Family Bonds

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by nekojita

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chapter one

Leaving Home

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Emmie walked through the crowd assembled in Potwick’s communal grounds and the people’s attention felt like a heavy, wet cloak that muffled her every move. She tried to keep her eyes downcast as she made her way to the eastern side of the grounds, toward the forest. Right now, she didn’t want any more sympathy, didn’t want to hear how much her father would be missed, what a wonderful man he’d been and how lucky she was to have such a large, caring family. She especially didn’t want to see any members of her large, ‘caring’ family save one, not when they all stared at her with sadness and fear. Unfortunately, while she could avert her eyes, there was little she could do about her hearing.

"Oh, such a poor, sweet girl. She and her father doted on each other," Midge O’Shea said, voice tinged with sadness. Emmie hurried past before her old neighbor tried to hug her yet again.

"No sign of Connor’s wife, was there?" Johnny Farrell asked. "I thought maybe she’d return for his funeral, at least." Emmie felt her stomach twist at the mention of her despised mother.

She didn’t seem to be the only one affected by the question. "Why would she? Even if she knew he were dead, she could probably care less." Becca’s voice was sharp, carrying a note of panic along with the scorn. Emmie looked at her cousin – and flinched at the fear and disgust she saw when Becca noticed her.

Not wanting to hear any more about her mother, not now, Emmie hurried through the crowd, grateful for her small size as she slipped through any available space. One or two people called out her name and someone even touched her shoulder but she didn’t stop. No, right now she just wanted to be alone, to hide from the truth for a little while.

Finally reaching the edge of the clearing, she headed toward a small cove where she and her cousins would often hide together when they wanted to escape from their chores. She didn’t expect to find anyone there, not when all her cousins would be busy at the wake, kept there under the watchful eyes of their parents. There was no one to watch out for her now, no one who *wanted* to watch out for her.

A small sob broke free as she raced to the cove, her eyes filled with tears. Without a thought for her fine linen dress, she all but fell down onto a moss-covered log with her face buried in her hands. There was no stopping the tears now, not when she thought about what she’d lost and what was waiting for her after the wake. She felt so miserable right now she wished it had been her who had died.

Busy crying, she nearly jumped when she felt someone rest a hand on her shoulder. "Shhh, Emmie, please stop crying."

Forcing herself to look up, she choked on a sob as she recognized Maddox. The next thing she knew, she was hugging him tightly and crying against his chest, relieved that the one person who still seemed to care about her had found her. Maddox was the only family member who didn’t flinch from her touch.

"I’m so sorry, Emmie," Maddox crooned, his soft voice cracking a little on the words. "It’s all right." He held her and stroked her hair as she cried herself out, dependable, kind Maddox. Just having him here made her feel a little better. "You going to stop crying soon or should I take you out to the fields so you can water the crops?"

Laughing softly at the terrible joke, she forced herself to look up at her older cousin. "You’re mean," she complained, her voice hoarse from all the crying.

Maddox merely smiled as he fished inside the left sleeve of his black tunic for something. Pulling a handkerchief free, he waved the cloth in front of her face and brushed it against her nose. "I know, you tell me that every day. So why don’t you make a mean person happy and blow your nose. I think you’ve leaked enough already, and all over my shirt at that."

As always, Maddox knew just what to do to break her from a dark mood. Scowling slightly, mostly from embarrassment, she did as she was told. A quick glance at his nice tunic showed that while it wasn’t wrinkle-free any longer, it only seemed slightly damp from her tears. "I tell you that because you are," she pouted, once she finished blowing her nose.

"Well, what can I say, I stick with the things I’m good at," he teased her back, his right arm sliding across her shoulders. She leaned against him, comforted by his presence and their familiar jokes. The last thing Maddox could be described as was ‘mean’, but as an older cousin usually stuck watching after her when she was younger, she’d often thought it rather unfair that the quiet boy would stop her from doing whatever she wanted. Never mind the fact that she probably owed Maddox her life several times over for his careful babysitting.

Then her thoughts settled on her absent-minded father and why he’d needed Maddox’s help to watch her, and the tears threatened to start all over again. Her cousin’s arm tightened around her shoulders as she fought against crying again, unwilling to spend the day sobbing. Tears couldn’t do her much good right now.

"I’m sorry, Emmie, I really am," Maddox said as he rubbed his hand up and down her back.

"I know," she sniffed as she barely held back the tears, her arms wrapped tight around his chest, "s’not your fault." No, if anyone were to blame, it was her father and cousin, Jody.

"No, but it’s not your fault, either." Maddox sighed as his free hand undid the top two buttons of his tunic. "They’ve no right to treat you like this."

That threatened to start the tears all over again, but she refused to cry any more. She couldn’t keep acting like a child, not now. As upset as she was with him at the moment, she heard her father’s voice gently chiding her over how she was supposed to be a young lady and not a crybaby. But it was difficult to stop acting like that, especially whenever she thought about her family. "They… they won’t keep going on like this, will they?" she asked, pretty certain of the answer but hoping that Maddox would tell her something different.

The way he sighed and held her close didn’t do anything to help settle her fears. "Emmie… I’m sorry." He paused for a moment, his mouth twisted in either anger or disgust. "The day after next, Brennan is leaving for Uncle Liam’s. The family’s decided that you’re to be fostered out to him so…." He shook his head and sighed again.

"So I’ll be out of sight?" she finished as her stomach clenched in dread at the thought of living with Uncle Liam, a sour old hermit of a man. "So no one will find out that I’m a monster?"

"Emmie!" Maddox hugged her close, hands patting against her back. "You’re not a monster!" He pulled away, but held onto her arms and gave her a slight shake. "Don’t say things like that."

"But… my mother…," she tried to explain, the recent revelation still very painful to discuss.

"That was your mother," her cousin cut her off. "Her kind… well, from the stories Glenn and your dad told me, not everyone born to a… bound will turn out like them. There’s no reason to expect that you will." The way that he continued to touch and look at her was reassuring. Maddox didn’t treat her like the rest of the family did, as if she’d tear them apart and eat them at any moment.

"Dad thought I might be one," she reluctantly pointed out to her cousin. "Else he wouldn’t have told me the truth." She shivered as she thought about her mother and being sent to Uncle Liam’s farm.

Rubbing his hand up and down her arm, Maddox hugged her against his side. "He was sick, Em. He didn’t even realize that Jody was right there beside you when he told you the truth. I think… I think he just wanted you to know about your mother, not that he thought you’d turn out like her. He must have been very lonely, keeping the truth about her a secret for so long."

"I don’t understand how he could still love her." She shivered again and wished she’d brought a cloak. The clearing had been warm enough with all the people and fires, not to mention the sun shining down, but in the cove there was nothing to warm her but Maddox. "I mean, she left him with me and never came back. Yet all he could talk about was how much he missed her and how much I resembled her." She shivered again, this time at the thought about how much she might resemble her mother.

"I don’t know either, but he did love her. She couldn’t be that bad if no one here suspected the truth and someone cared that much for her." Maddox fell quiet for a moment. "You’re cold; do you want to go back?"

"No." She shook her head vehemently as she much preferred being cold to her family right now. "The neighbors will just fuss over me and tell me about how good Father was, and the family will keep acting as if it hurts them to even look at me."

They were both quiet after that, huddled together for warmth. Sounds from the wake drifted toward them, a call for assistance to help bring out more food, a baby crying, someone beating a slow rhythm on a bodhran. Emmie realized that she hadn’t eaten much that day - well, not the last two to be honest - but her stomach felt too unsettled to handle food right now. As bad as it was to lose her father, she’d lost almost all of her family as well. Now to find out that they wanted to send her into the mountains to live with Uncle Liam, someone the family was very happy to avoid whenever possible…. She’d heard that he’d been odd even before he spent some time in the Army, and came back after retiring even stranger and more reclusive than before. Obviously, they were only concerned about sending her someplace where no one would have to see her, in the care of someone who would have no problem dealing with her if she turned out like her mother.

"What am I going to do?" she asked Maddox, the tears threatening to come back. "I don’t want to live with Uncle Liam. Everybody avoids him for a reason." Not even her father had much good to say about the man. "He was never nice to me before, how about now after Brennan tells him what happened?"

Maddox rubbed her arm in an attempt to comfort and stared off into the distance as if he were searching for something. "They talked about you last night while preparing for today." He said the words reluctantly as if he regretted the pain he knew they would wake in her. "They don’t want anyone to know about your mother. If you’re gone, they can say you’re happy with Uncle Liam and that you don’t want to come back. They… they won’t let you come back, not until they’re sure you’re not a bound. I’m so sorry, Emmie."

She started to sniffle and pressed Maddox’s handkerchief to her nose. She knew her family didn’t want her anymore, but to think they plotted about the best way to get rid of her…. "I don’t want to live with him. Can’t they just foster me out to someone else?"

Maddox slowly shook his head and didn’t say a word.

Something that had been breaking inside for the last two days finally crumbled to dust. Her family was ashamed of her, wanted her gone. Even if she didn’t turn into a bound over the next few years, she knew they’d never forget about her mother and would never welcome her back. For a moment hate flared up hot and potent for the woman who had ruined her life, had left her and her father with no concern for their pain. The emotion warmed her a little before gradually fading away, lacking a proper target. She could barely even remember what her mother looked like after all these years.

Knowing that her family - save Maddox and possibly Uncle Glenn - hated and feared her, she had a sudden resolve. "I’m not going. I’m not some baby who they can hand over to Uncle Liam."

