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Hangin' Tough

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A loud noise woke Ash.

He immediately thought ‘gunshot’. Eiji. Someone had shot Eiji.

Then his mind recognised the sound as a crash. Intruder. Someone had broken in.

He swung out of bed, pulling his gun out from under his pillow, pulling the door to the rest of the apartment open -

To find Eiji standing in the kitchen, staring back at him wide-eyed. He had turned on the light over the hob and it bathed him in yellow light. Ash's Walkman was skewed over messy hair and an 'I love New York T-shirt' covered him like a tent. Ash's stomach flipped, despite the fact that he was aiming a gun at this boy. Adorable, really, he looked adorable. But that was something wouldn't appreciate hearing it.

"Dropped the spoon," Eiji said, holding it up so that it caught the light. He was talking at a normal volume, unapologetically, like this was completely normal.

Ash flicked the safety back. Lowered the gun – as if that was the normal reaction to finding his housemate in the kitchen. His heart was still hammering – still recovering. "It's half three."

"I couldn't sleep," Eiji said.

Ash was starting to take in details now. The shock and the panic had given him tunnel vision. Now he noticed the glass of orange juice and bowl on the kitchen counter.

"You're eating cereal?"

Eiji took a breath, then stopped himself. He hesitated, as though he was trying to find the right words. Then he glanced up at Ash from behind a messy fringe, dark strands stuck to his forehead.

"You sleep with a gun, but I'm the weird one?" he asked.

"People don't eat cereal at half three in the morning," Ash replied, tossing the gun onto the sofa as he passed it. "Not in America."

"But they sleep with guns?" Eiji said, still unapologetic. Anyone else would have been apologizing over and over again. Anyone else would have been terrified that they'd woken Ash Lynx up. Anyone else wouldn't have been able to meet his narrowed eyed glare. Eiji was completely, utterly unafraid of him. “I was hungry.”

And Ash couldn’t decide if he hated or loved it.

"People also don't steal other people's Walkman’s without asking." Ash peeled the headphones off away from tangled hair.

Eiji caught the wire – held on to it so that it didn’t go far, and smiled.

"You were asleep."

"Because people sleep at half three in the morning." Ash tried to tug the wire from Eiji's hand. Eiji stepped forward, keeping his hold.

"You don't, always." Eiji said. Then his face flushed with heat and he dropped the headphone wire like it was boiling hot. He hadn't meant to say it. It made Ash’s breakdowns known – real.

People found it hard to have secrets at half three in the morning.

"Neither do you.” Normal - keep this all normal.

"I had," Eiji paused. "A dream."

Ash was still holding onto the headphone wire and his eyes followed the black line of it. The Walkman was tucked into Eiji's pyjama bottoms, creating a dark triangle either side. He looked away. Music was still playing faintly from the headphones – the kind of half-heard music he heard when he slept.

"A good dream or a bad dream?"

"A bit of both." Eiji was still holding the spoon. It glinted in the half-light. “It just – made me think.”

"Was I in it?"

"Yeah." Eiji smiled, his cheeks flushing pink again. Adorable – but in the true sense of the word. Adore – it was something to adore – something he did adore, completely. It was a horribly romantic idea, but he couldn’t get rid of it.

"Was that the bad part?" Ash pressed. He adored this boy. This boy was like no one else he’d known.

"No." He wasn’t scared of Ash. He tugged on the wire, to no avail.

"Well, I can't have been the good part."

"Why not?" Eiji's eyes shone in the yellow light.

"Because I sleep with a gun under my pillow." Ash said. He had one hand on the counter, to balance himself, and it was cold.

"Doesn’t everyone in America?" Eiji said it as if that was normal. As if anything about Ash was normal. As if anything about this situation was normal. “You’re my best friend.”

Best friend. The words carried a surprising sting to them. They were words he had used, but he hadn't believed them.

Shorter was his best friend. Eiji was something else. There was something else with Eiji that he knew about but wasn't naming. Something in the corner of his eye that he wasn’t looking at because it was terrifying. Something that had known he had to kiss Eiji – just the once – whilst he had an excuse that made it uncomplicated.

Something that made him tug on the Walkman wire again so that Eiji took another step closer to him, smiling sheepishly.

"If I was your best friend you wouldn't steal my Walkman," he said. This thing wasn't something that could be looked at or acted upon. Not with Eiji.

"Best friends share their Walkman’s." Eiji said. He put a hand on the wire again, just under Ash's hand so that their fingers brushed against each other. Eiji's hands were cold.

"Then best friends also share their three o'clock snacks."

Eiji gave a soft half-laugh under his breath and ducked his head. His eye lashes cast shadows on his cheeks. Ash found himself wanting to drink in those tiny movements wherever Eiji was around. If he couldn’t act on this thing, then at least he could watch it from afar. He popped the headphones out of the jack, freeing himself, then picked up the bowl. He mostly-fell down on the sofa, moving the gun out of the way - normal.

Ash's gun. No one touched Ash's gun.

No one, it seemed, but Eiji.

Ash sat on the other end, one arm over the arm and one leg up, as Eiji took a spoonful. Lucky charms. He wondered if they had them in Japan.

Japan. Eiji was Japanese and maybe that was why he was different. Different to Shorter and the others because he didn't grow up in New York, rough and ignored. Didn’t spend his school days nicking from corner shops and playing knife-fights for fun. Maybe that was why Ash kept looking at him, at the light brown skin and thick, almost black, hair. Maybe that was why he was fascinated by the fact that Eiji could still go amazingly pink if he was embarrassed enough. That his lips had a tinge of pink to them. Maybe that was why Ash was fascinated by the gentle slope of Eiji's nose and the almond shape of his eyes. He had dark eyelashes too and they were thick, the black line making his brown eyes stand out even more. His eyes were such a dark brown that sometimes it was hard to find the pupil.

No, it wasn’t him being Japanese that made a difference. It made a difference that he was attractive. Attractive and scared by these world, but ready to stay in it – for Ash. This all terrified him, but he was so brave.

Eiji glanced at him.

"You're staring," he said, simply. Not like he wanted Ash to stop, but not like he wanted him to continue either.

Ash decided to continue. "You didn't add milk."

"I didn't want to."

Ash reached over and took a marshmallow out of Eiji's bowl. Eiji didn't stop him. He squished it between his fingers.

"These are full of sugar," he said. "They'll keep you up all night."

"You can keep me company." Eiji smiled at him.

Ash was the gang leader. They wanted to follow him, stay in his good books. They admired him. But they didn't want to hang out with him. Didn’t really want to be friends – more like people who had their backs. A place to stay and something to eat – friends in the other guys, but not with the one who called the shots. There was always a gap. But Eiji hadn’t got the memo.

He tossed the marshmallow into his mouth.

"There's nothing good to watch this late at night.”

"I know." Eiji swallowed another mouthful. "That's why I borrowed the Walkman."

"What are you listening to?" Ash was imagining Eiji opening the drawer with his tapes in. Did he pick one at random? Or did he take his time and decide? Could he even read the English? Especially in the dark?

Eiji hooked the Walkman out of his pyjamas and handed it over to Ash. Their fingers grazed again.

Ash popped open the back and bit his lip to stop himself smiling. To stop himself laughing.

"I figured since you had it, it must have been cool music.” There was a small smile, like he knew as well, and was playing dumb.

"New Kids on the Block isn't cool, Eiji.”

"Then why do you have it?"

Ash glanced up at him. With those dark eyes.

"Maybe I'm not as cool as you think.” He'd thought that would have been obvious. Eiji knew where Ash had come from. He had an idea, at least, of what Ash really was.

"Impossible," Eiji said, through another mouthful of cereal.

"What would you know?" Ash asked. But the complete lack of care made him scooch closer - gave him the courage to put his hand over Eiji's on the spoon. "Are you going to eat all of that?"

Eiji smiled, and Ash's grip was light enough so that he could spoon another helping of charms onto it. He held it up to Ash, his eyes glinting playfully.

"Open wide?" he asked softly.

Eiji couldn't have known. He never would have made the connection. Never would have known how visceral a memory that created in Ash's mind. A hand on his jaw and another tugging at his hair.

He detangled the spoon from Eiji's fingers and turned away as he ate it. It sat in a lump at the back of his throat. For a  horrible moment, he gagged, before he was able to swallow it down.

"Sorry," Eiji said.

"What?" Ash swallowed.

"You got that look on your face. Sorry."

"There isn't a that look," Ash snapped.

Eiji paid attention to him enough to recognize a look on Ash's face. He wasn't sure what to do with that information. Ignore it, his brain said. Ignore it just like all of the other stuff, because he couldn't read into it. If he did, he knew he'd regret it.

"Sorry," Eiji said again.

"You don’t need to apologize." Ash’s voice was low, and he realised he sounded tired. It was tiring – having all of this baggage. He glanced across at Eiji to see him opening his mouth again. His eyes were shining and Ash knew that look. Paid enough attention to Eiji to know that look. "Don't say it."

"Ash, I'm-"

"Don't-" Ash leapt across the sofa, one hand taking Eiji's cheeks in his fingers.

"Sorry." Eiji finished.

It wasn't even that funny, but it was three in the morning and they were on a sugar high. Ash couldn't help it, his grip slipped on Eiji and he started laughing. Really laughing, like it was the funniest thing in the universe. And Eiji was laughing too, and that was an incredible sound.

Then Ash opened his eyes and realised that his forehead was resting on Eiji's. His gut twisted. He pulled way. Cereal had spilt out over half of the sofa and stuck to his pajamas.

"Shorter wanted New Kids on the Block to play at his wedding," he said, changing the subject.

"Really?" Eiji asked like there was nothing wrong. Like nothing had happened.

"Yeah."

"He had a girlfriend?" Eiji continued eating.

"Yeah, she's deff."

"Deff?" Eiji echoed.

"You know, cool.”

Eiji looked up at him. "Do you?"

"Have a girlfriend?" His stomach twisted. They were approaching dangerous territory, but his head was still foggy from sleep. It was three o’clock, and hard to stop himself. "No. Shorter tried to set me up a few months ago, but-"

"It didn't work out?"

"Let's put it that way." Ash watched the curtains wave gently in the air con.

There was a pause before, in a soft voice – "is she dead?"

"Fuck, Eiji. No, she's not dead."

"Sorry - the way you said it-"

"No." He wet his lips. Ran a hand over his mouth, wondered whether it was safe to test the waters. This was something he couldn't discuss with the rest of the gang, but the rest of the gang weren't here. And they weren't Eiji. With any luck, he'd be back in Japan in a couple of weeks, so it didn't matter what he said now. That was the reason he told himself. It wasn’t a ploy to find out – "It didn't work out because - because she thought...I was gay. She said she didn't want to date a queer in case she got AIDs."

Eiji was quiet. "Are you?"

He pretended to misunderstand. Spoke too quickly and said it too tightly. "AIDS positive? No."

"I meant gay."

And it sounded so normal - so okay coming from Eiji's mouth, that it struck a sudden nerve with Ash.

"Fuck - because it was a man who raped me and not a woman I must be gay?" He snapped. Shouted. "Because of all that shit I must be-"

"I didn't mean-!" Eiji shouted right back at him - right over him. No one did that. It made him pause, mouth still open. Watching as Eiji went back into himself. He ducked his head so that his hair covered his eyes, his hands in his lap. "I meant, because - at prison, you - kissed me."

Neither of them had mentioned it. It had happened, and it wasn't to be mentioned out loud.

"That was to get the pill to you, to get the message-"

"I know, but-"

"I'm not gay."

"Okay."

It wasn't convincing. Ash hadn't been either. That made him brave - made him ask, "Are you?"

Eiji blinked. Even in the dim light, Ash could see his cheeks colour. He spoke slowly, like he was reading the right words from the air in front of him. "No - no - I'm not - gay."

There was still something in the air between them. They were both bad liars, Ash thought, though he couldn't be one hundred percent sure about it. It wasn't a fair question. The answer was no - always no. That was the only answer.

And the truth was, Ash had no idea. It felt like the choice had been made for him. If he was - then it felt like a surrender. Giving up. Admitting they were right. But he didn't really know. All he knew was that Eiji was different. That he liked being with Eiji, liked when Eiji hugged him, or let him rest on his lap - liked Eiji. Thought Eiji was the only human he would ever be able to stand kissing.

"You wanna hear the song Shorter wanted?" He decided to change the subject, grabbing the Walkman and holding a headphone up to his ear to hear where the tape was at.

"How will we both listen?" Eiji asked, balancing the mostly empty bowl on the arm of the sofa.

"We'll share." He let the tape play the last part of 'please don't go, girl.' Then stretched the headphones between the two of them, one half on Eiji's ear, one half on his. It meant sitting very close - their heads pressed against each other's. Ash was careful to let that be the only part of them that touched, making sure his hands and legs veered away from Eiji.

"Ash, you’ll break them," Eiji said. He was sat very still, but Ash could feel the slow rise and fall of his chest. His nose was right under Eiji's ear and he could smell this morning's aftershave. It was a generic smell, but it still made his stomach twist. The fact that it was Eiji’s aftershave made it different. That they were sat this close and it wasn’t weird – they didn’t have to hide it.

That his heart sounded like a beat.

"I'll buy a new pair." It was worth it. This was as close as he'd let himself get. He promised himself that. It was like the kiss – just before Eiji disappeared from his life forever.

I'll be loving you (forever) was playing now. The almost Christmas-like piano that opened it up. Eiji giggled, realising that it was partly a joke. That it would have been Shorter being ironic. That was part of it. They hadn’t known each other for long, but Eiji had just got Shorter. Had clicked instantly and fell into an easy banter.

He smiled, his jaw just resting on Eiji’s shoulder. It still hurt – the fact he wasn’t here. But thinking of him, of that road trip, almost brought him back.

As if Eiji knew, his hand hovered over Ash’s back. Not quite a hug, but almost. Almost holding him – the fact that anyone would comfort him – unheard of.

"Would I be at Shorter's wedding?" Eiji asked.

It made Ash want to let Eiji stay. To not make him get on a plane and go home. Stay here, live with Ash. Live with Ash forever, in whatever this was. Maybe let this something happen – if Eiji could stay, and they could both live – why not?

If this was a world where Shorter was still here.

He desperately, suddenly, needed Eiji to stay. It was stupid, and selfish, but, at least for tonight, he’d let it happen.

"Of fucking course," he said. "You’d be my plus one. We'd have to slow dance to this together, just to show Shorter up."

“That’s mean.”

“It would be my duty as best man.”

Eiji chuckled, fingers just nudging Ash. Then it faded, and he started stumbling over his words. "I've - never slow danced."

It could have been a lie. It might have been a lie – was probably a lie. They'd lied a lot already, both pretending to believe each other. Both making up half-excuses to sit close to each other and the other letting them.

"Come here." Ash found Eiji's hands and pulled him up, scattering Lucky Charms across the floor in a tiny  avalanche. He kicked a handful out of their way, pulling Eiji's hands up and onto his shoulders.

There was a moment of hesitation, before he placed his own on Eiji's waist. His hands felt like a perfect fit - Eiji's waist was warm and real underneath his palms. He didn't know why he thought it wouldn't be, but it made him pull him closer. Eiji obliged, fingers twitching but not leaving.

Ash knew how to ballroom dance properly. Of course he knew, but it wasn’t the time for that. Now, he just turned their bodies, swaying to the rhythm. High-pitched voices singing about never leaving each other.

Eiji's hands slipped after a couple of moments, his arms tightening around Ash's neck. His chin rested on Ash's shoulder, his hair tickling his cheek. To keep the headphones on, he reasoned.

There was cereal all over the floor, and Ash kicked it away as they kept dancing.

"And would you be singing along?" Eiji whispered. They were closer than they should be, chests and hips pressed flush against each other.

Ash smiled. He could feel Eiji smiling against him too.

“Don’t push it.” Singing was not his strong suit.

It seemed impossible that they could even get closer. But Eiji was, tightening his arms around Ash's neck as though he couldn't bear to ever let him go, burying his nose into Ash’s shoulder. This was a dream. This had to be a dream. He slipped his hands all the way around to the small of Eiji's back, cradling him like he was made of gold. Letting his arms slip up to feel all of Eiji’s back. Strong – he was strong because he had wings on his back. How else could he fly?

Love and forever were heavy words. For this – and yet he half-closed his eyes and imagined a reality where it wasn’t. Allowed himself that possibility.

Found that he was humming along. And that Eiji’s breath hitched as he did, sighing.

And how fitting was ‘when I look at you, all my thoughts get in the way?’ How could he explain everything that was inside him when he couldn’t even sort it out himself?

Maybe he didn’t need to. Maybe this was enough.

Maybe Eiji understood.

The song was over halfway when Ash pulled away slightly, the headphones straining with the distance. He looked at Eiji. Those dark eyes reflected the yellow light like they were full of stars. His lips were slightly parted. Soft, pink lips.

He shouldn't. He really shouldn't. It would ruin everything. He'd promised himself he wouldn't.

But it was three in the morning and hard to lie. But he had already broken his promise by getting closer. But Eiji hadn’t recoiled in horror at Ash’s bad lie. And it was hard to think straight when all he was believing the fantasy they were in – could blame it on the song if anything went wrong. When all he could see and smell and feel was Eiji.

So he leant forward, and kissed him.

And Eiji didn't pull away. His mouth moved back and instead it was Eiji kissing Ash. And then they were kissing each other - and then Eiji was pulling away. His cheeks were bright pink and he was breathless.

"I thought you weren't gay," he whispered.

"I thought you weren't gay," Ash replied.

He leant forward again, and Eiji kissed him again, fingers tightening in Ash's hair. Ash's own grip tightened in Eiji's t-shirt.

"No one can know.”

"I know." Eiji leant forward again, kissing him like he was a diver catching mouthfuls of air. The headphones had half fallen off of them now, tinny music playing to itself.  Ash never thought he’d be making out to the ending of I’ll be Loving You (Forever).

“Eiji.” He couldn’t even pull his mouth away to speak. “I lo–”

Eiji shushed him. He opened his eyes just enough to see that Eiji’s were closed – dark eyelashes fanning out and casting shadows on his face. “I know.”

And they were kissing again – Ash’s heart doing a full Olympic gymnast routine. Everywhere they touched tingled, but in a comforting way. It felt as though he was being healed.

Fuck, he wanted to stay like this.

He wanted to stay like this, forever.

Chapter Text

My Favourite Girl

It was getting late.

Eiji was starting to feel anxious. He didn’t usually stay up past midnight – keep a healthy sleep schedule, keep a healthy diet – live his life around keeping fit for high jump.

What was the point of that now? He hadn’t jumped in a long time. Well, there was that once – in front of Skip and Ash. He didn’t count it – hadn’t even landed right. So maybe it didn’t matter that it was nearing three in the morning. There was no point keeping fit for something he didn’t do.

“You’re yawning,” Ash said. “Drink more.”

“I don’t know if I want to.”

“That’s exactly why you should.” Ash took the bottle from Eiji’s hand, putting it to his mouth for him. His head was fuzzy, already – he’d almost fallen over when he stood up to go to the toilet. It was making him give in to bad decisions – the decision to laugh and take an obliging sip.

The air was thick with smoke. Voices echoed off of the walls of the bar, as if they had a physical form. The lights – yellow, red, green – caught Eiji in the eye every other second, blinding him so that everything seemed faded, like a polaroid.

It was Ash’s bar – the one he’d brought and set up as soon as things had settled down enough for them to. They’d gone before, a few times, but had disappeared after a few drinks. One of them had always made an excuse.

But that had been before Ash had kissed Eiji. Before Eiji had kissed Ash. Now, everything had changed. It was as though a lock had been sprung, opening a doorway of possibilities.

“Did you drink in Japan?” Ash asked. His eyes flashed in the light’s like a cat’s.

“The drinking age is twenty-one.”

“Same as here. It was that piece of shit president’s fault.”

“Oh?”

“Mmmm.” Ash’s mouth twisted upwards in distaste. But then he took a breath, nudging his shoulder against Eiji. “Like the law would stop me.”

“I’ve drunk a few beers.”

“And you say I’m corrupting you.”

“Oh, we both know I’m the bad influence here.” Eiji grinned at him, and they both laughed. It was easy to laugh – everything was funny when his head felt light and his cheeks were tingling. Ash put his arm around him. Well, it was resting along the back of the booth, but Eiji could feel his denim jacket on the back of his neck.

It probably shouldn’t mean much. But it did. It was like a wild animal marking its territory. And it was bold of Ash.

But they’d all been drinking steadily from eight o’clock, and that made it hard to care what other people thought.

Eiji looked around at the gang. He had grown oddly attached to them. Maybe it was all they’d been through, but he couldn’t understand how he’d ever felt intimidated by them. They were loud and rude, but there were brave too. There were good people.

His eyes landed on Soo-Ling at the pool table. His face was flushed, and he was shouting, faking being angry at the older boys he was playing with. They were laughing and calling him pint-sized.

“It’s getting late,” Eiji said.

“No. It’s early. Early morning.” Ash was smirking.

Eiji rolled his eyes and shook his head, trying not to laugh. That would make it seem like Ash had a point, and he couldn’t give in this time.

“Soo-Ling should be in bed.”

“I used to stay up later than this at his age.”

How could he turn around and say Ash’s childhood was hardly conventional? “You didn’t have school in the morning.”

“Neither does Soo-Ling.”

“Really?” He supposed he shouldn’t be too shocked. When would he fit school into all this?

Ash nodded, pulling a cigarette from his back pocket and lighting it. Eiji kept sipping from the bottle, just for something to do.

“I did get taught things,” Ash said. He was almost defensive. “In the afternoons – I had lessons.”

“Oh.” Tread carefully. There was a dance to Ash talking about his past, and it was still difficult to find the right steps.

“That was why I was,” he paused, taking a drag. A line appeared by his nose, as though he didn’t like the taste. “His favourite. It started on a couple of mornings…after. I used to ask about stuff – anything…I think it got him off.” He tapped ash from the end of the cigarette with each word. “Telling me any-fucking-thing I didn’t know.”

“What did you ask?” He’d rested his head on Ash’s shoulder as he listened. Since he hadn’t been pushed off, stayed still. He could feel Ash breathing beneath him – hear the faint woosh of breath. It seemed as loud as a tornado.

“About business. Stocks and stuff and how it all worked.”

Eiji found himself smiling. “That’s how you knew to hack him? How you keep this place running?”

“It comes in handy. It was the most ‘fuck you’ I could think off.”

Eiji turned his head into the denim jacket, closing his eyes and just allowing himself to feel. It felt like he was floating – like Ash was the only solid thing left. Just the two of them, drifting through space. The two of them and the tornado of breath.

“You’re so smart,” he sighed. He was being too honest now – would never have said that if he was sober.

“Hey.” Ash’s finger hooked under his chin. Made him look up. “You are too.”

“Not like you.”

“I like you, just the way you are. You can fly, Eiji.”

It felt even hotter, suddenly. Not a humid, it’s summer in New York hot. A different kind.

Ash leant forward, just slightly, his eyes half-lidded.

Eiji froze. Surely this was too public, too open – how much had they both been drinking? Would they both regret this in the morning? This was still a tentative thing – a thing that they hadn’t fully acknowledged. The only thing that had changed was there was less of a hesitation to touch.

“And what’s going on here, eh?”

There was a hand on the side of their heads, giving them a playful push towards the table.

Bones slid into the booth opposite them, using his teeth to uncap a bottle.

“Nothing to worry yourself about,” Ash said. He offered Eiji the cigarette, and he smiled as he took it – as though it was a good joke.

Bones raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t look like nothing.”

“Keep your fantasies out of this, Bones.” Ash raised a hand as he said it, as if in surrender.

“I’m just saying, boss. People are starting to talk.” His expression softened. He looked concerned instead of suspicious. “There’s all these dirty rumours going ‘round.”

Ash took Eiji’s bottle from the table, and finished it off.

“They’d talk no matter what I do.” He wasn’t upset. Resigned was the word to describe it, Eiji thought. His heart stung, and he kept the cigarette between his lips for just a moment longer than necessary. As if he would be able to feel Ash’s lips there – and as if Ash would feel his.

“They shouldn’t.” It was like watching a terrier try and defend his owner against the wind.

Ash just shrugged. His hand dropped down, so that it was properly around Eiji’s shoulders. He pressed them together. Eiji realised that his spare hand was on Ash’s thigh – just resting there because it was warm. It was warm and he liked having as much of them pressed together as was physically possible.

It caught Bones’ eye. He swallowed. Looked away.

“Came over because the boys wanna go Coney Island. Blow off some steam.”

He seemed as though he was waiting for Ash’s permission, keeping his eyes on his boss’ face.

Instead of answering him, Ash turned to Eiji, blonde hair flopping over his forehead in a tuft. Like he should be a teenage popstar, or a boyband member. He wanted to touch it – push the strands away from Ash’s forehead.

“Have you ever been to Coney Island?”

“When would I have had the chance?”

It made Ash grin. He laughed – the sound more of a bark – and finally gave Bones the attention he wanted.

“Sure. We’ll go Coney Island.”

Bones nodded, but he was peering at Eiji. It was hard to meet his eyes – a strange feeling curled in his stomach. It should have been guilt, or shame, but it felt like butterflies instead. Excitement.

They were barely concealing the secret, and yet there was something thrilling about seeing how obvious they could be. Something thrilling and something terrifying. He couldn’t imagine what would happen if everyone did know for certain – if Ash’s gang would look at him a different way. If they’d follow him, but talk about him behind his back.

He couldn’t be the one responsible for that.

Late. It was almost half three now. How much sleep would he get tonight? When would they wake up tomorrow?

Then he realised. They had nothing to get up for. They could sleep in as long as they liked, if they wanted.

Would they be drunk enough that Ash would let Eiji sleep next to him? Would they wake up with the sheets tangled around them, warm body pressed against warm body? He imagined waking up with a hangover, hearing Ash groan beside him, and smiled.

“Do they have theme parks in Japan?” Ash’s mouth was close to his ear, though he wasn’t whispering. His breath came in warm puffs.

“Yes.” His fingers twitched on Ash’s thigh.

“I bet they’re not as cool as Coney Island,” Bones said. Ash took the cigarette back from Eiji as he continued. “Seriously – there’s nothing like it. The food there’s the best and the ferris wheel – you’ll love it.”

“I’m sure it’s great.” Eiji smiled politely, but he knew his eyes were wandering. Watching the smoke from Ash’s mouth rise – separating from a thin, round circle into a large one.

Ash caught him. His eyes glittered again – reflecting the red, blue and green lights. He bit his lip, just for a moment, as if he knew he had Eiji’s attention, then he laughed. As if this was all a game.

“You can’t go to Coney Island without riding the Coney Island Cyclone.” He was still smirking.

Eiji raised an eyebrow, his own smile starting to vanish. There was something different about this Ash – something he didn’t recognise. It didn’t scare him when Ash was carrying a gun – when he was able to shoot people without looking.

But this scared him. The way Ash was looking at him, and the way his fingers grazed Eiji’s chest.

Late. It was late and he wanted to go home now.

Bones blinked. He looked at Eiji, eyebrows furrowed. Eiji wondered if he looked just as worried.

But the boy still put on a smile, leaning back and sipping from his drink. “Well, course not, boss.  It would be like not seeing the Statue of Liberty.”

“Who’s not seen the Statue of Liberty?” Kongs had arrived, a beer in either hand, sliding into the booth next to Bones.

“No – no, I was saying not going to Coney Island is like not seeing the Statue of Liberty!”

“Coney Island ain’t that important, Bones. You’re better off going out of state for funfairs.”

“It’s not a fun fair – it’s an amusement park!”

“Ash,” Eiji murmured, nudging him.

“Yeah, sweetie?” Ash’s voice was low too.

The pet name made him freeze – his stomach knotting over itself a dozen times. He remembered the prison – remembered Ash’s mouth pressed against his and the realisation that he liked it. That he liked this boy. That maybe he liked boys, and that was a much bigger epiphany than the pill. It had been something that had played on his mind ever since. That kiss.

Kissing again.

Ash calling him ‘sweetie’ again.

But not like this.

“You’re drunk.”

“You are too.” Ash’s head tilted, so that his hair fell across his forehead. There was still that sparkle in his eye and he finished off the cigarette.

Bones and Kong kept arguing in the background, oblivious to them.

“I think we should go home.”

“Hm?” Ash raised his eyebrows.

Eiji gave him a light push, trying to encourage him out of the booth. “I’m tired, Ash.”

“That’s because you wake up so early.”

They’d caught Bones and Kong’s attention now. They broke off from their argument to watch. Eiji could feel heat flooding to his face. He didn’t want to have this conversation here. Didn’t want to be here. Wanted to be home in bed and sober.

“I woke up to make you breakfast – because you sleep in until two in the afternoon every day.” He gave Ash a push again, and this time shifted him slightly.

Kong gave a low chuckle, passing one of the beers to Bones. “Like an old married couple, eh?”

Eiji gave a tight smile, still pushing at Ash. He finally relented, and stood, throwing his hands in the air.

“And it’s past this old married couple’s bedtime.” His fingers tangled in Eiji’s – slightly sweaty. He untangled them, still feeling his face burn. “Have another one on the house.”

He should have been relieved, but that horrible tight feeling stayed in his stomach as they walked out. It was much too hot in here, there was much too much smoke, and noise and –

He couldn’t take it anymore. His head was spinning and the cigarette hadn’t gone well with the alcohol.

It was as they were leaving that he heard Kong say, incredulously to Bones –

“I think Eiji’s the only one who could get him to leave like that.”

*

Despite the late night, Eiji still woke early. They had forgotten to close the drapes all the way, and the morning sun shone in a beam directly to his bed. He sighed, and buried himself underneath the covers. His head still felt strange, as did his stomach. That sicky feeling from the night before hadn’t fully left. If anything, it felt worse.

