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Love Don’t Lie

Chapter Text

---

The sun has just begun its ascension in the sky when Ash walks through the golden gates of Dino’s immense property.

The man always summons Ash at the earlier hours of the morning; partly because he is an old geezer, but especially because he knows Ash hates being called this soon and Dino never misses an opportunity to remind him who is the boss.

Ash is tired of Dino’s demonstrations of power, but he figures the man wouldn’t take the time to assert his might so obviously to him if he didn’t feel threatened.

He should know better, though. Ash needs this job. And he’s far too tangled into Golzine’s web to even dream of rebellion.

Sometimes, it’s eating him alive, to be so deprived of choices. 

But the thing is, Ash did make a choice, a long time ago. A choice which is the very reason he is up so early in the morning and will continue to do as Dino commands for the time being.

---

Ash is fourteen, when Griffin’s cancer is diagnosed.

He is living with his brother in a small apartment in New York, struggling to eat three meals a day because Griffin’s deteriorating health is preventing him from keeping a job, and Ash is too young to work.

Too young to work legally, at least.

When Griffin’s condition necessitates he stays bedridden at the hospital for long periods of time, Ash is forced to find a mean to pay for his medical care.

From there, it’s a simple twist of fate that introduces him to the solution to his financial problems, in the shape of the tallest and widest man Ash had ever seen.

Ash meets Blanca in a decayed bar, where the teenager is well decided to beg for a job, even if said job requires him to prostitute his body.

“This isn’t the first bar you try to find a job in, boy.” the immense man declares simply, while Ash cranes his neck to stare at him in the eyes.

Ash is instantly wary of Blanca. Especially when the man calmly completes his first statement by admitting he has been following Ash for days from bars to bars.

“I would say I have a job for you,” Blanca continues, imperturbable. “But truly, it would be more of a lifestyle.”

Ash stands as tall as his short height allows him to, resolved to hide how uneasy the man makes him.

“Would it be paid?” he asks in the same unflappable tone, copying the man’s attitude.

That’s all Ash cares about, at this point. He hasn’t been able to pay the rent to their apartment for the second month in a row, and the landlord is losing patience. Ash knows there’s no way he can find anything more affordable than that shitty place, and winter is right around the corner.

Blanca smiles in response, but there isn’t any joy in the gaze he lays on Ash, and it sends an irrepressible shiver down his spine. The memory of Blanca’s eyes on him at this moment still makes Ash tremble to this day.

Blanca asks for commitment. He says Ash can’t pick up the job as he is then and will need to be trained. However, he will be given a salary, comfortable enough to answer all his needs and pay for his brother’s medical bills. Ash isn’t even surprised the man knows all about Griffin and his condition. Blanca already seems to know everything about Ash’s life, anyway.

He accepts without knowing too well what the man expects from him. There isn’t a thing in this world he wouldn’t do for his brother. When Ash concludes the deal by a handshake, his small hand disappearing in Blanca’s wide palm, it feels like he has just sealed his fate.

This is how Ash’s training begins. The very same day, right out of the bar.

Blanca calls himself a freelancer, but the truth is that he has a mysterious employer who Ash has never met. Blanca’s job consists… to do anything this man desires. It’s mostly murders or risky transactions with shady groups of peoples, a bit of weapons traffic, research of the concurrence and exploitation of their weaknesses… Really, Blanca can do anything. A handyman, all in all.

And he is teaching all of that to Ash. He had been in search of a successor for a long time and had been struck by Ash’s motivation when he had encountered him in one of the bars where the teenager begged for a job. Struck by his eyes, Blanca would say, anytime he had drunk too much wine and would become whinny and tell Ash things about his sexual adventures he really shouldn’t be telling a fourteen years old boy. But then again, Blanca was teaching Ash how to kill and deceive, so nothing he could say was truly out of the line.

Blanca makes a rule of being as transparent as possible with Ash, and still he hides from him the name of their employer. He refuses Ash meets him, and he refuses to even tell Ash what kind of company he runs. Ash doesn’t insist, but he isn’t naïve. He knows he won’t like the answer anyway.

Learning from Blanca isn’t hard. And the man himself isn’t bad either. Of course, Ash wouldn’t say he is good, because he still is a murderer, but he isn’t bad per se. He has always been correct with Ash. Nice, even. And more importantly, he respects his promise of paying Ash in good old cash even so at first the teenager isn’t doing anything worth a salary.

“I see this as an investment.” Blanca would easily say. “One day, you will become someone, Ash, and that day, I will earn more than what I give you now.”

Griffin’s state knows ups and downs, while Ash is adjusting to his new life. Periods of remission before new ill cells are found irremediably. He is in such a bad shape most of the time that it’s easy for Ash to hide from him his real daily activities.

When Ash turns eighteen, Blanca introduces him to their employer, Dino Golzine, boss of the Corsican Mafia.

Ash isn’t surprised to learn he had been working for the mafia all this time. The clues were easy to piece together, and he had rapidly suspected only the mafia could use men like Blanca and him.

What is a surprise, however, is to finally learn from Dino the true reason behind Blanca’s need of a successor.

Blanca is just too useful to the Corsican mafia for them to allow him to retire. Ash’s teacher had made a deal with Dino: if he could provide him with someone as skilled as he was, the mafia would free him. Until then, he was forced to work for them.

Ash tries to tone down the feeling of betrayal that dwells upon him at the revelation that Blanca is basically exchanging Ash’s life for his own, but it’s a pill hard to swallow. Especially when he still needs to work with Blanca, as Dino will only let the man go when Ash has made proof of his valor.

Hence why Blanca and him are still working in tandem, even so Ash is already nineteen and his brother’s cancer has known a seemingly lasting remission.

Dino had been very clear. Ash would stay the property of the mafia until he found a successor for himself, like Blanca did. And in the meantime, Ash would have to remember Dino is perfectly aware of Ash’s reason to obey and is very capable of using it against him.

---

When Ash enters the large reception room, Dino is sat at the immense table, his breakfast finished in front of him.

“You’re late.” he says in lieu of greetings, and even so his voice is calm, Ash can feel the discontentment underlying each word.

“Traffic was a bitch.” Ash replies, crossing the room to seat on Dino’s fancy sofa instead of standing where he was summoned.

Ash has the satisfaction to see Dino’s face harden, anger flaming in his eyes. Dino hates Ash’s vulgarity and despises his lack of punctuality. But that’s precisely why Ash can’t help himself. These small acts of rebellion are the only things keeping him from insanity.

Everything is an act, for Golzine. From his elegant suit to his pompous manners, everything is a façade. The haute cuisine food he eats, the fancy interior he lives in, and even his slight French accent – stretched just enough to make you know he’s from a “more civilized” continent – it’s all a lie.

And Ash refuses to bend his head down and play his part in the masquerade. He will do the job asked but will never let Dino think he could be one of them.

It’s a fine line, he’s walking upon. Sometimes, he fears he’s gone too far, fears Dino will grow tired of his shenanigans and simply get rid of him.

But Ash is lucky. Everyone around him keeps repeating that. They can’t stress enough how lucky he is to have Dino’s indulgence. And they all know the reason behind it. Like Ash knows the reason Blanca kept him away from Dino until he legally became an adult.

It took one night, for him to understand. He had stayed at Dino’s mansion late, focused on a research he had been tasked with, and had fallen asleep in front of his computer, in the room Dino kept at his disposal.

He had awakened to the feeling of a hand in his hair, the scent of a pricey perfume filling up his lungs, a low voice murmuring in his ear.

“If only I had known you when you were younger.”

Ash had stayed still, as the hand had left his hair to caress his cheek; pretending to be still sleeping in the hope it was only a bad dream. But when Dino’s oppressive presence had finally recoiled, when he had heard his heavy steps leave in the door’s direction, Golzine had talked one last time.

“I know you aren’t asleep, sweetheart. You’ll have to learn to pretend better, if you want to make it in this world.”

He had left the room as Ash clenched his jaw, determined to not let himself throw up on Dino’s expensive carpet.

Golzine had never tried to touch him again, but Ash knew what his gesture had meant, why he had trespassed his personal space while knowing the whole time that Ash was awake.

“You’re mine.” his action had said. “You’re mine, and I can do to you anything that pleases me. Do not forget it.”

As if Ash could forget he has sold his life to the mafia. As he takes his eases on the sofa, he knows all too well every of his acts is decided by Golzine. His irreverence seems savorless, when he knows he would never dare to truly cross the line. And Dino knows it too, which explains he indulges Ash so much.

Dino stays silent an instant before he stands up. Ash knows he is enjoying himself, reveling in the way his silence lets Ash hanging. A petty reprisal for Ash’s lack of manners.

“I have a new task for you to accomplish.” he begins slowly, turning to face Ash. “I hope this time you won’t disappoint me.”

Dino’s words send a shiver down Ash’s spine. He knows exactly what Dino is referring to. Ash’s latest assignment had been an exceptional failure, and Ash was waiting for Dino’s retaliation.

It had been the first – and surely the last – time Ash had disobeyed a direct order from Golzine. He was still surprised the mafia boss had waited this long before finding for him a fitting punishment.

Ash waits for his sentence, dread making his stomach ache. But still, he can’t bring himself to regret his decision then. When he had discovered the target he had been tasked to kill was one of Griffin’s old friends, when he had understood the reason Dino wanted this man dead was simply because he was refusing to be bribed by the mafia… Ash had been unable to execute his order. And acting according to his own will, for once, had felt too good for Ash to have regrets now.

“The mission is quite simple, but has to be handled with extreme discretion.” Dino continues, affecting to be blind to the way Ash has tensed up at his previous words. “Blanca will go over the details with you, but I wanted to give you the gist of it. So you understand the importance of your serious.” Dino marks a pause, his eyes now fixed on Ash with a new attention.

“You’ll surely be relieved to learn that if everything goes well, you won’t have to kill anyone for this assignment. What I need you to do is steal an information to a target. As soon as this is accomplished, you’ll go to a rendez-vous point and will give the stolen data, as well as the money I’ll lend you, to our clients. All of this will happen tonight.”

The mission doesn’t seem too complex, but Ash knows better than to relax. He is certain Dino is waiting to give him the last blow.

“Like I said, you’ll need to be extremely discreet. Above all suspicion. The target can’t know you stole the information from him. In fact, I need him to wake up tomorrow morning still having the information in his possession, which means you’ll have to steal it, copy it, and then return it without the target noticing. The target is staying in a hotel in the city tonight, that’s where you’ll operate. The difficulty lies in the fact that the target won’t separate himself from the information, he’ll have it on him the whole time.

You’ll have to find a way to enter the target’s room, obviously, and copy the information while he sleeps. However, the hotel’s security is acute, you won’t be able to sneak into the room, you’ll need the target to invite you there.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

Dino gives him a long, chilling look.

“I’m sure you can charm your way into the room. After you’ve slept with the target and he is out like a light, you’ll have all the time in the world to take out your computer and copy the information. No one has a heavier sleep than a sexually satisfied man.”

Ash feels his blood freezes in his vein, a violent wave of disgust shaking his very core. So, this is his punishment? Dino wants him to prostitute himself? This whole mission’s background seems questionable. It’s obvious that Dino’s real interest lies in pushing Ash further down the abyss, with the goal of reminding him where his place is. Under his feet, ready to go prostitute his mind and body when given the order to do so.

Ash should consider himself fortunate. At least Golzine took the pretense of a mission, rather than to just give him a room number and one of his perverted buddies to fuck. Maybe it’s because of Blanca, that he still pretends all of this is of utmost importance for a ridiculous mission. Not that Ash thinks the mission is fake, no, but surely there was another way to deal with it.

Dino stares at him silently, surely not blind to what concerns agitate Ash’s mind.

“That’s all. Do you understand, Ash?”

Ash hesitates. He has a feeling that if he accepts too easily, he won’t be able to come back from this. That’s a line he wasn’t prepared to cross, and he doesn’t want Dino to think it could become the norm for him.

Patience is not something Dino is known for.

“You seem to be hesitating, Ash. It’s not like I gave you a choice, though.”

Ash swallows hard, grits his teeth. He would never have guessed the price for his transgression would be this high. And still, he can’t bring himself to regret the choice that brought him to this position. If all he has to do in exchange for this innocent man’s life is prostituting his body, he’s willing to accept it gracefully. And like Dino said, it’s not like he has a choice.

All he can do is nod once, a sharp acknowledgement of his head. He can’t force his lips into a smile, so he keeps his expression neutral.

Dino turns his back to him, staring at the sky through the large window, his hands joined behind his back.

“Blanca will give you the details.” he continues, tone light and disaffected. “I expect this mission to be a success and will accept nothing less.”

Ash nods again, even so Dino can’t see him. He leaves the room with heavy steps, his veins hardened to ice keeping his body stiff.

Talking with Dino never leaves anything else than a strong feeling of disgust he can’t seem to be able to shake himself of.

---

Ash checks the lock to his briefcase for the third time in a row. It’s mostly to spend the time, he knows it’s not what will prevent anyone to open the case and access to its content; that’s what the hotel’s security system is here for. Still, he is uneasy with the idea of leaving so much money in his hotel room, even for such a short amount of time. So much money, and he doesn’t even know to what end.

He possesses very little information on his mission tonight. He only knows that he is supposed to find a way to seduce his target, steal the information he carries on him, and quit in the morning, unsuspected. He doesn’t even know what kind of data he must steal, or whose company his target works for.

Ash hates being so ignorant. He had to act in a hurry and had no time researching information outside what Dino and Blanca gave him.

At least, he is a little reasserted when he thinks of his secret plan. There’s no way he will simply endure Dino’s punishment like a good boy. The mafia boss wants Ash to steal the information while the target is asleep? Very well, Ash will make the target sleep. Dino doesn’t need to know Ash plans to drug the target instead of letting him have his ways with him.

“Ash.” Blanca’s voice distracts Ash from his thoughts, and he focuses his attention back on the phone he settled next to him on the bed. “He is entering the hotel.” Blanca says in the device. “Wait ten minutes and… Oh.”

“What?”

The silence at the other end of the call is oppressive.

“Change of plan,” Blanca finally continues. “He isn’t going for his room. Wait a second.”

Ash stays quiet, whole body frozen with anticipation.

“He entered the hotel’s bar. He is sitting down…”

Ash presses his lips together, his mind rushing to evaluate all the possibilities this gives him.

“That leaves me with a choice.” he says.

“Exactly. Either you go on with the plan and wait for him to go back to his room… Either you approach him at the bar. I would advise for the second, it will seem more natural.”

Ash examines the situation silently. He doesn’t like to agree too easily with Blanca, but the man is right. And if anything, Ash trusts his experience and skills better than his owns.

 “Okay, I will do that.” he consents.

“Perfect.” There’s a pause, and when Blanca speaks again, his professional tone turns teasing. “I hope you got your best suit on, kitten.”

Ash groans in the mic. “Do you have him in visual?” he asks, staying focused.

“Not right now, I can’t enter the bar, and he was heading to a blind spot. But I know where he is sitting.”

“Alright, gives me a description and I will go in.”

“He’s Asian, I heard him talk fluently in Japanese. Younger than I thought he would be. Wearing a black suit. Short dark hair. He is sitting at the bar’s counter, three seats from the entry. He’s short.”

“Short how? Everybody is short compared to you, Blanca.”

“Shorter than you, for sure.”  

“Got it. You can back off, now.”

“Good luck, kitten.” Ash can hear the smile in Blanca’s voice. “Make sure to be charming.”

Ash cuts the communication without replying. Blanca is running on his last nerve, and he is already on edge. The change of plan is good, though. Ash wasn’t too sure about the first one, which relied too much on how fast he could seduce the target. Approaching him at the bar will be less artificial than crossing his way accidentally in the hotel’s corridor. Plus, the target will be less suspicious of Ash’s behavior if he’s drunk…

Ash stares at his reflection in the large bedroom’s mirror and takes a steadying breath. His well-cut suit is as impeccable as the last time he checked, five minutes ago. His hair is still in place. He can’t be readier than that.

---

The target is exactly like Blanca said; short, surprisingly young, he is sipping from a colorful cocktail with small, measured swigs. Gently lit by the amber lights of the bar, his dark hair takes a soft and warm glow, a halo of gold kissing his skin.

The man had seemed like nothing at first, pretty in a discreet, quiet kind of way. But there is something appealing about his face. Even from where he is seated, Ash can see how expressive it is. His dark eyes are a little bigger than normal, making his face seems genuine and innocent, which is surely an advantage for his line of work. His lips are full and pink, easily quirking up whenever the bartender leans down to talk to him.

Ash can’t hear what the bartender is saying, given how far he is sitting himself, but it makes the target’s lips part in a laugh, which is indiscernible from the background noise but lights up his whole face more efficiently than the room’s artificial gleam.

If Ash hadn’t known better, he would never have noticed the man wasn’t a regular client, simply enjoying a drink after a long day of work. But Ash knows where to look, and he sees how tense his shoulders seem to be under his black suit, notices the way his fingers fumble on the table, reaching for his drink, playing with his clothes; never once staying still on the counter. These are signs the man isn’t as relaxed as he seems to be at first glance.

Leaning on his elbows, Ash retains a long sigh. Alright, so maybe the target is beautiful. But it’s not like it matters to him in any way. He could be the ugliest man on earth, Ash would still do his job. He knows all too well what’s on the line for him if he doesn’t.

With reluctance, Ash decides he waited long enough to be certain that the Japanese man he has zoomed on is the only Asian present in the bar. He gets up of his chair to walk to the empty seat beside the target, sitting down in a smooth motion.

Ash realizes too late that he has no idea how to address his target. Usually, it comes naturally to him. It was always so easy to charm his way out of troubles that he didn’t even have to think about it anymore. Plus, he was mostly used to be flirted with, and not the opposite.

That’s why he hasn’t come up with a plan to talk to the target. And now that he is sitting next to him, he wavers. What if the target brushes him aside before he can even talk? What if he can’t seduce him? After all, the Japanese is beautiful enough to be picky, and he is probably used to creeps coming to bother him when all he wants is some alone time. Ash knows too well how bothersome the unwanted attention can be.

Ash commands a whiskey and forcefully shakes himself off these thoughts. He is a professional and he has a job to do. He can’t let himself be shaken just because the target has pretty eyes.

He quickly notices that the target’s drink is empty. Ash would have preferred a subtler approach, but he unfortunately lacks ideas to break the ice.

Swallowing up his embarrassment, he smiles purposely at the target before calling the bartender to ask him to refill the Japanese’s drink with the same cocktail he was having before Ash sat down.

“Oh, no you don’t have to.” the target says right away, his brown eyes widening in surprise. But the protest is weak, and Ash is sure it’s more a pretense than anything.

He flashes him his signature charming smile. “But I want to, if you let me.” he replies, and has the satisfaction to see the target’s cheeks color with a beautiful shade of pink.

The bartender gives Ash a quizzical look. “No, what he meant is that you really don’t have to, since I already offered to put his next drink on my tab.”

Ash staggers under the blow. So, the bartender was already flirting with the target before Ash even sat down? Dammit, this will make everything far harder if Ash has competition.

The target offers him a placating smile. “But, thank you, I appreciate the attention.” he says, and his voice is sweeter than anything Ash has ever heard in his life and he finds himself slightly distracted by it.

The bartender put the target’s new drink in front of him, not without giving him a stressed wink, and Ash an assessing glare.

Ash stares back, equally appraising. The bartender isn’t bad looking. In fact, one could even call him handsome, with his broad shoulders, his piercing blues eyes and his dark hair. It’s the kind of competition Ash absolutely didn’t need. He’s hating this mission more and more.

Ash is busy brooding and glaring at the bartender when he hears the target’s laugh for the first time. It’s a short laugh, but it sounds so joyful and amused and it’s so pretty, that it immediately distracts Ash from his gloom.

He turns his head to see what made the target laugh and he sees that the Japanese is staring at him, his lips up in an amused smile, his eyes shining playfully.

“What?”

The word is out of his mouth before Ash can even decide to pronounce it, and he cringes a little upon hearing how unattractive he sounds.

The target’s smile widens. “Are you pouting?” he asks, and he sounds so delighted Ash’s heart misses a beat.

And then he processes the target’s words and he blushes. He, Ash Lynx, reputed assassin and handyman of the Corsican Mafia, really fucking blushes.

What the fuck? Since when did Ash lose the control he thought he had over himself? He is supposed to be seducing the target, and there he is, pouting like a child and blushing like a virgin. Where is gone his perfected charming persona? How will he be able to make the target want to sleep with him if he keeps acting dumb instead of enthralling? It’s bad enough that the bartender completely screwed his effect earlier…  

Ash takes a mental breath and smooths his expression into something neutral.

“I wasn’t pouting.” he replies, and he knows he sounds childish, but he can’t do anything about it.

Gosh, he is glad Blanca isn’t spying on them. He would never let Ash live this down.

The Japanese gives him a knowing smile. “Right, sorry, I guess I misunderstood your expression.” he says, and he looks anything but sorry. Hell, he even looks downright snotty.

Ash represses a sigh. Alright, this wasn’t the best start, but at least he established a contact with the target, and he seems inclined to continue to talk to him. He can work with that.

He manages to quirk a confident grin. “Well, now that I made such a fool of myself, I guess it can’t hurt but to introduce me, so you can remember me as something else than the dumb stranger at the bar.”

The target laughs freely in response, and Ash considers it a win.

“I’m Ash.” he continues. “And you are…?”

“Eiji.” the target supplies. “Nice to meet you, Ash.”

The target has a funny way to say his name. Ash can hear a faint accent when Eiji talks, but it’s more stretched when he pronounces Ash’s name, for some reason.

“Likewise, Eiji.” Ash replies, tongue feeling around the syllables of the foreign name, voice purposely low and sultry. He knows what effect it has on men when he talks like that, and it’s easy with the target, his name is rolling effortlessly on his tongue.

To his satisfaction, Eiji’s cheeks heat up again. He takes a sip of his drink, doing a shitty job at hiding his embarrassment.

“So,” Eiji’s voice comes out a little strained. He pauses, clears his throat, begins again. “Are you staying at this hotel too?”

“I am.” An elbow on the bar, Ash leans his head in his hand, showing off the smooth skin of his pale neck. Staring at Eiji from behind his eyelashes, he has the satisfaction to see him follow the movement with his eyes.

“I wouldn’t have come to this crappy bar, otherwise.” he adds, a little louder than necessary to make sure the bartender hears him.

The man is occupied somewhere at the other end of the bar, but he glares at Ash from behind the counter. Ash doesn’t fight the smug, satisfied smile that stretches his lips. Maybe his competition with the bartender will be easier than what he feared.

“I had business affairs in the city.” Ash continues casually, aware giving more details about himself will help him win Eiji’s trust.

Eiji nods thoughtfully. “It’s the same for me, actually.” He tilts his head to the side, hesitant to give Ash a longer response. “I’m a photographer. I came here for a very important shooting. The company I work with on this assignment paid for this fancy hotel, so I thought I might as well enjoy the bar while I was at it.”

Ash tries to hide his surprise. What kind of lie is that? He understands Eiji probably can’t talk about his real company, and especially not about his real assignment in the city, but still, the lie is far stretched.

“Oh, a photographer?” he forces the words out of his mouth. “I bet it must be a fascinating job.”

Eiji smiles. “It is. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like a job.” After a pause, Eij crunches his nose with distaste, and Ash can’t help but to mentally label the gesture as cute. “But today's assignment wasn’t any fun. Plus, I had to wear this suit like I’m some sort of important person, and talk with all these boring people… I think I deserved a drink.”

Ash laughs at Eiji’s predicaments, but he can only hope it doesn’t sound too fake. How can Eiji be that good at lying? He seems so genuine and honest, and everything he said seems so real.

“Was the model an asshole?” he asks, playing along. “People always say I would make a great model, but that seems to me like a hard job.”

“Oh, no no, the model was fine.” Eiji casts his gaze away, contemplating. “You’re right, it isn’t easy for them, shooting is always long and tiring. I’m not too fond of photoshoots in a studio, I prefer to capture people in their real day to day life. But, well, you can’t always do as you want in this line of work, I’m already thankful for the assignments I get.”

Eiji gives Ash an appreciative look, grinning with excitement. “But you’re right, you would make a great model! I’m sure you would be really popular.”

And he seems so honestly enthusiastic at the thought, it makes Ash’s cheeks redden slightly in embarrassment. He hopes it isn’t obvious enough to be noticed by Eiji and stretch his lips into a flirty smile to appear composed.

“Hum, you think so? Too bad I’m not photogenic.” he teases, taking advantage of the joke to lean closer to Eiji.

The Japanese darts a brow, silently disagreeing with the statement; but he doesn’t back away from Ash. At least, Ash has now the confirmation that Eiji finds him good looking. It makes him strangely glad. But then again, he needs Eiji to find him attractive if he wants his plan to work, so of course he would be pleased.

They talk for a while about photography, and Ash notes that Eiji’s interest in the field is clearly genuine, because he masters his subject effortlessly. Ash tries different approaches, but for a strange reason, Eiji reacts better when Ash is genuine rather than when he forces himself to flirt with him, so Ash decides quickly to drop his fake persona.

Talking with Eiji is surprisingly easy. When he tells Ash about his hometown in Japan, Ash replies with an unflattering description of Cape Cod, and before he knows it, he is revealing to Eiji far more than he had meant to.

There’s something in the way Eiji laughs at Ash’s lame jokes, the way he tilts his head when Ash’s talks, listening intently like Ash is the most interesting person he has ever met, that Ash can’t get enough of. Something bright in his eyes, an inner light that seems to be glowing for Ash and for him only. He wants to get more of it, wants to make Eiji laugh until he is breathless, want to tease him until his cheeks are flushed red and his doe eyes glare daggers at him.

Distantly, Ash knows that he should just wrap everything up and invite Eiji to his room to complete his mission. But he can’t help but think that it’s too early, that Eiji is still not ready to say yes, that he can allow himself to linger just a while longer.

And he knows he is trying to find excuses to stay longer, but he can’t recall when was the last time he talked so heartily with someone who wasn’t his brother, and as the evening unrolls, he forgets little by little about the reason he is talking with Eiji in the first place. He lets himself relax and simply enjoy Eiji’s company, his mission pushed away in the very back of his mind.

“You’re drinking so slowly, I told you I would buy your next drink so why do you need to make it last like this?”

Eiji puffs his cheeks. “That’s none of your business, I’m just enjoying my drink.” he replies, and he sounds so bratty it makes Ash bite his lips to retain his laugh.

He quirks an eyebrow. “Alright. What’s the true reason?” he asks, confident Eiji isn’t being honest.

Eiji blushes slightly. “You will laugh if I tell you.”

This time, Ash doesn’t try to keep to himself the giggle that escapes his throat. “I’m already laughing, so who cares?” he insists.

Eiji’s cheeks take a shade darker. “If I tell you... don’t make fun of me, alright?”

Ash nods, but he isn’t sure he can keep his promise, and he knows Eiji can tell because the Japanese purses his lips in offence, his frown deepening.

“I’m… kind of a lightweight?” he admits with evident reluctance. “If I drink another cocktail, I will definitely be drunk.”

Ash snickers. “Really? Your drink doesn’t even smell like alcohol. It looks like the thing a child would drink at a birthday party.”

Now, Eiji is clearly offended. Maybe this sort of teasing isn’t the best way to seduce him, but Ash can’t help himself. Eiji is just too damn cute when he’s annoyed.

He takes Eiji’s drink and smell its content while Eiji stares at him with an adorable pout on his lips.

Ash turns the glass in his hands and puts his lips purposely where Eiji’s own were, mere seconds ago. He takes a sip and notices Eiji watching him intensely, his annoyance already forgotten, his brown eyes fixed on Ash’s mouth.

The American smiles slyly. “That’s what I thought. There’s barely any alcohol in this.” He lets his voice drops an octave when he continues. “I’m sure your mouth taste like sugar, now.” he practically purrs.

Eiji stares at him with wide eyes and Ash sees him gulp obviously. He tracks the long line of his throat, watch the bob of his Adam’s apple, reluctantly enthralled.

Ash had expected Eiji to give in to the clear attraction he is experiencing, but the Japanese seems to make a conscious effort to quit his haze, and his brows knit down in irritation.

“Yeah? Well I’m sure your mouth tastes disgusting, because of the whiskey you’ve been drinking.” he replies petulantly.

Ash chuckles lowly, nurses Eiji’s glass against his lips before taking another long sip of his drink.

“You think it’s better, now?” he asks, sliding the glass back in front of Eiji. He leans in close, until his lips are nearly touching the shell of his ear. Eiji smells great. Ash can’t identify what is his perfume, but it’s floral and sweet and suits him perfectly. “I guess there’s only one way to check…” he murmurs, his breath hot on Eiji’s neck.

He withdraws just enough to see Eiji’s reaction, his face staying a breath away from his. He doesn’t miss the way Eiji’s eyes blink in surprise, how they sear his face, searching.