"They won’t support you, Em. You’re not old enough to look after yourself." Maddox slid the sleeve of his tunic down over the hand that rested in his lap. "If you fight them, they’ll just… oh, I don’t know, tie you up and take you against your will. They’re too frightened to think about anything but having you gone right now."

That was painful to hear, but at least Maddox was telling her the truth and was sitting here holding her when the rest of her family wouldn’t come anywhere near. "What am I going to do?" She’d thought to try and lock herself into her house, to create such a fuss when Uncle Liam came for her that the entire village would come out to watch. Surely she wouldn’t be dragged away then. The plan seemed rather foolish when she thought about it now.

"You could run away." Maddox said the words so quietly that at first she thought she’d imagined them. He looked around the cove and squeezed her shoulder. "We could both run away. They want you gone, Emmie, before anyone else finds out about your mom. If you go, they won’t look for you."

"But what about you?" she asked, unable to believe that her cousin would leave everything behind just for her. "Your parents would look for you."

Maddox laughed, the sound bitter and dry. "No they won’t, not if I’m with you. After all, I’m not the oldest son or anyone special. I bet they won’t care in the least if I’m gone if it means you won’t come back. I… I’ve been thinking about this ever since last night." He shifted on the log to face her, both hands holding her shoulders. "We can leave right after Brennan does. It’s no secret where he’s going; they’re busy spinning some story at the wake about how you want to go live with Uncle Liam so he can help you get into the Guards." There was a twinge of pain to learn that her family was using her hopes for the future against her. "They’ll assume you’re off sulking over the news and that I’m with you. They won’t think that we’ve run away until we’re a good bit down the mountain."

She definitely didn’t want to go live with Uncle Liam but she was uncertain about running away and making the family angry with Maddox. "But where would we go? What would we do? The only person I know who ever ran away was Bill Ravenson and he came back after spending a few nights in the woods."

Her cousin actually smiled, his eyes unfocused as if he were lost in his thoughts. "I told you, I’ve been thinking about this – even longer ago than last night. I don’t want to be a farmer, Em, you know that. I figured… well, Glenn’s going to be at the capital in about another month or two before joining the caravans heading south. We can make it there by then and meet up with him. He won’t care about your mother; he was your father’s best friend. We can help him with the trading and just avoid coming home during the spring."

She thought about her favorite uncle, a man who was looked down upon by most of the family because he had turned his back on farming. She knew that Maddox was very close to him, almost as close as her father had been. Maddox had never been interested in farming and always hovered by Uncle Glenn when he came for a visit. Really, it wasn’t so surprising to find out that her cousin had thought about running away and had even made plans. But right now it was just one more shock in the wake of too many and, even though her family now hated her, it hurt to think about leaving Potswick for good.

Maddox seemed to sense some of her apprehension. He gave her another gentle shake. "I can gather the things we’ll need within the next two days. There are some trails that Glenn and your father showed me that’ll lead us down the mountains so we can keep off the main road. Oh, it won’t be easy and I wouldn’t have picked leaving at the end of summer, but we can manage. At least there won’t be any snow." The words spilled from his lips in a rush and a light burned in his eyes. He was definitely excited about leaving home, more excited than she’d seen him in months. "We can do this, Em."

"But what about going down the mountain?" She hugged her arms across her chest to stop her shivering. "They say there’s gaki in the forest, gaki and thieves." She wondered if the demons would attack her if she was really a bound. After all, she was partially a demon as well thanks to her mother’s blood.

"Glenn’s traveled the trails a time or two; he said they’re often safer than the main road if you’re traveling by yourself. So far he hasn’t run into any trouble." Maddox smiled, appearing so hopeful and happy that she began to think he might have a good idea after all. "We’ll be safe, there are the two of us. Besides, we’ve both camped out enough to keep out of trouble."

"Yeah." She sniffed again, this time more from the cold than from wanting to cry. Something occurred to her as she stared at her excited cousin. "You were going to run away, weren’t you? You weren’t just thinking about this, you were planning." She knew that he had troubles at home but never thought he’d leave her like that.

Looking down at his lap, Maddox nodded. "I…." He sighed and slid his hands down her arms until he pulled her hands free and could hold them. "I’ve been trying to talk my parents into letting me work with Uncle Glenn but they’re not happy with the idea. My father thinks that all I am is bored and need to be settled down. He and my mom want to start looking for someone I can marry next year. So I was going to wait until next spring to see if Glenn would allow me to travel with him, and if not, I was just going to leave anyway."

This news came as a surprise, considering that Maddox was barely more than sixteen. Not that a few of her cousins hadn’t married that young – after all, there wasn’t much to look forward to in Potswick other than continuing the family tradition. But, she knew that Maddox didn’t want to start a family and take up farming, he wanted more out of life than that. He was the one who had given her hope that maybe one day she could join the Guards.

She squeezed his warm hands. "Do you really want me to go with you?" She didn’t want to be any trouble for her cousin.

He smiled and squeezed back. "Yeah, I do. I don’t want you to live with Uncle Liam, either. And I think it’ll be better with the two of us." He suddenly became serious. "Don’t run away just because of me, though. I don’t want to force you into this. But, since last night, it’s the only thing I can think of for you. This way, we can both be happy."

They would stand a better chance if the two of them traveled together. Also, knowing that Maddox would probably run away without her helped lessen the sense of guilt she felt. Maybe she didn’t have a place with her family any longer, but her cousin did. But it wasn’t a place he wanted, and she couldn’t blame him for that after watching how their family had turned on her. "Okay," she agreed, feeling a sense of nervousness that wasn’t related to the recent tragedy. "What do I have to do?"

Maddox laughed and hugged her close. "Not much. I’m sure my father or Uncle Sean will stop by tonight to tell you about their plans. Don’t try to hide how upset you are and stay in the house tomorrow. Start packing up things, but keep everything light and valuable that you come across." There was a frown on his face as he pulled away. "I’m sorry, you won’t be able to take much."

Which meant she’d be leaving behind a lot of her favorite things but it couldn’t be helped. At least the family would probably hold on to her father’s objects. "There’s not much that I need to take." There were a few gifts from her father she wanted, the rest she’d have to somehow manage without. She quickly sniffed back the tears that formed at the thought of how much more she was about to lose. The dolls her father had made her, her clothes, her collection of fossils and….

"Good." Maddox rose to his feet and pulled her up as well. "I know you don’t want to go but we need to get back to the wake. You’re freezing and someone will come looking for us soon." As they headed back to the clearing, he held onto one of her hands. "I’ll be by tomorrow to help you with your father’s things. We can use a lot of them and it won’t be difficult to get whatever else we’ll need." He stopped for a moment and examined her from head to toe. "I think it would be best if you dressed like a boy. Good thing your hair isn’t too long."

She combed a hand through her hair, which was still short from the fever she’d suffered during the spring. There was a little hurt pride to hear that she could pass for a boy but she couldn’t deny that she wasn’t developing as fast as some of her female cousins who were the same age. Then something occurred to her, all the stories she’d heard about children her age who suddenly became bounds and turned on their families like a pack of starving wolves, or destroyed them with some new, out of control power. "Maddox, aren’t you afraid something will happen to you?" she asked, even though she feared his answer. "What if I do turn into a gaki-bound or an elemental-bound?"

He stared at her for several seconds, her hand still in his. Then he continued toward the clearing. "You won’t, Emmie. I haven’t seen anything odd happen around you that makes me think you’ll drown me or set me on fire one day, and I know you’ll never hurt me even if you turn into a gaki."

His confidence both stunned and reassured her. Having to leap forward to keep up with him, she tugged on his hand. "Why is that?"

He flashed her one of his wide grins that always made her catch her breath, made all of her girl cousins and friends go on and on about how cute he was. "Because I still have a scar from that time you bit my leg when you were six. You said I tasted *terrible* and never bit me again, remember?"

Despite all that had happened over the last couple of days, she had to laugh. She could clearly recall that fight, and the spanking her father gave her for hurting her cousin like that. Even though the punishment had been the reason she never bit Maddox again, he was right. He’d tasted terrible.

Somehow, she began to feel excited and hopeful. She knew it wouldn’t be easy, making their way to the capital, and there was always the chance the family would come after them. But she felt confident that, as long as Maddox was with her, they’d manage somehow. She wouldn’t do anything to let him down, not after the way he still believed in her. He was all she had left now.

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Maddox checked the packs one last time, the task of making sure their lacings were tied tightly enough hampered by his shaking hands. More excited and nervous than he’d ever been, he tried to force his mind to work and see if he’d left anything important behind. He hoped not; the packs were already a bit on the heavy side. Even doing the best he could to lighten Emmie’s load, his cousin would have a difficult time carrying it for the first week or so. By then they should have run through enough supplies that the packs would lighten. May they be through the forest and onto one of the state maintained roads by then, he prayed.

The packs tended to, he mentally ran through his plan one more time. The family had dispersed after Connor’s wake and interment, heading back to their farms that were scattered all throughout the mountains’ valleys. Once his parents realized that he and Emmie weren’t off fishing for salmon as he’d led them to believe, it would take them a while to round up enough people to come after them – if they even bothered to do so. He counted on the family wanting to get rid of two sources of shame at the same time and letting them be. There’d be some anger over him disappearing with a few valuable items, but they were worth no more than what was owed him and his cousin. Counting the house and land Emmie was leaving behind, the family would come out ahead.

