Chance huffed along miserably at Ahrin's heels, miserably aware of every jolting muscle in his out-of-shape body. The only thing that kept him going was his determination to at least half-way keep up with Ahrin, and his pride in the fact that he wouldn't have been able to run at all, that first week. Ahrin skidded to a halt in the open doorway of the kitchen, and Chance nearly slammed into him.
Ouch. Once you got started, it was difficult to stop.
"Tsuyoshi? Daijoubu ga? Are-" Ahrin's words died out.
Chance peered around him. There was a strange youko in the room. His facial features bore a strong resemblance to the youko side of the Morgan family, and Chance realized this must be Tsuchiya, Tsuyoshi's twin brother. He supposed he had expected they would look identical, but that definitely wasn't the case here.
While Tsuchiya shared his brother's height, the full-lipped, sensuous mouth, and large fine golden eyes, there the resemblance ended. Tsuchiya was broad-shouldered, tapering to a narrow waist. His bare arms were slim but muscular. Unlike the Morgan family youko, or what he knew of the race, Tsuchiya wore a mail shirt. His face was fine-boned and strong, but resembled Tsuyoshi no more strongly than a pair of normal siblings. It was set in a weary kind of expression that Chance recognized from his days as Willow, deepened slightly by the hint of a sardonic smile on those generous lips.
And the hair – it was several shades lighter than Tsuyoshi's, a rich chestnut shade. Fingerlength-wide streaks of very pale gold, almost platinum, ran through the length of it starting at the crown of his head. The youko had half of it pulled back behind his ears and braided; the effect was that of a gold thread wound through the thick braid.
Currently Tsuyoshi and Tsuchiya were doing nothing but staring at each other. The atmosphere was heavy, but not the kind Chance had come to associate with thoughts flying thick on the air. This was true silence.
Kaze broke it by stepping forward, silvery tail bristling. "How did you get here? I didn't sense you at all, today!" the kit demanded. Kaze's first look at his uncle was one of accusation.
The ferocious attitude surprised a rusty-sounding laugh out of Tsuchiya. "Once you reach my age, kit, you'll know many tricks to confound the unwary," Tsuchiya replied, unrepentant. He set down a leg of meat to give them all a broad, slightly sardonic grin. "And once you know it, take care not to reveal it."
An odd noise came from Tsuyoshi, something like a gasp caught between a sob. "Tsuchiya," he spoke on the heels of his brother. His golden eyes were intense. Chance didn't quite understand the meaning of the layers in that one word, but knew enough to recognize that they were there.
"Don't." The word was equally laden with tension; there was something unsaid hanging in their terse words. Tsuchiya stood, cloak swirling around him. His expression shifted, letting warmth and some amusement into his face. "Did you miss me?"
"I hate it when he does that," Ahrin was mumbling. "He's got the damnedest shields I've ever encountered. He sneaks up on you and bam! he's suddenly in your lap."
Tsuchiya slanted a smile in their direction, hearing that. Then he turned his face back to his twin, who was taking a tentative step forward.
"Yo-tan," Tsuchiya said, sounding rough. Tsuyoshi was caught up in a fierce embrace of wiry arms and smoke-scented cloak.
"Welcome home, aniki." Tsuyoshi's voice was choked thick with emotion. He lifted slender hands to fit them to his brother's face.
Chance felt embarrassed, like he shouldn't be seeing this. Val might be encouraging him to think of this as his family now – well, everyone in the Morgan household was, really – but there were some moments only a few eyes should see. This youko was a virtual stranger to him.
"What in the world is going on!?" Arashi skidded to a stop behind them, and Ahrin and Chance turned to look. Rekka had his sturdy arms thrown over her shoulders, riding her piggy-back. Ahrin put a finger to his daughter's lips and her eyes widened. In a more subdued tone, she asked, "Is that him?"
That was when he realized this youko was a stranger to everybody but Val's parents, and he didn't feel so much like an outsider. But this was still embarrassing.
"Aniki, what have you been *doing* these forty years?" Tsuyoshi demanded, drawing back to look at his twin. A hand reached up to touch the golden crest in his dark hair. "Where did this come from?"
"Not now," Tsuchiya shook his head, the weary edge returning to his voice. "Later. Not me...well, let's look at you. So you've finally turned yourself into a baby factory, ne?" It had the teasing tone of a long-held joke.
"Rrrr," Tsuyoshi responded, baring teeth in mock ferocity. "Ani...I'm so glad you're *home.*"
Tsuchiya took a step away from his twin, as if becoming aware of an additional audience for the first time. As the youko's dark gold eyes traveled over them, Chance revised his opinion. Tsuchiya had certainly been aware of them, and was now making a visual check. "You've made quite a family. And..." His eyes fell on Chance. "Some of your children have their own Bonded."
Val and Kirin crashed to a halt behind him, breathing hard, and Chance felt his Bonded's hands on his shoulders. "Is it...?" Val murmured in his ear. Chance nodded. Tsuchiya's eyes had moved over him quickly and he felt grateful. From Tsuyoshi, he had only sensed calm and a boundless patience; however old he was, the slender youko seemed ageless. But with Tsuchiya's eyes on him, there was a reeling weight of centuries in his eyes, a restlessness, intensity like looking into burning gold.
"Everyone is here," Tsuyoshi told him. "Well, except for my son Valteria and his newly-Bonded, Kyo." He pointed a finger upstairs while a knowing smile curved his mouth.
Tsuchiya nodded. Then he surprised them all by knowing their names. "I am close enough in my twin-bond to pull off a little trick like that," Tsuchiya waved his hand with a small laugh. He left Chance for last and those old eyes were on him again, making him feel if he looked too long he would fall into a deep well. Then Tsuchiya blinked and something...pulled back...and they were just eyes. "You're Willow."
"I'm Chance," he said defiantly. He felt Val's hand on his shoulder again and wanted to shrug off the support. He could stand by himself now; he would, he had to.
"Ah," Tsuchiya said. He gave him a little bow of apology, cloak sweeping on either side of him like fluttering wings. There was more in his eyes, unsaid, that Chance wanted to ask him about. But he was in a roomful of people who all had claims on Tsuchiya more vital than his. And, too, he was afraid of the answer.
