There was only one day left until graduation.
Yuki stared at his reflection in his bedroom mirror, easily recognizing the differences in his features from when he started high school. His grey hair was shorter than it had been back then, styled in a way that was, for lack of better description, messy in an artistic manner. His face had lost its child-like roundness, his cheekbones becoming more chiselled as the years passed. Although his physique was still quite slim, his muscles were bigger and had more definition than they did back then, a fact that more than a few girls - well, women now - had definitely noticed.
The rat sighed and hung his head, his hands anxiously gripping the edge of his dresser.
Today was the day . . . the day that he and Kyo would be fighting for the last time for a place with the Juunishi. He was not as confident in his ability to beat the cat as he had been three years ago. Although he had certainly gotten stronger over the years, the cat had as well. If he had to admit it, their strength and skill were almost on par; it was not a comforting thought.
Yuki dreaded defeat - feared it from his very being. If he lost the fight today, he would lose his very freedom as well. He would be locked in a private chamber, at the mercy of Akito until he died. Death would be a welcome escape after having to endure anything that Akito did to him.
A fortunate knock on the door interrupted his dark thoughts.
'Sohma-kun?' Tohru's soft voice called from the corridor.
'Hai, come in,' he replied.
She slid the door open. She had changed noticeably over the years as well. Although she was still as kind and sweet she had been on the day he met her, she, too, had grown and matured. Her hair was much shorter than it had been back then, barely surpassing her shoulders now. Her facial features were more graceful, although her movements were still as clumsy as they had always been, Yuki realized with amusement. Her body was much more womanly now, curvier and more attractive . . .
But Yuki did not really see her like that. If anything, the love he felt for Tohru was more akin to that of a brother and sister. It was deep, but lacked the passion and heat that he expected to feel for a lover.
'I brought this for you,' Tohru said, handing him a plain white envelope.
'Arigato, but what is it?' Yuki asked curiously, turning it over in his hands.
'A letter,' she replied with a smile.
'Who is it from?' he asked patiently, knowing that she would not answer the obvious unless he asked it directly.
'Uh . . .' she hesitated. 'Kyo-hun requested that I bring it to you.'
A flare of anger rose up in Yuki when he realized that Tohru had been inconvenienced by the cat. Kyo could have easily given Yuki the letter himself - they lived in the same house for goodness' sake!
'Ah, it was no trouble at all,' Tohru said quickly, as if she could read the rat's mind. 'Kyo-kun . . . he seemed to think that you would not accept it if he gave it to you directly. That's why he asked me to do it.'
"Well, he was right about that," Yuki thought irritably.
'Arigato,' he said again, deciding that he would read it as soon as Tohru left, if only to ensure her actions had not been in vain.
'Okay, I will leave you to it then,' she said cheerfully. Tohru backed out of the room, still with that same bright smile. Then she slid the door shut behind her.
Yuki retrieved his letter opener from his desk and slit the envelope open. He pulled the letter out, wondering why Kyo was suddenly writing to him, wondering what was so important - or perhaps so unimportant - that the cat could not say it to his face.
Yuki, it began.
I can't go to the cat's box without trying to tell you - there are important things you should know . . . things you have forgotten. I have wanted to tell you this for a long time, but Akito's threats have always held me back.
Yuki bit his lower lip anxiously, knowing better than anyone the kind of power Akito's threats held.
This may be the last time I can tell you things before I am locked away forever-
"So, he's nervous about losing the fight," Yuki thought smugly before continuing.
-so I'm not going to lose this chance.
You have not always been like this, the cold prince that others see. You used to be happier, more carefree than you are now. You used to smile more . . . laugh more . . . you used to love.
When Tohru first moved in, I was afraid that she would reject you - reject all of us! - and make you even more guarded than you are now. But now I see that her companionship is the best thing that could have happened. She brings out the best in people; you seem to be coming out of your shell more and more as her heart warms yours. Even I am affected by her - less angry at a world that hates me for something that is out of my control. I love her-
The rat snorted. Was this what Kyo had wanted to tell him? That he was in love in Tohru? It was a waste of both their time.
-like a sister, the letter continued and Yuki almost felt bad for his earlier jump to conclusions . . . almost.
She accepts me for who I am, rather than what I am. There are so few people who are able to look past the obvious to see the good within, fewer still who are willing to try.
The teen felt like gagging. He was tempted to throw the letter away so that he would not have to finish reading the cat's mushy ramblings, but he nevertheless continued on, remembering that the letter mentioned something important he had to remember.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that you used to see me like that, too - as a person. You knew that I wasn't a monster, even seemed to understand my condition . . . I loved you for that.
