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If On a Winter's Night

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Rockefeller Center, New  York City

New York was luminant. The part they were walking through, anyway. Outside of the grit and the dark alleyways, out into the main shops of Fifth Avenue, where holiday decorations were in full swing. They’d already passed a window with a ceramic cityscape, complete with fake snow and joyful carolers, as well as a toy store that had several unnervingly lifelike dolls in its nativity scene. 

He’d promised Eiji they’d look at the holiday displays, but being here now reminded him of why he kept to his gritty alleyways. Out here, the crowds were thick, and there were so many unknown, uncontrollable factors. If he let his guard down for even a moment...

“Ash!”

Eiji was several paces ahead of him, an excitable lead, but not far enough that the crowd posed any risk of swallowing him up out of sight. Between his hands, his camera was clutched loosely, and he seemed to effortlessly blend into the swaths of festive people surrounding him. Upon noticing Ash behind him, Eiji paused and gave Ash a moment to close the gap. The excitement on his face quieted, for a moment, as his mouth formed a thin, concerned line.

“Ash, you must be freezing. You should have brought a coat with you.” 

“It’s fine,” Ash said, but Eiji’s frown didn’t dissipate, clearly unconvinced. 

“Listen to your big brother Eiji. Should we go back?”

“Of course not, we’re already this far. Anyway, I’m not cold.”

He was. The air bristled around him in icy pinpricks mercilessly needling at his skin. But with Eij’s face set into such a determined mode of fussing about him, he wasn’t about to admit it to him. 

Besides, Eiji was enjoying himself, and anything else would be a distraction from that enjoyment. 

“Anyway, let’s see this stupid tree,” Ash said, successfully diverting Eiji’s attention, walking side by side once more. 

“It’s close by?”

“Yeah, just a few more blocks. Don’t know what’s so special about a big Christmas tree, though.”

“You only say this because you are used to it. People from all over come to see it - you are very lucky to have something beautiful you can see so easily.”

Once they hit Rockefeller Center, the world opened up in a burst of color and lights - the enormous tree towered at the center of it and it felt like they’d walked directly into one of those tacky holiday snow globes they sold in every corner gift shop in New York. It was like they were at the epicenter of everything Ash couldn’t understand about the fuss around holidays. The unbridled excitement, the excess, the spectacle of it all. 

Eiji halted beside the skating rink and his eyes followed a couple that were slowly working their way across the ice. 

“Ah, I haven’t gone ice skating in many years,” Eiji said, his voice wistful enough as to be hopeful but not daring enough to verge on suggestion. “I used to like taking my little sister back at home.”

He didn’t wait for a response from Ash. His attention was, instead, captured by the slowly wafting flakes of snow that were beginning to descend from the sky. 

“And it’s snowing now, how perfect. Just like in a movie.”

This time Ash couldn’t help but laugh; he imagined the little snow globe they inhabited being shaken up. 

“Don’t you ever see snow in Japan?”

Earnest and without a hint of embarrassment, Eiji nodded his assent. 

“Yes, of course. But this is the first snow while I am in New York - it’s very different. Different atmosphere. It always looks so romantic in the movies.”

“I think you’ve seen too many movies, Eiji.”

Eiji smiled, his enthusiasm undeterred. The sunlight that had followed them as they walked here was quickly fading into dark; the lights strung up all around them burned even brighter. In the dark, the small pinpricks of cold became even more apparent, and Ash tried to hide a shiver. 

A small rustle of movement and Eiji had unraveled the large red scarf that was wrapped around his own neck and wordlessly draped it over Ash’s shoulders and carefully folded it around his neck. 

“There, that’s better,” he said, and turned back to the tree. 

The scarf was still warm, and it smelled vaguely of shampoo - Eiji’s of course, a scent so distinct to him it was hard to ignore. Ash took in a deep breath full of it and glanced over towards him, to Eiji. 

Eiji, who was bundled up in enough layers to resemble some ridiculous Japanese puff pastry. 

Eiji, whose eyes were raised in admiration at one of the things in Ash’s home that he’d taken as mundane - taken for granted until he saw it through those eyes for the first time. 

It was just a big tree; Ash hadn’t bothered to set one up since the last time he’d had Griffin there to decorate with him. But the lights were so bright that they shone in soft splashes of color against Eiji’s face as he watched it. 

