Part 3: Tea Rose; Step Softly
The halfway house, or safehouse, as Kakashi dubbed it, was an alien environment to Touya. He hadn’t attended a public school in at least five years, so he
was surprised at how strange people his own age appeared to him. Some of it he disregarded as a result of throwing so many teenage mutants together in
one house. The rest he chalked up to his own alienation from ‘kids’, mutant or otherwise. None of that explained the man who ran the house, who appeared
to be a first generation mutant with the mind of a perverted fifteen year old. Touya almost turned on his heel and walked right out of the house when he
caught sight of the graphic novel the man was reading.
His first impression was dismissed once the man set aside the questionable literature and started speaking. While Kakashi had an unnerving smile, visible
through the dark blue cloth covering the lower half of his face, his manner was offhanded. He was quick to invite Touya to make a place in the house without
prying into his past. What put Touya at ease was that the man didn’t seem overly interested in his decision. If he’d pressured him to stay, or made the
invitation out to be a favor granted to a vulnerable youth, Touya would have quit the place immediately. And the stipulations that went with staying were
nothing too invasive.
He’d be required to enroll in the nearby school if he chose to stay for longer than a week, according to the law of the district that demanded all underage
youths to be properly educated. Any amenities aside from food and basic necessities would be up to him, with a warning that theft was not an acceptable way
to get spending money. There were more than enough chores around the house if a ‘border’ didn’t want to get a part-time job. Violence or crimes against
non-mutants outside the house were absolutely unacceptable, and any issues with fellow borders were to be brought to Iruka-sensei.
Touya met that man after his initial interview, which was another reason he didn’t leave immediately. Iruka was as overly welcoming as Kakashi had been
disinterested. He didn’t run the house, but he took a vested interest in the well being of the borders, playing a ‘mother hen’ role to them. Touya knew this
because Jin had warned him about it during the walk from the hospital to the house. He deflected the man’s concerned prying into his physical health, and
discouraged questions about his past by suggesting that it might be better if he didn’t stay at the halfway house. Iruka immediately backed off from that line of
questioning and did his best to put him at ease with reassurances that he was welcome to stay for as long as he liked.
After meeting a few of the other teenagers as they trickled into the house, Touya decided Jin wasn’t as unusual as he’d first thought. The redhead was an
extremely cheerful extrovert with such a simple way of speaking that he seemed to be half his apparent age. But he was also quite skilled at putting a person
completely at ease – or so startled and bemused that he might as well have been at ease. Once Touya was introduced to the teenagers who were Jin’s peers,
he appreciated Jin’s nature. The boy had a way of drawing eyes to him, despite Touya being the center of attention. That gave him a chance to take stock of
the variety of mutants he’d be spending the following week with. He doubted he’d stay longer than that.
The first people Jin introduced him to, after the adults, were the girls. They were the only females in the house, which meant, as Jin was quick to warn him,
that they were fierce rivals in their quest to snag the prettiest boyfriend they could. Jin was convinced that Touya would soon be the focus of their efforts.
Touya wasn’t particularly grateful for his vote of confidence.
Sakura, who appeared to be the defensive one of the pair, quickly took control of the introduction by fondly dismissing Jin as the playful joke of the house.
She was a pretty girl with long and straight pink hair and vivid green eyes that helped to make up for her strikingly broad forehead. Her mutant talent was
uncontrolled, and not something she enjoyed talking about. Ino cheerfully explained that Sakura could heal people if she was worked up enough, but that if
the person she was worried about didn’t have an injury, the results were unpleasant. It was safer if Sakura didn’t touch anyone when she had one of her
Ino was much more self-assured, introducing herself as a fifteen year old mutant with the unique ability to transfer her consciousness into another person and
control them completely. Sakura was quick to point out the drawback – Ino’s body was defenseless and unresponsive when she jumped bodies, and she
couldn’t control people with split personalities or ‘blocked’ minds. This comment launched the two girls into a heated bickering session. Touya edged away
while they were distracted.
His first impression was that Ino, for all her pale good looks – very long blonde hair and wide eyes – was something of a harpy when riled. Her formerly
confident and flirtatious expression had twisted into an ugly scowl, and her voice was painfully sharp. Touya found himself grateful for Jin’s short attention
span. The redhead caught his right arm and tugged him out of the hall and into the large living room.
If it hadn’t been for Jin’s grip on his wrist, Touya would have frozen in the doorway. He ground to a halt and Jin, who hadn’t noticed, continued forward until
Touya was forced to take a single stilted step into the crowded room. Jin turned then, blinking in surprise at Touya’s blank expression. Whatever he’d
planned to say was drowned out by the curious mutants who called out greetings from their places around the room, a few of the bolder ones coming over to
crowd the pair just inside the doorway.
