-Authoress: ILB
-Title: Slither
-Date Published: May 7, 2006
-Fandom: Fruits Basket
-Characters/Pairing: Ayame and Mine
-Warnings: none; very, very little language, no mention of anything really inappropriate

Disclaimer: I do not own Furuba.

A/N: Here's my newest story-- a one-shot featuring Ayame and Mine. Ooh, I love them so much! So cute... It's rather long, I'm afraid, but I think it's pretty cute and pretty funny. There's not really that much romance, actually, but it's still sweet. I hope everyone enjoys it. If you take the time to read it, I'd appreciate it: tell me if you liked it or not; tell me why it was bad if you didn't. Thanks! And without further ado...

x-x Slither x-x

The customer left the store, happily bundled down with bags of Ayame's finest designs. Ayame himself was waving madly as the poor man scurried away.

"Farewell, valued customer! Please, never forget this haven of men's romance, and come back whenever the seeds of your newest fantasy have planted themselves in your heart! You must come back soon! Au revoir!"

Mine laughed as Ayame proudly preened. He closed the door to his shop, and walked back to their work table where Mine had laid out two bolts of new fabric. "You didn't scare another off, did you boss?"

Ayame sighed. "Of course not! Though I simply cannot understand why we have so little repeat business. Am I not charming enough? Not friendly enough?" His show of self-doubt lasted for about 3 seconds. Though for a moment, he did seem to give the matter serious thought. "Ahh! That cannot be! Have you met a man in whom charisma and charm flows in greater abundance? Of course not! He must merely have been blown away by our magnificent designs, unable to fathom something even greater– a something that, sooner or later, we shall surely create!"

He leaned towards her conspiratorially. "He couldn't have known this, of course, which clearly explains his expression– we might have mistaken it for fright, but it was actually awe!"

Ayame grabbed Mine's hands and held them tightly to his chest. "Oh! Clearly we have done the impossible once again. No other team can possibly compare!" He pulled her out of her seat.

She giggled. "Of course they can't. No one beats us, boss." He extended his arms, and they spun around happily, hands joined. The bright, merry colors of the shop were all whirling and blurring together before their eyes in the joyous dance– a whirlwind of carefree gaiety enjoyed by two still child-like souls.

They were laughing as they finally came to a halt. Dizzy, Mine stumbled, still giggling wildly. It was just another lovely afternoon; things were brilliantly simple, and simply fun.

And on such occasions, of course, things always have a way of going wrong.

The universe, though, was quite happy with events and didn't think things were going wrong at all. In fact, it was particularly pleased that things were going just according to plan. (There's always a plan, of course, and somehow it always seems inescapable.) With millions of years of practice, though, one can hardly expect anything else than for said universe to have even the smallest details covered. In this case, for example:

If Mine had not taken time off to visit her sick grandmother (the poor thing), then Ayame would have never been left to hold down the shop on his own. Now, Ayame was a creative genius (as he'd so proudly remind anyone who asked), but it can be sincerely stated than anything Ayame-esque, if not done with any competency, was at least done with style. And it was because of this fact, coupled with him being left to his own devices, that caused him to lose– somewhere in the depths of fabrics and laces and threads– an entire box of sewing needles. And if he hadn't lost them, then– upon her return– Mine would never have had to help find them. And if the two hadn't made a grand and glorious search, then the store would never have been in the most mesmerizingly messy state of disarray it had ever seen. And, if it had been tidy (instead of so very messy), then a certain bolt of fabric might never have been left on the floor. Things on floors have the annoying habit of being tripped over, if the person tripping isn't watching as carefully as she ought to be.

...Yes, that's right; that's exactly where this is going.

And since the bolt of fabric– with about a yard unrolled– was on the floor, and since Mine was dizzy and giggling and not at all attentive, an accident couldn't help but occur.

Mine tripped.

Mine fell.

And in falling on her employer, caused the unavoidable 'POOF!' that those cursed with the spirits of the zodiac all knew so well.

Mine sat on her knees right by a pile of clothing that she was nearly certain had been on Ayame Sohma's body just moments before. "B-boss?" she asked the room tentatively. "What happened?"

For, in fact, he was nowhere to be seen. Everything was exactly as it had been– Mine determined from her seat on the floor– except for the absence of the vivacious person the very surroundings belonged to. She blinked, feeling insurmountably confused.

"B-boss?" she tried again, standing on shaky legs. What had happened? How had he disappeared? Did she... did she...

"Oh no!" she wailed miserably, "I've killed him! Oh boss, I'm so sorry! What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do? How could I let this happen? Where is he; where is he; where is he!"

