There was nothing more calming to Ash’s ears than that of Eiji’s beating heart, strong and steady in the uncertain and tainted night. Where shots and shouts should have been, he had proof that his love was well, and most importantly, with him. Too many times he had spent nights pacing back and forth inside four walls, thinking of ways to make his way back to his side. Too many dreams had been broken by his absence. But now, safe in each other’s arms, Ash knew he had done his job well. He could sleep.
But he couldn’t, not really.
There was always something, he felt, to watch out for. Someone looming around dark corners or hiding in the shadows. Even on calm nights, he found himself ready to protect-- hand quick to pull the trigger on anyone who would try to tear his life apart. His gun had not been used for some time, but it was loaded. He wouldn’t be caught with his guard down. Not again.
It was late, he was tired, but he had to keep watch. Even years after the fighting had stopped.
Ash slid out of bed, careful not to wake his husband. Eiji had always been an incredibly light sleeper, and on multiple occasions, had caught him in the middle of one of his episodes.
Padding his way out of their room and into their bathroom, Ash rubbed his neck, hoping to ease the tension. The white and black tiles were cold against his feet, something more to help ground him. Like the gentle snores coming from their daughter’s room.
Most nights were fine. They would have dinner around 7 pm, get their daughter bathed and ready for bed, clean up around the house one last time, and lay down themselves at 10 pm— midnight at the latest. Ash would fall asleep, dreaming up lesson plans or family outings for that following weekend, with his truest love in his arms or by his side.
But some nights would leave him in a cold sweat, walking from room to room, checking every crevice, peering out of windows looking for danger. His body would tense, heart would quicken, and fists would harden— ready to destroy anything coming after his family. Sometimes, he’d stay in bed out of fear, ready to be flung back into hell, staring at himself in the mirror. Then there were the nights when he would go to bed like normal, and wake suddenly with tears in his eyes, terrified that he would find himself back in the city, alone in his room or in the mansion. Those nights were the ones that hurt him the most.
He peered into the mirror, holding on to the counter and began to count down from twenty, like every other night he couldn’t walk himself back through rationale alone. “20… 19… 18…” Sometimes telling himself no one was coming anymore and that he was free to live in peace just wouldn’t put him at ease. Those reassurances felt hollow— flimsy and too easy to break.
Underneath the bathroom lights, the wrinkles on his forehead and the laugh lines along his mouth looked like seaweed anchored against a moonlit shore. His hair had begun to recede and thin out, no longer long, but rather tapered around the sides and swooped to the left. His vision failed him. He was 47, older than he ever expected to live. “11… 10… 9… 8…”
A familiar warmth swept the room as soft arms wrapped themselves around his waist. Eiji pressed his face onto Ash’s back, helping guide him through his countdown. Ash pressed his hands over his, a wave of relief washing over him. “7… 6… 5… 4… 3… 2…”
“1,” Ash said. He sighed, smiling into the mirror. Eiji kissed the spot between his shoulder blades.
“Again?” Eiji asked in a whisper. This had become routine for them. It was as normal as reading the Sunday paper over coffee and breakfast.
“No,” he told him before turning around and bringing him into a hug. “I think I’m okay. Did I wake you?”
His husband shook his head, “I tried to hug you in my sleep, but you weren’t there. So, I came searching.” Eiji rubbed circles into his back, fighting back the sleep in his eyes.
“Well, you found me,” Ash said, kissing the top of his head. “Now, let’s get you back to bed.”