title: Emperor's New Clothes
fandom: Fruits Basket
characters/pairings: Ayame, Akito, Mine, Hatori/Ayame, Haru, suggestive Akito/Shigure
rating: G
warnings: none
summary: Ayame receives a strange new order for clothes.
notes: this is based on the anime continuity due to the fact that i have as yet not enjoyed the manga. le sigh. however, i am borrowing a few small details from the manga, such as Akito being possessed by the emperor, which makes complete sense to me... however, since i haven't read the manga, and i'm making some assumptions about how things work, i want to re-emphasize that this is anime continuity. ^_~

There was sunlight streaming in through the windows, and the steady beat of pop music filtering in from the shopkeeper's office. It was entirely pleasant to wile away the morning sorting lacy undergarments in such a quiet and interesting place.

Mine had her own system for organizing the corsets for men. Each garment was hand-stitched by the shopkeeper himself, and as such, each required careful and reverent handling. She first divided them by style, then by how revealing they were, then by buttons versus laces, and then by color.

It was a good system, and the shopkeeper was never sure how to locate a particular one, so she was always needed to assist.

She lived to assist the shopkeeper.

She was not convinced that all of the clients who purchased these fine delicates truly appreciated how impressive they and the shopkeeper were, but it wasn't her place to tell the shopkeeper who to sell to and who to refuse. She did fear, though, that his modesty did not permit him to fully value his wondrous works.

It seemed counterintuitive, but the shopkeeper was very open about who he allowed to frequent him.

The bells chimed as the door swung open, but she did not immediately abandon her task upon hearing them. For a store of this nature, it would be uncouth for the help to be too anxious. The shopkeeper would be horrified if his valued clients were under the impression that they were sitting around waiting for their patronage. Only when she had carefully folded the article that she was currently working on did she turn to greet their customer.

"Hello! Welcome! Good morning!" She did a cute little curtsy, just as she had practiced dozens of time before the store mirror. She showed just enough of the tantalizing folds of her petticoat to ensure intrigue. "May I assist you, please?"

She looked up to smile at the young man, getting her first good look at him. He was willowy and frail, with a fragile beauty that was mesmerizing. His soft greyish-black hair framed his finely boned face perfectly, emphasizing the regal lines of his cheeks and chin. He wore a grey-black sweater and pants, both fitted to conform to the narrow lines of his body. He was exquisite. Her heart thumped as she imagined what the shopkeeper could do to make him dazzle.

"So, this is Ayame's shop." His voice was a musical whisper, which skittered over the sharp edge of bitterness with airy ease. "How crass. Fetch Ayame for me, please."

She blinked. "Ah, do you have an appointment, sir?"

He rolled his eyes, and placed himself in the chair under the window. He moved with a feline grace coupled with a regal disdain for his surroundings. "Just go get him. Tell him Akito is waiting, impatiently." He waved her away with a disdainful flutter of his hand.

She stumbled away, befuddled.

Ayame was blissfully oblivious in his nook, working away at his sewing machine. He was making a sequined French maid's outfit for a rather well endowed young woman, one of his favorite things to do. He imagined the nervous and shy young man's face as his girlfriend opened her gift. Naturally, after she wore it, they would have sex.

Ayame considered it the highest purpose of his life to facilitate the life-affirming act of love for all those he met.

Mine had to tug on his sleeve to get his attention away from the fantasy playing before his eyes. "Mine! What are you doing back here? Did you finish sorting? You want to try on some clothes, I know, but this isn't ready yet, and besides, one of us needs to be on guard for new customers." He patted her shoulder genially, and turned to return to his work.

She tugged more decisively on his sleeve. "Shopkeeper! There is a young gentleman waiting for you up front."

Ayame furrowed his brow with practiced confusion. "Eh? But I have no appointments now. If he is a new client, you'll have to assist him, and schedule a proper fitting. I have to finish this dress for tomorrow."

"He said his name was Akito."

Ayame stopped dead.

He straightened from his work, brushing his hands down to smooth over the front of his Mandarin gown. "Now, Mine, that isn't funny... Did Shigure put you up to this? I can see that you don't understand, but some jokes simply cross the line."

She wrung her hands desperately. "He seems very important, and I don't think he likes to wait."

Ayame did something that Mine had never seen him do before -- he blanched.

"Ah." There was defeat in Ayame's entire body, and he immediately strode out to meet this Akito.

She dutifully followed behind him, nervous but curious to see what sort of young man could strike such fear in the heart of her employer.

She became even more nervous when she saw Ayame greet Akito. By bending down on one knee, and lowering his head.

For his part, Akito appeared to barely be able to tolerate Ayame's presence, which horrified Mine to the point of nearly speaking up.

"Send the girl away." Akito's voice was bored and vengefully dismissive, and she put her hands on her hips, spreading out her feet minutely to more firmly plant herself in position.

Ayame stayed on one knee, but he straightened up, and faced her with a beaming smile. "Mine! Why don't you take your lunch break now?"

The shopkeeper was being so pleasant and genial, she almost felt like her vision was spliced together from two totally different realities. "But! Shopkeeper! It's only 10:45!"

The shopkeeper only beamed brighter. "Take a long walk! The sun is shining, and it is a perfect day to enjoy nature and the universe. Enjoy yourself!"

She was left powerless. With a silent sigh, she complied with her boss.

Ayame and Akito were now alone.

