It was another full day before Ren came, but when she did, Isuzu was alert and ready. She sat on the floor, watching through a curtain of long, tangled black hair as the older woman approached. "Is my little horse thirsty?"
Her voice was a purr as she extended an arm toward the cell. A bottle of water dangled from her slender hand, and Isuzu blinked, her throat aching at the sight of the cool, clear liquid. She hadn't had anything to eat or drink in over a day, but she wasn't desperate enough to give Ren the satisfaction of seeing her act like a caged animal.
"I just want to know what I'm doing here," she muttered, though apparently it was the wrong thing to say. Ren pressed her lips together, withdrawing her arm, and Isuzu's fury spiked as a dozen panicked thoughts flooded through her mind in rapid succession. How can she do this to me? The bitch. I really am going to die here, aren't I? But Isuzu bit her tongue, resisting the urge to hiss and spit and make demands. It would do no good. As long as Ren was on the other side of the bars, she was untouchable.
She stared at the floor-length black dress that clung to the older woman's willowy frame. If she would just get a little closer, I could-
"You know," Ren said suddenly, "I have considered just leaving you here." She chuckled, pausing to tuck a strand of hair back behind one of her ears. "Of course, likely no one would find your corpse until next summer, when they clean the place out in preparation for the cat's confinement. A tragic end, though it wouldn't be any less than you deserve for stealing Shigure from me."
This again? Isuzu clenched her fists. "I told you, Shigure and I aren't-"
"Together. Yes, I know. Whether true or not, the fact still remains that you have information I seek. And I will get it from you, one way or another."
She stepped toward the bars, and Isuzu's fingers twitched in anticipation. Close, but not close enough.
"Here's how this is going to work. I'm going to ask questions. If you answer them to my satisfaction, I'll let you have a drink. If you're a particularly good girl, I may even have one of my attendants bring you a meal later. Does that sound fair?"
No. It was on the tip of Isuzu's tongue. But being outwardly belligerent wouldn't work to her advantage in this situation. She very much believed Ren when she said that she had thought about leaving her to die, and Isuzu wouldn't put it past the crazy bitch to revisit that possibility, if given cause. And so the horse gave a single, reluctant nod.
"Wonderful." Ren clapped her hands together. "Let's not waste any time. My first question pertains to the girl. The outsider."
Immediately Isuzu's eyes narrowed. Why does she want to know about Tohru? She swore she would rip that snake of a woman to bits before she could so much as lay a hand on her friend.
Friend. It was a word Isuzu scarcely ever used. In fact, she couldn't remember the last time she had used it. And yet, somehow, it felt appropriate in this instance.
"What I want to know," Ren began, "is why Akito has only recently taken an interest in her. She's been with the family for well over a year, after all." Ren locked her gaze on Isuzu's. "What has she told you of her feelings for Akito?"
That, at least, Isuzu felt she could answer without betraying Tohru's confidence in any way. "Not much. She seems to have a strong desire to help him, like she does the rest of the zodiac."
Ren crossed her arms over her chest, her eyes shining with what Isuzu could only describe as malevolent mischief. "Do you believe she is in love with my son?"
The horse scoffed at that, rolling her eyes. "He only wishes."
"Indeed. Though he did not expressly say as much himself, I believed it to be rather obvious."
Isuzu shook her head. "I don't know why he's suddenly decided to fixate on her, but if I had to guess, I'd say it's probably because he thinks he can use her for something."
She's easy to manipulate, Isuzu almost added, though she thought better of it, lest Ren get any ideas of trying such a thing herself.
"Then you don't believe that Akito is sincere in his affections for her?"
Where is she going with this? Isuzu lazily lifted a shoulder. "Shigure thinks he is, but I disagree. I don't think Akito knows how to love."
She should've known better than to mention Shigure. Hearing his name, Ren's eyes narrowed. "Ah, yes. Shigure. Clinging to blind hope, as always. Tell me, even if, by some miracle, this girl does happen to fall in love with my son…" She cackled, as if it was the most ridiculous thing she'd ever heard. "What, exactly, does Shigure think is going to happen? That the curse will just fall away, like it would in a fairytale?"
It was a valid question, one Isuzu had asked herself many times. "I don't know," she answered, but Ren waved her off before she could say anything more.
"It doesn't matter. Whatever he thinks, he's very wrong. The zodiac curse doesn't work that way."
