When they arrived in Vancouver, it was already dark and time for dinner.
"I can't believe you." Ash complained. They exited the car after they searched a restaurant to dine in from the internet.
"Unlike you Ash, most people find eating essential." Eiji said with a huff of disbelief. They spent over fifteen minutes arguing in the car about the necessity of eating and another thirty minutes about where exactly they should eat. Then five more minutes on who's paying. Of course in the end, Eiji won. Quite embarrassing for Ash who's stared death in the eye, who's been held at gunpoint too many times to count, who once led a successful underground gang at so young an age, to have lost in a battle of wills. He was so easily outmatched in argument and stubbornness.
"At least make me pay my own meals." He scowled in response. They entered the establishment. They welcomed the sudden warmth that washed over them.
"I have enough money to spend." Was Eiji's reply. They've been at this before, but Ash wasn't one to back down. He never backed down.
"Now you're just bragging." He rolled his eyes.
"I'm being practical. But if you don't want to think of it that way then since I'm older so I pay."
Ash scoffed at this. He was about to rebut but by then a hostess greeted them and led them to a table for two. The restaurant was dim lit. Its yellow glow was supposed to make the place look romantic, but to Ash, it merely felt tacky. Ash pulled out the chair for Eiji, who in turn looked genuinely surprised and flustered. His dark eyes widened and a faint trail of pink washed his sun kissed skin. "Oh thank you." He managed to say.
He sat on the chair. Ash smirked and said: "Mhm. We can't let the old man tire himself out now can we?"
With this Eiji threw a table napkin at Ash's face. Ash managed to catch it before it hit him. He gave Eiji a long unimpressed look before sitting down on his own chair. Eiji had this affronted look on his face, a petulant pout on his lips, his arms crossed on his chest. He reminded Ash of a child. It was hard to believe this man was two years older than him.
"Are you ready to order sirs?" A waitress approached their table with her notepad and click pen. Eiji picked up the menu and scanned it. Ash followed suit. He glanced at it with disinterest.
"Mhm...Ash what do you want?" Eiji flicked the pages and took a long time deciding, as if it was a really hard decision to make. To Ash it all tasted the same. Food hadn't appealed to him in a long long time. So he answered:
"Anything. I guess? Just soup is fine." He wasn't really hungry, but somehow he knew Eiji would pester him he didn't eat anything.
"Okay sir. We have different kinds of soup. It would be helpful to be specific." The waitress replied. Ash frowned at this. He read what was on top of the menu and was done with it. He didn't bother reading what it really was. He set the menu back on the table carelessly while Eiji gave his own order.
"Would you rather I choose?" Eiji turned to him for his opinion. Ash nodded to the offer and so Eiji took his time with that too. The waitress was satisfied and left after repeating everything they ordered. Ash was barely able to hear what he ordered.
"So," Eiji drained his water in one gulp. "Are you going to tell me about yourself?" He set the glass back on the table.
"Now you finally thought to ask." Ash snickered. He sipped from the cool water, quenching his dry mouth.
"I mean it's fine if you don't want to, but Ash Lynx is kind of a weird name though?" Eiji said. He started spreading his napkin on his lap. He had this refinement that was obviously taught as a necessity from when he was younger. Muscle memory and instincts working while he moved absentmindedly. Ash could see now that he did come from a prestigious family, and yet for some reason he lacked the finesse and elegance of being an old money rich tycoon that Ash was so used in seeing. He still had this clumsiness in the way he fumbled with his napkin, and in the way he picked his silverware.
"That's because it's not my real name." Ash did the same with the smooth white linen. He was taught with the same etiquette as that of a noble, and so Ash moved only with elegance, precision and refinement.
"Ehhh?" Eiji was genuinely surprised. His dark eyes widened and his mouth hung open. He was too naïve. Ash worried for him.
"See. This is what I meant about you being too trusting."
Was he really berating the man in the middle of a restaurant? Actually was he really berating a man he just met? Maybe it's because he grew up sheltered. Maybe he grew up without having seen deception. But he wouldn't survive in the cutthroat world of business if he's too gullible like that. Neither will he live in a works full of politics and tough choices.
"So if it's not Ash Lynx, then what is it?" He asked with curiosity washing his features, much like a kid who's pestering their mother about what their present for Christmas was. He really was so transparent. It was different from all the people who surrounded Ash day to day. They were always hiding something. This was refreshing.
