Story Title: A Tale of Snowdrops
Disclaimer: Jin and Touya are Yuu Yuu Hakusho characters. The others are not. I may or may not own them. Probably not.
Author's Notes: I do hope I did okay with Jin's accent, well his whole tribe's, that is. He's a fun character to write, in any case. So was writing Touya too. I hope I did okay with both of them… Anyway, let's get some warnings done. This is a JinTouya yaoi and is also set in another world (a total AU). And there will be a lemon. Each chapter is set on one day, so this story will have only four chapters and each chapter will be super long. I hope the massive length of the chapters will not discourage readers.
Anyway, that's all for now. Thank you for reading.
9/10/15: I've decided to make a few edits to Jin's accent and basic grammar and punctuation edits. Nothing really new in terms of content, however.
Day One: In Which Spring and Winter Meet
Home, Jin's heart soared with yearning for his home. His ears, which even for his people were unusually slender and pointed, wiggled uncontrollably in the wake of his excitement of returning to the village as he and other young wind journeymen coursed the breeze to pull the Spring Tribe's supply carts briskly through the white mist that no wind can part. Though he could not see anything before him, thanks to the mists, Jin felt they were nearly home and trusted the Chief's word that as long as they walked no other direction than forward, they would reach the village.
The village was the only one in existence. The village lay beyond the mists and guarded by an enveloping forest. There were quaint cobblestone streets that went every whichy-way imaginable, big and little, as if the streets were made for and by the wind. There were humble, tipsy cedar bark houses with straw-thatch roofs. Over babbling, fishy rivers, there were arched wooden bridges. There were leafy trees and flowering trees. Everywhere there was something green or colorful growing in sight. The perfume of every copious flower and blossom waged war in the air for prevalence. The village in its full splendor was nothing less than beauty itself.
But what Jin enjoyed most was the sky, the big blue he often called it. Up in the clear sky, a friendly wind whipping around him, and the warm sun to his smooth back made the old trek across the mists worth taking. That or resting in the meadows, a breeze making the long grass flap against his strong body, a sweet hint of wildflowers in the air, and the occasional petal blossom flurrying past wasn't too bad a way to spend an afternoon either, especially on a full stomach.
The mists were funny about food. Nothing spoiled. Ever. Even things that should have a long time ago looked the same as it did when the Spring Tribe left the village. They had food and plenty of it, yes, but nothing had a taste. Nothing was worth eating, if anybody had the urge to eat, that is. Strangely, Jin, a fellow who loved putting down a good meal or two, rarely thought about food while in the mists. The whole tribe was like that. They only ate to remind themselves that they should, since not being able to enjoy taste or feel full killed any comfort eating once gave. Eating just became something else to pass the time. Jin wanted to taste again. He wanted the need to eat again.
With all the extra energy in his body making him feel like wriggling like a worm out of mud, he knew they were home. As the mist began to thin, Jin overheard the collective startled gasps of his tribe traveling ahead of him. Must be a-right sight this time 'round, Jin thought.
Until the cold hit him.
Jin clenched his eyes shut and muttered nonsense under his breath until the initial sting of the cold wind passed. The harsh, bright white landscape burned his sight at first but he soon recovered. Jin had never seen this white matter that curiously coated the ground and mounded in the bare tree branches but it simultaneously numbed and burned the soles of his thinly-protected feet like cold fire.
He wondered whether it was safe to go on while his tribe asked their chief the same question. The Chief of the Spring Tribe was impressive, even with his climbing age starting to erode his luster. Though he stood no taller than Jin, who passed into adulthood during the tribe's last stay in the village, it was not his size that gave the Chief his command. It was a bright look in his larkspur-colored eyes, an internal youthful wildness that had never worn down with maturity.
The Chief turned and spoke to the tribe. "No mistakin' the fear in ev'rybody's eyes, that I see well. A mite peculiar the forest be, but no weak souls among us. We'll steady on to the village as we always have. A wee chill won't tamper the Spring Tribe." The Chief said, notably tucking his hands underneath his long, heavy fox-colored beard as he led the tribe onward.
Taking up the task of towing again, Jin smiled when he heard and felt the white matter crunch beneath his feet. No one else bore his cheerful curiosity to their changed surroundings. He knew the crackling of branches was nothing to fear. Jin breathed the crisp air and felt how the cold tightened his throat and chest, yet opened his body and senses. He watched his breath exhale out as white flurry and marveled if this was what his breath always looked like, if this changed land gave him the Sight to perceive his life's breath as it truly was. The tribe was wary and fearful of the changes. Jin was not. The forest had become odd, yes, but it was full of wondrous things.
As the white ash, as Jin's people called the specks of white matter descending from the gray dawn, fell around them, the tribe halted at the top of the hill and looked in dismay at what had befallen their village. Their streets and homes were blanketed in layers of white ash. Their tipsy homes were now sodden, frail gray shanties. The bare trees were knobby, bony hands clawing toward the dead sky. There were no flowers. Their village had been reduced to a blanched skeleton of its former grandeur. Even the light within the village was dim and lackluster. The Spring Tribe overcame with shock and fear. Even ever-happy Jin could not bring himself to smile gazing at the devastating transformation to his home. But that was not the end of the Spring Tribe's worries…
There were signs of people in the village.
The Chief called for two volunteers to accompany him into the village. Jin dropped his cart immediately, leapt into the air, and flailed his arms wildly about. The Chief did not choose him. He wouldn't. The Chief took with him their wind master and the elder female wind journeyman to Jin's right instead. Jin knew he was not ignored for his lack of skill, being one of the tribe's strongest wind journeymen along with being an exceptional fighter, but that he was passed over because the Chief did not see him as an adult or trusted him to handle the situation seriously. Yes, Jin was a bit of a clown but he could be entrusted with heavy matters as any other warrior, as the wind journeymen basically were. Jin just needed to convince the rest of his tribe of that.
