"Are you sure this is the right town?" Kyo asked, twisting a lock of
red hair around one finger in an anxious gesture.
He had been doing that for the past two hours, as they rode closer to the fair-sized town of Waypost. As Ria had done each time, he reached up to capture the halfling's fingers in his own, holding them in a firm grip. "As I've said," Ria told him, ducking his head and kissing a pointed ear, "Waypost is the largest town in this province, almost big enough to rate 'city.' And this is where many youko and half-youko come seeking total asylum from other provinces."
Kyo tugged on his hand. " But what makes you so sure?"
"Well, I ran our travel plans by little bro Kaze," Ria said with a grin. "The little kit came through. When I mentioned Waypost, his eyes went all soft and far-away and he agreed Waypost was the place to go. Or something like that." He scratched the edge of one furry ear. His smallest brother still bemused him sometimes; he was stronger in his powers than any of them had been at his age.
"Oh," Kyo said. "I guess that's a good sign, isn't it?" His attempt at a chuckle came out sounding like a hiccup.
"Calm down," Ria said, giving him a squeeze around the waist before picking up the reins again. "It's your brother; your twin. There's nothing to be worried about."
"But I haven't seen him in ages!" Kyo's hands moved about, restless, plucking at his hair, at his clothes, at the mane of the horse before him. "Not since we were children. I barely remember him, Ria. What if--"
"And I say you don't need to worry," Ria said in a firm tone. "He's your *twin.* He'll be overjoyed to see you, and that's all. You don't need to worry about what he thinks, or if he might disapprove of you being a Palace-boy for so long, or any of the rest of it." He knew what worried Kyo the most was if his brother might not blame him for not escaping earlier; for staying behind, and for their mother's death.
"All right." Kyo leaned back against him, slender body vibrating with a tension Ria didn't need to touch him to feel. "How will we find him in Waypost?" He was fretting his lower lip again.
"That's the easiest part." He petted Kyo's silky-auburn hair. "Now that we're in Waypost, you should feel him some time soon. The twin- bond, you know."
"Oh." Kyo's hand flew up again. His boy was a mass of nerves. "What if it doesn't work?"
Ria chuckled, soothing Kyo with a mind-touch now. That made him think of something his father always used to cure the 'what- ifs.' "What if your nose falls off?" he answered rhetorically. "What if the sky were to tumble around our ears, or we woke and the sun was green and the sky red?"
Kyo looked up at him reproachfully, giving him an upside-down glare. His golden eyes crossed. "Now you're just making fun of me." But his mind-touch was less anxious.
"It will work," Ria assured him. He said again, "It's your *twin,* Kyo. Even though you haven't seen him in a long time, it doesn't matter. If you were a little more relaxed, you might even be able to 'hear' him now."
"All right." Kyo sagged against him in the saddle. He stared over the bowed neck of the horse, which ambled along the dusty lane that had been growing wider for the past ten minutes. It was this evidence of approaching civilization that had started up Kyo's jitters again, he knew. As long as they were traveling, when the concept of finding his brother was still an abstract, a goal to focus on, he had been eager.
"I would distract you if I could, little kit, but we're on a horse."
Kyo laughed. "Distracting me in the saddle would be awfully uncomfortable, wouldn't it?" He was all demure mischief for a moment. His fingers clenched around the saddle horn, then loosened. "I'm hungry," he said unexpectedly.
"Then we'll eat," Ria said simply. "Soon. We're almost to Waypost, and I'm sure you'll feel better with a full belly."
"Or I'll just get sick!" Kyo returned, but his tone had more humor in it. He leaned back in the saddle against Ria's chest. "I'm driving you insane, aren't I?"
"Insane?" Ria chuckled and discarded a few undiplomatic responses. "Of course not. You've been with my family for a few weeks, and you haven't revised your definition of insanity?"
"I love your family!" Kyo protested, reddening.
"But they're insane," Ria appended.
"It's all right," Ria said, ducking his head to kiss a pointed ear. "Let's leave my family out of this. You have nothing to worry about, you hear? We'll have lunch and find your brother and everything will be fine. You'll see."
"You'll see if I won't tan yer liddle behind, rascal!" the heavily- wrinkled cook called after the boy, shaking one gnarled fist. "Stay out of my kitchen, halfling!"
The boy laughed, nearly spilling pastries from the scarf he had purloined from one of the courtesans of the inn. "You'll have to catch me first, Margie!" He caught his prizes and clutched them to his breast, escaping into the wide common room.
The old woman grumbled a few more insults, all of them more bluster than heartfelt, and sent an apprentice to bang the door shut.
