Chapter Thirty

The officers remained for nearly an hour. Tohru knew how stressful their presence was to Shigure, but he put on a brave face and endured the barrage of questions, as they all did. Tohru especially wasn't used to talking for so long, and by the time the interviews had concluded, her throat was sore and scratchy.

"Here," Hatori said as the five of them stood together on the porch, having collectively agreed that some fresh air was in order. "Take one of these. It'll help."

He handed her what looked like a piece of hard candy wrapped in paper. She thanked him and popped it into her mouth, realizing at once that what he'd given her wasn't candy, but a medicated cough drop. A powerful one, too, though she supposed it was silly to have expected anything less from Hatori.

"Um," she said hesitantly, after allowing several seconds for the medicine to work its magic. "Gosh. They were pretty thorough with their questions, weren't they?"

It was an understatement, if ever there was one. The officers' scrutiny had been relentless, and there were moments where Tohru hadn't known what to say, especially when one of them asked her what her relationship was to Akito.

Of course, she'd proceeded to blather on about what "good friends" they were, though thinking of it now, she couldn't help but grimace. Her face had felt so hot, there was absolutely no way the officer hadn't noticed. I'm glad he insisted on speaking to me apart from the others. If Kyo or anyone else had seen…

Well, it was probably safe to say that they wouldn't have been convinced. The officer certainly hadn't been. He'd paused to jot a few things down before bluntly asking, "So, you left the house unannounced in the dead of night with the sole intention of meeting up with 'a good friend?'"

His skeptical tone had made Tohru's heart skip a beat. In hindsight, she still wasn't sure why she'd been so uncomfortable with this part of the questioning. Was it because the officer had drawn an incorrect conclusion? Or, could it be that he'd drawn a correct one, a burning truth that she wasn't ready to face?

"Yes," Hatori said in answer to her remark. "They were very thorough, but they have to be. If they aren't, they risk losing their jobs. Much as it is with those in the medical profession." There was sadness in his voice, and Tohru glanced up, only to find him staring off into the distance with a haunted expression.

"It is not your fault, Hari," Shigure said emphatically.

When Hatori didn't answer, Shigure set his jaw and sidled over to his cousin, determined. "How often did you implore Ren to have a care for her mental health? I'd wager you had that discussion with her many times, as did I. She simply chose not to heed our advice."

"I guess that's true," Hatori acknowledged. "Still, I should've noticed she was slipping again."

"And how do you think I feel, being the person that she confided in the most?" Shigure shook his head and glanced away. "If anything, we're both to blame."

"What's wrong with her, anyway?" Kyo cut in. "I mean," he sputtered as everyone turned to stare at him, "people always gossip, saying how she's mentally ill and stuff. But earlier—that was some pretty messed up crap she was spewing. And even though I hate to say it…"

His eyes came to rest on Tohru, and something passed between them then, a shockwave that simultaneously felt like guilt, betrayal, and longing. It tore at her heart, filling her with an earnest wish to go back and fix whatever it was that had created this ever-growing rift between them. She might have said as much out loud, in front of everyone. But in the next second, Kyo shook his head, as if clearing it. "I think you're right," he told her in a gruff voice. "Whatever's going on with her is real bad, and I'm not sure jail time would do much to fix it. If anything, she'd probably come out worse, in the end."

"Yes," Hatori readily agreed. "Tohru is very wise."

He cast her a smile, and Tohru blushed. She wasn't sure wisdom had had anything to do with her decision to help Ren, though she didn't see any point in arguing.

"As for what's wrong with Ren," Shigure interjected, "I don't believe we rightly know. While she appears more or less stable in her day-to-day activities, her behavior can be difficult to predict in times of high emotion."

"What about her delusions, though?" Yuki asked. "I don't think that can be so easily explained."

Their gazes strayed to Hatori, who sighed, as if begrudgingly acknowledging that, of all of them, he was the most qualified to speculate. "While I'm not a psychologist, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that Ren is deeply afflicted by something. I have a few theories—psychosis, bipolarism, paraphrenia. It could be some combination thereof. Or, it could be none of those and something else entirely. Regardless, I disagree with Shigure's assessment that Ren is stable in any regard. No." He shook his head. "Honda's move was the correct one, and I like to think that it was the decision we all would've come to, in time."

