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Banana Fish Tattoo Co.

Chapter Text

"We're here!" Max said, pulling his key out of the ignition. I unbuckled my seatbelt and followed him out of the jeep; we were parked in vacant lot across the street from a number of single-story houses and a convenience store.

"There she is on the left," Max said, pointing to the far end of the strip before dwellings met trees and what looked like the edge of a park. "She's a beaut, ain't she?"

I followed Max's line of sight to the last house on the block just to realize that it wasn't a house. Architecturally the building blended right in with the rest. The front steps, porch, and everything could have easily passed for a modest house, home to some overworked but happy family ala the Simpsons. The white panels and blue paint were all a bit faded from time and the weather, but not so much as to look decrepit. The only real hint that the house was not in fact a house came from a large and also faded wooden sign tacked up next to the front door:

BANANA FISH TATTOO CO.

The text was in all caps, a faint yellow against white plywood. I imagined that it had probably once been bolder and easier to notice from afar, but even now the sign was quite distinct once you actually looked at it. That was thanks not to the words or material but to the bizarre logo: a large fish (a sturgeon?) jutting out from within a half-opened banana peel.

"How many people work here?" I asked as we walked across the street to the parlor.

"You'll be the seventh, not counting me. You're be the oldest except for me, too."

That surprised me. "I'm only twenty-seven!"

"Heh. Yeah, well, what can I say? Somehow I keep running into talented guys almost young enough to be my kids. Although..."

Max paused as we reached the front steps; indistinct yelling could be heard coming from inside the building.

"...a lot of them are much bigger pains in my ass than my actual kid is," Max said, holding the door open for me. I walked through, then he shut the door behind us. I glanced around to get a good look at my new workplace and to find the source of all the commotion.

To the left were two parallel couches and some low chairs with a long coffee table in the middle. There were a number of thick binders on the table, presumably filled with examples of the employees' work. To the right was what looked like a check-in counter. I saw a computer, printer, phone, register, and some shelves tacked up against the wall stocked with piercing solution and tattoo ointment. Beside the counter a hallway extended toward the back, presumably to where the artists' workrooms all were.

At the moment there were four men strewn across the front area. One of them was standing up by the couches, staring daggers at another man who was seated. The two others, also seated, looked amused.

"All I'm saying is, stop talking down to me as if I'm less talented than you!" The one standing shouted. He was the shortest in the room, and he looked like he was only in his early twenties. He was also very skinny and just scrawny all around. His hair was black and barely extended past his ears.

"Let's see your line-work match mine, Sing," the object of the standing boy's ire said. He was a blond about my age, maybe slightly younger, with wavy and ruffled up shoulder length hair. His eyes were green and his jawline was quite pronounced. Upon looking up from his lap to peer over at Max and I, he smiled.

I gulped. I hadn't even introduced myself to anyone yet and already I found one of my undoubtably straight coworkers hot.

"Of course my line-work won't match yours, I don't even do line-work! I'm a piercer!" the one standing— Sing, I presumed— argued.

"So you admit you're less talented than me," the blond said flatly. His grin was barely perceptible, just a slight upturn at one corner of his mouth. My stomach fluttered. Oh no. He was really hot.

"How dare you?!" Sing yelled. He opened his mouth again then closed it in quick succession, like he was searching for his next retort but was too angry to even speak.

Then one of the other figures on the couch turned his head to look up at Sing. "Come on bro, you know he's just riling you up. You're only letting him win by falling for it."

This guy was also probably only a year or two younger than me. Of everyone in the room, he stood out the most. He was wearing tinted black sunglasses indoors and had a tall purple mohawk swooped slightly to one side.

"Shut up, Shorter," Sing pouted, but he did visibly deflate. He gave one last indignant glance in the blonde's direction before looking over at me and Max. His eyes widened. In all his anger, it seemed he hadn't even noticed us come in. "Oh, Max! And uh...uh?"

"Eiji," I said.

"Oh! You're the new apprentice Max mentioned!"

"Yes, he is. And I don't want him to walk out on his first day so settle down, will ya?" Max asked.

"Yes, sir," Sing said.

"Will ya?" Max repeated, staring over at the blond.

"What? I didn't do anything," he said.

"Yeah, right. Anyway, everybody introduce yourselves. Where're Bones and Kong?"

"They have clients in the back," the guy in shades with the purple mohawk said. He then got up from his spot on the couch and walked over to reach out a hand. I grabbed it timidly.

"I'm Shorter," he smiled.

"Eiji," I said, giving his hand a shake.

"I'm Sing," the shorter boy across the room said, very obviously still refusing to look at the blond.

The blond in turn chuckled and looked at me. "I'm Ash," he said with another slight grin.

Holy fuck, he was hot.

"Nice to meet you," I said.

'Yo," the last man on the couch said. He wasn't far down from Ash. His medium-length hair was brown and he was decked out almost entirely in denim: blue jeans, a jean jacket, and a white tank top underneath. "I'm Alex."

"You'll meet Kong and Bones whenever they finish up with their customers," Max said. "Bones is a piercer, same as Sing. The rest of the staff are all tattoo artists. All except Shorter anyway, he's the front desk attendant."

"I handle all the phone calls where moms get mad we won't pierce their literal babies' ears," Shorter said. "That and I beat up anyone who doesn't read the sign."

He pointed over at a small frame on the rightside counter and I squinted to read the elaborately stitched cursive text inside:

TIP OR DIE

From the couches to the artists' portfolio books to the warning frame, I already felt a bit more relaxed. I hadn't even realized how heavy my shoulders felt until said weight began to dissipate a bit. So far, Banana Fish seemed a lot like the various parlors I'd visited over the years to get a teeny tattoo here, a tiny tattoo there. Small symbols and such on my ankles, collar bone, shoulder. Nothing big, but I wasn't a stranger to parlors.

"You'll spend today just drawing," Max said, handing me a sketchbook he'd grabbed from over behind the counter. I flipped through it; it was all blank, fairly thick and good artist's stock paper. "Ibe's shown me some of what you can do, but still I like to spend a while just getting a feel for new guys' stuff."

I nodded. "Where should I set up so I'm not in anyone's way?"

"You can move around wherever you want, whatever's most comfortable," Max said.

"You're real friendly with this one, old man. You know each other already?" Ash asked.

"He's a friend of a friend. Nice so far, too, unlike you." Max turned to look back at me, then tilted his head toward Ash. "Feel free to get in his way as much as you want. The disrespectful brat deserves it."

Ash just gave another barely visible grin. Before long Max announced that he had errands to run but would come back to pick me up before the shop closed. For the time being I was just to spend the day drawing, and I could get to know the rest of the staff a bit as long as I didn't stop working myself. Shorter seemed nice, Alex was quiet, and Sing was...passionate, but didn't immediately strike me as a bad person.

Ash, well...I could tell Ash was a bit of a wisemouth, but he wasn't necessarily bad either. And every time we caught each other's eyes briefly and I saw the corner of his lip tug upwards, I felt in danger of blushing.

Day one of my new job with the hot blond guy and five other artists and piercers, all younger than me. I felt a bit anxious but hopeful, unaware of how much was yet to come in that faded building with the plywood banana fish sign out front.


I spent the first hour and a half or so of the day sitting in a corner on one of the couches, just drawing away in the sketchbook. Max hadn't given me any instructions on what to draw; when I'd asked he simply smiled and told me to show him what all I could do. I took that to mean that should cover various subject matter and styles, but thus far I just felt like I was producing scribbles. It wasn't the worst work I'd ever done but I still felt a bit nervous and my lines weren't coming out very cleanly. It didn't help that I'd been more focused on photography than fine art for so long.

Meanwhile the parlor had opened up shop for the day and people shuffled in and out of the front waiting area. Staff members came in and out from the back to greet clients, do consultations, take smoke breaks, etc. Clients (not customers but specifically "clients", they seemed to be consistently referred to as) also entered in waves, some for appointments, others hoping to squeeze a walk-in during gaps in the artists' schedules. Shorter kept busy throughout passing out forms, photocopying IDs, and just generally answering questions both in person and on the phone.

After trying to work surrounded by all the hubbub for a while, I glanced up to see Alex emerging from the hallway and into the front.

"How's it going?" he asked, giving me a nod.

I glanced down at the notebook page in front of me. I was halfway through rendering a gnarled tree with branches whose widths differed due to my shaky line-work almost as often as they did intentionally.

"Not great," I said. "Nerves, I guess. I dont feel panicked but...it's still not coming out right."

Alex nodded again. "We were all like that our first few days. Why don't you come sit in on my next appointment? It'll be quieter, might help out a bit."

"Sure," I said. "Thanks."

"Cool. I'm gonna go take a smoke before the client get here, I'll show you my room when I get back."

He then headed out the front door. After a few minutes of me repeatedly erasing and redrawing tree branches he walked back in and beckoned for me to follow. Sketchbook by my side I walked down the hall with him, saw how it curved. Besides a restroom all the openings were to the artists' individual workrooms. Some doors were closed, others shut; I caught glimpses of Sing piercing one client and of someone I didn't recognize halfway through tattooing a giant piece on another client's calf. Judging by the nameplate on his door I surmised that this tattooer was the Kong I'd heard mentioned earlier.