"Mine," a kind, if somewhat worried voice said from somewhere around her feet. "I'm right here. And, I assure you, I'm quite alive."

Mine looked around rapidly, trying to discern where Ayame's voice was coming from. "Where are you? Wh-what happened?"

"Mine..." The pile of clothing rustled around a bit, and it seemed the voice originated from there. "I'm down here."

She sunk to her knees, and poked gingerly into the richly embroidered... garment Ayame had been wearing. (He did like to experiment, so one could never be sure quite what he had put on.) She let out a surprised squeak when a snake wriggled out and seemed to look at her.

"Hullo," it said glumly. "I suppose I've been found out."

"F-found out?" Mine figured that just trying to act normal would be the best thing to do. After all, a snake was talking to her. That, as could be expected, had her a little rattled. She tried to keep calm.

"My dearest assistant, my fellow follower of fashionable folly–" The snake seemed to smile. "I think I may have something to confess."

Mine adjusted her glasses, just to make sure she wasn't seeing things.


Still a snake.

Still a talking snake.

So she figured: what the hell! If she was crazy she might as well enjoy it.

"What is it? That you're..." She gasped. "A-are you an alien? Or under an evil spell? Or perhaps you're cursed and waiting for a princess to... to find the golden ring that you gave to your beloved centuries ago, except she only just woke up from an enchanted sleep, but she's deathly afraid of serpents and–"

"Mine," the snake– er, Ayame, if we're to be factual– said, a hint of a laugh in his voice, "Your flights of fancy make my heart soar on the wings of your imagination. But it's not quite so romantic as that." She sat still, with eager eyes, waiting for him to explain. He sighed. "You see, my family is cursed– cursed so that whenever we embrace a member of the opposite sex, we immediately transform into an animal from the Chinese zodiac. There are only twelve of us– ahh, and the cat– you see."

She gasped. "And you must be the snake from the zodiac!"

He laughed heartily. "Why... yes! Once again, your astute observations amaze me!"

She blushed a little, embarrassed. "Sorry boss. It's just..." She laughed. "Um, well, it's a little... unexpected."

"That's understandable, of course!" He grinned.

She smiled in return. The moment was slowly fading from being shocking to being rather awkward.

"Um... boss?" she asked. "Do you... ever change back?"

He laughed. "Of course I do! I'm sure that any moment now, the triumphant return of my flawless form will utterly astound you!"

"Ahh. Well that's good."

The two sat in uncomfortable silence for another moment. Mine was still trying to digest what Ayame had told her, and Ayame thinking rather unhappily that if Mine really had to find out, he could certainly have planned a better way for it to happen.

Suddenly, Mine gasped. "Oh no!" she said fretfully. "The shop's still open! I'll go close up before someone comes and sees you like this."

She scrambled up and rushed over to the door. As she flipped their sign over to read "closed", she heard a strange noise.

"Boss, are you O– AHH!" She covered her eyes and her faced turned redder than a cherry. "I guess you're back to n-normal then, huh?"

Ayame laughed. "Yes Mine; as normal as ever. Though..." He laughed again. "In retrospect, perhaps it would have been wise to warn you about my regrettable absence of clothes.

"No, that's alright," she said in a voice only a very few octaves lower than a squeak. "Just... you are dressed now, aren't you?"

He laughed. "Dressed indeed."

"Good. So... Should we get back to work then?"

Ayame positively beamed. "Yes. Today shall be the day of our greatest achievement! Onward!"

And so they set to work.

For the rest of the afternoon, Mine was even more focused than usual, trying her hardest not to dwell on the huge secret that had been uncovered. She was shocked; she didn't even try to hide that. And it explained his aversion to any close contact with her. She couldn't even imagine it; never being able to hold the person one loved? Pure torture. Though, Ayame had obviously found a loophole to that particular...

She sighed.

It really wasn't fair that he had such a pretty smile. He really was so pretty– it was just ridiculous that a man should be that beautiful. His striking features, his soft golden eyes, that lustrous silver hair... Mine wished she could make thread the same color– immortalizing his loveliness in fabric forever. Her fingers already itched with the need to sew– that lovely, lovely silver...

"Mine!" Ayame called suddenly, pulling her out of her silly little fantasy.

She jumped up immediately. "Ahh– yes, boss?"

He smiled. "It's time to go home. Our work is finished for the day."

"Oh. Oh, yes, yes." She glanced at a clock on the far wall. "It is getting late, isn't it?"

He nodded. "But... Mine, before you go we must sit and have a long, heartfelt chat." For a moment, he actually looked quite serious. "You... understand, don't you?"