Yuki froze, his hands stiffening as he re-read the last line again and again: "I loved you for that." The next part had been re-written and crossed out many times, as if Kyo had not been sure how to put his feelings into words.
I loved - love - you with all my being, with everything that I am. In another time - another lifetime - you loved me too. We grew up together. We told each other everything. We were best friends. Then our friendship became something more. I was everything to you . . . and you to me.
But we hardly even had the chance to explore our love before Akito found out. When you defended me, she gave Hatori the order to erase your memory, all of your memories of me. You were never the same again . . . so neither was I.
His hands were trembling now, but Yuki forced himself to read the rest of the letter he was not sure he wanted to finish.
I know that it is impossible to reverse Hatori's power - that you may even think this is just a ploy to distract you during our final battle - but . . . well, I suppose anything I say now won't be able to convince you one way or another.
Yuki touched the paper with his fingertips, noticing there were parts that were wrinkled and blurred almost beyond recognition. Had Kyo been crying?
I just needed you to know that you are loved, that you used to love.
I have enclosed with this letter my two most cherished possessions - a photo of us before high school began and the last gift you had given me.
I love you, my prince . . . and that is why I am going to lose to you today. The cat has always lost; the cat is meant to lose. I don't want you to be at the mercy of Akito. Saving you from her is the last gift that I can give you - and I give it to you with all my heart.
Do not forget me.
Yuki hastily checked the envelope and saw the items that Kyo had mentioned; he had not noticed them before. He pulled out the first sheet.
The photograph showed the two of them laughing; their arms were tightly wrapped each other's shoulders as if they never wanted to let go. They could not have been older than fourteen. There was no doubt in Yuki's mind that this was the last photo that was taken of them as best friends - why else would Kyo value it so much?
Yuki touched the photo longingly, yearning for this time when he had been so happy and free. He desperately strained his memory for a hint of this moment, anything to prove that it was real . . . but Hatori's powers were relentless, flawless, for he only drew a blank void.
Disappointedly, he slipped his hand into the envelope again to retrieve the other item. The paper was folded and felt rather frail, as if it had been folded and unfolded many, many times. Yuki opened it with great care, wondering what had lured Kyo's attention so many times before.
It was a drawing, sketched with great care and detail. The drawing was a close-up of Yuki and Kyo, lying in bed and staring into each other's eyes. Through the hands of the artist, Yuki could see the adoration and love that was shining out of their eyes.
He glanced at the corner, curious to know who the artist was. His breath caught in his throat.
With all the love I possess.
Yuki stared at the note, immediately recognizing his own handwriting. He had drawn this. He had given it to Kyo before his memories of the cat were wiped away. If there was any doubt in his mind before, it was certainly gone now - he trusted Kyo's words, believing that in a different time, in a difference place, they had been in love.
But even if he had loved Kyo back then, he did not love him now. How could Yuki love someone he hardly knew anymore - someone he could not remember? Still, knowing that he had once loved Kyo, could he allow the cat to lose on purpose in order to gain his own freedom?
After dropping the items onto his blanket, Yuki shakily sat down on the edge of his futon and buried his face in his hands. He did not know what to do . . .
The fight was to take place in Akito's enclosed courtyard and only the Juunishi were permitted - ordered, rather - to be present. After all, as far as they knew, the outcome of the battle may well affect them all.
Tohru had been expressly forbidden to attend and Kyo secretly agreed with that decision. He did not want the poor girl to worry more than she already did, especially since the loser would not be returning home to Shigure's that night. It would probably break her heart to have to see them hurting each other as well.
The redhead anxiously paced outside of Akito's house; he had not been allowed to go through to the back until it was time. The other Juunishi were already assembled as his sensitive ears could hear their murmurs over the wall of the courtyard. He vaguely wondered if Yuki was already inside.
'Oy, baka nek- Kyo,' someone said from behind him.
Kyo closed his eyes, knowing who would be standing there.
'What?' he asked, not turning around to face his companion.
A hand grasped his arm, but it was unexpectedly gentle - not the usual rough treatment he was used to receiving from his inherent enemy - so he did not snap back in defence.
'Kyo,' Yuki said again, more softly this time. 'Turn around, please.'
Kyo did, although he was hanging his head so he would not have to look at the rat.
To his surprise, Yuki suddenly embraced him. The rat's arms slid under his and wrapped behind his back, pulling him close.
'Yuki, what-?' Kyo stuttered, confused.
Yuki did not reply and instead tucked his face into the crook of the cat's neck.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Kyo swallowed his words and wrapped his arms around Yuki's shoulders, inhaling deeply. God, he had missed this, but the feeling of having Yuki so close right before he was about to be taken away was painful.