How would you know? For someone who claimed to have no knowledge of the workings of the curse, Ren was extremely well-informed. Either that, or she was pretending to be.
"Why does any of this matter to you?" Isuzu said. "You've made it clear that you don't care about Akito, so it would stand to reason that you also don't give a damn whether the curse is broken or not-"
"I'm the one asking questions, remember?" Ren said, and Isuzu trailed off, scowling.
"It's amazing how, even when faced with the very real possibility of starvation, you still manage to maintain your spunk. It must be the horse in you." She snickered, lowering her head so that it was level with Isuzu's. "That won't last. By the time I'm done with you, you'll be on your knees begging for a single drop of water on your tongue."
The horse took a deep breath, trying to slow her rapidly increasing heartrate. "Enough. Whatever question you want answered, just ask it. I'm tired of playing this game."
And I want to go home.
She found herself struck by the thought. Because, of course, she could never return home, not to her parents. They didn't want her. That was just it, though. She hadn't been thinking of her family at all.
She'd been thinking of Kagura's family.
She hated to admit that, even to herself. But the truth was that Kagura's parents had been kind, despite the fact that Isuzu had given them every reason not to be. And even though she was a complete and utter mess, they'd kept their doors open and made conscious efforts to get her to confide in them. It never worked, of course, but they kept trying anyway.
They were probably wondering where she was right now.
The notion that anyone would worry about her well-being felt like a fantasy. And yet, somehow, she couldn't help thinking that they were worried—or that they had, at the very least, noticed her absence from their home.
Will they come looking for me?
Tohru would. Of that, Isuzu didn't have any doubt. The question was, would she be able to find her before it was too late?
There was a sinister gleam in Ren's eyes. It reminded Isuzu very much of the way Akito looked whenever he was about to do something terrible. "Oh, but would that be any fun?" she said, making a show of examining her fingernails. Another trait she shared with Akito. "Meddlesome girls like you must learn their place."
With that, she brought the water to her lips, downing its contents in several great big gulps. All the while, Isuzu stared openly, unable to conceal her rage. If I could kill her right now, I would.
The smirk on Ren's face as she crushed the empty bottle and tossed it into Isuzu's cell said that she was well aware of this fact.
"I believe those are all the questions I have for today. Don't worry, I'll be sure to send one of my girls in to tend to your needs tonight. If I remember."
Isuzu waited until Ren had left before she allowed herself to sink to her knees and release a single, shuddering sob.
"Kagura! What a surprise."
The brunette paused to smooth out the hem of her yellow dress before sinking to her knees near the table. "Thank you," she told Shigure. "I know it's been a while since I came to visit, and for that I'd like to apologize. To both you and Kyo." Her brown eyes drifted at once toward the kitchen. "Speaking of which...where is my love? I know he'd be upset if I dropped by without saying hello."
The dog laughed uneasily at that. "Would he, though?" he asked, and Kagura smiled faintly back at him. She didn't know why she kept up the façade, talking and acting like she and Kyo were dating. She kept telling herself that someday he would come around, that he would stop seeing her as some deranged girl with an unnatural obsession. Deep down, though, she knew that he never would. Rin had told her as much several times.
"Kagura," her cousin had said, chiding her in that low voice of hers that somehow managed to sound both soft and harsh simultaneously. "You've got to stop this. Don't you know that the more you pester him, the more he's going to push you away?"
She was right, of course. Which was why Kagura had stopped. Her apology to Shigure had been given with utmost sincerity. She hadn't come to visit him or Kyo in over a month. She'd even stayed away from the summer home when they went on vacation, despite how much it had hurt her heart to do so.
"He's never going to love you the way you do him." More words uttered by Isuzu during one of their late night conversations. "You have to accept that."
Kagura's smile turned sad. Ah, Rin. She could only hope that her cousin was well and that nothing horrible had happened to her.
Which brought Kagura to the true purpose of her visit.
"Shigure." Her voice was so soft that it was almost a whisper. "I came to ask about Rin. You...haven't seen her lately, have you?"
"Rin?" Shigure's eyebrows shot up. "Last time I saw her was at the summer home a few days ago." He leaned forward, taking in her features, as if trying to read her mind. "I take it she's disappeared again?"
Wincing, Kagura nodded. "I know you're going to tell me not to worry. And I know I probably shouldn't. It wouldn't be the first time she's gone and done something like this. But…I am worried. My mom and dad are, too. They've been asking around to see if anyone's seen her, but no one has, and…" She glanced down at the table. "I don't know. This feels different, somehow."
