Soma Kyo expected a lot of things when he finally came face to face with the Rat.
He didn't expect the first words out of the other boy's mouth to be "I like your hair."
Kyo took a step back, surprise flickering across his face for a moment before be hissed into the cold air. "What?"
Soma Yuki took a few tentative steps forward, hands clutched nervously to his sweater. "I—I really like it. It's a nice orange colour."
Kyo expected the Rat to be larger than life; confident, stuck up, to look down on Kyo as the lowest member on the Zodiac totem pole. He hadn't expected the shimmer of excitement in the boy's grey eyes, the high colour on his cheeks, or the smile on his face.
"What do you want?" He demanded, defensive.
The other boy flinched a little. "I—I heard some of the maids say you were out here." He said quietly. "I… I wanted to meet you."
Kyo's eyes narrowed, pupils narrowing to cat-like slits. "Why?" He spat. "So you can laugh at me?"
Yuki's eyes widened, the colour draining from his cheeks. "What? No!"
Kyo didn't believe him. "Everyone else does. Look at the stupid Cat, locked outside like a fucking stray. Go back inside to your stupid banquet. I'm sure everyone's wondering where their precious damn Rat is."
Yuki's eyes dropped to his feet. "No one's wondering where I am." He said softly, and the hint of sadness in his voice gave Kyo pause. "Akito doesn't let me talk to anyone. Not even Kureno, and he's Akito's favourite."
"What the fuck are you talking about?" Kyo sneered. "Everyone loves the fucking Rat."
Yuki shrunk in on himself. "Nobody likes me." He whispered. "Even my own brother doesn't talk to me."
Kyo had just opened his mouth to say something—he still wasn't sure what—when the door behind Yuki slid open and a harried-looking maid stepped out.
"There you are, Yuki-san!" She deliberately ignored the other child. "You must come back inside. Akito-sama is asking for you."
"Oh, I'll be in in just a minute—" Yuki tried to argue.
"Now." The maid grabbed his wrist and tugged him inside. Kyo heard her voice carry through the open door before she slid it shut. "Believe me when I say, Yuki-san, that you don't want to go mixing with a child like that. Akito-san will be very displeased when he learns who you've been talking to."
Their voices faded to nothing as, Kyo assumed, Yuki was dragged back to the banquet.
His head was a chaotic storm of thoughts as he ran over the entire conversation in his mind. He hated the Rat. He hated him. It was his fault that Kyo had been born a monster and had eventually killed his mother. It was his fault that Kyo's own father had rejected him and beat him throughout his childhood. It was his fault that Kyo was looked down on by not only the other Zodiac, but the members of the Main House.
But… but that didn't fit with the timid boy he'd just met. Soma Yuki had looked… happy to see him.
Nobody likes me. My own brother doesn't talk to me.
He went home that night and didn't bother speaking to Shishou as he climbed the stairs to his room. Kazuma allowed him to be by himself for a little while before knocking on the door and pushing it open.
"What's wrong, Kyo?" He asked, lowering himself to his knees on the edge of Kyo's futon. The boy was curled up under his blanket in the cold, and refused to look at his guardian.
"I… met the Rat." He admitted.
"Did you get into a fight?" Kazuma asked gently.
"No." Kyo said into his pillow.
"Then what happened?"
Kyo frowned as he recalled the conversation. "He… said he liked my hair."
Kazuma smiled. "Is that so?"
"And he said that nobody likes him. He said his brother doesn't talk to him."
Kazuma hummed thoughtfully. "I've heard a few things about Yuki's situation." He admitted. "Apparently his parents dropped him off at the main house one day and simply… never went back for him. He's Akito's playmate, but not many people see much of him. There are rumours that Akito locks him away, but no one is willing to confirm or deny that."
Kyo shuddered under his blanket. To be locked away was his ultimate fate, and he knew it. The idea that it was happening to someone as beloved as the Rat was beyond comprehension.
"Perhaps," Kazuma said gently, "he isn't as bad as you've imagined. Everyone has their struggles. He's cursed, too, just like the rest of you."
"I hate him." Kyo hissed into the quiet that followed. "I do."
The second time Kyo met Yuki was after they started the new school year. Yuki went to a prestigious school on the other side of the city, while the other Zodiac children attended nearby boys and girls-only schools. He'd heard about the incident a few weeks ago where Yuki had been found out by a bunch of outsider kids—everyone had. But when his hat had been blown away that Saturday afternoon, he hadn't expected it to land right at the feet of the miserable Rat on his way home from school.
"Uh… here." Yuki reached down to pick it up and held it out.
Kyo, despite himself, stalked forward and snatched it out of his hands. "What are you doing here?" He demanded.
"I'm… going home." Yuki shifted his weight, his hands coming back up to clutch at the straps of his backpack.
"It's Saturday." Kyo eyed his school uniform. "Why're you in uniform?"
"Okaa-san says I have to take extra classes." Yuki's eyes lowered. "I go every Saturday."
