It was a warm golden afternoon in the Vale, the kind of lazy-hot summer day that would tempt anyone to slack on the chores and go for a dip in the river. And it would have been peaceful, too, with nothing to break the Vale's usual calm. A leggy dark-haired figure broke through the brush at the edge of the large clearing, moving with long frantic strides. The fox-eared man raced through the neat rows of the garden, missing planted seedlings by inches. Bare heartbeats later, twinned silvery shadows darted after him, following as he tore the door open.
Thoughts pounded the air between them.
*What's going on?*
*Why is Kaze so upset?? It's as if...*
Arashi gave her twin a sting of recoil. *Don't say it, don't even hint someone might be...*
Val's own mind continued the train of thought, grim and kept strictly to himself. Someone might be dead, he reasoned, for his prescient brother to start up such a sudden fit of crying. He could see through Chance's eyes, and the two kits were clinging together and crying harder than he'd ever seen. It must be difficult for Kaze, having the sight this strongly at his age.
Doors slammed as they rushed through the house, homing in on the source of the commotion. Chance had knelt beside the twins and Kaze's face was buried in the softness of the teenager's green tunic, crying into Chance's stomach with his twin's arms thrown around him. The beginnings of bewildered panic were scrawled on Chance's face, and Val dropped down beside him, shaking his smallest brother's shoulder gently.
"Kaze?" he said, worried, blanketing the kit in an equally-gentle mind-touch.
Without a pause in his crying jag, Kaze moved from Chance's tunic to Val's, small hands latching onto the bigger youko's belt. Arashi bent and plucked Rekka from the floor, swinging him up into her arms and stroking his hair in a practiced, soothing sort of way.
"What's wrong?" He picked up Kaze in a similar fashion, tucking the kit against his body and rubbing his back. Kaze began to hiccup in between sniffles. He wiped his nose on Val's tunic and pulled away.
"It's Kyo," he managed, sucking in a miserable breath. "Someone hurt Kyo. He's hurt real bad, Val."
Chance made a slight, disbelieving noise, and there was an upset flare in his mind. *No, he can't be, not my only friend.*
"But he's not dead?" Val probed.
Kaze just hiccupped and started crying again. Rekka lifted his face from Arashi's tunic-front, tear-streaked but looking calmer than his twin. "Not dead," Rekka sniffed back moisture in a disgusting way, "he's not dead."
"Then we'll just have to concentrate on that," Val told them, petting Kaze's hair. Gods, but he wished his youngest brother didn't have the range he did. Being affected like this...it didn't help them; it only hurt to know this little about something so far away.
His own link to Ria wasn't much good. It would take an effort to connect with Ria's mind now, and with two crying kits at hand and his brother undoubtedly occupied, it was no use even trying.
*He'll be okay...* Chance was biting his lip. *Right? Ria will make sure...*
With a sharp cry, Kino doubled over.
In the same instant, Vaughn was out from behind the counter and beside Kino, bracing him. His golden eyes were concerned as he bent over to examine the boy's side. He cast a sharp glance at Taylor.
"Kino, have you got a lifebond?" Taylor said in a puzzled tone.
"N-no," Kino ground out, pressing his hand tight to his side. Ah, gods, it hurt. It felt as if he'd been knifed by a cutpurse.
"This doesn't make any sense," Taylor said to Vaughn.
The frown deepened between Vaughn's golden brows. Without warning, he picked Kino clean off his feet and carried him to a bench behind the counter, peeling his hand away before Kino could protest and probing his side with gentle fingers. The youko looked up at him, a question clear in his eyes.
"No, it doesn't hurt when you do that," Kino told him, then winced again as the phantom pain lanced through him. It didn't correspond to Vaughn's touch.
Vaughn cast a scowl at Taylor.
"Who're you bonded to, kit?" Taylor supplied, crouching next to them both. "What you're feeling right now, it's not your pain -- it's someone else's."
"It damn well feels like my pain!" Kino snarled, half-sitting, then falling back with a choke. But it was true when Vaughn had touched him, he hadn't felt pain from that.
Vaughn was looking at him intently, ears canting this way and that. He tapped Kino's breastbone once, staring at him with peculiar emphasis, then tapped him again. Then he touched the hand Kino had once again pressed to his side.
*I almost understood that.* Kino ignored the tears beading at the corners of his eyes. "No, Vaughn. I haven't seen my twin since I was a little kid."
Vaughn frowned at him again, then tilted his head at Taylor. Kino could almost hear the question. 'Then what's wrong with him?'
"Should I get a healer?" Taylor asked.
"No!" Kino growled, at the same time Vaughn shook his head, still frowning. Kino gripped Vaughn's hand gratefully. He had precious little money to spare, and that much he was hoarding on the hope, maybe some day, he would be able to search for the brother he hadn't seen in years. His brother, if he was alive, was all he had left.