Ayame eyed the head of his house cautiously. "Akito, I can't think of any other time that you have graced my tiny store with your glorious presence! Are you alone? Is... Is Hatori coming?"

Akito pushed himself up, and crossed his arms over his chest as he moved around the store. "I am alone. You won't be able to hide behind your shadow." Ayame bit the inside of his lip to keep from responding. "This is so... small, and drab." Akito extended a finger to lift the satin strap of a bra for a man. His lips curled in disgust. "I'm not sure that this is the sort of place that the Sohma name should be associated with."

Fear iced through Ayame. He did good business, and made decent profits, but that was mainly because the Sohma family owned the building the store was in, thus lowering his overhead significantly. Without assistance from the main house, he would not be able to maintain his business.

"Ah, well, if you want to see my books, I can show you that I have been more than able to support myself with my profits. It, ah, may not look that... astonishing, but this shop is quite successful, given the market that it serves..." Ayame purposefully did not look at Akito as he blathered.

Akito sighed. "I require a suit of clothes."

Ayame blinked. Silence echoed through the small room, and Ayame felt frozen.

"Beg pardon?"

"I require a suit of clothes." Now Akito was glaring at Ayame, and Ayame tried to gauge his temper. He had never been the best judge of Akito's moods.

"Yes?" Ayame stood up slowly, waiting for Akito to correct him. "You would like me to make clothes for you?"

Akito shook his head and rolled his eyes. "You are supposed to be an expert in fashion. Why else would I subject myself to your company?"

Ayame clapped his hands together, thoroughly amused and delighted. "Ah, how wonderful! Yes, yes, I'll make whatever you require! Naturally, my typical assortment of fantasies won't suffice, but I can make you anything you desire! It will be, without the slightest suggestion of a doubt, the most fantastic and glorious collection of garments you will have ever dreamed of!"

There was a pause after Ayame's declaration that would normally have been filled with Mine's cheering. Akito waited with narrowed eyes until Ayame was done.

"As you say. I need something formal, but not too traditional, and festive. I want it to have color." Akito's eyes were piercing as he spoke, each word enunciated with painful clarity.

Ayame smiled, ignoring the condescension. "Perfect! For what occasion?"

Akito grinned, and Ayame shrank from the sight of it. "Oh, it will be the greatest party of my life."

"Oh?" Ayame felt his curiosity peak. "A family event?"

Akito tilted his head and smiled in such a way as would have appeared amicable on another person. "Oh, yes, the one everyone has been so anxiously awaiting...

"My funeral."

Ayame felt like he had been slapped across the face with one of Akito's elegantly lithe hands. Akito smugly stalked from table to table in the shop, keeping his arms and hands tightly to his body as if in horror of accidentally touching one of the items. His feet lingered on the floor as he walked, giving the impression that he was gliding.

Ayame cleared his throat. "Your... your funeral?"

"Of course," Akito replied with a maliciously innocent smile. "It's going to be the highlight of every Sohma's life, isn't it?"

"Perhaps of our month..." Ayame bit his lip. He stayed perfectly still, waiting for Akito's reaction.

Surprisingly, Akito's face seemed to soften. "Exactly. And, as the guest of honor, I must be impeccably arranged, do you not think?"

Ayame was baffled. He decided that he hated being baffled. "I... I... Are you sure you want me to do it?"

"Who else?" Akito shrugged, bored. "Besides..." Akito turned away, sighing. "You at least have the merit of being honest; few else would openly agree that they are looking forward to my demise. You will have to be discreet, however. I don't want anyone to know about this, not even Hatori, Ayame. I am, begrudgingly, putting my trust in you."

Ayame felt an obscene swell of pride that had nothing to do with how he felt for Akito, and everything to do with how the snake in him felt for his emperor. "I shall not disappoint, sir."

Akito nodded once. "Of course not.

"Now, as to the details... I leave them to you. You are, reportedly, stylish, so you should know what to do. I don't want to be bothered. But, I do want bold colors, and I don't want to be wrapped up like some mummy in ancient styles. Do you understand?"

"Of course, of course!" Ayame felt himself slowly toeing toward familiar ground again. "Any color in particular? I think purple or red will compliment your coloring nicely." Ayame had to squint a little to look at Akito not see him as the person that Ayame knew.

Akito waved his hand. "I don't care; I'll be dead. Just make sure that it will look good."

Ayame bowed, grinning from ear to ear. "No problem!"

Akito nodded uncertainly. "Well, all right then... When you are ready to show me what you have, talk to me directly, understand?" Akito began to walk to the door, watching Ayame as he did.

"Wait!" Ayame reached out to, but did not touch, Akito, halting him. "I need to take some measurements first!"

Akito frowned. "What?"

Gulping, Ayame forced a broad smile. "Measurements, so I know how big or small to make it. It won't take a minute." Ayame smiled broader at Akito's distrustful glare. "Please, follow me to the back..."

Reluctantly, Akito let himself be led to the back, where he was escorted to a curtained-off room. Ayame grabbed a tape measure as he walked past one of the racks, and he closed off the curtain behind him, just in case Mine came back.

"All right!" Ayame clapped his hands together. "Let's get to work."

Akito stood perfectly still, glaring at Ayame and keeping his arms straight at his sides.

Ayame sighed. "Ah, Akito... That's a... surprisingly thick sweater. You should probably..."