"So little faith in us, doctor," Shigure chided teasingly. "Of course we would've chosen to rehabilitate Ren. This family has been plagued by enough tragedy. Say what you will, but I like to think that we all deserve the happiest of endings."

He pulled a cigarette from one of the massive green sleeves of his robe. Tohru gaped, wondering, not for the first time, what else he stored in there. As if in answer to her question, he produced a lighter next. "Speaking of which," he said, "it sounds like you two have some place you need to be."

He lit the cigarette and raised it to his lips. He had that usual air about him that suggested he was the most comfortable he'd ever been in his life, which Tohru didn't know how he managed.

She exchanged a questioning glance with Hatori. She had to confess that she'd been wanting to leave for the hospital the moment she learned of Akito's recovery. Now, though, she found she was hesitant to voice that enthusiasm.

How would it make Kyo feel if I dropped everything and ran off to see Akito right now? Awful, that's how, especially when she'd told him earlier that all she wanted was to be alone. It would look like Akito meant more to her than him or any of the others. It would look like-

"It's up to you," Hatori said, as if somehow perceiving the internal war she was having. "If you're ready, I'll take you to the hospital."

She risked a glimpse at Kyo, only to find that both he and Yuki were already watching her. It was clear that neither of them approved. And knowing that she would disappoint them—especially Kyo—hurt. But, not getting to see for herself that Akito was all right would hurt even more.

She took a deep breath and told Hatori, "I'll go get my shoes."

Mid-afternoon light shone brightly through the window in Akito's room. He'd requested for the blinds to be opened shortly after awakening, and he'd been lying in bed with his eyes closed ever since, basking in the warmth of the sun.

In the past, he'd hated the intensity of sunlight, the way it blinded him and scorched his skin. People often said how the sun energized them and lifted their mood. In his case, though, it had had the opposite effect, and on summer days, he would find himself shrinking into darkness in order to avoid it. But now, by some miracle, he was able to enjoy the sun's rays on his face without any ill effects or lethargy. If anything, he felt invigorated, renewed.

Perhaps it was simply that he was elated to be alive. Elated, and in complete and utter disbelief that he'd managed to thwart not only the fate of the curse, but also, the scorn of his mother. Pain lanced through his side, a sharp reminder of how close he'd come to meeting his end at her hands. How did I survive? The answer, of course, was that he hadn't been alone.

He sighed to himself. How many times must I owe that girl my life? It isn't to be borne. Not, of course, that he minded being indebted to Tohru. He just didn't know how he could ever hope to repay her. What, for example, was he even going to say when she came to his room for a visit? Because she would, eventually, he was sure. Words like "thank you" seemed so feeble and inadequate for all that he wanted to convey.

Someone knocked at the door then, and his eyes sprang open. He tried to sit up, though he immediately regretted the action, hissing as his head slammed back down onto the pillow. Part of him hated that his knee-jerk reaction was to assume that the intruder was Tohru. Because, of course, it almost certainly wasn't. He'd awoken less than an hour ago, and while it wasn't impossible for her to have gotten the news by this time, he knew it wasn't likely. Still, his heart pounded as the door opened, revealing a shock of white hair. An old man? But, no-

Akito exhaled as he recognized the figure. "Hatsuharu."

His younger cousin wore a floor-length jacket with a white fur hood, a stark contrast to his black combat boots, which thumped across the linoleum. Akito fought a shiver of trepidation as it occurred to him what a vulnerable position he was in, at present. Was this what it had felt like for the zodiac every time he entered a room? The thought was almost enough to make him feel sick with shame.

"Akito," Hatsuharu said flatly, his expression blank. He didn't appear to have come looking for a fight, though it was probably best to proceed with caution all the same, as his moods were known for flipping on a dime.

Akito swallowed and cleared his throat. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "I would've thought you'd be taking care of Isuzu, given the ordeal that she went through."

He tried to sound casual, though the truth was that he was still wary. Because even though Hatsuharu gave no outward signs of impending violence, Akito couldn't shake the feeling that he had not come for a friendly chat.

And really, he thought, why should it be? After all, nearly every conversation he'd ever had with his zodiac in years past had been anything but. And that's just it, he realized a beat later. Haru and the others are no longer my zodiac. Which meant that there was nothing to stop them from exacting revenge on the one who had once lorded over them.

