The Morgan Vale
The door clicked shut in the first-floor sitting room of the Jaderose Inn and Tavern.
Youko Tsuchiya's head lifted, ears angling at that deceptively soft sound. He knew that anyone coming into this sitting room would have to come prepared to argue. Even after being shown Val's pitiful vision of Kyo, slumped in Vaughn's arms and insensate, upon entering the Jaderose he had come to his senses. Protecting Kino was the reason he had left in the first place.
"Well, don't you look like you're good and worried about something?" a low, rich alto filled the room.
Tsuchiya turned in his chair to confront the newcomer. He was bristling with irritation. That voice was unfamiliar to him; even though he had told family or Bonded to stay out, his wily brother had of course found a way around that.
"Who do you think you are?" he demanded.
"I'm Vella Coriander," the voice told him, then a woman was crossing his field of vision, making for the opposite side of the room. She didn't walk so much as glide, employing grace rarely seen in her kind. Vella was human, of average height for her race, in the vicinity of pretty but made remarkable by a flag of raven-black hair that tumbled past her shoulders. She regarded him with intent brown eyes.
"Spare me the lectures carried out in my brother's name," he said, looking away. The woman was the owner of the establishment, he gathered; it had been her suggestion to show him to this sitting room when Tsuchiya entered and refused to see family or Kino. He thought briefly of the vision Val had showed him, of Kino slumped and senseless, and shrugged it away. To prevent things from getting worse, he would leave. Find another province, perhaps, to escape his brother's persistence.
"I'm here because of Kino," Vella contradicted his assumption. "Spare me the attitude; I don't care what your family wants from you, I care what happens to that kid. He's like family to me, and he's sick now."
Tsuchiya narrowed his eyes at her. "You don't know anything about my situation," he said flatly. "Don't presume to think you can advise me over this."
"I know that Kino doesn't deserve to suffer because you won't give him what he needs!" Vella flared, dropping into a seat on the sofa opposite of Tsuchiya. "So snap out of it, youko! Whatever past you think is insurmountable, this is the best place to cope and get through it!"
"'Cope?'" Tsuchiya repeated, dangerously low. "All right, then, how would you suggest I 'cope' with killing the first person I tried to Bond with...while trying to Bond?"
Vella looked at him steadily. "Is Kino that person?"
"No, of course not."
"Then why do you think there will be a problem?" she demanded. "Something tragic happens every day, Tsuchiya. So something tragic happened to you. You need to get over it, or you'll never stop running away from it."
"What would you know about tragic happenings?" Tsuchiya sneered. He was already done with this conversation. He wanted to get up, leave the inn, saddle his horse, leave the province...something was keeping him here and consciously, he wouldn't let himself think what it was.
"This isn't about me," Vella said.
Tsuchiya's golden eyes burned into her unwavering brown ones. "Humor me," he ground out, inflexible.
Vella's head lifted. She gave her hair a toss, a move that might have seemed arrogant but for the look in her eyes. That made her vulnerable. "You still have a family," she said, tone defiant. "You still have a brother who cares for you. When I Bonded to my Corr, he did more than sweep me off my feet. He had to sweep me out of the province, because a handful of louts didn't like the thought that I would fall so easily for a youko when I would refuse their charms."
"And they killed your family?"
Vella glared at him. Her hands were white-knuckled on her knees, fisted as if she'd hit him if he probed for more details.
There was enough anguish there to shut him up on the subject. All right, so she had seen tragedy. What made her qualified to judge that he was in the wrong? "So can you tell me it'll be a successful Bonding?" he asked her sarcastically. "You can't say I'm not doing the right thing, keeping him away from me and safe."
"You're killing him," she replied, underscoring his sarcasm with such gentleness it made him blink.
Killing him. The words, the thought rattled him and echoed around his mind along with the cycle of reflection and self-recrimination he was already stuck in.
"I'm not--" he objected.
"Please," Vella interrupted, leaning forward. "How many rejected Bonds have you seen?"
He gave her a dubious look. "Well, none."
"I have," she said fiercely. "Corr and I have lived in Waypost for a long time. And most of the youko here have...they've got pasts. They have troubled backgrounds. Maybe things have happened as horrifying as what you've been through, I don't know." She gave a shrug; her black hair shimmered.
"Get to the point," Tsuchiya said flatly. He was thinking of Kino again. Maybe he had never stopped thinking, seeing him there in his mind's eye, nestled in Vaughn's arms like a glassy-eyed puppet. He couldn't stand it.
"Oh, stop chewing your tail!" Vella snapped. "I've seen youko refuse the Bond, all right? Far beyond what you've done to Kino. If you go away he'll suicide, do you understand me?"
Tsuchiya felt hollow; he could not absorb the content.
"You can't save him from you. It's all or nothing. If you refuse this...he won't survive, and you might not either."
"I don't..." He stopped and shook his head. Even with Julea, if he had left her she would have died anyway. There was something oddly free about that disconnected thought. Now there was Kino. The redhead's scent had insinuated itself into his perception from that very first afternoon by the spring. Kirin, mistakenly, had thought his distraction stemmed from Vaughn. Tsuchiya stood up, feeling shaky. "He's too young."
Even to his own ears that was a weak objection.
That earned him half a smile from Vella. Her lips pulled wryly to the right. "Like Kino says, he's half youko. If he's old enough to want it..."
"He's old enough to be doing it," Tsuchiya finished heavily. That was familiar enough. Youko became sexually active as soon as puberty hit; sooner, perhaps, if the desire was there.
Vella stood, pulling her hair back with both hands. "Go to him," she suggested, tone quiet as if she didn't want to spook him.
"I..." He was wavering. He didn't think he could. But he *had* to. Whatever he wanted, whatever he thought he could do, he had been trying to keep Kino safe.
"Come on. I'll show you."
The Vale was alight with fire.
House shields threw up an eerie blue glow against the blaze, activated as soon as the attackers penetrated Ahrin Morgan's innermost line of defenses. In fighting force, he was outmatched. In terms of the magic user sent against him, the foreign mage's style was different enough that he thought he might be outclassed.
Ahrin was prepared for a last stand.
It had been years, too long even practicing with growing youngsters, that Ahrin had gone up against another mage. It had been even longer since his last killing duel and he was already wounded, lines of bale-fire scorching shoulder and burning away part of his long hair. Teeth clenched, switching his shields to something more flexible that would allow him to counter the other mage before he was wounded too badly, Ahrin called up the old adrenaline-powered reflexes and slipped into the rush of battle.
Sinking into sight to suss out his opponent, Ahrin had earlier come across a mage stripped down for a serious fight. The battle mage with the mercenaries was dressed in the same way the mercs were, armored for a fight, but the power he was using to smash through the perimeter defenses was enough to level the Vale. It was overkill. It was taking a field-plow to cut a binding strip of leather. Ahrin had been unsure if the mage's style was just that heavy-handed, if he was using up all his energies on the defense rings and not counting on coming up against something more solid. The other option was that the mage was simply that powerful; he had energy to waste.
Either way he wanted his daughter out of there. Once committed to a fight, Arashi would stick beside him until it was too late. He would not risk her; not any of his family.
