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Signed and Fated

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Tohru’s earliest memory was of her mother’s red string. She tried to grab it with her chubby, two-year-old hand, making a sound of distress when her hand went straight through it like it didn’t exist at all. Kyoko hummed amusedly and took Tohru’s hand in her own. She stretched the pudgy hand out, palm up, and wove the red string around her daughter’s fingers and wrist. Tohru laughed in delight, which made Kyoko laugh in turn. Katsuya chuckled softly. Between their hands, the red string hung, thrumming with life and color. There were no words of wisdom here, nothing poignant about this moment at all, except it was the first, last, and only memory Tohru had of her father.

She remembered, too, looking at her mother’s hand after Katsuya’s funeral and seeing the string hang, limp and colorless, from her left pinky. It trailed a few bare centimeters off the floor, the end frayed as if it had been ripped rather than cut. She remembered the way Kyoko compulsively twisted the thread around her fingers when she spoke of Katsuya.

She had asked her mother, once, when she was eight or nine, about the strings. Kyoko had healed enough by then to talk about Katsuya and Tohru knew how to read the mood of the room for a safe time to ask.

“Most people don’t have red strings, at least not ones that are visible. It’s about one in four, I think. Me and your father were lucky that way. You see, Tohru, not everyone finds their soulmate, and not every soulmate relationship works out. In every soulmate relationship, there comes a moment, a chance, a turning point. If you make the right choice, your red string will appear, because that means the choice you made ensures that you and your soulmate will be together.”

Kyoko’s face darkened. She rubbed her finger, the joint where her own frayed string was still tied around her pinky. “Until death do you part.”

“How did yours appear?” Tohru asked quietly. Kyoko had retreated into herself but not so terribly far that she couldn’t be reached. Tohru thought she could push a little bit further. She just wanted to know the whole story and then she would never bother her mom about it again. Kyoko smiled briefly at her daughter. “When he proposed to me. He asked my parents blessing and me in the same breath, and when he took my hand to take me away from my parent’s house for good, there was a string connecting us. Like it had always been there.”

She dropped her hand into her lap. “And I thought it always would be. The string doesn’t have a weight to it. I never once felt it against my skin. But still, even now, it feels….empty.”

Tohru took her mother’s hand. “Your hand isn’t empty anymore,” she said softly. Kyoko shook herself out of her daze.

“That’s right, Tohru. How can I feel empty when I’ve got you right here?”

Tohru grinned, pleased at having brought Kyoko back from the dark place, and the two went back to their evening—Tohru cooking and Kyoko doing laundry. Peaceful, loving, quiet. A perfect life, Tohru decided, and I don’t even need a red string.

When Tohru ran after the thing that Kyo had become, she wasn’t thinking of that conversation, or of her years-long resolution that she would never need or want a red string. Fate was the furthest thing from her mind. All that mattered was this moment. She could feel in her bones that it was one that would never come again. One chance to make Kyo see that she would not and could not leave him. She left behind her reservations, the proof of her mental and physical weakness, and one of her shoes in her chase after Kyo. She did not leave behind her fear. Plenty of it churned in her gut, or maybe it was just left over from the vomiting. Fear of Kyo’s monstrous form, yes. Fear that he’d hurt her. Fear that someone would find him first. Fear that he wouldn’t even understand her if she found him. But worse than that was the fear that she wouldn’t be able to save him. Fear that he wouldn’t be able to see the man she had grown to love these past few months. How kind, and awkward, and silly, and passionate, protective and understanding, and oh, so dear to her.

When she found him, she poured everything inside her heart out to him. She screamed so loudly that she thought her throat might shatter, cried so hard she thought her tears might choke out any sound she made. Together! Just like we’ve been doing…I want to live…eat, study….and struggle together! I want to be with you!

And, somehow, he heard her. He gave in to the warmth he had so long been rejecting. He believed the words she said so desperately. He understood that shaky limbs and chattering teeth didn’t mean she was lying. The moments when he felt loved were few and far between, so sparse that he sometimes forgot they existed at all. This moment, though, he would remember. He let himself succumb to the promise of affection and safety she offered him, freely and without condition. Kyo hugged Tohru like she was the most precious thing in the world, and she was, she was, she was.