Akito's glare intensified. "You want me to take it off?" Ayame did not know how to say 'yes' without sounding like an idiot. "You're going to watch?"

Akito was so honestly incredulous that Ayame had no recourse but to turn around. "I'm going to have to see you to measure you anyway..." He spoke to the curtain, though he was fairly sure that Akito could hear him as well.

"All right. Do... you need me to take off my pants as well?" Akito was being snide and cranky, which was never a good sign for a cursed Sohma.

Ayame quickly peeked over his shoulder at the half-naked Akito. "Well..."

Akito sighed, and sat down on the thin wooden chair to take off his shoes, socks, and pants. "I trust that is enough?"

"Wonderful!" Ayame boomed, and he quickly went to start taking Akito's measurements. He had a good head for numbers, and he would be able to remember, at least until he could write them down, but he was hoping to get it all finished before Akito exploded.

That was his intention, but he found himself flustered, and he needed to take some measurements more than once before he could keep them straight.

He called out each number as he took it, and the pause between grew longer each time. Akito's body was so thin and frail, his ribs were visible, and each knob of his vertebrae stuck out just a little. Akito's skin was like milk poured over cream, and was as soft as the petals of a rose. Akito's appendages were elegantly proportioned, lithe, and there was a suggestion of weakness in his legs and his arms that inspired Ayame to want to support Akito as he stood there, defiantly waiting for the indignity to pass.

Ayame smiled up at Akito. "I know many models who would gladly die to have your measurements."

"They can have them, and die in my place, then." Akito spoke clearly, without emotion, and did not look at Ayame.

Ayame swallowed, and looked away.

He was just about to tell Akito that he was finished when he noticed that Akito was swaying on his feet. Akito's eyes were glassy, and his mouth was slack. Ayame just began to recognize the signs when Akito crumpled, his eyes rolling shut.

Fortunately, Ayame was right there, and enough prepared that he was able to catch Akito. The younger man fell into Ayame's arms, and Ayame could barely feel the weight of him. It was like holding a paper doll, and fearing that you might crush it if you clutched too tightly.

Ayame picked up Akito gently, and carried him to the chair. He kept his arm around Akito's back, and he brushed his fingers over Akito's cheek. He crooned softly, gently asking Akito to wake up.

Akito blinked, and he looked around, his vision clearly swimming before him. He looked all around him, not recognizing where he was for a moment.

"Akito." Ayame smiled. "Take a deep breath. You've overexerted yourself. I should call Hatori to pick you up... Would you like some water, or tea, perhaps?"

Akito blinked, looking around, until he was able to focus on Ayame. He looked at Ayame's eyes, and his hair flowing around him, and the arm that was cradling him.

He turned a little, and backhanded Ayame with a loud clap of flesh meeting flesh.

Hissing, Akito pulled away. "Get your hands off of me, you monster."

Ayame fell back, sitting on the ground with his hands out behind him. He stared sightlessly as Akito braced himself on the chair, gripping the edges fiercely.

"You keep your store too hot! This is your fault!"

Ayame nodded dumbly, wanting Akito to stop shouting. The sharp sting in his cheek was dulling to a steady throb, and he could feel his head getting tighter.

Akito leaned forward in the chair, and glared at the ground. "Help me get dressed."

Ayame pushed himself forward, and grabbed Akito's clothes. He held Akito's pants so that Akito could fit his feet into the holes, and slipped on Akito's socks and shoes. Akito stood up gingerly, and buttoned his pants himself, but then he raised his arms up for Ayame to pull his sweater on over his head.

Ayame felt like it was all muted. The shock of the blow was still causing him to reel, and he felt a keening disappointment fill him.

The snake had upset the emperor.

Akito's eyes had sharp focus now, and there was a terrible grin tugging at his lips. "You feel guilty, don't you? Oh, poor Ayame... you aren't used to this, are you? You tried to convince Hatori to leave the house after his accident, and you didn't understand why he would want to stay. Didn't know that I knew that, did you? I know more than you think.

"Yuki had that same look on his face the first time that I beat him. Of course, it was much more beautiful on him. He was so young and innocent... it was perfect."

Akito's sinister whisper seeped into Ayame, burning him. He choked, wanting to throttle Akito, wanting to stop those hateful words.

He could see his younger brother, still a child, shrinking away from Akito, trying to find shelter behind his older brother but being denied, and for the millionth time, Ayame cursed himself and his selfish youth.

"You want to knock me down, and you know that you could... if only the curse would let you!" Akito smiled, his eyes burning with intensity. He walked away from Ayame, each step carefully measured exactly so that he wouldn't falter. "There has to be some advantage to being the sacrificial lamb to you freaks."

Ayame watch as Akito walked to the door. Feeling somewhat stupid, he followed Akito, matching his pace so that he was always three steps behind. "Wait... You shouldn't go out so soon after... Let me call Hatori..."

Akito spun on his heels. "Are you brain damaged!?!? I told you no one was to know that I was here!! Especially your precious Hatori! No one!!! I am fine! Now leave me alone!"

Ayame stood stock-still as Akito screamed at him, and he remained motionless for long afterward. He was just sitting at his worktable, doodling on the edges of the paper that he had written Akito's measurements on, when Mine returned from her long walk.

"Shopkeeper!" She greeted him with her usual cheer. "How are you? Shopkeeper? ...Sir?"