Lips peeled back with effort, Ahrin took yet another hit as the mage's ring of energy seared through his shields. *Tsuyoshi, love, I hope you're stronger than I am. I wouldn't be able to survive you but someone's got to raise the kits.*
These mercenaries would not get to his children. Lifting both hands, light and heat crackled around him as Ahrin prepared another 'surprise' for the foreign mage. The energy was coursing over him, eating away at his shields and bathing him in molten fire. As fast as Ahrin could weave defenses, however flexible, however steely, the subtly foreign energies peeled them away like the skin of a fruit.
He could see them now, the party of mercenaries fanning out towards the compound; the battle mage striding towards him engulfed in a haze of ruddy sulfur-yellow. The only distinction between mercenaries and his opponent was the power that circled him; baelfire and pure energy crashing against him in tides, unfocused. Eyeballing him like this gave Ahrin sudden insight. The way his focused energy burned about him...it was a difference in schooling, not power levels. The Ridan mage was shoving raw power down his throat and not sparing the reserves. Meanwhile, in trying to meet that and spin shields around himself Ahrin was not-so-subtly pissing his energy away.
His eyes flicked over the compound, where the mercenaries were trying unsuccessfully to penetrate the house shields. A grin flickered over his face; died. He had more than done his work there. Of course, at the time, he thought one or more of his family would still be in there.
They had cut through his outer defenses so fast. Of course, seeing the source Ahrin could now see why.
And now he had to shift his tactics or die.
Briefly, Ahrin sent his thoughts chasing after his children. Kirin was running through the woods, Arashi sleek and worried at his side, a twin each clutched squirming but deathly silent in their arms. This was something their very blood knew -- the hunting. There was only one path to take from here.
*I love you.*
Suddenly Ahrin lifted his arms, palm-out as if throwing something. He met the torrent of energy with a storm of his own. It surprised the battle mage striding forward. This one was dressed like the other mercenaries, distinguishable only by the bright yellow aura he gave off, visible to Ahrin and seething with so much power he was surely visible even on the optic wavelength.
Because he was clearly a fighter like Ahrin he would be expecting a physical fight. He hadn't expected this move, and strained to increase the flow of energy he levied on Ahrin. That gave him a shard of hope.
The mage's energy shifted to meet the attack; instead of an unfocused mass of power, now a sulfurous yellow wolf attacked Ahrin's marshaled energies. In response, Ahrin called up his own avatar -- a great red bird of prey.
Immediately Ahrin set about adding to his advantage, reaching for his own reserves -- he had them -- and crafting a diversion. He couldn't keep up this level of energy output for long.
Their power shuddered between them, visible to the ungifted eye. Ahrin's energetic red had poured smoothly from layered defense to the offensive, and shot out from him like a raptor. It blurred at the edges of the yellow wolf that had formed to harry and snap at the bird, trying to force it back or destroy it completely.
His innermost layer of shielding was still in place, conditioned reflex, tested when a circling mercenary had thrown a knife to catch him off-guard. It had falled to the ground, deflected.
Now Ahrin cast his net. After that initial startlement the other man had resumed his aggressive, reckless attack. Ahrin was close enough to see his eyes go wide when a web of energy snaked towards him, moving independent of the main body, the bird of prey that battered at him.
It was a good diversion.
As the other man's magic felt subtly different to him, so this must be twice as odd. It was a fusion of youko air-manipulation, grabbing at the wind and moisture particles in the air, and pure human battle tactics. After so long living with his own youko, Ahrin had picked up what tricks he could. The net shot out not for the wolf-energy, the obvious target, but the mage himself.
It moved faster than a striking snake. With a roar, the other mage's attention was pulled away from the battle of energies as Ahrin's net tangled around his shields, designed to spin and erode them away as the raw energy blasts had degraded his own shields earlier.
The mage's focus dissolved into raw blasts of power again, but they slipped past Ahrin's bird of prey and scored his shields again and again. Meanwhile the mercenaries circled at the edge of his vision, hovering, having given up on the house and waiting for the chance to rush him.
He couldn't afford mistakes now.
Pressing the brief advantage, he sent bolts of his own baelfire towards the other man, hoping to catch a few hits between his shields and truly enrage him.
In a jaw-dropping feat, the man shed his own shields and the net of energy eating at them, then restored new shields in the next heartbeat. This left him open for a fraction of a second that Ahrin, stunned, was unable to take advantage of. How had he done it? Shields had to be built from the ground up, each layer culminating in the one used to extend his energy outward, from defense to the attack energy interacting with his environment. It simply wasn't possible...
There was no time for credulity. Ahrin was pressed to the defensive again as the mage threw more raw energy at him in a sunlight torrent, not bothering to focus it, not giving him anything usable he could turn against the man. It was tinged with the red of anger now. Ahrin was putting up the kind of fight that was delaying the taking of the Vale and perhaps forcing him to use reserves he'd been holding back on, after all.
Ahrin's raptor spread its wings before dissolving in a shower-scream of cascading power.
The pain hit him high in the shoulder and Ahrin grunted, feeling impact more than injury. He half-turned, shocked, feeling the ragged edge of his shields collapse around him.
A small gleaming disc lay on the ground a short distance from him, at the point where his shields would have terminated. Ahrin glimpsed a stylized symbol, vaguely flame-like, before energy lanced across his side, burning, piercing through him.
The mercenaries began to close in. It was too late to rebuild his shields. Grimly, Ahrin pulled up all of his reserves -- if they thought he was spent they were sadly mistaken!
The mage issued a curt, gutteral command.
*I do love you, Tsuyoshi.*
Power caught and ignited, searing all of the bodies in the clearing. The explosion blossomed in the air.
Morgan Vale began to burn.
Tsuyoshi Morgan jerked and screamed, caged between his two eldest sons in a prison of warm unyielding flesh. He was thrashing, incoherent with grief and rage, drawing stares from all across the scattered patrons in the bar and oblivious to anything but the loss he felt.
A tall blond youko cut swiftly through the taproom, vaulting from behind the bar and giving a quick order to one of the barmaids. "I'm Corr," he told them, and with that and Ria's recognition guided the shell-shocked twins and their father into a storage room tucked in the back.
Chance was dazed by the brutal speed of it all.
"Ahrin can't be dead," he said quietly, looking to Kyo for confirmation. The redhead just stared at him, not absorbing any of it. Chance put his head to the side. "Kirin and Arashi? The kits?"
Vaughn huddled near the door, sherry-fine eyes wide. After a moment he frowned at Chance, then Kyo, then slipped out of the door.
That was about as useful as Chance felt too. He hoped someone was making headway with Tsuchiya, at least.
"Wait..." Kyo stirred and his eyes unfocused. "I can feel Kaze...I can feel him reaching out for his father."
"How?" Chance demanded, unnerved. As far as he knew, Kyo had about as much mental ability as Chance himself -- very little to speak of.
"I don't know!" Kyo's eyes unswirled and he looked frightened. "He says that everything will be okay. But he's trying to tell his father, not me, and Tsuyoshi can't hear."
"Then let's go tell him!" Chance snapped, seizing Kyo's arm and hauling him forward. He didn't mean to be so abrupt. But doing something, anything, was the only way he could shake off the dreadful paralysis. Val was gone, out of sight, and it cut him off from his moorings in this unfamiliar place. He hadn't realized until now how dependent on the youko he had come to be.
