It’s been a long day.
But every day is long, and there’s no point in dwelling on it. Maybe for someone else, someone from a kinder world (a world of bright eyes and soft smiles and no guile and no guns), a day of playing politics between inner-city gangs would be utterly exhausting. To Ash, it’s nothing special.
Nonetheless, he can’t hold back a tired sigh as he gets in the elevator, slumping back against the wall and watching the floor numbers blip past—seven, eight, nine—as he pinches the bridge of his nose, weary. If only he had the time to sleep for a week.
Except that sleeping means letting his mind run wild, and letting go of his tight control over his thoughts means thinking of Griffin, thinking of Shorter—
Stop, he tells himself, breathing out slowly. There’s no way he’ll get to sleep anytime soon, so there’s no need to think about… about things that he doesn’t need to be thinking about right now. Besides, with Eiji around, he sleeps better.
At least he gets to see Eiji now. That, at least, lifts his spirits. If there’s anything that can get him through the day, it’s the promise of seeing Eiji at the end of it. At least he can have this, for now.
The elevator finally opens with another soft ding, and Ash sticks his hands in his pockets and trudges to their apartment, fishing out the key at the last second and opening the door.
“Eiji, I’m home!”
There is no answer, and all the lights are off. Ash rolls his eyes. Seriously? If Eiji is already asleep when it’s not even nine, Ash is literally never going to let him live it down. What an old man. Sheesh…
He toes out of his shoes and shrugs off his jacket, tossing it carelessly over the side of the couch, and pushes open the bedroom door, half-expecting to see the TV on and Eiji crying over some dumb soap opera. But the lights are off here, too, and the bed is empty. Eiji’s phone is plugged into its charger, sitting neatly on the nightstand.
The skin on the back of his neck prickles.
“Eiji? Where are you?”
Sharp unease jolts unpleasantly into the pit of his stomach, and tense, Ash flicks on the lights. Eiji’s bed is perfectly made, like he left it this morning, and nothing looks out of place; he goes back to the living room and looks around with a more suspicious eye, lips pressed together in displeasure. If Alex or Bones or Kong took Eiji somewhere without saying so, he’s gonna kill them. They should know better!
The living room is empty, too, and more or less pristine, save for Ash’s jacket, discarded on the couch. There’s no sign of a struggle, but Eiji is clearly missing. What happened here?
He sticks his head into the kitchen, fingers twitching toward his gun, but there’s nobody there. All the dishes are done, placed neatly in their cabinets—the dishwasher is empty, too. The unease starts to morph into a full-blown panic. Where is his Eiji?
Panic is useless, so he thinks for a second and then whips out his phone, firing off a terse text to Alex. Please tell me he’s with them, please—
Bzz, comes the answer, and… no. None of the gang have seen him this evening.
He goes back to the living room, dread coursing through his veins. If Eiji was home alone, just because there’s no signs of a struggle doesn’t mean nobody took him. If they just pointed a gun at his head and told him to march, he would’ve walked—he better have, because if he got his brains blown out by being a stubborn idiot Ash is gonna kill him—but fuck! This place was supposed to be safe! How did they find him?
He opens the front door again, examining it more critically this time—it doesn’t seem to have been forced open. Did they bring a lockpick set? Oh, god, what if they just snuck up on Eiji and that’s how they took him without a fight? Maybe he thought there was a key in the door and kept his guard down because he assumed it was Ash coming home. Fuck, fuck, fuck, where is he, if they’ve hurt a hair on his head Ash will gun down every last one of them! Fuck!
He's shaking, he realizes, and takes a deep, shuddering breath to calm himself. He can’t go after Eiji if he’s panicking. Eiji was here at eleven this morning. They can’t have taken him too long ago. And they wouldn’t kill him without making sure Ash knew he was in pain, so he has to still be alive.
Good. He’s alive. And Ash is thinking logically. Good. That’s good. He needs to be able to use his head.
One door down, there’s a click, and his hand instinctively jumps to the gun in his jeans as one of their neighbors’ door opens.
“Good night, dear!” a middle-aged woman’s voice drifts out, as footsteps pause just out of sight. “Thank you for the company! Come back anytime, okay?”
“Thank you very much for having me,” is the reply, but that’s—that’s Eiji’s voice, and, and… “Good night, Mrs. Coleman!”
