Chapter Eighteen

Tohru had always known how lucky she was to be raised by someone like Kyoko Honda. No doubt, her mother was a rare bird—Arisa and Hana would back her on that any day—and it saddened her to think that there were many who couldn't boast having such a kind and caring guardian.

People like Momiji.

She'd once found the rabbit's story almost too heartbreaking to bear. It appeared, however, that her friend was not the only one of the Sohmas whose history was riddled with parental neglect and abuse. Far from it, actually, she thought, her lips twitching upward in a rueful smile.

"You don't need to look concerned," Akito said, at once noting her change in expression. "That was all a very long time ago. Besides, Ren doesn't deign to come here much anymore."

Tohru watched him, trying to decipher his thoughts, though as usual, reading the zodiac god was like trying to see through a brick wall. "Still," she murmured. "I'm sorry. What happened to you was terrible. And it wasn't your fault. You didn't deserve to be punished for being loved by your father. You certainly didn't deserve your mother's hate in the years that followed, either."

Actually, she mused, this is all very illuminating. What was that thing Mom always used to say? "Hurt people hurt people."

As if sensing her line of thought, the zodiac god said, "True. But I need you to know that I'm not telling you these things in order to make excuses for myself. The current state of my character is..." He trailed off, averting his gaze before resuming, quieter. "It is mine alone to contend with. Of course, there isn't any doubt that Ren did greatly impact my early development. That said, I believe it is only fair to place part of the blame on her shoulders."

He offered more tea, which Tohru gratefully accepted. "When was the last time you saw her? Ren, I mean."

In response, Akito blinked back at her, his expression one of complete surprise. "More recently than I would like." His voice remained low and gentle, though the curtness of his reply did not escape Tohru's notice.

He doesn't want to say. She met his stare from across the table. There was something in his eyes that looked troubled, and at once she felt the overwhelming urge to reach for him, to invite him to open up and tell her what was on his mind. She hesitated to act on such impulses, though, as Akito had the tendency to mistake empathy for pity, the latter of which— she knew— he loathed beyond all else.

This meeting is going well. But I need to be careful, or he might decide to shut me out altogether.

" recent?" She hoped her expression contained nothing that the zodiac god could interpret as patronizing, though to her relief, he gave no indication he thought any such thing.

"I believe," he said as he handed her a cup of freshly poured tea, "that you and I have more in common than we might have realized, Miss Tohru Honda. We each lost a beloved parent at a young age, thereby irrevocably altering the course of our lives. For you it meant being raised in a home that was likely twice as loving as it would've been otherwise. But Akira's death… well, I think it's safe to say it brought out the absolute worst in Ren."

Tohru set her cup down on the table, for it was still far too hot to drink. "Akito," she persisted, "when did you last see her?"

He didn't say anything for a while, his gaze focused fixedly on the table, though just when Tohru thought he would dig his heels in further, he sighed, his shoulders slumping. "Just yesterday."

At her sharp intake of breath, he said, "It's all right. It doesn't matter. She doesn't matter. She is not one of my zodiac-" He stopped there, a panicked look contorting his face. "That…" He stammered. "That isn't to mean, of course, that I find all non-zodiac members to be inconsequential."

By then Tohru had picked up her tea again, but hearing that was almost enough to make her lose her grip on it.

A month ago, Akito never would've bothered amending his speech in order to avoid insulting her. If anything, he would've wanted to make certain she knew his words had been intended as a slight. Now he liked her at least well enough to speak respectfully to her. It seemed an extremely low bar to set, but Tohru still celebrated the victory. In recent days she'd begun to doubt her mother's assertion that there was good in everyone, with Akito being a prime example of the exception. But not anymore.

There was good in him, so much that she felt silly for thinking for even a moment that that might not be the case. And the more she got to know him, the more of that good she saw. She would even go as far as to say that they were friends. Which was why it pained her to see him looking so distressed. Though, apparently, he didn't yet trust her enough to divulge the reasons why.

"Are you all right?" she asked after some consideration. "I know you said you're feeling better, and I'm glad for it. Still…it seems like something's bothering you." She waited a beat before adding in an undertone, "It couldn't have been easy, facing her yesterday."

"No." Akito acknowledged the truth of her statement. "It was not."

By then the tea had cooled enough to drink, and a heavy silence stretched between them as Tohru took tiny sips from her cup. " did it go, then? Your visit with her, I mean."

The zodiac god frowned, clearly not enjoying having to replay the conversation in his mind. "About as well as can be expected. I was certain she'd come to gloat—which, make no mistake, she did her fair share of that. In the end, though, what she really wanted was to know more about you."


Tohru gaped as Akito absently dug one of his fingernails into the wood panels of the floor. It was something she'd seen him do only once before, the other time she came to Sohma House without an invitation.

The time he'd hurt her.

"Yes," he said before she could ponder the meaning behind this apparent behavioral tic of his. "She wanted to know if the rumors she'd been hearing were true. The ones that say that you are not only privy to the Sohma family secret, but that you are also, in fact, a part of my inner circle."

Why would she want to know something like that? Tohru's stomach churned with dread at the thought of Akito's mother considering her a person of interest. "Oh. Well, um...I guess that means I'll probably be meeting her soon, too, right?"