Shigure's expression was grave, and Kagura found herself feeling glad that she'd come to him. She'd known she would be able to count on him to take the matter seriously. Which was an odd thought to have, considering the dog's typically careless disposition. But Rin was special to Shigure. Kagura still wasn't sure why. She had some ideas, though she wasn't about to try and puzzle them out at the moment.
"Isuzu is missing?"
That voice had come from the kitchen, and Kagura turned to find Tohru standing in the doorway. She was holding a tea tray, her long brown hair twisted into two braids that trailed behind her back.
Kagura brightened at the sight of Tohru. At first she'd wanted to hate the outsider for stealing Kyo's affections. But hating Tohru was like trying to hate a cuddly kitten, and the fact that she was a genuinely kind and pleasant person only made it all the more difficult to villainize her. And so Kagura had stopped trying, and simply accepted that she liked Tohru.
"Hey! Long time no see!" Kagura stood, allowing Tohru a moment to set the tray down before wrapping her in a one-armed hug. "You look extra cute today, by the way. I love your hair."
"Oh. Um, thank you." Tohru smiled shyly, touching one of her braids. "But what was it you were just saying about Isuzu?"
At that, Kagura exchanged a look with Shigure. "We don't know where she is. My parents and I haven't seen her in almost a week."
"I saw her," Tohru said quickly, sounding hopeful. "Just a few days ago, at the summer home. Shigure and I both did." She glanced at the dog, who was pouring himself a cup of tea.
"Indeed. I've already told Kagura as much. So really, it's only been about three days since she was last seen. Still." He brought the steaming cup to his lips, pausing a moment to savor the scent before taking a sip. "It does concern me when she runs off and disappears."
"Me too," Kagura said, unable to keep the emotion out of her voice. "I just can't shake the feeling that something terrible has happened."
"Easy," Shigure said gently. "Let's not lose our heads just yet. Now then, who else might Isuzu confide in? Any ideas?"
That was an easy one, though Tohru said it before Kagura could.
"Haru. I...I'm not sure if he's home right now. But I could call him-"
Shigure stopped her. "Best not involve him, at least not yet. He's very protective of Rin, and I wouldn't want him doing anything...rash. Besides, we don't even know if she's missing. Let's keep brainstorming. Who else?"
A thought occurred to Kagura. "Hiro," she said. "He and Rin have always gotten on pretty well. He stops by the house sometimes to see how she is. I could ask him if he knows anything."
"Excellent," Shigure said. "You do that. Meanwhile, I'll talk to Aya and Hatori. With any luck, Rin will turn up in no time."
He wasn't counting on it. Kagura could see it in his eyes as he downed the last of his tea. "Now then, I have some writing to catch up on. I take it you ladies will be all right on your own?"
Both Kagura and Tohru answered in the affirmative, and after he had gone into his office and shut the door, Tohru reached across the table, taking both of Kagura's hands in her own. The boar was surprised at first, though she immediately warmed, welcoming the comfort that the gesture imparted.
"Thank you, Tohru. I'm sorry. I know I'm not being my usual, bubbly self. But...I really am worried about Rin. I thought for sure that Gure would know something. But I guess not."
Tohru squeezed her hands tighter. "You don't need to apologize. I'm worried, too. I don't know if she told you this, but...Isuzu and I are friends."
That both did and didn't surprise Kagura. Rin was most known at her school for being cold and aloof toward both students and teachers. It was why no one there really liked her. It was also, Kagura knew, deliberate. Rin purposely acted in ways that would make others avoid her. But Tohru… well, she was a special case.
"Really?" Kagura giggled. "She must've been a difficult egg to crack. I'm not surprised you managed, though."
Smiling, Tohru released Kagura's hands in order to pour them each a cup of tea. "It was difficult," she admitted. "But I'm sure she has her reasons for pushing people away."
Always so courteous, so understanding. Does she ever think of herself? Kagura often wondered.
"Anyway, we got to talking, and we realized that we have a lot in common. I sort of said I'd help her with...something."
Kagura didn't miss the way she scrambled to find that last word. She's keeping a secret. A secret Isuzu had told her, probably. It was so like Tohru to speak openly and honestly, only to backtrack once she realized how close she'd come to spilling the beans.
