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No Longer Lost, Finally Found

Chapter Text

 

It was raining again. It had been doing that a lot lately. Maybe the weather was picking up on his mood Eiji thought, sighing and pressing her cheek against the window pain. It was starting to get dark. Usually the light lasted a bit longer in September but the gathering clouds seem to have other ideas today. Eiji knew that he should start working on dinner, his parents would be home soon and they'd be hungry. Besides making dinner was a good way to avoid another scolding, and he was getting really sick of those.

 

For the first three months or so since he returned from America Eiji parents had been tolerant of his moodiness, his silence, and his depression. They had been so glad to have their son back, so worried about him after he'd been shot, that they'd let basically everything else slide. Around month four however, the conversations began. He had come downstairs one night to find his parents deep in conversation about him. He remembered vividly hearing his mother stay.

“And you know the whole reason he went to America in the first place was to get over his depression and now look at him, worse than ever.”

“I wonder,” his father had mused, “what happened to him over there. At first I thought the way he was acting was a result of him getting shot, and I wouldn't blame the kid if that's what was upsetting him...”

“it must've been quite traumatizing.” His mother agreed.

“But,” his father continued, “I don't think that's it anymore. The wounds healed and I tried to talk to him about it but he just shrugged it off like it was no big deal. I don't know what he so upset about but I wish he could get past it.”

 

At that point Eiji had tiptoed his way back up the stairs and down the hall and into his empty bedroom and his empty bed where he had proceeded to cry himself to sleep.

 

Around month five was when Eiji parents’s had begun urging him to apply to college. He'd enrolled in a few photography classes at the local university around month three and was actually doing fairly well but his parents wanted him to do more, to "get a real education" they said. He supposed they had the right of it, especially since he probably could get in somewhere decent. He'd had very good grades before his injury and now he had a portfolio of photos that he could submit as well. There was just one problem. Eiji couldn't bring himself to care. Applying to college took energy, drive, and motivation, three things that he hadn't had in a long time. So he hadn't done it, and his parents alternated between nagging at him and worrying about him, and now, halfway through month six, Eiji was heartily sick of it.

 

Eiji continued watching the rainfall. He'd get up to make dinner in a moment he promised himself. It had been months since he believed in those sorts of promises but he made it anyway. In the meantime Eiji leaned into the window pane, his breath tracing foggy patterns across it and his eyes beginning to close as he lost himself in daydreams, his only comfort these days.

A loud, jangling, noise cut through Eiji’s thoughts and he jolted upright, glancing around wildly before realizing that it must've been the doorbell. He sank back against the window pane, deciding to let his sister get. He didn't feel like talking to anyone at the moment.

 

It rang again. Whoever was outside must be really impatient Eiji thought. This time, though, the sound of the bell was accompanied by the sound of bare feet running down the stairs, Eiji sister, Mari. A moment later he heard the sound of the lock turning in the door opening.

 

Eiji let his mind wander again. Distantly he could hear his sister saying something and he assumed another person responding, although their voice was so muffled by the rain and the fact that they, whoever they were, was still outside, and Eiji’s own haze, that he could barely pick up the fact that someone else was speaking, let alone the sound of their voice or anything they were saying. With a sigh Eiji put whoever it was out of his mind and returned to his daydreams only to be unceremoniously yanked from them again, this time by yell from his sister.

“Eiji! There’s someone here to see you!”

 

hu?Eiji blinked, then shrugged. Who would be coming to see him? He wasn't sure. He didn't care. He didn't move.

 

“Eiji!”

 

He still didn't reply. He heard his sister say something to the visitor, whoever it was. It was probably “one moment” or something along those lines but over the sound of the rain he couldn't make it out. A moment later though the door to the living room opened and Mari's head appeared around the door frame. She looked irritated.

 

“Eiji! There's someone here to see you.”

 

“Who is it?”

 

“I don't know. He just says he's your friend.”

 

Friend hu? Eiji hadn't spent much time with his friends since he’d gotten back. He didn't seem to have much to say to them anymore. He suppose he should go talk to whoever it was, but he just couldn't bring himself to do it.

 

“I don't want to see him.” Eiji told her, turning away from her and back toward the window.

Mari let out a snort of irritation and muttered something about him being stupid and about her not being an errand runner, before stomping back out of the room. She didn't bother to close the door behind her. That was probably why Eiji could hear her fairly clearly when she told his so-called friend, whoever it was, that “he says he doesn't want to see you.”

Eiji winced. Okay, yes, that was what he had said, but he still hadn't meant for her to put it like that. Now he’d have to figure out who it was so that he could apologize to him later. He hoped that, whoever it was, wasn't too offended, although they probably were since Mari had been quite rude. He listened for their response but, over the rain, he still couldn't catch a word the other person was saying.

 

 Then Eiji blinked, his mind belatedly registering that Mari hadn't been speaking Japanese to the visitor, she'd been speaking English. Mari’s English was pretty good, it was one of her best subjects at school, and Eiji had been so used to everyone speaking English in America that he hadn't even noticed at first. Strange.

 

Slightly curious now Eiji finally peeled himself away from the window and headed for the front hallway. As he stood he heard the door click and he presumed that, whoever it was, had gone. Good, he thought, he didn't really fancy facing whoever it was after Mari’s comment, he just wanted to know why she'd been speaking English.

 

“Who was that?”

 

Mari had been on her way back upstairs when Eiji spoke but she turned when she heard her brother's voice.

 

“Now you want to know?” She asked, rolling her eyes.

 

Eiji rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “Sorry about that. I just heard you speaking English and wanted to know why.”

 

“Because he was speaking English, obviously."

 

Eiji blinked. “Hu? Why?”

 

“Because he's some American, idiot.”

 

“American?”

 

Eiji’s eyes widened. An American? an American who claimed to be his friend? Could it be someone from New York? Max maybe? Or maybe, was it possible, that Sing had somehow ended up in Japan?

 

“Yeah, you know, as in from America, as in that place you disappeared to for an entire year, although I don't know how you managed to make friends with him because he looked…”

 

Eiji didn't hear the rest of his sister’s words. He was already running to the door, throwing it open, and peering out into the rain. There was a figure walking away from his house around the curve of the nearby corner, but, through the downpour, Eiji couldn't make out anything about him.

 

Guilt at having sent, whoever it was, away so unceremoniously after they'd come all the way across the ocean and curiosity like he hadn't felt in six months drove Eiji, still barefoot and without a coat, out into the rain. He ran after whoever it was until he rounded the corner and got his first good look at the man's back.

 

The man was walking slowly, shoulders slumped, head lowered in obvious dejection. Beyond that though he was tall, slender, and had beautiful blonde hair. Eiji stared at that back. It was the rain, he decided, the rain, and his daydreaming blurring his vision, making him see, making him see’

 

“ASH!”

 

He hadn't meant to shout it, but the cry burst from his mouth before his brain could think to take it back. The figure in front of him froze, then slowly, slowly, he turned around, and Eiji forgot about the rain, and his soaked hair and bare feet and cold hands and everything else, because he hadn't been wrong. It was Ash.

 

“E-Eiji?”

 

The sound of Ash’s voice broke the spell that seemed to hold Eiji frozen and staring at this impossible miracle, his dead friend. With a half strangled cry Eiji began running again, as fast as he could. He had closed most of the distance between them when his foot skidded on the wet sidewalk and he stumbled forward. Strong arms caught him, keeping him upright, and Eiji looked up into a pair of achingly familiar jade green eyes.

 

“Eiji.”

 

Ash’s voice sounded soft, shaky, unsure but all that registered for Eiji was that it was Ash’s voice, impossible miracle although that might be. With another cry Eiji threw his arms around Ash and buried his face in Ash’s shoulder. Ash hesitated for a moment, then he too tightened his arms around Eiji.

 

Eiji wasn't quite sure how long they stood like that, embracing in the rain, but at some point Eiji realized that he was crying, the sobs racking his entire body. Ash held him, one hand rubbing soothingly against Eiji’s back.

 

“you're here?” Eiji asked, his voice still choked by tears.

 

“Um ya.” Ash smiled tentatively down at him. “If you still want me anyway. If you want me to go I will.”

 

“No!” Eiji’s eyes widened and his arms tightened convulsively around Ash. “Please, please don't leave me again.” His voice cracked.

 

Ash looked away, not meeting his eyes. “If you're sure… I know you said you didn't want to see me so…. And it's okay, I get it…”

 

Eiji decided that it was a good thing that Ash probably had been unable to bring a gun with him to Japan since if he had Eiji would probably have borrowed it so that he could murder Mari.

“I am sure!” Eiji shouted, cutting Ash off. “I only said that because I didn't know it was you. I thought it was just some acquaintance or something!”

 

“Oh. But…”

 

“But nothing!” Eiji glared up at him. “I said forever Ash, and I meant it.”

 

Ash looked back down at Eiji, his eyes widening and filling with a moisture that had nothing to do with the rain.

 

“Me too.”

 

“Hu?” Now it was Eiji’s turn to look confused.

 

“Me too, I mean, that is…” For the first time since Eiji had known him Ash actually seemed to be struggling for words. “As long as you want me.” He finished awkwardly.

 

“So forever then?”

 

Ash nodded. “Ya. Forever.”

Chapter Text

Eiji smiled and buried his face in Ash’s chest again. This was surely the most amazing of days. Ash was here, here in his arms, and he had said forever. He had actually said it. Before Eiji had always been the one making promises, "even if the whole world is against you, I'll be on your side" and “forever” and "my soul is always with yours," but Ash had never promised him anything. He had always understood why. He knew that it was because Ash had never believed he'd get a happy ending and because he’d believed that the only type of happy ending Eiji could have was far away from Ash and his dangerous dangerous world. As if any ending without Ash in it could ever have been a happy one for Eiji. He actually snorted at that idea, the last six months were proof of that after all.

Ash blinked down at Eiji, trying to clear a mixture of rain and the tears he was pretending were rain out of his eyes.

“Did you sneeze?”

“Hu?” Eiji blushed with embarrassment. “Uh, no I was just thinking…”

Ash’s eyes widened as he really saw Eiji for the first time, Eiji who was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and nothing else. His hair was plastered flat on his head, his T-shirt was sticking to his chest, and his bare feet were standing in a puddle. There was only one word for Eiji at that moment, well one word besides beautiful anyway, and it was soaked.

Ash didn't pause to think, he just reacted, like he always did when Eiji was in danger. Granted, this time the danger was a potential cold not a potential assassin, but danger was still danger and Ash was still not having it.

He loosened his grip around Eiji, releasing him with one arm altogether, and Eiji looked up at him, confused, only to let out a squawk of surprise as Ash placed his free arm behind Eiji’s knees and lifted him into what could only be called a bridal carry.

“What! Ash?” Eiji looked around them frantically, suddenly glad for the torrential downpour which would make it very difficult for his neighbors to see what was going on even if they happened to look out their windows.

“Taking you back inside. You're soaking wet.” Ash suited his actions to his words and he began walking back in the direction of Eiji’s house. It wasn't far.

Eiji, however, was far less sanguine about letting Ash just carry him, especially out on the street like this where there was a chance that the neighbors might see. He shoved a hand into Ash’s chest, trying to push him away without putting any force behind it.

“Put me down! I can walk!”
“And what? Put you back in a puddle? Fuck Eiji you're not even wearing any shoes!”

“I'll be fine Ash!”

“Not if you catch pneumonia!”

