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porgi, amor, qualche ristoro

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It’s a normal day, until it isn’t.

It’s cold outside, windy and wet and gross. It’s not quite below freezing, but the rain makes it absolutely miserable anyway, and Ash is glad to be indoors, bundled up in a cozy sweater, with a blanket across his lap. Winters in Izumo, he’s learned, are cold and wet, and nothing about them is pleasant.

“You are so cute,” Eiji tells him, amused and affectionate, as he sets a mug of hot chocolate down on the end table next to Ash, and then settles down at his side, taking half of the blanket for himself. “All bundled up. Are you warm enough, or do I need to go get you a parka?”

“I’m from New York.” Ash huffs, mildly indignant, even as he turns his head to bump his nose against Eiji’s cheek. “I’ve seen way worse winters than this.”

“And yet you are still wrapped up in a sweater, a turtleneck shirt, and a thick blanket.” Eiji grins at him, wry, and nudges his arm, then settles back to sip his own hot chocolate. “And how could I forget the pretty velvet skirt I got you… Oh, right. I cannot see it under all the blanket layers. How many times did you wrap yourself in that thing?”

“I’m not wearing the skirt for fashion. It’s like wearing a fucking blanket, Eiji.” Ash rolls his eyes. “I have a blanket and a big thick skirt so that my legs stay warm. It’s not rocket science.”

“It is a pretty skirt, though,” Nahoko pipes up, from her end of the sofa. “It looks very nice on you!”

Ash preens a little. “Thank you. At least someone appreciates me.”

“I just said it is a pretty skirt!” Eiji rolls his eyes. “Hiding under all your blankets and hogging them. None for the rest of us. Stop acting like you are good at winter.”

“I’m perfectly fine at dealing with winter.” Ash sniffs. “I just told you. I’m from New York.”

Eiji is unimpressed. “And I was there in New York, you know. I saw how many layers you put on every time you had to go out while it snowed. You cannot fool me.”

Ash rolls his eyes, closing his book (he’s rereading The Return Of The King again; Lord of the Rings is a comfort story, at this point). He picks up his own mug, smiling when he sees Eiji’s filled it with marshmallows and topped it with a mountain of whipped cream, already half-melted. Just like he always likes it.

“There’s nothing wrong with liking to be comfortable,” he replies, and licks at the melting cream. Next to him, Eiji just rolls his eyes and says nothing, convinced he’s already won anyway.

“Ash is doing what you are supposed to do with cold weather,” Nahoko chimes in. She’s half-watching TV, half just on her phone texting her friends; the TV is mostly just background noise at this point. “You are supposed to bundle up until you are warm. It is not like hot weather, where you cannot take off more clothes than you already have, and then you have to suffer anyway. In cold weather, you can just put more on! Which is just what he is doing!”

“Nahoko, will you be quiet and let me make fun of my boyfriend?” Eiji huffs. “You always take his side, no matter what! Whose relative are you, anyway?”

“Well, I will be Ash’s sister-in-law, whenever you get off your big stinky butt and actually propose to him,” Nahoko sniffs, and flips Eiji off.

Yeah, that’s definitely Ash’s influence.

Oops?

“Shut up, you little—” Eiji grouses.

“Yeah, Nahoko. Who says he’s gonna propose to me?” Ash grins. “For all you know, I might beat him to it.”

Eiji rounds on him, brows furrowed, and then elbows him indignantly. “Don’t you dare! I have plans.”

Wait. What?

“You—wait, you do?” Ash’s heart does some funny things in his chest. “Eiji!”

“What are you sounding so surprised for!” Eiji huffs. “We talked about it, of course I have made plans since then! If you have not, that’s your problem, and just goes further to prove my point! Don’t you dare try to beat me to it.”

“Nii-san! You didn’t tell me about this, either!” Nahoko gasps, eyes shining. “I have to know all of the details! Do you have a ring for him? Are you going to get him one of those big pretty ones with a fancy stone?! Ooh, Ash, are you gonna wear a cool suit or a pretty dress for the wedding? Or—”

“No questions!” Eiji squawks. “Especially not in front of Ash!”

That, somehow, gets Nahoko to clam up, though her giddy smile doesn’t fade in the slightest. In fact, it might even get a little giddier. Ash suddenly is a little bit terrified of just how enthusiastic she’ll be when Eiji actually does propose to him.

Which, apparently, he’s making secret plans for?! What the fuck! Ash has to make secret plans now, too. He can’t be outdone.

Does he want to wear a pretty dress for the wedding? That might be fun. He does look pretty great in a dress, and round skirts do that fun flare-out thing when he spins…

“Eiji,” Nozomi calls from the kitchen, drawing Ash out of his thoughts. She says something in rapid Japanese—Ash has gotten much better at it, but her Izumo-ben still makes him take a split second to replay her words in his mind before he can parse the meaning: “I forgot to get eggs at the store yesterday. Could you please run down and get a box? Dinner is nearly ready!”

“Why do you always forget the eggs?” Eiji complains, but his voice is lighthearted. “Next time, highlight them on your list. Put a sticker or something. Or just make Nahoko go.”

Nahoko looks up from her phone and sticks her tongue out impudently. “Younger sibling privileges! If you are here, it is your problem. I had to do things for her all the time after you left!”

“I should have older sibling privileges!” Eiji folds his arms over his chest. “You left this year, too. Now we both moved out for university, so it resets any privileges you had.”

“No way!” Nahoko squawks. “I only left to Matsue, so I’m home way more! You went all the way to Tokyo, and you hardly ever come home! It’s your turn.”

“I had six years of doing things before you got here! You have six years worth of chores and errands to make up—”

“Oh, as if Kaa-san had you going to do groceries when you were four!”

“Children!” Nozomi sounds both fond and exasperated. Something about the bickering, and the way she shuts it down, reminds Ash of Griffin; he smiles slightly down at the book in his lap. Griff was the one who introduced him to Tolkien. “Stop arguing! Eiji, will you get the eggs?”

Eiji laughs ruefully. “Yes, Kaa-san, I’ll go.” He gets to his feet, then rests his hand fondly atop Ash’s head and looks at him with an inquisitive tilt to his head. “Ash, do you want to come, or are you too cozy to venture outside into the horrible, terrible cold weather?”

Ash tips his head into his hand, nuzzles his palm fondly, and then gives him a dour look while pulling his blanket up higher. “Fuck off.”

“Thought you would say that.” Eiji rolls his eyesat him, ruffles his hair, and looks around. “Now where did I leave my keys…”

He pulls on his coat—actually, he pulls on Ash’s coat—and stuffs his wallet, phone, and keys into his pockets, then comes over and drops a quick kiss to the top of Ash’s head. Ash emerges from his blanket cocoon to adjust the scarf Eiji has haphazardly slung around his neck—seriously, it’ll do nothing for him if he just lets out all his warmth—and Eiji gives him a fond smile.

“You be good while I’m gone,” he teases, cupping Ash’s face to squish his cheeks. His hands are warm, so for once, Ash doesn’t complain. “No teaching my sister bad things.”

“You are a worse influence than Ash,” Nahoko complains, and rolls her eyes. “You are the one who taught me the fuck word.”

Eiji heaves a sigh. “And I regret it, every day of my life.”

Ash laughs. Eiji leans down and pecks his forehead, ruffles Nahoko’s hair to make her squawk, and heads out.

When the door closes behind Eiji, Ash sinks into his blankets again, sips his hot chocolate, and hums to himself. This little house feels so much like a real home, with pictures lining the walls and trinkets and mementos on the shelves. There’s books, some in English and some in Japanese, and it always smells good—tonight’s curry permeates the air. Nozomi always makes it when Eiji comes to visit.

“You look cozy,” Nahoko observes, from the other end of the sofa. Ash looks over at her—she’s sprawled out on her back, phone propped up on her stomach, one leg thrown over the back of the sofa and the other bent, knee in the air.

He raises an eyebrow. “You’re one to talk.”

Nahoko laughs. “Shh! It is comfy like this!”

“Hey, I’m not arguing that. Sometimes it’s just better to use a couch incorrectly.” Ash sips his hot chocolate, savoring a half-melted marshmallow. Something on the TV flashes, and one of the characters is crying. Ash has no idea what’s going on in the show, other than that it certainly lives up to its name as a drama.

“It is,” Nahoko agrees. She sticks one foot under the edge of his blanket, and he offers her the tail end to keep her feet warm. It’s… nice, to share and spend time with someone he’s come to see as family. He’s never had a younger sister before, but if he did, he thinks he’d like it to be Nahoko.

…And it will be, if—when—he marries Eiji.

For a few minutes, Ash watches TV with her, smiling to himself as he drinks his hot chocolate. It’s at a good temperature now, and it tastes like the warmth Eiji put into making it for him.

The lead couple in the drama are having a tearful argument in the rain. They’re not together yet, but they’re close to it—as Ash and Nahoko watch, one of them yells out a love confession, and the argument stops in its tracks.

“Fuck!” Nahoko picks up her phone to furiously text one of her friends. “Misaki and I had a bet. I thought they were gonna drag out the confession for another episode!”

The woman on the screen looks shocked. The music swells, and then the show cuts to—of course—a commercial break.

“Too bad,” Ash teases. “How much money’d you lose?”

Nahoko goes pink. “We didn’t bet money,” she hedges, and then puffs out her cheeks, the same way Eiji does. “Winner gets to make loser send a risky text of their choice.”

Ash raises an eyebrow again. “Oh, yeah? And what risk are you gonna have to take?”

Nahoko buries her face in her hands. “Don’t tell Eiji. He will throw a fit.”

Now ten times as interested, Ash sits up a little and nods. “You have my word.”

“She wants me to make fun of Sing for sending me his nudes,” Nahoko says, and groans into her palms.

Ash, for his part, stares for a second, unsure if he heard right. “…Sing sent you nudes?”

Sing, as in Sing Soo-Ling, scrappy kid turned tall, confident nineteen year old? Sing, who’s been going to college and making friends and playing video games across the world with Nahoko for a few years. Sing, sarcastic but sweet guy who’s finally managed to grow out of Shorter’s shadow to find his own place. That Sing…

That Sing is texting Eiji’s sister nudes?

“Platonically!” Nahoko squawks. “He just—you know, he got bottom surgery a little while ago, and he was really excited when it healed enough, and he asked permission first! So it doesn’t even really count as texting nudes! But Misaki is going to make me tell him it was very scandalous of him. I hate her.”

Ah.

Platonic nudes.

Because he was excited about his new-and-improved dick.

Shorter, Ash thinks, for once without pain. He really is your protégé.

“I don’t know if Eiji would throw a fit about that so much as he would just laugh his ass off.” Ash can’t help but snort, amusement bubbling up in his chest. He sips his hot chocolate and shakes his head, laughing. “Fuckin’ platonic nudes. That’s a new one. I can’t believe Sing didn’t try to send ‘em to Eiji, after how much he lost it when he found out Eiji’s trans too.”

“Maybe he knew that Eiji would definitely throw a fit.” Nahoko huffs. “He still thinks I am a baby. He told me so himself.”

That makes Ash soften, fond in a way he can’t quite explain. He sips his hot chocolate again, smiling into it, then lifts his head and smiles at her, too. “Well, yeah. In a way, you’ll always be his baby sister.”

Nahoko wrinkles her nose. “But I am eighteen! Sure, I am still a dumb teenager and not a real adult, but I am not a baby.”

“I don’t think Eiji thinks you’re only just ‘a baby’ or something,” Ash reassures her, and pats the foot that’s next to him. “I think he just meant you’re his little sister, and he’ll always feel the urge to, like, look out for you.”

But Nahoko shakes her head. “No, we were going through old stuff and he said that I am a dumb little baby and I always will be. And then he tried to make me put on a bib he used to wear when he was little.”

