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And in that Light, I Saw You

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Eiji Okumura doesn't know what to expect.

Or rather, he doesn't really expect anything at all.

He didn't spend the eighteen-hour flight from Izumo to New York with buzzing nerves, random fantasies about America going through his head at a thousand thoughts per second. He didn't have a mental checklist of what exactly he wanted to do or how he wanted to spend the next month doing. In fact, this whole trip had been something suggested near the end of his first year of university by a photographer he barely knew.

He accepted it without much thought, not even bothering to listen to half of what the photographer—Ibe—was rambling about. It was something about Eiji getting his vigor back—something about him taking a break from the stifling environment back in Japan instead of forcing himself to ruminate on how stupid it was for him to participate in something that would so obviously go wrong.

It's been months since the incident, months since he went back to practice, months since everyone on his team apologized for what they did. But every single time he showed up to university and every time he'd go to practice, hands gripping the familiar smooth fiberglass in his hands, he felt himself tense up—freeze, white noise drowning out the noise around him, the greetings from his teammates and coach disappearing behind that deafening roar.

He could feel cold sweat take over his body, mouth going dry and heart pounding in his chest.

He couldn't feel the shiver of delight that used to run up from the base of his spine or take in the air with closed eyes, a smile taking over his features easily.

Eiji used to open his arms up underneath the blue sky, feel the freedom pick up his short locks of hair and tell himself he believes in himself every time he was going to jump, but now he's just lost. A tiny speck of dust, one out of the seven million people on the world, just another lost Japanese boy who forgot how to breathe.

It’s just the same sense of nothing—a nothing that was loud, his heart thudding in his chest even when he can’t hear it. Eiji remembers those demeaning whistles and whoops, being forcefully lead off to some dark place even when the fundraiser date was over, something heavy and hot over him until a member of his team found him and yanked that weight away.

In the end, they said he lost his spirit for the sport. Lost his spirit for everything. From the look in his coach's eyes as he every so often glanced back at Eiji's slumped form, Eiji knew that he was disappointed in him. He could hear the flat voice in his voice that told him that he's a man—not some delicate girl who needs protection and empathy. That he should've already recovered from what happened instead of letting it eat him alive.

Word got out, and when half the university started looking his way, doubt shadowing their faces as to whether or not he asked for what happened or not, Eiji stopped going to school. His teammates took the four-hour train from Kyoto to Izumo, apologizing even when it wasn't their fault, but Eiji couldn't really hear them.

Because suddenly, he was blaming himself for it. Even if he isn't as tall or strong as everyone else on his team, he's still an athlete—someone who trained and conditioned and competed. So he couldn't understand why he just laid there after a minute of struggling—why he didn't say anything, white pulsing at the back of his irises as the form above him did whatever it wanted.

The photographer, Ibe, who shot a few of Eiji's competitions, said that what he suffered wasn't so much as physical as psychological. There was something that broke within Eiji's mind and soul that couldn't be mended so easily.

So now Eiji is here, standing in the middle of this impossibly busy street, barely registering the cacophony of noises around him. It sounds like water. Like he's sinking deep into the bluest ocean, limbs lax around him, eyes closing as black blurs the edges of his vision, bubbles traveling from his lips up above before suddenly disappearing.

He feels heavy but light at the same time. And suddenly, he questions why he mindlessly accepted the photographer's invitation to come to New York in the first place. Because what can possibly be in New York that can save him from his demons?

Eiji contemplates going back to Japan and locking himself in his room until the start of his next term in April, but he doesn't have the time to reach a decision when Ibe is in front of him, finger unsuccessfully navigating through the digital map on his phone with a look of wild confusion and anxiety in his eyes.

"Ei-chan, I think we're lost," he says, zooming in on one place only to zoom back out and quickly swipe across to the next street. Eiji doesn't understand how this man can't even use Google Maps correctly when his camera equipment is far more complicated to use.

Pulling out his own phone, Eiji wordlessly types in the address of the modeling agency they're supposed to meet with today before letting out a small: "Ibe-san, follow me." His voice is slightly raspy from neglect, but the overall tone is soft, maybe a little muted from the lack of emotion behind it.

Ibe lets out the breath of air he's holding before shadowing Eiji, half of his equipment swinging off his left shoulder in a large padded bag. He learned a bit of English after spending a few months here just a few years back, but his skills became rusty after a while. Eiji is pretty sure that it’s not that Ibe sucks at the language but more so because he’s afraid to speak it. Trying to form coherent phrases and sentences in a language that isn’t your own is arguably a little nerve-wracking, after all.

The concentration of people barely lessens, the whole city packed full. But to be honest, Eiji prefers this type of environment. He feels less aware of his own self in the way the heaviness lifts from his soul by just a fraction. Because in a place this large, no one could ever guess the emotional package he's been carrying around like fetters chained to his ankles for the past few months. He's surrounded by a sea of faces, so he’s even less important and undoubtedly smaller than in his hometown Izumo, but he's fine with it.

Eiji reaches the agency with less of a dark cloud over his entire being, though everything around him still feels a little intangible—as if he's not really here but back on the day when his soul fractured into several places.

The sudden image of it knocks the breath from his lungs, making him fall forward for a moment before he jerks himself back, sucking in a shaky breath of air. Ibe's hands are fluttering around him, a torrent of Japanese rushing past his lips, but Eiji can't hear it at all. He just closes his eyes, mutters an "I'm fine" underneath his breath, then hoists the few bags he's carrying higher up his shoulder before approaching the massive building in front of him.

It's made of fortified concrete and steel, the outside as polished as expected from an elite modeling agency. The letters "NK" sit right above the high entrance, the same steel reflecting beams of sunlight and into Eiji's eyes. He has to squint, and for a moment, he sees the reflection of the blue sky and its fluffy, white clouds in those letters, clear as the day.

His gaze isn't fixed as he tears his attention to the building and to the entrance instead, watching as the automatic revolving doors lead way into a reception whose floor is covered with natural stone, the cement that’s gluing the natural pieces together barely noticeable. The walls are pure white, making Eiji's hairs stand on end, but he swallows, telling himself he can take it—that the color isn't something he should continue to let haunt him.

Ignoring the slightly quickened pace of his heartbeat, Eiji strides towards the building, allowing himself to get eaten by the revolving doors.

Wordlessly, Ibe follows after him, his own eyes wide and mouth agape.

The receptionist offers a plastic smile, tucking a strand of curled blonde hair behind her ear. A corner of her mouth is too tight, her eyes lacking real emotion. Behind her is the agency's logo, lit up by a single diffused bulb of blue light. "Welcome to NK Agency. Do you have an appointment?"

Scrambling forward, Ibe opens his mouth, struggling to respond, but Eiji speaks before the photographer can even try to utter a word. He slides Ibe's card over before flipping the Japanese side to reveal English, returning the receptionist's smile with an equally practiced one. The mask doesn't suit him, and he's sure most of his friends would probably hide and demand the real Eji back if they ever saw such a fake expression on his face, but Eiji doesn't care.

The façade is placed with care. He wants to let the receptionist know he can see right through her, read her thoughts as easily as she's judging their jet-lagged, foreign appearance.

In a cosmopolitan place like this, Eiji wonders if New York City is actually proud of all the distinct cultures it houses or if they're just hiding behind a screen with superiority carved into their faces. But, well, he obviously can't attribute the same attitude to every single inhabitant of the city, but he understands it well enough.

"We're meeting with Max Lobo," he says in accented English. "He should be expecting a photographer named Shunichi Ibe."

The receptionist's eyes drag from the business card to Eiji, then to Ibe, who is standing as straight as a pin next to Eiji. She raises a brow. "I'm assuming you're not this 'Shunichi Ibe'?"

"I'm his assistant," Eiji clarifies.

"Hm."

A muscle under Eiji's right eye jumps, twitching under her scrutiny. She's probably wondering why they would let a child help an adult, much less a professional photographer who was asked to come to this top agency. He wants to tell her that he's actually a lot older than he looks, but holds himself back.

After holding Eiji's stare for another half second, the receptionist picks up the phone next to her and presses a button before sandwiching it between her shoulder and ear. She swivels a few centimeters away like the minimal turn in angle will give her more privacy. As if she needs it, anyway.

She nods twice into the phone before responding with a: "Understood, sir." Putting the phone down, she reaches across the desk to unhook a pair of visitor IDs, then places them on the top of the marble desk. Eiji accepts them, a customary "thank you" slipping from his tongue. Even if he isn’t in the best mood, he somehow can’t not be polite. It’s something that’s already ingrained in his mind and came like muscle memory.

Annoyingly so, sometimes.

"Take the elevator to your left up to the eleventh floor. Mister Lobo will be in the room at the very end of the hallway," she says, motioning behind her with a modest inclination of her head. "And please wear the visitor passes while we work on printing a formal ID for you two."

The two leave promptly, Eiji's sneakers making no sound on the floor while Ibe-san's old oxfords softly tap against the natural stone.

The elevator doors open immediately with the push of the button, and the two enter in silence. A similar industrial aesthetic decorates the interior, the ceiling laid with a whole mirrored panel while the other four sides are the same steel as the exterior of the building. It's too modern and rigid for Eiji's taste; he prefers the natural warmth of wood, the darkened grains of it etching patterns all over the brown surface.

He finds himself holding his breath the entire ride up and lets out a soundless breath when the elevator smoothly halts and opens to reveal iron-gray vinyl floors. A meter-high piece of concrete wraps around the lower half of white plaster walls, the same blue light from the reception snaking along the top of the concrete. The tiny bulbs are set low enough so the eye can't see them, positioned in the millimeter crack between the concrete and plaster.

It's a design Eiji hasn't seen before, and though his personal taste wanted to scream "gaudy," a part of Eiji actually appreciated the extreme care in which the designer placed everything.

Ibe breaks the silence by exiting the elevator first, whispering something about the whole building being a lot fancier than he remembered.

"Did you understand what the receptionist said?" Eiji asks, holding out an ID while he hangs the other one around his neck. "We should wear this if we don't want to be questioned by security."

"Oh, yes. Right." Ibe takes one, hastily putting it on as Eiji breezes past time, wasting no time to Max's office. He doesn't exactly know who this "Max Lobo" is, but he doesn’t really care anyway. The guy probably won’t even pique his interest in the slightest, but Eiji is just happy he at least hasn’t sunk so deep that he can’t appreciate an interesting or good design. He feels a little less submerged in ice water and a little more… jittery. Like he’s just come out of a cold bath, skin tingling from the difference of temperature. He doesn't know where it came from, but grabs it anyway, holding it against him.

There are a few other offices on the floor, muffled sounds of talking or the clacking of keyboards reaching the hallway. The only hint of what is inside of the offices is the wide ribbon of glass at the very top, showing white ceilings and the occasional dark accent of color in a few painted rooms.

Eiji's feet take him to the very end where there is no plaster, steel, or concrete that hides Max's office. Instead, fully transparent glass encases the whole room from floor to ceiling, allowing indirect sunlight to filter inside and the eyes of passersby to peer in—not that Eiji thinks anyone will really openly gawk inside when the person within is probably at a higher position than they are.

If they were being that unproductive and careless about private space, they would probably have to work twice as hard in order to not risk getting fired during their next evaluation.

That is how Eiji feels about this whole place. It's like a minefield, tension choking the air itself, the employees and models alike with expectations, mounds of work, and reputations on their backs. A rigid environment that definitely doesn't suit the weak of heart.

Eiji briefly wonders how Ibe is faring.

He moves to let Ibe knock on the seamless glass door twice, falling behind to gaze at the shelves of books and references lining the wall that sits adjacent to the desk. Framed editorials, magazine covers, and sketches line the top shelf, some stuck between books or scattered throughout random pockets of space. Floating glass bookshelves sport more frames and images. Some have more than a few books stacked up, proving how sturdy they were despite their outward appearance.

Eiji speculates how someone can step in here without fear that the whole room would just shatter—even if it probably is reinforced. At least the floor matches the same vinyl of the hallway so it doesn't feel like he's walking on a frozen lake.

"Shunichi!" A built man hops up from the black leather chair he's sitting on, tawny fringe flopping up with the motion before settling back onto his forehead. The sides are neatly put up, the front arranged in a small swooping wave.

Eiji decides that the style works well for the man, but that he probably only styles his hair on days he felt like it. He seems like the type who does that.

Max greets them at the entrance, welcoming them inside before letting the door fall shut with a small click. He waves at them to sit on the chaise across from him, grid-tufting still fully plush. Eiji notes the tapered metal legs, the curve breaking the angular lines of the chair itself.

"Is this your son?" Max offers Eiji a smile, the type that is always genuine. But the single phrase itself neutralizes the kind gesture. Instead, Eiji's mouth falls into a flat line.

"Ah, no." Ibe shakes his head, waving a hand in the air. "My assistant—he is my assistant."

Brows raised, Max nods, accepting the position easily. "Does he know what you are here for?"

The question hangs in the air, and Eiji actually isn’t too surprised by it. The moment Ibe told him he'd be accompanying him to a month-long business trip to work with a modeling agency, it struck him as odd. Back in Japan, Ibe is a freelance photographer who regularly shoots for newspapers and other news-related magazines; he never once had work published under a creative company.

But Eiji is a design student, can understand English, and was unconsciously desperate for a change of scenery and pace. Everyone thought taking Ibe's proposition of becoming his assistant for a year was healthy for Eiji—both education and career-wise as well as psychologically-wise.

Now, Max is suggesting that there is an ulterior motive to Ibe flying all the way to the other side of the world.

So when Ibe averts his eyes, letting out a quiet "no," Eiji feels slightly betrayed even though a piece of him was already expecting something like this.

Max sighs, but he doesn't look too concerned. "Shunichi, do you understand that this isn’t something a kid should casually take part in?"

Eiji clenches his teeth.

"Ei-chan will be fine. He was not doing well in Japan, so when you told me that model—Ash—does not easily trust adults, I thought he could help."

Max purses his lips, thinking for a moment, then sighs. "As long as he's sure," he says, eyes swiveling to Eiji's as he leans back into his chair. It creaks underneath his weight, rolling back a few centimeters.

Eiji still doesn't know what he's supposed to be sure of, but he accepts nonetheless. "Yes, I am."

Max breathes out. "Okay." Standing, he allows himself a grin, nodding toward his door. "I know you two must be tired from the long flight, so I set up an hour window with Ash. I tried to ask for a closed shoot, but the president won't allow Ash to be alone with someone he hasn’t met personally. Spend today getting to know the boy as the next photographer he will be working with but don't mention anything about his background because the whole crew, coffee boy and all, will be there."

As the two get up from their seats to follow after Max, Eiji leans to the side. "Ibe-san, you understood everything, yes?"

The photographer nods, but it's hesitant. "The... important parts," he answers back in Japanese. "To appear ‘normal’ in front of the model."

"And will you let me know what you're really here for later?" Eiji looks pointedly at him.

"Yes, yes. Later," Ibe promises.

-

Max leads them down a floor where the entire place is bathed in white, the only color resting in the people and sets.

The floor is divided by heavy curtains that hang from the ceiling, multiple models at work simultaneously, though most are only practicing or lounging around, sipping water as they talk to their fellow friends or crew members. Music pumps through the speakers, and though it's the type of mainstream pop that can sometimes be distracting, it somehow puts the whole room into a rhythm, upping the mood by a few notches.

Not that Eiji is really feeling any of it.

He can sense multiple eyes on him and Ibe as they enter the room, but it doesn’t last too long.

Max claps someone on the back, leaning over as he laughs at something he says. Easy charisma emits from the figure in waves—the kind that makes everyone feel comfortable regardless of the situation they are in.

"Take care of them, alright?" Max says, squeezing his shoulder. "They just came from Japan a few hours ago and didn’t really get to catch a break before hurrying over here."

"Of course!" The man turns his attention onto Ibe and Eiji, holding out a hand to each of them. They both take it, and he shakes their hands in unison. "I'm Sergei Varishikov, but everyone calls me Blanca. A pleasure to work with you."

He's so tall, Eiji has to tilt his head up to meet the man's eyes, bobbing his head down in a half-hearted bow.

"So I heard you'll be doing scattered shoots with Ash over the next month," Blanca continues, turning to regard the boy sitting backward in a chair, arms leaning over the top of it in boredom. "He's a bit of a handful, but I hope you'll be able to work well with him."

At the mention of his name, the boy's eyes flicker up, and when they fall on Eiji, he seems to perk up, chin lifting from his arms. A trace of a smile tugs at the corners of his lips like he just found something amusing.

Eiji averts his eyes, deciding to unpack a few things.

After finally putting down the bags he was carrying the entire time, Eiji pulls the last one off Ibe's shoulder before crouching down, unzipping the largest one to reveal a tripod, a few digital cameras, and about a dozen different lenses and other accessories. They're all nestled close together, separated by thick pieces of nylon and foam.

Ibe continues the conversation with Blanca as Eiji starts putting the equipment together, screwing on the lens Ibe usually starts with.

"Wow, I can't believe they hire kid assistants in Japan." The voice is smooth and a tad bit condescending.

Eiji has just about had it with people mistaking him for a child. Based on the description Max and Ibe painted Ash out to be, the boy is probably no more than eighteen years old.

Setting the camera down, Eiji straightens, another nerve ticking off when he finds that Ash is taller than him. The words tumble out of his mouth before he can help himself, salty and bitter. It’s completely uncalled for, but quite frankly, Eiji doesn’t care right now. "Excuse me, sir, but I'm older than you."

Ash blinks back, caught off guard as Ibe breaks his conversation off, head snapping back to look at Eiji with surprise. Blanca's widened eyes only stay for a mere second before they melt into amusement.

"Well, sorry." Something sparks in Ash's eyes. "You look young. I thought you were a kid."

You're the kid. Huffing, Eiji turns back to the equipment, pulling out the tripod and letting the legs extend out to a standard height. He fixes the camera into its usual spot, rolling the switch on before testing out the focus and brightness.

Ash doesn't return to his seat, instead, watching everything with curiosity—or rather—Eiji notes, feeling twin holes burn into his skull—somehow, I'm interesting enough to blatantly stare at. He can't tell if it's because the boy wants him to be unnerved or if there's something on his face.

In any case, it doesn't matter. Eiji tells himself that even if the boy doesn’t like him, the feeling is only mutual.

He isn't usually this petty, more so good-natured—the kind of person people like not because of his looks or because of his charisma or something like that, but because Eiji is nice. Kind, soft, and agreeable. Eiji attributes his outburst to the fact that everyone today has been getting his age wrong. He admits that he has a complex about his softer features.

Blanca claps his hands together, corners of his mouth quirking up. The noise breaks the tension in the air. "Let's start, shall we?"

Ibe immediately comes to Eiji's side, one hand coming up to pat his shoulder. "Are you okay?"

Eiji nods. He presses his lips together. "I'm really sorry, Ibe-san. I hope this... doesn't negatively affect your work."

"Don't worry." Ibe gives him a reassuring smile. "I'm glad you're more lively today."

The comment doesn’t really stick. Eiji steps over it, getting back to work. "I've set everything up for you already. Since it's a casual introduction to get to know the model, I figured stills from one single angle was appropriate enough."

"Thank you." Leaning down to grab one of the spare cameras in the bag, Ibe offers it to Eiji. "You are my assistant, but I want you to get some experience. I know photography isn't your concentration, but I think it's a good skill to learn." He grins. "It is a lot harder than pushing a button."

"Of course." Eiji holds the camera in his hand, and it felt more familiar than foreign. Over the past few weeks since Ibe started to gain interest in him, he was slowly coaxed out of his bedroom to places he never went to before. Despite going to a university a good four to five horus away from his home, he didn't really do any exploring in his campus or the area surrounding it. Most of his time was spent in practice, in the libraries, or in studios studying interior design.

Eiji didn’t feel comfortable going out at first, much less to places he wasn't even acquainted with. In fact, Eiji didn't really feel too much of anything. That is, until he finally arrived at this agency.

It's like a switch was flipped on. He can't deny the way he was staring down every design aspect of the place, printing the details in his mind for what he now knows is for future reference. It's odd because somehow, he doesn't want to admit that maybe this trip is actually a good idea.

Obviously, it’s still too early to tell, but Eiji still hopes it will be.

-

The hour passes by a lot quicker than Eiji expects, minutes slipping through his fingers like grains of sand.

Half of the time, he just stood there, watching Ibe as he told Ash to be comfortable and pose in whatever way he deemed was good, occasionally offering words of encouragement and affirmation.

Blanca took up his time for nearly the other half of the hour, so Eiji really only had close to ten minutes to actually look through the camera, squinting through it, hand adjusting the lens until Ash became a clear picture in front of him.

Eiji didn't really move, keeping the frame just around Ash, fingers still, the one positioned over the shutter relaxed for those ten minutes that seemed to drag on for longer than the rest of the time. He didn't realize he was holding almost all his breath, barely breathing until Blanca called the time and Ibe started to put the equipment away.

Black dots danced in Eiji's vision as the let the camera down fall next to him, hands clutching it tightly.

It wasn't even as if he was entranced with Ash—nothing like that. In fact, he didn't even once have a good look at the boy.

Those ten minutes that were at a standstill, frozen like a photograph on glossy paper, was Eiji's eyes glazing over, mind devoid of anything, the white all around the studio closing in on him. He doesn’t know what hit him, but it did, and hard.

His fingers shake as he turns the digital camera off and puts it in its rightful place. After zipping it up, he moves to slide it over his head and across his shoulder, but Ibe takes it from him before he can. Max has come back, offering to carry some of the equipment to the taxi waiting for them in front of the building.

"Hey." An arm slings around Eiji's shoulder, pulling him against a warm body. He tenses, coiling up like a spring.

"Your boss asked me to take you out somewhere tonight," Ash says. His face is open, jade eyes clear. "Do you drink?"

Ibe-san? "What?" Eiji's brows come together, eyes sliding upwards to meet Ash's. "I'm only nineteen; I'm not legally allowed to drink." Shrugging off Ash's arm, Eiji moves to pick up the last bag of equipment. "And children like you should go to bed early. Your parents set a curfew for you, didn't they?"

"Well, luckily for me, I don't have any. Parents, I mean."

Heart stopping, Eiji halts.

"Not that I need any," Ash continues, shrugging.

Eiji actually feels somewhat betrayed by himself that he almost felt bad for the boy.

"Ei-chan, you should go with Ash," Ibe pipes up, taking the bag from his arm. "Go have fun."

Gaping, Eiji attempts to take the bag back, fingers nearly hooking around the nylon strap. But Ibe pulls out of reach, already hurrying to where Max is. The two adults hop into the elevator, the steel doors closing as Ibe waves at Eiji, giving him a thumbs up.

Eiji doubts Ibe heard what Ash said. There was no way he'd leave Eiji alone with someone who makes such poor life choices. In fact, Eiji is pretty sure Ibe only suggested this in the first place because of Eiji's reaction toward Ash—that hot flash of anger he felt before biting back at him. Ibe must think there’s something about Ash that brings Eiji closer to his old self. Or maybe he has an ulterior motive—the one he hasn’t yet discussed with Eiji. Either way, both lead to the same outcome: leaving with Ash to some unknown place.

Sighing, he rolls his shoulders back, the muscles on his back tense, his neck protesting against the motion. Eiji's entire body still aches from sitting in a cramped economy-class seat on that stuffy airplane for eighteen hours. Why can't he just go back to the apartment, take a long bath, and go to sleep? He doesn't have the energy to go out right now.

Turning to Ash, Eiji rubs at one of his eyes, feeling the inner corners prickle with fatigue. "I'm grateful that you're doing what Ibe-san asked, but I'm really not in the mood today. I just want to go back and rest. I hope you understand."

Ash tilts his head to one side. His gaze is unreadable, but Eiji doesn't swivel up like he used to when people stared at him like that. Quite frankly, he's too out of it to even feel that way.

"You know, I pegged you as more of the observant type, but I guess I'm kinda wrong on that aspect." Ash steps forward, leaning down slightly as he throws both arms over Eiji’s shoulders. "You're dense when it comes to yourself."

Eiji's face screws up, and he moves a few steps back, annoyance bubbling at the surface, but Ash only has to take one step forward, hands locking together behind Eiji's head. "I'm curious about you, Ei-chan."

A split-second of confusion flashes over Eiji's face before a flush explodes onto his face. His cheeks burn, the blush even heating to the tips of his ears.

No one but his family and Ibe calls him that, but hearing the title of endearment from someone he just met an hour ago is something that completely catches him off guard.

"Hm?" Withdrawing an arm, Ash runs a knuckle across the top of Eiji's cheek, grazing the skin so softly that the blush only deepens even more. "What's this?" There's a smug smile on his face that pisses Eiji off even more. He's seriously never felt this irritated at one person before.

Eiji ducks from out of Ash's reach, sneakers squeaking as he quickly twists around. "Fine. I'll go out with you today."

"Good boy." Ash ruffles his hair before lazily waltzing off to the elevators, hands shoved into the pockets of his blue bomber jacket.

There's something annoyingly effortless in the way he is—like he gets whatever he wants no matter what he does, and Eiji hates that. Because he’s the perfect victim who always has a hard time saying no.

-

Eiji is honestly fine with thrills and all, but this is the first time he's ridden a motorcycle and he can't say he prefers it over the subway and buses. He's vaulted over four meters before, for God's sake, but for some reason, he can't take a single ride. He's also pretty sure Ash is well over the speed limit—not that the boy cares anyway.

So Eiji just tries not to think about dying at age nineteen as he locks his arm across Ash's waist, pressing his body against his with his eyes squeezed shut.

When Ash finally stops, almost skidding to a halt, Eiji jumps back, trembling fingers braced against the leather seat behind him as he sucks in a few quick breaths. Yanking the helmet off, he climbs off the bike, trying to hide how much he's shaking.

"Are you alright? I didn't go too fast, did I?" Ash ducks down a bit, face a little too close to Eiji's to be considered comfortable.

Twisting his head away, Eiji takes in another deep breath before letting it all out at once. He feels a little light-headed, but it's probably because of his usual nerves. "I would've preferred a taxi," he admits.

Ash seems to take this seriously. "I'll call a cab next time, maybe make Blanca drive us." But then he grins, patting Eiji's head like he's a grade-schooler. "If that's what makes my dear Ei-chan happy, of course."

Eiji doesn't fall for the same thing again, only returning the grin with a brief look of contempt before striding in after Ash.

Inside, Eiji can easily tell that it's a bar. The entire place is dimmed down to minimal lighting, covered in polished dark wood. In the center is a rectangular island, glass paneling almost covering the entire thing, rows and rows of alcohol and other drinks decorating it. Purple lights hang down from the top, reflecting against the mirror. Wooden stools encompass the island, many of the seats already taken by what looks like regulars while some others are scattered throughout the floor, elbows leaning across circular tables, arms slung over dark, tufted leather couches.

When Ash catches sight of a bartender with a dramatic purple mohawk, his entire face breaks into a wide smile. Eiji's eyes widen, but he averts his eyes, telling himself that he did not just think that was beautiful.

"Shorter!" Ash and the bartender clap their hands together, bringing their bodies together in a half-hug. "How's the night been?"

"Well, it just started," Shorter replies, eyes immediately sliding over to Eiji. "And who's this?" Rather than appearing curious, he looks shocked, brows pulled upward to his hairline.

"Ei—" Ash starts, but Eiji completely cuts him off, offering Shorter a curt bow.

"Eiji Okumura. Nice to meet you."

"Likewise..." Shorter blinks back at him, then turns his gaze to Ash again. "I know I said you can bring anyone you want, even if they're underage, but isn't this taking it a little too far? He's cute and all so I understand why it might be hard to say no, but he’s a kid so—"

The words are drowned out when Ash starts laughing, face lighting up as he casts a look of pure delight Eiji's way.

Eiji glowers. "I'm nineteen."

"It's hard to tell, isn't it?" Ash stifles another round of laughter, voice shaking. "But the moment he opens his mouth, you'll realize you're wrong."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Aw, don't tease him so much!" Shorter turns to Eiji, cocking his head to one side. There's this aura around him that's brimming with energy. Eiji feels like if he spends too much time with the guy, he'll be even more drained. "Ash can be an asshole sometimes, but he's actually a real softie."

Eiji blinks, then narrows his eyes at Ash before offering Shorter a smile so bright it borders on insincerity. "I figured as much. Though I'd take that last part out." His voice is sickly sweet as he emphasizes his last sentence.

It takes a while for Shorter to process everything, and when he does, he breaks out into full-blown laughter, throwing his head back as he slaps Eiji in the back. "Holy—" he wheezes, barely able to contain himself. Ash casts him a foul look, clearly pissed off that his best friend is literally dying of laughter over someone who just insulted him. "I've never met someone as bold as you. Everyone's too scared to even look at pretty boy over there."

Even Eiji can see why. It's hard standing next to someone who radiates confidence and has the appearance to back it up. Ash has to stand in front of people all the time—to fit any concept and work with multiple photographers and crew members he's probably never met before. Modeling isn't an easy job. Eiji knows there are multiple aspects of it and darker sides people probably overlook.

He glances at Ash who has already gotten over his previous affront, catching up with Shorter as well as some of the other bartenders. When someone is bathed in so much light, flash going over multiple times that they end up seeing the same white dots in their vision even as the cameras are put down, it often highlights those superficial, surface-level parts. No one would ever know what's happening underneath it all.

Eiji has a feeling that Ash might be one of those people, though he probably doesn't disclose it to anyone. He knows someone just like that, after all.

"So you want a drink?" Shorter looks at him expectantly, swirling an invisible glass in his hand.

"Ah, but I can't—"

"What?" Putting his arm around Eiji, Shorter brings him to the bar. He still wears that overly warm smile like he's eaten the sun whole for breakfast. "I can't even get you something non-alcoholic?"

"Actually, that..." Eiji trails off for a moment, pausing. When he looks into the bar’s mirror, the fatigue rolls from his shoulders, and it feels liberating. He doesn't know how long it will last or if he'll ever get over this slump, so he grabs the opportunity while it's right in front of him. "That would be nice."

Chapter Text

Ash ends up giving Eiji a ride back to Ibe’s apartment instead of calling a cab, but he’s a lot less reckless in his driving, turning into bends slowly and making sure he isn’t way over the speed limit. Eiji appreciates this but doesn’t really say anything, arms only loosely around Ash’s waist, head tilted slightly up to gaze at the night sky.

He can’t really see the stars because of how much light pollution the city gives off, but he imagines putting himself back at Izumo, leaning outside his window to see the sky clearly, the wind gently rolling across the seascape. The familiar sound of waves reaches his ears, and when he closes his eyes, he feels like he’s immersed in it.

It soothes him—the sound.

It reminds him of those times his family used to take weekly trips to the beach and spend dinner there, both Eiji and his younger sister running around with sparklers popping in their grips.

It was beautiful, and Eiji still misses it. He just hasn’t ever told anyone that he’s been wanting to go back to the ocean. Because lately, he feels like he might drown in the waves if he even so much as sees them.

He bites down on his bottom lip, arms tightening with the movement. The muscles in Ash’s stomach jump, telling Eiji he definitely noticed, but Eiji doesn’t care.

They end up arriving in front of the apartment complex close to eight, and Eiji is grateful that he has ample time to relax for a bit before going to bed.

After handing the helmet back to Ash, he pulls out his buzzing phone, multiple texts flashing across the screen. They’re all from his little sister, full of exclamation points and stickers. And though Eiji usually ignores them if they’re too repetitive, he actually has to almost stifle a laugh this time, the corner of his mouth quirking up.

Curious, Ash leans over this shoulder, eyes narrowing at the mix of hiragana and kanji.

Eiji swipes right on one of the texts, quickly typing an “I’m fine. Got here safely.” He pauses before adding “Thank you” and sends a cute bunny sticker with inflating hearts around it.

A second after, his sister sends another barrage of texts, each one popping up one after another, but Eiji doesn’t have the time to respond, instead, sliding his phone back into his pocket. And it’s not like he didn’t expect this to happen since he hasn’t responded to anyone’s texts for months. His phone even started to feel like a foreign object in his hand after a while.

“Texting your girlfriend?” Ash raises a brow, smirking.

“No.” Eiji starts leaving, tucking his hands into his pockets. Even though there’s a lot of noise around them, he can somehow pick out Ash’s voice clearly from it all. “My little sister.”

“What a nice big brother. Wish I had someone like you.”

Eiji doesn’t know if he’s hearing wrong, but there’s a twinge of sadness in Ash’s usually smooth voice when he says that, like his emotional baggage for the topic outweighed a lot of other things. So Eiji can’t help but turn, a smile on his face as he attempts to change the mood.

“I can see why Shorter calls you a softie,” he teases. “You went easy for me during the ride back.”

Ash blinks, then his face tenses as he averts his eyes. “It’s nothing. You’re the one who was hanging onto me for dear life the first time around, and I really didn’t want you squeezing all the breath out of me, is all.” Times like these remind Eiji that some boys are still just boys despite their outward appearance and typical “mature” act. Ash fit the description so perfectly that a piece of Eiji can’t help but think he’s cute.

It’s easier for Eiji himself to accept defeat and admit his feelings, or cave and let the other party have their way, but Ash doesn’t do any of that. Not at all, Eiji notes.

“In other words, thanks for taking me to your friend’s place,” Eiji says. “It was a lot more fun than I thought.”

Ash shoves his head into the helmet, the visor shielding his face completely out of view, and when he responds, Eiji can’t hear him clearly, the words muffled. But he has a feeling he doesn’t really need to know what they were because Ash’s actions speak for themselves.

-

“I’m back,” Eiji announces, taking off his sneakers before sliding his feet into slippers. The lights are already on, and he rounds the corner, head raising as he steps into the kitchen.

Max is the only one there, however, and Eiji can’t see Ibe anywhere. He halts for a moment, taking in a breath before wrinkling his nose. The mix of beer and sake isn’t too heavy, but it’s almost obvious enough that the two men have been drinking prior to Eiji arriving. And Eiji can only guess that Ibe is probably out cold in his bedroom, still in his daywear and probably still stinking of alcohol.

Shoving age difference aside, Eiji opens his mouth to scold Max, but the man holds his hands up, already owning up to what he did. “I know, I know.” He smiles apologetically, raking a hand through his tawny brown hair, the strands are already undone from their previous updo. “I probably shouldn’t have suggested it, but I already had it on hand, and well… the mood kind of plummeted, so one thing led to another and…” He trails off, not needing to finish the rest.

Eiji sighs, taking a seat across from Max. “Is Ibe-san okay?”

“He’s… alive.”

“And probably can’t work tomorrow because of you,” Eiji finishes dryly. “I’m not familiar enough with him to know his drinking habits or how much he can drink, but with your bare description of his state, I’m sure he probably already threw up. Twice. And is probably going to have a massive hangover in the morning.”

Max chuckles nervously, hands still up on either side of his face. “Like I said, I didn’t make the best choice.”

“But thank you for staying instead of leaving him alone,” Eiji says, letting out a breath of air. “You put a trashcan next to his bed, right? And made him lie on his side?”

“Mm-hm.” Max nods. A sliver of surprise touches his eyes—one that is underlaid with an appreciation for Eiji’s character. “I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but… this late afternoon, you didn’t really seem like the kind of guy who would care too much, but you’re actually the opposite, aren’t you?”

“I’ve… been in a rut,” Eiji murmurs, pressing his cheek against his propped up hand. His eyes keep Max’s gaze for a second more before swiveling to the side where the kitchen meets the balcony.

The glass sliding doors offer a view of the city, a kaleidoscope of lights blinking up at them from below. They look like the stars that the night sky lacks, and Eiji wonders if New York City’s inhabitants are okay with those artificial stars—if the reason why they don’t really miss the real stars is because they can attribute them somewhere else. “I’m sorry if I seemed a little less… welcoming earlier today.”

“Shunichi mentioned something like that,” Max says. “And you don’t have to apologize; it happens to the best of us.”

Inside, Eiji knows he’s right, but he can’t accept that. Somehow, it’s harder for him to forgive himself for being in a bind, and easier for him to forgive others. Human nature is just like that.

“I wanted to talk to you about Ash, Eiji.”

His eyes swivel back to Max’s.

“It’s a sensitive issue I’ve been shadowing for the past few years ever since I heard of it. I want to let you know that I’m still against pulling you into this, but if Shunichi thinks it’s a good idea, then I really can’t refuse since he knows you better than I do.”

Eiji nods slowly, signaling Max to start.

“Even though you might think the media picks up on all the underground scandals and the latest gossip, sometimes some things can be covered up so well it literally passes right from underneath our noses,” Max says, fingers carding through his locks again. “Honestly, I don’t even know why I was so shocked when I found out about it since it happens all the time in the industry, but the magnitude of the issue is just too great to ignore.”

He’s skirting around the main point like a rat, time falling between every single one of his words. It’s something that clearly makes him uncomfortable, but Eiji thinks Max is more so being tentative because what he’s about to mention is a situation that makes people uncomfortable in general.

“I have some evidence that Ash’s previous agency is secretly sex-trafficking young children, mostly boys. And that Ash himself was a former victim before Blanca yanked him out of the system.” The words rush out of Max’s mouth, and he doesn’t take a breath before continuing.

Eiji feels his mouth go dry, his whole body stiffening up to resemble more like a frieze than a living vessel. And when he tries to swallow, he can’t like there’s cotton lodged deep in his throat.

More than considering it a touchy topic, it’s one that Eiji understood at a personal level. He can’t imagine having to go through that again or even multiple times.

“I quit my job as a journalist to follow this case, but ever since working for the agency, I’ve never once gotten anything out of Ash or Blanca. The two obviously steer clear away from anything that points towards their previous affiliation to the agency they were in before. Even now, I’m sure that bastard Golzine is still forcing children into the system and depositing them elsewhere when they’re not of any value anymore.” Max’s face tightens when he says this, a muscle jumping in his jaw.

That heavy feeling attaches itself to Eiji again, his breaths becoming fainter. Max’s voice fades slightly.

“Ash is the only one he didn’t dispose of even when he passed ten years of age, but I don’t even know why—or, or what exactly Ash’s relationship is with the guy. I’m thinking they might have some sort of connection that may shed light over Golzine’s illegal activities.” Max stops for a moment, but when he opens his mouth to start again, Eiji speaks instead.

“So you want me to try and get closer to Ash?” His voice is rough, and it’s almost painfully apparent how he feels. In fact, Eiji is surprised he can still speak, given the physical condition he’s currently under. “To get him to tell me or give me solid evidence of his former agency’s dark secret so you can expose this ‘Golzine’ to the rest of the world?”

Max chooses his words carefully, dark blue eyes on Eiji’s. “That’s one way to put it. I just want to stop Golzine from exploiting children for his own profit and pleasure. I… I hope you understand where I’m getting at, Eiji.”

Eiji’s lips press into a straight line. He uncurls his fists, the slightly red crescents printed into his palms throbbing. “I do, and I know I already said I’d take part in this back at your office, but I need more time to think.” His eyes waver as he stares at his open palms, the skin around his wrists burning. “I know what you’re doing is for the well-being of countless children, but sometimes this kind of thing hurts the victims more than the perpetrators.”

He’s saying all of this based on his feelings, not based on his values or ethics, which is why Eiji needs to cool off before giving an answer.

And thankfully, Max accepts this. “Of course, take your time. Let me or Ibe know if you’re willing to help us, and if not, we’ll be sure not to press you about it or force you into it. Spend your year here they exact way you want to; it’s what you deserve.”