In that moment, neither of them noticed the red string. The rain washed color out of everything and both their eyes were too blurred with tears to see anything but each other. Tohru gathered up Kyo’s torn and muddy clothing and hugged the exhausted cat to her center. Her cheek rested on the crown of his head. Over the sound of the rain, she thought she could hear him purring. But that was neither here nor there. The important thing was that Kyo was with her.

Shigure and Kazuma waited silently, shoulder to shoulder. The rain was letting up but there was no sign of Kyo or Tohru. The only thing keeping Kazuma rooted to the ground was his conviction that Kyo needed proof of love from someone other than him. Tohru was the perfect candidate. She wasn’t a Soma, she didn’t grow up with the knowledge of the curse or Kyo’s true form. If she, a normal girl, a friend, could accept him, maybe Kyo would finally see his worth. But they had been gone for so long….

Kazuma was prepared to wait all night for his son’s return, but even so, he felt hope slipping away with every moment. He was reaching the threshold of despair when someone stepped out of the tree line. Like a miracle, like a moment from a storybook, the morning sun broke through the clouds as Tohru returned home with Kyo’s cat form safe in her arms. Kazuma could have wept with relief, but there were things to attend to first. The flashes of crimson trickling down her arm and the second trailing off her fingertips was first and foremost on his mind.

“You’re hurt,” he gasped. Tohru shook her head with a soft smile.

“Don’t worry about me. Kyo needs to dry off and get warm first.”

“But you’re bleeding,” Shigure protested, reaching for her arm. Again, Tohru evaded him, heading for the doorway.

“It’s just a scratch on my shoulder.”

“No, your hand is injured, too,” Kazuma said. His eyes followed the drip of blood down her shoulder that ended around her elbow. Then he realized what he had seen earlier wasn’t blood. A slender red thread, unmistakable in the intensity of its color connected Tohru’s left pinky to Kyo’s left front paw.

Kazuma saw proof of the love his son had and would have for the rest of his life, and he wept.

No one bothered Tohru when she took care of Kyo, cleaning his muddy fur with a damp washcloth and then drying him off with a towel. Her hands went on autopilot so that her overworked mind could make some sense of everything that happened. Before he had hugged her, once he was back in his normal human form, Kyo had talked about a “her”, someone else that had seen his true form and reacted badly. A stab of something hot and painful jolted through her—a nasty mix of jealousy and anger. Who had hurt him so badly, and why did she get to him before Tohru could? How long had Kyo been holding this hurt inside him and could she track down this mysterious woman and scold her for it? She was so focused on her thought process that she hardly noticed the red string, except to wonder if a thread had come loose from her torn shirt and wrapped around her hand. She tried to flick it off but it refused to move. Curiously, she lifted it up to inspect it further. One end tied off neatly around the first joint of her little finger and the other…

The other stretched across the distance between Kyo and herself, wrapped securely around his paw. Tohru clapped a hand over her mouth, accidentally dropping both the string and Kyo in the process. She managed to catch him, just barely, her mind spinning.

--

Kyo, for his part, blinked slowly and opened his eyes. He had been aware enough to know they were back in Shigure’s house and that someone was drying him off, but aside from that, he wasn’t sure what was going on. There was such worry in Tohru’s face when he saw her that he looked down frantically to make sure he wasn’t a monster again, but he seemed normal enough—just scraggly orange fur. That still didn’t explain why Tohru was looking at him like her world had ended. He opened his mouth to ask what was wrong, but before he could, Tohru raised a shaky hand, showing a thread of bright red hanging between them. Kyo leaped off her lap. The transformation came a few seconds after but neither of them were concerned about that. They were both too focused on the red string connecting them to care.

“What?” Kyo shouted.

“I don’t know!” Tohru shouted back, just as panicked. “It just showed up!”

“Holy shit!”

“Kyo, what are we—what do we do?”