"Well, we have to do something," Taylor told them, throwing his hands up in exasperation. "I can't have something happen to you, Kino; Corr would have my hide."
Vaughn turned his head again, to stare into the hazel-flecked yellow eyes of the pottery shop owner. This time, Kino swore he could hear a murmuring sound, a baritone voice dragged over gravel speaking faintly as if from far away.
"He says it looks like you have a twin-bond snapping into focus," Taylor said, looking as frustrated as Kino felt. "Are you..."
Kino felt like biting something. "How the hell should I know?" he snapped, forestalling the question, clutching his side. If it wasn't real pain, he reasoned, then it would go away. It didn't need a healing if there was nothing wrong with him. Vaughn was lifting his hand away again, peering into his face with a concentrated look. Kino rolled his eyes, gasped, and screwed them tightly shut instead. Never mind. If it wasn't real, he didn't want to experience the true feeling.
He could hear some kind of murmuring in his head, and it wasn't Vaughn...actually, it rather sounded like his own voice.
"What the...what's happening to me?"
"It doesn't hurt," Kyo tried to reassure Ria, staring at the blood on his fingers. That meant it couldn't be too bad, right?
Then he crumpled, clutching at the wound in his side as the surge of pain lanced through his guts. Shock, it must have been the instant of shock keeping him safe for a moment or two, but Ria had already known.
With a yipping howl Ria was cushioning him, taking him in his arms and preventing him from hitting the ground. It hurt; it hurt worse than anything in his life, worse than the fever he'd contracted shortly after his mother died. Worse than the pain of having his family, no matter how bad their conditions had been, torn apart.
"Give me a knife," Ria snarled, ripping words at odds with the gentle way he held Kyo. The black youko had knelt on the boardwalk that lined the dusty street, cradling Kyo across his thighs.
"See to your bonded first," was the curt response of a reddish-haired youko with wolf eyes.
Kyo looked up into the knot of people holding the ragged man. There was blood dripping from the knife someone had wrestled away from him. He felt his side pulse and it hurt, it hurt. His head was swimming and his fingers were wet.
"Kyo..." Ria's voice was faint; far-away. "Kyo, stop thinking like that. You're making it hard to work."
Work? He thought, vaguely, that Ria should sound a little more concerned and wondered if he should be offended. Oh, his side hurt. Someone else was kneeling beside them, a woman with cool grey eyes and white hair, not a youko woman, and when she touched Kyo her hands were cool too.
"You concentrate on keeping him stable," the woman told Ria.
Stable? But he wasn't moving anywhere. Why, then, did he feel a rocking kind of sensation? As if strong arms were carrying him away from all this.
The knife was being taken away. He could see the few spatters of blood it had left behind on the boards of the walkway. The man was still here, the man who'd hurt him, and Kyo wanted to bare his teeth. Ria had snarled 'don't kill him yet' -- did that mean he would be enacting vengeance?
Did that mean Kyo was going to die?
"Stop it," Ria was whispering in his ear, meant to be soothing, he knew from the touch of his mind, but there was a frantic thread in his voice.
It wasn't the only thing Kyo could hear. There was a smothered murmur in his ears, the sound of his own voice and he hated the whining touch of panic, 'what's happening? what's happening to me?' and as if a switch had been touched, the pain drained away.
"That should do it," the white-haired woman said with satisfaction.
"Healed?" Ria asked hoarsely, holding Kyo close but not pulling him away, hovering as possessively as he could and still let them woman do her work.
"Taken the pain away, for now," she replied.
Kyo tried to sit up and found himself restrained. "Don't," Ria warned. His feral eyes turned to the woman. "What about the wound?"
"It will heal, but it will take some time," the woman told him. "I've stemmed the worst damage, the fatal damage. The rest of the healing should take its own pace."
"Earth witch?" Ria asked softly.
"Just a simple, salt of the earth herbal witch," the woman replied. "I'm not a flesh-worker like youko but I can heal in small ways."
"This is more than just a small healing to me," Ria told her, hugging Kyo to his chest. Carefully.
Kyo stared past them both, at the flow of people across the street, at the boy with his face. He closed his eyes. The boy with his face had a golden-haired youko, a foil for his dark Ria; was being carried down the street. He could still feel the pain; no, he could feel it again, a sharp twinge in his side, fading to a throb. His voice was high with panic.
Kyo opened his eyes, and they blurred. He spoke, breathy and shrill. "What's happening to me?"
Ria's arms tightened around him. For a moment, he thought he saw two sets of golden eyes looking down at him, both concerned, one pair wide and wine-colored, the other Ria's narrower, striated-amber gaze. "This isn't a side affect of your healing, is it?" He addressed the witch, who placed a hand on Kyo's forehead.