“Oh.” Ash shrugs, amused. “Then yeah, sorry. He was just fucking with you.”

That makes her laugh again. “He is always doing that. He thinks he is so funny.”

“Big brothers are like that, sometimes.” Ash smiles wistfully, looking down at the book in his lap. Something bubbles up in his chest, and before he can stop himself, he blurts out, “I used to have a big brother, you know.”

“Really?” Nahoko’s eyes go wide. “You never mentioned him before!” And then her face dims, as the past tense registers. “…You ‘used to’? Is he…?”

“Dead,” Ash confirms, and sighs, stroking his thumb tenderly over the words on the page. “It’s been a few years, and even before that, he… well, it doesn’t matter. The point is, uh… actually, I don’t know what my point with that was. His name was Griffin, and he was a really, really good brother. Sometimes, you ‘n’ Eiji remind me of how it was when it was me and him.”

Nahoko’s eyes are even wider, a feat Ash hadn’t previously thought possible. “Oh,” she says, and then she sits up, leans over, and hugs him.

Even at eighteen, she’s still a tiny slip of a girl. Eiji likes to tease her by calling her a shrimp. But small as she may be, she hugs tight, clinging to him like a fierce little limpet and doing her very best to squeeze the air right out of his lungs.

“I’m sorry he is gone,” she murmurs, as Ash gently hugs her back. “You are strong. I don’t know what I would do if I had lost Eiji.”

Losing a brother. Losing Eiji. Ash is already thinking about Griff’s smile, hazy in his memories. He does his very best not to think of an abandoned piece of paper with basic Japanese greetings on the table, and blood on the floor. “Yeah. That makes two of us.”

Nahoko gives him a tight squeeze. “I am sorry about Griffin. But Ash, you will not lose Eiji. Neither will I! It is okay now.”

She draws back and pats his head, smiling warmly. Ash can’t help but smile back—these Okumuras have contagious smiles.

“Yeah,” he agrees, and picks up his mug again to finish his hot chocolate. “Everything is okay.”

The commercial break finishes, and Nahoko goes back to watching the drama and texting her friends. Ash returns to his book—he’s on the chapter “The Houses of Healing”, the one where Faramir and Éowyn get to know each other and get together. He’s probably gonna finish this reread soon…

A few minutes pass. More things happen in the drama, though he isn’t paying attention. Faramir gives Éowyn his mother’s star-strewn cloak. Ash finishes the chapter and starts the next, completely absorbed. Nozomi hums to herself as she putters around in the kitchen, having firmly refused to let any of her kids, a term that she insists includes Ash, help right now.

The next commercial break comes on. Nahoko texts her friends some more, or maybe Sing.

And a wave of anxiety slams into Ash with the force of a freight train.

His breath catches in his throat as he stares down at the text on the page; suddenly none of the lines resolve themselves into letters anymore, let alone words, and he’s floundering and drowning in air that he was breathing just fine a moment ago. His heart pounds in his throat, his ears ring, his vision blurs.

What’s happening? Why—

Belatedly, he realizes what tune is playing from the speakers, innocuously used as the background music for some advertisement he can’t bear to look at.

Fast, energetic violins, and an upbeat orchestra. Classical music. An opera he knows. Mozart.

The overture from The Marriage of Figaro.

And just like that, Ash isn’t in a cozy house in Izumo anymore. He’s not even in Japan; he’s in a private box at the theater in New York City, in the dark, listening to the orchestra play these opening bars.

He’s blind. He can’t see beyond the vague blur of lights. All he knows is that he can feel Dino’s hand on his thigh, fingers digging in just hard enough to hurt. All he knows is that this—being paraded around like a toy, being reminded that he is nothing but a possession—is the rest of his life. Dirty, vile, desecrated, defiled. That’s his life, until the merciful day he dies.

The book falls from his hands. He doesn’t notice. How could he? There never was a book in his hands; he’s at the opera house. He can’t see. There’s no book. Even if there was, he couldn’t read it. He can’t see.

The orchestra is playing Mozart, and he can’t see.

The air in his lungs turns to shards of glass, digging in painfully with every breath. The orchestra keeps playing as singers set the scene on stage, but Ash can’t see them. All he can do is listen, and feel. It’s so dark; the only light comes from the direction of the stage, but it’s just one big vague blur.

Dino’s hand is a hot iron brand burning into his skin. He would scream from the agony of it, but they’re at the opera. If he makes a scene like that, he’ll be punished.

He can’t risk being punished. They’ll hurt Eiji. They’ll kill Eiji—the shards of glass in his chest twist, and he can’t help it; he gasps from the pain, a quiet, strangled little whimper. God, he hopes Dino didn’t hear it.

“Ash?!”

No, no no no Dino did hear it—fuck, fuck, is his hearing going wrong, too? What’s wrong with Dino’s voice? He can’t see and it’s so dark and—

“Ash! What happened? Are you okay?”

That’s not Dino’s voice. That’s not Dino’s voice, whose voice is that and why are they here, Dino will kill them—no! No one should be here for him! No one can save Ash, or they’ll kill Eiji, they’ll kill Eiji!

They’ll kill Eiji and it’ll be all Ash’s fault and then Dino will throw him right back into the whorehouse where he came from, and he’ll deserve every ounce of pain seared into his body because they’ll have killed Eiji and it’ll have been his fault.

“Kaa-san! Something is wrong with Ash—he’s not responding and he’s breathing weird! Oh my god, I think he’s having a heart attack! Kaa-san! Kaa-san, come quick! Help!”

Stop, Ash wants to beg them. Don’t call for help, don’t help me, they’ll kill Eiji and I’ll deserve my slow death. But his voice doesn’t work; there’s too many glass knives twisting into his chest and throat, and he can’t do more than gasp and whimper. It hurts.

He can’t see.

It’s so dark. The orchestra is playing Mozart, and he can’t see.

Dino’s fingers dig painfully into his thigh. He can feel the ghost of the way Dino kissed him just a few (years) hours ago, can still taste Dino’s blood on his tongue.

Someone is touching his shoulder. He stiffens, but he can’t shy away from the touch like his mind is screaming at him to. He has to be good, or Eiji… Eiji will…

(Blood on the floor, his shirt his hands the pavement all stained red—)

No, no no no it isn’t real, it hasn’t happened yet, he’ll be good and Eiji will live, no please, he’ll be good, he can’t see, he can’t run, he can’t misbehave if he can’t see, he’ll be good!

The orchestra plays on.

“Ash? Ash, can you hear me?”

A new voice. Older. Gentler. He can’t see. It’s so dark. Are the lights on? No, they can’t be. Where is he? He’s on a sofa—no, he’s at the opera house, he’s at the opera house and his entire life is a gilded cage lined with spikes. An iron maiden, adorned with gold.

Can he hear? God, yes, he can hear. The orchestra is still playing Mozart. It drills into his eardrums until his head is fit to explode from the pain and the pressure. He can hear, and the more he can hear, the less he can breathe.

“So loud,” he croaks out, a hoarse whisper. His head swims. At least Dino doesn’t seem to notice; perhaps after the show he’ll reprimand Ash for complaining, but for now, the branding iron gripping Ash’s thigh stays still.

“Nahoko,” the second voice says tersely, “turn off the TV. He said it is too loud.”

“Okay,” the first voice answers, high and frightened. Nahoko. He knows who she is, but he doesn’t know. The audience finally settles down; the intermission must have finished. Did the orchestra play through the intermission? How strange. “Kaa-san, what’s happening to him?! Should we call an ambulance? Is he—is he going to die?”

“Nahoko! Don’t say such horrible things!” The second voice is sharp. “Stop crowding him—go make some tea. Chamomile. It will help.”

Nahoko. Who is Nahoko? Why is she here, at the opera? That seems wrong. She… she…

Eiji’s sister.

Eiji.

They have Eiji’s sister?

No, no no no, no no no no no no no no! No! No! No!

The orchestra is still playing. It’s dead silent, but the opera isn’t over. Ash can hear them singing. Figaro and Susanna. The treacherous Count.

He wants to be sick.

Why is Eiji’s sister here?

“Tea?!” she squawks. “Kaa-san, he isn’t responding at all! How—how can he drink tea if he can’t even sit up?!”

Can’t sit up? What does she mean? Him? He isn’t… oh, god, is he lying down? He needs to sit up properly, or Dino will be angry, and if Dino is too angry he’ll threaten to send Blanca after Eiji again, and Ash is useless to protect Eiji anymore, and, and… and…

He can’t see.

He can’t do anything like this. He can’t even protect himself like this. He can’t see.

He’s never had his eyes taken from him before, and he’s terrified.

“Ash,” the second voice, Kaa-san, says. She’s so gentle for someone trapped in a private theater box with Dino and Dino’s fucked-up little doll. “Ash, can you tell me what is happening? What do you need right now?”

Ash needs his eyes back. He needs Dino’s hands off him. He needs to get out of here, he needs to flee, he needs to break these chains around his neck weighing him down in the water, but he can’t, because more than any of that, he needs to be good.

He needs to be good. He needs to keep Eiji safe. He needs to be good. He needs to protect Eiji.

He needs to protect…

“Eiji,” he whispers, his voice hoarse. “Need… save… I can’t… I can’t…”

“You need Eiji?” Nahoko asks, desperate. “I’ll call him right now!”

No! No no no don’t bring Eiji here—Ash cries out in dismay, tries to lurch to his feet to stop her, but he can’t see and he doesn’t know where she is and it’s dark, and blurry, and he doesn’t know if he trips over a piece of furniture or himself, but suddenly his balance is gone and he collapses to the floor with a painful thud. He barely catches himself on his hands; his knees cry out in protest.

Fuck. Is he causing a scene? Why is—why is there a table in the box? That’s not right. Is that a table? Fuck! Did someone turn the lights on? No, he can’t see but he can but he can’t but—

“Ash!” Kaa-san cries, and someone touches his shoulder again, but this time the hand is only warm, not burning-hot. But it makes a thousand pins prickle under his skin, stab stab stab stabstabstabstab, and he jerks away violently, only to slam his elbow unexpectedly into the edge of the same coffee table.

It hurts, but not as bad as it hurts to breathe. The terror and the glass coiled together in his chest conspire to choke him and watch him drown.

“Nii-san?” Nahoko sounds close to tears. “You have to come home right now! Something—something happened to Ash and he can’t talk! And he’s barely moving and he’s breathing too fast, and I think he’s having a heart attack but Kaa-san said he isn’t, but he just collapsed and I’m scared, Kaa-san is sitting with him but he’s asking for you and you have to come home right now—”

No! Eiji can’t come here, Eiji can’t come here, they’ll kill him and they’ll tear Ash’s heart out the second they do—he can’t—he can’t watch Eiji die, he can’t—the red blood on his hands, the red red red blood everywhere, he can’t—

Wait.

Come… home?

The opera house isn’t home. The opera house is no one’s home. What does that mean? What are they talking about?

“You are safe, Ash,” Kaa-san says, her voice gentle. She’s near him, somewhere, but she doesn’t touch him again. If that was even her, before. Was it? He doesn’t know. He can’t see. How can he possibly be safe when Dino has had him in his clutches for days? Dino has been playing with him and playing with him, forcing him here and there, treating him like a broken toy—

The opera house isn’t safe.

This is the rest of his life.

Ash wants to cry. His chest hurts so much.

(“Don’t damage him too much; I still want to play with him later.” That’s what Dino told Blanca. And Blanca… just said okay. It hurts. Blanca protected him from Marvin, but Blanca helps Dino catch and rape him? Blanca doesn’t care, and—and it hurts, it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts—)

“Ash, darling.” That’s—that’s Eiji’s voice, tinny and distant through a speaker. It jerks him out of his thoughts, just a little, and he tries to find his voice enough to say something, anything.

