatsuharu. When we get to Sohma House, that is. I...I'd like to visit Akito."

The silence that followed was enough to make her grimace, as were the expressions of abject horror that flitted across the Sohma boys' faces.

"You can't be serious."

That was Kyo. His eyes were wide, disbelieving. "I mean, you do realize how stupid that sounds, right?"

"Don't call her stupid," Yuki snapped, and Kyo glared at him.

"Hey, I'm just calling it like I see it. Visiting Akito is like willingly setting foot in a lion's den."

Yuki's eyes flickered upward. He looked irritated, though he appeared to concede his cousin's point. "Miss Honda, I know you're worried for Akito. We all are. But it's probably best we keep our distance from him in times like these."

Hatsuharu, who had remained both still and silent up until then, leaned forward in his seat, at once drawing the attention of everyone. "The thing is," he told Tohru, "we want to protect you. Only, when it comes to Akito, we may not be able to."

Tohru considered his words. She couldn't help thinking back to that day all those weeks ago, when she'd been in Akito's room with Yuki, Shigure, and Hatori. She remembered distinctly the way the three of them had rushed forward when Akito grabbed her, though their lack of action in that moment spoke volumes. They'd wanted to help, but had been powerless to do so. And that, Tohru knew, was what Haru meant when he said they couldn't protect her.

That's why they want me to stay away from Akito. They think he's going to do something like that again.

Their concerns were more than legitimate, though Tohru herself was no longer afraid of such a thing happening. Because her relationship with Akito had changed so much since then. True, the zodiac god had once considered her his enemy, but their most recent conversation proved he no longer felt that way. It wasn't going to be easy to convince her friends of this, but she was determined to at least try.

"I understand," she began, her voice soft but surprisingly steady. "I mean, I understand where you're coming from, and I appreciate that you all care so much about me. Really, I do. But I still want to see Akito. And…I'm going to. Even if you tell me I can't. Even if…"

She squeezed her eyes shut so that she couldn't see their faces. I'm causing them so much worry. I know I am. But I have to do this. I have to make sure Akito stays alive. I have to-

"It's okay, Tohru." Her eyes shot open at the sound of Momiji's encouraging voice. "No one is going to tell you you can't do anything."

"That's right," Shigure interjected. "You're free to make your own choices."

At that, Kyo snorted derisively. "Yeah, if only that were true," he mumbled, and Shigure turned to him with a bemused expression.

"What ever do you mean, Kyo?"

"I mean that she isn't free to make her own choices." Kyo shook his head. "Seriously, who the hell are you trying to fool? No one in this family makes their own choices. Everything is decided for us by Akito."

"That's not true," Yuki protested. "We make plenty of our own choices. I chose to leave the estate, for example. Also, I chose not to go to the all boys school that Akito recommended for me."

"Yeah. You think those were real choices?" Kyo rolled his eyes. "Akito recommended you go to an all boys school. If he'd ordered you to, do you really think you'd have disobeyed him?"

Yuki's eyes darkened, though he didn't say anything in reply.

"And I guess you could say leaving the estate was a choice. But you left before Akito could try to stop you, and you know damn well that if he had, you would've gone crawling back to him like a kicked dog."

"Hey," Shigure said. "I take offense to that use of phrase."

Kyo shot him a withering glare. "Don't you get it? Any choice any of us ever makes is precarious. Because we could be forced to undo it at literally any moment. That goes for you, too," he said, his eyes locking on Tohru's.

"Kyo," Shigure said in a placating tone, and the cat whirled on him.

"You may think that this is going to turn out all right in the end, but I know better!" He pointed a finger at Tohru, who flinched. "He's using her! How can you not see that? Damn it." He groaned, raking a hand aggressively through his hair. "I always knew you were stupid, but this takes it to a whole new level."

Shigure was watching him with a severe expression. "That's enough, Kyo. You're too angry to think rationally."

"I'm perfectly rational! You just want to break the stupid curse so bad that you're gonna cling to any blind hope you've got!"

Tohru was sinking lower and lower into her seat. Every word Kyo said was like a stab to the heart. "It's all right, Tohru," Momiji said, placing a comforting hand on her knee. "They aren't angry with you, not really."

"I know," she answered. "But I feel bad that I started this. I just wish..."