"Here!" The boy handed one of the rich flaky concoctions to a sweet- faced blond woman with generous curves and scanty clothing. She was leaning against the bar counting out silver coins, likely calculating the commission to give Corr. "For the use of your scarf, Teena." He gave her a charming grin.
"You're going to get in trouble with old Margie some day, Kino," Teela said to him, but she accepted the pastry with a mischievous smile. "Clean my scarf before you give it back, okay, sugar?"
"Sure thing!" He nodded to her and moved off, prowling around the common room. It was still early, and business was slow in the barroom area of the inn. He had a few chores to attend to. "Hey, Vella!"
The sensuous dark-haired woman looked up from the front register and gave him a slow smile. "Mornin', Kino. How are you?"
"I'm basking in your radiant beauty," Kyo said, grinning, offering a pastry with an extravagant bow. "Why, if my tastes weren't in the other direction, and if you weren't married, I'd be doing my best to win you for my bride."
Vella smirked. "You forgot the part about being twice your age," she observed.
Kino plastered a look of indignation on his face. "Of course not. A lady has no age."
"You're learning, Kino, learning very well," Vella told him, throaty voice practically purring. "Such a shame you're only interested in men."
"Hmm, that's not what the latest one said last night..." Kino put his head to the side and gave her an impish look. "Face it, Vella, I'm bent by nature."
"Bent over, perhaps," the owner of the Jaderose establishment retorted, but she was grinning, too. "You know, we're perfectly willing to give you a little room of your own, Kino. You don't have to pick up patrons to have a place to stay every night."
Kino's expression shuttered. "Yeah, well..." Then he made a face at her. "It's ever so much nicer to wake up next to a warm body, Vella. You oughta know!"
"Do I? I'm married, remember?" She laughed her rich laugh. Vella flicked manicured nails in his direction. "Go on with you, Kino. I still think you're terribly young, but it's your own choice."
"I'm half-youko!" Kino told her impudently. "I'm more than legal under youko standards."
She laughed again. "Shoo, halfling. Randie can use a hand with the tables, but he already got the corner where one of the men lost his stomach last night."
Kino wrinkled his nose. Good thing, because he didn't do *those* kinds of chores. He moved past the registry desk, humming under his breath.
"What a pretty song," Vella commented, pausing in her bookkeeping. "What is that one, Kino?"
Kino stopped stock-still. It was that haunting melody, the one that had been catching in his head for the past few days. "I...I don't remember." He hurried off before she could ask further, though he knew she wouldn't. That kind of privacy was something everyone here respected.
Randie was on the far side of the bar, extracting pieces of broken crockery from one of the booths. "Oh, Kino, good," he said in relief. "There was a fight last night before we closed, and we're short six mugs and a few plates. Corr wanted me to ask ya to run down to the pottery shop to get some more, on his credit."
"Another fight last night?" Kino said in disbelief. "I didn't hear anything."
Randie scratched at his thatch of dirty blond hair. "Well, course not. You went upstairs with that pretty dark-haired male youko." He grinned sheepishly.
Kino snorted. "That's right, that would account for being a bit...distracted. All right, I'll go."
"Thanks, Kino. I'll finish cleaning up here," Randie told him.
Kino grinned. "Great!" There was nothing he liked better than missing a thorough cleaning. Well, sex, of course, but that came as easily to him as breathing and making friends. "I'll run and do it right now."
"Make sure to get the credit chit from the shop before you leave!" Randie called after him, kneeling to search beneath the wooden booth again.
"Right, right!" Kino waved a casual hand. The older boy acted like an elder brother towards him sometimes, but they might as well be the same age for their maturity levels. If anything, Kino was 'older.'
He hurried out of the Jaderose, brushing past a tall black-haired youko, a smaller figure tucked at his side and half-hidden by the male's sweeping cloak. Kino felt an odd little prickle that made him stop for an instant, blinking in the bright sunlight of a sweltering afternoon.
*Head feels funny today...* He shook it off and strode up the street. *I know I didn't have that much wine last night!*
Dawn's light slanted in through the wide living room windows, setting motes alight and casting the room in warm tones. The largest room of the Morgan household had a comfortable, broken-in look to it, greenery scattered here and there reflecting Tsuyoshi's taste for exotic plants, some wood-carvings by Ahrin, somewhat raggedly-braided but colorful rugs done by Arashi and Kirin as a project. The area was filled with wide, cushy couches and chairs, and a few more sheltered nooks.
The place looked lived-in; the best kind of place to raise a family.
Tsuchiya exhaled a near-soundless sigh. His little brother had done well for himself. It had taken a hundred years or so for the two of them to get settled, but Tsuyoshi and Ahrin had made a beautiful family, between the two of them.
With a quiet gliding tread, the black-haired youko stole across the living room. It was too early for anyone else in the house to be up yet, not even his well-meaning twin.
