Eiri spent the next few days haunting the doorstep to Rashi's house, once Vivo showed him where in the district it was. It seemed as if every time he turned to Dorrado for answers, the golden youko was being drawn aside by abrupt and enigmatic Toki, with whom he seemed to have some acquaintance. Eiri didn't even truly know what Toki looked like, as he had only seen the back of his fiery-red hair.
The one comfort and salve to his growing anxiety and sense of displacement was the friendly Vivo. The other twin, Varis, was polite but distant to Eiri, and Tokusan was gone for most of the day -- as was Dorrado, off in the company of the mysterious Toki.
He became well-acquainted, or rather ill-acquainted, with Rashi's doorstop, a muscular golden youko named Danshir. Danshir had short blond hair and an even shorter temper; he soon banned Eiri from Rashi's doorway.
Eiri was forced to result to skulking across the street, hoping to catch some sign of Kelarion. He was becoming uncomfortably restless, almost sick with the tension and uncertainty.
And Dorrado had assured him he would take care of him!
Righteous indignance could only last him for so long.
"Come on," Vivo told him, catching up to him on the morning of the fourth day. "Eiri, let me show you around Stronghold...let's go have fun! There's nothing you can do here."
"I don't want to go anywhere," Eiri replied, resisting Vivo's insistent tug on his arm. "I want to see Kelarion." Or at least speak with Dorrado, he added in his thoughts, but the golden youko had vanished, as usual, before Eiri could wake -- no matter how early he steeled himself to rise.
"Trust Rashi," Vivo persisted.
Eiri pulled away from him and settled on the bench, head in his hands. "I can't." His auburn hair fell in tangles over his face, and something chinked softly out of his summer-green tunic. He sat up a little and lifted up his medallion, thumb rubbing over its burnished surface. "I don't even like him."
Vivo gave up and sat beside him, crossing his legs, creasing his rust-brown leggings. "Not even a little?" he asked, bumping Eiri's shoulder in a teasing fashion.
"Well..." Eiri said grudgingly, thinking back to when he'd first met Kelarion, when he had seen the world in the copper-gold eyes of the first youko he'd ever met. A world beyond Dickenston and a life of menial labor; something exotic, what he was truly meant for.
"Ha!" Vivo said.
"Shut up," Eiri muttered, flushing. "What does it matter if I like him or not? He doesn't give a damn about me and he made it perfectly clear."
Vivo's shoulder bumped his again. "But you want him to care."
"No, I don't!" Eiri snapped, pushing himself rigidly upright. His guts roiled as if he were stuffed full of nausea even though he'd had a light breakfast. He shook off Vivo's touch and stood.
"Where are you going?"
"I don't..." Eiri stared at the silvery blue paint of Rashi's door and sat back down, defeated. Her butler...manservant...whatever he was, Danshir would turn him away again, as many times as it took. "I don't know." Anger began welling up inside of him again, he was angry at Dorrado for bringing him here and not explaining everything to him, as he'd promised. He was angry at Kelarion -- not for taking him, and not for deserting him, but for being Kelarion -- for being difficult and intractable and irritating and infuriating and somehow still the only thing he wanted to see in this strange new world.
The door to Rashi's house opened.
Eiri leapt to his feet again, a bubble of mixed emotions swelling inside his chest. He stared across the street at the shadowed doorway, and then black-haired Rashi appeared, stepping out onto the stoop with a narrow-eyed, searching expression.
Her eyes fell on Eiri and she frowned.
He was walking across the street before he realized, with Vivo hurrying after him.
"I might have known you would be waiting here." Rashi's voice was low and vibrant and though she looked stern, she did not seem entirely disapproving. "Come in. He needs visitors."
Eiri wondered at her choice of wording, needs visitors as opposed to capable of seeing visitors, but didn't care to question it. He was being ushered through the door, then hesitated. Vivo had stopped on the stoop, smiling at him in a wistful sort of way. "I suppose I'll see him later."
Rashi sized him up. "No, you come as well."
"Aunt--?" Vivo blinked, but did not resist as Rashi gestured impatiently.
Rashi's hearth was quite different from Tokusan's. Though the exterior was made of stone, the inside was paneled in wood, giving the interior a warm and golden effect. Where the stone walls showed, they were bare and white instead of covered with the intricate murals of the golden youko's hearth. She led them through first-floor halls into a wide, high-ceilinged room full of windows and light. Set against one wall, a fireplace burned with a crackling cheerful blaze. The room was full of couches, reclining seats, and tables surrounded with chairs.
He almost didn't notice for a moment, as his eye was caught by the elegant but welcoming contours of the room. Kelarion was curled up on one of the couches near a tall window, covered by a red shawl the same color as the couch.
Eiri must have made a noise, or something, because the youko's head turned when he entered the room. Perhaps he'd made no sound. It didn't matter; Kelarion was up off the couch, letting the shawl slither to the floor, and he was across the room in a few swift strides.
He stopped short bare handspans from Eiri, looking down. He was pallid and his eyes were red-rimmed, and looked as if he hadn't slept in days. He was still the most beautiful thing that Eiri had ever seen.
"They said...she said you were better," Eiri said, lifting his chin. This was better? he wanted to cry out.
Kelarion's face was expressionless as he reached out one hand, fingering aside a lock of auburn hair and tucking it behind Eiri's ear, then briefly, too briefly touching Eiri's cheek. He pulled his hand away as if Eiri's skin burned.
Eiri felt perversely cold, and he shivered.
"I'm better," Kelarion murmured, mellifluous voice subdued, "but not best. Not yet."
"There's still something you're fighting," Eiri spoke the words as if they were pulled out of him.
Kelarion laughed, and there was some of the familiar bitterness in his voice. "That's what Rashi says, too." His coppery-gold eyes moved beyond Eiri, to the form of Vivo lingering in the doorway. Shock filled his face like water pouring into a cup. "You..."
Floorboards creaked a bit as Vivo finally stepped into the room.
"You look like my father," Kelarion finished, and his voice trembled on the knife-edge of tears. All of a sudden he looked as if he would collapse again, and Eiri wasn't sure if he was strong enough to support him.
Vivo hurried forward. "Brother, Kelarion-brother," he murmured, arms outstretched.
With a low noise Kelarion took the step that separated them, and gathered the dark-haired youko into his arms. "I thought...I thought..."
"You're not alone," Vivo said soothingly. "You have me, you have us, Vivo and Varis...our fathers didn't leave you alone in the world."
"And my twin--" Kelarion's voice was choked. His face was buried in the tangled, gold-threaded chestnut of Vivo's hair. One of Vivo's hands lifted up to stroke a topaz-brown ear and he rocked his brother as Kelarion dissolved into great, tearing sobs.
"Finally," said the low husky voice of Rashi behind him. Eiri turned. "I thought it would be you, but apparently not."
"What do you mean?" Eiri whispered, beginning to burn with humiliation now that the edge of surprise had faded. What had he expected of Kelarion, anyhow?
He was suddenly, incredibly, hatefully jealous of Vivo, so much so that he needed to leave -- at once -- had to get out of this room, this entire house, perhaps leave Stronghold itself. He started forward and Rashi was blocking his way. He snarled up at her, wordless.
"Come with me," Rashi said, catching at his arm.
Eiri moved to smack her hand aside, but she was faster. With a cool expression she seized his arm in a grip that hurt.
"Come with me," she repeated. She was stronger than she looked, and pulled him from the room. Eiri had no choice but to go; still he looked back, and took with him the image of Kelarion, golden-brown head buried against Vivo's neck, tall lean body shaking as his younger brother held and soothed him. It was a lingering bad taste in his mouth.
The house was filled with many unexpected nooks and crannies, and it was to another place on the first floor that Rashi took him, a circular nook where the wall jutted out at seat-length to become a low ledge that ran the perimeter of the little room. A round table in the precise center of the nook made it a seemingly good place to put heads together over a drink.
"Sit," Rashi commanded, and Eiri did not dare disobey.
Instead of meeting her eyes he looked at his tightly-folded hands. Rashi seated herself opposite him and even though he did not look up, he felt her piercing gaze.
Danshir appeared at the opening of the alcove as if he'd been conjured, bearing a tray which he set down before them, then tactfully disappeared.
"Have some tea," Rashi invited, deceptively dulcet.
Eiri took a cup of tea, turning the hot ceramic in his hands, looking resentfully into its murky depths.
"Do you know why I took you from the room?" Rashi asked, taking the other cup and stirring in a spoonful of sweetener.
"No," Eiri muttered, still fixated on his tea. "No one tells me anything."
"Well." Rashi set her spoon down with a clack. "I will."
He looked up distrustfully into her fathomless golden eyes. She returned the gaze with cool composure. "Males," she said with a hint of superiority, "love their secrets so. They think in holding back the whole story they're doing you good in the long run."
"And you?" Eiri said with a frown, not trusting her one bit.
"I know what's best for Kelarion." Her gaze sharpened. "And for you, though you don't believe me."
Eiri snorted and dropped his eyes again.
"Kelarion doesn't need those feelings around him," Rashi began, turning her cup in her hands in a motion similar to Eiri's contemplation of his cup. "Jealousy, hurt, bitterness..."
"I felt it quite keenly," she cut him off. "As I'm sure Kelarion can, given the circumstances."