Ash quirks a knowing smile. On cue, Eiji’s whole face turns red, and he leans back to look around himself with embarrassment, like he expects all the clients of the bar to be looking at him. Ash feels his smile soften, charmed by his innocent reaction. Eiji doesn’t seem to be one for public demonstrations of affection. It’s better, it will be easier to convince him to go to his room if Eiji doesn’t want to make out in front of people and it’s better for the—

Right. The plan. This is why Ash is trying to seduce Eiji. This is why he is trying to get him to kiss him. No other reason. The plan. Which Ash needs to follow more closely. Fuck.

Eiji doesn’t seem to notice Ash’s trouble, surely because he is so flustered himself. They stay silent a bit, both deep in though. Ash is a little baffled by how easily he let himself forget his mission. He glances at Eiji, knowing he needs to put an end to this. The Japanese is frowning at his half-empty drink, his expression undecipherable. Ash wonders what thoughts agitate him. Will he give in when Ash finally ask the fateful question?

Sensing Ash’s gaze on him, Eiji stares back, a hesitant smile on his lips.

“It’s late.” he observes after a quick glance at the watch he is wearing on his wrist.

Ash reaches for Eiji’s arm, turning his wrist with careful hands to get a look at the dial of his watch.

“It is.” he acquiesces, and he doesn’t withdraw his hands from Eiji’s wrist, fingers coming to gently caress the exposed skin.

Eiji’s deep eyes peer into Ash’s, questioning. When Ash leans closer, he doesn’t back off, but his cheeks color slightly.  

“What would you say if I invited you to continue our conversation in my room?” Ash asks in a hushed voice. “We will be more comfortable there.”

Eiji’s hesitation is obvious. He bites his lips silently and Ash follows the nervous gesture with his eyes. Eiji’s lips seem so soft, and he is convinced his mouth really does taste like sugar. Heat pools low in his stomach when he thinks that he will maybe be able to confirm his impression for himself later.

He holds his breath, waiting for Eiji to resolve his silent debate. Now is the moment of truth. Ash has no idea what he will do if Eiji declines.

“I’m not used to…” he stutters. “I mean… we’re still strangers and—”

Ash takes Eiji’s hands in his. “Are we really?” he asks, his voice a quiet whisper.

Ash ignores the throbbing of his pulse in his ears. He lowers his eyes on their entwinned hands, playing shyness.

“I have to make a confession, Eiji. I’m not used to it either. I would never…” he stops, keeps his voice hesitant. “But tonight, with you… It felt… It feels… I don’t know, I don’t want to separate ways with you so soon.”

He stares at Eiji from underneath his eyelashes. “Don’t you feel the same way?” he asks meekly, and his voice wavers with fake uncertainty and just the right amount of sadness.

Eiji gives his hands a comforting press. “I do too.” he replies. “Talking with you was… It’s just…” Eiji hesitates again but suddenly, he seems to make up his mind. His expression turns certain and his eyes shines with a new determination.

“You know what? You’re right. Let’s see where this go.”

Ash smiles brightly. It’s a win. His heart is beating erratically in his chest, and Eiji’s answer did nothing to ease the thrum. It’s probably just a normal reaction to the stress the mission put him under, and has nothing to do with the way Eiji is looking at him...

Or so he hopes. He isn’t too sure about anything, now.

---

They’re silent when they get in the elevator. Ash presses the button to the sixth floor and leans back against the wall. Eiji is standing at the opposite side of the lift, his fingers playing mindlessly with his suit’s jacket.

There’s a new tension between them. Ash can’t ignore the pull he feels toward Eiji, and it’s evident that, despite his earlier reservations, Eiji feels the same. The space separating their two bodies feels solid, and Ash is burning to cross it.

When Ash finally takes a step closer to Eiji, the Japanese smiles shyly at him.

“You— You know, I really am fine with going to your room to, hum, talk.” he begins nervously, his eyes refusing to meet Ash’s. “We don’t have to… we don’t have to do anything you don’t want to…”

Ash pauses, surprised. He is the one who proposed they go to his room, with an implied purpose that can’t have been lost on Eiji. Clearly, it should be Ash’s place to reassure him. And yet, it’s a relief for Ash to realize that despite his insistent seduction, Eiji isn’t even seeking sex from him. The men Ash deals with habitually would already be out of their mind after he did his charm number on them.

“Anything you want is fine by me.” Ash says finally, his voice resonating loudly in the silence. “What matters to me is that we stay together a while longer.”

Eiji nods, a light blush dusting his cheeks. “A-alright, that’s what I want too…”

Ash doesn’t repress his smile, one eyebrow darting up. “Now, if you did want to go further… I wouldn’t be opposed either.” he adds, tone teasing.

Eiji becomes impossibly redder. “Oh.” he says, his eyes widening slightly. “Oh, I—”

He presses his lips together, apparently unable to form a coherent sentence and he seems slightly mad about it. A small crease forms between his furrowed eyebrows and his expression is so endearing, Ash finds himself leaning closer to take his face in his hands, a careful thumb brushing along his cheek.

Eiji makes a little strangled noise, his deep eyes searching Ash’s with a vibrant intensity, and Ash stares back, enthralled. With a gentle finger, he smooths out the lines of Eiji’s frown and lets his hand linger on the soft skin.

“You’re beautiful.” he breathes, and yes, complementing the target to make him lower his guard was part of the plan, but Ash has never been this genuine.

The blush on Eiji’s cheeks spreads to his ears, lips parted by surprise. He seems to be willing to talk, but no sound escapes his mouth except for a small whimper.

And there, Ash wants to kiss him. He really wants to, not because it’s the best course of action for his plan, but because he really, truly wants to.

And it scares him, but it also makes his heart beat faster in his chest. He never felt that way for anyone. Staring into Eiji’s eyes, there’s nothing he wants more than for Eiji to want to kiss him in return.

He cradles gently Eiji’s cheek with his fingers, and he feels the Japanese relax slightly. As he replaces a soft strand of inky hair behind his ear, he sees Eiji’s eyes dart to his lips, his body traversed by a shiver of anticipation.

“A-are you sure you want to…?” Eiji asks, his breath hot on Ash’s lips. “Like I said, we don’t have to—”

“I know. And I’m sure.” Ash doesn’t want to think about what his answer entails. All he knows is that he isn’t lying, for once. “Is it okay with you?”

Eiji acquiesces, doubt washed away from his eyes. That’s all the confirmation Ash needs. He leans his head down and slowly presses his lips to Eiji’s.

Eiji’s lips against his feel even sweeter than what he expected, and the kiss is tender and slow. Ash feels like he is kissed for the first time in his life and he wants to enjoy this sensation for as long as he can, to grave it in his memory and keep it forever in the most secret corner of his mind.

He buries his hands into Eiji’s hair, marveling at the softness of it under his fingers. Eiji’s hands slide up his neck, coming to frame his face, and his fingers caress his skin lightly, mirroring Ash’s earlier gesture. Ash has never been touched so carefully and it makes his heart sing.

When Ash pulls back for air, Eiji’s mouth chases after his and Ash decides that any air that doesn’t come from Eiji isn’t worth breathing. He presses his lips back on Eiji’s and hears the other man sigh pleasantly. When Ash darts his tongue to lick at the commissure of his lips, Eiji opens his mouth eagerly, tipping his head up to let Ash deepen the kiss.  

Ash doesn’t even feel the alcohol on Eiji’s tongue, only a sweet, intangibly sugary aftertaste. He presses into Eiji and soon, he can’t even distinguish between their two bodies, as they fit so well together.

When the elevator comes to a stop with a little ding, Ash and Eiji start and part, equally surprised to be still standing in the lift.

Ash takes a second to admire Eiji. His lips are swollen red and his breath is coming in short pants. The smile he gives Ash is shy, but his eyes are shining brightly, and Ash’s breath stays stuck in his throat at the sight. There is no doubt left, Eiji is the most beautiful man to have ever walked on earth, and Ash’s feelings are all over the place.

They break apart with reluctance to get off the elevator, but Eiji’s hand finds Ash’s and he entwines his fingers with his. He then gives Ash such a beautiful smile, that Ash is already back at kissing him before he can stop himself, a gush of want coiling deep in his stomach.

Eiji lets out a breathy laugh, but he returns the kiss with a warm, languid sweep of his tongue, his body melting into Ash’s arms.

When he registers that they are still in the corridor, Ash wants to withdraw but right then, Eiji runs his tongue on his bottom lips and Ash’s mind goes blissfully blank. He slips his hands under Eiji’s jacket, in the small of his back, and presses the man closer against him. Eiji lets escape a small whimper that goes right to Ash’s guts and his body arches into him, his entire being singing with the contact.

There’s a little voice in Ash’s head, screaming in alarm, but he has no trouble ignoring it. The kiss is just too hot, and the noises they make in the silent corridor are just sinful. Ash knows it’s bad, knows he needs to stop, but he can’t even remember why it would be wrong to continue when kissing Eiji makes him feel more alive than he ever felt.

“It’s… it’s going a little fast.” Eiji suddenly manages to say between two heated kisses.

Ash forces himself to withdraw from Eiji. “Y-you’re right. Sorry.” he stammers, and he is surprised by how raspy his voice sound.

Eiji seems to notice only then that they are still in the corridor. He looks around him with surprise, frowning slightly.

“Hum, where is your room?” he asks, his gaze back on Ash.

“Not far.”  

Ash takes Eiji’s hand into his, and he entails him to his room, situated at the end of the corridor. Eiji follows him without a word, his lips curved in a wavering smile.

Their walk has the benefice to help Ash gather his thoughts.

Right before, in the corridor, he was so far gone that he doesn’t know what would have happened if Eiji hadn’t stopped them. The kiss was beginning to look too much like a sexual preliminary.

But he can’t have sex with Eiji. For the other man, this is just a nice encounter in a foreign city, and he probably thinks Ash is seeking a one-night stand. He has no idea Ash plans to steal him the information he was tasked to bring back to his company.

And now that Ash has calmed down a little, he realizes just how fucked up what he planned to do was. He had let his feelings take the best of himself and forgot for an instant that he is supposed to be tricking Eiji, and to what aim.

He doesn’t know what will happen to Eiji after that. If everything goes well, Eiji won’t even notice Ash has stolen the information from him, since he will still have it in his possession. So, he should be fine, right?

Still, guilt settles low in his stomach when he thinks of what he still has to do. He had planned to offer a drink laced with a strong soporific drug to Eiji as soon as they reached his room, but now he isn’t too sure of how he will achieve that, when he can barely bring himself to look Eiji in the eyes anymore.

In fact, the more he thinks about it, the less he wants to execute his mission altogether. If he listened to himself, he would just reveal everything to Eiji and hope for forgiveness. Except if Ash doesn’t carry on with the plan and bring back the information to Golzine, he is as good as dead. And his brother…

No, he can’t risk all of that for someone he just met. He doesn’t even know how much has Eiji lied to him, this night, maybe the Eiji Ash thinks he knows doesn’t even exist.

But when he thinks back of their conversation, when he looks at Eiji’s smile, he knows that’s not true. Eiji is a good person, there’s no way around it, and Ash doesn’t want to make him suffer.

But really, what can he do? If he decides to reveal the truth to him, how will Eiji react? He will obviously be hurt. And he will hate and despise Ash when he’ll understand that Ash has tried to seduce him with a purpose. There’s no way he won’t feel betrayed by that.

And even if he can make Eiji understand, nothing guarantees he won’t decide to refuse to give him the data he carries. Why would he risk his company for Ash, when he just met him?

No, as much as it makes Ash nauseous, he needs to carry on with the mission.  

His stomach churns unpleasantly when he realizes that after that night, he will never see Eiji again. If only they had met in different circumstances… Ash doesn’t know what would have happened, but it could only be better than the situation they were in currently.

When they reach Ash’s room, he opens it mechanically. He feels so uneasy he can’t bring himself to stare at Eiji as they enter.

He closes the door behind them as Eiji looks around himself, a nervous smile on his lips.

“It’s exactly the same as my room, except my bed is blue, not red.” he babbles, like he feels the need to fill the silence.

Ash nods but he fails to quirk his lips in a smile. Suddenly, his phone buzzes in his pocket. When he sees the name on the screen, his blood freezes in his veins.

Blanca.

He turns to Eiji. “Sorry, I have to take this call. Make yourself comfortable, alright?”

Ash goes out on the balcony and closes the door behind him. He presses the button to accept Blanca’s call.

“Wha—”

“Ash what are you doing?”

Ash hisses, surprised by how loud Blanca’s voice comes out of the speaker.

“What do you mean? I’m with the target, in my hotel room.”

“What—” Blanca shouts. Ash has never heard the man lose his temper like this. “That can’t be— Ash, your target is going out of the building right now, as we’re talking!”

“Wh— No, my target is there, in my room.”

“You id— This can’t be your target! I’m telling you, I have him in sight right now, and he’s outside the building!”

Ash’s mind is racing to follow Blanca. Eiji isn’t the target? But how…

“It’s impossible, I followed your instructions, you said he was at the bar! There was no one else fitting your description, I swear!”

Blanca stays silent a while. “Then something must have happened between the moment I lost his visual and the moment you entered the bar. I came back to see how you were doing and saw your target leaving the hotel. It seemed fishy so—”

“I thought he was the target.” Ash clenches the phone in his hand. “No time to dwell on this. Where was the target going, can we—”

“I’m already on it.”

Now that Ash is focusing, he can hear the traffic's noise in the speaker. Blanca is probably driving.

“I will find him and bring the information back. But I will also have to kill him. We screwed up, Ash.”

Ash stays silent. Blanca never screws up. Golzine will be furious. But worse than that, Blanca must now kill a man when it was strictly unnecessary. And it’s all Ash’s fault. Because this is one of Dino’s rules: when you screw up, you must erase all traces of your mistake. And that means killing everyone involved and move on.

“I will call you back when it’s done.” continues Blanca. “I will bring the data to the hotel and you will go to the meeting’s place to proceed to the exchange, like planned.”

“Alright. Thanks Blanca. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I will clean this up.”

Blanca hangs up and Ash leans on the balcony, taking his head in his hands. They have fucked up really badly, and he is in no way happy about it, but at the same time… It also means he won’t have to trick Eiji. The Japanese really was who he said he was, a simple photographer. And he will walk away from Ash unscathed so—

There’s a motion behind Ash’s back. He turns around as fast as his sharp reflexes allow him and…

He sees Eiji, standing behind the open door of the balcony, a betrayed expression on his face.

How long has he been here? How is it possible Ash hasn’t heard him? Was he that shaken by Blanca’s call that his sharpened senses hadn’t warned him of Eiji’s presence?

“Eiji… Wh—”

“A target?”

Eiji has whispered the words, but he could have screamed them, it would have been the same.

He looks so hurt that Ash’s first reflex is to take a step near him, but as he does so, the Japanese takes a step back, his hands raised nearly defensively. Ash freezes, not daring to approach further.

He can’t bear the way Eiji recoils from him, hurt and frightened, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

“I— What did I just heard, Ash? My target is in my room? Was it what I was to you tonight? A target? I don’t even understand, why—"

Where Ash had expected justified anger, Eiji looks instead nervous and uneasy. He struggles to find his words and his face is colorless, the pretty pink dusting his cheeks all night long faded. And worse than everything, he can no longer look Ash in the eyes.

Ash has no way to defend himself. The truth is ugly and hurtful.

“So, all of this…” Eiji continues. “All of this was fake?”

Ash wants to deny so much it hurts, but he can’t. It wouldn’t be right to give Eiji a false hope to hold onto. Ash can’t let him know that their meeting has shaken him to his very core.

So he doesn’t reply and something breaks in Eiji’s eyes, pain and betrayal painted all over his face. Eiji opens his mouth, but no sound exits it. When he closes his lips again, his expression hardens, unforgiving.

“I’m sorry.” Ash tries, but he knows he can’t say anything that could be enough, and his apologize sound empty to his own ears. It’s obvious Eiji won’t believe a word that comes out of his mouth, now.

The Japanese narrows his eyes. “Yeah, right, you’re sorry. Sorry to be discovered, I gather.”

“Eiji…” Ash represses a sigh. “I made a mistake tonight, I thought you were someone else, and I’m sorry I gave you all this trouble for nothing. This had nothing to do with you. I can’t tell you more than that. The less you know, the better for you.”

“And that’s it?” Eiji presses. “You don’t have anything else to say?”

“That’s it.” Ash hates how final his voice sounds. But he needs to be clear with Eiji. “You should forget about everything and… and you should leave.”

Eiji wavers, and his lips tremble slightly. “I- I can’t believe I thought…” he passes a shaky hand in his hair. “Of course it could only be some sort of scam, there’s no way you could… Gosh, I’m such an idiot!”

Ash wants to comfort him, wants to tell him that if they had met in another circumstances, he would truly…

But no, he can’t say that. In the long term, it’s better if Eiji hates him and moves on, only remembering him as the asshole who lied to him all night.

Upon Ash’s silence, Eiji turns away and walks to the door, too fast for Ash to make sense of his expression. Then, his hand on the handle, he hesitates.

“I guess this is goodbye then, Ash.” he says, obviously struggling to keep a straight face. “I hope you’ll have better luck next time.” He falters, presses his eyes shut to fight the emotion boiling underneath the surface. “I’m sorry.” he adds, voice breaking on the last syllable.

And he storms out of the room, closing the door shut behind him.  

His heart heavy in his chest, Ash can only stare at the closed door, a wave of strong disgust threatening to overwhelm him. He always knew he wasn’t a good person, but he has rarely felt so bad with himself and it makes him want to throw up.

His phone buzzes again. He doesn’t even verify the caller.

“Ash. I found our man. But he doesn’t have the information on him.”

Ash swears. This is just getting worse and worse. “How is it possible?”

“He says that someone has already stolen it from him. After he entered the bar, a man asked for his help, saying he didn’t talk English and needed a fellow Japanese to translate his request to the hotel’s reception. Except when they got out of the bar, the man knocked our target out, and left him in a locker. When our target woke up, he had lost the information.”

Blanca talks with urgency, the words succeeding each other too fast to leave Ash time to process them.

“The man…” Ash grits his teeth, realization dawning. It can’t be, he doesn’t want to believe it. “You said, a fellow Japanese?”

“Yes,” confirms Blanca, and the temperature in the room loses ten degrees. “A Japanese who, like our target, fits the description I gave you. I think the man you mistook for our target is the same who stole the information from him. Is he still in your room?”

“Fuck! No, he isn’t, he just left—"

Ash is already in the corridor, but of course, no trace of Eiji.

And he gets it, now. Every piece of the puzzle falls in place. The nervousness Eiji had shown all night wasn’t shyness. No, Eiji was a man on a mission, of course he would be anxious, Ash had seen the signs, but he had misinterpreted them. And he understands why Eiji looked so off when he had pretended to discover that Ash had led him on with a purpose. His act wasn’t even good and still, Ash had been fooled, because he didn’t want to see it. And the way Eiji had apologized when leaving the room… Gosh, how could Ash miss that?

Ash runs to the target’s supposed hotel room, his pulse roaring loud in his ears. But again, the room is empty.

“I’m in front of the hotel’s entry,” Blanca says on the phone. “Of course, I didn’t see him leave the hotel, but I’m sure he can have taken another exit.”

“I can’t find him.” Ash says, struggling to speak because he is left breathless by his run and by the revelation. He still can’t believe—

“It’s too late, we won’t find him. Take the money and meet me in front of the hotel. We will find a way to get to him.”

Ash cuts the communication and runs back to his room. His briefcase is still there, but suddenly, he has a bad feeling…

He opens the case to verify his fear, his fingers trembling so much that he struggles with the lock.

The briefcase is empty. Of course it is.

Taking a step back, Ash makes a sound that is halfway between a nervous laugh and a cry.

He’s fucked. He is irremediably, deeply, thoroughly, fucked.

No, not irremediably. Ash clenches his fists, fights the ball of frustration that wedges itself in his throat. He refuses to give up so easily. He has to get a hold on himself, too much is at stake.

Forcing himself to breathe, he tries to make sense of the situation, to organize his thoughts.  

Firstly, Eiji is a filthy liar and he played Ash like a fiddle.

Secondly, If Ash doesn’t bring the information back, he is dead. There is no way Golzine could forgive a mistake that enormous, not even for Ash. And if Ash is dead, his brother is too. Conclusion, failing is not an option and Ash needs to wrap everything up as cleanly as he can.

Thirdly, he has to find Eiji, and he has to kill him.

Chapter Text

Golzine’s call leaves Ash with a stomachache.

Oh, he’s glad he only had to experience Dino’s reaction to his failure through a phone call, of course. Simply thinking about speaking face to face with the man makes Ash’s skin crawl. Not so much by fear than because of the basic disgust the man inspires him.

Ash owes one to Blanca, for the chance of avoiding this specific meeting, his mentor deciding he would be the one to inform Golzine of their fiasco. What happened there stayed concealed from Ash, as he hadn’t heard from Blanca since. He could only estimate that he had received Golzine’s call not too long after Blanca had left for the mansion.

From Golzine, Ash was prepared for wrath, he was expecting a terrible fit of rage… Nothing could have prepared him to the satisfaction he had heard in Golzine’s voice through the phone.

Ash would have preferred anger, all in all. Everything but the sickening contentment of the mafia boss while he recounted to Ash point by point how disappointed he was in him. They both knew Ash’s mistake allowed Golzine to tighten his grip on him, and Ash had hated how unsubtle Dino’s had been in his clear appreciation of the situation.

Yet, it could have been far worse, because the man hadn’t evoked a punishment. And with how badly Ash had failed his assignment, he expected a memorable one. But that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be terrible consequences later…

Because Ash had not only lost Golzine’s money and been unable to collect the information he was tasked to steal, but he had also failed to retrieve Eiji before the man had come to meet Ash’s clients and completed the transaction in his place.

Which left Ash with only one request from Golzine: to find the man who had wronged him and make him disappear.

A mission which was supposed to be simple. After all, finding information on Eiji hadn’t been too difficult.

Either Eiji was an idiot, or he was overly confident in his advantage on Ash, because the information he had given to Ash back when they had talked at the hotel’s bar had quickly led him to a page web titled Okumura Eiji, Photography.

With Eiji’s complete name, it had only taken a bit of research in databases a normal citizen shouldn’t have access to, for Ash to find nearly everything he wanted to know about the man.

Or rather, about his public persona, Eiji Okumura. Ash was well aware it was probably a fake name. Strangely enough, he had been unable to find anything on Eiji’s other activities. It was off-putting, because Ash knew the field enough to have a bunch of contacts in it, and nobody he approached had ever heard of a Japanese hitman taking assignments in New York.

Ash lowers his gaze on the file he has put together. On the first page, Eiji Okumura stares back at him with his big, innocent eyes; and Ash’s heart tightens in his chest.

Because despite everything, Ash still hates that he has to kill him.

With a thumb, Ash strokes the picture once, removing a little particle of dust that had the audacity to lay itself on Eiji’s face. He lingers here, follows the curve of his smile. If only he didn’t remember the taste of his lips, the sound of his laughter… Maybe it would be easier.

Ash has to exhort himself to remember how fake all of it was. How fake Eiji was.

And still, he can’t bring himself to hate the man. After all, he’s misplaced to judge him, when he had approached Eiji with in sight the same goal as him, the same lies on his lips. So why is Ash so fucking hurt by Eiji’s betrayal?

Eiji and him played the same game, and Ash is just sore because he lost, that’s all there is to it.

His eyes leave the picture to scan over the information on the first page once more. There isn’t anything on it he already knows though, and the missing pieces of data are what makes Ash’s blood buzz in his veins with anxiety.

He figured Eiji’s age, height, weight, blood type, hometown, and even the date of the day he became an American citizen… But still nothing on his true identity, the one that matters to Ash.  

With a click of his tongue, Ash puts the file back in its folder. Piecing together intel on a target is usually Blanca’s job, and Ash is once again finding himself coming up short when he takes in the difference in skills between the two of them. If Blanca had been there, there’s no doubt Eiji’s file would be much thicker.

---

Once it had been clear Blanca and Ash wouldn’t be able to retrieve Eiji in the hotel, Ash had decided to still go to the meeting with Golzine’s clients, like he was supposed to.

His clients weren’t there, but Ash had quickly understood the reason for their absence.

Figuring retrieving the clients would be easier than retrieving Eiji, he had decided to begin there. And indeed, it had been a piece of cake to find them back, and even easier to make them talk.

They were only businessmen, after all, and Golzine’s interest in them laid simply in their immense fortune and the ties they had with other companies. But the Corsican mafia would have to do without these clients, because Eiji did his job well.

The clients were quick to retell Ash how they were contacted by another “investor”, offering more money and the same information Ash should have gifted them. The place of the meeting was changed, and the clients had met with their new collaborators earlier.

That’s how they had met Lee Yut-Lung and had changed loyalty from one mafia to another.

It didn’t come as much of a surprise to Ash, that the Chinese foundation would try to take over Golzine’s clients. It wasn’t a secret in the field that the Chinese syndicate was going through some difficulties ever since all the Lee brothers had disappeared mysteriously one after the other, until only the youngest heir was left.

However, the fact that Lee Yut-Lung wasn’t trying to hide his hostility against the Corsican was new and more intriguing to Ash, and he felt as if he was on the verge of discovering something far more interesting than a simple affair of stolen clients…

Ash couldn’t be confident Eiji was even present at this meeting. The clients had talked about a group of Asian men and could even describe them when Ash pressed them to do so, but none of the men fitted perfectly Eiji’s description. Yet, it was certain that Eiji was working for the Lee, and this had made Ash’s goal of finding him again finally reachable.

After this discovery, tracking Eiji down had been fairly easy. Ash had set up in a building situated right across the street from Lee Yut-Lung’s main residence. He had then begun his stakeout, keeping track of every person entering and leaving the place, and of course of the occupants of the house.

In the two days he spent like this, he spotted Eiji a good amount of time, but never once the man left the building.

It didn’t matter. Ash had figured out which room was the one Eiji spent most of his time in –most likely his bedroom— and while it would normally not be reachable to a sniper, Ash was confident he had found an angle from which he could make the kill.

Which meant what was left to do now was the easiest part of his job.

Or so one would have thought.

---

His sniper weapon tactically settled with the ideal angle; Ash waits for Eiji to walk in the spot he has decided to target. He peers through his binoculars. From where he is situated, he has a perfect view of the window.

When he finally spots Eiji entering the room, Ash straightens himself, a rush of blood flooding in his veins, and suddenly, his heart is beating louder in his ears. Through his binoculars, he observes as Eiji walks into the room, until he sees him approach the window, right where Ash needed him to be.

He has Eiji’s head in sight, now. It would only take a press of his finger on the trigger, and it would be done. Eiji would die, and all of Ash’s present problems would be taken care of. “A clean kill,” as Blanca would say, which never failed to make Ash cringe. A clean kill. As if such a thing existed.

But Ash’s hands waver on his weapon and he isn’t able to steady them. A press, and Eiji will die. He can already picture it, just a slight movement from his index and the bullet will fly to the window. From where he is situated, Ash will just see Eiji’s body fall on the floor, and that will be it. It’s supposed to be easy.

Yet, Ash can’t. He tries and he tries to reason with himself, but he can’t do it. Not like that.

Eiji walks away from the spot and disappears in a corner of the room. Ash has let his chance pass, and who knows when he will get another occasion as good as this one…

Ash swears and jumps to his feet. He packs his sniper’s weapon and grabs his gun. He has to do it, he doesn’t have a choice. He waited long enough, he doesn’t have the luxury to wait forever for Eiji to walk to the window again.

Ash will fulfill his mission. But not like that. Not without confronting Eiji a last time, not without giving him a piece of his mind.

Yes, that’s the reason he didn’t kill Eiji just then. It’s not that he doesn’t want to do it, not that he can’t, it’s because he wants to see what kind of twisted bastard Eiji really is. It will be easier to kill him once he has proof that the Eiji who made his heart swoon doesn’t exist.

Or at the very least, that what Ash tries to convince himself as he leaves the building.

---

There’s only one thing Ash has always been better at doing than Blanca, and it’s sneaking in buildings with a bit of climbing. And Eiji’s bedroom is ideally situated, all Ash has to do to reach it is to climb to the roof before jumping from there to the balcony to his room.

Ash gets easily rid of the two guards patrolling on top of the roof. Quick, precise, he doesn’t make a noise and the guards have no time to give the alert.

His task done, Ash jumps to the balcony, landing heavily on his feet. He winces a bit, the impact stronger than what he had anticipated. Fortunately, it’s not enough to hurt and he readjusts himself immediately, facing the window to Eiji’s room.

There, he has to retain himself from pinching his arm and checking he isn’t dreaming, because the window is already fricking open. After all the troubles Ash had to go through in these days following his failed mission, it seems too easy to just push the window open and hop into the room.

He falls silently on his feet on a plush carpet and looks around himself, taking in a glance the luxurious bedroom, mapping the layout of the space before him and spotting the only exit, a large door situated at the opposing side of the room.

A soft gasp makes him turn to his right.

Eiji is standing a few feet away from him, his brown eyes widened by surprise.

“A-Ash!”