“I….I have no idea,” Kyo said. His mouth slightly ajar, he picked up the string as if to test it was real. It moved willingly when he touched it, which proved, irrevocably, that it was his. His and Tohru’s, he corrected himself. Theirs.

“Tohru, this means….”

“I know what it means,” she said. She looked down, cradling her hurt arm with her other. “I know what it means. But please, Kyo, can we talk about it some other time?”

“O-of course,” he said, dumbfounded. Then, just as suddenly, he remembered that she was injured.

“Dammit, I hurt you.”

“It’s nothing,” she assured him quickly. Kyo shook his head.

“Let me help. I know first-aid. I’ve got banged up enough times it would be shameful to not know how to patch up a cut.”

“I don’t want to bother you. You’ve had a long day.”

Kyo almost laughed. Only Tohru would worry about someone else when she was actively bleeding. Instead, he covered her hand with his—the right hand, not the red-string hand.

“Please, Tohru,” he said. “Let me take responsibility for this, okay?”

Tohru hesitated for a second before relenting. She kept her head down as Kyo fetched the first-aid kit. While he was out of the room, he ran upstairs to through on some pants and a cotton shirt for himself and grab a pair of pajamas for Tohru. In the hallway, Kazuma handed his beads back to him. He grimaced but put them safely back on his wrist. Kazuma didn’t say anything, just looked at him with red-rimmed eyes and put a hand on his shoulder for a long moment. When Kyo got back to the bathroom, Tohru had taken off her shirt to allow access to her cuts. He kept his eyes firmly on her shoulder and away from any other part of her, including her eyes. As he disinfected the wound, the silence built up around them like a wall. Finally, Kyo couldn’t take it anymore.

“Hey,” he said. “I know you don’t want to talk about this yet and we don’t have to. But….this is the first red string I’ve seen in real life. It’s weird. I’ve always heard that they can’t be touched.”

Tohru’s voice was small and slightly detached, but she said, “That’s almost right. The people it belongs to can touch and move it. No one else can. Once when I was little, I wanted to touch my mom and dad’s, but I couldn’t. It upset me, so my mom wrapped it around my hand for me. As long as she had a hold of it, it didn’t go through me like it did before. Still couldn’t feel it though; I guess they really are from the spirit world. Visible but intangible.”

Kyo nodded. After a moment of silence, he said, “My parents didn’t have a string. I remember thinking it would show up someday but…it never did. I guess that makes sense. They weren’t….happy together.”

“Red strings don’t always mean happiness,” Tohru said heavily.

Kyo paused with a roll of gauze in his hand. Tohru sighed, bringing her legs up and resting her chin on her knees. Kyo would need her to uncurl again to wrap up her shoulder, but he just sat there, watching her think. Eventually, she said, “When my mom’s string snapped, it was like she died too. I’ve never seen anyone walk around like they were already dead. It took a long time before she was able to smile genuinely again. I told myself that was the price of a red string, I didn’t want one. I kind of convinced myself I would never have one.”

“Me too,” Kyo admitted. He took her arm and straightened it out. As he wrapped gauze, he continued, “Red strings happen to good people. People with futures. People who know how to love.”

“Kyo, you are all those things.”

“Am I? You’re the first person to think that.”

Tohru rested a hand on his arm. “What about your master? He surely thinks you’re worthy of all those things.”

“He has to—he’s a Soma. He feels responsible for me.”

“I’m not,” Tohru said. She pulled at the string between them with her good hand. “And this is the proof, isn’t it?”

Kyo didn’t have anything else to say. He finished up wrapping her injury and handed her the pajamas. He turned away as she pulled on the clean clothes.

“Good night, Tohru,” he said. As he turned to go, Tohru grabbed his arm.

“Wait. I—this is all so new and I don’t know what to do or how to act.”

“Let’s just act like it’s not there. This doesn’t have to change anything. Like you said: the way things were before.”

Kyo knew it was the right thing to say because relief broke over Tohru’s face instantly. She smiled for the first time since they’d discovered the string.

“Okay.”

