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.
I forgot to select the multichapter option last time! Yes, this fic will actually watch them grow up.
Have a Yuki chapter!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They were dead. They were so dead. Akito was going to kill them.
Yuki was trembling beside Kyo as they sat in Akito's waiting room, Kyoko, her daughter, and Kazuma sitting in front of them. Akito had been informed of the situation and Kyo was going to lose his friend. There was no way Akito wouldn't have Hatori erase their memories.
They'd gone straight to Kazuma after Kyoko had let them go. He'd organised the meeting with Akito and the Hondas, and Yuki just wanted to be as far as possible from there.
The shoji slid open, and Akito sauntered in, followed by Hatori. Yuki muffled a sob with his hands.
"I understand that Yuki and Kyo were witnessed transforming." Akito addressed Kazuma, no warmth in his tone. Yuki shrank in on himself and Kyo flinched.
"It wasn't their fault." Kyoko spoke up. "I'm the one who didn't give them time to react. Don't punish the boys."
Akito narrowed his eyes at the woman. To an outsider like Kyoko, it must have been funny—a twelve year old boy staring down a fully grown woman, ruling over the whole of his family. But it was a part of the curse that Yuki and Kyo couldn't disobey him. They were beholden to Akito as their God, and would submit to whatever punishment he decided fit the crime. "I wasn't speaking to you. Be silent until you're spoken to."
Kyoko bristled. When she spoke again, her voice was laced with danger. "Listen here, kid—"
"I am the head of the Soma family." Akito sneered down at her. "And I stand as God above those who are a part of the Zodiac. You will be silent!"
"Akito-san is the incarnate of God from the old legend," Kazuma explained calmly to the woman, likely in an attempt to deescalate. "Much like Yuki and Kyo are the incarnations of the Rat and Cat of the legend. He is the head of our family because of that, and we respect his authority."
"There is only one correct course of action in this case." Akito said coolly. "No one outside of the family can know of this secret. We will erase your memories of this incident. You will not remember meeting Yuki or Kyo. Hatori, I leave them to you."
Hatori bowed. As Akito departed, he approached Kyoko first. "Please do not fight." He placed his hand on the bewildered woman's head. "This will not hurt."
Kyoko barely had time to ask the question before she slumped over, golden-orange hair spilling out on the tatami.
"Okaa-san!" Tohru cried, scrabbling to her mother's side.
"She is only asleep." Hatori put his hand on her head. "Do not worry."
And then Tohru was asleep, too.
All things considered, their punishment wasn't too bad; they were barred from leaving the estate excepting for school for a month, and they were never to travel to and from without an escort. It was worse for Kyo, who was used to being free to come and go from the compound as he pleased, but Yuki was used to being confined to his rooms at the main house. The doctor had forbade him from going to the dojo for a month due to the severity of the cold he'd caught, which meant he wasn't even able to see Kyo and Haru, who he'd managed to strike up a friendship with as well. Haru had even apologised for screaming at him the first time they'd met; it was a strange feeling.
Some of the older kids had laughed at the way Yuki hid behind Kyo, Haru following the two of them around like a duckling with wide eyes. Sometimes Momiji came to visit, or Kagura visited and harassed Kyo for the whole lesson. Sometimes Kazuma let them out half an hour or so early to let them play in the garden before Yuki had to go home; those were the best days, where Yuki really felt like a child. He felt bad that Kyo and Haru were missing out on valuable practice time, since they seemed to love martial arts so much more than he did, but he'd learned that they took extra lessons on other days, sometimes. Haru sometimes brought Isuzu with him when they played, but Yuki got the sense that she didn't like them very much. She certainly didn't like Kyo, and the feeling seemed to be mutual.
But he couldn't go while he was sick like this. Akito seemed to relish in it.
"They don't miss you, you know." Akito whispered into his ear one evening after dinner. The doctor had said he could go back in the next week if his cough stayed mild. "Why do you think they haven't been to see you? They don't really care."
Yuki wanted to protest that they did. They were his friends. Kyo snapped at them when the older kids picked on them for their unusual hair and eye colours, and Haru hugged him every time he came to class. Momiji even seemed to like him, and Kagura had christened him with the nickname Yun-chan. Kazuma smiled every time he walked into the dojo. There were people who cared about him for the first time in his life.
But Akito and his black words were Yuki's constant companions for his month in isolation, and when the doctor said he was ready to go back to lessons, he decided he wouldn't bother.
Kazuma's visit came as a surprise.
