Eiji was, perhaps, more familiar than most when it came to caring for someone who had fallen ill.
His childhood had been a whirlwind of hospitals and bedrooms that reeked of antiseptic, of wet coughs and dry skin.
A mother weak from a long, difficult childbirth. A sister prone to catching every illness that lurked in drafty, damp corners. A father whose body refused every remedy, modern and ancient; more than once, Eiji joked that his father’s body had to be stubborn to support the cantankerous soul trapped inside it.
Perhaps a yielding spirit was what allowed medicine to work in the first place. Demons and vapors, blood and protein — regardless of what one thought the root of illness was, one had to be willing to accept whatever was being done to them to get better, he thought. His mother and sister were as pliant as clay, and to him it seemed fitting that even with poor constitutions, they rarely remained ill. His father’s illness, however, was merciless. Months had passed with his condition only worsening; he couldn’t help but wonder how much of it was his father's pride getting in the way.
Eiji told him as much. His father had simply replied with a sneer that was a pale echo of the cockiness Eiji despised.
Even now, years later, he couldn’t help but feel resentful; sleepless months spent spoonfeeding him and changing his linens, followed by bedpans, had all been for naught, and a dark part of him rankled at what felt like a wasted effort.
If you didn’t try fighting, why was I expected to?
It was a small, poisonous thing, a noxious fiber that sowed his mouth shut.
He vowed to never again fight someone else’s battles.
Vows were terribly easy to break.
The excitement of a trip to a foreign country had warped into quiet terror, a roller coaster with only a threadbare seat belt to keep Eiji from being thrown off the rails.
The mafia was far less silver and gunfire than he’d expected. He quickly learned that true power was intangible, invisible. He was reminded of some kind of grotesque fungus, with Dino’s influence creeping across New York’s streets and sewers like so many filaments. To eliminate one part of him only empowered him, spores germinating in fertile soil.
Police. Hospitals. Landlords. There were few places to hide from Monsieur’s seemingly omnipresent gaze — except, as it turned out, right beneath his nose.
Their shared space, purchased with Dino’s own tainted funds, was an amalgamation of sentimentality and the macabre, all of the fervor of a hospital with none of its sterility.
Ash had become very, very ill — almost as soon as they’d planted roots in their new home, it seemed — and the few people who seemed to know why were uncharacteristically silent.
Eiji didn’t have enough energy to feel anger; anger was a luxury, something rich and indulgent that only those with time to think could enjoy.
And so he cleaned and cooked, fussing over Ash with a unerring smile that had begun to fray around the edges.
Ash’s skin paled, his cheekbones shifting from handsome to ghastly as his face thinned. Rich, nutritious fare was lightened and watered down and cleaned, half-digested, off the floor. He lied and smiled and swore he was getting better, really. He claimed to have an appetite betrayed by an increasingly sensitive stomach and nausea with unknown triggers. Ash claimed to feel warmer even while he shivered uncontrollably.
Fish. Vegetables. Congee. Warmed milk. Soup. Broth barely more substantial than tea. No matter what Eiji prepared for him, everything Ash ate seemed to make him ill. Desperate, Eiji had called Max and Blanca both, terrified by the pallor of Ash’s skin. Blanca followed Eiji’s gaze, eyes raking over Ash’s thin wrists and chapped lips with a scalpel’s precision. As usual, Blanca’s expression was the unbroken blackness of a frozen lake, but by now Eiji had learned his tells: a wrinkle between his brows, the way he shifted his weight as he leaned and loosened his perfect posture. Max and Blanca both seemed displeased but unsurprised by Ash’s condition — as though they’d expected it, as though it confirmed something. Eiji resisted the urge to hurl his tea kettle at them, focusing instead of coaxing Ash’s lips open enough for another spoonful of broth.
“There’s one thing we haven’t tried,” Max said tentatively, crossing his arms. “But neither you nor Ash are gonna like it.”
