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Skipping Stones

Chapter Text

“Didn’t think you had it in you.”

Eiji had been expecting to drive in silence. Or maybe he had just hoped they would drive in silence. Ash’s voice made it all too real. A large part of him had wanted to concentrate on what gear to shift to and when the lights would change. That would distract him from the feel of his heart trying to escape from his ribcage and his hands shaking on the steering wheel.

“I didn’t think I had it in me either,” Eiji said. His voice shook and he tried to give a shaky laugh to cover it up.

Ash was looking at him. He could tell. Those eyes pierced into the side of his head. He swallowed, trying to think of something – anything – to say. The whole city seemed like a big grey blur. He drove where Ash said, but he couldn’t separate roads.

“I’m sorry I didn’t visit you – alone,” the words came out. He’d been meaning to say them, they’d been playing on his mind for days, but he didn’t expect them to outpour now.

“What?” Ash asked. He had his feet up on the dashboard, tapping in time to music in his head.

“In jail. When we visited – you said to come alone next time,” he flicked his indicator, pretending to peer into his wing mirror so that he wouldn’t look at Ash. This wasn’t helping. This was making the heart beating and the hand shaking worse.

“It was an act.”

“I know,” turn. Indicator off. “I just – I meant to.”

Ash was silent. Eiji swallowed, his face warm.

“I didn’t like to think of you there without anyone coming to see you. It can’t have been easy.”

“I wouldn’t have wanted you there,” Ash said. He paused. “No offence.”

Eiji could feel himself frowning, but he also felt his lips quirk upwards. Ash’s bluntness was charming, in its own American way.

“None taken?” he said, but at least his laugh was a little less shaky this time.

“It’s not that I don’t – like you,” it was the first time Eiji had heard Ash even remotely nervous. “You’re a decent getaway driver, I suppose.”

“Are you sure? I don’t think I’ve broken any traffic laws,” Eiji adjusted the rear view mirror and got a glimpse of Ash’s green eyes in it. He found it hard to concentrate on the road again. “Aren’t getaway drivers supposed to be a little more daring?”

“I don’t have to break the law all the time,” Ash said. He gave Eiji’s shoulder a light shove. “It’s better that we don’t get pulled over by the police right now, anyway.”

His voice was serious. Eiji glanced at him to see him glancing in the wing mirror intently. God, he was serious about this. He was serious about this and this was an average day for Ash Lynx. Even that name. Ash Lynx. It didn’t matter that he chose it, it was his name. Who in the hell went by Ash Lynx and lived up to that name?

How did Eiji come to be mixed up with this boy? He had been here little over a week and he was already stealing a car for this boy. This Ash Lynx. He was driving a car for a gang leader so that he could take out his old boss. He was serious about murder.

“I wouldn’t have wanted you to see me like that,” Ash said. His voice had a softness that Eiji hadn’t heart before. He stopped at a light and looked over. It was Ash’s turn to avoid his gaze. “It was bad enough that you visited the day after-“

“After you got beat up?” Eiji edged the car forward as the light turned amber.

“Yeah,” Ash took a deep breath in. “It wasn’t just –“ he had taken his feet off the dash and was staring at his knees, his hair falling over his face. “More than that.”

It took Eiji a moment, but then it came to him.

“Oh,” he didn’t know why, but he flicked the indicator again and pulled over to the side of the road. They got beeped by a handful of cars. “Oh.”

He didn’t know what to say.

“I knew they were going to,” Ash tapped his fingers on the windowsill. “I needed to get to the infirmary – to get the pill to give to you. It – it seemed like a decent plan.” Eiji stayed silent. He couldn’t understand it, and he couldn’t think of something that wasn’t completely cliché to tell Ash. “It was bad enough that Max knew. I didn’t want you to…”

“You’re telling me now,” Eiji said.

“I am.”

“You don’t have to.” Eiji didn’t know what Ash expected him to say. He had no experience of this.

“I know.” Ash ran a hand through his hair. “I know. But you already know about the other stuff, so…”

Eiji swallowed again. His mouth felt dry and his stomach churned at the thought.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he didn’t think they would be close enough to, but maybe stealing a car with someone brings you closer together.

“No. Not – yet. Not yet. One day. One day I’ll have the words .”

Eiji didn’t want to say that he could be back in Japan by the end of the week. He didn’t want to be – in fact a large part of him that he didn’t understand very much wanted to stay. He wanted to stay here with Ash. He didn’t want to go back to Japan.

Japan.

“It happens in Japan, you know,” he eventually said. It was the only thing he could think of to say. “It’s a whole – Lolita and stuff.”

“Like the film?”

“There’s a film?”

“It’s - an uncomfortable experience,” Ash his head back against the headrest. The corners of his mouth lifted upwards slightly. “You changed the subject well.”

“I didn’t mean to – I just – I know that stuff happens,” Eiji’s hand tightened on the wheel. “I needed you to know that I – I know that.”

“That’s a shame,” Ash’s voice was light and he meet Eiji’s gaze. His mouth was curved upwards in the way it always was when he was teasing, but there was a light missing from his eyes. “I liked it when you were nice and innocent.”

“You took my first kiss, you know,” Eiji wondered how he felt comfortable enough to tell him that. Surely he wanted Ash to think he was wiser and smarter as well as older. But he smiled and his hands relaxed on the wheel.

“Really?” Ash’s pale eyebrows rose.

Eiji nodded, his cheeks flaming. Ash chuckled under his breath, but his smile faded.

“Sorry,” he said dropping his gaze. He bit his lip and Eiji had to look away, his throat tight. “Your first kiss shouldn’t have been because I was trying to pass you a message.”

“It’s not a big deal. I – it’s just a kiss, and it was important, so-“ Eiji tapped his fingers on the wheel, watching the cars pass them. “Why did you choose doing that to pass it to me?”

Ash shrugged, his fingers curled over the gear stick and Eiji decided not to notice.

“Because I wanted to?”

It was such a classically Ash answer that Eiji had to grin. He flicked the indicator back on, waiting for an opening to join the traffic.

“Right.”

“It’s a compliment. I’m saying your boyfriend material.”

Eiji turned the car back into the traffic, his fingers shaking again. He hated that. But he was starting to enjoy the feeling of his heart racing. It had always raced when he had ran up to the high jump stand, the pole in his hands, but that was adrenaline. This wasn’t that. This was something else. This was remembering the feeling of Ash’s hand on his cheek and Ash’s hand on his butt. This was remembering Ash’s mouth against his and his tongue poking into his mouth. It was remembering that even though his brain was hay-wiring at it, his skin felt like sparks were running over it and the feeling wasn’t unpleasant. It wasn’t unpleasant at all. It was a feeling that he kept thinking about. A feeling that he’d want to feel again. He wanted his stomach to leap the way it did when he heard Ash call him ‘sweetie.’

But Ash probably didn’t want that. Ash probably hated that, after all he’d been through.

He couldn’t say all of this – he could barely even admit it to himself. So, instead, he smirked, and said “well, thanks.”

Ash laughed. It sounded almost genuine. “Turn here. Did you want to keep it going, then? Were you going to come back on your own and play along with me?”

Eiji obeyed and found he couldn’t keep the grin off of his face. His nerves and anxiety had given way to some kind of euphoria. But maybe that was just Ash saying that he was boyfriend material. He still hadn’t figured out if he had a crush on that boy or not.

“You didn’t need me anymore,” he said. “I’d done my part. You didn’t want to see me anyway.”

“Well, maybe if you’d told me you were going to pose as my boyfriend…” When Eiji glanced over to Ash he found the blonde resting his elbow on the windowsill, his head in his palm. There was that teasing smirk and there was that spark in his eye.

The tightness returned. This was all too real. He couldn’t tell if this was banter or if this was serious and he didn’t want to get hurt. He just rolled his eyes, bit his lip and turned his eyes back onto the road. He wouldn’t be able to ask Ash if he was really-

He hadn’t really asked himself. He had never had time for something like that. Surely he – they – didn’t have time for that now.

“You can stop here – we can walk the rest of the way.” Ashe said.

“On the side of the road? Just leave it?”

“Why not?”

“It’s a little conspicuous.”

“Do you want to waste time finding somewhere to park? It’ll be easier for them to find the car like this.”

“Right,” Eiji wasn’t entirely convinced, but the car was starting to feel unbearably hot. He needed air.

His hand went to switch gears, and he found himself cupping Ash’s. It made him jump and he was suddenly meeting those piercing green eyes.

“Sorry,” Ash murmured, pulling his hand away. Eiji felt oddly empty without it underneath him. He held his breath as he saw Ash’s hand hover over his thigh. Surely not. Surely that was too far for a joke.

But then they were parked, Eiji was certain it was on yellow lines, and Ash was opening the car door and swinging out.

Eiji blinked. His hands felt glued to the wheel. That entire conversation seemed bizarre. This entire situation was bizarre. What was he doing? Was he flirting with a gang leader?

Did he want a gang leader to flirt with him?

He had to stop. Ash wouldn’t want that. And he wasn’t the untouchable hero that Eiji saw in his mind. Just those few moments in the car had shown him that. It hadn’t popped the crush in his mind. If anything, he wanted to see more of that Ash. That Ash with the real laugh.

His door opened and he blinked again.

“You coming?” Ash was ducking so that he could see into the car, his hair falling across his face. His hair shone in this light.

“Yeah,” Eiji forced a grin and stepped out of the car, pushing the door closed behind him. They suddenly seemed close, his own converse in between Ash’s.

“Sweetie,” Ashe murmured, in that soft tone of voice again. His fingers grazed the small of Eiji’s back, sending sparks up his spine. Eiji felt like he was short circuiting. Was he going to kiss him again?

No. Ashe turned away and started down the street.

Eiji swallowed, pushing his rogue heart back down to where it belonged, then followed.

“Would you have wanted me to?” he found himself asking, matching Ash’s step.

Ash glanced at him, his face unreadable.

“I wouldn’t have pretended in the first place if I couldn’t see myself dating you,” he wasn’t even looking, but he seemed to send how red Eiji’s face was, because he continued. “It helps that you’re a good kisser.”

He even nudged Eiji’s hip with his.

“Speak for yourself.”

“I’ve had experience. It was a good first kiss.”

“So what you’re saying is it wasn’t good at all?”

“It’s been a while – do you want to refresh my memory?”

Eiji had to admit he was tempted. Without getting a pill pushed into his mouth, he was sure he’d enjoy kissing Ash Lynx. But also-

“You have to stop saying stuff like that – I can’t tell if you’re joking,” he said.

“You’ll never know.”

Eiji took in those sparkling green eyes and that playful smirk and couldn’t help smiling back, even if his cheeks were burning. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to tell when Ash Lynx was serious or not, but he wasn’t sure he minded. He was so incredibly different from everything else he had ever known and he was hooked on that – drawn to him like a fish on a hook.

This was where Eiji belonged. He belonged next to Ash.

Chapter Text

Eiji was pulled back from the comfort of his dreams by someone shaking his shoulders. It felt as though he was being pulled from a deep, dark, comfortable hole and he groaned in protest.

He was shushed. It seemed so urgent that his eyes snapped open.

Ash was kneeling in front of him, with narrowed eyes. His mouth was drawn in a straight line. That was a serious face.

"What's wrong?" Eiji whispered. He was imagining guns trained on them. Armed men waiting beyond the doors of the van. Surely Shorter would be better for something like that?

"Come on," was all Ash hissed back. He gave Eiji's shoulder a final shake, before he stood and crossed the back of the van.

They had stopped for the night at a gas station. Max and Ibe slumped together in the front, the boys lying in a mess of blankets in the back. Eiji couldn't remember the last time he shared a bed before all this and now he was sharing the floor of a van.

A van going to Los Angeles because they had to find information to bring a mob boss down.

He had been trying not to think about what was happening around him. If he thought about it, then he had to think about home and Ibe sending him back.

He had to think about if he would make it back home.

Instead, he started across the van, stepping lightly over Shorter's snoring body. The early morning light came streaming through the back.

Ash was resting against the back, arms crossed. Eiji gathered that they weren't being shot down and rested his arms on the half cover at the back.

"What's wrong?" he asked again, scanning the line of pine trees that surrounded the gas station. The smell of them was thick in the air.

"Do you need help down or something?" Ash asked. "I said come on."

Eiji swung his legs over the back, landing on the ground with a decided thump. He hadn't so much as looked at Ash again before the blonde was started over to the tree lines determinedly.

Part of him didn't want to follow. Part of him said that Ash didn't want him following him around all the time. Another part said that he shouldn't follow Ash around all the time. People died around him. Surely he was his own person, he could make his own decisions. He could be strong and say no and go back to sleep.

But he could make his own decisions. And his decision was to follow Ash through the car park.

His hair caught the dawn light, reflecting back peaches and pinks so that he almost looked like he was glowing. Eiji couldn’t stop staring at him.

The light disappeared as they headed underneath the trees, the crisp air sharpening to a chill against Eiji's bare arms. He wished he had thought to bring a jumper.

"You're being cryptic this morning," he said, because the hairs on the back of his neck were pickling. Ash wasn't acting as though he was expecting an ambush at any second, but there was a reason for everything Ash did, even kissing Eiji. The reason was always tied into something much bigger. A very early morning walk could be an intel mission for all Eiji knew.

"I don't talk in the morning," Ash replied over his shoulder. A shoulder clad in a hoodie.

"Same," Eiji said, and he heard a snort from Ash. "So why are you dragging me out here?"

"Because this could be our last chance to get some alone time," Ash said. He finally stopped, but just for long enough so that he could turn and wink at Eiji, a wolf-like grin on his face. "Sweetie."

Heat flooded Eiji's cheeks and he looked away. Just the word brought it all back. Ash's hand on his cheek - Ash's hand on his butt. Ash’s eyes making his heart leap like he was a puppet on a string.

"This is as far as we'll go," Ash continued speaking. "It's as good as place as any."

"Do I really have to ask what I’m doing here again?" Eiji looked up at Ash, feeling himself smile and not knowing why.

"Practice," Ash said, and at Eiji's blank stare reached into the hem of his ripped jeans. "Shooting practice."

And there was his gun, reflecting the light with a single shine.

"Oh," Eiji wasn't sure what else he was expecting. What else he was hoping. He clenched his fists for a brief second, before he took the gun. It was cold and just as heavy as he remembered it. He wasn't sure he liked it - he still remembered Shorter's hands around his - forcing the trigger down and -

But he also remembered Ash's arms around him, guiding him to the target. Ash's breath on his neck and his laugh in his ear.

He forced himself to smile again and raised an eyebrow at Ash. "And what? You're the target?"

"I bet you'd like that, wouldn't you?" Ash said and for one, wonderful moment they both laughed.

Then he stepped to the left, so that his chest faced Eiji, and pointed to a pine tree in front of them.

"Aim for that knot in the tree," he said, his voice dropping. "Or just the tree in general."

Eiji opened his mouth to say that he wasn't an awful shot, but he really had no idea how good or bad he was, so closed his mouth again and lifted the gun.

Without a word, there was Ash's hands, adjusting his elbow and straightening his shoulders. Ash’s hands were on his bare skin.

"The longer you spend aiming, the harder it will get," he said, one hand holding Eiji's wrist up. "Be as quick as you can."

Eiji had read that it was easiest to time it with his breathing. He lined up the gun with the knot, breathed out, fired.

The bang sent a flock of nearby birds into the wind. It seemed like an explosion to Eiji's tired mind. Wood sprung from the tree in a small explosion of splinters.

Only it was a sizeable distance above the knot he had been aiming for.

"Good try," Ash said. He sounded earnest, but as soon as Eiji glanced at him with one eyebrow raised dubiously, he burst out laughing.

Eiji didn't think about it, he nudged Ash's chest with his elbow and muttered "shut up," even though he was grinning too.

Then he realised what had happened and felt his heart begin to race and his cheeks begin to burn. He raised the gun again to put it in the past and never think about again.

"You know," he said with Ash's hand on his lower back. "It would be a lot easier to aim faster without you getting in the way."

"I don't want you to dislocate your shoulder or something stupid."

"What about your shoulder? How is it? Feeling better?" Eiji asked, taking his eyes of the tree. Ash's eyes were the same colour as the green around them.

"It's not a big deal, really."

"You got shot!"

"You're not focusing on the target, Eiji," Ash said. Eiji couldn't pinpoint when he had first started saying his name, or when he had first started saying his name like that. "There’s no time for chit chat in a gunfight.”

Eiji allowed himself to pout for a moment, before he turned back to the tree, adjusted his aim and fired again.

The second gunshot seemed even louder than the first.

He was closer to the target this time, but his arm had strayed to the right. Away from Ash.

"I fired a gun that day," he said. Ash had gone to pull away, but his fingers sat there patiently, waiting for an explanation. "When you got shot, when you gave me that gun - I shot it at a man." Ash was silent and his gaze was blazing like Greek fire. Eiji forced himself to smile slightly. "Shorter did, really. I had just flung it out in front of me - I don't think I'd even planned to shoot it - but he had one too and he was pointing it at me and I couldn't think what to do. Shorter shot it for me."

"Did it kill him?"

"I don't know. Probably."

Ash didn't say anything. His eyes were unreadable as he scanned Eiji's face. His fingertips still rested on his back and wrist, the touch so light that it tingled.

He started to ask what was wrong, but he couldn't manage it. His lips stayed parted as he stared back. Those eyes had a way of trapping him, even with the blonde strands being blown gently across Ash's forehead.

"I want to show you something," he finally said and plucked the gun from Eiji's fingers.

"But I haven't hit the knot yet."

"I know."

He was already tucking the gun into the back of his jeans.

"Do you just expect me to follow you everywhere?" Eiji asked.

"Why not? You've followed me everywhere so far," Ash said. He leant against the tree, turning back to Eiji. It may have just been a trick of the light, but his eyes sparkled.

Eiji shrugged, it was true, and started forwards, the pine needles soft and squishy beneath his feet.

“Are we switching targets?” he asked.

Ash didn’t reply, he just kept walking through the trees like he was weaving in and out of people at a party. He glanced back occasionally to make sure that Eiji was still behind him and every time Eiji found himself smiling back.

He thought that they were coming up to a clearing, because the trees stopped a way ahead of Ash, but when he caught up to him, standing on the edge of the treeline, he found he was wrong. They were stood at the edge of an outcrop. The ground beneath them dropped lazily in rocky chunks. Eiji’s trainer kicked a pinecone off the edge and it went tumbling down.

It was the view that drew his attention. The town they had just driven through was built on a collection of hills and now they saw the whole place at once. From here, it looked like a child’s toy – all perfect white houses and broccoli-like trees. It was more like a drawing or a painting than reality. The entire town was set against the morning sky, the sun just starting to peak through and stain the sky with blue.

“It’s – incredible,” Eiji breathed.

“I know,” Ash was leaning against a tree, because he didn’t seem to be able to stand upright of his own accord.

“How did you know this was here?”

“I didn’t.”

 “What?”

“I didn’t know anything about this,” when Eiji raised his eyebrows, Ash laughed out loud. He flicked his fringe from his eyes, turning the strands into rays of sunlight for a second. “I just wanted to find something cool to look at. To get out of that clearing.”

Eiji looked at him, a smile bubbling over his face.

“You’re weird.”

“You too.”

Ash hooked an arm around Eiji’s shoulders, knocking him off balance slightly so that he fell against him. Without thinking, Eiji reached a hand up and, without thinking again, his fingers were suddenly intertwined with Ash’s. He was leaning his weight against him, his hair flopping into his eyes so that he had to look through inky black strands at the sky.

“I love this,” he said, his voice a murmur. It was mainly to himself, but his mouth was grazing Ash’s ear and he heard. Eiji knew because his hands were given a gentle squeeze.

“Same,” Ash said.

Eiji somehow wound up with his head on Ash’s shoulder, his worn hoodie feeling like a comfort blanket against his cheek. A strand of gold mingled with the black of his own hair. It looked beautiful, but he couldn’t explain why. He couldn’t explain the warm feeling in his chest.

“This week – I know – I mean, I don’t know what we’ll find in L.A,” his voice was low, a tired, make-no-effort voice. “But I’ve had this calm over me. It all seems far away – New York too. It’s like some no-man’s land. It’s been almost like a road trip with our weird uncles. Like normal teenagers do.”

Eiji laughed into Ash’s hair.

“Weird uncles?”

“Ibe is yours, Max is mine.”

“Oh yeah?”

“They’re trying to be supportive of their sons coming out.”

Eiji buried his face into Ash’s shoulder to hide his giggling. The idea was starting to appeal to him – the running joke made him smile. It made his chest flutter in a way he was starting to enjoy. He was starting to want to believe the joke.

He opened his mouth to ask – if Ash had really meant it when he had said he would date Eiji – then he closed it. He didn’t want to pop that bubble. He wanted to stay in this moment, with Ash’s arm around him, still wondering if Ash’s heart was racing like his was.

Some things it was better not to know.

So he stayed quiet, his fingers in a tangle with Ash’s, watching the sun rise over some distant town, Banana Fish and L.A and New York all far, far away.

Chapter Text

Ash was starting to get restless. He felt like a lion holed up in a cage too small for it. The novelty of riding around in a van like Scooby Doo was starting to grow thin – he was sick of service station food, sick of sleeping with two snoring lumps every night and sick of having nothing to do but stare at the world going by them. America seemed never-ending. How could they be sure they weren’t just driving around and around the globe, never reaching their destination?

It was those thoughts that were driving him inside. They were hard to shake. They needed him to go for a walk and clear his head to shake – to look at different street signs and license plate numbers to reassure himself that they had actually left New York. The problem was, he was being kept inside. It was unlikely he’d be recognised, especially so far from Manhattan, but, as Max kept reminding him – he had killed a man and got bailed out of jail. People would still be looking for him. The police were only third or fourth down that list.

Most of the time, he could deal with it. Eiji would bring a brown paper bag into the back of the truck and sit cross legged with him, worrying that he’d picked the wrong sauce or something else stupid. Most of the time, Shorter kept them company.

Then there was that one early morning walk with Eiji. Ash wasn’t entirely sure that it happened. The colours of that morning seemed to bright – too painted watercolour – to be real. But if he concentrated hard enough, he could still remember Eiji leaning against him, his dark, fluffy hair tickling Ash’s cheek and his mouth grinning into Ash’s hoodie. His imagination wasn’t good enough to conjure that up.

Eiji was asleep now. Mixed up in a bundle of jumpers and hoodies and a nylon sleeping bag they had picked up at the first homewear store they could find. Ash hated the feel of them, but they were decent protection against the bitingly cold nights.

He had thought Shorter was too – thought he had simply dropped off to sleep sitting up against the back of the truck. But then a voice came to him through the dark.

“I've seen the way you look at him,” Shorter was just a black shape in the black night. A shadow more than a boy.

“What?” Ash forced himself to look away from the bundle of blankets and out the back of the truck instead. There were plenty of stars, but they were just tiny pinpricks in the night sky.

“Eiji,” Shorter’s voice was low, determined not to wake him. “You like him, right?”

He could have feigned ignorance. Said, yeah, he liked him, they were mates. But the insinuation was too obvious in Shorter’s tone. It made his gut squirm.

“No,” he said, quickly and sharply. “No. I'm not-“

“Bent?”

“No.”

There was a pause. Ash had used the voice he used to get people to listen to him. The one that made boys twice the width of him tremble. Of course, Shorter was different. Shorter had stopped being scared of Ash long ago. It didn’t defer him for long.

“It's okay-“

“I'm not, okay?” Ash snapped again. He hated that patronising tone. He had no parents to have this conversation with – he shouldn’t have to have this conversation. “I'm not like Papa Dino-“ he hated the way it still rolled from his tongue like clockwork. “- or Marvin. I'm not.”

“There's nothing wrong with it,” Shorter was dancing around the word. That was fine, Ash was too.

“You used to call Marvin a fag all the time. You hated him.” Ash’s voice cracked on ‘hated’ and he cleared it. He had thought he had ironed out his voice cracking like that a long time ago.

"Not because he was gay," he'd finally said it and the word was lighter than it should be in the air. "Because he was a paedo and a rapist. They both are. The three are separate from each other. Being gay is the only thing that's not - wrong."

Another car drove into the petrol station, it's headlights like search lights. The white lit up Shorter's face for a moment. He was still wearing those sunglasses. His face was unreadable.

Ash kept his silence, watching the man stepping up to the gas pump. Where was he going, at this time of night? The question wasn't a satisfactory distraction.

“So - do you?" Like Eiji?

Ash didn't want to admit that he didn't know. He wasn't really sure what attraction was like. He wasn't sure how he was meant to feel - how he was even meant to know if he liked someone.

He had liked kissing Eiji. He liked flirting with Eiji, now more than ever because instead of turning him beetroot, it made him grin. His eyes would glance down and then up at Ash as though he was checking that he was still there. Ash could watch that all day.

Was that liking him?

He couldn't ask Shorter that. It was better to deflect the question.

"It doesn't matter. He'll be going back to Japan soon," the car drove away, taking it's otherworldly light with it. Ash was glad, it meant that Shorter couldn't see him hugging his knees to his chest.

"A long distance relationship would probably be safer for him," Shorter's voice was soft and Ash felt a pang of - he didn't know what - jealousy? He was the one who worried about Eiji. No one else.

"Stop chatting shit, Shorter."

Shorter laughed, a sound quickly muffled when Eiji shuffled.

"Seriously - if Ash Lynx can't get a guy to stay with him then where's the hope for the rest of us?"

"You've been in this truck too long," Ash said. He faked a yawn, pushing himself onto the floor. "You're delirious."

"You say delirious, I say I've had my third eye opened. I can see things now, Ash. I can read your mind."

"Right now my mind's telling you to piss off."

Another laugh. He stayed still, not in a comfortable position, but one he could hold. It was barely five minutes later when he heard Shorter beginning to snore.

His head was pillowed on his elbow and he could see the sky. He wished he had the knack to read constellations. He wondered if Eiji could. He wondered about Eiji a lot. There was so much he didn't know about him. So much he couldn’t know about him – because the more he knew about Eiji the more attached he would get.

Ash couldn’t afford to get attached to Eiji. Especially not after Skip. It had proved it. Ash Lynx could not afford to get close to anyone, it only put them in danger. He hadn’t even known Eiji as long as he’d known Skip – he shouldn’t care this much about some Japanese boy.

Some Japanese boy with ridiculously soft hair and stupidly sparkly eyes.

Oh shit.

Oh shit – was that attraction?

The thought made Ash’s heart stop. He lay there in the dark, his elbow throbbing underneath him.

In two seconds, he was scrambling to his feet and clambering over the back of the truck. The ground slipped beneath him in his haste and he almost fell headlong.

 He hammered his fists on the driver’s side of the window – right against where Max’s ear was slumped against the glass.

The man jolted upright, his hand hovering over the wheel, before he saw Ash’s blonde hair, like a candle in the darkness. He blinked apart sleep-heavy eyes, rolling the window down.

“Ash? What’s wrong?” he was frowning, his hair sticking up like a porcupine’s quills. Why did everyone think there was something wrong? Why couldn’t he just want a chat with people? So what if it was the middle of the night?

“Can we talk?” Ash swallowed. He was suddenly finding it hard to look Max in the eye. His chest was tight.

“It’s – what – two in the morning?” Max frowned at the dash. Ibe groaned next to him, turning further away from both of them.

Ash shrugged. “It’s important?”

“Mm?” Max’s head tilted to one side.

“Not here?”

Max nodded his head again and again, looking like a bobble headed doll. Ash wondered for a moment if he’d fallen asleep, but then he was opening the car door and pulling on a pair of battered boots. He stumbled down from the truck.

They headed over to one of the pumps, leaning against it. They were all advertising a space to put adverts.

“What’s wrong?” Max fished in his pockets, coming back with a cigarette between his fingers. “Nightmares?”

Ash shook his head, watching the lighter spark and flicker to life. “I have a problem.”

“You think we’re being tracked or something?”

It was all they thought about. Wasn’t anyone else thinking of anything else?

“I think-“ Ash couldn’t believe he was saying it. He fiddled with the gas pump behind him. “I think I might fancy Eiji.”

Max took a long drag on the cigarette, puffing it out in a long cloud. “And that’s – what? News?”

Ash’s middle finger twitched of its own accord. He shoved it into his pocket, taking a breath. Why was this so hard to talk about?

“To me. I – I didn’t see myself ever having a crush, okay?”

Max was silent. He drew out another breath on the cigarette, tapping the end out. Ash’s nose twitched at the smell. Golzine didn’t smoke, that was where he drew the line, but a lot of his lackey’s did. Ash hadn’t been able to place the smell for years. It wasn’t particularly repulsive to him. He didn’t care to try it – he wasn’t about to risk yellow nails and teeth and whatever else for an addiction – though that it would certainly be a way of getting his own back. He could only imagine Golzine’s face if he saw his precious pet with his fingers round a cigarette.

“I’m sorry,” Max said finally.

“Yeah, I know, I had a shit childhood. Can we move on?”

“I don’t know what you want me to say when you say stuff like that, okay?”

“Nothing. I’d like you to just carry on.”

“Fine. Carrying on,” smoke fell from Max’s breath like bubbles. “I don’t see the problem. You and Eiji are good together.”

“He’s - he’s Eiji. He’s nothing like me. He can’t fight, he can’t shoot-“

“I think you like that,” Max wasn’t looking at him. “I think you like that he’s completely out of your world.”

“That’s the point. He’s completely out of my world. He wouldn’t survive in New York – and he won’t even stay.”

“Ibe can’t force him to stay here, you know,” Max spoke slowly, his eyes on the van. “Eiji’s nineteen. He’s an adult. If he wants to stay here – no one can stop him.”

“I hate that. I hate how relentless he is.”

“Hate?”

Ash looked away, letting his hair fall across the side of his face. Of course he did, but it was in a weird hate kind of way. He wanted his emotions to fall into place like they usually did. Love. Hate. They shouldn’t mix.

“Can I try that?”

“What?”

“Your cig?”

“No way,” Max laughed in clouds. “You’re way too young.”

“Oh yeah? How old were you when you first started?”

“Older than you. You’re what, twelve?”

“Just one drag.”

“You’ll get addicted and then where will you be?”

Ash shrugged. “Addicted.”

Max tapped the ash away, took another drag, actually looking as though he was considering it.

“All done,” he said, crushing it under his boot.

“Fuck you.”

“Just tell Eiji how you feel. From the sounds of it, he’s not all too good with relationships either. The two of you will figure something out.”

“That’s just like an adult to say,” Ash muttered. His temper was back like someone had flicked on a switch – he felt it boiling all over him. He started back to the van.

“Oh, thank you for waking up at two in the morning to help with my love life, Max. I really appreciate it, Max,” he heard the man mutter behind him. “Teenagers.”

“Old man. Why am I listening to you, anyway? You’re divorced.”

“You asked. I answered.”

“Yeah, well, never again.”

Max opened the car door, and Ash caught sight of the smirk on his face. He realised too late that he had fallen right into the trap.

“Suits me just fine, kiddo.”

The door closed again. Ash gritted his teeth, his fists curling of their own accord. He wanted to punch the van. He wanted to kick the van. Kick or punch anything.

That was how his anger was – a sudden throb of violence. A sudden urge to kick out. It came and went quicker than a tide. He was just furious and then –

Not.

He breathed out, leaning against the van and staring up into the pin-pricks in the sky. Maybe they were all trapped in a jar, and those little lights were the air holes. A child was watching them with fascination right now.

Ash shook his head – those kind of thoughts were even worse than thinking about Eiji. Those kind of thoughts burrowed into his mind and sat there for days. He’d rather think about Eiji.

Of course, Eiji had also burrowed his way right into Ash’s mind.

Shorter was right. Ash liked Eiji.

He just had to figure out if Max was right too.

He’d never hear the end of it if he was.

Chapter Text

4

Eiji could still feel Ash’s arms around him, although they had been together for ten minutes now. He still felt Ash squeezing his ribs so hard that he thought he was going to collapse. He could still feel Ash’s face pressed against his and his fingers pressed against Ash’s back.

His heart was racing, he could feel it in his temples and the tips of his fingers, but his heart had hardly stopped racing for the last two days. He was growing used to it.

Ash pressed himself against, the wall, his shoulders flush against it as he glanced around the corner. Eiji could only see the glint of green in his ear as he followed suit, his chest aching from breathing so heavily.

“This isn’t the time to ask,” Ash’s words came in short bursts. He was holding a gun and honestly,  it looked like he was complete. It was as though there was a puzzle piece missing all this time and it was finally where it should go. “But what did he do to you?”