The blond youko had returned to the bar, an expression of worry marring otherwise perfect features. He took one look at Kyo and waved them through without comment.
The door was unlatched and Chance pushed it open, dragging an unresisting Kyo behind him. The storage room was dark and sheltered from the noise of the bar. Tsuyoshi sat on a barrel in the corner with his hands over his face, shoulders heaving, letting forth a tearing gasp now and again. He was crying.
Kyo shook off Chance's guiding hand and crossed over to him, ignoring Ria and Val who moved to flank their father as if they would protect him.
"It will be okay," Kyo piped up, voice strangely childish, approaching Tsuyoshi and climbing into his lap as if he were half his size. Kit-sized, maybe.
Tsuyoshi lifted his head. Already his eyes were red-rimmed and irritated. Tears slipped unnoticed down his cheeks. "What?" he asked hoarsely.
"It'll be okay," Kyo repeated, then burrowed against his chest, ducking and hiding.
Chance recognized the movement. It was distinctly Kaze, the way he acted after he was frightened by a spell of intuition.
"Kaze," Tsuyoshi whispered, and held the redhead. His eyes were frightening to look at as they bored steadily into the opposite wall, but now it was diffused with a trace of wild, impossible hope. Then his eyes filled with tears again.
"Father?" Val asked carefully.
"We didn't say a proper good-bye," Tsuyoshi said. He held Kyo tight. "There wasn't time. Now Morgan Vale is gone."
Don't be ridiculous, Chance wanted to scoff. He could still see the outlines of the buildings. They had barely left. It was impossible for that to be gone so quickly. The cynical side of him, though, found it all too easy to believe.
Tsuyoshi had closed his eyes and he held Kyo as if the boy was his own kit.
Weathered inn steps creaked and groaned beneath the golden youko's feet as he climbed. Kino was the reason Vaughn had made his trip, the one goal that he'd thought worth the effort, and now they had come back and Kino's light was fading. He knew where Vella had taken the boy. He could feel the weak pulse of his thoughts fluttering, trapped, just beneath the skin of consciousness.
Opening the door on Kino's room brought a surprise. Someone had beaten him to the chase.
Tsuchiya Morgan's head lifted. Face weary, eyes hollowed out and delineated with dark smudges, he crouched on the far side of Kino's bed sitting beside the redhead. One of Kino's arms had remained outside the coverlet and to this he clung, fingers interlaced with the inert boy's hand like a lifeline.
At first Tsuchiya looked confused, then bristled. The wary possessiveness dissolved into confusion again. "I don't know what to do," he confessed helplessly. His golden eyes appealed more eloquently than awkward words.
Vaughn knew what to do. He had known ever since this unfamiliar youko's gaze slid from the little one to him, and back again. He approached the bed, first fumbling with the buckle of his braided leather belt, then pulling it free. It would do. There was only one thing that would awaken Kino, lost in the brief tumult of Tsuchiya's thought that he'd been allowed. He needed to be submerged, accepted completely, and brought into the light again with Bond complete.
It will be perfect. Tsuchiya did not, thankfully, resist him as he tied their arms together, right arm to left, so that they would comfortably face each other once the first most difficult parts of the Bonding were through. Kino was limp and of course in no position to protest.
The black youko's eyes were fixed on Kino's face, which was drawn in tense lines despite his unconscious state. Earlier he had seemed blank, unaware; now even insensible the expression seemed to hint at a new awareness.
Vaughn hadn't carried a knife for quite some time, but he pulled the belt-knife from Tsuchiya's sheath. It was sharp enough, it would do. He made the first slice over Kino's unresisting flesh and the boy inhaled sharply as if he would wake. At the same time, Tsuchiya emitted a whimpering in empathy. Quickly, before the black youko could try to struggle, he cut a corresponding cut on Tsuchiya's arm that began to bleed immediately. Vaughn tugged the belt tight, sealing them together.
Tsuchiya growled, hunched over the boy, then cast his eyes up and whined. He seemed startlingly feral. It was time, Vaughn decided with prudence foremost on the mind, to withdraw and leave them to it. The black youko climbed awkwardly into bed with Kino, golden eyes uncertain, staggeringly so as he lowered his body to the one beneath him.
Then Kino's thick lashes lifted and he looked straight up into Tsuchiya's eyes. His expression was indescribable.
Vaughn began to shut the door ever so quietly behind him.
"No. You're just starting to live."
The house shields had come crashing down, and with them, a blaze of power had begun to consume the compounds that made up Morgan Vale. It had been hours since the first spurt of flame had gone up and even now, red and orange crackling against the sky, the smell of smoke whispering through their hair and lungs this far away, the two remaining sets of twins were afraid.
"We should keep running," Arashi said, elbowing her twin brother but still careful not to drop her charge. Kaze was still eerily silent in her arms, expression rigid, golden eyes fixed some point beyond the burning treetops.
"I need to find out," Kirin shot back, surprising her and shoving a bow-tense Rekka at her. Reflexively Arashi accepted the kit, balancing a twin on either hip. "If our father is dead, I need to know it."
"If the mercs are still there, you'll die too!" Arashi cried, shaking her head angrily. She bit her lip but from the set of her face she was refusing to cry.
"I'm not as important as you are," Kirin told her with a crooked grin, giving her a long look, then vanishing into the brush.
Whatever curses she wanted to pelt after him died on her lips. Rekka was squirming against her, one leg hooked near the small of her back, turning up mournful amber eyes. "Is Papa dead?"
They weren't supposed to lie to the kits, no matter how bad. But oh, how much she wanted to. "I don't know," Arashi said, turning her head. That wasn't quite a lie. She could hardly tell him she was certain, just hadn't seen it with her own eyes.
Kirin, after depositing his little brother in Arashi's arms, was taking the circuitous route back to the heart of their compound. He needed to see it for himself. There had been no pursuit, so if Ahrin was really...his thought faltered there...if he was really dead, he must have taken their enemies with him.
"Damned fool human thing to do!" he spat out, dredging up a curse he'd heard their youko father air frequently.
The fire was everywhere. There was no ambient moisture to draw from and use as a shield, because the air was sucking it up and burning it faster than he could find it. He could pull water from the ground -- no, that would take too long. Kirin hung back at the edge of the roaring blaze and considered his options. He began to draw moisture from higher up, pulling it down as precipitation.
It was hard work and exhausted him in short order. It took a lot of energy to manipulate moisture so high, but when he got the reaction started, it began to rain. It plastered his hair to his face but Kirin didn't care, sinking to his knees, staring into the fire as it began to dwindle and eventually, with the harder rain, went out.
"Papa," he whispered, reverting to childhood with that nickname. He could see bodies now. One of them had blond hair, not the least bit charred -- there must have been some residual backlash protecting him from the fire, if not the mercenaries.
Kirin didn't want to look closer; then it would be definite.
Mercenary bodies lay scattered here and there, armor charred and melted in places. It had gotten hot and the ground was still steaming as he gingerly picked his way through the dead. Kirin had never seen a dead man before. These ones smelled like roasted meat and it made him want to retch. He didn't have time for histrionics, though. He skirted a small molten puddle that looked as if it might have been a medallion or amulet of some kind.