A short blonde boy with bright blue eyes had bound forward, grinning and talking loudly with Jin. Another teen, taller, with bushy brown hair and pale blue
marks on his cheeks, launched into an argument over something the blonde had said and the two were suddenly growling back and forth at each other. A
little embarrassed by the display, Jin tried to talk them down, but a blackhaired boy with a bowlcut and an unsightly green outfit got there first. He slipped
between the arguing teens and pushed them apart with a blindingly white grin.
Now the others were edging forward, a few lecturing the ones who continued to growl insults back and forth. Jin appeared to be exasperated, his voice barely
making it over the general chaos. And Touya found his wrist freed. He immediately stepped back into the relative shelter of the doorway, as if he feared the
roof might cave in and bury the room. No one seemed to notice the moment he blended back into the shadows, his wide eyes wary and more than a little
They were teenagers, mutants, all of them young, male, and hormone-ridden. Touya knew that. But the voices mixed and muddled till he could almost hear
people placing their bets, jeers encouraging the two boys to tear each other apart. Suddenly the room was too bright, the crowd too close, and someone
behind him dropped a heavy hand on his shoulder.
Touya whirled around and ducked beneath Iruka’s arm. He straightened a few feet down the hall and continued toward the front door, not glancing back. If
the man made any attempt to stop him or call him back, Touya didn’t hear it. His ears were filled with a quiet buzzing sound that made everything else mere
The house was situated at the edge of town, a few blocks from the hospital, and bordering on a sparse forest. Touya vaguely remembered Jin having said
something about the forest having been planted to provide privacy for the south side of the little city, where the residential area was. There was dense
underbrush deeper in, the sort that would make a natural privacy screen. The idea of wading through it made Touya’s head hurt. He paused beneath the
trees facing the back of the house.
He wasn’t planning to run. He just needed to get away for a while, maybe till the sun set. If the teens were enrolled in school, they’d have to sleep eventually.
With this in mind, Touya scouted a suitable spot to wait them out. He couldn’t climb well with one arm, but the trees bordering the yard were lush, heavy
branches falling low enough even for someone of his height.
He slipped off the thin hospital slippers he’d been discharged in and put them in one of the pockets of his baggy coat. Then he caught a slender branch with
his right hand and swung himself till his legs hooked over the limb. His chest burned a little as he pulled up to sit on the limb, but nothing like it would have a
week ago. What surprised him was his sense of balance. He had trouble crouching without swaying and had to brace his right hand on the trunk of the tree.
It made him wonder how long he’d gone without food. The thought of facing that crowd of loud mutants killed whatever appetite he might have had.
Touya straightened slowly and climbed to a higher perch, circling the tree till the house was at his back, the canopy hiding him in shadows. The heavy coat Jin
had lent him was thick enough to pad his neck against the rough bark, letting him stretch out without fear of falling. It reminded him that he’d have to see
about getting a change of clothing. His own blood-stained clothing hadn’t been salvageable, and he didn’t want to start carrying Jin’s scent. The coat smelled
heavily of the grassy fields he’d trekked through, as if the owner made it a habit to roll around in them. And having heard Jin talk, Touya didn’t doubt the boy
had done just that.
A while passed before Jin noticed his absence. Iruka, who’d gone to inform Kakashi first, told him a good hour after Touya walked out of the house. Jin was so
startled and guilty, Iruka couldn’t help but put a warm arm over the boy’s drooping shoulders.
“He didn’t promise to stay here,” Iruka reminded Jin, his tone sympathetic. “And he could still come back. Kakashi doesn’t think he went very far.”
“I can’t believe he just left,” Jin mumbled, ducking his head to stare down at his feet. “I thought he was right behind me, so I was trying to get everyone to
settle down a little before I introduced them. But then Neiji bumped into Shishi and he spilled that drink on his hair and I had to stop them before they killed
each other because once those two start-“
“At least Gaara wasn’t here,” a chipper voice put in.
Iruka frowned down at Naruto, the blonde boy beaming cheekily up at him. “He’s not in his room? I swear, if he’s out stalking those boys again, I’ll-“
Naruto laughed at the man’s twitching eyebrow, and even Jin gave a faint smile.
“No, no,” said Naruto. “He’s still grounded from last time. He was out on the roof earlier. He’s probably hanging upside down from the gutters or something.
You know how he is when he’s not allowed to fight.”
Jin’s ears perked up. He didn’t know if he should be hopeful or worried, but he was bordering on hopeful. If Gaara was on the roof, he’d have seen which way
Touya went. And since he’d promised Kakashi he wouldn’t attack anyone for at least two more weeks, he probably hadn’t done anything really awful to the
little ice user. Gaara took being grounded pretty seriously. Besides that, he didn’t set his targets on mutants unless they looked really strong.
