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the hope i want to share with you

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Akito wakes up every morning with Shigure beside her.

The Sohma house is settling into a new form of normal, the growing pains of a hundred people shifting across the estate. Akito finds herself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work Kureno had done, previously -- accounts she’d never managed, records she’d never looked at, allowances she’d never maintained. She promises herself that she won’t call Kureno, but when Hatori periodically stops by with the exact information she needs, she can fill in the blanks. Everyone is moving on, and moving out, and at the end of it all Shigure is still there.

“Good morning,” he offers, when she stirs enough to wake them both up. They’ve started to push their futons until they overlap at the very edge, and they still wind up on only one, Akito folded into Shigure’s arms until there’s no space left between them.

“Mmm,” Akito responds, because she’s only marginally more of a morning person than Yuki is, which is setting the bar awfully low. It’s easier to bury her head against Shigure’s chest, to let her hands tangle in the blankets like she can keep everything the way it is if she holds on tight enough. Change is for after she wakes up; she wants to bask in the early morning surprise that Shigure is still always there, no matter how many times she wakes up. He hasn’t left, but she doesn’t know how many more mornings it’s going to take for her heart to believe that he never will.

Shigure had always tolerated Akito’s desire for tactile affection, and he’s only grown more lenient in it now. He lifts a hand so that he can drag it down through her hair.

“Do you want to go back to sleep?” Shigure asks, and Akito hears the offer in his voice: that if she wanted it, he would happily find a way to block out the sunlight and waste away the entire morning in bed. Well, she has a few ideas about what he’d find a way to busy them with, but she doesn’t think any of it is conducive to actually waking up.

“No,” Akito says, finally, discarding the idea even if it sounds as appealing as ever. “I have work to do.”

There are fires to put out in the Sohma estate, and that’s without even touching the fact that Ren keeps wielding the remnants of her power against Akito just to be as inconveniencing as possible.

Shigure doesn’t reply. Akito assumes it’s because he knows that there’s little anyone could do to dissuade her from taking on the responsibilities she should have had years ago. It’s as much a form of penance as everything else is; it’s one of the things she thinks she can say is a job for Akito Sohma, and not the job for a fallen god.

He kisses her, though -- it’s short and sweet, and when he pulls away he kisses her again on the forehead, and Akito reaches up to press cold fingers against his collarbone in imitation of protest.

“Brush your teeth first,” Akito says, without meaning the words. She loves Shigure, morning breath and all, which strikes her as both gross and terribly saccharine, but it’s a part of her life that she’s trying to adjust to, letting these positive emotions have as much hold on her heart as the negative. One day, she thinks that happiness might eclipse everything else, but she isn’t there yet.

-

Akito wears modern clothing as often as she doesn’t, these days. Sometimes she opens the closet and feels overwhelmed with the options: there’s colors and cuts and styles to take into account when she never learned how to do so. She’s gotten rid of the clothes she wore when she was masquerading as a man, because she couldn’t tell herself honestly that she might not put them back on in a moment of weakness, that she might not try to go back to that and wrap herself in the security of it.

She’s been shopping with Tohru, though, and with Saki, here and there, and with that slowly blooming friendship she’s managed to stock her wardrobe with items and learn to coordinate them. She’s still terrible with bras, and half the time Shigure winds up getting them closed in the back for her so she doesn’t have to struggle, but it’s been getting easier and easier.

Most things have been getting easier and easier, which is terrifying in its own right.

Her hair has gotten longer -- she could pull it back, just a little, if she wanted to -- and she looks in the mirror to make sure that the dress she’s wearing looks how she imagines it does on her body, but for a split second she can only see her mother.

It’s that hummingbird pulse of familiar terror, that overwhelming swelling of anger, and she turns the mirror around and shoves it too hard to face the wall. She can hear the glass shatter, and she takes in a breath, steps back from it and tries not to let herself feel like this is another failure.

“Are you alright?” Shigure asks, and she can’t make herself respond, so she just allows herself to be wrapped up in his arms. She hasn’t lost this. She won’t lose this.

-

“You cut your hair,” Shigure observes. The sun has set, and Akito knows she’s pushing the edge of overwork, so she allows the distraction when Shigure sits down to lean back against the table and look at her.

“It’s fine at this length,” she says, “isn’t it?”

Shigure reaches up, and Akito leans into the touch. It’s still longer than she kept it for years, layered in the back in a way that marks it as distinctly feminine. It’s the most she’s willing to do.

“I always think you’re beautiful,” Shigure says, in that easy, calm way that can still take all the wind out of Akito’s lungs. She flushes, like always, and he smiles and tips her chin up so that he can kiss her. She closes the laptop, and Shigure kisses her deeper for it, and she gives up on work for the rest of the night.

-

Sleeping with Kureno and sleeping with Shigure are very different, and it has taken Akito less time than she imagined to adjust to that. Akito thinks that Kureno loved her, in his own way; it was a gentle and allowing love that gave too much and took too little. Shigure is selfish, no matter what he says about compromise, and he’s willing to push Akito until she feels like she might break under his hands.

“Ow,” Shigure says, conversationally, in the aftermath one night. Akito traces the marks she’d left with her nails, light trails along his shoulderblades, and considers.

“Is it bad,” Akito asks, carefully, because it still feels dangerous to be so honest about how little she knows, “to do that?”

“Hmm,” Shigure hums. “Well, I like it, at any rate.”

Akito smiles.

-

Akito doesn’t go to Tohru and Kyo’s wedding. Tohru invites her, but Akito doesn’t think she’s ready for something like that, the crush of joy from people whose happiness she spent so long trying to extinguish. She sends Shigure, instead, with more money than strictly necessary for a gift.

Shigure returns to Akito asleep, pitched forward onto the table with paperwork around her, and leaves the photo of Tohru and Kyo tucked underneath her elbow.

-

“They don’t want to let me demolish the Cat’s Room,” Akito says, unprompted, when Shigure wanders into the room with tea he definitely did not make himself. He sets the cups down, then sprawls out next to her across the tatami flooring, elbow on the table and attention directed at her.

“It’s your decision, isn’t it?” Shigure asks, mildly.

“It is,” Akito says, “but it turns out there’s a lot more to making a decision than just deciding it.”

It’s exhausting, actually; she wishes she could thank Kureno for all the work he put in alongside her for so long, that kept her from all of this. When she didn’t care about the feelings of others, it was certainly easier to conduct business as the head of the family, but she’s frankly amazed she didn’t manage to bankrupt everything.

“What’s their argument?” Shigure asks.

“It’s part of a family legacy,” Akito says. The words bite; Ren had come up with the argument as another way to try and point out all the ways that Akito falls short, to leverage the past against her.

“Are you going to listen?”

“No,” Akito says, “I’m going to bulldoze it and make it into a garden.”

“Yuki would like that,” Shigure says, calmly.

“I think,” Akito says, “it will be nice if something can grow in that spot.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” Shigure says, and slides some of the paperwork over towards himself.

-

“Has the weather bothered you?” Hatori asks, when Akito can’t put her checkup off any longer.

“No,” Akito says. “I’ve been well.”

“I’m glad Shigure is good for something,” Hatori says, and takes her temperature.

Akito hesitates for a moment, and then, carefully: “And… you? Have you -- been well?”

Hatori pauses. He looks at Akito for a long moment, and Akito wonders if she’s overstepped -- there were no boundaries, once, between them, but now there is nothing but unmarked walls that she’s afraid she’ll only discover by walking into them.

“Yes,” Hatori says. “Mayuki is expecting.”

Akito blinks. She’d approved the marriage, of course; Hatori had asked her alone, this time, and she was surprised in that moment that all she felt was a bittersweet happiness on his behalf.

“Congratulations,” Akito says, and when she tries to smile, it comes out easier than she’d expected it to.

Hatori offers her a small smile in return, before turning back to his paperwork.

“At any rate, you’ll need to be careful; your health has improved, but you’re still more susceptible to illness.”

-

“Everyone is getting married,” Akito says.

“Does it upset you?” Shigure asks.

“No,” Akito says, truthfully. “I’m glad that they can all move on like this. In some way, it makes me feel like I’m being forgiven. Do you think that’s wrong?”

“I don’t,” Shigure says. “I’m glad that you can move on.”