That was how it had worked to this point, anyway. Whenever someone in the family grew curious of her, usually it was just a matter of time before she found herself crossing paths with that person. But Akito reacted to what she'd said by slamming one of his fists down on the table, hard enough to make the teapot rattle. "No. Ren will not come near you, not if I have anything to say about it."

She couldn't have hidden her relief if she'd wanted to. "Good. That makes me feel a lot better." Normally she didn't like to judge people before getting to know them. But if even half of what Akito had said about Ren was true, then avoiding her was, unquestionably, the best course of action.

"I wonder...what did you tell her? About me, I mean." She laughed, embarrassed by her own curiosity. "I hope it wasn't anything too bad." She'd added that last bit as a joke, but Akito took her seriously.

"Of course not," he said, as though appalled she would even suggest such a thing. "I told her that you are the kindest, most selfless person I've ever met, and that while you are, indeed, an outsider, I would be foolish not to confide in you and seek your counsel on family matters. You do, after all, care very deeply for the Sohmas."

So that's a yes to her question, then? Tohru smiled, placing a hand over her heart. She felt it was the most appropriate way of conveying how honored she was to finally hear him say those words. This was what she'd wanted, after all, from the very beginning, not just to live among the Sohmas, but to truly belong.

"Thank you," she managed to choke. "I...I'm so happy to have earned a place within your family. Officially, that is."

He returned her smile, though as usual it was soft and controlled. "I certainly didn't make it easy on you. In fact, I did everything in my power to drive you away. Really, I'm the one who ought to be thanking you."

Shaking her head, Tohru let her arm drop slowly back down to its side. "Oh, I don't think-"

Akito cut her off, his smile reshaping itself into something solemn. "I was awful to you when we first met. You cannot deny that much is true."

Yes. Yes, it is true. The words were on the tip of her tongue, but she didn't say them. She couldn't. It was one thing to silently acknowledge Akito's past transgressions, but another entirely to speak of them out loud. Doing that might jeopardize the progress we've made. And she couldn't allow that to happen.

If she was going to have any chance of breaking the curse, any chance at all, she needed Akito. She needed him to help her, to see things her way. Most of all, she needed to maintain this tentative friendship they'd established. And so instead of agreeing with him—instead of nodding and saying that yes, he was dreadful, absolutely dreadful in the earlier days that they'd known each other—she stifled a giggle and did what she did best. She deflected. She kept the peace.

"Actually, you were pretty charming that time you showed up at school."

She thought that might make him smile again, but instead, his mouth formed a grim line. "That doesn't count. I was only acting cordial because we were in a public place. Still...I didn't intend to harm you that day. I really was just introducing myself. But Yuki knew from experience what I'm capable of, and even though I admonished him for being distrustful, the truth is that he was right to be worried for your safety."

He fell silent, his gaze dropping to the floor, and again, seeing him this way stoked Tohru's compassionate nature. Acknowledging the pain you've caused someone is never easy. But he wants to, so badly. I can tell. Which was why, she realized, she had to let him. The only way he'll ever be able to heal the hurt he's caused others is by first healing the hurt within himself. The least she could do was give him the chance to begin that journey.

So, she waited. But Akito didn't speak. Like her, he was probably starting to fear the many unpleasant ways in which this could go.

"That time I came to Sohma House," she said, finally breaking the silence. "I remember it like it was yesterday." She knew she didn't need to tell him which instance she was referring to. "When I walked in, you said, 'Tell me what it is that you came here for. I won't be angry.' But that's just it. were angry. It was more anger than anyone has ever shown me, and I was...I was…"

"Frightened," he supplied, and her eyes shot across the table at the sound of his voice. But he continued staring fixedly at the ground.

"Yes." It was only one word, but she said it with enough fervor to astonish even herself. "I was afraid. No, I was terrified. Of you, of the curse…of everything. I still wanted to help the Sohmas, but...I didn't know how, especially since I knew you hated me. And I wanted to change that. Really, that was the whole reason I came. I wanted to change your mind about me. But when I got here, I saw right away how impossible that was going to be, and I just..."

The zodiac god gave a slight shake of his head. "I never truly hated you. I hated the idea of what I thought you were. Still, I find that I can't..." He broke off, inhaling sharply, as if in great pain. "Miss Honda. Tohru. I must beg for your forgiveness. For the things I said that day. For the suffering I caused you. I...I was a fool not to recognize that your kindness and goodwill were genuine. As I've said, I am unaccustomed to such things. But over time you have shown me how wrong I was in my initial assumptions about you. Clearly, there is still much I have to learn—not just about you, but about the world at large—and I...I would very much like to have the opportunity to do so."

At last, he looked at her, and there was an earnestness and determination in his eyes the likes of which she'd never seen before. "Which is why," he said, "I have decided to assist you in your efforts to break the zodiac curse."

Isuzu awoke to a wall of black metal bars.

A cage, she realized, gasping as she shot bolt upright. Ren had locked her in a cage.

"Hello?" she called, frantic. "Is anyone here?"

When she received no reply, she stood, her eyes darting anxiously left and right. "Hello? Can anyone hear me?" Again, no one answered.