“Anything — anything at all,” Eiji replied, not looking away from the soup bowl. Another lukewarm spoonful, threaded carefully between the withered canyon that once was a mouth .
There was an unusual flintiness in Ash’s gaze. “Eiji’s done everything he can, don’t belittle him.”
“Like I said, Ash isn’t gonna like it,” Max continued. “But… I would say he seems, if nothing else… anemic.”
“Low iron. Not enough oxygen getting to where it needs to.”
This isn’t anemia, not even close.
“Ah, yes. He has been quite pale,” Eiji hedged politely, risking another glance at Ash’s complexion.
“Right. This will sound morbid, but… well —“
“Blood,” Blanca cut in, sighing. “He needs blood.”
“No.” Ash’s response was immediate.
“But Blanca… we cannot take Ash to a hospital, and I do not trust myself to use an IV,” Eiji said.
“That makes two of us,” Blanca replied, smiling gently. “I would never ask you to try play doctor.”
“Well, then —“
“You’ll have to feed it to him.”
“Abso-fucking-lutely not,” Ash snarled.
“Ash, your anemia is going to kill you if you keep being stubborn, and Eiji if he keeps working himself to the bone on remedies that won’t work.”
The words were precisely what Eiji suspected all along, though suspicion did little to dull the blow like an icy dagger wedged under his ribs.
“Ash is going to… die because of me?”
“No, he’s going to die because of his own stubborn pride if he keeps this up. I’m not saying you have to spill your guts, Ash… but let Eiji help,” Blanca said, his voice trailing into a soft plea.
“I do not know what is wrong… but I want to help, Ash. Please let me. I will not judge,” Eiji whispered urgently, his knuckles white as they gripped Ash’s shoulders. “Blood is not expensive, yes? The butcher sells pig’s blood; I’m sure I can ask him. So please, don’t feel guilty.”
Ash looked at him for a moment that seemed to stretch far longer than the situation warranted. “You think my only objection to being fed blood is the price?”
Eiji flushed. “I’m sure it doesn’t taste good, either. I’m very sorry. I’ll try to do what I can.”
Both Blanca and Max scowled, as though the words they were clearly holding back were bitter and rotten in their mouths. Eiji bit his tongue, tasting copper.
Serves them right. I hope they choke on it.
“Ash, look at him. I know that you feel like shit, and I know you… don’t want this. But sometimes we don’t have a choice. Eiji isn’t gonna judge you for it, and neither are we. Sure it’s weird,” Max said, mouth quirking with a strange humor that was lost on Eiji. “But weirder things have happened already.”
Ash nibbled his lip, avoiding Eiji’s gaze in a way that suggested hesitation rather than shyness.
“Would it help if I wasn’t in the room when you eat — er, drink it?” Eiji asked.
Ash’s mouth quirked with the faintest of smiles, rueful and self-deprecating. Eiji wished someone would just fill him in on what was apparently so funny about all of this, but settled for gratitude on having found a compromise.
Ash was willing to fight, however begrudging.
It was a start.
The air was dense with things left unsaid.
Eiji cleaned containers and cups and counters, scrubbing away any signs of scarlet. Like clockwork, he would exit the room after leaving a container of “broth” for Ash. He ignored the telltale crimson smear around Ash’s mouth and the streak in the leftover “broth” from a tongue desperately lapping at the dregs.
He pretended to not be hurt when it became apparent that his attempts to season or fortify the “broth” were fruitless. Adding rice or meat or dashi or anything that a normal palette would appreciate, anything that a normal stomach might consider sustenance, resulted in technicolor rejection and a thousand apologies heaved onto the carpet.
Just blood, then.
Ash was too ashamed to admit to preferences. Cold “broth” was sampled modestly; a bowl of still-warm “broth” was always licked dry. So Eiji made sure he arrived at the butcher well before sunrise, warming and stirring the “broth” gently in a saucepan until Ash woke up.