He found the mutant on the roof, just like Naruto had claimed. Gaara, a small boy with sandy brown hair, pale skin, and coal-rimmed eyes from his habitual
insomnia, was sitting crosslegged on the back of the roof, facing the woods with a bored expression. Jin floated up to hover in front of him, crossing his own
legs in a bit of playful mimicry.
“Hey, there,” Jin greeted. “You didn’t happen to be watching the front of the house earlier, did you?”
Cat-shaped eyes narrowed and Gaara’s mouth edged into a dark smirk. “Lose your mate?”
Jin pouted, the way he always did when faced with someone who didn’t like him. “Don’t be like that. You’re still mad that I turned your sandstorm against you,
but I told you – sand can’t beat wind. It wasn’t even a fair fight, so it’s not like I really won.”
The smirk shifted into a sneer. “He smells like you.”
“Really?” Jin blinked in surprise and felt a faint blush rise to his cheeks. He quickly shook his head, reminding himself to focus. “Did you see where he went?
“Yes,” Gaara said smoothly, “but I have no interest in telling you.”
Jin bristled in frustration, though he knew it was no use trying to argue with Gaara. The antisocial mutant never helped anyone unless it was so he could
crush him in a fight later. “You’re so-“
Gaara jerked a hand to the side, flicking his fingers out. A ladybug snicked down against the roof with a tiny skewer made of crystallized sand through its
Jin winced at the feedback that sudden death would cause to the person controlling the insect. He flew down to the ground, looking around expectantly. Sure
enough, Shino was leaning against the side of the house, waiting for him.
“You didn’t need to ask Gaara,” said Shino. “He’s wearing your coat. Kiba or I could have found him on scent alone.”
“So that’s what he meant,” Jin blurted, slapping a hand over his forehead. “Jeeze, I completely forgot about the coat. You know where he went, then?”
“He’s right there,” Shino pointed. “Gaara’s been watching him since he came outside. You should warn him about that when he wakes up.”
Jin’s eyes snapped to the roof, and he glared at the amused look on Gaara’s face. It was one thing to not be helpful, but if he caught the guy creeping Touya
out, he’d really beat him in a fight. He’d gone easy last time, since their abilities put Gaara at a big disadvantage. He wouldn’t be so nice if he caught the
sand wielder picking on his new friend.
He walked over to the tree Shino had pointed out. He would have flown, but he wasn’t feeling quite like his usual chipper self. He’d had all sorts of ideas
about what might happen when the ice user woke up. Having him take one look at the chaotic mutants before bolting from the house hadn’t been one of
them. He probably should have warned him, or just put off the introductions till Touya was feeling better.
It was just that he’d been looking forward to getting to know him since the first day he’d been allowed into his hospital room. Sakura and Ino had followed soon
after out of curiosity, and stayed out of sympathy. But Jin had felt like he had a real place there, almost as if they were already friends and it was his right to
be the first person the boy saw when he woke up.
Shikamaru had dismissed the sentiment, when Jin had explained why he felt compelled to spend so much time watching a perfect stranger sleep. According to
him, the only connection they had was in Jin’s mind. He fancied himself a hero and was waiting for the damsel to reward him with her undying gratitude and
affection. And he really was a sweet but painfully naïve kid to be expecting that, because the boy wouldn’t remember being saved, let alone who had done the
saving. Even if he believed the effort Jin had put in to helping him, there was no reason to think he’d be more than passingly grateful. Jin was just setting
himself up for a major disappointment.
Jin knew his friend was right. Shika was cynical, droll, and way too pessimistic, but he was also right. Knowing that hadn’t changed the certainty he had that
he’d found Touya for a reason. He didn’t skip classes so often or fly so far that it was normal for him to notice if a person happened to get hurt in the middle of
nowhere some twelve miles outside of town. He liked to joke about his natural good luck, but it wasn’t natural for him to just so happen to be in the right place
at just the right time. He joked about good luck with a smile and a wink because, in truth, his own luck tended toward bad.
It shouldn’t be pure blind luck that he’d met Touya the way he had. And if it was luck, just random chance, then he didn’t want to know. It was nicer to think
they’d met because they were supposed to, because his instinct was right in believing they’d be great friends.
With that in mind, he just had to work a little harder to see his expectations realized. Touya wasn’t the person he’d imagined from watching him sleep all pale,
fragile, and lovely. He didn’t seem overly eager to make friends, or even to rely on someone else. All that meant was Jin had his work cut out for him. Part of
his optimistic nature was that he thoroughly enjoyed a challenge. He had a better chance of chewing off his eartips than of willingly giving up on someone he
wanted to be friends with.