"Aniki...are you tired? Do you want to-"
"One day you're going to have to show me that shielding-trick of yours..."
"Tsuchiya-jii, you're not...you don't...well, I wanted to ask if you..."
"Now that you're here, maybe Kaze will stop thinking a monster is coming to get him!"
"Pick me up! Up!"
Tsuchiya kept a half-smile on his face, golden eyes moving from one family member to the other. Chance got the sense that the youko was every bit as overwhelmed as his own entry into the Morgan family. After all, the last time he'd been 'home' was before Val and Ria were born. Yet Tsuchiya coped well, scooping Rekka up into his arms and shaking his head at his twin. The grin he turned on Ahrin was devilish, with an 'I'll keep my secrets' twist, but the grin turned on Kirin was somehow softer and more sensual. Chance felt color flood his cheeks. He supposed Kirin already had the answer to his question.
"Don't call me Tsuchiya-jii, it makes me feel old!" was the only verbal response.
But his face froze when Arashi made her exclamation, and he turned to look at the little silver kit clinging to Ahrin's leg, face half-buried in his father's tunic while he studied his new uncle with wide, suspicious eyes.
Tsuchiya knelt, and Rekka squirmed out of his arms, clambering onto the cloaked back. Tsuchiya ignored the repositioning, eyes fixed on Kaze. "Am I a monster blown into Morgan Vale?" he asked softly.
Everyone else had fallen silent.
Slowly, Kaze shook his head. "Not you," he said at last, out loud. "But...bad things have happened, and still are, and you carry them around with you." For him it was a long speech. He buried his face back in his father's leg, and Ahrin's hand smoothed over his silver hair and ears.
Tsuchiya stood again, Rekka's arm locked around his throat. All of a sudden he did look tired, and his face was full of strain. "Yo-tan..." He said it flatly, but it was accompanied by the odd little pulse that Chance was coming to associate with communication between twins.
"All right, everybody out," Tsuyoshi decreed. "You're smothering him! Tsuchiya hasn't been home since before Val and Ria were born, and this is a bit much to dump on him all at once. Out! Everyone but me and Ahrin!"
Val tugged him outside. He was laughing a little, but Chance could sense his worry. Just before they nudged the door shut behind them, Chance caught a last glimpse of the kitchen.
Tsuchiya sat on the bench of the kitchen table, head in his hands. Tsuyoshi and Ahrin were to either side of him, arms around him, and the door closed over Tsuyoshi's anguished expression.
Chance's belly tightened on wordless dread. Whatever was happening in the world was about to get worse. Either that, or it already had.
"Did you see? Did you see him?" Kirin crowed, hopping around the yard with Rekka on his back, both of them grinning like fools. "Did you see the way Tsuchiya looked at me?"
Arashi eyed her twin with unconcealed disdain. "You are one giant walking hormone time-bomb," she pronounced, petting Kaze's hair as he climbed into her lap. "Don't you ever think about anything but sex?"
Kirin halted in the middle of the yard. "Of course I do!" he said cheerfully. "But I'm gifted; I can think about other things AND sex at the same time!"
She rolled her eyes. The older Kirin got, the hornier he got – and the worse he was about it; he had deemed all of the village boys 'unworthy' of the honor of topping him. So he was still looking for someone to take care of that for him... Arashi had her own string of admirers, but she didn't let the thought of copulation dominate her life. It was *just* sex, after all.
"Be careful," Arashi said, trying to impress the gravity of the situation on her never-serious brother. "He seems like he's been through a lot..." At least, that was her assessment of an uncle she had never met before. She didn't have any previous comparisons to go by...but Kaze had said something like that, too, and so far her littlest brother had never been wrong in one of his little 'moments of truth.'
"Hey, *he* gave me the Look!" Kirin retorted, obviously capitalizing the word in his speech. He grinned smugly. "It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, but Tsuchiya-jii is going to be my first."
"Ha!" Arashi stuck her tongue out at her brother. "Your first was little Jei Silvermoon in the storage room of the pastry shop; you told me so yourself *during* the act! And you can't have more than one first time."
Kirin pulled down his lower eyelid at his sister, half-dislodging Rekka and causing him to squawk. "That's different! I was on top! This time, I'm gonna be bottom!" He sounded positively gleeful at the prospect.
"Don't assume too much!" Arashi scolded him. She took a quick glance at Val-nii at the edge of the yard. He was busy trying to coax his white-haired Bondmate into his arms, and Chance kept slipping just out of reach. "Just 'cause he gave you an appreciative look, doesn't mean you'll automatically be tumbling into bed with him!"
Kirin raised silver-gilt eyebrows. "He will."
"He will," Kaze piped up in her arms. His golden eyes had an unfocused look. "It's just what he needs. But it'll end up causing more trouble..." He trailed off and curled into her arms, head nuzzling between her nearly-flat breasts.
"Ha! See?" Kirin resumed his dance around the yard.
She knew her twin hadn't heard that last part, about trouble forthcoming – Kaze had whispered it. Frustrated, she looked down at the kit's silvery ears. Why would a liaison between Kirin and Tsuchiya-jii cause trouble? They had been raised with the naturally free attitude towards sex that all youko possessed. Otou certainly wouldn't be raising any objections. Why did Kaze have to be so vague in his predictions? But looking at him as he sneaked a thumb into his mouth, Arashi couldn't blame him. Kaze hadn't seen anything particularly good of late.
It seemed like an impromptu holiday had been declared, with Uncle Tsuchiya's arrival, and Val wanted to take advantage of it. Later, he would marshal his siblings into some semblance of order to collect foodstuffs from the garden and the wood. Right now, he wanted to...
"Chance," he wheedled, "all I want to do is put my arms around you. Just for a little bit. There's no need to be so cold!" Not to mention, he could use the tactile comfort.
"Why do you always have to touch me?" Chance rolled his eyes, putting a few more inches between them. "First you'll put your arm around me, then you'll start stroking my hip, then your other hand will slip to my thigh, and next thing I know it, you'll be tumbling me in the-"
"I would never do that!" Val interrupted him. He considered it. "Not in front of Kaze and Rekka, anyhow. Come on, I know you're upset my uncle called you 'Willow,' but..."
"I'm not upset!" Chance snapped, looking and sounding upset.
