"Are we there yet?" the pale-haired boy demanded, twisting around in the saddle to look under the hood of his larger companion. His violet eyes were quick and impatient.
The red-haired boy on the horse behind them smothered a giggle; his taller saddle-mate chuckled outright and reached under his hood to scratch one tightly-confined fox ear.
"For the last time, Will-Chance, we are not there yet, we are not looking for a place to tie up the horses, and if you ask one more time I'll make sure your ass is more than just saddle-sore!"
"Your arm's not strong enough," came the pert reply.
"Who says he was talking about a spanking?" Valteria Morgan called out, unable to hold back any longer. His golden eyes sparkled with suppressed amusement.
Valirion Morgan swung around in the saddle with a snarl, nearly knocking Chance off of the horse. "You stay out of this, little brother!"
"You're both jittery with nerves," Ria flapped a hand, grinning at his twin. "Just because we'll be on the homestead today is no reason to fret. Now stop, before you make Kyo nervous!"
Kyo blinked solemnly golden eyes - partial proof of his youko heritage - upwards at his protector. "They're not making me nervous, Ria," he claimed.
Ria slid an arm around the boy's waist, leaning down to whisper in one slender pointed ear, "I just want them to shut up, really. They've been sniping back and forth all morning."
Kyo giggled at that and cuddled back against him and they both sighed with contentment. Kyo had grown a lot more comfortable with him during the two-week trip to the family estate.
"I heard that!" Val snapped, shifting in the saddle to glare at his brother again.
"Don't see how," Ria returned, "with your ears tied flat like that, Big Bro."
"Speaking of that," Val said, in a more reasonable tone, "we might as well discard the disguise of human travelers, since we're so close to home."
Ria immediately tore off the scarf keeping his ears squashed tight to his skull. "Thank goodness, I was starting to worry about permanent damage." He tied the scarf around Kyo's slender neck and the half-youko smiled up at him. "What do you think Papa and Otou will have to say when we show up?"
"They'll lecture you first, of course," Val said dryly over his shoulder, stuffing his own scarf into a pocket. "You've got far more offenses than I do. Then they'll lecture me for not making a cleaner getaway, and fuss over the boys."
Ria nodded with a grin. "That sounds about right." He tweaked a pointed ear, mock-yelping when Kyo smacked his fingers with unerring aim. He wondered how the boys would take to the kits.
"Kits?" Kyo whispered, lifting his head back to stare upside-down into Ria's eyes. "What kits?"
"My parents do have other children, kitling," he teased, "which is only natural seeing as they can't keep their hands off each other."
"Oh," Kyo said, lowering his eyes.
"Hey," a hand cupped Kyo's pointed chin, sliding up to caress his cheek. "They're only little brothers. And one little sister. You're going to be my Bonded, kitling...they'll be family to you. No need to worry. Just don't let them bowl you over!"
Kyo looked upwards again with a tremulous smile. "I'll try."
The next horse up, Val and Chance were holding a furious debate in whispers.
"I don't see why you have to tell them I was a Key," Chance was arguing.
Val was struggling for patience. It was harder because he could sense Chance's perverse delight in frustrating him. "O moon of my delight, they're going to know within fifteen minutes that you've been locked up all your life."
"Oh?" Chance said, tone challenging.
"So," Val returned. "You lack certain basic skills, like doing anything for yourself but dressing and bathing and making yourself look pretty." He felt Chance's mood turn sulky at that.
"Well, I could be the son of a noble house," he countered.
Val didn't bother to stifle his derisive snort, because Chance could sense the emotion behind it anyhow. "Pampered *daughter,* maybe," he teased. "Even little noble boys know how to ride a horse by themselves - ow!!" For Chance had bit him, turning his head and sinking teeth into a bicep.
"Don't you dare compare me to those flabby creatures!" Chance exclaimed, radiating outrage that Val would link him to any sort of reference to those loose-hipped, extra-fleshed female things.
"And that's another thing," Val continued thoughtfully, ignoring the stinging bite with dignity. "You just don't know what's what. There's no need to hide what you were, Will, especially not when it would be near-impossible. Besides, my father Ahrin may be able to help you recover your memory."
Chance was silent for a long moment. "Really?" he said, tone distrustful. Within, he was cautiously hopeful. Val had never lied to him before, and since they were Bonded, he couldn't.
"Yes." Val rested his chin atop the white-braided head. "My father Ahrin is human, and a mage, and his mind-magic is somewhat more complex than a youko's."
"All right." Chance settled back against him in the saddle, trying to make himself as comfortable as possible. The first few days of riding had been sheer agony for him, his skin having been still newly-healed from the fleshworking of tattoo removal. Val had done his best to bolster his Bonded, but Chance had still been in pain. It had taken five more days to toughen up enough that he wasn't in terrible pain. Now that they were nearly there, Chance was still uncomfortable with long periods of riding but Val did his best to ease the chafing.
Behind him, he could hear the low murmur of Ria and Kyo's conversation. Val smiled. On the road and on the run, they hadn't had any opportunities to be alone together, but whenever possible Ria's black head had been bent protectively over Kyo's russet one, words spilling between them, or just glances. They had barely enough finances to cover a single room with the four of them crammed into it, so those two hadn't had anything by the way of privacy yet. Val had supplemented their meager resources with a game of Crow at every other tavern or so. He couldn't make any big wins for fear of raising their profile.
Soon, they would reach Morgan Vale and in the company of family, Ria and Kyo could be properly Bonded. It was something to look forward to.
A violet eye peered up at him, crowned with platinum-white bangs. "Are we there yet?"
Val growled and instituted corporal punishment.
Around the curve of the road in the middle of Nowhere there was a gate and, set far back from the road past a screen of trees, there was a large sprawling house. The nearest settlement was over an hour away by swift horse, but the large house set in the middle of the glade was completely self-sufficient. Set apart from the main building were several smaller, low-slung buildings where the drowsy murmur of animals could be heard.