The small space on the other side of the bars was dark, but empty, save for a single foldable chair, the kind Isuzu often saw used at school events and assemblies. Beyond the chair was a door, but it was tightly shut and did not offer any hint as to what might lie on the other side.

"I'm alone." She allowed herself several moments to become acclimated with this fact. Then, she surveyed the room.

It was bigger than she'd thought at first, a cell rather than a cage, the walls on either side gray, cracking, and unadorned. Her eyes travelled up, to where two windows near the ceiling served as the only sources of light. A tiny spark of hope ignited in her chest, though that hope died when she realized that they were too high to reach. Her gaze dropped to the grainy, dust-covered floor in search of a piece of furniture, a weapon, anything that might be of use. But the cell was bare, without even so much as a small cot or bedroll for her to sleep on. Is this the plan? she thought as she began to pace. Is Ren going to just leave me to rot away here?

An ominous creak emanated from the other end of the room, and Isuzu snapped to attention as the door eased open, admitting not Ren, but an attendant.

She was a young woman, one of Ren's, by the looks of the blood red sash that had been sewn about the waist of her perfectly pressed white kimono. It wasn't until she'd fully stepped into the light that Isuzu saw just how young she was, likely no older than twenty, which struck her as odd. Odder still was the fact that the girl was not only young, but pretty. Her jet dark hair had been secured away from her face, also with a red ribbon, revealing a heart-shaped face and soft brown eyes rimmed with long lashes.

How can Ren stand to have someone like her around? The Sohma matriarch was, after all, an extremely jealous woman. Isuzu's current situation was glaring evidence of that fact. How long before she convinces herself Shigure has eyes for this poor girl and locks her up, too?

The attendant shut the door before approaching the cell, carrying a tray of what appeared to be a small meal. Isuzu glared up at her through the bars, at once able to deduce Ren's reason for keeping the girl on: she was timid. She looked like a startled doe as she met the horse's icy glare, and Isuzu felt a surge of unexpected compassion. In a way, she almost reminded her of…

No. Isuzu shook the thought from her head. It was an insult to compare this girl to Tohru. Tohru would never partake in something like this. No, she would've taken one look at Isuzu, dropped the tray, and gone for help. She would've...

Stop. There was no point in finishing the thought. Because this girl wasn't Tohru. No help is coming. I'm going to have to use what's in front of me to fight back. Problem was, she didn't have any tools left in her arsenal. Ren had seen to that. Which was fine. While certainly not ideal circumstances, Isuzu could hold her own wielding nothing but her wit and sharp tongue. It certainly wouldn't be the first time she'd had to do so.

"You!" She thrust her arm through a gap in the bars and swiped at the girl, as if making to grab her. "What are you doing? What is this?"

The attendant scurried back, so quickly that she knocked over the chair, though to her credit, she did not yelp or scream. "My… my mistress would have me bring you this-"

"Why am I here?" Isuzu shouted, cutting her off. "What is this place?"

"The...the cat's confinement chamber, my lady."

Isuzu didn't know why this surprised her, but it did.

Before, she'd never given much thought to Kyo's confinement. She'd simply been told that he would be locked away in a special room when he came of age, and she had accepted this as just another one of the many mystifying Sohma family traditions. There might've been a part of her that thought it cruel and unusual, but at least Kyo knew his purpose. At any rate, she'd always figured the family had a luxurious home set aside for the cat that was both fully furnished and staffed, like every other house on the estate. Seeing as that was not the case, however, she now had very different feelings.

It's so messed up, probably the most messed up thing I've ever heard. To lock someone away when their life is only just beginning…

Now she understood more than ever Tohru's urgency in wanting to break the curse. She imagined, for a moment, how she might feel if Haru had been born the cat, how she might react, knowing that the person she loved most in the world was destined to be imprisoned in this dark, dank place.

I would put myself in danger, too. I would get close to Akito, just like she's doing, if I thought that it would help. I would do anything.

Isuzu gripped the bars and stared the attendant down. "Why?" she demanded. "What does Ren want with me?"

But the girl only shook her head, to which Isuzu snapped, "Answer the question!"

"I...I don't know what she wants! My orders were to bring you this food and then return to her."

The horse considered her words. If that's true, then she's already listened to me for longer than she needs to. I wonder why. A heavy silence followed, during which time Isuzu did nothing but watch the girl through narrowed eyes. "She told you I'm not human, didn't she?"

The attendant averted her gaze, which made the horse think she'd likely unearthed a seed of truth. "That's what she told you," she continued in an icy undertone. "That's what she tells all her attendants. The ones who are in on the secret, anyway. And you believe her, for the most part.'re curious. You want to know if it's true or not."

She continued to watch the girl, though her expression revealed nothing, aside from the fact that she was terrified out of her wits. "So tell me: What do you think? Am I subhuman? Am I...a monster?"

Gulping, the girl shook her head and backed toward the door. "I...I'm terribly sorry, but I really must go."

Isuzu responded by reaching her hand through the bars again, though this time it was to grab the tray from where the girl had placed it on the floor earlier. "Go, then," Isuzu told her dismissively. "When your mistress is ready to talk, she knows where to find me."

Not five seconds later and the metal door was slamming shut with a reverberating clang. The lock clicked into place, and at last Isuzu was able to focus her attention on her food.