It didn’t hurt that Touya was really pretty. If it took a while to win him over, that mean Jin had an excuse to look at him as often as possible until he caved.
Either way, he won. Chalk another point up for looking on the bright side. Shika could learn a lot from his stubborn optimism.
Despite his renewed determination, Jin hesitated when he found Touya sleeping like a pretty little angel all stretched out on a shaded limb of the tree.
Watching him with the hopes of becoming good friends was fine in theory, but he was in danger of developing a really big crush based on looks alone. Touya
was just too pretty for his own good. Even the faint flush on his cheeks, which should have had Jin guiltily remembering that Touya wasn’t well enough to be
sleeping in a tree to escape the noise in the house, made him want to sneak up and kiss him while he had the chance. He’d never do it, of course, but the fact
that he wanted to told him how bad he had it. It was actually funny, because he’d always figured he’d fall for a girl, as much as he liked pretty people.
Touya was resting with his wrapped arm draped over his stomach. His right arm was curled over a small leafy limb, pulling it down either for balance in case
he woke quickly, or to block his right side. Jin floated up on the boy’s left and hovered with his legs folded beneath him so he was seated comfortably in
midair. Aside from enjoying the view, he wasn’t sure what to do next.
He’d assumed Touya would eat with them and then go to his room early to rest. Touya would definitely be sharing a room with him, not just because he’d
offered days earlier when Kakashi suggested the mutant might plan to stay at the house, but because he and Gaara were the only ones who really had rooms
of their own and there was no way he’d let his new friend room with Gaara. The sand-user never slept. Jin just knew he’d spend every night smirking and
staring and he wasn’t about to let Touya be creeped out like that. He might have enjoyed watching the boy sleep, hut he didn’t make a hobby of thinking up
new creative ways to torture people who annoyed or challenged him, so it was okay for him to do a little staring now and then.
Jin was deep in thought, his chin braced in one palm as he looked at Touya without actually seeing him. He didn’t realize he’d zoned out until he noticed that
his stare was being returned by pale blue eyes. He jolted back in surprise and grinned sheepishly at being caught.
“You’re awake,” he blurted, and grinned wider at having come up with such an intelligent greeting.
“You were staring at me,” said Touya.
His gaze was steady and sober, but his tone made the statement sound like both a question and an accusation. He straightened slowly without taking his eyes
off the floating redhead. He was secretly disturbed by his lack of reaction.
He’d woken to the sensation of being watched by someone well within his personal space. But even before he’d opened his eyes to see who it was, he hadn’t
felt threatened by the presence. It made him wonder if Jin really had been visiting him in the hospital, often enough that he’d grown accustomed to the boy
being so close. Or maybe his cold was muddling his senses and he was just too exhausted to react properly. He hoped it was the latter because he’d stopped
believing in blind trust a long time ago.
“You shouldn’t come close to me when I’m sleeping,” Touya said slowly.
He was somewhat startled to realize Jin looked different than he had earlier. The boy’s wild red hair was even thicker than before, but not long enough to hide
the little horn protruding just above his bangs. And his ears were longer now, rising up into elvish points that twitched and hid in his hair when Jin noticed what
he was looking at.
“I change a little when I use my talents,” Jin admitted, with an embarrassed smile. “When I’m upset, happy, and excited, too. Happens all the time, really. But
why shouldn’t I come close when you sleep? Do you use your talents in your dreams? I do that a lot. It’s kind of fun, actually. I never know if I’ll wake up
sleeping on the ceiling or floating upside down, or what. I usually have good dreams so I’m really quiet – I just float a little. I did have some nightmares right
after I found you, when we didn’t know if you’d make it or not. Those were bad. The first one I woke up scrunched under my bed and my back hurt all day!
After that I ended up in the corner over the door. Weird place to hide, if you ask me, but a lot more comfortable. I shouldn’t have even been able to fit under
the bed. It’s like this tall! Crazy…”
Touya processed this with a disgruntled expression on his face. He’d been known to wake up in strange places after he’d left home. He’d hide in his dreams
only to wake up and find that he’d done the same in reality. That was how he’d ended up in the ditch after getting caught at the airport – his instincts taking
over when he was too tired to manage on his own. But it wasn’t that he and Jin had that much in common that made him uneasy. He didn’t like that he’d given
the boy nightmares, bad enough that he’d instinctively hidden from them.
“I’m sorry for the trouble I’ve put you through,” said Touya.