That’s what everyone deserves. But Eiji doesn’t voice his thoughts. He pushes his chair back, standing as Max mirrors his actions.

When he locks the door behind him, Eiji lets everything out, crouching down suddenly, head between his knees as he shields himself from his surroundings. He has to take in deep breaths, forcefully pushing each one out so he doesn’t suddenly pass out on the spot.

Eiji is glad Ibe is out cold because he doesn’t want to wake him up or have him worry about him.

It’s been a few weeks since he had a panic attack. It’s more subtle this time, and he can somehow stifle the more obvious symptoms through forced breathing, but Eiji thought he was over with them.

He’s not so sure anymore.

Eiji spends the next few minutes in the position, then slowly straightens, hand out to brace against the wall as he does so. And after gulping down a cup of water, he makes his way towards the bathroom, filling the tub up with hot water before sinking into the warmth, pulling his legs up to his chest, neck back against the cold tile. Steam rises, dampening his hair and straightening out the locks to stick to his forehead and cheeks.

The water is an odd thing, Eiji concludes.

A contradictory thing that somehow both scared him yet made him feel completely safe within its grasp.

He spends a full thirty minutes soaking in the tub before emerging, pulling on his pajamas and padding to his own bedroom.

Pulling the comforter over himself, Eiji lies down, face parallel with the ceiling. His body relaxes, tired limbs melting into the mattress. And as he lets himself get carried away with sleep, he can only think about one person: Ash.

-

The next morning, Eiji wakes up a good hour earlier, leaving to pick up a few things from the grocery store just next to the apartment complex.

When he returns, he drops the bags on the wooden countertop before pulling off his hoodie and donning an apron. It’s something he’s gotten used to packing along with the rest of his clothes and other necessities because he’s always the one who cooks during trips, and this time, that aspect probably won’t change.

Especially now, anyway, with Ibe still in bed and about to wake up with the worst alcohol-induced migraine in history.

It doesn’t take long for Eiji to finish cooking breakfast. If anything, he’s just glad that the store actually sold all the ingredients for miso soup; he was expecting to only find rice for okayu, some tofu, and maybe nori, but the store literally had a whole aisle for him to pick and choose from.

Sitting down, Eiji places his bowl of soup in front of him, chopsticks lying across the top. Then, he sits, putting his hands together to murmur a small “itadakimasu.”

He almost finishes before Ibe stumbles in, bleary eyes squinting against the natural light from outside as he winces under the throb of a headache. Eiji doesn’t even flinch when the man nearly loses his balance and falls smack down onto the floor.

“Ibe-san, I made some miso. You should eat first before taking a shower and going back to bed.”

“I have a meeting with Max and the rest of the crew he hired for me. I can’t—“

“Not in your current state, of course not,” Eiji responds in a level tone. “No matter how you feel, you probably know that you shouldn’t drink at night before you have work to do. As tempting as it must be, it’s still a bad idea.”

Ibe pauses for a moment, considering Eiji’s words before pressing a few fingers against his temple, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “You’re right. I’ll call Max.”

“He already knows,” Eiji says. “Or rather, he was expecting something like this to happen. Before he left yesterday, he told me to let you know we have the day off. We’ll resume work tomorrow.”

Ibe makes a noise under his hand. As he approaches the kitchen table, the mutters something under his breath about not believing this has happened again. Eiji tries not to look too interested in that.

“Was last night fun?” After Ibe drained half his bowl, he actually seems to be doing a lot better already, though his appearance still makes it obvious what he did to himself the night before. “Where did Ash take you? Karaoke? The cinema? Bowling?”

“A bar,” Eiji says, biting into a soft cube of tofu.

Ibe gapes at him, spoon splashing into the soup. “A what?”

“A bar,” he repeats, eyes flickering up. Eiji holds his hand up in the air, shaking an invisible glass. “They have this non-alcoholic ginger pineapple thing that actually tasted really good. One of the bartenders is Ash’s best friend, and he’s super nice. I spent the entire time listening to him tell me funny anecdotes about Ash, so that was a plus.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

The two eat in silence for the remainder of the time, and Eiji rounds the table to pick Ibe’s bowl up to wash, the photographer nodding in silent thanks at the service. He sits there as the water runs, the sound of porcelain dishes clacking together as they’re placed in the washing machine piercing the air. The towel hanger rattles as Eiji wipes his hands off, head turning slightly behind him to glance at Ibe.

“You aren’t going to take a shower? Or maybe you want a bath?” He pauses. “Would you like me to draw one up for you?” Eiji converses in Japanese, his words a lot softer than they are when he speaks in English.

If someone were to describe them a sweet, that would be an understatement. He speaks like there’s spun sugar in his mouth, the candy floss rolling around his tongue. Not that anyone really notices except for those who really listen.

Ibe shakes his head, hands in the air. “No, I can do that myself. Thank you, Ei-chan.”

“Of course. Let me know if you need or want anything else,” Eiji says. “I’ll be in my room.”

He thinks he actually has time to finally sit and give his sister a full report as to what exactly has happened so far, but before Eiji can even put his butt on his bed, the front doorbell rings, three successive knocks following it.

Eiji actually hesitates for a moment, wondering if he even has to open the door in the first place—if it’s just some door-to-door advertiser hitting up every apartment in the complex,—but he eventually gives in, opting to go in case the person behind the door is the landlady or someone else who’s important.

His slippers slide against the wooden floor panels, making scratchy noises, but the running water from the bathroom is louder.

When Eiji pulls the door back, chin tilting slightly to follow the line of the figure in front of him, he freezes.

It’s Ash.

Ash with his hands shoved into his sherpa-lined denim jacket, white tee halfway tucked into ripped jeans. His cheeks are rosy from the chilly March air, a faint scattering of pink across pale skin. And for some reason, Eiji notices that the bubblegum Ash is chewing on right now matches that color.

He blames it on his schooling in design where he once took a class on color composition and spent hours a week for a full term looking at and considering thousands of combinations and hues.

“Hey.” Ash offers him a relaxed smile, hand coming up in a curt wave.

Eiji’s fingers tighten on the door handle, knuckles turning white under the pressure.

His mind starts to wander back to what Max said, but he stops himself before he can really dwell on it. It isn’t the time to suddenly burst out in concern over someone who still believes Eiji knows close to nothing about him.

“Hi. I thought we didn’t have a shoot today?”

“Oh, yeah. I’m off-duty. The entire crew is. So I was wondering…” Ash leans in as the corners of his mouth stretches upwards, locks of long blond hair falling into his eyes. “...if you’d like to go somewhere with me today.” He blows into the bubblegum and it pops before his tongue swipes it back into his mouth. It smells faintly of strawberries.

The door starts to close even before Eiji can give an answer, but Ash shoves his foot in before Eiji can fully shut it. He forces it open with his other hand, wedging his body into the crack and letting himself in.

“Hey, isn’t it rude to not even give an answer?” He looks at Eiji who is actually still dressed in a wrinkled tee with his university’s logo on it. His legs are clad in an old pair of sweatpants that are clearly too big for him, waistband low on his hips and hem dragging on the floor.

Earlier when Eiji went out, he only washed his face, brushed his teeth, and threw on a hoodie before running to the grocery store. His hair is probably still a mess, the black tufts sticking every which way, but he doesn’t really care at the moment.

“It’s not like you have any errands to run anyway, so I’m saving you from boredom, yeah? ” Ash produces another dazzling smile—one that Eiji physically has to turn away from.

He’s prone to being weak towards pretty things, poring over interior design magazines and concepts posted on the internet.

Once, he literally spent an entire night flipping through an entire year’s worth of issues from this one magazine he really likes that a former senpai let him have after graduating. He’s such a nerd that he even wrote comments in all of the margins, sticky notes posted all over the pages with arrows and whatnot. The whole stack literally grew double in size after he shoved enough bookmarks and notes in between every page.

A bit of his pride crumbles whenever Eiji caves, and though he promised himself that last night was going to be the last time he got strung around by someone younger than him, he accepts. “Fine, but let me change first. And I need to tell Ibe-san I’ll be gone for a few hours.”

“For the entire day,” Ash corrects. “I’m going to help curb your boredom for a whole day, Ei-chan.”

“If you call me Ei-chan one more time, I’m going to kick you out.”

“Ei-chan.”

Shoving Ash outside, Eiji slams the door into his face, then pads away.

But the door swings open again—naturally, since Eiji never locked it in the first place.

“Take off your shoes!” Eiji shouts behind him.

“Sure thing, Ei-chan.”

Eiji is going to murder him later.

-

After changing into a collared shirt and sweater, pulling on some jeans, and combing out his hair so it didn’t look like he just rolled out of bed, Eiji walks back to the kitchen where Ash is waiting with his head resting on top of his arms. He straightens when he hears Eiji behind him, fingers gripping the wooden tabletop as he tips back at a dangerous angle that makes Eiji’s heartbeat pick up its pace until Ash sits forward properly.

“So where are we going today?”

“Everywhere.” Ash hops off the stool, making his way to the entryway before tugging his boots back on. He opens the doors for Eiji. “I assume you’ve never been to NYC before, so I’m doing you a favor and taking you sightseeing today, of course.”

Eiji sticks the key into the lock, brow raised. “Hm. So you’re ‘curbing my boredom’ and ‘doing me a favor,’ huh? You really weren’t just bored yourself? And I bet you definitely did not have anyone else to hang out with so you decided to ask a guy you just met yesterday.”

Ash’s eyes widen for a fraction of a second before he can regain himself, so Eiji can’t tell if the flush over his cheekbones difficult is from coldness or embarrassment. It doesn’t necessarily amuse him when he subtly points out Ash’s lies; he really only does this out of habit since his little sister was prone to spinning them out every other day as excuses.

He’s more akin to a mother than someone who enjoys teasing people for a living.

“W-well, Shorter’s busy and the rest of the crew already has plans today, so I thought—”

“I understand.” Eiji cuts him off, knowing Ash will ramble if he doesn’t. Besides, it really wasn’t his intention to make the boy uncomfortable—really just to point out that cover-ups like those are palpable enough for anyone to pick out, and that he should just speak his mind instead. “I was planning on leaving the apartment after some time to grab lunch and dinner. I guess Ibe-san will just have to put up with miso and some snack foods for the entire day.” He probably can’t eat too much anyway.

“O-oh. Right.” Ash coughs, shrouding his face from view, and Eiji decides it’s actually kind of cute that there’s such a strong disconnect in his personality.

One moment, he’s so smug Eiji wants to smack the expression off his face, and the next moment, he’s so flustered that Eiji has to try hard not to fawn over him like he used to when he worked part-time as a babysitter during his last two years in high-school.

And I was even thinking about killing him after getting ready. He doesn’t know if he should be angry at himself for changing his mind so quickly.

“Here.” Ash tosses Eiji a helmet. It’s new—a glossy black one with a tinted visor that isn’t nearly as dark as Ash’s red one.

“You already bought a new one?”

“Yeah.”

Eiji peers at it. He doesn’t know the exact price, but he’s heard of some that easily go up to fifty-thousand yen—about five-hundred dollars. “Aren’t they kind of expensive?”

Shrugging, Ash shoves his head into the helmet, flicking the visor up to reveal nonchalant jade eyes. “I model, so I have money.”

“If you have a lot, do me a favor and please pay off my student loans,” Eiji mutters.

“What was that?”

Putting the helmet on, Eiji swings his leg up over Ash’s bike. He scoots forward a bit, wrapping his arms around Ash. “Nothing.”

“Alright, then.” Kicking up the stand, Ash leans forward, swerving around to weave between two open parking spaces before reaching the exit.

It’s still relatively early in the morning—a little past eight, but the city is so awake, countless people already up and running. Back at Izumo, there were plenty of inhabitants like students and shop owners who had morning duties, but it never felt as packed as it does in New York City.

“If you don’t have anywhere in mind, I’ll take you to my favorite spot first.”

Ash’s favorite spot? Eiji wonders if it’s some well-known shopping district or popular tourist place like Central Park, but when Ash pulls in front of a Neoclassical building, Eiji can’t deny that he’s surprised.

It has the same fittings as a classic Greek façade: Corinthian columns with frieze, a pediment, and a pronaos leading up to the entrance. But it’s obviously stylized by its architects, two pompous lions flanking either side like stone gargoyles at the lip of a rooftop.

Eiji squints at the carved title right underneath the frieze, mouth forming the words as he reads them out loud. “The New York Public Library.” He blinks. The New York Public Library?

Tugging off his helmet, Ash tucks it underneath his arm, then pulls out his key and drops it in his back pocket. Eiji follows him, trying not to look awkward as he carries his helmet in as well.

“Whenever I don’t feel like doing a shoot, or if Blanca decides to piss me off, I usually come here,” Ash says, hopping up the set of stairs.

They pass through the middle arch, and Eiji has to try hard not to gape too hard at it all. It’s architecture that’s a lot more different than what he sees at home, and even then, he himself doesn’t focus on the exterior; only on interior design. Being able to gaze at something like this in real life and not just in ar history textbooks is kind of surreal—even if it’s not exactly a replica of a Greek temple.

“And, well, Blanca knows I’m here most of the time, but he just lets me off the hook since he knows I’ll probably show up the next day with a nasty attitude if he sends someone to get me from here.”

When they enter, Eiji’s eyes widen a fraction. It’s not exactly packed with people, but the sheer size of the place is astonishing in and of itself.

Polished linoleum floors, long wooden desks on either side, spanning six seats in length. Bookshelves line the sides, stacked up one on top of the other, gridded arched windows letting columns of natural light in. There are even chandeliers hanging low from a decorated ceiling. Eiji has to peel his eyes away from the paintings above to focus on what’s in front of him.

“So, what do you think? Pretty, right?” Ash looks like he’s a little boy in a candy shop. His eyes are glued to the open space before him, taking it all in like it’s the first time he’s seen it. “And peaceful, too. Perfect for when you don’t want anyone to disturb you.”

“I never really thought you were the studious type,” Eiji says bluntly, finger running down the spine of a thick volume on history. “Or one who enjoys reading books for fun.”

Ash pauses for a moment. He’s not the least bit offended by the comment. “Well, I barely went to grade school and eventually dropped out after neglecting to attend for weeks, but I still come to the library to study various things when I have the chance.” He taps the side of his head, lips curling up. “Keeps my brain from turning into mush, I guess.”

Brows coming together, Eiji stares at Ash. “So you learn math concepts and stuff like that for fun?”

“Yup.”

Eiji frowns. “Huh.”

He hates anything related to math or science. He’d rather have his professors give him fifteen assignments to finish by the end of the week than suffer through that nasty stuff again. It’s not to say his grades in those subjects were horrible; just that he didn’t enjoy them at all when he took them.

Ash jerks his head to the exit, beckoning Eiji outside. “Wanna go to Fifth Avenue? Where the Empire State Building is?”

Eiji honestly doesn’t know what else to do or where else to go, so he follows along, visor down as Ash cruises through the area, stopping occasionally to take Eiji in someplace.

There’s a moment where a huge poster of Ash is hung up in front of the window display of a store, and Eiji just stares at it before bursting into laughter, commenting on how the fresh concept doesn’t really suit him. Ash, of course, drags Eiji away from it, avoiding eye-contact from everyone else in case they noticed the resemblance between the model in the poster and him.

They stop at the Met and walk through Broadway, Times Square blinking back at them with its moving billboards and flashing lights.

When it’s close to dinnertime, Ash takes Eiji to Central Park, buying two hot dogs from a nearby street vendor, both practically drenched with ketchup and mustard.

“Sorry about lunch. I forgot about it,” Ash says, giving one to Eiji.

After taking just one bite, Eiji scrunches up his nose. “This mustard is so strong.”

“Want me to lick it off for you?” Ash is already halfway done with his in a second, thumb swiping across his mouth where a smear of sauce left a trail behind.

Giving him a look, Eiji runs back to the vendor for a few napkins, then comes back and wiping all the mustard off. He offers a napkin to Ash who accepts it, shoving the rest of the hot dog down his throat before wiping his fingers and mouth off.

He watches Eiji as he takes his time, jade eyes peering at him openly. Eiji has to look away before he gets too lost in the forest of them.

Once he’s done, he crumbles up his napkin in one fist, taking Ash’s in the other to deposit in the trash. And when he comes back, Ash is standing, almost bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet.

“Come on.” He grabs Eiji’s hand, pulling him towards his bike. “There’s one last thing I want to show you.”

-

“A ferry ride.” The words pass through Eiji’s lips so softly, he’s not sure if anyone can hear it.

But Ash nods in confirmation, arms leaning against the railing at the very top of the ship, hair whipping into his face as the wind picks it up. He tucks a few longer strands behind his ears, ignoring the shorter ones that can’t be brushed away. “I was worried we wouldn’t be able to catch the last one.”

“Hm.” When Eiji’s eyes drop to the choppy waves beneath, he swallows, unconsciously scooting closer to Ash. He lets out a breath of air, worried when it comes out more scattered and strained than he intended.

“Are you… scared?”

Eiji doesn’t want to admit it, but the words slip out anyway. “Kind of.”

“Wanna hold my hand?”

He takes Ash’s open palm curling his fingers over it and squeezing lightly. His other hand grips the railing.

Ash presses his lips together, avoiding Eiji’s gaze. “If you didn’t want to go on here in the first place, you could have told me, you know. Would you feel more comfortable being inside?”

“No—” Eiji breaks off, biting his bottom lip. “I mean, yes, but I-I’m fine. I’m used to the water since I live next to it… it’s just that, lately, I’ve been associating it with something… um, something bad. It makes me feel like I’m sinking—that… that I might disappear if I stare into it for too long.”

“Then why not focus on the sky?”

It’s a simple suggestion—one that Eiji hasn’t really thought about.

“It’s all psychological, but doesn’t it sort of make you feel like you’re floating? Wouldn’t that lessen your feeling of drowning?”

Ash is right.

When Eiji brings his line of vision up, the blue of the water barely skimming the lowest part of his view, he feels… lighter somehow.

Dusk has just started to break across the entire sky, stretched clouds in shades of pink underlit by golden rays. The whole scene spans out across the city as if it’s wrapping its fingers protectively around it, grabbing a hold of it so nothing else can snatch it away.

Ash offers him a small smile. “Doesn’t it work?”

Eiji returns it. “It does.” He wants to laugh. It actually does.

His phone rings at that moment, one out of the over fifty texts his sister has sent him throughout the entire day.

She’s begging Eiji to show her what he’s been up to the entire day. Apparently, Ibe told her not to bother Eiji today since he was going to be out with Ash. So now she’s curious about this ‘Ash,’ asking over and over again for a picture.

Taking his hand from Ash’s, Eiji types a quick ”No.”

His sister sends five stickers of a dog with large doe eyes.

“What does she want?”

Eiji doesn’t look up from his screen, already in the process of sending another rejection. “A picture of you.”

Before Eiji can press the “send” button, Ash snatches the phone out of his hands, deleting the block of text before switching to the camera app and holding the phone up. He puts his arm around Eiji, fingers forming a peace sign.

The camera flashes, capturing Eiji’s expression of shock next to Ash’s sly smile, and Ash promptly sends the photo to Eiji’s sister.

“What—” Eiji takes the phone back as his sister responds with a flurry of messages. Without even glancing at the screen, he already knows she’s gushing about Ash’s looks, because who in the world would think the boy isn’t pretty?

“What’s she saying?” Ash peeks over Eiji’s shoulder, but Eiji mutes his phone temporarily before shoving it back into his pocket.

“That you look normal.”

Ash raises a brow. “She sent heart eyes.”

“She always does.”

“What?” He flashes Eiji a smirk. “Jealous of my good looks?”

More like fawning over them like my si— Clearing his throat, Eiji turns back to the sunset.

“Come on, Ei-chan. Give me a straight answer, will you?”

Eiji hides a grin behind his fist.

Chapter Text

“You’re actually quite good at this, Ibe-san.” Eiji is scrolling through the photos of Ash Ibe took the first day they arrived at New York, pausing to stare at each still. His eyes flicker to the front where Ibe sits in the passenger seat of the taxi. “I know fashion photography is different than the type you usually shoot.”

“Ah, it’s because of my late wife,” Ibe explains, tapping his chin. “My concentration was in photojournalism, but she was a fashion student who always needed help shooting her projects. So I suppose I have a lot of experience with it.”

“Oh, I see.”

Ibe rarely talked to Eiji about his personal life. Prior to this conversation, Eiji assumed that Ibe simply never found anyone he wanted to marry. Or that he doesn’t wish to get into a serious relationship. He never would have guessed that Ibe already found someone, though that person isn’t in this world anymore.

He lets out a breath of air, chin propped on his hand as he stares out the window, finding rows of cars on each side of the narrow streets, offices, stores, and apartment complexes peeking out from between, so high they looked as if they’d reach the heavens. People dot the empty spaces, every face melding into the next until they looked like a blur of images smeared together.

All people are enigmas.

Humans aren’t the simple creatures most would think they are—Eiji is just now realizing that fact.

It only depends on how someone presents themselves and how much information they’re willing to let out that lessens their outward complexity.

And without meaning to, Eiji’s mind wanders back to Ash.

“—chan.”

Someone touches Eiji’s shoulder gently. “Ei-chan?”

He blinks, head swiveling to the side. “Oh. Ibe-san.”

The photographer smiles warmly. “We’re here.”

Eiji slides out of the car before leaning back in to grab the equipment, giving one bag to Ibe before sliding the rest over his head on his shoulder.

When they enter, the receptionist glances up briefly before going back to her work, recognizing the two.

They’re already wearing official IDs they received from Max when they left on the first day, photo, name, and title printed neatly at the front of a glossy white card. Ibe tucks his into the front pocket of his shirt to avoid it swinging forward every time he has to move, but Eiji doesn’t really mind the constant movement too much.

“What floor?”

Ibe pats the front pocket of his trousers and back, eventually finding his phone in his green parka. He fishes it out, scrolling through one of his texts. “Fifth.”

It never takes as long as Eiji expects to reach their destination, the ascension a lot faster than other elevators he has ridden in. And when they step onto the floor, Eiji’s surprised to see that instead of an open set, it’s a closed one, each room separated by walls from top to bottom.

Ibe lets himself into the first one to the right after knocking, emerging with a smile on his face.

But the mood inside is absolutely terrible.

Blanca is on the phone with someone while Max paces around. The crew is confined in one spot, each of them awaiting instruction as Ash lounges to the side of the set, slouching forward in his seat, arms crossed in front of his chest, glowering at Blanca.

He’s still in his streetwear, jacket slung across the top of his chair. And even when Ibe and Eiji come in, he maintains his sour expression, turning his head away slightly. Strands of blond hair come loose from behind his ear, obscuring half his face from view.

Ibe’s brows come together. “Max, what’s going on?”

Sighing, he rubs his face. “It’s about the other model who we hired to shoot with Ash. Apparently, he’s pulling out in the last second, but our client specifically wanted him to appear in their campaign.”

“Which is splendid,” Ash comments loudly, “because I hate him. He’s the most vain and obnoxious person I’ve ever met.”

“You can’t cast a different model instead?” Eiji asks. “Aren’t there plenty who maybe have the same image or aura as the one your client asked for?”

“Well, that would be a little difficult,” Max says, “because the one our client wants isn’t someone who can be easily replaced. You’ve probably seen him before since he’s a fresh face who’s been quite popular recently.”

Eiji doubts it, especially since he literally holed himself up in his room for a whole month, barely getting by to finish his classes.

He pulls out his phone, opening a page up on Google. “Could I have his name, please?”

“Yut-Lung Lee.”

Typing in the name quickly, Eiji presses the search button.

He’s immediately bombarded with a series of new articles and photos of the model, his face plastered across Eiji’s screen, editorial after editorial.

Milk white skin, a slim face, small lips, phoenix eyes typically rimmed with color. Thick hair frames his features flawlessly, the satiny strands like that of a black curtain obscuring some kind of gem from view.

If Max didn’t refer to the model as a “he,” Eiji honestly wouldn’t know his gender; he has an androgynous face that most would probably mistake for a female’s rather than a male’s. And with the kind of concept most directors and photographers were going with, Yut-Lung is definitely portrayed as the former.

He seems like the type of person who understands their worth down to a single penny, could get what they want without so much as letting out a breath of air. Truth be told, he actually reminds Eiji of a certain someone, though the vibe Yut-Lung gives off is more darkly seductive than outright.

Chocolate put through a machine enough times that it was smooth as silk.

Eiji brings his eyes up to Max, no suggestions left on his tongue. “I completely get where you’re coming from.”

“Which is why the problem is set higher up in magnitude because of all the days his agent has scheduled the shoot, they picked the last possible one.”

“Sounds like they purposely wanted to screw us over,” Ash adds. “I told you it was a bad idea.”

“He only gets this infuriating if anything about Yut-Lung is brought up,” Max mumbles. “I swear he was plotting to murder us when Blanca told him about this shoot a few months ago. Guess I can rest easy tonight knowing it won’t happen anymore. For now, at least.”

Glancing at Ash through his peripheral vision, Eiji asks, “Did something happen between them?”

“They got into a bit of a squabble during a party last year.” Letting out a puff of air, Max checks the time on his watch. It’s only noon, but he already looks like he wants a bottle of something strong. On a weekday, no less. “I don’t really know the details.”

“Not that knowing will help.”

They look up as Blanca approaches them. He doesn’t look nearly as stressed as Max does, but Eiji has a feeling that he doesn’t usually get worked up over things like this. He seems like the type who’d still be in a peaceful state of mind even if he had a ten-million bounty over his head.

“I called the representative we sent to talk to the Lee’s, but they haven’t accepted any of our offers of compromise.” Blanca stops for a moment. “And we’re definitely not going to accept theirs.”

Max shakes his head. “I mean, we don’t really have a choice, do we? What did they want?”

“Ash.”

The name hangs in the air, and Max doesn’t even show a reaction. Ibe coughs, hiding his mouth behind his hand as he turns somewhat to the side. Eiji just stares blankly back, the proposition not really making too much sense.

He’s about to ask what they want from Ash before an unfamiliar voice garners everyone’s attention.

“Excuse me?” It’s someone from the crew, offering a tight smile as he tugs at the front of his t-shirt’s collar. Light brown hair that’s pushed to the side falls into his left eye. “I don’t mean to barge in or anything, but wouldn’t he work?” The guy nods at Eiji. “We’ve all read the client’s proposal, and the concept for the second model is supposed to emulate naivety and innocence, right? Yut-Lung’s alter-ego fits the bill, but I think”—he peeks at Eiji’s ID—”Eiji would probably suit it better.”

Eiji freezes. What?

Clamping a hand on Eiji’s shoulder, Blanca takes his chin in his other hand, turning Eiji’s face one way, then the other. “Actually, I think that’s a pretty good idea.”

“Same here.”

Eiji almost jumps when Ash appears next to him out of nowhere, voice literally by his ear. Despite being the center of attention ninety-nine percent of the time, he can make his presence unknown to people if he really wants to. Eiji’s worried that he’s going to have a heart attack one day from it.

Ash flashes an appreciative smile at the crew member. “Alex, you have a good eye.”

He nods before going back to the rest of the crew who starts rearranging the set, softboxes flicking on as the lights above are dimmed to a hazy blue.

Everything is happening a lot faster than Eiji expected. “Wait, I never—“

“Ah, of course you’re not obligated to accept, Eiji,” Blanca says, “though we’d be extremely thankful and compensate you for the sudden request.”

When he puts it like that, Eiji only feels more pressured to go with it.

But after everything Ash has already done for him, he only thinks it’s right to return the favor. He bites his bottom lip, weighing the two options together. Based on the proposal, it’s not exactly going to be the most comfortable shoot someone could do, but since it’s with someone Eiji’s relatively cozy with, it should be okay.

He doesn’t know if part of it is Blanca’s natural persuasiveness that’s swaying him, but Eiji just waves it to the side. “Okay. I’ll do it.”

“Lovely!” Blanca claps his hands together as Ash steers Eiji towards the crew.

“I promise it won’t be awkward,” Ash says, motioning Eiji to enter a private room. “Just follow my lead and pretend it’s just you and me in the room. Relax and you’ll be fine.” He disappears into the next room, leaving Eiji to go into his alone.

“Eiji, right?” The woman inside regards him calmly with a level stare, almond eyes on his. The choppy fringe she has cut an inch above her thin eyebrows is a look that’s hard to pull off, but it suits her well. She holds up an oversized button-down, motioning to the curtain that hangs from the ceiling of the prep room, cutting into a fourth of it.

Eiji accepts the shirt wordlessly before pulling the curtain closed behind him.

As he tugs his sweater off and unbuttons his shirt, he can hear products clicking on the quartz table as the woman lays each one out.

“I’m Nadia Wong,” she says, making conversation even while Eiji is changing. “Shorter likes to talk about you a lot even though he just met you.”

Eiji stops for a moment, fingers frozen at the button of his jeans. Nadia Wong. “You’re… his sister?”

“Correct.” There’s a lilt to her voice. “You’re welcome to stop by the bar if you’re ever free; he says he’d love to have you again.”

Eiji can’t help but smile. Of all the things that have happened, he’s grateful that the people he has met so far are amiable. “That’s kind of him. Tell him I definitely will.”

“Of course.”

After Eiji dons the single button-up Nadia gave him, he emerges, sitting down when he’s prompted to.

She picks up a bullet-tipped brush, squeezing a bit of product on the side of her hand. Putting her finger under Eiji’s chin, she tilts his face up, puff on the flat of her pinky as she braces it against his cheek for steady application. “Your skin is nearly flawless, so I’m only going to apply a bit of concealer over a few places.”

The liquid feels cool against his skin as she smoothes it on before buffing it out. It’s gentle, and the brush feels like it’s just barely touching the surface of Eiji’s skin.

“Have you been abroad before?” Nadia picks up an eyeliner pen, popping the top off with her thumb. With the flat end of the brush she used earlier, she pulls the top of Eiji’s lid up a bit before filling in his waterline with the brown gel, feathering it out a bit to follow the natural shape of Eiji’s eye.

“No, not until now.”

“And are you liking it so far?”

“A lot more than life back at home,” Eiji confesses. “I… actually came here to get away from everything for a while.”

“I see.”

They spend the rest of the time in near silence permeated by the short directions Nadia occasionally gives Eiji.

When she’s finished, she gives him a once-over, eyes flickering across his face. Motioning for Eiji to stand, Nadia undoes the first few buttons off the top before rolling the neckline back to reveal more of Eiji’s shoulders. “Your messy bed-head kinda helps with the concept,” she says, a half-smile on her face as she tugs on one of the tufts.

Eiji doesn’t know what to say, so he just nods, fingers reaching down to play with the curved hem of his button-down.

Looking down, Nadia leans her hip against the chair next to her. She taps her fingernails against the metal, the noise a filler for the unwanted silence between them. “It’s… not really my place to offer, but if you ever want to talk about anything, I’m always open. And Shorter seems like the kind of guy who only rambles, but he’s actually quite good at listening too.”

“I appreciate it,” Eiji says softly. His eyes meet the dark of Nadia’s, and it's somehow comforting even though he’s only met her today. If Shorter is the sun, she is easily his counterpart, the moon. “Thank you.”

She turns him around, pushing his back lightly. “Good. Now go out there before Ash gets impatient and storms in here to get you himself.”

-

Ibe comes fluttering to Eiji’s side when he approaches the set, concern written across his face. “You sure you’re okay with this, Ei-chan? We can always find someone else.”

He says that, but Eiji knows there isn’t anyone else to sub in for Yut-Lung, nor is Blanca or Max going to be able to find someone suitable enough on such short notice. Still, it’s only natural that Ibe does this; Eiji is already used to his over-protective nature. He’s sure many people would be annoyed, but he actually appreciates it.

Back when he convinced himself that no one cared about him anymore—that they couldn’t possibly be able to love him, Ibe never let him go.

It wasn’t that Eiji couldn’t trust his family or his friends, but that, somehow, after growing up next to him for so long or working on countless projects together, pulling all-nighters in the studio and lab, understanding Eiji’s bright side to near perfection—and knowing that sometimes, he could snap, none of them really believed that Eiji could fall as far as he did.

They’re all kind—without a doubt—all supportive and understanding to an extent that is enough, but when you already have a predisposition about someone’s personality—how they work and what they do, what they like and what they don’t like… what makes them tick as a human being, sometimes it’s hard to look at that person in a different light.

They wanted the Eiji they knew and loved back, and were scared to approach someone who acted so disparate.

In any case, Ibe was the only one who was able to approach Eiji with a completely open mind. He was able to keep his perspective wide when meeting him for the first time.

Eiji doesn’t blame his friends or family for almost giving up on him. After all, he already gave up on himself until Ibe appeared out from nowhere.

“I’ll be fine, Ibe-san,” Eiji says. “I already agreed, so it’d be rude to back-out just like the model who was originally supposed to come in. I don’t want to put stress on the agency when I can actually do something about it.”

Ibe lets out a breath of air, but he doesn’t seem convinced. “Okay. Only if you’re sure.”

Eiji nods, offering him a smile of reassurance. “Please take care of me, Ibe-san.”

It’s the first set of words Eiji ever said to Ibe.

Right around the time they finally met, he never uttered a single thing in front of the photographer. Even when Ibe took him out on short trips, the entire time was spent in quietude. Sometimes Ibe would comment about something, ask Eiji a question only to be met with either a nod or the shake of a head. But when he finally proposed if Eiji wanted to come with him to the States as his assistant, Eiji actually murmured that phrase instead of confirming through bodily language.

He doesn’t know why he chose to verbalize something for once, especially since he can’t remember ever looking forward to this trip while on plane, but maybe it’s more so an unconscious affirmation.

So when Ibe hears those words, he doesn’t appear to have any more objections. A trace of a smile tugs at his lips. Eiji has a feeling he’s remembering the same times he is thinking of right now. “Will do.”

After offering a small “thanks,” Eiji pads over to where Ash already is, lacing his hands together so they don’t shake.

Internally, he wants to curse himself for actually being nervous.

The whole point of Ibe trying to stop him was because he probably knew Eiji would at least be a little anxious about posing in front of a camera and crew when he’s never done so before—especially since he’s not even properly dressed. But Eiji almost always jumps into things, and even when he thinks he’s fully prepared, sometimes, reality circles back to tell him that no one is ever fully prepared for anything.

“You okay?”

His fingers unwind themselves as Eiji curls both hand into fists, tucking them somewhat away from view. “Yeah.”

“Wanna hold my hand?”

The flash of memory is fresh on Eiji’s mind, choppy waves faint behind the natural painting of golden-pink dusk across the wide sky.

And when he lifts his eyes up to Ash, Eiji lets out the breath he’s been holding. His eyes fall shut for a second, most of the tremors leaving his body. The corners of his lips curl up slightly when he finally opens his eyes. “That’s for Ibe-san to decide.”

“But we’re the ones who set the mood.” Stepping forward, Ash hooks a finger around Eiji’s, cautious first before taking his whole hand in his.

“So does the crew,” Eiji points out, somewhat distracted by the touch. He half expected himself to at least tense up, but his body doesn’t even react that way of all.

“True, but you don’t actually think people hire models who just sit around looking pretty, right?” Ash raises a brow. “Agencies want to sign with people who know what they’re doing. Maybe that makes us a little more susceptible to criticism, but it’s what they call an ‘occupational hazard.’”

Ash’s hand is sort of hot in Eiji’s, his fingers traveling up Eiji’s knuckles to the tender skin of his inner wrist. His thumb runs over it, brushing over the web of watercolor veins that run all the way up Eiji’s forearm.

Trying not to shiver, Eiji bites into the inner part of his bottom lip.

“You’ve gone over the concept with Ibe already.” Tilting his head to one side, Ash keeps his gaze locked on Eiji, voice dropping to a murmur. “Sentimentality, tender mornings after seeing someone you’ve missed for years, nostalgia you can’t get rid of… it’s painful, a fresh wound that won’t stop bleeding even when you’re face-to-face with them. You want to hold them close, tighten your arms, but you’re afraid they’re going to break, fissures running up their frail body like porcelain china.”

Eiji is starting to feel a little breathless, his whole figure humming under Ash’s velvet-smooth voice. He doesn’t know why he’s so affected when only a week ago, he viewed Ash as a supercilious brat.

There’s something different about the way Ash acts towards him—as if they’ve always been intimate with each other. It’s not the feeling someone has toward a childhood friend, not something family would feel for each other. Eiji hasn’t ever fallen in love before, but he’s certain that this isn’t the burning kind someone would attribute to romantic love, nor to eros where lust dilates the pupils enough that they eclipse the irises.

He doesn’t know what it is.

Ash brushes Eiji’s hair back, the tips of his fingers grazing the skin just above Eiji’s cheekbones. A month ago, Eiji would have jerked away as if his skin was cut and raw, but now he leans into the touch like a kitten, eyes closing for a moment, free hand coming up to circle around Ash’s wrist. It feels natural.

I barely know him. I barely know him, but for some reason, I’m comfortable with him doing this.

“Shunichi, are they… dating?” Max’s hushed voice breaks the silence, and a crew member throws something at him, completely ignoring the fact that he’s their boss.

Ibe doesn’t respond, the camera clicking as he captures the scene on photograph. “Ei-chan, stand behind Ash, wrap your arms around him.”

It’s a simple direction, and he doesn’t really have to elaborate on anything because Eiji is on autopilot, still under the same spell as before. He doesn’t know whether he should be shocked that his body is moving by itself or mortified that he can so easily slide his fingers across Ash’s bare chest and stomach, cheek nuzzling into the space between Ash’s shoulder blades, form melting against Ash. Eiji’s button-down shifts to reveal the pronounced line of his collarbones, the delicate curve of his neck and shoulder, olive skin stretched over slender muscles.

And when he exhales, it’s a shudder that goes through his entire body. His brows come in together for a moment, but then he relaxes again, lids lifting a fraction, gaze directed downward into empty space.

It’s been a really long time since he’s embraced someone like this, and it feels nice. Like really, really nice.

Ibe says something and then Ash is suddenly turning around, fingers coming up Eiji’s neck thumb pressing against his cheek to pull his chin down just a few centimeters. He presses a soft kiss against Eiji’s forehead before pulling back. Eiji can feel his lashes like butterfly wings on his skin. “You’re oddly confident. I’m kind of surprised.”

“Well, not really,” Eiji manages to breathe out. He’s looking up at Ash through the screen of his long fringe, swallowing when Ash lifts a few locks away. “I’m actually terrified.”

“Hm? Of what?”

“Of myself.”

Ash freezes, taking a second to process what he just heard before bursting into laughter. He falls into Eiji, arms around him as his fingers grapple onto Eiji’s shirt, the cotton fabric dipping down even further in the back as the buttoned front strains against the hollow of Eiji’s neck.

Eiji doesn’t even have the chance to be surprised as his heart speeds up at the sudden action, his body bending over underneath Ash’s weight. The boy looks thin at first glance, his height seemingly overcompensating for a lack of muscle, but Eiji is actually having a really hard time keeping himself upright. So much so that he has to stumble back a few steps.

Heat crawls up his face. Why isn’t anyone doing anything?

“Wait, Ash—“ Eiji takes another step back, hands coming up to try and push the boy away. His eyes dart to where Ibe is, but the photographer doesn’t spare him a glance from behind his camera.

Blanca only stares at them in interest, fist into the grin on his face. Max still looks stunned, the crew in place as if their feet are permanently glued to the ground.

“Ash!” Eiji hisses, the pads of his fingers digging into Ash’s shoulders. “We’re in the middle of a shoot, for goodness sake.”

