I was running a little later than usual but that didn't stop the spring in my step. Opting to walk to work had been a good decision, and it had brought me everything I expected and more: fresh air, a light burn in my legs, chattering birds, multiple opportunities to flip the bird at shitty drivers who almost hit me, and even some delicious churros from a new street vendor.
I overestimated my own chewing abilities and was half-gagging on a mouthful of delicious sugar when I turned the corner and came close enough to the parlor to see four figures standing out on the deck. Gulping down my food, I squinted to make out Bones, Kong, Sing, and...Ash?
"Yo!" I exclaimed and waved as I got closer and ran up to them. "Oi, Ash, what's the hold up?"
"Forgot my key," he muttered quietly.
He was wearing a jacket with the hood up even though it wasn't that cold and there hadn't been a drop of rain on my whole walk over. He was also standing a bit off to the side from everyone else while Kong and Bones seemed to be showing each other pictures on their phones and smiling. Sing was off to the opposite side of the porch from Ash, staring quietly at his phone as well.
I blinked. "What? You? Forgot?"
"What's with all the pauses, is it that hard to believe? You forget to eat your Lunchables before they rot but I can't forget my key?"
"Lunchables don't rot!"
"You were there when I cleaned the fridge! You saw it! You found a way!"
Ash slumped up against the front wall of the parlor and slid down 'til he was sitting with his long legs stretched out. The motion had resulted in his hood coming down and I was able to get a closer look at his face. His hair looked more matted than usual and it hung extremely messily over his face. It was like he hadn't even brushed a hand through it since waking up, much less a comb.
"Hello," a new voice said quietly from behind me. I turned my head to find our latest apprentice, a young-looking foreigner who thus far seemed nice but very timid.
"Eiji!" Bones exclaimed, running over to him. Eiji jumped a little, clearly a bit stunned by the sheer amount of volume and energy so early in the day. Nonetheless, Eiji waved politely.
"Hey Eiji," Kong said, coming over closer as well.
"Look at this cat!" Bones exclaimed, practically shoving his phone into Eiji's face. "It shoved its head through a piece of bread!"
I glanced away from the commotion and back toward Sing, who was still off to the side and staring down at his phone. No, not staring, but outright glaring now. I didn't want to ask about it in front of the others, but hopefully I could sneak into his room between clients and feign interest in something else, try and suss out some clues.
Ash, meanwhile, had his eyes shut. His head slumped back against the wall, and the upper half of his face was barely visible behind the swirled and ill-kept bangs. The more I looked, the worse he looked. It was like he'd awoken with serious bedhead, fallen out of said bed and onto the ground, and done nothing with his hair since. There were literally thick clumps just jutting off to the side in places.
I frowned. What had happened to him? Frankly, he looked like shit. But I didn't ask, and everyone else had probably been too scared to. A tired and disheveled Ash is a cranky Ash, and a cranky Ash is a dangerous Ash. I furrowed my brow and wondered how to go about checking up on him throughout the day without alerting him to what I was doing. If I was too obvious he'd just tell me to fuck off and get out of his studio. Granted, he only called his room that when he wanted to feign seriousness and get rid of me.
"Yo," another new voice rang from behind me. I turned around again to see Alex walking up to us. "What's everyone standing out here for?"
"Ash forgot his key," Sing said.
Alex just stood silently for a moment, surprised but opting not to comment.
"No problem," he said, reaching a hand down into his jean pocket. "I have mine"
Thank God, I thought. Ash, Alex, and Max were the only ones with key to the building, and Max wasn't even scheduled to come in that day. Alex unlocked the door and we all shuffled in, going our separate ways to make coffee, look over schedules, and otherwise get ahead of things before the parlor officially opened.
In the midst of all the moving around, I noticed something: while Alex, Bones, and Kong all made at least brief remarks to Eiji as he sat down on one of the couches with his sketchbook, Ash didn't. Sing sticking entirely to himself didn't surprise me; I would have been more surprised if he didn't. But Ash had seemed to take a quick liking to Eiji yesterday, even if he never would have acknowledged as much himself. More telling than that, however, was the pair's constant physical distance from one another. Eiji would occasionally glance over from across the room, and on the one occasion where their eyes met Ash immediately averted his gaze.