Ayame looked up, his face uncharacteristically blank. "Mine. I need you to finish the French maid's outfit for me, please. It will be picked up tomorrow. Please call any other clients, and let them know that there has been a delay. Reschedule who you can, and do what you can to finish any projects we have still pending.

"Something has come up."

"Shopkeeper?" Mine asked, dazed. She looked down at the paper that he was playing with, her brow furrowed. "Is everything all right? ...What are those, measurements for some kind of doll?"

"Hm," Ayame smiled. "More like the puppet master."

"Sir?" She remained perplexed, but Ayame just picked up the paper, and retreated to his inner office.

She sighed. This had happened twice before, when Ayame had gotten a project that so consumed him, he set aside everything else.

She wondered if that arrogant young man was the project, and if so, what he could possibly want that would excite Ayame more than a French maid's outfit.

Ayame threw himself into Akito's final clothes with a passion that even surprised him. He went through an entire sketchbook, drawing out possibilities, until he started to form strong ideas about what to do. He kept at his work with such zeal, that Mine thought there was a huge rush, and would stand in blank confusion as Ayame laughed and joked that he only wished it was a rush order.

He slept in the back room of the store, so that he could concentrate all of his energy on dressing Akito for death. He went through reams of fabric, looking for the best cuts of cloth, and the finest materials. He took the train to Kyoto for a day over the weekend, so he could buy some rare silk.

He was so wrapped up in the minutia of his project, he even forgot to call Hatori every day to bother the good doctor with his ramblings.

At first, Hatori had been willing to ignore Ayame's oversight, but eventually, worry and curiosity conspired to drive him to check in on his wayward cousin.

Mine greeted him at the door with a relieved smile. She bounced alongside of him as she walk him back unnecessarily to Ayame's office.

Hatori was blank as she chattered on and on, with the hope that she wouldn't see how much she annoyed him. He had no idea why Ayame had hired this girl, except for the obvious ego stroking.

Hatori knocked in his usual efficient fashion on Ayame's door, fully expected Ayame to burst out and fling himself into Hatori's reticent arms. He even braced himself, but Ayame ignored the knock.

Before Hatori could effectively glare the door into opening, Mine called out, "Shopkeeper! Sir! Your cousin Sohma-sensei is here!"

Hatori frowned, but still expected to be holding Ayame as soon as the door opened.

He did not expect Ayame to open the door a crack, slip out, and closed the door behind him, holding onto the doorknob so that no one could sneak past him and get inside his office.

"Hari! It's good to see you! I'm glad you dropped by. Mine, please fetch us some tea and cakes before you go, and then you can take the rest of the night off." He smiled broadly at her so that she would think that everything was normal, but Hatori could see past his deception.

Still, there was no point in trying to confront Ayame while there was someone around to impress, so he allowed Ayame to lead him to a couch, and pour him a cup of the foul fruity tea that Ayame preferred. He even waited with Ayame for Mine to finish prattling on about the business before she had left.

Hatori did not stretch his patience an inch further, however, and as soon as the door swung shut, he began.

"What have you been up to?"

"What do you mean, Hari?" Ayame peeked innocently over the rim of his cup, sipping genteelly.

Hatori sighed. "You have been conspicuously absent from the house lately. And you have not called in over a week."

Ayame threw his arms around Hatori's neck. "You missed me!"

Hatori sniffed disdainfully. "I thought perhaps you'd been arrested."

Grinning, Ayame picked up a cookie. "You can't stand to be away from me any more than I can stand to be away from you. You should admit it, and we could run off together and live happily ever after by the sea shore."

Hatori sighed. "What have you been up to, Aya?"

Ayame smiled, his mood clearly improved, and waved away Hatori's concern. "Oh, I've just got a very... interesting client I'm working for these days. It's... a once in a lifetime opportunity, really, and I've let myself get carried away."

Hatori watched Ayame carefully, but he saw no indication that the other man was being duplicitous. He was clearly withholding information, but Hatori saw no reason to press Ayame on his mystery customer.

It was probably something related to bondage wear, or something else that would make Ayame squeal. Hatori did not need to know.

"So, how have you been, Hari? Keeping busy?" Ayame offered him a slice of banana bread, and Hatori wondered how much food Ayame kept in the store.

"It's been a long week. Akito went out last Tuesday, and overexerted himself. I don't know how he even got out of the house.... Wherever he went, he must have walked. He's been exhausted all week, and irritable as well. It's been quite a trial keeping him happy." Hatori swirled his spoon around the tea, watching the light play with the surface of the liquid. It was the most enjoyment he could procure from the swill.

Ayame did not visibly react to Hatori's news, which would have seemed odd to Hatori had he been watching the other man. Ayame usually made a face when Akito's name was mentioned.

It was a long walk from the Sohma house to Ayame's store. It had never occurred to Ayame how much effort Akito had expended to keep his visit a secret. It was a great deal of trust to be placed in someone that Akito could not stand.

"Ah, well, Akito is always complaining about something... You shouldn't let him stress you like that. In fact..." Ayame smirked as he watched Hatori from the corner of his eye. "Would you like me to de-stress you? We could go to the apartment in the back..."

Hatori behaved in the exact same way that he always did when Ayame was attempting to seduce him. He pretended that he wasn't going to give in. "I don't want to disturb your work. I can see that you are busy."

Ayame laughed out loud. Hatori was not looking at him, and he even turned slightly so that he wasn't facing him anymore. He put down his teacup, and stretched his arms out in front of him. He leaned back in his chair, and grinned at Hatori.