“I feel like I should feel differently,” Akito says, “but I’m grateful for what I still have.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” Shigure says, airily, a gentle flick of his wrist to accompany the gesture.

-

Akito doesn’t call Tohru directly, because it’s a shared line with Kyo and their tenuous relationship doesn’t extend very far at all. She has Shigure call, sometimes, or Saki; it’s a game of messaging to get her intent across, which usually results in a moderate delay of information.

Tohru, on the other hand, has Akito’s private line tacked up on her kitchen wall, and uses it regularly.

“Already?” Akito asks. She misses corded phones; she wants something to do with her hands. She drags her nails across the hem of her skirt, instead. “Are you going to find out if it’s a boy or a girl?”

“Mmm,” Tohru says, a deeply considering hum, “I think I want to be surprised! Kyo-kun says he doesn’t mind either way!”

“I’m sure they’ll be cute, either way,” Akito says, brain attempting to imagine what a child of Tohru and Kyo is going to end up like and failing to reconcile the differences.

“Please come and visit after they’re born,” Tohru says, and it has that genuine kindness that always seems to take Akito’s breath away.

“Of course,” Akito says, because she’s learning that even she can’t say no to Tohru.

-

Akito supervises the destruction of the Cat’s Room herself, because it’s a long time in coming and there’s something cathartic -- even for her -- about watching the stones fall down to be efficiently carted away by contractors. Everything about the curse has ended, if not nearly as neatly, but the earth underneath the building is dry and dead, and Akito doesn’t know what she can do to heal it.

“You’ll need fresh soil,” Yuki says, from behind her.

Akito glances back at him, surprised. She’d assumed that everyone would do their best to avoid her -- but perhaps that was selfish of her, too.

“I don’t know anything about gardening,” Akito says.

“Do you want to learn?” Yuki asks, and there’s something careful there, in his tone. His arms are crossed, and the sky is overcast and grey, and Akito can still see the hand when it’s offered, even if it isn’t tangible.

“Yes,” Akito says.

“Good,” Yuki says.

-

Akito has always taken solace in quiet moments, and it’s true now more than ever: she leans against Shigure’s chest and closes her eyes, listens to the sound of him slowly turning pages in his book and feels his steady breathing. He keeps an arm around her and rubs the pad of his thumb across her waist, almost absentmindedly.

“Akito,” Shigure says, after a long moment.

Akito opens her eyes.

“Do you want to get married?” Shigure asks, and Akito flushes without meaning to.

“What kind of a proposal is that?”

-

Ren manages to leap across an entire kotatsu when Akito informs her that she’s getting married, and the only thing that prevents Akito from meeting some form of unfortunate injury is the fact that she had the foresight to bring Shigure. Shigure holds her back, and Akito stands up.

“I had him first,” Ren bites, and Akito feels something in her chest seize up and then release just as quickly.

“You didn’t,” Akito says, and remembers the smell of camellias. “But you’re free to think otherwise.”

When they’re back in their rooms, Shigure wraps his arms around Akito, and she lets herself be surrounded by that familiar warmth like she’s a child again.

“It doesn’t matter,” Akito says, “who had who, because I have you now.”

“Yes,” Shigure says, and presses a kiss to her shoulder and holds her until she stops shaking.

-

“Did you know,” Akito says, deceptively conversational, sitting on the bench they installed where the Cat’s Room once stood, “that there’s an actual fund for Sohma marriages and life events like children?”

“Is there? I suppose I’m not surprised,” Yuki says. He pulls another weed from the garden to add the pile; Akito had been banned from trying to help after she pulled up an actual plant twice in a row.

“Yes, and you’re all bankrupting it,” Akito says.

Yuki lets out a huff of laughter. “You don’t have to send gifts to everyone,” Yuki says. “I know they all say they’re from Shigure, but I don’t believe for a second that Shigure remembers everyone’s birthdays.”

“There’s a calendar,” Akito says, “so he remembers, but only because he has to stare at it whenever we’re in the office.”

“Smart,” Yuki says. He stands up, dusting the dirt off his pants. He’s already grown so much, Akito thinks; he’s taller and filled out, and the quiet confidence that’s grown in him makes him like a foreign entity in Akito’s mind, one she’s still surprised she’s allowed to get to know. “Well, it’s a boy, if you want to send a gift. You don’t need to send Shigure.”

“For you,” Akito says, “he’ll want to hand deliver it, so there’s no escaping that.”

Yuki looks briefly pained at the prospect. “Well, it can’t be worse than what my brother did.”

“What did he do?”

“It involved streamers, and confetti…”

-

Akito stands awkwardly at the door and contemplates if she can run all the way back to the car before anyone notices she showed up.

The door opens, which dashes any hopes she might have had, and Kyo stares at her.

“Hi,” Akito offers, extremely awkwardly.

“Oh,” Kyo says. “...Hey. I’ll… get Tohru.” Kyo turns, and then pauses, letting his gaze sweep back to Akito. “Do you want to… wait inside?”

“Akito-san!” Tohru comes barreling up to the door a second later, Hajime in her arms.

“You taking him out?” Kyo asks.

Akito watches, for a moment, the way they’re so casual about it -- Kyo drops a hand to Tohru’s back, and Tohru beams at him, and they both seem to fit into each other’s space so naturally that Akito is fairly certain even the curse had no chance of keeping them apart.

“Yes! I won’t be out too long,” Tohru says. “Akito-san, would you like to hold Hajime?”

“I,” Akito says, a second too late: she’s being passed a child, and she awkwardly shifts to hold him in her arms.

Hajime wrinkles his nose, like he’s deeply considering crying, but Kyo reaches out to pat him on the head.

“Be good for your mom,” Kyo says, and despite the fact that Hajime is definitely not old enough to understand Japanese, he settles back down in Akito’s arms, if a bit reluctantly.

“Be safe,” Kyo says, once Tohru has her shoes on, and Akito looks away as Tohru lifts up to give him a gentle kiss goodbye.

“He’s getting so big,” Akito says, passing Hajime over to Tohru the second she’s able to. Akito has spent too much of her life breaking things to feel comfortable holding a baby for very long.

“Yes! He’ll be walking soon,” Tohru says. “He gets impatient that he can’t go faster when he’s crawling, so I’m sure it won’t be very long! Kyo-kun is hoping he has an interest in martial arts.”

“Are you still planning to take over the dojo?”

“Yes, one day! Shishou-san is still in very good health, so we don’t have any plans to move,” Tohru says. “Ah, but I’m talking about myself too much! How are you, Akito-san?”

“I like to hear about you,” Akito offers, and Tohru flushes pink.

“That’s-- that’s very, I mean--”

“I’m doing well,” Akito says, hurriedly, offering Tohru the quickest way out she can manage. Tohru takes it, shifting Hajime up higher on her shoulder and recovering into a smile.

“That’s good! I was worried you might be lonely,” Tohru says. “N-n-not that you don’t have friends! I’m sure you have other friends!”

“It’s lonely without you, for everyone,” Akito says, “but I think we’re managing. If I didn’t have Shigure, I’m sure I’d be on your doorstep more often.”

“Oh, does Shigure-san visit you a lot? I’m glad,” Tohru says.

Akito pauses. “Oh,” Akito says, distantly, the realization that Tohru was never the sort of person to make assumptions slowly dawning on her. “He -- moved back in.”

“Oh!” Tohru says. “I’d heard he quit being a writer, so--”

“We’re getting married?” Akito offers, and Tohru’s automatic noise of shock is so loud Akito can hear Kyo slam the front door back open.

-

“I’m sorry I forgot to tell you,” Akito says, once Tohru is sitting and Kyo has taken Hajime and everything is calm in the living room. Kyo had ushered them back in on the grounds that they were going to disturb the neighbors, and Tohru had been too surprised to do anything but follow.

“No, no, I should have realized! It… it makes sense, now that I think about it…” Tohru trails off, clearly reliving a series of moments in her head in a different light. “Are you going to have a wedding?”

“We haven’t decided,” Akito says, and thinks about the fact that any wedding they have would have a paper trail a mile long for Ren to find and latch on to.

“Please be sure to tell me when you get married! I want to send you both a gift!” Tohru says, earnestly.

