Story Title: A Tale of Snowdrops

Disclaimer: So many things weren't done because I don't own Jin and Touya. Probably for the best.

Author's Notes: Everlasting thanks to MeganAntionette, middlekertz, and scarf for reviewing. I thank everyone who reviewed, followed and faved and for putting up with the slow updates and massive chapters.

At last, this story is done. Honestly, I'm sad to see it end but I'm happy to have it completed as well. And, though this is the final chapter, this is not the last story in this AU. Though it'll be a while before I can get to them, there are sequels.

For the final time, thanks for reading.


Day Five: In Which Goodbyes Are Said and Partings Must Be Made, Part 2


Rousing from dreams of flying between azure skies and blue lakes that stretched on endlessly, Jin woke up partially enough to feel a chill and realized he had turned over away from Touya in his sleep. And that was something Jin was not going to let be. After all, a cuddle and sleepy kisses were in order.

Jin found the rest of his bed empty.

Snapping awake, Jin looked about his room quickly but saw Touya nowhere or any sign of where he might have gone. Jin told himself he had just stepped out for a moment. He told himself Touya would be back and that his fear was unneeded and, when he came back, he could hold him and toss all his worries right now into the wind.

Jin knew Touya wasn't coming back.

His chest felt both hollow and heavy, even though he knew the two shouldn't be. The pit of his stomach felt so weighted down with invisible stones he didn't think he could fly. His heart plunged further as he noticed the folded up paper beside his pillow. He knew it was from Touya and he didn't want to read it. He forced himself to lean over and pick it up. It was another heavy breath before he managed to unfold it and take in its words.


By the time you read this, I will already be back with my tribe, preparing to depart for the mists. Do not come and see me off. It will be far too dangerous for us both and it will only make our separation more agonizing than it already is.

Truthfully, I do not wish to leave you. Your love and kindness and the generosity and acceptance your tribe has shown me has been more than I ever have been or will ever be shown. You are probably wondering then why I would shun the light you offer me to remain in the dark, to use your comparison. The reason is simple—it is all I have ever known.

The ways of my tribe are ingrained in me. The lessons I have learned have been beaten into me, quite figuratively and literally. My view of the world is distorted and I have rarely been in sole control of myself or bore the greatest influence on my decisions and actions. You have opened my eyes to other possibilities, but our few days together will not triumph over the years my tribe has held over me.

Even If I stayed, the lessons of my tribe tell me that tragedy will strike us. With any sort of happiness I have received, it comes at a painful price. I fear the retribution that would be dealt to us if I remained with you because I know it will be a horrific, insurmountable punishment because you make me very, very happy. But I am…simply not meant to be as happy as you. And whatever price I would have to pay to remain with you, I do not wish you to suffer with me. I could not bear it.

If I was meant to enjoy such freedom and joy as you, if you and I were meant to be without repercussions, I would have been born into the Spring Tribe. However, I was not. Our meeting was a chance encounter and it was fleeting but the memories and sentiments you have given me I will treasure for the rest of my life. I will always remember you and I will always love you.

Please, after the heartache subsides, I ask you do one thing for me.

Be happy.

After he finished reading twice, Jin sat staring at the words.

This couldn't be. This wasn't happening. Why was he leaving? Why wasn't he staying? Jin had thought…with the way he had smiled…Jin had never seen him smile like that before.

In that moment, Touya had seemed so genuinely happy. Jin had been certain of two things—one, that he had fallen in love with Touya all over again and two, Touya was going to stay. Their making love after had been a celebration of their happiness. That smile had been such a beautiful, breathtaking, perfect sight—it had truly lit up his face, the room, their souls, everything. Jin would never forget it. When he thought of Touya, that final smile would be the first thought to mind. And so it seemed that had been Touya's plan all along.

Tossing on a simple training shirt and pants, Jin dashed from his room and out onto the streets, nearly plowing through a fellow tribemate in his hurry. After his very swift apology, the lad tried to ask Jin what his rush was for but Jin explained he had no time and ran off.

Maybe Touya had told him not to see him off but Jin had to. He had to ask him to stay one last time. He didn't care if his tribe saw him. He didn't even care if his uncle was there needling his hateful, cold eyes into them. He didn't care if he had to drop to his knees and beg him to stay. He was ready to do anything for Touya to stay with him. Even if he had to steal Touya away. Because there was no way he was going to allow Touya to walk into the mist and let him be abused, unappreciated, and shunned by his tribe ever again.

Besides, Touya couldn't leave. He just couldn't. There were too many words of love and admiration left to tell, shout, and whisper. There were too many hugs, kisses, laughs, simple looks and smiles across the room left to give. There were skies, stars, and blossoms to see, dances to dance, games to play, sun-warmed meadows to doze in, nights to stay up and mornings to sleep in. There was too much left to experience with Touya for this to be goodbye. Touya couldn't leave him yet.

So Jin had to find him, had to reach him and offer him the world one more time and hope to all the fair winds he took it.

He was a block down the street before it came to Jin's memory that he could fly and that flying would be faster than his swift feet could take him. As he summoned his spirit energy into the air, he accidentally collided with an another fellow from his tribe. Though when he saw who it was, Jin realized it probably wasn't much of an accident at all.

"Well, well, well, Jin's off an' runnin' an' here breakfast ain't quite done yet," said the brute, smirking down on him, "What be it, Jin? Somethin' botherin' ya?"

"Ah, get outta me way, ya stupid boar!" Jin said, swiping at him as he stood back up. "Got no time for yer shit, I don't!"

"Why not?" he asked, still with that arrogant, no-good smirk on his face. "Got someplace ta be?"

"Yea, so get at it!" Jin punched him in the face, tossing the jerk back with the force of his muscle merged with the wind.

Though he staggered a bit, the bastard had enough sense and reflex to grab Jin by the hair and wrench him back down as he tried to fly off. Before Jin knew it, the brute had him pinned against a wall. Jin tried to throw him off with a burst of wind and energy but the jerk manipulated a counter wind around himself. For all their typical fist to fist fights, Jin had forgotten he could manipulate the wind.

"Nuh uh, Jin, I ain't stupid. I know where you're goin'," he growled. "You're gonna go ask that Winter boy ta stay an' I ain't lettin' ya."

"Oh, like ya really have the wind ta stop me, do ya?" Jin said, flashing a superior grin.

"Yea, I do."

"Be a first," Jin smarted back.

"This time'll be diff'rent," the brute assured.

Jin doubted. Really, he thought it was going to be more of the same. Fine with him. Jin didn't have time to mess around. He wasn't going to mess around. If the bastard was stupid enough to get in his way of finding Touya, it was his own damn fault if he got his head knocked around for it.


As the last belongings and bedding was steadily being packed, Touya walked the alleyways to keep out of sight. It was not so much he needed not to be seen, it was simply that he wished not to be seen. He wanted a piece of solitude, a moment of quiet contemplation, a chance to notice the world around him and see it for what it was.