Eiji was about to snap back something about the unlikelihood of that happening when he paused, his head reeling from how, how normal it all was. This was how it had always been between them, the bickering, the teasing, the stubbornness, everything, and to think that just the day before, hell, just the hour before, Eiji thought it all lost forever. He sniffed to stop himself from crying again and noticed that at some point his hand had gone from shoving Ash away to burying itself in Ash’s sweatshirt as if of its own accord. He left it there.

“See, there, you're starting to catch a cold!” Ash had heard the sniff.

Eiji thought about correcting him. He thought about continuing to argue. Normally he would have but, today was the day for unlikely things. Maybe he really was at risk of pneumonia. He reasoned that it couldn't hurt to be careful, and in the vein of being careful he really should try to stay as dry as possible. He leaned into Ash and buried his head against the other’s shoulder. He’d let Ash have this one, just this once. Burrowed into Ash’s chest as he was Eiji could hear the rhythmic pounding of Ash’s heart. It was enough to bring tears back to his eyes.

When they reached his house however Eiji immediately regretted his decision not to fight Ash on this one because, as they came up the front walk, the door swung open to reveal Mari gawking at them. Eiji could feel his face turning the bright red of Ash’s sweatshirt, an idea that was confirmed by Ash’s low chuckle.

“What the! Eiji?” Mari spluttered as soon as they were on the front steps. Her eyes flicked from Eiji to Ash and back again and Eiji struggled to find the words to tell her that this was NOT what it looked like, unless it was what looked like, he would be very happy if it was what it looked like, but it definitely wasn't, was it? No, no, of course it wasn't. Ash didn't think about him that way. He absolutely didn't, did he?

While Eiji attempted to wrap his mind around that particular idea and struggled to get out anything beyond “I…um…er,” Ash cleared his throat. He shifted Eiji slightly in his arms as though using him to gesture at Mari and said, perfectly politely, "excuse me. Would you mind letting us in? Your brother is rather heavy.”

Eiji wasn't sure if it was possible for his face to get any redder but he was pretty sure he had just managed it He glowered up at Ash.

“Then put me down! I didn't ask you to carry me!”

“Whatever you say dear.” Ash snickered as he stepped past Mari to deposit Eiji in the hallway.
Eiji regained his feet in time to see Mari mouthing the word “dear" at him in shock. Dammit! Why the hell did her English have to be so good anyway? Eiji was pretty sure that he was going to burst a blood vessel over this, probably more than one.

Chapter Text

 

“Eiji.” Mari spoke slowly as though she was trying to feel out each word. “Who is this?”

 

Eiji gulped. He needed to put a stop to this now, right now, but something distracted him. Ash had put him down (finally) but that meant that they were no longer touching and suddenly Eiji found that he couldn't bear that, not after all the weeks and months that he had spent thinking that Ash was beyond his reach forever. Eiji reached out, almost automatically, and buried his fingers in Ash’s sweatshirt. Mari raised her eyebrows at this and Eiji swore inwardly, this wasn't helping. Still, he didn't even consider letting go of Ash.

 

“Ash, this is my sister Mari. Mari, this is Ash. He's my, he is, well he’s Ash.” Eiji finished lamely, his blush deepening, if that was even possible at this point.

 

“Right…” Mari said, crossing her arms, her eyes narrowing.

 

For his part Ash seemed highly amused, snickering as Eiji fumbled the introduction, but when he turned back toward Mari his face was a perfect mask of politeness.

 

“Ash” he said, extending a hand. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you."

 

Mair just blinked at it for a moment before slowly extending her hand to take his. “it's a pleasure to meet you as well, although my brother hasn't mentioned you at all.” She gave Eiji a very pointed look.

 

Ash’s face stayed composed but Eiji saw the look of hurt and uncertainty that flashed through his eyes. Briefly he wondered if the rain outside was heavy enough that he could drown Mari in it. Why the hell did she have to be so blunt all the time? The truth was it wasn't all the time, with everyone else she could be perfectly genteel but when it came to Eiji she seemed to enjoy getting under his skin, and now he had one hell of a mess to clean up.

 

“I haven't really talked about New York at all.” Eiji interjected hastily by way of an explanation. It was true, but even to his ears it still sounded lame.

 

“Right.” Ash said. He withdrew his hand and his polite smile stayed in place, but Eiji could see through it to the hurt beneath. He just couldn't address it in front of his sister.

 

“Let's go to my room.” He said quickly. “You and Mari can get to know each other later.”

 

“A good idea.” Ash’s polite smile morphed back into his earlier, more familiar, smirk, although it didn't entirely erase the uncertainty from his eyes. “I need to get you out of those wet clothes after all.”

 

Mari’s eyes nearly popped at that, and just when he thought his blush might actually be receding too, no it was definitely still there, and probably darker than before.

 

“That's not… I mean…. He didn't mean…” Eiji spluttered.

 

Ash snickered as Eiji began tugging him toward the stairs, desperate to get him away from Mari before he he could go and say something else she could misinterpret.

 

“Impatient aren't you?”

 

“Shut up!” Eiji snapped. “Mari ignore him, we're just going to change into dry clothes. We’ll be back down in a bit.”

 

“Right…” Mari said, her arms once again crossed as she stared suspiciously up the stairs after them.

 

When they reached Eiji’s room he pulled Ash inside, slammed the door behind them, spun back around to face the room, and froze. For a few moments Eiji just stood there taking in the sight of Ash, Ash alive and in front of him, Ash here in his room, Ash who, even an hour ago he had believed lost to him forever, but who was no longer lost but instead finally found, and who had found his way here, to Eiji.

 

Again the tears gathered at the corners of Eiji’s eyes and this time he could not stop them from spilling over and down his face to mingle with the rain water soaking his T-shirt. Ash, for his part, looked strangely uncertain and tentative, a highly unusual combination on his usually poised face. He gazed slowly around the room, taking in every detail, the neatness of the made bed, the school trip photos from Eiji’s childhood sitting on top of the dresser, the closed photo album lying on Eiji’s nightstand. Then his eyes widened as they returned to Eiji and noticed his tears.

 

“Eiji.” Ash’s voice was soft, almost unsure. Eiji wiped his eyes, ineffectively attempting to put a stop to the flood.

 

“A-Ash” His voice hiccuped with a sob. Ash closed the space between them in two strides and tentatively put his arms around Eiji. Eiji leaned into him, returning the embrace.

 

“I guess this is my fault too.” Ash said it quietly.

 

“Hu?” Eiji blinked up at him, confused.

 

“You, crying, or getting hurt. It's always because of me.”

 

“Ash.”

 

“Maybe I shouldn't have come.” He started to pull away.

 

Eiji tightened his arms around Ash, gripping the back of Ash’s sweatshirt with his fingers, refusing to let him go. Ash stopped trying to pull away and blinked down at Eiji, and Eiji was a little hurt by the fact that Ash seemed actually surprised by his refusal to let Ash walk away again.

 

“Ash! Listen to me! Me getting hurt is never your fault! It's the fault of the people who wanted to hurt you!”

 

“But that's the same thing as…”

 

“No it's not!” Eiji cut him off, glaring up at him. “It's not the same at all! And as for making me cry, the only reason I'm doing that is because you disappeared for six hole months! Stupid! And because he couldn't think the call me even once during that time to let me know that you were okay!”

 

Ash looked honestly abashed. “Eiji I… I thought you might need some space, after getting shot and all. I thought it would be better for you to have a chance to heal and move on with your life and” Ash’s eyes traveled around the room again, “it looks like you have so…”

 

His voice trailed away and Eiji realized what he was seeing, or rather what he wasn't seeing, any traces of New York and the time they'd shared in Eiji’s room.

 

“Let me show you something.” Eiji gently untangled himself from Ash and, grabbing his wrist, pulled him over to the nightstand. With his other hand Eiji scooped up the photo album and handed it to Ash. Ash took it dubiously. He opened it slowly and his eyes widened with shock and emotion when he saw what it contained. It was filled with photos, photos of New York, photos of Ash’s gang, but mostly photos of Ash himself. The entire album was filled with them, photos of Ash sitting drinking a beer, photos Ash waking up in the morning, or cooking breakfast with a towel wrapped around his head after a shower, or sitting, curled lost in thought, on a windowsill. Ash wasn't even sure when Eiji had taken most of them. He certainly hadn't remembered Eiji taking them, but here they were, all together in an album on Eiji nightstand.

 

“Eiji, this is…”

 

“I look at them every night before I go to sleep.” Eiji said it softly. “If this is about what my sister said then it's true that I don't talk about you, or about anything else that happened in New York, but it wasn't because you don't matter or because I was forgetting you, it was because I wanted to keep you all to myself.”

 

Ash raised his head to stare at Eiji, his eyes wide and watering, his face, for once open, emotion clearly written across it.

“If you think that I'm better off without you or that I could ever forget you,” Eiji continued, “you're wrong. In these past six months there hasn't been a single moment that I haven't thought about you, haven't missed you and wish you were here with me. Honestly Ash I've been a complete mess. I haven't been able to do anything, just thinking that I would never see you again…” Eiji’s voice trailed away and he shook his head.

 

“Eiji I… I’m sorry…I…”

 

“It's like I said Ash, my soul is always with yours, so please, please don't ever do that to me again.”

 

Ash placed the album gently back on Eiji’s nightstand and, once again, wrapped his arms around Eiji.

 

“I promise.” He said it so quietly that if Eiji’s head hadn't been pressed against the others neck he probably wouldn't have heard him. “And I really am, so sorry Eiji.”

 

“It's okay.” Eiji smiled against Ash’s neck. “You came back to me, and that's what matters. You're here with me now, here and safe and this, this is our new beginning.”

 

Ash hummed in contentment, pressing his face into Eiji’s hair, and they just stood like that for a while. Then Ash pulled back and looked down his elegant nose at Eiji.

 

“You know,” he said, his voice returning to something like its more normal, amused, tone, "you're still soaking wet. And I did tell your sister that I would personally get you out of those wet clothes.”

 

He winked. Eiji blushed and slapped his arm. Ash chuckled, and everything was exactly as it should be.

Chapter Text

Ash wasn't exactly dry either. Sure he'd been wearing a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up and his usual converse but neither of those things were much of a defense against the rainstorm they'd been caught in. Eiji was on the point of telling Ash that he should change too when he realized what Ash did, or rather didn't, have with him; literally anything.

 

“Ash," Eiji asked slowly, “where's your stuff?"

 

“Oh,” he looked a bit sheepish. “Coming was kind of a last minute things so I ended up traveling light.”

 

“How last-minute?” Eiji’s narrowed suspiciously.

 

“I went for a walk yesterday and ended up here?” Ash offered.

 

“Ash!” Eiji wasn't sure how he was supposed to react to that. Grateful that Ash had come at all? Furious that seeing him again had just been a whim? Worried about what circumstances could have led Ash to take a "walk" to Japan?

 

Ash looked away.

 

“All right.” Eiji said I'll try to find you something dry to wear but then you're going to tell me everything, I mean it Ash.”

 

He started rummaging through his dresser drawers until he found a pair of pajama pants that had always been too big on him. Then he opened his shirt drawer and froze, looking at the shirt on the very top of the pile, the one he almost always slept in. It probably needed to be washed, which was as good a reason as any not to lend it to Ash, but Ash was taller than him and Eiji didn't own many large T-shirts, so he wasn't sure what else he had that would fit Ash comfortably. Besides, he reasoned, he absolutely couldn't wear it at the moment. Eiji was still on the point of deciding what to do when he heard light footsteps padding toward him.

 

“Eiji?”

 

Ash must've noticed him staring frozen into his shirt drawer and come over to see what exactly he had found so riveting.

 

“What are you… Wait is that?”