“Eiji,” he manages, pathetic and reedy. Eiji can’t come here. “Eiji…”

Eiji can’t come here. Eiji can’t come here or Dino will kill him and Ash can’t even see and he can’t defend himself, let alone protect Eiji, he’s useless he’s useless he’s useless and Dino is going to kill Eiji and Ash will just feel the spatter of hot blood across his face and—

“Oh, Ash. My sweet Ash,” Eiji murmurs. “Can you take a deep breath for me? I will be there soon, I promise. I will take care of you.” God, Eiji sounds so gentle; Ash wants to grasp at him and bury his face in his chest and cry so badly that it’s a physical ache in his chest. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“No—not safe,” Ash forces out, teeth gritted. He can still feel Dino’s phantom hand clamped on his thigh, reminding him of where he belongs. It’s so dark, and he can’t see. “Can’t—don’t—you—you’ll, he’ll kill you, I—I can’t—”

“Not safe?” Eiji repeats, softly. “Ash, darling, you are safe. It is safe. No one can hurt you now, my love. We made it. We are safe.”

What? What is Eiji talking about? Ash wants to believe him so badly, but—but the orchestra is playing Mozart, and Dino’s claws are digging into Ash’s heart even now, and… and…

“Can you do something for me, dearest?” Eiji still sounds so tender. A little out of breath, as if he’s been running, but tender. “Can you tell me five things you can see, right now?”

Five things he can see.

That’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it?

“Can’t see,” Ash chokes out. Next to him, he hears a gasp—it must be Nahoko, holding the phone for him. He can’t figure out what to say to her; he can’t see, and he can’t see, and he can’t see, and the orchestra is playing Mozart. “Can’t. Can’t.”

“You can’t see?” Eiji’s voice is concerned, but still so achingly tender that Ash wants to weep. A tight, painful lump rises in his throat. “Why not, darling?”

Ash shivers. “The opera.”

They held him down, four armed men—one for each limb, while Dino held a fistful of his hair and yanked his head back to administer the eyedrops personally. He seemed to get some sort of sick pleasure from it, from rendering Ash blind and helpless. From leaving him terrified.

Eiji is quiet for a moment. Does he understand? Does he understand that Ash has been torn apart and thrown back into the cage he slipped away from, chains around his neck keeping him right in line? Does he understand that Ash is out of his reach now, that Ash is eventually going to die like this, defiled and broken?

“Ash,” Eiji says, very, very gentle. “Ash, my love. My angel. You are safe. I do not know which opera, but… You are at my mother’s home, in Izumo, in Japan. There is no opera there. You are safe.”

What?

Spots dance in his vision. Ash doesn’t understand.

“No—but I—the—the orchestra,” he stammers. Someone is shaking. He can feel the tremors. Is that him? His chest hurts with every attempt at a breath, and he sobs in agony. “They—they keep playing and—and I—I can’t—I can’t see, I can’t—”

“Shhhh, shhh, it’s okay. It’s okay, Ash. Shh… you are not there any longer, my darling. You are safe. You are safe. I promise you, you are safe.” Eiji takes a soft breath. “I’m nearly home, okay? I was already heading back when Nahoko called me. I will be there in just a minute. Just hold on, dearest. I will take care of you.”

“The opera?” Nahoko asks anxiously. Ash blinks and blinks, trying to clear the spots from his vision, and is startled to realize that he’s crying. He can see… he can see the pink and blue of her jacket, vaguely. She’s on her knees? Next to him?

She’s still blurry, but…

It’s not… dark?

He doesn’t understand. He’s in the opera house. What does Eiji mean? He’s in Japan? But… Dino’s hand, and… the orchestra…

“What orchestra? What opera?” Nahoko sounds so worried. “Kaa-san, what is he talking about?”

“I do not know,” Kaa-san says. Vaguely, he’s pretty sure that that isn’t her name, but Ash can’t get his mind to stay still long enough to figure out what is. “Hush now. Do not crowd him or prod him so much. Let him talk when he is ready.”

When he’s ready. How can he be ready when he’s in chains, in a cage, trapped…

…but the lights are on, and that’s strange. Why are the lights on? The opera house was dark. The only lights were on stage.

They keep saying that he’s safe. Eiji and Kaa-san. Dino would never in his life let anyone assure him or comfort Ash, so does that mean Dino… isn’t actually here?

There’s the briefest flash of the thought that Dino is dead. Why… why does that make Ash think of fire?

His head spins. His throat hurts. His chest burns.

“Eiji,” he whimpers, and this time it’s a plea. “Eiji, Eiji, Eiji…”

A rustle sounds over the phone. A second later, a key sounds in the door. Ash tries to look, weak and pathetic; everything is blurry, but he can see—

He can see?

He can see the hazy outlines of a living room. A sofa, a table. A set of pictures on the wall. A girl with a pink case on her phone, kneeling at his side. And the front door, opening to reveal Eiji.

Eiji.

Eiji.

Something tugs in Ash’s chest, and he aches. He weakly tries to reach for him, but all he manages to do is curl his fingers as he lies there on the floor. He is nothing more than a pathetic, broken doll, lying in shattered porcelain shards.

“Oh, Ash,” Eiji breathes, and all but drops the box of eggs in his hand in his haste to set it on a table and rush to Ash’s side.

He shoos Nahoko away and falls to his knees in her place, his face blurry but filled with concern. Ash’s fingers twitch again as he tries to reach up, to take Eiji’s hand, to beg him for something, anything, but he still can’t bring himself to uncurl—he’s too afraid—and he can’t. He can’t. He can’t.

Why are the lights on? What happened to the orchestra?

Eiji takes his hand in both of his, and Ash stiffens as a bolt of lightning crashes through him, shocking him to the core. Eiji’s hands are warm.

Warm. Comforting. Not iron brands searing pain into his skin. Just warm.

A hot tear leaks from the corner of Ash’s eye, rolls over the bridge of his nose and the curve of his brow, and seeps into his hair. The carpet is a little rough under his cheek. When did he start to cry?

“What happened, dearest?” Eiji murmurs, stroking his thumb over the base of Ash’s. His touch is soothing, not fire, not pins that prickle and poke and prod. How?

“Eiji,” Ash croaks out, his voice hoarse. It’s the only word he knows anymore. “Eiji, Eiji, Eiji…”

“I’m here, my Ash.” Eiji takes one hand from his to cradle his cheek, his thumb tenderly caressing the delicate, tear-soaked skin below Ash’s eye. “I am right here. I am here. Oh, Ash. I am here. I’ve got you, darling.”

Ash’s breath shudders in his chest. It still hurts. “Eiji…”

Eiji keeps doing that, stroking his thumbs over Ash’s knuckles and his face. Ash closes his eyes, suddenly exhausted, only to inhale sharply as panic jolts through him when it’s once again dark and he can’t see. He decides to stare at Eiji’s knee instead.

“What happened?” Eiji asks again, but this time he’s looking at Nahoko. “When did it start?”

“Is he going to die?” Nahoko bursts out. When Ash flicks his gaze to her, her eyes are big and scared, and sudden guilt joins the unpleasant cocktail in the pit of his stomach. “Nii-san, he just collapsed and he was breathing so weirdly and—and—is he—is he—”

“God, no, what the hell!” Eiji presses his lips together into a thin line, displeased and incredulous, before he softens again. “No, no. He just… he had a very bad panic attack, it looks like. Do you know what made it start?”

He looks between Nahoko and his mother, but they both shake their heads. Ash goes back to staring at Eiji’s knee. He feels empty and raw and scraped dry, and it hurts.

“We were watching TV together,” Nahoko sniffles. “We talked a little, and he seemed fine? And the ads came on, so I was texting my friends, and he was reading, and then he just dropped his book and I asked him if he was okay but he didn’t respond and I got scared and—”

“Nahoko,” Nozomi says, and places her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “It will be okay. He will be okay. Hush, okay? It is okay.”

Nahoko nods tearfully and sniffles again. “Sorry.”

“It is okay.” Nozomi pats her head. “Eiji, what does he need? Should I make him tea?”

If he was less terrified and confused and hurting, Ash would laugh. Eiji’s mother jumps to make tea when things are bad, too, huh? Apples and trees, apples and trees.

As it is, though, he can’t laugh. He can’t even smile. He tries, but he whimpers instead, and Eiji squeezes his hand to soothe him.

“Give us some space,” Eiji says. “I think tea would be good, in a few minutes, Kaa-san, but first, just… can we have the room for a little while?”

“Of course.” Nozomi gets to her feet, and her shadow falls across Ash’s face, and—

He stiffens in fear. She’s standing over him and she could hurt him (she wouldn’t, she wouldn’t, he’s safe, they keep saying so, they keep saying he’s safe), and his head spins and he can’t breathe and it hurts, it hurts to suck a breath into his glass lungs.

“Kaa-san, don’t stand over him like that,” Eiji rebukes, and immediately, she steps away.

Oh. Ash freezes.

It was that easy?

“I am sorry, Ash,” she says, and bows slightly. “I did not mean to frighten you.”

“…Eiji,” Ash rasps, instead of it’s okay, or thank you, or even sorry. “Eiji…”

“Come, Nahoko.” Nozomi helps Nahoko to her feet, too, and the two of them quickly disappear back into the kitchen.

And then it’s just him and Eiji, on the floor. Ash tries to breathe again. It still hurts.

Instead of making him get up, instead of forcing him to uncurl from his defensive, tight little ball, Eiji just lays down next to him, his face impossibly tender, and presses his forehead to Ash’s. He keeps one hand on Ash’s cheek, the other holding Ash’s hand between them.

Ash’s breath catches in his throat.

“Hey, sweetie,” Eiji murmurs, and offers him a tiny smile that’s heartbreakingly fond. “Look at me. You’re safe, okay? I promise. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

“Eiji,” Ash manages, and chokes on a sob. Eiji is here, touching him so gently, assuring him he’s safe, and now Ash can see—earlier he couldn’t see at all, and he was so, so scared. No assurances could reach him. They could tell him he was safe all they wanted; he couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t feel it at all, too terrified and lost in his mind.

But Eiji makes him feel safe.

“Do you just need to cry it out, my Ash?” Eiji tenderly strokes his hair back from his forehead, tucking it behind his ear. “If you need to cry, then cry. Do you want me to hold you?”

In lieu of an answer, Ash just shuffles a little closer and buries his face in Eiji’s neck. Eiji makes him feel safe, and Eiji is his one lifeline, tethering him to reality right now; if Eiji leaves him, he’ll fall right back down into the darkness.

Into that opera box.

Fear makes an icy fist around his heart. He chokes on a gasp.

He can’t think about it. He can’t think about it. He can’t think about it.

“Oh, Ash.” Eiji smooths his hand over his hair, stroking gently over the back of Ash’s head, and presses him into himself. The scent of the winter rain clings to his sweater the same way Ash does. “You are safe, darling. You are safe. I am right here. Let it out.”

And so Ash does. Great, heaving, ugly sobs wrench themselves from his throat and wrack his entire body, until the burn in his chest and throat is a whole new ache, and his head pounds. He cries and cries and cries, wordless and despairing, and clutches a desperate handful of Eiji’s sweater to keep him close the entire while.

And Eiji stays. Minutes pass, and he stays, just like that. One hand holding Ash’s, the other resting against the back of Ash’s head. He doesn’t move, he doesn’t speak; he just coos softly, just as wordlessly as Ash weeps, and holds him, and stays.

Eventually, Ash’s sobs slow, and though it hurts and he feels heavy, a little more clarity has finally edged into his mind. He’s clutching at Eiji, and he’s crying on the floor of Eiji’s mother’s house. They’re in Japan. They left New York years ago. Dino is dead.

Dino is dead.

“I hate him,” Ash breathes, hoarse and ragged. “I hate him, why—why can he still hurt me, he—he’s—he’s dead and h-he still—he still makes me—like this.”