'I still don't remember,' Yuki whispered, his voice cracking. 'I'm sorry.'
'You don't have to be sorry for something that isn't your fault,' Kyo said, using the gentle tone that he had not used with Yuki for a long time.
'I don't want you to lose intentionally today.'
'I have to,' he said, not certain how to argue his case; if truth be told, he had not expected to have a private moment with Yuki before the battle, let alone the chance to speak with him.
'No, you don't,' Yuki said firmly.
'But if you lose, you will be at Akito's mercy.'
'I don't care.'
Kyo smiled tenderly.
'You don't even remember that you loved me,' he reminded the rat. 'How can you sacrifice yourself for me?'
'You have already sacrificed yourself for me,' Yuki said, pulling back to meet Kyo's gaze. 'You have suffered for years with your memories, while mine have been nothing but a void.' He stroked Kyo's jaw. 'You have suffered by my very hand, by my words.'
'And I would do it all again to prevent Akito from hurting you,' Kyo said.
Yuki's expression darkened.
'She will still find ways to hurt me, even if I am not locked up in a private room,' he said.
Kyo knew that he was right. He sighed, knowing that there was no way they would be able to agree, one way or the other.
'I think . . . we have to fight today - both of us trying our hardest,' he said. 'There is no way around it. If we don't fight today, Akito will . . . do something,' he finished lamely, but he knew Yuki would understand that anything Akito did would be ten times worse than the damage their fight would inflict.
Yuki frowned, clearly not happy with the idea. Nevertheless, he seemed to agree with Kyo's way of thinking.
'If we both fight our hardest, then our fate will be decided for us,' the rat said slowly.
Unable to contain himself any longer, Kyo grabbed Yuki's collar and pulled the rat towards him, pressing their lips together in a hard kiss. He moved his mouth against his cousin's, coaxing him to open his mouth. Yuki hesitantly did so and the redhead's tongue delved inside, exploring the familiar cavern. He was surprised when Yuki responded with equal fervour; their tongues danced the age old dance of love.
Yuki pushed him gently against the wall, using the leverage to press their lips so firmly together that it was almost bruising. His arms were braced on either side of Kyo's head; barely an inch separated them.
Kyo relished in the rough passion of the other teen. He could feel Yuki's desire against his own and he purposefully swivelled to hips, causing Yuki to moan into his mouth. Kyo grabbed Yuki's waist and guided him so that their positions were reversed. He smiled against Yuki's mouth when the latter's leg circled around his hips, opening himself to him. He slid one arm under Yuki's shirt and behind his lower back to crush their bodies together; he could feel the rat's strong back muscles against his forearm and yearned for more skin on skin contact with him. His other arm held Yuki's thigh, holding the leg in place as he grinded against him.
Yuki's hands were gripping Kyo's hair, holding the latter's head in place. His body remembered what his mind could not. He remembered the passion, the love . . .
'Yuki-kun! Kyo-kun!' someone called from inside the house.
All too soon, the two teens broke apart, both of them breathing heavily.
'Yuki! Kyo!' the voice called again more insistently. 'Come inside. It's time.'
With one last longing look at Kyo, Yuki left, straightening his rumpled clothes as he went.
Kyo sadly watched him go.
Yuki was breathing heavily as he attempted to grab Kyo by the shirt. The fight had been going on for over an hour! It was the longest battle that he and Kyo had ever engaged in. He was surprised that neither of them had gotten any broken bones yet. Yuki ducked below Kyo's blow and sprinted towards the wall of the courtyard. He could hear the cat giving chase, exactly as he expected. When Yuki reached the wall, he ran up vertically for a couple of steps; he bent his legs and suddenly straightened them again so that he was propelling horizontally towards Kyo with his fists above his head.
Kyo groaned when the fists made abrupt contact with his stomach. He stumbled backwards, coughing up blood.
'Kyo-kun!' Kagura gasped worriedly.
From the corner of his eye, Yuki saw the boar with her hands over her mouth; her eyes were shining with tears.
The only thing that prevented Kagura from rushing to Kyo's rescue was the same thing that prevented the others from ceasing the battle - Akito's stern orders. None of the cursed ones were allowed to defy God. Ever.
'Argh!' he cried out when Kyo punched him in the jaw.
He hastily jumped away to avoid more blows. After he was able to gather his thoughts again, he darted forwards to grab Kyo's shirt again. This time, he was successful. He pulled the shirt downwards, forcing Kyo to bend down; then he struck the cat in the face.