 

“I..” Eiji tried to figure out what exactly to say to make the situation less embarrassing but before he could one of Ash's long arms reached past him and grabbed the shirt out of the drawer, holding it up to the light for inspection. It was a simple button-down affair, light blue, and it looked to be a little large even for Ash.

 

“It is.” Ash's eyes widened and a smirk spread slowly across his face. "This is my shirt. What, I wonder, is it doing here? And it's all rumpled too, almost as though someone's been wearing it, to sleep in perhaps?”

 

Eiji’s cheeks bypassed pink and went straight to scarlet, the rest of his face following suit.

 

Ash let out a low chuckle. “I'm right aren't I? You have been sleeping in it.”

 

Eiji’s ears were on fire. He glared at Ash, who smirked unrepentantly back at him.

 

“So what if I have?”

 

“Well,” Ash put a hand to his heart in mock emotion. “What am I supposed to think about you spending the night in my clothes?”

 

Eiji turned his head away in a pout. “Okay fine I missed you, but it's your own stupid fault for letting me think you were dead for the last six months.”

Ash froze, all traces of mockery disappearing from his face. Sensing his stillness Eiji turned back toward him.

 

“Ash?”

 

"You thought I was what?”

 

Eiji blinked, confused. "I thought you were dead?" It came out more as a question than a statement.

 

Ash had gone pale, making the Jade of his eyes stand out even more than usual against the pallor of his skin.

 

“Who told you that?"

 

“Ibe-san, and Max.”

 

Ash swore. Eiji just looked at him, surprised. It suddenly occurred to him that, throughout the conversation, when he had described Ash’s absence he'd always used words like "leaving me," "disappeared," and "never see you again." He'd never actually mentioned anything about Ash’s suppose it "death," not in so many words anyway. It had been there in all the things he had said but for the first time he realized that maybe his meaning had not been as obvious to Ash, although the only reason it wouldn't be was…

 

“Dammit! Charlie must've told Max! I forgot they were friends, and I guess Nadia decided to keep it a secret from him!”

 

Then Ash’s eyes fixed on Eiji, and Eiji was surprised by the intensity of the guilt he saw in them.

 

“Fuck Eiji I'm so sorry. I had no idea. I really never meant for you to think that." He shook his head then, dropping his shirt to the floor he wrapped his arms around Eiji again and Eiji burrowed into them, reveling in the warmth of Ash’s touch even through the wetness of his rain-soaked sweatshirt.

 

“I'm so sorry." He whispered again. "I can't imagine what you went through. If I thought you were dead…” His voice trailed away as he remembered the sound of a gunshot and of soft words spoken in a failing voice and the flutter of Eiji’s eyelashes as they closed and his fear that they would never open again. Ash’s arms tightened convulsively around Eiji. “I'm so sorry” he whispered again.

 

Eiji allowed Ash a moment just hold him, both boys finding comfort and healing in the embrace, before he slowly pulled away.

 

“We should change,” Eiji said, "before we both catch pneumonia. And then you can tell me why Max thought you were dead and how you want for a walk and ended up here."

 

                                                                                    ***

Once they had dried themselves off with towels Eiji brought from the bathroom and changed into dry clothes, Ash smirking a little as he slipped into back into his button down, the two boys sat on Eiji’s bed. Ash lounged half against the wall and half against Eiji’s headboard and Eiji leaned half against the wall and half against Ash’s shoulder.

 

“So, what exactly did Iba tell you anyway?"

 

“He told me,” Eiji pulled his knees up against himself and stared down at them, choosing to speak to them rather than to Ash, “that about an hour or so after our plane took off you were found dead in the library, that Lao had stabbed you and that you’d shot him and that because he was out on the street he was found and taken to a hospital in time but that, because you were in the library nobody found you until it was too late. He said that there was some confusion about which hospital took your body away and in the end they couldn't find it so they thought that your gang probably have it, but that you'd already been confirmed dead and that they ran DNA tests on the blood left in the library to confirm that it was yours. He also said that when Lao woke up he confirmed having stabbed you and that Max even spoke with him in an attempt to disprove it, but just ended up believing him."

 

He turned to look up Ash. “It's true isn't it? Lao stabbed you.”

 

Ash nodded heavily. “He did.” There was no point in denying if Eiji already knew, besides, Eiji shouldn't be too worried since he could clearly see that Ash was all right. Everything should be fine as long as Eiji didn't realize that it was because of…

 

"My letter. It was because of my letter wasn't it, that he was able to get close to you."

 

Dammit. “Eiji, it wasn't like…”

 

“Don't lie to me Ash.” Eiji voice sounded strangely brittle. “I know it has to have been my letter, otherwise how could Lao have gotten near you?"

 

“Eiji.” Ash sighed. “All right I did read the letter but…”

 

“I knew it.” Eiji’s voice still sounded brittle, as though he was trying to hold back hysterics. “As soon as Iba-san told me I realized what must've happened. Max didn't understand how Lao could've gotten close to you but he didn't know about the letter and I did. It was the reason I believed them when they told me you were gone. I ended up trying to focus on hating Lao because otherwise I'd have to face the fact that it was all my fault.”

 

“Eiji.” Ash reached down, taking Eiji’s chin gently in his hand and forcing Eiji to look up at him. “Please, whatever you do, don't regret sending me that letter. I, I don't know how to tell you how much it means to me, the things you wrote…” And shook his head slowly. “No one's ever, no one's ever said that they wanted to protect me before, not like you did. What you said, it made me feel…” He shook his head again. “Eiji those words meant more to me than you could ever know so please, please don't regret them.”

 

Eiji stared up into the jade green orbs of Ash’s eyes and saw in them the truth of Ash’s words. He nodded slowly.  “I meant them, every word.”

 

Ash’s eyes blink slowly, as though warding off moisture, and he looked quickly away.

 

“Thank you.” His words were so quiet that Eiji almost hear them and wasn't entirely sure he'd been intended to.

 

“So,” Eiji prompted, “if you didn't die in the library what did happen to you?"

 

“Ah, right.” Ash sounded grateful to have something slightly less emotional (for him anyway) to talk about. “Sing found me. I guess someone found Lao almost immediately and called an ambulance and when the paramedics showed up they went through his phone looking for an emergency contact. Since Sing’s his brother they ended up calling him. I guess it was just after you'd gotten on your plane since Sing had just been seeing you off when he got the call. Anyway he knew I was at the library since you’d sent him there to deliver the letter and when he heard that Lao’d been shot and that he'd been found with a knife covered in someone else's blood Sing put two and two together. Since he wasn't sure what else to do he ended up calling Blanca of all people, I think he might even have had to ask Yut Lung for the number. Anyway by the time they got there I was unconscious but not dead. Blanca decided that it would be a good thing if the cops thought I was though so he called for an ambulance but from a private hospital he knows that doesn't ask too many questions, then he told the librarian that I was dead and that the ambulance was just to take my body to the coroner's.”

 

Ash shrugged. “Either he was pretty convincing or she was pretty stupid but probably both, I mean she didn't even figure out that I was bleeding out until Blanca showed up to drag me off. Anyway I woke up in a private hospital and they kept me there until the wound closed up. Sing made sure that Alex and the guys knew what had actually happened so that they didn't go off half cocked and murder Lao revenge and he told Nadia too to keep her from worrying too much. It didn't occur to me that the police thinking I was dead would end up getting back to you all the way in Japan.”

 

Eiji nodded slowly. He wanted to ask about why Ash had gone back to the library, why he’d been content to sit and wait for death instead of calling for help since, if there had been enough time for Sing to find out, get in touch with Blanca, and still get to Ash in time, then there had absolutely been more than enough time for Ash to call for help himself. But that particular question could wait. Eiji sensed that it would only upset Ash again and, with Ash once again sitting beside him, Eiji found that it no longer mattered quite as much as it once had. Besides, he still had another question he want answered.

 

“So after that you decided, stupidly, that I'd be better off without you which is why you never thought to let me know that you were okay, but that still doesn't explain how you went for a walk in New York and ended up on my doorstep in Izumo.”

 

Ash chuckled and ran a hand through his hair. “Oh that.” After I left the hospital I had to keep a really low profile since it would defeat the whole purpose of faking dead if I were to casually run into Jenkins on a street corner or something. Blanca insisted on hanging around as long as my wound was still bothering me so I ended up staying in a hotel with him mostly. Sometimes I spent a few days in Harlem with Cain just for a change since it’s far enough away from my usual territory that none of the cops around there know me. Most of the time though I spent on the laptop in the hotel hacking into every database I could and scrubbing my picture out of it a bit at a time. I was always planning to come but I needed to be able to get a fake ID and passport and get past security without anyone recognizing me from wanted lists or case files or anything, and I needed to make sure I wouldn't be followed because I couldn't risk putting you in danger again. I finished scrubbing out everything I felt like I needed to a month ago but I kept going back and forth about whether I should come or not, whether it would be better to just let you move on without me. Toward the end Blanca was really getting on my nerves. Yesterday we got into this fight and I stormed out and went for a walk. That's when I realized that I still had my new passport in my sweatshirt pocket as well as my wallet and I was pretty done with Blanca so I just caught a cab to LaGuardia and booked a ticket on the first flight I could get to Tokyo. It took a bit to figure out how to get from there to Izumo but I found an info desk at the airport with people who spoke English so here I am.”

“Here you are.” Eiji repeated softly. At some point during Ash’s story, he wasn't quite sure when, Eiji’s hand seem to have buried itself in Ash’s shirt again. Ash, for his part, didn't appear to be complaining so Eiji saw no need to remove it.

 

Before he could say anything else though he heard a rap on the door. Both Ash and Eiji jerked upright. They had been so immersed in the conversation and in one another's presence that they hadn't noticed the sound of approaching footsteps. Ash stiffened, his hand reaching automatically for a gun that wasn't there. Before Eiji could reassure him however Mari’s voice came through the door.

 

“Eiji To-san and Ka-san are home!”

 

Ash relaxed marginally and Eiji sighed. In all the excitement of being reunited with Ash he had forgotten to make dinner.

 

“They want to see you, and your special friend!” Eiji froze, staring at the door, a look of horror slowly spreading across his face.

 

“Mari! What did you tell them!” Not that he couldn't guess, especially after the things that Ash had said earlier. The feeling of the blood rushing back into his cheeks was accompanied by Ash’s low chuckle.

Chapter Text

 

 Ash laughed at Eiji all the way down the hallway, which was as good a way away as any to conceal his nerves, and Ash was nervous. Many would have laughed him for that, the great Ash Lynx, New York's most feared gang boss, survivor of a thousand horrors, and stone cold killer, afraid of meeting a couple of parents. To those people, if he felt like explaining himself, he would've said that it was because of all the things that he was afraid of meeting Eiji’s parents. He was afraid that they would realize that he wasn't a suitable person for their son to be involved with, that they would tell Eiji never to see him again, that Eiji might even listen. As they reached the top of the stairs Ash hung back a little, trying to get a handle around his nervousness.

 

Eiji, on the other hand, dealt with his nerves by rushing forward. As Far as he was concerned the less time Mari had to talk to their parents before he set things straight the better. As he walked he was hurriedly trying to figure out how exactly to convey to his parents that Mari had gotten the wrong idea without actually mentioning what the wrong idea was in a way that made Ash think that Eiji wouldn't be happy if it was the right idea, but also without making Ash think that Eiji expected it to become the right idea. The last thing Eiji wanted was for Ash to feel like Eiji expected something from him, especially of that nature, and the second to last thing Eiji wanted was for Ash to think that Eiji wasn't interested in something of that nature only off-chance that Ash was. Eiji nearly growled in frustration. It was also complicated and frustrating and it was all Mari’s fault.

