The Morgan Vale
Chapter Eight -- The Conflagration

by Talya Firedancer

It was another clear blue day in the Vale, of the sort that had been promised to him those many months ago. Chance Willow Morgan lay late abed, listening to the dawn song of the birds, doing nothing more strenuous than breathing and enjoying the feel of another's arms around him. Behind him, Valirion was still soundly sleeping, his even exhalations stirring the unbound pale mass of Chance's hair. Chance rested a hand over Val's, violet eyes somber as he stared out the window at the endless blue of the sky.

He'd come so far.

Though only a province away from the one he'd been born in, and sold into slavery as the Willow Key, the past few months had changed him so much Chance felt like a completely different person.

The name had only been the first step for him. At that point, he'd still begrudged to believe the vision Val painted of a place where he could feel safe, happy...and loved. That last had been the hardest thing for him to believe -- he, the Willow Key who devoured endless romance novels had been convinced love was only illusion, a passing conceit of artists to gild the bitter pill of life everyone was forced to swallow.

Then that impossible, infuriatingly cheerful youko had taken his Key by chance, and nothing had been the same again, or ever would be. With his unrelenting sensuality and the unnerving pressure of a mind against his, Val had begun the changes within Willow that would bring him here.

Today, Chance could honestly assess himself and know he was still lacking. He wanted to be an equal partner to Val, but knew he had a long way to go. For the majority of his life he'd been locked up in the Palace, first as a courtesan's brat, then after the illness, he'd been transformed into the Willow Key. He was trying, though. With Ahrin's help he'd be trained and resourceful. Even more than that, day by day his attitude changed.

Val had stumbled upon him by happenstance, and given him a life outside of slavery...a chance to become what he would, by the youko's side. Those two factors had combined to give the boy who'd been the Willow Key the name he now chose as his own.

It was truly a beautiful day.

The delicate gold and pink of the far horizon made Chance's fingers twitch for a paint brush. These past few weeks the only thing he'd held had been the wooden sword Ahrin had him using to practice. His days were consumed with practice, a fraction of the chores that kept the Morgan farmstead running, and reading the books that Tsuyoshi and Ahrin fed him in the afternoons.

He was...happy. It had surprised him to realize over time that he was, and had been, since the day they had fled Austen on horseback. Now that he'd been given all this, then, he had so much to lose.

Chance's feelings frightened him sometimes, and that was why he retained some of the verbal harshness of his old attitude. His old sharpness was tempered by those peculiar new feelings, though.

"You're up early," Val breathed, stirring the short hairs at Chance's nape.

Chance shifted within the warm cradle of Val's arms, feeling smug as the youko rubbed against him, making lazy purling noises. "Don't you have a little morning business to take care of?" Chance demanded, tone belying his actions as he reached down and behind and tweaked the growing erection that pressed against the curve of his rear.

"Ohh, I think you're the only business worth taking care of, this morning," Val drawled in his ear, before nipping his earlobe. Chance had had plenty of leisure to observe that the youko's love bites were sure indication of his lusty state.

"Mmm." Chance was enjoying this, especially when Val's hand smoothed over the concavity of his belly and dipped below the curve of his pelvic bone, seeking the trembling heat there and giving shape and focus to his craving.

After a few satisfying tugs, Val rumbled in his ear, voice like rough velvet, "Come here." Chance turned, pliant in a way he'd never been, giving in to Valirion's morning urges without a token protest. Val's amber-gold eyes were surprised but appreciative, and he rubbed his mouth against Chance's jawline before pressing hard against him, lips to lips, hardening cock against cock. Val's tongue was slick and active against his, claiming him with the combination of enthusiasm and gentleness that got him off his guard from the first.

"Yeah..." Val breathed, the lump of his erection rubbing between Chance's legs as he twisted against him. "Oh, you perfect thing, come here..."

"Mmmnh," Chance responded, any possibility of coherent thought scattered to the wind as Val bent to nuzzle and nip at his throat. For his part, he eased his hips against the youko, fumbling over Val's waist to press his hand along the flat line of muscle down his back, to either side of his spine. He hooked a leg over Val's, drawing himself closer, entwining them.

In his arms, Val stiffened, his eyes going blank and shiny, almost seeming to glow in the dim lighting of the bedroom.

With a curse Chance went still, registering the odd sensation of Val's split consciousness. "Your timing is terrible," he told Valirion, who heard him with maybe half an ear. The white-haired boy began to pull away, not bothering with the absurdity of passing his hand over the youko's distant eyes, sitting up with a grunt and reaching for something from the bedstand to tie his hair back.

When Val's eyes snapped into focus, the only thing left in his expression was panic.

"What's going on?" Chance demanded sharply, attuned to his partner's moods and facial nuances, and this one was enough to make alarm flare in his gut.

Val scrambled out of bed, lean nakedness reaching for a pair of pants, ears flattened against his skull. "Ria and Kyo are back with company, and some emergency news," he said curtly, half-dressed now and heading for the door.

"Kyo's back?" Chance said in astonishment, body still not quite ready to believe their peaceful morning had evaporated in an eyeblink.

With Kyo's twin, and one other, Val added in his head, already going down the stairs.

Chance cursed again and fumbled for something to wear. He tossed a filmy robe over his nudity, casual about it the way the rest of the Morgan family was. As long as something pretended to obscure private parts nobody really noticed. He rather liked that lack of body-modesty taboo, since he'd always been accustomed to wearing as little as he pleased.

Halfway out the door, he paused, glance falling on a stool in the corner. A battered, time-worn teddy bear had been placed with care on the seat, keepsake of the childhood he couldn't remember, and a token of the years he'd survived since then. A grudging smile tugged at Chance's mouth. He was free of the old things that had kept him chained into servitude. Val had done it for him, and brought him here.

Now wasn't the time to think about the past, though. Now was time to scramble downstairs and find out what was going on, as well as show his friend how much he'd improved in the time since he'd left.

In the wide living-room area of the Morgan family, built to accommodate a generous amount of twinned youko and their loved ones, Chance was forced to stand on the stairs as he tried to sort out the mess that was going on below. There was no room in the living room, for once. There was one new face he recognized and one new face that was unfamiliar.

There was no point in demanding waspishly "What's going on?" when there was already so much going on. Kyo was clinging to a kit with the same face as his, who seemed groggy but looked around the living room with rising interest. The silver kits were swarming underfoot, one clinging to a sleepy Kirin, the other one hefted into Arashi's arms and looking at the visitors with wide solemn eyes. Golden-haired Ahrin, in full practice gear, was facing off with Ria who had a Val yoked to him with both arms around his twin's neck. Ahrin was giving Ria a furious diatribe on the care versus the misuse of horses.

Back near the doorway by Kyo and his twin, a new youko hovered, looking uncertain and haggard. He had a fine-boned face surrounded with dulled gold hair that was hanging in tangles, and his eyes were large, an unusual shade like dark yellow wine. Chance regarded this one sharply. Ria and Kyo had gone to get the halfling's who was this, his Bonded?

Then Tsuyoshi slipped into the room, pulling a brief robe over near-nakedness, his long black hair disheveled and hanging down over both shoulders. His eyes were wide and sharp with upset.

Ahrin slewed around, breaking off his harangue mid-sentence. "Tsuyoshi--?"

"That's why I'm trying to tell you, Dad, this is more serious than the horses!" Ria said forcefully, cutting across the brief pocket of silence. "It's time for a family meeting."

