Disclaimer: Fruits Basket is the property of Natsuki Takaya. The following is a work of fanfiction loosely based on that property. This work is unofficial.
Her fiancé continued to dismiss it, to distract her with other things—and for a time it had worked. But eventually curiosity got the better of her, and the family matriarch—the wife of a Lord, certainly, but also the power behind the proverbial throne—had taken her to see the creature in the cell.
The cell was large, an alcove set deep into the wall of the room in which they stood. The only entrance was covered by a large, heavy wooden grating, not unlike those seen in the construction of naval vessels or perhaps the portcullis of a castle; oak beams, she was told, reinforced with iron and steel. There was a space beneath the door where a tray might be inserted.
The beast within—a horrid, hairless, predatory quadruped with taut, leathery skin, misshapen limbs, and a putrid stench—had paced, and snarled, and seemed almost to study them. Locked around its long neck was a wide collar of metal and leather, tethered by a long, heavy chain to a bolt at the back wall of the enclosure.
She was initially horrified that such an abomination could exist, and horrified that it was kept within the confines of the estate; it was a wonder that someone hadn't shot the beast, but the family she was marrying into was a superstitious one, and they somehow believed that keeping the thing alive and under lock and key brought them continued good fortune.
She was not permitted to see it a second time.
The man with whom she was engaged saw her, cherished her, but sometimes his smile was cold. All the men of the household spoke with her but there was oftentimes a tone of patronization; she was but a woman after all, and it felt as though they heard her words but didn't take her seriously.
And then one morning something inexplicable had happened, and only the barest explanation had been provided her; perhaps it had been but a dream, or perhaps she was feverish and her senses had deceived her. The family yet kept secrets from her; she was still an outsider. Exasperated at her treatment—and still curious about the nature of the creature she had seen earlier—she took a lone candle and stole down to the room adjoining the cell.
Perhaps it was morbid curiosity, or perhaps it was simply the only place where she could be truly be alone with her thoughts. The smell was ghastly, but she would weather it, and prove her strength to herself if not the others. Few would search for her there of all places, so being caught didn't seem an issue.
The long bench lay directly across from the cell. Perhaps "cage" might have seemed a more appropriate expression, if only because the occupant was a beast rather than a human. She placed the candle upon the floor, a short distance away from the grating, then stepped back to the bench and sat down.
For a while she simply stared at it. The creature was difficult to see in the dim light, but she could make out its vague shape in the dark. Where before the atrocity against nature had stared back at her with a feral look in its eyes, this time it appeared to ignore her. After a few moments it rose, stretched in an almost feline manner, and began a slow pacing—back and forth as before, but with a more relaxed gait—with its glimmering eyes locked upon her.
She stared back for a time, making eye contact, gauging it. On her previous visit it had glowered at the two women with a feral expression, but every so often its eyes had darted over to make eye contact with her for a moment, and she had sworn she had seen a flicker of intelligence, a glint of cunning, and at times an almost knowing look.
But here it was, as before, a wild animal of the sort she had never encountered; an abomination with the temperament of a simple brute. On the floor, scattered around the front of the cell were trays of raw, rotten meat, left seemingly untouched. She locked eyes with the monster for a moment more, peering into their violet depths and searching for a sign of the intelligence she thought she had perceived earlier. Disappointed, she lay down on the bench.
"I suppose I was genuinely hoping that you would be capable of..." she muttered, then paused a moment before uttering "Never mind."
The woman reclined on the bench, and then closed her eyes for a time. The unearthly voice she heard moments later was not entirely expected, insofar as it was not her own and could not have easily belonged to a human being.
"Did you actually think a beast capable of understanding you?" it said.
She sat up with a start, whipping her head around to regard the cell once more. The beast continued pacing.
"You can speak?" she asked. There was a soft snort in reply.
"Of course not," the voice replied in an almost amused tone. "Either you're hallucinating or this is a dream."
She stared for a moment longer, contemplating this information. Then a slight smile quirked at her lips. Either she was indeed going mad, or she was in the midst of some sort of game of wits. And she did enjoy games.
"So you are saying," she asked, tilting her head slightly, "that I'm hallucinating that you are speaking to me?"