“Hey,” Kyo said. He meant to rap his knuckles gently against Tohru’s head like he had so many times before, but somehow he ended up cradling her head in his open palm instead. She leaned into his touch like it could keep her from falling apart. One of her hands latched on to his wrist.

“I’m glad it was you. To come after me, I mean,” he said.

And to be my red string, he thought, but didn’t say out loud. Hesitantly, Tohru reached up and touched his cheek. They couldn’t embrace and they both knew it. But they could do this—it would have to be enough.

Outside the bathroom door, Shigure shook his head and left before either of the kids could notice him lingering. This certainly changed things.

The next morning, Tohru woke up before her alarm. Her left hand was curled up next to her head, the red thread trailing off the bed and out the door. She sighed and stretched. A good night’s sleep had done a lot to calm her panic about the sudden appearance of her string. She’s always known that her relationship with Kyo was different than how she felt about Soma or Hana and Uo. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she’d wondered if a red string was in her future. That it was in her present was startling, though. So few people had visible strings, and even fewer had them appear in their childhood or teenage years. She blew out an annoyed breath—school was going to be awful, at least until someone came up with something new to gossip about. The thing about red strings was that, once they became visible, they couldn’t be hidden. Only death could snap and sap the color from a string. No matter what they did, there would be no hiding this. With that thought, Tohru decided to follow her string. Predictably, Kyo was on the roof. It was nice to go straight there instead of having to check his room, though, she reflected, carefully pulling herself up the ladder. No matter how many times she did this, it still scared her a little. She wobbled slightly as she took her first step. Kyo sat up and offered her his hand. She took it gratefully and made her way over to him. He sat down cross-legged and Tohru knelt beside him. Even when there was no threat of falling or losing her balance, Tohru didn’t let go of Kyo’s hand and he didn’t try to take it back. They might have agreed last night that nothing had to change between them, but that wasn’t true. The moment the string appeared, things changed. Tohru found she was more okay with it this morning than she’d been previously. Maybe it was because of Kyo. I’m glad it was you, he’d said last night. And she was glad it was him, too.

“It’s still there. I thought it might disappear overnight,” Kyo said.

“Disappointed?” Tohru ventured. Kyo smiled bashfully.

“No,” he admitted, looking out over the roof at the rising sun.

“Me either.”

When the sun was fully up, Tohru stood up, pulling Kyo with her.

“Come help me with breakfast.”

Kyo didn’t help Tohru in the kitchen very often—that was her domain and she was actually pretty particular about where things went. More often, he sat in the next room over and talked while she cooked. She liked company unless she was making something complicated. This morning, though, he could tell she wasn’t in a talking mood. He took care of the rice while she started chopping vegetables. Every now and then, she would ask him to do something—get the eggs out, grab the soy sauce from the top shelf—but other than that, they didn’t talk. It was kind of nice, actually. There was a new, interesting understanding between them. They weren’t completely at ease with each other yet, but Kyo was sure they’d get there. If she could accept his true form, they could figure out the red string thing. It was an assurance, actually, that the choices they’d made meant they’d be tied together for the rest of their lives. With that kind of guarantee, it was easier to trust the tender new love blooming between them. Even if they were lost now, they’d be okay eventually. They had the rest of their lives to figure it out.

Shigure came in, yawning and scratching his chest like the gross old man he was. He sat down at the table and opened his newspaper.

“Good morning,” Tohru said cheerfully. “Breakfast will be another few minutes, alright?”

“No problem,” Shigure said. Kyo watched him carefully, but he seemed too absorbed in his reading to notice anything new. Not even when Tohru placed a plate of food in front of him. He thanked her for the food and dug in.

“Sorry for not waiting. I need to go to the main house yet this morning, so I can’t wait for that sleepyhead Yuki to get here.”

“What did you say about me?” Yuki said testily, sitting down in his customary place. He still had a towel draped around his shoulders from a bath.

“Here you go, Soma,” Tohru said, handing him his breakfast.

“Thank you, Miss Honda,” he said. “I thought that—wait.”

Kyo flinched, hunching his shoulders. Tohru continued to plate up food for herself and Kyo, but there was tension in her shoulders too.