Chaos ensued at that statement.

Everyone began to speak at once, except for the kits who burrowed against whatever parent or sibling they were closest to. Chance leaned over the railing and demanded in Val's direction just what exactly was going on. Val and Ria broke apart and began to argue with each other. Tsuyoshi advanced into the room, scooping up Rekka and speaking with Ahrin, expression worried. The redheaded twins hovered in the corner, Kyo looking huge-eyed and scared, the other seeming confused, both piping up though it was lost in the din. Tsuchiya entered the room, asking anyone in the vicinity what was going on and receiving no coherent answer.

"Enough!" Ahrin thundered, and was rewarded with silence. He gathered in his family with his eyes, and one by one everyone turned to him. "Ria, you'll get your family meeting."

"First tell us who the newcomers are," Tsuyoshi said, giving his partner a firm look of his own. "That you are Kyo's twin is obvious, but your name and that of your companion..." He trailed off delicately.

The clamor had calmed somewhat. Chance scrambled down the stairs, barely conscious of his state of near-undress and hardly caring when some of the others were wearing very little too. He stood beside Val, who in his usual habit sidled close and stole an arm around him.

"Don't paw me," Chance warned him, but let him keep the arm.

Introductions were exchanged. First was Kyo's twin Kino, of course, known to them all because of their identical features. There was something more mischievous about Kino's face, even though right now he looked tired and drawn. His skin was a few shades darker, too, the mark of someone who had spent more of their life outdoors than his paler twin.

Even Chance noticed the tension in the air when the introductions paused on Tsuchiya, and the older youko locked eyes with the cheerful-seeming redhead. Tsuchiya's eyes flicked to the unfamiliar golden-haired youko, back to Kino, then he abruptly asked to be excused from the meeting.

Tsuyoshi faltered, then moved on with the introductions as his twin left the room without waiting for an answer.

Vaughn was the name of the exhausted-looking youko with the large expressive eyes. He didn't say a word during the introductions, merely bobbed his head.

"He's been through a lot on the other continent," Val whispered against Chance's hair. "I can tell." His hand smoothed over Chance's side.

Chance let that pass for now.

It took some time to get everyone situated. The youngest twins, Kaze and Rekka, were dismissed from the meeting. They were too young to hear the kinds of things Ria undoubtedly had to bring to the table, but they were too excitable to leave without a fuss. Tsuyoshi settled the matter by appealing to his departed twin to take the kits to the hot springs for an extended bathing session.

The answer must have been affirmative, because the twins scampered out of the room with delighted expressions.

As they seated themselves at the table usually reserved for meals, the feeling of grim purpose had descended on everybody. For Chance, it was underscored by the extra table space that had been pulled up to make room for everyone...but there was no meal laid out. This was serious. His morning had gone from sensual laziness to war council in the blink of an eye.

"Tsuchiya should be here," Tsuyoshi was fretting in low tones to Ahrin, near the head of the table where both of them would sit. "He knows more about what's going on down there than any of us."

"It can't be helped," Ahrin said, giving him a comforting touch and guiding him to his seat. "Because he knows so much, he can't be here right now."

As soon as they were all seated, Ria made his blunt announcement. "On the way home, we stumbled across mercenaries from the other continent, the Ussay continent, who were here to kill youko. Specifically, they're here to hunt down Uncle Tsuchiya."

The shock of it ricocheted around the table.

Tsuyoshi went white, but did not look particularly surprised. Everyone else looked the gamut of distressed to puzzled to stunned.

"Why?" Kirin demanded, pounding a fist down on the table. "Why are they here to hunt Tsuchiya?"

"Why doesn't matter right now," Ria answered him, deadly serious. "They're here. According to Vaughn, these mercenaries -- Ridan mercenaries -- are vicious and they will kill any youko they come across. We took out one group, but Vaughn says Ridan mercenaries always travel in several small groups."

"Of course," Tsuyoshi said numbly, then cleared his throat. "Of course. Always have a back-up plan. Well, we're going to have to do something."

"If they're headed here, then I want the children out of here," Ahrin said at once. "I want the kits gone. I can pull up some defenses, but if they are coming here in groups, I want almost everyone gone from Morgan Vale."

Tsuyoshi made an odd noise, almost a groan.

"You said we weren't to have a council of war," Val said quietly. His hand was clenched around Chance's beneath the table, wire-tense. "That was back then, weeks ago. I think now is the time."

Ahrin nodded, looking very unhappy about it. "Something must be done, and we need to do it now."

"We need to go to the provincial government," Ria stated.

No one made any jokes about Ria's typical relationship with local seats of government. No one dared. In the tense atmosphere, joking about a sibling or son's proclivities was terribly out of place -- not to mention that had been pre-Bond.

"Governor Mikela and the Provost, Kurosawa," Tsuyoshi said, seeming to come up out of a heavy daze. "We need to go to them -- we, or Tsuchiya, we need to testify that we're being assaulted. Ria?"

"Vaughn and I can confirm it," Ria answered, jaw working. "It was very clear they were here to hunt us."

"Someone is paying for these mercenaries to come and kill Tsuchiya, right?" Kirin laid the question out flat. "So who's paying to kill him? Or worse...who's paying the mercs to come and get him, to bring him back?" He swallowed, unable to deal with enormity of his own question.

"This is disgusting, this is awful," Arashi said with a growl.

"So...this is what it comes down to," Val said. "Who goes to testify, and leave here -- hopefully to stay safe -- and who stays to defend the place."

"Obviously I'm going to Kochoro," Ria told them, glancing round for a hint of disagreement. "It was Vaughn and I who came across the mercenaries. So Kyo comes with me, too."

"And me," Kino added, breaking the silence of his wide-eyed observations.

"Tsuchiya...should go," Tsuyoshi began, a faint frown appearing between his brows. "He won't listen to me right now. I will ask him later, in person."

"I'll defend," Ahrin declared. "Youko aren't suited for battle magics, but I can take care of that."

"I'll help," Arashi offered.

Both parents glared at her, but the youko vixen's steady tigers-eye gaze did not waver. "You know I should," she said defiantly. "Of all my sibs, I'm the one whose magic matches Papa's the best."

Tsuyoshi's look turned rueful. Ahrin still looked fierce.

"I think I taught you a little too well," the human man said, breaking eye contact. "All right, you can stay. But only as long as you carry out every single order I give you."

"I'm the good twin," Arashi said primly.

"I'm going," Val declared. His hand squeezed down on Chance's. His topaz eyes turned towards watchful violet ones. "It's time to leave the Vale."

Chance bent his head. "I guess," he said hoarsely.

"Before we start wrangling the details," Ria interjected, "at least we've decided what needs to be done. Now, I think we should recess -- because I need to eat before I pass out. We haven't eaten since early yesterday and we've been riding hard."

Chance reflected that Ria's statement was probably more for Vaughn's benefit than his own, because the tall golden youko did, indeed, look like he was ready to faint. The redheaded twins had remained mostly silent, too, and they were wilting against one another on their bench sandwiched between Ria and Vaughn.

"We'd know if the mercs were within ten miles of the Vale, anyway," Kirin added.

"Oh? Look how good your uncle's shields are," Ahrin retorted. "Don't get cocky, infant. That's what could get you killed."

Tsuyoshi stood. "I'll make some food." He was still pale. "After that...amidst other preparations, I think it would be best if we carried out our daily activities."