The world around him was not the world he was familiar with, though. No, the ice and snow had melted away, the days were not as cold and the nights not as biting. The pulse in the earth was now strong in the village, even on the Winter Tribe's self-imposed side. Touya could see tiny green shoots budding from the supposedly dead brown vines clinging to their houses. This was not his world but it was still filled with wondrous things worthy of being noticed.

It is a shame, Touya realized, that my tribe has always strove to overworking us all or have been too fearful of our world to truly appreciate the beauty around us. It is also unfortunate that it has been decided that we shall only live in a world of winter. Why can we not stay and see the world change? Is it a rule of our world that we must leave or it is simply our choice to depart to the mists?

Touya walked enjoying the silence and wondering questions he highly doubted would ever be answered. He was nearly back to the servants' quarters when he heard the high cries of a child in pain. Touya hurried down the winding alleyways and soon found Hyou beating up a boy, about ten-years-old if Touya had to guess.

"—Thought you wanted to play," Hyou said, laughing as he kicked the already pretty bruised up boy to the ground. "Are you not having fun?"

"Hyou, stop it," Touya ordered.

Hyou gave a quick look over his shoulder and did not care that Touya was there. "Oh, you," he said nonchalantly as he stomped the boy in the chest. "Excuse me, little cousin, but this is a private matter. Kindly keep your big head out of this."

"Hyou," Touya ordered once more, ice daggers forming in his hand. "Leave him alone."

Seeing the daggers, Hyou halted mid-stomp. He paused for a moment, eyes darting from the daggers to Touya and back, and then he smiled smugly before backing off. The boy hurried and struggled to get up but once he was, he ran to Touya.

"Big brother!" he shouted and threw his arms around Touya's waist.

The new designation honestly surprised Touya. The other day had been the first time he and the younger Winter children had ever truly interacted before and yet apparently that day of play was enough for this boy (and perhaps the others) to adopt him as an honorary older brother.

Crouching down to the frightened, hurt boy's level, Touya muttered reassurances and wiped away his tears. Off to the side, Touya noticed Hyou watching, his expression confused at first and then melded back to his usual conceited amusement. Touya told the boy to run home. The boy nodded and then quickly hugged him around his neck before running off.

"Filth attracts filth, I suppose," Hyou said, smarting off at his apparent new popularity with the younger kids. "How good it is to see you back, Touya. I had wondered if your savage had captured you in the night and deflowered you in some sort of bridal-claiming rite while the rest of the grunting muck elves watched."

"You are wrong, Hyou. You know nothing about the other tribe. And if you must know, I went to him."

"Said your goodbyes then?" Hyou said as he headed off and Touya followed beside him.

"Yes, and more," Touya said.

In a rare display of emotion, Hyou's eyes widened and he paused in his step. "By what does that mean—" and then it clicked together. "You did not really lay with that muck elf?"

Touya did not respond.

Quickly, Hyou regained his control. He smirked and snorted derisively. "It should not surprise me that you have further disgraced us by rutting with an animal. No wonder the stupid beast is so ready to bear his fangs for you. Be a pity if he lost his seed-vessel, would it not, little cousin?"

Touya's stare sharpened and his jaw firmed. "I see no reason to waste the breath to refute that, as you have already made your judgment of Jin and his tribe and will refuse to accept any other view than that, my brother."

Hyou's tight, cold mask shattered. "How dare you—"

"It is the truth, is it not?" Touya said. "You have obviously not forgotten that. Not that you have ever treated me like one. Or like any sort of family."

Hyou grabbed him one-handed by his kimono and pushed him against the side of a house. "Because you are not. You are the blight that rots the vine. You are a disgrace."

"I am…" Touya said, tone wavering a little but growing bolder as he grabbed Hyou's wrist and broke his grip, "…not a disgrace."

Hyou frowned in disgust. "My, have we not grown high and mighty."

"No, I have not," Touya said. "I am merely standing as an equal."

Hyou snorted in arrogance. "Worms do not stand up, Touya. They crawl along the ground and pray they are not crushed."

"You should speak to the medicine man about your eyes, Hyou," Touya said, trying to step around Hyou and get away from the wall, "for I am not a worm."

Cutting him off, Hyou shoved him back. "That is where you are wrong," he said in a low dark whisper, a blizzard whirling in his gray eyes. "You are a worm. A foul, ugly, despicable, shit-eating little worm that is lucky it was not stepped on the day it was born."

Touya's expression remained impassive. "Say whatever pleases you but it will not hurt me. Nothing you can say will hurt me anymore."

"Fine!" Hyou said, face pinched tight, "I'll just let my fists—"

With a quick raise of his forearm, Touya blocked Hyou's punch.

Hyou stared wide-eyed in disbelief and shock before he managed to somewhat recover and tried punching him again with his left. It too was blocked. Another try of his right and the same result. At last it occurred to him to try something new so he tried to knee him, only for Touya to turn away from it in the last moment. With each miss, his staggering disbelief compounded, coming to a head with a mouthed, "This cannot be…"

Truthfully, Touya was also surprised, though he did not show it. He did not know what was going on. It was quite strange. It did not make much sense to him. Things were not like this before. Why had it changed?

While Hyou was overcome with shock, Touya nudged him out of the way and headed back toward his uncle's house.

"Where do you think you are going?" Hyou said.

"I must speak with Uncle," Touya said, looking over his shoulder. "Can you tell me where he might be?"

"Does not matter if I do know," Hyou said, his lavender energy glowing off his body. "Because you will not get to see him."

Touya sidestepped Hyou's first ice punch, winding up splattering a patch of ice on the house to the left. Since his first punch failed, Hyou followed up with a frenzied barrage of punches, all of which Touya dodged but covered the alleyway behind him in a glimmering layer of blue ice.

Touya did not understand why Hyou was hemorrhaging so much energy. If his intent was to freeze their surroundings, he could have easily done that with a simple coating blast of his energy. It was one of the fundamental moves his father taught to the apprentices, certainly it was something an ice journeyman like Hyou could have done.

Having flitted onto a rooftop, he calmly watched a scowling Hyou search wildly about for him. Touya was not positive of what to make of his cousin's behavior. He did not even seem to be trying to regain his composure. It was quite unsettling to watch.

At last, he caught sight of him and threw yet another punch for Touya to simply leap out of the way.

Touya appeared behind him, "Hyou—"

Hyou immediately turned around shouting and sliced at him with a short ice blade jutting from two frozen together fingers. Touya walked backwards, sometimes merely leaning back, to avoid his erratic swings. For some reason, one Touya could not comprehend, all of Hyou's attacks were slow and easy to follow. It did not seem right for them to be so slow. This was and should not be happening but it was. But why?

