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Year of the Cat

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Contrary to popular belief, Tohru Honda was not naïve.

Spacey, sure. Gullible, definitely. But she was a modern, independent woman. Eighteen years young, with a top-notch education and wifi access. Like any self-respecting Millennial, she binge-watched the Tudors on Netflix. And she read Fifty Shades if only to understand what the fuss was about.

(An unwarranted fuss, honestly. Shigure’s novels were better.)

As such, Tohru knew more than enough about sex, thank you very much. Health class taught anatomy, contraception, and how to protect herself against disease. She took notes. She practiced rolling a condom down a banana.

And any questions too embarrassing to ask, she googled.

Tinder existed. Grindr existed. Porn existed.

Tohru knew these things too. Difficult not to, living under the same roof as three adult men. Though Shigure and Yuki were discrete in their habits, Kyo was too technologically inept to erase the history from his internet browser.

Go ahead. Ask Tohru how she knew that.

Though it was Kyo’s own fault for leaving his laptop out, sans password, open in the living room. She borrowed it, innocently enough, to look up a recipe, since she’d forgotten to charge her iPhone.

Why, when Tohru typed ‘hot pepper chili’ into Firefox, his computer autocorrected it and searched instead for ‘hot petite brunette’ was absolutely none of her business.

Nope. No siree.

Though that didn’t prevent her from seeing precisely five enlightening seconds of the video that popped up. Which featured an aforementioned petite brunette on her knees, in a nondescript school uniform, applying herself toward a most enthusiastic blowjob.

Tohru had never X-ed out of anything so fast in her life.

In retrospect, it was harmlessly hilarious. And to this day, she was 200% certain Kyo didn’t know what she discovered. If he did, he’d probably never speak to her again. Which was stupid, since most people masturbate.

Though Tohru never had. Because she didn’t know how. But the magazines she borrowed from Uo said it was good for your health. Endorphins and stress relief and whatnot. So maybe she’d try.

Someday.

And besides, comparatively, Kyo’s taste in porn was rather vanilla.

Schoolgirls. Blowjobs. Pretty standard fare. Truth be told, there was much kinkier stuff — albeit slightly less graphic — on the Tudors and True Blood and Game of Thrones, and nobody judged Tohru for watching those.

She felt some guilt for invading Kyo’s privacy. But Tohru was no stranger to guilt. It had been her constant companion for years, on account of this wildly inappropriate, megalithic, clandestine crush on a man who was (1) her housemate, (2) the Cat of the Zodiac, and (3) one of her best friends.

Now, adding insult to injury, was the forbidden knowledge that Kyo jerked off to brunette schoolgirls. And despite what her hindbrain might have her believe — namely, that ‘brunette schoolgirl’ was a reasonable description of Tohru herself — she tried not to get her hopes up.

A lot of women in Kyo’s life had brown hair and wore school uniforms.

Kagura, for example.

Tohru cringed with irrepressible jealousy. Kagura was a Zodiac too, free to snuggle and spoon other Zodiacs with impunity. And Kyo deserved that. He deserved somebody he could hold at night. Who could sleep in his arms.

Without turning him into a cat.

Because, even in a parallel universe where Kyo secretly wanted Tohru the way she wanted him — newsflash, he didn’t, Akito straight-up told her he didn’t — they had the Curse to contend with.

Tohru had no practical experience whatsoever with sex, but the mechanics weren’t all that complicated. Tab A. Slot B. By definition, that required touching. Quite a bit of it. Touching which, from the perspective of the Zodiac, was indistinguishable from hugging.

Which created a unique logistical dilemma. Considering, though Tohru liked cats as much as the next girl, she’d vastly prefer for Kyo not to transform into one while… yeah.

Personal preference.

Not that it was a bridge Tohru would ever actually cross. During this highly unrealistic, utterly improbable, completely hypothetical scenario in which Kyo Sohma loved her as much as she loved him.

Because he didn’t. Love her, that is.

Akito told her as much, months ago, when they’d struck a strange and subversive bargain. A deal with the devil. An offer Tohru couldn’t refuse.

If she ceased any and all attempts to break the Curse, then Akito would forgo the Cat’s confinement. Indefinitely.

Sounds too good to be true?

It was. Akito played her like a violin. Forced her to pick a favorite.

Cursebreaker Tohru fought for thirteen Zodiacs.

Tohru In Love only had eyes for one.

In saving Kyo, she betrayed Yuki. She betrayed Shigure and Momiji and Kisa and Rin and all the others. She condemned them to Akito’s yoke. Forever unending. A truly eternal banquet.

Nevertheless, she conceded.

A heartfelt confession, disguised as a ceasefire. Tohru loved Kyo, and Akito knew it. He was banking on it. That there was the ace up his sleeve. His curveball. His suckerpunch of humiliation and rejection.

Through his godlike bond with the Zodiacs, Akito knew their innermost workings. Their deepest, darkest desires. And only after their deal was struck did he reveal the painful truth.

Kyo didn’t love her in return.

Why would he? Tohru was so plain, so boring, so poor. She’d nothing to offer. Sohmas marry actors and supermodels and Fortune 500 heirs.

That day, she bought Kyo’s freedom.

His freedom to leave her behind. To forget all about her. To move on, to meet someone else, to start a family with a worthier woman. A woman he’d bless with children who had his freckles and copper-red hair.

A steep price. But Tohru paid it. For Kyo.

Who need never know the cost of his bailout.

The last thing she wanted or needed was his pity.

Anyway. Life goes on.