“You’ll be one of the first to know,” Akito replies.

-

Akito knows it’s a dream, because her father is there. Her father and all of the juunishi, all there to see her get married. It’s a mish-mash of traditions, a bridal gown and a Shinto priest and the sun shining too brightly, and all she can feel is dread.

“You don’t deserve this,” her father says, in a gentle voice, and Akito turns to look at him. “You don’t deserve this.”

She looks away again, at the juunishi, their faces smeared out by black. She feels the knife in her back, and thinks this must be her mind’s best guess at how Kureno felt.

“Did you think you’d be happy?” Ren says, replacing the image of her father. Red seeps across the dress, and Akito takes a step backwards.

“I’m happy,” Akito says.

“You won’t be,” Ren says, and Shigure doesn’t block her when she goes after him, he just goes down across the stone flooring with his blood too bright and his smile frozen in place.

-

“Akito,” Shigure is saying, gently, over and over again, and Akito realizes she’s waking up a second before it happens, so she catches the gasp in her throat before it can turn into a sob. “Akito, it’s fine. It’s fine.”

Akito can’t speak, for a moment: she grips onto Shigure so tightly he hisses, her nails leaving crescent moons of red welling in their wake, and she buries her face into his chest and squeezes her eyes shut like it will help subside the fear that permeates her entire body.

“I’m here,” Shigure says, which is the exact right thing to say but also the wrong thing entirely because it makes that fear bubble back up into Akito’s chest until she can’t help but cry. “What were you dreaming about?”

Akito can’t manage the words, at first, so she just stays there. It’s familiar, to cry against Shigure, to let him wrap his arms around her and stroke her hair until she sleeps -- but she doesn’t think she’ll be going back to sleep, this time.

“I don’t want a wedding,” Akito says, and she feels Shigure pause. “I don’t mean I don’t want to get married. I don’t -- I don’t want a wedding. I don’t want anything to go wrong”

“Then we won’t have one,” Shigure says, “but even if we did, I wouldn’t let her touch it.”

Akito knows, she knows the kind of things Shigure thinks about -- he talks about revenge with his fingers trailing around his sake cup, he reads records and papers and forms plans and ideas that Akito can barely follow, much less follow through on -- but something in her heart still aches at the idea of it all. Relief that he’d fight for her; sadness that he has to; guilt that she could ever think of allowing anyone to get revenge on her behalf when she’s left so many broken on her own.

“I want to go somewhere,” Akito says.

“We’ll take a honeymoon,” Shigure says.

“I have work,” Akito murmurs, a soft protest that she wants to be overruled.

“You wouldn’t have any time for that any way,” Shigure replies, letting his fingers trail up her spine until she smiles into his collarbone.

-

Saki picks up the phone, and the first thing Akito can think to say is, “Do you want to be a witness for my wedding?”

“Aa-chan,” Saki says, “I’m coming over.”

She hangs up.

Half an hour later, she arrives at the Sohma estate, and is ushered back towards Akito who is surrounded by paperwork and a small stack of wedding magazines.

“Alright,” Saki says, sitting down easily, tucking her black skirts underneath her legs and looking slightly out of place in the traditional house. “Start from the beginning.”

“I’m getting married to Shigure,” Akito says, “but I don’t want a wedding, so I thought-- a witness.”

“I’ll do it on one condition,” Saki says.

Akito looks at her uneasily.

“I want to help go dress shopping.”

-

Akito staunchly refuses to let Ayame take her measurements, but she relents when Saki personally vouches for Mine, having apparently commissioned several black, Victorian-style dresses from Ayame’s shop.

“Do you like dressing up?” is the first thing Mine asks, as one of the Sohma maids sets tea down in front of the three of them and then quietly excuses herself.

Akito has been trained not to use filler words -- it’s unbecoming of a god, and it’s equally as unbecoming of the head of the Sohma family -- but she can’t quite think of a response, so she just stares. Mine has the same energy as Ayame, if a bit milder.

“She hasn’t had much opportunity,” Saki offers, sipping her tea.

“Mm, that’s right! Tenchou mentioned that you dressed as a boy for a long time,” Mine says, like there’s absolutely no boundaries between them. It’s almost refreshing, aside from the sheer terror.

“Yes,” Akito says, and then looks away. Shigure had helped her buy some of her clothing, and gifted her a good amount otherwise -- she’s heard that he did the same thing to Tohru, which would normally inspire some kind of jealousy in her except that was so endearing about it all.

She’d put her foot down about the maid outfit, though.

“So, something a little traditional, a little modern, a little androgynous…” Mine is tapping a pencil on the side of her cheek in consideration, before she makes some quick notes on a pad of paper that Akito genuinely didn’t even see her produce. “Okay! I have some ideas. Let me take your measurements and then once that’s out of the way, you can show me your closet!”

“I can,” Akito says, “what?”

“I’ve gotta get a sense of your style! You’re really cute, so it’d be a shame to let you wear something that doesn’t bring out your beauty!” Mine says, so rapidly that Akito almost doesn’t feel the way the compliment sinks into her skin like paint that marks her as an imposter. “Oh, and I brought clothes for you both to try on, of course.”

“I have been looking for a new dress,” Saki says.

“Have you considered branching out into navy blue, perhaps?” Mine asks, and then laughs when Saki frowns slightly. “I didn’t think so!”

-

Hatori meets them there.

“Haa-san! I’m glad you’re here to see the start of my marital bliss,” Shigure says, cheerful and over the top. They’re dressed down, all things considered; Saki’s dress is more bridal than Akito’s, despite being pitch black, but Akito hadn’t wanted to draw too much attention. The Sohma family had operated under the radar of most gossip, and the last thing she wanted to was to risk that when everything was finally starting to recover.

“Hmm,” Hatori responds.

“We’ll be able to go on double dates now! Wouldn’t that be fun--”

“It isn’t too late to change your mind,” Hatori asides, dryly, to Akito, who can’t help but laugh.

“Unfortunately, I’ve already committed,” Akito says, and Hatori offers her a smile.

“I’m never bringing Mayu around you,” Hatori says, to Shigure.

“Aa-chan,” Saki says, quietly, her hand on Akito’s elbow as Hatori and Shigure sort out the paperwork. Akito turns to look at her, and Saki isn’t smiling: her face is as serious as ever, impassive and blank. “If anyone tries to harm you, no matter how much you feel that you deserve it, there are those that care for you who will not be easily dissuaded from retribution.”

Akito winds the words around in her mind, and then reaches out, letting her hand fall onto Saki’s arm to mirror their positions. She understands what it means, now, to have people you would kill for and people you would die for, but it’s still so overwhelming to have people who like her despite all she’s done.

You don’t deserve this, her father’s voice echoes in her mind, and she thinks of all that she’s been through, all that she’s ruined and all that she’s managed to gain.

“Thank you,” she tells Saki.

-

They go to Kyoto for the honeymoon, because Akito doesn’t want to risk going too far away from the main estate in case anything disastrous happens. She spends the entire ride worrying regardless, and it isn’t until she gets to the ryokan and sees the small pile of gifts sent ahead of their arrival that she feels some of the tension ease out of her shoulders.

“How many people did you tell?” Akito says, because she’d told about four, and the only gift one of them would have sent would have been a hate note.

“Oh, everyone,” Shigure says, and Akito sighs as she reaches out to start going through them. “No one in the family wanted to give us money, so Tohru-kun helped everyone pick out gifts!”

“Money would have been in poor taste,” Akito murmurs, because they didn’t have a reception or even a real ceremony, and after the paperwork had all been signed and all the registries added to the only thing they’d done was go out to eat with Hatori and Saki.

“Oh, there’s still gifts in poor taste,” Shigure says, confidently. “I know for a fact that Aaya sent lingerie.”

Akito pauses, and then simply decides to ignore the statement. There’s gifts from more people than she’d have imagined: there’s the promised lingerie from Ayame, accompanied by an actual dress from Mine. Hatori’s sent books, and there’s a small bouquet of camellias from Yuki. Tohru’s sent a little scrapbook full of photos of her family, the extended Sohma members visible in many of them. There’s a little glass rabbit from Momiji, and a card that simply says congratulations from Kisa, pressed flowers on the cover, which is more forgiveness than Akito could have hoped for.