She froze when she realized that everyone was listening to her. "I'm sorry," she told them in a small voice. "I didn't mean to cause trouble." She strove to think of a compromise, some middle ground she could take that would appease everyone. "Would… would it make any of you feel better if Hatori goes with me? Just to make sure-"

"Weren't you listening?" Kyo said. "None of us can protect you from that monster, not even Hatori. So no, it doesn't make me feel better. The only way I know you'll be safe is if you stay the hell away from Akito."

Tohru took a deep breath, trying to slow her heart. "Well, I am going to inquire after his health when we get to Sohma House. And if Hatori says I can see him, then...I will."

She forced herself to meet Kyo's gaze directly, and he sighed, his anger dissipating when he saw how dejected she looked. "Fine," he said, his voice clipped. "If you want to put yourself at risk for no reason, go ahead."

A moment of silence passed as Tohru sat back in her seat, chewing on her lower lip. "It's not for no reason."

She prayed he hadn't heard the words the moment they left her mouth, though in the next instant Kyo's head snapped back around. "What does that mean?" he demanded. "Because it sure as hell better not be what I think."

"Kyo," Yuki said in a warning tone.

But the cat ignored him, his blazing eyes focused solely on Tohru. "Don't you ever put yourself in danger for my sake. Do you hear me? I meant what I said yesterday. I don't want your help."

Tohru blinked, relieved she was already seated so that he wouldn't see her rock back on her heels. "I...I understand," she managed to stammer in reply, and Kyo turned around again without a single backward glance.

They rode in near silence the rest of the way, and when at last they reached the Sohma estate, Shigure inhaled deeply, as though coming up for a breath of air after a dive. "Ah, home sweet home," he said.

The enormous gates swung open to admit them, and Momiji regarded his cousin with a strange look. "Uh, Gure, you don't live here anymore," he pointed out, to which the dog flashed him a sunny smile.

"Oh, I know. I was just trying to lighten things up a bit."

No one even so much as chuckled, and Shigure sighed, letting himself fall back against the headrest. "All right, you three. It's time to go."

"Whee!" Momiji giggled, throwing open the door. "That was the most fun I've ever had!" He clasped Tohru's hands, his expression sobering at once. "See you later?" he whispered, and at a nod from her, he grinned and leaped out onto the pavement.

Hatsuharu exited next, and Tohru watched them go, though she didn't move to leave just yet. "Please don't worry about me," she told Yuki and Kyo. "I promise I'll be home in time to make dinner tonight."

Hearing that, Yuki stared at her, incredulous. "Miss Honda, I hope you know that what we're having for dinner tonight is the very least of our concerns."

"Yeah," Kyo grumbled. "As if stuff like that even matters. Just…" He sighed, sounding resigned. "Just be careful, okay? I don't know what I'd do if you ever stopped smiling."

I don't know what I'd do if you ever stopped smiling.

A lump formed in Tohru's throat, though instead of telling him how much his words meant, she just nodded and squeaked, "See you soon."

She shut the door and turned, only to find that Shigure had also stepped out of the vehicle. He was watching her with an expression that was uncharacteristically serious. "Tohru, I need you to know something. What Kyo said earlier… well, he might not have been entirely wrong."

He drew closer, leaning in so he could speak near her ear. "It's true. I do want to break the curse. Very badly. And like you and Rin, I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. Do you understand?"

"I...I think so," Tohru answered, and though Shigure nodded, he didn't look convinced.

"Akito likes you very much, but I'm not sure if those feelings will be enough to protect you from his wrath." There was a smile on his lips, though Tohru thought it looked sad as he prompted, "Now do you understand?"

She did. He was warning her that there was at least a chance the others were right. That visiting Akito may, in fact, prove to be as dangerous as they feared. She appreciated her friend being candid, though in the end she found her mind to be unchanged.

"Yes," she said, her voice filled with a confidence she hadn't known she possessed. "I understand."

Shigure side-eyed her for a long moment, so long that Tohru thought he was going to object. But then he nodded. "We really don't deserve you, you know," he murmured. Then, louder, "Don't misunderstand, I don't think you have anything to worry about. But… do us all a favor and bring Hatori with you anyway. Just in case."

