"No more! That's it! Enough!" Chance heaved himself to his feet abruptly, dumping two startled kits onto the braided rug. They blinked astonished golden eyes at each Other, then squalled a joint protest. The white-braided boy quit the room as fast as his legs would carry him and, sure enough, as soon as he was out of the room the kits gave up their crying. Chance rolled his eyes.
Arashi gave him a cheerful grin in the hallway, elbowing past him with a basket of clothes. "Got sick of them, did you?"
Chance shook his head in disgust. "Are all kits this bad?"
"Oh, I don't know about that," she drawled, propping the laundry basket on her hip as she paused. "I'm told it gets less annoying as we get older, and then I'm also told they're perfect little angels as long as they're yours."
"If it's Val's child, I have trouble believing that," Chance said darkly.
Arashi laughed. "You have a point." She gave him a nod and continued up the hallway. "I'm not sure I want a set of them, myself. I guess it depends on who I marry some day."
He continued up the hallway, calling over his shoulder, "Perhaps that's why female youko have so few children -- they know better!"
She laughed in response.
Chance pushed white hair back with both hands as he climbed the stairs, noticing how much easier it was compared to when he had first come to the Vale. His daily workouts with Ahrin continued, dissolving into rough-housing with either the older or younger set of twins later in the day. He had even begun to help either Kirin or Arashi with their chores, rather than the rudimentary and unnecessary task of weeding the garden.
When he had first come to the Morgan household he had despaired of ever being useful to anyone. Every day had left him drained, feeling like a limp dishrag that had mopped one too many spills. After all this time he wasn't any stronger than Kyo, he was sure, but Chance was proud of the fact that he was more useful than he had been. Kirin had even been teaching him to ride, starting with ten minutes a day, and had seemed surprised at how well the horse responded to him.
Chance flung open the door of the room he shared with Val and announced, "We are *not* having children."
Val looked up from his seat on the broad windowsill, needle and thread in his hands and a tunic across his lap. "We're not?" he said in surprise. "Don't I get a say in this?"
"Ask me again in a hundred years," Chance said flatly. He stopped to consider that thought. Would they still be *alive* in a hundred years? Sure, Val assured him of an extended lifespan due to the Bond, but he found that as hard to believe as fairy-tales of cities where metal towers scraped the sky and people let machines do all their work. Even hearing Ahrin talk about things he'd done two hundred years ago was implausible. Chance needed proof.
Val answered him so mildly he was almost embarrassed. "All right, in a hundred years I'll ask." He grinned, ears twitching in an alert manner. "I'm fine with that, anyway. I'm not ready to make kits anymore than you are to raise them."
Chance nodded, satisfied with this. He wandered over to the window, examining the work Val was doing. "That's my vest," he said, startled to find it in Val's hands.
"Yes, and it's ripped," Val said dryly. "What, did you think little house-elves would come and mend it while you slept?"
Chance flushed, then scowled. More fairy tales. "I just didn't think about it, that's all." Or he supposed he had assumed Tsuyoshi did small tasks like that, as he handled the kitchen and most of the household chores or delegation.
Picking up on the thought, Val told him, "If I couldn't handle something so simple as a ripped vest, Tsuyoshi would pinch my ear and sit me down to supervise my stitches rather than do it himself."
"Ah." The white-haired boy nodded, enlightened.
"So what provoked the latest anti-kit rant?" Val asked him, quirking an eyebrow. "Did my fathers make you tend the kits again while they jaunted into town?"
Chance frowned. "No," he admitted. "I walked into it myself."
"Oh, the old 'want to make a wish?'" Val chuckled, flicking his tail against Chance's leg.
"How did you know?"
"Ria and I invented that game when we were three," Val said with a grin. "Don't worry, my fathers were the first ones to fall for it. Which one did they pin on you?"
"Rekka got to braid my hair," Chance admitted, grabbing Val's tail on the rebound and stroking the silky appendage between his fingers. The tail twitched but his lover made no complaint. They were silent at the window for long comfortable moments. Val resumed stitching. After a few more moments, Chance leaned against his thigh and settled there, looking out the window.
"Have you ever been to the sea?"
The question, pitched in a wistful tone, caught Chance off guard. "No, of course not," he replied, surprised. "I've seen pictures..." He trailed off. It was the story of his life. He'd seen pictures, he'd read stories, yet until he'd been 'kidnapped' from the Palace he hadn't seen anything but the same four walls in willow motif.
"We'll have to go, then," Val told him, braced on the windowsill, his tail flicking idly. He looked out into the yard where the kits had boiled off the porch, playing some kind of tag. "Some day, I'd like you to see it."
"What brought that on?" Chance asked bluntly.
"I'm not sure." Val looked out the window, too, his ears twitching. He was feeling uneasy all of a sudden, Chance could tell. "No, that's not it. I have the feeling we're not going to be here much longer, you know?"
"I know," Chance said quietly. He threaded his fingers through Val's tail again, and the black youko let him. Ever since Tsuchiya had come, he'd gotten the feeling that their calm peaceful days couldn't last forever. At the very least, he was grateful for the first weeks he'd had at Morgan Vale.
"So...I suppose I wanted to have some things to keep in mind for the future." Val brooded, looking out into the yard below.
"I know," Chance repeated. He tugged on the black silky tail, turning those golden eyes in his direction. "I'm glad."