“He asked if it was alright before he sent this,” Shigure says, sliding over the last envelope. Akito recognizes Kureno’s handwriting and feels her breath catch in her lungs like static. For a moment, the world is blotted out by the ringing in her ears as she takes the envelope. The letter isn’t long -- it’s written mostly by Arisa, chatting about excited Tohru had been about Akito finally getting married -- and then at the end is Kureno’s signature. Thank you for being happy, it reads, in Kureno’s earnest lettering, and Akito folds the letter back and lets it rest over her heart.

“Thank you,” Akito says, to Kureno, and to Shigure. When she looks at Shigure, his gaze is dark and contemplative, so she leans in, presses against him and says it again.

“If you want to thank me,” Shigure says, “you could always wear--”

“No,” Akito says, cutting him off and letting the way he wraps his arms around her to pout resonate all the way through her.

“Ah, don’t deny a man’s dreams so quickly!”

-

Akito says she’ll wear the lingerie if Shigure wears the maid outfit, and it turns out that you should never dare Shigure to do anything if something he wants is on the line.

If Akito is being honest, she already knew that, but it was nice to see his legs in that many ruffles.

-

Days bleed into one another, and her honeymoon is over too soon. Shigure bans her from calling home, but she overhears him on the phone with Hatori and knows that her mother is kicking up a fuss.

“Akito,” Shigure says, and lays his hand over her eyes, pulls her back against him until some of the tension evaporates out of her frame. “Let me take care of this.”

“She’s my mother,” Akito says.

“You’re my wife,” Shigure says, and Akito slowly exhales, because the word sounds possessive, coming from Shigure; it’s an indelible mark she’ll never get rid of that marks her as his. Truthfully, she thinks it’s been that way for a long time, but it’s nice to have the proof on paper, on her finger, in her words whenever she wants to say them.

“You’re my husband,” Akito murmurs, for the sound of it in her mouth. “She’s going to try to kill you for that alone.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time a woman tried to kill me,” Shigure says, and Akito turns over, presses up onto her knees so she can slide her palms across Shigure’s cheeks and look into his eyes.

“You’re too annoying to die,” Akito says, tenderly, and Shigure laughs.

-

Akito opens the first door she sees, walks inside, and then closes it behind her before anyone can see where she went. It’s only after that that she looks up, eyes wide.

“Huh,” Hatsuharu says. “You running from something?”

Akito glances through the length of the room, but it’s just him -- she imagines Rin has been spun off by another member of the family in preparation for the New Year’s festivities.

“I’m running late,” Akito says, because she’d meant to leave hours earlier except that everytime someone else arrived with a child it meant at least one Sohma maid would interrupt her work to wax poetic about how she wasn’t getting any younger, and she’d wound up pushing up deadlines on finalizing everything before businesses closed for the holidays, and--

“For New Year’s?” Hatsuharu asks.

“I’m going to the cottage,” Akito says.

“Ocean’s pretty boring in the winter,” Hatsuharu says.

“It’ll be relaxing,” Akito says. She thinks of joining New Year’s -- in another world, where she doesn’t have hands heavy with sin and a heart heavy with guilt -- but she’s not certain that day will ever come again. “Excuse me.”

She hasn’t heard anyone pass in the hall, so she’s reasonably certain she can make it out without being noticed.

“Akito,” Hatsuharu says, as she opens the door, and she pauses to look back at him. “Thanks. I dunno how everyone else feels, but… this kind of thing works better if you don’t force it, you know?”

“I’m not in any position to be comforted,” Akito murmurs, quietly.

“None of us are,” Haru says. He reaches out, and then hesitates, but he makes the final drop, pats her on the shoulder as he slips out past her. “Kind of the point of forgiveness, isn’t it?”

Akito blinks rapidly, because the last thing she needs is to start crying on her way to the car.

She waits until she’s inside the car to do it.

-

Akito and Shigure don’t exactly fit in the bath together, but he insists that’s part of the fun, and she doesn’t mind it enough to put up an argument about it.

“I’ve… been thinking,” she says, very carefully.

“That’s ominous,” Shigure murmurs. He moves his hand up, dragging up to her should and tucking through her hair with no regard for the water he’s getting everywhere.

“Do you--” Akito starts, then stops. It’s something she’s been thinking about for a long time, but it’s still a terrified circle in her chest that she doesn’t know how to release long enough to talk about it.

“Hmm?” Shigure hums, encouraging, and she tilts her head back until she can see his eyes, the familiar tilt of his smile, the line of his jaw. She reaches up to trail her fingers across the skin of his collarbone, the whispering inside of her wanting to be closer, closer, closer. It’s all her, she knows; she’d thought it would be quiet, without the curse there, but it’s as loud as ever.

“Do you want a child?” Akito says, finally.

Shigure catches her hand, presses her knuckles to his lips. “Are you thinking about an heir?”

“No,” Akito says. “It isn’t that. I know that the family is worried about succession, but it’s possible to work around it, if necessary. There isn’t a curse anymore. We’re a normal family, more or less. It’s just that--”

She trails off again. She hasn’t made up her mind, really. Does she want a child? Does she want to run the risk? What if she doesn’t love it -- what if it doesn’t her? Could she handle that kind of rejection? Could she handle that kind of stress?

“I’d love a child,” Shigure says, in that casually honest way that had once been like a thousand papercuts across her skin. It’s soothing, now; the warmth of a spring breeze after a cold night. “But if we have one or don’t, I won’t love you any less for it.”

“How do you always know what the right thing to say is,” Akito says, her voice pitched into the most critical she can muster when she can feel everything inside of her calming down.

“This woman appeared in my dreams once, and she showed me her heart…” Shigure says, and Akito smiles and cuts him off with a kiss.

-

“I think we’re trying for a child,” Akito says, delicately at the next check up with Hatori. Hatori’s pen pauses, and he looks up. “Is that alright?” Akito can’t help but ask -- she needs permission from Hatori as much as she needs permission from a doctor, one tied into the other so deeply that she can’t begin to unravel them.

“You’ve been getting stronger,” Hatori says. “I’ll want you to start taking more vitamins now. Have you already stopped taking birth control?”

“No,” Akito says. “I wanted to talk to you, first.”

“You can stop after your next cycle,” Hatori says. It’s all very clinical and businesslike, which is very Hatori, and Akito folds her hands in her lap. “Was there something else?”

“No,” Akito says, which is a lie, but she doesn’t want to burden him anymore than she already does. Hatori, who refused to let her shutter herself away; Hatori, who said that he had forgiven her long ago, and had no need to do so again.

She’d cried, then, because she didn’t feel she deserved it. She’s starting to think that Hatsuharu has a point.

“Are you worried?”

“Yes,” Akito says. “I don’t know how to be a parent. I don’t know if this is a good idea.”

“I’d be more worried about Shigure,” Hatori says, dryly, and Akito looks up at him for a split second before she realizes it’s a joke. “I don’t think I’m the person you need to reassure you. Medically, you’ll be fine, and I don’t think it’s a bad idea, but there’s someone much better at this kind of conversation than either of us.”

“I rely on her so much,” Akito murmurs.

“To her,” Hatori says, “there’s no higher compliment than to be relied on.”

-

Tohru comes to the estate, and Akito meets her at the gate and takes her to the garden. The spring has started, but Yuki hasn’t found the time to come by yet -- Akito has done her best to make sure the garden is cared for, but Tohru immediately steps over to start working.

“We’ll need to get the weeds out -- I mean, if you’d like to help! I don’t want to impose!” Tohru says, and Akito smiles.

“It’s my responsibility, isn’t it?” Akito says, and rolls up her sleeves. It’s easier to weed when there’s not any actual plants growing yet, and Tohru shows her how to till the soil and make sure that everything is ready for seeds to be planted.

“Yuki-kun taught me how to plant the seeds, but I don’t know what he wants to plant this year,” Tohru says.

“He’ll come by,” Akito says. “He’s been busy with Mutsuki, as I understand.”

“Yes! He’s so cute! He’s already trying to boss Hajime-kun around,” Tohru says, clasping her hands together. There’s a smudge of dirt across the bridge of her nose, and Akito reaches out automatically to wipe it away but only winds up making it bigger. “Oh!” Tohru says, and wipes at it with her hand, and the end result is that Akito starts laughing until Tohru does.

