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In the Skin of a Lion
By Aaronica and Orfik
Jin hadn't answered Hwoarang's question. When he left the rathskeller that night, Jin let several days pass without contact, busying himself with the normal and inconsequential hassles of everyday life. At the end of one of those days, however, he left his guardsmen and the world he had inherited and once more disappeared downtown, into the Yurei District. His pace was casual but his eyes were searching.
Feeling conflicted and contradicted, the redhead had spent those days - more specifically, nights and early dawns - retrogressing. Rekindling his old habits helped hide the confusing feelings growing in him, giving Hwoarang a familiarity and security and confidence. Those few days he went about hustling with a new vigor, pulverizing his victims with a cathartic fanaticism. Strange dreams had started to come, but at least they ended with the morning. He spent every moment of the dawn attempting to block the image of the Japanese from his thoughts. That particular evening Hwoarang flourished alone, and amidst a carcinogenic haze of smoke at the back of the Yurei rathskeller with 'decent' karei, gravitating with a stick about a pool table.
Naturally it was one of the last places that Jin checked. His hands in their pockets were sore when he removed and flexed them and he suspected that his nose was red, too. He let himself inside, lingered a moment there by the door until he was adjusted to the smoke and din and odd smells. It was gratifying to know that his search was over when he spied a familiar redhead bent carefully over a pool table under the light of a round, bright hanging lamp. Kazama approached from behind, probably easy enough to go unnoticed. He stood there and watched.
And Hwoarang didn't seem to notice. In grey jeans, black chaps and an indigo sleeveless stretch-shirt - goggles suspending orange strands - he did appear his old self. Each sphere of rich sienna brown focused on each maneuver taken in the solitary game - his hearing monopolized by the clash of balls - and having ignored the noisy surroundings Hwoarang cleared the green surface in a matter of minutes. He leaned to align the last shot, murmuring to no one in particular. ".. eight ball - corner pocket."
Two or three seconds passed, before he cracked white with the end of the pool stick, sending the ball colliding into black with a force that soon concluded his prediction.
With his arms crossed loosely over his chest Jin smiled -- to himself, since no one was looking. He wanted to speak. After a respectful pause Jin broke his silence, watching the back of Hwoarang's head as he said, "Good game."
Hwoarang's shoulderblades froze at the voice before he responded.
Placing the pool stick against the table, he relaxed, twisting his neck only slightly to accommodate the look that settled on Jin. The 'what are you doing here?' look.
Kazama's eyes were indeed fixed acutely on his subject. He lowered his arms slowly, still smiling loosely, conversationally. One wide-set shoulder rose in a shrug as he addressed the question about which he'd been thinking for quite a while. "You still have my lighter."
The comment earned a stare intense enough to humble a three-headed hydra. The almond skin that separated linear, dark brows furrowed, lending inscrutability to the expression etched over Hwoarang's youthful face. After a moment his lips twitched with the bud of an incredulous grin, and he shifted to a stance perpendicular to the Japanese.
"... you're kidding, right? Cuz, well .. " He raised a hand to the back of his neck, averting his eyes. "I sort of misplaced it."
Eyes that only looked brown in the light lowered to the empty pool table, an expression of mellow amusement on his now-thawed face. He had prepared himself to appear mellow if -- when -- he met up with Hwoarang, in hopes it made things easier.
"Saa. I guess I'll make due."Jin looked at Hwoarang and then back to the table as his thumbs hooked over the pockets of his jeans -- his favorite jeans, faded blue and beginning to fray at the cuffs. His jacket was unzipped but made too narrow a gap to see his shirt. Jin forced a smile before he spoke again.
"Nah, I'm not that good yet." Hwoarang admitted flippantly, wrapping his muscle-lined arms around the back of the chair as he faced Jin. Like pools of palpable warmth, his rich, reddish eyes traipsed over the serene Japanese features as he spoke with honesty he could afford on this subject. "I lose a lot of cash - but hey - I'll never get good if I don't practice, right?" Shrugging, his lips remained set in an immutable, easy grin.
"Right. I mauled a lot of bonsai before I was finally able to trim them properly; I keep several of them at home. Have you ever tried to tend one? I think it must be like taking care of a baby."He rested comfortably against the back of the booth, his jacket folded and resting in the seat between Jin and the wall.
"... can't say I have." The man they called 'Fatal Lightning', who leapt out warehouse windows in a single bound tended flowers? Hwoarang-five-weeks-ago would have wasted no time haranguing what he took to be a self-admitting pansy, after he first got over his disbelief. But he managed to answer, without making his initial inclination to laugh and subsequent surprise too evident. Call him softened. Kazama was interesting.
"... what got you into that?"
Just picture Jin in his trademark black, enflamed gi pants and red handguards ... stooped over a tiny potted tree with a little watering can in one hand and a pair of shears in the other. Jin did often and was the first person to smile at his own expense on the matter.
"It's funny, I know. My mother nudged me into it when I was little... I had a lot of excess energy and learning to tend a bonsai will teach pretty much anyone to be patient and calm. Either that or you snip off a major limb and kill it,"he shrugged easily. The waitress came then with their drinks and Kazama thanked her for his glass, from which he took several large swallows before setting it down.
"I guess it's a general lesson. You have to be focused playing pool, too. And studying, and training..." He waved a hand at the thought.