Jin tilted his head in surprise and the tips of his ears twitched out of his hair as if he wasn’t sure he’d heard that right. “Sorry…? Oh! No, Touya! No, no, you
don’t have to be sorry! It wasn’t that much trouble. I just did what anyone would have done. Well, what anyone would have done if he could. I mean, I haven’t
actually met any other mutants who can fly. Aside from Shishi! But he only flies in his chibi form and it’s way too small to carry anyone, so he doesn’t really
count. And the dreams weren’t that bad. They probably weren’t even because of you, anyway, not really. I think it was mostly just the blood you coughed up.
Heh, I’m, uh…a little queasy if I’m around a lot of blood. I’ve been like that since I found out I was a mutant, so it’s not your fault. Kakashi thinks I’m repressing
some traumatic memory or something, but the way I see it, if it’s bad enough that I had to forget about it, I’m probably better off if I don’t remember. So, yeah,
mostly it’s just my own stuff. You don’t have anything to apologize for. It’s not your fault I’m the one who found you, and I’m glad I did, anyway. If I hadn’t, we
might not have met!”
And he smiled so happily Touya found himself giving his own ghost of a smile in return. Jin imparted so much information, so quickly, that he simply couldn’t
keep up with it all. He was left feeling dazed and strangely amused. Hopefully it was due to the cold or fever or whatever it was that made his head feel
fogged and tingly, like he’d been drugged past the point of entirely rational thought. He wasn’t prepared to accept that he was starting to like the cheerful and
shockingly open boy.
“Is it always so noisy here?” Touya asked, in an effort to divert his thoughts and give him time to wake up his heavy limbs. At this rate, he’d have to fall out of
the tree or ask for assistance. He didn’t care for either option.
"Noisy?" asked Jin. He gave a weak and bashful laugh, once again rubbing at the back of his neck. "Yeah, it's usually like that, though chaotic or happily
insane might be the better thing to call it. We're allowed to be as loud as we want in the common room - that's what Iruka-sensei calls the livingroom, not sure
why. If anyone's having trouble in school or has a noisy roommate and needs a quiet place to do homework, there's the study upstairs. Iruka-sensei spends
most of his time grading papers up there, so you can usually count on it being quiet. If he has a headache, we're pretty quiet during dinner and breakfast,
"See, Iruka-sensei is really nice most of the time, but he's scary when he's mad. Like if one of us acts up in school or skips class and Iruka-sensei has to talk
with the pricipal, he snaps the second he gets home. That always makes him mad because the town's good about letting mutants stay here as long as we
don't cause trouble. He's always worried we'll have to go somewhere else and there's so many of us now that we'd all have to split up. Most of us try not to
upset him about that, but it's hard, you know?
"Having to be good all day makes you want to let go when you get home. That's all it was, really. They argue because it's fun, like the competitions we have
on the weekends. No one means anything by it, so it's not like actual fighting. Except for Gaara. You'll want to watch out for him. But he's grounded right
now, so he won't do anything for a while. Everyone else is nice enough once you get to know them."
He gave a hopeful and earnest smile, taking a breath before floating a little closer. "I should have warned you before I tried to introduce you to everyone. I've
been here a while now, so I forgot how crazy it seems at first. Plus, you seemed fine on the walk home, so I forgot you're tired from being sick so long. I
should have thought about that, but I got distracted trying to get everyone settled so you wouldn't think we were all nuts. I didn't even notice when you left. I
should have, but...I'm just not used to having someone to take care of.
"I'll get better, though, really! If you're tired, or it's too noisy, or anything, just let me know and I'll fix it. I promise! I really want you to be comfortable here. It's
just that we're different, you know? You'll have to tell me if something bothers you because I'm not very good at picking up stuff like that. Especially if you
sneak off when I'm not looking. I can't help if I don't know where you are, right? Some of the guys are good at tracking people, but that's not one of my strong
points. I mean, I'm this close and I still don't know how Shino and Gaara smelled my coat all the way from the house. Though...that might be because it smells
like me and I'm too used to it to notice. Does it smell funny to you, Touya?"
"Like grass and sunshine," Touya murmured.
Again he was dazed, unable to follow the boy's monologue and form a coherent response at the same time. And he knew there was a smile curving his lips for
some reason he couldn't explain. Some of what Jin said interested him, like the way the town had accepted them and the competitions they had on the
weekends, but other parts were disturbing, even insulting. Yet, he didn't feel angry at being considered someone Jin thought he had to take care of. He didn't
even feel compelled to rebuff the boy's request that he tell him if he felt uncomfortable. The only response he had was helpless amusement. It wasn't that Jin
was funny, though some of his theatrics did border on comical. Mostly it was that he was just so...transparent and earnest.
Listening to him was simply enjoyable. However determined Touya was to protect himself with jaded cynicism, he couldn't help but find the boy refreshing.
He'd never met anyone who could be so open. And Jin did it so naturally he probably had no idea how vulnerable he was making himself. If anything, Touya
found himself wanting to protect Jin from those who would jump at the chance to exploit that open nature of his.