Spring came, as it always does. Though her love went unrequited, that didn’t stop Tohru from daydreaming. Nor did it stop her from ogling out her bedroom window whenever Kyo trained shirtless in the backyard.

Make no mistake, his gentle heart and brilliant mind were what first endeared her. But that man was also handsome as sin, with chiseled features and a physique that put sculptures to shame.

His arms. His chest. His back and abdomen, ripped with muscle. And don’t forget his hipbones. Sweet mercy. You could cut yourself on those sharp, elegant arcs that dove beneath his sweatpants, pointing the way to his—

Okay. Real talk.

She’d already seen Kyo naked. Countless times.

Wardrobe malfunctions were a fact of life for cursed Sohmas, when turning into their animal spirit and back again. Come to think, Tohru had (accidentally) seen the equipment of every male member of the Zodiac.

Except for Kureno, who singlehandedly kept her from winning penis bingo. Which was ironic. Since he was the Rooster. Better known as the—

Very punny, universe.

By no fault of their own, the worst nudity offenders were Kyo, Yuki, and Shigure. In that order. Over years, Tohru had gotten better at not crashing into her housemates. But they lived together. And she was clumsy. Shit happens.

That being said, she’d seen her fair share of naked men. And Uo’s magazines insisted that size didn’t matter. That it wasn’t a competition.

But if it were, Kyo won.

By a considerable margin.

He was… endowed. Strikingly so. Uncircumcised too. Long and thick and more than little intimidating. Framed with coarse, reddish hair that started just below his naval before plunging into a treasure trail.

Not exactly a beginner-level dick.

You know. In theory.

The Curse applied only if her upper body touched his. That’s what constituted a hug by Sohma standards. Hands and legs didn’t count. Mouths didn’t count. Presumably, penises and vaginas didn’t count either.

Tohru didn’t know for sure, of course. Most of the Zodiacs were either too young or too private to volunteer such information. And she certainly couldn’t ask Kyo outright, for fear he’d die from a prudish aneurysm.

Tohru blushed and giggled to herself, while chopping vegetables for dinner. Imagine the look on his face if she ever asked that.

“What’s so funny?” demanded Kyo, seated at the chabudai table, glancing at her over the screen of his laptop. “Don’t space out while using a knife.”

“I’m being careful!” assured Tohru, a little too brightly. I’m more careful with knives than he is about hiding his porn collection.

Which made her blush and giggle some more.

Kyo stood up, indignant, and marched into the kitchen, then peeked curiously over her shoulder, sniffing as he did. “Whatcha making?”

“Chicken noodle soup.” She feigned casual calmness, despite being hyperaware of how close he was. “No chives, I promise.”

Kyo had grown so tall. He towered over her. The top of her head barely hit his chin. And he was strong too, and lean, and fit, with muscle in places Tohru had never seen muscle before.

He could probably deadlift her. Pick her up as if she weighed nothing.

Sweep her up like a bride. Haul her upstairs and pin her down and—

Stop.

Don’t.

That was impossible. A silly pipe dream. And not just because Kyo would turn into a cat if he held her, if he carried her, if they made love. Curse notwithstanding, he didn’t look at Tohru like Tohru looked at him.

But then again, a little fantasy never hurt anyone.

He idled behind her as she prepared dinner. And, technically, if Tohru leaned far enough forward, if he bent her over the counter, then their chests wouldn’t touch. The Curse wouldn’t trigger.

Heat pooled in her tummy.

They had the house to themselves tonight. Yuki’s student council meetings always ran late, and Shigure was off on business at the main estate. Tohru and Kyo were wonderfully, dangerously alone.

The only thing holding her back was propriety.

And all it’d take to shatter that fragile facade was Kyo’s consent, ideally in the form of his big hands on her back, pushing down. He could. She’d let him. She’d let his calloused fingers flip up her skirt and peel down her panties and—

“Ouch!” The knife slipped, poking her thumb. Tohru hissed in pain.

“Dammit!” cried Kyo, grabbing her elbow. A protective impulse. His grip was tight enough to bruise, though not on purpose. He’d never hurt her on purpose. “What did I just say about knives?!”

The cut wasn’t bad. A pinprick, really. But she was bleeding quite a bit. Kyo tore off more paper towels than strictly necessary and applied firm pressure to her wounded finger.

“Sorry,” she said, hanging her head, letting him help.

“Only you’d apologize for bleeding,” mumbled Kyo.

He stood even closer to her now. Face to face. Fretting and fussing like a mother hen. His red hair was freshly washed. A gorgeous, glorious disarray. Kyo always bought the same woodsy shampoo, cheap in bulk at Costco.

Tohru loved that smell. His smell.

“Fuck this.” With his free hand, Kyo scrambled for his phone, always in the back right pocket of his jeans. “I’m calling Hatori.”

How about they not bother the good doctor so late on a Tuesday. Tohru teased, gently insistent, “Or you could get me a Band-Aid and some Neosporin from the bathroom.”

His amber eyes filled with worry. “What if it gets infected?” Kyo really did care. Such a good friend. “What if you need stitches?”

“I don’t need stitches.”

Uncertain, he scrunched his nose. It was cute. Like a grumpy cat.

Tohru met him halfway. “Go get the first aid kit.” Life was about compromise. And to make Kyo happy, “We’ll call Hatori in the morning.”

He huffed, but obeyed. Tohru held the paper towels to her cut while Kyo dashed up the stairs, taking them two by two. What a hot, self-endangering mess they both were.