"I think I forgot to miss you this past week. I think I should make that up to you."

Hatori raised an eyebrow in an affected disinterest. "Oh? Perhaps you should."

Ayame stood up, and reached out to take Hatori's hand. Something struck him just then, which he felt was entirely inappropriate. "Akito... isn't dying, is he?"

Hatori looked annoyed. "We're all dying. Akito is going to die faster than we will, most likely. What on earth do you mean?"

Ayame sighed and dropped Hatori's hand. "Well, he's not going to die from this exhaustion, is he?"

Hatori shook his head in disbelief. "Of course not."

Ayame nodded, being careful not to look relieved. "Have... Have you ever thought about it?"

"Thought about what?" Hatori sat down again, utterly mystified by Ayame. Then again, Ayame was regularly mystifying, so he wasn't too put out by it.

"When Akito is dead." Ayame spoke slowly, being sure not to put too much emphasis on any one word. "And afterward."

Hatori considered. "No."

"No?" Ayame was genuinely surprised.

"No." Hatori shrugged.

"Why not?"

Hatori looked away. "I don't suppose I know how I will feel. I know... what you think of him, and what he's done to me, but..." Hatori could not finish. He closed his mouth, and fixed his gaze on a non-existent faraway point.

Ayame nodded. "Well. The day will come, and then you will know."

Hatori nodded once, distinctly.

Ayame smiled, and picked up Hatori's hand, drawing him back to the small bedroom behind all the clothes.

The hallway was shadowed by candlelight, and eerily quiet. During the daytime, this house was full of all the Sohma's responsible for the administration of the Sohma family fortune, but now there was only one resident of the central main building.

Ayame was unused to walking with such stealth; it was his nature to draw attention to himself wherever he went, so he had to concentrate of making sure that none of the old floorboards creaked. This was the original Sohma house, built so many years ago that Sohma family historians debate the actual year it was opened. It had been renovated four times over its history, each time preserving the traditions and heritage of the Sohma's.

There were times that Ayame actually pitied Akito.

At the end of the hall was the suite of rooms that Akito inhabited. Ayame had checked from outside before beginning his furtive trek to be sure that Akito was still awake. It was after midnight, but Akito rarely slept though an entire night.

The soft chitter of birdsong from inside assured Ayame that everything was still and quiet. Akito was something of a magnet for delicate, decorative creatures, but if he were not alone, it would be unlikely that any would stay long enough to sing.

Sure enough, even Ayame's gentle call for Akito's permission to enter scattered away the sounds of the birds. "What?" Akito's harsh reply sharply took the place of the twitterings.

Ayame slid the door back, and pressed his forehead to the floor. It was an exaggerated gesture, but Ayame had never known Akito to turn his nose at exaggerated signs of respect.

"Akito-san, forgive me for disturbing your peace, but I wished to impart good news." It took effort that Akito was sure to not appreciate to keep his voice low and level, but it was worth the effort. The crinkle of annoyance from between Akito's eyes smoothed, and he even glared with less intensity.

Akito was draped over the floor in an artful slump of robes and bony flesh. He sighed, and rolled his wrist around, his finger extended, inviting Ayame inside. "What?" This time, there was a duller edge to Akito's aggravation.

Ayame smiled broadly, sitting up but moving no closer. "I have finished what you requested of me. We should schedule a fitting... Please, though, let me bring you to the store so that you won't have to exert yourself again."

Akito nodded once, and turned his face to the open window. There was no moon out tonight, and the stars were shrouded from Akito' view by the copse of trees just outside. "When?"

"Whenever is convenient for you, of course."

Akito sighed. "You are being annoyingly accommodating to me. I distrust a snake's courtesy. When it is convenient, as you so adequately put it, I will come. You need not concern yourself with my exertion."

Ayame opened his mouth to protest, but shut it again almost right away. There was little point to arguing with Akito under any circumstances. He bowed his head again, and lifted his arms to close the doors.

"How is your brother? Or would you know?" Akito rested his chin upon his palm, his eyes drifting out into the night. "He hasn't returned to the house for a visit in a long time. It isn't proper."

Akito's manner was that of restlessness, and Ayame tried to convince his pounding heart that Akito's query was only inspired by the emptiness of a dreamless night's ponderings. Still, the thought of Akito contemplating Yuki was enough to make Ayame's blood turn to ice and flame.

He took two deep breaths before speaking, to calm himself. "Shigure looks after Yuki as if he were his own brother."

Akito snorted. "Just as well, considering what family Yuki has... Ah well. Honda-san doubtless fusses over his every need." Akito's voice drifted off into melancholy, and Ayame waited, wondering if he could slip away without being rude. "No one ever keeps me updated about anything. I should go and inspect Shigure's house myself."

Ayame did not show any signs of panic, because he knew full well how to present the reaction he desired others to see at all times, but he was left aghast and uncertain as to how to respond.

Akito turned his face from the window, and examined Ayame with a confused expression. "Why are you still here?"

Ayame bowed low, and slipped the doors shut right away. It took him a moment to gather his thoughts together again, and stand up. So distracted by the whirlwind of his ruminations, he didn't even notice Haru until he walked right into him.

"Hey!" Ayame took a step back and straightened his gown furiously. "What did you think you were doing?"

Haru shrugged, indifferent. "Watch where you are going."