Eiji keeps petting his hair, slow and soothing. “I hate him, too, my Ash. I hate that you are hurting.”

Years ago, Ash would have said sorry. Eiji would have had to reassure him that he doesn’t mind holding him as he cries, that he likes to be here for him. Ash would still have felt guilty.

Now, though, Ash just nods, trembling in his arms. His worries are far darker than that simple guilt. Dark as the private box at the opera during The Marriage of Figaro.

“Did something happen, earlier?” Eiji asks, still soft and gentle. “Or was it random?”

Ash takes a breath. It’s easier than before. “Something happened.”

“Mm.” Eiji nods, as if to himself. He’s quiet for a moment, but he doesn’t stop petting Ash’s hair; Ash is beyond grateful. “Do you want to tell me what it was?”

Another breath. This one is shakier.

He never told Eiji about the opera. He never told Eiji about any of the things during that month. He’s sure that at least some of them, Eiji must have guessed—the eyedrops, the starvation. Some of them were obvious. He didn’t have to say anything for Eiji to know the bare bones, and the bare bones were enough.

But he’s never talked about that month of hell. Not a word. It was easier to run from those memories.

“Some… some ad on TV.” He almost closes his eyes again, but at the last second he blinks them open again; he can’t do that. He can’t. “It played, uh—it played the… overture. From The Marriage of Figaro.”

The Marriage of Figaro?” Eiji repeats, still soft. “I don’t think I have heard of that, sorry. What is it?”

“An opera.” Ash’s fingers tighten in Eiji’s sweater. The shards of glass in his lungs turn to ice, frigid enough to burn. “…Dino took me to see it.”

Eiji’s fingers still on his hair. They start to move again a moment later, but it’s enough. “Oh,” he murmurs. “Oh, Ash.”

But Ash isn’t done—he takes another shaky, shaky breath and forges on. It kind of feels good to say it, like a weight off his chest. “He—it was… when Blanca made me go ‘cuz he’d kill you—that month. And—when he… when he took me, he—they held me down and—those eyedrops. That was—that was the first time. And—and the whole opera, I—I couldn’t see, and—and he had a private box and he—he kept touching me and—and I—”

He breaks off as he starts to cry again, all his shattered porcelain pieces falling apart anew. He was so scared, sitting in that box, unable to see, only aware of the vague blur of light from the stage and Dino’s hand on his thigh. Inching higher, slowly and slowly, just to frighten him. Just to keep him tense and wondering—would Dino grope him in full? Would he touch him and touch him until he forced Ash’s body to betray him, just because he could? Would he make Ash sit there, soaking in violation and shame and soiled clothes, blind, for the rest of the opera?

Dino liked making him wonder in fear. Dino liked when Ash was helpless and scared of him. The most humiliating part was when it worked.

He didn’t even tell Ash the eyedrops were temporary until after the opera was over. Ash still has vivid, devastating nightmares, sometimes, nightmares in which he can’t see, and doesn’t know if he ever will again.

Eiji’s hand slides from his hair down to his shoulders, starts to rub a gentle circle into the base of his neck. “Oh, Ash,” he murmurs again, his voice full of pain and tenderness that mingle like moon and sun. “I… god, I am so sorry you had to endure that. I am furious with him all over again. I hate him too. I hate anyone who ever hurt you. My Ash, you deserve so much better than all this pain.”

Does he? He wants to believe he does, but the question wrenches uncomfortably at his insides. He doesn’t know.

“Eiji,” Ash whimpers, and shudders in his arms. “It hurts.”

“I know, my love.” Eiji rubs his shoulders. “I know.”

For a few minutes, they lie together like that, as Ash cries again. Shame wells up in his gut, thick and cloying; he feels so fucking pathetic like this. How long has it been? And he still can’t… It’s been years, and he still gets so scared of a dead man?

It was supposed to be a good day. A simple day. A normal day. Eiji’s mother and sister were never supposed to see this. They were never supposed to know how broken the man Eiji loves is.

“Ash,” Eiji coos, stroking the back of his neck, gentle and protective. “Don’t forget to breathe, my darling. Breathe.”

Ash’s breath shudders in his chest. The remnants of those shards of glass still cut deep.

“That’s it.” Eiji kisses his hair, so soft, so sweet. “That’s it, my Ash. That’s it. You are doing so well. Oh, Ash…”

He’s so careful with Ash when he gets like this, delicate and pathetic, a broken doll used too often and too harshly. Ash feels utterly disgusting, just at the memory of how Dino’s hand made his skin crawl. He doesn’t know how Eiji can bear to touch him so wholly and lovingly when he needs to collapse into a bath and scrub himself raw.

And yet…

“Eiji, Eiji, Eiji.” Another harsh sob rips itself from his throat, scraping and grating as it goes. It hurts as it claws its way out of his mouth, leaving his throat bleeding in its wake. There is no blood, but he bleeds anyway, his heart too tattered to hold itself together. “Eiji, please—please—Eiji, Eiji…"

“I am here,” Eiji croons, and holds him tighter. Ash manages to look up at his face, vision still blurry with tears; his brows are drawn, and his eyes are gentle. His entire expression is so worried and tender that something in Ash’s chest aches, an ache wholly unlike the shards of glass buried around his heart. “I am right here, my Ash. What is it? What do you need?”

“Please,” Ash cries. His bleeding heart lurches. “Please, don’t—don’t leave me!”

Eiji’s lips brush his forehead, and Ash has to clamp a hand over his own mouth to stifle a new round of sobs. Eiji is so gentle with him. That plucks a chord deep within him, and all he wants to do is curl up into Eiji and stay in his arms, forever.

As if reading his mind, Eiji kisses his forehead again, and then the back of the hand on his mouth. “Silly,” he murmurs, his voice utterly drenched in fondness. “I promised you that years ago, remember? I will always be right here at your side. Forever.”

The deafening silence screaming in his mind stops. Ash drops his hand, lifts his head from his shoulder, and stares at him, eyes wide.

Eiji’s hand cups his cheek, and very gently, Eiji thumbs away the tears under one of his eyes. “I said it then, and I meant it. Forever. You are safe, my love. I am right here. I will not let you go.” He smiles, affectionate and adoring, and presses their foreheads together again. His touch is warm.

In this moment, Ash feels so completely cherished that his mind blanks out; he has no idea what to do with himself other than melt into Eiji’s arms. “I… Eiji…”

“I know it hurts.” Eiji strokes his cheek, his thumb brushing over the delicate skin just below Ash’s eye. “I know it does, dearest. But you are safe. And I will never, ever let anyone hurt you again. I will always protect you.”

Ash quivers in his embrace. That reminds him of Eiji’s letter, the love letter that saved his life. I always wanted to protect you. And here Eiji is, doing just that.

Their careful dance has always been a give-and-take, an ebb-and-flow. Back in New York, Ash used his dirty, bloody hands to protect Eiji from the living. That was all he knew, all he was: Smoke and guns, metal and flame. Blood and iron, teeth and steel. That was how he lived.

But Eiji’s hands, hallowed and clean, keep Ash safe from the ghosts of the dead.

Ash’s fingers curl into Eiji’s sweater again. Hold onto him. Keep him close.

“Safe,” he breathes, hoarse. His nose presses into the crook of Eiji’s neck, his tear-streaked face wet against Eiji’s warm skin. Eiji keeps him safe.

“That’s right, my love.” Smiling, Eiji kisses his hair, beyond tender. His hand settles protectively over the back of Ash’s neck. “You are safe. No one will hurt you here. You are safe.”

Ash takes a shaky, rattling breath. It nearly makes him cough, but Eiji lightly thumps his back, then rubs big, soothing circles up and down, from the small of his back all the way to his neck and back down. Ash does his best to breathe in time with his hand.

“You’re doing so good, dearest,” Eiji praises. His voice is soft, just for Ash’s ears; he radiates so much safety and comfort and peace that Ash could drown in it. He’s never wanted to drown more. “That’s it. Slow breaths. Good. In… and out. Good, just like that, okay? Good…”

Ash takes a breath. Lets it out. Takes another. Eiji keeps guiding him through it, endlessly patient. Ash is endlessly grateful. He hopes Eiji knows.

“You know where you are now?” Eiji doesn’t stop rubbing his back, still talking in the same calm, soft voice. Almost like he’s trying to soothe a frightened stray in an alley. “Does it feel real?”

Eiji’s arms are solid and heavy around him. Eiji’s hand is a tangible comfort on his back. Eiji’s chest is a physical presence he can hide in. Eiji’s neck smells of jasmine soap. Ash breathes in again, and a stray tear leaks into his hair. “…Yeah.”

“Good.” Eiji’s head turns, and his lips tenderly brush Ash’s temple. “I am glad.”

Ash nods against him, biting his lip. He’s here, lying on the living room floor in Eiji’s mother’s house, and he feels… he feels…

He feels delicate. Scraped out and hollow. Emptied, and painfully so. As if instead of scrubbing his skin raw of Dino’s touch, he’s gone and scrubbed down the insides of himself with the most abrasive steel wool, leaving him bleeding and smarting and raw.

More than anything, it just hurts. It hurts, but it’s an old hurt, a half-healed wound tugged open at the seams again. Blanca forcing him back to Dino hurt back then, and it hurts now—he still can’t wrap his mind around why Blanca would do that to him, then turn around and act as if he cared. Dino being a sadistic monster hurt then, and god it only hurts more the older he gets, because—because he was a child, and Dino looked at children and—and—

He takes another shaky breath. The scent of jasmine clings faintly to Eiji’s skin. Better to focus on that.

“Ash?” Eiji strokes over his hair, along his neck, and down his back again. His touch is so gentle that for a moment, the image of being wrapped up in an angel’s wings flashes through Ash’s mind. “Hey, hey, it’s okay. It’s okay. You are shaking again, my Ash. Everything is okay. You are safe here, darling. It’s okay.”

Ash nods, gritting his teeth against another flood of tears. He just feels so—so broken and torn and violated and ruined and it just—it just hurts.

“I know,” he rasps out. “I, I just—it hurts so much, Eiji, I don’t—I dunno how to make it stop hurting.”

“We will work through it together,” Eiji promises, and kisses his hair again. “Oh, Ash. I know it hurts. Do you want to tell me what you are thinking of? Would that help?”

Ash hesitates. Another tear rolls from the corner of his eye over the bridge of his nose. Does he want to tell Eiji about it? Or would he rather keep it locked up in his chest, to hide in the dark and roll around with the beating of his heart, until either he forgets it or it tears him to shreds?

“He called me—he called me this great demon,” Ash manages, and god, his voice is so shaky. He feels pathetic, curled up on the floor and ruining everything. He can’t stand the sight of himself like this. He doesn’t think he can stand at all.

It hurts. Every single last fucking thing that he remembers about that month fucking hurts, and he would be angry if he wasn’t so fucking heartbroken about it. Why would Blanca drag him back? Why did Dino hate him and love him so horrifically?

Why did they have to make him into so many things—demons and princes and aristocrats and art? Why couldn’t any of them just let him be himself?

“I’m not,” he sobs pathetically. “I’m not. I’m not a demon, I’m not, I’m not—”

“Ash, shh, shh, I know. I know. You are not.” Eiji’s hand gently uncurls Ash’s fingers from his sweater, and for a moment Ash is terrified that Eiji is about to cast him away, but instead he shifts and sits up, leaning back against the side of the sofa. He gathers Ash into his arms, and pulls him close, so that he can lay against his chest. Ash’s head lolls against him as he goes limp in his arms, trembling.

Oh, he realizes, faintly. He can hear Eiji’s heartbeat.

He cries harder.

“You are not a demon,” Eiji repeats, and he strokes over Ash’s hair, threading his fingers into it with so much delicate care that Ash’s heart lurches in his chest. “You are an angel. You are my angel. He was horrible to you, and I hate how he treated you. But it has no bearing on you. You are not what he did to you. Or said to you.”