"What do you mean by that?" Eiri demanded.
Rashi paused, took a sip of her tea. "Kelarion has been denying himself his most basic need since he left Queensdale. The why of it is easy enough to discern; he wanted no sexual contact despite how badly he needed it and then, the sexual contact he would allow himself was not enough to satisfy his needs." Her eyes glimmered at him over the rim of the cup. "Do you know why he denies the Bond so fiercely?"
Eiri felt as if his whole world were being given a jolt. "I...uh...what do you mean?" He felt, desperately, as if he were playing for time. Suddenly the answers he'd wanted were crowding around him and he refused to look. The reality would overwhelm him.
"Ever since he was a kit," Rashi clarified, "from ten summers onward, he claimed that the Bond wasn't real, that it was a stupid myth like legends of an ancient civilization with technology so advanced they could reach the moon. The Bond was like reaching for the moon, he said."
Now it was Eiri who took a gulp of tea to stave off conversation. He didn't know what to say.
"Kelarion and Kelvaryn weren't born in Stronghold," she continued. "Let me tell you a little about their father-progenitor, my brother Tobira. He was young and reckless and quite cocky when he left Stronghold, and it was a mere five years after that he returned to us with not only a Bonded, but young kits as well."
"What happened?" Eiri asked, in spite of himself.
"Tobira wasn't ready for the Bond," Rashi replied. "But the Bond was ready for him. If time waited for any youko I would have said he needed a hundred years to live the way he wanted, to plow his fields and spend all the seed he ought. But that's not what happened."
"He found...Donnal?" Eiri ventured. His tea was cooler now, and he found himself drinking more.
"Yes," Rashi said. "He found Donnal Koten in the Abian Empire, and they were Bonded, and they came together to Stronghold a mere five years after Tobira had left."
"Were they...unhappy together?"
Rashi sighed, and took more tea herself. Danshir had left behind a pot and she refilled both their mugs. "It's more complicated than that. To understand, you must understand in part the nature of the Bond. It only draws together the people who are most eminently suitable, not simply for having kits together but staying together, raising them together."
"Tobira was crazy about Donnal, that much was clear," Rashi said. "But he resented and raged against him every bit as much as he loved him passionately. They should have waited a good long while before having kits."
"Then...how?" Eiri prompted. It seemed to him that two men, rather two males, together having children was not something so casually done that it was as easy as laying down with a woman.
Rashi's mouth thinned. "Tobira had poor control," was all she would say about that.
"So...Kelarion doesn't believe in the Bond because of his parents? Because of the way they were together?" Eiri was amazed that the cause of it was so simple.
"Essentially," Rashi acknowledged. She sighed again. "Tobira and Donnal had a very complex relationship, the most so I've ever seen. Never before, or since, have I seen a pair that fought so bitterly, and loved one another so much. It was hard, though, for the kits who grew up and saw more of the public shouting matches than they did the private, tender moments that we knew they had but no one saw."
She closed her eyes, and tears lurked at the corners of her deep-set eyes but did not fall. "That's why...it was so hard..." She took a breath. "When Tobira came back, he wasn't really coming back. It was just his shell, his body. Donnal was gone, and he'd already gone with him -- there was nothing I could do."
They were silent for a long moment. Eiri resumed staring at his clenched fists, feeling very small.
"I regret their deaths very much, for many reasons," Rashi continued. "But one is that Kelarion will never get to see, to realize as an adult how very much his fathers loved one another."
There seemed to be nothing to say, after that. Yet Eiri had more questions, and they spurred him to breach even the awkward moment that stretched between them.
"Vivo told him 'you're not alone,'" he spoke up hesitantly. "What--"
Rashi answered before he could even finish forming the question. "For a long time, Kelarion and Kelvaryn were the only kits of Tobira and Donnal," she said. She shook her head, and a tendril of dark hair crept over one shoulder, dark against the diaphanous dark blue material of her simple shift. "My guess is that Kelarion believed, wrongly, that it meant Tobira hadn't wanted kits...that Donnal had trapped him into it somehow and that they both attributed it to the Bond as an excuse."
"That's horrible!" Eiri flared. It was all too easy to see Kelarion believing in it, however. It fit.
"Since they were the only Koten kits, it was easier to believe," Rashi said, shaking her head again as if in disbelief at her nephew's thought-patterns. "Now, he returns to Stronghold and Kelvaryn does not return with him. The most I can extract from him is that Kelvaryn will never return." Her steady golden eyes bored into Eiri.
Eiri turned his head aside, stricken with a gory recurrent image -- a youko with tigers-eye hair stretched out naked on some indistinct surface, blood dimpling up where the tail should be. Eiri closed his eyes and held onto the edge of the table until it was gone.
"I--I don't know," he said shakily.
Rashi's eyes narrowed. "I see." She let it lie. "He returns to Stronghold and Kelvaryn is missing, perhaps dead. He discovers that Donnal and Tobira are dead as well. And so all of his immediate family have been wiped out...he has, he thinks, nothing left."
"Oh," Eiri breathed understanding, "but Vivo and Varis..."
"Yes," Rashi responded. "He didn't believe me, thought I was merely trying to settle him when I told him Donnal and Tobira had had another pair of kits." Now she smiled thinly.
"Maybe he didn't want to believe it," Eiri hazarded. "Because having another pair of kits after so long would mean, maybe, that his fathers really loved each other."
"Something like that."
Eiri rested his chin on his hands. "There's one more thing," he said, feeling that swooping sensation of jealousy curdle his insides again. "Why did you say 'I thought it would be you?'"
"Ah." Rashi poured more tea and took it between her hands before answering. "As he said, he's better, but not best."
"Why?" Eiri asked bluntly.
"He was depleted when I took him in. Sexually, mentally, emotionally, all of his energies were at the lowest any youko can survive. Worse, he'd been pushing himself, refusing help or his most basic need," Rashi answered, equally blunt. "I've been forcing him to accept energy-transfers and so he is better, but until he accepts what he needs the most, he will not be best."
"And what's that?" Eiri asked intently.
Rashi's golden eyes widened at him. "So you really don't know...or you won't admit it," she mused, as if speaking aloud to herself. "Males." She snorted.
"What does he need?" Eiri spoke louder than he intended.
"He needs you, silly kitling," Rashi spoke sharply in response. "He needs to admit the Bond, and he needs to accept that it's pulling him toward you. The very thing he's denied his whole life has come to take him, sooner than he may have wanted." She pushed back her long dark hair with vehement, businesslike movements.
"I thought you'd be the one to break through his denial, with him partially-recovered but still weak," she continued. "But he's too much like Tobira. He pushes you away until he's sick with it but you're the only thing that can fix it...which makes him push you away."
There was a hollow roaring in Eiri's ears. He could no longer hear, he could no longer think. He jumped to his feet, knocking his cup over and spilling tea across the varnished round table.
"Eiri!" Rashi exclaimed in alarm, but he was already moving, whipping through the halls, stumbling as his legs failed to carry him fast enough.
Somehow he found a door, the front door, and fumbled it open. He pitched out onto the street, panting, picked a direction for no good reason other than that he could, and ran.
He ran and ran, but Rashi's words followed.
The streets of Stronghold were patterned in a simple, orderly layout but it was easy for one to get lost if the only object at hand was running and not navigation of any sort. Many of the houses and streets Eiri passed looked the same but for the colors, and since he ran until his legs wouldn't carry him anymore, he got very far indeed. If he was the recipient of startled looks he never noticed, so involved in running that he just tucked his head down and chased the wind.
He doesn't want to Bond with you.
Clever, clever youko.
Dorrado hadn't actually lied. Kelarion did not want to Bond with him, only needed to Bond with him. And in that distinction was a world of difference.
Eventually, panting, Eiri slowed to a halt in a shabby district that lay close to one of the vaulting, immense walls of the cavern. He looked up at the wall and walked, slowly, chest heaving. It sloped up and up further than his field of vision could see, but when he craned his head he thought he saw one of the cracks that let natural light into the inside of the mountain.
He was dripping with sweat and his chest was starting to ache, a sharp pain that began under his ribs on the left-hand side. Wearily he picked out a spot in between buildings and slipped into the alley between them, setting his back to cool stone and sliding down along it until he was seated. He wrapped his arms around his knees.
If he was a stronger person...no, if he was older...perhaps if he was simply better Kelarion wouldn't have been able to resist. What was wrong with him, with Eiri Mairisson, that made Kelarion fight so hard?
Almost, he wanted to cry but any tears he might have shed were pent up inside him. Now that the shock of Rashi's revelation had faded -- and it wasn't a true shock, he knew himself that well -- he was feeling numb and detached. Inside of him, he had held the seeds of knowledge all along and never planted them in a single row.
If it was the Bond, then Kelarion shouldn't be able to resist. Because he was resisting, did that mean there was something wrong with Eiri? No, perhaps it wasn't a real Bond...wait, why had Rashi told him that whole long story in the first place? About Tobira and Donnal...
Eiri's eyes snapped open. They had been too young, or Tobira had been too young, that's what Rashi had meant by it. Her words sank in now. And Kelarion had learned to deny the Bond because of it. Then, too, maybe...just maybe, Kelarion was too young, too.