Eiji steps out of the apartment, a Tupperware box in his hand, and waves before closing the door behind him. Ash stares at him, a man dying in the desert who’s just spotted an oasis, and drinks him in until he’s almost drowning.
Eiji hums, glancing back at Mrs. Coleman’s door as he starts walking. Ash is so busy watching him that he doesn’t bother getting out of the way. Eiji walks directly into his chest, and Ash abruptly crushes him in a hug, hit by a crashing wave of relief so poignant it’s almost painful.
“Oomph—oh! Ash! You’re home! I didn’t expect you this soon!”
Eiji hugs him back for several seconds, laying his head on his shoulder, and finally Ash pulls away and just looks at him, from his fluffy hair to his big, happy eyes, to his delighted smile, to his sweater…
…That’s not his sweater.
“You’re stealing my clothes now?”
Eiji blinks, and then his cheeks go adorably pink as he huffs. “It is not my fault that you leave things all over the place, and then they are conveniently right there when I get cold!”
“Right,” Ash says gruffly, and grabs his wrist. “Come on. Let’s go in.”
Eiji follows obediently, letting Ash tug him into their living room and slipping his shoes off while Ash closes and locks the door behind them. Then he stops, stubborn. “You’re shaking.”
“You are,” Eiji contradicts, grabbing his wrist and lifting his hand into the space between them. His fingers, useless as they are, tremble, and Eiji lets go, point proven. “Is… something wrong?”
“No,” Ash mutters. Eiji was having dinner with the neighbors. Of course he was. Because he’s Eiji, and people gravitate to him and love him. Now he feels fucking stupid for panicking.
Eiji turns away and puts the box he’s holding on the table, and Ash slumps onto the couch, shoving his hands in his pockets, irritated with himself. Freaking out over nothing. Ugh.
But then Eiji plops down next to him and pokes him in the chest, eyes narrowed. “You are a bad liar.”
Ash stares at him for a moment, deadpan. “I’m literally not. Speak for yourself! Have you ever even told a lie in your life?”
Eiji huffs again. “Yes.”
“Well, that’s a lie right there, and I’m calling you on it. Congrats on your first time! You’re heading for the big leagues, now.”
Eiji smacks his shoulder. “It was the truth. Besides, you didn’t even ask whether I’ve told any successful lies or not! Just whether I’ve told lies.”
Ash gapes for a second, then rolls his eyes. “Ugh. Whatever.”
Eiji hums, smug, but his smile fades into concern again, and he tips his head to the side. “But you are upset. Why? Is it something you cannot tell me? You can say that much, then, and I will drop it, but you keep denying that you are upset—”
“I’m not upset,” Ash interrupts, scowling at the coffee table.
Eiji frowns. “You clearly are.”
“Did something happen?”
Eiji tilts his head again, the other way this time. It’s almost infuriating how endearing it is when he does that, like a confused puppy. “Then why are you upset?”
Ash shifts his glare from the coffee table to Eiji. That always cows everyone else into shutting up… “No, I’m not!”
Unfortunately, Eiji isn’t “everyone else”, and he seems to have taken his decision to never be afraid of Ash to heart. “Yes, you are!”
“I said, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are!”
“Well, I’m not!”
“Yes, you are. Stop lying to me.”
“No!” Ash groans, throwing his hands behind his head and slouching down. “Ugh. Why are we arguing like this? This is fucking stupid.”
“We’re arguing because you’re trying to tell me you are not upset, when you clearly are,” Eiji says matter-of-factly, but instead of being infuriating and stubborn, he places his hand on Ash’s head and pets his hair, which is far more soothing than it has any tight to be. Ash closes his eyes and blows out a tired breath, and Eiji scrunches his fingers through his hair.
“Fine. I’m upset. But the reason why is fucking stupid and I don’t wanna talk about it, okay? So drop it.”
“Okay,” Eiji agrees placidly. “Thank you for being honest, finally.”
Ash slumps against his side, head tucked against his shoulder. “Shut up.”
Eiji ruffles his hair, then leans back, and Ash flops down further, lying down across his lap. He won’t say so out loud, but it’s nice, lying like this, in the quiet, when it’s just him and Eiji. It’s helping calm the last of his racing nerves, and belatedly he remembers he ought to text Alex and let him know he’s found Eiji.