Jin was blinking in surprise, a smile tugging the corner of his mouth. "Grass? Heh...that's a funny thing to smell like. Sunshine's neat, though. What does
sunshine smell like? You can tell me, ne? I don't smell anything..."
Oblivious to personal boundaries, Jin leaned over so his nose was fairly buried in the coat collar, his cheek and hair pressing cooly against Touya's neck.
Touya jumped in surprise and almost shoved him violently away. He would have, too, if he hadn't been mere inches from pitching right off the limb. Instead, he
stiffened and carefully pushed him back. Jin didn't offer any resistence. He even looked surprised, which Touya took as proof that the gesture hadn't been an
intentional invasion of his space so much as a side effect of Jin's open, and obviously tactile, nature.
"Don't do things like that," Touya said, surprising himself by how patient his tone was. "If I had fallen I would have injured myself further. You can have your
"No!" Jin said quickly. "Keep it, okay? At least till you have something of your own to wear. I wasn't trying to be like that. I didn't mean to make you mad,
either. I just, well, I wasn't thinking. I...heh...I don't always think before I do stuff. I was curious so I was going to get a little sniff, but then you smelled really
good so I didn't stop as soon as I should have. But I wouldn't have let you fall! I would definitely have caught you, Touya. There's no way I'd let you get hurt
again, especially not because of me. You don't have to worry about that. I'm a little clumsy sometimes, but I'd never hurt my friends. Besides that, you..."
He trailed off, blinking slowly and staring at Touya's wide eyes. When he spoke again, it was in a much softer tone. "You're really pretty...Touya. You
probably have someone who tells you that all the time. Pointless to even ask, I guess, but...can I kiss you?"
Touya's reaction wasn't quite what Jin had feared. He'd expected him to jolt back in surprise, since he should have found a smoother way to slip the question
in. Those pale blue eyes were staring at him in disbelief. He'd expected that, too, because it really was bold and dumb of him to just ask something like that
when there was no reason for Touya to be interested in him that way. But Touya's expression wasn't disgust or anger, or even fear. He'd gotten the
impression Touya didn't like to be touched much, so he wouldn't have been surprised if his request made the boy wary. Touya wasn't any of that, though. As
far as he could tell, Touya looked more shocked and confused than anything.
"That was a bad way to ask it, huh," Jin grinned weakly. "I've never been good at thinking up segways and I figured your response would be the same whether
I worked up to it or just asked. It's been distracting me, see, since I first saw you sleeping here. So when you blushed just now it was either ask or go crazy
wanting to. Only, now you're looking at me like you already think I'm crazy, so it might not have made a difference. And now I'm rambling so I won't hear your
answer, which isn't exactly fair to you, so I'll just shut up and let you turn me down."
The embarrassed grin Jin flashed was so good-natured that Touya actually wanted to cheer him up so he wouldn't have to hide behind a smile. He hid that as
best he could and leveled a calm, disapproving look on the redhead.
"You shouldn't be so forward with someone you know nothing about," said Touya. "Just because you like the way someone looks, that doesn't mean he's a
good person inside, or that he won't use you for his own gain. I could be a murderer who plans to kill all of you while you sleep and you're asking if you can...
kiss me. Do you have any idea how dangerously naive that is? You can't do things like that."
"But you're not a murderer," Jin protested, his bright blue eyes shining confusion and his mouth pulled into a pouting frown. "I've never met anyone as
kissable as you, either, so I've never asked anyone else. It's not like I go around wanting to kiss strangers, just because they're pretty. Of couse, I haven't
seen anyone as pretty as you, but even if I did, I don't think I'd want to kiss them just because they're pretty. You're special. You're all alone and hiding, even
though it's much easier to have at least one friend who'll share your secrets so they don't eat you up inside. Sure, I like how pretty you are - it's adorable that I
can make you blush just by saying how good you smell. But that's not why I asked.
"I wanted to kiss you earlier, but I could hold back because you were sleeping and it was just as nice to watch and appreciate, like looking at a flower. I asked
because you were blushing and smiling and looking at me. Do you know how much your eyes talk, Touya...? They're strong and wise, but lonely, too, sad
and haunted and a lot of other things I can't put a word to. As pretty as you are when you're sleeping, your eyes make you beautiful..."
Jin leaned closer, one hand braced on the tree trunk, the other brushing aside the thick aqua strands of Touya's bangs. Touya felt his face flush even more,
blushing just as Jin had claimed. That was funny to him, because prior to meeting Jin, he'd almost never blushed. He was blushing now, and holding his
breath for a reason he couldn't determine. He hated being kissed, so it couldn't be anticipation. And despite how heated Jin's gaze had grown, he didn't see
any part of the boy that wanted to hurt him. So if it wasn't fear, and it couldn't be anticipation, what was it?