"The boys are wondering when you're coming back to the dojo." He said without preamble. "I understand the doctor gave you the all clear last month."
Yuki wrapped his arms around his knees and pressed his forehead into them. "I'm not coming back."
If Kazuma was surprised, he didn't show it. "Why not?"
Yuki sniffled. "They don't like me. I'm in the way."
"Did Akito tell you that?"
Yuki's head slowly rose. He nodded.
"If I may, I will give you some advice I often give to Kyo." Kazuma said softly. "He often has problems with being spoken down to by members of the main family, due to being born with the Cat spirit. But as I say to him; words are only that. Words. They do not hold power over you unless you let them. If you doubt the words of a person, look instead to their actions. Other than when he was first learning to get to know you and to overcome his misconceptions, has Kyo ever given you the impression that he didn't like you coming around?"
Yuki's eyes watered and he scrubbed at them with the back of his hand. "No. But Kyo's friend… she… she…"
Kazuma's face saddened. "What happened with Honda-san and her daughter was unfortunate." He agreed. "Such is the fate of those who are cursed with a Zodiac spirit. He isn't alone in losing people because they've found out his secret." Kazuma placed his hand on Yuki's head. "I've heard you also know what it's like to lose friends to that inconvenient truth. Momiji's own mother rejected him and had to have her memories erased to prevent her from taking her own life. Isuzu is now estranged from her parents." He sighed and withdrew his hand. "Then children of the Zodiac have ever needed to rely on one another."
"But Akito said—"
"Akito knows very little about what Kyo thinks and feels." Kazuma said firmly. "He has only ever spoken to him once, and I have made all the effort in the world to ensure that it does not happen again. Kyo wanted to visit you while you were ill, but I forbade it. I apologise, because it meant that you were not able to see your friend. But I know very well the darkness that awaits him in this house, and I want to keep him from it for as long as humanly possible."
Yuki began to cry. Kyo had wanted to see him. He had. "B-but Haru—"
"He was turned away." Kazuma said darkly, and Yuki's eyes widened. "He said he'd tried two or three times in the first week and was denied. Akito personally told him to stop coming, and you know Hatsuharu can't refuse a direct order from him."
Yuki was bawling now, clutching his chest and letting out broken wails. He was startled to feel Kazuma's arms surround him. He was not used to receiving comfort anymore.
Kazuma shushed him gently as Yuki clutched at him. "Are you sure you don't want to come back to the dojo?"
"I… I want to…!"
Kazuma smiled. "The boys will be glad to see you."
Yuki was almost barrelled over when he walked into the dojo three days later. Haru was squeezing him so tightly he nearly couldn't breathe.
Haru refused to let go even as Kyo approached and crossed his arms. "Where the hell have you been?"
Yuki's eyes began to water. Even after his discussion with Kazuma, he was worried that the first words out of Kyo's mouth were going to be to get out and never come back. "I thought… I thought you didn't want to see me. After Honda-san…"
"Don't be stupid." Kyo growled. "It wasn't your fault. We both transformed."
"I heard about that." Haru said from where he was still latched onto Yuki's waist. "It sucks."
"Yeah, well." Kyo averted his gaze, posture stiffening. "Can't do anything about it now." Then he turned fiery orange eyes on Yuki. "But if you disappear like that again I don't care what Shishou says, I'll drag you out of that house by the hair if I have to."
"Not if Akito says you can't." Haru pointed out.
Kyo flushed. "Shut up!"
Yuki couldn't help himself. He broke out of Haru's grip and launched himself at Kyo, latching his arms around his waist and burying his face in the other boy's shoulder.
Kyo stiffened. "Hey! What're you doing?!"
Yuki didn't answer, but felt Haru place a hand on his back.
Kyo was everything Yuki wanted to be. He was loud and unafraid to speak his mind, and didn't take mistreatment lying down. He had friends and was smart. And he wasn't stuck under Akito's thumb.
His car often passed them on the way to and from school, and Yuki would watch out the window as Kyo, Haru, and Momiji would walk to and from, sometimes accompanied by Kagura or Isuzu, sometimes not.
It took months of working up the courage to ask on one of his rare visits to his parents' house. "Okaa-san?"
"Can I please transfer schools?"
His mother didn't even look at him, her nose buried in a book. "Why would you want to do that?"
Yuki's arm crossed over his body, clutching at his other arm. "I want to go to school with the other zodiac."
A pause. Then, "No."
"I know you've been playing with that Cat child." His mother sneered. "Really, I expected better judgement from you, Yuki. Why on earth did you go and make friends with that?"