Peaceful domesticity just wasn’t their brand.


Nobody wore a button-down quite like Kyo Sohma.

Staring was rude. Tohru knew better. Or rather, she knew better than to be obvious about it. Considering she’d been head over heels for him since they were sixteen, and Kyo had yet to notice. Nearly three years later.

Either Tohru was that subtle, or Kyo was that obtuse. Possibly both.

Today, however, was the final boss.

Tohru Honda versus Kyo Looking Hot in Clothes.

Ultimate smackdown.

Rehearsals for their class play — Sorta Cinderella — had gone surprisingly well, despite infighting between the cast and a script in constant flux. True to form, Ayame Sohma delivered on their costumes in spectacular fashion.

Even Yuki was genuinely, if quietly, impressed.

Tohru took great pride in her role as the stepsister, opposite Hana’s Cinderella. Though she’d never been on stage before. And she’d never worn a corset before. Uncomfortable, yes. Antiquated, definitely.

But it worked wonders for small breasts.

Case in point, for the first time in her life, Tohru had cleavage. Itty bitty cleavage. But it was there. Her tits were defying gravity. She kept glancing down the scoop of her own dress, awestruck.

Ayame really was a genius with needle and thread.

In more ways than one.

Who else would’ve guessed that white was Kyo’s color?

Because it was. Heaven above. Was it ever.

Prince Charming, indeed. Method acting at its finest.

The tight fit of his tunic would haunt her dreams. Tohru would remember forever how he filled those trousers. Black boots that quit just below his knees. Gold filagree along his neckline and sleeves and across his chest.

Kyo hated everything about his costume.

He rolled his eyes, groaning and grumbling that school plays were stupid, that he’d never wear this ridiculous getup again. No matter. They had video evidence thanks to Haru, parked in the audience, iPad in hand.

Not that Tohru planned to watch Kyo’s scenes on repeat or anything.

Of course not.

On opening night, after they took their bows to a standing ovation and the curtain dropped, Kyo stormed into the dressing room, tearing open his starched collar. “I can’t breathe in this damn thing.”

“Don’t rip it,” scolded Yuki, carefully removing his hat and robes. He made a perfect fairy godmother. Fairy godperson. “My brother will shoot you.”

Tohru sat at a vanity, unbraiding her hair, listening to them bicker back and forth. It was soothing. Like white noise. Old news. Par for the course.

Then she turned around to ask Kyo… something. Tohru honestly couldn’t recall her question. Because there he stood, artfully disheveled, hands on his hips, tunic unbuttoned, sweat from the stage lights trickling down his jawline and neck and half-bare chest.

Her throat went dry.

Not to be dramatic, or crass, or stereotypically thirsty, but Kyo Sohma belonged on the cover of a romance novel. Full stop. Prince Charming gone wild. A walking talking wet dream.

“What?” demanded Kyo, utterly oblivious as he toed off his boots.

Tohru squeaked a sound that vaguely resembled, “Huh.”

He crossed those thick arms. Which made the veins in his hands pop. And did not ease her suffering. At all. “You said my name weird.”

Had she? She probably had. At that moment, Kyo’s name was the only word in Tohru’s vocabulary. Cognitive function takes a backburner when the man of your dreams dresses like a prince and does a striptease.

“Whatever.” Kyo raked fingers through his hair, and Tohru threatened to spontaneously combust. Love sucks. “Get changed so we can go home.”

Upon mention of her costume, his gaze flickered down.

Away from Tohru’s face. To the scoop of her dress. To her humble and modest cleavage, making its triumphant debut in an Ayame-supplied corset.

To his credit, Kyo was incredibly furtive. Lightning quick. His eyes lingered on her décolletage for only a split second before snapping away. The sneakiest of peeks. Over and done so fast that Tohru might’ve imagined it.

After which he walked off as if nothing had happened.


Once, by accident, Tohru walked in on Haru and Rin having sex.

Last winter, they spent the holiday at the Sohma’s lakehouse. It snowed the entire time they were there. Tohru and the younger Zodiacs were bundling up for the cold, eager to play outside, when she realized her mittens were still packed in her luggage.

She hurried to the guest bedroom she shared with the other girls. Without thinking, without knocking, Tohru waltzed right in.

And there they were.

A shirtless Haru was kneeling at the foot of the bed with Rin sprawled out before him, on her back, naked. There were reddening love bites all over her full, round breasts. He held her hips over the mattress edge, with her legs slung around his shoulders and his face buried between them.

From the doorway, Tohru yelped in surprise.

They both turned, in synchrony, to look at her.

“Oh. Huh.” Haru’s head popped up. Calm as anything. Though Rin’s fist was clenched hard in his black and white hair. “Hiya, Honda.”

Rin glared down at him. “You were supposed to lock it, dumbass.”

“I forgot.” Haru grinned wolfishly, his cheeks flushed, his pupils blown, his lips shiny wet. “Must’ve had something else on my mind.”

“I am so sorry!" cried Tohru, mortified. She promptly spun heel, slammed the door, and fled the scene. Mittens be damned.

Later that night, after dinner, Rin pulled her aside and apologized.

Tohru flailed. “No, no, it was my fault!”

“No, it was mine.” Rin wasn’t mad, though. In fact, she was laughing. “I fucked my boyfriend at noon, in a houseful of nosy relatives, behind an unlocked door. Not my best laid plan.”

Tohru smirked. “I thought you looked pretty well laid."

