Chapter Two

Halfway to school the next morning, Tohru stopped and looked at the two boys walking alongside her.

"Um, Yuki? Kyo?"

Both of them turned to Tohru with immediate interest. "Nn?" They glared at each other for speaking in unison, though Tohru didn't so much as give them the chance to break into an argument.

"I, uh, I have to work after school today," she told them nervously. "So I won't be walking home with you later. Okay?"

Kyo regarded her with a frown. "Work? You never work on Thursdays."

"Yes, well I, uh…my manager told me that I have to come in today. As extra help. And I have to do what he says, since he's my boss!"

Tohru managed a weak laugh, sighing inwardly. She hated lying to her friends. In fact, lying was something she rarely ever did. But Akito had made her swear not to say anything about their upcoming meeting to Yuki, Kyo, or Shigure, and she was going to do her absolute best to respect his wishes.

"Miss Honda, are you sure?" Yuki asked her, his indigo eyes flashing with concern. "It doesn't seem likely that they would ever be shorthanded at the building where you work. They have more than enough employees, after all."

Tohru nodded, trying to look certain. "Yes! I'm sure. He said Thursday."

Yuki and Kyo exchanged a short, dubious glance.

"You doin' okay?" Kyo asked her. "You look…I dunno. Kinda jumpy. And I mean more so than usual."

Tohru smiled wider in an attempt to seem more like her normal self. "Am I?" she said. "Oh, well then it must be because of that big test we have today! I studied really hard, but I still don't know how well I'm going to do…"

And for the rest of the walk to school, she somehow managed to steer them away from the subject of work and kept them talking about the upcoming test in their mathematics class.

"So how do you think you did?" Arisa Uotani asked Tohru later that day.

Tohru gave her blonde friend a small shrug. "Oh, I don't know. Some of the questions were really hard."

Saki Hanajima, Tohru's second closest friend, put a gentle, reassuring hand on her shoulder. "I'm sure you did fine," she said encouragingly, her soft voice as airy and haunting as ever. "You almost always do well on exams, after all."

Arisa chuckled. "Yeah. No kiddin', right? Tohru's the one with the brains in our little group."

"Oh, I don't know about that," Tohru said, smiling shyly. "Kyo is pretty smart, too."

"Orange top?" Arisa cast Kyo a glance across the classroom. "Huh. Well, that's news to me. I see him as more the type of guy that would blow everything off. I mean, just look at him, sitting there all hunched over with that scowl on his face. I actually get the impression that he doesn't care about much of anything at all…"

With his cat-like hearing, Kyo could hear every word that Tohru and her friends were saying, and with every moment he could feel himself growing angrier. That damn Arisa really needs to shut the hell up.

But the annoying girl just kept running her mouth. "How do you put up with him, Tohru? Don't you and Writer Guy ever get sick of him? I know the Prince does..."

Kyo gritted his teeth. Shut up. Shut up, shut up, shut-

"Arisa," Hana spoke suddenly. "Kyo Sohma's electric signals suggest that he is currently quite agitated with you."

Kyo could practically hear the sneer in Arisa's voice as she said, "Oh, really? You don't say. Yo, ORANGE TOP!"

Finally having enough, Kyo spun around in his seat. "What, damn it?" he snarled.

Arisa smirked back at him. "Your roots are showing."

Kyo growled and slammed his hands down hard on his desk. Why was Tohru's Yankee friend always trying to start crap with him? He didn't ever do anything to provoke her! Well...okay, maybe sometimes he did say things that were meant to goad her. But at least he didn't ever make fun of things about her that were beyond her control.

"Oh, please don't fight," Tohru said before Kyo could retort. "School's almost out for the day, and I think we need to try to end it on a good note! Okay?"

Arisa and Hana immediately nodded and voiced their agreement, whereas Kyo found that he could only gape dumbly at Tohru.

How the hell does she always stay so positive? he wondered, quickly snapping his jaw shut so that he didn't continue to sit there with his mouth jutting open like an idiot. It's so damn irritating.

And yet, at the same time, there was something about Tohru's quirky, overly optimistic personality that he liked. That he admired. More than admired, actually.

Kyo shook his head. He couldn't think of the right word to describe what he felt for Tohru...well, he could, but again, there was no use in even entertaining such an idea.