Ahrin nodded. "The twins and I will help get our guests settled." He made it clear which set he was talking about by reaching out and tweaking one of Arashi's thin braids. She flicked her ears back at him.

"Sleep before food," Kyo said faintly. It was the first thing he'd said since walking through that door. "I need to sleep..."

"We'll get you to bed in a moment." Ria scooped his Bonded right off of the bench, and Kino, deprived of the support of his twin, began to wilt in the other direction. Vaughn steadied the boy, though he looked no better himself.

Chance watched the table empty quickly. Everyone had something to do now. Tsuyoshi had said to go about their normal activities, but how could he do that? The peace was breaking up. The calm that overlaid the Vale had been snarled and twisted into tension. And now the dread that had hovered, formless, over thoughts of the future had come to take up an all-too-real space. They had to leave the Vale, and they would have to do it soon.

"Come on." Val's fingers were tugging a handful of his hair. Chance started. "Go practice with my father."

"Can't," Chance said flatly. "He's finding space for our guests...and as he left he was muttering something about setting up traps and protective perimeters. Only Arashi can help him with that, right?"

Val looked thoughtful.

He felt the subtle probing, an entirely mental sensation, that meant Val was tasting his feelings. Then let's go back to bed. The youko could feel his thoughts, his fear and restlessness, and wouldn't settle for him being swept away by either.

That was all the warning he got. Val picked him up and threw him over his shoulder.

Their guests, Vaughn and Kino, stared at him in surprise as Chance was hauled out bodily, protesting at the top of his lungs and trying to beat against the backside of the pernicious, wicked, unstoppable youko.

Whom Chance wouldn't have stopped if he could have tried.


Kino rested his chin on his hand, lounging against the windowsill of the room that had been provided. It looked it was a storage room but right now he was happy with anything that didn't involve hard ground or the back of a saddle.

There was an aura of peace here, and despite the frantic news that had swept them here it gave Kino a feeling of peace too.

"I'm too jittery to sleep yet," Kino told his twin, glancing over at the other slim redhead and smiling as he saw the movement mirrored as Kyo lifted his head to look at him. "I think I need to bathe, first." He made a little face.

"Ahh," Kyo said wanly, setting down the last of of his brother's packs and collapsing on the one small bed. Though the room had been used for storage, it was obviously intended for a different future use -- the double crib in the corner was the obvious clue.

Kino relented. He was feeling better now, but he could also feel the bone-tired sense of his twin -- his twin! He still got a happy shock with that realization, the wonderfulness of being united. "All right, I think we could nap for awhile...unless you were going to nap with Ria!" he tacked on, feeling anxious. He knew there was no getting between a youko and his Bonded.

"No..." Kyo said slowly, eyes going hazy as he palmed back a handful of red hair. "Ria is busy right now, he's not ready to settle down yet." He smiled as he focused on Kino again. "It's all right. I think a soak would help right's true we haven't bathed since Waypost."

Kino made a little face. "Yeah, and I'm really feeling it."

"I'll show you the springs, then," Kyo promised. "Meet you on the back porch? It's just beyond the kitchen, where we were having the war council -- I mean, family discussion. I need to grab a wrap and some towels."

"Sounds fine," Kino told him, jumping up as Vaughn trudged into the room, looking white as a spirit. "Here! Right here, you can sleep right away..." He gestured to the empty, turned-down bed, having anticipated the golden youko's need to crash right away.

Vaughn was tired enough to merely give him a nod before collapsing, burying himself beneath the coverlet until only a sheaf of pale gold hair remained.

"Where are the springs?" Kino asked curiously once Kyo joined him, towels thrown over his shoulder, brush of auburn hair tied up like a fox-tail, a brief bit of cloth draped around his hips as a concession to modesty. From the state of undress of most of their hosts this morning, Kino guessed they could go around as casually as they chose.

"Not far," Kyo replied, tucking a strand of hair behind his ear and pointing. "Out in the West Field. I'm not sure if they're natural hot springs or not. What matters is they're the best thing for sore muscles!"

The hot springs were a short hike away from the compound of house and workshops that Kyo and his Bonded called "Morgan Vale." Once they arrived, they found it full of two enthusiastic silver kits and a dark-haired male lurking near the back of it.

"Kyo, Kyo's home!" cried the more animated-looking of the pair, launching himself dripping from the spring and glomping his leg.

The other silver kit climbed more sedately out of the spring but looked every bit as eager.

"Kyo and a twin are twice as much fun!" Rekka cried, releasing Kyo and latching onto a surprised Kino. Kaze climbed happily into Kyo's arms, ensuring he would be thoroughly soaked before he ever set a toe into the spring.

Tsuchiya tossed wet hair back and looked up at them, eyes overshadowed, as he waded for the edge of the pool. This relative of Kyo's Bonded was a handsome example of youko-kind with unusually broad shoulders, strong features only slightly reminiscent of his twin Tsuyoshi, and a wide band of palest gold streaking through his chestnut hair, back from his brow and disappearing into the half-braid he'd pulled his hair into.

Kino marveled at how easily he gleaned these small details from Kyo's mind. He didn't know any of these new youko, yet the twin-bond that had snapped into effect between them allowed him to absorb information neatly and naturally from Kyo. He wondered if the reverse had happened between them in Waypost, and if Kyo had gleaned things about Vella and Corr that he wouldn't have otherwise.

"Hello," Kino said cheekily to the dark-haired Tsuchiya, arms full of bouncy wet kit. "I'm Kino." He cocked his head at the seemingly reticent one. Something about Tsuchiya reminded him oddly of Vaughn. No, that wasn't quite it...something about Tsuchiya seemed overwhelmingly familiar, more so than the little bits and pieces he could take from Kyo's knowledge.

"Hello," Tsuchiya muttered, locking eyes with him at last. He hoisted himself from the spring, draping himself on the greened-over lip of rock.

Very nice, Kino wanted to express his opinion, but bit down on his lip instead. He was blushing as he said, "Have we met before...?" He trailed off, eyes searching Tsuchiya's burnished gold eyes. His brow knitted. "Maybe we slept together in Waypost?"

Tsuchiya's jaw went taut and he seized the nearest lap-wrap, scrambling to his feet in an excess of haste. Then, without a glance backwards, he stalked off towards the house with his tail bristling.

"Oh, dear..." Kino looked after the disappearing figure of Tsuchiya. "Was it something I said?"

"Don't mind him too much," Kyo said, though he sounded equally shocked. "He had a difficult time...on the Other Continent."

Rekka was tugging at his ear, squirming in the circle of his arms. "Kino? Kino, Kino?"

"Huh?" Pulled from distraction, Kino looked around and was suddenly nose to nose with an impishly grinning kit. "What is it, Rekka?"

"Want to make a wish?"


"Here, kitling. Hold still," Tsuyoshi instructed as he shoved a sandwich into his next eldest's mouth.

"Oto--mmph!" Ria gurgled protest, then reflexively bit down on the food. Hunger took over and he grabbed the sandwich, obviously enjoying the hastily put-together seasoned beef.

"You, too," Tsuyoshi told the golden-haired youko who was dragging himself to the table with hollow eyes. He was gentler with his guest and passed over the large seasoned beef sandwich on a platter, with a side of crunchy pickles.

A thread of thought reached him, tentative at first, then the contact firmed as Tsuyoshi accepted the other's thought. Thank you, Vaughn told him, seating himself at the trestle table and making inroads on the sandwich with obvious enjoyment.