Alex's room was almost at the very end of the hall. He opened the door up and I followed him inside. The room was fairly small, with a large green chair more akin to a hospital bed than anything else I could think of. There was also a short stool, a few plastic chairs tucked against the wall, a counter top and cabinets, and various framed photos and posters on the wall.

"You can take a seat in the corner," Alex said. "It should be quieter back here than out front with the door opening constantly and eighteen-year-olds telling Shorter all about their custom designs. My next appointment should get here in ten minutes or so. He's a regular, won't mind you sitting in."

I nodded. "Thanks, Alex."

He nodded back, then headed out front upon hearing a faint yelling of his name in Shorter's voice. I assumed his next client had shown up a bit early.

Alone for the moment, I glanced at the walls around me. Some frames contained photographs of what was assumedly Alex's work. Judging by his choices of pieces to showcase, he seemed to specialize in American traditional. There was also another "Tip or die" picture framed, this one with cursive letters twisting around to aesthetically match the snake twisting through the eye socket of a skull below them. Stylistically, the line-work was similar enough to the rest of the pictures that Alex might have drawn it himself.

Before long Alex returned with his client: a tall brunette in his forties with barely any visible skin left that wasn't already tattooed. We gave each other obligatory nods and Alex began his prep work: shaving his canvas to be (a medium-sized spot on the back of the man's lower leg, in between a portrait of Babe Ruth and a demented looking SpongeBob) and applying a stencil.

As the room grew silent save for the low buzzing of Alex's tattoo gun, I focused back on my own art. I wasn't happy with the tree scene I'd drawn but it at least looked some semblance of finished, and it was about time I started another piece. I turned the page and began to sketch out a beach landscape. I improvised as I went, set on having a lighthouse in th background but unsure of what else. I erased and adjusted the heights and placements of crags and birds as felt most natural.

My sketch phase was long finished and I'd added a fair amount of detail to the clouds and birds by the time Alex wrapped up tattooing his client. The finished piece really good: a semi-realistic heart with veins that were bold red and seemed almost like they were pulsing. It wasn't just because the skin was actually reddened from the irritation of tattooing either; Alex's lines were smooth and flowed expertly. The tattoo looked leagues better than anything I had drawn all day.

I glanced back down at my sketchbook. At least my hand had gotten a lot less shakey than earlier. The beach scene didn't look bad thus far.

"I'm gonna head out to lunch once I'm all done bandaging this up," Alex said, nodding over to me.

"Okay," I said, nodding back. Once the client's open wound had been covered up with ointment and a layer of plastic, I followed him and Alex out to the front area. The guy spouted multiple ecstatic curses to tell Alex how good the tattoo looked and Alex simply nodded, gave a calm "Thanks" and waved goodbye.

Right as the client left, two more people shuffled into the front area from the back.

"Alex!" We're going to go grab food, come with us!" This half of the pair was about my height with long pink bangs and a pony tail. I also quickly noticed his snaggletooth as he flailed around excitedly and continued jabbering on at Alex.

"Yeah, give us a ride, will ya?" The other man asked. He was extremely tall and also had a ponytail, but his extended out of a mohawk. I recognized him as the tattooer whose room I had passed by earlier: Kong.

"Sorry guys, I'm actually meeting my girlfriend for lunch. See you later," Alex said before heading out the front door.

Kong and the pink-haired snaggletooth pouted for a moment before glancing in my direction. Their faces then contorted into giant smiles.

"Hey, new guy! Come eat with us!"

I gulped. I didn't know these two yet at all, but I didn't want to turn them down. "Sure..."

"What's your name, new guy?"

"Um...I'm Eiji. You're...Kong? And..." I struggled to remember the other name I'd heard mentioned that morning.

"Bones," the shorter man said with a smile. "There's some food trucks that park about ten minutes from here; we'll walk you over."

"Careful, Eiji," Shorter called from over by the front desk. "Don't let them drag you into anything too stupid."

Bones simply stuck his tongue out at Shorter before opening the front door, and I followed him and Kong as they they walked across the street, down sidewalks, and past some strip malls.

"So how long have you been tattooing?" Kong asked.

"I, uh...I haven't. I'm just an apprentice."

"Oh wow, you're that new?" Bones asked.

I nodded.

"The boss doesn't usually hire total newbies. You're a friend of a friend, right?"

"I was an assistant to Max's friend Ibe for a while, but Ibe is about to head back to Japan and I..." I paused. What to say to dodge the question without being too obvious about it? "...I didn't really want to go back."

"Oh wow, you're from Japan?" Kong asked.

"はい。"

"Did you grow up there?"

"Yes. I moved to the States when I was nineteen."

"That's cool. We're both from New York," Bones said. "Like, NYC. We moved out here a few years back when we got hired at the parlor."

"Are you two old friends?" I asked.

"Yeah," Kong said. "Since we were kids."

We then turned a corner and I could see three food trucks parked in a small and otherwise empty lot. We walked over and Kong and Bones headed over to one with signs for burgers. I walked over to another for a hot dog and soda. After we'd all gotten our food we started walking back to the studio, talking between bites along the way.

"You've been an artist for a while, right?" Kong asked.

I nodded. "I've mostly worked in photography since moving over here, but I've been drawing and painting since forever. I went to art school in Japan but didn't finish."

"Same here. Except, well, not in Japan," Kong said.

I nodded.

"I draw sometimes but I'm not good at it," Bones said. "So I get to poke people with needles instead."

I laughed. "I've never gotten any piercings."

The other two stopped walking and gawked at me.

"You're working in a tattoo parlor and you've never gotten pierced?" Kong asked.

I shook my head.

"I know what we're doing once the shop closes for the day," Bones said.

"I'm broke," I said. "I lost almost all my money on the security deposit for my new apartment."

"I'm not gonna charge you, you work with us!" Bones said. "Hell, I'll even cover the jewelry. It'll be our welcome gift."

"Thanks," I said, feeling a genuine smile form on my lips. It wasn't a sensation I'd experienced often as of late. I still didn't feel like I knew the pair well, but they were very nice and I already felt relaxed by the prospect of working with them.

The three of us made a little more small talk until we got back to the parlor. Kong went back to his room to start prepping for another appointment and Bones relieved Shorter of desk duty while Shorter went off to lunch. I returned to my spot on the sofa and resumed drawing.

I stayed there for another couple of hours, cuddled up on a couch corner and trying to work in different styles. I drew a cartoony human eye, then took a stab and a fairly realistic skull before returning to the beach and lighthouse scene I'd started earlier.

At one point when he'd gotten back from lunch and business had died down, Shorter walked over to me.

"Anything I can get you, Eiji?" he asked. "Water or anything?"

"Sure," I said. "Water would be great."

He then fetched a bottle from a mini-fridge under the desk and handed it to me; I gladly accepted it and took a gulp.

"How long have you worked here?" I asked.

"About six years give or take," he said.

"Oh wow."

"Yeah, I've been here the longest except for Ash and Alex. Ash put in a good word for me, got my foot in the door. Now I'm the calendar man supreme."

I nodded. "You seem to like it here."

"Hell yeah, I'm allowed to cuss people out when they make asses of themselves."

I laughed. "Yeah, I like that about tattoo parlors too. Less faking, less pressure. Even as the one getting tattooed."

Shorter nodded. "You getting along with everyone so far?"

"Yeah. I haven't really spent any time with Ash or Sing yet though."

"Those two are the prickly ones," Shorter left. "Especially with each other. But Ash is nice, really, even if he doesn't show it. And Sing's a dweeb. He's like my annoying little brother. I love 'em."

I nodded, but before the conversation could continue someone walked through the door and Shorter had to go back into check-in mode. I in turn went back to drawing silently.

When there were only about two hours left before closing time Ash came out from his room and walked over to Shorter, who was browsing the computer at the counter. The front area was empty except for us three; the last pair of walk-ins waiting to get checked in and tattooed had been shuffled into Kong and Alex's service.

"How's it goin' up here?" Ash asked.

"Good. Only had one dude curse at me over the phone," Shorter said. "Now I'm looking at some photos Nadia sent me from her honeymoon."

"Is she still asking when you're gonna get shacked up yourself?" Ash asked.

"Yeah."

"So when are you?"

"When are you gonna start returning my calls?" Shorter asked, blowing Ash a kiss.

The blond laughed. "Shut up, dweeb."

"Dweeb? Dweeb?!"

Ash shook his head and walked over closer to me. "Hey, Eiji. I've got about half an hour 'til my last appointment. Why don't you come with me?"

Everyone seemed to be trying to welcome me in a bit. I appreciated it, but now that the handsome blond...now that Ash was the one doing so, I felt a tinge more nervous.

I gulped and nodded. "Sure."

"Don't let him be too mean to you, Eiji," Shorter said.

"I would never," Ash said.

"Would too!" Shorter exclaimed, raising a fist up in the air.

