Around the curve of the road in the middle of Vilxule, there was a gate and, set far back from the road past a screen of trees, there was a large sprawling house. The nearest small settlement was near to an hour away; the closest place large enough to be called 'city' was days away, but the large house set in the middle of the glade was completely self-sufficient. The land the complex tenanted was large, consisting of four separate fields of land -- arable farm land, hilly inhospitable land, thickly forested land -- and the house itself was a part of several buildings, salle, barn, other functional workshops.
The place was the Morgan Vale, a complex that had been self-sufficient for over fifty years. It was a blink of an eye in the memories of youko, but the land was expected to flourish and grow for centuries yet.
The peace of Morgan Vale had been given a jolt lately with the arrival of the two eldest sons, Valteria and Valirion, bringing home the spoils of travel as well as a pair of unexpected conquests. Even though the eldest twins were still young by youko reckoning, only twenty-six, they had both found their Bonded in the most unusual of places. It had been several days and the new arrivals were beginning to settle into the household, but everyone was still becoming accustomed to the changes.
In the morning light the first stirrings of activity began.
From the back of the double-story house, a tall broad-shouldered man stepped from the wraparound porch terrace. His blond hair was tied back loosely and a bow was slung over his shoulder along with a quiver of arrows. He skirted the garden behind the house and headed for the heart of the field to the northwest, a spring in his step.
Moments later a pair of slim shadows glided from the porch, headed in the same direction as the tall blond man. Both were in the lean gangly stage of teenage development, one silver-haired, one golden-brown, elbowing each other in mock scuffles along the length of the garden. Aside from the unusual coloring -- the tiger's-eye brown hair streaked with gold was unusual enough, but the silver hair of the other twin was plainly unnatural -- two other features marked the pair as distinct and inhuman. From the crown of each shaggy head jutted a pair of lightly-furred fox ears, the coloring matching their hair. Behind each twin, projecting from a gap in their breeches designed for the appendage was the brushy length of a silken tail, again with coloration that matched their unusual hair.
These were the youko, the so-called fox-spirits, and the name of their race as well as their origins were taken so far back in history that very few knew any traces of the truth.
One twin broke the silence by laughing, a light feminine sound, then the gangling teenage twins disappeared, arm and arm, into the brush in pursuit of the early-rising blond hunter.
The morning sunlight filled the vale where the house lay, like golden water gilding a green-glazed bowl. The back door of the main house opened again, and two tiny children, barely more than toddlers, rushed out the back door practically bowling each other over ears over tail. They were silver-haired youko kits, nearly six years of age though they looked smaller. Directly behind them, a tall willowy figure shut the wooden screen door, pushing a length of long black hair over his shoulder with a smile for the kits.
"Rekka, Kaze, don't run," the black-haired youko called after them, as they scampered past the garden towards one of the low-slung workshop buildings. His voice was low and pleasant.
In a deep-set window on the second floor, the white-haired boy turned away from the casement that faced out onto the back yard with a sigh. He twitched a handful of white braids away from his face.
"Well?" a deep voice asked.
The white-haired boy, formerly known as the Willow Key, faced the source of that voice with a mutinous expression. He was around sixteen years of age, nearly seventeen, but looked delicate of feature and frame, someone who had spent a great deal of time indoors. The mass of long milk-white braids cascaded down around his shoulders, emphasizing his slight body and narrow, pale face. His blue eyes were so dark they looked violet, and were enormous in his thin face.
It was impossible to tell just by looking at him that only a few weeks previous, the boy had been an albino with colorless skin and maroon eyes.
"I don't know what you want me to say," the boy said tonelessly. "That I'm here at your home and I think it's lovely? Do you want me to say that now I'm here, everything is perfect and I'm all right? Oh, I know. You're my hero. You've saved me. You were so right, now that I'm not chained to the Palace I've been changed by the power of love."
He lifted his chin and gave his companion a cynical expression.
"You have a nasty mouth for such a pretty face," the other returned. This was a tall figure with shoulder-length dark brown -- almost black -- hair, the clue to his inhuman nature given right away with -- the foxy ears crowning that hair. "Still not convinced, huh?"
The white-haired boy gave him an unfriendly look. "Why don't you go chase your tail and leave me alone, Val? You'd certainly get better results than hanging around here trying to get me to submit to you."
Valirion -- Val, the dark-haired eldest youko son -- hooted with laughter. "Submit to me? Willow, that's the most delicious way you've put it yet."
The boy's violet eyes flared. "Don't call me that!"
The youko Val was instantly repentant. "I'm sorry, Chance...you know I didn't do it on purpose."