Ayame frowned, but refrained from following through with his anger. Haru was younger, and should show more respect, but Ayame just wanted to get back to his own rooms. "What are you even doing here?"

Haru looked over his shoulder. "It's the short cut from the library to my house."

"Ah." Ayame looked down at Haru for two full heartbeats, and then prepared to head off to his own house.

"What did you talk to Akito about?"

Ayame spun around, flustered and annoyed. "What?! What makes you think I was talking to Akito?"

Haru shrugged, and looked down the hallway that led to Akito's rooms, and Akito's rooms only.

Ayame had had enough of younger cousins. "None of your business!" He started to stomp off, but then he spun around again, making himself just a little pleasantly dizzy, and grabbed Haru's elbow. "Don't tell anyone that you saw me here, all right? It... was personal."

Haru did not react, but he did incline his head in what Ayame assumed was an acknowledging manner.

Ayame sighed, and started to turn around again.

"You weren't asking to marry Hatori, were you? Akito hates it when people want to marry Hatori." There was something in the way that Haru was lifting his chin and looking away that gave Ayame the sinking sensation that somewhere deep inside the placid young man, he was laughing his ass off at Ayame's expense.

"Go to bed, little boy, and just forget about it." Ayame wearily walked away.

He would be glad when this business was over and done with; he was worn out just from associating with Akito.

Days like today were what Ayame lived for; Mine was bustling around, handling packaging and payment for three customers picking up merchandise, he was showing a cute couple his custom-made lingerie, and there was a distinguished-looking gentleman riffling through their collection of bustiers for men.

Sundays were generally better than most days for business, but this was off the charts. Ayame was so excited, he was bouncing enough to give himself a headache.

He should have known that something would happen to ruin it all, really.

The bells over the door chimed merrily, but Ayame's exuberant greeting was killed in the back of his throat by the glare from the new customer. Shadowed by the noonday light behind him, Akito appeared taller and even thinner than normal, his haughty look of disgust exaggerated by the appearance of his stature.

Ayame dropped the drop-bottom boxers he was showing off, and went immediately to Akito's side.

"Akito-sama! How I've been anticipating your return! Please, please, come with me, come with me!" Ayame reached out and tried to lead Akito away from his paying customers without touching the younger man. Akito sniffed with disgust, and strode with regal laziness past Ayame.

"I had no idea there were this many perverts in town."

Ayame's eyes widened minutely. Akito had purposefully spoken loudly enough for everyone in the room to hear, putting Ayame in the awkward position or choosing between defending his clientele and arguing with Akito, or leaving everyone offended.

Akito smirked.

Ayame brought himself up to his full height, and smiled broadly in return. "Now, now, perversion is in the eye of the beholder... Please, let's not delay you any further... Right this way." Ayame walked fast to the back of the store, keeping his eyes straight ahead at all times. He went to his office, leaving the door open for Akito to follow. The box where he was storing the outfit was underneath his worktable. He pulled it out and opened it up without looking up to see if Akito were with him. He spread out the papers that he had wrapped the clothes in, displaying the contents of the box.

"I hope this isn't going to entail numerous fittings to correct your errors."

Ayame gritted his teeth, and continued to pretend that he didn't know that Akito was there.

Akito sighed, and tossed his head to the left, sending the long tendrils of hair framing his face flying. "I don't have all day, Ayame."

"You didn't walk here again, did you?" Ayame used an offhandedly-worried tone, as he would were he to observe that a poodle that was passing by was in need of grooming.

"Your concern for my health is transparent. Is that it?" Akito pointed with one elegantly long finger.

Ayame let it pass through his mind that if he painted Akito's nails right before the funeral, he would look fantastic. "Yes." He whipped out the long silk gown, holding it over the table dramatically. "I designed it so that it was adjustable, so it should fit well regardless of changes in your measurements. I thought you could wear pants and a tunic underneath, and we can complete the ensemble with some rings. I didn't want to add too much flair, since you'll be wearing it lying down, but I think it has enough style to stand out. What do you think?"

It was impossible to read Akito's expression as he fingered the silk. The long gown was fitted, with ornate Chinese buttons running down the left side. The gown was purple, with gold embroidery running down the edges. The color wash of the silk was rich and deep, and the accents emphasized the luxury of the material. Underneath, Ayame had made a simple tunic of pale lilac silk, and silk pants of the same color.

Akito face was entirely blank, which could mean anything at all. His fingertips trailed over the material, and Ayame felt a surge of pride. It was the finest silk that was available anywhere; he had never before worked with such fine, strong, beautiful fabric, and he knew that Akito could not help but be pleased.

Unable to wait for Akito's benediction, Ayame pulled out the coup de grace from the bottom of the box. "Here is the finishing touch. An obi, woven from threads that were coated in real gold. This is very hard to come by. I cut it so that it was twice as long as you needed. As you can see, it is much narrower than a traditional obi; I thought that we could twist it in a knotted pattern, and then the rest of the fabric would flow downward, and pool at your feet." He wanted desperately for Akito to say something, show some sign of approval or hatred.

Akito eyed the gold obi as if it might run away if he looked at it directly. His body was stiff and still, his eyes unblinking.

Ayame thought he might burst from the pressure of waiting.

"Let me try it on."