Her stomach growled at the sight of the steaming cup of miso soup. She wanted to devour the entire tray whole, though the logical part of her mind whispered that that was probably not the wisest course of action. She was especially reluctant to drink the bottle of water that lay on its side next to the cup. Because who knew how long it would be before she was given another? Who knew if she would be given another? She tried not to dwell too much on that possibility as she sat and quietly sipped the soup. That, she figured, was best eaten while still hot.

Every minute I'm here is time I could be spending gathering information on the curse.

That was, by far, the most difficult part of all this for Isuzu. Not that she was being held captive and half-starved. No, it was that Ren was making her wait. Which, she supposed, was likely the entire point. Ren didn't want the curse to be broken. That much was clear. She knows we're running out of time. Locking me away ensures I can't discover anything new.

She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, her thoughts returning to Tohru. She'd once called the girl a fool for choosing to remain involved with the Sohmas. Now, though, she wasn't so sure. Maybe it wasn't foolishness. Maybe it was bravery. Trouble was, it was often impossible to distinguish between the two.

Either way, if there's one thing I do know, it's that her primary motivator behind everything she does is her love for our family. And love, Isuzu believed, was the most powerful driving force in the entire world. Which was why she had to trust Tohru to see this fight through in her absence. At least until she got out.

If she got out.

Tohru left the Main House that afternoon in a daze.

Did that really just happen? Had Akito Sohma, god of the tortured souls of the Chinese zodiac, actually apologized to her? It seemed impossible, and yet, she knew with every fiber of her being that her memory did not deceive her.

"Miss Honda. Tohru. I must beg for your forgiveness. For the things I said that day. For the suffering I caused you."

She replayed those words over and over again, until she was certain that they would be forever ingrained in her mind.

"Tohru! Hey, Tohru! Wait up!"

She wasn't sure at what point she finally heard Momiji calling out to her, but by the time she turned around her friend had already caught up to her.

"Momiji." She tried to shake off her initial surprise at seeing him. "What are you doing here? I figured you'd be visiting your dad, or-" She trailed off with a jolt. "Ah! Not that I'm not happy to see you, of course! It's just that...well, if you have other things you need to do, then-"

The rabbit giggled at her clumsy apology. "Don't worry. I won't be seeing Papa until later tonight. No, I came back to the Main House after I dropped my things off. I just wanted to make sure everything was all right. You were awfully determined to visit Akito earlier, and I got to thinking about it, and I found myself wondering if maybe…"

He looked away, and Tohru frowned, at a loss to explain why he was acting so strange. "If maybe...what?" she asked, and Momiji shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant.

"I just wanted to make sure that Akito hasn't...well, that he hasn't asked you to do anything you're not okay with."

His eyes shot back to hers. He was clearly expecting her to infer the rest, but when she continued to give him that same blank stare, he said, "The other day...I saw Akito getting close to you. I don't know what he was doing, but it looked like he might've been trying to, um..."

He scratched the back of his neck, and Tohru's eyes widened as it finally dawned on her what he was getting at. "Oh! That. It was nothing to worry about. We were"

She laughed nervously, her face aflame as Momiji scrutinized her. "You're sure? Because to be honest… well, it didn't look like you were just talking."

Tohru knew precisely what it had looked like. She herself had spent the better part of two days puzzling over the zodiac god's intentions. While touching someone's hair was not, inherently, a romantic gesture, she didn't blame Momiji for drawing that conclusion. Still, she reminded herself, there are plenty of other just as likely possibilities.

She would never forget the vacant look she'd seen in Akito's eyes as he stared out at the ocean that night. Maybe, just maybe, reaching out and touching something soft—namely, her hair—had been his way of grounding himself. It wasn't a perfect explanation, though it certainly made more sense than the notion that Akito felt anything other than friendship for her. The thought was almost enough to make her laugh again. Because that would be ridiculous.

"So, um," Momiji said after an awkward pause. "What was that whole thing all about, then?"

Tohru hesitated a moment before answering. Isuzu had been adamant that she not share their plans to break the zodiac curse with anyone, and for the most part, Tohru believed this was a good practice. But she trusted Momiji implicitly, and besides, Kyo was already aware of what was going on, as was Shigure. Surely, she thought, there can't be any harm in telling just one more person.

And so she did. As they walked, she relayed everything that had transpired between her and Akito in the last few days, sparing what details she could for the sake of brevity. When at last she'd finished, she returned her gaze to her friend, only to find him gaping at her like she'd just performed an elaborate magic trick. Which, of course, she certainly hadn't.

"What?" she said. "What did I say?"

After several moments, the rabbit shook his head, as if to clear it. "Nothing. I just...I can't believe he agreed."

"What?" Tohru blinked, confused. "Who?"

"Akito. I mean, I can't believe he said he's going to help you break the curse."

Oh. That. Yes, she could scarcely believe it herself.

"Are you sure you can trust him, though?" Momiji asked. "I don't mean to worry you, but Akito...well, he isn't exactly known for keeping his word."

"I know." Tohru sighed. "It's true, I can't say for sure that he'll help me. But breaking the curse would mean putting an end to his illness, and Akito… he wants to live. More than anything. I know that he does."