Ash’s heart misses a beat when he hears Eiji pronounce his name, his slight accent making it sound like two syllables, a particularity Ash had thought to be extremely endearing back when they had met.

But now, it just angers him.

Especially when he notices that Eiji has the audacity to look happy to see him. Not that he breaks into a wide smile or anything, but the corners of his lips quirk up slightly and his eyes shine with emotion.

Ash raises his gun and aims for his head.

Eiji’s features fall, he takes a half-step back, hands raised in surrender. He stays frozen and Ash sees his breath itch in his throat, his mouth open in a silent plea.

Ash had expected Eiji to look changed, when they would meet again. He had tried to picture on his face the cold expression of a trained assassin, the careful mask of a liar. Yet, there is nothing of that in Eiji’s expression. And the man does look different, but not for the reasons Ash had imagined.

Eiji is wearing a soft white jumper on a pair of brown trousers, his hair not as neatly styled as it was when they last met. Compared to the suit he wore at the bar, the casual outfit makes him look… oddly normal, and yet somehow even more attractive.  

Ash had meant to confront Eiji, but suddenly he doesn’t know what to say. They stay silent, dark eyes meeting jade, and Ash’s gun only grows heavier in his hand. He can’t help but to think about everything Eiji had said, that night. He had talked about his family, back in Japan. His hometown by the sea, with a name Ash hadn’t been able to pronounce properly, which had made Eiji giggle adorably. Was it all a lie? And if not, what difference does it make?

Ash lowers his gun, frustrated by his own hesitation.

Eiji relaxes visibly and he lets out a shaky breath. He hasn’t yelled, he didn’t call for help. They’re alone in the room and more than anything Ash wants to understand.

“I’m sure you had fun, that night.” Ash’s voice is raspy and low, but he manages to keep it calm. “I bet you thought I was a true idiot. I would never have guessed you were such a good liar, I have to give you my compliments.” he says, one nod of his head gracing Eiji with a mock bow.

Eiji flinches at the hostility in Ash’s voice and surprisingly, it gives Ash no satisfaction.

“It wasn’t fun.” he protests weakly. “Deceiving you. I know you probably won’t believe me, but I’m truly sorry things had to go this way.”

And he sounds so sincere, so genuine, Ash wants to believe with all his heart, but he knows now that he can’t trust the Japanese. He was led on once, it won’t happen twice.

Eiji sighs as Ash doesn’t speak back, lips pressed into a tight line, jaw set violently.

“You won’t get your information or money back, by killing me.” he tries. “I—”

“That’s not why I’m here. It’s too late for any of that, now.”

A sad smile curls Eiji’s lips. “So, it’s about revenge?” he asks softly.

“It’s not.” Ash grits his teeth, offended. “It’s nothing personal. My employer wants you dead, that’s all.”

Eiji grimaces. “Your employer.” he repeats. “Dino Golzine, right?”

“See.” Ash sighs, fatalistic. “You know too much. I have to kill you.”

“But you don’t want to.”

Eiji’s gaze on Ash is intense, his voice strong, sure. Ash has the feeling Eiji can look into his eyes and see the depth of his soul. Except that’s stupid and Ash’s very being revolts at the thought.

“Don’t—” Ash nearly chokes on his words in his irritation. “Don’t think you— You don’t know me, alright?” he shouts, the fake calm he tried to affect long forgotten. “You think you were the only one being a clever actor that night? Well, god do I have news for you, then!”

Eiji furrows his brows, his eyes alight with a new emotion that Ash can’t quite name.

“I’m perfectly aware it was all an act.” he protests. “You made it very clear. But I don’t understand why you’re taking this so at heart. If you were only playing your role, why are you so affected by—”

Ash can’t believe his ears. “I— I’m not taking this at heart! I’m not affected!” he exclaims, totally baffled. “Excuse me for being slightly surprised to discover that you were a lying snake all along!”

Eiji’s eyes widen. “A lying…?” he blinks once and huffs, frustrated. “Alright. Yes. I did lie to you, and I’m sorry about it. But you did the same! I see no difference. Except that you’re butt hurt about it for some reason.”

“I’m not—”

Ash gapes at him, but he swallows back his retort. He tries to regain his composure instead of letting Eiji entail him in a verbal fight of bad faith. Why are they arguing when Ash has a loaded gun in his hand and every intention of emptying its chamber on Eiji?

“Yeah, you already mentioned you were sorry,” he says, quirking a sarcastic brow. “But I’m sure you can understand I won’t believe a word that comes out of your mouth now that I know the truth about you.”

Eiji’s shoulders drop slightly at that, and he looks suddenly exhausted. “I know you don’t want to listen to me, but I have important things to say to you.”

Ash tenses up, his hand on his gun a tight grip. Suddenly, he is sharply aware of the time flying by. He should already have killed Eiji, it’s been too long since he entered the room and he still hasn’t made up his mind. Despite his resolve, he’s still letting Eiji talk when the man has already proved he could make Ash believe anything.

“Yeah, right, you’re only trying to buy time for your allies to come here, am I right?” he spits. “You think I’ll quietly listen to your lies while you’re waiting for someone to enter this room?”

Eiji shakes his head, his sad smile back on his lips. “That’s not it. I’m sorry to tell you that, but everyone in this building is aware you entered my room. If you kill me, you won’t step out of here alive.”

Ash shoots a glance around him, all senses on alert. Are there cameras here? A sniper on the building he was on just before? Everything seems quiet, however…

He raises his gun again. “Well, we’ll see about that.”

The bedroom’s door flies open as he finishes his sentence and a tall Asian enters the room, aiming at him with a gun.

“Okay, that’s enough!” the newcomer exclaims, storming into the room to place himself in front of Eiji so fast Ash has barely the time to blink. 

Ash aims at him with his own gun, but he doesn’t fire it. The Asian has already lowered his weapon. He just has it in his hand and is shielding Eiji with his body. However, three guards have followed his steps and they have their guns set on Ash, which makes them a more pressing menace.

Ash purses his lips. Eiji is right, if he fires in anyone’s direction, he will not step out of this room alive.

Dammit, he was so stupid to think he could just change his plan like that. If he had got the guts to kill Eiji when he was at the window, he would already be done with all this.

Eiji’s only reaction to all this mess is to sigh heavily.

“Sing…” he complains. “You weren’t supposed to interfere.”

“I wasn’t going to let this maniac kill you!” the Asian protests strongly. “You’ve heard him, he isn’t willing to even listen!”

Eiji shakes his head. “He wasn’t going to kill me.” he says confidently. Then he furrows his brows, tilting his head to the side in thought. “Not when you entered, at least…” he continues, voice now laced with hesitation, and he casts a doubtful glance at Ash.

Ash doesn’t know what is the most infuriating. This loud Chinese who literally threw himself in front of Eiji like he couldn’t care less about his own life or Eiji’s certainty about Ash’s actions. How can he think he knows what Ash will or won’t do? Ash himself doesn’t know if he was going to pull the trigger.

“How could you know he wasn’t going to do it?” Sing retorts, exasperated. And he takes the words out of Ash’s mouth and that is infuriating too.

“If he wanted to kill me without listening to what I have to say, I would already be dead.” Eiji replies, tone far too casual for his words. “He could easily have pulled the trigger as you entered, but he didn’t.” Eiji interrupts himself, eyebrows knitting down. “In fact, it’s a miracle he didn’t shoot you too! What were you thinking, Sing?”

Sing has the good taste to look sheepish. “I— I acted without thinking, sorry…”

Now that Ash looks at Sing more attentively, he notices how young he seems to be. He can’t be older than seventeen, if Ash had to judge, and holds himself with the clumsiness of a teenager who just had a growth spurt.

 The guards who followed him look between Ash and Eiji, clearly unsure if they have to continue to aim Ash.

Eiji lets out a sigh. “Sing, tell them to lower their weapon, this is so unnecessary.”

Sing looks like he is about to protest, but he does as Eiji asked, and the men fold their weapon back into their clothes after a sign of his hand.

Ash relaxes slightly. The situation is tense, but if he behaves, he might be able to make it out alive. Clearly, Eiji has no intention of killing him, so he might be telling the truth when he says he has things he wants to tell Ash. Maybe Ash can play along for now and wait for an overture. It’s not like he has any other option anyway.

Lowering his gun, he puts it in his pants and crosses his arms over his chest.

“Alright. I’m willing to listen. Tell me what you have to say.”

Eiji’s response is a smile, small but so genuine it comes directly for Ash’s heart and wraps itself securely around it. Ash holds Eiji’s gaze, stubbornly trying to act like he hasn’t already lost the fight.

But he knows better.

The result of their second confrontation is clear and obvious to everyone in the room. There is once again a loser, and once again, it’s Ash.

---

Eiji and Sing escort Ash to another room, on the first floor. The three guards are following them, and even so their weapons are packed, Ash can still feel the skin of his neck tickle unpleasantly when he realizes he wouldn’t have any way out if he wanted to attempt a risky evasion.

He doesn’t have much time to dwell on this thought, because Sing soon opens a large door in front of which are standing two more guards, and Ash has to retain a sigh. He walked headfirst into this mess, and he is the only one to blame for the troubles he put himself in, which makes the situation even more frustrating.

Ash’s mouth hangs open when he walks into the room in Eiji’s steps and his gaze falls on the last person he was expecting to see in the Lee’s mansion.

“Hi, Ash.” Blanca gives Ash a calm smile. “It’s been a rough few days, isn’t it?”

Blood iced in his veins, Ash can only gape at the tall man.

“What the—? What are you doing here?” he croaks with difficulty.

Blanca’s smile widens. “You’ll understand in a minute.” he only says. “Come here, take a seat.”

Ash browses the room with his eyes. Blanca isn’t alone in the large living-room; a young man is sitting on a sofa next to him, and a sly smile blooms on his lips when Ash meets his eyes.

“Ash Lynx. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. Blanca said a lot about you, I hope to see you live up to your reputation.”

Ash frowns, taken aback by the assurance with which this newcomer is talking. The boy seems young, and yet he’s acting like he owns the place, and Ash suspects maybe he indeed does. At the very least, he doesn’t seem displaced in the refined decor, with his elegant clothing, his long silky hair tied in an elaborated braid on his shoulder.

“And who the fuck are you?”

The boy opens his mouth, clearly offended, but Blanca is quicker.

“Ah, my deepest apologizes sir, I’ve never quite managed to make him lose this dirty mouth of his.” he says, his voice the sweetest saccharine. He turns to Ash, serene smile still in place. “Ash, this is sir Lee Yut-Lung.”

A Lee? So, Ash assumed correctly, the young man is indeed in charge here. Ash knew the remaining heir of the Lee was fairly young, but he hadn’t expected him to look… like this.

Yut-Lung seems easily reasserted by Blanca honeyed obedience. His eyes leave Ash to travel to the door, where Eiji and Sing are standing.

“I see he didn’t kill you.” Yut-Lung observes flatly, his chin tilted toward Eiji.

“I told you you could trust me, Yue.”

Eiji’s answer makes Yut-Lung’s lips twist in an amused smile, and he spares a glance in Ash’s direction.

“Oh, I trusted you, Eiji. It’s him I didn’t trust.”

With reason, Ash thinks. Something which Eiji seems to be lacking. Ash doesn’t understand how the two men can be so casual when Ash is so at loss. His patience has run out and he hates how little control he has on the situation.

“Will anyone explain what’s going on to me?” he grunts, as no one seems decided to put an end to his ignorance.

Blanca nods, the same smile still placated on his face. “I made a contract with mister Lee Yut-Lung.” he announces conversationally, while Yut-Lung preens with satisfaction next to him.

Ash blinks once. Processes Blanca’s words. Concludes his mentor can only be lying.

“It can’t—”

“Monsieur Golzine put an end to my contract.” Blanca opens his hands, mimicking helplessness. “Mister Yut-Lung was generous enough to offer me a job and save me from the embarrassment of unemployment.”

Ash takes a step back. “It’s impossible…” he protests, eyes set on Blanca’s serene face. “There’s no way Golzine would let you—”

“Monsieur is aware of my change of loyalty, of course. We thought you were finally ready to take over, so he accepted to end my contract before our latest assignment. I was only supposed to give you a hand one last time, as a goodbye. Obviously, none of us would have imagined you would screw this mission up so badly.” Blanca lets out a short laugh. “I was definitely lucky Monsieur trusted you enough to end my contract before your first mission in solo.”

Something akin to betrayal is battling with Ash’s bewilderment, but his surprise is so big he can’t seem to process anything else.

“Why— Why didn’t you say anything to me?”

He hates how small his voice sounds when he talks, hates how he knows he can’t put it entirely on his surprise.

“I didn’t want it to influence your mission. You’re still too easily distracted by your feelings, Ash. After your failure, I went to meet Monsieur alone, to verify if our agreement was still intact. I knew your new mission would allow us to cross ways soon enough anyway.”

“I don’t understand… Why did you take another job? What about your retirement, what about the Caribbean? I thought—”

Blanca’s smile widens. “I’m still too young for complete retirement, am I not? I only needed a change of career. The contract I made with Mister Yut-Lung is only one of a bodyguard, after all.”

A simple bodyguard? Why would Blanca decide to protect the young Lee’s life, all of a sudden? It doesn’t make any sense.

He opens his mouth to voice his thoughts, when Yut-Lung raises to his feet, a wave of his hand signaling his disinterest.

“So, you’re now aware of Blanca’s new loyalty. I got not time to hear you whine about it endlessly, you both can settle things between the two of you later.” Yut-Lung takes a step closer to Ash, his dark eyes glinting with a new interest when he talks again. “I’ve got a proposal for you, Ash Lynx.”

He pauses, then, clearly aware Ash is suddenly hanging at his lips. Finally, answers.

“I want you to help us put Dino Golzine down.”

---

Yut-Lung’s plan is crazy, and Ash wants no part in it.

“I won’t do it.” he states, final, as soon as Yut-Lung is done explaining his plan. “All I can do is wish you luck and—”

He is interrupted by a breathy laugh, Yut-Lung seeming quite amused by his refusal.

“Do you really think you are in a position to refuse?” he asks. “You think I’ll let you walk away?”

Ash grits his teeth. “So, you’ll force me to agree? I’m sure you know how much a man’s words weight when they’re obtained through constraint.”

“Oh, this I know, believe me. I won’t oblige you to cooperate under a death threat. Blanca did warn me about how you react when forced to do anything.” Yut-Lung shakes his head slowly. “No, but I need the threat to make you listen to me until the end. Then, I will let you make an educated decision.”

Ash turns to Blanca, annoyed by the man’s new silence. “What part do you play in this? You really plan on betraying Golzine like—”

“I’m not betraying the Monsieur, Ash. Like I told you, he knows about my contract. We’re in no conflict of interest until he directly attempts to Sir Yut-Lung’s life.”

Yeah, until he does. If Yut-Lung is so set on taking Golzine down, the mafia boss won’t go without a fight. Ash still doesn’t understand why Blanca is suddenly protecting the young Chinese, but what he does know is that he doesn’t want to be in the opposite camp from him.

“Blanca, you know exactly why I can’t accept this deal. It’s too risky, I can’t—”

Yut-Lung interrupts him again, with an exasperated huff, this time.

“We will protect your older brother, if that’s what worries you. We—”

You told him?” Anger and betrayal rush through Ash’s system, and suddenly he crosses the room to face Blanca, hands curled into fists at his sides. “You told him about—”

“Ash.” Blanca’s tone is tentatively placating, and it stops Ash in his tracks. “I didn’t need to. Sir Yut-Lung researched on you, your family’s ties aren’t something difficult to find.”

As he talks, Blanca reaches to put a comforting hand on Ash’s shoulder, but Ash hits it away, furious. Now, not only one but two mafia bosses are aware of Griffin’s existence, aware they can play with it to obtain exactly what they want from Ash. He’s so frustrated he would scream if his jaw wasn’t so firmly set.

Yut-Lung grimaces. “All this brotherly love is sickening me. But I can assure you Ash, that your brother will be safe with us. It will only be a matter of weeks, and then the two of you will be free from Golzine. Isn’t it what you want?”

Once again, Ash ignores Yut-Lung to stare at Blanca. “We don’t need a few weeks. If it’s you and me, we can take him down in a few days, all we need is—”

“No.” Ash startles at the finality in Blanca’s voice. “I can’t repeat myself enough, Ash. I was only hired as a bodyguard. I won’t do anything to attempt to my former employer’s life.”

Ash expected this answer, but it still infuriates him. “You’re such a hypocrite. Always been. You can hide yourself all you want behind your screwed up moral code, you’ll have to take a side, in the end.”

Blanca smiles at that, yet his grin is denuded of any joy. “I will cross that bridge when and if I come to it. For now, I stand by my words.” He takes a step back, shrugs casually. “Think about it for a minute, Ash. What are your options? If you refuse Mr. Yut-Lung’s proposal and return to Golzine, you can’t do it without killing this Japanese boy, like he asked. And after that… what? I’ve seen how much you hate working for him. If you go on like this…”

“What?”

“I’m afraid it will kill you. Sooner than later.”

Blanca isn’t smiling anymore, and his words unnerve Ash. He didn’t think Blanca would have noticed how much his allegiance to Golzine is costing him. He glances at Eiji, who is still standing beside Sing, silent. Their eyes meet, and Ash knows he can’t kill him. He tried twice today, and twice found himself physically unable to do so.

His mind is already beginning to work on the problem, testing how the different scenarios would play out.

“Still. We don’t need these weeks you talked about. Even on my own, I can just go and kill Golzine, we don’t need your plan.”

Blanca raises his brows. “How would you achieve that? The mansion is well guarded, and the Monsieur never goes anywhere without an entourage. Plus, he doesn’t exactly trust you, Ash.”

“There’s a place where he goes with only a minimal guard. I could hit there.”

“Cape Club?” Blanca asks, frowning. “There’s no good spots for a sniper to hit there. And you can’t just walk to Monsieur Golzine and shoot him in plain day.”

“Who’s saying I would walk?” Ash counters, working out a plan as he talks. “I need to be quick if I don’t want to be shot by his gooses in retaliation. I could… use a vehicle. Stand on top of a truck or something.”

Blanca opens two wide eyes, and it’s the first time in this conversation he seems destabilized.

“Are you telling me…” he begins slowly. “That you would shoot him while standing on top of a truck? That’s your plan?”

His tone is so incredulous, Ash feels suddenly less certain of himself. “I could.” he insists. “You taught me how to shoot, that’s all I need.”

Blanca furrows his brows. “Apparently, I should better have taught you some common sense. This is the stupidest thing I have ever heard you say, Ash.”

Yut-Lung extends a hand to silence Blanca. “We can work the details later, we can’t act in a hurry. Plus, I don’t want to simply kill Golzine, I have to destroy him.” He faces Ash again, a curious gleam in his dark eyes. “Now, Ash Lynx. Do we have an agreement?”

Ash doesn’t hesitate, this time. He’s beginning to believe this is the only chance he will ever get of getting rid of Golzine. Beginning to think this could work out.

“We do. I’ll help you take down the old man. Once this is done, I want nothing to do with you anymore, got it?”

Yut-Lung smiles widely. “Perfectly.”

“And another thing; I’m working with you, in collaboration. But don’t think for one second that I’m at your service or anything.”

“Oh.” Yut-Lung considers Ash’s condition with a slight frown. “I was going to propose you a job, though. You can ask Blanca, the pay is more than adequate for the service asked.”

“You can keep your money.” Ash smiles then, the beginning of a plan forming in his mind. “I’ll have more than my content of that in no time. Along with a way of forcing Golzine out of the country for a while.”

“Really? That would allow us to gain some time to put in place our plan of action.” Yut-Lung pauses to think, a finger to his lips. “Alright.” he decides finally. “I agree with your terms, partner.”

The last word is said with evident mockery, but Ash decides to overlook it.

“I’ll have a contract ready tomorrow, for us both to sign.” Yut-Lung continues pensively. “Once our agreement is settled, we will discuss our plan.”

Ash acquiesces reluctantly. He would have preferred to discuss all of that immediately, but the hour is late and he is in need of a night of sleep.

As if he had read his thoughts, Yut-Lung talks again. “You’ll sleep here tonight, as my guest. I don’t want to risk you running to Golzine before our agreement is signed.”

Ash holds back a grimace. He doesn’t know how much sleep he will be able to find when adrenaline is still rushing through his system. But he is used to it. It won’t be worse than sleeping at Golzine’s.  

“Eiji will show you your room.” Yut-Lung tilts his chin toward the Japanese. “Making people comfortable is kind of his thing.”    

Eiji lights up in response, and he shares a discreet smile with Yut-Lung.

Ash feels inclined to refuse to follow Eiji, inclined to insist he prefers to leave the mansion; but he still has a lot of questions for Eiji, and his curiosity prevails on his uneasiness.

As they leave the room, Ash sees Sing walk behind them, an attentive presence in his back, but Eiji doesn’t seem to mind so Ash stays quiet about it.

“You seem to have a comfy relationship with your boss.” Ash observes as they take the same path as before.

Eiji turns to him, his brows lifted in question. “My boss?” he asks, clearly confused.

“Lee Yut-Lung.”

“Oh.” Eiji frowns slightly. “Yut-Lung isn’t my boss.”

“Really? Didn’t he hire you for that thing back at the hotel? Do you cut ties with your employers as soon as your mission is completed?”

Ash hears a short chuckle in his back, and it’s Sing who reply, as Eiji is too busy staring at him with his eyes wide open in surprise.

“Why are you talking like Eiji is some sort of secret spy?” Sing asks, amusement obvious in his voice.

It’s Ash’s turn to be surprised. “Not a spy… But surely, you must be some sort of hitman, right?” he asks to Eiji, annoyed by his silence.

Again, Ash’s response triggers Sing’s hilarity. “A hitman? You thought Eiji was a hitman? Oh my god.”

Ash is mostly confused, now. “Yes? You prefer to call it differently? Blanca does call himself a freelancer, after all.”

Sing laughs harder. “Holy fuck, I can’t believe— You really looked at Eiji and thought he was a fucking hitman?”

A rush of blood colors Eiji’s cheeks. “Hum, I’m… I’m not a hitman or… anything like that. I’m just a friend of Yut-Lung. He needed a Japanese for this mission, so I proposed my help.”

Sing laughs again. “Our plan relied entirely on the fact it would be easy to make you white people confuse one Japanese for another. And fuck if it didn’t work perfectly!”

Ash is still processing Eiji’s words. This new information doesn’t add up with what Ash knows of the man. It’s impossible he would have—

“Yeah, I know.” Sing completes, an amused smile playing on his lips. “I guess it’s hard to accept you were tricked by a normal person and not a trained assassin, uh? Yut-Lung and I were also surprised it worked so well, to say the truth.”

Eiji blushes some more. “Sing.”

“But I guess it’s why it worked, right? Because Eiji isn’t like you, you didn’t recognize your training in him and concluded he was harmless, because he indeed was.”

Harmless?” Ash turns to Eiji. “You knocked out my real target, tricked me all night, stole my money before vanishing into thin air and—”

“Sing helped me a bit.” Eiji says, suddenly uneasy. “And I mean… We were thoughtfully prepared, it wasn’t so hard…”

Ash mulls it over. It’s beginning to make sense, actually. Ash has always been confident he could see it when someone was covering their training, no matter how good of an actor. There were always the little things betraying a professional, be it their scent –or their absence of it, usually— their gaze, their clothes… It’s true that Ash didn’t see on Eiji anything that would betray him as a killer. But to think he managed to trick him like he did without any kind of training? It seems impossible.

Ash is tired of being wrong, tired of having so little control on the situation. As he opens his mouth to ask following questions, he is interrupted by the arrival of a guard in their back.

“Sing. Master Yut-Lung wants to see you.”

“Right now?”

As the guard nods, Sing hesitates, his gaze traveling to Eiji before returning to Ash, assessing.

Ash retains a sigh. “Don’t worry, you can go. I’m not planning on betraying our agreement, I won’t complete my mission for Golzine.”

Eiji startles, as if he didn’t even consider Ash could still only be waiting for an opportunity to kill him. Ash is beginning to see how there’s no way he could be a trained killer, and he’s not feeling any smarter for it.

“It’s okay, Sing.” Eiji assures. “I’ll be alright.”

Sing watches him carefully, a worried crease between his eyebrows. He passes a hand in his short hair. “Fuck. Alright.” he turns to Ash. “You better not try anything, because if Eiji here is kinda harmless, I am the exact opposite. Got it?”

Ash calmly raises a brow, not ruffled by Sing’s threat. “Got it.” he repeats, the slightest trace of sarcasm audibles in his voice.

Sing frowns at it, but he still turns heels to follow the guard.

The silence following his departure is uncomfortable.

“Hum, right.” Eiji visibly tries to compose himself back. “Please follow me this way.”

Ash quickly notices that they are returning to where they were earlier, close to what he still suspects to be Eiji’s bedroom.

“How did a normal person like you become friend with the head of the Chinese mafia?”

“Oh. That’s… a long story.”

There’s a sorrowful smile on Eiji’s lips, and he doesn’t seem willing to expend on the subject, so Ash doesn’t press him further. But still, Sing can say all he wants that Eiji is normal, there’s no way it’s truly the case. Normal people don’t befriend mafia bosses. Normal people don’t propose themselves for a mission so dangerous without a good reason.

Eiji opens a new door and they step into a room, very similar to the one he found Eiji in earlier, except smaller. Like the rest of the building, the walls are pale, and it’s elegantly decorated.

“Here is your room. Mine is right across the corridor. So, if you need anything… Well, I’ll be there.”

Ash faces him, bewildered. “Why are you even telling me this? Aren’t you scared?”

“Scared? Of what?”

“I tried to kill you, today. How can you be so sure I’m not waiting for you to sleep to complete my mission?”

“Oh.” Again, Eiji seems so clearly surprised, it’s as if he didn’t even consider it to be a possibility. “But… You agreed to work with us?”

“Of course, I did.” Ash grunts. “But nothing guarantees you I’m not lying.”

He doesn’t know why it seems so important to him that Eiji gets it. Why he wants Eiji to be wary, to keep his guard up. How is it possible for Eiji to be so naïve and still have managed to live this old in their world?

Eiji frowns. “Well, you have your answer. You agreed to work with us, so I need to trust you from now on.”

Ash wants to reply that he did nothing to earn this trust yet, and it’s very foolish of Eiji to give it to him so easily, but he stays silent. One thing is sure: he won’t be stupid enough as to trust Eiji.

“So…” Ash rounds the room, half-wanting for Eiji to leave and yearning to question him further. “Is that Sing guy your lover or something?”

Well that absolutely wasn’t what he had planned to say. Clearly, he must be even more tired than he thought.

Eiji whips his head in his direction, his eyes wide, pink lips parted in surprise.

“Wh—” His cheeks color with bright pink. “No! Of course, not! What makes you even think that?”

Ash shrugs casually. “I mean… he did try to shield you with his body while you had a loaded gun aimed to your face. I thought only people in love could do stupid things like that.”

Eiji furrows his brows. “Sing can be… impulsive, sometimes.” he mutters, adverting his gaze from Ash to stare at the floor.

Ash hums noncommittally. He stills doesn’t know why he asked Eiji that question. It’s not like he cares, right?

Eiji still isn’t leaving the room. He looks around himself, as if he was trying to find something to add while Ash begins to check the place for cameras.

“Hum… What are you doing?”

Of course, Ash could have waited for Eiji to leave before beginning his inspection of the room, but he doesn’t see what it would have changed anyway.

“Nothing.” he replies, checking behind a first painting fixed on the wall.

“Ah.”

Ash doesn’t understand why Eiji isn’t leaving. He showed him his room, what could he still want from Ash? Ash has still questions for him, but he’s so tired he doesn’t know where to begin and doesn’t trust himself to read Eiji’s responses correctly.

He finds a first mic in between two books of the library. He crushes it under his foot in front of Eiji, who only seems mildly surprised.

“Ah… I’m sorry about this.” he murmurs. “Yut-Lung thinks you might…”

“Be dangerous? He’s right. I understand.” Ash says calmly, continuing his search.

“I think there should be one more under your bed.” Eiji continues, his voice still very low.

“What?”

“A mic. You should check underneath your bed.”

Ash crouches beside the bed and quickly finds a new mic. He breaks it also and turns to Eiji, frowning.

“I don’t understand… Why are you helping me out? You should already be snitching me to Yut-Lung. You can, you know. I don’t mind him knowing.”

Eiji shrugs simply. “I think it’s not good of us to be spying on you. If I was in your place, I wouldn’t want to sleep in a room full of mics.”

A tickle of warning spreads through Ash’s veins. This isn’t right. Eiji is being too nice. Ash was so close to kill him earlier, and yet, Eiji has been nothing but courteous ever since, showing Ash his room, helping him find the mics, lingering for no reason…

No. There is a reason. There is always one.

“Why are you being nice to me?”

Eiji looks at him like he doesn’t understand the question.

“Why am I… What?”

Ash huffs. “Nice.” he repeats. “I don’t understand what you could be seeking, by acting like that.”

Ash has already agreed to work with them. He’s completely at their mercy, what could Eiji still want from him?

