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i.

The rich young man that just moved into the condo next door is probably the most interesting thing that’s happened to Mrs. Judy Coleman in a long time, if she’s being honest. Things have been quiet for the past few months, her daughter isn’t bringing Susie and the kids until Thanksgiving, and while Sunday brunch with Mrs. Owens from downstairs is nice, Judy’s life feels kind of stagnant.

So when her building gets a young new tenant, well - she doesn’t like to gossip, but she feels it’s worthy of discussion, at least.

She’s only seen him around the building once or twice, but she has yet to speak with him. In fact, the only reason she knew he was her new neighbor was because, even at her age, she’s certain she would have remembered a face like his - clever green eyes and a strong jaw; a real pretty boy.

According to Mrs. Owens, his name is Christopher Winston and he made the down payment for the condo just five minutes after first walking into the building.

“And not only that,” Mrs. Owens had whispered, pausing to take a small bite of her scone, “he has a roommate . An Asian boy, I think.”

Now him, Judy has yet to see, but when she isn’t busying herself with puzzles or knitting, she keeps a curious eye out. That Christopher Winston had a mysterious aura and somehow she has a feeling she’d have better luck finding out more about him by asking his roommate than asking him directly. In fact, that’s the only thing that’s stopped her from showing up at their door with a casserole; Christopher doesn’t seem particularly sociable to her. Even when he held the elevator for her that one day they were both heading to the ground floor, there was something almost standoffish about him. Like he was deep in thought and god help you if you tried to pull him out. In the end, they descended to the lobby without saying a word.

Judy picks up a small pumpkin from the crate in front of her - Halloween is still a few weeks away, but she likes to start decorating early - twisting it in her hands as she examines it in thought. After determining that it doesn’t have any blemishes, she smiles to herself and adds it to her basket.

Oh, well. She’ll deal with her peculiar new neighbors when the time comes, if it ever does. It’s been a week since they moved in and she still hasn’t heard a word from them.

Sighing, she shuffles on, scanning the short produce aisle for tomatoes for her salad. She’s grateful that her building has a grocery store on the ground level - it’s close, and her legs aren’t what they used to be - but she wishes there were a bit more variety. Just as she reminds herself that Beggars can’t be choosers, Judy , her elbow collides with the corner of a shopping cart. She yelps, pulling her arm to her chest protectively and snapping her head up, startled.

“I am so sorry,” the young man in front of her rushes out, dark eyes wide and frantic. “I did not see you.”

Judy is already shaking her head by the time he finishes speaking, waving his apology away. “Oh, don’t worry, dear, I should have been watching where I was going,” she says dismissively, then chuckles. “ I’m sorry.”

He frowns, visibly unsatisfied. “Are you hurt?” he asks, pointing to her elbow timidly, his head bowed.

Judy flexes her arm, grinning. “I may be old, but I’m not fragile,” she assures him.

The boy’s face softens in relief, the tense line of his mouth ebbing into a smile. “I am glad,” he says, and it’s then that Judy notices his accent. Her eyes light up, heart ticking fast in excitement.

“Say, did you just move in with a Mr. Christopher Winston?” she asks abruptly.

The boy furrows his brow in confusion for a moment ( Probably the language barrier , Judy thinks to herself) before nodding, suddenly looking sheepish again. “Yes, I did. I’m sorry for not introducing myself, I - it has been stressful,” he explains clumsily.

Judy makes a mental note for her report to Mrs. Owens on Sunday - the Asian roommate is quick to apologize.

“Don’t you worry, sweet pea, I understand,” she soothes, patting the young man’s shoulder before placing a hand over her heart and adding, “I’m Judy Coleman, I live across the hall. It’s nice to meet you, dear.”

The young man offers her a sincere smile. “I’m Eiji Okumura,” he says, r’s rolled and vowels round. He chuckles. “I am sorry we had to meet like this.”

Judy waves him off once again with a friendly smile. “You and your apologies,” she teases, laughing when he shrugs helplessly. “If you really want to make it up to me, show me where you got those tomatoes. My arm may be fine, but it looks like my eyes aren’t.”

Eiji smiles brightly, seemingly happy to help. “Back there,” he says, pointing his thumb over his shoulder. “I can go with you. I forgot to get avocado anyway.”

Judy beams up at him. “I’d appreciate the company.”

Eiji steps to the right, cordially making room for her to walk next to him instead of behind. “Me too,” he says.

Judy feels her chest warm. Eiji is such a gentleman - awkward, maybe, but polite - and even if Christopher seems a little cold, he did hold the elevator for her that one time, so surely he’s one, too.

