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It's The Sunrise, And I See Your Jade Eyes

Chapter Text

Ash hated the too bright neon lights of the diner.

They reminded him too much of the brothel.

He made sure to avoid neon lights and his gang knew his aversion to these things. They might not know exactly why, but it's good that they do. Seeing it made him feel sick.

It's almost funny to find him here of all places. A lifetime ago, he wouldn't be here in a rundown diner early morning, with a rucksack of all his things. A couple of cash, his passport and some clothes to change. A lifetime ago, he wouldn't be in Washington instead he'd be in New York with Shorter and Skip. He'd be back in his rundown apartment which called home. But that was a lifetime ago, a lifetime too short.

He tried not to think of it now. He kept his focus instead on the handful of people inside to keep himself distracted. Most of them were too plain, not entertaining enough.

There's a woman just off her night shift, evident in the sluggish manner that she moved, the worn look on her face while she nursed her coffee. Ash had seen enough of that look to know it from a mile away and he's had his fair share of sleepless nights.

By the table at the back there was a couple lost in their own world. Their soft chattering blended with the background's noise, indistinct to Ash. This was not of his interest either.

And then there's the newcomer. This one caught Ash's interest. It was in the way he moved that told Ash he was trying to take up as little space as possible. Timid, the manner that his posture curled into himself was very telling. Although quite unremarkable, his beauty seemed to call to Ash.

Hair dark like his eyes, skin pale and smooth, but not as pale as his own. He was of Asian descent, he kinda looked like Shorter, before he got a tan got a purple Mohawk. Japanese was Ash's bet. His instincts were rarely wrong and he's spent too much time with the Chinese to know that this boy was not. The neon lights lit his face in a pretty manner, the blues, purples and reds casted him in a soft glow. He sat by the window and clearly didn't belong around here, in the way he looked and in the way he seemed too pure, for the lack of a better word. He looked like one of those university boys that would let you borrow notes when you missed a class, the one who would sit by the window of a café, drinking green tea while studying for an exam. He looked like the type who would invite you to study dates, and help you with your class, and he’d order you coffee and perhaps a pastry because he’s just kind like that. In short he looked ordinary, the type of boy who’s never seen violence and had never seen what Ash had seen.

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."  Ash was quite surprised to hear the words and he wondered where they came from, but he was more surprised still when he realized it had come from him. See, the man was scowling at a book, Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and it left something to be desired in Ash.

The man looked up from his book and smiled at him. Ash, in the short moment of eye contact, was able to discern that one, this was Ash's first casual conversation in weeks, and two, the man had such a warm smile.

"You've read it then?" The smile turned into a grin, so wide it was almost too brilliant for Ash. "Since you seem to have the first lines memorized by heart." He's tone sounded so amazed, and perhaps it was too easy to please the boy, but nonetheless, something deep inside Ash felt absolutely delighted, something hidden way beneath his skin, way beneath his pulse.

"No one goes to middle school and not curse Salinger, or so that's what everyone says." Ash shrugged. It left him to wonder why the boy was reading Salinger at the break of dawn in a backwater alley in Washington where he clearly does not belong.

He liked Salinger though, his words and his disturbing stories. Ash thought there was some sort of beauty in the unknown and in things he didn't understand. It was an addiction of Ash's to break them down because he didn’t like not knowing and people tend to fear what they do not know.

"Oh. Right, you read Catcher in the Rye in school," The boy closed his book after leaving a marker on his page. He talked with an accent lilting his soft words, it was different to Shorter's sharp Chinese, or the brash American Ash was used to, even the occasional Russian he's heard was harsh. This had its own charm. It turned English into something soft and appealing, something neither Chinese nor any accent could do. "What do you think of it then?"

"I think," Ash trailed away. He nodded at the boy's direction. He was seated just across Ash, not too far to shout, but not near enough to whisper. Ash was seated by the counter. "That I should know first what a young kid such as yourself, is doing at five in the morning here in a diner, reading Salinger of all things."

Because the boy looked fairly young, perhaps no older than sixteen, and it was dangerous to be outside in this hour. The streets in the US are dangerous at any hour, but even more so for such an innocent looking boy. Ash would know of course.

But at this, the boy stood up and sat directly across Ash, closing in the gap between them. Something like soft fire in his dark eyes. He sat on the stool next to Ash, faced him with a look of petulance. "Excuse me, I'm twenty one, thank you very much." He said with disdain, almost as if this happened often. Maybe it did, Ash could imagine.

Wasn't that a surprise though?

"Oh, sorry then big brother, you look nothing like a twenty year old." How casually Ash was conversing with this man. It was a little amusing, in a sad, cruel way, considering what transpired over the couple of weeks. But he hadn't felt this at ease with anyone else, or at any other time. Perhaps this man too, was a mystery on his own.

"May I ask what big brother's name is?" Ash batted his lashes. Playful, a smirk on his lips.

"Okumura Eiji," the man smiled, he's always smiling too brightly. They managed to crinkle his eye. "But maybe it's Eiji Okumura here in the west."

Eiji Okumura.

Ash repeated it in his head, tested it over and over until he decided he liked how it sounded in his mind, liked the nuances of each syllable, the contrast of every vowel.

"And you? Shouldn't you tell me your name too?" He cut through Ash's train of thought with his question.

"People call me Ash Lynx." He replied.

"Ash Lynx." Eiji echoed. And Ash realized he quite liked how he said his name too, liked how it sounded with his Japanese accent. His name was soften into something new, reborn. "Then may I know how old you are Ash?"

"Nineteen. You're basically a grandpa to me." Ash retorted. He should be suspicious though, he hardly knew this man. He could be one of Golzine's men, or someone equally dangerous. But Ash trusted his instincts. He survived all this time because of it. And when he peered into those deer like eyes, when he took in the unassuming posture of the man, he didn't see anything threatening in him at all.

Instead he felt warmth, pleasant, like the burn of liquor as it slides down Ash's throat, spreading in his chest, and with it came the glorious sensation of getting drunk. It felt ridiculously comfortable. Alcohol softened everything for Ash, and though he hadn't drunk any, it felt like he just had a bar's worth in just being at close proximity to the man.

"Isn't that quite right?" Eiji snickered. The waitress set a plate of pancakes on their table and a steaming mug of coffee quietly. Ash almost didn't notice her. He totally forgot about eating. Eiji started with his meal. Ash sipped from his own mug of coffee in turn.

"So," Eiji started. "Early morning?"

"I'd say late night," Ash huffed. The normalcy of everything was almost off putting. "What are you even..."

Ash trailed away. Something felt wrong. Like cold water splashed at his face, sobering him too quickly it felt like falling. There were red flags everywhere. Ash fingered the cold metal of his revolver. His trusted Smith and Wesson 357 Magnum was tucked in his pocket.

"Ash?" Eiji looked confused. But Ash did not pay attention to him.

He’s observing the place, eyes darting all over the place. Looking for anything out of place. Nothing seemed to be off, the clock said five in the morning. There was nothing wrong with his drink either. The binders were closed. Ash's pulse quickened as he zeroed in to the signage on the door. The welcome sign was staring him right in the face. Dread managed to fill his gut.

The diner was closed this entire time.

“Ash? Wha-?”

"Get down!" Ash barely managed to yell as he drew his gun from his pocket, blood pumped faster through his veins. He relied on muscle memory and instincts alone. He forgot to check the waitress. He should've known when she was too silent with her movements.

She was fast. But Ash was faster and he pulled the trigger with more speed and accuracy. The bullet pierced the waitress' hand, making her scream and drop her own glock. Ash took this as a chance to shoot her in the head before grabbing his rucksack and shoving Eiji behind the counter. He dived behind just in time for a flurry of bullets rain on them.

He ducked for cover. Beside him, Eiji trembled. Talk about being caught up in a crossfire. Talk about being in the wrong place in the wrong time. Ash peered over the counter. Everyone was part of this elaborate trap. How on earth did this man end up here?

There were four more and no doubt there was more coming. Ash retaliated with a round of bullets. The opposing shooting stopped momentarily. They may be more, but Ash was a better shot than everyone in the room. Lightning filled Ash's flesh and thunder in his ears. This was normal as breathing. In the wave of chaos, Ash found his comfort. Everything was a blur of movement and adrenaline.

Hand. Shoulder. Throat. Head.

Everything was precise. In those few shots, he was able to buy some time. They needed to leave. Ash searched for any means of escape. There was a backdoor. Maybe there were other men waiting outside, but they would’ve stormed in at the sound of the gunshots if there were.

“Eiji,” Ash whispered. “Eiji.” He tried again.

The man looked up to Ash with his dark dark eyes. Ash could see fear in them and god they don’t belong in those eyes.

“Eiji we need to leave.” Ash couldn’t leave him behind. He wasn’t cruel like that. “Eiji listen to me.” He might’ve hissed. Eiji flinched at the tone, but Ash had to get them out of this mess.

“In my signal, run towards the backdoor okay? I’ll follow you.”

Eiji thankfully nodded without further question. Ash listened for any sign of movement.

"Go!" He bellowed, letting loose a round of bullets. He then made a mad dash for the exit and caught up with Eiji. There were more men chasing them now. Left right left. It seemed to go on and on, the red bricked wall was getting narrow. It didn't seem like they'll see the exit any time soon.

Ash was familiar with running. Familiar with the motion of running. His feet ached, his lungs burned. His chest felt like it was pierced by glass. Every breath was fire but he will not fall here, he refused to.

"It's a dead end." Eiji croaked. He wasn't as winded as Ash would've thought he would be.

There was nowhere to go. A tall wooden fence loomed over them almost by fifteen feet and there was no way of climbing it over. Ash tried to kick it down and when that didn't work, he shot through it. It was still futile.

Ash reloaded his revolver. He doubted six bullets were enough. More footsteps echoed from behind. It would be a lot easier if he was alone. Now, he couldn't risk having Eiji caught in between the fight. He had to think of a way out of this. He had to think fast.

The shrill sound of metal creaking caught his attention. Ash snapped his gaze to the source of the sound. 

"What are you doing?!" Ash barked when he saw Eiji yanking a long rotten pipe from the wall. 

"I"m going to jump over it," Was his simple reply, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, like it was the easiest feat. "I'm a pole vaulter. I've jumped higher walls than this." He started digging a pit on the ground systematically, a show of his expertise on the action.

"If that rotten pipe breaks, you'll die!" Ash didn't need any other reckless decisions today. He didn't need more people dying on him, especially a stranger like this man. "There aren't any mats either! You're going to get hurt any way."

"I'd rather get hurt trying than to accept my fate as it is!" He snapped back.

They won't kill you if I surrender myself because I'm the one they want! Was what Ash wanted to say, but in truth he could never guarantee his safety. The world Ash lived in was not used to mercy and gentleness.

"When I'm on the other side, wait for me. I'm coming back." He said with a determined set of his jaw. Ash wanted to tell him to save himself when he does get away without dying. Calling the police won't do any good to Ash either.

But all of a sudden, the timid look from the man vanished and was replaced by a certain fierceness, a certain electricity that seemed to run through the course of his entire body. His eyes sparked with concentration and he looked stunning with this transformation.

He ran and in a blink of an eye he was flying. Gone was the shy boy he met at the diner. This was a Phoenix reborn, flying towards freedom. It was over in an instant, but to Ash, it lasted forever. Every second suspended on air were stretched into eternity.

He was beautiful.

He was a bird soaring on the grey light of dawn. Graceful.

Ash was too stunned that he realized too late that the man landed on the other side with a pained yelp. It snapped him out of his daze. There were no mats on the other side after all.

"I'll be back!" Came the sound of Eiji's voice. His footsteps were getting fainter as he ran farther away.

Ash sighed. That's one problem down. Hopefully someone would see him bleeding and take him to the hospital. Maybe he'd come in too late and won't get involved anymore. That's fine. That's better. He didn't need more getting hurt.

He focused instead on the approaching footsteps. He pointed his gun on the passage. He didn't know how many were chasing him, but if he had the element of surprise then it'll be his advantage. His ammo was limited though and there was no other way out.

He cocked his gun. The narrow passage would somehow limit their numbers too. Two people at a time could go through the walls. He could also say with confidence that he was the best shot in the lot. These were nothing but lackeys anyway.

The footsteps were growing louder.

A man emerged from the alley. Ash pulled the trigger without hesitation. A shot on the head. The man fell on his back. This continued for another round. Head, jugular, chest. He was slowly running out of bullets but they don't look like they're going to stop anytime soon. His own combat skills were great, but he's better with a gun. He was unstoppable with a gun, but perhaps he'd have to get blood on his knuckles this time around.

Ash kicked the next man before he could shoot. This took him by surprise. Ash used this to disarm him of his gun. "Who sent you?" He hissed in his ear as he wrapped his arm around his neck, choking him.

However, the cold press of the barrel of a pistol behind his head froze him. The faint sound of the safety clicking echoed like thunder to Ash's ears.

"Don't move." The man behind him barked. His voice sounded rough, like gravel rubbed together. "Let him go." He continued. Ash complied with reluctance. The man he was choking gasped for air. The man holding the gun kicked Ash on the stomach. He retched and coughed. The butt of a gun met his jaw.

"Where's your companion?" One of them asked harshly, Ash wasn't sure which of them did. It was probably the one with the hoarse voice.

"Flew," Ash grit his teeth, willing the dizziness to subside. "He flew away."

Apparently that was the wrong answer because that earned him another smack on the face. Ash laughed as he spat out blood. That last blow made him see stars. Nothing he wasn't used to, but that didn't make it hurt less.

"I'm here. You don't need him." His cheek stung. It felt like a different kind of burn. Another kick to the back. He gasped in pain.

"It's a shame we need to bring you alive," One of them started. They seriously all look the same. It was harder to tell them apart with the pain. "Killing you would be so great."

"Boss said we need to bring him alive, but he never said anything about having fun." The other grinned too sleazy for comfort. Ash tensed at that tone. He's also heard of it often, too often. He felt nauseous at the thought of what’s coming next.

They forced him on his knees. Ash struggled to get free. He hated this, he hated all of this. One of them grabbed his wrist and pinned him on the floor, the other ripped his shirt, gun still pointed at him.

The man leaned to whisper on his ear. Ash felt sick. He shut his eyes in disgust.

"Be a good boy now."

Ash screamed but they gagged his mouth with a torn piece of cloth from his own shirt. He felt so so filthy. He can’t stop shaking, his mind was chanting stop stop stop stop stop-

There was a large bang.

The sudden crashing sound of wood on metal was enough of a distraction Ash needed to kick the gun away and break out from their grip. He scrambled for the pistol and unloaded the remaining bullets in the clip on the two.

It was bright, too bright.

The headlights flashing at him were blinding. A car seemed to have crashed on the wooden fence without any reservation. Ash cocked the gun at the driver's seat for precaution despite it being empty.

"Ash!"

The familiar voice made him hesitate. The passenger seat opened and upon closer inspection he realized it was Eiji who was on the driver seat. The air bags were blown, the car dented badly, and he was slightly still in shock at everything that occurred.

"Ash come on!" Eiji insisted despite it. Ash slid into the passenger seat, yanking out the air bags. Eiji drove away before any more back up arrived. Ash had never been as relieved to hear the sound of an engine start as he was now. The relief that washed over him was enough to make his entire knees weak. Perhaps that was the rush of the adrenaline subsiding, and it felt sobering like the feeling of falling from a high, the general feeling of falling.

In the seat of that dented up car, Ash finally allowed himself to breathe.

Chapter Text

"That wasn't how I expected my morning to go." Eiji drove on the highway, body slack with relief and perhaps too calm for someone who almost died that morning. The view whizzed past them in a blur and Ash was suddenly too tired for anything else. He remained silent from the passenger seat instead.

"Anyway, is there any place you need to go?" Eiji chirped. How was he too cheerful?

"Nowhere," Was Ash's terse reply. "Nobody wants someone who brings trouble wherever they go." That was pure dismissal. He hoped the man would drop it and drive on, maybe Ash could leave in the next couple of blocks.

"Great! Let's go get breakfast." Eiji grinned. Ash was surprised. He inclined his head to look at the man if he was serious.

"You almost got shot because of me and all you thought is to get something to eat?"

"Technically I wasn't able to eat a while ago because of what happened, but I guess you're right. You're pretty beat up. Do you want to go to the hospital first? I mean I have a first aid kit in the back and- oh! You can borrow one of my shirts if you want."

Ash stared at the guy like he was crazy. He was taking all this too easily.

"You're the one who fell fifteen feet and landed on the floor without any mats." Ash pointed out.

"The dumpster broke my fall," He laughed. "Ehh come to think of it, I should change too." Eiji waved off any other concerns. "Also we're going to McDonald's."

Ash peered at the man with disbelief. How could he be so untroubled? Ash had seen different men fall into deep panic after going through what they've just gone, and they were bigger, tougher men. This man didn't look anything like them, and yet... 

"Why isn't any of this bothering you?" Ash asked because it was making him suspicious. There was usually a catch, a barter, a trade. Everything Ash lived in ran in the law of equivalent exchange. Whether it was dangerous favors, lifelong debts, or mind blowing sex, people always asked Ash something in return.

"Any of what?" Eiji asked for a clarification, not tearing his gaze from the road. Focused.

"This," Ash gestured at himself. "Everything. Nobody gets a near death experience with a stranger and offers to drive them to McDonald's."

Ash thought to the fear in those dark eyes from earlier. They were real. He thought about how Eiji trembled in the midst of the gunfire and wondered how this was the same man. And yet this same man had jumped over a wall without the safety of any mats on the other side, and somehow get little to no injuries from that jump.

"We aren't really strangers though, not anymore." Eiji said in between Ash's stream of thought, tethering him back to the present. "I know your name is Ash Lynx and you know my name is Eiji Okumura. I came from Japan and I'm a photographer travelling the world. There, isn't that enough?" 

"You don't know anything about me." Ash wanted the man to understand, wanted him to know that he was more trouble than he's worth, that previous events had proven that being with Ash was never a good idea for anyone. His name wasn't really even Ash Lynx for goodness sake.

"You can tell me along the way," Eiji shrugged. He was too careless. Anybody could take advantage of him. "But only if you want to of course. Besides I think you're a good person."

Ash paused. His thoughts grinded into a halt. The world seemed to have stopped. And it started spinning again, faster than the previous one, all because of that one sentence.

"Why?" He managed to croak out. He wasn’t a good person.

"Because you saved me. Any other person would leave me to die." He replied simply, as if it was the most obvious thing, as if it was the truth he faced everyday like how hot is hot and cold is cold, and the sun rises from the east, as if this wasn't the first time Ash heard it in his life and was the most absurd thing he's ever heard too.

Ash laughed. It was short and sad, a hollowed clipped sound. "You were only in trouble because you were with me."

Eiji set his jaw. His grip on the wheels tightened that his knuckles nearly turns white.

"No. I was just unlucky," He insisted with an edge on his voice. "Although I don't think meeting you is anything but lucky."

Unbelievable. Ash found his toothy grin so. This man was probably the most stupid, reckless person born in this world. He was the most unfathomable man he's ever met. He knew arguing about it now would be pointless. He knew what level of stubbornness was worth the fight and which was not.

"Whatever." He said instead. "You're paying anyway." Ash leant on his seat and rested his legs on the dashboard. They'll probably part ways after the meal and this would be something Ash would look back with bewilderment, and he'll probably recall the bizarre encounter at some point. And the man will forget him as time passed. Ash scowled.

"Glad to know we're on the same page." Eiji nodded absentmindedly. They made a turn to the right.

"You might want to ditch the car. The men after us might recognize it." Ash pointed out. Although the men weren't able to see the plate number and even if they did, they're already dead. Ash made sure with a bullet to the head. Plus that run down diner didn't have any cameras. However a little precaution wouldn't hurt. He wasn't sure if there were any others hiding in the shadows.

The man might protest to abandoning the car though. It looked kinda expensive, despite getting slightly wrecked. Ash tried to think of a way to convince without resorting to violence or any kind of argument. Ash had no energy for a verbal show down and the man proved to be stubborn when he set himself to it.

"Sure. I'll call for a replacement. I'll ask them to dispose of this one too." Eiji shrugged.

Wow. That was...surprisingly easy. People usually put up a fight first.

"You a son of a millionaire or something?" Ash asked in jest. Because nobody just does that. But this man was starting to prove himself as not just somebody.

"Something like that. Yeah." Eiji chuckled. Ash was ready to laugh at the punchline but when he stared at the man, he looked dead serious. Only the faint traces of a smile left in his face. Suddenly all humor left Ash and was replaced with disbelief.

"No shit?" He asked. Just to be sure they were on the same page and he wasn't trying to pull his leg.

"Yep." Eiji's grin suddenly became too wide.

"So you're filthy rich?"

"I'd say we're comfortable." Eiji said with calmness. "Have you heard of the Okumura group of companies?"

Ash did. He thought it was a coincidence at first of course. They owned a great chunk of the stock market. The Okumura Corporation was responsible in manufacturing technology of the latest model with different branches from across the world. Cars, phones, TV's, computers, cameras.  Eiji wasn't the son of a millionaire.

He was the son of a multi-billionaire.

"Don't look at me like that," Eiji clucked his tongue, slight admonishment in his tone, though his eyes reflected nothing but mirth. "It's not like I'm a different person already. I'm still the same man you met at the diner. I'm sure you have your own skeletons in the closet."

Ash did. But his secrets weren't as easy to spill or to confess.

"Why are you telling me this? Shouldn't you worry I might use this to my advantage? Didn't your parents teach you about stranger danger? Other men can hold you ransom you know. America isn't anything like Japan."

"Mhmm...you won't." Eiji said with an air of unfounded confidence, at least it was unfounded confidence to Ash.

"I can." Ash narrowed his eyes. Maybe it was because he was a foreigner. He knew Ash screamed danger just from the last thirty minutes’ events.

"But you won't," Eiji said. And there was finality in it. "Otherwise you won't be telling me this." He looked smug as he drove to the parking area. "You're going to slowly earn my trust and use me later. Maybe even trick me. Either way, kidnappers don't tell their plans ahead. They most certainly don't worry about people like me telling them about how rich they actually are."

Damn the man and his strange unfathomable logic. Telling Ash was gamble. Anybody can take advantage of him. Ash felt something deep inside him stir, an urge he couldn't explain and it was irksome, frustrating. He was too susceptible to danger. Someone needed to keep him out of it.

"Besides," He continued, oblivious from Ash's frustration. He rummaged around his backpack, pulled out a pink sweater and handed Ash a loose grey shirt. "Weren't you the one who wanted to know more about each other?" He winked at the man, opened the car door and slid out, leaving Ash with his bewildered self.

Crazy. Mad. Unbelievable.

Ash slipped the grey shirt on before getting out of the car. It was tight on his body and it stretched out far too much for comfort, but it was something and at least he wasn't shirtless anymore. He probably had to do something about his bruises.

Ash got out of the car with a scowl. He followed Eiji to the door.

Eiji changed shirts from inside while Ash lined up at the counter. They ordered food and settled down.

"I've never seen an American who doesn't like burgers." Eiji said as he munched on one.

Ash snickered. "That's an American stereotype." He opted for just fries.

They continued eating in silence. 

"So..." Eiji started. "What now?"

"What do you mean?"

Eiji wiped his fingers with a tissue. "I don't know. What are your plans after this?"

"Nothing." Ash scowled. "Wander around aimlessly. Get out of the country I guess." He huffed.

"Well.." Eiji looked at his hands. "You can always come with me? If you don't have any plans that is."

Ash stared at the man.

"What?"

And suddenly he was shy. It was a rather interesting contradiction from his stubbornness from a while ago.

"I mean if you want to wander around then you can come with me. I'm going to drive to Vancouver today... Or at least I was going to." He laughed with nervousness.

Silence.

"What is up with you and the disregard for safety? Why are you so insistent on being with me?"

"Nothing!" Eiji raised his hand in defense. "I just think it's beneficial since we might be headed to the same direction. Plus traveling alone is lonely and I'm starting to like you a lot."

Ash gave him a look.

"What? I say whatever I'm thinking and I follow whatever I feel." Eiji seemed to have felt the need to defend himself.

This was ridiculous. Ash should say no. He should leave. He should walk out and forget about a man named Eiji Okumura. He should forget about this Japanese man with the accented English and dark dark eyes. He should keep him away from danger. Ash was a nonbeliever. He didn't believe in signs from the universe. Some things happen because of a coincidence, a happenstance in the order of events.

After all, it was the only explanation why he was in the passenger seat of a brand new Fisker, ("It's electric because we should be environmentally friendly Ash, stop looking at it with judgmental eyes.”) On his way to Vancouver with the radio blasting random American songs.

"Well this wasn't how I imagined my afternoon to go." Ash confessed after the silence. "Why are you going to Canada anyway?"

"Hmm.."

The man hummed with a thoughtful expression crossing his face. Ash couldn't help but feel the anticipation in the air. A bated breath. Perhaps it was something important, something he couldn't say, something suspicious. Ash imagined a son of a rich man would have many important things to do.

"I want to eat pancakes with authentic Canadian maple syrup." Eiji replied after the lengthy quiet he spent in contemplation. He said it in an abrupt manner that Ash would've been surprised if he wasn't waiting for it.

He wouldn't say he was disappointed, but he didn't think the long pause was necessary. "So a vacation?" He tried not to let his feelings bleed into his words.

"I wouldn't say that," The Asian exhaled and Ash thought perhaps he detected the hint of his dissatisfaction. If he did, he simply looked amused to it. Ash didn't know what to feel with this. "I'm going to Alaska. Then I'm going to ride a ship to Russia. Then I'd travel from there to the end of Europe. So it's more of a road trip really," He grinned as he turned to Ash. "It's going to be fun." They were out of the city by now, the buildings were replaced by trees. They were riding through the highway. The heavy concrete buildings were replaced by dirt. The rich earthy scent was nothing like the city.

The windows were rolled down and the crisp smell of pine was fragrant to their nose. The greenery outside passed in a blur, the sun was sinking from the horizon and bathed the sky with its golden light. Ash thought it looked pretty. It was different from the sunset in New York. It looked nothing like the one he saw in Seattle.

"So you're planning for a long ride." Ash closed his eyes and leaned back to the plush seat of the car. "Must be nice."

"Yes," Eiji answered. "I'd like to think it will be."

"Why would you want to go?" Ash stole a glance at the man.

And then there was amusement once more in the curves of his face, in the dip of his lips and the lines of his skin. It made him look even younger, younger than he already look. "Do you always ask about everything to anyone you meet?" His tone wasn't accusing, nor was it irritated. He just sounded amused.

Ash shrugged. He gave an indifferent noise. "I don't like not knowing." It was a force of habit. It was of essence that he knew everything. He needed to think of every move, of every factor, of every possibility. He needed to think five, ten, twenty steps ahead. But Eiji didn't know this so for now, so Ash let him be with his amusement.

This time Eiji sighed a deeper sigh. One that was drawn from deep your soul and left your bones tired. It was a sigh that made you weak, not exactly resignation but not also contentment. It's something that existed in between.

"I just wanted to run away from it all, I guess?" Eiji's voice pitched into a whisper. It sounded just a bit reverent. "I think we're the same in that way. I could feel it."

We're the same in that way.

He's heard of this many times and it disgusted him. It made his skin crawl. They were lies, nothing more.

At least they usually do.

But these words were uttered with innocence. These were said without the taint of his past, unsullied, clean. Perhaps now this was truthful and perhaps this was someone who truly empathized with him, truly understood the feeling of being shackled down by something. He thought it was funny that he would feel this from a man who knew nothing about him.

Why someone like him would want to run away was beyond him. Ash couldn't figure out this confusing, unfathomable man. This reckless, unbelievable Japanese. He was a mystery, a puzzle, a conundrum. Ash wanted to break it down, he wanted nothing more but to understand.

"Hold up. I love this song." Eiji turned up the volume of the radio. It echoed in the tiny space of the car, guitar riffs starting. He broke into a large grin as he started singing with his accented English. It sounded awful in the most comical way but Eiji didn't seem to care. He didn't seem to be the type who would care about many things, and it wasn’t bad in any way.

I was told a million times
Of all the troubles in my way
Mind you grow a little wiser
Little better every day
But if I crossed a million rivers
And I rode a million miles
Then I'd still be where I started
Bread and butter for a smile
Well I sold a million mirrors
In a shopping alley way
But I never saw my face
In any window any day
Now they say your folks are telling you
Be a super star
But I tell you just be satisfied
Stay right where you are
Keep yourself alive, yeah
Keep yourself alive
Ooh, it'll take you all your time and money
Honey you'll survive

It was Queen playing on the radio while Eiji banged his head to the beat, albeit being a bit off. And perhaps his energy was infectious because Ash could feel his lips quirk up a little.

"So you like Queen?" Ash asked in the middle of the guitar riff between verses. Eiji giggled with this giddiness that made you laugh with him. It reminded you of the rush of water in the stream, or the sound of bells chiming in the wind. It reminded you of sweet honey.

"Like it? I love Queen. It's almost ridiculous." And he laughed in the most carefree way, in a way Ash had never done in so long, in years. He felt a flicker of envy deep inside him. But he quashed it before it grew, before it can consume him with its flames. Instead he smiled ever so slightly and committed these few precious days of calm into memory.

Well I've loved a million women
In a belladonic haze
And I ate a million dinners
Brought to me on silver trays
Give me everything I need
To feed my body and my soul
And I'll grow a little bigger
Maybe that can be my goal
I was told a million times
Of all the people in my way
How I had to keep on trying
And get better every day
But if I crossed a million rivers
And I rode a million miles
Then I'd still be where I started
Same as when I started
Keep yourself alive, come on
Keep yourself alive
Ooh, it'll take you all your time and money honey
You'll survive, shake

Eiji swayed with the music.

There were few cars around them and they were too far from Seattle now. The smooth thrum of the car's engine was lulling him to sleep. Ash tried to keep his eyes from drooping. He tried to stifle his yawn.

"Don't you have a favorite band?" Eiji's question snapped him from his drowsiness. But the lovely orange sky that dipped into the horizon and softened everything for Ash, making everything else prettier in his eyes.

"I never had the time to think about it." He finally said.

The sky steadily mixed into inky black and blue, the first stars revealing themselves with subtlety. It was a stunning picture.

Keep yourself alive, wow
Keep yourself alive
Oh, it'll take you all your time and money
To keep me satisfied
Do you think you're better every day?
No, I just think I'm two steps nearer to my grave
Keep yourself alive, c'mon
Keep yourself alive
Mm, you take your time and take more money
Keep yourself alive
Keep yourself alive
C'mon keep yourself alive
All you people keep yourself alive
Keep yourself alive
C'mon c'mon keep yourself alive
It'll take you all your time and a money
To keep me satisfied

“That’s too bad.” Eiji said. He stopped singing, allowing the music started to fade away all together into nothing but a soft humming in the background.

 “It’s not that bad.” Ash kept his gaze outside the window, letting the last of the music resonate away until it was the only thing echoing in his ears and his mind.

Keep yourself alive
Keep yourself alive
All you people keep yourself alive
Take you all your time and money honey
You will survive
Keep you satisfied

 

 

Chapter Text

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.

"Wine?"

"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.

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.

Griffin.

Skipper.

And Shorter.

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.

He's dying.

His eyelids start to close once more. This time, they stayed shut.

He's dying.

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:

"They die."

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.

"...Falling...in love?"

"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.

Chapter Text

"So you were a pole vaulter before. I'm kinda envious. You can fly." Ash mused. He recalled how he saved their lives by jumping out of the wall using nothing but a rotten pipe without any mats below. It was pretty hardcore, and Ash was nothing but impressed. The memory was etched forever in his mind.

They stayed for three more days in Vancouver before departing for Alaska and though those three days weren't by far the most extravagant days he spent in his life, it was by far the most lavish expense spent by a near stranger for him with no expected form of payback. It was giving him the creeps. Either way, now they're on the road to Alaska, the highway just as smooth and chilly and Eiji drove their car. He didn't trust Ash to drive anymore after he nearly run over the entire market square. It was just once though, and Eiji was being dramatic.

"I think to call it flying is too much. I just jumped," Eiji said. Ash just barely caught his next words. "Besides, I can't do it anymore."

"What? Why? You just did it before."

"I mean I can't do it in competition." Eiji shrugged. It was nonchalant, almost tired. It's as if he'd spent a long time thinking and pondering about it, and he'd spent an equally long time accepting it. He seemed to have just grasped it recently.

"Why?" Ash thought Eiji looked kinda sad. He curls up to himself unconsciously when he's sad, or upset, trying to look small against the world.

"Medical condition." He said with a smile, but it was wrapped with weathered bitterness, diluted by weariness and acceptance over time, yet still visible despite the period of healing. Like swallowing a hard pill.

"So you were injured?" Ash didn't know where he found the heart to ask, as if driving a knife deep in his chest, reopening a scar. Ash regretted it the instant it left his mouth. It tasted awful in his tongue and loud against his ears.

"Yeah. Something like that." Eiji sighed. And Ash dropped the topic immediately. He kept his gaze on the road and watched the passing cars. Silence fell before them. Ash could tell that there was something in his mind. But Ash didn't dare ask.

They stayed this way for a long while. The radio that was meant to ease the tension and fill the dead air only managed to choke Ash further. The road was still far ahead. It'll take them days to reach their destination.

"Say," Eiji said, dispelling the silence in which Ash was grateful. "I'm getting sleepy. Let's stop over yeah?"

In the end, they ended up in a motel. The momentary tension eased away and forgotten for now. As promised, they booked one room with two beds.

Ash wore his shirt and tattered pants. He was ready to sleep since half an hour ago but Eiji's weird sleep ritual kept him up. Ash usually just passed out whenever he was tired, but Eiji proved to be physically unable to do so without his meticulous hygienic process all in his fluffy pajamas with cloud patterns adorning it of all things.

"Stop staring at me like that." Eiji whined. He must have thought of himself like an animal under heavy scrutiny. Ash was observing him with unabashed curiosity. His back was turned to Ash so he couldn't really see his expression as he stared at the bathroom mirror. But the flush on his ears that crawls to his neck was obvious even under the dim light of the room, and it betrayed his thoughts and emotions. It wasn’t as if he was making it hard to read him. His emotions were out like an open book.

"Is staring illegal now?" Ash smirked from where he was lying down, hand rested on his arm. Eiji turned and looked at Ash who was just about to start flossing his teeth and there it was, the tell-tale blush on his face, almost self-conscious, but immediately he snapped out of it. He narrowed his eyes at Ash's feet as if he saw something incriminating.

"Are you wearing shoes on bed?" He hissed under his breath with so much distaste, almost like all his ancestors were offended by the simple action. Ash shrugged. “So what if they are?” He said without care. He could see Eiji breathe sharply before squinting at him and went back to flossing his teeth.

 


 

Even in the morning, Eiji's routine was painstakingly long. And now he was sitting on Eiji's bed as the latter took his time with his preparations. This had been their case since the few days Ash had been with the man. Eiji often woke up earlier, but he took his sweet time in double checking if they had everything they needed while they went out. It often took half an hour on average every time and in the five minutes between that, Ash was already done.

"Grandpa. We've checked your baggage like a hundred times. Let's go." Ash snickered from the bed. Eiji rolled his eyes as he continued gathering his things for the day. Ash never understood why he needed to double, triple check things. He could remember these things without trouble, but he supposed everyone was different.

"You're so annoying." Eiji huffed. He then smacked Ash's feet that were rested on the crisp white sheets of Eiji's duvet. "Shoes off the bed."

Ash stuck out his tongue. He remembered Eiji’s disdainful eyes that watched his feet last night and he decided he wanted to rile him up some more. He didn't move his legs an inch. Eiji narrowed his eyes and Ash stared back with a challenge, an exchange for a split second, before he realized Eiji’s retaliation by yanking out Ash's red converse sneakers and tossing them on the other side of the room just because he can. Ash yelped in surprise, indignation written all over his eyes. He smacked Eiji with a pillow in the face before retrieving his shoes. Yes, they were both adults, thank you very much.

"You're as annoying as my sister." Eiji grumbled as he slipped on his backpack. His pink cable knitted sweater peeked out of his jacket with the ridiculous cartoon bird printed on it. Ash took note to ask about that later. For now, he latched onto one piece of information bared before him.

"Oh? You have a sister? Must be cute." He slipped on his sneakers, this time he double tied the knots. He stared up at Eiji and then took his other baggage.

"Not at all," Eiji snorted with distaste. His nose wrinkled at the idea. "She's pretty stubborn and headstrong. Kind of a brat actually." He nodded in front of the mirror after combing his hair.

"Sounds like somebody I know." Ash laughed as he opened the door. He let Eiji pass first with an exaggerated flourish.

"I'm cuter though." They walked to the elevator. They waited for the lift down.

"Are you now?" Ash gave a huff of disbelief when the elevator doors parted open.

"Of course. I'm irresistible." They stepped into the lift. Eiji pressed the button for the ground floor.

"Whatever you say old man." The elevator lowered itself down and there was the familiar dizzying feeling of the descent. The feeling of instability.

"Nhm. What about you?" Eiji asked. His voice loud in the stark silence of the elevator. The methodical whirring in the background was the only other sound. His next question came like thunder. "Do you have siblings?"

And all traces of fun left Ash's face. "Yes. His name is Griffin. My older brother." Eiji remained oblivious. That can't be avoided. He knew nothing about Ash.  But Ash dreaded the question that came next to the first.

"Where is he?"

And Ash in the calmest and most quiet voice said: "He's dead."

Eiji startled at the sudden change of mood. Sobriety doused his features and of course the apology dangled in the air, Ash could almost taste it. "I'm sorry." He whispered. Just as quiet. Just as solemn.

"For what? It's not your fault." Ash waved it off in an attempt to go back to the previous atmosphere. He supposed this was payback too, in a way.

"For bringing it up." Eiji looked upset. Ash didn't want him to be upset. Sadness didn't fit his being.

"Consider us even then." Ash simply shrugged because he didn’t want to talk about it now, and possibly ever again. "Let's talk of other happier things."

"Happier things. Yes. Right." Eiji echoed with uncertainty. Like he was convincing himself of this. Like he needed reassurance. Ash sighed as the descent became even more awkward. Too many times Ash said the wrong things when he was being his honest self and he'd always only ever said the right things when he's filling someone's shoes, taking in someone's role. He walked away when things turned rough, and the truth was such a pricey thing when the stakes were high. But Ash didn't want to turn this into a role, and for once he didn't want to walk away at the first sign of trouble.

So he said: "Did you know," He sorted through his memories, searching for something bright and happy. The elevator opened and both of them stepped out. "When I was younger, my brother carved me a Jack'o lantern for Halloween," He'd never told anyone of this, not even Shorter or Skipper. "I wore it when we went trick or treating. I ran to the woods to scare Griffin then. I waited and waited. It was pretty dark and the trees were creepy." He huffed at the memory. Looking back it was a little bit stupid. "Then I saw it. A Jack'o lantern stared at me in the dark."
He paused to look at Eiji who listened with interest. His dark eyes were wide. Ash continued. "It took me so long to realize that it was just my reflection on the windshield of a car. But I got so creeped out that from that moment on, I hated the dark and pumpkins spooked me."

Eiji stopped walking and stared at him still. Ash blinked, wondering what the man could possibly be thinking. Maybe he was still upset. His eyes were starting to unnerve Ash. But then Eiji snorted and then he clasped a hand on his mouth as if trying to suppress his giggles. He failed and he burst out with a laughing fit and clutched at his stomach as he did so. Ash felt himself flush with heat. He scowled at the laughing man.

"What?"

"I-I'm s-s-sorry!!  It's just-" He broke into more laughter. "Someone who's as baddass as you, who had been held at gunpoint and almost probably died numerous times is afraid of pumpkins! I should tell your enemies to just plant a pumpkin patch instead of buying guns!"

Ash stomped away with a sniff of his nose. Eiji ran after him despite still almost bowling over from giggling, and maybe Ash would be more insulted if the man’s happiness wasn’t so infectious. "Wait!" He wheezed. "Ash! Hold up!"

Ash started to wonder why he thought telling Eiji this was a good idea. For someone who claimed to have an IQ of almost 200, he felt so much of a dumbass right now.

"Right so you can laugh at me some more." He grumbled.

"Look. I'm just happy you opened up to me," Eiji wiped his eyes. He held on Ash's arm, perhaps concerned Ash would stomp away again. "You hardly talk about yourself you know? It's a good change of pace."

Ash stopped. He peered over the man, studying him with his piercing gaze. Eiji swallowed, fidgeting under the scrutiny. "I still don't get you." He blurted out. "You're the strangest man I've ever met."

Eiji casted his eyes downward, fidgeted in his place as he licked his lips with his nervousness. "I-Is that-?" Half a sentence formed in the air, the rest left hanging and Ash didn’t want not knowing so he pressed on.

“Is it what?” He said. Eiji breathed with a resolve.

"Is that a bad thing?"

Was it a bad thing?

Ash knew a lot of things that were bad, and he knew too little good. The bad always manages to outweigh the good but this…

"I haven't decided."

Ash replied after a long pause of contemplation because it was true. He had nothing to say. It was neither a good nor bad thing. And whatever it was, Ash will decide when the facts presented themselves. For now there was this. There was Eiji's hand on his wrist, soft and gentle with his grip. The touch too light to hurt, rather it was a reminder of his presence, of him being by his side. There was also the abashed way he whispered to Ash.

"Well..." Eiji said in halting words as he let go of his wrist and Ash immediately felt the loss of its warmth. "Tell me when you have. Decided. I mean. Preferably before we part ways."  Eiji shot a crumbly smile before opening the car door and slipping in.

 


 

The hours bled through each other and time no longer seemed to matter. Their conversation wasn't as free flowing as the past few days. Clipped and awkward. Ash frowned. He thought they were good. Most of the time, he wouldn't care about the silence, in fact he would have relished on it.

But such was not the nature of one Eiji Okumura within the past days that he'd met him, and the past few days proved to Ash that for some strange reason he couldn't explain, much like that of Eiji's fascination with him, the man's wellbeing was essential to Ash.

So Ash could only conclude that he'd done an error in some way. He recalled the last few days they spent together but came up with a blank. Perhaps it was the conversation awhile ago. Perhaps it was from yesterday. Ash prodded for information often before and he never cared if he was insensitive about it. Now though, it was gnawing him inside. It was such an unfamiliar feeling, something not recurring enough to be known and intimate to him, yet not entirely new for it to be a total stranger.

"Maybe you should wing the electric car. It's cold out nowadays and it's hard to get sunlight." Ash said in an attempt at a conversation. Eiji hummed, distracted. He blinked it away.

"That's alright. I'm leaving it in Wales after I ride a ship to Russia," He paused and then spoke. "Maybe you can have it. I think I don't mind riding trains in Europe." Plus shipping it to Europe would be an unnecessary expense despite of how filthy rich he might be.

If Ash had anything to say, he'd think it was completely bourgeoisie of Eiji. Ash would have scoffed. He met so many people who look down on the poor and easily give away their riches, expecting praise in return, hoping to see their acts as altruism instead of hedonism and arrogance that it truly was. Ash hated those scum. Those who think they could buy anybody they want through power and influence. Then again, perhaps the man was simply too altruistic by default, and perhaps he had too much of a bleeding heart. Perhaps he really was too good to be true and his charity was sincere. He never asked for anything in return, only that Ash kept him company. It was this that made Ash wary of him.

And yet again there was something in him that made you like him anyway. It made you want to protect him. It drew you in.

Ash stayed silent and buried that thought back to the depths of his mind. They continued the trip in silence. The stark mountain view along the road was the only company they had along with the ever present thrum of the car and the occasional birds that flew in groups by the sky.

They were almost there. They've crossed the border hours ago. They're near the city by this time. The Alcan Highway proved to be a beauty with its crisp mountain air. They always let the windows down whenever they drive. Eiji liked the fresh air. The whole travel would have been quaint and cozy, but the silence was driving him mad and if he had to endure it a minute longer, he will go mad.

"Well, we're here now." The city was visible and this was the first words Ash said in over half an hour.

"Yeah...we're here." Eiji echoed. He looked troubled. Ash furrowed his brows. It was of importance that he knew what troubled him.

"Why are you so quiet? It's pretty rare to see you so quiet," He paused, reconsidering. "Did I offend you?"

At this Eiji startled. "No never, it' just-" he laughed just as the words of atonement lingered on Ash's tongue should it be known that he in fact, was at fault. It was a self conscious one. Not like springs and warm honey. And he parted his lips with the question left on the air. He licked them with nervousness and then said. "I suppose I can't convince you to hang with me while I go around Alaska, can I?"

Silence.

Moments like these had Ash left in doubt. He paused. He didn't tear his gaze from the Japanese, who immediately stared back at the road in an attempt to escape his gaze. The pink flush on his ears were slightly distracting. But still he huffed. He knew there was no escaping this and that it was pointless to resist. And though he still didn't understand the explanation behind it, he felt like he's just starting to grasp it.

He should be flattered that this man wanted to be in his presence as much as he should be worried. Because it all boils down to a why in the end. He’d like to think he’s figured his motives out, and it was damn easy to just be suspicious with all these, to think this was all just an elaborate plan by someone who wanted him dead. But here he was anyway. Because Ash just concluded that he found one Eiji Okumura fascinating, and Ash who was always the curious one, never left a case unsolved.

Amused and just slightly exasperated, he said with incredulity. "Is that all? Here I thought you had something impossible to ask." He laughed. "I wasn't planning on leaving till then."

Eiji snapped his stare from the road and stepped on the brakes. Ash nearly got thrown on the dashboard if he didn’t hold out a hand to stop himself. There were cars honking and they immediately pulled over to the side of the road. Eiji broke into a wide smile. "Really?" The switch from his gloomy look to his beaming face could give you a whiplash from its speed, much like the sensation of having the car stop so suddenly. "You're really staying?" And he looked happy. His body was so damn truthful it almost hurt. With that face, no one could ever change their mind.

"Only until you leave for Russia." Ash cleared out anyway. He could always plan ahead later. He had the rest of his life to do that, unlike before. And so for now, there's this, and he'll think about the rest later.

"Well yeah, of course but that's like...half a month away." Eiji perked up so fast it almost seemed liked he was never upset to begin with. Seriously Ash could never get a proper read on him, and perhaps that’s what made him fascinating too. "You sure you don't mind hanging around with an old man like me?" He asked in jest.

"Do you want me to change my mind or something?" Ash challenged. Eiji was fast to shake his head.

"No no. Let's go." Eiji grinned as he started to drive again. Ash leant against the car seat with a small twitch on his lips. And so their trip in Alaska began.

 

Chapter Text

The city of Wales in Alaska was a quaint seaside town with its salty breeze and sleepy atmosphere. Or at least it used to be.

When they built a proper dock and shipyard some five years ago, hence strengthening tourism and maritime products, the city grew and developed over the years. It was still far from Alaska's major cities like Fairbanks but it was better than before, although this wasn't anyone's first choice when taking a vacation. They were here of course for the sole reason that you can take a ferry all the way to Russia.

"You could always just take a plane to Russia." Ash muttered. They've decided to stroll across town after spending the entire morning passed out in the hotel room. They reached the city late at night already and both had a silent agreement to never wake up until the sun was way high above their heads. Now that they're good and as well rested as they can be, they started to walk around.

"God no. I have a thing about planes. My anxiety spikes up. Too many things could go wrong." Eiji shuddered, probably at some horrifying memory of his.

"You know, no matter how you prepare for anything, it will always go wrong in the worst case possible." Ash kicked a pebble from the ground. Their aimless wanderings brought them to the beach.

"Don't be so pessimistic." Eiji chided. Funny enough, since he was the one who brought up the topic of things going wrong.

"What?" Ash raised his hands in defense. "It's Murphy's law. Don't go scolding me." The waves crashed against the sand and rocks. The air was salty and the wind blew their hair. They were a meter or so away from the shore, but the tide was high and the water nearly lapped their feet.

"It's a bit of a downer." Eiji scrunched his nose.

"It's a rather pessimistic law." Ash chuckled. Yes, it was a rather pessimistic law he believed in and he will continue believing it, today, tomorrow and years after that. He survived life with that belief and he will continue still.

"This Murphy guy better lighten up." Eiji huffed in slight distaste, an expression Ash laughed at. He stopped on his tracks abruptly. Ash turned to Eiji in question. He was answered with a grin. "The view looks nice. I'm taking photos." He drew out his camera from his bag. The sun was just starting to set down to the west and the wind was getting colder. It was a good time to capture a picture.

Eiji looked like he was enjoying the view. He snapped lots of photos with his camera, this was of Okumura enterprises too. He stopped and smiled at them after viewing, content with its outcome. He paused, then looked back at Ash. "Sorry," He put down his camera with guilt on his face. "This might be boring you."

"Not at all," Ash shrugged. "Don't let me stop you." With this Eiji continued with his work.

"Say," Eiji started. Ash, in the few days he'd been with the man, observed that this was the tone he made when he had a request. He steeled himself for another ridiculous favor or frivolous idea. He wasn't wrong. "Do you mind being a subject to my pictures?"

"What?" A raised brow.

Eiji rubbed the back of his neck. "You look very pretty. I just thought maybe I'd take a photo of you."

He's heard a lot of requests from the man, some more ridiculous than the others. This was a bit reasonable. It was his work after all, and Ash knew he was pretty. Ash didn't doubt for a moment that he was, and he wasn't surprised by the request, but sadly this was one thing he couldn't grant. Anything but this.

"No thank you," Ash forced the words out of his mouth. "I don't really like getting my picture taken." And at this Eiji visibly deflated. The hopeful shine in his eyes dulled away into quick acceptance.

"Oh," He said and it was soft, gentle like his entire being. Dark eyes looked down with disappointment, then straight back into Ash and it nearly left a crack on his resolve. Funny how the man does it so easily. "That's fine. Yes. It's fine." He smiled, perhaps a little sad and remorseful, but understanding all the same. Suddenly Ash couldn't stand to look at the man.

"I'm just going to hang around. You do your thing." He turned around and left Eiji to his own devices, opting to stare at the horizon where the sky meets the sea. Whatever face the former was making, he couldn't really tell. Ash never really cared for the sea. He was sick of it. It reminded him too much of where he was born. Cape Cod. Not many realize that America is mostly made up of open fields and dirt. People hear America and immediately think of concrete jungles and metropolitan cities. Basically L.A and New York.

The sea breeze brought back too many memories he'd rather keep in the corner of his mind where he never ventured. He found that he didn't like the memory seaside towns brought him. Distaste curdled in his mouth. He was scowling at the orange and red sky. The sound of the waves thankfully drowned out the sound of the camera clicking, something he couldn't stand either. But not being to hear everything didn't sit well with Ash. It kept him more on edge.

He kept his focus elsewhere, tried to keep his mind busy. It didn't do well to be too anxious. But everything happened too fast. As if struck by lightning, Ash felt the soft pinpricks of someone staring. A jolt to his body and he sensed the soft pitter patter of footsteps on the rocks, a rustle from the few plants around. He looked around frantically, and instinctively drew his gun by his pocket, only to recoil when he found none.

"Ash?" Eiji peered at him over the camera. A little concerned, partly nervous.

"Stay back." Ash commanded. Eiji stepped one foot backwards in reflex. There was movement from behind the rocks. He could hear the ever faint sound of footsteps crunching on the sand. Their footsteps were light, whoever it was they might be someone to be wary of. It was drawing closer and--

"Neko-chan!" Eiji exclaimed from behind Ash, dropping to his knees without grace.

It was...just a cat?

Eiji tried coaxing the little feline to his lap. The cat was pure white and it had pale green eyes. It stared at Eiji with this curious look and the former all but made a fool of himself by cooing at it and making baby noises.

"It's a stray cat Eiji." Ash deadpanned. Eiji ignored him and somehow managed to get the cat to let him pet it. Although it was still slightly hesitant to approach them.

"Neko-chan, kawaii." He started talking in rapid fire Japanese which for the life of Ash, made no sense. But from the tone, he could discern that it was mostly just baby talk and sweet nothings, praises that easily fell from his lips. This was the first time Ash heard Eiji talk in his own language fluently without the confines of the need of conversation and communication with another man. His voice lilted in a way English could never capture, and it came in effortless rolls of his tongue. Japanese was a free flowing thing, compared to his English's frigid and clipped sentences. Ash found that he liked the subtle differences they made.

"You have beautiful eyes yes?" Eiji switched back to English and seemingly broke a spell, Ash blinked and the mesmerized reverie was over. The cat was sitting on his lap now and it looked pretty tame, Ash might even say that it was preening. Eiji cooed. "He looks like you Ash."

Ash scowled at the tiny beast on Eiji's arms. It glared back at him. "How is that," He pointed at it with disapproval. "Anything like me?" And it yowled back as if in protest too at being compared to him just as he finished saying it. Its eyes turned to slits. It seemed insulted. Bastard.

"His eyes remind me of yours," Eiji held the cat closer to his face. "The green of your eyes are pretty similar, isn't that right neko-chan?" He cooed at the cat with all adoration in his face. Ash didn't know where the irrational bout of irritation came from, but it grated on his nerves. Ridiculous.

"I really disliked the color green you know?" Eiji continued. "Reminds me of the huge emerald earrings my grandmother always wore and she was just plain terrible." Eiji played with the cat's paw while Ash startled at the tale. If sweet, pure Eiji--who wouldn't even hurt a fly--Okumura, says a person is terrible, then they really must be. Ash wondered what she had done to warrant such a terrible opinion from him. He wasn't able to ask though. He already moved on. "But you see, sometimes you take bad things and these bad memories and replace it with good things. Things like songs and food and experiences. Now I don't mind the color green."

"Because of the cat?" Ash raised a brow and crossed his arms. It might have come out more petulant than expected.

"Of course not," He laughed like Ash was silly and his eyes told of something Ash didn't understand. "When I see the color green, I no longer think of my grandmother and her earrings. At least now I am reminded of the color of your eyes, the eyes of my friend." His smile was bright when he stared up at Ash. He was always too bright, a contradiction considering how his eyes and hair were dark. He was the sun, the kind of person Ash would never think of being near, the kind where he'd never look directly. Yet he basked in the warmth his presence brought.

He was a different perspective, breath of fresh air. And to him, Ash was a friend. He just seemed fixated in calling him that despite barely knowing anything about him. That aside, his words struck something inside Ash. Beneath Eiji's childish and naïve demeanor, there was an astute, sobering mind that showed itself to Ash at many different times.

Perhaps he too, can remake memories. Perhaps when the sea breeze hits his face, he'd remember sunsets and cats and fascinating Japanese boys with dark eyes and dark hair with equally fascinating thoughts. Maybe when he smells the salt in the air he'll be reminded of this moment, instead of  crummy Cape Cod. And so he took in this and this and this, committing everything to memory until the image burned behind his eyelids and the memory truly etched in the safety of his mind. This was remembering and this was forgetting.

"Ash." The sound soft and kind as it always was when it left Eiji's lips. This too was fascinating, and he wished to remember this too. "Let's go back."

Ash blinked away his reverie and glanced down at the cat in Eiji's arms. It stared back and blinked with this annoyed demeanor. Incredulous, Ash asked.

"You're not bringing the cat are you?"

 


 

 

"Lighten up. You're the one who wanted to leave the kitten to the animal shelter." Eiji murmured from the floor. A dozen puppies and kittens littered the room and Eiji looked absolutely delighted at the turn of events. He was cuddling with three furry beasts.

"It's not a kitten. It's a grown cat. And you didn't need to fork over a large sum of money for it." Ash sat on the corner of the room, away from all the animals, cross legged and hands in the pocket of his jacket.

"Nhnmm I can't hear you over the amount of cuteness in this room." Eiji giggled when the puppy in his hands licked his cheek. It barked in exhilaration before wiggling away from Eiji's grasp.

Ash huffed. "Whatever."

"I spy someone jealous." Eiji was busy playing with a toy poodle. He met Ash's eyes with a playful look, teasing him with a bat of his lashes. Ash spluttered indignantly.

"I'm not!" He scowled. Eiji looked even more amused.

"Ash if you wanted to pet them, you don't need to ask." He looked smug, his huge shit eating grin was the obvious sign.
"Who said I wanted to?"

"Whatever you say." And Eiji dropped the topic, but his grin was very much visible. Ash crossed his arms against his chest and looked away. That was until he felt a faint nudge on his foot followed by a quiet bark. Ash looked down and saw a tiny Shiba Inu looking up at him.

"Shoo. Go back with the others." He grumbled with a hand wave of dismissal, moving his foot so as to not disturb the dog and not to be disturbed. The dog pawed at his sneakers playfully, disregarding whatever Ash just said. He picked up the dog and set it aside with an admonishing cluck of his tongue. "Didn't you hear what I just said?"

The dog continued its game regardless. Ash picked it up and stared it in the eye. Its fur was black and it had two dark eyes that shined under the fluorescent light of the clinic. "You stubborn beast." He glared at it. The glare was petty pointless when all Ash got in return was a bright doggy smile with its tongue lolling out. Ash got a lick on the face.

"He likes you!" Eiji exclaimed. He was laying on the floor, contented to have a dozen dogs walking and sitting all over him. His eyes were wide and glittering. Ash snickered.

"He can't possibly-" He paused, then squinted at the dog in his hands, then back at Eiji, something dawning in him. "It looks like you." He said suddenly, his realization an abrupt thing that he could never unsee anymore. The resemblance was uncanny, the cheerful dark eyes, the shiny black hair, the headstrong stubbornness, the same ecstatic smile that seemed amused half the time--it was all there. He squinted at the dog, then back at Eiji again. "No shit."

"Aww. I'm flattered." Eiji carefully picked up the corgi on his chest before sitting up.

Ash huffed at the tiny paws that rested on his cheeks. The dog seemed to find it amusing to pat his face. Ash pulled it away from his face and dropped it back on the floor. The dog whimpered, scratching his knees in its desire to be carried again. It whined in distress until Ash picked it up again.

"Whiny baby," He snickered. "Just like your human look alike."

"I'm not whiny." Eiji pouted.

"Case in point." Ash laughed. This seemed to please the dog since it gave a bark of approval. "See? He agrees with me."

Eiji stuck his tongue out. The Shiba Inu wriggled from Ash's grip, opting to lay down on his lap instead. He felt his lips stretch into a smile and he continued petting the dog with a contented sigh. Maybe they weren't so bad after all.

The smile dropped and shifted into a petulant downturn of his lips when he saw the smug look on Eiji's face and the huge shit eating grin on his mouth. Incorrigible, seriously. Ash looked away, trying hard not to think of the heat crawling on his face.

 


 

 

"We've been going to places I want since the beginning. I'm starting to think I'm burdening you." Eiji sighed as they walked back from the diner they ate their late supper from. It was a miracle that he was able to pull Eiji away from the animal shelter. Usually Ash was the one who was forced to go to dinner, but he nearly needed to strangle Eijj out of the establishment and reminded him of food. Eiji was surprisingly strong despite his rather lithe figure.

"I don't mind. You aren't a burden." Ash mused. The summer breeze blew against them, the chill not so cold.

"Still," They passed by the windows of the shops on the street. Their lights casted a lovely glow on the night that mixed with the bright light of the street lamps. "I think we should go to a place you want this time."

Ash snorted and rolled his eyes. "I don't have any-" He stopped on his tracks, attention caught elsewhere. He stared at the display by the window and a sudden want struck him deep inside his chest. He turned to Eiji with a serious face. "Let's go in."

"What? Here?" Eiji asked aloud perhaps slightly confused.

"Yes. Come on." Ash grabbed his hand and all but dragged Eiji into the store. The glass door creaked open, the hinge needed oil, and a bell chimed from the door post. The familiar scent of paper, ink, and print washed over him. Ash felt at ease.

"We're at a bookstore." Eiji mused and he had this habit of pointing out the obvious but Ash couldn't be bothered to tease him about it. Eiji did look curious at the sudden turn of events.

"Yes. Obviously." Ash said with a hint of impatience and anticipation. He hadn't browsed a bookstore in a really long while. It's probably years since the last visit and though he rarely bought any, the dry pages of the book and the crisp smell of paper was comforting. He scanned different bookshelves and sections in long and quick strides.

"Ash," Eiji laughed in this breathless manner. "Seriously, you could always just let me go if you're that eager to look around. I'm not going anywhere." His eyes crinkled warmly. Ash's eyes darted to his hand that grasped the Japanese's wrist with a vice like grip. He didn't look like he minded, still Ash let go of his hand like it burned.

"Right. I didn't realize." He muttered. He tucked his hand on his jacket and ducked his head. He felt silly, almost childish. This was an unfamiliar feeling. He didn't know what to think of it.

"No worries. I'm not a big fan of books so I rarely visit the bookstore." Eiji shrugged. Ash found this just a tad puzzling since the man was reading the first time they met.

"You really don't like reading?" Ash wrinkled his nose. He slid his hand over the spines of the books, checking the summaries of each of them.

"I've only ever read the Harry Potter series in Japanese translation and I mostly just read mangas," Eiji sighed. "You'd think I've at least read Haruki Murakami or something, but I haven't. I prefer movies over books."

"How are we even friends?" Ash meant it as a dry comment, but he raised a brow at the look on Eiji's face. A really broad grin was sported in it. He felt a cold sweat rolled down his face. "What?"

"You," Eiji pointed at his chest accusingly but he had this satisfied glint in his eyes. "Called me your friend!"

Ash froze, blinked, then backtracked. And he realized that he did say that without thinking too much about it, a subconscious decision, maybe even a slip of a tongue. "So? You're making a big deal out of it."

"I'm just happy." Eiji replied with brutally fierce honesty that always stunted Ash.

"You're pretty easy to please." He regarded Eiji with a single nod at his direction.

"Life's too short to be unhappy all the time, and it's beautiful to see pleasure in the smallest things. Or so I think," Eiji smiled. "We spend so much on the most pointless things that we forget about what's important. We forget about the things right in front of us."  Ash could feel his lips pull into a downturn, a frown painted on his face. Eiji, for the most days, was cheerful without a hint of sadness in him, but now there were downcast eyes that were unbelievably clear. He didn't look sad, but he wasn't really happy.

Ash felt a throbbing thing in his chest which ached inside him, a feeling familiar to him as it manifested in different moments before whenever he's with Eiji. And he thinks he's figured it out. His chest hurts with the telltale feeling of concern. What an interesting feeling, he thought. Before he could ask if he was alright, Eiji giggled. "God, you must be thinking how much of a grandpa I am with me talking about these things and all. Oh but I'm not really doing anything to change your mind either."

He walked away to browse the next shelf without really saying anything else, leaving Ash to stare at his retreating back in contemplation. It had been weeks, but Ash could feel he's hardly grazed the surface of Eiji's mind. It was also interesting how drawn Ash was to him and he thought for sure it was the downright bizarreness of the man and the need to understand him that still kept him close, yes it ought to be that. Someday he'll figure him out for sure. He made to follow Eiji. That was, until he felt a shiver down his spine.

He could feel his gut churn, the pulse in his chest was beating fast, and breathing was a chore and didn't know why. It felt asphyxiating, like pierced by ice and choked by anxiety, drowned by nerves. He looked around the store for any sign of a threat, this sensation only ever did arise when there was trouble and never once did it failed him. Never.

He moved forward. It may be madness, it may be paranoia. The lingering fear of everything drove him crazy. He thought of Murphy's Law, thought of the worst case scenario, thought of everything that could possibly--and almost quite certainly will go wrong. Perhaps if he waited the pursuer would show themselves, if there really were any to begin with. He waited with a breath, a moment passed, surely someone would betray something. A sudden movement, a sound, anything.