"Can I ask you something?"
Tsuchiya leapt a foot.
He whirled, searching the room with panic-filled eyes. There, in an alcove, a silver-haired boy leaning beneath a spill of ivy leaves. "Kirin!" he said sharply, glaring at the teenaged kit. "Don't...you shouldn't sneak--"
"I didn't exactly sneak up on you," Kirin replied, golden eyes startled. His gaze dropped down to the hand that was gripping his sword-pommel. "I was waiting here for you."
Heart still thudding on his tongue, Tsuchiya released his sword. "The distinction is noted," he said in dry tones, "but it doesn't much matter. That was an ambush either way."
"I'm sorry," Kirin said penitently. "I didn't mean to...to startle you."
Diplomatic of him, Tsuchiya thought, not to imply that he'd scared him. Which he had, Tsuchiya admitted to himself; the fright was still making him somewhat shocky.
"It's all right." He tried to breathe more easily. Even here, in this comfortable home, he could not convince himself the worst wasn't heading his way again. "You didn't know."
Kirin shrugged a bit, looking uncomfortable.
"You wanted to ask me something?"
"Um." Kirin nodded. He paced forward into the open space of the room, until they were facing each other with a few feet in between. "Uncle, why--"
"Tsuchiya," he interrupted, "it's just Tsuchiya; I told you that."
Kirin regarded him steadily. "Uncle," he said with polite emphasis, "are you avoiding me, or is it just unfortunate coincidence?"
Tsuchiya winced. Of course, all of his twin's children were perceptive. It had been three days since he had come here, and he'd made no moves towards charming his way into Kirin's bed aside from a few suggestive words. "Not specifically," he hedged. "I..."
"Then you just don't want me," Kirin said matter-of-factly. "That's all I needed to know, Uncle. Thank you." He turned, presenting a line of naked tanned back shown off to advantage by a cutaway tunic.
"No, that's not all," Tsuchiya snapped. "You don't know the whole story, kitling."
Kirin pivoted, golden eyes flaring with temper. "Excuse me for being young!"
Tsuchiya's brow furrowed, but with an effort he willed himself calm. "It has nothing to do with not wanting you," he said after a moment. Kirin's fists were balled up, body tense with indignation. "You know some of what happened to me, on the Other Continent. Some of it was...very...it was damaging. I haven't slept with anyone since I escaped."
Kirin lifted his chin. "You've slept with Papa and Otou every night you've been here."
Tsuchiya's mouth curved in wry acknowledgment. "Yes, but it hasn't been that kind of bedding, Kirin." Much as he might have liked more, the only thing his twin and Ahrin had given him was the warmth of comforting bodies bracketing him, helping to keep the nightmares away.
"Oh." Kirin blinked, then seated himself with a thud on a nearby couch. "I-I'm sorry."
"And I thought I was ready," Tsuchiya began, tone softer, "and you are, indeed, very appealing...but..."
"But it would be different, wouldn't it?" Kirin asked desperately. "I mean, you'd be topping me. That's not the same thing."
"That's true," Tsuchiya said with a nod. "But still..."
"How do you know if you don't try?" Kirin argued. He was looking very upset, and Tsuchiya could pick up the feeling that it wasn't over being rejected, however gently. The thought of a youko rendered unable to enjoy sex by the act itself was just...anathema.
Tsuchiya sighed, breath catching in his throat. It disturbed him, too, having this taken away from him. Perhaps he was being a coward for not even trying.
"Would you just..." Kirin swallowed, then continued. "Would you just sleep with me? Just laying there together, nothing else."
Tsuchiya blinked. He hadn't realized the kitling had become *that* infatuated, to ask for whatever he could get. The silver-haired teen's mind was flavored with wistfulness.
"I think I can manage that," Tsuchiya replied.
"And if something else, if something more were to happen--" Kirin flushed "--then that would be okay, wouldn't it?"
Tsuchiya outright grinned, and was surprised he was capable. "That would be more than 'okay.'"
"Good!" Kirin bounced up off the couch with a look of sly mischief, swept past him for the door, and brushed the length of his silvery tail against Tsuchiya's leg on the way out.
Most surprising of all, Tsuchiya didn't feel the urge to flinch.
He stared out the living room windows for a long moment, watching color suffuse the low clouds in the sky. They were painted in delicate pinks and golds, insubstantial as dreams and for him, just about as far away.
"And what are you doing up so early?"
This time, Tsuchiya did not startle, feeling the resonance along their twin-bond precede the speaker by a few minutes. His twin had been standing there watching him for a short time.
"If Kirin had not been lying in wait, would you still be here for me to say 'good-morning' to, Tsu-nii?" More than anything, his twin sounded resigned. "Or would you be gone so soon?"