Yuki, for the first time in a long time, was angry. He'd forgotten what it felt like, to have rage tremble through his little body, and before he could stop it, he was crying tears of fury. "Who else can I be friends with?" He sobbed. "My friends at school had their memories erased. I can't play with girls because it might happen again. And Kyo is nice! He stands up for me when the older kids pick on my hair, and Haru likes me, and Momiji always wants to play with me!"
"Oh for heavens' sake, stop crying." His mother snapped, apparently having mistaken his tears for sadness. "You're halfway through the sixth grade. If you manage to keep your grades above an A-plus across all subjects for the rest of the year, I may consider allowing you to attend the same middle school." Here, she looked at him sharply. "Your grades have slipped. Consider this your opportunity to get what you want."
Yuki nodded furiously, swiping at the tear tracks on his cheeks. "I will! I'll get all S's!"
His mother snorted, attention already back on her book. "If you say so. Shouldn't you be getting back to the main house? I'm sure Akito-sama is missing you."
Yuki had never studied harder in his life. Even Akito had taken notice.
"What on earth are you doing that for?" He asked one afternoon, when Yuki had planted himself by the window and began to pore over his worksheets.
"Okaa-san says if I keep my grades up I can choose my middle school." He said carefully. He never mentioned his friendship with the other Zodiac children to Akito. If he even so much as suspected Yuki preferred their company to his own, Yuki didn't want to know what he would do.
Akito sighed. "That's boring." He crossed his arms. "Come play with me."
Yuki obeyed. He could not refuse his God.
Despite Akito's constant interruptions, Yuki was determined. At the end of the year, he graduated from his elementary school with a smattering of A-plus and S grades, and proudly showed his report card to his mother.
She read it dispassionately, as if top grades were the minimum she expected of her son. "I suppose I'll have to pay Kazuma-kun a call and find out what school he'll be sending… that child to." She sneered. "If it's an acceptable one, you may attend."
Yuki was thrilled to be placed in the same class as Kyo.
The school was the one that all zodiac boys typically attended, close enough to be populated by mostly Soma children, and despite being government-run, was nearly completely in the Soma family's back pocket. His mother had allowed him to attend with one caveat: "If your grades fall below an A, I will transfer you to another school without distractions. Is that clear?"
Kyo was nothing like Yuki expected in class; he knew his cousin was smart, but he hadn't expected him to be such a good student. Kyo didn't raise his hand, but usually had the correct answer when called upon. He took meticulous notes and always had his classwork done on time. And with Akito starting high school—by correspondence, of course, because no school was good enough for the head of the Soma clan, apparently—he was busier than before, so Yuki was awarded more freedom to come and go as he pleased. He spent a lot of time at the dojo, where he discovered that Kyo was indeed a good studier.
But in the schoolyard, it was a different story. Kyo was picked on for his hair colour by the other students, which often led to fistfights and calls home. Yuki was also picked on, but it wasn't completely unheard of for children to go grey at a young age, so he wasn't teased as being unnatural like Kyo was. But they were still cruel to him, calling him an old man and other similar insults.
"You gotta learn to stand up for yourself." Kyo said one lunch period, sitting on the branch of a tree at the edge of the school grounds. Yuki sat at the base of the tree, picking at his lunch. "They're just gonna walk all over you if you don't fight back."
"Okaa-san will transfer me if I get into trouble." Yuki said glumly. She hadn't said as much, but Yuki didn't doubt it; if his grades dropping below an A was enough, getting a detention for fighting would certainly warrant a transfer.
Kyo wrinkled his nose. "Your mother sounds like a bitch. It sucks having shitty parents." He paused, then in a quieter tone: "You hear what happened to Momiji's mother?"
Yuki frowned. "Akito told me."
"She's got a new kid, now." Kyo said bitterly. "She and her husband get to move on with their fucking lives and leave Momiji behind. It's not fair."
Yuki recalled that Kyo's mother had committed suicide. He didn't think he'd get away with bringing it up. "Lots of us don't live with our parents." He pointed out instead.
"It pisses me off." Kyo grumbled. "Especially when you get families like Hiro's. His mother fucking adores him."
"He's lucky." Yuki agreed. "And Kisa's mother doesn't seem too bad, either. And… and you're lucky to have Shihan."
"Shishou's not my dad." Kyo snapped.
"No, but he looks after you." Yuki pointed out. "No one cares about me unless I get into trouble."