Val looked at him, brows slanted in a frown at first. The expression lightened and he knew that his lover was understanding the words he couldn't say. He was glad that Val had taken him here and shown him this place. When they left the Vale, it was enough to know that there were still places like this in the world, the kind of storybook idyll he'd thought was only real in fiction. And some day, too, they would see if they could make a place of their own. That was a part of the cycle.
"Good," Val said softly, then with a mischievous expression grabbed a handful of Chance's uneven white braids and tugged his face close. "So, want to make a wish?"
Chance made his response, but it wasn't in words.
"See? I told you."
The triumphant, very nearly smug phrase hung in the air for a long moment. The aftershocks of the golden afternoon were warm and pleasant around the twined pair, still curled and sweaty in a nest of sheets. Tsuchiya's chest moved up and down in slow steady breaths until Kirin thought he had fallen asleep. Kirin stroked the older youko's flank, smoothing his hand back over the crease of buttock and hip and then the plume of soft-furred tail.
"Told me what?" Tsuchiya's voice murmured deep and unexpected into his ear.
"Oh!" Kirin was startled, thinking his uncle had slipped off. "I told you that you could do it, back then." Do me, he added smugly in his thoughts.
Tsuchiya's lips curved and a hand lifted to comb through Kirin's tangled silver-pale hair. "I'm grateful for your confidence." He touched Kirin in a way that made him feel limp and anxious, barely-sated, though they had just finished a vigorous coupling. Tsuchiya was his first youko lover and even just beginning made him aware of the woeful gaps in his sexual education.
"I thought you had fallen asleep," Kirin ventured, feeling almost shy.
A golden eye cracked lazily, spearing him with a rather alert glance. "Sleep comes to me with difficulty, Kirin, no matter how relaxed the circumstances."
"Sorry..." The silver-haired teen trailed off, biting his lip, feeling he'd trespassed awfully on a subject that was better left out of bed.
"It's all right." Tsuchiya smiled, hands flexing on Kirin, drawing him back into a snug embrace. One hand traveled down to tease at the base of his tail.
"Ohh..." Kirin's indrawn breath was almost a whine.
"Besides, you underestimate my stamina, kitling," Tsuchiya continued, both eyes open now and looking positively feral.
"Don't...oooh...call me that," Kirin commanded, but his tone lacked conviction. He turned, rapturous, into older youko's arms. Tsuchiya kissed like a firestorm compared to the candles Kirin had lit so far amongst his peers. This might not be the one, true love, but it was enough for him, and physically satisfying, and he took pride in the fact that Tsuchiya had chosen him to recover with. "Tsu...Tsuchiya?"
Tsuchiya paused in his caresses, bending his shaggy platinum-streaked black head to fix his nephew with a serious golden gaze. "Yes?" He had, perhaps, sensed some of Kirin's own seriousness.
"How long..." Kirin hesitated, fingers digging into broad shoulders. It was a cruel question to ask. How long would Tsuchiya stay? The teen had already caught his uncle in the middle of departure once, and he'd been able to stop him then. But it was clear to everyone that even though Tsuchiya had come home to heal, he wouldn't be staying here for very long.
The fact that he was able to share a bed with Kirin, now, meant that he was at least partially recovered. That made the immediacy of the matter all the more urgent to the silver-haired teen.
Tsuchiya's eyes slid shut. "I wish I could answer you," he replied. A slight shake of his head sent ink-black bangs tumbling over his forehead, cut through with the stripe of paler hair. "It's not that easy, Kirin."
"Why can't it be that easy?" Kirin demanded. "Stay here with me. Even if we're not suited to Bond, I think we're suitable enough..."
"Enough?" Tsuchiya repeated. He sat up in bed, disengaging Kirin's clinging arms. There was a rueful smile on his full lips. "I'm sorry, it's not a matter of whether we're compatible, or not."
Kirin lowered his eyes, playing with the edge of the sheet. "I know," he mumbled. Whether Tsuchiya left or not was up to an issue larger than both of them, and it meant that things were changing, and that scared him. In his sixteen years, things had been more or less the same with very few differences or upheavals. His twin sister Arashi delighted in new things; Kirin preferred for things to stay more or less the same.
"What happened to me is happening right now to other youko," Tsuchiya said, golden eyes darkening, his expression shuttered. "Some of it worse. We need to do something, or we're all going to die."
Kirin shivered, looking at him with huge eyes. His words, so bleak and matter of fact, pierced right to the core of the matter.
"I'm sorry, kitling," Tsuchiya said suddenly, moving close to him and sliding an arm around his bare waist again. "I didn't mean to frighten you."
"I'm not scared," Kirin lied, baring his teeth defiantly. "And I'm no kitling, either!"
"No, that you aren't," Tsuchiya responded with a low warming chuckle. He pulled him into his arms again, hands caressing once more.
Underneath, Kirin was still chilled. And deep inside, a very small part of him was determined to stay at Morgan Vale no matter what. He didn't want things to change; he wanted to be riveted in this one moment. Forever.
"Well, that's just great."
With a sodden thump, two limp furry bodies hit the rumpled tarp floor. Ria eyed them with disgust, amber eyes dark.