Unless… Oh. Of course. The only thing all men want from Ash. It makes sense. Ash did make a show, that night. It couldn’t leave Eiji indifferent since Ash made an actual effort to be especially enthralling, back then. It takes less for people to be seduced, usually.

The cold understanding clings to Ash’s skin and he approaches Eiji slowly, his eyes set on his face.

“I know the drill, Eiji. Nobody has ever acted nice to me unless they wanted something in exchange. So, let me be very clear. If you think we can just continue from where we stopped last time, you’re greatly mistaking, I—”

“Wh- No!” Eiji’s whole face flushes with a fierce red as he protests strongly. “I- I wasn’t—”

“You know I was only pretending, right? Do not expect anything more from me.”

Eiji’s face pales as quickly as it had reddened. “I- I know that.” he says, his voice smaller than before.

Ash asserts his reaction silently. Eiji seems genuine enough. Maybe Ash was too quick to leap to conclusions. After all, Eiji was also pretending that night. Perhaps even more so than Ash was, since…

You weren’t pretending when you kissed him.

Ash casts that thought aside as soon as it grazes his mind. He can’t allow himself to think too closely about what he felt for Eiji that night. It will only make his heart ache, when he’s already so confused about everything else… He needs to stay level-headed.

Eiji’s face still hasn’t retrieved its colors. He steps back to the door.

“I know you don’t care about my apologies, but… I’m really sorry about that night. I-“

“Don’t be. You said it, earlier, we were playing the same game.” Ash grazes at his neck. “I guess I indeed was sore about losing it… You don’t have to excuse yourself.”

Eiji nods hesitantly. “Alright… Then, I guess I’ll let you rest…” he opens the door slowly, as if he wishes Ash will stop him. “I— Good night, Ash.” he says finally, and Ash can easily tell the smile on his lips is forced.

He doesn’t try to return the courtesy. Eiji leaves the room quietly and Ash is left alone with his thoughts. Good night. What kind of good night can he expect to find in this house?

---

Eiji had thought he would feel better once Ash would have accepted their deal. But clearly, the guilt he feels won’t ease until he has totally made up for the wrong he has done to him. It doesn’t matter if Ash himself pretends Eiji has nothing to apologize for.

When Eiji closes the door to Ash’s room, his mind is entirely preoccupated with that fateful night he met him.

He remembers the careful planning, remembers Sing and Yut-Lung’s worries about how dangerous the whole thing would be for Eiji. How dangerous Ash would be.

But Eiji had insisted. He wanted to do something useful, for once. He had so much to prove. To Yut-Lung and Sing. To himself. And this was so important, for what would come next. If Eiji could help in any way, he had to do his best.

At first, the mission had been strangely pleasing. Oh, of course Eiji was terribly nervous about screwing up badly along the way, but he knew Sing was ready to intervene if something went wrong. And more importantly…

He wasn’t afraid of Ash.

How could he be afraid of him, when Ash had spent the first minutes of their encounter sulking like a baby? There was nothing scary in the curve of his smile, in the green of his intelligent eyes.

Eiji wasn’t an idiot. He knew Ash was forced to flirt with him because he was expecting to steal the data Eiji had himself stolen to their target. But quickly, he had thought he was able to tell whether Ash was pretending or being genuine, and the Ash he could see underneath all the seduction had managed to touch his heart.

It nearly seemed like there had been two Ash. The one who was overly flirty had something dull in his eyes, and his face was stilled, his expression closed. It was easy to tell when he was lying, because he then became awfully calm, and his speech seemed clearly rehearsed. But there was another Ash, one who pouted when Eiji teased him, his cheeks the faintest pink, his tongue sharp with endless quips. This Ash was funny and nearly rude in his teasing, and his eyes were so very bright, one glance from him left Eiji breathless.

And Ash had been so tender when he had touched him, his hands the softest brush in his hair, on his face. Eiji had thought there was no way Ash could fake this. No way he could be pretending when his eyes were so sincere.

Yet, it was now painfully obvious that Eiji was clearly mistaking.

But he had just been so sure…

Eiji couldn’t bring himself to truly regret the kiss they had shared. After all, he had asked twice if Ash was certain he wanted that kiss, back in the elevator. He was convinced he had been clear enough, that he had made Ash understand he didn’t have to kiss Eiji to make sure he would go to his room.

And then, twice. Twice Ash had replied he truly wanted to, his eyes glistening with certainty, with a longing Eiji was sure was reflected on his own face.

He had thought they were on the same page, then. Two people letting their mission aside to indulge in a mutual affinity. Eiji had given in to his feelings, and it was the sweetest of surrender.

But guilt had been a faithful companion, even as Eiji was slowly losing sight of his initial goal. And it had forced him to interrupt the kiss, helped him remember that he couldn’t totally let himself be swept off his feet.

The moment Eiji had found himself alone in Ash’s hotel room, with the other man replying to a call on the balcony, had felt like the longest moment of his life. He had nearly stopped everything, nearly decided to drop his mission and just leave before Ash ended his call.

Yet he hadn’t, because he couldn’t do that to Yut-Lung.

Yut-Lung who was convinced this dumb mission was too dangerous for Eiji.

Eiji had gritted his teeth and made up his mind. He had to succeed. He would never get another opportunity like this one. Raising to his feet, he had easily collected the money he had found in a case under the bed. But then, the hardest needed to be done.

Eiji had a syringe, in his pocket. Filled with a drug from Yut-Lung’s conception. Eiji was supposed to inject it to Ash, before leaving. He couldn’t risk Ash discovering everything too early and screw their plan up.

But when Eiji had silently opened the door leading to the balcony, his syringe in his sleeve, he had been like frozen in place.

Ash was talking about him on the phone, or rather about his real target, and had apparently figured Eiji wasn’t who he thought he was. Ash was turning his back to Eiji, his shoulders tense under his suit, his voice hurried. All Eiji had to do was jab the syringe anywhere on him. All that it would do was make him sleep heavily, had said Yut-Lung.

And yet, he couldn’t. And he hated it because he could still hear Yut-Lung’s voice echoing in his ears, asking; “Are you sure you have what it takes to do it, Eiji?”

Maybe Yut-Lung had been right to worry, because while Eiji was preoccupied with his moral dilemma, Ash had ended his call and was now facing him, his mouth agape.

Eiji had panicked. Had tried to keep his innocent boy’s act up. He was certain he wasn’t very convincing, but Ash seemed to be too shaken to notice, his mind probably all occupied with dealing with his real target.

Stupidly, Eiji had tried to hear something from Ash. Had wanted to verify if Ash had shared his uncertainty, if he had felt the same pull Eiji had felt toward him.

“A target, was it all I was to you? Was everything fake?”

“Don’t you have anything else to say?”

Ash had stayed silent. Then he had asked him to leave. Eiji had felt so very dumb.

He knew Ash was an amazing actor, he was warned enough by Yut-Lung. And still, he had managed to convince himself that his feelings and Ash’s owns were aligned.

But Ash was only pretending and Eiji had felt like he had taken advantage of it, because he was supposed to be aware of Ash’s act, when the opposite wasn’t true.

He couldn’t leave the room without apologizing.

---

“So, how did it go?”

Yut-Lung is waiting for Eiji in his bedroom, comfortably spread on the couch. Eiji would have preferred to have the time to organize his thoughts before facing him.

“He doesn’t trust us…” he begins reluctantly as Yut-Lung stands up.

“Of course, he does not.” Yut-Lung half-shrugs a shoulder. “For what it’s worth, I don’t trust him either.”

Eiji stays silent. He doesn’t understand how the others can stand a situation where none of them trusts anyone else. How are they supposed to work together as things are?

“Eiji.” Yut-Lung’s stern tone of voice makes Eiji startle. “You aren’t trusting Ash Lynx either, aren’t you?” He walks closer to Eiji, an accusatory finger pointed at his chest. “Because that would be fucking stupid of you, if you were.”

“I…” Eiji cheeks heat up slightly. He knows Yut-Lung won’t like his answer. “I feel like we can trust him, though.”

As expected, Yut-Lung’s response is immediate, his brows furrow furiously, mouth opening in a protest.

Eiji raises his hands, pushes the words out to finish his thought before Yut-Lung can explode. “Yue, try to see things from his perspective! We know that all he wants is to be free from Golzine and to keep his brother safe. And all you want is to take Golzine down; so, you should be able to trust each other!”

Yut-Lung presses a hand to his face. “Gosh Eiji, don’t be so naïve. We know the lynx’s motivation, yes. But what we don’t know is what he is ready to do for it. Nothing guarantees he won’t betray us if the situation allows it.”

“Maybe.” Eiji has nothing to reply to that. “You’re right, I guess… it’s just…”

Yut-Lung’s features are stilled in a discontented mask, his eyes searing Eiji’s face. “How many times do I need to repeat myself for you to get it, Eiji. You can’t let your emotions, your compassion, cloud your judgement, in our world. You chose to see the end of it, so you’ll follow my lead because I know how deal with that kind of person.”

Eiji hums noncommittally. He feels too drained by the day to try to argue with Yut-Lung now. Hell, not so long ago, he was held at gunpoint by a very discontented looking Ash Lynx! He can still feel his heart rabbit in his chest at the memory.

He didn’t notice he had wrapped his arms around himself until he feels Yut-Lung’s hand reach his shoulder in a comforting attempt.

“Eiji…” Yut-Lung sighs, suddenly looking exhausted himself. “I knew letting you stay was a bad idea. You—”

“No.” Eiji gently pushes Yut-Lung’s hand away, lets his arms fall to his side. “I’m okay, Yut-Lung. You said it yourself, I’ve chosen to stay. And I don’t regret it. I want to participate, you know I need to.”

“I know…” Yut-Lung hesitates. “And I know it’s no use to try to argue with you… Ah, I don’t even know why I bother…”

“Yue, it will be alright.” Eiji forces a smile. “We’re all tense right now, but I’m sure we will see more clearly tomorrow. After all, everything went as you planned until now, right?”

“Yes,” Yut-Lung frowns, his expression somber. He walks to the window, his eyes searching for the moon. “And now, we have the Ash Lynx with us. Only time will tell if it will make things better or worse…”

---

When Ash wakes up in a cold sweat the next morning, it takes a while for his hazed mind to remember where he is and why he is there. The night hasn’t been all that resting, but Ash feels better after taking a refreshing shower. And more importantly, he already has formulated the beginning of a plan.

He closes the bedroom’s door and it’s only when he finds himself in the corridor that he realizes he doesn’t know who he must find to put things in motion. He figures he could probably wander around until he finds a guard or a servant to take him to Yut-Lung.

As he walks down the corridor, he comes across an open room and casts a quick glance inside. The room is large, and the morning sun is pouring through the window, casting a bright light on the only occupant of the room.

Eiji is sitting at a table, visibly focused on a bunch of photographs. It’s hard to say because of the blinding brightness coming from the window, but Ash can see an upset crease between his furrowed eyebrows, and he wonders if Eiji got as little sleep as he did. When Ash enters the room, nothing in Eiji’s behavior betrays he noticed him.

“What are you doing?”

Eiji jumps out of his skin at the sound of Ash’s voice, his head snapping in his direction. Ash frowns. Is Eiji so badly aware of his surroundings he didn’t notice Ash entering the room? It’s true that Eiji is welcomed here, as opposed to Ash, so he doesn’t need to keep his guard up, but still…

When his eyes meet Ash’s, Eiji relaxes slightly, an uncertain smile finding its way on his lips.

“H-hi, Ash. Did you sleep well?”

Ash shrugs noncommittally in response, and the crease returns between Eiji’s pinched brows. He gestures to the table, where pictures and photo albums are neatly set in piles.

“I’m sorting some pictures I took. I’ve got new clichés I wanted to organize.” he continues. His tone is cordial enough, but it feels forced and guarded to Ash. “I do this when I’m… hum, never mind.” He doesn’t finish his sentence but by the sound of it, Ash wonders if sorting pictures is Eiji’s way of dealing with his stress.

He feels nearly bad for intruding Eiji’s space like this and imposing his presence to him. But he can’t help but to be curious, so he continues to walk until he reaches the table Eiji is working on.

“So… You really are a photographer?” he asks.

Eiji nods. “Yes, I am. I’m a freelance photographer in my spare time. I don’t get a lot of work but…”

“So that assignment you talked about, when we met… It was true?”

Eiji acquiesces again. “Of course. I really did get an assignment for a photoshoot with a model earlier that day. Like I said, I don’t really get a lot of requests so I couldn’t refuse this one…”

“This must have been an awfully busy day for you, then.” Ash tries to wrap his mind about the new information. It’s true that he had felt like Eiji’s love for photography was genuine, but after learning he had been so easily led on by the Japanese, he had concluded he must simply be an excellent liar.

“You seem surprised… You thought I was lying?”

Ash huffs. “Well, yeah, obviously.”

This time, a true smile blooms on Eiji’s face, and Ash stays starstruck by the difference it makes.

“Hum, like you lied about being a young businessman, right?” he asks, quirking an amused eyebrow. “Gosh, your lie was so boring.”

Ash feels himself flush. “Yeah, well, not everyone has a second secret life as a photographer they can use as a covert, you know.” he counters lamely.

Eiji chuckles, returning his focus on the pictures set on the table. Ash follows his gaze. There’s an open album full of classified photographs, each picture neatly set next to a written date and place. Ash reaches for it, intrigued. He looks silently through the album while Eiji continues to sort pictures into another book.

Ash knows nothing about photography but… He can’t help but to pause on a few clichés of New York. The city seems weirdly soft, seen through Eiji’s lens. Beautiful, even.

“You’re good.” Ash turns another page. “You really like this city, don’t you?”

Eiji blushes discreetly. “I… I didn’t have the best time here, but… I met great people and there’s something about New York that’s so different from Japan… Everything is magnified, here. The good like the bad, everything is intense, unhidden. I’ve grown to know both part of the city, and to love them both.”

Ash nods, thoughtful. He turns a new page and finds his gaze attracted by a new photograph. It’s simply a picture of the city at daybreak, the kind of picture that would make a good postcard for tourists. Yet, for a reason Ash can’t quite explain, the scenery is calling to him; enthralling in the way the soft colors blind together, toning down the sharp edges of the buildings.

“Sunrise and sunset are about the only times this junkyard of a city looks good.” Ash muses out loud, eyes glued to the picture. When Eiji doesn’t react, Ash quirks a glance toward him, only to find the photographer staring back at him, something akin to surprise lingering in his eyes.

Ash puts the book down. It’s clear Eiji is trying to figure him out in the same way Ash is. He wonders what Eiji can see when he looks at him. Surely nothing good, Ash did try to kill him only the day before, after all. But then, why is he staring at Ash with such a gentle smile?

“I didn’t want to interrupt you.” Ash takes a step back. “I guess I will—"

“No!” Eiji’s eyes widen. “No, ah, you’re not a bother. I— Actually, I’m glad you came to talk to me. After yesterday… I was afraid you would hate me…”

“Hate you?” Ash can’t keep his incredulity off his voice. His feelings regarding Eiji are complicated, but there are so many people in Ash’s entourage more deserving of his hate that it feels ridiculous Eiji could draw such conclusions.

“Yes.” Eiji grazes a finger to his cheek, nearly bashful. “After how you acted yesterday, I—”

Ah. Ash can see how he wasn’t exactly the most agreeable to Eiji, the day before. He feels weirdly bad, when he sees how upset Eiji seems to be about it.

“Don’t worry about yesterday. I was… Well, it was a lot to take in.” 

Eiji seems relieved by Ash’s answer. He opens his mouth to say something, but Ash will never know what, because right then, his stomach produces a loud growl, making them both start. There’s a silence while they both just stares at the other with stupefaction, wide jade meeting even wider brown.

The moment is broken when Ash sees the corners of Eiji’s lips quirk up, seconds before he breaks into a delighted laugh.

Ash feels his cheeks warm up, and he puts a hand on his stomach, bewildered by the betrayal of his own body. His reaction just makes Eiji laugh louder and Ash curses himself mentally.

“…Are you hungry?” the Japanese finally asks once he manages to calm his laughter enough to form a coherent sentence.

Ash adverts his gaze, cheeks hollowed in annoyance. “I guess I must be…” he grunts. When he looks up, Eiji is staring at him with a fond smile, and this too makes Ash’s stomach react in a funny way, but this time, it’s not because of his hunger.

“Do you want to eat breakfast?” Eiji asks gently. “I could cook something for you, if you wanted. I haven’t eaten breakfast either…”

Ash wants to refuse. But when Eiji stares at him with his doe eyes, expression hopeful and open, Ash finds out he wouldn’t mind staying by his side a while longer. Just to test the waters, to try to figure out what kind of guy Eiji is. They will be working together, after all, they have to get acquainted. And if Ash wants to keep the upper hand, he needs to get a better understanding of the people living in this house.

This is the only reason Ash acquiesces. It has nothing to do with the realization that he might have been a little quick to judge Eiji and is now very curious about him. It has nothing to do with the quiet warmth that dwells in his chest when the other smiles at him.

Ash follows Eiji through the house while the photographer takes advantage of the walk to give him a quick tour of it. The mansion is immense, but Ash is beginning to map it quite precisely in his mind.

The kitchens are exactly what he expected: grand and functional, large enough to host a team of cooks; it looks a lot like the kitchens at Dino’s. Except for the fact that they are strangely empty.

“You said you would cook… But isn’t there a kitchen staff here?” he asks, turning to Eiji with his brow lifted in question.

Eiji nods. “Yes, there is. And we could call them, if needed. But they don’t spend the day in the kitchen you know, they follow a schedule. Yut-Lung wakes up early in the morning, after that, he has no need for them until 12.” Eiji shrugs slightly. “I like cooking, so I prefer to cook my own meals when I can. I cook for Sing also, sometimes.” He wrinkles his nose. “I rarely cook for Yut-Lung, though. He is so picky…”

Ash sits on a stool while Eiji washes his hands at a sink nearby.

“So, what are you making me?” he asks after a bit, watching as Eiji dries his hands on a towel.

Eiji lifts his head up, a faint look of surprise on his face. “What am I…?” his surprise morphs into amusement before he can finish his sentence. “So, you won’t even ask if you can help me?”

It’s Ash’s turn to be surprised. “You said you would cook something for me.” he states, but he’s unsure suddenly and he can hear his hesitation in his voice. Eiji can probably hear it too, because his answer earns Ash a new chuckle. “Hum… Do you need any help?” he adds, fully realizing it’s a bit late for this question but hoping it will distract Eiji from his hilarity.

It fails miserably because Eiji’s eyes still shine with amusement when he replies, but all things considered, Ash doesn’t mind very much.

“It’s alright. You’re right, I did offer to cook. I can’t help but notice how much of a gentleman you are, though.”

Ash allows a sly smile to stretch his lips. “I’m only a gentleman when I need to—”

He doesn’t have the heart to finish his thought, because Eiji’s smile stills on his lips. Yes, Ash Lynx is only a gentleman when he needs to obtain something. Stating it out loud seems very pathetic, suddenly.

The silence stretches awkwardly between them for the first time since Ash walked in on Eiji this morning.

“To answer your question…” Eiji continues hesitantly. “I can cook anything, really. What do you want to eat?”

Ash half-shrugs. “Whatever you’ll have is fine.” he responds.

Eiji taps a finger to his lips in wonder, a new smile slowly quirking his lips. “Hum, I’m not sure if what I usually eat for breakfast would suit your tastes.” He lays his hands on the workplace, leans closer to Ash. “What is your favorite food? If it’s something like hamburger, I’ll not cook it, though.”

“Hamburger?” Ash snorts. “Are you saying that because I’m American?” Eiji nods in response, and Ash has to retain another giggle. “After living here for years, you should know Americans aren’t all burgers eaters.” he says, shaking his head with mock disapproval.

“I spend most of my time with Chinese Americans, and those have good tastes, it doesn’t change me much from Japan. You, though, you look like such a typical American...”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ash retorts, mildly offended. “I’m sure you know typical Americans don’t eat burgers for breakfast, you’re just messing with me.”

Eiji shrugs casually, but a smile pangs at his lips. “Maybe… Like I said, you seem like the type of American who drinks coke for breakfast.”

Ash laughs again. He just can’t seem to help it. “Ah! Now, that was insulting.”

“You called me a lying snake, but I am the insulting one?”

Oh. Ash would fear Eiji is mad about it, but he still seems fairly amused when Ash meets his gaze.

“Alright, that wasn’t very fair of me, I suppose… Besides, it was a bad comparison; you look nothing like a snake. More like… I don’t know, a puppy or something.”

Eiji pouts at that, which only makes his resemblance with a puppy even more obvious. “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.” he grumbles. “Now, what’s your favorite food, if it’s not burgers?”

Ash leans back on his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’ll have you know I prefer healthy food. Like salad. My favorite is salad with shrimp and avocado.”

Griffin does the best avocado and shrimp salad. Nothing can surpass that.

“Oh?” Eiji quirks a brow. “That’s fancier than what I would have thought.” he observes, clearly amused.

Ash has to restrain himself from sticking his tongue at him. He doesn’t understand why he feels so compelled to act childish this morning, but it isn’t all that displeasing. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“Okay, well avocado and shrimp salad it is, then.” Eiji declares, walking to the refrigerated chamber.

Ash gets up to follow him. “Wait, you don’t really have to—”

“No, I want to try it. Plus, it’s quick and easy to cook, that’s perfect.”

“Do they even have what you need to cook it?”

Eiji emerges from the fridge. “Of course! They have everything you want here!”

Eiji returns quickly with a bunch of ingredients, and Ash watches him with curiosity. But Eiji doesn’t have the time to put himself to work, because the kitchen’s door opens soon. Blanca enters the room and frowns slightly when he takes in the sight before him.

Because it’s Blanca, he’s immediately able to compose himself back, of course.

“Ash, sir Yut-Lung is waiting for you in the blue lounge.”

“Oh, so he made you his errand boy, beside his bodyguard?” Ash asks, caustic. “Tell your new master I will come when I have eaten breakfast.”

Blanca purposefully ignores Ash to turn to Eiji. “He was looking for you also, mister Okumura. You should come with us.”

“Ah.” Eiji looks at Ash, hesitant. “We should go, then. Believe me, you don’t want to deal with Yut-Lung when he’s mad.”

Ash doesn’t want to deal with Yut-Lung no matter his mood. He would rather stay and eat whatever Eiji would have managed to cook. Except the sooner they plan Golzine’s demise, the better for everyone.

“Right.” He raises to his feet. “You will owe me this salad, though.”

Eiji’s smile is a thing of beauty, in the cold and sterilized kitchen, under the artificial gleam of the neon. It seems to be holding a promise, one Ash fails to figure.

He follows Blanca out of the kitchen while Eiji puts back what he took off the refrigerated room. When Ash passes in front of Blanca, the man leans to murmur in his ear.

“I don’t know what you’re playing at with this boy, but you should be careful, Ash. It’s dangerous.”

Ash lifts a brow. “More dangerous than betraying Golzine?” he jests somberly.

He didn’t expect Blanca to respond, yet he does, and his words send a shiver down his spine.

“Yes, Ash. So much more.”

Chapter Text

Ten years ago

 

((The indefinite article a / an is used when we don't specify the things or people we are talking about: I met a friend.

The definite article the is used when the speaker talks about a specific object that both the person speaking and the listener know: The car over there is fast.))

 

Eiji closes the grammar book with a sigh. Really, it’s not that hard. So why does he always forget to put an article before nouns when he talks?

His cheeks burn furiously when he remembers how earlier this week, his classmate Josh had thought funny to mockingly repeat every sentence Eiji managed to pronounce in English, enhancing Eiji’s accent until it was barely recognizable to his own ears. He didn’t think doing this to someone could be considered funny, but it must be to Americans if his other classmates’ reaction of hilarity was anything to go by.

Before entering his new American middle school, Eiji had thought his classmates would be making efforts to try to understand him. After all, they had mastered their own language, they should be able to fill the blanks in Eiji’s speech while he was still learning, right?

But no, he learns immediately that Americans never make any effort, and every mistake Eiji makes when trying to communicate is invariably met by a mockery.

Eiji resolutely opens his book again. He will show Josh and everyone else that he can do it. And one day he will be the one correcting their English.

Maybe.

Once he’s eaten this book whole.

America was supposed to be funnier than that. When Eiji’s father had this promotion and the opportunity to open and supervise the brand-new American branch of the firm he worked in, Eiji had been excited. Leaving Japan and everything he knew had been hard for such a young boy, but his parents had said that life in New York would be everything he could wish for, and he had believed them without question.  

He’s been in America for five months now, and he still doesn’t know what to make of it.

His parents think he doesn’t hear them talk, at night, when his sister and he are supposed to be long asleep. But the apartment they live in is small; the walls are thin and their worries are loud.

Laying on his back awake at night, his sister’s slow breathing filling the space of the bedroom they shared, Eiji always listened to their conversations intently. That was how he had learned words like bankrupt and debts… And a couple of months after they had moved in New York, his father’s firm was already bought back by the Lees.

The Lees’ name is daily pronounced in Eiji’s parents’ late-night conversations. Eiji still hasn’t learned much about them, but he knows that they are in charge and that his parents fear them, and it’s enough to make him resent them.

His father had been able to keep his job at the firm, but since he wasn’t the head chief anymore, he didn’t earn enough money to assure his family a living. Eiji had heard him once, talk to his mother about how he had begged the Lees on his knees for more time to pay the debt he owed them. The shame he had felt upon imagining his proud father on his knees before someone else still clung to Eiji’s skin long after overhearing the conversation.

A few weeks passed before his mother began to work for the Lees also, but as a maid in one of their mansions. Her salary was ridiculously low, and in complement to her husband’s pay was barely enough to pay the bills each month, but they made it work.

Every day after school, Eiji had to go to the mansion and wait for her to finish her workday, before accompanying her to go pick up his sister at the kindergarten. Some days, it took her longer than others to go out of the mansion and retrieve her son, so Eiji waited in the street in front, not daring to enter or even sit on the stairs leading to the front door.

It continued like this for some time, until one day, the guard on duty at the door took pity of Eiji, deciding it was dangerous for a kid to wander on the streets alone, and had opened the mansion’s garden for him.

That’s where Eiji now waited every day, a book in his lap, determined to learn as much as he could to improve his English.

“What are you doing here?”

Eiji lifts his gaze off his book, startled. Before him is a little girl, probably younger than he is, looking at him with an evident distaste. She has long hair tied in braids, wears delicate clothes, and Eiji catches himself thinking she looks like a princess.

“Ah, I wait for my mother. She is maid here.” he answers with difficulty, the surprise of being discovered making it hard to retrieve his English.

And dammit. He forgot the article again.

The girl wrinkles her nose in disdain. “Ugh, your English is so bad. Where do you come from?”

“Japan.” Eiji blushes. Today isn’t the day he impresses someone with his English. “Do you live here?” he asks, curiosity quickly taking over his embarrassment.

“Of course, I do. I’m Lee Yut-Lung, I own this place.” 

It explains why this girl seems so full of herself. Despite her claim, Eiji judges that she is too young to be the owner of the mansion, but it surely is the property of her parents. Which are his parents’ bosses. Eiji has to be careful when talking to her.

“It is a beautiful house. My mother is a lot… ah thankful to work here.”

Yut-Lung discards Eiji’s attempt at a compliment with a wave of her hand. “Meh. Poor people really do satisfy themselves with anything, I guess.”

Eiji isn’t too sure what Yut-Lung means, but it doesn’t sound very nice. He doesn’t think about it for long because the girl has stepped closer, and Eiji realizes he made a mistake. The girl’s face is definitely boyish.

“Are you a girl?” he asks, his eyes fixed on Yut-Lung’s face to try and find a clue that would help him decide.

Yut-Lung lets out a huff. “I’m a boy.” he grumbles. “Jeez, you really are as dumb as you look.”

“Oh. I am sorry.”

Yut-Lung sits on the bench next to Eiji and peers at his book. He then asks Eiji a bunch of grammar related questions Eiji finds really difficult to answer, especially when Yut-Lung shows no patience nor understanding and keeps pushing his questions like a disgruntled teacher.

After this strange encounter, Eiji finds Yut-Lung waiting for him every time he goes to the garden. Or rather, Yut-Lung pretends to be doing his own business there when Eiji arrives, and then proceeds to complain loudly about Eiji’s presence.

Everything that makes Eiji who he is seems to be a disgrace in Yut-Lung’s eyes, and Eiji is thoughtfully criticized the moment he puts a foot in the garden. Strangely, he doesn’t mind. No one before has ever been so mean to him, but at least Yut-Lung allows Eiji to retaliate, and soon Eiji feels that their interactions are more like bickering between siblings than anything else.

There is something in Yut-Lung’s eyes that forces Eiji to be patient with him. He doesn’t know how to explain it, but despite his lofty attitude, he feels like Yut-Lung is hiding a profound wound. It’s obvious in the way he shuts down sometimes, in how he becomes tense when Eiji asks him the most innocuous questions about his family. Evident in his guarded posture, in the tense arc of his back.