"Can I?" Jin whispered, softly as if afraid he might startle him. "Please...?"
Touya didn't know how that one word made feel so guilty. Maybe it was because Jin had saved his life and he'd made no effort to repay him. He was only
asking for a kiss, which was such a small thing. Anyone else would have done it without bothering to ask.
He looked away from those burning blue eyes and made a quiet sound of agreement. He knew the real reason that please had made him feel guilty. Jin said
it as if he were someone untouchable and pure, as if being allowed to kiss him was a wonderful gift. And as badly as he felt about that, Touya had no intention
of correcting him.
That hand eased past his temple, fingers threading through his hair before gently tilting his head back. He kept his eyes averted as Jin leaned toward him.
Lips ghosted over his cheek and he closed his eyes, holding his breath again. A firm kiss was pressed to the corner of his mouth, warm and soft and fleeting.
Then the hand disappeared from his hair and he felt the nearness fade. He opened his eyes to find Jin floating a few feet away.
He could see the disappointment in Jin's eyes before they quickly closed and hid behind a sad smile. Touya stared at him, at that smile. He didn't
understand. He didn't understand why Jin had wanted to kiss him, and he certainly didn't understand why, after getting permission, he hadn't gone through
Jin smiled wider, his eyes still closed. "It's not the same if you won't look at me. I don't want it like that. I guess I really shouldn't have asked. But, you know...
you could have said no if you didn't want me to. It's okay. You don't owe me anything, and I told you, right? I don't want to make you uncomfortable."
Touya shook his head, not sure what to say. For someone who claimed to be bad at reading people, Jin seemed to know exactly what he'd been thinking.
And still, he felt bad for having disappointed him. He didn't like how wrong Jin looked with that fake, almost painful smile.
Jin stretched suddenly, his arms reaching out to grasp at the air around him as a little breeze fluffed his hair.
"Mm! Now that feels good. You must be sore, ne? Sleeping in a tree like that? It's not too safe, either, I mean, what if you'd fallen when you dozed off? The
beds aren't that bad, and it's much quieter upstairs than it is in the common room. It's probably hard to believe, but it's true. Naruto, you know that loud little
blonde kid? Well, he thinks the house was made that way, so that it's alwas quiet upstairs. I'd believe that, except the house was made before Kakashi turned
it into a bording place, and the ceilings are way too normal-looking to block out that much noise. No, I think someone's doing it, some talent that blocks out
noise. Kakashi denies it, but I bet it's him. He has all sorts of talents, some of them really weird. That's his skill - copying talents. I heard something went
wrong one time and that's why he covers his face and his eye. But that's just a rumor.
"Whatever's behind it, the upstairs rooms stay really quiet. You should rest up there when you're tired. You can meet Shika and get some clothes, too. I bet
you'll like him. He's really smart and quiet, and you're about the same size. He'll definitely have clothes that fit you. Not that I'm in a hurry to get my coat
back! I just figure you'll be more comfortable with your own clothes, is all. Probably want to change those bandages, too. And food, since you've been living
on that drip-machine thing at the hospital all week. Lots to do, really..."
Jin took a breath and smiled expectantly, wide-eyed and happy once more.
Touya shook his head in a cross between wonder and exasperation. The first thought that went through his mind during the following silence was that Jin must
be a great swimmer. He did speak quickly, but not quickly enough to account for how rarely he breathed while speaking. And still, Touya found it calming to
simply listen to him. Too much time had passed since someone talked to him. They'd talked at him, about and around him, but rarely to him. Even if he'd
wanted it, no one he knew could hold a conversation that didn't involve scheming, gloating, or threatening. It really was no wonder he had such a hard time
keeping up with someone as talkative as Jin.
"Touya...?" Jin asked worriedly. "Yo, To-ya...! You okay? If something's wrong, you gotta stop me when I go off like that. Everyone interrupts me, so it's okay
for you, too. I get distracted and forget what I'm planning to say. You can't let me do that or I might not notice when something's wrong..."
"Nothing's wrong," Touya said quickly. "But don't call me To-ya, Jin."
"Oh, right," Jin grinned. He didn't mention that it was the only guaranteed way he knew of to make Touya respond to him. "You want to go in now? We have
dinner in an hour, so you can nap or take a bath or something. Not that you have to eat with everyone. I can bring something up to you. You're still sick, so
Iruka-sensei won't make a fuss. He'd probably even fix up something special for you if you want. I'd offer to, but I'm a really bad cook. I burn everything."