Finally pulling back, Ash pinches Eiji’s cheeks, jade eyes bleary through tears. “Oh my god, Eiji, how can you be scared of yourself when you look like this?”

Anyone who knows Eiji well enough understands that it’s a taboo to talk about his chubby cheeks. They’re not allowed to joke about them, not allowed to discuss them amongst themselves, not allowed to mention them, and sure as hell not allowed to squeeze them while reminding Eiji that regardless of him being a student in university, he still hasn’t grown out of his baby fat.

A muscle ticks at Eiji’s jaw, hardly noticeable.

“Annnd I think that’s a wrap!” Blanca cuts in, literally putting his near two-meter self between the two before blood splatters on the pristine white walls. “Thank you for your hard work, everyone.”

Eiji tries to maintain a completely neutral face as he stands there. Then, he waltzes back to the prep room to change into his own clothes, twisting around momentarily to send one last glare Ash’s way. “At least I won’t have to worry about looking like an old man by the time I hit my twenties. You, Ash? I’m not so sure about that.”

-

Sometimes, Eiji can act like a child. He’s petty, turns sour at the most inappropriate times, and will snap at someone if they’re not sensitive enough. But all of this is usually rare—the Eiji everyone knows doesn’t actually do this often, and if he does, it’s generally because they’re annoying one of his friends or family, not because they’re annoying him.

So the fact that Ash is able to elicit such emotions is actually a skill, and Ibe wonders how in the world he does it.

“There’s nothing going on between them, is there?” Max has been stuck to his side for the entire time, trying to get Ibe to say something about the boys’ relationship, but to be honest, even Ibe doesn’t really know the extent of it.

“Friendship is the most likely one,” Ibe says, unscrewing the lens from his camera and sliding it into its rightful compartment before sticking the camera in as well. The zipper easily slides closed despite the bag being more than five years old. “I’m not sure how fast youth nowadays can fall in love.”

“Probably not as fast as a week,” Max says. He looks a bit distraught, brows coming in at the mention of the word “love.” “I mean, if Ash has a thing for Eiji, maybe he’ll open up to him faster and make our work easier, but I’m not sure if Eiji will agree to digging up information about his boyfriend for us… especially since it’s a past Ash clearly doesn’t want to talk about.”

Hoisting a bag up to his shoulder, Ibe grabs the other one, offering it to Max who accepts.

“You’re awfully calm about this, Shunichi.”

The photographer grips the strap on his bag, a smile masking his thoughts. You are only saying that because you haven’t seen me struggle with the boy for the past month and a half. And if there’s anything Ibe doesn’t want to do, it’s to mess with Eiji’s personal life when he doesn’t need to.

He doesn’t want to become subject to Eiji’s angsty self for another week.

So he decides to evade the topic for now.

“Jessica invited me out to drink tonight.”

Max bristles at his ex-wife’s name.

“Did you do something again?”

“Um…” Swallowing, Max averts his eyes, nervously scratching the back of his neck. “I may or may not have snuck in the house to see Michael again last night.”

Ibe raises a brow.

“Okay, maybe I’ve been doing it every single day for the past week and a half.”

“Ever since I came back, she has been complaining about you.”

Max winces. “Sorry about that.”

“But it means she still cares about you, doesn't it? When you quit your job as a journalist because your company wanted you to suddenly drop that case on Ash even though they knew how important it has been to you for years, Jessica supported you,” Ibe says, recounting that time where he could barely speak English and bumped into Max by chance.

The two clicked, and after having a couple of drinks together, Max ended up hauling Ibe’s drunk self to his house rather than leaving him in some random hotel the man probably wouldn’t remember ever even stepping foot into. The next morning, Ibe literally apologized about a hundred times, stumbling over his English for a minute or two before resorting to Japanese when his brain couldn’t process the situation anymore.

“You started coming back too late, stayed overnight at the agency, neglected her calls and texts, never went to pick Michael up from school or practice—” The list went on and on and on. “But she still gave you plenty of chances to redeem yourself—to act like her husband and not like someone who only came home when it was convenient for him. You didn’t take that chance.”

Everything is so painfully true that Max can’t even deny a single word of it.

“To be honest, Max—and I am your friend—but, if I were her, I wouldn’t keep on complaining about a man I don’t care about to my friends.” Ibe pauses. “In fact, I wouldn’t continue renting a house that is obviously too big for two people. I wouldn’t neglect to change my telephone number. I wouldn’t still tell my son stories about how good of a father my husband actually is despite him being—” Ibe clears his throat, pardoning himself before saying: “—an ‘asshole.’” Shrugging, he looks pointedly at Max whose eyes have grown to the size of saucers. “Some people become very honest with you when they are drunk.”

“I just—“ Max has to divert his gaze elsewhere, fingers threading together. “I didn’t know.”

“That is exactly your problem.”

“And do you know what yours is, Ibe-san?” Eiji is marching straight up to Ibe and Max, having finished changing. His round eyes are pulled flat and accusatory. “Why didn’t you tell Ash to stop laughing when I looked at you?”

Ibe blinks. “Because he is good for you.”

“Good for me?” Eiji repeats, incredulous. It must be his extreme complex about his childish features that is spurring this burst of mild anger. Jabbing his finger Ash’s way, Eiji growls, “Ibe-san, I respect you, but does Ash look like a vitamin to you?”

“More like a snack,” a crew member mutters.

Ash’s blond head bobs up, curious, as he starts to make his way toward the commotion, and Blanca actually has the audacity to snort at the sentence and the crew member’s comment.

When Eiji throws a nasty glare at the one who spoke up, she turns away in a hurry, rushing up to help someone else roll up the set’s paper background.

“Dear god, and I thought he was actually turning out to be someone good,” Eiji says, pouting as his dark hair falls forward, the thick locks all over his forehead. There’s a faint flush across his face, and Ibe notices that his eyes are a little teary, red rimming the sides. Blanca’s eyes linger on Eiji for a second longer than usual. “He even apologized the first time he misread my age.”

“Aw, Ei-chan, I’m sorry if I offended you,” Ash says. “It’s just that what Shorter said has been getting to me. You’re actually pretty cute with that face of yours.”

“But I don’t want to look cute.”

Ibe opens his mouth to settle the situation, but Max interrupts him before he can even say the first word.

“Are you two dating?”

Eiji screws up his face, confused at why Max is asking the question in the first place while Ash has to clear his throat, face flushing slightly as he denies it. “Huh?”

He had his eyes shut when Max first brought the inquiry on the floor, so he never saw the split-second embarrassment that flashed past Ash’s face, but Ibe did.

“Shunichi told me Ash took you out the night you two met, then a week ago on a tour through NYC.”

“Yeah, on a tour,” Ash emphasizes, crossing his arms. “To go sightseeing because he didn’t have anything better to do on that day. Besides, Ibe was the one to request I take Eiji out on the first day.”

“When someone takes you out, does that mean you’re dating them?”

Ibe is actually surprised. “Ei-chan, you don’t know what a dating someone is? Or what a date is?”

He makes a face, narrowing his eyes. He looks overly agitated that Ibe is really starting to worry. “I do. I’m just not that interested in the subject, so I never talked about it with anyone before.”

“Then, wouldn't you agree that Ash has already taken you on a date twice already?” It’s Max who pipes up, trying to push the conversation towards the way he originally wanted to take it. Ash shoots daggers at him.

But Eiji doesn’t even follow. “But when you’re dating, you have to like the person.”

“Yes.”

“And Ash definitely doesn’t feel that way towards me.”

Max hesitates for a moment but eventually says what’s on his mind. “Well, towards him, how do you feel?”

“Comfortable?” Eiji peers at Ash who immediately shifts his gaze away from him, but Eiji only comes closer, even lifting himself a few centimeters up to gaze directly into Ash’s face. “Irritated, sometimes. Wait, no, probably more than sometimes.”

Blanca puts a finger up, smiling. “So, like a married couple, right?”

Ash chokes.

“Also,” Blanca continues, the pleasant smile still on his face. “Is it my imagination, or is Eiji very clearly and visibly drunk, but none of you have noticed yet?”

The lightbulb goes off Ibe’s head the moment he mentions it, and Ash’s eyes widen. Eiji attempts to shove him back, demanding a divorce. “It’s Nadia,” he says quietly, not even flinching when Eiji starts punching at his chest. “It’s her fucking cousin.”

Holding both of Eiji’s wrists together, he drags him off with him, voice strained yet furious as he calls for Shorter’s sister. “Nadia, didn’t I tell you to get me when that little piece of shit fucks up again?”

Ibe’s blinks. “Who?”

“Sing,” Blanca clarifies. “He’s a bit of a troublemaker, and Nadia has vowed to reform him, though I don’t think it’s working well. Apparently, he pulls stuff like this whenever she interferes with his… activities and embarrasses him.” He taps his chin, eyes rolling up to the ceiling in thought. “I think he’s been filling plastic bottles with vodka, thinking it’ll get her fired at her job, but she surprisingly can take alcohol very well.”

“O-oh…” Ibe pales a bit.

“And don’t worry about Ash; he gets worked up like that sometimes, but he’s harmless. I’m actually impressed he quit his swearing for a while now ever since you two came to the agency, though I guess it still slips out sometimes.”

“I… I see.” Ibe has always had an open mind about people and issues, giving people the benefit of the doubt and always looking at their better assets rather than dwelling on the negatives, but sometimes when he’s not the only one involved, he just wants to drop everything and run away.

Max nudges his side, brows raised. “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” Ibe says, voice faint as he watches Nadia angrily fish her phone out of her pocket and start yelling into it in Chinese. “I’m fine.” At least, I believe I am.

If anything, Ibe can hardly believe that Eiji is the same kid he witnessed on the field, shoulders slumped forward as if the world shoved an impossible loss onto his back. He couldn’t even lift his pole, much less run and vault himself over the other side that was waiting for him.

He lost a lot of weight within that short period of time, couldn’t sleep without pills, refused to go to school for the rest of the year. Ibe knew that without the leniency and understanding of his professors towards Eiji and his situation, the boy perhaps wouldn’t even have been able to pass any of his classes.

But now that he’s looking better, being able to show a range of emotions across his face, going out with Ash whenever... agreeing to shoot this kind of campaign, Ibe wonders if he even has to worry anymore.

He can’t say he’s fully free from his concerns, but maybe Eiji is all better now.

And if not, well, then Ibe knows he’s going to be as long as he’s in the company of the people around him.

He lets out a long sigh to which Max lifts his brows at.

It will be okay.

Chapter Text

Yut-Lung Lee lounges back against a meridienne sofa, fingers combing through the thick locks of his hair. The black strands are stark against the pale white of his skin, slipping through the gaps of his fingers like silk.

When he shifts onto his side, head propped up with a hand, his robe slides off a shoulder, his figure barely covered by the fabric anymore. But to be honest, he prefers it this way. He doesn’t like feeling confined and wearing straight-laced clothing like the tailored suits his brothers wear is something he would never do.

It’s already been a few months since he moved out of the hellhole of a place they tried to keep him in. His brothers promised him the freedom to live wherever he wanted, but it wasn’t to say that Yut-Lung would also be granted privacy and complete isolation from his family.

They still keep tabs on him, force him to work for their agency. Do the underhanded things their boring faces could never do.

Yut-Lung is alone, but he can still feel the fetters locked around his ankles, the leash made of steel around his throat. Sometimes, he’ll touch the area, fingers grazing across the dragon tattoo he received when he was barely ten.

The Lee family claims that it’s a symbol of his affiliation to them; that he should be honored and proud to carry such blood in his veins. But the reality is that it’s a reminder that he belongs to them and that he’ll never be able to sever that bond.

Yut-Lung was born to be possessed by them, born to be used.

At least he doesn’t deny that fact anymore. It was tiring to feign innocence. It gave him no source of happiness—no glamorized bliss. The only thing he got while lying to himself all day long was incessant torture. That and a whole goddamn laundry list of other bothersome feelings and vile memories.

He swirls the glass of wine in his hand, watching as the ruby liquid coats the inside with the color before sliding down, white transparent again.

His fingers tighten around the stem, wishing it would crack in half, imagining the throats of his brothers snapping just as easily, blood spilling across the wooden floorboards of the house, all of them stacked up one by one, dead.

He’s sick of calling himself a Lee, sick of listening to his brothers spew bullshit out of their mouths as if every single word is a pearl Yut-Lung should take with the utmost of care.

“Fuck that,” he mutters underneath his breath, almost slamming his glass of wine back down on the coffee table in front of him. It elicits a loud clacking sound that makes him flinch. He hasn’t been good with noise like that for a while. Not since his brother decided to kill his mother once his father was out of the way. So much for valuing blood relations.

At least he won’t have to deal with them today.

Apparently, he was supposed to have a shoot with that guy Ash Lynx, but his brothers suddenly called it off, saying he didn’t need to go.

The news sounded suspicious at first, and Yut-Lung first wondered if his eldest brother, Wang-Lung had some kind of scheme running through his mind, but the boy could care less. As long as it doesn’t concern him, those horrible excuses of human beings can do whatever they want.

Besides, Ash didn’t leave the best impression the last time they met.

They greeted each other formally enough, each with a practiced smile on their face, hands clasped together. But then the moment Yut-Lung started chatting with Blanca, maybe getting a little too close, Ash came right between them and said in front of five-hundred guests: “Isn’t he a bit too old for you, little girl?”

It wasn’t Yut-Lung’s intention to chase after the man—just to cozy up to him since his brothers demanded him to do so, but that lynx just popped out of nowhere, jade eyes sharp, the deceptive dazzling smile on his face more than enough to make Yut-Lung’s blood simmer.

Ash could’ve stabbed Yut-Lung through his right eye with a skewer, malice blazing behind the action, and it would’ve been better. Anything would’ve been better than to see that fake grin on his face while the people around him turned to stare, eyes plastered onto him, near-baseless opinions already forming in their heads.

Yut-Lung hates it when people do that to him.

He hates people like that.

But then that meant he probably hates ninety-nine percent of the world, and that out of the seven point five million inhabitants of it, he loathes himself the most.

If he could kill himself, he would, but the satisfaction his brothers would get out of it is the only thing that prevents him from committing the act.

So what if they take advantage of his face and body and leech off of him for money and good relations with clients and partners?

All that anger Yut-Lung harbors inside of his pitch-black soul and heart is what drives him to continue living. Because it’s one more step closer to getting what he ultimately wants.

He just doesn’t know how to go about doing it yet.

After staring at the leftover wine on the coffee table, Yut-Lung stands, lids lowering for a second as he straightens, pulling his gown properly over his body, re-tying the knot just below his navel. It’s done with grace that can’t be taught or learned; something about him has always been sensitive to movement. Nothing about him is rough but the words at his tongue and the thoughts swirling in his mind.

People could get drunk off the way he moved, intoxicated just by glancing at the swooping nature of his body, the softness he doesn’t want, the delicate bones of his wrists, the perfect dip of his Cupid’s bow, the spun-silk of his hair.

And Yut-Lung knows this, comprehends the kind of effect he emulates.

The only one who hasn’t fallen for it, turned the other cheek at his activities, or been seduced without having been approached is that boy called Ash Lynx from that party a while ago.

The idea makes Yut-Lung frown, and he stops for a moment, turning his head slightly to stare at the crystal glass, watching the way the light from the sliver of undrawn curtains hit it perfectly at its lip, colors splashed across the white stucco walls, all over hardwood paneling and the overdyed rug at his feet.

Yut-Lungs eyes linger over the rug, dark irises threaded with violet sweeping over the vintage decor, how it was brought back to life just with fresh coats of dye.

It’s a vivid combination of greens, and the hue that dominates is a jade—a jade so pretty that anyone would have a hard time looking away from it.

When the company’s designers were choosing furniture, this one must have caught their eye. More than the prosperity and goodwill of red is jade, the embodiment of preciousness was and goodness.

The whole thing makes Yut-Lung laugh, the corners of his lips stretching into that wild grin he sometimes gets. It's ruining his passive façade, makes him out to be the monster he knows he is. And he hates feeling like this; abhors the way the underused muscles of his face ached whenever he would break out like this.

Even now, his hands come up to his cheek, quivering fingers pressing down on the skin, the pain real when he feels it pulse underneath his flesh.

But it truly is laughable.

Sixteen, and he doesn’t even know how many times he’s been pushed to do something he didn’t want to do.

When is he going to grow up, muster enough courage, and do unto his brothers the way they have done unto him? They’ve maimed him multiple times already, the scarring not on his body, but in his mind.

Yut-Lung’s heart isn’t even on the table anymore. He’s stopped putting himself through it every time. The easiest way is to dissociate, focus on what his task is, try not to let his fingers twitch over to the cord in his hair or the velvet choker where a needle typically is.

Jade?

Preciousness and goodness?

He needs a fucking break.

Reaching over, he pulls the lip of the glass down, and it clinks as it hits the gold edge of the coffee table before rolling off. The wine spills across the rug, red soiling green—ruby tainting jade.

Blood across those pretty eyes, gold framing those lovely features, strands cutting into the pale of his skin, deep enough to draw that ruby red, let it well over and spill across a primed canvas.

Yut-Lung wants to see blood.

Grabbing his phone from the counter, he leans against the marble top with his hip, nails tapping against the smoothed milky rock.

Just one fissure and the whole thing would break and split in half, as easy as that.

Yut-Lung clicks on one of the few numbers on his contacts list and lifts the bright screen up and away from his face.

“Yes?” The voice at the end is familiar. The only voice he’s had the displeasure of hearing for the past few weeks. “What is it that you want?”

The grin on Yut-Lung’s face widens just a little more. He swears his face is going to crack in half.

His eldest brother’s formal speech towards someone he views as a pet dog is always something he can’t miss. Would he be this artificially kind if he knows what is going through my mind? What has been going through my mind?

“Dear brother?” Yut-Ling twirls a long lock around his index finger, watching as the strands loop around and around as if they were thread on a winding spindle. “I made a small mess, could you ask someone to come and clean it up? That pretty jade rug you bought; it’s ruined.”

There’s a pause on the other line, a slight disconnect. Then, Wang-Lung answers, “Of course. Wait for the bell.”

“Oh, and…”

Another pause. “Yes?”

“You promised me one thing when I submitted to obedience.”

“And…?”

Yut-Lung lets the inky black stands slide off his finger. It slips past his shoulder before falling against his back. He would rather it be a whip.

“I want it now.” When he finally says it, it comes out a lot harsher than he intends, every word drawing out the low notes of his voice, dragging each syllable out until they hit the end of their octave, high and needy. Someone he once thought he had feelings for told him he has the prettiest voice—that they could reach ecstasy just by listening to it. But Yut-Lung can’t remember their face anymore, their smell or the feel of their body against his.

In fact, the whole thought just passes through his mind like it was never there in the first place.

“There’s a boy I’ve been interested in; a mischievous little thing. He’s a relative of the Wongs—that family who has already broken all ties from us a couple of generations ago.” Yut-Lung mouths the name first before speaking, and it’s a curious one. He doesn’t know why any parent in their right mind would name their child after the characters that represent guilt.

“Sing Soo-Ling.”

-

Ash hasn’t been more flustered in his life.

He’s trying to keep his cool and calm poise, layer on that nonchalant mask he always has on his face whenever he doesn’t expect anything to happen, but it’s a little hard to do when someone is clinging to his side, plastered all over his body. And Ibe keeps stealing glances to the back, worry lines deepening with every passing minute, making his nerves stand more on an end.

Sighing, Ash props his elbow up on the window, chin resting against the back of his hand.

New York City is all he’s ever known for a good twelve years of his life. He can’t even remember what Cape Code looks like anymore; it’s all just a blur of sparkling waves and hazy afternoons, tall seagrass scraping against his legs up to his waist, the call of seagulls off in the distance.

It sounds a whole lot more romantic when Ash imagines it, but he doesn’t want to remember it like that. It’s not a place he can look back to fondly, nor a place he wants to reminisce about as if it’s the manifestation of his childhood nostalgia.

That stuff is forgettable to him. In fact, he’d rather forget about every little piece of it than to let it dwell in the back of his mind where, one day, he might dig up more than just a few memories. More than he would like.

“Shunichi, you’re going to get a neck cramp if you keep looking back at Eiji like that,” Max says from the front, fingers loosely circling the steering wheel as he pulls it to the right.

The ride is the smoothest Ash has ever experienced, and he doesn’t know whether he should be impressed or not. Max always struck him as the kind of scatterbrained guy who would work on a messy desk and go home to a messy studio apartment. But over the years, Ash has learned that the man is a lot tidier than he seems… tidier than his relationships, at least.

Ash has walked into one too many arguments he’s had over the phone, but they’ve lessened. He hasn’t heard Max stressed and hurt like that for a full six months. Which means he has either cut off all communication from the person he’s been fighting with or he has eventually succumbed to his fate.

“Ah, sorry.” Ibe sits forward, fingers folding together in his lap.

He’s tall compared to all the other Asian men Ash has ever met in his life, but more… docile. And a lot more loyal, understanding, and kind. To be honest, Ibe kind of reminds Ash of a scruffy dog—the kind you probably wanted to keep by your side forever, but can’t because of the lifespan difference between human and pet.

Ash drags a finger across the curtain of Eiji’s fringe, pulling the strands toward him and watching as each individual tuft falls back into place. It’s not exactly silky—more so coarse—but it feels nice. Like the type of hair you could run your fingers through endlessly and not worry about it losing volume. The kind you wanted to knot around your knuckles and each individual finger until the tangles swallowed them whole.

The idea of it makes Ash blush almost immediately, and he drops his hand back into his lap, trying unsuccessfully to banish the thought away.

His own strands were fine—locks that would slide in between someone’s fingers easily, but Eiji has the kind that’s just so touchable. To him, at least.

“Why did he think it was a good idea to chug down a random bottle?” Ash frowns. The images outside blur together as the traffic light turns green. “I mean, I know vodka is virtually tasteless if you don’t linger on the way it goes down, but the water obviously wasn’t his.”

Max peers at him suspiciously from the front-view mirror.

“Not that I’ve ever had any,” Ash says. It’s clearly a lie, but he doesn’t have the energy, and he doesn’t really feel like covering it up anyway. As if he had any legal parents Max could call. “Shorter’s a bartender. He likes maundering about taste and texture and whatever.”

“Well, Eiji was angry with you,” Max says, glancing back briefly before merging into one lane. “Some people cool down by drinking water; only, his was unknowingly vodka instead.”

Jaw tightening, Ash draws in his brows. “I’m seriously going to kill that brat if he pulls anything else.”

Silence draws the conversation to a close before Ash speaks again, sliding his eyes away from view when he starts. “By the way, I heard Eiji is a track athlete. So why is he so…”—Ash’s gaze sweeps over Eiji, taking note on how his body didn’t quite fill out his clothes. Like he was always wearing a size or two sizes too large. And even now, Ash can feel the jut of Eiji’s collarbone against his shoulder, the hollow of his stomach even when he isn’t breathing in.—”...small?”

“That is…” Ibe scratches his chin, and his mouth presses together in a straight line. Ash already senses it’s a sensitive matter that probably still somewhat plagues Eiji and the people around him who know of it. “That is something you should ask Eiji yourself. Or wait until he tells you.”

“Okay.”

Hearing this just makes Ash want to hold him a little closer, tuck him under his wing, never let him get eaten up by whatever it is he’s struggling in.

There aren’t a whole lot of people who Ash trusts completely, but he somehow is certain that Eiji is someone worth that. That he deserves every little bit Ash is able to give away despite how many times his past proved that assurance in someone only leads to betrayal in the sort that never met the scar across his back fade.

It’s honestly a weird feeling to Ash—this wholehearted faith in someone, especially for someone he just met, but it feels fine for once to step back and close his eyes.

He still feels like he’s in hell—has always felt the fires close to him, the flames singing the hair on his arms, teasing his skin with burns that hurt more than anything else, but maybe it’ll change. Maybe he’s allowed to let himself to forget that he’ll never be able to escape from that place.

A placebo is better than nothing, after all.

The car jumps over a bump in the road, and Eiji’s body shifts, head lolling forward for a moment before Ash reaches over to let his cheek rest against his shoulder.

Eiji murmurs something indecipherable underneath his breath, arms tightening around one of Ash’s.

“Thank you for taking care of him, Ash,” Ibe says, eyes slanting back to look at him without fully turning his head. “He has opened up so easily towards you when before, he was so unwilling to speak to anyone at all.”

“Oh, it’s nothing.” There’s a trace of a smile on Ash’s lips. “He’s always so genuine and treats everyone with respect no matter their age or status. It’s… straight up refreshing and god,”—he lowers his eyes, forcing the breath out of his lungs—“I just really appreciate it when someone does that. It’s easy to tailor your attitude based on who you’re speaking to, but it’s like the idea of it doesn’t even register to him. He formal when he wants to be, and casual when he feels like it, and I like that part of him a lot.”

“He is easy to talk to.”

“Right.” Ash nods, but a small chuckle escapes with it. “Only when you haven’t already pissed him off, that is.”

“I agree,” Max says. “I always feel like he’ll bite my head off if I say the wrong thing. Already experienced that plenty.”

“Haven’t we all?”

The car shakes with stifled laughter as Ash hides a grin behind his fist, the smile so wide it feels like his face might break. He’s only felt like this with Shorter, and though this is a change he never thought he would experience, it’s a good one. A damn good one that thaws him, warms him up more than he would ever openly admit.

He’s happy, but at the same time, his heart tightens at the smile fades a bit, the corners of his mouth falling.

Because he knows it’s only something temporary that won’t last, even if he wants it to.

-

When Eiji wakes up, he wants to go back to sleep. And he actually contemplates it for longer than necessary, lying in bed groggy, lids heavy like someone had painted fifteen coats of lead across his lashes.

Whoever put him in bed tucked the duvet around his body, creating this warm cocoon he just wants to snuggle back into, but he also knows it’s somehow already night, silvery moonlight and colorful city lights spilling into his room from the crack of his window blinds. It’s almost blinding to him, and he has to squint through it in order to see.

Slowly flipping the sheets off of him, he slides his legs off the mattress and attempts to stand, but fatigue clings onto him, the effects of it making him stumble a bit, vertigo setting the room into a merry go ‘round. It might as well have been spinning because Eiji can’t even walk properly. Every single time he tries to put one foot in front of the other, he ends up slipping from lack of strength or literally just can’t focus.

It takes him a full few minutes to make it to the kitchen, hand trailing across the wall of the short hallway before entering the foyer. Ibe is sitting next to Max, his wooden bar stool turned to the side to face him. Max leans cross the countertop with his elbows, voice faint as he responds to something Ibe just said.

Eiji has to stand there for a moment or two before finally stepping away from the wall, unsteady legs wobbling all the way to the fridge where a row of bottled waters is stocked up inside along with a couple of other things.

He offers a brief greeting, nodding to the two men as they put a cessation to their discussion. And after grabbing a water, Eiji plops down heavily onto the closest seat next to Max, cracks the bottle open, and tips it all the way back, chugging it until he’s sucking on air.

The bottle crinkles underneath his grip, plastic contorting easily. Eiji has to set it down gingerly, balancing it so the twisted bottom doesn’t fall off the counter. He doesn’t realize both Max and Ibe are staring at him until after he’s done.

Offering an apologetic smile, he points at the empty bottle. “I just… was really thirsty for some reason. Had this slightly bitter taste on my tongue too.”

“Is your head okay?” Ibe’s brows are pulled in, hand against the edge of the counter, fingers digging into it as if he wants to fly over to Eiji’s side immediately. He probably does, given the fact that Eiji just downed a one-liter bottle of water in about ten seconds flat.

The liquid swishes inside his empty stomach. He hasn’t eaten anything today but breakfast, but somehow, the lack of sustenance doesn’t really bother him. He’s not hungry.

“Yeah,” Eiji says. “I’m just tired. Figures, since I slept the entire day away again.”

Ibe throws a dubious glance at Max who shrugs and says, “He’s young. Usually, the effects really hit you until you pass your early twenties.”

Eiji blinks. They’re skirting around the issue again. “The effects of what?”

Ibe’s eyes slide back over to Max.

Ignoring the obvious ”told you so” inked all over Ibe’s face, Max turns his attention to Eiji. His eyes dart away for a moment like he doesn’t know what to say, but he falls back into the conversation, slipping a hand around the back of his head while he does so.

It’s a gesture Eiji is becoming well acquainted with; Max always did it whenever he was nervous or if he didn’t want to talk about something. Even if Eiji isn’t fully alert, he can still tell.

“What do you remember from today?”

Eiji actually thinks for a moment, head tilting to one side. His messy locks fall into his eyes, thick black obscuring chocolate irises. “There was a photoshoot with Ash, and the model he was going to work with bailed at the last second.”

Max leans forward slightly. “And?”

“He made me angry by commenting on my… face,” Eiji continues. “I drank a bottle of water, but for some reason, it just made me feel worse. Like my emotions were all out of control.” Pausing, he presses his lips together, gaze lowering. “But, to be honest, I don’t really remember what exactly happened—just knew I felt that way.”

“Hm. I see.”

“What?” Eiji tries prying something out of Ibe, eyes boring into his, hand against the wooden countertop. He somewhat knows where both of them are getting at, but there’s something else they haven’t mentioned that has to do with him. Eiji can only guess, but they were probably discussing it before he walked in on them. “Did I do something… weird?”

Max glances at Ibe, but the photographer just shakes his head violently, mouthing a “no.” But with or without permission, Max just goes ahead with the truth. “It wasn’t water you drank, Eiji. It was vodka.”

There’s a blank expression on Eiji’s face. He doesn’t quite follow.

“And then you promptly demanded Shunichi’s reason for not yelling at Ash to get his act together, screamed—in total frustration and anger, by the way—”Does Ash look like a vitamin to you?” and continued to lament over the fact that you didn’t actually really know what a date is, contemplating if Ash has already taken you out on one.”

At this point, Ibe has already turned fully away, back facing the two as he silently decides how he’s going to mollify Eiji.

“You also demanded a divorce from him,” Max adds.

“Okay.”

Ibe spins around, gaping. “What? Really? You are okay with this?”

Shrugging, Eiji traces the choppy wood grain of the countertop, nail dragging along the dark lines. The varnished top prevents him from running his finger over its bumpy texture. He’s always preferred a good stain and light finish over something as glossy and thick as varnish. “I’m supposedly a lightweight and embarrass both myself and the people around me when I’m drunk. So I guess I just won’t ever drink to save me from all the impending trouble.” His eyes flick up, the pupils touching the top of his upper waterline. “Now, what do you really want to talk about?”

Max looks surprised as he always does toward Eiji, his expression now mirroring the one on Ibe’s face.

A moment of silence passes between them, the muted sound of cars pulling into the parking underlying the music of the night. Then, Max regains himself, pulling at the collar of his shirt as he licks his lips, throat clearing.

Eiji is surprised he still hasn’t popped the top few buttons open; he was off from work, after all, hanging out with a friend and discussing personal matters.

“Have… have you thought about what I talked to you a week ago?” He asks, voice hushed. “About Ash? About his previous agency and about Golzine, the man behind all the sex trafficking that’s going on in it?”

“Yeah, I have.” Eiji rests his chin on his open palm, sitting forward in his seat. When he sighs, it’s a long one that breaks through him, drags some of the exhaustion from his bones. He hasn’t mentioned it because he didn’t want to talk about it too soon, but it’s about time he did.

After this month with Ash, Ibe doesn’t know if he’s going to continue working as a photographer for the agency. Eiji is sure he wants to, but Ash couldn’t possibly work with them for the entire year that they are going to be here; his agent and the director of NK Agency would probably want him working with higher-profile photographers, to build a steady base of contacts on their list, expand Ash’s familiarity with other people. Because that is part of what Ash does as a model.

Deeper bonds and personal partnerships aren’t in the job description; flexibility, commitment, and confidence are.

And this thought, coupled with the others he has preach run through his head countless times—more than he would like to admit—sways him a little.

No matter who is going to be subject to hurt during this entire process, maybe that bit of it is better than letting hundreds of children become dominated by a disgusting paraphilic man whose heart is imbued with greed and lust.

Eiji just doesn’t want anyone to hurt like he did or go through the same he’ll Ash was forced through. Maybe it’s the bit of alcohol that’s still in his system, but he sort of wants to cry.

It comes out of nowhere, but he feels it well up inside of him, tighten his throat, burn at the back of his eyes. And it’s sad that it still feels familiar to him. That when his vision warbles in front of him, it’s something he doesn’t even flinch at. Because screw gender roles and being typically insensible like the man society expects him to be.

There was a time in his life when Eiji was really hard on himself for letting everything happen to him. He was so ashamed of not being able to do anything, for dissociating, for having been found at his state. That despite the fact that he could have potentially pushed the weight off of him, he just let it happen.

And he’s tried really hard to come into terms with everything—to tell himself it’s not his fault and that not struggling the entire time isn’t him asking for it.

He beat himself up a lot.

He was really mean to himself.

And he really wishes he wasn’t. Because none of that was welcomed—it never was, and he never consented.

”God.” Digging his palms into his closed eyes, Eiji bites his bottom lip, stifling the sob that desperately wants to tear another hole through his heart. He’s better, but it still hurts. It’s still tangible, and no matter how much time will pass—no matter the good things that come to him—, he might never be able to move on.

He can’t keep on ignoring it for eternity—only skimming at the surface and chickening out when someone tries to make him open up completely. That is the reality he’s facing, just as straightforward and chock full of emotions as being drunk.

“Ei-chan.” The stool scrapes across the kitchen floor, and Ibe is at Eiji’s side, hand on his shoulder, the other one rubbing his back. He’s saying comforting words in Japanese, voice low, but Eiji barely processes them.

But he slowly calms down, the tremors near gone, the ache in his heart subsiding although a new one throbs at the back of his head from crying so much. And when he feels better, he gracelessly wipes his face with his sleeves and sniffles. His cheeks are probably flushed, eyes red and puffy, skin pale from the burnout of today, but everything is a lot less bad than his state ten minutes ago.

Eiji wants a hug, but the one he wants one from isn’t here right now.

He lets out a breath of air, blowing his bangs up and mostly away from his face. Then, he turns and looks at Ibe who seems at a loss for what to do next.

“I’m okay,” Eiji says, and it sounds like the most transparent lie ever. His words shake, gravelly at the end because of how raw his throat is. “I just… need an Ibuprofen or something.” He stops for a moment. “But I drank, so I don’t actually think that’s a good—”

Max digs his wallet out of his back pocket, flipping the leather case open before pulling out a whole row of Advil. He pops two out of the silver foil before handing it to Eiji. Ibe is already coming back from the fridge, setting another bottled water in front of Eiji.

“Americans take them like candy,” Max says. “You’ll be fine.”

“O-oh. Okay.” Eiji puts them in his mouth before taking a swig of water, gulping it all down. He never took medicine often in Japan—only melatonin for his insomnia, so painkillers work almost too well on him.

Both Max and Ibe resemble EMTs on standby, even so much as jerking toward him, hands fluttering up when Eiji starts speaking again.

“So, um, about Ash—”

“Eiji, you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to,” Max assures. “We would appreciate your help, but if it’s going to compromise your health, we don’t want to push you into it. And…” Looking away, he presses his lips together. “...it is delicate information. Going against someone as powerful as Golzine is risky, and I don’t want to jeopardize your safety at all.”

“Ash is a friend,” Eiji says, meeting Ibe’s gaze before swiveling his eyes back to Max’s. “I won’t pry him for information or snoop through his personal things. If he wants to tell me, he’ll do so on his own volition whenever he’s ready to.”

Max raises a brow. “You’re one-hundred percent sure you want to do this?”

Eiji doesn’t want to gain Ash’s trust only to shatter it or only curry favor in him for the sole purpose of extorting information out of him. He wants the process to be completely willing—talks of the past saved for late nights or early mornings when the sky outside is still dark enough for them to believe that the whole world is asleep and it’s only them who are allowed to listen to each other’s conversations.

But he also knows he can’t tell Ash about Max and Ibe, because Eiji doesn’t know how Ash would react. After all the time Max has devoted into the case, he doesn’t want it to be for nothing.

If Ash sees Eiji in the same way Eiji sees him, he’ll understand when Golizine is arrested.

“I’m in.”

Chapter Text

If Eiji is being honest—completely honest and not just trying to denounce that widely-known advice that “letting it all out” is the best medicine there is next to sleep, crying his eyes out yesterday didn’t really help at all. The only thing it gave him was insomnia, crippling fatigue, red-rimmed eyes, and a horrible complexion. In other words, he looks like he just got ran over by a bus, and he doesn’t really want to go to the agency and catch himself in one of their ceiling-to-floor mirrors.

Eiji doesn’t really care about his own outward appearance too much, but he would be lying if he says he’s okay with rolling right out of bed in his oversized pajamas and waltzing outside in worn slippers without even splashing water over his face.

Once he pulled an all-nighter without even changing his uniform and tried dragging his haggard body out the door, but his sister practically pulled him back in by the collar, forcing him to take a quick shower before manhandling him into a fresh uniform and combing out his hair. She’d even gone ahead and applied concealer to the bruised half-moon stamps underneath his eyes.

When he walked into his first class late, the teacher didn’t even write him up because she was too busy gushing about how nice he looked to the whole class who were just as surprised as she was. Obviously, they were all disappointed when he showed up the next day without makeup, wrinkled clothes, and untamed locks. Eiji can’t spend more than ten minutes getting ready in the morning because he just hates it.

The primping and smoothing and ironing and powdering wasn’t his thing, and it still isn’t.

So the fact that he barely looks like a living human being even after trying to be presentable is annoying. How do people walk out looking like they just waltzed out of a magazine? And with no effort at all? Eiji can’t even begin to wrap his head around the idea.

“Hey there, Ei-chan.” Ash sends him a dazzling smile, bright and cheery as he slings an arm over Eiji’s shoulder. He’s dressed casually in a tee and jeans but still looks so pretty.

Squinting, Eiji groans, ducking his head down to conceal half his face with his long fringe. “Goodness, Ash. Stop being so perfect.” The words slip out of his mouth without him even processing what it means, but instead of Eiji getting flustered, it’s Ash who almost jumps back, eyes wide as subtle pink touches his cheeks.

“This is the moment where you’re supposed to agree and fire back with something smug and annoying,” Eiji says, eyes flickering up to Ash.

“W-well…” Ash struggles with coming up with something, nervous laughter filling the silence.

“Though, to be honest, I’m kind of surprised you reacted like that,” Eiji continues, eyes sliding away from Ash’s. He’s technically supposed to be helping Ibe with his equipment, but the photographer is busy giving direction to someone from the crew. Eiji recognizes the brown-haired guy who basically cast him into the shoot the day before as a sub. Alex. “I thought you would be used to it. People calling you perfect and all.”

“I mean, they do. A lot,” Ash says, “But it’s about the shot, not me. It’s about some image they’re going to plaster over a department or retail store, a short video they’re using as a campaign ad—stuff like that.”

“Hm.” Eiji nods. He always thought there is a disconnect between a model and the superficial picture they’re being used to create. Hearing Ash confirm it solidifies the idea in his mind, but it doesn’t make him feel any better, though.

There isn’t any satisfaction in being right; if anything, Eiji just feels… a little guilty. Like he touched on something he probably shouldn’t have even if it was a legitimate thought he had at the tip of his tongue.