"Yeah ... " Well, Hwoarang sort of saw the analogy, any way. Reaching for his beer, he wrapped his fingertips around the neck and lifted it to his lips, muttering before taking a sip .. ".. I'd kill a cactus." Chuckling, he glanced to a couple of men entering, giving them a half nod and tracing their path to the bar with his eyes before he refocused on his companion.
"Friends?" This time when he drank Jin nabbed an ice cube as well, crunching it as quietly as he could. Which wasn't very.
"Sure." More like associates - Hwoarang's kind didn't have friends. Cast from the solitary archetype - it followed that he didn't break bread with associates, take them for joyrides on his bike, tell them his real name, etcetra, etcetra. Thinking about his own prescriptions for himself forced him to silence, during which he stared at the label on the beer bottle.
/No no no, please don't get somber again/ -- Jin's mouth tensed and relaxed and his eyes drifted away and then back. He wanted to say something that would hopefully be taken positively. After some seconds of that silence, he spoke.
"I wasn't really trying to get my lighter back, by the way," he said, the statement just a touch softer than his normal voice but still even and sure. Maybe he just didn't want anyone around to hear. "I was just hoping to find you ... actually."
"Really .. ?" Hwoarang's tenor resonated. Lifting a dissecting gaze, he examined the face before him with a bit of uncertainty as he lowered the bottle to the table. ".. why .. I mean, what for?"
Hwoarang didn't laugh, or kick him under the table, or get up and leave, and therefore it had to be considered a decent reaction. Jin's face was honest with lingering traces of ease.
"I like seeing you."As in 'doing stuff with you,' but 'seeing you' didn't sound as corny. He hoped.
Curved lines of orange rose in unison above thick, complementing lashes. Was he hearing Jin correctly? 'Liked seeing' him? Hwoarang couldn't tell, in a brief moment of suspicion, whether he'd heard incorrectly, or he was that obvious.
". . . seriously?" /Might as well get to the bottom of it. I've spent a week distracted about this queer shit./ Hwoarang sized him up.
Jin's head canted as he scratched through the downy hair on the back of his head, gazing off in the direction his face pointed. He looked as casual as can be.
"As in doing shit." He could have easily saved face by joking it off or saying something snide -- but then, how many more weeks would it have been before he got the chance again? Of course, if this went wrong there was the possibility that there would be no more chances, period. He caved. "...Just thought I'd say so, you know, you don't have to lose sleep over the lighter."
"Two karei?"The server returned and smiled a waitressy sort of smile, bending gently to set a plate before each of the men. Jin swallowed and smiled and said thanks.
Hwoarang's eyes were clouded, and shifted to stare after the waitress somewhat blankly. When he gave an uninspired reach for the chopsticks, turning to assess his karei, his words came in the deliberate guise of an afterthought.
". . . me too." But Hwoarang wasn't ready to embellish with what he still didn't understand, so he muted himself with a portion of the fish, chewing with savoring procrastination.
Kazama's face had been lowered towards the chopsticks and he had just set his hand upon them when Hwoarang had spoken. He was very still for several counts and then only his eyes moved, in the direction of Hwoarang.
"...What?"He closed his fingers about the chopsticks and lifted his chin.
The enzymes in saliva had long reduced the seafood in Hwoarang's mouth to simplified molecular form, but he still swallowed with a reluctant effort. His slanted gaze narrowed a quarter more as he raised it, addressing the other teenager's anticipating face.
"I like hanging out with you .. too. You're .. " Each word was a trial against instincts, and he found it a task to prevent stuttering awkwardly. ".. pretty cool, Jin." Glistening with moisture from the food, lips curved in a weak smile of reinforcement.
Jin met Hwoarang's glance long enough to say that he got it, that he understood and it was cool, and then he had to lower his eyes to his meal for fear that they might say too much.
"Oh."He lifted a piece of fish, chewed, and didn't taste it. He did, however, smile simply as he took his second bite. "Cool."
It was the most delicious thing Jin'd ever tasted.
/Cool. Yeah - everything ... / Hwoarang assured himself, was simple and cool. Utilizing Jin's deference to study him that much longer, Hwoarang felt more entitled the feelings of ease he experienced in Jin's company - an experience rare and significant to him. He stopped short of responding, however, placing his faith in the smile on the other's masticating mouth. He continued to eat as well, polishing off his portion in a matter of minutes.
To Jin, at least, it was not an uncomfortable silence. He ate as calmly as he did almost everything else, also finishing off his water at one point. The server traded his glass for a fresh one quickly. (Since their last visit, word had spread among the waitstaff about a certain handsome young patron who apparently tipped quite generously.) Jin was finished when his plate and the second glass were both empty and he once more settled back against the seat, head and stomach both pleasantly full.
"...Want to catch a game of pool?"
"Why not .. ?" Hwoarang agreed. Leaving a quarter of the brew unimbibed, he rose from his chair and reached backward, hand weaning a money clip of his tight pants pocket. ".. you any good?"
The Mishima heir might have detected traces of the Korean's fondness for intense competition in Hwoarang's query, and the particular way a corner of his mouth rose, tugging his lips in a haughty, slanted crescent.
"We can make it interesting," Hwoarang continued. "How about a bet? I win, you teach me that .. uppercut thing. You win, you .. what do you want?"
"I'll think about it."
Hwoarang grinned. Even if he lost, what would Kazama Jin possibly ask for that mattered?
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