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“Eiji is going back to Japan tomorrow,” Blanca tells him, his voice deceptively light. And like the many things that come out of Blanca’s mouth, there’s a multitude of hidden meaning behind those words. He doesn’t exist for your salvation! still rings through Ash’s mind and it hurts, but once he begins to actually think and get his head on straight—Blanca’s words are nothing more than the words of a bitter, hurting man.

And he refuses to let himself be manipulated by anyone else again.

So Ash tilts his head back, staring up at the wintry sky. It looks like it might snow.

“Yeah,” he eventually says in reply. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that I shouldn’t see him off?”

Blanca gives him a half-smile. “You know what I think.”

And Ash does. God, he does. He’s killed so many people, he has so much blood on his hands—he’s been told time and time again that there’s no way a monster like him deserves a happy ending. It’d be so fucking easy to let Eiji’s plane take off and let him leave without saying goodbye. Prove everyone right that Ash Lynx really is a monster for letting the person he loves most go without a second glance.

There was a time when Ash believed this. There’s a small part of him that still does.

He huffs out a laugh, watching his breath curl in the air.

“Eiji isn’t Natasha, Sergei,” Ash says quietly. He doesn’t need to look at Blanca to know that he’s no longer smiling. “And I’m not you. We will see each other again.”

Blanca’s dark eyes are unreadable when they finally meet each other’s gaze. “I may have misjudged you,” he finally says. Unlike Blanca, Ash has never been very good at hiding what he thinks, instead wearing his heart on his sleeve for all to see. It’s one of the things Ash has never been truly able to master.

Ash used to think of it as a weakness. Eiji taught him that it was his strength.

“You were wrong,” Ash agrees. This is the longest he and Eiji have been apart since that month he spent in Dino’s “care,” and his heart already aches to have Eiji back by his side.

“I can only wish that your fates fare better than ours.”

“I’ll make sure of it.”

 


 

Ash is no stranger to vivid dreams. His nights are full of them—memories from his childhood, to his hell-like adolescence with Dino Golzine, then to those two years he’s spent with Eiji by his side.

This place, though… it’s not a place he knows. Probably an after-effect of his talk with Blanca; God only knows that he still manages to throw Ash for a loop even in his dreams. Ash trails down the hallway, his socks whispering against the wooden floor, and his gaze travels over the pictures hung on the walls. There are some cityscapes—New York City, Boston, and one that’s even of the Atlantic Ocean by Cape Cod—but the majority of them consist of two men, one blond and the other dark-haired, plus a fluffy golden labrador. Their smiles are familiar somehow. He’s seen these people before.

Then Ash freezes when he spots one of the last photos.

It’s the New York skyline at dawn, captured through a window. But the most striking detail is that the subject of the picture is Ash himself, from only a year ago. Ash’s brows furrow; the only possible person who could’ve even had this was—

“Eiji,” Ash breathes, the pieces falling into place. The stunning quality of the photos, the sheer amount of them, and even their subjects. If Eiji was the one who took all of these, then that meant… that meant that the two men that Ash only vaguely recognized in those earlier pictures were them.

They’re older. Happier. Safer. Ash doesn’t remember the last time he’s seen himself smile that widely.

Ash’s fists clench. Wish-fulfillment, he remembers Blanca telling him years ago. One of Freud’s theories on dreams.

Even if most of Freud’s theories were utter bullshit, this one seems to be steeped in some truth: This dream is everything he ever could’ve wanted.

The sudden creaking of the floorboards have Ash whirling around instinctively, his hand shooting straight to his back pocket for his gun, but his fingers close around air and the man who has stepped into his vision only laughs. There is no gun. No danger.

Then Ash exhales, willing his pulse to slow. He’s still strangely aware of himself for a dream, and as he mulls over that thought, Ash takes in the sight of this person—this man—and is struck by the sense of looking into a mirror.

His eyes narrow.

Or a photograph.

They have the same battle-hardened green eyes (though the other man’s are… softer, somehow, behind the wire-framed glasses), the same blond hair, the same efficient grace in their movements. It’s what makes Ash lower his guard slightly and say, “You’re… me, aren’t you.”

“I am,” the older Ash agrees. “But I’m also not.” There’s a smile on his face that’s distinctly Max-like, and Ash suddenly feels irritation pool in his gut. A reflex from seeing that shit-eating grin? Probably.

“But I’m dreaming,” he blurts, making the other Ash’s smile grow.

“Maybe you are. Not so much for me.”

Ash’s fingers twitch. “What do you—”

His older self holds up a hand to silence him. “I’d forgotten how impatient I used to be,” he says, looking amused. Ash gives him an affronted look, but older Ash simply shakes his head and gestures for him to follow. “I’ll explain.”