He fumbled for his watch on the bedside table – it was barely eight. And yet he was wide awake. The thought of falling back into dreams where he felt as though he was floating – muddled dreams with sounds from the club and his ears ringing – sounded awful.

Instead, he stared at the sun soaked sheets and listened to the pigeons outside. There was already traffic – the kind of loud, honking traffic that used to wake him up hourly when he first got here. Now he had to listen for it.

He missed home. He hadn’t, really, since he got here. He had been taken in by the bright lights and the action – and Ash. But he missed how quiet living in a town was. He missed going to school and having a structure. Missed his mom and his dad and his sister.

Missed speaking Japanese. English could be exhausting – especially when he was drunk and he couldn’t think of the right words.

And yet he knew that he couldn’t leave. Not without Ash, anyway. He couldn’t leave him, here.

He thought he loved him. It was hard to know for sure, because he had never been in love like this. But if this was love – the kind of love in Romeo and Juliet – then he understood the ending of it.

Ash got up around ten. Eiji heard him sigh and shuffle into the kitchen. He stayed where he was. He still had a tattered Japanese paperback that he hadn’t got around to finishing, and he read it under the covers.

It was still a while later before Ash came back.

“Eiji?” His voice was soft. “Are you awake?”

“Mmm.” He thumbed the corner of the page down.

“I made coffee.”

As hurt and confused as he was over last night, however much he did not want to see Ash this morning, the thought was alluring. Fresh, black coffee. It would chase away the sick feeling and the dizziness. It would make everything seem a little bit clearer.

So he sat up, ruffling his hair to make the worst of his bedhead settle.

Ash had already gone back out.

He was sat at the table - coffee and cigarette. There were dark smudges under his eyes and his face was paler than usual.

Eiji sat without a word, pulling a steaming mug to him, and heaping in four spoonful’s of sugar.

"That's bad for you, you know," Ash murmured.

"So's smoking," Eiji replied. As levelly as he could. "So's drinking." There it was. The ghost of a wince. He pressed forward - "do you remember last night?"

"Mostly." Ash stubbed out the half-used cigarette.

Eiji stared into his coffee. It was so dark that he could almost see his reflection in it. He opened his mouth, trying to find the right words.

Eventually, he said quietly, "you scared me, Ash."

"Because I almost kissed you?" He glanced up, just for a moment, to see Ash staring at his hands on the table. "I wasn't thinking - thinking about anyone else."

"It wasn't that. It was the way you started looking at me."

Ash smiled, opened his mouth as though he was about to laugh, but stopped himself just in time. "Looking at you? That was it?"

His meaning was clear – after everything that’s happened in New York – it was something so simple?

“You didn’t look like you.” He kept his hands in his lap, kept staring into the coffee.

There was quiet. Then Ash leant an elbow on the table, resting his forehead in his palm.

“I remember,” he murmured. “Fuck.”

Eiji normally said ‘it’s okay,’ because it normally was.

“Yeah, I – fuck – sorry, Eiji.”

He looked up, then. Ash Lynx didn’t usually apologise – not even to Eiji. Most of Ash’s face wasn’t visible, but what he could see was pale. He could see enough to know that Ash had that look on his face. The look that broke his heart. It was the look of a scared, small boy who was terrified.

Eiji stretched a hand across the table. Left it palm up.

Cupped his coffee with his other hand. It was as warm as the sun filtering through the blind on the far side of the room, burning the back of his neck.

Ash’s fingers appeared in his. Slowly and only enough to graze his skin.

“That wasn’t you.” Eiji got the courage to look up through his fringe.

Ash was watching their hands. There was an intense look his eye, as if he was very far away. The morning light only made them seem more green than ever. It made Eiji’s heart flutter. This boy. He didn’t want to stay distant and hurt with this boy, but he needed an explanation.

“It was me.” Ash’s voice was hardly more than a whisper. “That was the me that…”

His fingers retreated.

Eiji let his hand stay were it was. Waited.

“Parties,” Ash said, eventually. “There used to be parties and they would all drink. And we’d be…you ever been in a strip club?”

Eiji shook his head.

Ash barely reacted – his gaze was far away. “The girls walk around, create company – it’s like – like if advertisements could jump down from Times Square, you know? It’s all – it all was a performance. To get the one that wasn’t into anything weirder than bondage. To get the worst ones away from the younger boys. To get…anyone but him.”

He wasn’t sure if he should speak. Didn’t even know he’d whispered the word, “Golzine,” until Ash nodded. There was the line again. His hand half-reached out – hovered above Eiji’s like a butterfly.

“As long as they paid enough money, he couldn’t object.” Ash focused on Eiji, then, as if he only just realised he’d been sat there. “And I’d make sure they’d pick me.”

Eiji took a long breath. He felt it in every one of his ribs. His mind was blank, he felt completely blank, at the mercy of trying to process the information.

Eventually he wet his lips. Watched the steam rise from his mug. One of the tacky ‘I <3 New York’ things available at the end of every street.

“Am I allowed to say that I’m sorry?”

Ash paused. “No.”

“You said it.”

“I needed to.” His hand landed just next to Eiji’s. “You don’t.”

“Somebody does.”

Ash’s mouth flickered upwards. Just for a moment. “You can leave, if you want.”

“What?”

“I get it, if you want to leave.” His hand was drifting away, back the table-top.

Eiji caught it – took it in both of his own and cradled it. As if it was a small, scared animal. As if it was going to fall apart.

“Never.”

There was another glimmer of that sad, terrified boy. Ash’s Adam’s apple bobbed. He blinked, lingered behind his eyelids for a moment, before he squeezed Eiji’s hand. Before much more of Ash Lynx was back, even if he was still suffering with a hangover.

“You know, most people are into it,” he said, sipping his coffee.

“I’m not most people.” Eiji stared at Ash’s hand. It seemed even more pale against his skin. Almost snow white. He brought the knuckles up to his lips, just grazing them across it.

“No,” Ash agreed. “You’re not.”

He looked up, to see a pair of glittering green eyes.

“You don’t have to do that, to get my attention, sweetie.” He hardly even realised it slipped out, until Ash raised his eyebrows. Until Ash smirked.

“What do I have to do?”

“Be yourself.”

Ash chuckled at that. Shook his head so that his blonde hair glowed like a halo in the light. He pulled their entwined hands down and leant forward. Looking so much more at ease than last night.

Then gave Eiji the kiss that they had been so close to the night before.

Chapter Text

(A/N): A light Romance – blood brothers.

Please Don’t Go Girl

Eiji had started smoking.

At first, it had been because the boys were all offering them around, and Ash suspected he took one to fit in. To look cool. He’d taken a few breaths of it, but it had remained mostly untouched – stubbed out on the side with everyone else’s yet double the length.

But he’d acquired the habit quickly enough.

It was when Ash stumbled out of their room and onto the balcony that he found Eiji with a trail of smoke coming from his mouth. The morning sun had rudely pulled him from sleep – they’d left the curtains open.

When he had adjusted to the bright, yellow light, he’d realised Eiji was missing. Panic crawled in his stomach and he was out of bed as quickly as possible. One thought stuck – make sure Eiji wasn’t – dead – kidnapped - worse.

And he was okay – of course he was – Ash needed to stop going into red alert every ten minutes. Because, Eiji was staring at the horizon and the sky looked like a watercolour. All soft pinks and peachy clouds – colours too pretty to silhouette the New York skyline.

Ash loved New York, but he loved the city because of how ugly it was. Ugly buildings that had fire escapes and different levels breaking off of them like puzzle pieces. Grotty independent restaurants with their trash out on the sidewalk, rats already going through them. Steam rising from the vents in huge puffs that covered the air at street level in smog.

This New York was much too pretty, but at least the pink looked good against Eiji’s dark hair.

“Good morning,” Eiji murmured. His wrist was resting on the side of the balcony, fingers holding the cigarette exactly the same way Ash did. Of course he’d noticed that Ash had never quite got the knack. That he had it a little more – posh – than everyone else.

“It’s five o’clock,” Ash said.

“In the morning.”

Ash shook his head. His bangs fell out of the bedhead they were in, and he pushed them back. Noticed Eiji’s eyes catch on the movement, which made his lips quirk upwards. There was something different in the way Eiji looked at him. Not like an object, or an angel – he’d been called an angel too many times. Just as if he liked looking at him – like he was just a pretty boy.

Ash held out his hand. Eiji picked up the cigarette box from the glass table next to him and held it out. It meant he had to step forward and take one. Their fingers grazed together.

And, just for that, he waited until the cigarette was balanced in his teeth before he leant forward. He put a hand on Eiji's shoulder as he tilted it between his teeth. The ends met. Stayed just a moment longer than he needed to when his was lit.

Eiji didn't flinch back – anyone else would – but, he just steadied himself on Ash's shoulder, his fingers trailing downwards when he stepped away. Wanting more intimacy. Holding back, as if he thought they were being watched. Maybe they were.

Ash breathed out smoke and leant against the balcony.

"Another dream?" he asked.

"The light woke me," Eiji said. "And the city looks so beautiful."

"Too beautiful. Real life shouldn't look like a fucking painting."

Eiji gave a breathy laugh. There was a slight early morning wind that ruffled his hair. "And why not?"

"Life's too ugly."

"That doesn't mean it can't also be beautiful."

"I don't like you when you're philosophical." Ash put the cigarette back. Took a deep breath.

"Mm, I don't like when you're philosophical either."

Ash smiled, letting the smoke escape. And Eiji smiled with glittering, tired eyes. He didn't think about how he was leaning forward. Then he hesitated. Watched.

 It was Eiji who closed the gap. He leant forward and pressed their lips together. His mouth was slightly open, and tasted of tobacco.

When they pulled away it took a second for Eiji's eyes to flutter open. They had captured some of the golden light, so that they looked more like caramel than chocolate. And he was staring as if they were on the end page of a fairy tale.

Fairy tales didn't have two princes, a voice said in Ash's head. He ignored it, catching Eiji's chin in his hand as he went to take another drag.

"You've picked up some bad habits."

Eiji's eyes softened. He dropped his mouth just a little further than he needed to in order to smoke. His lip stayed pressed against Ash's thumb. “When in Rome."

Ash could feel the suggestion of Eiji's teeth - Eiji's tongue – and his stomach leapt excitedly. It felt like controlling a lion to swallow the feeling down.

Eiji had fallen into this easily – this flirting. It was like a dance. They were taking it in turns – following each other’s lead. Since the time at the bar – a few days ago – Ash had been careful. Been careful that he stayed who he was – rather, who he wanted to be.

Careful. They had to be careful.

He pulled his hand away, and leant on the balcony again. There was a look of disappointment on Eiji’s face, and it made guilt curl in his stomach. Ash was the one who had started it.

It looked like he was also the one who ended it.

But this roof wasn't private. The kiss had been risky enough, if anyone saw. And a flirting Eiji made him nervous. When they'd first met, he’d never imagined that. He’d thought him pretty, but he’d never wanted to get close. Then they’d been thrown together, and he had never wanted this to turn into something.

Then it turned into something, and Eiji had learnt to flirt. When in Rome, indeed.

The wind ruffled the hair at the nape of his neck. He should cut it. It was almost long enough to tie back - which meant it was much too girly - implied much too much about Ash.

"Do you ever feel like you're putting on an act?" Eiji asked, smoke trailing from his lips. Ash let his gaze rest there. Lips the colour of pink rose petals. "Like your whole life – you're just pretending to react how you should?"

"Yeah." Eiji’s gaze rested on Ash’s lips. He took a drag and let the smoke spill out. "The trick is to forget you're on a stage."

"Are you acting now?"

"No."

Eiji smiled. "Liar."

The back of Eiji's hand nudged Ash's. He moved it away. Eiji followed, fingers tracing the back of Ash's hand until he unfurled it. The tips of Eiji's fingers tickled his palm - his touch was feather light and he caught it in his fingers.

Feather light - feathers - angel - Eiji was an angel. He was sure of that. An angel, smoking. Maybe he was still half-asleep, because he couldn’t think straight.

"We can be seen here, " Ash said, but he didn’t move.

"Do you want to go inside?"

"Let me finish."

"I was thinking." Eiji's fingers twitched in his. He squeezed them tightly – never wanted to let them go. "I was thinking of making a pot of coffee - and then heading to one of the deli's down the road for breakfast at seven."

"What is this, a fucking movie?" He was halfway through the cigarette.

"It's all an act."

Ash meant to laugh, but it came out as a huff. "What happened to the shy Japanese boy who first walked into my bar?"

Eiji tapped the end of his cigarette, scattering ashes like snow. "I wasn't shy."

"No, you weren't."

"That was just what you expected a Japanese boy to be like."

"Maybe." Ash paused. "Didn't think a Japanese boy would be so open to-"

"Didn't know an American wouldn't be," Eiji said. "This is New York."

"Yeah, and there's an epidemic. Didn't you hear?" Ash let out another breath of smoke. "What's it like – in Japan? When it comes to-" He tilted their hands upwards.

"Not great," Eiji admitted. "But not, you know..."

Ash let the silence sit. He could hear pigeons roosting a few floors below them. The occasional car passing. This New York was too peaceful, for the city that never slept.

"I never want you to act with me, Eiji." His voice was quiet.

"Really?" Eiji's lips quirked upwards. "So, I can hold your hand in front of Bones and Kong?"

"Is that all you want to do? Hold my hand?"

Eiji laughed, his fingers twitching in Ash's. "Maybe. What would you want to do?"

He stubbed out the rest of the cigarette on the balcony and let out the last breath of smoke.

"You don't want to know."

But that only made Eiji laugh again. "I just asked, didn't I?"

Ash gave him a sideways glance. He was smiling with slightly pink cheeks and sparkling eyes.

"It's too early for this."

"Let's go inside," Eiji said.

So, they did. And left the balcony doors open, putting on a pot of coffee then coming back to sit on the sofa with mugs filled to the brim.

Ash shifted his leg so that it was sat flush against Eiji's. He didn't move away.

"When did you start smoking?" Eiji asked. His coffee was more milk than anything else.

Ash's was completely black.

He shrugged. "Twelve? Thirteen? As soon as I was offered."

"And ever since?" Was it just him, or was Eiji leaning forward slightly?

"Whenever I could get my hands on a pack of cheap cigs. The more you pay, the crappier the taste."

"Don't the cheap ones taste crappier?"

God, he loved the sound of Eiji swearing. It made him lean forwards too. "Cheap cigs taste good crappy, expensive cigs taste bad crappy."

Eiji shook his head. "I don't get it."

"Here." Ash leant forward, even though he was aware that the curtain was fluttering and it someone looked out in the offices opposite they'd see. Who would be in there, at five in the morning, anyway? "Taste."

He pressed an open mouth against Eiji's, who just melted against him, and tasted the same cigarette that he had been smoking. Tasted milky coffee.

Eiji put a hand on Ash's chest, fingers splayed, and it felt like that mark would be burnt there forever. He rested their foreheads together, still close enough that their lips brushed together as he spoke. "What am I supposed to be tasting?"

Ash hesitated. He could hardly keep his eyes open. "I forgot."

Eiji breathed a laugh and he pressed himself even closer, so that his hand slipped from his chest and around his neck, fingers burying themselves in the hair there. They kissed again, teeth clinking together. Mugs clinking together. It was just soft and warm and all he should have been able to think about was Eiji.

But he wasn't. He was thinking of what came after, and what came after - and where all this would lead. He was thinking that they had to make the most of this whilst there was no one around.

The thoughts made him slow his mouth down until it stopped.

"What's wrong?" Eiji whispered.

"I-" Ash took a breath. Lying - he was used to lying, but there was no point now that Eiji knew the truth. The whole truth. "I'm not so used to this – this in-between bit."

Eiji pulled away, finger-tips tracing down Ash's jaw, taking strands of blonde with it. "In-between bit?"

"The bit between kissing and sex."

That made red spread over Eiji's cheeks like a wine stain. He blinked, and stammered, and then went quiet, looking at Ash's hair in his hand. Maybe it was shining gold. "Oh."

Ash could only bear the silence for a moment. "That's what relationships are for me. Eiji."

Eiji was quiet, still pulling his fingers through Ash's hair. His eyes were distant.

“I know.” He didn’t sound annoyed at that – didn’t even sound resigned. He just knew.

“How?” How can someone like Eiji understand so much about Ash?

“I…” he trailed off, and then shrugged. “You’ve told me more than anyone else knows, right?”

“You found out a lot.”

Eiji shook his head. Closing his eyes – his eyelashes were as dark as his eyes. “I just – know you, Ash Lynx.”

He let his coffee balance between them. A slosh went onto the sofa, sinking into the fabric, working it’s way into a stain. But he needed that hand to run his fingers up Eiji’s cheek – into his hair. “You’re something else.”

Eiji raised an eyebrow. Tilted his head into Ash’s hand and smirked at him. “Says who?”

Maybe he was still asleep. No one’s heart should manage that when someone smirks at them. It would have been better if he was still asleep – because he was feeling too much. Because for some reason, Eiji knew him, and that was dangerous. It made him care. He couldn’t afford to care about people.

But he couldn’t let this one go.

“You’re not as complicated as you think.” Eiji half-closed his eyes, lashes fluttering against Ash’s palm. As if he was trying to go back to bed. “Not if you watch carefully. And listen.”

“No one has the guts to watch me carefully, and no one wants to listen.”

That made Eiji laugh – actually laugh in a way that made heat flush to Ash’s cheeks. Blushing – Eiji was making him blush. It made his hand drop – focus on steadying the coffee that was intent on creating more stains.

Eiji leant forward, so that his bangs drifted down to mingle with Ash’s. “And you’re not half as scary as you think you are.”

“Oh.” He put his mug on the floor – took Eiji’s from him and put that one down too. Did his best to narrow his eyes into a cat-like stare. The kind of look that made the gang tremble. “I’m scary.”

He received a pair of raised eyebrows for his trouble.

That was his moment. He moved fast, aiming for Eiji’s mid-riff. Faster than Eiji could stop him. The next moment he was creased up, laughing helplessly and pushing at Ash’s shoulders.  “Stop!”

“I’m the man everyone’s scared to wake up in the morning.” Ash kept tickling mercilessly, catching Eiji’s ankle before he could kick him in the stomach. He was wriggling under him, face flushed. And this was childish – it was so childish.

But Ash had barely had a childhood, and he needed to catch up on what he missed.

“Just because you’re an old grump!”

I’m the old grump?” He paused, just enough for Eiji to get his breath back. He was lying under Ash, panting, hands on his chest to keep him away. When had they ended up like this? It was suggestive, with Ash over him like this, and yet he wasn’t panicking. “How old are you again?”

Eiji recovered quickly – fingers finding Ash’s sides. “Eighteen!”

“Liar!” He managed to hold out for a moment – before Eiji’s hands found the spot that made him collapse. They both dissolved into a bundle of limbs – pushing at each other and trying to get the upper hand.

He wasn’t sure how long it lasted. But by the time they were both exhausted, they were pressed against each other on the sofa. It was a squash – Eiji’s chest was pressed against his and they were practically nose to nose. His cheeks hurt – how long had it been since that happened? Since his face ached from laughing too much?

If Eiji stayed in New York, he knew it would become a common occurrence.

It was a selfish thought. Eiji was going back to Japan – as soon as he was able, because it was dangerous. Ash was dangerous and he couldn’t stay here. This Summer was dangerous enough, but he was letting them have it.

Just a light romance. It may have ended badly in that play, but he wouldn’t let that happen. He was determined not to let anything happen to Eiji.

They were staring at each other. Eiji was biting his lip, eyes scanning Ash’s face as if he would never see him again. There was a freckle on his cheek bone – so far over that it was usually covered by his hair – it was closer to his ear.

He took in the copper skin, the thick eyebrows and the dark eyes.

And knew he’d take a dozen bullets for this boy.

They’d known each other two months. Just under, really, but this was – this was love. He’d never got it before. Never understood Romeo and Juliet, but now he got it. It was nonsensical and unexplainable.

Eiji’s fingers were on his chest again. Splayed like a starfish. They were both breathing heavily still – just as if –

A tickle fight was better than sex, Ash concluded.

“Why can’t this time be different?” Eiji whispered. "Can't you - we - decide what this relationship is?"

Ash paused. They always seemed to be pausing, but that seemed to be okay. He stared at his hands, on Eiji’s hips, then back up into those oh-so-comforting eyes.

"Maybe," he said. It didn’t seem possible. But then, none of this did.

Eiji's hands ran down his shirt with that feather light touch. "Let's just - let's just see how we go."

"Ah, I forgot I was talking to the love expert." He knew he was smirking, because Eiji's eyes softened and glittered.

"Oh, sorry, casanova - am I stepping on your toes?"

"Makes a change from when we were dancing."

Eiji was still laughing, even when he was trying to frown. "Shut up."

Ash leant forward. Stuck his chin out. Decided to see how they went if he said, "make me."

Eiji tilted forward, took a breath that Ash could feel and his lips were tingling from the anticipation. He'd never had to wait for a kiss before.

And then Eiji's thumb ran across his bottom lip, and he nudged Ash's mouth closed.

"Easy."

"Fuck you."

Eiji sat back up, reached down and picked up his milky coffee. "And you wonder how I've picked up bad habits."

Ash laughed, pulling himself up too. Leaning around Eiji to find that his own mug had spilt out over the floor. As if it mattered when they were both laughing like this. It was so easy to laugh with Eiji in the early hours of the morning.

"I want to. Go to a breakfast joint with you. When they open."

Eiji's eyes sparkled.

Their hands tangled together.

“I’d like that.” Eiji grinned at him. As if everything was normal – as if they were normal.

As if this was a movie.

All Ash could hope was that it had a happy ending.

Chapter Text

Hangin’ Tough

“You look cute in that.”

Eiji almost dropped his water bottle. The lid clattered against the sink.

“What?”

He heard Ash chuckle. Felt his hands cup his waist with a feather light touch. 

“I said you look cute.” He paused. “Is that okay?”

There was something different about the touching now. About the flirting. Ash had more confidence, paid hawk-like attention to Eiji. Was sure when they were alone and when he wasn’t Angel Eyes.

That was how he’d phrased it. As if they were three boys in him. Aslan Jade Callenreese, Angel Eyes and Ash Lynx.

“Should I call you Aslan?” Eiji had asked. Way too casually, as he was putting the coffee machine on, again.

“No.” Ash had been sat at the table, skimming the newspaper. He’d been looking for something specific. “I don’t think of that as me. That was the boy I left behind in Cape Code.”

Eiji watched the dark liquid spurt out of the machine. “Would you ever go-“

“No.”

He let that hang. “Do you want to stay in New York forever?”

Ash had dropped the newspaper on the table. Stared out of the balcony window. “And how long would forever be? I don’t plan to live longer than James Dean.”

The words made Eiji want to break into sobs and laugh hysterically at the same time. But that was Ash. And no matter how many times he heard it – how much it hurt – he knew that Ash was searching for a response. The response could never be outright pity. Never sadness. But never agreement – like the gang would do – either.

For some reason, Eiji’s answers – the ones away from everyone else – always was the right one. He wasn’t sure if it was because of his words, or just because it was him.

Instead he stepped behind the sofa, wound his arms around Ash’s shoulders and smiled into his neck. “I bet you’re a real yo-yo.”

Ash had paused then. And that had been the thing – the way for him to realise that Eiji thought he was being ridiculous. That he was hurt and steering Ash gently away from that thought. Steering the snow leopard away from the mountain.

Hands steadied his arms. Ash ducked his chin, against Eiji’s forearms, taking a breath before he replied, “I love you too.”

He had done it in a corny fifties accent – to complete the quote, but it still made Eiji’s heart stutter and he pressed a kiss against his cheek, fighting back his grin.

It was Ash saying that he would stay.

Now, Eiji half-turned in Ash’s grip, finding himself smiling. Cute. He’d never been called cute. Not by anyone other than his mom or his sister. Not my someone who liked him. “Are boys meant to look cute?”

“Oh, no, sorry – you look deff.”

“You’re a dork.”

Ash’s lips hovered above his own. “I know.”

He kissed him lightly, then pressed his face into Eiji’s neck, nuzzling in like a kitten. He found himself laughing. “I mean it, you should wear shorts more often.”

“You should wear that more often.” He had a hand in Ash’s hair, his head tipped back to accommodate – sighing at the feel of Ash’s mouth against his neck.

Ash was in a tank top – white, like he was the hero of an action movie. It showed off his arms. The gentle swell of his biceps. The curve of his chest. Showed so much more of Ash than he was used to and he loved it. He never thought he would, but he did. Loved seeing this boy – loved –

This boy. He loved a boy. And it felt natural. It felt like breathing.

“Oh no-“ Ash’s teeth brushed Eiji’s collarbone and he heard himself, gasp. He sounded faraway. “Then you’d never keep your hands off me.”

“Oh, I’d not keep my hands off you?”

They were laughing, releasing chuckles that were more breath against each other’s skin. He loved this – loved feeling Ash behind him – Ash’s hands on his hips. The closeness in the apartment. The air was cool thanks to the air-con, but the sun streaming in through the window was warm.

There was an abrupt knock at the door.

“Yo – you guys ready yet?”

Ash’s hands gave Eiji’s hips a final pat, before he stepped away. The moment was over, and Alex was coming through the door. His hair freshly slicked into spikes and a grin on his face.

Eiji fished for his dropped water bottle lid to hide his warm face.

“Just finishing up,” Ash said. Normally.

“Someone didn’t want to get up this morning,” Eiji added, fastening the lid and slipping the bottle into his knapsack.

Ash rolled his eyes and sighed.

“What time d’you get in, Boss?” Bones asked. He’d made himself as home on the sofa.

Eiji froze.

Ash was glaring pointedly at the crew.

“You were out last night?” Eiji broke the uncomfortable silence.

“We had some people to talk to.” Ash didn’t meet his eye. No one else did.

“Is that code for dropping someone in the river?”

He knew the frankness of asking like that disarmed Ash. It made a chuckle ripple through the boys – it was just Eiji watching too many American Movies. Silly, Japanese Eiji. But it made Ash’s jaw tighten. He knew that Eiji was pressing – knew he really was asking if they killed anyone. And that it wasn’t such a crazy concept.

“No. Just – gang business.”

So that was why he hadn’t been in bed when Eiji woke up at three. Why he had been so hard to drag out of bed. Until Eiji reminded him that he’d never been to Coney Island.

Then he’d sat bolt upright, making a race out of who could get to the bathroom first. And winning. Leaving Eiji in a heap against the door, breathless from laughing so much.

“I – I thought you knew.” Alex said, blinking as if he was stunned.

“It’s okay.” It was – something he was getting used to. Even if he didn’t like it.

It wasn’t the gang business, the killing – the ever present threat that was Dino Golzine. It was that Ash wasn’t telling him. That Ash wasn’t letting Eiji help. That was what upset him. Surely he had proven that he could be a part of this – wanted to be a part of this. This all had a purpose – it meant something.

As if he could sit around like a damsel in distress.

“You ready?” Ash changed the subject. “Because we’re burning daylight.”

It was his way of saying ‘we’ll talk about it later,’ and ‘later’ meant ‘never.’ So Eiji swallowed, nodded and smiled.

There was a cheer through the boys and a call of “Coney Island, here we come!” And that was enough to make Eiji genuinely laugh. He thought of Peter Pan and his Lost Boys as Ash took the lead, grinning and acting the leader.

He had Ash’s Walkman around his neck, New Kids on the Block playing away to themselves. He couldn’t stop listening to it. It was all music for teenage girls, but there was something in there that made him smile.

There was a certain song that made him think of Ash’s arms around him and his breath on his ear. Of oven lights and lucky charms.

They were in a happy muddle as they headed down the street, moving out of the way for tourists and businessmen. Steam burst from the underground and the traffic moved in bursts – the beeping before the lights even changed. It was another hot day – step outside and be covered in sweat kind of day.

The boys were talking about a new horror movie, but Eiji was watching the pigeons fight over a left over hotdog. The vendor was yelling at them.

New York was so busy.

“Hey boss – what would you do – if Freddy came into your dream?”

Ash didn’t flinch. “Shoot his brains out.”

“You think that’ll work?” Alex raised an eyebrow.

“It’s my fucking dream, isn’t it?” He flung ‘fuck’ around more when he was with them. As if it proved something.

“Who’s Freddy?” Eiji asked. He’d noticed the set to Ash’s jaw, and he knew they were all talking about a movie, but he couldn’t always tell with this lot.

“Krueger!” Bones repeated. He was waving his arms in the air. Kong nudged him out of the way of a passing tourist buried nose deep in a map. “Freddy Krueger! King of nightmares!”

When Eiji still appeared blank, Ash explained, “from a dumb movie called A Nightmare on Elm Street.”

“Dumb? Dumb! I couldn’t sleep for weeks after seeing it!” Soo-Ling was with them, his eyes wide.

Ash raised an eyebrow, and it got the boys around Bones to snicker. Even Eiji found himself biting back a smile. The sun was burning the back of his neck. Soo-Ling was the shortest there, his skin pale, looking as though he was having a PTSD flashback.

“Do you watch any horror movies, Eiji?” Soo-Ling pressed. He fell into step with Eiji, now looking more like an eager puppy.

“Mmm…” he watched a street vendor put together a burger one-handed. “They’re more gory than scary.”

“Well this one is gory and scary!” Bones insisted.

“If it’s still on we should go,” Soo-Ling added.

“And how are you going to get in?” Ash leant across Eiji, frowning. “You’re, what, twelve?”

“I’m fourteen and you fucking know it, Lynx.” Soo-Ling stepped forward too, trying to square up. It was comical when he was a head shorter than Ash.

“I’ll take Eiji.” Ash slung an arm around him, pulling him forward and leaving the group behind. Eiji could only laugh and try to stay upright. “Can’t have Bones staying up for weeks because he’s scared to fall asleep.”