While he does that, Eiji runs his fingers through his hair some more, fond and familiar. He’s… the only person Ash would ever let touch him like this, willingly, with no strings attached. With other people, touches are always possessive, like they’re admiring a coveted new treasure. With Eiji…
With Eiji, Ash doesn’t feel like treasure. He feels treasured.
Before, he never would’ve thought there was a distinction. Now, with Eiji’s hand resting on his shoulder and the other one carding through his hair, it’s all he can think about. Eiji touches him gently. Not delicately—god knows Eiji is a klutz and a brute when he wants to be—but gently, like he cares about what the impact of his touch on Ash is. Nobody before him ever did that. With them, it was always just what Ash’s touch can do for them.
Damn. Eiji really is something special.
The fingers in his hair trace down, dragging over his temple and trailing against his cheekbone, and then Eiji pokes his nose. “Hey, Ash?”
Ash opens his eyes. “What.”
Eiji pokes his cheek too, just because he can, and smiles. “Mrs. Coleman sent you some dinner. You should eat.” Poke poke.
Ash squints suspiciously up at him and grabs the offending hand so it stops poking his cheek already. “Oh, really? Is it something like your gross sandwiches?”
Eiji sniffs. “No, it was much more to your terrible American tastes. Macaroni and cheese casserole.”
Ash sits up immediately, very aware of the fact that he hasn’t had anything to eat for almost eight hours. “Yes. Okay. Yes.”
Eiji laughs at his enthusiasm and stands. “Stay here. I will go reheat it for you.”
A wave of messy, clumsy affection rises up and crashes over him, and Ash fumbles for a moment as he tries to figure out what to do with it. He’s never really—these emotions aren’t exactly familiar, and as experienced as he is in some ways, when it comes to this, he’s sailing uncharted waters, and he never knows what’s right and what’d be too much.
Somehow, Eiji hasn’t seemed to mind, so far.
So he squeezes Eiji’s hand before he can walk away, and brings it to his face and presses his cheek to it and sighs at the warmth of his touch. Eiji softens, looking down at him, and his other hand comes to rest atop Ash’s head, scrunching through his hair again, and Ash wonders how come Eiji makes him feel content so effortlessly when he hasn’t felt at ease in years.
“Thanks,” he mumbles, cheeks burning, which is stupid because he’s just thanking him for heating up food (except it’s not just that and they both know it). He hesitates for only an instant before bringing Eiji’s hand to his lips and pressing a clumsy kiss to his knuckles before letting go.
Eiji laughs softly and pats his head. “It is no problem,” he assures, and walks away.
Why was that kiss clumsy? He hasn’t been a clumsy kisser in years. It’s ridiculous, what being with Eiji does to him.
Eiji hums behind him, puttering around in the kitchen. Ash vaguely recognizes the tune as some trashy pop song or other that was on the radio way too fucking often last month and swallows both a sigh and a jibe, instead leaning back and closing his eyes to listen. Sometimes, when he doesn’t let himself think about reality too much, he imagines what it would be like to live like this, forever—to live with Eiji, forever. To live with Eiji without worries, where the worst thing that could happen on any given day would be natto for dinner.
It scares him, how much he wants that. He wants it so badly it hurts.
Beeeeep! goes the microwave, and then Eiji pads across the floor back over to him, plate and fork in hand. For the first time, Ash notices he’s wearing thick, fuzzy socks, decorated with pink and purple penguins. They’re tacky as hell. Only Eiji could make them look cute.
“Here,” he says, passing the plate over. “Eat while it is still hot.”
Ash takes it with a quiet “Thanks,” and Eiji hums in response before going back to the kitchen. Ash cranes his neck to see why he’s not just sitting here with him, and rolls his eyes: he’s washing the Tupperware. Such a goody two-shoes.
Eiji finishes his washing, sets the box and lid in the drying rack, and comes back to the couch. He settles down at the other side again, cozy in his stolen sweater, and then eyes Ash’s jacket, haphazardly draped over the armrest next to him. Ash pauses in the act of shoveling macaroni into his mouth to give him a look.
Eiji, of course, takes that as a challenge, and without breaking eye contact, he takes Ash’s jacket and spreads it over his legs like a blanket. Then, very maturely, he crosses his arms and sticks out his tongue.