"Never mind that, just go and leave me alone." Chance settled back onto the wide windowsill with a stubborn, sulky look, obviously prepared to wait him out.
Val sighed and put his hands on his slim hips. "Come on, Will-Chance, I can sense--"
"That's exactly the problem!" Chance exploded, surging up from the windowsill in an excess of bad temper, then collapsing back onto the sill with a pained noise.
"Are you all right?" Concerned, Val moved to support him and stopped as Chance waved him off with a snarl.
"You're smothering me!" Chance exclaimed, averting his face. "Your thoughts inside of my head, you're always lurking around, you take all the covers away from me in the middle of the night, you're always touching me, you always know exactly what I'm feeling...it's too much, all right? Leave me alone for a change!"
Val's topaz-gold eyes went wide. He drew back from Chance and the windowsill, dark brushy mass of a long tail curling around one thigh.
The white-braided boy continued to avert his face, pretending to ignore him.
Val bowed his head, a hurt look passing over his features. "I see."
The door shut quietly behind the tall youko. Only then did Chance look up, the indifferent look fading from his face, shifting to a tired sort of regret. He leaned against the thick pane of glass, looking out glumly into the bright morning. His feelings were jumbled up inside of him. How could Val presume to make sense of him when he couldn't even understand himself?
"I don't belong here," he whispered.
He shifted on the windowsill, uncrossing his legs. His right foot was starting to fall asleep. With an unhappy expression Chance looked into the room he'd shared with Val since they had come to the Morgan Vale. This was the spare room, according to the family a place held in readiness for the time Ahrin and Tsuyoshi would have another pair of kits -- in about four years, they said.
It was a nice room. It didn't remind him of the Willow Suite whatsoever. But no matter how far away he went, he remembered what it felt like to be locked aside and held in readiness for the day his Key was sold.
Across from the window, the bed was the focal point of the room, a large bed set against the wall with a cheerfully colored spread. It was as unlike any of the Palace rooms he'd been accustomed to as a room could get. There was a handmade chest of drawers across from the bed, made of some kind of scented wood. Beside the bed, a simple nightstand and oil lamp. In one corner, a basin for water with towels hanging on a rack below. It was a simple room, open and full of light in the gray beginnings of the morning.
It made Chance feel uneasy to be here.
The door cracked open, and Chance inhaled sharply.
"Hello?" A red head peeped around the jamb.
Chance's teeth clacked shut over the rebuke. It was only Kyo...but of course, he should have realized that. He was so wrapped up in his own miseries he hadn't stopped to think that that youko was still downstairs, getting breakfast by the feel of it. He put a hand to his head.
"Having a bad day?" Kyo asked him outright, looking wary as he slipped into the room.
Kyo, also with no given name that he remembered, was also a fugitive of Austen's red-light Palace. The place of illicit pleasure had committed many actions on the fringe of legality, but one of their worst crimes had been imprisoning Kyo's mother, a full-blooded youko. The youko had borne two kits during her time at the Palace, half-breed Kyo and his lost twin.
Kyo was a slim redhead with huge golden eyes in his delicate triangular face. He was around fifteen years, though he was unsure of his true age. The clues to his heritage were in the color of his eyes, and the slender pointed tips of his ears that peeked out from his tumble of shaggy red hair.
"I never asked for this," Chance whispered, putting both hands to his temples. "It's too much. You can't imagine...someone's thoughts wrapping around you every minute of the day. I can't take it anymore! At this rate, there's not going to be anything left of me by myself." He ground fists against his closed eyes.
"You think I can't imagine?" Kyo told him, not sounding sympathetic in the least.
Chance's hands dropped away as he stared incredulously at the petite redheaded boy. Usually Kyo was too timid -- whiny, he'd always thought of the former errand boy as whiny and powerless -- but now he sounded harsh.
"I've heard Ria's voice since the first moment I saw him," Kyo said straightforwardly, standing beside the casement with one arm crossed over his thin chest, hand clasping his other arm. "I know that it's not an easy thing. But I know that you're only restless and irritable because you're afraid."
"That's enough!" Chance's head snapped up. He felt like jumping off the sill and strangling Kyo. This wasn't a new feeling; he'd wanted to beat the halfling on more than one occasion.
"You're a coward," Kyo continued, sounding every bit as snide as Chance remembered from their days in the Palace. "Is that all right with you?"
"I'm sick of your attitude!" Chance snapped. "How dare you presume to understand what I'm feeling?"
"Ah..." Kyo faltered, and broke eye contact. "I...it's because when you act like this, you make him miserable too."
Chance glared outright, impatiently shoving white braids away from his face. "What business of it is yours?" Unwillingly, a pang went through him. It was true and he knew it. Even while trying to make him feel cheerful, that youko was feeling every bit as out of sorts...and Chance knew it was because of him, and it made him feel even worse.