Their devotion to me has no doubt dwindled to nothing in the hours since the curse lifted. I no longer hold any power.

And, seeing as there were thirteen of them and only one of him, by his calculations, he was completely at their mercy. In a way, he supposed he would deserve it, if they decided to band together and take him out. Poetic justice, one might even call it.

Of course, that was just a fear. Hatsuharu's demeanor didn't change at all as he approached the bed. He studied the machines that beeped and whirred around them with cool, disinterested eyes. "I am," he replied evenly. "She's sleeping, though, which is why I thought that now would be the perfect time to come down and have a talk."

Akito's heartbeat spiked. An expression of mild surprise flitted across Hatsuharu's features, and it was only then that Akito remembered that the devices he was plugged into made noise. He shot a glare at the one that monitored his heart-rate, mentally cursing it for outing him and betraying his fear.

"Relax," Haru said in a voice that was almost soothing. "I'm not going to hurt you."

His eyes cut away before he fell silent, and Akito got the sense that he was stalling, maybe even trying to talk himself out of saying whatever it was he was about to say. "Rin would kill me if she knew I was telling you this," he admitted finally. "But, it can't be helped." He hesitated, though after several seconds, he sighed and blurted, "Earlier this morning, your mother was here."

Again, Akito's heartbeat skyrocketed, though this time it was for an entirely different reason. Ren? Here? But why would she-?

He realized in the next moment what a foolish question that was. She discovered I wasn't dead. No doubt she'd wormed her way into the intensive care unit, regaling the staff with some sob story about how devastated she was to learn of her son's scrape with death, and—oh, could she please sit with him for just a few minutes while he recovered?

He closed his eyes and pressed a hand to his temple. For once, he didn't have a headache. He was just tired. Tired of Ren and her never-ending acts of hatred. Could she ever be stopped? He was beginning to doubt it more and more. "I see. So then how is it that I'm still alive?" he asked Haru, who by then had drifted over to the window.

"The thing is, you probably wouldn't be," he said. "That is, if it weren't for Rin." He broke off, chuckling lightly. "This is the part where she's gonna kill me. But, the fact is that she saved you." He turned in a full circle to face Akito. "She just happened to come down at the same time that Ren was here. As you can imagine, her intentions were nefarious, but Rin paged for the hospital staff before any real damage could be done."

Akito was shaking his head over and over. Because it didn't make sense. Isuzu had expressly said that she hated him, and that no amount of good acts on his part would ever so much as tempt her to forgive him. So then, why save his life? Why not just let Ren kill him? It would have been so easy, so effortless, for her to simply stand back and do nothing at all.

"I don't understand. Why would Isuzu do such a thing...for me?"

Haru also shook his head, as if he, too, was struggling to understand. "Because even though she doesn't like to admit it, Rin has a gentle heart. Still...I don't think it was so much for you as it was for Tohru."

At the mention of Tohru, Akito fought to keep his expression placid, though he wasn't sure how well it worked. "What does Tohru Honda have to do with Isuzu's choice to save my life?"

Haru tilted his head in a way that suggested the answer was obvious. "It's pretty simple, really. Tohru cares about you, and Rin cares about Tohru—loves her, even. For the record, she would kill me for saying that, too." He smiled, though his face turned serious again a split-second later. "I came here today to remind you of how incredibly lucky you are that that girl came into our lives. Without her…I don't think any of this would've been possible."

For the second time in twenty-four hours, Akito felt like his heart was trying to rip itself in half.

"You would be dead," Haru continued, his voice cold and matter-of-fact. "The curse probably would've never been broken. And Ren-"

"I know," Akito cut him off, snappish. "I know that I owe her my life, tenfold."

"Do you, though?" Haru asked, his own tone sharpening. "I have a hard time believing that. So does Rin. Which is why I came here. I need you to understand something."

He stepped closer, gripping one of the metal armrests on the bed. Even though Akito still didn't suspect his cousin of any malintent, he was grateful for the barrier, all the same. "Things are going to be different, now that the curse is broken. The zodiac are going to do what they want, and live their lives however they see fit. You can fight to keep control, but I promise, it's not going to work."

He leaned forward, and Akito couldn't help shrinking back from him. Hatsuharu truly was an imposing figure, when he wanted to be. "Remember how this feels, and know that it's how you made Rin feel every time you did as much as look at her. And for that…" His dark eyes gleamed with unmasked anger as he declared, "I'll never forgive you."