The Chief and his retinue left immediately. Jin and the rest of the Spring Tribe waited for their return on the hilltop. With more difficulty than they had ever experienced before, they built a few fires and huddled around the flames for much-needed warmth. Jin sat bored, jumpy to go off and explore the forest or sneak off into the village, but the tribe kept close eyes on him (and the other kids) and Jin was forced to wait.
After a long time, the Chief returned. He wasted no time explaining what had happened. "They call themself the Winter Tribe. So it be they walk the mists an' stay in this here village as we have. Spoke with their leader. All nods an' open ears he was, once he saw we meant no harm. He's agreed to share the village, seein' how they're a-leavin' soon an' all. Not many a' them, there are. Their leader assured me that we won't see hide 'er hair a' them an' they'll sneak out befer we do."
One scruffy red puffball turned to the other as murmurs of uncertainty and concerned glances of various blue (and a few violet) hues swept through the tribe. They trusted their Chief, but the idea of having to live beside this other tribe was unsettling to their hearts. In the far back, Jin could not stop grinning. He wanted to go already. He wanted to see the Winter Tribe.
After much discussion and finally concession, the Chief motioned for the tribe to move out, and the Spring Tribe trekked down the hill toward the village. All the way down, the Chief attempted to smooth over his people's doubts. "Keep a hale breeze inside ya. We're a su'prise too for them, y'know. Stout hearts for ev'rybody. It's home still. It be a wee different, that's all."
Jin wasn't certain if the Chief's words made any impact.
A couple of minutes away won't harm a thing, Jin snickered as he scuttled sideways unobserved down one of the village's many narrow alleys toward the part of the village occupied by the Winter Tribe. Plenty strong arms already there ta help unload carts, so it be no biggie if me two arms go a-missin'.
He slid with swaying steps from one alleyway to another, looking down bleak streets and peering around damp corners, but he found no one, not even tracks. Jin wasn't about to give up though. There were strangers in the village, and Jin was determined to see them. He searched and searched, and searched a little more, but still had no luck. Jin's 'few' minutes away quickly fell into hours, not that he paid attention to the time, or if he was aware, that he cared.
Passing by a spindly tangle of dead brown vines clinging to the side of a house, Jin stopped, his ears pricked and alert, and stood in the center of the street. Been all over the place an' not seen a soul. Boy, they said they'd hide, an' that they did! Jin scanned his surroundings and rubbed his numbed arms for warmth. A bitter wind whipped through the street, chilling Jin to the bone. That wind'll cut ya, it will. A nasty feelin', it's got. Dunno if me poor self can stand it much longer.
The Spring Tribe wasn't used to such frigid temperatures, not even at night. It was early afternoon in the village, and Jin had never felt colder. His dark sleeveless shirt and loose white pants were fine for training, but weren't thick and didn't provide much protection in the cold. Sure, he could have put on some warmer garments, but that would have meant staying and unloading the carts before he did, and Jin didn't have that sort of patience.
Jin continued to shiver and considered heading back. He would search again later, he told himself. Maybe it would even be warmer then. As he turned around, his ears perked and Jin stood still, noticing a water-stained shoji screen was ajar by a fraction. He smiled as it opened a hair more. Finally! There be someone wantin' ta talk to ol' Jin.
He approached the house. "Hello there! Me name's Jin," he called, laughing through his grin.
Only a single eye was visible in the slit between the screen and its frame. Jin stood a step short of standing on the veranda amazed by the eye's slender feline shape. Its color, however, captivated him more. Soared hundreds a' times up in the big blue, I have, he thought, his gaze unable to turn away from the observable eye as his mind imagined its twin, an' nevah once saw a blue lighter than the clearest sky like that before. Nah, nothin' like those eyes. Like drops of rain, they are. No…that's not right. That be not enough water… Like a river, then, all held up an' squeezed into two round orbs without a drop gone a-miss….
The loveliness, to his surprise, sharpened into cold hate. "Go. Away," the Winter Tribe boy said in a frigid tone that would have put the freezing wind to shame and slammed the shoji screen closed with a loud clack!
Jin was taken aback. He blinked as his mouth fell open in shock. "Go away?" Jin stamped his foot into the white matter. "Well, that's no way ta be!" he said, annoyance creeping into his voice. "I was only wantin' ta meet ya an' say hello an' all, bein' that we're neighbors for a little while."
There was no response from the Winter boy.
Jin stared into the shoji paper hard enough to bore holes and stamped his feet twice into the white ash, crunching loudly each time. Tired of standing, he took up to floating cross-legged in mid-air, holding his crossed ankles together, as the air around him whipped rapidly in tune with his rising annoyance. I'm no bug, I am, he grumbled at the slight, so I won't stand for bein' treated like one.
Jin's knitted brows started to relax as he reminded himself that this boy had been his first and only contact with the Winter Tribe, so this boy might be or might not be his only chance to make friends with the Winter Tribe. So far, he wasn't doing a good job of that if all he could focus on was the boy's rudeness. Not being able to look past a little unfriendliness was just an excuse to give up on trying, and Jin wasn't about to start making excuses.
He laughed to disperse his annoyance at the Winter boy's rudeness and also to show the boy he bore him no grudge. Laughing accomplished more than that—it brightened his cheer back to his regular good spirits. Jin brushed aside any ill will the boy had thrown at him and put on his usual broad grin.
There's no excuse in gettin' hung up with hard feelin's when you're tryin' ta make friends. Get'cha nowhere, it does. 'Side's, don't want the boy goin' 'round sayin' ta his tribe, 'That Jin fellow is one right bitter guy'. No, can't have that be happenin'.
Jin laughed as he lowered himself back onto the ground and stepped toward the house. "Sorry 'bout that," he called out, "I wanna tell you that I be livin' nearby, I am, y'know, so when yer feelin' friendly—"
A blast of cold air rattled the shoji door in its frame. Jin froze in mid-step. My… That be a fierce air for sure! Aye, lots of power in him whirlin' round an' round, remindin' me a' me own wind tricks. He be a fun one ta toss about with, that be the truth.