"Anyway," she said again before Kagura could comment, "I just want you to know I'm here, and that I'll do anything I can to help find Isuzu..."
"What?" Kagura asked when she trailed off. "What's wrong?
Tohru chewed on her lower lip. "You… you don't think Akito might have anything to do with Isuzu disappearing, do you?"
Those last two words were a plea, like she was begging Kagura to say no. Which made sense. Tohru always tried so hard to see the best in people, to give them the benefit of the doubt. But she'd asked, and Kagura needed to be honest. For Rin's sake.
"Yes," she said. "It's absolutely possible that he's involved." She leaned forward, lowering her voice. "Don't tell anyone I told you this, but of all the zodiac, I think Akito enjoys tormenting her and Kyo the most."
In response, Tohru grimaced, and Kagura felt bad. It was true, though, as much as it pained her to say it out loud. Poor Kyo. As if being the cat weren't bad enough, Akito went out of his way to rub salt into the wound at every possible opportunity. It made Kagura seethe with rage just thinking about it. She hated Akito, hated him more than she did anyone else in the entire world. In fact, if she weren't so afraid, she likely would have challenged him by now, as Rin had so brazenly done on multiple occasions. Oh, Rin. If only I could be as brave as you.
"Oh. Um, right," Tohru said after a long pause, her voice quiet. "Of course I won't tell anyone."
She looked dejected, and Kagura didn't know what to say. They both cared deeply about Kyo, and even though Kagura thought Tohru was a wonderful person, the fact was that sometimes it was difficult for her not to hold just a little bit of a grudge. After all, she'd loved Kyo first.
The boar got to her feet. "Where is Kyo, anyway?" Her face lit up as she directed her gaze toward the stairs. No doubt the cat was holed up in his room, either training or meditating. Or avoiding her. Kagura tried not to let herself be too saddened by the thought.
"Probably in his room," she said before Tohru could answer. "Oh well, guess I'll just show myself up!"
And with that, she skipped away, making her steps extra noisy so that Kyo would know she was coming. He was still going to be pissed, but at least she was giving him the courtesy of a fair warning.
Oh, Kyo. Why do you insist on pushing me away?
She didn't like the answer that came, a thought she had tried so long to push down into the deepest recesses of her mind.
Because he doesn't love you. He never did. He never would, either, Kagura knew. No, the girl he loved was standing at the foot of the stairs, watching Kagura through wide, bewildered eyes.
As soon as Shigure was alone in his office, he picked up the phone and dialed Hatori's personal line.
He wanted to believe what he'd just told Kagura, that Rin's absence was nothing to be concerned about. But he agreed it was odd that no one had seen or heard from her since the summer home. By the sounds of it, Rin had never even returned to the estate, which meant that either she was trying harder than usual to stay under-the-radar, or something was amiss. And Shigure had a sneaking feeling as to what that "something" might be.
"It's me," he said by way of greeting, though his voice lacked its usual liveliness. "Do you have a minute?"
Hatori didn't answer right away. Shigure could hear him rummaging through something on the other end—his desk drawer, by the sound of it—and the dog raised an eyebrow. "Are you busy? I can call back if-"
"No, no, it's quite all right. Just a medication refill, nothing serious. I only needed to put the patient's file away." He cleared his throat, all background noise abruptly ceasing. "Now then, what was it you wanted to speak to me about?"
But Shigure was already distracted. Medication refill? He was certain that there were many Sohmas whom Hatori regularly prescribed drugs to. But he could think of one in particular who required them in spades—or rather, demanded them.
"Was it Ren that you were meeting with just now?"
As he'd suspected, his cousin was quick to dodge the question. "You know very well that I'm obligated to refuse to answer."
"Oh come now, Hari, her business is my business."
He'd meant it as a joke, but the doctor didn't sound the least bit amused. "I would hardly say that's true. You aren't her husband."
"True. But, I am closer to her than anyone else in the family."
"Really. Then why did I have to listen to her complain for the last ten minutes about how she hasn't heard from you?"
Shigure stilled then, his eyes narrowing slightly. So there it is. I figured it was only a matter of time before I had to hear about it. "Don't get me wrong," he told Hatori. "I enjoy my time with her. But every now and again she gets to be too much. And so I distance myself."
"Yes, to the detriment of not just her mental health, but the mental health of each and every single one of her attendants, I imagine." Hatori was unquestionably frustrated. "I still can't understand why you won't just tell her the truth."