“Would you like some tea?” Akito asks, and Tohru agrees. Akito waves off the maid that steps over to help, because Tohru still automatically makes tea and the last time Akito had tried to stop her Tohru had apologized for intruding for a solid three minutes.

“There’s something I wanted to ask you,” Akito says, once they’ve both settled down with tea and freshly washed faces.

“Of course! If I know the answer, I’ll be happy to help,” Tohru says. Her hair is pulled back from her face, and there’s a light to her eyes that wasn’t there, the first time Akito met her. Tohru has always been radiant -- she was blinding, once, to Akito, when Akito was still trapped in the darkness -- but there’s even more happiness there, now, like she contains so much joy within her it simply leaks out into those around her.

“What’s it like,” Akito says, carefully, “to be a mother?”

“It’s wonderful!” Tohru answers, immediately. “I mean -- it’s a little hard, sometimes, because there’s this whole other person who relies on you for everything... it felt like too much responsibility. I was worried I’d mess up. But I’m sure my mom had the same fears… I’m sure she felt like she made mistakes, sometimes, or that she wasn’t a good enough mother, but I always thought she was the best. So I hope that’s what it’s like for Hajime-kun, too!”

Akito tries to reconcile it. If she tries, she can overlay Ren with Tohru in her memory: she can imagine what it must feel like to be held when you’re sad, to be comforted when you’re upset, to be told that you’re enough the way you are. She wonders how she would have turned out, if she could have met someone like Tohru earlier.

“I think if you asked, Hajime-kun would say that you’re the best mother there is,” Akito says, and Tohru grins.

“I hope so!” Tohru takes a sip of her tea, and then pauses. “But why do you ask?” Tohru’s eyes go wide and she leans forward. “Could it be that you’re--”

“I’m not pregnant,” Akito says. “But I’ve been thinking about it.”

Tohru is quiet for a moment, in that way that makes Akito think she must be thinking very deeply.

“Are you afraid?” Tohru asks.

“Yes,” Akito says, quietly. She looks at her tea; she looks at her hands on her cup, at the wood grain of the table.

“Kyo-kun… Kyo-kun said, the first time he held Hajime-kun, that he had no right to be so happy,” Tohru says. “That he’d never done anything in his life to have people in his life that he loved so much. But none of us really deserve it, do we? We don’t deserve love. That’s why it means so much when we receive it. I think having a child… Bringing a child into the world, and promising to love them no matter what… I think that’s a good thing. I think you have a lot of love to give, Akito-san.”

Akito doesn’t know how it is that so many conversations with Tohru end with Akito crying, but she doesn’t realize it’s happening until she blinks and feels the tears spill over.

“Oh,” Akito says, and Tohru moves around the table, and Akito meets her in a hug.

“I think you’d be a good mother,” Tohru says, and Akito puts her hand over her face and wonders why it feels so much like forgiveness.

-

In the end, Akito stops taking her birth control. She takes the new vitamins, and makes sure she’s prioritizing her health, and then doesn’t make any changes past that.

“Que sera sera,” Shigure says, after a couple months with no changes. “But that means we can keep trying, right?”

“You’re so one-track minded,” Akito says, and lets him press her back against the futon.

-

“He flew in from Italy?” Akito says, and Saki nods. Akito continues to ignore the feeling of Mine carefully threading a hairpiece into Akito’s hair, being quietly frustrated that Akito’s hair is too silky to provide the amount of friction necessary.

“I need another barrette,” Mine murmurs, to herself.

“Yes, he said he wanted to spend time with me here,” Saki says. She presses a hand to her cheek like she’s a maiden in a romance novel. “We spent the weekend together.”

“That’s romantic,” Mine says, giving up on the hairpiece and going for one with a headband instead. Akito’s dress is more simplistic than Saki’s, which involved two different black petticoats layered onto each other, but it still feels over the top for what amounts to a tea party between friends.

“Yes,” Saki says. “I do hope that he’ll consider a repeat trip in the future.”

“Are you going to visit him?” Akito asks.

“Hmm,” Saki considers it, sipping her tea. “I suppose I might, but only if he proposes. I’ll have to meet his family, of course.”

“You’re always thinking ahead,” Mine says. She spins around the chair to survey Akito carefully, reaching out to tug Akito’s bangs into the precise placement she wants. Akito has gotten used to Mine, which is terrifying in its own right, but she still can’t manage to find how to understand Ayame in the slightest. “Alright, that’s perfect!”

“Your tea is getting cold,” Saki observes.

“That’s fine! Lean in so we can get a photo,” Mine says, and Akito and Saki both lean into the picture obediently. The camera flashes -- more than once, because Mine has to be sure she’s gotten a good shot -- and then Mine finally settles in her seat to drink the tea.

Akito reaches a hand up to gently test the balance of the headband, the weight of it different than the hats she normally favors.

“I think we’ll have a western wedding,” Saki says, “so you’ll both be invited, of course.”

Akito takes a sip of tea, and Saki levels her with a calm stare that speaks volumes.

“I won’t allow you to skip, Aa-chan,” Saki says. “You’ll be coming for me, after all. It would be rude to refuse.”

Akito winces internally, and she doesn’t think the smile is quite as convincing as she’d like when she gives it to Saki, but Saki seems to accept it. “I’ll come,” she promises, and wonders if it’s a promise she’ll be able to keep.

-

Saki is engaged a few months later, and Akito can’t say that she’s surprised at how fast things move.

“You’re coming, of course,” Saki says, to Akito.

“I’ll come,” Akito repeats, uncertainly, watching Ayame and Mine flutter about their shop to make Saki an elegant floor-length bridal dress in four shades of black.

“Would it ease your mind if I spoke with Arisa?” Saki asks, raising her arms so that Mine can doublecheck a measurement.

“You shouldn’t have to do that for me,” Akito says.

“Aa-chan,” Saki says, softly. “You’re both my friends. I want you both to be there, and to be happy, on the day when I am meant to be the happiest.”

Akito doesn’t know what to say to that, so she fusses with a piece of ribbon until Ayame notices and proclaims it a stroke of genius, that there should be ribbon on the edge of the sleeves.

-

“We’re going to Saki’s wedding,” Akito says.

“Mmhmm,” Shigure says. He’s leaning against the open shoji, the breeze ruffling his hair and book pages alike. “Did they already pick out a dress for you?”

“Yes,” Akito says, “but…”

Shigure sets the book down, spine folded backwards to hold his place. “Is Kureno coming?”

“I don’t know,” Akito says. “I think so.”

“Well, it’s fine, isn’t it?” Shigure says, with such confidence that Akito can’t help but be taken aback with how quickly her fears were set to the side. “Since we’re married, I won’t be jealous anymore!”

“That’s not actually what I was worried about,” Akito says. Shigure holds an arm out, and Akito steps forward, dropping down to her knees to perch delicately in front of him.

“Wasn’t it?” Shigure says. He wraps an arm around her, pulls her closer until she loses her balance and tilts onto him completely. “He left so that you could find your own way. Don’t you think it’ll make him feel better to see how well you’re doing?”

Akito thinks about saying it -- that she has no right to be doing this well and no right to be this happy -- but Kureno, of all people, would never begrudge her happiness. She knows that, because it was demonstrated to her a thousand times over, in every gentle touch and comforting word that he gave her even when he shouldn’t have.

She doesn’t say it. She shifts her knee in between Shigure’s legs, instead; there’s still a quiet thrum of jealousy within Shigure, regardless of what he says, and she lets him take it out on her body, urges him on until she forgets about the conversation entirely for a few blinding moments.

-

Kureno is at the wedding. Akito sees him, sees Arisa’s hand on his arm and the cane in his hand, and feels her stomach lurch so violently that she excuses herself and runs to the bathroom to expel the contents of her meager breakfast.

Hands sweep her bangs back, after a moment, and it’s Mine’s voice that reaches her ears.

“Don’t suppose we can blame morning sickness, huh?” Mine says, sympathy in her voice.

“I doubt it,” Akito says. Mine waits until Akito’s heaving stops, then pulls out a wipe from her purse.

“It’s a baby wipe,” Mine says, almost apologetically. “You’ll feel better if you can wipe your face down.”