“Thanks, Eiji,” Ash said. For the first time in weeks, his cheeks had a bit of color to them. He was still weak — so incredibly weak — but Eiji couldn’t remember the last time Ash’s voice had that familiar timbre and cadence.
“Of course,” Eiji said; he couldn’t help but meet Ash’s smile, achingly sincere, in kind. “I’m glad to see you’re getting better.”
If you keep fighting, I will, too.
It had been three weeks.
The “broth” began to lose its efficacy. Ash drank it eagerly, no longer self-conscious about doing so while Eiji was in the room. He knew better than to feel comforted or flattered by this.
Eiji offered him another bowl. Ash drank. Ash’s appetite was bottomless; too proud to ask for more portions, there was always a hopeful, feral glaze to his eyes every time Eiji brought him more “broth”.
Eiji bought more blood. Bought fresher blood. Offered to slaughter the pig himself, much to the butcher’s alarm.
He considered supplementing Ash’s “broth” with the rarest beef he could find, anything with iron and protein to cure Ash’s “anemia”. The one time he transformed thought into action, Eiji was rewarded with gore regurgitated onto the carpet. Eiji fought back a rolling wave of nausea; Ash trembled against the edge of the bed, humiliated at having been too weak to even reach for the bucket.
Ash desperately needed a fucking hospital. This wasn’t normal , but what could he do? It was hard enough for Eiji to explain to the butcher why he kept buying more and more pig’s blood. He didn’t even understand what was happening, let alone well enough to attempt explaining it to a doctor.
It was easier to pretend that a language barrier was the only reason. Imagining Monsieur’s beast-like gaze lurking behind ambulances and clinic doors was more than he thought he could handle.
He could feel himself growing weaker, unable remember the last time he stopped to make himself anything heartier than rice.
There’s no time , he reasoned. He wasn’t sick — certainly not like Ash — just a little tired.
I’ll make a proper meal once Ash is a little stronger , he thought. Besides, he wasn’t even hungry.
>> You know what happens when you’re stressed. You forget to eat. How can you take care of Ash if you’re sick?
I’m fine, he just needs a little more time.
He began to lose track of the hours, the days; the edges of time and his vision blurred.
Ash just needed more.
Eiji’s dreams morphed into quasi-nightmares characterized by grotesque oceans that tasted of pennies, of white teeth and red flesh.
He wasn’t necessarily terrified by them; what unsettled him were the utterly mundane details that made me him question the hazy boundary between reality and the bizarre fiction his mind concocted. He heard the patter of footsteps from the condo above theirs, the low hum of a vacuum cleaner, or muffled laughter from a television with the volume just loud enough to be disruptive. Eiji’s dreams cared little for filtering out extraneous details; he could feel the wrinkles in the bed sheets beneath his fingers as vividly as Ash’s hair fluttering against his cheeks as he feigned sleep.
In his dreams, he could feel Ash’s panting breaths against his neck, could hear what sounded like exquisite self-restraint. In his dreams, Ash whispered feverishly to himself:
“I can’t. I can’t.”
Were this any other scenario, he’d flush from the intimacy of it. The few times he couldn’t feel Ash, he could see him, staring back at him wide-eyed with an expression that seemed ill-fitting given his weakness.
It made Eiji think of a spider gazing at the fly, of a lion gazing at the antelope. Ash’s eyes were bright and unreadable, but something primal in Eiji’s bones recognized it.
“You need to come here. Now.” His voice was a soft whisper, paper-thin and unnaturally even.
“Is everything alright?”
Laughter that was barely more than a breath, an octave higher than a sob.
"Of course not.”
“I don’t know,” Eiji giggled. “He has no heartbeat, but right now he is watching me talk to you. He’s very angry, you see. He tells me I’m imagining things. Maybe I am! But Ash has no heartbeat and isn’t getting better and the butcher isn’t letting me buy any more blood and, and —“
“Breathe, Eiji. Can you let me talk to Ash for a moment?”