The corridor must have been clear, because Ash looked back at Eiji. His face was neutral, but there was a tautness around his eyebrows and mouth. He looked scared.

“Not –“ Eiji took a breath, he closed his eyes, but he still saw that room when he did. He hated it – he had nowhere near as much to complain about as Ash. “That first night – you arrived before – and the second – I was where you found me. I was too  -" the words still rung in his ears, making his skin prickle. He worked his mouth, as though he was trying to figure out how best to form the words.

Ash just nodded, like he’d heard it before.

"Okay," he said. "Come on."

He was down the corridor in the time it took for Eiji to blink. He followed, even though his limbs felt like jelly. He felt incredibly vulnerable, his hands acutely empty of a gun. Everyone else here was armed. Everyone else here could kill him. He was completely defenceless, save for Ash.

Strangely, it was a comfort. Seeing Ash's finger resting on the trigger like a tiger ready to pounce made him feel safe. He would get out of this alive.

"I'm sorry," he found himself saying, glancing over his shoulder every other second. "I was lucky."

"What are you on about?" Ash didn't glance back at him.

"Nothing happened."

"And you - you feel sorry about that?"

"No - I'm - it's not that - I just - it's unfair that you - and I didn't."

"I was here for more than two days," a shot cracked through the air like a whip. A man standing a little way down the corridor, facing away from them, crumpled to the floor. "I would have to have a very lucky seven years. Luck doesn't seem to be something I have."

Eiji smiled, focusing on the green in Ash's ear and not the smell of blood that was filling the corridor, threatening to suffocate him. He focused on the green instead of the man's body they were approaching.

"I'll be your good luck charm," he said, slightly amazed that the words fell from his mouth.

Ash turned, his eyes narrowed for a moment. Eiji froze. He could hear footsteps. There was someone behind him. He went to turn, but Ash was stepping forward, slipping an arm around him so he was pressed against Ash's body.

"My good luck charm, then," Ash murmured, his other hand reaching out with the gun. Another crack. Eiji wondered when he had stopped jumping at the sound of a gun shot. He wondered Ash wrapping an arm around him made his heart race more than being in a gun fight.

The moment was over, Ash turned and headed back down the corridor, his hand tapping against Eiji's as a sign to follow. He stepped over the body, feeling the dead man’s eyes following him. He didn’t look. His back itched – begging him to look behind him, but he clenched his fists and kept walking.

There was something heavy in the air between them, something other than the light smoking from the pistol.

There was Shorter's death.

“Are you doing okay?” Eiji asked.

“No.”

“Yeah, I'm about there too,” Eiji lowered his voice as they came to another turn. The whole house was like a maze.

“I told you, there's no time for chit chat in a gun fight,” Ash hissed, turning back to him. But there was a smile at the edge of his mouth.

“But I don't have a gun. I'm just a damsel in distress.”

Are you in distress?”

“Not now, no,” Eiji said. He was still whispering, but there was obviously no one around the corner. Ash wouldn’t have stopped and turned back if there had been. So what were they waiting for?

Ash stepped forward, his suit jacket nudging against Eiji. He looked like James Bond. Better than James Bond, actually. The kind of image that girls would swoon over. And Eiji was sure he was swooning.

His stomach swooped up and down as Ash placed a hand on his shoulder, his face close to Eiji’s. There wasn’t time for chit-chat but there was time for this – whatever this was?

He thought Ash was going to kiss him and he wasn’t quite prepared for that.

But then Ash breathed out and simply pressed his forehead against Eiji’s for a long moment. It wasn’t unpleasant – Eiji had the urge to cup Ash’s cheek – to bury his fingers in Ash’s hair.

“I’m sorry,” Ash whispered, and the moment passed. He was turning the corner, his hand around Eiji’s wrist to make sure they kept close to each other. Eiji wasn’t sure what he was sorry for – that Eiji was kidnapped, that Shorter was dead or that he didn’t kiss him.

It occurred to him how completely absurd it was to be thinking of kissing a guy when they were literally in a gunfight.

But thinking of anything else was so much worse.

*

Eiji had been delegated to the back, middle seat, because he was the smallest. That wasn’t strictly true, the guy with the plaits and unusually large canines – Bones – was shorter than him. He knew it was just an excuse to keep him nestled in the middle of them. To make sure he wasn’t going to leap out or do anything else stupid. Which was annoying, because he was very tempted to do something very stupid. What else could he do when he wasn’t with Ash?

His leg was jiggling up and down and he couldn’t stop it. He was scared that if it raised his hands they’d be shaking. Maybe it was aftershock or maybe it was because he didn’t know if Ash had made it out okay or not.

“The boss’ll be fine,” Bones said next to him, but he wasn’t looking at Eiji. He was peering out the open window. The wind was buffeting Eiji’s hair into a cloud around his face. “It’s the boss, isn’t it?”

“I know,” Eiji clenched his fists, watching the lights of the city grow closer. “Do you know why he wanted that car?”

“No clue,” Bones shrugged. “Boss doesn’t talk about Golzine that much. Maybe it was important to him?”

“Maybe.”

“Will you talk about it?” Bones turned a little, his eyes sparkling like the streetlights outside. “What happened to you?”

“I was mainly shuffled from room to room,” Eiji said. He opened his mouth to explain about Shorter, then shut it again. He couldn’t even begin. He just clenched his jaw and shrugged.

Bones didn’t look like he believed him.

“You don’t have a gun,” he said. “How comes?”

“Ash had one. I stuck with him.”

“You couldn’t find one?”

Eiji hesitated. He didn’t want to say the truth. It would make Ash seem weak – or, weird – and Eiji really wanted to keep it a secret. Just between the two of them. He was like that when it came to Ash – he liked to store away little moments between them in his brain to look back on like a scrapbook.

“No.”

“Not on a body or something?”

“They crept me out too much,” Eiji lied. He had seen so many dead people in the last two weeks that he felt numb to it.

“That’s fair. Who are you, anyway? How do you know boss?”

“I’m Eiji Okumura. I came over to help interview Ash. We ended up caught up in all this mess.”

“Oh yeah, I remember seeing your mug. So how comes boss cares so much about you? Didn’t take any of us to L.A, did he?”

“Bones. That’s enough.” The guy on Eiji’s other side said. Kong.

Bones pouted like a child, then turned back to the window. Eiji was sure he was meant to feel relieved at the silence, but he would rather be talking about something. Left to his own thoughts he felt as though he was frying.

He wouldn’t be able to answer, anyway. He didn’t know why Ash cared so much about him – he wasn’t even too sure Ash cared about him full stop. He would have done what he had done for anyone in his gang, Eiji was sure.

Would he have killed Shorter for anyone?

It was logical. That was the conclusion Eiji had come to when he was sat in that room, feeling like he’d taken a thousand blows. Shorter would never recover.

But Shorter had still been his best friend. And Griffin had been getting marginally better, Eiji was sure.

Why him?

If it was true, if Ash did care for him more than the teasing fake-boyfriend banter –

Eiji couldn’t finish the thought. Then – what? Ash cared a lot about him. Ash might even like him – in the way Eiji was skirting around admitting to himself because he was scared that would be false hope. Someone like Ash Lynx would never like someone like him.

But maybe he did.

Eiji was attracted to Ash – he was attracted to those smirks and those laughs and the feeling of being held by him.

He didn’t know if he was gay, but he supposed it was too late to give the question much thought. He fancied a guy. If that made him gay, then he was.

What was he thinking? Of course it made him gay. That’s what being gay was. It was liking guys.

Eiji leant his head back and closed his eyes. He was thinking too much. Those kind of thoughts were exactly what he had been avoiding for the last two weeks.

Besides, he was meant to be going back to Japan. He wasn’t sure what was happening about that.

He wasn’t sure he wanted to go anymore.

Staying in America was terrifying – by far the two most terrifying weeks of his life – but Ash was here. He felt drawn to stay there, right by Ash’s side. It had felt right, in that mansion, being right beside him.

“Hey! You asleep?” Bones’ voice was right in his ear.

“Leave off, he’s had a hard day.”

“I’m fine,” Eiji opened his eyes. “Just – I feel a little funny.”

“It’s all new to you,” Kong patted his shoulder. “I felt funny too, the first time I did something like this.”

Eiji nodded. He leant back again, staring up at the ceiling, and was mercifully left alone for the remainder of the ride.

Well, alone with his thoughts.

*

“Eiji, come here.”

Ash had just woken up, and the room was still full of gang members winding down. Eiji hadn’t even slept yet, but he still felt too wired up. It was like he’d downed five coffees. His body was exhausted but his mind was still wide awake.

He nodded, slipping into Ash’s room. He could hear the whispers of the gang members behind him, watching him with something akin to awe. He was the one who had managed to wake Ash up and he was still in one piece.

As soon as he was in the bedroom, he was pressed against Ash. He stumbled back against the door, his head buried in Ash’s shoulder and his arms were around him. Eiji was barely supporting his own weight.

“You’re okay,” Ash whispered into his ear.

“You’re okay.” Eiji replied.

Ash’s face was pressed into his neck so hard that it almost hurt.

“Did you sleep okay?” Eiji was solely balanced on the tip of one foot.

Ash just nodded into him. “Blacked out.”

He pulled away, his hands still weighing down Eiji’s shoulders.

“Have you slept yet?” Ash asked.

Eiji shook his head. “I needed to wake you up, didn’t I?”

Ash shrugged. “You could have let me sleep.”

“You know everyone else was too scared to wake you up?” his hands were on Ash’s, they were rocking back and forth slightly. Almost like they were dancing.

“I have no idea why.”

Eiji laughed, but it sounded shaky. He felt like his brain had slammed into his body. All of a sudden, he felt like he’d been hit by a freight train. Ash was okay. He had done it. Him and Ash had escaped safely and Ash was fine.

“Eiji, you need to sleep,” Ash’s voice was soft. He pressed his forehead to Eiji’s. “Do they not sleep in Japan?”

He was trying to make Eiji laugh. He managed a smile, but it felt like a colossal effort to move his mouth and he was dimly aware of Ash’s finger under his chin, forcing him to look up at him. He was smiling too.

“Come on,” Ash’s arm was around his shoulders, pulling him over to the camp bed in the corner. “You’re ready to collapse.”

“I’m fine,” Eiji fell onto the camp bed.

“Uh-huh,” Ash was pushing him down, but there was still a fond smile on his face.

“I don’t want to sleep.” He searched for Ash’s hand with half-lidded eyes, cradling it between his hands like it was something previous. A little, live bird. He did want to sleep. Every part of him wanted to sleep. But he was scared about what he might see. He couldn’t face those nightmares.

“I don’t care.”

“Will you stay?” Eiji swallowed. “With me? Until-“

He thought he saw Ash swallow heavily.

“Sure.”

He kept hold of Ash’s hand, just in case he changed his mind, and fell onto the pillows. He was still fully clothed and hadn’t bothered to pull the sheets over him, but that didn’t matter. At the moment, he could barely keep his eyes open.

Ash’s hand twitched in his, like he was waiting to leave. He heard him sigh, but it didn’t sound like an angry, impatient sigh. It sounded sad.

Eiji felt a pang in his chest. He didn’t want Ash to be sad anymore. He wanted to do something about that.

He was finding it hard to think straight. Sleep was curling its claws around him, dragging him into  his dreams. He hadn’t thought he would ever be able to sleep again, but now he couldn’t stop it.

Just for a minutes then. His nightmares couldn’t get awful if he just closed his eyes for a few minutes.

A few more.

He was practically gone when he felt Ash’s hand slip from his slowly. When he felt Ash’s lips brush his forehead.

When he heard Ash whisper “sleep well, sweetie.”

Chapter Text

5

"How much do you trust me?"

Ash was sprawled over the sofa, his feet hanging off the end. Eiji was opposite him, his head buried in a battered, Japanese paperback. God knew where he found it. He frowned slightly at the question, then met Ash's gaze.

"I've trusted you with my life like three times now," he spoke slowly - as though he was scared of the truth.

“So you trust me?” Ash could feel the wolfish grin spreading over his face.

“What are you up to?” Eiji’s book snapped closed. His foot began to tap – it always tapped when he sat still. When had he started noticing things like that?

“Surprise,” Ash shrugged, trying to keep his face neutral. “I have a surprise for you, but I don’t know if you trust me enough for it.”

”Don’t be stupid. Of course I trust you.”

Ash wanted to replay that moment forever in his head. He wanted to forever see that little smile on Eiji’s face and forever hear those words.

But Eiji couldn’t know this – he was determined not to let Eiji know how completely he had fallen for him – so he just grinned and stood, rubbing his hands down his jeans.

“Come here, then,” he said.

Eiji stood, a half-smile of amusement still on his face as he looked at Ash. Like a parent indulging a child’s whim. He stood close to Ash, a little closer than usual, his hands hooking in and out of his pockets. There was an air of expectancy about him.

“Close your eyes.”

Eiji obeyed, his dark eyelashes fluttering slightly. They cast tiny shadows onto his cheeks. His lips were slightly apart, and Ash found it hard to drag his gaze from them. He could kiss him right now and it would seem natural. A part of him suspected that was what Eiji wanted.

But he didn’t. He pulled a scrap of fabric from his pocket instead – he had put it in there this morning and spent the whole time waiting for the right moment to ask. It was maybe from an old t-shirt, or an old jacket – he had just found it at the bottom of his drawer and it was good enough.

Ash stepped around Eiji, slipping the fabric over the boy’s eyes carefully, aware every time his finger strayed onto Eiji’s skin. His face was warm.

He tied the blindfold as tightly as he dared.

“Is that okay?”

“It’s fine,” Eiji said. “Part of the surprise?”

“Naturally,” Ash stepped back around him, hesitating for a moment. Then he slipped his hand into Eiji’s, curling his fingers around his. Eiji squeezed back. “Follow me.”

“I’m at your mercy,” Eiji said. He curled his other hand into Ash’s jacket as they slipped out of the apartment. “Oh no - at the mercy of infamous crime boss Ash Lynx – whatever will I do?”

Ash rolled his eyes. “You’re an unbelievable dork.”

Eiji just laughed – that sunshine laugh from his belly that made Ash’s chest feel tight.

He had to tell him, he thought, as he led Eiji into the lift. There was hair caught under the blindfold, sticking out the bottom like feathers. He had to tell Eiji how he felt – how he thought he felt – he wasn’t so good at recognising his own emotions.

In L.A, he had resolved to do it. As their adventure together had been coming to an end, he had resolved to tell Eiji that he didn’t really want him to go back to Japan. That he wanted Eiji to go back to New York, with him, because he wasn’t quite ready to be apart from him. Because he liked him. He wanted to know him more – he wanted to love him.

Then Eiji had been kidnapped.

Part of him had screamed at him to tell Eiji in Golzine’s basement. In front of the gang – who cared – just a quick kiss before he got in the car. But he hadn’t been able to do it.

He should do it now, whilst Eiji’s shining eyes were hidden away. It would be easiest now, when he didn’t have to look at him and he didn’t have to see Eiji’s reaction.

Ash opened his mouth-

The elevator doors opened and a group of middle aged women stared at him. He led Eiji out, putting his best charming smile on his face.

Of course Eiji tripped over one of their shopping bags and turned around, still blind, apologising profusely. He was facing a potted plant. Ash pulled him away, unsure whether to groan in frustration or burst out laughing.

Eiji had that effect on him.

People gave them a lingering glance as they walked down the sidewalk. That counted as staring in this city – after all, Times Square was full of strange people every day – a blindfold was tame.

But Eiji had begun to giggle from the absurdity of the situation. It was infectious – it made Ash forget to look where he was going, and someone knocked his shoulder. He stumbled, which made Eiji stumble, which caused them both to start laughing all over again.

To give him credit, Eiji stayed calm, even when people began jostling against them. He just squeezed Ash’s hand until he looked back and realised how stretched out their arms were. He slowed down, letting Eiji catch up. He nudged him with his shoulder.

“You okay?” he asked.

Eiji nodded. “Is it far?”

Ash paused. He smiled. “It’s a surprise.”

“And I’m a dork?”

“The dorkiest.”

Eiji laughed, falling against him for a moment, slipping his arm into Ash’s so that they wouldn’t get separated. It seemed so easy. This was how couples behaved – Ash had seen them. It made him grin, he couldn’t stop grinning, at the idea of him and Eiji as a couple. It made him feel like he was full of bubbles. He was glad Eiji wouldn’t know.

Did he want Eiji to know?

A part of him did.

The closer they got to the new apartment, the more Ash looked over his shoulder. This wasn’t his territory, and it made him nervous. It made him slip oversized aviators on to his face and step in front of Eiji slightly. He was scrutinising everyone’s faces in case he recognised them.

Eiji noticed. Of course he did.

“Are you okay?”

“Mm. Why?”

“You’ve gone all stiff.”

“I’m fine – don’t worry about me,” Ash was staring at the suited man across the road, waiting for him to turn around. His fingers prickled for the gun in his waistband.

“I always worry about you, Ash.”

Eiji’s voice was soft – so soft that it made Ash stop and stare at him. Maybe this was the moment. Maybe he should just step forward now, kiss him and say that there wasn’t a moment that he didn’t worry about Eiji.

But then that dork had to open his mouth and ask “are we there yet?”

“Almost.”

It was true, the apartment was just around the corner. There was another elevator – a nicer one, with mirrors clear of graffiti and corners free of urine stains.

“Empire State Building,” Eiji said all of a sudden.

“What?”

“Are we going up the Empire State Building?”

“Sure,” Ash caught his own eye in the mirror and wiped the smirk off of his face.

“Really?”

“No.”

“But we are in an elevator, right?”

“Yeah.”

Eiji nodded.

The doors pinged. Ash felt oddly nervous as he lead Eiji down the corridor. He counted the numbers, played with them in his head, to take his mind off the inevitable door.

He paused, fishing the key out of his pocket. He stared at the door, feeling slightly foolish that he’d set all this up.

“Are we here now?” Eiji murmured.

“Yeah,” Ash sighed. “Just wondering whether or not to carry you over the threshold.”

He had the key in the door. Eiji’s fingers twitched in his. He kicked the door open, gaze flicking into every corner of the room automatically.

“I mean, if you really want to…” Eiji looked almost coy – it made Ash’s heart melt.

“No – I mean – just, get in,” he gave a tug on Eiji’s hand. Kicking the door shut behind them.

Eiji stayed there, his arms dutifully at his sides.

“Okay, here we go,” Ash said. He had no idea why he felt nervous about Eiji liking an apartment he knew was gorgeous, but not about being caught up in a shoot-out. After a moment, after a deep breath, he untied Eiji’s blindfold gently, letting it fall to the ground. He waited, unable to see Eiji’s reaction.

“Wow,” Eiji breathed out. He turned slowly, taking in the leather sofas, the pine wood floors – all the polished and perfect furniture that had come with the place. Ash’s favourite was the huge, white fridge. It stood like an angel in the corner of the kitchen. “So this is-?”

“Our new place,” Ash forced a smile – it settled on his face comfortably even though his heart was thumping irregularly.

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No!” Eiji was still saucer-eyed, taking a few tentative steps across the light wood flooring. “Ash – this must have cost a fortune!”

He shrugged – he didn’t want to reveal the truth, but he didn’t know why. He didn’t think Eiji would be particularly shocked by it. It was still better to change the subject – to make Eiji blush. “Anything for you, sweetie.”

But Eiji didn’t get flustered. He just smiled at Ash, his eyes crinkled at the edges. There was another one of those moments – a moment where Ash swore that Eiji was about to stride across the room and kiss him. Or maybe he just hoped Eiji would kiss him.

Then again, if he didn’t like Ash, not even a little bit, then why would he stay? He had stayed next to Ash when he could have gone back to Japan ages ago. He could go back now, if he wanted.

But he was here. Next to Ash.

Eiji was exploring the apartment, like a cat just released from a basket into a new house.

“Why are the blinds closed?” he asked, opening them before Ash could even reply. There was a long moment of silence, Ash’s heart continued beating that strange rhythm. “Oh.”

“The blinds need to stay closed,” Ash said, crossing his arms over his rogue heart. “It’s – a little dangerous.”

“This move was – to spy on Golzine?” Eiji asked. He was still at the window. The blinds still open.

“Mostly,” Ash admitted. “It was a factor. But we needed to change places anyway. It was getting too dangerous where we were.”

“Okay,” Eiji’s voice was quiet. He let the blinds fall back across the window. The sunlight made patterns across his coffee-coloured skin.

“Are you okay?” Ash took a couple of steps forward.

Eiji stayed quiet, his finger still on one of the blind slits, making it wave slightly.

“I’m fine,” Eiji muttered.

“Eiji.” He was right behind him now, the sun flashing into his eyes. “You’ll be safe here. They won’t think to look here.” Eiji was watching the street below intently. Ash hated how he couldn’t see him. “There’s a supermarket and a gym downstairs – we’ll barely have to leave the building.”

Ash took a breath – he took a leap – placing his hands tentatively on Eiji’s waist. Eiji placed his hands over Ash’s like he wasn’t even thinking – it gave Ash the push to rest his chin on Eiji’s shoulder, peering out the window.

“When you said you were stealing – you actually were, weren’t you? You were getting the money for this place.”

“Does that bother you?”

“I’m not sure yet.” Eiji’s dark eyes followed a man in a suit walking out the front door opposite them. “Who do you think that is?”

“I don’t know. Yet.”

“I’m – scared, Ash,” Eiji said. He leant into Ash’s hands. “I thought I was doing okay – I thought – up until now it’s all been stuff that I guessed was pretty scary. I mean, everyone’s going to get scared when they get kidnapped, right? But – this – this is normal life for you. This is my life now. Hiding from…it scares me.”

Ash didn’t have the words to explain. He used to feel that way – he used to be scared all the time – but now it was just like background noise. It was something he had grown into. It made him feel gross – inhuman. He couldn’t even comfort his friend about being scared.

“You can go back,” Ash said. “Go back to Japan, if you want, Eiji.”

“I can’t do that,” his hands tightened on Ash’s. “Of course I can’t do that.”

Ash was scared to ask. He licked his lips. “Why not?”

“I can’t leave you.”

The words sent a thrill through Ash. Without quite realising, he buried his face into Eiji’s neck. He had said it so simply – as though it was obvious. Of course he couldn’t leave Ash. The fact that it was that simple for him – that he cared enough about Ash to stay, he could barely understand. Gang members, sure. Eiji – who could go back to Japan and have a normal life – staying because he couldn’t leave Ash – unbelievable.

“I’m sorry,” Ash murmured. “I’m sorry for doing this.”

“It’s just the shock,” Eiji said. “It’s fine – it’s…fine. I – don’t know what I was expecting.”

“You shouldn’t be dragged into this.”

“I’ve not been dragged into anything. I’ve chosen to take every step along the way.”

“You’re unbelievable,” Ash whispered, his lips grazing Eiji’s neck. “How are you real?”

Eiji chuckled, tilting his head to rest on Ash’s. His fingers locked into Ash’s. “I told you, I’m your good luck charm.”

Ash closed his eyes, breathing in. He was so close that his stomach was pressed against Eiji’s back.

Now. Now was the moment. It was just right – he wouldn’t even have to look Eiji in the eye. He could just say it and leave it.

But he couldn’t. The guilt was swelling up inside him like a balloon, choking him from the outside. He didn’t deserve this. He didn’t deserve to be cared about. He didn’t deserve Eiji. Eiji, who he had dragged into his hell of a world.

So, he shut up, and held Eiji, the sun bearing down on his neck.

He let himself have that one, selfish moment.

Chapter Text

6

Eiji had told Ash that he felt ridiculous wearing his clothes. Ash had simply replied with “what other choice do you have?”
Which was fair enough – Eiji had lost all of his luggage when he had been kidnapped. Ibe had tried to track their stuff down, but it was taking forever. No one seemed to understand why two people had ditched all of their stuff in L.A and then flown to New York.

It was fair, but Eiji still felt ridiculous. Skinny jeans and baseball jackets just weren’t his style.

And yet Ash had smirked and winked at him as he headed out the door. “You look great, sweetie.”

“Shut up,” Eiji had pouted at him, but just before he had closed the door his face had cracked into a smile. He was sure that his face was glowing as he headed downstairs, pockets in Ash’s borrowed jacket.

They needed food, and he was determined to make Ash Lynx eat a healthy, balanced diet. It seemed to be one of the only things he could do. That, and take photos.

He wondered around the aisles, a little listlessly. He read some English, but he had no idea about what brands would be best. He was only now realising that he barely knew what food Ash liked to eat.

“Are you alright there, hun?”

Eiji had stopped jumping at everything so much, but he did turn and blink in utter confusion at the round, middle aged woman smiling at him.

“Oh, mmm,” Eiji nodded. “Yeah.”

“You just look a little lost,” she continued, plucking down items from the shelf without even looking. “What are you looking for?”

“E-everything, I guess.” Eiji still felt like a deer stuck in the headlights.

"Sorry, didn't mean to scare you, just haven't seen you around here before, that's all," the woman said.

"Oh, we just moved in upstairs," Eiji said, forcing a polite smile onto his face.

"Of course, of course, I thought I'd seen people moving in," the woman started walking down the aisle, putting things in Eiji's trolley too. He didn't mind, she seemed like the kind of woman who knew what she was doing. Eiji was missing having a capable adult around and she seemed to have adopted him now. "Didn't think I saw you with those lads though."

She must have meant Bones and Kong. It was weird that they knew about this move before Eiji did. It was weirder that they had managed to keep quiet about it. It must have been Ash's orders.

"It was a surprise," Eiji said. "I wasn't meant to know about it."

"Ooh, fancy your boyfriend surprising you with a penthouse apartment! You are lucky!" She was piling bags of pasta into Eiji's trolley now.

"What?"

"Don't tell me that charming blonde boy hasn't snatched you up yet. Haven't you seen the way he looks at you?"

Eiji was sure his heart had stopped beating. Ash looked at him? In a way that made people think they were together? When he wasn't play flirting?

"And the way you look at him? You must be teasing me – the two of you are head over heels!”

He wasn’t sure if he was quite ‘head over heels,’ but he was definitely at least a little bit in love. Maybe a fair bit in love.

The thought made his face even warmer and he smiled into the trolley. The woman misunderstood, she gave him a friendly nudge with her elbow.

“See, I’m always right,” she said. “Sandra – I was right!”

A woman down the aisle turned and grinned at Eiji.

“Now, what are you thinking of, dear?” the first woman kept smiling at Eiji. “You should make his favourite dinner as thanks.”

Eiji realised that he had no idea what Ash’s favourite food was. Not fast food – he complained bitterly about it after the week straight in that van. Not Japanese food. He was saved from having to answer by Sandra interrupting her friend.

“And where do you come from?”

“Oh, um, I’m from Japan.”

He might as well have said Mars. They both stared at him like he had three heads.

“Wow!”

“Really?!”

And then, both together, “say something in Japanese!”

He did. A large part of him wanted to resent them, but he couldn’t find it in himself. They meant well, they were helping him buy food, and they made him surprisingly homesick. He missed having a mother to take care of him, and if these people were volunteering, then sure. It was like having two mother hens clucking over him and he enjoyed the attention.

And they thought he was dating Ash.

That was a fantasy that he wasn’t quite ready to let go off yet.

*

“Have you asked Eiji out yet?”

Ash dropped his fork into his meal, staring at Max across the table.

“I was talking about-“

“I know, but believe it or not, I’m a little bored at looking at every white, business owner who walks through Golzine’s doors,” Max leant back in his chair, a smile at the corner of his mouth. “I want to check in on my son’s love life.”

It made Ash cringe, almost as much as he was sure Max cringed when he called him ‘dad.’ He really hadn’t put enough thought into his cover story – he hadn’t expected Max to lean so heavily into it.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Ash picked his fork pack up gingerly and toying with the pasta on his plate. He hated this restaurant. It was all fake, red leather sofas and glass lampshades that almost poked them in the head and it was full of bratty kids. But Golzine didn’t own it and he would never think to look there.

“So you haven’t asked him.”

“No,” Ash poked at his food a little more. He knew it wasn’t a sufficient answer and he could feel Max’s eyes boring into him. “There were times – there’ve been several times where I thought it would be good – perfect – to ask him. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.”

“Really? Why?” Max continued eating, as though his stomach wasn’t all knots at just thinking about Eiji.

“Because –“ Ash swallowed. He stared down at the pasta. The way the sauce shone on it made him feel vaguely sick. “Because I’m not good enough for him.”

Max burst out laughing. A real belly laugh, like the annoying uncle at a family gathering. It lasted for a good thirty seconds before he finally quietened down.

“What?” Ash snapped.

“It’s just – you – Ash Lynx – this great big crime boss, and you don’t think you’re good enough for sweet little Eiji?” Max was still grinning.

Ash shoved the bowl of pasta away from him. He did it too hard, and it clattered into Max’s plate, threatening to send it over the edge. But of course, he caught it and slipped it back onto the table. He raised an eyebrow at Ash.

“You don’t get it,” Ash was still holding his fork. He dropped it with a clatter, not caring that people turned around to stare at him. They were probably thinking he was much too old to have a temper tantrum. “I’m – not – I’m not worth it. I’m a monster – I don’t even think twice about shooting someone in the head. I don’t even remember faces anymore. Most of the time it doesn’t bother me to pull the trigger and when it does it’s because I murdered my best friend.” He was scratching his jeans, so hard that he could feel his nails on his thighs. “That’s bad enough, right? But I’m – I’m nothing. I’m what Golzine passed around – just a pretty thing to be used and forgotten about. A secret for men to savour. And I’m good at it.” He paused, frowning back at the pasta. “My dad was right, when he called me a whore. So no, I’m not good enough for Eiji. I’m nowhere near.”

He gritted his teeth so hard that it felt like he had lockjaw. He wasn’t crying – he was close, very close, but not yet. The words sat in the air. People were gawping at him, but Ash didn’t care. He couldn’t find it in himself to care anymore.

“Come on, let’s step outside,” Max had a hand on Ash’s upper arm in seconds, practically dragging him from the restaurant. Ash let him. It was all he could do not to start shaking. He just clenched his jaw – clenched his muscles – clenched everything and let himself be pulled outside. They stood under the outside cover of the restaurant, the Summer heat choking them even in the shade.

Ash stood there, sweat trickling down his forehead already. The heat was as unbearable as the tight feeling in his chest.

“You realise you have nothing to lose, right?” Max’s voice lay somewhere between soft and casual – as though that hadn’t all spewed from Ash’s mouth.

“What?”

“Eiji’s crazy about you.”

“Shut up.”

“Now, Ash, that’s no way to speak to your-“ Max stopped. The word was still sat between them, nestled among the others. “It’s true.”

“I think that makes it worse.” Ash hated how small his voice was. He sounded like a child.

“You don’t want him to get hurt, right?” Max, like a clockwork toy, pulled his cigarettes out of his pocket. He took one out with his mouth, then held it out.

Ash stared at it for a moment, disbelieving. His eyes flickered back to Max, but he was looking out at the car park, not at Ash – thank God. Max shook the box, gently, and Ash plucked out one of the cigarettes. He held it between his fingers the way he had seen so many people do. He wanted to stare at it, examine it from every angle, but that seemed childish.

“I just about went insane,” he said, watching the sun glisten on the parked cars. They looked like shiny bugs. “I drove myself insane on that plane imagining the things he would do to Eiji.”

He let the words sit in the air like the heat of the day. It was so hot out here he could see the air wobbling in the distance.

“Do you know what I see when I look at you, Ash?” he didn’t answer – he didn’t want to know the answer. “I see a survivor. Your father was wrong. You’re no whore, you’re a survivor. Tough as old boots.”

“If anyone here is an old boot, it’s you.” Ash muttered, but his fingers were trembling so hard the cigarette was going to fall from his fingers.

Max didn’t laugh. Ash didn’t even see if he smiled because in the next second he was being enveloped by Max’s arms. He found his face pressed against Max’s chest, his fake glasses digging into his nose.

He was probably meant to hug back. His arms felt like lead at his sides. He felt like a robot that had short-circuited – trapped in his own head. Ash’s hands moved in slow motion, very slowly coming to rest on Max’s back. It was a bizarre feeling. Men Max’s age didn’t usually hug Ash like that. Or, they did – they must hug their sons like this, maybe their friends. Ash didn’t usually hug like this.

He should probably feel sad about that.

They stayed still for a long time. Ash shut his eyes and savoured this moment – of feeling small, but protected – for as long as he could bear in the summer heat.