Akito was finally going mad. Or at least, he certainly felt like it. He'd been awake all night, his mind plagued by thoughts of Ren. Every time he closed his eyes he saw her pointed eyebrows, her slender nose, her sneering lips.

And he was reminded of how much he resembled her.

Not just in appearance, either. Oh, if only that were the case. Maybe then he would've been less affected by the memory of her visit. Yes, he would be able to say, I may share her most prominent facial features, but that is the extent of things.

He couldn't tell himself that, though, because it wouldn't be true. And Akito was tired of lying about what he was and what he was not.

"Like mother, like son."

People on the estate had been whispering those words to one another for years, and as much as Akito didn't want to admit it, he knew they were right. Even though he wanted to defend himself, even though he hated hearing anyone compare him to that vicious, conniving woman...

There is no defense. I am like her. He had never been so keenly aware of this fact in his life, and it had never disturbed him as much as it did now.

He recalled her parting words from the previous day. "She may be as good-hearted as you say, but even good-hearted people have their limits. Do not doubt me for a moment when I say that."

Somehow he suspected his mother had been speaking from direct experience. And even though he knew her advice had not come from a place of kindness, Akito felt he would be remiss not to heed it. Because while he believed Tohru considered him a friend, there wasn't any question that that friendship was fragile, and he wanted to do everything in his power to preserve it. But how could he do that when he possessed so many of the same monstrous qualities as his mother?

Akito bit back a bitter laugh. How rich, that she'd had the audacity to call him a monster, when she had proven time and again that she was equally as much of one herself. Not, of course, that it mattered. In the end, such comparisons were irrelevant. He had done terrible things, regardless, and if there was to be any hope of moving forward—of being the type of person Tohru Honda believed he could be—he was going to have own up to them. He was going to have to be better. And that terrified him, because he didn't know how to be anything other than what he was.

He had never tried.


A voice at the door had him springing to his feet. He wasn't sure he could endure another interaction with Ren. His panic quickly wavered, however, when he realized that the intruder was not an intruder at all, but rather, Hatori.

"How are you feeling?" The doctor entered the room, frowning when he saw that the zodiac god was out of bed. "Were you expecting someone else?"

Akito had chosen not to tell him about Ren's visit. Though it was undoubtedly something the doctor would've liked to have been made aware of, Akito found he felt better keeping the event to himself. He had no desire to discuss it at any kind of length, after all.

"Of course not," he said sharply. "I was merely caught off guard by your arrival. Nothing more."

Hatori watched him, his face impassive, though Akito knew him well enough by then to know that he had detected the lie. "What is it you wished to speak to me about?" he asked, and to his surprise, Hatori's lips twitched upward.

"There's someone here who would like to see you."

Who? Ren? It took all of Akito's willpower not to dive behind the nearest piece of furniture. But, no—surely Ren wouldn't bother having Hatori announce her. Surely she would've brushed the doctor aside and barged right into the room. And surely Hatori wouldn't look as calm as he does now if she was the one waiting outside.

"Who is it?" Akito demanded, suddenly irritated. "What do they want? Tell them that I am indisposed."

"Normally I would've done just that," Hatori said. "But in this particular case, I believed you might be willing to make an exception."

An exception? Ridiculous. The only person Akito would have any inclination of speaking to at that moment was miles from the estate. Or is she? It occurred to him that he didn't know how long Shigure had planned on staying at the summer home. He supposed it was possible they'd returned. And if they had...

"Who is it, Hatori?" That time it was more of a plea than a demand.

"Tohru Honda, sir."

Akito said nothing, and Hatori's cheeriness—if one could even call it that—wavered at once. "Should I turn her away?" he asked, sounding unsure for the first time. "Or should I-"

Akito shoved past him and into the hall, his heart pounding with both dread and anticipation. But mostly dread. Because Ren was right. One slip and Tohru might change her mind about him altogether. Akito found he couldn't bear the thought of her thinking ill of him. Not now. Not when he knew what it was like to be a person she called friend.

He found her waiting in the main living area. She wore a pink summer dress, the same one she'd had on when he saw her at the summer home. Like last time, Akito found himself thinking it suited her remarkably well.