"Trail rations for dinner?" Kyo spoke up with a sympathetic grimace. He knew his partner hated trail rations, though Kyo didn't mind them himself. He'd eaten worse during his time with the Palace; the scraps of leftovers of fine meals and the like. He felt his twin's arm tighten around his middle, and turned with a renewed flush of pleasure. Kino was beside him. His twin.
"Rations," Ria agreed, lip curled. "That's not enough meat to split between you and the twin, let alone all four of us. Damn the luck goddess, anyhow. Nothing is going my way."
Rain thumped softly in complicated patterns across the waterproofed tarp they were using for shelter. It was the second time since leaving Waypost that they'd been forced to take shelter from the weather, with no town or inn in sight. Part of Ria's increasingly bad temper, Kyo sensed, was that they hadn't had a moment alone together since leaving town.
Vaughn, the golden-haired, silent youko, was sitting cross-legged in a corner of the makeshift tent. His face was serene and unmoved as it had been since Kyo had met him. He seemed unaffected by every event that drove Ria's irritation levels higher.
"So we'll have a cold dinner," Kyo said, forcing his voice into some semblance of cheer. He pulled away from the arm looped around his middle and began to rummage into the saddlebags.
Kino made a feeble noise of protest at the abandonment, then shifted towards Vaughn for support. Without changing expression the tall blond youko slid an arm around him.
They had been riding in a light rain at first, a couple of days before, and Kino had caught a bad head-cold. He was miserable and feverish, and clung to any support that would hold still long enough.
It was funny, or rather, sad that Kino had caught cold, Kyo mused. He was the one who'd been injured, but he hadn't gotten so much as a sniffle. On the other hand, Kino was the one who usually danced in scraps of silk...
"Stop glowering," Kyo said to Ria, then bit his lip.
"I'm not," Ria said, but though his tone was light he was glaring at the canvas wall of the tent. His thought was like a whisper pressed against Kyo's temple. *It's like a bad omen, the whole trip...*
*Don't say that!* Kyo responded fiercely. As long as he and Chance were free, the way he saw it things were going fine. Even with Vaughn being the way he was... Kyo bit his lip again and suppressed a shiver. Vaughn had come from the Ussay continent, the same place that Tsuchiya had escaped from. He wasn't psychic the way Rekka was, but it didn't take that kind of sense to feel in his bones that they would be drawn into that fight, sooner or later.
Humans against Youko.
A gesture at the corner of his eye caught Kyo's attention. Vaughn was waving a hand at him. Ria lifted his head sharply, and for a moment his easygoing face looked like Val's, sharp, almost grim, all business.
The fact that Vaughn used gestures to communicate to him told Kyo that he was about as mentally-capable as his mind-deaf twin. Ria was the only being, human or youko, that he could hear in his head besides Kino. The two closest to his heart were the only ones he could bespeak in his mind.
"Take Kino," Ria told him, speaking aloud for Vaughn.
The blond youko nodded and deposited Kino gingerly in his twin's arms as Kyo blinked in surprise.
"What's going on?" he demanded, seeking Ria's gaze.
Ria wouldn't look at him. "Stay here," he said tersely. His amber eyes flicked towards Vaughn, and the other youko gave him a nod. Then, pushing aside the tent flaps, they disappeared into the cold rainy night.
A thin blade of fear knifed through Kyo. Ria had closed off his mind, so he had no idea what had passed between his lover and the other youko. "Kino?" he whispered, tightening his arms around his redheaded twin.
"Ummnh," Kyo mumbled.
"Kino, wake up," Kyo said, shaking his brother. Kino was still mostly unconscious, his forehead feverish and damp, and he was not in particularly good shape. All Kyo was receiving were delirious, somewhat distorted impressions of the things happening around his twin.
He could feel his pulse beating in his throat. Then, suddenly, a pressure descended on his ears and he swallowed harshly. His temples hurt. In his arms, Kino whined and squirmed close.
*Just a little bit of magic to keep you safe.*
There! A ghost of thought from Ria reached him. Kyo grasped at it, but the mental impression of Ria was already fading from his touch.
"Safe from what?" he demanded aloud of no one, clutching his brother in his arms. The way Ria and Vaughn had left so suddenly, in concert, unsettled and frightened him. They were deep in the heart of youko territory.
They should be safe...right?
Chance dropped, exhausted, to the bench that bordered the smaller building on the Morgan complex that served as a training room, an oval single-roomed building off by itself beyond the barns and workshops. The floor was polished, finished wood, and windows circled the building to let in the light from all directions. Set in the back of the oval room, a large walk-in closet served as a casual sort of armory. It was in this room that Chance had been receiving his instruction from Ahrin for the past few weeks.
"Oh, you think you're done?" Ahrin said, grinning, squatting close to the floor with his broad hands resting on his knees. He had barely broken a sweat and his blond hair was braided back tightly.
"I feel done!" Chance replied, staring back defiantly and tossing sweat-slick white braids over his shoulder. He was still panting, dripping with the sweat of exertion, and his stomach was sore, arms and legs nearly shaking with strain.
"Well, you're mostly done." Ahrin relented, standing and moving about. The father of the Morgan clan seemed to have a boundless kind of energy, and he was a big man -- as tall as his sons Val and Ria, maybe even taller. All that energy and height was daunting to a slip of nothing like Chance. "Now we've got some cool-down exercises, you know the drill."