Akito still isn’t much for makeup, but her lipstick is a lost cause; she wipes her face down and then reapplies it in the mirror, letting Mine gently fuss over the exact look of it all.

“Do you want me to make sure he’s distracted?” Mine offers as they walk back out, Mine’s arm looped securely through Akito’s. Akito thinks it’s as much for moral support as it is to make sure Akito doesn’t bolt again.

“How would you--” Akito starts, and Mine winks, slithering away from Akito to tap her husband on the shoulder, take Hibika into her arms and send Ayame after Kureno.

“Ah,” Akito says, accepting Hibika when Mine offers her over. Hibika is more than old enough to walk, but she perches her chin on Akito’s shoulder and stares at everyone as they pass by. “Thank you.”

-

Arisa is the one who comes over. The reception winds down, and people start to leave, and Akito hangs around, watching the way so many people interact with ease. Saki’s mother had cried at the ceremony, and had hugged her daughter so many times at the reception that her husband had finally had to pull her away.

“He says hey,” Arisa offers.

Akito looks at her.

“I mean, he didn’t say it like that,” Arisa says. “But that’s about the gist of it.”

“How is he?” Akito asks.

“Mm, I’m not sure what kind of answer you’re looking for,” Arisa says, leaning back against the wall. “But he’s good. He’s happy.”

“And you?”

“Oh, I’m happy as hell,” Arisa says, offering Akito a grin. “Everyone in my life is all paired up and I’ve got so many kids to spoil I don’t even have to worry about having my own!”

“Good,” Akito says, carefully.

“Anyway, I just thought… it’s been a few years,” Arisa says, and holds out a folded slip of paper. “Here’s our number.”

Akito stares at the paper, but doesn’t reach out to take it, so Arisa grabs Akito’s hand for her and places it on her palm.

“I don’t know if he and I’d be together if someone hadn’t shoved my phone number into his hand, once,” Arisa says, gently. “I’m not saying you guys gotta be all buddy buddy again -- actually, if you could definitely not do that, it’d be great -- but you’re still family, you know?”

“Thank you,” Akito says. “For this, and for making him happy. He deserves --” Akito cuts herself off, because that isn’t it. She has to stop thinking that way. “I’m glad you’re both happy.”

-

“It’s stress,” Hatori says, before Akito can even ask. “I can run tests, if you want, but I’m certain you’re too stressed.”

“That can stop pregnancy?” Akito says.

“There’s not much stress can’t do,” Hatori replies.

“Run the tests,” Akito says, and Hatori does.

-

It’s mostly stress. There’s some other factors in there that Hatori tells her about, once the tests come back, and a solid half of them are definitely the fault of her upbringing and her health, but it’s mostly stress.

“So let’s take a vacation,” Shigure says.

“I’m busy,” Akito says.

“I wasn’t asking,” Shigure says, and Akito stops fighting it immediately.

-

Akito doesn’t call Kureno. She can’t, yet. She tells Saki to tell Arisa to ask him to come to New Year’s, and then she promptly ditches the entire event to go watch the sunrise in Kyoto with Shigure until her lips go numb from the cold.

-

“You’re barren,” Ren says, and Akito wonders who told her mother she was trying to have a child, who let her mother into her office, and how many people were involved.

“I’m not,” Akito says.

“There’s nothing inside you that’s good,” Ren says, “so there’s nothing inside you to give anyone life. You should have stayed a boy.”

“Shigure would still love me,” Akito says, “and father would still be dead, so I don’t think it matters whether or not I’m a boy.”

Ren slaps her hard enough that she tastes blood, but it still feels like a victory.

-

“Honey,” Shigure says, deceptively sweet and light, “did the rice cooker do something to personally offend you?”

“It stinks,” Akito says, from where she’s sprawled out on the floor. She feels nauseated. She’d sent word for Hatori, but he hadn’t shown up yet, and it had resulted in Akito sweeping the entire rice cooker off the counter in a fit of rage she couldn’t quite manage to contain.

It felt good, for a moment, until the revulsion hit and she’d started gagging.

Shigure steps over, drops his hand down onto her forehead. “You don’t have a fever.”

“Nn,” Akito agrees, listlessly.

“Hm,” Shigure says, and picks her up effortlessly to cart her onto the futon to wait for Hatori.

-

“Congratulations,” Hatori says.

“Please tell me,” Akito says, “that the nausea goes away.”

“It will,” Hatori says, “but it could take a few weeks.”

“Don’t go after the coffee maker next,” Shigure says, and Akito grunts.

-

She calls Kureno. The first time, she hangs up before the phone can even ring, slamming it back down and swallowing down the desire to run to the bathroom. She hasn’t eaten, because the foods she’s managed to keep down have been shockingly limited, so there’s nothing for her to throw up.

She calls a second time.

“Hello?” Arisa says, and Akito breathes out, slowly. This is easier than if Kureno had answered.

“It’s me,” Akito says.

“Hey,” Arisa says. Akito can hear her shift around, walking with the phone. “You wanna talk to him?”

“If,” Akito says, “it isn’t too much trouble.”

“Nah,” Arisa says, and then the world gets muffled: Akito assumes she’s put her hand over the phone. She can hear soft speaking in the background, hear the sound of Kureno’s voice even if she can’t hear the words, and her heart gives a sickening beat that makes her sway and sit down abruptly.

“Akito?” Kureno says. He doesn’t sound angry; he doesn’t sound sad. He sounds… different, Akito thinks.

“I know I have no right, after everything,” Akito says, before she can lose her nerve, “but I need your help.”

There’s a long pause. Akito wonders if Arisa is listening; she wonders what Kureno is thinking. She can’t see his face, can’t read him at all -- she’s not sure she ever could.

“With what?” Kureno says, instead of agreeing immediately.

“I’m,” Akito says, and then cuts off. She swallows, and tries again. “I’m pregnant, and I can’t -- there’s too much work. You don’t need to come back, but if you could help Shigure--”

“If he’ll accept it, I’ll give it,” Kureno says, the warmth of his voice managing to be conveyed even through the static of the phone line. “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” Akito says. “Hatori says it’s not abnormal.”

“Then,” Kureno says, “congratulations, Akito.”

Akito allows herself a moment to bask in it: the feeling of it, of something that feels like it meets Kureno’s approval, of one step towards mending something she has no right to hope for. She pushes the feeling aside, after a moment, which is easy when her stomach keeps threatening to turn itself inside out.

“Shigure will appreciate your help,” Akito says. “He nearly cried when he saw how backed up we were.”

Kureno -- laughs. It’s bright and easy and it’s a sound that Akito doesn’t know if she’s ever heard in her life, and she grips the phone so hard she hears the plastic creak under her fingers.

“I’ll send an email,” Kureno says, “to see what I can do.”

“Thank you,” Akito says, and wishes there was more.

-

“They’re bigger,” Shigure says. Akito is half-asleep on him, because even if he can’t, unfortunately, magic away the remnants of the morning sickness that Hatori assures her will be vanishing soon, it’s still comforting to feel his solid warmth against her back.

“What?” Akito mumbles, and Shigure lets his hand drift down to trace along her ribcage and up the curve of her breast.

“They’re bigger,” Shigure says, and she can’t see the smile from her position but she knows it’s there.

“You’re the worst,” Akito grouses. “You’re not nice at all.”

Shigure kisses the top of her head, but doesn’t remove his hand. “I’m the second nicest person in this room.”

“Oh, shut up.”

-

Akito spends the final month of her pregnancy confined to bed rest. She can get up and move around under Hatori’s supervision, but after a close call with preterm labor, he takes away her laptop and threatens to disable the router entirely.

She spends the first week rereading Shigure’s back catalogue of books, and then proceeds to nearly die of boredom. She complains about it at such length that Shigure kisses her and promises he’ll do something to help, and after that there’s a steady stream of visitors: Tohru and Hajime, Yuki, Ayame and Mine, Saki and Rio. She has a feeling that Kureno has come back, however temporarily -- Shigure is free much more often than he should be -- but she doesn’t ask for him, and he doesn’t visit.

Arisa does, though.

“You’ve really never seen Kamen Rider?” Arisa asks. She’s perched on the edge Akito’s bed, the western style one that she’s been relegated to for back support reasons.