The coolness of it made him realize how hot and papery his skin felt.
"No," she replied. "You should get him to a bed. He needs to lie still, someplace warm and quiet. I think he must be going into shock."
Shock? But how could shock feel like being two people at once? He wanted to tell them he was already being carried up the street, but didn't want to worry them. Instead of speaking Kyo clung to Ria, frightened. Was he so badly off no one wanted to tell him?
"What about--" Ria was scowling at the knot of people, mostly youko, who had completely surrounded the culprit.
"Leave him." The woman's mouth tightened. "They will deal with him as he should be."
Cut for cut, Kyo thought, in a swift but effective street justice. He wondered if the earth witch would heal him, too. Perhaps she would wait for the same amount of time as it had taken for him to be treated. Or maybe they wouldn't treat the man, at all.
Ria picked him up, holding Kyo's thin body close to his chest. His legs dangled down like a child's. "I'm already...I feel..." His breath was wispy.
"Shh." Ria's face was dark as he glanced at the cluster of youko. "Let's get you inside."
Couldn't Ria feel it? The doubled-up sensation inside of him was so disorienting he was sure he couldn't walk on his own two feet if Ria had asked. But the pain was subsiding already, bleeding away as it had before. "Ria..." He clutched at his lover's tunic, asking without words.
"It's your twin, love," Ria told him. He gave a little grimace. "Should be, at any rate. It usually isn't this disorienting for Val and I to meet after a long absence but, then..."
"It's been ten years," Kyo said, stunned. This was what Ria had meant by the twin-bond snapping into effect? But it was...gone...now. "But that means he's close, right? It means I've almost found him!"
"Later." There was a scowl in Ria's voice; his emotions were ragged and swirling. "We're getting you back to the hotel, and I'm tucking you straight into bed. Then I'll help to heal you, but only as you sleep."
Unfair! Kyo wanted to cry out. Just that moment, it must have been his twin. Whether he'd really been across the street or across town, it meant Kino was close. But Ria's priorities were firmly in order and, if Kyo failed to obey, the black youko was bigger than he and could pin him down to ensure he rested.
Still, he had to try. "Ria, come on," Kyo entreated, making his voice pleading and winsome. Before, he had hardly exerted half of the charms of his stock-in-trade on Ria; he had been able to be himself and nothing more. Now, he had motivation. The pain had faded. If that had been his twin-bond, moments before, then his twin was close. "Wouldn't it be easier to heal if I had my twin beside me? And, well...I could feel him echoing my pain. He was hurting because of me. I want..."
"Shh," Ria hushed him again. His brow was creased. "Let me think."
Kyo could feel the smothering blanket of Ria's worry, and something beneath. I'm sorry, I was too slow, I couldn't protect you... But just as he felt it, and thought to reach up and give reassurance, he delved into what lay beneath. I want you to be with your twin again but I'm selfish and I want these last moments, let me do this for you...I've just found you myself and now he will want to make a claim on you...
He stayed as he was, tucked against Ria's chest like a fragile doll, feeling shocked. Ria was worried, possessive, maybe even jealous, and felt...
"You didn't fail me," Kyo whispered.
"What?" Ria glanced down at him. The black youko had reached the inn and they were pushing through the door, stepping sidewise to fit.
The woman behind the counter was gone, and a blond teenager sat in her place. He looked up, blue eyes wide and strained. "Ahh...welcome, can I help you?" The boy's voice cracked.
"We're just going up to our room," Ria said curtly.
"Ah, good, thank you." The boy sank back into his chair.
Once Ria had settled him onto the wide bed, Kyo worked up enough energy to plead his case again. He hadn't realized Ria had felt so mixed about it, wanting to reunite him with his brother, but fearing that the reassertion of their twin-bond might somehow upset their very recent union. If he'd thought about it, or been in any position to oppose Ria's decisions, he might have had them delay longer. They could have spent a few weeks home without the pressure of a journey before them.
"Ria, if we could just--" Long slender fingers pressed over his lips, silencing him more effectively than words.
"Later," Ria told him. Golden eyes were intent on his, not pleading, but asking him something. "He's close now. We can find him later." Isn't that enough for now?
"All right." Kyo surrendered unconditionally. Ria was melting into the comforter next to him, a warm presence by his side, making his body feel better more on just the healing levels, but the empathic reassurance as well. He had gone without his twin for almost, or just about, ten years. An hour or two...it wasn't desirous, but neither was it a great agony.
"And when we wake up," Ria muttered, burying his face in red hair, "then I promise you - that's when we'll find your twin."
Kyo smiled, closing his eyes. Without vocalizing it, not actually humming it, he could hear that faint tune once again. Soon, it told him.