He sensed the bladed energy behind the burst of air and slowly backtracked away from the house. "All right, Jin gets when he should shut up, I do. Be leavin' ya alone now. Be back sometime later, then."
Jin took flight. As he soared back toward his tribe's side of the village, he continued thinking about the boy from the Winter Tribe. Jin wished his first meeting with the Winter Tribe had gone better, but he was pleased enough to have met someone, even someone who didn't seem to like him all that much. 'Course, he often got into trouble and made his tribe angry at him, but they never stayed mad with him for long, so this boy wouldn't either, he figured. Besides, Jin wasn't about to completely go away.
If he gave up, how else would he ever again get to see those eyes bluer than the sky?
As he watched the strange red-haired boy fly away, Touya could not help but stare and smile softly. The boy flew. As easily as birds, the redheaded boy was up in the air as naturally to him as whistling shards of ice was to Touya. Touya knew some tricks with ice, yes, but he wished he could fly. Even if it meant trading all his skills with ice, he would, just to learn to fly. If he could fly, he could run away.
As he continued to think on the prospect of flying, Touya bowed his head, his small smile crushed into a soft frown, as he realized how foolish the idea was and how futile it was for him to waste time sitting and dreaming of something that would never happen. Touya was not like that smiling redheaded boy who was so comfortable in the air. Even if it was possible—and it wasn't—and he learned how to fly, Touya knew he was bound to be awkward in the sky and would never fly very well. Touya was no bird. Except, perhaps, a caged one, and caged birds do not fly.
Startled by the sudden, sharp whisper of his name, Touya jumped inside his heavy white kimono and turned his head toward the voice's owner. The young Winter boy relaxed, seeing it was only his cousin squatted down beside him.
"Hyou, don't scare me like that," he said, throwing his cousin an chilly glare. Though he tried to keep his emotions perfectly obscured like everyone in his tribe, Touya could not hide the light pink flush of embarrassment tinting his pale cheeks. He was caught being idle, no denying that, though only by his older cousin.
Hyou was still in his training clothes—a skin-tight ice blue body stocking covered by a sleeveless, short-length white kimono, white tabi socks, and animal-hide sandals. From the mussed look of his unbound shoulder-length hair—the palest shade of light blue, a color like that of winter sunlight reflected through an ice dagger and much lighter than Touya's own, and the dirt smudges on his pale, pointed face (not nearly as angular as his father's, at least not yet…) and his laxly tied training clothes, Hyou must have been practicing with the apprentices.
By practicing, he meant wrestling. If the ice master, Hyou's father, had been present, he never would have condoned wrestling—wrestling being a foolish act of barbarism the elegant art of ice manipulation had no need to incorporate within its teachings—nor would he have allowed his son to appear so unkempt before the rest of the tribe. Touya was surprised Hyou had made it back and into the house in such a disheveled, unbecoming manner without an elder's reprimanding.
Hyou sat down beside him. The way his cousin sat—bending and setting his knees on the floor without so much a ruffling in a single poised motion—distinctly reminded him of his uncle's inherent contained grace. Hyou's grace, however, possessed a strong air of rehearsal to it. Still the similarity was enough to off-put Touya.
"It is your fault you were scared." Hyou narrowed his feline eyes and smiled like a wildcat would before pouncing on a snowy rabbit. "You got lost in that big head of yours again, didn't you?"
Hyou poked the center of his forehead hard, hard enough to make Touya wince. Watching his face grimace in pain only made Hyou grin more.
"Too much thinking is bad for you, you know that? You should listen to my father. If you had, you would not have been scared. Father says to never drop your guard, to always observe and be aware of your surroundings, and always be ready to strike even in your own home. If I had been one of them…" Touya followed Hyou's tightly controlled gaze pointing in the direction of the other tribe's houses, "…you would be dead, little cousin."
Touya canted his eyes. "You sound too much like Uncle when you talk like that." There was a light hint of concern voiced in his words, but he doubted Hyou was perceptive enough to pick up on it. Touya would be right.
Haughtily, Hyou raised his head and peered down at him with a superior smile. "That's good then. My father is a wise man, even wiser than our chief. At least, my father knows the other tribe is dangerous. He would not have allowed those beasts to stay. He would have killed them immediately."
"I am…not convinced." Touya said. "Perhaps Uncle is wrong—"
Hyou cut off Touya's words with a withering glare. Though Hyou's handsome face was a perfect emotionless mask of ice, Touya could see the blizzard whirling in his pale gray eyes. Hyou would not hit him, but Touya could see the threat was imminent.
"Do not dare speak ill of my father in his own home," he said firmly. As if the sight of Touya disgusted him, Hyou averted his gaze, shifting it to the right of Touya, and released a curt snort out of his flared nostrils. "Besides, what do you know? You're ignorant of the other tribe. My father saw them. He was there with the Chief when he first laid eyes on them and he told me they were savages. Big, furry-headed savages with loud voices and huge mouths that could swallow someone your size in one gulp." He grinned again, the wildcat once more unleashed to prey on vermin.
Maybe his uncle told Hyou that and maybe not. Probably not. The story was too sensational for his uncle's austere sensibilities, and having spent most of his childhood terrorized by Hyou's horror stories, Touya could tell when he was spinning a yarn just to scare him. Two problems rallied against Hyou's tale. First, Touya wasn't a gullible kid anymore. Second, Hyou didn't know he had already seen someone from the other tribe. And it was rare Touya had this sort of advantage over his cousin.
Touya raised his head and spoke confidently in front of Hyou, "But I saw one of them, cousin. A boy our age. He was standing outside, and he was not exactly what you claimed Uncle said they were."
At that, Hyou cracked his restrained mask and slightly curled his upper lip. But he soon recovered, drew his emotions back, and froze them once more. "What did he say, Touya?" Hyou intentionally forced his voice to sound mildly interested. "If he was capable of communicating intelligent speech to you, that is…."