Beyond it, Ahrin Morgan had fallen. He was crumpled on one side, hair burned away in patches on the right side of his head. Except for that, he could have been caught napping, he was that untouched. There was no sign his body had been subjected to high temperatures for a prolonged period.
Kirin sucked in a breath. Supersitiously, he felt, if he approached his father his eyes would pop open, dead or undead. In one culture, he had heard, it was traditional to weigh down the eyes of their dead with small round stones, to prevent the spirit from re-entering the body. Now he felt the reason for a tradition like that.
*Is Papa dead?* Arashi's voice was small and frightened. In the back of her head, somewhere, was the thought that if one was dead, the other wouldn't be far behind. That was the most frightening thing of all.
*I don't want to touch him and find out,* the thought wormed its way through his head. Unnerved, Kirin slunk forward. He kneeled beside him, sought a pulse, and found nothing.
In the back of his head, Arashi began to keen.
*Stay where you are!* Kirin said fiercely, while he slumped beside his father's body. *You stay there with the kits...they don't need to see this!*
*No, they don't,* his twin agreed, suppressing her own grief. *What...what should we do?*
First things first. He would have to bury his own father. There was no one else to do it, even though he recoiled at the thought. Then...
*We'll go to town,* he decided. His bile rose at the thought of their remaining horses, trapped in the fire. They'd had such beautiful horses. *We'll get help and we'll find Waypost somehow.*
Kirin dug the grave first. A crawling sensation swirled up his spine at the thought of touching that inert flesh again. It was hard, digging the grave, because he couldn't find any tools in the charred wreck of the house; instead he used a slender pole that had been a porch support once. In the end he settled for a shallow grave, deciding to pile up a burial mound over the thin layer of dirt.
He bared his teeth, refusing to give in to tears. If he did, he might break down completely, then Arashi might and set off the twins...was this how it felt to be a parent? Always putting someone else before his own needs?
There was a part of his mind that went blank as he took the body by the ankles. He couldn't think of it as 'father,' or 'Ahrin Morgan,' or anything recently alive or he would get hung up on that one horrible thought and be good for nothing.
"How could you?" he demanded aloud, of the air rather than the body. "How could you do this to us?" Vaguely he became aware that he was crying, after all.
It was done. The body of Ahrin Morgan lay in the trough of dirt, still looking peaceful. Kirin wiped his sweaty brow and smeared dirt over his forehead, panting, looking down at his father where he lay, arms crossed as he'd arranged them. He felt a spasm of fear. Maybe he should weigh his eyes down with pebbles...there was no place nearby, though, that would have smooth flat stones and he'd sapped the last of his energy.
Kirin reached for the pile of dirt, gathering a handful of it. He didn't think he could finish the job right now. Dirt in hand, he looked down at the body in puzzlement. How had it stood up to the fire? He only knew the barest essentials of human magery; he hadn't soaked it up easily the way his twin Arashi had taken to the foreign type of magic. He had felt the flux of power that presaged the explosion at the heart of the Vale, but he didn't understand the finer details.
*Arashi...why isn't Father's body burned at all?* He reached for his only source of explanation, the thought-pathway as easy as trying to turn the answer over in his own brain.
*It's not?* There was a pause as Arashi considered it. *I dunno. Reflexive backwash? He may have had some of his shields in place...I would only know if I came to look right now, and...* She trailed off, absorbing the impact through his mind.
*It's okay,* he filled in the gap hastily. *Don't.* He could sense her choking up; she was throttling down tears again.
Kirin opened his hand and let the dirt sift down, falling over Ahrin's chest, covering the tunic that was only slightly bloodied; rolling over his shoulders into fine blond hair. His face was twisted with the effort not to cry; they didn't have time to cry right now even though all his instincts were prompting him to collapse into a good long howl.
His father's eyes popped open.
The high, keening noise that suffused the air might have been his but Kirin was caught up in scrambling backwards, fear grabbing him like a clamp and panic taking the rest.
"Don't...bury me yet..." The voice was a hollow rasp.
Kirin dropped the rest of his handful of dirt, transfixed. A nightmare, he was in a waking nightmare; that had to be it. He thought he might scream, realized he was already making a noise near to it, and forced himself to stop.
"...you impatient kit," the scraping whisper finished, and Ahrin Morgan sat up, brushing loose soil from his hair and clothes. "Goddamn. That hurt. And took every last bit of my power reserves, too." He flopped back into the shallow grave, a pained hiss escaping him.
Kirin's knees folded again. He sat numbly beside the grave, staring at his father's -- open, unclouded -- steady blue eyes. "Father?"
A dozen questions flitted over his tongue, melting away in the sheer flood of relief. "You look like hell."
"I'm sure," Ahrin replied, lifting a hand, hissing again as he encountered missing patches of hair. He pushed himself upright with trembling arms and looked around. "But I killed them all."
*That was incredibly risky,* Arashi whistled with awe in the back of his mind. *I'm coming back to the Vale now.*
They had a hundred things to do. They --rather, Arashi, because pulling the rain down had taken all the fight out of him too -- would have to heal their father. They would still have to run, because the mercenaries might still be on Tsuchiya's tail. But he was happy, because his father was alive and no matter what burned down, only their lives could not be replaced.
The storeroom had been dark and silent for many moments as they all absorbed loss in a fragmented sense, disconnected from the place and person but for the slender dark youko who rocked back and forth, clutching the redheaded halfling like his own child. Then Tsuyoshi began to shake again and a red circuit of panic tripped around the room, father to sons, sons to lovers, until Tsuyoshi lifted his head with tears streaming down his face and Chance was nearly mindless with imported hysterics.
"He's alive," Tsuyoshi chanted, "he's alive, he's alive..." And he clutched at his sons' hands and had a breakdown of another sort.
The excess of high emotion was choking, was a smothering thick sensation that came in waves. The embarrassment of joy sang even sharper than the twang of fear and pain, rebounded as it was from the worst extreme.
Pain he was familiar with. Happiness could drive him away.
Chance slipped out of the door as Val and Ria clung to their father, radiating a gamut of relieved and joyful emotions he couldn't process. He felt strange and he rubbed his hands over his breeches, tugged at the bottom of his tunic. Was this relief?
"Chiyo, you look confused," said the golden youko tending bar.
Chance blinked at him. Now, that just made him even more confused. He absorbed the dialect. *Boy, you look confused.* "Yes..." he said slowly. It hit him in a rush and he nearly sagged. "I'm tired."
"I'm Corr," the youko told him again, setting down some filled mugs within easy reach of one of his barmaids. "Pleased to meet you, Tired."
"No, I'm--" Chance caught himself in the middle of snapping irritably. He fumbled a smile. "I'm Chance."
"Well, Chance, if you stay behind the bar much longer, I might put you to work," Corr said with a light laugh. "Why don't you come out from around it and have a drink?"
Chance raised pale brows. "I can't, Val might spank me."
"No hard liquor," Corr assured him.
In that case, it sounded positively delightful. He followed the youko's suggestion and took a seat at the wide, polished wooden bar. His nearest neighbor was five stools down and didn't even give him a look, which was a relief. This was his first contact with humans since being jail-sprung, and he discovered he was still harboring distrust and suspicion for his own kind.