“Eiji,” Ash sobs, clutching a pathetic fistful of Eiji’s sweater. “Eiji, Eiji…”

Eiji cradles him in his arms, stroking his hair back from his face. His hands are achingly tender. “I’m here, Ash. I am right here. You’re safe. I’m here.”

He is. He’s here, and Ash can hear his heart beating, and it’s the only thing that’s keeping him from shattering again. “Please,” Ash begs him. “Please. Don’t—don’t let go.”

“Oh, Ash.” Eiji holds him tighter, rocking him gently back and forth. He smells like home. “I won’t. It is okay, my angel. You are safe. I’ve got you. It is okay.”

Angel. Eiji calls him an angel. Dino said—Dino called him a great demon, an overlord in the making. Said he would surpass him in cruelty, one day, and god, Ash is terrified of that; he doesn’t want to be anything like Dino! God, he hopes someone would put a bullet in his brain if he ever… if he ever…

Dino wanted to turn him into a monster named Aslan Jade Golzine. The thought alone makes Ash want to throw up.

“He wanted to—he was gonna take everything from me.” His voice is ragged. He lifts his head to look up at Eiji, because he needs to see Eiji right now, needs to know for certain that the past is gone. “He would’ve, if you didn’t save me.”

Eiji’s hand cups his cheek. “I will always save you,” he pledges, his voice steely-strong and his eyes intent. “Always.”

Ash nods. When Eiji looks at him like that, he can’t not believe him.

“He was gonna adopt me,” he whispers. Eiji may have already known the occasion for the party he and Sing crashed, but Ash has never talked about it. Not once. “I was officially dead, so it was extra easy. He had all these fake papers made up for a guy who didn’t exist. He was gonna make me sign. And he was gonna make me live as fucking Aslan Jade Golzine.”

Eiji’s face darkens, and his arms tighten, protective. “Ash…”

“He was gonna—he was gonna take Griff away from me again.” Ash sucks in a breath. Is he trembling from residual fear, or is the feeling twisting deep in his gut rage? “He was gonna steal my fucking brother a third time. Drugging him and killing him wasn’t enough—he had to steal his fucking name from me—”

His voice cracks pathetically, and a hoarse sob wrenches itself from his throat. He collapses against Eiji’s chest again, crying, and Eiji folds him into his arms and holds him so tight that he can’t shatter again.

“He didn’t win,” Eiji murmurs. His voice is gentle and soft, but there’s a quiet undercurrent of fury under it that Ash knows is directed at Dino’s burnt corpse, wherever it ended up. “He didn’t take your name from you. You are Aslan Jade Callenreese, and nothing will ever change that. You have your brother’s name, my love.”

“It’s all I have left of him,” Ash sobs, and clutches at Eiji’s shoulders. “It’s all I have, and—and he was gonna take it away from me!”

“He didn’t.” Eiji rubs his back. “We didn’t let him.”

“Eiji…”

He just cries, so sad he aches. He misses Griff so much it physically hurts, sometimes, and Dino almost took the last thing he had of Griff away. It terrified him then, and it terrifies him now.

But Eiji saved him. Eiji brought everyone together to break into that party. Eiji saved him.

He takes a shaky breath.

“There, my sweet Ash,” Eiji croons, stroking his hair again. That resolute, protective look is still there in his eyes, but his touch is nothing but tender. “There you are. Deep breaths. That’s it.”

He lets go for a moment, just with one hand, and as if to preemptively prevent Ash from panicking, his other arm goes tight around Ash’s shoulders, pressing him close. Ash lifts his head, because he can’t stand not seeing what Eiji’s doing—he can’t stand not seeing—and watches with teary eyes as Eiji pulls the blanket from earlier off the couch, then drapes it over him, even tucking it around him so no cold air can get in.

Sometimes, Ash feels like a small child. Hiding from the monsters under a blanket, because surely they can’t see him if he’s all swaddled up. It shouldn’t be as comforting as it is, and yet he finds himself sinking into Eiji further, a little more of the tension in his shoulders seeping away. Just from this blanket, and the simple act of being bundled up and held.

Eiji hugs him close. His arms stay snug around Ash, under the blanket, keeping him safe and warm, and Ash lets out a little sob of gratitude, relief churning in his bones. Eiji… Eiji makes him feel so safe, and god, Ash doesn’t know what he ever did to deserve him, but he’s here, and… and…

He burrows into Eiji’s neck and clings to him, weeping softly. Eiji’s arms tighten around him, and Eiji’s legs even bracket his hips, as if to hold him even closer. He’s lying on the floor curled up against Eiji’s chest, and there’s a perfectly functional sofa right there, but they’re on the floor anyway and it doesn’t matter because he feels safe.

“There you go, my angel,” Eiji murmurs, his voice achingly tender. He rubs a small, soothing circle between Ash’s shoulder blades. “Let it out, Ash. Let it all out. I am here. I’ve got you.”

Ash cries. He cries himself out in Eiji’s arms, but these aren’t the devastating, painful sobs from earlier; these tears are quieter. Easier. Emotions swirl in his stomach, relief and pain and gratitude and fear, because he feels safe and safety means he can feel, and god, he feels so much. He hurts, but he’s safe, and he can see, and he’s safe.

“Eiji,” he gasps out, clingy and desperate. “Eiji, Eiji, Eiji…”

“Ash,” Eiji coos, warm and sweet. “My Ash. I love you. I love you so very much, my darling. My Ash, my sweet Ash…”

Eiji always pulls out all the stops on the pet names when Ash is in distress. Dearest, darling, sweetest, my love. It’s cute. And it does make Ash feel better, in a way. Loved, at least.

He keeps rubbing Ash’s back, keeps holding him, keeps murmuring sweet nothings every time Ash sniffles and gasps against him. Ash clings to him and cries, and thinks to himself that if anyone pulled him from Eiji’s arms right now, he would shatter into dust.

But no one does, and after a few minutes, his sobs slow to sniffles, and finally he manages to lift his head and look up at Eiji, soft and needy. No words come, but Eiji doesn’t seem to mind.

Instead, Eiji just cradles his cheek fondly and presses their foreheads together. He doesn’t seem to mind that Ash’s nose is all red and runny, either, even as their noses brush; he just smiles at Ash, loving as can be. He’s the real angel.

“Hi, dearest.” Eiji strokes his cheek. “I love you so much.”

I love you. Dino used to tell him he loved him. Ash used to shy away from those words every time Eiji almost said them. Eiji stopped saying them, for a while, and told him daisuki instead.

Then Ash realized that Dino never meant it—what Dino meant was never love. So he plucked those words from a dead man’s hands and decided they would never have that kind of power over him again. It isn’t always easy, but they’re his now. He won’t give them back.

“Love you,” Ash mumbles. His voice is hoarse from crying, but steady enough. “My Birdie.”

Eiji’s smile gets even warmer, if that’s possible. “Yeah. I’m your Birdie,” he agrees, and bumps their noses together again.

And then…

He tilts his head a little, still cradling Ash’s cheek in his palm. “Are kisses okay right now?” he asks, and Ash’s heart squeezes in his chest. “Or are you not feeling up for—mm!”

Ash kisses him.

He kisses him fervently, desperately, ardently; he needs Eiji with every molecule of his being, with every last fiber of his soul. He loves Eiji, and Eiji loves him, and Eiji’s so gentle with him that he’s asking if he can kiss him even though he’s had blanket permission for years, and Ash just—he just—

Ash just needs to be close to him. The desperate stirring in his chest won’t be soothed otherwise.

Eiji melts into that kiss, his arms curving further around Ash. One of his hands twines sweetly into Ash’s hair; the other rests over the back of Ash’s neck, and Eiji kisses him back, soft and warm. Kissing him feels right, like remembering that there’s love in the world and not just fear, and Ash craves it.

When he breaks that kiss, Eiji’s eyes are shining, and he’s smiling. “Mmm… so that’s a yes, I think,” he says, and laughs softly. “Kisses are good right now?”

Eiji’s holding him, and soothing him, and smiling at him, and Ash just needs to be close to him. That’s all.

So, yes. Kisses are good. Ash nods fervently. “Need you,” he admits, his voice soft and vulnerable in a way only Eiji has ever heard him sound. Only Eiji makes him feel safe enough to be vulnerable.

Eiji melts.

“You have me!” he promises, and hugs Ash tight again, rocks him in his arms, and then tips his face up to kiss his forehead, his brow, his cheeks, and his mouth again. Every kiss is soft and chaste, but he lingers, letting Ash sink into him. When he pulls away, he plants another light kiss to the corner of Ash’s mouth, then presses their foreheads together again. “You have me, darling. I’m right here.”

Ash is a frozen desert and Eiji’s affection is the spring rains. He curls his fingers in Eiji’s sweater, sniffling, and nods. “I… Eiji…”

Eiji nuzzles his cheek. Rocks him back and forth, sweet and gentle, and kisses him again. Ash is sure he tastes of salty tears, but Eiji doesn’t seem to mind, smiling against his mouth. His lips are soft.

“I’m here,” he murmurs, staying close enough that his lips brush against Ash’s as he talks. “Right here, my Ash. You are safe. I love you.”

“Love you too,” he breathes. He feels a little stronger every time he manages to say it back.

Eiji kisses him again, tender. He’s warm, and his mouth is soft and he kisses so gently. Ash loves Eiji’s kisses. No one ever kissed him gently before.

“Oh, Ash. My sweet, darling Ash. My lovely Ash.” Eiji looks at him for a long moment, his eyes shining with adoration, and then he pulls Ash into himself, letting Ash tuck his face into his neck again. Ash sinks into him, or perhaps rather slumps into him like a puppet whose strings have been cut, and Eiji coos wordlessly as he tucks the blanket around his shoulders.

He's warm. His embrace feels like home. Ash melts in his arms.

“Don’t let me go,” he mumbles, and presses his face into Eiji’s neck. “Please.”

“Never.” Eiji leans his cheek against his hair. “I will never, ever let you go, dearest.”

For a few minutes, they sit there, just like that. Ash burrows into Eiji’s neck and curls up against his chest, lying between his legs under the blanket. Eiji’s thighs offer a comforting, light pressure against his hip and back, as he lies against him, and his arms are a fortress built to keep Ash safe. He’s warm.

Eiji starts to stroke his hair. Soft, tender touches, slow and careful to avoid any potential tangles, but Ash’s hair is stupidly smooth and fine, and tangles come out easily. Eiji’s fingers work through it, slow and soothing and repetitive, and then he gently rubs his fingertips against Ash’s scalp. Vaguely, Ash thinks about making some kind of quip about Eiji petting him like a cat, but he feels far too fragile for laughter right now. If only he could just purr instead.

The lingering fear means that he can’t quite manage to keep his eyes closed, no matter how sore they are from crying, but he lies against Eiji’s shoulder with them half-lidded, keeping his gaze on a speck of fuzz on the blanket. It’s purple, though the blanket is red; perhaps the laundry got mixed up, or perhaps the fuzz is from whatever the blanket was next to in the closet.

Eiji keeps stroking his hair. It helps.

“Before you got here,” Ash mumbles, and licks his lips nervously. Words are a little hard right now, but Eiji helps. “I… I thought I was… there. In the opera box.”

“Oh.” Eiji kisses his temple. “My poor Ash. No operas! You are here. Safe, with me.”

“I know.” Ash takes a breath. Lets it out. Hugs Eiji to himself a little tighter, which has the added bonus of making Eiji smile. “I just—I thought… I thought he had just kissed me. Right before we left. Not… not years ago. Just hours ago. And I felt him still touching me. Only he wasn’t. But I thought he did. Just did, I mean. I just… my head was all…”

“It was a really bad flashback?” Eiji summarizes, and Ash nods vigorously against his shoulder. “My poor angel… you are safe, okay? You are safe. It has been nearly four years.”