She smiled sadly and nodded. "Of course."

He smiled back at her. "Mine... Please, you mustn't tell anyone about my... condition. It's a bit of a family secret, you know, and I don't think it would be good if it got out."

"Oh, you don't even need to ask! Of course I'm not going to tell."

He put a hand on her shoulder. "Mine, there are only three people in this world whose kindness is immeasurable, and you, my dearest assistant, top the list!" He smiled at her.

"But... Why couldn't you tell me before, Boss? You do trust me, don't you?"

"Please! Do not burden yourself with such troubling thoughts. Of course I trust you. It's... Well you see, the head of the Sohma family is a..."

'Raging, possessive, cross-dressing, violent, abused, abusing, wild, lonely–'


'Well handled, Ayame old fellow.'

"Sh– Shall I, um... explain it, then?" He smiled engagingly. "He doesn't like his zodiac to associate with anyone else. Akito– that's the head– is, even though it sounds mad, our... God. And we are bound to him– his will controls us." Ayame took Mine's hand. "Since the reaction of most people wouldn't be nearly as accepting as yours was, we tend to like to keep our secret. And Akito encourages that– he doesn't want us to be close to anyone but him. I... I didn't want you to have to face him, Mine. He can be quite..." Ayame nearly winced, trying to think of an appropriately censored description. "Angry."

"B-boss," Mine said hesitantly, "Why did you want to... protect me?"

"Well..." He didn't know what to say. "You're..." Not knowing what else to do, he covered up his anxiety with a flamboyant laugh. "You're my assistant, dearest Mine! How could I let anything happen to you? Who would I design with? Who would give me such expert advice? Who... Well, who would put up with me and all my kingly, romantic tendencies? You are a star– a paragon of the true woman!"

"I guess..." She blinked up at him. "You like me after all, huh?"

"Yes, Mine. I like you a lot." He smiled down at her, and with a sad look in her eyes, she returned the expression.

A week passed after that incident, and everything seemed to have returned to normal. Well... Seemed, certainly, but things were far from what they had been. Mine had become more distant, more quiet– Ayame was purposefully ignoring it, telling himself that she was as lively as ever.

A confrontation was inevitable.

Mine had arrived at the shop before Ayame had, letting herself in with the spare key she kept. Ayame walked in some twenty minutes later, hearing Mine bustling about, her favorite old Sinatra album on. She was humming along to the music, her step light and her expression one of contentment. She didn't even hear Ayame enter, and with a barely perceptible smile he watched her as she tried to take down fabric from a shelf far above her head.

It toppled down, and he chuckled.

Mine spun around quickly. "Oh. Good morning, boss. I... I just thought I'd get started early today."

"Wonderful! How thorough, how loyal, how determined you are! Ahh, I see now, Mine– you truly are the hardest working member of this shop after all! My royal laziness, though charming and quaint and quite wonderful in its own right, holds no candle to the diligent effort you put forth throughout our days." He spun over to her, arms up, face alight with glee. "What a wonderful day it is, indeed! You have inspired me! We must get begin our greatest project immediately!" He joyfully reached for her hands, but deftly she dipped down and stepped away from him.

Ayame was rather surprise to have his playful overtures rejected. "Mine? Is everything quite alright?"

"Oh yes, boss; everything's fine. I'm sorry, I just really think that we should get right to work."

"Oh." He almost faltered. "Of course."

They set to work, and for the rest of the day very little was said by either. Mine, having reasons of her own to account for the uncomfortable atmosphere, did her best to ignore Ayame's rather dejected face and loud sighs of disappointment. Ayame himself had no idea why Mine was acting differently and, as Hatori had often advised him in cases involving Yuki, was trying to think of a tactful way to go about asking her what the problem was. He was not succeeding.

It was near closing time when he finally confronted her.

Mine was putting away a few loose spools of thread when her employer gently accosted her.

"Mine, dear," he said kindly, trying not to be overwhelming. "I seem to have upset you. What's the matter?"

She turned away. "Nothing. Nothing's the matter, boss. I'm sorry for acting like I was upset."

"I wasn't aware you were acting."

Mine didn't respond.

Unfortunately for Ayame, he could no longer contain himself. "Oh, sweet gods of all that is fashionable and lovely– how have I sinned? Have I set this sweet creature that is the female assistant who overpowers and outranks all other assistants against me? How may I go about setting this right? Or perhaps it is not me at all. Have I made an error in judgement? Surely my effervescent and ever-enchanting personality could not–"

"Ayame-san," Mine said stiffly, her shoulders set, "please just stop it."