The rabbit looked doubtful, and they walked in silence for several minutes as Tohru thought of how best to convince him. "When you think about it," she said finally, "Akito is just as cursed as any of you. Maybe even more so. And he's realizing for the first time ever that he might be able to do something about it." She turned to her friend. "If you woke up tomorrow and were no longer cursed, where's the first place you would go? What's the first thing you'd do?"

He grinned at her question. "I would go to my sister. To Momo. I would tell her the whole story, about how Mama chose to forget me, how Papa kept me in a separate house so that they wouldn't know. And I would tell her that no matter how she felt about the whole thing, she would always have me as a brother and a friend."

Tiny droplets of water glistened on his cheeks, and Tohru stepped forward, only to remember that hugging him would turn him into a rabbit. She stopped herself at the last second, opting instead to place her hands on his shoulders. "Exactly. And it's the same for Akito. He has hopes and dreams, just like you. And Momiji...I want you to know that I'm going to do everything I can to make sure all of those dreams come true. Whatever it takes, I swear it."

"Does...does that mean…" He sniffed. "Do you think…" He blinked at her in bewilderment. "Does Akito actually know how to break the curse?"

"I don't think so," she admitted. "But he seems to at least have some ideas. I'm meeting him again here tomorrow."

Momiji used his sleeve to mop up the tears that still clung to his face. "So soon? But what are you going to be doing?"

"Akito wants to search the family archives. Apparently, they're kept in a vault somewhere here on the estate."

He brightened at her mention of the vault. "Oh, yeah. Papa's told me about that before. I guess it holds all the family records, some of them dating back hundreds of years. Zodiac members are allowed to look at them whenever they want. I never really had much interest, though. Just sounded like a bunch of boring old papers."

"Yes," a pleasant voice behind them said. "And utterly useless as well, I'm afraid."

Both Tohru and Momiji spun, only to find Shigure walking in the grass off to one side of the pathway. He wore his trademark olive green kimono, as well as a pair of plain white socks and beige colored flip-flops. Tohru was so surprised to see him that she nearly leapt a foot in the air.

"Ah! Shigure! long have you been standing there?"

"Oh, long enough," he replied cheerfully. "I'll have you know that Yuki and Kyo were both very worried, though neither of them wanted to risk upsetting you by coming here. So, naturally, I volunteered to do the honors."

Didn't want to risk upsetting me? Tohru winced, but Shigure bent his head toward her, beaming. "Don't look so glum! As I said, I'm glad you went to see Akito." He paused to wink at her. "He was feeling better today, wasn't he?"

She couldn't help smiling back at him. The dog truly had a talent for making others feel more jovial and relaxed. "Yes. We had a very nice visit."

"See? All's well that ends well, as the saying goes." He cleared his throat, motioning with one hand for her to walk in front of him. "Now then, shall we head home? I hate to tear you away from Momiji, but I fear that Yuki and Kyo will send out a search party if we keep them waiting much longer."

Tohru bobbed her head in agreement, though she hesitated as she suddenly remembered something. "What did you mean," she asked, "when you said that the papers in the vault are useless?"

In response, Shigure smoothed his hair back, chuckling. "I mean that I've read them. Every single last one."

When Tohru didn't move, her perplexed stare silently demanding further explanation, he sighed. "I promise you, you won't find anything of use in that vault. Of course," he added in a lower voice, "Akito would know that if he'd ever bothered to ask."

He's read the papers? Tohru thought, dubious. Every single one?

Akito had told her that the vault contained thousands—possibly even tens of thousands—of documents, all of them relating in some way or another to the centuries-long curse that plagued the Sohma family. Sifting through so much information alone seemed an insurmountable task, but if Shigure said he'd done it, then he must have. She wondered how long it had taken him. Months? Years?

"You went through all of them on your own?" she whispered. "Wow. Shigure, that's...that's amazing."

"And depressing," Momiji added, and Tohru couldn't say she disagreed. "To go through all of that, only to find that none of it was worthwhile."

"Oh, I wouldn't say none of it was worthwhile," Shigure interjected, scratching his chin thoughtfully. "Though, in the end...yes, the mission was, by and large, a failure."

Hearing that, Tohru's heart sank. "I suppose I should tell Akito, then," she said, more to herself than to either of her friends. "It would be a shame to waste his time on something that-"

"Don't," Shigure interrupted, and Tohru regarded him with a bewildered look.

"Sorry." Though he hadn't spoken harshly, the dog was quick to backpedal. "That came out more demanding than I intended. What I meant to say was that you shouldn't cancel your meeting with him tomorrow."

"Why not?"

He smiled, and Tohru thought she detected a hint of deviousness in his eyes. "I admire your commitment to breaking the curse. But right now, the best thing you can do for us is work on Akito."

Work on him? Tohru shook her head, though before she could ask Shigure what he meant, he said, "Your friendship means more to him than you think."

He looked at Momiji then, his eyes darkening slightly. "You feel it, don't you?" he asked the rabbit in a low voice.

Tohru expected her friend to respond with the same confusion she had felt at hearing Shigure's question. Instead, however, Momiji bowed his head in immediate understanding. "Yes," he said. "I don't know what it is, exactly, but there's something inside me that almost feels like it' it's..."