"You are either hallucinating," the voice replied, "that an animal is speaking to you, or perhaps you are delusional; probably both. Obviously animals can't talk, so all of this must be in your head: you can't speak to anyone else about your troubles, and so you make your way to a caged beast who can't possibly understand you and commence soliloquizing. Then you pretend that it listens and that it replies. Or perhaps you want to know more about it and pretend that it might speak to you about itself."
"And you expect me to believe that I am talking to myself?"
"It seems the only rational conclusion; animals cannot speak. The creature in front of you would probably try to eat you if you came close. I actually advise you to keep your distance."
"Prefers live meat to dead meat does he?" she said, drawing closer in spite of the warning. The chain clanked loudly in the darkness.
"That seems possible; either that or perhaps it thinks its meals are undercooked."
"We can't go around giving monsters tapeworms, can we? Fully cooked fish to avoid worms; cooked meat served rare to avoid same and worse; water that has been previously and thoroughly boiled to avoid cholera and the like."
"So it's a picky eater. Meanwhile, I'm talking to myself and I know all of that?" she asked, trying to entrap her opponent.
"You're talking to yourself and your subconscious is pulling out random things you read or overheard in a conversation somewhere; do give yourself more credit. You're quite intelligent, and there is a family physician in the house who speaks in riddles of a sort. Furthermore, it must be a rather good idea, seeing as you've thought of it."
"So you think the monster wants his food cooked?"
"Speaking as your new imaginary friend, I am obligated to point out that you hypothesize it, and it would make some sense, wouldn't it? If you have live food and it gets killed, then it's dead food, and the beast doesn't seem to be eating the dead slabs of meat provided it."
"If I brought him a live pheasant, or a partridge, or perhaps a small duck, the monster could easily swallow it alive and whole."
"Better a small hen then," the voice said dryly, "and certainly a curious concept, but I doubt it: if the master of a house feeds his dog table scraps, and they are cooked table scraps, then the dog grows picky and will no longer eat food raw."
"I eat raw fruit," she countered.
"You do, but the animal in front of you has sharp teeth designed for rending flesh. Goodness, see how it bares its teeth at you! No, meat is most likely preferable at this juncture until such time as you find out otherwise."
"A carnivore, certainly. And if I didn't know any better, I'd say it was a carnivore with the gift of speech."
"Would you, now?" the voice replied, sounding amused.
"Engaging in witty conversation, even. And I'd say," she said, grinning, "that you were trying to convince me to get you a fresh steak served medium rare."
"More likely that you've simply seen that the animal isn't eating its meat and—in a fit of unbridled compassion—have the brilliant idea to try a new strategy. Also: you're delusional." The voice sounded downright smug, and held more than a hint of amusement.
"Am I now?" she asked, quirking an eyebrow.
"You'd have to be if you believed a base animal could speak. It can't; even now, it's merely staring at you as it paces, listening to you babble, and making odd motions with its jaws because it is hungry. Assuming you aren't asleep on the bench, you've been talking to yourself this entire time."
"You are incorrigible," she replied, chuckling.
"But you've also got it into your head, now," the voice continued, "that if you can't get hold of a nice bit of steak or roast cooked just so with a hint of salt... then it is possible that a broiled salmon fillet might be worth a shot."
"You crafty old beast! Do you know, salmon hadn't even entered my mind."
"Of course it had: you're talking to yourself, and projecting an imaginary character onto a mindless beast. Although it would have to have a mind, wouldn't it? Even a dog or a cat has a mind, and a brain, and thoughts, simple though they may be. But seeing as I'm a bit of your subconscious given voice by your surprisingly rich fantasy-life, the salmon bit is all you."
"Is it now?"
"Your mind did mention fully cooked fish before, did it not? Furthermore, does the ugly brute remind you more of a dog or a cat? The eyes give it away, I would think."
"Claws, teeth, and gleaming eyes with vertical pupils?"
"You look nothing like a cat."
"The monster looks almost nothing like a cat. And yet the thought must have occurred to you briefly as your subconscious is voicing it now by bringing you beautiful visions of fully cooked salmon. Although with teeth like that, surely steak or some other properly cooked meat would do in a pinch."
"That might be far easier to procure, or so you think. If you must, but do cook it."
"This might be the most stimulating conversation I've had all day."