I'll never forgive you. Akito was quiet for a long time. He'd anticipated this—counted on it, even—and yet, somehow it still had the audacity to sting.

It's all right. You have to let them go. It's part of your penance. Reformed or not, he'd treated his family abominably, and though there was a part of him that wished to reconcile, in the end, if none of them wanted that, then that was their decision. No, it was their right, as human-beings with their own freewill.

Before he could assure Hatsuharu that he had every intention of leaving the zodiac to their own devices, someone cleared their throat. "Pardon the interruption. We're here to see how the patient's doing."

It was Hatori. His eyes were glued to Hatsuharu, who quickly stepped back, giving Akito a full view of the doorway.

Even though it seemed to go against his entire character, he smiled. Not a mere smirk or twitch of the lips, but a full, beaming smile. He couldn't help it. He was overjoyed at seeing the doctor—no, his friend, the one who had stood by him through thick and thin. He, at least, would not abandon him now that the curse was broken. Akito was sure of it.

"Hatori." He sat up a little straighter, only to wince and sink back down. These injuries really were going to take some getting used to. "Wonderful to see you," he grunted, ignoring the doctor's expression of horror. "Please, come in. And let whoever's with you come in as well."

Akito gripped one of the bed's armrests as he recovered. He was almost certain that the person outside was Tohru. After all, who else—besides Hatori—cared about him enough to rush to his bedside with such haste? Akito couldn't think of a single person. Even so, he said a silent prayer that it might be someone else. Anyone else. I still haven't had a chance to work out what I'm going to say.

What will I say?

Thank her. Yes. Yes, of course I'll thank her. How can I even begin to put into words my gratitude for everything that she's donenot just for me, but for this entire family?

Another shadow cast itself across the floor near the threshold. Akito was grateful that he wasn't standing, or else his knees might have given out. He released the breath he'd been holding, forcing himself to maintain composure as, at last, Tohru entered the room and gave a tiny wave. "Um. H-hi."

She's just as nervous as I am. Really, this wasn't a surprise, though as usual, it was Akito's first instinct to try and put her at ease. "Tohru." He greeted her with a nod, feigning confidence while simultaneously doing his best to pretend like he wasn't in pain. "It's wonderful to see you, as well."

He might have said more, though Hatsuharu—who had gone to stand back over by the window—chose that precise moment to shift his weight from one foot to the other. The movement distracted Tohru, who quickly dropped her head in a bow. "Hatsuharu! I didn't expect to see you here."

"Hello," the previous ox responded, instantly softening. "I didn't expect to be here, either."

"Yes," Akito remarked dryly. "It seems I'm going to have more visitors than any of us would have anticipated."

Hatori's lips quirked, but he didn't comment on the self-deprecating remark. Neither did Tohru, probably because it was unlike Akito to say such things in jest.

An uncomfortable silence followed, during which none of them seemed to know what to say. Haru whispered something to Tohru, which prompted an animated response from her. They began to chat, though Akito didn't miss the way she kept glancing at him over one shoulder. He waited, but Hatsuharu seemed determined to keep her engaged, and despite being annoyed, Akito turned toward Hatori. Let them catch up. There are other things that need to be discussed, in the meantime.

"On that note," he mumbled so that only the doctor could hear, "I trust there's no need to worry about future visits from certain…unsavory people?"

Hearing this, Hatori cleared his throat and shuffled closer to the bed. "Yes. Ren...has been taken care of. You don't need to worry about her anymore." He rested a hand firmly against Akito's shoulder, holding it there. "Akito, words can't express how happy I am that you're going to pull through. I'll admit, when Honda and I found you last night, I wasn't sure how things would turn out. It will probably take several months for you to fully recover, but the important thing is that the procedure was a success."

Hatori still didn't remove his hand, and for once, Akito found that he wasn't in any hurry for him to do so. "Indeed," he said, eyes darkening as another thought occurred to him. "Where is Ren, now?" he asked. "Sequestered off in some padded cell until you all decide what to do with her?"

He doubted that they'd allowed her to be taken by the authorities. While her crimes were indisputably severe, she was still a Sohma, and as such, she would receive preferential treatment by the family.