"Yes, yes," Chance muttered resentfully. He knew the drill and he disliked it, but it was better than the alternative. Just about anything was better than feeling useless. He wanted to be an equal partner to Valirion, and that meant hard work to get there.
"You know, you're getting better," Ahrin told him as the young man moved across the floor and dropped into a more-or-less defensive position.
"Oh?" said the boy formerly known as the Willow Key, making the single syllable into a disbelieving noise.
"Of course," Ahrin said, supremely self-assured. "For one, a few weeks ago you wouldn't have been able to complete even one of these cool-down exercises without collapsing into a sodden heap."
Chance cocked his head as he moved from first stance to second stance, not even realizing that the flow of his movement was much smoother now, more controlled. He was getting demonstrably stronger, though still weak compared even to Arashi. "I didn't really think of it that way," he said, gratified. "I guess you're right."
They flowed from second stance to third stance, Chance mirroring Ahrin's poses as he had from the very first day. It was easier for him when he had a model for what he should be doing. They went through the exercises -- mostly cool-down stretching, for the most part, but the stances also served as part of the martial discipline Ahrin had been teaching to Chance. The one thing Chance had reason to be justly proud of was his flexibility.
"Hey, Ahrin?" Chance asked, as they held the last stance for long heartbeats, and the light crept by the barest degrees across the floor. Dust motes swam dizzyingly in the block of light beyond the tall blond man.
This was a question he'd put off asking for a long time. Chance still didn't know much about youko, besides sleeping beside one and living in a household with one or another constantly underfoot. They were beautiful, puzzling, exotic creatures and Val had been the first full-blooded youko he'd ever seen.
"How...how do they do it?" Chance blurted, casting about for a good way to phrase it and coming up short. He wasn't good with words, only with insults.
Ahrin turned a critical blue eye on him. "Do what?" He dropped out of the last stance into a regular standing position, hands on his hips. "I assume you mean the youko, or at least my family."
"Children," Chance said, sounding as if the word had been dragged from him. "Val told me that we could have children together, but I still don't quite believe it. He said something about changes to youko bodies, or something like that... But you and Tsuyoshi have had six..."
"Yeah, and likely to have more," Ahrin said cheerfully. "We're careful to space them ten years apart, though. That's what we agreed on when we started this whole family aspect of our lives."
Chance scowled. "I don't get it," he said bluntly. "How do you have them? It doesn't make sense to me."
Ahrin looked him over, and those sincere blue eyes turned serious. "Honestly, Chance? I think at this point that's something you don't need to know."
The white-haired boy scowled harder, tossing a handful of pale braids over his shoulder with impatience. "I don't understand. What's the use of keeping it from me? I want to know."
"That's too bad," Ahrin said blandly. "Because I still think you don't need to know, and I'm sure Tsuyoshi would back up my opinion. How do you think you would have reacted if you'd known about the Bonding in advance? This is the same kind of situation. It would be...off-putting...for you to find out before you need to know."
Chance pondered this. "I think I see," he said at last, but of course he didn't have to like it.
Ahrin waved a hand airily, moving to stow the wooden practice swords they'd been using. "It's one of the close-held secrets of the youko race, you know. It's terribly disturbing to outsiders when they find out about it...why do you think some of them consider youko to be abomination?" He turned, handsome face unsmiling and solemn. "All you need to know is that it's got more to do with metaphysics than with bearing them of the flesh. Val may have implied that he'd be pregnant, but it wouldn't happen in the conventional sense...not the way you're thinking, not at all."
That was a relief, right there. Chance nodded. "Thank you, Ahrin." Just that much eased his mind...it was surprising. He knew that the youko had flesh-working powers; they'd changed the color of his skin and eyes, after all. So he'd thought, and he'd been led to believe, that the flesh-working powers played some involvement with the manner in which male youko could reproduce.
"You're welcome." Now Ahrin smiled again, and threw open the doors of the training room.
Chance paused on the threshold. "What's metaphysics?"
"What?" Chance said defensively, glaring at him more out of instinct than any ill-will. "What did I say?"
"We've gotten a good start on your physical progress," Ahrin said, shaking his head, "but we've got to work on your education as well, I can see."
"Well, excuse me," Chance sniffed, combing the stickiness of sweat-plastered white bangs out of his eyes. "I didn't have much leisure or opportunity to read educational materials."
There was a grin in Ahrin's voice when he replied. "Yes, and I've heard something about the materials you did have leisure to read..."
"There's nothing wrong with romance novels!" Chance all but screeched, embarrassed that Val would impart something like that to his parent.
"Trashy romance novels, even," a deep cheerful voice added, and Chance felt a glimmer of satisfaction that wasn't his own before he turned his head, catching sight of Val in profile, before he was swept up and the world was abruptly upended as he was tossed over the youko's shoulder.
"Put me down!" Chance demanded tartly, trying to maneuver to kick Val in the stomach or something similarly disabling, but the youko had picked a good moment to strike. Chance didn't have any leverage, and his limbs were limp and wrung out from the intense work-out.
"Nope!" Val denied, a trace of humor in his voice. "Father, mind if I borrow this one? I assume you were done with him, he seems fairly well spent."
"We were finished," Ahrin said, sounding amused. Chance pushed himself up on Val's back enough to stare direly at his traitorous mentor.