"And what truth might that be?"
"That you don't want to see her anymore." He said it like it was the most obvious fact in the world, and Shigure tapped his pen against his chin.
"Mm. You may be right. Then again, you may not be. It's hard to say. My affection for her comes and goes."
"Exactly. You're flighty and impulsive, and what that woman needs above all else is stability. It would be a kindness for you to end things."
"Perhaps." Shigure considered. "Then again, perhaps not. Really, though, we're getting off topic. This isn't at all what I called to discuss."
"Really." Hatori's voice was flat in that way that indicated his patience was wearing thin.
He must've had a hard day. Best get straight to the point. "No. I wanted to ask if you'd heard anything from Rin."
"Isuzu?" The doctor's usually monotone voice took on a hint of surprise. "No, I haven't. Why? Do you believe she needs to be admitted to the hospital again?"
"Well," Shigure said, "that's just it. I wouldn't know. Because no one seems to have any idea where she is."
A heavy silence followed. No doubt, they were both thinking the same thing.
"Of course," the dog resumed, "I'm not accusing you of being privy to any...exceptionally nefarious scheming of Akito's. But you spend more time around him than anyone. I was curious if you'd noticed him acting unusual lately."
"I have not," the doctor replied slowly, as if thinking very hard. "Though I did listen to some of his and Honda's conversation earlier, and what I heard told me everything I needed to know about what you've been up to lately."
"Me?" Shigure's voice went up an octave. "I don't think I know what you mean."
"Then I'm to believe that Honda has set her sights on breaking the curse without any prompting from you whatsoever?"
His tone indicated that he wouldn't believe him even if he denied it. Shigure shook his head to himself. "I may have hinted at the possibility," he confessed. "I also may or may not have asked Kureno to tell her his story. You know...to encourage her."
"Well, now you've gotten Akito's hopes up, too." He could practically feel the dragon's anger radiating through the phone. "Tell me, what are you going to do when this doesn't work out the way you think? When Akito inevitably realizes that Honda is leading him down a path to nowhere? He's going to be angry. And he's going to take it out on her."
"You truly believe that the prospects of this going as planned are so bleak?"
"What I believe doesn't matter. What matters are the facts, and the facts point to your mission being folly."
Shigure didn't say anything for a long time. He didn't want to admit it, but he was a little hurt that the doctor was trying so hard to crush his spirits. Of course, there was a part of him that had always feared Hatori would disapprove. It was why he'd kept him in the dark for so long. Still, Shigure confessed he'd hoped to have the dragon as an ally. After all, the two of them had been friends for most of their lives, and it felt wrong that they would be on opposing sides in anything.
"I see you're having second thoughts."
He could hardly keep the bitterness out of his voice, though as usual, Hatori took it in stride. "I'm merely being realistic. While it's comforting to think that changing God's heart will be enough to break the curse, the more time that passes, the more skeptical I become of such a notion."
"I see," Shigure said slowly. "I take that to mean you're going to try and stop me."
In response, the doctor took a deep breath, as if loathing the words he was about to say. "No. I will not attempt to thwart you. But," he added before Shigure could say anything, "I will not assist you either. Whatever the outcome, it will be entirely on you."
Pretty sure that isn't how that works, Shigure wanted to quip, though he refrained from doing so, lest he irritate the doctor further. "Thank you," he said. "I suppose your non-interference is all I really could have hoped to secure."
"Don't misunderstand, I'm not happy about it. This is a man's life you're toying with, Gure—Akito's life—and if in the end things don't go as planned, don't be surprised if you get punched, either by him or Honda."
"Or Rin, more likely," Shigure muttered. "That is, assuming we find her."
"She'll turn up soon enough."
Shigure didn't say anything for a long time. While Rin was known to disappear and then reappear a few days later as if nothing had happened, the dragon's dismissiveness of the situation grated on him. "You're absolutely certain that Akito isn't responsible for her disappearance?"
"As certain as I reasonably can be."
Not as certain as I'd like, though I guess I'll take it. "All right. But keep your eyes open."
"Of course. If I learn anything, you'll be the first to know."
"Good. Oh, and next time you see Ren, tell her to have a care, would you?"
"Why don't you tell her yourself?" the doctor shot back, to which Shigure pressed a hand to his temple.
"Should've known that was coming." He sighed heavily. "All right, you've convinced me. I'll pay her a visit tomorrow."