"That's disappointing. You're an intelligent woman, and in seeking to be taken seriously by someone, anyone at all, you're instead attempting to outwit yourself—and I daresay you may have succeeded. You seem the sort who could probably spend hours beating herself at a single game of chess, but I can safely assure you that you'd eventually lose."
"And I would also win. And I confess that you don't seem to be taking me seriously either."
"I would argue that you don't seem to be taking me seriously."
"In which case I could simply give up and believe that a surprisingly intelligent animal is speaking to me, is attempting to deceive me for its own amusement, and has proven a picky eater."
"In which case, you must be mad. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but I don't particularly consider it to be a good thing by any means. But my point is that animals simply do not go about speaking, and things would go badly for you if you were to wander about saying they could."
"I saw one this morning."
"A talking animal."
"Good heavens! Then you are mad."
"It was a mouse."
"Oh, lovely; little brown creatures that run about underfoot. This house could surely do with a cat; perhaps several."
"I didn't say it was brown."
"You didn't have to. I am a creation of your mind; a figment of your overactive imagination; an imaginary voice assigned to a creature which cannot speak, cannot understand, and yet listens to you speak your mind with surprisingly rapt attention."
"And it is a surprisingly good listener, considering."
"And you should assume that it's listening to both sides of this conversation, seeing as you're talking to yourself. Regardless, the reply would have to be such, that your delusion might continue and allow you this rather wonderful conversation with yourself, while a hungry animal looks bemusedly at you and listens attentively to your every word with no comprehension whatsoever; see how it still paces before you with a predatory gleam in its eye. To be perfectly honest, you could just as easily cease your conversation with yourself, come to your senses, and tell the help to fetch the wretched thing a roast."
"But if I do wish the conversation to continue, then surely you'd let me do so? Being a figment of my imagination and all?"
"Well, yes, but speaking candidly as part of your imagination, you also imagine that if the monster were in fact speaking, it would become cross or impatient with the ensuing lack of roast. Furthermore, if you're caught talking to yourself, then both of us will be in rather a lot of trouble because both of us are you."
"Nevertheless: the mouse was a pale grey."
"Many mice are."
"The same color as a man's hair."
"Good heavens, a coincidence! Whatever shall be done?"
"After I bumped into the man, he turned into a mouse and spoke to me."
There was no immediate reply. The monster behind the grate abruptly ceased its pacing, froze for a moment, then slowly drew nearer the wooden bars as far as the chain would allow, cocking and swiveling its head from side to side, maintaining eye contact the entire time. There was naked curiosity in its eyes, and a hint of something deeper. She could see its jaws move in perfect sync with the voice when it uttered its quiet reply.
"And what did he say?"
"He asked if I was alright, if I felt unwell, if he should ring for the physician; he behaved as if nothing had happened at all. He seemed genuinely concerned, but I declined. Moreover, the family physician was away on business today and will not return until the morrow."
"Is he married?"
"I was questioning you before; why now are you questioning me?" she demanded. The creature broke eye contact for a moment.
"The conversation has taken an interesting turn," it replied after a moment. "Did he marry?"
"You're my subconscious! You should know the answer to this question. In fact," she said triumphantly, "you should also have known that I spoke with a man who turned into a talking rodent."
"As stimulating as that game was, the time for games may be over; if you've already spoken with the Rat then I have no further need of such illusions; if you've spoken with the Rat, then either animals can speak or your imagination finally decided to run away with you some hours ago and there is naught that I can do about it. But let us, for the time being, assume the former; that being the case, I ask that you tell no-one, purloin something edible from the kitchen, and return when you are able."
"So you admit that you are talking, and that you know this man."
"I do, and we are acquaintances. I know his secret, but he knows not mine; my charade must continue unabated if at all possible; technically I shouldn't have spoken to you at all, but I couldn't resist saying something to someone after all this time. You are the first human being who has given me so much as the time of day in quite a long time."
"And would you like the time and the day?"
"I have been here for a very long time; I want the day, the month, the year, a meal, and to know what became of someone: a woman who used to visit me, daily and dutifully, for... perhaps nearly a year? I've lost track. She brought me cooked meat, in secret, and she spoke to me and I listened, and I replied. We had lovely conversations and we... she was very... she was very important to me."
The creature paused.