Damn it, why do I always do this to myself? She'd be better off with just about anyone else, and besides, Akito would never let us be together. Even if I asked her out and she said yes, we'd be forced to end our relationship eventually when they…when they…

He winced, clenching his hands into tight fists beneath his desk, though he made it a point of forcing himself to finish the thought: When they lock me up.

And with that, Kyo opened one of his schoolbooks, all the while doing his best to ignore the jolt of pain he felt in his heart every time he heard Tohru laughing with her friends behind him.

The suspense was nearly killing Akito.

In just a little under an hour, she'll be here, he thought as he eyed the small, ticking wooden clock that sat on the table near his bedside.

He turned and stalked toward the window, chuckling as he thought of his last meeting with Tohru Honda, of the way she'd stuttered and averted her gaze whenever he spoke to her. Pathetic girl. That's all she was. So why is it, he wondered, that the zodiac don't seem to realize as much? Why do they all continue to look to and trail after her like she's so...special?

There was that infuriating word again. Special. Akito still remembered very distinctly the first time he'd ever heard it. It had been spoken by his father, Akira Sohma. Though Akira had died when Akito was very young, Akito still remembered some things about him. For instance, he remembered that his father had had kind blue eyes and long, jet-black hair, just like his. In fact, now that Akito thought about it, he supposed that he likely looked very similar to the way his father had when he was a young man. "You are the god of the cursed spirits of the Chinese zodiac," Akito remembered him saying one day. "And that means that you are special. You are special, my son, because you were born to be loved."

And that's what Akito had believed for the first several years of his life. But then one morning, shortly after Akira's death, Akito had fallen very ill. He was rushed to the Sohma family doctors, and immediately they had known what ailed him.

"Oh yes, your father forgot to tell you before he passed on. Being 'god' of the Chinese zodiac isn't all fun and games. You don't have the burden of transforming into an animal when you are embraced by a member of the opposite sex. You do have another burden to bear, however, and that is that of the curse itself. You are its very life force. It will drain you; your body will always be weak, but it will become even more so over time, and you likely won't live past the age of twenty."

Akito shook his head. The doctors hadn't broken the news to him in those exact words, of course, but they'd might as well have. Because really, what is a sensitive way of telling a child that he is destined to die young? There isn't one.

"You are its very life force...your body will always be weak..."

That was the day that Akito's outlook had changed, the day that he realized his father had been wrong. Being "god" of the Chinese zodiac didn't mean he was special. It meant he was cursed. Just like they were.

Only worse.

"…won't live past the age of twenty…"

Every day Akito tried to forget the fact that his twentieth birthday was drawing nearer, now just a few months away. But hard as he fought, he found that he simply couldn't push the thought from his mind.

He would live to twenty if he was lucky, the doctors had said, which meant that he could die at any moment. Honestly, he wouldn't have even been surprised if he were to suddenly collapse and die right there, in the middle of his bedroom floor. He certainly felt weak enough to do so.

Akito stared down at his pale, withered hands. For a moment he considered that perhaps it would've been better if he'd asked Tohru Honda to arrive at Sohma House at 3:30 rather than 4:00. Because there was no telling how much time he had left, and if there was one thing he wanted to do before he expired, it was prove to his zodiac that they'd been wrong about the girl. That she wasn't truly as special as they'd once believed. That they should have been spending their precious time with him rather than her.

He smirked at the thought of making them all feel guilty. That was yet another thing he'd like to see before he met his end. He'd like to see those miserable animals actually feel regretful for the way that they'd neglected him for so many years. He was their god, after all; they were supposed to revere him, not some witless, insignificant woman who-

His thoughts were interrupted by a light tap on the bedroom door.

"Master Akito?"

It was one of the house maids. Her voice was shaky and hesitant, and Akito turned to cast a glare at the now open doorway. Despite the apparent frailty of his body, Akito had a reputation for being a menacing man in both appearance and demeanor. He knew this to be true. Even the maids at Sohma House feared disturbing him, despite most of them having worked there for years. Akito fought to hold back another smirk as he waited to hear the announcement of the maid in question.

"You have a visitor here to see you," she said at last. "Should I...tell her to leave?"

Akito smiled smugly as his eyes darted again in the direction of his bedside clock. It was only 3:40. Tohru Honda was early. Perfect.

"Of course not," he said. "Let her come in."