 

“Ah, Eiji, Mari tells me that we have a guest."

 

Eiji’s head snapped up. He was about halfway down the steps with Ash two steps behind him. Mari was lounging against the far wall, smirking, and at the bottom of the steps stood both of his parents. Eiji took a quick breath, collecting himself, and then nodded in answer to his mother's question.

 

“Yes Ka-san, we do.” Eiji quickly descended the rest of the steps “this is…” Eiji paused for a second, glancing back at Ash, remembering that Ash was in the country under a false name and unsure what name he should give. “Aslan Callenreese, most people call me Ash. It's a pleasure to meet you." Ash stepped up beside Eiji, extending a hand and smoothly sliding his words into Eiji silence. He had put his perfectly polite "Chris" mask back on. Eiji could see it was a mask, could see the nervousness Ash hid behind it, but he also knew that his parents would not.

 

“Ash and I met in New York” Eiji said quickly, praying that his parents hadn't noticed the way he'd stumbled over his friend's name. “While I was there I told him it would be really nice if he'd come stay with me in Japan for a while.”

 

“Well Ash it's a pleasure to meet you.” Eiji’s mother said in accented English, stepping forward and taking Ash’s proffered hand. “And Eiji, why didn't you tell us you were expecting a visit from your, friend.”

There was something about the way the she elongated and enunciated the word friend that made Eiji’s flick to Mari in embarrassed consternation. Suddenly he had the distinct feeling that when he did actually make dinner later he'd need to make sure to poison hers. In the meantime however he had to figure out how to handle this situation before it get too far out of hand.

 

“Sorry Ka-san,” Eiji gave her a sheepish smile. “I would have if I’d known but it was kind of a surprise to me as well.”

“I see.” Eiji’s father said, raising his eyebrows as though trying to coax some hidden meeting from the words. “A very pleasant surprise.” It was technically a statement but Eiji could hear the undertones of a question in his father's words, as though he was trying to subtly assess whether or not he should really be welcoming his son's unexpected visitor.

 

“Yes, a very pleasant surprise.” Eiji nodded vigorously in his haste to reassure both his parents that yes, Ash’s presence was a good thing, a very very good thing.

 

Eiji’s father nodded slightly at Eiji and took Ash’s hand in turn while Eiji’s mother turned back toward her son.

 

“A nice surprise indeed. So this is the surprise that Iba-san was talking about when he said he had something that might cheer you up.”

 

“What? Ibe-san?” Eiji shot a glance at Ash who shook his head, mystified. “Ibe-san had a surprise for me?” Eiji asked, turning back toward his parents. Instantly he felt the guilt settle in his stomach at the thought of Ibe. Ibe who had been asking Eiji to get coffee with him every day for a week but who Eiji kept putting off. It was partially because Eiji hadn't wanted to see anyone particularly and partly because seeing Ibe was a reminder of the time they had spent in America together and what returning from that trip had cost him, had cost Ash. Eiji didn't blame Ibe, but the fact was that if Eiji hadn't responded to his and his mother's entreaties by returning to Japan then there would've been no need for him to send the letter and he was convinced that if he hadn't sent it that Ash would still be alive. Yet Ash was alive and here beside him and suddenly Eiji felt terribly guilty about his treatment of the man who had always supported him, to say nothing of arranging some sort of surprise to cheer him up.

 

“So this isn't the surprise?” Eiji mother asked. “Does that mean you still haven't seen Ibe? Eiji! Don't be so rude!”

 

Eiji looked down at the floor, embarrassed. “You're right ka-san. I'll let him know that I can meet him for coffee the day after tomorrow.”

 

“What about shopping in Tokyo?” Eiji’s head snapped up and he and his parents both turned to look at Mari in surprise.

 

“You promised to take me because To-san said I wasn't allowed to go shopping in that neighborhood by myself. Remember? You said you'd take me the day after tomorrow.”

 

Oh right. Eiji had forgotten all about that and he hadn't so much promised as been forced into it by his parents who were desperate to get him to do anything resembling fun in order to shake him out of his depression.

 

“That's right I‘d forgotten.” Eiji’s mother said. “Why don't you see if Ibe-san can get coffee with you tomorrow instead?"

 

“But it's Ash’s first day here.” Eiji protested. “He only just got to Japan today so he's sure to need a day to settle in and recover from jet lag and…”

 

Ash shook his head, cutting Eiji off. “It’s fine Eiji. You should see Ibe and find out what the surprises, and besides” Ash gave mischievous grin “I'd rather like to see him myself.”

 

Eiji’s eyes widened as he remembered that Ibe, like Eiji, had been told that Ash was dead, and he wondered suddenly what mischief Ash had in mind.

 

                                                                                    ***

When Ibe entered the coffee shop the next day he was honestly relieved to see Eiji seated at an empty table by the window. Eiji had been avoiding him since Ash’s death and so he'd been a little afraid of that Eiji wouldn’t come. He'd been trying to meet Eiji in order to surprise him every day for the past week, ever since the "surprise" had arrived from LA and decided that if Eiji didn't agree to get coffee within the next two days he'd have no choice but to go to the boys house. He hadn't wanted to do that because he'd wanted to see Eiji away from his parents and sister, hoping that that would coax the boy to talk more freely about their time in New York, but that hadn't stopped him from enlisting Eiji’s mother's help in trying to coax her son into this meeting. He knew that both of Eiji’s parents were very worried about him and Ibe was as well, possibly even more so since he knew exactly the magnitude of Eiji greif, and so he'd been relieved when he'd received Eiji’s text the evening before, agreeing to meet him for coffee the next day.

 

Ibe was even more relieved, and admittedly rather surprised, to observe a genuine smile on Eiji’s face as he stared idly out the window waiting. Other than Eiji the shop was mostly empty. There were a couple of teenagers chatting at a table near the door, a couple of young women doing the same as they stood at the counter waiting for their drinks an elderly man sitting alone and reading a book at a table near the middle of the room, and another person reading a book at the table next to Eiji’s, this one with his back to the door and the hood of his red sweatshirt pulled up so that Ibe couldn't make out any details about him.

 

“Eiji.” He spoke the boy’s name when he reached the table, causing Eiji to look up at him smiling brightly.

 

“Ibe-san!” He said and Ibe was pleasantly startled to hear real animation in his voice, something which he hadn't heard in, how long had it been? Before Ash, before Eiji had been shot the second time? When was the last time he’d seen the boy before that? When he'd been shot the first time? Still not a particularly auspicious meeting, and before that he'd only seen the boy for a few horrific moments when they'd been held prisoner in Dino’s mansion. Ibe shivered just remembering that scene. In which case the last time he'd heard Eiji sound that happy had been in LA, more than a year before, and while Ibe was sure that Eiji sounded that way with Ash during moments of the interim it both glad and his heart to hear the boy sound so much more like himself again and brought him pain as he realized how seldom the boy had sounded happy over the last year.

 

Then Eiji’s eyes widened as he caught sight of the “surprise” Ibe’s shoulder.

 

“Max!” Eiji exclaimed, leaping from his seat to throw his arms around the sandy haired American who had followed Ibe into the coffee shop.

 

“Hi kiddo.” Max smiled, returning the embrace. “How’ve you been?”

 

Ibe expected Eiji’s face to fall at that question, and it did for a moment, only to brighten again as Eiji’s eyes flicked sideways and he stepped backward out of Max's embrace, resuming his seat at the table and gesturing for the other two to join him.

 

“Max! What are you doing here?” Eiji asked animatedly, completely ignoring Max's question.

 

“Shunichi invited me. We are working on an article together and so I decided it would be useful to come do some work in person for a couple of weeks. He said that you are having a rough time of it so I thought that I’d take the chance to surprise you.”

 

Max scrutinized Eiji’s face keenly. He too had been worried about the boy understanding, as he did, better than most, the pain that Eiji was dealing with. He wasn't entirely sure what he could do to help but thought that, maybe, having someone that Eiji could talk to about it, about Ash, might do him some good. Max had been saddened but not surprised when he'd seen Eiji and how thin he was looking, as though he hadn't been finding the energy to eat full meals for a while now. What had surprised him was how at peace Eiji looked when they'd walked in and how he was still smiling happily even now. Considering what Ibe had said about how much of a mess Eiji had been since their return, the state that his new thinness attested to the reality of, Max was now looking at a very different Eiji than the one he'd expected to find. Not that that was a bad thing of course, Max would be very happy to find that Eiji was holding up well, but it made him wonder if Eiji was just putting on a show to keep them from worrying about him. Still, his smiles looked genuine enough. Curious, Max thought, his old journalistic instincts kicking in, I wonder what could be making him smile like that.

 

“I'm glad you did!” Eiji grinned warmly up at him. “It's really good to see you!”

 

“You as well Eiji, but I have to ask what it is that has you in such a good mood.”

 

Ibe winced at Max's bluntness but Max just stared intently at Eiji, trying to see past his smile to how he was actually feeling. He was so intent on Eiji that he didn't notice the sound of someone coming up behind him until he heard soft laughter from directly behind his chair.

 

“Hu?” Max turned to glare up at whoever it was. In the back of his mind Max noted that the laugh sounded vaguely familiar but he didn't know anyone in Japan besides Eiji and Ibe so he didn't pay much attention to the thought. His mouth twisted in irritation as he noticed that the guy, whoever he was, had his hood pulled up and his head turned to the side so that Max couldn't make out anything about his features.

 

“I'm guessing that's my doing, Dad,” said the stranger as he pulled back the hood.

 

“ASH!” Max jumped and tried to stand all in the same moment and ended up sending both his chair and himself crashing to the floor. Ibe did manage to leap to his feet, where he stood, frozen and slack-jawed, staring at Ash who was now laughing openly down at Max's flabbergasted expression. For his part Max goggled up at the ghost above him, not even noticing the way that the rest the coffee shop had fallen completely silent or the way that its inhabitants were all staring at them.

 

“WHAT THE FUCK? ASH!” Max exploded, scrambling to his feet.

 

“Been a while dad.” Ash smirked, and yes it really was Ash, no one else had a smirk quite that infuriating. “Is that any way to greet your so_”

 

Ash’s words were cut off as Max threw his arms around Ash, pulling him into the tightest hug he could manage. Ash’s eyes widened in surprise and his body went momentarily stiff in Max's arms before he slowly, tentatively, returned the embrace.

 

“Ash…” Ibe shook his head in wonder.

 

“Thank God Ash.” Max murmured. He could feel tears forming in his eyes. “Thank God you're okay.”

 

“Old man I…”

 

“Ahem.” Ash’s words were interrupted by the sound of Eiji clearing his throat. All three men turn to stare down at him, the only one of them still in his seat. Eiji looked amused but also a little irritated and his cheeks had gone pink. He gestured wordlessly at the coffee shop around them. Max blinked at him, then turned to blink at the coffee shop, only then noticing that the rest of the shop had gone completely silent and that every single one of its inhabitants, customers and employees alike, were staring at them.

 

“Oh, oops.”  Max released Ash and rubbed sheepishly at the back of his head. “Sorry about that.” He said to the coffee shop at large. Eiji nodded in the direction of his chair and Max glanced down to find that it was still lying on the floor. Hastily he bent and righted it.

 

“What you say we take this outside.” Ibe suggested.

 

Max nodded, "a good idea and,” his eyes returned to Ash “once we get there you're going to tell me everything.”

 

Ash smirked back at him. “Sure, whatever you say dad.”