Ash just shook his head and led me back down the hall toward his personal studio. The wooden door didn't have much in way of decoration. Not even a nametag, just a poster of what looked like a book cover to an Ernest Hemingway novel. It was the kind of decoration you'd expect to find at a college's Barnes and Noble.

Ash opened the door and I followed him inside. Size-wise the room was about as big as Alex's and the basic layout was more or less the same as well.

The decor was different, though. There was no "Tip or die" sign, although I suspected that Ash's general presence probably accomplished the same effect. There were also various framed photos of Ash' tattoo work, but his were much more photorealistic looking than Alex's in terms of detail. The subject matter, however, was way out there. There was a lot of machinery, and multiple tattoos seemed to render muscles as if they were made of steel.

"My specialty's biomechanical," Ash said, noticing how my eyes searched the walls around me. "Come on, take a seat."

I sat in one of two seats set off to the corner. Ash plopped right down in the other. He was a normal amount of distance away from me for someone who was literally one chair over, but I still felt my cheeks redden a bit. He was close enough that I started to notice how good he not only looked but smelled. Was that lavender mixed with something else?

He leaned in closer and motioned toward the sketchbook in my lap. "Lemme see what you've been working on."

The long strands of his hair in my peripheral vision looked so soft...

"S...sure," I said, opening up the front cover. I began flipping through the pages and felt my embarassment grow at what I saw. "My lines are all coming out really uneven today."

Ash nodded, but didn't say anything as he kept looking through the pages. I showed him the gnarled tree, the eye, the skull.

"Looks like you calmed down a bit over time," he said. "What's the most recent one you drew?"

I flipped to the beach landscape, lighthouse and dunes almost fully shaded in and fleshed out from my hours spent working alone on the couch after lunch. I'd gone back and forth, drawing smaller designs before doing more work on the larger piece.

"This is good," Ash said. He leaned across and closer to me, pointing at specific details on the page. The side of his face was barely three inches from mine.

I found myself inadvertently looking at his eyelashes, then the curve of his jaw. I forced my gaze back down to the paper in front of us. Definitely lavender, I thought, the scent ever closer.

"Keep working like this. Don't worry about cranking out a lot if pieces just to get more done. Slow and steady. This is easily the best one," he said. "Take the sense of depth to this dune, for example..."

I was glad he was staring more at the book than at me as my blush intensified. "Th...thanks."

"Sure," he said. "You've got good texture to this cloud too. Looks like your hand steadied out a lot by that point."

I kept nodding and giving short answers as Ash continued on. It was hard to come up with any sort of response much longer than a sentence with my nerves about my first day, and more notably my nerves about the man sitting next to me...leaning into me, even...

"May I?" he asked.

I handed him the sketchbook so he could more easily flip through it at his own pace. He alternated between drawings, pointed out spots for improvement. I nodded, still feeling embarassed. Here I was drawing such shoddy work but he was responding to it and giving notes as if I were actually worth the courtesy.

"Don't worry about it."

I looked up from my lap to find his eyes staring back into mine. My heart almost skipped a beat.

"You have talent. You're nervous on your first day, and you literally just moved to a brand new place where you don't know anyone. It would be hard not to be a bit off your game."

I blushed. Why was he being so kind to me? "Th...thanks, Ash" I stammered.

He looked at me silently for a few moments before smiling. Fully, not just the slight sliver of a grin he'd sported so often with the others earlier that morning.

"So, have you ever tattooed before?" he asked.

I shook my head.

"Newbie, huh?"

I nodded, glancing over to the counter. I saw a small tattoo gun sitting next to various bottles of ink.

"Can I hold your gun?"

Huh? Why had I asked that? Stupid...

"Sure," Ash said, cutting off my interior loathing monologue to go grab the tattoo gun and hand it to me.

It felt strange in my hand. Not bad, and not as heavy as I initially expected. But the thought of drawing with it seemed a bit odd.

"You get used to it," Ash said, reading my mind again. "Here, adjust your grip a bit like this..."

My heart felt like it was going to explode out of my chest as Ash placed his hand over mine and brushed our fingers close, pushing mine around a bit. Just then...

"Hey kitty cat, your last appointment's here!" Shorter said, suddenly appearing in the doorway.

"Don't call me kitty cat," Ash deadpanned, removing his hand from mine and setting the gun back over on the countertop. I followed him and Shorter back out toward the front.

"Meow. Kitty got claws?" Shorter asked.

"This kitty will scratch your eyes out," Ash said.

I took a seat on one of the sofas as Ash shepherded his client to the back. Remembering what Ash had said, I flipped my sketchbook open straight to the lighthouse landscape and resumed work on detailing the sand and rock in the foreground.

Before I knew it I heard the sound of the front door opening and I looked up to see Max standing in the doorway.

"Hey Eiji," he said. "None of the guys were too rough on you today, were they?"

I shook my head. "They all seem nice."

"You must not have spent much time with Sing," Max remarked. "I'm glad your day went alright though. Gimme a few minutes to grab some things from the back. Then we'll be closing up shop and I'll drive you home."

I nodded. "Thanks."

"Awwww, but I was gonna pierce him!" Bones whined, having just walked into the room along with Kong and Alex.

"Get a tetanus shot first, Eiji," Max said. "And another one afterward, too."

"Do you want people to hear you joke like that? You own the place!" Bones whined.

"There's not even anyone here," Max said. "Or at least there better not be. It's five past close already."

A few minutes later Max had fetched what he needed, the rest of the staff emerged from the back, we all walked out and Max locked up behind us. I followed him back over to the parking lot.

"I know it's a lot all at once," Max said as the two of us clamored back up into his jeep. "But I hope we made a good first impression."

A blond blur across the street caught my eye: Ash's hair as he moved around, looking like he was teasing Sing over something. The shorter man looked like he was fuming. Shorter placed a hand on Sing's shoulder and said something, then Sing seemed to reluctantly back down in response. My eyes fluttered back to Ash and that soft, soft blond hair. I remembered of the scent of lavender.

"Yeah. You did."

Chapter Text

The field of wheat was already blowing in the canvas's nonexistent wind; all that remained was for me to watercolor it into life.

Neither the technique, nor the media, nor the subject were unfamiliar. And yet, looking down at the half-finished piece beneath me, I struggled to lift my brush and keep going.

I was sitting at my home drawing desk, really just a tilted slab of light tan wood. The various natural patterns and lines of bark were still easily visible, which I appreciated as a touch of the natural in my otherwise sterile and painfully man-made looking apartment. Tan carpet matted down from years of use. White, white walls that met in cramped corners just to ascend to something even uglier: the ceiling.

Who ever decided it was a good idea to try and add texture to ceilings? Not in chapels or fancy places, but in every day homes and tiny overpriced flats. The slap brush pattern above my head was an insult to itself: borne from hours of intensive work, yet still hideously ugly. I pictured some poor sap gluing and rubbing and painting away just to make the view from one's bed at night all the more mundanely heinous.

From the day I moved in I'd never been a big fan of my apartment. There were only two real rooms other than a practically closet-sized bathroom, and the whole look of the place was somehow potent in its utter lack of any personality. Generic. Bland. Not even interesting enough to be beige, just egg white.

Still, it served its purpose. I never had anyone over, nor did I possess many things, so I didn't need much space. And lacking in possessions though I was, it still hardly seemed worthwhile to go to the trouble of moving out and finding someplace less offensively boring. I had walls around me that were sturdy and only mine. No one else walked through the doorway, stood in the kitchen, or lifted up my blankets to crawl underneath them.

Even if I wasn't exactly happy, I was thankful for the solemnity. The familiar, reliable emptiness beat alternatives I had known before.

Plus, it was a nice and quiet space where I could easily lose myself in my work. Such had been the case a few days earlier when I'd first sketched out the piece on the drawing table. Wheat stalks filled the page, interrupted only by an eventual horizon line. There were no outlines for the sun or clouds, their boundaries had all come about as I painted.

But then, when the time came to stain the fields in the foreground yellow, I hesitated. Tried to push myself to keep going, dabbed my brush in my old designated water cup, then my palette, and applied a few wet strokes to the toothed canvas. Suddenly, I became hyper-aware of the paper's texture. Something felt off, not with the canvas or the color themselves, but with how I was seeing them.

It was as if I'd fallen out of love before realizing I'd fallen in the first place. I felt the automatic drive to keep soaking, brushing, cleaning, and repeating...dissipate. I was no longer looking at a painting I was in the middle of working on. Rather, there was just a canvas marred by my egotistical attempts to imbue it with my colors, my ideas, my self.

I tilted back in my chair and groaned. Disgusted by the idea of continuing I grabbed my brush and water cup to go clean them in the bathroom sink as quickly as possible. Once finished I set them back on the small desk by the drawing board and headed into my bedroom. It contained only a bed, some overstuffed bookshelves, and a walk-in closet where the same three outfits always hung in the front while the few other clothes I owned but never wore were shoved to the back.