Wordlessly, he handed the phone over to Ash. Ash’s replies were intentionally vague and impossible to pluck meaning from.
“Yes, every drop. No. Hell no, I’d never — fuck no, I’m not —”
Ash glanced at Eiji for a moment, mouth twisting strangely before replying.
“I can’t ask that.”
“Can’t ask what? Let me talk to Max, please,” Eiji said, snatching the phone back before Ash could refuse.
“Eiji, as I’m sure you can tell… Ash isn’t getting better. This isn’t your fault, kid — don’t think for a second that you’ve done anything wrong,” Max said urgently; Eiji could just imagine him pounding his fist on the table to emphasize his point, smiling a bit at the thought.
“If it’s not my fault, then why can’t you tell me how to fix it?”
He could hear Max take a drag from a cigarette and the long, tinny exhale that followed.
“This is a conversation you’re going to have to have with him. I don’t have the right to tell you. Just… I think he’ll be okay, once he finds his courage. Trust me on this.”
“… You’re a good kid, you know that?”
With that, the phone call ended. Eiji looked up to find Ash looking at him with an unfathomable expression, as though a thousand poisonous things were ready to spill from his mouth. Eiji sat next to Ash on the side of the bed; Ash’s breath hitched.
“Everything alright, Ash?”
“Ye—well, no,” he muttered, shaking his head. “I guess I should start by being honest about that. I’m not okay. I haven’t been for a while.”
Ash chuckled humorlessly. “Yeah, that much is pretty obvious. But… I’m not dying. I… I can’t die.”
“Ash, that’s not funny. Of course you can, and you will if you—”
“No, Eiji. I can’t . I… I’m not really like normal people, I’m… fuck,” he whispered, covering his eyes with his hands.
“I know you can’t die — there’s so much you need to do, so many things left undone,” Eiji said slowly, patience thinner than a broken thread. He remembered his father saying as much, insisting that his running tab of tasks left unfinished granted him a kind of immortality. Something fanged and violent slithered within his viscera, intent to draw blood.
Death sneered at deadlines. Ash was smart enough to know better.
“No, it’s not that. I… I literally can’t . Tell me, Eiji: what did Ibe come here to investigate?”
Eiji paused; it felt like decades had passed since he and Ibe first landed in New York, though he knew it’d been barely a few months. The idyllic world where he was content to be a camera man, ignorant of the vileness that lurked behind street corners and beneath manhole covers, felt like it may as well have been another planet.
“He… he came here to investigate some rumors about New York’s gangs. Something about monsters?”
Ash flinched, though his smile widened. “Vampires, Eiji, though you’re not off the mark. And what did he find out?”
“Not much? Vampires aren’t real, of course he didn’t.”
“Maybe he wasn’t asking the right questions,” Ash said; maybe it was a trick of the light, but Eiji swore Ash’s canines looked a bit sharper when he smiled now.
“Do you think a vampire would reveal himself to a stranger? Do you think a creature who has had centuries to learn how to hide would be found so easily?”
“Ash, what are you—”
“Think about it for a moment. Ibe comes here to investigate vampires under the guise of a story about teen gangs. Ibe asks the wrong questions, Dino gets a little too interested, and here we are hiding in an apartment while you’re stuck feeding me pig’s blood.”
Eiji didn’t want to connect the dots — everything in his rational mind railed against it, pounding the glass til it cracked — but the pieces were falling into place more quickly than he could catch them.
“Are you saying that you’re…?”
“That depends,” Ash said, voice losing its defiant edge. For the first time, Ash wouldn’t look him in the eye, gazing resolutely out the window and the brilliant skyline past the window pane. From here, it was difficult to tell where the city lights ended and stars began. “What will you do if I am?”
Eiji was tempted to laugh, to scream, to berate Ash for being juvenile, but something about the pregnant silence that followed his question made his heart stutter. Ash never asked such serious questions unless he meant them.
“You’re being serious, aren’t you?” Eiji said, barely able to draw in a breath. “This is why… nothing else worked, why you’ve been sick this whole time.”