With all that on my mind, I began looking through the day's appointment schedule to get my barrings. Who would be free when? Not just for walk-ins, but for me to poke my own nosy head into their business as well. Subtly, of course.
Not that Sing agreed with my definition of the word. I'd walked into his room about an hour after the shop opened, once he'd finished giving his first client a navel piercing and sent them on their way. I was only halfway through a "Hello" when he interrupted me.
"What is it, Shorter?!"
He'd looked up from his phone to face me, with anger prominently arched in his brow. Just as quickly as he'd snapped, however, his face fell and he grew quieter.
"S...sorry, bro. I didn't mean to, I..." he averted his eyes, glanced back down at his phone screen. "Sorry."
I quietly closed the door behind me. "What's up? Everything okay?"
Sing kept avoiding eye contact and spoke plainly, tiredly. "Yeah, Shorter, don't worry about me. Go do whatever you need to."
I knew I wouldn't get anywhere without pushing a little, and so I took a guess. "Is it Lao?"
Sing looked up at me, eyes wide. "How did you..."
"I didn't," I said. "Just an educated guess. It's usually him or Ash that gets you mad, and you seemed more...quiet mad. Less annoyed, more actually offended."
Sing turned his gaze back down to his lap and groaned. "I hate it when you play psychoanalyst."
"Only because I'm good at it."
I drew closer, stood over him and brought a hand down. Ruffled his hair a bit before bending down and shifting from the intimate gesture and into a noogie.
"Yow, quit it!" Sing protested, punching the inside of my arm.
I groaned, then laughed. "I'll quit if you give me a little more to go on. What did Lao do now?"
"Nothing. Just more of the usual family stuff."
I heard the sound of the front door opening. Probably a client I needed to go greet and get checked in. I looked back at Sing before opening the door, however.
"You do enough, Sing. More than enough. It's not your job to keep the whole world afloat."
"Yeah, yeah..." Sing said, looking back down at his phone. I heard a faint buzz emanating from it. "Go see what's up out front, Shorter, I'm fine."
"Don't worry, your perfect caring elder Shorter will be back to check on you in a bit," I said, smiling on my way out. I heard a faint grumbling behind me as I closed the door and headed back up front.
After greeting a young blond woman who had walked in and getting her set up to be tattooed by Alex, I took a seat in front of the computer at the front desk. With no tasks requiring my immediate attention, I shifted focus over to Eiji on the couch. He was still drawing away in his sketchbook, mostly oblivious to whatever else was happening around him. He'd seemed a bit shy the day before and even this morning when Bones had kept jabbering away at him. None of which was exactly surprising. Eiji was still new, and Bones could be a walking sensory overload at times. But what was the deal with Eiji and Ash?
My mind shifted to their subtle avoidance of each other that morning, and then to a surprising sight the day prior: of the two sitting close together in Ash's room with their hands touching. To be fair Ash looked like he'd been showing Eiji how to hold a tattoo gun, but even that gesture seemed unusually friendly coming from him. He yelled at me all the time and we hadn't just met.
Far from it, in fact. How many years had it been since we first met? Since I came face to face with a version of Ash that was even scrawnier than he was now, but with eyes every bit as cold and piercing?
My pondering was interrupted by a pinging noise from the computer in front of me. A notification box popped up and grabbed my attention with the name up top:
Nadia. What was my sister messaging me about? I clicked on the notification and the full e-mail loaded up.
Hey little brother,
Why haven't you called me in three weeks?!
Just kidding. I hope you're doing well. It's the same old, same old for me. The restaurant is doing well. Or at least, as well as it's able to since my best employee up and quit on me.
I just hired some new part-timers. Not much younger than you, but even louder, if you can imagine it. They're not terrible workers, but I do have to keep pushing them a lot. They can't think one step ahead, much less five like you can.