He looked rather surprised. "Wh-what?"

She sighed and turned to face him. "I'm still a little... Well, finding out that you can turn into a snake just by embracing still has me a little flabbergasted."

"Oh." He sounded more upset than she had ever heard him, save after a particularly bad encounter with his brother. "Is... is that all?"

"Don't sound like that. It isn't that I don't accept you for it– of course I do– it's just that..." She sighed again. "I'm rather angry that you couldn't tell me before."

"But I explained to you quite clearly about Akito and–"

"No, that's not it. Why... You know me well enough to know that I would accept it. And I know you trust me."

"Yes, but..." He sighed, and pulled himself up as straight as he could. "Things have happened in our family before. When... when Tori-san, who I'm sure I've mentioned to you, was found out by the young woman he was seeing, she accepted it as well, and he loved her more than ever. But Akito was angrier than ever. Akito... hurt them both– scarred them, especially Tori-san, perhaps beyond what could ever heal." He looked at her with an expression of softness. "I don't want you to get hurt, Mine."

"What are you trying to say?"

"Well..." He tried to find the right words to say.

Mine found her own first. "You mean that's why..." She winced a little, as though what she was about to say was either embarrassing or painful. "That's why, even though I obviously care about you so much, you were so careful never to let your own feelings show? Just because you might turn into a snake?"

"Well... Yes. Just because I would turn into a snake."

"Ayame..." It was his turn to wince– this time at her tone. "You know me well enough to know I wouldn't care. I..." She bit her lip and looked away. "I love this job. I really, really love what we do here. And we have such fun! I get to wear all these adorable clothes, I get to sew to my heart's content, and... I get to spend time with you." She looked to the ground. "I care about you. I want to be there for you; I want to take care of you should you ever need it. But... When I find out that you felt nearly the same way but were holding back your own feelings because of some silly... Some silly curse! I can't take it!"

Ayame gently lifted her chin up with a finger. "This has been bothering you all week, hasn't it?" She nodded. "Mine– I can understand why you might be upset about the secrecy but if you've really felt that way for so long and had to hold it back, why are you so upset now?"

"It was... Well before I thought you couldn't return my feelings. I thought that you were uncomfortable when I got close to you because..." Her eyes darted away from his and her cheeks turned pink. "Because you were gay."

"Oh. Well." He cleared his throat. "I suppose that..." He thought for a moment:

"I'm off to see my beloved Tori-san! Wait for me, dearest, most beautiful Tori-san, for I am traveling with all the force of a rampant storm!"

"Why, sir! Of course you look lovely in that dress! My heart leaps with an electric thrill just to think of it! You will be simply exquisite in such a very exquisite design– one of my own, of course."

"Oh, Gure-san, you know my nights are so lonely without you. Though you know that I can never behave when you're around, either..."

He held his chin between his thumb and forefinger thoughtfully. "Yes, I think I can see how one could come to that conclusion." He smiled broadly and shrugged. "But really, how can I turn an admirer– male or female– away from my stunning presence? It would be a crime!"

"You certainly don't seem to mind pushing me away," she said softly.


Suddenly, she rushed toward him, throwing her arms around his waist. He barely had time to let out an exclamation of surprise before once again turning into that familiar second form. Mine fell to her knees as she looked at him, her face contorted in her effort to keep tears from falling. They sat there in silence until Ayame once again appeared human.

"Mine–" he started, but she cut him off by hugging him again.

He was a snake.

Then he was a man.

She hugged him again.

As he lie there, a snake for the third time that day, he watched a single tear roll down her cheek. "Mine, this isn't going to break the curse."

"I know," she whispered, "but I need to do it." She bit her lip hard and looked away. "I'm sorry."

There was silence until for the final time Ayame was once again in his rightful shape. "There's no need to be sorry," he said, slipping into his clothes. He smiled gently and tucked a stray lock of hair behind one of her ears. "There's really no need."

"Most people are..." He struggled for a moment with his words. "Frightened of snakes. I've never really gotten close enough to someone– well, to a woman– to let her find out about the curse. I mention snakes once and she goes into a fit. Apparently they're 'nasty, disgusting creatures that should just all be disposed of'. As you can imagine, that put a damper on the relationship."

Mine didn't speak, just sniffled softly.

And then, as she had done for him many times before, he took her hand and with a smile told her 'it's going to be alright'.

She laid her head down in his lap. He stroked her hair and let her sniffle softly against his knee. "I like being taken care of." He said. "I do need you, Mine. I'm... sorry for upsetting you. If I had known it would be this bad then I would have been more careful about keeping the curse a secret."