It was enough to make Ayame bounce giddily as he arranged everything for Akito's convenience. Again, Akito undressed, sitting down gingerly on the short stool Ayame used when he was working on a dress form. Each article of clothing was removed with care, and set down carefully to avoid any imaginary damage. Akito was wearing small, black briefs, and for a moment, Ayame had the impression that Akito was ashamed of his body.

He put on the tunic first, which had a vent down the back with laces, so that the tunic could be molded perfectly to his torso. There was a satin piping down the edges of the tunic that Akito took a moment to touch and admire, sending Ayame's heart soaring. Then, he slipped into the pants, which also had laces down the back.

Nervously, Ayame watched as Akito tugged at the legs, eyeing the width and the room he had in each leg skeptically. "I did design the legs to be a tad roomy, as the gown and obi should really cover them anyway."

Akito said nothing, but let his hands fall from the pants.

Ayame helped Akito into the gown, and buttoned each button. Akito had his head turned so that he didn't have to look at Ayame, and Ayame was terribly aware of the scent of jasmine that lingered around Akito, and the way his frailness invited protective instincts.

Akito stepped away from Ayame as soon as it was buttoned, and brushed himself off, wiping away the vestiges of Ayame from his person. He tilted his head as he looked in the mirror, turning to examine his profile as well. When he was done, he lifted his arms with bored expectation.

Ayame began to wrap the obi around Akito's tiny waist. As he did, he twisted the fabric at each half turn, and tucked one end around the other, artfully assembling an ornate knot over Akito's abdomen. When he was done, he let the ends of the gold obi fall to the ground, where it puddled at Akito's feet in a shimmer.

There was nothing left to add, and so Ayame took a defined step back, and waited.

Akito looked in the mirror, his head turned, as he remained utterly motionless. Ayame checked every detail, finding himself in awe of how it had all come together. The fabrics, all so rich and regal, and Akito's natural feline grace, all seemed to have been made for one another.

He couldn't help the excited, tiny squeal of joy. "You look amazing! You really are so very beautiful."

Akito said nothing, giving no visible sign that he had heard Ayame, though his eyes suggested that he was well aware of that fact.

"Everyone is going to be so delighted!" He had already said it when the implications were made evident to him. He clapped his hand over his mouth, and shrank back. If Akito had a fit of temper now, he might tear and ruin his gorgeous outfit, but then, what did Ayame expect? It had completely slipped his mind what Akito intended.

Clearing his throat delicately, Akito turned away from Ayame. "Of course they will. What will they think of the gown, though?"

Ayame cursed himself a million times. He had been so stupid! Akito was cruel, controlling, and vindictive, but he was still just a boy, really, who was anticipating his own death. "Now, now! You can't possibly think that we will all celebrate your death, can you? Don't you think that tears will be shed at your passing?"

"Oh, of course they will." Dread certainty filled every syllable. "That girl will cry for me."

Ayame felt his vision narrow. Naturally. Shigure had told him all about Tohru's courageous meeting with Akito, and how she had bourn his abuse. "She won't be alone."

"Oh?" Akito challenged. "Perhaps you are right. Perhaps Yuki will hold her hand and say consoling things. Or that damn cat. Or both! And since everyone is so enamored of her, perhaps everyone will be somber and respectful for her sake."

"Are you jealous of her?" Ayame should have known better than to start this line of questions, but despite himself, and his concern for his creation, he was curious.

"Jealous?!" Akito spat, crossing his arms over his chest, which Ayame could not fail to notice looked perfect. "Of her? You must be joking. The girl is delusional, a freak."

"Why? Because she doesn't hate you? Even after you were your most horrible, you still couldn't get her to fear you?" Ayame smirked a little. He loved Tohru just a little more now.

"Because she actually likes you monsters," Akito hissed venomously. "Because she could get out, if she wanted. She doesn't have to be involved, but she chose to let her life become intertwined with all this... horror."

"We're not so bad, you know." Ayame arched an eyebrow and grinned. He had never understood why people were so touchy about their 'curse.' He had always seen it as being somewhat fun.

"You're stupid enough to think it makes you special," Akito dully retorted. "She even faced that damn cat's true form, and she still treats him like he's human."

"He is." Ayame didn't care for Kyo any more than the next Sohma, used to thinking of the cat as the reject. But that didn't excuse Akito's bile.

Akito seethed, his fists clenched. "None of you are human. None. To think that I have to die for people like you..."

Ayame shrugged with a grin. "We have to live for someone like you."

Akito glared at Ayame, and for a moment, Ayame was certain that he was about to release his ire at him. After a tense moment, Akito relaxed. "That's true."

Ayame's eyes widened, and when he saw that Akito was not going to say anything more, he started to laugh uncontrollably. Akito rolled his eyes at Ayame as he had to hold his arms over his stomach. His laughter was just hysterical enough to be impossible to contain. He knew that Akito would lose his patience in a moment, but that only made him laugh harder.

Akito sighed, and started to unwind the obi himself. His hands moved slowly and delicately, so that he was only half done by the time Ayame pulled himself together. Ayame wiped the tears from his eyes, and brushed Akito's hands away from his waist. "Let me," he offered kindly, and he nearly started to laugh again when he saw Akito's face.

He quickly undressed Akito, and discreetly turned his back so that Akito could have privacy to redress. He folded each article carefully, placing them back in the box for storage. The quiet was disconcerting for him, so he started to ramble. "I'll have the box sealed so that everything will be in perfect condition for when you need it. I can bring it to your rooms, if you like, quietly..."