Kyo looked down at him, expression blank. They stared at each other for a few moments, before he looked away. "Yeah, Shishou's better than my real old man, at least." He allowed, and they left the conversation at that.
Despite all the time he spent in the company of his friends, there was no escaping the awful things Akito said to him. While Kyo and Haru and the others were bright spots in his life, Akito's words eclipsed everything.
"You're all monsters, you know." He took great joy in telling him. "But the Cat is the most monstrous of all. You're all lucky I love you so much; if I didn't, there would be no reason for any of you to exist at all."
Yuki tried to block the words out.
He didn't succeed.
I tried to strike a balance between his budding friendships with the other kids vs Akito’s abuse. Because no matter what, at the end of the day, Yuki is still largely isolated from them, and Akito’s words hold a power that Kazuma doesn’t really understand over the Zodiac children.
"Something's wrong with Yuki."
Kyo turned to find Haru standing at the gates of the school, apparently waiting for him. Momiji was nowhere to be seen, but Kyo was out late after detention and the kid was probably already home.
Kyo grunted. "I figured. He hasn't been in school all week."
"No," Haru shook his head, falling into step beside Kyo. "I mean I saw him yesterday. There's something wrong with him."
"How'd you see him?" Kyo's head snapped around.
"Snuck in while Akito was busy. Rin kept a lookout."
"Shit, man, you're playing with fire." Kyo ran a hand down his face. "So it's not just another cold?"
Haru shook his head. "He wouldn't even speak. Don't think he even knew we were there."
Kyo frowned. It was true that Yuki had been getting quieter and quieter lately, the bags under his eyes getting deeper and deeper. Haru had tried prodding about his home life, but Yuki would always smile that fake smile of his and insist that everything was okay.
Kyo didn't know Akito very well; the only time he'd come into contact with the God of the Zodiac, the boy had ordered him to remove his beads. Even knowing what he would become without them, Kyo had been compelled to obey. The transformation had been witnessed by Akito, Shigure, and a few maids—it was the most painful and humiliating experience of his life. Every time he went near the main house and the maids saw him, he was reminded of his shame. He lashed out, of course, but deep in the pit of his gut, he knew he was the monster they saw him as. None of the other zodiac needed a magic talisman to keep their human form.
Still, he'd heard rumours. Akito was prone to temper tantrums; just last new year, he'd slapped Momiji around for seemingly no reason other than he didn't like the sound of the boy's voice. Before that, Shigure had been cast out of the main estate for no reason that anyone could fathom, and he'd been a long-standing favourite. Just recently, he'd wounded Hatori's eye for daring to ask to get married.
He remembered what his father was like, in the days after his mother's death. His gut clenched uncomfortably.
Kyo wasn't allowed near the main house. Even if Shishou would have allowed it, the maids would refuse him entry. He had no way of seeing Yuki until he came back to school.
"I don't like it." He said eventually. Dark, blurry memories of hateful words and blunt fists echoed in his mind. Going to live with Shishou had been the best thing that ever happened to him. "Him being there. Why don't his parents take him home?"
Haru shrugged. "They get paid extra if Yuki's there, I heard."
"That's fucked up." Kyo snarled, his fists clenching.
"Yeah, it sucks." Haru agreed in his usual monotone. "If Akito wanted me to live there, I don't think my parents would even give me time to pack." He sighed. "He needs to get out of there."
"How?" Kyo rolled his eyes. "You know Akito won't let him go."
"I have an idea." Haru said, tipping his head to the side. "I'll tell you about it if it works."
As it turned out, Haru never got the chance to tell Kyo his plan. Final exams came and went, and he graduated from middle school with decent grades. He'd heard that Yuki had moved in with Shigure for some reason, but hadn't been able to go see him yet. With preparations for school and Yuki's health being precarious, Kyo had decided to wait a little while and give him a chance to recover.
He was on his way to his first day of high school, which started a week later than most others, when it happened.
He recognised Honda Kyoko easily; the woman's bright orange hair caught his eye, and when he'd seen the profile of her face, he'd recognised her instantly. He hadn't seen her since the day Hatori had erased her memories, being under strict instructions not to go anywhere near her lest he trigger flashbacks.
But she was there. He followed her without thinking for a few blocks, watching her. He wondered if he could get away with talking to her now, since he was so much older and looked so different.
She never saw the car coming.
He hesitated for a fraction of a second too long; he could drag her out of the car's path and save her, but expose the curse—there was no way he could fling her to the side or push her out of the way without getting hit himself. But fear of exposing the curse kept him rooted to the spot. Akito wouldn't care that he'd done it to save a life. There were too many people around; exposing himself would be a one-way trip to the Cat's Room.