"You really think I'll tell you?" Ash laughed, not cruel, but amused.
"Well yeah," Eiji started. "I'd like to know the names of my friends. Don't you?"
Somehow, just when Ash thought this man couldn't baffle him anymore, he goes and drops something like that. Before Ash could comment on that, the waitress came with their wine. It was white. This surprised Ash. People usually chose red for some reason. She poured it carefully on the wine glass before leaving. Ash picked it up and swirled the liquid, drawing it near his nose for inspection. He closed his eyes and picked the different scents and aromas from the wine.
He took a sip, savored it on his tongue, feeling its texture before slowly swallowing. The flavor lingered in his mouth. He opened his eyes and faced Eiji who was staring at him with wonder.
"Sauvignon Blanc." He started. "Bordeaux? No, New Zealand." He thought of its racy texture and the scent and taste of citrus on his tongue. He was already certain. "Grown from the Marlborough region." He finished.
"Wow." Eiji grinned. "You just never stop amazing me."
Ash smirked. It really was easy to please the man. Ash was done with pleasing other people. He was done with following orders. But when he saw those eyes sparkle with wonder, those pink lips part with a gasp, genuine praise leaving them, Ash thought he could make an exemption. Just one.
"It's a force of habit." He shrugged. "I had training." Even in his sleep, Ash could recognize his wine, from the label to its age. He's picked a rather discerning palette from training. Even when food didn't excite his tongue, he will always have this. "It's rare to see people order white wine though. They almost always pick red."
Eiji smiled. "I may not know my wines, but at least I know you should pair chicken with white wine."
Chicken. Right they ordered chicken. Cream of chicken soup for Ash, and creamy Parmesan garlic mushroom chicken Eiji. The waitress set the dishes on the table.
"Ittadakimasu." Eiji murmured with excitement. Ash had never seen someone look so excited over food. He simply watched Eiji as he pressed mouthfuls of the soup on his lips. It was warm and creamy.
"So you're going to Alaska?" He asked between spoonfuls.
"Yeah. But we're going to have a few things to do before leaving for Alaska."
"Eating pancakes with authentic Canadian maple syrup." Ash deadpanned.
"Yes. But that's not all!" Eiji exclaimed. "I'm a photographer too, so I'm going to different sceneries to take their pictures."
Right. Photography. So this trip was work related after all. He could've said that in the first time around.
"Anyway," Eiji said. "Let's search the net for a hotel."
Ash could feel an argument brewing. This time he wasn't going to lose, this time he was going to insist on paying for himself. This time for sure. This time.... This time....
"You didn't have to book two rooms," Ash grumbled as they waited for the elevator. Obviously he lost the argument...again. He didn't want to talk about it. "I could always sleep on the floor." He carried some of Eiji's luggage since he didn't have much to bring. Ash learned that the case he was holding was actually just camera equipment. Actually, half of Eiji's luggage were camera equipment.
"Nonsense. That's going to be hurt your back." Eiji argued. The elevator dinged open. "Plus I don't think you're comfortable with sharing a bed with me." He paused. "Then again I could book a room with two separate beds." He looked like he just realized that. Ash rolled his eyes as they stepped inside. Eiji frowned. "Remind me to do that next time."
"You're actually a bit of an airhead, huh?" Ash snickered. "Doesn't change my opinion on you being a grandpa."
Eiji pouted. Ash noticed he often pouted when he's being teased, or if things don't go his way. "That's insulting." He said with childish petulance.
"Mhm you're right. That is insulting to the grandpas."
Eiji looked pink with shock. Meanwhile Ash was too busy laughing in triumph to notice his spluttering. It felt good. He finally rendered him speechless. How the tables have turned.
Before Eiji could retort, the elevator door opened and both of them stepped out. The hall was dim lighted too, just like in the restaurant. Every step of their feet echoed in the quiet. They stopped at the end of the hallway. Ash's room was just next Eiji's.
"Well," Ash swiped the key card for his room. The high of laughing awhile ago faded and he was left with lingering effects of pleasantness settled in his bones. He sighed. "Goodnight I guess?"
"Yeah. Goodnight Ash." Eiji recovered from his blushing fit and smiled at him before entering his own room. He paused. Then he turned to Ash. "Oh and don't mind ordering room service if you feel like it." Then he entered his room.