I grabbed a book from atop one of the shelves: Maurice by E.M. Forster. The cover was purple and had a picture of two men on horseback in front of what looked like an eerie (or at least incredibly bougie) manor. I'd picked it up at a used bookstore about a week prior, already familiar with A Passage to India and some of Forster's other, more famous works. No longer in the mood to create anything of my own, I hoped that reading might offer me some slight respite.

The novel began with a description of a young boys' school and its headmasters. They were all members of posh English society, rich brats who had gone through all their schooling just to come out of without knowledge of much of anything. One of the headmasters, however, was determined to make sure that the titular fourteen-year-old Maurice learned details about the adult world before graduating.

He knew that the subject was serious and related to his own body. But he could not himself relate it; it fell to pieces as soon as Mr. Ducie put it together, like an impossible sum. In vain he tried.

Tiredly I laid the book, still open with the spine up, to my side and closed my eyes. Though the subject matter thus far was literally just spoiled rich children, something in the prose was lovely. The long sentences pleasantly broken up, the natural rhythm that left room to breathe and digest without progressing too slowly.

Eiji's face popped into my mind, surprising me. Eiji. The new boy from the parlor. He had large, dark eyes that had often looked down at his lap and feet. His hair was medium-length in the back with wild, unruly bangs. His puffy cheeks had sometimes reddened a little in a blush he'd tried to hide by turning his head away from me. It was that expression and tilt of the head that played out again in my mind's eye. He had looked very...

I hadn't been speaking yet the word still caught in my throat. I shook my head and fumbled my hand out to the side. I resumed reading, trying to return to a world of fiction, not memory. The headmaster kept giving Maurice some morally prudish, century-old version of the birds and the bees talk, complete with diagrams drawn by stick in the sand. There was talk of women and proper conduct, of holy unions, though not in those words. The opening chapter ended with Maurice's rejection of the whole ordeal:

"Liar," he thought. "Liar, coward, he's told me nothing."... Then darkness rolled up again, the darkness that is primeval but not eternal, and yields to its own painful dawn.

Another image entered my mind, this one accompanied by a phantom sensation in my fingertips. I thought of Eiji sitting beside me, tattoo gun in hand, awkwardly trying to get a grasp on how to properly hold it. I'd brushed my hand against his, guiding it into a more proper grip.

I felt heat rise up to my face. Was I blushing? Why? I remembered Eiji's face, his soft eyes, strands of his hair so close to my own. The feeling of warmth on my skin persisted, and I once again put the book down and off to the side. Eiji had looked so...

My thoughts were interrupted by a loud growl of my stomach. I glanced over at my phone, tabbing the power button. The lock screen lit up: 8:02 P.M. I realized I hadn't eaten anything since lunch.

I slowly pushed myself up out of bed and into the kitchen. I opened cupboards absentmindedly and saw nothing I felt like eating. Repeating the process with the fridge and freezer, I was similarly disappointed. There wasn't much of anything to eat anywhere except for the large packages of cheap ramen I always kept stocked as a "just in case I'm hungry but totally broke" measure.

I was hungry, and near broke, but not totally. I slipped on a pair of loose gray sweatpants and a red and black striped hoodie, resolving to head out into the slight night chill and grab something better than dried, crusty noodles to eat. There were a few take-out places within a ten minute walk as well as a convenience store. Exiting my apartment and locking up behind me, I found myself naturally steering toward to the convenience store.

The air wasn't as cold as I'd expected for how late it was, which was a relief. Nonetheless I kept my head down and my hands jammed in my hoodie pockets, insulated within myself as I walked at a brisk pace. I stuck to sidewalks when able, passing by a few bus stops and the local library on my way. It's close proximity to my apartment was one of the only good, though totally coincidental, aspects to where I lived.

Shuffling on, I soon reached the gas station. I walked past the movie rental kiosk out front and grabbed the door handle, stepping into the den of harsh artificial lighting and snack food. There weren't many other people inside, just one worker at the checkout counter and...

I froze up, feeling my face redden again. He was turned slightly to the side, examining some of the premade meals on a shelf. He made no indication of noticing me, and before he could I shuffled several aisles over, scarcely knowing why.

Eiji. He was bundled up in his own oversized hoodie, his long messy bangs clinging against his skin. It looked slightly wet with sweat. His cheeks had looked rosy too, and all around he had looked...

I buried the word again, staring at the shelves in front of me. I hadn't been going anywhere in particular, just out of his line of sight, but I'd found myself in front of the Twinkies, powdered sugar donuts, honey buns, and other such snacks. Bundles of sugar and bread in plastic, they weren't the least bit good for dinner but they sounded enticing as treats for my nerves.

"I hope you're buying something to eat besides junk."

Just as my hand was halfway outstretched for a Twinkie, I turned to see another customer a few feet away. The only other customer in the store.

"Oh, uh, hey Eiji." I said. I felt whatever the antithesis of smooth was. Rough? Given that I still hadn't taken my after-work shower, I probably was looking a bit sweaty and unkempt. I cursed myself for looking so schlubby in front of Eiji.

"Hey, Ash. Tell me you've already had dinner at least?"

Eiji looked nice and cozy, bundled up in his jacket that was probably too sizes too big for him. His hair was damp but actually looked kind of cute, unlike my unruly...

"Ash?"

I brought my hand back down to my side, abandoning the Twinkie on the shelf. "No, I...I haven't. So I came here, wasn't sure what to eat. I'll probably just buy one of those microwaveable soup cans."

Eiji balked at me. "What? No! Come with me, I'll make you dinner!" His eyes widened as he spoke, then he almost flinched as he took half a step backward. "Er...sorry. That was weird of me to just blurt out. But, uh..."

His cheeks grew pinker, and unlike earlier he didn't seem to notice so he didn't turn to look away from me. I was able to see just how cute he...

"But I can!" He resumed talking hurriedly, sounding unsure yet resolved at the same time. "Let me pay you back for earlier!"

I blinked. "Pay me back for earlier?"

"For helping me out at the parlor. Looking at my art and complimenting me even though I didn't deserve it. For giving me notes to improve on."

Eiji's face looked determined and confident, his voice no longer wavering with uncertainty. In a way he almost looked like he was pouting; he definitely wanted to get his way. It was very...

I shook my head at the next word I thought of, and at his proposal. "It was nothing. Don't worry about me, I have some ramen at home."

"That is even worse! Please, let me cook for you! Unless..." He looked down at his feet. "...you really don't want to."

The look in his big eyes made me kick myself for not agreeing immediately. "I'll go! I mean...erm...I'll let you? If you want to?"

He looked back up at me and smiled. "Yay! Just let me buy these teas first and whenever you're ready I'll walk you to my place. It's only about fifteen minutes from here."

I ended up just grabbing a Coke. I glanced at Eiji as he checked out as well, just getting some canned teas and one of those precut salads from the little refrigerated section in the corner. I'd never picked one of those up in my life.

"Okay, let's go!" Eiji said cheerily as we walked out the front door. I let him lead the way as we walked along the sidewalk, toward my apartment for about half of the way before taking a different turn to the left. We ended up in an apartment complex I'd passed by countless times but never actually entered myself. Eiji lived in one of the corner buildings, where he led me up several flights of stairs to the right door. There was a small brown doormat that said "ようこそ。" I had no idea what it meant.

"Come on in," Eiji said, turning his key in the lock and beckoning me in behind him. I looked around; the front door opened up to the end of a hallway. I could see what looked like a living room around the corner.

"Shoes on the right," Eiji said. I looked down to see him shuffling his off and placing them on a short rack. I followed suit, taking off my Crocs. "I'll go start cooking," he said. "Come on in and have a seat on the couch."

I was right about the living room around the corner; there was a small green couch, a dark wooden coffee table, and a TV sitting on a small display stand against the opposite wall. The far side of the living room connected into a small kitchen area where Eiji began fumbling around through cabinets. I sat down on the couch as instructed.

"Are you allergic to anything?" Eiji asked.

"Nah," I called back.

"Perfect. Let me see, what do I have to make you..."

I heard more opening and closing sounds behind me, like he was searching through drawers in his fridge.

"How about chicken and rice?"

"Sure, that sounds good," I said. I peered down at my bare feet. Did I sound appreciative enough? It was a bit awkward, sitting in the apartment of this boy I'd just met hours earlier but who now vowed to cook for me. This boy who...

...was really, really cute. I didn't push the rest of the thought out of my head. I was tired of doing so. I just let it sit there, not sure how to feel about it but finally acknowledging it. Looking down at my toenails, I cursed myself for not clipping them often enough. Here I was in Eiji's apartment unshowered and I just looked...awful.

"Do you like soy sauce? Pepper? Lots of butter?" Eiji called over in the kitchen behind me.

"However you like is cool with me," I said. I felt thankful for the momentary break from looking Eiji in the face. I didn't know what I'd do if he stared at me with those big, expressive eyes while I thought about how good he looked.

"Okay!" Eiji said.

As I heard faint shuffling sounds behind me, I glanced around the living room some more. Eiji'd done a good job of unpacking and decorating for someone who presumably just moved to the area. There were various framed photographs on the walls capturing various sights. Some nature photography, some architecture. I noticed what looked like Shinto gates in one particularly pretty photo, with leaves caught on camera mid-fall from their trees.