He managed a strangled "Kyoko—!" half a second before the car struck.
Her body flew through the air like a ragdoll, cracking her head against the pavement. He could tell from the way her body splayed out that she had several broken bones—the pool of blood that began to spread rapidly from under her told him that there was no way she was going to survive.
He met her eyes—she'd fallen very near his feet. His shock rooted him to the spot as her eyes flashed with recognition.
"J-Jari…" she croaked, and Kyo felt ice curdle in his gut. He took a stumbling step backwards. Her fingers twitched like she wanted to reach out to him. How had she remembered?! "Tohru…" she wheezed. "…won't forgive…"
He didn't come out of his room for days. Kazuma and Kunimitsu came and went with food and gentle suggestions that he bathe, but Kyo couldn't even find the energy to lift his head.
His fault. It was his fault.
He could have saved her. He should have saved her. Now her daughter no longer had a mother. And wasn't Kyoko's husband dead, too? That meant her daughter was an orphan.
Days blurred together. Hatori came and went. Kazuma spent inordinate amounts of time sitting at Kyo's bedside. An expulsion notice came in the mail from the school he never went to.
Eventually, Kazuma had evidently had enough. He dragged Kyo to his feet and forced him to shower. When Kyo emerged, Kazuma helped him dress and Kunimitsu handed him a backpack. Listlessly, Kyo dragged his feet after Kazuma as he led him to the train station. He sat when he was told and rose when he was told, truthfully not caring where his guardian was taking him.
It was almost worse than when his mother had died. He'd been a little kid back then, too powerless to stop her. But this time… this time he'd seen the vehicle coming and could have saved Honda Kyoko. But he chose himself.
He really was the worst kind of person.
No. Not a person.
"Kyo's gone missing?"
Yuki blinked at Shigure across the table.
"More like Kazuma-dono's assistant won't tell anyone where they went." Shigure corrected. "I heard Kagura nearly tore the place apart looking for him." He chuckled. Yuki's face blanched at the mental image. How Kyo survived Kagura's particular brand of affection had always been beyond him. "Haa-san wouldn't give me too many details, but apparently Kyo was unwell enough that he was called to see him. That was over two months ago."
So that explained why Yuki hadn't been able to get into contact with Kyo. The three months he'd spent at Shigure's house had done wonders for Yuki's health and general wellbeing; not being under the thumb of Akito and hearing his black words every day had allowed him to begin clawing his way out of the depths of despair. He wasn't completely out yet, but he was making his way.
Shigure's constant happy-go-lucky manner hadn't been something that Yuki had expected of Akito's old favourite, but when questioned about, well, anything, he simply laughed and diverted the conversation. Three months of living with him, and Yuki still didn't know why he'd been banished from the main estate. He still wasn't sure why Shigure had taken him in, or how he'd managed to convince Akito to allow it, but he was grateful.
"Shouldn't you get going?" Shigure looked at the clock. "You'll be late for school."
Yuki sighed into his leftover takeout. "Yeah. I'm gonna head off." He stood from the table, not bothering to clear his dishes.
"Have a good day!" Shigure called after him jovially as he rounded the corner into the hall.
The walk to Kaibara Municipal High School took over half an hour, but Yuki enjoyed the feeling of the breeze on his skin. Going to a co-ed school was dangerous, he knew, but he no longer wanted to live his life as dictated by Akito. It hadn't been easy to convince the main house to allow him to attend a different school—but Yuki was over an hour away from the school that Kyo was supposed to be attending. Eyebrows had been raised at the choice of a mixed-gender school, but Yuki had argued that it made the most sense—it was a good school, close to where he was now living, and since it was a private school, its reputation was better than most. With the proviso that he would be transferred if anyone found him out, Yuki had been given permission to attend.
He didn't know how it happened, but he seemed to be popular at this new school. Where before the boys at his middle school would pick on him for being girly-faced and grey-haired, he now had girls approaching him to tell him how beautiful he was—which made him self-conscious about how feminine he looked, but it was better than the alternative. He did not miss most of his old classmates.
"Good morning, Soma-kun!"
"Good morning, Yuki-kun!"
"Good morning, Soma-san!"
Yuki smiled and returned the greetings of everyone who called out to him on his way to his homeroom.