"He has an odd manner of speaking…but I could understand him well enough," Touya peered down as he thought and plucked details as they came to him, " A little loud but he was friendly. Still I guarded myself and prevented him from drawing close. The boy said he wanted only to meet me and talk…" Touya's words trailed off as he watched his cousin's cruel mouth frown in disapproval.
"You cannot know that for certain, Touya. He could have been lying, trying to trick you, and you would have believed him," Hyou said, giving Touya a frosty stare he recognized as one of his uncle's stares, one he would have used if someone, namely Touya, had been incredibly foolish.
"Th-that might not be true…" Touya was flustered, the pink deepening throughout his cheeks. He bowed his head below Hyou's gaze and with little certainty said, "…I do not think he was trying to trick me, cousin."
"That is your problem, Touya," Hyou said, rising from sitting on the floor in another elegant, but practiced, motion. "…You think too much."
Hyou left exiting briskly, presumably off to his room. That left Touya sitting alone for an instant before he too rose from his seat and made his way toward his room—well, the small screened off portion of the servants' quarters designated as his space—to change into his training clothes and go off to practice his ice manipulation by himself.
Jin could hear the boys yelling before he even touched ground and he already knew which boys they were. He supposed it was due to his own childlike nature that the children of his tribe were friends with him, and he liked tossing around with every one of them. Jin didn't really get along with anybody his own age—they were too serious and eager to be adults that they no longer found his pranks and games amusing. Adults preferred to treat him like a child and never like one of them. It wasn't like he was incapable of being an adult. He just never needed to be one.
The kids sensed Jin didn't fit with anybody else but them, and with there being so many of them (the kids were like a tribe within the tribe), the kids adopted him and he swiftly became their resident hero. They listened to him, were ready to play or help in a prank, and often followed him around in a great pack, and Jin didn't mind being with them. They were his little brothers and sisters, and he was their big goofy brother.
Sliding the shoji screen door shut behind him, he padded down the dusty hallway following the sound of the belligerent commotion and slid the screen for the small room open. Sure enough, it was Wara and Shii screaming and fussing at each other like usual. If it weren't for their eyes, Jin wouldn't have been able to tell where their faces were—their red faces blending right in with their red hair. Jin didn't expect to see but was glad Magi, Shii's older sister, was there. She handled the boys, but even this fight seemed beyond her power to control. Magi, who wore her hair in two small puffball ponytails, had her tiny fingers in her ears and her round baby face crunched up like a ball of parchment.
"All right!" Jin called and the boys shut up mid-scream and paid attention. Even though he was the adult and was supposed to be serious, Jin grinned as he crouched down to the boys' level, "Just what are ya little bug-eaters spattin' an' hissin' over now? Ev'rybody be workin' hard an' here you two go disturbin' the peace an' give ev'rybody a-right big ache in the head. So now, what be it this time? Out wit it."
"Wara's bein' stupid," Shii grumbled, his eyes blanketed under his red fringe. He was shortest of the three children and still carried a bit of baby fat in his cheeks and on his stubby frame.
"Am not!" Wara turned and screamed. He was a gangling, spidery child with long, long arms and legs but not much of a torso. Though Magi still was taller than him by an inch right now, Wara was growing fast and it wouldn't be long before the boy towered over most of the kids.
The boys were once again back at yelling.
Jin put his arms between the boys and parted them, "Aye, aye, enough. … Now I'm startin' to get a pain in me head. Come now. No more tuggin' ol' Jin along blind. What's the problem?"
Now the boys refused to speak. They turned their backs on one another and crossed their arms defiantly across their chests. Jin hung his head. He was good at making kids laugh and entertaining them, not at being a mediator and solving their disputes. He usually let all the kids deal with their own problems among one another, and eventually all ran its course back to normal. This was only the third time Jin had ever stepped in to stop an argument, and he hadn't chosen to do it. He had done it out of impulse.
Magi, standing with her cheeks puffed out in annoyance, shifted her gaze from her little brother to Wara. Finally fed up, she stamped her foot and spoke bluntly, "Neither a' ya are gonna tell him? Geez, you're both babies, ya are." She quickly looked over at Jin. "They be fightin' over what the other tribe look like. So stupid, right?"
Shii held his hair away from his eyes and faced Magi. "Is not stupid, sis! Wara's wrong! They be little people in white, tinier than us, an' they're invisible."
"If they're invisible, how do ya know how tall they be?" Wara replied, his head raised haughtily. "Shii, ya dunno a thing. They be giants, white furry giants covered in white ash."
Jin barely contained his laughter to himself. Neither boy was right, of course, but accuracy was probably not what they were aiming for. Shii and Wara liked to make up stories, so obviously they decided to make one up about the other tribe and they got hung up on what their other tribe would be, so it seemed. Agreeing with either one of them wasn't going to fix their problem, but Jin knew a way they could fix it themselves.
"'Stead a' punishin' ev'rybody else by screamin'," Jin said as he straightened and stood, "…go out and settle your differences fist-fightin'. Get all that which ails ya in a good hard drag-out fight. Aye, be wise ta go hav' it out where no one can hear 'er see ya well, though. Don't want pryin' eyes stoppin' ya mid-fight, right me boys?"
The boys' faces were beaming as they looked up at him, thanked him for his advice, and ran out the room. Jin quickly poked his head into the hall.
"No goin' for the eyes! An' stop before ya kill the other!" he called, half-laughing out loud, as he watched the boys eagerly charge off grinning.
Fixed that, I did! he grinned proudly and laughed. No sense in two healthy boys standin' 'round barkin' anyway!
Jin felt a small tug on his hand. Magi, her face angry and her eyes sharp, stood beside him and gestured to him to squat down. He thought she looked a little odd, seeing how he just got the boys all settled for her. "Now what be your problem, kiddo?" he asked, still smiling.
Magi wasted no time and banged her small fist hard on top of his head. "What an idiot ya are!" the little girl shouted with a big voice. "Great advice, Jin…'cept now I gotta go watch over them ta make sure nobody dies." Magi stomped out of the room, muttering something about boys always having to fight, and chased after Wara and Shii down the hall.