A tall, thin youko with very long black hair stood up from his crouch in the garden, ears twitching. He wiped his hands off absently on the leather apron and stared down the road with unfocused amber-gold eyes. They snapped into clarity as a pair of silvery kits boiled out the back door of the house, the rambunctious one hopping around his brother chanting something, the silent one scampering over the railing with wide anxious gold-green eyes.
"Otou! Otou! They're coming back!" the energetic one crowed, vaulting over the porch railing and tumbling in the dust beside his twin. "We knew it would be today! You can sense it, can't you?"
"Shush, Rekka," Tsuyoshi Morgan told his loud son, smoothing a hand over the quiet one's silver head as the kit latched onto his leather apron, eyes turning up towards his father. "Do you sense them too, Kaze?"
Rekka hopped around in the garden, careful to avoid the rows of vegetables his father had been 'encouraging.' "Of course he does! Don't you, Kaze? Val-niichan and Ria-niichan are coming home today!"
Tsuyoshi grinned at the kit. "Go tell Papa, then, up in North Field - he won't want to miss the homecoming." Rekka grinned, glanced at his twin for a moment, then scampered off with excited yips. Tsuyoshi was proud of his precocious kits; they'd obviously sensed their brothers' presences moments before he himself had.
"Kaze? Something wrong?" Tsuyoshi prompted, stroking his youngest son's head again. When every member of the family possessed the ability of mindspeech, Rekka's errand to fetch his other father was hardly necessary. But it did burn off some of the kit's energy and gave Tsuyoshi the opportunity to look out for the more fragile Kaze. Golden eyes raised from his thigh and looked up at him almost mournfully.
"Otou, there's people with them." Then he turned his face back into Tsuyoshi's leg.
Startled, Tsuyoshi lifted his head and pressed his senses outward. He prompted the trees and 'listened' to their whispering responses. The reply chimed back clearly. "You're right," he said, surprised. Kaze had always been a shy, introspective kit, and it was manifesting the closer he got to puberty as an increased sensitivity.
He smiled down at his son. "Let's go get ready for them," he suggested.
Obediently Kaze let himself be led towards the house. "They'll be hungry and thirsty," he whispered, tugging on his father's fingers to emphasize the importance.
"I think you're right," Tsuyoshi said dryly. They were approaching the house at quite a clip which meant they were either eager to be home, or had been traveling long and hard - or both. He sent his mind reaching for the older two, Kirin and Arashi, practicing their skills on the West Field.
After a brief communication, and mental grumbles at the interruption - the middle set of kits was at *that* age - the twins began heading for the house, dutifully promising to get the stable ready for three additional horses.
Tsuyoshi winked at his youngest son. "What do you think? Should we get the cake we've been saving out of the cold room?"
Kaze blinked. "Wasn't it for Kirin-nii and Arashi-nee's birthday?"
"We can make them another."
Kaze's liquid eyes turned slightly vague. "Y-yes... because we have something to celebrate." Then he huddled against Tsuyoshi's leather-clad leg again, looking confused.
"It's okay, kitling," Tsuyoshi soothed, stroking the little one's silvery-tufted ears. "Your gifts are just showing up extra-early and powerful. We'll have to have Papa give you lessons soon." The main strength of Kaze's gifts seemed to be derived more from the human side than the youko - unlike Rekka, who had a strong affinity for animals and plants.
"Okay." One thumb pushed its way between pursed lips.
Tsuyoshi patted his head. "Go get the cake, then you can help me collect greens and start setting the table."
Kaze's little nose wrinkled.
"And don't think you can get out of it by having another 'vision!'" Tsuyoshi forestalled him, half-laughing. He was wise to his son's tricks.
Kaze scampered off, white-silver tail flashing behind him. One hand hitched up the tan shorts sliding off his waist. Tsuyoshi turned back to his kitchen and began setting things out, wondering if he'd be able to get the youngest kits to wear anything more than their nude-colored shorts. Shy as Kaze was, he shared his brother's distaste for clothing, but then, they were only six.
He let himself fall into the rhythm of preparing food. A mind-touch assured him that Ahrin was bringing in some fresh game on the way; he always carried bow and arrow and hunting dagger with him and Rekka loved to fetch his kills. When Kaze returned, putting the cake out to slowly return to room temperature, he gave the kit the task of setting places, enough for everyone in the family plus two visitors. And he let himself wonder what it was they would be celebrating.
"Otou! The stable is ready for visitors, is there anything I can do?" Arashi bustled through the door, all vigor and energy. She was the lone female youko in the family, and likely to be the only one. Her strikingly beautiful looks differed sharply from her male twin's; where he was silver, she was tiger's eye, her hair and tail a rich gold-brown streaked over with paler gold. She and her brother were sixteen, the 'middle set,' but they thrived in the position of eldest-at-home.
"The trees told me niichan-dachi were bringing home two guests," she added, kissing Tsuyoshi's smooth cheek. "Knowing Val-nii and Ria-nii and my pestery twin, we're going to need a lot of food! Kaze, are their guests boys, too?" She ruffled her little brother's ears.
"Yes," Kaze blinked, surprised at himself, pausing in the middle of a setting. "They're both around your age, Arashi-nee."
"See!" Arashi threw up her hands, laughing. She was unsurprised by her brother's abilities. "Your larder will be emptied, Otou! Better have Papa shoot a few more birds on the way in."
"I might have him do just that," Tsuyoshi said wryly, and put his daughter in charge of the salad. She had no affinity for plants, but had a way of preparing greens.
Kirin burst into the kitchen, with a squalling Rekka in a headlock. "Does anybody have a use for this?" he called out, mercilessly ruffling his brother's ears the wrong way.
Rekka squirmed and shrieked. "Otou, save me!"