"Fraying?" Shigure suggested at the same moment that Momiji said, "Coming apart."

They both fell silent after that, the two of them staring at each other with haunted expressions. Meanwhile, Tohru could do nothing but wait, knowing full well that she could not share in whatever it was they were experiencing.

At last, Shigure turned to her with a lop-sided grin. "Let's go. Tensions between Yuki and Kyo seem to be at an all time high right now. I'm not sure why, but the last thing I want is for them to take their anger out on my poor house."

Yuki was ready to punch Kyo through the roof. In the rat's opinion, the fact that he hadn't done so already was a testament to his restraint.

Stop staring at me, he wanted to scream. Because that's what Kyo had been doing ever since they arrived back home.

Of course, the pair hadn't spoken more than three words to one another all afternoon, though for some reason, Kyo kept glaring at Yuki's back when he thought the rat wasn't paying attention.

If you have something to say, just say it.

Feeling Kyo's eyes on him again, Yuki set his bowl of soba down on the table before looking pointedly over at his cousin. Immediately the orange-haired boy snapped his gaze back on the TV, trying to appear engrossed. But Yuki wasn't fooled for an instant.

"Didn't your mother ever tell you it's rude to stare?"

He knew it was a low-blow, jabbing at Kyo by bringing up his deceased mother. Yuki didn't care, though. It was no more than the cat deserved.

"The hell did you just say to me?" Kyo's voice was low and unmistakably hostile, though he refused to remove his eyes from the screen, which only served to anger Yuki further.

"Why put up the pretense? We both know you're not really out here because you want to watch TV."

"What, you think it's because I want to spend time with you?"

Yuki rolled his eyes. Honestly, sometimes Kyo could be so childish that it was pathetic. "Of course not. But I can tell you're holding something in, so whatever it is, do us both a favor and spit it out."

It was strange, because Kyo wasn't normally one to bite his tongue, especially when it came to airing his grievances with family. That meant that he was either too afraid or too embarrassed to voice whatever was on his mind. Loathe as Yuki was to admit it, he found himself equally as intrigued as he was frustrated by the situation.

"Well?" he prompted when Kyo remained silent. "Are you going to say something, or-"

"You… you had no right," the cat finally ground out, his voice guttural, to a point where Yuki almost didn't hear him.

"I had no right to...what?" he asked, and Kyo winced, as if the words he was holding back were causing him physical pain.

"You had no right to tell Tohru about my confinement!" he finally shouted, flinging himself from his chair. "That's why she's doing this, you know!" he went on as Yuki stared at him, wide-eyed. "It's your fault that she's with Akito at Sohma House right now! If you would've just kept your damn mouth shut-"

"How is it my fault that Miss Honda is at Sohma House?" Yuki asked with all the calm he could muster. "It was her choice to visit Akito."

"Yeah, because you made her desperate!"

Yuki shook his head. "What are you talking about, idiot?"

"I'm talking about what you told her! Now that she knows they're gonna lock me up, she's got this idea in her head that she needs to break the curse."

Hearing that, Yuki's face fell. He hadn't known that Tohru wanted to break the curse. But it made sense now, why she'd been so insistent on seeing Akito earlier. She probably thought the zodiac god possessed some piece of long lost, archaic knowledge that would help her devise a way to carry out the impossible. Because, of course, Yuki knew very well, as did the other zodiac members, that breaking the curse was an impossibility. Much as it warmed his heart to know that Tohru was committed to helping them in whatever way she could, the fact was that Kyo was right. What she was attempting was not only pointless, it was also dangerous.

"Yeah," the cat said bitterly when Yuki didn't reply. "That's why she's throwing herself at Akito's mercy. Because she figures that if she breaks the curse, she'll free me."

So it's true, then. Yuki had suspected for some time that Tohru had strong feelings for Kyo. He still remembered the pang of loneliness he'd felt as he watched her chase the cat's monster through the woods all those weeks ago. She'd still cared for him, had still wanted to comfort him, evening knowing what he was, even having seen the horror of it with her own eyes.

And that was when Yuki had known, once and for all, that he could never win.

Not that he needed to. It still stung, of course, knowing that Tohru had chosen his cousin—no, his mortal enemy—over him. But he respected her feelings, and had tried very hard not to resent Kyo for it. Trouble was, the idiot didn't seem to realize he held such a high place in Tohru's heart.

"You disgust me," Yuki said, his voice so full of venom that Kyo blinked at him in surprise. "Do you have any idea how worried she is for you? When I told her about your confinement, she looked like she'd been punched in the stomach. It made me feel-"

"Like a total asshole?" Kyo sniped, and Yuki narrowed his eyes.

"I wasn't trying to upset her. But...she's not a Sohma. She isn't familiar with our customs."

Kyo snorted at his use of the word "customs."

"What's more," the rat quickly pressed on, ignoring him, "Miss Honda is an extremely kind and compassionate person. I should've known that she would recoil at the idea of you—or anyone—being locked up. That said...I don't think it's a coincidence that she didn't feel the need to try and break the curse until she learned of your situation."

Though Kyo said nothing, it was obvious he understood perfectly well what Yuki meant.

