Chance Willow Morgan was in hiding.
The lay of the situation was, until very recently the pale youth had been a slave and before that, had been groomed for his expensive role of slave, and as such had no recollection of the female form. His clientele as the body-slave of the Willow Suite -- from which he'd derived his former name -- had been exclusively male. Having nothing of the world but the books supplied to him as a sop thrown to him along with meals and regular medical care, Chance had somehow acquired the misapprehension that women were similar to men in all but some minor distinctions of plumbing.
The outside world had come as a shock in many ways.
Another thing Chance had never been exposed to was the reality of children. This, he had barely touched on even in fiction. In coming to Morgan Vale he was exposed not merely to any children -- he was subjected to twins.
The grown twin of Val, his Bondmate, was bad enough to deal with...the miniature terrors of Rekka and Kaze were not to be borne. Not if he could help it.
Especially not when they had the gall to rub his nose in the fact that they could accomplish their chores in a fraction of the time it took him to do so.
However, despite their annoying qualities and despite the fact that he'd done his best to rebuff any overtures -- of any sort -- that they might make, the twins seemed to seek him out with the unerring ubiquity of his own bad fortune.
Rekka seemed to have an instinctive need to compete with him, for one. And the other, Kaze, was absentmindedly prone to climbing into Chance's lap if he left the slightest possibility of an opening. Both activities made Chance very nervous.
As a result Chance found himself hiding in this, the idle hour of the afternoon when chores were done and he was unencumbered before dinner. Weeding the border wasn't exactly the most glamorous of activities but he fancied his muscles were starting to toughen. His as-yet-undisclosed favorite way of relaxing would probably be to let that maddening youko find him and drag him to a hot spring, but Val and the middle twins, Kirin and Arashi, weren't finished with their mysterious doings on the East field.
All right, so it was only mysterious in the sense that he hadn't asked.
Kyo had seemed remarkably unsympathetic to Chance's plight as he'd uttered a hoarse 'help!' earlier upon seeing the kits spot them and perk at the end of the garden rows. In fact, he had seemed amused. But then, Kyo liked them.
Well, it was good to know whom you could and could not count on, Chance thought indignantly.
He had sneaked around a corner of the squared-off white wooden beams of the house, thinking to steal in the side door and make for a hidden niche in the family room, or up to the bedroom he shared with Val. Waiting for that insufferable youko wasn't such a bad option when compared to the twins.
Chance paused for a moment at the door, caught off-guard by thoughts of that youko. His youko, he could admit, since it wasn't aloud. The mere tenor of his thoughts brought a brush of sensation resonating through him, as if Val were present and had skimmed a hand over his hair in passing.
It was less intimidating than it used to be.
Val was the first non-human he had ever seen, let alone the first youko. It had been stunning for more reasons than just the Bond they were soon to share. He supposed, if he thought on it too deeply, the youko were what he'd envisioned all that time when reading and imagining the beautiful people beyond the walls of his suite, outside the Palace and Austen. Even the females -- at least, the one female he'd met, Arashi -- shared the androgynous, unbelievably sensuous beauty the males held.
Or perhaps it was the youko males who'd become more like their scarce female counterparts.
Chance shook his head irritably to dispel such useless cobweb-spinning. He didn't know a fraction of the things he should about youko, so it was useless to speculate. He should ask Tsuyoshi, eldest male and therefore ultimate authority of the household. Better yet, he should ask Tsuyoshi if there were books on the subject.
He pushed open the door and cast a look around. Nothing, but for the backside of his lover's father (did that make Tsuyoshi his father-in-law?) and the black youko's gently swishing tail. Cooking, by the look of it.
"Tsuyoshi--" he began, pushing the door open fully and passing the coldroom.
From the other direction came a wordless cry. "Ahhhh!"
Then Chance was attacked from both sides, legs taken out from beneath him. Now he was the one shouting. "You little -- agh!"
He ended up on his back and Rekka had his stomach. At least, he was fairly sure it was Rekka, that one being the more aggressive twin. Kaze had clung to his leg on the way down but now he scampered around to Chance's head, petting the ropy length of his braided hair.
"Y'wanna play with his hair, Kaze?" the kit sitting on his stomach inquired.
"Okay," Kaze agreed placidly.