“Miss Honda, what is that?” Yuki asked, sounding like he was dreading the answer. Tohru turned bright red, her arms flailing in that way they did when she was caught off-balance.

“Um, well. You see, it’s kind of new to us too. I’m—I’m not sure what to tell you, Soma, it’s, uh—”

“Haven’t you seen a red string of fate before, Rat?” Kyo cut in. Without thinking, he had put himself between Yuki and Tohru. Logically, he knew that Yuki would rather die than hurt Tohru, but that didn’t stop the protective streak in him from getting between her and a perceived threat.

Yuki blinked several times. His eyes swept between Kyo and Tohru.

“I have,” he said slowly. “I just….didn’t expect it.”

His tone was perfectly pleasant. Apparently, his desire to keep Tohru happy overruled his dislike of Kyo—and any distress it may be causing him to see that Kyo was her soulmate. Kyo almost felt proud of that, for some reason. Tohru relaxed instantly, and so did Kyo. He dropped his arm and she stepped around him to put the rest of the food on the table.

“We didn’t expect it either!” she said with false cheer, taking a seat

Kyo snorted. “That’s an understatement,” he muttered, settling down next to her. Under the table, he knocked his knee against hers.

“Please pretend like nothing has changed, Soma. We’re still getting used to it.”

Yuki nodded slowly, his eyes still fastened on Tohru’s red-string hand, laying on the table. Kyo had hidden his hand on his lap, but after a moment of hesitation, he put his on the table too. He narrowed his eyes at Yuki, daring him to say something. Yuki looked away.

And that was the end of that. At least it was until after they’d finished eating, when Shigure stood up and said, “Kyo, before you leave for school, I’d like to talk to you.”

“Huh? Okay,” Kyo agreed, more out of surprise than anything. He chased down two more bites of rice and stood up to pile his dishes in the sink. He took Tohru’s empty bowl and plate with him (and pointedly left Yuki’s where they were). He rinsed his hands and wiped them on his pants.

“Okay, what’s up?” he asked. Shigure shook his head and gestured to the door of his study. Once they were inside with the door firmly closed, Shigure dropped his look of mild cheer. Kyo almost took a step back under the force of the look Shigure leveled at him.

“So. The string.”

“What, are you gonna threaten me? Tell me to treat her right?” Kyo said sarcastically. Shigure shook his head. “You’re thinking like a child, Kyo. Remember who you are.”

“Remind me,” Kyo challenged. He’d just started to accept this was something he deserved. If Shigure was going to bring up his monstrous form or convince him that he wasn’t worthy of her, he had another thing coming.

But what Shigure said instead was worse. Far worse.

“You may not be part of the Zodiac, officially, but you’re still a Soma. You’re still a cursed Soma. Like the rest of us, you belong to god. How do you think Akito is going to react when he sees you have a tie to someone that’s not him?”

Kyo’s knees went weak; he put one hand against the wall to brace himself. “Shit.”

“Mm. You cannot let him see your string. At best, he’d attack you. At worse….”

“He’d hurt Tohru.”

“Or put you in the Cat’s Room,” Shigure agreed.

Damnit . Why does it have to be like this?”

“Have you forgotten? The Soma curse extends beyond what happens to our bodies. It ensures that we love our God above anything or anyone else. Like divine punishment.”

“You don’t know that,” Kyo said helplessly. “Maybe Akito won’t care. I don’t matter to him that much.”

Shigure pressed his lips together. “No other Zodiac living today has a red string connection to someone who isn’t part of the inner circle. Akito thought Hatori came close to it once. He blinded him for it. Hatori is one of Akito’s favorites and he doesn’t even like you. What do you think will happen?”

“You made your point,” Kyo growled. He kept his string clenched in his fist, a reminder that it was there. “I’ll be careful.”

“You have to be more than careful.”

“What about you? It’s no secret that you’re in Akito’s pocket and you’re headed to the main house today. Are you going to tell him?”

Shigure scoffed. “What kind of monster do you take me for? I don’t want to lose our housekeeper any more than you do.”