To his shock, Hatori answered, "She's with the police. But, we've requested that she undergo a psychological evaluation before facing judgement."

Of course. There wasn't a doctor in all the world who would look at Ren and find her to be anything but woefully unstable.

"No matter the outcome," Hatori added, "you can sleep soundly knowing that you don't have to worry about her ever again."

Akito wasn't so sure. In fact, he was almost certain that he would have to face Ren again, one day. But thinking too much on this eventuality would be a waste of precious brainpower. I'll cross that bridge when the time comes, as they say. For once, he just wanted to focus on the now.

Though he tried to fight it, he couldn't help himself. His gaze drifted back to Tohru. Her eyes were already on him, and though she quickly glanced away again, Akito wasn't fooled. He knew this was at least the third time she'd done this in the last several minutes.

Hatsuharu finally seemed to recognize that he was monopolizing Tohru's attention. After a pause, he said loudly, "I've gotta get back to Rin. I'll see you guys later, all right?"

And just like that, he made his way toward the door, though he turned around one last time before exiting. "Oh, and Tohru? Stop in and see us before you leave. I know it'd make Rin really happy."

"Oh! Yes," Tohru answered, as if she were offended that he would think otherwise. "Of course! I was planning on doing that, anyway."

A warm smile softened Hatsuharu's sharp features. "Good. Guess I'll see you soon, then."

"Mind if I tag along?" Hatori asked. "I'd like to see how Isuzu's faring." He looked down at Akito, a question in his eyes. "That is, as long as you think you'll be all right here."

There was concern in his voice, and again, Akito was struck by how caring the doctor was. Though it was clearly taxing work, the man couldn't have picked a more fitting profession for himself. "I'll be all right. Thank you, Hatori. For everything."

The doctor inclined his head before turning to address Tohru. "Come find me when you're ready to go," he said, to which she nodded and promised that she would.

Hatori left, and at long last, the two of them were alone.

Tohru spoke almost the second the door had clicked shut. "I'm so glad you're okay," she said, and Akito was struck by how small and broken her voice sounded. "Akito, I…I can't even begin to tell you how worried I've been."

"You've been worried? About me?" He asked the question even though he knew it was stupid. The fact that she didn't return his feelings had no bearing whatsoever on whether or not she cared for him. He knew that, now. But for some reason, there was a desperate part of him that still wanted to hear her say, out loud, that he mattered to her.

To his relief, she nodded without any hesitation. "After they took you away, Hatori promised me you were in the best of care. Still, I couldn't stop picturing the worst-case scenario. What if it wasn't enough? What if I woke up in the morning, only to find that you…"

She gulped, and Akito could see tears shining in her eyes as she quickly glanced away. "I didn't sleep at all," she whispered, "because I couldn't stop thinking about what it would be like. Just imagining it hurt so much, and I…"

She sniffed, using the back of her hand to dry her eyes. Akito watched her, a well of emotions building in his center. He could feel his own eyes starting to burn. Then, she turned her head slightly. They looked at each for a split-second before, with a sob, she rushed toward the bed, reaching for his hands, gripping them so hard that it hurt, though Akito didn't even think to protest.

"Thank you," he told her.

She shook her head as a single drop of water trickled down her cheek. "For what?" she asked, bewildered. "I didn't do anything. I didn't-"

He released one of her hands in order to brush the tear from her face. "For caring about a man whom everyone else had consigned to death."

She sniffed again, and he cupped her chin, bringing her eyes back to his as he remembered something Hatsuharu had said earlier. "Perhaps," he mused, "the zodiac gods of the past might have stood a chance, too. That is, if they'd had you."

She shook her head again in protest. "N-no. I'm not…I'm not a hero. I didn't make the curse break. Or make you stronger. I didn't-"

"No," he agreed. "But you made me believe that those things were within the realm of possibility. Before, I'd resigned myself to my fate, as had all the other zodiac gods." He gave a tiny, almost imperceptible shrug. "Perhaps it was more than that. Perhaps the curse had run its course, and it was simply time for it to end. But would I have been able to do that without first believing I could? I don't know. More than likely, I would have died, same as all the others."

Tohru opened her mouth, then closed it, like she'd been about to say something, but thought better of it. "What is it?" Akito asked, resisting the urge to touch her face again. "What's the matter?" he persisted when she didn't answer. "Tohru?"