Kyo shouted incoherently when his already bruised face was hit. He shoved himself away from Yuki, ripping his shirt in the process.
Before Yuki even had time to think, Kyo raced forwards, grabbing his arm with one hand and beating the joint with his other hand.
Yuki screamed when he heard a snapping sound - his arm was broken.
"So much for no broken bones," he thought darkly.
He kicked the other teen forcefully to break his hold and backed away until there was an acceptable distance between them.
'Yuki-kun!' someone called out anxiously, but he ignored them.
The two teens circled each other, trying to determine what the other's next move would be.
Yuki could feel his face throbbing from his injuries. His muscles, too, were aching in protest, but he ignored them as best as he could. Although he was treading on grass, gravel cracked under his feet, having been swept from the path to the lawn during their brawl.
Kyo was panting, his shoulders rising and falling rapidly as he tried to catch his breath. He irritably pulled off the remnants of his shirt and cast them away, revealing his heaving, sweaty torso.
The other Juunishi were sitting at the edge of the battle, on the porch with Akito. Hatsuharu the ox, Kisa the tiger, Momiji the rabbit, Hatori the dragon, Ayame the snake, Rin the horse, Hiro the ram, Ritsu the monkey, Kureno the rooster, Shigure the dog, and Kagura the boar - they were all there. It was one of the rare times that the Juunishi were all together outside of New Year's.
Yuki felt his heart ache for the young ones. They should not have to be forced to witness their cousins engaging in such brutality, but Akito's instructions had been very clear that all the Juunishi were to attend.
Suddenly, Kyo dashed forward in an attempt to tackle Yuki, but Yuki hastily braced his feet against the ground and back-flipped over the cat. As he was coming down, he smashed his elbow into the back of Kyo's neck.
The redhead collapsed to the ground.
He did not get up.
Yuki braced his feet against the ground and leaned low, assuming a low warrior stance. Gathering his last ounce of strength, he pulled his unbroken arm back to deliver the final blow; he was too tired to even make a fist. Not a moment later, the heel of his bruised hand sped forwards towards Kyo . . . but the cat's hand suddenly shot up to deflect his blow. Yuki froze, staring at the position their hands were in. With uncanny precision, Kyo's fingers were entwined around his so that their hands were folded together.
Kyo's entire body was shaking. He tried to stand up, using his grip on Yuki's hand as leverage, but he only managed bring himself up into a fragile crawling position.
Through connection at their hands, Yuki could feel the amount of effort that Kyo was exerting to stay up at all.
The redhead's face slowly turned upwards so that their gazes met.
The rat looked past all of the wounds to see the boy within - after all, that's all he way. A boy. They both were, yet they were being forced to fight each other for the amusement of their . . .
"God," Yuki thought with distaste. "But Akito is no God."
Kyo opened his mouth, as if he was trying to speak.
Yuki lowered his ear next to him.
'I . . . love . . . you . . . my . . . prince . . .' he said weakly before he hung his head again, his sweaty hair sticking to his forehead.
Something stirred at the back of Yuki's mind. It was not a memory exactly - more like the whisper of one, a dialogue that was heard over a vast distance.
'"I love you, too,"' he quoted with a faraway gaze; he continued, quoting both himself and Kyo without really realizing what he was saying.
'"I can't help but love you. You do not discriminate against me because I'm the cat."
'"You are there for me when I have no one else to turn to."
'"You accept me for who I am."
'"You complete me."
'"I'm nothing without you."'
With great effort, Kyo raised his head again to gaze upon his former lover; his eyes could not help but betray the hope he felt within.
Yuki fell to his knees with the same faraway look in his eyes. Their linked hands lowered as he did, but did not disconnect.
'Yuki, what is going on?' Akito demanded.
Yuki did not reply.
'Finish him . . . NOW!' Akito screamed maniacally.
'No,' the rat said firmly, drawing a gasp of shock from the watching Juunishi.
But they should not have been so surprised.
After all, this was not the first time the rat fell in love with the cat
God invited all the animals to a great banquet the next day and told them to be sure not to be late. As the animals were going home after the announcement, the rat overhead the dog and the snake planning a cruel trick on the cat, which would be sure to embarrass and shame him in front of God. The rat, who harboured feelings for the poor victim, told his friend that cat that the banquet was the day after tomorrow to spare him the humiliation.
The next day, all the animals gathered and lined up and entered into the great feast, the rat riding on the ox's back at the very front of the line to keep an eye on the dog and snake and attempt to tell God of their trickery. Unfortunately, the rat never had the opportunity to speak privately with God.
In the meantime, the cat was still sleeping, dreaming of a banquet the next day that did not exist.