Kyo’s fingernails bit into his hand to keep himself from throwing a punch.

“She’s more than that and you know it, you bastard.”

Shigure waved an unconcerned hand. “Yes, yes, I know. Cool off, alright? I won’t tell Akito a thing. Now go, you’re going to be late for school.”

Kyo grunted in frustration.

“One more thing,” Shigure said. “Don’t trouble Tohru with this, okay? She has enough to worry about.”

Kyo hesitated. “I can’t promise anything. I’m going to protect her. That includes telling her things she needs to know so she can protect herself.”

“Just be careful. That girl has a martyrdom complex. Don’t make her act on it.”

Kyo didn’t bother to answer. He stalked out and slammed the door behind him. For a moment, he closed his eyes and breathed steadily. Anger had its place, but not right now and not here. He let it melt away, slowly, along with the tension in his body. He relaxed his death grip on the string and followed it to the kitchen where Tohru was scrubbing up the dishes. She smiled at him.

“Kyo! What did Shigure want to talk about?”

He smiled back, the last of his anger falling away. Shrugging, he grabbed a towel and picked up a clean, wet bowl. “Nothing important.”

School that day was, as Tohru predicted, difficult. She felt eyes on her and heard whispers every time she turned her back—in the halls, in her classroom, even in the bathroom. She couldn’t tell if it was better or worse when Kyo was next to her. No one had yet gathered the courage to ask her outright, but it wouldn’t be far off. Thankfully, she hadn’t seen either Hana or Uo. They wouldn’t hesitate to ask and wouldn’t be satisfied with half of the truth.

“This is weird,” Kyo said, slinking up next to her. “People keep looking at me.”

“Maybe this way girls will finally leave you alone! You won’t have to worry about getting ambushed with hugs from love-struck girls anymore.”

“You find the silver lining in anything, don’t you?” Kyo said. He was almost horrified at how soft his voice sounded. Tohru blushed.

“Honda Tohru!” A voice shouted from the end of the hallway. Tohru froze. A group of girls strode directly towards her. The leader, a girl with long black hair and big bows framing either side of her face marched through the crowd, one finger pointing directly at Tohru. The other students fell silent and parted to let her pass. Kyo swallowed hard, not liking how many eyes were on them right now.

“Yes, Motoko-senpai?” Tohru asked nervously as the other girl approached. She raised her hands as if to protect herself. Motoko Minagawa leveled her with an intense stare for a few endless seconds and then, suddenly, bowed deeply.

“Thank you,” she nearly shouted.

“You’re—you’re welcome. Ah, what did I do?” Tohru asked, thrown. Motoko wiped her eyes and said, “We were all so worried you were going to steal Prince Yuki from us.”

She clasped Tohru’s hands like they were old friends. Her eyes shining, she said, “We were all so scared when you walked in with a red string. But it’s not Yuki’s! You have our gratitude. The Prince Yuki Fan Club will never, ever bother you again.” She paused, a look of annoyance flitting over her face. “You could have just told us you were in love with Kyo. We wouldn’t have given you such a hard time if we knew.”

“Ah, I—!” Tohru said hurriedly, flushing. Kyo rolled his eyes.

“Leave her alone, then. She’s not a threat to you, so drop it,” he said coldly. Motoko met his glare and didn’t back off.

“Okay girls, let’s go,” she said finally, turning on her heel and nearly pirouetting away with the rest of her crew. Tohru put a hand over her heart and the other on Kyo’s arm.

“Thank you, Kyo,” she said breathlessly.

“It’s nothing,” Kyo said quickly. Tohru looked up, noticing their silent audience and hurriedly removed her hand from Kyo’s arm. The general student body went back to their lives, leaving Kyo and Tohru blushing at each other in the hallway.