She took a deep breath, as if mustering the courage to speak. "Last night, I think...I think I realized something."

Alarm bells sounded in Akito's head when she didn't continue. What? he wanted to demand, not because he was angry, but because he had no earthly idea what she was thinking, and it was scaring him.

"Yesterday, when you told me that you-"

Again, she stopped, as if unable to bring herself to say the words out loud. "When you said how you felt," she continued after swallowing back a look of severe discomfort, "I told you I didn't feel the same. And...I want you to know that I didn't say that because I don't care about you. I said it because I was uncertain. About so many things."

What is she trying to say? Akito gave his head a half-shake. "You don't have to explain why you rejected me. I understand. We can leave it at that and never speak of the matter again." He would much prefer it that way, in truth.

After another long pause, she asked, "Do you want to know the real reason I came to see you last night?"

When he met her gaze with a quizzical stare, she explained softly, "I was going to ask you to free Kyo from his confinement."

Oh. Sadness washed over Akito. "You did?" he murmured, if only because he didn't know how else to respond to this revelation.

"Yes." She glanced away, suddenly afraid to meet his eyes. "Of course, I didn't know then that the curse had broken. To be honest...part of me was afraid it never would." She lowered her head, voice quieting. "I wanted to make sure that, no matter what the future held, Kyo would have his freedom. I had no idea what you would say. But I knew that I had to try, and now..." She took a deep breath. "Now that the curse is broken, and I no longer need to ask—well, I can't help wondering what your answer would've been."

What my answer would've been. Akito almost scoffed, it was so obvious to him. "I would've given you anything you asked for. Anything within my power to make you happy, I would do without question."

"You would?" She sounded dumbfounded, like it was the very last thing she'd been expecting him to say. "But why?"

Akito couldn't help himself. He laughed. "I would say that it's the very least I can do, after all you've given me. Though, the truth is-" Here, he paused, his expression sobering with earnestness. "You're more deserving of happiness than anyone I've ever known. And freeing Kyo would've made you happy. That much is clear to me. So, yes. I would've done it."

For the first time in his life, someone else's happiness mattered more to him than his own. He didn't tell her that, of course, but she seemed to understand all the same. She stepped closer, bending slightly at the waist so that her eyes were level with his. Akito's heart beat wildly in his chest. He could have been wrong, but it almost looked like she was going to-

"Akito," she said, her voice impossibly gentle. "There's something that I need to tell you. It's about…" She sighed, as if knowing that he wasn't going to like what she said next. "It's about Kyo. The night I saw him in his true form."

She watched his face for a reaction. But Akito forced himself not to give one, least she make the mistake of thinking that he didn't want to hear whatever it was she had to tell him. Because he did want to hear. Even if it hurt. If it's important to her, then it's important to me.

"I carried him home as a cat in my arms," she resumed, "and ever since then I felt a certain…closeness with him that was unlike anything I'd ever felt with anyone—well, besides my mom, of course. But...I fell for Kyo, that night. I wanted us to be together, and to grow in that closeness." Her face crumbled then, and it was enough to make Akito want to find Kyo and punch him out, if only just to punish him for making her look that way.

"But that didn't happen," she said sadly. "If anything, he pushed me farther and farther away. I know now that he thought he was doing it for my own good, still hurt."

Her lips curved upward, though Akito thought there was still somberness in her eyes. "Luckily for me, though, I befriended you not long after. Of course, I didn't realize it was happening, at first. Actually, if anything, I thought for sure that you must still hate me, deep down. But then that feeling sort of fell away, and I found myself looking forward to when I would see you next." Here, her smile widened. "I saw what you were really like underneath the title of zodiac god. It wasn't what I expected, not at all, and even though I knew I probably shouldn't, I... found myself starting to trust you. But every time I caught myself feeling that way, there would be this voice in my head, reminding me of all the bad things from your past. So, I pushed it down."

What is she trying to tell me? Akito felt dizzy listening to her. Because there was no way that it could possibly mean what it was beginning to sound like.

"Akito…watching Ren hurt you last night was beyond horrible. But what was even worse was the thought of never getting to have tea with you again. Or see your smile—your real smile, not the one you use whenever you're talking to one of the Sohmas. Well, one of the Sohmas that isn't Hatori, I mean." She stifled a giggle. "But what you said to me just now confirms what I thought I knew before. You really are different than how you used to be. You had changed, even before the curse broke, and no matter what Isuzu says-"

"Isuzu?" Akito cut her off with a glare. "What does she have to do with any of this?"