Rin’s eyebrows hit her hairline, because such a pun came out of sweet, innocent Tohru Honda. Poor naïve little flower. No dirty jokes around Tohru. No locker talk around Tohru. It’ll offend her delicate ears.

That was getting really old, really fast.

The Sohmas were so overprotective. Especially Kyo. He worried about her constantly. And Tohru appreciated his concern. Truly. From the bottom of her heart. She worried about him too.

But she wasn’t a little girl anymore.

She wanted him to see her as the woman she’d become. Not the child she was when they first met. Tohru often wondered if that’s what kept Kyo from wanting her the way she wanted him. Some ridiculous, highhanded, outdated notion that he’d grown up, but she hadn’t.

What sexist nonsense. They were both eighteen. The same damn age.

Tohru screwed her courage to the sticking place and said, “Hey, Rin?”

“Hmm?”

Here goes nothing.

“What does— " Tohru ought not pry into her friend’s relationship. It was rude. And none of her business. But she was so curious. “What Haru was— was doing. To you. What’s it feel like?”

Objectively speaking, Tohru knew what oral sex was. Jon Snow did it to that wildling girl on Game of Thrones. But there was a distinct difference between actors on television and the real-life Haru — kind, sensitive Hatsuharu — using his mouth on a woman.

“Feels amazing,” answered Rin, unperturbed. “Haru gives great head.”

That particular euphemism was unfamiliar to Tohru, but she inferred its meaning. “Do most guys want to— to kiss girls down there?”

Might Kyo want to? Would he be good at it?

Probably. He was good at everything.

(Except computers. And pop culture.)

A dangerous train of thought. Tohru’s hindbrain conjured up the very vivid mental image of a handsome redhead between her thighs. Kyo Sohma, a precision-trained martial artist, on his knees, tongue hard at work.

It followed the rules of the Curse. No hugging required.

In theory, Kyo could do… that. To her. Without turning into a cat.

Fodder for a lifetime of fantasies.

Since that’s all they’d ever be. Fantasies.

Rin saw straight through her hypothetical questions and shot Tohru a dry look. “How should I know if Kyo likes to go down?” Theirs was a bullshit-free friendship. “March yourself upstairs and ask him.”

If only. Tohru rolled her eyes. “He’d faint like a Victorian nun.”

Rin snorted.

“I really, really like him.” Tohru sighed heavily. Strange, to admit it aloud to someone other than Akito. And realize the world kept spinning. “I love him.”

“Everyone knows that already. Literally everyone.”

Tohru flinched. Of course they did. Yuki read her like a book. Shigure lived for gossip. And Master Kazuma was no dummy. Between those three, plus Akito’s long con, you can kiss subtlety and secrets goodbye.

“Everyone,” amended Rin, thoughtful, “except Kyo.”

“I can’t tell him,” argued Tohru. There were no less than ten million reasons why, but she ran with the simplest. “I’m friendzoned.”

Rin hummed, conspiring. “We can fix that.”


Kyo, for his part, suspected nothing.

In retrospect, he should’ve.

He really should’ve.

It started like any other summertime Saturday. He woke early, before sunrise, to go jogging. By the time he returned, Tohru had opened the shōji doors to the front porch and was setting the table for breakfast.

She waved when she saw him. Bright and chipper. “Good morning, Kyo!”

He grunted a reply, still catching his breath. Punishment for pushing his run to five kilometers, instead of the usual four. Especially in this heat.

Kyo plopped onto the deck to remove his sneakers. Knowing his routine, Tohru brought him a bottled water and a cool, fresh towel. These were the little things that doomed him from the start. Thoughtful gestures. Kind words.

They took root in his heart, leaving him no choice but to fall in love.

Unrequited love, obliviously. And he could never, ever tell her.

Akito warned him not to, because Kyo already had more than the Cat deserves. He ought to be satisfied. He ought to be grateful. He ought to count his lucky stars that Tohru accepted his true form.

And not only that. She fought for him. Gunned for him. She advocated for him and struck a shady, surreptitious deal with the Sohma patriarch.

To forgo the Cat’s confinement.

Indefinitely.

Details were sketchy. Even Shigure was in the dark. But if the Zodiacs believed in nothing else, they believed in Tohru Honda. That woman was a force of nature. Fearless. And stubborn as all hell. Like a dog with a bone.

They called it her Cursebreaker Mode.

Once Tohru set a goal, God himself couldn’t sway her.

And God would know. He tried. Akito tried.

Graduation came. Graduation went. Kyo walked free.

Even still, he craved more.

He craved Tohru — mind, body, soul. His freedom meant nothing without her smiles and musical laughter. Kyo was a lustful, selfish asshole.

Tohru already bore, with utmost dignity, the emotional baggage of thirteen curses. Must she also suffer sexual advances from Kyo, the Spirit of the Cat, a demon whose humanity hung by a thread of red and white beads?

He could never ask that of her. Kyo loved her too damn much.

Tohru skipped into the kitchen, chatting away with Shigure, who sat at the head of the table, sipping his tea, nose in a newspaper. Yuki was absent. Probably still asleep. Nocturnal rodent.

Shigure asked, conversationally, “Any plans for the weekend, Tohru?”

“Actuallyyy,” she said, folding her arms behind her back and bowing her head. That was her wants-something-but-hates-to-impose look. “It’s such a beautiful day. Would it bother you if I sunbathe in the yard?”

Kyo spat out his water.

“No bother at all,” came Shigure’s singsong. “What a splendid idea.”