Tsuyoshi turned, lifted a brow, and flattened his ears eloquently.
Chastised, Kirin dropped his brother and dusted his hands off. Rekka scampered off out of range, clinging to his twin and making him drop the forks.
"Kirin!" Tsuyoshi reproved. "I want you out of the kitchen; you'll eat anything in range. Go make sure your brothers get cleaned up, then air out Val and Ria's old room, and the guest room. If anything needs to be changed or replaced, do it."
Kirin saluted. "Yes, o lord and master, my father." He hefted a writhing, protesting kit under each arm and bounded for the stairs.
Tsuyoshi spared a moment to deplore all that energy wasted on the young, and the fact that he was going to get four more of them. Would the house survive? He had no illusions about his two eldest. Val and Ria, at twenty-six, had settled down somewhat from the boundless energy of teenagers but they could still get into more than their share of trouble singly, let alone together. Sometimes Tsuyoshi thought they had been the worst, and he and Ahrin had both been somewhat relieved when the oldest kits set out at twenty. Just after the birth of the newest kits.
Now they were back...he loved his sons, but hoped they had grown up somewhat. Otherwise they'd have to build themselves their own house. Perhaps way out on the East Field.
Tsuyoshi turned back to the counter and caught Arashi's smirk. "What?"
"I sure hope you don't expect Val and Ria to keep on sharing their own room," Arashi shrugged, golden eyes mischievous. "Especially not if they're bringing boys home to meet papa-dachi!"
Tsuyoshi caught himself before he snorted. "You don't think..."
Arashi shrugged again. "Kaze's not the only one with a touch of presience."
As they turned off the main road and passed through the gates, Chance and Kyo were becoming increasingly nervous. This was the home stretch, as it were. Ria kept a firm hand around Kyo's middle, reassuring him with tactile contact. And Val...
"If you expect me to suck up to your parents, you've got another thing coming."
"I do not - !" Val snapped, caught himself, and continued in a calmer tone. "I never asked you to suck up to anyone, Will, but I expect you to behave more politely with them than you do with me - especially since we're staying in their home and they don't *have* to keep us there."
Chance glared at the horse's ears as if he could set them afire by thinking it.
A warm sturdy arm encircled Chance's middle, and the boy tensed. "I know what you're doing, and I'm telling you, you have no reason to be worried," a resonant voice whispered in his ear. "You're my Bonded. That reason alone is enough for my parents to approve of you."
"I don't need their approval!" Chance snapped, already relaxing unwillingly against the damned youko. He suspected that 'tampering' was responsible. "Why should the opinion of total strangers matter to me?"
Val chuckled, soothing Chance's flare of outrage, continuing to subtly nudge him towards relaxation. "If it didn't matter, you wouldn't be this upset."
Chance opened and closed his mouth and finally settled for a growl in reply.
"You'll love it," Ria was murmuring to Kyo. "There's lots of space on the family estate. The house alone is huge, without even taking the stables and gardens into consideration. Morgan Vale is totally self-sufficient, so we never have any outsiders on our property...it's a place for all of us to relax, and for both of you to heal."
"I'm not hurt," Kyo objected. "Willow's the only one who-"
Ria rubbed his shoulder. "You were hurting on the inside, kitling."
Kyo bit his lip, eyes dropping to the reins held in one strong capable hand, larger than his own. It was still hard for him to accept that 'normal' meant he didn't have to be scared, or feel sick and hunted all the time, and that he was free.
"And with all of us living on the farm, you and Will can learn to be self-sufficient, too," Ria continued, squeezing him.
"I'd like to learn to do things," Kyo said shyly. "I want... I want to be your partner, Ria, not just a useless..." He flushed and dropped his eyes.
"Don't even think of yourself that way anymore," Ria said fiercely. "You are not and you never were a slut, Kyo. You were forced to stay in the Palace against your will."
The horses' hooves clopped tiredly over the loose dirt-and-woodchip trail that led past the Morgan house and to the stables. They could see the first glimpses of house through the emerald screen of leaves and both Ria and Val picked up the pace, eager to be home at last. Ria had visited only six months ago, but for Val it had been nearly two years.
Kyo clammed up again, golden eyes fixed wide and fearful on what he could see of the house. Chance scowled as if he would freeze his face that way until Val tweaked a handful of his ice-white braids, and then the boy attempted for something more neutral.
Val's ears perked up. "They're waiting for us!"
"They know we're here!" Ria added, long oval face alight. The twins lifted their heads as they were treated to an enthusiastic barrage of family sendings, the mental equivalent of 'welcome home' fireworks. Chance looked up at his mate, puzzled, catching a hint of tone and content but the sendings were too tightly-focused for him to share. Kyo just stared at the house, 'feeling' Ria communicate with a babble of voices, but not much more than that.
*Ria-nii! You didn't!* Arashi chortled, picking through his adventures across three provinces.
*Ria-nii! Val-nii! You're home, you're home!* the youngest kits, Kaze and Rekka, chorused happily.
*Oho! If you were younger, I'd turn you both over my knee!* Ahrin's deep voice dominated for a moment.
*Papa!* the eldest kits protested simultaneously.
*For coming so close to getting caught!* their father retorted.
*Niichan-dachi, we've got so much to show you since your last home-visit...* Kirin chimed in, showing flashes of the fields, of the kits' growth, of family improvements and new horses and tree-sculptures.
All that and more overwhelmed the homecoming pair of youko, until Tsuyoshi's smooth tenor dominated.
*We are being very impolite to our guests and, apparently, newest members of the family,* Tsuyoshi silenced them all. As the tired horses rounded the last curve, they could see the tall youko, black hair tied back over his shoulders, hands on his slender hips in a chastising posture. He gave them all a welcoming smile. *Those boys are clearly exhausted, as well as being tied up in knots at meeting us.*
Ahrin waved cheerfully at his oldest sons, keeping a thrashing Rekka securely under one arm so that the kit wouldn't go running and get himself trampled by unfamiliar horses. "Welcome home, boys."