“Yeah.” Ash takes a breath. Blows it out. Snuggles in a little closer. Eiji feels like safety. “Just… really freaked me out.”

Eiji kisses his hair again. “He hurt you badly. Of course it still frightens you.”

“He liked when I was scared,” Ash admits, his voice small. “I hate him.”

“I know, my darling.” Eiji gives him a tight squeeze. “He deserves every ounce of that hatred, and then some. I hate him, too.”

He scared Eiji, too. A while ago, Eiji told him, tearfully, about the time Dino had him tied up in his bed. Before that, Ash had never wanted to bring someone back from the dead before only to kill them again, but there really is a first time for everything.

He nuzzles Eiji’s neck, needing to be close to him, needing as much tender affection as he can get. He’s here, he’s safe, he’s loved. Dino is dead. He’ll never touch either of them again. “Mmf… Birdie?”

“Yes, my Ash?”

Ash takes a little breath. Lets it out slowly. “Kiss me more?”

“Of course,” Eiji murmurs, and cups Ash’s chin to tip his face up.

He kisses Ash with all the tenderness of a prayer, as if Ash truly is the angel he keeps calling him. As if there’s anything holy about Ash’s defiled body and tattered heart. Eiji kisses him like he’s whole, like he deserves all the love Eiji pours over him every day. It’s enchanting, and intoxicating.

Ash never liked kissing anyone until the second time he kissed Eiji.

But Eiji’s kisses don’t feel like either of them is taking from the other; Eiji’s kisses feel like they’re both giving to each other. Eiji’s kisses taste like love should have tasted, the entire time.

When Eiji breaks that kiss, he stays close, his hand cradling Ash’s jaw. His eyes are full of warmth despite the wintry chill outside. “You are so lovely,” he murmurs, and kisses Ash again, soft and sweet. He doesn’t deepen any of these kisses; they stay gentle and slow, but they linger. Ash can physically feel the glass in his chest slowly break and fade away; the icy fist around his heart unfurls its grip, one finger at a time.

He breaks away from another kiss just to catch his breath, and Eiji presses their foreheads together, smiling at him very sweetly. That smile is everything; his eyes get all big and soft, and he radiates warmth and happiness, and he just looks at Ash like that and fires a beam of pure, unfiltered adoration right into Ash’s heart.

It doesn’t really help Ash with that whole “needing to catch his breath” thing. But that’s okay, because it’s Eiji.

“Eiji,” he whispers. Presses himself a little closer. Tugs the blanket up. “Eiji…”

Eiji adjusts the blanket, tucking it snugly around his shoulders without looking away from him once. “I am right here, dearest.” And he gently brushes his lips over Ash’s, more just a touch of skin against skin than a real kiss. “My sweetest Ash.”

“Eiji,” Ash sighs, and kisses him again. He’s warm.

“Are you feeling a little better?” Eiji murmurs, stroking his cheek. He stays close, so that their foreheads touch, and their noses brush, and he’s all that Ash can see.

And Ash can see; he can see Eiji’s big, dark eyes, can see the thick lines of his eyelashes, can see the curve of his nose. He can see Eiji.

“Yeah,” Ash mumbles. He still feels fragile, scraped raw, and delicate, but he doesn’t feel quite so horribly shattered and broken. “Little bit.”

“Good. I am glad.” Eiji folds him into a tight hug again, letting Ash press his face into his neck and breathe. His embrace is warm and solid and comforting, and Ash presses into him and holds on as tight as he can. “My Ash…”

Ash nuzzles him. “Mmf.”

Eiji buries his face in his hair and kisses his head, one, two, three times. Holds him close, loving and protective. Ash feels so safe. “I’ve got you,” Eiji tells him, and nuzzles his temple. “My darling. I am always going to keep you safe, okay? Always and forever.”

“Forever,” Ash agrees, very softly.

They stay like that for a few minutes, tangled up together on the floor in front of the sofa. Eiji tucks the blanket around Ash’s shoulders more securely, then starts to stroke his hair, gently running his fingers through it over and over. It’s soothing enough that Ash’s heart finally stops beating a mile a minute, and he gets less and less tense, until he’s all but completely limp, draped against Eiji’s chest.

He's safe. He can see. He’s not trapped in the past.

He’s safe.

Light footsteps rouse him from his half-doze, and he blinks himself back to the present to see Nozomi standing a few feet away. She’s careful to keep enough distance that she’s not standing over him this time, and gratitude flashes through his chest.

“Ash, Eiji,” she greets softly. “I have made tea, and it is a good temperature for drinking now. Do you want it, or shall we wait?”

Eiji looks down to Ash in his arms. “Want tea?”

Ash sniffles a little. “Yeah,” he mumbles, meek. “…Wanna go wash my face first. If that’s okay.”

“Of course!” Nozomi smiles down at him, warmth and worry in her eyes. When he risks a proper glance, he’s pleasantly surprised to find that he doesn’t see any judgment. “You go wash up. I will bring the tea here for you when you are back.”

She vanishes to the kitchen again, and Eiji helps Ash to his feet. They have to abandon the blanket for now—Ash considers bringing it to the bathroom, but he doesn’t want to get it wet and have to set it aside. He’d rather deal with the little pang of anxiety that comes with emerging from it, so long as he can come right back and bundle up in a minute.

Eiji’s arm slips around his waist. That helps with the nerves.

“Come on, my Ash,” he murmurs, his voice impossibly tender. “Lean on me if you need.”

Ash does need. He leans into Eiji’s side and lets Eiji handle the exhausting ordeal of getting them the few steps down the hall to the bathroom; his mind is far too weary and loud and silent to think about something as menial and grueling as walking.

And then they’re there, somehow. Eiji flicks the lights on, leans up and brushes a soft kiss to his cheek, then presses him towards the edge of the tub.

“Sit,” he says.

Ash sits.

Eiji cups his face and kisses his forehead. He’s smiling that same tender smile as he draws back, gets a tissue, and holds it to Ash’s nose. “Blow.”

…Oh.

Ash blows his nose. Eiji wads up the tissue and throws it away, as if it’s nothing, and turns to the sink to wet a washcloth with warm water. Ash stares at his back, listening to the water run, and feels tears prick at his eyes all over again.

Something as simple and mildly gross as a snotty tissue shouldn’t make him cry, and yet here he sits. It would have been easy for Eiji to merely hand him the tissue and let him deal with being a weepy snotmonster himself, but he didn’t. Ash’s vision blurs with hot tears again; he can feel one trickle past his eyelashes.

Eiji turns again, washcloth in hand, and his brows knit with concern at the sight of the single tear rolling down Ash’s cheek. “Oh, Ash, what is it?” he murmurs, gently brushing his knuckles against Ash’s flushed, blotchy skin.

Ash leans into his touch and takes a shaky, ragged breath. “You love me,” he manages, and scrubs a hand over his eyes before any more pesky tears can fall. His other hand curls into Eiji’s sweater. “You love me.”

The concern drops away, and all that’s left in Eiji’s face is pure tenderness. Ash can see it shining. “I do,” Eiji coos, and cups his chin in one hand as he starts to wipe his face with the cloth. “I love you so very much, my Ash. I really, really do.”

Ash obediently sits, letting Eiji turn his face as needed to wipe it clean. The washcloth is hot, and it leaves trails of warmth slowly cooling on Ash’s skin. Eiji finishes, kisses his forehead, and turns to the sink again; he rinses the cloth, hangs it on a rod, and gets a hand towel to gently pat Ash’s face dry.

There’s no way around it. He’s fussing. Fussing and doting and pampering Ash, just for the sake of taking care of him. Ash nearly starts to cry again at the thought.

Eiji loves him. Of course he knows that, but sometimes he just gets hit again with the full force of what it means that Eiji loves him, with how deep and profound and full that love is, and he can do nothing but let the awe and the joy and the gratitude wash over him.

Eiji loves him.

He’s safe, because Eiji loves him. Eiji is the only reason he ever got away from Dino again—Eiji saved him. Eiji risked his life to rescue him. Because Eiji loves him.

Ash takes a breath. Lets it out. Swallows against the tears.

“Better?” Eiji asks, resting a hand atop his head.

Ash looks up at him plaintively. Eiji tilts his head, and then understands; his face goes all soft and fond, and he steps closer, and his arms wrap around Ash’s shoulders and pull him snugly to his chest.

Ash leans forward and sinks into him. His arms wrap wearily around Eiji’s hips, and his cheek smushes against his chest, and he sighs audibly. Eiji’s sweater is soft—it’s chunky-knit, grey cashmere. Ash bought it for him.

(Well, technically, Ash bought it for himself, but he knew the second he saw it that Eiji would use those big soft eyes of his and steal it for good.)

Eiji’s arms stay snug about Ash’s shoulders, holding him tight and secure, and he lets out a slow breath of relief as Eiji’s chin comes to rest atop his head. Eiji makes him feel so very safe.

For a minute or two, they just stay like that, holding each other. Eiji’s fingers rub slowly back and forth against Ash’s shoulder, hypnotic and soothing, and Ash melts into him, exhausted. He feels like he just ran a fucking marathon, and he kind of wants to just curl into Eiji’s chest and sleep, except that sleep involves closing his eyes, and the dark, and nightmares.

So, uh. Sleeping is out of the question right now. But being wrapped up in Eiji’s arms and leaning against his chest is restful enough.

They don’t need words for a few minutes. They just stay together, wrapped up in one another. Ash counts the lines of yarn he can see in Eiji’s sweater. Eiji keeps stroking his shoulder.

Then Eiji kisses the top of his head. “Want your tea now, my love?”

Ash does want his tea, because his throat feels raw from crying, and he’s a little cold and could use a hot drink, but he hesitates.

“…Your mom and sister saw all… that.” Unsaid, but heard all the same: They’ll have questions.

Eiji kisses his head again. “We can explain as much or as little as you want,” he says, and in his voice is a trace of the same protective, steely determination Ash first heard in the underbelly of New York, years ago. “I will take care of everything. If you want me to handle it and tell them not now, I will. It is all up to you, darling. Your choice. Your comfort.”

Ash nods, swallowing a lump in his throat again. The first time he realized just how much Eiji meant it when he said he wants to keep him safe, it shocked him to the core. Now, it just makes him weepy. “I…”

How much does he want them to know? At this point, they already saw him have a completely random total meltdown on the fucking floor. It’s not like there’s any point in pretending he’s whole and was never broken anymore.

Besides, they must have known he had some kind of shitty past. He’s woken up screaming in Eiji’s bed in this house before. Sure, no one ever said a word about it in the mornings, out of politeness or something, but they must have heard.

“I don’t care if we tell your mom everything about me,” he says, slowly. Besides, if he’s going to marry Eiji one day, they’ll know eventually. They’ll have to. They’re gonna be stuck with him for life. “I don’t mind her knowing. It might even… be good, to finally admit I’m… you know. Like this. I just… dunno if I can say it.”

Eiji hums softly. The hand on his shoulder moves up, to stroke through his hair again. “Do you want me to take point on explaining? That way you do not have to force yourself. And you can just jump in if you want to add or correct something.”

Oh. Huh. Eiji does know more than enough to explain for him. Ash didn’t even think of that. That…

“That would be really helpful,” he admits, and hugs Eiji a little tighter. “Thank you, Birdie.”

Eiji kisses the top of his head again. “Of course, my Ash. It is no problem for me. Anytime.”

Ash nuzzles his chest, wordlessly affectionate. Their tea must be getting cold; they really ought to go back out there and get it. But he’s loath to tear himself from Eiji’s embrace, and so he stays right where he is. Besides, going back out there means facing Nozomi and Nahoko, and though he does want to tell the truth, he is still a little anxious about it.

“You said you are okay with my mom knowing,” Eiji murmurs after a moment, and Ash looks up at him plaintively. “What about Nahoko?”