There was the prince to consider, as well. Eiri knew that Kelarion had cared for Tori, maybe really loved him, and he had still been recovering from the pain of that rejection when he had found Eiri. That was coming clear now.
It still smarted, though. It still felt personal. Eiri laid his head on his folded arms and peered up the narrow alleyway, then closed his eyes. He didn't want to go back. He didn't want to see Kelarion, didn't want to speak with him or breathe in his presence, but he would be drawn inevitably back, like a creature on a short tether...and now he could let himself admit why.
He understood now how Tobira and Donnal must have been. Resenting someone fiercely, unable to escape them, needing them, lashing out at them, tied together for good or ill more securely than marriage...what he felt was probably a pale shadow but he felt it nonetheless. He hated Kelarion, might have cheerfully gutted him if handed a knife in that instant.
And he knew that Kelarion was the one person he couldn't live without.
The feelings twisted up inside of him until he wanted to choke. He stayed where he was, rocking slightly against the wall, waiting for the storming intensity of his negative emotions to pass. Kelarion was the one person all this time who had pushed him away, encouraged him not to depend on him, tormented him, drawn him along...
"Hey," said a grating, scraped-raw voice.
Eiri lifted his head as if it weighed a great deal. He certainly felt as if it did. "What?" he said dully. He was having trouble taking everything in.
"What d'you think you're doing here, boy?"
Now Eiri lifted his eyes far enough to see who was addressing him. He saw a scraggly thatch of black hair. He had seen thin youko before, but this one went beyond skinny...he looked positively skeletal, covered by a layer of skin that kept everything held together.
Sulfur-yellow eyes glowed at him through the dark fringe of hair that obscured most of the youko's face.
"I don't know," Eiri replied, arms still tightly folded over his knees. "I needed to run somewhere. This was it."
"Shouldn't be here," the youko muttered, and poked at him with one foot.
"Hey!" Eiri scuffled to avoid the foot and fell over onto his side. He scrambled up to confront his unexpected tormentor. "What the hell was that for?"
"You don't belong here," the youko sneered, looming over him.
Eiri recoiled. Beneath the tangled hair, the youko's face was seamed with angry red scars, a face that might have been beautiful beneath it all but was now a caricature of youko-good looks.
"What's wrong?" the youko asked bitterly, shaking his head so that hair fell into his face again. "See something y'didn't like?"
Another youko appeared beyond the first, a golden-haired one with clipped ears. He opened his mouth to hiss at Eiri and the boy could see that he had no tongue.
Eiri flattened himself against the wall, but he knew he had nowhere to go. "Don't," he said nervously, as both youko crowded closer, intimidating him with their height.
"I think the human boy is scared of us, Ferral," the black-haired youko said in a mock-sympathetic tone. His face, what Eiri could see of it, turned mean.
Another youko appeared at the mouth of the alleyway, brown-haired and beautiful but with a pinched, starved look. His ears flattened when he saw Eiri and he stalked around to Eiri's other side, slamming an arm against the wall, barring him from flight.
"I didn't..." Eiri knew his voice was too high and struggled to control it. "I didn't do anything to you!"
The brown-haired one replied savagely, "You think I did anything to the humans? That doesn't matter a good goddamn."
"Should've stayed where your kind are tolerated," growled the black-haired one, and a hand darted out to pinch his ribs.
Eiri slapped out at the hand, but the youko was faster; he wrenched Eiri's wrist, putting him into a painful joint lock. He cried out, but he wasn't scared so much anymore as angry.
"I didn't do anything," he repeated, feeling panic and anger surge up inside him in a powerful burst.
The brown-haired youko seized his other arm, twisting it up behind his back. "You don't belong here," he replied cruelly, "and I don't care."
Eiri went still for a moment as the rage and frustration boiled up inside of him. It burst out of his struggling flesh in the expression of a concussive wave of force. Power blew out of Eiri, slamming outward against the two youko who had a hold of him and the other youko just beyond. They reeled away from him, shocked and cursing.
He backed up against the wall again, rubbing his arms, glaring at them both from fierce golden eyes.
"Don't touch me again," he warned, tone terrible and quiet and hardly recognizable as himself.
The dark-haired youko both shook their heads, scrambling away from him and then turning to run. The golden-haired youko vanished with one last, clearly rude gesture.
Eiri shivered and slumped against the alley wall.
What...what was wrong with him?
He closed his eyes. He should leave the district, he knew. If just those three had wanted to attack him, there might be more. But he was afraid now for that very reason to step one foot outside of the alley. Whatever power it was that had saved him, he didn't know if it would happen again.
This hoarse voice was familiar.
"Eiri..." And that was Vivo, calling to him in a doleful tone. "Eiri, where are you?"
Eiri's eyes popped open and he pushed himself away from the wall, shivering, hugging himself as if he were cold. Inside, he felt as if he was. He staggered out of the alleyway. His thoughts were moving sluggishly, like bloated fish upstream.
The slightly frantic note disturbed him. I'm not the one you want, he meant to say, but Kelarion was sweeping up the street with flashing eyes, diaphanous clothes billowing with the speed of his pace, looking impressively larger than life, and the frightening look on his face changed to something else entirely once he caught sight of Eiri. "Thank the ten little gods," he rasped.
Eiri was caught up and held tightly before he had time to process the shift in location. Kelarion plucked him off the ground as if he weighed nothing, cradling him against a lean chest, turning his face against Eiri's neck and murmuring a low broken string of apologies.
Slowly, Eiri brought his arms up over Kelarion's shoulders, hooking himself securely around the youko's neck.
"I'm sorry...my stupid fault...I never told you anything, I thought for sure I was mistaken but I was wrong about something even bigger..."
Eiri buried his face against Kelarion's neck, smelling the herbal scent of washed-clean hair and bare musky skin, a spicy, indefinably wild smell. For the first time in this immense new place he felt at ease, and the small knot of sour nausea in his stomach began to subside. He tangled his fingers in golden-brown hair.
"I was wrong about you, I thought you were meant for one of us but couldn't possibly be meant for me," Kelarion's confessional spilled out of him in a continuing rush, as if he were afraid Eiri would interrupt. "So instead I...I hurt you, because I thought it would be better if you didn't want me."
"Stupid," Eiri whispered into his neck.
Kelarion's arms hefted him up, seeking a more secure grip. His hands slid under Eiri's butt, slipping as they shied from contact for an instant, then he heaved Eiri up again and held him close. Eiri made sure of it, wrapping his legs around Kelarion and, in effect, forcing the youko to carry him. He wouldn't let go now.
"Yes," Kelarion answered, pulling his head back. "I suppose I've been very stupid."
His golden eyes were so close, almost too close to focus on, searching Eiri's face as he reluctantly pulled himself from the crook of the youko's neck.
The intensity of those coppery eyes burned, but it was like staring at the sun -- Eiri was fascinated and he couldn't look away. He thought, well, he'd presumed he knew everything about Kelarion, but he hadn't known the youko could look at him like this, searching and desirous and quite, quite serious.
"What changed your mind?" Eiri asked. Despite the arms around him, despite the expression on Kelarion's face, he couldn't let it go so easily. Even though all his instincts were prompting him to tuck his head against Kelarion again or -- more directly, instigate a kiss -- the youko had been horrible to him for so long.
"When I knew I couldn't lose you," Kelarion said honestly, with a little wince. Penitence took over the balance of his expressive face. "I'm sorry."
"We should go," Eiri told him, looking over the youko's shoulder. A small crowd was forming, and they didn't seem friendly.
Kelarion wouldn't put him down. He carried Eiri, with Vivo tagging after, until they had passed through the district and the one beyond it and were moving through less shabby streets. Then, when they reached a lane that was more prosperous though fairly deserted, he set Eiri on his feet.
"You little idiot!" he said fiercely, now looking decidedly less sentimental. "What did you think you were doing!?"
Eiri grinned. This was the Kelarion he knew.
The amusement seemed to incite Kelarion further, but he drew in a sharp breath and closed his eyes, shaking his head. When he opened his eyes again he seemed calmer, though still quite intense.
"I've still got no limits," he said ruefully. "Rashi says I still need time to recover."
Eiri felt a twinge of apprehension. "That's right, you're not better yet--"
"I am better," Kelarion corrected him, then eyed him up and down with a provocative sort of look. "You can make me even better, though, kitling."
Eiri went still. "D'you think I'm too young?"
Kelarion opened his mouth to reply, then snapped it shut. He took another deep breath, more a sigh. "It doesn't really matter, does it?" He managed to give Eiri a look that was wry and not bitter. "I can't exactly wait until you're older. I know that, now."
"The Bond?" Eiri said deliberately, drawing out the word.
Kelarion gathered back his gold-streaked brown hair with both hands in a nervous gesture. "The force that draws me to you," he replied. "I can't...I can't put it aside. I can't pretend it doesn't exist. It won't let me sleep, eat, breathe...fuck!" He broke off, turning aside with a violent swipe of his arm.
Eiri stared at the ground. "Not even that."
"No," Kelarion agreed, turning back to him and taking him by the arms. His fingers hurt but Eiri didn't care. "Not even that, not with anyone else. I can't...my senses are filled with you. Being apart from you...is painful. Do you understand?" The words sounded as if he were pulling them out of his own teeth, drawing them up out of the depths of his pragmatic, unromantic self.