He clenched his hand, the urge to draw a gun that was nonexistent was overwhelming. He dug his nails on the meat of his palm until it carved crescents on them. Static rang in his ears and then he heard the slightest shuffle of feet, the softest rustle of clothes, the inconspicuous click of the safety of a gun pulled which he was already well acquainted, quiet in the noise of the place but damningly loud to his ears. And it could be paranoia, it could be real, it could be madness or perhaps the clearest sobriety. Ash calmed his breathing, shoulder tensed, arms ready to spring into action should the need arise as he turned around. There was movement from the shady figure from corner and-

"Hey, have you seen anything that interests y-- are you okay?"

Ash jolted at the sudden appearance of Eiji from behind him, eyes flicking one second to Eiji and immediately darted to gaze directly back at the figure from the corner which....was already gone.

"I-" Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. This was bad, worse than bad. This was a disaster. He thought of Murphy's Law, its pessimistic nature. Pessimism was better than carelessness and he needed to warn Eiji of the impending trouble. But Eiji had this worried look in his face and Ash was reminded of the fear in those dark eyes, how it didn't belong there. "I think I saw the classic section over there. Let's go."

He said this instead and wrapped an arm across Eiji's shoulder, leading him away but not before shooting one more suspicious glance at the corner. He didn't feel the sensation of an impending threat of violence, but even so the unease inside his gut never left. He kept his guard up the rest of the time.

Needless to say, he wasn't able to sleep that night.

Chapter Text

"How many cups of coffee is that now?"

"Mhm, lost count. It doesn't matter." He lied. It was the seventh cup. Ash actually counted. He had six refills from the cafe. The take out had been the seventh. He sipped the bitter beverage and let the taste linger in his tongue. He long disregarded the scalding sensation of hot water in his mouth. He couldn’t help it, danger rang him warnings at every step. Caffeine kept him on his toes, it was a different kind of drug.

"How are you alive?" Eiji’s disbelief bled through his words. In a way, he was a nagging mother at times.

"Isn't that the million dollar question?" Ash laughed, perhaps a little crazy. It came out more bitter than he wished. He needed to know who wanted him this time and he needed to get rid of them. This was challenging since he didn't have his gun on him--or any weapon actually.

He needed a drink or two, but he found it unsavory to get drunk early morning and so he settled with unhealthy doses of caffeine. His head was aching from it all. He could narrow down the people after him to a few names. He was sure he left no loose ends when he abandoned New York. The obvious lead would be whatever happened in Washington. It was possible that they had managed to follow him to Alaska. The first thing was to hunt them down without giving away that he's already aware of their presence. He needed to be more vigilant, and he needed to be careful. He shouldn't let Eiji suspect anything.

"Mhmmm....I can't drink it that bitter." Eiji murmured with his own cup of caramel frappe. He eyed Ash's cup with distaste. Ash observed that he scrunches his nose at every disdainful thing he thinks and sees.

"I can't drink it that sweet." Ash countered as he drained the last bits of the coffee. If he was fidgety, he attributed it to the caffeine instead of the nerves. It was rotting his brain. He threw the cup at a trash can they passed by.

They continued walking in silence. They don't usually do anything touristy with their travels. Eiji had always appreciated the city in its regular days, in the everyday they spent living in it. It was slow paced, but Ash didn't mind at all. Ash didn’t mind a lot of things with Eiji.

"I think I want to give you something before we truly part ways." Eiji piped up between the shared moments of silence.

"Oh yeah?" They were walking in what Ash could discern was a gigantic yard sale, some sort of a flea market. Maybe this inspired Eiji's new peculiar idea. The place was cluttered and noise was loud.

It was the perfect place to trail someone inconspicuously. Ash searched for anybody suspicious.

"Yeah! Something to remember me by. You might forget me so soon and I'd rather not have that." Eiji grinned at him. Ash thought that it might be quite impossible to forget Eiji that easily. In fact he might never forget someone as strange as him at all.

"You can give me something in-oh sorry!" His words cut off when he stumbled and pushed someone by accident. Eiji bowed down in apology to the person he bumped with. The man with striking silver piercings waved it off and continued on his way. Seriously Eiji was such a klutz when he was too excited. "Anyway where was I? Oh yeah, you can give me something in return." The Japanese continued.

"And why do I need to give you anything?" Ash raised his brows. 

"Why payment of course! Where did the Ash-let-me-pay-for-myself-Lynx go?" Eiji teased.

"I never agreed to such arrangements Capitalist scum." Ash shot back. "You tricked me into one of your shady contracts." He narrowed his eyes comically.

Eiji giggled at this, the sounds coming out like bursts of bubbles. "That's too bad. Nothing's free nowadays."

"I thought my good company and my charming personality was payment enough." Ash argued.

"Oh no, that was merely for your capital loan. You haven't paid for the interest." Here comes the business man in Eiji. He was, Ash suddenly remembered, from an affluent family.

"My handsome face was payment for the capital, my company for the interest." Ash countered.

"Then consider this simply a barter of goods, call it an equivalent exchange. Surely that shouldn't be a problem?" Eiji smirked in negotiation. "This too can also be a good investment for both parties, emotionally."

"This is stupid."

"No, it's business." It was a stare off. Green to brown and brown to green. Unyielding and proud, his eyes screamed nothing but this, although playfulness was written all over them too. It was easy to forget that this man was born in the cutthroat world of business too, made even easier with his meek demeanor. Or quite possibly there really was just something in him that made you like him and protect him.

He's good, Ash had to give him that. He’s won enough arguments against Ash to be called off as nothing. Ash sighed. "You have yourself a deal."

"Great doing business with you." Eiji extended his hand, his toothy grin present, and though it was absolutely full of itself, Ash couldn’t exactly hate it. Ash accepted his hand for a handshake.

"Alright, so what are the conditions?" Ash asked. Because Eiji almost always had something bizarre cooking up in his mind. He wasn't mistaken to assume. Give it to him to make even shopping to be exciting.

"Okay let's take ten minutes each to run around the place and find one thing that best defines ourselves, or something that we want the other to remember us by" Eiji’ was thrumming with excitement. Ash believed he could fill an entire room with his presence alone. "Then let's meet right back here to exchange."

"Ten minutes, sure," Ash folded his arms across his chest. "And if someone comes back late?"

"Then they'll have to do anything the other one wants." Eiji said without a beat. His spontaneous thinking was a thing of wonder. "If both are late then the earlier one wins."

"Fine by me." Ash set his watch to alarm in ten minutes. Eiji did the same to his phone. It was four thirty two. They needed to be back by four forty two.

"Okay. One," Eiji had this glint in his eyes, like an excited child. He vibrated with anticipation and Ash can't help but feel the same. He loved the thrill of a petty rivalry. He used to do these with Griffin before, and sometimes Shorter. This brought back memories of happier times.

"Two," Ash said as the spark of competitiveness lit up inside him, fire burning in his nerves. A bated breath, they stared at each other before the moment of truth, none of them about to back down.

"Three!" They both yelled and scrambled in opposite directions.

Ash bolted across the stalls, searching for something to remind Eiji of him. He might have not thought of this through. He had absolutely no idea what to give. There were different paraphernalia displayed around the stalls, some quite absurd. Ash wanted it to be at least useful, but Eiji could pretty much buy anything he needed.

He passed by a section filled with nothing but maps, another filled with figurines. There was a weird one filled with glass eyed dolls, and another one filled with nothing broken doll arms.

There were clothes, mugs, dinner plates, lamps, picture frames. He could give him one, he does enjoy taking pictures but that's pretty...underwhelming. Ash tore his attention from them and continued searching. Ash was sure Eiji didn't need a waffle iron, or a coffee maker. Actually appliances and furniture was a big no go so he could check that off his list. Ash knew close to nothing about photography so that wasn't an option either.

Ash glanced at his watch. It was four thirty five. He had seven more minutes. He walked faster. 

Eiji said it needed to define him, define his character so that at one glance you'll think of nothing else but him. Perhaps Ash needed to see this in a different perspective. He had only ever loved books. He doubted Eiji was as enthusiastic about it as him and he had mentioned about his disinterest on books and preference over movies. Ash wandered to the section filled with books anyway, his feet always drawing him there.

Ash checked the time. He had five more minutes. He scanned the collection for anything remotely interesting. It was filled with crappy love stories from the ninties, old paperback books with folded and crumpled pages, the edges torn after being read over and over. Ash didn't want to touch any of that. Surely there was something interesting being sold here?

"Tell me. What classics do you have?" He asked the vendor with urgency. Time was ticking and it was ticking fast.

"They're all over there." He points at the tiny stack of books on the wooden box at the side. They were all hardbound, just as old as the others, perhaps even older. Ash wasted no time in rummaging around it, looking for anything interesting. The musty sent of old paper was strong on his nose. He checked his watch, roughly three minutes left.

His hand pulled a rather battered copy of what he was searching for. He flipped through the pages and smiled when he found it okay. The book was payment after all, and Ash had read this over and over that he could probably recite the words by memory. This was important to him in more ways than one, and he hoped Eiji would understand the significance.

He scrambled back to the man and handed his cash, decidedly uncaring of the change. The customer beside him looked at Ash with a raised brow, his piercings glinted under the sun. Funny coincidence. Ash narrowed his eyes but decidedly dropped it. He had pressing matters at hand.

"Pen," He gritted out to the owner. "I need a pen." The vendor must have seen the urgency in his eyes for he simply passed his sharpie without any preamble. Ash got it and opened the first page, scribbled his intent and handed the pen back carelessly. He yelled a quick apology before running back without any grace.

He checked his watch. He had a minute and a half more. He weaved through the crowd expertly, finally skidding to a stop at their meeting point. He checked his watch once more. It was four forty one. He had half a minute to spare.There were no signs of Eiji yet. Ash panted while he basked in victory. Of course there was this tiny voice at the back of his head that chastised him for acting too childish and for being careless. He snuffed that thought before he could dwell on it more.

One minute past. The grandpa really took his time. Ash thought of something clever to say when he arrived. He'd probably pout and narrow his eyes at him. Ash could almost see it.

Three minutes passed.

Ash tapped his foot in impatience. Weren't Japanese usually punctual? Maybe he should start looking for him? Maybe he got lost? Eiji looked like the type who would get distracted by different things. Yet he also seemed competitive that he wouldn't let Ash snatch victory this easy.

Five minutes passed.

It was four forty seven and Eiji was nowhere to be found still. There was underlying panic in Ash's nerves. All former feeling of triumph from earlier were forgotten. His breathing hitched at every passing minute. He forced himself to calm down. He could be overreacting. Eiji could just be around the corner.

Eight minutes passed.

Ash cursed himself for not having a phone. His throat was dry and scratchy. His chest beating even faster. He felt sick. His mouth felt like cotton and butterflies stuck in his throat.

Ten minutes passed.

Ash found his feet trudging along, his lips moving on their own accord. “Eiji!” He called out in a frantic voice, first soft and the next growing several more decibels. “Eiji!” His feet broke into a run, his voice nearly cracking in desperation. There was a growing pit in his gut and he felt like he was falling down, spiraling out of control. “Eiji!!” He called out louder. “Eiji!!!”

He shouldn’t have let his guard down, he should have remembered the threat from last night. He had been too careless. He searched for any signs of dark hair and dark eyes.

"Eiji!"

He could be anywhere and anything could have happened to him. The sobering reality hit him hard in the face. If Eiji was hurt, if something happened to him, Ash wouldn't hesitate to kill, wouldn't-

"Ash?"

He skidded to a stop by the stall selling a lot of different mirrors and vintage objects. He snapped towards the direction of the voice, unsure of the expression on his face. Standing before him was Eiji, smiling and seemingly alright, unharmed. His face turned into a frown at one look at Ash. "Something wrong?"

"Where were you?!" Ash barked out in frustration, all pent up energy released in that one yell. Eiji stepped back in instinct, perhaps a bit warry.

"I was just over there?" Eiji was confused. He tilted his head. "What's wrong?"

"You were late by nearly fifteen minutes. I thought something happened to you." Ash gritted his teeth, he tore at his hair with worry. Relief, anger, frustration, happiness, calm, and panic were mixing in his mind like a concoction of emotions.

"Why would something happen to me?" Eiji asked.

"Because-" Ash halted to consider what he was going to say, and he had hundreds to say. Because it was not safe, because you're seen walking with me, because you even as much as talked to me. Because you're so naive and a hundred different things could go wrong and happen to you.

Eiji was not of his world. He had not known mistrust and violence was nothing but a distant thing. He had not seen all the blood in Ash’s hands and he did not know the dangers of being with him, he didn’t bear the weight of his sins and conscience. He found himself with this irrational feeling of wanting to confess it all anyway when he stared at those dark dark eyes blinking up at him owlishly.

And he thought that it was this that always led him to his demise. Every single time. These dark dark eyes that stared at him and always ruthlessly coax the truth from his lips when he's not careful with his defenses. They always render him speechless and his mind loses its train of thought. All sense of logic leaves his mind. This was the triumph behind every argument, and this was the reason behind Ash's loss.

But all words died in his mouth before he could say anything.

Once was normal. Twice could be played off as a coincidence. But thrice? It was a scheme. On the reflection of the mirror was none other than the man with silver piercings. That set off a lot of warning bells to Ash.

He pasted on a saccharine smile, too cloyingly sweet to be real but enough to trick people. "I'm sorry. There's just a paranoid voice inside my head. Let's go elsewhere?" He walked in step with Eiji, slipping an arm across his shoulder and burrowing his nose on Eiji' neck.

Eiji tensed, but Ash heeded it no mind. Instead, he whispered to his ear. “Keep walking and don't look back. Don't ask questions and trust me. Act natural." Ash warned as soft as possible on Eiji's ear while keeping the urgency from his tone.

"Wh-what?"

"Don't look back." Ash hissed when he attempted to do so. He pressed him close to his chest and walked faster. Eiji spluttered out in question but didn't say anything. He was receptive to Ash's instructions and talked like he usually did. Although his pitch grew higher, his palms sweaty and his breath hitched every now and then.

"Ash..." Eiji whispered when they were far from the flea market and had blended well in the hustle and bustle of the city. Ash led them to an alleyway. The man's nervousness was palpable in the air, Ash could almost taste it.

"It's okay." Ash whispered in comfort. Eiji nodded like he trusted Ash. He pressed himself closer to him. He was flush against Ash's chest, his scent sharp against his nose.

"Stay here," Ash commanded Eiji. He could sense three following them. Ash asked him to hide behind some crates. "Don't ever go out until I tell you so. Do you understand?"

Eiji nodded. "Ash..." He said in a weak voice. "Don't get hurt okay?" There was hopefulness in his soft tone, and seriousness that shook Ash's core, but he knew he couldn't promise this, no one really could. Nonetheless, he nodded anyway and said a soft yes.

He waited for their perpetrators, every passing second akin to an hour. He picked up a rotten pipe from the pavement to arm himself. His grip got tighter until his knuckles turned white, listening for the rhythmic sound of footsteps approaching. They were faint, but not inaudible to Ash.

The first follower quickly turned round the corner, easily knocked into the metal of Ash's weapon of choice. The sound of bone cracking was loud to Ash's ears, blood gushed out from the wound. He fell on his knees and into the pavement. The second perpetrator saw the commotion and easily ducked from the attack, he narrowly missed it by inches. He drew out his gun but Ash easily disarmed him with a kick to his hand then directed another one right at his jaw.

Lunge. Duck. Kick.

Ash's body went through the motions like clockwork, every second felt like hours. He kicked the back of the man's knees, the pain momentarily dislodging him. Next he hit his stomach with his pipe, then he kicked his head.

Vitals. This was what he trained on. The places to swiftly make the enemy fall, the easiest way to kill them, the harshest way to deliver punishment, the most painful way to torture for answers.

The man fell down unconscious with bruises and broken bones. Two down one more to go. Ash scrambled for the gun on the dusty ground. He aimed it just in time for the next man to arrive. Ash pulled the trigger without hesitation. A shot to the head. The loud gunshot echoed in the small alleyway. Dead. He joined his comrades on the floor.

But there was a problem, unease choked Ash.

The man with the silver piercings wasn't in the pile of bodies.

"Drop your weapon." Ash whirred to the source of the voice. He came face to face with Eiji, a barrel of gun pressed against his temple. "Drop it or I blow his brains." A growl came from the man holding Eiji hostage. It was none other than the man with silver piercings. Ash flicked his stare between Eiji and the captor. Eiji was pale and shaking. "Don't think for a second I won't do it."

Goddamnit.

It was four after all, not three.

Ash threw aside the gun and bloodstained pipe he was holding. He raised his arms in surrender.

"It's good to see you so obedient Lynx." The thug said like he was someone better than Ash. It grated on Ash's nerves.

"Who sent you?" Ash spat out. They were Asian too, their features were the greatest giveaway. They looked like Shorter. Chinese. "Was it that bitch Yut-Lung?"

"You wish." The man grinned with maliciousness that could make you flinch if you were a normal man. Lecherous. Ash hated his kind. "The boss wants your blood." He jerked Eiji's head, pulling his hair with his grip. "You know when I saw your picture, I knew you were pretty," His eyes trailed down Ash's body. Ash wanted nothing more but to slam his head on the wall a hundred times until his face was unrecognizable from the blood and bruises. "But seeing you in person makes me wanna fuck you so badly."

Ash felt rage all over his body. Every man is a pig inside. They don’t even try to hide it anymore. They disgust him, but if this was the only way to save Eiji...

"Let him go and you can have your way with me." Ash swallowed down the sickness from his stomach, his tongue burned with the acid of those words.

"Oh no princess. I'll have your friend here watch. He's kinda cute too," He tugged at Eiji's hair once more, the Japanese yelped in pain. "Or, I can do both of you at the same time." He licked Eiji's cheek with his tongue. Ash saw red. That was the last straw. He would not allow this. Not Eiji. They could hurt Ash but never him.

The sound of a gunshot ricocheted in the alley and for a moment, Ash dreaded the fact that maybe the man pulled the trigger and shot Eiji in the head. For a fraction of a second, his heart stopped beating and he lost his breath. But the man looked petrified, face frozen in shock and he started falling falling falling to the ground, bleeding on the floor, nearly pulling Eiji with him had Ash not yank him away from his deathly grip.

Ash was able to breathe again and he looked up to see their rescuer.

"Long time no see Lynx."

Ash recognized that face, he recognized that familiar tuft of black hair, that confident grin and child-like face. His short stature was unmistakable and even then his voice was already a giveaway. Ash's voice was just a bit raspy, but he managed to say in a clear voice.

"Sing."

 

Chapter Text

"Sing?"

Ash suddenly returned from the heat of the moment. Adrenaline subsided and his body felt so tired, the tension leaving.

"With love from Chinatown," Sing waved at him, an almost smug look in his face. "Yo."

Ash was thankful, but also confused at the turn of events. He caught his breath. "What are you doing here?"

"I think the question is, what are you doing so far from home?" Sing started to walk forward, hands in the pocket of his jacket. He's grown a bit taller since the last time they saw each other, muscles more pronounced. His hair was also a bit longer. It needed cutting. But there was still something absolutely familiar with him, the same little boy he met before he left New York. It had only been months.

"It's not really your business." Ash snapped. "Besides," He trailed away. "New York isn't my home." Manhattan never was, neither was Cape Cod.

"No," Sing grinned, almost alike that when he was younger and less sharp. It was nearly that of Shorter's. Amazing what months of experience can do. This incarnation of Sing was more learned, more matured. He looked fitting to be in control of China town. He jerked his head. "But I believe they are."

"Boss!"

Three sets of footsteps rushed to their location, all heavy and familiar too. What a day for reunions.

"Alex, Bones and Kong." Ash was almost disbelieving. The three stood before him with relieved smiles on their faces.

"Boss, we missed you!" Bones piped up. His signature pink hair was now mixed with his natural hair, the once vibrant color was faded.

"I'm not your boss anymore. I'm done with that." Ash snorted. He slipped his hands in his pockets. He had to admit that this was bringing many memories.

"I can't do it as good as you." Alex replied. At this Ash laughed. His second in command barely changed, just a little bit harried from the times. Ash might feel bad for dumping it all on Alex, all responsibilities, but he trusted no one else but his second in command to inherit his place.

"Who's the other guy?" Kong asked. Ash turned to where he gestured. Eiji jolted as if surprised to have been mentioned at all, almost like he forgot he was part of the group for a moment. Ash snickered.

"He's Eiji."

"Hi." He bowed a respectful bow, a good ninety degrees, then he waved at the group with a smile, shyly. Eiji body seemed to scream with instincts to hide behind him. Ash almost wanted to laugh. Eiji, the confident Eiji who had no qualms about barging in Ash's life, was suddenly shy.

"He's a pole vaulter," Ash bragged while Eiji seemingly curled into himself. Ash smirked. "He flew and saved me." Why he was suddenly bashful was beyond Ash. As he said before, a contradiction of personalities.

"N-not really," Eiji laughed it off. "Ash saved me first. I'd be dead if it wasn't for him." He scratched his cheek. The four stared at Eiji, assessing, sizing him for any signs of threat. Ash knew he was as harmless as a butterfly, the process though well meant, was utterly pointless.

"Anybody my boss is cool with, I'm cool too." Alex reached out for a hand shake. "I'm Alex." Eiji took his hand. "Eiji Okumura." He replied in kind.

The pink haired man went next. "I'm Bones and I think you're pretty amazing."

Eiji accepted his hand graciously. "I'll put myself in your care."

"Kong. Thank you for saving my boss." He opted for a fist bump. Eiji met his fist with his own without hesitation, slowly warming up to the new people.

"I'm not your boss anymore." Ash cut in. Old habits die hard, he supposed, but he'd really rather just let that title die, buried six feet under and forgotten over the passage of time.

Eiji turned to Sing with an expectant hand, a smile on his face. Sing furrowed his brows at the hand, hesitated then shook it. "Sing-Soo Ling. Nice to meet you I guess?"

Eiji grinned, flashing him a blinding smile. "Thank you for saving us. I might've died too if it weren't for you." His dazzlingly brilliant smile was too bright for the moment. Ash snickered at the expression on Sing's face. Eiji had that special ability to coax the most unexpected from people.

The Chinese cleared his throat, a faint blush dusting his cheeks. Ash couldn't blame him. Eiji could be too much at first. "Don't mention it." He snatched his hand. "A-anyway," He looked away from Eiji. "If we're done with the meet and greet, let's dispose of the bodies and get somewhere safe."

"I agree," Ash crossed his arms. "Alex, Bones, Kong. Can I rely on you for the bodies?"

"Yes boss." They said in unison.

"Sing, you're going with us to our hotel room. I doubt we're still safe if they had people trailing us," Ash nodded at Sing. "We need to relocate."

"Alright."

Ash nodded at the group. "Let's move!"

 


 

Eiji checked them out of the hotel and rented a smaller and cheaper apartment in the more discreet corner of the city. They settled in immediately.

"Sorry I only found a two bedroom apartment." Eiji heaved his luggage to the bedroom. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, a breath of exhaustion escaped his lip.

"The others could sleep on the couch. They'll be fine. They've slept on worse. Besides, why are you apologizing? I brought you to my mess didn't I?" Ash raised a brow at the Japanese man. He set some of the other's bags on the floor. "You almost died again because of me."

"I don't mind," Eiji laughed and settled on the bed, the sound of the springs creak in the mattress was slightly worrying. "It's pretty exciting. I haven't had much fun in a long time,” He held up his hand just as Ash opened his mouth in protest, as if he read his mind. He grinned, like the thought of it pleased him. “I know you're going to say I'm weird or that you don't get me at all. I get it. I know."

He was spot on. Before Ash could reply with a quip of his own, Sing entered the bedroom with updates. Alex followed. "I've secured the perimeter. It seems we're fine."

"Everything's taken care of boss," Alex reported. “Bodies disposed of, all evidences clean. The others are waiting outside and washing the remaining evidence off their hands.”

"I'm going to order us something to eat," Eiji declared. He turned to the Chinese. "Sing, is there anything you want to eat?"

Again. Sing looked bewildered to be addressed, a deer caught in headlights. There were somethings that didn’t really change about him. "Anything's good." He mumbled silently. Eiji turned to the other man in the room. "Alex? How about you?" He was responded with an equal shake of his head.

"Aren't you going to ask me?" Ash shot Eiji a smirk. Eiji rolled his eyes.

"We put guests first Ash." He clicked his tongue like the admonishing mother he was. He picked up his phone and walked away.

"Don't go out! It's not safe!" Ash craned his neck and yelled just before he passed the door way. His view was limited to Eiji's back side.

"I'm just going to order pizza you absolute worry wart!" The said back side halted as Eiji retorted. He spun around to look at Ash, as if he wanted him to see exactly how annoyed he was. He was very much annoyed.

"I want pineapples on them." Ash was never one to back down. He sat on his bed, and waited for the reply. Eiji wrinkled his button nose with distaste, absolute aversion bleeding in his tone in the way he hissed: Savage. He stuck his tongue out at him before finally leaving the room. Ash snickered.

"You seem...close." Alex looked between the two, confused.

"Hm? Yes," Ash turned his gaze back to them. "The stubborn bastard wouldn't let me be." He chuckled. Then with Eiji out of the room, he took a deep sigh and shut his eyes, a momentary relapse so he'll remember what he needed to do, to compose himself. Deceptively clear green eyes fluttered open and immediately sobered. "Alright, tell me who wants me dead this time." He tapped his fingers on the crisp white sheets of the bed, almost impatient. "The bastard said it wasn't Yut-Lung."

Sing shuffled on his seat, a look of remorse in his face, something akin to guilt. The atmosphere took a serious turn. "It's Lao. My half-brother." The guilt perhaps, came with the association of the culprit.

Ash was silent. Then he spoke. "Lao, yes I remember him. He's your right hand wasn't he?" Memories flooded him, a man in a jacket, red was his favored color. His hair gelled up. He had shifty eyes. He was always distrustful of Ash since the beginning. He could see it in the way he glared at him, in the way he spat his name like venom. Suddenly he was so exhausted. This was almost a lifetime’s worth of conversation and every word was like forcing himself to bleed, forcing himself to spit out poison. Funny, he hadn't felt this in a while. He hoped not to feel it ever again.

"Not anymore." Sing said. "He's not my right hand anymore. We've parted ways since...then." There was discomfort in the way he said the last word. Ash could relate. He’d rather not mention it tonight. He'd rather not talk at all.

"Yes, I figured," Ash grunted instead. His head started to throb, a sharp ache started to bloom. He rubbed his temples. This was too taxing for him, too laborious, to troublesome to bother with. He tried to remember the intricacies of speaking, he found it difficult to do so and this was only English. "Is this about Shorter then?"

"Yes, in a way. But also he's always disapproved of you." Sing replied. Ash scoffed.

"I don't need his approval." He might've growled, he might've hissed. Maybe it was just a whisper. He didn't know. All he knew was that it left his tongue and it parted with a bitter taste.

"He wants a duel." Alex added.

"Seems about right." Ash reached out his hand. "Well? I can't fight him without a weapon."

"He's going to play dirty," Sing furrowed his brows. "He knows he can't win without doing so, everyone does."

"I'll show him he can't win even then." Ash lounged in his bed, with the disenchantment only noble men and royalty could manage. He leaned his arm on the bed, elbow pressed on the soft mattress while his head rested on his head. “Even Arthur was better than him, and he proved to be pathetic, didn’t he?”

“Yes, but I’m concerned about him.” Alex gestured at the door, the implication clear as crystal. The figure behind it was almost damningly incriminating, and Ash immediately knew what he meant. Of course he would. He’d thought about it every day.

“He will use him.” Sing surmised unhelpfully. Ash felt irritation course through his veins. He itched to do something painful. He settled with clenching his fists.

"What's in this for you?" He gestured at Sing with his free hand. "Aren't the Chinese all about camaraderie and loyalty?" This was diversion, and he knew it worked perfectly. Sing looked uncomfortable directed with this question.

There was hesitation. His lips parted after resolution filtered through his face. He could see the precise moment of decision in his eyes. "Yut-Lung told me."

Ash was motionless, eyes calculating, taking in the merit of his statement, the truthfulness behind it. He found nothing of a lie. "So he did," He hummed thoughtfully. He then demanded. "And?"

"This is me paying my debt," Sing began, almost remorseful. Ash wanted to believe it so. "For Shorter, and Skip. And for everything else." He ducked, opting to stare at his hands more, a gesture of atonement. "I know it's not enough, but I swear-"

"Stop." And the command was law. Sing stopped talking, stared at Ash and then shut his mouth. His eyes begged for reconciliation and Ash was just so exhausted. "That's enough," Ash laid on the bed, back pressed flat against the mattress. They did not start the conversation for apologies, and Ash was too far from qualified to be giving absolution.

"Shorter betrayed me for the sake of his comrades. I respected him for it, though I'll admit the end, although necessary, was quite messy," He refused to look at anyone as he continued. This was his persona of authority. He will not lose it here. "The tithe had been his life, and he knew very well what he had chosen. His blood was in my hands alone." And it haunted him in his dreams without fail.

Sing made a sound of protest. Ash raised his hand in command for silence. Sing shut his mouth immediately. "Skip on the other hand was on your brother's hand. Him, among many others, sans yourself. You are clean from any debts, you have no need to pay me back anything."

"I owe you my life," Sing insisted with equally clenched fists. "You saved me by giving up the files. You could have let go and let me burn."

Ash thought authority was laborious, and keeping this fine diamond cut image of himself was becoming more of a nuisance in every passing minute.

"Fine, if you're so adamant in meddling then be my guest, but know that you owe me nothing, and that I will owe you the same should you decide to help me," He shut his eyes, hoping to get swallowed under the folds of darkness, hoping for a dreamless state of slumber. "I'm cutting off my past after this. Now," He said without waking. "Both of you get the fuck out of the room."

 


 

This was a familiar scene.

He was sleeping and the ever present figures kept on choking him. He hadn't had this dream since Canada.

"Ash."

Oh it was Griffin talking to him--bleeding on him tonight. His cold eyes stared at him with relentlessness only the dead could manage.

"Ash."

His voice was raspy. It sounded like fork scraped on glass, like wind screeching by the window, like the whistle of a kettle long beyond boiling. It was never like that when he was alive.

"Ash."

"I'm sorry." Ash gasped, or at least he tried to. All he did was choke out blood. It asphyxiated him. "I'm sorry."

I'msorryI'msorryI'msorryI'msorryI'msorry-

He chanted in his head desperately, like a mantra for salvation but it was pointless and he was drowning once more, sinking deep in his own blood. The dead don't care about apologies. Ghosts don't need to be real to haunt you.

...Ash!

The sound out of sync from Griffin's lips. It was achingly familiar. Ash could recognize a voice calling out to him from the distance. He's heard it a hundred times, yet not enough, never enough. It probably never will.

Ash!

Ash!

Ash!

"-sh I swear to God wake up!"

He fluttered his eyes open and was met with darkness. But this was not the cold, haunting darkness from his dream. This was warm and lovely and comforting. Everything was too soft, blurring between sleep and waking. There were two black dots right in front of him, and it slowly dawned in him that the two black dots were eyes after all. Dark dark eyes.

"Ash dinner's ready and sue me if you don't get up and eat."

Ah. It was Eiji.

Sweet, innocent Eiji who looked mildly upset, perhaps just a bit miffed at Ash. That's quite funny, it seemed like a foreign concept to see Eiji irritated. He was shaking him awake. He's the only one with enough stubbornness to actually get him up. That sounds about right. Eiji woke him up from his nightmare.

Ash blinked the sleepiness away from his eyes. He grunted and pushed his body up from the bed. "Nghrgh?" He grumbled. Lethargic, he felt like moving in a pool of viscous honey. Distractedly, he noticed Eiji's face was no longer upset. It was almost smug.

"Ash, it's time to eat." This was said in lilting English. It sounded good in his sleepy ears.

"Is it?" Ash, in the faint corner of his mind that was mildly awake, thought about how he was probably glaring right now with all hatred condensed in a single expression. He also realized that the two of them were not alone at all. Three men cowered behind the doorway as Eiji stood by his bed. Ash recognized them as Alex, Bones, and Kong. Had Ash been more coherent, he would probably notice the dissuading expressions stamped in their face along with the look of fear.

"Yeah! Pizza's going to get cold if you won't get up." The Japanese was smiling too brightly for Ash's sleep addled mind. He squinted at him. Had he been more alert, he would have noticed how Eiji looked unfazed by it all. But see, he was far from truly waking, and he was sleepy, and so there's this, an embarrassing display of his sleepy self. Not that he deemed it important at the moment.

"With pineapples?"

"Of course. Just for you," Eiji grinned. "Although I think it's a disgrace to all kinds of pizza."

Silence. Ash collected himself. He stared, blinked, then slid out of the bed with the reluctance of a child. He thought about how he always felt like a child with Eiji. He acted more like a child. It was immediately colder without the warmth of the bed.

"...Okay."

He lumbered across the room without another word and flopped on a chair by the dining table, picking up a slice and munching on it with an absent stare.

"Big baby." Eiji chuckled. He settled next to Ash while the others followed suit. Ash was slowly coming into consciousness, the sudden focus and materialization of his surroundings was probably a good evidence of it. If Ash were to describe sobering up, it would be this.

"Better now?" Eiji asked.

Ash grumbled. "Yeah."

The three looked at them with amazement. Ash didn't know what it could possibly be that they were amazed with, but he knew that was the look of respect in Alex's face, admiration in Bones eyes, a quirk of acceptance in Kong's lips. Sing was just confused.

"What are you all staring at?" He snapped. The four immediately stopped jolted in surprise, alert and stiff at the sudden call out. "Food's getting cold. Hurry up and eat."

 


 

"You're friends are nice." Eiji murmured from his own bed across the room. He was in his sleepwear, the covers pulled up to his chin, wrapped around his body. He looked like a comfortable burrito.

"Yes. I guess they are." Ash entered the room, hair wet and clad with a shirt and jeans. After what transpired that day, he was in need of a bath. He look at his reflection on the mirror.

"They're pretty accommodating too. They offered to pay for everything. I argued of course." Ash chuckled. If he wasn't able to persuade the stubborn Japanese, what were their chances of doing so?

"They didn't give you any trouble?" Ash was in the midst of drying his hair.

"None at all. They insisted on tidying up. They said it was the least they can do. They really respect you." Eiji giggled.

"You got them to clean up?" Ash whistled. "They never do that. It's almost a miracle."

"Sing's a bit different. He seems...shy." Eiji mused out loud.

"Is he now?" Ash huffed in amusement. Shy? Sing? What a concept. As aforementioned, Eiji brought the strangest characteristics out of people. It must be a secret power of his. Deep inside, he was happy his former gang was getting along with Eiji.

"Yeah. He rarely responds to me," Ash could see it was bothering him. "He looks cute though, like a little brother."

“Reminds you of your sister?” Ash asked.

“Hell no. She’s too bratty to be like him.” Eiji wrinkled his nose.

“Mhm it must run in the family then.”

“Ha ha. Very funny.” Eiji tossed his pillow at Ash. As usual, he caught it with ease. Ash tossed it back at him.

“You remind me of a lot of people, of I’m being honest.” The words slipped out of his tongue before he could stop it. He couldn’t say he was sorry about it though. It was always easy to be honest with Eiji.

“Really?” Eiji was pleased. He sounded pleased.

“Yes,” Ash supposed. “Shorter, Skip, Griffin. You remind me of them.” Ash didn’t know what the merit of saying all this was, and comparing Eiji with dead people slightly sat wrong with him. But these were only the facts, nothing more. It occurred to Ash that this might also be one of the reason why he was so drawn to him. His childlike attitude to the world was Skip, his adventurous spirit Shorter, and his caring nature was none other than Griffin.

“I’m happy you think so,” Eiji replied. “Were they your friends?”

“Yes.” Ash said with an ache in his heart. “Family too.”

“They’re gone now.” A statement rather than a question, blunt but not exactly painful.

“Yes.”

Silence. It’s the silence that ring in your ears, heavy and asphyxiating. The one that causes anxiety, the one that attracts the whisper of demons.

"You were a gang boss." Eiji didn’t sound accusatory which was a relief, but the question was sudden and it left Ash too vulnerable in its abruptness.

Ash paused. The towel hung on his head, arms limp on his sides. Slowly, slowly, slowly, he turned to face Eiji. "They told you?"

Eiji shook his head with a gentle smile.

"You've figured it out then?"

"I may be naïve Ash, but I'm not stupid." He said, still smiling. "Besides, you weren't really trying so hard to hide it."

"I suppose I didn't." Ash slipped the towel out of his hair and set it aside. He walked to his own bed and sat on it. "Well? Are you afraid?" He meant for it as a teasing remark, but maybe it was just a shade too honest for Ash's liking. He found himself anticipating his answer.

"No," Eiji's answer came like lightning. It struck Ash in the silence. "Why would I be afraid now? I've had hints from the start. This just confirmed what I needed to know."

"Hm," Ash tried to quell the tell-tale feeling of something akin to relief that flooded his senses, but the feeling was like ink that slowly blotted his entire being. "Our first meeting was unconventional."

"I don't regret it," Eiji tipped his chin up with a wistful stare to the ceiling. "I don't regret it one bit."

This admission, though not exactly a secret, made Ash happy, a bittersweet feeling because he knew this was not going to last. Being with Eiji made him happy. Meeting him was a blessing he did not deserve. Softly, he confessed. "I don't regret meeting you."

And Eiji smiled his eye-crinkling smile as he lay down on his bed, bright and warm and beautiful. Ash realized that he will miss him, miss this, the careless conversations, the playful banter. His heart was in his mouth, the dread for time moving forward was heavy in his chest and this was all new to him, the feeling of missing someone before they’re dead, the fear of losing someone for going away, for being far away. It hadn’t been this painful since Griffin left for the army. Choked, Ash forced himself to say it anyway. “You’re leaving for Russia the day after tomorrow aren’t you?”

“Yeah.” Eiji didn’t seem any enthusiastic as he was. “You’re not coming with me are you?”

Ash shook his head. Eiji laughed sadly. “I thought so.” His eyes were glazed with sleep and something unfathomable.

“Sometimes," Eiji confessed under the cover of drowsiness, like a blanket of security. "When I think you're almost at my reach, you suddenly become like this and you feel distant," Eiji murmured on the pillow. "I understand of course that we've only really met, and I know you may think I'm just a nosy stranger, but I really have come to like you in the weeks we've spent together and I truly want to be your friend." He yawned. “If this might be the last days we can spend together…I can only hope you think of me as one too.”

His last words trailed away into a slow whisper, eyes fluttering into a close again as the words left his mouth. The lateness of the night perhaps made him more truthful too, although he never really attempted to mask whatever he felt. He'd always been transparent.

He fell into sleep just like that and Ash was left to stare at his slumbering figure.

Ash crept to his bed as silently as possible. When Eiji slept, he folded into himself, vulnerable and oh so small against the queen sized bed like a child. He was at ease, body without tension or poise.

Ash wondered if he never slept a single fitful night, and this was another thing Ash envied him. He never had to distrust anyone, or fear anything. They were worlds apart. He knew this. Ash knew this from the very first moment, but when Eiji said things like that, it was easy to pretend that he actually believed it, or maybe more accurately--it was easy to forget that he did not.

Ash swore that he would be first to kill to protect him as much as he swore that he will be the first to die, and he was getting attached wasn't he? Friend, that word was a stranger to his ears but it was lovely no? To be called a friend, to be considered as one by someone like Eiji. And in truth, he’d come to cherish Eiji as a friend, and parting was sore, even more since they’re never going to see each other again.

Ash swore it to his name. He won't let anything happen to him.

Chapter Text

Ash woke up to the sound of chaos from outside his room. Ash blocked it out in favor of a few more hours of sleep, but it proved to be futile. The flow of the conversation simply entered the room, leaving him nothing else to do but listen. There was some sort of a heated argument between them.

"Like this?"

"No! That's too much ketchup! You're going to- well it's done, nothing to do about it. It's still edible anyway."

"Hey, why the hell are his portions bigger?"

"You are all behaving like kids!"

"Eiji! Sing's stealing my bacon!"

"I'm not!"

Then it was followed by crashes, yelps and then bursts of laughter. Ash immediately remembered how rowdy those four were when left alone, especially with food involved. He knew last night was definitely a fluke. Poor Eiji, he must be shocked. Ash had no other choice but to to check out the ruckus from outside. He slammed the door open.

"All of you shut up! It's too early for your roughhousing!" Ash barked from the doorway. He didn't really know what he was expecting to see.

They all looked up and stopped what they were doing. Alex was poking his plate dumped with too much condiments, Kong midway another spoonful of what Ash could tell was an omelet, and Sing and Bones look frozen from a brawl.

In retrospect, he should have known this was what will greet him.

"Oh, you're awake. Morning." Eiji was the only one who didn't pause. He was cooking in the kitchen, unfazed by everything that occurred around him. He shot Ash a grin.

Ash, though slightly put off, was able to mumble a quiet good morning back to Eiji.

"I see you're up early," Eiji set another plate on the table for Ash. Omelets, bacon and toast. The smell was making him hungry.

"You cook?" Ash slipped on a chair by the dining table.

"Yeah," Eiji took the whistling kettle from the stove. "They helped me with the groceries a while ago." Ash turned to the four who immediately continued eating after being watched. Eiji handed him a mug of coffee. He blanched.

"This is too sweet." Ash grumbled.

"Deal with it. We can't all drink it the way you do." Eiji distributed coffee to the others, finally before settling down on a chair with a mug of his own. Ash sent him a roll of his eyes.

"This is instant coffee. How bad can you mess it up?" He murmured in his cup.

"Someone's in a grouchy mood. What's the matter young lady? Low blood pressure?" Eiji smirked.

Ash set the mug on the table. "I don't know old man, I think you've forgotten to take your medicine."

"I assure you. I'm not that forgetful." Eiji sighed.

"Sure you aren't." Ash snickered.

"Mhm...I'm not." Eiji smiled. Ash sighed and he was smiling as well. That was, until he remembered who their audience was. He cleared his throat.

"Anyway," He sipped from his coffee, never mind the sweetness from the beverage. "I suggest you stay here for now. It's a bit...dangerous outside."

Eiji nodded. "I figured." He pressed his mug against his lips, different thoughts clouded over him. "Are you all done? I'm going to clean up if you are."

The rest gave their plated and Eiji collected them in silence. He dutifully started washing them without any other word. Ash's stare lingered too long at his direction.

"The three of you," He turned to his gang, blinking away the image of Eiji's back while the morning light touched his skin. "Find out where that Lao is hiding. He should be just around the city," He paced the room. "I need data. Who they are and how many. Do some recon on the terrain. If you can get maps all the better. Find the best places to fight, to run, and to hide for retreat. I need quick precise data. Do you understand?"

"Yes boss!" They said in unison.

He directed to Sing. "Tell me all about him. Weaknesses, strengths, anything we can use."

Sing nodded grimly. Ash was satisfied with that affirmation. "I'm going with them first. I think I can coax information from some of his lackeys. They're more receptive when spoken with Mandarin."

Ash nodded. "Gentlemen. Let's get to work."

 


 

 

It's afternoon when Ash was called by Sing to meet him in a bar in the seedy part of the city. He was reluctant to leave Eiji alone in the apartment, but after a promise to never open the door for anyone else, he was persuaded. Even then it left him with unease.

"Why are we here?" Ash grumbled over his bottle of beer.

"I've met Lao." Sing said over the counter. Ash frowned.

"That wasn't part of the plan."

"It wasn't," He admitted. "He came to me."

"And what did he say?"

Silently, he took out what apparently was a picture from his jacket. It was of him and Eiji. Ash picked it up and stared at it. The implications of this single piece of paper was clear as day, almost incriminating. Eiji was smiling openly, eyes shut. He looked happy. That wasn't anything new. What took Ash by surprise was the smile that was etched on his own face, the relaxed posture he emitted, the shine in his eyes.

"Is he scared I won't turn up?" Ash huffed though it was mostly just bravado. He was uneasy inside, his guts twisting into knots.

"Insurance he says." Sing grunted. This picture was days old. Ash had to admit the man had gotten better. He's become a threat in his own accord.

"Their espionage is good." Ash commented. He didn't take his gaze away from the photo.

"Chinese espionage is great." Sing almost preened.

"Pride," Ash laughed. "You Chinese take pride in your own," He took a sip from his beer. "But that Lao especially has even more." He toyed with the picture with his fingers, flipping it over his index and middle finger. "This is what it is about, isn't it?"

This was all about pride, proving whose best, his bruised ego. Perhaps he realized how wrong he was and he wanted to prove himself right by defeating who's the best, and Ash was the best without doubt. Ash did not crawl through hell and back to not become the best.

"Yes." Sing affirmed grimly. "He wants you to meet him tomorrow. At dawn."

"As I thought." Ash sighed. His limbs started to feel heavy, the alcohol must be kicking in his system. He was getting tired. "He thinks he could set the place and time since he has a hostage."

The venue of their face off was crucial. Whoever got the say had the upper hand.

"You can take me as countermeasure." Sing offered. "Take me as hostage."

"No," Ash snarled. Sing drew away, fearful. Ash remembered himself, and he calmed down. "I'm not stooping into his level." Ash insisted. Gentle.

"But Okumura-"

"Is leaving for Russia by then." Ash cut in. "He'll be far from the rabble. Of course we need to give him an escort."

Sing said nothing. He sipped from his glass of Chinese sake.

"Tell Lao I'll meet him wherever he wants." Ash finished his drink in a single swig. He drew out his cash from his pocket and tossed it on the counter. He paused. Then he looked back. "I trust that you Chinese remember your honor before your pride. Otherwise, it won't be only me who will be disappointed." He didn't bother seeing whatever expression was left on Sing's face.

Ash stared at the photo on his hand. With a decision, he tucked it in his jacket.

 


 

 

It was already dark, way past dinner time. Ash was the first person who came back from their errands.

"Eiji." Ash called out from the doorway. Ash turned on the lights from the living room.

"In here!" The sound came from the bedroom. Ash crossed the room and opened the door to the bedroom. It was much cluttered with clothes and some other paraphernalia.

"Welcome back. Uhh sorry for the mess. I'm packing," Eiji was seated on the bed, cross legged and holding a notebook and a pen. Ash raised a brow as he glanced around.

Eiji laughed sheepishly. "...was packing."

Ash sat on his bed, adjacent to Eiji. "Side tracked?"

"Yeah." Eiji chuckled. When he's embarrassed, he curls into himself unconsciously like an awkward ball of nerves. "Where are the others?"

"Out. I doubt they'll be back tonight."  Ash nodded at the notebook in his hands. "What's that?"

Eiji glanced at the leather bound notebook that was creased and crumpled over time. He closed the book. "It's a list."

"List?"

"Of things I want to do," Eiji shrugged. "Basically a bucket list."

Ash eyed it curiously. He held out his hand, and he was almost hesitant in his question. As of why, he had no idea. "May I?"

Eiji handed it to him. Ash took it with care. Perhaps it was because it felt like he was putting his nose in something personal. This was a book of Eiji's wishes and plans, perhaps some of his secrets as well. He flipped through the list, scanning them quietly. There were different things that were already checked, but there was a good amount of stuff left blank.

"You haven't gotten drunk yet?" Ash snickered. Eiji in turn, huffed.

"No. I was an athlete remember? We implemented a rather strict diet." He rolled his eyes.

"But you have tasted alcohol."

"A little," Eiji scratched the back of his head. "I've had wine and sake before. Also a little bit of champagne. It's....nice."

Ash stared at him, wondering how he lived, before he continued reading. He found an interesting tidbit. "You haven't been kissed?" He flipped to the next page. "Or been in a date?"

"Look, you don't need to read it out loud!" Eiji was just a second away from screeching. His voice was a pitch louder than usual. If he regretted showing Ash his secrets, he didn't say it outright. Ash skimmed a couple of sentences and found another one that was rather intriguing.

"You're a virgin then." He eyed one of his other unabashed requests meant to be read in private. Ash didn't read it out loud in mercy to Eiji, but he was nothing short of amused. Eiji blushed and didn't deign it with an answer, but the tips of his ears were set a flame. It was a lovely look.

Ash flipped it to the last pages. "Isn't it a little early to have a bucket list? These things are for people with a midlife crisis." The pages were empty. The list ended somewhere in the middle of the notebook.

Eiji pursed his lips with a thoughtful hum. He clenched his fist and then he sighed. "I don't want to die with regrets."

Ash continued to stare at Eiji with open concern. It was curious how he says things like this without much thought. Even when he's not doing anything reckless, he was still an enigma.

That was a rather ambitious aim that even Ash could not dream of hoping, because his life was built on regrets. Eiji sounded like he'd thought about this too often, which leaves to the question why. Talking to Eiji could be alike talking to a child that's too innocent and an old man whose soul was old and learned of the world's ways. There was nothing between that.

Eiji blinked and with it came the breaking of the spell of something greater in the room. "Sorry, that was a bit gloomy." He rubbed his neck with an almost guilty laugh.

"It's still awhile before you die."

"Gosh, I wish." Eiji smiled at this. Ash shared the sentiment. He hoped so. He hoped this man would live long enough to grow old, to have a family of his own, to see his children and his grandchildren. Ash hated the thought of this bright, lively man to suddenly be gone.

"Mhmm...me too." Ash said too somberly. He meant to say this in agreement, but perhaps Eiji misunderstood.

"You'll live long." Eiji said instead with so much certainty that Ash almost believed him.

"You say this as if you know for sure." People like Ash only had such a finite time on earth, and yes you never really know when your time is up, but Ash knew death like none other. Death was Ash's scorned lover. One day it'll come after him next.

"Nobody knows for sure," Eiji looked at Ash like he knew he was confused at his statement. "But I want to think so." He said this as if it was the end all to it, and Ash was so easily swayed despite knowing that it was not. This was the irrefutable logic of a child, uttered with the patience of an old man. Ash found himself smiling without plot or purpose, only that he wanted to. This was happening often now. This, that and many more. A lot of miniscule things happened inside Ash with the time he had spent with Eiji.

His life was built on regrets, but he had to admit that this was not one of them, in fact it was quite the opposite.

"Wanna do one?" Ash glanced at the notebook. "From your list I mean."

"You're willing to do one with me?" Eiji's eyes sparkled. Even if Ash didn't offer, he couldn't refuse if Eiji looked this excited.

"Of course," Ash handed the notebook. "Go on, pick one. Let's do it before you leave for Russia."

"Won't you rather pick it?" Eiji received the notebook, although it wasn't as bright after Ash mentioned Russia. He started looking for a suitable activity, one that didn't need much thinking or things involved.

"I'm good with anything, trust me."

"Even if I ask you to kiss me?" Eiji said with a smirk. Ash, when goaded, wasn't one to back down. So he gave a smoldering smile.

"Do you want me to kiss you?" Ash fluttered his eyes playfully. Then he shot him a wink "You only need to say so if you do."

The blush that washed Eiji's face was quite the image. He gasped and choked with the words of surprise that he was supposed to exclaim. Ash laughed at the stuttering and blushing man before him. Eiji should have known not to tease him with things far from his area of expertise.

"I expected you to refuse. Men tend to do that when...teased with these things." Eiji muttered against the palm clasped on his mouth.

"I've done worse than kiss a man if that's what you're worried," Ash tried not to sound bitter at that. "But yes, I don't mind. Do you?"

"No." Eiji said too loudly for casual. "In fact I'm-" He cleared his throat. He looked away as he whispered, and Ash almost didn't catch it had he not listened with all his attention. "I prefer men."

Ash was surprised that he wasn't surprised. Like he's expected it all along, like it simply fit. Now that he confessed, Ash couldn't imagine Eiji with a woman. The picture looked....wrong. Eiji was staring at him like he was about to draw a gun and shoot him. He realized he was silent the entire time and that may have been interpreted as judgement.

"So you're gay. I'm bisexual. Does it matter? It's not like you're a different person already. You're still the same man I met at the diner. The same man I travelled with. It doesn't change anything." Ash said with all sincerity he could manage.

Eiji smiled at this. "Yeah?" He looked relieved. Ash grinned.

"Yeah."

They lapsed into a comfortable silence. That was, until Eiji suddenly said.

"Okay let's do it."

Ash blinked. Then he remembered what they were talking about before. "Like now? You're sure?"

"Only if you're cool with it. I mean I sure don't want my first kiss to be with someone unwilling." Eiji shrugged.

"This doesn't have any meaning if you don't want it to." Ash was suddenly nervous and he didn't know why.

"Sure. Okay." Eiji shifted in his seat. He set his notebook aside.

"Okay." Ash went to sit across Eiji. He held his cheeks with his hands. They were warm.

Eiji shut his eyes and said. "Okay, in the count of three. One,"

Two.

Three.

Ash pressed his lips against Eiji's. It was over in less than a second. It was chaste and quick, not long enough to taste Eiji's lips and not enough to feel its ghost on his mouth. Eiji opened one eye and then his other, he was bewildered, flustered and absolutely stunned.

"Woah." Eiji pressed his fingers on his lips as if chasing the feel of it. "It felt...so quick."

Ash snickered. "What did you expect? The world will slow down? Electricity coursing through your veins? Your knees weakening and the dizzy feeling of chemicals running in your head? That cliché bullshit?" Ash huffed and he crossed his arms. He can't help but raise his brows.

"Is it bad if I say yes?" Eiji pressed his lips in a thin line.

"Not really, no." Ash shrugged. "Are you disappointed?"

"No." Eiji shook his head. "I don't know how to feel about it. But if it's any consolation, I'll always remember you forever as my first kiss, despite it being unconventional."

"Everything's unconventional with you."

"That's true." Eiji paused, then stared far ahead. "This is so weird."

"You're the one who brought it up first." Ash didn't really want to think about it, but Eiji was looking awkwardly at him and now he didn't know what to feel.

"I know!" Eiji his face behind his hands, blushing. The absurdity of it seemed to have sunk in him. He sounded hysterical.

"It won't be weird if you won't make it weird." Ash pointed out in a bout of slight desperation.

"I can't help it!" Eiji pulled the neck of his sweater and buried his face into it. This was ridiculous. This was pathetic. This was...

...absolutely bullshit.

Ash let out a snicker, which turned into giggles and then a full belly laugh. He flopped on the bed, then clutched his stomach. Eiji peeked from his sweater.

Ash stopped laughing. Then he stared up at Eiji and he can't help but laugh again. Eiji's bewildered look slowly melted into amusement and soon enough he was giggling too. Perhaps the laughter was just that contagious, perhaps he realized the ridiculousness of everything. Perhaps it was neither, perhaps both.

"Oh my god. What the fuck?" Ash wheezed between laughs.

"We're both idiots!" Eiji choked out. When Ash thought about it later, there wasn't really anything funny about it. But maybe it’s the hysteria of it all that prompted their reaction. Besides, it was absolutely comfortable just laughing here with Eiji.

The laughter died down minutes later, both their cheeks were red and hot. "I take it back. I like that it's unconventional. Makes it different." Eiji breathed a heavy sigh.

"Yeah? No regrets?" Ash felt the lingering bubbly feeling of laughter fade away.

"No. I'm good." Eiji smiled. He stared at Ash with what he thought was fondness lacing his eyes. "I'll miss you." Quietly, he whispers.

"I know." He said instead of the truth because saying out loud would make it nearly unbearable to think. Saying out loud made it more real.

"I will never forget you Ash Lynx." Eiji mused, and his eyes were starting to droop. He sleeps really early, and he wakes up early. He rambles a lot before he sleeps and he trails away mid-sentence, before you know it, he's already passed out. And now his eyes were closed, and he's deep in slumber.

Ash smiled. He pulled the covers over Eiji's figure. He wanted to commit this memory in his mind. The lines of his muscles, the creases in his face when he smile, the softness of his touch, the warmth of his existence, he wanted it all.

So he stared, no matter how creepy it might seem. He drunk in the sight of him, inhaled his scent, burned his image behind his eyelids until it was all he could see even while he shut his eyes. He stared openly and he admired this little fraction of peace, the light amidst the darkness. In the night he could have this, he could pretend to have this, a friend even against all the odds.

And when the grey light of dawn slowly crept in from the window, came the shattering of an illusion, the shattering of a heart, but not the shattering of a resolve.

Dawn came. Ash stood up, turned off the lights, shrugged on his jacket, and bid farewell to Eiji.

 


 

"You seem off your game." Sing commented as they walked to the docks.

"It's nothing." Ash tucked in his revolver to his pocket, the familiar weight wasn't exactly comforting, but it was at least reassuring. Sing didn't look convinced.

"You're worried about him, aren't you?" Alex toyed with his knife out of habit.

"What are you talking about?" Ash huffed. He had a load of ammo in his pocket but it didn't make him feel any better. He was skittish. He didn't feel skittish, never did. He was proven wrong apparently.

"He's safe with Bones." Alex assured. Ash didn't grace it with an answer. He simply nodded and moved on. He needed to exude calm, the perfect image of an untouchable apex predator, the sacred image of royalty. Not god--no, he was not vain enough to call himself god, and this was but borrowed confidence.

Figures started to emerge from the distance. Ash clutched his gun for assurance. He recognized that posture, that way of walking. Ash never forgot.

"We see each other again Lynx."

Sing tensed from his side, Alex ready to strike, Ash clicked the safety off the gun.

"Lao."

 

Chapter Text

"So you came." The Chinese man spread his arms, palms open and revealed. It probably meant to be a gesture of welcome.

Ash found it distasteful, either way, he kept his tone cool. "I'm curious actually."

Lao raised a brow. "About what exactly?"

"Whatever the hell it is that you're going to gain in fighting me. I'm curious to what you're planning." Ash shrugged. He’s had theories of course, but it felt better to have them confirmed.

"My business isn't yours to put your nose in. This was imminent the moment you abandoned New York." And that was enough of an answer for Ash to know what he missed. He was well aware of the risks in leaving. Downtown fell into chaos, everything broke into fractions just as it was before he came. Gang wars were more frequent, the struggle for control begun again. Without someone to put things into order there was anarchy in the ranks, and this give rise to dictators.

It was quite a surprise to see that amongst all the players on the board, Lao's one of the people who emerged dominant.

"I see," Ash sighed. "This duel isn't only a matter of pride or a personal vendetta, this is proof of your supposed superiority amongst the other gangs. Am I correct?"

"You really catch on quickly," Lao chuckled. He looked different too, different as time passed by, much like how Sing was different when Ash first saw him. He was sharper, crueler. There was this bloodthirstiness in his eyes, an affinity for violence that seem unquenchable. He certainly did look like Arthur now. The resemblance was uncanny, at least in the way he handled himself. "There is a reason why many fear and admire you."

"Do you really think defeating me would give you rights to claim all of downtown?" That's a foolish thought. The right to rule wasn't claimed by violence, instead it was with finesse. Ash didn't earn his spot on top by simply killing, but rather he picked his fights well, he was diplomatic in his endeavors, and he imposed his dominance on others only when needed. If he wasn't able to tame downtown, it's because he wasn't strong enough.

"As much as I hate to admit it, you are very good. A long time of reflection can make you realize many things. And if I can kill what they all perceived as the top, all those who feared you and even those who admire you will have no choice but to bow to me." Lao's logic, although sound, wasn't exactly the end all to it. There was envy and ambition laced in his decisions after all, followed by prejudice.

"You've become quite ambitious," Ash sneered. "Planning on becoming another Arthur?" He scoffed. "Shorter would be disappointed."

Lao hissed. "What would you know about Shorter?! You killed him! Your own best friend!" He didn't let his words affect him. God knew he was plagued by enough nightmares, what was one man's words to him? Nothing, absolutely nothing. The reaction he coaxed from Lao was the desired one anyway. Ash supposed there were still things that hit close to home, and then he knew that he said the right thing to unbalance him. This is proof of his ineptness.

Sing was about to protest when Ash silenced him with a single glance. In the game of exchanging poison, the first to lash out loses. And Lao had lost the moment he let his emotions take over. Calmly, Ash shot his barb. "And you're fighting your own brother, Shorter's successor. What a pair we make. We're alike in that way I suppose."

Feeding fire to the flames. The Chinese looked absolutely livid.

"Do not think for a second we are alike Lynx. I'm no whore." Lao spat out with all the venom he could muster. He said this as if it had any insult left, as if it sparked any other reaction in him other than exhaustion. Ash had been called worse, he'd gone through worse. Again, this was null.

And so Ash laughed, it was cruel and cold, almost mocking and very much wicked. His eyes were that of a beast's and he was feeling wild. "You're right," He smirked with all malice he could manage, the familiar taste of poison bled in his mouth. "We will never be alike. This whore is still better than you'll ever be."

This hit all the sore spots. Lao drew his gun. Ash drew his own just as fast, perhaps faster but he did not shoot. Everybody in the narrow alley drew their guns, the sound of safety's clicking echoed. He was getting impulsive, erratic. This will be his downfall.

“Careful,” Ash warned. “I assure you I can shoot you faster than you can pull that trigger.” In truth they were outnumbered, and so intimidation came into play. Ash was good at that. He was confident of course, that when it came down to it, his men would prevail. There were five men behind Lao, Ash only had three. Of course Ash was still by far the better shot among them all and that easily evened out the playing field. Lao's men were easily outmatched by their experience and skill.

He may have brought with him his kings, but this was chess where even a pawn can be stronger than a king, and Ash's pawns will easily devour those in their way.

Lao stared him down. Ash easily matched him with his own. The tension was palpable in the air, it choked the oxygen out of their lungs. Ash kept his face straight. "Calm down Lao. I don't see why we should have to spill our men's blood. You issued a challenge, I accept."

A second passed, some silent understanding exchanged in their eyes and they both lowered down their pistols at the same time. The tension eased up just a bit. It was easier to breathe now, and if he wasn't mistaken, Ash noticed the almost relieved look on Lao's face. It was minuscule, over in a flash, but it existed all the same. Ash felt a surge of confidence in his veins. He was going to win.

"The rules of the duel is that both parties must surrender their weapons." Sing called out. Ash turned over his revolver without any other word. Lao followed suit.

"The duel stops only after death or if someone yields. Nothing else." Someone from Lao's lot continued. Ash shrugged off his jacket, again Lao did the same. It finally struck him that he could die today. Of course that could be any day. It's a stupid realization. This wasn't any different from all his other encounters. But see, he had no plans on dying. Not by this man's hand. He refused to.

Someone tossed them a knife. He caught it with the grace beaten in his body from years of training and stared at it with mild interest. The sun was starting to rise, the first rays of light touched Ash's skin with its gentle caress. Distantly, he imagined Eiji waking up to an empty bedroom, confused. And Eiji would probably leave the room to find Bones waiting outside. Ash couldn’t imagine what would be his expression though. Would it be surprised? Betrayed? Relieved? Angry? Happy? Disappointed? Every option was going to leave Ash into madness. 

Focus.

He blinked away the image of Eiji smiling under the sunlight and tethered himself on the present where Lao was toying with his blade, a smug grin on his face. “Scared Lynx?” He snickered at whatever expression Ash was making before. Ash scowled.

“Not even in your dreams.” Eiji would probably on his way to the port in a few minutes if everything went well. He’d be out of his life forever, out of Ash’s life, but he’d be safe. He’d be far from the trouble that was Ash’s life. He’d be in Russia, continuing his journey, ticking off his bucket list. He will go out there and live his life. With that it’ll be enough for Ash. It’ll be enough. It’ll have to be enough.

Focus damn it.

"If I win, your men would either pledge loyalty under Sing, or disband." Ash demanded. They circled each other, feeling each other out. No one dared to make the first move.

"And if I win, I'm taking control over downtown and I'm going after that Japanese boy." Lao smirked, like he knew he struck a nerve. Ash must have betrayed it in his face and Lao was delighted to have found it. He snarled.

"Leave him alone." Hot white anger coursed through his veins, his lungs were closing in, choking him with so much fury. He gripped his knife until his knuckles turned white. He was losing himself, akin that of a beast waking inside him. His ears were ringing a sharp sound, it was droning on non-stop. Why was he getting too riled up? He needed to calm the fuck down. 