Chance Morgan was having one hell of a hard day. He was willing to wager, though, that Kaze beat him out tenfold on that score.
Summoned by the frantic cries of two kits, Tsuyoshi and Ahrin had returned early from the trip, a grim-faced Tsuchiya in tow. Chance had never figured himself for the most sensitive of individuals, but he felt something was not quite right there. The frantic upset of Kaze's weeping wasn't quite enough to drown out the undercurrent of tension between Tsuchiya and his brother.
"My head aches," Chance said quietly, aside, to Val. The black-haired youko had gratefully relinquished his brother to Tsuyoshi once the elder Morgans had returned. Things had been noisy on more than just a verbal level, he was sure. After a time, Kaze had stopped crying, drying his tears on his father's shirt, sniffing back snot and assuring everyone that Kyo was out of danger but he *still* didn't know what was happening.
It was imprecise but just enough information to be truly frustrating.
"Come on," Val told him, taking hold of his elbow. "Let's go." He was firm enough to let Chance know he was serious.
Chance let his Bonded draw him onto the wide porch at the front of the house. Once they stood outside, he felt better. A buzzing that he hadn't even realized was there began to fade from his thoughts.
"Better?" Val murmured.
"You know it is," Chance said, pulling away, feeling irritated for no particular reason. He hugged his arms, huddling against the wooden railing. Being outside like this was better.
"It's going to be okay," Val spoke softly, leaning over the railing and staring into the distance. For once the youko heeded how he felt and did not touch him; not right away at least. Val always touched him sooner or later for his own reassurance if nothing else.
"What...what could've happened?" Chance demanded, mouth dry. "One second he was crying for a turnip, and the next... Kyo is going to be all right, isn't he?"
"I can only assume so," Val said, flicking a glance at him over one bare shoulder. "Ria is asleep right now, from what I can tell -- it's difficult with such a distance. But he wouldn't be asleep if Kyo wasn't out of danger."
Chance clenched his fists. "Aren't youko supposed to be safe here?" he challenged bitterly. "Yet Kaze is crying for Kyo within a week as if he'd died--"
"Don't think I'm not as upset as you," Val cut him off, voice still quiet but heating up. His tail began to lash. "We are supposed to be safe here, and it's more unsettling than you know to feel that stripped away. It wasn't like this when we left home, years ago, and to have things get bad like this, in our own province..." He bit the words off, golden eyes flaring with anger and fear, and turned away.
Chance took a step back, feeling the heat of that anger. He wanted to draw away to the opposite corner of the porch; when in danger, take refuge in sarcasm, or roll with the punches so he wasn't hurt as badly. He didn't get far before Val turned, a contrite look on his face. The blistering immediacy of that anger faded, gentled, was blocked away from him.
"I'm sorry, Will," he whispered, moving for him.
Chance held still as Val approached him; it was an effort. His first impulse was to skitter further away but he knew it would only turn the golden eyes hurt; the anger to self-recrimination. He waited until Val's eyes slid around him to try and relax, and then he could relax, and Val stroked his hair as he shuddered.
"It's not fair," Chance whispered angrily, for being angry was the only way he could be without flying apart. He referred to Kyo, of Kaze, of the things that had been done to Tsuchiya which might surpass even his experience...but maybe not...and either way it was things which should not have been done.
"I know," Val told him. He held him tightly, and it was comfort. In the back of his mind, there was still an anger reserved, but Chance felt it and knew it would come out later; when he had a meeting with his parents, maybe. He'd save it for some time when Chance was asleep and wouldn't feel the anger in a heat rising along their Bond.
He wished there was something they could do; anything to help or at least find out what had happened to his friend.
"Without even knowing the details, we can't do anything," Val told him, echoing his thoughts.
"Very reassuring," Chance said drily, pulling away. "Despite whatever broad statements your parents were making, I don't feel safe here anymore. I don't think there's anyplace that's safe, if Kyo could get attacked in this happy little youko-friendly province of Vilxule."
Val's eyes darkened. "I don't think we're supposed to feel safe anymore, Will," he replied, using the old nickname. He laid a hand on the carved wooden bannister, golden eyes solemn.
There was a sense of history to this home, Chance inferred. The house at Morgan Vale had stood long before Val's memories could recall. It was the place Ahrin and Tsuyoshi had chosen to settle down, and after a while, where they decided they could raise children From all he knew of youko, that in itself was a difficult decision out of the considerations of history and physiology.
It was hard for a youko to have a child, because it wasn't the normal human manner of bearing - not for the males. It was an investment of time and planning and careful balance of metaphysical resources more intricate than any woman's reflexive nine months.
Chance wondered if they would ever have children together. He didn't know if it was something he wanted, even if Rekka had some strange attraction to his hair.
"You promised me safe," he said at length, leaning against Val to take some of the sting from his words.