“I didn’t mean it that way, by the way,” he says. “It was… something that slipped out. No one is perfect, but you’re pretty perfect to me, Ash. You’re annoying at times, but, I don’t know… I guess it’s growing on me.” Eiji pulls at a lock of hair, stretching it down over his right eye before letting it spring back up in a half-curl across his forehead. There’s a trace of a smile on his lips that he offers to Ash. “It sort of gives me a chance to tease you.”

Ash’s arms snake forward, his hand cupping Eiji’s face as he turns his face toward him. He’s squinting at Eiji, jade eyes sharp.

Eiji’s own hand comes up, trying to pry Ash away, but the boy doesn’t budge.

“You were so morose when I first met you like you had a chip in your shoulder, and then again this morning you have this expression on your face like you’d rather melt onto the ground and lie there for eternity, but now you’re fine?”

“What do you want me to be? Moody all day long?”

“No.” Taking back his hand, Ash shrugs, shoving his hands into his pockets. “I was stating a fact, that’s all.”

“Abstract ideas like emotions are usually seen as subjective,” Eiji argues. “You can’t really point them out as a fact.”

“Sure thing, but I know the difference between angsty Eiji and soft Eiji.”

“Mm-hm, and you should know a pissed Blanca when you see one.” Raising his brows, Alex jerks his thumb back to where Blanca is standing, arms crossed together with a pleasant smile on his face. But Eiji can tell that it’s somewhat forced, a mask for him to wear when, in reality, the man is actually angry. Very. “The shoot started two hours ago. Not only did you completely ignore Blanca when he asked you to get ready, but you evaded Nadia, ran away from the crew, and disappeared god knows where until Eiji showed up.” Alex purses his lips together, throwing Ash a pointed look. “If the photographer wasn’t Ibe, you would have been screwed, Ash.”

“But I was worried about Ei-chan,” Ash says, pulling Eiji a centimeter closer. Eiji has already stopped trying to find a way out of Ash’s grasp. “He didn’t arrive when Ibe did.”

“And he had his reasons, as we all sometimes do,” Alex responds, hand clamping down on Ash’s shoulder. “If you’d rather have Blanca come over, I’d be happy to call to him for you.” The fact that he says this with a completely passive and straight face, voice almost monotonous makes him a lot scarier than he seems.

“Come on, that old man can’t touch me.”

Turning his heel, Alex tucks a pen behind his ear before cupping both his hands around his mouth. “Hey, Blanca?” His voice cuts through the entire room, loud and clear.

But Eiji wants Ash to stop acting like a child during work. It’s not good for his career or good for the stress levels of the people around him. So he takes the opportunity to grab the front of Ash’s shirt and haul him over to Nadia before Alex can say anything else.

“Stop being a pain, Ash,” he hisses. “This is your job, not voluntary work. So do it.” Eiji points inside the prep room where Nadia is waiting, and Ash complies, shutting the door quietly behind him.

The mood of the room shifts slightly, a new buzz going through it as the old one disappears. It’s a change Eiji is sensitive enough to feel, but it somehow doesn’t really affect him in the way it usually does. Maybe he just got used to the environment enough not to care too much when something that minor changes.

He walks back into position with Ibe, crouching down to neatly arrange spare equipment back into the bag. When he’s done, he glances up at Max, opening his mouth to ask something.

“Oh, Eiji. Give me a sec, please.”

“Of course.”

Pulling out his phone, Max clicks on a contact before lifting the screen to his ear. “Yeah, head of HR? Charlie Dickinson? Remember that request for that odd job literally everyone on board voted we should have? I think I have someone for it.” He pauses, nodding. “Oh, you can’t recall? It’s a position for being ‘Ash’s Mother.’”

-

The shoot takes forever because it’s apparently for a fashion editorial by a magazine called Porter, and Ash literally won’t shut up in between each shot, even so much as wandering over to Ibe whenever the photographer takes a break to click through the series of pictures he just took.

After spending a little over a full week in Ash’s company, Eiji understands that it’s just his way of getting rid of the initial tension in the air. Even if he’s used to his job, getting stared at, fussed over, and photographed hundreds of times can still bite at his nerves.

Max never specified what type of model Ash is, but since he is the face of the agency, Eiji suspects he basically does everything, and his schedule is packed during prime times every season. Spring just started, April inching its way toward them, so it’s no wonder that multiple designers and companies are trying to get a hold of him, requesting bookings and times, sending proposals and multiple concepts for projects and whatnot.

It’s somewhat hectic, but the work dies down near the end of each month. At least Ash hasn’t had any location shots; everything has been done inside the agency’s building, conveniently enough.

“Ei-chan.”

“Hm?” Eiji is making sure everything is in place before zipping up one of the camera bags and putting it with the others. Sometimes, he gets tired of carrying the same stuff to and from the apartment, but he needs to. Ibe leaves the apartment complex almost every evening after dinner to shoot, sometimes staying out for an entire afternoon to walk the streets he’s not familiar with or jumping into taxis and ask the drivers to take him to their favorite place.

Photography is his work, but it’s also his passion. Eiji doesn’t know how he can continuously look at the world through a glass lens, finger over the shutter, breath stilled.

He takes over a hundred photos per day, clicks through each one to consider the shot, watches the picture as if its a living thing.

It’s a bit romantic though, maybe filled with wishful thinking.

Ibe doesn’t seem like the type who wants to escape. He’s probably the kind of person who wants to live in the moment, capture it forever—not take himself out of it as the photographer who is always outside of the frame.

Eiji has never seen a single portrait of Ibe saved in any of his online files. It’s always a snapshot of a friend or acquaintance, a photo capturing the essence of a scene, the first crack of dawn, local events, the shadowed profiles and backs of strangers.

He has no clue what goes through Ibe’s mind when he decides to press down on that button or when his fingers turn the lens to focus on or blur out a scene, but it must be complete silence. A calming silence that converts something living into a still photograph.

But each shot nevertheless looks alive—dynamic enough to live through it by gazing at it.

Eiji is so lost in his thoughts that he doesn’t even notice when Ash bends down, head craning to the side to stare directly at his face.

It’s the droplets of water that finally wrenches Eiji away from his musings.

He brings a hand up, catching a drop of water, then another. And when his eyes slide up from the floor, meeting Ash’s, Eiji’s eyes widen.

Ash is literally soaking wet, hair a few shades darker than its usual light blond pushed away from his forehead, the strands matted to his scalp, curling at the nape of his neck. He’s wearing a patterned silk shirt, the ties attached to the collar hanging loose on both sides and the top few buttons popped open. It’s tucked into a pair of tailored trousers that are also a sopping mess, the puddle underneath Ash widening with every second lost.

“Why are you here?” Eiji grabs his arm, hurrying over to the prep rooms. “You need to get changed. And why did you dunk yourself into the bath when you didn’t need to be fully immersed?”

“‘Cause it feels weird to only be half wet,” Ash says, shrugging. He’s already undoing his shirt, peeling the fabric away from his body before tossing it on the ground. Letting out a frustrated noise, Eiji picks it up, looking around to figure out where it needs to go. He panics for a moment until a random crew member brings him a small bucket to temporarily put the clothes in.

Ash starts undoing the zipper in his pants, fingers at the button, but Eiji pushes him behind the dressing area before he can take it off.

Nadia knocks on the door, a towel on her arm, and Eiji thanks her. He hands it to Ash, an arm curving around the curtain.

“You know, I don’t really mind if you look,” Ash says.

“I like respecting people’s privacy.”

“So polite.”

“Thank you.”

“It wasn’t much of a compliment, Ei-chan. More of a lament.”

Fingers tightening, Eiji takes in a breath of air. Of all the little things he’s picked up on Ash, it’s that the boy doesn’t trust easily. He gets bored all the time, and values play over work. He’s elusive and somehow can deceive and convince people without even trying because of his natural charisma and pretty face. So why is he so open to me, of all people?

Eiji presses his lips together. He himself trusts Ash too, but it’s something compulsive he can’t control. The whole thing is wound up like some toy jack-in-the-box that is going to spring up on them when they least expect it, and Eiji hates surprises like that.

“What?” Ash shoves the curtain aside, pulling his shirt over his head before tucking it into the waistband of his jeans. He grabs a jacket hanging off the wall, donning it before shoving his feet into boots. “Did I go too far?”

Shaking his head, Eiji tries pushing his thoughts away from later. “I didn’t understand, anyway. It’s fine.”

Ash looks like he wants to explain the entire thing, but lets it go in the end. “Okay.”

Grabbing the bucket of wet clothes, Eiji opens the door. “Let’s get back on set in case Blanca wants anything else.”

-

The fatigue is so deeply set in Eiji’s bones that he can hardly stand upright, body wavering. He’s tempted to lean against Ash but ultimately doesn’t.

Ibe told him to stay home for the day, saying that today’s shoot isn’t something too demanding, but Eiji couldn’t just idly lay in bed, limbs glued to the mattress, covers halfway on his body. He was tired—so tired he felt like he might actually just close his eyes and never open them again—but his insomnia kept him from falling back asleep.

So he’s been half-awake since four in the morning, half-dead, and not able to rest. When noon was almost about to roll over, Eiji didn’t want to sit out when the rest of the month is practically unscheduled for Ash, save a few easy gigs right before April, so he hauled himself up, out, and into a taxi.

To hide his face from the public, he put on a mask and baseball cap, fringe swinging low over his eyes, but he had to take it all off before entering the agency so security wouldn’t be alerted.

The slight buzz of energy within the room and lo-fi jazz playing in the background saved himself from straight-up passing out, but the exhaustion is hitting him again. Blanca is saying something, but the words don’t even register in Eiji’s mind. He already has to try a bit harder to pick up each word and process it, but in his state, the only thing he’d probably be able to understand is a few snippets of Japanese.

“...you okay?”

“Oh.” Eiji’s eyes focus, seeing worried brown eyes. When his eyes slide over, Ash is peering at him with the same amount of concern. “Ibe-san.”

“Ei-chan, I told you to stay home.”

“Sorry, I just...” he lets out a sigh, and it’s so faint he wonders if anyone actually notices it. “...thought since this is the last formal shoot of the month, I should come.”

Ibe nods. “Yes, but your health always comes first. You haven’t been sleeping or eating much either.”

“I’ll take care of myself better.” They’re empty words Eiji always says, but he knows Ibe won’t be satisfied unless he acknowledges the problem.

The truth is that he doesn’t know how to care for himself—he still hasn’t gotten back to the rhythm of who he was, but he’s trying to. He told himself he would multiple times, and he solidified the idea even more last night after talking to Max and Ibe about Ash.

“Good. Max and I have a few more things to discuss, so you can go back by yourself today.” Squeezing Eiji’s shoulder, Ibe looks pointedly at him. “Please take the time to rest. There are leftovers in the fridge, but let me know if you want or need anything else, okay?”

“Right.” Eiji offers him a weak smile. “Thank you, Ibe-san.”

“Rough night?” It’s Ash who asks, brow raised as he tucks his hands into his pockets.

“Yeah. Haven’t been at my best for a while, actually.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“You have?”

“Well…” Shifting his weight to one side, Ash glances down at the floor briefly before meeting Eiji’s eyes again. “You were really touchy when we first met. Sensitive. And not saying it’s a bad thing—just that I know that when someone’s not at a good point in their life, it’s easy to fall back. Become salty as fuck—more than your usual self, if you know what I mean.”

“Hm.” The corner of Eiji’s mouth quirks up. “There’s a lot of different ways someone has described me when I acted like that, but ’salty as fuck’ is a new one.”

It hits Ash a little later, but when it does, he visibly stiffens.

“In my last year of senior high, my childhood friend moved back to Japan after living six years abroad with his older sister,” Eiji says. “He’s the one who taught me English. I’m not a sheltered boy, Ash.”

“It’d be better for my heart if you were.”

“I think a lot of people think it would be better if everyone were just like that. Pure and innocent.” It’s not wistful, more so neutral and conveyed through someone who doesn’t agree with the statement at all. “But then it wouldn’t really make us human, would it?”

What he said isn’t the answer Ash is looking for—that, Eiji can see at least, but it cuts the conversation off cleanly. After all, Eiji has to go back to the apartment before he gets any worse.

“I’ll—”

“Let me take you home.”

Eiji pauses for a moment. “It’s fine. You don’t have to.”

“But I want to,” Ash insists, pulling out his keys. “I don’t want to risk anyone taking advantage of you when you look like you’re about to pass out.”

“Actually, I think I might.”

-

“What the fuck, Eiji?” If Ash denies he’s angry, then he wouldn't be lying because he’s livid. Eiji looked like shit the moment he walked into the shoot, had a baseball cap in his hand, mask shoved down under his chin but still hooked around his ears. But didn’t act the part, so Ash just assumed it was he was the type of person who always seemed worse when they’re actually fine.

Ash didn’t want to meddle; he didn’t want to touch on something Eiji was sensitive about only to incite another disaster like yesterday. But apparently, he didn’t really need to do anything.

Because the Japanese boy is the walking disaster himself.

“Calm down, Ash.” Eiji’s voice is right next to Ash’s ear, his breaths uneven. “It’s not a big deal.” His arms loosen slightly around Ash’s neck, and Ash has to lean over a little more to make sure he doesn’t fall back.

“Eiji, I’m beginning to wonder if you even know what the definition of ‘it’s not a big deal’ means,” Ash says, grinding the words through his teeth. “Because, to me, it means getting a fucking papercut—not almost fainting because you haven’t slept in forty-eight hours.”

“Three months ago, I stayed in bed and didn’t move for an entire week. My family had to drive me to the hospital and stick an IV in me because I couldn’t eat.” Eiji mumbles all of this, and Ash doesn’t know if he’s saying it willingly or if he’s in a state of consciousness that completely strips his walls down.

“I left when the IV bag was empty, but then repeated that cycle over and over again. I think I lost over twenty kilos within a month and survived on rice and tea for a long time before Ibe-san finally dragged me outside and into a ramen shop.” He sighs, head dropping. Ash can feel the strands of Eiji’s hair brushing against his cheek softly. “I threw up and felt like dying, but I didn’t even have the capacity to blame him for it. Just felt an emptiness inside. In the end, I got a little better physically but the emotional impact was a lot greater. I owe him a lot.”

Silence settles between them for a few moments before Ash breaks it. “So you came here.”

“I thought I didn’t have a reason to—that I left Japan without looking forward to anything, but… I don’t know. Maybe I really did come here to escape from everything.” A breathy laugh escapes from Eiji’s lips, his entire body shaking with the tremors of it. It’s something that’s supposed to make light of the situation, provide a sense of relief, so Ash doesn’t know why his heart tightens a little.

Perhaps because Eiji sounds raw. Like he’s digging this out from inside of him, and for the first time, telling someone how he feels without masking it behind something else.

It hurts, but it’s liberating to tell someone. Ash understands the sentiment; he has snuck into Shorter’s penthouse at three a.m. to rant so many times that he’s surprised the guy still tolerates him. Lately, though, he’s slowly realizing that sometimes, the heaviness comes back like a tsunami.

He hopes Eiji doesn’t feel the same way in the future.

Crouching, Ash lets Eiji climb off his back before turning around to steady him. “Tell me now if you still feel like you’re going to pass out.”

“I’m... fine.” But Eiji can’t even look him in the eye. They’re glazed over, lids falling over halfway.

Ash stares at him for a full minute before lifting the boy up like a kitten and plopping him back down on the bike’s seat. And after putting on his helmet, Ash swings his leg over, arm coming around Eiji to pull him against his chest. Eiji winds his arms around Ash, chin propping up on his shoulder, but the motion is so weak that Ash ends up typing the jacket around the two of them, making sure Eiji won’t fall anytime throughout the ride.

“It’s awkward, but you’ll live,” Ash says.

“Actually, I’m more concerned about you,” Eiji murmurs, voice so low Ash can barely hear it.

But it doesn’t matter because behind his dark visor, his face is already flushing, the tips of his ears burning.

-

The boy looks like he’s twelve, baby tufts of hair sticking out from over his forehead, a pout at his lips and fire in his eyes. Sing Soo-Ling is drowned out by his somewhat baggy hoodie, the random patches of pastel shades uncharacteristic compared to the boy’s personality. He has his brows drawn together, hands free of the fingerless gloves Yut-Lung has oftentimes seen him wear before.

He has this whole demeanor like he’s against the entire world and the values it upholds.

“You don’t seem this small in photographs,” Yut-Lung says. “My brothers say you’re about to turn fifteen, but you look barely twelve.”

“And my cousin Nadia says you’re a snake,” Sing spits out. “That everyone in the Lee family doesn’t represent the dragons they say they are—only wingless, limbless snakes.”

“Then your cousin is correct.” Pausing, Yut-Lung tilts his head to one side, hair sliding down over his shoulder. “Well, mostly correct. I think the only exception to that statement is my mother. She is one of many who have been bitten and poisoned by the Lees, even after having been one herself for a short time.”

Sing is only slightly surprised at his response, eyes widening a fraction before assuming their previous state. But Yut-Lung notes that his guard lowers, his arms uncrossing and the line of his shoulders relaxing.

“If you admit that, you’re at least better than the rest of them,” Sing says.

“Mm, but that’s where you’re wrong.” Getting up from where he sits, Yut-Lung scans the empty walls, eyes falling on the place underneath the coffee table where the jade rug used to be. His apartment is bare—more so than he would like, but better that way. It’s easy for people to grasp what type of person he is when he customizes his living space; keeping it standard and clean without a single picture frame or decoration in sight is best. He’s beginning to wonder if it’ll wash him out even more, make him cling to an emptier state of being.

These things shouldn’t define a person, but it makes him want to trash the place just to see what it feels like to live in absolute filth.

He used to light cigarettes in his room back at the Lee mansion, watch as the smoke curled up in gray spirals, the smell of burnt paper and tobacco in the air that masked the strong aroma of jasmine. When his brothers found out he’d been stealing cigarettes off the guards at the front gate, they killed those inattentive guards and instead gave Yut-Lung a box of incense.

It wasn’t the same as cigarettes. Didn’t veil the jasmine clinging to his clothes, to his hair and sheets.

Yut-Lung wanted so badly to remember that awful smell of cigarettes, but it didn’t last. The servants cleaned out everything, took him to a new room with new furniture and gave him new clothes.

“Because I…” Yut-Lung murmurs, “...am the worst of them all.”

“You sure don’t look like it.” It’s said so bluntly that Yut-Lung actually has to freeze to let the words process through his mind. “More like one of those overly pretty guys in the historical dramas Nadia watches. The one people start shipping with the main male lead even though there is zero chance for them to be together.”

What?

“Not that I advocate judging someone based on how they look, because that’s probably the quickest way to get screwed over,” Sing continues, shrugging. He pulls at the end of the cord of his hoodie, twirling woven strands around his in finger nonchalantly. “And, to be honest, I don’t really care how horrible you think you are. What I actually wanna know is why a random dude walked into school and posed as my dad before giving some lame ass excuse for my teachers to let me out early.”

Tracing his steps back to his seat, Yut-Lung lowers himself down at the edge of it, crossing his legs at the ankle. He folds his hand in his lap. “Shorter Wong is a close friend to Ash and Nadia Wong works at the agency he represents as part of his crew. I’d like you to tell me everything about him. Every little detail they say that has to do with him.”

“And why should I?”

Yut-Lung gives him a saccharine smile, words dripping with honey. “Because I asked nicely, and next time, I won’t.”

Sing stops twirling the cord of his hoodie around, giving him a flat look, brows raised.

He’s not threatened at all, and Yut-Lung can tell by the way he completely unwinds himself that the boy has made himself home. The lasting stiffness in his body is gone, his guarded front melting away each second he is here. Yut-Lung isn’t someone to be trusted—just as Sing emphasized the moment he opened his mouth, but for some reason, all of that doesn’t matter anymore. Or at least, superficially, it doesn’t.

“I mean, if you’re so obsessed with him, why did you turn down the opportunity to shoot with him yesterday?”

“It’s called keeping tabs on the enemy, not obsession,” Yut-Lung corrects. “And my brothers were the ones who decided to pull out in the last second.”

Sing sits further back, slumping in his seat with his hands shoved in his pockets, scowling. “Which is why Nadia practically skinned me alive when that Japanese boy accidentally drank the vodka I poured in her water bottle.”

“Japanese boy?”

“Yeah,” Sing replies, flicking a hand in the air. “The kid who replaced you in the shoot when you didn’t go. Apparently, he’s the photographer’s assistant. Ash likes him a lot.” He averts his eyes at the memory of something unpleasant, directing his attention elsewhere as he shrinks back even more. “I thought I was going to die when he came over right after Nadia left.”

Yut-Lung didn’t know there was someone to take his place for that campaign, much less someone who probably has had no experience in modeling before. But the thing that surprises him more is the prospect of Ash actually having feelings for someone when he’s never shown interest in the idea of love and romantic relationships before.

The Lee family keeps a close eye on anyone who they deem a potential rival or enemy to their agency, and Ash is on the top of their list.

There was that odd event that happened a while ago with the Club losing Ash under means that were never brought to light, but he disappeared for a while. No one ever caught a glimpse of him until two years ago when he debuted at NK Agency, all poster-boy with a classic pretty playboy style.

Yut-Lung knows he’s kept a low profile ever since. He reinvented himself from his previous angel-eyed concept, got rid of all the innocence that surrounded his childhood image. If anything, he’s only gotten media raving about this transition, scrambling to get him on their covers and campaigns. But not a single one of those magazines ever questioned him once about what happened in those years he decided to discontinue modeling.

And though Yut-Lung is sure some publishers are itching to get the story, burning for something good from the boy, no one has even tried getting information about it.

So Yut-Lung can’t help but wonder if this mystery “Japanese boy” has finally come to upset the balance, yank apart those velvet curtains, and end the whole wave of curiosity still sitting stagnant in the air.

“His name,” he murmurs, mostly to himself. When Sing doesn’t show any indication of having heard him, Yut-Lung raises his voice, dark eyes connecting with Sing’s. “What is his name?”

Sing blinks. “That Japanese boy? I think it’s Eiji. Eiji… something. Does he have to do with anything?”

“No.” I can use him as leverage.

“Okay.” Straightening, Sing tips forward on his toes, then back on his heels. A jittery feeling emanates from him, full of unwound nerves, caused by unchecked youth. “Then, if you don’t need me anymore, can I go? I promised to meet some of my friends after school.”

“Wait.” Yut-Lung grabs a phone of the kitchen counter, tossing it to Sing who easily catches it with one free hand. The boy stares at it momentarily, taking in the glossy black screen before his eyes widen in response. “I’ll contact you through this, and you can call or text me information if, for whatever reason, you can’t come over. Don’t use it for anything else. Just for the things between you and me.”

“Holy—how rich are you?” Sing gawks at it holding it in both hands like it’s worth a million dollars. Yut-Lung never understood why people are infatuated over a rectangular piece of metal. “This is the latest model. I still have one from like four generations ago!”

“It’s not my money,” Yut-Lung simply says. “And as I’ve said, don’t use it for frivolous things like playing games or texting friends. Only for serious matters.”

“Yeah. Of course.” He says that now, but Yut-Lung doesn’t actually expect to keep his word.

Sing is already unlocking the phone, testing out the new features. He pauses, looking up, a finger hovering over something. “Hey, can I call you ‘Yue’? I don’t really like the sound of ‘Yut-Lung.’”

“I don’t mind.”

With that settled, Sing excuses himself, the door swinging shut behind him, elevator doors dinging a moment later. He’s out of the building before Yut-Lung can take another breath.

And, somehow, he reminds Yut-Lung of his fourteen-year-old self. The hate and anger weren’t so deep-seated back then; he still had stars in his eyes, thought he could be independent even when his brothers have already shown themselves to be possessive.

But it was all shattered when he met that guy, started to smell like cigarettes and come back early in the morning when he should’ve been in his room the entire night.

Yut-Lung was stupid back then. Stupid and horribly naïve.

He wanted someone to love him so much that he got himself in this whole damn mess, spilled blood all over his hands. It’s a heavy burden he’ll never escape, so since then, he’s been making the memories temporarily foggy by tipping back some red wine—just enough to get tipsy so he doesn’t have the mental capacity to keep on ruminating about them.

It feels good and tastes good, all dark fruit and vanilla.

There’s a bitterness that he’s already used to—that tone of smoke and tobacco that barely registers. But it’s sweet.

Sweeter than cigarettes, and that’s all Yut-Lung really cares about in the end.

Padding to the kitchen, he yanks a cabinet open, grabbing a glass and opened bottle before he can think twice about it. The liquid sloshes in the cup, gripping at the sides before sliding down. The kind that was packed with fruit juice, dry, and easy to get drunk off of.

Yut-Lung swirls it around a few times, the bordeaux a manifestation of the little self-control he has.

He only takes a few sips to really taste it, rolling the liquid over his tongue before downing the entire thing, hand already around the bottle to pour another glass.

Chapter Text

One thing for certain is that Eiji can be super clingy when he’s unconscious.

He mutters things underneath his breath when he sleeps and likes to cuddle, which based on a first impression basis, isn’t really surprising except for the fact that Ash knows Eiji doesn’t like being held. He’s gotten used to Ash’s small touches—hell, the boy even held his hand for the twenty-five minutes they were on that ferry ride and was even the first one to really get into the mood of that shoot from yesterday. But Ash still notices the way he tenses up when someone he’s only acquaintances with taps his shoulder.

He always looks uncomfortable when Blanca gives him a reassuring pat on the back even though that man is practically one of the nicest people Ash knows. Sometimes he flinches back when a crew member grabs his arm or shoulder to discuss something with him.

It’s not obvious all the time—mostly small changes like the straightening of his shoulders or the small look of distraught that flashes in Eiji’s eyes, but it’s very apparent to Ash.

Ash can only wonder why.

Because Eiji does seem like the approachable type—the kind of person you’d be comfortable talking to even if you don’t know him. The kind of person who would actually welcome that sort of thing—unlock the door of his apartment when he’s at home, let his friends come in whenever they wanted. He’s sensitive about personal topics and doesn’t open up easily, but he’s physically open. Kind, supportive—that type of thing.

Ash doesn’t necessarily mind Eiji being more relaxed with him, but sometimes he’s worried about the boy when he isn’t with good company. If Ash isn’t an exception and Eiji is naturally clingy and absent when he’s not at the right state of mind or when he’s unconscious, some super precarious things could happen.

Like now.

Because, fuck, Ash might have a thing for Eiji and the boy has no clue that him being like this is really distracting and makes it extremely difficult for Ash to exert self-control over himself.

He’s literally sweating right now, trembling arms braced on either side of Eiji, fingers curling into the sheets. Ash’s face is dangerously close to his—so close that he can feel every soft puff of Eiji’s breath on his lips.

Shit shit shit shit shit. Why is he so cute? Why is this happening to me? Ash lets out a strained bout of laughter. Oh yeah, ‘cause I might be so gone for this guy I have no idea it already happened.

No one but Shorter and Blanca has ever stepped foot in his apartment, and even then, Ash doesn’t like having people over unless they have nowhere else to go. So the fact that he brought Eiji in is pretty much way off from his textbook.

Slowly, Ash brings one hand up to the back of his neck, fingers prying at the vice-like grip Eiji has around him. He unlatches one finger at a time and after what seems like a million years, Eiji finally lets go, arms falling back at his sides.

Ash jerks up, then lets out the air he’s been holding back before promptly leaving in case anything else happens. He drags the white curtain separating his bed from the rest of the studio close. And when it’s all over, Ash pads to the kitchen, grabs a glass off the counter to run it under the tap, and chugs the whole thing before slamming it down on marble, heart thumping and chest heaving.

His face is burning. Ash feels like he just took a dip in one of the fiery lakes of hell, heat emanating from his entire body.

Letting out a shaky breath of air, he turns around, elbows leaning back against the counter, head falling back as his eyes fall shut.

Holy shit, I feel like I just lost twenty years off my life.

-

Eiji wakes up with his body sprawled over crinkled sheets, the duvet wound around his body like a snake. It takes him a little while to actually get untangled from everything, and when he’s finally free of the covers, he just flops down again, a thin layer of sweat clinging to his skin, parched, and achy all over.

He doesn’t notice he’s not in his room back at Ibe’s apartment until a full ten minutes later when he hears the sound of something sizzling, then a string of curses when the smell of burnt eggs enters the air.

Sliding off the bed, he pushes away the curtain separating him from the rest of the studio apartment before letting out a yawn, eyes still stinging from the sudden brightness of the morning. Everything hurts and his face feels oddly numb and hot at the same time, the palpitations of his heartbeat quickening with every step taken.

But it doesn’t really faze him because this has happened countless times before. The “getting sick because I haven’t actually been living like a normal human being for the past week” thing.

He never experienced the full-blown effect of finals week at his art school, but he has a feeling that when he returns, it’s going to be crippling—chock-full of high-strung stress and nights spent glued to his laptop on design sheets and programs.

Ash is so preoccupied with trying to scrape the rest of the charred egg off the pan that he doesn’t notice when Eiji walks up next to him, tapping on his shoulder before holding his hand out for the spatula. Wordlessly, Ash places it in Eiji’s hand, watching as he sticks the dirty pan in the sink before washing the remaining black flakes off the spatula.

“Do you have another one?” Eiji looks up at Ash expectantly.

“Um, yeah.” Flinging open one of the smoothed black cabinets, Ash pulls out a slightly smaller one. It’s brand new—just like the one he tried frying an egg on. And at second glance, Eiji can tell that the electric stove is new as well, no bubbling underneath the surface or discolored rings around it. Only untouched glass-ceramic.

Ash probably hasn’t cooked a single time since moving into the apartment. Which explains the fact that he can’t even cook something as simple as an egg.

Eiji eyes the grocery bag near the sink, rummaging around it and grabbing a packet of bacon. He rips the plastic open with a knife before laying a few thick slices in between the two eggs he cracked open. “Could you turn on the ceiling fan, please? And open a window or two.”

The steel wings start spinning a second later, ushering the burnt scent out of the apartment.

Ash has a habit of watching people a little too close that it feels more like he’s drilling something into your face, but the act itself is sort of endearing. At least, that’s what Eiji thinks.

He’s like a child at times. He’s curious and doesn’t hesitate to show his interest in people or things or concepts. In fact, Eiji would go ahead and claim that Ash is curious about everything. He’s the type of person who asks the “how” and “why” at the same time and doesn’t stop letting those ruminations go through his mind until he’s found the answer. Before, when he took Eiji to the New York Public Library, claiming it’s his favorite place, Eiji was startled, but it seems more apparent now. More obvious, and Eiji doesn’t know why he didn’t notice earlier.

Slipping the spatula underneath the bacon and eggs, Eiji lays them on top of toast, then places the two platefuls of breakfast on top of the marble countertop to which Ash immediately starts gobbling down.

Eiji slides into the seat next to Ash, uttering “itadakimasu.” He doesn’t want to eat anything. He hasn’t actually wanted to eat anything as of late, but if there’s one thing he knows, a sick person can’t get better if they don’t force down at least a couple bites per meal.

“Ei-chan, you’re surprisingly okay today,” Ash says in between bites, jade eyes bright. “I mean, you don’t look good, but if you’re feeling fine, then that’s what matters, yeah?”

Pressing a knife into the center of the egg, Eiji watches as the yolk splits open, orange running all over the toast. “I might be running a fever, actually.” And I do feel terrible, but I’m not going to tell you for obvious reasons.

Ash stops. “Are you?”

“It’s not that bad,” Eiji lies.

But Ash doesn’t take his word for it, leaning over suddenly to press a hand into his forehead. His eyes widen, and Eiji puts his knife and fork down, preparing himself for another overreaction.

He’s wrong when he thinks it’ll just be a short session of Ash yelling at him to take care of himself a little better, because the boy literally scrapes Eiji’s chair back, the sound reverberating through the empty air before scooping him up, one arm underneath his knees and other at his back. And to be honest, Eiji is too shocked to actually say anything, body tensing immediately as a soft, airy gasp escapes his lips.

The next moment, Ash is dumping him on the bed, ordering him to stay put as he pulls out a hidden storage area underneath the bed and hands him a set of pajamas. Ash points at the door that leads way into the bathroom and serves as a separation from the bedroom. “First, take a shower. Or bath—whatever you want. Then, breakfast and rest.”

Eiji nods silently, excusing himself with the clothes bundled to his chest. It’s not until he’s inside the bathroom that he realizes he’s still wearing his sneakers, one of the laces now undone and trailing across the tiled floor.

He just stops to stare, a hundred different thoughts going through his mind before he starts feeling his pockets for his phone and pulling it out. Eiji had put it on silence for the shoot yesterday, and now that he’s actually checking up on his notifications, he sees twenty-seven missed phone calls from Ibe.

Putting the pajamas to the side, Eiji presses Ibe’s contact. “Hello? Ibe-san?”

“Ei-chan!” The voice on the other end is relieved, though Ibe still sounds stressed. “Max told me you were at Ash’s. I am glad to know you’re alright.”

“To be honest, I don’t know if I should be concerned or irritated,” Eiji says, trying to keep his tone level. “How has he not died already in the past seventeen years of his life?”

-

Eiji didn’t actually didn’t have enough energy to actually stay angry at Ash. Not that he really could when he wasn’t running a fever, either.

He just cranked the water all the way to cold and stood underneath the freezing waterfall until he felt better before turning the knob to lukewarm to scrub his head and body clean. He emerged from the shower feeling a little better, but it didn’t really last.

All he could do was force down a fourth of his breakfast. Then the fever started hitting him harder, the sweat returning to his skin, making the clothes stick to his skin, plastering his locks all over his face. Sighing, Eiji rakes his hair back, blowing the few strands that wouldn’t comply off his forehead. He’s lying on top of the covers despite shivering, heat clinging to his skin.

“Do I need to take you to the hospital?” Ash is restless, hands fluttering at his sides. He’s always been the type of person who can’t—for the life of him—sit still, but Eiji decides that this temperament of his coupled with the apprehension plastered across his face is a good look.

Eiji huffs a little, turning to his side. Serves you right. I would’ve been better if you hadn’t just dumped me on the bed like that last night.

“No, I’m all good.” Pausing, Eiji taps his finger on top of the mattress. “Do you maybe have a book I can read?”

Ash stands up, the chair almost clattering back behind him. “Yeah, of course.” He disappears for a minute to round the bathroom before coming back with a few thick volumes of something. It’s not until he comes a little closer that Eiji can see what’s written at the front of the first cover.

Advanced Calculus: Theory and Practice.

Eiji almost chokes, recoiling as Ash comes closer to him, ready to drop the nasty subject on top of the blankets. “Ew, no. Ash, didn’t I already tell you I hate math? Of all the books you could check out from the library, why would you borrow this?”

“I mean, it helps pass the time,” Ash says, “and I assumed that’s probably what you wanted to do since I’m not letting you out of the apartment today.”

“Goodness, I’m going to pass before time does.” He swats his hand in the air, motioning for Ash to get the books away from his sight. “I thought you would’ve had a good stack of fiction lying around somewhere.”

Shrugging, Ash retraces his steps back to put the textbooks away. His voice is muffled by plaster walls, but Eiji can still hear him fine. “I hate reading them.”

This, Eiji is surprised to hear. He’s never met someone who outright hated fiction. Most people just preferred one genre over another or opted to exclusively read a particular author’s work—never taking the time to try someone else’s work for a change. Besides, even if Ash is already working as an adult, youth still surrounds him. He’s awfully like the boys Eiji used to babysit back in Japan, impulsive and reckless yet still possessing this dreamy-eyed look when he wasn’t blatantly bored to death. Those boys loved living in other worlds. It wasn’t novels they read—just manga, but it’s practically the same idea. Just fewer words and more pictures.

“Why?”

“‘Cause I don’t wanna live through someone else’s life,” Ash says. “It’s so easy to get immersed into all of the action, lose yourself through the words. But it’s not me. I’m not the main character of some novel, and there’s no ending wrapped up in a bow for me—happy ending or not. Fate doesn’t exist. Fiction is just fiction.”

Eiji gazes at him, chocolate eyes level. “You don’t like losing yourself?”

“Oh, no—” Ash laughs, head dipping down slightly as he glances down at his hands. They’re pretty, yet rough.

There are calluses on the pads of his fingers, scars over the palm and the back of his hands. Usually, no one notices the tiny white lines running across his pale skin—only how thin and long his fingers are, but Eiji’s already counted them all, ran his eyes across each one enough times to memorize them. He notices things, but he doesn’t bring them to light. It’s not his duty to do so.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love losing myself to most everything, but only if it’s tangible. Only if it’s real.”

“It’s hard to know if stuff is.”

Ash’s head jerks up, curiosity lighting those jade eyes, and Eiji has to look away.

“Things we can see are obviously real, but I think most of us don’t care about that. We care about the things we can’t see,” Eiji says, lying onto his back. The black-painted ceiling bores heavily down on him, glossy finish reflecting the light that bounces off of the metal pipes running along the top edge of the walls. The abstract ideas and feelings we have are hardly tangible.”

Eiji doesn’t expect it at all, but Ash is bewildered, eyes wide and mouth slightly parted like he can’t believe he just said all of that. He even leans forward a little bit after the initial shock, brows drawing together as he scrutinizes Eiji’s face.

“I don’t know; I thought fine arts students typically have a better grasp on the “feelings and emotions and all the things you can’t see are real” concept, but I guess that doesn’t apply to you, Ei-chan.” Ash crosses his arms together, brow raised. “You’re so fucking oblivious sometimes that I don’t know what the hell I should do with you. Kind of makes me angry because I realize that even if I’m trying to point you toward one clear direction, you’re obviously still gonna walk in circles.”

Blinking, Eiji freezes.

“People kiss when they’re in love, cry when they’re sad. They’ll murder if they hate someone enough and hide from things they’re afraid of. You’re telling me these emotions are ‘hardly tangible’?”

Eiji knows he should accept Ash’s explanation straight-out, he knows he really should, but he doesn’t. Because things aren’t that plain and simple to him. “What if their actions don’t represent how they feel. You can’t possibly believe that every kiss this world has ever seen is actually one made out of love and affection, can you?”

Ash just stays silent for a few minutes. Then, he gets up, picking the chair up after him. “I shouldn’t be arguing with a sick person. You should be resting.”

“Wait, Ash—” Eiji crawls over to grab Ash’s arm because he’s genuinely confused why Ash seems so… hurt.

But Ash pulls away, Eiji’s weak grip nothing that can tether him back.

And Eiji just lets him go this time, watching as he retreats like a wounded animal, shoving the white curtain all the way across to the other side of the wall. He’s putting a physical boundary between them, making it clear he doesn’t want Eiji pursuing him any further.

It’s the coldest thing Ash has done, and it honestly punches back at Eiji a little bit. He feels the ache from his muscles spread just as quickly to his heart, and as he sits back onto his heels, fingers tightening into fists and face scrunching up as a million thoughts race through his mind, he’s wondering why he’s starting to care about every little thing that happens with Ash.

-

A week and a half later, Ash shows up at Ibe’s apartment, head turned so the strands of his blond hair are covering half his face. He has his hands shoved deep in his pockets and a somewhat unapproachable expression on his face that makes it harder for Eiji to really say anything.

So he just opens the door for Ash to come in before returning to the kitchen, pouring hot water into a mug and ripping open a tea bag. The liquid slowly turns green, the slightly bitter aroma of matcha enters the air.

“Coffee?” Eiji turns around a bit, watching as Ash tugs off his boots and sets them on the side where a row of shoes already are. He sticks his feet into extra slippers that are way too small for him, then plops down onto the sofa, arms splayed across the plush cushions, head falling back.

He looks tired. More than tired, actually, but Eiji doesn’t comment on it.