Anyway, I was thinking. When we visit Mom and Dad's grave this year, why don't we make a trip of it? Pay our respects, but then go be tourists together somewhere. I don't know where, but just to get away together for a bit. Do you think you'd be able to get some extra days off work? Just let me know.
I stared at the email in silence for a minute, uneasy. Guilt bubbled up in my gut, and when a pair of potential clients came walking in through the front door I welcomed the distraction. Replying to Nadia would have to wait, although the first part of the e-mail made me feel shame over that as well. I pushed it down as best I could and plastered a giant smile on.
"Hello! What can I do for you?"
It turned out that the pair who'd just walked in were a couple and they were looking to get matching tattoos. After discussing sizes, placements, prices, and all the legal ID and waver procedure I checked the time. Schedule-wise, Ash had the longest gap until his next appointment. I walked back down the hall and knocked on his door. I heard a faint grunt that I took as permission to enter.
"Hello, hello, hello!' I exclaimed cheerily as I let myself in.
"What is it, Shorter?"
He didn't sound as angry as Sing had when he asked me the same question, but I could tell my presence was still an annoyance. Ash's hair still looked like a giant mess, and he appeared to be halfway through a drawing. I recognized it as a sleeve design he'd been working on since a recent consultation with a regular.
"I've got a couple out front waiting to have their love enshrined in matching ink," I said. "Care to take a stab at it?"
"I'll stab you if you don't stop being so corny. Fine, I'll be out in a minute. Am I making something custom or did they bring a design with them?"
I held up a photocopy in my hands. "Already printed for ya, boss man."
"Just because Max isn't here doesn't mean I'm now the boss," Ash grumbled, then looked up from what he was working on to see what I'd printed out:
A heart shape made out of two deer facing each other, one with horns to represent the male half of the couple. The female was his doe. Biologically accurate as it was, the design still looked bit lopsided.
"I hate this damn trend," Ash sighed.
"Yeah, well, at least you've had a lot of practice at it, right? Give 'em the works!"
"I'll be up front in a minute."
"Shut the fuck up, Shorter."
I gave a hearty smile and wave as I exited the room and walked back up front. Before long Ash arrived to usher the couple back, leaving me alone again except for Eiji scribbling away at his sketchbook in the corner. I'd noticed Ash take a quick glance at the other boy while he was up front before averting his eyes again. I took that as a sign to investigate other people's business again instead of my own. Yet another excuse not to try and write up my reply to Nadia just yet.
"Yo, Eiji, want anything?" I asked as I pulled a Pepsi out of the mini-fridge.
"No thank you," he said, shaking his head while still looking down at the sketchbook in front of him.
"How's your drawing going?" I asked, taking a swig of my Pepsi and walking over closer to the couch.
"Okay," Eiji said. "But I worry it's not good enough."
I walked further and slightly behind Eiji so I could peer down at what he was working on. It already looked like a finished piece to me: a black and gray, photorealistic rendering of a tiger's head, mouth wide open and fangs practically dripping with bloodlust even in just 2D.
"Shit, Eiji, what do you mean? That looks awesome. You have any idea how many straight boys we get in here every week who would love to get that done on them?" I asked.
Eiji blinked, then blushed. "Thanks. I'm less disappointed in this piece than I am in a lot of my others, though. Max is gonna flip through and realize I'm not consistent enough to keep around."
"Nah, dude, working through the pressure is part of the process. Hell, that's really impressive for only your second day."
I paused to examine the tiger more closely. The texture of the fur looked immaculate, as did the slight wetness on the nose. The turned back angle of the ears also added a sense of personality and of anger, like the beast was on the hunt, moments away from leaping forward with its claws extended.
"By the way," I said, "Did something happen between you and Ash yesterday?"
Eiji dropped his pencil on the ground and whipped his head up to look at me, eyes and mouth wide. "Huh?! How did...did he say something?"
Yet another correct guess. Sing was right, I was good at this.
"Nah," I said. "Just a hunch. He seemed to take an awful fast liking to you yesterday. He doesn't usually talk to newbies for their first solid week or two. But then I haven't seen you talk at all today."