Then he pulled away, slowly, so that Max didn’t think he was repulsed by him. They still hadn’t said a word, but whilst Max was lighting up, Ash took a moment to cuff at his eyes and nose.

“You’re good enough for Eiji, kiddo,” Max said. “But I’m not the one to ask.”

“Oh no?” his voice was slightly strained, but it wasn’t awful.

“You need to get past Ibe. He won’t let anyone touch that boy.”

Ash rolled his eyes. At least his smirk was back.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” he asked, holding up the cigarette. It was a little crumpled from the hug,

Max glanced at it, breathing smoke out from around the one in his mouth.

“It’s not even legal for you to smoke.”

“Then why’d you give it to me?”

“Because – you were sad,” Max shrugged.

“I hate you.”

“Almost as much as you hate Eiji?”

Ash considered, twisting the cigarette between his fingers irritably.

“Yes.”

“Then I can live with that.”

Ash sighed, rolling his eyes again. One day they would just roll right to the back of his head and stay there.

“Hey,” Max said and Ash glanced at him. “Chin up, kid. It’ll all be okay, one of these days.”

Max had a hold on his shoulder. Ash let it sit there.

“I don’t know how you can think like that.”

“What’s the alternative?”

“Assuming I won’t live till my twentieth birthday.”

“If you really thought like that, you’d run back to that apartment and make the most of every second with that boy.”

It wasn’t some big motivational speech, but that was hardly Max’s style. A speech like that wouldn’t have made Ash feel better anyway. In a weird way, Max had known exactly the right thing to say. It was weird – really weird, that he was that used to Ash already.

What was weirder was that he was right. Ash had to tell Eiji.

He had to tell him now.

Not just because of the speech, mind, because he had clocked the police car pull up two minutes ago. The officer was walking over to them now, her eyes on Ash’s cigarette.

“Will you pick up the bill for me, dad?” Ash said, handing the cig back. He couldn’t stop the smile on his face. Max wouldn’t suspect anything – he’d suspect that he had succeeded in cheering Ash up.

“You know the next one is on you.”

“Excuse me, sir, did I just see you give a cigarette to a minor?” the police officer had snuck up on Max’s blind side.

“No – well, I mean – he was just holding it is all-“ Max stammered.

Ash smirked, taking this as a chance to slink away. He was stopped by a hand on his shoulder.

“Hold it, there – you’re in trouble too, Mister.”

He couldn’t believe that in all this time of his own mind stopping him from asking Eiji out, now it was a police officer.

And it was all Max’s fault.

***

“What kept you so late?” Eiji didn’t even look around when Ash walked in the door. He was curled up on one end of the sofa, flicking through random tv channels.

“You didn’t lock the door, Eiji. Anyone could have got in.”

Eiji glanced up then. A week or two ago, Ash was sure he would have apologised profusely. Now, he smirked and shrugged.

“I know you’ll always save me when I get into trouble,” he said. “You’re my Prince Charming.”

“What does that make you?” Ash kicked the door closed, climbing onto the arm of the couch so that he could nudge Eiji with his feet. “You’re too old to be a Princess.”

Eiji just laughed, nudging him back.

“So what kept you?”

“Max gave me a cigarette and we got stopped by the police,” Ash tried to say it like it was no big deal.

“Oh.”

“That doesn’t bother you?” Ash said.

“Max would never let you smoke,” Eiji was smiling, and the sunset behind him made his hair shine. It made all of him shine – it made his eyes sparkle and his skin turn gold.

Ash shrugged. He knew he was pouting, but he also knew that it made Eiji smile at him.

“I – actually meant to talk to you,” Eiji stood from the sofa, running a hand through his hair. He looked nervous and it made Ash’s stomach drop. This was it – this was the moment where Eiji told Ash he was going back to Japan – that he couldn’t do it anymore.

“What’s wrong?” Ash stood too, feeling oddly tall still in his shoes.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Eiji wasn’t convincing. He wasn’t looking Ash in the eye.

“When?”

“What?” he looked at Ash then, all shining Bambi eyes.

“When are you going back?”

“I’m not – at least I don’t plan to,” Eiji said. “No, it was – I –“ he stopped, staring at Ash as though he lost his train of thought. He cleared his throat, looking down so that his fringe flopped across his forehead. “I can’t look at you and do this – you’re going to have to close your eyes.”

Ash raised an eyebrow, his lips quirking upwards despite his nerves. Then, he obeyed, his eyelids fluttering as he fought to keep them closed.

“You better not take me to a new apartment, I was just getting used to this one,” he said, still fighting that smile, because he knew Eiji was flustered and he knew it would make him worse.

“Oh my God, shut up, this is hard enough!” Eiji snapped, his hands pushed Ash’s shoulders. Not really hard enough to make him lose his balance, but he went to step back as a kindness.

That was when Eiji’s hands kept him in place. He froze – wishing he could open his eyes – wishing he could see what was happening. How was Eiji looking at him?

He must have been on tip toes, to hold Ash’s shoulders like that.

Then Eiji pressed his lips against Ash’s. It was more of a brush, really. Barely even a second of contact. A nano-second of contact that transformed Ash’s heart into a butterfly. It wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. He started to open his eyes, his mouth open to ask what the hell was happening when Eiji said-

“Wait, no – that was bad. Let me try that again.”

Ash wanted to laugh. That was Eiji’s voice alright. But it couldn’t be Eiji.

It was Eiji’s lips that met his a second time – properly this time. It was still a chaste kiss from a Disney movie – a kiss Ash was only vaguely familiar with.

Yet it was still a kiss. From Eiji Okumura.

Ash opened his eyes, half expecting himself to be lying in his bed, staring at the ceiling, the ghost of the kiss still on his lips. He wasn’t. He was staring at Eiji, who was watching him carefully.

For a moment, his brain wasn’t working. In fact, he didn’t think his brain had been working since he walked into the room. It definitely wasn’t working when he said, “I can’t believe it took three tries to get that first kiss right.”

But Eiji was smiling at him.

“Third time lucky?” he said. “I am a lucky charm, after all.”

“You’re a dork, that’s what you are,” Ash said, taking Eiji’s face in his hands. It squished his cheeks ever so slightly as he grinned at Ash.

“That’s no way to talk to your boyfriend,” he said.

The word froze the smile on Ash’s face. Boyfriend. It had slipped off of his own tongue so easily when it was a joke. Now it was serious.

“Shit-“ Ash’s hands relaxed on Eiji’s face. “Shit – you mean-“

“What?” Eiji’s own smile started to fade. “Is that okay?”

Ash nodded. He kept nodding, he went to press his head against Eiji’s and paused. He looked over Eiji’s face, Eiji’s slightly nervous eyebrows and worried eyes. Then he tilted his head and kissed Eiji, savouring the moment. He barely pulled away, feeling Eiji sigh against him. His eyes were closed, a small smile on his face.

Eiji looked like an angel. An angel who closed his eyes and sighed when he got kissed by the boy he liked. The boy he liked – who was Ash. Who had been called demon and wildcat and all the nicknames held some truth in them.

Maybe he was right after all. Maybe he wasn’t good enough for Eiji – he certainly wasn’t what Eiji deserved. Eiji deserved someone much better than him – someone a lot happier who he could be a lot happier with.

He kissed the top of Eiji’s nose, feeling out of his depth. He didn’t do this.

Eiji smiled, his eyes full of stars when he opened them to look at Ash. He caught the troubled look in Ash’s eyes immediately. He put a hand to Ash’s, turning it over so that he could link their fingers.

“It’s okay,” he whispered. “Let’s just – chill, yeah?”

Ash nodded. The tight feeling in his chest loosened. He sat down heavily next to Eiji on the sofa, suddenly feeling conscious of everywhere his body was.

“You’re worried,” Eiji said. He still had hold of Ash’s hand.

Ash let out a long breath. “Yeah. Yeah, I am.”

“You said we’d be safe here.”

“I know.”

“You don’t want to see me get hurt.”

“No.”

“Well I don’t want to see you get hurt either.”

“I can take care of myself, Eiji.”

“Can you?” the question was harsh, it stung Ash. But he supposed there was a glimmer of truth in it – he did seem to get into a lot of trouble. “I can’t go back to Japan and not wonder about you every day of my life,” Eiji shifted, leaning his weight against Ash’s. He had done it so often that it was comforting. “But, everything will be okay.”

“That’s what Max said,” Ash leant his head against Eiji’s, revelling in the feeling of Eiji’s soft, thick hair against his cheek. “You old people are all the same.”

“Hey!” Eiji elbowed Ash. “Let’s just – take it one day at a time.”

Eiji stayed, pressed against Ash, his fingers tracing patterns on the back of Ash’s hand.

It wasn’t just that Eiji would be in danger. It was that Ash had no idea how this worked – this romance thing.

But it was one day at a time. One of Ash’s problems at a time.

For today, they were chilling, and Eiji was leaning against him. It made his chest feel as though it was on fire.

He squeezed Eiji’s hand and buried his nose into Eiji’s fluffy hair. Baby bird hair.

Ash couldn’t remember falling asleep. He didn’t realise they’d been sat there in silence for so long. He didn’t realise he was that comfortable.

But he fell asleep on the sofa, leaning against Eiji Okumura.

*

“You’re extra peppy today.”

The voice made Eiji jump. He almost spilt boiling water all over the kitchen side. He turned to see Bones leaning across the counter, staring at him with a raised eyebrow.

“Yeah, I’m in a good mood,” Eiji admitted. He leant against the side, waiting for his tea to brew. He found himself grinning again, running his hand through his hair self-consciously. “I – well, I kissed Ash yesterday night.”

Bones just stared at him. Even Kong, leaning with his back against the counter, just stared at Eiji.

“So?” Bones asked. “Don’t couples do that all the time?”

“What do you mean?” Eiji dunked the tea bag up and down with his spoon.

“You’re together, aren’t you?”

“Well, as of yesterday, yeah.”

That made Kong turn around. It made Bones stare, open-mouthed at Eiji.

“No way,” Bones murmured. He stared at Kong, then back at Eiji. “The way you two stare at each other all the time – you had to be together.”

“You live here with him, for God’s sake,” Kong added.

“That was –“ Eiji brought the mug to his face so that it would look like the heat on his face was from that. “It was more to keep me safe.”

“Boss wants to keep everyone safe,” Kong nodded in agreement to Bones. “He doesn’t give just anyone an apartment.”

“I know,” Eiji said. “I figured – but, I don’t know – it seemed ridiculous to think that he really liked me like that.”

Bones cocked his head to the side like a dog.

“Why?”

“Because I’m me,” Eiji said. “There’s nothing remarkable about me.”

“You’re an award-winning high jumper.”

Eiji hadn’t even seen Ash move. He was just suddenly leaning against the open wall of the kitchen, his hair disheveled and his arms crossed.

Bones and Kong looked suitably impressed, staring at Eiji with wide eyes and open mouths. Eiji glared at Ash, hating how he felt his own mouth dip into a pout.

“Yeah, I’m a high jumper who can’t jump,” Eiji said. “At least, I can’t land.”

“Well, there’s that,” Ash pushed his fringe out of his face, looking at Eiji from between the golden strands in a way that made Eiji’s heart stammer. “But at least you’re cute.”

It was getting easier and easier to hide when his heart was skipping a beat and when his face wanted to burst into flames.

“Yeah, one of us has to be,” he said, taking a sip of tea.

Kong and Bones were staring at him like he had just shot himself in the head, turning to goggle at Ash’s reaction. He still had a hand in his hair, his teasing smile frozen on his face.

Then he laughed and let his hair fall back into place.

“No need to be so smug about it, Eiji,” he said. He had a habit of drawing out the syllables of Eiji’s name that he couldn’t get enough of.

Eiji laughed, stepping forward so that he could rest against the divider of the kitchen and the living room. He wanted to lean right forwards and kiss Ash. He didn’t have the confidence – not in front of Bones and Kong – not when Ash’s eyes were glinting at him like emeralds.

But he did still have the confidence to keep teasing. Part of him enjoyed the astonishment on Bones and Kong’s faces when he got away with it, and partly because he laughed Ash’s laugh. There was a special laugh he had for Eiji and a special smile that he wanted to see again and again. Before going back. If he was going back. Which he wasn’t thinking about.

“You are good for some things, though,” he said. The steam from his tea curled up between them like incense.

“Oh yeah?” Ash was leaning his elbows on the counter now. It would be so easy to kiss him.

“You make a great pillow,” Eiji grinned.

Ash rolled his eyes, glancing at Bones and Kong as they snorted into their hands, then he raised an eyebrow at Eiji.

“I think I’m good at this too,” he said, and before Eiji could react Ash’s hand was tugging at the collar of his t-shirt, and Ash’s lips were against his. His mouth was warm and the touch was all-inducing. Eiji couldn’t think. Even when Ash pulled away he could only blink at him, sparks coming from his broken brain.

Bones elbowed Kong and muttered something about leaving before it got too ‘mushy’ and ‘icky’ in here. They waited for Ash to tell them what to do for all of half a second, before they were gone from the room.

“Since you’re speechless, we’ll call that one a win to me,” Ash said. His fingers slipped around Eiji’s on the handle of his mug and the touch shocked Eiji back into reality.

“You cheated,” he said.

“Are you the one who has to start all the kissing then?” Ash asked. He tilted his head to the side and Eiji’s gaze caught on the curls of hair at the nape of Ash’s neck. They really were too long – he should get them cut – but not before Eiji had tangled his fingers in them.

Eiji wanted to say ‘yes,’ and smirk back at Ash, but there was still those nerves he had seen yesterday in all that green. There was still a spark of fear in Ash that they were going ahead, and they were doing this. He couldn’t help but wonder if Ash had ever been with someone – like this – before. He didn’t think so. He didn’t want to ask and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

“No – that was – I mean,” he took a breath and found himself smiling. “I liked that. A lot.”

Ash didn’t reply. He was staring at Eiji, his eyes taking in every detail of his face, but slowly. He was taking his time, as though he had been told to memorize exactly what Eiji looked like.

“Good,” he murmured after what felt like an infinity. He slipped the mug from Eiji’s hands and took a sip. Immediately, he grimaced and put it back down. “That’s not coffee.”

“No, it’s green tea,” Eiji said. He felt defensive of it as he pulled it back to himself.

“I didn’t know we owned green tea.”

“You wouldn’t, you never go food shopping.”

Ash laughed, he leant further across the counter. “Then should I give my dutiful little housewife another kiss?”

Eiji laughed and blushed and realised he didn’t know what to say. This was all so easy and so natural and yet stilted and awkward. It was like playing roles they thought they were meant to. He leant back across the counter, tilting his face towards Ash. He wanted to be close to Ash, always. He wanted to have Ash’s mouth as close to him at all times as possible so he could show him how his heart was bursting with a hundred different emotions for him.

Ash moved slowly and almost teasingly, tilted his head towards Eiji.

Then, he pressed a kiss onto Eiji’s cheek, letting his mouth linger there, just above Eiji’s skin so that it tingled.

“I can’t believe you’re so easy about this,” Ash whispered.

“Well,” Eiji found Ash’s hand, lining the base of their palms up, and then each finger. He watched them interlock with each other like parts of a puzzle coming together. “Being your pretend boyfriend got me into so much trouble, it seemed silly not to get into trouble and kiss you whilst I’m at it.”

Ash laughed without sound against Eiji’s cheek, his fingers tightening on Eiji’s. He needed him, Eiji realised. Ash needed him, and he needed him to be patient and calm about it all. He wasn’t sure he could live up to that, not at all the time.

“You know, you’re not just a good pillow,” Eiji murmured.

Ash pulled away, toying with Eiji’s mug instead, like a bored house cat.

“No?”

“No,” Eiji bit his lip, trying to see Ash’s future reactions playing out on his face. He was not a fortune teller, he wouldn’t be able to tell how this would go. “You – probably hear it all the time and I bet you hate it now, but you’re – handsome, Ash. You’re so –“

He broke off, the word stuck in his throat. How many times had a man Ash hated said that to him? How many times had that word made Ash’s skin crawl? Eiji let it stay silent. He had said it once. That was enough. Any more times and –

Ash’s lips twitched. He closed his eyes for a moment, taking a breath that seemed to come from the very core of his being outward, before he seemed to allow himself to smile. He opened his eyes again, smiling at Eiji as though he was an angel.

“I do,” he said, simply. “And I thought I hated it, but you say it different,” he paused, tilting his head to the side and examining Eiji again. “I like the way you say it.”

“Oh – good,” Eiji didn’t pay attention to the words falling out of his mouth, he was preoccupied with the relief washing over him like a tidal wave. He hadn’t realised that worry had wormed its way into every crevice and now he was so relieved. “Then I’ll keep saying it. I’ll say it every day if you want – all day, every day-“

“Eiji, shut up,” Ash shook his head, but he was smiling. He was grinning like he couldn’t control it.

Eiji did, unable to help his own smile. This was Ash Lynx – Ash Lynx genuinely happy. Ash Lynx grinning like a seventeen year old should grin.

Ash Lynx, leaning over the counter to kiss Eiji again. Just one more, lingering kiss that promised so many more, before telling Eiji to get the coffee machine going.

 

Chapter Text

“Hey,” Ash’s foot nudged Eiji’s arm. It kept nudging Eiji’s arm until he looked up from the camera and tripod, raising an eyebrow at Ash. Sometimes, he really did behave like a child. “Let’s go – I’m taking you out.”

Eiji stared at him. Ash was sat on his bed, resting on his hands and looking up at Eiji like this was the most casual thing in the world. Like they weren’t sat in the bedroom just to take pictures of whoever happened to walk through Golzine’s front doors. He was taking Eiji out, even though Eiji was meant to be spying for him.

“What?” Eiji asked. Was Ash just bored? “Where? Why?”

“The cinema,” Ash said it like it was obvious. “You've probably never been, right?”

“They have cinemas in Japan, Ash.” When had he started saying Ash’s name like that? So softly - like it was something special?

“What's the Japanese word for cinema?” Ash asked. He had taken to that – randomly asking for words in Japanese. Eiji wasn’t sure if he was teasing or genuinely remembering them. Knowing Ash Lynx, it was probably both.

“Eigakan,” he said, watching Ash stand out of the corner of his eye. He kept staring out the window resolutely.

“You haven't been to a New York cinema,” Ash said, he tugged on Eiji’s belt loop and Eiji let himself be turned around.

“No. I haven't.”

“So, come on,” there was no arguing with Ash when he was like that. Eiji followed him from the room, grabbing a jacket on his way by.

“What are we going to see?” he asked at Ash’s back. He paused and glanced back at Eiji.

“Does it matter? People go to the cinema to snog all the way through the movie.”

“Are you saying you want to snog me all the way through a movie?” Eiji smiled, stopping just in front of Ash so that they were almost nose to nose.

“You are my boyfriend, after all,” Ash said. He looped his fingers back into Eiji’s belt loops, pressing their waists against each other.

Eiji grinned. He hadn’t been able to stop grinning. He put his hands over Ash’s, wondering if they should just skip the movie. Maybe they should just stay here, like this.

But he also wanted to go outside. He understood why he had to stay in, he was fine with that – but he was starting to go stir crazy. He needed a walk.

Ash would protect him, if anything happened. He released Eiji a moment later, scooping up his denim jacket as he headed through the apartment. Eiji grabbed his own – well, he grabbed one that he was borrowing from Ash – an orange baseball jacket he was sure made him stand out like a sore thumb. But it was also the one that made Ash smile at him, pausing with his hand on the door handle.

“What?” Eiji’s cheeks felt hot, his hands still on the collar of the baseball jacket.

Ash leant over and ruffled his hair. “It suits you. You look cute.”

Eiji batted his hand away, pretending to frown. He didn’t do a good job of it.

“Shut up, that’s you. You’re the baby,” Eiji grinned at him. They had barely made it out the door.

He expected Ash to frown back, but instead he smiled sweetly at Eiji, his head tilted towards him.

“It’s hard to remember you’re so wise and worldly when you’re so short.”

Eiji gave him a playful shove. If they had been standing back in the apartment, he knew that Ash would have caught his wrist and kissed Eiji – on the mouth or nose or temple – anywhere that would make Eiji grin and lean into him.

But they weren’t in the apartment. Ash didn’t catch Eiji’s wrist, he just smirked and locked the door and that was that. He understood why. The closer they seemed to each other the more danger Eiji was in.

“Aren’t you scared that we’re being followed?” he asked as they stood in the elevator, an Eiji and Ash staring at them from all sides.

“I’ll know if we’re being followed,” Ash said dismissively.

“Do you try to sound like James Bond, or does it just come naturally?” Eiji asked.

“It comes naturally.”

He loved this. He loved these days, where they could just ignore the gangs and the drugs and the guns and just – be.

Ash wandered through the streets like they were his back garden. They got the subway further into Manhattan, into more neutral territory. It was easy to forget about everything else. It was easy just to focus on Ash and making Ash laugh, even if it meant Eiji deliberately went stumbling down the subway train. Because he liked hearing that laugh – Ash’s genuine laugh.

He moved through the streets like they were his own back-garden, barely looking at where he was going. He watched Eiji’s mouth or eyes as he talked.

They stopped suddenly, coming to a halt in front of up to the cinema an old building squashed between modern department stores. A relic of another time that looked completely out of place.

"Is this a particular favourite or something?" Eiji asked ducked his head to look at Ash as they stepped through the doors. Automatic. It looked wrong against the old architecture.

Ash shrugged. He looked at Eiji as though considering something, bit his lip for a moment, then admitted, "I don't actually go that much."

"Yeah, I guess you'd be busy," they joined the end of the queue. It was old fashioned inside too, with velvet rope barriers and old movie posters in rusting frames on the walls.

"Busy, and-" Ash did that pause again. He was standing casually, his hands stuck in his pockets, but he looked almost nervous. Maybe he was looking out for people following. "I never really went - I watch all my movies online," that was illegal, Eiji thought, but almost everything he's done since coming to America was illegal, so he couldn’t exactly talk. "It was always operas or ballets when I was teenager."

Eiji opened his mouth to ask how come, and then the answer hit him and he shut it again.  He never knew what to say when Ash spoke about It. All he knew was that he wanted to make him feel a little better about it.

"You're not missing much," Eiji said. "People are annoying in the cinema. They eat and talk and-"

"Snog?"

"Yeah. Does that happen at the opera?"

"No, thank-" Ash paused. Eiji got the sense he was changing his usual phrase. "God."

He stepped up to the counter and only then Eiji realised that he had no idea what they were seeing, or what he wanted to see. Ash glanced at the board behind the staff and rattled off a name as though they had discussed it.

"Sweet or salty popcorn, sweetie?" Ash asked and Eiji wondered if he meant to say it or it it had just slipped out.

"One of each and we'll share," he said.

"Clever," Ash smiled and nodded to the guy and Eiji felt a flush of pride run through him. He passed the boxes to Eiji as he handed over the cash.

“So what are we seeing?” popcorn tumbled out of the tops of the boxes and onto the faded carpet.

“Some action film,” Ash shrugged, holding the doors into the theatre open as Eiji passed. “It’ll pass the time, right?”

He couldn’t argue with that.

The theatre was mainly full of teenage boys. A few bored girlfriends glanced across at them as they settled into the back row. Of course Ash had brought tickets for the back row. He was so incredibly cheesy like that.

And Eiji loved that.

He wanted to lean against Ash, but he wasn’t brave enough whilst the lights were still on. He felt as though everyone was looking at them, trying to figure out if they were together or not. It shouldn’t bother him – he shouldn’t care – but he was acutely aware of the danger that came with being close to Ash Lynx, and he couldn’t help but wonder if anyone here was going to report back about the two of them.

No, that was just an excuse. He was a coward. He had no idea how to do this – relationships weren’t something Eiji had ever bothered with. Now he had no idea what to do.

But if Ash noticed, he didn’t care. He kept making sarcastic comments to Eiji during the trailers, tilting his head across so that only Eiji could hear. He made him laugh.

It was all easy. It was like they had known each other years – had been with each other years, instead of a couple of weeks.

A couple of weeks. And so much had happened in that time. Eiji felt closer to Ash than anyone else in the world, but he supposed that was normal. They had risked their lives for each other. Multiple times. He didn’t have that kind of relationship with anyone else.

No one else made him feel quite like Ash did. The warmth in his chest and the feeling of belonging.

He was so lucky to have that. He was so lucky to have that with Ash – and to have Ash back. He didn’t know if Ash felt the same, but he could guess from those looks Ash gave him.

The film had started, but Eiji was barely able to pay attention. He could see those looks as though Ash was right in front of him. His eyes softening and sparkling like they were full of fireworks as he looked at Eiji. Like Eiji was the only thing in the whole world that was worth looking at.

It was unbelievable – that out of everyone, Ash gave Eiji that look.

He felt something warm settle comfortably on his thigh. Ash’s hand. It sat there like it had always sat there, like it was natural. 

“Ash-“ Eiji whispered, unable to get another word out when he felt Ash’s fingers squeeze. His stomach stirred.

“You mean that's not the armrest?” Ash murmured back.

Eiji couldn’t help it – he laughed. It was a lot louder than he had meant it to be and people turned to glare at him. It turned into a snicker, instead, and he put his hand over Ash’s, turning it over and linking their fingers together.

“Eiji – if I go too far-“ Ash started, his mouth against Eiji’s ear.

“Don’t think about it,” Eiji whispered. He turned back and realised they were nose to nose. He could barely separate Ash’s eyes in his vision. “I’ll follow you, Ash.”

Ash kissed him. It only took a slight tilt of the head and his lips were only against Eiji’s for a moment, but Ash’s mouth was warm and soft and it made Eiji’s heart melt.

“I can’t stop you from following me,” Ash whispered. People were starting to really glare at them now, Eiji could see them turning around in the corner of his eye.

“Nope,” Eiji mouthed it more than said it.

“You shouldn’t, you know,” Ash was still whispering. “People die when they’re around me.”

He was almost word for word with the movie going on in the background. Eiji wondered if Ash was deliberately acting it out.

“You sound like something from a teenage vampire novel,” Eiji said. He squeezed Ash’s fingers. “I know the risk, Ash. I’ve always known.”

“It doesn’t bother you?” someone ‘sshh’ed Ash and he held his middle finger up blindly at whoever it was.

“It plays on my mind,” Eiji whispered back. “But, carpe diem, right? I want to be by your side, so I’m staying by your side.”

“I can’t change that, can I?”

“No.”

Ash stopped flipping random people off, cupping Eiji’s cheek instead.

“You’re unbelievable,” he whispered.

“Yeah, basically,” Eiji said. It was easy to be bold in the dark, to kiss Ash and feel him smiling.

“What am I going to do with you?” Ash muttered to himself. His hand moved from Eiji’s cheek to the nape of his neck, his fingers buried in the ends of Eiji’s hair. Eiji just smiled, kissing him again.

His heart was racing, and Ash seemed to know, because he pulled away and rested his forehead against Eiji’s. Giving him space. Ash was taking this slow, being so incredibly gentle with him – like he was scared of breaking Eiji. It was a secret relief. He stared at him in the dark, monotone from the light of the screen. His eyes seemed like two sparks. Eiji, against his judgment, was seeing Ash in that suit again. That suit with a gun. An action hero. He let himself imagine another life, a life of 20s gangsters – crime as something glamorous and exciting. Mob bosses the way mob bosses should be – the way they were in films.

No, he could see Ash stood on the end of a dock, staring at a green light in the distance. Ash Lynx at the centre of a party, dazzling Eiji with a grin and calling him ‘old sport.’

Something exploded on the screen and Eiji glanced at it. He realised he had no idea what was happening. He decided he didn’t care, as Ash caught his attention by kissing his cheek. He turned back, revelling in the feeling of Ash curling the hair at the nape of his neck.

Ash was a lot more interesting than the movie, anyway.

*

They went to the Empire State building that afternoon. Eiji had insisted, smiling at Ash and swinging his hand until he finally gave in. He was huffing and puffing and rolling his eyes the whole way there, but he couldn’t control the smiles. He couldn’t control those sneaky glances at Eiji that he was starting to catch out of the corner of his eye, but had to ignore if he wanted to see them again.

“I don’t know why you even want to go – it’s just a tall building,” he said.

“It’s the Empire State,” Eiji said. “It’s iconic. You wouldn’t have me go to New York and not see it?”

“It’s so touristy,” Ash made a face and Eiji laughed.

“I am a tourist,” he said. They paused outside the building. Looking up made him feel as though he was going to fall over backwards.

Ash held the door open for him as they walked in. “I believe you came over here on a work visa, Mr Okumura.”

“Yeah, well, I haven’t done a lot of work, have I?” Eiji walked backwards to talk to Ash, his hands behind his back as he smiled up at him. Ash was smiling back, bemused. “All I managed to do was interview you.”

“All you managed to do was get the greatest interview with a handsome and charismatic New York gang leader,” Ash said. They joined the end of the queue to buy tickets.

Eiji laughed again. He liked this – he liked laughing that laugh. “He’s modest, too.”

“Hey, I said no photos of my face, didn’t I?”

Eiji felt like that was another cue for him to laugh, but he didn’t. There was something in Ash’s voice that he was started to recognise. A bitterness that he couldn’t quite hide. He paused, letting his eyes fall down Ash’s face.

“I assumed it was so that no one knew who you were,” he muttered.

Ash placed a hand on his shoulder. The queue moved and they stumbled with it like it was a dance.

“I don’t like pictures of myself,” Ash’s mouth was close to Eiji’s ear. Like he was admitting a secret. “I haven’t seen one in years.”

It felt like someone had put a crack right along Eiji’s heart and that beads of blood were dripping out from it. He was never quite prepared for when Ash said something like that, when he guessed, rather than knew all the implications that came along with it. Which was worse – guessing or knowing?

He was starting to figure out what to say. ‘Sorry’ made Ash shrug and change the subject, like he knew that Eiji was feeling uncomfortable. No, it always had to be something slightly different. Something that told him that he wasn’t scared of Ash – holding a hand out for a wild animal to sniff.

“Good thing I left my camera back at the apartment then,” he said.

Ash’s hand tightened on his shoulder, turning Eiji so that he didn’t walk into the other people in the queue, but also resting his forehead there.

“How are you so okay with it?” his voice was still a half-whisper.

Eiji shrugged, a hand coming up to touch Ash’s hair, to push it away from his face, but only succeeding in giving him an awkward pat.

“Because I don’t want you to feel weird about it,” he replied. He wasn’t sure if it was exactly true, he wasn’t sure quite what was going on with it, but it seemed to be good enough. Good enough to get Ash to lounge against the pillar instead, shuffling along with the queue. “I didn’t like pictures of myself for a while. I must have been – thirteen or fourteen? I only just let my sister keep photos of me again when I was seventeen-ish.”

“So, I don’t get to see photos of an awkward, baby Eiji?” Ash was smirking like a wolf.

“Never,” Eiji turned away from him, hearing him do that bark-laugh and ignoring it.

“I bet you were adorable.”

“You won’t find out.”

“Your sister will tell me.”

“You don’t even know my sister’s name.”

“I can find out. I’m sure she has stories to tell about you.”

Eiji pouted at him. There were. Several. He knew Ash would just laugh and ruffle his hair and tease him about it, which was even worse. He’d be so nice about it. And there would be that look in his eye, that ghost of the person that Ash could have been peeking through. He wouldn’t say it, Eiji knew, but it would be hanging in the air. He hadn’t been an awkward child making mistakes.

“That’s fine. When you meet her, I’ll just make up plenty of embarrassing stories about you,” he said.

“You wouldn’t.”

“Well, I can hardly tell her that I’m dating a gang leader, can I?” Eiji smiled sweetly.

Ash frowned at him, but the corners of his mouth were twitching. He seemed to be finding it harder and harder to hide those smiles from Eiji and Eiji was revelling in it. He opened his mouth to reply, his cheeks pink, when an abrupt voice cut across them.

“How many, please?”

Ash blinked, seeming to come back into reality.

“Oh, um, two – please.”

He paid with cash, because of course he did. Eiji supposed it was only safe to.

“You wanna take the stairs?” Ash asked, handing Eiji’s ticket to him.

“No.”

“I thought you were an athlete?”

“Not anymore,” Eiji grinned, then shrugged. “I don’t really want to get all sweaty on a date.”

They were following a crowd of bright eyed tourists over to the elevators, and Ash paused in his step just long enough for Eiji to notice.

"This is a date?" he asked.