Eiri looked up. "Yes," he growled, filling his face with the knowledge. Sex, Kelarion, the two thoughts intertwined until he couldn't think one without summoning up the other. Questioning his own sexuality had been pointless when only one option had ever made itself available. And it didn't matter if he was too young, or if neither of them wanted it, because this. Was all there was.
Kelarion sucked in a breath unsteadily. Something seemed to crystallize for him, right then, for Eiri, perhaps between them; his eyes flickered and he lowered his face by degrees as if giving every chance for Eiri to turn aside.
In response Eiri lifted his face, because if he was given a choice he already knew what the answer was. He had been swept up and carried along since the very first day this youko had entered his life but from that pivotal moment he had made the decision, too.
A mouth pressed down on him, lightly at first, experimental. Kelarion was tall and it was a little awkward as he craned his neck to meet the lips that covered his but he would grow, anyway, and it would all work out. He parted his lips. Kelarion made a noise low in his throat and pressed close, kissing him deeper, filling Eiri with a rush of excitement and a sort of satisfied triumph. A tongue slid into his mouth, swirling, exploring. He twined his arms up around his youko, tangling his fingers in long hair again.
Abruptly Kelarion broke off the kiss, making Eiri voice an incoherent protest.
"Anything more," he said hoarsely, hands still gripping Eiri as if he didn't want to let go, "and we'll require a bed."
Eiri tilted his head up, wondering how to convey, precisely, how badly he wanted that.
The message seemed to get through just fine, though, as Kelarion's eyes darkened and he pulled Eiri in closer to his body.
"Oh," Vivo said with a catch in his voice, "that's just beautiful."
Kelarion started and looked over at his little brother as if he'd forgotten he was there -- which he almost certainly had. Eiri just grinned at his friend and leaned into Kelarion's side, wonder and lust fusing into a heady sensation within his breast. Kelarion's hand crept to the band of Eiri's pants and hovered there.
"I think," Vivo said tactfully, "we should get back to Tokusan's hearth."
"Ah," Kelarion said. He pulled Eiri against his side even as they resumed walking. "You make a great deal of sense, little brother."
Again displaying great tact, Vivo took the lead by several paces.
"You know," Eiri said conversationally, "you were awful to me for a long time. Pretty much since the beginning."
This time he felt Kelarion's wince.
"And I thought I hated you," Eiri continued. "I wanted to hate you but I couldn't. It might have been easier if I could."
Kelarion brought them to a stop for a moment, pulling his hand from Eiri's waist to touch his face, using the tips of his fingertips to run down his face. Eiri's lips parted then he looked up into Kelarion's red-gold eyes, stunned at the depth and complexity of emotions there.
"I'll just have to spend the rest of my life making it up to you."
Vivo was the one to usher them back to the Azure Lily district, unlucky creature that he was. Once certain things had been spoken they couldn't be taken back, and once Kelarion had started touching him he couldn't seem to stop. This, Eiri found, he did not mind in the slightest. He liked to be touched, liked the feel of another person's hands on him, and with Kelarion now the sensation was magnified immeasurably. He didn't really have time to wonder about that, or how thoroughly he was now captivated by the one who'd given him so much grief.
At one point they lingered under the archway of someone's stoop, Kelarion's hands caressing down his back and Eiri lifting up into his breathless kisses. He found that, like Kelarion, once he started touching he couldn't stop. Only Vivo's laughing pleas could get him to pry his mouth away from the one fastened so greedily on his. He was flushed and drunk, he thought, from those heady kisses.
Somehow they did make it, though, between Vivo's cajoling and Kelarion's haphazard sense of purpose. With an arm tightly around him, the youko drew him along after Vivo, occasionally tugging him along when Eiri might have preferred to linger.
They were stopped on the threshold barely through the colorful silvery-blue door of Tokusan's hearth.
"Ah, I thought so." Tokusan was waiting for them in the entryway, a trace of a smile hovering over his full solemn mouth. "Rashi said it would be today."
Kelarion's arm tightened around Eiri, and the boy felt amazingly warm inside at that simple action. "Rashi knows what goes on in everyone's head before they know it themselves," Kelarion replied, and there was a kind of struggle in his voice. "Uncle...I..."
"Welcome home," Tokusan said with a dazzling smile. When he moved forward, it was to enfold them both in his arms. He touched Kelarion's cheek, then put a hand on Eiri's head. "Today, then."
"Yes," Kelarion said hoarsely. His thigh shifted against Eiri's, creating a line of fire between them. "I can't wait any longer."
Eiri was growing confused, sensing intent behind those cryptic statements. Was there more to this than he'd thought? Obviously there must be, as he'd thought they would go to bed and that was all the consummation needed.
"Of course you can't," Tokusan replied, and there was chiding in his melodious voice. "You waited too long, Kel, you should have known better."
"Ha," Kelarion shot back, "but you know why I, of all youko, didn't."
"Yes." Tokusan inclined his head with a pained look.
Tokusan led them into the house. Kelarion took Eiri by the hand, putting some space between their bodies but maintaining the more-or-less constant contact they had kept up since Kelarion had plucked him off his feet in the dangerous district where Eiri had nearly been attacked.
"Rashi has come," the golden youko said over his shoulder. "And Toki, as well."
"Toki?" Kelarion exclaimed.
"And your companion Dorrado," Tokusan added as if there had been no interruption. "All to witness the Bond."
Vivo scampered ahead of them, darting through the intricate corridors of the house. This time Tokusan led them not to the terrace but a different place, one Eiri had not found during his brief stay in the hearth. It was an atrium in the middle of the house, with a faceted-glass ceiling that caught and grabbed at every angle of light to direct all of it into the bright room. The place was filled with flowers and trailing vines and other colorful greenery, making up for an atrium vibrant with scent and beauty. Stone columns circled the room, each covered with climbing, flowering vines.
A half-circle of youko stood in the center of the atrium in poses of waiting. The entire scene seemed to Eiri to be quite surreal and ceremonial. Vivo had rejoined his twin, slipping an arm around silent Varis. Dorrado stood beside them, bowing his head as they approached. On the other side of him was Toki, the flame-haired youko. He had an ascetic, commanding face and deep-set yellow eyes that followed the pair of them intently. Next was Rashi, who looked calm and rather satisfied at the same time. Tokusan left them to stand on her other side and the half-circle was complete.
Eiri wanted very badly to ask what happened next, but Kelarion's hand was firm in his and holding him fast.
"If you say anything smug," Kelarion said, clearly speaking to Dorrado, "I'll...I'll bite you!"
Dorrado laughed. "Not before you bite him," he pointed out, provoking various degrees of mirth and a flush in Eiri's face.
"Enough," Rashi interceded, laughter lurking at the corners of her generous mouth. "We are here, Koten no Kelarion, Eiri Mairisson, family and friends to witness the Bond."
Kelarion drew him forward. There was a circular stone tablet that lay at the center of the atrium and on this they stopped.
Rashi smiled and stepped on the edge of the tablet, which was inlaid with curious angular symbols. The redhead beside her put a hand to her arm.
"Wait," he said in a clear, rich voice. "I will perform the Bond."
Rashi half-turned to look at him, surprise taut in the line of her body. "Toki?"
Kelarion's hand tightened on his.
Eiri wanted to speak up, to demand not only why Toki was doing this, but why it was surprising he should do so. He held still, squeezing Kelarion's hand back with an upwelling of nervousness, excitement.
The red-haired youko stepped forward, fixing him with the pinions of his amber eyes. He took something that Rashi passed to him very quickly behind his back, a flicker of which Eiri saw in his peripheral vision. "You've awakened," he said directly to Eiri.
This was yet more confusing. "Excuse me?" Eiri replied. Shouldn't he be directing that to Kelarion? The youko was the one who had finally admitted the truth.
"Your power," Toki clarified, yellow eyes aglow, "your youko power. Though you look human, that is the power that proves you are equally of both."
Eiri wanted to glance away, to look up to Kelarion for explanations, but Toki had his eyes securely. "I don't understand," he said. Toki's yellow eyes seemed to intensify, to enlargen.
"Perhaps you don't, at that," he said thoughtfully, then whatever power had augmented him dwindled until he was simply a handsome redheaded youko once more. His eyes were on Kelarion, whose hand was still tight around his.
Free to look away, Eiri now looked to the youko beside him. Kelarion seemed tense, wary.
"But now is not the time for that," Toki continued in his deep voice, that rolled over the pair of them and now soothed the momentary agitation that had gripped them. For a pinpoint of an instant Eiri wondered what sort of powers the redhead possessed. "Today is for Bonding."
The light coming in through the clear panes above seemed to gild the atrium around them, turning Toki's hair into a fiery mane, turning Kelarion into a gold-caressed figure beside him, filling Eiri's eyes with light.
"What you enter into today," Toki said in solemn tones, "is deeper than the human covenant of marriage. You will be bound together for the rest of your lives."
Kelarion faced Eiri, letting go of his hand to turn him so that they faced one another. His coppery-gold eyes were so intent they brought a smile to Eiri's lips, and a peculiar tight sensation in his chest. Then he bent over Eiri, hands holding his shoulders as if the boy would break away from him. He nuzzled at Eiri's cheek, then to his great astonishment, licked him.