“I didn’t really watch television,” Akito says.

“...you have one though, right? You’ve gotta have a television?” Arisa says, and there’s a horror in her eyes that Akito doesn’t quite understand.

“I mostly read,” Akito says, “but there are televisions in other areas of the house.”

Arisa nods, gets up, and within an hour has an entire television set up in the bedroom with a series of DVDs.

“Why do they look like bugs?” Akito asks, after a few episodes.

“Listen, it’s this or I make you watch magical girl anime, but I hated that shit,” Arisa says. “Don’t think too deeply about it. It’s for kids. Good for the baby.”

Privately, Akito can’t imagine a child of hers being into sentai, but she’s been wrong before.

-

Akito represses the memory of labor immediately after it happens, because the entire thing wound up being more undignified and painful than she could have anticipated. The end result, though, is Shiki.

She feels nothing when she holds him, and a tendril of fear curls into her stomach. This is wrong, she thinks, and gives him to Shigure.

-

“She isn’t eating,” Shigure is saying. She can hear him through the shoji; she can see the shadow of his outline, Shiki in his arms. “She’ll feed him, but she doesn’t look at him, and she spends a lot of time crying.”

There’s worry in Shigure’s voice, hidden deep underneath the casual, matter-of-fact tone that he takes. Shiki gurgles, and Shigure coos gently at him; Akito blinks her eyes and is surprised to find it spills tears over.

“It’s not uncommon,” Hatori says. “For mothers to feel depression, after giving birth. I think…”

Hatori’s voice drifts: Akito watches them move away, Hatori’s advice fading into a series of sounds she can’t quite make sense of.

Wait, she thinks. She reaches a hand out, and then lets it fall.

-

Shiki is laying next to her in the bed, a small bundle. Akito looks at him, and reaches out.

“Don’t touch him,” Ren says, and Akito freezes. Ren reaches down, grabs Shiki and hefts him up. “He’s not yours to touch. Nothing good could ever come from you.”

“He’s my son,” Akito says, but the words don’t come out: they’re stuck in her throat, and she just wheezes on them, chest heaving with the effort.

“I always wanted a son,” Ren says, and leaves.

Akito wakes up to the sound of Shiki crying, feels Shigure stir next to her and get up, and she presses her palms down into her eyes until she sees stars.

-

Yuki steps in and sets food down by Akito, and Akito stares blankly at the food before she looks at Yuki. She sits up, finally; Yuki isn’t Shigure, isn’t Hatori, isn’t someone she can allow to see her like this. She wipes her cheek with the back of her hand, but it doesn’t do much.

“It happened to Machi,” Yuki says, sitting down next to her.

Akito stares at him.

“Our house is kind of a mess,” Yuki says. “Machi isn’t very good at keeping things clean, and she was so worried that she’d lose him, or misplace him, or simply not be able to care for something as good as him.”

“There’s maids,” Akito says, and realizes her voice is hoarse. She coughs, and Yuki gives her a rueful smile.

“That isn’t the point,” Yuki says. “The point is that you’re afraid.”

“I’m,” Akito says, and then stops. To her horror, she can feel the tears welling up again, and she swallows down a sob before it can overflow, burying her face down into her knees.

“I’m not you,” Yuki says, “so I don’t know what you’re afraid of. I can probably guess. I was afraid that I might drop him, or that I’d go in and check on him and he’d have stopped breathing. I thought, there’s no way I can take care of something as fragile as this.”

Akito’s shoulders shake and she can’t stop it. She shouldn’t have had a child at all. She shouldn’t have brought something into a world like this, with a mother like her, and a family like the Sohmas.

“Do you know what I finally realized?” Yuki asks. Akito doesn’t reply, but she manages to shake her head a little. “I realized that if Kyo could do it, I could do it too.”

Akito barks out a laugh that sounds more like a sob, because that’s really what it is, but if she acknowledges it she won’t be able to bear it any longer. This is too much for her. She was never going to be able to handle this.

“As astonishing as this is to say, you have Shigure to help you,” Yuki says. He reaches out; his hand is a cool, delicate touch across Akito’s shoulder. “You aren’t your parents.”

Yuki leaves, and Akito rolls the idea over in her mind, tries to convince herself that anything Yuki said is true. She can’t quite believe in herself, but she thinks she understands -- there’s something like spite welling up inside of her, a grim determination.

This is too much for her, but it won’t be forever. She won’t allow it.

-

Shiki cries, and Akito sits up before Shigure. She can feel his eyes on her as she lifts Shiki, holds him the way she knows is best and watches the way his face scrunches up until he manages to figure out where food is.

Shigure comes up behind her, after awhile; he wraps an arm low around her stomach and presses a kiss to her shoulder.

“He has your eyes,” Shigure says, and for the first time, Akito can see it.

-

Akito goes back to work as soon as she can, after that, and takes Shiki with her. It’s not like she’s leaving the house, it’s just a matter of carting him from room to room. He seems to enjoy it. Shiki is a well-mannered child, for being an infant who doesn’t have any communication skills except the ability to cry, and Akito learns to decipher which cry means he’s hungry or lonely or just cranky.

“He won’t settle,” Akito murmurs, when Shiki cries over the voice of the maid trying to discuss business with Akito.

“Try a different lullaby! Mine both liked different songs, so it was a nightmare when they’d both fuss,” the maid offers, and Akito blinks.

-

Akito takes Shiki outside, and he wails against the sunlight for a solid minute before he gets distracted by… Akito isn’t sure, actually. Grass, probably. Maybe a bird. She loves Shiki, but she can’t even begin to decipher what baby brains are made of, other than the ability to cry for three hours straight and produce more poop than is necessary.

“He’s already so big,” Tohru says. She’s left Hajime at home for the visit, traveling to Akito’s on her own, though Kyo had insisted on seeing her off all the way to the gates. Tohru hefts Shiki up into her arms, and it’s so natural on her, being a mother. Akito can see the differences between them, once again, but she doesn’t feel the familiar jealousy, anymore.

Just a desire to be more like Tohru, if she can.

“I don’t actually know how to raise a child,” Akito says.

“But he’s so big!!” Tohru responds, holding up Shiki as though she can prove Akito’s competency by displaying the fact that he’s actively putting on more baby fat.

“I don’t know any lullabies, or rhymes,” Akito says. “I don’t have any children’s books, or know what they’d watch on television, or if they should even be watching television.”

“Oh,” Tohru says. Her gaze is downcast, for a moment; Akito takes Shiki back so she has something to do with her arms. Akito’s childhood hadn’t seemed bad or unusual, at the time that she was living it; she grew older and watched so many of the juunishi go through more turmoil than she did, and she thought she’d gotten off easy. The wounds that Akira and Ren left were deeper than skin, and it’s only now that she’s trying to raise her own child that she realizes how much they didn’t do.

“Well, I can teach you! Oh, but it’s fun to make up your own, too! Hajime-kun and I have a song about kitty cats, and he helped make up half of it,” Tohru says, impassioned instead of pitying, and Akito smiles despite herself.

“Thank you,” Akito says. “I’ll be in your care. And -- if it isn’t too much trouble -- would it be alright if Shigure brought him to visit overnight, sometimes?”

Tohru looks at Akito, quizzically.

“I want him to be able to form his own bonds,” Akito says, softly, “without any limitations.”

“I don’t know if I understand,” Tohru says, gently, “but you’re all always welcome in our house.”

-

Shiki is very popular in the Sohma estate so quickly that Akito has to resist the urge to flinch every time someone comments on him being the new heir. She tells him he’ll be a wonderful one, and that it’s a responsibility -- she doesn’t tell him that he’s special to anyone but her; doesn’t tell him any of the things she was told as a child.

Not that it matters, because his grasp on the Japanese language is limited to ‘no’, ‘yes’, and ‘book’.

He’s started to run around on unsteady legs, hopping from Shigure and Akito and back again. He settles down when they hold him; when they read to him. He sleeps between them at night, and sometimes Akito stays awake, holds his hand and feels a sort of pity for Ren, that she never knew this kind of love.

“If it was so I could have the two of you in my life,” Akito says, softly, “then I don’t regret anything I did.” It’s a confession to the dark of the room, and a guilty one -- the things she’s done are too much, too terrible, but she would do them all in an instant again to keep her family safe. It’s a refrain on that desperation she felt when she was younger, but these bonds are all her own.