"Akito!" she gasped as he entered the room. Clearly she hadn't been expecting him to receive her like this, which was a testament to just how infrequently he left his chambers. "Forgive me. I didn't mean to impose. I...I only-"

Does she truly think I'm angry, or is she just being polite? Akito was suddenly self conscious about the way he was standing. He let his shoulders slouch a little, trying to look as unimposing as possible, though he wasn't sure it worked.

"There's nothing to forgive," he told her. "You are part of this family and are, therefore, always welcome at Sohma House." He didn't miss the way she brightened when he said that she was part of the family. Originally, he'd been planning on taking her back to his room, though he supposed that sequestering her away from the rest of the world likely did little to put her at ease. And he wanted her to be as comfortable as possible whenever she was with him.

He crossed the room and seated himself at a small table near the window. "Please, sit. Have one of my attendants bring tea," he told Hatori. "And some food as well. It's been a while since I've eaten." He turned back to Tohru with an inquiring expression. "Is there anything in particular you'd like prepared?"

He was almost certain she would refuse, though he asked anyway, if only to show that her needs mattered.

Tohru smoothed her dress before she bent to sit cross legged on the floor. "No, thank you. I'm sure whatever the cook makes will be delicious."

Predictable as ever. Akito looked at Hatori. There was a hint of a smile on the doctor's face again, an indication that he was thinking something similar. "I will see to it at once. That is, if Honda believes she will be all right in my absence."

Akito didn't know what to say to that. His eyes shot to Tohru, who had gone still. Perhaps she is still afraid of me. Even though Akito hated the thought, he knew he couldn't begrudge her if that were the case. Only a fool wouldn't be cautious of a person with a history like his, and Tohru Honda was no fool. He was certain that she would ask Hatori to stay, but instead, she lifted her chin, smiling. "Thank you," she said, "but I think I'll be just fine on my own."

Akito had to actively prevent himself from gaping at her. He'd never known what it was like to really have someone's trust, and now that he did, it felt like a gift, something to be treasured and protected at all costs.

"It's a pleasure to see you again," he told her after Hatori had gone. "Did you enjoy your stay at the summer home?"

Her smile widened, if that were at all possible. "Yes! Truly, it was the best weekend I've ever had."

"I'm glad to hear," he said, unable to keep himself from returning her smile. "I'm only sorry I wasn't able to join you for a longer duration."

At that, she averted her gaze, her expression turning solemn. Akito had but a moment to wonder at her shift in mood before she whispered, "Yes. Shigure said you fell ill while we were there, and I have to confess I...can't help feeling somewhat responsible."

Hearing that, Akito blinked back at her in astonishment. "Why on earth would you be responsible?" he asked, and Tohru wrung her hands at the question.

"Well...we stood on that beach for a really long time, and I just...well, I know the heat can be bad for your health, and I-"

"Don't say it," he snapped, to which Tohru paled, straightening.

Akito cursed himself. This was exactly the sort of thing Ren had been talking about. Control your temper.

"Forgive me," he muttered when he was certain he could speak without using a biting tone, "but I hate it when you apologize for things that are not your fault. Why, I wonder, do you insist on taking blame for everything?"

He knew he shouldn't be angry, but he couldn't help it. He was used to Hatori and the house staff coddling him, erasing his decisions by taking responsibility for any harm that befell him, even when it was self-inflicted. But for some reason, hearing her try to do the same thing was unacceptable. Because he'd been fully aware of the risk he was taking by venturing outside that night. And yet, he'd done it anyway. Because he'd wanted to be with her. It was maddening that she still didn't seem to comprehend that.

"I don't know," she said, her voice soft yet tinged with frustration. "I guess it's...complicated."

Complicated? Akito's eyebrows shot up. He hadn't expected her to answer his question, but now that she had, he found his anger overridden by intrigue. "Oh? By all means, do tell."

For some reason that he couldn't puzzle out, Tohru averted her eyes again, her cheeks turning a light shade of pink. "It's a long story. A really boring one, too."

He chuckled, and the pink color in her cheeks grew more pronounced. "I doubt that's true."

She looked ready to protest, though her speech was halted by the arrival of one of Akito's attendants, an old woman with all gray hair. Akari. She'd been serving the Sohma's since she was in her thirties. She always wore a purple kimono, and there was surety in her movements as she set a small tray of tea and curry on the table between him and Tohru.