"All right." Val sighed. "Well, if you don't want any comfort, how about giving me some?" He tried sidling over again.
"Try your right hand!" Chance shot back. "I'm sure it's pretty comforting!" An odd expression crossed his face. "Are you right-handed or left?"
Val blinked. After a few seconds he burst out laughing.
Chance's expression grew stormy for an instant and Val sensed an imminent explosion, then it dispersed all of a sudden. He even managed a few weak chuckles, although he wasn't wiping away tears of laughter like Val was. "I...I can be difficult sometimes, can't I?" Chance said, after the laughter died down. It was the closest he was going to get to an apology.
Val just looked at him, eyes dancing with mirth. "That's one way to look at it," he agreed. "Now, come here." He took a decisive step and snagged the slender body in his arms; this time Chance offered no resistance. Val rested his chin on the top of his diminutive Bondmate's head and they watched Rekka and Kirin cavorting around the yard, having devolved into some form of 'Tag.'
"But I want you to admit that you don't *have* to touch me all the time," Chance said after a moment, stubbornly continuing his train of thought. Without realizing it, his hand was stroking one of Val's arms wrapped around him; an interesting little counterpoint.
He heaved a sigh. "Yes, all right, we don't always have to be touching!" Val said, exasperated. "It would be pretty awkward if that were the case, actually. But sometimes it's nice, for comfort, to be next to you."
Chance mulled it over. "Okay."
Val nodded, giving him a mental 'so there!' bumping his chin on the top of Chance's head.
"Val?" Chance said, very quietly. "What's going to happen now?"
He stared at his younger brothers, sun bouncing off their shining silver hair. He looked at his sister, with the youngest kit curled up in her lap sucking his thumb. He turned his gaze inward, and shook his head. "Right now, Tsuchiya-jii will be doing the same thing as you and Kyo."
Chance twisted in his arms, deep purple eyes looking at him solemnly.
"He's here to heal. For now, that's all we need to know."
"Let's see...for tonight, you will sleep in our room," Tsuyoshi decided, stroking a hand through his twin's long chestnut hair. He was still full of wonder and worry for the white-gold streaks running through the length; it was the youko equivalent of going gray. On Tsuchiya's other side, Ahrin duplicated his actions, finger-combing through his hair and rubbing one arm soothingly.
Tsuchiya's head was still in his hands. He wasn't crying. It would perhaps be better if he *was.*
"Oh, Tsu-nii-" Tsuyoshi began, reverting to the nickname from earliest childhood.
*Don't.* It was Ahrin's voice in his head, on a tight exclusive band. *Don't give him pity. That's the last thing he needs right now; I know you feel how much he's hurting, but if you show it, he will fall apart and it's too soon for that.*
*What do I...* Tsuyoshi bit his lip, eyes meeting his lover's. Ahrin's face was casual and relaxed.
*Don't coddle him. Just treat him normally – for now. You're glad to have him home after so long and you're proud to show him his expanded family. We'll get around to the rest when he's ready.*
Tsuchiya had caught at Tsuyoshi's uplifted hand, and his grip was painful. He ignored it, still stroking his twin's hair. "And tomorrow, if you think he won't be annoying you excessively, we can put you in Kirin's room, and Arashi can bunk with the kits while you're here."
"I – that's fine." Tsuchiya lifted his head again, and a neutral expression was back in place. "I'd like that, actually." A grin flashed over his face, making his features handsome again. "He's a gorgeous, leggy little thing and you must be proud."
Ahrin snorted. "He's an obnoxious, constantly horny teenager and you're not *exactly* in for a treat."
Tsuchiya shook his head. "I think it will be quite enjoyable." A darker expression flitted across his face, there and gone, and Tsuyoshi wondered if it had even been there – if not for their bond, and knowing that something from the past had touched the surface of his thoughts. He was getting little hints and flashes of what had happened to his twin, some of it sexual, some of it brutal, hardly any of it good.
"I'm just glad you made it home again." He touched Tsuchiya's shoulder and his twin gravitated into his touch, wrapping an arm around him in return.
"I was in the South," Tsuchiya said after a long time. "I don't want to talk about it but I'm going to have to. Something has to be done; youko have to be warned. Down there, on the other continent-" He bit his lip and his shoulders began to tremble. Just barely.
Tsuyoshi rubbed the base of his brother's neck, encouraging him without words to go on. His brother's shoulders were broader now; his frame was packed with lean muscle. A mere fifty or sixty years ago, they had been identically lathe-slender.
"You know our history," Tsuchiya said, after a deep breath. "The massacre started on the Other Continent in the South, several millennia before we were born, but youko have long lives and even longer memory."
Tsuyoshi nodded, to prompt him. "There weren't many youko living on the Other Continent even when we were young, thousands of years after the Massacre."
"There were more." Tsuchiya swallowed harshly. "There were more, that is, until this generation; this century."
"What's happening down there?" Ahrin asked, expression intent. "You must have gathered from Tsuyoshi that things are getting worse in these parts, except for the youko-protected, youko-friendly provinces."
Tsuchiya gave him a nod. His golden eyes were unfocused. "A little over forty years ago, I made a trip down to the Other Continent to track down some of our Otou's relatives, an aunt, her human mate, and a couple of unpaired twin cousins of Otou's who had moved down to the Other Continent 'for adventure.' I never found them." His eyes snapped into focus and he looked around, almost in a panic. "I – I don't want to-"
"Then don't tell us about that now," Ahrin said firmly. "That can wait, and then you and Tsuyoshi can take a nice long nap while I marshal the children to feed us."
A smile ghosted over Tsuchiya's face. He nodded, and there was an iron determination about him. "The atrocities originate from the South, on the Other Continent," he said, obviously opting to describe in brief. "There is a particular cult in one of the countries that has been spreading, because its theme of hate and envy is so perfectly suited to human nature. Youko are demons, they say – not human, with our unnatural magic; we steal away little boys and beautiful virgins and pervert them to our demonic cause; we couple in unnatural, disgusting ways."
Ahrin raised a brow. "Never mind the fact that youko are bonding with human males whose preference lies with their own sex anyhow – and they wouldn't be breeding with other humans."