"Isn't it?" It was crowded and they were squashed against each other. No one else in here seemed to have bothered with deodorant.

"As long as that's okay," Ash said. He had a hand on the wall behind Eiji, shielding him from everyone else. His clothes still smelt of cigarette smoke from the last time he saw Max. Cigarette smoke and cheap cologne. Eiji couldn't figure out if Ash wore it to fit in or as an act of rebellion. He figured it was both, Ash never did anything for one reason.

"Of course it's okay," it was crowded enough that Eiji felt safe in taking Ash's hand.

He realised it when the elevator dinged and the doors slid open. Ash was still frowning as they were waved through the corridor to the next one.

“Your visa,” he said. “Is everything okay with your visa?”

“Yeah,” Eiji was only half-lying. He assumed everything was okay, because Ibe had set it all up for him. On the plane, he had known the ins and outs, but he had forgotten them now. It seemed so trivial. “Yeah, I’m sure everything’s fine.”

“When does it run out?”

He didn’t like that question. There was something in Ash’s voice that gave him away. He was planning to send Eiji back, asking nonchalantly as if it didn’t matter. So, he shrugged. “I’ll have to check.”

“I want you to be able to go, if you have to.”

“Can we stop talking about it?” Eiji didn’t mean to snap. He supposed a little bit of him did, though. It was all anyone seemed to be saying to him anymore and no one seemed to listen to his response. “That’s twice you’ve told me to leave today, Ash. Stop it now. I don’t want to hear another word about my going anywhere, okay?”

He had seen Ash grinning and shrugging at the outburst. He had seen Ash give him those soft eyes and telling him he was unbelievable and stubborn.

He hadn’t expected Ash to look at him with such a serious expression and remain silent for such a long time. The second elevator dinged again before he replied with a murmured, but sincere. “Okay.”

It had made Eiji twitch with guilt, and as they stepped onto the roof of the Empire State building he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize for telling me off,” there was the smile again, and Ash had stepped in front of Eiji to block his view as they headed towards the doors to the observation deck. “Especially not when I deserve it – I didn’t know you could be so scary, Eiji.”

“Shut up,” but relief was flooding through him. He didn’t really think Ash would stay mad at him, but he couldn’t stand the thought of them fighting. He didn’t want to be angry at Ash, for anything. And he figured that being mad at Ash was a lot like being angry at a dog – after five minutes and a glance at him, he would be forgiven. “And get out of the way.”

“How much do you trust me?” Ash put his hands either side of the doorway out to the observation deck, to the tutts of people around them. He didn’t seem to care, but Eiji felt everyone’s eyes on him.

“Fine,” Eiji closed his eyes, pretending to huff to let everyone else know that he was annoyed too. But he was smiling, he never seemed to stop smiling around Ash.

People muttered, he stood there, his eyelids flickering as he heard them pass. Ash’s hands appeared on his hips, letting him know where he was as he stepped around Eiji. After a moment, his hands reappeared over Eiji’s eyes.

He let himself be guided forward.

“I thought you said it was just a tall building,” he said.

“It is,” Ash replied from behind him. “But, you know, you want to see it, so-“

Eiji felt himself bump into the ledge of the building and his hands found the mesh around the roof. Ash dropped his hands back to Eiji’s waist, resting his chin on Eiji’s shoulder. For a moment, Eiji could kid himself he was still back in their apartment – that first day they moved in. Ash had done the same thing then and he had set Eiji’s heart racing. Feeling Ash there had made him feel so incredibly safe – despite the reason for the move. It had felt like home.

But up here Eiji could feel the wind on his face and through his hair. It raised goosebumps on his arms.

He opened his eyes and the sky seemed to stretch on forever. It was the moment that he was over the bar and all he could see was blue going on forever and forever. The moment he could kid himself he was flying.

But there wasn’t the head rush of going back over the bar. He was still stood there, still flying. Flying over the top of Manhattan.

The city looked strange from up here. Less busy and noisy, but he supposed even a concrete jungle looked beautiful from bird’s eye view. It was a sprawling landscape of greys, but the monochrome of it all gave it the air of a renaissance painting. He stared at the rows and rows of apartment blocks – so many people with so many lives, and he could stare at it all like a mirage of mankind.

“It’s beautiful,” he breathed. He found Ash’s hair with his hand, ruffling it because he knew it disgruntled him and he would look up. “I can’t believe you don’t like it.”

Ash shrugged pulling away from Eiji and starting to walk around the roof. Their spot was immediately taken by two tourists with huge cameras. The moment was over, now he could only glimpse the view from over people’s shoulders.

“What’s up?”

“I get vertigo,” Ash said, over his shoulder. “It makes me feel funny to stand by the edge.”

“Then keep hold of me, yeah?” Eiji offered his arm and, with an especially dramatic roll of his eyes, Ash took it. He was noticeably subdued, at least to Eiji, barely looking out at the city, apart from pointing landmarks out to Eiji. He didn’t even need to look for that long.

Eiji let him lean against him and reassured him every so often – he received an indignant snort for his troubles. It made him feel strange, to be the one looking after Ash, but it felt right. It felt like he was repaying his debt. And someone had to take care of Ash. If he let Eiji, then fine.

Eiji would be there for him.

Chapter Text

8

Ash had been surprised to see Bones and Kong heading out of the building. He stopped them, immediately asking why the hell they thought it was okay to leave Eiji alone.

“Sorry, boss – you know we wouldn’t,” Bones said. “But, you know, he asked us to. Specifically.”

“Said he’s got a surprise for you,” Kong shrugged.

Of course. Eiji had a surprise for Ash, so it didn’t matter if he got killed or kidnapped. It didn’t matter if anything happened to him, because he had a surprise planned for Ash. That boy was going to be the death of him.

“Next time, don’t listen to him, okay?” Ash said, but he clapped them on the shoulder and wished them a safe journey home.

He had been out all day, getting various things done, and he felt the exhaustion in every part of him. He felt as though he had been melted by the summer sun and put back together. His legs ached and his head swam with the heat.

But at least he was outside of their apartment. He was almost home. And home meant Eiji.

Ash kicked the door open and back closed, throwing himself against it and sighing.

“It’s too hot, Eiji,” he dragged the words out as though he was melting.

“Really?” Eiji was leaning against the doorway to the kitchen, a smug little grin on his face. Fuck, he looked so cool. As in, not sweating every part of himself off. “I’ve been cold – with the air con on.”

Ash blew a raspberry at him, then smirked and rushed over to him.

“Isn’t my loving boyfriend going to give me a welcome home hug?”

He moved fast – faster than Eiji could duck away from. In the next moment he was being pressed against Ash’s shoulder with Ash’s arms wrapped around him so tightly he could barely breathe. Not that breathing was an option, Ash stunk of sweat. His palms made Eiji’s t-shirt damp.

“Ash – that’s gross!” he tried to push away from him, but he was held tight. “You’re gross, get off!”

Ash just laughed. He held Eiji for a moment more, pressing a damp kiss on his forehead and waiting until he looked up at Ash with a pout on his face. Then he released him.

“How much do you trust me?” Eiji asked.

Ash took a moment to reply, his eyes scanning Eiji’s face intently. Those starry eyes and that little smile as he looked up at Ash. He had a surprise planned all right, and he was bursting at the seams to tell him. “More than anyone I’ve ever known.”

“Is that really saying much?” Eiji muttered. He didn’t seem to care about how much Ash stunk.

“Fair point,” Ash shrugged. “But I do trust you. So much.”

“Stay there-“ Eiji turned, then turned back. “And close your eyes, okay?”

Ash laughed, but did so, crossing his arms and leaning against the doorframe. He felt his heart pounding, his whole chest felt warm. Eiji had prepared a surprise for him. For Ash. Because he wanted to. Because he cared about Ash.

He didn’t want this moment to end – the moment of not knowing what it was Eiji had gone to all that effort to. To take the risk of anything happening to him just for prepare something special – just for Ash and him. The thought was enough. He didn’t need the surprise.

“Okay, here it is,” Eiji said. Ash opened his eyes to find Eiji stood in front of him, grinning up at him. Eiji with a cupcake cradled in his hands. A vanilla cupcake with a single, blue candle in it. A candle that reflected in Eiji’s huge dark eyes. “Happy birthday, Ash.”

He froze for a moment, his eyes watching the candle flickering. His felt his heart skip a beat, like Eiji had reached right into his chest and squeezed it. After a moment, he forced himself to swallow and try and find some words.

“It’s my birthday?” his voice was raspy. Eiji nodded, but his smile was faltering and he started to look nervous. That hadn’t been what Ash had wanted, but he had to set his own mind straight first. “How did you know?”

“I asked Ibe-san  – it was on your paperwork from – from prison,” Eiji was starting to look worried now. “It is – is it okay? I figured you’d-“

“It’s fine,” Ash forced himself to move. It felt like he was made of lead. He forced himself to wrap his own hands around Eiji’s. He went for a smile, but it didn’t work. He ditched it. “It’s just – I had no idea it was today.”

“You forgot when your birthday was?” Eiji asked it so innocently and earnestly.

“I haven’t been paying attention,” Ash shrugged. He must have had a certain look on his face, because Eiji’s eyes widened and Ash knew – he wasn’t sure how but he knew, that Eiji understood everything that was going on.

“Well?” he said. “Blow your candle out and make a wish.”

“Sure,” Ash couldn’t stop himself from smiling. It made him feel worlds away from Eiji – Eiji, who still made Birthday Wishes and thought about things like birthdays. It made him feel like a child again.

So he blow out the candle on the cupcake, and made his wish. It was a selfish one. One that he felt guilty making, because there were so many things that he should wish for – that would be of much more help than what he actually wished for.

But the things he should have wished for didn’t include Eiji. And those things he could do himself, or die trying.

He would need a wish to keep Eiji by his side, as selfish as it was.

“What did you wish for?” Eiji murmured, with the kind of look in his eye that told Ash he knew – word for word.

“I’m not that familiar with wishes, but I know if you tell them they don’t come true,” Ash said. They were still holding the cupcake.

“That’s a vicious lie spread by cowards,” Eiji said.

“Mmm,” Ash ruffled Eiji’s hair. “Call me a coward, then. I ain’t chancing it.”

“Boo you.”

“C’mon – split the cake in half and we’ll share it.”

It put a grin back on Eiji’s face, and he darted back into the kitchen to get a knife. Ash watched him for a moment, feeling like he was about to burst, before he forced himself to head back to the sofa. He climbed over the back, falling onto the cushions with a thump. This was incredible. It was more than he ever thought would happen on his birthday – had he hadn’t even been thinking about it. He covered his eyes, grinning to himself like a maniac. Eiji had got him a birthday cake.

Eiji flopped onto the sofa, the cupcake cut into two halves on two plates. He handed one to Ash, practically glowing. His cheeks seemed permanently pink these days and it suited him.

Ash took the cake, wishing his mouth behaved like his heart did instead of spewing nonsense like, “You didn’t make it, did you?”

Eiji paused, a mouthful of cake hallway to his mouth. “Why?”

Ash shrugged. “Just wondering.”

He received a glare and a light kick from Eiji for asking and found himself laughing. Laughing on his birthday. That was new.

“I – thought about telling Bones and Kong, maybe some of the other guys too, but I figured you weren’t the guy for a big party to celebrate.” Eiji said, his voice soft.

“You’d be right, I guess, I don’t know,” Ash sighed, leaning back against the sofa. It clung to his sweaty legs, but he felt so relieved just to be sitting that he didn’t care. “I haven’t had a big party for my birthday in a very long time. Surprised?”

“Right back at you, I guess – I haven’t had a big party since I was small.”

“You didn’t have wild birthday parties in your teen years?” it was easy to tease Eiji, but it made him feel bad when Eiji laughed so openly.

“No way!” he said. “I mean – I had a few friends at school, I guess. The guys from high jump always went for karaoke or something, but they did that for everyone and I can’t stand it. I didn’t like it when my family made a fuss of me over my birthday,” Eiji must have caught the look on Ash’s face because he stopped. The words were on the tip of Ash’s tongue – must be nice to have a family – he bit his lip to stop them from escaping. The subject was changed – maybe not expertly, but changed nonetheless. “Do you think if we went to the same high school – we’d be friends?”

Ash laughed. “And just how would a star athlete like you wind up being friends with the school’s bad boy?”

“Oh, I’d probably get caught up in one of your wild schemes and end up in detention sat next to you. After a week or two, we’d be the best of friends.”

“You’ve been watching too many American movies.”

Eiji laughed. “Probably.”

“Do they even have detention in Japan?”

“Nope. I’d have to go to school here for our romcom to play out.”

“I wouldn’t want you to go to school here,” Ash let it hang in the air, his mind on the numbers of pupils that regularly flashed up on the news. “Surely there’s a way for our romcom to play out in Japan.”

"Unless you turn into the cat from the Chinese Zodiac every time you get hugged by the opposite sex?" Eiji asked, his mouth full of cake.

"What"

"Or maybe I break something and have to work at your club  - and the bad boy thing is all an act for the Host Club?"

"Is that really what rom-coms are like in Japan?” Ash couldn’t stop himself from smiling.

“No not really- but my sister liked that kind of stuff more.”

“You're weird.”

“Look who's talking!” Eiji still had a mouth full of cake. He looked like a chipmunk and it made Ash’s heart flutter. It made him want to grin and act like everything was normal. It made him want to kiss Eiji’s pink cheeks until they turned red.

But there was an elephant in the room, breathing down his neck. He couldn’t do it, not with it’s beady eyes on him.

“You don’t have to avoid the subject,” he said, slipping his legs from the sofa so that he was sat on it normally. So that he didn’t have to look at Eiji.

“I didn't know if you wanted to talk about it,” Eiji murmured, swallowing heavily.

“I need to - a little. As much as I can,” Ash took a long breath, because he wasn’t sure how easy it would be to take the next one. “I remember my birthdays when I was little - at least, I think I do - it kind of all blends into one. I remember Griffin grinning at me and handing me some home made present that I would carry around for weeks afterwards. I remember my dad sitting my down and presenting my birthday tea like it was a three course meal. It was scampi and chips. I guess I've always liked shrimp - prawns, whatever. He'd probably just shoved it in the oven but it was my birthday meal and that made it so damn special. It made everything else fade away - all that mess with my coach didn't matter because I was king of the house for a day.”

“It must have been nice, at Cape Cod,” Eiji’s voice was still soft. He took all of this in his stride. “Did you go down to the beach?”

“It was too crowded. The best time to go to the beach was in the autumn - when the early evenings were still warm. It’d be empty but there'd be a load of stuff left behind - ghosts of the people who came. We'd go through it and make up stories of why they left it there,” he waited a moment, glancing across at Eiji. He was resting his chin on his knees, his hands around his legs. “Did you go to the beach much?”

“A bit, yeah. The high jump guys wanted to stay the night one time. I chickened out and couldn't even get on the coach,” Eiji laughed, and it was that shaky laugh that he used to have when he was nervous.

“Look how much you've changed,” Ash rested his chin in his hand, looking over at him with a small smile on his face.

“Shut up.” Eiji rolled his eyes, for a moment looking too much like Ash. It brought him back to what he had started talking about – the brief distraction hadn’t shifted the stone in his stomach.

“It was different, of course, when I ran away. I don't know how long it as before I became aware of years again. I could barely separate out days. Hours and minutes seemed like things that could change at any moment - nights stretched into seconds before they would be back, like rabid dogs. I remember seeing a guys watch once - I'll spare you the details - but my eyes focused on that watch. The seconds seemed to tick by so slowly - like when you put the t.v on half speed or something - and then all of a sudden they sped up and they got quicker and quicker and - he was standing up. I kept seeing that clock face. It was weird. It was like waking up from a Nightmare because there was still a reality. Time still existed and there was a world beyond this. I feel like that clock was what kept me going. Time was still going. Whilst time was still going the police could find us.”

Eiji was silent. He sounded heartbroken when he finally spoke. “They never did, did they?”

“Never put your faith in the police. It was at- he couldn't say it, not without stringing words that made him sick together - his that I had a window. And there were days and a clock and I could orientated myself. Prepare, count down, try and figure out how much time had passed. It was impossible - I couldn't even figure out how much I'd grown. I couldn't remember what I was like before. That boy with the scampi and chips dinner felt like someone I had made up to escape,” Ash pushed the hair from his face and let it fall back. He took the moment to swallow. “I asked him one day. How old I was. He looked at me like i had told a joke and asked why I wanted to know. I don't know what I said. I guess it doesn't matter because he didn't tell me then anyway.”

“That doesn't sound like you.”

“My attitude came later, when-" Ash stopped. There was still a part Eiji didn't know. He wanted to keep that part to himself, as least for the moment. "When I was his favourite. It played out the same but I told him I wanted to know if I was legal yet."

"How did that work out for you?"

"The look I got for it," Ash hated the dry laugh that came out of his mouth – it made him sound like something he didn’t want to be. But Eiji giggled a bit too and that made him feel better. "But it kept him away for a while."

"How old were you?"

"Fifteen,” the answer was automatic. Ash could almost smell that room. It felt like he was back there, he could picture that day so clearly. He could continue – he could explain that the next year was the year he got that car. The car that he had wanted to hate – wanted to destroy – but could never bring himself to. He was bored of talking about himself – he wanted to talk about Eiji. It felt like he knew nothing about him. "You must have been going to high school at that age, huh?"

"Yeah,” Eiji let the word trail away. “Hey, you haven’t eaten your cake.”

Ash took a mouthful of it, though his stomach was churning with old memories. The taste, at least, helped him to come back to the room he was in. Here with Eiji and everything was okay.

“You’re trying to change the subject,” he said.

"There's not a lot to tell, really," Eiji said. That was when Ash noticed. There was a sliver of frosting on the edge of Eiji's mouth. Instinctively he leant forward, his eyes focused on that instead of Eiji pausing. He wiped it away with his finger.

"Thanks," Eiji blinked at him, and then frowned when Ash licked the icing. "Hey, that was from mine."

"I'll compensate you," Ash said, and kissed the corner of Eiji's mouth. It made him smile, melting against Ash's touch. "Fair?"

"Mmm," Eiji paused, his eyes mostly closed. He kissed Ash again, long and slow and warm. "Now It is."

Ash kept his eyes closed, wrapping a lazy arm around Eiji's shoulders.

“Did it help?” Eiji asked, his fingers curling into the front of Ash’s t-shirt. “To talk about it?”

“I guess so,” Ash was focusing on a tiny freckle Eiji had by his ear, just underneath his cheekbone. It was adorable – and easier to focus on. “I mean, it still makes me feel sick.”

“What can I do?” Eiji asked. His hand was hovering over the side of Ash’s face, like he was too scared to touch him. Ash caught his fingers with his free hand, burying it into his own hair and lean-ing into it like a dog.

“I don’t know,” he said, his thumb rubbing circles into the back of Eiji’s neck. “Don’t apologize – that just makes me feel worse. But don’t just say nothing – I don’t know – you’re good with it. You don’t make a thing of it.”

“I try not to,” Eiji murmured, his fingers exploring Ash’s hair. “But I don’t know the right thing to say to make you feel better.”

“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” Ash pulled Eiji closer, so that their noses bumped into each other’s. “You’re – incredible, Eiji.”

He felt Eiji’s hand drop from his hair to wrap around his neck, but he caught Eiji’s mouth in his own before he buried himself against Ash. He held the kiss, feeling as though his lips were on fire at the feeling of it. He wanted to know Eiji’s lips as well as he knew his own, to be able to conjure the feeling up in his mind even when Eiji was on the other side of the world.

Eiji’s mouth was soft and he melted against Ash like hot wax.

“Thank you,” Ash murmured, not bothering to pull his lips away. “For the best birthday ever.”

“Oh, come on,” Eiji’s fingers fiddled with the hair at the nape of Ash’s neck. He loved that feeling – he would never cut it. “It can’t have been better than when you were little.”

“Nah. Since Cape Cod – thinking about all of that-“ he didn’t have the words, suddenly there was a large lump in his throat that he couldn’t shift.

“Yeah,” because Eiji could just understand everything that he said – or didn’t say. He pressed Ash to him, burying his face in Ash’s hair.

“It’s okay with you here,” he said. Eiji smelt of home baking – of vanilla. He knew he probably still stunk of sweat.

“Good,” Eiji pressed a kiss against Ash’s cheek. “Happy birthday, Sweetie.”

The pet name made Ash’s stomach jump. Now he understood why it always made Eiji flush and grin like nothing else in the world mattered. None of those other birthdays had Eiji and that easily put it miles above the rest.

It was a happy birthday. A very happy birthday.

***

“Here,” Max pushed an envelope across the table.

“What’s this?” Ash toyed with the handle of his latte glass, not touching the slip of paper.

“I think you know,” Max was smiling slightly.

“So you found out too, huh?” he raised an eyebrow, trying to look intimidating. He used to intimidate Max. Somehow he’d lost that, along the way.

“I was the one who told Eiji.”

Ash grunted, rolling his eyes.

“Oh, sorry, did you have a bad time? Should I not have told him?”

He took a sip of his latte instead, glancing away from Max – back to the collection of cakes behind the glass of the counter. He felt warm and hated how he didn’t really mind Max seeing it.

“That’s what I thought – open your present,” Max tapped the envelope.

Ash raised an eyebrow. He wasn’t amused and for once he wanted Max to know that truth as he pulled the envelope towards him. “You shouldn’t have.”

“I know.”

“I’m serious, Lobo, I don’t  - I don't do birthdays. It doesn't matter and I'd rather you spend the money on, I don't know, feeding yourself, rather than wasting money on stuff I don't need." He said, but his fingers moved on their own as they prized the envelope open. It was like there was a magic pull to the envelope.

“Since when have you called me Lobo?” Max leant backwards, sipping from his coffee. He had practically downed it, and it was his second. He was watching Ash with a strangely smug expression on his face.

“Since when have you got me birthday presents?” Ash replied.

“That’s what dads do, kiddo.”

Ash pulled the card out of the envelope. It even had ‘son’ written on it in huge, pop-lettering and a character Ash recognised from T.V. He raised an eyebrow at Max.

“He reminds me of you,” Max was smiling. “Your presents inside.”

Ash flicked the card open, keeping his face impassive, but his heart was racing. There wasn’t any writing inside, just an arrow pointing to the ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY’ that the card had already printed inside it. A gift card had been tucked in for River Island, the receipt wrapped around it like wrapping paper.

He couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment. He had been expecting something a bit more exciting.

Which made him feel like a child. Eighteen year olds got stuff like this on their birthday and were happy about it.

What had he been expecting anyway?

“It’s so you can buy jeans without holes in them for a change,” Max said.

“Hilarious,” Ash rolled his eyes, but there was still that warm, fuzzy feeling in his chest. Max had gotten him a present. Because he had wanted to.

“Aren’t you going to say thanks?”

“Should I give you a kiss on the cheek to say thanks, dad?”

Max frowned. “You’re not funny.”

“Neither are you,” Ash said. He paused, tapping his latte glass with his nail, because there was suddenly something in the air. “Was that awkward?”

“Only because…” Max trailed off, his eyes on the card instead of Ash.

“It’s me?” Ash finished.

“Well, yeah,” Max absentmindedly scratched his ear. At Ash’s sigh, he gave him a wry smile. “No offence, kid.”

“I’m used to it,” Ash muttered. He took a sip of his latte, tucking the voucher back into the card.

“What are we going to do with you?” Max’s voice was still good humoured. It was good – he was getting the hang of this. His tone changed, however, when he continued, it became softer. It was more like he was talking to himself than Ash. “I said I’d protect you – when we first met.”

Ash shrugged. “I said I’d kill you.”

He forced a laugh because he didn’t want to add that neither of them had kept up on their promise. Max had tried – he supposed, but he was starting to believe that he could never be protected. He was doomed, or cursed, or something.

But his laugh was infectious enough to get Max to laugh as well and suddenly the tension in the air was gone.

“So, come on, I’m dying to know – what did Eiji get you for your birthday?” Max asked, leaning across the table conspiratorially.

“Just a cake.”

“You do anything special?”

“He said he didn’t want to make it a thing.”

“Were you safe?”

Ash choked on air. He had to take a moment, fighting back a cough and feeling his face burning. It wasn’t like him – that was never something Ash Lynx was embarrassed about – but coming from Max – and about Eiji –

“We don’t – he haven’t-“ Ash managed to take a full breath. “There’s no need.”

At least Max had the decency to look embarrassed that time.  He still recovered too quickly for Ash’s liking. “At least that’s one discussion we don’t have to have.”

“About the birds and the bees? But I was so looking forward to watching you squirm,” Ash had finished his latte. He swirled the coffee drags around the bottom of the cup. “I don’t – I don’t want this, with Eiji, to be like – I don’t want him to think-“

To think what? Ash couldn’t come up with an answer. He just let it hang there, in the silence. Everyone else seemed to be chatting about trivial things – they chatted about normal things like t.v and the news and funny anecdotes. No, Ash had to turn a normal conversation about his birthday around to his past. To dive into that conversation on a perfectly good, sunny afternoon.

“He wouldn’t,” Max seemed genuine. “Eiji’s not like that and you know it. You kids have to go along at your own pace, anyway. I’m – I’m just happy that you’re happy.”

“What was that?”

“I said you’re a punk.”

“Yeah, and I’m gunna spend that voucher on some ripped jeans,” Ash found his smirk coming back to him all too easily. Like nothing had ever happened. “Maybe I’ll splatter paint all over them too.”

“Of course, you would.”

Ash grinned. He knew that somehow they had just said ‘thank you’ and ‘your welcome.’ It was weird that Max – Max Lobo of all people – seemed to understand just what he needed. He needed someone to tell him he was being irrational and then call him a punk. It made him feel like he was a normal teenager. He liked being normal. A normal teenager with a normal boyfriend.

At least, sat like this, and spinning the gift card between his fingers, he could pretend.

Maybe that would be enough.

***

Ash was getting used to this. He was getting used to dragging a grinning Eiji out to places whenever he started looking peaky. He was constantly aware of how difficult it must be to be stuck inside all day, taking pictures of creeps and hiding behind the curtains. Bones and Kong could be good company, he guessed. But still, it was better to take Eiji to wherever he had just thought of, so that he wasn’t trapped inside. Especially when it was still warm and Central Park was still green. He had known one of the carriage drivers there – he was an expert at matching his accents to tourists in an effort to get them to chose him. But for Ash Lynx – they rode for free, and Ash could point out double the landmarks. Sure, they were gang shooting landmarks, but it still counted.

Eiji was starting to suit Ash’s baseball jackets and skinny jeans, looking like a native instead of a tourist. The only downside was that he was hiding those starry eyes behind his sunglasses, so that when Ash looked at him, he just saw himself mirrored. He wasn’t interested in looking at himself.

It felt like they were catching up for lost time – lost years of teenage romance. Summer Loving, Ash supposed. The thought always made him smirk. He could definitely rock the Danny Zuko look – and Eiji – Eiji would look adorable in white slacks and a yellow shirt –

Or sewn into his pants. Ash didn’t mind either way.

Ash didn’t mind how cliché they were being – apparently, Eiji didn’t either. Ice cream, the boat lake in Central Park, Coney Island – though Eiji was nowhere near as scared of the rides as Ash thought he would be, ice skating and so many dinners out. Even if Ash had to wear glasses and Eiji was glancing over his shoulder every five minutes. When they were with each other, Ash could kid himself that it was normal. That they were just two teenagers enjoying a Summer break together. That Banana Fish and everything else was just a tv show. Not related to them and not important.

And it helped that Eiji was getting ridiculously comfortable around Ash. Maybe not in public – outside the apartment  they were both wary of it. There was always the risk Arthur – or one of Arthur’s guys would spot them. As soon as they knew Eiji was with Ash he’d had a huge target on his back – as opposed to the sizeable one he had now. So they were careful.

But in the apartment, Eiji brushed against Ash almost every time they passed, like a cat rubbing against his legs. He was liberal with his kisses now, attacking Ash’s temple or cheek whenever he felt like it. Whenever there was a moment that they were just relaxing together.

It made Ash feel braver too. It made him feel like he wouldn’t break Eiji – that he could push a little further. Because that was the way he knew – he understood physical affection more than telling Eiji how he felt. It was easier to show him. Kissing him was the only way he could show Eiji how much Ash’s heart belonged to his. How it swelled and backflipped and somersaulted whenever he looked at him.

“You know,” he murmured, his mouth against Eiji’s jaw. They were on his bed, the smell of the Summer sun still clinging to them, its warmth still trapped against Eiji’s skin. Eiji could be a tiny sun. His skin was doing that thing in the afternoon light where it glowed gold.  "I don't usually have someone sat on my lap."

Eiji was quiet, his fingers tracing through Ash’s hair. He had a habit of playing with the too long bits at the nape of his neck. “Do you want to sit on my lap?"

"Mm," he took Eiji's lip in his mouth, playing with it for a moment with his teeth and feeling Eiji sighed against him. He relaxed, his whole body weight on Ash. He was heavier than he looked. It was a good weight. It was good, having his hands on Eiji’s back to support him. He pulled away, slowly – because ‘mm’ wasn’t a proper answer. His eyelashes flicked as he looked up at those dark eyes. "There's always next time."

“I like the sound of that,” Eiji murmured. He kissed Ash again, his mouth ever so slightly open. It sent a thrill through Ash and he trailed his hands down Eiji’s back. He knelt upwards slightly to accommodate Ash’s hands and grinned when Ash cupped his butt. No doubt he was thinking of that first kiss – when he had felt Eiji freeze and could practically hear the other boy’s heart racing. When he had been thinking of the message in pill, but also when he’d seen the opportunity to kiss Eiji. It had meant to be just the once. How lucky he was that it was just the first in a string of many.

Eiji was still kissing him, his hands firm and sure on the back of Ash’s head, his lips teasing Ash’s open. Ash’s stomach fluttered – yes, he was ready for this.

But then his stomach dropped and turned. He couldn’t even say why, but he just knew he suddenly felt like he was going to be sick. Ash stopped. His hands fell down.

"Stop." He whispered.

Eiji did. Immediately he pulled away, his hands on Ash's shoulders. He blinked at him, his face flushed. No doubt he was blaming himself.

"I can't," Ash said, and found that he couldn’t explain himself. "I'm-"

"It's fine," he couldn't bear to see him apologising. He slipped off of Ash's lap and sat next to him in the bed, instead. His hands finding Ash's and holding them tightly. "It's okay."

"You must hate this," Ash's throat felt dry, his hands as heavy as lead in Eiji’s grip.

"No,"  Eiji squeezed his fingers as though he was trying to draw warmth back into Ash. "No, honestly."

Ash raised his eyebrows, attempting  to untangle himself but with no success. The sick feeling was starting to retreat, as quickly as it had welled up inside him. He focused on trying to breathe.

“What happened?” Eiji asked.

Ash shrugged. “I – I just – I can’t.”

“What do you need?”

He could have burst into tears.

Instead, he murmured. “Air.”

It felt as though his pummelled heart was trapped in his throat. Eiji kept hold of one of his hands as he stepped around the bed to the window, until only the tips of their fingers were connected. But he still managed to hold on, cracking the window open without opening the drapes, so that they drifted lazily into the room like ghosts.

Ash stayed quiet. It felt as though he had been locked inside a suit that look liked himself. He could see, but everything looked dull and he could hear, but everything sounded far away. There was just old memories forcing him back into himself.

But there was still Eiji’s fingers against his. And they were warm.

He sat back down next to Ash without a word.  They could hear the buzz of Bones and Kong’s voices in the other room.

“Are you angry?” Ash whispered, because the silence was felt awkward.

“What? No – never!” Eiji turned to him, his eyes wide. “I didn’t know if it was a talking thing? Do you wanna talk about it?”

“I don’t know,” Ash admitted. He seemed to be saying that a lot more to Eiji now and he didn’t feel as bad about it. It didn’t make him feel like a failure or a fraud for admitting it – for not being the ultra-confident Ash Lynx. Without that persona – he didn’t want to think about who he was – who he really was underneath. But that seemed to be the person that Eiji wanted to know. “I don’t – I just, don’t want this to be – I don’t to turn you into me. And I know – that it’s different, that it’s completely different – but I can’t – it can’t be like those times.”

Eiji was looking at him with such a strange expression. It was like he was the only thing Eiji could see – like something special. Not something broken. He was looking at him with those soft brown eyes, like the eyes of a deer.

“Oh, Ash,” he sounded for all the world like he was melting. “I need to hug you – is that okay?”