Giving up on his knife, Hyou jumped back—and to Touya's surprise, slipped on the icy road a little on his landing—and then jettisoned his power into a frozen burst.

It was then, sensing the depth of Hyou's power, that Touya understood what the problem was—Touya was stronger than Hyou. Much stronger. So much stronger Touya did not summon his energy to counter Hyou's and instead merely crossed his arms in front of himself and endured it. He had barely registered the chill.

Hyou tried shooting him with hailstones. Touya had always known Hyou was a poor shot and his performance here was no better. This time, though, he finally knew why.

When they were children and were on equal levels, Hyou had often beat Touya up or used him as a practice dummy for his ice training. But the years went by and Hyou hid behind his father and bullied everyone around him and rarely trained while Touya trained constantly, practicing journeyman and master techniques he had observed in secret or moves he improvised and simply did not know they had never been done before.

Hyou's attacks were slow because they were slow and Touya's reflexes were much quicker. Hyou seemed to be wasting energy on missing attacks because he was wasting energy on missing attacks. To make matters worse, he was letting his anger blind his judgment, a lesson that was a fundamental tenet of their tribe. The truth was that Hyou was lazy, spoiled and, unbeknownst to him, weak.

"Do you not see how pathetic you are?" Hyou said, laughing maniacally and out of breath. "All you have done is scurry around like a frightened rabbit. You have not hit me once!"

"I have not hit you because you are not worth it," Touya said.

Hyou's flushed face deepened with indignation as he snarled back at Touya. Once again, he flared his spirit energy and this time threw icicle javelins at him. Touya doubted this technique was meant to be utilized like the ice daggers but Hyou thought it fit. He had about the same rate of success with this attempt as he had with all his other attacks.

It did not take long for him to expend his burst of energy. At last, his battle aura faded and Hyou slouched forward, heavily out of breath. His skin matched the color of Jin's hair, not that his cousin would have wanted to hear the comparison. He hoped this was the end. Hyou could not have much left in him.

His rage is so persistent, though, Touya observed. Would he dare tap into his life energy if he thought it would stop me? …No, he would not. Hyou is too much of a coward.

Forming another ice blade, this one longer than his first, Hyou shambled forward, slipping a bit on his ice in his tired, slow charge.

"Hyou, stop this," Touya said, turning away from a jab. "Has it not occurred to you that you are outmatched?"

"Outmatched? How can I be outmatched? I am a journeyman, an elite at that!" Hyou shouted, blindly slicing at Touya in a great wild frenzy. "I am destined to become the next Ice Master, Father has told me so himself! How can I be outmatched by a disgrace?!"

Touya saw Hyou stumble on the ice and fall forward.

"I am not a disgrace, Hyou," Touya said, catching him and helping him back onto his feet. Hyou was so exhausted he could not stand on the ice without Touya's assistance. "I did nothing—"

"You were born! You ruined everything! It was all perfect before you came along," Hyou said, hands on Touya's shoulders for support and his dark red face scrunched up tightly as he fought back his tears. "When you arrived…I did not matter to her anymore. She loved you. More than me. Always did. Always would."

"Mother did love you," Touya said reassuringly. He was not certain of what else to say or do. A moment ago, Hyou was trying to kill him. Now, he was the only thing keeping his cousin standing as he tenuously tried to keep himself from breaking down.

"Not like she did you," Hyou said, voice cracking through his tears. "She was there for me and cared for me but not in the way she was for you. You were the village to her. I was just the surrounding mists."

Hyou collapsed into sobs. Though he feared his cousin might try to stab him, Touya counted on him being too tired to pull such a ploy and held him. Hyou shook violently as he cried into Touya's shoulder. It was such a strange feeling to be comforting Hyou but this moment was also the first time Touya felt like they were something like family, like brothers.

As Hyou's trembling lessened, Touya helped him back home. The few members of his tribe they had passed by said nothing as he plodded along with a weary, crying Hyou. It was not in his tribe's nature to inquire into the well-being of someone so visibly distressed. No, it was far more in his tribe's nature to scowl in shame at seeing someone red-faced and crying. Such displays of emotion were always disgraceful and frowned upon.

Touya helped Hyou sit down on the veranda. His face was still red and puffy and he was drawing in air in short sniffs but Hyou had mostly stopped crying.

"…You killed her," Hyou whined, bottom lip quivering.

"I did not kill her. Your father did."

"He-He would not have had to if it were not for you and him," Hyou said, referring to Touya's father.

"Hyou…" was all Touya could say.

"Father should have killed you and left Mother alone," Hyou said as he wiped his face dry with his kimono sleeve. "You were the problem. You always are."

Some things do not change, especially the people of my tribe, Touya sighed. "Tell me, where is Uncle?"

"He is in a meeting with the elders," Hyou explained.

Touya offered thanks and then turned to leave. Hyou would be fine. It was his uncle he needed to see most.

"Touya," Hyou called and Touya stopped and faced him. "Whatever you are thinking in that big head of yours, I hope it fails. I pray that you die."

After all these years of torment, apparently fueled by jealousy for their mother's love, Hyou's words did not surprise him. Without a single show of response, Touya headed on to the elders' meetinghouse.


Having knocked one another all across the village, Jin and the brute took to the air and bashed one another across the sky and into the forest below. In the air, Jin was faster, due to his lighter frame, and he was better at wind manipulation than the brute. Granted the bastard was twice his age and hadn't been in training in years, but Jin didn't think the brute had graduated to master. Actually, he wasn't sure if he had made it to journeyman, but he at least knew enough to counter Jin some of the time.

Huh, always thought he be nothin' but dumb muscle, Jin thought as he made a quick aerial back-turn and knocked the brute from the sky with a swift heel kick to the head. 'Least the jerk had enough sense to train a while. He's stronger than the last time, I hafta admit that. …Gonna be a problem, that is. I don't have the time ta waste.

Out of the tree cover, the brute soared back into the sky. If it wasn't for the fact Jin could sense his energy as he flew, the brute's tactic of coming up from behind might have worked. Knowing full well his plan, Jin circled around and grabbed the brute's punch as he rushed him.

"He ain't one a' us, Jin. He's one a' them," the brute shouted, trying with his other left.

Catching both fists, Jin struggled with the brute, "Doesn't matter if he be somethin' else! If he wants ta stay, let'em stay. Never done anythin' ta ya so why ya give damn anyway?"

"He belongs with them," the brute replied, wincing as Jin started overpowering him.

"Ah, like ya know a rat's piss about him, do ya?" Jin said, pushing the brute's wrists back farther and driving him back. "Nah, ya don't. But I do! An' he don't belong wit them. Not a bit. But you'd fit right an' happy, bunch a' know-nothin' heartless bastards."

"He left, Jin. Let 'im go," the brute said, muscles shaking, veins protruding in his arms. "There's better pussy ta pound among our lasses anyway an' it be real."