Judging it to be time, he went to wake Emmie. She didn’t take as long to rouse as usual, instead, she woke up at the fourth shake and stared at him blearily for only a moment before tossing back the covers. He left her to get ready and went back to fussing with the packs, now more nervous than excited. They needed to get out of Potswick without anyone noticing the packs they were carrying. They needed to be quick and cover a good bit of distance before morning, something that would be difficult with their burdens. For a moment, he wished he could take one of his father’s horses but knew it was best that he didn’t. The animals weren’t bred for much more than pulling a plow or cart and wouldn’t do well going down the mountainside by a little used-trail, not to mention that the family would definitely come after them then.

When Emmie, dressed in an old outfit of his and her dark blond hair mostly tucked beneath a faded blue wool cap, arrived in the kitchen he handed over a cup of coffee and a pasty he’d saved for her. She wrinkled her nose at the drink but finished it off and ate without complaint. Her unusual silence worried him but he didn’t bother her, not when he thought about how nervous he felt. After just a few minutes, they were finally ready to leave.

"Is this all right?" he asked as he helped her shoulder the lighter pack, still a little worried over how quiet she was.

She tugged on the straps and then nodded. "Yeah." He waited for her to say something else and when she didn’t, sighed and pulled on his own pack. She was tired and stressed about leaving, he reminded himself. She hadn’t spent the last couple of months planning to run away from home, unlike him. She’d just discovered how little their family cared for the members they thought were… ‘different’.

Now wasn’t the time to dwell on things like that. "We need to get going," he said in a quiet voice before heading to the door. He wanted to give her a moment alone in the house she’d grown up in, so he hurried outside and then stood on the porch while he looked for anyone else out and about at this time of night. The couple of houses near them were dark and he didn’t see anyone. While it was late enough that the entire village should be in bed, he felt anxious, filled with paranoia that, at any moment, someone would discover them.

The sound of the door closing made him jump, nervous as he was. He turned to see Emmie, a suspicious glimmer to her eyes, look up at him as she stepped closer. Hoping to reassure her, he reached out and gave her a hug. "You don’t have to come with me." He didn’t like the thought that he might be forcing her into this, even if he believed it was for the best.

"Yeah, I do," she said as she hugged him back, her voice thick with tears. He couldn’t argue with that, not with the way most of the family had practically shunned her these last few days. Even the rest of the villagers had noticed that something wasn’t right in the way that a young girl was being left to grieve on her own. He needed to get Emmie away before the family’s fear overcame their shame and they did something truly foolish.

"Okay, let’s go." Eager to leave Potswick behind them, he held onto her hand and led the way toward the woods. They’d skirt along the edge of the forest until they reached one of Glenn’s trails. There was a bit of fear as he thought about walking into the forest during the night but knew they needed to be as far away as possible by dawn. Should someone come across them, they’d be dragged back home and have some explaining to do.

Once they reached the trail, he felt a little of the fear and apprehension fade. Even Emmie seemed to feel better as she no longer lagged behind but was right at his side. They went several meters into the forest before he came to a halt. "One moment."

"Okay." Emmie stopped and leaned against a tree as he fished around in the pouch hanging from his belt.

As soon as he felt the glowstick, he twisted the end to make it shine. Emmie gasped as he attached the glowing glass rod to his belt. "There, that should help." Its light wasn’t too strong, nothing that should attract too much attention to them but enough they could see a few meters in every direction. Next, he pulled out two amulets and handed one to his cousin. "Fasten this around your neck," he instructed as he did just that.

"Maddox, where did you get this stuff?" She examined the charm hanging around her neck. "This is a pest charm, isn’t it?" Her forehead creased as she frowned. "Don’t tell me you stole them!"

Shaking his head, he closed his pouch and continued walking. "I didn’t steal them – exactly." Hearing his cousin’s sigh as she followed, he held up his hand. "Listen to me. I added up our share of the family’s profits for the year so far." He hesitated before going on, not wanting to upset Emmie but not wanting her mad at him, either. "Then, I figured out how much your dowry would’ve been. Everything I took adds up to less than that amount and I made sure not to take anything too rare. Just enough to help us get where we’re going as safely as possible." Glancing over his shoulder, he found a sad expression on his cousin’s face rather than an angry one. "You okay?"

She stroked her charm. "I guess so. We could use the light and I know we won’t be able to find an inn to take us in if we’re covered with fleas or lice." She shivered at the mention of the vermin, her tongue sticking out slightly. "Did you have to use my dowry as well? Won’t they be angry about that?"

He reached out and draped an arm over her shoulders. "I did what I thought was fair, Em. We needed the items and some money, and they owed it to us." He gave her a hug as they walked around a rotted, fallen tree trunk. "Besides, they were going to keep your dowry, you know. They would have refused to allow you to marry." They wouldn’t allow any chance of Emmie’s mother’s blood further tainting their family. Even if Emmie herself never became a bound, one of her descendents might.

Funny how just as recently as a few short months ago, there’d been talk of the two of them being married. He’d laughed at what he saw as his mother and aunts’ fancy and stated that he felt as if Emmie was his little sister, but they insisted that such a close friendship would be a good basis for a relationship. Not to mention such a union would keep two plots of land within the family. But first it had been decided that he wouldn’t be allowed to wait the five years or so until Emmie would barely be old enough to marry, and then they found out about her mother. He thought that he could have dealt with never having a wife but Emmie didn’t deserve to be lonely just so the family would retain its ‘good’ name.

When he heard his cousin choke back a sob, he mentally cursed himself as an idiot. "I’m sorry, Em. I’m not thinking too good right now." He never should have broken the news to her like that.

She sniffed as she wiped her nose with the back of her hand but refused to stop walking. "It’s okay. I just never thought that far, I guess." She sniffed again. "Am I really that horrible, Maddie?"

Letting the return of his hated nickname slide by, he forced Emmie to stop so he could wrap his arms around her. "No, you’re not. Everyone’s frightened right now, Em. All they can think about is what they’d lose if people found out about your mother, not how they’re hurting you." As much as he wanted to leave his family behind, he knew that there were some good people he’d miss. People he was hoping would control the few family members who would want to follow him and Emmie for daring to run away. Surely some of them would understand that they’d be much happier away from Potswick and wish them well.

Emmie sniffed again, hugging him tightly for a moment before stepping back. There was a look of resolve on her face, one he’d often seen her father wear. "We’re wasting time." Just then she sounded so much like her father that he felt a sharp pain in his chest. With all that had happened the last few days he hadn’t been allowed much time to think about Connor’s death, just about its effect on Emmie. He missed the quiet man so much. While Conner wasn’t Glenn, he’d been someone he could turn to when he needed to talk.

"You’re right." Hitching up the straps of his backpack, he resumed hiking down the trail. "We’ll rest in a couple of hours, but we won’t be able to stop much until evening."

"I know that," Emmie snapped, sounding less serious now and more like a grumpy kid. "We went over the plans how many times yesterday?" She seemed to regain her usual high level of energy and bounced ahead of him on the trail, but remained in the glowstick’s dim light.

"That’s good. I was afraid all that talk went in and then back out of those big ears of yours." He smiled when his cousin turned to glare at him, hands tugging the wool cap down over her ears – which, for some odd reason, she was convinced were too big.

Emmie stuck her tongue out at him before turning around and stalking off. He almost chuckled as he hurried after her.

"Keep moving those huge feet of yours so the noise will scare off all the animals. You are so *mean*," she added in a growling voice.

He had the feeling that there wouldn’t be much conversation for the next few kilometers, which was not exactly a bad thing. And now Emmie was annoyed with him and not upset at leaving home or what the family had done to her. Amazing what a little bit of teasing could do. He’d apologize when they stopped to rest, and hopefully his cousin’s sad mood would remain vanquished for a while.

*******

"What the hell are a couple of kids doing out here?"

Hitomi swatted Jared aside as she hissed at him to be quiet. The two kids in question were huddled by the small fire not too far away from where they were hiding. The children appeared worn and more than a little frightened; the last thing she wanted was for them to be spooked by their presence. "Shut up, sit still for a few minutes and Belle will answer that for you. Thick-skulled moron," she added under her breath.

Of course he heard her and smiled, fangs gleaming in the moonlight. "We can’t all be as smart as you, milady." She swatted him again as he pretended to bow before her, causing the bushes they were crouching behind to rustle slightly.

<Belle, get here quick before I bury him, all right? He’s really annoying tonight.> She sighed in relief at Isabelle’s assurance that she’d join them in just another minute. "Really, Jared, you could try the patience of a priestess of Kannon," Hitomi grumbled as she bumped her shoulder into her friend.

He draped an arm over her shoulder and pulled her close, the embrace practically making her purr despite her annoyance. Too many years alone had left her with a weakness for contact with another living being that Jared always took advantage of – most often to keep himself alive. "Hey, I just found out that the meal we’ve been tracking is off-limits." His attention focused back onto the children. "Unless thieves have suddenly gotten much younger and very clever." There was a hopeful note in his voice so she lightly jabbed her elbow into his ribs.

"*Your* meal, you mean." She grumbled. "And I’m willing to bet you a bottle of apple jack that they’re not thieves or poachers." While her sense of smell wasn’t as sharp as his, she had other talents to rely on. "Besides a small knife each and a hatchet for wood, they’re not armed. I’m not sensing a wealth of coins on them, either." Her talent revealed a good bit of silver and copper, and two gold coins cleverly sewn into a pocket on one of the boy’s socks. These kids had more money than most people carried while just traveling through the woods but not a hoard by any means. "I’m gonna go out on a limb and say they’re running away." That might explain what they were doing so deep in the Silverton forest and not out on the main roads, where they’d be less likely to be attacked by gaki or wild animals.