Ash nodded, and he was surprised that Eiji actually waited for him too. But then he was all wrapped up in Eiji's arms and Eiji's face was buried in his shoulder and his hair was tickling Ash's nose and was in his mouth-

And Eiji was shaking.

"Shit - are you okay?" Ash's hands were hovering over Eiji's back, scared to hold him. "Are you crying?"

"Because this must be so hard - and you're trying so hard and you're - you're just so - so sweet! You shouldn't be thinking about me - you should be thinking of you! If you're okay - not me!" Eiji's voice was muffled and he began to hiccup halfway through. It scared Ash - really scared him - sent a wave of cold right through his core. He had never seen Eiji cry. With everything that had happened - Eiji hadn't cried.

But he was now. He was crying because of Ash. Because Ash finally put his finger on the fear that had been gnawing inside him since that first kiss with Eiji. The feeling that, no matter what he did, he would end up showing who he used to be to him.

Eiji was crying because Ash was scared and that was more chilling than anything else in the world.

He pressed his face back into Eiji's hair - vanilla and cheap aftershave - wrapping his arms around him because he needed a moment. He needed something to hold on to - just for a moment.

Then - "look at me, Eiji," in a tiny, soft voice. But at least he sounded calm as his finger found Eiji's chin and nudged it up to face him. There was still a tear rolling down Eiji's cheek, catching the sun as it fell, like a spark of light escaping from him. “You – just caring about me – that’s better than I ever expected-“

“You’re making it worse!” Eiji wiped larger tears away with the heel of his hand.

“Well then what can I say?!” Ash heard his voice cracking as it rose.

“I don’t know!” Eiji’s voice rose to match Ash’s. They both gave a breathless, nonsensical laugh, before Eiji was hugging Ash again. He was so warm. “Just – oh God, Ash – just it’s okay. It’s okay. You more than deserve this and you more than deserve to feel whatever way you want. I told you before, I’ll follow your lead, alright? Whatever you’re comfortable with.”

Ash closed his eyes, concentrating on the feeling of being held by Eiji. Like this, it was like Eiji was his whole world. He’d be perfectly happy to stay here, in Eiji’s arms, forever.

“You’re incredible,” he whispered, revelling in the feeling of holding Eiji in his arms. He was so solid – so there.

There was someone that cared.

And apparently he deserved that.

Chapter Text

9

“I had a dream about you, you know,” Ash said.

“Hm?”

He curled his arms around Eiji’s waist as he stood, pouring the kettle. “In the hospital? I had a dream about you.”

“Was it a good dream?” Eiji was strangely unmoving in front of him. There was something stiff in the way he was standing.

“No. It wasn’t a good dream,” Ash murmured the words against Eiji’s shoulder. He didn’t want to say them. But then Eiji was twisting around in his arms his forehead bumping against Ash’s and his hands resting on Ash’s hips, then waist, then finally settled just underneath his ribs.

“Damn,” Eiji whispered. “Oh, Ash.”

“I saw-“ he found that the word didn’t drop from his tongue the way it used to. “Him too.”

Eiji tried not to let it show, but Ash heard his breath catch. He pulled away slightly, enough to see that Eiji was biting his lip and not looking him in the eye.

“It wasn’t your fault. I shot the gun.”

“If I hadn’t of- I don’t know-“

“It’s – in my dream – you, you hated me.”

“Then it was total nonsense,” Eiji murmured, his hands cupping Ash’s face. “I don’t hate you. I wouldn’t hate you – ever.”

“Ever?”

“Never ever.” Eiji pressed his forehead against Ash’s, and Ash folded into him, pressing their bodies flush against each other. He watched the steam rising from the mugs on the side. It was such an ordinary day. Ordinary sun streamed in through the ordinary window.

He was back in their apartment. It was such a strange feeling to be back here. Their normal apartment. Where they had spent the whole summer. Now the trees outside were orange and the sky was lilac, even though it was only half three. Now it was autumn. Ash hated autumn. He hated seeing the world slowly die around him.

Something was dying inside the apartment. Or, not dying, Ash supposed that was a little dramatic. But something was definitely changing. Eiji was not the person he used to be. Ash wasn’t either. He felt like he was becoming even more shattered – held together by even less. Now he had caught Eiji with that far away look in his eyes.

But Eiji couldn’t hate him. Never ever. There was still the boy who ate vanilla cupcakes on his birthday with stars in his eyes who said stuff like ‘never ever.’

“I dreamt about you too,” Eiji whispered into Ash’s ear, his arms wrapping around Ash’s back. “Every night, I think. When I did sleep.” He paused. Ash felt him breath against him and remembered to let out the breath he was holding. “I couldn’t – not properly. I just felt too wired up all the time. I thought of you so much. When I closed my eyes, I saw you.”

Ash sucked air in through his teeth. He could see out the window from here. They were so far away from that railway bridge, the buildings here were completely different. For a moment though, they seemed the same. For a moment, he thought he could see a tiny Eiji staring up at him and for a moment, he felt himself covered in hot, sticky blood.

“You saw me with a knife in my hand?” he could barely hear his own voice. “Blood all over me.”

“Blood all over you,” Eiji said. He leant backwards, so that he was pressed against the counter. “No knife. You in the ambulance. I kept – seeing you in that ambulance. You were so pale.”

“Sorry I don’t have your beautiful skin,” Ash mumbled. He wanted to press his mouth against Eiji’s cheek, open his eyes and see that coffee coloured skin. He wanted to pull away and stare at Eiji’s face. But he wanted to stay here, feeling Eiji coiled around him and feeling his weight on Eiji. “Your beautiful brown skin.”

Eiji snorted. “But I don’t have skin as white as snow, do I?”

“Hair as black as night,” Ash closed his eyes, pressing his face into Eiji’s hair. He smiled as he heard him laugh.

“You were pale. You looked – so pale. And you were bleeding. And I couldn’t help you – and I thought you were going to die – I thought you were dead – Ash!”

Eiji’s hands dug into Ash’s back, grabbing fistfuls of his t-shirt. He was pressed against him so tightly that Ash could barely breathe. He could barely breathe hearing Eiji take small, gasping breaths like that.

“It’s okay,” he said. He felt numb, completely numb – like he’d been bathing in cold water for hours. “It’s okay, I’m alive. I’m alive – Eiji.”

“I couldn’t do anything – they wouldn’t let me go with you-“ Eiji had to swallow several times to manage to get the words out. “They wouldn’t-“

“I know, I know,” Ash said. His words came back to him. From that first car ride, when Eiji had suddenly surprised him by hopping in the driver’s seat. When he had been nervous and his voice was shaky and he was so aware that he was Ash Lynx. “I wouldn’t have wanted you there. No offence.”

Eiji hiccupped. It could have been a laugh. It could have been a sob. It was hard to tell, but Ash was sure that he remembered it as well.

“None taken?” Eiji whispered.

“It was – I wasn’t good,” Ash said. He rubbed his thumbs in circles on Eiji’s back until he felt his muscles start to relax. “Honestly, Eiji – the nurses – it was a nightmare. They were all over me.”

Eiji gave another hiccupping laugh. “I’m sure it was all very tempting.”

Ash got the courage to pull away then, cupping a hand under Eiji’s chin. “I told them I had a wonderful, handsome boyfriend waiting for me. A gorgeous-“

“Stop-“

“Incredible-“

“Stop, Ash,” Eiji half-heartedly batted Ash’s hand away, but he was smiling.

“Brilliant-“

“So brilliant that I didn’t even visit you at the hospital?” Eiji asked. His eyes were still rimmed with red.

“You were tied up with something else,” Ash said. He had a casual tone, but he noticed Eiji glancing away. He tapped his finger on Eiji’s chin, making him look back at him. “Weren’t you?”

“You know about that?” Eiji gave him a sheepish smile. He was the picture of feigning innocence, glancing up at him like that from underneath damp eyelashes.

“You thought you could hide anything from me?”

“Eiji shrugged.

“Were you okay?” Ash noticed his voice harden and he smirked when he saw Eiji’s gaze drop.

“I was fine.”

“Why don’t I believe you?” Ash tapped Eiji’s chin again. He leant closer.

“Worrying about you was worse,” Eiji said and his tone matched Ash’s. “I thought you were dead.”

“And I had no idea what happened to you.”

“What happened?” Eiji asked, he hopped up onto the counter and Ash found his hands on his hips, helping him up. He was changing the subject, and Ash knew it. “Where did they take you?”

Ash shook his head, stepping forward so that Eiji’s knees were against his waist. “Don’t want to talk about it. Would rather talk about what happened to you.”

Eiji smirked and shook his head. He pushed Ash’s fringe away from his forehead, a soft smile on his face.

Ash leant into the touch, finding his mouth smiling too.

“What matters is I’m okay,” Eiji said. “And you’re okay and we’re okay.”

“That’s not-“ Ash sighed. He was still smiling and Eiji’s eyes were sparkling. “And they call me a devil.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Eiji shrugged, swinging his legs slightly.

Ash shook his head again, biting his lip to stop himself from grinning. He wanted to stay worried about Eiji, but it was so hard when he was smiling at him like that. It was so hard when his chest was full of warmth. Being with Eiji, again, he felt like he was buzzing. He had missed him – so much. He had felt it in every inch of him, but he hadn’t realised how relieved he would be to be next to him again. It was heaven. This was as close to heaven as he would ever get.

It had only been a week, he knew, but it felt like a year. It felt like a lifetime ago they were sitting in the living room with beers. They had been grinning like this then. Ash hadn’t realised the buzz that went through him when he was near Eiji. He got high off of that buzz.

Eiji was looking from Ash’s eyes to his mouth, looking hopeful. But he didn’t make a move.

Ash rolled his eyes and leant forward to kiss Eiji. It was difficult when they were both grinning.

“I missed you,” Eiji murmured.

“You missed me so much that you couldn’t stop thinking about me.”

“Shut up.”

I didn’t stop thinking about you,” Ash said. He kissed Eiji’s cheek and stayed with his mouth pressed against him. He was so warm. Ash hadn’t realised how cold he had felt in the hospital and how hot Eiji’s body was.

Eiji was stroking his hair like he was something precious. The idea was becoming less unbelievable now – it was almost comfortable. Eiji thought Ash was something precious, and that didn’t seem revolting. It was wonderful.

“Okay,” Eiji whispered. “We tell each other everything, at the same time, on the count of three. Fair?”

Ash smiled, taking a moment to pepper the side of Eiji’s face with kisses before he answered. It helped to hide the swell in his stomach.

But Eiji already knew so much. Nothing he said now could change that.

And that idea – that was wonderful.

“Fair.”

*

Ash stumbled, rather than walked through the front door. He knew that he was making too much noise, but he also knew that Eiji was a heavy sleeper. He didn’t used to be, not unless he was drinking, but since Yut Lung, nothing would wake him. Exhausted, he told Ash when he had pointed it out. Eiji had exhausted himself worrying about Ash in the hospital. Not because he was being held captive, because of Ash.

Exhausted was how Ash felt. His body felt numb, like he had just jumped into the cold end of the swimming pool. The gunshot was still replaying in his head, a faceless killer leering at him from the window.

Someone knew something. Someone was following him.

Or, if not following him, they knew where he would be tonight. Somehow. That was the worry. If they knew about that, did they know about-

“You’re covered in blood.”

A lamp turned on as it was said. Eiji was sat on the sofa, staring up at Ash. Not shocked. Worried.

“Eiji,” he blinked at him. “You’re up.”

“Yeah,” Eiji stood, started towards Ash. His gaze flicked towards the windows – the blinds were drawn and the drapes pulled across. When had Eiji got so trained to that?

 “Let me rephrase – why are you up?” Ash asked. Eiji was taking his wrist, pulling him through the flat without a word.

“You think I can sleep when you go away for the night?” Eiji said. He was sitting Ash down on the bathtub and Ash let him. He’d never seen Eiji look like this – there was the smallest hint of anger mixed in with all the worry. “When you go away for the night and don’t tell me where, or when you’re coming back? Last time you disappeared in the middle of the night I found you bleeding on a subway bridge and then you were arrested and in hospital and dead!”

“Not dead dead,” Ash said. “They only faked my death. I was being used as a guinea pig for the development of Banana Fish.”

“That’s even worse!” Eiji took Ash’s face in his hands, forcing him to look at him. To realise that Eiji was stressed and that even though he was trying to frown it was really more of a pout. He looked on the verge of tears. “And then you go off tonight and you say you’re prostituting and what am I supposed to think? I couldn’t stop wondering-“ Eiji broke off.

“I’m flattered,” Ash muttered. He took Eiji’s hands in his, twisting their fingers into each other and smiling up at Eiji. He wondered how it looked when he had blood down the side of his face.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Eiji muttered. There was that pout. He slipped his hands out of Ash’s and took a flannel from the corner of the shower, running it under the hot tap. “Is it yours?”

“I know you didn’t,” Ash said softly. He reached the steam coming from the water. “No, it’s not mine.”

Eiji nodded, pushing Ash’s hair away from his face gently. He sponged at the blood and Ash flinched away.

“That’s too hot!”

“No. You’re just cold, Ash.”

Eiji sponged at the blood in silence for a few moments, and when Ash kept flinching he muttered "baby." It stopped Ash flinching, at least, and it made Eiji soften.

"Am I allowed to know what happened?" Eiji asked quietly. There were rings under his eyes, his eyelashes casting shadows over them as he looked down.

"I went to get information," Ash said. He closed his eyes as Eiji wiped more of the blood away. "I had the guy at gunpoint, he was going to give it to me. He got shot."

"Just like that?"

"Mm. Sniper."

"Think it was Golzine?"

Ash hated that name coming from Eiji's mouth. "I don't know yet. He can't have known what I was doing."

They fell silent. Ash hated letting that lay in the air. It was like putting a loaded gun in the room. He was used to the loaded gun – the weight of all that information, but he didn't want Eiji to be. Eiji was getting used to it, to this, he knew it somewhere inside him and it seemed like just another blow against his heart.

He kept his eyes closed as Eiji kept wiping away the dried blood on his face in silence. The only sound was Eiji breathing softly, there wasn't even the sound of a tap dripping or the hum of old lights.

At every stroke of the flannel, Ash felt a muscle in his body start to relax. Safe. Whenever he was with Eiji he had started to feel that warm feeling in his chest that let him know he was safe.

It seemed like an age before Eiji pulled the flannel away. His fingers grazed where the blood had been, tracing the side of Ash’s face with a feather-light touch.

"Back to normal," he muttered.

Ash half-opened his eyes, enough so that he could see Eiji's soft smile. He caught Eiji's hand in his, pressing his mouth against the pads of his fingers. They were soft.

"Ash," Eiji was watching him, that fond smile still on his face, even if his cheeks were turning pink. It felt like in the time they'd spent apart Eiji had retreated back into himself. He had taken a few steps back to the shy Japanese boy Ash had first met. He still loved that blush but he also loved the teasing Eiji. The Eiji who didn't give a shit that he was Ash Lynx, he just wanted him to eat his damn breakfast.

He kept hold of Eiji's hand, cupping his cheek with it and leaning into the touch. Soft and warm and safe.

"Thank you," Ash said, and it slipped out before he could stop it. "Sweetie."

Eiji smiled, his gaze like melted chocolate as he looked at Ash. He leant forward and placed the ghost of a kiss on Ash’s forehead. “It’s what I’m here for.”

Ash wanted to tell him then. He wanted to look up and say the words to Eiji. He knew that Eiji would say them back. That was why he couldn’t. It would make this too real. If it was real then they would have to pin it down and it would become a thing. Things could end. “Your shirt, Ash.”

“What?” he blinked out of his reverie.

“You’ve got blood down here too,” Eiji tapped Ash’s collarbone with his free hand.

He gave a dramatic sigh, like it was a lot of effort – it was a lot of effort, as he relinquished Eiji’s hand back to him. He undid the first few buttons of his shirt, pulling it down so that Eiji could dab at the blood that had run under his collar.

“I would have taken a shower, you know,” Ash said, just to say something.

“So that you could hide it from me?” Eiji glanced up, mostly teasing. “I’d be angry with you then.”

“And what would you do if you were angry with me?”

“I wouldn’t cook for you, for a start,” Eiji said. His eyes flickered up again and he smiled to himself. “And I wouldn’t give you any more kisses.”

“And they call me a devil.”

“Well, they’re wrong,” Eiji stuck the flannel back under the sink, squeezing it so that the water turned pink.

“I’ve killed people,” Ash looked away from the blood as Eiji came back.

“There are people who’ve done a lot worse,” he said, simply.

Ash’s arm wrapped around Eiji’s waist, it felt like it did it of his own accord, and pulled Eiji against him. He pressed his face against Eiji’s stomach. He could hear him breathing. He could feel it against his cheek. He was so vulnerable. They both were. It didn’t take much to stop that breathing.

He could’ve said it. The words rung through every inch of his brain. Instead, he muttered, “you’re weird.”

Eiji’s fingers were on his hair, just stroking the top. His touch was so different – someone scared of making a bird fly away. It made Ash’s scalp tingle with the ghost of a hundred past grips in his hair.

“I know you are, but what am I?” Eiji murmured and Ash gave a breathless laugh against him.

“Tired?” Ash looked up, pressing his chin against Eiji’s navel and smiling up at him.

“Well, yeah,” Eiji paused, his fingers still on Ash’s hair. “Do you think you can sleep?”

Ash nodded. “If you stay?”

“Of course,” Eiji was helping Ash up, keeping hold of his hands as he walked back to the bedroom. Ash’s bed untouched, Eiji’s a tangled mess of sheets. Neither of them bothered to turn on the light.

“You can’t sleep on that,” Ash said, his fingers trailing from Eiji’s as he headed to his own bed. He sat on it, closing his eyes for a moment and seeing blood splatters. It didn’t bother him as much as it should have.

“Can’t I?” Eiji was standing in front of the bed, looking down at Ash with a grin and crossed arms.

Ash shook his head. “It’s a mess. Irrecoverable.”

Eiji laughed, he sat on the edge of Ash’s bed, his back to Ash. He sighed, his whole back sloping down.

“You okay?” Ash asked, unbuttoning the rest of his shirt and pulling an old one out from under his pillow.

“I should be asking you that,” Eiji replied. He stood and pulled the covers down from the bed, waiting until Ash had laid down before he slipped in, like a school boy sharing a bunk. Like he was scared they were going to be caught at any moment.

Ash pulled the covers back, shuffling so that he was facing Eiji – so that they were nose to nose. The covers almost covered their heads.

“I’m fine,” Ash whispered. “It was a shock, but I’m used to it.”

“Good,” Eiij whispered. He was laying with his hands by his face like a child, his eyes sparkling in the dark. He was full of stars, that boy.

Ash wanted to sigh.  He slipped his arms around Eiji, pulling him closer until Eiji’s nose bumped against his collarbone and Eiji was forced to put his hands on Ash’s shoulders. Their legs tangled into each other’s like seaweed. He was warm to touch, almost like a hot water bottle, radiating warmth onto Ash, heating up his hands and cheeks.

“Night, Ash,” Eiji whispered. He closed his eyes and Ash realised just how exhausted he must have been, because it was barely moments later when Eiji’s breathing evened out. He breathed in and out slowly, his breath puffs against Ash’s cheeks.

He closed his own eyes, listening to Eiji’s breathing and feeling Eiji’s stomach rising and falling against his own.

He couldn’t sleep. His brain was stuck on that moment – on looking out at the buildings and wondering which one it came from. Knowing which one it came from and wondering who on earth it was. Who could possibly be that good a shot? Who was that good a shot who worked for Golzine?

Did they know about Eiji?

Of course they did. They must have known about Eiji.

How was he going to protect Eiji? He couldn’t hide him away here forever. He couldn’t send him back to Japan – Eiji wouldn’t let him. He’d probably get a plane back out of spite and give Ash a lecture when he got back.

But he couldn’t be there every moment of the day to watch over him like a dog. Eiji wouldn’t let him do that either.

Stubborn, stubborn Eiji.

Ash sighed through his nose and opened his eyes again. Eiji looked like an angel when he was asleep, his lips parted ever so slightly. That tiny part they did whenever Ash leaned in to kiss him. He ran his fingers through the dark hair, pushing it away from Eiji’s forehead. It was thick, very thick. He was tempted to plait it, if he knew how to plait.

Eiji stirred in his sleep and buried his face in Ash’s chest, one hand clutching Ash’s t-shirt to him.

He was a nightmare. Ash should hate him.

He loved him.

He hadn’t been quite sure of what that meant – a vague idea but nothing more. Now he knew. He loved Eiji Okumura. He loved Eiji’s starry eyes and soft smile and careful touches. He loved Eiji, who stayed by his side for the sole purpose of just wanting to. No one did that. Everyone had their reasons to stand by Ash.

Eiji just wanted to, because he stayed up and worried about if Ash was dead or alive. He worried about if Ash was dead or alive because he cared about Ash.

It was an enigma. Eiji cared about Ash for some reason.

And that was the best thing in the entire world.

*

Eiji managed to get out of bed to open the door. He knew he shouldn’t have, but it made him nervous not to. Just in case it wasn’t Ibe. Just in case it was someone like Yut Lung and he just called him in.

Like Yut Lung was a vampire and he could only get in if he was invited.

He was scolded immediately, as he knew he would be.

“Eiji! You should be in bed – you have a fever,” Ibe was closing the door, taking Eiji’s shoulder and guiding him back to his room.

“I’m feeling better,” Eiji lied. His head was swimming. He let himself be sat back down on his bed, but he didn’t lie down, he just sat with his hands linked on his lap.

“It doesn’t matter. You’re meant to be resting.” Ibe said. He was talking Japanese and Eiji realised just how long it had been. Ash was right, it was something of a relief to hear it again. To not have that fear that he would use the wrong word or that he just sounded too foreign.

“How can I rest when Ash’s gone?” Eiji asked, then realised exactly what he’d said. His face flooded with heat and he backtracked. “Not that he’s gone – it was the way he left. He was lying to me, I know he was. I know when he’s lying and he told me not to worry – so I know I have to worry. He told me he was going to sort everything out. What does that mean?”

Ibe wasn’t telling him something. He had pulled a chair next to the bed. He shuffled and wasn’t meeting Eiji’s eyes. He knew something. Eiji wondered if he’d be able to get it out of him.

“You can tell when he’s lying?” was what he asked.

“Yeah. He goes calm. It’s like he’s planned it all out in his head,” Eiji said. Ibe was smiling at him and he felt a prickle in his stomach. “What?”

“It’s just – you know him so well, don’t you?”

“Of course.”

Ibe shifted again. He reached over and placed his hand over Eiji’s.

“There’s a lot you haven’t been telling me, Eiji.”

“What do you mean?” Ejii’s hand twitched. He knew exactly what Ibe meant, but he couldn’t bring himself to admit it. It meant coming back to reality. It meant admitting that being with Ash was dangerous and that he was in danger. What he was doing was dangerous. He hadn’t wanted to drag Ibe into it – not when he had been the one racing after Ash in the first place. He didn’t want to see him get hurt.

Now his own thoughts were starting to sound so like Ash’s that he was scaring himself.

“You don’t call nearly enough. You drop off the map constantly – I have to ask Max to ask about you, or call Ash myself.”

Eiji licked his lips, taking a breath. Guilt was gnawing at him and his head was still swimming. “I’m sorry.”

“What’s going on? Why aren’t you talking to me?” Ibe’s eyes searched his. He looked worried – really worried, and Eiji had to avoid his look. It wasn’t anger – Eiji would have preferred that. It was disappointment and panic and fatigue. They made him feel a hundred times worse. This was it – this was why he hadn’t wanted to have this conversation. Why had he thought that avoiding it would help?

“I don’t know,” Eiji admitted. “I don’t know what to say, Ibe-san.”

“Okay. Then, just - just answer me, okay?”

Eiji nodded. He took a deep breath. He seemed to be doing a lot of focusing on breathing today.

“What’s your relationship with Ash?”

He let the pause draw itself out again, staring at the floor. He felt awkward about it – like he probably should have come out to Ibe. Maybe he was meant to now. It felt like admitting it to his parents. But it was also the question that he’d been asking himself lately. He loved Ash, of course he did and they joked around about it – but were they together? Would they be, tomorrow, when Eiji was sure he’d wake up to find Ash missing?

”We’ve not put a label on it,” he said, slowly. “Not really.”

“But you’re together?”

“Yes.” All Eiji seemed to be doing today was nodding and breathing. Now, though, he felt a small smile on his face. “That’s not a surprise, is it?”

Ibe smiled and shook his head, looking strangely comforted. He looked more like himself now – like the panic and guilt that had been permeating through the room like a fog had just evaporated. It gave Eiji the confidence to cross his legs, making himself comfortable on the bed.

“He’s taking care of you okay?” there was a hint of playfulness behind the concern this time. Of course, the worry was still there, Eiji could still see it etched into every line on Ibe’s face, but this time it wasn’t about life and death.

“I think I’m the one taking care of him.” Eiji couldn’t believe he was smiling now, even though his shoulder felt as though it was on fire. “We take care of each other. It’s mutual.”

“I’m going to have to talk to him, you know,” Ibe leant back in the chair, a shadow passing over his face suddenly. For a moment, he looked intimidating. The thought was enough to make Eiji laugh.

“Why is that?”

“No one dates my boy without going through me first.” He half-expected Ibe to crack his knuckles.

Eiji gave a dry laugh that turned into a cough. He looked up, his eyes wet from the effort, but Ibe was smiling at him, his eyes glittering like he was proud.

There had been a twinge in his heart, though. A little voice that said it didn’t matter anyway. Ash might not come back.

What was he going to do if Ash didn’t come back? The thought was enough to wipe the smile off of his face.

“This might not be such an easy one.” Ibe’s smile disappeared too now. He leant forward, wringing his hands like he was nervous. “What happened to you, Eiji? When Ash was in the hospital, and you were missing, where were you?”

“They took all of us to the station,” Eiji spoke carefully, wondering which parts of the story to cut and which to keep. “Yut Lung paid my bail. I was…stuck with him for a while.”

“What?”

“He didn’t – it wasn’t like-“ Eiji swallowed. “I don’t know what his plan was – to just keep me out of the way, I guess. It was just a locked room. I managed to get out a few times. I didn’t get very far.”

“And then?” Ibe’s voice was gentle. Almost like he was scared. He was looking at Eiji like he didn’t even know him.

“When it came on the news that Ash – the fake news of his death – I-“ Eiji took a breath. “I broke the window.”

What?”

“I broke the window. With my hand. And jumped out.”

“Eiji-“

“Yut Lung followed me. I pointed a gun at him. I didn’t shoot.”

“Your hand?”

“It’s all healed now, see?” Eiji flashed his hand, forcing a casual grin onto his face. Like it was nothing. At the time, it had been nothing. There had been a million other things going through his head. He hadn’t even felt the pain. “And Ash found us soon after.” He paused, because Ibe was still leaning forward, his eyebrows drawn tightly together as he looked at him. “What?”

“You’ve changed,” Ibe said. “I thought bringing you here would help you get back to who you used to be. But you’ve gone a different way completely.” Ibe took a breath, studying Eiji with such an intensity that he shuffled. “You’re – I’m proud of you. Worried about you every moment, but you’ve really found yourself here.”

“Yeah,” it was true – a thrill went through Eiji at the thought. This was who he was now. And he liked that. “I guess so.”

He stayed there, smiling slightly as he finally managed to meet Ibe’s gaze.

It was like the wind shifted again. The air turned heavy again as they turned serious.

“Do you want to stay?” Ibe asked softly. It was like he knew the answer but was still scared of it.

That one was an easy question.

“Yes.”

“No question, huh?”

“Nope.”

Ibe leant back, heavily. There was still a smile on his face as he looked at Eiji. He spoke quietly, more to himself than anyone else. “Okay, then.”

Eiji smiled back. Then, for a moment, it was as though the whole world tilted. He lurched forward, for a moment believing that his brain had just completely disappeared. His head was just full of air.

He was caught by strong hands and pushed back onto his bed, so that he was lying down. He didn’t want to be on this bed. He had wanted to be on Ash’s – whilst he wasn’t here. It smelt of him. He had wanted to close his eyes and pretend that Ash’s arms were still around him.

But Ash was gone.

“I’m sorry,” Eiji murmured to Ibe. He opened his eyes to find him standing over him, looking panicked. He wasn’t sure what he was apologising for, but he knew he had a hundred more in him. There were a hundred more inside him that he needed to say.

“You need to rest, Eiji,” Ibe said. “You shouldn’t have even been up in the first place. Ash told me to come straight in.”

“Screw what Ash wants.”

“He’s looking out for you, Eiji.” Ibe said. He used ‘chan’ and it made him smile. He was pushing the hair off of Eiji’s forehead and he closed his eyes. It felt like he was at home. It was like he was a child at home again and he wasn’t involved in anything scary or gun-related. He wasn’t worried about whether he’d see his boyfriend alive again. He hadn’t been shot. He was just sick.

He took a breath. The pain was spreading, a red, angry itch over his torso.

He wanted to say ‘I love him,’ but he didn’t get the words out. He wanted someone to know.

But the burning was taking over him. It was hard to stay awake when he was so comfortable and when his head was spinning.

He was asleep five minutes later.

Chapter Text

10

Cain Blood frowned at Eiji when he had asked it. Eiji kept his gaze level. People were probably intimidated when he stared at them like that. With the height and the tattoos and the sunglasses that showed him just how small and unassuming he was. He guessed he might have been through a lot, but even wearing Ash’s clothes he looked too shiny and too young to be involved in all of this. He didn’t look like he belonged in a gang. Cain didn’t seem to think so either.

“You want me to what?”

“Can you teach me how to shoot a gun?” Eiji repeated. He couldn’t bring himself to be scared of any of these guys. He hadn’t been scared of Ash – and that had apparently been weird. He wasn’t sure why he should be scared of these people.

Cain had raised his eyebrows at him. Eiji wondered what was going on behind those sunglasses.

But then, finally, he shrugged and said “sure.”

That was the most he had said to Eiji for the last hour.  They had headed to a shooting range and had been waved through by the staff. Eiji guessed they knew Cain.

He had handed Eiji a gun, and pointed out the target. Then he had leant against the post, his hands over the headphones he was wearing. Eiji couldn’t even tell if he was watching him or not.

If he was, Eiji couldn’t see how he wasn’t doubled over laughing. He fumbled with the gun, struggling to keep it straight. He was used to Ash’s hands wrapped around his. The only time he had aimed a gun without feeling Ash’s breath on his cheek he had been pointing it at Yut Lung. His hands had been shaking then.

He jumped more often than not when the gun fired – or when other people’s guns fired off.

And he still hadn’t hit the target.

He sighed, lowering the gun and running a hand through his hair. This wasn’t going to work. He wasn’t going to be able to do this. If he couldn’t even hit a target – how was he supposed to pull this off?

“Why are you doing this?”

He jumped again at the question. He had almost convinced himself that Cain had given up on him. That he had wandered off and was ready to leave Eiji behind. There was no hope for him.

“What?” he asked, fumbling over his words. “I - I don’t know how to – I can’t shoot a gun very well. I want to be able to.”

“No – this-“ Cain made a vague gesture that Eiji just frowned at. “This for Ash - this is a suicide mission, you realise.”

“I know,” Eiji said. He probably should have been scared at that too.

“Why? Why him?” Cain had a way of saying everything that made Eiji feel like he was being interrogated.

He paused, flicking the safety onto the gun and trying to find his answer. An answer that made sense, he guessed.

“It's my –“ he stopped himself, Ash’s face appearing in his mind’s eye. He could almost hear him – ‘stop saying that everything is your fault. Leave some guilt for the rest of us.’ “He did that for me. He gave up everything to protect me.”

He felt hot and fiddled with the sleeves of his baseball jacket. Ash’s baseball jacket. It would have been easier to say ‘I love him.’ Why was that so hard to say?

“Oh.” It was so hard to tell what that guy was thinking. “You two are - you're bent, right?”

“Something like that,” Eiji muttered. He wondered if he’d at least be able to hit himself with that gun.

“Damn,” Cain leant back against the post with a thud. He was quiet for a moment, and Eiji couldn’t think of anything else to say to him. “Damn - I never would have - Ash Lynx is a homo.” Eiji wasn’t sure what to say to that either. “Then again, I could never see him with a girl. Could never see him with anyone.”

Eiji shrugged. “Lynxes are solitary animals.”

“Then why is he with you?”

“Because lynx is just his name.”