Tohru got called to the office soon after. She expected a phone call from Shigure or maybe from her grandfather, checking up on her. She did not expect to see Akito Soma standing in the center of the school office. Unlike the first time he came to the school, he was wearing traditional kimono, which made him look imposing against the background of the modern building. The teachers and secretaries looked pale compared to him—or maybe they were pale because they could feel the energy coming off him. Though his clothes were impeccable, his hair was mussed and there were faint circles under his eyes. He jerked his head towards the door and started off without a word to her. She trailed behind him nervously. They ended up in an unused classroom in the first year’s hall. Akito closed the door but didn’t turn around. Tentatively, Tohru said, “Ah—I didn’t expect to see you again so soon, Akito. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

He scoffed, one hand still on the door handle.

“I am god, after all. You think I wouldn’t notice when my playthings go missing?”

“What do you mean?” Tohru stammered. “God?”

Akito smiled sharply. “Didn’t you know? I am not only the head of the Soma clan, I’m its god. The god of the Zodiac. I know Yuki confides in you. Surely you’ve wondered why he doesn’t simply leave the Somas behind.”

Akito turned around, throwing out his arms, palms upturned and hands clutching at something invisible. “His god wants him to stay, and so he must! No Soma can ignore the wishes of god. I exist to rule the thirteen and they exist to please me. That is the way things are. That is what you have stumbled into, little girl.”

Slowly, he lowered his arms, turning to face Tohru for the first time.

“I had a terrible dream last night. Like the ones announcing one of my Zodiacs entering the world, but the opposite. I dreamed that you took my Cat away. I had to confirm I was mistaken. Was I?”

Instinctively, Tohru hid her hands behind her back. Just as quickly, she knew it was the wrong move, so she let them hang down by her side. Akito’s eyes flashed dangerously.

“I was not. Something must be done about that. You’ve met Hatori. You know what his duty is. He’s waiting outside in the car. You may either go with him quietly or….not. It’s your choice.”

“No, you can’t erase my memories!”

“Can’t I? You’ll find there’s very little I cannot do.”

Tohru cast around desperately for something to convince him otherwise.

“Even if you erase my memories, the string will still be there! Nothing can break a red string of fate, except—”

She clapped her hands over her mouth, but it was too late. Akito smiled, a cruel thing that chilled Tohru down to her bones. “Except death,” he finished. “What a novel idea.”

He reached out and touched her hair, dragging his fingernails through it. As he petted her hair, he said casually, “I can hardly kill a member of my Zodiac, not even the cursed Cat. He’s my possession, after all. It would be a waste. You, however….” His grip in her hair tightened before letting go. “Well, I’ve been generous. I let you keep your memories. I let you stay in Shigure’s house. I let you meet my Zodiac. But this time, you’ve taken something that belongs to me. And for that, you’ll pay.”

Tohru knew her shaky breath would give her away, but she stood as tall and proud as she could. The fear she’d felt chasing after Kyo’s monstrous form felt like nothing compared to the ice-cold terror racing through her. It pressed down on her like a physical thing but she refused to bow to it. She clasped her hands in front of her to stop their shaking.

“Kyo belongs to me. He belongs to Kazuma. He belongs to his friends here at school. He belongs to Yuki and Shigure. Kyo belongs to himself. He belongs to anyone he wants to belong to! Maybe that will include you someday. Maybe it won’t.”

Tohru lifted her chin. “I watched my mom waste away to nothing, trying to hold on to someone who didn’t belong to her anymore. I don’t want to see anyone end up like her.”

Tohru thought of the photos of her mother that she still carried everywhere, and how she talked to her mom every single day. Shame prickled at her, but she ignored it. That was different. She was different than Akito. She had to be.

“Letting go is hard. But if you want to live, you have to.”

She lifted her hand, displaying her red thread. “I have someone I can’t let go. My hold on her is slipping. I couldn’t have chosen Kyo if I hadn’t started to let her go. It’s terrifying. That’s how you feel about Kyo, right? And the Zodiacs?”

Akito eyed her string with something like hunger on his face. Tohru suppressed a gasp, something clicking into place suddenly. She knew that look—she had seen that look on her own face as a child.

“Oh, I understand. You’re jealous,” she breathed.

“No,” Akito hissed. “I am God! I am not jealous of a mere girl.”