Ash snorts. “You’re really selling the whole ‘older and wiser than me’ thing, you know that?”
“Yes.” Eiji adjusts the jacket. “I am older and wiser. That is why I am using the resources available to me to keep warm.”
“You lazy ass, there’s blankets in the closet right there—”
“Why would I get up to go over to the closet when you leave warm things right next to me?” And now Eiji blinks those big dark eyes at him oh-so-innocently. Ash has macaroni in his mouth, so he has to settle for smacking his ankle in reply. “Ow! Meanie!”
“Oh, come on, there’s no way that actually hurt.” The levity drains away as Ash puts his empty plate on the coffee table and crosses his arms. There’s no way Eiji can know that he just hit a sore spot, that Ash is terrified of hurting him one day because that’s all he ever does, all he does is hurt people, even if he loves them (No, he reminds himself, we do not think about Shorter). It’s not like they never roughhouse or playfight. Tonight he’s just… on edge.
Eiji tilts his head to the side again, seeing right through him as always. Ash has to fight off a scowl. Sometimes he hates the way Eiji can always read him, no matter what.
“What’re you staring at?”
“You.” Eiji pushes the jacket aside and folds his knees to his chest, suddenly contrite. “I did not realize that taking your jackets would upset you. Sorry, Ash.”
Ash blinks. “Wh… no, that’s not it. I don’t give a damn about the jackets, you can take them all if you want—so long as you give them back, I mean, I need them sometimes—ugh, it’s whatever, that’s not…”
Eiji blinks back. “Then what is it?”
Ash slouches down and stares at the plate on the coffee table. “…Nothing.”
Eiji huffs. “Ash.”
Ash doesn’t answer. It’s stupid that he gets so freaked out over the thought of anyone hurting Eiji, and it’s even more stupid that he gets so freaked out over the thought of that someone being him. He’s never cared this deeply about someone else’s fragility before. It’s not fair that Eiji has lodged himself so deeply into his heart that he’s never gonna get him out. It’s not fair that Eiji can make him so happy that he forgets what it’s like to be drained and numb. It’s not fair that Eiji makes him afraid to lose him.
Eiji rests his cheek on his knees, hugging them tighter to his chest. “It is okay if you do not want to talk to me,” he finally says, in that tiny voice that means it’s not okay, but for Ash’s sake he’s willing to pretend it is. “I know I am… not the best confidant, or the most useful. If… if you do want to talk to me, I will listen, but I think I should stop pressing you for answers.”
Ash lifts his head and looks at him, taken aback, but Eiji isn’t looking at him, staring fixedly at the window. His chest aches, suddenly. “Eiji—”
“It is fine!” Eiji sits up with a too-sunny smile. “Did you like the casserole? We have dessert, also. I made brownies this afternoon. I can get you some!”
He stands and picks up the empty plate, heading for the kitchen, but Ash catches his wrist in a firm, desperate grip, frantically searching for words that won’t clog in his throat.
“Stay,” Ash finally manages, tugging at his arm, and Eiji’s shoulders slump a little. “Please.”
Eiji puts the plate back on the table, and Ash gives him another tug. This time he comes willingly, folding in on himself and melting into his arms, and Ash sits back so there’s room for Eiji to sit between his legs, held close against his chest.
“I’m—it’s not that I don’t want—I’m just absolute shit at words, sometimes,” he fumbles, bowing his head to press his forehead to the back of Eiji’s neck. Eiji’s hand comes to rest on top of his, over Eiji’s waist. “I’m not… I’m not upset with you for. For caring. I just… I don’t… I don’t know how to do this, Eiji.”
Eiji lets out a slow breath. He’s warm and solid in Ash’s arms, heavy because he’s made of so much muscle, and as he scoots himself around to face Ash, the reflection of the lights shines in his dark eyes. “It is okay. I understand.”
In all of his daydreams, the ones he hardly ever lets himself acknowledge having, he knows how to tell Eiji how he feels without all the words and emotions swirling into this thick, cloying mess that catches in his throat and steals at his breath. In his daydreams, he’s never guilty for needing Eiji, needing his light and warmth and love. In his daydreams, they work together like clockwork.
In his daydreams, they’re happy.