"You won't be thanking me for long when I stick you with one of my brood," Tsuyoshi said dryly. "Neither you nor Kino can take the storage room forever. It's not suitable for anything more than a quick nap -- dusty, cramped, and a mess."

Vaughn's eyes widened at him over the thick slice of bread. Even without the communication of his thought, the golden youko's sherry-fine eyes were expressive enough that Tsuyoshi could almost understand him without words. I would rather sleep in the stable than make use of someone else's bed, or displace them.

"Don't be a fool," Tsuyoshi said aloud, brisk, while mentally reinforcing that with reassurances. "There's more than enough room here. Let's see..."

The back door banged shut, and all three glanced up in startlement. Tsuyoshi grimaced at the scarlet sensation his twin was making, then it was abruptly closed off as Tsuchiya employed that peculiar shield of his, the one that could shut even his own twin out.

Tsuchiya's eyes flicked over the three of them then he grimaced, almost a snarl, and headed for the door around the corner from the pantry. Tsuyoshi thought it was worth noting that his twin's angry eyes dwelled the longest on Vaughn.

"What--" he began, broke off as he recognized the question as useless, and shrugged helplessly at his son and his visitor. Tsuchiya, what are you doing? He couldn't think what had riled his twin so badly, apart from the prospect of their safe haven being broken up. Yet it wasn't that.

Tsuchiya had already bounced the kitchen door shut behind him. I'm going to go fuck Kirin senseless, he snarled inside of Tsuyoshi's mind with scalding force, then his shields closed everything out again. Even the sense of him moving through the house had disappeared.

He was gone.

Vaughn's expression was dark and brooding.

"I'm sorry," Tsuyoshi said aloud to son and guest, shrugging slightly as he picked up his own sandwich. "He hasn't been himself ever since--" He hesitated.

He's been to the Ussay Continent, Vaughn's thought reached him, faint with lack of force, roiling with negative emotion. His mind is still scarred from it.

Like Vaughn's, Tsuyoshi inferred, but that was best left unsaid. To smooth over the awkward subject he returned to their previous conversation...there were, after all, still room arrangements to be made. "Vaughn, you're not sleeping in the stable," he said firmly, glancing at Ria. "But the storage room is no good, either. Perhaps..." He hesitated, gauging from his guest's behavior that the offer of a room involving another male was what prompted Vaughn's resolve to stay in the stable or some similarly out of the way place.

"How about Arashi's room?" Ria suggested. "Kirin's bed should be empty, since he's been shacking up with Uncle Tsuchiya in the spare I right?"

"Exactly right," Tsuyoshi said, relieved. He glanced sidelong at Vaughn.

The golden youko's mouth pursed, then he nodded with reluctance.

"That's settled, then." Tsuyoshi felt satisfied. He glanced at his son again.

"Then we'll take Kino," Ria decided with a small sigh.

"Oh, why the long face?" Tsuyoshi teased him. "Don't you know that two redheads are better than one?"

Ria's mental reply wasn't suitable for polite company.


The Morgan family living room area was comfortable and spacious, with odd nooks here and there. The room was built in a fashion staggered oddly to the human architectural eye, but it worked quite well for the large family and even more so now that they were packed with guests. The odd niche here and there was a good place to tuck oneself away, and they were designed for such, having curtains that the user could draw closed for some privacy.

Chance had had the leisure, now and again, to hunt up a book and seek out one of those enclosures. This afternoon, two days gone of the time Ria and the rest had arrived in a panic, Chance had a few hours to himself as Ahrin put the finishing touches on his combination of offensive and defensive magic.

According to the youko, the approaching mercenaries were closing in fast and if they were going to depart, they would have to do so within the next day. They were lucky they had gotten the time they had to prepare, and that had only been by happenstance.

Their parties had been set; Ahrin would stay with Kirin and Arashi to defend the home. The rest of them would split into two different groups to make their way to Kochoro, the seat of provincial government. The division of the two groups had been...interesting. One thing that had made even Chance sit up and take notice was Tsuchiya's adamant refusal to be in a party that included Kino, or Vaughn. Then the dark-haired youko had made himself scarce again.

For now, while Ahrin prepared, Chance was determined to forget the upcoming departure with a few hours of reading. Tsuyoshi had hunted up a book on rudimentary magic for him to look over, and Chance was enjoying it. Compared to other kinds of book-learning, reading about the properties of magic seemed easy and intuitive.

Chance drew the curtain and settled himself, legs tucked under. He paged open to the fourth chapter, mental energies.

He hadn't gotten very far, reading about the differences between thought-speech, empathy, and Bonding, when he heard voices coming up one of the passages that led to the living room area.

"--don't know what you're talking about," a familiar voice said. It sounded like Kyo, but not quite, which meant it was his twin Kino.

"Don't be silly, you know exactly what I'm talking about," Kyo shot back at him, rather pert. "I can feel it inside your head plain as my own thoughts. If you put it off for too long, it'll make you sick."

"That's just silly supersition," Kino scoffed.

Chance peered out the chink in the curtains, and saw Kino and Kyo standing arm in arm on one of the braided rugs. Kyo had taken up a scolding pose, and Kino...actually, the other redheaded halfling looked awful. There were circles beneath his eyes and his color looked off.

"Come on," Kyo said coaxingly, leaning against his identical twin. "We'll have a word with Ria, and then he can--"

"No!" Kino snapped, shaking his twin off and standing a pace away. They both looked startled. "I--I'm sorry, Kyo, I didn't mean..." Then he turned and hurried towards another door.

That moment, the door opened and a tall figure came striding through. Kino rushed headlong into a broad chest and that brought his escape to a halt. It brought on another problem, though. Chance almost wished he could see Kino's expression as he looked up into Tsuchiya's face.

"I'm very sorry!" Kino apologized at once, backing up as if he'd received a nasty shock. He turned, grabbing Kyo by the arm and dragging him in the opposite direction. "Didn't mean to go that way...we'll be on our way now."

Kyo dug his heels in. "Kino, wait!" he protested, turning back towards Tsuchiya. His golden eyes were mutinous and unusually resolved.

"Never mind, Kyo!" Kino cried, fingers going white on his twin's arm. He took Kyo and vanished with undue haste.

Tsuchiya remained in the middle of the living room. It was amazing how an identical twin of Tsuyoshi, that warm and caring youko, could look so stony and inflexible. He crossed his arms over his chest and took up a waiting pose, ears kilted slightly. The dark youko faced a different door, putting his back to the place where Kino had disappeared.

In his sheltered nook, Chance held his breath. He was surprised Tsuchiya's eyes hadn't sought him out already. Even though he was screened off from the room by a curtain, he felt very much exposed. For some reason Tsuchiya had made him uneasy from the day he had arrived.

Another door opened and shut. "Tsuchiya," a low mellifluous voice greeted the dark youko. Chance strained to see without getting caught. The living room was an unexpected hot spot today. Val would probably be interested in hearing most of this later.

Silvery Kirin glided towards his uncle, stopping short of touching distance.

"What do you want?" Tsuchiya asked flatly.

Kirin looked hurt. "I want you to stop treating me like this!" he said at once, taking a step forward. Tsuchiya retreated a step, and the silver teen's expression shifted to irritation. "This is how you've been ever since he came here, you've been cold! Even..."

Tsuchiya gave him a forbidding look.