"Oh?" Now Lao was absolutely smug and it irritated Ash so much. "Was he important to you? Was he the one you were whoring yourself to? Your latest patron?" He laughed, this sounded cruel too. "Tell me Lynx, was the fuck that good?" And then he had this bloodthirsty grin. "Or was it the money?"

Ash, in a sudden bout of frenzy, lunged at Lao, who easily managed to block the attack. He countered by punching Ash on the gut. Ash coughed and he backed away. The ringing continued like the ticking of the clock on an empty room. It went on and on and on and on and on--

"Come on Lynx, you're better than that." Lao taunted. "Were you too spoiled by that Japanese brat? I know you're after rich men, but I didn't know you went after kids too." He was cackling. The ringing became louder.

He knew. He knew who Eiji was. Fuck. Ash brought him to danger. Fuck it all.

Ash swung his leg in an attempt to kick Lao on the head, but even that, Lao was able to defend against. Ash followed with a lunge with his knife. Lao missed it by a fraction and it nicked him on the cheek. Lao's response was a punch to Ash's face and a kick to his chest. Ash stumbled. The crowd caught him and pushed him back to the make shift ring where Lao pretended to look bored.

"Pathetic. I thought you'd put up a good fight."

Ash spat out blood. His lips were split. Damn it. He was losing. He was getting too frustrated. Lao's words were affecting him too much. He needed to snap out of it. In the time he was away, did the man suddenly become so good in exchanging verbal and physical blows? Or was it that Ash was just getting too rusty? He needed to break away. The ringing in his ears were deafening. He was starting to panic. His brain was a mantra of ways to keep him from unraveling.

Calm down. You’re better than this, better than him. Calm the fuck down-

"Hey, since you're losing badly, maybe I'll take a taste of that Japanese brat too." He drawled with this sickeningly cloy tone. "Then, maybe I can take him as hostage. I'm sure his parents would pay a huge sum to get their heir back.” Louder and louder and louder the sound in his mind went. “Or I can sell him off to other bidders. He seems pretty. He'll do really well in a brothel don't you think so?"

Suddenly the ringing in his ears stopped. His heart paused and he can’t breathe. There was nothing. This was where he crossed the line. Something in Ash snapped. All that seething fury, that frenzied anger, disappeared into nothing but calm. His mind was eerily silent. Too silent.

This was calm and collected rage. This was dangerous. This was the rage that conquered cities, that led men to kill overly oppressive tyrants of mafia empires, the rage that gave monsters the will to survive. This was the rage that he felt as he held onto the body of a bleeding child, dying in his arms, when he shot his best friend because he had no other choice. And now, this was the rage he felt when he needed to protect his friend. Never again will anybody die on him. Quietly, Ash picked himself up. He dusted himself off, and then he stared right at Lao. "Are you done yapping?" His voice dropped to an icy octave, eyes cold and merciless. Any semblance of humanity in him was gone.

Lao took a step back, noticing the change in his aura. All traces of arrogance and self-confidence shriveled up and died. Good. There was fear in his eyes. Oh that was a familiar sight, a look he most definitely enjoyed seeing. Ash applauded him for not immediately cowering away. Ash grinned a feral and vicious smile, teeth absolutely predatory. “God you love to hear yourself talk so much, don’t you?” Ash heard himself laugh, it was more beast than human. See, Lao may appointed himself as king. But this was chess, and Ash? He’s a queen and he will burn him down.

This was Ash without the sense of control. This was Ash without the lingering thoughts of humane things such as mercy and compassion binding him. This was the devil inside him, and he will pass judgement. A breath. He let all repressed hatred consume him. A fraction of a heartbeat. He let it all loose.

Suddenly he was seven again laying on the bed with a gun on his hand while blood not his own trickled down his entire body, he was nine and he ran away to the streets of New York, scared and alone. He was fourteen and he was a better shot than anybody, slowly rising the ranks of the streets, making his name in the business, and still he was fourteen when he saw the body of a girl crumple away as the life faded away from her eyes. 

The world around him became a haziness of colors, contrasting between sharp and blurry, both the same and different at the same time. He acted on instinct alone.

Suddenly, he was seventeen again, faced with a hopeless decision of choosing between the lives of his friends, seventeen again and he’d killed someone, not for the first time.

His body moved on its own, mechanical movements ingrained forever in his body.

There was only room for hatred and this was an intoxicating way of letting it all loose. There was power in losing control and Ash was tasting it after a long time of suppression. Lunge, block, kick, punch. Rinse and repeat. Exploit the enemy’s weakness, make it an advantage. Ash registered screaming. He absorbed it all in. The crunching of bones, the tang of blood, the sound of metal clanging against each other—they were the only things that mattered.

Eighteen again and he was cradling the body of a child, pleading to any god, deity or higher being to please let it not be this way please—and he was eighteen when watch the man who made his life a living hell die.

He was underwater, the sound around him muffled and he was both too focused on everything and nothing at all. The world was a muted blot of lights and hues. The opponent’s knife hit the floor, Ash pinned him with a choke on his neck and pushed him on his back. He was disarmed. He was unprotected. Ash can finish it with one more blow. This felt good, this felt right. The vindication of triumph was so close, he could taste it in his mouth. He struck his knife, the blade ready to pierce through flesh--

Suddenly he was nineteen and he was in a diner and dark dark eyes were staring at him.

--He stopped just before he could do any damage and he remembered himself. The haziness dissipated and his vision cleared and Lao was already bloody and beaten up for good, choking on his own blood. The screaming had come from the crowd, both from cheers and protests. Sing had kept silent through it all, but his eyes were saying a different story. There was conflict there.

Ash heaved. He looked back at Lao who was bruised and bleeding. “Do it.” He croaked out. But Ash was already getting up, and he staggered away from the damaged body. He was covered in blood as well, he didn’t notice where the other cuts came from and when he’s gotten them. He had a gash on his chest, though it wasn’t so deep. He didn’t know if he should be relieved to find out that most of the blood on him wasn’t his.

He breathed, panting. His knees were weak and the rush of adrenaline started to subside. “Yield.” Ash said instead, still a bit breathless, reeling from what he almost did. “No one will die tonight.”

Lao spat. “Bullshit.” He charged at Ash once more but Ash easily punched his jaw even in his state his jaw. He fell on the floor, and Ash stepped on his chest pointed the blade at his neck.

“Yield!” Ash snarled once more, this time less amiable. He glared right at his eyes, willing him into the influence of his dominance, green eyes burning for him to understand. A second, Lao cowered away.

“I yield.” He grumbled begrudgingly then he looked away. Ash stared, until finally, finally he let go and turned away. 

This was it. He’s done. It was over. He approached Sing who was rooted to the spot. But he looked absolutely horrified. And much like second instinct, Ash turned around just in time to see Lao aiming his gun at his direction. He pulled the trigger and it hit Ash by the flesh near his shoulder. Lao fired again, this time Ash barely managed to duck in time and like clockwork, he threw the knife right at the Chinese’s hand that was holding his pistol. He howled in pain, losing balance while the glock clattered on the floor. Alex threw Ash his gun, and without hesitation, he pulled the trigger, firing multiple bullets. All of them reached their mark. Ash sneered in repulsion. They were all disgusting. Too prideful for their own good. Ash was absolutely livid. Lao sullied the good reputation of Shorter’s ideals, his legacy, his gang, it was stained by his hubris. The body collapsed, dead on the dusty ground.

He looked around. His heart was beating hard and it pulsed in his ears, it was noisy and chaotic and he was feeling a mix of emotions he couldn’t begin to sort out. Everything was muddled together, and then nothing else mattered.

Because what Ash saw next wasn’t what he expected.

He wasn’t expecting to see dark dark eyes staring at him. He wasn’t expecting to see him of all people.

“Ash?” His voice was louder than any cheer, howl, or protest. The Japanese looked upset and fearful, and something Ash couldn't explain.

"Eiji? What are you doing here? I thought you were leaving?" His voice quivered into a whisper. God, that never happened. Ash took a step back. Eiji took one forward.

"You're bleeding." One step forward. One step back.

It only then registered in his mind that he looked like absolute shit right now. Covered in blood, sweaty and filled with grime. Suddenly, looking like a murderer was less than ideal, looking like the devil incarnate wasn't vindicating.  Eiji was in danger here, and yet Ash couldn't get himself to make him leave.

"Ash--"

"Don't look at me!" He hissed, taking another step back, suddenly guilty and self-conscious. A sob threatened to escape his lips, the colors blurred away when pinpricks of tears burned in his eyes. Damn it, he was going to lose it in front of everybody. Damn it all. His emotions asphyxiated him. “I don’t—“ Words caught in his throat, he took another step back. His back hit the wall, there was no other place to go. “I never wanted you to see me like this!” He howled like a broken animal.

Eiji didn’t look like he knew what to do. He simply stood there staring at Ash with sad eyes, just as lost as Ash. Later, Ash would register the crowd clearing. It was probably Sing who ordered the lot. Later when he wasn’t so shaken up anymore. For now he was grateful for the privacy. He sat on the floor into a crouch, trembling as he wrapped his arms around himself. Eiji merely followed suit without another word.

The time they spent sitting there in silence was quick, but to Ash, it lasted hours.

 

Chapter Text

It was forever, then it was eternity over within minutes.

There were gaps in his memory by the time Ash would go back and think of this day. God it wasn’t the first time he killed a man and probably it wouldn’t be the last, but this was the first time he feared what he’d become and cried. There was so much blood in his hands, what a thing he’d become.

It was forever, then it was seconds before the end.

Time was irrelevant when you just killed a man, and yet time was spent so fast at the same time.

Frankly he didn't remember the ride back. He remembered nothing at all. He barely remembered getting all his wounds tended. He did remember the suffocating feeling of having Eiji next to him in the car, of having him seated next to him while he had his injuries treated. Even when Ash’s mind was grasping at straws, Eiji remained a universal constant where he would always be hyper aware of his presence. Ash remembered the fear of judgement, the fear of what he might find in those eyes.

It was easy to pretend that they were alike each other, it was easy to pretend that they didn’t live in too different lifetimes. They were parallel lines that somehow through some sort of miracle from the universe intersected with each other. If this was defiance against the stars then there will be consequences, and if this truly was not meant to be then Ash should let go before Eiji get hurt.

Ash blinked, and he was back in the present.

By some means, Ash found himself in the cramp tiled bathroom of the apartment they rented. The water was hot, but he felt numb, inside and out. The hot water that cascaded from the shower was nearly left unnoticed if only he did not see it drip with his own two eyes. It was tainted with crimson. It rolled down from his body to the water to the tub.

His shirt was soaked, but he couldn't be bothered to take it off. Just after he got his wounds stitched, he dunked himself underwater. Of course, no matter how much he washed himself, he'll never scrub off the blood off his person. It may no longer be in his flesh, but it will stain his soul forever still.

Sing possibly took care of the rest of the havoc from early morning. He would assume control over the rabble, and Ash would continue in his solitude. Though right now, all that was in Ash's mind was a blank.

There was knocking, a soft rhythm that broke the heavy silence. He knew that knock. It went thud-thud-thud. Three knocks, with extra pressure on the last one.

"Ash."

He blinked again as his name echoed in the cramped tiled room. Eiji was by the doorway. Ash couldn't bear to look at him. When calling him didn't work, he stepped closer and brought a stool with him.

"Ash." He called again. Ash turned away. He attempted to touch him, but Ash recoiled with a sharp intake of breath. He struck the hand away before he realized what he did. He regretted it instantly. The look of hurt flashed in Eiji's eyes.

"Sorry." Eiji mumbled and sank in Ash’s gut dreadfully. He shouldn't be the one to apologize, and yet here he was, apologizing. "I'll wait for you to calm down then. Do you want me to leave?"

Ash shook his head. He didn't want to be alone, but he didn't want to see Eiji's face. He's afraid of what he'll see there. So he continued to keep his head down.

"Do you want to talk?" Eiji asked again. And again Ash shook his head.

"Do you mind if I play music?" Ash didn’t mind that, anything was better than the void. The music was a blessing. He didn't think he could bear the deafening silence. Eiji stayed regardless.

He didn't know how long he stayed there, just sitting in the tub full of water. He didn't know how long Eiji stayed with him in that room, he knew only that several songs had filtered through the otherwise deathly silent bathroom. A new song came, haunting voices whispered their lyrics. This, he was at least familiar.

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see
I'm just a poor boy, I need no sympathy
Because I'm easy come, easy go
A little high, little low
Anyway the wind blows, doesn't really matter to me, to me

The soft notes of the piano of a new song slowly begun, getting louder in Ash's ears. The haunting keys of the instrument resonated in his every cell. Somehow, the music was befitting his circumstances. Ash concluded this as the rhapsody continued on…

Mama, just killed a man
Put a gun against his head
Pulled my trigger, now he's dead…

Like a rhapsody, he too wanted to express too many things that ended up jumbled in his mind. Words, thoughts, consciousness fused over each other, making all of them nonsensical to everybody save himself.

Mama, oh oh 
I don't want to die
Sometimes wish I'd never been born at all…

The song went to its climax, rising and rising and rising. The crescendo of the notes were a thundering beat against Ash’s ears and they were chaotic in the most poetic sense. The words echoed in Ash, who sat on the tub while a song tried to encapsulate ever confusing emotions that dwelt in him, condensing it into a single tune.

It was madness, irrationality, insanity. The voices intensified from different directions. The guitar was loud and brash, a contrast to the soft piano notes. This was the descent to lunacy, the loss of everything real and meaningful.

It rose and then it fell back into the gentle tapping of the piano and the soft reverent voice in the background. Much like the lyrics of the song that was puzzling in nature, left only to the interpretation to the listeners, Ash was alike in his current state. It was everything, and then it was suddenly nothing.

Nothing really matters to me
Anyway the wind blows…

"You're going to get a cold."

Ash hardly noticed the water cooling down. He hardly noticed anything other than Eiji's presence and the music that had now gone quiet.

"Do you want me to wash the blood off you?" Came Eiji's suggestion. He was still seated at the stool, probably staring at Ash with this sorry look.

Blood. Right, he was still covered in it. In fact, his newly stitched shoulder was stinging in dull pain. It just registered. His wounds weren't exactly well. In truth, Ash was just so tired and his limbs were heavy. Ash hugged his knees tighter and nodded in silence.

Eiji knelt before him. "Ash, I'm going to take off your clothes okay?" He refused to do anything until Ash gave his explicit consent. But even though he let him proceed, he couldn't help but flinch at the contact.

"I'm sorry." Eiji whispered again with patience. And again, his apologies were making Ash even guiltier. If there was anyone who should be sorry, it was him.

Eiji tried once more, this time slower and gentler than before. His touch was light as he unbuttoned Ash's shirt, ritualistically reverent until it was open all the way. Ash shivered at the sudden coolness of the air when Eiji peeled the wet cloth from his body. And then they moved on to the pants, which was trickier because Ash had to get up. He decided to do it himself. He fumbled at his pants until finally it was off.

Eiji got up and produced what was probably a wash cloth from somewhere. "Ash," he knelt next to the tub once more. "I'm going to scrub the blood off you now okay?" His voice was barely a whisper murmured between them.

Ash gave a nod. It was all he could manage to do right now. Eiji continued to clean him, the cloth cool felt rough against his skin. Ash tensed up with a hiss. He fought the tremors from his body, reminding himself over and over that this was Eiji and he had been nothing but patient to Ash this whole time. He trembled anyway.

"Tell me to stop if I hurt you in anyway. One word Ash, and I'll stop." Ash didn't like skin ship, and any form of tenderness was impossible. He didn't appreciate being seen in this state. Vulnerable, exposed, naked. Yet even so, he found Eiji's touch tolerable. So he complied with every order, complied with every command. And if Eiji commanded him to be well, then perhaps by some order of the universe he will.

With the lack of any sign of discomfort, Eiji continued with his work. He started with Ash's back, mapping the plane there with hesitation. He was careful with his touch, light with his fingers, almost comforting in its own way that was so unfamiliar to Ash. He slowly let his muscles relax. A breath in, a breath out. His heartbeat deliberately calmed down.

They moved on to his shoulders, towards the arms, and then his chest. He scrubbed every nook and curve of his body, making sure to wash it all. If only his sins were as easily cleansed by Eiji's hand as well.

Ash thought that the ruinously gentle touch was unnecessary. He held him like his skin was made of paper, and his bones made of porcelain. He held him like he was fragile glass, easily breakable should you even breathe at its direction.

Ash was no fragile glass. He was already broken. Still, he was grateful. He knew very well when thanks was due. And Eiji had no reason to do any of this, he had no reason to tend to an already broken man. Here he was anyway, the greatest mystery of the universe.

This was how they passed their entire afternoon. With Eiji's hands on his skin, on his flesh, on his scars, learning the marks on his body for the first time. Ash opening himself up, an incarnation of trust in its truest form, an manifestation of faith like a believer to his god.

"Why did you come back?" Was Ash's first words from the entire day. They shattered through the deafening silence. The question hung in the air, and Ash felt Eiji stop his activities. He heard rather than saw the conflict in Eiji's resolve. One beat, two. The resolve cracked.

"Bones told me." Eiji’s fingers twitched against Ash's skin. He drew away. "Rather,” He continued after knowing there was no way out of it. “I forced him to tell me."

With this Ash peeked at Eiji with hesitation, head lifting up and green eyes meeting brown.

That wasn't a surprise. He had this ability to coax out the truth even from the most unwilling man, just as he was slowly coaxing out the truths from Ash right now. Don't think for a second that he didn't know what Eiji was doing, but even so, Ash found himself willing and so he allowed it to continue.

"You could've gotten hurt." Ash pointed out, the sound bitter and regretful.

"But I wasn't," Eiji stood firm. "Instead you did." The fruity scent of strawberries wafted in the air, belatedly Ash noticed Eiji lathering his palms with shampoo.

"I'm used to it." Was Ash's reply, half truths and half lies. The truth is, you’ll never get used to it. The truth is, Ash doesn’t care if he ever will and that’s what’s keeping him alive.

"That doesn't make it a good thing." Eiji clicked his tongue and his hands paused, almost upset. In that moment, Ash somehow felt chastised.

Again, they lapsed into silence. Eiji's hands started to move again and they threaded through Ash's golden locks, fingers massaging his scalp, nails scraping them every now and then. He was grateful that the Japanese was standing behind him. He still couldn't bear the idea of looking him in the eyes. He was afraid.

The sensation wasn't unpleasant, he discovered after sometime of the same rhythmic action, in fact it was…soothing. No one had ever been able to be this...intimate with him. Yes, intimate was the word. Griffin most definitely was caring, much like that of a mother, but it wasn't anything like this. Ash would rather take a bullet to the foot than let Shorter, or anyone see him in such a state, much less touch him.

But Eiji had always been an exemption wasn't he? Always.

Ash fluttered his eyes close just as water washed the shampoo away from his hair. The lingering tension in his body, dissipated with every stroke of Eiji's fingers on his scalp. Slowly, he felt himself relax, just enough to let out a deep sigh. He was relaxed now, the tension from his body gone, and so he could manage this conversation.

"Aslan."

Eiji paused. Ash missed the sensations. He continued. "Aslan, that's my...my real name," He enunciated slowly, letting the words out of his lips. He dug up memories that were not so old. "You asked me before what it was. It's Aslan."

Eiji stayed silent, perhaps surprised at the suddenness of the confession. None of his gang knew his real name after all. The only other people who knew were either dead or gone from his life for good.

"I was raped when I was seven," Ash noticed the tears down his cheeks belatedly. It mixed with the wetness already present on his face. "I killed a man at eight. I became a prostitute to survive. I became a gang boss at fourteen, led hundreds at seventeen. My brother died because he got caught in my mess. I killed my best friend so he wouldn't end up drugged up and crazy for the rest of his life. My other friend was killed because he protected me. I--" Ash felt the burn of tears in his eyes, the room was nothing but a blur of colors. He swallowed back the emotions caught in his throat and sighed. "I don't want you to see me like that--like...like this. I never want you to see me and look afraid."

Eiji knelt before him. "I'm not afraid Ash," He pleaded with his heart for a hint of understanding. "You're still the same man I met, and I know you're good. You've been nothing but good to me."

Ash shook his head, his throat closed. "I'm not a good man Eiji," He sighed. "Staying with me won't make you happy."

"Silly American," Eiji slotted his palms on Ash's cheek, hesitant, ready to pull away at any sign of discomfort. It grew firmer at the passing time. "I don't need you to make me happy all the time, that's not what a friend is," Eiji made Ash face him, his dark eyes were shining with something Ash couldn't grasp. He smiled, softly, gently, hopefully. "I just need you to be there when I'm sad, just to be there when I need someone to be with me."

Ash stared back. He could see Eiji fully now. Pink sweater soaked with water and soap suds. He rolled his sleeves to his forearms. His palms were warm, between them, Ash became pliant.

He said nothing, for there was nothing to say. Rather, there was nothing Ash could say respond to that. It was so easy for Eiji to tell him these things. Stranger still, on how Ash was always inclined to believe him every time. And this was not forgetting that he did not believe, this was truly believing with the faith of truth from his lips.

It wasn't long then that Ash managed to get himself out from the tub with a fresh set of clothes, one that wasn't covered in blood. He sat on the bed while Eiji dried his hair with a towel. How disabled was Ash that he need to be tended with even the simplest tasks? Eiji didn't look like he minded and Ash was just so tired. His eyes were drooping. He was probably going to catch a fever. Bullet wounds tend to do that to you. Maybe why he was courageous to say everything to Eiji.

"Stay with me." The confession came as a subconscious thing, a statement from his involuntary self. But now that it was out in the open, he couldn't get himself to stop. "Stay with me," he repeated and the words were that of his seven year old self, pleading for just one person to be with him, this came from the Ash who asked his brother to stay instead of going to war. "It doesn't have to be forever. Just...stay with me."

His eyes were shutting close, drowsiness claiming him. The day had been long and he was just so tired. Eiji was warm and comfortable, having his arms wrapped around Ash wasn't helping his cause at all. He let himself sleep, surrendering to the clutches of slumber. Ash leaned his head upon Eiji's chest.

Forever.

It was a ghost of a whisper. One which he wasn't sure if conjured by a dream or an event of reality. Regardless, it settled something deep within Ash, much like the chime of a clock after its incessant ticking.

He slept a dreamless sleep that night. And if he asked for five more minutes of sleep when he woke up early morning in Eiji's arms, knowing very well that he should get up and move away. Well, nobody really needed to know.

 

Chapter Text

September passed and October came with the start of autumn. Ash spent the rest of the week in a haze in the apartment where time was irrelevant as he continued to get better. Eiji was beside him for the most of it, tending to him and his injuries like a worried mother bird. He was rarely alone, and he was thankful for it. However, by the passing of time, Ash couldn’t help but feel the sense of panic over the succeeding days. He can’t help but feel like he was running on borrowed time.

Resting in bed, Ash tossed and turned in the moments of silence, wondering if this was just anxiety from the calm, or if this was something else entirely. The paranoia got worse, that was until he figured out what was causing it.

The trees were losing their lush green color to hues of orange, yellows, and reds. Everybody started to wear thicker clothes. It wasn't too bright, but it wasn't gloomy in any way. It matched Ash's mood too perfectly. 

"We'll miss you. Though we knew you in such a short time." Kong piped up. 

They were by the docks. All of them had their bags packed. Eiji was on his way to continue his journey and Ash will be go back to New York. They were giving out their final goodbyes. 

"I'll miss your cooking." Bones sighed. Alex smacked his head for that while Eiji laughed at the display before him. Eiji actually bonded with his gang in the period where they were cooped up in the same apartment for days. He just had that effect where everybody liked him. 

"It's a shame we met in these circumstances. If you're ever back in New York, you can hit us up," Alex shook Eiji's hand. "It was nice knowing you." 

Eiji bowed in reply. "The pleasure is all mine." He said politely. He turned to Sing with a grin. Sing huffed in acknowledgement, an amused smile on his face.

"You're not bad kid." Sing nodded at him, hands in his pockets and all.

"I'm older than you." Eiji reminded with a snort. Although he took no offense in Sing's words, it was evident that his age was a sore topic to him. Ash remembered his reaction the first time they met. His petulance on the subject was not helping his case.

"I'm a gang boss. That counts for something." Sing grinned at him with pride.

"Yes, but I'm taller than you. That counts for something too." Eiji ruffled his hair, which was to the displeasure of the Chinese man. This too seemed to his sore spots. Height was not to be discussed in front of Sing.

Ash missed the exact moment they became close. He suspected it was when he was confined to the bed by Eiji because of his wound. Sing complained about how much fawning the Japanese was doing.

"Listen here punk, come back in ten years and you'll see!" Sing hissed at the Japanese. Eiji obviously was not by any case threatened. In fact he was more amused than anything. Eiji giggled at the fuming Chinese. "I'm looking forward to it."

Eiji he turned to Ash last with open arms. He wrapped them around Ash, clapping him on the back in an amiable gesture. His heart was in his throat. It was hard to breathe.

Again, he reminded himself that this was borrowed time. Someday, the sun, no matter how bright and powerful, had to set. Even if spring was beautiful today, winter will come to extinguish it. No matter how lovely being with Eiji was, someday he needed to leave and go back home, and that day was today.

"You're sure you have everything this time?" Ash smirked when Eiji pulled away, perhaps there was some piece of him parted with Eiji, he missed the warmth of his body.

Eiji nodded. "More or less."

"Finally leaving for real?" He wished this wasn’t the case, but he knew how different their lives went, and this was probably the best. However nobody can reprimand him from dreaming for a different ending.

"Yeah. Don't miss me too much." Eiji snickered. He probably didn’t want to have to have to deal with him more with everything that happened. 

"You wish." Ash let out a chuckle which was a shade sadder than what he wanted it to be. It was too early, they were two hours too early before departure. Eiji insisted the over punctuality, said it was something about anxiety and a mix of Japanese customs. Still it was too quiet. "So..." Ash started.

"So?" He asked, an invitation for Ash to continue, perhaps with a tone of hope if Ash wanted to be delusional.

"This is goodbye then?" The words were soft against the loudness of the waves crashing, of the cacophony of sounds around the port, of the ships in the dock, the people milling in and out of the place, even then Eiji caught his words. This was unfair. Ash, didn’t want to leave. A single sign from the universe would convince him to follow the man to wherever he wished to go without any hesitation. Just one will do. The realization wasn’t sudden, instead a culmination from the conflict of his mind, the stunning conclusion to the argument he debated subconsciously for days.

"I don't like goodbyes. This is a see you later.” Eiji smiled and for just a fraction of a second, Ash felt a pang of sadness which he washed away with resolve. Even if it was what he wanted, it may not be what Eiji wanted, and so he kept his mouth shut. 

Just one sign.

The warmth of Eiji’s hand soaked in his own. “Here," He pressed something into Ash's hand. "Open it when I'm no longer around."

It was an envelope and a packaged parcel. The package was small, just a box covered in brown paper and a string. The envelope on the other hand was heftier. Ash stared at it quizzically, confused eyes met dark ones. “Later okay?” Eiji said with glee. Ash raised a brow but knew better than to ask further.

Eiji grinned at them all. He tossed the car keys to them. "As promised. Take care of it for me?" He gestured at the car.

"Yeah yeah." Ash reassured. He'd do it even without Eiji asking.

"I'll miss all of you." Eiji sighed, taking everyone in for what was probably the last time.

One sign.

"Well...I'm off gentlemen!"

Eiji's probable last words.

Say something!

He was turning around, leaving them behind. Ash's tongue was tied, rendered speechless. How was he to articulate what he wanted when it was just that unattainable? Ash stared at the retreating figure until it was nothing. This was where they part ways. The what if's and the what could have been's were thick in the air. Still then, Ash took his time before tearing his gaze away, soaking in what was probably the last image he had of Eiji.

It took Ash a great deal of control to open the package in the car after seeing Eiji off. He didn’t know what to expect. Gingerly, he tore the paper from the box and peeked at the contents and--

He shut it immediately and tore the envelope open, searching for an explanation, anything. He read the note. Ash’s heart hammered in his chest.

"That bastard!" Ash yelled at Alex as he clutched at the items in his hands. "Turn the car around!"

Alex, in all his confused glory, turned to Ash with a disbelieving look. "What?"

"Turn the fucking car around." Ash all but growled. They were half way through the city though, but he honestly didn’t care.

"Why?!" Sing spluttered from the back seat.

"Because I have to catch a ship." Ash could not believe this. The car was still not going to the right direction and Ash was about to explode. That bastard, that absolutely stupid bastard.

"Boss?" Kong had this concerned shine in his eyes.

"Now!" Ash bellowed. Because this was his sign. This was the only explanation to it. This was the only reason. Why he insisted on going early, why he said that puzzling sentence with a knowing smile, it all made sense.

The car immediately made a 180 degree turn despite the traffic, heading back to docks without any grace or other thought. When the car stopped just before the docks, Ash grabbed his stuff with only so little time left. He paused before dashing off.

“I-…” He stopped himself. His men needed an explanation. A proper one. He stared at them with a million thoughts running over his mind.

“Go.” It was Sing who started first. “You’re going with him aren’t you?” He gestured at the letter clutched in his hand. “I bought the ticket for him. I know he wants you there. Go.”

There didn't seem to be any more confusion among the gang. They were grinning wide as things clicked into place.

“Don’t worry about us boss!” Kong reassured.

"Yeah! Send us a postcard if you can!" Bones quipped.

Ash nodded gratefully and left without any other word. His heart pounded in his chest, rushing blood through his body and he was nervous. He's been feeling that a lot when Eiji was involved.

He boarded the ship in hurry and searched. Every corner, every room, he’d turn the ship around if he had to. He ran. There were different men, women and children around. Americans, Russians, but no sign of a Japanese.

Ash looked for a hint of dark hair and even darker eyes among the sea of blondes and brunets, blue eyed, green eyed, honey amber yet no black. He searched the ship deck, maybe the lilting sound of accented English would lead Ash to where he needed to be. He searched, and yet he saw the same features.

Until, he finally found it. The unmistakable jacket with the ridiculous cartoon bird, the timid posture, it was definitely who he was looking for.

"Hey!"

Ash yelled at the man near the railings, staring at the vast ocean. He turned around, slowly with recognition and cheer. There was excitement, happiness, nervousness. But not exactly surprise. The bastard.

"Ash," Eiji smiled. "Wow I can’t believe that worked." He whispered mostly to himself.

"You planned this, didn't you?" Ash panted, staring at Eiji with suspicion. His legs burned from running.

"I don't know what you mean." Eiji feigned innocence.

"Shut up. You knew I don't like not knowing," Ash drew out the letter he was given. "You haven't given yours, but here's something to remember me by," Ash read. "P.S here's a ticket in case you want to know why I chose this out of everything." Ash snickered. "What part of that wasn't planned?"

Eiji shrugged. "It was more of a gamble really. I didn't expect it to work."

"You could've just asked if you really want me to go with you." Ash crossed his arms.

"I don't want to trouble you any longer." Eiji rubbed his nape. The trouble with Eiji, Ash realized, was that he would never say what he wanted if he thought he was imposing and so he relied on subtle hints. It was utterly frustrating.

"Stupid,” Ash grumbled. “I asked you to stay with me right? Well it goes both ways. I'll stay with you wherever you are and I'll follow you wherever you go," Ash breathed. "It doesn't have to be forever. I'll stay until you wish to get rid of me."

Eiji's eyes widened, shocked at the sudden declaration. His mouth hung open, speechless. Ash felt conscious at the sudden admission. "What?" His face was probably burning. Definitely.

Eiji's face broke into a beam. "Say it again." He whispered in almost a trance.

Ash flushed some more. "You wish."

"Come on!" Eiji grinned. He tugged at Ash's sleeve when he turned away from embarrassment. "Come on, one more time." He insisted.

"No." Ash pushed him away, Eiji was giggling like a teenager. Well…considering that he was just twenty one, maybe it wasn’t so strange. 

“You’re blushing." Teasing. Eiji's excitement was evident in words, his English becoming more accented.

“Shut up! Here, you wanted this didn’t you?” Ash tossed the item to him, which Eiji caught clumsily. He stared at it with recognition and solemnly he looked at Ash.

“It’s payback. For the one I lost way back.” Ash explained, nodding at the supposed goodbye gift. Eiji looked shocked. The copy of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was clutched in his hand in a death grip.

“I-…” Eiji cleared his throat after a moment of dumbfounded silence. “I have a confession to make.” He stared at the object in his hand, and then he whispered. “I absolutely dislike this book.”

Ash startled. “What?” He looked between the book and Eiji’s face.

"I don't like reading remember? This book was difficult to read." Eiji murmured.

“Then why were you reading it when we first met?!” Ash asked, bewildered.

“I was reading it sure! I never said I liked it! I was actually glad to get rid of it!” Eiji protested. “I…my friend--acquaintance dared me to finish at least one book because apparently I was an illiterate piece of trash…and I took the first thing I found in his library, which was a bad choice apparently because I can’t understand all the American slang they were using!” He wailed. Ash had flashbacks of the moment they first met, Eiji scowling at the first few pages of the book that was opened less than halfway. The expression on his face was nothing but confusion, and the only reason he probably still kept at it was the sheer stubbornness of wanting to prove himself over a dare.

“…Now I just feel embarrassed.” Ash mumbled, rubbing a hand over his face. Eiji burst out laughing. The sound as lovely as ever. Ash dragged the hand down from his cheek. Eiji was nearly doubled over in mirth.

"What are you laughing at?" Something light bubbled in Ash's chest even as annoyance laced his words.

"We're a ridiculous pair. That's all." Eiji replied, wiping tears. He was flushed from laughing.

It was ridiculous. The fact that Ash was swayed to ride this ship with a single note and package. The fact that he was having this conversation was ridiculous. The ship started to move, the wind blew against their hair, and it was just a tad bit nauseating. They fell silent for awhile. Then after a moment, "Did your acquaintance really say that you're an illiterate piece of trash?" Ash asked.

"No," Eiji frowned, suddenly sobered from his lather high. "It was so much worse actually. He could be...uhh a bit dramatic." He looked like he was reminded of an event from the past, his face contemplative.

"Uh huh." Ash raised a brow. "You attract weird friends. Myself included."

Eiji chuckled and didn't deny it, almost guilty. "Tell me about it."

"You're going to finish reading it though." Ash nodded at the book. Eiji gave him a deadpan stare.

"....No." He replied tersely. An affronted look passed his face at the thought of actually reading it again.

"I did not pay for that thing so you can just chuck it to the bottom of your suitcase."

Eiji stared helplessly at the book's orange cover, then back at the American. "Do you want a refund?"

Ash rolled his eyes fondly. "Just read the fucking book Eiji." He chided.

Eiji scrunched his nose. "Don't wanna."

"Eiji." Ash gave him a look. He remembered a school teacher to a student, reprimanding. The Japanese stuck out his tongue because of course he would.

"Eiji." He repeated as if this word had any power over the man. Eiji. Ash found that he started to like the name. Ei-ji. It was two syllables that trilled on the tip of Ash's tongue. Perhaps his accent butchered the pronunciation, but he liked it. Ei-ji. It had a lovely ring.

"Stop calling my name." Eiji murmured. Ash quirked a brow, an effervescent feeling in his chest made him lightheaded.

"Okumura." He said instead because honestly? He was a sarcastic brat deep inside.

Eiji cringed. Ash did not anticipate that reaction. "Don't call me that," He looked absolutely disgruntled and yes Ash knew he should stop. But the look on Eiji's face made it difficult.

"Okumura." He smirked. He repeated it just to mess with him. Giddiness, that's what he was feeling. It was bubbling all over his body, butterflies fluttering beneath his skin.

"Stop." Eiji whined, the vowels elongated. The face he made was comical. He gave a poor attempt to smack Ash on the shoulder. Then he did it again and this time it slightly hurt. There it was again.

"You stop--Hey!" Ash gripped his wrist. Eiji struggled away from him, grinning widely. "Hey!" He started to laugh as well.

"You're so annoying." Eiji shot, but it meant little when he was giggling with crinkled eyes. He managed to free his hands.

"Well, this is what you asked for when you gave me that letter." Ash pointed out.

Eiji pouted with childish petulance. “I know.”

“And you’re going to have to live with it for the rest of the ride.” Ash said.

“I know.” Eiji repeated.

“You won’t get rid of me easily.” Ash said quietly this time. And Eiji smiled just as gentle.

“I know.”

Chapter Text

The item dangled in front of Ash's face.

"You still owe me an explanation what this is and why." Ash peered at it curiously, the cold metal staring back at him. The design was clearly hand crafted.

"It's a pocket watch." Eiji replied while he scribbled on his notebook.

"It's broken." Ash observed. It was beautiful regardless. Its design would've been elegant on a neutral opinion, save for one detail Ash could not forgive. He looked at Eiji with a displeased side eye. "And you had to pick the one with pumpkins on its cover because you're that petty."

Eiji looked up from his notebook in protest, stopping whatever it was that he was writing in that journal of his. "I'm not petty." His words almost convincing if it didn't contradict whatever he's doing.

"Nhn sure." Ash said with his unimpressed voice. "So you specifically chose this broken pocket watch with pumpkins on its cover because you thought it symbolized you, and not because you wanted to spite me?"

Eiji was the type who would probably decorate an entire room filled with pumpkins, or take him trick or treating on Halloween because of pettiness. Because, Ash realized, Eiji was the type of person who saw that one thing that had his friend's pet peeve and immediately think 'I'm definitely giving him that.'

It was probably due to growing up with a sibling who was just as bratty, if Eiji's words were to be trusted. That's just a trait that went with his stubbornness to top it all off. Here's the thing though, Ash was just as stubborn and petty, and people like Eiji would either be someone who he would loathe with his entire heart, or be absolutely buddies with, all depending on the level of pettiness and stubbornness.

See Shorter for example. Eiji reminded him of his friend in regards to his affinity to tick him in just the right way. Familiar enough to shoot barbs, but not too insulting that they actually manage to still get away with it no matter how much they roast Ash.

"Yeah!" Eiji insisted. "The short and blunt explanation is that I seriously found it cute." Because he can be a little shit too even though Ash's first impression of him was the paragon of a naive and innocent kid, unable to hurt a fly. Not an asshole, god no (Shorter earned that title), but a little shit regardless.

"That's it? You found it cute?" And it was so obviously a lie which he still insisted to continue anyway, just to mess with Ash.

"It symbolizes me well no? I am cute don't you think?" Eiji smiled up at him with this shit eating grin. Ash raised a disbelieving brow, a completely deadpan face that wrote how much he could see through Eiji's bullshit.

Seconds passed with both of them in a stare off until Eiji finally broke. "Okay fine you're right. I'm that petty." His admission was reluctant. "But you gave me a book! You don't get to say anything!" He added as if that was enough reason.

"You knew I don't like pumpkins. This was a deliberate insult to me personally." Ash continued look disbelieving, arms crossed, eyes judgmental.

"You knew I don't like reading yet you gave me a book." Eiji shot back.

"You were reading it when we met!" Ash defended himself. "How was I supposed to know Eiji?"

Eiji stuck out his tongue because when he's losing the argument, he always fall back to childish gestures. Ash gave a very unimpressed look. Yes they were very very mature weren't they? They were definitely acting their age. Former gang boss and future business heir everyone.

The Japanese continued writing, brows furrowing in concentration. The soft scratching of pen on paper was loud with Ash so near to Eiji. "I guess you can also say time stops when I'm with you." Eiji added without looking up.

Ash huffed. "A plus for creativity," he rolled his eyes sarcastically. He stared at the pocket watch with interest. He drew it near his ear and shook it. Then he opened the back to find that it was mechanical and most gears and cogs were still intact. Ash closed it again with a snap. Then he looked up. “Where do you think are we by now?”

Eiji glanced outside the train window with a thoughtful hum. “I actually have no clue. We’ve been in this train for quite a while now.”

When they left the ship, it was around early afternoon, the sun was past midday but not low enough to set. They boarded a bullet train bound to Moscow and they've been inside its compartments ever since.

The distance between Lavrentiya to Moscow is 6,304 kilometers and if that wasn’t a ride, Ash didn’t know what is. Now, it was already dark outside and the artificial golden lights from the train were painting the world in a softer glow. It takes about a day and a half to reach the final destination and Ash was tired of sitting down the entire time.

"So what's the plan?" Ash tucked the item in his pocket, its weight heavy, the metal warm from the heat of his palm. He'd been fiddling with it for the past half hour.

"We spend a day in Moscow and then we ride another train." Eiji explained.

"Just a day?" Ash peered over the notebook, but bits of it was written in loopy Japanese that Ash could not understand and the part that was in English was written in a hopeless illegible writing resembling chicken scratch. Eiji's untrained hand in the letters of the English alphabet was very obvious.

"Moscow is a stepping stone. I'm really after Saint Petersburg." Eiji continued.

"Really? And what will we do there?" Ash asked.

"Ice skate probably. Maybe watch ballet. I've always wanted to do that." More scratching. Eiji didn't deign to look at him with that damn book in the way.

"Do you have to be in Russia to do those things?" Ash scratched his chin, leaning his head on his hand.

"Look, we're not watching some ballet, it's the Mariinsky ballet." Eiji still didn't look at him. Suddenly, it was very important that Eiji look at him.

"Hey!"

Ash snatched the notebook from Eiji's grasp, flipping it to other pages. The others were also written in Japanese. However it was curious that the bucket list was all written in English. "Your handwriting is shit."

"Give it back."

Eiji demanded, reaching for the notebook, but Ash swatted his hand away. "Right right, so ballet and skating. Don't you have rinks in Japan?"

Eiji pouted when Ash refused to comply. "Just let me live my dream Aslan."

Ash paused. This was the first time Eiji said his real name and it caught him off guard. It sounded different, like how the name Ash was different in his tongue, like how he managed to make it sound sweeter. The L was slightly pronounced like an R, three syllables instead of two, the first sharp and pressing before it ends with a soft exhale. Ah-su-ran instead of Aslan, like how it was Ah-shu instead Ash. It was a delight to analyze the nuances of each name on his lips.

Eiji managed to snatch his notebook back in the few seconds Ash was distracted. He grinned triumphantly. "Ha! Take that you annoying American."

Ash blinked. Then he grumbled at himself for losing focus. It wasn't his fault that the way Eiji said his name was distracting. It wasn't his fault Eiji's accent made it difficult to focus. And in the subject of accents, Eiji's was getting heavier in the passing minute.

"To think I almost left you," Eiji sighed contentedly, putting the notebook away for next time. "I guess turning the car around from the port wasn't bad a decision." He said with a thicker accent.

"No, it was still bad. You could've gotten hurt." It was harder to decipher Eiji's words. Ash took longer to respond.

"I--" a yawn. "Beg to differ." Eiji rubbed his eyes. They were getting bleary.

"You wasted a perfectly good ticket." Ash pointed out.

"But it all worked out in the end, sou desu-ne? Son'nani shinpaishinaide." Eiji gave a drowsy smile. "And," He stopped midway sentence, brows knit together. He paused, staring off in space before he snapped his fingers. "What's the word? How do you call yutaka in English again?"

"You're asking me? The fuck am I supposed to know?" Ash snorted, amused at this version of Eiji, drowsy, confused and tired. Eiji did rarely stay past ten in the evening so it made sense to see him like this.

"Nevermind, I forgot what I was going to..." Eiji yawned once more and stretched on his seat with languid clumsiness. "I'm getting sleepy."

"It's only eleven in the evening."

"Mhmm. I'm well aware." Eiji shifted for a more comfortable position.

"Old man." Ash snorted.

"Hai hai. I'm starting to think of it as a term of endearment. That has no insult left, chisai gaki." Eiji grinned. Then he leaned on Ash's shoulder, head resting on it without any other thought.

"H-hey what are you doing?" Ash spluttered.

"Shoulder more comfortable than cold glass window. Shoulder warm. Hold still." Eiji gripped Ash's arm so he couldn't move.

"Eiji!"

"You don't want grandpa to wake up from his nap, do you?" He burrowed in deeper, his weight heavier than expected.

"Damn it Eiji." Ash hissed.

"Shhh I'm trying to sleep." Eiji smiled with mischief on his lips. It's infuriating how good he looked in it. "Oyasuminasai."

Eiji's eyes fluttered close. Ash shifted on his seat, trying not to jostle Eiji. But he scrunched his nose in displeasure, grumbling at Ash to stop moving. Ash was left to stay still. He tried to keep his mind busy with other things to keep the boredom away, but there was only so little you can do with a Japanese man leaning on him.

So instead he stared at the sleeping figure next to him with nothing else to do. He stared, uninhibited in his watching, unabashed despite a deep feeling inside that was insistent on painting him as a voyeur. It felt like there was something illegal in seeing this part of Eiji.

Eiji looked very much at peace. Ash had never really seen him asleep before, rather he saw but had never actually looked. So this was him looking, taking in another facet of Eiji, unguarded, serene.

His hair smelled of the strawberry scented shampoo they used. The scent strong on Ash's nose. He was willing to bet that his hair smelled the same. His relaxed posture was pliant against Ash's shoulder, dark hair covered his eyes, framing his face.

Ash felt his fingers twitch with the unexplainable urge of wanting to tuck those strands of hair away from his face, but doing so would disturb this peaceful image.

Eiji looked so young next to Ash. Curled inwards towards himself, warmth seeping in on his shoulder, Eiji sighed involuntarily.

Ash smiled. It looked as if he was having a good dream. He burrowed deeper into Ash, clinging on his shoulder while mumbling nonsensical Japanese. He talked in his sleep, why wasn't that a surprise? He seemed to be the type to do so.

This, the steady rumbling of the train, the dim golden lights, and the warmth of Eiji's presence prompted Ash to fall asleep too. He's slept through better conditions in his lifetime, and god knows he's slept through worse, but he had to admit this was one of the better ones. If he had any dreams, he didn't remember any of them. They were wisps of half-baked images in his mind and considering he was often plagued with nightmares, he'd take this as a win.

It felt like only moments until someone was shaking him.

"Ash."

It sounded like Eiji, a barely awake, still sleep mused version of him. It probably was.

"Ash. You've slept for twelve hours straight."

Had it really been that long? It was only five minutes tops. Probably. It felt like only five minutes. He burrowed deeper on whatever soft surface it was that he leaned on.

"Ash, we're here."

Ash scrunched his nose. He didn't want to wake up. More prodding.

"Why are you so hard to wake?" Eiji sounded exasperated. Ash didn't care. He was getting five more minutes of sleep.

"Ash. I swear you drool when you sleep."

Ash's eyes shot open. It was already early morning and passengers were leaving the train. Eiji's amused face greeted him, along with a gesture at his face.

"You should probably wipe that." He said whilst grinning at him with this wickedness even with the hazy sleepiness in his features.

Ash touched his cheek and found that it was indeed wet. A dark patch was on Eiji's shoulder from where he apparently was leaning on while deep in slumber. His face burned in embarrassment while Eiji stared at him with this smug and knowing twinkle in his eyes.

Before Eiji could tease him any further for it, Ash was quick to interrupt. "We don't talk about this." Ash rubbed his face, as if that could erase the incriminating evidence against him. He heard Eiji's giggling. He snapped at his direction with narrowed eyes. "Ever."

 


 

 

“Okay so since I’m planning to have only a day for Moscow, we’re getting on a cruise.” Eiji said while they booked their room in hotel Ukraine. (“Why the fuck is it called hotel Ukraine if it’s in Moscow? No Eiji stop laughing at me, this is a serious question.") The said cruise wasn’t scheduled until later evening so they were going to sleep the rest of the morning. Only god knew how draining it was to sleep in a bullet train. Ash’s neck was still aching from it.

“Sure sure. Cruise to see the entire city. Have dinner, get the fuck out of Moscow, ride a train to St. Petersburg. Yeah got it.” Ash dragged his feet to their hotel room.

"I know we're both tired but please be careful with that bag. My equipment is there." How the fuck was he coherent at six in the morning? Eiji was just as exhausted as Ash. Sleeping on an actual bed and leaning on a shoulder was two different things after all. His shoulders were slumped, hair unkempt with his hand constantly combing through it. He was still more chipper than Ash could ever be, as he always was in the mornings.

"M'bad." Ash mumbled. He swiped the key card once, twice, thrice but it didn't open. He growled in frustration.

"Let me, seriously." Eiji took the card from Ash's grasp and Ash had left him to do so without any protest. Eiji swiped the card and it opened in an instant.

Ash waited for nothing before throwing himself onto the soft comfort of the bed. Eiji probably trailed behind him.

"Ash, take off your- ah never mind I'll do it."

Distantly, he realized his shoes getting untied, slipping out of his feet. Distantly, he realized Eiji kneeling by the foot of the bed, taking off his sneakers because of his insistence on his no shoes on the bed policy. Well he couldn't be bothered about it right now, he was extremely tired.

"Good morning Ash." Eiji might have said with a yawn. Ash might've heard footsteps padding to the other bed and the sound of sheets rustling. He might have, but by then he was already asleep.

 


 

 

"It's so cold."

Eiji's hands were wrapped around his camera, taking pictures of the lovely views of the city.

"It's not that cold." Ash leaned on the rails of the ship deck. They were floating away from the sceneries.

"I don't think I'll survive in a place like this." Eiji breathed on his fingers while they cruised on the river. His camera hung on his neck. He was a photographer and this was a job too just as it was vacation. Sometimes Ash would find Eiji on awkward positions to take different shots, the strangest up to date was seeing him nearly hanging out of the window with bedsheets tied around his waist and the bedpost for security. Ash couldn't help but worry about Eiji's absolute disregard on safety.

"It's not yet even winter." Ash brought along Eiji's equipment bag. He was an over glorified valet if he was being honest. He didn't think he would be this chill about it. If you would tell Ash a year ago that he'd willingly carry someone else's bags, he'd laugh at you and then tell you to scram.

Look at him now.

"We're going to have to buy gloves," Eiji murmured against his freezing fingers. "Remind me to take you shopping next time."

"Right right."

He was also an over glorified secretary at this point.

Eiji started scanning through his photos systematically. His carefully dexterous fingers sorted the selection with patience. His brows were furrowed together in concentration.

He had a habit of biting his lips when deep in thought, Ash soon noticed. Ash also noticed that Eiji's tongue often darted out to wet his lips every so often under the cold. Eiji did apply lip balm before they left. It might have taken hours to wake up Ash, but it took just the same time for Eiji to get ready to go out.

Eiji's entire luggage is taken up by three major things: his photography equipment which consists of an entire suit case Ash was assigned to carry; his plain jackets and sweaters that most (if not all) were colored with tacky neon colors or pastel pink theme plus the creepy bird printed on them; and lastly an entire bag of expensive creams and beauty products that Eiji so meticulously applies every day. Once before leaving, and even longer before sleeping.

("They're not just beauty products Ash, they're essentials to look decent everyday. I--yes I like to use Channel lip balm, can you blame me? It's so cold out Ash! Stop your judgmental staring!")

Anyway the point was, if you disregard the camera equipment, the entire bag of "essentials to look decent everyday" was the only reason one would know how wealthy Eiji actually was. His wardrobe was a disaster after all. He wore no jewelry or ornaments for indication. He looked absolutely normal.

And perhaps if Ash knew nothing about Eiji, he would think he was another regular photographer around the street.

Actually, come to think of it, Ash knew close to nothing about Eiji. He was an open book, free to be read anytime. The catch, however was that the book was written in another language. It was written in Eiji's language. Not Japanese, but something simply Eiji, decipherable only until you’ve studied it long enough. It was fascinating, just as frustrating to see everything freely and yet know that there was more to learn.

“You know, for a person who knows almost half of my life by now, it’s funny to know so little about you.” Ash started when they were already on the dining room of the cruise ship, eating supper. Eiji stopped cutting midway his meat, and he looked at Ash with confusion.

“Really?” Eiji hummed with soft thoughtfulness. “There’s nothing I can tell you that isn’t already on Wikipedia if you’re asking about my family,” Eiji chewed his lip. “And you know I’m a pole vaulter. The photography part is obvious by now. I’ve told you I’m gay. Honestly my life’s pretty uninteresting compared to yours.”

“I think it’s interesting that you’re in a hurry to travel the world. It’s almost like you have a deadline or something,” Ash sipped from his wine. “You’re only twenty-one. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”

Eiji smiled a pressed smile. “I—yeah I do, I do. I just want to enjoy it for now.” His grip on his silverware was tight. “I had to stop pole vaulting and I got horribly depressed. This is uhh…my way of coping,” A shaky laugh. “It’s pretty…extravagant, no?”

Ash frowned. “How did it happen?” He gestured in vague motions. “If you don’t mind me asking.”

“It was a bad fall,” Eiji explained. “I sprained my ankle and it just didn’t get better. It’s funny how the body can recover after so much blood loss but can’t even repair itself over something so trivial.”

“I’m sad to hear that.” Ash, an dunce who had no idea how to handle emotions, offered unhelpfully.

“I’m almost over it, don’t worry. Besides I’m pursuing photography now and I wouldn’t meet you if it wasn’t because of it. You lose some, you win some.” Eiji waved off. With that, Ash dropped the topic. Eiji smiled.

“Anyway if you’re finished, I’m ordering dessert.”

Chapter Text

Ah it was one of those nights then.

If they sleep with you, just tell them to pay up.

It wasn't the dead plaguing him tonight. It was this.

He's experienced enough of these to know when he was still asleep, and he knows by the way he can't seem to move and the way he's frozen in bed that he was dreaming.

Yet even so he hated the fact that he couldn't do anything.

It didn't matter whether he was seven, eight, or nineteen, he can still feel the disgusting hands all over his body.  

"Oh fuck god you feel so good!"

Ash laid there motionless, incomprehensible phantoms took his body for their own pleasure. He never really knew how they look like, only that they were always rough and selfish and disgusting. If there was anything to describe this feeling, it was akin to a rotting corpse being feasted upon by flies and maggots, taking still from those already dead and had nothing left to give.

Sometimes it was Dino on top of him, sometimes it was the other clients who had nothing in their minds but a quick fuck, sometimes it was that bastard Marvin with the camera mercilessly clicking beside them, sometimes--and this was the one he loathed the most--his baseball coach from when he was seven.

How unlucky do you think can he be?

"Shh...no one will believe you anyway. That's right, you're nothing but a slut for my cock aren't you?"

More hands, more touching, more everything. All Ash could do was give a blank stare and let all this continue, waiting to wake up while feeling the sensation of drowning, of being choked up in a memory.

It hurt, it always hurt. He could still feel the burning sensation of being penetrated from behind. The sting lingered even after the first, second, hundredth time and his body was so abused by now.

Disgusting. It never failed to make him feel filthy.

Ash knew what'll happen next. He's seen this bit of forever in too many different ways, he's obsessed with this scene too many times that he replayed it repeatedly like a movie in his own mind, a theatre that had nothing else to show but this nightmare.

His hand trembled, but that didn't stop him from pulling out the pistol he hid in the back pocket of his trousers. He was awfully detached from the moment, yet also trapped. He felt and also watched, caught between the role of a spectator and the main cast.

The colors were blurry, sharp and everything in between. He pressed the barrel of the gun on the man's chest, finger lingering on the trigger. And this was the part where he obsessed so much. It was over in a minute, a moment that separated between living and dying and yet it lingered in him like Vietnam did to the men drafted to the war in the seventies, like how Afghanistan plagued Griffin's mind. This was his Vietnam. It will remain forever in him.

There was so much blood, so much red dyeing the bed and it was wet and sticky and everything terrible. Till now Ash could hear the first sound of a gun cocking, the bang of a gunshot, the sound of the bullet piercing through flesh and the harsh gasped that followed the deed.

The sound of a struggled groan followed, and then came the fall of a body on the hardwood floor.

Ash was gasping for air as the dead stared at him with glassy eyes. It had been years but it haunted him still. All he had to do now was wake up, but it could be a goddamm hard thing to do. Knowing what'll happen next was useless when he couldn't escape this.

His lungs were filled with shards of broken glass and it was so hard to breathe. Fuck, his hands were bloody and he felt so filthy filthy filthy filthy--

He had to get away. He had to force himself to get away. So he did.

The world faded into the void, ceasing to exist, coming undone. Finally, finally he was waking up. His eyes shot open. He ended up with a coughing fit, sheets grasped in his fist, tears down his cheeks. A few ragged breaths before he collected himself.

He was in bed but he was here, in St. Petersburg instead of years ago in a bloody room, instead of a nightmare, instead of a memory. He was here with Eiji.

Eiji.

Ash stole a glance at the figure on the bed next to his. Eiji was still deep in sleep, undisturbed and tranquil.

A shaky breath. He took a minute more to calm down. Then he stood up and took a shower.

 


 

 

"Have you heard? There's a rumor in Saint Petersburg, have you heard? Hmhnhm...in street." Eiji hummed the same line over and over as they skated across the ice rink. The sound of multiple blades cutting through the ice echoed in the building.

"Stop singing the same lyric over and over!" Ash said through gritted teeth, feet wobbling from the blades. Yubileyny sports palace had an Olympic sized ice rink where seasoned athletes trained daily. Though it can be open to public use at a certain time.

"It's the only part I remember." Eiji defended.

"What song is that anyway?" Ash asked whilst grasping on air, feet almost just a one step away from slipping on the ice.

"You don't know Anastasia?" Eiji gasped with this scandalized look. He clutched his chest, like an offended soccer mom who had been told her casserole wasn't as great as her neighbor Karen's.

"Do I look like I have time to actually watch movies?" Ash deadpanned. His knuckles were white with his death grip. It was the only thing keeping him from falling into an undignified heap on the floor.

"We should do a movie marathon at some point." Eiji rubbed his hands together in lieu of an actual answer. He still bemoaned the absence of gloves. "It's cold."

"We're in an ice rink if course it'll be cold." Ash rolled his eyes.

There were other people around the rink as well. In fact there were children learning to skate somewhere in the middle of the rink. There were some more advanced than the others, practicing their moves and their spins, there were also some simply learning the first time like Ash.

"I'm literally this close to using my socks as mittens." Eiji's breath had started to blow mist.

"You're being dramatic oh--fuck." Ash muttered when he almost slipped. Heat crawled up his face because of course Eiji would comment on it. Ash gripped the boards for balance. Obviously he's never skated his entire life and it showed. He looked up to hear amused laughter and Eiji grinning at him.

"What's the matter Ash? Couldn't find your footing?" And there it was. Eiji easily glided with his rentals, blade cutting smoothly through the cool ice. He skated backwards with comfortable ease.

"Shut up Eiji, not everybody knows how to skate." Ash's knees wobbled, losing balance. He'd done nearly nothing but grope his way through the ice, almost always falling on his ass. His legs were aching from all the pressure he exerted. "Aren't you quite smug?"

Eiji skated circles around Ash just because he can. "I don't know what you're talking about." He said with feigned innocence and Ash wanted so badly to wipe it off his face.

"Fuck you too." Ash hissed with narrowed eyes which Eiji replied with another laugh. He skated beside Ash.

"Come on," Eiji reached out a hand. "Let me teach you."

Ash stared at the offered hand dubiously. He was well aware of Eiji's tendencies for mischief so he can't help but become wary of these things.

"What? You don't trust me?" Eiji pouted with mock hurt. "I mean would you really rather just stay here?"

Don't look at his eyes. Ash chanted in his mind. If you do, you're done for.

Well Ash was a dumbass so he did look him in the eyes despite knowing that his resolve always managed to crumble when he stared into his eyes.

"Fine," he said between gritted teeth. "Teach me." He grasped his forearms in which Eiji beamed at him. Eiji followed suit and skated backwards while Ash followed his lead.

Eiji's grip on his forearms was firm.

"Remind me again why you insist on skating here instead of just doing it in Japan?" Ash found himself asking after they managed to move a few paces away from the boards.

"Call it a bit of being a fan boy, but this is where Katsuki Yuuri and Victor Nikiforov train." Eiji replied like this was very obvious and as if this was answer to all.

"Great! Who are they?" They made a turn around the corner, Ash fumbling on his balance. Eiji steadied him with a hand on his shoulder.

"You know? Japan's ace and the living legend of ice skating. Katsuki-san currently holds the world record for the free skate. You should have seen all the drama when Victor Nikiforov announced to be his coach." Eiji grinned.

Ash stared at Eiji and the twinkle in his eyes. "You seem attached to these two." They sped up a bit. Ash's feet wobbled at the sudden change of pace.

Eiji ran his fingers through his dark locks. "They kinda became my inspiration you see. I was maybe twelve when an eighteen year old Katsuki Yuuri won gold at nationals," Eiji grinned. He scratched his nape, embarrassed. "When he jumped he looked like he was flying, and I thought I wanted to do that too so I decided to pole vault. Plus he's bisexual but I knew that later on. He's not the most open person during interviews."

"And what about the other guy? The Victor person? What's with him?" Ash pressed on.

"He's the most decorated skater to ever exist. He probably has enough medals to tile an entire bathroom," Eiji chuckled. "That, and he's gay. He's openly out even though Russia isn't the most accepting to homosexuality. His programs are a touch between femininity and masculinity. It was revolutionary," Eiji's face was soft. "And for a kid who always had to hide his identity, it meant the world. I thought it must be nice to be like that. I mean if an openly gay man can still make history, then so can I right?"

They nearly collided with a child, thankfully they stopped before the child could eat ice.

Eiji's grip on Ash tightened just a bit when the child safely went back to the center of the rink. "Then when Katsuki-san announced he was marrying Victor Nikifirov, I just--I thought I wanted that too you know?  I wanted to find love like that. I--" Eiji murmured in rapid Japanese when he couldn't find the words in English to express what he felt. "I..it's silly I know." Eiji laughed depreciatingly and Ash immediately thought that this shouldn't be. It was important that he doesn't feel self-conscious while talking about something he liked.

"It's not." He said with a firm, serious voice. "Talking about yourself is far from stupid." Because he'd be lying if he said he wasn't curious about this man. How he works, what makes him tick, he wanted to know it all.

"You think so?" Eiji chuckled.

Ash hummed in agreement. They took another turn from the rink. He was getting the hang of skating, the wobbles lesser now.

"Do you have any idols growing up?" Eiji started letting go, Ash's feet trembled but he managed to stay upright anyway so he'd take that as a win.

"Griffin's the only one I can think of. He's a writer at least I thought he would be," Ash experimentally pushed his skates from the ice and moved ever so slowly. "He enlisted for the army and went to war in Afghanistan. He's--…he’s never been the same afterwards." Ash explained. He was saying this with surprising detachment.

Eiji followed him religiously. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. Plus you have nothing to apologize. War does that to you I guess?" Ash shrugged. Except the reason why his life got messed up was because of the fucking people who thought profiting from people's despair, pretending to give relief when all it did to you was ruin your life.

Ash could feel the telltale signs of anger welling up inside him, but he quashed it up quickly. It didn't do to unleash it here.

"A-anyway. I think there was another person. Though I can't say he was an inspiration, he taught me most of what I know today." Ash changed the subject smoothly.

"Who?"

"He's called Blanca." Called, because Ash was sure as hell that it wasn't his real name. "He helped me, in a way. He taught me how to survive."

"He sounds like a nice guy." Eiji said.

"He'd laugh if you tell him that." Ash chuckled. Blanca was far from being a nice guy. He was one, if not the, most dangerous men he’s ever met. Ash tried to catch up to Eiji. His heartbeat sped up when his skate caught on an uneven patch of ice and nearly tripped for real.

Luckily Eiji swooped in and caught his waist before he could go sprawling on the hard cold ice. Ash managed a breathless thank you while his heart hammered in his chest from the near fall which would have definitely hurt. He clutched at Eiji's shirt by reflex.

Distantly, Ash thought about Eiji's hands on his waist. Distantly he wondered why he was fixated on this detail.

"Hey," Eiji righted him up. Ash knew this tone though, it usually followed a teasing remark. "Did you just fall for me?" He grinned cheekily. And there it was. Ash narrowed his eyes at him with a glare.