"Never mind that," Tsuchiya agreed. "Or the fact that our magic comes from the powers of the earth and body, instead of being magic for the sake of magic."
"And the result of this message of hate?" Tsuyoshi prompted.
"Atrocity," Tsuchiya said, unflinching. "What has been happening here in the worse provinces is tenfold worse down there, on a grander scale. Youko are herded into camps and sold. Kits are torn from their parents; females from their mates and kits and sold as pleasure-slaves; males are taken and abused. Resistance is met with killing and worse."
"You've seen it," Tsuyoshi said. His eyes closed, throat working; he did not want to see the images that were seared into his brother's brain, but got the ghost-echoes anyhow.
"I've seen pregnant youko, both male and female, impaled through the belly, kits torn out and left to die." Tsuchiya said it and they all shuddered. "That is the worst I've seen, but there was more. And I couldn't do anything..."
"You got away," Tsuyoshi said firmly. "And now something can be done. We *must.*"
"We will," Ahrin added, mouth grim. "This is the work of a cult?"
"Yes," Tsuchiya agreed. "Apparently it's been nursing its hatred ever since being stamped down after the Massacre. A long time to hold a grudge, even for youko. We are evil creatures, they say, perverting everything we touch, holding ourselves above humans. And they want to tear us down again. The priests are speaking of a cleansing."
"Another Massacre," Tsuyoshi clung to his twin, and Bondmate.
Tsuchiya's eyes were haunted. "Yes."
"No matter what, we will not let it happen." Ahrin's determination was the bedrock of their comfort. "Go to bed. You need rest."
Tsuchiya nodded, looking weary, and let Tsuyoshi draw him towards the bedroom.
"Papa?" Arashi set her littlest brother down to play with his twin as the tall blond man emerged onto the wraparound porch of the Morgan family home. "How is…?"
"Nothing to worry about," Ahrin assured his daughter, and his eldest son with his Bonded as they crowded onto the porch. Then, as lying to their children was against family policy, he was forced to add, "not yet, anyway."
"Even an idiot could tell that trouble is coming for youko," Val said, then added facetiously, "Ria poked his head up from his lust-clouded daze long enough to ask me what was wrong."
Ahrin's generous mouth twitched. "Trouble isn't here, in this province, but it's definitely happening right now."
Val's brows knit together, but he said nothing. He was a bright boy and surely he'd realized a part of what Tsuchiya had been through, if not the details.
Arashi moved close to him and he put an arm around his daughter, stroking her sleek ears.
"Are we going to have to leave?" she asked, trying to sound adult and succeeding at 'awfully young' instead.
"No, pet, not all of us," Ahrin hedged.
Her face clouded. "But some of us," she seized on that implication. "Because something has to be done."
"Let it never be said that I haven't raised sharp children," Ahrin said by way of confirmation.
"Except Ria," Val qualified.
"And Kirin," Arashi added impishly, "they both think with their d-"
"That's enough," Ahrin told her. "There isn't a man alive who hasn't done that at least once in awhile, including me."
Arashi rolled her eyes. "Once in awhile? What do you think Ria-nii is doing this very minute?"
"Now is different," Ahrin said. "He can't help himself, anymore than you can keep from scratching an itch."
"I'll tell him you made that comparison, Papa," Arashi informed him, looking up with a grave face but dancing topaz eyes.
"We should start getting dinner ready," Ahrin changed the subject. "There's nothing we can do to affect the future right this instant, so we may as well plan a good meal."
"Where's Tsuchiya?" Kirin stormed up to the steps in a cloud of silver hair and two squalling twins. His ears were cocked at a pert angle. "He'll be there, right?"
Ahrin felt along the automatic connection to his mate. "Resting," he replied, feeling Tsuyoshi's drowsy assurances that it was so. "He'll be along for dinner, of course."
After delegating the younger twins to gather foodstuffs in the garden, and the middle twins to hunt down something fresh for dinner, Val and Chance joined him in the kitchen. Chance looked troubled, a fine sharp 'v' line etched between pale brows. He also could feel tension radiating from his eldest son.
"Father," Val spoke up, and he knew by that his son was serious, "is it really-"
"Really, right now, at this moment, the matter is shelved for later consideration," Ahrin said with finality, adding what mental reassurances he could project. He was a mage, not a mind-master.
"Father," Val said again, not soothed in the least.
"Chance," Ahrin turned to the white-haired boy, ignoring his son for the moment, "I'm going to need someone to take up a tray to Ria and Kyo. Do you think you can handle that?"
"Why me?" Chance said, with that patent look of distrust that a few weeks couldn't erase.
Ahrin gave him a look. Even a day into his martial tutelage the boy should realize he didn't make requests without a reason.
Chance didn't even look abashed, he just tilted his head and waited for an explanation.
Ahrin turned a different sort of look on his son. Val had a ways to go with this one. Val's rueful shrug was acknowledgment and apology in one.
"Because," Ahrin explained with the patience born of six children, "Ria will only be able to tolerate the presence of someone who isn't a threat to his possession of Kyo."
"And I'm not, because I'm Bonded," Chance guessed.
"And submissive, too," Ahrin said cheerfully.
"Hey!" Chance objected, "who says I'm submissive?" He scowled and socked Val's arm as if to prove himself otherwise.
Ahrin grinned and said nothing.
"I may be the one bearing the kits," Val said dryly, "but there are certain realities in our relationship that my father recognizes."
Chance glared at him. "Fine, I'll take the tray up," he gave in, sullen.
"That's my sweet submissive boy," Val teased him.
"I'm going to get you for that," Chance threatened.
Val widened his eyes dramatically. "You wouldn't!" he said, at whatever mental undertone had followed.
Ahrin packed a tray with the energy-giving foodstuffs in the kitchen; edibles meant to temp the appetite and replenish tired bodies. Knowing his son and knowing the Bonding process, the youko would hardly have given Kyo a moment's rest.
He could detect anxiety, still, in his son's wiry frame. Val was undoubtedly waiting for Chance to leave the room before he pressed him for details again. He'd soon be disabused of that notion.
Val patted his Bonded on the ass as Chance moved past him and the boy jumped, items on the tray rattling.
"Valirion!" Ahrin said, tone sharp.