The words invoked a pang of regret in his lover. "I always thought it was safe here," Val returned, looking around the wide front yard. "I always remembered this as the one safe place in the world. I guess I was allowed to be naďve for too long."
Chance was silent for another interval. He would have remained caged, he knew, for the rest of his life if Val hadn't risked himself to take Chance from the Palace. And they had rescued Kyo, as well, and the red-haired boy had become his friend after the initial uneasy state of truce.
He could have said something aloud about how no place was safe. This was something he'd known since waking from fevered dreams as a child to be delivered into life as a Key. Instead, he slipped his hand into Val's. It would become difficult enough without his own nature making things worse.
Chance thought he'd never heard the youko sound so profoundly sad before.
"I wanted to show you the places I've been," Val told him, voice unexpected after the long silence. "I wanted to show you the places where Ria and I had mad adventures, the towns where I had narrow escapes, the provinces I liked best. I would've shown you that the world isn't so bad as you think."
"There's still time for that, isn't there?" He twisted a white lock around his finger. "These things Tsuchiya told us about are happening down on the other continent, not here."
"Yes," Val said, "but they're getting worse here, too. And I thought it was all a part of my daring, pushing my escapades from one hair-raising edge to the next, but it's not."
"Well," Chance said with a shrug, pulling at Val's hand, "there's no point in dwelling on it, is there? Let's go inside. Let's be with your family. Your father is right; there's no point in trying to make plans now, or in worrying about trouble that isn't here."
Val grimaced at him. "You're feeling all right?"
"Don't make me glare," Chance said. He tugged Val's hand again. "Now let's go."
He had a feeling as they turned from the deceptively tranquil, golden afternoon, and it wasn't nearly so positive as he projected. Chance knew that his inherently distrustful nature had been a source of upset to the youko from time to time, but it would serve them well. When he was already expecting the worst, it could only get easier from there.
Dusk gathered on the windowsills and slanted the shadows into purple as evening descended in gradations of deepening color. Activity in Waypost was sluggish for that transitional time after day's work was done, but before evening traffic picked up. It was a family hour, the dinner hour, and from the sound of it the business in the bar below was gaining speed accordingly.
Ria stroked his hand over Kyo's smooth side, skirting past the still-pinked and ugly healing wound. His lover's mind was calm, induced sleep having given way to a natural one, and he was rising out of the dreaming stage in a pace that suggested he'd open his eyes shortly.
He thought he was ready for that, now. Having Kyo to himself for a bit in the drowsy afternoon had helped, as he lay curled around the sleeping boy and gave the surprisingly possessive urges enough time to dissipate. Ria closed his eyes now, nestling his chin in the crook between neck and shoulder.
"Now I'm really, really hungry," Kyo's light, breathy voice informed him.
The black youko sat upright, angular face penitent. "I'm sorry. I should have at least forced some food on you before the sleep." After so many hours spent in healing somnolescence, he was starving too.
"Then let's go eat now." Kyo sat up without wincing, and for Ria it relieved the watchful portion of his mind that had made him sit watching the wound heal before his own eyes.
In the Jaderose Inn, the downstairs area was markedly more crowded than it had been when they'd checked into the establishment that morning. The boy at the front desk was replaced once more with the sultry dark-haired woman with heavy-lidded eyes. She widened her eyes at them, and Ria took this for invitation and steered Kyo over.
"Kyo's twin, have you seen him?" the youko asked point-blank.
"Of course," Vella said with a rippling shrug. "He's in the bar right now, doing his set."
Ria frowned. "Can we...?" He indicated the boy by his side.
"You can go in, but you'll surely have to wait until he's finished," Vella replied. She tilted her head in a quizzical fashion. "This afternoon he fell sick with some kind of pain, but the witch couldn't puzzle out the cause for the life of her. You know anything about that?"
He felt an angry flush rising in his face. "Someone stabbed Kyo on the street."
"Ah," Vella said, elongating the sound, seeming enlightened. "So that's why that one was carted off without a trial."
Ria looked at her alertly. "Dead?"
"By now, I'm sure," she said, tossing back glossy black hair. "There were plenty of people in the street who saw it, Youko Ria."
Kyo pressed his hand, making him aware of the boy's vibrant anxiety, present in every fiber and waiting only for the moment. Ria chuckled, gave a nod to Vella, and made a path for them through the cluster of bodies that blocked the double doors of the bar. He'd hardly seen one this crowded in the early evening, and certainly not in the more respectable establishments he'd visited this early in the night. There must be some kind of draw at the Jaderose beyond the slender curvy-hipped girls that seemed to double as staff and courtesans.