"Has anyone told you that you are full of shit?" Ash pushed Eiji away, only to stumble and grasp at Eiji once again. His feet swayed on the blades of his skates. It was difficult to find balance. He's never skated before and despite how talented Ash was, there were still things he couldn't do immediately.

Eiji laughed. "You have,” He said. “Lots of times." He looped an arm on Ash's own to help him balance.

Ash raised a brow, but Eiji merely shrugged as if to say that he was very welcome to let go and scramble on the ice. Cheeky. His heart was still beating fast. Ash tightened his grip on Eiji's arm, almost leaning on Eiji for support while he awkwardly pushed off his skates on the ice. Eiji matched his movements easily and then they started moving, albeit slowly, but they were moving all the same.

They spun lazy circles around the rink, skating near the edge. The pace was relaxed, done side by side. Ash felt Eiji shiver against him. He eyed Eiji's hands and in a moment of impulse, he grasped it into his.

It was actually really cold, like holding a Popsicle. "Damn. Are you anemic or something? Jeez these are ice cubes."

"My body just seems to reflect whatever temperature is at the moment. If it's warm, it's warm. If cold then take a guess. Yep it's cold," Eiji mourned. He wiggled his fingers on Ash's grasp. He pouted up at Ash. "You however, have no right to have such warm hands despite the cold." Eiji squeezed Ash's hand tighter. They were softer than Ash's, yet there was still callousness in it, a reminder of his sport.

It's actually nice, holding Eiji's cold hand. The warmth of his fingers slowly cool away to even out Eiji's temperature, achieving thermal equilibrium, the condition under which two substances in physical contact with each other exchange no heat energy, two substances said to be at the same temperature. Slowly, surely, softly they make each other the same. It was physics, it was wonderful. Ash told him so.

"You're pretty smart." Eiji remarked with an impressed hum.

Ash preened. "My IQ is 180, I ought to be smart." Whenever Eiji praised him, something deep inside him felt pleased. Ash could be a rather vain creature if he wanted to, even more so in Eiji's presence. He didn't let go of Eiji's hand.

"Show off." Eiji scrunched his nose, as he always does when something displeases him. Ash smushed Eiji's face with his other hand. It resulted with the latter giving an indignant splutter. 


Eiji, after recovering from the shock, swatted Ash's hand away and pressed his cold palms on Ash's cheeks instead. Ash shivered at the cold contact upon his skin. He immediately held on Eiji's shoulder for support.

"Your face is very warm too." Eiji was nearly on his tip toes and he was so close Ash could count his eyelashes, a dark contrast against his smooth skin. He wondered if it was because Eiji’s were cold that he thought Ash’s face was warm, or perhaps it was because that the rink was cold that Ash’s face was flushing.

Eiji smiled and he stared at Ash with this really inquisitive gaze, one that made you really self-conscious for some inexplicable reason. His dark eyes raked over Ash’s body with inquisition, like he was measuring things and filing information too fast for Ash to catch. He looked like Ash when he was sizing up an enemy.

Finally, after a brief period of tense silence, Eiji finally said:

"We're going to have to get you a suit."

 

Chapter Text

"You look like you've never worn a suit before," Ash commented while he fixed his bow. He gazed at Eiji through the body length mirror on the changing room. "It won't wear itself no matter how hard you stare at it."

Eiji looked up from the suit jacket and glanced at Ash instead. His dress shirt was still untucked and his bow hang limply around his neck. "No, I've worn this too many times in fact. It just never grew on me." With one last look at the suit jacket, he went into work. He tucked in his shirt and donned a cummerbund rather than a waist coat.

“It’s a good thing we’re not in a white tie event. That’ll be a nightmare.” Eiji started to tie his bow. Ash frowned at its crookedness. His fingers twitched with an impulse to righten it. The Japanese continued to fiddle with it, a frustrated hum escaped from his lips.

"Let me. You're doing it wrong." Ash untied the silk cloth and took it from Eiji. It slipped from his neck and easily into his fingers.

"Oh," Eiji said with this dazed look on his face, surprise eminent in his features. "Thanks," He cleared out his throat. "You seem used to this."

"I am." Ash replied. He stepped closer to Eiji and wound it back around the latter's neck with dexterous fingers, the motions familiar as it could ever be.

Eiji’s suit was composed of the simple two piece black and white ensemble, as opposed to Ash’s three piece suit. Although Eiji’s was more modest by design, both suit qualities were absolutely top notch. The fabric was breathable, a hundred percent made of wool. It cut through their figures, defining each line of muscle. Eiji also obviously knew his set of formal wear. This was obviously a black tie event, a formal night ear was issued, and Ash knew how many easily interchange the two.

The thing that put Ash off however, was the fact that all this was bought in less than a day of shopping.

("Don't worry, we'll just ship it to my house in Japan afterwards. I'm not carrying that all over Europe.") Eiji then waved his hand easily. He may not look at it, but he could be extravagant when he wants to be. His tastes on clothes may also be terrible, but his suits were exquisite. Yet Eiji, despite the obvious simplicity of his suit, still looked uncomfortable in it. This, once again was a contrast to Ash who moved as if the expensive clothing was a second skin.

"I should bring you to all my social functions. You could dress me up all the time." Ash could hear the smile on Eiji's face even without looking up from his work.

"Maybe you should. You're shit at this." Ash snorted. He flapped down the collar of Eiji’s dress shirt, flattening it. He fastened the top, efficient, systematic.

"I am," Eiji admitted with a puffed out chuckle. "I don't really like wearing suits." He confessed.

"Could've fooled me." He adjusted the tie so that one side was longer than the other. Long side over the short end. He pinched it between his fingers, threading the longer end through the hole.

"I don't. You on the other hand are a natural. I should take you shopping more often." Eiji shuffled on his feet. Ash shot him a look to stop moving. He pulled the knot tight.

"No thank you. I'm happy with my clothes." He said without breaking focus. An index finger through the left side, pulled to look the shape of a bow tie, motions like clockwork.

"Clothes are more restricting in my family. Even at home you have to look nothing less than perfect." Eiji sighed. His breath smelled like mint and their shared toothpaste. Ash was close enough to smell it.

"Is that why you insist on wearing those ratty clothes?" Fold over the longer piece on top, pinch the sides to slip in the hanging side through the hole. 

"They're very comfy." Eiji grinned. "My family aren't the chillest people in the world." He continued. "You'd expect this of course since we're a rather prominent family in society. They can be a bit traditional."

"Very Japanese?" Ash huffed in amusement. He pulled the bow just so it stayed folded.

"What do you mean by that?" Eiji wheezed an amused huff that was caught between a chuckle and a snicker. Incredulity shined in his eyes when Ash looked up.

He shrugged then looked back down. "You know, strict? Stubborn? Unyielding? It seems very Japanese to me. I don't know how else to explain it." He gave the tie one last press, flattening it to look more presentable. He reached out an open palm. "Give me your cufflinks."

Eiji handed it over without protest. They were plain metal, unlike Ash's studded one. It was a simple chain design. Ash started to put it on Eiji's wrists systematically.

"First, that sounds racist," Eiji clicked his tongue. "But I guess you can say that. Yes they're very Japanese."

"And?" He held the cuff of Eiji's sleeve. His dress shirt was white with a French cuff and six holes. The extra two were spares in the middle.

"And what?" Eiji asked.

"Tell me more." Ash said with surprising softness, between a command and a plea. "Color me intrigued."

And Eiji complied without any need for reason. "My grandmother is head of the household. She scares me." Ash folded the cuff once, twice. He kept it into a kiss fold, the standard fold for an elegant dress shirt.

"So she's like the head boss? The gang leader." He nodded. He pinched it between his fingers, flattening it, aligning all the holes against each other until they were pressed together.

Eiji laughed. It never failed to be a lovely sound. Like bells chiming, the sound of spring water down the stream. "Yes now that you mentioned it. She looks very much like a yakuza boss. Once in you can never leave the family." He cleared his throat. "Anyway the Okumura family has been in existence since before the Tokugawa Shogunate, coming from a long noble line of samurais. They've always prided themselves on that. So you can tell that public image is very important to her."

"Must be tough." He slipped in the cufflink buttonhole by buttonhole.

"Yeah. She's not so accepting of...well, me either. She didn't approved of me pole vaulting. She thought I won't get anywhere with it." Eiji shuffled in place once more. Ash moved to the other sleeve. Same ritual, rinse and repeat. He went through the motions once more.

"All happy families are alike, unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways." Ash murmured as he followed the same steps for the other cuff, folding it twice.

"What?"

"It's Tolstoy, from Anna Karenina. Those were the opening lines." Ash explained. "Families are like that sometimes. I don't get along with my old man either."

"Your father?" Eiji's voice lowered into serious sobriety. Ash paused and then stared at the milky smooth skin of Eiji's wrist. Absentmindedly, he caressed it with his thumb with neither a scowl nor a downturn of lips, only tiredness set on his shoulders.

"If you can even call him that." His existing memories of his father were never great. Cape Cod never really felt like home either. If one really wanna know about it, they'd have to go back to where Ash was born, about how his parents were never really there for him, how his mother left shortly after he was born, and all the other crap about his life. That was, if one really wanted to know about it, but Ash didn't want to go over it now.

He finished the last cuff. "There. You look decent." He gave it one last adjustment and then let go of his hand.

"Thanks," Eiji said. He gave him a glance over. "You look lovely too."

Ash felt his lips tug up in a smile.

 


 

 

It had to be Swan Lake, because no matter how spontaneous and unconventional Eiji was, there were times where he needed to be cliché as well. It didn't matter, Ash never really saw the ballet.

They called a cab to drive them to the theater. Eiji was unable to resist and had a silk scarf wrapped around his neck to aid himself from the cold.

"I'm surprised you didn't choose to sit in the Tsar's box." Ash whispered to Eiji just before the first act started.

"There are decent seats elsewhere. I invest my money wisely Ash." Eiji simply smirked, but then the look immediately dropped. "Besides," he continued. His expression melted into sheepishness. "It was already fully booked."

With that the orchestra playing its score. The curtain rose to reveal the dancers on stage. It was a woman dancing alone, innocently. There was sweetness in her actions, a gentleness that could only be done by the untainted.

Then a man appeared, dressed as a sorcerer who took this innocence with a curse. Ash found himself drawn to the dance, the sharp movement of bodies, the graceful arch of muscles, complimented by the mellifluous symphony. It both calculative and artistic. He almost didn't want look away.

The woman’s sweetness turned sour, and there was sorrow in her anguished face before promptly disappearing from the stage altogether.

"Utskushi, ne?"

He tore his gaze from the stage to look at Eiji, whose dark eyes sparkled with wonder under the dim golden lights of the theater.

"It's beautiful." Eiji whispered once again. Ash, in all his heart, agreed.

The main curtains rose to reveal the scene behind.

Prince Siegfried was on stage. Ash was a bit familiar with the story at least. This was the first act of four. We see the glamour of royalty, the gilded extravagance of their lives, the bejeweled splendor that was painted perfectly by the stage.

There were more people dancing on stage now. They were synchronized in their steps. They seemed to dance in revelry, in celebration about something.

“It’s the prince’s twenty first birthday.” Eiji explained in a soft whisper close to Ash’s ear. It was close enough for Ash to give an involuntary shiver, but it wasn’t close enough to completely invade his space. They were just seated close, that’s all, though Ash didn’t exactly mind the close proximity between them. He shuffled closer to hear Eiji’s words better.

“Prince Siegfried is pressured by both his mother, the queen, and his responsibility to his kingdom as future king to take a bride from the ball planned a few days later.” Eiji continued, never taking his eyes away from the dancers on stage. There was a sad look on his eyes that was thinly veiled between fascination and captivation.

“That’s a lot of parties don’t you think?” Ash whispered back.

Eiji chuckled. “I don’t make the rules.”

On stage, the queen handed Siegfried a crossbow which the prince graciously accepted. Then there was more dancing. Sometime later, Eiji muttered once again. “The prince will go to the forest for some time alone, cherishing his remaining freedom. It isn’t easy to be an heir.”

“You know a lot about this.” Ash commented.

“Of course,” Eiji smiled. “I have seen this thrice now, this being the third time. The second in New York. I like it a lot.”

Ash thought he ought to like it, if he watched it three times in different countries.

The prince left the palace to spend the remains of his dwindling freedom by hunting in the forest. Just as Eiji said. The curtains close, the lights instantly brighter. 

With that, the first act ended.

"So what do you think so far?" Eiji stretched in his seat, the poised posture from before was easily shattered. He had a lazy grin on his face, face leaning on his propped up hand.

"It was okay," Ash shrugged. "They're pretty skilled."

"That's it?"

People started filing out of the seats, probably for a bathroom break. Both of them remained, along with the handful of people who chose to stay throughout the intermission.

"I forget about the prince's part."

Thing was, when people hear Swan Lake, they forget that we see Siegfried’s story before the entire scene with Odette. People are too drawn to the magnificence of the white and black swan that often the prince was forgotten in the background.

"Mhmm...you did?" Eiji huffed.

"Yeah." Ash replied. "Swan Lake is actually his story isn't it? He's the protagonist."

"You could say that," Eiji said. "But the swan queen and the sorcerer's daughter are the main spectacle. The prince is only an instrument to show their brilliance."

"You're doing him a disservice," Ash insisted. "He didn't want to get married yet. He didn't want to be trapped in the life of royalty and the moment he found the light, it was snatched away from him by deception."

Eiji stared at him with searching eyes. "You think so?" He said it with this earnest look that Ash couldn't comprehend, couldn't explain, couldn't describe, only that it was suffocating, or perhaps breathtaking was the word, for it was getting harder to breathe. There was something charged in the air, something Ash wanted to understand. And for once, Ash didn't have the guts to know.

"I'm-- bathroom. Yes. I think I need to use the bathroom." Like a coward, Ash retreated from confrontation. He turned away in a hurry. His palms were sweaty. That's never happened before.

His steps were quick paced. He didn't know why this was his reaction. There wasn't anything said or done to warrant such, but somehow Ash wanted to get away.

"Ah, sorry."

So deep in thought, Ash bumped into someone. He took a step back and apologized.

"It's nothing. Don't worry about it." The man answered in kind. His hair was slicked back and blue framed glasses rested on his nose. The man bowed at him with a soft smile before leaving towards his companion. He looked Japanese. He kinda reminded Ash of Eiji. Many things reminded Ash of Eiji.

Ash halted on that thought, a realization coursing through his body.

The man greeted his friend who curiously had silver hair. That would've been another thing to ponder if his mind wasn't so conflicted.

In the bathroom sink, Ash splashed water on his face, staring at his reflection on the mirror.

Distantly he wondered when he started associating things to Eiji instead of Shorter, Skip, and Griffin. Somehow he wondered how he let the exact moment Eiji become a big part of his life slip from his mind. For Eiji to leave that much of an impression to warrant being the first thing that flits through his mind, it was wild.

 


 

"Welcome back," Eiji murmured under the dim lights. "You almost missed the beginning of the second act."

Ash seated himself on the plush cushions of the theater.

Siegfried danced with assertiveness. The dancer of the role had dark eyes and dark hair. He swept through the stage with unyielding grace. This was the mark of a prince, of an heir, of a future king and the role was captured perfectly by the man.

The music was intense, free flowing in crescendos and bass, as the prince continued in his search. The strings haunting, the lights dim, and the stage painted with the dark color of the night.

Then the swan queen made her entrance, dainty feet stepping on stage. She was fair skinned with blond hair and bright eyes, her body desirable in the way she moved. Bold, but gentle. Decisive, and yet almost modest. Her skill was evident in every sharp turn and gesture. It was without doubt, that she deserved her title from hours of training, of bloody toes and bruised feet. Ballet, after all was an art that was perfected through suffering and pain. Beneath the role she was given, you see the soul of a warrior.

The prince met the beautiful maiden in the most unconventional place, in the most unconventional time. She was cursed by an evil sorcerer to never be able to live life normally. That was, unless someone who’s never fell in love pledged their undying and devoted love to her.

In every sunset she turns into human, and in every sunrises she's cursed to become a swan.

The stage was set in cool hues of blues and purples. A chase begun between the two, Siegfried pursuing Odette with persistence and Odette running away in alarm. This was trust in the making.

The second act was filled with the sorrow of the white swan, the persistence of the prince and the fragile trust both of them built. That the prince coaxed the swan queen to give him a chance, and for her to choose to believe him.

She’d always be so near yet so far, just beyond his reach, just moments before touching. And she danced so mournfully that Ash couldn’t help but feel her pain in a more intimate setting, a more personal thing that ran between them.

Then the music turned playful and at last she gave him a chance. The prince was just so enamored, so entranced, so mesmerized by Odette. He was ready to confess his love to her. That was until the sorcerer Rothbart swooped in and interfered. He sent the other swan maidens to dance between them so they part. Of course, when one was infatuated, this was nothing but a trifle thing and Siegfried found his queen once more.

The sun was rising, the curse was about to take place and the beautiful maiden was slowly turning back into a beast. She was forcefully taken back by the sorcerer.

Ash looked at Eiji and saw an almost physical ache in his eyes that was almost tangible by touch. He looked absolutely striking when focused in contemplation, raw emotion so evident in the downturn of his lips. The curtains closed, the second act was over. Ash blinked and the moment was gone just like that.

Unlike before, both of them didn’t leave the stage during the intermission. They talked of the show, praised the commendable scenes, discussed the different interpretations of the story, what it all meant to the end. Before they could reach a conclusion, the third act started with the curtains rising.

This time, Siegfried was back in the castle to attend his ball. But it was obvious that his mind was anywhere in the present.

“Act three is mostly anticipated. It’s the only place where the black swan appears.” Eiji whispered. He’s back on giving personal commentary, not that Ash minded. “The role of the black swan is given to the same dancer as Odette. Odile, the sorcerer’s daughter, was enchanted to look exactly like Siegfried’s beloved.”

“Aren’t they two different personalities and dance styles?” Ash asked while Siegfried danced with all the other princesses for him to choose.

“That’s what makes the role more interesting. The white cannot exist without the black, and vice versa. Both are part of the same whole, and yet different.”

The trumpets sound, and there she was in all her grace. The black swan entered the stage with seduction and power in every step. This was the diamond cut façade of a woman who knew the weight of her worth. This was all wit, and cunning and command. Like the white swan, she shied away from touch, but unlike the Odette, Odile does so coquettishly, teasingly, sensually. It was deceit plain in the face and yet you cannot look away.

Music seemed to flow from her body, bending the orchestra to her will. The audience was her slave and she alone the master.

“One of the things that made this role so difficult is the thirty two fouettes.” Ash turned his attention to Eiji. “It takes endurance to do that.”

It looked like it did. Ash witnessed it with his own eyes. Without context, of course the dance was absolutely beautiful. But in regards to the story, this was devastating. The prince unwittingly, looked so happy, thinking this was his bride to be and overcome with his emotions, he unwittingly swore his love to the wrong woman. Just like that, his happiness fell apart. Odette by the window, upon the treachery, fled. Siegfried was in shock, the entire ballroom in chaos, the last laugh came from Rothbart.

Swan Lake was a tragic tale. Ash remembered from the corner of his memory. The romance between the prince and the swan queen, in all the different incarnations of its story, often ended in misery.

The swan dies in the end.

In all the different versions, alterations, there was one ultimate result. It was a story of death and treachery, and yet it was beautiful.

With this the curtains fell. One last act to go before this entire evening concluded.

The next act was mournful.

Because the prince broke his promise, Odette was cursed to become a swan forever.

“I think it’s sad,” Ash said so suddenly that he did not realize the words had come from him. In the corner of his eye, he saw Eiji turn to look at him. “That they found love, only to have it taken away.”

The swan dies in the end.

Ash mourned for the end that was bound to come.

The beauty of Swan Lake was the tragedy that was its ending. The death of the white swan made it all so beautiful. But to Ash, he couldn’t help but want a happy end. What was beauty in the face of happiness? What was perfection compared to the feeling of love?

On stage Siegfried begged for forgiveness, Odette gave it to him without a second thought. Their dance was tender, filled with regret, like a last dance. One final goodbye.

It was nearly heartbreaking and Ash didn’t understand why.

“The thing is, Ash,” Spoke just as Rothbart appeared on stage. A fight ensued. “There’s a reason why I chose to watch this in Mariinsky most of all.”

More fighting. A fight for the queen, the sorcerer and the prince fought over.

“See when I watched Swan Lake in New York, the prince is left alone with Odette dead in his arms. Bolshoi ends it with both of them separated,”

The music goes in a climax. The end so close.

“But this,” Siegfried tore a wing from Rothbart, killing him in the process. Ash gasped at the development. Eiji simply sounded smug. “Mariinsky had never recently played a Swan Lake with a tragic ending.”

Rothbart fell. The lovers were united. It was almost a dream. The dancers took a bow, the audience were giving their applause. It was all happening too fast. Ash was still dumbstruck.

“You knew?” Was all he could say minutes after still sitting on his chair and people had started leaving.

“Of course.” Eiji replied with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. “That’s why I insisted.”

Ash for all feelings he felt tonight, perhaps from relief, perhaps from overwhelming emotions he did not understand, perhaps from the hysteria of the silliness of it all, burst out laughing.

 


 

“Ah, now I’m going to have to go to the bathroom. Call our cab please?” Eiji handed him the phone.

Eiji hurried to the toilets, leaving Ash to lean on the wall and dial the phone. There was a ring, then two. A third one more until someone picked up.

“Hello? Can we get a cab here in Theatre Square, 1 in Mariinsky?” Ash idly checked the cufflinks on his suit.

Dobryy vecher mister Lynx,” Ash froze at the sound of the voice. It was awfully near and familiar. He knew this man. It was unmistakable.

He did a sharp turn and there he was, without a doubt.

“Or should I say, Ash.”

The call was cut off. Ash frowned at the man standing before him. He snickered.

“Blanca.”

 

Chapter Text

"Ash."

Blanca smiled at him, which only manage to make him scowl with distaste. Ash had seen that smile too many times to be fooled despite its friendly nature. It either meant trouble or some sort of nuisance one way or another. Its severity, however, was still to be known. That’s what makes it fearsome. “You’ve grown.”

“Bastard.” Ash bared his teeth.

“Haven’t heard that from you in a while.” Blanca huffed. “You haven’t changed that much then.”

"Have you spent all your blood money in the Caribbean that you've decided to become a cabby?" Ash remarked with dryness. He did not feel fear. Blanca’s smile quirked up some more. Ash quelled the beating feelings in his chest.

“You gained weight. Around four pounds since last we saw each other. Have you been eating well?” He smirked. He looked more amused than anything else.

“You look older,” Ash scoffed. “I’m surprised your hair isn’t thinning.” He wondered if the old barbs till worked. According to the falter in his smile, it seemed that it still did. It took a good eye to know this, and it was there. It was easy to fall back into old habits.

"And you've gotten sloppy." Blanca gave a humorless laugh in lieu of an answer. "I taught you better than that.” He crossed his arms across his chest, fingers tapping on his arm.

He wasn’t sloppy. “Why are you here?” Ash grumbled. “This is the second time you did this. What are you after this time?” The first time wasn’t really a good memory either. Ash’s scar itched over the memory. A sniper aimed at you wasn’t really a good way to start a meeting. Ash notes that Blanca didn’t seem to be bring a bloody case with him.

Blanca’s gaze became clearer for a fraction of a second, his lips parted to give his answer. “I want to see the man who ruined my handiwork in less than half a year.” His eyes weren’t cold, but Ash felt dread spike in his chest anyway. An overwhelming sense of protectiveness which sought to find Eiji washed over him.

Blanca smiled, just a fraction wider. “Speaking of the devil.”

"Ash, have you--oh." This was the moment Eiji decided to arrive. He skidded into a halt. His gaze met Blanca’s, a hesitant look in his face. Ash looked between the two. His guts twisted uneasily inside, it dropped heavily like lead. His hand twitched, ready to move in between Eiji and Blanca in case of anything that may happen.

This was going to be one of the longest nights of his life.

Blanca’s smile stretched into a grin, a near feral one.

 


 

 

"Why did I let you two talk me into this?"

Eiji literally had no concept of stranger danger. Somehow the two got along way better than Ash had thought they would. Eiji fawned over the man with star struck eyes. It didn't stop the uneasy feeling deep inside Ash's gut. For the most part, he was ignored. 

“So you’re really his mentor?” Eiji was nearly shaking in his seat with the excitement he was brimming over. What he was getting all worked up for, Ash could never understand.

“Yes. He looked so different then. Not like the pretty boy he is now.” Blanca laughed, absolutely evident that he was enjoying every second of this.

“I’m right here you know.” Ash didn’t like being ignored.

“I doubt he can look that bad. I looked terrible when I was thirteen as well.” Eiji replied. Bless him really.

Ash glared at Blanca to shut up. Knowing him though, he didn't really cared what Ash thought.

“You should’ve heard him then. His voice cracked like a chipmunk. A bit hard to take him seriously.” Instead, Blanca shot Ash a rather entertained smile, infuriating in its smug nature. Very much infuriating. The message in Ash’s eyes threatened to gut him with the metal fork. The bastard remained unfazed.

Eiji laughed at the thought. Traitor.

Ash couldn’t stop the heat that crawled on his neck to his cheeks. Undeniably, leading a gang in the midst of puberty wasn’t the most ideal. It was a miracle that he was able to take so many people under his control with all the raging hormones his body had to deal with. And with a voice that cracked every so often, it really did leave Ash in question. 

"Perhaps you haven't tried waking him up in the morning." Blanca took a sip from his own drink, unfairly elegant considering they were currently eating in near empty diner this late at night. They stuck out of the picture like a sore thumb. After all, they were still wearing their suits. Imagine that.

Well, it wasn’t exactly a worry to flaunt their wealth a bit. Two of the most dangerous people on earth were seated across each other. Anybody who tried to do some funny business won’t be able to leave this place unscathed. Yes, however Eiji didn’t really know this and the fact that he was still so lax was really giving Ash more things to worry about.

Speaking of which…

“As, a matter of fact, I have,” Eiji snapped his fingers. The ones that weren’t holding fries. “He’s terrible when he just woke up.” And he looked absolutely cheerful when he said this. “He wouldn’t move at all! We almost missed our train because of it.”

“You just didn’t wake me up soon enough.” Ash snickered with an eye roll. He took an obnoxiously loud sip from his cola.

Indignant, Eiji tried to defend himself. “Well excuse me-?”

“You are excused.” Ash interrupted with a haughty smile, leveling him with a gaze that issued a challenge.

Eiji spluttered into a stop. “Well then, excuse you but it was already two hours before the train needed to leave.” He puffed up his chest and gave a little huff.

“Wake me up three hours earlier then.” Ash threw a smirk. Eiji stuck out his tongue.

Blanca looked between them, seemingly enjoying himself.

“Ash was a pretty emotional child growing up.” Blanca clapped his hands together. Ash frowned.

“What are you talking about you crusty old man?” Ash searched the vaults of his memories for any such incriminating moment.

“Did you know he cried one night because of a book he’d read?” Blanca was turning the action of ignoring him into a habit. Ash would’ve been absolutely miffed at this had he not remembered the memory which he spoke about. The flush on his cheeks came back with a vengeance.

“Fuck you old man. The ending was sad.” It might’ve come out as too defensive, but the hot feeling of embarrassment flushed all over his body, made twice as potent with Eiji giggling at this. Ash was starting to think Blanca appeared for the sole reason of embarrassing him in front of Eiji.

“Really? The cool and untouchable Ash Lynx? Crying?” The said man exclaimed with disbelief. Was this really so hard to believe? Maybe it was flattering that he did. Eiji’s face was flushed from laughter. Blanca joined him with his own low chuckles. And Ash…wasn’t exactly doing well. All this laughter was at the expense of Ash’s dignity. And so he scowled this entire time with a petulant downturn of his lips.

"I'm glad Ash found a friend. He's not the easiest person to be with." Blanca continued with a twinkle in his eyes, something fond flashed in them for a fraction of a second.

"He's not that bad," Eiji grinned into his burger. "Especially when you get to know him." He said this with fondness in his eyes, too much which it was hard to believe that it was meant for Ash. “He saved me multiple times after all.”

With that Ash snapped his mouth shut when he realized it parted in surprise. Which he really shouldn't be. Eiji seemed to have made this clear since the day they met. Really it had been more of Eiji's sudden and inexplicable interest in him that had kept them together until now. However he'd also be lying if he said he didn't take interest in the peculiar man either, so the fact was, it was both their fault really.

 “That’s good.” Blanca seemed to have noticed the action. If anything, it got him even more amused, perhaps a little bit pleased as well. Absolute Bastard. “Yes. Now, let me tell about that time Ash got himself drunk for the first time.”

Ash groaned. This was going to be a long night.

 


 

 

"He's not your savior," Blanca murmured as they rolled pass the city in his rental car. He nodded at Eiji through the rear view mirror, who was leaning on Ash's shoulder, already asleep. "Do not consider him as one." A stern voice, one that only made Ash scowl.

"I do not." He stressed, perhaps a bit too insistent to be called level-headed. Blanca leveled him a chastising gaze.

"Do you?" Steely eyes. It worked. Ash lowered his, reprimanded. "I'm not opposed to whatever thing you have going in between you,” He made a sharp turn, Ash nearly stumbled. He tightened his grip on Eiji, righting him. “But remember that you live in two different worlds."

"I already know that." Ash snapped.

"Then act like it." Blanca raised his voice again. Ash tried not to flinch. Blanca’s face soften, the crease in his brows returned to an even expression. “There will be consequences.” A forewarning said gently, well as gentle as it can be.

“I’ll deal with it,” Ash replied, determined. “I’ll deal with it all.” Perhaps it was too confident for him to say.

"Oh really?” Blanca was skeptical, always the realist among them. “I'll warn you ahead that his family isn't someone you want as your enemy. Especially the Matron."

Ash did a double take, paused and then demanded. "You've met her? Eiji's grandmother?"

In the rearview mirror, Blanca looked glum. "Once. She's not the easiest person you'll meet." There’s grim set on his jaws, a hard line on his lips, a crease on his brow.

Ash didn’t take this as a good sign, either way, he found himself saying. “She’s not the worse.”

“No,” Blanca agreed. “She’s not.” Ash was never car sick, but his gut didn’t feel too good. “And yet tell me this,” Blanca continued regardless of whatever it was Ash was feeling. “Why are you so eager to be with this man?”

Silence.

“He…” Ash was short of an explanation. No, that notion was wrong. It’s not that he didn’t have any reasoning behind his actions, rather he simply didn’t want to dwell upon the rationale between this. Quite embarrassing really that his motive was nothing but selfish, based on useless gains such as emotions. And yet, emotional gain isn’t exactly pointless. Perhaps in truth, this was both justifiable and impossible, existing in the between that has yet to become into another possibility due to the mere fact that Ash absolutely refused to examine it.

However there really was no escaping this, especially with the way Blanca’s scrutinizing eyes told Ash that he would not leave him be unless he gave him a proper answer. And so he gave him a piece of his thoughts.

“I…I like being with him.”

The truth escaped his lips, the words finally spoken meant acceptance, acknowledgement which Ash was reluctant to give. Yet there was a feeling inside him that was blooming, something that felt fluttery, something effervescent, almost giddy with this confession.

“I do,” He said as if he couldn’t believe it, slowly accepting this fact. “I feel warm when I’m with him. My days aren’t as bad when I’m with him. He’s different,” Ash exhaled a breath, his chest twisted itself into a knot. Once the confession started, he found that he couldn’t stop, couldn’t resist the words from coming out of his mouth like word vomit. “I don’t know what, but I know he’s different. And…and I want to be with him. For as long as he’ll have me.”

He doesn’t know what this revelation meant for him especially in the future. He’s starting to realize that there are many things he didn’t know and that it’s perfectly all right. He realized that learning things at your own pace isn’t actually that bad. Yet old habits die hard and still there’s an itch to know more than what he was ready.

“Then,” Blanca said. “Be prepared to hurt.”

Solemn. Grim. He said the things that Ash thirsted to know, and still he was unsatisfied with this answer. Blanca wasn’t a pessimist, he was a realist. Reality was just that terrible. Even so, Ash can’t help but argue over that. Blanca may be a pessimist after all.

“Love and all its accompanying vices would always lead to self-destruction,” His fingers drummed on the wheel, the traffic light red and it casted a bloody light on his face. “Of course they bring the best in you, however you are left vulnerable in its wake as it also brings the worst in you as well.”

“That’s ridiculous. I haven’t felt love in so long.” Ash flared up. However Blanca simply gave him a cryptic smile while pulling over in front of their hotel. He stopped, the engine died down and the constant thrumming of the machine fell into silence.

 “Why did you come?” Ash asked once more, this time calmer than when they were in the theater. This was more curiosity rather than an interrogation.

Blanca lit a cigarette from his pocket. He inhaled a lungful of smoke before blowing it out. “It’s almost her death.” He replied.

Oh.

Ash suddenly remembered.

“And,” He tapped the ashes from the blazing tips outside the window. “I came to check on you.”

This made Ash hesitate. “Why?”

“I felt like it.” He said. “A little bird told me about your actions.”

“Yut-Lung?” Ash spat out the name.

“Who else?” Blanca smothered a trite laugh. “He also told me about your little fight with some Chinese boss. I would be disappointed if you lost.”

“Is that bitch after me?” Ash growled.

“No. He assures you that it isn’t in his best interest to chase after you.”

“For now.”

Blanca took another drag of his cigarette before agreeing. “For now.”

Ash wanted to cough from all the smoke. His eyes watered from it and his nose was getting irritated by the smell. He could almost taste it. “Stop smoking. You’re going to die early because of that.” He nodded at the rolled piece if tobacco.

 “It’s the evil men who die last.” Blanca chuckled. “Do you know why?”

Ash humored him a guess. “Because they’re given time to atone?”

“No. It’s because the devil is afraid of competition." He put out the cigarette and threw it out the window.

It was Ash’s turn to laugh, that was until Eiji stirred in his sleep. Ash stopped laughing. Blanca’s gaze went to Eiji’s instead.

“Be careful.” Blanca nodded at him.

“When was I never careful?” Ash rolled his eyes with sarcasm. But Blanca narrowed his eyes at him.

“I’m serious. You’re getting into something you’ve never been into. This isn’t like the fights you’ve been in the past. The game is different and you’ve hardly acquainted yourself with the rules.” Blanca said. Ash didn’t know where all of this was coming from. “Promise me that no matter what happens, you will not lose yourself when things go awry.”

“What does that even mean?!” Ash tried not to sound like he was demanding, but all these cryptic messages were starting to frustrate him.

“I’m afraid it’s yours to find out.” Blanca told him in parting. “Now, get out. I have an early flight to catch.”

 


 

 

Blanca’s words kept haunting him even after hours long since they’ve parted.

Obscure messages never sat right with Ash and knowing Blanca, he would never say those things without reason. He felt like he was missing something important, something he didn’t quite catch while they were talking.

There were moments in the talk where it felt like they were having two different conversations all together.

"Ash?" Eiji's voice startled him, temporarily cutting him off from his thoughts.

"Yes?" He responded.

"Did I fall asleep? When did we get back? Where's Blanca?" He rubbed his eyes, hair sticking in all direction. Cute. He was still in his suit, rumpled and wrinkled all over.

Ash chuckled. "He has an early flight to catch."

"Is that so? Too bad I wanted to..see him...off..." He yawned, drowsy.

"It's okay. Go back to sleep. Here let me take off your jacket." Ash padded towards Eiji, who proved to be entirely useless when sleepy. Ash slipped the dark cloth off of his body and hung on a nearby chair. He also took off his bow tie, but decided to leave the cummerbund on seeing it as a hassle to take off with Eiji nearly rolling on the bed. He also took off his shoes from each foot, setting them down on the floor neatly. Ash clicked his tongue. If only he didn't care enough for the Japanese boy.

"Thanks Ash." Eiji gave him a sleepy grin. It made something in Ash's chest tighten.

"No problem." He managed to croak out just as Eiji curled back to sleep. Ash frowned. He slept on top of his blanket. He was going to catch a cold. Ash took his own blanket and tucked Eiji in it. The man sighed from the warmth. Seriously, he was like a child.

With Eiji asleep, Ash went back to his introspection.

The night grew deeper, the sky darker. The life outside was still lively and Eiji slept on the bed in peace. Ash could hear soft snoring. His mind was a jumble of thoughts like threads tied up together in a messy tangle. Sadly this was the common state of his mind since he was no older than seven, the tangle just got messier as he grew older. There were moments where they seem to look like they’ve been straightened out and yet they always end up back in a jumble.

It was times like these where he needed a distraction to stop his brain from making more of a mess if itself than it already was. He needed something, a stimulation so as to not descend to madness. His hand slipped into his pocket and found the cool metal of a pocket watch.

It was no longer working and the design was so ugly. He decided that this was most ideal.

In the middle of the night amidst confusion, Ash sat down, took the pocket watch and started to tinker.

Chapter Text

He was in bed once again.

Because the nightmares never really stopped.

He supposed he must have fallen asleep while tinkering through his thoughts. When he did was the question.

He's not your savior.

He existed between reality and dreams so often it was already starting to get tiresome. It at least it should be, but it was still frightening. Like seeing your entire life flash before your life, images slipping through your consciousness like mist and silk, never within your grasp.

Do not consider him as one.

He wasn’t sure what he was crying about this time. It could’ve been about something, nothing, everything in between. God he was so tired, and yet he felt like death. It was painful, like your entire body going through entropy at the same time, tearing it slowly apart. He was so tired.

There were bodies everywhere. Blood too. If you’ve never seen death before your eyes, you better pray it stays that way forever. If you’ve never seen a dead body, then you better hope you never will. They look a lot like dolls. It was hard to believe that they were alive just moments before. A candle snuffed out in the dark, the light in their eyes were dimmed into nothing. Cold, empty. This was a regular thing. Meaning he’s had the same dream over the years starting who knows when. At this point he can’t even remember anymore.

The order may change though, but the patterns were always the same. As was the unpleasantness of the altogether experience.

Many of them were real memories repurposed as dream figments intended to torment him. Flashes of different images came over behind his eyelids. Flashes of people dying, of beds and silken sheets worth so much more than what average people make a year, of hands roaming over sweaty bodies and the scent of sex and expensive perfumes. White powder spilling over the table, of pleading voices to end it all, gunshots and bullets and flames devouring everything in its way. The look of one bastard who ruined his life, shot on the head, and the feeling of satisfaction when he did the deed.

A blink of an eye and the corpse on the ground changed.

This, this was new.

Almost alike the unveiling of a cruel plot twist, the body was now that of a young man barely twenty, with black hair and a once bright smile now dimmed into emptiness. Familiar dark, dark eyes that were staring right at Ash with the hollowness of a doll. It was so wrong, for those eyes had always been full of life. Now they were dead.

The body was that of Eiji’s.

He was dead.

The stain of red that colored the pavement was all over Ash’s hands as well. A gun on his grasp, just a few seconds from being fired. His hands were dripping with blood and it made him filthy. Monster. Killer.

Ash wanted to hurl his guts out. This was a dream. He needed to remind himself. This was a dream. This was a nightmare. The scene was slipping from his grasp once more, the images blurring and mixing together. He wanted to wake up so desperately.

But he couldn’t.

Because he really couldn’t control his dreams even though he knew he was dreaming. And really what was the point in that? What was the point when he was still subjected to the same images of his friends dying in his arms, of his own brother haunting him, of the same snapshots of getting molested? Like drowning in deep waters, Ash was trying to breathe, trying to find air. His lungs were burning.

Just a little bit more and the surface was just within reach.

He was struggling to breathe.

Ash woke up with a sweat, he shot up from the bed and gasped for air.

He could still feel the stickiness on his hands, the blood that stained them. A phantom feeling on his skin, burning like a brand. He left the bed in a hurry, immediately running to the bathroom to puke. He hurled everything in his guts out, not that there was much to take out.

His mouth tasted like acid, his stomach burned. He rested his face on the cool tiled wall and slid down the bathroom floor. Pathetic. He fumbled to the sink to scrub at his hands, hoping the ghost of the feeling will disappear. He choked up a sob. His eyes stung with the tears that threatened to roll down from them. The running water from the faucet was cool, but his body felt like it was burning.

It was just a dream, but dear god it felt so real, too real. The image of Eiji dead and bleeding on the floor was…

No. He wasn’t going to think about it. He wasn’t going to.

He's not your savior.

He continued to scrub his hands until it hurt. He tried to even out his breathing, tried to take a lungful of air at a time. He was unraveling at the seams, he couldn’t lose it here. He continued scrubbing like it was all that mattered and he still couldn’t fucking breathe--

“Ash.”

The American flinched. Just the person he didn’t want to see him in this state. Ash stopped from scrubbing.

“Ash.” Eiji repeated himself, walking closer to his orbit, yet not close enough to suffocate him. That’s what made him so different. He never forced himself in, only coaxing Ash slowly out of his comfort zone. He turned off the faucet and waited.

So Ash turned around, hands red and raw. Tears in his eyes. The look on Eiji’s face was enough to crumble his carefully constructed walls. He cried.

“Oh Ash,” Eiji was hovering near him now. “Talk to me.” A tentative touch on the shoulder. When Ash didn’t immediately pulled away, Eiji used this as a sign to continue. Feather light touches to his back, running soothing circles all over them. “Please.”

Ash shook his head. He used the heel of his palms to wipe the wetness from his eyes.

“Ash, I only want to help. At least let me take you to the bedroom? It’s not comfortable here.”

He let Eiji guide him out of the bathroom to the white sheets of the bed. Eiji sat next to him, an arm wrapped around his shoulder, letting Ash lean on his chest. They spent the time in silence once more. Only the sound of their breathing was heard in the quiet. He couldn’t risk falling into another dream cycle anytime soon tonight. He was sweating, heart pounding into overdrive. It was still so hard to breathe. He needed to breathe.

“Ash. I need you to calm down. Come on. Inhale, then count backwards from ten. Exhale when I tell you. Can you do that for me?”

Ash tried to do what Eiji was telling him, else he’d never be able to talk. He stared at the golden glow of the lampshade’s light, the little flowers painted on them. He stared at the pattern on Eiji’s dress shirt which he had not changed out of. He stared at his hands. They were pinkish red from scrubbing. He stared at his lap, because he still couldn’t bear to look at Eiji when he was like this.

He nodded.

“Okay inhale.”

Ten. Nine. Eight

Exhale.

“I’m constantly getting dreams.” He managed to choke out. He was getting dizzy. His throat was tight.

Eiji glanced at Ash when he finally spoke. “I dream of my past too often than I wish I did.”

Eight. Seven. Six.—

 “I dream that you die.” Ash heard the sharp intake of breath from Eiji. Ash heard the soft rustling of the blanket while Eiji shifted on his seat. Ash heard the thrum of the heater in the room. Ash heard the heartbeat from Eiji’s chest, strong, soothing. “I dream that you died and it was my fault.”

He felt the softness of the sheets of the hotel bed. He could feel the silken cloth of Eiji’s shirt. He could feel Eiji’s soothing hands creating circles on his back, never stopping unless Ash asked him to do so. Breathing was easier now.

Five—

“I’m afraid it’ll happen. I’m afraid of many things. I’m afraid I might end up killing you. I’m afraid of myself.” He buried his face deeper into the crook of Eiji’s neck. He could smell the detergent of the drycleaners and his cologne mixed together in a strange crisp scent. He could smell something else as well, something entirely different, something entirely Eiji. Like musk and sweat. “I’m a monster. God, I’m so sorry you have to deal with this.”

“Oh Ash.” He sounded so sad, he shouldn’t be sad. “Don’t say that.”

“No,” Ash rasped out. He was still clutching at Eiji like a lifeline. “I should—we should stop this. We can’t—I’m going to end up killing you. I’m dangerous Eiji! I’ve been telling you since day one. Why won’t you listen?”

Four.

“Do you want to leave?” Eiji whispered through Ash’s mad ramblings. His voice was understanding, yet pained. “Because you can always, you know, leave. When you don’t want me anymore. When you’re already tired of being with me. I’m never forcing you.”

Three.

Eiji was smiling. Rather, he was trying his damn hardest to smile, as if trying to be comforting. If it was to Ash or to himself, the American didn’t know. His lips wobbled, eyes filled with unshed tears as well. Ash still didn’t get it, but he wanted to say something reassuring to him if only it meant he wouldn’t look so fucking sad. Hell, Ash would promise the moon for him—no Eiji was worth all the stars of the universe.

“Never, god Eiji I don’t want to leave. I never want to leave.” In a pleading voice, Ash told him.

“Then don’t worry.” Eiji insisted. He cupped Ash’s face with fierceness in his eyes, a blazing look which begged to be taken seriously met Ash. “Stop worrying about things.”

Two.

“But I’m dangero—“

“And I don’t care!” He declared. “I knew from day one didn’t I? Yet I’m still here. Isn’t that enough to prove my point?”

“What is it with you putting yourself in danger?”

“Because some things are just worth risking for.” Eiji very nearly yelled, his voice raised a pitch higher than usual, pleading for Ash to understand. He always was trying to let Ash understand. And Ash was so eager to learn. “Oh and Ash,” He begun again, softer now, with eyes straight at Ash’s jade ones. “You are worth the risk.”

One one one one one one one—

Ash’s mind stuttered to a halt.

Then it came crashing down again.

Just as how realizations often were.

“Why? He croaked out and he was crying again. Something electric filled the room, waiting for Eiji’s response.

“Because you simply are.” Eiji smiled. “Sometimes you don’t need an explanation. Sometimes things can be done without reason. Sometimes the things we do is beyond logic and its fine. That’s just how we are. So please,” He took Ash’s hands into his own. “Don’t push yourself away from me.”

Ash sobbed. He suddenly felt rather pathetic.

“You’re too good for someone like me.” He found himself saying, though it was not his intention to do so.

“No one is too good for anyone.” Eiji insisted. “Come on let’s go back to sleep.”

“I can’t,” Ash whispered. “I’m afraid to dream.”

“Then let’s talk. Lie down with me until you fall asleep.” Eiji coaxed Ash to his bed. They lay side by side, with just a little distance between them. Ash rested his palms on his stomach, staring up ahead on the ceiling. They didn’t speak for a while. For a moment, Ash thought Eiji fell asleep. Until, he spoke.

“You know, I wasn’t really in a good place when we met.” He was starting to tense up, Eiji continued to stare up ahead. Ash turned to Eiji’s face. He found the Japanese with his eyes closed, position nearly alike his own.

“What do you mean?” Ash rolled to his side to look at Eiji more. The light from the lamp gave him an angelic face with a solemn look. He wasn’t devastatingly pretty but something akin to intoxication made him beautiful under the golden light, yet still he looked sorrowful for some reason Ash desperately wanted to know, enough to make him forget about his problems.

"I couldn’t pole vault anymore because of my injury. Though my leg wasn’t broken anymore I still couldn’t compete. I got pretty depressed.” He laughed sadly, a bitter sound. It was sharp to Ash’s ears. “I know compared to you, my problems seem very little. I mean I’m pretty well off right? I might be the luckiest person in the world. I have enough money to not even work a single day. I didn’t even go through the hell you did. I’m pretty sheltered. I’m pathetic.”

Ash wanted to argue, to tell him that this was not true, to comfort him, to tell him lovely things. But Eiji continued before he could do any of this. “You just don’t know how you helped me Ash. I can’t—you just don’t understand.” His eyes fluttered open. They were distant, faraway, in a different moment in time. “I want to tell you, someday. Sometime. But I’m not good with saying what I really feel. So please, I’m asking you to be patient.”

And really, was there anything Ash can say about that? Was there anything anyone can say about that?

“When I’m with you, I feel like I can express what I truly feel.” He said in response. He paused, as if he found something wrong with the statement. He swiftly corrected it. “No, I can express what I truly feel. I’m starting to learn. With you.”

“Tell me everything then. I want to know it all.” Ash does. He wanted to take it all, everything Eiji could give, every damning, dirtiest detail he was willing to surrender, every minuscule, broken, ugly, beautiful, piece he could submit, Ash wanted it all.

Eiji sighed. His body was no longer tense. It was relaxed, softer. It was so warm and slow everything was lovelier under the darkness and the dim light. “Yes.” His breathy agreement was enough to keep Ash asunder. He wondered if under the current circumstances, Eiji’s touch could permanently break him this time if a single sigh could shatter him.

Ash wondered what to say. He wondered if he could even put into words what he’s feeling in this state.

The short answer was no. The long answer was Ash patting Eiji’s shoulder in comfort or perhaps even solidarity, voluntarily initiating contact for the first time as a response instead, Eiji looking surprised then smiling with that soft smile of his.

“Do you want to go camping sometime?”

Ash blinked sleepily, but the question was still in the air, ringing in his ears. The contrast of this tone was too stark in its difference from the previous conversation.

“What?”

Eiji shrugged beside him. “I don’t know? Camping. Do you want to go? I’ve always wanted to try camping. I just never had the chance to do so.”

Ash considered this. “And why is that?”

“The usual reasons.” He said as if Ash was supposed to understand. He didn’t. So he asked.

“Usual?”

“Yeah. Like ‘it’s too dangerous’ or ‘you have other responsibilities to fulfill’, maybe some ‘it won’t do well to be seen outside with those people’. Being in my family kinda makes those statements normal. I hate it.” Eiji grumbled with furrowed brows. “So yeah I included it in my bucket list. Wanna do it?”

What an innocent question. Eiji’s ability to make everything back to normal despite how strange the world could be was actually reassuring.

“Sure. Let’s do it.” Ash chuckled. “In fact, let’s do everything in your list.” It was a long list. There was so much more to do. The sparks of excitement coursed through his veins.

“Is that a promise Ash Lynx?” Eiji nudged his arm with his shoulder. He was testing him. The old banter between then was back.

“What if I say it is?” Ash quipped back. Eiji sighed, quite content.

“Then I’ll hold you to it.” He said with a yawn. It was nearly the break of dawn, the clock on the bedside table said four thirty in the morning.

“Go to sleep Eiji.” Ash laughed. He wasn’t really sleepy, which was the first. Eiji being sleepy in the morning and Ash wide awake was an uncommon case. It technically was his fault.

“Not till you go to sleep first.” Eiji insisted.

“That doesn’t look anywhere near this time.”

“Well it’s a good thing we didn’t book any tickets for tomorrow—er today.” Eiji curled to the side. His eyes were drooping already, lashes fluttering close against smooth skin.

“Seriously go to sleep.” Ash ruffled Eiji’s hair. “We can start planning your camping trip when you wake up, along with all the other things in your list.”

“Are you feeling better now though?” Eiji said through a yawn once more. He scrunched his nose in a little displeasure. Ash thought it was cute.

“Yes. You make me feel better.” Ash answered.

“That’s good.” Eiji gave him a dopey grin. “I don’t want you to feel bad.” There was something in Ash’s chest that tightened at the sight, something like a heartbeat stuttering from its designated rhythm, skipping a tempo and creating a new crescendo of beats. It felt akin to burning.

He didn’t understand the reaction.

“Go to sleep.” Ash whispered to him, faint against the sheets, loud enough for the ears to hear.

“Sleep with me.” Eiji, stubborn as ever despite only having one eye open due to the heaviness of his eyelids. Ash could win. Eiji was so close to falling asleep without him, but he decided to indulge him anyway.

“Okay.” He finally relented.

“Good.” Eiji’s voice was fading.

“Good.”

He was in bed once again.

The nightmares never really stopped.

But that’s okay.

After all, Eiji was beside him and that was enough.

 

Chapter Text

“Marshmallows, marshmallows, marshmallows!”

“Stop, I’m begging you. You’ve been singing the same thing since this morning!” Ash groaned too many times for him to count. (That’s a lie. It was now the fifth. He’d been secretly counting because of course he would.)

“Sorry. I’m just excited. I haven’t done this you know?” Eiji was practically vibrating. Ash found it endearing. “I’ve eaten smores before but they don’t feel authentic when you don’t roast the mallows on an actual campfire.”

“Yes yes, now stay put so we can actually get what we need.” Ash admonished. This didn’t deter Eiji, nor did it stave off any of his excitement. Thankfully, he stopped singing.

“You’re the best, do you know that?” He beamed at him, eyes sparkling even with the store’s shitty lighting. Again, Ash found this endearing. His chest tightened at the thought. In a good, strange, inexplicable way.

“Yes, so I’ve been told.” Ash rolled his eyes with fondness, his tone snarky and still Eiji didn’t even comment on it. He thought Eiji really must be looking forward to this. They made their way to the grocery store to buy the food they need for their camping. Eiji rented the needed equipment the first thing that morning. He also rented a pick up for them to drive to the woods. Maybe it wasn’t really a good idea to pitch a tent in a forest when it’s nearly winter.

Maybe they should get a portable heater just in case. Ash filed that thought away for later.

“There’s a sale on chocolates and candies today. Lucky!” Eiji hummed when he saw the flyers near the store’s walls. They proceeded to the automatic doors.

“Why would they have a sale on candi—fuck oh my god!” Ash nearly screeched.

There were pumpkins everywhere. Everywhere.

From the walls, to the ceilings, to the floor. The windows, the counters, the shelves, they were decorated with jack’o lanterns. May it be paper, plastic, or real carved out ones. They were everywhere.

Ash forgot one important detail for today.

It was Halloween.

Eiji, the bastard, clutched his stomach and started laughing.

 


 

 

Eiji started pitching their tent while Ash built the fire.

Eiji hummed a soft tune while squinting at the manual. “Do you know those training camps teams do every summer?” He asked. Ash didn’t. But he nodded anyway. The fire was coming along nicely. Its warmth washed them together with its orange glow.

“Yeah?”

“I never got to join them, and if you can’t tell, I am very very jealous.” Eiji huffed. He struggled with all the instructions and what not, until Ash took pity and built the tent by himself. “Sorry.”

Ash waved it off. “Was it your grandma who didn’t let you?”

“Yeah.” Eiji busied himself with dinner instead. He knelt by the fire and brought out a pot. “She’s the spoilsport in the family.” He wrinkled his nose. He quickly diverted the conversation. “Have you ever tried camping?”

“Once.” Ash replied. “I was with Griffin back then. He used to do most of these things too. He taught me how to build a tent and fire. I didn’t know I still got it.”

“He sounds great.” Eiji offered with a faint smile.

“He was.” Ash said with much wistfulness, staring at the nearly completed tent. Griffin was one of the greatest man he’d known. But then again he’d known too little good men. When he looked up, Eiji was staring at him. Ash quickly averted his eyes. He didn’t know why he did that. He didn’t know why he felt tingly when he saw Eiji’s gaze on him. He set his eyes back to Eiji’s.

“He’d loved to meet you, you know?” Ash murmured. Griffin would. He’d love anyone Ash introduced to him. He was the one who encouraged Ash to find new friends. He didn’t have many back then. He didn’t have much now still, but a handful of good ones are enough. Yes. He’d be happy. Ash was sure of it.

“Me too,” Eiji replied. “I’d love to meet him too.”

“You’d get along really well.” Ash chuckled. “He’s a dreamer, and a writer. He wrote me letters when he went to the army. Poems. I have them with me. It’s…it’s all I have left from him.” Ash shook it off. It didn’t do well to bring sadness in the present. The sun was starting to set. It was getting dark.

“I wish my sister was the same.” Eiji laughed, a bit awkwardly after a moment of silence. He rubbed his nape as a way to ease up his jitters.

“Aren’t you close?” Ash questioned. He was finished with the tent by then. All they need to do next was put in the sleeping bags.

“Not at all.” Eiji made a face. “We have different perspectives in life. Plus she’s no older than eleven. A bit of an age gap you see. Despite that, the high class life suits her I think. She blends in naturally, much better than me.” Eiji stops stirring whatever was on the pot. It smelled like soup if you asked Ash. “I’m trying of course, it’s just…hard. For now.”

He looked sad when he said these words, eyes a little downcast, almost…regretful. Ash frowned at this. Eiji laughed.

“What?” Ash was a bit affronted.

“The look on your face pretty much screamed that you don’t know what to say.” Eiji called him out. Cheeky bastard. He smirked.

“Shut up. It’s not like you’re any better.” Ash threw a handful of dried leaves at Eiji.

“Careful!” Eiji giggled while spluttering out the leaves caught in his mouth. “You’re gonna get some on the soup!” He stirred the pot once more.

“Is it ready yet?” Ash huffed as he settled near the fire where it was warmer. The weather was getting colder now that it was almost November. Eiji wanted to stay for two nights. Ash by all means was more than willing to let him do whatever he wanted. So they packed for more than three days’ worth of food.

“Almost.” Eiji stirred the pot one last time.

“I’m getting hungry.” Ash was actually craving for food right now and the smell of the soup cooking was not making it easier.

“That’s the first.” Eiji hummed. Ash raised a brow t this. He got up to get them metal cups and he poured them rations each. The Japanese passed one cup to Ash. “Careful, it’s hot.” He warned before Ash’s fingers reached the mug’s handle. It was hot, a great way to fight the creeping evening chill. Ash blew on it, waiting for it to cool off before sipping the warm broth.

“It’s good.” Ash commented. It was, truthfully. He could feel the creaminess of the soup, taste the flavors that danced on the tip of his tongue. It didn’t taste bland like all the previous food he had to eat. Funny, food hadn’t tasted good in years.

“It’s just canned soup.” Eiji snickered after drinking from his own mug. “I’ve made better back in Alaska.” He did make better dishes then, but Ash supposed he was sick back then, and so he wasn’t exactly able to appreciate the flavors. (He wasn’t really able to appreciate the taste even when he got better, but he’ll stick to that explanation anyway.)

“It’s good.” Ash repeated.

“I should cook more for you.” Eiji laughed. “I’ll prove to you I can do better. What’s your favorite food?”

“Avocado shrimp salad.” Ash handed Eiji the mug for seconds. Eiji was happy to give more.

“I’ll learn to cook it then. Someday.” Eiji nodded to himself, washed in new determination.

“I’ll look forward to it.” Ash smiled at his cup. They fell silent. Only the sound of rustling leaves and the cracking of the campfire as it burned was heard.

“This is nice.” Ash said.

“What is?”

“This, me and you. Talking.” Ash cleared his throat and clarified. “Me learning about you. I think it’s nice.”

The fire crackled before them. Eiji blinked at him, and then he said, “I agree.” He ducked, a serene, honest smile on his lips made softer by the orange light from the campfire. Ash wanted to capture that smile and pocket it for him to keep forever. “I think it is.”

 


 

 

Ash was having trouble sleeping that night.

For once, it wasn’t because of the nightmares. The sleeplessness was usually after the nightmares, not before. Maybe it was because he wasn’t used to sleeping out. No that’s ridiculous. He’s slept on worse conditions. It wasn’t the sleeping arrangement. It wasn’t the temperature, nor was it the location either. There was just something that made him restless that night, something that prevented him from sleeping.  Ash rolled to his side. His skin felt electric, the air around him volatile, charged, as if a single mistake could lead to something even more explosive and dangerous.

He stared at the looming darkness from ahead. He frowned at it as if it was to convey his annoyance to it, as if it could understand. The tent where they were sleeping wasn’t exactly small, but it still limited the space between them. The body next to him was warm. Eiji’s back faced him. He was sleeping on his side, turned away from Ash. Despite the darkness, he could make out the figure of his companion. They were awfully close. Too close. They were almost touching, almost pressed together. His dark hair was nearly tickling Ash’s face.

Ash reminded himself to breathe. He can’t even remember when he held his breath. Why was he suddenly feeling nervous? They’ve slept in the same bed before, why did this feel different? Maybe sleeping outdoors made him restless, maybe he was just paranoid as a person. He took a lungful of air to calm down, the large dosage of oxygen might’ve helped him out.

He could smell Eiji’s shampoo, a hint of lavender and lemon. Why can he still smell their shampoo on his hair? They didn’t even take a shower tonight. Ash sniffed harder. He buried his nose in the other’s nape, the sliver of skin there was smooth and soft. Actually he could also smell hints of his cologne, a sharp fragrance that he couldn’t pinpoint, together with traces of their soap too. Ash closed his eyes and sniffed again. Yep that was their soap, muddled with Eiji’s natural odor and his sweat.

Now Ash could feel his pulse in his throat. His mouth suddenly dry. Ash actually liked this smell. Yeah. The scent was familiar, something he got a whiff at random moments. It was lovely and fragrant and intoxicating—

“Ash?”

He snapped his eyes open, frozen in place.

He could feel heat creeping up on his face. Sniffing your friend in bed while he slept wasn’t creepy right? A beat passed, and then another.

“Yes?” He said slowly. He was wrong. It was creepy. Oh my god why did he do that? Stupid! He could hear the faint rustling of blankets, the light sensation of a body moving. He feared for the worst.

“Can’t sleep?” Eiji’s voice was soft against the darkness. He didn’t face Ash, his back still turned to him.

“You too?” Ash somehow managed to find his voice. Somehow.

“Yeah.”

So he wasn’t asleep the entire time. Meaning he felt Ash sniffing him like a creep. Oh my god. If the ground could just swallow him up, it would be very very helpful at the moment. He tried his best not to groan.

“Bad dreams?” Eiji asked him in a whisper. By some miracle, he didn’t call out Ash. Or he was just oblivious to Ash’s near breakdown. He supposed the darkness made a pretty good cover.

“Not really, no.” Ash whispered back. They really didn’t need to whisper. They were the only ones there. Yet there was something utterly charming in the action, almost like some spell would be broken if they say anything louder. “Why are you awake? Don’t you usually fall asleep early?”

There were more rustling of sheets.  Ash imagined Eiji shrugging beside him. “I don’t know. I just couldn’t.”

“Am I too close?” Come to think of it, they may have slept together on the same bed occasionally but they always had that gap in between that separated them. There was this unconscious notion of giving each other space, of scooting to the side when they got too close. With exemptions to the first time they actually slept side by side. (He wasn’t really in a good place that time so Ash figures that was justified.) The other times they touch while asleep was if they were travelling, like on trains and cars. But they weren’t travelling now were they? Ash frowned. Maybe Eiji wasn’t really comfortable with sleeping next to him.

“I can just always sleep outsi—“

“No.” Eiji cut in too quickly, extinguishing that train of thought before he could even verbalize it. “No, that’s not it. You don’t need to leave. I’m just suddenly feeling restless.”

Somehow, Ash can’t help but think he may be starting to overthink a lot right now.

“Okay.” He sighed. Both of them were on edge. The tension was palpable in the air, so strong it was enough to drown Ash in thoughts. He could hear every exhale that escapes Eiji’s lips, he could feel every shift of his body, and he could still smell their goddamn shampoo on him. It wasn’t helping Ash at all.

“Let’s play twenty questions.” Eiji rolled to face Ash. He could see faint traces of shimmering dark eyes staring up at him. He was probably sick of the silence as well and so decided to do something about it himself. Ash was even surprised that he knew this game.

“Now?” Ash scooted a bit to see Eiji’s face better.

“Yeah.” He said breathily. He could smell the mint of their toothpaste on his breath as well.

In some way, this wasn’t really any better. “Alright then. Go first.” There was an almost dreamy voice that came along with his words, something he didn’t know where it came from. Highly flammable, he felt highly flammable in the moment.

“Uhh…What’s your favorite movie?” Eiji sounded unsure. This was yet another impulsive decision on his part. Then again they didn’t really have much choice seeing as they couldn’t sleep.

“That’s not how you play twenty questions.” Ash chuckled.

“Really? I’ve never played so screw rules. Let’s just ask each other whatever we want to ask. I’m tired of rules. So go ahead, favorite movie.”

“Don’t laugh.” He leveled Eiji a serious look. It might’ve been pointless since they could hardly see each other in the dark.

Eiji snickered. “I won’t. Promise.”

Ash still looked doubtful, but he admitted it anyway. “Casablanca.”