Moments later, after he'd been given some kind of fruity, frothing concoction in a tall frosted glass mug, Vaughn joined him at the bar, giving a layered look of inquisition to Corr.
"Ah...that's good to hear," Corr said in response to unspoken narrative, nodding his head. "That means my dainty life-partner must have returned to the front desk?"
Vaughn nodded, and the motion had weight to it in the way the youko dropped his head. He looked tired and worn and he rubbed at his face with both hands.
"Not quite what you were imagining when you left here, is it?" Corr said with a wry twist of a smile.
Vaughn shrugged and accepted the drink the other youko shoved at him. This one, Chance felt sure, was alcoholic.
*What happens now?* Chance wanted to ask, but why should they know?
*Now...we need to sort out our messes,* Val answered fuzzily in his head. *You all right?*
This wasn't the time for sharp answers, and Chance recognized this before he responded out of reflex. *I just want some place quiet,* he answered plaintively. *Will it be much longer?*
*Oh, for all gods'--* Val bit off his own mental imprecation; responded with distress. *I am thoughtless, and I'll be right there.*
*No,* Chance replied, awkward in his own attempts to calm and soothe, but giving it a try anyhow. Val's emotions flowed between them without effort, but Chance was still inept...it didn't matter. *You'll be here when he doesn't need you as much as he does now.*
He received a mental fillip of love and surprise for his efforts. *Thank you.*
*Love you,* he thought VERY privately; the one thing he still had trouble articulating aloud or silently.
If it could be taken away so easily and suddenly, what was the point of shoring it up for later expression?
It was the late shift in Waypost and in the Jaderose Inn and Tavern, the owners and managers of the establishment had relinquished their duties for the night. Leonine Corr had given up his bartending duties to a tall muscled horse of a woman, who looked as if she might do all of the bouncing for any belligerent late-night drunks. Dark-haired Vella, his partner, had passed on her keys to an awkward blond adolescent. The couple had taken the exhausted Morgan clan in hand, taking them into a spacious suite on the ground-floor level that was tucked away behind bar and stables and accessible only through Vella's sitting room.
"What next?" Val was the first to pose the question, dropping into a kitchen chair, hardly giving the rest of his family the opportunity to enter the room. He hauled Chance into the chair beside him and Chance, for a change, did not resist the youko's advances.
Tsuyoshi sought a chair out, looking gray and wrung out. "I don't know. I can't think."
"May I suggest the planning wait until the morning?" Vella contributed, lounging against her kitchen counter with arms crossed. "You're all tired."
"At the very least we need to sort out what's happening," Ria said, picking out a bench for himself and drawing Kyo close.
Easygoing Ria seemed to be weathering the stresses best of all, Chance noted, feeling almost resentful. For his part, he felt shell-shocked, to the point where Val pulling him near and putting a hand on his knee was a welcome invasion.
"Right," Val said. "Right. Sounds good."
Chance poked him in the side for sounding so witless.
Tsuyoshi sighed. "A summary?" He turned his head, watching Vaughn file into the room behind Corr. Their silent guest looked uncomfortable, ill at ease yet determined to see this out...whatever it was. He folded his hands together over one knee, pulled them apart as the knee began to jitter, tried to recline in his chair and began to fidget again.
The thought dawned on Chance that he was unbalanced. No Ahrin, no young kits to look after, no brother to support; Tsuyoshi had no one to *need* him as someone generally did. Yet now he needed someone.
"A summary," Ria agreed, petting Kyo's red hair. He glanced up at the ceiling, then over at Vaughn. The path of his thought was clear to anyone with half a brain.
"Oh, he gave in, all right," Vella said with a wicked, throaty chuckle. "It wasn't much of a choice, in the end. All he needed was a little push."
Tsuyoshi smiled wanly. "And you supplied the push?"
"Vella's good at pushing," Corr said calmly, shutting the door of the suite. It was a cozy kitchen area, and now with the door shut and providing quiet and insulation from the late-hour patrons it seemed shut off and contained from the outside world.
"Considering I have to push you to do near anything besides tend bar around here..." Vella began to retort, with the litanous rhythm of a frequent complaint, then broke off as she noticed some of the Morgan youko grinning in her direction. "Damned fox."
"Vaughn says they have been Bonded, and he witnessed," Corr continued, ignoring his own Bonded with aplomb...either that or by feigning hearing loss. "That's taken care of and that, I take it, is the reason that brought you to Waypost quickly enough to wear out your horses."
"We had no choice--" Ria began to protest, looking stung, but Corr held up a hand.
"They're in good care. And I'm flattered," he said, giving them a slight grin to prove it, "that you thought so highly of our establishment to return. I'll give you a modest discount when you check out."
"'Check out?'" Kyo repeated, sitting up and looking indignant. There was something in his face or voice that reminded Chance oddly of Kino -- which was strange in and of itself; they were twins and they looked and sounded the same, right?
Vella uttered a rude, highly unlikely anatomical possibility. "Corr, it's the least we can do for Kino even if you are a mercenary soul. He wouldn't take charity or be beholden during his time with us, so we may as well take advantage to give it to him while he's...uh...busy, up there."
"Certainly, o dawn of my desire," Corr said blandly. "I was teasing them."
"The hell you were, I saw compound interest in your eyes."
"How would you express that symbolically?"
"The end result is all that matters," Tsuyoshi broke in wearily. "Tsuchiya has stopped fighting the Bond. Vaughn tied it, and now I expect they'll be occupied for several days."
"In the meantime, those Ridan mercenaries attacked the Vale," Val picked up the thread, eyes flashing.
From his position at Val's side, Chance could see the hard set of his jaw and inferred the terrible expression there. "It's not really...gone, is it?" he put forth, feeling unusually timid. This was his lover in a state of mind he no longer cared to cross.
The various youko exchanged troubled glances.
Val's hand tweaked one of his braids, then smoothed down the mass of his white hair. "From what little coherent thought I can get from the twins, the buildings were burned down during the battle between Ahrin and the mercenaries."
Chance's mouth sagged open. "That's...absurd." Places didn't just go away. People went away, they came and they went, or they hurt and they went, but making a place go away was considerably more difficult.
"So what's happening to them now?" Ria demanded. He sat up, looking more alert, fixing his brother and father with a look.
"They're on their way here," Tsuyoshi responded. "What happened...it drained Ahrin's last resources. I can barely feel him enough to know he's alive. But I know they're coming here, I just don't know when they'll arrive."
Vaughn made a vehement gesture.
"No," Val answered the soundless question, "we don't know if he killed the remaining Ridan mercenaries." It prompted another, darker answer. *We don't know if we're still being hunted.* That thought lurked on the sidebar of Val's mind.
"What do we do now?" Chance asked, feeling the tension gather and build intolerably. "What can we do now? Just wait for Ahrin and the rest?" He wanted to put his hands over his head and find some place dark and quiet.
"Well, Tsuchiya and Kino need some time to Bond, obviously..." Tsuyoshi hedged.
Kyo lurched up, white-faced and upset. "But the mercenaries could be headed here right now!" He was still haggard from whatever Kaze had done to contact him. Ria turned at once with soothing hands, leaning over him and no doubt issuing some soft words of comfort.