Then I turned my attention back to the TV stand. There wasn't room for much, but there was what looked like a medal on a string to the right. I squinted to try and make sense of the text from several feet away, but it all seemed to be written in Japanese.

"What's the medal for?" I asked, hoping to distract myself with small talk.

"Oh, that..." Eiji began, then trailed off for a moment before resuming. "It's from high school. Nationals. Track and field."

"You were a runner?" I asked.

"Yes, but not primarily. I medalled in pole vaulting for a few years in a row."

Pole vaulting. I tried to picture it in my head. That thing where guys use some sort of giant medal stick to fling themselves up in the air?

"Its been a long time now, though. I couldn't do it anymore if I wanted to."

Eiji didn't sound sad exactly, more resigned. I figured it would be better not to push the subject. Grasping for a pivot point, I looked back up at the frames on the wall.

"Whose photographs are these?" I asked.

"Half of them are mine, and half of them are from my old teacher. Ibe-san."

I nodded, though it didn't convey anything since Eiji was still behind me in the kitchen. I had begun to hear some sort of cooking sounds; from what I could tell Eiji had probably started preparing the chicken in a pan. I heard sizzling like grease popping up from the heat of the stovetop.

"You used to live in Japan?" I asked, already knowing the answer but not the specifics.

"Yeah, I grew up there. Up until about eight years ago," Eiji said.

"I'm from Massachusetts. I've been here for years now though."

"Kong and Bones mentioned you've been at the parlor a long time."

"Yep," I said. "I was Max's first employee. Only one who's stuck around with him from when the shop first opened. Alex wasn't long after me. Then the rest of guys, one after another. Sing's the newest."

"And now me," Eiji said. I heard what sounded like meat being flipped as the sizzling noises grew louder. "Thank you again for looking at my bad art earlier."

"It wasn't bad! Don't get so down on yourself."

"I'm not. I just know I can do much better." Another pause, more flipping sounds. "What do you like to draw when you aren't tattooing?"

"Plants," I said. "Landscapes. Nature. I'm boring."

I thought back to the half-finished painting at my apartment, of the wheat stalks that had disrupted my concentration.

But he could not himself relate it.

The line from Maurice also came to mind. Why?

"That's not boring," Eiji said. "It's definitely not what I expected though, with all the robot people drawings you have hanging up at the studio.

I laughed. "With biomechanical, I really like the challenge of contorting it to the person's body. With just flat paper, I can't get that."

"That makes sense," Eiji said. He was silent for a few more moments before calling out: "Dinner's ready!"

It smelled delicious. Wafts of chicken hit my nostrils and I hungrily stood up, walking over to the kitchen. There Eiji had already begun piling food onto plates. The chicken looked perfectly tan and well-cooked, while the rice was bright white and still steaming. The juices from the freshly placed slices of chicken had just begun to descend, mixing in with the rice and turning some of it a light brown. I salivated, ready to devour as much as I could.

"Let's go eat in the living room," Eiji said, handing me a plate. I nodded and we went to sit on the sofa, setting our plates on the low table in front of us. Eiji had one of his tea cans and I popped open my Coke, taking a swig before digging into the food.

Holy fuck was it good. The chicken was crispy on top but juicy and savory in my mouth; there was a nice helping of pepper and whatever sauce Eiji had used blended in excellently flavor-wise. The rice, meanwhile, was incredibly soft and evenly cooked, far beyond anything I ever could have made. It complimented the crispiness of the chicken and paired well with my Coke. Altogether it tasted like restaurant food in the best way, like I should have been paying to enjoy something so good.

My half-thoughts, half-instinctual stuffing of my face was interrupted by the sound of laughter. I turned my head to the side, gulping down a shamefully largely mouthful of rice. Eiji was looking at me and chuckling. His mouth looked so...so...

"Sorry," he said between chuckles. "You really dug in. I'm glad you like it!"

"It's amazing! Holy fuck!" I exclaimed, shoving another piece of chicken into my mouth. "It's so fucking good."

"Thank you," Eiji said, smiling brightly at me. His big eyes...those eyes, and his mouth, slightly open in a smile. I felt heat rise to my face that wasn't just due to the warmth of the food I was eating.

"Does no one cook for you like this?" Eiji asked. "I didn't really do anything special."

I shook my head. "Yes you did. But no, I live alone and I'm not a great cook."

"Well come over anytime. Let me cook for you instead of living off Twinkies and those cheap noodles that give ramen a bad name."

"I can't impose on you like that," I said, looking down on my plate. I felt like a bit of a glutton, having already scarfed most of the food down.

"Just keep on looking at my art and we'll call it even. Though you're still doing much more for me than I am for you."

"It's the other way around," I said. No one had cooked for me in a home like this since I was young. Since Griff, back before...

"Hey," Eiji said softly.

I peered back over at him. The big grin on his face made the butterflies in my stomach do somersaults. Metaphors collided in light of how cute he was. He was so...

"Don't overthink it," he said, smiling wide. His teeth were bright white, clearly well taken care of. Another aspect of Eiji that was prettier than me. "Eat up! There's still some left for seconds!"

I nodded appreciatively then finished my first plate before following Eiji back into the kitchen. He shoveled all the remaining chicken and rice onto my plate.

"Don't you want more?" I asked.

"I'm full," he said. "Help yourself."

"If you're sure..."

We returned to our spots on the couch and I resumed eating as we kept talking.

"So you don't have a girlfriend to cook for you? Just me?" Eiji asked.

I shook my head. "There aren't any women I'm interested in."

"Oh! Sorry. Are you with Shorter?"

My brain paused like a freeze frame. Huh?

Then, processing the implication of what Eiji'd asked, I blurted out my response: "N-no! It's not like that. He's just my best friend."

"Ah, sorry," Eiji said.

"What about you?" I asked. Handsome as he was, and as talented, and as good of a cook, he must have a girlfriend, right?

"Hmm?"

"Do you have a girlfriend?"

"Oh, no, I don't, I don't have anyone. I..." he paused, and for a moment the bright shine to his eyes was gone. He looked pensive, like he was debating whether to say whatever was on his mind out loud. He cleared his throat, and I looked at him as he continued:

"I'm gay."

I felt the heat in my chest before I even fully registered what he'd said. He was...gay. Okay. Did that mean that maybe I had a...

a chance? What was I thinking? Why would I want a chance? Except I already knew. I wasn't bothered by Eiji saying he was gay. I was more concerned with the feeling in my chest, with the urge I'd had to reply by saying "Me too."

Where had that come from? Yeah, I wasn't interested in women and...and...

Eiji's big eyes bore into mine. I felt my blush intensify.

"You okay, Ash?" I could hear worry in his voice.

Shit. Waiting. I'd kept him waiting, and he hadn't been sure how I was going to react. I didn't mean to make him think that—

"Sorry, I didn't mean to make that awkward," I blurted out. "I just got...a little sidetracked in my head."

Eiji nodded. "You alright?"

I pondered the question. I was, wasn't I? I was better than alright. I'd been having a bad night but then I ran into Eiji, and he looked at me and smiled, and he cooked for me, and now he was sitting right next to me, and...

I reached out a hand and grabbed his. It felt warm to the touch, and soft. I became self-conscious over whether mine felt sweaty, if...

I looked at our joined hands. Why had I done that?

"Sorry, I...I don't know why I..."

Before I could pull back to remove my hand from his, Eiji gave it a squeeze. Tender. I kept my hand where it was in his and looked back into his eyes.

"I know this is sudden and maybe I am being stupid..." Eiji said, glancing down at our hands. He massaged my thumb with his own. "But do you like me? Or maybe I am reading you all wrong and I am sorry for asking and I..."

"No," I interrupted him. "Don't. Don't be sorry. You didn't...you didn't misread me. I just...didn't fully realize myself."

Eiji blinked, then kept looking into my eyes. The blush on my cheeks felt permanent by that point.

"Sorry. I am being stupid. I just got a new job here and here I am hitting on a co-worker on my first day..."

"You didn't hit on me," I pointed out. "I...I grabbed your hand first."

Eiji smiled faintly, then nodded. He caressed my hand in his. It felt...good. Soft. Everything about him seemed so soft.

The hammering of my heart in my chest, however, was loud, violent. Eiji was nice, sweet. He had cooked for me. I couldn't lead him on like this if I wasn't sure that...that...

"Hey, Eiji?"

"Yeah?"

"Is this...okay?"

He was quiet for a moment. "Is what okay?"

"Me holding your hand like this."

He smiled again. "This is more than okay."

A blush came to his cheeks, matching my own. Barely thinking, I found myself pulling closer to him, closing the space between us...

...and he did the same. I felt something soft on my lips. His lips. He tilted his head, eased into the kiss. I tilted mine, reciprocating, shifting so that I could comfortably return his affection and...

...I was kissing him. Soft. Warm. My thoughts were all short, fleeting, as I just melted into the sensation.