He could barely peer through the crowd knotted at the door, and Kyo was faring worse beside him; he hadn't hit his main growth spurt and as such was fairly short. The first thing Ria spotted was the cheerful golden youko behind the bar, his fine pale hair tied back in a thong, so light it looked like cornsilk instead of the deep burnished gold that was more common. He was serving drinks with a grin and the scantily-clad barmaids trooped back and forth with trays and orders.
Then he spotted an exact likeness of Kyo on a table and his jaw dropped.
"Uh..." He was torn between covering Kyo's eyes and steering him back to bed, or pushing a clear path through so his Bonded could get a glimpse of his redhead twin. The boy had been raised in a Palace, so he wasn't likely to be shocked, per se; it was simply a matter of debating the appropriateness of a reunion under such sparse...uh...such naked circumstances...no, that wasn't the right word...
This proved unnecessary as Kyo slipped through the people, murmuring apologies, keeping a grip on Ria to be sure he followed.
"Th-that's my brother Kino?" Kyo uttered in a strangled category of gasp.
"Uh," Ria agreed, too amazed not to stare. He supposed, once upon a time, Kyo might have paraded like this, dressed in very little and arching his back, tossing red hair about, moving with liquid abandon. Once upon a time, in a Palace where he hadn't enjoyed the company or the fact that he was at the mercy of people with very little by way of mercy and very much of great appetite.
"My twin is...table dancing," Kyo blinked, trying to wrap his mind around the concept. This was obviously not the reunion he'd pictured.
Table stripping, Ria amended in his thoughts. "Uh."
Kyo twitched. "Stop that," he said, sounding shockingly normal in his aggravation.
Scanty leather shorts flew past a patron's ear and another one snatched them out of the air, a big-boned silver youko who whistled his appreciation. Kino was down to a thong and a scrap of silk that made a pretense of being a scarf. Silver coins spread in his wake, gathering on the table-tops, and no one but the sharp-eyed or unaffected noticed the boy who followed the dancing halfling, collecting the money into a pouch.
"He's definitely in touch with his youko side," Ria said with an enthusiastic grin.
Beside him, Kyo swayed.
The redhead gyrated to a stop, his golden eyes flitting wildly through the crowd. Panic overtook sensuality in his face as he stared, uplifted arms falling to his sides. Ria noticed a golden youko start forward on the far side of the room, his large fine eyes fixed on Kino at first, then making a circuit of the room as if to pinpoint the threat that had halted the halfling's dance.
Kyo made a sound low in his throat as Kino's eyes locked on his, blinked once, then grew wide.
The slender redhead leaped off the table, scattering patrons left and right, and dashed straight for them. "Kyo, isn't it? It's Kyo!" For all he was breathless, Kino's voice carried. "I thought you were dead! For such a long, long time..." Then Kyo's hand was torn away from Ria as his brother pelted into him and seized him in a headlock of a hug.
Kyo stood frozen for a moment, eyes staring up at Ria, then his arms went around his twin and he hugged back, fiercely.
"I heard the song," Kino said, tone so low Ria could barely hear. "I heard, but I didn't think it meant anything."
"I'm so glad," Kyo replied, and it could have referred to Kino's words or simply the fact that they had their arms around each other, twinned faces alight with joy.
"Come on," said a husky, unfamiliar voice, and Ria glanced angrily at whomever would intrude on this. It was the golden youko who'd been bartending, and as he had a bemused sort of affection on his handsome face, Ria could forgive him the interruption. "I can't think you want everyone to go on watching this, now. Let's get you to Vella's sitting room."
"Vaughn," Kino muttered, looking over his shoulder. Across the room, the youko with large fine eyes lifted a hand in response, solemn face easing somewhat from the watchfulness that had been there.
"He'll catch up with you later," the golden youko said firmly, and he led the way.
Ria brought up the rear, covering their retreat so to speak. Ahead of him, the twins linked arms, one russet head beside the other. And in his head, he could hear the strains of melody in his head that Kyo had hummed.
It no longer sounded mournful, only filled with joy.
"He's leaving us," Corr said matter of factly, tossing his sheaf of pale blond hair over one shoulder.
"Yes," Vella replied, "I know. I figured as much, as soon as I looked into that little redhead's eyes and realized he wasn't our Kino. He had come from somewhere with that tall black youko of his, and it was someplace he'd be returning to."
"We knew Kino wasn't going to stay forever," Corr said with a resigned shrug.
Vaughn made a soft, wordless noise where he stood by the door, and the proprietors of Jaderose looked at him. Vella's eyes slid over to him, and her expression gentled.
"You haven't known him long, have you?" she asked calmly. "He's been with us for a few years, and he made it plain from the first that he wouldn't be staying forever, and that he'd stand on no one's charity. That twin of his has been his goal as long as we've known him, and now Kyo has gone and found him first." She grinned.
Vaughn looked away, leaning against the honey-brown panels of the wall.