"But things grew strained," it continued, "and eventually the burden became too much for her to bear, and she disappeared; she was placed in the care of the family physician, and I never saw her again. She was kind, but I'm certain she has forgotten all about me by now, and it's for the best. But I recall the Rat seemed interested in her, so I wondered if..."
"Well," she replied, after a moment, "I don't have a pocket watch upon my person, but can tell you that it is the evening of Wednesday, the 11th of July, in the year of our Lord 1883. He is not a rat, but a man, and a charming and pleasant one the majority of the time. And to answer your question, he did not elope with this mystery woman of yours; the two of us are engaged to be married."
The thing's face was unreadable.
"He has good taste," it said, after a moment. "It must surely have been true love at first sight."
"He is a beautiful man, and kind, though with a foul temper, and at times I feel that he treats me as if I were a porcelain doll. But no: I was once betrothed to another."
The monster's eyes widened for a second. Its reply was almost hesitant, and held a note of what might have been concern.
"Did he... abandon you?"
"He was killed shortly before we were to be married."
"He fell from the roof."
"I see," the creature whispered.
"It was some weeks past," she continued, "and then I... I had some sort of breakdown. They say I heard the news and fainted; I don't recall very well what happened afterward, but I must have been in a daze, and then one day I awakened in bed with a terrible headache and the family physician next to me. He... they said the trauma had been too great and that I had broken down and then somehow forced myself to forget... perhaps weeks worth, perhaps longer'denial' or catatonia or some such. I confess my memories of him blur together at times, but I can safely say that I miss him. They told... They told me he was killed, that he... plummeted three stories... and landed face-first on the... he landed head-first. The funeral was closed-casket, and they didn't dare let me see the body; it was too gruesome."
The monster closed its eyes and drew away from the grating slightly.
"You have my condolences," it said quietly. It didn't see the tears forming at the edges of her eyes when she spoke again. Her smile was bittersweet.
"Do you know... do you know, he always used to land on his feet," she said, wistfully. "I refused to believe it at first... but he's gone now. He too had a temper, but he was a good man, and kind. And he had... he had the most beautiful hair..."
"I'm sure he would have been pleased to hear you say that," the beast said quietly, "but the past is the past, and you have someone else to love you now; while it irks me that he would propose so quickly after your loss, it would be good for you to move forward with your life, and I encourage you to do so."
"Do you know, I don't quite remember his proposal; I keep thinking back, trying to remember being proposed to a second time, at one of those balls, but I cannot. Perhaps I did go mad, for a time. But it is difficult for me to let go."
"It is always difficult to lose someone close to you; I lost someone as well, and it hurt me grievously—perhaps more than you can understand—but I console myself by believing that she will find happiness free of my shadow."
"She must surely have had some affection for you."
"I believe that she did, once, but also an overwhelming sorrow that threatened to destroy her; given the choice, I would not be the source of such feelings; she needed respite, to let go, and to move forward with her life. Her happiness was and remains the most important thing to me. When the subject was broached, I gave her my blessing; that being said, I miss her terribly. I miss especially the witty conversations we had."
"Well, now you may have witty conversations with me."
"You remind me very much of her. But I hear footfalls. You should take your leave, my dear; if they hear you speaking to a mere beast, they may yet think you mad, and I will have witty conversations with no-one."
"Do you have a name?" she asked hurriedly. There was a fleeting hesitation—slight, short, nearly unnoticeable—before the thing in the cell replied.
"I have none."
"A pity," she said, then smirked. "I'll find you something to eat yet, monster."
"I would be in your debt," the creature replied. "Godspeed."
The young woman grabbed the candleholder and fled. The monster retreated to the far corner of its cell, and lay down in a heap in the dark.
It spoke not a word for the rest of the night, nor the following day when fresh meat arrived thoroughly seared but slightly rare.
It spoke naught as it ate ravenously: pinning the meat with its claws, tearing the flesh with its teeth, and voraciously bolting down enormous gobbets.
It spoke naught when the woman failed to reappear.
It spoke naught a day later when a handsome young man with shining and prematurely grey hair stalked in, regarded it coolly for a several moments, then left without a word or a second glance.
The monster did not see the woman again.
The days and weeks passed, and the beast slept, and it ate, and it drank, and it paced, and it remained mostly silent but for grunts and growls.
After all: animals cannot speak.