No. No. It really wasn’t. It was a terrible idea. A multilayered pyramid scheme of bad. Like a too-tall tier cake of impending disaster. Shigure couldn’t be trusted around pretty girls. Especially not pretty girls in swimsuits.

Kyo had to supervise. For Tohru’s sake.

So, after breakfast, he retreated to the roof.

His safe space. Where he could watch the world without it watching him. There, he readied himself. Steeled himself. Meditated and mentally prepared to see Tohru flouncing around in a swimsuit. Again.

She only owned two. That navy blue monstrosity issued by their school. And the floral pink one-piece she wore to the beach last summer.

He knew what to expect. Or thought he did, at least. Kyo sat crosslegged on the hot ceramic shingles. Close enough to the roof’s edge to see the yard, but far enough back so nobody could see him.

A protective, brooding sentinel. Shigure better check himself.

A few minutes later, Tohru emerged from the house.

With a folding lounge chair. She popped it open in the middle of the lawn, then fixed her hair in a messy bun, donned those stupidly large sunglasses, and shrugged off her gauzy lace coverup.

Surprise, she apparently owned a third swimsuit.

Burnt orange bikini. White polka dots.

That was… new.

When and where she’d bought it was anyone’s guess. Sexy, yet classy. Very on-brand for Tohru, though Kyo seriously doubted she picked it out herself. That little number had Uotani or Rin written all over it.

Damn, those bottoms were cheeky.

Not that he was complaining.

Tohru stretched out and reclined on the lounge chair. One knee bent. An arm draped above her head. Every inch of her smooth, bare skin was shiny with sunblock, from slender legs to flat tummy to—

Okay. Full disclosure.

Kyo loved tits.

Especially hers. Small and pert and perfect.

Especially in the soft, clingy fabric of that swimsuit. Nothing fancy. Nothing elaborate. Sure, the dress Tohru wore during Sorta Cinderella was a feast for the eyes, but her corset looked so constrictive. So uncomfortable.

Kyo himself hated tight clothes. Unclear whether that was the Cat’s idiosyncrasy or his own. Point being, he couldn’t even wear a tie without feeling claustrophobic. It seemed hypocritical to drool over Tohru in a corset.

So. Anyway. You get the idea.

Respect women juice. Drink up.

She laid there for another hour, soaking up sunshine, earbuds in, foot bobbing to a Pandora playlist. She occasionally tapped at her iPhone, skipping songs she didn’t like.

From his perch on the roof, Kyo pretended not to stare.

Remember, he was supervising. That’s it. That’s all.

Two hours in, Yuki finally made an appearance. Sleeping Beauty awakes. He came outside to chat with Tohru about nothing in particular. Job applications and dinner plans and her new swimsuit.

Compliments of the Cat’s ears, Kyo won Olympic gold in eavesdropping.

“I like the polka dots,” he heard Yuki say. “Where’d you get it?”

“Nordstrom!” answered Tohru. “Rin took me shopping.”

Kyo scoffed. Called it. He owed Rin a fruit basket.

“I’m going to the Secret Base,” said Yuki, which was his not-secret code for his not-secret garden. “Does Chef Honda need any produce?”

“Cukes, please!”

“Yes ma’am.” That suave, smug bastard smiled at her, waving goodbye before he walked toward a dirt path into the nearby woods.

But Tohru wasn’t finished with him yet. “Hey, Yuki?”

He stopped, turned.

The offhand, jittery way in which Tohru asked, “D’you know where Kyo is?” was supremely odd. And she wrung her hands. And bit her lip. Nervous tics. “I haven’t seen him since breakfast.”

Yuki smirked that insufferable smirk. The one that meant he knew something you didn’t. “I think he’s hiding on the roof.”

“Hiding from what?”

Pause, then jab. “Cute girls in orange bikinis.”

Kyo was gonna eviscerate that damn rat.

Once Yuki left for the garden — for real, this time — Tohru immediately picked up her phone. She scrolled for a few seconds, took a weirdly determined breath, then started typing what was probably a text message.

Kyo’s phone buzzed in his pocket.

Sure enough. Text from Tohru. <You busy?>

He answered. <Depends on what you want.>

She sent a string of cat emojis, followed by, <I want your help with something. Pretty please come down.>

Like it or not, he went. Kyo never could deny her.

Up close, that bikini looked even skimpier. He traversed the lawn like a man bound for the gallows. Eyes genuflected. Hands stuffed in his pockets. When Tohru saw him, she took off her sunglasses and sat up on the lounge chair.

In her hand was a bottle of SPF 30 Coppertone.

Oh shit.

Kyo realized why he’d been summoned exactly one millisecond before Tohru began reading verbatim from the product label. “Instructions are to reapply sunblock every two hours. Could you put some on my back?”

Chivalry said abso-fucking-lutely not.

But his dick vehemently insisted that chivalry was dead.

“Can’t you do it yourself?!” snapped Kyo, reverting to temperamental defensiveness. Because if he touched Tohru, he might never stop. “How’d you put on sunblock this morning?”

Her response was sweet as pie. “Shigure helped me.”

Kyo froze. “What.” When?!

He heard Kill Bill sirens. He saw violent, boiling, murderous red. Paralyzed with spitting, sputtering, seething rage. Shigure was a dead man walking. Kyo would rip that filthy old dog limb from limb.

How dare he take advantage of Tohru. How dare he lay a finger on—

“Kidding, I’m kidding.“ Her laughter carried an undercurrent of genuine concern. “Bad joke. Sorry. Please don’t kill your cousin.”

Pulse still thundering, Kyo scowled at her. “That’s not funny!”