"What--" Eiri started.
"Shh." Kelarion held him closer, and then tipped his forehead against Eiri's. He whispered a single word, making hairs prickle along Eiri's bare arms. "Yes..."
Eiri closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them to Kelarion's intent expression once more. What does he want me to do? he grumbled to himself. Then, Oh.
Acting half out of impulse, half instinct, Eiri stretched up, lifting his face toward Kelarion. His stomach dropped. This golden creature, this alien beauty, was the same as the youko he had first naively admired, then fiercely despised during the course of their journey together. He had never initiated a kiss with anyone, let alone...Kelarion. There was a clench of fear and hesitation in him as he looked up into Kelarion's coppery intent eyes, and then he was closing the distance and nuzzling one tanned cheek.
The way he smelled...it was intoxicating.
Dizzy with his nearness, with Kelarion's scent in his nostrils, Eiri licked his cheek experimentally. And gasped. The taste on his tongue was Kelarion magnified, expanding in his senses until he was aware of the youko, hypersensitive even, in ways that were impossible by simply licking him. He felt as if he could read the youko's thoughts. A tight band pinched Eiri's middle even as he took a deep breath, inflating his chest. The rightness of it was inexpressible by words or even unfragmented thought. I want him was rapidly replaced by I need him.
"Today you are no longer separate," Toki spoke again. "You will be two no longer, but one, yin joined to yang." Then he held up a knife that had been hidden by his long green sleeves. "This knife has been used to bind the youko, male and precious females, of our line for the past thousand years," Toki continued. "Let the line continue unbroken. May your hearth be plentiful. And now, let blood mingle."
He reached out, taking Eiri's wrist and cutting down his arm in a quick silver stroke.
Eiri gasped, but Toki had already released him. He was taking Kelarion in hand now, cutting a mark across the youko's right arm. Kelarion grimaced at him, but made no exclamation of pain.
"Blood mingles," Toki repeated, stowing away the knife and taking each of their wrists, pressing the bleeding flows together. "Just as your minds will merge and bodies will join."
Kelarion was looking into Eiri's eyes and, again, Eiri couldn't look away. The youko laced his long slender fingers into his, tangling them together.
Now Toki produced a thin, fine red cord from his other sleeve. He bound their arms together at the wrist, then wrapped the cord once and bound them together again at the elbow.
Eiri wanted to fidget, perhaps giggle, definitely wanted to ask what the cord was for but he didn't dare.
"The cord," Kelarion whispered, anticipating him, "represents the red thread of fate that led us together." His mouth quirked. "Supposedly."
Toki gave him a sharp look and finished tying the cord. He stepped back. "As you shall live within him, he lives within you," he pronounced, with a sense of finality. "Let there be love and completion, luck and happiness within the life of your Bond."
Kelarion bent over him. One hand skimmed Eiri's cheek and his eyes burned down into him, inscrutable even now, but a little wondering, and full of want. He pressed a kiss onto Eiri's mouth, light and tentative in a way he had never kissed Eiri before. Then as the moment lengthened and Eiri's free arm snaked around his neck to keep him there, their kiss deepened and Kelarion parted his lips with a forceful tongue.
"Bonded," Toki's voice spoke in the midst of the intimate moment, "and Witnessed."
"Bonded and Witnessed," replied a soft chorus of voices.
Kelarion's arm slid around Eiri, pulling him taut to his hard lean body.
"And it's about time," added Dorrado in his musical accent.
"I won't argue," Kelarion said, turning them about so that they looked at the youko half-circling them. The light in the atrium was subsiding, dimming, as if that golden moment had risen in response to what had taken place between them. He continued in that oddly subdued tone, "Thank you, friends and family, for Witnessing."
A burning tingle juddered up Eiri's arm and he winced, hissing. Kelarion tensed against him.
"I can't blame you for waiting," Rashi said, raising a dark brow, "considering the hostile territory you've gone through...but you waited yourself into bad shape, nephew."
Kelarion shuddered, and pulled Eiri even tighter against his body -- as if that were possible, close as they were. "Perhaps now isn't the time to discuss it."
"No, now isn't," Tokusan agreed, breaking the half-circle and joining them. "Let's get you two settled and we can discuss it several days hence."
"Several...days?" Eiri seized on that. Pain rippled through him again, making him feel sick.
"Oh, yes," Kelarion said, turning sultry. "The sexual part of the Bonding can go for several days, or so I've heard."
"And it will!" Rashi flung at them. "After waiting so long."
Toki spoke, "But it may be the more deeper and intense for all that." For whatever reason, however, the redhead sounded displeased.
If they said anything after, Eiri paid no heed. Tokusan led them out of the atrium and through the maze of the house once more, ascending stairs as if they were returning to the room Eiri had occupied during the first days of his stay. Eiri was focused on the stinging warmth that was spreading through his body from the point where their blood mingled. It was consuming him. It was all he could do to cling to Kelarion as the golden youko led them to a wide, green-draped room.
"Your suite," Tokusan murmured. With no further word or gesture he dragged the door shut behind him. The sound was strangely...definite, final, marking a kind of change.
Eiri leaned against Kelarion's feverishly warm body and it hit him that this was the first time they had been alone since that time in Guardian, when Kelarion had offered to scrub his back. Pain rippled through him again.
"What's happening?" he demanded, twisting restlessly in the circle of Kelarion's arm.
"It's starting," Kelarion said, still sounding strange and gentle. "It...it changes you, so I'm told. It changes both of us."
"For the better, I hope."
The youko made no response to this, but drew him toward the bed as the pain continued, traveling up Eiri's arm in a manner that reminded him of the time it had broken.
Never had a bed looked so intimidating.
"I...I don't think I'm ready," Eiri confessed all at once, nervy, even with Kelarion's body flush against his. Perhaps because of it.
"Neither of us have much choice," the youko replied. "But you'll want to be lying down, when the next phase of the Bonding starts."
Pain traveled afresh through Eiri's body, jolting the very roots of his skull. "Unh...why...is that?"
He got his answer as they both reeled and, more powerful than when they had joined to shield against the storm, Eiri felt himself drawn up out of his body and plunged along the glimmering thread of psyche between them. His mind met Kelarion's, and they fell together.
The last thing he heard before Kelarion's consciousness swallowed him whole was the youko's hoarse whisper.
"I'm sorry, boy...I'm so sorry."
Why should he apologize for the most glorious thing of Eiri's life? Then the youko's memories began to cascade around him, and Eiri's separate mentality was submerged under the tide of Kelarion's thought. If it had been only darkness it might have been bearable.
Fire was burning its way through his body, searing through his veins, eating into his flesh. Eiri felt arms around him and those were on fire, too. At the same time he was conscious, barely, of his mind tangled within Kelarion's as a separate sensation. He was being drawn through overlapping layers of memory, fragments of remembrance passing over and through his own mind.
A thin, sharp-featured golden youko stood in a big kitchen. As he turned, he resembled Tokusan so strongly that with a start Eiri knew it had to be Kelarion's father. "You never think," he was shouting, throwing an arm out wildly, "about how someone else might see it. You're too soft, Donnal, too fucking considerate, why don't you just take the twins and leave for awhile..."
Eiri was shrinking back, tucked away in the corner. He felt shorter. Someone clutched his arm and he looked over, surprised to find himself nose to nose with a miniature Kelarion look-alike.
"They never do anything but fight," Kelvaryn whispered.
Pain stabbed through him, this time the throb of mental anguish.
"And what about you, Tobira, why don't you try thinking for a change?" a dark-haired, handsome man demanded.
The scene shifted around Eiri. He was lying in bed, arms around Kelvaryn, the two of them huddled under a down comforter. Somewhere within the house, crockery exploded against a wall.
"Stop it!" Donnal shouted at Tobira. "Just stop it, the kits--"
"The kits aren't stupid! There's nothing wrong with their ears!" Tobira shrieked back. "And there's nothing wrong with mine..."
Kelvaryn was weeping, soundless sobs that racked his body as he lay snuggled close to Eiri, no, Kelarion.
"There is no Bond..." Kelarion whispered to his twin. "It doesn't exist...it's a lie, they wouldn't be like this if it were true..."
"It doesn't exist," Kelvaryn echoed.
The memory sped forward, and Kelarion/Eiri roused in the middle of the night after that argument.
"...sleeping soundly," he heard Donnal's light tenor.
"Of course," Tobira replied. His voice was as deep as Toki's.
Kelarion's eyes slitted and he saw his fathers standing in the doorway, arm in arm. The youko gave his mate an unmistakable caress. "Let's go to bed," he murmured.
A dream, Kelarion thought, and sleep claimed him again.
"I can't stay here anymore!" said a teenaged Kelvaryn intensely, seizing Kelarion's hands in his own. "Father and Tobira-da's fighting, it'll drive me mad! And Rashi, giving us those sympathetic looks..."
"Then let's go," Kelarion answered impulsively. "No one ever said we had to stay at Stronghold all our lives..."