Val's grin was not apologetic in the least. His golden eyes followed Chance's progress from the kitchen, proprietary and sensual. Ahrin was watching his son and the shift from that sort of emotion to keen focus when Val turned to him was surprising.
"Father," Val said for the third time, and his tone was determined.
"Valirion," Ahrin said in the same tone, backed by the certainty of 'you're a hundred years too early to best me in my own home.' "If you want more information, you're going to have to wait. Tsuchiya is in no shape to be bothered. He just arrived here today. And no, we don't have a plan yet."
Val's eyes widened, and Ahrin had the sinking sensation he'd been maneuvered into revealing *something* his son had suspected, though he didn't know what. All his youko brood could mindspeak circles around him, if they chose; generally they didn't make it that painfully obvious.
"Ria and Kyo should be finished in a few days," Val said, switching gears. "Will we hold a council of war then?"
"Don't be absurd."
"Are we really leaving Morgan Vale?" Val began to circle him in a slow, stalking motion. It reminded him quite a bit of Tsuyoshi -- only natural; though Val favored him in body type, the rest of him was pure youko from the mane of luxurious black hair to the silky ears and tail, and intent golden eyes.
"Don't even entertain thoughts like that around your younger sibs," Ahrin snapped. "That's the fastest way to throw everyone into a panic, infant."
"Father," Val said, affecting a hurt tone. "I'm not three anymore."
"No," Ahrin agreed, eyes steady on his son. "But Kaze and Rekka are six, and very susceptible."
"Point taken," Val sighed, and stopped stalking him. For a moment Ahrin had been worried his son would pounce. If he did, of course, it would have been a splendidly inopportune moment for Chance to walk back into the kitchen. The boy was still fragile of psyche, and would probably take it the wrong way.
"So I can't ask you, and I can't ask Tsuchiya-jii, and I can't talk or even think about it...what am I supposed to do?"
A smirk curved Ahrin's lips. "Spend quality time with your Bonded. You've got the rest of the night off, after all."
"Ch', is that your answer to everything?" Val huffed, flicking his tail, but the set of his ears was playful.
"Why not? It makes the world go 'round."
Kyo did not fall so much as he lowered, graceful in dishevelment, to Ria's bare sweaty chest. He slithered into the comfortable nook of his lover's arm, a position he'd grown quite fond of in the past twenty-four hours.
"Beautiful," Ria murmured. "You're so beautiful when your back arches...just so..." He sighed and touched a finger to the back of Kyo's neck.
Kyo smiled against Ria's pale-gold pectoral, thinking very privately to himself that sometimes Ria was a little delirious in the middle of lovemaking.
"I heard that," Ria informed him.
"Shimatta," Kyo said, pretending chagrin. "I'm not used to *you* being able to hear my thoughts, the way I could yours..."
"Ahh, well, you'll have to get used to not having that advantage..."
"Ria! Stop...nnng..." Kyo squirmed. "Too soon..."
Ria flipped him over and began to tickle his throat with silken black hair. "Ohh? Then why's *this...*" His hand moved, tantalizing, coaxing.
There came a sharp knock on the door.
Ria looked up, disgruntled, dark hair sweeping over Kyo's face. Kyo peered upside down at the door behind them.
"I'm coming in," a surly voice informed them.
Kyo lifted his chin, looking into Ria's intent, suddenly possessive eyes. "It's just Chance," he told his Bonded.
Ria's fingers dug into his arm and thigh. "Sure, *just* Chance, and he was standing awfully close to you in the garden the other day..."
The door creaked open.
"Don't be ridiculous!" Kyo reached up and nipped the end of Ria's nose. Lightly.
"Oh, gods spare me from this," a dry tone intruded on them, as the door creaked open. "Tell me I wasn't this disgusting when Val and I..."
Ria relaxed bonelessly on top of him, and with a *whoosh* the air left Kyo's lungs. His lover was heavy, damn it. "I'm sure you were every bit the sulky little scab you always are!" he said cheerfully, and Kyo relaxed too. Ria wasn't going to be difficult. This time.
"Sulky little scab!?" Chance's voice went up an octave, and cracked. "Hey, you--"
"Chance, just put the tray on the nightstand and go," Kyo said, craning his neck. Chance's violet eyes were outraged. He sighed. "Please? At least he's not trying to ki-blast you."
Chance blinked. "He tried to ki-blast his own father?"
Ria nodded unrepentantly. "He was thinking wicked thoughts about Kyo."
"You're fixated," Chance told him, put the tray down, and stalked out like a little white-haired cloud of doom.
Ria and Kyo burst into helpless laughter as the door shut behind him. "I can't help tweaking him," Ria snickered, feathering kisses over Kyo's collarbone, and lower. "You're right, it's *just* Chance. Maybe we should ask Father to send him in every time." Then he moved purposefully, settling his weight between Kyo's thighs.
"Ahhn...Ria, *food,*" Kyo whimpered. "I need to...haa...eat!"
"We can eat later," Ria mumbled around a mouthful of Kyo's throat.
"Yes, but we can't replenish my body fluids later!" Kyo dredged up his last card. "I really need a break, Ria. Just a little one, please."
"All right," Ria relented. "Five minutes." And he sat up and went for the food with the same single-mindedness he'd been devoting to other pursuits.
Kyo ran a hand through his hair, and smiled. He found himself humming again. His chest was ache-tight with happiness.
He just wished he could remember that tune, that haunting melody...
Golden eyes flashed wide as that snatch of half-forgotten music played through his head; that bit of melody on a repeating reel. Tsuchiya tried to sit up, found an arm around him pinning him down, and snarled for a moment as he thrashed.
"Aniki! It's okay." The arm released him swiftly, but Tsuchiya still felt a lean body pressing to his, molding to his backside. "You're home. You're safe. It's me."
"Tsuyoshi." He relaxed onto his side again and closed his eyes. "Dammit."
"It's okay," Tsuyoshi repeated, feathering a finger with a delicate touch over his arm. "It's not your fault."
Tsuchiya shook his head slowly, letting tears seep from the corners of his eyes. This was his twin, his otherself. It was all right to cry, but how he'd reacted just then-- that was not okay. It didn't matter that it wasn't his fault.
"It will be okay," Tsuyoshi altered his reassurance, kissing the back of his brother's neck. "Ahrin and I will sleep with you tonight, and it will take you a long way in your healing. After that, you should be able to take care of the rest."