"That won't be necessary." When Akito spoke like that, it was like he rendered everyone else mute. "I have already put provisions in my final instructions. You will dress me. You can leave the box here until then." Akito sounded as if he found the idea distasteful, but was willing to endure it.

"Do you like it?" Ayame could not contain his excitement any longer. He needed to know how Akito felt.

"It doesn't matter." There was sadness in Akito's voice, and it arrested Ayame completely. "I'll be dead. It's for everyone else to like or dislike."

Ayame's hands stilled in the middle of folding the gown. He looked up at Akito, shocked. Akito's shoulders were slumped, his head bent down so that his hair fell over his face. He looked small, weak, and in pain.

Ayame tried to remind himself that it was Akito. That this was the same soulless bastard who had half-blinded Hatori. Who terrorized Yuki. Who delighted in torturing Kyo. Who beat Kisa. Who beat half the family. Akito.

He walked over to Akito, kneeling down to face Akito at eye level as Akito sat despondent on the stool. He smiled, and picked up Akito's shoe. "Here, my lord, let me."

Akito narrowed his eyes distrustfully, but he waited as Ayame slipped one shoe on, and then the next one. Ayame stood up, and offered Akito a hand with a smile.

"Don't be so distrustful," Ayame chided. "We are family, are we not?"

Akito sniffed disdainfully, and stood up under his own power. He folded his arms over his body and raised his chin. "I would rather think not, if it's all the same to you."

Ayame laughed. "As you like. But if you are no relation of mine, then you are no relation of Yuki's either." Ayame winked, and went back to his folding. "Besides, you have to admit that I'm good for something, don't you?"

"Oh, I already knew you were good for something," Akito replied archly. "You taught Hatori to do that thing with his tongue, did you not?"

Ayame froze, and felt his blood boil and seethe.

Akito smirked. "Can't have you liking me now, can I?" He winked at Ayame, and smiled with a vicious glee.

Ayame snorted, and controlled his trembling fingers. "Shall I call for a cab to take you back to the house?"

"No," Akito sighed, "Kureno brought me. I ordered him to leave me in the park."

"But..." Ayame stuttered. "He'll be worried sick by now!"

"That's not my problem," Akito shrugged.

Ayame closed his eyes, counted to five, and smiled. "Let me show you out, then."

"It's not necessary," Akito insisted, sounding bored and irritated. "I can find the door without assistance." He took a step, then paused, letting his hands run down the edge of the door to Ayame's office. For a split second, Ayame thought that Akito would be sick again. "Ayame... I am going to increase your stipend. This store... is most satisfactory."

Ayame's eyes bogged out, and he watched Akito slip away, too stunned to move or speak.

Mine found him in that exact spot five minutes later. She wanted to complain about the snobby rich boy who took the shopkeeper away from the shop for the whole afternoon, but before she could even greet him, Ayame was taking her by the hands and dancing her around the shop.

She still didn't like that man, but she loved it when the shopkeeper was happy, so she held her tongue.

Shigure peeked around the corner, spotting Akito lounging on the walkway around the house, his long, narrow feet drifting just above the surface of the koi pond. "Akito! Good, you're alone." He plopped himself down next to Akito, grinning. He pulled the package of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket. "Want a quick one with me?"

Akito sighed. "No, Shigure. Hatori has been fawning over me all day." Akito sighed, not turning to look at Shigure, and affected an air of discontent.

Shigure smirked, and lit his own. "Well? Isn't there anything from the house you want to ask me about?"

Akito shook his head distractedly.

"No?" Shigure frowned. "I have a really good story to tell."

"Tell me tomorrow," Akito ordered airily.

Shigure grinned. "What makes you so sure that I will be back tomorrow?"

"Because I just told you to," Akito replied, his voice just tripping over the words.

"Ah." Shigure took a long drag of his cigarette. "Don't be too hard on Hatori. He's just ruffled because of the stunt you pulled with Kureno. And after he worked so hard at making you well again..."

Akito shrugged.

Shigure scooted closer to Akito, putting the cigarette in the hand further away from Akito. "Hey, where did you go, anyway?"

Akito smiled. "I went for a walk, Shigure. Where do you think I went?"

Shigure frowned. "You were gone for over an hour."

"I know," Akito sighed.

"Did you have fun?"

Akito grinned, his focus sharpening. "Ah. Fun. I suppose that I did, yes... Can I tell you a secret, Shigure?"

Shigure beamed, and leaned closer. "Of course!"

"I have a secret." Akito smiled, and pressed his back against the wall of the house. "I'm going to a party."

"You are?" Shigure's jaw dropped in shock.

"Yes," Akito confided, "and I'm going wear something... truly fitting."

Shigure puzzled over this secret. "Well... when is this party?"

"I'm not sure," Akito yawned.

"No? Uh, well, where is it?"

"Here, I would suppose."

"But..." Shigure was confused.

Akito grinned and put his hand on Shigure's cheek. "Don't worry, puppy. Give me your cig."

Shigure lifted his hand, and Akito slipped the cigarette from between his fingers. He took one short puff, and let his hand fall away from his face.

Shigure sighed. Akito was certainly in a strange mood today. Perhaps he shouldn't have offered him the cigarette.

Akito smiled, and stared off sightlessly into the distance. Perhaps it was true that only that girl would cry for him, but no one would ever forget his funeral.