"Hello, niichan-dachi!" Kirin waved impudently, keeping an arm around Kaze, who clung to his thigh watching the newcomers with huge golden eyes and a thumb in his mouth. "I see you're bringing home the spoils of war!"
"Kirin!" Arashi glared at her brother, embarrassed. She shook back gold-brown tresses and smiled brightly at the visitors, trying to catch Kyo's eye as she jogged up to take hold of the bridle for Ria's horse. "Welcome to Morgan Vale. Ria-nii, I'll take your horse and the pack-horse." She smiled encouragingly as a crescent of gold eye peered in her direction from beneath heavy red bangs.
"Thanks, sis," Ria slid off the horse, ruffling his sister's topaz ears and giving her a hug. He held his arms up for Kyo and the half-youko dismounted awkwardly, made clumsy by his dauntingly huge audience.
Chance's eyes had bugged out. "Val, it's a female creature," he was whispering urgently, as Kirin pawned off his little brother on Tsuyoshi, jogging up to hold Val's bridle. Chance stared at Arashi as she led the horses along the path that curved behind the house into the stables. "I didn't know youko came in a female version."
"Yes, you did," Val contradicted, "I told you all about that. You just thought you'd never meet one."
Chance blinked his violet eyes. "She's not as ugly as human females." For Arashi's slight-breasted figure was very like her twin's, slim-hipped and rangy.
Val chuckled. "Tell her that; she'll be flattered."
Kirin whistled, low and appreciative. "This your koibito? He almost doesn't look human, niichan."
"That's a compliment," Val forestalled Chance's growl, sliding off the horse and holding up his arms. Chance disdained the assist and hopped down by himself, wincing only slightly.
"Come inside," Tsuyoshi invited them, tugging at Kaze's hand. "We'll give proper greetings there." He distributed smiles all around, trying to catch Kyo's eye and failing, giving an extra-wide smile to Chance's unresponsive look.
Val was beginning to get a trifle nervous himself. He could feel his parents assessing Chance and Kyo, as politely as they might be averting their eyes. He screened the feeling very carefully away from the Bond to prevent Chance from becoming even more jittery. The youngest pair of kits were squirming to make a beeline for their eldest brothers, and he could feel that already adding to Chance's nervousness. 'Children' was not a concept he'd had to deal with.
The house within was wide and spacious, and Tsuyoshi and Ahrin led them to the large living-room just beyond the genkan after everyone had taken off their shoes. Ria declared his intentions towards his 'guest' right off by commandeering a single, large armchair for himself and Kyo, with the redhead seated practically in his lap. Val steered Chance for one of the large four-person couches.
At that point, Tsuyoshi and Ahrin turned the kits loose.
"Ria-nii! Ria-nii!" Rekka leapt for his older brother, landing squarely in his lap and practically bowling over the half-youko beside him. The silver kit nuzzled Ria's cheek and claimed big hugs, then turned curious golden eyes onto the newcomer. "Who's this? Is this your mate?"
Kaze padded over the floorboards in his bare feet, silently climbing into Val's lap and hugging him tight. He met Chance's violet stare with a neutral amber-gold look of his own. "Yoroshiku," the kit whispered to the white-haired boy.
Chance translated the phrase with Val's help. "Nice to meet you, too," he returned, accepting the little hand the kit proffered. And grimaced as a moist thumb imprinted his palm.
The black twins traded kits as the middle twins burst in from the kitchen, flushed and excited. "Did we miss anything?" Kirin demanded.
"Who're the guests?" Arashi added, bouncing over to a position by Ahrin's feet.
"We held the introductions just for you," Ahrin said, amused, as Kirin claimed the remaining single chair.
Rekka and Chance were staring at each other, verging on a spark-glare. Val had slid an arm around both and Rekka was trying to climb into his brother's lap. Chance was daring him to go ahead and do it; consequences would be dire.
"Children!" Tsuyoshi claimed everyone's attention with a word. Val and Ria protested but their father was already continuing. "Welcome home. Your papa and I will have plenty to discuss with you...later. For now, the whole family welcomes your guests to Morgan Vale."
Val and Ria grimaced visibly at the 'later' and the threat implied.
"If you'd like to introduce them?" Ahrin lifted a golden brow, then dissolved into a charismatic smile. "We'll go first. I'm Ahrin Morgan."
"The obviously human parent," Kirin and Arashi chimed, ears wiggling comically.
"I suppose that would make me the obviously inhuman parent!" Tsuyoshi laughed, swatting his daughter's ears. "I'm Tsuyoshi Morgan, this one's Bonded." His tail flicked over Ahrin's thigh and lingered.
Chance was taking it all in with expressionless violet eyes, but Val could sense a subtle dissolution of the tension that had been there, in spite of his efforts. He grinned with relief. His family was too informal to keep anyone on the spot for long. Kyo was hiding beneath his thick red bangs, but one eye was peering around with definite interest - and bemusement, as Kaze twisted in Ria's lap and nestled against the half-youko.
"I'm Arashi," the tigers-eye twin spoke up, "sole vixen of the Morgan family."
"One's enough!" Kirin capped his sister, receiving a death-glare in response.
"You don't look like a human woman," Chance spoke up bluntly, and Val flicked his thigh smartly with his tail, mortified. "Ouch! She doesn't!"
"Thank you!" Arashi leaned back against Ahrin's knees, pleased.
"Kirin," her twin brother spoke up, with a cocky grin, "and I've got Ria's and Val's worst traits combined!"
"You make me proud, little bro," Ria sniffled. Tsuyoshi and Ahrin glared.
*Does that mean he's got his pants around his ankles constantly, at the same time he's trying to steal everything in sight?* Chance shot at Val on a very tight band of thought.