Touya sighed and bent his legs so he could lean on his knees. He didn't feel any better than the last time he'd thought about getting back to the ground, and
he was beginning to suspect he wouldn't be feeling better for a while. He definitely wouldn't be climbing any more trees until he was sure he'd be able to get
"You carried me to the hospital," Touya said reluctantly. "Can you help me down? My balance is shot..."
"Yeah," Jin grinned. "I mean, sure I can help! I'm not as fast as some of the guys, but I'm pretty strong. Not that it takes much to carry you. I know pretty
people like to be little, petite, I guess, but you're way too skinny, Touya. Even before they put you on that machine, you didn't weight anything. It's not
healthy, you know."
Being lectured by Jin was disconcerting. Touya scowled. "It wasn't intentional. I've been...traveling. There wasn't time to worry about meals. I'd never starve
myself for a reason as shallow as appearances."
"Easy," Jin said quickly, surprised as well as happy at the vehement reaction. "I was just worried, is all. But this is good. Between me and Iruka-sensei, we'll
have you fattened up in no time. Well, not too fat. I mean, unless that's what you want. I'm sure you'll be pretty no matter how much you weigh! I wasn't
trying to say-"
"It's fine," interrupted Touya. "I know what you meant."
"That's good," sighed Jin. "I'm always sticking my foot in my mouth. But not literally, because my mouth isn't that big. Plus, there's something wrong about
putting bodyparts bigger than a finger in your mouth, at least when they're your own. I mean - I...oh. Wow. I can't believe I just said that..."
Jin's face flushed as red as his hair, and Touya choked back a laugh. He didn't want to embarrass him further, but Jin's horrified expression was adorable.
Open mouth, insert foot. Touya didn't say it out loud, but that was the first thing that came to mind. The second was that he shouldn't be laughing at Jin's
"I'm sorry for laughing," said Touya, with a smirk that wasn't the least bit sorry.
Jin grinned back at him. "No, you're not. And I'm glad you're not. Heh, if all I've gotta do to make you laugh is act like an idiot, then that's fine by me. Give me
your hand, Touya. I'll get you out of this tree. And this time I'll introduce you to my quiet friends. One at a time, I promise. Well, maybe two, but only because
Touya reached out and let Jin maneuver him so he was seated sideways on the limb. After a brief moment of vertigo, he decided not to complain about being
carried like a child. It didn't hurt that Jin blushed when he looked up at him. So long as neither of them were particularly comfortable, it was okay.
"You know," said Jin, a little louder than necessary, "I keep a window open in the upstairs hallway so I can slip out easier. I'll take you that way and we won't
have to go past the livingroom. How's that?"
"Fine," said Touya. "But who's that?'
There was a little boy sitting on the roof. When they neared the house, he turned to look at them. He had the most expressionless face Touya had ever
seen. Considering the people he'd met in the last few years, it was shocking to see that in someone so young. Touya glanced up and blinked at the glower
Jin was directing at the strange boy.
"That's Gaara," sighed Jin. "He was watching you earlier when you came outside. I don't know why. He isn't interested in anyone unless it's someone he
wants to fight. Why would he want to fight you? You're already injured and you're definitely not a troublemaker. That's weird, even for him..."
"Does he pick fights a lot?" Touya asked quietly. He had the feeling that blank-faced boy could see right through him.
"That's all he does," said Jin. "He's not happy unless he's nearly killing someone. I don't think he can help it, though. He's got problems. Just don't wander
off alone when he's bored, and you'll be fine. He doesn't like me, but we already had a match, so he won't start anything around me. He's not big on
Touya nodded and tore his eyes away from that knowing stare. Jin didn't need to warn him not to go off alone with the boy. He knew why now where he'd
seen that look before, and why he found it so disturbing. However weak and unthreatening he appeared to Jin, Gaara could see through that because they
came from the same place. The only difference was that he'd run from it, while Gaara seemed to have accepted and even embraced it.
Touya leaned into him and Jin automatically pulled him closer. He didn't know why Gaara was so interested in Touya, but he didn't blame Touya for being
creeped out by it. He felt sorry for Gaara, for whatever had happened to make him the way he was. Despite that, the boy was dangerous and the last person
he wanted Touya thinking about. At this rate, he'd leave as soon as his injuries healed.
"Don't worry about it," said Jin. "He's grounded, anyway. No fights for two weeks. It's fine."
Touya made a quiet sound, but didn't respond. He was halfway to dozing off. Jin smiled and eased over to lean against the wall, close enough to the window
to go in if Touya snapped out of it, but out of sight of the roof and anyone inside. He'd take him inside in a few minutes and get Iruka to check him over. For
now, he thought it was probably nicer to rest against someone warm than in a tree, or even a lonely bed. It was certainly nicer for him.
PREQUEL: Embracing Dreams