“What? I only left the night on for one night after!” Bones squawked.

“Mmm…and you kept poking me awake that night as well,” Kong added.

“Just the two of you?” It was a kid from Soo-Ling’s gang. His eyes narrowed at the two of them. “Ain’t that a date?”

Ash stopped. Actually stopped, and his hand hovered, just for a moment, over his hip, as though he was going to pull out a pistol. His arm was so tight around Eiji’s neck that he could barely breathe. “Fuck no, not a date. Do I look fucking bent to you?”

There was a chorus of “no, boss,” and “course nots.” All of them shaking their heads.

“Well, the two of you are up in the apartment all by yourselves.” The boy crossed his arms, scowling.

Ash’s eyes narrowed. He finally let go, and stepped forward. Stepped forward again, so that they were almost nose to nose. The boy had to look up to meet his eye, his jaw clenched, but his fists shaking at his side. Eiji should step in – he knew he should – but he was frozen. Someone was calling them out and he didn’t know what to say.

“Eiji’s a photographer and journalist.” Ash’s voice was low. It was more of a growl. “He’s keeping an eye on someone for me. And I’d rather live with him than this lot of airheads.”

“Can’t we stay with you, boss?” Bones asked, clearly trying to diffuse the tension. It hung as heavy as the smog from the cars.

“Yeah, boss-“

“There’s only two beds.” Ash snapped. He turned away from the kid.

“We can sleep on the floor.” That was Alex.

“You’ll stink up the place.”

“Nah, he wants to have it all to himself with his boyfriend.”

The boy added another word. A word that made the boys in Ash’s gang take a sharp intake of breath and exchange glances. A word that made Soo-Ling blanch. He put his hand on the kid’s shoulder – but Ash got there first. Had a fistful of the kid’s shirt and him halfway off the ground in the next moment. He was snarling, his voice low, as he challenged him to a fight. Threatened it. Then finished the whole thing off with, “insulting me is one thing, but calling Eiji a-“ there it was again. “That ain’t right. Eiji, you’re not bent, are you?”

It took him a moment – probably too long to reply. “No.”

“Nah, Eiji’s bitchin’, we all know it.” Alex had a hand on Ash’s shoulder, trying to pull him back. Trying to pull a lion off of a lamb.

“He didn’t mean it, Lynx. Didn’t mean anything by it.” Soo-Ling shook the guy. “Ain’t that right?”

“I don’t get why you’re all leaping to protect him.” The kid turned on Soo-Ling, pushing against Ash’s arm. “What’s so cool about him?”

There was a moment of silence. A few of them looked at Eiji, as if they expected him to pretend. He couldn’t. He could only stare and hope Ash wasn’t going to start a brawl in the middle of the street. Tourists had already stopped to watch, whispering and pointing.

“You haven’t seen his photos,” Bones said, with a grin.

There was a laugh – an awkward, rippling laugh, like the rain after a storm. But the two were still glaring at each other.

Then Ash released the kid, with a push, into Soo-Ling’s arms. His face was twisted – scary. “You say shit like that again and you’ll be in a body-bag, got it?”

The kid was still scowling. Teeth bared. “Got it.”

Ash didn’t look back. He jerked his head and his gang walked with him, catching up to Eiji and continuing down the road. His heart was racing. He was terrified to say anything – anything he could think of would just confirm the boy’s suspicions.

They continued. And Ash didn’t put his arm back around Eiji’s shoulders.

*

It was like a storybook. The loud whir of the rollercoasters and the teenagers screaming and clinging onto each other, shrieking with laughter. The smells of peanuts, cotton candy, popcorn and hotdogs. The claw machines that lined the path. The bright bulbs on the ferris wheel and lighting up the casino, as if a constellation of stars fell down to earth.

Soo-Ling dragged Eiji onto the biggest coaster. Twice. Then Bones wanted them all to go on the bumper cars. He was pulled onto half the fair before he finally found himself next to Ash, strolling down the boardwalk. The sun had turned the world golden – turned Ash’s hair bright gold against his skin.

The guys were queueing up for hot dogs and burgers, all loudly clamouring for increasingly complicated orders as they built off each other’s ideas.

“Do they have the money for all of this?” he asked. His hands were in his pockets as he leant against the wall.

Ash flicked his hair away from his face. There was a sheen of sweat on his skin that caught the sunlight. His collarbones shone – Eiji couldn’t look away for a moment. “They’ll manage. They always do.”

He watched as Bones got the first burger, holding it as high over his head as he could so that it was out of everyone’s reach. Kong took it and had eaten half of it in the next moment.

Eiji laughed – he was attached to them. This was what having a group of friends was like. He’d been so focused on high jump that this had never happened. He’d never been close with people like this, and he loved it.

A knuckle traced down his cheek. Ash’s knuckles, as light as the touch of a butterfly. He drew away quickly, looking away. “You’ve caught the sun, sweetie.”

He blinked. Noticed the pet name, but only because it made his heart pound. Put a hand to his cheeks, ran over his nose and across the other side. It stung. So did the back of his neck. “Oh.”

Ash smiled. One half of his mouth twisting upwards and his eyes glistening in the golden light. He was scanning Eiji’s face like he was looking for something. Then he nodded his head to them, “they’ll be ages. Come on.”

He had hold of Eiji’s wrist before he could argue – and he knew enough to keep quiet. To follow Ash along the back way and out of sight before he asked, “where are we going?”

“The rollercoaster.” Ash dropped his wrist, and let him fell into step. “I was squashed up with Bones and Kong last time, whilst you rode up front with your little admirer.”

“Soo-Ling’s a good kid,” Eiji said.

“He’s a gang leader.”

That made him bit his lip and pause. They weren’t walking so close now – the step between them felt like a valley. Eiji had gotten used to the apartment – gotten used to touching Ash and not caring. Not being careful because the blinds were almost always closed and it was just the two of them. Now everyone was around – watching. Now the gang kept sneaking looks to see if they were touching.

If they were gay.

“Ash?” It felt like throwing the name off of a cliff. “I want to come with you. On the gang stuff.”

“No.”

“I’ve already been in danger. I know what to do, I can – I can practice shooting a gun-“

“You’ve been through enough.”

“I want to stay.” Eiji dug his heels in. Glared at Ash’s back as he slowed his step and stopped, not turning back. “I want to stay and help. Help you.”

Ash was quiet for a moment. It wasn’t so busy here, there were only a few scragglers, most headed for the rollercoaster. When Ash spoke, it was soft, so that he could barely hear it over the wheels on the wooden track.

“The best thing you can do to help me would be to go back to Japan.”

His heart would’ve broken, if he hadn’t noticed the tremble in Ash’s hands. “You don’t mean that.”

“I do mean it. I just don’t like saying it.”

Eiji took a step forward. And another. Turned so that he and Ash were face to face. “If you want me gone, you’ll have to strap me into the plane yourself.”

Ash’s lips quirked upwards. “Noted.”

“And then I’ll follow you off and back into the airport.”

“You will not.”

He shrugged and turned away, heading towards the queue for the coaster. “I guess the only way to make sure I stay put is to travel all the way back to Japan with me. Fourteen hours. And you’ll have to keep your hands off of me the whole way.”

“Eiji…” It was teasing warning in Ash’s voice.

“And even then, if you left me at Tokyo airport, I’d just get a flight right back, so I guess you’d have to take the train with me. And a taxi. I live in the middle of nowhere, you know.”

“You’re impossible.” But he could hear the smile in Ash’s voice.

“I guess the only way to make sure I stay safely away from you all my life is to stay with me.” He had reached the end of the queue and turned. Abruptly. Finding himself face to face with Ash again, but this time it knocked the breath out of him. This time, his words faltered. “All my life.”

Ash was staring at him. As if he was something from a dream – a fairy tale – instead of a boy with sunburn and sweaty hair.

He couldn’t breathe. Ash’s hands were over his waist – just brushing the denim of his shorts, and he didn’t care that they were in public. Didn’t care that they would be seen. All he could think about was being pressed against Ash and kissing him until his lips were numb.

Someone coughed.

Ash’s hands pulled away. Eiji noticed pointed stares, and a glare from someone in front. He cleared his throat, stepped to the side so that they were both facing the same way, glad of the sunburn disguising his blush.

“This doesn’t mean you’ve won,” Ash said. “I still don’t want you getting involved in all – this.”

It sort of did mean that he won. Because Ash was running his hand through his hair and not looking at him, and if he’d lost then he’d be smirking at Eiji instead. Teasing him relentlessly.

“Why not?”

“Because I know Soo-Ling should be in school. It’s messed up. I don’t want you-“

“Like you.”

“Like us.”

There was an ‘us.’ And Eiji wasn’t part of it. Still wasn’t quite part of the group. It hurt more than it should, when he knew it already. It wasn’t the drugs, or the brawls, the knives or the guns that he cared about.

It was Ash going into danger without him. It was being left alone at night. He knew that people were watching the apartment, making sure he was okay, but whenever he woke up and Ash was gone he’d wonder. He’d wonder if he would wake up with his hands tied behind his back staring down the barrel of a gun and told to tell someone everything he knew.

If he would wake up.

It was being useless and something to protect instead of helping out. Instead of pulling his own weight so that Ash didn’t look so coiled up all the time.

But Ash wasn’t interested in that. Those were things that he’d say were part of it – that Eiji was safe as could be staying where he was.

“I was just thinking,” he said, as they stepped forward in the queue. “That it would help to get rid of any…rumours…if I had more of a part in things.”

“You take pictures.”

“Ash.” He looked over to see green eyes glaring at him. “What the kid said is what people will think.”

Ash was still scowling. His nose scrunched as he thought. A remnant from childhood. “I liked it when you were naïve.”

“And you love it when I’m clever.” He was grinning. Couldn’t help it, when Ash was raising an eyebrow, unamused.

“Oh yeah?” Ash murmured.

It was their turn to get in the coaster. An excuse, Eiji realised, to sit with their knees and sides pressed against each other. For their hands to nudge on the rail.

“But you listen to everything I say. No questions,” Ash said.

Eiji rolled his eyes. “Okay, boss.”

The coaster started moving. But not before he saw Ash’s hands tighten on the rail.

It was different. Riding with Ash. Trying to make sure they bumped into each other at the turns as opposed to trying desperately not to touch – not to crush Soo-Ling with his weight. This felt like a date – a storybook date that he’d never had because the few he’d been on had been awkward and stilted.

They were breathless when they got off, hands reaching for each other and then away.

“They’ll be looking for us.” Eiji said. It felt like being drunk; there was a weakness in his knees.

“They will,” Ash agreed. “Cotton candy and then ferris wheel?”

Eiji grinned. He nodded.

The sky was turning pink as they got onto the ferris wheel. That was fine. Ash’s hair caught the colour and it made his skin turn rose.

“And this is because you have to do all of the touristy things,” Ash said, as the rail clicked down. “Before you go back to Japan.”

“Is that something you want to say whilst I’m holding a bag full of cotton candy?” His mouth already felt sticky.

“I’m serious, Eiji,” Ash murmured. The whole thing began moving, very slowly. “At the end of the Summer, you and Ibe have to get out before it’s too late.”

It was sobering. Too sobering a thought when he was surrounded by twinkling lights and tinny music. When he was eating cotton candy and the sun was still warm on his skin, as if it was trapped under the surface.

“I make no promises.” He was serious too. Staring at Ash as if it would help get through to him. That right now, he couldn’t think of leaving. It would utterly obliterate him if they had to say goodbye. In a crowded airport. With everyone watching them.

“You-“ Ash’s mouth twisted. He reached over, and pulled a clump of cotton candy out of the bag. “Are. Awful.”

He pressed the cotton candy against Eiji’s nose, despite his weak protestations. He was laughing, they were gaining height now, and his stomach was starting to swoop for more than one reason. They became engrossed in the fight, making the whole seat they were in rock and creak. That should have scared him. It only made him laugh more.

And then they reached the top. And Eiji could see the skyline of New York. That famous skyline and yet he was still unprepared for it. It still took his breath away, to see all those twinkling lights. All those homes and all of those people. To see what humans had built and somehow made beautiful.

“I love this place,” he whispered. He loved New York, but he also meant this place. The place right next to Ash, on the ferris wheel, away from everything else.

“I do too,” Ash’s voice was soft. The softest he’d heard it. It was a vulnerable, unshielded Ash, and that was a rare thing. He pressed against him, as much as he could. Would have kissed him if he had thought they wouldn’t be seen. That would have been the perfect date.

Instead, he joined their hands together in the dark.

And squeezed.

Chapter Text

I Need You

“Do you trust me?”

Eiji just gave him a look. It wasn’t a lovestruck, soft-puppy-eyes expression. It was a smirk and a raised eyebrow. A ‘are you seriously asking me that?’

“I have a surprise for you,” Ash continued, turning back to his work. He could feel the back of his neck tingling under Eiji’s scrutiny.

“I’m going to get to go on gang business tonight?” He flopped back down on the sofa, holding a Japanese paperback over him.

“No gang business tonight.” He tapped the pen against the paper. Trying to find the words. A million other teenagers could say them no problem, but Ash struggled. “It’s date night.”

“Oh.” Was that a good ‘oh?’ “Where are we going?”

“That’s the surprise.” He kept trying to write. Normally, he was a good multi-tasker, but he could only think of the butterflies in his stomach.

“Won’t the gang get…”

“What we do together is our business.” And then, for Eiji’s benefit. “They don’t have to know.”

“Should I bring anything?”

“Nothing special. Just be ready to go in five?”

“Sure,” Eiji paused. He could hear the smirk in his voice as he continued. “Boss.”

Ash dropped the pen. It was ridiculous, the power Eiji calling him that had. Made his stomach jump against his heart and he had to bite his cheek to stop himself from grinning like an idiot.

He tried to pull off that he had done it on purpose. He stood and muttered something about getting his shoes.

By the time he had slipped on a pair of converses that were falling away from the rubber, Eiji was pulling on his own shoes. He’d hung onto that stupid, pink baseball jacket that made him look like one of Soo-Ling’s gang. But it was slipping down over one shoulder, and he was wearing a tank top so it revealed tanned skin. He had strong arms, still, from high jump.

“It’s boiling out.” Ash shoved his wallet in the back pocket of his jeans.

Eiji shrugged. “In case we go somewhere cold.”

“Then tie it around your waist.”

“I’m good.” He was smirking, laughing when Ash shook his head at him.

“Close your eyes.” And at the raised eyebrow. “This is the trust part, sweetie.”

Eiji was still smirking, but obeyed.

Ash hesitated, then took Eiji’s hand. He led him out of the apartment and locked up.

It was only in the elevator that he noticed Eiji peeking at him. There was no one around – this apartment building was quiet – full of rich, old people who spent the days on their balconies. That gave him the confidence to step around Eiji and cover his eyes with his hand.

Eiji laughed. And his heart leapt.

The surprise was waiting on the road outside. Soo-Ling was leant against it – guarding it because this was New York, and Ash didn’t trust anyone not to smash it.

Soo-Ling raised his eyebrows, but his tone was normal. “Hey, Eiji.”

Ash scowled at him.

Eiji just laughed again. “Sing!”

“He’s not the surprise,” Ash muttered. He couldn’t say he was jealous – he knew that Eiji wasn’t interested in Soo-Ling’s strange obsession with him. But there was something about also being younger than Eiji and also not being able to leave him alone that made him feel strange. “Fine. You can look now.”

It was a mini. New. Bright red, the same colour Ash’s converses used to be.

Eiji glanced from the car to Ash, his eyes wide and his mouth open in a perfect ‘o’ shape. Then he grinned – a bright, beaming smile. He was practically jumping up and down, like a child on their birthday.

“It’s a rental,” Ash said, quickly. “We can’t keep it.”

“Where are we going in it? Long Beach?” Eiji was still bouncing – still grinning.

And Ash should have thought of that. Should have given them a quiet, romantic beach date, instead of, “there’s a drive in movie theatre.”

“Ooh, what are you going to see?” Soo-Ling’s eyes were shiny.

“Nightmare on Elm Street.” Ash shrugged.

“Oh, sick! Can I come?”

Ash pushed Eiji forward, towards the door of the car. He opened the passenger door. “No room. And you’re not old enough.”

“Can’t I try and squeeze in the boot like in Grease?”

“Sorry, kid.” Ash closed the passengers door, and made to step around the other side.

Soo-Ling stopped him with a hand on his chest. “What is this, Ash?”

“Nothing that concerns you.”

“Are you and he-“

“No.” He grabbed Soo-Ling’s wrist. Pulled it away from him. “I just don’t like the guys hanging round Eiji, alright? You saw what happened with Coney Island.”

“Oh, when you disappeared. With Eiji.” Soo-Ling’s eyes narrowed.

He narrowed his own eyes, and saw Soo-Ling swallow. “You have a problem with it?”

Soo-Ling shrugged. He stepped back. Scuffed the pavement with his high tops. “Just…people like you aren’t…like that. Like…you’re not…you’re a good guy, you know?”

“Neither of us have it.” Ash was clenching his fists.

“But-“

“That’s not how it works, kid.”

Soo-Ling looked up. Tilted his head to the side. “How does it work?”

A horn sounded. Close by. Close enough that Ash had half a mind to pull the gun out of his waistband. Close enough that Soo-Ling jumped out of his skin.

Eiji was leaning over to the driver’s side, grinning as he beeped the horn again. He had the window open and he yelled out, “This is deff, Ash!”

He found himself biting his lip to stop himself from laughing. From actually smiling in front of Soo-Ling.

“I’ll give you the talk on the birds and the bees later.” He ruffled the kid’s dark hair, then stepped up to the car door and swung himself in.

They still had the windows rolled down as they joined the traffic, and they heard Soo-Ling yell after them – “I’m not a kid – I’m fourteen, you asshole!”

Ash couldn’t help it, he was cackling as he drove.

Eiji was giggling too, but he had a hand over his mouth and was shaking his head. “You shouldn’t tease him.”

“He gives as good as he gets.” He barely thought about it, as he took one hand off of the wheel and put on it Eiji’s thigh instead. He glanced over. He had those pink glasses with him, and was staring out of the window. The wind ruffled his hair, and he had an arm on the windowsill.

Cool. Eiji looked cool. He was at home here.

“Are we really going to the cinema?” Eiji asked.

“If you want.” He paused. “I got the mini as an excuse for no one else to go with us.”

There was sarcasm in Eiji’s voice. “You’re so smart.”

“I thought a drive in was, like, the essential USA experience.”

He squeezed Ash’s hand. “It’ll be cool.”

Ash left his hand there. Eiji sighed and leant back against the seat, smiling.

There was one not too far out of Manhattan, and they turned the radio up on the way. It was slightly crackly, but that was fine. It was still hot outside. The sky was amber at the bottom, making its way to indigo the higher up it went. They could see the moon already.

This was the American Dream. They were free – away from everything, and it was tempting just to keep driving. Leave. Get away from the whole state. How easy would it be to ran away and never be found? He could die his hair, change his name, forge paperwork.

Why was he staying? Trying to send Eiji home? They could get a place in LA – or Orlando – anywhere, really. Leave Banana Fish behind.

But he knew he couldn’t. He couldn’t just turn his back on all of this. New York was his city – he’d found it and claimed it, and he wasn’t going to let Golzine ruin it. They couldn’t let this drug get out.

He had to get his city back.

They brought popcorn at the Drive Through, and glass bottles of root beer, then Ash found a spot near the back for them. 

“Is this movie really scary?” Eiji raised his eyebrow.

“I’m not the best person to ask…but you can always hold my hand if you’re worried.”

“Oh, shut up.” Eiji tossed a popcorn at him.

He laughed, tossing it back. Then, he couldn’t resist – those rose-tinted glasses caught the light from the screen and Eiji was glowing. He leant forward and kissed him.

Eiji let him, but he looked down after, biting his lip. “Won’t – won’t anyone see?”

“That’s why we’ve kept the roof up.” But Ash relented, choosing instead to take Eiji’s hand. It made eating and drinking difficult, but it was worth it.

It was worth it because Soo-ling was right – this was like that scene in Grease. For the first time, he felt normal. A normal teenager, on a date.

Maybe not quite normal, because there were two boys.

But he rarely thought of it like that. There was just him. And Eiji. That was the person that he loved.

The movie started, and he had seen it before. Everyone in the gang had seen it two or three times, making the most of it whilst it was on.

He glanced over at Eiji, whose eyes were wide. His glasses were perched on his head, and he had retreated into the baseball jacket.

“Hey.” Ash rubbed his thumb over the back of Eiji’s hand. “You okay there, sweetie?”

Eiji nodded and tried for a small smile. But when he turned back to the screen, his eyebrows furrowed.

“It’s just a movie, Eiji.”

“I know.” He put the popcorn on the dashboard. “I – I don’t like Freddy Krueger.”

“You’re not meant to. He’s the bad guy.” Ash had a foot against the glove compartment and felt tired. It was dark, and this was more comforting than the apartment. No one would know they were here – he took out the car in Max’s name.

“I mean – I don’t get why everyone’s so – hyped – over him.” Eiji shifted, so that he was leaning against Ash, a foot next to his popcorn on the dash. “He’s – they were children.”

There it was. Ash had noticed Eiji’s pointed gaze when the gang had been discussing it. It was almost unnerving – how he just knew something was wrong without Ash having to say anything.

“It doesn’t matter,” Ash said. He squeezed Eiji’s hand again. “You know…no one really watches the movie at a drive-in.”

“Yeah?” Eiji half-turned to him, warm breath fanning over Ash’s cheeks. “What do they do instead?”

He answered by kissing him. They twisted in their seats – sitting up more to catch the right angle. Eiji’s mouth opened against Ash, his arms wrapping around his back to pull him closer. The gear stick pressed into his stomach, but he ignored it, choosing instead to run his mouth down the line of Eiji’s jaw. To feeling his heart leap when Eiji sighed.

He could feel the pulse in his neck under his lips. It was racing. Like a rabbit being chased by a wolf.

There was a scream from the screen.

Eiji turned from Ash, going limp as he continued watching the movie.

He made a low noise, nuzzling into Eiji’s shoulder. “Aren’t I more interesting?”

“I just-” Eiji’s hands tightened on the back of his shirt. “I just want to know that it ends well.”

“The ending’s shit.” He nipped his teeth into Eiji’s neck and smiled when he heard a yelp.

But then Eiji pushed him off. Finally turned back to him, but with worried eyes. “What if someone sees us?”

“No one’s noticing. We could bone on the back seat and they’d be oblivious to it.”

“Is that what you want to do? Bone on the back seat?”

If that meant feeling like a normal teenager, then yes. Then definitely.

He opened his mouth to say so, but there was another scream. Someone yelped in a nearby car, and Eiji’s attention was on the screen again. He shifted his popcorn aside, watching a boy being eaten by his bed intently.

The light from the screen and the dark of night made everything monochromatic. The world was black and white, and he couldn’t take his eyes off of Eiji. Did he know that Ash was so hopelessly needy for him? That there was no way he could send Eiji back to Japan, because he would miss him too much – which was selfish.

He must have known. Must have known because when they got drunk, Ash had fallen back on what he knew worked with men, because he was scared that Eiji would get bored. That he would leave. It had been survival instincts – a hedgehog curling up to protect itself.

Eiji clutched Ash’s hand, suddenly. Gripping it tight as the climax of the film played out.

He shifted hands, put the other around Eiji’s shoulder, and pulled him closer. The gear stick must have been digging into Eiji’s back, but he stayed where he was.

They stayed like that until the movie ended.

And then Eiji was peeling himself away and laughing shakily. Collecting up the empty popcorn boxes and putting the empty root beer glasses inside them.

 “You were right,” Eiji said. “Ending was shit.”

“Language.” He turned the keys in the engine.

“Oh, sorry, the ending was fucking shit.” It made Ash laugh, as he started reversing the car. “I can see why you don’t like it.”

“Because the blood is fake and the logic is flawed?”

“Because he was a child predator.”

Ash almost stalled the damn car. They were crawling along in a line of other cars, all trying to get out.

“Nah, I’m pretty sure it’s the fake blood.”

“Sweetie.” It was the first time Eiji had called him a pet name. And when he looked over, he was smiling softly. “You sure?”

“I’m not that sensitive.” They were finally nearing the front of the queue, and he pulled back out onto the highway. “Did you enjoy it?”

“It was…” Eiji drummed his fingers on the dashboard. He still had hold of one of Ash’s hands. “What’s the word Alex used? Bitchin’?”

He laughed – a genuine laugh. “That’s it.”

Eiji opened the glove compartment. Put together a roll-up one-handed. “Why’d you take me to see a movie you don’t like?”

It was so dark that they were just silhouettes. Occasionally lit by the orange glow of a streetlamp – that faded just as quickly as it appeared. It turned the world into polaroid’s of Eiji sat next to him.

“To bone you on the back seat.”

“I’m serious.” Eiji lit the cigarette. Put an elbow on the windowsill. Now there was a tiny, orange spot in the darkness that he could talk to.

“I am too.” Ash squeezed their hands.

Eiji paused. “I’ve never done it with a guy before.”

“Does it bother you?” It was embarrassing, the way Ash’s gut clenched; nervous of the answer.

“A little.” But he was smiling. “It’s a little daunting. Especially when you’ve…”

“Had so much experience?”

“That’s it.” Eiji took a drag, and Ash was gasping for a cigarette of his own. His heart was racing and it shouldn’t be. “Would it be different? With me?”

“Everything’s different with you.” He paused. “I can pull in a back road and we can try it, if you want.”

“Isn’t this a rental?”

Ash shrugged.

“I – I really like you, Ash.” Eiji’s voice was quiet. “But I don’t know if this is the car I want to lose my virginity in.”

It was a polite way of turning him down, but it made him laugh. Maybe it was the nervous tension in his stomach giving way – because he was relieved by that, honestly – maybe it was the absurdity of the sentence. But he laughed and Eiji snickered in the passenger seat.

The smell of tobacco filled the car, and he could stay like this forever, even though he could see the Manhattan skyline looming in front of them.

It was the reason he asked what car Eiji would lose his virginity in. And, after a snicker filled silence, Eiji replied. “A DeLorian at 88 miles per hour.”

He leant over and kissed his forehead, then his cheek bone, and then his mouth – until the car jerked and Ash almost drove them off the road completely.

They just laughed.

Relief. There was such a relief that this wouldn’t be the night that everything would change. Sex was a speedbump that could grind everything to a halt.

And he wanted to keep driving a little longer.

*

They did pull into a back-alley. Climbed into the back seat and Ash had a cigarette, laid across the seats with Eiji in his lap. Their legs were a tangle – there wasn’t room to do this in a mini, but that was fine. He had his arms around him – hands on Eiji’s stomach and his hair soft against his cheek. They didn’t need to talk.

His hand slipped under Eiji’s shirt, travelled over his stomach and up to his chest, and Eiji let him. Put a hand behind him to play with Ash’s hair.

Then he was tilting his head up and to the side to kiss Ash’s neck – and for a boy with no experience, he seemed to know what he was doing. Seemed to know how to give love bites that made soft sounds come from the back of Ash’s throat. Sounds he didn’t know that he made.

Their shirts had been hitched up to their armpits, but hadn’t made it off, in the hour that they sat there. Short breaths and long kisses and touching – lots of touching. Not the kind of urgent, hard-enough to bruise touching Ash was used to. This still held a sense of desperateness – but it was desperateness to be close. It was exploratory.

A discovery.

It had made him want more. That was the first time he could remember wanting that.

But Eiji’s yawns became more frequent, and his weight grew heavy on Ash. They’d headed up to the apartment, then. Still entwined from the shoulders down to their fingers.

He’d fallen asleep thinking about it. About how – this was how it was supposed to feel. This was how it was meant to be. And it was fucking electric.

But then it cut through the darkness. Through the occasional whir of traffic and the thumping of music from three apartments below and into Ash’s half-dreams of warm mouths and warmer bodies. A cry.

A genuine, terrified yell.

"Ash!"

Eiji.

Gun. Light. Aim. Scan the room. Eiji was in danger.

"What's wrong?" Ash's voice was a snap.

The bedside lamp across the room flicked on. Bathed the whole place in a yellow glow.

"I-" Eiji broke off. His eyes were focusing, hair drifting down from his bed head. He was sat up in bed, hands dark against the crisp white sheets. The room was empty. The curtains ever so slightly swaying in a late summer breeze. "Sorry. It had a nightmare."

The effect was incredible. Every muscle relaxed at the same time. Like stepping into a warm bath. There was no danger. No danger. They were safe. Ash dropped the gun, and it fell with a clatter. He fell back against the pillows and sighed. "I thought you’d been hurt.”

“I didn’t mean to yell for you,” Eiji admitted. “Sorry to wake you.”

“Stop saying sorry for everything.” There was a tease to his voice, and he heard Eiji giggle weakly. “Is this because of that stupid movie?"

"No. Yes. I-" He turned his head to the side to see Eiji draw his knees against his chest. Rest his head on his knees. "It was - back in - back in the mansion."

It felt as though someone had gripped Ash's heart and squeezed hard. He stayed silent.

"But it wasn't - it was...Kreuger instead."

Ash got up without thinking. Stood and crossed the room with the sheets still tangled around him so that they fell sprawled across the floor, like a trail. He wasn't thinking when he put a hand on Eiji's shoulder.

Eiji flinched away.

Ash pulled back - just slightly - just enough so that his hand was still wavering in mid-air. He stared.

Eiji stared back, as though he was just as shocked. His eyes were wide.

This wasn't the way it went.

Eiji wasn't the one who didn't want to be touched.

Ash's hand dropped back to his side, as slowly as if it was going through molasses.

He sat on the end of the bed. "Freddy Krueger can't hurt you, Eiji."

"I know." He pulled back into himself even more.

It was left unsaid. The extra bit. The bit about who could.