Kyo matched him glare for glare. "When you hurt Val like that, Ria feels an echo of the same thing. I know because I feel what he feels. And that's not all right with me." He dropped his partly defensive pose and both thin hands clenched into fists. "You're a coward, afraid of what will happen if his feelings change you...and if you let it go on this way, you don't have a right to call yourself Chance."
The white-haired boy trembled with anger, but he couldn't look away. How could he lose to someone like Kyo?
"You'll still be Willow, no matter what you tell yourself." Kyo bit his lip, beginning to nod, and backed out of the room. He closed the door quietly and the click of the door behind the halfling broke his immobility.
"Why, you--" Finally Chance jumped off the windowsill, nearly falling in his haste, tangling himself up. The anger was burning away his passive depressing feelings. "Who said...who said you're any kind of judge?"
Kyo was already gone. It was useless to ask an empty room. But, Chance was forced to admit to himself, if anyone in the Vale was qualified to make an assessment it was the skinny halfling who had known him before any of this.
"I'm not the Willow Key anymore," Chance said fiercely. But they were just empty words unless he proved the difference. Wasn't that it?
The doorknob turned. This time he knew without looking who was pushing open the door by degrees, entering with a breakfast tray in both hands.
Val looked so serious as he came in, it made him want to say something. Chance twisted a pair of braids between his hands. He wasn't that kind of person. He only knew how to spew forth sarcastic rubbish. That wasn't any good.
"I...I know I have bad days," Chance said, nearly choking on the words. It was a hard enough admission without throwing in anything more humbling. "I wish I could be more..." He frowned, searching for a word. More like Val wanted him to be?
The youko pinned him with a golden glance. "It's all right," Val interrupted, a smile developing slowly from that solemn mouth. "It's not going to happen all at once. But you're here, right? That's what matters."
"Not like you gave me any choice," Chance muttered, approaching as Val set up the low table they used to have meals in the room sometimes.
"Oh?" Val set the tray onto the table and gave him an arch look. "Did I misunderstand? Did you want to stay there, then?"
"No, but..." Chance scowled blackly.
"You didn't want to come with me?"
Chance shook his head, then his eyes widened and he started to nod and stopped. He blinked. Thankfully, the youko did not laugh. "I...I didn't not want to come with you," he admitted grudgingly.
"Come on," Val said calmly, seating himself and waving to the opposite side of the table. "Just because you're depressed doesn't mean you shouldn't eat."
"I...I'm not depressed," Chance said after a moment, sitting where the youko had indicated. Might as well admit that much, too. Kyo was right. "I'm afraid."
Val's eyes were on him, not judging or pitying, not giving him unwanted condescension or sympathy. He couldn't have stood it. Instead, that same calm look was there. After a moment Val offered him a smile. "It's not a bad thing to be afraid, you know."
Chance regarded him distrustfully. He meant that.
"I was afraid that you really are unhappy here," Val continued. "I was afraid I'd done the wrong thing. But all I could do is apologize, since I can't change it and I couldn't help what I did back then."
He looked across the table at the youko. In the end, he had gone with him. Just because he hadn't had a choice in the matter didn't mean this wasn't the right thing for him. Briefly he thought of redheaded Kyo. It hadn't even occurred to him that his own negative thoughts might be affecting other people. Kyo was going through the same thing.
It was strange. He'd always thought of Kyo as being weaker than he was. Kyo's golden eyes this morning weren't weak any longer.
That decided him, right then.
"You were looking outside, right?" Val asked him, interrupting his thoughts. "This morning."
"Yes..." The Vale looked peaceful in the dawn. It had been part of what triggered his downward spiral of thought.
Val propped his chin on his hands and put on a pensive expression. "The gray light of the morning, it's the worst, isn't it?"
Chance's head jerked up. "Huh...?" He knew exactly how to put it, even when Chance's own thoughts were confused.
Val looked at him directly. That calm look made him feel almost ashamed. It was an uncomfortable thought. Then the youko smiled. "Maybe that gray light is where you are right now...but it's all right."
"What do you mean?" Chance burst out.
The youko leaned forward, making a long arm and tweaking a handful of his braids from across the breakfast table. "That miserable light is just before dawn." And then he didn't even smile; he just turned his attention back to his food, leaving Chance speechless.
The white-braided boy sat in front of his breakfast for a moment longer, then muttered, "That's not subtle at all..."
He was smiling, though.
Down the hallway, redheaded Kyo curled up in Ria's arms with a sleepy, satisfied look.
"I think it's going to be a beautiful morning after all."