"This smells delightful," Tohru said, tilting her head in a sign of gratitude. "Thank you."

Akari didn't reply, nor did she smile, probably because she wasn't used to being thanked for carrying out her duties.

"With that be all, Master Akito?" she asked in a flat, bored tone, and for a moment, Akito just stared. Because he'd never really looked at Akari, or any of the other attendants, for that matter. Never wondered what sort of lives they lived outside of these walls. Never taken into consideration how they might feel about their jobs, or about him as the master of the house they served. It had never mattered to him before. They were, after all, outsiders, and outsiders were not on the same level of importance as him, or even the other zodiac members.

But now?

He looked at Tohru, who was watching him with patient eyes. She was an outsider, just like the attendants. Could he have been wrong for underestimating their worth in the same way he had once underestimated hers?

"Akito? Are you all right?"

The sound of Tohru's voice brought him back to the present, and he remembered at that moment that Akari was still standing over them, awaiting a dismissal.

"Er…yes," he mumbled. "That will be all, Akari. Thank you," he added, though the words felt strange on his tongue, like he was testing out a new language.

For a moment, the old woman eyed him strangely. She wasn't accustomed to hearing him speak so clumsily. Akito bit back a humorless chuckle. He wasn't used to it either.

"Of course. Let me know if there's anything else you need."

When she finally left, Akito cleared his throat, returning his full attention to his guest. There would be time to think on such matters later. For now, he wanted to hear whatever it was she'd been about to say. "Please, do continue your story," he urged, though to his dismay, Tohru fidgeted, her eyes darting toward the window.

"Well," she said after pouring them both tea, "the thing is...I wasn't always like this. I mean, not really." She paused to take a sip from her cup, and when she placed it back down on the table, she stared at it for so long that Akito feared she might not continue.

"Do you remember," she said suddenly, "when I told you that there are times where I don't want to act as kind and polite as I do normally?"

Of course he remembered. At the time, he'd thought it was the first honest thing she'd ever said to him. Back when I thought everything about her was a front. Instead of saying as much, he simply replied, "Yes. I remember that conversation very well."

Tohru nodded, her eyes sad, and Akito had to resist the urge to lean forward, to touch her face, to tell her that everything was all right, that she could trust him with anything. But instead he sat back quietly and waited.

"My dad...he was like that. Very polite, I mean. And kind."

Her father? Akito couldn't have contained his surprise even if he wanted to. He was certain this was the first time he'd heard her mention him.

"I don't talk about my dad very often," she said, as if reading his thoughts. "Actually, when people ask me if I remember him, I usually tell them no. That isn't true, though. I do remember. Not a lot, just bits and pieces. Anyway, he died when I was a little girl. I remember being sad when I got the news, but Mom...she took it much harder. She would stay in her room for hours, crying. There were days I wasn't even sure she noticed I existed. I wanted to help her, but I didn't know how. I cried a lot, too, but not because I missed Dad. Because I felt so useless."

She swallowed, fighting back tears, and again Akito found himself suppressing the urge to comfort her in some way. "At the funeral…people whispered about me. They thought I couldn't hear them, but I did. They said I was nothing like my dad, nothing at all. I wasn't sure that was true, but it got me thinking...maybe I could try. To be more like him, I mean. Maybe if I did and said things that reminded Mom of him… maybe then she would be herself again."

Akito was at a loss for words. She adopted personality traits that weren't hers, all for the sake of making her mother happy again. And by her account, things seemed to have worked out exactly the way she planned. At what cost, though? Akito knew better than to ask. Because he already knew what her response would be.

She would say that it cost her nothing. That she was happy to have done it.

That level of selflessness… it was unmatched. Akito was certain of it. Truly, there was no one else in the entire world like Tohru Honda. Which was why she was special, why the zodiac favored her over him.

And Akito no longer blamed them for it. Not even a little.

She is special, he realized in that moment with staggering clarity. No, she is precious. Beyond compare.

"I've never told anyone this before," she said. "But the truth is…" She made a disgruntled noise, drawing her eyes tightly closed. "Oh, I feel so terrible even saying it! I shouldn't-"

Without thinking, Akito reached out and placed a hand over hers. "I believe you've earned your right to say one terrible thing. Perhaps even two or three," he added with a smirk.