"Do you…wanna talk, or-" Ash wasn't used to being in this position. Eiji always seemed to know what he needed. That he needed gentle hands and to hear a heartbeat.

"I don't think you should hear."

"Try me." Ash could only let the silence happen for a split second. "Fuck, Eiji, I'm not going to break. I'm not made of glass."

"I don't want to fire you up," he insisted.

"I don't want to see you like this!" Like Ash. "And I don't want to keep wondering what happened to you there."

Silence.

"You think about that?" His voice was so soft. Still cracking from having just woken up. He looked five years younger, with his hair a mess and his t-shirt askew, showing collarbones that looked gold in the light. Collarbones that tiny red marks peppering them – they went up the side of Eiji’s neck too.

He didn’t mean to say it, but he was distracted by those red marks. "What do you think my nightmares are?"

His eyes looked to the clock. It was hard to keep secrets at three in the morning.

"It wasn't-" Eiji's knees were about to go through his chest. "It will sound like nothing – it was nothing, compared to..."

"Tell me."

And it was nothing, really. Because things had been stopped. And they had been things Ash wouldn't think twice about. In fact, he would have breathed a sigh of relief if he had been through it.

But it wasn't him. It was Eiji. And the fact that it had happened to Eiji changed everything. Because Eiji had been scared. Had been scared for himself and worried about Ash and still had drugs in his system. Because it had been confusing, felt like a nightmare, he “couldn’t remember it clearly.”

The fact that he had been scared, and Ash hadn’t been there, was what hurt.

That if he hadn’t been so selfish and taken Eiji with him to Cape Cod, it all could have been avoided. He could have met back up with him in New York, and –

"Ash."

A hand on his shoulder.

He blinked. Realised that every muscle in his body was coiled. That his jaw was clenched so tightly that it hurt. That his nails were pressed into his palms so hard that it stung.

Ash stood. He took a breath.

"Are you okay?" Eiji was standing too. Stumbling into the bedside table.

"I'll kill him."

"No." Eiji's hand reappeared on his arm. Tried to tug him around. He dug his heels into the floor. "You're already in trouble."

You've already killed people.

"I don't care," he hissed. He turned to Eiji and his hand hovered over his cheek, dark hair tickling his palm. Eiji didn’t flinch this time. "He - it was you."

Eiji was searching his face.

He moved slowly, as though he was trying to tame a wild animal. Brought a hand up and on top of Ash's. Pulled them both down. Then raised his other hand, let his fingers trace Ash's jaw. All the way down to his chin, and he felt it unclench with the touch.

Eiji took both of his hands, unfurled his fingers with a persistent touch. It was working – he could feel his body relaxing, just from the gentle touches.

But Eiji's face was set, his eyebrows drawn.

"You're not going to kill for me,” he said. And then, before Ash could even open his mouth. "And you're not going to die for me either."

How could he do that? Know exactly what Ash was going to say? They hardly knew each other – had known each other for a few months, and yet Eiji just knew. He’d been right when he said he understood Ash - he just did, in a way that no one else did. For no reason. And he understood Eiji - it was just a feeling, in his gut. Probably enough of a feeling to make him believe in soul mates.

It made him take Eiji's face in his hands - just enough for his cheeks to squish slightly under the pressure.

"The same goes for you. No jumping in front of a bullet for me."

Eiji put his hands on Ash’s wrists. Kept them there. Had the nerve to smile slightly and make his eyes glitter like the milky way was in them. "I make no promises."

"I'm serious, Eiji.” Ash cupped his chin – made him look at him with that stubborn expression. Those puppy dog eyes didn’t work this time. He took a breath. “I want you to live over me."

It was strange, how lightly they could talk about something so serious. How quickly Eiji had gotten used to these terms - to the possibility of guns, bullets and drugs and wasn't flinching. That there was a bite of anger in his voice when he said, "you need to live. You need to be happy. I already have been. Now you need to, as well."

Words stumbled through his brain. He almost fell forward – his knees almost collapsed under him. Too much - there was too much. This was too much. The soft tone of Eiji's voice and the words he was saying made everything stop. It was silent outside – no traffic – no pigeons – no music. They were in their own bubble of too many emotions.

His hands dropped to his sides.

"If you – how could – how could I be happy with you-" Shot. Drugged. Killed. He shook his head as though it would make the words disappear. “Eiji, I lo-"

"Sshhh." Eiji pressed against him - his whole body. And Ash hadn’t realised that he was shaking until he felt Eiji’s arms around him. Hadn’t realised how cold he had felt until he felt the warmth. Eiji’s thumbs rubbed over his cheekbones, down to his mouth. "I know."

There was a sound in the back of his throat.

It might have been a sob - but Ash couldn't remember what that felt or sounded like. He wrapped his arms around Eiji - he was taller than he always thought. They were nearly the same height and Eiji was just as broad as he was. Just as there.

Clinging on just as tightly.

And now he knew what his own nightmares would be about.

Chapter Text

What’cha Gunna Do (About it)

"Oh, it's golden hour." Eiji stopped, and looked out across the water. His dark hair contrasted with the green leaves, tan skin against the stony grey of the lake, and the sunlight turned his chocolate brown eyes gold.

Ash stopped too, and turned. It felt as though he could feel the hand of his wristwatch ticking around. Late - they were going to be late to meet Cain Blood, at this point.

And yet it wasn't a sight he could miss.

It had been his idea, to take the long way and head through Central Park - which had made Eiji smile, tilt his head to the side and ask, "isn't it the only park in Manhattan?"

"Yeah, and, it's central," was Ash's reply.

There weren't as many tourists about now - it was almost eight o'clock, but the Summer meant that the sun hadn't set yet. People were going out to the theatre, or the movies at this time.

It was early, for a gang meeting. Ash suspected they wouldn't get back until the early hours of the morning. No doubt Cain had decided on this time because he had a job he wanted Ash to do before he'd enter a truce.

"Golden hour?" he echoed.

"Mm." Eiji smiled. He reached into his bag and pulled out his camera, untwisting the cap. "The sunset makes for great lighting in photos around this time."

"I see..." He watched Eiji's hands, adjusting the lenses. Gentle hands, that knew what they were doing, as he started walking again. Slowly. Ash followed his pace. "How'd you get into photography?"

"Ibe-San..." He wasn't sure if Eiji was breaking off because he was concentrating, or because he didn't want to talk about it. "He took photos, when I was jumping. Before the accident...and after...and - seeing them? Was really..." He looked up, searching Ash's face as though he had the words. "There's something I love about catching life - the stuff under the surface. Photos bring out the emotions of people, whether they're aware of it, or not."

He was still smiling. A faint wind ruffled his hair and it felt like someone had stabbed Ash in the chest. It was an effort to force himself to breathe. Photos were the worst - he hated them. Had never seen the need to take a photo of anything when his memory was just as good - when it hazed over the parts he couldn't stomach and sharpened the parts he loved.

The sitting on the fire escapes with the first cigarette of the day in the early morning sun, watching the smoke bloom out of vents as the ugly city woke itself up.

The walking with a boy his heart ached to be around.

"What did it look like when you were high-jumping?" he asked.

"It looked like..." There was a faint look in Eiji's eyes. He closed them, eyelashes casting shadows down golden cheeks. He was a boy of gold, in a golden light. "Freedom. Like...pure bliss."

"I'd love to see you jump." He already had - but he'd love to see Eiji jump when they weren't running for their lives. He wanted to see him fly.

"Come back to Japan." Eiji turned to him, grabbed his hand.

"Eiji-"

He misread Ash's frown, and dropped his hand, again, continuing with an urgent tone. "Not forever. Just  - just a week or something. When I - go back, come with me." He stepped closer - just half a step, and yet the park wasn't that quiet. They weren't that hidden. "I'll jump for you."

Ash had been frowning because he knew he'd never be able to do it. He'd never be able to go to Japan. New York was in him - he'd never be able to go back and live a life without blood, guns, drugs. Without violence.

He'd been frowning because he didn't like to think about Japan. Japan meant Eiji leaving. It meant them being separate.

And that was a reality he couldn't cope with.

He was staring. Taking in the flecks of gold in Eiji's eyes, the slight sunburn on his cheeks, the exact shape of his mouth.

Ash didn't mean to say the words out loud. They were a low murmur. "...You're an angel."

Eiji raised a hand. It hovered above Ash's chest. Like a butterfly. "Look who's talking."

They couldn't do this - not here. Not on a time limit.

"You're the one with wings." Ash spoke over his shoulder, walking quickly.

"I'll teach you." Eiji matched his pace. "Come to Japan, and I'll teach you high jump."

It was like saying 'I'll teach you how to fly.' And Ash wanted to - he wanted to learn how to fly.

"We'll see." His mouth was twisting into a smirk.

"Wait." Eiji stopped. He was fiddling with his camera again, putting it up to his face. "Just there. No, don't look at me-"

Ash's gut twisted. He looked down at the gravel path. Feeling hot, suddenly - feeling itchy. "Eiji, I don't like photos-"

"Just trust me, okay?" Eiji was still focusing the camera. He might have already been taking photos. Photos of Ash. And even though he was wearing a checked shirt over his t-shirt, he felt naked. "Just look - look at the Ghostbusters building, okay?"

"We're going to be late."

"Don't scowl."

So Ash tried not to. Tried to keep his eyes on the building behind Eiji. It was half-hidden by the trees, but it was still recognisable from the movie. Now, he regretted letting the gang come over every other night to 'educate' Eiji on 'the greatest movies of all time.'

No, he wasn't regretting it. He loved that Eiji could make movie references. Ash had never cared for pop culture until he had heard the worlds 'DeLorean,' '88 miles an hour' and 'losing virginity' come out of Eiji's mouth.

He felt his mouth curve into a smile and tried to wipe it away with the back of his hand.

"Why don't I take a photo of you instead?" he asked.

"Ash!" Eiji pulled the camera away from his eye, pressing buttons. He was pouting, slightly. "These'll be blurry now."

"Oh, well-" Ash put his hands on it, tried tugging it from Eiji's grip.

"Be careful, it's a really expensive-"

"Then why did you take it to meet a gang leader?" Ash raised an eyebrow. Kept tugging at the bulky camera.

"Because New York is fucking beautiful no matter what you say!"

His heart leapt, but the camera slipped from Eiji's grasp. He stepped back, looking through the eyepiece. At Eiji insisting that the city - his city - was beautiful. At Eiji swearing, and Ash wanting to hear that word again and again.

"Smile."

Eiji blinked. But then he did. Tucking his chin down slightly and looking up at the lens. It was an embarrassed sort of smile - there were handful of tourists looking at them.

He kept pressing the button, until Eiji shook his head and said, "that's enough, Ash. You'll run the film out."

"They should all be pictures of you." But he lowered the camera, held it out so that the strap dangled between them. "A whole film."

Eiji shook his head again, dark hair flopping. He looked up, eyes softening just as their fingers grazed each other. It sent electric through him. "Ash, I-"

"I know." He smiled. Let his fingers slip from the sides of the camera. Turned, because people were still staring at them, and he though that he might combust under the warmth of that stare. "Now, come on."

"Isn't being late, like, an asserting your dominance move?" Eiji hung the camera around his neck, screwing the cap back into place.

"No, it's fucking rude."

Eiji laughed. He kept pace with Ash, watching the park around them as they continued. Mostly in silence now. Ash turned his thoughts to Cain. Tried to anticipate how this meeting would go.

What his crew would say when they saw Eiji with him.

But Eiji had insisted that he be brought along on gang business. Was shown the ropes. And this was the safest thing for him.

Not that Ash thought Eiji couldn’t handle it. He absolutely could – probably better than half the gang, because he simply wasn’t intimidated by anything. He’d hold his own, and probably turn any negotiation his way. He trusted him, absolutely.

But that didn’t meant Ash wanted to put him in the firing line.

*

Cain’s hideout was in Harlem – a good twenty minutes walk. By the time they got there, the sun had set.

It was down an alley – of course it was – but at least it was an alley that didn’t have such a strong sense of cat piss, and the bins had been taken to one end, so any nearby rats congregated there.

Some kid around Soo-Ling's age answered the door. There was the thump of music coming from inside the ground-floor apartment and the sound of laughter.

"You're Ash Lynx, aren't you?" But the kids face was pale.

"Yeah."

"Boss is expecting you."

"I know." Ash stepped in, but the kid held up a hand.

"You got a gun on you, Lynx?"

"Of course I do."

Eiji tensed beside him. He was glancing at Ash, no doubt wondering whether to offer to take care of it and wait outside.

He was staring down the kid. The kid was staring back with narrowed eyes.

"Let him through," a voice called from inside. "He'd only hand one in and then pull another out his shoe."

Ash laughed and stepped through. Eiji followed. The kid closed the door.

Cain Blood was reclining on a sagging sofa, a can of beer in one hand. There were binbags taped over the windows, so that no one could see inside. It was similar to Ash’s bar – teenagers lazed around, joking and drinking, all with guns in reach.

The man himself stood when he saw them enter and adjusted his sunglasses. He was in front of them in two strides, looming a head taller than both of them.

“Who's this?” he asked. Not confrontational. Not yet.

“My back up.” Ash answered before Eiji could open his mouth.

“Good to meet you.” He sounded indifferent, but he stuck his hand out all the same. “Cain Blood, also known as the Black Demon of Harlem.”

“Eiji Okumura.” Eiji took his hand, not looking fazed. Though, his eyes flickered to Ash. "I don’t have a nickname.”

“Yet,” Ash said.

“And of course we all know Ash Lynx!” Cain opened his arms, and there was a pause in the conversation around them. A few people gave a half-hearted cheer, most raised their eyebrows.

“I see you’re popular here.” Eiji had a cheeky smile as he raised his eyebrows at Ash.

He frowned at him. “This is Black Sabbath territory.”

“What’s the camera for?” one of the guys asked. He was scowling at it, swinging from Eiji’s neck.

Eiji blinked. He looked down at it, as if he had forgotten it was there. “I’m – I’m a photographer.”

Photographer. High jumper. Gang-leader tamer. Eiji was a boy of many talents.

“You gunna take pictures of us?” another guy raised his eyebrows.

Eiji shrugged. “Only if you want.” He paused. “I was meant to be taking pictures for an article about gang members.”

Was that what it was? Ash could barely remember. It felt as though Eiji had always been here.

The first guy screwed up his nose. “An article?”

“Gunna hand us in to the police or something?” The second guy leant forward.

That’s when Eiji glanced to Ash. He frowned too. “Nothing like that. It was just a piece about street gangs in New York. But that was months ago-“

“Can we have a go with it?” the kid from the door had his eyes on the camera. Was watching it hungrily, like a hawk.

Eiji shrugged again and pulled it over his head. “Why not?”

That was what put the guys on Eiji’s side. They clamoured around him, all fighting to get their hand son the camera and take the first photo.

“Be careful.” Eiji held it up, and even though it was still in their reach, they stopped and stared at him. Probably wondered how a boy so short could command their utmost attention. “It’s expensive. Look, I’ll show you.”

Fearless. His boy was fearless. He watched them, arms folded, trying not to smile too obviously.

“Oy,” Cain said, at his side. He jerked his head to the backroom, where a table and set of chairs were trying their best to balance on spindly legs. “Thought you came here on business.”

“Sure.” Ash took the lead. Stayed standing. There was a camping bed in here, papers scattered across the table that had rings of coffee sticking them together.

Cain leant against the opposite wall. Crossed his arms. His sunglasses shining in the cheap, artificial light.

“Lynx,” he said.

“Blood.” Ash couldn’t help it. He started smirking.

Cain raised his eyebrows. “You laughin' at me?”

“Laughin' at us both.” Ash let the grin settle, instead of hiding it. “Some names, huh?”

What were they, mobsters in a flick? Ash being called to the backroom like this and being stared at like that – it was almost ridiculous. How was this what he spent his spare time doing?

“Some names,” Cain agreed. He nodded to Eiji, who was taking pictures of the boys grinning and throwing up rock and roll signs. "We did hear you got a new recruit.”

Ash had said he was back-up. It had been mostly a tease against Eiji.

“He’s not a recruit,” he said. “He’s a friend.”

“Just a friend?”

“What are you getting at?” Ash scowled. It was time for him to turn on that mobster stare. Word from China Town had clearly gotten around about their living arrangements.

Cain looked away – Ash knew because he had the curtesy to turn his whole head to the side. He was quiet for a moment, and it looked as though the subject would be dropped, until Cain started talking again.

“Just saying...” Cain opened his mouth and closed it. “He looks like the kind of boy Dino Golzine would like in his mansion.” So, his eyes were on Eiji, underneath that dark glass. Ash’s stomach did it’s best to make like a scrambled egg. “No…probably too old, am I right?”

“You know about Golzine.” He didn’t let himself dwell on that. Couldn’t let himself dwell on that.

Cain shrugged. Took a cigarette out of his pocket. “Where do you think half of street kids come from?” He paused, as he lit up, and then the sunglasses caught the light as he tilted his chin up to see Ash. The smoke rising, so that he looked part dragon. “They see you up there a lot.”

His stomach re-scrambled itself again. He released the tension with a small shrug of his shoulders.

“That's because everyone me and the gang kick in the teeth or shoot in the head seems to be related to him,” he said. It had been on purpose of course, but none of the gang even knew that.

Cain smiled. And nodded. “...I like your style, Lynx.”

“We had something of a truce.” He thought that was worth explaining. Thought that it gave too much away, and he shouldn’t have said it, because there was that raised eyebrow again.

“And now?”

“Fuck him,” Ash spat.

A wider smile. A larger nod. “Sweet.”

Then there was a pause. Ash let his gaze scan the papers – mainly old bills and takeaway receipts. Some important paperwork was scattered in.

The Black Sabbath’s were still taking pictures, Eiji showing them how to use Vaseline around the edge of the lens to get that haze effect. They were all losing their minds at it.

It was incredible. How easily Eiji seemed to fit in with people. Seemed to genuinely make them smile and have a good time, even when they were a Harlem gang that even Ash didn’t want to mess with.

But then, he had worked that magic on Ash the first day they met.

It was a superpower. And Ash loved how unafraid Eiji was of everything.

He should have brought him along to these more.

“When you say fuck him...” Cain trailed off, his voice questioning.

Ash narrowed his eyes. Cain laughed.

"But seriously, if that boy was a girl, he would be eaten up in here...” Cain stopped again, when he noticed Ash’s gritted jaw and narrowed eyes. He gave a low whistle. “Now that's a scary look.”

“He's going back to Japan.” Ash’s voice was thick.

“I see.”

“I'll put him on that plane myself,” he continued. It was hot in here, suddenly. Suddenly, he wanted to wrap a blanket around Eiji and get out of here.

And he hated that. Hated that need to be so protective when Eiji was fine on his own. Didn’t need a knight in shining armour to save him.

"And will you be getting on that plane?” Cain asked. He waited. “There's nothing for you here, Ash. If that boy is a ticket out of all this, take it. There might not be another chance."

He shook his head. Tried not to look at the sounds of laughter and how much he wanted to join in.

"Can't do that,” Ash insisted. “Not yet. There's a rat in my gang."

"So that's what this is about." Cain put out the cigarette on the paper.

"I'd like you on my side, Blood.” Ash stepped forward, put his hands on the table. “You have no quarrel with me, right?”

“I have no quarrel.” Cain spoke slowly. “That doesn't mean I want to get killed for you.”

“What will it take?”

Cain shrugged. “A cut.”

“If I die you can have the whole thing.”

“I'm serious, here.”

“Ten.” Cain straightened.

“Twenty.”

“Fifteen.”

“Fifteen, and that boy.” Cain nodded his head towards Eiji. The guys had their arms around him, all grinning at the camera.

Ash scowled. “Get fucked.”

Again, Cain Blood just laughed.

“Fifteen,” he said.  “And several I owe you’s. I'll count as we go.”

“Fair.” Ash stuck his hand out.

Cain nodded, and they shook on it.

Then, he squeezed Ash’s hand and grinned. “Now, I’m going to get in on that action – are you?”

He was out of the room before Ash could stop him – ducking into the photo and throwing up two peace signs just before the flash went off. Eiji was laughing.

“You’ll use up all of the film!”

His heart really was going to explode, the longer he looked at him. The further that he  knew he was falling. And that was dangerous.

But they had dangerous lives now.

So why not go all the way?

*

Eiji got the photos developed a week later. They had visited the shop to get them printed that afternoon, then brought hot dogs off the street. Ate them sat on the step of a memorial statue with their shoulders just touching. Their sneakers grazing whenever they moved. Ash brought back ice cream, and, after fighting to tip the other’s nose in it for a good five minutes, they ate those too.

It was still hot when they got back. Ash turned all of the fans on and sat as close as he could to one, feeling the cold wind pushing the hair from his face. Drying the sweet on his cheekbones.

Eiji lay on the sofa, on his stomach, and unwrapped the brown paper parcel.

“Don’t you want to see them?” he asked.

“I told you I don’t like photos.”

“Then why’d you agree? The day we met, you let me take photos.”

Ash turned, with half-lidded eyes. The sun was hitting him through the window, and he felt like a cat stretched out in an afternoon. Like he could sleep for hours.

“Because you gave me that smile.”

“What smile?” Eiji looked up – eyes glittering.

“That one.” It was the one that made him feel like he was melting.

“I thought…” Eiji unfolded the holder the photos were in, biting his lip. “I thought that maybe taking – different photos would – would replace the old ones?”

He didn’t look up as Ash crossed the room. Only when he knelt in front of the sofa arm, resting his chin on his arms.

“You’re…” Ash leant forward and kissed him, because he couldn’t find the words.

Eiji smiled, kissing him back, lazily.

“Just look at the ones of Black Sabbath?” His eyes were downcast, his hand finding Ash’s. “They’re probably all awful.”

“Alright.” Ash kissed him again, and wondered when it had become so easy. When they had fallen into this duality of public and private.

Eiji sat up, and patted the seat next to him, still smiling. So, Ash sat, then tapped his knee.

Eiji looked at him, trying to be serious for a moment, but then breaking into a smile, and shuffling so that he was sat in between Ash’s leg. Fiddled with Ash’s hair, tucking his behind his ear as he rested his chin on Eiji’s shoulder. Wrapped his arms around him and pulled him close. It was still unbearably warm – their t-shirts slightly damp against each others.

The photos had been printed in reverse order. So the last one – the one of the boys in the Black Sabbath gang all lifting Eiji up – was on top. Ash had taken it. He’d taken a few of them messing around, striking different poses like they thought they were the Beastie Boys.

There were a lot of blurry ones too – ones the gang had taken of Eiji and each other and hadn’t let the camera focus properly. A chunk with blurry figures – dark against the harsh white lighting – where the boys had gone through half a tub of gasoline to try out Eiji’s trick.

They were both grinning – Ash using it as an excuse to bury his mouth against Eiji’s collarbones. They both stunk of sweet, and street food, but that was fine. That was like the city was claiming Eiji for it’s own.

There were three of Eiji. Taken moments apart. One of him frowning at Ash, though now that he looked, he could already see him dissolving into a smile. The corners of his mouth turning up. He still had those same stars in his eyes. And one with Eiji looking slightly to the side – he had been shaking his head, and his hair was blurred at the edges.

It didn’t ruin the photo, in Ash’s humble opinion.

The last was Eiji smiling. That smile. He had several that smiles – but this one was private. It was a ‘just for Ash’ smile, and those were the best kind. He didn’t want to be possessive – it was the last thing he’d ever want – but maybe he’d picked up a few things these past few years.

No. It was just because Eiji was popular. He was popular with Ash’s gang and now he was popular with Black Sabbath – they all wanted attention.

That was why he always felt a special kind of happy when Eiji paid attention to him.

It was like being a puppy instead of a lynx.

In the photo, the building from Ghostbusters was in the background, the grey of the lake contrasting with Eiji’s warm skin. The green of the trees against his dark hair. There was a gold glow to all of the photo – the natural sunlight somehow looking as though it was coming from Eiji.

He’d been right, when he had been talking about photographs trapping emotions. It was there, written all over his face.

Eiji raised the shoulder Ash was leaning against, turning his head slightly. “Not bad for a rookie.”

“Oh, I’m just a natural,” Ash replied. He kissed Eiji’s jaw for good measure, and was rewarded when he sighed and leant back against him.

“Sure, honey.” Eiji’s spare hand went from Ash’s hair to his arms, running along his forearms in a way that made his hair stand on end. He could hear Eiji’s breath – like the beating of a butterfly’s wings, in his ear.

Eiji turned to the next photo.

Ash’s stomach leapt.

It was him. But he had been talking, and everything was blurred. Like a pile of animation frames – everything was soft.

His arms tightened around Eiji.

The next photo was different. He was smiling. It was only from the chest up, and the same golden light was filtering through. It coloured his hair, made it look full of a rich, warm colour, instead of pale yellow. He was standing underneath the trees, so that gold dappled across his skin in a pattern – making it look gold. His eyes were sparkling – just as much as Eiji’s did, though his were narrowed and cat-like – and the leaves around him made them look like emeralds. They almost glowed. He looked like he was glowing.

Eiji had made him glow just like he did.

He really was a miracle worker with a camera.

“Even though you tried your best to screw it up, I still got the perfect shot.” Eiji sounded slightly smug as he said it.

Ash grunted against him – heard him laugh breathlessly in response.

He wasn’t naked in the photo. He was wearing a t-shirt brushed with pollen. And maybe Eiji was right – maybe taking photos – normal photos that normal people took – would make him like them more. There was a part of him that wanted silly photos like Black Sabbath had.

Though, he couldn’t imagine looking back at them. Couldn’t imagine a future where he was looking back on pictures of himself and his friends with – his wife? His children? Eiji? He didn’t think more than a week ahead – couldn’t be sure that he was going to live more than a week ahead.

“It’s a nice photo, Ash.” Eiji turned and kissed him on the cheek. “Can I keep it?”

“You’re not hanging it up on the wall,” he said.

Eiji laughed. “I was thinking my wallet. Then I could show it to everyone I met?”

“You are not.” Ash squeezed his arms tighter around Eiji, and he let his whole weight fall backwards. He was still looking at the photo.

“No,” he murmured. “But I’d like to keep it all the same.”

Ash paused. It wasn’t a bad photo. It didn’t make his stomach feel as though it was full of worms. In fact, he almost liked it.

“Only if-” Why was he nervous about asking. “Only if I can keep the one of you?”

“Sure.” Eiji twisted in his lap and smiled up at him. He brushed Ash’s fringe out of his face for him, eyes catching as it caught the light of the sun. The kept the blinds closed now – it was easier – and it created panels of sun and shade across the room.

What else could he do? He leant down and kissed Eiji. Forcefully. There was a small sound from the back of Eiji’s throat and their mouths were open a moment later. He wrapped his arms around Ash’s neck, falling backwards so that they landed in a muddle on the sofa. Photos slipped out from under them – onto the coffee stain there.

It was hard not to dissolve into this when they were alone. It was making up for lost time. Revelling in the fact that no one could see them up here. They were free.

It was like having wings.

Eiji had his legs wrapped around Ash’s waist like a cling-on monkey, and it was too hot for that, but he didn’t care. Didn’t feel so weird about being this intimate because if this was the only chance they were going to get – he was going to make the most of it.

The photo still bothered him, in the back of his mind. Sure, he was wearing clothes in it, but he was completely exposed in a different way. It was the same expression Eiji had in his – that emotions under the surface thing he had mentioned – over every inch of his face.

It was the kind of face someone made when they were absolutely, completely in love.

 

Chapter Text

You Got it (The Right Stuff)

Ash heard the thump as Eiji fell to the floor in a heap, but he didn’t look around from his work. There was a moment of stunned silence.

Then Eiji asked, calmly for someone who just fell over. “Ash, what have you done?”

“I put our beds together.” The answer was simple – it wasn’t something that he’d given any thought to as he was doing it. But now it slowed his pen. “Do you – I should have asked – I just – I just thought, since –”

Since half the time Eiji was sat on the end of Ash’s bed anyway, murmuring that everything would be alright – it would be convenient. He wouldn’t even have to get up – just roll over and reach out a hand and Ash could make do with the rest.

“You should have.” He heard Eiji standing, walking back to where he sat at the table with a cat-like quiet. “You just made me fall.”

Ash shrugged. Felt a smirk tug across his mouth. “Were you reading again?”

Eiji slumped into the chair opposite him, and Ash looked up just to see his cheeks colour.

“Yes,” Eiji said.

“Serves you right then.”

“Fuck off.” The words came too naturally out of Eiji’s mouth now – he had picked up too much off of the other boys, and too quickly.

It still made Ash laugh. He turned back to his work, but he couldn’t remember the next word he was going to write.

“You should have asked,” Eiji continued.

Ash twisted the pen between his fingers. “I thought you’d say no.”

Eiji was tapping his foot – he could hear it.

“What’s the question, Ash?” His voice was soft. Shook a little when he said Ash’s name.

“It doesn’t have to be,” he took a breath before that word. “Anything. I can move them back if you want.”

“I just want to know where I stand with you.”

Eiji’s hand half-reached across the table. Stopped short. They were never normally this serious. It was scary, actually – to have to talk like adults. Ash knew adult things – knew about sex and taxes and how to balance a check book – but he wasn’t an adult. Didn’t know how to be an adult.

Where did Eiji stand? This could never be known.

“I thought...” Ash’s hand moved of it’s own accord – settled itself halfway to Eiji’s. “That it might be time…to share a bed. That’s all.” And when Eiji was quiet for a moment, he continued, in a rush. “Because, you know, you – we – there are nightmares. That happen sometimes. And it would be easier if there was one bed. In the middle of the room.”

When he looked up, his heart sunk back down from his throat in relief.

Eiji was smiling. Only a little smile, but still. And his cheeks were carnation pink. And his eyes were sparkling.

“Just because of my nightmares?”