Cain laughed at that. A real belly laugh that made Eiji’s chest warm. Maybe that was why they liked him.

“I mean - I knew he was tied up with Golzine,” Cain said. “I knew - but I wouldn't have guessed that.” He paused, tilting his sunglasses down to glance at Eiji. He wondered if he was meant to be scared now. “Is he good?”

“Good?” Eiji said.

“You know, in –“

The gun was looking like a very good option now.

“Oh. Um, I don't – I don't know.”

“How can you not know?” Cain asked. His sunglasses slid a few inches down his face as he raised his eyebrows. “Oh. Oh.”

“Um…” Eiji fiddled with the headphones, glancing down. He had nothing else to add to that – he didn’t feel like it was any of Cain’s business.

“Okay. Yeah, maybe that makes sense.” Cain was nodding and Eiji nodded along for a moment. Then it occurred to him that this was completely insane. He turned back to the target, lifting the gun and feeling Ash’s hand on his elbow.

He lowered it again at the thought.

“Ash would hate this,” he muttered. “He would hate everyone knowing.”

He didn’t even really like to talk about it to Eiji. He would give him snippets and Eiji would spend hours wondering if he’d said the right thing. If he’d actually helped at all.

“It doesn't change-“ Cain’s voice made Eiji jump again. He hadn’t even thought he would hear him. “It doesn't make me think any less of him.”

“Try telling that to him.”

“No fear,” there was Cain’s booming laugh again. “I’ll leave that one to you. The boy’s say you’re the only one who can face Ash Lynx and live to tell about it.”

Eiji laughed. “I don’t do anything special.”

“He must really like your pretty face then.”

“Uh – I don’t-“ Eiji stumbled and Cain laughed again.

“Here,” he nudged Eiji’s elbow – probably a light touch for him but Eiji jerked back to attention. “Focus on the middle of the target, okay. It’s like putting blinkers on – that’s the only thing that exists.”

“Sorry,” Eiji spoke automatically. “It probably seems ridiculous – that I can’t even-“

“Less talking, more shooting.”

Eiji wasn’t used to that. He was used to getting Ash side tracked. Last time Ash had been flirting with him and he hadn’t known how to deal with it. Last time it had been dawn and they had spent a week sleeping in a truck together.

Now he was staying at Soo-Ling’s base. It had been more how he had imagined gangs in New York living. He could watch the mould crawling across his ceiling. The walls were damp and most of the radiators were busted, so it was always freezing and damp. The lightbulbs flickered before they came on.

But he was safe and he was doing stuff. He was doing the stuff that Ash had hid from him and it surprised him at how quickly he got used to it all. He was popping in and out of different bars and hide outs, trying to get all of this organised. He was lucky that people wanted to help Ash.  He was lucky that they seemed to like him.

This wasn’t Eiji Okumura. At least, it wasn’t the old Eiji Okumura. He had become someone else, but he liked this new Eiji. This Eiji made people laugh with his quips and was confident.

This Eiji would be able to pole vault. He was sure.

He didn’t know if he wanted to anymore.

He took a deep breath in. Going back to Japan, at this point, wasn’t an option. He had to get Ash back – he would get Ash back.

If he was going to do that, he needed to be able to shoot.

So he squeezed the trigger.

Another miss.

“I’m staying until I hit it,” he said.

“Because I have nothing better to do.”

“Well, do you?” Eiji glanced up. He knew he was doing the wide-eyed, innocent smile that always made Ash give in to him.  

Cain snorted. “That’s not the point.”

He pulled the trigger again. A small black hole appeared on the white outline of the target.

It gave him hope.

He knew Ash wouldn’t like it. That he was learning to shoot – he had made such a thing of Eiji not shooting. Of Eiji not killing. Of him not being like Ash.

Well, tough. Ash wasn’t around at the moment. He had made a stupid decision so Eiji was going to make a stupid one. If he was like Ash because he could shoot then so be it. Someone had to save him. And that someone was Eiji.

He’d be here all day, learning to hit the target, if he had to.

Eiji was going to shoot that gun.

*

Sing Soo-Ling had been stuck to Eiji's side. He followed him everywhere, five paces behind him. It felt as though he had a duckling who had imprinted onto him.

"Not to be rude," Eiji had asked at one point. "But it feels like you're a spy for Yut Lung."

Soo-Ling had laughed at that. He still sounded incredibly young when he laughed. That made Eiji feel a thing of sadness. This was a boy who should be worrying about homework and hanging out at MacDonalds with his mates instead of reloading guns and hanging out with gangs of kids older than him.

"Yut Lung won't know about any of this," Soo-Ling said. He left it at that.

But he still couldn't be separated from Eiji. If there wasn't room on the sofa, he would sit on the arm or stand behind Eiji. Once he sat cross legged in front of him like a school child. Everyone had acted like it was completely normal as they went over the plan again. And again. Eiji knew it backwards - apparently that was good. He had dreams about it most nights.

Almost every morning he woke up from a nightmare of something going  wrong. Of Ash full of bullets. Of himself full of bullets. Everything full of bullets.

He took a walk, wearing Ash's hoodie. His baseball jacket had stopped smelling of him, so he had taken the white hoodie instead. It didn't suit him. He hated it on hum, but he could pretend that Ash had his arms around him.

Of course, Sing followed him from Ash's base without a word. He jumped out of his skin when Eiji turned around and asked "Can you show me the way to Central Park?"

The boy turned bright red and nodded furiously. He took the lead, walking five steps ahead of Eiji instead of behind.

New York was a city that was never quiet. It was still cold – it had been a cold winter and the spring was still bitingly freezing, but the streets were still busy. There was still hundreds of tourists milling around the park.

Soo-Ling slowed down when they reached it, opting to take Eiji's lead instead. He stopped to nod sharply at one of the carriage drivers, but stayed mute.

Eiji followed the carriage route. He had taken to doing it a lot, because then he heard Ash's voice in his ear, matching the driver word for word. He had added his own bits too, about gang disputes and shoot outs.

He had been sat too close to Eiji then - at least, Eiji had thought he had been sat too close. It was back when he was still awkward. Their thighs had been touching but Ash hadn't seemed to notice. Not until he had snuck an arm around Eiji, learning across him to point to a spot on the street.

"And that's where you hijacked Ibe's car, you little devil."

Eiji had laughed, but his face had felt as though it was on fire.

He couldn't wait to get Ash back. He had to believe that they would get him back. The alternative was unthinkable. They would get Ash back.

He'd walk this route next to Ash soon. That was the idea that was driving him forward.

It would have been almost a year since the first time. He couldn’t believe that.

Ash had missed Eiji’s birthday.

He slowed, his eyes following a pair of pigeons fighting over a crust of bread.

"Teach me Japanese." Soo-Ling said suddenly. He was so loud and sudden that Eiji stopped in his tracks.

"Eh?"

"Is that Japanese?" Soo-Ling was doing that not blinking thing again, staring at him intently.

"It's universal," Eiji said. "For 'what?'"

"I want to learn Japanese," Soo-Ling said, as if it was obvious. His hair was sticking up at every angle.

"Why?"

"Because you speak it."

Eiji found a smile on his face. He kept walking, running a hand through his hair. "Why do you want to be like me? I can't even shoot a gun."

Soo-Ling's face went red again, and he stuck his hands into his pockets. He pouted at the ground, looking more like a child than ever.

"Maybe I like that about you," Soo-Ling muttered.

Eiji wanted to laugh, but the kid sounded so sincere. It seemed as though he really looked up to Eiji and the thought made his chest feel warm. Someone looked up to him – that was completely insane. Out of everyone around them – everyone who could do so much more than Eiji – Soo-Ling had decided that he was cool. Because he couldn’t shoot.

He took a moment, smiling out at the trees. There were starting to bud again.

“Shouldn't you be at Yut Lung’s?” he asked, his voice soft. He had no idea what to say to this kid, and he was almost scared of the answer. “Or something?”

Soo-Ling shrugged, scratching the back of his head and not looking at Eiji. His hair was fluffy – like a baby duck’s. “He played ash dirty. I don't like that. Don't like his stupid mansion either.”

“Me neither.” Eiji said and Soo-Ling beamed at him.

It made him look so young, when he grinned like that, even though he was almost as tall as Eiji.

They carried on walking. There was still a sharp breeze in the air and Eiji bundled himself further into his hoodie. He had meant to take this walk to clear his head. To walk himself through everything and convince himself everything would be okay. To stop thinking about it. For at least ten minutes.

Soo-Ling couldn’t seem to keep still. He balanced on the curb at the edge of the path, running across it as fast as he could. He ran over the benches, too, skidding when he landed. His converses were falling apart, the bottoms sliding off.

Eiji watched him with a smile on his face. Maybe this was what having a little brother was like. If it was, he liked it. He didn’t understand it at all, but he liked Soo-Ling’s company. He didn’t seem to be bothered about anything, whereas Eiji couldn’t stop worrying.  

And it wasn’t just Ash that was worrying him. When Soo-Ling grinned at him like that, he saw Skip. That still sent an ache through his stomach and his chest. It still felt like his fault. Ash had always tried to take the blame – they had gone backwards and forwards about it.

What if the same thing happened to Soo-Ling? There would be no denying that it would be Eiji’s fault then – he was the one so desperate to do this.

“Soo-Ling,” Eiji said, carefully. “Why aren’t you at school?”

Soo-Ling jumped down from the back of the bench. He glanced back at Eiji and shrugged. “Don't wanna be. Don't need to be. Doesn't matter does it? Might not even live long enough to use a diploma.”

That was just the way Ash spoke. It was just another glimpse into a world he didn’t understand. One that he had been lucky to escape from.

“What do your parents say about that?”

“They don't,” Soo-Ling gave him another glance, ducking out of the way of a group of tourists. “Cleared off pretty quick.”

“I'm sorry.”

“Don't be. They're not. I'm not.” Soo-Ling slowed, so that he was walking next to Eiji. He was staring at his converse.

“Then someone has to be.” Eiji said.

Soo-Ling at him, squinting in the watery sunlight. His eyes looked almost purple. There was a small smirk on his face.

“You’re weird,” Soo-Ling said.

Eiji burst out laughing. At Soo-Ling’s frown he covered his mouth, but he couldn’t stop grinning. A moment later, though, Soo-Ling was smiling too.

“That's just what Ash used to say,” Eiji said. He kept smiling, but he knew that it had changed. It was an ‘I’m really missing him,’ smile. He ran a hand through his hair, thinking about how Ash used to do it – thinking about Ash’s hair.

They had stopped in front of the lake. The trees reflected in it like a mirror. The water was reflecting a world of steely blues and greys, as though every other colour had been sucked from the world.

There was a long pause. Eiji could feel Soo-Ling’s eyes on him, scrutinising his face. It felt like he was peering into a private moment.

“Why do you like him so much?” Soo-Ling asked.

Eiji paused, still smiling. The memory of Ash smiling at him was infectious, as much as he missed him.

“Because,” Eiji rolled his tongue in his cheek, trying to find the right words. He couldn’t quite say. It just seemed like chance that they had met. It had felt like someone else had told him to go to America, someone else had pushed him to ask Ash to see him gun. Someone else had told him to stay next to Ash’s side. No matter what. “Because I've never met anyone like him.”

There was another pause.

“Have you ever met anyone like me?”

Eiji chuckled. “No. No I haven't.”

Another pause. Eiji glanced across as Soo-Ling now. He was frowning out over the lake, his eyebrows meeting.

“So why don't you like me like you like Ash?”

Eiji was stunned. He hadn’t thought the conversation was going to go that way. Now he blinked at Soo-Ling, who still wasn’t looking at him. It was strangely flattering. "Well - because- Ash and I, we - it's not just-"

"I'm not five, I know that you’re together."

"So why are you asking?"Eiji was still smiling.

"Because you don't have anyone now.”

“We'll get Ash back.” He said it automatically. It was like someone had pulled his string and he had just said it.

“But in the meantime…” Soo-Ling trailed off, scuffing his shoe on the concrete at the edge of the lake.

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, the guys - the older guys - they say doing it is good for stress relief.” Soo-Ling said, as though it was obvious.

“Oh - no - it's not-“ Eiji felt his face grow warm at the suggestion. “We're together but we haven't...”

“Done it?” Soo-Ling finished for him.

Eiji’s stomach twisted. He didn’t want to have this conversation with a fourteen year old. He didn’t want to have this conversation with anyone.

“No,” he admitted.

Soo-Ling frowned again, scratching his head. “Then what do you do?”

“Yeah, it really seems like you understand relationships, Soo-ling.”

“Now I know why Ash likes you,” Soo-Ling kicked away from the lake, heading back down the path. It was Eiji’s turn to follow.

“Mm? Why is that?” he asked at Soo-Ling’s back. He couldn’t remember the last time he had smiled so much.

“You're just as sarcastic as he is,” Soo-Ling said over his shoulder.

Eiji laughed again and he was surprised to find that it was hard to stop. A genuine laugh. When was the last time that had happened?

“I didn’t used to be,” he sped up so that he matched Soo-Ling’s stride. “At least, I don't think I used to be. It seems like years and years ago that I lived in Japan.”

“What's Japan like?” Soo-Ling asked immediately. He was so easily distracted from one thing to the other that Eiji laughed again.

“That’s like asking what China's like.”

“Wouldn't know,” Soo-Ling shrugged. “Never been.”

Soo-Ling didn’t seem to be bothered about it. Eiji wasn’t sure if it was an act or not – he acted like he didn’t care about much. But there was still a comment he made that bothered Eiji. Maybe it was because he had talked to Ash about stuff like that.

“Soo-ling,” he said, carefully. He received an ‘mm?’ from the teenager. “The others, they don't ask you to-“

“What? No – gross!” Soo-Ling pulled a face and Eiji found himself laughing again. From relief this time. “I mean,” Soo-Ling talked quickly, his cheeks red. “I mean – jeez, all that kind of stuff, it's gross. I can't get why anyone would want to put their lips on anyone else's. Mouths are for eating for sucking on someone else's tongue like a hoover.”

Eiji couldn’t stop laughing. He was almost doubled over from it. Sure, Soo-Ling said he was an adult, but he couldn’t stop seeing him as a kid.

“What? Why’s that funny?” Soo-Ling was frowning at him. He elbowed Eiji, making them both stumble on the path and only making Eiji laugh harder. “Stop!”

“I’m sorry,” Eiji forced himself to take a breath. He found that he was ruffling Soo-Ling’s hair, and it was only when he pulled away that he felt awkward about it. “It’s nothing.”

But Soo-Ling was grinning at him. Well, he had been trying to frown, but he was smiling, his hair sticking up all over the place. He looked more like a kid than ever.

“Um,” Soo-Ling looked away again, his cheeks turning crimson. Eiji bit his lip, because suddenly Soo-Ling was serious and he couldn’t stop smiling. “Look – sorry I was so – I didn’t know about what happened with Shorter.”

“It’s okay.”

“I’m glad you’re here, though. To help Ash.”

Eiji smiled. He was sure if Ash was here, he would throw his arm around Soo-Ling’s neck and say it was nothing. Ash was like that. Eiji wasn’t. He felt too awkward and aware of himself.

“Well,” he said, nudging Soo-Ling. “I’m glad you’re here to help me.”

Soo-Ling shrugged, but his face was even redder than before.

But he had been telling the truth. Soo-Ling was good company. He didn’t help distract him completely, but it hadn’t felt as though the world was ending.

And he was kind of happy to have a little brother.

*

Eiji felt oddly calm. He was still pumped full of adrenaline, and he knew it was going to be a long night still, but he couldn’t bring himself to worry. He was calm. He was in control.

It was probably because Ash had opened his eyes and was talking and still Ash. He was still Ash and he was still here. The whole blinding deal freaked Eiji out. He hadn’t been able to see. He still couldn’t see. And how long had it been like that? How long had he been leaving like that? Eiji felt sick just thinking about it. Whilst he had been laughing in the park with Soo-Ling, Ash had been living a nightmare.

How long had it been like that?

But Ash was back. There was a niggling doubt gnawing at the edge of his mind, wondering if Ash would ever get his sight back. If something went wrong and it didn’t come back. He wondered if Ash would bounce back from this. If he’d ever be able to carry on from this.

If Eiji could even help him carry on from this.

“Eiji,” Ash was leant against the wall of the subway carriage. Eiji could see everyone else through the window, talking with serious faces and glancing around the abandoned tunnel. They had stepped away and Eiji had been watching him. He had no idea what to say. He had just been watching Ash struggle to breathe. “Help me change.”

“What?” he asked. “Now?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t want to wait for your sight to come back?” Did they have time for this? Eiji didn’t think they had time for this.

“No,” Ash’s voice was firm. Almost a snap. He sighed, pushing a hand through blonde hair that was already slicked back. It fell across his forehead. He was breathing heavily. “I’m not just trying to be a shit, Eiji. I can’t wear this any longer.”

And Eiji understood, understood some of it anyway.

“Okay,” he said, and crossed the carriage to where they had kicked the bag full of spare clothes. He barely looked at what he pulled out, dropping it so that it just nudged Ash’s foot. “I’m here,” he said, taking Ash’s shoulders.

Ash’s gaze was over his shoulder, but he nodded, and his hands took Eiji’s. He helped him slip off the dinner jacket. It fell in a heap on the floor like a crumbled shadow.

“I wouldn’t want to wait,” Ash was saying. “I don’t like seeing myself like this.”

He was pulling at the tie, tightening it in on itself. Eiji stopped him, took it in his own and began picking the fabric back apart.

“I can understand that,” he said softly. He didn’t look like Ash, right now. He didn’t look like an action hero, either.

It took a long time to undo the knot. His hands were shaking. But Ash just stood there, waiting. His hands hovered over Eiji's shoulders, making sure he knew where he was at all times.

The tie finally slithered to the floor like a snake, and Ash shrugged out of the braces. Eiji guided Ash's hands over his shirt buttons, just in case he needed them.

“Does it bother you?" Ash was shrugging out of his shirt, looking oddly pale in the dim lighting. He was almost glowing - some supernatural being that only came out at night.

“Hm?”

He was so thin. He looked so unbelievably thin. Eiji could count Ash's ribs, even in the dark.

“I just – I don’t think anything of it, but you might not-“ Ash's trousers dropped to his ankles. He used Eiji's shoulder as a support as he kicked off his shoes and stepped out of his clothes.

“In Japan, when we go to the onsen – hot spring – everyone’s naked. It’s not a big deal," Eiji said. He held out the t-shirt he'd grabbed so that Ash could wiggle into it. Being naked didn't bother him, seeing Ash look more like a skeleton than a man bothered him, but he kept his mouth shut. Ash probably knew, he was most likely hyper aware of it and he didn't need Eiji to tell him. He needed Eiji to keep acting like everything was normal. At least, to his face.

He dropped the jeans on the floor so that Ash could step into them, letting his shoulders be used as a hand rest again. 

“Eiji, what are you wearing?” Ash's voice was soft. He was fumbling with his fly.

“Oh – just a hoodie and some jeans," Eiji toed Ash's trainers over to him so that they nudged his foot. He wiggled into them.

“You snuck into the party like that?”

“I changed whilst you were out, after we had gone underground. We snuck in as servers," Eiji said. Ash nudged his foot against Eiji's, the laces trailing. He bent down obediently, starting to tie them.

“White suit?”

“How’d you know?” He looked up, but Ash was still looking straight ahead, his fingers stretching so they still had some hold of Eiji.

“I know his tastes by now," Ash's voice was dry. He swallowed, licked his lips. “No one recognised you?”

“I slicked back my hair. And wore glasses.” Eiji straightened up and saw Ash's lips curving into a smile. He cupped Ash's cheek in his hand, feeling brave. He felt like he had to be the strong one now, but he wasn't quite sure how he was going to do that. “I learnt from the best.”

“Shut up," Ash leant into his hand.

“Never," Eiji said. He stepped forward, wondering if it was okay to kiss Ash. If Ash wanted to be kissed right now.

He ended up hugging Ash instead, pulling him against him so hard so that Ash wouldn't be able to feel him shaking. So that Ash wouldn't be able to notice his shoulders jerking as he swallowed back tears. The last month had been the hardest thing Eiji had ever had to live through. He didn't think he'd slept at all - whenever he close his eyes he saw Ash's face there. Counting down the days until the party. That was the only thing that mattered. The party, the party, the party.

Ash's arms were around him, squeezing him just as hard. His mouth and nose were pressed against Eiji's neck.

Eiji mouthed the words. He didn't want to say them out loud because the atmosphere didn't feel right. But he could mouth them, to himself, in the darkness. Just those three words.

Their arms slowly relaxed, like a clamp easing away. Eiji pulled back slowly, remembering that they were on a time limit. Remembering that other things were happening right now and that Soo-Ling and Cain and Kong and Bones and everyone was waiting for them.

Ash was still staring, his arms still around him.

“Ash?” he asked, holding Ash’s arms like they were a life jacket. “Ash – are you alright?”

“Hm?” Ash blinked, his hands finding Eiji’s.

“You were in your own world.”

“I was thinking. Thinking about – if this was a different place and a different time – and we both went to a party. It would be so different. We’d dance – can you imagine? I’d sweep you off your feet.”

“Really? You’d sweep me off of my feet?” Eiji was smiling, his head dipping forward so that his nose was nudging against Ash’s.

“Of course.”

“That’s a lie.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I’m an athlete, Ash. I’d be doing the sweeping.”

“So you’re saying you could pick me up?” Ash was smirking at him.

“Absolutely.”

“Do it then.”

“Maybe when your eyes are better,” Eiji said.

“I bet you looked cute.” Ash’s hands fumbled, searching down Eiji’s sides until he found his belt loop. He pulled their hips together, smiling. “No, I bet you looked handsome in that suit.”

Eiji laughed. He wanted to say ‘hardly.’ He had felt foolish, dressed like that. Instead, he tugged at Ash’s hand. “Come on, let’s get some food down you.”

He peeled himself away from Ash, prising the door of the carriage back open and stepping down on to the platform. He helped him step over the gap, letting him stumble against him.

“Not hungry,” Ash muttered.

“Don’t care.”

Ash grinned and something shifted in Eiji’s chest. It was like something had been stuck in there and it was only just realised now. They were okay. It was all going to be okay. They were going to get out of this and everything was going back to whatever it was they called normal now. Ash and Eiji.

And Ash would get better – Eiji would make sure of that. He was going to push Ash until he was back to the boy that Eiji had first met in America. The boy with hair like a lion’s and those piercing green eyes. The boy that had a gun sticking out the waistband of his jeans. Who gave it to Eiji within five minutes of meeting him.

It was so strange, to look back at that moment. It was the first time Eiji had seen a real gun.

This evening he had shot one. Sure, he had missed, but he had shot it and he had meant it. He knew how to shoot one.

He had felt Ash’s arms around him, standing there. Ash’s voice in his ear. The first time, in Cape Cod, Eiji had been ridiculously aware of him. Ridiculously awkward and shy around Ash, not knowing how to react to him. He had still been riddled with guilt.

Now he was helping Ash change his clothes. Now he was the one rescuing Ash.

He had been right, when he had stolen that car. He was meant to be right at Ash’s side. It made him dizzy, the fact that Ash needed him. Ash Lynx needed Eiji Okumura. And Eiji needed him. He needed Ash by his side.

They had lit a fire earlier out of old newspapers and some old rubbish. It smelt awful, but it didn’t smoke that much. It kept them warm in the drafty tunnels.

The others had already eaten – a week earlier they had dropped cans of soup off down here. A quick snack, if they had time, to wait for things to blow over. To wait for Ash to wake up. To get their energy and their courage back before everything inevitably hit the fan again.

He heated two cans of tomato soup over the garbage fire. Ash’s nose wrinkled at the smell.

“I know it wouldn’t have been anything like the food at the party,” Eiji said quickly. He had to hold the pot over the fire himself, his hand wrapped in his hoodie sleeve.

Ash gave a dry laugh. It sounded rattlely – like a skeleton’s laugh. Eiji was glad that he couldn’t see his shiver at that.

“I wouldn’t have been able to eat it,” Ash admitted. He sounded so casual about it.

Eiji paused, staring at the crimson soup. It had splashed onto his hoodie sleeve a little.

“You haven’t been eating, have you Ash?” he hated how scared his voice sounded. He was scared of the answer.

“No.”

“It wasn’t because the food tasted like shit, is it?”

Ash took a breath. It seemed to shake his entire frame. “It did – honestly, after a while. I just – I couldn’t keep it down.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Eiji asked. “About – what happened?”

“I could ask you the same,” Ash’s lips twitched. “Cain Blood? Sing Soo-Ling? You’ve managed to unite a fair few gangs here. Maybe I should hand mine over to you too.” Ash leant backwards, spreading his hands out in front of him. “I can see it now – Eiji Okumura – the most feared gang boss in New York City – no, New York state.”

“Shut up.” Eiji wanted to smile. He couldn’t bring himself to. “It’s because of you – you know, they they’re all together like this. Because they wanted to help you.”

Ash took another long, rattling breath.

“Talk to me, Ash,” Eiji said. Pleaded. “I want to know that you’re okay.”

“I’m okay, sweetie,” Ash’s voice sounded tired – a new kind of tiredness – a complete exhaustion. “The soup’s boiling.”

It was. Huge red bubbles were starting to appear on the surface. He quickly pulled it off of the fire, pouring it clumsily back into the cans. He pushed the tin into Ash’s hand, folding his fingers around it.

“How could you tell?”

“I could hear it.”

Ash started laughing at that, and Eiji allowed himself a small giggle. He fell back against the wall, feeling the fire on his feet.

“Not today,” Ash said. “I can’t tell you today, Eiji. Give me some time.”

Eiji nodded, resting his head against Ash’s shoulder. The soup was burning in his hands.

He loved Ash. So much that when he looked at him, sat against the subway wall, he thought his chest would burst.

Eiji would protect him. He had to.

No matter what.

Chapter Text

11

Max found them almost immediately. Ash didn’t even know how he found them. Maybe he was something of a journalist after all.

“Ash.”

He wanted to say something clever. Something witty that would make Max smirk instead of staring at him with that panicked, worried look in his eyes. He hated that look. It stirred something into anger deep within him, but he wasn’t sure what.

“Yeah,” was all he said, stepping back inside to let Max in and mostly collapsing onto the battered sofa. He missed the old apartment. He missed the space and the new furniture and the fresh air and Eiji standing in it all. It had been like a glimpse into a past life – a life he could have had – a life he kidded himself he had so many times. Now it was bare and cold and Eiji didn’t fit in here.

“Stupid question,” Max nudged the door closed with his foot and sat next to Ash. It made the whole couch bounce. “Are you okay?”

Ash shrugged. “Stupid answer – no.”

“Do you want to be touched right now?” Max only had to glance at Ash’s raised eyebrow to understand what he was saying. “I’ve been – reading up on dealing with this, and how people deal with it and – I know you might not want to be touched, but I-“ he paused. He wasn’t looking at Ash, his fists clenching and unclenching in his lap. “I want to hug you. I want to be able to cover you up completely and hide you away from everyone until – until this all goes away.”

He stared at him, his brain and his mouth trying to come up with some response. He had to respond to this. He couldn’t. His heart might not have even been beating, for all he knew in that moment. So, instead, he sloped against Max’s shoulder. A sigh came out of him that lasted for what felt like an eternity.

It had only just hit him that he was safe. That it was all over. Safe. For now.

Max stayed still against him, still waiting for his response.

“It’s okay,” Ash said. His voice was low. Monotone. It was like he was exhausted. He was exhausted. “I mean – I think, I don’t know. No one’s asked.”

“I guess not, huh?” Max muttered. He placed a tentative hand on Ash’s shoulder. After a moment, his thumb started rubbing in circles. “Eiji says you’re sick.”

“He’s been telling tales on me now?” Ash wanted to sound light-hearted, but his voice cracked and went raspy. He swallowed. It didn’t help. “Acute anorexia. That’s what the doctor said.”

“You stopped eating?” Max’s voice was a solid hum. Ash didn’t look at him, he stared at the floor.

“I didn’t mean to – I wasn’t trying to off myself or anything. My body just stopped working,” a strange sound came from the back of his throat – a ghoul’s laugh. “Isn’t that ironic? The one thing he liked about me stopped working.”

“What was different this time?”

“He wanted me to work for him – like, work work. Business meetings and computers,” Ash took a long rattling breath, sounding like a bag of bones. He was a bag of bones. “I forgot who I was.”

Max was quiet, his thumb still drawing circles on Ash’s shoulder.

“You’ve been so strong,” he said, and Ash wasn’t sure if he was supposed to hear it. “You’re braver than me, for sure. You’ve been through more horrors than me and your brother combined and you’re a lot stronger than both of us.”

“Bullshit.”

“If you say so,” Max said. He shifted, so that he could look at Ash’s face. Ash didn’t move. He didn’t think he could. He felt dimly aware of Max cuffing at his eyes, wiping away tears he couldn’t even feel. His cheeks tingled.

“I lost it,” Ash said. “I completely lost it. Don’t even remember what I was saying – not really – shit about toilets and – the way he looked at me. He was so utterly disgusted by me that I couldn’t stop laughing because that’s what he created. And I couldn’t stop and I hated myself and I wanted to stop – I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t – I couldn’t even remember my own name.”

He was starting to cough, barely able to get the words out, but they had to go. They had to leave.

 “I’m sorry,” Max swallowed heavily. “I couldn’t do anything to help you. I’ve never been able to keep you safe.”

“Not your fault,” Ash’s voice was hardly more than a whisper. It felt like he’d used it all up.

“I should have checked up on you after Griffin – I should have made sure you were okay.”

“You wouldn’t have found me. You didn’t even know who I was until I said.”

“I would have found you, kiddo. I’m a journalist.”

“And what would you have done? Charged into his mansion all by yourself?”

Max was silent, even his thumb stopped moving on Ash’s hoodie. He stayed quiet for a long time, but his arm was still around Ash and he still felt safe. Was this what it was meant to be like to have a dad? To have someone looking after him?

“Will you be able to eat something now? If I get you something?” Max asked quietly.

Ash shrugged against him.

“I don’t want to put you in the hospital – it’d be too dangerous,” Max continued. He paused, then said the magic words. “Eiji wouldn’t want to either.”

“I know,” Ash said. He gritted his jaw – it was hardly his choice anymore, but no one seemed to understand that. He didn’t even understand that. “I can manage soup – tinned soup – I guess.”

“Now?” Max stood – ready to help. He was always so ready to help, even if it meant giving up everything. Even if it meant giving up everything so Ash could protect the boy he loved. The eagerness – the thought – turned Ash’s stomach. No, he couldn’t eat anything.

Ash shrugged. His lips twitched. “Now? I could go for a cigarette?”

“Cigarettes make you lose your appetite,” but Max was fishing one out of his pocket, just to hold in his mouth.

“So? What’s the harm now?”

“You’re not funny.”

“Then why are you smiling?”

“Because,” Max paused and looked at him with that dad smile – all crinkled, sparkly eyes – then ruffled Ash’s hair with a large hand. “You’re back to being you.”

“A sarcastic little shit?” Ash leant back on his hands, his hair falling into his eyes. He grinned and hoped he looked like a normal teenager taking the mickey. That was what he wanted to be – not the other stuff.

“Yeah, basically.”

Ash scoffed. Then he bit his lip. He didn’t want to say it – he used to think that he’d rather die than say it to Max. But he didn’t feel like complete and utter shit, and that was partly – if he was going to do this then he had to only use ‘partly’ – because of Max. Because if Max had known, he would have tried to find him. It didn’t matter that he wouldn’t have been able to do anything, because he had appeared within twenty-four hours at Ash’s door. So, he had to say it, however much it might hurt.

“Hey, Max?” he waited until the man turned to him and gave his lip a final bite. “Thanks.”

He had been expecting just a snippet of gratitude or maybe even a little surprise. As sickening as a heartfelt moment would have been, he supposed he could have dealt with it.

Instead, Max leant towards him, a hand cupped around his ear.

“What’s that?” he asked. “I couldn’t quite hear you.”

“I said ‘fuck you.’”

“That’s what I thought,” Max was grinning now, the cigarette still balanced in his mouth.

“I don’t know why I let you in.”

“Because I’m going to make you tinned soup – just how Eiji does,” he was rifling through their cupboards. It was all tinned foods and stuff that couldn’t go off. Stuff that didn’t require a lot of effort to make.

“How’d you know Eiji did that?”

“Because it was the only thing you’d eat,” Max put the tin down on the counter with a loud clink. “And you just told me. Journalist, remember.”