To be completely honest, Eiji has to say that despite that, he still begins by hating Yut-Lung’s guts with passion. He doesn’t dread nor mind their encounters because he knows how to defend himself against Yut-Lung’s venom, but he can’t say he enjoys them either at first.

It changes after one day, as winter is so cold that waiting in the garden becomes torturous, the guard at the door leads Eiji inside the mansion instead of opening for him the garden’s gates. When Eiji questions the guard, the man says he was forbidden to reveal to Eiji who allowed this change. But when Eiji steps in the sitting room, Yut-Lung is there, and he criticizes Eiji with even more strength than ever.

Perhaps Yut-Lung was kind enough to figure Eiji would freeze to death if he continued to wait in the garden for his mother. Or maybe Yut-Lung himself got tired of the cold and decided it would be nicer to meet Eiji in the warmth of his home. Even if the latter is less compassionate than the first, it would still mean Yut-Lung cares enough about Eiji to not just decide to stop to meet him anymore and let him lose his fingers in the cold, and Eiji appreciates that act of kindness for what it is.

They only grow closer after that, so much that Eiji finds himself looking forward meeting Yut-Lung every day after school.

Until one day, Yut-Lung enters the sitting room long after Eiji, and Eiji immediately feels like something isn’t right.

Yut-Lung’s face is emotionless, and he doesn’t look at Eiji when he walks in. He just sits on the sofa across from him, and Eiji can see how puffy and red his eyes are.

“Don’t say anything.” Yut-Lung commands, his voice hoarse like he has cried or screamed until it broke.

Eiji wouldn’t know what to say anyway. He came to understand that Yut-Lung wasn’t happy, he gets there are things happening to him that he doesn’t tell Eiji. But he lacks the imagination to figure what it could be.

After a while, silent tears fall from Yut-Lung’s eyes, and Eiji speaks anyway.

“Yut-Lung… Is there something I can do? Can I help?”

Yut-Lung scoffs, and he takes his knees in his arms, curling up until he seems very small on the large sofa.

“There’s nothing you can do. You wouldn’t even be able to get it. How could you understand, when you have a mother who love you, the father to go with it, and even a sibling who isn’t crazy. You don’t understand what it’s like to have no one like I do.”

“But… Don’t you have your brothers? I thought they—”

“I want them dead.”

Yut-Lung has hidden his face between his knees, and his tone is calm, far too calm for his words.

“W-what?”

“I want to destroy them and everything they have. This is what I live for. One day, I will burn them to the ground.”

In his whole life, Eiji has never heard someone say such terrible things, and with such conviction. How can such a small child say things like this and mean every word so desperately?

“I don’t—”

Yut-Lung snaps his head up, tears still rolling freely down his cheeks.

“You don’t understand, right?” he spits. “I told you you wouldn’t. Every day you come here, and every day you leave and return to your normal life, to your loving family. You have no idea of what happens in this house. No idea of what kind of monster every member of this family is.”

“I wish I could understand. Maybe if you explained—”

“No.” Yut-Lung jumps to his feet. “I could talk about it for hours and you still wouldn’t get it. But I could make you understand. I could ask my brothers to fire your mother and father. I could even have them killed, if I really wanted to! Then you would know what it’s like to have to do despicable things in order to survive. I could make your life a living hell. It would be very easy for me. And then, only then we would be able to understand each other.”

There’s a terrible light gleaming in Yut-Lung’s dark eyes, and for the first time since they met, Eiji is afraid of him.

“But…” Yut-Lung’s shoulders fall, and he passes a trembling hand in his hair. “I can’t. I can’t seem to be able to harm you. You’ll stay this regular boy living in your regular world, and I will stay a monster leaving alongside monsters. It’s better if we stop seeing each other from now on.”

“What? No!” Eiji has stood up also. He stares at Yut-Lung with horrified eyes. “I don’t want that! I know there isn’t much I can do to help you, and you are right, maybe I cannot understand, but… It doesn’t mean we can’t be friends!”

“Friends?” Yut-Lung sniffles. “We’re not friends Eiji, I hate you.”

“No, you don’t. I know you don’t.”

Yut-Lung looks his age again, when he breaks down in tears in front of Eiji. He doesn’t push Eiji away when he tries to take him in his arms, so Eiji holds him through his violent sobs. He tries to replicate his mother’s gestures when she comforts his sister, hoping he can make Yut-Lung feels the same relief.

“You said you had no one, well it isn’t true anymore.” he says. “I know it is not much, but I will be there for you, Yut-Lung, I will be your friend.” 

It takes months for Yut-Lung to slowly open up about the tragic story of his mother. Months in which Eiji hears all about a world he thought existed only in movies. Yut-Lung’s reality is made of monsters who harm children and bloody their hands for power. He lives secluded in a fancy mansion, eats the finest food and wears the prettiest clothes, but Eiji would never want to exchange his poor apartment for Yut-Lung’s wealthy lifestyle.

---

Present day

The first phase of the plan is simple. They need to buy time to put everything else in motion, and Ash knows just how to do so and threaten Golzine’s position in the Corsican’s organization at the same time.

If all go well, he will also earn a shit ton of money in the process, which can always be useful.

They talk about Ash’s plan long and hard, all of that in one of Yut-Lung’s fancy lounges, while drinking delicately flavored tea. Only two days ago, Ash would never have guessed he could end up casually having breakfast with the head of the Chinese’s syndicate while planning Golzine’s demise.

“Are you sure this will work? What makes you so sure Golzine will want to take you to his bedroom? You know he has a preference for…”

“Children?” Ash retains a grimace. “Oh, I know, believe me. But I also know he wants me and wants to punish me. I’m confident he will ask for it.”

Yut-Lung turns to Blanca. “You think it’s true?”

“Yes. The Monsieur always had… ah, a fascination with Ash. While I was in charge of Ash, he stayed away because Ash was in my care and Monsieur Golzine is respectful of professional boundaries and… personal’s possessions.” Blanca has the good taste to look slightly uneasy as he says the last two words, but Ash lets nothing show on his own face. “But now that I’m gone and Ash is fully his… I’m sure he will want to make it clear to him.”

“Alright.” Yut-Lung reaches for a transparent flask on the table. Inside is a liquid similar to water. “This will make him sleep. It’s tasteless, odorless, and doesn’t leave the hazy impression of a drug when waking up. I’m very proud of it.”

He holds out the flask for Ash to take. “If I’m taking the risk of putting something in his drink, why not poison?” he asks, holding the bottle in the sunlight to peer at its content.

“Because my goal isn’t really to kill Golzine.” Yut-Lung replies casually. “I mean, it’s good if he’s dead by the end of it, but he can’t die too early. He’s not alone in this and there’re two things I have to stop before he dies.”

“And what are they?”

“Stopping his prostitution ring and have all of his perverted buddies exposed on the way is one of them. Not the most pressing one, of course, but more like a bonus I’m hoping to gain in the process. The second one, the one which truly matters…” Yut-Lung pauses, a shadow darkening his features when he leans in. “Tell me Ash, have you ever heard of Banana Fish?”

Ash stares at him. “Of… What?”

“Banana fish. It’s a mind-controlling drug he is conceptualizing.”

“Mind-control… You’re kidding…”

“I wish. Eiji and Sing can attest it’s the truth, they saw how it worked with their own eyes.”

Ash glances at Eiji, who is sitting on the couch to his right. Eiji doesn’t meet his gaze because his eyes are glued to the floor, his eyebrows pinched together and his posture tense, as if he’s recalling a sorrowful memory.

Yut-Lung clears his throat. “I want to stop Golzine from developing this drug. Killing only him won’t stop the Corsicans from working on it. I’m sure you can guess what will happen if they manage to create a perfect mind-controlling substance, right?”

Ash nods somberly, a chill running down his spine. It seems crazy to even imagine Golzine conceptualizing a mind-controlling drug, and yet he knows from the serious look he can see on Yut-Lung’s and Eiji’s faces that this is no laughing matter.

“That’s why you only want to buy time, for now?”

“Exactly.” Yut-Lung acquiesces. “Now, to come back to the first phase of our plan, I agree with your idea but there is a problem. Even if my drug is undetectable, Golzine will understand he didn’t just fall asleep before having his ways with you. Especially if you use his computer while he is unconscious.”

Yut-Lung leans closer. “Wouldn’t it be safer to really let him bed you and act while he sleeps soundly after it?” Ash tenses up at the suggestion, but Yut-Lung continues as if he didn’t notice. “I’m sure you can handle it, after all, you’ve been used to it since childhood. Golzine won’t be worse than your baseball co—”

“Yue!”

Eiji jolts up, his hands tightened to fists at his sides. He stares at Yut-Lung with a mix of horror and anger.

Yut-Lung closes his mouth, his gaze harsh when he meets Eiji’s eyes. “You can’t understand Eiji, because you don’t know how it is. I’m sure Ash can—”

“No.” Eiji protests decidedly. “You can’t decide that for him.”

“It’s okay.” Ash extends a hand. He feels very calm, as if he had just been drenched in cold water and had all his senses hazed. He stares into Yut-Lung’s eyes, sees further than the stilled mask of his expression. He’s like me, he realizes easily, watching as Yut-Lung holds his gaze. He knows what he is asking for.

Ash crosses his arms over his chest in a tentative to hide the trembling of his hands. He hears Eiji sits back down beside him, but prefers not to look at him. He doesn’t want to see what kind of expression he could be wearing.  

“I see you thoughtfully researched my past.” Ash observes tensely.  

Yut-Lung huffs. “Of course we did. Don’t pretend to be surprised.”

Ash isn’t. When he had discovered Yut-Lung knew about his brother, he had figured the Chinese must know everything about his life.

“To answer your question, I thought about it.” Ash says, keeping his voice carefully detached. “Except even if I leave Golzine’s bedroom with him being unaware of what I’ve done while he slept… He will figure out quickly I’m the only one who could have betrayed him like this. Since the result is the same whether I let him fuck me or not, I figured I would prefer not to let him.”

Yut-Lung taps a finger to his lips, thoughtful. “Alright, I can’t argue with that.”

“Golzine will know I betrayed him, but he won’t be able to do anything about it, because he will be too busy with the tax evasion affair we will have triggered. And even if he finds the time to try and retrieve me, I will be here, and his grip on New York doesn’t reach Chinatown yet. While this happen, my brother will also stay with you and Blanca.”

“Alright, I’ve already agreed to this. However, another thing is bothering me…” Yut-Lung says. “How can I be sure you won’t just go to Golzine and spill to him everything regarding our agreement?”

Ash shrugs. “Like I said, you’ll have my brother.” He hates to use Griffin as a guarantee, but he knows he will succeed. And even without Ash’s accord, Yut-Lung has Blanca with him, he could reach Griffin whether Ash liked it or not.

Their talk soon derives to more technical aspects of the plan. When they feel like they have gone over everything, Ash leaves the room to prepare himself mentally in prevision of the night. He hopes he can manage to squeeze in some sleep before he has to dress up for his meeting with Golzine.

“Ash, wait!”

Ash turns around, and waits for Eiji to join his side in the middle of the hallway. Eiji stays silent as he does so, as if now that he had Ash’s attention, he didn’t know what to say to him.

“Ash,” he begins hesitantly. “I’m… I’m sorry for what Yut-Lung said, earlier. He didn’t mean to… He can be very careless sometimes, but he didn’t say it to hurt you or—”

“I know.” It’s evident to Ash that Yut-Lung himself knows about abuse. Only their kind can talk so easily about using their body in that way. “Don’t worry about it, it doesn’t affect me.”

“But it does!” Eiji protests lively. He adverts his gaze and adds in a quieter voice, “Of course it affects you. You shouldn’t have to pretend it doesn’t.” 

For a moment, Ash can only stare at him, too surprised to think about something to say. He doesn’t understand why it seems so important to Eiji, why he felt the need to apologize in Yut-Lung’s place.

When he is able to get a hold on himself, he shrugs dismissively. “Well, what is said is said. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go prepare for tonight.”

Eiji nods silently, his expression reflecting an inner debate. Ash has only taken two steps in the direction of his room when Eiji decides to talk again.

“Be careful tonight,” Eiji says, and his tone sounds nearly pleading, stopping Ash in his tracks. “Just, please… be safe.”

Ash would have replied he has no say in the matter, if the tremor he could hear in Eiji’s voice didn’t covey his concern so obviously.

“You don’t need to pretend to care anymore, you know.” he says instead. “I will do my part of the agreement, like I said I would.”

Somehow, when Eiji stares up at him, surprise evident in his expression, Ash immediately wants to take back his words.

“…Pretend?” Eiji repeats slowly, as if the word itself was foreign to him. “You still think I’m pretending?”

Ash is reduced to silence, as suddenly what he assumed about Eiji doesn’t seem so obvious anymore.

“And here I thought…” Eiji shakes his head, the corner of his lips tugging up slightly. “Here I thought I was being so obvious.”

To say that Ash is confused by Eiji’s reaction would be an understatement. They did talk pleasantly this morning, and it’s also true that he didn’t feel like Eiji had any hidden motive underling the kindness he showed him. But still, there’s no reason for Eiji to truly care about him.

“You know,” Eiji continues, “Blanca kept telling us about how extremely intelligent you were, but I’m beginning to have doubts.” He chuckles softly when Ash’s eyes widen, but there’s not much joy to it.

“I don’t understand.” Ash says, because really, he doesn’t.

“I know I somehow tricked you into thinking I was an incredibly good actor, the night we met. But the truth is…” Eiji lower his gaze, a beautiful flush adorning his cheeks. “I’m not all that good at pretending. I’m not even a good liar.”

Ash’s breath itches in his throat. If Eiji wasn’t totally pretending that night… Is he trying to say…? It seems too unbelievable for Ash to even dare to form the thought, but then, why would Eiji tell him all this?

Eiji casts a quick glance in his direction, and Ash doesn’t know what he sees on his face, but it makes Eiji’s shoulders sink, a certain look of dejection on his face.

“It’s okay that you don’t feel the same about me. Just… Don’t assume I’m only pretending to care, alright? Because I truly do.” Eiji quirks his lips, but only his mouth his smiling, and Ash feels empty noticing the difference between this smile and the ones Eiji had shown him in the kitchen earlier this morning.

The lounge’s door opens again in Eiji’s back, this time to let Yut-Lung and Blanca exit it. Eiji startles a little, his flush deepening visibly, and he tears his gaze away from Ash to walk away, passing past Yut-Lung without slowing his pace.

Ash stays still in the hallway, watching as Yut-Lung’s eyes jump from Eiji’s retreating back before returning on Ash, assessing. Blanca stares at Ash also, from where he stands a step behind Yut-Lung, but Ash can’t read his expression.

“I’m gonna prepare for tonight.” Ash mutters, turning heels to escape Blanca’s unnerving eyes.

He doesn’t want another lecture about how he should be careful around Eiji, when his thoughts regarding the man are all around the place.

The way his heart fluttered when Eiji admitted he cared about him shouldn’t matter. It can’t matter, not now. Nor does the fact he clearly upset Eiji without even saying a word…

For now, all he should be thinking about is their plan.

And how he can face Golzine again.

 

---

 

Griffin Callenreese is very different from his brother.

When Eiji greets him in the hall in the late evening, after Blanca had been sent to pick him up at his apartment, he is fully prepared to meet an older version of Ash, someone who will be as reluctant as he was when they… invited him in the mansion.

But the man he sees standing in the hall isn’t hostile. He smiles politely at Eiji and when he introduces himself, his voice is gentle, albeit a bit guarded.

Physically, he doesn’t look much like Ash either. Neither his hair nor eyes are the same color as Ash’s, making him seem so different it’s hard to even tell they are brothers in the first place.

Yet, there is something about him that is similar enough to Ash to seem familiar. Eiji isn’t able to pinpoint what though, so it nips at his mind as he leads Griffin to his room.

Eiji is so busy staring he realizes with a delay that Griffin asked him a question.

“Ah, sorry, my name is Eiji Okumura.” he replies hastily. “I’m… hum, I live here also. For now.”

Griffin nods. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Are you one of Aslan’s… hum… coworkers?” he asks, doubt obvious in his voice.

Eiji doesn’t know what Ash has told his brother. Probably not the truth. From how he talked about him this morning when they decided to keep Griffin safely in the mansion, Eiji is under the impression Ash keeps his brother in the dark for most things.

“Ah, yes… Yes, I am. Uh…” Eiji fidgets with his sleeve, uncomfortable. He doesn’t want to say anything that could betray Ash.

A gentle smile curves Griffin’s lips. “Not a great liar, aren’t you?” he says, and even so it’s a quip, it doesn’t sound harsh in any way.

Eiji feels his face heat up. He didn’t even say two words and he is already screwing Ash’s cover up.

“Ah, I’m not—”

“It’s okay.” Griffin is still smiling. “You don’t have to say anything. I’m used to my brother hiding everything from me.” He turns his eyes away, a certain sadness settling in his gaze. “I know he thinks he’s doing me a favor by acting like this…”

“Your brother loves you very much.” Eiji says before he can stop himself. “It’s easy to see.”

The sadness fades slightly in Griffin’s eyes and Eiji has to retain himself from breathing in relief. For a reason he can’t quite explain, it’s painfully hard to witness this gentle looking man be upset.

“I know. And I love him also. Which is why I don’t make a fuss when he hides things from me. He thinks he’s doing it for my sake, after all.”

Eiji doesn’t know how to reply, but fortunately, Griffin doesn’t seem to be waiting for him to speak.

“You know what Aslan told me over the phone? That he got us into some troubles, and that I needed to stay here for my safety. That’s it. Nothing more. Whatever he was involved in these past years, it sounds like he is finally planning to put an end to it.”

Eiji acquiesces carefully. “He is. We… we are working with him with that end in sight.”

“That’s good, then.” Griffin replies softly. “Do you know if my brother is around? I hoped to at least be able to see him.”

“Ah, he’s out right now. I don’t know when he will be back…”

He’s out. That’s one way of saying Ash is willingly putting himself headfirst into danger for the sake of their plan. That he is probably busy forcing a smile on his lips to deceive Dino Golzine. And this is only in the best-case scenario. If Golzine discovers Ash’s real motives before Ash can drug him, who knows what will happen to him?

Worries pang at his chest, but Eiji manages to hold a grin on his lips until they have reached the room they have assigned to Griffin. “I’m sure Ash will come to see you once he is back.” he says, maybe a bit too cheerfully to be fully convincing. “Meanwhile, don’t hesitate to call someone if you need anything.”

Without waiting for Griffin’s answer, Eiji leaves the room before the smile can fall off his lips. Griffin’s eyes aren’t green, and they are less sharp than his brother’s, but it’s easy to see they are as perceptive as his.

His heart heavy in his chest, Eiji tries not to think about what Ash could be doing right now, but his words still echoes in his ears.

“I thought about it.” Ash had said, speaking of using his body like it wasn’t a big deal to him, agreeing with Yut-Lung like he understood completely his way of thinking.

Eiji had felt so different from them, then. It was just as Yut-Lung said sometimes, when Eiji wouldn’t get something. Eiji had led a blessed life, and as a result he couldn’t understand what it was like, to think so little of his own body that he could so easily use it as a trade.

It had reminded him of the first time he had heard of Dino Golzine. When all of this had begun. Reminded him of how useless and helpless he was then.

And it makes him realize…

He hasn’t changed a bit.

---

Two years ago

The year Eiji turns nineteen is a rough year.

His father passes away some time before Eiji’s birthday, after nearly a year of expensive cares at the hospital because of a liver’s disease. The Okumura family would have been riddled with debt if it wasn’t for Yut-Lung’s help.

Soon after, Eiji’s mother and sister decide to return to Japan. After all, New York never was the promised land they had wished for, and his mother felt the need to be with what was left of her family, back in her homeland.

Eiji stays. He takes small uninteresting jobs because he needs to eat and develops an interest with photography because he needs something to live for.

He still sees Yut-Lung regularly, of course. The strange child has become a genius teenager, and he still has his eyes set on his brothers’ demise.

Eiji has grown up, also. He’s supposed to be an adult, now. He wishes it would be enough to help his friend, but feels as helpless as when he was a child, when Yut-Lung casually tells him about his fucked up life as if everything he had to endure was normal and deserved.

This evening, when Eiji enters Yut-Lung’s mansion and is led to his room, a strange sight greets him.

Yut-Lung is sat in front of his mirror, expression blank, and he’s all… Well, dolled-up is the word that comes to Eiji’s mind at the sight.

Eiji had never seen Yut-Lung wearing so much makeup. His eyes are rimmed with red, enlightening their almond shape and sharpening his gaze. His silk hair is styled in a complicated bun on his head, and the fine clothes he is wearing emphasize his androgynous form.

In a flash, Eiji is reminded of the day he had met Yut-Lung in the garden, of how he had thought the child looked like a princess. Years later, Yut-Lung’s gaze still holds the same unnerving sadness, and Eiji’s heart bleeds for his young friend.

Yung-Lung turns to Eiji slowly, and his eyes still seems far away, even as a smile stretches his glossed lips.

“Eiji. I didn’t know you would come tonight.”

“Yue… What— Why are you dressed up like that?” Eiji tries to smile, but something about Yut-Lung’s expression is worrying him. “You didn’t tell me you were going to a party.”

Yut-Lung turns to the mirror again. “That’s because I’m not going to a party. My brothers must negotiate with the head of the Corsican Mafia, Dino Golzine, tonight. As a token of their interest, they are giving me to him for the night.”

“W-what?” Eiji can’t believe his ears. Yut-Lung’s voice is dispassionate and doesn’t match with his terrible words. “I don’t understand—”

“You’ve heard what I said, Eiji.” Yut-Lung says sharply, making him startle. He softens when he meets Eiji’s eyes in the mirror. “Don’t worry about it, it’s not a big deal. I know you won’t understand, but for us, this is only natural. To my brothers, I’m only something pretty they can use whenever they feel like it. I accepted that a long time ago.”

“But, you—”

Yut-Lung shrugs. “Don’t be too hung up on it. I see this as an opportunity to learn more about the Corsican Syndicate. I have a feeling it will be useful to me in the long term.”

Eiji is too shaken to talk, his throat too tight for it to allow words out. Yut-Lung seems so calm about it. He isn’t lying when he says he accepted his fate.

But Eiji won’t.

“No.” His hands curl into fists. “This has to be the last straw, Yue. You have to escape. You can do it tonight, I can help you. If we leave now, your brothers won’t retrieve us, I—”

Yut-Lung gets up. “No, Eiji. I knew you would say that.” He sighs. “We’ve been over it so many times, when will you accept it? I won’t leave, because this is my life. It is how it is.”

“It doesn’t have to be like that!” Eiji protests. “Your life is hell here, why don’t you want to fly away? Why don’t you—”

“Eiji.” Yut-Lung’s voice turns harsher again. “This is what I want. I will do as my brothers say, until one day I can take my revenge. We talked about it, times and times again. You know my resolve.”

Yut-Lung walks decidedly to the door. “I have to go now.” Then he pauses, and turns a last time toward Eiji, something vulnerable in his eyes. “Will you be there when I come back?”

He leaves before Eiji can reply, and Eiji watches the door close with a dull sound.

Yut-Lung returns a few hours later. His hair is still impeccable, his make-up still looks fresh. Eiji runs to meet him, his heart in his stomach.

“Yut-Lung! What hap—”

“Nothing happened.” Yut-Lung is frowning. “My brothers didn’t conclude the deal, because they had a disagreement with Golzine. We just left after some exchanges of threats.”

Eiji blinks, relief flooding into him. “That’s—”

“I don’t understand.” Yut-Lung says, still scowling. “Apparently, my brothers were advised that a good amount of Chinatown’s kids were abducted in the past weeks. And they suspect Golzine.” Yut-Lung shakes his head slowly. “But they don’t know why… And I feel like this could be something big, seeing how Golzine reacted…”

Eiji isn’t sure he is following correctly. He’s just glad his friend is fine, and he doesn’t understand why Yut-Lung isn’t more relieved to have returned.

Yut-Lung walks to his dressing table. He carefully removes the ornaments in his hair, and the long strands fall in waves over his thin shoulders. He looks so deep in thoughts that Eiji doesn’t feel like interrupting him.

Yut-Lung’s make-up is half removed when he glances toward Eiji again.

“Eiji… If I asked you to do something for me… Something which could be dangerous… what would you say?”

“Yes.” Eiji declares firmly, his heart leaping in his chest. “I would do anything to help.”

Yut-Lung finally smiles, then. “Good. I like it when you get all brave like that.” he approves, turning on his chair so he is fully facing his friend.

“What do you want me to do?”

Yut-Lung’s eyes are hardened by determination, and his voice has an edge when he replies.

“I need you to go meet the leader of the Chinatown’s gang. I have a lot of questions for him.”

---

Present day

Ash plays with his food. He cuts it in small pieces, spreads it in his plate. Every time he forces himself to swallow a morsel, he fears he will throw it up immediately, as his throat is so tight.

Either Golzine doesn’t notice, or he doesn’t care. He eats his own food with serene contentment, asks Ash for his opinion on the wine and makes small conversation.

Ash has to wait until the meal is nearly finished for Golzine to finally drop the pretenses.

“Tell me, Ash.” he begins, his tone light and conversational. “Did you discover who was your last target’s employer? You know, the Japanese boy who gave you so much troubles.”

Ash lifts his head from his desert. He has a lie ready for this question.

“He didn’t have one. He was a young heir acting hazardously in hope of attracting your clients. He was targeting our first target, but never realized he was putting himself in your way while doing so.”

“I see.” Golzine wipes his mouth on his towel. “I imagine you didn’t think of bringing to me a proof of his death?”

“A proof? What, you would have wanted a picture or something?” Ash scoffs. “Or maybe even his head? Wouldn’t that have been very tasteless? You never asked me for proofs when I worked with Blanca.”

Golzine lays his cutlery on the table, a somber gleam deep in his small eyes. “Blanca earned my trust. You, though, you are still far from that point.”

“I made the body disappear.” Ash assures, his eyes conveying the confidence he doesn’t feel. “That’s all you need to know.”

Golzine gets up with a sigh, and Ash holds his breath. He knows what is coming. When the mafia boss rounds the table and stops by his side, he stays carefully still.

“Ah, Ash. It’s such a pity you would be so defiant. I gave you a job, more money than you could ever have earned on the streets. I offered protection for you and your brother.” Golzine grabs Ash’s chin, forcing it up. Ash holds his gaze and fights the compulsion to recoil in his seat. “And still, when I see those eyes, I know that you don’t belong to me... yet.”

Another hand is running through his hair. Ash is burning to hit it away.

“Maybe it’s because you are such a wild animal, that I’m so craving to tame you.” Golzine continues, contemplating. “The day you’ll accept that you’re mine, I will make life sweet for you. You are born to lead, Ash. You won’t have to lower yourself with my dirty work forever. I have great things planed for you, but you have so much to learn, before that.”

Ash tilts his head to the side, a smile forcing its way on his lips. “I’m not a wild animal. Have I ever beaten the hand feeding me?”

Golzine withdraws his hands. “Your eyes can’t deceive me, Ash. I know you crave for it. But it’s alright. I will teach you everything you need to know, and one day, you will become the perfectly tailored jewel I have always pictured.”

Ash stays silent. The drug he put in Golzine’s drink should kick soon, and they need to be in his bedroom when it happens.

He cocks a brow, challenging. “And when will my lesson begin?”

“Immediately.” Golzine answers gravelly. “The first thing I need to teach you is to know your place. You greatly disappointed me, Ash. You know you deserve what will happen.”

Ash gets up slowly. “I know. I was prepared for it.”

“Good boy. Follow me, then.”

---

They barely make it to Golzine’s chamber, that the old man is already stumbling on his feet. There’s a vicious contentment settling deep into Ash’s chest when he sees the man brace himself against the door frame.

“Ah… What… I feel…”

Ash helps him to the bed. “Shhh, it’s okay.” he says, keeping his voice low so Golzine doesn’t hear how pleased he is. “I think these oysters we had weren’t any good.”

Golzine probably won’t believe it when he will wake up, but it doesn’t matter. For now, he lies on his bed, and tries to fight the sleepiness away. “Ash… You…”

Soon, his head falls completely back against the mattress, his eyes shutting for good.

He’s totally defenseless. Ash knows that there aren’t any security cameras in his bedroom. It would be too dangerous for Golzine to allow guards to keep a record of his perverted activities. Plus, the man only brings into his bedroom people who have no way of defending themselves, usually.

Ash could kill him. He doesn’t have his gun, of course, but still, he could end the life of the only man who thinks of him as a possession. He could suffocate him with a pillow. Strangle him with his bare hands. He could—

Ash looks around himself. He wasn’t allowed in the room often. But there was a time Golzine got sick for a whole week and had to give his orders from his bed.

Of course, God wasn’t merciful enough as to have the old man dying from a stupid disease, but it had been plenty enough for Ash to learn everything he needed to know for tonight.