And after a brief moment of hesitation, Ash comes along, distrust still swirling in his gut.

The rest of the apartment is large, airy, and filled with sunlight. It reminds Ash of that condo he’d rented to spy on Dino. He and Eiji hadn’t gotten the chance to return to it after Ash gave himself up, and he wonders if it was still theirs despite how long it’s been since they’ve stayed in it.

It was a nice place, maybe a little too big when it was just him and Eiji, but it was still home for those few months.

More photographs hang on the walls here, with a particularly large one featuring him and Eiji in matching white tuxes. His face heats up at the implication. Ash would be lying if he said he hadn’t fantasized about a future with Eiji after everything was over, so seeing this—seeing himself, happy and safe—Ash couldn’t help but hope.

Fuck.

“Tea? Water? Coffee?” the other Ash— god, he needs to figure out how to differentiate the two of them—asks from around the corner, pulling him back to the present.

“Uh. Water’s fine,” Ash says, the environment still filling him with a sense of agitation. “Thanks.” He hears the other Ash (Aslan, he decides) puttering around in the kitchen, and when he comes back with a platter of tiny sandwiches and two glasses of water, Ash bursts into incredulous laughter.

“What’s wrong?” Aslan asks, tilting his head, and Ash recognizes that mannerism as Eiji’s. Amazing.

“Bringing out cute sandwiches for guests? You really do live here with Eiji,” Ash mutters, giving in and taking a bite out of a sandwich. It’s good and has entirely too much flavor for Ash to accept that this is just a dream. Some sort of weird time-travel maybe? “I recognized him in the pictures. Still looks the same.”

Aslan smiles fondly, making Ash nearly do a double-take. Alex had told him once that he had a smile reserved just for Eiji, and Ash hadn’t believed him. At least, until now.

“Yeah,” he says. “I guess you saw the wedding photo?” At Ash’s nod, Aslan continues, “Ibe-san was in charge of the photography, so everything came out beautifully, of course. It was one of the best days of my life.”

It’s then that Ash finally notices the small glint of gold from Aslan’s left ring finger, and he swallows the growing lump in his throat. “Where is Eiji?” Ash asks, glad that his voice doesn’t sound as choked as he thought it would be.

“Out for a run with Buddy.” And at Ash’s confused expression, Aslan clarifies, “Our dog.” Ash flashes back to the labrador in the photos. “I usually go with them, but…”

“You knew I’d be here,” Ash guesses, and Aslan nods, shrugging.

“Just a hunch.”

Ash understands, of course. Even this far in the future, he doubts that his instincts have dulled in the slightest.

The next few moments pass by in silence. Ash fidgets. Even though it’s the kind of quiet he likes—he can hear the cars on the streets below, the wind whirling past the windows—it still feels… different, but not in a bad way.

It’s peaceful.

It fills him with unease.

Ash doesn’t know what to do with peace. There’s always been something to do, somewhere to hide—

But he can see why his older self is so relaxed here, if this is the life he has.

And maybe even someday, Ash himself.

His heart suddenly aches at his last memory of Eiji—the tears in his eyes, the pain tearing through his expression—Ash was so close. If he’d only been one second faster, just one second, he could’ve held Eiji’s hands in his own. Hugged him one last time.

“You should go to him when you wake up,” Aslan murmurs, almost as if he’s read his mind, and Ash’s head snaps up. There’s a soft, knowing smile on Aslan’s face. “I know you still don’t fully trust me, but I also know that you miss him. You’re allowed to be happy, Ash. You’re allowed to have this life. Don’t let your fear or what anyone else says make you think otherwise.”

You’re allowed to be happy. Ash doesn’t reply, but the lump in his throat returns. His vision goes suspiciously blurry. Warmth presses against his side, and Ash realizes that Aslan has moved to sit next to him. It’s comforting. It reminds him of Griffin. And slowly but surely, the tension in his shoulders that he didn’t realize he had seeps away.

“Thanks,” Ash chokes out, his hands trembling. There is no blood on them.

“Anytime,” Aslan replies. He manages to convince Ash to drink some more water, to eat another sandwich, and tells him stories about his—their—future in the meantime. He keeps a few things secret, like who proposed to who and how they did it, but other stories, like those about Buddy—he tells freely.

“I wore a pair of chewed shoes to work once,” Aslan says solemnly. “I’d just finished presenting, and then my boss tells me, ‘Aslan… you are aware that we could see your elephant socks every time you took a step, right?’ I was mortified,” he laughs. “One of the biggest presentations of my career so far, and my dog had torn through my left fucking shoe without me noticing.”