Jared snorted and rolled his eyes as he settled beside her. "And here I thought they were out for a little walk beneath the lovely full moons." There was another flash of sharp fangs, but years of living with flesh gaki-bounds had inured her to the sight. "You think they’re running away to be together? Aren’t they a little young?"

She examined the children, not hampered in the least by darkness or distance. Granted, she hadn’t been around too many humans since falling in with her friends a couple of decades ago – save for the occasional criminals who never lasted very long – so she wasn’t the best judge of human maturity. But, considering how she couldn’t stop thinking of the strangers as ‘children’, she’d be willing to bet they couldn’t be too old. "I think you’re right."

"Well that’s a first for Jared." With her attention focused on the humans, she hadn’t noticed Isabelle’s arrival. Hitomi had to bite back a curse as the tall woman crouched down at her left side. Isabelle must have picked up on her startlement as she turned to look at her and smiled. "Sorry," she said while nudging her shoulder into Hitomi’s.

"That’s also a first; you telling me you’ll ‘just be a minute’ and actually arriving so quickly," Hitomi teased her friend, her surprise now fading. "We’re trying to figure out how old those two are," she explained as she motioned at the strangers. "And Jared’s hoping that they really are thieves so he can have a bite to eat."

"Could be off hunting elk with Taku and Tomio instead of tracking down a couple of kids," he muttered, arms wrapped around his belly as if he were starving. Used to his melodramatic poses, she and Isabelle just rolled their eyes and smiled.

"Poor Jared," Isabelle crooned, her deep voice softened so it wouldn’t travel very far. When he sniffed at her false sympathy, she shook her head and draped an arm over Hitomi’s shoulders. "Give me a moment to check them out. Maybe they’re really a couple of cutthroats in disguise and you can have them for dinner after all." Hitomi made a noise of disgust when he seemed to perk up at that bit of news.

They were quiet as Isabelle read the humans’ minds. Hitomi continued to study them, noting how the boy fussed over the girl, how exhausted they both looked. They seemed well prepared for a trek through the forest, at least. Their packs looked full and they were dressed in plain but warm clothes. She also noticed the charmed items they had in their possession. If they had run away, it wasn’t on the spur of the moment.

Then Isabelle’s body, pressed against her left side, tensed and she turned her attention to her dear friend. "Belle? Everything all right?"

Isabelle was quiet for another minute, her eyes closing in what seemed to be pain for a few seconds before she shifted further back from the small clearing. Hitomi and Jared shared a look before following her, suddenly not too sure the children were as innocent as they seemed. Perhaps Jared wouldn’t be hungry for much longer.

Once they were far enough back that the children shouldn’t be able to hear them, they stopped and waited for Isabelle’s explanation. She took a deep, shuddering breath before running shaky hands through her hair.

"Belle, spit it out before I bury those kids up to their noses in the ground, all right?" Hitomi snapped, not liking how unsettled her usually unflappable friend appeared. Beside her, Jared growled as he stepped forward to enfold Isabelle into a hug.

The embrace seemed to calm Isabelle down and, after a few seconds, she patted Jared’s back and pulled away. "Thanks. The children aren’t at fault," she explained as she looked over at Hitomi. "They just… unearthed some painful memories," she finished in a quiet voice.

Hitomi nodded as she reached out to stroke her hand down Isabelle’s arm. No more needed to be explained; they all had painful memories that would flare to life from time to time. "What are they doing here, Belle?"

Isabelle glanced around before she headed over to a fallen log and sat down. Her hands, clasped together, settled in her lap and her upper body seemed to fold in over them. Hitomi and Jared instantly flanked her, offering support and comfort through close contact.

"They’re running away," she explained, a hint of pain in her lovely voice. "They’re from one of those farming families in the upper valleys."

"Not exactly the type to wander from home, then, though I can understand why they’d want to leave." Jared placed one of his large, calloused hands on top of Isabelle’s, and it was instantly enfolded by both of hers. "Obviously they’re making their way down the mountain."

"Yes." Isabelle smiled briefly and straightened up a little. "The girl’s father died recently. As a deathbed confession, he told her that her mother… was a bound." Hitomi’s right hand instantly reached out to touch her friend’s long, light brown hair, to stroke her fingers through it in an effort to soothe. "Unfortunately, he didn’t realize that someone else besides his daughter was present and, as soon as he died, that person rushed to tell the family the truth." Anger mixed with the pain in Isabelle’s voice. "The family, ashamed of the taint in their bloodline, decided to send the girl away before anyone found out the truth. I picked that up from the boy, who is her cousin. He wanted to get her away from the family before they…."

Not needing to hear anything more, Hitomi bent her head to rest on Isabelle’s shoulder. "We can figure out the rest, Belle." Painful memories of her own surfaced, buried though they’d been these past years in the presence of her own kind. The look of horror on her brother’s face when he’d stumbled upon her using her powers to till the earth…. She shook her head to dispel the image. "So they’re off and running, are they?"

Sniffing back tears, Isabelle nodded. "To the capital. The boy believes that a relative visiting there will help them. Seems he’s a bit of an outcast as well."

"Is she a bound?" Jared asked, voice uncharacteristically serious. "I don’t smell anything from her but that doesn’t mean much."

"No, I don’t think so." His hand still held by one of hers, Isabelle raised them to her nose and dabbed it with the back of her hand. "She’s just old enough that her demon nature would be manifesting now, but I’m not picking up any of the usual signs."

So, the poor child would be ostracized for bound blood without any of the benefits. Hitomi sighed and shifted closer to her friends. "They’ve a fair distance to go, and I imagine that they won’t be sticking to the woods once they get down to the foothills." While the Guards did a good job of watching the roads, two children alone would attract trouble. "We’ll have to send out the word to keep an eye on them. Did you pick up a name, Belle?"

"Siobhan, a fire elemental. She left too long ago for me to get a clear image from either of their minds," Isabelle explained. Hitomi didn’t recognize the name nor did Jared, judging from his silence. But Tomio or Cleo might. "The children are Emily and Maddox."

"Have you told the others?"

Isabelle nodded. "Yes, and none of them know of any fire elementals by that name." Hitomi wasn’t too surprised by the news but a little disappointed. "Cleo and Taku will leave in the morning for Avonshire. I’ve told them that we’ll follow the children until they leave the forest." Isabelle managed a smile and what appeared to be a knowing look as she glanced at Hitomi. "Tomio will be by in a bit with some supplies for us and hopes that you don’t mind if he and Gretchen head uphill to make sure no one’s following the children."

As fond as she was of Jared and Isabelle, she would rather be with her lover. But he and Gretchen would be better at handling any irate humans intent on dragging the runaways back home while she would use her abilities to ease the children’s travel. So she just shook her head while mentally sending her lover a request that he didn’t pack her good cloak to be ruined by sleeping on the ground and that he include some peppermint tea in the supplies.

Their mental exchange was cut a little short when Jared lumbered onto his feet, wide mouth set into a grim line framed by his neat beard. "Wait a second, why are we all scattering to the winds because of these kids? I agree that we need to make sure they’re not followed and that they reach the road safely, but *I* didn’t sign on to baby-sit for the next week or two!"

She and Isabelle were on their feet instantly, teeth bared and growls building in their throats as they closed in on their friend. Even though she was stronger, she gave ground to Isabelle on the matter. This was something she wasn’t so personally involved in.

Jared was taken aback when normally sweet, calm Belle snapped at his throat; he flinched and whimpered in face of the attack. "We’re doing this, Jared," she snarled, not allowing him to disagree with the plans. "We’re going to watch over those two until they’re out of our forest and beyond if no one else takes them up. You’re going to keep any predators away and help them hunt if I have to tear off strips of your hide, do you hear me?"

Appearing pole-axed, Jared whimpered again and backed up a step. "What the hell has gotten into you, Belle? I know the girl has bound blood but we have lives of our own. You and Hitomi can watch over them just fine; there’s no need to drag all of us into this. Who’s going to keep an eye out for thieves and poachers, huh?"

Hitomi closed in, furious at his stupid, *male* concerns. "Everyone else has agreed, Jared," she reminded. Just because he was young, it didn’t excuse his stupidity this time.

"But… but why?" he asked, confusion plain in his voice and demeanor. "I’m not saying to abandon them but we have our own lives."

Isabelle snarled like an enraged wildcat and actually swiped her hand at Jared, a blow he barely avoided. "Because she’s some bound’s daughter, you moron." As she stepped closer, her hand raised once again, he finally bowed his head and whined in submission.

A little worried with how her friend wouldn’t stop snarling at and crowding Jared even after he’d given in, Hitomi carefully reached out to squeeze Isabelle’s shoulder. "Belle, calm down. The children can probably hear you carrying on like that."

The words acted like a splash of cold water and helped Isabelle return to normal. "The- I better go check on them," she said as she hurried back to the clearing, her voice a little rough from all the snarling.

His hand rubbing his throat, Jared cautiously stepped closer to Hitomi. "Don’t yell at me anymore, but… what was that about? What did I miss for you two to act like that?"

So young – it was hard some times to remember that Jared had stumbled upon them not long after leaving his family. She took a deep breath to help put her demon nature to rest. "You jackass, why can’t you think for once?" she asked softly, no real malice in her words but a touch of pain. "Think about the girl."