What about Nahoko, indeed. Ash heaves a deep sigh, his heart sinking again at the thought of telling her what kind of a person he is, really. She knows bits and pieces—mostly that he’s been stabbed once and he had a rough past—but the depth of the depravity he’s endured, the extent of just how fucked up he really is…

She was giggling and groaning over the idea of teasing Sing for texting her nudes. Ash is so fucking desensitized to that shit that it doesn’t even register to him as something to care about either way. How is he supposed to explain to her that he was a porn star at age twelve?

(The thought alone almost makes him flinch.)

“Nahoko thought I was having a heart attack, I think,” he admits, and tells himself to focus on Eiji instead. He huffs out a humorless laugh. “I mean, I guess I looked the part. I was wheezing, and then I fucking collapsed and everything. God.”

The guilt simmering in the pit of his stomach is beyond unpleasant. Sometimes, he gets hit by unsettling reminders of just how innocent and sheltered that girl is. It makes sense—god knows Eiji at age nineteen was just like her, babbling about C.S.I. episodes when he looked at the skyline as they drove out of the city, and asking if Ash’s gun was real, even before that.

God, that was so long ago.

(He holds Eiji tighter.)

Eiji gives him an answering squeeze, and drops yet another kiss to his hair. This time he lingers, and then kisses his head again, and again. “It’s okay, dearest,” he murmurs. “She was scared because she was worried for someone she loves. You do not need to carry guilt for being loved, Ash. It is okay.”

Ash draws in a shaky breath. “Not according to everyone who used to—”

He shuts himself up, swallowing the last words of that sentence. Not according to everyone who used to keep me in a cage. Not according to everyone who wanted to see me caged again.

Not according to Blanca, who dragged me back to that cage after I escaped.

That wound feels extra raw right now, after being thrown back into the opera house. Better to stop poking it.

“Not according to them,” Eiji agrees softly. “But they were all wrong. They never saw you, my Ash. And you know what?”

Ash lifts his head, looking up plaintively. “What?”

Eiji pecks the tip of his nose and smiles impishly. “They can all die mad about it. Most of them already did. So there.”

Ash almost laughs. He does smile, at least, and Eiji looks very pleased with that result as he kisses Ash’s forehead.

“I love that smile,” he murmurs, soft and earnest and so very sweet. “I love when I can put it on this wonderful face.”

“That’s gay,” Ash tells him, and is rewarded by a warm laugh.

“So are you,” Eiji answers, and kisses his nose again. “So! Do you want to tell Nahoko, or would you rather only talk to Kaa-san for now, dearest?”

Ash hesitates. “I… don’t know,” he admits, and hangs his head. “It’s… it’s… I dunno. I don’t… want her to look at me differently. Ugh. Sorry.”

Eiji doesn’t let him for long, though, cradling his chin to gently tip his face back up. “That is okay,” he promises, and presses a soft kiss to Ash’s forehead. “You don’t have to tell her anything if you do not want to. But, if it is any comfort, my Ash, I don’t think she would look at you differently. She already loves you. She will just be sad that you were hurt.”

Ash bites his lip uncertainly. Eiji gently strokes his thumb over his lip, to remind him not to, and kisses his forehead again.

“You don’t have to tell her anything,” he repeats gently. “I will only say what you want me to say.”

“I know.” Ash sighs, leaning into him. “I… maybe we can tell her… some of it. I dunno. Not… everything. It’s… it’s too much. She’s so…” He hesitates, and his voice falters, threatening to crack. “She’s so innocent, Eiji, I can’t—I can’t ruin that.”

“You would not be ruining anything, darling.” Eiji folds him into his arms and holds him tight, letting him hide in his chest as much as he needs. “She is pretty sheltered, you are right. But she loves you. You know that, right? She already sees you as family. And just because she is all cheery and silly all the time does not mean she cannot be serious.” He sighs, too, and kisses the top of Ash’s head. “She was alone with Kaa-san when our father died. I was with you. She has dealt with grief and pain before.”

Ash winces. He didn’t mean to sound like he thinks she’s a total idiot or something. “I know, I… Sorry.”

“No, no, it is okay!” Eiji kisses his hair again. “No need to be sorry, dearest. I just mean… pain is a part of life, you know? We all have to face it sometimes, sooner or later, in some form or another. And part of loving someone is helping them shoulder the pain they have faced. You have been through so much, my sweet Ash, and you are an angel; it is only natural that anyone who loves you will want to support you in your times of need. You will not be ruining anything. I promise.”

Ash’s brain feels vaguely like mush, but that’s optimistic of Eiji to say. He still feels guilty at the thought of telling Nahoko just how dark and disgusting the world can be, but he supposes that Eiji might have a point. “You think?”

“I know,” Eiji says, and nuzzles his temple. “Trust me on this one.”

Trust me on this one. Oh, Ash does. Ash trusts Eiji with every last fiber of his fucking soul.

“Okay.” He takes a slow breath, blows it out, and nods against Eiji’s sweater. His sweater. “Okay. I trust you.”

Eiji smiles against his skin. “Thank you, darling. Are you ready? Come on. Let us go drink our tea. It would be very sad if it got cold.”

Yeah, Ash thinks, with the barest hint of a delicate, fond smile very, very lightly tugging at his lips. It would be a shame if Eiji’s tea got cold.

They make their way back to the living room, Eiji’s arm snug around Ash’s waist the entire way. Nozomi has brought the tea to the coffee table; two steaming cups sit in a tray with a little saucer full of shortbread cookies. She’s vacated the room again, presumably to give him space, and another flash of gratitude tugs at his chest.

“Oh, this smells good.” Eiji lets Ash sink down into the corner of the sofa, picking the blanket up from the floor. He pauses to pick up Ash’s book again, too, passing it over to him, and Ash strokes his fingers over the cover in a silent apology for dropping it.

Eiji lays the blanket over Ash’s lap, passes him his tea, and then sits down next to him, picking up his own teacup and wrapping his free arm around Ash’s shoulders. Ash snuggles into his side immediately, making himself as small as he can.

Eiji glances at him in silent question. Is he okay to face Nahoko and Nozomi?

Ash nods.

“Kaa-san,” Eiji calls softly. “Nahoko. You can both come in, if you like.”

As they appear in the doorway, Ash finds himself automatically shrinking in on himself, trying to curl up even smaller against Eiji's side. Eiji's arm tightens around him protectively in response, and Eiji glances down at him, his face full of concern.

Ash takes a breath. His tea smells nice, earthy and grounding in a way that reminds him of Eiji.

"M'okay," he mumbles, before Eiji asks. And he is! He’s okay. He just… he needs to be close right now. He wants to curl up and feel small, and safe, and protected. Eiji helps with that, more than he'll ever know.

“Okay,” Eiji murmurs back, and rubs his thumb over Ash’s shoulder.

"Ash!"

Nahoko runs in, a few steps in front of her mother. For a second, Ash thinks she’s going to launch herself at him for a hug, but instead she stops abruptly and plops down on a cushion on the floor in front of him, her eyes big and worried. She looks so much like Eiji did when they first met that something in Ash’s chest hurts.

"Are you alright? What happened?"

And here it is, the moment where he tells her the truth. She’ll never look at him the same way again. Is it wrong of him to be afraid of that, even after Eiji assured him otherwise?

"I—"

His voice cracks. Ashamed, Ash lowers his face to his tea again.

"He had a bad flashback to something horrible," Eiji fills in, and overwhelming gratitude flares though Ash. He gives Eiji a grateful look, and Eiji just smiles at him as he continues, "He is still coming down from it, but he will be okay. Don't worry, Nahoko. He will be fine."

“Oh,” Nahoko says, her voice very soft.

One of her hands fidgets in her lap, like she wants to reach for him but doesn’t know if she’s allowed; curdling guilt pools in the pit of Ash’s stomach as he remembers how harshly he recoiled from her and Nozomi’s attempts to help him earlier. That must have frightened her, and hurt her, too. She was only trying to help.

“Was that why he—is that why you were talking about, um… the… that, um, you know…” Nahoko trails off, uncertain, and glances between him and Eiji.

“The opera,” Ash supplies. His voice is a little hoarse. He takes a sip of his tea to steady both it and the rest of himself. “You can say it. It’s okay.”

“Yeah. The opera, and… the orchestra.” Nahoko bites her lip, blinking up at him again. “Something bad happened to you at an opera…?”

“Nahoko,” Nozomi says gently, and comes forward to settle down on the floor next to her daughter. She rests one hand on Nahoko’s shoulder, then strokes a stray wisp of dark hair behind Nahoko’s ear in a gesture so maternal that just watching it makes Ash ache for a kind of love he’s never known. “You should not ask too much about those kinds of things, okay?”

“Right.” Nahoko ducks her head a little. “Sorry, Ash.”

“No, it’s okay.” Ash sighs. “I don’t mind, I just…”

The words catch in his throat, and frustrated, he turns to look plaintively at Eiji.

Eiji meets his gaze with a gentle smile, nods once, and gives him a squeeze. “It is sometimes hard for Ash to talk, after these big episodes. So he asked me a little while ago if I could help him explain what happened. Do you want me to?”

Nahoko glances anxiously to Nozomi, then back to Ash and Eiji. She nods; after a moment, so does Nozomi.

“Okay. Earlier, there was a commercial on the TV that played music from an opera.” Eiji glances down at Ash, holding him close to his side. Ash snuggles into him; he feels safe like this, bundled up in a blanket with Eiji’s arm around him, sitting on a sofa in Eiji’s mother’s living room. He’s…

He's not okay, but he knows he will be. The certainty helps.

“Overture from The Marriage Of Figaro,” Ash mumbles, filling in the gaps just like Eiji told him he could. It’s a lot easier than explaining the whole story on his own, and gratitude for Eiji flutters through his chest all over again. “Pretty famous piece. Mozart.”

“Right. That one.” Eiji nods. His hand starts to gently rub Ash’s shoulder as he talks, and Ash sighs, sipping his tea. It helps with his sore, hoarse throat, and with the dull pounding headache behind his eyes. “That reminded Ash of… Ash, you are sure I can say it? Or do you want me not to?”

“You can say it.” Ash rests his cheek against Eiji’s shoulder. “S’fine.”

Eiji nods, brushes a tiny kiss to his hair, and sips his tea before he continues. Ash glances down to the two in front of them; Nozomi meets his gaze and smiles slightly. She looks sad, more than anything, while Nahoko seems to be waiting with bated breath for every word Eiji can offer, her hands clasped together tightly in her lap.

“While we were in New York together,” Eiji finally says, “A very, very cruel, evil man kidnapped Ash.”

Nahoko’s horrified gasp is audible. Nozomi’s brows knit together in concern.

“At one point, he made him go to the opera with him. But he did not want to risk Ash escaping from him. So he…” Eiji’s breath hisses out between his teeth, and he holds Ash a little tighter to himself. “He used eyedrops. To temporarily make Ash blind. And then he made him sit next to him and listen to the entire opera.”

Yes, Ash thinks. And his hands wandered, and he laughed when I flinched as hard as I used to when I was twelve, because for the first time in my life, I couldn’t see him coming. He laughed. I still have nightmares about that laughter.

Perhaps some things are still better left unsaid.

“Oh my god,” Nahoko whispers. Her eyes are round as dinner plates.

Next to her, Nozomi looks stricken. Horrified. Ash wonders if she’s ever thought about it before, about what kind of life he came from before Eiji pulled him out and saved him. He knows she and Eiji used to fight about it, years ago. About why Eiji stayed somewhere dangerous for the sake of someone even more dangerous. About why Ash was worth so much to him. The guilt used to eat Ash alive, back then. It made Eiji furious.

Now, Nozomi just looks…

She looks sad. For him, not for Eiji or Nahoko but for him. It is at once both devastatingly reassuring and wonderfully painful to see.