Tohru tried, and spectacularly failed, to contain her giggles. Which were fast evolving into cackles. “You should’ve seen the look on your face.”

Kyo sighed. Half in frustration, half in relief. The mere suggestion that another man rubbed lotion all over Tohru was enough to catapult him into a jealous rampage that rivaled Dark Haru.

Which was immature. And uncalled for.

She didn’t belong to him. Tohru didn’t belong to anybody. She was her own person and always would be. Meaning, if she liked Shigure’s flirting, and Yuki’s praise, and Momiji’s gifts, that was her prerogative.

I wonder if she likes anything about me.

Ever a sentimental idiot, Kyo mumbled, “Don’t joke about stuff like that.”

“Relax. Shigure’s all bark, no bite.” Tohru wiped away tears of laughter with the back of her hand. “And you’re so very diligent as my virgin alarm.”

Kyo choked on his own tongue. “Your what?!”

“My virgin alarm,” she deadpanned, casual as anything. “To uphold my maidenly virtue. Like in Spaceballs. On Netflix.”

He didn’t know what Spaceballs were. At this point, he didn’t much care. Not while the word ‘virgin’ was bouncing around his brain. Tohru was a virgin. Duh. Obviously. Of course she was. She’d lived with the Sohmas since she was sixteen. And never had a boyfriend.

Not a big deal. Kyo was too.

A virgin, that is.

But she just… said it. Out loud. To him. Straight-up told him, to his face, she’d never had sex. Like they were discussing the weather.

This was incredibly inappropriate. On so many levels. Master Kazuma raised his son to be a gentleman. And gentlemen aren’t vulgar. Especially not around girls. So Kyo always tried his best to behave around Tohru.

And besides. Virginity was a meaningless societal construct.

It was.

It was.

Though that didn’t stop Kyo from getting sprung. Off the sight of Tohru and her orange swimsuit. Off the knowledge that, given a chance, he could be the first to kiss and squeeze those tempting little tits. The first to slip a hand under her bikini and make her feel so—

Stop.

Don’t.

The Curse.

“Gimme the damn sunblock,” grumbled Kyo, eager to get this task done as quickly and painlessly and with as few boners as possible. Ideally. Hopefully.

Yeah. Not a chance in hell.


Tohru’s evil plan was in motion.

Well. It was actually Rin’s evil plan. A plan several months and several shopping trips in the making. A plan so bold and so brazen that Tohru would’ve chickened out long ago, if not for her friend’s encouragement.

A plan that — compared to Zodiac curses and threats of memory erasure and Akito’s ulterior motives — was almost comical in its simplicity.

Operation Orange Bikini.

Rin had stood patiently outside the Nordstrom fitting room while Tohru dithered about trying on a two-piece. The swimsuit was vintage chic. Very cute. A bandeau top with polka dots and ruffles.

And orange. To represent the Year of the Cat.

Whose patron she was attempting to seduce.

Her. Tohru Honda. Seduce a man.

And not just any man. Kyo Sohma.

“I’m not sure I can do this,” admitted Tohru from the curtained cubicle, agonizing over her blemishes and cellulite in the mirror. Those bikini bottoms barely covered her bottom.

“You can do it. And you will.” Rin was fiercely supportive. In a tough love sort of way. “But you gotta go big or go home if you want Sohma dick.”

In the privacy of her fitting room, Tohru blushed redder than a tomato.

True, that was the endgame. She wanted every part of Kyo. Including… that. But his heart was strictly off limits, per Akito. So she had to settle for what meager scraps she could get.

Kyo needn’t marry her. He needn’t date her. He needn’t love her, as much as that hurt. But Tohru (very) recently arrived at the inescapable conclusion that her first time had to be with Kyo. It had to be.

She couldn’t possibly lose her virginity to any other man. Lest she spoil the moment by closing her eyes and wishing he were Kyo.

Which would suck. For everybody involved.

Hence, Operation Orange Bikini.

Though Rin suggested and selected the swimsuit itself, Tohru had the brilliant idea to sunbathe in Shigure’s yard. Sookie Stackhouse did it all the time on True Blood. Innocuous enough to avoid suspicion. Scandalous enough to garner attention.

Fast forward several weeks, to a hot, cloudless day in early July.

Showtime.

While Kyo was on his morning run, Tohru set her trap. She spent a solid hour in the bathroom, shaving and plucking and moisturizing. She dug out a folding chair from the hall closet. She even set a countdown timer on her iPhone, to alert when she should reapply sunblock.

Correction, when Kyo would reapply her sunblock.

As she’d asked him to do. Just now.

Predictably, he balked. Resisted. Hackles up. Ever the contrarian. But Tohru had three years of practice in deescalating his temper. Tease him. Crack a dumb joke. Appeal to the goofball kitten underneath that feral tomcat.

It worked, eventually. His shoulders relaxed. The wrinkles smoothed from his brow. And Kyo finally acquiesced with, “Gimme the damn sunblock.”

Houston, we have liftoff.

Tohru tossed him the Coppertone. Kyo sat beside her on the lounge chair. The butter-soft denim of his jeans brushed her thigh, and he squeezed a generous glob of lotion into his hand.

“Turn around,” he ordered, ending with a softer, “Please.”

She did, heart aflutter. Obeying him was… heady.

But that was nothing compared to the moment Kyo touched her.

Tohru felt it like a static shock, the gentle sweep of his huge hands across her shoulder blades and upper back. The sunblock was cool and slick, but his palms were rough. Kyo rubbed her bare skin in featherlight circles, tender and cautious, as though she were a porcelain doll that might break.