Something more than just their locked hands snapped inside Jin.

Jin grabbed and squeezed the brute's throat closed with one hand. "Don't ever speak of my Touya like that!" Jin growled low. "Ought ta rip our your tongue, I should, for sayin' stupid nasty shit. Mam never taught ya 'bout not sayin' stuff about a man's one an' only, didn't she?"

Little high squeaks of pain escaped from the brute's open mouth. Reluctantly, Jin released him. Much as he was a big dumb jerk few liked, Jin still didn't want to kill him.

"You think he's your one an' only?" the brute said hoarsely, holding his throat and catching his breath. "You're more fucked up in the head than I thought, Jin."

"This comin' from a child beater sayin' I've got a few peas loose in my pod. Oh, your blessin' really matters to me," Jin said, voice laced with sarcasm.

"Jin, our worlds are meant ta be separate. You just can't take one of them. It ain't how the world works."

"So that's how it goes. Never knew ya knew anythin' but how ta get yer ass-kicked," Jin said. "Told ya I don't have time for ya an' I don't. I need to see Touya an' nobody's gonna stop me."

Jin coursed the wind around himself to rush faster. He then circled around and flew off. Sure the jerk was stronger now but Jin couldn't waste time with him. He could beat the bastard up any day he wished but he had to stop Touya from leaving now.

Jin gritted his teeth and cursed as he felt the brute's energy surge and heard the croaking roar of his voice how tell he wasn't 'lettin' 'im get to 'im'. He stopped and turned, ready to knock the brute out with one final hard right, only to be unexpectedly caught in a sudden tackle by the stupid boar in a mad, soaring, glowing, rampaging charge.


Reason told Touya he should be more worried and fear told him to run away but he truly only felt calm as he approached the elders' meetinghouse. He supposed it was strange of him to feel so calm when by all logic his heart should be beating and his body faintly trembling underneath his kimono. But all his nerves were still and fixed like ice. After all, there was no fear left in him. He had accepted his decision and all the consequences that became from it. He had calm and clarity facing what was inevitably going to be the end of his life among the Winter Tribe.

Touya slid opened the shoji screen and stepped inside the meetinghouse. He did not lower himself and scurry on the balls of his feet like a repentant servant. He walked.

The hushed whispers of the elders ceased as soon as he appeared in the doorway. Aside from the blazing fire pit in the center of the room, there were no other lights. Fire flickered in the stern icy eyes of the eight elders and illuminated their scowling faces. Their shadows stretched and arched and consumed the walls behind them, forming black beasts with raised razor claws, needle-sharp beaks or with long muzzles with many pointed fangs.

Touya reminded himself that it was just a trick of the shadows and that the crackling sound he was hearing was from the fire and not the beasts' claws and teeth clacking together in anticipation of a meal.

At the proper distance between them, Touya lowered himself onto his knees and bowed deeply, his forehead touching the wooden floor. "Please, elders, I, a wretched, worthless disgrace, beg of you to grant me one request, the only I will ever implore of you. I ask that you banish me from the tribe." Though he could not see their faces to judge their reactions, Touya did note they were silent. They were not outright refusing his plea.

"If we were to bestow upon you this request, where would you go?" the Chief asked.

"I will stay here," Touya replied, keeping his head bowed. "I will remain with the Spring Tribe."

"Willingly?" said another elder. "You want to stay with those savages?"

"Yes, I would."

"We will grant no such request," his uncle said.

Swiftly, Touya looked up. "Why? I am a disgrace, a blight upon the tribe. Why would you wish to keep me? Why not get rid of me? This is your opportunity. The tribe will regain its honor without me. I mean nothing to you."

Though his uncle remained staring and frowning at him, the rest of the elders deliberated quietly amongst themselves.

"Uncle, you have taught me that the tribe is only as strong as its weakest member," Touya said, appealing to his uncle but intending to reach the other elders' higher reason. "You have also taught me I am the weakest. If the will of the tribe wishes to remain strong, it stands to reason to remove the weak. It will benefit the tribe greatly if you let me go."

Touya saw one of the elders give a slight half-nod to another in agreement. Touya's uncle said nothing at first, merely tightened his frown and closed his eyes for a brief meditative pause.

"Those are my words, little nephew," he at last said. "However, you forget that we are each snowflakes and for the growth and prosperity of our tribe, we need each and every one of us to strive for the benefit of the tribe. As we live, we live for our tribe. All of us. Even the weakest has their purpose and must pull their share."

The elders appeared uncertain as they continued their quiet deliberations sans his uncle. In the end, however, they looked to his uncle. So it seemed that, even though Touya's logic made sense to them, they were still fearful of making any decisive decision without the influence of his uncle bearing weight upon it. It became clear to him that the other elders, not even the Chief, would not decide his fate. The only decision that existed in the Winter Tribe was his uncle's decision.

"We will not let you go, Touya," his uncle said. "Your place is here. How ever insignificant that place may be, you are from the Winter Tribe and you exist for the tribe."

I do not exist for the tribe, Touya thought, staring down at his warped reflection in the wooden floor. I exist for your amusement. I exist so that you may bring me suffering. I exist so your hate may fester. If I were to leave, the tribe would move on. Only you, Uncle, would lose your scapegoat. And you cannot face a world where you must take responsibility your cruelty.

"You do not care, do you?" Touya said, anger lining his voice, as he rose to standing and locked eyes with his uncle. "This has nothing to do with the tribe or my being a disgrace. You refuse to let me go because I asked. Because you cannot stand the thought of me being happy, of me finally knowing what it is like to be cared for and loved. Forgive me, Uncle, but you failed! Jin loves me and I love him and you are nothing more than a bitter old corpse nursing boyhood grudges over my dead father, spewing hate and fear and murdering and manipulating the tribe to your own benefit and vile amusement. The will of the tribe is not my own. It is not anyone else's but yours, Uncle. Always has been."

Touya then looked to the rest of the elders. "And you, cowards and pawns who dare to call yourself men, have allowed his corruption. You who claim to be the leaders of our tribe bow and kowtow to the will of one man. Are you truly that blind and ignorant to the state of authority within our tribe? Has not one of you noticed my uncle's manipulations? Have all of you been too cowardly to speak up? Or is the only will he permits you to possess be the will to preserve your own necks?"

Besides his uncle, who showed no emotion, the elders stared stunned, a few mixing in embarrassment, at Touya. He was not positive if they were staring out of the harsh, inconvenient truth of his words or whether they were simply surprised that he had spoken back at all. Touya doubted few had ever opposed against their decisions and they certainly never expected a disgrace to speak out.

The time would come, Touya thought. They should have prepared themselves. After all, an ice dagger shines its reflection on both the target and the creator and its blade is double-edge and razor-sharp.

"I will leave," Touya announced definitively.

"Our deliberation is final," his uncle said. "You will stay."