"You're both enjoying this," he accused, then fell with a thump to Val's backside as his wobbly arms gave out. "Ow." Val's tail flicked him in the face, compounding insult with injury.
"Aye, and you will, too, in just a moment or two," Val told him, a leer in his rich voice as he carried Chance off -- not towards the house, as he expected, but into the West Field, which was more forested area than fields. "I'm whisking you away for an afternoon of sensual pleasures."
"You're going to be disappointed, then," Chance said. He pounded ineffectually at Val's back and the damned youko only laughed and flicked him in the face again. "Monster! Thief! Rapist!"
"Hmm, I've never been called that last one before. That's a first, thanks."
After an interminable length of time with his already-abused stomach muscles being jolted on Val's bony shoulder, the youko set him to his feet. Hands on Chance's shoulders, he turned him around. The young man glared up at him for a second, letting him know without words that he wouldn't forgive him easily for the insult to his dignity, then looked where Val's intent golden eyes directed him to. He sucked in a breath, impressed against his will.
A shimmering bolt of cloth had been spread out by a creek's bank that threaded its way through the West Field. It was nestled in a fairy-tale vision of greenery, flowers and plants grown impossibly large in a kind of screen around the silken cloth spread over the sweet-smelling grass. Sparkling pinpoints wheeled through the air, motes of energy that swam and gave off faint steady light. In one nook of tangled green vines, a large picnic hamper rested. The place looked secluded, and enchanted in a way he'd only dreamed could exist.
"When did you have time to set this up?" Chance asked, sounding sharp even to his own ears. He relented in the next heartbeat. "I thought you and Tsuyoshi were training the kits on the East Field today..."
"We pawned them off on Kirin and Arashi for the morning," Val said, sounding pleased with himself. "I wanted to surprise you, and Tsuyoshi cooperated."
"It's beautiful," Chance grudged, while his eyes greedily drank in the sight. This was like something out of his tales. And Val had set up the surprise just for him.
Val's hands closed over his shoulders. "I thought you deserved a little break this afternoon," he said, offhand. There was a smile in his voice when he continued. "Besides, I promised you, didn't I? I told you I'd show you how good life can be when you're free of that place."
And it's just the two of us, Chance thought, relieved at the thought. He liked Val's family, but after being accustomed to periods of solitude interspersed with sexual abuse, being thrust into the middle of a noisy and intrusive family had been hard on his senses.
"And those sensual pleasures I mentioned," Val continued, drawing him down to the blanket, "don't necessarily have to include love-making...although that would make a pleasant dessert."
Chance gnawed on his lip for an instant. "Show me," he said peremptorily.
Val began to demonstrate.
And the diversions were indeed every bit as pleasant as he'd promised.
"Get back here, you little scamp!" Kirin yelled, chasing a madly giggling Rekka, who eluded him with the ease of a slippery eel as he padded through the family room bare-arsed, leaving a trail of wet footprints.
Arashi blinked as her twin chased her younger brother through the house, and bounced Kaze on her knee. "Thanks for being good for me," she whispered in his silvery ear, and Kaze nodded, golden eyes wide and solemn, and sucked on his turnip some more. The youngest kit had an inexplicable fondness for the vegetable...turnips, and radishes too.
Rekka ran the other direction through the room and into the house, shrieking at the top of his lungs now. A few heartbeats Kirin ripped through in hot pursuit of his naked brother. "HOLD STILL, damn you! Come back here and finish your bath!"
"Good luck, bro!" Arashi cheered him on, thinking very little of his chances. Rekka wouldn't stop until he was exhausted. And then he'd probably curl up in some bolthole of the house and they wouldn't find him until dinner. Then he would be dusty and grubby and he'd need a bath all over again.
She was definitely not having kits for a hundred years or so...Arashi wholeheartedly agreed with Chance on that score.
Kaze stiffened in her arms, and Arashi looked down at the top of his silvery head, concerned. "Kaze?"
The turnip dropped to the floor and rolled over the braided rug.
Her little brother turned his face up, and his tawny eyes were faraway, not focused on Arashi but some place beyond. "The last of the pieces are in place," he said, his childish voice gone flat and hollow. His gaze sharpened, still looking beyond her to some distant point. "The end-game begins now."
"Kaze," she said, worried, and gripped his arms gently, not shaking him but grasping.
He shook his head, pale hair swirling about his little shoulders, then his golden eyes were huge and focused on her, frightened. "Sis?" he whispered, begging reassurance. "Did I...?"
"Shh," Arashi soothed, hugging him to her chest and stroking his hair and trembling ears. She stared past him at her uncle, who had just come through the doorway and paused with a stricken look. For such a broad-shouldered, muscular youko Tsuchiya looked fragile in that moment, gaze bent on his tiny nephew shaking in Arashi's arms with the aftermath of vision.
Tsuchiya watched them silently for a moment, then slipped away.
Rain beat down slickly over forest and turf, churning the area into a dangerous battleground with muddied grass underfoot and poor visibility. The branches cast twisted shadows in every direction, with what little light that penetrated. Fortunately for the combatants, youko eyes were sharp even in the darkness and the rain that would put their opponents at a disadvantage.
*Who could have followed us here?* Ria cast the thought at the tall golden-haired youko, silent Vaughn, who was tying his thick mane back in preparation for the fight.
