PROLOGUE

There's a girl there, I know it's a girl, but I can't see her face. I cock my head slightly, watching her stumble along clumsily. She seems to be in quite a hurry to get somewhere, though the best I can tell is that she's heading straight towards my chair, and I know that there's no reason that a girl would be heading for me with her arms full of junk. Or at least that, if there was, Papa would tell me to get moving as soon as possible. I'm comfortable, though, sprawled across this chair in Papa's work building, glitzy sunglasses perched on my nose and a chocolate bar in my hand. Not the average hangout for a 15-year-old boy, but, then, I've never been all that average.

The moment I was born, Mama took me in her arms and I promptly changed into a rabbit.

It's not like I knew any better! I can't control when I transform, and neither can the other twelve members of the Chinese zodiac. We're possessed by the spirits of the zodiac animals, see. It's a strange life, I'm sure, what with having to avoid girls in order to keep in human form and all, but the only one any of us have ever known.

Well, not really. I remember a time before now, a time that was also there for Kyo, a time that is still there for most everyone else. Back when I had a real Mama. She never loved me, I suppose, and she'd always hide from me, avoiding the "monstrosity" that had come out of her body. I didn't realize how hated I was. Papa never hated me. But she did. I made friends, Kagura, Ritsu, and most significantly Hatori, but still, a mama is a thing that you can't really replace. The pain grew inside me until I hated myself for all of it, for being born, for hurting her. I wanted her to be happy. But it wasn't until I overheard a conversation she had with Hatori, years after my birth, that my mama went from hating me to not knowing me.

I remember very distinctly standing at the door, the feel of the smooth wooden floor under my bare feet and the murmurs outside—I think it was that crusty old maid of Akito's talking to someone, or herself, even—but I hardly remember the words that Mama spoke. All I know is that they were about me. About how she hated me. About how she wished I had never been born. And, perhaps most clearly of all, I can recall the absolute unreality of it. My mama didn't just hate me. She didn't want me. She didn't want a son. Didn't want a baby to take care of and nurture. But she had never told me that, no one had. I was condemned to hearing it at Hatori's door, when I was supposed to be in bed.

I looked down at my hands, to see if her words really were ripping apart my body and letting all the blood run out onto the wooden floor. But they were still small and perfect, unblemished, trembling, with the little lace cuffs of my pajamas too tight around the wrists. The lace was strangling me, just like Mama's words. I grabbed at it, trying to stop, to deny, to hop away like the happy little rabbit was supposed to, escaped from danger once more. But I couldn't, because the words would be there, too, the emotions carried in the few syllables that were making their way through my clouded mind.

"I wish…monster…never…"

I didn't cry. I wasn't sad, because there was no sadness left inside of me. There was nothing. No Momiji Sohma. Only emptiness, strangled to nothingness by the too-small lace cuffs.

I don't remember Mama leaving, either, but I do remember Hatori standing at the doorway, gazing down on me shaking in my threadbare pajamas. I'd thought he was so tall, but looking back, he had been young, too young to have to deal with everything. Just like me.

He bent down to his knees and reached out to steady me, his pale hands on my skinny shoulders.

"Momiji," he whispered, his pale violet eyes clear and focused, "you have to let her go. You have to let her be happy. You have to let yourself be happy."

Then, I did cry.

Hatori took me in his arms, and I nestled up to him, sobbing into his white shirt, trying to hide from everything. And he tried to cover me up, I know, tried with all of his dragon's strength to keep me from the truth that I already know. I had no sense of what uncomfortable closeness was, and at the moment, neither did he. So I just crushed myself closer to him, as if he could open up into a portal to a different world, where I could have lived with a loving mama who didn't ask for her memories to be erased, where I hadn't been born possessed by an animal that I could never control, where I wasn't bound, more than anything, by Akito, the creator, the one to blame, the God.

He pressed his lips to my tousled blond hair and murmured quietly, "Momiji, it's okay. I'm so sorry, and I know this will be hard, but we'll make it through together, okay? I promise you. We'll make it. The curse is breaking soon, I know it is, and when it's all over, your mama will want more than anything to see you and hold you and love you. I swear. No matter what, it will be okay, and someday she'll want you again. Meanwhile, you'll just have to find another person to help you through this."

The girl in front of me drops her things with a small shriek of surprise and a hurried, "Oh, no!"

At last, her face is revealed. She's pretty, but not overly so, just a sweet face with wide blue eyes and shiny, well-kept chestnut hair. Another girl. Another one I have to stay away from.

Then my eyes flicker down to the ID card among the things she dropped. There she is on it, smiling like the sun itself is inside of her, next to the neatly printed 本田 透.

Tohru Honda.

I look back up at her anxious face, so different from the beaming one on the card. So this is her. This is Honda.

I feel the lace begin to unwind.