Ash snorts, but his older self only continues. “I told Eiji when I came home, but he laughed at me and promised to buy me a new pair. But guess what happened when I got the new shoes.” Aslan stares at him, pouting, and Ash laughs again.

“…Buddy chewed through them again?”

“Exactly! And not even the right shoe so that I could just wear the two shoes he hadn’t ruined—it was the left one! Again!” Aslan sighs dramatically, and Ash hides a grin, recognizing this quirk too. It’s his own, this time, usually reserved for those he trusts.

Aslan’s smiles come more easily than Ash’s, and Ash wonders if the same will happen to him in his future. So he voices this, albeit hesitantly. He struggles with the words at first—unusual for him—but Aslan understands, so Ash keeps talking. “Not just what Buddy did to your shoes, but… everything. This.” He waves a hand around the sunny apartment, to the countless photographs on the wall, to the succulents flourishing by the sliding door, and to the hints of the life that Aslan and his Eiji had built together since the destruction of Banana Fish. “Can…” He swallows, and tries again. “Can this really happen to me?”

Aslan’s expression softens. “It takes work, but yeah. It can. And it will—Eiji and Max and Ibe-san and Sing and everyone else will meet you every step of the way.” Ash suddenly feels his age—eighteen and young and so unsure of his future—but Aslan’s certainty grounds him as he says, “I promise that you’ll never be alone again.”

Ash doesn’t respond, but Aslan rubs his trembling shoulders, and he doesn’t pull away. “Blanca’s a fucking liar,” Ash finally says. The slip of hope that had been building within him since he appeared in the apartment is a full-fledged storm now, filling him with a joy that he never thought he’d be able to experience.

“A dumbass,” Aslan agrees. “Has he tried to give you that talk yet?”

Ash sighs. “Yesterday.”

Aslan nods in understanding. “Seven years is a long time,” he says softly, “but I know that you’ll be able to make it work. Both of you. What we have is something too precious to give up so easily.”

Ash’s vision is beginning to go fuzzy white at the edges, and the familiar weightlessness of waking up tugs at his body. His eyes widen. No, not yet—there’s so much more he wants to ask!

“I believe in you,” Aslan tells him, and the last thing Ash does before he vanishes from this timeline is to hug his older self with everything he’s got, and give him a whispered promise that he’ll make sure that this is the future they both get to have.

 


 

It’s surprisingly easy to find a taxi at two in the morning.

He gives the driver an address that’s only a few blocks away from the hospital Eiji’s staying in, hops out after a generous tip (it’s not his money anyway), and once the taxi’s tail lights vanish around a corner, Ash easily makes his way back into the building.

His footsteps are quiet against the tiled floor, and Ash suddenly feels like he’s gone back in time to when he first tried to tell Eiji goodbye. Eiji’s room, somehow, is still the same one, and the handle to his door gives way easily when Ash presses against it. Ibe and Charlie must have been been confident that he wouldn’t return.

They were somewhat right—twenty-four hours ago, he wouldn’t have even considered it.

“Ash…?”

Ash startles, noticing that Eiji’s gaze is fixed upon him. He looks more alert than he did that previous night, and there’s no pain in his gentle expression. Ash steps forward, practically collapsing by Eiji’s bedside.

“Eiji,” he whispers, his heart clenching when Eiji slips his hand into his. “I’m sorry. I was careless, I should have never let you get hurt—”

“Shh,” Eiji says. His eyes are unbelievably kind. “What happened to me is not your fault—I am only thankful that you came back.” He then wiggles back, opening his arms. “Lie down with me?”

Ash blinks back tears. “Yeah. Yeah, of course.” They adjust themselves on the bed, mindful of Eiji’s still-healing injury, and finally settle into a position that’s comfortable for the both of them.

“I saw the news yesterday,” Eiji says softly. “Dino Golzine… it is over now? You are safe?”

Ash buries his nose into Eiji’s hair. It’s soft and fluffy, but it also smells too much like hospital for Ash’s liking. Once they go back home, Eiji will start using that flowery shampoo again, putter around in the kitchen like he used to, and—and maybe Ash can even ask him what he thinks about golden labradors named Buddy…

“Yeah,” he replies. “I’m safe.”

Eiji smiles. “I am glad. And by the way,” he adds, brushing a strand of hair out of Ash’s eyes, “Charlie told me that you were not in trouble that one night. They only ever wanted to talk to you as a witness in the Golzine investigation.” His gaze is steady. “As far as the police are concerned, Ash Lynx is dead, and Aslan Callenreese had nothing to do with him.”