“Why did the police not stop him?” she asks, and shakes her head. “Where was your family? Did they not care?”

Ash laughs. It’s a sad, ugly, bitter sound.

“My dad is the only one left,” he says, still hoarse and now hollow, too. “And he’s never cared.”

Eiji’s jaw clenches. “Yes. Ash’s father is… Ugh, I wish I had punched him when I had the chance. He is trash.”

Ash tries to smile, but it’s a wan flicker if anything. “S’okay. I appreciate the thought.”

“So your father… did not file a report that you were kidnapped?” Nozomi questions, frowning deeply. “Why would he not? You are his child, his own flesh and blood…”

Eiji takes a slow sip of his tea before he says, “It is worse than that. Ash ran away from home when he was little. His father never wanted a little kid, so he never bothered to find him. And this bad man, he found Ash when he was just… a child. He was so vulnerable. And this bad man abused him in… so, so many ways, Kaa-san. For so, so long. He was just a little boy.”

Despite how much he already wept, Ash’s eyes blur with tears again. How is Eiji’s voice so gentle, and so sad? Eiji’s holding him so protectively, keeping him safe as he curls up at his side, and Ash sniffles a little, pressing closer. One of his hands tightens around his teacup; the other curls into Eiji’s sweater, holding on as best as he can.

He was just a little boy. It hurts to think about.

“Oh, no.” Nozomi’s eyes fill with tears, and one of her hands springs up to cover her mouth as she looks at Ash. “Oh, Ash…”

Nahoko’s brows knit together. She reaches up, as if to hold his hand, and then seems to realize that his hands are full of tea and blanket and Eiji, faltering…

…until her hand finds his sock-clad foot instead, and pats it, and stays. She does her best to smile at him even though her eyes are teary-bright—over him, with just a few words from Eiji, not even any of the grisly details.

His tattered, bruised heart warms a bit.

“That horrible man was very rich,” Eiji continues, rubbing Ash’s shoulder. “And had corrupt friends. He was in the mafia, and he could pay people to do almost anything he wanted. So the police did not care. So that man had Ash for… many years. He was trying to raise him to become like him, to be in the mafia and do his dirty work and everything else for him. But Ash did not want to. He wanted to escape and get away from that horrible place.”

And then he met Eiji.

Ash presses his face into Eiji’s shoulder, and as if sensing that he’s extra emotional, Nahoko gently squeezes his foot. In any other circumstance, it would be bizarre enough to make him laugh, but right now, it’s just a funny kind of endearing. Makes him feel like part of the family, and part of the silly things siblings do together.

God, he misses Griff.

“Ibe-san and I met Ash then,” Eiji says, and brushes another kiss to Ash’s head. “The horrible man from the mafia, he sent thugs to attack Ash knowing he would be busy meeting with us. They ransacked the place where we were, and then told him to turn himself in, or else they would kill me.”

Nozomi inhales sharply. Sounds like that’s something he’s never mentioned before.

“And Ash didn’t hesitate.” Eiji gives him another squeeze. “We had never met before, and he handed himself over to these horrible people who hurt him over and over, without even stopping to think about it, just to save my life. That was when I knew, I could never turn my back on him either.”

There is so much warm, tender adoration in his voice. He’s proud of Ash, and he loves Ash, and he’s proud to declare to the world that he loves Ash. Sunshine splashes down from the heavens to warm Ash’s heart, and his throat threatens to close again.

“You’re gonna make me cry again,” Ash croaks out, watery and tearful.

Eiji loves him. Eiji loves him, Eiji loves him, Eiji loves him so fucking much he can hear it in every note of his voice as he talks and it’s amazing.

Nahoko pats his foot. “Cry if you need to,” she advises, much like Eiji did earlier. “Sometimes it is better to let it out.”

Ash tries to smile again. It’d be easier if he wasn’t out of tea. “You sound just like your brother.”

Nahoko laughs. Her voice is watery, too—at least if Ash starts crying, he won’t be alone.

“And so that horrible man is the same one who made you go to the opera with him, while… blinded?” Nozomi shakes her head slightly, clearly still trying to process everything Eiji just said.

It’s funny; Eiji’s barely mentioned the bare bones, but it’s already so much for them to take in. Ash would feel bad for it, if he wasn’t so exhausted.

“Yeah,” he says, and swallows hard against the lump in his throat. “Same awful guy. He’s dead now.”

“Good,” Nozomi mutters decisively, her eyes flashing, and for a startling moment Ash can see exactly where Eiji’s protective streak must come from. “I hope it was painful.”

Dino got shot, dragged himself around while bleeding out, and finally collapsed and fell into an inferno. Can’t have been pleasant. Ash shrugs slightly. “It wasn’t quick.”

Nozomi nods. She sits quietly for a few seconds, still absorbing it all, and then sighs, weary. “Ash… you are a very good, sweet boy. None of this, it… does not change you. You are already family here, yes? So, you do not worry about that. At least, I hope you do not worry about that.”

…Wait. What?

Ash blinks at her. How did she read his mind? He looks up at Eiji, clueless and speechless; was he really so obviously worried?

Eiji snorts, kisses Ash’s hair again, and plucks the empty teacup from his hands to set on the side table. “Too late. He was already worrying about that before we even started this conversation. He is… scared, that you would both look at him differently if you knew he had been hurt so much.”

Shame burns in his cheeks. Ash hangs his head a little. “Sorry. I… don’t want to be too much of a burden. Or… anything.”

“Oh, Ash. Of course I look at you differently,” Nozomi says, and shakes her head gently. “I want to take care of you more now. And… help you. Guide. Shelter you. You are never a burden! Okay? You are part of our family.”

And then she does something astonishing.

She leans up, on her knees, and brushes his hair aside to gently kiss the top of his head. It’s such an affectionate, familial gesture that Ash freezes for a moment, replaying it over and over in his head as if to confirm that it really happened.

She just kissed his hair. Eiji’s mother just kissed the top of his head. Griff used to do that when he was five.

The tears jump to his eyes full force again, and he has to take a minute to gasp for breath to keep himself from suddenly bawling. “I—um—I—thank you,” he manages, quavery, and sniffles pathetically. “That—that means a lot.”

She smiles at him, knowing and kind, and sits back again. “You are very welcome, dear Ash. Always. Do you want more tea?”

Ash hesitates, then nods a little. “If… that’s okay.”

“Yes, of course. I will be right back. Just one moment.” Nozomi gets to her feet, takes his cup and Eiji’s, and heads to the kitchen, leaving Ash a little shellshocked.

She…

She thinks he’s really part of the family? Really, actually part of the family, not just welcome so long as he stays in line? Not just because he makes Eiji happy and she wants Eiji to be happy, but because she cares about him on his own?

That’s a whirlwind of emotions. He needs to figure out how to wrap his mind around that one.

And then a physical whirlwind hits, too. Nahoko launches herself at him like she didn’t earlier, arms locking around his neck as Eiji yelps in surprise. “Ash Ash Ash, oh my god!”

She has to clamber a little awkwardly onto the couch, kneeling at his side and draping herself over him to hug him better. Ash pats her back, a little overwhelmed, but lets her squeeze him tight all she needs. “Hi.”

Eiji shifts, keeping his arm around Ash firmly in place, but letting Nahoko have a little more room, too. He’s thoughtful like that. When Ash peeps over at him, he’s smiling.

“Sorry,” Ash murmurs, as she finally lifts her head and looks at him with too-bright eyes. “I scared you, earlier, didn’t I? Sorry.”

“That isn’t—that wasn’t your fault! I was just—” She breaks off, shakes her head furiously, and dashes at her eyes. “I was just scared because I care about you! Do not—do not be sorry for that!”

“Okay.” Ash smiles a little bit again. “Eiji always says the same thing.”

Nahoko giggles wetly. “Well, I guess Nii-san is right sometimes.”

“Hey.” Eiji’s token complaint is far too mild to be a real rebuke. His voice is gentle, as he wraps his other arm around Nahoko, holding both of them. “Don’t be rude.”

“I said that sometimes you are right. Is that rude now? Fine, then you are always wrong.” Nahoko glances at Ash even as she says it; she couldn’t be more clearly trying to make him smile again, and even more than her and Eiji’s halfhearted banter, that obvious effort is what makes a smile tug slightly at the corners of his lips.

She brightens when she sees him smiling a little, and then she hugs him tight again. Ash hugs her back, a little more easily this time, and finally manages to take a deep breath as the tears he’s been fighting start to recede.

“I am glad you are okay now,” Nahoko tells him, after a moment. “Though… I am sorry you had to go through so much pain. That’s awful. Um… but…”

She hesitates, glancing between him and Eiji. Ash waits.

Fiddling with the drawstrings on her jacket, she ducks her head. “If you ever… you know, need anything? Like, to talk, or… if you want to just play a game or something to get your mind off of something… you can always ask me, okay?”

Oh. Oh, wow. Ash’s heart squeezes in his chest at how earnestly she says it, leaving absolutely no room for doubt as to whether she means it. He’s found himself a place in Eiji’s family, somehow or other, and fuck, is he grateful.

And then he glances over to Eiji, and everything falters.

Because Eiji’s not looking at him. Eiji is looking at Nahoko, so visibly proud of her for offering to support Ash that he’s practically glowing. He looks so happy to be her brother, and it…

It really, really reminds Ash of Griff.

That thought finally does him in, and he finds himself crying again, silent tears streaking hotly down his cheeks as he blinks at the two of them. Next to each other, they really do have matching looks of worry as they realize he’s crying, though Eiji’s the one who folds him into a hug and rocks him side-to-side, gentle as can be.

“Oh, Ash, it will be okay,” he croons, rubbing Ash’s shoulder. “There you go, oh, Ash… We are here, okay? You never have to be alone. It’s okay. Everything will be okay. We are here.”

“I know!” Ash blubbers. “That’s—that’s why I’m crying! You… you love me.”

Eiji and Nahoko exchange looks.

“We do!” Nahoko says, and leans in, hugs him close, and squeezes him as tight as she possibly can. “We do, okay? You are family.”

Ash sniffles again, nodding. The tears don’t take too long to dry, and by the time Nozomi comes back with his tea, Nahoko is sitting at his side again, holding his hand.

She lets go when he reaches for his teacup, and this time he does manage a tiny snort as she goes back to holding his foot. She catches his eye, grins sheepishly, and shrugs, then pats his ankle, and he finds himself smiling wetly as he takes his first sip of tea.

“Dinner is also ready,” Nozomi says quietly, as Ash drinks his tea. “Whenever you want to eat, okay?”

All three of them are sitting around him, worrying about him, and he’s too exhausted and relieved to feel guilty. Instead, he’s just… glad. He doesn’t want to be alone right now, and it kind of—it kind of feels nice to be worried over. To be cared for.

“Okay,” he agrees softly.

“I’m really proud of you,” Eiji murmurs next to him. He doesn’t kiss him, but when Ash looks over at him, there’s so much raw affection in his face that he may as well have just kissed him fucking senseless and left him reeling. “Really, really proud.”

Ash ducks his head a little, face hot. “Thanks.”

Eiji pecks his cheek and just smiles.

“Ash,” Nozomi says, gentle as ever. Ash looks at her, and she smiles, warm and encouraging. “You are safe here, okay? Everything will be okay. Everything will be okay.”

It would be very easy to hem and haw and hesitate, to find things that don’t feel like they’ll ever be okay. Just hearing a few bars of a famous piece of music did this to him, after all.

But Ash can’t quite bring himself to be so skeptical right now. Maybe he’s just too tired to do anything but hope. Maybe he’s just not as jaded as he used to be. Maybe it’s Eiji rubbing off on him.

“Yeah,” he says, his voice soft and just a little tremulous. “I know.”

Everyone is telling him that it’s going to be okay, and whatever the reason may be, for once in his life, he thinks he’s rather inclined to believe them.