"You can avert your gaze and pretend like you don't care, but I know better."

"Oh, yeah?" Kyo stepped closer, looking him dead in the eye, as if just to prove a point. "You don't know the first thing about me, rat boy."

"Maybe not," Yuki admitted. "But I know that you care about her more than anything."

Silence. "So?" Kyo finally said.

"So," Yuki repeated, equal parts calm and furious, "why are you being like this? Can't you see that your coldness is driving her away?"

At that, Kyo seemed to deflate. "Don't you get it?" he muttered. "That's the entire point. If she thinks I'm a jerk, then she'll give up on this whole stupid idea."

"Will she?" Yuki countered. "She seems pretty determined."

"I know." Kyo sighed. "And that's why I'm so mad. I keep telling her to leave things alone, but she won't listen!"

Yuki could feel his own anger dissipating. Because Kyo had a point. Though it was cruel of him to actively push Tohru away, in the end, if doing so was what caused her to step back, abandon her plans to break the curse, and have a care for herself and her own well-being...well, then maybe it would be worth it. Maybe what the cat was doing was even noble, though it would be a cold day in hell before Yuki ever said as much out loud.

Suddenly, the front door burst open. "We're home!" Shigure sang, and Yuki had never been more relieved for an interruption in all his life. "Yuki, Kyo, come look! Tohru's back, safe and sound! Didn't I say there was nothing to worry about?"

Nothing to worry about this time, Yuki thought, risking a glance in Kyo's direction. True to form, the cat glowered before grunting and making a break for it.

"Typical," Shigure sighed as he slid off his shoes, his eyes trained in the direction that Kyo had gone.

"What?" Tohru asked, also stepping into the room. "What happened?"

"Oh, just Kyo," Shigure said. "Seems he couldn't even be bothered to greet us upon our arrival. As I said, predictable, but rude all the same."

Yuki didn't miss the way that Tohru cast her eyes downward at the mention of the cat. "I guess I'll go ahead and get dinner started," she said before turning to fix Yuki with a half-smile. "Anything sound good?"

Yuki returned the smile, though his was much brighter, as he felt no loss whatsoever from Kyo's absence. "Not really. Anything you make will be wonderful."

"Oh, I don't know about that."

"I do. In fact, I'd love to help you with whatever you have planned."

Her smile widened, and Yuki decided in that moment that he was going to insist on helping her even if she refused. Which, of course, she did.

"Thanks, but you don't have to do that, really."

In response, Yuki stepped into the kitchen, rolling up his sleeves. "Just tell me what I need to do," he called over one shoulder, and for several moments Tohru stared at him, as if she couldn't decide if she should protest or not. But then she seemed to think the better of it.

"All right, I'm thinking Yakitori, so we're going to need to break out the chicken…"

Yuki cheerfully obliged her every request. Working together, it took less than a half hour to prepare the main dish, and when they were done, Tohru dialed down the temperature on the stove. Their conversation faltered as they concentrated on tidying up, though Yuki noted that her expression had turned contemplative. He kept stealing glances at her over his shoulder, though before he could say anything, she whispered, "Um...Yuki?"

"Hm?" he said, forcing himself not to look up from what he was doing. He didn't want to make her nervous.

"I, um...well, I was just wondering if you could tell me what you think of Akito. I mean… do you think it's possible for him to change?"

Yuki froze, surprised by the question. She almost sounds hopeful. Like she wants me to say yes. It was a sentiment he could understand. Because really, who didn't want to believe it was possible for everyone to better themselves, even dubious individuals like Akito? Even so…

"No," he answered honestly. "I don't."

Seeing her crestfallen expression, Yuki reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Miss Honda, Akito is trying to use you. I know it's difficult for you to see that, but you don't know him like we do."

"No." Tohru shook her head. At first Yuki thought she was agreeing with him. But then she said, "Yuki, he… he apologized. For that day."

She didn't need to elaborate. He knew precisely which day she meant. "Even so," he said carefully, "it doesn't excuse what he did."

"I know. But I...I think he was sincere. I really, really do."

No. Yuki stared at her, horrified. This is worse than I imagined. Shigure's wrong. These talks she's been having with Akito aren't harmless. They're strategic. He's trying to get her to trust him.

And the worst part was, it was working.

"Well, he wasn't," he told her quickly. "Don't get me wrong, I'm sure his apology seemed heartfelt. But you need to understand something about Akito, and that's that he's a master manipulator. I would know-"

He broke off, reluctant to continue. It's now or never. "I would know," he said again, "probably better than anyone."

Though her eyes flashed with curiosity, Tohru remained silent, her face clouded, as if debating whether or not she should pry. Yuki spared her the dilemma. "When I was younger," he said, "my parents used to bring me to the Main House as a… playmate for Akito."

"Offering" would've been a more appropriate choice of word, but Yuki didn't want to put her off by being dramatic. Not, of course, that Tohru would ever accuse him of doing or saying anything for the sake of drama. Funny, he thought, how I still try to downplay what happened to me, even in the presence of a warm and caring friend.

"I remember being surprised," he continued, "by how young he was. Of course, by then I knew that the family head was only a few years older than me. Still, it was hard not to stare the first time I saw him. I guess I was expecting someone...taller. More authoritative-looking. He wasn't, though. He was just a kid."