"I will leave." Touya repeated as his uncle opened his mouth to respond. Touya cut him off, "I am beyond requesting the permission of the elders. I will leave and Uncle, you will no longer have the standing to deny me."

His uncle looked on amused and smiled. "And why is that, young nephew? How will I no longer possess the standing?"

"Because I challenge you for your position as Ice Master," Touya said.

His uncle smirked. "You challenge me, nephew? You are aware you are nothing more than an apprentice, and a poor, pathetic one at that, going up against a master. What ever is it that gives you the assurance that you have any chance of defeating me?"

"Because hope is stronger than despair," Touya said.

The rare sight of shock flashed across his uncle's face. Initial recognition over, he quickly restored his impassive mask, his edges lined with anger. "Romantic drivel…" he said disgusted. "…Just like your father."

"That is no insult," Touya said.

As his uncle rose from his place, he scowled and said, "Your blood is your disgrace, nephew."

"The same blood that runs through me runs through you," Touya replied.

"That is where you are wrong," his uncle said, the room freezing over with his power, as he approached. "You are always wrong, little nephew. So very, very wrong."

Touya saw the shine of the ice first and jumped back to avoid the blade. As soon as his feet touched the ice again, he knew his uncle was already behind him. Touya turned and quickly rose a blinder of snow.

Though his uncle charged through it, the snow gave Touya just enough time to summon his energy and make a single shot of hailstones. As he dove out of the way, he whistled the shards at his uncle.

His uncle raised his energy in a frozen barrier and destroyed his hailstones. To no great fret. It was not as if Touya had expected a single small shot of hail would take down their ice master so it did not surprise him that his attack had failed. Touya rolled out of the way and got back on his feet while his uncle's blade was stuck in the frozen floor.

Touya dodged as his uncle sent a flurry of ice punches. Though the maneuvers on both sides were the same, Touya was not casually avoiding his uncle like he had with Hyou. No, Touya's split-second and, quite frankly, fortunately-timed dodges were all necessary to evade his uncle's swift and precise punches.

His feet inching closer and closer, Touya knew he had to keep himself away from backing against the wall. Scrambling to think of something, Touya noticed his uncle's intense sole focus on him, strung an idea, and tried it out. As his uncle fired off another set of ice punches, Touya fell into a slide and kicked his uncle's feet from underneath him. Capitalizing on his uncle's surprise, Touya blasted him in the chest with a burst of frozen energy.

Touya's uncle was a master of the art of ice manipulation. He knew how to fight, how to main and kill, and most of all, how to torture with ice. Touya's uncle also had a very narrow mind. He did not think beyond certain parameters of thought. He did not adapt well. Without ice, his uncle did not know how to fight well. Touya had learned how to fight with and without ice.

As he rose back to standing, bracing a hand on one knee, his uncle glared fiercely at him, his gray wolf eyes promising his ice would bite him slowly and that he would know pain for a good long while. His uncle had never expected that he would manage to hit him. More so, that he would manage to hit him after humiliating him in front the other elders. It was an injustice he could not comprehend and he would not allow to go unrectified.

His dark green energy flared as his uncle wrapped a wintry wind around his body and rushed at him. Touya scurried around the room, fighting the pull of the blizzard wind, and barely missed the hand after hand of ice daggers. He struggled to come up with a plan as he just managed to save parts of his body from sudden impalement and hold himself from being drawn closer toward his enraged uncle.

Maybe he would tire out? He was not going to tire out. He was their Ice Master, the greatest warrior of ice in all of their tribe. Perhaps he would have a change of heart? No, his uncle would need to possess a heart to change. Perhaps he would give Touya the chance to recover? As Touya just escaped the reach of an ice dagger aimed for his head, he realized that was not a possibility either. No, his uncle was set on killing him. Not that surprised him. More he considered it, the more he realized it was nothing truly new.

A misstep gave his uncle the fraction of a second to grab him and tackle him through a wall and out onto the street. Only Touya's quick barrier prevented the violently whirling hardened snowflakes from scraping his hands and face raw or, as his uncle most likely desired, from cutting his eyes.

He laid on his back, his uncle on top of him, their hands locked in a struggle. Whether there was anyone around, Touya could not tell. The roar of the wind muffled his hearing and the glow of their raised energies swirling and battling one another's for dominance blinded his view of the surrounding street. To his memory, there were people outside the elders' meetinghouse before he came in so perhaps they were still there. Then again, the sudden flare of his uncle's spirit energy was enough to send most of his tribe into hiding.

His arms bending and shaking under the weight of his uncle's spiritual power, Touya watched as his uncle, sensing victory, smirked. He grimaced in pain as small bolts of his uncle's energy pierced through his thinning barrier and nicked his palms.

Touya was not certain if it was the utter deep darkness of the green hue of his energy casting such bold shadows and sharp lines across his uncle's face but he knew without a doubt that the evil in his uncle's expression was no mask. His uncle was a man of tranquil fury, of refinement, poise, and grace even at his most violent. Cold was his uncle's nature, even in murder.

Much as his uncle was assured otherwise, Touya was not at his end. There was still much of his will remaining and if he still had the strength, he would fight. With a quick draw in of his legs and a flash redirection of his spirit energy, Touya kicked his uncle hard in the stomach. Their lock broken and his uncle pushed off to the side, he rolled back and onto his feet, immediately following up his recovery with a series of short ice kicks.

His tribe was watching, even the littlest children, he noticed. Most in the nearest vicinity stayed out of the street and observed from the verandas or peeked out from the alleys. Though he could not account for every expression, the general feeling around him was a wash of fear, awe, and anger. There was also a heavy sense of uncertainty in the air, whether it was mainly directed toward his uncle or him, Touya could not tell.

His uncle summoned a half-circle guard of thick ice around himself. Touya readied his hand with hailstones and waited for his uncle to come out from his cover. At the first flutter of movement on the left, Touya blew. His hail broke against his uncle's solid ice arm guard.

Touya jumped out of the way as icicles rained down from the sky like clouds of arrows. When a chance presented itself, he shot another blast of hail but to no effect. He was down to one good shot left and he was determined not to waste the energy he had expended to create it. He had an idea but he was not positive if it would work. It was something he had pondered about in theory but had never tried it out before. He supposed now was a good enough time than any other to put his theory under scrutiny.

Focusing his energy into his hand, Touya formed a hollow shell around the floating ice shards and primed the fist-sized ice ball with extra energy. With a leaping dodge to the right, Touya lobbed the ball at his uncle. To his wide-eyed surprise, his uncle caught it.

His uncle looked amused as he tossed the ball into the air and caught it one-handed. "Your foolishness is a constant disappointment, little nephew. Did you believe a simple training exercise such as this would harm me?"

Touya held his breath and waited for him to notice, waited for his plan to fail either by his uncle recognizing his energy or by an innate flaw in his first-time execution. Both were highly plausible.