“But you are!” Tohru insisted. She knew it was reckless, but now that she had thought of it, she couldn’t stop the words coming out of her mouth.

“You’re a jealous god. You have your Zodiac, but that doesn’t mean they won’t fall in love with someone else. That doesn’t mean they won’t leave you someday. All you want is to be loved, right? That’s what everyone wants, in the end.”

“Shut up! Shut up!” Akito exclaimed, clapping his hands over his ears. Tohru grabbed Akito’s hands earnestly, forcing them away from his ears.

“It’s like you said: I’m just a girl. I’m no one special, I’m no one at all. But I have a red thread. If someone as plain and uninteresting as me can have a thread, then you might someday too!”

Akito shoved her away roughly. Tohru landed on the floor with a thump but scrambled up right away, brushing off her clothes.

“You have so much love bottled up inside you, don’t you? So much that you feel like you might burst with it! When you keep it inside, it builds up and turns sour, like milk left in the carton. It comes out as anger, doesn’t it? Fear is easier to control than love. Violence is easier than tenderness, right? But Akito….”

Tohru was crying, great heaving sobs born of sorrow and fear and the fierce understanding that she was, after all, very much like the man standing in front of her. “Akito, all that love can be good if you just let him go.”

Akito screamed. He put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her backward until her back hit the wall.

“I hate you!”

“Yes!” she shouted back. “You do! Because I’m taking away someone you love! I hated my dad for taking away my mom! It hurt so badly but I let him go and I got her back! And now I have to let her go so I can have Kyo! It’s so awful….why can’t we have both?”

Tohru pressed the back of her hand against her mouth, trying to stifle her crying, or maybe to stop herself from saying too much.

“Why can’t I have both?” she asked, forlorn.

Akito released her shoulders. She sat down on the ground, still sobbing. Akito didn’t exactly hover over her, but he didn’t move away either. Tohru managed to get herself under control again, but when she looked up, Akito averted his eyes as soon as she met them.

“Go,” he said shortly.

“Akito?”

“Get out. I’ll let you have Kyo for now.”

Tohru sniffed and wiped her nose. “O-okay? Why?”

Akito turned his back. Tohru couldn’t see the expression on his face or read anything from his body language. “I don’t have to explain myself to little girls. Just leave.”

Tohru stood up. She straightened her clothing and pushed back her hair. She bowed formally to Akito even though she knew he wouldn’t be able to see it.

“Thank you.”

She hesitated. She didn’t want to press things, but she thought maybe Akito needed to hear this. “I think….we’re like each other, a little bit. If you’d like, maybe someday we can be friends.”

He didn’t respond. Tohru bowed once more and left the room, shutting the door quietly behind her. She leaned against it for a moment, catching her breath. Just then, Kyo came crashing around the corner. His string was held tight in his hand as if he was using it to guide him to her. Breathing hard, he said, “I saw Akito—I’ve been trying to find you—are you okay?”

Seeing him made her eyes well up with tears again.

“Can I hug—?” she started to ask, but he crossed the distance between them and wrapped his arms around her before she could finish the question. The resulting poof of his transformation dissipated quickly enough that Tohru didn’t even feel bad about hugging him in a public place.

“Did he hurt you?”

“No, no. He doesn’t even scare me,” Tohru lied. Kyo, back as a cat, shook his head fondly.

“You’ve always been the brave one, Tohru.”

Tohru took a deep breath and forced away any more tears. She held Kyo close to her like she had less than a day ago. Shakily, she said, “I’m actually more scared of what Hana and Uo are going to say when they find out.”

“Ha. That’s….that’s a joke, right?”

“Yes, it’s a joke,” Tohru said, smiling a little more genuinely. She sighed, looking at the closed door. She was sure the shadow just behind it was Akito. She wondered if he was listening, and, if he was, what he would get out of their conversation.

Kyo said, “Let’s go home, okay? I think we’re justified in skipping a day of school.”

Tohru nodded, she shoulders sagging. Sorry, Mom, I’ll do all my makeup work as soon as I can. But Kyo’s right. I need some time right now.

“That sounds nice, Kyo. Let’s go home.”