Val snorted explosively, bit his lip, and marveled that Chance had kept his face perfectly straight. *Something like that.*
Kirin looked at his eldest brother suspiciously but let it pass.
"This one is Kaze," Ria patted his littlest brother's silky head. The kit had shoved his thumb back into his mouth, observing Kyo with wide gold-green eyes. He shifted a little and looked at Chance. "He's the quietest one in our family."
"Rekka makes up for it," Val patted the other kit's head. Rekka squawked loudly, thereby proving the point.
"Now, who are our guests?" Tsuyoshi prompted, golden eyes alight with curiosity. He was certain his sons had brought home permanent attachments, but wanted his guess confirmed.
Val dug his seatmate in the ribs.
"I'm Chance," Chance said, and shut his mouth. Then he yelped when a hand pinched his side. "Chance Willow Morgan," he finished, glaring violet sparks upwards.
"Oh," Tsuyoshi and Ahrin exhaled on the same note, in tenor and baritone.
"My Bonded," Val added, with a certain amount of possessive pride.
"Val-nii, you didn't even bring him home first!" Arashi exclaimed, putting on a wounded look.
"I didn't - er, exactly have a choice in the matter," Val said lamely. "I'll give you the whole story later."
"Over dinner," Ahrin suggested, glancing at the halfling in his other son's lap. "Ria?"
"Ria-nii, do you have good news, too?" Kirin grinned.
Ria gave his silver brother a sharp look, and the sixteen-year old subsided. With gentle urging, finally Kyo looked up and fixed his visible golden eye on nothing in particular. "I'm Kyo," he said, then after a moment, added, "I don't know my last name."
"Soon to be Morgan," Ria supplemented, squeezing the half-youko around the waist.
"Sounds like we've got two stories to hear over supper," Tsuyoshi guessed, lifting a black brow. *And a whole lot of healing to be done, am I right?* he quizzed his eldest twins.
*Hai, Otou,* Ria sighed mentally.
*Yes, but it's already started somewhat,* Val agreed.
"Everyone hungry?" Ahrin stood.
Three kits boiled up and erupted towards the kitchen. Kaze got up and tugged at Kyo's hand, pleading up at him with wide gold eyes. The redhead looked startled but let himself be led towards the kitchen. Tsuyoshi and Ahrin followed their brood at a more sedate pace, and Chance waited for Val, more out of the need for security than anything else.
*Who gets to go first?* Ria aimed the question at his twin.
*Oh, by all means...your story is FAR more interesting than mine,* Val twinkled back maliciously.
Ria answered with a mental groan.
"And so we headed out of Austen at a fast clip, before it even hit noon, and I don't think we should go back for about a hundred years or so," Ria finished up their joint narration, gesticulating with knife and fork. Kyo leaned back to his right and Rekka ducked on his left.
"Ria-nii, don't all your stories end that way?" Kirin queried with an impudent grin.
Arashi chuckled. "Pretty soon you're not going to have anywhere on the continent to go, for fear of tripping over old grudges, outraged parents, and the jilted lovers of your one-night stands!"
"That won't be a problem anymore," Ria countered with a sidelong, reassuring glance at the half-youko pushing roast fowl around his plate. "Soon enough I'll be domesticated." Kyo glanced up and his expression was vivid for a moment before he dropped his eyes.
"Partly domesticated, you mean," Ahrin teased his son. "You're still a child yourself." Ria rolled his eyes.
"Otou, I don't understand," Rekka turned from his parent to scrutinize Chance again. The white-haired boy stared narrowly back. "I thought a key was something that opened doors. How can Chance-Will be a key when he's a boy?"
"We'll explain it when you're older," Tsuyoshi said firmly, forking more salad onto the kit's plate.
Rekka squirmed and looked sullenly at his greens. "But Otou-"
"No, Rekka," Tsuyoshi said with the crack of finality. "How many times do we have to tell you we don't give you the uncensored sex-talk until you're eight?"
To Kyo, this seemed perfectly natural but Chance's mouth dropped open in shock. Val poked a turnip into the gaping portal and he snapped his teeth shut, glaring at his Bonded.
"You'll be looking for Kyo's father and brother, then?" Ahrin changed the subject. Ria nodded, mouth full. "They probably ended up in this province somewhere, I'm sure...that is, if they're still on the continent. They'd be here for the same reasons we're here."
"Youko-friendly, youko protected," Kirin and Arashi chorused, putting their heads together sweetly.
"Well," Tsuyoshi pushed his plate back, "you boys are welcome to stay home as long as you need to, provided you don't blow the place up."
"They already tried," Rekka crowed, referring to the scorch marks in the recreation room. Use of magic in the house had become verboten after that incident, without supervision or written explicitly-defined permission. It was also fodder for family amusement, to Val's and Ria's chagrin.
Val made a face at his little brother. "No one told us our combined powers would do so much damage."
"I had Kirin open up your old room and the guest room-" Tsuyoshi started.
"Otou-" Ria and Val interrupted, stopping when the black youko held up a hand.
"And Valirion and Chance can go in one, with Valteria and Kyo in the other," Tsuyoshi finished, giving the eldest twins a knowing smile. "You can draw straws to decide who goes where."
Kaze pushed his plate away and looked up with hopeful eyes. "Finished," he announced.
Val nudged Chance and pointed at the salad that remained on his plate. Chance glared but picked up his fork again, not to be undone by a mere kit. Kyo munched away determinedly at his roast fowl, the only thing left on his plate. Kirin and Arashi had already pushed away their plates with anticipatory smiles.
"Good dinner, koishii," Ahrin thanked his Bonded with a smile, followed up with 'thank you's!' and 'good food's!' and 'gochishousama's!' from the entire brood, and guests.
Rekka forked up his last mouthful of greens with the air of the martyred, then looked expectantly at his otousan.
"All right," Tsuyoshi surrendered, "Kirin, Arashi, if you'll clear, your brothers will get the dessert plates and dessert."