Then, another feeling in my hands. Squeezing, massaging. Eiji was caressing my fingers again. I reached my other hand out over top of his, returning the gesture. The kiss deepened and I felt Eiji's tongue enter my mouth. I brushed my own up against his. So warm, so soft, so...

good. I'd never done this and had it felt so good, and I wanted more, but something in me caused me to pull back.

Eiji opened his eyes and looked at me. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah," I said even as bad memories threatened to bubble up to the surface. I did my best not to acknowledge them, follow up on them, or let them grow deeper. Just let them come and go. That was my goal, though it was much easier said than done. My breathing had become a little ragged.

"You sure?" Eiji asked. He could tell there was something going on with me. But what to say? Where to start? I didn't really want to talk about it. Not that.

"Sorry," I said, feeling a bit pathetic. I averted my eyes from his, staring down at our joined hands. He caressed my knuckles lightly. It felt good. Calming. I tried to lean into the feeling.

"I just...this is a lot. Maybe not for other people, but I guess I'm...I need to go slow," I said. I glanced back up at Eiji.

"Of course, Ash. I didn't mean to take it further anyway. Sorry if I made you feel overwhelmed."

I shook my head. "You didn't. I just..." I hesitated. How to express without expressing too much? "I've...done things I didn't want to do. Before. So I'm...physical touch can be hard for me."

Eiji nodded. His big eyes were shining, warm. "I'm sorry, Ash. I never meant to make you uncomfortable, or to make you think about..."

I shook my head. "You didn't, Eiji. I...can I ask you something?"

He nodded. "Sure. Whatever you want."

"Do you...do you like me too?"

Eiji stared at me for a moment before his face twisted, like he was trying to hold himself back from something. Despite his best efforts, he started laughing.

"Sorry," he said. "But yes, Ash. Of course. I let you put your tongue in my mouth. I definitely like you."

I blushed, then looked to the side. "Yeah, well...I like you too."

We were both silent for a few moments before I glanced back over at Eiji. He was smiling with those big, bright eyes. I felt the heat in my chest again. The pleasant warmth.

"I'm glad. And...we can go as slow as you want," Eiji said.

I nodded. "Yeah, let's...whatever this is, let's keep doing it. But..." I trailed off for a moment. "Let's keep it between us for now? Not to like, hide it from the guys like it's shameful or something, but..."

"We don't need to kiss and tell immediately," Eiji said.

I nodded, then let out a breath I hadn't even realized I was holding. "This is just...new...for me."

"Have you ever kissed a guy before?" Eiji asked.

"No," I shook my head. "Not that I consented to."

The joy in Eiji's eyes vanished. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay," I said. And I meant it. Sitting there, with Eiji's hand held soft in mind, I could feel bad memories on the periphery of my mind, but I was keeping them at bay. We were keeping them at bay. "Hey, Eiji?"

"Yes, Ash?"

"Can I kiss you again?"

He laughed again. "Sure."

Chapter Text

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.

Call me!!!

Nadia

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."

"Thanks, babe."

"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.

"...Huh."

"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?"

"Ran away."

"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.

"It's okay."

"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.

"Thanks, Shorter."

"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 do."

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.

"Text him."

"No."

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.

"Ow!"

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.

Chapter Text

Earl grey. Masala chai. Matcha. Sencha.

I looked through the kitchen cabinet, reading off all the tea labels. I'd been home from work for about half an hour and it hadn't been a bad day exactly, but that wasn't what I was concerned with.

Oolong. Pu'erh. White. Chamomile.

It was the night before that kept coming to mind. Still, I tried to push it out of my thoughts, to not dwell on it until I fell asleep for the second time in a row. I kept looking through the stack of tea boxes.

Hibiscus. Chrysanthemum.

I shut the cabinet. This was getting old. Looking at flavor after flavor I enjoyed and not feeling actual desire for any of them. I felt robotic, like I was just going through physical motions I'd programmed into myself through sheer force of habit. I powered my robot legs out of kitchen and into the living room.

It was an apartment fit for an android. I'd just moved in and even my most sentimental belongings were either stuffed in drawers or looked like something out of a catalog. I peered up at the wall at the various framed photos Ibe-san had sent me, snapshots of trips and projects we'd enjoyed together. Memories I'd made before deciding to stay in America on my own.

Why?

I laid down on the couch. One of the few pieces of furniture I had in the room, accompanied only by a small coffee table and TV stand. To the right of the TV itself was my first track and field medal from back in high school. A decade had passed since.

A decade of searching for myself in various places. Of adjusting to new limitations for my body, and of trying to focus on what I could do. Of making friends, learning languages, taking photos, replacing the old ambitions I'd left behind.

And then leaving behind more. I'd always known it couldn't last forever. Following Ibe-san to and thro, adjusting lenses, developing film, seeing with my eyes and remembering with the press of a button. Buildings, statues, landscapes.

Ash had said he liked drawing landscapes. He was interested in capturing the natural too. I rolled over onto my stomach and closed my eyes. Remembered his peering into them. Looking scared, but sweet.

I felt sudden vibrations up against my leg.

I reached a hand down into my pocket, plucked the phone out and read the notification: a text message from Ash.

I gulped.

It was the first time either of us had actually used the numbers we'd swapped the night before, prior to leaving my apartment. Before he ran away when we'd only walked halfway to his place. We were going down the sidewalk by a baseball field and he suddenly started looking jittery. Before I knew it he'd ducked his head down and started sprinting away.

I input my password and pulled up the text.

Hey, sorry about last night. Do you want to meet up?

Without even considering saying no, I replied:

When and where?

After about a few minutes of staring at the screen, another text appeared:

There's a cafe in the strip mall closest to the 7-11. You know the one?

I'd never gone in myself, but I vaguely remembered having walked by it the day before.

Yes.

Another brief wait and:

Meet you there in forty minutes?

I agreed, then pulled myself up off the couch and walked to the bathroom for a hurried shower. I reached my hand in behind the curtain and twisted the knob, getting the water started and heated up. Meanwhile I took off my shirt and shimmied out of my pants, felt them slide down my legs to a pile at my feet. I looked at my naked body in the mirror for a moment before sighing and stepping into the shower.

The water was hot, almost too hot, but I welcomed the intensity as it beat against my skin. I lathered myself with body wash then poured out some shampoo and began to spread it through my hair. As I did so I remembered the sight of Ash sitting so close to me, of his eyelashes and how soft his hair looked. Some mix of anticipation and anxiety bubbled up in me as I ran my fingers through my hair, still enjoying the feel of too hot water hitting my skin over and over again.

My thoughts descended into images: Ash's smirk in the parlor the first time I saw him. His hand brushing up closer to mine, the tattoo gun linking us together. The back of his head as he ran away suddenly, not saying a word.

After a few minutes I regained focus and shook my wet hair. I had to hurry up and get going. I finished rinsing myself off, turned off the shower, toweled down, and stepped out of the tub to look my naked self in the mirror again.

My hair felt soft and looked better than I'd expected. Still, that didn't stop me from fussing it with it a little too long after getting dressed. As I peered down at the phone and resolved to get going I still kept adjusting tiny hairs, sought out the perfect balance between bang and forehead. Somewhere between deciding I looked good enough and that I would never look good enough, I headed out the door and walked to the cafe.

From the outside it looked very nondescript. The signs in the window were minimalistic, not conveying much unique beyond their aesthetic commitment to the color purple. I opened the door and walked in, peering around at the mauve-colored booths and customers scattered throughout. No sign of Ash; I had arrived first. I headed for an empty booth and sat down to wait.

"Care for a cup of coffee?" A stranger's voice asked.

I looked up to see a waiter standing beside me holding a small pad of paper and a pen.

"Not yet, thanks," I said. "I'm waiting on a friend."

"No problem, just let me know if you need anything," the waiter said with a smile before moving on to another booth. I looked down at the table beneath me and my legs felt heavy. Nervous. What if Ash was mad? I still didn't know what had happened last night, and...

"Care for a cup of coffee?" A familiar voice asked.

"No thank—," I started then stopped once I looked up to see the tall blond standing by the booth. "Hey Ash," I said with a semi-forced smile, hoping the worry I felt didn't reach my eyes.

"Hey Eiji," Ash said with an awkward smile of his own as he sat down across from me. "How are you doing?"

"I'm good," I said, hoping Ash found me more convincing than Ibe-san or my family ever had when I lied to them. "How are you?"

"Been better," Ash sighed, staring down at the table then back up at me. "I'm sorry for last night."

"It's okay! I'm sorry for whatever I said, I—"

Ash shook his head. "You didn't do anything, Eiji. It's all my fault."

I gulped. How to reply? "Did you...want to talk about it?"

"Not really," Ash said quietly, looking back down at his hands, only about a foot away from mine, yet so far away. "But I think I owe it to you, a little bit. I..." He trailed off for a moment, turning his head to stare off to the side for a moment before returning his gaze to me. "The baseball field brought back...memories. Memories about...what I mentioned last night. I would have made sure not to go that way but I was having a really good time talking to you and I was so focused on that...I didn't realize what turn we'd made until we were already there."