It frustrates him, sometimes, how out-of-reach those daydreams feel. Mostly, he ignores them, because no amount of wishful thinking will let them be true, but sometimes he just wants to fall to his knees and scream it’s not fair, it’s not fair that they can’t have a future together, that they’re from worlds that are too different and that Ash’s presence puts Eiji in danger, always. Sometimes he wishes with every fiber of his soul that there could be something, anything he could do, to make those dreams a little closer to reality. It’s a selfish wish. But he’s a selfish person.
Tomorrow, maybe, he’ll curse himself for being weak and indulging himself in these daydreams, these stolen moments, that can never stay. But tonight, he’s exhausted and he wants and he wants and he wants, and so he takes the plunge.
“I was scared,” he blurts out. “I was scared when I got home and you weren’t here and nobody in the gang knew where you were. I thought… I thought they’d found you, somehow, and they’d taken you and were waiting for me to see a trap that I couldn’t find, and I couldn’t understand how they’d gotten to you and how I’d had no idea they would, and…”
Eiji’s voice is a stunned whisper. “Ash…”
“I know.” Ash lets out a bark of humorless laughter. “It’s stupid. I didn’t wanna bother saying it because I know it’s dumb. Like, of course you were safe and—”
Eiji’s finger touches his lips, a silent and gentle hush, and he falls silent. Eiji cups his face, eyes wide, and strokes his thumbs over his cheekbones. His hands are soft—callused, probably from hours on hours of practicing with a pole—and warm, and Ash can’t bear the tenderness in his gaze. He closes his eyes.
Eiji’s lips brush his forehead.
“I am sorry,” he breathes, breath warm on Ash’s skin. “I did not think… I assumed I would be back before you got home. I am sorry, Ash. I did not mean to scare you.”
Eyes burning a little, Ash blinks several times to clear away any tears that might otherwise dare to fall and wraps his arms around Eiji, pressing him close and feeling the rise and fall of his chest, the beating of his heart, the touch of his breath. “S’okay. I know you didn’t.”
“When I go visit again, I’ll leave you a note,” Eiji decides. One of his arms curves about Ash’s neck; the other hand slides into his hair again, caressing his scalp. “Okay?”
Ash lets out a sigh of deep, profound relief, slouching forward to rest his chin on Eiji’s shoulder. “Yeah, sure. …You really like playing with my hair, huh?”
“It’s fluffy,” Eiji says, as if that’s all the explanation he needs to give.
Maybe it is.
Ash smiles a slight smile, patting Eiji’s back. “You’re fluffy.”
“Ugh, Eiji, we aren’t doing this twice in one night…”
Eiji’s grin is written all over his voice even as Ash tucks his face into his neck and grumbles wordlessly. “Maybe you are not!”
Ash grumbles some more. “You can’t argue with me if I don’t argue back.”
“Ah,” Eiji says. “So you agree I win?”
“No. Fuck you.”
They lapse into a comfortable silence, still holding each other, and Ash closes his eyes again. Eiji is warm and gentle and good, and he could fall asleep here in his arms. It’s nice, holding him, knowing beyond a doubt that he’s safe. It’s kind of silly, but when Eiji holds him, it almost feels like Eiji’s keeping him safe, too.
“So… do you want brownies?” Eiji pokes his shoulder, several minutes later, and Ash blinks groggily back to consciousness.
Eiji ruffles his hair again. “Maybe not now. Maybe we should go to bed, yes?”
Bed sounds good. But holding Eiji sounds better. “Only if you stay.”
Eiji gives him a look that says many things—it’s fond, it’s tender, it’s teasing. Why did we even get two separate beds, he doesn’t say, though Ash knows he’s thinking it—and nods, kissing his forehead again. “I told you already. Forever.”
“Yeah,” Ash echoes, smiling back.
They won’t have forever. He knows that. Eiji probably does, too. But it feels so good to hear it that he doesn’t offer a contradiction, not yet. Just for tonight, he’ll let Eiji’s words reach his heart and keep it warm. For tonight, he can have this.
“You have to let go of me if we are going to bed,” Eiji complains.
Ash raises an eyebrow. “What’re you gonna do about it if I don’t?”
Eiji makes a face at him. “Sit here, I guess.” He pauses, and then grins. “Forever.”
“Well.” Ash gives him a tight squeeze, tight enough that Eiji swats his arm in complaint, and tries to ignore the fond stirring in his chest. “Guess that doesn’t sound so bad.”