"There you are, Kyo!" Kazuma's voice rang out from behind him, and Kyo started in surprise. The man approached them and rested a hand on Kyo's shoulder. "Hello, you must be Yuki-kun. I'm Soma Kazuma, Kyo's guardian."
Yuki's eyes widened before he lowered into a formal bow. "Pl-pleased to meet you."
Kazuma looked between the two boys, eyebrows raised. "Would you like to come to the dojo with us?" He offered politely. "I'm holding a beginner's class this afternoon. Kyo sometimes joins in and helps with the newer students. I'd be happy to give you a free lesson."
Kyo looked up in surprise. "Shishou—"
Yuki's eyes gleamed before the light died right in front of them. He hunched his shoulders and looked down. "I—I shouldn't. Akito will be angry if I don't go straight home."
Kazuma frowned. Despite himself, Kyo recognised Yuki's body language—it was the same way his mother used to look, right before his father would start yelling at her. It made something clench in his gut. He didn't like the feeling. It was almost like pity. Who had ever heard of that? The Cat pitying the Rat? It was crazy.
"How about this, then?" Kazuma patted Yuki on the head. "I'll come with you to the main house and organise a lesson for you this afternoon. That way Akito will know where you are and when you'll return. If you decide that you like it, we'll organise more."
"Is… is that okay?" Yuki raised his eyes slightly. "I don't want to be any trouble."
"It's no trouble at all!" Kazuma laughed. Kyo heard the fakeness of it, but the light in Yuki's eyes returned. "Karate is my passion. I'm glad to share it with anyone who wants to learn. Come. We'll walk with you."
Yuki was quiet the entire trek toward the main house. People stared at them—it wasn't every day that people saw the Cat and Rat walking together.
"Wait here, Kyo." Kazuma told him when they reached the gates for the main house.
He watched as Kazuma and Yuki disappeared inside, something twisting in his gut. He knew Kazuma didn't like him going near Akito's residence, probably because he wanted to keep him away from the Cat's Room for as long as possible. It took a long time for him to accept it, but Kyo didn't doubt that Shishou cared for him anymore—it had been over four years since Kazuma had taken him in, and he had yet to mistreat him even once. He took the time to listen to Kyo when he was upset and offered words of encouragement and advice. It was because of Kazuma that Kyo had made friends with some of the other Zodiac children; something he didn't ever think he'd be able to do after the incident when Kagura took his beads.
His covered the bracelet with his hand when a few maids sneered at him in passing. He glared at them defiantly as they headed inside, tittering amongst themselves.
Eventually, the other two returned, Yuki's face bright and Kazuma's smile soft. The boy had changed clothes and was carrying a backpack.
"Good news." He announced, though Kyo knew Yuki wouldn't have returned with him unless Akito had given permission. "Yuki-kun is permitted to join classes at the dojo three times a week if he finds it to his liking. He's even been given permission to spend the night with us tonight."
Kyo was flabbergasted. His first impulse was to shout at Kazuma that he didn't want to spend the night with the dirty Rat. But then he caught the shaky was Yuki was smiling at him and bit his tongue.
He felt guilty. He didn't like it.
"Fine." He said instead, turning toward home. "Hurry up or you'll be late for your class."
"Alright, alright." Kazuma laughed. Yuki trotted to keep up with them.
"You're doing it wrong." Kyo said when he meandered through the rows of small children in the beginner's class. Yuki was easily the oldest kid in the group, and the least confident. His tendency to shrink in on himself didn't translate well to martial arts. "Spread your legs wider and bend your knees."
He nudged Yuki's left foot with his own. Yuki adjusted his position. "Like this?"
"Better." Kyo stepped back and assessed Yuki's stance. He was only an orange belt, but Kazuma said he was good enough to help the beginning white belts out. He often joined in on the basic classes on days when he didn't have his own. "Try again."
His form was better this time, but still not as good as the other kids. Kyo sighed. He figured he'd be stuck babysitting Yuki for the whole lesson.
He and Yuki were tucked into their futons in Kyo's room in the dark of night. The other boy had been so tired after the lesson and was so quiet that Kyo suspected he'd fallen asleep ages ago. Apparently, that wasn't the case.
"Do you hate me?" The question was small and quiet. Kyo almost didn't hear it.
He didn't answer right away. On one hand, there was still the resentment that he'd been born the cat, destined for a life of shunning and isolation. That was all the Rat's fault.
But then he thought of the way Yuki shrunk in on himself when spoken to; the way he had trouble meeting anyone's eyes and had an absolute lack of confidence; the way he was so soft-spoken it was sometimes hard to hear him.
"Akito says you hate me." Yuki whispered when Kyo didn't answer. "He said you told your father you'd kill me one day."
He did say that, didn't he? He remembered being angry. So angry. The words had spilled from his mouth without thinking, trying to elicit some kind of reaction from his father. He'd been sick of being cursed. Sick of being inhuman and looked down on by his own father. Sick of being blamed for his mother's death. Kazuma had promised him many times in the early days of Kyo's living with him that it hadn't been his fault. He still wasn't sure he believed it, himself.
And Yuki was nothing like he'd imagined.
He hated the Rat.