"You've even been cold in bed," Kirin said, drawing himself up. "What happened? It's that golden youko, isn't it? The one who came here with Ria and--"

"Be silent," Tsuchiya snapped, brushing past the younger youko. "Haven't you got any sense?"

"What!?" Kirin whirled with clenched fists.

The door opposite Chance's hiding place was open, and Vaughn lingered on the threshold, seeming imperturbable. This new arrival to Morgan Vale was still a mystery to him. The golden youko hadn't said a single word. According to Val, no one knew if it was because his voice was gone, or if he'd been so traumatized by his experiences in Ussay.

Kirin bit off a curse and quit the room from a door right next to Chance. The white-haired boy counted himself lucky that everyone seemed so caught up in their own affairs, they couldn't spare the mental power to notice him.

In the center of the room, Vaughn was giving Tsuchiya a long, wary glance.

Chance had just enough perception to tell that more passed between them than a look. The air crackled with tension and more as Vaughn circled him, taking slow steps, expressive sherry eyes never leaving Tsuchiya's. He was clearly heading for the opposite door as they exchanged whatever wordless message went between them.

At the last, it was Vaughn who looked away, ducking through the side door that led to the workshop areas.

Tsuchiya rubbed a hand over his face, looking tired and pained. He sighed. "I'm too old for this..." he might have said, softly, as he left the room by the same door he'd entered it. Chance wasn't sure he had heard correctly.

After a moment of trying to focus on the concepts of rudimentary mind speech versus empathy, Chance looked up and snapped the book shut. He was too busy dwelling over the various interchanges he'd just witnessed; it was no good. This was more than just good gossip to relate to Val. This was serious.

"Chance?" One of the far doors slammed. "Chance, are you in here after all?"

Chance climbed out of the niche, book in hand. "I'm here," he called back, placing the voice as Kyo. "You were looking for me?"

Kyo and Kino rounded a corner and nearly tumbled over him. Kyo smiled and pushed his thick bangs out of the one eye they tended to obscure. "Yes, we were about to start packing, and wanted to grab you to come help."

Chance twisted his mouth. "I guess there's no use trying to get a few hours of peace," he said, acting annoyed though he wasn't nearly so upset as he pretended.

"That's right," Kyo told him, skewing his own mouth in an exaggerated reflection. "Now, come on!" He made a grab for Chance's wrist.

"Hold on a half," Chance replied, eluding him and placing himself in front of Kino. The other redhead might have looked startled if he hadn't been in the middle of a jaw-splitting yawn. "You look tired, Kino. Kyo and Ria keeping you up all night?"

Kino blinked. There were hollow circles under his eyes. "No, we sleep pretty well," he denied.

"Do not!" Kyo rounded on him. "I can feel you tossing and turning all night! There's no use trying to pull one over on me!"

"Ah, well." Kino waved a hand. "At least the music has stopped."

"Music?" Chance furrowed his brow.

"Yes, we were both hearing music, actually," Kyo said with a smile. "It was a melody from our childhood. It let me know when we were getting close." He began to hum a snatch of song.

"I think I've heard you humming that before," Chance said, surprised. "I guess you hum it when you're not thinking of anything else?"

Kyo shrugged. "Something like that, I suppose."

"So, Kino, what is Tsuchiya to you?" Chance asked bluntly, turning to Kino, hoping for maximum shock value.

He wasn't disappointed. "What!?" Kino exclaimed, blanching. He looked paper-thin and distinctly unwell.

"Kino..." Kyo said, stretching out a hand to touch his shoulder.

Kino stepped out of reach. "Stop it! I don't want to hear another word about him. It means nothing to me." He moved for the far door, the one that led to the kitchen area. "Please stop asking me. I'm fine."

Chance and Kyo shared a dubious glance, but followed him out of the living room area. They shut the door behind them.

"Besides," Kino said, as if to have the last word on the matter, "I'm still trying to get Vaughn to smile...that's the only thing I'm concerned about right now."


Darkness was a comforting balm in the warm and scented lair of Tsuyoshi Morgan. His love was good with all sorts of trappings and improvements for their home, and it was Ahrin who had installed the movable blinds in most of the rooms for the house so that they could let in as much or little light as the room's inhabitants wished. Right now, they were flipped shut and the tapestries had been lowered to catch the last stray bits of light, leaving the room in almost total darkness. He lay supine on the large bed with his brother Tsuchiya cradled in his arms.

"We leave tomorrow," Tsuyoshi murmured, voice thick and honeyed with sleepiness. "Are you sure you're ready?"

Tsuchiya lay brooding in his arms like a sullen cloud. "I only wish I could rest..."

"I know," Tsuyoshi soothed. "I thought this would be a restful place for you, brother-mine, but--"

"The mercenaries that are coming here are after me," Tsuchiya said abruptly.

Darkness lay over them thick and quiet for a little longer. At last Tsuyoshi responded, "I know. You don't have to say it."

"A lot of things happened in Ussay," Tsuchiya continued. The surliness was leaving his voice, replaced with a detachment that was even more worrisome. "I regret a lot of things that happened, but none so much as the thing I'm being pursued for."

"Tsuchiya!" Somewhere inside of him, Tsuyoshi was not shocked that his twin knew the reason. From the moment Ria returned, Tsuchiya had absented himself whenever they talked about the upcoming departure. That he was going with the departing party was a foregone conclusion; being a part of the arrangements was something he refused to do. And within him had been the seeds of the reasons he kept locked inside himself.

"Once we landed on Ussay, it was one bad incident after another," Tsuchiya continued in that eerily empty voice. "I can't tell you everything. There are parts even I don't remember, though I know why I don't want to. Then came Misra."

"Misra?" Tsuyoshi repeated, puzzled. It sounded like a feminine name, though the inflection his twin gave it seemed like the weight of a place.

"Misra, beyond Taksis' land, past Sevida Ron and their ban on magic, into the territory where the wars between youko and man are more than just history tales, they are still ongoing," Tsuchiya continued emptily. "In Misra, I found myself in the seat of the humans' power, and that is where I tried to Bond."

"Tsuchiya..." Tsuyoshi groaned, feeling the first crack in his brother's formidable shield. He tightened his arms around his brother. He could see a face, vibrant but not lovely, a redhead with a strong mouth, the set of the jaw determined, and vivid green eyes.

"Her name was Julea," Tsuchiya plowed onwards, determination of his own to finish this tale clear in his voice. "She was going to smuggle me out of the Misran court. She'd done the same for many imprisoned youko. But what she hadn't counted on was finding one, some day, who would need to Bond with her."

What happened? was the next question, but Tsuyoshi didn't need to ask. He could already feel the information seeping out of the crack in his brother's defenses.

"I killed her," Tsuchiya said in that same empty voice. "The weight of my mind, the weight of centuries, the torture and enslavement I'd just been through; it was all too much for her. Julea collapsed, went comatose, and the inability to complete the Bond is what killed her."

"No," Tsuyoshi whispered, reaching to smooth a wing of chestnut hair back. "It's not your fault, Tsuchiya. Her mind may not have been strong enough."

"But she's still dead."

He had nothing to say in response to that. It was horrifying, and on top of the rest of what his trip to Ussay had done, it was the worst that could have happened. "But...then why the mercenaries?" Tsuyoshi managed.

Tsuchiya shifted in his arms, as if he would pull away. Instead he turned and faced his brother with glittering-molten eyes that grabbed the available light, what little vestiges there were, and glowed eerily. "She was the Misran high lord's daughter. They want me dead, and throwing away money on Ridan mercenaries is nothing to them as long as they have the responsible party to torture and display."