Ria had it easy, Chance thought cynically, of the two twins that had recently made it out of Austen. At least Kyo would accept comfort from him, the way he wouldn't quite from Val.
"Don't you think I know that?" Tsuyoshi responded, every bit as distraught.
"Please, calm...stay calm," Vella interjected. "Waypost is safe. I don't care if they're from the Other Continent, or if they're the ten little Goddess' curse with a sword, they won't get far in this town."
"What he should be doing is going straight to the provincial capitol," Corr said suddenly. "Coming here is a detour. I don't know what you all were planning, but he can testify that he's been attacked."
"Yes, but Tsuchiya..." Tsuyoshi ground to a halt. He looked distressed and lost.
"Father, you can meet up with them," Val suggested. "After Tsuchiya is finished, you and he can join up with the rest and testify before the government."
"In the meantime," Ria drawled, "we don't know how many mercenaries are after his hide."
Val tensed beside him. That seemed to be a preliminary twang for every youko in the room to go stiff -- even Vella looked peaked. Vaughn had taken a step forward, looking grimmer than usual. Then Chance heard it, a ripple extending outward from Val and fuzzed on the edge with panic.
*Then we should go to Ussay and find out, and put a stop to it.*
"Go to Ussay?" Ria repeated, something frantic in his voice. "Do you know what you're asking?"
Vaughn's expression altered, conveying quite clearly what he meant now. Chance didn't even need to hear it, though Val passed it along. *I know more than anyone, except perhaps your uncle.*
"That's crazy." Val swept his hand in a chopping motion. "It's out of the question. We stay here."
"Where it's safe?"
The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them, bitten off with pent-up sarcasm and bitterness. Chance couldn't even bring himself to feel repentant. Everyone's eyes were on him and instead of feeling overwhelmed now he felt angry. He felt like he had something to say. And, damn them, he would say it.
"You're not safe here any longer. You're living in a fantasy romance if you think you are. Or next time does someone have to die to prove it?" The words rushed out of him as if they came from someone else. In a way they did. These were the remnants of Willow pouring forth, suspicious, distrustful, misanthropic. "Something has to be done, and Vaughn suggested something practical."
"Practical?" Kyo stared at him. "Chance, listen to yourself. How is going to the Other Continent practical?"
"No, listen to me," Chance said stubbornly. He sat up straighter. People were actually paying attention to him, even if they were blinking at him with shell-shocked expressions like Tsuyoshi was. "I've been thinking about this. What will they do, those top hats in the provincial capitol, when we testify the family is being attacked?"
"Put us under protection," Tsuyoshi said promptly.
Chance curbed the withering stare because it was Tsuyoshi and he...well, he actually respected the youko; perhaps the first rash of respect he'd admitted to since leaving Austen. "And that will do what, exactly? Because it won't send you home safe to Morgan Vale."
"Morgan Vale is gone," Kyo mumbled.
"It won't send you home safe to rebuild Morgan Vale," Chance amended. He'd made his point.
"I...it..." Tsuyoshi paused and looked frustrated. "I don't know. I've never been under protection before. It...it's gotten terribly bad, hasn't it?"
Corr interjected, "I can answer that, somewhat." The tall blond youko had remained mostly unobtrusive throughout the conversation, leaning against the far wall. "You would remain in the capitol, under guard at first. Since the mercenaries are targeting youko, they would probably station you under human guard but it wouldn't matter -- Ridans don't discriminate against anything keeping them from a target. Then the control unit, if it's still alive, would report back to their commander that they failed to kill you."
That was grim news. However bad it was, Chance remained unsurprised. He was waiting for more.
"After that, whomever hired the mercenaries would either give up or they'd opt to send assassins -- Tarukinnya assassins if you're very unlucky," Corr finished. "If they're wealthy enough -- and have that much of a grudge -- to send Ridans after you, I'd think the latter option is likeliest."
"So there is no safety." Chance set his mouth. There was no surprise in this fact. Any surprise he might have had should be reserved for himself, for his willingness to believe Val's beguiling promises.
The youko's elbow nudged him sharply. *Don't think like that.* When Chance turned to look at him he was expressionless, surveying his family, but the tenor of his thoughts was determined.
"Well, and if that's the case, why not go to the Ussay Continent?" Ria said explosively, sweeping one hand in a wild gesture. "That's suicide! We don't know anything about the lands down there, or--"
Again the mental ricochet coursed through him. *I know about the lands down there.* Vaughn took another step towards the center of the room. *I would not ask this thing if I were not willing to go.*
"Vaughn..." Vella turned towards the silent golden youko, shock clear in her face and voice.
"Enough!" Tsuyoshi exclaimed, drawing attention to him and holding it. His golden eyes were clouded with worry and fatigue. "There's no need to make a decision this very minute. Vella graciously offered a place for all of us to stay, and I say we take her at her word and get some rest, if not a good night's sleep." He lapsed into his chair and looked around, upset.
"I agree," Val said, jaw working.
"Fine with me," Ria agreed, though he looked far more disturbed than he had earlier; shaken, perhaps, by the extremity of Chance's words and Vaughn's suggestion.
Vella shifted, uncrossing her arms. "Then let's get you all settled for the night. You can make your decisions tomorrow when you're not quite as worked up."
Here was a woman, Chance thought, that didn't alarm him as many of the soft-bodied creatures had during his first few days out of captivity. Due to his peculiar upbringing in the Palace, he'd had no exposure to women until the day Val stole him out of the high-priced Willow suite. In an abstract way, he had supposed women were much the same as men excepting behavioral differences and mode of dress -- and the fact that they could give birth. He'd never given it much thought.
Vella was interesting. She wasn't flat-chested like Arashi -- quite the opposite, actually -- but she didn't give Chance queasy feelings simply to look at her. She was strong-willed, too, which was apparent simply by the way she'd taken them in hand.
Between the two of them, Corr and Vella managed to bed down four youko and two Bondmates for the night. The Jaderose Inn proper was full to capacity because of recent Waypost travel restrictions...Tsuchiya's hunting had spread that far in its influence. The Ridan mercenaries killed any youko in their path, aside from those specified. According to the information Val sleepily disseminated, his mind seeping the knowledge like a ripple of water, youko residents or travelers to Waypost had been forced to remain in the area. That much he had picked up before finding Tsuchiya in that particular tavern.
Vella gave them a firm mattress to sleep on, a flexible piece of furniture that had been rolled up and stowed in the closet. With some covers to tuck around them and a pillow to share, for Chance and Val it was more than adequate.
*The killing won't stop until we go down there and do something about it,* Chance projected his conviction at Val. Rather than keep Kyo and Ria awake with his argumentative whispering, he made use of the connection between them. It wasn't something he was fully at ease with yet, but he still had his point to make and couldn*t sleep until Val saw the truth of it.