"...Are you sure?" Corr said aloud, as if in response to a question. Of course, one had been asked, but it was inaudible to anyone lacking the mental capacity to 'receive' it. Vaughn's voice, to Vella, sounded like something rich and fluid poured over gravel. She wondered if it paralleled his real voice, and wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer.
The golden youko tipped his head and just looked at him.
"You're going with him," Vella said, statement and not question. She frowned. "Do you really think..."
"It's up to Kino, isn't it?" Corr interrupted, turning to face Vaughn and not his mate, though he spoke to her.
"More to the point, don't you think that black youko will have his say in the matter?" Vella replied. "They've traveled some distance to come to Waypost from what I can tell of the matter, and doubtless the place the little one calls 'home' is with Youko Ria."
Corr shot her a look asking her to hold her tongue, which Vella had much practice with ignoring.
"Is it..." She hesitated, the delicacy unlike her but this was Vaughn and not any youko; Vaughn who had come from one continent to another and hadn't said a word aloud since his arrival.
Vaughn understood, his large fine eyes turning in her direction but not quite meeting her gaze. He shrugged, a helpless and very resigned gesture.
"It's up to Kino," Corr said stubbornly. "If the boy wants Vaughn along with him, that Ria isn't in any position to protest. And Vaughn wants to go, so I don't believe Kino would turn him down."
Vella held her tongue. She hadn't been Corr's mate for the length of a human lifetime, but she could recognize when a situation was a youko matter and did not make sense to her because of the cultural difference. An imposition, she would say, or interfering without cause in another's business, even though it was the business of one who was technically a youth. She had grown up by the sea, though, and hadn't known anything more of youko than tales until one particular pale gold youko crossed her doorstep.
Vaughn shrugged again and closed his eyes.
"Well, we should make ourselves scarce," Vella said, a hint of the asperity she felt creeping into her tone. "They'll hardly appreciate it if they come out of my sitting room and find us falling over each other, listening at the door."
"We are not listening at the door," Corr objected, but his triangular gold-furred ears cocked upright from their canted listening position.
Vella smiled, letting him know with a sultry look that she didn't believe him in the least.
The door cracked open, and Vaughn jumped, sherry-colored eyes snapping open. He edged off to the side.
"If you're quite finished," a low voice said, "and will move out of the way, I can come out of the sitting room."
Vella looked triumphantly at Corr.
The pale blond youko sighed and moved to Vella's side of the hallway, taking up a position beside her.
The black-haired youko emerged, shutting the door with a quiet snick behind him. He looked tired but satisfied.
"I hope you'll excuse our shocking lack of manners," Vella said to him directly. "We're all concerned about Kino, you see."
"So I figured," Ria said in amiable tones. "I won't take offense. I was something of a third wheel in their reunion. I figured I could detach myself from Kyo long enough to replenish the energy I used up earlier."
Vaughn's brows drew down in a sharp line, and his mouth thinned. His glance towards Ria was knifelike.
"Yes, he was just earlier today; how did you know?" Ria said with some surprise, assimilating Vaughn's sending.
"Vaughn was the one who carried Kino back to us, as he was hurting," Vella told him.
Vaughn's expression was mixed. The black-haired youko faced him squarely, and they locked gazes. Vella edged towards her mate as the atmosphere got thicker, and she felt they should be elsewhere yet did not want to risk moving. Corr gripped her arm, cautioning her with his touch to remain still.
"Are you his...?" Ria paused, and left the question hanging there. "I see. I think I see. If Kino wants you with us, Youko Vaughn, I don't see any reason to deny you." His face relaxed and he grinned, a youthful expression. "Besides, there's plenty of room at my parents' home."
Corr's tail flicked lightly against her leg, as if to tell her, 'see?'
Vella pushed at him. "Fool. I've got to get back to the desk, and you have got to get back to your bar, Mister Lightmane."
Corr gave her a mocking bow. "Gentlemen, I would be honored if you'd sup at my bar while the twins have their moment of renewed twin-ness."
"That's not a word," Vella told him under her breath, but turned her back on them and moved back to her front desk before she could witness her mate's undoubtedly childish response.
"I'll give you a discount, even," she heard him add magnanimously.
Red head tucked under red head, identical looks of contentment on their heart-shaped faces, it would have been difficult to distinguish between the gold-skinned twins if not for the immediate discrepancy of clothing. Kino had snared a loose shirt from somewhere, and the open white article fell to mid-thigh and billowed about his skinny frame. Kyo was dressed in blue shirt and traveling breeches, fresh from Ria's saddlebags after his rest.
After Ria crept from the room to leave them in peace, Kino snaked his arm around his younger sibling's waist. "Mother?" he said softly.
Kyo buried his head in Kino's neck, unable to answer aloud.