“Really?” Eiji looked surprised, he sounded skeptical. Ash rolled his eyes. Shorter used to call him a sap for it. Not that he ever openly admitted to watching the damn movie. It was a good movie, much better than the crap nowadays.

“You?” He nodded at the man.

Eiji whined. “There’s too many! I can’t pick!”

There were crickets outside. Eiji’s voice drowned them all out.

“Take the first that comes in your mind.”

“Uhhh….Hachiko? I mean Hollywood changed a lot about it but I like it anyway.”

That was about the dog wasn’t it? Ash had heard of it. But he never really had the time to watch it. “I haven’t watched that.”

 “We should have a movie marathon sometime.” Eiji sighed. “Alright your turn.”

 “Wasn’t it my turn just a while ago?” Ash raised a brow.

“Technically you didn’t ask an original question.”

“Okay fine.” Ash tapped his fingers against the blankets, thinking of a thing to say. He furrowed his brows in thought. “Uhh…what do you ask in these games?”

“Whatever you want to know about me I guess?”Eiji said.

“Uhh…favorite color?” This sounded stupid. Ash was doing it anyway. They talked of everything and nothing at all.

“Easy! It’s pink.” Eiji perked up.

“That makes sense.” Eiji’s wardrobe pretty much explains it. “Mine’s…brown?” He didn’t really have a favorite color so he blurted out the first thing in his mind which apparently was the color of Eiji’s eyes and the underlying subconscious thought that they looked pretty nice when they sparkled.

Damn. Where did that come from?

Ash mentally shook that thought away just as Eiji asked his next question. “Interesting. Favorite song?”

As Time Goes By. Frank Sinatra.” Ash answered without a second beat.

“You really love old things. Mine’s Love of My Life from Queen.” Ah yes. Queen. They were making a movie about them weren’t they? Maybe Eiji would want to watch it.

“Why am I not surprised? Okay favorite food?”

“Natto.”

“What’s that?”

“Fermented soy beans. It’s good. I’ll let you taste it someday. I think you’ll like it.” Eiji was really enthusiastic with this.

“I’ll hold you to it then.” It probably does taste good if Eiji said it so. There were nocturnal birds outside as well, chirping in their waking. The sounds were making Ash curious.

“Hobby?”

“Tch. Obviously reading. I’m guessing yours is pole vaulting?” Ash wondered if Eiji was in favor of going out for a breath of fresh air. It was getting a bit stuffy inside. Plus, his pulse was inexplicably fast since a while ago—

“No, actually it’s befriending pretty blond boys so that I can cook their insides and eat them.” He said in a deadpan tone while his voice fell in a lower octave.

—and it still hasn’t calmed down till now and—“What?” Ash’s thoughts stuttered into a halt. His pulse beat faster than it already was. “….Did you just call me pretty?”

He could feel the awkward silence between them. A very awkward silence. Then Eiji snorted.

That’s the first thing you decided to comment on?” He giggled. “I mean I was just messing with you, but now I can’t help but feel concerned.” He continued to laugh hard, clutching at Ash’s shirt while burying his face in it. His shoulders continued to shake.

Ash’s face heated up as Eiji’s words sunk in. His priorities was out of place. Being called pretty wasn’t supposed to be a big deal for Ash. He knew he was too pretty for his own good, this face had been what damned him in the first place and it would have made him sick, but now his stomach felt like it was….fluttering? Shit that soup must’ve had something in it.

“Shuddup.” Ash mumbled weakly.

“No I won’t.” Eiji sighed into his chest. His breath tickled Ash, making him shiver.

“Bastard.” Ash grumbled.

“Your bastard.”

Ash conceded with a huff. “Yeah yeah my bastard whatever. Tea or coffee?”

“Definitely coffee. I’m tired of drinking leaf water.”

“I thought Asians liked tea. Shorter’s obsessed with the thing.”

“Again, racist.”

“Counterpoint, you thought all Americans liked burgers.”

“Fair enough. Favorite flower?”

Ash snickered. “What if I don’t have a favorite flower?”

Eiji looked up at him, at least Ash felt like he looked up at him. “Then you’ve lived a very sad life.”

Ash rolled his eyes. “Okay fine, I think sunflowers are very neat. They follow the sun due to special motor cells at the bases of the flower buds which shrink or enlarge as they absorb water, which moves their faces toward the sun. This is called heliotropism.”

Sugoi. You really are smart.” Eiji praised. Ash smirked.

“You’re just so easy to please. What is your favorite flower?”

Tsubaki.” Eiji replied. “The white one. It’s camellia in English I think. It is very beautiful. It’s funny but I’ve grown attached to them.”

“What’s sunflower in Japanese?”

Himawari.

“Himawari.” Ash repeated.

“Japan is particular in flowers because of Ikebana. It’s uhh..it’s flower arrangement. I think our flower language is a bit different. Himawari would mean radiance, respect and passionate love. Tsubaki would mean waiting in hanakotoba. That’s flower language in Japanese.”

Ash hummed at this. “A book I’ve read before has white camellias as a symbolism. To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a pretty old book. The camellias there were to represent the enduring humanity of the vilest creature.” Ash laughed. “There was this woman who was kinda fucked up in her own way and—never mind I won’t put on further detail on it. I’ll end up talking about it the whole night. The point is, those flowers symbolized courage, and patience, and humanity. I think it’s kind of fitting for you to like them.”

“You seem the type to like sunflowers too.” Eiji commented.

“And why do you think that?” Ash asked.

“I don’t know. I kind of just remember Van Gough’s sunflowers when I see you.” Eiji rolled to his back. “Well Van Gough liked yellow. He thought it was such a happy color. Rumor had it that he consumed yellow paint to be happy.”

Ash frowned. “That’s pretty toxic.”

“Well they’re just rumors,” Eiji cut in. “Anyway, the sunflowers were also one of the works he was proudest of. And-…and Van Gough was such a lonely person and—I’m getting off tangent I swear I’m not making sense.” He gave a short laugh. “Bottom line is when I see you, I remember the sunflowers that tried to capture a lonely man’s happiness. I think it’s nice.”

“That was pretty deep.” Ash pointed out.

“It is.” Eiji chuckled.

“Are you sure it’s not just because of my yellow hair and green eyes which coincidentally is the color of a sunflower?” Ash squinted his eyes at Eiji, both to look suspicious and to see him under the darkness.

“Well yeah that factors in too I guess but it sounds very unpoetic.” Ash could hear the pout in his words.

“Mhm. What can we do? The world’s plan doesn’t always follow yours.” 

"True. I didn't plan to meet you," Eiji once again turned to his side, back facing Ash.  "but I’m glad to have you despite it though.” He yawned and then said something in Japanese. “Watashi no himawari.

“Oi what does that does that mean?” Ash grumbled from his side.

“It means I’m sleepy. So go to sleep.” Eiji replied with a laugh.

“I get this feeling that you’re lying.” Ash scooted closer to Eiji, shaking him awake. “Tell me what it meant.” He wrapped his arms around Eiji, leaning his entire weight on him. And he was pretty heavy. “I’m not leaving until you tell me.”

“Jokes on you Ash, I really don’t mind.” Eiji said without even turning to him. “Oyasuminasai.”

“Eiji!”

Chapter Text

It was already mid-December, and a Friday when they reached Hungary and the city was blanketed with the whiteness of winter. Eiji had been taking a lot of pictures when he wasn’t busy shivering. The man was just so weak to the elements. Currently, the snow was pretty heavy outside and they were forced to stay indoors. Fortunately (unfortunate for Eiji), they were near a library by the time the snowstorm hit. It was rare to have snowfall this heavy at this time of year.

“I’m not going out ever again.” Eiji buried himself in his jacket. He even stole Ash’s and he still wasn’t happy. Ash didn’t mind. He didn’t really mind the cold anymore, but he wanted to tease Eiji about it regardless.

“You’re being dramatic.” Ash snickered while handing him a cup of cheap and shitty coffee from the library’s coffee maker. They were generous enough to sell them to the bystanders who were seeking shelter from the fickle weather.  Eiji stuck his tongue out. Of course he would.

“Come to think of it, I think a friend of mine is in Europe.” Eiji perked up when Ash handed him a cup of the brew. He accepted it readily and drank without a second beat only to scald his tongue on the hot beverage.

Ash laughed. “Careful. It’s hot.”

Eiji was not amused.

“Is this friend the one who dared you to read a book? Which by the way, you haven’t read at all.” Ash blew on his own cup before drinking it all in a single swig.

“Hey! I’ve been reading it! My progress is just slow.” Eiji spluttered. He savored the warmth of the coffee in his fingers and hands. “And no, he’s not. That was an acquaintance. I’m talking about a family friend. He’s into photography too. He’s the one who got me into it.” He took a tentative sip. He found that it was on his preferred temperature and so he gulped it all down.

“Really?” Ash crushed the cup and threw it in the bin.

“Yeah.” Eiji followed suit. They headed towards the different sections of the library. Naturally, Ash would gravitate towards the classics section. Eiji trailed beside him. The library was very much like how the rest of Europe looked like. Old, prudish, just a little bit too elegant. Like museum displays that had an unspoken do not touch  sigh all over the place. Still, there's no better scent in the world save of that from the crisp dry pages of a book.

Except perhaps a hint of lavender and lemon mixed with something else entirely.

Ash brushed that thought away furiously from his mind.

“I haven’t been in a library in so long.” He mused instead while he let his fingers skim the old spines of the books lined up on the shelves. It sparked a different kind of excitement in him, a childish thrill that resonated deep in his bones. He relished the feeling, even the feeling of dust stuck on his fingers. The books needed dusting. He squinted. “The librarian did a shitty job arranging the books.”

He pulled one off the shelf with a half mind. He looked at it once and immediately returned it. By no means was he reading Romeo and Juliet again. He’s read it and he’s not going through that again. He searched for other titles. “I don’t get why you’d dislike books.”

“I don’t get why you’d like books.” Eiji wrung his hands together with nothing better to do with them. He eyed the books with a slight look of antipathy. Ash frowned at this and skimmed through the titles embedded on the spines.

“Here we go. Listen.” He grinned at the worn back cover of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and read in a clear voice. “He could never have imagined such brutality, such frenzy. In terror he sat up in bed, almost swooning with agony. But the fighting, wailing and cursing grew louder and louder. And then to his intense amazement he caught the voice of his landlady. She was howling, shrieking and wailing, rapidly, hurriedly, incoherently, so that he could not make out what she was talking about; she was beseeching, no doubt, not to be beaten, for she was being mercilessly beaten on the stairs. The voice of her assailant was so horrible from spite and rage that it was almost a croak; but he, too, was saying something, and just as quickly and indistinctly, hurrying and spluttering.

All at once Raskolnikov trembled; he recognised the voice—it was the voice of Ilya Petrovitch. Ilya Petrovitch here and beating the landlady! He is kicking her, banging her head against the steps—that’s clear, that can be told from the sounds, from the cries and the thuds. How is it, is the world topsy-turvy? He could hear people running in crowds from all the storeys and all the staircases; he heard voices, exclamations, knocking, doors banging.

“But why, why, and how could it be?” he repeated, thinking seriously that he had gone mad. But no, he heard too distinctly! And they would come to him then next, “for no doubt... it’s all about that... about yesterday.... Good God!” He would have fastened his door with the latch, but he could not lift his hand... besides, it would be useless. Terror gripped his heart like ice, tortured him and numbed him.... But at last all this uproar, after continuing about ten minutes, began gradually to subside. The landlady was moaning and groaning; Ilya Petrovitch was still uttering threats and curses.... But at last he, too, seemed to be silent, and now he could not be heard.

“Can he have gone away? Good Lord!” Yes, and now the landlady is going too, still weeping and moaning... and then her door slammed.... Now the crowd was going from the stairs to their rooms, exclaiming, disputing, calling to one another, raising their voices to a shout, dropping them to a whisper. There must have been numbers of them—almost all the inmates of the block. “But, good God, how could it be! And why, why had he come here!”

Raskolnikov sank worn out on the sofa, but could not close his eyes. He lay for half an hour in such anguish, such an intolerable sensation of infinite terror as he had never experienced before.” Ash stopped reading to see Eiji with a slightly appalled look on his face, just a bit scandalized.

“What a dreadful book.” Eiji’s face scrunched at the excerpt read by Ash.

“It’s meant to be dreadful. Russian literature is just like that.” Crime and Punishment was neither about these two things, ironically enough. It was mostly about the struggle of guilt after the crime, the fear of punishment. It is the agony of the in between, the misery of the journey from the first point to the other. This was an examination of human morality at its finest as it goes through the stages towards the conclusion, the grotesque twisting of a conscience as it eats you inside out alive, the suffering which outweighs the punishment.

In short it was meant to be dreadful.

Ash took another. “Cursed, cursed creator! Why did I live? Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed? I know not; despair had not yet taken possession of me; my feelings were those of rage and revenge.  I  could  with  pleasure  have  destroyed  the  cottage and its inhabitants and have glutted myself with their shrieks and misery.

‘When  night  came  I  quitted  my  retreat  and  wandered in  the  wood;  and  now,  no  longer  restrained  by  the  fear  of discovery,  I  gave  vent  to  my  anguish  in  fearful  howlings. I  was  like  a  wild  beast  that  had  broken  the  toils,  destroying  the  objects  that  obstructed  me  and  ranging  through the  wood  with  a  stag like  swiftness.  Oh!  What a  miserable night  I  passed!  The  cold  stars  shone  in  mockery,  and  the bare  trees  waved  their  branches  above  me;  now  and  then the  sweet  voice  of  a  bird  burst  forth  amidst  the  universal stillness. All, save I, were at rest or in enjoyment; I, like the arch-fiend,  bore  a  hell  within  me,  and  finding  myself  un-sympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin.

‘But  this  was  a  luxury  of  sensation  that  could  not  endure; I became fatigued with excess of bodily exertion and sank  on  the  damp  grass  in  the  sick  impotence  of  despair. There was none among the myriads of men that existed who would pity or assist me; and should I feel kindness towards my enemies? No; from that moment I declared everlasting war against the species, and more than all, against him who had formed me and sent me forth to this insupportable misery…

He glanced up at Eiji who was staring at him with awe. “How’s that?” Ash asked with a hint of smugness in his voice.

“Books sound better when you read it.” Eiji piped up.

Ash wrinkled his nose and mimicked him in a mocking way, just with a hint of a tease. Books sound better when you read it. Eiji rolled his eyes. Ash quirked up his lip, amused. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein was watered down into a cheap Halloween costume throughout the years, this Ash would not stand for. (More reasons to dislike Halloween.) Even more so that people always forget that Frankenstein was, in fact the maker and not the monster. But it was a lovely tale of existential crisis, the indefinite question of creation, the unanswerable query of purpose. It talked of loneliness, it talked of isolation, it talked of humanity and monstrosity.

He returned the book to its proper shelf and pulled out another one. He flipped through the pages till he found one that fitted his fancy. “Here we go.” He cleared his throat and began to read aloud once more, just loud enough for Eiji to hear, but not too loud to have a librarian call them out. “Mrs. Dubose was a morphine addict,” said Atticus. “She took it as a pain-killer for years. The doctor put her on it. She’d have spent the rest of her life on it and died without so much agony, but she was too contrary—”

“Sir?” said Jem.

Atticus said, “Just before your escapade she called me to make her will. Dr. Reynolds told her she had only a few months left. Her business affairs were in perfect order but she said, ‘There’s still one thing out of order.’”

“What was that?” Jem was perplexed. “She said she was going to leave this world beholden to nothing and nobody. Jem, when you’re sick as she was, it’s all right to take anything to make it easier, but it wasn’t all right for her. She said she meant to break herself of it before she died, and that’s what she did.”

 Jem said, “You mean that’s what her fits were?”

“Yes, that’s what they were. Most of the time you were reading to her I doubt if she heard a word you said. Her whole mind and body were concentrated on that alarm clock. If you hadn’t fallen into her hands, I’d have made you go read to her anyway. It may have been some distraction. There was another reason—”

 “Did she die free?” asked Jem.

“As the mountain air,” said Atticus. “She was conscious to the last, almost. Conscious,” he smiled, “and cantankerous. She still disapproved heartily of my doings, and said I’d probably spend the rest of my life bailing you out of jail. She had Jessie fix you this box—” Atticus reached down and picked up the candy box. He handed it to Jem. Jem opened the box. Inside, surrounded by wads of damp cotton, was a white, waxy, perfect camellia. It was a Snow-on-the-Mountain.

Jem’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Old hell-devil, old hell-devil!” he screamed, flinging it down. “Why can’t she leave me alone?”

In a flash Atticus was up and standing over him. Jem buried his face in Atticus’s shirt front. “Sh-h,” he said. “I think that was her way of telling you—everything’s all right now, Jem, everything’s all right. You know, she was a great lady.”

“A lady?” Jem raised his head. His face was scarlet. “After all those things she said about you, a lady?”

“She was. She had her own views about things, a lot different from mine, maybe... son, I told you that if you hadn’t lost your head I’d have made you go read to her. I wanted you to see something about her—I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.” Jem picked up the candy box and threw it in the fire. He picked up the camellia, and when I went off to bed I saw him fingering the wide petals….

Ash closed the book shut. He shot a tentative glance at Eiji who looked absolutely confused. An adorable furrow was between his brows which Ash wanted to smoothen so badly, and he blinked a couple of times while processing whatever it was that Ash read to him. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, another book which is the source of despair among students, is a little hard to understand.

The camellia’s symbol was either interpreted as a symbol of patience and understanding. Some would say it was courage. Some would argue it was Mrs. Dubose’s single thread to humanity despite her vileness. Honestly literature can be confusing sometimes. It’s what makes it interesting though. It’s what made Ash like them better than newer books. Not to say new books were terrible. He just have a preference.

“It sounded like a sad book.” Eiji finally said after a bit of contemplation.

 “It depends on your interpretation I suppose.” He shrugged. Ash returned it again, and again he took another in place. “Here this is thin. You can read it in a single sitting.” He inspected the pages of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince.

“I like the pictures.” Eiji commented at the rather childish drawings.

“It’s meant to look childish,” Ash explained. “It’s to prove its point.” He continued.

“…and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others.

Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me.

The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold.

Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat . . ."

Ash let the word roll gracefully from his lips. He continued.

“….One only understands the things that one tames," said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things already made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me . . ."

"What must I do, to tame you?" asked the little prince.

"You must be very patient," replied the fox. "First you will sit down at a little distance from me--like that--in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day . . ."

The next day the little prince came back.

"It would have been better to come back at the same hour," said the fox. "If, for example, you come at four o'clock in the afternoon, then at three o'clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o'clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you . . . One must observe the proper rites . . ."

"What is a rite?" asked the little prince.

"Those also are actions too often neglected," said the fox. "They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours.…..

Ash paused in between to see Eiji listening intently. Ash smiled and continued to read.

…."You are not at all like my rose," he said. "As yet you are nothing. No one has tamed you, and you have tamed no one. You are like my fox when I first knew him. He was only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world."

And the roses were very much embarrassed.

"You are beautiful, but you are empty," he went on. "One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you--the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or ever sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.”

Ash stopped reading and he closed the book. A somber expression crossed his face, one that was walking thinly on the line between awe and unsettledness. Realizations come in different ways after all. Some can culminate slowly like a star slowly dying out into black hole. Some can be sudden like a burst of a supernova. Ash wondered which one this was.

“Are you okay?” Eiji queried eventually after the rather lengthy silence between them.

“Yes…yes I’m fine.” Ash cleared his throat. He returned the book from where he got it. Perhaps, Ash thought, he’d been a little bit of a fox as well. He turned to Eiji instead with a slightly pressed smile. “So? Still hate books?”

“I’ll have to say sorry, but yes. I still don’t exactly like them.” This was natural. One does not take a liking on one thing overnight, but Eiji was grinning at him. “Though I’m still open to convincing, and I think it’ll still take a long long time.”

Ash’s thin smile turned into a smirked. “Well I’ll just have to pester you for just as long then.” Ash selected a book and they proceeded to the tables.

“We have a library back at my old house. I think you’d like it there. It hasn’t been used in a while.” Eiji began as he sat across Ash. “My father’s the only one in the family who liked to read.”

“He’s not using it anymore?”

“Oh. He’s…uhh…not really doing well.” Eiji trailed away with every word. Ash raised both brows for clarification. Eiji cleared his throat. “He’s…ah in the hospital right now.”

Ash frowned with concern. “Why?”

“His kidney’s a mess.” Eiji gave a wobbly smile. “That’s why—“

“Oi!” A voice called from across the room. A lot of heads turned towards the voice but the person didn’t seem to mind the attention, in fact they look like they were used to this, relish this even. The said person turned out to be a little girl with this fierceness that could only come from the pure chaotic energy of childhood. A bratty, almost snobbish look written all over her face.

Eiji yelped from his seat and fell off of it. Ash was just about to ask him what the problem was if it weren’t for the sudden presence of the girl in front of them. She said something in a different language, something that sounded suspiciously like Japanese.

Eiji’s eyes were impossibly wide, skin pale and lips parted. “Ki-kimiko?”

The little girl, named Kimiko apparently scowled at Eiji even more. Her arms crossed on her chest and she started talking in rapid fire Japanese. Apparently Eiji knew her. Ash glanced between the two faces, the conversation too fast for him to catch up. Even if it was slow, Ash didn’t understand a lick of Japanese to follow.

Eiji answered the girl with this sheepish, almost exasperated and certainly defeated look. The girl looked at him with a pause, then turned back to Eiji with what Ash thought was a rather demanding question. Eiji sighed, and finally said something Ash could understand.

“You can speak English, you brat.” Eiji scoffed while the little girl looked unimpressed. Eiji vaguely gestured at his direction, “This is Ash. He’s an American and my friend,” he turned to Ash once more and then he said, “Ash, meet Kimiko. This is my little sister.”

Suddenly the world could’ve stopped spinning and Ash wouldn’t have noticed.

Little sister.

Eiji’s little sister.

The girl scowled at Ash. Her eyes were dark, unnervingly alike that of Eiji’s. However they were different too, in a way that they looked like eyes that were willing to cut you if necessary. A frightening feat to be in possession of a child.

Ash felt his lips curl into a smirk.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“It was Kimiko? Wasn’t it?” He schooled his face into a more friendly and approachable look. He offered her a hand, testing the waters. “I am Ash Lynx. It’s a pleasure to meet-“

“Stop. I know you think I am a brat. Niceties will not make me like you.” She snapped at him without hesitation. Her English was halting and heavily accented, unlike the clearer way his brother spoke. Sharp, and cutting. Still, it was better than average so that was something.

“Kimiko!” Eiji admonished, though it doesn’t seem to faze the kid. She was a fighter then. A little rebellious girl in pigtails who probably had more balls than some of Ash’s old gang members. (No one in his gang would even dare piss him off, but Eiji’s sister didn’t need to know that.)

Ash dropped his hand back to his side, smile turning into a smirk.

“Well, aren’t you self-aware?” His smirk turned into a wide shark-like grin. He knew people like her lot. You have to intimidate them before they do, and so he made sure to bend down lowly just to show the vast difference of their height. She was only a little bit over Eiji’s shoulder, so compared to Ash, she was definitely smaller.

The little girl turned to him with dark observing eyes. They were similar to Eiji’s and yet so different. She was sizing him up unabashedly, her gaze scanning his entire body from head to toe. There was absolutely predatory with the way she glared at him, the difference in height didn’t faze her either. She glanced between him and Eiji, squinting, searching for something in their faces.

She turned back to Eiji and said something to him in Japanese. Whatever it was, Eiji choked and turned beet red in an instant, replying in rapid Japanese. She rolled her eyes and ignored him then turned to Ash with a biting remark. “Better be self-aware than not to know.” She said this with a pointed look, a look that challenged him.

“Kimiko, what are you even doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be in Japan?” Eiji cut in before Ash could give her a reply. The girl replied in Japanese just because she can, a smug twinkle was present in her eyes as she stared at Ash’s own. Eiji’s frown grew deeper at this. Oh what a precocious brat that little girl was, very headstrong just as his brother mentioned.

Ash decided that he was starting to like her.

“You can speak English you know. In fact, it’s more polite to do so.” Eiji gritted his teeth, clearly exasperated with this whole ideal, maybe even irritated. He turned to Ash and bowed. “I apologize for my sister’s behavior.”

“Stop saying sorry. Have nothing to be sorry about.” Kimiko retorted. “Mostly not to this,” She gave another sweeping gaze at Ash from head to toe. “…this man.” She settled on.

“No worries. Eiji here has told me a lot about you.” Ash replied, more amused than anything. She was the spite of a kitten condensed into the body of a little eleven year old girl.

The little girl gave a baleful leer. “I hope I met what you expected.” Her words dripped with sarcasm.

Ash matched her. “Oh don’t worry, you have gone beyond all of them.”

Kimiko fumed while Ash gave her an innocent smile. Eiji just sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Kimiko stop being a brat. Ash don’t start a fight with my sister.”

“Oh, I’m not picking a fight darling. We’re getting along very well aren’t we?” Ash was sardonic with this remark, but easily shut up when Eiji shot him a glare, an infuriated and annoyed glare that promised ‘I will cut you later if you say one more word’ which frankly was a bit disconcerting when you consider that Eiji didn’t look the type capable of hurting anyone.

Maybe it was also worth mentioning that Ash was in fact, a former gang boss, and that he’s not easily daunted by threats. Another thing to point out was the possibility that he may have become soft over the months in Eiji’s presence. (The last thing was that in an unconscious, slightly distracted moment, Ash thought Eiji looked slightly attractive with this look. But this was a matter to be pondered about later.)

He didn’t say anything after that, but Ash didn’t give any promise either and Kimiko simply sniffed haughtily with her arms crossed against her chest. Again, Eiji sighed like the exasperated old man that he was deep down. For just a second, Ash felt a bit sorry for him. He supposed all this was a bit sudden. Then Ash wondered how he was taking this too well. In fact, it was he who should be stressed at this meeting, not the other way around.

Ash was aware that right now, he should be a good friend and try to get along with his friend’s family, in this case, Eiji’s bratty little sister. But you see, her entire existence was picking a fight with Ash, and Ash was not one to pass a fight, or go down without a struggle if he could help it, especially when it was this entertaining. So here he was giving a look that invited trouble to a kid who was just as hungry for one.

Was it being childish? Maybe it was. But Ash had long made peace with that fact long ago when he met Eiji way back.

“Okay. Okay let’s settle this again. How did you get here?” Eiji asked Kimiko, speaking in English for Ash’s benefit.

“Ran away from Ibe-san.” Kimiko finally replied with reluctance, surprisingly, in English this time.

Eiji’s face went through a journey of surprise, anger, and then worry. In that order. “You what?” He said a little louder than usual that the librarian asked them to continue their argument by the entrance instead of the reading area, which they did after a hasty apology to the people around and to the librarian. Kimiko rolled her eyes at Eiji. Seriously, with how hard she was rolling her eyes, Ash would think it might roll to the back of his skull and never come back.

“Why would you run away? Ibe-san would be worried! And it’s snowing hard!” Eiji continued.

Kimiko started to explain in Japanese. Eiji raised a brow, but again she heeded it no mind. To Ash, it was listening to a one-way conversation, only understanding Eiji’s side while having no clue to whatever his sister was saying. It was both amusing and frustrating at the same time.

What he did get from the little pieces and context he managed to pick up was that 1.) Ibe-san was a family friend of the Okumuras and that he was the man Eiji mentioned while ago that got him into photography. 2.) Somehow Kimiko knew Eiji was in town. How she knew, Ash had no idea and Eiji wasn’t so fazed by this so maybe it wasn’t that big of an issue. Though he might ask later.  3.) Maybe Kimiko was a bit of an idiot because she may have went out in the middle of this terrible weather to look for his brother around town without really knowing where his exact location was. (Though this may be guessing in Ash’s part since he really couldn’t understand Japanese and whatever her response on this was a mystery.)  And lastly 4.) She was a very lucky bastard if the previous statement was true.

“I’m calling Ibe-san since you have obviously been ignoring all his calls since the past two hours.” Eiji reprimanded Kimiko who grumbled at this, displeased. “Ash look after Kimiko and don’t start fighting or else!” He threatened them both. Ash was starting to understand that maybe the stubbornness really ran in the family.

Eiji dialed someone with his phone. When the line picked up, he immediately spoke cheerful Japanese to whoever was on the other side. He stepped away from the both of them, leaving Ash and Kimiko alone for a moment.

The girl continued to glare at him which Ash returned with an easy smile.

“Where did my brother find you?” She demanded. “Why are you with him?”

“I’m not suspicious.” Ash replied with a teasing grin. That was obviously a lie. He was the most suspicious person you could ever introduce to anyone at all. And of course the girl didn’t buy it.

“Saying that makes you even more.” She huffed. Really, Ash was starting to like her for some inexplicable reason other than the fact that she was reminded Ash of himself in some tiny aspect. If there was any other realization he was faced today, it was that he was actually such an imp at some point of his childhood. This fact clearly amused him in a lot of different ways, though he also wasn’t so sure why.

“Okay. We met in America a few months ago. I found him interesting and decided to follow him,” Ash told her the truth, or at least the abridged version of the truth. “Which led us here.” Oh if she knew all of it, she would faint. Or something like that.

“You are using him then?” Wow she was blunt. “My brother an idiot. Easy to trick. You look like one who would hurt him.” This girl didn’t take shit huh?

“I’m not going to hurt him. If I wanted to I could’ve done it months ago! You have no idea how many times we spend time together alone.” To be fair, it was actually Eiji who dove head first into trouble, almost as if he was trying to purposely hurt himself. Ash remembered trying to get Eiji to leave him. Did that work? No! If anything, it was almost as if he took all of that as an invitation to get into danger. She should be lecturing his brother about this instead. Though Ash had a tiny suspicion that they probably had that conversation long ago.

“Money then.” She pressed on. Ah they were very much opposites with her brother. Eiji was so naïve, an open book, albeit written in coded script, but an open book all the same. This one’s an eight number combination metal safe, locked behind steel bars, voice activated and guarded 24/7 with shifting patrol. It would drive most people insane, but not Ash. After all, cracking down safes were part of his job before.

“You know, I could easily earn a lot of money if I wanted to little girl.” Though let’s be honest. It won’t be legal by any means but the point stands, he could if he wanted to, so money wasn’t really the issue. How are you going to explain that to a kid though?

“Power.” She said in a near hiss. “You must figure out who he is now. You do not look stupid.”

The funny thing of course, was that it was Eiji who confessed it in the first place. Ash had no interest in power. Power was the last thing he wanted, given the circumstances of his birth and childhood. He smiled at her. “I like you.”

“And I do not trust you.” She said coldly.

“No. You shouldn’t.” Ash agreed. “That’s a good thing I suppose. You’re following mommy and daddy’s warnings about meeting strangers. Unlike someone we know.” He laughed. “I’m glad someone in the family looks a little bit responsible. He worries me sometimes.” Ash stared at the Japanese man on the phone.

Kimiko followed his gaze and had an indescribable look on her face. He faced Ash with the same look etched on her, staring at him blankly, searching for something before dropping another bomb.

“It is the sex then?”

At this Ash choked. Nothing could have prepared him for that question. Never in a million years will he ever be equipped to answer that. What the hell was up with this kid?!

“What the fuck? Where did you get that from?!” Ash nearly screeched. His face was flushing with heat. She really was ruthless. God someone teach this kid how to put a filter on her mouth. Jesus Christ.

“At least you should like him. You look at him as if he made the stars.” She was very calm with this. Unlike Ash who was just borderline panicking and having a melt down at the same time. She also seemed very chill about implying one dude having feeling for another dude. Times really were changing weren’t it? But that wasn’t the case with Ash.

“I do not!” He defended himself, in a bit of an overreaction he confessed. He shouldn’t be to riled up at this implication if there really was nothing.

“You have not seen yourself then. Or heard.” She continued. “When you read to him, you sound so…” She snapped her fingers as she looked for the proper English word, her brows deepened their furrow. Being bilingual must be a pain. Her eyes widen when she found what she was looking for. “Ah! Besotted.

Besotted.

Ridiculous. More importantly, she had been eavesdropping. “You’re saying you’ve been following us in the library since you got here?”

“I am saying that I am here first and you came later so I listened.” She explained. Ash’s hypothesis must be right. She was both an idiot and a lucky bastard.

“Lucky bastard.” He told her his thoughts.

“No. His location was on. I followed. The snow storm was problem. So library.” She continued her explanation. That was also plausible. Eiji returned before Ash could respond.

“Okay Ibe-san is on his way with his car. I hope both of you behaved.” Eiji squinted at both of them. This time it was Kimiko who smiled innocently while Ash frowned. “Come on. Let’s wait by the door. He should arrive soon.”

 


 

“Ei-chan! Ki-chan!” A middle-aged Japanese came to them, just a bit covered in snow. Eiji greeted the man with an enthusiastic hug which the man accepted without qualms. It was a different story for the little girl. They spoke once more in Japanese. It was getting a bit tiresome to be left out of the conversation. Ash considered learning Japanese if this was going to be a reoccurrence.

“Oh you must be the American Ei-chan mentioned in the call.” The man, most likely Ibe-san, finally noticed his presence. His English was also good. Better than both Eiji’s and Kimiko’s. “I am Ibe. Pleased to meet you.” He extended a hand.

Ash accepted the handshake. “Pleasure. I am Ash.”

Ibe-san turned to Kimiko to probably reprimand her. He did this in their native language for both her and Ash’s benefit. He really didn’t need to know what he was saying. In the meantime, he turned to Eiji with a questioning brow raised. “Ei-chan?”

Eiji ducked his head. “Yeah. It’s sort of a nickname.”

Ash nodded. “I like it.” It was cute.

“You do? That’s nice.” Eiji grinned at him. He was pretty dazzling like this. Ash can’t help but smile back. Eiji’s eyes crinkled when he smiled wide and under the light they were brighter than the usual darkness they were colored. In fact they look brown, like deep orbs of chocolate. Ash thought maybe if the sun was in the proper place and the time was right, their color might even become alike that of honey or gold. They managed to take Ash’s breath away all the time and—

Oh.

Ash made the mistake of looking at Kimiko, who was staring at him deadass in the eyes. Straight in the eyes that screamed ‘I told you so’ all over it.

Oh.

Something like lead fell deep in his gut. Something like ice stopped his heart from beating. Like plunged into a bucket of ice cold water, his body froze all over. It was like flying really high, reaching the peak for a split second, a pause in midair, and then falling. Down down down down. He was burning and freezing, heart beat in a pause and erratic at the same time.

Oh.

Realizations came in different ways. Some can culminate slowly like a star slowly dying out into black hole while some can be sudden like a burst of a supernova. This realization was both.

…Oh

“Come on let’s get in the car and go to my flat where it’s warmer.” Ibe must’ve said. But Ash was still in a little bit of a daze. Next thing he knew, he was sitting in a car in the back seat with Kimiko beside him while Eiji was in front and Ibe in the driver’s seat.

“You are surprised.” Kimiko whispered to him.

Ash blinked and looked at her without even a retort at hand. He was. Very much so. He was also very much fucked.

“You are an idiot then.” She said. Ash couldn’t even get himself to argue. He nodded distractedly while the little girl’s scowl deepened.

Eiji and Ibe were talking, in English, mind you. Sometimes Kimiko would join them. Even still Ash couldn’t participate.

“Ash are you okay?” Eiji cut through his thoughts. “You’re awfully quiet.” He glared at his sister with suspicion. “What did you say to him?”

“Nothing he didn’t already know.” She snickered.

Eiji opened his mouth to argue.

“No I’m fine.” He was not. Eiji closed his mouth. “Like she said. Nothing I didn’t already know.” It wasn’t. Or perhaps it was and he’d been denying himself of the fact. Looking back, it had been pretty obvious wasn’t it? He was an idiot for not noticing and it was embarrassing that it had to be his sister of all people to make him realize it.

Eiji shrugged and continued their conversation. This time, Ash tried to listen. They have long arrived in Ibe’s flat and Eiji immediately collapsed on the couch near the heater. He settled there without any problem. Kimiko sat across Eiji and Ash sat awkwardly next to Eiji, with visible space between them than usual.

“I didn’t expect to see you so soon Ei-chan. Who would’ve thought yes?” Ibe went and prepared tea for them. He set it on the table and poured a cup for each. Eiji took a look at the tea and hid a grimace. This made Ash quirk up a lip at least.

“Yes. I knew you were in Europe. I didn’t think we’ll meet though.”

It was jasmine. Ash didn’t mind tea but Eiji clearly did. He sipped from his cup and decided to just hold the cup for the added warmth. Kimiko obviously enjoyed her tea. Her sour face looked so much more amicable with the hot beverage on hand.

“You look well. Happier than I’ve ever seen you before.” He commented.

“The break is helping me at least. And I’ve met new company.” Eiji glanced at Ash with a conspiratorial wink. It made Ash blush again. He sipped from his cup hastily to cover it up. This was ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. He had a reputation damn it.

“I have to send Ki-chan to London by tomorrow you know so we have to leave by night. Our flight’s at ten in the evening. We just stopped by Hungary to pick up some things. It’s a good thing we did.” Ibe sat next to Kimiko who frowned at her cup at mentioning London.

“Why are you going to London?” Eiji also seemed a little bit appalled at the idea. Just a little bit. If you looked for it. Ash could see the micro expressions in Eiji’s face. It was a bit uncharacteristic of him to start talking in Japanese with Ash around, but he did and so the conversation continued in the same language. Ash glanced at the two back and forth. Kimiko was awfully silent through it.

Eiji fell silent too.

Ash didn’t know what to do with the tension in the air.

Eventually Ibe said. “We’re leaving after dinner. Feel free to stay here for the entirety of your stay in Hungary.”

Eiji smiled, though it was obviously tight lipped. “Thank you so much for your hospitability. We’ll be checking out after dinner as well and will bring our luggage here. Excuse me.” He got up and went to, what Ash guessed, was the bathroom.

That was a really weird interaction.

 


 

 

Dinner wasn’t as big event. Eiji had the look someone plagued by something but was trying hard to hide it by smiling too wide, Kimiko still tried to look for trouble with Ash, but it wasn’t as biting as a while ago, and Ibe sighed through it all with exasperation.

Before the duo left for the airport, Kimiko and Eiji exchanged a couple of words. While this happened it was Ibe’s turn to talk to Ash.

“Look I don’t know you that much,” He started. “But I care a lot about Eiji.”

This was familiar. If he didn’t know better, Ash would think this was some kind of a shovel talk.

“I’m not going to hurt him, intentionally at least if that’s what you’re worried about.” Ash decided to cut to the chase. Ibe’s eyes widened at this.

“Oh I do hope so but that’s not where I was going.” He said. “Eiji’s…well. He wasn’t really this...happy before and I think you’re big part why he is right now.”

Ash nodded as he tried to follow the conversation.

“What I’m saying is, please keep him happy. His life isn’t easy either and it really broke my heart when he was…down.” He nearly pleaded. “You don’t need to keep him happy all the time. Just,” He glanced at Eiji whose face was serious as he knelt down in front of his sister. “Just promise me you’ll be there with him through the sad.”

He leveled Ash with a serious gaze. And Ash who didn’t even need to be told about this nodded at the Japanese man with all sincerity he could muster.

“Promise.”

With this, the man looked satisfied.

"Thank you." He said with so much gratitude. "Thank you." Ash was left to nod through it. “Kimiko. Let’s go.” He called the kid who went with him without much of a fight, not before going to Ash to say her parting words.

“Tell him.” She said.

“Tell him what?” Ash asked even though the answer was definitely obvious.

“What you feel,” She rolled her eyes. “Before it is too late.”

Ash laughed humorlessly. “You say that as if it’s easy.”

“Grow some balls and do it.” She snapped before going inside the car that was waiting for them. Ash managed to laugh at it. That was the most threatening way he was told to confess, also the most amusing.

 Eiji gave his last goodbyes and the car rode away from the building.

If anything, Ash learned a lot of things in the past few hours.

  1. He really should learn Japanese.
  2. Kimiko Okumura was a force to be reckoned with.
  3. He was an idiot.

And of course there was this, the million dollar realization, the heart stopping, world ending, soul damning, answer that changed everything and nothing both at the same time :

     4. He liked Eiji Okumura in the most romantic way possible.

Chapter Text

The next day had both changed everything and nothing at all.

He liked Eiji. He did. This was simply the truth like how the sun was warm, and how seasons changed all the time. He liked Eiji. He did, in all sincerity he could possibly feel and in all honestly he couldn’t possibly prove physically, or rather he didn’t know how. And yet even with this knowledge, the world continued to turn like normal. Make no mistake, the next day wasn’t normal. It may have started seemingly normal, but it wasn’t. Scratch that, it didn’t look normal at all, Ash just didn’t notice it at first.

The first sign was the complete silence in the morning. No puttering about in the kitchen, no Eiji shaking him awake, no scent of breakfast cooking or being ordered in. Ash succumbed it to the fact that they slept in different rooms. With the sudden realization from last night, he thought that was best.

The second sign was the fact that it was already noon when Ash finally woke up. Waking up without Eiji in the near vicinity was a journey from panicking at his supposed absence to remembering that Eiji slept in the other room. The room looked awfully cold without Eiji’s presence. After tossing and turning, he was sure that he wasn’t going to fall back to sleep soon, he finally got up and dragged himself out of the room.

“Eiji?” He called out, voice thick and raspy from sleep. He scratched his chest, blinking away the slumber from his eyes.

He was met with deafening silence.

“Eiji?” Ash tried again. The flat was too quiet. He lumbered his way to the bathroom to wash his face. Eiji wasn’t in the bathroom either. He proceeded to the kitchen. Eiji wasn’t there either. Ash frowned. He was awfully thirsty. He hoped they didn’t mind if he take some milk in the fridge. He uncapped the milk and poured himself a glass. Normally he’d drink straight from the carton but he had some decency to drink from the glass when he’s on someone else’s house. “Eiji? Where are you?”

He did not like the way the sound of his footsteps thudding on the carpeted floor were loud. He did not like how every door creaked, and he didn’t like that it was too damn quiet.

Maybe he had to go somewhere? Though Eiji usually left a note in the chances that he had to leave in the morning before Ash woke up. There was no note present right now and Eiji wasn’t the type to leave without telling Ash. Maybe he was still in his room?

“Eiji? Are you still in there?” Ash knocked on the door of the master’s bedroom. “Eiji?” He pressed his ear against the wood. It was silent. Ash jiggled the doorknob. It was open. “Eiji?” He tried again. True enough, Eiji was there in bed, lying down on his back, staring at the ceiling without even acknowledging Ash’s presence, hands rested on his stomach. His eyes were blank and faraway, almost empty. Almost lifeless.

Oh no no no no no no.

“Eiji?! Are you okay?” Ash rushed to his side, fearing for the worse. He knelt beside him, checking his pulse and his temperature. Everything was thankfully normal except for the feeble expression etched on his face that Ash had never seen before and frankly did not belong on Eiji’s face. It took an awful while before Eiji’s glassy eyes blinked, almost as if he didn’t even notice Ash’s touch. He turned his faraway gaze towards him. They were so vacant it was bothering Ash inside, gnawing deep in him. It made his guts twist uncomfortably. The puffiness in his eyes suggested that he had been crying a while ago, paired with his stuffy nose. Ash was at loss with what to do.

”Eiji?

He called when he felt the initial panic finally dissipate into a simmering worry instead.

He was met with silence. Nothing. Not a movement, not a sound, just emptiness. Panic once again fizzled through Ash’s chest which spread to his throat, flickering on the tip of his fingers that was until Eiji eventually broke the silence.

“Can you lie down with me?” He said with a rough voice, heavily doused in his accent. “Please.” Eiji thought of adding at the end. His lips barely moved and had it not been so silent, Ash never would’ve heard it.

Ash, confused with Eiji’s behavior, complied with his wish. He slipped his shoes off his feet and climbed on the king-sized bed. He settled next to Eiji, arms clasped together as it rested on his chest. The bed was cold despite Eiji being on bed the entire time. He must’ve stayed on the same position since. He hadn’t moved an inch. They laid down in continued silence.

…100…101…102..

The ticking of the clock on the bedside was so loud, Ash started to count the seconds. There was something heavy in the air, something utterly choking.

560…561…562…

Still Eiji didn’t look like he’d move anytime soon.

1834…1835…1836….

They were in close proximity, but Eiji felt so distant. Ash’s heart was pounding in his chest, but he did not know if it was from infatuation or from worry. Deep in his heart, there was a physical ache to touch Eiji, some uncontrollable desire. He also did not know if this was to satiate the beast inside him which begged to simply be closer to the man, or if it was his urge to comfort the man somehow because seeing him down like this was causing him pain as well. He decided that he didn’t really have the time to figure that out right now.

…2078…2079…2080…2081…

It was of inopportune time that Ash’s stomach began to grumble, but then he remembered that he had not eaten anything and the Japanese was probably in the same boat as him.

“Eiji. We need to eat.” He tried, but Eiji still ignored him. That was fine. He’ll just find a way to feed them both because it wouldn’t do to let Eiji starve despite him feeling shit. “Hey, I’ll be back okay? I’ll order us some soup or something. You have anything in mind?”

Silence.

Okay.

That didn’t really surprise Ash.

He went and ordered them soup, taking the cash out from Eiji’s wallet. He wouldn’t mind. When Ash went back to Eiji, he still hadn’t moved from his spot.

“Come on. Let’s eat. You’re the one who insisted on not getting hungry right? Come on. Just half a bowl will do.” He help Eiji up from the bed. The Japanese stared at the bowl blankly.

“That’s it. One spoonful at a time.” He demonstrated it. After a while, Eiji started to follow him in the slowest pace possible. He’d chew really sluggishly and swallow hard. Ash was nearly done and yet Eiji had barely put a dent on his own. Ash furrowed his brows. When Eiji had finished at least half way, it was apparent that he’d take no more, so Ash took the bowl from his hands and tidied up the place. Eiji went back to bed, and after Ash was done washing everything, he went back to Eiji’s side.

Then there was silence again, until Eiji decided to talk.

“If I just lie here, will the world fade away and forget me?” Eiji finally said just when Ash was about to start his counting again, just to keep track of the time. Ash rolled to his side to examine Eiji. He furrowed his brows.

“What is this about?” He asked. Eiji ignored him anyway. It felt like he was talking to empty air.

 “If I just lie here. Will you spend eternity laying down in bed with me?” He replied with a question. Ash didn’t say anything. He figured he didn’t have anything to say. Eiji took this as a hint to continue. “Sometimes I have these days,” He started. His voice was hollow, lackluster from the life that they usually held. “There are days where I just can’t.” He tried this weak smile that only made himself look worse. The image was so sad to look at and Ash’s chest ached at the sight. “There are days when—“He choked off in a whimper. He sounded pained as well, and numb, listless. “Have you ever felt,” He tried again. “That you never wanna do anything? And your body feels so heavy to move?”

He gave a shuddering sigh, a sigh that was dug deep in his soul, deep in his bones. It was years old, the type that had been contained in your person for too long. Eiji still didn’t look at Ash. He continued to stare blankly at the white ceiling. “It’s ridiculous,” He laughed sadly like he was close to weeping. ”It’s ridiculous because there’s nothing wrong with me one moment and suddenly bam. You’re broken again. A-and it could’ve been from the most menial things like—like not getting that message you were waiting for, o-or seeing someone laugh too hard, maybe from breaking your leg. Hey! Seeing your sister out of the blue works too.”

His voice started to rise in pitch, throat sounding like it hurt to even try to utter a word, breaking every so often. “And the thing is,” He choked. “The thing is it feels worse when you consider that I haven’t even gone through half of what you’ve gone and I still have the gall to complain.” His laughter was hollow and yet borderline hysterical. It was a painful sound to listen.

Gomen.” The break in his voice made Ash’s heart shatter. “Gomensai.” He said in barely a whisper. “Gomensai…” He repeated this to him over and over. His eyes were filled with tears, the wetness rolled down his cheeks. He covered his eyes with his arm, resting it between his forehead and his eyelids.

“Darling, what are you apologizing for?” He propped himself up on his elbow. Ash pried his hand away from Eiji’s eyes and cupped his face with the other hand. He did it with all the tenderness he could muster. He didn’t know how to comfort anybody and he was shit with feelings, but he was trying damnit and he’d take a bullet first before he leaves Eiji like this.

“For this.” Eiji sobbed while he leaned towards the warmth of his palm. “For having to deal with it when you obviously can’t.”

Ash was really shit at this. Should he hold him near? Should he wipe his tears or something? Oh Eiji was better with this than he was. He didn’t know what to say to fix this and he wished so badly to have something to take all of Eiji’s problems away. Ash hated that he couldn’t do anything to help him. He never hated himself more.

“Tell me what to do.” He pleaded Eiji. “I’ll do anything you want to fix you.” He would. Anything. One word and he’d go running.

“You can’t fix me Ash.” Eiji whimpered. He pulled Ash’s hand away from his face.

“Don’t say that.” He’d do the impossible, he’d run to the edge of the universe, bargain his soul to the devil, anything just to put the smile back on Eiji’s face. Ash half wondered if this was the desperation talking. But Eiji gave him a pained smile as fragile as glass.

“No, because you can’t go fixing people. I’m not broken, this is just how I am.” Eiji explained and Ash felt terribly embarrassed, chastised like a little kid. He supposed he made matters worse. Even with the best intentions, Ash could never manage to do anything right.

“Sorry. That was wrong.” He said. “What do you want me to do?” This time, softer, with all determion to be better. Eiji closed his eyes and took a deep sigh. Even in times of these, he was still the more patient one.

“Just lie down with me. I don’t need you to try and make me happy, just be here with me when I’m sad.” Eiji asked and so Ash complied. He sank back on the mattress. They were silent again after that, but Ash’s worry had been eased up just a little bit. There was something more comforting about this than before.

The problem with emotions, was that there’s no manual given to anyone, no cheat codes, no life hacks provided. It’s something you have to figure out on your own and Ash was floundering in that regard. Human psychology and the entire essence of humanity had always been a thing that baffled all of mankind, so much that different studies were conducted in the previous millennia and the results, without fail, always eluded the grasps of the people.

It was a thing of wonder how one can see bloodshed and violence, yet somehow still be functional. However the sight of the most mundane thing could spiral their thoughts out of control. It was of interest how a man who was regarded so vile can still crave for companionship, how the unlovable can still be deemed worthy of affection, how a creature so damned seek for salvation. It was a mystery how someone like Ash, who’d sworn off the idea of romance and self-indulgence, had come to lie in this room with someone he so fiercely cared for.

“It hasn’t been this bad lately.” Eiji whispered out of the blue. Ash snapped his eyes open, not even noticing that he nearly went back to sleep. “The last one was in America.” Eiji murmured through the sleepy veil that had encased Ash, one that he was trying to take off. “I think…I think it’s because of you.”

“Me?”

“Yes.” Eiji’s fingers twitched. “Talking to you made it a bit better. Hearing something else other than my wretched thoughts was definitely better.” He sighed. Eiji sighed a lot today. Then he was silent again. The conversation was filled with more sighs and lapses than it was of actual words. Still, Ash figured that the only thing he could do for Eiji was to wait for him to meet Ash halfway. He could only take small steps to coax Eiji out of whatever jumble he was fighting inside his mind.

In the meantime, Ash busied himself with observing the room instead. He finally noticed that the room was in fact, dark and the only source of light was coming from the half closed blinds of the window. The late noon sun filtered inside the room as grey lights from the winter sunshine. It wasn’t enough to warm up the place, but at least there was light. It was pretty cold but Eiji had not wrapped himself in a blanket this time.

“Actually yesterday, when I saw my sister, for a moment I was happy.” His fingers clenched the sheets for tension. “But I remembered all the things I’m trying to run away from.” He gave a humorless laugh. “I’ll admit. I’ve been running away all this time. Truth is I’m a coward. My father is bedridden in the hospital. My mom is…well, out of the picture. My sister equally does not want this role. And I…”

He paused, clearing his throat, composing himself. “…As the current oldest born, I have a duty to my family. As a son, as a brother, as an heir and in less than a year, I’ll have to take that responsibility more seriously.” There was resignation in his voice, a hopelessness that couldn’t be taken away. “This…whatever this is,” He closed his eyes. “It’s a last hurrah for freedom. It’s amazing that they even allowed me to do this.” He loosened his grip from the sheets. “I know I should learn to love it…I know a lot would kill to have my place, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I’m afraid to take on this role. I’m afraid I won’t learn to love it and right now I feel nothing for it but dislike.”

“Eiji.” Ash gave a pained sigh. “Oh darling.” He took Eiji’s hand with hesitation, and when he was met without resistance, he grasped his hand firmer into his grip. Eiji said nothing more after that. He simply stared off into the distance, sighing every now and then. This was how they spent the rest of their afternoon. With Eiji beside him, talking sparsely over the interval between hours, honestly bleeding from his tongue, a vulnerable, fragile thing. Eiji would slip between consciousness and waking, sometimes in short hasty slumber, sometimes deep in dreams.

The rest of the time passed in a blur.

When evening came, Ash took it upon himself to feed them both again. Thankfully, Eiji was able to eat more this time. After this, Eiji went back to sleep and Ash tucked him under a thick duvet. He turned off the lights and decided to sleep next to Eiji just for tonight.

Hazily, he felt the ghost of a touch, a faint touch of a hand reaching out to him and grasping his own. Hazily, he remembered locking his fingers with theirs. Hazily, he remembered sighing with content.

 


 

 

Ash woke up the next day. He saw that Eiji wasn’t beside him and nearly panicked. He shot up from bed with a start, calming down only when he found Eiji sitting on the desk by the window. The sunlight cascaded on him and he looked like a beautiful silhouette. It was enough of a sight to make Ash loosen the tension from his shoulders.

“Hey.” Eiji mumbled, timidly.

“Hey yourself.” Ash’s voice was husky from sleep. His hair was also probably a mess, but Eiji was smiling, softly, tenderly. That was a good sign. Ash returned the smile with one from his own.

“So…coffee?” Eiji offered.

“That would be nice, yeah.” Ash let the sheets pool by his waist as he combed a hand through his golden locks in an attempt to tame them. Eiji nodded and left to get a cup. He returned momentarily with two. He handed it to Ash, who took it gratefully. The clock on the desk said nine thirty four. That was a bit earlier than the usual time Ash woke up.

“I made breakfast….wanna eat with me..?” Eiji once again offered.

“In a while.” Ash replied after a long sip from his cup. It was black with only two teaspoons of sugar, just the way he liked it. He nodded at him. “How are you feeling?”

“Better…I guess?” Eiji trailed away. He sipped from his cup with a hint of nervousness. There were different tells to Eiji’s mannerisms. Ash had started to notice different little facts about Eiji. He was tiptoeing cautiously around the elephant in the room, but of course, Ash would never force him to confront it. All in his pace.

He really did wish he would just get on with it. It pained Ash that Eiji was this embarrassed. He didn’t want him to look sheepish and uncomfortable after showing his vulnerability to Ash. It made him feel like Eiji didn’t trust Ash enough to keep this new fragment of himself with care. That thought was utterly ridiculous of course. With everything Eiji had put up for Ash’s sake, it would be impossible for Ash not to return the sentiment.

“So…” Eiji eventually started again. He chewed on his lip and still refused to look at Ash in the eyes.

“So?”

“A-about yesterday.” Eiji murmured, gripping his cup like a lifeline.

Though he had to admit, a skittish, flustered Eiji was more adorable than usual. So really, he kept his unabashed stare at Eiji while the Japanese was pointedly trying not to look at him. Eventually he would steal a glance from the corner of his eyes and when he met Ash’s own, he’d always look away quickly.

“It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.” Ash said with nonchalance. If Eiji didn’t want to talk about it yet then that was fine by him. He could wait. He’d wait forever if he had to. “You don’t need to say anything if you’re not comfortable.”

Eiji shook his head fiercely. “No. It’s not just ‘nothing’.” This time he did look at Ash. There was a faint pink flush dusting his cheeks. “Thank you. For staying with me yesterday…for…for not leaving me.”

It would really help if his chest wasn’t beating a hundred beats per minute with Eiji saying things like that with so much affection and emotion laced in his voice which made Ash feel a lot of different things. It would also help if Eiji didn’t look so cute under Ash’s still partly asleep eyes when he made that face. Most of all, it would really help if his chest didn’t feel like bursting from all of this. He hated how confused he was with all of this, confused with what to do with all this feelings. But you really couldn’t have everything your way, so instead he cleared his throat and replied as casually as he could manage despite the fire burning beneath his skin.

“I’d be a terrible friend if I did. After all, you stayed with me when I needed you to.” He looked away as he tried for humor, instead it sounded dreamier than what it was meant to be. Ash couldn’t really seem to be bothered to care that it did. He slid his gaze at him. “I…well. I do care for you…you know.” He laughed, a bit forceful than necessary. They came like quick puffs of air. This was only to cover the raw sincerity bleeding through his words of course.

He’s trying to navigate this whole infatuation thing with his best. So far, he was flailing in that regard. He drank from his coffee to stop himself from revealing more than what was needed. Especially since his mouth was suddenly so chatty at the moment.

Eiji just stared at him with this certain look. What was on his face was neither surprise nor disbelief, but something between the two, something that rested near incredulity, wonder and something else entirely that Ash just could not put his finger on. His eyes were impossibly wide and face pinker than it was a while ago.

“Oh.” His lips parted slightly, and he said this breathlessly. The sound was so charming that Ash wanted to take it and keep it forever for him to keep.

“What?” Ash raised a brow and shot him a smirk.

Eiji blinked away his daze hurriedly. “O-oh. I’m just—“He squinted at him and said. “I just realized your eyelashes are blond as well.” His eyes widened, then he frowned.

Ash was surprised at the sudden segue from the conversation. He can’t help the chuckle that escaped his lips. “Yeah. Down there too. Wanna see?”

It was safe to say that Ash never wanted to combust more in his life than that exact moment.

Oh my god Ash Lynx what the actual fuck?

“Really? Show me!”

Ah he stood corrected.

Ash scrambled up to the bed with what was probably a really red face and the most startled expression. Luckily his mug was already empty, else it would’ve made a definite mess. He did not like how it made his heart pound impossibly faster and harder. He did not like the sudden jolt it sent down his gut. He most definitely did not like how he almost very nearly let slip an eager sure! to Eiji in the fraction of a second where he let his guard down.

To be fair, Eiji looked equally embarrassed with his sudden request. ”That was—I was just joking. Don’t…don’t mind that.”

“Y-yeah. Right.” Ash cleared his throat. “Same I guess.”

“Yeah.”

“Mhm.”

They spent an entire moment to let the silence fill them. It was more awkward than Ash ever wanted to deal with.

“So…breakfast?”

Eiji offered an olive branch to dispel the weird tension between the two. Ash visibly sighed in relief.

“Yes please.”

Chapter Text

The consequences of spending the entire day in bed was that you leave a lot of things unaccounted for and it really poses a problem in regards to the grand flow of things. You’d think one day of lazing around wouldn’t affect them at all, and it wouldn’t had yesterday not been important to the grand flow of things.

Yesterday was laundry day.

And Eiji, being Eiji, meant that it was never laundry day until he was down to his last shirts.

So missing what they were supposed to do yesterday meant they have barely any clean shirts to wear today. Coincidentally, today was also one of those rare days where Ash was awake early.

So in conclusion, today was a mandatory laundry day. Otherwise they wouldn’t have anything to wear anymore.

“I mean technically we have a washing machine right here. We don’t need to go to the dry cleaners.” Ash commented while hauling their used clothes off the bags. He started separating the colored from the whites.

Eiji looked a bit perturbed. “I’ll have to confess,” He looked at his shirts with a cute little confused frown on his face. “That I don’t know how to wash my clothes.”

Ash chuckled while he shot Eiji a teasing smirk. “I’d be more surprised if you’ll tell me you do.” Eiji owned an expensive array of clothes. Simple, but expensive. He loves his cashmere. That said, the other half of his clothes were dreadful, ratty and if Ash was to guess, came from ill-advised purchases. For instance, the shirt Eiji was currently wearing was the most obnoxious neon pink sleeveless shirt with the ugliest cartoon bird staring back at him. The only upside was the sight of Eiji’s nicely toned arms. (Maybe it was actually a bit of a downside, especially with how easily distracted Ash got because of them.)

“Do you know how to wash your clothes?” Eiji pressed him, tone accusing. He found it funny that his tone was accusing, almost as if knowing how to do the laundry was a crime. This was mostly from the embarrassment on Eiji’s part, Ash decided.

“Of course I do sweetheart. What do you take me for? I’m not a spoiled prince like you.” Ash snorted. The face Eiji made was nothing short of comical.

“Well, it doesn’t really fit the whole gang boss picture.” Eiji huffed.

“I have to learn how to wash off the bloodstains you know.” That and many other stains Ash would rather not talk or think about. “Come on, no better time to learn than now.” He started to roll his sleeves to his forearms.

“Okay, that’s fair. What do we do first?” Eiji grinned at him brightly with an earnest and eager tone in his voice. It was utterly unfair, how he’d smile and Ash would feel like he was exposed directly to a star. It burned and blinded him at the same time, yet he felt so warm, comfortably warm, ridiculously comfortable.

He’s really trying to adjust with this whole liking thing. He’s three days in and it was already killing him. The thing was, whatever he did he was immediately good at it. Leadership was as natural to him as breathing, fighting wasn’t a problem. He analyzed data with precision and he handled tactics flawlessly. Ash was smart. He was good. He was great at whatever he did.

Ash did not handle infatuation well.

He was free falling a hundred light years down straight into a pit of burning sulfur with infatuation.

(He dared not call it love.)

“Get the laundry soap.” Ash instructed instead, because in the present, he was sitting in a pile of worn clothes while trying not to gape at his object of affections. Eiji complied and started to search for what Ash asked from him while Ash willed the blush away from his face. He didn’t think it was healthy to be flushing so often.

“Maybe we should buy our own supplies.” Eiji suggested when he came back with a nearly empty bottle of laundry soap. Ash really didn’t want to go out without a clean shirt on, but sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.

He sighed, resigned. “Okay. Let’s go grocery shopping first then.”

 


 

 

They’ve been sidetracked with other things at the moment and they’ve been arguing about many inconsequential things that would’ve been resolved in a minute, but wasn’t because nobody wanted to back off and lose.

“What I’m saying is that we should aim more for performance over aesthetic.” Ash murmured while squinting at the bottle of shampoo Eiji insisted on buying. It was technically his money, but Ash will not allow Eiji to spend so frivolously. Bankruptcy can come from the nastiest habits of lavish spending and if Ash could help it, he wanted to nip it in the bud. He returned the bottle back to the shelf.

“It isn’t aesthetic. I like that shampoo.” Eiji insisted anyway. He took the bottle and dropped it on the cart. He perked up with a suggestion. “What if we buy two shampoos?” In which Ash gave him a long suffering look and returned it again. Just because Ash liked Eiji doesn’t mean he’d let him win arguments easier than before. If anything, Ash was more determined to win more.

“Look. This is a decent shampoo and it’s on sale. We’ll save more this way.” Plus it was a conditioner and shampoo at the same time. Saves them more effort, time and money. Ash pointed this out.

“You shouldn’t use two in one shampoo and conditioner. That’s terrible!” Eiji squawked with disbelief, scandalized. It made him clutch his shampoo some more.

“Why not? It’s cheaper and faster.” Ash wrinkled his nose. It’s not like Ash didn’t know how to take care of his body, he just wanted to think that he’s way past trying to make his body look perfect and flawless for others to consume. He’s not really stopping Eiji with whatever he wished to do with his body, but damn he really should control his money spending impulses at some point.

“You know, you saying that makes me really wonder how you keep your hair beautiful.” Eiji mumbled with disdain while he reached up to run his fingers through the strands of Ash’s blond hair, touching the tips of those locks.