When he still hasn’t responded by the time Eiji has reached his side, Eiji tries again, this time waving a hand in front of Ash’s face, voice soft as he says his name before repeating the same question.

“I’m good.” Succinct. It’s not like Ash not to elaborate. He almost always says what’s on his mind to Eiji, spills he’s feeling and whatnot even when he doesn’t mean to.

There are crescent-shaped bruises underneath his eyes, the pale skin so purple it’s almost as if he’s gotten into some kind of brawl the night before. When he opens his eyes again, long lashes fluttering open, his jade eyes are duller, hardly shining like the gems they usually are.

Eiji is still a little hesitant with him, wondering how he should approach the situation, but he sits down anyway, setting the cup of tea down with a clack against the circular coffee table in front of him. It’s rimmed with gold, the three wooden legs underneath supporting the entire structure easily unlike the way he struggles every single day to continue living the way he wanted to. He wonders sometimes how people can do effortlessly plow through so many things within a day.

Lying in bed for a full week with the worst fever he’s had since childhood made him feel like extra baggage the world didn’t need to take on. The first few days after coming back home from Ash’s, Eiji was so out of it, fever worsening to a degree that warranted getting wheeled into the ER on a stretcher, that he’d spilled a couple of thoughts on his mind. Of course he didn’t entirely mean it for real—he was only muttering things here and there, unconsciousness swallowing him up before jerking just as fast away from him, but the whole thing scared Ibe enough.

The next morning when Eiji had a better grasp on his surroundings and himself, he assured Ibe he wasn’t relapsing or actually thinking those thoughts exclusively, but sometimes he wonders as if that’s even the truth or some disguised lie he’s been putting masks on for months.

“But really, Ash.” Eiji doesn’t let his gaze fall. “What’s wrong?”

Sighing, Ash cards his fingers through his hair, fair locks falling right back into his eyes the moment he lets the strands go. His knee starts jumping up and down, and he presses a hand into it forcefully to make it stop, knuckles blanching in the process. “That perfume campaign we shot is getting published in a week. They invited us to a party tonight, but I really don’t wanna go.”

Eiji blinks. It’s not the answer he thought he would receive, and if he’s being honest, what Ash is worried about doesn’t seem like a big deal. But he knows that if he regards everything lightly, he’ll lose Ash a little more. The wedge from a week ago isn’t going to get any thinner.

“I’m not sure if these parties are important, but if they aren’t, and you don’t have to go, you can always stay here with me,” Eiji suggests, taking a sip of his tea. His eyes are open and clear, and he hopes Ash sees them that way as well.

When Ash doesn’t answer and silence fills the space between them, Eiji bites down on his bottom lip, fingers fidgeting around his mug. He tried to be calm and collected, but the truth is that he’s been high-strung this entire time too. Surprised as always when Ash showed up on the doorstep unannounced, faltering when he was about to press the call button about a dozen times throughout the week.

He just stared at Ash’s icon for a full minute every time, looking at his pretty face and his wide smile. The photo Ash took for Eiji’s sister when they were on the ferry weeks ago.

This sort of thing usually didn’t scare Eiji away. If there was ever something he needed to get out, something he needed to set straight, he’d call that person the moment he had the chance. In fact, Eiji probably wouldn’t have ever left Ash’s apartment without first ameliorating the situation, but now is different.

The moment Ibe texted him, saying he was coming over to pick him up by the end of the day, Eiji quickly changed out of Ash’s clothes to toss his own on. He did Ash’s overdue laundry, folding it neatly on his bed before waiting the rest of the time out with his body back against the wall, legs pulled up.

He felt worse afterward, but with Ash sulking in the room next to his, scribbling into a notebook with one of those thick calculus textbooks in front of him, Eiji felt like it was wrong for him to rest. He was imposing on someone who was currently angry at him. In fact, if he hadn’t felt like death trying to even sit upright on the floor, he would’ve excused himself outside and get a taxi instead of waiting for Ibe.

He’s about to speak his mind, get the guilt off his shoulders when Ash suddenly turns in his seat, facing him before taking both of Eiji’s hands in his.

Ash swallows, heat already crawling up his neck, cheeks and ears burning pink, and Eiji’s apology dies at his throat.

“I just… wanted to say I’m sorry for being an asshole when I should’ve been taking care of you,” Ash says. It comes out breathy, the air rushing out of his lungs as everything spills out. He’s actually having a hard time doing this, fingers a little too tight, eyes flickering away then back to Eiji’s chocolate ones repeatedly.

And it’s actually kind of endearing and adorable that the boy has to lock his ego in a cage and toss the key away temporarily to muster this up. Ash probably hasn’t said a single genuine “sorry” in years. This would be the first in a while.

“And, um, what I really meant when I said I didn’t want to go to the party was that I don’t want to go without you. I-I want you to be my date.” Ash squirms underneath the embarrassment of admitting all of this, the apology plenty kindle for the fire spreading across his features. He looks like he wants to shrink away, crawl inside a hole, and hibernate for a good million years before surfacing.

“Okay.”

Ash freezes. “‘O-Okay?’ You’re not angry at me?”

Eiji offers him a small smile. “I did offer to have you over if you choose not to attend the party.” He manages to untangle his fingers from Ash’s while the shock renders him vulnerable, tipping his head back to down the rest of the tea. “I will say, though, that even if I’m open to platonic hand-holding, I’d rather you didn’t try to strangle my hands with yours. You do this.” After settling the mug down on the coffee table, Eiji slides his fingers into Ash’s lax hand, gently curling them around to fit snugly and comfortably around Ash’s. “That interlocking finger thing that people do with knuckle against knuckle doesn’t feel that nice, and there’s not that much mobility. Less airflow. Sweaty palms—that sort of thing.”

Snatching his hand back, Ash lets out a shaky breath of air. “So, will you come? To the event, I mean. With me?” Now he’s rambling, the words firing from his mouth out in near disarray. “I mean, you don’t have to if you don’t want to, especially if you’re still feeling a little under the weather, but I think the designer would really like it if you did since you’re the one who modeled for them. Not that they expect anything from you—it’s just a prelaunch event—nothing special so I completely understand if you don’t wanna go since it’s kind of useless anyway, I guess. Unless you count meeting with connections and being respectful, but it’s not really your job ‘cause you were a sub so I don’t really know if—“

“Ash,” Eiji interrupts him, trying hard not to break out laughing. His mouth hurts from suppressing it, but he knows it’ll probably hurt more after splitting into a wide grin when he hasn’t done so in a while anyway. “I’ll definitely go with you, so please don’t worry about anything. You’re a friend. I don’t have any reason to turn down your invitation nor the company’s.”

Ash halts for a moment, something unreadable touching his eyes, then gets up suddenly from the couch like he’s ready to carry out a personal vendetta. “I’m gonna kill Shorter.”

Eiji blinks. “For what?”

“For sabotaging me.”

Standing, Eiji puts a hand up, confused. “Wait. By sabotaging, do you mean coming here and saying what’s on your mind? You do this all the time, though.”

“He told me to be painfully blunt, but apparently it didn’t work,” Ash says, marching toward the door and shoving his feet into boots without even tying the laces together.

-

Ash doesn’t even look at Eiji, but it’s all because he doesn’t want salt to rub in even more in his wound.

He’s tried to make himself clear every single time he hinted at the fact that he likes Eiji, but the boy literally doesn’t catch a single one. Ash literally asked him to be his fucking date, for god’s sake, but apparently Eiji doesn’t think of it as anything past friendship.

And come to think of it, he was drunk the last time someone explained to him what a proper “date” is, so it figures that Eiji still doesn’t really know what it is. Which gets Ash thinking that he might actually either be flat-out straight or aromantic. Or he’s just oblivious about the topic of romantic relationships in general.

Shorter did tell Ash to be blatant about everything, and Ash definitely thinks he was since he had to legit talk to Eiji without all the built-in teasing and flirting he sometimes does out of habit, but it didn’t work.

It didn’t fucking work and now he’s sitting in a cab with Eiji, trying to tune out the driver’s mindless chatter as he takes them to the agency.

“How’s the end of the school year been for you? Must be mad crazy; my daughter complains every day that’s she’s about done with high school.” The man chuckles, making a smooth turn right when the traffic light flashes green again.

The agency is just right up ahead, all steel, glass, and fortified concrete. Ash could see those letters from miles away. NK. Natasha Karsavina. Blanca still has his fair share of flings and one night stands, but Ash knows from the information he’s gotten out of Golzine that the man still cares deeply for her. He probably always has her at the back of his mind whenever he’s out with another woman. No wonder the man can’t commit when the other party wants to go further and ends up getting his ass dumped every goddamn time.

“I mean, sure, college gives you freedom, but I always tell her that she’ll miss those days. Talk about adult responsibility, you know? Mad respect to those who can handle it ‘cause sometimes I struggle with it real hard.”

“Wouldn’t know,” Ash says. He glances back at Eiji through the front view mirror, but he has his head turned away, chin propped on the heel of his hand as he gazes outside absentmindedly. “I don’t go to school.”

“Oh, so you finished already? Taking a gap year? Skipping college ‘cause you already have a job lined up?”

Adult responsibility my ass. “Been working since I was eight, actually.”

The driver lets out a short bark of laughter, glancing over at Ash. “They’re working you to the bone, now, aren’t they—your parents? You’re doing your chores well enough, alright; my daughter just straight-up refuses.” He shakes his head. “Can’t even vacuum her own room or do the laundry once in a while. She’s not going to know what hits her once she moves out. You gotta appreciate what parents do before they’re gone, don’t you?”

And this is why he hates cabs. Why he never calls a taxi. Because all the drivers he gets are always so damn talkative all the time and assume things when they probably shouldn’t.

Ash knows he should cut the guy some slack, but he’s just tired of it all.

Forcing on a smile, he hands the driver what he owes and tries not to slam the door shut behind him, but does so anyway. Eiji hops up right next to him, fingers grazing his.

“Are you okay, Ash?” Round dark eyes, staring up at him when his heart is already crippled with the extra emotional baggage hooked onto it. The ends are digging in hard, sharp enough to slice cleanly through, but so damn heavy Ash feels like he’s going to tear in half.

He hasn’t felt this horrible since the day his brother decided he couldn’t handle anything anymore and overdosed on analgesics.

Ash wants to get the image out of his mind. If he can’t wipe it clear, he wishes he could just repress it so deep within that it’ll never surface for as long as he lives. But his mind didn’t react that way. There wasn’t a single memory that was buried.

It’s still fresh.

Everything is and he can hardly understand how he can still walk around without actually breaking down. People say he’s strong—hell that monster Golzine always said he was strong, praising him and saying that everything he was forced to handle seemed like a fucking walk in the park, but sometimes he doesn’t know.

Ash isn’t affiliated with Golzine anymore nor is he ever going back to that hellhole of a place, but he still feels tethered to it. Shackled like he’s supposed to be the one to help the rest of the children left who are going through the same things he initially went through.

But Ash doesn’t have a hero complex or a high sense of altruism. He’s selfish and scared and… honestly? He still feels like that kid who walked straight into that agency without even knowing what kind of diabolical hell it actually was.

There wasn’t such thing as going to an orphanage or forced into the foster care system when someone as rich as Golzine told childcare services and whatever other government organization that they didn’t need to worry about him. Because, yeah, getting taken in by some random old man as a poor boy whose parents abandoned him and whose older brother just committed suicide is completely normal. Not weird at all.

“Fuck,” Ash mutters.

His body feels cold, colder in the chilly late-March air, fingers freezing even though Eiji is saying something else to him with concern in those doe eyes.

Ash feels like shit and his heart is doing this uncomfortable thing where it squeezes really hard when he’s all hurt and messed up inside.

He wants to plunge his hand into his chest and rip it out before screaming at it to stop screwing him over.

And he’s so out of it that Eiji has to pull him into the agency before passersby start snapping pictures and uploading them on social media with captions about how he’s lost his mind.

Ash hasn’t ever been in one of those scandals where headlines and articles make things a lot more interesting than they actually are, but he likes his privacy as it is and would rather not have to be stopped by everyone when trying to order a hot dog from a stand or get stared at in the library because his face is plastered across tabloids instead of fashion magazines.

When they actually get inside, Eiji presses the last floor number when they make it into the elevator. The steel doors close, trapping them inside for a good minute or two.

“It’s bad, isn’t it?” He’s trying desperately to fill in the space so it’s not deafening silence. Ash can tell he wants him to talk. Eiji respects people’s space when they don’t open themselves up voluntarily, but there are some times when that value doesn't apply to a situation.

Eiji purses his lips, head bowing for a moment before he looks back up, brows drawing together. “Ash, no one can help you if you don’t say anything, okay? Trust me, I know.”

Letting out a long sigh, Ash cards his fingers through his hair half-way, his hand staying there for another few seconds before he drops his arms completely, caving. “Can I… have a hug?”

If the request is odd, Eiji doesn’t show any reaction of it being so. He just opens up his arms, stepping forward to embrace Ash, chin propping on his shoulder, squeezing gently. It feels a lot more natural than it’s supposed to be—a lot more relieving and good, and Ash is honestly just more afraid of that than anything else at the moment.

Because he wants more.

Chapter Text

“Are you eating, Eiji?”

Nadia watches him as pulls his sweatshirt over his head before neatly folding it and placing it on top of a nearby table.

He’s not uncomfortable with this whole “fitting” situation, but he’s not entirely comfortable with it either. Mostly because he knows what he looks like without a shirt on and how different he is compared to how he normally was before he got into that mess back in Japan.

Eiji has to fight to urge to cross his arms in front of his chest in an effort to make himself look less… small, but it probably wouldn’t help much. If anything, it only brings out the definition of his collarbones and makes his arms look like matchsticks. If someone were to look at his face, they would probably think he’s well-fed and healthy but one glance at his body told them otherwise.

Sometimes when he glances at the mirror and sees the almost inward slope of his stomach, skin stretched across his ribs, and the wings of his hip bones jutting out from underneath the waistband of his jeans, it reminds him of how much he’s deteriorated after one incident. Of how much one thing can really change someone.

But Eiji is getting better, or, at least he hopes he is. Gaining back lost weight is one thing, but he’s prioritizing coming into terms with what happened and handling it without blaming himself.

“I am,” he says, still fidgeting underneath everyone’s attention on his figure. Ash is literally burning a hole through him, Nadia mildly concerned. “Sometimes I forget, but when I don’t, it’s kind of hard to eat everything on the plate.” He’s not going to specify that he hasn’t had a proper breakfast in ages and can hardly force down dinner. His body already went through a phase of rejection where everything but rice and tea made him nauseous to the point of vomiting. Cooking the foods he’s most familiar with doesn’t even help that much.

Ibe has been obsessing over him recently, sitting down to watch him eat bite by bite, always asking if there’s anything specific he wants to have for dinner before going out to explore the city.

Eiji doesn’t want anyone to worry about him, and yet, nearly everyone is.

Nadia looks doubtful, brow raised as she pulls a high-necked shirt from one of the silver racks. A grosgrain ribbon is tucked underneath the collar, pointed lapels pulled down across the front. The sleeves are flared at the ends, matching ribbons tied into bows across each wrist.

“If you’re ever desperate for a meal and don’t feel like going out or cooking, you can always come over,” she says, holding the shirt up over Eiji before handing it to him. He takes it, undoing the buttons before shrugging it on. “Shorter would be thrilled to have someone other than Ash over. He always cooks too much food, anyway. Not like he has more than two mouths to feed.”

“That’s kind of you to offer.” Eiji is having a hard time buttoning up his shirt with the flouncy cuffs falling over his fingertips, so Nadia steps in to help, fingers fast and nimble. She breaks away for a moment to deliver a stack of clothes to Ash before coming back with a pair of pinstriped trousers and a matching blazer for Eiji.

“So how about it?” Nadia gives Eiji a wide smile, head cocked to the side. “After the party, do you want to come over? Shorter hasn’t seen you in nearly a month; I can tell he really misses you.”

As much as Eiji likes Shorter, he’s unsure whether he should accept or not. In fact, he wasn’t planning on leaving the apartment at all until Ash showed up at four with an invitation. But rejecting every offer that comes his way and secluding himself isn’t going to help him at all. The trip to New York is meant for him to accept change and recover, after all.

“Okay.” He puts on a small smile. “I’d love to.”

Nadia pauses, eyes widening. She probably didn’t expect him to agree so easily. “Really?”

Eiji nods. “Yeah, of course.”

Grabbing a pair of patent loafers off the floor, Nadia gives them to Eiji, pulling her phone out of her pocket and pressing on a contact. Hand over the speaker, she glances at him briefly, voice coming down to a whisper. “Size seven, right?”

Eiji still doesn’t know US sizing, so he just nods, opting to try on the shoes first before asking for another size. They fit perfectly, and he’s starting to wonder how Nadia always gets his size right when she has never actually taken his measurements before. He doesn’t even know his own size; his sister is the one who buys all his clothes.

Eiji is slipping on the loafers, finding out they’re actually the perfect size when Ash takes his arm and leads him in front of one of the mirror that wraps around half the wall.

He gestures at Eiji to sit, briefly looking through some of the products Nadia has already laid out before sitting down in front of him. Ash drags Eiji’s chair forward until their knees bump into each other, then squeezes concealer on the back of his hand, dabbing a clean brush at the center and brushing excess product off before taking it underneath Eiji’s eyes where lack of sleep has made itself know in the form of bruised crescents.

It’s all done in silence, tension heavy in the air until Ash breaks it, swallowing first before speaking. “Nadia rambles like Shorter when she’s excited,” he explains, breaking away only to press the pad of his finger underneath Eiji’s chin as a signal to lift it. “She won’t be coming back too soon.”

Eiji complies, hoping it’s not too obvious that he’s actually kind of nervous right now. He doesn’t know why it’s so surprising that Ash knows how to use makeup since the boy is a model and is oftentimes exposed to this kind of thing.

“Close your eyes.” The brush is feather light, the motions quick and decisive. Ash doesn’t spend more than five minutes on Eiji’s face, giving him tinted chapstick to put on afterward.

He’s about to do his own face when Nadia comes back, the air around her buzzing. When she catches sight of Eiji’s face, she just stares at him for a full minute before switching her gaze at Ash. “You’re good, Ash. Ever wanted to quit modeling to help me in makeup?”

“Nope.” There’s no hesitation in his answer. Just a flat-out rejection. “I don’t wanna fuss over people all day long. I’d rather be fussed at myself.”

Nadia shrugs. “Figures.” She leans down, pulling open one of the drawers in the far right, hands rummaging around for something. “But you didn’t like it in the beginning, though. The prepping and whatnot.”

“I was sensitive,” Ash says, shrugging as his eyes flicker to the side. “I didn’t like people touching me, but I’m fine with it now.”

”I didn’t like people touching me.” The sentence lingers in Eiji’s head, the words weaving in and out as the pieces the little things he’s learned about Ash together. If he’s denying he’s sensitive now, that’s a blatant lie almost anyone can pick out because he definitely is, but the fact that Ash hated physical contact when he started modeling again makes sense.

He must have thought he’d have to go through the same things back in his old agency. Like he immediately owed something to the photographer or producer once the shoot was done—an impending thing so strong Eiji doesn’t know how his younger self was able to sit through the entire shoot without bolting.

Fingers digging into the wool of his trousers, Eiji presses his lips together. He doesn’t want to think about it, and yet, every single time a small reminder comes up, his brain can’t help but circle back to the same thing.

He starts trembling a little, collar feeling a little too tight. His heart pounds against his sternum, all erratic and tight and so sudden that he lurches forward, fingers gripping the metal chair in front of him as he feels himself drift away, sound and noise muted all around him like they’re being stifled by cotton.

But hands are gripping his shoulders, the pressure steadying him. Ash is saying something over and over again, and when Eiji can finally hear, it’s the one thing that really anchors him.

“Eiji, breathe. Focus on me; don’t look at anything else, and take in deep breaths.” Ash lets go of his shoulders slowly, face white as a sheet. Eiji doesn’t want him to wear that kind of expression. “Put your head in between your knees for a few minutes if you need to.”

Eiji just squeezes his eyes shut, waiting for it to pass, wishing those symptoms wouldn’t come back ever again. He’s been avoiding triggers, and Max has been so cautious and extra careful not to provoke one ever since he found about about them, but they still come. They’re still so jarring that they leave Eiji weak and unsteady.

One moment, he feels like he might die, and the next, it all just dissolves into a scalding bath around him, the waters lapping at his chin like they might take over again.

“Ibe’s already at the venue with Max, but if you don’t feel like you can make it tonight, I’ll let him know and drive you to Shorter’s first.”

Ash watches him carefully, jade eyes an even line. Through his peripheral, Eiji can see Nadia standing at the side, white fingers tight around her phone.

But he’s fine.

Eiji tells himself he’s going to be fine when he calms down, the fact that he’s still quivering slightly is a minor detail that will disappear. And if it doesn’t, then it’ll still fine because, in the end, he just reminds himself that nothing can be worse than what has already happened before.

-

The ride feels like a second, and when he’s getting out of the car, taking Ash’s hand absentmindedly, Eiji doesn’t even blink when a hundred different sets of eyes instantly go to him, a question in every single one.

What he’s almost too aware of, however, are the pictures in front of him across a giant screen, flipping through multiple photos from the shoot he did with Ash. They’re all in black in white, subtle edits made to each. Eiji’s surprised it looks so similar to the original when he knows how much editing went into final products.

While he was shooting, the embarrassment never actually really washed over him. But now viewing himself plastered across that huge screen and scattered throughout the showroom, he feels a little more self-conscious, the line of his shoulders tensing as he tries not to flinch every single time someone’s eyes dart over to take a glimpse at him.

Ash’s hand squeezes his, jade eyes gleaming in the rather dimly-lit room. His hair is smoothed away from his face, face clear from any strays. “You okay, Ei-chan?”

Swallowing, Eiji nods. “I’m good.” For now.

“If you ever feel like you need to leave, let me know.”

“Of course.” The words leave his mouth, but they sound more far away than he’d like. Eiji just needs to calm down right now and pretend the entire thing is a huge festival. A posh, classy festival with servers dressed in formal attire serving hors d'oeuvres, perfume sampling, and whatever other things the party has.

Idle chatter surrounds them, one voice piercing through the others. It runs off the person’s tongue like velvet, but Eiji notes that it’s not as rough as Ash’s. There aren’t any snags within their speech, all of it refined to the point that it sounds too… perfect.

“I’m terribly sorry for my selfishness,” the boy says, lips stretching out in a demure smile. He watches Eiji carefully through dark eyes lined with red, stark against milk-white skin. When he tilts his head, a few strands of hair fall from behind his ear, so thick and black it looks like it could cut into his skin. “I didn’t force you into a rather uncomfortable situation, did I?”

Yut-Lung Lee. Eiji doesn’t have to pull out his phone this time to see if the face matches with the ones from the search bar. That face has been imprinted into his mind—almost like something of a spell. Eiji has always been drawn to pretty faces, and Yut-Lung’s is no different, though the aura around him felt like it could burn Eiji with ice.

Eiji just shakes his head, the words stuck in his mouth.

Yut-Lung’s gaze lingers on Eiji’s for a second longer before swiveling to Ash’s, lips curling at the edges. “I’d love if we could work again a second time when the chance comes, Ash. It would give us the opportunity to talk more, converse. We hardly ever see each other, after all.”

“I appreciate your kind words,” Ash says with a tight smile, “but I’ve always preferred working alone.”

“Fair enough..” He says it so evenly that doesn’t betray what his actual reaction is. Yut-Lung offers them both a bow before strolling off, lace shirt swaying against his soft figure. His heeled boots click against the marble floors, hidden under high-waisted trousers.

“Fucking liar,” Ash mutters underneath his breath. “He doesn’t mean a single word he says.”

“Not that he tries too hard to hide it,” Eiji says, letting out a shaky breath of air. There was so much unnecessary pressure in the air that he almost forgot how to breathe. “He’s cold as ice. I can’t imagine he actually likes going to these parties and working with people.”

Ash frowns. “Because he thinks he’s too good for anyone, that’s why.”

“You always judge too early, Ash.”

“Trust me, I know him.”

Pursing his lips, Eiji shakes his head. “But I don’t.”

“Ei—”

“Excuse me, Ash Lynx?” A server has her hands folded in front of her before gesturing to a grand piano sitting in a concentrated corner of the room, its glossy body dusted with filtered light. “Are you still available to play a few songs for us tonight?”

Closing his mouth, Ash lets out a puff of air, and Eiji can tell he’s trying hard not to get too annoyed by the fact that the server interrupted a quarrel he was set on winning, but he eventually resigns himself with a smile.

“I’d be my pleasure.” He turns to Eiji, inclining his head toward the plush couches at the very back of the venue. A few guests are already lounging against them, glasses in their hands as they continue on with idle chatter—sparkling water based on the bottles servers are parading around. “I’ll meet you in a few, okay?”

Eiji just nods, hating moments like these where he doesn’t have a single friend he can talk to in a party.

Apparently, Blanca, Max, and Ibe are here, but Eiji hasn’t seen any of them yet. So he just accepts a drink from a tall server who dips down to ask him if he would like one and wanders to one of the open sofas, sitting at the very edge of it.

He crosses ankles, then uncrosses them and back again until he settles with just keeping his legs together, allowing himself to scoot back only when his shoulders start aching.

Without even taking a sip from his sparkling water, he sets it on the glass table next to him, the lip of it brushing against a bouquet of forget-me-nots. The petals are silky-soft, a violet-blue that reminds him of home. Eiji wonders how long it was since he’s seen flowers growing from the ground rather than in a flower shop tucked into the corner of one of New York City’s bustling streets.

He presses his mouth into his fist, eyes on the flowers for a tad bit longer, wondering if the bittersweet feeling that is rising in his chest is one that’s telling him he should probably call his family and say hi rather than exchanging text messages with his sister every few days. Not that he will have anything to say, really. It’s more in the sense of wanting to let them know that he’s okay and that the break is helping more than they probably think it is.

“Missing someone?”

The voice is unfamiliar, to Eiji’s disappointment. And when his eyes flicker up, he sees an older man without hair and beady hazel eyes, a grin stretched across his face. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen him before, yet he has that edging impression that maybe he has seen his face on the Internet once before.

”Waiting, actually.”

“On Aslan?”

Aslan? “Ash?”

The man stops for a moment before nodding. “Yes, Ash. He goes by that now, doesn’t he?”

Eiji doesn’t acknowledge he never knew Ash’s given name. He attempts a smile instead, hoping that the man will leave after making trivial conversation. He’s familiar to this kind of environment—practically forced to engage in dialogue with people he doesn’t want to talk to out of respect, but something about this man is off. The way he speaks about Ash so familiarly even though Eiji is sure Ash isn’t too cozy with anyone but the crew at NK Agency and Shorter raises red flags.

“Oh, but I have to apologize for never introducing myself first.” The man bows. “Dino Golzine. Ash used to model for my agency before moving elsewhere once our contract ended. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Stiffening, Eiji fleetingly contemplates just leaving right there and then, but the Golzine’s presence has already made itself known. A few guests to their right glance back for seconds longer than necessary, curious, before returning to their discussions.

Leaving now would be incredibly rude and unsavory person or not, choosing silence is also an answer. One that Eiji doesn’t want.

“Eiji Okumura,” Eiji manages to say, glad his sleeves cover his shaking fingers.

Golzine gestures to the space next to him. Eiji swallows. “May I sit next to you?”

“If you’d like, of course.”

“Thank you.” The sofa dips down underneath his weight, pulling Eiji toward him, but the boy digs his fingers into the armrest next to him to anchor himself down.

A few seconds of silence sit in between them, background noise filling it as the sound of soft jazz cascades through the room. But even if the piano is calming, it’s suffocating next to the man who hurt Ash more than anyone can ever comprehend.

It’s overwhelming.

His heart speeds up, but he takes deep breaths in order to calm it, eyes focusing on the other side of the room where Ash is even though his vision is blurry. It’s just a dark blur of black, of mottled colors where a small fraction of the guests are crowded around to watch.

“Are you alright?” The words are empty. Polite words with nothing behind them.

“I’m—” Eiji lets out a forceful puff of air. His shoulders flinch inwards. “—recovering from a fever. Everything’s fine.”

The silence resumes, but Eiji just wishes it would end.

Golzine glances down at his watch, noting the time before fixing his gaze in the direction Eiji’s is. “What is your perspective on jazz? I find it quite unrefined. They improvise, play with more syncopation than necessary. I had classically-trained pianists teach Ash, but it seems like the boy has a penchant for learning things he perhaps should not.”

The song ends, the sound of modest clapping heard from the other side as Ash’s fingers begin to slide across the black and white keys again for another song. “Opinions differ.”

Hand falling onto Eiji’s thigh, Golzine squeezes lightly. “You speak the truth.” If it were from any other person, Eiji wouldn’t think of it as anything but a bold show of agreement, but after recent events and knowledge as to who this man really is, Eiji can’t stay sitting for any longer.

He’s about to offer some excuse on needing to go to the bathroom when someone approaches them, a wide smile on his face.

“Eiji, if you don’t mind, Monsieur and I have a bit of catching up to do.” Blanca offers him a hand which Eiji takes shakily, almost losing his balance in the process. But Blanca’s grip is strong, fingers tightening around his for a second before completely loosening so he can greet Golzine.

The faint chatter of French commences, and Eiji has to hold himself together, disappearing between the other people around him before he can find an empty area to properly breathe.

He crouches down, one hand over his nose and mouth as the other digs into his chest.

-

Ash doesn’t find Eiji in the at the lounge. In fact, he sees Blanca with Golzine, face unreadable save the easy chuckles that sometimes split his face into a grin. It’s one that doesn’t reach his eyes, though. Blanca doesn’t put labels on men he doesn’t like; in fact, someone might actually think they’re company he enjoys the presence of, though the truth is far from that.

It’s the soft Japanese that eventually gives Eiji away—that hushed voice Ash is able to pick out when he wanders over to the restrooms. Eiji is video-calling someone, a small smile on his face. He laughs nervously, fingers tucking a thick curl behind his ear, but it just bounces forward again.

A perk of having permanent bed head. Though Eiji himself probably hates it.

Ash doesn’t want to intrude, but he also doesn’t want Eiji to feel like he doesn’t have anyone in this entire party, so Ash just steps in quietly, offering a curt wave and smile when Eiji looks up in surprise.

There’s a visible wave of relief that washes over his face, some of the color coming back to it. He must have been lost just sitting there for eons while Ash tried desperately to finish playing and escape from the crowd that wanted to eat him up and confine him in that one area. He didn’t blame the guests; in fact, he knew meeting each one would give him more opportunities in the future, but now wasn’t the time to do that.

He wasn’t about to spend the entire time laughing at jokes and talking about the campaign or what his plans were for the next few weeks.

Someone in the video squeals, asking something in rapid Japanese to which Eiji promptly answers, finger over the “end” button.

But Ash slides in at the last second, his curiosity getting the better of himself. He’s always been a little too forceful in situations and should probably respect people’s privacy, but that impulsive part of himself doesn’t really let him have a choice. For now, at least.

He stares down at a girl who looks an awful lot like Eiji, though her hair is dyed light pink. It’s messy, but she has it pulled up into a half-bun that Ash decides is actually a good look. When she sees Ash, she immediately covers her face, saying “no” over and over again.

“What?” Ash glances over at Eiji first, then back at the girl. “You look cute. Like a certain someone I know.”

She only proceeds to cover her face but picks up her phone with her, Eiji’s screen abruptly turning black before a flash of images start blurring together. The sound of a door slamming open, then the girl’s voice enters the silence. Lights turn on, and when she turns the screen towards herself and two other people, Eiji drops the phone.

It’s Ash who catches it, lurching forward to save it from completely shattering. When he turns to Eiji, wide-eyed, the boy won’t even look at him.

“Ei-chan, what’s wrong?”

“No, it’s just—” he lets out a sigh, face tight. “I-I thought I was prepared, but I don’t know. I, um, haven’t seen my parents in a while. Barely said hi even when I was at home since I didn’t really leave my room.” He interlocks his fingers together, squeezing.

“But sometimes it’s good to face the unexpected, yeah? Go forth with something spontaneous?”

Eiji seems to give in, hand out for his phone. He turns it over, the screen facing him. Ash scoots in a little more, arm pressing against Eiji’s shoulder.

Even though it’s still seven o’ clock on a Sunday in Japan, Eiji’s family is still huddled up together, his sister sitting in between his parents on top of the blankets, arm out so her camera can capture everyone in one frame.

“Um, I guess I should introduce you two first,” Eiji says first in English, then in Japanese. He knocks his shoulder lightly against Ash, eyes sliding up for a moment. “This is Ash. My sister’s name is Emika, but we all just call her Emi or Emi-chan, and these are my parents, Fumiko and Hisao Okumura.” Eiji pauses for a moment, switching his gaze to Ash. “We don’t, um, usually call each other by a first-name basis, but it’s fine if you do.”

Before anyone can say anything else, Ash starts, inclining his head once with a smile. “Hajimemashite.”

Eiji freezes, those large eyes turning up to look at Ash again, but Ash only shrugs. “I’ve been learning some Japanese. I figured it’s fairer this way in case you ever talk shit about me with Ibe or something.”

Face screwing up, Eiji nods at the screen. “You’re on camera, Ash. And I’d never do that.”

“Well, I mean, the only two times you actually told me what was on your mind was when you were drunk and when you had that fever.”

”Ash,” Eiji hisses. “My dad actually knows a decent amount of English. He probably understands what you’re talking about.”

Eiji’s dad currently half-asleep though, half of his face buried into his pillow, eyes heavily lidded behind round glasses that are sitting crooked on his nose.

Nevertheless, Ash decides he should probably shut up and not be that one terrible person who absolutely trashes someone’s image in front of their parents. He’ll play the part of an angel today—just for Eiji.

-

They left before the event did—a full three hours before. Blanca would’ve asked Ash to stay for at least an hour longer, probably call a taxi for Eiji, but he surprisingly let them both go.

So now they’re here at Shorter’s place, Ash leaning against the black marble countertop as he watches Shorter drop freshly-made wontons into a pot of vegetable broth. He starts cutting up scallions so fast Ash honestly thinks he might actually slice a finger or two off but successfully evades that worst-case scenario when he sets the sliced scallions aside in a small bowl and grabs half a head of weirdly-shaped cabbage and begins chopping the hell out of that too. Or shredding, rather. Whatever people who cook call it.

“Why are you making healthy things?” Ash mumbles, eyes following Shorter’s movements.

“Nadia said Eiji isn’t eating that much, so I figured something light will go down better,” Shorter explains.

Ash points at the mutilated vegetable in front of him. “What’s this cabbage thing? Does it taste good?”

“Napa,” Shorter says without missing a beat. He takes a moment to roll his sleeves up, converting his shirt into a tank. “And yeah, it tastes good. I’m the one who’s cooking it.”

Ash just frowns, flicking a piece up by its leaves.

“So, how’d it go?” Glancing up, Shorter flashes a grin. “With Eiji as your date?”

The frown on Ash’s face deepens. “He accepted, but not without rejecting me. Two fucking times.”

Shorter raises a brow. “You know you’re contradicting yourself, right?”

“He did it inadvertently. Said he likes platonic hand-holding and called me his friend.”

“Hm. Maybe he’s demisexual.”

“Or straight. Aromantic. Dense as fuck.” Sighing, Ash presses his cheek onto the counter, feeling the cold of it against his burning skin. “Sorry, I’m angry.”

Shorter bobs his head up and down. “Of course you are.”

Ash sulks. “You don’t understand.”

“You’re unsure if the guy you like feels the same towards you.” Shorter dips a spoon into the pot, tasting it before putting the cap back over it. “At least one person walks in per day with the same story, getting so drunk over it that they don’t even notice when I start serving them water instead of alcohol. It’s either ugly, half-angry crying, heated rambling, or complete seething silence. So I tell them they should probably just go in and tell that person they love them. Straight-out.”

“Love is such a strong word, though.”

“It’s not an infatuation, obsession, or flimsy crush when you start pouring your heart out to some random bartender,” Shorter says. He shakes his head. “They’re so gone. I’m always worried they might do something irrational if it doesn’t work out. Drunk people normally get super honest, but they’re also really reckless too.”

“Maybe you should stop telling them that.” A piece of Ash tightens up when he says those words, the next ones making the feeling worse. He knows he doesn’t mean them for real, but sometimes these kinds of thoughts slip out. Just ones from the shock of emotion he gets during nights like these. “Maybe it’s better to let that person go than to chase after them, you know? Maybe it’s better just to be single for the rest of your life so you don’t have to deal with possible rejection, breaking up, falling out of love, abandonment—that sort of thing.”

“Might as well not love, huh?” Shorter’s already done with the wonton soup, rising off his cutting board and knife. He’s more organized than people think, cleaning and clearing his counter space constantly while he’s prepping food so he doesn’t have to deal with it all in the end. And Ash really admires him for that—for being so level-headed at the same time. For valuing a sense of order even if almost all the people around him are chaotic in nature. After everything he’s been through, it’s more than impressive.

He’s earned everything he has in his own right.

“Well, good luck with that because it’s hard not to love someone,” Shorter continues. “I’d say you’d probably just miss him even more after cutting off all ties. For most people, I’m sure distance and lack of communication for a good amount of time would do the trick, but, Ash, you’re the type who can’t let go. It’s been a month.” Shorter waves his hands in front of him. “You’re seriously so utterly whipped for the guy, okay? Just admit it and kiss him already or something.”

That only makes Ash think about that small argument he and Eiji had the last time they were together. The way Ash saw it, saying that kissing someone doesn’t necessarily equal love, in some way, invalidated his feelings for Eiji. As if everything he does probably won’t really mean anything even if it’s done in earnest. Obviously, Eiji didn’t mean it that way, but it felt like it.

Ash knows you don’t have to kiss someone to obtain sexual gratification. You just fuck them and be done with it.

He’s never kissed anyone before, and that piece of him that’s still partially a child won’t kiss someone unless he actually loves them.

Ash never shows how vulnerable he is, and he sure as hell hates opening up about his feelings because of how hard it is for him to deal with them, so when he feels heat prick at his eyes, he wants to make a beeline to the elevator and escort himself out of the penthouse. “It’s not that simple.”

Shorter catches on pretty quickly though and immediately takes a step back. “No, no, of course it isn’t. I’m being a generalizing asshole. Please ignore me.” He doesn’t say anything afterward, which Ash appreciates.

And when Ash doesn’t feel like he’s made of eggshells anymore, he manages to pipe up, thought his voice a little rough. “Eiji’s been taking a long time in the bathroom.”

Letting out a breath of air, Shorter stops gripping the marble, opting to untie his apron and hang it back up where it’s supposed to be. “Sure is. Maybe he’s one of those people who like long baths.” He peeks at the clock just opposite to the kitchen. “Anyway, Nadia said she’d come over with something soon, though I’m unsure if she’s going to remember.”

“Want me to text her?”

“Nah, she’s on a date.”

“With Charlie?”

“Mm, who else?” Shorter’s eyes flicker up, and he straightens.

Ash turns, following his line of sight until he sees Eiji in one of Shorter’s hoodies, holding up sweats that are way too big on him against his waist.

Oh, fuck no—

Head whipping back, Ash shoots daggers at Shorter. “What? Sing won’t let him borrow anything?”

Shorter shrugs. “More like Sing is holed up in his room and refuses to come out, and I’m not about to bust inside and order another replacement door. Also, his clothes would be too tight on Eiji.”