"Oh..." That inane response, it seemed, was all he could manage. The weight of Tsuchiya's revelation was too much. He couldn't say they could fix it. He couldn't say that it would be okay. Instead...

"So that's why I won't do it." Tsuchiya rolled off the bed in one limber motion. "I won't kill anyone else with my mind. I don't care if I get sick unto death, I won't inflict that on anyone else again."

"Tsuchiya!" Tsuyoshi sat up belatedly and reached for his brother, but he had slipped out of reach and was now halfway out the door. "Wait! You need to now, don't you? Who--"

"Forget it, little brother," his rough voice answered before he shut the door with quiet force.

Tsuyoshi sat numb in the midst of his tangled sheets. The death of one's potential Bonded was the worst thing that could happen to any youko. It was more damaging than any of the other tortures the humans could have inflicted on Tsuchiya, on the Other continent. And now, for him to need to Bond again and try to deny it... Even he, his twin, didn't know what should be done.

"Please, let him find happiness." Tsuyoshi closed his eyes and thought of those here that his brother might need to Bond with. "Please, he's already been through too much."


"That should do it," Ahrin said, satisfied, surveying his work with satisfaction. He stood to the rear of the house, surveying the innermost defensive perimeter with the inner eye. Kirin was beside him, draped over the fence, tail twitching.

"I suppose," his son said sulkily, turning his face away.

"Kit, what's eating you?" Ahrin demanded, arms akimbo. "I don't think you were even checking. In fact, if there was a flaw in the perimeter you'd miss it in the state you're in."

"It doesn't matter! Nothing," Kirin retorted contradictorily, giving him a defiant look. "You always catch everything, anyhow."

"That's not the point," Ahrin said, giving his son a black look, "and you know it. If there was a flaw or something missing, I'd expect you to be able to catch it yourself, not count on me. I won't always be here to double-check your work, you know."

"Fine, I can look again," Kirin answered. His sullen tone conveyed the amount of enthusiasm he had for the task.

"Forget it, I want you to tell me what's wrong, first," Ahrin said. He folded his arms and gave his son his best immovable glance.

Kirin sneaked one look at that and knew what it meant. "Fine." He made a production of heaving himself up from the fence and drawing a huge sigh. "It's just...Tsuchiya."

"Ah," Ahrin said wisely.

"Don't 'ah' me!" Kirin burst out. "You don't know! He's leaving tomorrow and I don't think he even cares that it means he'll be! Maybe he's relieved, even. And it's all the fault of that new--"

"Kirin," Ahrin interrupted, using a tone of voice he rarely employed. It silenced his son like a stunned deer. "I know that Tsuchiya was your first serious lover, but did you really think he would be your only lover?"

Kirin's eyes dropped. "," he mumbled.

"And would you really hold him here against his will, and bind him to you and yourself alone?" Ahrin continued, reasoning it out the way he thought Tsuyoshi would.

"Of course not!" Kirin looked up now, indignant at the very thought.

"Even if you were Bonded, the two of you wouldn't cleave together, never to accept another in your hearts or beds again," Ahrin continued softly. "Youko don't have human marriages. Human marriages don't even work well for humans. So...there's no need to be jealous."

"I know," Kirin muttered, glancing sidelong. "It's just...I hate change, Papa." He dissolved into the childish old nickname.

Ahrin put an arm around his son and ruffled his bangs. "None of us love it, dearheart," he replied, drawing him close.

Kirin snuggled neatly against him. "Arashi does," he said resentfully. "She wishes she was going along."

"Well...Arashi doesn't know yet how much things can change," Ahrin said quietly.

They stood for a few moments longer until Kirin pulled away, starting to move for the back of the house.

"Where do you think you're going?" Ahrin's voice rang out over the back yard.

Kirin blinked over his shoulder, putting on an adorable expression. "Er...into the kitchen?"

"Think again...the innermost perimeter awaits your experienced eye."

"Damn, I'd hoped you had forgotten."


It was pre-dawn, first hints of lavendar and paler blue streaking across the sky, and Kino woke terrified.

Beside him in bed, Kyo gave a sleepy murmur and his arms tightened, then Ria rumbled behind him and his grip loosened as the black-haired youko began to caress him in his sleep. Kino was grateful for that. It allowed him to slip out of bed without disturbing his twin.

He stood by the partially-shut blinds of the window, shivering. Ever since coming to Morgan Vale his sleep had been troubled with nightmares. He hadn't had a single restful night, which accounted for his appearance.

That was it, Kino told himself firmly, over and over as he had since the first day.

He was tired of everyone diagnosing his ailment. It was ridiculous; he was too young to be Bonded and anyhow, his twin Kyo had already Bonded at such a tender age so what were the odds?

Kino was certain he was the only one up as he slipped on an oversized tunic and soft breeches and padded down the stairs. The living room, empty of people, seemed so cold and lonely in the early hours. Kino was used to living in a place where things were always moving and creaking and happening, in some fashion or another. The silences of a place that stood alone in the woods were still disturbing to him.

Perhaps that accounted for the nightmares.

He slipped out the back and made his way to the stables, as he had every morning for the past few days. At least surrounded by the warmth and gentle noises of the animals he didn't feel like he was the only person in the world, anymore. Wide-awake mornings were the loneliest place to be.

There was someone already in the stables, and Kino flattened himself to the wall as his sharp ears caught the sound of another's presence. That someone was humming, picking up the tune in a low constant thread of sound, and the music was achingly familiar.

"Mother?" he murmured, caught off-guard for an instant. It was impossible. The timbre of the humming was masculine. His father was dead.

Kino swung around the corner, unreasoningly half-hopeful. It was early morning and he was prepared to believe.

"You!" Kino exclaimed, recoiling.

Dark Tsuchiya looked startled and dropped the currying comb he'd been using. "What--" He shook his head and composed his features. "What are you doing here?"

"How do you know that song?" Kino demanded. He was past his fear with the need to know this one answer.

Tsuchiya's face shut down in grim lines. "None of your business, brat. Now get out of here."

"I'm not leaving," Kino seethed. "I don't care if it kills you to have a conversation with me. Now where did you hear that song?" The last part, he hissed between his teeth as he stalked towards the youko.

Tsuchiya was eyeing him with an odd intensity. This one was different from any of the looks from him Kino had received before; he knew because he'd catalogued each and every one. "I've spent almost a thousand years without being tied down, to any place or person," he said, as if talking to himself.

"I'm not -- I wouldn't..." Kino objected vehemently, thrown off by the rapid shift in subject yet nonetheless certain that Tsuchiya was speaking obliquely of him. After the life he had led, the idea was abhorrent to him and besides, someone like the free-roaming Tsuchiya could never be tied down.

"Homeless is more like it," Tsuchiya murmured, with a hint of a grin lurking around his generous mouth.

"You heard me!?" Kino was doubly shocked. Only Kyo had ever heard his thoughts. And that was just the recent twin-bond snapping into effect; he had no mental powers whatsoever.

"Since the first day," Tsuchiya replied, a glint of -- something -- in his eye. He moved towards Kino in a swirl of savage grace. Now hands on either side of him pinned him to the wall, only thumbslengths away from his body, making him painfully aware that Tsuchiya had never touched him yet and probably never would... "I suppose it's inevitable, brat."