"I was planning on making a trip to the village, to pick up a few trinkets," Tsuchiya answered, deliberately misunderstanding.
Tsuyoshi said nothing to that; merely looked at him with that too- penetrating stare.
He knew he was in bad shape when his eyes dropped after a few heartbeats, a sign of abject submission. He squeezed his eyes shut, nails biting into the palm of one hand. Tsuchiya had never lost a staring match with his twin, or anyone for that matter. Not since before the capture, and everything after. He'd had so much pride, and all of it had been stripped away.
"Tsu..." Swiftly, bare feet crossed the floorboards, and Tsuyoshi was pulling him into a tight embrace. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that to you."
"I want to stay," Tsuchiya said into Tsuyoshi's soft black hair, "but nothing feels like it's the right reasons. And I don't feel as if I'm getting better."
"It will get better," Tsuyoshi insisted, nuzzling his neck. "You just need to give it some time and patience. It's like healing a wound, love."
"It's worse than a wound," Tsuchiya muttered. "I can't even function as a proper youko."
"Now you're just feeling sorry for yourself." Tsuyoshi nipped his neck.
Tsuchiya flinched, burying a sly grin in his twin's hair, and when Tsuyoshi drew back to give him a horrified apology, he slid his hands up and tickled the rake-thin youko's ribs. Tsuyoshi burst into startled laughter, withdrawing when his twin pressed the attack.
"You!" Tsuyoshi huffed, trying to fold his arms and look imposing. The effect was ruined by the twitching tip of his tail.
Tsuchiya cocked his head and put on an inquiring look. "Me?"
"You know what you need?" his twin asked rhetorically. "A nice, long day of teaching the kits about basic power flow and exchange."
Tsuchiya groaned. "Those two?" He pinched the bridge of his nose, indicating what he thought of that idea. Headache-making, they were. "I've only been here a few days and already you're putting me to work?"
"Of course!" Tsuyoshi was unrepentant. "Everyone works here for a living, elder brother." With that, he gave him a smile as sweetly innocent as his smallest son Kaze.
"Fine," Tsuchiya said with a shrug, putting on a disgruntled expression. "But I need to make my trip to the village, first." At the very least, it would take his mind off other things for awhile.
Like the instant he'd lowered his eyes to his *very* pliant, very submissive younger twin.
"We'll go with you," Tsuyoshi told him with eyes that dared him to contradict.
Waypost was a brilliant knot of activity in the heat of the day. A redheaded boy darted about in the crowded throng on the streets, dodging taller bodies, ducking a few good-natured passes at him, and skipping out of the way of fast-moving carts in the street. The air was hot and oppressive and dust shimmered in the thickest, furthest parts of the street.
For all the heat and the crowding during the peak business hours of the day, Waypost had a relaxed atmosphere. Men and women were about running errands, but many stopped to chat, and most were pleasant- featured. Everyone was armed, a fact easy to note while running on foot from the Jaderose to the pottery store down the street.
Kino had been startled, when he first came to live here, at the casual way people went around with deadly weapons. Even the sweet- faced young housewives had dirks or poniards, and knew how to use them. Kino had seen Vella mark up a pickpocket's hand, his first week in town. He had come to realize almost everyone in Waypost had been through bad times, at one point or another, and these strong people would never be victims again.
Of course, the common knowledge of an armed populace made for a very painstakingly polite atmosphere in Waypost.
There were still incidents of theft and other crime, of course, but would-be felons had learnt to be very discreet or fast on their feet. It was that, or take the swift justice dealt out by any of the townsfolk before a single lawman could happen on the scene.
Vella's youko husband Corr had been the one to teach Kino knife- fighting, and he knew all the dirty tricks. So a boy who might have been a victim two years ago was tough enough now to hold his own ground, at least until he could yell for reinforcements.
Kino dropped into a stroll near the pottery shop. It was oppressively hot, and besides, he didn't want to *seem* as if he was in a hurry. There was a handsome new assistant in the pottery shop, a silent golden-haired youko with marvelous fine features. He was new to Waypost, though, which meant it might be awhile before he was ready for happy games.
The shop door jangled as he pushed it open. The wooden frame was hung with charms and shells, threaded together with colored rags of fabric. The proprietor looked up with an absent eye, then turned and sauntered over to the counter. Like Kino, Taylor was a half-youko, with a head of luxurious auburn hair streaked with tiger's-eye gold, and delicate tapering ears. Unlike Kino, he had a furred tail, albeit a short one that lacked a full-blooded youko's length.
"Don't tell me," Taylor groaned as Kino approached the counter. "Can't Corr manage to keep his patrons from breaking the crockery long enough for me to make and glaze replacements?"