The hot water running down on his back felt was a blessing. The grime from this morning were washed away from the water and going down the drain. Ash thought a shower was only proper after that long day. The heat relaxed his tense muscles. He let the droplets roll down his skin.
He closed his eyes while he recalled about everything that occurred, New York, Washington, Canada, Alaska, the assault this morning, meeting Eiji.
That alone needed more than one shower's worth of contemplation. He was strange, the strangest Ash had met. He wore his bleeding heart on his sleeve. He was naïve, and too trusting, and he was easily impressed. He was reckless, and he befriends anybody he holds a conversation with.
Eiji was a good man.
There was no doubt about that. But he was a mystery to Ash. He was a lovely conundrum of contradictions. He was timid and frightful in the midst of action, but he jumped over a fifteen feet wall without any doubt about his abilities and without fear of falling. He didn't mind being with Ash either, despite how much he tried to warn him.
Maybe it's because he was Japanese. Ash had no idea how it goes in Japan, but they are known for their polite demeanor. Eiji was gentle. Tranquil. Warm. But he was unyielding too. Proud. Those dark eyes stood firm against Ash. He was stubborn too, surprisingly good at arguing. It wasn't irrefutable logic that made him win, it wasn't the sharpness of his tongue either. He didn't use harsh barbs or petty insults. In fact, Ash wondered why he always lost to him.
Perhaps he made amends with sheer stubbornness, perhaps it was something else. By the end of the night, he remained a mystery to Ash still, even as he drift off to sleep, he was decoding him in his thoughts.
He was woke in a dark room and the first thing he wondered was how he got there. He blinked. There were so many faces staring at him. Too many faces. He recognized them all. Some he knew their names, some he didn't, but he knew them. Yes he knew them. Some were blurry, like shadows, like wisps of smokes but Ash knew they were there. They surrounded his bed and they loomed over him. And then he saw faces that were too familiar to his heart.
They stared at him with soulless eyes. Their blank faces were daunting to look at. Ash felt a cold sweat roll down his skin. He was unable to move despite wanting to, as if some divine being paralyzed him and froze his bones. He couldn't look away.
Their lips parted, but no words came out. They might've said his name, might've said something else, Ash wouldn't know. Instead of words, blood slid out of their lips, rolling down to their chins and necks, pooling in their collarbones and slowly making its way to their chest. They cry out in desperation as they moved towards Ash.
Their hands were ice cold. He felt it against his skin while they choked him with their dead fingers. Ash's air slowly left his lungs, slowly slowly slowly. His vision blurred, his lungs begged for oxygen. He tried to pry these hands off his necks but his own hands were filled with blood. He pawed helplessly at their grip among the indifferent scrutiny of those dead eyes. He choked. His pulse beat erratically, heart pounding on his chest.
"It's okay shhh..." A voice carefully whispered. It sounded far away, muffled, like he was underwater. "It's going to be okay," It continued, its voice felt like the slide of bitter wine in his tongue. Distasteful. Maybe it was meant to be comforting, but it only continued to fill Ash dread inside him. "It's better to sleep yeah? Shhh....let's go to sleep Aslan."
Ash's eyelids slowly droop. His vision started fading. He's doing his best to stay awake. He's trembling and shaking and tears were falling from his eyes. He was a mess and he can't breathe and he's desperate for air. His head was spinning fast fast fast and he couldn't do anything.
His eyelids start to close once more. This time, they stayed shut.
Ash woke up with a gasp. His sheets were soaked with sweat and his breathing uneven, almost as if he was drowned, almost as if he almost faced death. It was barely dawn. The sunlight started to spill from the window to his face and the warmth was a contrast to the chill that his body felt. He took a shuddering breath.
It was just a dream.
He's always plagued with nightmares and this feeling wasn't by any case foreign. But it still haunted him, still managed to shake his core.
It was just a dream.
But it was a testament of his guilt, a monument of his sins, a brand of the blood that he spilled, a curse that will never be washed off him. It was proof of how filthy he was, how tainted he was.
In the coldness of the early morning, Ash picked himself up from bed and headed for a warm bath.
"Ash, are you okay? Did you not sleep well last night? Was the room uncomfortable?"