Ash frowned at him. He hated being so easy to read – hated how it was so obvious how much he treasured Eiji. Max annoyed him when he was like that.

But he knew just how to annoy Max.

“Are you going to make sure I eat every last mouthful like a good boy, dad?” he smiled sweetly, catching Max’s wince.

“You bet,” Max flicked the hob on and lit his cigarette off of it, still grinning.

Ash sighed, fighting back the urge to smile. He couldn’t let Max win – he wouldn’t smile. He would smirk and snicker and snort but he wouldn’t give him a smile. However much he felt like it.

Because, just for a moment, it all felt normal. For a moment, Ash had a glimpse into a different life where Max was the one who had brought him up. Where Max was a dad – and a good one, in his own way - and Ash was still Aslan.

He supposed it wouldn’t be that bad.

It wouldn’t be that bad at all.

*

Eiji was starting to hate shrimp and avocado. He was starting to hate tinned soup.

But they were the two things Ash seemed to be eating and managing to keep down, so he had to manage. He had begun to buy ramen instead, the cheap kind that he could shove in a microwave. It wasn’t ramen, not even close, but he could smirk as Ash and say “well, you didn’t like Japanese food the last you tried it.”

It was strange seeing Ash sat in the hideaway again. The last time he had seen Ash had been their apartment. A nice, clean apartment with beautiful views and new furniture. An apartment that didn’t have teenagers slipping in and out all the time. An apartment where they could afford to pay for heating and electric. He suspected Ash still could now, but it was hard to pay bills in cash.

Not a lot of the others had money. What they did have, they used to eat, not to pay for Eiji’s electricity. It wasn’t important, they said. Money was for food or making deals. It was something to be hoarded away – for getaway flights or buses – to pay back the right person at the right time.

But Eiji remembered when a bullet had shattered their window and skimmed his arm, like fire against his skin. Their light had been on.

Ash didn’t even like candles lit without the curtains closed.

He was more on edge now. It was like he expected assassins around every corner. That was the way he used to be, but he didn’t hold himself with that same confidence anymore. Something had changed. He was wounded, in some way.

So Eiji would nurse him back to the sarcastic, cocky boy that he had first met in New York. He’d get Ash’s laugh back. He had to, before Ash climbed up his proverbial snowy mountain and stayed there.

"We need to talk," Ash’s voice rang out in the dark. Eiji had been lying on his side, wondering if it looked like he was asleep, as Ash worked his way through a bowl of soup. It was easier without anybody watching, he said.

"Yeah,” Eiji dragged out the word, not moving. He had sensed this. There had been something in the air for the last couple of days. Something rippling under the surface that he didn’t want to expose. “I guess we do."

"You ran off." Ash’s voice was quiet. “You drew their fire.”

"Of all the things, you want to talk about that?"

"You could have been shot,” Ash still sounded calm. The kind of calm that unnerved Eiji. “Again, might I add-"

"You could have too!" Eiji sat up then, staring at Ash’s silhouette in the dark.

"That's different.”

"Because you're superhuman?"

"Because I don't matter,” Ash’s voice was numb and he was still unmoving. It made Eiji’s insides feel cold and he was slipping out of his bed before he could stop himself, the wooden floor cold underneath his feet.

"You matter to me!" the words seemed to echo in the small, dark room. "Can't you see that? What would I do if you got shot and killed?”

He could feel Ash’s penetrating stare on him in the darkness and a part of him was almost surprised his eyes didn’t glow in the dark, like a cat’s. The silence dragged on and Eiji’s words seemed to ring in his ears. They didn’t seem to be enough – didn’t seem to sum up everything he felt.

"You'd go back to Japan and be safe,” Ash said slowly. “You'd live a safe, happy life and I would be a story for you to tell your grandchildren."

"Grandchildren?" despite his pounding heart, Eiji found himself pausing. He stood at the foot of Ash’s bed, staring at his shape.

"Of course - You'd move on and find a wife within a couple of years,” he could see Ash leaning backwards on his arms – practically see his teeth glinting in the darkness.

"Me? A wife?” Eiji’s lips curled upwards. He sat down, because he didn’t think his legs would support him anymore. “Calm down there, Jack Twist. I'd live by myself in a caravan."

"I wouldn't want that for you,” his voice was even smaller this time.

"Then don't die on me," he shifted, so that he was sitting cross legged on the bed, facing Ash. "How many times do I have to tell you that I'm going to stay at your side?"

"At least once more?"

"I'm not going anywhere, Ash,” Eiji’s voice didn’t even shake this time. He whispered those extra three words in the dark, because even in this gloom, Ash wouldn’t be able to see his face.

“Shit,” he heard Ash’s whisper and the bed bobbed up and down as he moved clumsily. “Come here-“

Ash’s hands found Eiji’s shoulders, pulling him towards him so that his face was buried in Ash’s chest. He still didn’t smell quite like Ash used to. He smelt of those rooms and suddenly Shorter was dying right in front of Eiji again. He wrapped his arms around Ash’s neck as tightly as they would go, closing his eyes as though it would make the memories disappear.

He felt Ash’s fingers run over his back and bury themselves in his hair. Searching. It felt like he was searching for something.

Eiji took a breath, trying to ease the hot ball of pain that had found its way into his throat, then he stopped clinging to Ash like a life-raft. His hands took Ash’s in his own, guiding them to hold his face. That was it, Ash’s fingers spread over his cheeks as though his hands were a butterfly, his thumbs twitching slightly.

“I’m here,” Eiji whispered. “I’m right here.”

“I thought I wouldn’t see you again,” Ash whispered. “When you ran off – I swear I could see the bullets ripping through you.”

“No one hurt me, Ash,” Eiji swallowed. “I had to be the one to draw their fire. I couldn’t let you do it. You weren’t-“

“Myself?” Ash let the word hang between them. He pressed his forehead against Eiji’s and Eiji closed his eyes. Then it could be just the two of them and nothing else. “Does it bother you? To see me like this?”

“Bother isn’t the right word,” Eiji sighed, trying to collect his thoughts. He tangled his hand in the hair at the nape of Ash’s neck. It had gotten longer. “It – I’m worried about you. You were sick and I want you to get better.”

“I will get better,” Ash was holding Eiji as though he was the last thing in the world. “Now that I have you, I’ll get better.” He kissed the corner of Eiji’s mouth, almost like he was scared about what he would find there. “Shit, your mouth is soft.”

He kissed Eiji again and something inside his chest released. A little ball of tension just disappeared and he had missed kissing Ash. He had missed kissing Ash so much. He savoured the taste of his lips.

“You never used to do that,” Eiji murmured.

"What?" Ash’s lips moved lazily over Eiji’s. He could still make him melt so easily.

"Cuss."

"I didn't – not in front of you,” Ash’s hands traced through Eiji’s hair. “Things have changed."

“I’ve changed, you mean,” Eiji whispered.

“Not really,” Ash’s mouth moved to Eiji’s jaw, his breath warm. “You’re still – you.”

“And you’re still you,” Eiji shuffled on the bed, so that he was sat in Ash’s lap, pressing their cheeks together. He planted a kiss against Ash’s cheek – it was starting to feel rough. He didn’t have Eiji’s baby face, and Eiji smiled at the thought of Ash with stubble. Yeah, then he would be an action hero. The thought made him brave – brave enough to press his mouth against the corner of Ash’s jaw, just below his earlobe. That was when he noticed.

“No earring,” he murmured.

“What?”

“Last time – you came back with an earring.”

“You noticed, huh?” Ash sounded disinterested, his mouth trailing down Eiji’s jaw. His tongue peeked out just enough to send a ripple through Eiji’s stomach. “Did you like it?”

“Honestly?”

“Honestly.”

“It reminded me of the tag they put on sheep.”

Ash laughed, a breathless chuckle against the sensitive skin on Eiji’s neck, his hands were on his lower back and he pulled him closer. “Charming.”

“Now, if you’d gone and gotten it done yourself – that would be a different story,” he leant into Ash, tilting his head upwards to give him better access.

“Oh yeah?”

“It’d be hot,” Eiji was feeling hot. Ash holding him like this made him feel incredibly warm, even though it was always freezing in the apartment now.

 “I’m not hot enough for you now?”

“Mmm,” Eiji made a non-committal noise and he felt Ash smile against his neck. He wished he could see him. He couldn’t wait for it to start getting light, because he never got bored of looking at him.

“Do you really not think I'm attractive?” Ash pulled away slightly, as though he would be able to see Eiji in the dark. Someone like Yut Lung would probably say that he could – there was that whole extended cat metaphor. It was complete nonsense to Eiji.

“Ash – Ash you're gorgeous-“ Eiji tried to cup Ash’s face, but he only seemed to be able to find hair in the dark. “I didn't think you wanted to hear it.”

“Maybe from you,” Ash turned his head, catching Eiji’s hand and running his mouth over his palm.

“You’re gorgeous, okay?” Eiji whispered. “You’re – you look like a painting or something.  But that's not why I like you Ash - I love the way you light up when you laugh. I love hearing your laugh. And the way your eyes light up when you smile. God, Ash, I the way you sound when you call me ‘sweetie’ – I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of that.”

“Sweetie,” Ash spoke into Eiji’s hand as though it was a secret password. It worked – Eiji melted into him, his forehead bumping against Ash’s. “God, I missed you so much.”

“I missed you too,” Eiji wound himself tighter around Ash. “So much.”

Ash was falling backward and he was taking an entangled Eiji with him. He turned as he hit the bed, so that they were lying next to each other. Eiji wasn’t sure if Ash would even be able to hold his weight now. But he liked lying there, encircled by his warmth in the dark.

“Shit, Eiji, when you were standing there – with Blanca, I-“ he could hear Ash swallow and pressed the tips of his fingers to the other boy’s mouth.

“I knew it would work out okay,” Eiji whispered. “You were there and you were you and I knew it would all be fine. And it is. It is fine, Ash. Stop thinking about what could have happened – it didn’t, so it’s all-“

“Sweetheart,” Ash pulled Eiji closer to him – so close that he could barely breathe.  “I get it. I’ll stop, okay?”

Eiji nodded, tucking himself against Ash. He felt him breathlessly chuckle against the top of his head. He couldn’t tell where he ended and Ash began.

He couldn’t get that image of Ash in that wheelchair out of his mind. That was when he hadn’t looked like Ash. With his hair tamed back and that dead look in his eyes. He looked like a strange. A very sad stranger.

But then he had heard Eiji. Eiji had only said one word – he had only said ‘freeze’ – but Ash’s eyes had suddenly lit up. The stranger slipped back into Ash Lynx.

At the museum, he was back to himself. When he stood there with a gun against Yut Lung, that had been Ash Lynx. There was green fire in his eyes. Greek fire was green, Eiji remembered. That was where Ash looked complete, with a gun in his hands.

At least, he used to. But – before he had disappeared, that had started to change. He had started to look comfortable when he was looking at Eiji. Like when a cat squinted its eyes with affection. It was like he looked at Eiji and he was home.

Or maybe Eiji just looked at Ash and felt like he was at home. Here, lying beside him, he felt comfortable. Wonderfully comfortable.

He closed his eyes, burying himself against Ash’s chest. Ash’s arms tightened around him and he sighed. He hadn’t realised the pressure that had been building up in him this last month. Now it was all washing off of him.

Ash’s thumbs were rubbing circles against his back, like he couldn’t sit still. Eiji suspected that he wasn’t able to sleep. He was probably scared that Eiji would disappear if he closed his eyes. 

That wouldn’t happen, Eiji promised himself. It would never happen again.

*

Each morning was the same. Each morning he lay in the dark, morning light and was sure that he had dreamt it all. The rescue had been a dream and Eiji wasn’t real.

But each morning he cracked open his eyes and saw the same peeling wallpaper and chipped wooden floors. Each morning every part of him sung with the relief of it all. He was home. He was with Eiji.

He hadn’t wanted to fall asleep – he never did now. He had spent too much time sleeping lately, because sleeping had been the only way to escape. It was an old relief, one that he thought he didn’t need anymore. He had been safe, he hadn’t needed to retreat into that since he had left. What he had really wanted was to stay up with Eiji.

Eiji was half awake now, his eyelashes fluttering. He could see a crescent moon of dark brown.

It wasn’t quite light outside yet. It made Eiji’s skin look darker and his hair seem almost purple. It was shiny and Ash ran his fingers through it. It felt like silk.

Eiji’s mouth twitched upwards. His eyes were on his hands, still clutching Ash’s shirt. They really hadn’t moved all night. They had just passed out. He was sure that wasn’t normal – that it probably had a lot to say about his mental state. He didn’t care to hear it.

"Ash?" Eiji murmured. He was still half asleep – when he was half asleep he said Ash’s name in Japanese. He said ‘Ashu.’ It made his heart jump. He couldn’t remember anyone else making his heart leap in quite the same way.

"Mm?" he waited, his fingers still weaving their way through Eiji’s hair. "What?" Eiji still wasn’t looking at him. He was playing with handfuls of Ash’s t-shirt. "What is it, Eiji?"

Eiji paused for a moment more. "I don't know how to ask."

"Spit it out,” Ash said.

"I want to-" Eiji stopped, sighed. He bit his lip. "Can we-"

"What?"

"Why haven't we had sex yet?" Eiji’s voice was tiny. Ash wondered for a moment if he had even spoken or if it had been his own conscious niggling at him.

He didn’t want to leave it sitting in the air, but he took a moment to gather himself. “What?"

"I guess - I know and it's a stupid question, because – obviously…” Eiji trailed off. “But-"

"How long have you been thinking about it?" Ash spoke carefully, as though he was walking across a bog and one wrong step would leave him waist deep in mud.

Eiji shrugged. He had ducked his head so far into his chest that he could only see the top of his head.

"Do you want to?" Ash pressed, but it felt like there was a weight on his chest. His intestines felt as though they’d turned into a pit of snakes.

The silence dragged out again. Eiji leant closer to Ash, as though he was admitting a horrible secret. "A little."

"Just a little?" It was mean, Ash knew, to press him like this, but a small part of him had to know. No, a large part of him. He had to know.

He shrugged again, looking too small for someone a year older than him. "A fair bit."

"Why?"

"Because, I don't know - I'm not some - some virgin-"

"Are you a virgin?" Ash had to know. He didn’t know why – he hated it – but he had to know.

"Well, yeah,” Eiji huffed. This probably wasn’t going how he wanted it to. “But that's not - you treat me like this fragile little thing that's going to break. I'm not, Ash."

He sounded so certain. And yet there was a scar on his shoulder because of Ash. He had caught a fever because of Ash. He had been so close to breaking already.

Of course he was fragile.

Maybe fragile wasn’t the right word. He was different to Ash – he hadn’t been through what he had. Just in the last few months, Ash felt like he’d been through more. He felt like he’d been through more that would break Eiji-

But Eiji had been the one pointing the gun at the party. He had been the one in the underground running off with all the confidence Ash had. Used to have. Would have again.

They had wanted to take Eiji. Way back, at the beginning of Summer, they had wanted to make Eiji into him. Maybe that was when it had started, this fear.

That was when it was started, Ash told himself. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, that was the root of the problem.

"I don't want to - corrupt you, or something,” he managed to get out, because there was just too much going on in his head.

It surprised him so much that he pulled away when Eiji started laughing. Giggling really, a hand pressed to his mouth to stifle it. He looked up at Ash, his eyes creased and his smile escaping from his hand like he couldn’t hold it all in. He looked like the picture of innocence.

"Sorry - sorry, it's just - geez, Ash - that's such a load of nonsense."

"It's not bullshit,” Ash snapped. His arms were still loosely draped around Eiji, hanging numbly in the space between them. “I'm all - well, dirty, and you're-"

"You realise your life isn't a novel, right?” Eiji said. The smile faded from his face, and he pressed a hand to Ash’s cheek. His hands were cold. He was cold, Ash knew, and he should start paying for the heating. “You're not corrupted, Ash. You're not going to drag me down and sully my innocence – crap, even just saying it, that sounds so gross - life isn't like that. You're not some English, Victorian woman who's had sex before marriage and I’m not some – some perfect little Jane Eyre. You're you."

"Drag you down?" Ash felt lie the words were hitting him five seconds after Eiji had said them. There was too much to process – to much to unpack – and he couldn’t deal with that. It went so against everything that had been building up in the past couple of months. He didn’t know how to process that.

Eiji’s voice was still quiet. A different kind of quiet – gentle. "I don't want to be your Daisy, Ash. I'm not an ideal."

"You're not an ideal,” he repeated, numbly.

"I'm just Eiji."

"Eiji," Ash trailed off. He could say that name forever. He loved the way it came from his mouth. He loved saying it and seeing Eiji turn around. He was more than just Eiji. He was the boy he was in love with and Ash was starting to believe that you couldn’t be in love with someone and have ‘just’ before their name. Eiji was Eiji.

A thought occurred to him. A thought that made his insides squirm, like slugs away from salt. "You're saying you want to do it now?"

"Isn't the mood kind of ruined?" There was a small smile on the Japanese boy’s face.

Ash laughed, then. It sounded too harsh when there were pigeons cooing outside the window.

"Are you – in the mood?" he asked.

"Are you?" Eiji replied. He stared at Ash. He was holding his breath like he was scared of the answer. “Ash?”

"I don't know if I'm ever in the mood, sweetie.” Ash’s voice was tired. He hated that. It wasn’t what Eiji wanted to hear. To make up for it, he shifted, so that he was over Eiji, his knees pressing against Eiji’s hips and his hands either side of his head. "I can bring it back for you, though.”

He hooked a finger under Eiji’s chin, feeling a smirk on his face when those starry eyes met his. He watched Eiji – with more intensity than he thought he’d ever watched anyone – as he slipped a hand under Eiji’s shirt. His breath caught and he looked like a deer in the headlights, shivering when the tips of Ash’s fingers ran up his side.

The look on his face. He was scared. He was seeing something on Ash’s face that scared him. The thought made Ash pause. In that moment, Eiji’s hand was on his wrist, stopping him, tugging his shirt back into place.

"No, Ash, not like that," Eiji whispered. “I want you to be you.”

“This is me.” Ash said.

“No, sweetie. No, it’s not.” Eiji’s fingers trailed down Ash’s chest and his eyes followed the movement. He gave Ash a light push – Ash knew it was meant to be light, but he still wavered. “Let’s just – let’s just leave it for now.”

“No,” Ash said, automatically. He managed to stay where he was. “If you want to – if you want to have-“ he swallowed. He couldn’t believe that he couldn’t say the word. “We can. We will. Just give me a moment-“

“Don’t force yourself,” Eiji frowned. He pushed at Ash’s chest again. His eyes were so soft – so understanding. “It’s okay – really – Ash, it’s fine.”

“I want to,” Ash insisted. Ash lied. “If you want to.”

“It’s fine.” Eiji pushed again and Ash finally gave way. He sat up on the bed, running his hands through his hair.

He pulled his hair back so tightly that it hurt. He thought it would be fine – with Eiji, everything would be fine. Like it was in Summer. But he was getting that sick feeling again. He hated it – he hated how it couldn’t be normal for him. He was broken and he didn’t know if even Eiji was able to fix him this time.

“Do you – do you want to talk?” Eiji’s voice sounded fair away.

Ash shook his head. It made the room spin.

“I don’t feel good.”

“I’m sorry – it’s my-“

“Stop apologising.”

“I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“I shouldn’t be being such a baby about it.”

“You’re not. Don’t be silly.” Eiji had sat up too, still tangled in the duvet. His hand was hovering near Ash. “Are you okay to be touched?”

“I don’t know,” Ash whispered. “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

Eiji didn’t reply, but Ash couldn’t hear his breath. He could feel the rickety mattress shaking underneath him.

He forced himself to breathe – keep breathing, because now he had a reason to – and look at Eiji. He had a hand over his mouth, trying to stifle any sound. His eyes were damp, unshed tears sparkling in the not quite morning light. And that was because of Ash. Guilt went through him like a spear because of that.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He opened his arms. “Come here, sweetie.”

Eiji half-fell against him, like a child. He buried his head into Ash’s neck, his body limp as he folded into him, clutching handfuls of his t-shirt. Ash stroked Eiji’s hair down – it was sticking up like a bird’s nest. He loved Eiji’s hair. He loved Eiji. Why couldn’t he be there for him? Why couldn’t he do this one little thing?

He closed his eyes. Eiji was here and it was okay. He was far away from all of that now. He could relax.

“Did I scare you?” he whispered.

Eiji pulled away enough to see him, wiggling to put a hand on Ash’s face. His thumb traced over Ash’s cheekbone.

“Never ever,” he said. “You could never scare me, Ash.”

His mouth twitched.

“I’ll rephrase – did I worry you?”

“No more than usual,” Eiji said. His lashes flickered as he glanced down to Ash’s mouth. He could read his mind – sense the hesitation.

He kissed him. Quickly and chastely. Eiji still had his eyes closed when he pulled away, his eyelashes casting shadows down his cheeks. Ash ran his thumb under those shadows, revelling in the feeling of Eiji’s skin.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“No,” Eiji’s eyes were still closed and he leant into Ash’s touch. “You have nothing to be sorry for. I started it and I should have known – I should have thought about you.”

“If you – Eiji, if you really want to go for it-“

“This is good enough.”

He smiled at Ash with eyes full of constellations. A tear finally escaped and Ash wiped it away. He felt like making a wish – like it was some kind of good luck charm. He couldn’t think how on earth he was so lucky. But he was.

He was so so lucky to have Eiji.

And one day he would repay him for that.

Chapter Text

12

“Hey.” Ash leant against the wall, his hands in his pockets as though this was a casual thing. As though he hadn’t spent the last ten minutes talking to Cain but glancing at her out of the corner of his eye. This was spontaneous – a ‘oh, hey, whilst you’re here,’ thing.

Because he had to say something. It was his fault that they had dragged her down here. That her life was in danger.

Jessica glanced up at him. God, she looked tired. She looked drained. It was the look of someone who had been very afraid for days but was trying to hold it together – now she was being torn apart from the inside. Ash had grown out of that a long time ago. Now that was second nature.

She wasn’t sat on one of the saggy, stained sofas they had pilfered from back alleys. She was perched on top of a wooden crate instead. Ash suspected Cain had stolen it, and that it was full of firearms. When had the thought of a gun fight started twisting his stomach? Was that what it was like for everyone? Before now, he hadn’t felt anything at the prospect of a shoot-out.

Then again, before now, he had nothing to lose.

He blinked, pulling himself back to the hideout. It was loud – it was always loud just before action was about to happen. Nerves leapt in the air and were infectious. Everyone was trying to hide it – to be just a little jollier to compensate for the gnawing in their stomach. If it was going to be their last day, they’d have to make it a good one.

If it was going to be his last day, he had to say it. Like a confessional.

 “Max,” he said. Then realised that he had to expand on it. “He’s – he’s a good man. He’s a good…”

Jessica’s eyebrows were raised. She waited patiently for him, then filled in the word when it died on his tongue. “Dad?”

“Mm,” Ash nodded. He couldn’t remember the last time he had said that word in earnest.

“How would you know?” Jessica’s tone wasn’t cold – but it was certainly impassive. She had a point, whether she knew it or not – what would Ash knew? What kind of father figures had he grown up with? Well, he supposed Blanca could have been worse. And Max was better than him.

But Jessica was probably talking about something else. She was probably talking about the fact that Ash had no idea what Max had actually been like as a father. He had no idea, really, why Max and Jessica’s relationship had fallen apart. At least he knew what Max was like now.

“He’s been pretending to be my father for months now,” he explained, and have a wry smile. “Good old dad.” Jessica didn’t return the smile. He ran a hand through his hair instead. This was weird – a woman shouldn’t make him this nervous. “Look – he – he did me a solid, okay? A lot of solids actually. He’s been – really…”

“You don’t have to tell me he’s a good man.” Jessica finally took her steely gaze off of him, resting her chin on her hands. Her eyes were on the others. For once, no one was arguing. They were leaning back on the sofas, laughing about something. Someone had gotten a pack of cards out.

“But I do.” Ash tore his gaze away from the group. Suddenly he was angry – angry with her for not seeing it – angry with her for not listening to him – or deliberately trying to misunderstand him. “You have to know – he – he was ready to give up everything for me. For me to do something stupid, actually – something really stupid to save Eiji. And he gave up all his research for that.”

Jessica was silent for a moment. Her lips quirked upwards. “You really like him, don’t you?”

“Max?” Ash ran his hand through his hair again. “Yeah, but don’t tell him, okay?”

“I’m not talking about Max.”

Ash flicked his gaze over to the guys again – following her gaze. Eiji was laughing about something Soo-Ling said. He felt a flicker of something in his gut – not the usual warmth he felt when he looked at Eiji. It wasn’t a feeling he liked. It wasn’t a feeling he thought he’d ever develop. Jealousy.

He pushed it away, wondering instead if he was so easy to read. If he was, no wonder everyone kept targeting Eiji. He had basically put glowing signs around him that cried out ‘I’m Ash’s weak point!’

 “He deserves another chance,” he said instead. He wasn’t here to talk about Eiji.

“Young man, I don’t think it’s any of your business.”

He was tempted to laugh. ‘Young man.’ No one called him that. Instead, he shrugged “Everything is everyone’s business around here.”

It came with the territory, he wanted to add. When you lived on the streets like this, you relied on each other with a different kind of bond. Because they weren’t adults – they only vaguely knew how to do adult stuff, so they had to take it in turns to take care of each other. Because half the time the other boys would fall asleep in a pile like meerkats because that helped them sleep. Because the blood of the convent is thicker than the water of the womb so of course everyone knew everything. Almost like instinct.

It had enticed Ash. That bond. He had wanted that bond. But there was always a distance because he was a leader and didn’t share much and there was no way he was about to sleep like a meerkat. Well, he couldn’t. The thought of it made him sweaty and itchy and vaguely sick – all those bodies, so close to each other.

Eiji he could deal with, because Eiji was Eiji. Because he kept his distance until he knew it was okay – until Ash told him it was okay.

“Including your business?” Jessica asked. Under the wry indifference, she had such a careful tone. Like she was scared she would say or do the wrong thing and make him snarl and run away.

Ash paused, letting his converses slip on the floor until he could plop himself onto the floor beside her. “Including mine.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything that’s happened to you-“

“Max has been telling tales on me?” he asked, trying to smirk. Trying to keep it all light, because if it wasn’t, then he would break. He felt like glass being blown – he was barrelling towards shattering and he couldn’t afford that. He couldn’t afford to break down right now, and certainly not in front of her.

“-He mentioned a few things.” Jessica was tugging on a stray thread in her jeans. He wondered what this must be like for her – leaving such a idealistic life to come and squat with a bunch of teenagers. Teenagers who lived on the street and thought gang wars were normal. “I think – it wasn’t so much to do with you, but I think he needed to tell someone. To let it all out.”

Well, didn’t that just make him feel so much worse. He really was a burden to everyone. Ash didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Instead, he just pulled his knees to his chest, watching Eiji instead. Eiji, chatting to Cain Blood like his reputation didn’t matter, smiling and laughing and winning everyone’s hearts.

“Of course,” Jessica was still talking. Why was she still talking? Ash had half a mind to stalk off. “It was probably in case this is all a suicide mission.” Ash stayed silent. Once again, she had hit the nail on the head – the reason everyone was so fidgety about the details. “No matter what, he wants your story to be told. For people to come to justice for it.”

Court justice seemed like a load of bullshit, Ash wanted to say. Court justice wasn’t about to change anything – not with Golzine’s money and influence. Men like that didn’t stay in the system long.

And Ash had met the same kind in his brief jail stint. It was just as bad as on the outside.

Justice for men like that, it only came in the form of a bullet through their skull. There was only one way to deal with a mad dog.

But he didn’t say any of it. He didn’t think Jessica wanted to hear that. Her eyes would soften and she’d put her head to the side and tell him ‘oh no, honey.’ She would pity that he believed that. Not for one instant would she think that he was right – he would just be the broken boy with such a horrible world view.

He wondered if Eiji would understand. He thought he would. He would probably still get that sad look on his face, but it would be distant and withdrawn. He would probably suck in a long breath through his teeth and say ‘the world’s pretty awful, right?’

“This is all hard, isn’t it?” she was still talking. Ash figured that she was the one who had to unload now. “When people you love are involved?”

He had an answer for that one – an answer she’d want to hear, anyway.

“Yeah. Yeah it is.”

And suddenly there was a drop in his stomach. Eiji wasn’t in the crowd. He had disappeared from sight. The realisation made his stomach tighten and he couldn’t breathe. Where was he? Surely he knew better than to wander off alone.

The next moment he had found him – mainly because suddenly he couldn’t breathe because he was being pulled upwards and – and there was Eiji. Eiji carrying him like a bride and smiling that perfect smile.

It dropped quickly when he saw Ash’s expression.

“I’m so sorry – did I scare you?”

Ash took a moment – he needed a moment for his heart to unclench. He felt weightless, being held like this, but in a good way. Like Eiji could protect him from anything. It was a fantasy he would love to indulge in.

So he wrapped his arms around Eiji and smiled. A genuine smile, tipping his head down and looking up at Eiji in a way he knew made him flustered.

“You could never scare me.”

Eiji laughed then – and there was that blush because he couldn’t meet Ash’s eyes. He was aware that Jessica had moved over, enough to give them room, but she was still watching. He glanced at her expression – amusement. Well, that was a lot better than pity.

“I was just trying to sweep you off your feet,” Eiji said, slightly apologetically. “I told you I could do it.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re very strong.” He wanted to knock his forehead against Eiji’s, but he was sure everyone else was watching. He wasn’t sure why that made his skin crawl – they weren’t a judgemental group. But this seemed private and – just something that he didn’t want anyone else to see. “Now put me down.”

“Hmmm…” Eiji looked up in mock thought, hitching Ash back up in his arms. Warm arms, despite the chill in the air. “Now I think that requires something special.”

“Someone’s getting bold,” Ash said, because the quickest way to get Eiji flustered was to show him affection in a room full of people.

But Eiji shrugged and smiled – all pink cheeks and sparkly eyes. A prince from a fairy tale.

Did Ash deserve a fairy Godmother? He wasn’t sure. He knew this was the nerves in the air and Eiji pretending that everything was fine. Overcompensating because he was scared. The nerves making him bolder.

Well fine. Ash put a hand to Eiji’s face and kissed his cheek. He let the tips of his fingers run down the side of Eiji’s face as he felt himself lowered to the ground. Then he was standing back in front of Eiji. And his hand was still on Eiji’s shoulder and Eiji’s hands were on his waist and maybe if this was a high school prom they would be slow dancing. Homecoming King and Queen with everyone watching.

He wasn’t sure if anyone was watching. Eiji took up the whole world, with eyes that said ‘please don’t die.’ Eyes that said ‘I love you,’ even if neither of them had managed to say it out loud yet.

‘I love you, please don’t die,’ Eiji’s gaze said.

He always had a way of convincing Ash.

*

He had had no intention of talking to Blanca when he swung into the car, slamming the door shut with more force than was needed to. He shrugged out of the doctor’s coat, throwing it onto the back without even looking.

Ash’s heart was still hammering in his chest and he felt feverish. He could still see Eiji’s face – even with his eyes open. Eiji telling – yelling at him to go. Before he got caught. Because even though he had been shot, he just wanted to make sure that Ash was okay. All that mattered to him was that Ash was safe.

Well, he wasn’t going to be. If he had got caught at the hospital, he wouldn’t be driving into a trap. He knew it would be a trap and one that he probably wasn’t going to walk away from.

If he was caught, he would have been held up. He didn’t know how the rescue mission would go without him, but he figured he’d still be alive by tomorrow morning. If they could untangle him from the legal mess surrounding him – would he be getting on that plane with Eiji?

Because Eiji was going.

And Ash was just meant to let him? That is, if he didn’t crash and burn.

He had every intention of crashing and burning.

It was then that he realised that they hadn’t even started driving. Ash pulled his hand from his hair, glancing across at Blanca. His eyes were on Ash. Concerned eyes. That twisted his stomach.

“How did it go?” he asked. Calmly. Calm and concerned. Ash hated that.

“Can you just drive, please?” Ash said and, immediately when Blanca opened his mouth added, “Don’t. I’m paying you to drive.”

Blanca held up his hands for a moment, but did start the car, turning them out of the road. He was driving, but he was still talking.

“So, not good?”

Ash hated him. But he swallowed and kept talking. Who knew how much longer he had left? Better let someone know what was going through his mind. At least, if Blanca pulled through, he would be able to pass the message onto Eiji.