Chapter Text

It was shaping up to be just like any other Friday. New episode of Bungo Stray Dogs? Check. Discussing it afterward in the group chat with her friends Seri and Kukuri? Check. Brother downstairs moping? Check. Mari was in the middle of an intense discussion about whether or not Kunikida was at risk of being killed off (hopefully not), whether Dostoevsky was going to find a way to screw over the Armed Detective Agency even more (probably), and who was the best character (Dazai obviously!! Although Kukuri kept arguing for Ranpo) when the sound of the doorbell ringing cut across her train of thoughts. Briefly Mari wondered if her brother would get it, Eiji was downstairs after all, but she couldn't hear any movement coming from his direction. No, of course he wouldn't get it. With a sigh she pushed back her chair and stood.

 

As she made her way down the hall she heard the bell ring again. Whoever it was was pretty impatient, but then, considering how hard it was raining, they probably doesn't just want to get to wet. Maria pulled open the front door and froze. The persons standing in front of her had the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up in an attempt to ward off the rain but even with that she could see enough of his face to tell that he was beautiful. He was tall, slender, with beautiful blonde hair and stunning jade green eyes. He had to be either a model or a movie star and probably both.

 

“Um Hello?” She asked, blinking up at him, unsure what someone like him would be doing on her doorstep.

 

“Is this the Okumura residence… I mean um er…” He trailed off, grimacing and looking unsure of himself.

 

“Yes.” She said quickly, switching to English, “it is.”

 

His face brightened perceptibly. “You speak English then?”

 

She nodded.

 

“Is Eiji here?” The stranger asked, sounding slightly nervous again. Mari stared at him in surprise for a moment. Eiji? How would someone like this know her brother of all people? More to the point, considering that photography seemed to be the only thing Eiji could bring himself to care about getting back, how had he managed to meet someone like this and not taken pictures? She had seen some of his photos from New York but most were devoid of people and none of them had had this man in it, she definitely would have remembered.

 

Still, here he was, asking for her brother. She turned and shouted for him over her shoulder.

 

“Eiji! There’s someone here to see you!”

 

Silence, no response.

 

“Eiji!” She tried again, nothing.

 

She turned back to the stranger just in time to see a look of genuine worry, and was that fear? flash across his face.

 

“One moment,” she told him quickly, “he must not have heard me.”

 

Eiji had, of course, heard her, there was no question of that. He had just chose not to respond. He had been doing that a lot lately. Mari knew that her parents were very worried about him, and honestly she was too. She probably had even more reason to worry than they did, after all they hadn't heard him crying at night the way she did on her way to the bathroom. The walls were thick enough in their house the majority of sounds didn't travel, so she didn't think her parents had noticed how often Eiji cried himself to sleep these days, but the bathroom she and her brother shared was at the end of the hallway just past his room so she often heard him on her way to brush her teeth in the evenings. It hurt hearing him like that and time and time again she thought about going in and demanding to know what was wrong, but she could just never find the words.

 

 She was about to go and find her moping brother, hoping that this visitor, whoever he was, would help to snap him out of his fugue state, when she realized she'd never asked his name.

“Who should I tell him is here?” Mari asked looking back at the stranger over her shoulder.

 

“Tell him… Tell him I’m a friend.” the man said with a small smile. Friend hu? She shrugged to herself and patted off to find Eiji.

 

When Mari reached the living room she shoved the door open and stuck her head around it.

 

“Eiji! There's someone here to see you.”

 

“Who is it?”

 

“I don't know. He just says he's your friend.”

 

“I don't want to see him.” Eiji told her, turning away from her and back toward the window.

 

Mari glared at the back of his head. She was worried about him, sure, but that didn't stop her from being annoyed at when he treated her like a damn messenger and acted so dismissive. She turned away, letting out a snort of irritation and muttering under her breath about how he was stupid and how she wasn't a damn errand runner. When she reached the front door again she looked up at the stranger and told him, in a voice pitched to carry, “he says he doesn't want to see you.”

 

Mari had left the living room door open so she knew that Eiji would be able to hear her. Hopefully, she thought, hopefully that would be enough to jolt him out of his moping and get him to come and apologize to, and therefore talk to, the person he just inadvertently insulted.

 

A moment later however Mari found herself regretting her bluntness a little because of the shock and hurt that flashed across the man's face. He looked almost as though he'd been slapped.

 

“Ah, I see.” He said, shoulders drooping.

 

Mari opened her mouth to try to say something, anything, to make the situation better but, before she could, he turned, walking back into the rain and pushing the front door shut behind him.

 

Mari blinked at it for a moment, then she shook her head. Now that had been weird! She considered going back into the living room and interrogating her brother about whoever that was whatever he could want but decided against it since she doubted she’d anything out of him at the moment anyway. She'd try at dinner and in the meantime should go back upstairs and tell her friends all about her brother's strange visitor. She was on the point of doing just that when she heard her brother coming to the hall behind her.

 

“Who was that?”

 

Mari turned on the stairs to glance back down at him. Finally,she thought.

 

“Now you want to know?” She asked, rolling her eyes.

 

Eiji rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “Sorry about that. I just heard you speaking English and wanted to know why.”

 

“Because he was speaking English, obviously."

 

Eiji blinked. “Hu? Why?”

 

“Because he's some American, idiot.”

 

“American?”

 

Mari rolled her eyes again.

 

“Yeah, you know, as in from America, as in that place you disappeared to for an entire year, although I don't know how you managed to make friends with him because he looked like a model or a movie star or something.”

 

Eiji wasn’t listening to her anymore. Instead he had run to the door and flung it open and was peering out into the rain. Before she could say anything else he actually stepped out into it, running through the puddles down the walk without an umbrella or coat or even his shoes. She went to the door and stared bemusedly after him. She hadn't seen him move that fast in… Not since before the injury that had put an end to his pole vaulting career. Who was this American to make her brother ran after him that quickly?

 

Mari wasn't quite sure what she should do. Her first instinct was to go chasing after Eiji but that was silly. She just end up getting soaked to and it wasn't as though he couldn't find his way back to the house on his own. She decided, after a moment of thought, that she'd stay on the hall and wait and so she did, peering out the door in hopes of spotting her idiot brother returning.

 

She was just on the point of wondering what she was about to do if her brother didn't come back when Mari saw a figure coming up the front walk. She pushed the door all the way open in order to get a better view and froze. The figure was her brother, or rather it was partially her brother. He wasn't walking though, he was being carried, carried in a style that she could only associate with TV weddings by the blonde American from earlier. Mari really wasn't sure how to process this.

 

“What the! Eiji?” Mari spluttered as soon as they were on the front steps. Her eyes flicked from Eiji to the American and back again. What was going on? What the hell was going on?

 

The stranger was grinning and laughing and her brothers face had turned bright red. “I…um…er,” he began but the stranger cleared his throat, interrupting her brothers poor excuse for an attempt at words. He shifted Eiji slightly in his arms as though using him to gesture at Mari and said, perfectly politely, "excuse me. Would you mind letting us in? Your brother is rather heavy.”

 

Eiji blushed dark and at that, something that Mari couldn't help but be amused by even as she was struggling to wrap your brain around the situation.

 

“Then put me down!” Eiji spluttered, “I didn't ask you to carry me!”

 

“Whatever you say dear.” The stranger snickered as he stepped past Mari to deposit Eiji in the hallway.

 

 Mari spun around to stare at them, eyes wide, her mouth automatically mouthing the word “dear,” as her mind began to race, connecting the dots and putting the pieces together. Dear. Dear was a term of affection. She knew enough English to note that while it was the sort of term that could be used by friends it was more frequently used by romantic partners. Combine that with the fact that this man had been carrying her brother, the way he looked when she told him that Eiji didn't want to see him, and the way that Eiji had gone running into the rain after him, and an idea was forming in her mind; Eiji I had a boyfriend.

 

It was a lot for her to take in all at once. Her brother had a boyfriend, her brother was gay, and most importantly of all her gay brother had somehow managed to find a boyfriend who was way out of his league.

 

Mari had questions and it was long since past time for some answers.

 

“Eiji.” Mari spoke slowly as though she was trying to feel out each word. “Who is this?”

 

Eiji gulped and reached out, almost automatically it seemed, to bury his fingers in the stranger sweatshirt. Mari raised her eyebrows. Just try telling me you two aren't involved she thought, I dare you.

 

“Ash, this is my sister Mari. Mari, this is Ash. He's my, he is, well he’s Ash.” Eiji finished lamely, his blush deepening, if that was even possible at this point.

 

“Right…” Mari said, crossing her arms, her eyes narrowing.

 

Ash hu? No last name, no how or where you met him or your relationship, just Ash, as though that should be enough. Well it's not.Her eyes flicked toward the stranger, Ash, and she noticed he seemed highly amused by Eiji. The moment he observed her watching him however his expression became perfectly polite.

 

“Ash” he said, extending a hand. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you."

 

Mair just blinked at it for a moment before slowly extending her hand to take his. “it's a pleasure to meet you as well, although my brother hasn't mentioned you at all.” She gave Eiji a very pointed look.

 

“I haven't really talked about New York at all.” Eiji interjected hastily by way of an explanation.

 

Did I get you in trouble? Good. She smiled to herself.That'll teach you the keep secrets.

 

“Right.” Ash said. He withdrew his hand.

 

“Let's go to my room.” Eiji said quickly. “You and Mari can get to know each other later.”

 

“A good idea.” Ash’s polite smile morphed into a smirk. “I need to get you out of those wet clothes after all.”

 

Mari’s eyes nearly popped at that. Definitely his boyfriend.

“That's not… I mean…. He didn't mean…” Eiji spluttered.

 

Definitely.

 

Ash snickered as Eiji began tugging him toward the stairs.

 

“Impatient aren't you?”

 

“Shut up!” Eiji snapped. “Mari ignore him, we're just going to change into dry clothes. We’ll be back down in a bit.”

 

“Right…” Mari said, her arms once again crossed as she stared suspiciously up the stairs after them.

 

Well,she thought watching the retreating backs, this is new.

 

Eiji was going to get it for keeping secrets, oh was he ever! Briefly she allowed herself to admit how good it was to see her brother smile like that again, to hear him sound so much more, more like himself, more alive, than she had in …years, not since before his injury. Was this Ash person’s presence responsible for that? It seemed like it. Then was his absence responsible for Eiji’s depression? And if so whose idea had that been? She determined that she’d have to keep an eye on this Ash to make sure he wasn't going to hurt her brother again, and she went back to figuring out how to make Eiji’s life difficult in retaliation.

 

Mari waited until she heard Eiji’s door close before she headed back to her own room to tell Seri and Kukuri all about it. She was just finishing when she heard the sound of a car pulling into the driveway. Perfect. Payback time.

 

Mari took the steps two at a time, meeting her parents as they came through the door.

 

“To-san! Ka-san! Eiji’s boyfriend’s here!”

 

They both blinked at her with matching expressions of complete confusion.

 

“What?” Her father asked, his eyebrows knitting together the way they always did when he felt like he was missing something.

 

“Eiji’s gay and has an American boyfriend and he's upstairs with Eiji right now!”

 

“Did Eiji tell you this?” Mari's mother sounded quizzical, as though she was trying to piece together what she was hearing in order to extract its true meaning.

 

“Yes, well no,” her father raised his eyebrows but she continued quickly.  “Well he didn't have to. The way they act together, there is no way he could be anything else! The guy even called him “dear” and everything.”

 

Mari’s parents looked at each other.

 

“So we really do have a visitor then?” She asked. “From America?"