He frowned as his hand fell back to his side. "I didn’t mean we were to abandon her, honestly. I just don’t see why all of us have to rush around because of her. You and Isabelle or Tomio can watch after the kids just fine."

She slowly realized that maybe he didn’t know. Jared had only been with them for a few years. "The girl - she’s the daughter of a bound," she tried to explain while hoping that Isabelle wouldn’t mind her telling what appeared to be a secret. "A bound who left her while she was young."

The way that Jared’s jaw tightened beneath his dark beard hinted that she’d touched upon something painful. "I caught that part. You know that’s pretty common when one of us takes up with a human." Considering how rough his voice was and the hurt in his eyes, maybe he was more familiar with the practice than she’d assumed.

"Yes, we all know to leave for the child’s sake, no matter how much it hurts to leave that child behind." She paused for a moment while she looked him in the eye. "Isabelle knows that *very* well. So does Taku." She felt so sorry for her friends’ suffering and hoped that this helped them a little.

Jared appeared so utterly flabbergasted at the news that she might have been amused if the topic wasn’t so painful. "I... I heard Taku hint about being married before but…." His expression was one of sorrow and remorse. "I didn’t know that about Belle. I’m so sorry, Hitomi."

"Don’t apologize to me," she said, voice a little rougher than she’d intended. After all, if not for the gods’ wills, she might have had to leave a child behind herself. A little sorry over how guilty Jared appeared about something he hadn’t known, she sighed and gave him a hug. "I wasn’t sure if you knew or not. Now that you do, stop being an ass and help us, all right?" To be perfectly honest, none of them had a choice in this, not since Isabelle found out about the girl’s mother. Not that any of them but Jared minded, however. But then he hadn’t known about Isabelle’s sacrifice.

He sighed and hugged her back. "They had to run away now, didn’t they? During prime hunting and poaching season." There was another sigh, this one melodramatic enough to let her know he wasn’t serious. "And I so wanted to pack on the pounds for winter."

She laughed as she gave his short beard a tug. "Cheer up, maybe we’ll come across a few poachers on our way down. We wouldn’t want to chance them hurting the children now, would we?"

That seemed to restore Jared’s good mood. "True, and thieves as well." He smiled as they slowly followed Isabelle’s path. "Once we reach the foothills, I can always run into town and stock up on a few things, too. And no, I won’t eat the villagers so don’t even start with that lecture again."

She had to smile at the old joke as she thought about his offer. Not a bad idea, all in all, even though she’d remain in the woods while he shopped. "I think Isabelle and I can come up with a list or two by then." They could always use some white flour and sugar, and a few other things they couldn’t harvest from the mountain or make themselves. Such as the aftershave that Tomio preferred and she rather enjoyed.

Catching up to their friend, Hitomi felt a little of her enjoyment fade when she noticed the wistful expression on Isabelle’s face. She must be thinking of the child she’d left behind so many years ago. Resolve filled Hitomi, even in the face of having to camp out in the woods for several days instead of enjoying the large cabin where they all lived together. They’d do what they could for this child and her cousin, would see them safe through their territory and into the hands of other bounds. Siobhan had sacrificed for this Emily, and they’d honor her pain. The day might come when one of their children might be in similar straits. As bounds, all they really had to rely on were each other and she wasn’t about to fail in that obligation.

*******

Sitting in the inn’s crowded main room, Emmie tried to not be too obvious in her staring. The farther they got from the Umeko Mountains, the more people they saw gathered together – and they were still at least a week’s worth of travel away from the capital. There was a small chill of fear when she thought about how crowded the city would be, not to mention loud. Right now the din of the full room gave her a headache but no one else seemed bothered. She hoped that Maddox finished with his bath soon and joined her down here. Too bad she couldn’t have waited in the room after her own bath, but there hadn’t even been a screen for privacy in the small room. Oh well, at least they’d been able to bathe in hot water and wouldn’t have to sleep on the ground tonight. She was so happy to be clean for the first time in two days.

Her hands itched to push back the wool cap covering her damp hair but she didn’t want Maddox to find out and give her another lecture about safety. She didn’t really think they were fooling many people into believing that she was a boy but carried on with the act when they were in public. All this pretending made her long for the time they spent traveling down the mountain, just the two of them. Even though it had been scary to walk through the wilderness for days on end, it had been nice to be herself.

At least they were headed to the capital much faster than they’d planned, thanks to people like Timothy, she thought as she glanced at her dark-haired friend. She was getting tired of the constant walking and being covered in dust and sleeping outside so she always pushed Maddox to accept the generous offers they received to ride in the backs of wagons or carts. Her cousin hadn’t wanted to at first, but none of the strangers offering the rides had tried to hurt or rob them. Personally, she thought that Maddox was just being overprotective. Why would anyone want to hurt them?

She’d just slid two fingers underneath the cap to scratch her itching scalp when her cousin returned from their room. "Stop that," he hissed as he sat down at the table beside her. His own hair was still wet from a bath and slicked back from his face. He obviously hadn’t wasted any time washing off, probably because he worried about her being down here in the inn’s main room even though their new friend Timothy had promised to watch out for her. She was beginning to hate the way Maddox treated her, as if she was a little baby. She was eleven years old and not that much younger than him.

"I’m not taking it off," she grumbled as she made her right hand fall back down to her side. "I’m not dumb, you know."

Maddox sighed like an old man as he rested both arms on the table. "I know, Eddie." She wrinkled her nose slightly as he said her ‘boy’ name. "But you draw attention to it the more you play with the hat," he explained in a quiet voice.

Why did he always have to be right? That got on her nerves after a while, and it made it hard to argue with him when he could point out how few times he’d been wrong in the last few weeks. She felt like sighing herself, but when he gave her a brief hug before looking up at the waitress delivering food to their table, some of her annoyance faded away. Maddox was just watching out her. She didn’t know how he could always remain so calm and think things through when they were so far from home, away from everything they knew.

"Here you go, sweeties. I’ll be back in a few minutes with the main course so save some room," the waitress informed them as she set down three bowls of soup and a basket of bread. She smiled before brushing back her dyed red hair and continued on her way, a few more bowls still left on her tray. Emmie watched her go and thought about how Jody would love to know how to dye her hair that color. Then the memory of how Jody betrayed her returned and she frowned down at her soup as anger and hurt washed through her.

"Ah, dinner, finally. I’m starved," Timothy told them as he returned from the end of the table where he’d been talking to some stranger. He was smiling when she looked up, his handsome was face a lot cleaner than it had been this afternoon, when they arrived at the inn. All of them had spent some time cleaning up before dinner.

Maddox blew on his soup in an effort to cool it. "Do they offer a lot for the price?" he asked before eating, and appeared pleasantly surprised. Emmie could understand how he felt; the vegetable soup was delicious even if it was very hot.

"Eriko’s inn has a well-earned reputation for lots of good food and beer," Timothy explained as he buttered a small roll. "Which makes up for the tiny rooms and the lumpy mattresses." He grinned as he looked in the direction of the inn’s owner, a short woman with waist-length black hair who had just sat down at a crowded table. "You two won’t starve while you’re here."

"That’s good to know," Maddox answered as he grabbed some bread for the both of them – too much for them to eat, in fact. He’d probably tuck the spare bread into his tunic during the meal. Emmie rolled her eyes at yet another display of her cousin’s cheap nature. While she understood that they needed to have some money left over for when they reached the capital, she thought he worried too much.

"Dinner and breakfast are included in the cost of the room." Timothy waved at their cups of water. "If you think you didn’t pay enough, that’s because Eriko didn’t charge you for any alcohol."

The explanation seemed to put Maddox at ease and all three of them were quiet as they finished off their soup. The waitress returned just when it seemed they’d scraped the bowls empty and dropped off clean plates and a huge platter covered with roasted pork and vegetables. She didn’t even bat an eye when she noticed the empty breadbasket, just told them she’d be back with more and another beer for Timothy.

The pork was as delicious as the soup, the potatoes, carrots and even the brussel sprouts tasted good. Emmie thought about how they’d probably be eating stale bread and whatever they could buy from some cheap roadside stand tomorrow and piled a little more meat onto her plate. There was a sudden wave of homesickness at the thought, a deep longing for the wonderful dinners her Aunt Tricia would make for her and her father all the time, for the big family gatherings with all the food and treats.

Timothy grabbed his fresh pint of beer and had a few swallows before he set it down, a frown on his face. "The two of you are heading on tomorrow morning, correct?"

The question helped to shake her free from the depressing emotions, and she turned to see how Maddox would answer the man. He didn’t often reveal their travel plans to anyone, other than the direction they were headed.

Maddox set his fork down and picked up a slice of buttered bread to wipe up some of the juice on his plate. He didn’t look up as he answered their new friend. "Yes."

"Going to the capital, aren’t you." When Maddox suddenly looked up, a wary expression on his face, Timothy grunted softly as he waved his right hand. "A lucky guess, you know. Most of the people here are on their way there. A lot of caravans will start arriving in the city soon so everyone wants to be there to see what they bring back. I’ll be headed there myself after I drop off the wool in Sado and pick up the finished goods." He was quiet for a moment as he seemed to consider something. "You’re more than welcome to tag along with me until then."

She didn’t wait for Maddox to reply, not when there was an offer that would save them all that walking and dust. "Thank you!" she cried out, and forgot to pitch her voice a little deeper than usual. Her cousin smacked his elbow into her side and gave her a brief dirty look before he shook his head.