"I know." Tsuchiya's chest felt tight. He was scared, and for no good reason.
The melody swelled up around him, louder than his own thoughts, and all at once the tight sensation faded. His pulse calmed and his breathing evened out.
"That music..." Tsuyoshi whispered, words tickling the back of his neck. "What is it from?"
Tsuchiya shook his head. "I don't know," he said helplessly. "I only started to hear it the closer I got to Morgan Vale." He felt his brother's arm tighten around him.
"Don’t worry about it," his younger twin advised him.
"I'm not," Tsuchiya replied. "It's soothing. I think it's like a promise." That confirmed one thing to him -- if his brother didn't know the tune, either, it was nothing from his rather lengthy past.
"A promise...? Tsu--"
A brief knock came on the door, then the door was opening and a golden head peered around the jamb. "Beloved? Oh, you're both awake." Ahrin stepped into the room and spoke in more normal tones. "It's only a little while until dinner, so I thought I should come see the status here."
Tsuyoshi hugged him from behind. "Lazy," he pronounced, "with definite sensual inclinations towards dining in bed."
"Hmm," Ahrin tilted his head, "there's a thought, but our brood would wreck the place. Val isn't enough by himself to hold the rest in check. What sort of impression would that give our guest?" The blond man gave him a broad wink.
"It would just give me flashbacks to my own childhood," Tsuchiya drawled, "when Pater and Otouchama would go on a weekend getaway and leave us in charge."
Tsuyoshi groaned and buried his face in the back of Tsuchiya's neck. "Don't remind me. I'm surprised I decided to have children at all, after minding our siblings."
"Well, it only took you a couple of hundred years."
"Shall I call Rekka and Kaze for a wake-up call?" Ahrin teased, sitting at the foot of the bed with that gentle smile Tsuchiya remembered.
"I'm up! I'm up!" Tsuyoshi yelped, sounding like one of his own children, popping upright from their cozy nest of sheets. "Mou, anta..."
Tsuchiya rolled over and propped himself on one elbow, making a wry face. There was such warmth and camaraderie in his brother's relationship with his Bonded; at the core of it, a tender devotion that he hadn't seen since his own parents. It made him more than a little envious, sometimes, in spite of how freely they both shared themselves with him. And it was what had drawn him back, after forty years and all the suffering. Being broken.
"Tsu-nii..." His younger twin had flopped over and was kissing his forehead, moving down to his eyelids. "Do you want to freshen up? After all, you've got to be all set to lure Kirin in..."
"I don’t think it's going to take much luring," Ahrin disagreed.
"Oh, I know it won't," Tsuchiya said, pushing himself up with a little smile. "But the very least I can do is make a show of it. A boy's first time should be special." He shared a grin with Tsuyoshi, whose golden eyes lit up at the mention.
"Not exactly the first..." said Ahrin.
"Close enough," Tsuyoshi shrugged.
"Aa," Tsuchiya added. "No matter what he thinks he knows, tomorrow night he'll be the squirming virgin."
"Point." Ahrin stood. "And now, since I don't have my beloved's delicate touch with food, I must return to make sure Val doesn't ruin anything by virtue of stirring it wrong. Or Chance, by looking at it wrong."
Tsuyoshi laughed. Tsuchiya caught the mental image of Chance's 'typical glower' from his twin's mind and chuckled.
The door closed again.
"Well," Tsuyoshi said, slipping out of bed, "this way, Tsu-nii."
Tsuchiya followed his twin's swishing black tail, catching playfully at the end of it. The melody had faded from the foreground of his thoughts once more. He was achingly grateful to be alive, and free, and in the heart of his family once more.
Anything more complicated could wait until he was ready.
"I want Kyo-nii." The silver-haired kit stood his ground, golden eyes staring up at Chance in stubborn defiance.
"Well, Kyo is *busy!*" Chance shot back, the muscles in his arms groaning under the weight of the breakfast tray. Val actually wanted a pair of these? Kits? Maybe more than a pair? *Why!?* "Try back in a day or so." Was that how long Bonding took? He tried to remember the hazy time of his own Bonding, and all he could recall was sex. A lot of sex. Every time he'd tried to move more than a foot away from Val, the damned youko had dragged him close, and initiated things all over again. And amazingly enough, both of them had been *capable.*
It had been, he could admit in retrospect, a LOT of fun.
"I'm not moving." Kaze planted his backside firmly against the bedroom door. "I wanna see Kyo-nii, too."
At the forefront of his thoughts was the sentence, *Kyo doesn't want to see you,* but Chance bit down on it. He knew enough of children not to say *that.* Instead, he glowered down at the infuriating kit. "Get out of my way," he growled, "before I drop this tray on your head."
Golden eyes widened. Lips puckered in a pout, then opened wide -- prelude to a wail, he was sure.
*Ch'. Now I've done it.*
Chance winced, bracing himself for the kit's bloodcurdling cry. Instead, there was a 'whooshing' sound as the door opened and Kaze tumbled onto his backside.
"Are? Kaze? What are you doing here, 'touto?"
Chance blinked in disbelief as Ria scooped his brother up into his arms. The black youko looked indecently satisfied with himself, an expression he remembered on Val's face in the days following their Bonding. Ria was disheveled, wore only a pair of sleeping pants, and...
"You reek," Chance said bluntly. "What are you doing out of bed so soon?"
Ria paused, petting his brother's silvery ears. "Good morning to you, too, Chance," he said in amusement. He gave a slow wink. "Not all of us take a long time to Bond -- Kyo was entirely willing, remember?"
He fumed, heavy breakfast tray still in his hands. If he was stronger, he might try to throw it at the infuriating youko.
"Kyo-nii!" Kaze crowed happily, twisting around in his brother's arms.
"Hello, Kaze!" Kyo said brightly, giving an 'oof' as the silver twin practically fell out of his brother's arms into the slighter boy's. He looked happy but exhausted, his posture relaxed, red hair tumbling and mussed around his skinny shoulders. As Kyo approached, Ria's black tail caressed him.
"As for stinking," Ria continued conversationally, "we only smell bad because we're not your Bonded. Kaze seems to think we smell just fine." The kit was nuzzling Kyo's throat now, tucking his head under the redhead's chin.