"He's all yours," Rekka-by-default asserted, peering down at him. "Not much fight in him. You're definitely no youko! Went down real easy."
Chance glared up at them. "I don't go down for minors," he stated very definitely, and heard Tsuyoshi's distant snort. He sat up with great effort, employing all of his meager strength and dumping Rekka onto his legs. He twitched his hair out of Kaze's fingers and tossed it over the other shoulder.
"What does that mean?" Rekka demanded, straddling his legs with equal facility.
"Never mind," Chance said, uncomfortable. Explaining innuendo was not on his list of family responsibilities.
Rekka bounced on his legs, craning his head. "Hey, Papa! What does that mean?"
"I didn't hear it," Tsuyoshi claimed, stepping into the hallway with a dishtowel in his hands. His tail twitched. "Kaze, Rekka, are you molesting our guest?"
"He's not a guest!" Rekka said scornfully, while Kaze clung silently to Chance's arm and rubbed his face in the multiple braids that inevitably slipped down his back. "He's family."
Chance blinked at him, trying to cope with the distinctly odd feeling that simple statement engendered.
"Certainly, but he's new family," Tsuyoshi qualified. "So why don't we ease him into our ways rather than crowding him into a nervous breakdown?"
Rekka sat up and twisted himself round to confront his father, ears and tail bristling. Kaze put his little pointed chin on Chance's shoulder and whispered, "We're not breaking you down, are we?"
Chance wasn't so well-armored that the wistful query didn't provoke a smile. It was a rather dyspeptic smile, though, unused to being taken out and used.
The slender black youko looked down on his twins and the skinny white-haired youth, giving them an indulgent expression. "Why don't you come into the kitchen?" he suggested with a faint smile. "I'll tell you a story. And don't bully Chance. If you want to snuggle, ask -- even though he's family."
Suddenly Chance was divested of kits as quickly as if they'd levitated to their feet. With magic running natural and thick in their veins one never knew. The diminutive silver twins looked down at him and silently held their hands out.
With a look only mildly distrustful, Chance grapsed their little hands but got himself to his feet by main strength of his thigh muscles. All three padded into the kitchen behind Tsuyoshi and settled together on one side of the long wooden trestle table in the expansive kitchen. The kits settled to either side of him, soft silvery lumps curled against his flanks. Chance eyed them over for a moment, trying to decide what to do.
Put your arms around them, the thread of thought reached him, warm and amused. Chance's gaze snapped to Tsuyoshi and the black youko's lips quirked.
Oh. He supposed he could do that.
Tentatively, Chance settled his arms around the twins. They let out identical sighs and snuggled closer, eyes fixed on their father.
Tsuyoshi leaned against the window counter and smiled. "Mukashi mukashi..." he began -- a youko saying, Val had said, that meant 'long, long ago;' a phrase whose origins were lost in time -- "there was a dashing young thief who'd set out to make his way in the world."
"How long ago was that, Papa?" Rekka interrupted.
Kaze slipped his arm into Chance's.
"Shush, Rekka. Longer than I care to recall," Tsuyoshi replied, flattening his ears briefly. "May I continue unhindered?"
"Yes, Papa," Rekka replied, chastened. He buried his face against Chance's side.
"A long time ago, a certain youko thief made his way across the provinces when the provinces were still young," Tsuyoshi continued, setting his towel aside. "He was young as youko count their years and as a thief he was bold and clever, yet he was only beginning to build the reputation he wanted for himself."
"Did he work on commission through a guild?" Chance asked curiously. He had read about such things.
"No, this was before guilds," Tsuyoshi replied. "At any rate there is no multi-province guild even in these days, and our thief preferred to remain mobile."
"Ah," Chance said, partly enlightened.
"Never lets me get away with interruptions," Rekka muttered almost inaudibly, poking Chance in the side.
Chance pinched him in the ribs, in return.
Tsuyoshi ignored them both and continued. "Well, the thief had pulled off a great coup in Casavuera of one province, but being as yet more bold than clever, it was necessary to beat a hasty retreat to Ankhenehara of another province," Tsuyoshi related, falling into a narrative style of speech. His golden eyes were faraway, not quite focusing on Chance or the twins; perhaps beyond. "From that major city he made his way to a smaller one, eluding -- so he thought -- his pursuit in a rather skillful manner.