"I hope you mean little brothers," Val lifted a brow, watching Rekka and Chance glare at each other again. They had finished their salads more or less simultaneously and seemed to be making a competition of everything.
Rekka scrambled for the dessert plates and forks, while Kaze brought in the cake from the pantry, holding it up with a flourish.
"Hey!" Arashi protested, upon seeing it, "isn't that for our birthday?" Kirin spotted it and joined his sister's cry of outrage.
"We can make another," Ahrin said forcefully over his kits' squalls. "It's not as if it's the only cake in the world!" The twins shut up and Kaze placed the cake on the table carefully, laying the knife beside his father.
When everyone was seated again, Tsuyoshi picked up the knife. "First, I would like to say a few words," he said, golden eyes solemn. "I would like to welcome Chance-Willow and Kyo into our home, as official members of the family."
Kyo looked up in startlement, baring both golden eyes. He bit his lip and struggled obviously with tears, before Ria's hand smoothed over his thigh soothingly. Chance's eyes went wide, and he went expressionless. Val could sense his confusion and, deep beneath it, an embarrassed sort of happiness.
"We never expected our sons to commit so early," Ahrin continued with a wry glance, "considering that youko don't usually find their Bonded well into the first century or two..."
Kyo and Chance shared an incredulous blink. It almost hovered above Chance's head, 'CENTURY!? How long am I in for with this!?'
"...but we are very glad our sons have found the Bond that completes their lives," Tsuyoshi continued fervently. "So just as if you were children of our body, we welcome you."
Kyo's eyes were definitely glimmering with tears now, and even Chance's stolid front was no longer so unaffected. The boy who had been Key was still feeling his reflexive suspicion, but most of his tension had dissolved during dinner - so he was feeling more receptive now to this 'toast.'
"With the same restrictions," Ahrin held up a cautionary finger, "that apply to our own children, of course." He grinned.
"Cut the cake now?" Kaze said hopefully. The only one who could get away with it, of course.
Tsuyoshi tried to glare at his son, and ended up chuckling. "I guess we've all heard the parents ramble on long enough..."
"Cake! Cake!" Kirin cheered.
"Fine," Tsuyoshi surrendered, and began to cut the cake into generous slices.
Kyo and Ria ended up sharing a slice, with judicious 'ewww's from Arashi and Kirin, who were in *that* stage of development. Chance gave Val a look that said, 'you're joking' and forked up his own piece apace with Rekka, who received his slice after the guest and seemed determined to catch up. Tsuyoshi and Ahrin were the only ones eating their cake in moderation, watching the 'children' with a resigned air.
After dessert, it was Kirin and Arashi who cleaned up, still muttering faintly over the demolished remnants of their former birthday cake.
"Shall we give them the tour now?" Tsuyoshi inquired, flicking his tail lazily, swishing around the last dregs of his wine. A silver kit climbed into his lap and immediately began playing with his long hair, tugging the mass off one shoulder and beginning to braid the ends.
"We should let them settle into their rooms first," Ahrin replied, casting an eye over the younger boys. Kyo was drooping in his seat, looking drowsy after a big meal, and Chance had a definite list towards Val.
"Thank you, Papa," Val said gratefully, tugging Chance's hand, then urging the boy out of his seat.
"Oh, you shouldn't thank me yet," Ahrin returned with a definite smirk at his eldest.
"Well, we're too old to spank," Ria returned pertly, "so I'll thank you now and run later, should it become necessary." He plucked Kyo out of his chair, ignoring hazy protests, and hefted the half-youko in his arms, making for the staircase beyond the kitchen.
"You're first, impudent child!" Ahrin shook a finger at Ria's retreating back. Silvery laughter answered him.
Val led Chance in the same direction, an arm around his Bonded's shoulders. The white-haired boy paused at the threshold, turning back to look at the two men with slightly puzzled, far less distrustful violet eyes.
"Don't be too hard on him," Chance said slowly, "he hasn't even gotten to kiss Kyo yet." Then he pulled back into himself and hurried for the stairs.
Val's mind-tone was warm. *There may be hope for you yet.*
Upstairs, the twins stared at each other in the hallway. There were several doors, some partly-open, a few shut. Their parents' room was in the opposite wing of the house for obvious reasons.
"So who gets the guest room, and who gets our old one?" Ria quizzed.
Val shrugged. "Play you Rock, Paper, Knives for it," he replied.
"Can't; I'd drop Kyo."
"Darn, you figured out my strategy." Val rummaged around in his pockets, then handed a small coin to Chance. "Here, flip it for us."
Chance eyed him with obvious confusion. "Why?"
"Never mind." Val took it back from him. There were a *lot* of gaps to fill in the boy's education. He flipped it in the air, watching the coppery arc. "Call it, Ria."
"Heads, the old room," Ria said at once.
The coin smacked into Val's open palm, and he slapped it onto the back of his other. "Heads it is," he said with exaggerated dismay. "Get your boy to bed."
Ria smiled down at the limp bundle in his arms. "He is mine, isn't he?"
"And *then,* don't forget to hurry back to the kitchen for your chat with Otou and Papa," Val chuckled at his twin. "You get to go first!"
"Such an honor!" Ria rolled his eyes, prodding the partly-open door all the way ajar with his toe. He carried the redhead within and it shut gently behind him.
"It's not really the guest room," he said conversationally as he led Chance up the hallway. "It will be for the next set of kits, when they're born."
"Your parents are going to have more?" Chance said, aghast.
"Of course!" Val laughed. "The Morgan population explosion. Otou is adamant about spacing us all ten years apart, but they'll be in production for quite awhile. As long as they can stand raising more little Morgans, I guess." He reached the door and pushed it open.
"Just exactly how long is 'quite awhile?'" Chance said, an edge to his voice.