Vaughn fretted his lip between his teeth, large sherry-colored eyes flicking to meet his, then away to seek hints of the movement they'd sensed. *They're not hunting us,* the other youko replied, his fine features drawn in a frown as he concentrated. His tone was shot through with mingled fear and loathing as he continued, *They're youko hunters.*
*Here in Vilxule!?* Ria was briefly stunned, but grim purpose was renewed. His hand dropped to the hilt of his sword, the finely-tempered saber that Ahrin had used for a century. Apparently Vaughn's mental abilities were greater than his; Ria had more rapport with the land, that could tell him the location of the clumsy lumps of sound coming their way and imparted nothing of motive.
The reply was short. *Yes.* Vaughn's sending carried overtones of inevitability, and his intent.
Ria ducked his head in a nod, and they crept off into the cover of the trees to seek out their enemies. Whether the hunters were after he and Vaughn or not, if they were youko hunters they'd already bought their own end.
The ground was treacherous footing, and Ria moved with every ounce of skill he possessed, easing from one bit of cover to the next as the earth and his own senses told him where the closest of the killers crept towards them, thinking they were the ones doing the ambushing. Vaughn had slipped off to the right, giving him the impression he would flank them from behind and then vanishing like smoke, a dead spot even to Ria's keen senses. He had shielding as dense and impressive as Tsuchiya's, Ria had time to marvel, then he was coming upon the first of the humans.
Ria squinted through the rain, pausing to assess his prey before he struck. They wore armor unlike any he'd ever seen, plate with a coppery sheen and odd joining. The cut of their trousers was strange, as well, and the party of hunters -- five in number -- were foreign of feature. Ria had been to twelve of the seventeen provinces of the Alliance and this was something new and surprising.
There was no time for hesitation. Vaughn's thoughts touched his, then they both launched from cover, snarling battle cries and drawing steel.
Ria's first opponent was dazed at the ambush at first, then scrabbled for and lifted a battle-axe, again strange in design to him but he didn't have time to think so much as note the similarity. Then the fight was on. Ria parried the first swipe with his saber with gritted teeth and revised his tactics. He couldn't fight this kind of weapon head-on. That had been a hasty blow and still his arms had barely stood up to the strain of meeting it. He ducked and whirled, slicing the man's legs out from under him. The hunter tumbled to the ground with a shout, and Ria plunged his sword into the man's throat.
Meanwhile Vaughn had finished off two men in swift, silent succession as Ria turned to his next opponent, tumbling to avoid the whistling slash of the heavy battle axe's blade. As the man recovered from the wide swing, Ria skewered him messily near the armpit, withdrew his sword with a snarl, and threw himself back to avoid being gutted by the other free hunter.
The one he'd wounded was howling but threw himself at Ria with fanaticism burning in his eyes, battle axe uplifted again. Vaughn engaged the other man with his deadly combination of daggers, and Ria leapt to his feet to impale the wounded hunter on his saber, then dance to the side to avoid the blow that came crashing down.
His saber was stuck in the man's chest as the hunter swung, heavy blade thudding into the muddy ground. His face was slack and shocked as he let go and stared at the saber that was sticking out of his chest, then reached to grasp the hilt with both hands.
Vaughn's last opponent fell, a bloody grin decorating his throat just below the furriness of brown beard.
"You're a good fighter," Ria panted, blood screaming through him with the suddenness of the battle.
The black youko grimaced in distaste, reaching for his saber as the last man standing reeled. His thick hands fought Ria for control of the saber hilt.
"Abomination," the man gurgled, spitting something bloody at him. His nerveless hands fell away. His eyes were sightless and dead before he hit the ground.
"Disgusting," Ria returned, retrieving his blade from the corpse. With a convulsive movement he wiped the blood-specked gobbet from his damp cheek. He turned to the other youko as he cleaned off his blade and sheathed it, face set in grim lines, then concern pulsed through him.
Vaughn stood staring at the bodies, eyes wide and blank. Blood coursed down his fighting daggers, dripping onto the wet earth. Slowly, his soggy head lifted to turn in Ria's direction. *Ridan fighters.* His ears were plastered to his skull with palpable fright.
The term meant nothing to Ria, and he indicated as much. Whatever Ridan fighters were, they'd obviously set off panic in Vaughn.
*Ridan fighters,* Vaughn's honey-smooth mindtone repeated, then elaborated thick with fear, *Mercenaries from the Ussay continent.*
The fear was contagious. It sparked through Ria's body, enflaming him with the overwhelming urge to turn tail and run. "We've killed them," he argued, trying to quell the irrational panic that gripped him.
Vaughn's eyes were haunted. *Ridan fighters travel in groups. There are more out there...and they're headed for their target.*
The panic was thick in his mouth now, making Ria's tall body tremble with tension. "Morgan Vale," he hissed.
*Let's go. NOW.* Vaughn was still clearly frightened, but his thoughts bent now towards the delirious red-headed kit sheltered in his twin's arms. He was determined to protect Kino and those dear to him, even if he didn't quite know why.
"Are they headed for Morgan Vale?" Ria demanded, as they broke into a run, pelting back towards the snug enclosure where they'd left the halflings.