"Good afternoon, Taylor," Kino shot back, tucking his thumbs into his pants and grinning at the older man. "It's nice to see you, too. You don't have more mugs and plates?"
"Well, we've got some, but they won't match," Taylor grumbled, but his eyes were twinkling. "If I didn't know you better, Kino, I'd say you broke the crockery yourself to give yourself an excuse to get over here."
Kino assumed his innocent expression. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean," he said. Now, even to his own ears that was not convincing.
The back door creaked open, and golden-haired Vaughn entered, pushing back an escaped tendril with a clay-smudged hand. His expressive eyes settled on Kino for a moment, then he turned unsmiling to Taylor.
Not for the first time, Kino wished his mindspeech was stronger.
"What's that?" Taylor scowled, tossing a hand-rag to Vaughn. "I'll have a word with him, and get him to replace the batch. We can hardly work with substandard clay, can we?"
Vaughn nodded, then glanced at Kino. His large, sherry-colored eyes were composed -- a great improvement compared to his first week here. The rumor mill indicated that the golden youko had been born on the Other Continent; he had arrived in the most recent batch of youko settlers. Kino had never seen him smile.
"Vaughn," Taylor said slyly, "would you care to help Kino pick out some new mugs and plates for the Jaderose? It's on their credit chits."
Kino grinned charmingly.
The golden youko's ears twitched. He finished wiping his hands and tossed it at a nearby bin, giving Taylor a look that said 'I know what you're up to.'
They ended up picked a cream-colored set that would go with Vella's deep green scheme. As Vaughn handed him the chits, their hands brushed.
Kino dropped his eyes, feeling a jolt shiver through him at the body contact. It had been deliberate; it must have been. He locked away the thought of it as a treasure, rare and unexpected. Vaughn had already turned away, and his profile seemed thoughtful. Kino tipped up an engaging smile, tucked the package under his arm, and speculated on possibilities for the near future.
Outside the cool pottery shop, the heat hit Kino like a moist hot slap to the face. Waypost had hardly any modesty taboos, and the majority of the throng crowding the sidewalks were clad in the barest minimum of clothing. It was damned *hot.*
He idled down the street with the package in his arms. It was one thing to hurry *to* the shop, with the promise of Vaughn before him; another thing entirely to make haste back to the Jaderose and the chores that were waiting.
Dawdling near the corner, Kino felt that strange buzz in his head again. He frowned, clasping the package in both arms, staring at the Jaderose across the street. It was coming from there, he was sure of it; like a murmur piped directly into his brain, like someone whispering beside him but he knew it wasn't that.
"What in hells...?" he whispered, repeating one of Corr's milder oaths.
Now he wasn't wishing his mindspeech was stronger. He wished he knew more about it, or had at least paid attention when Corr had tried to give him some basic instruction.
Was someone trying to 'talk' to him?
"Kino? It's Kino, isn't it?"
Kino jumped at the voice. He shifted his grip on the packet of crockery, dropping one hand to the fighting dagger at his belt. "Ye- es?" The boy was wary; he thought he recognized that gravelly voice.
A human man loomed behind him, scruffy, with a thatch of untended brown hair. He was invading Kino's space, making him step back, uneasy. The man's clothes were none too clean and he *stank.* "Been lookin' to catch you outside that Jaderose haven of yours."
Kino wrinkled his nose. "Corr and Vella banned you from the establishment," he said in his coldest, most adult tone. This man, Larson, had been pestering him incessantly a few weeks back. "And if you'll excuse me, I'm in the middle of an errand." He turned on his heel. It was a surprise the man had lasted this long in Waypost; he was a nasty sort.
Larson snapped his hand forward with astonishing speed. "Wait just a minute there, halfling."
"Nng." Kino glared at him. The man had grabbed his knife hand, of course, and if he dropped the replacement crockery Vella would take it out of his hide. "What do you want, Larson!?"
"So you *do* remember my name." The man grinned, revealing corn- yellow pits of teeth. "You're so friendly with all the male youko, Kino; why won't you give a real man the time of day?"
Kino twisted his wrist to free himself. Larson might look like an ambulatory garbage-heap, but his hand was tough and strong and he couldn't budge that grip. "You're not my type," he tried to growl, but it came out a frightened squeak.
No, all he had to do was yell -- someone would help, right?
...And once he did, there went his pride in tatters.
"Ohh, what is your type?" Larson crooned. His breath was redolent of booze and worse. "Looked to me like it was anything male, with you waggling your hips in that bar..."