“Do you have pants with drawstrings?” Eiji bunches up the fabric, looking more concerned than anyone else in the room.

Shorter offers an apologetic smile. “I always throw them out ‘cause I really hate them. You want a rubber band or something as a tie?”

“Would you mind if I didn’t wear pants?” He pauses. “Would it be rude?”

Blinking, Shorter gives Ash a look. “If you want, I honestly don’t mind. You’re free to dress the way you want.”

“Thank you. I usually wear my track shorts to sleep since it’s more comfortable.” Ash can’t even watch. He just hears fabric slipping off, the sound of Eiji folding it neatly. “Where should I put this?”

Shorter motions in front of him. “On the couch is fine. I’ll put it away later.”

“Oh, okay.” He pads over to the kitchen area, sliding into the stool next to Ash. There’s something in his eyes that seem on edge, some kind of troubled look he can’t get rid of. When Ash really thinks about it, Eiji probably stayed so long in the bathroom because he got lost in those thoughts and eventually lost track of time.

He wonders if what happened earlier this afternoon is still on his mind. If having a panic attack in front of people is something he’s more sensitive than usual about. Ibe already briefed Ash the day they met that Eiji might have one, though he never said whether they were because of some specific trigger or if they normally just came unannounced.

“You seem real tense, Eiji.” Shorter spoons the soup in two small bowls, placing them sowing in front of Ash and Eiji. “Something bothering you?”

“Oh, I’m fine.” But he’s not. Ash can tell by the way he just stares the food in front of him blankly, fingers still tangled in his lap, back straight.

“I know I’ve already said this, but seriously make yourself at home,” Shorter says, leaning forward a little with sunshine still at his lips. “If you don’t wanna eat, don’t force yourself. Same goes with everything else; there’s no need for you to be super polite about it. Unless you’re more comfortable with that, of course.” He averts his eyes, letting out a breathy laugh. “And sorry if I’m a little less enthusiastic today; Sing’s been tiring me out a lot more lately.”

Eiji is genuinely surprised, head jerking up a little, eyes widening so Ash can see the entirety of his iris surrounded by white. “Shorter, I think we all might agree that we really don’t expect everyone to maintain the same kind of temperament. Everyone has their best quality, and yours is definitely the way you... sort of light up a room, but it’s not like you’re obliged to show that same face. You’ll wear yourself out even more if you do that.”

Shorter scratches the back of his neck. “This from experience?”

“If anything, I wouldn’t tell you this if it’s a lie.”

“This is completely random, but—” Shorter sucks in a deep breath, head dipping below his shoulders as he lays his hands down flat across the marble counter. He’s stressed, and Ash is surprised he hasn’t even seen it in the guy. “—do you know how to deal with kids?”

“I mean, I deal with Ash,” Eiji says, which immediately makes Ash want to defend himself, but he has to seal his mouth shut because he knows he won’t win in the end.

Shorter wheezes, that characteristic laugh of his making a smile touch Eiji’s eyes too, and Ash takes solace in the fact that they can still fool around and be happy even though a creeping sense of unease is still gnawing at his side.

He’ll deal with the thoughts swirling around in his mind later; right now, he just wants to live in the moment.

No matter how cheesy that sounds.

Chapter Text

The lights are what get to him. The incessant and unnecessary attention focused on him in one flick of the wrist. Under any other circumstances, Eiji would have never agreed to do something like this, but he didn’t have much of a choice when they asked him to participate. If he refused, someone else on his team would get roped into the same situation. He didn’t want that, especially after all that guilt from the month before weighing down on him.

In a way, he was too tired to refuse. Too tired to even look at the proposition logically and know that at some point, it was probably going to turn out horribly at one point or another.

So, now he’s standing in front of an impossibly large crowd of students, every single one of them staring back at him, a faint scattering of familiar faces across the masses, his teammates waiting on the side for him once he was done with this whole fundraiser.

Eiji flinches away from the lights, wanting to take a step back and maybe just full-out run and hide in the curtains, but his feet were glued to the floor, his whole body shaking, heart at full speed, blood rushing in his ears. He swallows and tells himself he’s going to be fine, but the question that is left unanswered is ”how fine?”

He steps forward when prompted by the over-enthusiastic auctioneer, following her gesture to offer a small bow and smile. They said this whole thing was solely for humor, but the low calls heard at the back of the audience and small tremble of laughter tells him otherwise.

Eiji’s fingers dig into the cheap fabric of his dress, and in his peripheral, he sees one of his teammates turn to glare at someone, freezing for a moment before lurching forward. But his captain hooks his arms underneath his shoulders, holding him back while offering the person an apologetic bow.

”It’s easy. Relax, smile, eat dinner with your patron, thank them, and join your teammates for the after-party. That’s all you need to do, no worries.”

The words echo through Eiji’s mind as the auctioneer starts rambling. He’s elsewhere the entire time, barely looking out at the audience, eyes glued to the other side of half of the room where servers start setting down plastic dinner plates and faux silverware. He doubts the food is going to be any good; the whole thing is just for the sake of earning as much money for his team as possible.

Claps fill the air, cueing Eiji’s turn to leave the stage as another athlete dressed in women's clothes strides past him confidently. He’s wearing an extremely revealing slip, backless with a slit running up mid-thigh. The thin spaghetti straps are tiny compared to his broad shoulders, rayon straining against his chest, and yet the boy is literally beaming on stage as the students below erupt in laughter.

If this is supposed to be funny, why doesn’t he feel lighter?

“Don’t worry about it,” the boy in front of him says, combing his fingers through his wavy locks. He looks strikingly familiar with his dainty features and small stature, but Eiji can’t put his finger on who he is at the moment. There’s a discarded wig on the floor, right underneath his heels. He looks up at Eiji through thick lashes, swiping a gloved hand across his mouth to get rid of the bright red lipstick he has on. It smears across half his cheek, but he doesn’t even seem to care. “I always get pulled into doing this because no one else on my team has the guts to do it.” Rolling his eyes, he sighs in annoyance. “Yeah, leave it to the libero to save all their asses.” He holds his arms out. “Can you help me with this?”

Blinking, Eiji pulls each glove off before handing it back to the boy, but he just throws it over his shoulder. He leans over to gather a section of his skirt before hiking it all the way past his knees.

“God, it’s so hot back here.” He says. There’s an extended moment of silence between them. Eiji hasn’t even said a word since he came here. The boy pauses, turning to stare at him. “Just saying, if your date gets handsy and starts touching you weirdly, no one will yell at you if you break their wrist and ditch them right after—girl or guy, doesn’t matter. It’s just a stupid fundraiser for people with perverted tastes.”

Eiji would never do that but he just nods anyway, fingers locked together. The tips blanch white, throbbing from the pressure, but he hardly even notices. “O-okay.”

The boy reaches up, patting the top of Eiji’s head. “So don’t look so nervous. Your captain won’t let anything happen to you, I promise. He would’ve definitely volunteered to do this instead of you, but I told him I’d kill him if he did.” He offers Eiji an innocent smile. “Sorry about that.”

Fingers tightening, Eiji shakes his head. It’s obviously an insincere apology, but he doesn’t even care about that right now. “It’s fine.”

“But it isn’t,” the boy says. His eyes flicker away for a half-second in concern, barely noticeable but enough to catch Eiji’s eye. “And I meant what I said about touchy dates. You understand?”

“Yeah.” But Eiji can’t even hear himself.

-

The first thing Eiji notices is the fact that he’s surrounded by swaths of black silk, soft against his skin. A massive light fixture hands above in a full circle, metal casing black without the illumination of light across its usual gray surface. Gauzy curtains are pulled across floor-to-ceiling windows, thin enough that Eiji can still see the night below, light sparkling across the landscape like sprinkles on top of cake. It’s a sight he’ll never get used to. Just like how the waves back at home never ceased to leave him breathless whenever he went there at night.

It’s only after he’s taken in his surroundings that he can finally let out the breath of air he’s been holding it.

It comes out more forcefully than he intended, and his heart pounds from the lack of respiration. His skin feels cold, goosebumps running from his elbow up to his shoulder despite the fact that he’s wearing Shorter’s sweatshirt. In fact, the entire room feels colder than it was last night.

Eiji wonders if it’s because of what has happened lately. The run-in by Golzine. Ash finding him when he was in the middle of video-calling his sister. Seeing his parents for that long in months. Heavy guilt bites at him for realizing so late that he hasn’t even really spoken to his parents for so long.

Emi is usually the first one to know if something is up with him, but his parents are the last. Eiji doesn’t know if it’s because both of them are busy with work or if it’s because he’s been purposefully avoiding them for the longest time.

He realizes he’s been too distant with them for years already—staring in high school when his mom decided to go back to work once Emi was in her last year of grade school.

Pressing his lips together, Eiji suppresses the heat that pricks at his eyes, the feeling of his throat constricting, his breaths coming out in hiccups.

He’s been an emotional mess.

And he can’t even tell anyone without making them worry more than they already are.

He barely even knew Ibe before this trip, but the man literally turns white as a sheet whenever the slightest thing happens to Eiji, and quite frankly, he doesn’t want to become a heavier burden than he already is. It sounds completely selfish and ungrateful—to not want to accept the kindness and help other people offer him so easily, but a part of Eiji tells him it’s okay to do this. Because relying too much on people is just going to burn them out even faster.

It’s just going to turn them into one of those matches that can’t even last five seconds before the flame reaches the end of the stick.

Cupping his hands against his mouth, Eiji leans over, fringe brushing against the dark sheets.

He stays like that for a few minutes, making sure his breathing is regular, the sleeve of Shorter’s sweatshirt pressed against his eyes, catching the half-tears that well up at his waterline.

Eiji tells himself that this is good. That this is progress. He’s not numb or an empty shell—he feels, and it’s a good thing. It’s easier to mask how you really feel when your brain actually works. When it has enough serotonin and dopamine going through it instead of being unresponsive because of the negative symptoms of depression.

When he’s not shaking anymore, Eiji slides off the bed, bare feet hitting the wood softly. He’s about to walk into the kitchen when the lights suddenly flicker on and someone dims them down to almost nothing.

“Ash and Eiji are still sleeping,” he hears Shorter whisper.

“It’s five in the morning. Of course they are.”

Eiji backs away, hands reaching for that distinctive corner of the wall that tells him he’s back in the bedroom he woke up in. He’s used to the idea of rooms. The open-concept is familiar, but his family always kept the wooden screen dividers shut across each section of their house.

Shorter’s penthouse didn’t actually have many doors. The whole place feels endless even though it isn’t necessarily massive, high-ceilings and a curving staircase from the foyer to a few rooms and a loft above. A cement wall separates the first floor slightly as it only stretched on to accommodate the TV mounted on the other side and part of the staircase above. The metal around the place reflects the glass and light scattered throughout, the dark theme wrapping it in what feels like infinity.

Even now, Eiji can’t help but notice all the details. It isn’t until the second voice pipes up again that he notices it’s Nadia who's speaking.

“Can’t sleep?”

“Just—a few things about those two are off.”

“Ash and Eiji?”

Shorter rocks back on his heels, and Eiji catches a glimpse of him nodding. “Yeah. Like they’re both going through something hard. Mentally, I mean. I don’t know much about Eiji, but I wonder if Ash a starting to regret leaving those kids back with Golzine.”

Nadia’s voice is hushed but unwavering. “As much as I hate the words that are going to come out of my mouth, there really wasn’t anything he could do, Shorter. You know he looked out for them like they were his family. When Golzine found out about his plans—the gang he formed, the connections he already had, his intent for making that bastard pay for what he’s running, he couldn’t stay.”

“Blanca convinced Golzine to give him up. Let him go as their innocent poster boy or risk an upheaval, right?”

A sigh breaks through the air, glass clinking on the marble countertop. “Children are dangerous little things—I’ll give you that, but I think it’s more than that.”

“You think Golzine is coming back to get Ash.”

“I mean, it’s a hypothetical.”

“Nadia—“

“Look, I’m just… I’m just worried, okay? It’s not like anyone ever tells me what’s going on. I never know what the hell is happening.”

There’s a long pause. A dangerously long pause that makes Eiji start gnawing on his bottom lip.

“Is this about dad again?” Shorter’s low voice trembles, and it rises sharply. “I didn’t tell you what happened ‘cause it’ll break you—“

“No—you’re the one who thinks I can’t handle it, Shorter.”

Eiji shrinks away. It’s getting too personal. This is information he shouldn’t be hearing right now. He’s about to go back to the bedroom and pull the sheets over his head when Shorter lets out a broken laugh. It’s very quiet, very unlike his usual self. But it draws out the deep tenor of his voice, the vibrations rumbling in the empty space between them all.

He can hear Nadia swallow. “I’m—“

“I promise I’ll tell you,” Shorter interrupts. “I’m all stressed over Sing.. Ash is going through something really important right now that I can’t just sit on the sidelines to watch. And Eiji… he’s quiet and polite and oddly blank at times that I can’t help but think something’s going on. It’s the second time I’ve seen him, but I… he looks like one of those people who order a fancy cocktail but never even touch it because they’re too lost in their thoughts.”

“You worry too much.”

“We all do.”

“But, hey, misery likes company, hm? We’ll help each other out.”

“Wish it didn’t. I need some sunshine. Night’s been lasting for eons.”

“Oh, come on.” There’s the sound of clothes rustling. Nadia’s voice is muffled when she speaks. “You’re that sunshine. If Sing is bothering you that much, make him come over to my house. Charlie will keep him under watch.”

“That man is gonna get crushed by a little fifteen-year-old,” Shorter says. “Sing’ll be the death of him.”

“Whenever you want. I’ll drag him over if I need to. Charlie can’t hate me.”

“Charlie can’t hate anyone.”

Nadia laughs softly. “Of course. So about the cake—“

“Don’t tell me they don’t have it anymore.”

“No, of course I got it. It’s in the bag.” She paused. “I just… don’t know if it’ll bring up bad memories.”

“I’ll hug him if he cries.”

“Oh, that would never happen. Sing would rather gouge out his eyes than shed a single tear.“

To which Shorter can’t help but snort, chuckles hidden muffled behind his hand while Nadia chides that everyone is still asleep.

Eiji is turning around, ready to lay back in bed pretending to be asleep until seven when he sees someone on the stairs, arms propped on the metal railing. He’s tiny, dwarfed by the baggy pullover he has on over biker shorts. Baby wisps of hair stick straight up over his forehead in disarray as two pairs of dark eyes watch Eiji. He doesn’t even look surprised to see Eiji eavesdropping or even guilty of doing so himself. The only thing he does is point at the corner of his eyes before going back up the stairs, the door to his bedroom shutting behind him.

It’s Sing. Definitely Sing. The younger, mischievous cousin both Nadia and Ash sometimes complain about every now and then.

He looks innocent enough. Cute, even—like one of the kids Eiji used to look after, but there’s an aura of maturity around him. Other kids would have perhaps blurted out that Eiji was listening to Nadia and Shorter’s conversation secretly. Sing just stood there listening as well before leaving.

Eiji wonders if him pointing at his eyes meant he was watching Eiji the entire time, but when he passes by a small mirror sitting on one of the small drawers in the room he slept in, he sees puffy eyes rimmed with red. He must have irritated it after rubbing at it so many times before.

He’s just surprised Sing could see his face that well even when the lights were all off save the light from the kitchen and the bright cast of the city below.

Pressing cold fingers to his eyes, he lets out a small sigh, head tilted slightly back. They feel warm underneath, a little gritty from a general lack of sleep.

Eiji wonders if everything he’s doing actually works. If all the small smiles and the typically quiet disposition he holds makes him out to be someone people worry about. Because everything he does seems to only rouse questions. The people around him are still concerned—not that he never knew until now. Last night was the second time Shorter asked if he was fine. That’s a modest amount considering the number of times Max and Ibe have raised the question. It’s just that… he thought he was doing a good job of not making everything obvious.

He’s healing—yes, but he prefers if it’s done by himself. He doesn’t want anyone else’s input. It’s an unnecessary weight on their part.

Biting the bottom of his lip, Eiji shakes his head. Hypocrite.

Because now he’s worrying about Ash. About the so-called “gang” he created. About the kids he tried to save and the types of connections he made before being pulled out of the agency altogether. And even when he’s pulling the covers over him again, rolling on his side to stare out at the city, curtains a thin veil between him and the uncovered sight of it all, he can’t stop thinking about Ash.

Over and over and over again.

Like a memory he wants to forget but never will.

-

When Sing arrives at Yut Lung’s apartment, it’s quiet. Dead quiet with all the lights still off.

The only thing that’s on is a candle reaching its end, melted wax pooled around the base of the mushroomed wick. Some have already solidified again, hugging the metal casing. Most likely than not, Yut Lung probably forgot to blow it out before going to sleep. In any case, it smells somewhat like smoke, the burning scent no doubt from the overused candle masking the jasmine lingering in the room.

Whipping his hand through the air, Sing leans over to stare at the soot around the candle before plopping down on the living room couch. It’s already eight in the morning which is apparently the time Yut Lung wanted him to come over today, but the guy isn’t even up yet. Assuming he’s not sitting in the tub or lying in bed staring up at the ceiling. Which he might actually be doing right now since he seriously seems like the type of person to lazy around.

Sing waits for a solid ten minutes before promptly getting out of his seat. His dad was the one who was always painfully coolheaded in front of people; Sing is more like his mom in every aspect: harsh and impatient—the type of person who doesn’t take crap no matter who they are facing.

The kind of end she met wasn’t one she was deserving of, but his dad...

Sing’s fingers tighten just a fraction.

If he’d just acted a little more like a boss than a friend, he wouldn’t have gotten his whole family into that mess.

Taking a hand out of his pocket, Sing swings the door to Yut-Lung’s room open. Or rather, he slams it open, the handle making such a loud bang against drywall that he hopes it didn’t accidentally puncture through.

Though the Lee family definitely has enough money to repair the drywalls of probably every single resident of New York City. Fixing Yut-Lung’s wouldn’t be a problem at all.

Sing is about to walk over and drag Yut-Lung out of the room himself when an older man rises up from behind Yut-Lung, clearly very naked except for the white sheets that are covering him waist-down.

He’s rough-looking, slight stubble at his jaw, dark hair long enough that it’s starting to look unkempt. Age has already started to take a hold of him, carving lines through his face and around the frown he currently has on. Sing isn’t stupid; it just takes him a while to understand everything when it’s blown at him straight-up with no warning or censor.

Yut-Lung takes his sweet time rising even when the man starts buttoning his shirt on, though still sitting on the bed like he’s too embarrassed to actually stand and uncover himself for a second.

Probably has a small ass dick, Sing scoffs.

When Yut-Lung finally gets a hold of himself, sleep fading away, he squints at Sing, then fixes his eyes on the man who is now pulling his trousers up over his button-down. It’s not a nice way of regarding someone despite the kind of thing the two have engaged in last night.

The evidence, though practically nonexistent on the man, is all over Yut-Lung’s pale skin. Dark purple bruises pepper it, red bite marks accompanying the purple in an angry swarm. There are rings around Yut-Lung’s tiny wrists, extending up to his elbows.

Sing knows there are people who like this sort of play, but it makes him wonder why people ever called it “making love” in the first place. Maybe he really is pure at heart, but he’s always thought lovers were supposed to be gentle with each other and treat each other’s bodies like the holy grail or something. Then again, this man probably isn’t Yut-Lung’s partner. Not even “probably”—he just isn’t. Anyone would notice that from a mile away.

Shoving the covers off of himself, Yut-Lung steps out of bed only to crumple for a moment before straightening himself with a huff, hand flipping his long hair back away from his face. It's literally free from any tangles, the strands silky-smooth over narrow shoulders. Sing stares, slightly impressed at how beautiful he still looks in the morning. Especially after whatever the heck it is he did with that man.

Completely ignoring Sing’s entire existence, Yut-Lung continues to storm across his room with zero regard for anyone, whipping the doors of his dresser open to grab the first silk robe he sees. He shrugs it on, then turns sharply to the man who is busy putting his tie back on. For someone who looks like they don’t even hold a job, the man seems to know how to cover his tracks up well. And clean-up well, it seems. Despite the fact that he just spent the night screwing someone and hasn’t taken a shower or gotten a proper change of clothes.

“Have I ever not made myself clear? People I fuck don’t get to sleep in my bed,” Yut-Lung hisses at him in Cantonese. “You might be someone I invited in willingly—unlike those I have to please because of my brother’s orders—but that doesn’t make you special nor does it mean you’re getting any special treatment from me.”

As much as Sing wants to blurt out—in irritation—that he can actually understand Cantonese even when he never grew up learning it, he doesn’t. All Yut-Lung knows is that his entire extended family, as well as their connections, only speak Mandarin Chinese, and it’s all he needs to know—nothing more.

The man sighs, not making eye-contact as he continues to smooth out the wrinkles in his shirt. “If you want me to continue to come, I make my own rules. You’re the one who needs to follow them obediently.”

Yut-Lung’s jaw clenches. Hell, Sing’s do too, but he lets that initial anger go before anyone notices, turning his head away.

“You tell me you don’t want me to stay every time, but what kind of partner leaves their lover right after sex?”

“The kind who knows their place, that’s what,” Yut-Lung growls. “You’re not my lover, you fucking idiot. You don’t even come close to calling yourself that.”

”I’m not? Then who’s that boy over there?” The man nods his head at Sing, and Sing has to make a huge effort to keep the clueless face he has on. “Yours? Or should I take him for myself since you’re so unwilling to be mine?”

“He’s not into the shit you like.” Yut-Lung clenches his teeth together, but the tension leaves as he presses a few fingers to his temple. “Just—please leave while I’m asking nicely.”

“Being polite doesn’t work on me unless we’re in bed.”

”Get the fuck out,” Yut-Lung says darkly.

It’s enough to make the man budge. He doesn’t even spare a glance at Sing, breezing past like nothing ever happened.

His appearance doesn’t peg him as the type who would actually dress so consciously and speak so egotistically, so Sing assumes the man’s the type who needs to shave religiously every morning. And that he probably puts his hair up with pomade or something. But even so—no one gave him the right to talk like people are objects that need to be possessed.

The whole thing just makes Sing’s hair stand on edge. Makes him want to punch a hole in the wall because of how wrong it sounds and how uncomfortable it makes him feel.

“So? Who gave you permission to come over so early in the morning?” Arms crossed over his chest, Yut-Lung leans across the door frame.

Sing shows him the text from a few days ago. “You forgot?”

Yut-Lung stares at the screen, unconvinced. “Perhaps.”

“So you did.”

Narrowing his eyes, Yut-Lung walks past him toward the kitchen, grabbing the unfinished glass of wine from the countertop so quickly the liquid almost sloshes over the edge. But he hesitates for a moment before setting it down.

“Were you arguing with your boyfriend or something?” Yut-Lung shoots him a look, but Sing only shrugs, feigning ignorance. “I mean, all Cantonese sounds harsh and angry to me no matter what people are saying. Why name your son ‘Yut-Lung’ when ‘Yue-Long sounds better, right? And getting rid of the ‘long’ makes you… less snakey, I guess.”

“I let you call me however you like because I don’t care, not because I dislike my mother tongue and my name.”

Sing watches him closely. His movements are all natural. Yut-Lung is quick to switch moods, but he’s definitely not the type to let the past go. “You don’t hate being a Lee despite what they did to your mom?”

After setting a kettle on top of the stove, Yut-Lung opens one of the cabinets above. It’s completely bare except for a few small tea boxes and a set sitting on a wooden tray that he pulls out and sets to the side. “Feelings are negligible in that aspect. In the end, I am one of them, aren’t I? Flesh and blood, born full-fledged as one as compared to my mother who married into the family.”

“I don’t think blood matters,” Sing says, glancing down at his hands. They feel too bare without his fingerless gloves; he doesn’t know why he’s been forgetting to put them on recently. “Who cares who you’re related to? Just ‘cause you have the same name and the same DNA doesn’t mean that’s suddenly all you are. It doesn’t mean you can’t hate them.”

“Sing,” Yut-Lung starts, the emphasis heavy on his name. “I never said I don’t hate my family, nor did I ever say I like being a Lee.”

Screwing up his face, Sing shakes his head. “I don’t get you. Just say stuff straight-out if you don’t want people to misunderstand.”

“I don’t expect you to understand.”

“Probably won’t ever.”

There’s a tick on Yut-Lung’s jaw, and he hardly masks it when he puts on a sweet smile. “Tea?”

Sing shrugs. He hasn’t had anything to eat ever since the afternoon before, but he somehow doesn’t even feel hungry. Now that he thinks about it, he hasn’t really eaten that much as of late, always skipping out on breakfast and dinner even when Shorter already has it all made. Probably why he hasn’t grown past Shorter’s shoulder even after hitting fifteen. Everyone else around him is already stretched out like string beans, all lanky with long arms and long legs. Even Yut-Lung has a few good inches on him. “Sure. You got like sandwiches or something to go with it?”

Wordlessly, Yut-Lung opens up his fridge and pulls what looks like egg salad and a bag of lettuce out. When he’s done with a sandwich, he hands it over to Sing who takes a tentative bite out of it.

Yut-Lung puts the knife in his mouth, licking it clean of egg salad. “I didn’t poison it if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Nah, you could’ve killed me already if you wanted to,” Sing says. Before, he was a lot more guarded. He doesn’t trust the Lee family, and after what they did to his family, he won’t ever forgive them, but Yut-Lung wouldn’t gain anything if he decided he wanted to do away with him. “Just checking to see if it tastes horrible. You don’t seem like the kind of person who’d be a good cook.”

Yut-Lung blinks. “Who messes up an egg salad sandwich?”

“People who don’t know what the hell they’re doing in a kitchen.” Sing holds up the sandwich. “Yours is good though.”

“Everything else aside, I assume you came here because you have something of note?”

“More like ’somethings,’” Sing points out. “Though, honestly, I’m not really surprised.”

Raising a brow, Yut-Lung props his elbows up on the counter, head tilting to the side, prompting him to continue.

“Well, Ash and Eiji are in love. Ash knows he’s gone for Eiji but doesn’t actually know the guy feels the same way. Eiji isn’t even aware he has feelings.” Sing pauses. “I kind of want to yell at him.”

“And?” Yut-Lung sounds annoyed.

“This morning, I found Eiji listening in on my cousins’ conversation.” Looking away, Sing drums his fingers on the counter. “He doesn’t seem like the type who would usually invade others’ privacy, but they were talking about Ash, so.”

“About what, exactly?”

“His fallout with Golzine. That gang he created within the agency—stuff we both already know about.”

“Hm. Did he know you were watching him?”

“I made it obvious,” Sing says. “Sat on the stairs and waited until he turned around. He cried. Maybe woke up from a bad dream or something.”

“Okay.”

The question swirling around in Sing’s mind for quite a while now hasn’t been answered. Yut-Lung was very neutral in the way he responded to this sort of information—like he was sifting through every single one and storing them in their respective mental files. But Sing has a conscience, and he doesn’t want to continue doing this if it means hurting nice people. Screw being a goodie-two-shoes. It’s just plain disrespectful to spy on people without it actually being for a good reason. Sing has his own reasons as to why he’s still keeping contact with Yut-Lung, and Yut-Lung is using him out of convenience, but that still leaves a whole lot in the dark.

“If you’re gonna use this stuff against them—”

“As I’ve mentioned, I don’t plan to,” Yut-Lung interrupts. “Ash is insufferable, but I don’t care about him or his relationship with that boy, Eiji. It’s personal.”

“Better be.”

Sing’s other phone vibrates in his pocket. He doesn’t even need to take it out to know it’s Shorter who’s asking him to come back. Cramming the rest of the sandwich in his mouth, he hops off the chair and makes his leave. “Thanks for the tea and the sandwich,” he says with a half-smile. “I’ll cook for you later if I ever have the chance.”

Yut-Lung isn’t a bad person, but Sing can’t help but partially blame him for what happened to his parents and his uncle.

If he’d just let it all go, he wonders how free he would feel.

But no one ever lets this stuff go. Or, at least, he’s convinced normal people don’t.

The hot anger that nearly evaporated his blood the first time he walked into Yut-Lung’s apartment fizzled out so fast he thought he might faint, and it hasn’t come back. And it’s stupid, but he wants a reason to hate the guy. To really, really hate him to the point where he can’t even stand to look at his face. To the point where he can get revenge without his reasonable self telling him he’s just gonna shift the consequences onto the rest of his family.

Though, as it stands, history probably won’t repeat itself. Sing knows he isn’t the kind of person who gets too lost in his own selfish desires.

-

“And where have you been all morning?”

Shorter doesn’t ask him this seriously; it’s more so playful. Everyone acknowledges the fact that Sing vanishes on Sunday mornings and doesn’t come back until nighttime unless he has a reason to. Or unless he’s up to actually listening to his cousins.

“Out.”

“Of course.” Shorter nods. “‘Out.’”

“At a friend’s place.”

“Do I know this ‘friend’?”

“Maybe. He doesn’t invite me to reckless events if you’re wondering. We just sit and talk.” Sing gazes blankly at the wall across from him. “He also makes a good egg salad sandwich.”

“Okay.” Shorter doesn’t really know how to respond, and it’s fine because if Sing were in his shoes, it’d probably be the most random thing he’s heard in a while. “Ash and Eiji left earlier. Asked me to wish you a happy birthday.”

Not Ash. Eiji is probably the only one who actually said that. “I’ll tell them thanks the next time I see them.”

“So… cake.”

Sing lifts himself onto one of the stools. Nadia offers him a small smile to which he returns with a tight one. He knows what’s coming even though it’s supposed to be a surprise. He overheard them this morning, after all. “Did you make it this time?”

Shorter forces a laugh. He’s nervous. Obviously. “No, no. You know I can’t bake. It’s, uh, bought. From a bakery.”

“Yup.”

A full minute passes by in silence. Nadia, who typically breaks it up and lightens the mood, doesn’t even budge. She has her eyes fixed on Shorter.

“Okay.” Shorter lets out a breath of air. “It’s been established that I suck at this stuff.” Opening the fridge, he pulls out a cake covered in white frosting. A cute orange lion is piped in the center, tiny next to a chocolate sign that says “Happy Birthday,” decorated with a chocolate mane and everything. The cake his dad used to buy him every single year. “Please don’t hate me. It’s just that… I…”

While he’s grappling with what to say, Sing honestly can’t say anything at the moment either. He has mentally prepared for this. He knew Shorter planned this with the help of Nadia, but it still gets to him—more than it should.

The kids in Chinatown used to make fun of his name. They’d say his parents feel somehow “guilty” for having him. That they didn’t know their son would turn out to be a “demon.” And while there’s a good amount of children who might be horrible little demons, Sing was more so the type that did as he was told. Despite his dad being the head of what was then the Chinese mafia, it wasn’t as if he dabbled in depraved activities nor did Sing’s disposition ever reflect what most people thought it would be like.

But, of course, those remarks used to get at him all the time. So his dad would always call him his little “lion” and tell everyone that he was going to grow up to be a good man like the son he already was.

Sing just stares at the cake. He knows that when you cut into it, it’s the best chocolate sponge you’ll get.

He wants to be troublesome. He wants to be reckless at times and make his cousins hate him for being a so-called rebellious teen. But all the things he feels doesn’t even match up with his outward character. Trying so hard to be bad when he really isn’t is actually tiring him out.

Shorter looks expectantly at him.

“You’re not—” Sing breaks off, licking his lips. “Shorter, you’re not my dad.”

“Oh god,” he hears Nadia mumble.

“But thanks.” He breathes in, embarrassed that his voice is shaking at the edges. “For this. And-and I guess for everything else.” He looks down as Shorter rounds the marble bar top. I said it. Thank god I didn’t screw it up, but now I wanna leave—

Nadia wraps her arm around his shoulders from beside him, and Shorter does so too on the other side, leaning in so Sing fits snugly against his chest.

Sing’s throat constricts, and he doesn’t remember feeling like this for a long time. Not since the Lee family murdered his parents and thought it’d be fun to bury Nadia and Shorter’s too.

“I don’t deserve this,” Sing whispers, pressing the palms of his hands into his eyes. “I make people miserable.”

Shorter‘s arms tighten. “Let’s just blame it on your hormones.”

“I stress you out, and I play stupid pranks on Nadia—“

“Oh, so now you don’t deny it,” she says.

”God, I suck.”

“We all suck at some point of our lives. Nadia particularly sucks right now.”

“Fuck you, Shorter.”

“Mm-mm. We don’t curse in here.”

Nadia makes a noise at the back of her throat. “How are you so sensitive about this sort of thing when in high school you used to—“

“Or dig up past dirt that doesn’t matter anymore.”

“It’s called getting old, Shorter.”

Nadia sits back, and Sing just stays quiet, the ache that settled in his chest still there but overlaid by slight annoyance. Two adults bickering. Again.

“I just don’t give a fuck anymore. I used to be all calm and collected all the time, but who the hell am I kidding?” She laughs. “It just builds up inside until you can’t fucking take it anymore.”

Shorter‘s brows come together. “What the heck happened to you?”

“Charlie proposed last night,” Nadia blurts out. “I told him I can’t.”

Oh. Okay.

Pushing Shorter away, Sing steps off the stool to grab a knife from behind the counter and cuts himself a generous portion before adding two other small pieces onto his place. Cream gets on his finger in the process, but he licks it clean, eyes flickering up to watch the scene in front of him.

“What?” Stiffening, Shorter takes a step back like he’s the one who received the rejection. “Why would you—“

Nadia looks like she might actually cry. “Because his parents are traditional, and like I’ve said a thousand times before, they don’t approve of him being in a relationship with someone they didn’t hand-pick for him. You know he blew off his supposed fiancée to go out with me. His parents nearly had a heart attack then, they definitely had one when we moved in with each other a year ago, and they’ll probably die of shock if we get married.”

“By your philosophy, screw them, right?” Sing stabs his fork into his slice of cake, popping the forkful into his mouth before going for another. “You love him. Charlie obviously loves you, and you two make each other happy for the most part. So elope if you gotta. Not like you need their permission to marry. I won’t be asking for yours or Shorter’s when I decide who I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

Shorter chokes, turning around for a second to cover his mouth with a fist.

“Anyway, I’m going upstairs. Don’t argue over who gets the bigger slice of the cake.” He gives her a half-hug, then offers one to Shorter.

There’s complete silence before they start talking again, this time in hushed tones.

Sing closes the door behind him, fork in his mouth, then plops onto his bed, scooting all the way back so his legs are dangling off the side. When he’s down with the cake, he places the other two small slices in front of the framed portrait of his family Shorter brought over from their tiny apartment.

He just stares at the picture for a while, then falls back, the mattress bouncing back up behind him.

Sing misses them. Violently, even, but he won’t say.

He never will, because he’s learned it only makes the pain more tangible.

Chapter Text

“Do you not have plans with friends? Homework? Things normal high school students do when they’re done with school for the day?”

Sing throws a blank look over his shoulder, shoving a piece of chicken in his mouth for a taste. Mm. Good. “I can go wherever I want to go, and in case you haven’t noticed, neither of us are ‘normal high school students.’ Especially you.”

Yut-Lung blinks back at him from the couch, resting the side of his face on his arm. There’s a feline nature about him that makes it hard for Sing not to stare whenever he’s in the room.

Yut-Lung walked with elegance, sat with elegance. Hell, he ate things in this dark seductive way that seriously makes Sing question his own sexuality. Whatever that is. Though, looking at everything as a whole, Yut-Lung isn’t a cat, but rather a snake. One who disguises himself as someone harmless, but the first to make their move and manipulate others to sin as well.

It’s all based on personal opinion, but Sing likes to think that he’s somewhat immune to that sort of thing. He’s not the Adam and Eve who give in to that serpent's words. He doesn’t seek power or truth or enlightenment. If anything, he’s hardly capable of doing something like that. His morals are way too heaven-bent and pure, although he’ll never admit it.

“I have a tutor,” Yut-Lung says, examining his nails. “I am a student.”

“Not a normal one.”

“‘Norms’ are silly constructs by society.”

“Still,” Sing argues, “if they’re there, it makes them something.”

“That neither one of us are going to follow, obviously.”

Placing the chicken in a bowl, Sing wipes his hands on the apron tied around his waist before carrying it to the coffee table in front of Yut-Lung. “Also, it might surprise you, but the only thing not ‘normal’ about me as a student is the fact that I have some negative disciplinary marks on my record. Other than that, my grades are pretty good—average-wise—and I do all my work.”

Yut-Lung raises a brow. “You look stupid.”

The blatant insult doesn’t get to him at all. “Nah, Shorter would have my head if I didn’t at least excel in academics. I guess he just doesn’t want me to flunk out like he did.”

“It’s warming up considerably, and you’re still wearing the same oversized sweatshirt I see you with.” His eyes lower to silently regard Sing’s hands. “And gloves.”

It’s something Sing always gets—those questions on why he always has on a sweatshirt or hoodie year-round. Not like he’s ever going to tell anyone why, though. “It’s a security blanket… or something like that.”

“Hm.” Sliding off the couch, Yut-Lung gingerly sits down on the floor, grabbing a set of silver chopsticks and a bowl Sing put out prior to cooking. “If this doesn’t taste good, I’m not letting you come in as you please again.”

“Well, it’s not your egg salad, but a dish I learned after watching my dad fifteen-million times. Since he didn’t know how to make anything else.”

“You’re not sick of eating it?”

“What do you mean?” Sing points his chopsticks at him, a sliver of a grin at the corners of his lips. The smell of it takes him back home to his happy place, but it also pricks at his heart. He’s lucky he got used to the feeling enough not to let it show too much on his face. “Unlike you, I don’t have daddy issues. I’ll gladly eat the food the people I love give me.”

Yut-Lung stops mid-bite. “Does it really bother you that the men I sleep with are double my age?”

“I meant your dad. Your old man, dear god.”

“Well, at least he’s dead,” Yut-Lung says. “But you have yours.”

“Yeah.” Sing makes sure his half-grin doesn’t waver. “I have mine.”

-

Eiji honestly just wants to stay in bed for the entire day.

It’s been a few days since he last saw Ash, but he hasn’t once stopped thinking about him for a second. Yesterday afternoon when he went out with Ibe to go to the solo show of a friend, he couldn’t help but wonder if every boy with slightly long blond hair was Ash.

Some of the people he stared down in the subway probably thought he was some weird Japanese person out to get them. He’s lucky they never called over security to report a suspicious person.

Rolling over to the other side, Eiji grabs the pillow that fell onto the floor sometime during the night and wraps his arms around it, squeezing. It fluffs out against his face, soft cotton muffling the half-scream he lets out into it.

It’s only twelve in the afternoon, but he already wishes it was midnight.

Time passes by so excruciatingly slow.

The door to his room cracks open a little bit, hinges creaking, and Ibe pops his head in, concern written across his face. Eiji stares back at him upside down, head hanging off the side of his bed, the pillow still clutched against his chest.

“Um… Ei-chan? Are you okay?”

No. “Yes.”

“Are you tired today? Was your insomnia very bad? Did you run out of pills?”

“I’m just…” Eiji’s eyes flicker back at the ceiling. Then, he slowly pushes himself up with his elbows, neatly putting the pillow back at the head of his bed before yanking his blanket from underneath him. He starts folding it, lips pressing together. “I’ll be up in a bit, Ibe-san. Sorry for the distraction.”

“You don’t have to apologize, Ei-chan,” Ibe says. “I just wanted to let you know I have a short session Max set me up for. He told me it will not take too long, but I may not come back until dinnertime.”