*I don't...* Vaughn shook his head in frustration, then sent an image of a familiar broad-shouldered youko with platinum-streaked dark hair. *They are hunting this one.*
"My uncle!" Shock swirled in Ria's thoughts for a moment, along with added urgency. "We need to ride." They were still a long way from Morgan Vale, but hard riding and a change of horses along the way would get them there soonest.
Ria tore down the barrier surrounding the tent and they broke through, muddy and panting, wet with the rain and undoubtedly wild of eye. Kyo looked up, his pretty elfin face shifting from sleepy welcome to sharp panic in an eyeblink as he absorbed the details of their appearance.
"Get up, kitling," Ria said, trying to sound cheerful but the strain came through.
"We ride now?" Kyo said, aghast, looking down at the feverish twin in his arms. "But Kino..."
"Vaughn will take care of him," Ria said, brooking no argument as he moved about the small tent, packing up scattered items into the saddle packs with quick efficiency.
Vaughn nodded, gathering Kino into his arms and disappearing into the rain outside.
"Ria..." Kyo sounded young and frightened, and stood in the middle of the tent with pleading eyes. "What's happening?"
Turning from a saddle pack after he'd tied it shut, Ria embraced his Bonded for a moment and Kyo clung to the support. He smoothed a hand over the red hair, and closed his eyes as it reminded him of the fresh blood he'd just spilled on the ground not too far away from where they stood. He screened that image away from the halfling, that and the rest of the short brutal battle. When he spoke, his voice was soft but the intent was dark. "We need to get home, Kyo, before they do."
They finished collapsing the tent together. In a matter of minutes, the two youko pounded off into the woods, a twin shivering in the saddle before each of them. Vaughn was a close presence nearby, fear locked behind a wall of silence. Ria held Kyo steady with one arm and urged his horse faster.
They would make it in time; they had to.
"No, damn it, keep Rekka back!"
"Hold him steady, didn't I tell you!?"
"He kicked me in the teeth!"
"Ahrin!" Tsuyoshi roared, black hair streaming in disarray over his narrow shoulders, "Where's that potion, damn you!?"
Chance hovered in the doorway, fear wrapped around him as tightly as his bloodless knuckles gripped the door-jamb. His violet eyes regarded the scene in the family room with shock; it was almost a parody of the casual wrestling that could go on during any given afternoon in the Morgan household. Today it was frightening as Kaze convulsed, held down by no less than Tsuyoshi, Arashi, and Val and still the tiny kit sought to throw them all off, head knocking against the braided rug as he seized repeatedly.
"Keep the leather belt between his teeth," Tsuyoshi instructed, tone and temper frayed. Arashi nodded, her narrow face focused on her little brother as she tried to obey her father's instructions.
Back near the doorway that led to the kitchen, Rekka struggled in Kirin's arms, biting and scratching with voluble worry for his twin. "Lemme go!" The silver kit twisted and tried to kick his older brother in the thighs and stomach, writhing like an eel. "Lemme go, lemme go!"
Kirin sank to the floor and held on, golden eyes burning.
It had happened very suddenly after breakfast, and Chance was still immobile with the shock. One minute they'd been preparing for their daily activities, Val and Kirin bantering in the doorway, the kits chasing Arashi's tail as she whisked it out of their hands, Tsuyoshi holding up a list of chores to divide. The next minute everyone had dropped everything as Kaze began to shriek, falling to the rug of the family room as he began the first of a series of painful seizures. Now Chance clung to the doorway, scared out of his wits and hoping no one would call on him to perform some essential function. He didn't think he could move.
"AHRIN!" Tsuyoshi yelled, voice going hoarse.
Apparently they had already tried some mind-magic trick, and it hadn't worked. Kaze's condition translated to utter panic in his twin, and Rekka kept trying to reach his brother even though in his current state, he'd be just as likely to hurt Rekka as anyone.
Ahrin burst through the door, a red-glazed flask in his hands, expression grim as his mate's. "I still think he's too young for this," he said as if continuing some sort of ongoing argument.
"That's why we'll only use half the dosage," Tsuyoshi snapped, shaking hair out of his eyes as he glared up at his partner. "This is all we can do."
Ahrin kneeled beside his young son as Kaze heaved on the rug again, eyes wide and metallic, shining up like blank discs. The leather belt was between his teeth and he was trying to say something past it, but Arashi was firm in her duty. Deftly, the human mage traded places with his youko mate, holding down Kaze's upper torso with his broad hands and giving the flask over to Tsuyoshi.
With a pinched expression, Tsuyoshi nodded to his daughter. In concert, Arashi pulled the belt free of Kaze's mouth and seized his nose instead, tilting his head back as Tsuyoshi grabbed the kit's jaw, pouring dark fluid into his mouth. Tsuyoshi pushed his jaw shut with implacable gentleness and stared down at his insensate son.
Kaze's heels thumped on the rug, then his whole body stiffened.
The family held a collective breath as Kaze swallowed. He thrashed for a moment more as siblings and parents held him, sharing worried glances. Then Kaze went limp, dispelling a bubbling sigh.
With obvious relief, the three youko and the human mage released him.
"Put me down," Rekka demanded fiercely, scrubbing tears from his rounded cheeks. Kirin held him a moment longer, looking for permission from his father, which Tsuyoshi granted with a nod.
"What happened?" Tsuyoshi asked the most likely source, Rekka, as the silver kit padded towards his twin on bare feet and crouched beside him.