“You like avocado, then?” she asks, trying to make a mental list of possible meals she could make for the two of them. If they’re anything like Eve was when she was their age, they’re probably mostly living on microwave pizza and TV dinners, and that simply won’t do - not on her watch.

Eiji hums, drumming his fingers against the grip of his cart. “I think they are fine, but Chris loves them. It's all he will eat, most days. So picky,” he says, put-upon and yet undoubtedly fond. Judy glances up at him in surprise. She's heard that tone of voice before, often coming from herself when she'd catch her late husband forgetting to turn off the bathroom light before crawling back into bed.

She examines Eiji's face for a moment and smiles knowingly. She recognizes that look in his eyes, too.

Roommate, my foot , she thinks. So that's why they've been so shy.

“Do you do all the cooking?” she wonders as he gestures to the display of tomatoes from the vine to her left. She mutters a quick ‘thank you’ under her breath and shuffles over to it.

“Most of it,” Eiji answers, circling around the island of produce and reaching for an avocado. He weighs it in his hand, inspecting it from every angle before grabbing a plastic bag and slipping it inside. “Chris is busy with work. When he gets home, he is tired.”

“Mine was just like that,” Judy sighs, rolling her eyes. “It’s hard work, being a housewife - or househusband - isn’t it?”

Eiji begins to laugh politely, but then stops and blinks down at her, perplexed.

Judy offers him a sympathetic look. “You don’t need to hide it from me, dear,” she tells him, walking over to his side of the island and placing a reassuring hand on his arm, “This is New York. We’ve got all sorts around here.”

Eiji glances between her hand and her face, still confused, until recognition flashes in his eyes and his entire body jolts. “H-Hus - “ he sputters, almond-milk cheeks going so red Judy inwardly muses that she might confuse his face for a tomato if she squinted, “Chris is not - we - ”

She shushes him with a gentle finger placed over his lips. “Oh, honey, you got nothing to worry about,” she assures him. “My daughter, Evelyn? She’s got a girlfriend. They’ve even got kids. I know it can be hard, but I want you to know that I’m here for you two.”

Eiji looks like he might start steaming, his eyes wide and his face feverish. “I don’t know what to say,” he mutters weakly after a moment, running a hand through his thick black hair.

Judy smiles. “So long as it’s not an apology, you can say anything,” she says with a wink.

Eiji laughs breathlessly. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“You’re welcome, sugar plum,” she says, patting his cheek affectionately. “And congratulations, by the way. You two make a very handsome couple.”

Eiji laughs again, rubbing the back of his neck shyly. “You think so?”

“Oh, I know so,” she insists, nudging him with her elbow. “You’ve got the cutest little face, and Christopher? I thought he was a fashion model when I first saw him. What a looker!”

She watches Eiji bite his bottom lip as he tries and fails to stop himself from grinning. “When he first wakes up, that is when he looks the best,” he gushes, seemingly unable to help himself, his lovestruck eyes inspecting another avocado. He doesn’t seem to notice that it’s rind is still light green and slips it into his plastic baggie. “He becomes grumpy quickly, but right after waking up, there is a moment where he looks so - ” Eiji trails off, looking for the right words in the ceiling - “Soft,” he settles on finally, a serene smile on his face. “Like he is at peace with no worries. He’s beautiful.”

Judy, a romantic at heart, feels herself beginning to tear up.

“Tell you what, darling,” she says decisively, “Why don’t you come over for brunch this Sunday? Mrs. Owens from downstairs will be there, too. It’ll be nice and neighborly.”

Eiji, seemingly instinctively, refuses. “Oh, I couldn’t,” he stammers, waving his nervous hands.

“Your Christopher is welcome to join us, of course,” Judy continues, ignoring his protests with a pleasant and unwavering smile.

“My…” Eiji echoes blankly, an endearing blush spreading on his cheeks. He cups his face, exhaling deeply, defeated. “I - I will tell him,” he relents.

Judy cheers, clapping her hands, and nudges Eiji with her elbow until he reluctantly joins in.



ii.

It’s not Alex’s job to question the boss.

Does he do it anyway? Yeah, duh - but only sometimes, and only privately. Look, he can’t be the only one of Ash’s boys who doesn’t know what the fuck is going on in his head. Sure, he has faith in the boss, but the guy can be impossible to keep up with. His mood seems to constantly vacillate between ice and fire and the only one who’s immune to the ensuing frostbite and blisters is Eiji.

And, well. That just kind of brings up more questions.