Chance wrinkled his nose. He found that hard to believe. Although Ria smelled similar to Val, there was something repulsive about their scent that made him want to take a few steps back. Then he caught himself. His sense of smell had never been this good before. This must be yet another slight alteration caused by the Bonding that Val hadn't seen fit to explain to him.
"Ooh, food," Ria exhaled, plucking the tray out of Chance's arms. "Baby, look. I don't think we're going to have to go downstairs, after all."
"I want to be social," Kyo said, looking up with a smile. "Now that you're not physically attached to me, I want to see what's been going on downstairs."
"Tsuchiya is here," Chance told them.
"I know," Ria replied, sniffing the breakfast tray. "Val told me, of course. At a point when there was no chance of dragging myself off Kyo's delectable body. Or out of, for that matter. Oh -- sorry, Chance." His grin wasn't quite malicious as Chance actually *did* take a step backwards, face turning green. "Too much information?"
"Much," Chance agreed, not *quite* fleeing.
Kyo and Ria were laughing behind him. He didn't care. As far as he was concerned, they needed to take a good, long shower. Separately.
As he returned downstairs, Val pounced on him.
"Off!" Chance snarled, his mood unaccountably bad. The Morgan family might take casual displays of affection to new levels, but he did *not* have to participate. And he was *not* Val's property. And he was sick of discovering new alterations that had been made to his body without his consent or knowledge. And he did NOT smell bad -- and if Val tried to mark him with his scent like that, he was calling the whole thing off.
"You're just upset because I woke you up early for a morning quickie," Val accused. "You weren't complaining then, prickly-pear."
"Don't call me that!" Chance thumped into his place at the table. He burned with injustice. No one understood him. Val didn't bother to explain everything to him. Sometimes *he* felt older than *Val* acted. And now he was being called stupid names.
"All right. I'm sorry," Val acquiesced, sitting next to him. His silky tail began to switch. "Do you want to tell me what's wrong?"
He was tempted to snap *no!* and continue to stew. Chance folded his arms, looking at Val out of the corner of his eye. He was just mature enough to admit to himself if he did that, he would make everyone's breakfast pointlessly miserable. "I'm upset."
"Okay." Val leaned forward, but didn't touch him. The youko had learned a *few* things. "Why are you upset?"
Chance came to a roadblock. It seemed so ridiculous when his thoughts came to that point. *I don't know. I'm just upset.* He folded his arms more tightly against his chest, glad that Tsuchiya and Tsuyoshi had left the kitchen, and it was just the two of them. What he intended to say first wasn't what popped out of his mouth, at all. "Do I smell bad?"
Val stared. "Whaaaat?" He felt the youko poking through his head, examining the encounter upstairs. Val's mouth twitched.
"Don't you *dare* laugh," Chance snarled at him, knowing it was nearly inevitable. "You're the one who did this to me, dammit."
"Did what? Took you out of the Palace?" A black brow hiked up. "Freed you? Brought you home to my parents so they could fatten you up? Chance, why are you asking if you stink?"
"Kyo and Ria stank," Chance said, in a manner that indicated he thought that should explain everything.
"Only to you. Only to my parents," Val told him. "They only smell odd to a Bonded pair, and that's because they still smell like sex."
Chance twitched. "So do *I* stink?"
"After you come in from the garden, you definitely stink," Val said gravely.
"Stop being so facetious!" Chance snapped.
"Stop being so serious," Val returned. "There isn’t a cut and dried answer for you, Will. That smell -- it's from our scent glands. You know, when I reach under my tail then run my finger under your nose and--"
"Oh. OH!" Chance's eyes widened. He had the sudden feeling he'd been very dense. *That* smell, that heavenly scent when Val touched his face after reaching behind himself -- then that taste, exploding over his tongue and going straight to his groin, when he sucked on Val's fingers. Chance felt his cheeks burn with a blush, mostly embarrassment. That didn't smell bad; it was the best scent in the world. And Val seemed to like rubbing it into his skin thoroughly.
Among other places...
"See?" Val was tilting his head, golden eyes glinting with good humor once more. "But if you parade around Ria smelling like that, he'll probably back off ten paces. And now that Kyo is Bonded to him, he'd react the same way."
"I see," Chance said slowly. "But what about Tsuchiya? He didn't have any problem with Ahrin and Tsuyoshi..."
"Well," Val drawled, "Tsuchiya isn't Bonded yet, and from what I hear from my fathers, his relationship with them has always been...close." He winked.
Chance was horrified. He thought he was horrified. Actually, he wasn't quite sure how he should feel.
"Okay," he said out loud.
"Be nice," Val told him, leaning closer, kissing the corner of his mouth. "Just because our traditions aren't human traditions is no reason to look down on them or be disgusted. We don't have the same kinds of taboos."
Kirin and Arashi bounced into the room. Kirin wore a Rekka on his shoulders and the silver kit was crowing at the top of his lungs, holding handfuls of Kirin's silver hair.
"I'm starving!" Arashi announced, looking around. "I heard Ria-nii is up and moving around."
"Yes, but don't get too attached," Val said, patting his thigh, a tickle in the back of Chance's head letting him know he wasn't off the hook and they would talk later. "Ria and Kyo will be leaving tomorrow. Don't tell Kaze."
"What? Why!?" Chance looked up, shocked. He was always the last one to know around here. He was ready to start fuming again.
"Yeah, why?" Kirin added, sitting at the table. Rekka climbed off of him and onto the bench.
"To go look for Kyo's twin," Val explained. "Ria thinks he has to be somewhere in this province."
"Probably," Arashi agreed. "Most half-youko come through here and settle sooner or later, anyway. If they make it here." She bit her lip. Half-youko were treated even more harshly by humans than they were by some youko, as evidenced by Kyo's situation.
Bully for Kyo. He was going on a trip. Chance folded his arms and glowered out the window. The morning was bright and full of sunshine. It mocked him.
"Oh, will you stop that," an exasperated huff of breath blew in his ear. Warm arms encircled him. "Just because your only play-friend is going off on a trip..."
"He is NOT my play-friend," Chance asserted, leveling a violet glare at his lover.