"We don’t want to bother you, and we can’t pay-"

Timothy cut off the idiot. "Don’t worry about paying me; I’m already earning enough money transporting the wool. You two don’t weigh much so it’s not much more work for the horses, and I enjoy the company." He sighed before he sipped his beer. "You kids are free to do what you like, but I thought you’d appreciate not having to walk for the next week or two. Sado’s not too far from the capital; you can get there in just a day’s journey by foot, half a day by cart."

Maddox didn’t seem to appreciate the ‘kids’ comment, but not even he could be paranoid enough to turn down such a generous offer, she thought. Besides, they couldn’t be sure that they’d come across someone else friendly and nice enough to give them a free ride during the next few days. She didn’t want to be stuck walking the rest of the way so it was her turn to knock her elbow into her cousin’s ribs. She got a glare for the blow but Maddox’s expression softened when he noticed her pleading look.

"Well… if you don’t mind the company, we’ll gladly tag along. We can help you with the horses, at the least."

"I won’t turn down the help," Timothy said with a smile. "Besides, it’ll be a little cheaper to stay at inns if we book two rooms. Not much of a group discount, but I won’t complain about saving a little extra money."

Maddox relaxed then and picked up his fork. "I guess that makes sense."

She had to squash the urge to snort loudly. Why wasn’t she surprised that his fears would be laid to rest by the simple explanation that Timothy wanted them to travel together to save a little money? Maddox really was turning into a miser. She felt a little sad as she thought about various ways her dad would have teased her cousin if he’d been here. She missed him so much.

As Maddox and Timothy talked about traveling, she ate her dinner with a subdued appetite. Sometimes she was able to forget all about the reasons she and Maddox were on the road, but sooner or later she’d remember again. The pain of being cast out by her family still paled to the loss of her father. Several times a day she wished he could be with her and Maddox as they traveled. Her father had left the mountains for a few years when he was younger, only to return when he wanted to start a family. The thought of how he’d brought her mother back made Emmie glare at a potato and jab it with her fork. That woman was to blame for so much pain, and she was probably off somewhere having a fun time.

The sound of laughter broke through her misery and anger. She looked over at the crowded table where the inn’s owner sat, the source of the noise. The people there appeared to be having a good time, were laughing and knocking their drinks together over something. As she watched, the owner nudged her left shoulder into that of the pretty woman sitting beside her. When the woman turned to look at her, she brushed back the woman’s shoulder-length brown hair and then leaned in for a kiss.

Emmie wasn’t a child; she’d seen people kiss before, even two women. Her cousins and aunts did it all the time. But those had been short, affectionate little pecks, not a long, leisurely kiss that made her cheeks heat up and the fork slide out of her hand. Women weren’t supposed to kiss each other like that. "Maddie…."

"What, *Eddie*," he snapped as he stopped talking to Timothy. When he turned to look in the direction she was pointing, she heard an audible gulp. "Uhm…."

Timothy shifted in his seat to see what they were staring at. "I see Eriko is still dating Rena." He shrugged his shoulders as he picked up his drink. "That makes it… gods, I’m terrible at remembering time. I must be getting old." When they didn’t say anything, he chuckled and set his drink back down. "All right, I figured you two were Easterners because of the accent, but I take it you’re from further East than I thought." His smile faded when they looked at him. "A bit of advice from someone who’s spent most of his life traveling. Things aren’t always like they are at home. What’s acceptable there might not be somewhere else, and vice versa. I’m taking it that where you’re from, either no one was big on public displays of affection, or the women dated men and not each other."

Maddox slowly nodded. "Yeah. The… well, people believe that you’re supposed to get married and have kids, not just fool around." A slight blush spread across his cheeks. "I mean, I know other people think differently, but…." He looked over at the table again. "This is the first time I’ve seen two women…."

Emmie was barely able to look away for more than a few seconds before her attention wandered back there. No one around the women was reacting to them, other than to smile and laugh. If her uncles had been here, they’d be yelling at the women. She recalled the one time two of her cousins were supposedly caught together, how the two young women were immediately married off and sent to farms far apart.

"If you’re headed to the capital, you better get used to it, then." Timothy leaned back in his chair and waved at the waitress. "A lot of people from backgrounds like yours head to the big cities where same sex relations are usually accepted. If anyone has a problem with that there, they tend to keep their mouths shut rather than risk offending someone who might outrank them."

"So I hear," Maddox replied in a quiet voice. He looked one more time at the other table before he picked up his glass of water. "Eddie, stop staring." He had to repeat the order before she responded to her false name.

"I wasn’t staring," she grumbled as she picked up her fork. "Do they really get away with that in cities?" she asked Timothy.

"Yes." He was quiet as the waitress arrived with a new pint of beer, and for a few seconds afterward. "I’m guessing that where you’re from, land is an important issue. That’s not the case in cities, where people who are lucky enough to have any land don’t own more than a house and some room for a small garden, if even that. So most people aren’t concerned about passing on the property, just about making a living and being happy. And, if they’re happy living with someone of the same gender, few people really care." He gave them a serious look. "You two have someplace to go, don’t you? Cities can be pretty confusing if you aren’t used to them, and the capital’s the worst."

"We’re meeting some family there," Maddox quickly explained. "We’ll be fine."

Timothy didn’t look very convinced, but he just shook his head and drank his beer. Emmie had to wonder what a big city was like after his little speech. Sneaking a glance at the two women, she hoped that things would be fine as they waited for Uncle Glenn to arrive. While there was nothing really *bad* about two women acting like that, she was now very aware that things wouldn’t be like they were back home. Now, she began to worry about what would happen once they reached the capital.

Maddox must have somehow sensed her worries because he draped an arm over her shoulders and gave her a quick hug. As he cautiously asked Timothy some questions about the capital, she finished her dinner. She didn’t stop worrying about what would happen to them there until the waitress returned with their desserts. Then Emmie felt grumpy and cheated as she looked at the apple and blackberry cobbler. She *hated* apples, and now she had to sit here while Maddox ate both his dessert and hers. That wasn’t fair. Of course he just smiled when she mumbled about that fact, which earned him a kicked shin.

*******

As the rising sun sent a pale glow through the east-facing window’s curtains and the faint sound of voices drifted up from the Koneko’s main room, Yohji debated whether or not he should go back to sleep. Lying in bed, he stroked his fingers through Aya’s silky, ragged hair and smiled. Right this moment he felt so utterly content that he wanted to shout to let the world know about his happiness, but Aya would kill him for creating a ruckus. Laughing softly at the image of his lover kicking him out of bed, he reluctantly pulled his hand back. No, he’d let Aya sleep a little longer and find a more enjoyable way of waking up his cat when the time came.

A quick glance at the clock assured him that, in a few more minutes the Koneko’s breakfast crowd should pretty much be finished, which meant that he wouldn’t bother to go back to sleep as he could soon head down to the kitchen for some food. Aya was still bonelessly asleep, but he was certain his lover would appreciate a nice, large breakfast when he woke up. They both could use something to eat as they had to skip dinner last night because of work. At least he’d fed before they fell asleep, otherwise he would have already left their bed in search of food.

But right now he was enjoying the rather splendid feeling of lying in his nice, soft, warm bed with the man he loved snuggled against him and the knowledge that they could do this all day long. Well, outside of taking care of a few necessities, such as food and drink. After having made plans over the last week for their rare day off, he’d stocked up on almond cookies and there were three bottles of wine chilling on the window ledge. All they’d have to leave the room for was some food and maybe a nice soak in the hot spring during the evening. They planned to enjoy the time off to the fullest because they’d be back to work soon enough.

Brushing aside Aya’s bangs, he leaned forward to press a kiss against his lover’s forehead and then slowly started to slide out of the bed. Aya moaned as he pulled away, a soft, unhappy sound that faded as he caressed his lover’s cheek. "I’ll be back," Yohji said quietly, continuing to touch Aya until he fell back to sleep.

His mate quiet once more, Yohji stepped away from the bed, his body shivering as he parted the curtains. Autumn was settling in with a vengeance, the nights colder than they’d been around this time the last few years. Rubbing his hands up and down his arms, he looked around for his robe. Seeing it in a crumpled pile on the floor, he snatched it up and pulled it on, shivering some more as the cool fabric settled on his skin. Then he hurried over to the fireplace to throw in some more wood, remaining huddled in front of it for a couple of minutes until he felt a little warmer.

After relieving his bladder, he brushed his teeth and washed off so he would be presentable enough for a quick stop in the kitchen. He didn’t bother to dress, just tied the robe’s belt a little tighter and stepped into his slippers. Closing the door behind him carefully so it didn’t disturb Aya, he was on his way.

Thankfully, his room was near the back stairwell so he didn’t run into anyone who might want to stop and chat. He wasn’t in a very sociable mood right now; he just wanted to get some breakfast and a pot of tea and then retreat back to his room. Really, he wasn’t asking for much.

Strolling into the kitchen, he smiled at Jo and Touya, both busy washing the dishes from breakfast. "Good morning."

Jo snorted as she stepped away from the sink, her arms covered with soapsuds. "You’ve only about another half an hour before that greeting’s inappropriate. What time did you get in last night?" she asked as she wiped her arms dry with her pale yellow apron.

"Real late. Sometime after three o’clock, in fact." Yohji tousled Touya’s hair before snatching up a just washed mug for some coffee. "Make that closer to four." For a moment he felt exhausted, shoulders sagging as he remembered how tired he and Aya had been last night. If his hunger hadn’t been so damned insistent, they’d have gone right to sleep but the mission had kept them occupied for most of the day.