"And such poor technique…" his uncle said, turning his hand about as he gazed around the ice ball, his sharp eyes assessing. "The surface is rough and unfinished, the ice is cloudy, and most pathetic of all you did not even form a solid ball. Your skills are shameful, Touya. You do not even deserve the ranking of apprentice."

His uncle looked at him and smiled darkly. He could hear him laughing deep in his throat.

And then the bright green light of Touya's energy pulsed inside the ice ball. Touya watched as his uncle's face went from arrogant and aloof to alarmed and in pain as the ice ball exploded in his hand and shards of frozen shrapnel sliced across his skin.

Having never seen ice manipulated in such a way, his tribe stared stunned. Touya also could not believe what he had seen. He was shocked that his theory had proved practical. He was more surprised that his uncle had caught the ice ball and not sensed his energy in the first place. His overconfidence had fueled his poor judgment.

His uncle stood bent over in agony gripping his left wrist and struggled with himself not to scream out in anger and pain. As the last of the remnants of Touya's energy faded and the misty frost wisped away, the extent of the ice ball's damage was made clear.

His uncle still had a left hand and all his fingers but his hand was a shredded, raw, bleeding mess. The left side of his face was also sliced and bloody and peppered with holes of embedded ice too small to cut. His left eye, by some fortune, had been spared but its surrounding flesh was so swollen he was forced to squint. For a man known for and obsessed with presenting a perfect image, these wounds did far more damage than merely physical.

Breathing heavily through his tightly clenched teeth, his uncle gradually gazed up at him. His eyes promised vengeance. They promised to destroy everything he held dear.

"Your father was a fool…" his uncle said between breaths as he rose to standing. "Your mother was a fool. They believed they could defy me. They were wrong. You will lose, Touya, no matter how hard you fight. You will meet the same fate as your foolish parents."

"If that is my fate," Touya said, head high, "then so be it. But I will fight."

"You two are just alike," his uncle said as he jettisoned his power into a frozen wind, coating their vicinity in ice. "Your father too was exceptionally stupid."

"My father was brave," Touya said, crossing his ice-coated arms in front of himself for protection as his uncle's burst of power flung him back. "Something a coward like you will never comprehend."

His uncle came after him swinging a barrage of ice punches, all blocked by Touya's arm guards. He felt the ice cracking under the repeated force. At first, he worried but as he poured energy into fortifying his arms, he realized the breaking ice could be useful. A quick ice punch to his uncle's solar plexus and a short burst of icy wind to toss him back, Touya uncrossed his arms in a grand sweep and shot the sharp chunks of ice.

Even though his uncle had not defended himself, the improvised attack did less damage to him than expected. In a sense, it had been like a wider-reaching, less accurate and precise, weaker version of the traditional hailstone shot technique. If Touya had put more energy into the ice, it would have done more injury but that was the kind of knowledge one only earned with a new maneuver with practice.

His uncle raised a small snowstorm around them as a blinder. Wind knocking him about and making it difficult to keep his eyes open, Touya searched for the storm's boundary line. And as he looked, he sensed his uncle behind him. He made an attempt to jump out of the way but the wind threw him off balance. He stumbled on his landing and the slight wobble was enough of a pause to allow his uncle the opportunity to imprison him inside a cage of icicles.

Only his head and hands, albeit highly confined, were visible, through the tightly packed javelin-like icicles, though his uncle soon corrected that by following up his attack with a sudden rush toward him and blasting him with a final burst of frozen energy, encasing Touya completely in ice.

Touya stood frozen, eyes open. He could see the vague warped reflection of his uncle through the ice. With no room or ability to breathe within the ice, he was suffocating. He raised his energy and tried manipulating the ice, tried dispelling it or willing it to crack, anything to get free. Touya could not. He was too weak.

"Stupidity is often mistaken for bravery, young nephew," he could hear his uncle's cold drawl reverberating inside the ice. "A shame neither you nor your father never knew the difference. Such knowledge might have spared your lives, though I doubt it would have. Your fate was sealed the moment you turned against the tribe."

If he could have moved his hands, they would have tightened into fists. Touya had never turned against the tribe. He had never done anything to anyone. He had never wanted to hurt anyone. All his life, he had done what he had been told, offered his help wherever he could for the benefit of the tribe, sacrificed for the will of the tribe and received in return nothing but ingratitude and pain.

Last night while Jin slept, arms around him and pulled warm and close, Touya had stayed up and thought of the dream, of living only in the cold, and, for once, of the future and had realized he did not see a future for himself within the Winter Tribe beyond a final punishment from his uncle or walking out into the mists.

The Winter Tribe was unfair, he knew that since he was a baby. And everything wrong with his tribe stemmed from his uncle. Maybe, without his uncle in power, his tribe could do better. Perhaps they could correct their ways, if given the chance. Touya would never know. No one else had challenged his uncle before him and most likely no one ever would. He was the first and last.

A clear image of his mother's portrait flashed before his eyes before fire consumed it once more.

He had taken his parents away from him. Taken their love and affection, comfort, and security from him, driven by envy against his brother. Yes, his father had committed adultery but his uncle had taken the woman that would have been his wife and inevitably Touya's mother. Touya had not deserved to lose his parents, to suffer in his uncle's unrelenting envy, and to live knowing hatred and fear and never true happiness until he had met Jin. Touya had the right to stay with Jin if he so chose to and to enjoy all the wonderful things a life with him offered. His uncle could not take that from him.

He saw his uncle smiling as he leaned in toward the ice and said softly, "In challenging me, you thought yourself brave, when all you were and will always be nothing more than a disgrace."

Something Touya did not expect to happen happened as he felt what he could only best describe as a wall breaking inside him and a sudden surge of power flowed throughout his body from his newfound depths. Anger, years of it suppressed consciously and unconsciously, had finally pierced his self-imposed restraint on his own spirit energy.

"Enough!" he shouted as the ice shattered around him. Touya stood, glare locked on his uncle, as his brilliant light green spirit energy glowed steady around him.

"The boy…" one elder began to say before fading into slack-jawed silence.

"…Is so strong," another finished.

"He is his father's son," said the Chief.

If his sudden fountain of power surprised him, his uncle did not show it. He looked on amused and snorted derisively. "Hn. So you possess the raw power, however you lack the discipline."

"I have the discipline," Touya said firmly. "You and everyone else in this tribe have shown me plenty of discipline."

Touya charged toward his uncle. As his uncle blocked his ice punches, Touya noticed that the mere presence of his energy spawned frost on his uncle's kimono. Seeing the shine of an ice blade, Touya intercepted his uncle's attack with a swift raise of hardened packed snow and then pitched it on him.