The rat paused, suppressing a shudder. He'd never told another human-being what he was about to share with her. It'd been too painful, too traumatic. Even now he wasn't sure he had the strength to proceed. It's only Tohru, he reminded himself. And if there was one person in the entire world that he knew he could count on to understand, it was her.

"Things were all right, at first," he said after a beat. "We talked, we laughed, we played games. Normal kid stuff. He was the first real friend I'd ever had—the first friend I didn't have to keep secrets from—and I looked forward to our visits. My mom did, too. Really, though, I think she was just happy for an excuse to get me out of her hair."

The smile Tohru gave him was sympathetic, almost sad, and Yuki cleared his throat. Much as he would have loved to spend the next twenty minutes telling her what a self-absorbed and superficial person his mother was, that wasn't the point of the story.

"In short, Akito and I were friends… until we weren't."

"What happened?" Tohru asked, her voice only just above a whisper, and in response, Yuki stared silently, his eyes fixed on the cloth he'd been using to clean the counter.

"I'm not sure, exactly. One day I came over and Akito was… different."

He trailed off. He would never forget the almost feverish look in the zodiac god's eyes as he entered the room that day, the way his small feet had padded toward him across the wood floor.

"We're not really friends are we, Yuki?"

Yuki remembered wrinkling his brow as Akito chuckled, the sound high-pitched and cruel.

"No," he said in response to his own question. "Of course not. You were created for me, not the other way around. Yes...yes, I see now that he was right. Of course he was. I'm special. I'm special, and you're not."

Yuki was too stunned to reply. And so he stood silently, letting the zodiac god puzzle things out on his own terms.

"I don't know how I only just realized how utterly unremarkable you are compared to me. I am God, after all, and you are…" He sneered. "You're a rat. An actual rat!"

The raucous laughter that had followed still gave Yuki chills.

"He said terrible things to me," he told Tohru. "Things that were meant to make me feel small and insignificant. And it worked. He had me in tears within minutes. I didn't understand why he was being so mean, and to be honest...I still don't."

Tohru placed a hand on his arm. "I'm sorry. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to hear that from someone you thought was your friend."

"I only wish that were the worst of it," he said, and Tohru grimaced.


He nodded sadly. "After that, things were never the same. Every time I came over, Akito bullied me. I remember once he made me sit in a corner while he said the meanest things he could think of. He invented game after game, the object always being to make me cry. When that didn't work, he got out a belt and hit me with it. Eventually, it got to a point where I couldn't take it anymore. I begged my mom to stop bringing me to visit him."

He still remembered his mother's response, clear as day: "Why? The family head has shown you a great honor by singling you out! You have his favor. And you want to risk throwing that away by upsetting him? You really are an ungrateful child."

Never mind that his visits with the family head were causing him both psychological and physical distress. Never mind that the mere thought of being in Akito's presence was enough to petrify him. His mother's cold, gray eyes hadn't shown even the slightest hint of compassion, even when he cried and begged for a reprieve.

"She didn't want to hear it, though," he told Tohru, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice. "She told me I was being ungrateful, and as punishment, she handed me over to Akito entirely."

"Handed you over?" she questioned.

"Yeah. She dropped me off one day and just...left. It was several weeks before I saw her again."

Her eyes widened at that. "And he made you play those games every day?"

There was a sort of desperation in her voice, like she was begging him to say that it wasn't true. Much as Yuki always wished to appease her, in this instance, he found he could not. "Yes," he said. "At least, until he got bored. He confined me to his room, and I would sit in a corner, either crying or fantasizing about being rescued. Or both. Once, I tried pleading with the maids and staff, but none of them would hear me. They didn't want to risk upsetting Akito by taking away his toy."

Tohru covered her mouth with one hand. "Yuki, I...I don't know what to say. I'm just so sorry." She choked on a sob. "I...I didn't know-"

"There's nothing to be sorry for. It's not your fault."

"I know. But I-"

"Miss Honda, please don't be upset. What happened to me… well, it was a long time ago, and I'm still working through it. But I told you that story because I want you to know the type of person that Akito is. Believe me, I know better than anyone how almost...magnetic he can be. He knows how to come across as kind, thoughtful, even apologetic. But I promise you, none of that is real. He's only pretending."

In response, Tohru bit her lip and stared down at the floor.

Yuki said, "I know this isn't easy to hear. But he really is very good at putting on a face, especially when he wants something."

"But… what could he possibly want from me?" She looked utterly confused, and Yuki didn't blame her.

"I don't know. But Miss Honda, for your own sake, please be wary of him. And whatever you do, do not trust any offerings of friendship. The last thing I want is for you to end up in the same situation I was."

That seemed to hit home. She stayed quiet for several moments before promising, "I won't."

She still doesn't want it to be true, he realized. Her eyes were far-off and misty as she hunched over the sink, scrubbing dishes. No doubt, he'd brought her down. But if knowing what had happened to him caused her to rethink befriending the zodiac god, then it was for the best. Maybe Kyo and I share more in common than I thought.

"Anyway," she said, changing the subject, "I suppose I'd better go tell Shigure and Kyo that dinner's ready. Any longer and the food will start to get cold."