"You’ve finished up that job for Birman, I hope." Jo’s voice contained a hint of anger as she stared at him, arms folded over her chest in what the Koneko staff considered her favorite ‘battle position’.

Taking a sip of the delicious coffee, Yohji smiled in appreciation as he made his way over to the table – safely out of Jo’s reach. "Yeah, we’re done. That’s why we were out so late last night." The Koneko’s staff had been in bed by the time they’d come home, and they’d been careful not to wake anyone up.

Jo continued to stare for a few more seconds before heading over to the stove. "Is she really serious about giving you some time off? You’re still owed over two weeks for going to Timbergrey, by my calculations." She sounded still upset that various missions had cut his and Aya’s vacation time short. "Touya, hand me two of those bowls." As Touya did as he was told, she glanced over her shoulder. "Well?"

Unable to speak since his mouth was occupied with yawning, Yohji managed to nod his head in response; then swallowed some more wonderful coffee before he tried to talk. "Yeah, we have a few days off this time." At least where spying for the Crown was concerned. "How’s the schedule here for the next week?" he asked, hoping that there was enough part-time staff working so he and Aya could take a few days off from the Koneko as well.

Busy ladling what smelled to be porridge with cinnamon into the bowls, Jo seemed to think about his question. "We’ll need you to do some serving a couple of afternoons and to watch the front door tomorrow. Oh, and Ichiro wants you to help him in the stables so he can add a couple more stalls. I’d appreciate it if Aya could handle the morning baking a time or two as well." Bowls full, she set them aside before reaching for a large tray. "The new staff is helping out but we still have a few gaps in the schedule."

"At least we’re able to take some time off now," Touya said as he finished up with the dishes. "I like being able to have a couple of days a week free once again." As the water drained down the sink he joined Yohji at the table and flopped down on the bench as if he were exhausted. "Too bad there aren’t many festivals right now for you and Aya to enjoy."

Yohji finished off his coffee and set the empty mug on the table, hands wrapped around it for its fading warmth. "True, but if there were, we’d be too busy handling all the customers to have much fun. We can wait the couple of weeks until Kisei’s Night." After the official end to the harvest season there would be many late autumn festivals, enough so that even with the Koneko being swamped with customers and Birman acting like a slave driver, he and Aya should be able to partake of a few.

Getting up for some more coffee, he examined the tray he assumed Jo was putting together for him and his mate - porridge, bacon and egg omelets, toast, apple cobbler and a pot of tea. "That looks great, Jo." He gave her a hug before refilling his mug. "Are there any rolls left?"

"I swear, between you and Ken, I keep expecting to find the pantry completely bare one day." Jo chuckled as she grabbed a small basket and pulled back the cloth napkin covering its contents. "Two cinnamon rolls and some cranberry scones. I’ll have you know that you and Aya should be as fat as Hob Falstaff by now with all the sweets you eat." She set the basket on the rather full tray before pouring hot water into the teapot.

"Gluttons we might be, but we’re rarely given a chance to be lazy as well so we burn it all off." He sighed in appreciation for the coffee and wished there was room on the tray to take a pot of that as well. "Besides, you’re pretty skinny yourself, Jo." He dared to pat the cook on her bottom, quickly pulling back his hand before he was hit.

Jo glared at him for his audacity before shaking her head in amusement. "I’m skinny because I spend all day cooking. Now stop acting like a flirt before Aya shows up and gives you another bite," she cautioned, lips curving in a smile. "Even if it is pretty funny to see him do that, you complain too much for me to enjoy it."

"Thanks, Jo," he sniffed, then did some glaring of his own at a laughing Touya. "I think, for being so mean, you should bring up some lunch for us later."

Jo shook her head again as she rolled down the sleeves of her blouse. "How did I know you’d find some way to get lunch delivered?" She held her hand up to prevent him from answering. "All right, I’ll bring a tray, if only to make sure Aya gets something to eat." A frown slowly spread across her face. "Just make sure to leave him some energy so he *can* eat."

Picking up the tray, mindful of how overloaded it was, he sighed in exasperation. "I haven’t drained him dry in weeks, I’ll have you know, and that one time was deliberate. He’s no fun to play with when he’s unconscious." He couldn’t help but leer as he thought of all the things he could do with an Aya who was awake. "He’ll be fine."

"Sure he will." Jo didn’t sound very convinced as she held the door leading to the back stairwell open for him. "Keep in mind that I’ll need him up early the day after tomorrow."

"Ah, you always have to spoil my fun, don’t you?" he asked Jo, giving her a wink as he left the kitchen. As much as he preferred being able to sleep in with his lover, he knew that Aya would actually enjoy getting up early to do some baking and cooking. Aya insisted on doing his share of work and, since he rarely waited on tables due to his dislike of strangers, he was happier helping Jo in the kitchen.

Making his way upstairs, Yohji looked up and down the hallway before maneuvering his hand as close to the doorknob as he could. Then he concentrated on it unlocking and turning for him, smiling with pleasure when the shadows obeyed his will. He couldn’t get the things to do much more than that but he was very grateful for the talent. Thinking of what Schu could do if he’d been born a kage and not a soul gaki-bound, he couldn’t quite suppress a shiver of horror. Either nothing would be safe from the man, or his friend would have ended up beheaded and burned years ago for using his talent so much.

He pressed the door closed with his foot before crossing the room and set the tray down on the nearest nightstand. Sensing that Aya was still asleep, he kicked off his slippers and got rid of the robe. Then he carefully parted the bed’s curtains, lifted the bedding and slid beneath them. He spooned against Aya’s back, delighting in the feel of his lover’s skin against his. Aya was so warm and very nice to cuddle against on a cold morning.

Of course his hunger wasn’t satisfied with just cuddling. Smiling in anticipation of the feast to come, Yohji snaked his arm around Aya’s waist and gently rubbed his hand up and down Aya’s stomach. When his mate moaned softly and pressed back against him, he moved the strokes downward, skimming his hand along Aya’s thighs. As he did this, he rocked his hips against Aya’s ass, his hardening cock rubbing along the cleft. Careful not to push too far just yet, he kept his motions gentle, slowly arousing his lover’s body while the man continued to sleep.

Letting his fingers brush against Aya’s tumescent cock a few times, he finally wrapped them around it and pumped, the strokes languid yet firm. Unable to resist, he began to kiss along Aya’s back and neck, pausing here and there to suck for a few seconds, all the while still grinding against his lover. He could feel Aya slowly start to awaken from the pleasure, could feel an echo of his own love and hunger. His movements gradually became more ardent as he began to suck on the spot just below Aya’s right ear.

"Yohji," his lover mumbled, still sounding half-asleep. But Aya’s body was now awake, was hot and hard in his hand, was rocking back against him. He couldn’t help but moan in pleasure, his body thrumming with passion and slowly being filled with burning sunlight. His left hand tangled in Aya’s hair and gently but insistently urged his lover’s head back. Moaning again as Aya arched his neck, he planted kisses along the pale skin before scraping his teeth along it very lightly.

There was a short gasp from Aya as his hand reached back to grab ahold of Yohji’s hip, fingers digging into his flesh. Yohji murmured his mate’s name as his hand stroked faster, sliding along now slick flesh. He tasted the salt forming on Aya’s skin, felt Aya’s body slide against his, the flex of muscles and teasing touches of silky hair. Part of him longed to sheathe his cock in his lover’s beautiful, delicious body but this felt so good, feeding him just as well so that he ignored the urge. Besides, with Aya clenching his ass around his cock like that, he didn’t think he could last long enough to get them both ready. His hand pumped faster, making the sunlight rush into him and causing Aya to moan so deeply and passionately that he shivered in response. Licking his lover’s neck, he stopped at the especially sensitive part right below Aya’s ear and sucked hard, muffling a groan at the way Aya shuddered in pleasure.

In response to that, Aya moaned again, his wonderful, tight ass rubbing so hard against Yohji that he lost it. The ecstasy and sunlight overwhelmed him and he cried out Aya’s name as he came. The feeling of so much energy and pleasure was heaven, was so strong that it was almost painful but he hoped it never ended. He held his lover tightly against him as he shuddered from the slowly fading rush, his hand still moved on Aya’s cock as best as he could manage. Just a few more strokes and it was Aya’s turn to choke out his name and shiver in bliss.

Body delightfully languid and hunger sated, he deeply breathed in air scented by their sweat and release. Nuzzling the slightly damp hair at the back of Aya’s neck, he sighed in happiness and held onto his lover. He just wanted to enjoy the feel of Aya in his arms like this, sleepy and very much pleased. "Good morning, love," he murmured right below Aya’s ear.

"Mmmm." Aya wiggled against him. "Sticky now. Your fault." He sounded sleepy but mostly amused.

Yohji laughed as he skimmed a palm down along Aya’s damp stomach. "Nothing a nice, long soak after breakfast won’t cure." He could smell the food now, a delightful aroma that made his stomach rumble but he was too content to move right away. His hunger must have been worse than he’d thought for it to overtake him so quickly. Birman had been working them too hard again, just as she had ever since returning from Timbergrey, dammit. So much so that it was affecting his nature. At least they’d have a break over the next few days, he thought with some relief as he continued to stroke Aya’s stomach.

As happy as he was to just lie there, Aya wasn’t able to remain still much longer. With a mumbled apology, Aya slid out of his arms and left the bed. Yohji felt a flash of anger and sadness as he lay there and listened to Aya wash himself. Still a few scars left to heal, he thought rather sadly before getting up to join his lover. Aya would be more comfortable if they both didn’t smell of their release, and right now Yohji wanted his lover to be very comfortable. They deserved a day as free from pain as they could make it.