He paused again, looking down at the table for a minute. I still felt worry, but it was no longer a matter of fear, of having done something wrong. I debated how best to respond, and after another minute of mutual pained silence I slowly reached a hand across the table to gently place atop one of Ash's.

He looked up at me with tired, surprised eyes. His mouth hung slightly open as if he was going to say something, but he didn't.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't know."

I didn't know. The words felt worse than inadequate, heavy. I felt stupid. For what I'd said, and for outstretching my hand. That had been too much...

...or so I thought before I felt Ash shift the positioning of his hand in order to give mine a squeeze. He smiled at me, and I felt a heavy blush coming on.

"It's okay, Eiji," he said. "You didn't do anything wrong." His grin looked weak, flimsy. Genuine, yet at risk of falling apart.

I gave his hand a firm squeeze, felt the sweat and warmth of his palm against mine, brushed over his knuckles with my fingertips.

"You didn't do anything wrong either," I said softly. "We...don't need to talk about it more if you don't want to. I'm happy just to see you like this."

Ash gaped at me, his mouth fully open. It was my cheeks that continued to flush, however. How cheesy had I just been? I winced, but when I opened my eyes I saw his mouth had closed into a soft smile.

"I'm happy to see you, too."

I felt like my heart was going to beat out of my chest. The slight blush now powdering Ash's cheeks was adorable, as were his shining eyes and his soft hair, messy though it was.

"Have you eaten dinner yet?" He asked, snapping me out of my thoughts.

I shook my head. "No. Is the food here good?"

"Nah, not at all," Ash replied with weak laugh. "We should go somewhere else. Any ideas?"

"Curry at my place?" I asked.

"Sure," Ash smiled. "But you don't have to cook for me if you don't want to."

"I want to," I said, standing up. "Let's go."

We left the cafe and began making our way toward my apartment. I took care to steer as far away from the baseball field as possible. There weren't many other people walking out and about, and as Ash and I walked side by side, I felt our bodies drift closer and closer together until our hands could almost brush up against one another.

Then they did. His fingers touched mine. I returned the motion, and we held hands as we walked.

"I was so worried you would be mad at me that I couldn't even look at you earlier," Ash said. "Sorry for ignoring you at work."

I shook my head. "I was worried you were mad at me. I'm...glad you texted me."

"Me too."

I looked over at Ash, saw his profile as we kept walking. His jaw, his blond eyelashes, his soft skin. His lips curved up in a smile as he looked ahead. I turned my gaze back to what was in front of us as we kept walking.

"How did you meet Max?" I asked. I hoped that work-related talk would be mundane enough not to get too down and serious. Still, I was interested in Ash's answers.

"He was old friends with my brother, Griff," Ash said. "I didn't like him at all when I first met him, but he put up with me for some reason. Now he's the closest thing to family I have."

I nodded, but made a mental note not to ask further questions about his family. Not yet. Not when I'd already brought him back to the site of bad memories just the day before.

"I think he offered me a job out of some sense of obligation to Griff," Ash continued. "Kept bugging me about it. I said no multiple times, but...I didn't have anywhere better to go." Another pause. "Far from it. And now..."

Another pause. I squeezed his hand. He squeezed mine back.

"I don't know if I'm the happiest I've ever been, or if I'm just the least fucked up. Not that that's a high bar."

I nodded. "I came to America after I injured my leg. Track used to be my life. If I wasn't pole vaulting at practice I was running laps on my own, always moving. There was always burn in my legs. Now they feel heavy in a different way, like they'll never lift off the ground in the same way."

Ash squeezed my hand. I blushed, but continued.

"Ibe-san offered to take me to America with him. I had become his assistant; he taught me photography. We traveled all around, I had work published in articles, an exhibition. It helped me to not just think about the past, but...I still wasn't fully satisfied."

Ash listened quietly, giving my hand occasional squeezes as we kept traveling closer to my apartment.

"It's hard to fully let go. Even when you leave something behind it's like...you haven't necessarily found anything in its place," Ash said.

I looked over at him. His brow was slightly furrowed, his expression cerebral but unreadable. What was he feeling?

"Yeah. But..." I debated how to continue, not wanting to pry. Much as I wanted to know more, I didn't want to risk bringing up bad memories again. I opted for the most optimistic truth I could think of. "Even if I don't know what I want now, I'm still not the person I used to be."

"Wish I could say the same," Ash said. There was a tinge of sadness to his voice. I looked over at his solemn expression, and his hand felt clammy in mine.

"You're not the same either," I said, squeezing his hand. I didn't know all the details of his past, or virtually any of them, for that matter. Still, I somehow felt a conviction in what I was saying, like he needed to hear it. "Even if you feel lost, you don't have to be the same person forever."

We kept walking silently for a minute, and I felt awkward again. What was I today, a self-help guru? But my self-deprecating thoughts were once again interrupted when Ash squeezed my hand.

"Thanks, Eiji."

I looked over at him. He had a slight smile, sincere even if it seemed to be masking something.

He squeezed my hand again.

"Almost there," he said.

"Yeah," I nodded as we turned the corner to my apartment complex and finished making our way to my front door in silence. I felt a slight sadness, but also a sense of contentment. A certain relaxation. A desire to just let things be. I unlocked the door and we headed inside.

"Make yourself comfortable and I'll get started on dinner," I said as I slipped off my shoes.

"Okay," Ash replied, following suit. We walked down the hall, past the living room and into the kitchen. I started rummaging through cabinets and the fridge to retrieve ingredients: rice, chicken, pepper, other spices. I prepped the pan and rice cooker I'd be using and got to work chopping up chicken on the cutting board.

Ash, meanwhile, was once again looking at the various photographs I had framed on the wall.

"Is that Niagara Falls?" He asked about one positioned above the stove.

I nodded.

"And that's Ibe with you?"

I nodded again. "That picture's from about a year ago. He started trying to take me to all the big tourist spots I hadn't seen once he realized he wouldn't be staying in America for much longer."

"How did you two meet?"

"It was earlier on in his photography career and I was still an athlete. He saw footage from one of my competitions on TV and for some reason it caught his attention. He ended up coming to my hometown to photograph me for a while. It was pretty embarrassing, but...I liked Ibe-san."

I finished cutting up the chicken and transferred it to the pan to begin seasoning and cooking it. I also got the rice cooker going and grabbed plates and silverware, setting them off to the side for when the food was ready.

"So you were a model?" Ash asked as I shuffled around.

I shook my head. "No, not at all. I just went to practice like normal and he would take photos as he saw fit. I never posed or anything."

"That's still pretty much a model," Ash said.

I sighed and felt myself blush again. "No, no, just a kid. I still remember when Ibe-san left town after all that. We were at the train station and he told me it was okay to value myself more. That always stuck with me, even if I didn't agree with him."

"I agree with him."

I laughed as I added spice to the chicken. "You've known me for two days. But thank you."

Then I felt something I hadn't expected at all. A heat up against my back, and a pair of arms wrapped loosely and clumsily around my chest. I felt my face heat up from more than just the burner and, no longer as preoccupied with cooking, set the dial down to Low. I raised my hands up to give Ash's a squeeze before turning around and facing him.

Just as I had the first time I saw him, I thought Holy fuck he's hot. But there was nothing but gentleness in his eyes. His cheeks were lightly flushed and his eyes glimmered, not like he'd been crying but like he still could at the drop of a hat. His hair looked so soft and disheveled I wanted to run my fingers through it, and the curve of his jawline was so strong and...

"Sorry," he said quietly. "Was that weird?"

I smiled. "Not at all."

And I leaned in closer, brought my lips tentatively to his. Not out of a hesitation of want, but out of a desire to go slow like molasses. To still leave plenty of room for him to steer things.

He kissed me back. I savored the soft connection, pressed my chest gently up against his. Felt the warmth of our mouths, of our bodies huddled up so close. Felt his arms rise up and wrap around me once again, strong hands resting on my back. I swear I almost purred.

It was gentle. Sweet. Warm. But even with the burner set to Low, there was still another source of heat behind me. I heard the chicken sizzling. I pulled out of the kiss, looked into Ash's soft eyes as they reopened.

"I've gotta make sure it doesn't burn," I said. "Food's almost ready."

"Okay," Ash said with a small smile that made the already fervent blush in my cheeks feel all the deeper. He then reached back in closer and gave me another short peck on the lips. My heart felt like it was going to explode as I turned around and finished making dinner. It wasn't long before everything was cooked and I was scooping our rice and chicken onto plates.

"What would you like to drink? I have tea and..." I opened the fridge. Even my water filter was half-empty. "...Tea."

"Tea's good," Ash said. "Hey, Eiji..." He trailed off.

I turned to face him again. "All okay, Ash?"

"Was that too much? First I run away and then I kiss you. I don't want to confuse you, or make you feel used or—"

I gave him a small peck on the lips.

"It's okay, Ash."