Jin stood, rubbing the sore bump near his tiny horn. Guess I be not made for advice-makin'… 'Suppose it be all well an' good then if I stick ta what I'm good at for now... Jin felt and heard his stomach rumbling. He grinned. Whaddya know…somethin' I'm good at, hahaha.
Touya had just finished putting away his training clothes when his cousin appeared around the three-paneled beige paper screen dividing his meager living space from the rest of the servants' sleeping quarters. Hyou had washed, so it appeared, and changed out of his training uniform and into a single-colored misty blue kimono. Touya noticed its thickness and length and saw it was a kimono worn only indoors. Along with a change of attire, Hyou had his hair combed and drawn up into a traditional topknot.
Hyou casually crossed his pale arms over his chest. "Where have you been, little cousin?" His faux concern was so dripped in ridicule Touya had second guesses attributing the word to his voice. It didn't seem right really. "…I have been looking all over for you." Hyou grinned another predatory smirk.
Have another lie to weave? Or do you feel like stabbing my forehead some more? is what Touya wanted to say but didn't. Couldn't, even if he wanted to. Closing the lid of the worn, scratched oak chest, Touya, sitting on his knees, turned away from it and reluctantly faced his cousin. Any news that made Hyou smile like that would not bode well for him.
"What is it that you need, Hyou?" he asked with a weariness in his voice that said he wanted to get whatever Hyou was here for over and finished.
But Hyou wasn't giving up the game yet. He was enjoying himself too much. He was unusually visibly excited. Hyou was more animated than he usually allowed himself to be. Which meant only one thing…
Touya was in BIG trouble.
Except he hadn't done anything. Nothing he was aware of. He had completed all his chores—washed, dried, and polished all the floors and the veranda, ran his uncle's messages, cleared the ash from the fire pit in Uncle's private reflection room, caught fish and gathered roots for their storage supplies, and, and… Was there something he had forgotten? Touya ran through the whole long list again and found nothing he had overlooked. So if he wasn't in trouble for something he hadn't done, it was for something he had done then… Except Touya hadn't done anything out of line. He held his head down, kept his mouth shut, and pretended not to exist around adults just as he was supposed to.
"Father wishes to speak with you, " Hyou finally said.
Touya swallowed dryly.
Well, it wasn't much of a hint to what he had done, except he had done something to his uncle's displeasure, so that narrowed the possibilities down to…everything. He hated Touya. It was no overstatement—it was known fact his uncle despised his being, and he often found ways to punish Touya for things others, namely Hyou, had done.
And if there was nothing at hand his uncle could blame on him, he would punish him for future disobedience. He was taking 'preventive' measures, his uncle would say, 'to discourage the boy from attempting any action or displaying certain behaviors that would outright or ultimately dishonor the tribe'. It wasn't as if all this so-called precautionary deterrence was justified—Touya had done nothing to his uncle, his family, or to the tribe. All this bad blood was only because of his parents' dishonor to the tribe, not of Touya's fault, but Touya bore the burden of his birth in any case.
Touya submerged his emotions as best he could under a thin sheet of ice and hoped for the good that it would not crack under his uncle's gaze. "Where does Uncle wish to speak with me?" he asked, perfectly detached.
"I am to escort you to Father's reflection room," Hyou drawled. "You better come along now. You do not want to keep Father waiting."
Of course not… Touya groaned and rose to standing.
He reluctantly followed behind Hyou out of the servants' quarters and down the hall toward the ice master's wing—thankfully, Hyou didn't say another word the entire way. Having the daily task of clearing the ash out of the fire pit, Touya already knew the way to his uncle's reflection room without Hyou's guidance, but this was no casual chat but a formal summons, and Hyou's father was a pedant for formality.
Once they reached the entrance to the reflection room, Hyou turned to Touya and gestured to him to sit and wait outside. Touya didn't really need the reminder, having the all the customs and traditions of the tribe ingrained in him from an early age. He knew just as well as Hyou (who often broke such practices when he could get away with it) to sit outside and out of view until the master of the house granted permission to enter. Touya sat and so did Hyou in front of him.
Hyou then said, "Father, it is your son and heir calling upon your door."
For a few moments, there was silence.
"My son and heir is welcome to appear in my presence," the ice master replied.
Hearing the unmistakable cultured drawl, the sharp winter wind, of his uncle's voice, Touya shuddered. He had to be honest with himself—Touya feared his uncle. Most of the tribe did, even if no one dared to say so. Touya's mask of ice was already cracking and for good reason. His uncle was a dangerous man.
Hyou slid the shoji screen open, stepped inside, and lowered himself elegantly onto the tatami floor. He bowed to his father. Once given permission to rise, Hyou rose and sat proper.
"I have done what you have commanded of me, Father," Hyou said.
"Bring him in," was all Touya's uncle said.
Hyou pivoted on his knees and cleared the entranceway for Touya to enter.
At first, Touya considered coming into the room adopting the manner of a polite stranger, seeing how he was by most standards just that in his family, but he decided the demeanor of a repentant servant would be more appropriate and was more accurate to his position within the household.
Touya didn't know what he had done wrong (though he considered he was being punished for Hyou's unkempt appearance earlier, since he was Hyou's attendant—when he wasn't busy with chores or at his uncle's command), but he knew he had to beg forgiveness to stave off a harsher punishment, and the overall problem with taking the manners of a polite stranger was that it required Uncle to defer a little respect to Touya, respect he knew his uncle did not have for him.
With his first step inside, Touya felt the abnormal chill in the room, noticing his uncle had ordered all the doors open to the outdoors for some peculiar reason, as he dropped to his knees and bowed to the room. His bow did not require the refinement or grace that Hyou's bow needed. Touya only needed to be submissive. In fact, the sloppier Touya appeared only helped him fulfill the role of the pitiful repentant servant.
The room, no larger than any other room, seemed large to Touya because it was empty. There were no clothes chests, supply crates, or sleeping pelts and such lying around to clutter the room. Save the ancient fire pit in the center of the room and the tokonoma alcove proudly displaying the hanging scroll proclaiming the tribe's motto, 'For the Tribe', boldly in dark blue ink, the room was bare.