Meanwhile, Ash’s eyes widened like saucers, unable to move with disbelief.

“Y-you think my hair is beautiful?” He choked out. Ash knew people thought it was, but it was different coming from Eiji.  He liked to hear it from Eiji.

He really needed to get his shit together. He was getting pathetic.

“Well yeah, obviously. I mean it’s soft and pretty.” Eiji pulled his hand away, which was a bloody shame if you asked Ash. The pining fool in him wanted Eiji to touch his hair some more. The hopeful fool in Ash saw Eiji blush from his statement. The fool in Ash was not to be trusted.

Again. Pathetic.

“If you’re just complementing me so that I’ll buy your shampoo, then know that it won’t work on me, sweetheart.” Ash blurted out. Compliments were hard to take and sometimes you just gotta go with the strangest responses. At least that was what he’ll say. In truth, he simply panicked. Not that he’ll ever admit that.

Eiji spluttered, cheeks turning pink. “I—what? Me? Ha—I mean….” Eventually, he sighed and surrendered. “Yeah I guess? Sure.” He put his bottle back on the shelf and that had been that.

Ash blinked. He didn’t actually expect to win, but he’d take it anyway. He’d take any win against Eiji’s stubborn head anytime. “Okay.” They finally moved towards the next section. Now, Ash prepared himself for an argument between toothpastes.

For the record, Eiji won the argument about the toothpaste.

 


 

 

“Come on Eiji, you’re just buying them to cook dinner. You don’t have to stare at every vegetable for fifteen minutes like you’re interrogating them.” Ash felt a whine about to leave his throat if Eiji wouldn’t hurry up. He kinda recalled when Shorter mentioned how grocery shopping with his sister can be a pain too. Ash was starting to wonder if it was for this exact reason.

“You insisted on taking as many on sale items as you can so you have to go through the whole process of me choosing.” Eiji tutted at him while he holds up another leafy green for inspection. He was so particular! They’re all the same anyway. At least they were in Ash’s eyes.

“You know I’ll eat whatever you’ll serve me. Seriously! I know it’ll be delicious anyway. You’re a great cook.” Ash grumbled. They’ve been at it since the last half hour and it was almost lunch.

“If you’re just complementing me so that I’ll go faster, then know that it won’t work on me, sweetheart.” Eiji grinned at him cheekily and oh that went straight to Ash’s chest. That and the fact the he just used his own words on Ash got his heart pounding. That little brat.

Ash frowned.

“Hold up. Is that my jacket you’re wearing?”

Eiji paused and looked down.

“Yeah, so what if it is? It’s the first thing I got from the pile.” Eiji mumbled as he explained. Perhaps he was a bit embarrassed by the mistake as well. No wonder Ash couldn’t find it a while ago. “And we haven’t done any laundry and it’s one of the last cleaner ones left. Sue me.”

“So wear a used one. That’s what I did.” Ash’s mouth helpfully replied while part of his brain was still busy short-circuiting with the sight of Eiji in his jacket. It was a little loose on him, but not too loose. It was longer on the sleeves. He wondered why he didn’t notice it a while ago.

“Not happening. Besides you’re using one of my scarves so really, there’s no winning here.” Eiji shot back with a raised brow.

Ash looked down and saw the purple scarf wrapped around his neck.

It was Eiji’s scarf.

At this point, they’ve been using each other’s clothes in some occasions. There really was no point in bringing it up or arguing about it right now. Still, it was only now that Ash actually cared enough to notice it, and it was only now that it affected him. In truth they’ve been sharing almost everything. Yet, seeing Eiji in his jacket made him feel weird in the chest and stomach.

“Come on. We’re not yet done with shopping. We still have to buy what we need for dinner.”

Ash groaned.

 


 

 

“I feel like we forgot something.” Eiji paused just as they were about to exit the store.

“Did we?” Ash racked his brain for anything they might have forgotten. Right now he came up with a blank. They bought more of what they actually needed and less at the same time. How that happened was a mystery. (It was terrible impulse control of course. Ash can only do so much.)

But now that Eiji mentioned it. It did feel like they missed something. He frowned at Eiji who was staring back at him funnily. He had that look that was similar when you’re passing the hallway and trying to figure out if you knew the person walking past you and caught your eye contact. It was a rather specific expression.

And then it clicked.

“The laundry soap!”

 


 

 

Lunch had been a rushed affair. Only because Ash insisted it to be. Eiji complained of course, but it couldn’t be helped since they had a pile of laundry to sort out. Eiji reminded him that they could forget all of this, take the easy route, and send all of it to the cleaners. Ash gave him a look that was incredibly long-suffering and yet managed to be fond simultaneously.

“I’ve already sorted out the whites and colored. Now we need to sort them by types.” Ash ignored his suggestion and went for the start of the chores instead. Between the two of them, Eiji owned way more clothes than Ash. If you counted all of it, Ash’s clothes were only plain shirts that were either black with long sleeves, white with short sleeves, black with short sleeves or white with long sleeves. He had two jackets, a green checkered one which Eiji was currently wearing, and a blue one with red trimmings and hoodie. His shirts were all made from cotton and all his jackets were made from polyester. And then there’s jeans.

Eiji’s wardrobe on the other hand was more complicated.

Ash made three categories for this namely: the comfy, the fancy, and the tacky. Together, they all formed a big Venn diagram which met as Eiji’s clothes.

The comfy and fancy met in some degree. These were all the cashmere items in his luggage. The comfy and tacky also met often. The weird pink cotton and polyester shirts imprinted with an ugly cartoon bird had been a number one feature. Even his jackets had them.

“What are these cartoon birds in your shirt?” Ash decided that he couldn’t take it anymore and he needed to know whatever the hell they were.

“Nori nori.” Eiji replied.

“A what?”

“Nori nori.” Eiji repeated. “It’s a cartoon I liked when I was a kid.”

“And so you decided that all your shirts must have one printed on them.” Ash deadpanned.

“You say that as if it’s a bad thing and not all my shirts have them you know.” Eiji defended.

“It most certainly isn’t a good thing if you ask me.” Ash wrinkled his nose at the shirt in hand. Ash absolutely mourned the Eiji’s lack of fashion sense.

Then there was tacky and fancy which composed of one shirt, and it was the ridiculous Prada floral-print zip pocket shirt that was cobalt blue and worth a ridiculous price of more than a thousand dollars made from 100% polyamide. Ash looked at Eiji with judgement as he set aside the garment for hand wash in which the latter simply shrugged.

They spent half an hour sorting all that out into piles, unbuttoning the shirts, zipping the zippers, and taking off what was in the pockets. And then there were the ones with stains.

“Where did this come from?” Ash frowned at the yellow stain on one of Eiji shirts accusingly.

“That’s when cheese spilled on it at lunch back in Ukraine?” Eiji reminded him. “We were trying to catch our train so we had takeout since you overslept?”

“Right.” Ash set it aside for proper treatment.

He threw in all their jeans, towels and heavy clothed garments, placed water and set the wash for Permanent Press cycle. It was this, then all the polyester shirts, then all the cotton shirts, then the delicate cashmere and wool.

He had to deal with the stain and that one ridiculous Prada shirt that needed to be hand washed. Plus the wool and cashmere had to be air dried, and folded not hung so they won’t stretch.

They worked with idle chatter in the background, mostly just Eiji asking about the different knobs and settings on the machine. Ash made sure to lecture it to Eiji while he observed and took notes. Doing laundry was a little bit tricky, especially the water temperature settings. Eiji probably had never seen a cotton shirt shrink before. Though his reaction might be priceless when he does. Ash was no expert, but he knew a thing or two and one of those was to never over dry cotton shirts.  He also took his sweet time explaining all the symbols on the clothes tag, in which Eiji wondered out loud how he managed to remember all of these details by memory.

Ash claimed he was just that smart. The true answer of course was that he definitely did his own laundry, gang leader or not. And all of this was learned through a collective search through the internet, coupled with bad decisions and a couple of shrunk shirts. Not that Eiji needed to know all this.

“You know, if my family can see me now, they’d be so scandalized.” Eiji giggled while staring at the clothes going round and round, fascinated. He was a child at heart, there was no doubt about it.

“For what? Doing laundry?”

“Yeah. I mean really, if you told me I’d meet some American who will force me to learn how to do laundry when I was young, I’d laugh at you too.” Eiji grinned.

Ash shrugged. He supposed it was a little strange. If you asked him, he didn’t expect to be here at all. It felt awfully pleasant to be doing all of these little things, the mundane domesticity in life that Ash never thought he’d ever be able to experience. It was so…calm. This whole thing was a luxury Ash could never afford years ago, and yet here he was.

“Alright take out your underwear.” He demanded as he quashed the sudden…something flaring in his chest. It was a feeling he felt constantly recently. It curled through his throat and stomach while it made a settlement on his chest. He didn’t want to feel it because it was restricting his ability to breathe.

Eiji coughed. “What?!” He sounded distressed.

“Your underwear?” Ash clarified. “So that I can wash them?” He frowned. And then he realized how weird that sounded. “N-not what you’re wearing idiot. The ones you’ve already worn.” His face felt hot.

“R-right.” Eiji got them out. They were cotton boxers, thank god. Nothing really remarkable. Except they were used by Eiji. Ash tried not to think about that. He really didn’t want to think about that. He loaded it together with his own.

The room was filled with the sound of the rumbling machine. The clock on the wall said it was past three already. The room was grey because of the winter afternoon and Eiji made them coffee between the lull in the job while Ash was content on watching Eiji putter about in the kitchen.

“Oh, what’s this?” Eiji wondered out loud while he pulled out something.  It looked to be a picture from the pocket of Ash’s jacket. He had not taken it off even when they’re already indoors.

“Hmm? Oh.” Ash peeked at the item on Eiji’s hand as he received a mug of coffee.

It was the picture he took from Sing from long ago. He had forgotten about it. It was taken nearly a lifetime ago, at least it felt like a lifetime ago to Ash. The picture had been left in the inner pocket of the jacket and had been left alone for a really long time it would seem. It was nice, Ash decided, to have a memory like this frozen forever for them to keep. He was never a fan of photographs, but this, Eiji’s smile, the light that came from the bright sun, his own happy face, a lovely moment in time captured to last. It was charming.

“I can’t believe you have a picture of us all this time!” Eiji stared at it with curiosity, eyes nearly devouring the colors and the images on the paper. His inquisitive eyes raked all over it with judgement. “When was this taken?”

Ash shrugged. “Probably when we were in Alaska. This was taken by Lao’s—er the person who I fought back then. It’s their surveillance on me…and by extension, you.” He explained. Not that Eiji was actually listening. He was too busy examining the photo.

“They really picked a bad lighting for it.” Eiji snickered, and yet there was a longing twinkle in his eyes, a hungry, insatiable thing when he stared at it. It burned in his eyes, a fire so bright. “Can I?” He began hesitantly. “Can I keep it?”

Ash didn’t exactly want to give him the picture for a selfish, irrational part of him too, wanted a piece of Eiji to keep with him forever. “You’ve taken better pictures than that I’m sure.” Ash gave a shaky laugh.

“Not with you I haven’t” Eiji scrunched his nose. He sighed, this time his expression was more regretful than the last one. “Not of you.”

“Really? I’d expect you’ve taken a few stolen shots by now or something.” Ash marveled. The opportunities were countless. Plus, given Eiji’s stubbornness, he’d have taken at least one by now without Ash knowing, or maybe perhaps by accident.

“You said you didn’t want me to. So I never did.” Eiji confessed and he laughed shyly. He rubbed the back of his neck.

“Not even one?”

Eiji shook his head.

“Wow.” Ash breathed.

“I mean I have ethics too. If you explicitly tell me not to take a picture of you, I’ll respect that.” Eiji pointed out. “Do you really think so lowly of me?” He jested with this playful dismay in his tone, a half pout on his lips.

Ash waved his hand. “No. Not at all. It’s just—“Just what? How does he explain to Eiji how that small gesture meant so much to him? How does he verbalize the emotion of gratefulness he felt at such small kindness presented to someone who had long been used and abused? How in all matter of language does on even begin to describe?

The proper answer was…you can’t.

His answer was this, with his hands clasped together, eyes lowered down and a shaky laugh escaping his lips. Vulnerability was heavy on his posture, his heart was unbelievably stuck in his mouth, and sincerity was dripping from his tongue he could almost taste it.

“When I was young—I mean, I told you before that I was….raped.” Ash took a deep breath. The lingering smile on Eiji’s face vanished. “It didn’t stop there.” He confessed everything to Eiji. He confessed his past to him, all the broken and dirty bits. He confessed his childhood, much like a sinner who hungered for a priest’s absolution. Ash was never really a devout man, but he reckon it must’ve felt like this.

“There were lots of cameras while they….well. When they did it to me.” Ash explained. Talking about it to Eiji wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be. His lack of feelings towards the subject was surprising. It felt nothing more than a dull ache that throbbed in his chest, alike an injury that had happened years ago but never really healed completely and it simply stayed there while being annoying. He felt detached.

“The flashes. I could never stand the flashes. It just kept going while I laid there, unable to do anything.” It felt relieving to say it, like a century old itch he finally managed to scratch. “They’ve always taken pictures of me Eiji, even when I never wanted them too,” He shot Eiji a smile. “But you, you never did that. Even when among anyone in the world, you’re the one I wouldn’t mind doing it and for that I thank you.”

The sun was about to set, Eiji’s face incredibly prettier washed with the sunset’s golden lights. His face was terribly upset. The downturn on his lips made it evident. These little expression on Eiji’s face made it easy to understand him little by little. His face often gave away what he really felt even when he’s having trouble putting words to it. Ash feared the absence of those expression.

“Oh sweetheart don’t feel bad. It’s all in the past.” And Ash made sure everybody who did that to him were dead. Not that Eiji needed to know about it now. Maybe some other time. You could only confess so much in a day.

“I’m sorry.” Eiji mumbled an apology, in which Ash chuckled in response.

“Don’t apologize. It’s not your fault.”  

“Sorry.”

“Eiji.” Ash gave him a pointed look coupled with an amused smile. Eiji pouted. “Your sister has a point. You apologize too much.” He kept his words lighthearted.

“I can’t help it.” Eiji mumbled. Ash walked over to where he was standing and he scooped up his cheeks with his palms.

Stop. Pouting. You. Little. Baby.” Ash grinned at the stunned look on his face. He pinched those soft cheeks. Eiji yelped. “You have a bleeding heart. You care so much. And you’re so good and trusting to everybody I end up worrying about you too much.”

Eiji took Ash’s hand from his cheeks. “I’m not good to everybody.” He averted his eyes from Ash’s.

“Oh you’re practically an angel.” Ash cooed.

“I’m not.”

“You are.”

“No.” Eiji’s face flushed bright pink.

“Yes.”

No. You’re teasing me, I just know it.” Eiji whined while he covered his face with his face. “Stop.”

Ash sighed as he drew back his hands from Eiji’s. “Fine. Whatever you say.”

He took the next batch of clean clothes from the wash and placed them on the dryer. He glanced back to see Eiji peeking out of his hands, a tentative look of wariness on his face, a shy, embarrassed posture wrapped all over his body. He looked soft in the afternoon light, a lovely contrast of light and shadows. Ash thought he wanted to capture this image too. He thought about how he looked fucking stunning like this and Ash’s chest was so full it hurt. Breathless, he thought without question:

He definitely was an angel.


Chapter Text

“The hills are alive with the sound of music!”

Eiji exclaimed the moment they stepped out of the train and reached the platform in Salzburg. Ash sighed with exasperation. There were a couple of people who stared at them with curiosity and perhaps at some degree, judgement. He sent them a look of silent apology. Eiji loved movie references, Ash was starting to learn.

“We are not going to the hills so that you can sing that there.”

Eiji puffed his cheeks while hailing them a cab. “Spoilsport.” He stuck out his tongue. 

Ash groaned. “It’s the middle of winter. Hills don’t sing at winter. They’re too busy shivering like I know you would if you’ll even think about doing it. So we’re not doing it.”

A cab stopped before them, and Eiji opened the door with disdain. “Wait till we get to the Swiss Alps. We’re going to climb every mountain.”

“If your ass isn’t gonna freeze before you even get there, then you’re very welcome to literally climb every mountain over and over and over and over and over.” Ash jibed. He got in the cab.

“I’m going to climb your mountain over and over and over and over and over.” He rolled his eyes and mimicked with a high pitched voice under his breath, sarcasm lacing his words. He was about to sit in the backseat but paused, eyes widening slightly as he stared at Ash, whose eyes for the record, was just as wide as his. He cleared his throat. “That didn’t really make sense, did it?” He shook his head and made Ash scoot over so that he could sit more comfortably.

“It sounded really wrong.” Ash clucked his tongue with a little admonish, cheeks a bit warm, feeling a little hot. “Go watch Sesame Street to improve your English.” His English was actually better than the average Japanese. Most foreign words he learned were not for polite company.

The Japanese wrinkled his nose. “My English is just fine. I had language lessons after all.” He insisted, then turned to the taxi driver. “Entschuldigung, zum Hotel Goldener Hirsch, bitte. Danke Schon.” He then grinned at Ash.

“Show off.” Ash said as he tried to look unimpressed, though he was very much impressed truth be told.

“Like I said, I had language lessons.” Eiji smiled. “But I don’t think I can go beyond directions and questions in German, I’m afraid that’s the extent of my knowledge. Now, about those hills…”

Ash would later bemoan the fact that they spent a four hour tour on the original filming of the Sound of Music, with its songs playing in the background non-stop, taunting Ash while Eiji sang along with them. Later, Ash would sigh with exasperation but smile regardless because Eiji was having fun and he was such a lovesick fool, besotted. But this was for later.

 


 

 

Christmas markets in Austria was a delight, Eiji told him so the next day. It reminded Ash of Alaska at the very least, only grander and brighter. Illuminations hung everywhere and the scents of food and drinks permeated in the air. The twenty-fifth was five days away, but the whole place screamed of the holiday as it was supposed to be.

“How do you spend Christmas anyway?” Eiji asked him as he cradled a cup of hot chocolate in his hands to ward of the weather.

“American Christmas are spent partying and having fireworks I guess? I haven’t really celebrated Christmas in a long time.” Ash explained as he sipped from his own hot wine. It fizzled in his mouth and warmed his chest with a satisfying temperateness. His gang had parties before, and there was booze. Ash only joined them to get drunk, but you don’t really need a holiday as an excuse to get drunk. “How about you?” He asked after a mouthful of wine. “Tell me about Christmas in Japan.”

“For starters, it’s a holiday for couples.” Eiji shared.

“Oh.”

“Hmhm.” He took a long sip from his hot chocolate. “It’s uhh….well it’s couples who spend the day together. Obviously I haven’t had much experience in that department.”

“Too bad for you I’m the only one you’re spending it with. Unless you have plans.”

“I wouldn’t exactly say it’s bad.” Eiji said but didn’t elaborate further. “Anyway there’s also Christmas sales and I’ve never been in one might I add.”

“Of course.”

“There’s the annual company party at least. There’s free champagne, ridiculously tiny portions of quiche and the entire night spent standing.” Eiji laughed. “I hate cocktail parties.”

“Don’t get me started on the talking bit.” Ash empathized. He has attended his fair share of fancy parties and the talking had always been terrible “Oh, my boy you look grown up now! It must’ve been because we haven’t seen each other in a while!” He mocked with a pitched voice to sound like a rich divorced woman in their late sixties.

“They say that every single year! Oh my god!” Eiji laughed harder. “Stop! It’s too similar! It’s creepy!” He clutched his belly as he cackled. “Oh and the politicians, the politicians invited are the worst.” He bemoaned.

“Fucked up bunch. Literal spawn of Satan if you ask me.” Ash hissed.

“That’s unfair to Satan you know.” Eiji had fits of uncontrollable giggles. He calmed down in a few minutes. “We’re obviously not Christians and just want an excuse to celebrate.” He placed his hands in his flushed cheeks.

Ash waved his hand dismissively. “The holiday was stolen from the Roman’s Sol Invictus. Some traditions from Yule. Lots of paganism in Christmas to be honest. And you can’t honestly believe Christ was born on the twenty-fifth of December.”

There was rumbling from the skies.

 “Oh dear.”

The first drops of rain stared to fall upon them. It started like how sleeping begun, first slowly and then everything at once. The rain poured heavily before they can even blink and then they were soaked before they can even feel damp. It was so cold and none of them had the mind to bring an umbrella. Winter rainstorms were the worst.

“Come on!” Ash pulled Eiji to one of the alleys with a roof above them. Eiji shivered beside him, teeth clattering. He rubbed his hands together.

“W-well. This i-is s-something!” Eiji exclaimed with an uneasy laugh. He was so wet and chilly. Ash looked at him with concern. They’ll catch a cold at this rate and Eiji was weak to the elements.

“We need to move. The hotel is just two blocks away.” Ash said with a frown. “We don’t have an umbrella though.”

Eiji grinned at him. “L-let’s make a run for it.”

“Are you crazy? It’s freezing!”

“Ehh. We’re already wet anyway. Let’s take a warm bath when we get to the hotel. C-come on.” Eiji held out his hand expectant as if he was a gentleman asking him out to a dance, a foolish expression took ahold of his face. This was mad, but Ash supposed he was in a mood to do something mad today.

“Crazy bastard.” He snickered before taking his hand in a firm grip.

Eiji beamed at him before running at top speed, their hands joined through it all. Eiji laughed, a loud, sincere one that came deep inside like water from wellsprings that overflowed. The sound like rushing water and tinkling bells and so childlike that Ash couldn’t resist joining in as well. They were giggling like children up for mischief.

People started to stare, but it really didn’t matter to them. Ash was used to people staring at him. And with Eiji next to him, he couldn’t give the other people a damn. Granted, they were staring at him for a completely different reason now, something Ash felt absolutely bursting at the seams with delight from.

Eiji’s hand was a little bit cold, but just slightly warmer than the pouring rain. Ash decided that it was just perfect this way. The world narrowed down to the warmth of this slightly cold hand, the sound of laughter escaping their lips, and the sensation of raindrops falling upon his skin, clumping on his lashes. His vision was a blur, and the streets were nothing more than a blot of colors.

Eventually they reached the hotel, all dripping wet and sopping. The staff eyed them with just a little irritation as they dripped water all over the lobby to the elevator and the carpeted hallways on the way to their room.  Ash can’t help but feel guilty over that bit.

Eiji leaned on the wall, cheeks red and absolutely stunning. His hair was plastered on his forehead, water dripping from his hair to his collarbones. His clothes clung on his figure, showing a hint of what it really looked like beneath his garments. He smiled knowingly, conspiratorially, a secret shared between them, something that Ash didn’t really know what but seem to have a grasp on.

Oh. Well, Ash was suddenly less guilty for the wet floors.

He swallowed hard, throat tight and mouth dry. Eiji turned his gaze at him, dark eyes on his jade ones. What a lovely sight this was. Something magical in the air, charged and electric. “Damn.” Ash croaked out as he couldn’t stop the word from slipping out.

“I know.” Eiji sounded breathless. “I can’t believe we did that.” Absolutely amazed and disbelieving. He combed a hand through his hair, fingers tussling up those dark strands, wiping away droplets of water from his face. They were talking about two different things entirely. Didn’t matter, Eiji was happy and Ash figured that’s enough for him.

“It’s freezing.” He complained. “What were we even thinking?” They looked like they just went swimming in the lake, the wetness and cold was starting to get uncomfortable on Ash’s skin.

“I’ll admit it wasn’t one of my best ideas.” Eiji stopped leaning shuffled from one foot to the other. He looked like he’s finally caught his breath. “I am out of shape.” He wrinkled at the state of his clothes and started to take off his jacket. Ash could sympathize, what he wouldn’t do to bathe in warm water right now.

“Bath!” Eiji suddenly exclaimed as if reading his mind. “Dibs on first bath!” He threw his soppy shirt at Ash’s face before scurrying away to the bathroom, meanwhile giggling childishly, triumphant. Ash gasped in indignation, cheeks red in surprise.

That bastard! He chased him to the tub before the Japanese could close the bathroom door. Eiji climbed on the tub despite it barely filled with water, shirt, pants and socks still on. He grinned at Ash defiantly, smug and absolutely sure of his victory.  “Checkmate. I win!” He declared.

Jokes on him, that wasn’t going to stop Ash. He raised a brow and accepted the challenge. You’d think that Ash wouldn’t take the bait every time, but he does anyway.

Eiji spluttered, expression a journey from denial, disbelief, and then exasperation in a matter of seconds. “H-hey! The water is going to overflow!”

Ash got in the tub together with Eiji still in it. He too, was fully clothed and uncaring regardless of the water spilling over the tiled floor. “Scoot over. It’s cramped in here.” He demanded.

“It’s not meant for two!” Eiji cried while Ash arranged his legs in a more comfortable position. Their knees were touching, water continued to spill from the tub and Eiji glared at him, more with mild irritation than actual anger. “This is ridiculous. We’re ridiculous. Get out of the tub.”

“Nope. M’a sore loser like you unfortunately.” Ash insisted. It was a bit uncomfortable. Maybe wearing cold, soaked clothes in the tub was a mistake. “Plus you cheated.”

“I did not!” Eiji splashed Ash’s face with water. Ash splashed back, unimpressed.

“Did too.”

“Did not!” Eiji was laughing again. And this time he held on Ash wrist so that he’d stop splashing him with water. “Seriously it’s uncomfortable. Let me at least take of my clothes. I’m wearing jeans and it’s really bothering me.”

Ash looked panicked, voice a pitch higher. “You’re taking your shirt off?” This was suddenly reaching to dangerous territory. He didn’t want to think of being near Eiji while he was naked, didn’t want to think of the consequences and of what could possibly happen. Eiji didn’t look so bothered though, he was really casual about it.

“It’s not that weird is it? You can keep yours on if you want to, but hell I’m going to catch a cold at this rate. And wet socks aren’t really comfortable.” Eiji shrugged. ”Or you can leave the tub and I win.” Eiji grinned as he stepped out of the tub and began to strip.

Ash’s eyes were wide open. Eiji was serious. His shirt was already on the floor and he’s already started to unbutton his jeans. Ash was maybe just a little bit in trouble.

“Oh hell. I don’t know if you’re doing this on purpose.” Ash groaned.

“What?” Eiji looked up midway from unrolling his wet socks and blinked at him owlishly. He thankfully left his boxers on when he joined Ash back in the tub. Ash gave a silent sigh of relief. He could deal with this at least.  

“There. Much better.” Eiji beamed “Very comfortable. No wet socks, no wet jeans.” Ash was a hundred percent sure that Eiji was taunting him. “I’m not saying you might catch a cold that way, but I am.” Eiji stared at him relentlessly. Ash schooled his face into neutrality. He tried not to look as flushed while Eiji wrapped his arms around his knees. He hoped it looked like the redness of his face was from the heat.

“Ugh. Fine. I’ll do it.” Ash rose up and stripped us well after a long stare off. “If you wanted to see me shirtless, you could’ve just asked you know?”

“You wish.” Eiji stuck out his tongue. Ash rolled his eyes.

He turned around and faced his back to Eiji so that he could feel less self-conscious about this whole ordeal. Belatedly, he realized that it was actually a mistake to do so. This way, the scars on his back was in plain sight for Eiji to see. He could feel his stare raking up his back. He pointedly ignored the sensation.

Like Eiji, he left his boxers on and sank back down into the water momentarily. He did not meet Eiji’s gaze, nor did he address the obvious question that hung in the air.

“We really should try bathing in an onsen,” Eiji said instead. Ash sighed in relief, grateful. “It’s a lot more comfortable than this and it feels really nice. My family has a private one, but I’ve always wanted to go to a public bath as much as I can. There’s one in Kyushu that I’m dying to try.” He continued to ramble.

“Hold up. We haven’t even finished what we have to do here and now you want us to go elsewhere?” Ash chuckled, still refusing to look at Eiji for more than three minutes at a time.

“I’m not saying we do it now. I’m saying someday in the future.” Eiji made a funny face. They let the silence fill them with contentment. In the end, Eiji threw his head back to lean on the wall and then started belting the lyrics to some Queen song, probably from some random impulse.

Ash groaned. “Oh no. You are not singing in the bathroom.” Eiji shrugged and continued to sing anyway.

I can dim the lights and sing you songs full of sad things

We can do the tango just for two

I can serenade and gently play on your heart strings

Be your Valentino just for you

Ooh love ooh loverboy

What're you doin' tonight, hey boy

Set my alarm, turn on my charm

That's because I'm a good old-fashioned lover bo—ughk!

Ash splashed water at him again and Eiji stopped singing while spluttering out water and then laughing. “Haven’t you sung in the shower before?” and he had this incredulous tone.

“Not really no.”

“Well you should. This bath is the best place to have a concert.” Eiji told him.

“I don’t sing.” Ash sighed. “Correction. I can’t sing.”

“Come ooooooon!” Eiji whined. “I’ve always wanted to sing with someone in the bath! Come on, sing with me so I can check it off my list”

“I know you didn’t actually write that. And you can’t keep using that as a reason for me to humor your odd requests.” Ash sounded unamused.

“Spoilsport.”

Ash splashed him with water once more.

Chapter Text

It was already Christmas Eve and Ash was damp with his sweat on his bed, fresh from a nightmare.

He really can’t remember what it was about at this point, which was a mercy. They’re more of a nuisance nowadays rather than a major problem. For now. Like an unrelenting tick of a clock, or a constant thrum in the background of an air condition, something that can be drowned out but will always be present in the grand scheme of things. Like an itchy scab of an old wound on its way to healing, a little tempting to scratch out. Of course, scratching scabs can result to fresh and reopened wounds so he’d have to endure.

Anyway, Ash was less anxious and more annoyed right now since he really liked to sleep and get some rest. He tossed and turned on the sheets, groaning a bit when he couldn’t go back to sleep. He glanced at the digital clock by the bedside and found that it wasn’t even past midnight yet. (They decided to sleep early today, since it wasn’t really in their tradition to stay up all night to wait for Christmas. That, and Eiji could never stay past late hours like the old man he was.)

In the end, he surrendered and got up from bed to wash his face in the sink. He made sure to make his footsteps light to not wake up Eiji. He got to the bathroom briefly. He discarded his sweaty shirt, did his business and went back to bed.

Suppose he could always read. Yet, maybe the lamplight might wake Eiji. Ash crossed that off his list. He wasn’t in a mood for an evening stroll and if Eiji woke up in the middle of the night, he might wonder where Ash was and work himself into a worry. Ash sighed. Maybe he was stuck to staring at the ceiling until morning came and—

“Can’t sleep?”

Ash blinked at the sudden sound of a voice and found himself to a pair of brown eyes staring at him in the dark. Eiji was wide eyed with a sleep mused voice, telling him he just woke up.

“You’re awake.”

“My body seems to sense when you’re suddenly up at night and kick me into waking.” Eiji chuckled under his covers.

“Oh. Sorry.” Ash mumbled.

“No. It’s okay.” Eiji reassured just as he turned on the lampshade by the nightstand. “Is it because of the nightmares? Why you can’t sleep?”

Partly yes, Ash thought, but it wasn’t really just because of the nightmare. His brain was also quite loud for him to go back to sleep. He shrugged anyway and mumbled a soft “Yeah”.

Brief silence hung on them until Eiji decided to say “Do you want to…I don’t know. Sleep next to me?” He offered. He pulled up his blanket in invitation. “You look like you sleep better when you do in the past. And there’s enough space for two.”

Ash paused to consider this. It sounded tempting. It would feel nice, to be next to that warmth Eiji always seemed to emit. A hungry part of Ash wanted to be physically closer to Eiji. A greedy part of him wanted so badly, and here was the perfect opportunity. He wanted to say yes, but…

“I really shouldn’t.”

“But you didn’t say you don’t want to. Seriously. I don’t mind.” Eiji raised an amused brow. “Come on. It’ll be fun.”

Ash must be crazy. But at this point he was only stating what was already obvious, simply repeating the words that were already established before. Either way, he was crazy for getting up and sliding into the warm sheets of Eiji’s bed. The Japanese grinned wide with all his teeth showing, looking giddy with excitement.

“Why are you so happy about it?” Ash made him scoot some more to make room for himself.

“Nothing. It feels like a slumber party.” Eiji hummed. “Did you always sleep without a shirt on?” A sudden comment came for his sleep wear. Ash felt his cheeks heat up at forgetting that he was technically only clad in boxers. Maybe he should have thought this through at first.

“It was hot.” Ash explained.

“We’re in the middle of winter.”

“Still hot.”

Eiji laughed. Ash could smell his breath with how close they were. He could see the clumps of lashes fanning on his skin and if he really wanted to, Ash could start counting them. The golden white light from the lamp only made him prettier than he already was. His beauty wasn’t anything like Ash’s. Eiji’s charm wasn’t a sword to be wielded, obvious at first observation, no. His was something to discover, one you have to get acquainted with before you see, a flower blooming from its bud.

And this charm was protected under a layer of peculiarity, one that often drove people away if they weren’t keen enough to observe. They look but they do but they do not see, many people are like that. Eiji was staring at him with this kind of…something. Indescribable. He often did these things that would make Ash’s chest ache and his heart stop beating. He’s always wondered if Eiji was doing this on purpose or if he was oblivious to this all.

He must be ignorant of his effect on Ash. He concluded this, for Eiji didn’t look like a cruel man who would play with his feelings. It’s not like Eiji had feelings for him like Ash does for Eiji.

But there were these gazes, these really…fond gazes. And there were the tender touches he’d give, so tender that Ash couldn’t help but wonder if there was the slightest chance that Eiji might return his feelings someday.

Well, Eiji had always been this gentle since the moment he met him, so really, Ash would simply have to throw all these speculations out of the window.

He really really shouldn’t assume to take more than what he bargained for. It’ll only hurt them both. Yes, Ash thought being with Eiji was enough, the fact that he was able to meet him, to bask in his presence, to be able to laugh, to talk, to sleep next to him, it’s more than enough.

His dark eyes looked so fucking fond goddamnit.

“Yeah...Umm. We should err….go to sleep. Night.” Ash coughed awkwardly and turned to his side, hiding the blush on his face. He bared his back to Eiji, calming down his heartbeat that thumped on his chest like a jackhammer. Blood was rushing from his ears and through the tips of his fingers. It sounded loud. He shouldn’t panic over something as trivial as this, he shouldn’t get too flustered. Damn he’s really gone soft hasn’t he?

Ash spent minutes trying to calm his heart rate. He figured Eiji must’ve fallen asleep in the silence. Even then it was difficult to breathe, like the air was charged with electricity, volatile as if something was going to explode anytime.

Get your shit together. Ash scolded himself internally. You’re only sleeping next to a boy. You’ve done it countless of times now. It’s only Eiji. And his traitorous heart beat faster at that thought. It’s precisely because he was Eiji.

A ghost of a touch ran through his back, warm and unsure fingers trailed by his skin. Ash jolted at the sensation, mostly out of surprise more than anything.

“S-sorry.” Came a muffled whisper from behind. There was the sound of rustling sheets and the sensation of a hand being pulled away. “I didn’t mean to—it’s just—it looks painful.”

For a minute, Ash wondered what exactly looked painful, and was about to ask Eiji to clarify what he meant, that was, until he was reminded what they were.

Scars. Those that littered the plane of his back, enough to cover nearly the entire thing. And for a moment, Ash felt self-conscious about them. He knew how they looked and he knew how marred and ugly they were. He memorized every mark on his back, all of their stories.

He felt too vulnerable with them exposed. But really, this was only Eiji, and he’s probably seen them enough times to know of their existence. He’s been polite not to inquire about them all this time, sensing Ash might not like to talk about them. So now, Ash found that he didn’t really mind.

That’s partially a lie. Regardless, he wanted Eiji to know.

“It’s not. And I didn’t mind.” Ash said, softly. He didn’t face Eiji.

“May I? Touch them?” Eiji requested just as softly. His keenness and eagerness bled through his voice, enough that Ash could never resist, not that he could under normal circumstances.

“Yes.” He said, baring the last cracks of his body for Eiji to examine. Ash found that he was running out of things to show Eiji, that was to say, he had nothing left to hide. He found this lack of secrets intimate, more intimate than any gesture one could do. He found that he liked it despite the anxiety of being under heavy scrutiny. Intimacy was a double edged sword.

Eiji’s touch was meek, hesitant. Alike a duckling trying to wade in the lake for the first time. Cautionary. It was gentle, his fingers traced the scars on Ash’s back, mapping every line, every curve, every bend on his body. The evidence of the life he’d lived bare for Eiji to see. Every fading mark of a bruise, every scar, burn and wound was a testament and this was revelation. The ruined skin was a sight to see.

“Tell me about them.” More a demand, rather than a request. A reverent one albeit, yet a demand all the same. One Ash couldn’t really refuse.

“Yes.” Ash’s eyes fluttered close just as Eiji’s hand found the scar on Ash’s shoulder blade. “That’s from a knife fight. Got scratched on the back while I was unguarded.” He mumbled.

Eiji hummed, perhaps just a hint sleepier than he was a minute ago. “How old were you?”

“Fifteen.”

“Hmm.”

“That’s from my first duel. I remember nearly dying from blood loss.” Actually, he remembered blacking out after seeing his enemy on his knees. He fought tooth and nail for that victory, albeit a pyrrhic one.

Eiji’s fingers trailed up, to the one nearer his shoulder. It had six stitches that wound.

“That’s a bullet wound. Some bastard from Dino’s mafia did it. I made him pay of course.” He was nearly shot but he barely managed to duck, and so the bullet merely grazed him. Ash yawned on the pillow, eyes starting to flutter shut. Eiji’s touch was warm, enough that Ash melted to it.

“Dino?”

“He’s the reason why my life became this way.” Ash grumbled, not exactly with venom laced in his voice, rather he was groused at the thought of talking about the bastard right now. “He’s…terrible.” Was all Ash said upon the matter, and Eiji took it graciously before moving to the next bit. His fingers trailed a rather long mark, one that straggled from his shoulder to the small of his back.

Ash shuddered when Eiji reached near the base of his spine. Sparks of heat curled in the insides of his stomach and crawled south bound, some place he’d rather not think of right now if it was possible.

“That’s from the first time I tried to escape.” Ash hoped his voice sounded even as he said it. “Didn’t want to be a prostitute.” He groused once more. Eiji sucked in a startled breath at the proclamation. It was subtle, but Ash caught it anyway. “Gave me a good lashing, that’s what they did.”

“They must’ve hurt.” Eiji said it like he didn’t know what else to say.

“They did.” Ash would’ve nodded if he was able. “Not anymore.”

Eiji gave a soft hum. His touch was lighting fires, fires Ash could not put out. That was to say, he didn’t exactly want to put them out. It felt pleasant, but he did not want to find pleasure from his friend’s touch, he’d rather not dwell on the meaning of feeling pleasure from his friend’s touch and what consequences he might cross due to it. He didn’t want to even consider it.

“You aren’t going to comment on it?” Ash confronted instead, choosing to deal with this instead of the other question hanging in the air. There was a particular way Eiji dragged the tips of his fingers on his back that made Ash deliciously shudder. He choked a silent moan and barely gasped. “My being a prostitute?”

Silence.

“Only when you want to talk about it.” He said after a beat or two. Always so understanding, a diplomatic response.

Ash laughed, and he turned to face Eiji this time. ”That both comforts and frustrates me, do you know that?”

Eiji made a confused noise at the back of his throat. “Why is that?”

“Because you sound like you’re dying to know.” Ash flicked his forehead, Eiji made a disgruntled sound. “You look like it too. Seriously, just ask. It’s not going to kill me.” Ash really didn’t mind being truthful to Eiji tonight. He didn’t mind being truthful at all. Not that he didn’t already establish that long ago. This was something Ash kept close to himself, something he didn’t want to talk about had it been any other person. It was liberating in a way. Like getting rid of extra baggage.

“I think you mentioned it once before but it’s different having said it in that tone,” Eiji hid his face into the duvet, suddenly embarrassed. It’s adorable how flustered he looked. “Having reminded me of it makes it more real compared to the offhand anecdote it was before.”

“It’s not something you just bring up in a conversation.”

“I guess not.” Eiji agreed. Silence befell them once more. Ash was busy toying with the hem of his blanket and Eiji’s thoughts were far off somewhere else, probably contemplating the new information presented to him. Ash was handling it better than he’d expected, telling Eiji this other broken part of his life. You’d think the conversation would be graver and more solemn than this. Still he couldn’t help but ask.

“Do you look at me any differently now?” Ash let out uneasy laughter, a quick puff of breath. Perhaps he shouldn’t have asked. “You know, being reminded that I’ve fucked and had been fucked by different men and women before.” Ash wanted to wince at his crass language. This was most likely from the anticipation of Eiji’s response. He was running his mouth now.

Eiji did not say anything yet, which wasn’t exactly the most reassuring sign. But he didn’t draw back his touch from Ash’s skin, nor did he look anywhere disgusted. Then again, maybe that was just Eiji’s way of being kind as he usually was.

“It makes me do a double take to be honest.” He confessed, which was fair enough. “But if you think this makes me look at you any less, then you are underestimating me Ash Lynx.”

“You don’t mind it then?”

“Someone’s sex life isn’t the worth of their dignity, so no I don’t mind. Nobody should.”

There were many things Ash could’ve said in that moment. He could’ve thanked Eiji for his honesty, for his acceptance. He could’ve told him about how much that meant to him, about how he wished to show how much it meant to him. He could’ve said that he looked beautiful at that moment, that Ash wanted so much to kiss him senseless due to the emotion that was expanding rapidly in his chest. He could’ve told him about how he liked Eiji, how infatuated he’d become, and so his acceptance of every broken piece of Ash’s soul meant so much to him.

Instead, what he said was:

“I’m starting to wonder if you really think that someone’s sex life isn’t the worth of their dignity, or if you said that because you’re a virgin and had never gotten any.” Ash quirked a brow and Eiji looked at him, stunned. And then Eiji’s façade of shock shattered into a cough of disbelief.

“You are so incorrigible, do you know that?” Eiji grunted. He smacked Ash’s shoulder. “Incorrigible.” He hissed the word though it was clear that he bore no offense about it.

“I’m kidding. I’m kidding.” Ash chuckled as he appeased the Japanese man anyway. “I’m very thankful honestly. Not all accepts it just like that.”

“Well I think it’s stupid that they don’t. Sex is just that right? Sex. Don’t really see why it should determine if you’re a good person.” Eiji frowned, then added. “Unless if they did it without the other person’s consent than yeah sure. That pretty much does it.”

“You’ve never tried it though. Sex.” Ash pointed out. He’s not really sure why he asked. He’s also asking what he already know, but for some reason he wanted to hear it out loud.

Eiji shrugged and he shifted in bed to see Ash better. There were crease marks on his face and his hair was an absolute mess of a bed head, again Ash found it endearing. “No. Not really. Is it really as good as they say?”

“Nah. Really depends.” Ash remarked. “Haven’t really had any that felt good.” This was ridiculous. How the hell did they end up discussing about sex in the middle of the night? He continued anyway. “Must be, why would men keep seeking it?” Let it be known that discussions veiled in sleepy comfort often ended up a shade too honest for comfort and thus results to either two possibilities. One, a relieving confession, or two, an exchange of idiotic ideas and dumb conversations.

One must have noticed the absurdity of the situation and the awkwardness of the state of affairs. It’s almost like some higher being took pleasure in watching this dumpster fire of a scenario play off. It also did not go unnoticed that Ash was talking about this to someone he’s very much enamored with. The painful hilarity of it all was not lost to Ash.

“Well…doing it feels good.” Eiji mumbled carefully whilst slowly burrowing himself more into the blankets.

It?” Ash raised a brow.

Strangely Eiji groaned and made vague hand gestures, hands motioning up and down.

“Oh. Right. That.”

Men talk about this right? These were just normal conversations two grown men talk about all the time, yes? Ash’s gang had never been shy to talk about their sexual exploits. (Though some higher ranking ones are more wary in Ash’s presence. Not that they know about Ash’s past exactly. But most of them weren’t dumb. They could put two and two together) A couple of weeks ago, Ash wouldn’t have minded. That was weeks ago before some groundbreaking discovery slapped Ash full time in the face.

There ought to be some sort of punch line waiting for him in this cruel joke.

“Why are we even talking about this?” Eiji puffs out an incredulous snort.

Ash wrinkled his nose. “Frankly I don’t know. We always end up talking about anything. From the most mundane to the most awkward.”

“Must be because I’m a good conversationalist.”

Ash gave him an unimpressed side eye. “I’m pretty sure it’s because we’re dumbasses, but yeah go off I guess?”

They both laughed heartily because they couldn’t really disagree to that.

“For the record,” Eiji grinned, and he made it prettier while doing so under the warm golden lights where everything was slow and drowsy, therefore beautiful in an intrinsic value. It was unfair. “I think it’s nice. To have someone to be dumb with. I mean.” He cleared his throat. “It’s er…liberating. It’s nice to not try to be some smart person all the time. Especially when you’re really not.”

“I think you’re plenty smart.” Ash offered, though he partially thought those weren’t the words Eiji wanted to hear right now. Regardless, he smiled and thanked Ash. Somehow, Eiji’s hands found Ash’s again.

And the Ash thought about how he really wanted to kiss Eiji right now.

He really really wanted to kiss Eiji under the golden lights that made his face prettier and in the warm beds of the room.

It would be so easy. He thought. He could just lean in and capture those plump pink lips with his own. His eyes wandered to the said lips and drew slowly closer.

He’s kissed plenty of people before. But he’s never wanted to kiss anyone so badly right now.

Closer.

He’s never had a satisfying kiss in his life. Maybe this will be different. Maybe it’ll be different if he wanted it this time. It was so different. And now it was only a couple more inches or two. Ash started to flutter close his eye lids and maybe he was being delusional but maybe Eiji started to flutter his shut too.

Closer.

—and the sky outside started to fill with the sound of explosions.

Ash drew away as if burned, as if he’s suddenly realized what he was about to do, the implications of his actions. Eiji also looked surprised, but perhaps for a different reason. There were fireworks outside, blasting all over the goddamn sky. Ash coughed awkwardly. The clock by the night stand said midnight precisely and there were fireworks all over the night.

”Look at that.” Eiji said, checking the time and laughed in a high pitched way that was perhaps a bit too airy than his usual laughs. “It’s already Christmas?”

Ash checked the time as well, pointedly trying and failing not to look at Eiji. “I believe it is.”

Eiji beamed and the sluggish exterior melted away and was replaced by a childlike twinkle in his eyes. “Merry Christmas, Ash.” The only way to describe the expression on his face was extremely fond.

Ash sighed, keeping his traitorous heart still in his chest, tucking it away and the impulsive act he was about to commit for later. He hasn’t waited for Christmas to come late at night for years. Most of it was good. Most of it was great, other than the light tangle in the end. So for now, he decided to reply.

“Merry Christmas, Eiji.”

Chapter Text

The New Year has come and gone, and New Year’s resolutions were made. Ash and Eiji left Austria in pursuit of warmer climates south as December turned into January. The New Year brought renewed vigor for their travels as Eiji swore he’d finish everything in his list before August this year.

So they spent the entire time doing just that.

The sightseeing part of the list was easy enough since, as tourists, they were technically going to get around doing that at some point. No, it was the more abstract ones that proved challenging. Things like, I want to do something reckless, I want to do something embarrassing, I want to do something brave, I want to go on a date, I want to try sex for the first time, I want to get black out drunk in the city, I want to be happy…and so on.

They sped through January, February, March and a bit of April from Austria to Switzerland (“It’s so freaking cold! Ash! Ash! Help! I can’t move my legs! Ash! Stop laughing!”), Switzerland to Germany (“Can you believe a great wall divided the city here once? It really just shows how no walls can divide humankind and that they will overcome any kind of oppression one way or another.” “Eh, it was just a regular cock up of a simple job really. The dude choked on live TV and said the worst possible mistake one could say to the public.” “Work with me and just romanticize the wall Ash.”), Germany to Italy (“I mean on one hand, aesthetics, but on the other, it’s really wet and the flood must be a bitch to deal with. No Eiji, don’t give me that side eye.”), Italy to Spain. (“I wish I’d get engaged  in Barcelona. Yuuri and Victor did.”) And so on.

By the last days of April, they’ve finally managed to reach France. Four months have more or less passed and they were living absolutely the best days of their lives. It was domestic bliss…or at least as domestic it could get and it was the most content Ash has ever been in his life. And now they‘re boarding a boat for a cruise along the river Seine for lunch. The wind was blowing a nice breeze, whipping their hair into different directions. Eiji kept pushing back strands of his bangs as it often ended up on his eyes. They were past his ears already, just a few more inches from his chin.

“I need a haircut.” He concluded after pushing back his hair for the umpteenth time with a little frustrated furrow on his brows. Ash ran his fingers over the softness of his dark locks in a guise of examining them, when really it was just a shameless excuse to touch Eiji’s hair, well…a shameless excuse to touch Eiji.

“I like that it’s longer.” Which was true. Cropped and fluffy haired Eiji was adorable, but there was something else about a long-haired Eiji that somehow made Ash’s face heat up. So yes, Ash will do whatever trick there was in the book to prevent Eiji from getting a haircut.

“I don’t get how you manage with that long mane of yours.”

Ash scoffed. His hair was hardly any mane. They barely reach his shoulders. But he supposed a haircut would be nice. Later, maybe.  “Don’t cut it.” Was what Ash said. And then Eiji smiled indulgently.

“Okay,” He responded. “I won’t cut it.” As if the little whims of Ash was enough to persuade Eiji, as if his opinion mattered so much. It shouldn’t make Ash’s heart constrict so hard at the thought of it. It had no right to make him feel this giddy, it definitely had no right to make Ash smile so wide and make him look at Eiji fondly, and oh he was being utterly obvious about his feelings wasn’t he?

But Eiji would respond in kind. He’d give such an openly soft gaze, a tender up turn of the lips. Ash wasn’t that dumb. He knew Eiji liked him, it was obvious in his touches and in his smiles, but not the way Ash did.

And even if one day he would, somehow, miraculously like him the way Ash liked him, it’ll lead nowhere anyway.

Ash cleared his throat. “Yeah. Right so what’s in plan for us?”

“Right,” Eiji gave another smile, but something dimmed in his eyes, almost as if he’s disappointed and was trying hard not to show it. This has been happening lately too. He often seemed like he was looking expectantly at him. “If you aren’t too against being too touristy…”

Ash barked a laugh. “Since when were we ever touristy?”

Eiji rubbed the back of his neck, curling inwards into himself. He hasn’t done that in a while. “Well what do you say about climbing the Eiffel?”

 


 

 

Eiji leaned on the rails, nearly resting most of his weight against them. He looked relaxed, serene, almost boneless. He had his camera hanging loosely on his chest. 

 The spring winds whip over their faces. The smell of the French city air filled their noses. "Lovely view huh?" Eiji hummed with contented delight with the sun about to set on the horizon, the skies slowly turning into inks of blue and purple and the golden city lights slowly turning on one by one, like fires that were lit, like stars that slowly twinkled on the night sky. 

"Yeah." Ash replied. He'd be looking at Eiji with breathlessness as he said this if this was a cliche Hollywood movie, but they weren't in a movie so Ash was pointedly not looking at Eiji and instead focused on the view and if one was to admit, the view was stunning. It's something you don't see every day, that much is certain. Ash couldn't seem to care about it. 

What he didn't like about infatuation was its tendency to make everything awkward, for one party at least. It was always so unfairly one-sided. He did not like how it often felt like his lungs were refusing to cooperate, how they think they were not allowed to breathe. The air was caught in his throat and his heartbeat thudded in the cavity of his chest.

This was mostly how he spent his time with Eiji lately and he was not amused. He did not like how every word, every gesture, every touch that lingered longer than it was supposed to, caused for him to overthink like some man in the verge of paranoia. 

He also disliked how he felt like he was tiptoeing a fine line every day, like he was teetering the precipice between confession and denial. He did not like how he was keeping a secret when they were just starting to be honest with each other.

“Gustav Eiffel also designed the statue of liberty too, did you know?” Ash said instead to dispel the brewing awkward tension he was feeling. “It came in pieces when France gave it America as a centennial anniversary of being free from British rule.” Ash was rambling. But that’s okay, better even than the discomfort of silence. Rambling he could do. It’s fine. “Thankfully they didn’t decide to name the statue with a weird tacky name like Eiffel tower. You’d think they’d be more creative.”

"It's not like your name isn't that weird." Eiji teased. "It's the lion from Narnia after all."

"My name?" Ash snickered, though mostly he was just surprised Eiji knew about that. "Aslan is Turkish for lion. So the lion in Narnia was conveniently named 'Lion'.  People really just tend to name things in their language. It's a linguistic miscommunication. Like Mississippi River, where Mississippi comes from "Messipi", the French rendering of the native American Anishinaabe name for the river, "Misi-ziibi," meaning "Great River" which means it’s now roughly called Great river River.”

"Like Soviet Union." Eiji grimaced.

"Exactly." Ash snorted. ”Though Soviet literally means council. So it’s Council Union. Essentially it’s the same thing.”

"But Lion. A symbol for bravery. It's nice." Eiji pointed out. "And Narnia's character who came back from the dead."

"Eugh. Stop comparing me to C.S Lewis' Jesus lion." His face crumpled with a face that meant he didn't care for the similarities at all. He'd rather not associate himself with either the character, or the martyr on the cross. He’d rather nor associate himself with dying. Suicide ideation had fallen out of fashion for him nowadays.

Eiji's face only looked confused.

"I bet you haven't even read the book and had only watched the movies." Ash sighed. "It's a book symbolism thing." 

"Ah." Eiji decided that he'd rather not know as he nodded with resolution to tuck that conversation away for later.

"Griffin used to tell me it was an ancient Hebrew name for Dawn. I don't know where he got that from, but I like this meaning better." Ash shared. Griffin did tell him this. Dawn, the first instance of the light from the darkness of the night. He called him the sunrise.

“I’ve always meant to ask,” Eiji said after some minutes of pause. "What does the J stand for?" He asked with sudden interest.

Ash shrugged. "Eh. It's just a J really." 

Eiji didn't look impressed.

"Fine. It's Jade. My mom picked my names. If you can call her that. Maybe the woman who birthed me will suffice. Take your pick." Ash grumbled. He didn't really like his second name. He wouldn't even like his first if it weren't for Griffin.

"Jade?" Eiji had an expression that sat between surprised and perplexed. 

"You don't like it?" Even if he didn't really like his name, he felt suddenly protective of it. Or maybe it was just his deep need of Eiji's approval or something similar to that. God what had he become? He’s turning into a lap dog, eager to wag his tail for his master.

"I didn't say that." Eiji was also suddenly defensive. "I just didn't expect it. But I'll get used to it." 

"Mhm." Ash leaned on the railings as well. "Aslan Jade Callenrese. AJC. It's a mouthful."

"I think the names are fitting for you." Eiji quipped.

"You think so?" Ash tore his gaze from the city view and instead directed them at Eiji with a touch amused smile. "I've always thought they were strange."

"Yes." Eiji explained. "Dawn like the brightness of your hair, Jade like the color of your eyes. A jewel in the sunrise. It's lovely."

Ash sighed. "I still think it's weird."

"Better than mine at least." Eiji pointed out. 

"It can't be that bad." 

"The kanji in my name says differently." He chuckled.

"Kanji?"

"Yes. Our names are written in Kanji." He tried to explain. "Ei-ji." He took Ash's palm and wrote the character of his name with a black sharpie marker. “英二” His palm now read. "It roughly means "great second." 

"Do you actually carry that sharpie wherever we go?" Ash grumbled at the Japanese character on his palm.

"I do. You never know when you need it." Then with Ash's other hand, he wrote "Okumura." “奥村“ it read, and Eiji capped his marker before putting it away. “It means secluded village and really, neither of them makes sense.” He examined his handiwork on the American’s palm, a searching gaze flickered in his chocolate eyes. “Yes, the name Eiji is traditionally given to the second born, ironic is it not?” Eiji’s hands on Ash’s were temperate with only the tips slightly colder than the rest. His thumbs started to stroke his hands. “Oh and Okumura isn’t any better.” He gave Ash’s hand a squeeze before letting it down. Now his face was a little morose with downcast eyes.

Ash’s face morphed into concern and Eiji seemed to have immediately sensed this.

“Sorry. That was a bit of a mood killer.” He’s always apologizing, always afraid to take up space as if he’s not allowed to want something for himself and Ash hated that. He hated that Eiji was somewhat still holding himself back.

“Eiji,” He took his hand and clicked his tongue. “You can say what you feel. You know this. It’s fine.” He tried to sound reassuring. He thought he might be doing an alright job at it. The faint quirk up Eiji’s lips was evidence.

“I know.” He said. “In theory yes. My brain is still trying to accept it.” Eiji laughed quietly. “You don’t just unlearn the attitude you grew up with, but I think I’m doing better. I’m trying and when I took up this trip I was determined to do just that. I thought if I just told myself to pretend I’m confident enough to say how I feel, it might be real. I’d like to think it’s working.”

“I never would’ve known the first time we met. You looked confident then.” Ash remembered the man he first conversed to in that shitty diner, the bubbly personality he seemed to be in the surface. Funny how first impressions always had something more laying beneath them. People are multifaceted. You’ll find yourself surprised the more you learn about a person, and Eiji was just surprise after surprise since America and now they’re halfway across the world and Ash was still constantly learning.

“It’s called practice. I had a lot between the start of my trip and meeting you,” Eiji’s eyes crinkled. It seemed like a funny thought crossed his mind. “Faking it is easier when you know you’re talking to strangers and that you have the reassurance that you’ll never see each other again. You have no idea how anxious I was making you agree to this crazy idea of an adventure.”

And while Ash recalled the moment they first conversed properly as they drove madly away in a getaway car, his mind was replaying a different scene, something that happened earlier before that. “I meant when you jumped through the wall. You’re posture, your eyes. It was like you changed into a different person. You looked so sure of yourself. And you flew,” Ash said softly. “It was easily one of the single most amazing thing I’ve seen in my life.” He confessed.

“I’m sure that can’t be true.”

“But it is. It looked like freedom in a single moment.” And he’s never felt freedom his entire life.

Until now.

Wind blew away at their hair. Eiji kept one hand on his head to brush away the strands that whipped on his face.

“Well. Pole-vaulting is all I ever know so yeah. It was probably the surest I’ve ever been in my life.” He pushed back his bangs with this contemplative look. “The closest second was probably responding to you in that diner. Or maybe just sticking around you all in all.”

Ash had a lot of questions reeling, questions like how can you say that? What are you trying to say? What do you mean? He somehow managed a “How can you say that?”

“When you spoke, you sounded so fascinating. And when I saw you, I was immediately drawn to you as if something was telling me it was alright, as if the universe was pointing bright neon arrows at you saying here! Talk to him! He’ll be perfect for you and you’ll both get along with no problem. And when I met you, like really met you, it was so easy to get comfortable and you felt so familiar. You get me?” Eiji sounded frantic in his explanation, caught in some heated fervor. And maybe if it had been another person who said it, Ash wouldn’t have understood, but somehow this was Eiji and it felt like he simply understood for some reason.

“I think I do.” He found Eiji fascinating from the get go, with some inexplicable reason. And it was easy to be comfortable with him too. Like he’s already met him long ago and was simply relearning him again. He felt so familiar like no one in the world ever did. “Do you believe in the multiverse?”

Eiji’s eyes widen. “Are you implying that we’ve met already met each other in a parallel universe?” And he grinned like this idea pleased him.

Ash shrugged. “It’s either that or reincarnation. But I like the former. It sounds more realistic and I’m not religious so…” He trailed away.

“Do we always meet in those universes?”

“Depends. I’d like to think we do in a way. There is a phenomenon where particles can interact physically with each other no matter the condition or distance. Maybe we’re like that in a way. Maybe we’re always meant to interact.” Ash thought about Quantum theories and Quantum mechanics and entanglements, and particles in the universe that are always existing with the other.

“Doesn’t that just sound like soulmates?” Eiji squeezed his hand and the reality that their hands were still together all this time dawned on Ash and there was Eiji’s fond and gentle and hopeful look again that was so cryptic and could mean a million fucking things and Ash just wanted to know because he did not like not knowing and it was driving him insane.

He had to tell him.

His heart pounded in his chest so loudly, it drowned out all other sound in the world.

He had to tell him. Everything. He need to confess his feelings here and now.

“Does it?” Ash croaked. “A person made by the universe to be with you? I don’t know as much as it sounds probable, I want to believe in free will and choice.”

Coward.

And again, Eiji’s eyes dimmed just slightly, just enough to lose the luster they once had previously. Ash knew he probably said the wrong thing again. He pulled his hand away to fiddle with the strap of his camera and he gave a nervous chuckle.

“I’m glad to know you chose me then.” But the statement didn’t sound as happy as it was said in previous times.

“Yeah.”

And they fell silent. They’ve been playing this dance lately, like a waltz. A move forward, a move backward, a sidestep, and forward again. It’s driving Ash mad.

Eventually it was late enough in the evening and they needed to eat dinner.

“So what are you in the mood now?” Ash asked Eiji.

And Eiji, in all sincerity he could muster, said with all pent up energy he could express.

“I think I want to get really really really drunk.”

Chapter Text

Ash had two jobs for the night.

One, watch over Eiji as he get shit-face drunk in France and make sure he doesn’t embarrass himself (too much). A little bit wouldn’t hurt.

And two, make sure he doesn’t lose his stuff while he was shit-face drunk. Most especially his credit card as Eiji’s exact words were “Let them take all the cash in my pocket, my wallet, or phone, even my clothes, just never the card.” In concern, Ash simply took everything from Eiji for safekeeping. Except the clothes, he could keep his clothes of course. That’s one line of thought Ash refused to think of, no sir.

As it was, they were currently tucked away in a corner of the counter where an exotic blend of a drink was served to them. It was probably some kind of cocktail or another. The techno and bass played loudly over the bar’s speakers so they nearly had to shout to hear each other.

“What is this?” Eiji brought the beverage to his nose and he immediately furrowed his brows. His inexperience in alcohol showed like a bright neon arrow pointing at him if one really bothered to look.

“Don’t know. Don’t care. It’ll get you drunk at some point.” Ash raised the glass in a toast. “Cheers.” He said before proceeding to gulp down the contents of the glass. He felt the burn of the liquid slide down his throat to his chest, spreading out to his entire body. It had been too long since the last time he tasted alcohol that wasn’t in wines and god did he need it. Eiji followed suit but somehow choked midway. He shuddered.

“It tastes bad.”

Ash shrugged, the aftertaste lingered on his mouth. “It’s an acquired taste. Wanna back out?”

“No. Give me one more.” Eiji insisted with a shine on his eyes. Ash grinned and signaled the bartender for a different drink. The Japanese was also adamant in tasting as many variety as he could, meanwhile Ash had sworn off anything more than just one glass since he needed to stay sober for this.

Eiji was three glasses in when his face turned bright pink and he was slowly heading towards tipsiness. Quite impressive for a first timer.

“S’very hot.” He started slurring, his accent heavier than before, molding his words into something sharper and beautiful than it normally sounds. Ash was terribly charmed.

“Is it now?” He was also very much amused to this new and looser side of Eiji.

Hai. Very very hot.” Eiji started to loosen two buttons on his shirt while rolling up his sleeves to his forearms.

“You must be drunk by now. Lightweight.” Ash snickered. Eiji swayed in his seat.

“Shuddup.”

He was on his fifth glass when he became more confident, bolder. Apparently five glass Eiji was a flirt, a terrible one, but a flirt nonetheless. Ash found it amusing.

 

“You are very pretty. Do you know that? Very very beautiful.” Eiji murmured, slamming the glass on the wooden counter.