Alex sighs. He turns off the faucet and dries his hands off on his jeans, looking at his troubled reflection in the bathroom mirror. He scrubs his hand down his face and tries to focus on something else; something that actually concerns him - like the details of the strategy meeting Ash just concluded. But it’s been hard ever since Eiji started being an honorary member of their gang. There they are, huddled around the kitchen table, talking arms and ambushes, and in walks Eiji, bringing them tea and snacks like he’s Ash’s mom and this is a fucking playdate; like they’re meeting up after school to play soldier instead of living that shit. Alex is doing his best to put on a brave face for the boys, but he has trouble taking himself seriously when Eiji leans over his shoulder to ask him if he takes sugar.

Alex frowns to himself as he makes his way down the hall. He pulls on his shoes with a hand braced against the front door; Eiji has a thing about people coming inside with shoes on, so Alex usually takes his off before coming inside.

Because it’s not that Alex doesn’t like Eiji. He does. He really does. Eiji’s funny and kind and surprisingly brave, and anyone who can deal with the boss’s temper when he gets woken up before noon has Alex’s respect, no question.

But there’s something about his presence that’s just...disarming. It relaxes him - and the rest of the boys, he can tell - in a way that maybe isn’t conducive to planning who they’re gonna shank in an alley next, or how they’re gonna outfox the Corsican mafia.

Like, if any of his boys asked him to take his shoes off before coming into their place, Alex would probably tell them to fuck off and laugh while tracking dirt all through the house just to make a point.

Eiji, though. Eiji is hard to say no to.

And maybe that’s what this is - this weird thing between him and Ash. As much as it pains Alex to admit, even in the privacy of his own head, Eiji is in danger by rolling with them. It would be better if he left. But he wants to stay, and maybe the boss is a pushover when it comes to him. Maybe everyone’s a pushover when it comes to him.

Fuck it. It’s not Alex’s problem until Ash says otherwise, so there’s no use thinking about it. Alex is his lieutenant. His job is to follow orders and he’s gonna be snappy about it.

Filled with determination to stay in his lane, he reaches for the doorknob before looking down and realizing his arm is sleeveless. He must have left his jacket in the kitchen. He tip-toes down the hall again, glancing down over his shoulder to make sure his shoes aren’t leaving dirty footprints on the floor, and touches his fingers to the cracked kitchen door. Before he gets the chance to push it all the way open, Ash’s voice filters through the gap and Alex stops dead in his tracks at what he hears.

“Trust me,” Ash says, tone hushed - the same way people whisper before a church service, when they’re kneeling in their pews and the sun streaming in through the stained glass windows lights up the dusty air; reverent. Alex has a flashback to being ten years old and complaining about sore knees; to his mother’s bony elbow in his shoulder and the tightness in her voice when she would shush him.

He furrows his brow, curiously watching Eiji and Ash as they stand close together in that tiny sliver of space between the edge of the door and its frame; a window to their private little slice of the universe. Eiji is leaning back against the cluttered counter by the sink with his arms crossed and Ash is rubbing the back of his neck, seemingly at a loss.

Alex feels voyeuristic, watching them like this; like he’s trespassing on holy ground, but he can’t look away, because there’s an expression Alex never thought he’d see on the boss’s face. It’s one Alex makes himself when he shows up too late for a date - sheepish, apologetic - and Christ , is Ash blushing, too?

Jesus H Fuck , Alex mouths silently, frantic eyes glancing between Ash and Eiji’s faces.

“That’s not the point,” Eiji mutters, peeved. Ash sighs. Alex bites down on his clenched knuckle. It’s like watching a goddamn soap opera. “I do trust you. I just worry. If you do dangerous things, it’s no wonder.”

“Hey,” Ash whispers with a gentle touch to Eiji’s elbow. Alex can’t be sure, but he swears he can see Ash’s thumb rubbing little circles against his arm. “I’m being as safe as I can be. I promise.”

Eiji’s face softens from irritation to heartbreak. Alex tries to remind himself that he’s sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong (namely the tiny gap he’s peeking through), but he also feels like he’s on the cusp of some kind of grand realization; an answer to his questions. If the boss ever finds out he’s been eavesdropping, Alex is gonna get his ass ceremoniously handed to him and then displayed as a mantelpiece, but the reward of knowing seems worth the risk, somehow. There’s something so intimate about the way Ash and Eiji are talking to each other, after all, like they’re in their own little world. Something that makes Alex want to get a look; to feel what it’s like to have that with someone. Something ethereal.

He swallows, rooted in place.

“I wish you didn’t have to do this,” he listens to Eiji murmur. His crossed arms unfurl, hands reaching for Ash’s shoulders before brushing down over his biceps.