As his uncle scurried around and hid behind walls of ice, Touya summoned chunks of ice and heaved them at him through punches and kicks, one action flowing effortlessly into the next. He knew as well as his uncle that he could destroy his uncle's long-range attacks too easily and that he would have to get in close to stand making a hit. Close-quarters would be most effective but mid-range would also suffice. Not that Touya intended to let him get anything better as he focused his energy into a concentrated blast and knocked his uncle into a house.

"Uncle!" Touya called, knowing he was aware and able to hear him. "It is time you face the consequences of your cruel actions. Take responsibility. Admit you were wrong. Seek to atone for your wrongdoings and in time the honor of the Winter Tribe will be restored!"

"You speak to me as if I am a disgrace? You are wrong, little nephew," his uncle said as he shambled out of the wreckage. The bindings of his topknot had broken and his hair hung wild, coarse, and twisted about his face, the normal sleek and orderly arrangement of his hair lost. "I have broken no laws and have been devout in my beliefs. I have done nothing wrong."

"However," he scowled, "if I may confess to one regret, it is that I failed to purge our tribe of its disgrace in its infancy. Unfortunately at that time, the will of the tribe could not see how the smallest wounds, if left untreated, can with time fester and rot the body."

"I am not a disgrace and I am not a sickness, " Touya said, his words assertive. "But even if your opinion does not change, I will assure you of this. That is not everything I am."

As Touya tossed another block of ice, his uncle dived once again behind a wall. Taking control of one of his uncle's walls, Touya sent one crashing into another, his uncle just managing to slip away.

His uncle stirred up another snowstorm. Touya merely had to redirect the storm around himself to clear his vision. Leaping out of the way of his uncle's hail shot, Touya landed outside of the storm. Soon as his feet touched the ground again, his feet were encased in ice and before he could break through it, he felt the bite of ice sting his back.

Yes, the pain in his back was terrible but the pain in his left side as his uncle kicked him in his gash was worse. Touya lay tossed to the ground, open mouth in a silent scream, his glowing aura of energy gone, and clutched his side as he tried to keep still and not roll about from the sharp, pulsing bolts of pain.

Touya looked up at his uncle and saw his right hand sheathed in blue ice, the glistening claws wet with blood. His uncle smirked and said in an absolutely uncaring voice, "I see you have not recovered from the other night. What a pity…" He kicked him again.

Touya wanted to get back up. He needed to get back up. He would be an easy kill if he stayed on the ground but Touya could not get up, not with the paralyzing bursts of pain from his wounded side and his uncle fixated on his gash to a wicked gleeful extent. He had to get up. Blood leaked from his gash and his back and made his kimono cling to his body.

"No, no, young nephew, do not get up," his uncle said nonchalant as he stomped on his back as he struggled to rise. "Bowing on the ground is your natural state."

As his uncle readied to stomp him again, Touya curled up and created a shell on his back. His uncle probably thought nothing of the thin layer of ice and doubted its defensive capabilities so he went ahead and dropped his foot. Onto a raised bed of spikes.

Groaning in pain, his uncle stumbled back, giving Touya time to stand. Splitting the shell into four pieces, Touya tossed each one, the ice shattering either on his uncle's hastily-summoned shields or on his body.

Touya drove his uncle further and further back, forcing him into awkward circling dance-like steps to evade his ice spikes seemingly randomly but quite intentionally rising out of the ground.

"Uncle, do you see now?" Touya said as his uncle, weaving about, stared up at him with a rare measure of surprise on his typically tightly-restrained face. "I am no mere apprentice. I am a master in my own right. I have fought my way and learned on my own without your tutelage. I am not weak and I will not give up."

"You are no master," his uncle growled. "You are a sneak and a thief. Your so-called tricks bastardize my elegant art. You have corrupted and twisted our traditions to serve your disgraceful intentions. From this day forth, you are expelled."

"I will manage," Touya said calmly as a hardened snowball splattered across the right side of his uncle's face and knocked him down. "For there is nothing I need to learn from you."

As he shook the remaining slush out of his scraggy, violently tousled hair, his uncle slowly stood back up, wobbling in his steps as he struggled to find his balance. Slightly hunched over, his uncle glared at him and bared his teeth. It was then Touya saw that the outward man at last matched the beast within.

His dark green energy as blinding as the glare of sunlight on a snowy field, his chest raised and his head thrown back, his uncle roared, flaring his energy in a broad, encompassing burst. Knowing he could not dodge it, Touya raised a shield and braced himself. Their energies met, crackling and shooting arcs upon impact. And though there was some pull and push between their forces, it became clear to them and everyone watching that their energy levels were evenly matched.

There was one advantage his uncle did bear over Touya. He was as strong as him, yes, and he was the first person who could ever stand as his equal in power and skill but Touya did not yet possess the stamina to maintain his power for an extended time period. His shield faltered, allowing his uncle's blast to send him flying into the ground, gash side first. Shaking off the pain and confusion, Touya found his uncle suddenly in front of him. He grabbed him by the kimono and lifted him off the ground.

His energy glinting in his gray eyes, his uncle leaned in and whispered low and dark, "I could chill the air you breathe and slice you up from the inside and no one would mourn you," and then his face twisted into a wicked smirk, "…except, perhaps, your muck elf."

The water in his eyes churning like rapids, Touya sharpened his stare into a frigid glare. Jaw tight, body shaking in rage, he had heard that stupid slur against Jin and his tribe and done nothing about it for the last time. His uncle and Hyou, they did not know him. They had no right to speak of him as such and treat him and his people like a tribe of disgraces.

His spirit energy once again flushed through his body and pooled into his hand. Touya did not have a plan or knew what he was going to do next. His thoughts merely circled around his rage, his desire to defend and protect Jin and his tribe, and the urge to stop his uncle once and for all. Sensing the moisture around him, Touya froze it. He did not care what the ice formed, only that he hoped it would be useful. Touya watched as his uncle's smirk collapsed into the purest expression of terror ever made.

He dropped Touya, faltering a bit but otherwise standing strong on his feet. His uncle stumbled back, tripped, and fell. His body quivered violently and his mouth hung open. High choking gasps were all he could make. Touya did not know what to make of his uncle's behavior. What sort of bizarre trap was he trying to pull? Hyou was far more likely to try such a feint, not his uncle. Was he truly that desperate to resort to such cowardly ruses?

And then at last sensing the pathway of his energy, Touya realized this was no act. His uncle was truly shaking on the ground, wide-eyed in terror, the stark pallor of his skin growing further ashen. The moisture he had sensed and froze with little thought had been the water in his uncle's blood.

His heart pounded in his chest as he saw his uncle grip at his own, his other hand clawing at Touya. His uncle spoke and his lips seemed to form words but they were soundless. His uncle could not believe what he had done. His tribe, looking on in fear, could not believe what he had done. And neither could Touya. He had never once thought he could affect the moisture and manipulate ice inside a person's body. It was a power not even his uncle, the Ice Master knew how to wield.