When his uncle indicated he could rise, Touya, taking the stance of a lowly servant, raised up onto the balls of his feet and scurried across the floor, his head bowed and eyes never looking from the floor, to his place across from his uncle.
Once again, he bowed, deeper than before, to his uncle. He heard but did not see Hyou close the shoji screen. Until his uncle allowed him, Touya could not rise. He hoped he was not noticeably quivering.
He expected his uncle to begin addressing him next, but his cousin foolishly thought his purist father would break tradition and allow him to remain.
"Son, your presence is no longer required," the ice master said. And if Touya knew his uncle, he wouldn't have made eye contact with his son.
"But Father—" Hyou whined.
Hyou wanted to stay, to watch his father discipline Touya no doubt. If there was any good side, Touya considered, to his uncle's punishments, it was that they were carried out in private.
"Do not make me speak twice, Hyou," the ice master warned. And that was all he needed to.
Touya could feel his uncle's glacial glare without looking up. The feel alone was enough to run cold fear down his spine. If Hyou's eyes were from a wildcat, Hyou's father's translucent gray eyes were from a wolf. And whereas wolves bit flesh with fangs, Hyou's father bit with stares. More and more, Touya dreaded being in this room. If there was any proper tradition to allow him to run out of the room or disappear, Touya would have gladly taken that course, but alas, there was not.
"…Yes, of course, Father." Hyou made a short, polite bow. "How very rude of me. Please excuse me. I will take my leave now."
Touya heard the shoji slide open and close, but he doubted Hyou had really left. No doubt he was listening behind the door or somewhere nearby in the hall. Hyou wouldn't pass up such grand, delightful entertainment, especially when its focus would be on making Touya suffer.
When the room was clear and the house quiet, his uncle gave him the indication he could rise. Touya, though careful not to make eye contact, secretly snuck glances at his uncle while his uncle watched the dimming fire in the pit shrivel and sputter.
Touya regarded his uncle's appearance as an odd mix of severity and delicateness. He was a handsome man with a face of ice carved out in a series of sharp, precise lines. He had stark, high cheekbones, and slender, deep-set gray wolf eyes, but his refined beauty and sense of grace belied the coldness of his heart. His hair, the same stark light blue as his son's, was sleek and orderly bound and arranged, part of which was drawn up into a small topknot while the rest fell past his shoulders and ended at mid-back.
It was difficult to tell under a heavy dark blue kimono and a white hakama that Touya's uncle was actually a petite-framed man, lean but strong nonetheless for his body size. His skin was deathly pale and fair and the only color in his face was a faint blue tinge to his withered lips and cheeks. His slit mouth seemed permanently downturned into a hard scowl. Rarely did Touya's uncle ever smile, and the few times that he had ever did not turn out well for Touya. He had learned to fear his uncle's smile.
His uncle had yet to speak, the fact of which disturbed Touya. His uncle sat stoking the embers smoldering in the fire pit until the glowing ashes rekindled into an adequate-sized flame. Then his uncle drew back the flowing sleeve of his dark blue kimono with his left and picked up in his right a generous handful of fresh pine needles, a small mound of which was sitting on an oblong plate next to his uncle that Touya had happened to notice just now, and scattered the needles into the fire.
The smell of burning pine consumed the room as Touya's uncle tossed hand after hand of green pine needles into the pit. Touya now realized why the doors were open to the outside—they were for ventilation. Touya understood the importance of the ritual—his uncle was purifying and cleansing the house of evil—but the smoke choked him, made him cough, and turned his eyes red and watery. He hated the stench, not of the pine itself, just the stink of pine ablaze, but his uncle didn't appear to be bothered. Not like he was going to stop the rite for his sake…
Once finished, his uncle leaned back, rested his hands palms-flat above his knees, and sat with his eyes shut. Touya knew not to speak, but he began to wonder, as time dragged on, when his uncle was going to begin scolding him. Touya still wasn't sure what he had done yet and was hoping to find out soon.
When the last of the pine needle's smoke dispersed, his uncle drew away from meditation, opened his eyes, and cast an unfeeling gaze at Touya.
"Each one of us of our tribe," his uncle said without a hint of emotion, "is but a flake of snow in a single mound. Though we may have fallen from the sky in our own winding way, our individual objectives have always been to add ourselves by any means and join our brothers and sisters in the mound below. Just as a long snowfall builds a hefty mound, our people must drive and coalesce for the growth and prosperity of the tribe. When outside forces press against us, our tribe does not scatter. We come together. Just as the snow packs under our heavy soles, we do not crumble."
Once he finished speaking, his uncle slipped into another meditative silence, leaving Touya to stare at their warped reflections in the polished wooden floor. He braced himself. His uncle often did not start his reprimands so calmly and in the same manner and voice as he uses to instruct.
Touya ran through his uncle's words over again in his mind. He didn't understand… Touya had done nothing wrong and certainly was not against the tribe. They were his people, and his uncle and Hyou were his only living family. He followed whatever the Chief, his uncle, and any adult said and ordered of him. As every member was supposed to, Touya lived for the tribe. But his uncle had left him very bewildered.
His uncle opened his eyes, only to immediately narrow them sharply. "Hyou tells me more distressing news about you, nephew." His uncle's voice turned steely and cold, his face etched with disapproval. "Touya, are you my brother's son?" he said in an accusing tone. "Is there some reason you find it so important to set yourself against the tribe?"
"No, no, sir," Touya attempted to placate the swelling freeze in the air. "I am not nor will I never be against the tribe. The will of the tribe is my own, Uncle," Touya said, keeping his gaze and head bowed.
Hyou was not to be ever trusted then. Hyou must have said Touya did not agree with his uncle's opinions and that he had spoken ill of his uncle. Touya reprimanded himself and regretted saying anything now—he knew it was a death sentence, but he thought he could somehow trust Hyou, being he was family and the only person who ever socialized with Touya. Trusting Hyou, what a foolish notion that was. Who knows what lies he twisted about Touya and the boy from the other tribe… Hyou probably didn't mention that Touya had kept the boy at bay. He probably turned it to that Touya was conspiring with the boy instead.