"Let me go, you prick!" Kino shouted, swinging his arm in a wide arc and slamming the package into Larson's chest. There was a *crack* of breaking pottery. Larson's grip loosened as breath whooshed from his lungs, and he bent over in a parodied bow. Kino seized the package in both hands now, smashing it over the man's head.
The boy froze in horror for a moment as Larson stumbled, eyes unfocused. Then he turned figurative tail and fled, clutching the ruined packet in his arms.
Behind him, there was a ragged cry of rage.
Kino ran faster.
"K'so," he sobbed out, feeling broken pieces shifting in the package in his arms. Vella was going to skin him. He bolted, weaving his way through the crowded street, ignoring the startled outcries of people he jostled or slammed into, wrenching himself away only to keep running.
What was he going to do now? He couldn't go back to the Jaderose.
Kyo had his fingers intertwined with Ria's tight enough to meld flesh.
He was barely aware of his surroundings as Ria guided them into the inn tucked under a protective wing of cloak, intent as he was on focusing on the comfort Ria infused through their bond. He hadn't been to a city since leaving Austen, and it was pitifully apparent in his reaction to the crush of bodies. If he'd possessed youko ears, they would be laid flat against his skull. It made him realize how much he'd hated living in that crowded city, and what a relief it was to live in the quiet countryside.
What had made things harder, for a moment, was the odd resonance that had shuddered through his body as they stepped into the inn.
He was still trying to concentrate on that when Ria tugged on his hand, dropping the cloak from his shoulders.
"This is a very nice establishment you have here," Ria was saying to the woman behind the counter. She was beautiful, Kyo supposed, if you liked women. He'd never really learned to appreciate their bodies; they seemed like a foreign landscape with their curves and soft protuberances. "Ne, love?"
Kyo looked up from their joined hands at the woman.
"Kino?" The woman blinked down at him. "What are you doing here; aren't you off to get those dishes? Hurry along!"
Kyo shrank into the support of Ria's side. "P-pardon me?" He'd never heard a woman speak so brusquely before. Well, in point of fact he hadn't met many women, before. The wing of the Palace he'd been assigned to catered exclusively to males.
"No...not Kino," she said slowly, taking a closer look. She grinned. "Not even he'd have time to change so quickly, and attach himself to a new arrival."
"You know a boy who looks like this?" Ria asked her, touching Kyo's cheek with his free hand.
"Well, yes," the innkeeper said, still examining Kyo. "Our boy Kino has been with Jaderose for about two, maybe three years. Amazing likeness...no, I'd say they look exactly alike, if this one weren't such a shy one..." She broke off, looking troubled.
"My name is Ria Morgan," the black-haired youko introduced himself, "and this is my Bonded, Kyo. We're looking for his twin."
The woman lapsed back into her seat, looking rather stunned. "Vella," she said absently. "Well. Well, I didn't realize the boy still had family left. I'd say you've found him, Ria Morgan."
*My brother.* Kyo clamped his fingers hard around Ria's, and the youko grinned down at him. "See? I told you it wouldn't be as hard as all that."
Once the shakes stopped, Kino came to realize he'd done a stupid thing. Any nearby housewife or businessman would've been ready to come to his assistance, or absolve him if he'd used the knife and not the packet of dishes. He had panicked, but he had not been able to cut the man.
"Kino, you weakling," the boy muttered, pushing himself from his curled-up position in the narrow alley between two buildings. A hint of danger and what was his first reaction? Running blindly up the street, finding the first hiding place he could! All too vividly his mind insisted on seeing the man's leering face, the pocked skin and the mouth with pitted teeth looming over him. "Ugh!"
He noticed with vague surprise that he still had the broken dishes in his arms. Well, they were worthless to Corr now. He would have to go back to Taylor and get more, and pay Corr the difference for breaking his dishes. If he went back now, he was sure Vella would probably tell him not to worry about it, but it *had* been his fault and he was responsible.
Maybe he could make enough tonight to pay back the cost of the credit chits. Kino bit his lip. He'd been saving up his money for an awfully long time, but Taylor might be willing to make some kind of deal. Errands in exchange for a lower cost, or something.
Kino crept out of the alley, wrapped up in calculations over the broken dishes and the likelihood of getting Taylor to recycle them, or something.
Someone bumped into him, and he flinched violently.
*Pickpocket!* was his first thought, followed by a mental shriek of *Larson! Run!* His shoulders were held in a firm grip, though, and he wasn't going anywhere. Kino looked up into his captor's face.
It was Vaughn, grimacing a bit as he looked at Kino.
"Vaughn! Sorry," Kino apologized. The golden youko looked as if someone had shouted in his sensitive ear. "Did you...'hear' me?"
Vaughn nodded, then gave him a quizzical expression.
"I...uh..." Kino faltered, then held up the package of dishes. Broken pieces rattled within. "I broke them."