"In Coriandar, lured by the right price, he accepted a small commission to keep him on his way, as he was unable as yet to fence the goods he'd made off with. There was a warrant circulating for his extradition, so he'd heard, and the province he'd fled to was on friendly terms at the time with its neighbor."
Chance glanced down at one kit, then the other. Their little faces were rapt with concentration; they were eating this up. Had Val been raised on this fare? No wonder, then...
"The commission, as mentioned, was small," Tsuyoshi said with a wry smile. "But our thief was desperate. He was running out of money and until he made it to a goods fencer he hadn't successfully completed his job -- or, for that matter, made an assured getaway. That would do great damage to his growing reputation.
"So he attempted to break into this inn, acting out the commission."
"Attempted?" Chance repeated, incredulous.
Tsuyoshi looked pained. "The thief was still young," he emphasized, "and more bold--"
"More bold than clever. Got it." Chance suppressed a snicker.
"Incidentally the thief was discovered by a human swordsman while attempting to break in," Tsuyoshi continued, looking thoughtfully reminiscent. "He offered the human a cut of the commission to keep quiet, judging the man too honorable to take him up on it."
"To the youko thief's surprise, the human took him up on it," Tsuyoshi said, expressive features now reflecting remembered exasperation. "And decided to tag along for 'insurance,' as he called it."
"What happened next?" Chance demanded, absorbed into the story and wanting to find how it played out. He had certain suspicions about the main characters, though.
"They broke into the offices behind the inn," Tsuyoshi related, "and the bold youko thief discovered a nasty surprise. Desperate for the money, he hadn't smelled the trap."
Rekka and Kaze sat up, tense with expectation.
"Of course, his ambushers had been expecting better odds -- a sole youko thief, not the addition of the swordsman," Tsuyoshi said, picking up the pace of his narrative. "The thief and the swordsman fought back to back. They vanquished a great deal of their enemies, but it came down to a need to cut and run. And just as they came up against reinforcements on the escape, and fighters closed in on all sides..."
Rekka and Kaze were listing forward, and Chance found himself leaning too in the space of that dramatic pause.
"The swordsman revealed himself to be a mage," Tsuyoshi exclaimed, and a shower of glittering sparks filled the air. Chance jumped and the twins clapped. "With this new advantage of surprise and power, they were able to escape, and within a day the youko, with the help of the swordsman-mage, was able to exact revenge on the one who'd set him up.
"I love that story," Rekka said happily, sitting back.
"Mm-hmm," Kaze agreed. "Happy ending."
"But the commission was lost," Chance pointed out. "How did the thief pay him then?"
"Aha! So you noticed," Tsuyoshi pounced on the statement. "Well, the swordsman-mage ahd no choice but to accept an alternative form of reward."
Rekka and Kaze giggled.
"Which was?" Chance prompted, feeling sure of the answer, but he liked closure.
"I Bonded with him, of course," Tsuyoshi divulged with a smug sort of look.
"And I still wonder if I didn't get the raw end of the deal," stated a new, baritone voice. Ahrin Morgan swept into the room, a tall broad-shouldered handsome figure of a human. He was even taller than his tall youko mate, whom he hooked with an arm around his slender waist. His blond hair fell over Tsuyoshi's shoulder as he nuzzled the youko's neck. "That was a decent commission for those days, you know."
"Oh, you have no complaints to make!" Tsuyoshi snapped, flicking Ahrin's thigh with his tail. But he ducked his head with a grin as Ahrin nuzzled at his neck again.
"Almost as impressive a story," a velvety deep voice said at Chance's ear, "as our own meeting and Bonding."
"Val," Chance exclaimed, twisting in the twins' double embrace. He cast him a disagreeable look. "Where have you been? You're late."
Val affected astonishment. "What, weren't you entertained by my father's story?"
"I liked it," Chance replied after a moment, looking down at the contented twins. Now he stole a sly glance upward. "Now I'd like to go upstairs before dinner. And you're late!"
Val laughed. "I see your point!" He scooped Chance out of reach of the cuddling twins, causing them to squall briefly in protest, then cling to one another. "Sorry, boys. I'm kidnapping your giant pillow. He's my spoils now!"
As it had been from the start. Once again Chance found himself carried off by an impulsive, recklessly romantic youko. And he knew he didn't mind nearly so much as he protested.