Honda Tohru and her friends were already there by the time he entered. It had been a shock to the system, the first time he'd learned her name. He remembered her, of course; she and her mother had had their memories erased when Yuki was eleven. He'd heard that her mother had died a few months ago, right at the beginning of the school year. He wondered if Kyo knew. The woman had been friendly with him, if he recalled correctly.
He'd taken notice of Honda Tohru, but had never actually approached her.
"Oh, good morning, Soma-kun!" She greeted him cheerfully, as she did every morning. Her friends echoed less enthusiastic greetings from either side of her.
"Good morning, Honda-san, Uotoni-san, Hanajima-san." He said as he passed and took his seat.
And that was the extent of their interactions for the first few months of high school.
Yuki was just starting to truly feel comfortable in his new home by the morning Honda Tohru had appeared on their property in the fourth month. He heard her voice before he saw her, talking to Shigure about the old zodiac legend—and his heart nearly stopped at that until he heard her mention that it was a story her mother used to tell her. She'd just finished telling Shigure about how when she was a small child she'd wanted to be the sign of the Cat when Yuki rounded the corner and whacked Shigure with his school bag.
"Good morning, Honda-san." He greeted. "My cousin didn't say anything weird to you, did he?"
They happened to be going the same way after school—Yuki on his way home, Tohru to her part time job. They chatted a little on the way, and Yuki decided to test the waters. "I hope my cousin wasn't too strange, this morning." He reiterated. He knew Shigure had a bad habit of flirting with just about anyone, be they male or female, older or younger than himself.
"Oh, not at all!" She hastened to assure him. "He was very kind. He even showed me his zodiac figurines!"
"Oh, yes, I heard." He chuckled. "You were saying something about being a cat…?"
She laughed nervously. "I was a… strange child." She allowed. "But I've always felt sorry for the cat in the legend."
Yuki's lips twitched. "I wouldn't think too much about it." He wanted to laugh, which surprised him. He imagined what face Kyo would make if he could overhear this conversation. He might have to tease him about it whenever he turned up.
"I beg your pardon?" Tohru blinked at him.
Yuki allowed himself a smile. He explained the numerical system, and how the zodiac came to be folded into fortune telling and astrology. She was blinking at him, eyes blank by the end of his discussion, and he allowed himself a chuckle. "So, you see, there was never any room for the cat to begin with."
"Do you… not like cats, Soma-kun?"
He tilted his head to the side. "They're not my favourite." He allowed. "They can be grumpy and temperamental." She giggled at that. "But if they like you, you won't find better friends."
"Yes, that's exactly what I think!" She clapped her hands together. "And they're so cute! You just can't help but love them!"
Yuki coughed to hide a laugh. He bid her goodbye and continued on his way home, snickering to himself. Oh, if only Kyo were around. He could picture the look on his face.
A tent. She was living in a tent. Yuki slapped a guffawing Shigure and invited Tohru to the house for tea to get her story out of her.
Apparently, she'd been living in the tent for a week, now, and no one had noticed. He frowned as he filled up the hot water bottle with ice and water to bring down her fever. He felt he owed Honda Tohru, after getting her memories altered as a child. Without even consulting Shigure, he invited her to stay when morning rolled around.
"Are you sure about this?" Shigure asked as they climbed the stairs. "She's a girl, you know."
"It'll be fine as long as she doesn't hug me." Yuki sighed. He wondered if Shigure knew she'd had her memories erased before. Probably not. But Tohru was almost unnervingly polite. He doubted very much she'd hug him without permission—which left potential accidents, but it was a risk he was willing to take.
She stood in the hall, gaping like a fish out of water as they set her room up. Yuki aired the place out and hauled the random things they were storing in there into Shigure's study while the latter brought up the vacuum cleaner. Within a few mere minutes, the room was liveable, including a spare futon laid out and Tohru's belongings in plastic bags piled in the corner.
"We should get moving, if you're feeling better, Honda-san." Yuki said. "We've got about an hour and a half before school."
Kyo stared at the door of Shigure's house. It was early yet, but he didn't really want to be anywhere else. He didn't even really want to be there, but Shishou had insisted that he go spend time with Yuki.
"You've been away for four months, and you hadn't seen him for two before that." Kazuma had said. "That's a long period for someone not to see their friend, don't you think? Go. I'll see you at the dojo when I get home."
Kyo still wasn't quite out of the funk he'd fallen into after Kyoko's accident, but at least he felt human again. Well, as human as he ever felt, anyway.
He'd just raised his hand to knock when the door flew open and a girl in a school uniform crashed into him.