 

“Yes!”

 

Mari’s parents exchanged looks again. “Well,” her mother said, “if what you say is true we must welcome him.”

 

Mari’s father nodded in agreement. “Mari go tell your brother that we would like to speak with him and his um special friend.”

 

                                                                        ***

Mari paused before knocking on her brother's door. The walls in their house were pretty thick but the doors weren't and she could hear Ash’s voice from beyond it.

 

“…Finished scrubbing out everything I felt like I needed to a month ago,” Ash was saying, “but I kept going back and forth about whether I should come or not, whether it would be better to just let you move on without me.” Move on? Did they break up? And if so who broke up with who?“Toward the end Blanca was really getting on my nerves. Yesterday we got into this fight and I stormed out and went for a walk.”Who's this Blanca anyway? Another guy? A sibling?“That was when I realized that I still had my new passport in my sweatshirt pocket as well as my wallet and I was pretty done with Blanca so I just caught a cab to LaGuardia and booked a ticket on the first flight I could get to Tokyo. It took a bit to figure out how to get from there to Izumo but I found an intro desk at the airport with people who spoke English so here I am.”

 

“Here you are.” Eiji repeated softly.

 

Here he is.Mari thought and rapped on the door.

 

“Eiji To-san and Ka-san are home! They want to see you, and your special friend!”

 

“Mari! What did you tell them!”

 

Mari snickered but as Eiji angrily flung the door open it wasn't her brother she was watching but the blonde movie star model who followed him out of his room wearing, she noted, a pair of her brothers pajama pants and the shirt he been sleeping in for the past six months. Who was he anyway? He made Eiji smile and laugh and that was a good thing but he'd made it sound like coming had just been some last-minute impulse and if that was the case, and if he was really the source of Eiji’s six-month depression, was him being here really a good idea, or would you just end up hurting her brother again. Well Mr.Ashshe thought, I'll be watching you.

 

                                                                        ***

Ash was coming with them to Tokyo. When she'd reminded her brother on the Friday that his mysterious guest had appeared that he’d promised to take her shopping on Sunday she wondered if he would. Either way she was fine with it. If he hadn't it would've given her a chance to interrogate her brother at length about him in the relationship but since he was she figured she'd be able to learn just as much by observing him and the way he treated Eiji.

 

At first Eiji had suggested that Ash stay home, pointing out that he must still be tired from his trip and that, since they'd spent the previous afternoon and evening with Ibe-san, he'd yet to have a full day to relax in his new environment. Eiji had also worried at length about whether Ash would feel comfortable in a large city like Tokyo. The way that Eiji emphasized the city's size made Mari start to think that maybe Ash was a bit of an introvert or didn't like crowds or got nervous in cities or something. She started to wonder if maybe they'd met somewhere that wasn't New York. She asked Ash where he was from and he seems to confirm her suspicions when he told her that he was originally from a place called Cape Cod, a rural coastal area several hours away from New York City.

 

Still Ash had insisted on coming with them. He reassured Eiji that he wasn't to worry and pointed out that he needed to go shopping as well anyway, and he did to since the only things he appeared to have with him besides the clothes she had met him in were the things that he'd had in his sweatshirt pockets; his wallet, his passport, a pair of glasses, and a letter with some brown stains on the envelope, she wasn't quite sure what from, she didn't think it was just the rain. She’d glimpsed his sweatshirt’s contents when she'd shown him where the dryer was and she only got a glimpse of the letter because he shifted quickly into the pockets of the pajama pants that Eiji had lent him. Should considered asking him about it but decided she didn't know quite well enough to start interrogating him yet. Today hopefully would change that.

 

When they got off the train inTokyo Mari started to think she'd been right about Ash being bothered by cities and crowds. Sure he seemed fascinated by everything around him, the way any tourist might on their first trip, but he also stuck but her brother’s side like he was glued there and kept glancing over his shoulder as though afraid that someone was going to just jump out and attack him. Eiji seems to notice how on edge he was as well because whenever Ash started looking at the crowd as though he was expecting someone in it to come after him Eiji would lightly touch Ash’s arm in a way that looked more reassuring than romantic. Maybe, Mari thought, the glasses had something to do with it. They definitely made Ash look younger and more vulnerable so she supposed they might be making him look a little bit more nervous as well. What with his expression look like without them on she wondered. What would that sort of jumpiness look like if you didn't look like a bookish teenager? Would it look the same what would it look like the sort of wariness you saw in a stocking cat?  She shook her head. Where the heck had that thought come from?

 

Despite his discomfort Ash seemed to be in a good mood. He smiled a lot and he laughed and took her side whenever she teased Eiji, which irritated her brother but was a mark and his favor as far as she was concerned. He also insisted in buying them all lunch, another definite good mark. They went to a bunch of men's clothing stores first so that Ash could by himself what he needed and then a bookstore so that he could buy workbooks for learning Japanese and a tech shop so that he could get a laptop, a really high quality one with a lot of memory. The amount of money he seemed to have made her think that she had been right when she guessed his occupation since she couldn't figure out how else a 18-year-old would be able to casually buy an international plane ticket and then spend that much on a laptop, and the amount of stuff he was buying, and especially the Japanese workbooks, told Mari that, even if coming had been a whim Ash was really planning to stick around. That was another mark in his favor.

 

In between the shops and over lunch Mari tried to worm information out of Ash about himself. It was difficult because he kept dodging her questions. When what she asked how he and her brother had met he told her that it had been while Eiji was working on an article for Ibe. When she asked how he'd known Ibe he said he hadn't. When asked how they were connected he explained that Ibe’s American friend Max had been friends with Ash’s older brother, and something about his tone and the way he used the past tense when he spoke about his brother made Mari feel that she'd better not inquire any more in that direction. In an attempt to change the subject, and also because she was dying to know which one of her guesses had been correct, she asked what Ash did to earn money, at which point Ash fell silent and looked away and Eiji glared at her before changing the subject again.

 

After that she decided to steer clear of questions about Ash’s past and personal life, choosing instead to focus on more basic questions about his likes and dislikes. Did Ash know any Japanese? “Only a few phrases.” What sort of food did he like? All sorts although shrimp and avocado salad was a particular favorite of his. What about foods didn't he like? “Natto!” This earned him a glare from her brother and she laughed knowing that natto was one of Eiji’s favorite foods. Did he enjoy any sorts of games? he'd never had much time for games but he enjoyed pool well enough. What about sports? Did he play any of those? “No.” She wasn't surprised by that, with his glasses on he looked far more the bookworm than the athlete. Did he like to read? “Yes.” What was his favorite book? “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

 

This response also earned him a glare from her brother at which point he sheepishly added that he was starting to enjoy Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment a lot as well. Mari who didn't know The Snows of Kilimanjarobut who had just finished reading Crime and Punishment, (something that had nothing to do whatsoever with her enjoyment of the new season of Bungo Stray Dogs, it really didn't) asked him what he liked best about it.

 

“The ending.” He said, turning to look at Eiji as he spoke. “The main character’s a criminal, a murderer, and he gets sent to prison for it, that's why the book's called Crime and Punishment so it might've made sense for Dostoyevsky to end it with the main character being punished for what he did, but he doesn't. Over the course of the novel another character, an innocent, comes to care about him. Even when she finds out the very worst about what he did she doesn't stop caring and because she's in the story it doesn't have to end sadly for the main character. Even if he has to go to jail for a few years he still knows that when he gets out there will be someone who cares about him waiting for him so they can make a future together.”

 

“Forever.” Eiji murmured and Mari snapped her head around to look up at her brother, seeing in his eyes a level of tenderness that almost shocked her. She gulped.

 

“Ya,” she said quickly “I like the ending too. I like how, despite how twisted Dostoyevsky is and how much he likes messing with his characters he still found a way to end the story in a way that completely fit the themes without completely screwing them over.”

 

Ash laughed and grabbed Eiji’s arm and pulled him toward an intricate window display and Mari was left staring after them and wondering what exactly Ash had really meant by that and how much of it had been about her brother. She also noticed that, as they walked, Eiji pulled his arm out of Ash’s grip so that he could take his hand, intertwining their fingers together and giving Ash’s hand a squeeze.

 

Mair’s eyes narrowed again. Definitely his boyfriend.

 

                                                                        ***

They spent so long picking up the things that Ash needed and generally showing Ash the sites that it was evening by the time they got around to going to the stores that Mari had actually come to Tokyo for. She noticed her brother glancing around a little nervously and she remembered her father's warning that the area could be a little unsafe especially in the evenings, but she figured that as long as they stayed on busy well-lit streets they’d be fine. By the time she finished her shopping her arms were laden with bags, although not as many as Ash and her brother were carrying, and it had gotten dark.

 

Ash was looking warily around them and Eiji was just suggesting that they really should head for the train, when Mari heard a soft barking noise coming from the mouth of the dark side alley. Turning toward it Mari saw what appeared to be a golden lab puppy, his fur covered in mud. As she approached him Mari saw that he was shaking one part back-and-forth as though he had injured it somehow. She got closer, crouching down in front of him. He looked up at her with wide chocolatey brown eyes and she realized that he had a cut on his leg. Quickly she fished around in her pockets for something, anything, she could use to bandage the poor dog but before she could find anything a car door slammed on the street behind her and the puppy, startled, took off down the alley.

 

“Wait! Come back!” She called, scrambling to her feet, and rushing down the alley after him. She rounded a corner and found him again, huddled against the wall of the building. Mari slowed to a walk, not wanting to startle poor thing again and slowly approached it.

 

“Well well what have we here?”

 

Mari froze as she heard a man's voice behind her. His speech sounded slightly slurred, as though he was a little drunk.

 

“Are you lost little girl?” A second voice.

 

Mari turned to see two men coming toward her down the alley.

 

“I…” She took a quick step backward, her heart suddenly beating very fast.

 

Just then there were racing footsteps behind her and she glanced over her shoulder to see Ash and Eiji running around the corner toward her.

 

“Mari! What…” Then Eiji’s eyes widened as he took in the two men

 

“And what's this now? More new friends.” The first man smirked.

 

“Leave my sister alone.” Eiji snapped. coming to a stop beside her, Ash at his shoulder, the two of them letting their shopping bags fall to the ground.

 

Mari's eyes widened. Eiji's voice was hard, angry and, most surprising of all, completely unafraid.

 

“Oh, would you look at this a protective older brother?” The second man snickered.

 

“Now this is starting to feel like New York. What did Eiji say to them?” Ash asked her; all three of them spoken in Japanese. Ash’s question was quiet but the men still heard him.

 

“Oh and look, he’s got an American pretty boy boyfriend with him as well.” One of the men said mockingly, switching to English.

 

The other one pulled out a knife. Mari squeaked in fear. “Why don't all three of you leave your bags there and you can give us your wallets and your phones to while you're at it.” Eiji tensed.

 

“Better hurry up and do it” the first man jeered. “or we’ll give your American friend here a welcome to the country he won't forget.”

 

Beside her Mari could feel Ash tense as well but before either of the men could say or do anything else Eiji flung out an arm in front of Ash, shielding him from them.

 

“Leave him alone.” Eiji snarled.

 

“What was that?” One of the men mocked.

 

“I said, leave him alone!” The anger in Eiji’s voice was far beyond anything she'd ever heard there before.

 

She stared at him, completely shocked. When had her brother become like this? When had he become so bold and unafraid? Then she remembered that he'd received his gunshot wound in some sort of mugging gone wrong. Maybe after experiencing something as traumatic as that two men and a knife didn't scare him as much somehow. She wished they would though.