Val caught it, searched instinctively for the reason behind it, and gave his Bonded a chagrined look. "Did I forget to mention that part of the Bond?"
"Yes." Chance glared. "You did."
Val caught the boy in his arms and, after a token struggle, gathered him up and kissed the top of his head. "Well, one thing about the Bond is that you'll share my longevity."
"How long?" The hostility was gone and curiosity remained.
"Oh...a long time, I dunno," Val answered vaguely. It would only frustrate Chance if he told him the youko truism, 'youko live as long as youko live.' "If it helps, Otou was around two hundred or so when he found Papa, settled down, and started having kits."
"Two...hundred..." Chance repeated, strangled. He began making odd noises in the back of his throat and Val was alarmed until he realized his Bonded was laughing. A bit hysterical, but laughter nonetheless. He held him and rubbed his back soothingly until the fit subsided.
"It helps..." Chance coughed a little; started over. "It helps...knowing I'll outlive all those bastards. Every single one of those sadistic fuckers who used me. They're all going to die and I could spit on their graves, if I wanted to."
"Chance," Val murmured, stricken, sensing the pool of bitterness and self-loathing that was still there.
"It's okay," Chance told him, shaking hair out of his eyes. "That's why we're here, isn't it? To make things okay." Val hugged him. It was an important step, just realizing there were things to put right.
"So," Val said, after a long moment and a bolstering kiss. "What do you think of the place?" He waved a hand around to encompass the whole of Morgan Vale.
Chance looked around the room, considering the question. "I'm glad you brought us here," he said at last. "I think I'll - we'll like it here." Then his face shut down as he caught himself even contemplating future happiness.
Val waggled a finger at him, trying to draw him out with a tease. His black tail swished over the boy's thigh. He was starting to entertain pleasantly naughty thoughts, but knew Chance was tired. "You may want to reconsider," he said with a grin, "after a few days of the chores my fathers will put you through."
Chance scowled flatly at him, look saying plain as words, 'surely you jest.'
Ria chortled in the back of his head. *I give him three days before he wishes he was a Key again.*
*Don't joke about that!* Val whipped back with a mental equivalent of laid-back ears. *Go...go take your lecture like a man, already!*
*Why should I, when they keep telling me I won't grow up 'til I'm eighty?* Ria's laughter swirled, then he was gone.
"Why are you smirking?" Chance asked, suspicious.
Val kissed the top of his head. "Just wait. You don't know what weeding is, do you?"
"No..." Chance said slowly, eyes still fixed on him.
"You'll find out." He kissed Chance again. "Just how tired are you, anyway?"
A smile turned up those pale lips. "Not *that* tired."
"Val, there are eyes at the foot of our bed."
Val mumbled something sleepily into his pillow, and Chance dug an elbow into his side, trying to wake the damned youko up.
"And ears, too. Silver ones. I don't think the ears were part of the baseboard before we got into bed."
Chance glared at the unhelpful youko, who was radiating thoughts of contentment and satiation and a definite unwillingness to return to a fully wakeful state. Then he glanced cautiously at the foot of the bed again. The golden eyes were still there. Two sets of them, in fact. And then they blinked and Chance jumped, tugging the sheet up hastily, recalling the details of where he was.
"How long have you been there!?" he demanded, slightly shrill.
One pert little face hitched over the edge of the baseboard. That smirk was definitely related to Val. "About five minutes," the kit answered him.
"I think we missed the good part, aniki," the other silver kit said in a mournful tone, turning his wide golden eyes towards his twin.
'Shrieked' was not the kind of word Chance would have liked to use in reference to himself. Nevertheless, it was definitely a shriek that ricocheted through the upper level of the Morgan residence.
Val shot up in bed as if a heavy hand had goosed him. "What!? I didn't, I swear, it was Ria!" Then his golden eyes focused on the pert chin hooked over the baseboard and one insolently grinning face, with the other twin eyeing Chance and Val up and down as if trying to figure out how two naked bodies connected. "You little demons!"
Chance heard the periphery of his mental roar. *OTOU!!*
Footsteps echoed up the hall and the tall black-haired youko pushed through the half-open door, amusement warring with severity in his expression. "I was already on my way," Tsuyoshi informed them, scooping up the two kits, who began to yip and attempt to struggle free.
"But Otou, the door wasn't locked!" Kaze squirmed, his sense of injustice piqued.
"We didn't even get to see anything good!" Rekka added, indignant.
Tsuyoshi swatted both rumps with his tail. "I know we haven't had guests very often, kitling, but surely you know this is no way to treat them!"
"Chance-Will's not a guest!" Rekka protested. "He's family!"
Tsuyoshi ignored his willful sons and carted them out the door, nudging it shut with his foot.
Chance was struggling with a strange feeling in his middle that had come over him with Rekka's parting statement. Val turned to him, yawning, resting his forehead on Chance's shoulder.
"Looks like you got initiated the fast and hard way," he chuckled, rubbing Chance's back in apology.
"You could have warned me," Chance lifted pale brows, "or locked the door. They walked IN on us, Val!!"
"Sorry," Val said contritely. "Should've warned you - the kits have a sixth sense about whenever sex is going on, and since they're naturally curious they try to catch everybody at it." Then he grimaced, and Chance caught a sense of someone speaking in Val's head, vaguely choral.
It was disconcerting, but he supposed he would have to get used to people talking at his Bonded - without words, even.
"What was that?" Chance asked. He was starting to feel sleepy, and hoped whatever it was didn't involve movement on his part.
Val leaned over and kissed him. "I've been summoned. It's my turn to get lectured, or at least be drilled in how I shouldn't have gotten so close to being caught, and a dozen ways I could've handled it better."
"Okay, goodnight." Chance turned over, flopped onto the bed, and snuggled the pillow.
"That's it? No moral support?"
"Your moral support went out the window when you wouldn't wake up to deal with the kits right away," Chance informed him, voice drowsy and lapsing into nothingness.