No need to mention that he had very clearly been avoiding talking that morning, that he'd been going out of his way just to not even look at Eiji.
Eiji's shoulders slumped a bit and his expression was hard to gauge. He almost looked a bit relieved, though there was still clearly stress written across his face.
"I ran into him at the convenience store last night," Eiji said. "We talked for a bit. It seemed to be going really well but...then he just bolted."
I nodded. Ash had a tendency to disappear quickly whenever something touched a little close to home and sent him spiraling. But what would have triggered it, assuming I was right?
"I want to apologize..." Eiji's sad voice interrupted my thoughts. "...but I'm not sure what I did and I don't want to bother him."
"I doubt it was your fault," I said honestly. "Ash is..." I struggled to find the words. There were a lot of things that weren't mine to say. "He just has a lot going on," I settled on. The words sounded flimsy and inadequate, but there wasn't much else I could give away in good conscience.
Eiji nodded, and the sadness in his eyes went straight to my heart. "Yeah...sure."
Before I could think of anything else to say, Bones and Kong loudly made their presence known.
"Lunch time, lunch time, lunch time!" Bones repeated gleefully.
"Wanna come with us, guys?" Kong asked.
"I need to stay here to watch the desk," I said.
"I've got it," another voice said. I turned my head to find that Alex had emerged from the back as well. "Go ahead Shorter, I'll cover you today. I don't have any appointments for another hour."
"Thanks, Alex," I said.
"You come too, Eiji!" Bones exclaimed. "Ooo, show us what you're drawing!"
Eiji timidly turned his sketchbook around so that everyone could see the tiger drawing I'd examined a few minutes prior.
"Kickass," Kong commented.
"How do you draw so good?!" Bones asked. "Eiiijiiiiii, teach me to draw!"
"Alright now, let's go," I said. "Where to?"
Eiji set his sketchbook to the side and the four of us started making our way out.
"Maybe Taco Bell," Kong said.
"How about pizza?" I asked.
Bones hopped back and forth excitedly, then turned to Eiji. "What about you, Eiji? What do you want?"
"Whatever you all want is fine," Eiji replied.
"I second pizza. Pizza, pizza!" Bones exclaimed.
"Pizza it is then," I said, and we took a turn down toward a local pizza shop. It was only about a five minute walk away.
Once we'd arrived and got our food, the four of us crammed together into a tight booth and began to eat.
"So Eiji, what sort of piercing do you want?" Bones asked almost intelligably with half a piece of pizza in his mouth.
"Oh, um...uh...I don't know what I would look good with?" Eiji said with a mouth not full of pizza. He was eating slowly, taking much smaller and neater bites than the rest of us. Admittedly, we didn't know much shame.
"What's this about piercing Eiji?" I asked.
"I wanna welcome him with a free piercing!" Bones said through another mouthful of crust. "What do you think would look good on him?"
"Hmm. Maybe an eyebrow? Or a lip ring?" I suggested.
"Not my mouth," Eiji shook his head. "My eyebrow could be alright."
"An eyebrow ring would look good on you," Kong concurred.
"Let's do it!" Bones exclaimed happily.
"Sure," Eiji said. He smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. Bones didn't seem to notice though, and he started rattling off questions about favorite colors and types of jewelry.
Once we'd all finished eating we walked back to the parlor and I relieved Alex of desk duty so he could go to lunch. Eiji sat back down on one of the couches and got back to drawing while Bones and Kong went back to their studios. It was fairly busy for a while between multiple afternoon appointments and multiple walk-ins. Just when I thought things had died down, Sing came up front to disrupt the peace with barely held back rage.
"Shorter," he said tersely.
"Do I need to have a talk with Lao?" I asked. I was used to hearing Sing complain about his brother, but now he was practically shaking. His fists were clenched at his side and there was even sweat falling down his forehead.
"Not Lao," Sing said. "Ash."
I blinked. Oh no. With both men in horrible moods, who knew what could have happened...