Tactful as ever – teasing as ever. Ash felt his heart squeeze. This boy would be the end of him. Seriously.

“Because you have nightmares, Eiji.” Their hands met. “And I need to take care of you.”

Eiji stared at him. As if he needed a moment to take all of Ash in – as if he was something incredible. Then he shook his head, biting his lip as though he could bite away the smile.

“Do you even have double sheets?”

“Who needs sheets? It’s Summer.”

Eiji shook his head again. Still smiling.

Ash laughed – found himself laughing because it was so easy to. Because he had been so worried for the last two hours – waiting for Eiji to find the joint beds – that he had barely been able to think straight. He hadn’t realised the bundle of stress in his stomach and now that it was gone, he felt like he was flying.

“I’ll go buy some this afternoon.”

“Will you be buying anything else?” Eiji’s fingers uncurled his and wiggled their way in.

“What do you want me to buy?”

Eiji leant forward. Took a moment to look him up and down so that the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He was the only one who could do that – Eiji definitely had superpowers.

“Well,” Eiji’s voice was low. “We’re out of milk.”

Ash raised an eyebrow, and Eiji chuckled to himself.

But then he added, “can we rent a movie? And get some Jiffy Pop? Since I won’t be having nightmares anymore, with my brave knight watching over me.”

Sarcasm dripped from his voice.

Ash bided his time. Squeezed Eiji’s fingers, and said ‘of course,’ sincerely enough. Then he stood, slipping around the table and bending down to kiss Eiji’s mouth.

That was when he slipped his arms around him and pulled him up into a bridal carry.

“Anything for my Prince.”

Eiji’s knees had hit the table with a loud bang. He wiggled in Ash’s arms, trying to right himself.

“Let me down.”

“Oh, no, I have to protect you.”

Ash!” Eiji’s hand found his cheeks, turned him towards him. His mouth was open, as though he was going to say something else, but he just breathed out slowly. Looked at Ash as if he was a shooting star and he was making a wish. His thumbs rubbed against Ash’s cheekbones, and he felt his eyes closing. Like the sweet spot under a cat’s chin.

Eiji kissed him. Slowly, barely taking a breath as Ash set him carefully back on the ground. Only to take his waist and pull him closer.

“The new Mad Max, please,” Eiji murmured against Ash’s lips. “I heard Bones talking about it, and it has a monkey in it.”

Ash nodded.

“As you wish.”

*

The monkey’s name was co-pilot. And Eiji loved every moment that he was onscreen.

Ash couldn’t see why the gang liked this movie. Guns and battles and terf wars – a group of lost teens trying to find an adult who they could trust – it was all way too much like real life.

The song was good, but then, Tina Turner could sing a grocery list and make it sound like an opera.

But Eiji enjoyed it. Which meant that he was treated to shiny eyes and happy smiles for an hour and forty-seven minutes, and that was fantastic.

Then they changed and got ready to sleep. And there was that pause where they both stared. The two singles were pushed together – new sheets trying to hold the separate mattresses together. Trying to make something real and solid.

“I can move them,” Ash said, immediately, because he had just felt Eiji tense up beside him.

“You don’t need to.” Eiji sat down – on the mattress that used to be his, and pulled the sheet over his knees. He stayed looking down, when he asked, “Ash?”

“Yeah?” His voice was hardly working. He forced himself to move. Take a step forward.

“If anything…happens…I want to go along with it. Until one of us says ‘stop.’”

Now his voice was a wheeze. “Okay.”

“I just –” Eiji ran a hand through his bangs. Pulled them back off of his forehead and smiled. “Don’t want my – inexperience – to matter.”

“Oh, sweetie.” Ash sat on the end of the bed then. Leant closer and tilted his head so that he could see Eiji’s eyes. “It never did.”

“Are you nervous?”

“I don’t know what I am.” That was honest. “But we can go along with it, until one of us says ‘stop.’”

He didn’t want to think about what would happen after that. If it would stop – everything.

“Right.” Eiji smiled. Let his bangs fall back against his forehead. He stretched his legs under the duvet. “Well, then….goodnight, sweetie.”

Ash kissed Eiji’s cheek. “Goodnight, sweetie.”

It started like normal. They stayed on opposite sides of the bed. Ash faced away from Eiji – stared at the clock on his bedside table and watched the minutes go by until he fell asleep.

They woke facing each other. Not cuddling – not yet, but closer than they had been.

And that unlocked something. Made it easier the next night to face each other – a little bit closer.

This was something tentative and questioning. But they were both asking the questions, and neither of them answered.

Until Ash stretched out an arm the following morning, and wrapped it around Eiji’s shoulders without thinking. He was still half-asleep, and he wiggled closer into Ash. Ash felt him sigh in his sleep – like he was content.

Eiji smiled when he woke up. And wrapped his arms around Ash.

That made it easy. From there on, to seek each other out. They still always started on opposite sides of the bed, because no matter how many fans were whirring in the room, it was still too hot to cuddle all night.

But it didn’t take long for one of them to find the other. To pull them closer, like a small child with a teddy bear.

It was when Eiji had sought Ash out in the ocean of white sheets, that he felt it. Pressing against his lower back.

For a moment, he wasn’t sure. Just put his arms over Eiji’s and closed his eyes.

But the thought niggled at the back of his mind. Niggled until it became the only thing that he could think of. All he could imagine. He kept thinking of that night in the rental car. Of what would have happened if they continued.

And the more he thought about it, the more appealing it seemed. It shouldn’t do. His brain normally shut it down because it would make him feel queasy and awkward – because everything was different with Eiji.

Everything was different with Eiji.

And that night had been like a dream. So maybe other things would be different – maybe if they went further, things would be different. Maybe good. Maybe it would be good – for both of them.

He opened his eyes, and turned his head.

"You want me to blow you?" Ash asked it without really thinking.

He knew it was a mistake when Eiji looked back at him with eyes as wide as teacups.

"Excuse me?" His cheeks were already pink, one hand lightening its grip. He was pulling away, giving Ash room to turn around, so that they were facing each other.

Well, he'd started it now. Ash shuffled closer, pressed himself against Eiji and explained, "you're half hard."

Eiji frowned at him. He swallowed hard, his cheeks red, before he replied, "I was aware."

And yet he hadn't pushed Ash away, and he was half on auto-pilot now. This was familiar- it was safe, in a way. He knew this - knew how to deal with this instead of feather light touches. That was why he let his fingers trace their way down the curve of Eiji's hip. Let his voice drop into a murmur because when it did he could hear Eiji catch his breath. "I can help you with that. I'm told I'm good."

"Ash." Eiji caught his wrist, but only pulled it as far away as to break contact.

"What?" The murmur was broken. Ash half-heartedly tried to break Eiji's grip. "I'm offering. I’m not – this is me. I promise."

Eiji rolled over, so that they were facing each other. Let go of Ash's hand, but so that it was away from him. So that if he moved it, Eiji could grab it before they touched. "I can't ask you to –"

"Because I was forced to all those times I can never give a blow job again?" He knew his voice was rising. He knew like was being a brat. But this didn't happen. People didn't say no. It was back in the realms of the unknown. "Not even to the most beautiful boy I have ever seen and known?" His free hand came up to brush his thumb against Eiji's mouth as he ducked his head. Turned from pink to red, but was smiling. "The most beautiful boy, inside and out, in the world."

Eiji paused. He put a hand over Ash's, thumb rubbing circles into his skin. He was so warm - like he'd captured a sun inside himself.

A private sun, just for Ash.

"That's a really sweet thing to say when you're trying to have sex with me," Eiji said, finally.

Which did succeed in getting a chuckle out of Ash. He used it as an excuse to move even closer, so that their hips were almost pressed flush against each other. Eiji's hand went to his chest, still ready to push him away.

"I want to, this time Eiji," he repeated. "My choice."

Eiji was looking over him, eyes studying every feature of Ash's face for any distress. His heart was pounding, but he felt okay. It was the waiting that was making him nervous. It was the uncertainty.

"How about..." Eiji's fingers twitched and he bit down on his lip. "What if I do it?"

"You'd have to remove a few ribs."

Which, predictably, made Eiji give him a light push. He laughed, but it sounded strained.

"No, I mean, to you?" He'd expected Eiji to be more flustered at the offer. His cheeks were still pink, but his voice was calm. Like he'd thought about this.

God, had he thought about this? Had Eiji lain there a few minutes ago and thought the exact same things Ash had? He wasn’t going to ask – wasn’t going to admit it. Couldn't admit that because thinking about it had made guilt curl and coil in his stomach.

"Hm," was all he said.

Eiji raised an eyebrow. "Never had one before?"

Which meant that Ash just had to raise an eyebrow back. "Never given one before?"

Eiji looked down. They were both still smirking at each other, but there was something there now. A beating heart waiting for what would happen.

Dark eyes looked back up at him. "Talk me through it?"

Ash did the only thing he could do - made a quip. "You want me to give you angel eyes' oral sex class 101?"

If it was a joke then it was okay. If it was a joke it deflected everything. Because now he was feeling nervous.

"You're so weird." Eiji pushed him again, shaking his head slightly.

Ash tangled their hands together. "Your suggestion. Which wouldn’t help your situation, would it?"

"My choice, Ash." Eiji's voice was gentle, but there was something determined in his eyes. He was the only one who would challenge him - could challenge him - and win every time.

"Okay," he whispered. He hooked his pyjama trousers with his thumbs, pulling them down then kicking them away entirely.

Eiji did the same.

"You don't have to –"

"Yes I do." He might have been new to this, but Eiji understood. Understood the vulnerability that came from being the only one naked.

"Okay." It was still a whisper. His heart was still beating fast and he kept his eyes on Eiji's. They stared for a moment, and then he remembered what they were doing. "Come here."

He took Eiji's wrist, placed it on his thigh. "Work your way to it - build up the tension."

To do that, Eiji had to look away from his face. Had to shuffle them so that he was on all fours over Ash - the sheets rising with him. It filtered the sunlight, made their skin glow gold. And his heart was racing, but that was normal. It would be normal for anyone.

Eiji's eyes kept flickering up to him as he leant forward, as though Ash would break at the first touch. He didn't. Eiji's mouth pressed against his inner thigh - soft, light kisses. Like a butterfly. His hand kept the leg steady, his other entangled with Ash's.

And he should have been turned on. Eiji was between his legs. Eiji's mouth was all over his thigh, sending tingles and jumps up to his stomach. He was looking up at Ash with those big brown eyes and bedhead and -

He wasn't turned on.

Eiji hesitated. "Am I doing something wrong?"

"No."

"Do you want to stop?"

"I don't know." His fingers squeezed Eiji's. "Maybe I should do it after all."

"Was it that bad?" Eiji was pulling away, his thumb grazing Ash's knee.

"It's not you. You're –" Not doing it for me. The words died in Ash's mouth. "It's just –" I don't feel anything. "Maybe I've done it too many times."

Eiji tilted his head. "I'm sure that you can't do it too many times."

"Maybe it doesn't work after a certain amount."

"That's not how it works."

Ash sat up. Covered himself with a pillow and rested his forearms over it. "I really like you, Eiji. It's really - you're gorgeous."

"Look who's talking."

"It's nothing you've done."

"I know." It wasn't even bitterness, in his voice. It was an empty hurt. It was the way his eyes dropped and he took a deep breath.

So he knew. They both knew what Eiji hadn't done.

"Are you angry?"

Eiji frowned, like that was a ridiculous idea. "No - no, I'm just –"

"Disappointed?"

"Stop it." Eiji's lips curled upwards, and he went to push Ash, but stopped with his hand in mid-air. "It's just - my self-confidence taking a hit."

"Oh, sweetie." He leant forward. Let his fingers graze through chocolate coloured hair and down onto Eiji's cheek. Down onto his chin, tilting it up to get him to look at him. "I stopped you because I thought it would be worse than lying to you. It's because I like you - and because I said I wouldn't act in front of you."

Eiji nodded. There was a distant look in his eye - looking over Ash's face like he was in a dream. "I really like you too."

He let his hand drop because it was shaking. Because he thought his heart was going to explode.

"Should we go back to sleep?"

"Probably." Eiji fished around for their lost clothes, tossing a bundle at Ash and laughing when it landed on his head. As though nothing had happened. As though he wasn't disappointed and this hadn't been a failure.

He lay back down next to him and smiled, his cheeks still flushed. "Goodnight, Ash."

There was a lump in his throat, so he nodded instead, puling the sheet back up over them and lying down.

His heart was still racing.

There was bile in the back of his throat.

He sat up suddenly, and half-fell out of the bed. Made it to the bathroom in five strides and was over the toilet in the next second. His chest hurt - it was hard to catch his breath. Swimming - the world was swimming -

"Ash!" Eiji was outside the door. He hadn't even closed it - it was still open a crack - but Eiji didn't open it.

He didn't answer. He tried to catch his breath and tried not to be sick.

 It felt like the world was whirling into his head. He felt dizzy – the edges of his vision swirled, even when he closed his eyes. Which he did. Closed his eyes and rested his head on his arms as he leant over the toilet, trying to breathe and remember that Eiji was in the other room. Waiting for him.

Ash wasn’t sure how long it took before the world began to right itself and his breath stopped sounding like a tornado in his ears. But eventually, he could stand.

Eventually, he could flush the toilet, splash cold water on his face, and face the boy waiting for him.

When he came out Eiji was sat on the bed.

He held out a cigarette and Ash took it.

Sat down. Lit it.

Eiji leant against his shoulder.

When he was halfway through the cigarette, he offered it to Eiji, who finished it off.

It was as Ash watched the last trail of smoke escape from Eiji’s lips that he said, “no. No, fuck it. I want to try again.”

“Not tonight.” There was an ash tray on the bedside table. Eiji stubbed the cigarette out. “Not after…”

“Eiji.” Ash wanted to reach for his hand, but he thought that his hands might tremble if he did.

“Tomorrow.” Eiji had his serious stare on. His eyebrows drawn, his mouth a slight pout.

Ash couldn’t argue with that face.

But he could raise an eyebrow, “I’ll hold you to that.”

“I can live with that.”

“It’s three a.m. That’s tomorrow.”

“It’s not tomorrow until I sleep.”

“Bullshit.”

“Tomorrow, Ash.” Eiji’s fingers grazed his shoulder. Bare shoulder. Ash hadn’t put a top back on. Then Eiji stood. Stretched. “Night, sweetie.”

They stayed on opposite sides of the bed.

But Ash woke up to find himself pressed against Eiji’s back.

*

It should have been hard to build up to. Should have been an awkward thing between them – something that they didn’t know how to approach or talk about. He had figured that Eiji would have been watching him nervously – or acting mechanical.

But it was easy to get there.

Tomorrow turned out to be the next afternoon, when Ash found Eiji sprawled over the now double bed on his stomach, reading. The wrong way round and up and down and – wasn’t that fantastic? That Eiji knew what all of those symbols meant.

He’d truly just intended for it to be a light kiss on Eiji’s temple. Just as he passed to find a book he needed. But then Eiji had hooked an arm around Ash’s neck, and pulled him down for another kiss.

Within seconds, he was kneeling on the bed and had completely forgotten what he’d come in here to do. This was easy – it was a natural rhythm and they both knew the tune. Both crumbled the pages of Eiji’s book, until he kicked it to the floor and put his hands on Ash’s waist. Tucked his thumbs into the waistband.

“Now?” Ash asked.

Eiji hesitated. “How do you feel about now?”

He unbuttoned his jeans. “Now’s fine.”

“How do you want to start?” Eiji murmured, his lips trailing down Ash’s jaw.

And that was the moment that Ash realised that he only knew all of this in theory. Knew the right places and the right method, but not the rest. Not the important part.

“Uh.” It was hard to think when his nose was in Eiji’s hair. When all he could smell and feel was Eiji. “Here, try –“ He took Eiji’s wrists. Pulled them under his shirt so that it bunched around his arm pits – thumbs just resting against his nipples. “Try there.”

“There?”

“There.”

“Try what?” Eiji twitched his thumbs.

“Touch, pull, lick, bite, I don’t care, Eiji.”

Eiji’s hands dropped. He laughed – covering his mouth as though it would smother it. “This is – I mean, when you think about it – this whole thing – it’s really strange.”

Ash’s shirt slipped back down his skin. The sun was coming through the window – was burning the back of his neck.

He got up and pulled the curtains. He was smiling – because it was true. This whole thing was bizarre.

And yet this was what Ash had grown up in.

He gestured to Eiji. “Come here.”

Eiji did, still with a small smile on his face. His hand stretched out to take Ash’s.

And missed, as Ash bent down to kiss him, he placed his hands on Eiji’s rear instead, and pulled him closer. Maybe a bit too hard, because there was a soft gasp in the back of Eiji’s throat. He clung to Ash’s shoulders, letting him pull his shirt up. And over his shoulders.

It fell in a heap on the floor.

And then Eiji was there. In front of him. His skin gold in the light trying to battering ram its way through the thin curtains. He still had the remnants of a good build from high jump. A scattering of thin, dark hair across his chest.

He was watching Ash, hands resting on Ash’s upper arms with a light touch.

"You know you're...beautiful," Ash murmured. He ran his fingers up Eiji’s waist. "Right?"

Eiji raised an eyebrow. His hands went to the hem of Ash's shirt.

"Yeah?" he asked. “Look who’s talking.” His hands were barely there, hitching Ash’s shirt up. Then he paused, looking up nervously. “Is that okay? Can I – call you that?”

Ash chuckled, his heart squeezing. “Yeah. Of course.”

“I just – didn’t know –”

Ash pulled him closer again – by the rear again, and kissed him. “It’s different with you. Everything’s…different with you.”

Ash pulled his shirt off the rest of the way. Let it fall on top of Eiji’s. He kissed him again – letting his mouth fall down to Eiji’s neck so that he tilted his head away and sighed – let his hand stray to Eiji’s chest.

That’s how.”

“Oh, shut up.” Eiji pushed him, chuckling. His cheeks were red.

“I’m just saying.” Ash was smirking.

Smirking until Eiji hooked his fingers into Ash’s waistband and tilted his head. “Then how about you share your tips? Boss?”

That did it. Twisted his gut. Made him take Eiji’s hand and pull him over to the bed. Stopping every step to kiss a different part of him. Eiji was laughing, and that was amazing. There was never normally laughter when he did this.

Ash’s skin was warm, but Eiji’s mouth was warmer; tracing his collarbones. His breath fanned out in warm puffs and Ash closed his eyes, leaning back and sighing.

Eiji kept going, tracing and finding his way down Ash’s abdomen, thumbs rubbing slightly on his sides.

And now that Ash wasn’t looking, it was easier. When he could concentrate on just feeling – feeling the touches and feeling himself growing warmer. He buried his hand in Eiji’s hair, like it was a lifeline.

It was when Eiji got to the opened waistband that Ash looked up, nerves twisting over themselves.

Eiji glanced up. His fingers still under the denim. “You alright, there, sweetie?”

There was a part of him that was still confused that he was pushing down, and he could only be honest with Eiji. “I'd prefer the positions reversed.”

Eiji grinned. Pulled the waistband of Ash’s jeans and boxers down in one movement. “Tough.”

He found himself smiling back – that didn’t usually happen either. He never felt this – ready.

“Just - don’t go all porn star straight away, okay?” Ash kept himself propped upright a moment longer.

Eiji looked up. “I won’t.”

So Ash flopped back down onto the bed. Closed his eyes again, because he could feel Eiji’s breath – warm, and it was making the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. It felt electric, this time.

“It's like – you ever have one of those ice lollies in the tubes? It's like that.”

Eiji paused. Pulled away slightly. “You’ve put me off them for life.”

“You’re the one who asked for advice, I’m just –“ Ash broke off, his breath catching and his hips jerking upward. “There – Eiji.”

“Oh, yeah?” Eiji’s voice was low – the same voice he used when he was trying to tease Ash and it was infuriating yet incredible at the same time.

He nodded and leant into Eiji. Leant into not thinking and just – being. Being with Eiji and feeling Eiji against him. Feeling like he was short circuiting because this was hot and electric and – was this what it was meant to be like?

Ash gave him warning. Tightened his grip on Eiji’s hair and said, “get your mouth away. Now.”

And Eiji did – as though he had been burned – his eyes wide. He asked if Ash was okay just as he climaxed, which stunned Eiji even more.

They blinked at each other. Eiji’s chest covered in Ash.

And then Ash felt himself laugh – he bit his lip to cover it but Eiji had just looked so completely shocked  –  his cheeks still flushed – that he couldn’t help it.

At least Eiji was smiling too. He ran his fingers over lips flushed almost red, looking slightly self-conscious. Red cheeks, red lips, dark eyes. Something to write a sonnet about, there. Or a masterpiece of a painting.

Ash took his hand and kissed Eiji’s fingers.

“So I take it I passed the class?” Eiji murmured. One of his hands was still on Ash’s hip – still warm – as though it would leave a mark.

“You’re fucking – you’re really – one of a kind.”

“Bitchin’?” Eiji was still sat between his legs, smiling at him, his hair a wreck. Still covered, and most likely feeling unpleasantly sticky, but not moving.

“Fuck yeah.” Ash sat up on his elbows, pulled himself up. “Come here.”

But his hands had beat him to it. Had already found the waistband of Eiji’s jeans.

“You don’t have to.” Though Eiji wasn’t pushing him away. He was taking his shoulders again, pushing against him as he pressed down on Eiji’s crotch.

“You look uncomfortable.”

Ash…” Eiji sighed his name, like he couldn’t help it. It made his chest tight – made him want that to be the only thing he heard on a loop. He could listen to Eiji saying his name like that for years without getting bored.

He pressed his head against the crook of Eiji’s shoulder and moved his hand. Focusing on Eiji – how Eiji felt, and breathed, and moved.

And this was exploratory and careful – all of it – like it was a conversation and they were learning about each other.

He gave Eiji a minute to recover, when he was done. Let him slump against Ash and ty to catch his breath.

Then he pushed him off and insisted they both take turns to shower.

It was hot – anyway – boiling in the room, and a cold shower was welcome. The sight of Eiji in his jeans, a towel around his shoulders to catch the drips from his damp hair – was welcome.

“You okay?” Eiji sat on the bed. Rolled his shoulders back.

“Think so.”

“Was that…” Eiji bit his lip. “Safe?”

Which wasn’t the question Ash had been expecting. Made him bark a laugh, because sometimes he forgot who new to this Eiji was.

“Totally safe.”

“And you’re feeling okay?” A drop of water fell from Eij’s dark hair onto his jeans.

Ash watched it. Considered. “You’re amazing, Eiji, you know? But I…I don’t know…I still can’t figure out if I liked it.”

“That’s fine.” He spoke a little too quickly, and Ash looked up. But Eiji was smiling – cheeks pink. He looked slightly relieved. “It’s – really, fine, Ash. I…I really…but I can’t figure it out either.”

His heart swooped. In relief. He hadn’t even known he had been nervous about this.

Eiji’s hand found his.

“We’ll just…see how we go, yeah?”

Ash squeezed Eiji’s fingers. Felt the fan on the back of his neck and the sun blasting through the curtains.

“Yeah.”

Chapter Text

Hold On

Bones was shouting along to Bon Jovi, and Ash’s arm was around Eiji’s waist. He couldn’t think of anything he’d rather be doing.

They were leaning against the bar, each holding bottles of beer, and watching Bones’ face grow redder and redder. All he could think about was that Ash’s fingers were on his hip – his thumb rubbing against Eiji’s waistband.

“Isn’t this you?” Eiji looked up at Ash, who had a cigarette between his lips. He raised an eyebrow at Eiji, the gold stud in his ear glinting. “Wanted? Dead or Alive?”

Ash chuckled. He pulled Eiji even closer. “Do I sound like a cowboy?”

“You’d look good on a motorcycle.” He sipped the beer.

“And you’d look bitchin’ on the back of one.”

Eiji felt his cheeks warm. He smiled. “Oh no. I’d be the one driving it.”

“Oh yeah?”

He tilted his chin up. Noticed Ash’s gaze focus on his mouth and made sure to move it more than usual. “Fuck. Yeah.”

His heart was racing as he took another sip of beer. Ash tilted his head toward him, lips parted.

Then he seemed to remember that they were in public and paused. Eiji took a breath – made himself remember to – and made himself duck his head.

“Eiji.” Alex was in front of them. His hands in his back pockets and a scowl on his face. “You wanna game of pool?”

It wasn’t a question, and Ash knew it. He frowned at Alex. “I’ll have a game of pool.”

“Ah, it’s alright, boss. Only need two players.”

“Yeah, I’ll go for a game.” Eiji stepped away from Ash, and smiled at him. As sweetly as possible. “It sounds like fun.”

He smiled at Alex too, who nodded, and started sloping off to the pool tables on the far side of the bar. The lights were dim over here, and the floor was stickier than ever.

Eiji had never played pool. He had no idea how to play, but he accepted the cue from Alex. Watched as Alex put a quarter into the side of the table, and started organising the balls. He worked silently, lifting off the triangle that kept the balls in place, and only speaking when he was leant over the table. His eyes on the end of the cue.

“What’s your relationship with Ash?”

The balls rolled around the table. Alex straightened, and met Eiji’s eye.

It was his turn. He didn’t move.

“We’re friends.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, that’s why he’s watching you like a hawk from across the bar.”

Eiji looked over to where Ash was sat. His narrowed eyes were watching them, almost glittering in the dim lights. So, Eiji made an effort to smile at him, as though everything was okay.

Ash didn’t react.

“Friends,” Eiji repeated.

“Not a lot of people are friends with Ash Lynx,” Alex said. And when Eiji looked around, at all of the teenage boys chilling and laughing, he continued. “Gangs are different. You have a different bond with your gang members. We ain’t friends, we’re family. And anyone else from other gangs – Blood, and all that – it’s just a business deal. You can’t afford to have friends in this city.”

Eiji paused. He took his turn to lean over the table, making a jab with the cue at one of the balls and scuffing the green turf.

“I’m helping Ash with a project,” he said. “My photography…”

Alex bent back over the table and putted a ball in a shot. He made a grunt in the back of his throat in acknowledgement.

“And it's not safe for me to stay with the man I came with.” It felt as though he was talking fast, in a panic. Trying to make this all seem normal and defend himself. “After what happened when we arrived, and... everything after...I’m just staying until I can go back to Japan.”

Alex stared at him, as if by doing so long enough he’d be able to read Eiji’s thoughts. He leant against the cue, pressing it into the floor.

“If Ash wanted you back in Japan you'd be there,” Alex said. “Fights aren’t that hard to catch.”

Eiji knew. Ibe kept calling with flight numbers and times, asking Eiji if it was okay to book one. Every time Eiji said he’d check with Ash – check his diary – and every time he’d let the flight day slip by without getting back to Ibe. Without mentioning it to Ash. He had bigger things to worry about.

He fumbled for an answer. “I wanted to see some of New York.”

Alex continued staring at him, for another moment, before he stood back and gestured to the table.

Eiji took another shot. He didn’t scuff the turf this time. Before he spoke, again Ash finished his shot. Then he leant on his cue again, and tilted his head at Eiji.

“What’s it like living with Ash Lynx?”

Eiji leant over the pool table. He thought of the second time he had kissed Ash Lynx, ever – of dancing in the kitchen in their socks at three in the morning. Of Ash whispering that he couldn’t tell anyone about this. Of how soft Ash’s lips felt. How quickly Ash’s heart had been racing. How he had felt like he was being lit up from the inside.

He thought of his head between Ash’s legs. Hearing Ash panting above him. His hand on Ash’s thigh. It had been the complete opposite of that second kiss – completely unchaste in every way, but it still felt just as electric.

“It’s alright.” Eiji jabbed the cue forward, feeling his face warm. He straightened, slowly, keeping his head ducked to hide his red cheeks behind his bangs.

He could feel Alex’s stare on the back of his neck. “Is he happy?”

That surprised Eiji into turning. Into answering honestly. “Yes.”

Alex nodded, sharply. Potted another ball.

“When are you going back to Japan?” he asked.

“I don’t…know yet.”

“I hope it's not for a while...” Alex seemed to forget it was Eiji’s shot, because he went again, arching over the table. “It’s not often Ash is happy. I'd hate to be around him when you leave.”

“O – oh.” Eiji’s cheeks warmed again.

 “You think I’m blind?” And Alex’s mouth twitched into a smirk.

“I – I don’t…” He bit his lip and stared at the pool table. The dim lights shone off of the balls, making their shadows look even darker on the green. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“English ain’t that good?” Alex chuckled, and punched Eiji on the shoulder. “You’re good for him. Really.”

Eiji gave a nervous laugh. Bones finished his song and the lack of noise echoed around the bar. They had been careful – they had been so careful, and yet Alex…knew.

“You’re good for him, until you’re not.” Alex’s smirk disappeared. “If anything happens to you – it’ll be a bloodbath, you know?”

“Ah.” He didn’t know how to react to that.

There was a part of him that knew that. Knew that if Eiji got hurt – if Eiji got killed – it would be the last straw for Ash. It would make him spiral out of control. It was something he’d never want to acknowledge because it was scary and real. And it was the real reason Ash was so keen to have Eiji leave New York.

He wasn’t just protecting Eiji. He was protecting himself.

“I see pool’s going well.”

Ash was there. Crossed arms and narrowed cat’s eyes.

Eiji’s heart fluttered like a butterfly at the sight of a flower.

“Just teaching Eiji the ropes,” Alex said. “He didn’t know how to play, did you Eiji?”

“No, I didn’t,” Eiji said.

Ash kept watching him. He held out a hand. “I’ll play you instead.”

Alex smiled. Kindly enough. “Sure.”

Eiji gave the cue to Ash, who tilted his head towards Eiji and said, “could you go to the bar and get two more beers, please, sw – Eiji?”

He didn’t glance over to Alex to see if he caught Ash’s stumble. Just nodded, and smiled and said, “sure.”