Tohru glanced down at their joined hands, her cheeks coloring again. "It just feels wrong because… well, this is my dad I'm talking about."

"If it makes you feel any better, I've wished my mother dead on more than one occasion."

Akito could have kicked himself, because in the next instant Tohru pulled back her hand, horrified. "I'm sorry. That sounds awful."

"Indeed," he said, anxious to make her forget his glib remark. "But we're talking about you, not me."

In response, she sighed, acknowledging the truth of his statement with a single nod. "I was angry with my dad," she confessed. "For leaving us, I mean. I know it wasn't his fault he died, but...still. I was so angry. And I know it doesn't make any sense, but the truth is... deep down, I still am. Even now."

Akito nearly laughed, though he refrained from doing so in order to avoid appearing crass or insensitive. She thinks that is horrible? Yet more undeniable proof that she was one thousand times a better person than him.

"I shouldn't have told you that," she said, her voice heavy with regret. "We were just starting to become friends, and now… now I've gone and ruined it."

What ever made her draw that conclusion? Akito leaned forward, eyes flashing, his voice full of conviction as he countered, "You have ruined nothing. If anything, I am honored you would entrust me with such a deeply personal story. Besides," he added, "I understand entirely how you feel."

At that, her eyes shot up to meet his.

"I also lost my father when I was young," he explained. "Like you, I was grieved in the initial, though I soon came to resent him for leaving me alone with...her."

"Her?" Tohru gave a small shake of her head. "I'm sorry, but I don't think I know who you mean."

"Of course you don't. How could you? I'm talking about Ren Sohma." Akito tried but failed to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "My mother."

Isuzu didn't expect to be summoned back to Sohma House so soon. She didn't expect to be summoned back at all, actually, as Ren's parting words had left her with the impression that the older woman had no desire to assist in breaking the curse. But upon receiving a handwritten note requesting her presence, Isuzu had at once made the trek to Ren's home on the far east end of the estate.

She rapped the metal knocker firmly against the door, scowling when a short time had passed and no one answered. The note said to come immediately. This had better not be some kind of trick.

Before she could knock again, a male attendant appeared in the doorway. Isuzu stated her business, and he nodded, motioning for her to follow him down a long corridor. Their footsteps echoed loudly on the bare, white walls, and Isuzu felt herself drift to a stop when they reached what she knew was the entrance to Ren's chambers. The door was slightly ajar, and she frowned. Her gaze lingered on a tall black rectangular box sitting on a table near Ren's bedside. At a glance, it appeared to be nothing more than a simple gift box, though to Isuzu there was something almost ominous about it. A chill ran up her spine as she stared openly at it.

"This way, please," the attendant beckoned, already several steps ahead.

But Isuzu kept her feet planted firmly in place. "Where are you taking me?" she demanded, and in response, the attendant smiled.

"Come," he said, as if he hadn't heard her. "Mistress Ren has been eagerly awaiting your arrival."

There was something about the overly cheery way he said it that made Isuzu narrow her eyes. "I'm going to sit in the salon. Tell Ren that if she wants to see me, she can-"

"There you are! I was beginning to think you wouldn't show."

There was a breathlessness to Ren's voice as she swept into the hall, and Isuzu turned, her brow furrowing. "I got your message. You said you wanted to continue our discussion from yesterday."

Ren inched forward, shutting the door behind her with one hand. She wore the same crimson kimono Isuzu had seen her in yesterday, though the garment did little to hide the fact that her floor-length black dress was sleeveless and very low cut.

"Yes," Ren nodded, her expression grim. "You see, my dear, the truth is...well, I may not have been entirely honest with you yesterday." She pressed a hand to her chest, and Isuzu was surprised to see a gold band encircling her left ring finger. At its center was a sparkling gemstone.

I didn't notice that before. Her wedding ring?

Isuzu never went out of her way to keep up on gossip, but it was almost impossible to live in the Sohma family and not know how devastated Ren had been at the loss of Akira. From what Isuzu had heard, the woman had been unable to function in the weeks following his death. The family doctors had then deemed it wise to put her on suicide watch, and that, apparently, had lasted several months. Still, it seemed odd that she would wear her wedding ring after so much time had passed. And then there was the matter of her current relationship with Shigure. Did it bother the dog to know that Ren still held a torch for her deceased husband?