Eiji’s expression was serene as he admired it and a few snowflakes landed on his face, catching in his dark eyelashes, and Ash found himself transfixed on them. 

Ash had never noticed it before, such a small insignificant detail. Something he’d have previously overlooked, taken for granted, a person whose presence he’d so often thought might disappear at any moment. 

“Isn’t it beautiful Ash?”

Ash didn’t turn to look back at the tree. Instead, he looked at the way its lights glinted against the dark irises of Eij’s eyes, the crystalline flakes of snow laid against his skin, and how happy and warm he looked in that moment. 

“It’s perfect,” Ash agreed.

************

Nagahama Shrine, Japan

It was a bitter, unforgiving cold, the kind you only felt in January, the kind that sank into his bones. He’d only ever felt that kind of blistering cold back in Cape Cod previously, another city by the water. He wrapped his arms around himself and tried to stave off a shiver. Because being in Izumo was feeling sometimes like everything was different than what he’d known back in the US, and other times - like now - it felt so familiar it might as well have been home all along. 

In the midst of the peaked arches of the shrine, its ancient wooden structures heavy with meaning Ash was only beginning to learn, it was busier than he’d ever seen it. A sizeable crowd gathered around the collection of items and kindling that had been cultivated. A collection soon to be set ablaze.

The fire he was looking forward to. Another gust of wind burst past him and he thought that it couldn’t come soon enough. 

Eiji had explained things before they got there, but it was still jarring to see all the decorations that had, until only days ago, been displayed all over town gathered into a messy but controlled fire. Dondo yaki, he’d called it. Ash rolled the words over in his head, tried to file them away in his memory, along with the rest of the things he’d been learning about Japan. 

“You know, when we’re done with our decorations and stuff in New York, we just put them in a big box and shove it in the attic.”

Eiji, who had remained quiet until now, let out a fond chuckle at that, examined the item Ash was clutching between his hands. A single photograph. 

“Are you sure this is what you want to leave?”

Ash gave a single, firm nod. 

Of all the photos Eiji had taken of him over the years, this was perhaps the only one that pained him to look at. A photo in a dark, crowded bar, Ash was facing away from the camera, but seemed acutely aware of its presence. His body language guarded, tense. It was a photo taken as an accompaniment to an article that was never completed. A photo taken moments before he and Eiji spoke for the very first time, and something inside him changed forever. 

The very last photo of Ash Lynx. It was almost like looking at an entirely different person; in a lot of ways it was.

“Remind me why we’re doing this again?” Quiet filled the air for a moment as Eiji considered his response. 

“Hmm. It is respectful to the things that were meaningful to us but we not longer have a use for. It would be worse to just throw them away.”

The photo felt heavy in his hands - like a weight he’d carried. That persona had served him well, like armor on a battlefield. But he had no use for it anymore, and the remnant pieces weighed down on him, heavy and cumbersome in the space after the war had ended. He didn’t need it to remember - the fact that he’d made it this far was enough, that he’d gotten out of New York, and off of the streets. A few steps forward and Ash placed in onto the pile with the rest of the items. 

Already he felt lighter without it. 

“My turn then,” Eiji said. 

Eiji turned what appeared to be a small charm over in his hand in a slow rotation, his voice lowering into a wistful kind of nostalgia as he spoke. He moved without further comment and took a few steps forward. He then tossed the charm onto the pile with the growing flames before returning to where Ash was standing. 

Izumo was cold in ways that were so different from New York. New York was cold in its loneliness, how easy it was to feel lost in a crowd, but next to the warmth of the fire, surrounded by people sharing in wishes for their future, he hadn’t felt it here even once. 

“You never actually told me what you decided to bring,” Ash mumbled, almost to himself, and was surprised when Eiji answered him immediately. 

“An old charm, for good luck. Actually, for luck in marriage.”

Ash quirked an eyebrow at the statement, glanced over at Eiji in surprise. 

“Eiji wait, isn’t that - your sister gave that to you, right? When you first went to America?”

“Yes, for finding a wife, she’d said.” Ash detected a hint of amusement coloring his words. “She got it for me at this shrine.” 

“Won’t she be upset that you burned it?”

That prompted a smile from Eiji. He didn’t look at Ash, his eyes fixed on the growing flames of their little bonfire, but when he smiled - just a twinge at the corner of his mouth - it felt like he was smiling directly at him. 

“I think she would probably be very happy to hear I do not need it anymore.”