Desert heat, thirst, and the shimmer of the horizon. The twins traveled, and Eiri saw the blur of time passing. He saw them fighting, back to back with snarls on their faces. He saw them tumbling together on unfamiliar beds. He saw the sting of Kelarion watching his twin grip his hand, then go from him, smiling, into the arms of a dark-haired woman. They traveled, and encountered hate and anger. They passed through the lands of men.
Kelvaryn seemed determined to sleep his way across the countries they traveled through, and Kelarion lapsed into sullen anger, making few conquests of his own. He found he could sleep with either men or women but mostly preferred the clasp of male arms; Kelvaryn slept only with women. They were growing up, growing different, and the very difference felt like betrayal.
They passed through many countries, the Killian nation, the Abian Empire where they had been born, then Kelvaryn grew curious about the nations to the west. Kelarion, drawn along by his excitement, happy that he was willing to abandon his current woman for the quest, agreed to the trip.
They passed through Misra.
He saw Kelvaryn ripped from his horse in the midst of a crowd of spears and his horse, too, went down squealing.
He was there suddenly, between Eiri and his younger self; Kelarion stood there and the memory froze around them. "No," Kelarion rasped, "I won't let you see it."
Eiri looked from Kelarion, drawn, anxious, to his younger self, struck by the myriad small differences. The Kelarion of now was thinner, far more tense, though he looked the same as he must have looked...back then.
"What happened?" he asked, aware for the first time that he was inside the youko's mind.
"We followed ruins to the east," Kelarion said, as if the words were being dragged out of him. "There are some things...I don't want to show you."
"You have to," Eiri said, speaking from the instinctive place inside him. "Or the Bond won't be complete."
Kelarion closed his eyes. "I don't want to see it again, either."
Eiri held out his hands. "Neither of us have much choice," he said, repeating Kelarion's words back at him.
When the youko opened his coppery eyes they were still anxious, but there was resolve in them as well. He took Eiri's hands, and together they watched the scene resume.
It had been Misran soldiers, Kelarion's retrospective awareness could supply now to the memory, who had taken them down. The war had been raging for years and non-humans had never been particularly welcome on Misran soil. Youko were concubines of the nobility. The regiment, unattached to nobility or the King's men, had made brutal use of the two inhumanly beautiful creatures they had managed to capture.
Finished with them sexually, they began torturing the youko.
Eiri clung to Kelarion's awareness to keep him afloat from total immersion in the memory. He was horrified, rendered numb to the depths of his self. He had never seen anything so disgusting. At least the worst the Bransson had ever done had been to deprive him of supper...
Kelvaryn's whimpers had told Kelarion his twin was still alive, for awhile. And then one soldier had suggested they wouldn't find the youko so disgusting to fuck without his tail. They had made Kelarion watch, for if the operation was a success, they said, they would do him next.
He had blacked out, mercifully, after the image that had seared itself into Eiri's head...the topaz-golden youko stretched out, naked, with a dimple of blood welling up where his tail had been.
The next day one of the King's Sithrow had gone through the ranks. He found Kelarion, and took him. But of Kelvaryn...
"I never saw my twin again," Kelarion said in Eiri's head, seemingly speaking just into his ear. "I never felt him again."
He saw Kelarion sold into slavery in the courts of Misra, saw him rise as concubine of Vara Daybreak, brother of the King. He lounged, supremely sensual and somehow hard, as Eiri had seen him in a dream long ago.
War broke, again, in Misra and with the Mortenon dynasty fighting Daybreak, the civil war threw everything into turmoil. With Vara dead and his regiments breaking ranks on the Taksis border, Kelarion fled.
The Queen's Land was better than the one he had just left, and Eiri saw the blur of time again as Kelarion sought asylum in Queensdale, and was accepted as concubine in the Queen's pantheon. Eventually he became trusted advisor and sometime magic-user when her human mages failed her. Youko magic was more elemental, and sometimes more potent.
Eiri stood in the court and watched the approach of the man-child, sixteen and golden and arrogant, already tall and broad-shouldered. He recognized this face from his dreams. This was the Prince, the one with whom Kelarion had fallen in love.
"I thought I did." Kelarion was standing beside him again, a sad sort of smile fixed on his face. "Maybe I did, as much as I was able. I cared for him when he was just a child."
He felt the leap of excitement as he was called discreetly to the Prince's chambers. Their affair was quiet, clandestine, and then one day Tori told him it was over.
"I made a mistake," Kelarion admitted. "I confronted the person whom I thought had betrayed me...and the Queen found out in that fashion. She had her spies."
Eiri knew the rest, and the memories spun out before him inevitably. Thinking that her oldest advisor had betrayed her -- for Kelarion had come to her side when she was young herself -- the Queen had set mages on him, and Knights. Kelarion had fled, spending his life-energies to take out pursuit one by one.
He rode through a golden field, wild and brambly, then the path widened, taking him past well-tended lands.
The hour was growing late and he was in want of shelter. He had traveled for days and didn't want to sleep out in the open again.
Then he saw him. Raising an arm, not wanting to ride his horse into the field, he flagged the boy down.
Watching the slight, skinny figure stumble through the fields toward him, Eiri felt inexpressibly odd. The boy stopped by his horse's stirrup, panting. He looked up and Eiri found he was looking into his own face, thinner, red with sun, but through the veil of Kelarion's memory he was a...
Beautiful boy, Kelarion thought. Through another's eyes, wrapped in the veil of Kelarion's memories he could see and admit to the beauty; the fine-boned oval face looking up at him, eyes wide like unblemished golden coins. The auburn hair that straggled free of its leather tie was in need of washing but rich in color, surely silky to the touch.
"Ser?" The other Eiri prompted, looking young and thin and startled.
The Eiri bound up in Kelarion's memories was startled too, by the emotions that coursed through the youko, unexpected desire and a thrill of protective sensation and a weariness overlaying it, the feeling that he was not up to the task.
You wanted me, Eiri silently accused. You wanted me even back then.
Of course I wanted you! Kelarion snarled. Or I never would have kissed you. But back then...
They sped through the days of the journey together. This part Eiri had already lived, but the insight into Kelarion's psyche made his own memories more bearable.
He saw the things that Kelarion had hidden from him.
While they had traveled, each time Kelarion locked him into his room the youko had made an attempt to replenish his energies. As Dorrado had hinted, the easiest way for a youko to do this was through sex. Only it wasn't working, Kelarion said tightly, as Eiri watched him leave the trapper's room with a restless expression. I didn't know, at the time, that it was because of you.
You thought you were...shielding me, Eiri puzzled through it. They traveled through thickly-forested areas and down to the coast and he watched the ocean spread out before them, again. To Kelarion, the ocean was something to be distrusted -- a positively unnatural body of water when he had grown up in a network of caves where water was scarce and precious. Water also meant the Abian Empire, that faraway ocean land where he and his twin had lost their innocence.
You shouldn't have, he continued, watching Kelarion go into the back room again with Maria. This, he wished he could turn his face from. Kelvaryn was the one who had been capable with women, Kelarion's thoughts ran through him inescapable and merciless as the Bond itself. But Kelarion could do it if he detached himself from the act, if he courted the part of his psyche where his twin had lived. It made the act worse than whoring, for him; it was passionless and cruel.
That's not how it always is. Kelarion meant sex.
You didn't spare either of us. Eiri was surprised to feel shame radiating from Kelarion as he looked at him inside that shop.
It was the only thing I could think to do.
And, reflecting back on his brief glimpses of how Kelarion had grown up, of how Tobira and Donnal had been together, he thought he understood. That kind of affection, pushing someone away to protect them, was the only thing Kelarion had known.
They sped forward again. The things that Kelarion found remarkable, noteworthy, were sometimes the same as points that picked themselves out in Eiri's memory; sometimes they were nothing the boy had thought significant. Kelarion hadn't lingered particularly on how they had lain together for warmth or their closeness during days in the saddle but he would be stricken by observing Eiri in repose, a pensive look as he glanced into the fire, the way he would turn his back when shedding clothing, the childlike trust on his face as he slept.
He remembered the shock of the first time they had kissed but from Kelarion's perspective; the flare that had risen up all his senses and tripped alarm inside him. No, no it can't be...
Eiri was unsurprised to find that Kelarion had been fiercely, terribly jealous of Dorrado. At the same time he had resented the pale-haired youko for his capable handling of Eiri and his greater experience and years.
He likes him more than me he's better than me he'll take him from me... the youko's thoughts ran a vicious loop from Taksis to Guardian. He was sick with anxiety, suffering from energy depletion, and pushing away the older youko's attempts to help as well as his own initial cravings for Eiri.
I didn't know, Eiri told that earlier Kelarion, the youko from not-so-long-ago who had hurt him, it seemed, with every other word from his mouth.
But that was no excuse, present-day Kelarion agreed with the tail-end of Eiri's thought. I could have gotten us killed. Still, even if I'd admitted to the Bond...
There was no time or place for Bonding.
"You need him," Dorrado argued, watching Kelarion cover Eiri with a blanket and an unfathomable expression.
"You're wrong," Kelarion shot back, but his hands betrayed him with their tenderness. "The only thing that I need is myself."
For the remaining leg of the journey to Stronghold, he touched each of Kelarion's memories, handled them as if he could see them in his palm, felt Kelarion's complex emotions and understood each one to be true. Even in denying the Bond he had fallen into his own trap, of sorts; by pushing Eiri away he had pulled them more tightly together.