At least Aya looked up and smiled in thanks for the help in washing off his back, and once he was done rinsing off, he stepped toward Yohji, his arm encircling Yohji’s waist for a moment as his cheek rubbed against Yohji’s shoulder. "You were starving," he said quietly before pulling away to search for his robe.

"Yeah, sorry about that." Yohji shrugged as he quickly washed off. "I didn’t even realize how bad it was until I was touching you." He didn’t bother with his robe when he returned to bed, just pushed open the curtains enough so they could easily reach the nightstand and curled up on top of the blankets. There was a sharp flare of hunger as he breathed in deeply of the air scented by their lovemaking, a signal that he’d pushed his talent too far these last couple of days and hadn’t fed enough in return. He began to laugh as he realized something.

"What’s so funny?" Aya asked as he curled up beside Yohji and reached over to pour himself some tea.

Unable to resist, Yohji trailed his fingers through his lover’s eartails, first the left and then the right to straighten out the tangled hair. "Just the fact that I can cite health reasons the next time Birman gives us a mission like this last one." At Aya’s perplexed look, he carefully nuzzled his mate’s neck, mindful of the cup of tea in Aya’s hand. "We need to be able to spend more time ‘together’ or else I’m not going to be much use to her."

"Ah." Aya sipped his tea. "I won’t complain," he said, a slight purr to his voice.

"I hope not," Yohji remarked with a wink as he handed over a cinnamon roll. "I’d hate to starve to death while playing all by myself."

There was an amused snort from Aya before he took another bite of his treat. Yohji smiled in return as he carefully reached over for the bowls of porridge. His demon appetite satisfied for now, it was time to concentrate on appeasing his human one. Handing Aya one of the bowls, he settled back against the headboard and ate. Once he started eating, he didn’t stop, not until his half of the food was gone. Aya also made quick work of the meal and then held out the last scone. "Here."

Yohji blinked at the offer. "Don’t you want it, Cat?" He knew how much Aya enjoyed sweets.

Aya made a small, hissing sound and waved the scone in front of him as he set his empty teacup aside. "I’m full – and *I’m* not the one who’s been ‘skipping meals’ lately."

Sensing his mate’s concern and annoyance, Yohji smiled as he accepted the pastry. "All right. I’ll make it up to you later with some almond cookies." He was pleased when Aya smiled and once more curled up beside him, head resting on his shoulder. The scone was delicious, sweet and tart from the cranberries – he made very short work of it. Burping softly, he rubbed his stomach with one hand as he snaked his other arm around Aya’s waist. "Jo’s gonna bring us up some lunch, later."

Aya grunted softly as his body continued to relax against Yohji’s. "That’s good. Did she say anything about us working?"

Slowly working his hand inside Aya’s robe, more for the feel of smooth, warm skin than anything else, Yohji groaned and closed his eyes. "She said she’d appreciate it if you would do the morning baking the day after tomorrow, and another time or two this week. I’ll watch the door tomorrow and pick up a few afternoon shifts, and Ichiro needs some help cleaning up the stables." Now that would be fun, working up a sweat and being covered in dust, straw and cobwebs. As much as he wanted to plead exhaustion, he knew that he owed it to his friends to help out as much as possible. They already let him and Aya have more time off than anyone else.

"Then I think I’ll work in the garden the next day or two. There are a few more things that need to be done before the weather gets too cold," Aya said, voice quiet but content. Of course he’d enjoy playing in the dirt, Yohji thought with a smile.

"Just be careful while you’re out in the sun, all right?" He had to sigh when Aya snapped his teeth, and wasn’t quite able to prevent a small flinch at the sound. His poor shoulder was scarred enough and they hadn’t even been mates for a year. As he thought with bemusement about how bad a shape his shoulder would end up in over the next few years, his right hand reached over to find one of Aya’s eartails. "I guess if you’ll be playing in the garden, I’ll help out Ichiro." So much for spending another rare day or two in bed, but it would be best to get the work done now before Birman interrupted their vacation yet again with ‘urgent business’. Fingers touching long strands of hair, he couldn’t resist giving the eartail a tug.

"Yohji," Aya growled as he suddenly straddled Yohji’s lap. "Keep your hands to yourself."

Yohji somehow managed to put an innocent expression on his face as his hands crept forward. "Now why would I do something like that? I thought you enjoyed my ‘wandering’ hands." The expression turned into a leer as his hands grasped Aya’s ass and gave it an appreciative squeeze. If only his lover wasn’t wearing a robe right now….

The look Aya gave him indicated that he better keep his hands still for a few minutes or risk losing them permanently. Oh well, at least they were resting somewhere nice and firm. He tried for the innocent look again, not an easy thing to do when Aya glared at him like that and looked about ready to start muttering ‘shi-ne’. "What?"

"You know ‘what’." Aya tangled his fingers in Yohji’s hair and gave it a warning tug. "Don’t start being overprotective again."

"Cat, some day you’ll have to accept the fact that you and sunlight are *not* friends," Yohji pointed out, mildly annoyed to have to fight about this yet again. "I’m sorry to inform you that - because of the fact that you turn bright red, become exhausted and sick and weak while you’re out in the sun - I’m gonna ‘coddle’ you whenever you ignore those facts to go play in the garden on a sunny day."

Aya’s glare became even more potent at that proclamation but he didn’t growl or snap his teeth – though Yohji swore he heard the old curse his lover was fond of muttered just then. "I have to go outside during the day to work in the garden; it would attract too much attention if I did it at night."

"I know," Yohji sighed, more than a little upset that this was a battle he could never really win. Aya couldn’t shun daylight without attracting unwelcome attention. "I’m just being concerned, not overprotective. I’m not telling you to stay inside."

The way Aya chewed on his bottom lip had Yohji’s hunger waking up and reminding him of the fact he really hadn’t ‘eaten’ as much as he should have the last few days.

"There’s not much else I can do around here, other than work in the kitchen or help clean up the rooms."

Yohji sighed again as his right hand left Aya’s delectable ass to brush back the shaggy bangs falling onto his lover’s face. "I know that." While he worried about Aya spending so much time in the sun, he preferred that to his lover waiting on tables. Aya’s looks were exotic enough that he drew lots of unwelcome attention, which often led to bad memories on his part and attempted homicide on Yohji’s. "Just be careful."

Aya’s glare softened into a look that was more annoyed than furious. "I always am, Yotan. And you should be careful yourself while you’re working."

Puzzling over the cryptic statement, Yohji frowned as he caressed his lover’s face. "What is that supposed to mean?"

At first Aya was quiet but when Yohji ran his fingers through his lover’s hair, Aya captured his hand and gave it a rather strong squeeze. "I’ve seen how the customers act around you." He looked as if he were ready to say something else but merely pressed his lips together and leaned back, away from Yohji.

Not wanting to lose his armful of Aya, Yohji quickly wrapped his arms around his mate’s waist and pulled him closer. "I swear, you need to come with some sort of code book or something. Are you talking about some of the customers trying to pick a fight with me?" There had been a few people who were upset with him beating some sense into anyone who gave Aya trouble but, on the whole, the Koneko’s customers were friendly.

Hissing softly, Aya stopped trying to pull away but just sat in Yohji’s lap, hair falling onto his face and masking his expression, hands resting in his lap. "I don’t think they want to *fight* with you."

Maybe it was the lack of sleep the last few days or just that he really hadn’t thought to spend their precious time off arguing, but Yohji finally got over his bout of stupidity and understood what Aya was trying to say. "Are you upset because some of them flirt with me? Cat, nothing’s gonna happen, I promise you that." He wanted to grin at this rather jealous display of his lover’s but didn’t think that would go over very well right now. Aya could become prickly as hell if he thought he was being teased and the last thing Yohji wanted on their day off was for his lover to be angry with him. "I don’t want or need *them*." He gave his mate a hug. "You’re the one I love." That was somewhat of a sappy declaration, but the utter truth nonetheless. He was a little discomforted by how Aya kept bringing this up over the last week or two, now that a lot of his old lovers returned to the capital before the weather turned cold. But they were mates, so sooner or later Aya’s fears should be put to rest.

Aya’s anger faded upon hearing those words and he looked up at Yohji, the bright emotions in his eyes were too muddled to make much sense. But they soon quieted into a mixture of love and concern.

There was a flash of disappointment when Aya didn’t say out loud that he loved Yohji in return, but that disappeared when he leaned forward for a kiss. As so often happened with the man, he much preferred action to words. The passion behind the kiss and the love pouring into Yohji quickly settled the sting of Aya’s silence. As long as Yohji could feel those emotions, he could put up with his mate’s quiet nature.

Gently wrapping his arms around his lover, he slowly rolled over until Aya was lying beneath him. With a great deal of regret he ended the kiss, but didn’t move his mouth more than a few millimeters away. "Hmmm, I’m not quite sure that I was very convincing just now. Guess there’s nothing left to do but *prove* how much I want and need you." He gave his lover a wicked grin as he rocked his hips forward. "I think the awesome dick will set you straight."

Aya groaned at the joke as his fingers threaded through Yohji’s hair. "You talk too damn much," he muttered as he yanked Yohji’s head forward for another kiss, this one even more passionate than the last.

There was something to be said about silence after all, was Yohji’s last coherent thought for quite an enjoyable while.

*******

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