“Thank you,” she managed to squeak. “For helping.”

“D’you, uh— " He cleared his throat, awkwardly. “D’you burn easily?”

Tohru nodded. “My whole family does.”

His fingers slid lower and lower, down her spine, spreading sunblock beneath the backband of her bikini. Appreciably thorough, but it meant a flimsy eye hook was only thing stopping Kyo Sohma from removing her top.

If he tried, she’d let him. Right here. Right now.

Tits out in the middle of Shigure’s manicured lawn.

Tohru squirmed, ticklish, when Kyo reached the small of her back. Which earned his telltale sigh of impatience and exasperation, as he took painstaking care not to graze her bum by accident.

“This would be over a lot faster,” snipped Kyo, “if you quit wiggling.”

Tohru forgot herself. “Why would I want it to be over?”

He froze. She froze.

Nobody moved, or spoke, or breathed. Her not-confession hung in the air between them. Charged and electric. Like a challenge. Like a dare.

Tohru could almost taste it, a palpable shift, as Kyo took the bait.

His thumbs pressed harder into her back, running slowly, deliberately up the furrows alongside her spine. Voice small and hitching, Tohru arched into those big, strong hands. She’d always loved his hands.

“Oh,” she peeped, pleasantly surprised.

And that’s when his perfunctory application of Coppertone upgraded into what was unquestionably, unmistakably, unabashedly a massage.

Hallelujah.

Bolder now, Kyo returned to where her neck met her shoulders, kneading out knots and tension as he went. Tendon by tendon, muscle by muscle. He scooted closer, but not close enough for his front to touch her back.

This would be an incredibly inopportune time for him to turn into a cat.

Because the firm, rhythmic pressure from his fingertips was—

“Is— is this okay?” whispered Kyo, reverently, into her ear.

He once told her, years ago, to be selfish sometimes. And because the man touching her was Kyo — shy, honorable Kyo — Tohru had to make it explicitly, abundantly clear how much she liked what he was doing. Or else he’d spook.

“Better than okay.” She glanced over her shoulder, and the heat blazing in his eyes nearly knocked the wind out of her. “Please don’t stop.”

Next she knew, his left hand was slipping under her arm, around her ribs, to press his gigantic palm flat against her belly. His rosary beads brushed across her skin, and Tohru felt that between her legs.

If not for the Curse, he’d probably pull her into his lap.

But he couldn’t.

In lieu of an embrace, Kyo nuzzled his nose into her hair, inhaling long and deep. A low, contented sound rumbled from his throat. A sound Tohru had never heard him make before.

It could only be described as a purr.

His hand inched up her stomach, higher and higher, stopping only to tug at the decorative knot on her bikini top. The one smack between her breasts.

And then Kyo asked, dripping promise, “What happens if I untie it?”

Holy bedroom voice. Zero to sixty. Who was this lothario, this smooth operator, radiating confidence and magnetism? Tohru was supposed to be seducing Kyo, but the tables had very much turned.

And she loved it. A little too much.

So much that she didn’t notice Shigure reopen the shōji doors and step onto the porch. Until he shouted, loud and amused, “You two having fun?”

Tohru squealed in shock. Kyo shot to his feet.

Spell broken. Caught redhanded.

“Dammit,” snarled Kyo, waving a fist. “Don’t sneak up on people!”

Shigure leaned against the doorframe, cleaning his glasses on his sleeve, quirking his head like an inquisitive dog. “I was just checking on Tohru.” And then he asked, quite solemn, quite serious, “You alright, cherub?”

Setting aside Shigure’s playful veneer and manipulative streak, Tohru recognized the earnest expression on his face. It was how Kazuma looked at Kyo, and how Ayame looked at Yuki — halfway between elder brother and protective father. Not controlling. Not overbearing.

Just… there. In case she needed him.

“I’m fine,” answered Tohru, firmly. She really was.

Shigure glanced sidelong at Kyo, then back again. “You sure?”

Tohru was a big girl. She took responsibility for her actions, like Rin did when she and Haru got caught. This was her rodeo. It was her decision to let a man rub her down and feel her up. Kyo did nothing wrong.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

He pressed buttons she didn’t even know she had.

“Whatever you saw,” said Tohru, without regret, “I started it.”

Shigure beamed, all deviousness and dimples. “Well then.” Satisfied, he disappeared into the house, chuckling to himself. “Good for you.”


After the sunblock incident, Kyo couldn’t even look at her.

What the actual fuck was he thinking. What demon of sexual deviancy had possessed him. He’d groped Tohru. Scented her like an animal. And threatened to take off her clothes. In broad daylight. Outside. On the front lawn.

I really am a monster.

Her high, girlish moan was still ringing in his ears. He could still feel her trembling beneath his hands. Eager and responsive and ready. He’d long wondered what Tohru might be like in bed.

He hated himself for it. But he couldn’t help it.

She was fascinating. Utterly enchanting. An oddball enigma who declared for the Year of the Cat. A woman full of heart and contradiction. How did that blushing ingénue and fiery cursebreaker both exist inside one person?

He loved Tohru more than he’d ever loved anyone or anything. But the love of a Zodiac was a minefield. Too perilous to cross.

He had to shield her from the Curse. He had to. And to do that, the first, most important step was keeping his accursed hands to himself.

Easier said than done, apparently.

That night, Kyo rubbed one out in the shower. And again after collapsing on his futon, tossing and turning, unable to close his eyes without seeing her tits in that bikini and hoping her nipples were the same dusky pink as her lips.