"He had a vision that hurt him," Rekka said simply, glancing up, staring briefly at the doorway beyond Chance, then turning his attention back to his twin. The kit stroked his brother's hair and ears.
Chance turned, catching a glimpse of broad-shouldered Tsuchiya and the look in his eyes before the older youko beat a hasty retreat. The weight of centuries in his eyes was crushing, and added to that was an open wound that even Chance, for all the abuse he'd taken, could never fathom.
"That did it," Tsuyoshi said, standing with a fraction of his usual grace and stoppering the flask. "I'm sorry, love."
"I don't have to like it, do I?" Ahrin returned without a trace of humor. "It worked. That's what matters. Let's put them to bed."
Rekka was unresisting, even cooperative, as Ahrin and Tsuyoshi scooped up their youngest sons and carried them out of the room. Chance's fingers finally loosened enough to release the door-frame as Kirin swept past him, not even looking at him, then broke into a run.
He didn't dare speak, but stared mutely, almost angrily at Val, frustrated and upset with his own paralysis in the middle of that center of activity and panic. Arashi took one look at Chance's eyes and wisely quit the room, patting her eldest brother on the shoulder in passing.
"Come on," Valirion said, patting the floor beside him. "It's over. May as well sit down."
"Don't treat me like a child!" Chance snapped, crossing his arms stolidly, unsure of his own reactions and angry because of it.
Val raked a hand through his shoulder-length dark hair, turning a weary look on him. "Please, Chance. Could you think, perhaps, that it's for my comfort and not yours?"
Chance nearly took a step back, feeling the comment like a verbal slap. "You..."
"I'm sorry," Valirion said penitently, and his regret washed over Chance like a balm. "Please, come sit."
Warily, Chance approached him, arms still crossed. He lowered himself awkwardly into a cross-legged position, wishing he had half of Kyo's grace or an ounce of Val's supple confidence. Immediately Val put an arm around him, resting his dark head on Chance's bony shoulder.
"Val?" Chance said, making an effort to be soothing. It was difficult when he was still so unsettled. "What was Kaze saying? He was trying to say something around the gag."
Val sighed and played with Chance's hair for a moment before answering, running his fingers through the unbraided ends of milk-white hair. "He said they're coming," Val said flatly. "He said the bloodbath is starting. He said the fire rages even now, and it spreads north in a conflagration. And he said the pieces are lined up, and the endgame has begun."
Chance listened, disbelieving. "That doesn't make much sense..." he said slowly, trying to fathom why those words, while portentous, would send Kaze into convulsions.
"Ah, but you didn't see the visions that accompanied the words," Val told him, shaking his head on Chance's shoulder, pulling him closer and burying his face in the crook of his neck. "And I wish I hadn't."
"Bad?" Chance managed, putting his arms around the youko as far as he could reach. As bad as he'd lived through? Worse?
"You don't want to know." Val would say no more after that, and played with Chance's hair until his parents came into the family room again. Chance held him and tried not to think.
Thinking only made things worse.
"If you leave now, I don't know about the rest of my family, but I'll never forgive you."
The conversational tone surprised Tsuchiya so badly he dropped the bridle and spun, cloak flaring around him like panicky wings. Kirin stood in the doorway of the stable, one arm reached to steady himself, amber-golden eyes fierce.
"Don't try to stop me," Tsuchiya warned, voice as shaky as his hands. "I caught the content of his visions. I understood more than any of you, even. I've been there. The fire comes from the south, and I'm the one drawing it here."
"Is that all?" Kirin asked, toneless as he stalked towards the older youko.
"Don't," Tsuchiya repeated, but he felt as if he were the one being warned, falling back a step. He pressed against the stall and one of the horses lipped at his hair. Tsuchiya, spooked, jumped in the other direction, and Kirin came forward in a rush and caught at his arms.
"No, you 'don't,'" Kirin snarled, gripping him hard. His narrow face was intense and pleading in the same instant. It would be so easy to shake off his clinging hands, to turn and push away the peace that living here had given him, to take one of his brother's fresh horses and disappear. Kirin picked through each of those thoughts with him. "Running won't make us any safer. And it won't fix things for you, either."
Tsuchiya shook his head slowly, putting his hands over Kirin's, braid of dark brown hair slithering over one shoulder as he gave in. "Kitling...how did you get so wise?"
"I'm no kitling," Kirin told him without heat, but without humor either. He released Tsuchiya's upper arms to move in close, sliding his own arms around the older youko's waist, pressing against him with the comforting length of his body. "I'm not saying you should stay, I just..."
"Think I shouldn't run away?" Tsuchiya finished for him, stroking Kirin's hair. He was calmed by the young man's determination.
"Yes, that's it exactly." Kirin rested his head against Tsuchiya's shoulder, arms loose around his waist. "So you'll stay?"
The reprieve was momentary. Tsuchiya knew he would have to leave this place sooner or later. But for now, he would take Kirin's comforting words and presence at face value. After all, he wanted to stay.
"I'll stay," he agreed slowly, "until other plans are made."
"That's good enough for me."
Tsuchiya could only smile at Kirin's optimism. The kitling was still so young. He wanted to stay, but still, he felt...still he thought he should be leaving.
This place had so much to lose.
~to be continued~