Eiji's voice snapped Ash from his wandering thoughts. He had been staring off the entire day and he hadn't really kept track of where they were going. He blinked away the memories of this morning and it finally dawned to him that he was in an aquarium. The blue lights from the waters were dark. The fish swam with steadiness on the still waters. The place smelled of fish, seaweed and the ocean.
"Ash?" Eiji asked again and he was holding his camera this time, wearing a tacky purple jacket and a pink shirt with the most hideous cartoon bird printed on it. Ash furrowed his brow and tore his gaze from the incriminating bird. "You've been quiet for the rest of the day."
"I'm fine." He slid his hands on his pocket and looked around the area. The tanks were everywhere. They surrounded the room like walls of glass and water with tiny fishes living inside. Their swishing movements were hypnotic in a way.
"I just remembered that you lost your book because of me," He said without tearing his gaze from the sea creatures. Up down right left. They moved in groups and sometimes with none. Like a gang. "Salinger wasn't it?"
There was a rather interesting fish. The moonfish. It sailed with grace and dignity. "It's okay. I can always buy a new one." Ash heard Eiji say. He was staring at him, he could feel the tiny pinpricks of the gaze of his dark eyes.
"Have you heard of a banana fish?" Ash ignored his answer and moved on with his next question. He was held captive of the mesmerizing fishes. He couldn't look away.
"No. I haven't." Was Eiji's reply. Ash hummed.
"According to one of Salinger's stories, they're rare fishes that catches a banana fever. They make tiny holes on the banana, slowly consuming it's insides until it grows bigger and bigger. Then it can't go out because it's too big for the hole it made." Ash whispered to the air. The swish of tails, their rhythmic pattern, was rather calming. Their steady presence were an envy.
"And then," Eiji asked with a small voice. "What happens to them?"
Ash then thought to the fishes digging and eating frantically as if possessed by a sudden want. He thought of how they grew as they fall prey to the addiction, the venomous obsession. The want becomes a need and all logical senses leave. And when they've consumed it all, they're unable to come back since they're in too deep. He thought of how too deep inside he is to ever rid of his sins. He thought of how impossible it was to leave his past behind. So Ash replied simply in a clear but quiet voice, this time he turned to look at Eiji as he said:
It came out without any emotion. It had neither daunt nor horror. It simply was. Eiji said nothing in response, perhaps he had nothing to reply, nothing to say. His eyes bore into Ash's green eyes. They were so dark they were nearly black. Ash hated the dark before, he still does now. But these eyes...these eyes...
"That's....that's a rather messed up fish." Eiji laughed with his awkward manner. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Reminds me of falling in love."
He always, always had a way of rendering Ash speechless didn't he? He was a surprise after another.
"Yeah," Eiji said. "You know. You've been taken a hold of something you can't explain? And you start becoming too infatuated? Then before you know it, you're too deep to leave?" He smiled. "Sounds like falling in love to me."
Ash never thought of it that way. Perhaps because he lacked the naivety to find romanticism on addiction and infatuation turned obsession. Perhaps he lacked the ability to romanticize anything at all. He was raised in a kingdom of blood, forged in the flame of violence, and he'd seen men fall from their own weakness, seen the break from fear. They were never the same men ever. But Eiji was none of this, and he had never seen a man mourn in agony on the loss of drugs and their chosen poison, never seen a man who entered the war only to come out forever scarred, he'd never seen a man too deep in his concoction of faux bliss to ever come back to sobriety.
But this was Eiji, and he's pure and untainted. He's innocent and kind, always too trusting, too naive. Ash will be the first to kill anyone who will take it away from him. He didn't want him to lose this, didn't want him to lose something that was stolen from Ash so long ago. And so Ash allowed it, allowed the childish thought of love, and romance, and infatuation. He sighed.
"You really are weird." He shrugged away his doubts and thoughts, pocketing it for another day.
"Why? You've never fallen in love?" Eiji pouted.
"No, I don't think so." Ash remembered the slight spark of attraction in him when he was young and all of this was but a distant thing. But love? Love was a foreign thing for animals like him. Men like Ash Lynx didn't deserve love. The closest time he's felt love was with his friends and brother. Now they're all gone and it was his fault.
"Enough talk about love," Ash was curt with his words. "I think I want to see the jellyfish."
Eiji's face broke into a smile.