Tohru laughed again. The sound was happy and light, and Akito felt his glower quickly dissipate.

"I always talk about you in a positive way," she explained, "and she worries for me, because she thinks you haven't really changed. She thinks that eventually…someday…you might hurt me."

Hurt her? Akito's expression darkened. "Tohru," he said emphatically, wanting her to know how serious he was, "if anything ever happened to you under my watch, I would give Isuzu full permission to do what I know it is she so desperately wants to: kill me with her own bare hands." He cast her a wry grin. "But, you needn't worry over such things. You mean more to me than anything in this world. You-"

Again, she took his hand, and Akito's skin warmed at her touch. "I know," she told him sincerely. "You mean so much to me, too. I guess I wasn't ready to admit that yet. But after last night…" She shut her eyes. "I can't keep running from how I really feel."

Akito didn't say anything. He didn't even blink, out of fear that this was a dream and that the slightest interference would cause it to fade into nothing.

When she opened her eyes again, they were bright and full of fervor. But there was also a tenderness there the likes of which Akito had never seen. And that's why he had no doubt that she was being truthful when at last she leaned forward to tell him, "What I feel for's not just friendship. It's more than that. I-"

A knock at the door cut off her speech. She gasped, blanching as she abruptly released his hand and whirled toward the sound. Akito's eyes left her reluctantly in order to see who had dared ruin this moment.

He seethed. A man in a white doctor's coat was standing near the door, though he knew right away that it wasn't Hatori. No, this man was older, with thick framed glasses and a balding head of black hair. Akito recognized him as the doctor who had performed his surgery. What was his name again? Suzuki? Sasaki? He couldn't remember. It didn't matter. What mattered was that Tohru had—probably—been seconds away from making him the happiest he'd ever been in his life. And now? Thanks to the interruption, he would have to wait. While part of him screamed that Tohru's intent had been obvious, another part flat-out refused to believe that it could possibly be true until he heard it, with own damn ears.

"Sorry to interrupt your visit," he said, and Akito felt a surge of indignation wash over him. The old man wasn't sorry, not one bit.

"But," he continued carefully, no doubt having picked up at least somewhat on the murderous feelings that Akito was harboring toward him, "we must ensure that your recovery is going as smoothly as possible."

"Oh yes, of course!" Tohru bowed, immediately compliant, and it took all of Akito's willpower not to roll his eyes. He wasn't sure why, but there was also a part of him that wanted to burst into laughter.

"Please, do whatever you need to," Tohru told the doctor. "I'll leave and then come back-"

"I really wish you wouldn't," Akito muttered, his voice low and surly.

He reached for her hand, which stopped her in her tracks, though she clasped it for only a brief second before letting go again. "It's okay," she told him quietly. "I'll come back soon. The most important thing is making sure you're taken care of."

Akito grumbled as she turned toward the doctor again. "Um. Is a half an hour okay?" she asked.

The old man replied in the affirmative, and Akito was certain that that would be the end of it. But Tohru surprised him by lingering near his bedside. She leaned forward, and Akito thought he saw a surge of bravery flicker in her eyes. Before he could begin to question what it might mean, she closed the space between them.

She pressed her lips to his cheek, and a jolt of—something, Akito wasn't altogether sure what, though he likened the feeling to that of an electrical shock—surged through him. She was quick to pull away, her eyes downcast in shyness, but the aftereffects of the kiss remained long after she was no longer touching him, to a point where all Akito could do was lie there and stare dumbly. Are the pain medicines they're pumping me with starting to muddle my mind? Because that hadn't happened. There was simply no way that Tohru Honda had just-

She was smiling, and her cheeks were so pink that all of Akito's doubts were at once silenced. She brought an index finger to her lips, as if playfully asking him to keep a secret, and a feeling of euphoria washed over him. He felt like could go anywhere, do anything or be anything he wanted—which was odd, considering his current physical state. But, it couldn't be denied. Even on his best days, he had never once felt like this.

There were so many things he wanted to say. Instead, he simply asked, "You'll come back soon?"

Still grinning, she nodded. "Right after I visit Isuzu. I promise."