Even as he walked away, he heard Alex say, “not like you to ask boss.”

Panic continued to flit around Eiji’s chest as he went to the bar. He told them to put it on Ash’s tab. Was that suspicious? Was that going to make anyone around them think?

When he turned back, he saw that Ash had Alex by the front of his shirt. Their faces were inches apart, and Ash was scowling.

Eiji moved quickly across the bar. They were attracting attention, some of the other guys were turning to watch the oncoming fight.

“What did I say, Ash?” Alex was smirking, slightly. “Tell me what I actually said.”

“It’s what you meant.” Ash practically snarled, baring his teeth like a tiger.

“And what did I mean?”

“What’d he say to yank the boss’ chain?” Bones was at Eiji’s side, the bottle he’d been using as a microphone still in his hand.

“I don’t know,” Eiji replied. It wasn’t a lie, but he could guess. He stepped forward. “Ash.”

Alex turned to him then, and the smirk flickered at the corners of his mouth. “Here he comes. The Lynx-tamer.”

Ash pushed him then. Sent him back against the pool table with a crash that knocked the breath out of Alex.

“I think we should take this outside,” Ash said, and now Eiji could see why this boy was a feared gang leader. The blonde hair and gold earring made him look like a boy band member, but the look on his face now – the curl of his mouth and the dark look in his eye – he looked terrifying.

Alex was pushing himself off of the pool table. He put a hand to his back and winced.

“Because you don’t want him-“ he gestured a hand towards Eiji. It was like turning a spotlight on him – everyone stopped to stare. “To see you beat another guy’s lights out.”

“Leave Eiji out of this!” Ash snapped. His fists were clenched – his whole forearm clenched so that Eiji could see the individual muscles.

Alex’s face was flushed. His fists were clenched too, and he was squaring up to Ash.

Someone took one of the bottles from Eiji’s hand and popped the lid open. There were mutters now, the whole bar staring from Ash and Alex to Eiji. Sensing a fight in the air and impatient for it to begin already.

You’re the one who insisted talking about him.”

You’re the one sticking your nose in my business!” Ash looked like a wolf. He raised his fist, rearing his weight backwards.

“Wait – Ash!” Eiji stepped forward, tried to push his way through the crowd. “Stop!”

It distracted Ash. His fist waved as he turned to look at Eiji.

Alex’s fist collided with Ash’s cheekbone. Sent him stumbling back until he caught his balance on one of the pool tables. He stayed there for a moment, looking away from them all at the floor, where his face had swung round. His chest was rising and falling heavily.

There were excited murmurs around the group. A collective ‘ohhhh fuck,’ feeling.

Eiji just wanted the floor to swallow him whole.

“Fuck, L.ynx – I was trying to say that I’m fucking happy for you!” Alex yelled. “For a smart guy you can be a right dense airhead!”

Ash looked up then. He had a hand to his cheek, opening his jaw as if to test for damage whilst he glared at Alex. He pushed himself off of the table.

“And you can be a right smug asshole!” He was closing the gap between them. “Why didn’t you just fucking say so?”

Eiji tried to step forward again, but someone caught his arm and pulled him back. He struggled, watching as Ash landed a fist in Alex’s gut and he doubled over.

It was Kong who was holding him – who shook his head when Eiji turned back to him.

“You don’t break up a fight once it’s started,” Kong said. “Gang rules.”

The boys around them were cheering, the adrenaline of the fight sending them wild, like dogs baying for blood.

Eiji stared at the ceiling – the lights were covered in a fog haze so that they looked like leaked stars. He could hear the grunts and thuds of the fight and knew that this was all about him. Him and Ash. And it could have been avoided if he had said the right thing. If he hadn’t gone to the bar.

If he hadn’t intervened in the first place and turned everyone’s attention to him.

The fight continued.

And it felt as though he was stuck here. As if it would never end.

*

“Shit, that’s cold.”

Ash pulled away from Eiji, wincing and hissing.

“Of course it’s cold, I got it from the freezer,” Eiji snapped. He held up the bag of peas, again. “Now stay still.”

“I’ll pass.” Ash put a hand on Eiji’s chest, pushing him away.

Eiji narrowed his eyes, forming a plan.

He pressed the bag of frozen peas against Ash’s wrist, so that he yelped and pulled away – then sat firmly on Ash’s lap, hooking his feet around the back of the chair legs to anchor himself. One hand went to the back of Ash’s neck, keeping his head in place so that Eiji could press the peas against the large, red bump that sat on Ash’s cheekbone, like a fat pigeon on a balcony.

Ash hissed again, and tried to jerk away. His hands went to Eiji’s hips, but didn’t dislodge him.

“It’s your own fault,” Eiji said, biting his lip as he fought to keep Ash in place.

They had returned from the bar, and Eiji had insisted on mopping Ash up before they went to bed. It was half four in the morning but he had never felt more awake. How could he sleep when his body felt as though it had been electrocuted just by watching the brawl.

He hadn’t said a word on the way back. But he had let the back of his hand graze Ash’s as often as he could. In fact, the only thing he had said was for Ash to sit down whilst he cleaned him up.

Ash had done, keeping silent too.

“If you hadn’t said anything, I would have decked him,” Ash muttered.

“You shouldn’t have started it in the first place.”

Ash tried to pull Eiji’s wrist away. He settled his weight more firmly in Ash’s lap.

“I’ve had worse and not done this,” he insisted. “Leave it, Eiji.”

“No.”

"I hate you."

“Sure, sweetheart.” Eiji released Ash’s face, just to kiss him softly.

Ash still winced. He had a split lip.

“When did you have worse?” Eiji murmured.

“Fought a lot when I first lived on the streets,” Ash replied. His fingers trailed down Eiji’s arm. Just the fingertips. “You have to – if you want people to respect you.”

“And you lost a lot?”

“You should’ve seen the other guys.” The one eye Eiji could see glinted at him.

“Mmm, you’re very brave.” He lifted the peas, to see if the lump had gone down. It seemed even pinker and brighter.

Ash paused. His hand kept trailing down Eiji’s arm, to his shoulder. His knuckles brushed down Eiji’s jaw.

“I was taught to fight. I think I was twelve, or thirteen, when he introduced me to an assassin. He taught me how to shoot a gun and how to fist fight.”

Eiji paused. He relieved the pressure on the ice pack subconsciously. “Golzine taught you how to fight? Isn’t that…”

Ash licked his lips. “I was meant to be perfect. At everything.”

“Well, that failed.” Eiji had meant to think it through before he said it and he couldn’t help laughing at the expression on Ash’s face. It was total shock, as though Eiji had just dribbled down his shirt. “You have questionable music taste, for a start.”

Ash rolled his eyes and scoffed.

“And you’re a big dork.” Eiji pressed the peas back against Ash’s cheek, and he winced. “What was the fight about, anyway?”

“I asked him what he said to you – you looked embarrassed. And he said that he’d told you that you were good for me.”

“He did say that. It was nice.”

Ash shook his head. “He was smirking.”

“Alex didn’t mean anything funny,” Eiji said, gently.

“How can you be sure?”

“Why don’t you ask him?”

Ash raised an eyebrow.

“He’s your best friend, isn’t he?” He took the bag away, to find Ash staring at him. Examining him closely.

Ash sighed. He took Eiji’s face in his hands, cradling it as though it was made of glass.

“He’s my second in command. There’s – gangs aren’t friends, Eiji-“

“I know.” Eiji rolled his eyes. “You’re more like family.”

“You have to be careful who you trust. Anyone could be a mole, anyone could be waiting to stab you in the back-“

Eiji silenced him by pressed the bag of peas to Ash’s cut mouth. He glared at him.

“But Alex wouldn’t,” Eiji said. “You know that. Because he’s your best friend.”

Ash pushed the bag away. Sighed irritably. “And how do you know that?”

“Because he was only worried about you.” Eiji remembered the crease between Alex’s eyebrows. The smile he gave when he said that Eiji was good for Ash. “That’s why he was asking. I could see that – you would have seen that if you weren’t such a hot head.” He brushed Ash’s hair away from his face. He was smiling, because he couldn’t help but smile whenever he saw Ash, messed up face or not.

Ash stared up at him. His thumbs rubbed over Eiji’s cheekbones.

“I hate it when you’re sensible,” he murmured.

The smile grew on Eiji’s face. He could feel his cheeks warming. “I’m starting to think that when you say ‘hate,’ you really mean-“

“Shut up.” Ash pressed his thumb against Eiji’s mouth. Traced the shape of it.

Eiji couldn’t help it. He leant forward and kissed Ash’s cheek – the unbruised one.

Ash turned, caught Eiji’s mouth and kissed him tenderly.

“Doesn’t it hurt?” he murmured.

“I can take the pain.”

Eiji laughed. He couldn’t help it – he laughed into Ash’s neck, running his hand through his hair. He was obsessed with it. Before New York, he’d never seen hair that colour in real life and when it caught the light it was beautiful.

The sun was starting to rise now – so there was a dim amber light in the room that made Ash look as though he was glowing. Ash was chuckling too, his head on one side.

“You know.” Eiji bit his lip, noticing how Ash was watching the movement. He let his finger trace the lump on Ash’s cheekbone. “You look like some kind of action hero, like this.”

“Oh yeah?”

Eiji nodded, still biting his lip.

Ash’s smile grew. He pulled Eiji back for another kiss. Took his time to savour it, hands running up Eiji’s back and catching his shirt with it.

He couldn’t help it. He pressed his mouth against Ash’s neck and nipped him lightly.

“You’ll always be my dork though.”

Ash pushed him – almost off of his lap. But he was laughing. They were both laughing.

And there was nothing like laughing at four in the morning.

*

Ash had been right. Alex looked in much worse shape. His eye was swollen and black, and he walked with a limp.

And yet they still fist bumped each other when Alex came round. The next afternoon, because Ash had slept soundly for most of the morning, a fresh bag of peas against his swollen face. Eiji had insisted, and though Ash had always been terrible at saying no to him and now that they were – whatever they were - he didn’t stand a chance. He’d complained, but the bump had reduced to an angry red and purple mark.

Eiji watched them both, leaning on the kitchen counter and wondering how he would stop them if they broke out into a brawl here.

But Ash was grinning, his usual careless grin. “Nice shiner.”

“Thanks,” Alex replied. “Got it from an asshole.”

They both laughed.

It baffled Eiji how they could go from snarling at each other like wolves fighting for dominance to grinning and teasing each other like nothing was wrong.

“Ash has something to tell you,” he chirped, his chin resting on his hands.

“Ah.” Alex had his hands in the pockets of his jacket. He crossed over to the sofa and flopped onto it, his baseball shoes still on.

“Yeah.” Ash smirked. He leant over the back of the sofa and jostled the back of Alex’s head. “You suck at pool.”

He waved him away, laughing. “Could beat you any day, Lynx.”

Eiji caught Ash’s eye and raised an eyebrow. He thought it was best not to say anything, in case Alex made comments again. It was best to stay out of it, and not make it any worse.

Ash stuck his tongue out at him.

And Eiji had to turn around to hide his smile, putting on the coffee machine.

“Alright, fine,” Ash sighed, pulling away from Alex. He kept his eyes on the ceiling as he grumbled, “I got you wrong, last night.”

Alex sighed too. He rested on his knees, staring at the floor. “I hit you first.”

“I was going to hit you first.”

“Yeah, well, I gave you a reason to sock me.” Alex paused. The silence dragged on, and it felt like everything was on a scale. Like whatever Alex was going to say next was going to tip everything one way or another. And Eiji didn’t want to fall. “I said last night. I didn’t mean anything funny.”

He looked up then. Still didn’t look at Ash, he stared at the curtains blowing in the breeze created by the exhaust fumes below. The coffee kept dripping into the pot below, like the countdown on a bomb.

“Did you really think I didn’t notice the way you two look at each other?”

Ash glanced at Eiji. He looked away, feeling his chest tighten. Maybe they weren’t as subtle as they thought.

“It’s not like that-“ Ash started.

“I’ve known you for years, idiot.” Alex ran a hand through his hair.

“Does anyone else know?” And there was a threat in Ash’s voice.

“They’re not looking that close,” Alex said. Eiji felt relief flow through him. “Well – maybe Bones, but…no one wants to think of the boss like that.”

Ah. Eiji watched Ash carefully. Watched his fists clench and unclench at his side. Watched his jaw work.

Eiji poured the freshly boiled coffee into a stained mug. His hand shook.

“I’ve been – I did some research, and there’s a lot…there’s a lot in the news that’s not right,” Alex continued.

Ash continued to stare at him. His hands trembled, but other than that, he was frozen. Coffee pooled next to the mug, caramel coloured in the light.

“Fuck, Alex.” He gave a shaky laugh. Pushed his bangs away from his face. “I didn’t know you could read.”

Alex turned then. And grinned. It made his swollen face look more lopsided than ever. “Well, yeah, one of us had to know, didn’t they?”

“Get fucked.” But Ash laughed.

Eiji got a tea towel and pressed it against the coffee on the side. He poured a second, and this time didn’t spill a drop.

“Are you staying?” he asked Alex.

Alex’s grin was still on his face, stretching a split lip that matched Ash’s. “He’s got you well-trained. Is he your roommate or personal bartender, boss?”

“You’re just jealous.” Ash leant against the back of the sofa, crossing his arms. His eyes glinted in the light as he looked at Eiji. They looked like emeralds.

“Duh.” Alex held out a fist to Eiji. He blinked at it for a moment, before he bumped his own knuckles against Alex’s. He received another grin for it. “If I were queer, I’d be after him too.”

Eiji had no idea what to say to that. He just opened his mouth and felt his cheeks grow hot.

Alex chuckled again, looking back to see Ash raising an unimpressed eyebrow. He winked, with his good eye, before his expression turned serious.

“Just – maybe it’s not my place to say-”

“Then don’t,” Ash said.

Alex opened his mouth, before he said it, as though he was testing the shape of them in his mouth. “Skip was bad enough.” Ash froze again. Stared at Alex as though he was a ghost. “Try not to let it happen again, if you can help it.”

Eiji saw Ash’s Adam’s apple bob in his throat.

“Sure,” he said.

Alex nodded. He nodded at Eiji. Then he turned, and waved a hand over his shoulder.

“See you later, boss.”

“Whatever.” Ash’s eyes were still distant, even if he had that same carefree, teasing voice.

The door closed. With just a touch more force than was needed.

Eiji got the milk from the fridge, feeling as though he was burning up all over. It was strange – he didn’t think of himself as queer. He never had and he wasn’t sure if the word fit. It was just Ash. There wasn’t anyone else he thought of in that way – definitely none of the gang.

So he wasn’t sure how to describe it.

He poured too much milk in his coffee.

When he looked up, he saw Ash standing on the other side of the counter. He took a mug and sipped from it.

“Happy?” The bright light of the afternoon made him glow. His hair looked like spun gold, but that wasn’t why Eiji liked it. The eyes like jewels and hair like gold weren’t what he enjoyed looking at. It was the parts behind Ash’s eyes – the part that sparkled when he looked at Eiji – and the parts behind his smiles. The glow from the inside, that’s what it was.

“Over the moon,” Eiji teased. He put a hand to Ash’s cheek, running his thumb over the bruise with the lightest touch. “My brave warrior.”

Ash took Eiji’s hand in his. Kissed the pad of his thumb. Then turned it over and brushed his mouth against Eiji’s knuckles. He looked up at him and took his breath away.

“Anything for my prince.”

Eiji’s heart was juddering and he had to look down. He squeezed Ash’s hand, his cheeks sore from smiling.

“You’re a dork.”

“Like you hate it.”

“I do.” Eiji leant on the counter, pushing the mugs out of his way. Coffee sloshed onto the side. Was probably hot enough to leave a stain. “The same way you hate me.”

Ash nodded. Still glowing. He kissed Eiji, almost desperately. Pulling away just enough to press their foreheads together.

“He’s right,” Ash murmured. “I can’t have anything happen to you.”

“Alex mentioned that, last night…that if I got hurt-”

“I can’t think about that.” Ash’s voice dropped – almost disappeared. He pressed a hand on the back of Eiji’s head, buried in his hair. Hard enough to hurt, just a little. He felt the shaky breath that Ash took – felt his fingers tremble. Eiji was trembling too. “You know what I’m going to say.”

“You know what I’m going to say.”

“It’s too dangerous.”

Eiji pulled away. So that he could see Ash. He hooked a finger under his chin so that Ash had to look at him.

“I can’t imagine living without you.”

“I can’t imagine you…” Ash trailed off. “Shot or killed.”

“You think I can?” He let his hand drop onto Ash’s. Felt the lines of his palm as though it would hold the answers. “If I go back – will you call?”

“Every damn day.” Ash wound their fingers together.

“Will you come visit?”

Ash nodded. Kissed Eiji again, but it was just as desperate. A last kiss desperation. Knowing that they had a limited amount of time now before everything changed.

Knowing that it was a race against time – to get as many kisses in before Eiji left.

Because he got the feeling that calls – that visits – were just a fantasy.

Chapter Text

Cover Girl

"Eiji, Eiji, Eiji!"

Soo-Ling was running down the street towards him, jacket falling off of one shoulder. His eyes were wide and his hair was ruffled.

Eiji acted without thinking. He caught Soo-Ling's shoulders, held him at arm's length.

"What's wrong? What's happened?" He was already looking around for thugs. Was expecting someone to step out of the shadows with guns - was already looking for places to take cover.

"Have you got a quarter?" Soo-Ling asked.

Eiji blinked. "Uh - yes, I have one - somewhere."

"Awesome." Soo-Ling held out a hand, grinning up at him, now looking as though everything was completely fine.

"Huh?" Eiji was still searching his pockets for a quarter. It had been two months, and he still wasn't quite sure which coin was which.

"Soo-Ling, what's this all about?" Ash asked at his side. He had his hands in his pockets and Eiji was half-convinced that he'd been reaching for his own gun.

"Pac-man," Soo-Ling replied. He gestured for Eiji to hurry. "Quick - whilst everyone's on Street Fighter."

"Okay, okay." Eiji finally fished the change out of his pocket. He peered at it, trying to figure out which one was the quarter.

Soo-Ling snatched a coin before he could, jogging backwards. "Come on, Eiji - I'll let you have a go too!"

He glanced at Ash, who just raised an eyebrow at him.

“Come on,” Eiji said, taking Ash’s wrist and pulling him down the street.

Ash plodded along slowly, deliberately taking his time. All the while Soo-Ling was telling them to “hurry! Hurry!”

Eventually they were out of the sun and into the cool shade of the arcade. It was almost too cold; air con blasted at Eiji from all directions and the air just smelt cold. The place was full of teenagers, half of them from Soo-Ling’s gang, all clamouring in front of the arcade machines, their faces lit up by the yellow, blue, pink lights. Tinny music and sound effects seemed to come from everywhere, settling like a heavy cloud in the air.

Soo-Ling was already at the Pac-man machine, already slipping his quarter into the slot.

“I’m going to get the high score before Summer’s out,” he told Eiji. “You’ll stay and support me, won’t you?”

Eiji was all ready to say ‘yes, of course,’ but Ash got there first.

“He’ll be here for hours. Even if you didn’t have to restart, just getting that amount of points…”

Soo-Ling wasn’t paying attention. He was already jabbing at buttons and tugging at the joystick.

Eiji laughed, as Ash trailed off.

“He’d have to play for eight hours straight,” Ash said. “I thought someone wanted to see more of New York.”

He wished that they were back in the apartment. If they were, then Eiji would be able to smile at Ash and ask if he was jealous. He’d be able to call him ‘sweetie,’ and tease him – say that they had more than enough time.

As it was, he shrugged, and looked around, rolling on the balls of his feet.

“This is seeing more of New York,” Eiji said. “I haven’t been to an arcade yet.”

“You’ve never been to an arcade?” Soo-Ling echoed. His eyes were on the screen, Pac-man reflected in his dark eyes.

“Not in New York. Not really back home, either. Never had the time.”

“Who doesn’t have time for video games?” Soo-Ling asked.

“Award winning high jumpers,” Ash replied. He was stood close enough to Eiji to elbow him lightly. He looked up just in time to see Ash’s soft stare and tender smile. As if Eiji was a rock star or a celebrity – someone important and talented.

A ghost bumped into Pac-man on the screen. Soo-Ling was staring, wide-eyed at Eiji.

“You do high jump?!”

“Used to,” Eiji said. He shook his head, smiling at the floor. “I haven’t jumped in-“

“He did a jump the day I met him,” Ash said. His eyes caught Soo-Ling’s just for a moment. “It was awesome.”

The look of complete awe turned into slight annoyance. He turned back to the screen, going back to tapping rapidly.

“You didn’t see the landing,” Eiji said. He felt as though he’d said it a thousand times.

“I didn’t need to.”

“If you don’t land, the jump doesn’t count.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Could you take your married couple bickering somewhere else?” Soo-Ling asked. “I’m trying to concentrate.”

Eiji felt a flash of panic that he forced himself to swallow down. It was just a joke.

“We were on our way to Madison Square Gardens.” Ash looked pointedly at Eiji.

“Go another day.” Soo-Ling shrugged. “This is history in the making.”

Eiji laughed. He watched the pixels on the screen dance around at Soo-Ling’s bidding. He was quick, and doing well.

“There might not be many more days,” Ash said. Not unkindly – ruefully. He knew time was running out and Eiji couldn’t blame him for wanting to make the most of it.

Soo-Ling glanced up, then. “Why?”

Eiji hesitated. It was still hard for him to find the words – hard for him to accept it.

“I’ve booked my flight back to Japan,” he said, eventually. He saw Soo-Ling’s hand stray from the joystick. “The beginning of November.”

“But-“ Soo-Ling was frowning at the screen. Pac-man was making a lot of wrong turns. There was a ghost close behind him. “But that’s only a few weeks.”

“I know,” Eiji said. He felt the need to add, “I’m sorry.”

“Why are you going?” The Pac-man’s movements became faster.

“I –“ He wanted to find Ash’s hand. For some reason, this was making his heart clench. It felt like there was a lump in his throat. “I was only meant to be here to write an article. It was meant to be two weeks, at the most.”

“But you thought we were really awesome, and you changed it so that you could stay with us forever.” Soo-Ling spoke like it was simple.

Eiji gave an exhale that could have been a laugh. He bit his lip. Glanced up at Ash, who was looking away. His arms were crossed and he was intent on watching two kids on Dragon’s Lair.

Eventually, he said, “I can’t.”

A different ghost attacked Pac-man.

Why can’t you?”

Soo-Ling’s cheeks were flushed. He scowled up at Eiji – who couldn’t find an answer. He just stared back, trying to find a way to explain it. Not wanting to use the word ‘gun’ or ‘gang’ or ‘danger,’ even though it was all part of Soo-Ling’s world.

Some part of him wanted Soo-Ling to be unaware of that. To carry on being a normal fourteen year old, training to win the high score on a video game before the end of Summer.

Pac-man died again.

And Soo-Ling stormed off. He disappeared into the crowd of teenagers – so many of them were taller than Eiji – and he lost sight of him in moments.

He grabbed Ash’s arm. “I have to-“

“Sure.”

Eiji wanted to kiss him.

He didn’t. Instead, he pushed his way through the crowd. The jingle of games attacked him from every side and suddenly it was warm in the mass of bodies.

But he eventually spotted the boy sat on a bench at the far end of the arcade. His chin was in his hands, and he was scowling.

Eiji made his way over slowly, as if he was approaching a butterfly that would escape if startled. He sat on the other end of the bench, gingerly.

When he wasn’t told to go away, he edged closer. He wondered about putting a hand out – an arm around Soo-Ling, but he couldn’t.

He’d never had the knack for talking to people younger than him – he’d always been slightly jealous of the people who hard a swarm of kids around them, clinging to their every word and thinking they were cool. Eiji thought he’d been doing okay with Soo-Ling.

But he was just as clueless as ever.

“I don’t want to leave New York,” Eiji said. That was truthful enough.

“Then why are you?” Soo-Ling looked up, his cheeks red. Before Eiji could reply, he continued, “it’s because of Ash isn’t it? He’s making you go.”

“Not – not really,” Eiji muttered.

Fuck!” Soo-Ling swung himself off of the bench, his fists clenched at his sides. “He ruins everything!”

“No.” Eiji half-stood too – if only to grab Soo-Ling’s sleeve and ease him back onto the bench. “Me and Ash decided it together. It’s time for me to go home. I don’t – I don’t belong in New York.”

Which wasn’t one of the reasons they had discussed. But now that he said it out-loud, Eiji knew it was the truth too. He’d been kidding himself, being a part of all of these gang meetings and hangouts. He was nothing like these boys.

There was no way he’d ever be a part of their life. Their life was guns and fist-fights and wars against drugs.

His life was cameras and coffee and trying to find a stable job so that he could have a normal career and a normal life.

Eiji was normal.

“Of course you belong here.” Soo-Ling scowled at him. “Look at how much you’ve done already – the alliance between Ash’s gang and China Town and Black Sabbath – you got us all speaking to each other – you got us all working together. You’re the one providing info against the bastards producing banana fish, aren’t ya?”

Eiji blinked. That was Ash, he wanted to say, it was all Ash and Eiji was just along for the ride – but that wasn’t necessarily true.

“Eiji, you’re the coolest guy round here, right now. Everyone ones to hang out with you.” Even Soo-Ling’s ears were red now. He cleared his throat and looked away, kicking himself back on the bench so that his back was against the wall. He brought a foot up, slinging an arm over it. “Why’d you think Ash was so keen to get you out of the arcade? He only wants you for himself.”

Well, there were other reasons Ash wanted to visit Madison Square Gardens. The sooner they did, the sooner they’d be home. They’d planned to buy ice cream on the way back, eat it on the balcony.

“That’s – that’s sweet of you to say.” Eiji looked at his hands.

“I’m not saying it to be sweet, I’m saying it because it’s the truth.”

And how could Eiji explain – without giving everything away – that if he stayed and got hurt – got killed, then it would unravel Ash completely. It would be the thing that turned him into the man he saw the night they lift Golzine’s mansion. The man with two guns and a savage look in his eye.

Ash never scared Eiji, and never would.

But that was because he knew he was the only one who was safe with Ash.

If anyone hurt Eiji, then Ash would be soaked in blood. Not the blood he was in now – the blood of self-defence – it would be vengeance and anger and hatred.

And that was something Eiji couldn’t bear.

But he couldn’t explain that to Soo-Ling.

Instead, he forced himself to smile and ask, “what about my bills, Soo-Ling? My house? My job – I need a job.”

Soo-Ling made a disgusted face. “You’re cool until you act like an adult.”

“Someone needs to take care of my mom and my sister.”

Which did softened Soo-Ling’s expression. He looked Eiji up and down, with as much scrutiny as if he was seeing him for the first time.

“You’re a cool dude, Eiji.”

Eiji grinned. “I know.”

He slapped Soo-Ling on the shoulder – it was easy now, now that there wasn’t the lump of anger sat between them. It was easy to get along when everyone was happy.

“You want ice cream?”

“I gotta beat the high score.” But Soo-Ling was standing.

“Do it another day,” Eiji elbowed him.

There was a moment, where they both smiled at each other. It was the kind of moment Eiji wanted a picture of – the kind of moment that made him want to take photos in the first place.

They found Ash, pummelling away at Pac-man.

And if they were at home, Eiji would wrap his arms around Ash’s waist – rest his head on his shoulder.

Instead he ducked Ash’s head forward.

“We’re getting ice cream.”

“In a minute.”

Eiji leant against the side of the machine, crossing his arms. But he couldn’t stop himself grinning.

“You’re an absolute child,” he said.

There was a smile on Ash’s face. His eyes were lit up by the screen and he looked young. Like a teenager spending an afternoon at the arcade, and not a gang leader. Not Ash Lynx as Eiji knew him.

Ash glanced up. “And you’re a grumpy old man.”

“Ha.”

Ash’s foot nudged Eiji’s. He was smiling as he concentrated on the game in front of him.

Eiji couldn’t help it. He reached for his camera.

Because he was determined to remember every last bit of New York.

*

There was ice cream dripping down Ash’s arm.

Eiji watched it trickle down Ash’s pale skin. He’d caught the sun over the Summer, so that the chocolate ice cream made it have the slightest bit of pigment.

Ash had noticed him staring. He brought the ice cream to his mouth. Kept it there just a second longer than he should, so that it dripped onto his bare chest.

Eiji looked away, his face warm. His own ice cream was running over his fingers.

Soo-Ling had been called away on China Town business once they had gotten through the first lot. They had brought more before they headed up to their apartment.

And this was what Ash had wanted. To look at Eiji like that. To lick up the side of the cone without breaking eye contact just to see the heat rise in Eiji’s face. Just to see him shuffle in his seat.

He was sat on the uncomfortable metal chair they had on the balcony.

“I’m getting the photos printed tomorrow,” Eiji said. Just to try and distract his brain.

“You’ve really used a whole film?” Ash asked. His shirt was tied around his waist – it was hot enough for there to be a sheen of sweat on his stomach.

“Close enough,” Eiji shrugged , continuing on his ice cream. “Do you want me to print two copies?”

“Hell no.”

“Ash.” He looked up. “This was supposed to help you, too. It was meant to-“

He broke off, because Ash had stepped closer – because Ash had hooked two fingers under Eiji’s chin and his mouth was against his. He kissed around Eiji’s mouth, only pulling away to murmur, “you got a little there.”

“Oh yeah?” It was a fight to keep his eyes open. Eiji pushed against Ash’s chest, thumb just nudging the line of ice cream there. “So have you.”

“What are you gunna do about it?” Ash’s hand was still on Eiji’s chin, thumb just nudging his bottom lip. His eyes glinted, his hair falling forward around his face. It caught the late afternoon sun – all of Ash did. It was like he was glowing on the inside.