But did he hate Yuki?
"I don't really know you." He finally settled on, because that was true, at least.
Kyo wasn't really sure how it happened, but he ended up tackling Haru when the younger boy crossed paths with Yuki at the dojo and started taking swings.
"I hate you!" Haru was screaming at Yuki from the ground, who stood there like a startled deer. Kyo supposed this was the first time he'd ever spoken to the Ox. "I hate you! It's your fault everyone laughs at me and says I'm stupid!"
"Haru, calm the fuck down!" Kyo shook him. "What're we gonna do if you go Dark?"
"It's my fault?" Yuki shrunk backwards. His eyes flickered to Kyo. "Is it really?"
"Nah." Kyo lowered Haru into a headlock. "The only thing that makes him stupid is when he acts like this. Haru, quit it! You're scaring him!"
At some point over the past two months, Kyo and Yuki had somehow, against all the odds, become friends. It was still a fledgling friendship, made awkward by their respective curses, but it was there. And Kyo had had so few friends in his life. It was weird to be friends with the host of the Rat spirit, but he didn't hate it, and he wasn't about to let him get beat up.
"Why are you sticking up for him?" Haru demanded. "You hate him most of all!"
Kyo grit his teeth against Yuki's flinch. "No I don't."
"Since when?!" Haru demanded.
"Since I found out he gets treated just as bad as the rest of us." He snarled. "Now are you gonna calm the hell down?"
"U-um, if it helps," Yuki shrunk behind Kyo, as if for protection. "I don't think you're stupid."
Haru froze. "You don't?"
Yuki shook his head. "I don't. Kyo talks about you sometimes. He says you're really good at martial arts. I'm still a beginner, so you're probably better at it than I am."
Kyo finally relaxed when Haru did, letting go and allowing the younger boy to straighten. Haru dusted his gi off and looked Yuki up and down
"U-um," Yuki shuffled his foot. "It's nice to meet you, Hatsuharu."
"It's just Haru. And you've seen me at New Years before." Haru pointed out.
"Y-yeah, but Akito never really lets me talk to anyone." Yuki crossed an arm over his body. "Karate lessons and school are the only times he lets me out." He straightened, startled. "Oh, no! I'm gonna be late! I gotta go!" He bowed low. "I'm sorry, Hats—I mean, Haru, but Akito gets mad if I'm not home before dinner!" And then he bolted as fast as his asthmatic lungs could take him.
Haru watched him go. Then he turned to Kyo. "When did you two become friends?"
Kyo crossed his arms defensively. "I dunno. It just kinda happened." He lowered his voice so that no one else could hear. "I don't think he likes living with Akito very much."
Haru hummed. "He's been having temper tantrums a lot lately." He agreed. "Yuki's a favourite. Do you think…?"
"Yeah." Kyo's eyebrows drew. "I do."
When Honda Kyoko's daughter went missing, Kyo was determined to find her. He'd stayed out all night after promising the woman that he'd find her daughter—Shishou would be worried, but he'd understand when Kyo explained the situation to him.
He hadn't expected to run into Yuki in the early hours of the morning, a tiny rat in a sea of clothing and clutching at his little rat chest.
"What're you doing here?!" He hissed as he crouched down to address the rat. It was the first time he'd seen Yuki's cursed form, but he was easy enough to recognise. How many rats would be curled up in a random pile of clothes on the street? "You should be at home!"
"I had to get away." Yuki's little rodent voice squeaked. "I couldn't take it. Akito was saying all these things, like how you and Haru really hated me deep down and how I wasn't good for anything and I was useless, and…" he pressed his clawed paws to his eyes. Rats couldn't cry as humans could, but Kyo knew the feeling of wanting to cry while in his animal form.
Carefully, he reached down and scooped the rat up, cradling him to his chest for warmth. It was a cold morning, and his smaller body would have more trouble regulating his temperature. "How come you're a rat?"
"I couldn't breathe." Yuki clutched at Kyo's shirt. "I found a lost little girl and lead her home, but by the time I got there I couldn't breathe."
"You found her?!" Kyo's eyes widened. "You found Kyoko's daughter?!"
"You know her?"
"I know her mother." Kyo corrected. "I've been out looking for her all night."
The body heat appeared to be just what he needed; Yuki reappeared in a cloud of light blue smoke, knocking Kyo over. He hurriedly dressed as Kyo righted himself.
Kyo stiffened and turned to the sound of the familiar voice. Kyoko was standing at the corner, no doubt drawn by the puff of blue smoke and pop of Yuki's transformation, and was staring at the two of them, eyes wide and clutching her daughter's hand. Honda Tohru's large brown eyes flicked back and forth between the boys. "Jari, she's back! She's been found!"
Kyo coughed. "Yeah. My cousin told me he found her just now." He pointed at Yuki.
"You did?!" Kyoko's eyes snapped to Yuki. She darted forward. "Thank you! Thank you so much!"
Kyo realised a second too late what she was about to do. "No, wait—!"
But too late; Kyoko threw her arms around the two of them and they disappeared in puffs of bright blue and orange smoke.