“Me too, but I think we’re past that now,” Ash chuckles, placing a hand on Eiji’s and squeezing.

Alex pinches himself and rubs his eyes, but when he opens them again, Ash’s hand is still there.

Finally, Eiji manages a smile. “Be safe, Ash. I told you, if you are not here, I will go crazy,” he says, and those words are familiar - Alex was there when Eiji first said them - but what comes next is definitely new, and is accompanied by a look that Alex can only describe as flirty . “Maybe I go crazy when you are here, too.”

Ash snickers, looking somewhere between smug and smitten. Alex gapes, wondering if he’s peering not into their kitchen, but into some kind of parallel dimension.

“I won’t leave,” Ash vows softly, bending his head down towards Eiji, “at least not for good.” He pauses, raising his knuckles to the curve of Eiji’s jaw and tracing it to the tip of his chin.

Alex feels his cheeks burn when Ash adds, “I’ve got a lot to come back for.”

Eiji smiles as his hands start to trail up Ash’s arms. Alex leans away from the door just as they lean into each other.

He takes a quiet step back, and then another, and another, body hot, mind racing like his feet would be if he could afford to make the noise. Every confusing interaction he’s ever witnessed between Ash and Eiji settles like knees on a church floor; like the silence that comes after a psalm is answered with “amen.”

Alex walks out the door in a daze and shuts it quietly behind him. He takes the elevator down to the ground floor and steps outside into the brisk autumn air, bare arms erupting with goosebumps as he stands frozen on the fifth avenue sidewalk.

And, enlightened, Alex tilts his head back, squints up into the bright sky, and whispers, “Holy shit.”

 

iii.

“This game sucks,” Sing declares, zeroing in on the white ball ambivalently resting in the bed of green felt covering the pool table. He adjusts the way his cue rests on the ridge of his hand, angling it so its blunted tip is barely an inch away from its target. He takes a deep breath, palms sweating, and jerks his cue forward.

Clack - the white ball bounces off the striped one behind it, which rolls steadily in the direction of the unobscured pocket Sing had his eyes on before uselessly veering off into the side-rail.

“Motherfucker,” he hisses under his breath. He's used that word so many times tonight that it's starting to sound weird.

“I don't think it's the game that sucks,” a pleased voice remarks from the other end of the table.

Sing raises his head up out of his hands. “Man, shut up,” he mutters, feeling his face heat up. Ash’s cat's smile always does that to him.

“You're the one who wanted to play,” he reminds Sing, putting the tip of his cue on the floor and resting his elbow on its back end.

“That was before I knew how much it sucked ,” Sing huffs. He lifts his cue and rests it on one shoulder, holding it like a gun and staring down its nonexistent scope. “I think this thing is warped.” It isn't.

“Use mine.” Ash circles around the table, holding it out to him and still grinning.

Sing glares at it. “Nevermind,” he mutters, embarrassed he even said anything.

Ash rolls his eyes. “So you'll quit bitching?”

Sing bristles, feeling too warm and too stupid. “Just take your damn turn.”

Ash complies and bows low over the table, eyes focused, arms long. Whenever Sing is around Ash, he has at least a handful of isolated epiphanies about how tall he is. He's not big and imposing like Cain is, but if Sing wants to look him in the eyes, he has to tilt his head almost all the way back. Something about it makes his skin crawl in a way he can't decide is pleasant or not.

Bent over like this, though, Ash almost seems farther away, despite the fact that he's technically physically closer to Sing now. When he gets into position to hit the cue ball, his eyes focused and his back lean, he looks like a wildcat slinking through the brush. The green felt of the pool table sprouts into tall jungle grass. His mouth grows fangs.

Sing looks away, waiting for the clack of resin on resin and the swish of another pocket being filled with the fifth solid-colored ball this round. He hears it. Surprising no one - not even himself - he's getting completely schooled.

“Booyah,” Ash says, pumping his fist in satisfaction.

Sing glances back to the table. After a moment, he realizes the 8-ball is missing, and he has to physically resist the urge to javelin-toss his cue at Ash's pretty blond head.

Somehow, it's like Ash can tell and is annoyingly smug about it. He stretches leisurely and sets down his cue on the felt before waltzing over and leaning back against the side-rail next to Sing.

“Best outta three?” he asks, grinning.

Hell no, this bites.” Sing tosses his cue on the felt next to Ash's. He huffs, pissed off, but he wasn't raised without manners, so he forces himself to add, “But thanks for teaching me how to play, I guess.”