A lilting feminine voice was crooning to him, singing snatches of a song he did not know. It was a language that made no sense to Kelarion, nor to Eiri within the framework of his memory.
"Sleep, Eiri, sleep."
The woman coughed into her hand, quiet, trying to smother the sound. She resumed her crooning, but her voice was ragged.
Kelarion-through-Eiri looked up at her through golden eyes, a slender woman, features veiled from him by the spill of her long dark hair. Unreality loomed large in the moment and terror made him stiff. He saw the world without his mother; he saw his uncle's big hand closing hard on the back of his neck, drawing him away from a fresh-filled grave.
There will be no more songs.
"Y'okay, Eiri?" His cousin Lanovan, tall and fair, looked down at him with mild eyes, cuffing his hair with a rough but affectionate hand. Crouched within Eiri, Kelarion felt odd, unable to flatten his ears in response.
"Fine, Lan." Defiantly Eiri scrubbed at his forehead, wiping dirt all over himself. "I can work in the fields all day too."
Lanovan laughed and pulled a scrap of rag from a pocket, rubbing the dirt gone. "Not without makin' yourself a mess, y'can't."
Flash-forward, vision or a quick reel through Eiri's memories, and Lanovan was gone, trudging behind the cart of a farmer three days' ride who had bought a great deal of seed from the Bransson and traded some rare livestock for Lanovan.
Slavery is illegal, Eiri whispered within Kelarion's mind, or his own memory, but trading Lanovan isn't. I wish he'd "traded" me too... The thought dwindled away into resentment that the Bransson had traded his nephew -- one of his dead brother's sons -- solely because Eiri had dared to love him.
Working in the fields, hiding from older cousins Geir and Shane, who knew Eiri wouldn't fight back, attending weekly sessions with Father Leary. Kelarion lived through a rapid spool of the boy's days, noting the differences that had shaped Eiri in so many subtle ways, such as his need to be unobtrusive, his anger flaring up at unexpected and inopportune moments, his pure strain of naivete.
"Give the boy to me," Father Leary said to the Bransson, kindly face creasing in a smile as he noted the boy who lurked around the corner of the church-house. "You've shown a great deal of charity, caring for your sister's son so well, but I could use the assistance if you could spare him..."
The Bransson half-turned and Father Leary winked at him.
"Boy's worthless to me," the Bransson rumbled. "Barely works enough to earn his keep. I've only put up with him so long in hopes of working the demon-blood out of him..."
Kelarion twitched inside of Eiri, and felt the boy pay keener attention to his own memory.
"Anything with such lovely golden eyes cannot possibly be the work of the devil," Father Leary argued.
"Anything so lovely," the Bransson spat, "can't possibly be all man."
Ahh... Eiri murmured, as if he were speaking in Kelarion's ear. I didn't know what that meant, before. He had been... Ten summers old. Because I was born in summer.
In the fields, again, Eiri convulsed. The vision seized him and he fell to his knees, clawing sod. The future contracted around him, making him gasp, squeezing him tight.
When he opened his eyes he knew that Father Leary was dead...just as he had seen his mother's death, years before.
Kelarion picked through strands of Eiri's memories, noting Briony's small, almost grudging kindnesses... Here, clumsy, let me finish that... and Fiona's cautious mothering: Eat this, or you'll get sick tomorrow... He saw the Bransson's rages, beating wife or daughter for coddling the bastard demon-spawn he couldn't get rid of.
Eiri curled up and hid himself away, again and again. Wracked with painful, tormented vision, he wept himself to sleep, waking late another day.
With reddened eyes, with a tear-swollen face, he crawled into his clothes and crept for the door of the silent, empty house. Everyone would be out in the fields...
The Bransson barred his way, a belt stretched tight between his hands. "Worse than useless, you little sneakthief..."
Only later, after more than a week when the welts had faded enough for Eiri to begin moving again, and Fiona bound up his fractures, did the boy find out that some seed stock had gone missing. Eiri was taken more for scapegoat than culprit, Briony told him later, but he had been in a bad way for many days.
The fourth vision presaged Kelarion himself, and it was not so bitter or alarming as any of the others. Looking at the memory from Eiri's perspective, Kelarion guessed that the vision presaged the all-encompassing changes in the boy's life more than it did him.
The glowing regard that Eiri had had for him shamed him completely. It was painful to see those emotions change to incredulity and anger, then bitter disillusionment. Still, the pull of physical attraction bound them from both sides from the very first days.
I'll pay you back in full, Kelarion vowed, seething at himself for many of the childish, vindictive things he had said and done. I will make it right.
He reached out, and stroked a hand through Eiri's hair.
They were twined together in stillness.
By comparison, Kelarion's descent and emergence through his own memories had passed in an eyeblink. There was little pain and degradation but for a bastard's childhood, and that much Eiri could dismiss after his passage through Kelarion's horrible experiences.
Kelarion tasted his childhood inadequacies, felt his way through the old taunts and growing up alongside cousins who were abusive, or worse -- kind to him, but just as likely to be bartered away to another farm in exchange for something the Bransson needed. He experienced Fiona's tentative mothering, something Eiri recognized now as kindness that the woman was afraid to give him, fearing her husband. He saw himself as Eiri did, tall and alien and unassailably beautiful, the kin-creature who had swept him away from his old life.
As frustrating and dangerous and unendurable as his trip to Stronghold had been, Eiri knew now how much worse it could have been. His uncle could have bartered him to a neighboring farm like Lanovan. His uncle could have sold him to a human man, who wouldn't have treated him as Kelarion and Dorrado had.
Or he could have lived the other half of the trip, the trip Kelarion had been through.
Kelarion acknowledged the complexity of Eiri's feelings as well, his frustration and anger and pain mingled with undeniable budding attraction and the sublimated desire to win Kelarion's respect, his attention, even as he lashed out.
I think I understand now, Kelarion murmured. How my fathers could act the way they did.
The Bond comes first and love comes later? Eiri hazarded.
He opened his eyes. Kelarion was there, nose to nose with him as he'd been in the past with Kelvaryn. He marveled at the memories, more than twice the length of his own life, that were layered in his own recall. This was perhaps one reason Dorrado had not pushed to teach him more about youko and magic; now he had all of Kelarion's learning, his experience to draw upon.
"It's secondhand, though," Kelarion murmured. His lids unveiled, revealing those familar coppery eyes. This close, Eiri could see that his irises were predominantly yellow, with striations of amber and flecks of reddish-brown that gave them such deep color. They were like tiger's-eye stones, like his streaked gold and brown hair. "Don't you dare try anything without someone to help you."
"Wouldn't think of it." Eiri wriggled closer, enjoying the sensation of Kelarion's arms around him, of his body flush with the rangy, lithe body he had covertly admired. And, too, Kelarion's warning tickled him -- he recognized many of the youko's past beratements now as a form of affection. For a moment, that was enough. Then he realized... "We didn't make it to the bed."
"No," Kelarion agreed, mouth quirking.
They sat up, tangled together, their arms still bound by the red cord Toki had tied around them.
"Sorry," Eiri apologized. He was the one who'd held back.
"There's nothing to be sorry for." Kelarion touched his cheek. His eyes were still inscrutable, but now Eiri could feel what went on behind them, like a constant current between them.
Will it always be like this?
"I hope so," Kelarion answered aloud, and there was raw emotion in his voice. He gathered Eiri into his arms, hugging him tightly, their arms pulling awkwardly where they were tied. Then he stood in a fluid, powerful motion, drawing Eiri up along with him. "Now we can make use of the bed."
Eiri's body responded, tightened, to the heat in Kelarion's voice that accompanied those words. He was still tingling, still burning with the strange and subtle alterations that their mingled blood had begun, but now the focus of that burn had shifted.
"You'll have a good scar," Kelarion said with a grimace, lowering him to the bed, toppling onto him because he couldn't get very far from Eiri, their arms glued together with blood. "Toki cut deeply."
"Who is Toki?" Eiri wondered reflexively, even as the shift of Kelarion's pelvis against him caused new and exciting sensation.
"Mmm..." Kelarion settled on him more firmly, eyes glowing. "Toki is...the most powerful mage in Stronghold. Some say, the most powerful youko mage since the after-Cataclysm days but we've no real way of knowing."
Eiri reached up his free hand to clasp Kelarion's nape, fascinated by the beautiful face hovering just above his. "Then...why..." It was increasingly difficult to concentrate on two streams of thought.
"It's prestigious," Kelarion replied, brushing his lips over Eiri's, then retreating. "For the most powerful mage in Stronghold to Bond us, it's an honor."
"Because he's your uncle?" Eiri strained upward, wanting those lips on his again, but for someone so thin Kelarion was surprisingly heavy when he wanted to be.
"Because he wants to train you, I think." These surprising words were followed by a thorough kiss.
"Oh," Eiri said. He really had no coherent response to that. Kelarion kissed his mouth again, then his throat, then might have moved lower but their bound arms restrained him.
The youko made a rough noise low in his throat. "I would go down," he said, "and take you in my mouth, but the tie..."
"Later," Eiri said, those words rendering him breathless. "You can do it later."
Kelarion kissed his throat. "I want to do it now," he whispered, insinuating a hand between their bodies.