Touya never felt the shade of death draw so near before.
"Our tribe is only as strong as its weakest member, and you, Touya, are very weak." His uncle allowed his shriveled upper lip to curl with disgust. "Permitting the other tribe, and their unknown dangers, to come in such close proximity to you and this family is appalling," his uncle drawled bitterly. "As you stand now, I cannot trust you to guard a tea kettle, and I cannot or will not graduate you to the journeyman level. You will remain an apprentice until you learn to truly devote yourself to the will and honor of the tribe."
Unable to show a risk of weakness as he listened to his uncle speak, Touya mentally sighed in relief. If Hyou had planted the smallest hint of Touya conspiring with the boy, His uncle would have declared him a traitor to the tribe and Touya would have been killed. Perhaps my crooked cousin does have a shred of consciousness after all, he considered. …Unless he's saving the lie to blackmail me later.
Now that sounded more like something Hyou would do.
"I-I understand, sir." Touya quickly gave a deep bow. "Thank you for taking the time and teaching me such an important lesson. I will take your words to heart and carve their meaning upon its flesh. I will not disappoint you, Uncle."
His uncle closed his eyes and did not respond. Touya had no doubt that his uncle did not share any faith in his promise.
He gave Touya the silent indication he could rise and leave. As he scurried back and slid the shoji screen open, his uncle spoke. "Remember these words, young nephew," his uncle said forlornly. "…A snowflake unsheltered by its kind cannot survive. It will melt into water and fade."
It was an old phrase but it was one he had heard countless times. Knowing its meaning well, Touya sat frozen for several moments in front of the open door and did not turn around. "Understood. Thank you, Uncle," he replied in a melancholy tone. He exited, turned and bowed one more time from the hallway to his uncle, and closed the shoji door.
Slowly and gloomily making his way back to the servants' quarters to change back into his training clothes, Touya hoped he could elude Hyou along the way and hide in the forest and get better at his ice manipulation. Typically after Touya spent any extended time in the company of his father, Hyou would gloat, taunt, and pester Touya especially hard. Harrying Touya was his favorite pastime.
I was lucky this time, he thought, reaching the servants' quarters without a sign of his cousin lurking nearby. Uncle must be very distracted to not wish to waste the time to properly punish me. It wasn't as if Touya was unthankful to leave his uncle unmarked for once.
Touya opened the thin lid to the hand-me-down chest and scooped up his training clothes. A thought came to him at that moment, as he laid the apprentice-level uniform to the side, and a plan began to flurry in his mind. He considered and finalized possibilities even as he unknotted his obi and started sliding the heavy white kimono off his slim shoulders.
…It is time I show Uncle undeniable proof of my commitment to the tribe.
When the sun fell and night reigned, several hours later, Touya was ready.
Touya flitted from roof to roof, his nimble steps treading softly on the virgin snow cover coating the straw and thatch. A pregnant moon hung low that evening and cast a feeble half-light on the dark world below it. The snow reflected in the moonlight, giving Touya indication of where the next rooftop began and such, and anything in the moon's direct light was visible, but most of the town was shadowed and remained as outlines and suggestions of shapes in the Winter boy's sight.
Without a pause, he leapt to the next rooftop. He was alarmed as his foot sunk into the straw, but once the straw held his weight and bounded back, Touya recovered his calm. No measure existed to tabulate how many risks he was taking. The only certainty he knew was that any moment he could make a poor step and fall through a rooftop. Thanks to his uncle's restriction of his meals, however, Touya was lighter than most and that gave him a little insurance in the game of chance he was playing against the roofs.
Just a few houses more… he reassured himself. That is where they store their supplies.
All afternoon and through the early evening, Touya had scouted, watched, and planned. Briefly, he had considered killing the other tribe's chief, but that was more likely to enrage the trespassers than force them out. The other tribe did not belong here. They needed to leave. And Touya was going to be the one to make them.
No one, not even Uncle, will be able to second-guess my loyalties then. I will have protected the tribe in ways no other has. The tribe's honor will be restored and the tribe will have to acknowledge me and accept me as one among them.
Touya held his gaze on the nearing storehouse. If he destroyed all their supplies, the other tribe would have to leave. They'd have to. Touya's people were leaving soon, so they couldn't steal from them, so that left no other option but moving on.
…Unless they stayed and starved to death, his conscious said. The voice in his head was his uncle's. Mothers and then their children would go first.
Touya purged the dark thoughts out of his mind. He knew how wrong this was. There wasn't any need for his conscious to remind him of that. Touya hated having to do this, but at least he wasn't needing to kill anyone.
…Yet, his conscious added grimly and, being in his uncle's voice, sounded almost expectantly. Touya really did not need that thought running in his head right now.
Having serious doubts, Touya had to reenlist himself to carrying through his plans. There was no enjoyment abound in what he was about to do—he simply had to do this, not just for his tribe, but for himself.
I will be free of my parents' dishonor, he told himself.
I will be free.
This was exciting.
Jin held back his enthusiasm well, being Jin was Jin and that he never held back anything before. Not to say he was having an easy go of it. It was hard. Having to stay quiet, no letting a single snicker out, gliding as soft as possible and keeping far behind the Winter boy, Jin didn't know if he could carry on with it. It killed him to not fly up, grab the boy, and give him a hearty Spring Tribe welcome.
A wee trick be a welcome of sorts too, an' just as good, he supposed. An' more me, anyhoo.
Jin hung back. He watched and waited. He knew when the right time would come—when he would whistle and course the wind to fling a bit of white ash into the Winter boy's face. A harmless prank, it was. Simple too. He just had to make it to that moment.
The moment never came.
Jin hung in midair and observed the boy stop at one of his tribe's storehouses. The Winter boy dug through the white ash and began to rip through the straw. Just what is he doin'? Jin watched him curiously. Mighty odd way a' sayin' hello he's got, that I'll say.