"STOP!! STOP!!" Rekka shrieked at the top of his lungs.
Chance's head whipped around. Was the kit being killed?
"STOP TICKLING ME!" He was hanging upside-down by his ankles from Kirin's hands, and Arashi was attacking him mercilessly, fingers dancing up his little ribs.
Chance covered his ears and glared at Val once more. *You want children? You're insane.*
*It'll be fun,* Val responded, tone cheerful. *In a few hundred years, of course.*
Tsuchiya and Tsuyoshi came into the room, looking alarmed. "Who's killing my son?" the slender youko demanded, while his more muscular twin moved to lounge against the kitchen counter.
Kirin and Arashi turned with identical guilty expressions. Kirin dropped Rekka into Arashi's arms, and the kit continued to squirm until his sister released him. The little kit promptly dashed over to the low bench and threw himself in between Val and Chance. Instead of wailing, he just snuggled up by Chance's side, squirming until one pale arm encircled his shoulders. Then he just...stayed there.
Chance stared down at the silver head and lightly-twitching ears.
He looked at Val, whose golden eyes were amused and gentle. *He just wants you to pet him.*
Gently, the way he would rub a finger along Val's ears sometimes when the damned youko was asleep, he reached down and scratched along the base of Rekka's ears. The kit sighed, relaxed, and leaned against him.
A decidedly odd sensation spread through his midsection.
Now Val looked *really* amused.
"Breakfast," Tsuyoshi was saying, "should be in ten minutes." He sniffed the air, then turned to Val. "Thank you for leaving it alone."
Val held up his hands. "I know better than to mess with the best."
Tsuyoshi shook his head, turning to the kitchen counter and saying, "Honestly, I raised you and Ria exactly the same; how is it that he was the only one who learned to cook?"
"Pure talent on my part," Ria answered for himself, coming into the room, an arm hooked around Kyo's shoulders.
Arashi bounced to her place at the table, looking up with a sunny smile. "Kyo! You look wonderful!"
"You look exhausted as hell," Kirin said bluntly, then snickered into his hand.
They were both right; Kyo had lost a lot of the timidity of his posture, and his golden eyes sparkled. At the same time, he looked tired as he walked to the long table. And, Chance noted with an internal snicker of his own, that was a slight but definite limp in his step.
Ahrin entered the room, a tall golden *human* presence, and Chance looked up. He breezed over and kissed Tsuchiya on the mouth, squeezed his Bonded's rear, tousled Kirin's hair, then moved over to take a seat at the table, where Kaze scrambled into his lap. "Did I miss an execution?"
"I'm just fine, Papa!" Rekka piped up by Chance's side, tossing a murderous look in Kirin's direction. "But you might want to kill *him* for me."
"Ahh, get old enough to fight your own battles," Kirin blew a raspberry.
"Kaze and I will make you pay for that later," Rekka informed him, then subsided against Chance's side. Once again Chance felt that odd feeling, and resumed stroking silver ears.
"Val tells us you'll be leaving some time soon, Ria," Tsuyoshi said casually, tending to something on the stovetop.
Dammit! Again he was feeling left out, the one who missed out on the ongoing conversations that took place out of his range of hearing. Sometimes he could even 'hear' a slight mental buzz, which only exacerbated the sense that something was going on, and he couldn't take part. He glanced at Val angrily and then away.
Then he caught sight of Ahrin Morgan's expression.
The blond-haired man rested his chin on his hand, looking around at his family with a slightly bemused, slightly wistful expression.
And now that he thought of it, Chance had seen the expression on the man's face before.
"Yeah, in a few days, Otou," Ria replied, swishing his tail. "Hope you don't mind if we nip some supplies and a pair of horses."
"Two horses? Oh -- if you find him," Tsuyoshi nodded. "Yes, Ria, that would be just fine."
'Him?' Chance's eyebrow hiked up. Oh...the twin.
He looked over at Ahrin again, and the other man was looking back. "It gets a bit strange sometimes," he said ruefully to Chance. "Like I'm in the middle of a conversation I can't hear."
Chance blinked, then nodded. A smile formed on his lips. "That's how I feel too -- I can almost hear it, like a low buzz of people talking in another room. It's--" He clamped his mouth shut, not wanting Val to go into 'worry about Chance' mode. It was really frustrating, but he could cope with it himself.
Ahrin nodded. "You've got that much, at least -- I'm a mage with only enough mind-magic sensitivity to make my Bond with Tsuyoshi work."
Huh. He hadn't thought of it that way. Maybe in time, he'd develop enough sensitivity to halfway-hear what was going on. He might want to have a talk with Ahrin, too, to see how he'd coped for so long hearing only a part of what went on in his household.
Tsuchiya moved over to the bench, tossing the streaked braid over his shoulder. "Is this seat taken?" he said to Kirin, with a sensual half-smile.
Kirin perked. "Please, take it." Then he uttered a muffled yelp.
Arashi looked distinctly satisfied.
Tsuyoshi began to serve breakfast, with Ria's help. "A lot of you are wondering what happens next," he said, setting a dish of sausages down, then fitting his fists to his hips. "The answer is, life as usual. Tsuchiya's sleeping arrangements may change shortly."
He shot a wry look at his silver-haired son. Kirin assumed an innocent demeanor. "Other than that...don't start pestering Ahrin for battle spells, don't make any plans for a life-upheaval, and don't think we're preparing for some kind of war."
Tsuchiya spoke up, looking remarkably composed. "I've come home, and that's all that matters."
'For now' hung uncomfortably in the air. Even Chance could feel it. From the look on Ahrin's face, even he, as well.
"Ria and Kyo will be going on a trip," Tsuyoshi continued, speaking easily despite the atmosphere. "That's the only big event in our future."
"So we can have breakfast now?" Rekka sat up, hands pushing painfully against Chance's thigh.
"Stop that!" Chance glared down at the silver head.
Laughter filled the air. He lowered his head, burning with embarrassment and resentment because of that, then realized they had broken the tension. Everyone began to reach for food, plates clattering, that hum starting up in the back of his head as everyone began to talk, both aloud and mind-to-mind. It was a relief. Val's hand patted his knee under the table.
For now, everything would go on as it had.
Chance revised his opinion. It was a beautiful morning, and let others worry about what might come.