"He complimented my work," Sing answered my unvoiced question.
I blinked again. "Huh?"
"He complimented my work," Sing said again, hands shaking wildly, fingers clenching.
"I know you don't like showing him your feelings, but...isn't that what you've been trying to get him to do ever since you got here?" I asked.
"No. I wanted to earn his respect. Not like this. He just passed through the hall on his way to the bathroom, looked into my room just as I was finishing up with a client, and you know what he said?"
"...'Nice work'?" I guessed.
Sing nodded. "So casually! Like it was nothing! Like he hasn't spent our every interaction since we first met telling me that my piercings look like stab wounds! So casually like he compliments me all the time! Like...like...like he thinks I deserve to be here!"
I blinked, and thought back to Ash's disheveled hair that morning. To him forgetting his key and avoiding Eiji's line of sight. I tried to picture Ash calmly complimenting Sing.
"Something is wrong," I said.
"You're damn right it is!" Sing exclaimed. "Shorter! Fix him! Make him take it back! Say he didn't like my piercing!"
"But you want him to compliment you," I said.
"Not like this!" Sing exclaimed before storming back down the hall to his room.
First Lao giving him a hard time, then Ash failing to give him a hard time. Sing was really getting put through the ringer.
I glanced back over to Eiji, who was still the only one up front besides me. His head was down as he kept drawing away. For a moment I considered asking him about Ash again, but I decided against it. There was too much Eiji didn't know, and I didn't want to bring any of it up. It would be better just to go to the source to learn more.
Which is why I ignored Ash's instructions later that day.
"You guys can go on without me," Ash had said at closing time. "I'm gonna stay late to do some more drawing."
The rest of us had given our chorus of goodbyes, and as Alex was preparing to lock up I remembered something.
"Can I see your key?" I asked him. "Ash forgot his this morning, so I'll give it to him for him to lock up with tonight."
Alex nodded. Looking over his shoulder to see that the rest of the guys had already made it a ways down the sidewalk, he looked at me seriously. "Is he okay?"
"I don't know," I said. "But I'm going to find out."
And so I re-entered the parlor, locked the front door behind me, and quietly made my way down the hall. The door to Ash's room was open. I stood in the doorway and swung Alex's key around by the ring.
"You'll need this to lock up tonight," I said.
Ash stared at me for a moment. "Oh. Yeah. Right. Thanks."
He extended a hand toward me and I plopped the key down in it. Ash then set it on the counter in front of where he was sitting. Nosily I peered over his shoulder to see what he was working on, but there wasn't any paper in front of him.
"Go on home, Shorter," he said.
"Not until you talk to me."
"What if I don't wanna talk?" Ash asked with a smirk.
"Then get talking faster so you'll get done talking sooner. I'm not leaving if you don't talk to me."
Ash sighed and turned his chair around to face me. "What?"
I smiled and sat down in a chair across from him. "You look like shit."
"Damn Shorter, tact much?"
"You've never cared about tact a day in your life."
"Fair enough." A slight smile.
I returned his with one of my own. "Sing said you complimented his work."
"Yeah, I did. Is that a problem?"
"He was literally shaking," I laughed. "I don't think he could handle it. You fried his brain. Shoved it in the microwave and pressed Start."
"Good," Ash smiled. "I should do it more often. Keep him on his toes."
"Maybe," I said. "But what about Eiji?"
Ash's slight smile vanished. "What about him?"
"Whatever's wrong has to do with him, right?"
Ash was silent. Bingo.
"He's worried that you're mad at him," I continued. "Did something happen?"
"No. I mean yes, but no. Eiji didn't do anything wrong?"
"So you're doing the noble act of pinning everything on yourself and then refusing to talk about it with anyone? Making sure no one can even think about comforting you?"
"You are the nosiest person on the face of the Earth."
"Is that why I'm your best friend? Because I'm a good source of intel?"
"It doesn't hurt."
"Cheeky. Now talk to me."
"We are talking."
"Talk to me."
Ash sighed and looked down at his feet. I kept my eyes on him and smiled. After a few moments he rubbed a hand against his forehead and groaned.