“I wanted to tell him what you said. That he wasn’t my salvation. I wanted to hear what he’d say to that,” he said. He kept his eyes on the road in front of them. New York streets were never quiet, but they weren’t gridlocked at this time of night.

“What do you think he’d say?”

“That it was bullshit.” And Ash found himself smiling. He couldn’t think of Eiji and not smile. “He wouldn’t use that word. He’d say nonsense, or something. He once told me that my life wasn’t a novel. That stuff like that was – bullshit.” He knew Blanca was glancing at him, his eyebrows knitting together. He knew he was about to follow up from their last talk – the one where Ash had shot several bullets in his direction. “It doesn’t – it doesn’t change anything. I’m still – you were right, this is still my fault. I have to let him go. But it’s not about him being my saviour or anything like that. It’s just to protect him.” He sighed, fiddling with the door lock and meeting his own reflections eyes. They looked so determined, those eyes. When would they ever show the reams and reams of uncertainty underneath. “Either I let both of us crash and burn, or I never see him again but know he’s safe.”

Blanca let the words hang in the air for a moment. Ash had thought he was concentrating more on driving. “Is that meant to be a riddle?”

“Mm.” He shrugged. He didn’t care. He’d gone part caring about anything Blanca said.

“These violent delights have violent ends.”

“This isn’t like that.” Ash said, quickly. He was all too ready to point out that he wasn’t Romeo – there was no way on hell that he’d ever be Romeo. He was clearly Mercutio – and he was the one who got pulled backstage by Benvolio.

“No,” Blanca saved him the trouble. He turned, taking it so hard that Ash had to hold onto his seat. His voice was still that excruciating calm. “You know, Eiji would be extremely angry if you died tonight.”

“You can see right through me, huh?” Ash asked.

“All I’m saying is that he wouldn’t forgive you if you just gave up.”

He let that hang in the air, looking far too smug for Ash’s liking. He hated that – he hated him. That he had him so easily figured out and could so easily doubt his own resolve. Eiji had been exactly the one thing he hadn’t been thinking about when he had made it.

Because Eiji was the one thing that could break that resolve. He always had been.

“Don’t,” Ash sighed. “Don’t tell the others, okay?”

“As if I would.”

“They don’t need to be worrying about me. They have a mission and they have to do it. You have to help them.”

“And what about you? What do you need to do?”

The answer was simple.

“End this.”

The silence dragged on. Ash’s eyesight blurred, turning the streetlights into glowing orbs in front of him. He took a breath, resting his forehead on the windowsill. He wasn’t nervous – he was agitated. Restless. He wanted to get this over and done with.

“Thank you,” he said. Because he supposed he had to. “For teaching me - I never would have survived otherwise.”

“I didn't teach you for you to run off and run a street gang.” Blanca still wasn’t looking at him. His eyes were on the road and his face was as unreadable as ever.

“That's not what I mean. I would have given up.”

He didn’t mean for the silence to be so uncomfortable after that. It was just the truth.

“Don’t start being nice to me because you think you're going to die tonight,” Blanca said eventually.

“I'm not.” Ash said, automatically. He was only a little surprised to find he meant it.

“To which?”

“Both.”

He received a small smile at that.

“That's what I like to hear.”

Ash rolled his eyes, because it was a lot easier to pretend that he didn’t care. It was easier to stay silent for the rest of the journey instead of opening his mouth and getting involved in a horrible, deep conversation again. It was easier to keep his mind counting the streetlights to stop them from wondering back to a Japanese boy in a hospital gown stumbling down the corridor after him. A boy hurt because of him.

A boy who had changed Ash’s mind about living or dying.

*

“Excuse me, miss.”

Ash heard the voice distantly. That bothered him. Was that really the last thing he was going to hear? How horrifically mundane.

“That’s my son.”

How nice – for that kid to have a father looking for him. That bothered him too – was the last thing he was really going to feel jealousy? He had been so content – he had been the happiest he had ever been and that seemed like the best way to die.

He felt a hand on his shoulder.

Someone was pulling him away from the desk. He wanted to say – “no – stop!” To grab out at Eiji’s letters –

Eiji-

He loved Eiji. He loved Eiji so much.

There were hands on him but everything seemed distorted. He could only hear and see a jumble of sounds and colours.

“Just let me go.”

He didn’t even know if he said it or not.

*

Ash wondered why heaven started with a hospital room. Maybe God healed all wounds before he let him through the pearly gates.

That didn’t make sense – not the hospital part, the fact that Ash was in heaven. Going to heaven. Allowed anywhere near the proximity of heaven.

Maybe Blanca had lied. Maybe Eiji really had been his saviour.

Then the pain kicked in again and he sucked in his breath. For a moment, he was back on the street and the knife was still inside him. He swore he could feel it there now.

“Here-“ someone was saying and someone was pushing something into his hand. “You’re allowed to press this every fifteen minutes. It’ll give you some morphin.”

Ash frowned, trying to breathe – trying to think. This didn’t make sense. Surely there wasn’t pain in heaven. Surely there wasn’t morphin in heaven.

“What?” he managed to get the word out, because the drugs were kicking in and the pain was starting to subside a little.

“One press of that. Every fifteen minutes. That’s all,” the person said, and they sounded strangely familiar. Ash closed his eyes and tried to place it. Tried to focus on breathing. He could feel the bed under him now – could feel needles in his arm. There was tape on his face.

“But,” he struggled to get everything in order. “We saved you, didn’t we?”

“You did save me, Ash.”

Ash. Ash Lynx. That was him. And that voice. That was Max.

“So why are you here?” his voice sounded awful. Like he’d been beat up. “You didn’t go and get yourself killed after – after I saved you?”

“I didn’t get myself killed,” that voice was so patient. A hand covered his. A warm hand. “You didn’t get yourself killed either.”

“But-“ Ash was frowning so hard that it hurt too. Then he realised he was breathing – he could feel the air going in and out of his lungs. “I was stabbed.”

“You were. Blanca found you – he called an ambulance. Apparently, he resuscitated you too.”

Ash opened his eyes. It was such an effort, but the world seemed so much crisper now.

Max was over him. The same old Max with kind, wrinkled eyes and rough hands and a few lingering bruises on his jaw.

“Blanca?” he repeated.

“Yes.” Max smiled, sitting back down. Ash followed him with his head. It felt as though he was full of water and that it sloshed around whenever he twitched. “He said you were his son – which made it difficult for me, because I said the exact same thing when I came to see you. They wondered why I was engaged to Jessica if I had a son with him.”

Ash’s mouth twitched. He wanted to laugh at that, but he didn’t have the effort. He barely had the energy to follow the conversation. Instead, he asked “you’re engaged to Jessica?”

“Yeah,” Max’s thumb was rubbing on the back of Ash’s hand and his face turned red. “Apparently, some kid told her that I was worth a second chance.”

“Sounds like an idiot.”

“No, he’s not an idiot.” He hadn’t expected Max’s tone to be so soft. He hadn’t expected sincerity. Ash Lynx and Max Lobo were not sincere. They were sarcastic and flippant. “He’s the smartest, bravest kid I know.”

Ash swallowed. There was a lump in his throat and his eyes were prickling. He was sure if he was connected to a machine it would have started beeping faster.

“I didn’t hear that?” he said instead, his voice a little more than a whisper.

“I said, he’s not an idiot, he’s a punk.”

Ash managed to give a dry chuckle, then. “That’s what I thought.” He paused. He was scared to move – to see just what was sticking out of him. “How’d you get around one of my dads being engaged to a woman, then?”

“I said we were going through a divorce,” Max shrugged. “We wanted different things in life – he wanted to move to the Caribbean and I was in love with someone else.”

“Has Blanca gone back yet?” that was suddenly his concern. He couldn’t say why it made fear shoot through him. “He said he was going to the Caribbean. He offered me to come with him.”

“No, he hasn’t,” Max leant forward, his other hand taking Ash’s as well. “He said he’d hang around and see if you’d pull through.”

Ash blinked. “I was stabbed.”

“You were.”

“I was stabbed – I was – I was on my way to the airport.”

“Blanca found you. He called an ambulance,” Max explained again. “You’re going to be okay, Ash.”

“I was on my way to the airport – I was stabbed. Soo-Ling’s brother – he stabbed me.”

“He’s dead.” Max said. “Do you remember that?”

“Mmm,” Ash shrugged. He could barely move. It felt like he was made of lead. “I was on my way to the airport. I read the letter – I had to go. I had – the ticket – did you – where’s the letter? Where’s my ticket?”

“The woman from the library found them. She gave them to Blanca before he took you in the ambulance,” Max still had that patient tone. “They’re right here. On your bedside table. Do you want to see?”

“They’re here?” it felt like Ash’s head was wrapped in a sponge. He felt numb all over now – he knew the morphine had really kicked in.

“Here.” Max pressed the papers into Ash’s hand. He sighed – it felt like his stomach had unknotted itself.

“I missed him, didn’t I?” Ash whispered. “He’s gone.”

“Yeah, he’s gone back to Japan.” Max said. “That Chinese kid said that you said ‘see ya.’”

“I would never say ‘see ya,’” Ash said and smiled when Max laughed. It felt like such an effort.

“What would you say?” he said, leaning back in the chair.

“I would tell him I loved him.” Ash closed his eyes and could see Eiji’s face. Those starry eyes. “That I loved him so much. I didn’t get to tell him that. I didn’t ever tell him I love him.”

“It’s okay.” He felt Max’s hand on his face, wiping tears he couldn’t feel dripping down his cheeks, away. “He knows, Ash. He knows how much you love him.”

“Blanca said-“ Ash made a strange sound. He wasn’t sure if it was a cough or a hiccup. “-I should let Eiji go back to Japan. I couldn’t protect him -  it was – Eiji didn’t belong in my world.”

“Yeah, well,” Max was still calmly wiping away tears. “Blanca’s been reading too many nineteenth century novels.”

He didn’t know if he sobbed or laughed at that.

“He got shot because of me.”

“Did you pull the trigger?”

“I pulled the trigger on Shorter.”

“You had no choice, kiddo.” Max was squeezing his hands. “If you hadn’t, he would have been like Griffin. That would have been worse. Don’t you think?”

Ash stayed silent. He went back to staring at the ceiling fan. “But Eiji got shoot because of me.”

“Eiji got shot because he leapt in front of you, Ash. Because he wanted to save you.”

“I’m not worth saving.”

“Do you really believe that?”

He could see Eiji again. Beautiful, smiling – glowing Eiji. Eiji crying because of him. Eiji yelling ‘you matter to me’ in the darkness and leaving Ash’s mouth completely dry. Leaving his heart hammering in his chest just because he decided to stay at Ash’s side.

So, he shrugged instead. “Eiji doesn’t seems to think so.”

“I know,” Max squeezed his hands again. “He’s a lucky kid, to have someone like you.”

Ash sighed. Every one of his ribs groaned in protest. “I have to see him again. I have to tell him I love him.”

“I know, kiddo. But first you have to stay here. You have to stay here and get better,” Max paused. “Are you listening to me, Ash?”

He hadn’t, really. It had been stuff that he didn’t want to hear. It had been stuff that he’d already heard way too much in the last year.

“I’m bored of hospitals,” he sounded like a child, and he hated that.

“I know,” Max said. “I know.”

“I don’t like being here.”

“I’m right here with you. I’m going to stay with you.”

“I can’t ask you to do that. You’re getting married.” Ash felt tired now. Really tired. He could barely keep his eyes open, but he could barely feel the pain anymore. But he could also barely follow the conversation.

“I’m not getting married today, kid.”

Ash tried to nod, but the action only seemed to work in his head.

He wasn’t sure if he felt Max kiss his forehead, or if he just imagined it.

Chapter Text

13

It had been a ridiculous struggle to track Eiji down. It wouldn’t have been – if he hadn’t wanted it to be a surprise. But he had – it had to be a surprise so that he could see Eiji’s face when he opened the door.

Ibe had given him the address, but he hadn’t quite realised how big Izumo was. He hadn’t even realised it wasn’t on the main part of Japan – not the main part – on Honshu.

This was going to be difficult. He knew nothing about Japan and he hated that. He could barely get by – he hardly knew any Japanese and he didn’t want to just be saying ‘sayonara’ to everyone. It didn’t help that everyone stared at him – the only person with blonde hair and pale skin for miles.

But he had found it. With a lot of pointing at his phone and vague gestures. Now he was standing in front of Eiji’s house. Or, what he very much hoped was Eiji’s house – because he had taken a plane and two buses and had been walking for the last hour. The stab wound in his stomach was starting to ache.

He took a breath. He was Ash Lynx. He could do this. He was going to sweep Eiji off of his feet.

Ash rung the doorbell and tried to look casual. As casual as a clueless foreigner could look. He stuck his hands in his pockets, then crossed his arms, then placed them on his waist. He was running his hand through his hair when the door suddenly opened. A small, Japanese lady was staring at him as though he was an alien.

"Hey - I'm - A-" he stopped himself. Took a breath. "I’m Eiji's friend, from New York."

*

Eiji had been sat at his desk when he had heard the voice drift up from the door. It had only taken one word for his heart to leap into his mouth.

"Hey -" Eiji didn’t even hear the rest of it. Ash. That was Ash. Without a doubt.

He was tumbling down the stairs, his feet slipping on each step so that he was almost falling down them instead. Ash. Ash was here. Ash, Ash, Ash.

His mother was standing at the door, trying to close it on this strange foreigner towering over her. Eiji caught it, his socks slipping on the floor.

"Sorry - I don't understand English-" he heard his mother talking, but he couldn’t take anything in, because he was pulling the door open and there he was. There was Ash. Looking rumpled with a huge backpack. But Ash. Ash with glowing blonde hair and bright green eyes and he was glowing. He was grinning at Eiji in a way he had never seen Ash grin. A huge, wide genuine grin. A grin that made him look like an eighteen year old boy again.

He was an angel. He looked like an angel. A beautiful angel and he had come for Eiji.

"Ash!" it came out as more of a gasp. He couldn’t believe it.

"Eiji!" Ash was yelling and suddenly Eiji was pressed against him. Ash’s hands were on his waist, pulling them together. Then they were on his cheeks and Ash was kissing him like they had never kissed before. Like Eiji was water and he was a drowning man, his hands finding every part of Eiji to pull towards him.

And as much as he loved it and as much as Ash’s touch was fire and his mouth was heaven, he had a growing awareness that another boy’s tongue was in his mouth whilst his mother was right there. He untangled himself gently, grinning so widely that his face hurt. His fingers were still tangled in Ash’s half-heartedly attempting to peel him off of him.

"Mum, this is - he's my friend from New York.” His mother was staring at him like he was a stranger. He knew his face was as red as a tomato. “This is As - Aslan Jade Callenreese."

"Aslan?" his mother repeated. She stared between Eiji and Ash as though this American had possessed him.

And – oh, Ash had. Ash had been at the edges of Eiji’s mind constantly.

"Mm!” his eyes couldn’t stay on her – they had to go back to Ash. Ash whose cheeks were flushed. “I didn't - you're here!"

"Of course I am.” Ash’s fingers untangled from Eiji’s, finding their way back to Eiji’s waist and pulling him back towards him. He couldn’t help but laugh, ducking his head so that he didn’t have to look at those emerald eyes. Ash continued murmuring in his ear – in a voice that made his knees feel weak. “I'm sorry I'm late - I got held up."

"Oh, really?" Eiji smiled – so wide that he could feel his cheeks against his eyelashes.

"Yeah - Sing, he needed help putting Chinatown back together."

"Mm?"

"Yeah."

"Ash.” He got the courage to look up at Ash, still incredibly aware that his mother was watching them. "You know Ibe told me what happened, right?"

Just like that, Ash’s poker face was swept from his face. He blinked at Eiji, looking so stunned that he made him laugh all over again.

"What? How did Ibe know?" Ash asked, his voice pitched at the end and he sounded even younger than ever.

"Max told him."

"You and your damn dad network."

Eiji couldn’t stop laughing. Ash was here and he was Ash. Ash with all his sarcasm and kisses and beautiful, beautiful smile. He was laughing so hard that he was leaning his head on Ash’s chest, fistfuls of Ash’s jacket in his hands.

"Doesn't your friend want to come in?"

Oh, yes, his mother was there. She was standing there anxiously and he tried to give her a reassuring smile. His hands smoothed out Ash’s jacket and he nodded.

"Oh - mm, yeah - of course,” he stepped aside to let Ash through the door. “Sorry, he doesn't speak Japanese."

"Hajimemashite, yoroshiku onegaishimasu.” There was Ash, bowing and saying it all perfectly.

“Hajimemashite,” his mother was saying, looking slightly more at ease now. She turned to Eiji. “Friend?”

He laughed again – because he hadn’t quite told his mother that he had come back from America gay.

“We’re close,” Eiji said. “Um – we have a lot to catch up on. Is it okay if we go upstairs?”

She quirked an eyebrow at him, still smiling.

“Door open,” was all she said.

He opened his mouth to tell he that he was twenty now, but his face was burning anyway. So he just took Ash’s hand and led him up the stairs.

Ash’s fingers found his belt loops and he was tall enough to rest his head on Eiji’s shoulder as they walked.

“What was that?”

“She said she accepts you as her son in law.”

“Shut up.”

“Door stays open.”

Ash chuckled at that, following Eiji into his room like a puppy.

“Well that's fine,” his hands were on Eiji’s waist again. He hadn’t stopped moving – like he couldn’t stop moving. Eiji was trying to steady him by placing his hands on his shoulders, but he was still swaying as though they were dancing. “I'm not opposed to anyone seeing-“ Ash kissed his cheek. He couldn’t stop grinning up at him. “How-“ he kissed his other cheek. “much-“ he kissed his forehead. “I-“ his nose. “love-“ Ash finally kissed Eiji’s mouth, resting his forehead against Eiji’s. “You.”

Eiji’s heart leapt into his mouth. He knew – of course – that Ash loved him. That he must love him. But that was the first time that he had said it. It seemed significant – but Ash was kissing him again and that was turning his head foggy. He had forgotten how good Ash’s kisses were and how they made him feel like he was floating.

“Ash – Ash.” He managed to pull himself back down to earth, catching Ash’s face in his hands. “I want to talk first. I want to know what happened whilst I was in hospital.”

“Why I wasn't there at the airport?” Ash’s eyes were still half closed.

“Mm.”

“I thought you knew,” Ash said. He pulled away, sitting on Eiji’s bed, their hands still entangled. “I was running to the airport – Soo-Ling’s brother stabbed me.”

“I know. I meant before that. Ibe said – after you came to the hospital – that you went to save Max. That – there was a fire and – Golzine died and-“

“Banana Fish was destroyed,” Ash finished. “It’s all over now. It’s all – gone.”

Eiji sighed. He couldn’t place what he was feeling – he was relieved, of course. Ash seemed so much more free now. He seemed so full of energy. He was smiling. But a part of him felt strange. That had been part of their lives for so long. That had been what was keeping Eiji in New York and suddenly it was all gone.

Everything was all gone.

“But you didn’t come to the airport,” Eiji said. “When it was all gone.”

“I hadn’t been planning to, no,” Ash said. Slowly. He wasn’t meeting his eyes. “I – didn’t want to-“

“You didn’t want to?”

“That’s not what I – you got shot because of me. You get hurt because of me and you’re not – I didn’t want to see you get hurt again. Because of me.”

“Oh, sweetie.” Eiji ran a hand through Ash’s hair. He loved that hair. He loved how it glowed in the sunlight. “It wasn’t your fault. I pushed you out of the way, remember? I got shot because of me.” Eiji tilted Ash’s chin towards him, only dimly aware that the door was open. That someone could walk in at any time. “You always get hurt because of me anyway.”

“What a pair we make,” Ash held Eiji’s hand, kissing his knuckles. “Blanca said that you weren’t my saviour.”

“That’s nonsense.”

“I knew you’d say that.” Ash smiled against his hand. “I knew.”

“Then why’d you believe him?” The question was met with silence. Ash just kept kissing Eiji’s fingers, like he was trying to apologise. “It’s probably best,” he said, more to himself than anyone else. “I still looked pretty rough.”

“You are pretty.”

“I was still in a wheelchair.”

The words made Ash stop. He took a breath, his eyes fluttering to a close, bringing Eiji’s hand up against his face and holding it there like a lifeline. Eiji’s heart was going crazy – it hadn’t stopped hammering since he had first heard Ash’s voice. He loved him so much. So much that he thought he was going to burst because of it. He was going to end up in floods of tears because he just couldn’t handle how much he loved Ash Lynx.

“I…” Ash took another long breath. He swallowed. “I was ready to die there, Eiji. I was going to – I was sure that I was bleeding out. But I had – I had your letter and I…” his eyes were glittering and he was smiling up at Eiji like he was an angel. “I was going to die so happy.”

“Oh, sweetheart.”

One of Ash’s tears met Eiji’s thumb, rolling down his skin. He wiped it away automatically. And the next one. And the next one.

“It’s okay,” Ash was whispering in a broken voice. “Because you loved me and that’s more than I ever deserved.”

“No. No you deserve so much more. You deserve the whole world, Ash.”

Ash let go of Eiji’s waist, just long enough to open his arms and let him slip onto his lap. He couldn’t remember when that had become so second nature to him – to bury his face in Ash’s neck and just hold him. Like he was a liferaft – or Ash was his life raft. He couldn’t tell which but the world was spinning and Ash was the only thing that wasn’t.

He smelt the same. The same cheap aftershave. He had dreamt about that smell.

This was bizarre. Ash here. Ash surrounded by suburbia instead of skyscrapers. There were no taxi horns or smog. There was none of Ash's city. It was weird that he was sitting on Ash and he wasn't wearing Ash's clothes. He was back in jumpers and button ups and suddenly he found that he didn't like it. He liked Ash's skinny jeans and baseball jackets. That had been Eiji - a New York Eiji. He didn't fit into Japan Eiji anymore.

Ash's face was buried in the crook of his neck. He gave Eiji a light squeeze, before his hands started wandering down. Then he was cupping Eiji's rear just like he had at that meeting in prison. Their first kiss. When Ash's presence just made Eiji's heart race. When he had been awkward and nervous and completely baffled how that one kiss had sent such sparks throughout his body.

"Have I ever told you how much I love your butt?" Ash murmured in his ear and Eiji laughed. Everything was so different now. But he was happy. So incredibly happy.

"You haven't mentioned it," he said.

"I noticed it – in prison – you have a really good butt,” Ash was peppering him in kisses and he couldn't stop laughing and he wondered if maybe he had gone to heaven after all.

"Stop!" he managed to get out, trying to slide from Ash's grip. He was held firmly there and Ash was smiling up at him with shining eyes. Green eyes like jewels.

“Never.” A cat who had the cream – that’s what he looked like.

“Ash - my mum’ll see.”

“I don't care.” He was pressing his mouth against Eiji’s neck. His mouth was still closed and his lips were still so soft.

“My sister – oh my sister's going to be so mad I didn't tell her about you.” He had one hand absently going through Ash’s hair.

“I love you.” Ash pulled away, looking up at him with earnest eyes.

“I love you too.” The words came naturally – too naturally. He had wanted to savour that moment.

“I had to come here. To tell you that.” He pulled him closer, like he was scared that Eiji was going to float away like a balloon.

“I tried to tell you so many times,” Eiji said. “I love you, Ash. So much.”

And then Ash’s face crumpled. He looked as though he was going to burst into tears. It was as though a spell had been broken. The carefree boy who hadn’t been able to stop kissing him just ten minutes ago was gone. The carefree, smirking Ash that he had met in New York had given way to the Ash he had held late at night. The bleeding part of Ash.

He kissed Ash’s forehead and wrapped his arms around him as tightly as possible.  There it was. The reason he had to stay by Ash's side. The pull in his chest that told him never to let this boy go.

He had already let him go once. He was never going to let that happen again.

*

Ash had got a room in a cheap hotel on the other side of town. He had also rented a bike so that he could sufficiently cycle to Eiji most days. It was kind of ridiculous to see him on a normal bike – instead of at the wheel of a car, weaving in and out of New York traffic. A domestic Ash Lynx.

He was different now, but in a good way. A domestic Ash. He seemed calmer – more settled in himself. And happier. So much happier. He looked like he was glowing whenever he smiled at Eiji. Eiji loved that glow. He spent most nights at the hotel instead of at home just to see that glow.

“You’ve changed,” his sister said to him when he was already half out of the door one day. “You’re barely ever home anymore.”

“I can’t-“ Eiji didn’t know how to describe the pull in his chest. Like there was a string tying his heart to Ash’s. “I can’t leave him alone. He barely knows any Japanese and I know what that was like – he was there for me in New York. After everything – I can’t just – I have to be by his side.”

“You realise this is just the honeymoon faze right?” she shook her head and leant against the door. “I can’t believe he flew all the way to Japan for you.”

“You were the one who gave me a love charm.” Eiji was itching to leave. He swung his weight from one foot to the other.

“I didn’t think you’d come back gay. Gay and obsessed with a guy who’s probably going to fly back home in a week.”

“I’m still me,” he said, and found that he was angry he had to say it. “I’m still me. Just because I’m in love with a guy doesn’t mean anything has changed about me. I was probably always going to fall for a guy.”

“You love him?”

“Yes.”

“Like love love? Like move to America forever love?”

Eiji only hesitated as a kindness. To make it look like there was a debate. “Yes.”

Why?” she seemed incredulous. She was staring at Eiji like he was a stranger. That was the way his mother looked at him now too. He had come back from New York a different person. It had been a person he had liked – he had loved his life in New York, even with the government plots and drugs and gun fights. That person didn’t seem to fit in his home anymore. No one was trying to understand that – they were all expecting him to just revert back to who he used to be. Hoping that he would go back to normal.

This was his normal now. He was frustrated with the lot of them. That was why it was so much easier to go to Ash. Ash, who he had known for barely a year instead of his whole life, but Ash was the one who understood him.

“What happened in New York?” his sister pressed. She had asked the question before and Eiji had shrugged and reeled off some of the touristy things that he had done with Ash. He had made it sound like a cute Summer romance. Maybe that was why they were so shocked by it all – by the way Eiji told it, it should have been a fling. Fond memories of an American boy and nothing more.

How could he explain everything.

“A lot, okay?” he said. “A lot of stuff that I don’t want to go into.”

“I have a right to know. I have a right to know why my brother’s suddenly a stranger!” she was on the verge of tears, her voice cracking. That made everything worse. If she was upset now, how upset would she be if she knew the truth?

Eiji paused, then stepped back into the house and sighed.

“Ash is a gang leader. Was. I don’t know if he still is – I can’t imagine how the guys would cope without him, they’re-“ he broke off, because he was smiling imagining Bones and Kong running around like headless chickens. He was smiling and his sister looked horrified. Like he had just gone out and shot a puppy. “So that’s what happened, okay? Stuff with Ash and his gang and other gangs and it was dangerous.”

“So why on earth did you stay?”

“Because – because I had to help him and one thing lead to another and suddenly he had saved my life and – and I wanted to stay with him because I loved him. And I had to stay with him because – because he was still haunted by all these demons and – he needed someone. He needed me.”

She didn’t look like she understood. That was fine. Eiji wasn’t sure if his family would ever understand. Ibe did, he knew, and he would probably do a better job of explaining it. It was fine because even though they didn’t understand, at least they were staying by him. And that was enough. That was all he needed.

He ended up heading out of the house, anyway. Ash was already at the bottom of the street on that rental bike and the image sent that familiar warmth sparking through Eiji’s entire body. That American boy with messy blonde hair and freckles across his nose from the sun. Because of course Ash freckled instead of tanned – they made him look even more boyish.

That American boy with jade green eyes that looked at Eiji as though he was an angel.

He swung onto the back of the bike, his arms finding a place around Ash easily. It was second nature now.

Now it was Ash’s turn to play the tourist and Eiji loved it. Museums and shines and castles. His culture being absorbed by an eager Ash. He loved that Ash – the Ash that wanted to learn and understand everything.

What was he saying, he loved every Ash.

“I don’t want to be the one to bring this up,” he said, slipping his hand into Ash’s when they were walking around the ruins of Tobigasu castle. The sun was beating down the back of their necks just like it had in New York and people were staying at Ash. The only white person for miles, Eiji was sure.

“Then don’t bring it up.” Ash swung their hands. He had a distant look in his eye as he looked at the ruins, like he was trying to reconstruct it in his imagination.

“We have to talk about the future, Ash. At some point.” He tried to say it gently.

Ash sighed, blowing his fringe upwards. “Hell of a big conversation to have at eighteen. Max said that.”

Eiji squeezed his hand and Ash squeezed back.

“What do you want to do?” he asked. “Do you want to stay here or go back to New York?”

“What do you want to do?”

“Ash!”

“I don’t want to drag you back to New York. Away from your home again.”

“You wouldn’t be dragging me anywhere.” “I think – I think I might have outgrown my home town. I know that New York is your home – you love it there, Ash and – Bones and Kong and Cain and all the others are there-“

“And Soo-Ling?”

Eiji couldn’t help smiling. He stepped around Ash, taking his other hand and looking up at him. “Are you jealous?”

“Me? Never.” But Ash wasn’t meeting his gaze.

“Your eyes are looking greener by the second.”

“And you have beautiful eyes.” That made him look at Eiji. He tilted his head down, looking at Eiji with such warmth that he could feel the heat on his face. “Beautiful starry eyes.”

“Stop!” Eiji was laughing because his face was burning and he could feel people looking at them. People didn’t look at them so much in New York. “I’m trying to talk to you – seriously.”

“I only want to be where you are,” Ash said, pulling Eiji closer to him.

He stumbled, smiling at the ground because he couldn’t look up. He could barely even believe that Ash was here and in front of him. When he finally got the fluttering of his heart under control, he managed to raise an eyebrow at him.

“Well I only want to be where you want to be.”

“Stop that.”

“You first.” Eiji pecked the frown that had been appearing on Ash’s face away. He could feel eyes on them – burning into him. He turned, keeping hold of one of Ash’s hands and looking out over the ruins of the castle again. The sky seemed impossibly blue today. A deep, dark blue. He had once heard a story about the world being trapped within a sapphire and with such a sky, he could believe that.

He sighed. Ash’s arms wrapped around his waist, his chin resting on Eiji’s shoulder. Eiji leant against him without even thinking about it. They had stood like this so often. That time on the way to Cape Cod, when the sky was a watercolour, when they had first moved into that apartment – he loved standing like this. He felt so incredibly safe in Ash’s arms.

“I want,” he spoke slowly. “I mean, I think it’s best to go back to New York. You love it there, and I love it there and-“

“Izumo is your home,” Ash said. So carefully – making sure that he said it right.

“I know.” Eiji gave a sigh that he felt in each of his bones. “But my family don’t – I don’t think they’ll ever understand this – between us. Ibe does and he’ll be in New York most of the time now.”

Ash’s hands tightened on Eiji, taking handfuls of his t-shirt.

“I don’t want you to have to say goodbye to your family.”

“Oh, things will get better – I’ll talk them to some sort of…understanding. In time. But – I don’t – I don’t fit in here anymore. Besides-“ Eiji placed his hands over Ash’s, tilting his head to rest on him. “You’re my family now, sweetie. I feel closer to you than anyone else in the world. I found my family – it’s a bunch of street kids who don’t go to school and know how to shoot guns. Maybe it’s selfish of me to feel that way, but…my parents, my sister, they don’t know me. Or, they don’t know me now, and at the moment they’re clinging to the old me and I can’t – I can’t find the words to explain it to them. Not right now. Right now those kids are my family – and don’t you dare for a moment feel guilty about that because that makes me the happiest I’ve been in a very long time. New York  makes me happy. You make me happy Ash. I want to go back there. With you.”

Ash was silent for a long time. His fists were clenched in Eiji’s t-shirt and he felt stiff against Eiji’s back. Eiji stayed still. Completely still.

Then suddenly he was being turned around and pressed into Ash’s chest. He could barely breathe but he wrapped his arms around him tightly. He suspected that Ash’s face was buried into his hair because he was holding back tears. It wasn’t like Eiji hadn’t seen him cry before – but Ash always pretended he hadn’t. And that was fine.

“I love you.” Ash whispered.

“I love you too. So much.”

“Let’s go to New York. Let’s go to New York, sweetie.”

And, Eiji wanted to add, they lived happily ever after. He knew they wouldn’t – no one could stay happy forever.

But right at this moment, he could believe that.

And that was enough.