Vaughn blinked, then turned back towards the shop, making a gesture.
"I know, I know," Kino said impatiently as the youko released his shoulders. "It's just...Vella 'n Corr haven't even paid for these ones, yet, so I'm just gonna have to pay for these out of my own pocket."
Vaughn frowned at him, golden eyes intense on his. Kino felt a little tickle at the edge of his mind and knew what that meant.
"It's no good, Vaughn," he shrugged, "I'm practically deaf when it comes to mindspeech." He smiled wistfully; he wished he knew what Vaughn wanted to say.
Vaughn regarded him silently for a moment more, then smiled. The youko put an arm around his shoulders and began to usher him back towards the pottery shop.
"But--" Kino began, and Vaughn cut him off with a shushing gesture.
Now Kino thought he understood. Vaughn was a valuable apprentice to Taylor, and if he wanted to gift Kino with a few pieces, it was his prerogative.
Taylor looked up from his counter, then did a double-take. "Back so soon, scamp?"
"I...I broke them," Kino admitted, holding up the package of shattered dishes again. Vaughn took it from him, carrying it beyond the counter and leaving Kino to pick out replacement pieces again.
"Vaughn, you soft-touch," Taylor chuckled. "Well, you earn more than a single set of dishes every week, so I don't see why not."
The golden youko had turned back in his direction, looking at Kino with mild eyes.
"I'll have to do something nice for you, in return," Kino told him impishly, holding up new plates. He felt bad letting Vaughn take care of it like this, but he'd learned not to turn down a favor when it came his way.
The youko's eyes widened a bit, and he shook his head.
Kino felt a bit crushed. "No?"
"Set them down," Taylor instructed, taking out a pen to inventory the items. "He's telling you he doesn't have any ulterior motives, brat. Which is more than we can say for you."
He set the plates down, squelched for the moment. Then he rallied, sticking his tongue out at the man.
Vaughn's peal of laughter surprised them both.
"What?" Kino sputtered. "I didn't think it was that funny!"
"He said," Taylor said with a grin, pausing deliberately, "don't stick it out if you don't intend to use it."
Kino blinked, then began to laugh with the two of them.
On Vaughn's lips, there was the beginnings of a smile.
Chance was mortally certain that if Val turned out to be serious on the whole 'we're having kids' issue, he would end up drowning the whelps within the year.
How did people DO this? And how did youko survive into adolescence?
"Pleeeeeease let me braid your hair, Chance!" Rekka wheedled for the fifth time.
"Turnip! Turnip! Turnip!" Kaze glared up at him from his cross- legged, folded-arm position on the floor.
"Just a few braids!" Rekka begged.
Kaze repeated his chant. "Turnip! Turnip! Turnip!"
"No!" Chance exclaimed. "Both of you, no!" Several more hours, he calculated, until Tsuyoshi, his husband, and his Bonded returned from that trip to the nearby village. They had foisted the twins off on him, as Val and the older twins had work to do on the farm.
"Turnip," Kaze said once more, blinking wide golden eyes, then he shut his mouth and sniffled. Silent tears began to drip from the corners of his eyes.
"No...no, don't cry!" Awkwardly he knelt beside the silver kit. "I...I didn't mean..."
With a crow of triumph, Rekka grabbed handfuls of his white hair and began to braid it.
"Stop it!" Chance shouted, trying to shrug the kit off his shoulders.
Kaze's eyes went even wider, impossibly, and he opened his mouth to wail.
"No, don't," Chance groaned, then buried his face in his hands. Rekka ignored his crying twin and continued to braid his hair, chirping some obscure wordless tune. "Don't cry..."
A quiet morning with the kits, Val had said. It'll be a nice break from swordplay drills with my father, he'd said. They shouldn't give you any trouble...
"Right," Chance gritted. He put his hands gingerly on the small crying kit's shoulders. "Kaze, calm down. Please. I'll try and find a turnip for you." He was failing miserably on the discipline front.
"If Kaze gets a turnip, I get a turnip too!" Rekka announced, tugging on handfuls of Chance's hair.
"Fine," Chance agreed, not willing to debate the point.
"Turnip!" Kaze blinked up at him, tears already forgotten. He smiled.
"You little imp," Chance growled at the kit. He'd been suckered.
"What's an imp?" Rekka wanted to know.
Chance snorted. "What, I've found one your family hasn't called you, yet?"
Kaze scowled up at him. "Turnip." Then his eyes crossed.
Rekka let go of his hair and scrambled past him, seizing his diminutive twin in a hug. "Kaze!"
Kaze was crying again, sudden gulping sobs with no prelude. "Kyo!" The kit sucked in a breath of air and began to wail. "Kyooooo!"