Eiji pushed up from the arms of the chair, steadying himself on Ash’s shoulder, and kissed at the ice cream. He felt Ash’s hand fumble down his side, settling on his waist like a butterfly on a flower. Ash’s chest shuddered under his lips.

It hadn’t been long ago that Ash had said not to do this. That they could be seen here.

But then, they hadn’t known when Eiji would leave back then. Now it felt like a desperate race - a race to get as much of this in as possible. As much physical contact. Eiji understood – they both doubted that the phone calls and the visits were empty promises. Not because they didn’t want to – but because it would be so difficult. With everything happening in New York – with the nights out and kidnapping and Ash’s life – how could he ever call regularly? And how could Eiji’s nerves handle that?

"Bedroom?" Ash asked. His hand was buried in Eiji’s hair. He tightened his grip slightly, and Eiji sighed.

He left the ice cream on the table, because it was so much better to hook his fingers into the belt loops on Ash’s jeans.

"Now?" There was the familiar nerves in his stomach. A horrible mingle of fear and excitement. He was new to this – slightly scared on how to go about it. But it was also intimate and special and made his heart swell in his chest. It was being half of a whole and he had to make the most of that feeling before they were cracked back into two.

"Mmm." Ash's chest rumbled under Eiji's lips. He took Eiji’s hand, tongue lapping at the ice cream there like a cat’s. The touch tickled, made him duck his chin into his chest. “Now.”

Eiji stood, properly. Their ice creams were deserted on the table, already dripping onto the balcony. It didn’t seem to matter.

Yes, he wanted to say yes. Desperate to say yes.

But it wasn’t that easy. The build-up, the teasing – that was just as heart swelling.

He let his fingers trail over Ash’s chest – where his mouth had been just seconds before – until they fell and entangled themselves in Ash’s hand, pulling him off of the balcony and into the apartment. 

“Your eyes, Ash?” Eiji asked over his shoulder.

“They're not an angel's.”

“No.” Eiji half-turned, half smiled. There was a look in Ash’s eyes – like he was a tiger at the zoo, and Eiji was the antelope across from him. “You look like a devil.” Ash smirked. The light was against his back, so that he was veiled in shadow. Eiji continued, “a devil, going to-“

Ash had hold of him in the next minute. Half-lifting him, half tackling him so that they landed on the sofa in a muddle. Eiji cried out, but he was laughing. The sofa rocked slightly – going up on back legs and then back down with a thump. He had a leg on the back of it, another hanging down, and Ash’s weight all over him. Ash’s mouth against his neck, kissing and nipping in a frenzy.

Eiji was breathless as he half-heartedly tried to push Ash away. The kisses may have made his stomach swoop, but it also made his neck uncomfortably damp.

“Ash, stop!” It was still a laugh, still half-heated.

“It's not my fault you're so messy with that ice cream.” Ash pulled away just to grin down at Eiji. The blinds drifted, so that stripes of golden sunlight moved across Ash’s face. He was breath-taking – Eiji’s breath was taken away by this boy so often.

Ash’s hands went to Eiji’s jeans, or to the hem of his shirt. It was an asking touch, the smile still on his face but not as broad. “Please, Eiji?”

He hesitated. Brought time by running his hands through Ash’s hanging bangs.

“You’re insatiable,” he murmured.

“Because I want to create a lifetime of you,” Ash replied. His hands had slipped under Eiji’s shirt – and they were warm. They were so warm and familiar and joined them together. “A whole lifetime of memories so that I don’t think about anyone else when I think about...”

He barely trailed off, but Eiji didn’t want to hear the silence. Wanted to say the word himself.

“Sex?”

They hadn’t managed it yet. Or maybe they had and it just depended on what was counted as those three letters. There had been a scattering of releases – from hands or mouths. A few more of Ash giving Eiji half-joking advice before he lost the ability to form coherent sentences.

It was hit or miss whether it was successful. Sometimes Eiji just couldn’t turn Ash on. And every time Ash would insist that it wasn’t Eiji – it was nothing to do with Eiji and it was all him. It was still not an easy thought to stomach; that looking at Eiji during sex didn’t do anything for Ash. At least, didn’t always do it.

It was last week that they’d tried it – properly tried. And Eiji’s hands had been shaking. He’d tried to steady them in Ash’s.

“And it’s – it’s safe?” he had asked.

“It’s safe, Eiji.” Ash had been completely serious. There was a solemnity to it.

“How do you – how do you know?” He hated himself for asking, but he couldn’t understand it all. Was too nervous to search it up or do research because it felt like pointing an arrow at his own head. And everything contradicted itself anyway.

“Because I’ve been tested, Eiji.” Ash’s fingers squeezed his, his jaw set. “As soon as I hit the streets – as soon as I was old enough – I got tested. And if anything – I get tested every time, okay?”

Eiji felt his face warm, his stomach a knotted mess of guilt just for asking.

He nodded.

At least it gave him the strength to admit that he had snuck away and got tested too. Just in case.

“So it’s fine. Promise,” Ash said. Squeezed Eiji’s hands again. “Come on, McFly, your DeLorean awaits.”

It had gotten rid of some of the nerves. Made Eiji brave enough to dissolve into Ash’s touches and push phantom fears to the back of his mind.

They hadn’t gotten far.

Ash had reached into his bed side table, grabbed the bottle – and then he’d said stop.  Continued saying stop even when Eiji pulled away. Ran to the bathroom and Eiji could hear dry retching.

When he came back, they’d smoked. Lied in bed with the bedside lamps on whilst Ash told Eiji that it was memories. That he was sure he’d still felt rough, large hands on his thighs and fingers in his mouth and every one had seemed so big that now when that happened it felt like he was being assaulted by giants.

Eiji had listened and felt his heart break.

They’d tried again. And again. Because Ash insisted that he was going to do this – they could do this. It annoyed him, Eiji thought, that he was struggling. Ash Lynx didn’t struggle with anything. So he wasn’t going to struggle with this.

But they hadn’t managed it. Half the time swerved into doing something else instead. Something less likely to have Ash on his knees in front of the toilet.

Now, Ash’s hands were on Eiji’s waistband. Fingers just ducking under on to the skin there.

“Do I have to beg?” Ash raised an eyebrow. There was a spark in his eye that Eiji recognised.

He caught Ash’s hands. Just for something to hold on to because it felt as though he was floating away.

“That look doesn't seduce me,” he said.

Ash blew upwards; blew his bangs away from his face. “What look does seduce you?”

“When you're smiling.”

“Liar.”

“When you're you,” Eiji stressed. He let Ash’s hands go, let his touch travel up strong arms, feeling downy hair stand on end in his wake. “When you’re just – being you.”

Ash rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Have you always been like this?”

“Like what?”

“A hopeless romantic.”

“Only since I met my knight in shining armour.” Eiji hooked an arm around Ash’s neck – pulled him into a kiss and heard soft sounds from the back of Ash’s throat. Maybe some were from his. It was hard to tell them apart.

Ash’s hands were fumbling on Eiji’s shorts, as though unhooking a button was a long and difficult process.

Eiji broke from the kiss when Ash managed it – when he was pulling Eiji’s clothes down – and he gave a sharp intake of breath.

Here?”

“Maybe – not in the bedroom – would be different,” Ash explained. He was fiddling with his own belt and Eiji caught his hands again. Tried to by himself some time because he wasn’t completely ready for the fumbling and the listening outside the bathroom to begin.

“The blinds aren’t closed.”

Ash shrugged. “Give the neighbours a show.”

“Ash!” Summer in New York was hot, but it wasn’t as hot as Eiji’s cheeks felt.

“Alright – alright.” Ash was laughing, swinging off of Eiji and taking the step to the balcony door to pull the blinds closed. The front of his jeans were open, providing a peak to his underwear – a peak to the start of a curve in his underwear.

Eiji looked away. Brushed his hair off of his face because it was hot – so hot in here.

He didn’t hear Ash move, but suddenly his mouth was pressed against Eiji’s forehead.

“Stay here.” It was half a question. “And think of me.”

Eiji’s laugh was all breath. All biting his lip and feeling his cheeks against his eye lids because he couldn’t stop smiling.

It was darker in here now. The shade made it feel more secret – a tryst in a hotel room and not their own home.

His stomach was still full of nerves – like worms wiggling around. He could understand why Ash went running to the toilet, half the time he felt nervous enough to be sick. Would that ever stop? 

He put a hand over his mouth and tried to keep breathing. It was okay when Ash was here – when he knew that Ash was feeling the same and that they were both fumbling through this together. When he could feel Ash’s warmth against him, the nerves disappeared. His body sung for Ash to keep touching him – keeping being close to him because it made him feel like he was flying.

Not flying. Jumping. High jumping.

Ash returned. Kissing Eiji’s forehead again.

“Are you okay, sweetie?” he leant over Eiji, stroked fingers through his hair.

He smiled up at Ash. Yes, it was so much easier when Ash was here.

“Never better.” He took a breath, reached up to touch Ash’s hair again. “You know, I-“

“I know.”

Ash moved Eiji’s legs so that he could sit on the sofa. He put the bottle down on the table, then laced his hands into Eiji’s. They could almost be playing at rowing a boat.

“I think – I think you on top.”

“Huh?”

“You on top,” Ash repeated. How could he talk about this without blushing? With a straight face? “But I’ll still-“

“Oh.” He looked down at their hands, because there was no way he could look at Ash’s face. “Alright.”

“You okay?”

Eiji nodded. He squeezed Ash’s fingers. “Let’s try.”

Ash looked at him – closely. Then leant forward and kissed Eiji. Soft – it was all soft touches. Fingers asking permission to shed clothes. It was hesitant and watching, waiting to see if Ash would need to leave. It was like a dance. He followed Ash’s lead, and Ash guided him. Hands on his hips – all of his hips, easing Eiji into it.

And this was where everything normally went wrong.

Only this position was uncomfortable and awkward, and Eiji leant forward without thinking about it. Wrapped his arms around Ash’s shoulders to anchor himself because his heart was trying to beat right out of his ribcage and he felt juddery – a juddery mess.

Ash’s face was buried in his shoulder and his breaths were low gasps. He put an arm around Eiji’s shoulders – his grip tight – as if he was falling away too. He half-whispered, half-gasped in Eiji’s ear that he was – “good  - doing – good – so –“

And Eiji could only say Ash’s name.

Ash had been right when he’d said about creating a lifetime. It felt like this afternoon could be a decade all on it’s own. And it didn’t matter, really, if they managed to get all of the way today, if they managed to do it again, Eiji decided. It didn’t matter, because they had this. These memories, and they were like stars in the sky.

This was more than enough.

 

Chapter Text

I Remember When

Halloween was coming up. And Eiji couldn't believe that the boiling hot Summer was dissolving into cold winds and falling leaves.

He thought that Manhattan looked even more beautiful when it was cold. When the patch of green that was Central Park was turning into ambers and golds. When it was still dark enough when he woke up for the streetlights to be on. For the world to still be as dark as night, puddles of electric light spotlighting the wet asphalt.

“Does it get cold enough to snow?” he asked Ash. He was leaning against the window frame, watching a flurry of leaves make their way down the street, with traffic.

“Sometimes, yeah.” Ash was on the sofa, flicking through the newspaper listlessly.

“The city must be so pretty in the snow,” Eiji said. “The Empire State Building – the Statue of Liberty.”

“Shame you won’t be seeing it.”

His flight was booked for a few days after Halloween. Ash had called Ibe and confirmed it. Then he had kept hold of the tickets – not telling Eiji where he had hidden them. He was certain that Ash was going to board with them, just to make sure Eiji stayed in his seat.

“Ash…” He half-turned, raising his eyebrows. He ducked his chin, and looked up at Ash with large eyes.

“Eiji.” Ash stood. He put his hands on Eiji’s hips – turned him round so they faced each other. His hands went to Eiji’s waist – to his shoulders – to his cheeks. “I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to you. Please, get on that plane. Not for you. For me.”

And how could he say no?

He nodded. Let his own fingers trace Ash’s waistband.

“What are you wearing to the Halloween party?”

Ash sighed, and brushed Eiji’s hair from his eyes. “Yeah, Alex won’t tell me.”

“Oh.” Eiji grinned. “I’m not allowed to know either.”

“Hm.” Ash’s eyes narrowed.

“Mmm, you deserve this,” Eiji said. “You did punch him in the face.”

“I was defending your honour.”

“And now you have to let Alex choose your Halloween outfit.”

Ash scowled and dropped his hands, deciding instead to slump onto the sofa and flick back through the newspaper.

Eiji just smiled.

Alex had gotten the gang to pester Ash into having a Halloween get-together, the Saturday before. He invited the boys from China Town, and Black Sabbath too, and Ash just about allowed it –

Until Bones had said they should be in costume, because “costumed parties just added so much more fun!” They just “took him back to his childhood!”

Alex had taken one glance toward Ash, saw the expression on his face and had said, “sure, why not?” And every time Ash had tried to call it off, one of the members would chant for it back, and Alex would tap his eye. There was still a faint purple ring.

So the party was on, because now Black Sabbath and China Town had agreed to come. And they were looking forward to it. They couldn’t cancel it now.

And Eiji knew that it was driving Ash insane.

“I thought Americans liked Halloween,” Eiji said. “Isn’t it meant to be a big thing over here?”

“Never been a huge fan.” Ash flicked a page of the newspaper.

Eiji thought about that. He stepped forward. Kept stepping forward until he could lean over Ash’s head.

“Have you ever been to a Halloween party before?”

Ash looked up, and scowled. “Fuck no.”

“Then how do you know you won’t like it?” Eiji was smiling.

“There was none of this – before you.” Ash reached up and tapped the tip of Eiji’s nose. “None of this frivolity.”

Eiji laughed. “God forbid Ash Lynx have fun.”

“Screw you.”

Eiji bit his lip. He found the courage to say it as soon as Ash went back to his paper. Found the courage to lean down and whisper in Ash’s ear, “you already have.”

Ash’s hand came up, found Eiji’s neck, and pulled him closer. “And it was deff.”

Eiji laughed too. He kissed Ash, savoured the taste of his mouth.

"Photos came back," Eiji said.

Ash kept his hand on Eiji’s neck, keeping him anchored. He continued kissing Eiji, pushing his tongue through his lips. It was an effort to pull away - it was always an effort now because enough was never enough. Because there weren't many days left of this. But he managed, fetching the photos from the kitchen counter. They were still packaged up. He tossed one to Ash, and it landed in his lap as he struggled to sit up.

"Eiji, I-" His voice sounded tired.

"Just look through them? With me?" Eiji asked. He sat, and immediately Ash shuffled, moving the whole sofa and turning them into a tangle of limbs, until he was settled with the back of his head on Eiji's chest, Eiji's arms settling on his stomach.

"What will you give me if I do?" Ash asked, already thumbing open the package.

"Mmm." Eiji rested his chin on the top of Ash's head. Felt the hem of his t-shirt and let his fingers nudge it up. "I'll buy drinks at the party."

Ash snorted. "Yeah, with my money."

"Do you want me to work or do you want me to stay at home and look after the kids?"

Ash just snorted again. He pulled the pack of photos out of the package.

There were a lot of photos of Ash - candids mostly, that he flicked through quickly to start with. Until Eiji caught Ash's hands, and explained just what he liked about each of them. How the light hit right - made the lights look gold and the shadows look blank. How well the smoke from Ash's cigarette had stood out against the blue sky - that was the beautiful New York that Eiji saw.  How much Ash's face lit up when he was with the gang - when he wasn't aware of the camera - it made him look like any other eighteen year old.

"How very James Dean you look here," Eiji murmured. It was one of Ash on their bed, a towel around his neck, wearing a silver cross necklace.

"If I had one day when I didn't have to be all confused," Ash murmured. He flipped the photo to the back.

There were more touristy ones too - of Ash and Eiji smiling in front of statues at Central Park at the top of the Empire State building with Alex. Of the gang all smiling at Coney Island - because of course they went again. One of Soo-Ling and Eiji in front of the Twin Towers - Soo-Ling's arm around Eiji's neck.

Eiji couldn't understand what had gone through his head to make him hold up a peace sign.

And he loved those ones because they were posed. They were posed and cheesy but everyone was happy and smiling and that was what he wanted to take away from New York. He wanted to take this feeling of being a part of something - of being so happy.

Then there were the dozen or so of Eiji. He'd enlisted Alex's help to take them, teaching him how to use the camera. They were as candid as they could make them; on the beach at Coney Island, grinning with an ice cream, playing against Soo-Ling at the arcade. There was one of him and Ash, leant against the bar with beers, talking to each other. Eiji was looking up at Ash and smiling. Ash's arm was on the back of the bar, almost around Ejii's waist.

The final one was the one he'd taken himself. It had felt awkward and embarrassing to hold the camera up with both hands - he'd felt self-conscious of the small smile he had on his face - as he took a photo of himself topless.

"Surprise," Eiji murmured in Ash's ear.

"Eiji, I-" Ash's thumbs traced up the sides of the photo. "I thought this was a project - you were going to submit Ash Lynx as a portfolio-"

"Yeah, well." Eiji gave Ash a light squeeze, closed his eyes and just revelled of the feeling of him being there. "I wanted it to be the two of us."

Ash was quiet. He was staring at the photos in front of them, his stomach barely rising. That was usually a sign something was wrong - that in no time Ash would be up and running to the bathroom. Maybe this had been a mistake.

Eiji spoke hurriedly, "you don't have to - keep them, if you don't like them. I just - I'm probably going to keep one in my wallet - of you, or us - and I thought that-"

"Yeah, I'll keep them." Ash's voice was faint. "There - you're a fucking miracle worker."

"I'm a photographer."

"You make the world look like a fucking dream," Ash hesitated. "You make me look - like - like-"

"You." Eiji nestled his face into the crook of Ash's neck, hugging him as close as he possibly could. "That's just you, Ash.”

Ash didn’t reply. He just hugged Eiji tightly back. His stomach shuddered, almost as if he was cold.

Eiji suspected. He suspected that Ash’s eyes were damp.

But knowing that sent a crack right down the middle of his heart.

So he kept silent, because his eyes were damp now too.

And he just wanted his last week in New York to be happy.

*

Alex was grinning from ear to ear. Almost bouncing up and down like an excited child.

Eiji had arrived twenty minutes before Ash, round the side entrance of the bar.

“It’s going to be awesome,” Alex said, bundling Eiji through to the backrooms. He was dressed in falling apart clothes with effects make-up on his face. Yellows and browns and a little green so that he looked like a decaying zombie.

If he was honest, Eiji could barely contain his excitement either. There was something magical about the whole thing – about all dressing up and still pretending to be kids – about the spiderwebs strung over the hanging lights in the bar, the skeletons pinned to the walls. They had transformed the whole place into a cheesy set and Eiji was in love with it.

Mostly because he knew that Ash would hate what they had done to his precious bar.

“In here.” Alex had a hand on Eiji’s back, pushing him into one of the toilet cubicles. “It’s in the bag.”

So Eiji locked the door, and got changed. He suspected they were Alex’s clothes – black skinny jeans, white t-shirt – black leather jacket that weighed heavily on Eiji’s shoulders and was slightly too long in the arms.

Alex grinned when Eiji unlocked the cubicle and came out, feeling oddly self-conscious, even though he wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t as bad as he had thought. It was – too normal, considering the glint in Alex’s eyes.

“Hop up in the sink.” Alex jerked his head. “And I’ll do your hair.”

“My hair?” Eiji echoed, obediently perching on the side of one of the sinks.

Alex was already shaking a can of hairspray. He pulled a comb from his pocket and Eiji felt his gut clench.

“Danny Zuko doesn’t wear his hair like that, Eiji.”

“Ah.”

It was one Bones’ favourite movies – according to Bones, he watched it almost constantly. And it was one of Soo-Ling’s too, though he only admitted that when he was very drunk, and Eiji was helping Ash walk him back to China Town.

“Your pretty boy punched me in the face, Eiji.” Alex defended himself. “It’s what he deserves.”

So he let Alex get to work. Let him spray his bangs up and back, to press the rest of his hair back. He hummed, as he worked, his grin never leaving his face. And Eiji had to admit that the nerves were partly excitement – because he was imagining Ash’s reaction too. Because he was desperate to see how Ash reacted.

Because he thought that he had guessed Ash’s costume – and thought that Ash might just murder Alex before the night was out.

Eventually, when his hair had hardened into a helmet on the top of his head, Alex released him back into the man bar, telling him to stay out of sight of the doors. Ash would be coming soon and “there’s no fucking way we can spoil this, Eiji.”

And he had to agree.

Soo-Ling was the most excited about Eiji’s costume. He did jump up and down, like a child who had eaten too much sugar too fast.

“Eiji, how did you know? How did you know I was going to be a T-Bird?” He turned around to show Eiji the back of his jacket.

Bones was hyper too, telling Eiji that he looked “so awesome!” and even Kong clapped him on the shoulder and said, “cool costume.” He didn’t really get why Bones had dressed as a green monster, and Kong was dressed as the doctor.

Eiji nodded, and kept his smile in place, but his hands were shaking slightly. His stomach felt as though someone had taken a hot poker and swirled his insides around.

And then put them in a blender.

It must have been twenty minutes since he got here. Ash must be almost ready.

He heard raised voices – not quite an argument, but one voice sounded insistent and angry. He’d recognise that voice anywhere. And – no – he actually did need more time – he turned away so that he could catch his breath, because his heart was ready to leap straight out of his mouth.

“Hey Zuko, I got a surprise for ya!” He heard Alex’s voice yell. Practically raising an octave in pitch in his excitement.

And he had to turn.

There was a clear path between him and Ash.

Ash, who was in white chinos, a button up and a cream cardigan. His hair was mercifully untouched, but Eiji noticed the gel had been combed out. There was a dark look in his eye, as if he was out for Alex’s blood, but it faded when he saw Eiji. Instead, his cheeks turned pink.

“Ahh.” Cain was in the crowd. He took a sip from his glass. “I get it. Sandra Dee, right?”

“Shut up.” Ash’s glare moved to Cain.

“Hey, it’s ballsy. Gotta respect that Lynx.” Cain raised his glass, then drained it.

Eiji took a step forward – went to brush his hair away from his face before he remembered that it was all swept back.

“Boss, ain’t it meant to be the other way around?” Bones asked. “Shouldn’t you be the leader of the T-Birds?”

Ash huffed. He had his hands in the cardigan pockets. “Alex got to choose.”

“Hey,” Alex held up his hands. “I just went with hair colour.” He elbowed Ash, smirking. “And doesn’t it suit Eiji?”

Ash raised an eyebrow at Eiji, but there was a smile tugging at his lips.

“Yeah, he looks great,” he said, dismissively. He wiped a hand over his face, wiping the smile away before anyone could see. “And he promised to buy.”

“Yes boss,” Eiji quipped, and stepped through the crowd to the bar. He ordered drinks and by the time he turned around he found Ash there. His hand brushed Eiji’s hip, and he took a bottle from his hand.

Eiji smiled at him. “You look good.”

“Says you.” Ash tapped the tops of their bottles together, and Eiji laughed.

“Do you want to swap?” Eiji asked. He was half-shrugging out his jacket, before Ash had a hand on his shoulder.

“Keep it. It suits you.”

Eiji was grinning. He hadn’t been able to stop. “Enjoying your very first Halloween party?”

“I’d rather get a punch in the face again,” Ash muttered.

Eiji laughed. “Hey Bones!” He called across the bar. “Time for a game? The boss is getting bored!”

“No, Eiji –“ Ash caught his elbow.

But Bones was already grinning, and saying that he brought apples for bobbing – “someone grab a huge bowl and some water!”

Eiji had never gone apple bobbing before.

Ash rolled his eyes, then pulled himself off of the bar. “Nothing breakable, Bones.”

Had Ash ever gone apple bobbing? Eiji thought he might have done. When he was very little, before everything starting crumbling around him – when he was just a little kid in Cape Cod. With fluffy blonde, duckling-feather hair, sparkly eyes and a not so cynical grin. What had Ash dressed as, when he was a kid? Had his brother taken him trick and treating?

The whole concept of that was crazy to Eiji – demanding candy from the whole neighbourhood?

Actually, it fit in with his image of New York. Everyone always seemed to be looking for any excuse to yell at each other – any excuse to get angry. And that was something that he would miss – the complete lack of care and social etiquette. The anarchy of New York – it’s population’s graffiti on it’s patchwork of sky reaching buildings.

“They celebrate Halloween in Japan?”

Eiji almost jumped out of his skin when Cain spoke – he hadn’t even heard him come up beside him. He had been too busy watching Ash take charge of the chaos, filling a huge, silver trough with water and dumping apples into it – ever the boss.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to make you jump,” Cain continued. He pushed up his sunglasses – they were at odds with his vampire costume. “Or maybe I did – trick or treat, and all that.”

Eiji laughed, then found his words to reply, “no – I’ve never celebrated Halloween before.”

“Really?” Cain Blood looked about as astonished at that as Eiji had ever seen him – which meant he raised both eyebrows a centimetre higher.

Eiji shrugged. “You guys don’t celebrate New Years like we do.”

The corner of Cain’s mouth twitched upwards. “Fair enough.”

Eiji smiled back. It was strange, that he didn’t feel scared of this boy – this man – in front of him. Cain Blood’s shoulders were huge and he was a head taller than Eiji. He looked – and acted – like a thug in a thriller movie. Like he could knock Eiji’s lights out with just one finger.

And yet, it didn’t bother him. He was just another of Ash’s friends – and he’d been around Ash long enough to know that he wouldn’t hang out with assholes. That sometimes people only wanted to seem tough, when they were actually like new born puppies.

So there was no real reason to be scared of Cain Blood, or his gang.

His gang.

“Oh,” Eiji said. “I have something for you behind the bar.”

He ducked around it, and looked in the shelving. There was a pile of photographs in there, that he slid over to Cain.

“They’re from a few weeks ago,” he said, coming back around the bar. “I printed extra, in case you want them.”

Cain stared at him for a long moment. There was a solemn air around him, as though he was going to break a terrible truth.

But then his lips twitched again, and he tucked the photos into his jacket, “thanks, Eiji.”

“I left them here.” He was still talking, and he wasn’t sure why. “Because I wasn’t sure if I’d see you again before I left.”

“You leaving?” Cain asked.

Eiji looked down. He was still smiling, but now it felt forced.

“Got a flight booked just after the actual Halloween.” It felt like an admission.

“Sorry to see you go.” Cain took a sip from the bottle in his hand. It looked as though he was watching the apple bobbing too. “But I’m glad.”

“Oh.” Eiji rocked on the balls of his feet. He wasn’t scared of Cain Blood – until Cain Blood told him he was happy that Eiji was leaving forever. That did make him a little nervous.

“Only because –“ Cain took a breath. His broad chest heaved. “You’re a nice kid. I don’t want to see you get hurt. And people always get hurt here. Sooner or later.”

“That’s what Ash said.”

“You think he’s wrong?”

“I think-“ Eiji bit his lip. Concentrated on the decorations. “I understand the danger and that no one should be able to make me leave, if I don’t want to.”

Cain’s sunglasses flashed – almost knowingly. “But you’ve booked your ticket.”

He had to be careful, here. Had to tiptoe around the real reason he was leaving.

“It’s better if I don’t get in the way,” he said, slowly. It sounded as though he was reading off of a board. It was the reason they had agreed upon, more or less. If Eiji was out of the way, nothing could happen to him to send Ash on a rampage.

And yet, for the last week he’d had nightmares about leaving.

Cain opened his mouth to reply, but Soo-Ling cut across him. He hooked an arm around Eiji’s neck, and dragged him away to the bar.

“Eiiijii! It’s your turn, yeah?” His voice was loud in Eiji’s ear.

But it was an escape from the heavy conversation. So Eiji laughed, agreed, and stuck his face into the freezing water to try and catch an apple with his mouth.

It really was childish, but there was something nice about that. Something simple. Something that let Eiji imagine growing up with these boys and spending every Halloween with them.

With Ash.

He was the one who offered him a towel when he had caught one – only in a few minutes, which according to Bones was impressive. Eiji wasn’t listening, he was watching Ash watch his mouth – noticing how the cold water had turned Ash’s mouth bright pink.

Eiji bit into the apple he had bobbed, slowly. He smiled, close mouthed, as he chewed.

Ash’s eyes were almost glittering in the lights.

If they had been at home – he would have Ash’s hands on his hips – pulling them together. He would be tilting his chin up as Ash’s mouth moved against his. His hands would go from Ash’s shoulders to his hair back to his shoulders, unable to make up their mind on where they wanted to go.

But they weren’t at home.

Instead, Bones was rapping, and the others were beatboxing around him. He’d shown the song to Eiji, when they’d been left alone in Ash’s apartment. It was a Nightmare on Elm Street rap, by “the Fresh Prince” – Bones never referred to him as anything else.

Soo-Ling had made his away through the crowd to Eiji’s side, his eyes bright and shiny. As though he was a child who had gotten excited and eaten way too much candy too quickly.

“You saw Elm Street, right?” he asked.

“The second one,” Ash said. He leant against one of the tables.

Eiji pulled up one of the chairs. Sat in it, and put his beer on the floor. Made sure that his foot was nudging Ash’s, and his head was against the front of Ash’s elbow.

“What’d you think?” Soo-Ling asked.

Eiji hesitated. His thoughts were after the movie – when they’d been in the back seat of the rental car and Ash’s hands had been tracing over his ribs and down his stomach.

“It was scary,” Eiji admitted. “I couldn’t look away.”

“Right?!” Soo-Ling was grinning. “When Freddy turns up right at the beginning and he tears open his head-“

“It’s all special effects.” Ash was lighting a cigarette.

“It gave me nightmares,” Soo-Ling finished. He held a hand out expectantly to Ash.

Who passed the cigarettes to Eiji. He took one, and focused on it.

“Me too.” He didn’t want to lie to Soo-Ling. That was something he’d never do.