"Gee, thanks." Sheets rustled and a moment later the door closed softly.
Chance dozed off, surprised at his own ease in this place.
Kyo bolted upright from the bed, pale and wild-eyed. "What was that!?" His fingers clutched at Ria, automatically seeking the comfort of the rangy dark-haired youko beside him. It made Ria glad his parents had finished the lecture moments before, so that he could be near his kitling for this kind of awakening.
"Willow, I presume," Ria replied, tucking the lean little body against his, finger-combing tangled strands of russet.
"Oh," Kyo blinked. "Why is he screaming?"
Ria chuckled, soothing Kyo with his own unconcern over the piercing shriek. Footsteps thudded up the stairs and down the hall and he chuckled again - Tsuyoshi-otou come to the rescue. "I suspect he just had a close encounter with my knee-high, extremely curious brothers."
"But why would he scream-oh." Kyo flushed. "He and Val?"
"Of a certainty," Ria nodded, stifling another snicker. "Whenever sex goes on in this household, the youngest kits are dead sure to sniff it out and try to catch you at it."
Kyo was blushing furiously. "But how...I mean, when we...that is...um..." He bit his lip and ducked his head.
Ria lifted thick red bangs out of Kyo's eyes, smiling at the touching embarrassment on his face. "There's a very stout lock on every door." Inside his mind he was laughing very loudly at his twin - who was ignoring him in favor of trying to soothe one very upset Bonded. "Which Val should have remembered, and obviously didn't." Another snicker got through.
"You shouldn't laugh too hard," Kyo said, reproachful. "Poor Willow - he's never been around children, and to find two youko kits at the foot of the bed right...after..." He bit his lip and turned red again. And Ria pounced triumphantly when he realized the boy was trying to stifle laughter of his own.
"See, you think it's funny too!" Careful not to pin him down with weight, Ria tumbled him to the bedspread and tickled him gently. Kyo laughed and squirmed and tried to tickle him back, failing miserably.
Ria let up on him once Kyo was thoroughly out of breath, hyper on giggles. He made bets with himself that once Kyo overcame his initial shyness, he'd get along well with the youngest kits. Then he caught Kyo staring up at him, pink lips slightly parted, pupils dilated wide, and had to stifle a wave of desire. He started to shift himself off the boy.
"Don't!" Kyo grabbed at his shoulders. "Stay with me."
"I'm not leaving," Ria explained, "I just..."
"I know," Kyo's fingers flexed on his shoulders, surprising him, "and I want to stay like this. I want...why haven't you kissed me?" Lids lowered demurely.
"I don't want to scare you," Ria admitted, damping a surge of hope, playing with a wayward tendril of red.
"You don't." Kyo caught his breath. "You make me feel safe...and..." He tried to turn his face away.
Ria wouldn't let him. "And?"
"And wanted," Kyo finished up, golden eyes burning into his with surprising intensity. It made Ria aware that there was a part of Kyo that was vibrantly, truly youko, and untouched by all he'd been through. That was the part in his arms and responding to his touch right now.
"You're sure this is okay?" Gently, ever so gentle, he let his fingers wander over Kyo's cheek, tracing down to his jaw.
"Yes," Kyo breathed, eyes confirming willingness.
Bending his head, giving the boy every chance to change his mind, Ria lowered his mouth onto Kyo's. The response was fingers trailing up from shoulders to clasp at the base of his neck, and silken lids sliding shut. Hesitant at first, Ria pressed his mouth to the velvety-dry one below him. He'd been with shy virgins before...but Kyo wasn't inexperienced, a fact that had slipped past him until now, when lips parted for him and the veiled flicker of a tongue invited him to explore. And so Ria slanted his mouth and kissed deeper, reveling in the taste of his boy, marveling that Kyo accepted him so readily...
*Stop thinking and KISS me!* came the hungry sending.
Ria started. Kyo hadn't even realized he'd mindspoke for the first time. Then he grinned into the kiss and surrendered his conscious thoughts and liquid fire poured between them.
"Wait," Ria gasped, pulling his mouth away at last as fingers stole into his shirt, feathering over bare skin.
"What?" Kyo's eyes were drugged. He was lifting his hips up into Ria's weight, which had settled onto him fully during the course of the kiss. Kisses.
Ria traced the full, swollen line of Kyo's bottom lip. "We should wait until we're Bonded first," he suggested, ignoring his body's clamoring for a change.
"Can't we practice?" Kyo pleaded, abruptly seductive like he'd never seen him before. But this was still Kyo, and honestly wanting him.
"Well..." Ria bent his head again, nuzzling at the boy's collarbone, inhaling his scent and trying not to get overwhelmed. "It's not supposed to be like that..."
"Why not?" Kyo was shifting under him subtly, biting at his own lower lip, slanting a look at him from the corner of his eyes. "Can't we compare notes from before and after the Bonding?
Ria groaned. He was *so* tempted, and Kyo was making an awful lot of sense...
Kyo uttered a little cry, his golden eyes turning huge as he stared over Ria's shoulder. "You weren't kidding," he whispered.
Without even looking, Ria knew that the foot of the bed had acquired two sets of silvery-tufted ears and avidly curious golden eyes. He remembered it well from his own time as a kit, peering over the baseboard with Val and trying to catch their parents 'in the act.' Funny, now that he was older, he didn't appreciate the humor at all.
He bent down and kissed Kyo's lips. "I'm going to take a cold bath, love."
Ria rolled off the bed and glared at his youngest brothers, who stared back with patent innocence in their eyes.
"What?" Rekka had the nerve to say.
Ria shook his head and stalked off, tail lashing. Close call. The kits were giggling behind him. And for the next few days, Kyo would be too tired-out by chores to do anything but sleep.
But dammit, after that he'd make sure they were Bonded! And he'd make proper use of the very stout lock.