But Touya could. And he knew with a single clench of his hand that he could form a spike and pierce his uncle's heart from the inside. He could kill him with a twitch.

I could kill him, Touya repeated to himself as he watched his uncle writhe and gasp and struggle for life. For once, his uncle understood the fear and hopelessness he had inflicted on Touya all his life. And for the first time, Touya saw not the imposing, conniving, wolf-eyed, frozen-fisted authority of their tribe but a frail, scared man face to face with his impeding death.

"I can kill you," Touya said, "but I will not. I will admit there is no person in all of the village and the mists I hate more than you and I am fed up with being your scapegoat and being constantly told how worthless I am and beaten for every little fault. But though I hate you, unlike you, I will not allow that hate to consume me. Even though I believe it would be better for this tribe if you died, doing so would make me no different than you and I refuse to deign myself to your level. I have my honor."

Touya released him, his uncle laying back and calming somewhat. From out of his surrounding watching tribe came Hyou's voice calling for his father.

Pushing through the crowd, Hyou ran out and dropped to his father's side. Struggling to do so, he laid his father's arm around his shoulders and tried to help him up. His face twisted into a snarl, he growled at Hyou and struck at him with his ice claw. Hyou cried out and dropped his father. Staring at his father and shaking in fear and confusion, Hyou raised a hand in disbelief to his slashed right cheek, blood pouring down his face from the cuts. As his father needled a digusted glare into him, Hyou fought to not cry.

"Uncle," Touya called, finding his attention, "I hope you enjoy living in your cold, gloomy darkness for I am moving on to bask in the light."

Not caring how his uncle contorted his face in displeasure, Touya turned to leave. And as he walked, he noticed their young children all raising a hand and making a traditional gesture. It was a combination of a greeting, a show of respect, and recognition of one's presence and status. It was a sign only given to the Ice Master.

If he had any regrets about his leaving, it was the future of the youngest children. He worried what would become of them and truthfully he wished he could take them with him and let them have a childhood. But neither their parents would allow him nor the children would want to be separated from them. Much as he wished not to, he had to leave them behind.

Meeting the gaze of one little boy, the one he had saved from Hyou's beating, Touya tried to convey through his eyes how sorry he was that he could not stay. The boy surprised him with a firm nod and an incredible sense of understanding and acceptance that Touya could no longer remain in the Winter Tribe.

As he left the last member of his tribe in the distance, though he had his worries, Touya had the impression the children would manage well enough without him.


At last, Jin left the brute planted face-first into the ground. The stupid boar had given him trouble and wouldn't give up but finally Jin had made sure he wasn't getting back up. Now just hoping he was not too late, Jin soared off to the Winter Tribe's side of the village.

He found the streets empty, not that was unusual for him. Still he knew this time it was different. He knew the Winter Tribe was not simply hiding in their homes. He knew they were gone. Jin glided as quickly as he could to the spot where he had sensed what he feared had been Touya and his uncle's flaring energies. Again the streets were empty and the only sign a fight had happened was a pair of man-sized holes through the side of a home and a meetinghouse.

Walking about impatiently as he tried to sort out what happened, he cursed the stupid bastard for holding him up. It was his fault he hadn't been here for Touya and saw what happened and…and… Face grimacing as he fought back anger and tears, Jin prayed to all the fair winds that Touya was okay.

Jin raced off toward the forest. Maybe they hadn't gone left and Touya was there with them and he could see if he was all right and beg him to stay with him. Maybe his bad feelings were unfounded. Maybe it hadn't been Touya and his uncle's energies he had sensed at all. Jin landed in the forest at just the right time to see the last of the Winter Tribe's murky silhouettes fade into the mist.

For once, Jin truly felt like crying. He felt like heading off straight into the mists after Touya, not caring if he could never come back or what would happen to him. Only thing he wanted in this world was to be with Touya and living in a world without him wouldn't be much of a life. He would be stuck living in never-ending half-life with all the happiness to come to him edged with sadness because Touya wouldn't be there to be happy with him.

"Touya!" he shouted, hoping he would hear him from the mist and be able to turn back before the barrier accepted him and locked him in the between world. "Don't go!"

The sound of his voice carried and echoed slightly before fading back to the typical bird chirps, crackling branches, and wind-rustled leaves. Jin waited, his head bowing ever so lower as he waited and Touya did not seem to be coming back.

"So this is it…" Jin mumbled to himself.

"The beginning of everything," he heard Touya say.

Ears perked, heart racing, Jin hoped he hadn't just imagined that. In a flurry of energy, Jin looked around and at last found Touya bracing himself against a tree. Mad with laughter in his joy, Jin rushed over and swooped him up into a hug. At Touya's pained request that he be careful of where he held him, Jin readily apologized, punctuating his words with plenty of short kisses.

"But your note…" Jin said, scratching his head in confusion. "Said ya were goin' an' not ta come, but you're here an'—gah, me head's achin'."

"I am sorry, Jin, but aside my feelings for you, the note was a lie. I did not wish to lie to you, however I knew I had to so you would not follow me and you could stay happy."

Jin placed a kiss of Touya's forehead and then grinned cheekily, "Should've known I was going ta look for ya anyway, Toy. I tried to then got held back but I was on me way to findin' ya. 'Cause the only place I'm happy anymore be with you."

"But staying with you would not have been as simple as remaining behind. My uncle would never have allowed it. He would have came for me and everything would have been much worse for his presence," Touya said. "So I went to him and faced him in front of our elders. Fighting him was the only way I could have gained my freedom. I was prepared to fight and I was prepared to die. I told you I was leaving because I would rather you feel sad but have hope I was okay than to know of and grieve my death. I did not wish to lie to you but I never thought I would live to see you again."

"But ya did," Jin said, grinning.

"Rather unexpectedly, yes," Touya returned a small but all the same a happy smile, "but a very happy accident nonetheless."

"Happy, that I'll say, but it be not an accident, Toy. Not at all."

Careful of the placement and pressure on his wounds, Jin picked Touya up and carried him. Touya wrapped his arms around his neck.

"All right. We'll get ya patched up, Miyo'll get ya filled up, an' then you an' me can play kiss up. …Ah, I ain't waitin'." Jin smashed his lips against Touya's cheek, eliciting a short laugh out of him.

As they headed back to the village and Jin walked through a blanket of snowdrops, Touya laid his head in the crook of Jhis neck and shoulder. Jin felt him slip a slender finger beneath his shirt collar and rub circles on his neck. Those eyes bluer than the sky shined as he stared into his shirt blissfully before he slowly closed them, smiling in pure contentment as he relaxed in his arms.

Jin knew that for now on his Toy would never know fear and never know hurt again. All the suffering in his life was over and gone and there were only good things left for Touya. Lots of bright, warm, beautiful, wonderful, hug and kiss-filled good things. From now and until the end of their days.

And because he knew that, Jin knew Touya would be all right.