He looked at me with wide watery eyes and I suddenly felt self-conscious, like maybe I had done too much. "Sorry, that was—"

This time it was Ash who gave me another quick kiss. I melted into him, pressed our chests together, craved the pressure of his hands on my skin as he wrapped them back around me.

"Wanna wait a minute on dinner?" he asked between pecks.

"Yes," I replied hurriedly as we started side-stepping our way back into the living room, trying not to stop kissing the whole way. We parted briefly just as I laid down on the couch and Ash laid down on top of me, and we peered into each other's eyes. Ash looked so vulnerable, his hair framing his face as he looked at me, not pleading but silently asking permission, seeming to struggle for words.

I gulped, gave him a nod, and lifted my hands up around his neck, brought his face down closer to mine and we began to make out in earnest. Ash's lips were so warm, his chest was heavy bearing down on my own and I wanted it that way. Long strands of his hair tickled my skin as our tongues met sloppily, wet and eager. I massaged the back of his neck, then shifted a hand further up to gently caress his hair. So soft...

"Eiji," Ash said softly, pulling back and pressing his head against my neck, then lifting up to look me in the eyes again. His lips trembled slightly, his brow arched in worry. I felt like I'd been kicked in the chest.

"I'm not like other guys," he continued. "I can't promise that I won't have a sudden flashback. That I'll always be able to...you know. To be fun to be around. If you want me to I can go. I don't want to weigh you down with all my..." He paused for a few moments as if searching for the words before simply finishing "All my everything."

I pressed my hand against his jaw, caressed his face. He looked surprised, but tilted his head into the motion. I used my other hand to continue gently ruffling his hair.

"I know. And you're not weighing me down. But I should say the same: the longer I'm with you the more likely I am to show you...more of me. I'm a mess. Not to conflate what we've been through, not at all, but..." I trailed off; it was my turn to fumble around for adequate words. "I'm anxious and I don't know what I'm doing with my life or why I moved here and I'm a mess. Are you sure you still want to pursue something with me?"

Ash nodded. "So sure. Unless...you don't want to?"

I lifted my head up a bit from the couch to initate another kiss, no tongue, just gentle lips and the tickle of our noses beside each othe. "I'm sure," I said softly after pulling back.

Ash kept looking down at me with those green eyes that were now actually beginning to cry. "Oh God, I'm sorry, I'm pathetic..."

I wrapped my arms around his back. "No you're not. Don't worry. Want some food?" I asked.

"Sure," he said, and we sat up in the couch. He brought the side of his arm up to his face, wiped at his tears.

"I'll go make the tea," I said, standing up and giving his shoulder a firm squeeze. "You take it easy and I'll be back soon."

I walked into the kitchen, a bundle of nerves as I prepped the kettle. Was I making the right choice by giving him a moment of privacy? Or should I have waited and sat there with him? These thoughts clouded my mind as I brought our plates out to the living room along with the finished tea: peppermint.

"Thanks," Ash said.

His green eyes looked right into mine and I gulped. He was smiling, and it looked fully genuine.

"Of course," I said and we started eating.

"Hwry fufgh," Ash said between bites.

"Hm?"

He swallowed. "Sorry. I said 'holy fuck.' This is good."

"Thanks," I said. "I'm glad."

We ate in relative silence, with Ash scarfing his curry down and me taking longer to finish up as he went back to looking at all the photos on the walls. He actually looked interested, like they elicited emotions in him as they had for me before I stopped feeling much of anything somewhere along the way.

He asked questions about a few of them and I answered between bites until I, too, was finished eating. I stood up to take the dishes to the kitchen and set them to soak in the sink.

"I should probably get going soon," Ash called from the living room.

I walked back over to see him staring down at his feet. His jacket hung loosely around his shoulders and his hair was a bit out of place, more from my fingers' exploring now than from the messy state he was in earlier.

"I'll walk you home again," I said.

"Thanks." A smile. I smiled back.

I grabbed a jacket and we put our shoes back on, heading out the door. We exited the apartment complex from a different entrance than we'd used before; I wasn't going to walk anywhere remotely near the baseball field.

It was starting to get dark out, and minus the occasional car driving by there wasn't much sign of other people. Periodic street lights provided more than enough light to still see comfortably, even as the sky descended into a mix of red and purple. It got dimmer the longer we walked, red giving way to purple beginning to give way to black.

"How did you become such a good cook?" Ash asked.

"My dad was the cook in our house. But then he got sick, and my mom wasn't very good at it. She'd mostly just grab fast food on the way home from work. I got tired of it and I didn't want my sister to eat nothing but garbage so I learned."

Ash nodded. "Griff used to cook for me sometimes. Back before...everything."

I nodded, but opted not to ask what "everything" entailed. Ash had mentioned the name Griff earlier. His brother, if I remembered right. And he somehow knew Max. But Ash always used the past tense to talk about him.

"My whole family's dead," Ash said, answering more questions than just the one I didn't ask. "Or dead to me. My dad might still be alive somewhere, but I haven't seen him in years. Wouldn't want to. He left me to take care of Griff all by myself before he died."

"I'm sorry," I said. There it was again, that feeling of inadequacy. Of words of acknowledgement tasting worthless on my tongue.

"It's nothing to feel sorry about," Ash said. "I'm fine. As much as I can be, anyway."

I nodded, then looked around. The street beside us was deserted and there wasn't anyone else out on the sidewalk either. I hesitantly reached my hand out and brushed my fingers against Ash's knuckles.

He turned his hand and grabbed mine, palm to palm. Gave mine a squeeze.

"How did you get interested in tattooing?" Ash asked, changing the subject.

"I wasn't, really, until Ibe-san mentioned the idea. Max was his only connection over here he could get me an in with. And he knew I'd gone to art school, so they both thought I'd have the base competency for it."

"How do you feel about it now?" Ash asked.

"I'm interested. The parlor is a lot better than I expected. I'm used to thinking of tattoo shops as being full of..." I paused.

"Full of what?"

"Loud straight people. Manly men."

Ash snorted. "Yeah, well. Ours is full of loud gay dudes instead."

I laughed. "It's preferable."

Ash smiled. "Yeah, it is."

"How'd you meet all of them?" I asked. "When I talked to all of them they made it seem like you weren't just coworkers."

"I met pretty much all of them back when I was a teenager and...got involved in things I shouldn't have gotten involved in." He paused, furrowed his brow, seemed to debate continuing. "Gangs, I guess. I'll go ahead and say it. We're all a bunch of misfits and orphans and people who somehow aren't dead yet. As spots opened up at the parlor I managed to convince Max to give them a try, one by one. It got easier once Shorter moved here and showed Max how deceptively normal we can seem. Max still doesn't realize how much of a street demon Shorter was."

I nodded. It was the furthest thing from what I'd expected. I imagined Ash, unruly hair and watery green eyes and strong hands, holding a gun. In a way it almost made sense. In a way it felt worlds removed.

"The only one who's not my old friend from back then is Sing. He got in through Shorter. Looks up to him like a child to their parent. Hotheaded as he is, he refuses to admit it. Has to uphold his pride or something. Shorter says the kid looks up to me too, though I don't know why."

I nodded. "It's hard to imagine Bones and Kong being in a gang."

"That's because they were shit at it," Ash laughed.

Before long we found ourselves coming up on a small pond with benches.

"Are you in a rush to get home?" I asked.

"Nah," Ash said. "What's up?"

"Wanna stop here?"

"Sure."

We sat down on a wooden bench facing the pond. The water was both dark and clear, reflecting the now black sky above us and small patches of stars. Fronds surrounded the enclosure, tall stalks swaying slightly in the breeze.

"Sometimes you can see ducks here in the morning," Ash said.

"That sounds nice."

He nodded. "I've come up here to draw a few times. Got my ankles pecked at a few times too."

"Wanna come together again in the day sometime?" I asked.

"Sure," Ash said. "That sounds nice."

He turned to face me. I faced him. We looked at each other silently for a moment before simultaneously moving in closer, pressing our thighs together on the bench as our arms wrapped around each other's backs and we kissed.

Warmth. Even in the breeze I just thought of his warmth. Chaste at first, then his tongue brushed up against mine and I brushed his back. We squeezed each other tightly.

"I like you," Ash said.

"I like you, too."

"What do you...want to do?"

"Are we dating?" I asked.

Ash smiled. "We could be. I think I'd like that."

"Me too."

I leaned in for another kiss, which Ash reciprocated. The breeze picked up a bit and we tightened our grip on each other, tongues brushing furiously and chests pressing together tightly. After a few minutes of making out we finally pulled apart.

"Let's get out of the cold," I said.

Ash nodded. "It's getting chilly."

We finished walking the rest of the way to Ash's apartment complex, hands clutched tightly together partly out of mutual attraction, partly in a desperate search for warmth as the wind kept picking up more and more as the temperature continued to drop. The cold had snuck up on us, unusually potent for this time of year.

By the time we climbed up the stairs to Ash's place we were almost shivering. Ash unlocked the door and stepped in, then looked back at me. He seemed to hesitate, then spoke:

"It's getting worse out, and I feel bad I dragged you into this. Do you...want to spend the night?"