"Kyo's not here right now," Chance said, alarmed and a little exasperated. He'd had a morning full of cheap tricks and he was fed up.
Rekka looked up from cuddling his twin, eyes fierce. "Get our brother Val!"
"What's wrong?" Chance demanded, but it was useless. The twins were huddled around each other, and now Rekka was hiccuping with the echoes of whatever secret misery Kaze had transmitted.
He sighed, and reached inside himself for that part he was still trying to adjust to. It was no longer just himself in his own head anymore. *Val?*
*...hunh? What's wrong...?*
*...It's Kaze...well, now both...* He sent a brief flash of the kits crying and clinging together on the floor.
*...all right, I'm on my way...*
Chance stared down at the crying silver kits, feeling helpless. What was he supposed to do? He was no good with children, and worse, he didn't know what to do with *crying* children. "It's going to be all right," he said awkwardly, petting two sets of silver ears. "Please don't cry."
What in hells had set them off like this!?
Kyo's whole body felt tight with anxiety he couldn't put words to. His hand was clenched around Ria's and the youko gave him a comforting press from time to time as they made their way up the street. Waypost was a big town, bigger than his blurry impressions from Ria had led him to believe, and he stuck close to the dark youko's side as they made their way up the street.
"She said it was just up this way, right?" Kyo hated the whine of anxiety in his voice. He was unhappy in this crowded place, the same way he'd been miserable in the town of Austen all his life. He wondered if Ria wouldn't be too put out if he suggested living in the country for the rest of their lives.
Ria's fingers squeezed around his again. "We'll find your brother and leave town as soon as we can, I promise."
A frightening possibility occurred to Kyo. "What if he doesn't want to come with us?" Hells, he hadn't thought of that at all -- he had been miserable in Austen, but what if his twin had found his own niche, managing to make a place for himself and move on? He didn't want to just *leave* Kino here, now that he'd found him...
"Stop that," Ria hissed from the corner of his mouth. "You're making my temples hurt."
"I'm sorry!" Kyo said instantly.
"And stop that, too," Ria told him, but it was good-humored. "You don't need to apologize for being nervous, kitling. But I think you're worrying over nothing -- once your twin sees you, everything will click into place."
"All right," Kyo said, but he still fretted at his lower lip.
"Now, let's see..." Ria was scanning the wooden signs that swung above every shop door, advertising foods and services and goods.
Kyo could admire the colorful craftsmanship that had gone into each one, but could make no more sense of the carved symbols than he could of the sigils of magic Ahrin Morgan had shown him in the past few weeks. He couldn't read. As a dependent of the Palace, the management officials had figured it easier to *keep* them as dependents if they were illiterate. He'd been able to function as messenger and bed-boy well enough, and even better if he couldn't read any missives he happened to carry.
It was one reason, other than his prized Key status, that Kyo had envied Willow. The boy had been allowed to learn as a measure of 'reward' for all the money he'd earned and never seen.
Some of the children of the Palace whores and body-slaves had been taught to read by their mothers, if they weren't taken away before they were old enough. Kyo and his twin had just begun to learn when the escape attempt had torn their lives in half. Then he'd been taken away from his mother, and she had sickened and died.
Beside him, Ria's tail had started swishing, short sharp flicks that accompanied a sense of controlled anger in his lover's mind.
"I think," Ria said, tone full of that same taut anger, "we'll be teaching you to read as soon as we return to the Vale."
"I'm sorr--" Kyo began, and bit the word off in the middle. Instead, he squeezed Ria's fingers and shared the shy warmth that had kindled in him at Ria's vehemence. He smiled. "I'd like to learn."
Ria's posture softened somewhat at that.
"How far is it to the shop?" Kyo asked after a moment. He pulled a long face worthy of Val. "I'm still hungry..."
"I'm sorry!" Ria blinked. "Well, we should grab your twin and take him to lunch, then."
That was a warm happy feeling. Just the *thought* that he'd be doing such a commonplace thing as having lunch with his twin...
A gravelly voice cut into his thoughts. "Thought you'd gotten away, hey?"
Kyo turned with a puzzled frown, keeping close to Ria while trying not to appear as if he was clinging.
He cried out in fright when he was confronted by a shaggy, unkempt face followed up with a blast of rank air. He was pushed very hard against Ria, who grabbed at him and shouted.
In a bewildering flurry of motion, all of the people nearby -- youko, he noted with the lucid part of his mind, since they all had furry ears -- converged on the shambling vagabond man. He was seized and restrained, hollering out curses.
"No," Ria snarled. "Don't kill him yet."
He felt the fierceness of Ria's mind and it scared him. And then he felt the pain in his side, and looked down.
~ to be continued ~