Eiji slides off his bed, fingers brushing his bed head down. It never actually tames the locks, but he’s already gotten into a habit of doing it. “That’s fine.”

“I’ll be leaving now.”

“See you later.”

Ibe closes the door behind him, footsteps disappearing, the sound of the front door opening then shutting echoing through the near-empty apartment. Eiji just pauses for a moment, staring off into space, the thoughts still swirling around his mind before turning to his closet.

All his pants are a few sizes too large, his jeans leaving a gaping hole at the waist where his body used to fit snugly against. It’s easily fixable with a belt, but Eiji isn’t up for that today. So he pulls on a pair of drawstring khaki shorts and throws his university’s sweatshirt over the wrinkled t-shirt he wore to sleep.

When he finishes brushing his teeth and washing his face, Eiji makes his way to the kitchen for a cup of tea when a blond head catches his attention.

Ash is lounging across the couch, scrolling through something on his phone. Eyes flickering over to Eiji’s, he puts it down, one hand up in a half-wave as a slow smile spreads across his face. “Hey there, Ei-chan.”

Eiji doesn’t even question why he’s here without first calling. He just breezes past into the kitchen, calmly putting some water to boil before putting his hands down on the counter and letting out a forced breath of air. His heart his pounding a lot louder than it should, the thrumming hard against his sternum. Letting another breath of air out, he turns slightly to peek at Ash only to meet his eyes again, the jade curious.

“Ibe invited me here, by the way.” Ash leans against the top of the couch, chin propped up on his arms. He looks boyish like this—less pretty and more… innocent. A look that makes Eiji feel extremely... uncomfortable. “Said he didn’t want you to be alone.”

Eiji covers his mouth with a hand, looking away. “I’m… fine. With being alone, that is.”

“You’re lying,” Ash says with a grin. He gets up from the couch to make his way toward Eiji. “People have a habit of touching their mouths when they’re not telling the truth.”

“So, I lied.” Shrugging, Eiji twists back to the boiling water, pouring half inside his mug before whisking the matcha into it. “We all lie. Whether people know I do or not doesn’t bother me. It’s them uncovering the truth that does.”

“You’re a little dark today, Ei-chan. Have you been reading angsty Tumblr posts?”

Eiji doesn’t look at Ash. “I don’t know what ‘Tumblr’ is. Would you like some tea?”

“I’ll pass.”

Wordlessly, Eiji takes a sip from his cup, but the liquid sloshes against his lips, some of it running down his chin when he’s caught off guard with the arms that are suddenly around him.

“If you ever have something on your mind, you know you can always tell me,” Ash murmurs, breath against his ear. It’s so unlike his usual self that Eiji has to catch himself for a moment before facing him.

Setting his mug down with a loud clink, Eiji twists around, wiping the spilt tea off his face with a sleeve. He usually doesn’t do that, but at the moment he doesn’t have the luxury of finding a napkin when he’s being encased like this. “Please—" He lets out a small huff. “—tell me if you’re going to do that next time.”

Ash watches him quietly, fair lashes lowered over his irises, a faint scattering of dusty pink over his pale skin, and Eiji swallows. Ash is pretty at arm’s length and even when he’s across the room, but he’s even prettier this close. He’s not usually clingy per se, but his impulsive self isn’t good for people like Eiji. His heart has calmed down, but it’s still thumping hard enough that he can hear it in his ears.

The front door suddenly swings open as Ibe steps in, shucking his shoes off. “Ei-chan, I forgot my 85mm…” His voice trails off when he sees Ash and Eiji in the kitchen, Ash’s arms still clasped around Eiji and Eiji still backed up against the counter.

“Oh.” Eiji points to the other side of the apartment where his room is. “I think you may have left it in one of the other bags. Would you like me to help—“

“I-it’s perfectly fine.” Ibe is flustered, red tinting his ears. “My other lens will work just as well. Please excuse me.” He offers them a sloppy bow, almost tripping over the threshold, before shutting the door behind him.

Ash breaks away the second after, the dusky rose on his cheeks deepening to a scarlet.

Eiji’s eyes follow Ash, taking his mug to his lips for another sip of tea as Ash snatches his phone up from the couch. “Are you embarrassed Ibe-san caught you hugging me?”

”No.”

“It’s okay, Ash. We all already know you’re soft on the inside. If you’re ever in need of a hug, you can ask me as I’m well-acquainted with you already.”

“It’s not that—“ He breaks off with a sigh, shaking his head. “Whatever. Just come with me.”

Eiji follows him to the front door, stuffing his feet in sneakers. Ash pulls on a pair of laceless boots over ripped jeans.

He remains pink in the face, strands of long blonde hair falling over his eyes in this way that makes Eiji conflicted. He wants to shove an elastic band over the stray locks and capture their movement with a camera at the same time.

Actually, he’s been feeling two things at once recently like love and hate are playing tug-of-war with his consciousness. One moment, he’s regarding Ash with that same attitude he had the day they met and the next, he feels free from it all but overwhelmed by the tenderness that makes him itch to become overly friendly. Which he has always bee with most of the people in his life, but never in this particular way. All that jerking around, having his heart straining at the center of it all causes him to worry it might tear in half.

Eiji digs his fingers into his chest, lips pressing together, and Ash glances at him.

“You good?”

Exhaling, Eiji nods. “Yeah.”

It’s an uncomfortable feeling he wants to get rid of.

-

“I swear to god, Ibe is worried about you more than anyone else in the world,” Ash says, taking his helmet off before running his fingers through his hair. “He calls me whenever Max isn’t available and rants about all the little things you do that makes his hair turn gray.”

Eiji wonders what exactly Ibe tells Ash, but he already has a whole list of possible things on a running list in his mind.

“And apparently you eat more when you’re with me, so he always wants me to take you out.”

“Are you sure that’s not just an excuse to hang out with me?” The words tumble out of his mouth—questions he always asked his sister, Emi, whenever she gave him a reason that covers up her real desires. “You don’t like sitting around in your near-empty apartment all day long, do you?”

“Partly.” Eiji’s brows shoot up, surprised Ash didn’t try to evade answering. “I’m sure the librarians at the NYPL are tired of seeing my face when I don’t feel like staying at home.”

Yours? Hardly. Eiji is most definitely sure they look forward to it every day.

“Back when it was hard for me to eat, café food really got me going,” Ash continues. “I could eat waffles and sandwiches all day without getting tired of it. Though…” He glances at Eiji. “...I don’t know if you feel the same way.”

“Hm.” Eiji looks down at his feet, the corner of his mouth quirking up. “You care quite a lot.”

“Well, if I wanted to make up an excuse, I’d say it’s because I don’t want Ibe to hate me.” He pushes the door of a small café, the bell above jingling to announce their entrance.

It’s a nice atmosphere, simple wooden tables set on both sides of the room, the baristas taking orders from the back to their customers. It feels quiet though conversations are easily heard from one table to the next. Others are sitting at the bar tables pushed against the shop’s windows, fingers clicking against the keyboards, hands going for their half-eaten croissants and cups of coffee.

“Do you want to eat anything in particular?”

“Anything is fine.”

As the cashier takes Ash’s order, Eiji wanders to the very right of the café, pulling out the chair of a table of two. There are paintings hung up like a gallery, the artist’s name and the price of the piece labeled to the side. They’re all reflective of Monet’s style: to paint the impression of something rather than what it is, leading to splotches of color across the canvas, the tentative brush strokes taking shape as a whole. Eiji never liked painting himself, but that art history course he took during his first semester was one he surprisingly enjoyed.

Ash slides into the seat in front of him, flashing him a small smile. “It shouldn’t take too long.”

“I’m fine with waiting.”

“I figured, but still.”

Chin propped on the heel of his hand, Eiji just offers him an appreciative half-nod, his fringe coming down to cover his eyes. It’s messy and long and overdue for a haircut, but Eiji never liked going to salons and sitting in a chair while someone else snipped away from his hair. He’d either let his sister have her way with it or let it grow out until it was unbearable enough to convince him to get it cut.

And Ash must think so too, one arm stretching out, fingers pulling half of Eiji’s fringe away to the side to peek at the brown eyes underneath.

Eiji has the sudden urge to lean forward, press his cheek against Ash’s open palm.

“Nadia does a pretty good job at trimming hair if you can’t see through this,” Ash says. “I hate getting my hair cut by random people. They always get it wrong.”

Sitting back, Eiji forces put a puff of air. His heart is pounding a little louder, beating a little faster—just like this morning. He cards his fingers through his bangs, pulling them flat against the top of his head before letting go. They flop back over his face, the ends poking through his lashes and tickling his eyes. “Maybe.”

Ash just stares at him. “The longer I’m with you, the less I seem to know.”

“Wha…” Eiji blinks. “What do you mean?”

“You’re one of those people who I feel like I’ve got all figured out the moment I meet you. You usually don’t really hide your emotions toward someone else—your heart’s written on your sleeve. But I’ve learned that how people feel towards others doesn’t necessarily tell me how they feel towards themselves.” Leaning forward on his elbows, Ash tilts his head to one side. “I don’t know what goes on in your head, and I realize it means I don’t know you. You’re quick to snap at someone if need be, but other times, you’re so calm I feel like you might disappear in front of my eyes. Morning mist, a passing fog, fairy wings, reflections—that’s sort of thing.”

“I won’t.” Eiji looks down at his hands as if to check to see if they just might be transparent. “I’m solid, aren’t I? Human beings don’t disappear like fog.”

“But they do.” When Ash says it, it sounds like the saddest thing in the world. And maybe to him it is, but Eiji doesn’t know. “One month, remember? A few more days and I won’t be seeing you at the agency anymore. Unless Blanca decides he wants Ibe to continue to shoot with me.”

It’s information that has slipped past Eiji’s mind. “I’ll still be in New York until next April, Ash.”

Ash pauses once, letting out a soft laugh. “See what I mean? You’re so calm at times it scares me.”

“Ash, I—“

“Wow, so the rumors were true after all. You quit school to live with your boyfriend in America?”

The voice is familiar, soft and sweet all at once. But it’s so sudden that Eiji almost flinches back. Like someone just severed the ties he had left with the people he cares about.

The first time Eiji met her, Yuri Hirose reminded him of marshmallows—the artificial strawberry kind he would sometimes buy from the convenience store when he craved something sugary late at night. And she looks the same—tawny brown hair permed throughout in subtle waves, doe eyes, and a smile spun by a confectioner. She says everything with that same demure smile on her face.

“I honestly didn’t think you were the type of person to do that.”

Eiji clenches his teeth, not daring to look at Ash. He folds his hands underneath the table, squeezing them together, but they still shake. “In Japanese, Hirose-san.”

“You two are more than acquaintances,” Yuri says, brows lifting. “Why keep what I have to say to yourself, Ei-chan?”

Coming from her, the name stings. “Because this is between you and me, and he’s not—“ Eiji finally steals a glance at Ash whose brows are drawn together in confusion and slight irritation. When his eyes swivel to meet Eiji’s, Eiji shakes his head, the tips of his fingers pressing down on Ash’s knee. Taking his attention back to Yuri, he continues in Japanese, “—he’s not my boyfriend. Just a friend.”

“Hm.” Yuri taps a finger to her lips, then shrugs, turning. “Whatever. You’ve already suffered enough for what you did.” Looking back over her shoulder, she glares at him. “The rumors are true anyway. It’s not like you got hurt in the end.”

Not like I got hurt in the end? Eiji instantly feels empty, his mouth drying, the heavy beat of his heart nothing compared to how cold it suddenly feels. The tension in his jaw disappears, the frustration and anger he felt melting away.

”Nee-san.” A boy marches over from the entrance, clamping his hand down on her shoulder. He’s just barely out of breath—most likely from chasing after his sister. There’s a terrifying smile on his face and fire behind his gaze, but Eiji doesn’t feel it at all behind the ice that’s going through his veins, that last phrase repeating itself in his mind. “What did I tell you about this sort of thing, hm?”

When he looks over her shoulder, his expression settles into nothing, hand growing slack. There’s tamed surprise in his eyes when he notices its Eiji his sister had promptly walked up to. Yuri brushes him off, angrily stomping away into the restroom, and he sighs. “Okumura Eiji, right?” He’s speaking in Japanese which Eiji appreciates, but Eiji is too stiff to even reply. “I apologize on behalf of my sister’s rudeness.” He looks like he wants to leave it at that, but ultimately decides not to. “I... don’t know if you remember, but we’ve met before—backstage at an… event. I’d like to talk more with you about what happened, but since we’re both busy with our own plans, I’ll call you tonight. Our family owes you a formal apology.” The words are hardly sympathetic nor did they sound like they’re from someone who wants forgiveness, but Eiji honestly doesn’t care.

Because he’s afraid of the truth behind that incident—the suspicions that crept up to him in those days where he had pinpoints of clarity while the whole thing came like a nightmare after nightmare before his eyes. “Please don’t call me. I won’t pick up.” Eiji curls his fingers into fists, nails biting crescents into his skin. “I just want to forget it even happened.”

Yuri’s brother doesn’t let up, though. He looks harmless, short in stature and built like a fairy, but it doesn’t come across in the way he handles things. “I can’t empathize with you, but I’d like you to know that at least my intention is sincere. Whether you’re willing to listen to me or not is obviously up to you in the end, but I don’t want you to make the same mistake like last time and completely ignore my words. As yourself if you’re getting anywhere with the way you’re handling things.” He holds Eiji’s gaze for a second longer before going after his sister—into the women’s restroom and all.

Eiji lets out a shuddering breath, then stands up. Some onlookers glance at him, but most just keep to their own conversations.

Ash gets up from his seat as well, gently taking Eiji’s hand before going up to the register. He takes a napkin and scribbles something onto it, handing it to the cashier, but Eiji can barely follow what he’s saying. He’s honestly just trying to fight the burning feeling behind his eyes.

Then, Ash is putting his helmet on his head, and slinging a leg over his bike before patting the space behind him. Eiji follows, but when his hands don’t go around Ash’s waist, the boy has to do that manually too.

“If you’re not going to hold on tight enough, I’m gonna treat you like you’re drunk again and make you sit facing me,” Ash chides. But it’s soft; he’s saying it because he cares, and again, Eiji gets that uncomfortable pang in his chest. “It’s awkward and embarrassing. Wanna try it again?”

What the heck. Eiji scoots closer, cheek against Ash’s shoulder with his eyes squeezed shut, fingers interlocking around Ash.

“Okay. Good.” Ash lets out of breath of air, hooking his boot under the kickstand, one leg out to steady his bike. “Let me know if your arms get sore.”

-

He can smell it in the air before he sees it. The heavy sulfur and the iodine. It’s different, but the same simultaneously.

Eiji feels like he’s drowning in it.

“Your hometown is close to the ocean,” Ash says, smoothly turning into one of the empty spaces just across from a long boardwalk. There’s hardly anyone here, and Eiji wonders if it’s a coincidence or if it’s because American students are preparing for exams during this time of the year since their academic semester is drawing to an end. “Izumo, was it?”

Nodding, Eiji tugs his helmet off, blinking against the harsh light of the sun. It’s already later in the afternoon, and yet, the sun is still blazing hot above them.

“You can easily see it in some parks in Queens or in Coney Island, but it’s not the same if you’re not beside the whole span of it,” Ash says. He takes a cursory glance at Eiji. “Or, at least, that’s what I believe.”

Eiji mouths the words before saying them. “It’s pretty.”

“Serene when the tides are low.”

And it’s true. Watching the waves lap against the shoreline, darkening the sand with water. It’s rhythmic—like a heartbeat—up and down and up again repetitively. Even if someone stands against them, it’s not enough to break their silent beat. THe waves just curve around their boundaries, eating up everything in their path until they reach their destination.

Unless someone builds a wall in front of it—one strong enough to stop that movement. All the waves can do is crash against it, breaking into foam at the very top before trying again.

When Eiji turns to look at Ash, the boy already has his eyes on him. As cliché as it sounds, they sparkle like the precious stones they are—a clear jade that rivals the cerulean shades of the sea. Eiji’s fingers itch for a camera, his index finger jerking forward as if pressing down on the shutter.

Running his fingers through his hair, Ash fixes his gaze toward the ocean. “You know, I used to live next to the sea in this house I thought was way too big for my family. But now that I actually think about it, it all probably seemed ‘big’ because of how tiny I was compared to everything else.” A sliver of a smile touches his lips at the nostalgia of it. “My parents owned a small coffee shop on the first floor that they’d sometimes turn into a bar during weekend nights, and I remember staying up during those times well past curfew to listen to the adults talk about things I didn’t understand.” He sighs, long and slow, boots digging into the grainy sand, hands shoved into the pockets of his jacket.

It’s not one of those long sighs of relief—nothing light as if he’s getting stuff off his chest. It tears itself away from him, taking a piece of his heart with it, and Eiji feels that deep within his soul, raw and heavy and sensitive.

“It’s so fucking sad,” Ash whispers. “I used to only hate my family, but being with you... I don’t know. You make me feel so much more that sometimes I think I might die.”

Eiji swallows, and it scrapes against his dry throat. His hands are still shaking, the parts where he dug his nails in throbbing. And his heart throbs too, the back of his head pounding. He’s stressed and hurt and confused yet freed and breathless at the same time, and all of these emotions blended together create the worst concoction he’s ever experienced in his life.

“Is that… a bad thing?”

“I don’t know, you tell me.” Ash laughs under his breath, fingers pressing against his eyes. “But I still want to be with you twenty-four seven. Who cares if I die, right?”

Eiji is quiet. Really quiet, unable to look up from the sea before him. He’s no longer scared of being pulled under those waves.

He’s scared of how he feels when he hears those words.

-

Ibe is back by the time Ash drops Eiji back to his apartment.

He’s exhausted and hungry, having not eaten anything during the entire day, though he wouldn’t have even if he had the chance.

“I’m home.”

“Welcome back, Ei-chan.” Ibe peeks back from the kitchen counter, fingers still glued to the keyboard in front of him. His camera sits beside his arm, the memory card plugged into the front of his laptop. “Do you want to eat dinner?”

“After my shower.”

“Alright.” Ibe points at the microwave. “Someone dropped off some food from a café about ten minutes ago. I already ate after the shoot, so you can have my portion as well.”

Eiji offers him a smile. “Thank you, Ibe-san.”

“Anything.”

He can feel Ibe’s eyes follow him for a moment longer before his fingers start clicking away at his laptop’s keys.

Eiji grabs a t-shirt and his track shorts from his room before going to the bathroom, cranking the heat up to almost max and stepping in underneath the waterfall. It feels good over his skin—a different kind of heat that rivals the sun’s.

His body buzzes from the heat, cheeks flushed as Eiji pushes his wet hair up and away from his forehead. A few locks curl up over the nape of his neck, and though he once thought it was annoying to have his hair grow that long, he’s so used to it now that it doesn’t even bother him anymore.

Plopping down on the foot of his bed, Eiji falls back, a few damp strands of his hair falling back over his forehead. A breath of air escapes his lips, and he curls his fingers into a fist over his heart.

When his phone rings several minutes afterward, he doesn’t even bat an eye. He just grabs it from the desk beside him, answering it within the first ring. He doesn’t even bother to greet Yuri’s brother with a single ‘hello.’

“That was quick.”

“I was waiting. And… I realized there are other things I’m more afraid of than the truth of what happened.” Eiji opens his eyes to the cream-colored ceiling above. “I’m not stupid either. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and like you’ve said—“ He puts on a sad smile for no one in particular. “—I’ve been running away from everything.”

“I came in too strongly, didn’t I?”

Eiji remembers the boy backstage—his overwhelmingly confident and unperturbed presence, the way he emphasized his words whenwarning Eiji about those whose hands often strayed. It feels like forever ago when only three months have passed. “You did it on purpose.”

He pauses. “Well, I did. I knew what my sister was planning in retaliation to the rumors that spread after your rejection of her public confession. How do you think she felt when her title of the ‘lily of the valley’—the takane no hana—became something completely opposite?”

Eiji knows—he knows better than anyone else what happened because of how much he’s already blamed himself for it. For that, and for the thousand other things in his life. People twisted the confession into something dramatic. Yuri accepted the fact that Eiji wanted to remain as friends, but others completely overhauled the whole thing and decided to tell their own stories. Of how clingy she actually was—how easy it was to get her. How she was, in fact, a slut.

“She paid that student to buy you from the auction, but she never told him to do what he did to you.”

Eiji doesn’t even react.

“The moment I saw you leave the auditorium with that guy, I told your captain to go after you. I’m sorry your teammates didn’t make it in time.”

There’s an extended moment of silence between them, and Eiji can hear the boy sigh through the receiver.

He closes his eyes. He wants to get it all over with.

“Yuri doesn’t know what actually happened. She thinks all he did was say a few words to hurt you or whatever. She’s not evil—she just... doesn’t know how to deal with her hurt in a normal way. Our family found out, and my parents are punishing her by forcing her to spend her last year studying abroad by herself. Not that they could really force me to stay, though. They’ve also already apologized to your family, but didn’t say exactly what for. We left it up to you to tell them—whether you choose to or not.”

When Eiji still doesn’t respond, the boy continues.

“Your captain told me to let you know he wants to see you fly again—whatever that means. I don’t think you will, but save my number on your phone if you ever need anything. The name’s Yuki.”

The call ends, and the screen turns black.

Eiji just lies there, letting it all sink in.

He took it way better than he thought he would.

And when he thinks about it, he wonders if he even had the right to become all depressed like that. He wonders if he was overreacting over the entire thing, and if his actions afterwards were warranted. He feels numb all over, barely able to move his fingers, his phone still resting in the palm of his right hand.

Ash suffered far worse than he ever has, and yet, he’s the one who blew the whole thing up, couldn’t muster up the strength to go to school or talk to anyone.

While he’s here, internalizing the pain and thinking about poor choices he made, Ash is moving on with life.

It’s not that simple for everyone.

What did his sister say again? That just because someone else is suffering more than he is doesn’t make his hurt any less tangible. It’s still there.

And he asks himself how it felt to be free up in the air like that, because the feeling is growing more and more foreign as the days pass by.

“Ei-chan, are you done with your shower? Come eat.”

He hauls himself up. “Coming.”

Pulling out one of the kitchen chairs, Eiji sits down, then undoes the seal on the paper bag in front of him. It’s no doubt food from the café he and Ash visited in the afternoon, though he never got the chance to eat with Yuri showing up so suddenly like that.

He’s so mentally and emotionally exhausted he can barely feel anything, and stares blankly at the napkin right on top. It’s the one Ash hastily scrawled on, the dark ink stark against white.

Let me know when you wanna talk about it.

But Eiji has already decided he won’t see Ash again. Not after how he felt when Ash took him to the ocean.

Chapter Text

Ash is sulking—not because he had to wake up early for a shoot today or because he doesn’t want to work, but because he hasn’t seen Eiji even once in the past week. Ibe claims it’s because Eiji wants to take a rest before continuing to work as his assistant at the agency, but he’s convinced it's because of what he said at the beach.

“I need to process things before I speak,” he mutters as Nadia applies something onto his face.

“What?” She pauses, raising a brow. “Are you the one who scared Eiji away? Blanca already extended the contract with Ibe, so I was wondering why I haven’t seen him for the past few days.”

Ash crosses his arms together, frowning. “Feels like it’s been forever. I shouldn’t have taken him to the ocean.”

“So something did happen.”

“Nothing really. I just…” Averting his eyes, Ash lets his mind wander back to the feeling of the sun above, the slight breeze, the freedom entangled with something else. “...couldn’t restrain myself from saying things I probably shouldn’t have let someone like Eiji know.”

“Don’t tell me you confessed.”

This yanks him back to the present. “I didn’t—obviously. I couldn’t help but remember Cape Cod, so I was rambling, eventually got caught up in all my feelings, and ended up blurting out that I want to stay with him forever.”

“Hm.” Nadia taps the plastic end of the makeup brush against her chin. “Sounds like a confession to me. You might as well have said you love him. Though there are many different kinds of love, I think the one you have with him is something… real. You’re committed even though you’re not even intimate with him.” She pauses for a moment, then points the brush at Ash. “Well, to be straight with you, it's borderline infatuation, but most people feel that way in the beginning stages of love, so it’s natural. Means you might have something deep once you two actually open up to each other.”

“It’s not that simple,” Ash says. “I can’t just… just tell him everything.”

“It was simple enough for you to say out in public on the beach,” Nadia notes.

“You know I’m impulsive when it comes to my feelings. I say things without thinking—it’s not like I can stop myself from it.” He pauses. “Well, I have, but it’s like I have to stab myself to take my attention elsewhere.”

“Well, I definitely suggest you go into it at your own pace, but don’t let your emotions built up so much that it spills over the edge. You’ll regret it.”

“You’re lucky you were still taking the pill.”

“Shut up; I don’t want to talk about it.”

Ash was there from the very beginning of Nadia’s complicated relationship with Charlie. And it’s changed her a considerable lot. He used to know her as Shorter’s reserved older sister—she never spoke too much, just served during busy nights and worked for NK Agency during the day. She lived separately from Shorter in a small studio apartment an hour away from the city since the two of them had drifted away from each other after something that happened almost three years ago. Ash doesn’t know what it was exactly, but he knows it has to do with their dad and Sing’s parents.

But, of course, now she lives with Charlie and hardly ever keeps to herself when she’s with familiar people. Though when she’s stressed, she reverts back to her cold self which Ash has vowed never to get caught up in the crossfire of.

“Hey, Nadia?”

She turns away from a moment. “Hm?”

“It is really that obvious?”

“What?”

“Me and Eiji.”

“Uh, yeah.” Nodding vigorously, she gestures to the door where the crew and everyone else is. “Everyone knows you’re the type of person who can sweet-talk just about anyone, but it’s real when you’re with Eiji. You’re really tentative sometimes, too. I never really thought it was in your nature to bet that sensitive, though Shorter tells me you secretly are.”

He should be irritated, but he isn’t. “Do you think Eiji knows?”

“The boy is smart, don’t get me wrong,” Nadia starts, “but he seems like the type of person who isn’t aware of that sort of thing. Maybe because his mind always seems to be somewhere else.”

“But where else?”

“Obviously I don’t know exactly, but if you’re asking me, I’d go ahead and say that most people don’t live in the present.” She stops for a few moments to contemplate. “Or, at least, not fully. Our past haunts us, we’re anxious about the future—there are so many different factors that make us turn our heads away from what’s in front of us. And I think being so preoccupied with these moments in time that we can’t manipulate screws up our lives.”

Nadia speaks the truth. Ash knows. The only thing he doesn’t know is how to appear more trustworthy so Eiji is able to share his thoughts with him more. Or maybe the problem right now is that Ash needs to stop hiding a big chunk of his life away from the people he cares about—even if that stuff concerns things he doesn’t want to talk about, much less let Eiji know.

“So we have to make amends with the past in order for us to focus on the present and shoot for a better future.”

“Exactly.”

“You do know that’s easier said than done, right?”

Nadia actually laughs—full-on laughter that fills the prep room. “Of course! I mean, look at me; I still can’t get over what happened to my dad or what happened to Charlie when we first started dating.” She tugs on one of her earrings. “I’m letting it fuck up my future even when I know I should let the things I have little to no control over or knowledge of go.”

Ash studies her for a moment. She’s always been incredibly honest with herself and with the people around her. Even though she looks cold on the outside and completely unapproachable, she’s one of the warmest people Ash knows, and he appreciates this; a lot more than he’s able to ever express.

“Thanks, Nadia.” Getting up from the chair, Ash beams. “After this shoot, I’m definitely gonna talk with Eiji.”

He reaches for the door but stops for a second before turning back to her. “And you should marry him,” Ash says. “I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with Charlie’s parents, but you’re one of the best people I’ve met in my life, and he’s not gonna be happy with anyone else unless it’s you.”

Nadia laughs softly. “Everyone has been telling me that lately.”

“‘Cause they’re right, and you know it.”

She smiles sadly. “You know, I’ve been thinking that… we’re all such... broken people.”

Ash feels it in his heart—that tightening feeling that hasn’t left him for the past ten years of his life. “Everyone is. The only difference is that some people know how to cover it up, and… like us, some don’t.”

-

“Did Eiji talk to you about Ash recently?”

Ibe shakes his head, scrolling through the photos he took yesterday evening. “No, it has been a few weeks since.”

Max looks away for a moment before fixing his attention back on Ibe. “A month has passed, and though it’s obvious enough Ash and Eiji have become closer, I wonder why he’s not updating us on anything.”

“Because what they speak about together is not about their pasts.” Setting his camera down, Ibe’s eyes flicker up. “Both of them are reserved. They don’t want people to delve into sensitive parts of their history, Max.”

“Of course, I know,” Max says. He pauses, sighing. “It’s just that I’ve been chasing Golzine down for years and years, and I hate to keep on watching his business go one when I know exactly what he’s running.”

“None of us like the thought of it, but some things require time.” Ibe won’t tell Max, but what he really wants Eiji to do is mend his heart and soul. If it meant not taking on the responsibility of uncovering Golzine’s illegal activities and focusing on his relationship with Ash, that is fine. It sounds selfish and incredibly immoral for Ibe to think of it this way, but it is the truth, after all.

“I thought he’d maybe figure out why Ash left… or why Golzine kept Ash even when he was considered ‘too old’ for the business.”

Ibe studies Max, who is clearly stressed. Max is often stressed, but more so now. “Is your journalist friend tired of waiting?”

“No—no, I’m still in contact with him about this,” Max says, “it’s just that if Golzine finally figures up what we’re up to, he’s either going to get rid of us or go somewhere where we can’t find or touch him. It gets… complicated when too much time passes, you know?”

“I understand.”

Several moments of silence pass by them before Max stops pacing across his office floor and decides to finally sit down opposite to Ibe.

“So…” he scratches the back of his head. “How are Ash and Eiji? Their relationship?”

“Progressing.” Glancing down, Ibe folds his hands together. “Though, perhaps there is a wedge between them right now.”

Max arches his brows. “Ah, so that’s why Eiji has been absent as of late.”

“I don’t think they have fought.” Ibe untangles his fingers, balling them up into fists on top of his lap. “Eiji is… scared. He is avoidant when it comes to opening up to people or creating new bonds with them.”

“Has he been hurt in the past?”

“Yes,” Ibe says. “Very badly. But, I also believe he is scared because the feeling is new. He has… never loved romantically before.”

“Eiji does know he’s probably just going to make things worse if he prolongs his separation from Ash, right?”

Ibe doesn’t doubt Max’s words at all. His friend understands through experience what the consequences of that were with his marriage. “Yes; they say the heart grows fonder with absence, but the idea of that is psychologically wrong. You grow to love someone the closer you are with them—proximity creates fondness and affection.”

“I wish I’d listened to you before Jessica threw the towel.” Sighing, Max crosses his legs together, leaning further back, body dragging against the back of the tufted leather couch. He has more lines carved into his face, deepening his features and adding extra years on his actual age. “You’re incredibly insightful. I know why Eiji is able to open up to you.”

“I have experience in this field,” Ibe says. “I have… met many different people in my career and have gone through some of the same things.”

“But you’re kind too,” Max argues. “None of this has anything to do with you, and yet, you’re willing to leave home just to help Eiji—a boy you only got to know for a month, though you did practically camp outside of his bedroom door for the majority of that.”

“Hm.” The memory isn’t too buried deep in his mind, but he remembers first knocking on the Okumura’s door and standing there awkwardly until a girl in bright pink hair swung it open with curious eyes. He was always the sort of person who didn’t exactly like social contact, but his job made him more accustomed to it; rather than outrightly rejecting it, he accepted it, though not without the nervous thrums that went through his heart.

“Max, do you want me to convince Jessica to marry you again?”

His eyes widen at first, but then he looks away. “I should probably finish my case against Golzine before I make any moves.”

”She still loves you” is what Ibe wants to tell him, but the words stay in his mind for the time being. Jessica has already subconsciously expressed thousands of times that she really didn’t want the divorce; it was perhaps made in a fit of repressed anger that finally surfaced.

Besides, it’s not his place to tell Max something like that. Whether Jessica wants to is ultimately up to her.

It’s the same for Eiji.

Ibe has already held his hand for longer than he needed to. It was hard, but he even stopped nagging Eiji about eating a full three meals per day and coming to the agency. If the boy thinks he’s better off without anyone, then he’ll eventually learn otherwise.

“Good.” He grabs his camera off the seat as he stands, ready to get back to a different shoot for today. “It seems you are slowly apologizing for neglecting your relationship with Jessica. ‘Love does not just sit there like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new.’”

Max presses a hand to his face, groaning. Which Ibe completely understands because he has already repeated this to Max countless times. “I get it, I get it.”

The man doesn’t understand as well as he claims he does; Ibe already knows. But he doesn’t judge him for it. If anything, he is glad Max still has a chance. Unlike him, Ibe doesn’t have anyone to tangibly love in a way that isn’t platonic.

He still holds his wife close to his heart and listens to her words whenever he walks through a crowd of people late at night. He still catches her perfume in the corners of the room and watches her rise with the sun. He has remade their love too many times to count, whispering the things she likes to hear into the empty space beside him, and he will continue to do so.

To him, people do not disappear when death takes them away.

He hopes Eiji will understand that people do not disappear when he runs away.

-

There are too many people here in the morning, and Eiji doesn’t fit into the crowd at all. Unless you counted the fact that he looked a little disheveled and had dark circles underneath his eyes like some of the people who were drinking silently at the bar.

He knows Shorter’s bar is known for its high-class menu and equally fancy drinks, so the whole demographic of wealthy-looking people drinking themselves to a stupor or grabbing brunch before heading back to work isn’t surprising at all.

It’s presumptuous for him to have this thought, but only rich people can afford to have an hour-long meal every day outside and get drunk when it’s only an hour past the afternoon.

Forcing himself to enter the bar, Eiji hurriedly makes his way to the bar at the very center, catching one of the bartender’s attention by flashing a smile.

She recognizes him before he can open his mouth. “You’re the one who comes over with Ash sometimes. Looking for Shorter?”

Eiji just nods.

“He’s actually out this afternoon with something, but you can definitely wait for him up in his penthouse,” she says, pointing at the elevator. “You know the passcode?”

Eiji offers another nod.

Pushing herself away from the counter, she offers him an easy smile. “Alrighty, then. When Shorter comes back, I’ll let him know you’re waiting for him.”

“Thank you.”

When Eiji steps into the elevator, he’s enveloped by the mirrors that surround it, a halo of dimmed white light above him just barely reflecting off the floor. He feels uncomfortable because he can see himself from every angle, yet the feeling he gets when all he can see is himself is somewhat freeing.

If it were only him in the world, it would be no doubt lonely, but he feels like it might actually be easier on him.

The elevator makes it to the last floor swiftly, doors opening to reveal a place that is already becoming extremely familiar to Eiji.

Dark colors all around like night enveloping an empty space. It’s the kind of atmosphere you’d immediately feel calm in.

“Hey, Shorter,” a raspy voice says, “I said I’m fine.”

“Ah, excuse me.” Eiji steps out to find Sing on one of the bar stools, legs dangling over it. His eyes and nose are red, the splotchy color a mess on his cheeks, lips pale. He’s wearing a lavender hoodie that nearly swallows him whole.

Sing appears shocked at first, round eyes wide, but he settles back into his usual blank expression, resting his chin on his arms. “Sorry; thought you were him.”

“You don’t have to apologize.” Eiji tentatively sits down a seat away from him. “And forgive me for meddling, but you don’t look alright either.”

“I’m just… cold.”

“Shivering?”

“Mm.”

After giving the kitchen and lounge area behind a once-over, Eiji tugs a random blanket off the couch and folds it in half before draping it over Sing’s shoulders. “It’s probably a fever.”

Sing pulls the blanket tighter around him and ties it into a knot across his throat, the hood of his sweatshirt obscuring part of his face from view. “I figured.”

“Well, you’ve probably gotten sick at least once like this before.”

“Nah, it’s the first time.”

“Oh, I see.”

The silence that settles between them is thick, but Eiji doesn’t particularly mind it. It would have been awkward if he’d just met Sing, but thinking back to the moment when they first saw each other, it can’t get any more uncomfortable than to find some random boy catching you crying at five in the morning.

At the time, Eiji’s mind was a little too hazy to exactly process everything, but if he was completely awake, he would have been a lot more flustered. Perhaps he would have considered leaving the penthouse altogether to save him from the repercussions of embarrassment.

But then again, the completely nonchalant nature Sing has when Eiji is around him allows him to be comfortable.

“You came to talk to Shorter about Ash, didn’t you?”

Eiji actually has to sit and think about it for a while before it dawns on him that his sudden and uncharacteristic impulse in leaving Ibe’s apartment after vowing not to come out for a good week or two completely ruined his plan for the next few days. Hopefully, Ash isn’t thinking of stopping by because Eiji doesn’t know what will happen if they see each other again. The feeling in his heart is only going to get worse.

What surprises him now, though, is the fact that Sing knows exactly what’s on his mind. “Did… did Shorter tell you?”

Shaking his head, Sing straightens in his seat. “I mean, the way you two look at each other—”

Eiji wants to mute him, covering his face with his hands when the heat starts to crawl from underneath his collar up to the tips of his ears.

“—is enough evidence for anyone, just saying. And Ash obviously wants to jump you every time he sees you, but he’s been holding back for your sake.” Sing stops. “Probably for everyone else’s sake, too, because I don’t think it’s entirely considerate to screw someone when you’re not completely alone with them.” He points at walls. “These aren’t exactly sound-proof, you know?”

“Please don’t worry; that will never happen,” Eiji says, voice muffled behind his hands.

“Well, no duh—it’s you we’re talking about with Ash. If you were some random girl from those parties he always goes to for work, do you think you’d care?”

Heart momentarily stopping, Eiji holds his breath for a second. “Ash… brings girls here?”

“Well, yeah,” Sing says, shrugging. Eiji is surprised he can talk this much even though he’s clearly running a fever. “But it’s mostly because they’re always all over him, and he can’t dump them on the side of the street or his agency will take the fall when he gets plastered over media as a heartless bastard.” Sliding off the stool, Sing pads over to one of the cabinets to pull out a box of tea bags. “He usually shoves them over to Shorter, then collapses on the couch and promptly falls asleep.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, and since Shorter runs a bar, the media can’t claim Ash is sleeping with them since most people leave parties to get a drink or two before going home, you know?”

Eiji slowly nods.

“In any case, Shorter is too nice to him,” Sing says, “but, I don’t know, he’s a lot less of a jerk with your influence.”

“No, he’s still annoying sometimes.”

Sing snickers. “Right?”

This makes the corners of Eiji’s mouth curl up a bit.

“So, now that it’s clear to you that he likes you, are you going to let him know about your own feelings? You’re… a lot less expressive and passive around him.”

“Actually… I’m scared of telling him,” Eiji murmurs. “And though he does feel the same way, I’m scared of starting the relationship. Of initiating it.”

Sing grips the edge of the marble countertop, tipping dangerously back on the stool. “Well, if you ask me, I’m more scared of losing someone. The idea that someone else is going to take them away pushes me to confess.”

Pausing, Eiji turns to look at the boy. To actually, really look at him. He’s young—the age in which youth has just started to allow him to think of relationships in not just an interdependent or close way, but an intimate one. ”Did you? Confess, I mean?”

Sing lets out a puff of air, and there’s a trace of a smile on his lips. “I will the next time I see him.”

Him? “You’re quite open.”