“You think so?” Ash held back his laughter with a palm to his mouth while he took Eiji’s phone to record this. He wasn’t going let him live this down.

“I know so.” Eiji slurred with a serious look in his eyes. “You’re very smart too. Very very smart. I’m jealous.” It’s a wonder how he managed to still speak English. Seriously Ash would blush at all the praise directed at him if it weren’t so funny. Eiji took another shot. “S’ so frustrating. You’re so pretty and you’re smart and so cool and I’m me. I don’t deserve you.”

Okay, sixth glass Eiji was an emotional drunk. Not what he expected. The transition was fast.

“No it’s not about deserve remember? You told me that. Come on.”

But Eiji didn’t seem to hear Ash at all. In fact, he started giggling uncontrollably. “You can be completely stupid too.”

Ash can’t help but feel a bit affronted. “Excuse me?”

“Really really stupid. Baka. Ashu baka.” He started murmuring in Japanese, one Ash could never hope to understand. “I don’t know how else you’ll get it. Do I have to hold it up in a sign or something? S’really really obvious by now.” Eiji launched into a lengthy speech that didn’t really make sense to Ash even though it was said in his language.

“What are you even talking about?” Ash did not like how it felt like they were having two separate conversations all together.

“See? S’what I’meant.” Eiji exclaimed. “You don’t get it at all. S’not like m’forcing you into anything. ’M perfectly fine f’ you don’t like me but do be clear about it.” And Ash was even more confused. Where was all of this coming from? Was this about him leaving America with him? Was he still worried about Ash not going with him on his own volition?

Eiji drank one more glass. He shuddered and then his whole demeanor changed. Ash braced himself for what facet of Eiji might come out this time.

“I wanna dance. Do you wanna dance?” Eiji was pretty inebriated by now. Seven glasses must be enough. Surely? He must be sloshed out of his mind. Regardless, after a resolute nod, Eiji decided. “I’m going to dance.”

“Don’t stray too far so I can still keep an eye on you!” Ash called out before Eiji could saunter away to the group of bodies in the dancefloor. The sound of techno and bass drowned out what Eiji said in response, if he said anything at all.

Well he must have heard at least, since Eiji was just dancing in the Ash’s view. Dancing, that was to say, he was trying and he was moving his limbs yes, but he was doing a terrible job at it. Regardless Ash thought he looked beautiful as he did so, eyes shut in laughter with not a care in the world, unbounded, like flying, like freedom. The club’s lights casted him in a lovely glow while the shadows danced on his face.

Ash smiled, one that could only be described as absolutely besotted. He ordered one more glass of tequila. One more wouldn’t hurt. Especially if he had to pine and watch over Eiji for the rest of the night. Just as the bartender handed his drink, one woman sat on Eiji’s previous seat. Ash immediately stiffened. He was surprised it took them this long. He sensed a dozen interested eyes at them the moment they entered the room, well specifically on him. 

“Hey.” The woman said, her French accent was heavy due to her intoxicated state, if the smell of alcohol on her breath was any indication. Ash scowled some more and deigned to ignore her, hoping she’d take the hint. It was unlikely.

Hey.” And there it was. The woman said it with a hint of impatience. This time, Ash did face the woman. An irritated glare was etched on his face. This was the exact reason why he disliked going to different places to drink.

“I’m not interested. Whatever you have in mind.” Ash said firmly. He sipped from his glass to stop himself from lashing out some more.

“You’re American? Your accent sounds American.” The woman smirked, still ignoring what Ash was saying. He remembered this sick feeling twisting in his gut and he did not care for its familiarity.

“No shit. Now I must politely request that you leave me alone.” Ash stifled a groan. The woman was drunk, she probably didn’t care enough about boundaries or rejection. He’s have to find a way to get her leave, one that doesn’t involve bodily harm.

“Why?” She started bringing her hand to her his chest, fingering the button by his collar, he popped it open to reveal his clavicle. Ash gripped her wrist to stop her from doing anything more. “I look good, you look good. Plus you’re not taken are you?” She batted her lashes at him.

Ash paused.

He wasn’t technically taken, but he wasn’t available either. He definitely wasn’t available. He was doomed to eternal pining for his friend.

“Well?” She demanded. Again, impatient.

“I—“

“Hey!”

Suddenly Ash was holding a lapful of a drunk and sweaty Eiji still high from dancing.

“Woman,” He pointed at the lady who was going through different shades of surprise all at once. “This man’s mine.” Ash stared at Eiji and—did he just growl?

He did. Eiji’s arms were wrapped around Ash’s neck and he’s probably blush if he wasn’t so dumbstruck. There was a lot happening. His heartbeat thundered in his chest, pounding in his ears.

“And who are you supposed to be?” She cried just as she recovered from her surprise.

“M’his friend. S’that what you call it? No?” Eiji snapped his fingers as he tried to recall. “Oh right. Boyfriend. S’right. Yes, boyfriend. Isn’t that right?” He cupped Ash’s face with his palms and now Ash was definitely blushing, his chest pounding harder. Eiji winked at him conspiratorially and all Ash could do was croak a faint affirmation, losing his voice and pretty much his mind.

Ash shuffled on his seat to adjust their weight so Eiji wasn’t leaning too much on him and so both of them would feel more comfortable with this sudden set up. He grabbed Eiji’s bottom perhaps a bit harder than should have and so Eiji gave a soft moan of displeasure and gave him a look. Or was it displeasure? Ash didn’t know, all of this was overwhelming. (Maybe if Ash stopped thinking about how Eiji’s butt was firmer than he’d thought it’d be, then maybe he’ll actually stop short-circuiting.)

“Now,” Eiji tore his gaze from Ash as he decided to just slide off his lap in the end, and the American suddenly felt he was allowed to breathe again. “You better leave us alone now. Off you go. Byeeeeee!” He pushed the woman away from her seat—his previous seat, while she gave mild protests about it. Not that she could anything about it though. Ash concluded that seven glass Eiji was an aggressive Eiji, one that would probably pick fights if not prevented. Ash would take note of this with delight later, for now he was flustered.

Not later, Eiji went back to his seat with an apologetic look on his face.

“Yeah sorry about that. About the sitting on the lap and the boyfriend thing. Didn’t mean t’make you uncomfortable.” Eiji grumbled. “But she was making you uncomfortable too so…” He shrugged. “Thought I’d help you out.” He signaled the bartender for another drink. “Oh and the calling you mine. You’re not some property t’own. Sorry ‘bout that too.”

“I’m great. Lovely. Not at all uncomfortable. Nah.” Ash rambled while he slowly willed his chest to keep still. “Really, thank you.” Somehow though, something deflated in Ash when Eiji apologized for saving him from that pesky woman. God, did he actually believed that was all true? Did some hopeful corner in Ash’s mind actually believed that everything Eiji said was some form of drunken confession? Apparently if his chest felt like it was plummeting down.

It’s cool. It’s okay. It’s cool. Cool cool cool cool cool. Everything was cool.

“Just—just wanted to make sure. Considering well you know…you probably don’t—“ Eiji gestured incoherently at him.

“I don’t what?” Ash tilted his head on the side. He was getting tired of these cryptic messages.

“Y’know?” Eiji sighed, just as extremely exasperated as him. The bartender came with Eiji’s drink and the man immediately went to grab the glass, but Ash snatched it before Eiji could. Being more sober than the two definitely had its perks.

“I think you had enough.”

“No.” And Eiji snatched the glass back to drink it all in a single gulp. The fact that he did not choke this time was impressive. He was getting better at this. And he was also definitely getting drunker as well. Oh he’ll regret this tomorrow.

“If you feel like dying tomorrow, don’t blame me. I tried to stop you.” Ash said as he finished his own drink. He wondered if he’d be even able to remember any of this in the morning.

“Shhhhhhh. Y’look really cute when you’re concerned. And I’m trying this hard not t’find you cute okay? Thiiiiis hard!” Eiji leaned forward towards Ash, both hands on atop the blond’s shoulders and he was so close, so so close Ash could smell the stench of alcohol on his breath. He wondered if Eiji could smell his too. His heartbeat thundered on his chest. Could Eiji feel it?

“S’so hard t’see you everyday and know I can’t have this. M’not forcing you int’anything. M’not.” And then he started talking in rapid fire Japanese, again all leaving no sense to Ash. “S’just that you really have t’make up your mind at s’mpoint. Dunno if you’re unsure, dunno if you’re just uninterested, but f’s’the first, then y’should stop doubting and do something cause it’ll always be in your pace, Ashhhh. And I. feel.the.same.”

“You’re drunk Eiji. You don’t know what you’re saying.” Ash mumbled as he looked away.

“No. N’fact m’brutally honest for th’first time in m’life!” EIji exclaimed.

“Are you?” Ash asked. He knew it was pointless arguing with a drunk man, but damnit Eiji was making it difficult.

“Yesssss.” He slurred and jabbed a finger on Ash’s chest. “Very much so. Very much so. V’been raised not t’say anything. M’opinions don’t matter. Smile Eiji, don’t let ‘em see your tears, Eiji, don’t say anything. You’re disappointing. Try harder. You can’t make a mistake. You need to be perfect. You’ll never be the best, you’ll never be number one. M’sick of that so listen!” And Ash nearly sobered up at that. Apparently eighth glass Eiji was honest Eiji, and maybe Ash was just slightly afraid of this Eiji. He didn’t know if he could handle anything he might say.

Eiji visibly relaxed, he took a breath to calm down. He was getting tired, and now he rested his face on Ash’s shoulder. Ash, without anything else to do, hesitantly wrapped his arms around Eiji and patted his back in comfort.

“What m’saying is…what I’m saying is…” Eiji trailed away. Ash’s heart was beating fast in anticipation of what Eiji was going to say, his nerves were in haywire, the air volatile, explosive, thick, tense and everything else in between.

“….ski.”

“What?” Ash barely caught the words as they were muffled on his shoulder.

“Dai…suki…” Eiji murmured.

“I don’t—I don’t understand.” Ash nearly pleaded.

Daiskidayo.” Eiji murmured again, and perhaps he didn’t really hear Ash because seconds later, Ash could hear snoring from his companion.

That made no sense. That didn’t resolve anything at all.

“Eiji.” Ash shook him awake. “Eiji.” He tried harder, but Eiji was passed out from eight glasses of alcohol. His snoring was now louder, body limp and heavy on Ash’s shoulder. He look tired.

And Ash?

Ash wanted nothing more than to scream.

 



“Kill me now.”

“Mmm, nope. I did warn you last night.”

“I want to die.”

“You don’t. You’re being dramatic.”

It actually felt satisfying to see the curled up ball writhe in pain when Ash tore the curtain open. The said curled up ball grumbled for Ash to shut the light out. Ash, suddenly feeling bad dimmed the room just a little bit.

Somehow Ash was able to haul Eiji back to their hotel with clothes, wallet and credit card intact. The only issue was Ash’s sanity, but nobody really wanted to hear about that. Eiij still wore what he did the previous night, his hair was a mess, his eyes had bags under and he was really pale. When he woke up, the first thing he did was sprint to the bathroom and hurl his guts out.

“I haven’t done my skin care routine and now my face feels terrible.” Eiji’s muffled voice came from under the duvet he was hiding under.

“You’ll live.” Ash was unsympathetic.

“My mouth tastes terrible. I haven’t even brushed my teeth. It tastes like puke and everything terrible in the world.”

“Nothing we can do about that now.” Ash smirked. “You drank quite a lot last night for a new timer. I’m inspired.”

“Please please please tell me I didn’t do anything embarrassing last night.” Eiji groaned.

“Oh I videoed some parts of the night. I think I had some of my favorites.” Ash handed Eiji his phone. “It’s in your gallery.”

A hand stuck up from the ball of blankets to receive the sleek black thing. Next, a head popped out to watch the said video. A beat came from the speakers of the phone, the beat from last night’s club. Soon enough, a recorded version of Eiji and Ash from last night came into sound.

Eiji’s face turned pink, then red, then white, and then all five stages of grief all at once. Especially at whatever Japanese he was saying. That didn’t help with Ash’s curiosity at what they meant. He really should start learning Japanese.

“Kill me now.” Eiji wailed harder this time, burrowing deeper into a ball of blankets. ”Kill me now. Kill me now. Kill me now.” The chant now faster and more ominous than ever.

“It can’t be that bad.” Ash said as he pulled away the sheet.

“It is.” Eiji threw the device across the room, which thankfully fell on the carpeted floor. Ash rolled his eyes. The phone didn’t have any picture, just sounds. And it was just a few seconds from the end. Whatever he must’ve said was that embarrassing. Ash sat on the bed beside Eiji.

“Will you tell me what it all means?”

Eiji groaned but didn’t actually say anything else.

“Eiji.”

A pair of tired, hungover dark eyes peeked at him. “You’re either really dense, or you’re uninterested. I’m starting to think you really are just dense.”

“You’ve been telling that since last night.” Ash swallowed down the irritation in his mouth.

“Because it’s true.” Eiji huffed. He pulled out a sharpie marker out from the folds of the blankets. “Hand.”

“You just never part with that do you?” Ash gave a startled and disbelieving laugh.

“Hand.” Eiji had one awaiting for his. Ash raised a brow.

“I just washed the last one off. It took me hours.”

“Hand.” Eiji insisted anyway.

Ash took one last look at Eiji who had determined eyes despite the obvious hangover pounding in his head before complying. Eiji gave a satisfied hum before he felt the sensation of wet marker ran an unfamiliar script on his palm. It was another Japanese character. Or maybe they were characters. There were more than just one.

“Find out what that means. It’ll answer everything. If your sentiments are the same, you’ll tell me. If not, we’ll forget about this whole thing and we’ll continue as we are,” Eiji’s tone took a serious turn. “It’ll always be at your pace Ash. Always.” And he said this as a promise, as if it was some sort of oath, and Ash just wanted to know.

“Can’t you just tell me?!” Ash couldn’t stop his irritation now and it spilled from his mouth to their ears. Eiji flinched, perhaps partly from fear, perhaps partly from the hangover. Ash hoped it was the latter. He molded his tone into something softer. “It’s already driving me crazy.”

Eiji shook his head, or at least tried. He immediately groaned the moment he tried to move his head. “I can’t be wrong about this.”

“You don’t always have to be right all the time.” Ash said gently, softly.

“Not this one. I have to be right. Otherwise you might not want to be with me anymore and I can’t risk that.” The trouble with Eiji, Ash was painfully reminded, was that he’ll never tell you what he really wants deep down. The trouble with Eiji, was that he was an open book and yet written in a nearly indecipherable code, or in a long dead language. He was hieroglyphics on the walls of Egypt and Ash hardly has a Rosetta stone to help translate. It’s a working progress.

“That’s stupid. I’ll never leave you so long as you want me.”

“Just humor me then.” Eiji said. “Do it for my sake. For insurance, reassurance. Whatever you want to call it. You’re smart. You’ll figure it out.”

Ash stood there, confused with what to do.

Well he didn’t really have any other choice than to play Eiji’s ridiculous game.

“Oh. And no using my phone to search through the net. It takes away the thrill.”

It was on.

Chapter Text

Despite Eiji being hungover just the other day, they found themselves in another bar anyway.

Ash spent the entire time searching for the meaning of the words on his palm while Eiji spent the entire time groaning in bed, recovering from the previous night. He claimed he still hadn’t gotten better and lamented about it in the Louvre which they ventured that morning. Still, Eiji was here nevertheless.

“I’m pretty sure I told myself I was going to stay away from alcohol until the next month or something.” Eiji mumbled while he buried his head in his arms. Unlike last night, they were in a table instead of the counter. Eiji insisted it so that he wouldn’t see or smell so much liquor in one place.

“Don’t worry, I ordered juice for the little boy.” Ash snickered, but Eiji just gave a halfhearted shrug. 

“I know you’re being condescending right now, but I really can’t at the moment.” He still hadn’t risen up from his position on the table, looking more and more like a sorry heap from his usual cheery self. The sound of people singing in the background filled in the pause between them. It was apparently a karaoke bar.

“I really did order you juice though.” More singing.

This time, Eiji did look up. “Oh.”

Just in time for the waiter to set a glass of orange juice for Eiji and a bottle of beer of Ash.

“I’m never gonna get myself black out drunk again. At least I can cross it off the list now.” Eiji rest his cheek on the cool surface if the table top. Eiji grabbed the glass and sipped tentatively from it. He only managed an eighth of the content before he pushed it. In doing so he managed to spill some of the contents on the table. He groaned and signaled the waiter for a napkin. In Japanese. Ash wondered if he even noticed.

“Ugh. I can’t even English anymore.” He declared.

The waiter wiped the table anyway.

Arigatou.” Eiji mumbled sullenly.

Douitashimashte.” He replied in kind and that made Eiji snap up, eyes wide. His vice was smooth a deep.

Nihon-jin desuka? Nihongo ga wakarimasuka?” Eiji asked in excitement. And that was all Ash could follow in the conversation. Both of them talked too fast with growing enthusiasm each second. Eiji’s hangover seemed to have been willed away by interest alone. Ash maybe feeling a pang of jealousy. Okay maybe not a pang, a large bit of jealousy. He swore he’ll learn the damn language.

Eiji turned to Ash with a wide grin, as if he’d only remembered Ash was still there. “He could speak Japanese!”

“No shit.” Eiji still had the habit of stating the obvious. This only made Eiji pout a bit before he went back to conversing with the man. This just ticked Ash some more. He ended up staring at the people on stage who were singing with the lyrics on the screen. Soon enough the song was over and the two were still not yet done conversing.

Goddamn.

“We have a free spot. Anyone want to sing in front?” The lady on stage asked the crowd. Before Ash could actually think about it, he pulled Eiji’s hand up.

“He volunteers!” Ash yelled and Eiji looked at him first with confusion, followed by disbelief, then absolute horror when it finally dawned to him what Ash signed him up for.

“What the hell?!” Eiji spluttered while the people around them cheered.

Ash gave him a cheeky grin. “I distinctly remembered you wanted to do something reckless. Here’s your chance.” And then he gave Eiji a push towards the crowd so that they could lead him on stage.

“Not like this!” Eiji hissed.

“Good luck!” Ash yelled back, and in a sudden uncharacteristic course of action, Eiji gave him the middle finger in response and Ash can’t help the laughter that left his mouth bordering on a hysterical cackle. He then turned to the waiter who still haven’t left them after he calmed down.

“So you’re part Japanese?”

The man shook his head. “No. But I’ve been to Japan. I’m learning Japanese.” He explained before leaving to attend the other people in the packed bar. Ash shrugged and turned back to the stage.

Eiji stood there together with the lady.

“Hello honey, are you a tourist?” She started to talk with this heavy French accent to Eiji who was looking like a deer caught in the headlights.

H-hai…I mean! Yes. Yes…I’m Japanese.” His face was flaming red, his eyes looked everywhere but the woman. Cute. Ash sipped from his beer to hide the lovesick grin on his face.

“It’s great that you decided to visit here in Paris. It’s pretty lovely, oui?” The woman was really chipper and the entire room seemed to buzz with her energy. Eiji was getting more comfortable with all the eyes on him. His shoulders started lose their tension.

“Yes. It is. Much better than London.” He said with a soft chuckle and the woman broke into a wide Cheshire like grin, the entire room cheered to that, probably less than sober in every passing minute.

“That’s my boy! Now, are you here in the city of love with someone special? Is that your boyfriend with you?” She exclaimed, with that Ash choked and almost did a spit take. On stage, Eiji looked like he was about to combust.

“N-no. He’s not my boyfriend.” He murmured to the mic, looking at Ash for a spilt second, then looking away quickly.

“It’s alright dear, we get lots of kinds here. We don’t mind.” The woman winked at him with this wickedness. Eiji grumbled something to her off mic and her eyes widen, her lips pursed into a shock, then a mischievous grin. Something about that look spelled disaster to Ash. And then after tossing Ash a short glance, she whispered something to Eiji’s ear, making both of them laugh.

Ash did not like that cryptic interaction. He did not like not knowing. He did not like the feeling burning in his gut. He did not like to acknowledge it. Acknowledging it meant he was admitting to himself that he was feeling so much infatuation for Eiji to feel jealous when he paid more attention to other people other than him.

Son of a bitch.

Feelings were hard. But yes, Ash felt jealous when he paid more attention to this woman, like when he paid more attention to that waiter and Ash could not understand a lick of what they were saying. Jealousy was such an ugly feeling, it burned in his stomach, twisted in his chest and clawed at his throat, leaving a bitter feeling on his mouth.

He swore he was going to learn how to speak Japanese.

And then Ash was hit by a moment of inspiration.

He scrambled to look for the waiter that came by their table a while ago and flagged him with a wave of his hand. “Hey!” He called out until he came over. “Hey! Wait—wait, you know Japanese right? Can you help me read this?! It’s really important.” He tried not to show the desperation in his tone, but he was almost certain he was failing epically.

Oui sir. Where is it? So long as it’s not kanji.” The server was eager enough, but when Ash looked at his palm, the writing there was smudged, likely due to the condensation from the bottle. His heart sank and he groaned.

“No!”

“Oh my. Bad luck.” The waiter tutted.

“No not yet. Do you have a pen?” He snatched some napkins on the table while the man thankfully handed him a pen from his chest pocket.  Ash had never been more thankful for his nearly perfect photographic memory and managed to somehow recreate the words, albeit in his wonky handwriting instead. The lights also made it difficult to write anything legibly.

Meanwhile the conversation on stage continued and Ash tried his best not to get distracted by it.

“Alright honey, pick a song.” The woman stage said.

Eiji had determined eyes when he picked his song. “Somebody to Love by Queen.” Of course. He stared at Ash with this meaningful look in his eyes. Brown eyes to green, a second passed, then two. Ash tore his eyes away from his.

The woman said something in French to the crowd. Ash drowned it out. He needed to focus on this.

大好きだよThe paper wrote. He prayed his penmanship in Japanese was legible.

“There! Can you translate it?” He slid the napkin to the man.

He picked up the paper and squinted at it really hard before he finally perked up in recognition.

Oui. It means: Dai suki da yo. It’s Japon for I love you, Je t’aime. Or I really like you. If you haven’t known each other that long, it could mean I really like spending time with you. En réalité though it’s a way of saying affection.”

…What.

What?

What?!

Ash technically heard the rest of what he was saying but his brain stopped registering at I love you. And it repeated in his mind over and over and over again.

IloveyouIloveyouIloveyouIloveyouIloveyou—

It couldn’t be…right?

He stared back at Eiji just as the music started, stunned.

But what else could it mean?

“Can anybody find me…” The Japanese cleared his throat. “Somebody to…”

Love?

The soft melody of a piano started to play. Ash was almost sure that the song picked wasn’t just a coincidence either. The looks Eiji had been sending him should mean something right? The soft burn in his gaze made Ash’s face heat up.

“Each morning I get up I die a little. Can barely stand on my feet.” Eiji started to sing to the mic. “Take a look in the mirror and cry. Lord, what you're doing to me. I have spent all my years in believing you. But I just can't get no relief, Lord! Somebody!”

Somebody

“Ooh somebody.”

Somebody

“Can anybody find me somebody to love?” Eiji’s singing voice never was the best, but it was charmingly alluring Ash like a siren song. The lilt of his accented voice was achingly familiar over the months they spent together. Slowly enough, Eiji’s unsure posture melted away, little by little gaining confidence. “Everyday I try and I try and I try, but everybody wants to put me down. They say I'm going crazy. They say I got a lot of water in my brain. Ah, got no common sense. I got nobody left to believe in.”

Yeah yeah yeah yeah

“Oh, Lord. Ooh somebody, ooh somebody. Can anybody find me somebody to love?”

God he was beautiful. Ash could never deny it and he’d been saying this a lot lately, but it was true. He was beautiful, absolutely stunning, blindingly gorgeous just as he started to sway with the music, feeling the beat of the song in his blood. He looked like he tasted freedom for the first time in year, a bird soaring out in the air. It was the same look he had when he jumped over that wall.

And apparently Eiji loved him. It couldn’t be right? It couldn’t be. There must be some mistake…right?

“Got no feel, I got no rhythm, I just keep losing my beat. I'm OK, I'm alright I ain't gonna face no defeat. I just gotta get out of this prison cell, one day I'm gonna be free, Lord!” And then the people started to sing with him, though they may have changed the lyrics in support. Imagine a French bar singing an English song from a British band, how unusual.

Find him somebody to love, Find him somebody to love, Find him somebody to love, Find him somebody to love, Find him somebody to love…

Find him somebody to love

Find him somebody to love

Find him somebody to love love love…

But it would make sense, all those cryptic messages would make sense and knowing how nervous Eiji was, how deeply he always cared about what Ash wanted, it’d make sense why he was so reluctant to say it.

Find him somebody to love

Find him somebody to love

Somebody somebody somebody somebody

Somebody find me

Somebody find me somebody to love

Ash needed time to let it all sink in.

“Can anybody find me somebody to love?” Eiji grinned at the audience, absolutely nothing holding him back now. This was courage no alcohol can give. And Ash found his feet moving on its own volition, moving forward. Fuck it. They might’ve decided.

Find me somebody to love

Find me somebody to love

Find me somebody, somebody somebody, somebody to love

Find me, find me, find me, find me, find me

Ooh, somebody to love. Find me somebody to love

“Ooh find me somebody to love.” Ash was moving towards Eiji, he’s not so sure what he was doing. His mind was all blank when he approached. He was already going up the stage.

Find me, find me, find me somebody to love

Anybody, anywhere, anybody find me somebody to love love love!

Eiji was just a ten paces away. Five. Three. Two. One.

“Can anybody find me? Somebody to….—“

And.

And.

And—

Ash’s brain registered a couple of things slowly and then all at once.

First, the crowd was cheering loudly, louder than it ever did for the night but they were muffled and he sounded like he was underwater. Second, he was clutching someone’s shirt. Apparently it was Eiji’s and he was pulling him into his direction. Third, he wasn’t breathing, not that he couldn’t but rather he didn’t want to. Fourth his mouth tasted something citrusy, something fruity, something like orange juice...

And fifth, he was kissing Eiji.

He was kissing Eiji Okumura.

Holy fuck he was kissing Eiji Okumura.

And.

And.

And…

…He was kissing him back.

Deeply, desperately, filthily, mind-blowingly. He kissed him like a man in need of the sun, devoured him with so much hunger in his mouth. He moaned and melted into Ash’s body. Vaguely, Ash could feel arms wrapping around him, clinging to him for support.

Eventually they needed to part for air, and Eiji was a wreck. Swollen lips, flushed face, blown wide eyes. It was amazing, it was thrilling, it was wonderful. Ash probably looked the same. Disbelief was on Eiji’s expression, his mind probably blank at the moment until he choked up a few garbled words.

“….Holy shit.” He gasped. “Holy shit.” And then laughed hysterically after exclaiming and he ran his hand on his hair, clutching the black strands. He sounded breathless. Ash felt the same, in fact his heart was still pounding like crazy in his chest.

“I think that’s the first time I heard you curse.” Ash chuckled because it was all he could do. Subconsciously, he could feel his knees getting weaker and he clutched at Eiji’s shirt harder. “But yeah, holy shit indeed.”

“Stop being mean and kiss me again. You have no idea how long I waited for you to do that!” Eiji bemoaned. Ash snickered but obliged. He took Eiji by the cheeks and pressed another kiss on his lips, albeit a more chaste one this time.

Ash couldn’t believe this was happening to him.

The crowd cheered congratulations to them. Ash suddenly remembered their audience and he felt a bit conscious with this overly public display of affection. In fact, he couldn’t believe he actually publicly confessed his feelings to Eiji. Eiji seemed to share his sentiments.

“So,” He started. “How about going somewhere more private?”

 


 

 

They ended up leaning on a bridge overlooking the river Seine.

“So…” Eiji began.

“So?” Ash tried to look him in the eye without flushing. He failed.

“You like me.” Eiji looked like he wanted to curl up, but at the same time he also sounded coy, almost smug about it, together with disbelief. “Romantically.”

“Shut up.” Ash grumbled and buried his face in his hand. “It’s not like you don’t like me back. Stop sounding so smug about it you little shit.”

“When?” Eiji asked him in lieu of a witty comeback, and now he sounded shy too. “When did you start liking me?”

This made Ash pause. His answer was: “I don’t know.” He shrugged. “For a while now I guess. But it was your sister who pointed it out to me.”

At this Eiji squawked. “K-kimiko?!” He looked troubled. “Sh-she told you? That you like me?”

Ash shrugged again. “She helped me realize. Apparently it was that obvious even though I didn’t see it at that time.

Eiji counted on his fingers. “That was nearly six months ago!” He ran a hand on his hair. And then looked back at Ash. “All this time?”

“Yep. Apparently.” Ash smiled. “You? Tell me when you started liking me.”

Eiji stared at his hands. “I think I’ve always liked you ever since I saw you.” He confessed and Ash can’t help that disbelieving laugh that escaped his lips.

“No way.”

“No. I mean it. I mean come on, you know how you look. There’s no way I couldn’t be infatuated with you in some physical way or another. I’m very very gay Ash, and you look—“ He gestured at Ash’s entire body in a way that conveyed frustration.

“Oh, you think I’m hot.” Ash grinned and Eiji just gave a noise that sounded alike a dying whale. It amused Ash. He was not letting Eiji live this down ever. Eiji exhaled a deep breath and tried to control his embarrassment. After a while he continued.

“And then I knew you even better. At first it was just trying to get an acquaintance to keep the loneliness away, and if he was going to be an interesting American who happened to be attractive, then so be it. But then you were different from anyone I met and not because you were a gang boss. You were kind, so kind to me. You’re brave and smart, and beautiful, not only from the outside, but also on the inside. You cared so much for me and no one ever has like you have,” Eiji bit his lip and stared at Ash with sincerity in his eyes. “When you stayed with me the day after we met my sister, when you tried to help me even though you didn’t need to, even though you had no idea what to do, I think…I think I realized I was more than just infatuated with you.” Eiji smiled.

“I...I didn’t expect you to say anything like that.” Ash ducked his head. “I mean I’m a gang boss. I’ve done a lot of terrible things. I’ve...killed people, Eiji. I’ve done…so many things I can’t even tell you yet—“

“And you’ll tell me when you’re ready, and if you’ll never be, then that’s fine too.” Eiji insisted. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m really really into you at this point. It’s crazy.”

Ash stared at him really hard. “I still don’t get you sometimes. You are the strangest man I’ve ever met.”

Eiji laughed, just a little bit on the softer side. His face fond, but still a bit worried. “Is that a bad thing?” Still unsure, still self-conscious, still anxious.

This was familiar. But this time, Ash was sure of what he was going to say. He grinned wide. “No,” He reassured with all honesty. “Not at all. It’s not a bad thing.”

And Eiji beamed at him with the brightness of the sun. He leaned towards Ash to press a kiss to his cheek but froze midway.

Okumura Eiji-sama, tomatte koudasai.” A man in suit and glassed appeared out of nowhere. A couple others came and surrounded them. They were probably up to ten or more. They had guns pointed towards them.

“Ash—“

“Eiji stay back!” Ash put Eiji behind him by instinct, shielding him from any potential trouble. Again the man said something hostile to them in a foreign language, a little bit like Japanese, or perhaps they were Chinese? Ash was not so sure, his blood was pumping in his veins and the familiar roar of thunder crashed in his ears.

“Ash but—“

“Eiji, please.” Ash hissed as he glared at the men. He was horribly outnumbered, but he’ll be damned if they harm Eiji.

“Aslan Jade Callenrese listen to me!” Eiji yelled and Ash turned to him in surprise.

“All of you! Listen to me and stand down.” Eiji huffed, expression annoyed. That was enough to get Ash to stand his guard down. Eiji turned to the men and said something commanding in Japanese. The men stopped their hostility towards them.

“Eiji…I don’t understand?” Ash furrowed his brows. Eiji gave him a sheepish smile but didn’t really respond yet.

“It’s alright he’s with me and you’re all so early. I still have four months.” He sounded exasperated.

“Oh no, just think of this as payback for leaving without any warning. The last party was terrible by the way, thank you for that.”

A voice came from behind the men. A familiar voice. After hearing it, Eiji instantly groaned. “I can’t believe you came all the way to France just for this.”

The men parted to reveal a man with long hair braided to the side, dark malicious eyes staring at them and mouth twisted into a sharp smirk, faltering only until he saw what who was before him.

“You!” He pointed disdainfully at Ash.

“I should be saying that you bastard.” Ash retorted when the initial shock wore off.

“I should’ve known! This was what Blanca meant in his cryptic post card! I should’ve added two and two together!” He wailed.

“You know each other?” Eiji looked between the two of them.

The man screamed in frustration. “Eiji, I should be saying that. How on earth did you end up with this piece of shit? You have a lot of explaining to do. Actually both of you do.”

Ash groaned. He should be saying that.

“I share the sentiments. You also have a lot to tell me. Like what are you all doing here,” Eiji eyed the other men around them pointedly not listening to their conversation. “Don’t you? Yut-Lung?”

The Chinese sighed with the flair of drama he always seemed to possess. “Well then, why don’t we go somewhere nice and quiet for a chat?"

Chapter Text

“I know your tastes were terrible, but holy fuck Okumura, have your standards lessen over the year?” Yut-Lung frowned at having to sit in diner instead of a high-class café or patisserie that he expected. Ash snickered, while Eiji simply shrugged but not before shooting him a coy look. He knew the Japanese was just being characteristically petty for Yut-Lung to have suddenly arrived uninvited. Ash absolutely just fell for him some more.

The Chinese refused to order anything while Eiji started digging into his angel cake. Ash simply had coffee. The silence that hung over them was loud. Only the clinking of utensils echoed between them. Even the people around them seemed to have shied away from talking.

“Alright, first order of business,” Eiji declared after one more bite, seemingly unable to take the silence any longer. “What are you doing here?” He nodded at Yut-Lung and the three bodyguards left outside. The people had been shooting them wary looks.

“I think you mean what he’s doing here.” Yut-Lung pointed at Ash accusingly, something like disgust flashed in his face. Ash returned the sentiment. Eiji sighed.

“I don’t see how that’s so important. We met in America that’s all you have to know.” He insisted.

“Oh no Okumura, don’t you say that to me, this is important. This man is a criminal, he’s dangerous, he’s a murderer and he’s probably using you in some way. I know what he’s capable of.” Yut-Lung shifted his glare from Ash to Eiji.  

“As if you aren’t the same you asshole. You’ve dirtied your hands just plenty. Eiji, this man is using you. How could you possibly trust him?” Ash snapped back.

“Okay that’s it. Both of you stop it. Nobody is using anybody.” Eiji grumbled while he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Ash, this is my acquaintance. The one I told you about. I’ve known him since he we were children and yes, I had the suspicion that he isn’t innocent at all.”

“What? This bitch?!” Ash was dumbstruck. “And you knew? So why the hell are you still buddies with him? Eiji, your disregard for safety is alarming!”

“Refrain from insulting him please. It’s not going to help any of us.” He leveled Ash a scolding look, a tired look that knew exactly how exhausting dealing with Yut-Lung could be. Damn. “Plus I’m sure at this point, everyone in the upper circles has some clue about it, nobody is that dumb.” Eiji rolled his eyes. “Except Mr. Parker. He was an idiot.”

Yut-Lung snorted at that. Ash was starting to think he got his sass from Yut-Lung. It was eerily similar. Disturbingly similar. Maybe they really were acquainted. 

 “And Yut-Lung, this is Ash, my err…” Eiji tripped at his words. He looked at Ash with a confused face, not entirely sure how to label him since they’ve obviously haven’t talked about it as they were conveniently interrupted. “My…friend. Yes he’s my good friend. He’s been with me for the most of my travels.”

Yut-Lung paused, and then looked at him with the most unimpressed expression littered all over his face. “Bullshit Okumura. When I told you to get laid, I didn’t say go fuck the first pretty boy you could find. I know your type shut up and don’t deny it.” He spat with venom.

“You don’t need to be so crass about it.” Eiji mumbled. He rubbed his face, looking tired so suddenly. If Ash was in his shoes, he’d start wondering why he befriended the man. Actually,  tha doesn’t stop Ash from wondering why Eiji befriended Yut-Lung. “And we haven’t done anything. We’ve only started working it out awhile ago, which you conveniently disrupted. Thank you for that.”

“Oh I will be crass about it. I know this man and you, you naïve little boy, happened to be unlucky to have ever met him.” Yut-Lung hissed, his arms on his chest. “He could be really charming if he wanted to. For all we know he’s using you for power or some other sinister plan.”

That was it. “Insult me all you want, but never my intentions for Eiji.” Ash snarled, slamming his hand on the table. He was close to grabbing Yut-Lung’s neck. He was going to choke him. How dare him. This was the one honest thing in his life and he would not stand to have it insulted.

“Okay that’s it. Let’s move on to the next subject. What are you all doing here?” Eiji held Ash back, otherwise he might’ve really caused a scene. Ash sat back on the chair, but he kept his glare on Yut-Lung.

“It’s nearly your birthday.” Yut-Lung schooled his face back into boredom.

Eiji scoffed. “I still have four months.” His answer was cryptic.

“Your grandma asked me to bring you home for it.” Yut-Lung replied with same haughtiness Ash remembered he possessed. It grated on his nerves.

“So you’re in cahoots with my grandma now.” Eiji sounded annoyed.

“I need all the allies I could get if I want to overthrow my brothers. And the Okumura matron is a good ally. You forget how influential your company is.” He explained. “Nothing personal just business. Think of this as a favor for her so I can claim one when I need one.”

“I’m taking over the company anyway. You don’t need her support.”

“Oh please Eiji, we both know you don’t want it.” Yut-Lung waved his hand. “And your sister is too young. She equally hates the job. Peculiar siblings. Anyone would kill to inherit your empire. Regardless, I’ve done extra precautions in case you did end up running away and everything ends up with your sister. Lovely favor I gave her, she just wanted to see you.”

Eiji was getting more peeved. “You told her where to find me?” He pinched the bridge of his nose. ”She could’ve gotten lost. She left all by herself. What you did was dangerous.”

“How else would she know you were in Hungary? Feisty one she is. Both of you are a lot alike, though both of you deny it.” Yut-Lung sneered. “Not my fault she acted reckless, all I did was give her information. Recklessness is something you two have in common as well.”

“You were tracking me.” Eiji deadpanned.

The Chinese examined his nails as if the conversation was dull. As if he couldn’t be bothered. Eiji acted like he was expecting this attitude, if the long suffering sigh he gave was to be judged. “You left without warning. You’re not the only one who’s petty.”

“And yet you didn’t know about Ash?”

Yut-Lung looked extremely offended. “I have a life too. I’m extremely busy Okumura, not everybody has time for a vacation like you. I know where you are, I have no clue whatever the heck and what kinky sex you might be doing with your boy toy—“

“We aren’t like that, seriously how many times do I need to tell you.“ Eiji rolled his eyes.

“—And really, do I look like a stalker to you? Goddamn.” Yut-Lung fumed. In Ash’s professional opinion, Yut-Lung definitely could be classified as a stalker. In Ash’s professional opinion, Yut-Lung could go fuck himself, but he wasn’t going to say that out loud in respect to Eiji. He would, definitely do so once Eiji was out of sight or hearing range.

“So that whole thing about Blanca meeting us..?”

“Was a coincidence. He left and tracked Ash on his own.” Yut-Lung sighed, just as exhausted with the whole ideal. “I should’ve known. No wonder he sounded smug in his note. The bastard.” His words were between gritted teeth. Ash did remember Blanca mentioning about the Okumura matron. He also very much knew who Eiji was from the get go. But Eiji was somewhat of a public figure, so knowing his identity isn’t that big a feat to accomplish for someone like Blanca.

The bastard must’ve been so amused.

Eiji growled. “I’m not going to Japan. Not yet.”

Yut-Lung had this glint in his eyes, almost surprised that Eiji was able to be assertive until now, otherwise it looked mostly amused. “Oh we’re not going to Japan. Get up we’re flying to London.”

Eiji looked like he just swallowed something sour. “I’m not going anywhere.” He insisted still.

“Stop being difficult.”

“You’re not taking him anywhere.” Ash interjected.

Yut-Lung sniffed and gave him a scathing hiss. “Stay out of this. This doesn’t concern you.”

“No, he’s right you’re not taking me anywhere,” Eiji frowned and at this Yut-Lung opened his mouth to argue more. Eiji interrupted him before he could. “At least not without him.”

Yut-Lung paused, his mouth in a downturn. He was obviously displeased, but he was debating it. Ash could see the gears turning in his mind, he was weighing his options. “If we bring your boy toy, will you come with me?”

“Yes. Willingly and without resistance.” Eiji answered without hesitation.

“Eiji—“

Yut-Lung smirked, face carefully arranged into calculated delight. “So be it. Now hurry up and pack your shit. We’re already running late.”

 


 

 

They ended up in the Okumura’s private jet.

Yut-Lung refused to sit anywhere near Ash’s vicinity and sat as far away as possible from them, muttering something about getting sick at seeing the two of them so touchy-feely. So there he was, in the pilot’s cabin and a threat to never disturb him while he was asleep. Ash absolutely liked that idea. It was probably the only idea from the Chinese that he agreed eagerly on.

Meanwhile Eiji was tense on his seat and they haven’t even took off. It was obvious that he was tense. He was clenching and unclenching his fist. His lips pressed into a thin line, on one hand he was swirling a second glass of champagne. He was also really pale.

“You okay?” Ash whispered to his ear. Eiji nodded swiftly, paused and then shook his head slowly.

“No.” Eiji said honestly. “I really am not.” He drained the rest of his champagne.

“Wanna talk about it?” Ash coaxed softly, taking the flute out of Eiji’s fingers before he drank himself to oblivion. Surprisingly, Eiji was easily let him pry it out of his hands.

“A lot’s suddenly happening. It’s overwhelming.” Eiji shared. “There’s Yut-Lung appearing out of nowhere, and my grandma we have to deal with later. It’s…a lot.” He chuckled with a nervous hitch to his voice. That didn’t sound good. And then, “I’m sorry.”

“What for?”

“For bothering you again. For bringing you into this.” Eiji smiled feebly. “It’s selfish, but I think I’d feel better facing them with you.”

“Don’t ever apologize for this. I want to be here.” Ash reassured. He’ll reassure Eiji for all eternity if he had to. “I chose to be here.”

“Yeah?” Eiji’s smile became more at ease, but not comfortable enough.

“You kidding? I just learned you liked me and you think I’ll just let you leave me just like that? You must be crazy.” Eiji laughed at this. Ash took it as a success.

“Now what do you need?” Ash asked.

“Distraction? My general anxieties with flying is not helping.” He laughed once more while gripping the armrests of the plane. “My past life must’ve had some bad experience with planes.” He tried to keep his tone light and airy. He sounded like he was trying too hard to keep calm, like containing some too big thing in his body. Ash’s mouth twisted downward, but he tried to keep cool for both of them.

“You think? I think I was stabbed in the gut in my past life.” Ash joked. “I have a birthmark over there that looks like a stab wound.”

“And you’re so sure you were stabbed?” Eiji’s eyes crinkled, lips into a tentative smile. It might have worked.

“Well, I don’t think I will die in any way other than murder with my charming personality.” Ash snorted. “Even in my past life.” The smile vanished.

“Don’t joke about these things.” Eiji reprimanded.

“Oh sorry.” Ash suddenly felt chastised. “I forget sometimes.”

“I’d be devastated if you suddenly died.” Eiji said with open honesty. He whispered it with so much reverence it sounded like something you’d hear from Sunday service. The last time Ash had been in one had been so long ago, back in Cape Cod with his brother because the world will be damned if his father was going to church, a sinner. The world probably will as well if he did now.

“Really?” A response.

“Very.” A confession. “I think I’ll go crazy.” He chuckled. He stopped gripping the seats. Instead, he laced their hands together. Fingers intertwined, palms against each other. Ash clasped his just as tightly.

“Then I won’t die,” Ash replied with equal reverence, with a tone that belonged on the pews of the church as one knelt on them, hands clasped together, a prayer, a petition, a plea, a promise. “Just for you.”

“We can’t live forever either.” Eiji might’ve mourned, might’ve reassured.

“We don’t need forever,” Ash said. “but I’d take it if I could spend it with you. I’d find you in every lifetime, in every universe, in every version of ourselves. I’d find you.” And this was the truth.

“How poetic. Does that come from a book?” Eiji teased.

“It isn’t. It’s all me.” Ash shot back.

“Sap.”

“Your sap.”

And Eiji’s eyes became fond. “Yes, mine. All mine.” The way he said it brought a lovely warmth in Ash’s gut. His voice became softer than it ever did, so soft it made Ash’s chest clench. “It sounded like when you were reading to me in the library. I like it when you read. You sound peaceful.”

“Do you want me to read to you?” Ash offered.

“Yes.” Eiji answered immediately, too eager that he was almost embarrassed.

Ash decided not to tease him about it. “Do you have a book?”

Eiji nodded. “The one you gave me. The replacement for Yut-Lung’s.”

Ash got up and looked for the book in the bag. “Still can’t believe it was his. Actually I can’t believe you know each other.”

“I can’t believe you two know each other either.”

“Small world.” Ash shrugged.

“We wouldn’t have met if it wasn’t.”

“Yes.” Ash picked up the book and cleared his throat. He flipped the book open and read. “….If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.….” He began.

“Back to the beginning then?” Eiji peered over the pages, resting his head on Ash’s shoulder.

“Do you even know where you are at this point?”

“Fair enough.” Eiji conceded and started to close his eyes as if to go to sleep. Ash didn’t mind.

“…They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They're nice and all--I'm not saying that--but they're also touchy as hell. Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy. I mean that's all I told D.B. about, and he's my brother and all—“ Ash paused a bit. He remembered why he gave Eiji this when he thought they didn’t have the time in the world to know each other that well. He suddenly remembered how this book could hit so close to home.

He's in Hollywood. That isn't too far from this crumby place, and he comes over and visits me practically every week end. He's going to drive me home when I go home next month maybe. He just got a Jaguar. One of those little English jobs that can do around two hundred miles an hour. It cost him damn near four thousand bucks. He's got a lot of dough, now. He didn't use to. He used to be just a regular writer, when he was home. He wrote this terrific book of short stories, The Secret Goldfish, in case you never heard of him. The best one in it was "The Secret Goldfish." Eiji was becoming more pliant, softer. His warmth was ridiculously comfortable. He was relaxed, vulnerable, open. Ash relished in it.

“It was about this little kid that wouldn't let anybody look at his goldfish because he'd bought it with his own money. It killed me. Now he's out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies. Don't even mention them to me….”

Around the eighth page, Eiji was already deep asleep, soft snores rumbling at his ears. Ash slipped in a piece of paper on the book before closing it and putting it away. When he looked back up, Yut-Lung was staring at him with an unreadable look. Ash immediately put his guard up. How long had he been sitting there, listening?

Yut-Lung rolled his eyes. “Please, there’s no need for that.” He stood up and sat directly across their seat. Ash wrapped an instinctive arm around Eiji.

“I’m not going to hurt him asshole. Relax.” Yut-Lung hissed. Ash took note that he actually took the conscious effort to be more silent with Eiji asleep. Still he eyed him with suspicion. For a moment they were silent and Yut-Lung was staring at Eiji with another unfathomable expression, it had neither fondness, nor hate. It simply was something.

“What do you want?” Ash tried to keep his hatred in softer tones for the sake of Eiji who was still pressed against his shoulder.

“I should be asking you that. What do you want from him?” Yut-Lung’s face was cold, his tone colder.

“None of your concern.” Ash spat out.

“Is it? I’ve known him far longer than you ever had Lynx. And I’ve known you longer than he has known you.” Yut-Lung sneered at him. “It’s not in the nature of people like us to know love. We are not like him.” He glanced at Eiji. “You will destroy each other. And you will hurt him.”

“Go fuck yourself.” Ash snarled. “Why would you care? You said it yourself. You’re incapable of love. Why bother with him?” He held Eiji tighter.

“I used to hate him too. I absolutely abhor his existence. How can he keep smiling when he goes through shit?” Yut-Lung scowled. “If I’ve no idea who he is beforehand, I’d be worried about how weak he has made you when I saw you so love-struck and besotted for him.”

For a bit that made Ash splutter, but Yut-Lung did not give him a chance to react.

“But he has that power over people. He could make everyone fall in love with him.” He scoffed, “That or absolutely hate him.” Ash did not know what to do with this information and the Chinese looked vulnerable, or at least as vulnerable as he would allow. “Knowing Eiji’s stubborn ass, whatever I say wouldn’t get through that thick head of his,” he snickered. “But know that I’m absolutely against whatever you two have. And if you know what’s good for you and for him,” He nodded at the sleeping figure. “I suggest you stay away from him.”

And without another word, he got up and left a baffled Ash on his seat, a tumult of emotions mixed all over his mind.  He hated how unnerved he felt, he hated how Yut-Lung had a point. He hated how there was logic in what he was saying, how it made sense.

So Ash did what he did best when he felt like this. He tinkered to push those thoughts down. He tinkered and tinkered until he momentarily forgot about his worries.

 


 

 

The flight wasn’t too long, after all it was just an hour and a couple of minutes tops.

Any signs of grogginess from Eiji was immediately gone the moment Ash told him they’ve already landed. He was back to feeling nauseous and looking really pale.

“Stop biting your lips.” Ash whispered to him in the car that was sent to pick them up.

“I can’t help it.” Eiji hissed back. He looked like he wanted to hurl himself out the window, like he’d rather be anywhere in the world. Truth be told, Ash was nervous as well. He didn’t know what to expect and he did not like the familiarity of this sensation, of being too on guard. He squeezed Eiji’s hands tight, both for EIji and for himself.

“It’s gonna be okay.” He tried to reassure them.

“I wish.” But Eiji did not look at all convinced.

The car slowed down in front of an expensive mansion in what Ash assumed was Mayfair, because of course it would. Except it had the most peculiar feature as it was stoically Victorian outside in its facade and yet the interior was unyieldingly Japanese inside with a modern touch. The sudden change was such a whiplash. Servants lined up to bow in greeting, a perfect ninety degree angle. Yut-Lung hardly passed them a glance, however Eiji smiled at a couple of familiar faces on the other hand. The servants did not move an inch.

An elderly woman was waiting at the foot of the grand staircase wearing a rich blue kimono with flowers woven in the pattern. She imitated the other servants and bowed a respectful ninety degrees. “Okaeri.”

Eiji stopped before her and bowed as well, his hands clenched into fists until his knuckles turned white. Ash wanted to soothe them away.

Tadaima.”

Chapter Text

“Madame Okumura.” Ash tried his best to sound just as respectful. He imitated the bows of the servants. He’s seen Eiji do it a couple of times. He’s pretty confident he could do it properly this time. He shouldn’t be afraid, heck he shouldn’t even be nervous. He’s faced things more dangerous than strict wealthy elder women. Still he worried anyway.

When Ash had stood up, the woman gave him an unimpressed look. Yut-Lung honest to god sniggered and Eiji…was trying hard not to laugh.

He failed.

“Ash—“ He broke off, giggles escaping his tightly closed mouth. “That’s not my grandmother, or any direct relative.” Eiji bit his lips to stop laughing. His shoulders still shook anyway. Ash snapped ramrod straight, eyes widening and face turning red in the face. The servants around them, who apparently were a selective bunch of foreign people, looked like they were trying hard not to laugh as well.

“Oh.”

“Ash this is the head of our servants, Mizuguchi-san. She practically raised me and my sister.” He turned back to the woman and spoke in Japanese once more, probably introducing him to her.

The woman said something sharp and suspiciously incriminating in Japanese. Eiji laughed again at this, delighted. Mirth danced in Eiji’s eyes, lips stretched in amusement. He looked so happy. So in a way, Ash felt happy too, by some extension even though his happiness mostly stemmed from his own expense, as it often was.

“She said, you are going to get yourself killed if you do that in front of my grandmother.” He helpfully translated. Ash’s face burned some more.

“Eiji-sama never brought guests before,” She started to talk in English.

“It’s not like I’m allowed to bring guests.” Eiji sighed also in English, for Ash’s sake. “Or have any guests to invite. And Yut-Lung has been here before.” The said Chinese looked bored as usual. Ash nearly forgot he was there.

“I assume we won’t have to prepare a room for him?” Mizuguchi-san’s faint smile was entertained when she glanced over Ash.

At this Eiji blushed he glanced at Ash and did not deign that with an answer. Mizuguchi-san knowing look and the implication of it made Ash’s face redder than before as well.

 “God can both of you not right now?” Yut-Lung scoffed, eyeing both of them impatiently.  “You know what? Whatever I have some business to attend to anyway.”

“Should I prepare a room for him as well?”                                        

“Don’t bother. I’d rather not stay overnight in any building with these two. Seeing the Lynx so tame is giving me the hives. Okumura’s besotted face isn’t any better either.” He shot them an appalled look, something like a sneer of repulsion and distress. “Don’t choke on your tea, old grandma.” With that, he turned on his heel and exited the room all while the two Japanese shared a knowing look and a snicker. Ever the drama queen.

“I will have a room prepared for your guest regardless. It is better that way.” The way she said guest was pretty certain that she meant more to it than it was at face value. Ash could read between the lines. He did not know if her amusement extended to approval, or if she was unaccepting of it and was simply too polite to comment on it. Ash did not want to know. “Leave his belongings there.”

“For my grandma. So she doesn’t become too scandalized.” Eiji whispered to him conspiratorially. “And the servants gossip. Not that we could do anything about that.” Ash snickered at this.

When they arrived at the door of some grand room, the woman bowed and let them on their own devices. “Rest Eiji-sama. We will send for you when breakfast is ready.” Breakfast?

Ash looked at the time. It was four in the morning and it was nearly dawn. Had it been that long?

Before the woman could leave though, Eiji asked. “Will my grandmother be joining us?”

“Your grandmother is still off in a business trip in Yorkshire, some kind of curtesy call. She will be back in a day or two.” With that she finally left them.

Eiji visibly relaxed at her reply, at the same time he clenched his hands. Eiji turned to him and smiled a crumby tight-lipped thing that did nothing to mask his nervousness. But it was fine, the confrontation would not happen in another two days. Eiji opened the door to the room.

Ash glanced over the overly extravagant chamber, spacious and minimal. It matched the rest of the house in décor and atmosphere. A large king sized bed was in the middle of the room, a neat bedside desk on the side. It was clean, bare, spacious, arranged.  It was nearly alike the hotel rooms and apartments they’ve hopped across the continents and yet very different as well.

This lacked the scent of being lived in. It was detached, unlike all the other rooms Ash had ever habituated. This was nothing like the dingy rooms of the New York apartments they called their headquarters, nor was it anything like musty Cape Cod with saltiness in the air that only seaside towns only ever managed to do. It wasn’t like brothel rooms that smelled too much like sex and cheap alcohol to be comfortable. It didn’t even have the comforting smell of a new hotel room or rented apartment Ash had grown to like over the months.

This had nothing.

Impersonal. That was the word. The entire room was distant in a way hotel rooms never were for them. Like a common backdrop, something Ash wouldn’t have remembered by himself if he tried.

“Alright so far?” Ash sat next to him. Eiji smiled. One of his tells, Ash noticed over the months, was that he smiled too much when he was nervous, he laughed a lot too, as if that would be enough to conceal what he truly felt. He was not fooled.

“I should be asking you that.” Again, he was avoiding the topic. Ash decided he will not push for now. He shrugged.

“It’s great I think. A bath would be great though.”

And he supposed that was the right thing to say because Eiji immediately perked up at that.

 


 

The bath was actually big. Too big to be used for a single person.

“That’s because it’s not meant for one.” Eiji sighed, a soft moan escaped his lips as he dipped further into the hot water. He rested his head on the edge and placed a damp cloth on his forehead. “I missed this so much.” His face bled into absolute bliss, some familiarity upon the motions and the sensations, remembrance and memories flited through the curves of his expression.

Ash followed suit. He had to admit it was relaxing. The heat soothed the tension in his muscles. The bath was big and spacious enough to not have to be near each other, and yet Ash still found himself nearly pressed against Eiji’s bare skin, just a few inches away from each other. He could feel Eiji’s warmth and it branded on his skin. He was too conscious of their proximity.

A bottle of sake brought by a servant just awhile ago was shared between them. Eiji seemed to be drinking a lot of alcohol ever since getting drunk in France. It was almost like the flood gates opened up for him. Ash told him this.

“As Yut-Lung once said, and I quote ‘alcohol is your lubricant as life fucks you up your ass’. I didn’t get it then. I’m starting to now.” Eiji peeked out from the towel covering half his face, a pair of doe eyes stared at him.

Ash snickered. “He really said that?” He took the cup of sake to his lips and sipped tentatively. “He’s such a bad influence.” The clear liquid tasted bitter as slid down his tongue, the taste foreign and new.

“As if you aren’t as well.” Eiji snorted.

Ash let out a puff of laughter. “I’m the damn best influence in your life.”

“You wish.” Eiji stuck out his tongue, petulant as he ever was.

But then he turned somber and he poured himself a drink, and then he refilled Ash’s cup as well. “Tell me how you got acquainted.”

“It’s…it’s not really a fun story.”

“Tell me anyway.” His voice was pleading, demanding, begging, commanding. “Tell me everything.”

Ash didn’t want to dampen the mood, but when could he ever deny Eiji of his requests? He’s long accepted defeat in that department. He drained the contents of his cup in one gulp. “We crossed paths in L.A. He deceived us into thinking he was innocent. He was a spy. He kidnapped my friend, Skip and blackmailed Shorter into helping him. He’s my other friend. They’re…they’re gone now.” Partly because of him. Came unsaid. He knew Eiji said everything, but he couldn’t, not right now.

Eiji nodded thoughtfully. His cup danced on his fingers, the clear liquid swirling as he stared at it with contemplation.

“He’s been through a lot. Knowing him, he’s rather die than tell me about all of it. But there were some that slipped from his tongue when he was nearly black out drunk.” Eiji said solemnly. He drank his cup of sake and shuddered. He set the cup on the side.

“Tell me about you and him then.” Ash hoped bitterness did not slide of his mouth when he said this, he hoped it sounded more curious than scornful. He may be Eiji’s friend, but Yut-Lung still left Ash in a bad mood.

“Our relationship is complicated. We’re not exactly friends but we seek each other’s company whenever we’re in the same event by chance. It’s been like that since we were children.” Eiji confessed.

“I couldn’t ever imagine him as a kid. He’s always looked cruel when I picture him in my head.” Ash poured himself more sake. The image of the Chinese’s haughty sneer entered his mind, his lips always twisted into a cruel smirk, eyes that nearly look like black, more purple than blue. The image of Yut-Lung in Ash’s mind had always been terrifyingly malevolent.

“Mhm. We didn’t get a long at first. He hated me.” Eiji pushed his hair back, wet bangs away from falling on his eyes.

Ash knew. He heard it from the man himself. He can’t help his sarcastic remark though. “What? You? No way.”

“Shut up.” Eiji splashed him some hot water while Ash laughed at his petulant reaction. “Anyway I saw him first when I was eight, he was five then. I thought he was a girl. I told him he looked very pretty and that I didn’t know the Lee’s had a daughter.”

That was a surprise.

“You what?” Ash nearly spat out his sake.

“Yeah, he kicked me in the shin and nearly strangled me when the adults weren’t looking a minute later. I was immediately amazed.” Eiji laughed when he recalled. He covered his face again with the wet cloth out of embarrassment, both red from it and the heat. “I think it was because he was the first person I met in the elite circle that was genuine in their reactions. Children are forced into politics early you see. Parents expect us to do so.” He shared. Ash understood this. Ash had been through it as well.

“If we’re actually talking about the same person then he’s actually going to try to be on your good side.”

“No. He didn’t care, at least at that time. He didn’t start praising me just because I was named Okumura, in fact I think that was more reason for him to dislike me. It was new for someone like me. So we’ve been seeing each other in the different events we were forced into, if only to exchange a snide remark or two.” Eiji’s face was serious, his gaze was still in a distant memory. Fond, he was fond with his recollection as well. “Well, fast forward ten years and there he was, vomiting his guts out while he was drunk off his mind, hugging the porcelain bowl of some hotel bathroom and me awkwardly holding his long tresses. He was yelling his entire backstory, angrily. Midway he started blubbering in Chinese and I no longer have any idea what he was saying. I got the basics though.”

The picture looked wrong. Yut-Lung was hardly seen in anything other than in prim and proper, exception to certain times that Ash had a hand on. “That must have been a lot to deal with.”

Eiji nodded. “It was. He woke up in my house the next day with a terrible hangover, threatening bodily harm while looking like death. We were in better terms ever since.”

“You attract the weirdest friends in the weirdest ways.”

Eiji said nothing to this, but his expression looked like he definitely agreed. “If you’d rather you don’t see him in our stay here, I’ll try to keep you two from meeting again.”

“I’d actually like that.” Ash admitted. “But you being alone with him worries me.”

“There’s nothing to worry about Ash.” Eiji insisted.

There was nothing else but the sound of water pouring from some source, the sound of rippling water. It was soothing in a way, it added to the whole ambiance of relaxation as well. Softly, Ash gave admitted his own confession.

“I can’t help it. I don’t want to lose you too.” His voice was just loud enough to be heard of the rushing water. He tried to bleed sincerity into the statement.

“You won’t. The only way for you to get rid of me is when you walk away and leave me.” Eiji sighed, and he moved closer to Ash. Ash leaned his head on Eiji shoulder as if on instinct. As if he’d leave Eiji willingly. He’s never felt so at peace, so at home, so relaxed. It was an impossible feeling he never thought he’d ever experience. Halcyon. That was what this was. No other experience could ever compare.

If you know what’s good for you and for him I suggest you stay away from him.

No. He’d never leave Eiji, not when he finally felt like he belonged. And he wanted to be selfish, surely he deserved to have this, after all he’s gone through, after everything life had taken away from him, surely this was no sin, surely, surely he could take this for once in his life?

Eiji carded his fingers through Ash’s wet hair, massaging his scalp. The sensation was pleasing, the rhythmic movements of those fingers made Ash shut his eyes. A soft sound of pleasure escaped his lips.

They were silent, both in contemplation and in reverie. The sound of the water and the ripples drowned out the gloom of the room and left nothing but stillness and calm.

“We never really did talk about it.” Eiji’s voice broke through the tranquil. His fingers did not cease their ministrations.

Ash was reluctant in cracking one eye open. He felt too boneless to do more. “About what?” His voice was nearly breathless.

Eiji’s voice was ruinously reverent. His fingers slid from Ash’s golden hair and slid to his cheek. Ash mourned the loss. “What we are to each other.”

A beat, a drop of water. A flutter of eyelashes blinking open with sudden clarity.

“What do you want us to be?” Ash’s eyes drifted away from Eiji’s face. “I can be whatever you want.” He suddenly couldn’t look at him in the eye. The words sounded weak even to his ears, they sounded too scripted. He was filled with a sudden want to bite it off his tongue before it could leave his mouth.

Eiji did not look happy with this statement. It made Ash’s desire stronger. “No, I want you to stay you,” His hands slid from his cheek. “Whatever you are,” on to his neck.  “Whatever you will be,” Then down to his shoulders. “Whatever you are in the past, Ash,” Eiji wished the words to his ears. “I want it all.”

Ash buried his face deeper into the crook of Eiji’s neck. “Then be the same. I want the same.” His voice was muffled as he whispered his request unto Eiji’s slightly tanned skin. He prayed that in doing so, he’d imbed some certainty of it coming true.

“Let’s take it slow.” And Ash might’ve nodded, he didn’t know. They didn’t need labels, not for now. If this was what Eiji need, then this was what he would give. He could only thank whatever being there was that it matched what Ash wanted as well. They stayed there in comfortable silence.

Until Eiji started to fidget in his place.