Without his armor, Ash had nothing left to hide behind. Surely the pink tint spreading across his cheeks would be apparent - he found himself strangely grateful for the dusk that was drawing dark in all around them. It didn’t matter if Eiji could tell - his fingers grazed against Ash’s hand, and together they may as well have been completely weightless. 

Ash settled in by his side, and together they watched the hungry flames consume the past, leaving them nothing but a new year and the future to look ahead towards.

************

Home, New Years Day

It wasn’t quite morning yet, but Ash was already awake. 

Sunlight was peeking over the horizon but hadn’t yet reached his window. Further sleep didn’t seem to be possible, so Ash slipped out of bed, uncertain of what to do with himself. Cold hardwood against the bottoms of his feet sent a jolt of familiarity through him. 

Often, when he was young, the cold would get so brutal that it woke him at night. When that happened, his first guard against it was to pace the floors, in hopes that moving enough would warm him. Back then, he was a restless creature, always moving, always running. 

But this morning, Ash was content to settle in by the windowsill, making a seat for himself on the small ledge and staring outside into the city as the dawn seeped in around him. The sun was warm against his face despite the chill of the morning. It felt like hours passed as he stared out into the thicket of trees just outside the window. Beyond that, a city that was beginning to come to life with the approaching daylight. 

It was still difficult to get used to this, a sense of peace and calm that was begging to break at any moment. Surely, any time now, the dream would end and chaos would come back into his life. He breathed in, absorbed in the quiet.

Any moment now. 

Sure enough, a flash of yellow fur around his ankles startled him out of his thoughts and Ash reached down to calm the excited lab that had approached him. He buried his hands into the golden scruff around the dog’s ears and bit back a laugh. 

“Buddy, shhhh… Eiji’s still sleeping. We don’t want to wake him up, do we?”

“Too late,” a voice, Eiji’s voice, murmured from beneath the pile of blankets on the bed. 

“I was going to let you sleep in today,” Ash said as Eiji’s head peeked out from beneath the sheet, his hair mussed and his hand already fumbling along the nightstand for his glasses. 

“Up so early. Is this a New Years resolution I am just learning about?” Eiji pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose but did nothing to tame the stray locks of hair. He clambered off of the bed, his first step a little unsteady as he closed the gap between the bed and the windowsill. Now within his reach, Ash moved a hand forward to smooth down his hair affectionately. 

“Hmm, no. Couldn’t sleep.”

“Bad dreams?” There was a quiet hint of concern in his voice. 

“Not at all. Just restless. Just thinking”

“What were you thinking about?”

“I was thinking… that it seemed like an awfully nice morning, that I should take Buddy for a long walk once it gets lighter outside. And it might even be nice to go ice skating later, there’s a new place nearby.”

A smile curled the edges of Eiji’s lips and it didn’t merely light up his face - warmth radiated from him whenever he smiled like that, and Ash knew he’d give anything to make his home by the heat of that hearth, to keep the fire burning.

“I would like that - but right now, you should come back to bed. It’s freezing.”

One beckoning tug of his hand and Ash didn’t need to be asked again. Both climbed back into the soft cocoon of covers and Ash found himself curling up like a contented cat in its embrace. 

Eij’s hands traveled beneath the covers, seeking until they found Ash’s hands and took them into his own. They were warm, like everything about him, he glowed with embers invisible to the eye but that Ash could feel in such proximity. Every word, every gesture a piece of kindling. 

At first, he was afraid to get too close to that warmth - surely, it would inevitably burn him. But Eiji’s warmth was gentle, unwavering, bottomless. 

A low whine from the foot of the bed brought their attention back to Buddy, who was watching them, until now, with as much patience as could be expected. Ash went to get back up, but Eiji beat him by a few seconds, placed a gentle hand across his chest to still him. It was a no arguments, let me take care of things gesture, and Ash knew better than to try and deter him. 

“Okay, okay Buddy, it’s breakfast time. I am getting up now. And what about you, Ash?”

“Hmm. Can it be pancakes this morning?” Ash mused quietly, then added. “With peanut butter and extra syrup.”

“First day of the new year and already you want to start it with American junk food?” Eiji regarded him with a look of disbelief that was barely disguising a fond smirk. 

“Um. Yes?”

“Fine,” Eiji sighed. “But starting on the second, you’re going to have a healthy Japanese breakfast every morning.”

“Okay. It’s a deal.”