"I thought so," Kino said, stroking Kyo's back with his free hand. "I...I thought I felt it. Then we got too far for me to feel you anymore, so I was..just never sure."
"They brought me to her near the end," Kyo said, muffled. "She got sick. That's all I remember."
"S'okay," Kino soothed. "We were really young, y'know."
"Father?" Kyo said anxiously, though he hadn't much hope If their father were still alive, he figured, he would have found Kino with him. Instead, he was living at an inn and dancing on tabletops for a living.
That had been somewhat startling. Still was, in more ways than one.
"Mmh," Kino said by way of reply, chin digging into Kyo as he nodded. "He's gone. I think part of him gave up, inside, when I told him I thought Mother was dead."
"He loved Mother a lot, then." Kyo wriggled, resting his arms more comfortably around his twin.
For a short interval they were silent, not needing words. The tactile reassurance repaired their long-absent bond in ways that speaking aloud couldn't cover, not completely. And though the boys had only the most rudimentary of mental abilities, there was enough of that as well, and it reasserted itself now. Kino stroked his twin's ruddy hair.
"For a while, I lived with our grandparents," he said after a time, each word slow as if reluctant to divulge the memory.
Kyo's head lifted. "We...have family?"
"No," Kino said, dropping his eyes. Each word was sorrow to him, and bitterly shared. "They died a handful of years ago. They tried to help me, and I was happy with them for as long as they were alive."
"They were killed?" Kyo guessed. The phrase he couldn't put out there for confirmation was 'because you're a halfling.'
Kino did not reply.
After another interval, it was Kyo who opened the silence with speech. "They were talking about us, out there."
Kino stirred. "I know. But now they're gone."
"Ria says the golden-haired one, Vaughn, will be coming with us," Kyo said shyly. "Is he...?"
"You can hear him in your head?" Kino interrupted, surprise quickening his voice. He shifted them on the couch, propping his elbow on a throw pillow, setting them in more of a face-to-face position rather than curled around each other as they'd been. There was something comfortable about being entwined, some force that resonated through their bond like lying paired in the womb. But this commanded Kino's interest, because he had never been good at mind-speech, and thought naturally his twin would be the same.
Kyo widened his honey-gold eyes. "Of course," he said simply. "He's my Bonded, after all."
Kino looked at him with mute frustration. It was hard to verbalize, but Kyo understood and snuggled closer, stroking his stomach.
"Do you hear Vaughn in your head?" Kyo asked him. Those dark honey-colored eyes, given a hint of red while framed in those wings of auburn hair, were just like his own and so sincere. His twin understood. He'd forgotten what that was like.
Kino shook his head. "No, I don't." There was more frustration inside, easy to hear in his voice, and Kyo hugged him about the waist.
"It's okay," Kyo said. "Ria is the first I've heard since Mother. Our talent simply doesn't run that way." He spoke with clear simplicity and Kino knew without reaching for the knowledge that Kyo trusted Ria in that deep sense, taking his word because he said something was so.
"Mmm," he said, not an answer but enough by way of response.
Kyo's fingers dug into his waist, near the small of his back. "Did you want to hear him in your head?" The question was textured.
"I...I'm not sure," Kino admitted. "I like him a lot, but I've liked a lot of men. I guess...mostly I want him to stop looking so sad. But if I don't hear him does that mean he can't be my Bonded?"
He could feel Kyo's hesitance, and his careful thought over the matter. It was odd to feel that, yet it was almost like identifying his own emotion, and his own thought processes. "I'm not sure," Kyo admitted at last. "I heard Ria from the first time I saw him, but I don't know if that means anything. I don't know much about Bonding."
Seeing as he was the one who hadn't been raised in seclusion, Kino supposed he should know more about it. Then again, he had only come to Vilxule in the past few years. They shifted positions again, facing each other on the couch, knees touching. As if choreographed, they lay their hands on one another's thighs, then both smiled in recognition of the mirrored move.
"Vaughn and I haven't done anything," Kino said, beginning to answer his twin's unspoken questions. "I just wanted to see him smile at least once. He's been so sad...and, I don't know, there's something about him."
"So you want him to come with us," Kyo concluded.
"Mmm," Kino agreed with a nod. He petted Kyo's thigh, admiring the butter-soft breeches. "I think it will be better for him to leave Waypost. It's a town of survivors." He paused, cocking his head, startled at his own realization. "I don't think that's what he needs right now. He needs something moreŠ"
"Just wait until he sees Morgan Vale," Kyo said eagerly, leaning forward. His red hair slipped forward off one shoulder, prickling along Kino's arm. "I think you'll love it there, too."
"Of course." Kino was supremely happy. "You'll be there."
Kyo's eyes sparkled as he nodded. "And we do have family, now."
+to be continued+