"Huh?" Now Kino was just plain confused. He had grown up for part of his life around youko, but there were some things he still just didn't...know. And the grandparents he'd lived with had been human.

"Now, understand what you'll be missing," Tsuchiya told him, and a mouth descended on his.

Kino was drowning.

Instinctively he'd shut his eyes and he was vaguely aware of clutching the fine fabric of Tsuchiya's tunic hard enough to rip it. The youko didn't bother with the finesse of coaxing his mouth open; he took him right away with a tongue exploring every crevice of Kino's mouth. It was more than just the forceful kiss battering at his senses. The weight of a mind crashed against him, making him reel like a tiny boat cast against storming tides. Somehow, he had enough presence to respond with tongue against tongue, the pull of slick sensuality keeping him afloat as the tidal drift of centuries and new pain and grief threatened to pull him under. This was the stuff of his nightmares.

The song was in the forefront of Tsuchiya's mind, floating there. And now Kino understood. It was merely an echo.

"I will never Bond with you."

Tsuchiya was releasing him, lips wet, golden eyes sparkling with a gamut of suppressed emotion. "Never," he repeated, wiping his mouth. "I don't care how sick it makes the both of us."

Kino slid to his knees in soft hay, barely registering the words.

Tsuchiya turned his back on him and seized a bridle, beginning to put tack hastily on one of the horses.

"Where...are you going?" Kino heard his own voice come out as if he were disconnected from it. He felt like he was floating, far away.

"I'm leaving," Tsuchiya replied savagely. Suiting action to words, once he was finished saddling up the horse he led it towards the stable doors. He paused but did not look back. "Goodbye, Kino."

It was dawn and Kino wanted to wake from his nightmare.


Vaughn was the one who found him, a short time later.

The golden youko slept fitfully even in the best of conditions. So, although Morgan Vale was the most peaceful rest he'd had in a long time, even there he woke every few hours as if spooked. When a horse went thundering past his window, Vaughn jolted awake and took stock.

Something was wrong.

He found Kino in the stables, blank-eyed and glassy. Though the boy was mentally 'deaf,' usually Vaughn had no trouble hearing his surface thoughts. Now...nothing. That shook him badly enough that his panic roused Tsuyoshi, then Ahrin, and brought them running.

"I don't know what he was thinking!" Tsuyoshi seethed, slamming his hands down on the trestle table hard enough to make cups on the other end jounce and rattle.

Ria quickly picked his mug up, and put an arm around the pale and trembling Kyo.

"I think this calls for a change of plans," Val said diplomatically, glancing at his human father.

"Change of plans, my tail!" Tsuyoshi roared, stalking back and forth, said appendage lashing back and forth and twice its normal size. "I'm taking to horse and I'm going to find him, and when I do I'm going to shake some sense into him--"

"Then you had better get started now," Ahrin interrupted, unsmiling. "It will take awhile to get a group of people moving, and I'm sure Tsuchiya is counting on that. With that and his shield, you're going to have a hard time finding him."

That was enough to get things prioritized.

Val and Ahrin coordinated the trip details, and everyone else scrambled to get ready to leave. Luckily, they had finished most of their preparations the day before. Kyo was riding with Ria, Chance would ride by himself, and Vaughn agreed to take Kino on his saddle. The redhead was completely unresponsive to anything he or Tsuyoshi thought to try.

"It isn't an incomplete Bond," Tsuyoshi reassured the golden youko. His expression was uncharacteristically frightening. "He would know better than to run away from me if that were the case. No, I don't think he even realizes this happened..."

"I think...he's in shock," Kyo offered timidly, hovering near his twin as Ria finished their preparations. "I think he realized what he needed, and then it was taken away. And Tsuchiya's mind touched his."

Because this would be a hard ride, and not the brisk but well-paced trip they had planned earlier, Ahrin and Tsuyoshi decided it would be best to leave the smallest twins at the Vale.

"If my defenses don't hold up," Ahrin said with a half-grin, "they always know how to run, I guess."

"Don't even joke about that!" Tsuyoshi berated him fiercely, but relented and clung to him in the next instant. "I don't know how long it's been since we've been away from each other for any great length of time."

"Well, we don't have time for long goodbyes," Ahrin replied, but he was holding the youko equally tight.

Within an hour of finding Kino insensate in the stables, the pursuing party was saddled up and ready to go.

"Be careful!" Arashi cried after them, jumping up and down.

"Give him a few extra taps to the head for me," Ahrin said lightly, holding a silver twin in each arm.

Kirin dangled his legs from the porch railing and looked after them with a brooding expression, but said nothing.

"He's going to Waypost," Tsuyoshi said, before he bent low over the neck of his horse and urged it to greater speeds. "His shielding isn't as good as he thinks it is, right now. Which is dangerous for him and good for us."

"Then let's hurry," Val said, taking the lead.

They did.


Looking over one's shoulder every few kilometers was a nervous proposition for anyone, but especially so for Youko Tsuchiya. It brought back layers of suppressed fight or flight days that he preferred to forget altogether. Never being much of a magic-user, he had been forced to become strong in other ways. On this particular ride he hoped to throw off the trail not only for his brother and whatever accompanying pursuit Tsuyoshi chose, but the Ridan mercenaries as well.

He only wanted to avoid more fighting; it was why he had perfected his shields to such a high degree.

Once he reached Waypost he allowed himself to collect his breath in relief. He had not been intercepted. And even though the sight of humans here made his spine stiffen, it was something he could bear. In Waypost, most of these humans had risked their life for youko, or were connected to his race in some fashion or another. This wasn't Ussay any longer; this was Vilxule. He would gather his bearings and decide where to go next.

He left his horse with a capable groom and a tip to ensure the beast's proper care; it was a good horse and he had pushed it hard on the way here. One trick he could perform well was supplementing the horse's reserves with his own, and drawing energy to replace it where he could.

Tsuchiya set eyes upon an inn; the Jaderose by name. It gave him an odd frisson along his spine. He saw a pair of wistful eyes like fresh-forged metal. "Maybe we slept together in Waypost?"

"No," he muttered, to Kino's echoes within him. "And we never will."

He strode up the street, cloak swirling around him. Unfortunately he'd left Morgan Vale with very little money and he would have to take up some work if he expected to go much further. Traveling with no destination in mind was more difficult than plunging ahead with a goal. He had barely enough to put himself and the horse up for a few days. So, if he expected to leave this place and get anywhere he would have to turn a trade.

Now, that wasn't as easy as it sounded...

An hour later he wound up in a bar trying to chat up prospective customers. There were merchants in town that had goods shipped to and from Waypost, and he figured surely one of them would need to take on a guard or two. The fact that there were rumors flying around involving youko-killers in Vilxule helped his cause, even though he felt guilt for being the source. It was his fault the Ridan mercenaries had come. It was their basic nature, however, that led them to kill any youko regardless of affiliation.

"Sorry." The fourth one was slipping the hook. "Since word has it the killers are targeting youko, I'm trying to keep them safe. The only guards I'll hire for now are humans, until the rumors die down. If you're looking for any kind of work, might try Taylor's pottery shop down the street. He's looking to hire for a vacancy."

"Pottery..." Now, that stirred up some first-layer memories. "Thanks."

"Sure 'n one good turn does another," the merchant nodded to him, getting up from his table.