"I ran into him after work last night and then I kissed him," Ash said.
"That's it? Just 'Huh'?"
"It wasn't what I was expecting. But go on, tell me more."
Ash looked back down at his feet. "I kissed him and he kissed me and it...was really, really good."
"Is that a blush I see forming on your cheeks?" I asked.
"Don't make me throw you out of here with my bare hands," Ash snapped.
"Testy, testy," I said. "Sorry. But I'm glad. You know. That it was...good."
"I'm not used to kissing people because I want to," Ash said matter-of-factly.
Ding ding ding. Light bulbs flashed in my head; the routes from point A to point B to point C all cleared up. We were entering territory where I no longer wanted to be glib.
I just nodded. "Did something else happen to make things awkward afterward?"
"It was my fault," Ash replied, monotone. "I need to tell him I'm not mad. It was me."
"It was you who did what?"
"Did you have a flashback? You two kissed and then you had to get away?"
Ash shook his head. "It wasn't then. He wanted to walk me home. Did walk me home. Partway. But I was so wrapped up in talking to him that I didn't realize we'd turned onto the route that takes you past the old baseball diamond."
I nodded. The final missing puzzle piece fell into place.
"And you ran," I said.
"I tried not to," Ash replied.
"No it's not. I just left him there, and now he..."
"It's okay," I repeated myself, speaking more firmly. I reached a hand out and squeezed Ash's shoulder.
He didn't flinch, didn't pull away. It was one of the few physical gestures Ash had grown comfortable with in all our years together. It had become a reliable method I could use to calm him down, bring him back to Earth. To try and keep him anchored.
We both sat silently for a moment without speaking. Ash's expression looked troubled but less self-loathing, which I took as a success. After breathing out another heavy sigh, he stood up.
"No problem. You ready to go home?"
"Yeah. Don't know why I thought I was gonna stay here."
"Well, your apartment is pretty shitty."
"Just keep insulting everything about me," Ash smirked.
"Not you. Your apartment."
We headed out, locking the front door behind us and beginning to walk home. We both lived on the same side of town, so our routes remained aligned for a while.
"I'll have to try and figure out what to say to him tomorrow," Ash said.
I nodded. "It's still pretty early in the night. Shame you don't have any way of seeing him now."
Then, as if on queue, a few gears started turning in my brain.
"Wait...how did you end up running into him yesterday again?" I asked.
"I went down to the convenience store by my place and he happened to be there too."
"So he lives nearby?"
"Yeah. We even ended up going to his place. I don't wanna just show up unannounced though."
I nodded. "Yeah, that could be awkward. If only you had his number."
I stopped walking and turned to look at Ash. He then stopped and stared back at me.
"What?" he asked.
"So text him! See if you can meet up now!"
"But that would be..." Ash began, staring down at his feet and looking away from my insistent face. "It would be weird. I should talk to him in person."
"You will! By texting him to meet up!"
"I don't know if I should initiate it over text."
"If you don't do it now you'll keep avoiding eye contact tomorrow, holding out for a perfect time that won't come because you'll always tell yourself to wait until after your next appointment, or after you help out your current walk-in."
Ash was silent as we kept walking; he'd run out of excuses.
"Text him," I prodded.
"No," Ash said.
I reached over for Ash's hoodie pocket in an attempt to fish his phone out.
"Fine, I'll do it!"
"Good," I smiled.
Ash stopped for a moment to stare down at his phone anxiously, typing up a quick text.
"Are you happy now?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied.
Ash punched me in the shoulder.
We kept walking up until it was time to split paths. I thought about prodding a little more and asking Eiji had replied, but I opted not to. Hopefully I'd lit enough of a fire under Ash to get him going without my incessent pushing for the rest of the night.
And so I ended up walking the rest of the way home to my apartment, combing through the fridge for an easy dinner, and sitting down at my computer. I pulled up my e-mail and at the top of the inbox was the message from Nadia. I sighed, clicked Reply, and tried to figure out what to say.