“Yeah,” Ash murmured. “So… what will you do now? Knowing what you know?”
“I don’t think I really understand it… but what else is there to do? If you can tell me how to fix it, then you’ll get better.”
Ash blinked. “Did you not just hear what I said?”
“You said you’re a… a vampire. So that means you know how to get better.”
“Do you realize what vampires eat, Eiji?”
“I’m not stupid. You need blood. Apparently pig’s blood isn’t enough,” Eiji said, remembering the drawer full of cutlery. A hand wrapped around his wrist, its grip ironclad and unyielding.
“Don’t even think about it. I know what you’re planning,” Ash snarled.
“Why not? I have plenty.”
“It’s… you really don’t know a goddamn thing, do you? It’s not just a matter of taking a few sips. Drinking someone’s blood is very, very different from what you’re imagining it’s like.”
Ash’s gaze was intense, heavy with… something, apprehension that burned too gently to be anger. It reminded him of the raw, acute kind of hunger he’d seen in Ash’s eyes lately, though tempered. He felt his heart quicken almost instinctively, the air between them sticky and suffocating.
“I imagine it might be awkward and painful. Am I wrong?”
Ash let out a soft peal of laughter, his voice unnaturally warm and inviting. “Now, what else might you describe like that?”
“So… it feels good, too? Depending on the person?” Eiji said; he could feel his face redden, sweat beading near his hairline even as snow littered the windowsill outside.
“Right. It’s… well. Some people don’t mind it with just anyone; some people don’t care whether or not the human —” at this Ash paused, grimacing apologetically — “wants to or not. It’ll feel good… but that doesn’t mean they want it, or that they’ll enjoy it. Pleasure doesn’t fucking mean anything. Just because it feels good doesn’t mean—”
“I understand, Ash,” Eiji said gently. Ash’s voice had taken on a dangerous tremor, eyes beginning to glaze over. He didn’t want to think about the memories and sensations Ash’s mind dredged up.
“No, you don’t , Eiji. Do you have any idea what it’s like? To need something, to have no choice, knowing that you’ll just end up hurting someone?”
“I don’t, not like you,” he admitted. “But you wouldn’t be hurting me. I… I want you to get better, whatever it takes.”
Ash sighed. “It’s not just about food. Feeding is… intense. Very, very intense, especially for the human. People tend to say and do things they don’t mean because the intensity of it confuses them.”
“I won’t be confused. I want to help you — I want you to do this, I —” Eiji bit his lip, the words he wanted to say brittle and sweet against his teeth. “I… I promised forever, didn’t I?”
Ash swore under his breath, licking his lips unwittingly — a lapse of control amidst the gnawing thirst — and an immediate surge of heat fluttered in Eiji’s stomach. He knew he should be terrified, should be anxious; he should fear Ash’s teeth as keenly as he’d fear a knife to his carotid.
What licked at his nerves was a darker kind of excitement, heady and suffocating; almost as if coaxed by instinct, he felt himself baring his neck the closer Ash drew to him, the wider his lips parted.
“Are you sure?” Ash murmured; he could feel Ash’s breath against his throat, tremulous and uncertain. Eiji nodded, feeling himself grow dizzier as the space between tooth and flesh shrank.
Keen invasion, more intimate than a knife between his thighs, followed by a deluge of pleasure, of something nameless building to a crescendo. Ash’s articulacy vanished; Eiji’s shame dissipated. There was something breathtakingly simple about it: give and take, feed and nourish, pleasure upon pleasure finely intermingled. And still Ash clawed further inside of him; he swore he could feel Ash’s teeth driving deeper, could feel him draining him more wantonly than before.
Eiji would let him, of course; even while his heart raced and breaths grew heavy, while desire throbbed insistent and guilty between his legs, he remained still and pliant, allowing Ash to take what was his from the moment it was promised. Eiji would split open his rib cage if Ash wished for a cocoon.