“You mean my sexual orientation?” Rocking forward so all four legs of his stool are on the ground, Sing swings around to face Eiji, an arm hooked around the back of the chair. “Yeah, I guess. I thought I only liked girls, but the more time I spent with him—I don’t know—” He shrugs. “—gender doesn’t matter to me.”

Eiji laughs softly. “Of course; you don’t seem like the type of person who would let that get in the way of being by the person you love.”

“But, you do.”

The way he says it is blunt, but Eiji is used to this. Even if Eiji sometimes did wrap his words up in spun sugar out of respect, his way of speaking has always been straight-forward in a way that makes the people he talk to understand what he means.

“That's true,” Eiji murmurs. “No one at home knows about my preferences except for my sister. And even if I did exclusively like the opposite gender, there are about a thousand things that would perhaps keep me from telling them I want to be with them. For every little situation, I can’t help but think that their potential alternatives are a lot better than settling with me.”

Sing screws his face up. “You’re so stupid. Even if Ash has alternatives, he’s still not gonna choose anyone but you. It’s not like he can tell his heart to calm down whenever he sees you, or transfer those emotions on to someone else who’s supposedly better than you. It doesn’t work like that, idiot.”

The insults fly past Eiji’s head.

“You’re very... resolute.”

“If I’m not, who the heck is going to be?” He’s quiet for a few seconds. “Shorter is low-key a pushover, and Nadia is too hesitant about everything.”

“So you take care of them,” Eiji says. “That’s admirable.”

It’s faint, but Eiji can see the already dark shade on his cheeks deepen. “I wanna be like that for the people who don’t have anyone else to lean on.”

For the person you like, huh? “You’re so cute, Sing.”

He shoots up, blanket fluttering behind his small shoulders. His hood falls back, revealing his entire face and adorable bed head of small tufts sticking vertically up. “I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.”

Shorter sets a reusable plastic bag on the counter before pulling out medicine and a whole pack of juice. There’s a pack of some kind of dried up flower inside, Chinese written across the packaging. Shorter waves a juice box and the bottle of medicine in front of Sing’s face. “Drink this and take your meds. You’re having a cup of jīnyín huā in fifteen minutes.”

Snatching the items from Shorter’s hand, it doesn’t take long for Sing to dash up the stairs and into his room. The blanket he tied around his shoulders like a cape flutters against his back.

“Did you do that?”

Eiji’s eyes swivel to Shorter’s amused ones. “The blanket-cape? I gave him the blanket since he said he was cold, but he tied it like that.”

“Wish he’d let me take more pictures of him,” Shorter sighs. “Your youth is short; he’s gonna regret that he doesn’t have anything to look back on when he’s eighty-something and dying.”

Eiji plays with the hem of his sweater, the edges fuzzy with wear. “I think the memories are imprinted. Maybe the images are fleeting, but the feeling is still there.”

“Well, it depends. Sometimes, some people like having something to hold, you know?”

“True.”

Grabbing a small pot from one of the lower cabinets, Shorter fills it halfway with water, pours half of the dried flowers into it, and puts it on the stove. “You had something you wanted to talk about?”

“I might go back to Japan early.”

“What?”

“It’s abrupt and selfish, I know, but I don’t think I can stay here.”

Shorter isn’t looking at him. “Does Ash know?”

“I haven’t talked to him for a week, and… I haven’t told anyone about my plans yet,” Eiji says, hands wringing together. “Except for you, that is.”

“Okay.” Letting out a puff of air, Shorter sets his hands on Eiji’s shoulders. He’s beyond concerned, and now Eiji feels horrible for confiding in him when he perhaps should have just kept everything to himself. “And you thought about everything rationally? You’re not going to regret your decision once you set it in stone?”

“I don’t know.”

Shorter sucks in his bottom lip. “You don’t wanna talk it out with Ash?”

“He’s obviously not going to let me leave. You know he’s moved by his emotions far more than I am.”

“Holy crap. He told you.”

“About what?”

A grin breaks across Shorter’s face as he rounds the counter. “About his feelings for you—what else?”

“What?” Eiji shakes his head. “No, no he didn’t—I just… finally figured it out.”

“Isn’t this good?” Shorter’s brows come together. He’s instantly deflated, the sunshine that was seeping from his body suddenly shrouded by dark clouds. “Why do you wanna leave him when it’s mutual? The feelings you two have?”

“Because…” Pressing his lips together, Eiji looks away.

“You’re scared?”

When Eiji doesn’t move, Shorter does so instead, bringing him in for a hug. “It’s your first love, yeah? Of course you are; it’s natural. But if you ask me, I think ignoring it and giving up so quickly isn’t going to do you any good.”

“Shorter.”

“Hm?”

Eiji feels steam at the back of his neck. “The water is boiling.”

He watches as Shorter scrambles back behind the counter to turn the heat down and prop a lid halfway over the pot. The smell of something bitter enters the air.

Shorter is about to pour half its contents into a mug when his phone rings. Sandwiching the phone between his shoulder and ear, he continues to pour the liquid into a mug, using the lid as a makeshift decanter so the flowers don’t spill out of the pot. “Hello?” He pauses. “Yeah, of course. See you in ten.”

Sliding the cup towards Eiji, Shorter nods up the staircase. “Could you do me a favor and give this to Sing? Ash needs me for something real quick.”

Eiji brings the mug up to Sing who begrudgingly accepts it before draining the whole thing at the door and handing the cup back with the empty juice box. After rising the cup in the sink and setting it aside, Eiji climbs back onto the stool, resting his head in his arms as he mulls over everything.

It hasn’t even been fifteen minutes of complete silence when Eiji’s phone starts vibrating in his pocket. Without looking at the screen to see the contact, he accepts the call and brings it to his ear. “Yes?”

“Eiji, Ash is probably already headed towards you.” It’s Shorter, somewhat out of breath and no doubt distressed.

The steady pace of Eiji’s heart picks up, but he doesn’t budge from his seat.

“I mean, if he wanted you alone, he could’ve just told me. Are you okay? Are you gonna leave?”

”I’m fine.”

Whenever Eiji says it, he realizes that it isn’t really just to make the people around him think he isn’t drowning, but because he’s trying to convince himself that he’s fine. That he’s okay. That everything will be alright.

People already have to carry their own burdens. He doesn’t understand how it’s right to give them more of his when they’re already struggling as much as he is… or possibly even more. It makes him guilty, so even if it makes them disappointed in him… even if they push him away as a result or grow distant, he says it’s better this way.

But for some reason, that one person always comes back. He’s like an echo that won’t even dissipate in a room, always reaching Eiji’s side at every rebound. Like the oceans trapped inside a conch.

When Eiji closes his eyes, he can hear his voice next to him.

“Hey, Ei-chan.”

Ah… it’s deafening.

“I’ll be okay, Shorter. Please don’t worry.” He ends the call without waiting for a response.

The stool scrapes the floor as Ash turns it around, probably resting his arms across the back of it. Eiji doesn’t turn to face him.

“Shorter’s gonna yell at me later for that.”

When Eiji doesn’t say anything, Ash sighs, and it drags out into infinity. “You… go back and forth which, to me at least, makes it hard to reach you. One moment, you seem perfectly fine, and the next, you’re not. You’re elusive even though you seem to be the reliable type of person, and it’s frustrating that I don’t know you as well as I want to.” Pausing, he taps his fingers against the metal frame of the stool. “So, I thought to myself, if Eiji is like the waves, never settling for the shores or the ocean, I wonder if I should just walk out there and try to grab a hold of him even if the water enters my lungs a chokes me. Even if you can’t hold water because it doesn’t conform to one shape. But it’s more painful to watch them leave than to hold on tightly.”

Eiji presses his lips together, eyes fixed on the coarse grain of the black marble counter.

“It sounds like I’ll lose either way, but I admit I’ve been steering clear from my past too.”

If you tell me, it will be harder to let go.

“Eiji, if… if I stop running away from you, will you stop running away from me?”

Chapter Text

What could he have done to make the whole situation better?

Ash doesn’t fucking know.

When he first came to the agency at age eight after having bawled his eyes out during the three consecutive nights his brother didn’t come back home, he felt empty.

Was it the tears that stripped him of everything he was feeling inside?

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t that. In fact, it was far, far from that.

He wants to believe it’s because he finally calmed down and accepted his fate.

After all, Golzine was the one who paid for the funeral and drive him there in a fancy black car before standing with him in an empty plot of land with the sun shining above even though it was already near the beginning of October.

There was no one there with him but the fancy casket with his precious brother lying inside, pale as a white sheet of paper, eyes glued shut, fingers laid over his chest with a single white rose tucked beneath, thorns digging into his skin. No blood welled to the surface because most of it had already been drained from his body.

That’s not my brother. That’s not him.

Ash kept on denying it the whole time that priest murmured things from the Bible with his hand over Ash’s brother like he was finally laying him down to rest from whatever ailment he had been enduring.

When the casket was lowered six feet underneath the ground, the smell of wet dirt and a freshly dug grave mixing with the stench of Golzine’s sweat as he stood there quite solemnly, Ash made the decision to forget his brother. To forget the warmth of his hands and believe the words that were whispered in his ear.

”I’m sorry for your loss.”

What they meant to say was: “Your brother couldn’t handle the world anymore, so he decided to leave it behind along with you.”

His brother used to be strong. His brother did whatever he could to raise Ash in the way his parents would have, but he failed in the end. So now Ash has to listen to the old man next to him and pretend he’s his dad.

Fucking disgusting.

“Huh?” The twins—Sasha and Misha—in front of him recoil, and there is fear printed in their eyes. But he knows it’s not just his quick temper that causes them to tread lightly wherever they go. “W-we’re sorry, boss—”

Ash sighs, sliding halfway down the sofa he was previously curled up against. “It’s not you two—I’m thinking about something else.” He holds out a hand, and Sasha places a folder in it. It’s another high-ranking person who is affiliated with Golzine, with evidence to that tie arranged neatly behind his profile. “Mm, this is good.”

“Alcohol works like a charm on him.”

The corner of Ash’s mouth quirks up. “Despite how he looks, that senator can’t handle more than a few glasses. Sweet talking and pouring him consecutive shots doesn’t take much effort, does it?”

The twins shake their heads.

He holds a hand out.

They stare at it.

Ash shakes it. “The drug. I gave it to you just in case, but you didn’t use it, right?”

Misha and Sasha exchange glances. “You… never gave us anything?”

Blinking, Ash takes back his hand. Must be because of lack of sleep. “My mistake. Don’t worry about that.” Letting out a breath of air, he hops up from his seat, tucking the folder underneath his arm. “I’m gonna deal with this, and see if Golzine will give you two a break next week.” He ruffles their hair, making their blond waves flop over their forehead, and offers a smile. “You guys did well.”

Ash knows he can’t do much for them, but maybe this is enough. For now, at least.

-

He tells himself that this could fall apart at any point in time—that Golzine could get rid of him despite the resources he’s poured into getting him where he is now. That despite all the precautions Ash has taken, one tiny misstep is all it takes for everything to go down in flames. But the thing that scares him the most is that the boys he’s convinced into helping him compile information on Golzine’s illegal sex ring are going to fall the hardest. They don’t have the kind of insurance Ash has. Golzine could do away with them faster than Ash can take another breath.

But Ash can’t do this by himself, and he knows that having these boys by his side means having more influence over what they have to go through. Most times, he takes their place as a substitute, but when nothing can be done, he tries to lessen the amount of fear or pain they go through when they have to do it with some perverted old politician.

Thinking about it makes the frustration and seething anger run deeper in his bones.

Kids shouldn’t be doing this kind of shit.

But, of course, he’s not the one who makes the world’s rules. It’s the elites in society—those at the top of the hierarchy who get to bend everyone else to their will. The power flow is from top-down. It always has been and forever will be. Ash still doesn’t know why it’s so difficult for him to wrap his head around that and give everything up.

Before, it wasn’t in his nature to go against authority. He thought he was the perfect little kid—the perfect little brother and the perfect little son.

But the world made him cruel.

He’s done with functionalist views on society. None of this is made to be for a specific reason that shouldn’t be questioned and resisted.

All of it should be carefully looked at and examined before it’s decided whether it is to be trusted.

That’s what half of him wants to think, but the other, real half of him is desperately trying to break away from the chains Golzine has fixed around his collar without so much as rationalizing the entire thing.

He lets out a long sigh, pressing the pads of his fingers against his forehead, squeezing his eyes shut. The screen in front of him is bright compared to the darkness that closes in on him. Since a long time ago, he’s been typing up the information he as well as his boys have gathered in one of the reading rooms at the NYPL. As far as he’s concerned, no one ever bothers him here which makes it the perfect spot to do his work in.

After inputting what the twins have gotten, Ash saves it to his thumb drive and shuts his laptop before slipping it into his bag.

His feet take him past multiple bookshelves down to the very end of the reference section that holds a bunch of old textbooks no one ever reads anymore. The flash drive fits into that tiny space he hollowed out, and once he’s done, he’s already outside, slipping into an alleyway.

Pulling out the folder Sasha and Misha gave him earlier today, he flicks on a lighter, letting the corner of the folder catch on fire. The flames grow, licking up the side of the folder, the paper warping and turning to ash.

Ash.

As he watches the fire consume what’s left of that piece of information, Ash wonders if that’s what’s gonna be him in the future once Golzine is tired of him. He wonders if he’s going to be tossed away like that or if he’s going to be forever tied up like a pet, orange dancing below his feet, the feeling of it palpable enough that he can sense the heat searing through the flesh underneath his skin.

He doesn’t want either of those options. But the thing beating inside of him says he’d rather be wanted that killed and discarded like trash.

It’s horrible. This sensation.

But at least the brain controls the heart, or maybe he’s already a lost cause.

He’s about to go back to his place when the ring of his phone cuts off his line of thought. Answering it without looking at the screen, Ash steps out of the alleyway, ignoring the odd look a random passerby gives him.

“What?”

“Golzine wants to see you.” Of course it’s Arthur.

“Don’t feel like it today.”

He’s about to end the call when the voice at the end of the line sighs and says, “Alright; we’ll have someone else accompany him tonight.”

“Fucking do that, and I’ll kill you.”

“So is that a yes?”

Ash wants to punch something. The twins are still at his place; he hopes they’ve already gone back to the hotel before anyone has noticed them gone for that long. He’s tired and beyond exhausted, but he doesn’t have much of a choice.

His grip on the phone tightens. “Fine.”

-

Before Ash is allowed to see Golzine—or, rather, before any of the boys are allowed to see him, they all go through the lengthy process of having people wash them to ensure cleanliness and test them in case any of them have caught some kind of illness. Then, they go through the process of getting all dressed up and done up all pretty and whatever.

Ash, for one, can understand Golzine’s paranoia and partial mysophobia. The old man never got his hands dirty if he couldn’t help it. But apparently it’s okay to make others do the manual labor for him. It’s okay if he treats the boys like fucking toilets to flush his revolting semen into.

It’s incredibly hard to sit still in this process because whenever Ash gets called over, he’s either one, very, very, very pissed; two, rushed since he has other important things to do; three, about to pass out because of the physical and mental strain he goes through on a daily basis; or, four, a combination of the above three. And, today, he’s feeling ready to hop out of the chair, fling open the windows, and scream.

“Could you stop moving, please?” The unfamiliar guy in front of him drags his chair closer, pinky pushing Ash’s chin up. It’s an unpleasant feeling that makes shivers run down Ash’s back, the back of his head suddenly throbbing, and he immediately scoots back, swiping the back of his hand across the bottom of his chin to get rid of some of the feeling.

The guy sighs, a pot of cream liner unscrewed between his middle and ring finger while he grips a tiny brush between his thumb and pointer in annoyance. “I even asked politely.”

“Doesn’t matter if you’re nice,” Ash shoots back. “That’s not gonna change what’s coming next.”

He looks at Ash unsympathetically, quirking up a brow. “You think I don’t know about Dino’s repulsive, perverted nightly activities? I do. The only reason why I haven’t died yet is because I can keep my mouth shut—unlike the previous guy who just got shipped off to hell.”

“At least you know you’re going to hell,” Ash mutters.

“Chin up, please. And keep still.”

Ash complies, fingers curling around the cushion of his stool. The anger balls up in his chest, and when he swallows, the fire burns all the way down his throat. He’s tried hard liquor before, and the feeling doesn’t even compare to what he’s experiencing right now.

When the guy finishes the makeup, he hands Ash a pair of khaki shorts before rummaging through the rest of the clothes.

Ash pulls it on, tucking his shirt into it even though he knows it’s gonna come off anyways in the next five minutes.

After tying a ribbon around Ash’s collar, the guy gives him a once-over before nodding to himself.

“If you’re so good at dressing people up, why not work for an actual good company that’s not shady as fuck?”

“I have no connections or even a single good thing to put on my resume. It’s easier working here when you need the money fast.”

“You’re gonna have to do it for the rest of your life.”

Scoffing, his eyes flicker up. “I’m a poor-as-fuck high-school dropout with zero support, no insurance, a drug-addicted mother, and a terminally-ill little brother who’s in the hospital. Do you think I’ve ever thought about that?”

Ash pauses for a moment. He thinks about his parents who disappeared when he was five and his brother who up and killed himself one day. “Who cares? They’re both going to die one day, anyway. Why fuck yourself up along the way?” He doesn’t mean this; he doesn’t mean it at all, but the words still come out, painfully blunt and insensitive.

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” the guy says. “You’re too messed up already.”

The words don’t even get to Ash. “Uh-huh, that I am.”

He leaves before the guy can say anything else. Before he has half the strength to push him to the ground and give him a good punch or two in the face. He wants to scream and swear at him, yelling that he’s throwing away a perfectly good self who could potentially go places if he maybe idealized his future more and tried hard, but as that guy has already said: Ash can’t possibly understand. The difference is that he’s too hardened—too rough around the edges and angry at his family.

The grudge against them has dissipated ever since he forgot what they even looked like, but the pain is still fresh when he realizes none of them ever cared enough about him.

Ash follows one of Golzine’s men through the halls, stopping to go inside a dark room when he’s instructed to.

He feels a hand pushing him forward to a corner of the room, and even though it repulses him, he tries not to let it affect him too much. He’s forced onto a chair, arms pulled behind, and ties secured just tight enough around his wrists. They’re surprisingly not rough to the touch—some fabric made of cotton or something else that didn’t slip easily.

When the lights turn on after a bit of waiting, the harshness of it stings at Ash’s eyes. But it takes moments for him to adjust to it all.

Misha and Sasha are on separate beds, both with their hands tied up against the wooden headboards, gags around their mouths. They don’t have a single article of clothing on, and Ash doesn’t know whether they’re shivering from fear or because they’re cold.

He jerks up, nearly tripping when the seat of his chair presses against the back of his knees, his shoulders shrieking with pain from the sudden movement. His heart is thudding in his chest, vision red.

The twins shake harder, new tears forming in their large eyes, whimpers muffled by the gag when they see Ash.

“What the fuck?”

Hands grab the chair before Ash finds himself face-down on the floor, righting it as the legs clatter against the floor.

“I should hire someone to rectify your speech.”

The voice ices his veins. Ash’s heart stops.

“Why are you so surprised?” Golzine’s runs thick fingers up the front of Ash’s shirt, yanking his head back. The smile he gives him frightens Ash to the core, but it also incites the ball of fire he swallowed twenty minutes ago when he was with that new makeup guy. “Arthur called earlier informing you of such a meeting.”

Ash twists his face away. “What do the twins have anything to do with this?” If Golzine is going to make him watch—

Golzine dangles a tiny glass vial of white powder, and Ash can feel buzzing in his ears. “You thought we wouldn’t find out after leaving such blatant evidence behind?”

The twins must have dropped it in the hotel room without knowing. Ash had hidden it inside of a bag along with a disposable camera and a few other necessities as per usual. So out of it, he completely forgot to tell them about it, so they never noticed when they’d lost and left it behind.

Forgetting all his skills in smoothing over unsavory situations and winning in political or otherwise complicated talk, Ash scrambles to say something. “They have nothing to do with it; I’m the one who put it there—”

Ash can hear the vial shatter as Golzine slams it into the glass table behind him. The noise makes the twins yelp in fright. Ash flinches, the beat in his chest quickening. It feels like it’s about to jump up into his throat.

He fucked up. He fucked up bad. It’s possible that he could’ve gotten away clean. Even though Golzine knew he didn’t follow every command of his, he at least trusted him more than those who requested the services he provided.

If Ash had just kept his mouth shut or stared at the bottle blankly, he might’ve gotten Golzine to believe it’s that Senator who tried using the drug on the twins. He might’ve weaseled his way out of this problem as he always so seamlessly did on other occasions.

But he knows it’s because of everything else he’s been going through that’s catching up to him. He should’ve held back for a few weeks, put a pause on his gathering of information. He also knows Golzine would’ve found out about this one day, but not like this. Not with this many risks. Now, he’s keeping silent, lips glued shut even when he feels light-headed from the rapid breaths that are coming out from his nose. But the silence is now for nothing.

“Playing ‘nice big brother’ isn’t going to save anyone, Aslan,” Golzine hisses. “Playing ‘journalist’ for the press, and ‘boss’ of an underground gang isn’t going to get you anywhere. You naively believed I wouldn’t know about your intentions to reveal what I’ve been hiding—believing that there is no one out there who could possibly thwart your plans.”

“Your dirt is with me,” Ash manages to growl. But it’s harsh on his throat, the words barely making it out. “Why are hurting them when I’m the one who’s trying to get you behind bars?”

Golzine stares at him. “You don’t care about yourself, but I know you care for those two.” He straightens, facing the door. “Come in.”

It’s at that moment when two men in black suits walk in like angels of death. But if Ash was wishing that Misha and Sasha got a swift execution, his hopes were just as dead as the corpses buried six feet under.

Ash loses it. Now he’s hysterical, desperately trying to pull his hands out of the bonds tying him to the chair, legs kicking against it. His bangs swing wildly in front of his face, fire burning in his eyes. ”Touch them and I’ll fucking murder you fucking bastards! Fucking pieces of dirt, assholes, cock-sucking pricks—”

A crack breaks off his sentence, then pain blossoms across his cheek as the metallic tang of blood coats the inside of his mouth. His eyes mist over with immediate tears, shoulder and head stinging from crashing against the solid ground.

He hears Golzine call for one of the men in black suits to pick him up from the floor and sit him upright. Blood dribbles from the corner of Ash’s mouth down his chin, staining the front of his white shirt scarlet.

“Shut up.” Golzine’s voice is steely.

Ash is too shocked to really say anything else, reeling from the fall—from the backhand, from what’s about to happen.

His mind is numb as Golzine clamps his hand on his down on Ash’s shoulders, hot breath against his ear. ”You are the one who did this to them, Aslan. It’s you who led them to this fate.”

The men in black suits unhook their belts, sliding it off before depositing them onto the floor. Then, they’re unzipping their trousers, pushing the front down.

Misha and Sasha flail against their constraints, the whites of their eyes visible, almost illuminated by the lights above them.

When the men untie the gags around the twins’ mouths, their shrill cries for help, Ash’s name on their lips, them pulling their bodies towards the other twin in a vain attempt to seek comfort from the one they love and trust more than anyone else in the world completely destroys Ash. It slaughters him thoroughly, the sword piercing through his stomach up to the hilt, twisting in such a way that brings unimaginable pain as his heart sputters like a clock that’s just about to go out of commission.

Golzine forces his face forward to witness the entire scene even though Ash is screaming again. But the noise eventually dies out, his throat hoarse, the twins unnaturally quiet. And what replaces it is his silent crying, the sobs lodged in his throat, face a sticky and wet mess.

He can barely breathe when the men leave the room. Sasha and Misha are unmoving, blood across the sheets. Cleaners come in to drag their bodies out, stripping the sheets as one of them undoes the ties around Ash’s wrists.

His arms fall forward, sharp aches stabbing at his shoulders from being at an uncomfortable angle for so long, burning his upper arms as they’ve been pressed against hard wood.

A cleaner hauls him up, expecting him to stand, but his legs won’t work, and he crumples. So they’re carrying him out before depositing him on a clean bed, Golzine entering and closing the door behind him once they leave.

Ash can’t remember what happens after that.

-

It’s cold, but Ash doesn’t bother to crawl under the sheets. As a matter of fact, he can’t, because his entire body hurts so much he wants to die. He wants to fucking die and disappear without leaving a trace on earth because he’s too chock-full of sin to even justify being buried, having his ashes confined in an urn, or letting his remains be deposited somewhere. He’s gonna contaminate something or someone—get them hurt when they don’t deserve it at all.

But more than his body, the searing pain that’s stabbing at his heart with pitchforks aches more than anything else.

He wants to cry, but he barely has the strength to.

He’s like a statue, fully and utterly still. Even when he hears the door open with a click, the shadow of a tall figure inching closer to him, he doesn’t move.

“That’s a nasty bruise you’ve got there on your cheek,” an unfamiliar voice says, but it lowers when its owner sweeps his eyes across the rest of Ash’s body. “And pretty much everywhere else, I’ll say.”

A hand reaches out, but before it can so much as brush against Ash’s face, he snarls, the sound scratchy and irritating his sore throat. ”Don’t fucking touch me.”

Ash can see the figure more clearly when the early sunlight hits his face. It’s a man—seemingly taller than his stretched-out shadow and well-built. Dark hair slips out from a low ponytail, sliding across broad shoulders clad in a long, wool coat.

There’s a slightly amused expression on the man’s face, but his smile and the look in his eyes are sad. “This is the first thing you choose to say to your savior?”

“I can’t be saved,” Ash mutters.

“Emotionally and mentally, no, not yet, but physically, yes.” Gingerly laying half the sheet over Ash’s bare skin, the man sits down, the mattress sinking underneath his weight. “I made a deal with the Monsieur. Tying off all the loose ends in his most recent predicament in exchange for your freedom. For now, at least.”

Ash has heard people call Golzine ‘Monsieur,’ but the title is usually followed by his name. “Why?”

The man chuckles. “The Monsieur thinks I’ll be able to reform you if you’re under my care for some time. Suffice it to say that he honestly just wants you away from his whole operation for a while.”

“‘Cause he’s scared shitless.”

This makes him bend over with full-on laughter.

Ash turns his head so he can see the man better. He doesn’t know what’s so funny about this whole thing.

Wiping tears away, the man nods. “You could assume so.” He lays a hand on Ash’s shoulder, over the sheets, and it’s so unexpectantly gentle and warm that Ash almost bursts out crying.

“Now, how the Monsieur could treat his precious tool he’s been polishing for such a long time is beyond me.”

“I’m—” His voice cracks, and he has to swallow. “I’m not his ‘tool.’”

“His words; not mine. Now, then.” Straightening, the man scoops Ash up, bundled in covers and all. “You’re in need of some serious aftercare, and you’re lucky because I like pampering people. Usually, women, but I can’t leave someone I have to take home all bloody and bruised of course.”

Ash doesn’t respond.

“What? No snarky comeback?”

The man offers one of the passing maids who come in to clean the house twice a week a sweet smile. “Could you get a bath running, darling?”

She blushes, then nods, leading them to an empty bathroom before turning on the water, waiting until it’s halfway full, and opening the cabinet to pull out a few necessities.

“And some gauze, salve, cotton balls, plus a change of clothes for the boy, if possible?”

When she leaves, the man tests the water temperature first before partially unwrapping Ash and slowly lowering him down into the bath, pulling the sheets away before they touch the water. “Tell me if it’s too hot or if you’re ever uncomfortable, okay?”

Ash waits for the maid to come back with everything the man requested. Warm water runs down his neck, soothing the ring of bruises there, and soon, the man is working a thick lather through Ash’s hair, fingers gentle against his scalp.

Ash has to break away from the initial calming feeling of melting into nothingness before he can speak. “Your name.”

“Hm?”

“What’s your name?”

“Blanca. And you?” The man asks, “What would you like me to call you?”

Ash thinks about it for a long time. Golzine is virtually the only one who uses his full name. “Ash is good.”

“Just Ash?”

“Mm-hm.”

“Well then, Ash, what do you want for breakfast?”

-

What Ash tells Eiji is the abridged version of what happened before he and Golzine temporarily parted ways.

But it’s enough for him to understand what exactly Ash has gone through. Ash looks at his hands. Assuming Shorter or someone else didn’t already tell him.

“I’ve kept the files in the same place; I haven’t touched them since, but they’re still there,” he says. “A part of me wanted to do away with it and destroy it, but that would mean erasing evidence of what has happened and making light of those who died in the process.”

Silence cuts in between them. Ash doesn’t know what to do next, so he swallows, fiddling with his fingers. “Eiji?”

“I need some time to let it sink in,” he answers without turning around.

Ash desperately wants to see his face, but he knows Eiji likes having his space when he needs to think. Crossing those carefully-set boundaries during a serious moment like this meant forcing his way in. And Ash didn’t want to man-handle the situation; he wanted to ease himself inside the confines of Eiji’s heart. However hard it already was.

“Okay.” He lets out a puff of air. “I’ll be at my apartment if you wanna talk today. Otherwise, I hope to see you at the agency tomorrow.”

He feels heavy when the pushes the button on the elevator, heavier when he steps in and leaves the bar. When he puts on his helmet and pushes his kickstand back, pulling out of the parking lot, he feels an impossible weight on his back—just as Zeus condemned Atlas to carry the weight of the heavens for all eternity.

Ash thought he’d feel lighter letting this all out, but, of course, he feels worse.

Because more than anything else, he wants Eiji to comfort him and tell him it’s okay, but how can he possibly do that when he himself is in pain?

Hands gripping the handlebars, Ash tells himself to be patient even as the backs of his eyes burn and his throat constricts.

-

I am getting swept away by this overwhelming feeling I don’t even know the name of.

Everything runs past Eiji like a current, the rushing water unforgiving. It feels like it’s going to tear his skin off, bite into the flesh and rip it right off the bones.

And yet, Eiji is still walking into the New York Public Library—past those stone lions and through the arching entrance to a room filled with books and long wooden tables.

He imagines Ash sitting down in front of one of them, thumbing through the pages of a classic or mindlessly tracing his fingers down the spines in the reference section on some random topic just to curb his boredom.

Ash, like anyone else in the world, is only another normal person with secrets deep in his soul. He’s a little lost, a lot younger than he looks—someone who Eiji believes has been wandering around for far too long. Perhaps someone who wants to settle the things he hasn’t yet been able to confront in the past. They’re dangerous things. Things that are far more precarious than what others face. Eiji wants to believe he sees him through the same light he likes to regard everyone else with, but the truth is that he doesn’t.

The boy has had his face plastered all over Times Square and popular magazines. He’s walked during a few seasons and shot campaigns for designers, but, to Eiji, he’s a lot more than that. More special than his public image. And Eiji wonders what would’ve happened to him if he hadn’t accepted Ibe’s offer to come to New York on a whim.

Back then, he couldn’t have cared less, but the moment he met Ash, something that laid dormant for months stirred. It’s completely cliché and he’s not the heroine in some kind of cheesy shoujo manga, but it was real and it was there.

Even if it took him two whole months to realize that.

The place Ash mentions he hid the flash drive is devoid of anyone. But then again, Eiji wonders if he would’ve hidden something so important in a place that many people have access to. In between two volumes of old physics theories that have already been revised and rewritten is an equally thick volume, the spine embossed with some title Eiji doesn’t take much time reading out. He pulls it out, dust unlodging from the shelf and shooting out in front of his face before floating in the beam of light above him.

It’s small, but there’s a gap between one of the self dividers and the back panel—one that’s so Eiji has to use a card from his wallet to slide through and detach the supposed tiny flash drive taped to the inside. It clatters onto the bottom shelf, and after pulling out a few books underneath, Eiji finds a thin, black flash drive, part of the tape still stuck to it.

Holding it in his hands, it’s hard to believe that Golzine’s fate lies within the documents saved inside of it.

Eiji’s blood pressure spikes at the thought of it, and he has to take a deep breath before sliding it in a mini bag and tucking it in one of the inner pockets of his zippered tote.

He’s already repeated this in his mind while in a taxi on the way to the library, but he has to take a deep breath before stepping away from that wooden bookshelf and outside, the evidence burning into his side.

Just one look without telling Max and Ibe, then deciding whether or not it’s worth it to spread across the news. If there is anything too sensitive or information that can be wrongly manipulated, Eiji isn’t going to let anyone know. He’s going to put the flash drive back, and pretend he never heard Ash when he last spoke to him at Shorter’s penthouse.

Ibe is waiting for him when he gets home, and Max is unsurprisingly there as well, a can of beer popped open next to him.

He has his forehead pressed against the wooden counter, tawny brown hair messy from all the countless times he has probably run his fingers through it. Eiji doesn’t know what’s going through his mind, nor much of what he talks about to Ibe, but he’s heard tidbits of information from the conversations they’ve had with each other. Something about not being able to see his son and ex-wife. Or something like that.

“Ah, welcome home, Ei-chan,” Ibe says, hanging a hand towel back across the edge of the sink. His face isn’t flushed which means he decided to skip out on drinking today. Surprising.

“I’m… back.”

“Do you want dinner, or will you eat later?”

Eiji gives a cursory glance at the table, seeing plastic wrap over salad, grilled fish, and tamagoyaki. “I’ll eat later; I have some important things to do first.”

“Alright. You promise you’ll eat, yes?” Ibe calls as Eiji retreats back into his room.

He offers a hand up in agreement.

The emotions that previously coursed through him like a thousand great waves have already settled down to mere laps against a quiet shore. But Eiji has a feeling that even though he’s oddly calm after sitting in a taxi for twenty minutes and mulling everything over in his head, none of what he’s rehearsed he’ll do is actually going to happen.

Taking a deep breath before letting it out shakily, Eiji closes the door behind him before plugging the mini flash drive into his laptop, flipping the screen up. He somewhat surprised over the fact that Ash didn’t take the time to put a password or bury the information in some kind of code, but he supposes it makes it easier for him to access everything. But then again, why would Ash tell him where the thumb drive is if he didn’t expect him to go out, get it, and look through it?

Even though Eiji can’t exactly say he’s a complete novice at understanding other people’s emotions since he, well, basically does most of the time, it’s definitely the first time he’s putting a filter through the emotions someone has. Now that Ash is… more than just a friend and an acquaintance, there are attachments and feelings Eiji himself has that blurs the line between truth and fiction.

Can I really believe Ash likes me in that way, or am I just mistaking his words and actions as something lost in translation from one culture to another?

While that might be the ending result for others, Eiji is sure that’s another doubt his brain is making up just to mess with him and make him misunderstand things even more than he already has.

Lost in translation?

He’s not going to lie to himself anymore; he heard Ash crystal clear when he asked him not to run away anymore.

The very fact that Ash has stopped widening the fissures between them first is a sure enough sign.

A notification pops up on the dark screen, and Eiji clicks on the button to accept the drive before opening it up. His heart his quivering, but his fingers don’t tremble at all when he swipes through the files all at once without opening them up.

They’re labeled with names—most of which sound like they belong to White American males. But one mass folder has the surname Lee typed out in all caps.

Eiji’s finger hovers over the file folder before tapping down, lightly. Multiple folders explode out in front of him, nearly filling up the entire screen. He opens the first one.

There are multiple pictures, all painstakingly dated with names underneath as well as captions.

>> It’s beginning to become super clear that the Lees are the ones supplying Golzine with kids. They’re the ones who are called over to clean up his mess—the ones getting their hands dirty and relaying Golzine’s messages through Club Cod. The agency is a lame cover-up.

Heart thudding in his chest, cotton stuffed in his throat, Eiji allows himself to scroll down halfway until he finds a picture of Yut-Lung stopping in front of a dilapidated apartment home, rummaging through his bag. The next photo shows him typing a blindfold over his eyes, and the next has him opening up the door, stepping in. A close-up of a blurry tattoo creeping up above the collar of a man’s sleeveless tee is pasted directly under.

>> This kid comes here almost once every week and doesn’t leave until morning. He’s seeing some old dude who doesn’t have ties to Golzine or the Lees. Can’t be sure, but it looks like he’s from Chinese mafia.

Closing the folder, Eiji has to swallow hard before finding the one name Max has been out for for years.

Golzine, Dino.

It’s formatted the same way, with folders and whatnot. There are photos of him with people he is no doubt well-acquainted with—all men who are part of the underground organization he runs. It documents events from when Ash was perhaps only ten and cuts off four years later.

Before pulling the flash drive out altogether, the last file folder catches Eiji’s attention. It’s left unnamed, completely blank of any label that would otherwise let him know what it will contain. But he presses his cursor on it anyway, and finds about two dozen .mov files. All of the thumbnails are black.

Eiji clicks on one.

He barely watches five seconds of it before slamming the screen of his laptop down.

And then he’s feeling that buzzing at the back of his mind, subtle but rushing forward like his brain is short-circuiting and cutting off electricity to all the parts of his body so he doesn’t work.

The momentum—the tangible realization of what exactly Ash has really gone through doesn’t even pass through Eiji’s mind because he can’t think at all right now. Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god—he can’t think. The sound of his erratic heartbeat to his ears, low against his head and high above his ears, the air that only constricts in his lungs. Fear burns through him like fire and poison laced in his veins.

Suddenly, it feels like he’s dying all over again. Like he’s drowning but in the most painful way possible.

Eiji’s chair slips out from underneath him, rolling back and hitting the edge of his bed frame as he collapses and curls up against himself, pressing his hands against his ears, eyes squeezing shut, imaginary fingers clawing at his chest and throat.

He doesn’t even realize Ibe pulling both his hands away from his ringing ears and clamping his own hands down and around them. Max is at the doorway, frozen and completely at a loss for what to do.

Ibe is counting slowly in Japanese with lengthy pauses in between each number, from one to ten, over and over and over. Eiji can’t hear, but he can see Ibe’s lips moving through slightly warped vision.

It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay— He lets out a long, forced exhale before following the rhythm of the numbers, allowing each one to penetrate into his brain as he breathes in and out. He takes in the echoes even though they’re faint, blinking away tears, fingers tightening around Ibe’s knuckles.

And it becomes very clear that he’s not getting any better—not at the rate he’s going.

“Are you feeling better?”

His muscles are a little sore from constricting them for so long, but Eiji nods. It would have been worse if Ibe wasn’t here.

“Are you…” Ibe pauses. “Are you okay with telling me what happened?”

Eiji closes his eyes, letting out a breath of air. He wasn’t going to do this—he told himself he wasn’t going to tell Max or Ibe, but he didn’t know how to approach the situation without doing so. So he just gets up, stumbling a little before pointing at his laptop.

He turns his head and crosses his arms together, fingers digging into his upper arms.

Ibe immediately mutes the video before closing it, unplugging the flash drive from the USB port.

“What do you want me to do with this, Ei-chan?”

He’s not taking it to Max, and quite frankly, Max doesn’t even look like he wants to take the drive. He’s as pale as a ghost, still hovering near the threshold, lips pressed against each other.

“Please—” Eiji lets out another huff of air, “—put it back.”

Ibe nods. “Alright. You can tell me where tomorrow morning.” He offers Eiji a kind smile—the one he gave on the day they first met. “Do you still want dinner?”

He felt sick to his stomach some time ago, but the effects are wearing off. The more he breathes in and lets it out, the more clear-headed and stable he is. Refusing to eat any more than this would mean getting unwell and putting himself in a worse state than already.

“Yeah.” He nods. “I… haven’t eaten in a while.”

Sighing in relief, Ibe drops the thumb drive in Max’s hand before curling a hand over Eiji’s shoulder. “Let us do that.”