Ash reaches for the beer he set down on the side-rail earlier, the bottle glistening with condensation. He takes a sip. Sing almost asks if he can try some, but doesn't. He's a man. Chinatown's boss. Gang-leaders don't ask other gang-leaders if they could pretty-please have a sip of their drink. It'll just draw attention to the fact that Sing is way underage and that’s the absolute last thing he needs right now - for all kinds of reasons.

“Why the sudden interest in pool, anyway?” Ash wonders casually, inspecting the damp label on his beer.

Sing's mouth twists. He thinks about the shitty basement pool-hall they're in right now; about how some of the walls have bullet holes and the floors are sticky. He thinks about the crappy grunge music blasting through the blown-out speakers and the bartender who’d probably give him a drink if he asked for one, but would make sure to tease him for his age first. He thinks about how many times he accidentally knocked the white ball into one of the table pockets and about how his cue is definitely warped. And then he thinks, yeah, why the hell did he wanna do this?

And then he remembers Ash's hands on his when he showed him how to hold the cue. Ash's lean body bowed over the pool table. Ash's sarcastic voice saying, “Beautiful,” every time Sing fucked up. Ash's shit-eating, bombshell grin when he won.

“I dunno,” Sing answers honestly, the images his mind conjures offering more questions than answers, “I thought it'd be cool.”

Ash smirks. “It's fun,” he says, “if you're not bad at it.”

Sing's expression curdles. “Eat my shorts.”

Ash taps Sing's forehead with the tip of his bottle. “Language.”

Sing narrows his eyes at him, rubbing the spot Ash's bottle touched; the same bottle Ash's lips had touched. Sing tries not to think about that last part. Ash snickers.

“What's up with you, anyway?” Sing asks. “You're weirdly chipper today.”

“That's because I never win this easy when I play against Cain.”

“Bullshit,” Sing scoffs, “I bet you win easy against everybody.” If nothing else, thinking that makes him feel a little better about his loss.

Ash chuckles. “Eiji's actually not bad at pool,” he says. “He's beaten me a few times.” Sing watches him curiously, tries to decipher that unreadable expression. He wants to ask if Eiji wins because Ash goes easy on him, then decides he doesn't want to know the answer.

“Terrible at chess, though,” Ash snickers. He sets down his beer and wipes the condensation on his fingers off on his jeans. His eyes widen when something in his pocket crinkles from the friction. As he reaches inside and pulls out a little scrap of paper, his expression softens into a faraway look that Sing doesn't understand.

“What's that?” Sing asks before he can stop himself, rising to the tips of his feet and trying to get a look over Ash's shoulder. He just barely manages to read the words scribbled onto it before Ash elbows him away.

His heart stops. Suddenly, he does understand. He sort of wishes he didn't.

“Shopping list,” Ash answers, closing his hand around the note. “Eiji wanted me to pick up some groceries.”

Sing looks down at his shoes. “I don't see a shopping bag anywhere.” He also didn't see any ingredients on Eiji's alleged ‘list.’

Ash shoves the hand with the note back into his pocket and keeps it there. “It's from a while ago.”

“So throw it away,” Sing tells him. Ash glances down at him, face inscrutable. Sing feels his heartbeat stutter. He waits with tense shoulders as Ash grabs his beer and finishes it before setting the bottle back down with a sigh.

“Well, if we're done here,” he grunts, pushing off the side-rail, “I gotta bounce.”

Sing feels his heart sink and puffs out his chest to compensate. He musters an unconvincing smirk. “Running from my challenge with your tail between your legs, huh?”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night, kid,” Ash calls over his shoulder as he walks away. Sing waves goodbye, but Ash doesn't see it, already slipping out the door and into the night.

He lets his hand fall down at his side. His mind reels with Eiji's neat handwriting and the words it formed; with the way Ash clutched that scrap of paper so protectively, as if he wanted the ink to bleed into the skin of his palm like a tattoo; with the softness of his smile when he first pulled the note out of his pocket.

Sing's heart is still somewhere in his belly. He squeezes past the couple grinding in the narrow hallway leading to the bathroom and washes his blushing face in the sink, as if the red will rinse off like paint and disappear down the rusty drain. He cups his cheeks, staring into his own stinging eyes in the cloudy mirror. This is stupid, and he knows it's stupid, but that just makes him want to cry more.

He shuts his eyes and takes a deep, steadying breath that returns a little bit of buoyancy to his heavy heart. He runs a paper towel under the water and pats down his face with it, tossing it in the trash when his skin has cooled down. He meets his own eyes again and nods.

He’s lost twice now tonight. This time, he's gonna be mature about it.

 

iv.

 

Ash -

I will probably be asleep by the time you get home. Dinner is in the fridge. Come back soon.

I love you.

Eiji