*What do you know of mercenaries and assassins?* Val countered. *What could we possibly do about it down there?*
*What could your government?* Chance shot back. *Corr said it. Even if the Ridans fail, the people behind this will send something else -- something more effective. How effective will the provincial government's protection be? Look at Kyo.*
Val was silent for a heartbeat, thoughts seething. *Conceded. But I don't like it. We could all be killed.*
*Oh?* Chance retorted. *Like crouching here waiting to be killed is better? We may as well do something. Even Vaughn volunteered.*
*It doesn't matter,* Val replied. *I don't think Tsuchiya will go for it.*
*Why don't we ask him?*
He could have argued his point all night. Across the room on another floor mattress, Ria's and Kyo's regular breathing intertwined, lulling, sleep-inducing. He fought the feeling, waiting for Val's response, then flared with outrage as he realized Val was deftly pushing him towards sleep.
The realization didn't help. *Get...you...later...* Chance thought fuzzily, with what little conscious wit he had left.
The sensation that answered him was remarkably like a snore.
There was silver light all around him, and a familiar melody tickling at the edge of his mind. The place around him felt comfortable, familiar, and Kino opened his eyes, trying to puzzle out why he couldn't sleep.
His voice came out in a small rush as he looked at the slack face of the sleeping youko beside him. Kino had slept with dozens of youko during his time at the Jaderose, but this was crucially different. He knew about as much of Tsuchiya as he had of any youko he'd ever bedded, but this one was apparently his partner for life.
Maybe they do it on instinct, like an actual fox. Kino stared wonderingly at the sleeping face inches from his. He'd always wondered about the particulars of Bonding and other youko functions, but despite living around them for the past six years he'd never done much to educate himself. I suppose this is what you call forced learning.
To say that the sex had been incredible would be an insult to Tsuchiya's abilities, his thoroughness, his attentive sensuality. Kino didn't have a way to describe it other than...than superlative. Yes, maybe that would do.
He felt a pang, though, at being deprived the intimacy of his twin when they'd been so newly reunited. Perhaps later there would be leisure there to pursue the fullness of the bond between two healthy youko-offspring twins.
Kino began to smile foolishly and couldn't stop himself. He examined Tsuchiya's sleeping face closely again, darkly handsome and unstrained in sleep. There was a seriousness, a gravity in his waking expressions that had smoothed away while he slept. From the black brush-wings of his brows to the firm masculine jaw, Tsuchiya's face pleased him. He was utterly baffled by his own irrational happiness.
The youko's arm was flung over him, drawing their bodies snugly close even in sleep. The sense of him, a new awareness in Kino's mind, deepened as Tsuchiya approached the edge of waking.
The silken sweep of his lashes broke as Tsuchiya blinked, then opened his eyes. They were amber-striated, strangely unclouded by sleep. "How long...have you been awake?" His hand twitched, and he captured a strand of red hair that lay spread over the pillow, curling it around his index finger.
Kino wrinkled his nose. "Not long."
"They've been arguing downstairs," Tsuchiya told him, but he didn't sound concerned. He shifted closer to Kino in the bed, breaching the space between their bodies and creating a long warm line of flesh instead.
"Mm." When Tsuchiya did that, it made it difficult to concentrate...but Kino suspected there was something there or he wouldn't have mentioned it.
Tsuchiya's hair tickled down his neck as the youko leaned forward to capture his earlobe between the tease of sharp teeth. "Vaughn thinks we need to go to the Ussay Continent and tackle the source...and Chance is arguing in favor."
"What!?" He would have bolted upright in bed, but the black youko's hands tightened on him, heavy arm over his waist, secure grip on his buttock, and Kino stayed where he was.
"Even if the Ridan mercenaries fail, if one cell returns home -- or if it never returns -- then the Misran court will send some other kill-for-hire to get me," Tsuchiya told him, baring his teeth.
"What..." Kino hesitated, stalled from typical brashness by the fierce expression on Tsuchiya's face. He felt small and inadequate, all of a sudden. How could he possibly be a worthy partner for someone who had lived so long, and seen so much? Part of what had swamped his mind, back then with that first kiss, had been the enormity of Tsuchiya's...breadth, for lack of a better word.
Those clever hands moved on him again, coax and promise. "Don't." Those raw amber eyes were fixed on him gravely. "Once was enough. I could have lost you."
"All right," Kino murmured, folding himself against a strong chest while Tsuchiya lifted his chin to make room for him.
"What did you want to ask?" Incredibly, the hand moved away from his buttock and traveled north to stroke his hair. It made him feel...safe...while not quelling any of the sensations that cried riot.
"What happened? Why are they trying to kill you?" Kino asked, breathing in the sweaty-musk scent of satiated youko. Satiated for the nonce, at any rate; from the way Tsuchiya was slowly beginning to move against him, that would change shortly.
Tsuchiya's body stiffened; his mind went tense as well, trying to wall Kino out but that was impossible. Even his peculiarly effective shields weren't enough to shut out such an intimate, new connection. Kino received the information even as Tsuchiya tried to withhold it.
In an instant, he absorbed the hazy nightmarish details of torture and betrayal in Misra, of meeting a stubborn and intractable woman named Julea; later finding she was the local equivalent of a princess and being punished for trying to see her. Her face, in death, was the last image in a series of unsettling bloody prints until someone gripped Kino by the arms and shook, rattling his teeth.
"Ow...o-ow..." Kino protested faintly, trying to focus his eyes.
Tsuchiya's face was solemn, even grim as he checked him over, amber-gold eyes alert. The probing sensation of another mind, he was sure, was something he would never quite get accustomed to.
"I'm fine," Kino insisted. Then, as Tsuchiya continued to examine him, he pushed at the broad scarred chest. "I'm fine."
"What do you think?" Tsuchiya asked him, and Kino could infer the content. He marveled at that, being able to complete a non-sequitur thought.
"About going to the Other Continent? ...I think we could be killed either way. I've always wanted to travel," Kino said thoughtfully.
"You're serious." Tsuchiya shook him again, lightly this time. Almost teasingly, and Kino rolled his eyes. "You'll go with me?"
Kino cuddled up against him. That wasn't in question, so he could ignore it. "Is that what they decided?"
"No." Tsuchiya was starting to brood; he recognized the self-recriminating thoughts. "They'll argue endlessly until I make the decision for them."
He ran his hand down Tsuchiya's side. As if that invitation weren't clear enough, he leaned into Tsuchiya's greater body mass and rubbed against him. "Then tell them...later."
"Everyone's asleep now, anyway." Tsuchiya tilted his head and gave him a heavy look. "You're going to be a handful, aren't you?"
Kino replied happily, "For as long as possible." And the rest could wait, as far as he was concerned. He had gotten what really mattered.
With a borrowed dressing gown billowing around his considerably more lanky frame, seated on the sitting room couch with a cup of tea in one hand, Tsuyoshi Morgan looked serene or at least a fair facsimile. Whatever comfort Vella and Corr had administered, it had been effective. He had also been successful in making contact with Ahrin some time in the early hours of the morning.
Val grabbed one of the flaky pastries offered up on a table as community property, and settled himself on a couch near his father. Chance, still stumbling and sleepy, flopped beside him without a fuss.
"Your father is alive and will be well and managed to singe off a good deal of his hair, which Kirin and Arashi will take care of before he sees me again," Tsuyoshi said tartly, looking tweaked as if Ahrin had done it on purpose. Val could tell, though, that his youko father was disguising a great deal of emotion behind that. "They hid in the nearest village and they'll be setting out once they arrange for horses."