Because maybe Golzine doesn’t trust Ash, but he has never feared him, as he knew he had the ultimate leverage against him. Which explains he never was careful when discussing financial matters in front of him. To Golzine, Ash was only one more life he possessed, a poor boy who was forced into obedience because his brother’s life mattered more than his own.

Golzine wasn’t wary of his own commodities.

And it would be his downfall.

---

Ash leans back in his chair and tries to stretch his sore back. He returned late from Golzine’s mansion and put himself to work right after a revitalizing shower. By the window, he can see the shy light of the rising sun, and mourns yet another night of sleep.

Footsteps in the corridor have him straightening up by habit, but he recognizes them easily as Eiji’s own and relaxes.

The steps stop in front of his room, but there is a delay before Ash can hear a hesitant knock on the door. He smiles, imagining Eiji fidgeting on the other side of it.

“It’s open.”

Eiji appears in the door frame, two cups of coffee balanced on a trail, a smile already chasing away his embarrassment.  

“Hi, Ash. I saw light in your room and wondered if you were awake already. Can I come in?”

Ash acquiesces. “I didn’t sleep, actually.”

“You didn’t?” Eiji frowns, and something in his expression makes Ash wonder if he is on the verge of being scolded like a child, but Eiji seems to change his mind and his expression softens again. “Hum, do you want some coffee?” he asks hesitantly. “Or maybe you want to go to sleep now?”

“I will take the coffee, thank you.”

Eiji sets a cup of coffee in front of Ash and goes sit on the bed, close to the desk. The coffee’s scent seems heavenly pleasant to Ash when he brings the cup to his lips. The beverage is sweeter than how Ash usually drinks it, and he wonders distantly what made Eiji thinks Ash was one to take his coffee with both sugar and milk.

“I drink my coffee black, usually.”

Eiji groans at that. “Of course you do.” he mutters darkly, as if Ash’s preference for black coffee was a personal offense to himself, and Ash can’t help but to be amused by the pout playing on his lips.

“I didn’t hear you come back, last night.” Eiji continues after taking a sip of his coffee. “How did it go?”

“Fine.” Ash shrugs. “Everything is settled with.” he says, gesturing to his computer. “Hacking into the old man’s cheap-ass computer wasn’t so hard anyway. The money he dispersed oversea to avoid paying taxes is now all mine.” He smiles as Eiji stares at him with stupor. “Fifty million dollars. The damage to the Corsican Foundation is going to be massive, and of course Golzine is going to be held responsible.”

Eiji opens two wide eyes. “You— You’ve already made the whole… uh, arrangements we talked about this morning?”

He seems so impressed that Ash feels a tug at his lips.

“Yes, like I said, I didn’t sleep. It wasn’t the hard part anyway.”

“Right.” Eiji’s expression darkens. “And... How did the hard part go? Were you alright?”

“Also fine. Just as planned.”

“Ah.” Eiji relaxes visibly. “I’m glad, then.”

It’s strange, how lately the smallest things are able to warm up Ash’s chest. Like the fact that Eiji seemed more concerned about Ash’s well-being than about the outcome of his mission.

“I’m nearly surprised it was so easy.” Ash observes mindlessly. “As you know, I was more used to failure, lately.”

Eiji disappears in his cup of coffee, the tip of his ears reddening slightly. Ash stares at him for maybe a second too long, remembering Eiji’s words from before they parted ways the day before.

“There’s still so much I don’t know about you…” Ash realizes in a whisper, moving his chair so it’s facing Eiji and leaning his head in his palm in order to continue to look at him.

Eiji seems surprised by the statement. “What do you want to know?”

Ash ponders it silently. There is a lot he wants to know about Eiji. So much he doesn’t know where to begin.

“Why are you even a part of this plan?” he asks finally. “It can’t be just because of your friendship for Yut-Lung or whatever.”

“Oh.” Eiji frowns. “That’s a lon—”

“A long story?” Ash smiles. This time, he won’t let Eiji dodge him that easily. “We have time.”

Eiji lets out a long sigh. “It really is a long story. And it’s complicated… I’m involved with Yut-Lung since we were children, but you’re right, this isn’t the reason I’m part of this plot. Or… not directly, at least.” Eiji turns his cup in his hands, his eyebrows furrowing as he thinks about how to align his words. “Two years ago, teenagers from Chinatown begun to disappear suspiciously. The Lees suspected Golzine to be behind it, but they had no proof.”

“I’ve never heard of that.” Ash says. Two years ago, he wasn’t involved directly with Golzine yet, and Blanca didn’t tell him much about the missions he let him participate in. Ash didn’t have any time to hang out on the streets left to his own devices, with his time being separated between caring for his brother and going on mission with Blanca.

Eiji nods distantly. “It didn’t make any noise outside of Chinatown. Who cares about a bunch of Chinese street thugs, right?” Eiji shrugs. “Well, Yut-Lung cared. Not for noble reasons at first, but… he was the only one to care. He was under strict watch from his brothers, so he sent me to get close to the street gangs and learn more about these disappearances.”

“Soon, I met Shorter Wong, boss of the gang in Chinatown, and I became the intermediary between him and Yut-Lung.” A sad smile curls Eiji lips. “But it quickly became more than that. I spent a lot of time with Shorter and his gang, and it wasn’t only to retrieve his vanished gang members. That’s when I met Sing, also.”

Ash listens quietly. He has the feeling he is beginning to understand where this is going.

“The disappearances stopped right when we began to investigate, but we learned that other gangs and homeless kids were targeted all around New York. Shorter was set on retrieving his vanished friends, but we couldn’t make a lot of progress because Golzine was untouchable, and his followers tightlipped.”  

“And then one day, the abductions started again, only this time, Shorter vanished too. It was… ah, everyone panicked. Sing made the link between the kidnappings and the new mental institute Golzine was founding.” A dark shadow pass on Eiji’s face. “And we encountered Banana fish for the first time.”

Ash grimaces. “Golzine used the teens he abducted from the streets as Guinea pigs for that drug Yut-Lung talked about, right?” he asks, the pieces of the puzzle beginning to fit together. “He kept them in this mental institute?”

“Yes.” Eiji acquiesces somberly. “Sing reunited some other gangs who also had disappearing members, and we infiltrated the institute. But we were too late to save anyone…”

“How was it? This drug, Yut-Lung said you had seen it…”

“It was awful.” Eiji’s voice is weak and Ash regrets his question when he sees how the memory affects him. “The people injected were… empty. When they weren’t in incredible pain. The drug had overtaken their minds completely, and there was nothing left of who they used to be.”

“… And your friend? Was he—?”

“Shorter was already dead when we arrived. The only thing we found was a file explaining he had… taken his own life.”

Eiji is holding his hands tight together in his lap, and he is trembling slightly. His eyes are full of unshed tears and the sight of it makes Ash’s heart clench in his chest.

“I’m sorry I made you talk about it… I just—”

“No, it’s okay.” Eiji wipes out a tear that fell off his eyes. “You need to understand why we are so set on fighting Golzine. He knows we’re on his case since we busted in his institute and burned it down, but in the following years, we never managed to expose him, and he never stopped his experiments. I don’t want anyone else to experience that horrible drug. We need to stop it, Ash.”

“We will.” Ash affirms with an assurance he is far from feeling. When he sees Eiji’s tearful eyes, hears the conviction in his voice, he can’t help but to want to soothe his pain. “I will help you, and together, we will take that old geezer down.”

“Thank you.” Eiji smiles, and it’s small and his eyes are humid, but it’s like a ray of light through a dull sky.

“Hum,” Ash’s eyes flutter around, embarrassed to be thanked when he still hasn’t done a thing. “I’ve heard you saw my brother, yesterday.” The change of subject isn’t subtle, but he doesn’t have anything better in store.

“Oh.” Eiji raises his eyebrows. “He told you?”

Ash smiles. “He told me he was greeted by a weird kid. Couldn’t be anyone but you.”

Actually, Griffin had said nothing of the sort, when Ash had knocked at his room in the middle of the night, still wearing the tuxedo he had put on for Golzine. But he had talked about the kind, adorable boy who had showed him his room, and Ash had filled the blanks easily.

“A kid? Sing is way younger than me!”

“Oh really?” Ash teases. “It’s not so obvious.”

Eiji’s pout deepens again, and he crosses his arms over his chest. But the moment passes too quickly, and he’s soon serious again.

“Your brother is very worried about you.” he says quietly. “He knows you’re hiding things from him.”

Ash leans back on his chair. “I can’t say more to him.”

“Why?”

“It’s better if he’s not involved in any of that.” Ash states decidedly. “And I don’t want…” he adverts his gaze. “I don’t want him to know what I did, what I’m still doing. I will never be able to explain the blood I have on my hands.” 

“Ash…” Eiji leans in, and he discards his coffee cup to put a comforting hand on Ash’s knee. “I think he already knows. And I think it doesn’t stop him from loving you dearly.”

Ash gulps once, his throat impossibly tight. He still doesn’t meet Eiji’s eyes, but the tone of his voice is gentle, soothing. Strangely, he suddenly craves to take his hand from where it lies on his knee and to hold it tightly.

Instead, he pushes him away to stand up and walks to the window, pulling the curtains more largely opened to make light enter the room.

“It doesn’t matter in the end.” he says finally. “All that matters is that I keep him safe until I’ve dealt with the mess I made.”

Eiji acquiesces quietly. “And, what’s the next step?”

“I’m going to meet with a journalist who could tell our story, later today.” Ash replies without tearing his gaze away from the window.

“Oh, you’ve already arranged a meeting with someone like that?”

Ash smiles to himself. “Well, he isn’t exactly expecting me.” He turns around, finding Eiji staring at him with a curious look on his face, his head tilted to the side. “But I’m confident he will be thrilled to help us.”

And if not, Ash knows what buttons he can push to motivate the man.

---

The door unlocks and Ash steps in. It’s as easy as that. You would think Max would be on his guard since their last encounter, not even two weeks ago. But apparently, finding himself with a gun under his nose after opening his door to a stranger without checking first wasn’t enough to instill fear into Max Lobo’s veins.

And so again, Ash waves his gun in front of Max’s face and sees his expression shift from amiable smile to surprise in a split-second.

“Shit! It’s you!”

Ash smiles sharply, amused by Max’s expression.

“Hi Max. I’m glad to see you too. I see you’re still a cautious man. Or maybe you crave pizza so much you won’t even do the most basic check before opening your door?”

Max darkens visibly. “I really was waiting for a delivery, this time. Your timing is just supernaturally good.” His frown deepens. “Also I did check! On the intercom! How did you change your voice so much? I thought for sure you couldn’t be anything else but a harmless brat!”

Ash walks into the apartment, putting the pizza he took from Max’s real delivery man on a low table and sitting in a chair. He gestures to Max to sit on the sofa across from him, his gun still pointed at his head.

Max executes himself silently, a deep frown on his face.

“Are you here to finish the job, this time?” he asks, tension evident in his voice.

Ash’s lips twist up. “No, you can relax. If I had wanted to kill you, you would already be dead.” he announces nonchalantly. “I don’t waste my time in greetings when I have to work.”

Max’s frown deepens. “Then why are you here?”

“Why, to pass you a hello from Griff of course.”

Max crosses his arms, flopping back against the couch. “Cut the crap, kid. Last time we met, you forbade me from even contacting him.”

“That’s right, and I should thank you for respecting your engagement so well. I was convinced you would try and find him the moment I left your office.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t want to risk having one specific angsty teenager coming for my ass ever again.” Max grumbles somberly. “And yet you’re here once more, even though I respected our agreement.”

“Yes, I came back.” Ash leans closer, his hands joined before him. “Because this time, I need your help.”

“Oh.” Ash regrets his choice of words when he sees a slow smile bloom on Max’s lips. “You need my help?” he repeats, obviously satisfied. “What for?”

Ash holds back an irritated huff. Exactly as it was the first time he met the man, Max is being an insufferable pain to be around. He wonders again how this guy could befriend Griffin, all these years ago.

“I need a journalist to cover a story for me.” He explains, exhorting himself to stay calm and concise. “The finality would hopefully be the fall of the Corsican Syndicate, their prostitution ring, the production of the mind-controlling drug they’re manufacturing, and maybe even the doom of some people from the government. Are you in?”

Max’s eyes widen and his mouth falls open. For a second, he just stares at Ash like a second head had just sprout from his neck, and Ash has to retain himself from commenting on how stupid he looks.

“You… you’re crazy…”

“I’m not alone in this. I have the support and protection of a powerful syndicate, and more money than I know what to do with. And more importantly, I have a plan.”

Max ruffles his short hair with an agitated hand. “It’s crazy. A mind-controlling drug? The government? How…?”

“I’m sure you’ve read this story.” Ash throws him an exemplar of the Newsweek of the day he had rolled in his pocket and points at the cover page. “The senator killed by his wife before she committed suicide.”

“Of course, I’ve read it. I work for Newsweek.”

“Then you know there is something fishy about this story. When Golzine sent me to kill you after you refused his bribe, you had already noticed the pattern in all these suicides and linked it to the Corsican syndicate. I made you promise not to publish anything, but I’m sure your journalistic interest is still picked.”

Max frowns. “And what if it is? It doesn’t mean I’m willing to risk my life to investigate on it. Hell, not even two weeks have passed since Dino Golzine sent you to kill me, precisely because I had stepped too close to his little business.”

“And yet you’re not dead.”

“Yeah, because I got lucky I kept a picture of my old buddy Griffin in my office! If it hadn’t been you, or if you didn’t see the photograph, I would be dead meat already!”

Ash crosses his arms over his chest. “So, you’re saying you’re not interested?”

Max stays quiet. He takes the newspaper and looks over the front page, his lips pressed into a tight line.

“I never said that.” He lifts his head, and Ash can see he’s already decided. The man’s eyes are bright with curiosity, his mind already wrapping around titles he will give to his articles. “I’m just saying I will need to hear the whole story before seeing what I can do with it.”

Ash smiles. “That’s why I’m here.”

---

“What the hell is that?”

“This?” Eiji stares down at himself, brows arched innocently. “It’s my disguise, why? And why aren’t you disguised?”

“Were you forced to dress like this?”

Clearly unaffected by the way Ash scowls at him, Eiji grins mischievously.

“No? What’s wrong about it? I wanted to look tough for our mission undercover!”

Ash stares at Eiji’s outfit with disapprobation. Tough isn’t exactly what comes to his mind to describe Eiji’s look. The bomber he wears is too softly pink for that, and his black jeans are not even ripped. Maybe Eiji thinks showing off his defined shoulders in this black tank top makes him looks strong, but in reality it’s just…

Sexy.

The whole outfit is a delightful mix of sexy and cute and the result is impairing Ash’s ability to think straight.

Eiji pushes his sunglasses off his nose and smiles sweetly, making everything a thousand time worse for Ash.

“We’re going into a gay bar.” Eiji continues. “If you want to know what I think, I think you should have dressed… I don’t know, gayer I guess.”

Ash huffs. “I don’t need to dress like a gay. If you put too much effort blinding in, people will know you’re straight, you know.”

Eiji’s eyebrows fly to his hairline. “You— You think I’m straight?” he asks, shocked. “With that kiss we shared?” 

Ash can’t help but to blush at the mention of the kiss. But it’s probably because he is embarrassed by his lack of judgement then, and not because thinking back of the kiss still makes him feel things.

He adverts his gaze, hoping Eiji won’t catch on his pink cheeks if he turns his head to conceal his emotion.

“It was just an act,” he replies sternly. “None of what we did then was real.”

Eiji seems a little disappointed by Ash’s response, but Ash doesn’t take the time to dwell on it.

“Besides, you look just like the type to have a sweet girlfriend waiting for you somewhere.” he adds, forcing his lips in a smirk.

It doesn’t make Eiji laugh.

“Well, I don’t.” he mutters, and his annoyance is clear in his voice. Then he looks back at Ash and asks, “And you?”

“What me?”

“You seem like the type who’s popular with girls.”

Ash flashes him a smile. “I am.” he says slyly, just for the pleasure to watch Eiji being annoyed by it. “But it’s not like my… line of work ever allowed me to think about being close to others. I had other things to worry about, like pay the bills and take care of my brother.” Yeah, and kill people for the mafia, also. “I never had a lot of free time.”

Eiji probably catches the shift in his voice, because he doesn’t press him further about the dating subject. Ash pushes his hands in his pockets as they walk silently.

Eiji looks sad now, with his eyes cast downward and his shoulders dropped. Ash feels bad for being at the origin of his change of mood, but doesn’t know what he can do about it.

The truth is, Ash isn’t all that annoyed by Eiji’s outfit. What is souring his mood is the fact everyone decided Eiji should accompany him for this part of the plan.

Didn’t anyone else see that it’s going to be dangerous? Yut-Lung and Blanca seemed to consider this part as if it was nothing more than walking into a kindergarten and coming out after stealing a toddler’s lollipop. Yut-Lung had argued he wanted someone from his side with Ash to keep an eye on him, because he didn’t like that suddenly Ash was accomplishing all parts of the plan all by himself.

But Ash would have preferred to be alone. Because the man they’re going to steal from surely won’t play a fair game.

Glancing at Eiji again, Ash notices that Eiji is walking a whole foot away from him. He furrows his brows. How are they going to pass for a couple if Eiji stands so far away from him?

He scoots closer from him and passes an arm around his frame.

“Hum. We’re supposed to play a couple, remember?” he grunts, looking away because looking directly at Eiji and holding him close at the same time is too much.

“O-oh. Right.” Eiji says, nodding.

Ash says nothing more, forced to recognize how perfectly Eiji fits by his side. So close to him, he catches notes of his perfume, the same sweet one he wore on the night they met. He remembers how easy it had been to lean closer and kiss his soft lips, back then. Now, it seems totally unthinkable to do so ever again.

Or well… It’s not that Ash doesn’t think about it, actually. But he knows he shouldn’t.

“Do you know him well? The man we’re here to see?”

Ash shakes his head negatively. “I’ve seen him once or twice around Dino’s place, but he’s not the kind of man who deal with Golzine directly on a day basis.”

“But you’re sure he will give us evidences against him?”

“Yes. Without a doubt.”

Ash was explained Golzine’s little blackmail business by the man himself, and at dinner no less. Back then, he had thought Golzine only wanted to show off a system he clearly thought clever, but now that he thinks about it again, he wonders if the mafia boss wasn’t also trying to frighten him.

Golzine had implied that he had blackmail material on enough influential figures for him to sleep soundly at night despite being the head of the most powerful mob of the city. Politicians, judges, captains of the NYPD… He held them all in his hand, and it was nearly all thanks to an insignificant, dirty man running an even dirtier business.

 The name the man would go by spoke for itself. Frog. At least, some scabs were self-aware.

From what Ash had understood from his one-way conversation with Golzine, Frog was in charge of gathering evidences on his prostitution ring’s clients. With that kind of material, Golzine had assured to Ash confidently that he was totally safe from ever going to prison, or even losing face in a trial.

Ash had concluded easily that Golzine was even more unattainable than he had first thought, and it had reinforced his belief he would never be free from the man.

Only now, he’s going to make that information works for him.

Golzine’s hold of all those pretty people can only works if its phantom. None of Cape Club’s clients is aware the boss is collecting pictures of them in the act. No, Golzine keeps them close like friends, provides them with a service he assures to be confidential, and only he has the knowledge he can use his blackmail material if needed.

However. If someone other than Golzine went to possess these pictures in his place… He could be the one making all these influential figures dance for him, and could threaten them into backstabbing Golzine in exchange for assurance the pictures were destroyed.

Or Ash could directly twist Golzine’s arm, by threatening him to release these pictures to the press. Either way, it’s a material they’ll need for the following step of their plan.

They arrive quickly in front of the bar owned by Frog, and Ash tightens his hold on Eiji imperceptibly. They make their way into the club, ignoring the gazes of the clients while they walk by.

“I figure you weren’t lying either, when you said you couldn’t hold alcohol, right?” Ash asks offhandedly when they sit at the bar’s counter.

Eiji flushes. “I wasn’t.” he confirms, somewhat somberly.

Ash orders a nonalcoholic drink for himself also. They’ll need to have clear minds for what comes next.

He already went to the bar a couple of times earlier that week to check the place and ask around. If the information he could gather are correct, they should be able to find Frog alone in the room he occupies above the club at this hour of the day.

Their drinks quickly finished, Ash leads Eiji to the backdoor, and then up a fly of steps. As it was the times before, the place isn’t guarded, but they’re still careful to be quiet when they attain the second floor.

Ash is mostly hoping the reputation he earned working as a murderer for Golzine will facilitate the… transaction with Frog. But if the man isn’t scared enough to just give them what they want without a fight, he will have to kill him quickly, and escape even more rapidly.

Before entering the desert hallway, he stares at Eiji discreetly and wishes for the tenth time he would have refused more strongly his presence here.

He’s got a bad feeling about the whole situation, and his experience has always taught him to rely on his instincts in these cases.

---

 

Eiji follows Ash closely, anxiety coursing through his veins. Ash is nervous too, if Eiji can judge from the stillness of his back; and the way he keeps glancing at Eiji and tightening his grip on his arm does nothing to ease Eiji’s nerves.

Ash pauses in front of a closed door.

“He should be in here.” he whispers. “I’m going in, and you stay there. If—”

“What? No, I’m coming with you! What was even the point of me coming otherwise?”

Ash frowns, his gaze peering into Eiji’s eyes with a sharp intensity. “You stay here,” he repeats, and even though he is still murmuring, his voice manages to hold an impressive authority. “I need you to watch the door.”

Eiji opens his mouth, a protest on his tongue, but Ash interrupts him before he can say anything by pulling his gun out of the waistband of his pants.

“Do you know how to use it?” he asks, already pressing the weapon into Eiji’s hands as if he was confident the response would be positive.

“Y-yes. I do.”

The most Eiji ever used a gun was to practice with Sing and his gang when they decided to attack the mental institute Shorter and the others were in. He really wasn’t a natural at it, but everyone had decided he wasn’t allowed to go along with the others until he was able to use a gun properly, so he had to train thoroughly.  

“If anything happens, don’t hesitate to use it.” Ash whispers, leaning so close Eiji can feel his breath tickle his face. “Watch your back.”

“But… and you?”

Ash smiles sharply, and he takes a knife out of his pocket. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. If some of Frog’s buddies walk into you, there’s a risk they freak out and pull out their weapons. They’ll hesitate if they see you are armed as well.”

Eiji acquiesces with difficulty. The gun is warm in his hand, because it has been in contact with Ash’s skin all day long. Eiji hates the rush of blood he can feel heating up his cheeks at the thought.

Ash is looking at him strangely, as if he was suddenly hesitant to leave, despite the speech he just gave. “I’m leaving the door open behind me.” he continues. “Warn me if anything comes your way. It doesn’t matter if it compromises us, just don’t take any unnecessary risk, alright?”

Again, Eiji is stuck with replying with a nod. Ash opens the door and walks into the room silently while Eiji presses himself against the wall, partly hidden by the opened door. He can hear the two voices inside the room, and can make up their tone, but he’s unable to discern full sentences.

His heart is beating loudly in his chest and the gun feels heavy in his hand. He hears Ash’s voice raise in intensity, hears the threat in his voice. Ash has clearly the upper hand inside the room, because Frog’s voice sounds scared in response.

Suddenly, there’s a loud thud, and a pained yelp. Sound of struggles comes to his ears and he can’t bear his immobility anymore, so he jumps out of his hideout and walks into the room, holding the gun in front of him.

Frog and Ash have rolled on the floor, and they are wrestling for the control of the knife. Ash manages to stay on top, and he violently hits Frog’s head on the floor. The man groans and loosens his grip of Ash, who takes advantage of it to jump back on his feet.

Eiji aims at Frog, who’s still on the floor, cradling the back of his head with a hand. When the man sees Eiji’s gun, he freezes and holds his hands up in surrender.

“Fuck.” he mutters. “Tell me at least why Dino sent you, Ash! I don’t understand…”

“You don’t need to understand.” Ash replies sternly. “You can warn your clients that their privacy is no longer in your hands, I don’t care. It’s too late. You can consider this as the end of your little business.”

Ash takes a thick envelope off the floor. “I’m taking this. If you try anything, I—” He freezes before he can end his sentence, and turns toward the door. “Shit, we have company—”

Loud steps are heard rushing in the hallway, and Ash takes Eiji by the arm and slams him into the closest wall, telling him to go hide behind the cabinet. Then, he pulls Frog on his feet and presses his knife to his throat.

Seconds after, three men enter the room, their guns pointed on Ash.

Ash tightens his hold on Frog. “Tell them to drop their weapons” he shouts to him. “Or I—"

“They’re not with me!” Eiji can see Frog tremble strongly on his feet. “Fuck, they’re not—”

The first man who entered the room shoots his gun, then. Two bullets fly to Frog’s head, killing him instantly.

Ash swears and lets Frog’s body fall to the ground. He rolls on the floor and takes shelter behind a desk.

“Eiji shoot!” he yells, his voice struggling to covert the noise or the bullets flying into the room.

Eiji tries. He presses the trigger again and again, but he can’t aim the gun properly because his hands are shaking too much. It doesn’t help that he can’t help but close his eyes when he shoots.

He is still shooting in the air, when he feels Ash joins him. He shakes the gun out of Eiji’s hands and aims thrice. That’s all it takes for the three men to fall on the floor, a bullet to their heads.

“You said you knew how to use a gun!”

“I know how to! I just… I’ve just never killed anybody before.” Eiji says, as if it made a difference.

And maybe it does to Ash, because his eyes widen and his mouth falls open. He frowns, understanding dawning on him.

“Of course you’ve never killed before.” he presses a hand into his hair. “I didn’t think— Fuck, I should have…“ He shakes his head. “I should have known it.”

“I’m so sorry, I—”

“It’s okay.” Ash looks around himself, silent. Then, his posture stiffens and he grimaces. “It’s not over.” he adds quickly. “Stay right behind me.”

He has barely finished his sentence that a voice comes from the hallway.

“It is over, Ash. You are outnumbered.”

A man walks in the room, unconcerned with the way Ash directs his gun at him. He doesn’t seem much older than them, but his sly smile shows he is clearly in his element.

“Oh, Ash. If I were you, I would drop the gun. My boys are everywhere in the building, you’re not going out of here alive unless you do exactly as I say.”

“Arthur.” Ash doesn’t lower his weapon, but he doesn’t fire it either. “How did Dino figure out I would come here?”

“He knows you better than you think, Ash. And he knows the game, he makes it. After that financial shit you pulled, it was just a matter of time until you would try and aim for his next weakness.”

Ash cocks his head to the side. “And of course you were happy to propose your help. Ever still the obedient dog, are you not?”

Eiji looks between the two of them, feeling lost. There is clearly bad blood between Ash and the newcomer (Arthur?) and the fact that Ash is making conversation isn’t a good sign. If Ash is trying to buy time, it can only mean he is out of options.

 More men are entering in Arthur’s back, all carrying weapons; and all hope of going out of the tricky mess they are in is beginning to disappear from Eiji’s heart.

Arthur’s gaze slides toward Eiji. “Who’s this boy, Ash? I’ve never seen you work with anyone but Blanca.”

“He isn’t with me. Just a bystander I seduced so he led me to Frog’s room.”

Eiji tries not to startle. Is Ash expecting these guys will leave Eiji out of this if he pretends Eiji isn’t with him? It seems like a foolish hope to him.

“Yeah, right.” Arthur scoffs. “Golzine isn’t as stupid as you seem to think he is, he knows about your new affiliation with the youngest Lee. And now you’re here with a Chinese? Isn’t that too big to be a coincidence?”

Eiji doesn’t have the time to protest he isn’t even Chinese that Arthur is gesturing to the guy next to him to aim his gun at Eiji.

“But if he really is no one, I guess we can just kill him.”   

Eiji will never know if Arthur was bluffing, or if the man next to him would really have pulled the trigger and killed him without a second thought, because the second the man shifts his aim from Ash’s face to Eiji’s, there’s a detonation and suddenly Arthur’s man is cradling his blooded hand, a cry of pain escaping his throat.

In a smooth motion, Ash pushes Eiji further behind him, his gun pointed toward Arthur’s forehead once more.

“Try that again.” Ash says. “And the next bullet is for your head.”

“Easy, Ash.” Arthur tempers, gesturing to his now roaring men to calm down also. “You probably figured Golzine wants you alive, but this doesn’t apply to your buddy here. Even you can’t be sure to kill everyone in this room quickly enough before harm is made to him. But if you do as I say, I might be convinced to let him go. How is that? Will you drop your weapon and save us all some precious time?”

Eiji doesn’t know what he expected Ash to do in reaction, but it certainly wasn’t Ash letting his gun fall to the floor by Arthur’s feet without any hesitation from his part.

“You always play so dirty.” he only says to Arthur, as the other man smiles largely.

“You have to play dirty in order to win, Ash. That’s why you lose this round.”

Chapter Text

Soon, Ash and Eiji are left alone in a smaller room without windows, Arthur betraying his vague promise of letting Eiji go by arguing he needs Eiji there to make sure Ash will behave until he is brought to Golzine. Still, Eiji doesn’t expect him to truly keep his words then, and he is sure Ash isn’t believing it either.