"Oh!" Eiri arched up against him, electrified. A hand closed over his aching penis, shaping, tugging gently. Kelarion's mouth was on his again, parting his lips, the kiss expanding in his focus to become the whole world. The kiss was everything, as was the hand moving insistently on him, rubbing up and down over his hardness and pressing him between their bodies.
The clothing gave them trouble. Eiri was apprehensive at first, almost frightened, even though he had seen Kelarion nearly naked before. He had known it was sexual then but even this was different. This wasn't merely the suggestion of what could happen between them; this was the reality.
It took a feat of cooperation to remove their pants and this made Eiri unwind, finally, laughing as Kelarion got hung up trying to reach for his shoes to push his trousers entirely off his hips and kick them over the edge of the bed. Greedily, the youko pressed kisses to every measure of newly-bared skin, making him writhe, catching breath in his throat. He could not remain scared when the most comical expression crossed Kelarion's face in contemplating removal of his shirt.
"Why didn't we think of this before the tie?" he groused. Kelarion's simple wraparound shirt was easy; Eiri had simply unhooked the two ties and first timidly, then boldly explored the exposed skin of the youko's chest. His torso was hairless, creamy-tan from hard traveling and mapped over with scars. These Eiri kissed to eliminate the old memories, not his, that welled up at the sight of each one.
"You humans," the youko complained, tugging at his shirt fruitlessly. "Always making things complicated." Even if they got it over Eiri's head, it had to come off his arms -- and that would only bring it down Eiri's left arm onto Kelarion's right.
Kelarion solved the dilemma by hooking two fingers into his shirt and ripping it down the front. "I liked that shirt!" Eiri protested, but his cries were smothered by Kelarion's mouth. Soon he no longer even wanted to protest as Kelarion's mouth fastened on every bare part of him he could reach. Then the youko finished his shirt off, ripping the seam of the sleeve open and tossing that over the edge, too.
"I'll get you a new one," Kelarion told him in a throaty growl. Then he settled atop him again, skimming a hand down his flat belly and between Eiri's legs.
"Oh..." Eiri gasped, feeling a significant jolt as their eyes locked again. "Kelarion..."
The youko covered his mouth, making Eiri part for him, lips and breath fluttering just above as his hand coaxed sensation from him in scintillating beats. His tongue swiped over Eiri's bottom lip, dipping within then running over Eiri's top lip as well. After this tease he kissed with bruising force as if he would suck the passion and the very breath right out of him, draw it up as he was steadily pulling a climax from Eiri with his skilled hand.
Eiri was helpless in the face of such expertise. He moaned, muffled, into the mouth feeding on his, feeling weak and pliant and desperately needy, gripping Kelarion's shoulder with his hand hard enough to leave marks. It was rolling up inside of him, rippling through his body, then Kelarion shifted atop him and parted his thighs with one knee, straddling him, changing his grip and stroking furiously from an entirely new angle. Eiri shuddered and the wave crashed over him, flooding his body. He trembled in the throes of orgasm, mouth gone slack against the lips that still kissed and bit so urgently and Kelarion was everywhere -- on his tongue, milking his hardness, coiled deep inside his head.
He thrashed as Kelarion continued to pump him, whispering throaty obscenities in his ear, a litany of the things he wanted to do with Eiri, to Eiri.
Soft kisses scattered over his face. Eiri opened his eyes, crying out as he felt Kelarion's hand on him, still rubbing him, drawing on the sensitive flesh to the point where pleasure and pain mingled. His copper-golden eyes were so intent, so focused, that they caused more of that pain/pleasure feeling to expand in Eiri's chest.
"I can't believe..." Eiri reached up, touching Kelarion's cheek, curving his palm against him. They fit. "Finally, you...me...I never thought."
Kelarion's breath poured into his mouth again. "Oh, you thought it, all right." He removed his hand and pressed himself to Eiri, rocking against him. "And so did I."
Eiri closed his eyes, snaking his arm around Kelarion's neck, straining toward him. It didn't matter if his eyes were closed or not; he could still see Kelarion, his wild, wanting eyes, hair streaming over his shoulders, narrow, naked chest.
Locked in the grip of the moment Eiri wasn't sure of the mechanics but he knew Kelarion was pushing fingers into him and they weren't dry and, in fact, it felt incredibly good.
"How's that?" the youko mumbled, biting his shoulder.
Eiri hissed, arched, let out a breath. "Good," he moaned. The fingers scissored in him, rhythmic, and he could have cried and come all over again. "Don't, uhh, don't stop..." He was ready again.
There was a smile in Kelarion's voice when he murmured, "There's more youko in you than we thought."
"Not enough youko to suit me," Eiri retorted, squirming. "Come on."
Kelarion laughed, writhed against him, wrenching their joined arms, then replaced his fingers with something thicker and hotter, something that pulsed eagerly at the entrance to his body.
"Look at me," Kelarion whispered, mouth barely touching his. He leaned back just enough for Eiri to look fully into his face. A strand of hair slid over his shoulder, touching Eiri's cheek like a caress.
"As if I could look anywhere else." Eiri couldn't breathe. He wanted, he needed, he didn't have all of the words but it was all right; Kelarion at this moment could feel each thought within him as it formed. And he felt the youko's need blazing large against him as well, thought and flesh.
Kelarion's gaze never wavered as he moved forward, easing his hips, stretching Eiri and pressing into him in a long, exquisitely slow movement. Eiri's breath left him "aaaahhh..." as he did it, and it seemed he would go on forever filling him, the rigid length of Kelarion burning its way inside -- hurting, it was true, but hurting and stretching in a way that felt unbearably good.
He moved, still slow, stretching over Eiri languorously. Eiri reached for his mouth and missed as Kelarion stretched again, giving him the most minute of flexing motions, pressing deep into him and making him groan. He caught him on the downswing, kissing him enthusiastically, withdrawing that part of him that rubbed inside Eiri in all the right ways and then he was moving again, cresting over him like the orgasmic feeling that moved in waves through Eiri's body.
Slow, then fast. Like the tide their pace increased. Sweat traveled between them as Kelarion pumped his hips with increasing confidence, grinning down into Eiri's flushed, ecstatic face. One hand migrated between their bodies to catch at Eiri's incredibly hard penis and somehow the youko coordinated his own strokes with the ones he gave Eiri, stabbing into him, hitting a place inside with uneven thrusts. Each one seemed to hit a core within him that exploded, radiating through him and pushing the waves of pleasure to greater heights.
The youko bit his shoulder again, mouthing him, gnawing almost as his pendulum-steady thrusts collapsed into inchoate, hard rocks of his hips. He released Eiri and touched his face and where his fingers passed, scent flowered, filling him up, somehow connecting with Eiri like a key turning within a lock.
Eiri shouted, eyes going wide, arm thrown desperately around his lover as he lifted up against him. That was the final, subtly invasive intimacy. He rolled into another, more powerful climax, straining with his whole body to cling to the youko who had brought him there.
Kelarion's eyes were on him again, searing, primitive. He shuddered. And though he did not yell, the look of complete abandon that consumed him and the feelings that coursed from him to Eiri were telling. All his barriers were swept away.
He could feel Kelarion pulsing within in those last, helpless moments of orgasm. They clutched at one another and Eiri could feel the youko trembling.
They lay entwined a moment longer before Kelarion raised himself, head still buried on Eiri's shoulder, disengaging. Then he shifted them, awkwardly, so that they could lie together in a blissful haze for long, langorous moments.
Eiri knew he had never been so happy.
"Mmm." The youko sounded so relaxed, completely sated.
"How will we have children?" What he wanted to ask was, how could Tobira have children by accident, but didn't dare.
"Hmm." Kelarion cracked an eye and looked him up and down in a manner that made him feel faint and anxious even though they'd just been...they'd just finished. "Thinking about having some right now?"
The youko nuzzled his cheek. "Then don't worry about it."
Eiri frowned even as he nuzzled closer, too, probing through the layers of Kelarion's memories within him. Suddenly his dreams took on a looming significance, as did the old medallion that lay on the bedside table. Not flower, not flame... He gasped. "But how could anyone do that...by accident?"
Kelarion proved he was just as adept at reading Eiri. "Rashi said he was careless, not that it was an accident." His fingers squeezed Eiri's; he pulled their bound arms closer. "My father...was always cavalier with magic. He was passionate and reckless. From what I could make sense of the accusations they tossed back and forth, Tobira-da got a little...overenthusiastic in their early days together." There was a hint of bitterness in his words.
Eiri tried to wrap his mind around this, but abandoned the thought. He nuzzled closer to Kelarion, kissing his throat.
"That's interesting," the youko said thoughtfully. "If you're strong enough that Toki wants to train you, then either one of us may be able to sustain kits."
Eiri's eyes rounded. He would have stammered some disclaimer but Kelarion laughed at him, waving a hand.
"That wasn't a suggestion," he said, twining over Eiri, caressing down his side and thigh. "I think we can wait a hundred years or so."
"Mm." Eiri kissed the youko's throat. "Sounds reasonable."
"In the meantime," Kelarion drawled, stroking his stomach, "I think we have plenty to occupy us."
"Here, see...you're already hard again. Is it so difficult to admit you want me?"