Tsuchiya closed his eyes, remembering all of a sudden how it was to feel eighteen and running down to the clay pits, racing the skinny twin beside him with their twin sisters shrieking far behind to wait, wait -- and the sunlight poured down and the world was a safe place. In that long-ago childhood, the provinces all adhered to strict mandates of youko protection. Tsuchiya remembered the smell of the clay and the dusty gray color their hair turned as the silt got everywhere. Chena had been so deft at shaping dishes and Kaili preferred to try her hand at sculpture...

His eyes snapped open. His sisters were safe; they lived safe somewhere in Vilxule, he knew that. They were not dead as the illusions had forced him to think; of the various tortures inflicted on him in Ussay, that had been one of the worst. Chena and Kaili, tails ripped from their bodies, hanging from scaffolding with their severed tails around their throats and his brother hanging beside them...he lifted his mug and drained it in a few hasty swallows. Some memories, he would never be able to erase.

Brother...Tsuchiya's eyes widened. He leapt to his feet, scattering enough coins to pay for the drink. He'd gotten too complacent, or there was something wrong with his shielding. Now, to find the back exit.

"Nice try, Uncle," a voice purred in his ear.

Tsuchiya slewed around. His eldest nephew, damn him, was taller and it forced him to look up into hard-glittering amber eyes.

"You'd better not have any idea of what you've done," Val informed him, jaw set. "Otherwise there are several of us quite willing to thrash you."

"Wh-what do you mean?" Tsuchiya demanded hoarsely. Just leaving Morgan Vale alone wouldn't have created this kind of anger in his nephew or any of the rest of his family. Tsuyoshi was near and he felt like the full tempest of fury of which Val was only brewing promise.

"You left Kino like this," Val replied, and showed him. The slender halfling slumped in Vaughn's arms like a puppet, listless and lacking motion or expression.

Tsuchiya looked beyond what Val was showing him into his nephew's angry face. "Where is Kino now?" he demanded.


The afternoon was still and quiet in the Vale.

"Finally," Arashi said with relief and no little satisfaction, standing over the slumbering kits with her hands on her hips. "They're nearly impossible to put down to nap these days."

"They're nearly impossible, end of story," Kirin snorted, lounging against the kits' chest of drawers.

"Be nice." Arashi turned with a sigh. "You know they had a really rough morning, being woken up in a panic like that and then having to say goodbye to Father."

"I know we all had a rough morning!" Kirin pushed himself away from the dresser and glared at her. "Some of us more than others."

"Oh, don't give yourself such airs!" Arashi stalked past him, tail beginning to reflect her changing mood, flicking from side to side. "Of all who've got it worst, I think Kino has the ribbon, not you, Kirin!"

"Yeah, well, who asked your opinion," Kirin sneered, jostling her to the side and running down the stairs.

Arashi flattened her ears and stared after him disapprovingly. Then she sniffed at the air. "Oh, no...Papa, I told you not to cook!" She raced for the kitchen, pushing her brother aside along the way. Kirin snarled at her, but followed.

In the kitchen, Ahrin was scratching bemusedly at his head as he regarded a boiling concoction that was boiling a little too vigorously. "I used to cook for myself before I moved in with your father," he said, stepping to the side to give Arashi room as she took charge.

"That was how many centuries ago?" Arashi asked with affectionate exasperation.

Kirin coughed and headed for the nearest window to open it and hang his head out. The stove's vent was good, but it had been overwhelmed. "Too long ago," he panted. Then his ears swiveled up and strained. He turned back with panic scrawled over his face. "Papa, there are riders coming into the Vale, and they're human and I don't recognize them!"

"What!?" Ahrin surged for the door and Arashi abandoned lunch to the scrap heap as they all stepped out onto the back porch.

Arashi looked even more alarmed, golden eyes huge in her thin face. "Kirin's right!" she said, voice breathy with fear. "Papa, the outer defenses are down!"

Ahrin cursed. "They must have a battle-mage with them," he said, face shutting down as he did some swift mental footwork. He fixed his son with a look. "Kirin, I want you to take the kits and go. Hide in the East Field, where all the traps are."

"But--" Kirin began, until Ahrin silenced him with a look.

"Go. Keep them safe. Keep them asleep, if you can." Ahrin dismissed him and regarded his only daughter. "Are you sure you're up to this?"

"Of course!" Arashi drew herself up straight. "I'm the best with this kind of energy. You said so, yourself. I'm the only one of your children who can support you like this."

"Hmm." Ahrin was already calculating ways to get his daughter to safety in case they couldn't hold the inner line of defenses. "All right, let's begin."

Kirin was racing for the house, which was one relief. He had stayed because in cases of emergency he would be able to supply his twin with energies, which Ahrin would then be able to use to keep fighting, but he would much rather lose the extra energy to see the kits to safety.

Ahrin hadn't counted on the opposition bringing a battle-mage with them. That was surely overkill.

He and Arashi combined their strengths with the ease of long practice and reached for the middle layer of defenses. The battle-mage was already burning a hole through the middle perimeter, using some kind of technique entirely foreign to him. Then the sense of the mage 'looked' up, flinging a shower of white-hot energy filaments that seared his inner sight. Ahrin retreated, dragging his daughter with him.

From a single brush against the mage's shields he had intuited what he needed to know. Aside from the fighters, he ran the risk of being outclassed.

"Run." He gave his daughter a physical push. "Run! Now!"

The battle-mage crashed against the inner defenses and Arashi gave him a startled, frightened look. "Papa, please!"

"Just RUN!" he shouted, shoving her in the small of the back, forcing her to stumble away from him.

He watched her until he was certain Arashi was breaking for the East Field and her siblings. They were smarter, they were wily and cunning and they would not be caught. They were not stupid enough, like humans, to make a last stand and fight. They would survive at all costs.

Ahrin turned with grim purpose, cracking his knuckles though he did not reach for the sword at his side. First he would exhaust his other energies. He drew power around him like a tangible field, preparing for the moment the battle-mage wore down the last layer.

He was that stupid, but so long as his children escaped that was purpose enough.


Once they got Tsuchiya to the rooms of the Jaderose Inn and Tavern, there he dug his heels in again. He pulled away and refused to see his twin or anyone else and Val, in frustration, prevailed on their hosts to give him a room while they tried to figure what would induce him to do what he so obviously needed to.

"We could carry Kino to him," Kyo suggested.

Tsuyoshi snorted. "If we could even get him to open the door."

Vella, one of their hosts, was a voluptuous human woman with a wealth of black hair spilling over her shoulders. "It sounds like he needs an objective point of view," she observed.

Ria cast an eye over her. "Now, I've already heard your opinion of interfering..." he drawled.

Vella flushed but stood her ground.

"So was that an offer?" he continued.

"Yes, I think it was," she said after a pause. Vella picked over all of them with a single glance. "All of you need a rest and some good eating. Corr'll take care of that much in the bar. I'll have a word with your wayward brother." Her eyes returned to Tsuyoshi.

"Thank you," Tsuyoshi said feelingly.

Vella swept him a bow and turned, making for the sitting room where she and Val had stashed Tsuchiya. After a moment Ria stirred. "The tavern's this way," he said, absently threading his fingers into Kyo's and leading the way.

Tsuyoshi held back. His sudden pallor drew his sons' attention, then he swayed sharply. "Ahrin...?" His eyes were wide enough to start from his sockets, and he gripped the arm Val gave him hard enough to make him wince. He turned a terrible look on his eldest. "No! AHRIN!"

Then he collapsed.

+to be continued+