Her bedroom was across the hall from his.

Kyo muffled his grunts with a pillow and came into his hand.

The next morning, he ran six kilometers in twenty minutes. Personal best. A workout grueling enough to smother libido with exhaustion. But then he arrived home to find Tohru cleaning the kitchen in a bright yellow sundress, ribbons in her hair, looking innocent as a goddamn angel.

Almost instantly, Kyo was rock hard again.

And burning with guilt so immense he had to leave the room.

“What about breakfast?” she called after him. “Aren’t you hungry?”

Yeah. Yeah, he was. Ravenous, actually. But only for her, for Tohru, for the most beautiful woman in all creation, lying naked on that chabudai table, knees bent and legs spread, served up like a feast for him to—

Kyo went to the dojo.

He always felt better after beating the shit out of a punching bag.

Around his third straight hour in the weight room, Master Kazuma tapped him on the shoulder. “My keen parental instincts tell me you’re upset.”

Kyo ignored him, readjusted his boxing gloves, and landed a few particularly brutal hits on the punching bag. “I’m fine.”

“Clearly,” said Kazuma, unconvinced. After which he just stood there, hands on his hips, silently and patiently and expectantly waiting.

Kyo wiped his forehead on the white sleeve of his karategi and stubbornly refused to budge. Like father, like son. “I said I’m fine. Go away.”

But his master knew him too well. “Did something happen with Tohru?”

Ouch. Busted. Kyo went stiff. Was his poker face that transparent?

“Ah. Thought so.” Much too proud of his deductive skills, Kazuma sat on a weight bench and patted the space beside him. “D’you want to talk about it?”

“No,” grumbled Kyo. He really didn’t.

“Well, that means we should talk about it, then.” Kazuma rested his elbows on his knees, settling in for The Conversation. “You can tell me anything, Kyo. You’re my son.”

Though therein lie the problem. For all intents and purposes, Master Kazuma was his father. And the root of Kyo’s moral crisis — namely, his hard-on for the girl he considered his best friend — wasn’t exactly G-rated.

Hopelessly vacillating between embarrassment and self-loathing, he plopped onto the floor mats at Kazuma’s feet. Where he used to sit when he was a kid, clinging to his master’s words of wisdom like they were gospel.

“Master, I— " Kyo hung his head. “I screwed up. With Tohru.”

Kazuma tread carefully. “How bad a screwup?”

“Pretty bad.”

His master hesitated before venturing, “Is she pregnant?”

Kyo recoiled, dumbfounded. “Wha— of course not!"

“Oh, thank fuck.” Kazuma released the breath he’d been holding, with a laugh of pure relief. “You had me going there for a second.”

What the hell. Kyo was truly, honestly offended.

And it must’ve shown, because Kazuma spread his arms, palms open in reconciliation. Or mock surrender. “How should I know what kind of trouble you get into at Shigure’s house?”

“Not that kind, jeez!”

Well. Not before yesterday, anyway. But he digressed.

“I screwed up because I— " Kyo braced himself for the world to come crashing down. He felt about an inch tall. “I— I’m in love with her.”

That was the first time he’d ever said it out loud.

Master Kazuma didn’t react. Not even a blink.

So Kyo went on. “Zodiacs aren’t allowed to love. The Curse hurts people we love.” He clamped his eyes shut. He wouldn’t cry. He wouldn’t. But he was so fucking scared. “Everyone knows what happened to Hatori and Kana.”

A literal bloody shitshow. That’s what happened. Post-traumatic stress and unilateral blindness and lifelong regrets. Kana had her memories erased. Hatori was an empty shell of a man.

And now, Kyo painted the exact same target on Tohru.

Kazuma reached out a calming hand, placing his palm on the crown of Kyo’s head. “May I share something with you?” he asked. “In confidence.”

Kyo looked up, interest piqued.

“I would never speak ill of Kana. Nor belittle her suffering.” His master seemed to be thinking aloud. He did that sometimes. “And she was much like Tohru. Generous and gentle. Too good for this world.”

Yeah. No kidding. That’s what Kyo feared most. History repeating.

“But Kana and Tohru fight their battles quite differently,” noted Kazuma, leaning back on the bench. “When Kana learned of the Curse, her first instinct was to accept it.”

Now Kyo was lost. “Tohru did too.”

“No. No, she didn’t.” Kazuma made his point and made it well. “When Tohru learned of the Curse, her first instinct was to break it.”

A pin dropped.

She was stubborn. Fearless. A force of nature. Nothing and no one could stop that woman. Not magic. Not curses. Not demons or gods. She willingly shed tears and sweat and blood for the Sohmas. For Kyo.

“Kana was glass. Beautifully fragile.” Kazuma stared him down. No qualms. No doubts. No reservations. “Tohru is steel. Don’t underestimate her.”

No matter how many times life beat her down, she got back up again.

Tohru could take care of herself. Tohru could slay her own dragons. Tohru heard about the Cat’s impeding confinement and told a millennium of sacred tradition to go fuck itself.

(And for the record, had she been standing beside Hatori that day, it’s Akito who would’ve lost an eye.)

Master Kazuma stood, tucking his arms into his kimono. Here endeth the lesson. “Go home, son. Go ask Tohru if your love is worth the risk.”

“It’s not worth it!” snarled Kyo, those rosary beads heavy as lead around his wrist. “I’m not worth it.”

“That’s not your decision,” chided his master. “It’s hers.”