"Really?" Isuzu crossed her arms over her chest, though in truth, she wasn't the least bit surprised to learn that Ren had lied to her.

"Yes," the older woman replied, her voice heavy with what Isuzu assumed was supposed to be genuine contrition. "I thought about everything you told me, and I realize now that the way I responded could have been construed as…" She dropped her hand back down to her side, sighing. "Well, I shouldn't have spoken to you the way I did. I suppose I was just caught off guard by the things you were saying."

What is she playing at? Does she want to help, or is she going to just stand here and spew fake apologies all day?

"Regardless, I am truly sorry for the way that I shooed you out, and I intend to make it up to you by telling you more of what I know about the curse."

At that, Isuzu's eyes snapped up to meet hers. "So, you do know something."

Ren smirked. Isuzu didn't typically allow herself to wear her emotions so plainly on her face, though by this point she was so desperate to break the curse that she didn't care who knew it anymore.

"I know a few things that may be useful to you and Shigure. But they aren't things I cannot reveal. Not here, anyway. No, in order for this discussion to continue, we must move to a more private location."

That feeling of uneasiness returned, and Isuzu found herself automatically shaking her head. "We can sit in the salon," she said as she turned and began walking back the way she'd come. "It will be perfectly private if you order your attendants to leave us-"

A cold, bony hand gripped her arm. "Don't you want to save your boyfriend? The one with the black and white hair?" Ren dropped her voice to a low whisper, and it took all of Isuzu's willpower not to scream as the older woman crooned, "The ox, isn't it? I can never remember his name. Ah well, it doesn't matter," she said when it became clear that Isuzu was in no state to reply. "Yes, dear, your zodiac god is not the only one in this family who has spies." She laughed. "Where do you think he learned everything he knows?"

When Isuzu remained silent, Ren sneered, tightening her grip. "Well? Are you going to just stand there gawping, or are we going to do this?"

Swallowing, Isuzu finally managed a weak nod. If she was able to find out about me and Haru, then there's no way that Akito doesn't also know.

And yet, he'd done nothing to punish her. Had made no mention of it, actually. Not even once. Isuzu wasn't sure what to make of that.

"I have something I think you will very much want to see." Ren led her down the hall, never once loosening her hold on the younger woman's arm. When at last they reached an open door near the end, Isuzu peered inside. The room was empty, though this fact did little to put her at ease.

"I'm not going in there."

She twisted, trying to get away, but Ren squeezed tighter, her nails embedding themselves in the flesh of her forearm. Isuzu responded by striking Ren across the face. She was certain she would easily be able to overpower her, though the older woman proved surprisingly strong. Blood oozed from both of her nostrils as she grabbed a fistful of the younger girl's hair, and Isuzu screamed as she ripped it from her scalp without a moment's hesitation.

The pain was excruciating, enough to give Ren the upper hand. She kicked Isuzu into the empty room.

"Such pretty hair you have. Shigure did always prefer girls with long, pretty hair. I wonder, did he single you out on his own, or did you use your feminine wiles to encourage him to make you privy to his scheming?"

Crumbled on the floor, Isuzu pressed a hand against the massive wound on her head, her fingers instantly becoming slick with blood. "I did what I had to to get him to talk to me," she said, fighting a wave of nausea. "He told me once a long time ago that his greatest wish was to break the curse. I didn't think much of it then, but…" She released a shuddering breath, unable to continue.

"And so you sought him out, offering your help. Among other things, I can only presume."

Isuzu stared up at her. She could scarcely believe the situation had escalated so quickly. One minute they'd been standing around, talking to one another like civilized people, and now? Ren looked like she was ready to tear her limb from limb.

Averting her gaze, Isuzu took a deep breath. "No," she said honestly. "Shigure and I have done nothing but talk. I won't pretend like I've never intentionally tried to use his feelings for me to my advantage,," she said again, her voice lowering. "I am loyal to Haru."

Ren paced, her kimono having slipped far enough down her shoulders that it dragged across the floor. "You were foolish to come to me for help. Had you not done so, I might've never guessed at Shigure's betrayal." She paused, her crazed stare flickering briefly toward the window. "It makes sense now, why I haven't heard from him these last few weeks."