"Setting out where?" Ria asked loudly, materializing in the door of the sitting room. Kyo ducked under his arm and headed for the pastries, ignoring him. "Surely no one is entertaining the ridiculous notion of going to Ussay."
Val's glance darted to Vaughn, sitting unobtrusively in a lone chair. The golden youko ducked his head, lips twisting in a humorless smile.
"My brother is entertaining it," Tsuyoshi said calmly. His tea cup clattered as he set it into the saucer. "I'm sorry. Tsuchiya thinks that Vaughn is right, and that this won't be settled until he returns to the source."
Ria remained unmoving in the doorway. "Is there some kind of penance wrapped in that thought?" he demanded bluntly. "Because if that's the case he's going to die down there, and take Kino with him."
"You leave my brother out of this," Kyo spoke up, barely audible. "Whatever choice he makes, he trusts Tsuchiya."
Ria stepped further into the room, looking around incredulously. "Will you listen to yourselves? Are any of you really thinking? You're proposing an expedition of several youko and halflings to the Ussay Continent. Where they hate us, kill us, and torture us." He barked with not-laughter. "And our so-called expert on how to get around down there is a youko who won't even speak, such was their hospitality."
"You've made your point, Ria," Tsuyoshi said sharply, looking to Vaughn. His head was still bent low, any hints of his thought blocked off.
"Have I?" Ria challenged. He burned them all with the intensity of his challenging stare.
Val, for his part, was mute. He had Chance to protect and take care of. He had promised him safety, taking him from the Palace and Austen, and what he'd delivered him into was becoming exponentially worse.
A hand slipped into his. *Don't use me as an excuse.*
Val stared down at the pale human boy. His violet gaze was fixed forward, looking at Ria, but the flavor of his thought was determined. He wasn't afraid.
*I never expected to feel 'safe' in the first place,* Chance replied silently to his questioning look. *You gave me that for a little while, and I thank you. But I think it's better to go and do something, now, than to wait for them to come and kill us.*
Val didn't even bother to try and protest that this was Tsuchiya's battle, his problem to take care of. It was a problem and the solution belonged to all of them now. They burned down the Vale. That one thing would provide for unceasing enmity.
"What you don't seem to realize," Tsuyoshi was saying, drawing Val's attention back to the main event, "is that this is no longer a matter of whether we're going or not. Tsuchiya has decided to go, and now it's a matter of who will accompany him and Kino."
He held his son's gaze for a long pause. "They need your sword, Valteria," he said softly.
Ria locked eyes with him, rigid, furious. "Your sword," he corrected in frozen tones, "and you can take it back if you want it to fight in Ussay."
"I can't." Tsuyoshi underscored him with calm. "I have two small kits, and they need me here."
Ria stared at him a moment longer, then bit off a curse. "Then you can send your brother down there to die," he said venomously. "I won't have any part of it." He lunged out of the door back into the suite, banging his shoulder against the doorframe, exclaiming something wordless that sounded more angry than pained, slamming the door shut behind him.
Tsuyoshi closed his eyes briefly, then reached forward for his cup of tea again. It rattled on the saucer and he released it with an impatient noise, sitting back in his chair. "Val? What's your opinion of this?"
He still had a moment to think. Chance's fingers were slack in his hand, and the boy was quite studiously humming something tuneless in his head, pretending to ignore him. He had given more than his share of his thoughts on the matter, and now he would leave the decision to Val.
Val, on his part, knew that he couldn't leave his uncle to go to Ussay without some kind of backup -- more than just Vaughn. He turned his head and studied the golden youko, who straightened and returned the look. His large expressive eyes were clear and calm.
"Can you do this?" Val asked him. "Can you really go back there?"
Vaughn gave a shrug, eloquently expressing mingled cynicism and resignation in those eyes of his. *I've already been there,* he transmitted the thought. *I came out alive. Now, I know better how to cope with the places youko shouldn't go.*
Val absorbed this. Between Vaughn and Tsuchiya, they might have enough information to navigate through the bad spots. Then he realized in his mind he was already making plans for a successful trip; he had Chance's approval, there was a need for him, and essentially he had made his decision.
"Thank you," Tsuyoshi said, hands folded tightly on one thigh. The knotwork of his fingers skipped from thigh to knee. "I don't want to ask you..."
"He's family," Val responded, then pulled a gamine grin. "Besides, it's something to add to the legendary annals of the Morgan family." He had always thought there was one big event that could establish a reputation...who knew? This could be it for him.
Kyo polished off the last of his pastry. He had been looking around with watchful, wary eyes during the whole conversation, flinching but choosing to stay when Ria quit the room. Now he shifted uncomfortably.
"It's not fair of him," Val said softly, "to make you choose between partner and twin."
Kyo shrugged uncomfortably. "The thing that makes Ria the most angry--"
"Is that he thinks he'll be forced into coming with us," Val completed for him. "I know, I caught that too. He's afraid, Kyo. Before he was Bonded he never would have thought twice about charging into danger."
Kyo caught his breath. "If he goes, I can't just stay here." He looked bleak. "Now that I have a family...I can't stay here safely while everyone goes down there." It wasn't in question at all that Kino would be going with Tsuchiya -- so newly Bonded, they would be inseparable.
Tsuchiya spoke, snagging Val's attention again. There was a sense of calm overlying his fear now, and even if it was forced it was enough to keep the tension in the room to tolerable levels. "I think I'll be the only one meeting Ahrin to testify before the Provost and the Mayor," he said, meeting their eyes in turn. "Am I right?"
Val widened his eyes at his father. "Don't let Ria hear that thought," he said evasively. "He needs to convince himself, first. But once he does..."
Then we'll start planning, he thought with a mixture of trepidation and excitement.
Everyone had run out of the last scrap of argument. Tsuchiya was going and that solidified it for the rest of them -- at least, it did for Valirion Morgan. He found himself, if not eager, then at least anticipating the rush of planning that would consume the next few days. He would need a map and an expert -- Vaughn, and perhaps Corr, since he had seemed knowledgeable.
"It's really happening," Chance murmured beside him.
"Yes," Val answered, reflective.
He had promised safety, and Morgan Vale, and the time to grow and learn love. Instead, the safety and the Vale had burned down around them. It was time to get some of their own back.
"We're going to the Ussay Continent."
+end of Morgan Vale+
Author's notes: * Yes, it's finally done. After...about two years after starting the sequel, "Morgan Vale" has come winding to a close and it leaves me feeling kind of empty. More so because I know I'm not going to be diving into a successive story right away. It may not seem like a very 'complete' ending but that's because the story is not finished yet -- there will be another story after this, probably even longer and more complex and full of action. (And, with any luck, will be brought to you in book format.) "The Morgan Vale" finished in the amount of chapters I predicted and it spun through everything I had outlined...so I feel satisfied. * Expect to see more "Swept," first, instead of a sequel novella to this. * When I picked up the Willow Key project I never expected this to become so huge, ballooning past the original Key concept and turning into a multi-part sequel. Now it's latched on to several other original ideas and it's become something even larger, something I enjoy and I feel has genuine potential (after extensive revision) to be published. Who knows? So I can say without reservation, expect more "Morgan Vale" universe. Expect to see it in print, even if I end up going the self-publishing route. I think what I have so far is a good basis to generate an editor's interest, and if not, screw them!