Arthur and his men really must have taken the whole building, considering they don’t seem to be in a hurry to move Ash and Eiji out of it. Ash stays mostly silent while their hands are tied behind their backs and Eiji and he are thrown in the empty room, even as Arthur continues to taunt him.

When they’re finally left alone, Eiji sees Ash’s shoulders drop, the unbothered mask he was wearing disappearing immediately.  

“I’m sorry,” he says, lowly. “I really screwed up this time.”

“None of that is your fault! We had no choice but to surrender, it was too late for anything else.”

“I’m not talking about that. Not really.” Ash sits on the floor, his back pressed against the wall facing the locked door. “I should never have let you come with me in the first place.”

Eiji bites on his lower lip. “I’m sorry I was a burden. I thought I could hold myself if needed but I could do nothing to help, I was—”

“That’s not—!” Ash interrupts him with strength, his blond head bobbing back up. “That’s not what I meant.” He adverts his gaze again, sighs tiredly. “You said it, there was nothing we could have done anyway. We were set up.”

Eiji slides against the wall to let himself fall on the floor by Ash’s side. “I thought Golzine had left the country to go explain himself with the higher ups. How can he still be able to pull off things like that?”

“He still has followers here; we knew what we did would surely not be enough for him to be completely let down by the syndicate.” Ash’s eyes flash. “But this is still our chance, because there’s no way he is coming back so soon, which give us plenty of time to think of a way out.” He turns his intense gaze toward Eiji. “I will get you out of here Eiji, I promise.”

Me? You mean us, right? I’m not getting out of here without—”

The door opens before Eiji can finish his sentence, and the newcomer who walks in looks nothing like Arthur and his men. He’s older, and heavier, with an ugly gleam in his little eyes, visible even behind his sunglasses. Eiji’s gaze immediately falls on the gun tapped into his belt —Ash’s gun, he recognizes easily.

The man barely gives Eiji a glance, but the gaze he lays on Ash is telling; his lips are quirked with obvious satisfaction, his pupils blown wide. “Hey Ash,” he says, grinning. “Seems like you’re finally coming back home with me. Papa Dino will be thrilled.”

“Marvin,” Eiji sees Ash makes a visible effort to seem nonchalant as he leans against the wall. “Still stuck being a taxi driver even when Dino’s not here?”

The man must be easy to anger, because his face flushes violently at that, and he clenches his hands into fists. “And you’re still acting big even though Blanca isn’t here to protect you anymore,” he snarls.

Ash smiles. “I don’t need Blanca’s help. I’m a big boy now.”

“Not too big of a boy to escape Papa Dino’s bed, I’m afraid.” Marvin replies, laughing at his own retort as if it was comedy gold. “You know you’re in for an unforgettable punishment, right? I’ve never seen the boss angrier than when he learned you’d turned traitor on us.”

“I’d bet he’s angry,” Ash concedes, tilting his head invitingly to the side and somehow managing to keep his smile on his lips. “But what about you, Marvin? Didn’t you always dream about punishing me? Isn’t it your chance now that the boss is away?”

Eiji shudders, suddenly understanding all too clearly what Ash is playing at. Once again, he is planning on offering his body in order to pull them out of this mess. Just like with Golzine, just like Yut-Lung, and just like in these situations, Eiji is going to be staying back, unable to do anything but wait.

Except it’s not going to be like this this time. Eiji won’t allow it.

Marvin pauses, his fingers hesitating on the gun at his belt as he seizes the threat in front of him and tries to judge the risks, but Ash dips his head seductively again, taunting words continuing to fall out of his mouth to keep Marvin’s attention there.

Eiji has nearly untied his own links by now. He didn’t even have to be discreet about it, as Marvin’s attention was on Ash and on Ash only the whole time.

He wasn’t considered as much of a threat as Ash, when his hands were tied. He saw it clearly, how Arthur’s men had made sure twice that Ash’s links were tight when they had barely given Eiji a glance over after having hastily tied up his wrists together. And, as ashamed as he is because of it, he gets it, really. Because, who would think the boy who can’t even aim a gun properly is dangerous, right?

There. His wrists are free. What now?

“We will have plenty of time to play while we wait for Papa Dino’s return.” Marvin is saying when Eiji focuses back on the conversation. “But for now, follow me without a fuss, we’re going back to the mansion.”

Ash lets out an exaggerated sigh. “It’s not easy standing up with my wrists in my back like this. A little help maybe?”

Marvin huffs, but he approaches and bends down to help Ash up. As he passes both hands under Ash’s elbows, Eiji decides to jump into action.

Not wasting any time, he reaches for the gun at Marvin’s belt, his hand closing on the handle. Simultaneously, Ash flies his knee hard into Marvin’s stomach, and Marvin falls on the floor with a cry.

Ash’s eyes jump to the gun in Eiji’s hand while Eiji points it toward Marvin’s head and threatens him, “Don’t move! And don’t call for help or I shoot!”

“Not bad,” Ash moves to Eiji’s side, an appreciative gleam in his eyes. “Now quick Eiji untie my hands, I’ll get us out of here.”

Turns out, untying Ash’s hands and holding Marvin in respect with the gun at the same time isn’t so easy. He’s only loosened the knot that Marvin seems to decide he has nothing left to lose, and jolts up again, unbothered by the gun aiming for his face.

“Help,” he yells. “They’re escaping!”

And the worst is that still Eiji can’t resolve himself to shoot him in the face. Instead, he lets Ash’s hands go for a second and slams the gun as hard as he can on Marvin’s head as the man is trying to stand up.

Marvin falls back on the floor, unconscious.

Ash has freed his hands in the meanwhile, and he is quick to go by Eiji’s side and to take the gun from his hands.

They run in the hallway and are able to get down the stairs when Arthur and some of his men catch up to them.

“Ash!” Arthur roars, fuming. Then he adds to his men, “Shoot him in the legs, we can’t let him escape!”

Ash continues to run, entailing Eiji with him, and they reach the bar, which is now completely empty except for two of Arthur’s guys that Ash greets with a bullet to the head.

“Run!” Ash yells to Eiji, pointing toward the bar’s entrance. “I will hold them back.”

“No!”

Like hell Eiji is going to run away without Ash.

“I can’t fight and protect you, you need to go, Eiji!”

Eiji hesitates, because that is not wrong but still—

Something softens in Ash expression when he sees Eiji shake his head negatively. “They’re not going to kill me, you know that.” he says, his voice quieter. “I will catch up to you later.”

He’s lying, gosh it’s so obvious that he is lying about that last part. Maybe not completely, maybe Ash does have some hope he will manage to evade later, but not right after Eiji; and there’s already so much resignation in his eyes that Eiji knows he is prepared for the worst eventuality.

Eiji saw how Ash was treated by Arthur and Marvin. Even if they do keep him alive for Golzine, that doesn’t mean Ash is safe from them.

The door flies open in Ash’s back and he topples a table to take shelter behind it, yelling again for Eiji to leave. Eiji does run in direction of the exit, then, but he changes his mind before attaining the door and ducks behind the bar’s counter.

He’s sure nobody saw him because Arthur’s men are only targeting Ash from where he is kneeling behind the table he tumbled down. They don’t seem so resolute to keep him alive anymore, and their aims become more and more risky as Ash takes them down one after the other.

Dammit, what good did it make that Eiji decided to stay if there’s nothing he can do anyway? Why is he always coming back to the realization of his helplessness?

Soon, Arthur’s men stop entering the bar, and an unnerving silence falls on the scene.  

“You can keep sending your guys in, I will just kill them all.” Ash shouts in the quiet. “Or maybe you can come yourself and we fight it out, just the two of us. What do you say, Arthur? Don’t you want to settle it once and for all?”

Eiji can’t see Ash from his position behind the bar’s counter, but he wonders suddenly if Ash isn’t out of bullets. Ash uses a Smith and Wesson 375 magnum, with a shortened barrel and a chamber’s capacity of six bullets. This Eiji knows well because it was part of the file full of the data Yut-Lung and Sing assembled on Ash, and that he had to memorize before meeting Ash for the first time.

It is possible Ash still had several munitions strapped on himself, as they weren’t even searched by Arthur’s guys before. But he shot the gun so many times he must be coming to the end of it by now.

Maybe Arthur doesn’t stop to consider the eventuality that Ash could be asking for a duel with him because he is out of bullets. Perhaps he does consider it, but is still eager to go on the one on one Ash proposed. Either way, he is the next man to enter the room, a knife in each of his hands.

 “We will do it my way, right Ash?” he says, that unnerving smile of his playing on his lips. “You always preferred that we kept the game fair after all, and you know I can’t exactly use a gun, thanks to you.”

Ash exits from behind the table, his expression a serious mask.

“What will you tell Dino, if you win?” he asks, catching mid-air the knife Arthur sends his way.

Arthur’s smile widens. “Well, you know how it is. Accidents are so quick to happen when trying to catch a wild animal. I will just say you took a stray bullet or something.”

“This was your plan from the very beginning, right? You never planned on bringing me alive to Golzine.”

“Well, I did hope for an opportunity to get rid of you. Marvin meddling in was making it complicated to disobey Golzine too obviously, but you resolved my problem.”

Eiji is fuming behind the bar’s counter, jaw set and hands clenched into fists. He knew it. Ash knew Arthur had decided to have him killed, and he still told the opposite to Eiji?

Ash lets his gun fall on the floor, sending it slide across the room with his foot. “You killed him?” he asks, his tone so detached it would seem nearly conversational if it wasn’t for the cold anger in his voice whenever he addressed Arthur. “You killed Marvin?”

You did.” Arthur laughs shortly. “That’s what I will tell Papa Dino, anyway.” Arthur pauses and looks around the bar once. “Where’s your little friend? Did he leave you behind?”

“He’s long gone. It’s none of your concern anyway.”

“Right.” Arthur merely shrugs at that. “Let’s begin, then.”

They charge toward each other, dancing around the other in a deadly waltz. Eiji crawls out of his hiding place to recuperate Ash’s gun from where it had been discarded on the floor, before quickly hiding behind a table. When he checks the fight again, fresh cuts are running on Ash and Arthur’s arms, but none of them seem to have an advantage on the other for now.

Forcing himself to stay calm, Eiji checks the gun’s chamber, and sure enough it is empty. On his right, a few feet away, is the corpse of one of Arthur’s men, and his lifeless hand is holding another revolver. Maybe if Eiji could reach it…

What? Would he shoot Arthur with it? He can’t exactly hope to be able to aim properly enough as to hurt Arthur but not Ash, as they are fighting so close to each other.

Ash seems to be wining anyway. As Eiji stares back at the fight, he sees him disarm his adversary before sending him on the floor with a kick of his foot. But when Arthur falls on his behind, a terrible detonation reverberates through Eiji’s bones and he watches, breathless, as Ash is hit in the shoulder with a bullet.

“Ash!”

He couldn’t help but to yell, and now Ash is staring at him, his eyes widening in surprise. He holds his shoulder and blood seeps through his fingers, but he manages to stay on his feet despite the strength of the impact.

Leaving Eiji’s face, his gaze flies back toward Arthur, and then toward one of his men, who entered the bar without Eiji noticing him and was the one to shoot Ash. The man shivers when he sees that Ash has noticed him, and he aims at him again with trembling hands.

This time, Eiji is ready to fire back. He doesn’t need to hide anymore, so he rolls toward the gun he noticed earlier and extracts it from the dead man’s grip. Then, he shoots at the man until the barrel is empty, and even though none of his bullets reach him, it’s enough to make the guy stop firing at Ash in order to take shelter behind the bar’s counter.

Ash must have left his knife fall when he was shot, because when Eiji is done shooting in the air, he realizes that Arthur is back on his feet, holding Ash’s knife and slowly stepping closer to him. When he suddenly charges, Ash resists stoically, but he is soon overwhelmed by the pain in his shoulder and falls on the floor, disarmed.

Arthur steps on his chest in order to keep him down, his smile slowly spreading on his ugly mug. Eiji sees Ash glance around himself, searching for anything that could help him but returning empty handed.

Eiji’s hands are tightened around the two guns he has, but the weapons are useless, now that they have no bullets left, and he doesn’t know what to do with them.

Arthur raises his knife, and for a second Eiji isn’t able to do anything but look at Ash’s face, where a terrible acceptance has washed out the fear in his eyes.

Eiji needs to do something, anything. He can’t let that happen, he can’t—

He raises his right arm, still securely holding Ash’s gun in his hand. He doesn’t stop to think. He just gathers all the strength he still has and throws the gun in Arthur’s direction.

He doesn’t know who is the most surprised between them three when the gun slaps Arthur right in the face after having described a perfect arc in the air.

Of course, the impact isn’t enough to hurt Arthur in any way, but it redirects his attention on Eiji for a split second, as Arthur swears loudly and his head snaps toward where Eiji is hidden.

It’s all Ash needs to kick Arthur’s knife off his hand. For good measure, he throws him a fist in the stomach which makes Arthur wheeze in pain. While Arthur tries to find his breath again, Ash elbows him violently on the neck, and the man falls on his knees.

“Run!” Ash yells, already running toward Eiji, picking his gun off the floor as he passes near it.

Eiji doesn’t need to be told twice. He has reached the door when Ash joins him and takes his hand in his.

“Follow me!” he shouts again, even though it’s totally unnecessary to Eiji, who was already set on following Ash closely wherever they go.

Even when they reach the street in front of the club, they don’t slow down. They continue to run like two madmen in the night until they are breathless.

It’s only when Ash pulls them in a small alley that their course comes to a stop. Letting go of Eiji’s hand, Ash braces himself against the wall, breathing loudly.

“Holy fuck.” Ash rasps, struggling to recover his breath. “Holy fucking shit.” When he raises his head to stare at Eiji, the Japanese has the surprise to find his jade eyes gleaming, a wide smile on his lips. “Holy shit Eiji you’re crazy.” he manages to say, his body shaken by a hysterical laughter. “Arthur’s face when you—” Ash shakes his head. “You do know guns aren’t supposed to be used like that, right?”

His surprise passed, Eiji finds himself quickly sharing Ash’s hilarity, his mind still reeling because they had been so close to death and the absurdity of it is only now catching up to him.

“I can’t believe you’re better at throwing a gun than at aiming it.” Ash continues, still laughing, but more calmly, now. He keeps his back pressed to the wall, as if afraid he would fall without any support.

“It’s easier.” Eiji protests. “I’ve thrown a lot of rocks into a lot of lakes, when I was a child. I was the very best out of my group of friends.”

Ash stares back at him, surprised. “You used to throw rocks into water? Why?”

“Well, for fun. Every kid has done that once in his life, no? You know, playing to see who can aim the farthest, that kind of things.”

“Ah.” Ash shrugs dismissively, before wincing because of the pain in his shoulder. “I wouldn’t know. I guess I wasn’t a normal child. Didn’t have a lot of friends.”

Eiji’s heart tightens when he remembers what he had read in the file Yut-Lung had given him, concerning Ash’s early life. He remembers the articles on the Blue Beard of Cape Cod and feels his stomach drop.

“I’ll teach you.” he says, dimly aware it will never be enough. “It’s never too late to learn how to throw a good rock.”

Ash smiles, something fond and gentle shining deeply in his gaze. “I guess I would like that. Who know, it could save my life one day. Exactly like you saved me today.”

Eiji grazes at his neck, embarrassed by Ash’s sudden solemn tone. “Well… I could only do that because you saved me first.”

Ash quirks a brow. “Is it a contest?” he asks playfully.

“Only if you let it be one.”

They share another quiet laugh, and Eiji wants to continue to hear Ash being so amused, so he adds, “Next time, I—”

“There won’t be a next time.”

Eiji startles and whips his head to stare at Ash, destabilized by the new serious of his tone.

“What? Why?”

Because. You don’t even know how to shoot a gun. If you can’t do that, you can’t come with me on that kind of missions. It’s too dangerous.”

“I can learn to be better.” Eiji affirms, decided. “I swear usually I—"

“Yes, of course you can learn. But you don’t need to. Knowing how to shoot immobile targets isn’t the same as killing people. I know how to do it, it’s enough.”

“But, if I don’t, next time—”

“Like I said, there won’t be a next time.” Ash shakes his head with exasperation, something frantic in his gaze. “Dammit Eiji, you could have been killed today, don’t you understand?”

Eiji presses his lips together, reduced to silence by Ash’s expression. His frowned brows indicate his anger at being contradicted, of course, but it’s not what makes Eiji’s breath catch in his throat. It’s the clear fear he can see in Ash’s eyes.

Adverting his gaze, Ash takes a phone out of his pocket and sends a quick text, certainly to have a car sent to them. Eiji distantly realizes the reason Arthur didn’t even have them searched was probably because he had never planned on taking them to Golzine alive in the first place.

“And if you want to know what I think,” Ash continues, still looking away. “I think you should back away from this whole affair while there’s still time. It won’t get any prettier.”

Eiji frowns. “I know it won’t. You know why I want to be a part of this.”

“I know.” Ash agrees. “But I guess what I’m trying to say is…” After a short hesitation, Ash plants himself in front of Eiji, his emerald eyes intensely set in his. “I can offer you a way out, Eiji. You don’t need to be there for the plan to work, I can promise you I will carry it to fulfillment.”

For a moment, Eiji is too surprised to process what Ash is saying. “What—"

“You can walk away from this mess right now. This is something I could never even dream of, but you can. I know you have a family, in Japan. You could retrieve them and start new. You could—”

“But I want to be here, Ash! I want to participate! I can’t— We need to stop Golzine from developing Banana Fish! I know I can’t do much, but you can’t seriously be expecting me to leave you, Yut-Lung and Sing to deal with it while I run away!”

Ash stares at Eiji with his brows furrowed, his piercing eyes never leaving Eiji’s own.

“You are not like the rest of us, Eiji. I wasn’t sure at first, but now I see it so clearly. You are not stuck here. You should never have been involved with this life in the first place, but it’s not too late for you, contrary to me or Yut-Lung, or even Sing I’m sure.”

Eiji shudders slightly, stung by Ash’s words. He is deeply aware he is the luckiest of the lot, the one who could always afford to be only a bystander, who never could do more than just be there. But now he gets to do something useful for his friends, and he won’t let go so easily.

Every day he is reminded that it’s too late for Shorter, but he can still stop Banana fish from doing more victims. He won’t let his friends alone at a time like this, and Ash has no right to waltz in and decide in his place.

“And why do you think you can choose whether I should be involved in this or not?” he asks, knowing his voice sounds a little accusatory but too shaken to care.

There’s a short silence after that, as if Ash had never expected his point to be considered under this angle. He frowns, and Eiji would swear he looks embarrassed.

“Because I… I just…” Ash is blushing lightly now, struggling with conveying an idea he clearly doesn’t want to voice. He lets out an exasperated sigh. “Remember, before I left to deal with Golzine, when you said you cared?” he asks. “Well, that’s why.”

Eiji is totally lost, now.

“So, it’s because I care about you?”

“Wha— No!” Ash protests strongly, and now his cheeks are fully red. “It’s because I do! I care about you and I don’t want you to be hurt!”

Eiji blinks, surprised. A smile spreads on his lips while he processes Ash’s words, and Ash only seems to become redder by the second.

“Oh,” he says, understanding dawning on him. “If that’s how you feel, why couldn’t you just come out and say so?” Eiji asks, delighted. “Was it so hard to get out?”

“Jeez,” Ash spins around, concealing his red face from Eiji. “You’re making it so much harder than it already is.” he grunts.

Eiji giggles, feeling warm all over. Ash cares about him also? And here he thought for the longest time Ash still resented him for the way Eiji had tricked him back when they had met… Especially after how he had acted before leaving for Golzine’s mansion, when he had made it clear he didn’t understand Eiji’s feelings in the slightest…

Well, no. He realizes he had already known it wasn’t totally the case. But hearing Ash outright says it feels better than anything.

“I’m not changing my mind, though.” Eiji states lightly, following Ash out of the alley and into the car that just arrived for them. “I’m still staying.”

He doesn’t admit that if anything, Ash’s admission has just cemented his decision. Because if his feelings are reciprocated then it means…

Ash huffs, still facing away from Eiji as the car begins to roll. “I should have known that.” he mutters to himself. “You’re really impossible.”

Eiji smiles. “I am impossible and you still care about me.” he says, because both are truths and he is still amazed with the second.

Ash is still facing away from him, but Eiji hears a small, “Yes.” falling off his lips, and it makes his heart flutter.

---

Fingers lazily combing through his hair, Yut-Lung observes Ash Lynx laugh at something Eiji just said. It’s a curious thing to witness, really, how easily the lynx’s cold eyes can soften, how rapidly his stern expression can crack, all because of a plain Japanese boy.

Well, it’s not like Yut-Lung is surprised by it. He was subjected to Eiji’s charm himself, and knows how heartwarming it is, to have his attention and favors. But Yut-Lung had the excuse of being a child, back when he gave in to Eiji’s insistent friendship. Ash is an adult, he is supposed to know better than to let this boy into his life when there is no place for him to fit there.

But loneliness does that to men. Yut-Lung is well placed to know all about it.

It’s dark inside the room, because the fading sunlight doesn’t quite reach it. But through the window, Yut-Lung can see the garden bathing in light, illuminating Ash and Eiji’s figures. It isn’t the garden Yut-Lung met Eiji in since Yut-Lung sold the mansion holding all these terrible memories as soon as he liberated himself from his brothers, but the vision of Eiji in such a place still makes him nostalgic.

Lately, he found himself reflecting more and more often on his life, and on the role Eiji played in it. That plain boy with his plain problems who patiently stayed at Yut-Lung’s side when no one else would. He knows such feelings of gratefulness are kind of pathetic and weak, but he can’t exactly do much about it.

Everything is working out too well lately. Yut-Lung managed to attach Blanca at his service, to convince the wild lynx to work with them, and all of this right under Golzine’s ugly nose. Sure, Ash took a bullet the day before, but he still managed to bring back the files he stole from Frog just as intended. If things continue like this, they will be done with this whole affair sooner than Yut-Lung had first thought.

It makes him feel strangely empty. He had thought the project would keep him occupied in the same way planning his brothers’ demise had, but until now it had proven to be barely satisfactory.

Even having Ash under his thumb is not as amusing as he had thought. Probably because it doesn’t feel at all like the man has subdued to him. Or perhaps it is because Yut-Lung can’t help but notice all the ways in which the two of them are similar, and it makes Ash’s presence painful more than anything else.

“It seems the young Okumura has taken a liking with Ash, doesn’t it?”

Yut-Lung doesn’t startle, but it’s only because years spent listening for footsteps have made him immune to anyone walking on him. He tears his gaze off the window to stare back at Blanca.

“So it seems, indeed.” he replies laconically.

“Aren’t you worried about it?”

Yut-Lung shrugs dismissively. It had worried him at first, to see how quickly Eiji was ready to give his trust to such a dangerous man as Ash Lynx. But seeing them interacting now, he wonders who will end up being a weakness for the other.

Blanca’s face is always hard to read, but for once it’s easy to see that he is the one being most worried about the situation.

Having Blanca at his service was thrilling, in the beginning. The only man who brought Ash Lynx real fear, the only one he couldn’t fight, ready to do anything Yut-Lung commanded. With the two of them by his side, fighting against Dino Golzine was supposed to be a piece of cake.

But he had quickly come to realize that he had been playing Blanca’s game all along, when he first thought it was the opposite. Yut-Lung had never convinced Blanca to work for him; Blanca had decided to do so himself and was now exactly where he wanted to be.

And all of that was because of Ash Lynx. It seemed everything revolved around him, ever since Yut-Lung had decided to involve him in his plot.

Knowing where Blanca’s true obedience goes only fills Yut-Lung with sourness.

“Why did you decide to betray Golzine, Blanca?” He wants to hear it with his own ears, wants to hear Blanca say anything that isn’t a display of falsity. “What was your reason?”

“I didn’t—”

“Oh, please.” Yut-Lung waves a dismissive hand. “You can drop the pretenses, Sergei.”

Blanca goes silent for a moment, apparently deep in thought. His gaze rests on the window once again.

“When I met Ash, he was a very young boy. He was begging for a job and I saw in his eyes, that he would be ready to do anything. It piqued my curiosity, I couldn’t help but wonder what such a young boy would look so desperate for. The reason revealed itself easily: Ash had an ill older brother and needed money for his hospital bills.”

Yut-Lung presses his lips together. “Yeah, I already know this story.”

“You see,” Blanca continued, imperturbable. “I was immediately convinced that despite Ash’s best efforts, his brother would be taken sooner or later by the illness that consumed his body. And I knew from experience, that a boy like Ash, a boy who was ready to throw himself away for his loved one, would not be able to survive the loss.” Blanca stared back at Yut-Lung. “Unless I helped him to become like me.”

“So, you thought that hardening his heart would be the only way to save him?” Yut-Lung quirks a glance by the window, where Ash is now blushing faintly while Eiji takes a leaf off his blond hair. “I don’t think it worked all that well.” he observes sardonically.

“You’re right.” Blanca has a short laugh, totally empty of any joy. “Ash never lost his capacity to love.”

“Is it such a bad thing?” Yut-Lung remarks thoughtfully. He thinks back of his child self, right after the loss of his mother. How filled with hate he was then, how incapable he was of feeling anything else.

Blanca might be right, losing a loved one was about the worst thing that could happen to anyone. Yet, his mother wasn’t the last person ever to give Yut-Lung love and affection in his life…

“I think…” Yut-Lung continued slowly. “That if I had not received any love in my life, I would have gone crazy a long time ago. One can love again, even after the cruelest of loss, don’t you agree? After all, you lost the love of your life, yet you are still able to feel affection for Ash.”

Blanca’s eyes drop to the floor, his expression turning contemplative. “Love is about the most dangerous thing, in our world. For people like us, living a life empty of any is the only way to stay safe.”

“Staying under Golzine was what you call safe?”

“It is. Have we stayed by monsieur Golzine, I would have been able to retire and then, who know? I had this crazy dream of taking some vacations away from anything I had ever known. It was the safest option for Ash too. It wouldn’t have been easy of course, but I know that eventually, Golzine would have given everything he possessed to him.”

“But Ash isn’t interested in any of that, isn’t he? I can see it now, how… lacking in ambition he is.”

“Yes. Staying at Golzine’s side was killing him. The end I had pictured would never have happened.”

“So, you decided to risk it all?”

“I’m not risking much.” Blanca smiles sadly. “I don’t have much left to lose. But what would you choose, master Yut-Lung, in the same position as Ash? Would you choose to love and be destroyed?”

“Better to be destroyed than to return to who I was before.” 

Blanca’s faint smile doesn’t falter, but his eyes are still impenetrable. Yut-Lung wants to return the question to him, but something in the man’s expression holds him back. When Blanca turns away from the window and makes to walk out of the room, Yut-Lung doesn’t stop him.

---

There’s light coming from Eiji’s room, seeping under the closed door, and Yut-Lung doesn’t hesitate before opening it and stepping inside.

He stops dead in his tracks when instead of finding Eiji like he had thought he would, he is left facing Ash Lynx, who startles violently and turns toward him, a hand at the gun he wears at his belt.

Yut-Lung frowns. Who the hell let Ash run free in the house with a gun? He thought he had given specific orders not to let that happen.

Not that he still thinks Ash represents a threat to them, but still…

Ash barely relaxes when he recognizes Yut-Lung. “You often enter rooms that are not your own without knocking first?” he asks, his brows furrowed in a frown.

“What are you doing in Eiji’s room at such a late hour?” Yut-Lung counters immediately.

“I…” Ash loses his scowl in a fraction of second, and Yut-Lung would swear he even looks slightly embarrassed by the question. “He told me to wait for him here. He’s just gone to search something to drink.”

“I see.”

Ash is standing in front of the bookshelves facing Eiji’s bed. A book lays at his feet, which Ash had probably dropped when Yut-Lung entered.

“If you’re trying to get a glance of Eiji’s tastes by browsing his bookshelves, you’re wasting your time. Those aren’t his. Eiji has much more plebeian tastes.”

“I wasn’t, I just…” Ash shrugs a shoulder. “I just like books.” he says, a bit stupidly in Yut-Lung’s opinion. He bends down to recuperate the book that had fallen and keeps it in hand, turning toward Yut-Lung again. “How are those not his? Isn’t it his room?”

“Eiji doesn’t live here, you know. We just decided it would be safer for him to stay here if he was to be involved with our plot. Especially after he played you. We knew you would be coming for him.”

Ash’s mouth thins discreetly. “If it had been a normal case… It wouldn’t have been enough to keep him safe from me. You played a dangerous game, and with your own friend’s life.”

There’s an accusatory edge to Ash’s voice that Yut-Lung judges to be completely misplaced. It’s not like he forced Eiji to put himself in danger.

“Eiji wanted to participate. He knew the risks, we all did. Why would it be different for him?”

“He isn’t like us. If he hadn’t been involved with you in the first place—”

“What, he would have led a normal life? I’ve never forced him to stay by my side, he always chose to do so.”