Not one to stand still, Jin flew over.
"Long in the hour to be visitin', don't ya think?" he joked as he landed on the rooftop. The Winter boy turned around and seemed shocked to see Jin standing behind him. "Aye, nice ta see ya though." Jin's grin overtook his face, seeing and knowing it was the same boy he met earlier, the boy with the eyes bluer than the sky.
Jin saw the boy take a dark expression and then watched as he threw at him strange crystals that formed without pause from his hand. Jin did not think. He reacted. Jin swayed his arms to one side and tossed up a barrier of wind. The pieces of the odd hard matter Jin had never seen before hit the wind and flew off in different directions, with the pieces glinting brightly in the moonlight.
Jin's instincts did not hold back. He circled his arms back and pushed forward, freeing a powerful gust of wind, and knocked the Winter boy on his arse. Jin's wind slid the boy across the white ash and straw and threw him off the roof.
Jin rushed forward, "Sorry, so sorry! I didn't mean ta! Really, I didn't!" Luckily, the Winter boy had managed to grab and hold on one-handed to the rooftop. Jin dropped to his knees and offered his hand. "…Sorta happened, it did. Reach for me hand if ya can. I won't be lettin' ya fall."
The Winter boy scowled at his hand and smacked it away with his free hand, nearly losing his grip to the roof in the process. "Just go away. I do not need help," the boy lied. Everything—from the boy's strained expression to his quivering grasp—said he needed help and soon. "I do not need help from people like you."
Jin couldn't have been more bowled over than if he had been tossed by his own wind. He couldn't believe what he was hearing! He could understand knocking his hand away after he had blasted him—in the same situation, Jin probably would have done the same—but that remark…that remark was out of line.
His face flushed, he rose up and stood. He stared sharply down at the Winter boy and drew his mouth into a stubborn line. "Just what has yer bird in a snare? I be sure it smarts yer pride ta get caught, but that's no reason ta be spattin' at me for! …'People like me'," Jin scoffed. "…Just what sort of codswallow be that su'posed ta mean?"
The frigid anger in the boy's eyes and face reminded Jin of how the white ash's cold fire burned the soles of his feet earlier that morning. "I have every right to fight every last one of you thieves!"
Jin wore a hard smile. "If a fight be what yer lookin' for, I'll be obliged ta give ya one. …But what in the wind makes ya accuse me an' my people a' bein' thieves?" He looked away and shook his head a bit in disbelief and then matched eyes with the boy again. "We be a lot of things an' some a' it isn't good, that I'll be the first ta say, but we're never no thieves!"
The Winter boy didn't hesitate to answer. "You invaded our village, forced most of us from our homes, raided our food and supplies…what word would you describe yourself, thief?"
"Aye, aye, hold on a minute…" Jin needed the moment for himself, just to soak in what the boy was saying. His head was aching something fierce. Jin's people were invaders? Jin knew that couldn't be true.
"Yer leader said we could stay 'cause yer be off for the mists soon. The food an' some clothing was your chief's idea. The land be different from what my people know. The wind be so cold…it be against us. We know a land a' plenty, but we find so little food here. We only accepted what your chief assured us ya had plenty of, so we're not thieves."
The Winter boy's grip failed at that instant. Jin scrambled but, true to his word, didn't let the boy fall. With a few deft motions of his hands, Jin scooped the wind around the boy and set him on his feet on the ground below.
But without pause or thanks, the boy continued interrogating Jin, "And having us move into a few houses? There are some houses with four or five families living together. How do you explain that?"
"You're gonna have to talk ta yer chief for that. We were willin' ta live with ya, but he didn't want us ta, " Jin briefly looked up to the night sky as he racked his memory for what the Chief had explained. "…Somethin' ta do with your people leavin' real soon…an' that bein' separate was for the better..."
The Chief, Jin's Chief, had explained that the Winter Tribe didn't want to be a bother for the Spring Tribe as they prepared to leave and they figured it would be easier to slip out unnoticed if they gathered themselves on one side of the village—the Winter Tribe as a whole barely numbered half of the Spring Tribe's count—and also since they required so little room in comparison to the larger Spring Tribe. Jin realized the Winter Tribe's leader's choice for isolation had meant something else entirely…
"Jin! What be ya doin' up there?" a female voice called through the night.
The voice had distracted Jin. When Jin turned back, the Winter boy had gone. Vanished. Jin was disappointed to see him go. The squat woman—Miyo, Jin thought it was Miyo—came out wrapped hastily in layers of kimono. She called to him again. Jin leapt off the rooftop, using the wind to ease his landing.
"Ya been sleep-flyin' again, haven't ya me boy?" Miyo gently chided as she slung a kimono around Jin. "Dangerous thin' ta be doin' even in the best of times. But in this 'ere cold? Ya rushin' headlong for sickness, aren't ya?"
He smiled politely as Miyo continued her mild reprimand and walked with him back to his room several houses down. Of course, he hadn't been sleep-flying, but Jin didn't need to be telling anyone what really happened. After thanking Miyo for her concern and she left, Jin changed into his sleeping robes and slid under a quilt the Winter Tribe's chief had supposedly 'given' the Spring Tribe. Jin did not sleep. He lay thinking.
Don't get it one bit… How can ya be hatin' somebody wit'out knowin' them? No fairness 'er rightness about it. Jin rolled onto his side and slid his arm underneath his pillow. I dunno… Somethin' in that boy's wind ain't twistin' right. Dunno why, but I know it.
After a while more of thinking, Jin honestly tried to sleep but couldn't. His mind kept flinging the Winter boy's image in his face. He kept seeing him scowl and glare. He kept hearing him slight his people over and over. Jin hadn't done anything, he reminded himself. Whatever slight Jin or his people had done, it was all in the other boy's head. All he wanted to do was be friends.
At some time, during the darkest hours of night, Jin had a new thought, a new resolve.
Jin would change the Winter boy's mind.