Ash’s breath hitches. “You mean—”

“You are free,” Eiji whispers, lacing his fingers with Ash’s. His expression is tender. “No one will be able to hurt you any longer. Not if I can help it.”

Ash presses Eiji’s hand to his lips, his eyes squeezing shut as tears begin to slip down his cheeks. “Thank you.”

“Anytime,” Eiji murmurs, voice soft. Then he says, still running his fingers through Ash’s hair, “We can talk more tomorrow. Sleep with me now—you must be tired after everything.”

“A little bit,” Ash admits. He presses closer against Eiji, and lets himself truly relax for the first time in a while. There’s a gentle kiss against his forehead, a quiet whisper (we have all the time in the world), and then Ash sinks into unconsciousness, his sleep dreamless.

 


 

The click of a doorknob rips like a gunshot through the stillness of the morning.

He and Eiji both wake at the same time, and Ash tenses, curling protectively around Eiji. Eiji, though, doesn’t have the same qualms and peers sleepily over Ash’s shoulder.

“Huh? Ibe-san?” Eiji mumbles. He says something in Japanese that Ash can’t understand, with Ibe’s response a harsh, frantic whisper, and Ash thinks he catches his name once or twice as Eiji shakes off the last dregs of sleep during their conversation. His suspicions that they’re talking about him are confirmed when Eiji glances down at him, looking unsure.

Ash is just about to roll over and let Ibe know that he’s awake when the door slams open again, startling all of them. “Goooooood morning, rise and shine!” bellows an all-too-familiar voice, and a reflexive fuck! slips out of Ash’s mouth as he presses a hand to his racing heart. It takes another moment for him to register that Eiji had said the same expletive at the same exact time. Eiji blushes. Ash grins. He doesn’t even need to look over to imagine the shocked expression on Ibe’s face.

“Finally decided to join us, Ash?” Max asks, smiling impishly. There are several bandages on his face, along with something sparkling from his left hand. Hmm.

Ash’s grin doesn’t fade as he sits up and flips him off, but Max, per the usual, is unfazed. “Yeah. You’re all right, then?” Ash asks, trying to sound casual, but Max sees right through that and pulls him into a hug.

“Yeah,” Max echoes. “Thanks to you, kid.”

“Just don’t make me do it again,” Ash replies as they let go, both of them fully knowing that they’d both run into danger and save the other person in a heartbeat if they had to. He wonders how much Max and his future self stay in contact. He never got to ask.

Then Ash realizes that he doesn’t need to worry—he can shape his own future into one he wants. It’s a liberating thought.

“So Eiji, how does it feel to finally be going home?” he hears Max ask, looking past Ash. “Is Ash coming with you?”

At the question, Eiji bolts up before curling into himself with a sharp gasp, and suddenly the three of them are around him, fretting. Well, Ash thinks, squeezing Eiji’s hand. That’s definitely one way to change the subject.

“I still—” Eiji wheezes out after a few pained whimpers, waving them off, but Ash tightens his grip around his hand anyway. “—have not asked.” Eiji then glances up at Ash through watery eyes before averting his gaze, procuring an crinkled envelope with the words Dear Ash on it out of nowhere. “Ash… this is for you. I was going to try to get a letter to you before we left just in case—”

“I didn’t come say goodbye?” Ash finishes wryly.  

Much to his surprise, though, Eiji smiles. There’s a teasing glint in his eyes—he knows him much too well. “Yes,” he agrees. “Please open it. But um. Do not read the letter yet. There is something else inside that is more important than that.”

“More import—oh.

It’s a plane ticket with today’s date. His gaze darts to the dark, printed TOKYO - HND JAPAN, to the name Aslan Callenreese, and then up to Eiji’s hopeful face.

“Only if you would like to,” Eiji says as Ash’s eyes drop back down to the ticket. “We do not leave until tonight so you have time to pack and decide, but I promised you that I would never let anything hurt you again. And… well, I thought this was the best way I could keep this promise.”

“Yes,” Ash blurts out before Eiji can say anything more. “I’ll come with you.”

The skin around Eiji’s eyes crinkle as he smiles. “I’m glad.”

Later that evening, as Ash watches the New York skyline become smaller and smaller before finally being swallowed up by the sunset, he feels a weight drop from his chest. Left behind like the name and past he’d discarded in favor of a better future.

He knew that Ash Lynx would always be a part of him, but being Aslan Callenreese again didn’t seem as terrifying as it used to be.

“Excited?” Eiji murmurs, resting his head against Ash’s shoulder.

Ash nods. “Yeah.”

Eiji’s hand is warm in his. They’re going home.