“Even you?” Soo-Ling’s eyes were wide. “But nothing scares you, Eiji!”

He smiled. Bones kept rapping in the background, putting on a deep voice for some of the lines that made the group hoot with laughter.

“Everybody’s scared of something.” He lit the cigarette.

Soo-Ling held out his hand again.

Eiji handed the pack back to Ash, who pocketed them. His fingers nudged the back of Eiji’s shoulder as he leant on the back of the chair.

“The ending didn’t make sense either,” Ash added.

Soo-Ling rolled his eyes. “Except Ash Lynx, of course.”

Eiji looked up at Ash. Remembered the look on his face when he asked Eiji to go back to Japan. ‘For Ash, not him.’

Everybody was scared of something.

“Not dumb movies that I ain’t old enough to get into.” Ash took a long drag.

Soo-Ling crossed his arms, rolling his eyes dramatically again. It made Eiji laugh – it was easy to laugh when he adored every movement of the two boys he was with. There was just something about knowing every move they would make, and seeing it played out that made his chest feel fuzzy. This didn’t feel like what it meant when people said friends – this felt like something more.

“Tell me about it, stud.” Soo-Ling stuck his tongue out at Ash.

Who pointed the cigarette at him, “shut your mouth, Soo-Ling before I shut it for you.”

Eiji had recognised the line, even though he’d only seen Grease a couple of times. He bit his lip to hide his smile, ducking his head.

He wasn’t quick enough, Ash had seen it.

“You got something to say, Okumura?” Ash asked. Beer in one hand, cigarette in the other. The tableau of the gang leader he was meant to be.

It felt too easy – as though his body knew what to do before his mind did. He bit into the apple, again, and raised an eyebrow.

“Oh come now,” he said. “Sandy, baby.”

Ash knocked the back of Eiji’s head, lightly, his eyes narrowing.

But Eiji was laughing and Soo-Ling was chuckling too, ducking out of the way of a swipe from Ash, so that he was crouched next to Eiji. Then his face fell.

“Don’t tell the guys, but.” Soo-Ling wet his lips. “I’ll miss you, Eiji.”

It felt like that was all anyone talked about. Eiji was sick of hearing it – sick of being reminded that his time here was so finite when he wanted this evening to last a lifetime.

“I’ll miss you too,” he said.

Soo-Ling hesitated, looking over to where everyone was still laughing, chatting and joking.

“Can I – I can write to you in Japan, yeah?”

“I’d like that.” He smiled.

I said that I’d call Eiji every day.” Smoke escaped in in wisps from Ash’s mouth as he spoke.

“That’d cost a fortune!” Soo-Ling’s jaw dropped open.

“I’d like letter and phone calls just the same,” Eiji said. He wanted to reach for Ash’s hand. Instead, he made do with ruffling Soo-Ling’s hair. He grinned up at Eiji, eyes sparkling.

This was what it felt like to have a little brother, he realised.

And that made the thoughts of letters, and phone calls seem so little compared to what he had now.

*

They took a taxi home. And if the driver noticed they were dressed in costume – a couple’s costume, he didn’t say anything. If he noticed their elbows and feet nudging each other in the back seat, he kept quiet. There wasn’t a lot of conversation, not until they were crossing the street to the apartment block.

Considering it was the early hours of the morning, there were still a fair amount of people on the streets. Mainly drunks, or people coming back from parties like they were. The city that never sleeps, indeed, Eiji thought.

His head was pleasantly light. He hadn’t drunken much, but what he had made him feel tingly and carefree – carefree enough to brush the back of his knuckles across Ash’s. It meant that he got green eyes flashing at him.

When they were outside the apartment, when Eiji was just putting his keys in the door, Ash’s hands found his waist. His lips moved against Eiji’s neck, “you look really good, Eiji.”

He bit his lip, one hand taking Ash’s in his and squeezing their fingers tightly together.

“Speak for yourself,” he murmured.

“Eiji.” Ash turned him, just as he opened the door, so that they faced each other. “How am I supposed to keep my hands off of you?”

“We’ll be seen,” he whispered.

“No one will be up.” Ash’s mouth moved incessantly against his own and Eiji felt himself melting into it. “This building’s full of posh knobs that absolutely have to get to their posh knob meetings on time in the morning.”

Eiji laughed breathlessly. He had been wrong in the bar – his hands didn’t go to Ash’s shoulders, or his hair – they went straight around Ash’s neck. He let Ash take his weight and they half-stumbled through the door, their mouths fighting to stay attached, as though reality would fall apart if they fell away.

As soon as they were inside, Eiji pressed back against the door, shutting it behind them. His keys dangled from his fingers, and he let them drop into the trinket dish by the entrance.

“How was it in the end?” Eiji kept his mouth pressed against Ash’s jaw. “Big bad boss who doesn’t like any frivolity.”

“Completely awful,” Ash replied. His hands buried themselves under the thick leather jacket, and Eiji leant against him. Revelled in the feeling of Ash’s fingers tracing up his bare skin. “Did you hear Bones’ rapping?”

“They were having fun.” He closed his eyes, breathing in the smell of Ash. Under the alcohol and sweat, there was still a trace of his aftershave. Eiji would have to buy some – coat his pillow in it like a girl in a soppy romance novel. “It’s nice – that they can have fun, sometimes.”

“Did you have fun?” Ash’s mouth was against Eiji’s ear, his breath warm.

Eiji paused. He pulled away, pulled his hands back so that his thumbs brushed Ash’s cheekbones.

“It was deff,” he whispered.

Ash looked at him. He raised an eyebrow, but his eyes were glittering. He kissed Eiji – softly – as though he might break.

Like he did the second time. When it was the early hours of the morning, and they had been sharing the same headphones. It wasn’t the night everything changed – it was the night that everything escaped. All of the questions about his backflipping stomach, his lingering gazes – the need to be anywhere that Ash Lynx was.

It was the night that Eiji realised he was in –

They’d never said it out loud. It was better kept silent – in the touches and gazes and half-finished sentences.

“Ash, I can’t go.” Eiji’s voice was a whisper. He realised that his eyes were damp.

“Eiji.” Ash’s eyes traced over his face – like they had done a thousand times, and every time it was as though he was seeing it for the first time, and marvelling over it all.

“How am I supposed to be away from you?”

Going from this – this intensity – to nothing – it was impossible.

“Because I’ll move.” Ash’s hands trembled on Eiji’s back. He clutched him tighter. His words tumbled out of him, getting faster and faster. “When this is all over, I’ll move to Japan. I’ll come and get you. All you have to do is wait – just – just a month or two, and then I’ll fly out there – and we can – we can go wherever you want.”

It was the kind of promise that children made in the playground – it was an idyllic, simplified promise. Because Eiji knew Ash couldn’t leave New York. It was a part of him. And as long as there was New York, there was trouble.

But he wanted that future. He wanted to believe in that promise.

So he nodded, and pressed his forehead against Ash’s.

“And we can listen to New Kids on the Block?”

“Fuck yeah.”

Eiji kissed him again. Softly – as though they would both shatter into pieces.

And he wished for that future.

Chapter Text

Don’t Give up on me

Eiji had a terrible feeling.

It sat in the base of his gut like a snake, ready to coil itself out of his intestines and strike. This wasn’t just the nerves of saying goodbye and going home – though Ibe said it was, Max said it was – Eiji was just sad to leave New York after a year and go home.

Max said it was natural, given everything that Eiji had been through, that he would expect for something to happen before he flew home. After all, they’d booked tickets several times before now, and something had come up every time.

And Eiji understood what he meant. He’d had nightmares for weeks. Nightmares of getting on the plane and feeling a knife prodding against his back. Being told to get off. Being taken hostage.

Golzine was dead.

But Yut-Lung wasn’t. And he wasn’t the kind to just move on.

The clock was ticking, and Eiji was still waiting in the airport. Soo-Ling sat at his side, jiggling his leg up and down and trying to talk about anything but the fact Eiji was leaving.

Then he said it.

“I haven’t seen Lao for a few days.”

And that feeling grew. It took Eiji a minute to remember why – because Shorter’s death felt like a lifetime ago – but now he knew. The feeling was a warning.

He stood, abruptly.

“Eiji?” Ibe’s eyes were wary; he’d been expecting Eiji to run off all day, even though he still the wheelchair. Just in case. He was sure that if he’d told Ibe and Max what he was about to do, they’d strap him into it.

He forced a smile. “I need to use the bathroom.”

“Ten minutes until boarding.” Ibe raised his eyebrows at Eiji.

“I’ll be quick.” It had been easy to lie to Ibe for a while now. Maybe it was a week after arriving in New York.

Since Ash kissed him and passed him that pill.

“There’s always loads of time to board anyway,” Soo-Ling said. Maybe he knew what Eiji was thinking.

“See you in a minute,” Eiji said, and pushed through the crowd. There was still a dull ache in his stomach as he walked – it still felt like he was hungover – his head pounded and it hurt to see – but he had gotten used to hangovers here.

The bathrooms were round the corner, which meant he was out of sight quickly.

Eiji took the elevator. Back to the ground floor, where there was a payphone. He’d spotted it earlier, because it had made him think of what Ash had promised. A call every day, no matter what the cost.

There was still change in his pocket – he hadn’t quite used up all of his American money – and he slotted it in.

The number was written in his notebook – it had been for a while. Just in case.

A boy picked up the phone, Eiji couldn’t be sure who.

“What?” The voice was confrontational.

“It’s Eiji Okumura.” The name was like a password. “I have to speak to Cain. Please.”

“Sure thing, Eiji.” Now the boy sounded perfectly charming. They all knew Eiji – had liked him since the Summer when he had taken group photos of all of them. They’d respected him since he’d planned the operation to save Ash.

He heard shouting on the phone, and crossed his fingers – hoping that the meter didn’t run down.

“Eiji?” Cain Blood’s voice appeared on the line. “Isn’t your flight today?”

“In ten minutes,” Eiji admitted. He spoke fast. “I need you to find Ash. I – he’s in trouble.”

“Trouble?” He could practically see the slight raise of Cain’s eyebrows.

He put in another quarter, just in case, and explained everything as quickly as he could. That there was someone out for Ash’s blood.

And Eiji had given Ash that letter.

His heart ached – it had been a sentimental thing to do. That had been the reason Eiji was going to leave New York in the first place – because he was Ash’s Achilles heel.

And that letter was the arrow.

“Where would Ash go?” Cain believed him – his voice was serious.

“The library.” Eiji’s mouth answered before he could even think about it. “There’s a room – in the library.”

“We’ll get on it.”

Then the line went dead.

Eiji put the phone back, his heart pounding.

And then he almost jumped out of his skin when someone tapped his shoulder. He spun, ready for a fight – though he had no idea what he’d do in one.

It was Soo-Ling.

“Max told me to follow you,” he said, unapologetically. “He thought you’d try and leave.”

“I –“ Eiji felt like a bride with cold feet. This was like running away at the altar.

“If you want to, I’ll cover for you,” Soo-Ling continued.

“I think Ash is in trouble.” It was hard to speak. “I’ve sent Cain, but –“

There were people passing by – getting ready to board the plane and talking loudly. It was all a jumble of words and nonsense – until Eiji heard, “someone’s been found shot.”

He turned. It was a woman listening to her Walkman’s radio. Her eyes were wide.

Eiji looked to Soo-Ling.

“Eiji, people get shot every day in New York, it doesn’t mean-“

“Cover for me.”

He pushed through the crowd – against the flow of people. Soo-Ling was shouting behind him, and his stomach ached more than ever.

But he managed to slip out – slip back to the taxi rank and get in one.

There was no way he had enough money for it. The man didn’t need to know.

Eiji’s head was spinning. He caught sight of himself in the rearview mirror. His face was pale and his eyes were wide. Panicked – he looked panicked and sick.

There was nothing for him back home. The past week, in hospital, he’d been thinking about that – when he wasn’t lying awake and thinking about Ash. Back home was – normal. It was family time and getting told to get back into long jump. It was normal photography assignments – taking pictures of buildings opening and leisure pieces. It was being so careful, all the time, not to offend people.

He loved New York. Everything about it.

The thought of going back home – to being who he used to be, was unbearable. It made him feel like he was going backwards, regressing to being fifteen again.

And how on earth was he meant to live without Ash Lynx in his life?

Out of the window, he spotted one of the boys from Cain’s gang. He called for the taxi to stop, and was out of the door before he even did. Eiji stumbled on the pavement, hearing the driver yell after him.

The boy spotted him – held up a hand in greeting. Then turned and scowled at the driver, “you put it on the Black Demon of Harlem’s tab, yeah?”

The driver settled down.

“Did you find Ash?” Eiji asked. And he wanted to be wrong – because he needed to tell Ash so much more.

The boy shrugged. “We’re meant to be meeting outside the library.”

“I’m coming with you.”

“Are you sure?” The boy frowned. “You don’t look so good.”

“I’m fine.” Eiji spoke quickly, but with confidence, and began pushing his way down the street.

The boy followed. Took the lead and kept people out of his way.

The truth was – Ash had ruined Eiji.

Not just because he’d lost his virginity to him. Because Eiji still didn’t think of himself as gay. There was just Ash. And there was no way he’d be able to go back to Japan and settle down with any girl. Probably not any boy either. How would he be able to explain that to his family? He couldn’t even explain it to Ibe.

There was a crowd around New York Public Library. A crowd and an ambulance.

Eiji felt completely numb at the sight. For just a moment.

The member of Cain’s gang pushed them through, shouting and yelling. He had hold of Eiji’s elbow, pulling him along behind him, and it was hard to breathe. His head was pounding, and his stomach ached now – with nerves and fear and pain.

Cain Blood was there, and he pulled them out of the crowd with a hand on their shoulder. His face was grim.

“What the fuck is he doing here?” Cain asked the boy with Eiji, who immediately paled.

“I – Eiji asked about Lynx.”

“You’re meant to be on a plane.” Cain turned his fury onto Eiji.

“Did you find Ash?” he repeated. He had to hold onto Cain’s arm.

“Take him back to the airport.” Cain was talking to the boy again, pulling Eiji out of the way.

There were paramedics behind him – in the centre of the crowd. Eiji craned his neck, trying to see around the wall that was Cain Blood.

Cain pulled him out of the way, pushing him into the hands of the boy.

“Why?” Eiji’s voice was tight. He took a breath, tried to steady himself – to find whatever part of him made people listen. “Cain Blood. Tell me what’s going on.”

Cain hesitated. That was a first. He opened his mouth to say something, just as a stretcher came into view behind him.

Eiji saw a halo of blood hair.

“Ash!”

He leapt forward, tripping over everyone else’s feet.

Cain caught his elbow, and held him back. “Eiji, don’t.”

But a paramedic was turning. He frowned at Eiji as he struggled in Cain’s grasp, twisting himself around but unable to think properly. All he could see was pale skin, blonde hair, and red everywhere. So much red – so much more blood than in the horror movies Bones had been so fond of.

“Do you know this boy?” the paramedic asked.

Eiji nodded, desperately. Cain’s grip on him loosened.

“I – he – he’s my roommate.” The words tumbled out of him in a flurry. “What happened, is he okay? Why is he here – what happened?”

The paramedic held his hands up. They were loading Ash into the ambulance behind him, and all Eiji could think was ‘not again.’ This had happened before. He hadn’t been allowed to go to the hospital with Ash before.

“Your friend has been stabbed.” The man sounded calm – how could he sound calm? “It’s a deep wound, but it didn’t pierce any vital organs.”

There was yelling behind him. Ash’s voice.

It hurt to breathe – Eiji was breathing fire.

“I’m afraid he’s not cooperating.”

“Let me try.” Eiji stepped forward. Cain had released him now, his expression grimmer than ever.

He could make out what Ash was saying now – “leave me alone,” and, the one that split Eiji’s heart in two – “let me die.”

Eiji’s legs trembled – everything trembled – as he stepped forward. They were lifting trying to lift Ash into the ambulance.

He grabbed his hand – Ash had been strapped tightly down.

“Ash!”

Ash froze underneath him. He turned his head – his hair hung in over his face in tangles. One green eye spotted him from amongst it all.

The paramedic who had spoken to Eiji was saying something to the others. He couldn’t hear them properly – his ears were ringing.

And all he could see was Ash.

“Does this mean it’s nearly over?” Ash whispered. His eye was wide.

Eiji gripped his hand tighter – squeezed it between his own to make Ash really feel it.

“It’s me – I’m here – I’m really here.”

“Of course you are.” Ash’s eye closed. His lips curved upwards, just at the edges.

He stopped struggling. Sighed.

The paramedics began lifting the stretcher, now that Ash had stopped moving. They were taking him into the ambulance.

“You have to let me go with him.” Eiji looked up. “Please.”

They looked at him with caution.

The one who’d first spoken to Eiji stepped up, “let him.”

So he was allowed to climb into the back. For a moment, he had to let go of Ash’s hand, and it felt like he had been completely cast adrift.

When he sat back down, between paramedics monitoring vitals and calling out medical jargon to each other, he took hold of Ash again. It was like a lifeline. The only thing that was keeping him attached to reality was Ash.

There was something in his hand.

Eiji’s letter.

He wanted to weep. His eyes were already damp. When Eiji put a hand to his face, his cheek was damp – he wiped them with the heel of his hand.

The ambulance was moving. The sirens attacked his skull, and the ride was jerky.

This didn’t feel real.

The pain had spread in his stomach now, and his head felt light, and disconnected. It was all he could do to hold onto Ash’s hand and keep his eyes open.

“The knife didn’t hit any major organs,” one paramedic repeated. “This shouldn’t be complicated. Your friend should be fine.”

Eiji nodded.

All he could think was that the horrible feeling he’d had in his stomach all day had been right.

*

The vision had reappeared.

Ash had seen Eiji, just before everything had gone dark. The light had been behind him, and it had made a halo around his dark hair. It had made his eyes warm, the colour of chocolate.

That was how he knew that it was the end. That he could give up now. He’d seen Eiji one more time.

But now the vision was back.

He’d opened his eyes – heavy, heavy eyes – to find shining black hair rested on his stomach. Eiji’s eyes were closed – his eyelashes a thick, dark curve. His mouth was slightly parted – like sleeping beauty, waiting for a kiss.

Ash’s hand was heavy as he lifted it.  His fingers brushed the visions hair, lightly.

Brown eyes opened and looked up at him.

“How did I get into heaven?” Ash’s voice sounded distant, slightly slurred.

The vision smiled. Sat up, leaning against his touch, and taking his hand. So gently.

“You didn’t.”

Ash frowned. “This isn’t hell.”

Eiji’s smile widened – his eyes softened even more. He squeezed Ash’s hand, lacing their fingers together.

“Sweetie.” He brushed Ash’s hair away from his face. “You didn’t die.”

Ash’s hand fell. He let Eiji keep hold of it, whilst his brain caught up. The whole room seemed to sharpen – he could see the door to the left – wooden door – the posters on the plain white walls with bright letters and happy messages. There was a window on his other side, looking out into the garden where people in hospital gowns sat on benches, or were rolled through on wheelchairs.

Hospital gowns.

He looked down. Crisp white sheets were folded over him.

“What?” His tongue was heavy too, in his mouth.

Eiji shifted closer. He rubbed the back of Ash’s hand with his thumb, turned it over to trace his fingers over his palm and that’s when Ash realised there was a needle in his forearm. Taped over.

“You were stabbed,” Eiji said, his eyes downcast. “Lao Yen Tai stabbed you, but he didn’t hit any vital organs. It was simple enough, at the ER, to – minimise the damage and stop the bleeding.” Eiji hesitated. Ash noticed that there were dark circles under his eyes, there was a cut on his lip where he had been biting it. “You have five stitches.”

Ash knew the first half of that. But he knew stumbling into the library and sitting down. Not the rest. He couldn’t look up at Eiji. He looked at their linked hands. At the tubes coming out of his arm.

“I wanted to die,” he whispered.

Eiji squeezed his hand – so hard that it felt as though it was going to split apart – his eyes were damp, and he ducked his head to hide it.

“You said,” he murmured.

Now it came back. With Eiji squeezing his hand he remembered the ambulance. Remembered shouting. 

Eiji’s shoulders were trembling, and Ash could feel his heart splitting in two at the sight.

“Do you remember the story I told you about the snow leopard?” he asked. Wanted to reach out a hand to Eiji’s shoulder, but everything felt so heavy. “The one who-“

“I remember.” Eiji looked up at him. And he was scowling. He wiped a heel across his cheek. “Fuck, Ash Lynx – just because that’s the name you choose doesn’t mean – you’re not a leopard. You’re a person.”

“It’s all…over, Eiji.” Everything felt so heavy and his words were the heaviest of all. “Banana Fish…it’s all over.”

“You said when it was all over that you would come to Japan. That you’d come to Japan and we’d go wherever I wanted.” Eiji was still frowning at him, still wiping his cheeks every other moment.

Ash tried to smile. “I can’t do that if you don’t go to Japan.”

“How were you going to come to Japan if you were dead?!” Eiji stood. Dropped his hand.

It felt like loosing his grip of a life raft.

“Why didn’t you call anyone, Ash?” Eiji was fighting to lower his voice. His chest was rising and falling heavily. “I had to call Cain Blood from the airport to check if you were okay!”

Ash blinked. “You called Cain?”

“Yes!” Eiji stared at Ash. His lip trembled. For a moment, he covered his mouth with his hand, before it dropped back to his side like it weighed a ton.

Then he stepped forward, and brushed more of Ash’s hair out of his face. His fingers trembled.

“You said…” Eiji bit his lip, took a long, rattling breath. “You said that I had to go back to Japan, in case anything happened to me. Because if I got hurt you would…” He left a pause whilst he took another long, difficult breath. “But what do you think I would do, if anything happened to you?”

Ash didn’t. He had to admit, that he had never thought about it. Because no one had ever cared about him the way Eiji had. No one would ever have missed him – that was how it seemed in his head. How it always seemed.

He’d never thought that his death would be meaningful.

And now he was starting to realise that it was. That there was one person who would be broken-hearted with him gone.

Not one person. He thought of Max. He thought of his gang.

And Eiji was right. He wasn’t a mystery leopard.

Suddenly he didn’t want to be anymore.

He wanted to be a person.

“Eiji, I…” It was a huge effort for Ash to look up. He opened his arms and closed his eyes because there was no way that he could look into those beautiful brown eyes and say, “I’m sorry.”

Eiji fell against him in a single sob. He was half on the hospital bed, his arms tight around Ash’s neck.

Ash held him, even though it still felt as though he was made of stone, and everything still felt hazy at the edges. He held onto Eiji because it felt like he was floating – floating away and Eiji was the only thing that was solid.

“I was so scared,” Eiji murmured. He pressed himself against Ash’s neck. “Ash, I’ve never been that scared. Not – not at Golzine’s, not at Yut Lung’s – never. I thought – I knew that you were in trouble.”

“It’s okay,” Ash whispered. He could barely breathe with Eiji pressed against him, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Sweetie, it’s okay. I’m alive.”

He was alive.

And he didn’t want to be dead.

Not yet.

“I can’t leave you.” Eiji’s voice broke. “Ash, I can’t leave you and New York. There’s no way.”

He pulled away, smiling at Ash, even though his eyes were shiny. The sunlight caught the tear running down his cheek, turning it into a drop of sunlight. Even though he wasn’t dead, Eiji still looked like an angel.

“You’re – you’re my everything.”

He brushed his thumbs over Ash’s cheeks, and he was surprised to find them damp.

Their chests stuttered, trying to breathe and struggling to. Staring at each other as though the world ending, and they had five seconds left together.

“Kiss me?” Ash whispered.

Eiji did. His lips brushed against Ash’s gently. Then he pressed their foreheads together.

“I’m staying. With you.”

“I know.”

There was no way they could have an ocean between them.

The door opened, abruptly, and Eiji pulled away from Ash, sitting back in the plastic chair next to Ash’s bed.

Max was coming through the door, his hair sticking up straight, pinching the bridge of his nose. He sighed heavily, then looked up at the two of them.

Eiji had a small, innocent smile on his face, and Ash tried to mirror it. As though nothing was wrong.

“I don’t know which of you to yell at first,” Max said.

“Is Ibe-san with you?” Eiji asked. The smile had fallen, and now he looked nervous; a schoolteacher in the headmaster’s office.

“Ibe is on a flight back to Japan.” Max stood at the front of Ash’s bed, and crossed his arms. Jessica stood in the doorway, watching. She had a hand to her mouth as she looked at Ash. He looked away. “Soo-Ling told him to board without you and that you would definitely be in the seat next to him before take-off.”

“Ah.” Eiji looked at his hands.

“I’ve never seen him so anxious,” Max continued.

“Eiji saved my life.” Ash’s voice still sounded raw.

It was still raw. That Eiji had saved him. Again. And that he was glad that he had – glad that he was alive.

How could he ever put the feeling of a star bursting inside him into words?

“Cain Blood saved your life,” Max corrected. “He killed the ambulance. Eiji could have gotten on the plane.”

Eiji shook his head, slowly, but he didn’t say anything.

“Leave them alone, Max,” Jessica said. She crossed the room, stepping around the bed to take Ash’s other hand. He tried to smile at her. “For God’s sake, the boy’s just been stabbed.”

“Ash has been through worst,” Max muttered.

“That hurts, old man.” Ash faked a groan. He put his hand over his stomach, and that’s when he realised Eiji wasn’t holding it anymore. “You don’t know how much it hurts to be stabbed.”

“Kid, you’re on so much morphine that you can’t feel a thing.”

Ah. That was why everything felt so slow and heavy.

“And what do you think I was doing in the army?” Max asked.

“Playing cards and fighting over fossil fuels?” Ash replied.

Jessica was smirking, though she had turned away from Max, so that he couldn’t see.

“And to think I was going to buy you flowers.” Max shook his head, but there was a fond look in his eye. “Little shit.”

Ash rolled his shoulders – they sung in pain. “I try.”

Eiji chuckled. When Ash glanced over – even that hurt – he saw Eiji tucking hair behind his ear, his eyes on the floor. As if he noticed Ash looking, he raised his gaze. His eyes twinkled.

Ash smiled, for a moment forgetting they had company. His vision narrowed to just Eiji. That was his whole world.

Then he heard Max clear his throat and tore his eyes away. Max was looking out of the window – he might not even have been looking at them. But Ash felt as though he had, so he fumbled for something to say.

“Eiji’s not going back to Japan.”

Max raised his eyebrows. “I gathered.”

“I’ll get a job,” Eiji said, quickly. “At one of the newspapers, I already have a couple of portfolios ready.” Portfolios of Ash. He felt his face colour. “But I can’t leave New York.”

Max paused for a moment. Then he sighed, heavily, and leant against the wall.

“Then why were you going to get on that plane?” he asked.

“It’s complicated.” Eiji was tapping his foot. Not looking at Ash. “At the time, everything was still so dangerous in New York. But – I’ve been thinking, whilst I’ve been here…my life is here. My high jumping is over…and all of my friends are here.”

“It doesn’t seem complicated to me, Max.” Jessica looked between the two of them, the corner of her mouth lifting upwards. It made Ash’s stomach turned cold – impressive when he felt unbearably hot. “The boys are best friends. You can’t separate them.”

Eiji grinned at her and nodded. “Best friends.”

Max still didn’t look impressed. “Aren’t you hungry, Eiji?”

He said it with that tone of voice. It wasn’t a suggestion.

And Jessica knew it too. She stood and jerked her head to the door. Eiji got up, slowly, and followed her to the door.

Just before he left, he flashed Ash another sparkly eyed smile.

He wanted to melt.

But now he was left with Max in the room. Ash sighed and turned to the window, as though that would help him avoid this conversation. He hated this – hated being stuck in a hospital bed aching. If only he could rip his I.V out, like they did in movies, and follow Eiji.

He’d follow Eiji anywhere.

“Ash…” Max spoke slowly. “I don’t want to see you back here in a month or two because you’ve been stabbed or shot.”

There were kids outside, playing with frisbees. Ash watched them, because there would be nothing worse than looking at Max right now.

“And I don’t want Eiji to end up in the hospital, either.”

“That’s why I tried to get him on that plane.” Ash spoke just as slowly. “But Eiji is…stubborn.”

His mouth had lifted up on one side. He fought it back down.

“Look who’s talking.” Max’s hand rested on his shoulder. It was a warm, heavy weight, but it still made him swallow. “Tell me that you’re going to move away from the gang.”

Ash finally managed to turn. He took a breath, taking in the lines around Max’s face. Every part of him looked warm – Ash would say kind if it didn’t make him feel sentimental about Max Lobo.

“I can’t leave my friends.” But even as he said it, he was realising the same thing Eiji did. Apart from the gang, there wasn’t anything for him in New York. “I – I have a gang to run.”

“Is that what you want to be doing for the rest of your life?” Max pressed. “Is this what you want Eiji to be involved in for the rest of his life?”

He had that serious voice on. The adult voice that said to think about his future. It was a voice he could never pay much attention to before – there had been no future. All of this had been a day by day, week by week basis.

Until it was all over.

And the future was a horrible gaping maw that Ash hadn’t realised he was standing in.

The rest of his life was a possibility.

And no, he was tired of guns. He was tired of revenge and backstabbing and sleeping rough. Not to say that he wanted to settle down upstate and work at a gas station for the rest of his life. But maybe upstate – with Eiji – maybe visits to New York to see the gang, maybe college, maybe travelling. There were so many maybes that it was almost scary.

Ash stared at the plaster on his forearm, covering where the needles were in his skin.

Only one thing really seemed to matter.

“You’re not going to send Eiji back to Japan?”

Max leant back in the chair, eyes crinkled and sparkling.

“It’s like you said. You can’t make that boy do anything.”

 

Chapter Text

(A/N): Just a little note that the western AU is up. It's called Bed of Roses xx