“What’s the matter?” Ash pulled away just slightly to be able to see Eiji’s face. He refused to look at Ash, face rosy from the heat, from the alcohol and something else.

“Ah, I think I would very much like to kiss you again.” Shy, hesitant, always asking permission.

Ash’s eyes softened. “You don’t need to ask.”

“No,” Eiji shook his head, still refusing to look at him, did not dare to look at him. “I should. What you feel is important too.”

And he can’t just say things like that with such an earnest expression. It was unfair, how terrifyingly honest he said this, how terrifyingly sincere his words were, how much he seemed to care for him. That feeling, the feeling of someone caring for him was such a fragile thing. It was like holding a flightless bird in the hand, some living thing that’s easily crushed. A tiny heartbeat that’s breathing and alive in the grasp of Ash’s roughened and brutish hands. The feeling of having someone to care for you was frightening.

“Eiji…” Ash whispered with awe, with fear, with admiration. And Eiji moved even closer until their bare chests were nearly touching, eyes full of feeling, and he kissed him chastely on the lips, just a short peck. That peck, no matter how short, left his lips all tingly, filled him with electricity.

Ash had plenty of kisses, kisses that were deeper, that were more skilled, that were more carnal and desperate. And yet all of them paled in comparison.

“Eiji…” Ash repeated and his chest was so full, he was sure it was bursting at the seams. He leveled Eiji with a look that asked him to trust Ash.

“Aslan.” Eiji understood, his eyes shone perfectly with them. So Ash held Eiji’s face with all the tenderness his rough, calloused hands ever could muster, and he kissed him again, this time deeper.

It started slow, careless until it became more skilled. He parted his lips and learned all there was to learn in Eiji’s warm mouth.

The kiss had been playful, sensual, flirty. It was different from their kiss in France, which was frantic and desperate and just filled with passionate energy from accumulated feelings crashing against each other, it wasn’t like their first kiss which was quick and detached. This time, he set the pace, kept it steadier, more enjoyable.

Ash tried to coax out all the pleasured noises he could from Eiji and the Japanese had been receiving it so well. He was sure he was way past pleasing people, but he could make an exception for this one, as he always did for Eiji. He could taste the sake in Eiji’s mouth. His own mouth probably tasted the same. The rice wine had been bitter, and yet when Ash drank it from Eiji’s lips, it was somehow sweet.

Eiji let out a soft moan and he swallowed the very sound of it. It shot warmth through Ash’s body.

In his opinion and the opinion of so many others he’d rather not remember the faces of, he was good in the business of sex and pleasure making. He’s had enough years of experience to do so, specifically trained from childhood just to be so. And though he’s been through a lot to never want to put these skills into use again, he never thought he’d actually come to like them at some point in his life. And god was Ash relishing it right now.

“A-ash!” Eiji gasped, finally pulling away breathless and red in the cheeks. He had this dazed look in his face, pupils blown wide, they’re so black like…like…like onyx or coals, and lips swollen red, chest heaving to catch his breath. Ash would be lying if he’d say that the sight of Eiji looking so utterly debauched with just a simple kiss from Ash did not satisfy some hungry part inside of him. So scandalous. He wondered what he’d say if he saw himself in a mirror.

Ash grinned, he can’t help but tease. “You know, I have been told I’m a really good kisser. Care to tell me if they were right?” He batted his blond lashes and gave a smoldering gaze just to seal the deal. He was going back to old habits, albeit perhaps with more enthusiasm this time. It was fun to see Eiji squirm.

Speaking of, Eiji spluttered, face turning redder than it already was.

“I-I-I need to—” Eiji trailed away. “I—the bath’s getting too hot.” He got up from the water and hastily wrapped himself in a towel. “I’m going for a shower. If you’re done you can follow me outside I mean, it won’t do to just be idle here. There’s an entire house I need to show you. Anyway I need a cold shower, bye.” He rambled as he nearly ran out of the bath with how fast he walked, leaving a confused Ash in his wake.

Ash took a few seconds just staring at the door where Eiji had just gone out.

What the fuck was that about?

 


 

They didn’t really talk about it.

Ash might’ve had a faint idea of what happened. But he’d rather not pry. Deep down, he was afraid he might’ve done something wrong. He might’ve pushed too much or did something Eiji wasn’t ready yet. He wasn’t really experienced with these sort of things after all and it could be overwhelming. And the last thing Ash wanted was to make Eiji uncomfortable. He’s gone through all of that after all, it would be unforgivable to subject him to that kind of cruelty.

A voice deep in his head was gnawing his insides, telling him that he’d always managed to ruin things, that he’d probably end up hurting Eiji in the end. (The voice suspiciously sounded like Yut-Lung.) Ash drowned that voice away.

Currently they were having breakfast in this ridiculously long table. Servants waited in a perfect line by the wall and Eiji was seated far across the room, frowning at his plate as if it personally offended him because of its existence. He looked up to meet Ash’s eyes. There was a pause, and then he laughed. He said something, but Ash wasn’t able to get it the first time.

“What?” Ash yelled.

Eiji rolled his eyes. “I said, this is ridiculous.” He yelled back. And then, after a moment of hesitation, Eiji picked up his plate and utensils to move to the seat next to Ash. The servants hurriedly assisted his relocation although it was clear that they were reluctant to break the arrangement. Ash could see a few people murmuring in the back.

Faintly, Ash felt a surge of relief wash over his body at the thought that there wasn’t any tension between them despite what happened earlier.

“I’m going to guess that you’ve never done this before?” He eyed the servants who retreated back to their stations after they’ve finished their duties. Were they really going to eat with an audience?

“Never had anyone to do it with.” Eiji snorted. At this some servants looked even more alarmed. More nervous than scandalized though, Ash observed with amusement. “My grandmother isn’t here so that’s an added bonus.” He added in a whisper.

“How rebellious.” Ash chuckled.

“Oh shut up.” Eiji shoved Ash just as some of the other servants started setting the dishes on the table. There were worried eyes darting at them. Eiji did not heed them any mind.

He put his hands together and murmured. “Itadakimasu.”

“What does that mean?” Ash asked. “The one you just said. You always say that before we eat.”

Eiji looked up, chopsticks on hand. “What? Oh, it’s been months and you only cared to ask about it now?” He was amused.

Ash shrugged. “Seems fitting to ask now.”

Eiji repeated it, slowly. “Itadakimasu. It’s something we say in thanks for the food.” He explained it haltingly.

“Itadakmas?” Ash tested it in his tongue. It was foreign, unfamiliar, much like the taste of sake on his mouth earlier.

“No. I-ta-da-ki-ma-su.” Eiji elucidated it even slower, like he was talking to a child. How the tables had turned.

“Itadakimasu?“ Ash tried again.

Eiji grinned, satisfied. “Yes! Now clap your hands together while you say it.” He demonstrated.

“Itadakimasu.” Ash followed as per instruction.

“Now you’re getting it!” Eiji’s grin widen into a beam, too dazzling to be legal at this early in the moring. Good thing time did not exactly apply properly at the moment.

Ash huffed. “I’m hungry. Let’s eat.” He picked up his chopsticks from the table and then stared at the unfamiliar food served. “What’s this?” They were all Japanese dishes. Ash shouldn’t have been surprised.

“Dried horse mackerel and boiled spinach.” Eiji pointed at some of the other stuff, too enthusiastic for food. “There’s rice and miso soup too. God I missed rice a lot.”

Well, maybe Eiji did miss a little bit of home. Ash took a bowl of something weird looking. He looked at Eiji in question.

“That’s natto. Try it. It’s good.” Eiji might’ve mentioned it before. It was his favorite food wasn’t it? The fermented soy beans.

Ash frowned at it with suspicion. It did not exactly scream appetizing. “It…it stinks. It’s rotten.”

If you look closer, you could see some of the servant flinch at his audacity. Ash figured none of the staff liked natto either. They simply were paid enough to not say anything about it.

“No, that’s just how it is.” Eiji paid them no mind still.

“How do you eat it?” Right, maybe he was jumping the gun here too quickly.

“Add mustard, soy sauce and green onions. Mix it till it’s all sticky. Now pour it on the rice and dig in.” Eiji let out a pleased sound. “Delicious.”

Ash tried to follow what Eiji told him to do. It did not look any appealing even after all that. He gave it one more look before taking a bite.

He regretted everything.

“Like it?”

Ash whimpered. “I think I’m going to throw up.” He clamped a hand on his mouth. He may be some stupid American, but by god he had some table manners. He forced himself to swallow down the mouthful of natto and successfully managed to do so without gagging. “Do Japanese only eat stinky food?” He said with disdain.

“Hey it’s healthy for growing boys like you.” Eiji wrinkled his nose at Ash’s unenthusiastic reaction. “Come on. If you get used to a traditional Japanese breakfast, maybe we can go to Japan next time. I’ll even show you my hometown.”

Ash barely managed to respond. The taste lingered on his tongue and he suppressed a shudder. “Where is your hometown?”

Eiji’s expression was wistful, distant, reminiscent. “It’s in Izumo City in Shimane. It’s the land of the gods.”

Another unfamiliar word. “Gizumo?”

“No, Izumo.” Eiji laughed. ”I think you’d like it there.” And the way he said his homeland was filled with such fondness that Ash never could manage for his own. He wanted to see where this amazing man was born, how it made him, what place could he possibly come from.

“Maybe. Who knows?” And yet his tone did not match his words for Ash was quite certain he would like as it was the place Eiji had grown up, and anything that was tied to Eiji was something he was sure to cherish.

“But for now you’d have to learn to love Japanese food so eat up your natto.”

Well, not all.

“Dear god.” He would be sick before he could finish the natto.

Eiji puffed his cheeks. “If you eat it all up, I think I’ll show you a surprise.”

Ash perked up. “A surprise? Will I like it?”

Eiji had mischief in his eyes, a knowing look and a face that screamed trouble, giddy and excited like a child. “So you know that scene in Beauty and the Beast…?”

 


 

There was a lot of books.

And on a regular day, Ash would’ve gushed over all of them. These were limited editions and rare books of antiquity, the collection quite impressive that Ash’s younger self would’ve easily done something illegal to get his hands on them.

But not right now.

Right now exhaustion managed to caught up to them, and so he was lying in the library’s couch instead of reading the books available, head rested on the armrest and feet tangled with Eiji’s who sat next to him. He hadn’t slept a wink since last night, unlike Eiji who managed to nap in the plane.

“Don’t you think we should go back to the room?” Eiji proposed with a soft yawn. The early rays of the sun washed the room as it crept in through the window, painting the walls with grey and hues of yellow, like silvers and golds. It did not help the drowsiness Ash felt.

“I think,” Ash yawned as well. They really were contagious. “That I like it here.” And Eiji laughed a soft breathy chuckle.

“It’s because of the books isn’t it?” His backdrop was the brightness of the morning so the light made a halo on his hair, a lovely silhouette against sunlight. Ash needed to squint in order to see him.

“Of course it is.” Ash grumbled unabashedly. There’s always something comforting with books. “But I’m also really comfortable here. You’re really warm,” He poked Eiji’s chest with his socked feet. “And soft.”

“I’m not soft.” Eiji pushed the foot away.

“You are.” Ash poked it again with his big toe.

“Stop.” Eiji whined.

Ash crawled towards Eiji’s chest so that he was lying directly on top of him. The Japanese gave a spluttering protest, one Ash ignored. “You’re soft enough for me to sleep on comfortably.” Ash pressed his palms on Eiji’s chest and froze. He pressed and prodded on them again. There was softness in it, yes. But there’s firmness underneath it that could only come from the body of a former athlete.

“Oh. It’s hard.” He mused out loud, not even caring that he actually admitted his mistake. He shifted his position, sudden interest washing him. He shouldn’t be too surprised. They’ve seen each other naked for goodness sake. They just took a bath together not hours ago.

 “Ash.” Eiji grumbled. “Stop that, and stop squirming.”

 “Kinda hard with this cramped sofa.” Ash’s hands trailed from Eiji’s chest to his gut, and then his navel, extremely fascinated with his exploration.

“Ash.” Eiji leveled him with a warning gaze. “If you could just be kind enough to get off me right now.” Eiji groaned.

“Getting old are we, grandpa?” Ash rested his chin on the plane of his chest, a smug smirk, mischievous eyes.

“Haven’t heard that in awhile.” A breathy laugh, nearly like a wheeze. “But seriously get off me or we’re really going to have a problem.” He attempted to push Ash off his lap.

“No, I don’t think I will.” Ash wrapped his legs tighter on Eiji’s, hand gripping his shoulders as he goaded him some more, baiting him. His mouth had the biggest shit eating grin on his face.

“Why are you being difficult?” Eiji shifted his position.

“Why are you suddenly so sensitive?” Ash shot back, batting his lashes at him in the most infuriating way. And then Eiji leveled him with that look again.

“You,” He groaned again. And now Ash wondered if his weight was starting to really bother him. “Are a cruel man. You’re really are going to regret this.” He made a guttural sound from the back of his throat that was between a whimper and a growl.

There was something about his current position that was slightly uncomfortable. It felt like something hard prodded on his body. Maybe relocating to the bedroom isn’t so bad an idea after all. Ash wiggled a bit into a different position. Maybe if he shifted his weight, Eiji wouldn’t be too troubled.

Eiji moaned, face red and flushing. He immediately clasped a hand on his mouth, embarrassed. Not long after, he flinched.

Wait…what?

“I told you…you’re going to regret it.” Eiji didn’t dare look at Ash and his voice was muffled by the hand that covered his mouth. His breathing was heavy, labored.

Eiji was—

It was—

He was—

Oh.

He couldn’t even finish that train of thought.

Ash audibly gulped. Awkward silence befell them, thick and suffocating. Ash glanced at the rather obvious problem pressed between them, face starting to flush as well. He figured it wasn’t healthy to have his blood rushing this fast all the time. There was something fluttering in Ash’s stomach, something hot and fluttering and heavy and cold at the same time. His mouth dry, his hands shaking, his heart beating wild in his chest.

He didn’t know what to feel, what to do. He was frozen in place, shocked. Pleasure, anticipation, dread, anxiety, desire, want, worry, need, everything was muddled in his brain. It was loud and eerily silent in his head, blank and buzzing at the same time.

“Don’t.”

Eiji sternly said, interrupting the spiraling of his thoughts.

Ash gasped, blinking away the haziness from his eyes. Eiji’s hand was gripping his wrist, his eyes upset and admonishing.

 “What?”

“Don’t.” He said again, softer, a tone that’s so vulnerable.

Fuck, he’d gone entirely on muscle memory hadn’t he? He was so used with being used that his first reaction was to go numb and act on command, force of habit. He was falling back. “I can—“

“Not when you don’t want to.” Eiji interrupted again, like he knew what Ash was going to say.

“I—I—I…” Did he not want to? What did he want? What did he want? Panic clawed at his chest. But he wanted to, partly, in some way. The heat in his face, the throbbing in his body, he could feel it. But there was dread in his gut too, something apprehensive, something hesitant, something afraid. He did not know what he want and he did not like not knowing, he did not want to be out of control. Especially with his own body.

“It’s okay.” Eiji whispered, and this time he did look at Ash. His face was gentle, understanding, kind. Oh so kind. “It’s okay. If you don’t want it. You don’t have to do anything.” He loosened his grip on his wrist.

“Eiji—“

“No.” Eiji hushed him. “I can hear you, you know,” he began. “When you sleep, you talk a lot when you’re dreaming. It hurts me.” He was so reverent with his words, wrapped with a thin veil of tenderness. “I tried not to pry when we weren’t this familiar with each other. I pretend to sleep while you’re plagued by nightmares and you wake up to go to the bathroom. I hated it,” His lips twisted down. “I hated how I can’t help you and I know how you are uncomfortable with this. I’m sorry.”

“Eiji…” But Ash couldn’t formulate sentences. He couldn’t summon the words to be coherent enough. Fuck it, he didn’t even know what to say. His mind was drawing a blank.

“Shh,” Eiji reassured once again. “It’s okay. Now please let me out.”

Wordlessly, Ash moved aside and Eiji shot him a faint smile. “Thank you.”

And Eiji left without saying anything, leaving Ash dumbfounded. Now he did not know what else to do. He tried not to think about what Eiji was going to do—was doing right now. He tried not to think about how he’d look while doing so, how his body would react.

Ash, not for the first time although the first in a really long time, buried his face on the couch’s throw pillow to muffle his scream.

 


 

They’ve been doing this a lot lately. The whole sweeping under the rug thing.

It was now three in the afternoon and both of them were in bed. In theory they should be sleeping especially with Ash not getting any sleep at all. Yet he was here, wide awake, mind racing. And with how loud Eiji was breathing, Ash thought he might be as well.

A gap existed between them, Eiji too afraid to touch him, and Ash not brave enough to reach out. Their backs turned to each other, and Ash’s heartbeat was too loud. So loud it drummed in his ears. Truth be told the sleeplessness was because he was afraid.

He was afraid that he messed up.

He was afraid that Eiji might be mad.

Ash peeked at Eiji’s figure. He was unmoving, unnervingly still, but his breathing was too quick to for him to be asleep. Ash knew he was not asleep, he’d spent too long in the presence of his sleeping being that he’s memorize the beat of the rise and the fall of his chest to know if he was simply pretending. And yet he still couldn’t even get himself to address the elephant in the room.

They haven’t been this awkward since they met. Ash didn’t know what to do.

More silence came.

Ash shuffled in his side of the bed. Approximately ten inches separated them, and yet it felt like miles. Like walking on eggshells, like walking on fault lines, on unstable bridges hanging with only ancient ropes supporting it, walking on the edge of a building, a fine precipice.

Can you believe a great wall divided the city here once? It really just shows how no walls can divide humankind and that they will overcome any kind of oppression one way or another.

Eiji’s words rang again in his ears. They were in Berlin then, in Brandenburg gate where a wall once divided not only the city, not only the country, but the entire continent as well, by extension, the entire world.

Can you imagine being in the same city but feel like you are countries apart?

Those were Eiji’s words as well. But it was fitting in this case. They were in the same bed, and yet…

Eiji enjoyed the kuchen in Berlin then. Eiji pressed a piece to his mouth when Ash became particularly stubborn about trying some. The familiarity then was nowhere to be found now.

Ash groaned. He can’t take this anymore.

“Eiji—“

“Okumura get your ass off the bed! It’s ass o’clock and you’re still sleeping? We have a lot to do—oh goddamnit you’re still here?!” This was exactly when the fucking snake decided to barge in. Who just barges inside people’s rooms anyway?

“Yut-Lung, what are you doing here? We’re trying to sleep.” Eiji grumbled, running a hand through his bed hair and rubbed it to his face. Eiji was conveniently wearing plain pajamas. Ash on the other hand was simply in his regular clothes, not trusting himself to be in his boxers to sleep. A funny sight to see in the afternoon.

“Get up, seriously. We have a lot to do. You were supposed to sleep this morning. What have you been doing?” Yut-Lung was starting to pull the comfort of the blanket from Eiji’s grasp, who only gave him a displeased side eye.

“Ugh fuck off.” Ash threw the nearest thing he could grab from the bedside table. Apparently it was some kind of a paperweight. A really heavy paperweight. Yut-Lung caught it before it hit his face.

He tutted, unimpressed. “How violent.”

“You dragged me all the way here and now you want me to do something else?” Eiji sniped, still disgruntled.

“Of course kitten, your grandmother tasked me to prepare your birthday party, and you’re going to be with me in every step of the way.” The way Yut-Lung said this was in such a mocking tone that Ash’s every fiber wanted to punch the lights out of him. At least he wasn’t alone with the notion. Eiji laid back and buried himself in the pillows.

“Ash’s right. Fuck off.”

And Ash barked up a laugh at that. Eiji shot him a lazy grin half hidden on the pillows. The sight seemed to quash some worry in Ash’s chest.

“Well too bad for you. We have company.” Yut-Lung sounded smug. He stood there examining his nails.

A familiar voice called out from the door.

Eiji groaned more. Ash narrowed his eyes at the newcomer, suddenly self-conscious.  

“You idiots better worked it out. Both of you are a train wreck. Hurts to watch.”

There by the doorway was a little girl of only eleven yet had the attitude of a teen in adolescence.

“Of course my grandmother will send her here.” Eiji didn’t even bother getting up at this point, didn’t bother greeting her. “Kimiko, Yut-Lung, go bother someone else please. We’re trying to sleep.”

“You know by now it is useless Oni-san. Oba-san’s orders are law.”

Silence. Ash wanted to shoo them away. It would’ve been easier if it was only the Chinese around. A gun would’ve been efficient, or a little bit of strangling would been enough. But with Kimiko here…

Eiji said nothing. And then:

“Fine.” He said reluctantly, finally getting up from the bed. “Let’s get it over with.”

Chapter Text

Eiji stepped out of the shower. "Your turn." He wiped his hair with a towel. 

At the end of the day, they were back in Eiji's room. 

Ash got up to scrub the evidence of the day off his skin. The day had really been so hectic and a nice shower would've been absolutely comforting. Ash let the hot water cascade down his body, muscles releasing tension.

He adjusted the temperature of the shower to something hotter. He let a sigh escape his lips, thoughts wandering free. Ash was left to contemplate the rest of what happened the entire day.

 

Ash wasn't so sure how he ended up here as well. He was almost sure Eiji didn't want to cut his hair. There he was anyway, seated on the chair with someone snipping at his hair. Ash mourned the black strands that fell on the tiled floor. 

The house was in chaos. It was not the chaos Ash was used to. It was domestic chaos, one Ash had never experienced. It's the type of fuss Ash saw when he was back in Cape Cod and it was the rare moment where they had guests coming in their house.

They all decided they didn't want to be part of that at all. So maybe that explained why they were here.

"Why do you get to keep your luxurious hair?" Eiji stared at Yut-Lung through the mirror. “You mean you get to keep that but I get this?”

"To be fair, your grandmother looked like she wanted to chop it off." Yut-Lung was on the other side, having his nails done, Kimiko was having her hair done as well and Ash...was sitting with a cup of coffee on hand. He was used to cutting his own hair after all. He hadn't trust anyone with a razor near his neck for a long while, well...there were two people but they're gone now.

Not that they were any good. Shorter never really did cut his hair properly.

Eiji winced at every lock that fell from his head. He looked so uncomfortable, face scrunched in a furrow. Ash did not like that expression in him. 

Kimiko shot something in Japanese to Eiji in which he stuck his tongue at her. Kimiko rolled her eyes at him in return. 

Yut-Lung only sighed. 

Eiji's hair was shorter than Ash had ever seen it. It was still fluffy and thick, but it was cleaner, tamer and shorter, somehow he looked even younger due to it. 

"I wouldn't believe you're twenty-two if I saw you passing in the street." Ash snorted at Eiji's reflection. The reflection pouted. 

And then there was Yut-Lung, whom Ash still couldn't trust. Who Eiji really seemed to be close with. Yut-Lung who Eiji seemed to trust. Ash couldn't reconcile the image of Yut-Lung's cruel smile with the smile he saw awhile ago that was so full of fondness, soft enough to forget that there was sharpness underneath it. 

"You've grown two pounds since we last saw each other. You need a new suit." Yut-Lung inspected his nails. They were red and glittering gold. 

"I have enough suits." The barber was just finishing Eiji's haircut. Eiji got up and plopped next to Ash who wordlessly handed him his cup of coffee. 

"Thanks, I think I'm about to pass out." He gulped down nearly half of the contents in the cup.

"Great! I took the liberty of throwing them out. They were ancient."

Eiji choked on his coffee. "You what?!" 

Yut-Lung rolled his eyes. "I mean I gave it to charity. Relax isn't that what you want? God knows how surprised the servants were when I told them to. You should've seen their faces."

Eiji visibly relaxed.

"Also I'm making the party into a masquerade." 

Relaxed Eiji was gone and immediately groaned. 

"Don't worry onii-san, it is only to cover your ugly face." Kimiko piped up from the other side of the room. Her hair looked way better than Eiji's. The world was mournfully unfair. Yut-Lung snickered.\

"And yet even a mask still can't hide yours." Eiji shot back and gave Ash a smug wink. Ash couldn't help the chuckle that escaped his lip. Yut-Lung also slipped a small amused smile. Kimiko fumed.

"Regardless, we still have a lot to do."  Yut-Lung handed a black credit card to one of the attendants before getting up from his seat and striding towards the mirror. "Oh shut it, you're used to this."

"Doesn't mean I like doing it." Eiji grumbled petulantly. He eyed Yut-Lung's nails before looking at his own and sighing with dejection.

"Onii-san may look like he works hard, but is actually lazy deep down." Kimiko snickered. 

Eiji spluttered indignantly.

"She's right. You are lazy deep down." Yut-Lung nodded his head. 

"I'm pretty sure waking up at the ass crack of dawn isn't lazy." Ash pointed out.

Yut-Lung shot him a look of annoyance.

"No, he's right," there was a regretful tone when this was said. "You haven't seen me shower and brush my teeth at the same time because I didn't want to move. It was a dark era." Eiji waved his hand in dismissal. "I was in middle school. We don't ever talk about it."

"Anyway," Yut-Lung interrupted before Ash could comment on it. "You're not going to do much since it's your event--"

Eiji snorted. "That's a lie, and we all know it."

 "--but I do think you'll like the next bit."

Eiji looked skeptical, and Ash was just as doubtful too. He frowned at Yut-Lung just in case he was planning anything suspicious.

 

Ash didn't know what to make of it.

This Yut-Lung was nothing like the Yut-Lung who wouldn't blink an eye at killing men and women alike. This facet of Yut-Lung was so unfamiliar that it just kept Ash on his toes. Who knew what was going on inside his head? It was so dubious.

For Eiji's sake, a part of Ash hoped that Yut-Lung was sincere in his actions. A part of Ash wanted to rid of him forever. A part of Ash didn't know what to do. 

And the Eiji he saw today was almost entirely different. It was a good different. A bit. Somewhat. Maybe He closed his eyes, hoping to find counsel from the unraveling of the knot that was his thoughts, hoping to find answers in the rearrangement of the abyss.

 

"This is great," Eiji was chewing a piece of macaron. "This is really great." 

Yut-Lung looked absolutely smug, a big 'I told you so' was written all over his face.

"It is too sweet." Kimiko frowned. "Why are we having a lot of dessert?"

"It's great." Eiji insisted. "We're taking it." He went to the next tray of desserts. "Why don't you sample the quiche over there? And when you're done, do the canapes after." 

Kimiko muttered under his breath as she stomped over to the appetizer table.

"Here, let's try the truffles." Eiji went back to the task at hand and picked the sweet confectionery, tasting it. He immediately made a happy noise. 

Yut-Lung looked pleased as he followed Eiji around the selection. "Lynx, you can go chose the wine. You can do as much can't you?"

"And leave you two alone?" 

"I can do it." Eiji murmured with his mouth still full of chocolate, he lifted a mouth to cover it, remembering his manners. 

"Darling don't talk with your mouth full, here." Yut-Lung pressed an eclair on Eiji's mouth. "He can take care of himself. Now tell me if it's good."

Ash narrowed his eyes.

Eiji chewed, then wiped his mouth with a napkin. "I love the filling. Try some." He lifted a piece for Yut-Lung, in which he leaned down to take a bite. Ash made a disgruntled noise.

"Jealous, Lynx?" Yut-Lung smirked.

"I'm not." He was, but he'll be damned if he'll admit that to the snake.

"He doesn't have to be jealous. He simply doesn't have much opinions on food so it's pretty pointless anyway." Eiji chuckled while he drank a cup of tea to cleanse his palette. It's the only time he willingly drank tea. "You should've seen him when we eat out, he look so bored."

"Hear that Lynx? Eiji said you have no taste."

"I didn't say that."

"He is right. He has no taste if he chose you." Kimiko piped up from the other side of the room.

"You're on a roasting roll here. Where the hell does all that come from?" Eiji bemoaned as he snatched yet another confectionery. Yut-Lung acted like this was normal. Eiji must've been blessed with a really good metabolism if he hadn't gotten fat despite all that sugar. Then again, all that sugar is going get him in a rush. 

"Did you spend the entire time I'm away talking to yourself in the mirror and practiced throwing insults at me?"

"No I'm pretty sure she got it from you." Yut-lung shrugged. "You can be a real bitch when you want to be." 

Kimiko nodded. "Terrible influence. Stop corrupting the youth." 

"Guys..." Eiji groaned. He dragged a hand over his face before glancing at Ash sheepishly.

"Do you want me to shut them up?" Ash looked especially at Yut-Lung.

The sheepishness was suddenly gone. 

"God no." It was replaced by wide eyes. Eiji said with this affronted expression on his face. Ash was just so confused.

"Oh look, another youth in the clutches of Nii-san. How sad."

"That one's pretty hopeless already. It needs no sympathy."

And the banter went on. Maybe it was more appropriate to call it a squabble at this point. Ash didn't really know how to take in the scene before him and decided to just do as he was told and sample the wine. 

 

Okay maybe not all of it was great. 

Especially the part where Eiji didn't pay him any attention. Or the part where they hardly managed to talk. Or when they weren't even able to spend time together. Alone.

Ash groaned and pressed his head on the cool tiled wall, a contrast from the heat on his back.

The rest of the day hadn't really gone so well either.

(In the back of his mind, a voice whispered treacherously, telling him that Ash just wasn't used to sharing Eiji. The voice suspiciously sounded like Shorter. Or maybe it was the old man.

Not Eiji. The other annoying old man.)

Then there was the issue this morning. Ash flushed just thinking about it. They haven't talked, nor addressed it. And Eiji didn't look like he wanted a conversation. He looked like he was mostly trying to avoid the conversation.

Or day was hectic and it really wasn't the place for a heartfelt talk.

Did it even need a heartfelt talk? Maybe he was simply overreacting. Ash let out a noise from the back of his throat in frustration. Leading a gang in New York was way easier than all these confusing feelings. He could feel a headache starting to bloom.

He rubbed a tired hand on his face, pushing his hair away from his eyes. 

But Eiji didn't look like he minded. He looked understanding on that moment.

Then again, Eiji would always understand even at his own expense. Ash wanted him to start verbalizing his wants. He wanted him to tell him his feelings. He wanted to be confided. He wanted to be the man Eiji trusted.

Maybe that was why he didn't like seeing Yut-Lung next to Eiji. He didn't want Yut-Lung act so smug with being so familiar with him. It was so unfair that he knew Eiji way before Ash did.

Ash let out another groan. He hated being jealous. It was such a disgusting emotion. It’s always like he was on the verge of lashing out. Like containing an explosive deep within his chest. As if his blood was made of gasoline and his breath was fire, his bones matchsticks, as if his skin was gunpowder wrapped in oil slick paper. As if his heart was a ticking clock without any wires to cut.

Did Eiji ever feel this? When Ash was with other people? Would he feel this too? There were a lot of people who gave him their numbers while they travelled together, a lot openly flirted with him in those trips. Did Eiji feel like exploding in those times too?

Would Eiji’s burn with jealousy as well? What would he do? Would he pull Ash away from them? Would he stake his claim over him? Kiss him senseless in public? Hold him? Touch him? Mark him? Would he look like on the verge of losing control much like how Ash was feeling right now?

Every thought was even more rousing than the last one, Ash couldn’t think anymore. He shut his eyes and bit his lip.

His hand traveled to his neck, then to his chest, touch light and feather-like.

Ash let out a shaky breath. 

From his chest down to his gut, then slowly down to his abdomen. His other free hand scrabbled for purchase from the cool slick tiles, forehead pressed harder. His shoulders trembled at his every movement. The water from hot to scalding, pounding on his back as if some form of punishment.

Tentative, shy, hesitant. His hand played with the hairs on his navel that trailed down. Ash groaned. 

His mind swam with thoughts of Eiji. His smile, his laugh, his lips, his stare. The way he teases and the way he flushes. He thought of his moans, all pleasured noises, his groans and his blown wide eyes.

Ash tried.

He tried to find pleasure, tried to find enjoyment, some oxytocin, serotonin or some blasted chemicals from his brain to stimulate some kind of enjoyment as his fingers trailed lower.

He found nothing.

Tears might've fallen from his eyes, it might've been from the shower. The water had long gone cold and Ash's body was already freezing. It might've been the cause for the shudder that ran through his spine, maybe it was something else.

With a heavy sigh, Ash gave up and turned off the shower, simply trudging out of the bathroom. Something deep in him felt downcast. He didn't know why. He shouldn't. He didn't need to. He knew he didn’t need to.

But he wanted to.

He wanted to.

He really wanted to.

And yet he couldn't.

He turned off the lights of the bathroom and was greeted with the dimness of the bedroom.

Eiji was already asleep when Ash finished showering. A mercy. He did spend a good amount of time in there. So it'd make sense. And the day had been so busy. He would be tired, other than the fact the he just couldn't stay up late for the life of him. How characteristically Eiji of him.

Ash took the towel off his hair just as it dried enough to no longer be dripping and set it aside on the bedside table. The lamp the only light source in the room. 

He sat on the edge of the bed. Eiji always slept on the right side and he's curled up enough to invite Ash to the bed. He folds into himself, as he always did, afraid to take up space. Maybe now it was more of welcoming Ash to sleep next to him. As they always did.

Ash felt his lips stretch into a faint smile, negative feelings fading away. Eiji still mumbled when he slept. Ash always wondered what he dreamed of. He hoped all of them were lovely. 

He really shouldn't, but he pressed a feather light kiss on his forehead before he slipped into the bed under the covers beside Eiji. Then, as if on instinct, as if sensing he was in proximity, Eiji moved closer to Ash's body, arms wrapping around his waist, legs tangled with Ash's own. His head tucked to his chest, dark hair tickling Ash's nose.

"You'll be the death of me," Ash laughed to Eiji's newly cut hair. They were significantly shorter. "You don't even know." Ash pulled just slightly away to gaze on Eiji's face, at what expression he might be wearing. 

He really shouldn't, but he did anyway. He shouldn't, but he touched his cheek even though he was almost certain he would be committing some crime against the universe to do so.

They were warm, almost flushed and Eiji's face furrowed a bit at the contact, not enough to wake up, but just enough to be disturbed. Like droplets on the lake, making ripples, disturbing the tranquil. Eiji let out a soft groan.

Ash's fingers caressed his face, tracing the lines of his skin then to his lips. Ash pressed his thumb on those pink flesh, parting them just slightly. A faint pressure, Ash simply want to commit this to his fingerprints, to his flesh, soaking in his essence from his pores to his muscles in a hungry way he couldn’t put into words. 

And then, Eiji shifted and dark lashes flutters open to reveal dark eyes muddled with slumber, just barely awake. Dark eyes like coals, like onyx, like black diamonds. There aren't really black diamonds, not naturally. But if there were any real black diamonds made by nature, they're sitting here behind Eiji's eyelids. A hidden treasure, one Ash was free to gaze upon.

"Ah."

Ash retracted his hand from Eiji's face, embarrassed at being caught red handed with this perverse invasion of privacy. But Eiji caught his hand before he could pull it away. Warm hand grasping his.

"Ash." His voice was husky and rough, deeper than it usually was. His accent bled through, making his name on his lips into two syllables. 

"Sorry."

Eiji gave him a sleepy smile. “In my dreams you do not usually apologize.”  He sighed as he pressed Ash’s hands to his cheek. “This is new.”

Ash laughed, stomach fluttering at this new information. “You dream about me?”

Eiji hummed. “Often. Almost every night.” Ash’s face heated up at the confirmation. “I suppose I could never rid of you,” He said. “Not that I ever want to rid of you. This is a strange dream.”

It clicked in Ash’s mind that Eiji might’ve been simply half asleep, not yet in the road of waking but almost there. He exist between dream and reality right now, if there really was a world that allowed it.

“What do we usually do in your dreams?” Ash decided he’ll indulge and humor himself with a bit of an investigation plus interrogation.

“Not talk.” Eiji said immediately. “Other things.”

“Other things?”

“Mhm,” He blinked, eyebrows furrowed. He looked like he was in the cusp of proper consciousness, eyes started to gain clarity, “M’m sorry.” He added instead of adding more.

“For what?” Ash wondered if apologizing was just something Japanese people do, or if it was a trait exclusive only to Eiji.

“For falling asleep.” Eiji mumbled. “I wanted to…talk to you about this morning.” He shook his head, as if it’ll help him wake more. “We need to talk. I spent the whole day avoiding it. I ended up ignoring you.”

Ah so that’s what it was.

“I’m sorry for all that. And for the whole…” Eiji gestured awkwardly. “I should’ve had better control…and well.” He was silent and refused to say anything more.

"It's okay. It's only natural. These things happened and you are still a man after all." Ash didn’t know what to say actually. Bringing it up was awkward and remembering the sensations of his body against his, of Eiji’s face of pleasure, of all the sounds he let loose in those brief seconds of touches. Ash couldn’t take it. 

"Yes but you must've been uncomfortable with the whole ordeal." Eiji was less muddled with sleep. Concern laced his voice.

"I was...” Ash admitted. Eiji winced, but Ash immediately interjected. “But you might've wanted to..." To what? Could Eiji possibly want to share that kind of intimacy with him? Was he being so conceited to assume that Eiji would want to give him something as precious as that? Ash never did get to choose. He wasn’t letting Eiji give up something so important because of obligation. He didn't look comfortable as well when it happened. He drew away the moment Ash touched him that time. 

Eiji breathed, a slight stuttering sigh. He seemed to understand the question that hung in the air.

"I...I do.” The soft admittance was faint to the room and yet so loud to Ash’s ears. And it was amazing, how those words ignited so much excitement in Ash’s veins, how relieved and grateful he’s feeling, a sensation of flying and then falling once again.

Eiji pursed his lips. “But not when you don't. And you don't ever need to if you don't want to." He quickly added. There was self-doubt in his eyes as he looked away from Ash’s face.

They're dancing around each other. It was necessary, but god it was ridiculous. 

"I want to as well." Ash exclaimed, just a bit frustrated that Eiji was so damn altruistic that he’s never think about his own wants. 

"You do?" Eiji looked up at him, with big hopeful eyes.

"Yes." Ash nodded timidly, uncharacteristically bashful of him. "With you." He added. "Because it's you."

Eiji's face was surprised, mouth formed into the shape of an o, eyes wide and sparkling. Ash wondered why Eiji found this fact surprising. Ash had never been enamored with anyone else. It had always ever only been him.

Eiji nodded feverently, dazed and just slightly delirious. "It's alright. Just knowing you want it is enough. I'll wait forever. Even if you never do, it's okay as well. It always is--"

"Eiji." Ash interrupted before Eiji could ramble on and spiral out of control. "I need you to shut up right now." Eiji snapped his mouth shut the moment the words left Ash's lips, all attention directed to what Ash had to say.

"If you want this and if you trust me, tell me now. If you don't like anything, say it as well. I need your words." Ash leveled him with a serious look. He needed Eiji to understand its importance. "We could...try something slow for now."

Understanding flashed through Eiji's face and he gave a noise of affirmation. "I trust you."

Ash smiled. This was all he needed. "Okay, tell me if you want to stop. Because I will the moment you do." And he would. Without doubt. He parted a too short strand of hair away from Eiji’s face since they weren’t long enough to be tucked behind his ear.

Eiji grasped his hand tighter, eyes never leaving jade ones. "Only if you do as well." And he asked this as a promise.

"Okay." Ash breathed. Breathing was suddenly so hard to do. He needed to keep the painful constriction of his chest and quash it down, box it into neat containers, put it away like one does to Christmas decorations. It wouldn’t help to get them all out now. "Okay."

A hesitant hand trembled as it found its way to Eiji's chest, fingers trailing down towards the hem of Eiji's pants where clothes part to show that sliver of smooth skin by his groin, just below the navel. There were dark hairs that trailed lower. Ash played with them for a bit, occupying himself with fingering them.

Eiji buried his face on Ash's chest again, breathing more erratic than ever. The ever slight twitches on Eijji’s body, the goosebumps, the trembling, he relished them as well. Ash drew lower, palming the heated flesh that began to grow harder at every touch, at every teasing caress. Eiji bucked his hips and squeaked at the suddenness of the movement.

"Alright?" Ash inquired before proceeding.

Eiji barely made a respond and simply have a sound from the back of his throat. Ash took this as a yes.

Ash continued to play with Eiji just a bit more. A wet patch started to appear on the cotton of his pajama pants and the Japanese looked like he was trying his best not to grind on his hand, the trembling on his legs said so.

"You can move. I can feel you want to." Ash whispered to his ears. With it Eiji started to buck his hips repeatedly, moaning softly with every thrust. Ash dipped his fingers under the waistband of Eiji's pants, feeling the length of his member. He wrapped his hand around its girth, its thickness. It was bigger than average, not too ridiculous. Ash thought absentmindedly.

He started teasing the head, circling his thumb on the sensitive skin of the tip. Ash knew what he was doing and he was determined to make this pleasurable for Eiji's first time. He wanted to give him what Ash was deprived of, wanted him to feel what he did not feel himself, what was stolen from him.

Eiji hissed. Ash stopped his ministrations. "Don't like it?" Alarm filled Ash when Eiji started gripping his shirt tightly.

"It’s not—that’s—," Eiji's muffled voice vibrated in his chest. "Stop being such a tease." He ended with a whine, giving up.

There was relief. Ash chuckled just as Eiji moaned. Ash started to move his expert hand. His done this a hundred times by now, he could do this even without putting his mind to it. But Eiji wasn’t a job and Ash would never treat him as such. So for the first time Ash took up the profession of sex and pleasure making, he wanted to savor this moment, wanted to enjoy this as well, wanted to ride the waves of desire.

The tips of Eiji's ear and his neck were already red, Ash observed with a hint of amusement. He used his free hand to run his hand through Eiji's dark hair while his other started stroking his throbbing length.

He started the pace slow, languid then eventually speeding up as the seconds passed. Eiji bucked his hips with erratically, breathing more labored, body tightened and Ash knew he was getting close. He thought that he wanted to mess with him a little.

"Ash!" Eiji pulled away from his chest to glare at him. Ash pulled away and stopped the motions of his hand just as Eiji was about find his release. Ash can't help the laughter that bubbled from his chest at the look of Eiji's disgruntled face. Eiji smacked his shoulder, albeit weakly. "You are so mean."

Ash’s laughter soften into a chuckle. "Okay. Okay. I won't do it anymore." He flicked the older man’s forehead. Eiji pouted but otherwise gave a grunt, hands shot up to his face.

"No, I want to see you." Ash stopped him. He tore Eiji's hands from covering his face which he reluctantly followed. "There much better." Ash took the moment to drink in Eiji's face. His face was red and absolutely wrecked, lips parted, panting heavily. Ash mused that this wasn’t even the extent of his talents and yet Eiji already looked this debauched. A part of him wanted to see Eiji in deeper throes of passion. It was beautiful.

"Relax." Ash joked, but his heart was pounding in his chest like a jackhammer. "You look like you're about to explode." And he started his ministrations once more.

Eiji's hands occupied themselves by clutching at Ash's shoulder instead of gripping him until his knuckles were white. He shut his eyes in ecstasy, moaning and whimpering and grunting. He was getting desperate for more friction, timidness and second guessing forgotten and abandoned, lost in this feeling.

"Ash! I swear!" His eyes shot wide opened to the American’s laughter when Ash yet again denied him of release.

"You absolute tease! Why did you—" The rest of his words died in his throat in a choke as Ash squeezed his member, and Eiji whimpered at the suddenness of it.

"What was that?" Ash teased, pace faster and harder, but Eiji wasn't able to respond, instead writhing on the bed. And now Eiji's eyes rolled to the back of his eyelids, lips pressed in a thin line, expression crumpled.

“Are you close?” Ash inquired.

“I’m—“ Eiji's back arched and spilled himself all over Ash's hand, toes curling and uncurling, head thrown back, chest heaving, panting to catch his breath, unraveled, undone, open, bare, vulnerable. 

Ash stared at the milky white liquid on his hand with detached interest. The thick substance was warm. The heady musk of after sex permeated in the room, the scent strong to Ash’s nose and though it brought back dark memories, they were mostly replaced with this.

"How was it?" Ash asked after silence spanning between them. "Good?" He grinned at the Japanese who barely caught his breath, dark eyes glared at him, more annoyance than real anger.

"Shut up." Eiji buried his face on the pillow, left over chemicals of pleasure still coursing through his body. A long pause. “Yes. It was good. Really good. The best.” He was babbling without looking up from the pillow.

“You haven’t even seen the rest if what I can do.” Ash laughed. “Next time, you’ll feel so good you’ll forget your own name.”

“Next time?” Now Eiji looked up.

Ah. Right. Slip of the tongue. Force of habit. But he genuinely did enjoy his time, rather he didn’t feel aversion to the idea of it. “Maybe.” Ash concluded. “We’ll see.”

And Eiji left it at that. He glanced at Ash instead and after a moment’s hesitation. "Sh-should I do…?”

"Not today." Ash replied tersely. He wasn’t ready for that.

"Oh." There might’ve been disappointment, there definitely was understanding. Eiji always understood, and Ash was always grateful.

Ash couldn’t stop feeling that tinge of guilt. "Maybe someday. When I'm ready."

Eiji shook his head. "It is okay. I'm happy I got to at least share this with you."

They stayed like that for some time, lost in thought and in the feeling of the now, of the present, too tired to do anything, too comfortable to break the atmosphere of calm, of content. Ash was getting sleepy.

"I should clean us up." He said after a yawn.

"No. I'll do it." Eiji started to get up, body shaking, legs still slightly trembling.

"Surely you must be tired." 

"I am,” Eiji shrugged. “But I want to do this. Please let me do this at the very least." He pleaded. “And I need to change anyway. My pants are kind of sticky.” His face wrinkled at the last statement.

Ash laughed, finally relenting. "Okay."

So Eiji did just that. He stripped down to change into a new pair of boxers. He came back with a cool damp cloth to wipe the mess on Ash’s hand, pressing a kiss on his forehead before returning it back to the bathroom.

Ash felt himself choke up with emotions. He didn’t even know why, only that he was overwhelmed, only that he was feeling so weak, so bare. And why did he suddenly feel like crying? He wasn’t sad, he wasn’t angry, damn it, he was so fucking happy right now, and yet tears threatened to spill over.

Eiji returned and slipped back into bed clad only in boxers. His presence was so warm, his bare skin soft against Ash’s own.

"Tell me what you're thinking?" Eiji murmured.

"I'm thinking..." Ash began. "That I've never had this fun while doing this. I'm thinking that. I never thought that I wouldn't feel disgusted. I'm thinking,” Ash whispered softly his confession. “That I'm lucky to be with you."

“I’m lucky as well Ash.” Eiji admitted. “We’re both lucky.” He closed his eyes, exhaustion finally catching up with him. “I’m afraid I’ll wake up and find out it’s a dream.”

“Do we usually do this in your dreams?” Ash teased.

“Mhm.” Eiji didn’t say anything other than that. Which could’ve been a yes, or could’ve simply been a grunt of acknowledgement at the question he was too sleepy to give a proper response to.

Ash decided to just save that question for another day, tucking sleepy Eiji in his arms, and drifted slowly into sleep.

He dreamed of something warm that night, something familiar, something bright and beautiful and peaceful, something he couldn’t remember in the morning if he tried.

Chapter Text

The place had been calm, tranquil, golden.

He couldn't put his finger on it, but it feels so peaceful and warm.

It's a beautiful feeling.

Ash didn't want to leave.

 


 

Ash supposed he woke up to the sunlight that streamed through the window as it dances on his skin with its warmth and brightness.

Everything was slow and soft and comfortable, the boneless feeling prevalent in Ash’s limbs. The bed was soft and Eiji pressed against his chest. It was a miracle Eiji slept in this late as it seemed to be nearly noon.

Speaking of Eiji…

Ah.

It would seem he woke up from a different reason after all.

Eiji, sweet and innocent Eiji, was moaning and rutting against him so early in the morning. And Ash normally might've pushed him off the bed for a few more minutes of sleep, if he didn't find it amusing, especially given that Eiji didn't even know he was doing it. His eyes stayed close despite the flush dusting his cheeks. He was still very much in the clutches of sleep.

He had to admit he was surprised. Eiji didn’t really seem to be the type. Then again, he was only a man. It was normal, and it’s not like he’s doing it intentionally. Ash inhaled, holding a breath and then letting go. It was okay. It's not so bad. He could take it.

"Eiji." He prodded the sleeping man's cheek with his finger. He was replied with a furrow of his brow, then a moan of his name.

"Eiji." He tried again with a laugh when his murmurs transitioned to Japanese. How the tables had turned. "Eiji..." The face scrunched up before eyelids opened up to reveal dark hazy eyes. If it was due to lust or due to sleepiness or if it was both, Ash wasn't sure. 

Ohayou." Eiji beamed at him, still so soft and pliant from slumber. His voice rough from sleep, mouth dry.

"Good morning," Ash grinned. "Good dream?" 

Eiji paused, blinked, then blushed hotly, stuttering. "Can't really remember."  He mumbled to the sheets as he slowly buried his face on them, refusing to look at Ash.

"Really?" Ash's grin became shark like. "This didn't look like it had forgotten." 

Eiji squeaked as Ash ran a hand on Eiji's hardness, which promptly made him fall off the bed in surprise, waking him immediately as if plunged into cold water. Ash laughed so hard while Eiji collected himself up from the floor, face red and pouting.

"You know. Who would've thought that innocent baby face of yours would actually be so horny?" Ash teased. "Last night that good?"

"Shut up." Eiji grumbled, rubbing his face into truly waking. He got up and covered the obvious problem in his pants, adjusting his boxers into something more comfortable with a groan. He walked towards the bathroom, sighing. "I'll take care of it. Just let me--"

"Let me watch."

Ash didn't know where that sureness came from. He didn't know how he managed to keep his voice steady. But he said it anyway.

Eiji paused just before he could reach the doorway. He turned around and gave a confused and panicked look, something between being nervous and concern.

"W-what?" 

"I wanna see. Let me watch." No more backing out. Ash kept his gaze at Eiji’s brown eyes. “Let me see you.”

Eiji looked around the room for a quick second then back at Ash again. "You sure?"

"Mhm." Ash gave a non-committal grunt. He could hear Eiji visibly swallow, obviously unsure.

"O-okay...uhm...yeah just..what am I supposed to do?" He stood awkwardly whilst shuffling in his feet.

Ash walked towards a chair by the bedside table and stared at Eiji. "Just do what you usually do when you jerk off, put on a show.” Ash smirked as he looked at the bulge between Eiji’s legs, seemingly gaining interest on this new game they were playing. “Unless you’d rather not. You can always say no.” Ash said, smirk gone, immediately serious.

“Mhm.” But Eiji had determination shining in his eyes as he walked towards the bed, settling between the crisp sheets. And by then his hand had already found its way to cup the front of his boxers, legs spread wide to show Ash his ministrations. The front had a wet patch of his precum, fingers teasing with their movements.

Internally, Ash really didn’t Eiji was the type. It was easy to forget with how much he was trying to keep it in for Ash, but deep down, Ash figured that Eiji was actually nothing more than a horny teen. The idea amused Ash because reconciling that to how innocent Eiji’s face was a dissonance he wasn’t exactly ready to face.

Still Ash appreciated how much he was holding back. He supposed a man nearly twenty two wouldn’t exactly be as innocent and pure from sexual desires.

Ash wasn’t sure why he suggested this anyway. He supposed it was fun to tease the older man. But he also suspected that perhaps he really wanted to share this intimacy. He couldn’t participate, not yet and he didn’t know if he ever could, but at least they could have this.

And besides, there was something so wild about being the only one to see Eiji undone like this, to be the only one to see his expressions in the midst of bliss. He drunk in the sight of Eiji deep in the feeling of debauchery. He imprinted the lines of the man’s body as it rose and fell from heavy pants of breath. It was selfish of him to be the only one to ever keep this memory, but when had he ever been not selfish? Staying with Eiji had already been a sin, what more is another to add to his already long one?

Eiji bit a whimper, eyes shut and now Ash studied the artwork that was his face. Every contortion, every bite of his lips, every shuddering breath. It was all beautiful.

Eiji’s hands were clumsy, somehow still shy and lacking the true possibilities to absolute bliss, but Ash loved watching their motions either way. They dip beneath the waistband and pulled out his length. His fingers teased the head, much like what Ash had done last night.

"Are you thinking of me? Fantasizing my hand touching you instead?" Ash’s grin widened at the outraged splutter Eiji gave, the flush dusting his red face had now crawled all the way to his chest, his eyes shot open.

"Don’t…don’t..." A whine managed to escape at the back of Eiji’s throat.

"But you're doing so good." Ash made sure to let Eiji watch him as he raked in the sight of his body, openly admiring the masterpiece before him. No artwork in a museum could compare, no ballet, no dance, no sight in the world could measure to this, and all Ash could give was praise.

"It's—it’s embarrassing..mhm." He said this, and yet the strokes of his hand moved faster, more intense.

Ash was adept in pleasure making, and he understood one’s body when deep in passion, he understood what to do to make the body sing with desire, knew the language of the flesh, and in it, he could tell in the way Eiji’s muscles tightened that he was enjoying this. Ash never did think this ability had been useful, and at times he still wished he didn’t have it, but for now has it and now he will make use it to the best.

Of course he would stop if Eiji said so, without a moment’s hesitation.

"That's good. Yes like that. Perfect. Touch yourself for me." Ash encouraged.

"Mrgh." Now Eiji’s hips snapped into deep thrusts, bucking into his fist. His eyes were shut again, mouth hang open. The moans he made was getting louder, and so he used his other hand to clutch at his lips, stopping the downpour of noises from his mouth.

“No, I want to hear you. Please let me hear you.” Ash sighed with delight. It’s a funny feeling, this desire in him. He can feel heat in his skin, a fluttering in his gut, heart pounding in his chest and yet it’s not sharp like a blade to be wielded, it’s not a weapon, it’s no gun to be shot. But it’s there, deep inside him, embers that have not yet been put out.

"Beautiful." He breathed just as Eiji took out his hand from his lips. “Beautiful. You look so fucking beautiful Eiji.”

With Ash’s words, Eiji looked ready for completion.

"Ah—Kuso!" 

Just then, the door slammed open while hot white release painted Eiji’s hand and spilled all over his chest. Yut-Lung was about to bitch about something before jumping out with a screech. "Eiji! Don’t tell me you’re sti—oh fuck!" He shrieked.

"Yabai!" Eiji scrambled for a blanket to cover himself and preserve some dignity.

“Oh fuck! Fucking son of a bitch! Did I see you just—?” Yut-Lung squawked. His tore at his hair and covered his face as if in pain. Eiji was in no better condition. "God, the fuck it's still early. Save it at night!"

Ash replied smoothly. “We’re in a decent place.”

Yut-Lung gagged in exaggeration.

"You act as if you're new to this." Ash grumbled, obviously annoyed at the Chinese’s reaction and the interruption. He always seemed to be ill timed when he decides to show up. “You’re in no position to complain.”

Yut-Lung glared at him, and if eyes were daggers Ash would’ve been repeatedly stabbed already. "Fuck you Lynx, with your history, you don’t even have the right to touch Eiji.” He stomped his foot. “And I don't want to see you get nasty with him the first thing in the morning!"

"Maybe if you actually stop barging into people's rooms, you wouldn't see these things first in the morning." Eiji finally recovered and peeked his head out of the blankets

"Maybe lock your door next time." Yut-Lung scoffed.

"I did once. You'll pick the lock anyway." Eiji groused, and Yut-Lung seemed to have nothing left to say, or chose to not say anything because he simply narrowed his eyes at them.

"Ugh. Fix yourselves first. You have thirty minutes. I'll be back and you better be decent by then." Yut-Lung all but said before walking out of the door, nose wrinkled with disgust. He made sure to deliberately slam the door as he exited.

Eiji sighed, and ran a hand through his tousled black hair.

"Well there goes the mood."

 


 

Yut-Lung sat on the chair, two boxes sat on the bed. Eiji was sitting next to the boxes and Ash was content to stand.

In Eiji's hand, an extravagant mask bedecked with jewels sparkled under the florescent lights. "You seriously made it into a masquerade? I thought we both agreed masquerades were ridiculous."

“We did. It was Paris, in that garish Christmas Party.” Yut-Lung shuddered all while texting someone in rapid speed. " But if you must know, I'm doing it for your boy toy." He did not even look up as he said this.

"Can you please stop calling me that?" Ash exasperated. The Chinese ignored him. 

"There might be someone who'll be able to recognize him there, and as far as the world knew, Ash Lynx, the gang leader and Dino's heir is dead." Yut-Lung definitely was crass. The way he said these things were absolutely blunt. Ash winced. Eiji gave him a questioning look, he avoided his gaze.

Yut-Lung raised a brow. "The only people who know you're alive are those who were there in your latest fight. They don't know your real name anyway, only that ridiculous moniker of yours and if you did it right, then nobody will go after you anymore."

"Other than you." Ash raised a brow. 

"Other than me." Yut-Lung rolled his eyes as if it was already obvious from the beginning. "The best plan is to leave him behind but I doubt you'd even consider it." He said this to Eiji. "So what better way to slip him in than a masquerade? Better that way than cause some kind of scandal."

Ash leveled Yut-Lung with suspicion.

"Why are you doing this?" He scoffed with this affronted look. "This whole careful planning?" Yut-Lung was cunning like a fox, treacherous as a viper, venomous. Surely all this must be some elaborate plan, some gambit Ash had yet to discover.

He could never read him well, after all Yut-Lung was one of the only few people he could call his equal.

Yut-Lung’s sharp black eyes narrowed, they were unnerving to look at as well, in a cold unforgiving way. He finally stopped texting. "Simple asshole, you'll cause more problems for Eiji, god knows he's dealing enough." The tone he said it had this condescending attitude underlying it.

"Yue." Eiji admonished. His tone warning, his look challenging him to say more. Ash had not seen this facet of Eiji.

Yut-Lung snapped to his direction, completely uncaring of Eiji's warning. "Tell me I'm wrong. Those leeches are going to suck the life out of you. And with him in the picture," He glared at Ash. "They will devour you alive."

"Yut-Lung." This time, Eiji's time was sterner, something between irritation and fury.

"Tell me I'm wrong Okumura." He dared again, and he was definitely gutsy. "Someone in there will recognize him knowing the pigs those men are and they'll wonder why you have this whore next to you—"

"That's enough!" Now Eiji was angry, he stood up from his seat and Yut-Lung flinched, cringing so suddenly. Ash had never seen Eiji this furious, he hadn’t seen Yut-Lung this submissive either. Ash had lost the ability to be offended with that aspect of his life, and yet he was just surprised at the sudden outburst from Eiji. 

"That's low coming from you." Eiji glared for a split second. There was shock on Yut-Lung's face, together with hurt and remorse, perhaps even just a hint of terror. Eiji huffed and sat back down, a look of regret passed in his expression. "I am sorry, that was not right. But you forget yourself, I am disappointed. Please apologize to Ash."

"Eiji, you don't need to—" Eiji shut him up with a single look. Ash closed his mouth immediately. 

Yut-Lung looked between Ash and Eiji, looking pained. "....that was out of place." He mumbled. Eiji gave him another look and Yut-Lung made a noise at the back of his throat, pleading, bargaining. When that didn't work, he crossed his arms and relented.

"Sorry." Yut-Lung said between gritted teeth, refusing to look at them both. Ash didn't know how to feel at that. Both of them look physically pained with what just happened. How awkward. Every atom in their being protested.

"Lovely." Eiji's smile was thin and pressed. "Let's all get along." 

Ash eyed Yut-Lung, the latter did the same. There was an unspoken promise of retaliation later, but for now there was ceasefire and armistice. For Eiji.

"Alright, about that masquerade." Eiji started once everything had been settled.

"It's simple. He stays out of the way, stands next to you if need to be, exchange pleasantries if necessary, but for fuck's sake keep him away from your grandmother."

"It’s not going to be that bad." Eiji eerily calm, a contradiction to Yut-Lung’s panicked demeanor. Perhaps not panicked, but definitely less put together than Ash was used to.

"Are you serious right now?” He laughed, borderline hysterical though Ash don’t exactly know what the punchline was. “It's like you don't know your own grandmother! She will break you!" Yut-Lung ran his manicured fingers through his long tresses. He started pacing the room. "And who knows what she'll do to him." He snarked as he pointed at Ash. "I don't care about you one bit, remember that, this is for Eiji alone."

"Obviously" Ash grumbled. As if it wasn’t clear enough.

"No, I know she won't do anything too terrible." Eiji insisted. “Not in front of her guests at least, we have that much. She cares too much about image to actually do.”

"If you end up breaking another leg, don't come crying to me." Yut-Lung sniffed, agitated. Frustration rolled out of him like waves. The way he said it was cold, but Eiji looked unfazed.

Ash was completely out of depth with the situation. Yut-Lung clearly seemed to know what he was talking about, as much as Ash hated to admit it. "Eiji, I hate to have to say this, but I agree with him, maybe it's best if I just keep away. I'll be there if you need me, but if it's for your sake, I shouldn't interfere."

“Well at least someone has some sense.” The Chinese scoffed.

“No.” Eiji still asserted. “No,” Softer this time. Vulnerability laced his words, much that Yut-Lung actually gave a moment of pause. "Ash, Yue, please. You can't leave me alone to face her. I can't do it on my own." He was goddamn near trembling. “You can’t…”

Ash had been wrong. Eiji wasn’t calm at all. Simply, he’s able to hide the terror really well.

"Eiji..." Ash held Eiji’s shoulders. “Eiji. Look at me.” Dark eyes looked up to stare at Ash just as he instructed. They were wide wide eyes. “You aren’t alone. We won’t let you be.” Ash reassured. “Let’s calm down. We still have time to get ready.”

“Which is what I’d like to tell you honestly but,” Yut-Lung looked as regretful as he can get. “I think I need to remind you that the party is tonight.”

Eiji’s head snapped to his direction. “Grandmother is not home yet.”

“She will come at the party. She likes dramatic entrances does she not?” The new voice in the room made everyone snap towards its direction. Kimiko had already entered the room.

“Why Onii-san,” the way Kimiko said this existed to be both grim and eager at the same time. “I think it’s time we suit up for battle.”

 


 

Ash was already familiar with how long preparations for these could take. He was also familiar with how exhausting they could be.

Thankfully, Eiji refused all the other help in dressing him up and instead only allowed Ash in the room. He was already acquainted with this scene, Eiji changing into a dress shirt, crisp and absolutely smart.

But even with the familiarity Ash claimed, the Eiji today felt distant. He hasn’t spoken a word for more than half an hour now, mostly obsessing over the style of his hair which he all but decided to slick back with pomade. He looked older somehow, sharper. The look on his eye reflected a soldier preparing for battle.

“You look good.” Ash commented just to alleviate the silence.

“Not good enough.” Eiji muttered. And this was another sign of Eiji being nervous. There was tension in his shoulders. If you look closer, you’d find trembling.

“Eiji..”

“Sorry.” Eiji looked regretful.

“No. It’s okay.” Ash rested his chin on Eiji’s shoulder, keeping his gaze at the reflection of them at the mirror. Eiji was staring at him too and they stayed that way for a few heartbeats.

“It’s going to be okay.”

“Yes.” Eiji closed his eyes and breathed, as if he was telling himself, as if convincing himself. With a sigh he faced Ash.

“Humor me.” He said as fished two golden cuff-links from a velvet box. He took one of Ash’s arm and slid it in his cuffs. Ash didn’t know why it seemed important to Eiji, but he did it so tenderly, and the look on his face was calmer by the moment he finished the second one. He inspected Eiji’s handy work. The cuff-links were simple. Gold and in the center engraved with three cranes.

Eiji looked into his eyes conveying something that Ash was supposed to understand but has not yet completely grasped, and yet implying that the truth was not far away after all.

“Stay with me.” This was half of a prayer, half of a promise, half a request, half of a question, and half a command. After all this time, Ash knew just the words in response.

“Always.”