 

Mari glanced over her shoulder to see how Ash was handling what must be a terrifying situation for him and saw that he had frozen, seemingly in the act of removing his glasses. His eyes were as wide as hers and he stared at her brother and his shielding arm with a look of absolute shock, almost as though he was unable to fully comprehend what he was seeing. His breath was coming in short emotional gasps and the handholding his glasses was shaking. This must be awful for himshe thought. He was already afraid of cities. I bet this has to be like his worst nightmare come true.

 

“Still trying to play protector kid?” The men had stopped there mocking laughter for a moment when Eiji startled them with his shout but now the smirks were returning to their faces.

 

“I'll teach you to take that sort of tone with me.” The one without the knife said and he raised his arm to backhand her brother. Mari flinched instinctively, her eyes blinking shut. She felt movement beside her and heard a grunt of surprise, not from her brother but from one of the men.

 

Her eyes flicked open again, then widened at the scene in front of her. Ash had moved almost faster than she would have thought possible, slipping around Eiji’s still out flung arm to catch the man's wrist before his blow could land. The man was struggling to pull his hand free of Ash’s grip to no avail while his companion looked on, frozen in surprise.

 

“Eiji.” Ash's voice was utterly calm, lacking any of the fear she thought she'd seen in him earlier. “Is it true what you said, that there are no guns in Japan?” He asked, his tone almost casual.

 

Eiji nodded. “It is,” and his voice was calm as well.

 

“Well then I have nothing to worry about.”

 

Eiji reached out and put an arm around Mari, pulling her a step backward away from both the men and Ash. “It's all right now,” he murmured to her. She raised her head to stare up at her brother. How could he sound so calm even while leaving his people shy boyfriend to face to thugs all alone, one of whom was holding a knife. To her complete shock and confusion Eiji’s face looked as calm as his voice sounded. He simply watched Ash as though he had complete faith that the blonde could handle the situation on his own. How could that be?

 

“You think we need a gun to handle a little punk like you?” The one who was struggling against Ash’s grip asked, still attempting to free his arm.

 

“You tried to hit Eiji, I'll make you regret that.” Suddenly all the casualness was gone from Ash’s tone, as was any of the warmth and amusement she had come to expect from it. She had never heard him sound like this before cold, angry, and what she might even have called deadly.

 

She didn't have time to dwell on the change however because in the next instant Ash was using his hold on the man's wrist to swing him sideways and slam him against the brick wall of the building to their right. The man gave a moan as his head hit the stone and he stopped fighting Ash's grip on him. This seemed to galvanize his companion into action for the second man lunged at Ash, knife raised. Before Mari could get farther with a warning than opening her mouth Ash spun toward him, releasing the first man’s wrist and ducking under the second man's knife hand in one swift movement. He slammed one fist into the man's jaw while wrapping his other hand around the wrist of the man's knife hand. The man stumbled backward from the blow and Ash twisted his wrist behind him until he dropped the knife and fell to his knees. Ash He kicked the fallen knife away from him and it spun across the ground to land by Eiji’s feet. Ash continued to twist the man's arm until he whimpered in pain, then he released it and took a step back.

 

“Get out of here!” He snapped, his voice filled with a cold fury that sent a shiver down Mari’s spine.

 

The man, it seemed, did not need telling twice. He scrambled to his feet, his breath coming in ragged gasps. He pulled his still moaning companion up from where he slouched beside the wall and the two of them spared only one more terrified look back at Ash before they pelted off into the night.

 

Ash turned back to them then and his eyes sought out her brothers. For a moment she saw something that looked almost like nerves in Ash’s eyes and it surprised her that someone who could look so calm in the middle of violence would look nervous about making eye contact with her gentle brother. Then Eiji smiled reassuringly at Ash and the blonde relaxed visibly.

 

“You okay?” Eiji asked.

 

“Ya.” Ash smiled. “It's been a little while since I had any real exercise.”

 

Eiji stepped forward and punched Ash lightly in the shoulder.

 

All Mari could do was stare back and forth between them incredulously. How could they be so calm? She realized suddenly that she was shaking.

 

“Mari, Are you okay?” Eiji asked, turning back toward her.

 

“How can…” Her voice trailed away and she looked dry lips, trying again, “how can you to be so calm about this?”

 

“No one gets to hurt Eiji.” Ash said it simply, as that was the most obvious statement in the world, and perhaps to him it was.

 

She stared back at him in bewilderment. Was this really the same guy who Eiji had been worrying about that morning? The one who had seemed so nervous about being in a city surrounded by people? Had she really seen those nerves? Or had she been mistaking them for something else? She remembered how closely he had stuck to her brother and wondered suddenly if it wasn't his own fear but fear for Eiji that had been motivating him.

 

“It's okay now Mari.” Eiji smiled comfortingly at her. “Why don't you grab that stray puppy you were chasing. I think I saw a pet store a few blocks back where we can get a carrying case for him and then we should really get to the train.”

 

Mari blinked and looked around wildly. She'd forgotten all about the puppy but that he still was, whimpering against a nearby wall. She walked over to him and knelt down in front of him but as she did so her thoughts weren't really on him. instead they were on a single question echoing over and over again through her brain. Ash, who are you?

 

                                                                        ***

Eiji fell asleep on the train on the way home but Mari didn't. She was still trying desperately to process everything that had happened. The way that Ash had moved, the way that he had fought, it had all been so unreal. Ash wasn't asleep either, he just sat beside her brother staring out the train window.

 

“Ash?” She spoke his name quietly and he turned to look at her, eyes narrowed and face expressionless. “Were you there when my brother was shot?”

 

Ash flinched, almost as though she had struck him, but then he nodded slowly.

 

“I was.”

 

“Why did it happen?” She asked. “He won't talk about it. He never told us anything. Why did those men want to hurt my brother?”

 

Ash looked away and for a moment she really thought he was not going to respond, but then he spoke quietly. “They weren't after your brother.”

 

Mari's eyes widened as she took in Ash’s words and the implications behind them.

 

“Oh.”

 

Ash nodded in silent affirmation for conclusions.

 

“Is that why you ended things with him? Why you stayed away from him for so long?”

 Ash nodded again. “I never meant for him to get hurt.” Mari could hear pain, raw and aching in Ash’s words, and she honestly wasn't sure if he was referring to Eiji’s wound or the breakup and of course there was no reason why it couldn't be both.

 

“But he was hurt.” Ash flinched again at her words. “He was hurt when he got shot and he was hurt all over again these last six months. He wouldn't tell anyone what was wrong but he was depressed and moping all the time, worse even than he was after his pole vaulting injury. The moment you came back into his life all of that changed so it's obvious that he was missing you. So that's why I want to know if you plan to stick around this time or if you're just going to hurt him all over again.”

 

Ash flinched a third time but then he turned back to face her and her breath caught at the raw emotion she saw on Ash’s face. “I won't let anyone hurt him.” His voice was level, calm despite the emotions chasing themselves across his features, and absolutely determined. “If he wants me then I'll stay, if he wants me to go I'll go, but no matter what I won't let anyone hurt him again.”

 

Mari nodded “good.”

 

She had learned what she needed to. She still didn't know who this Ash was or how he and her brother had gotten involved or how he’d learned to fight the way he had tonight or why someone had tried to shoot him, but there'd be time to sate her curiosity later, after all it looks like Ash would be sticking around for keeps.

Chapter Text

“I'm going to kill Ash” Sing murmured to himself as he slouched into the underground bar and dropped onto the stool. The jerk hadn't left so much as a text or a note when he'd disappeared and consequently it'd taken them a whole day to figure out where Ash had gone. By “them” of course Sing really meant just him since Blanca had been of no help whatsoever. After Blanca and Ash had had yet another row and Ash had stormed out yet again it had taken Blanca a full day to get concerned but once he did start to worry what had he done? Call Sing with a polite request that he track Ash down, that’s what. He'd gone, of course he had gone looking. After everything that had happened and everything that Sing had personally been through to keep that ungrateful idiot alive he wasn't about to let him get killed or arrested or something now.

 

So Sing had taken to the streets, checking all the usual places, the bar where he was now sitting, Nadia's restaurant, Cain’s place in Harlem. He'd talk to Nadia and Cain and Alex and Bones and Kong and even Yut Lung and by the time it became clear that no one had seen or heard from Ash in over a day Sing had begun cursing Blanca for not calling him sooner. He’d have had his boys out scouring the city but there was still enough bad blood between them and Ash what with the whole Lao stabbing Ash, Ash shooting Lao thing that, even though he was pretty sure he could trust everyone to behave, he hadn't wanted to take the risk. He also hadn't wanted to risk some member of Ash’s gang thinking that their boss’s disappearance was because Lao or Yut Lung had decided to take another stab (literally) at killing him and go after either of them for revenge so he downplayed his concerns to Alex and the others but that meant that he was basically on his own when it came to searching. Cain said he'd keep an eye out in Harlem but beyond that it was just Sing to scour the entire damn city. It had been raining too, not hard but hard enough that Sing had been thoroughly soaked as well is exhausted by the time that, nearly 24 hours later, Blanca called him to inform him that Ash’s passport was nowhere to be found.

 

Sing guessed then what had happened but he had to be sure so he'd ended up dragging himself all the way to the airport where he'd talked to security guards and airline reps until he found one who remembered selling a ticket last minute to a blonde haired green eyed teenager in a rush to reach Japan. When Sing heard that he'd nodded, murmured a quick thanks to the airline rep, sent a text to Blanca and Cain filled with both the relevant information and a good deal of profanity, caught the first cab he could find to Yut Lung’s house and flopped into one of his guest beds where he'd stayed for the next 12 hours.

 

He’d been crashing at Yut Lung’s a lot lately since going home typically meant another argument with Lao, he was getting better but he could still be a jerk sometimes, and because after all the garbage Yut Lung had put him through Sing figured that the least he owed him was unlimited room service. Yut Lung, however, hadn't exactly been sympathetic when he eventually showed up to pry Sing out of bed and Sing had ended up throwing a shoe at him. Yut Lung had, of course, responded with the usual threats of poisoning and assassination but Sing had just pulled the covers over his head and pretended he couldn't hear any of it. No, Sing hadn't exactly been having a great couple of days and it was all Ash’s stupid fault. Not that Sing minded him running off to be with Eiji of course, far from it in fact since he'd been the one telling Ash almost daily to get going already, but his inability to leave even the most basic of notes had cost Sing no end of trouble. Sometimes Sing wondered if Ash had done it on purpose as payback for all of Sing’s nagging and knowing Ash Sing figured there was a chance he really had.

 

Sing was pulled out of his morose thoughts by the sound of laughter echoing around the bar. He looked up to see Alex, who is seated with Kong, Bones, and Cain, collapsed across the bar, staring down at his cell phone and laughing hysterically.

 

“What's so funny?” Kong asked.

 

“Yeah what is it?” Bones demanded, leaning equally forward to try and catch a glimpse of whatever was on the screen of Alex's phone.

 

Curious, despite his dour mood, Sing hop down off his stool and wandered over to lean against the bar beside Cain.

 

“I just… Heard the… Best joke!” Alex choked out between bursts of laughter.

 

“Oh yeah? Well how about you stop laughing long enough to tell us.” Cain said, sounding mildly amused.

 

“Okay okay,” Alex said, taking a few deep breaths to stifle his laughter. “So these two thugs come out of a bar and they see a dog come running down the street and a moment later they see a girl come running after it. The thugs think “well there's an easy target,” so they go after her to mug her. Only then two guys come running after her, once her soft looking older brother and the other’s some pretty boy foreign tourist, so the thugs think "great, more easy targets” and one of the thugs has a knife so he pulls it.”