"No," she whispered back. "You don't understand, Ayame. I..." But she sighed and then was silent.

'Now you'll never let yourself love me,' she though sadly. 'It doesn't bother me; I don't care if I get hurt. I don't care if you're a snake! You're worth it. I only wish I could prove it to you.'

Ayame began humming softly, his hand still resting tenderly on her head.

They stayed like that until the sun had set and neither could put off going home any longer.

After that day, the incident was never spoken of again. Things went back to normal– or as normal as things ever were for those two characters– and it seemed like the whole unfortunate debacle had been forgotten.

It hadn't.

Ayame still remained as royal and outrageous as he had always been. He treated his customers with even more flair, was still as adamant as ever about starting a better relationship with Yuki, and designed some of his best outfits of the year.

Mine, on the other hand, could not put up as happy a front as her employer could. She still smiled and spun and sewed with vigor, but there was a hidden agenda behind all of that. She was trying, as hard as she could, to find a way to prove to Ayame that she could accept him, that she did accept him, and that, regardless of all else, it was perfectly acceptable to let love in. He cared about her; whether or not she could ever persuade him to admit that verbally still remained to be seen, but Mine knew that he loved her just like she loved him. But she also knew that he was scared and couldn't deal with losing her should anything go awry upon an announcement of said affections. Perhaps it was silly of him to worry, but he worried all the same, and Mine could certainly accept that. He knew something was wrong– he knew what was wrong– but Ayame had no idea just what his assistant was planning.

And because of his ignorance, he was shocked and surprised when said assistant's plans finally came to fruition.

The day was ordinary. The sun was out and rather pale, the wind was light and rather unnoticeable, and altogether the world seemed bent on being as mundane as possible. Ayame was working again, designing something for one of the few customers that dared to return. He pinned up his latest sketch, sticking it proudly on the small bulletin board in the loosely-termed office.

Just then he heard the door open. "Ah! Good morning, Mine!" he called happily. "We've a busy day ahead of us, I'm afraid, so–" He paused as Mine walked into the room, carrying a small plastic cage in her arms.

He watched silently as she set it on the table. "Um... That is, I..." He trailed off not quite sure what to say. Mine looked at him, a rather smug expression on his face. "There'll be no working with you after this, will there?"

She smiled and, humming quietly, headed back to start her own projects for the day. Ayame laughed quietly to himself. "Point taken."

It just so happened that, mainly by Shigure's plotting, a visit was arranged for a day not very long after that. Yuki had agreed to see Ayame in his shop again. Tohru would be coming again as well. And so would Shigure (he invited himself).

Yuki opened the door with as polite an air as ever. As soon as he had placed one foot inside, Ayame rushed him. "My darling brother! You have come once again to grace my humble shop of men's romance with your glorious presence!" He held his arms out open wide for a brotherly embrace, but Yuki stepped out of reach. Ayame pouted.

Shigure chuckled as he led Tohru inside. "Hello Aaya; it's good to see you."

"Ah! You as well, Gure-san. I hope you've been doing alright lately."

"Eh," Shigure waved a hand noncommittally. "As fine as ever, I suppose."

Ayame nodded, then turned his attention to Tohru. "And this lovely flower! The princess for our favorite prince! You simply must tell me–" he grabbed her hands in an exuberant display. "How's your love life?"

Yuki struck his brother fiercely. "Leave her alone, nii-san!"

Ayame looked forlorn. He put his hands to his chest, about to launch himself into a dramatic monologue about the importance of brotherly bonding and the beautiful relationship with Yuki that he himself had always dreamed of.

Shigure cleared his throat, well aware of the obvious need to cut Aaya off before he could make Yuki even angrier. He looked around the store before finally fixing his gaze on Mine.

"Ahh, Mine-san. How are you today?"

Ayame looked rather deflated.

"Very good, thank you," she said happily. "We've been so busy." She looked at Tohru hungrily. "In fact, I think we just got some lovely new outfits in that I'm sure are in Tohru-chan's size..."

Yuki turned to her worriedly. "Um... Um, Kuramae-san, I..." He suddenly noticed a plastic cage sitting beside her. A perfect distraction. "Kuramae-san... What's in your cage there? A new pet?"

She grinned at him. "Yes, otouto-kun." She glanced at Ayame smugly before holding her chin up proudly. "This," she said, gesturing to the cage, "is my new... pet... snake."

Shigure raised an eyebrow and glanced at his cousin. Seeing the sheepish, rather flushed expression on Ayame's face, he threw his head back and laughed and laughed.