-

Shigure steps into Akito’s office and picks her up.

Shigure,” Akito says, grabbing onto his shoulder as he walks.

“Hmm?” he says. He steps through the halls, heading to one of the less used guest suites off their own home.

“What are you doing,” Akito says. “Where’s Shiki?”

“Left him with Aaya,” Shigure says. He sets her back down once they’re in the room, and she takes a moment to right herself before Shigure is stepping back in, pressing her against the doorframe and kissing her long enough that she starts to get lightheaded from it.

“Did you drag me away to have sex?” Akito asks, absolutely astonished and simultaneously not surprised.

“It’s almost like there’s someone between us these days,” Shigure murmurs, and pulls her shirt off. She allows this; reciprocates by letting her hand slide underneath his shirt and splay across his hips.

“I hope you’re not jealous,” Akito says, letting her head tilt back as Shigure presses kisses down her neck.

“That’s not the word I’d use,” Shigure says, and Akito laughs.

-

She schedules it in, after that, which Shigure says takes all the fun out of it; draws a little dog in the free periods she manages to find in her schedule when someone else can watch Shiki.

-

“I don’t want you to go alone,” Shigure says.

“I’ll be with Saki,” Akito says. “It’s only for one day.”

“It’s New Year’s,” Shigure murmurs, but he isn’t protesting as much as he could be. He lets his forehead drop onto Akito’s, holding onto both of her hands in his.

“I want him to have as many happy memories of New Year’s with his family as he can,” Akito says. “Like how nearly all of my happy memories as a child were with you.”

“I’m telling Yuki-kun that,” Shigure says.

Akito leans in, headbutts him with her forehead and lets him support all her weight. “Don’t bully people younger than you,” she says.

“I can’t tease you?”

“I don’t count,” Akito says. “There’s a marriage clause. You didn’t read it?”

“I must have missed that part of the paperwork.”

-

Akito’s life isn’t perfect, but she’s happy. For awhile, she’s genuinely happy. She’s doing a good job, as the head of the household; the juunishi are all happy and healthy, whether or not they’re in contact with her. Her son is growing, her husband is the same as ever, and for awhile, she knows what it’s like to be content with her life.

Then it happens.

-

Akito doesn’t think about it. She steps in front of Shiki without thinking, without realizing she’s moving; she feels the knife slip across her face and thinks, ah, I deserve this.

Shiki’s breath hitches. She has to turn her head to see him, because the blood is blotting out one eye and she can’t see out of it at all. She can hear the knife being wrestled away from Ren; she can hear the chaos of the maids yelling, of the commotion that’s being made.

“Let’s go home,” Akito says, and grasps Shiki’s hand in her clean one. She pulls him up and walks away, leaving the knife on the ground and her mother shrieking behind her back. She presses Shiki’s face into her shoulder and hums one of the songs that Tohru taught her as he shakes.

Shigure meets her halfway there, clasps her face in his hands.

“Haa-san’s on his way,” Shigure says.

“Don’t leave him alone for a moment,” Akito says, and holds out Shiki.

-

“It missed your eye, for the most part,” Hatori says. “You were lucky.”

“I was hoping we’d match,” Akito says, which is mostly because of the pain medication she’d been given when Hatori had realized she’d need stitches.

“You were unlucky, then,” Hatori says. “You’ll have a scar. You’ll need to come by daily so I can check on it for infection, but I’ll let you go home.”

Akito nods, then grimaces when the movement makes the room spin and her cheek ache.

“Here,” Hatori says, and puts an arm around her to help her back to her house.

-

She explains it to Shiki, as well as she can. She’s never dumbed things down for him before, and she doesn’t start now -- his eyes are red from crying and he looks so small to her, so small and young and she wishes she could protect him from this forever.

“But,” Shiki says, “what did you do?”

So she tells him. She lists it off, one by one, all the things she’s done, and then she explains that there were others, too, that she might not even remember. That she ruined lives for so long that she may not even remember the horrible things she’s done that other people will have to live with.

“But,” Shiki says, “you’re my mother.”

She opens her arms, and Shiki climbs into them, and she wraps him in a hug tight enough that she can feel his breathing, feel his heartbeat.

“I love you more than anything,” Akito says, “and I wish that I could protect you from this, too.”

“I want to protect you,” Shiki murmurs, against her shoulder.

“We’ll protect each other,” Akito says, “but don’t tell your father, he thinks he’s the one protecting us both.”

Shiki doesn’t laugh, exactly, but there’s a sharp exhale of air that Akito thinks could have been one if he’d tried.

“Thank you,” Shiki says, “for being my mom.”

-

Shigure grabs Akito by the chin as gently as possible to get a good look at the stitches.

“Hatori says it should heal fine,” Akito says. Shigure’s gaze is dark, and he drags his thumb just under the stitches, where the skin is still pink and swollen. It doesn’t hurt -- he doesn’t want it to -- but his lips are pressed together.

“I’m going to destroy them,” Shigure murmurs, softly, “without them ever realizing it came from you.”

Akito cracks a smile that doesn’t quite last, because it feels brittle enough that it might break if she forces it too long.

“You’re even worse than I am, aren’t you?” Akito says. Shigure drops his hand, and then holds out his arms; Akito climbs into them, automatically, resting her good cheek against his shoulder and letting her eyes fall to half-lidded.

“I’ve always been worse than you,” Shigure murmurs. “I’m not a nice person at all. I’m selfish and cruel, you know.”

“Then what does that make them?”

“Trash,” Shigure says, with a shrug of the shoulder that does nothing to convince Akito that he isn’t intending to start brewing a plan to completely overthrow the elders. Truthfully, she’s on board; if Shiki had been hurt, if he’d been the one with stitches on his face, she can only imagine what she would do.

She can’t imagine it being Shigure. It’s simply not a thought she can reconcile inside her mind.

“Like that toaster oven that caught fire,” Akito murmurs.

“You’re cute when you’re on pain killers,” Shigure says, and holds her until she falls asleep.

-

Akito wakes up every morning with Shigure beside her.

She’s still slow to wake up, and she can’t count how many alarm clocks they’ve managed to go through given her penchant for smacking them vaguely until they stop making sound -- or working entirely. Shiki wakes them up as often as not, lately, a polite knock on the door before it slides open.

“Breakfast is ready,” he says, politely, and Shigure gets himself up at the prospect of coffee, and Akito gets up because Shigure is her pillow and he’s vanished. Shigure pats Akito’s hair into some semblance of order, but she doesn’t start functioning until halfway through breakfast.

Shiki goes to cool, and Akito goes to work, and Shigure stands beside her now at all of the important meetings, walks through all the halls with her. They see Ren, sometimes, and Akito turns to face her, unafraid, a scar across her face and her husband at her back, and all Ren does is say something appropriately mean and leave.

-

“Do you think there are people who can’t be helped?” Akito asks, over tea, watching her son play go and do admirably well.

“Yes,” Saki says. “There are people who can only find happiness in suffering, and there are people who are suffering for happiness, who will find freedom if they’re only shown the way.”

“That’s poetic,” Mine says.

“I read it in a book,” Saki explains, and Mine laughs so hard the kids look their way.

“I read that happiness is a choice,” Mine says, “and I always liked the sound of it. If I wear the clothes that make me happy, and do the things that make me happy, and I’m around the people that make me happy, then I’ll be happy, even if things are sad or upsetting.”

“That’s nice, too,” Saki says, admirably, and Mine beams. “And you, Aa-chan?”

“I think that happiness is something you’re given by other people,” Akito says, after a long moment, “even if you don’t deserve it. You just need to accept it.”

“Yeah, so you’d better accept it!” Mine says.

“I don’t know why you’re directing that at me,” Akito says, pretending to be affronted.

-

Akito stands in the garden, built on the land where the Cat’s Room once stood. There’s no trace of it now, no prison imaginable in among the trees and plants and bushes. There’s flowers along the edge and benches to sit on and space to lay in the grass, and there, in the corner, is a carefully set up ornament of the zodiac -- all thirteen animals and a god alongside them.

“I forgive you,” Akito murmurs, and forgives herself.