"Weren't you listening?" Isuzu snapped, wiping her bloody hand on her dress. "Shigure hasn't betrayed you. Nothing has happened between us. I'm telling the truth!"

"Even if I believed you, it wouldn't matter." Ren halted, narrowing her eyes. "I've always known that Shigure is a fickle man. He's told me as much on numerous occasions, even going as far as to warn me not to expect too much of him."

If loyalty is something that you require, then Shigure was a piss poor choice of lover. Isuzu wanted to say it, though instead she muttered, "I can offer you nothing more than the promise that Shigure hasn't betrayed you. Not with me, at least."

For several moments, Ren was silent, and Isuzu swallowed, hoping her fear didn't show too plainly on her face.

"Pretty words," the older woman finally said. "But again, even if I believed you, it wouldn't change my mind."

"Change your mind?" Isuzu was still on the floor, though she'd slowly begun to shift her weight to her knees, hoping it wasn't obvious that she planned to make a dash for the exit at the next opportunity.

"You really are beautiful," Ren said suddenly. "I confess I'm surprised that my son never set his sights on you. You are around his age, and besides, as a zodiac member you would have no choice but to oblige his wishes, would you not?"

She laughed, the sound cruel and grating, and Isuzu glowered up at her. The thought Akito even suggesting such an arrangement was enough to make her want to tear his eyes out. He never had, though. It was a small virtue for a tyrant to possess, and while Isuzu wouldn't say she was grateful, she knew Ren had a point. There were many other ways that Akito could have chosen to exercise his power, but didn't. Again, she wasn't sure what to make of such an insight into the zodiac god's character.

"Yes," Isuzu agreed, her voice little more than a growl. "I would, though luckily Akito doesn't seem to have an interest in such things."

Ren smiled slyly at that. "Not where you are concerned, perhaps."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that kind, gentle women appear to be more to his liking."

Isuzu stilled, her skin crawling at the implication of the words. "You can't mean-"

"Yes, dear. I'm afraid so."

For several moments the horse stared straight ahead, shocked. That day on the beach...he was trying to get rid of me. So he could be alone with her. It was so obvious. How could she have not realized? Slowly, Isuzu got to her feet. She was furious with herself for not acting sooner, for not doing more to try to protect Tohru.

The zodiac knew firsthand that Akito's wrath was both terrifying and destructive. Isuzu shuddered to imagine what his twisted version of love might look like. I can't let her get caught up like that with him. I can't.

But Ren jumped in front of the door, her eyes flashing with a viciousness that made Isuzu stagger backward. "Enough! If you so much as take another step forward, I swear you will regret it!"

Isuzu touched the spot on her head that was now caked with dried blood. She wasn't keen on leaving this place with not one, but two patches of missing hair. Thankfully, though, the door wasn't the only way out.

She sprinted toward the single window near the back of the room, but Ren was on her heels in an instant. Isuzu's insides twisted as the older woman seized her shoulders.

"Going somewhere?"

Isuzu gritted her teeth, gripping the window frame. She'd been so close.

"That's an awfully long way down," Ren purred in her ear. "Are you certain you would have made it?"

It doesn't matter whether I would or wouldn't have. I'd rather be dead than held prisoner here. Desperate, Isuzu threw her head back. The base of her skull cracked against something sharp and bony, likely Ren's nose. Though the older woman shrieked, she did not let go of Isuzu's shoulders.

"You bitch!" Ren shouted, her voice wild and unhinged. "I was considering letting you go, but now?" Her chilly fingers closed around the younger girl's slender neck, and Isuzu convulsed as panic seized her.

"You want to leave? All right, then. Be my guest."

Isuzu felt a shove at her back, and in the next instant, a gust of cold wind rushed forward to greet her. It took longer than it probably should have for her to realize that she was flying through the open window, but when she did, she was in such disbelief that she couldn't even bring herself to scream. The trees and buildings of the Sohma estate sailed across her vision, colors of green, brown, and gray all blurring together in what reminded her of a painter's brushstroke. She had but a moment to think that it was beautiful before she crashed to the ground and darkness closed in around her.