Ash shakes his head silently, and neither of them adds anything for a moment. Yut-Lung wishes Eiji would come back already, and save them from the embarrassment of having to be cordial with each other. His eyes fall on the book still in Ash’s hand, and he recognizes the title.

What happens to people that love each other?” he says pensively, his thoughts still agitated by his earlier talk with Blanca; and he wonders if Ash will recognize the quote.

I suppose they have whatever they have, and they are more fortunate than others. Then, one of them gets the emptiness forever.” Ash continues automatically.

“Islands in the Stream.” Yut-Lung says, nodding at the book in Ash’s hand. “And you can actually quote it, I’m impressed.”

Ash shrugs. “Blanca recommended it to me a long time ago.”

“You don’t say.”

Ash puts the book back on its shelf and the silence falls between them again. However this time, Ash is the one to break it.

“I’ve been wondering for a while,” he says, pressing his back against the bookshelves. “You were the one behind your brothers’ sudden… disappearances, were you not?”

“That’s right.” Yut-Lung goes and sits on Eiji’s bed, understanding this discussion can’t be kept short. “It had always been my lifegoal, and the whole thing with Banana Fish and Golzine made it easy for me.”

“How so?”

“When my brothers first learned that Golzine had something to do with the abductions of the youngsters of Chinatown, their first reaction wasn’t a pleased one. See, they needed support from the streets. These kids were people that served them, bought from them, sought their protection. Even when you stand on top of the pyramid, you need the acceptance of the masses, and the masses weren’t so happy to see their sons and brothers disappear.”

“Golzine must have smelled that there was a risk of war with my brothers, because he was quick to offer an advantageous deal. That betrayal didn’t please the Chinatown’s street gangs so much, and the same could be said about most of the streets gang reigning over New York at the time. Convincing them to give me a hand in exchange for the assurance I wouldn’t do them so dirty if I was the only remaining Lee in charge was easy.”

“I see.” Ash silently mulled over Yut-Lung’s revelations for a bit. “Did Eiji… Eiji didn’t take part in any of that, right?”

“He didn’t.” Yut-Lung acquiesced. “That period wasn’t the easiest for him. His father contracted a liver disease, and since he was the one who brought most of the money home, Eiji had to fill in in his place. I helped him as much as I could, but my brothers never gave me much liberty and I had to be discreet about my connection with Eiji, so they couldn’t suspect we were close.”

Yut-lung lets out a sigh. “I also must admit, I pushed Eiji away on purpose on this one. He spent years trying to have me renounce my plan of exterminating my brothers, and run away instead, I knew what he would think if he saw too much… Not that he doesn’t know what I did but… It was easier for us not to dwell too much on it.”

“He did manage to convince me not to kill my brothers’ families, though.” Yut-Lung grimaces. “Which made me lose a ton of money and power in the process, as you can imagine, since the Lee’s heritage was divided between us all. But, well… I could convince some gangs to help me assassinate my brothers, but I guess I couldn’t have had them killing women and children even if I did ask.”

Yut-Lung stares at Ash again, and sees him frowning, eyes far away. He wonders what can possibly be going through his mind right now. As much as he tries, it seems he can’t come close to understand Ash Lynx in the slightest.

“Like I said, Eiji wasn’t involved in any of that, but…” Yut-Lung adds after a beat, when it becomes clear Ash won’t offer more of a reaction. “Still, Eiji is not the weak baby boy he appears to be at first glance. He isn’t afraid in the face of darkness. Not that he enjoys it of course but… He doesn’t advert his eyes.”

Ash stays quiet again, and Yut-Lung is growing frustrated. “I don’t know what to think of you, Ash Lynx.” he says, hoping to finally get some raise out of the man.

Ash does raise his gaze to stare at him in the eyes, then.

“I could say the same about you.”

They stare at each other with a certain mistrust, until the door finally cracks open.

“Oh.” Eiji pauses when he sees them, and gosh is Yut-Lung relieved to see him. Eiji is holding two cans of beer in his arms, and Yut-Lung wonders distantly where he even could find those in the house. “Yue, I didn’t know you would be here… Do you want something to drink?” Eiji asks, following Yut-Lung’s gaze to the cans he is holding.

“Beer?” Yut-Lung wrinkles his nose in disgust. “Since when do you drink beer, Eiji?”

“Since a long time ago!” Eiji protests with energy. “Only, not with you, of course. I know what you think of any drink that isn’t fancy vine.”

“Precisely. You literally have access to the most delicately flavored beverages in this house, yet you would go out of your way to fish those cans of piss?” Yut-Lung gives Ash a disgusted glance. “I’m guessing it’s because you like it?”

Ash smiles sharply. “I hate vine.” he says, with such emphasis it must have a secret meaning that is lost on Yut-Lung.

Yut-Lung huffs. “No wonder you are getting along with Eiji. I could only imagine what it would be like to be so tasteless as to be proud of it too.”

Eiji steps closer to Ash in order to hand him one of the cans. As he does so, his hand brushes slightly along Ash’s own, and they both acknowledge it with an awkward little smile, flush painting their cheeks alike.

Yut-Lung finds himself scooting closer to the exit.

“Hum, Yue?” Eiji turns in his direction again, and Yut-Lung realizes he has already a hand on the door’s handle, ready to flee from the uncomfortable feeling that swelled in his stomach upon witnessing the scene. “You wanted to see me?”

Well, Yut-Lung did come in hope of talking to Eiji, but now he just wants to be anywhere else.

“No, it was nothing.” he says. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He opens the door and takes a step back. “Goodnight Eiji.” He nods in Ash’s direction. “Ash.”

“Oh, hum, goodnight then! See you tomorrow.”

Yut-Lung closes the door in his back before storming away, but he doesn’t head for his own room. He feels incomprehensibly restless and he needs to vent to someone immediately.

---

Sing is in the shower when Yut-Lung barges into his room, and he yells at him to wait for a bit through the door separating the bathroom from the rest of his suite.

Yut-Lung absolutely abhors waiting, so he storms out again, demanding Sing joins him in his favorite lounge as soon as he’s done, slamming the door as he exits the room to show the extent of his displeasure.

He’s halfway through a first bottle of wine when Sing finally joins him, hair still drenched from his shower, a towel hastily passed around his neck.

Sing pauses upon entering the lounge, and he gives Yut-Lung an unimpressed look, which is quite annoying given Yut-Lung made sure to be dramatically sprawled over the couch as if he was the star actress of a silent film, expecting to stir up at least some sort of reaction out of his friend.

But Sing only sighs, crossing the room to sit in the sofa facing Yut-Lung.

“There you are. Somehow I knew I would find you sulking.” Sing stares purposely at the bottle of wine on the coffee table, frowning when seeing how much of its content is already gone. “I hoped you wouldn’t be drinking, though.”

Yut-Lung half-shrugs gracefully, the silk robe he passed while waiting for Sing sliding lower on his shoulder.

“A drink a day is good for the health. Even doctors say so.”

“You’re smart enough to know that’s a lie old as humanity.” 

Yut-Lung sits up, reluctantly setting his empty glass on the coffee table. Sing doesn’t get to be annoyed; Yut-Lung is the one who should be, at Sing who dared to make him wait, at Eiji for being so taken with Ash fucking Lynx, at Ash fucking Lynx for existing—

“What is it?” Sing asks, smile spreading on his lips as he tilts his head to the side. “Let me guess, you tried to see Eiji only to find Ash glued at his hip?” Yut-Lung confirms with a small grunt and Sing nods understandingly. “These two are inseparable nowadays, you just can’t find one without the other. So, now I take jealously is making your tummy hurt, eh? I knew this would happen eventually.”

Yut-Lung huffs. Damned Sing and his damned perspicacity.

“I’m not jealous. Why would I be? I simply have better things to do than to make friend with Ash Lynx, in contrary to Eiji and you. I am plotting to overtake New York’s most powerful syndicate, while the lot of you is getting hypnotized by dazzling green eyes.”

“Hey, don’t lump me together with Eiji! I am not smitten with this white boy!”

“Yes you are. Ever since he let you assist him in piecing together the evidences we have collected so far, you’ve been begging for his attention like an abandoned puppy.”

Sing blushes discreetly. “I’m not! It’s just… Jeez, did you read what he wrote based on the shreds of evidences we got so far on Banana Fish? He let me access to his computer and damn, this guy’s been writing essays on literature, pharmacology, political sciences… Mostly to spend the time or just write down his thoughts! I hate to admit it because it kinda pisses me off, but Ash is a genius, there’s no other word for it!”

Yut-Lung crosses his arms over his chest. “You sure changed your mind quickly about him.”

“I mean…” Sing grazes at his nape. “Clearly there’s no risk of him attempting to kill Eiji anymore, which was my only concern. I’m sure you saw the two of them interact by now...”

“I did.” Yut-Lung replies somberly. “It’s quite sickening.”

Sing snorts. “Why, because they are happy and you’re not part of it?”

No. I’m not this petty, who do you even take me for?” Sing barely raises a brow, smile still in place, which is once again nothing but infuriating. “It’s simply that I worked very hard to be where I am today, and toward my friendship with Eiji, or even with you. And this guy just waltzes in and suddenly everyone loves him and everything revolves around him? It’s just… It’s just unfair, that’s all.”

 Sing rolls his eyes, shit-eating grin still plastered across his face. “You didn’t work for shit to gain mine or Eiji’s friendship. We tolerated you despite you making no effort whatsoever to be likable.”

Yut-Lung groans, recoiling in the couch. He hates how everything loses its dramatic when Sing is involved. How does he manage to make Yut-Lung sound so dumb every time he opens his damn mouth?

“I’m tired, Sing.” he says, mostly to change the subject. “I thought this whole affair would be more thrilling than it is.”

Sing seems supremely annoyed by his words. “Thrilling? We’re risking our lives out there, all of us. I know the stakes are not as high for you as they are for me, but—”

“That’s not it. I’m interested in the outcome of this, we’ve been at it for years and it’s only now giving results… It’s just… I don’t know, I guess I thought Ash Lynx would offer me a better game.”

“Oh.” Sing slumps back in the couch, his hands crossed behind his neck. “You’re disappointed to discover Ash is a normal dude, and the god of war or whatever you imagined him to be, uh?”

Yut-Lung groans, dramatically pushing a hand to his face. He would like to deny, but there’s a part of truth in Sing’s words, more so than he is willing to admit.

“I just thought…” Yut-Lung sighs. “We’ve all heard a lot about Ash Lynx in the field, about how every mission the Corsicans tasked him with was a success, about how he was basically an angel of death… And it did intrigue me. Somehow, even just catching glances of this man, I thought he was similar to me, and now I realize…”

Yut-Lung decides not to finish his thought out loud, but as always, Sing takes it as an invitation to open his annoying mouth.

“You realize you’re similar in ways you dislike.”

Yut-Lung keeps himself from acquiescing, but he knows Sing reads into him anyway. 

They stay quiet for a moment, and Yut-Lung is surprised when Sing interrupts the silence, leaning closer with excitement bright in his eyes. “You know what we should do, after everything’s done with?” he asks, fingers tapping an erratic rhythm on his tight as if he couldn’t contain himself. “We should go on a vacation, somewhere far away.”

Yut-Lung stares back, taken aback by the sudden change in subject. “Vacations? What would that even solve?”

“Nothing,” Sing shrugs, “but it would be fun.”

“You sound like Eiji. Running away is his solution to everything.”

Sing grimaces at that. “Jeez, don’t be so harsh on him. I think he’s open minded, he doesn’t let himself be imprisoned in our little world, he always sees the biggest picture.” Sing straightens himself, and suddenly his gaze seems far away. “Anyway, this has nothing to do with Eiji. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. I’ve never even left New York, you know? I always thought my life was there, I never questioned it… And maybe it is meant to be here, I mean, we’re doing a good job in Chinatown and there’s all my buddies counting on me… And still, sometimes I wish I could just quit and see the world, even just for a while.”

Yut-Lung watches Sing’s shoulders slump a little as he talks, and something strange pricks at his heart. Sing was so young when he took Shorter’s place and became a gang boss, too young to be burdened with such responsibilities. They’re alike in that regard, two souls that had to grow up too fast.

But unlike Yut-Lung, Sing had a predominant sense of duty toward the persons he considered like family. His gang, his buddies, like he called them… They were a bunch of stupid, uncivilized nobodies to Yut-Lung, but Sing cared about them, and that love tied him to New York more efficiently than chains. 

It was only natural Sing would long for an escape, all things considered.

Yut-Lung reaches for his glass of wine again, pouring himself another one. “What is it with everyone dreaming on quitting on me?” he contemplates somberly. “First Blanca, and now you… And Eiji probably won’t stay long either, now that Ash Lynx is in the picture...” 

“I’m not quitting on you!” Sing exclaims, looking affronted. “I literally told you we should take vacations, as in together! But of course, you always hear only what fits your sad little narrative.”

“Hum.” Yut-Lung finishes his wine, a strange mix of annoyance and fondness messing with his thoughts. He looks back at Sing, at his frank face and gleaming eyes. “You must know my presence would spoil any hope you have of your vacations being fun in any way.”

Sing’s smile widens on his lips. “Then we will be miserable together. But like, somewhere on a beach. I’m sure it would do you some good, to go away from this city for a while.”

Ah, there it is again, that little prick of affection in his guts. Yes, Sing is someone who looks out for his family, that Yut-Lung has always known, even if he found it hard to understand at times.

He just had never considered before that he could be included in said family in any way.

Yut-Lung lets out a low chuckle, feeling the last crumbs of annoyance melt away, leaving place for a faint warmness spreading in his chest. Sing’s vacations idea seems ridiculous and not very achievable, given all the work they have to accomplish every day to keep things at bay in Chinatown, Sing on the streets and Yut-Lung running the businesses. Who would even take their place if they left?

Still, whether they end up doing it or not, he finds out that it’s a pleasant idea to entertain.

---

“I can’t believe Griffin is literally somewhere under this very roof, and yet you refuse to let me see him.”

Ash barely lifts his eyes from his computer’s screen, and Eiji feels it’s not the first time Max brings the subject up.

“When you agreed to be involved in our plot against the Corsicans, you lost your right to see my brother.” he says distantly. “He doesn’t know what we are doing, and I don’t want him involved with any more shady people. It’s not like we have any time to waste for things so trivial, anyway.”

“What, so you forbid me to see him ever? Do I have to remind you who is the elder here?”

Again, Max barely gets a rise out of Ash. “It’s just until the affair is done with. If we succeed and the calm returns in your life… I’ll let you do as you please.”

Eiji listens to the exchange quietly, his hands tight around his cup of coffee. He doesn’t even like coffee that much, but lately he feels obligated to try and match Max and Ash’s heavy consumption, if only to have something to do with his hands.

Ash and Max can spend hours bend over their computers, looking at the evidences they have managed to obtain and trying to piece more together. On the pictures they have obtained from Frog, they already recognized two senators, a judge, a chief from the NYPD and more…

Now, blackmailing these people into backstabbing Golzine and reveal in the press the mafia don’s shady involvements would certainly be enough to have Golzine on trial and stop all of his activities at the same time.

Yet, neither Ash nor anyone in their little group is eager to settle an agreement with any of the people photographed in Cape Club, so they are trying to find a better way to proceed from here.

Eiji knows that what Ash fears the most is how they are lacking time. As anticipated, Golzine had been forced to fly to Europe to explain himself with the Corsican Syndicate after Ash had made the money disappear from his bank account. While they had hoped this would freeze Golzine’s actions for some time, Arthur’s involvement had proven that it had been less efficient than planned.  

As Eiji stares at the computer’s light reflected in Ash’s thin-rimmed glasses, all he sees are the dark circles under the sharp green eyes. He can’t help but wish Ash would slow down and take a deserved break. “Just a few more days,” Ash says through greeted teeth any time someone suggested he rests. “Just a few more days, and this will be over, in one way or another.”

“What we lack are proofs on the drug.” Ash is saying now, stroking the edges of his nose with lassitude. “What you guys recuperated from the institute back when you burned it to the ground is good and all, but it’s beginning to date. I don’t know if it will be enough to expose Banana Fish, it will be hard to make people believe in such a crazy story, we need to have hard and recent truths to present.”

Max hums in agreement, thoughtful. “His mental institute might be destroyed, but Golzine must have continued experimenting on the drug, given the recent wave of suicides that we believe were orchestrated by the mafia. He must have a secret place his scientists still use for research, another institute or a lab or…”

“I think monsieur Golzine has a laboratory under his main residence.”

Ash’s eyes jerk from his computer to Blanca, who just entered the room. “Under the mansion? I’ve never heard of it.”

“He only ever alluded to it in front of me, I have no way of being sure myself. But I think it might be the case, and I think I could lead someone there if we were to try and infiltrate it.”

Ash grimaces. “Try to infiltrate the mansion? Have you finally gone senile? It’s probably the most guarded place in New York.”

“I could do it!” Sing exclaims, making Ash startle. Ever since Ash had settled in the room with his computer, Sing had tucked himself at his side, apparently fascinated with whatever Ash typed on the laptop all day long. Ash had let him stay with an apparent detachment, not easily fazed by Sing’s gleaming eyes and the thousand questions he had on his tongue whenever Ash took a short break.

Ash scowls at him now, mouth pinched in a grimace. “You? Did you not hear what I just said?”

“I think it could work.” Blanca intervenes before Sing can reply. “Of course it would be dangerous, but not impossible. We would just have to redirect Golzine’s attention elsewhere… on you, for example.”

Eiji feels anxiety tighten his stomach, already hating this plan. “So you would use Ash as bait while Sing infiltrates the mansion?”

“It could work.” Ash agrees, a discreet tug at his lips as he contemplates the plan Blanca is painting. “I already know how to keep the old geezer’s attention on me. If I make it seems like I’m on the verge of exposing him to the press, he will spare no means to get to me.” He turns toward Sing. “But it would still be dangerous for the team infiltrating the mansion. You think you’re up to the task?”

“Of course I am, who do you think you’re talking to! I just need a bit of time to scout the place and make a plan, then me and my buddies can go there, no problem.”

Ash nods. “Well, you have until Golzine comes back from Europe. As soon as you bring back new tangible evidences, we publish what we have.”

“I’ll go with Sing.” Blanca adds. “I’m the one who knows the place the best.”

Ash darts a brow. “You would actually help us? Did you finally decide to drop the pretenses and chose a side?”

Blanca lets out a sigh. “Not betraying an employer, even a former employer, has always been a rule of mine. But every time I think about betraying my own code, I hear a bratty voice remind me that there is no honor in killing people to begin with, so why bother with a code? You see what I mean?”

“My voice is not bratty.” Ash complains, but his lips stretch in a discreet grin that stays in place even when Max makes a face and declares that he definitely agrees with Blanca on that.

The group shares a laugh, clearly feeling more heart lighted now that they have the beginning of a plan, but Eiji has troubles sharing their relief.

The next step of the plan is already putting two of his friends in terrible danger, and clearly, Eiji will have no part to play in it.

---

“Gosh this is good.” Ash comments, enthusiastically munching on the salad Eiji brought him. “You are a good cook Eiji.”

He offers him a wide smile and Eiji is amused to realize that even Ash Lynx looks silly when he has salad stuck in his teeth.

“It’s a pretty basic dish, I can do much better.” Eiji replies with a shrug, trying to hide a smile.

“I guess I have pretty basic tastes.” Ash lowers his gaze on his plate, and Eiji notices that the tips of his ears are pinkish. “I only mentioned once how I liked my salad. I can’t believe you remembered and made it for me unprompted.” He looks back at Eiji again, flush dusting his cheeks red. “I really appreciate it. Thank you.”

Sing is usually Eiji’s most enthusiastic customer, but even he has never made such a show of expressing his appreciation of Eiji’s cooking, and Eiji feels himself grow red.

“It’s nothing, really. I wish I could do more.”

Ash’s eyes flash at that, and is expression tightens. “You’re doing more than your part.” he says, final. “You already know my thoughts on this.”

Yeah, you think I shouldn’t be involved at all. Eiji remembers sourly. As if I could just go my way and leave all the people I care about behind.

Ash continues to eat his meal with eagerness, and it’s only once he’s cleaned his plate completely clean that Eiji realizes something.

“Is it your first meal of the day?”

The sun is setting already, painting Ash’s hair in golds and oranges, and Eiji remembers having had to coerce him out of the study earlier when he was glued to his computer.

“No,” Ash protests immediately. Then he pauses, his eyebrows furrowing together. “Wait. It might be. Unless coffee counts as a meal?”

Eiji exhales through his nose. “When was the last time you stopped and ate something?”

“Not that long ago. Griffin forced me to eat something yesterday at some point.” Ash shrugs casually. “I don’t remember when though.”

Eiji forces himself to stay calm, sensing that the moment would be badly chosen to lecture Ash. He wonders how it is that someone as intelligent as Ash is literally incapable of taking care of himself, but figures he wouldn’t like to think too closely about the answer to that question.

“Hey,” Ash reaches a hand across the table, the press hesitant on Eiji’s arm, but still there, grounding. It’s new, these casual touches they allow between them; it’s tentative and fragile. Eiji was the one to take the first few steps, but already Ash catches up to him, reaching out in his own way, the meeting of their skin not so accidental anymore. “You will get wrinkles twenty years too early if you keep frowning like that.”

Eiji shakes his head, a little laugh building in his chest. “Wouldn’t be so bad. People would stop frowning at my ID as if it were a fake whenever I order a drink.”

But you would lose your free museum privileges.” Ash counters with a smile. “I don’t think it’s worth it.”

Eiji wonders if Ash realizes he leaned so close Eiji can feel his breath on his face when he talks, can see the detail of his pale lashes, the slight furrow in his brow even as they try to joke around in an attempt to forget their dire situation.

It would be so easy to press a little closer and kiss his lips. At times, Eiji is burning to do so, the memory of the kisses they had shared back when they’d met still so fresh in his mind that thinking of it rends him restless. And it’s not like he thinks Ash would reject him, but… Somehow, it feels wrong to have these urges for a romantic involvement when everyone is so focused on their goal.

But Eiji can’t help but to dream of an after. He didn’t discuss it with Ash yet, afraid it would be too much too soon. In the most secret part of his mind, he holds dear the hope of a life with Ash, away from the violence they had known until now.

For now, Ash smiles brighter when Eiji laces his fingers through his, light flush adorning his cheeks, and that’s enough. Soon he will bite again, throw some witty jab Eiji’s way that will defuse the sensual tension, and Eiji will follow suit with a comeback of his own. It doesn’t matter, Eiji likes both of these Ash; the sharp edged one that pretend to be on top of things as much as the soft soul he can discern behind.

“Ash,” Maybe Eiji is too lost in the moment, but when Ash looks at him this way, with eyes that are so, oh so tender, it’s easy to forget about everything else. “What will you do when this is all over?”

The warmth fades away from Ash’s eyes at that, and he withdraws a little, a new frown baring his forehead.

“Don’t know. I prefer not to think about it.” he answers somewhat flatly. Eiji probably makes a face at that, because Ash’s expression is quick to soften again. “Does it really matter? We got so much on our plate already, why worry about what comes after?”

“Don’t you look forward to being done with everything?” Eiji questions him, perplexed by Ash’s lack of enthusiasm toward the future. “Once you’re finally free from the mafia, you’ll be able to do anything you want!”

Ash looks away, and the smile playing on his lips is bitter. “Anything I want...” he muses to himself. “And what would that be, I wonder.”

“You don’t have any idea? Isn’t there anything that you wish you could do if you were free?”

Ash shrugs. “I’ve been killing people for the mafia since such a young age, Eiji. You really think I ever got time to entertain dreams of my own while I was at it? You think I even know how to do anything else?” Ash reclines in his seat, crossing his arms against his chest. “Don’t misunderstand, of course I do want to be free from all that. But I just… Getting rid of Golzine won’t magically grant me my craziest wishes.”    

“So you do have wishes.” Eiji points out, relieved.

“Perhaps. But perhaps these are things I shouldn’t be wishing for.”

Eiji is puzzled once more, by Ash’s cryptid answer as much than by the sudden sadness of his expression.

“What do you mean?”

Ash stays silent for a moment, the crease between his frowned brows only deepening. When he looks back at Eiji, it’s somewhat timidly.

“Would it be selfish…” he begins carefully. “Than to say that even so our situation is so dire, even so we are constantly risking our lives… I am happy, because it allowed me to meet you?”

Eiji feels something warm uncurls withing his chest, and he smiles when he gazes into Ash’s earnest eyes, reaching again so they are touching once more, connected.

“How can it be selfish, when I feel the same?” he answers in a breath, and feels his smile grow wide on his lips when Ash’s lips finally curl upward, when his frown vanishes.

But it passes too quickly. Already, Ash is turning away again, expression so terribly sad as the smile trembles on his lips.

“See, this is why I’m not looking forward to the end of this all that much. It will be hard to say goodbye.”

“Then don’t!” Eiji leans closer, and he beams because he understands now, he understands the way Ash is looking at the problem. “This is what I wanted to ask you, Ash. After all is done with, would you like to stay together with me?”

Ash blinks at him, and Eiji wonders how he can look so surprised, as if Eiji hadn’t been clear enough in his affection for him, as if he hadn’t even considered Eiji wouldn’t want to leave his side.

Eiji waits for Ash to recover from his surprise, and again he forgets about everything else, because all that matters is the faint flush painting Ash’s pale cheeks red, the bewildered ‘o’ of his mouth as he whispers, “…you would want that?”  

But “everything else” never forgets about them. And when Eiji’s response is lost forever, cut short by the violent sound of a gun shot in the distance, tearing apart their apparent tranquility, Eiji is reminded of it all too brusquely.

Bang

“What was that?” he asks, his heart in his throat as adrenaline kicks in. “It was— It was close by!”

Ash is already on his feet, all senses in alert, a hand on the gun at his belt. He presses a finger to his lips, silently intimating Eiji to be quiet.

Bang

---

Now that Ash is listening closely, it’s easier to tell for sure the provenance of the shooter. Somewhere on the first floor, probably right at the entry. The weapon was fired twice, but there was no---

Bang, Bang, Bang

A prompt response from Yut-lung’s guards, Ash can guess. But the commotion doesn’t stop, so even if Ash can’t tell how many attackers invaded the house, it’s likely more than one.

But who could attack them so recklessly? Golzine? It’s not his way of doing things. Bursting like that in the main residence of the head of the Chinese mafia, even with all of his men, is a public suicide.

But if not him, who—

No. Now is not the time to wonder about that. Ash needs to act, to protect. He turns toward Eiji, and his heart tightens when he meets his wide, worried eyes.

“You need to go upstairs.” Already Ash grabs for his hand, and entails Eiji in the hallway, rapidly walking toward the staircase. “Blanca and Yut-Lung are up there, you three can escape using the chopper.”

Eiji stares at him, eyes wide and mouth trembling slightly.

“But... and you?”

“My brother is downstairs. You go without us, we will catch up to you later.”

Before Eiji can say anything (and probably outright refuse, if Ash can guess from the furrow of his brows) they hear gunshots coming from the second aisle, followed by a short scream.

“Eiji, go!” Ash practically shoves Eiji toward the staircase, but Eiji resists stubbornly. “You have to escape before they can reach this floor!”

“No, I’m not leaving you behind! If I had last time, you would have— you would have died!” he shakes his head, curls his hands into fists as if to gather courage. “I’m not taking the risk.”

“Eiji.” Ash’s pulse is thumping against his ears. “There’s no time to argue, I need to go and find Griff. And I won’t—” Ash clenches his jaw, adverts his eyes. “I won’t be able to protect both of you. I’m sorry, but you would only be a hindrance.”

He sees the way his words hit Eiji, and as much as it hurts him, he knows he made the right choice. Arguing that he only wants the safest for Eiji wouldn’t have made the Japanese move from his position, but implying he could be a burden... aiming for Eiji’s insecurities is low and Ash feels sick with himself, but he doesn’t have a choice but to hold on.

“Now go!” Ash commands, already turning away to avoid being flexed by Eiji’s imploring eyes. “I’ll come find you later.”

But Eiji hesitates again, so Ash turns toward him one last time, reaching for his hand.

“Please Eiji, just go. I can’t… I can’t do anything if I’m not sure you are safe, and I need to focus if I want to save Griff out of this mess.”

Eiji blinks, brown eyes a little humid.

“Okay.” he breathes out, clearly reluctantly. “Okay, I’ll go. But please Ash, promise me to be safe. I can’t lose you, I just—” Eiji shakes his head once, voice breaking on the words. “I just can’t.”

Ash doesn’t respond, because his throat is too tight to let a word out. A part of him wants to reach for Eiji, to hold him tight against his chest and promise everything will be alright…

But that would be a lie, and by now Ash has come to understand Eiji can see right through that.

He already sacrificed precious seconds to make sure Eiji would change his mind, so Ash turns around reluctantly after a quick nod directed to Eiji. He runs down the stairs and is relieved to hear in his back that Eiji is rushing in the opposite direction.

Now that Eiji’s safety is assured, Ash can concentrate on what he has to do. As he runs toward the commotion downstairs, he prepares his heart for what is to come.