 

Alex convulsed with laughter again while the other four blinked at him slowly.

 

“I don't get it.” Cain said sounding slightly bemused.

 

“The foreigner! Guys! The foreigner’s Ash Lynx!”

 

They all stared at Alex in bemusement for a moment before all of them, Sing included, burst out laughing as well.

 

“the boss!” Kong exclaimed, although in amusement.

 

“No way.” Bones slammed his fist against the counter.

 

“Way!” Alex grinned, “he just messaged me.”

 

“Wait, that actually happened?” Sing burst out laughing all over again. “Some Japanese thug actually tried to tangle with Ash Lynx?”

 

Alex nodded "but wait it gets better!”

 

“Oh yeah?” Cain asked. Alex nodded.

 

“So the girl's older brother tells them to leave his sister and his friend alone so one of the thugs tries to take a swing at him… Right in front of Ash…”

 

Alex convulsed with laughter again.

 

“Wait, wait, so if the foreigners Ash than that means that the brother’s Eiji.” Bones stared at Alex incredulously.

 

“And someone actually tried to hit Eiji in front of the boss.” Kong’s mouth fell open and he and Bones exchanged looks before they both doubled over in renewed mirth.

 

“Those poor basterds,” Cain snorted.

 

“But Eiji’s all right though?” Sing asked quickly.

 

Alex nodded, "oh yeah, fine, of course the boss didn’t let them lay a finger on him, just taught them a lesson about knowing who not to mess with.”

 

Well, Sing thought as the others burst out laughing again, I doubt those thugs managed to land a single blow on Ash but if they did it would serve him right.

 

                                                                        ***

 

Ash woke slowly, blinking first at the morning light coming in through the window and then at the neat room around him. His eyes followed the trail of light downward until they lighted on where it shone across Eiji’s sleeping face, highlighting his natural beauty in a way that took Ash’s breath away. All he could do was stare at Eiji mesmerized, and wondering how on earth could be so lucky that he was waking up to this face for the third day in a row. His fingers itched to reach out and caress the banks back from Eiji’s forehead, but he restrained himself, fearful that Eiji would wake and catch him in the act. After all he had no idea how Eiji would react. Probably he'd laugh and pout and let Ash pass it off as a joke, or maybe even believe it really was one, but what if he didn't? What if he pushed Ash away, disgusted, or shook his head with a gentle smile and told Ash that if that was what he'd expected that maybe he should return to America. Ash didn't dare let himself entertain the other what-ifs, the ones where Eiji leaned into his fingers or ran a hand across Ash’s own cheek, he didn't dare let himself hope for a response like that.

 

He didn't know what, if any, sort of feelings Eiji had for him and he'd yet to have a chance to find out. They hadn't had a chance to talk properly just the two of them since that first evening. After he'd met Eiji’s parents Eiji had ended up helping his mother with dinner while Ash leaned against the counter and watched. Then they'd had a family dinner and as soon as it was over Ash had crashed, the jet lag finally overcoming his adrenaline from seeing Eiji again. Slept until it was time to go and meet Ibe the early afternoon of the next day and they'd ended up staying out and talking with Ibe and Max all afternoon and evening and quite late into the night as well, so that as a result he crashed again as soon as they got back and then of course the following day they'd spent in Tokyo with Mari and they'd both been so tired when they got back from that, what with the long day and all the walking and having been out late the night before, that they both stumbled straight into bed once again as soon as they gotten home.

 

Privately Ash wondered if they really hadn't had a chance to talk or if they'd both been avoiding it. If he was avoiding it it was because, even though he had sworn to bury his feelings forever for Eiji’s sake he'd known the second he heard that beautiful voice calling to him through the rain that in coming here he'd put aside that promise to himself and would have to deal with the consequences. If Eiji was the one doing the avoiding however… Well, as much as he'd been reassuring Eiji and as much is Ash believed him, there was still a part of Ash that wondered if Eiji regretted having him there.

 

He looked down at Eiji’s sleeping face and sighed. They'd been sharing a bed since he arrived but between his own exhaustion and the fact that Eiji always woke up first this was his first chance to really enjoy it. It was strange that he was the first one up this time but he figured that he was in better shape than Eiji who probably hadn't fully regained his muscle tone after being shot and stuck in a wheelchair for so long and he'd also been sleeping so much over the past few days that he doubted that his body was anywhere near as exhausted as Eiji’s had been.

 

Eiji, however, must only have been dozing because at the sound of Ash’s sigh Eiji slowly opened his eyes and blinked hazily up at Ash. Ash smiled down at him, noting the way the loose neckline of Ash’s shirt exposed the sweep of Eiji’s collarbone. Ash had slept in it for a couple of nights but, after their shopping trip he had returned it to Eiji, telling him that Ash no longer needed it, Eiji had been too tired to put up any real objections, and Ash couldn't seem to get enough of the sight of Eiji sleeping in his cloths.

 

“Morning.” Ash smirked down at him.

 

“Good morning to you too.” Eiji smiled angelicly back at him, causing Ash’s heart to perform a backflip.

 

Ash wanted to respond with something witty and teasing, perhaps about how comfortable Eiji was with sharing a bed with him, but what came out of his mouth was "we should talk about yesterday.”

 

Eiji blinked up at him, confused. “okay, what about yesterday?"

 

Ash looked away, not wanting Eiji to see the emotions that he was sure must be written clearly across his face.

 

“Yesterday, when those guys tried to mess with me, what you did, putting yourself in the middle of it like that, it was stupid. You know that I could've handled things myself just fine.”

 

Ash shot a quick glance at Eiji, expecting to find him looking angry or at least annoyed, but what he didn't expect was to see understanding and was that affection? On Eiji’s lovely features.

 

“I know.” He said simply. “But that doesn't mean I'm not going to stand up for you. I promised you that once you came here you have a more peaceful life and I meant it and I'm going to do everything I can to make that happen so don't feel like you have to deal with everything on your own okay?”

 

“Eiji.” Ash's voice cracked as he spoke the other boy's name. “What you did, standing up for me like that,” he shook his head, “no one's ever done something like that for me before, no one's ever put themselves between me in danger like that.” Ash thought back to that moment again, hearing the taunts aimed at him with the feeling of oh here we go again, only to see Eiji’s arm flung between him and danger, Eiji shielding him with his body even when he knew that no such shield was necessary. He remembered how he'd frozen, eyes wide, his heart suddenly racing not because of the two thugs, or thug wannabes was more like it, but because despite everything, despite the fact that the last time Eiji had protected him it had nearly caused the raven haired boy his life, Eiji had still put himself between Ash and trouble without the slightest hesitation. Ash could see the other boys determination in every line in his body, determination to protect Ash no matter what and Ash had thought that he had never looked more beautiful. Yet it also scared him, terror filling every fiber of his being as he remembered a pale pink shirt and the sound of gunshots and the stain of red covering the floor.

 

“You nearly died last time.” The words came out softly.

 

“Ash, Ash please don't blame yourself for that.”

 

“But it was my fault, I put you in danger I…”

 

“No!” There was so much anger in Eiji’s voice that Ash jerked his head around to face him, surprised. Eiji had sat up so that their eyes were more or less on a level and was staring directly at him, those eyes burning with some emotion Ash couldn't quite place. “No Ash it is not your fault! It was never your fault! And I am done letting you wallow in this! I was not with you because you forced me to be! I chose to stay by your side! You tried to send me away but I refused to go!”

 

“I could've tried harder…” Ash said it quietly, but Eiji ignored him, talking over him. “And don't tell me that you haven't done the same thing for me! How many times have you risk your life to keep me safe? Why is it that you always get to be the one to risk yourself? Why is it that I can never be the one protecting you? Because I want to protect you Ash! I do! More than anything!”

 

Eiji’s eyes were bright with tears. All Ash could do was stare at him, shaking slightly, as his words washed over Ash in waves. Somewhere in the back of his mind he could hear the words of Eiji’s letter replaying themselves on an all-too-familiar loop the way they had every day of the six months the two had spent part. I know that you are much smarter than me, and bigger, and stronger— but even so— I always wanted to protect you.Those words, which had meant more to him than anything else in the world, yet which in the six months since he had first read them, he had tried to force himself to doubt, scared as he had been that they were too good to be true, scared of expecting too much and being hurt again. Yet wasn't Eiji saying almost the exact same thing now that he had written then? The thought was enough to increase Ash’s shaking and to bring tears to his eyes.

 

“Eiji.” He murmured the boys name again, unable to get anything else out beyond that single word.

 

It seemed to be enough however for Eiji leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Ash. Ash hesitated for a moment, slightly unsure of how to respond to such an innocent gesture of affection, before instinct took over, his body crumpling against Eiji’s as he returned the boys embrace and buried his face in Eiji’s neck.

 

They just stayed like that for a while Eiji holding Ash while Ash cried all the tears that he had been unable to cry since Eiji was shot, the fear and the pain and the longing that he'd held bottled up inside all forcing their way out of him in choking and gasping sobs. Slowly Ash quieted, his breathing evening out and he became aware of how closely pressed against Eiji’s chest he was in the sense of the other boy’s neck and the feel of his hair tickling Ash’s forehead. He was just wondering if he could risk leaving a soft kiss on the boy’s exposed throat when there was a loud barking from just outside their window.

 

Ash’s head jerked up, the moment broken, and he looks toward the window.

 

“Mari must be taking Dazai for a walk.”

 

“Dazai?” Ash asked.

 

Eiji nodded. “Yeah, that's what Mari decided to name him. She said it was appropriate for a stray dog.” He shrugged. “I'm probably just going to call him Buddy.”

 

Ash smiled slightly. "Fair enough. Your family certainly does seem to specialize in bringing home strays.” He’d meant the comment is a joke but the way his voice trembled a little as he spoke made it fall kind of flat.

 

Eiji turned to look at him straight on and Ash noticed that they were still very close together.

 

“You're not just some stray Ash.”

 

“Aren’t I?”

 

Eiji shook his head. “Not if you mean by that that I'm taking you in out of pity or kindness or something.” He hesitated for a moment then continued. “You mean the world to me Ash. You know that right?”

 

Ash’s breath caught in his throat. As Eiji spoke Ash head and seemed to drift lower and lower of its own accord until their lips were just millimeters apart. Tentatively his hand came up to brush a few stray strands of hair away from Eiji’s cheek.

 

“You do don't you? Ash?” Eiji voice sounded genuinely concerned that Ash tried to come up with a response even though his mind gone temporarily blank.

 

“I um…” He licked his lips nervously, hoping that Eiji couldn't hear the way his heart was pounding. They were so close now. All Ash would have to do was lean forward the tiniest bit and….

 

“It's okay…” Eiji was saying and Ash could hear sudden pain in his voice. “It's okay if you don't feel that way about me, I understand I just, I wanted to tell you I….”

 

What was Eiji saying? Don't feel the same way? Ash blinked in confusion. Eiji wanted to know how he felt? Wasn't it obvious? Hadn't it always been? But, for some reason Eiji sounded so sad, and Eiji shouldn't be sad, not ever, so Ash struggled desperately to find the words to tell him, tell him everything, the months of yearning and telling himself the pretended away, the way his heart fluttered every time Eiji looked at him, the way just the thought of Eiji being hurt hurt him worse than anything that had ever been done to him. He tried to find the words but he couldn't, not with Eiji’s warmth still pressed against him and his mouth so distractingly close to Ash’s own… His mouth. Ash couldn't find the words to tell Eiji how he felt but perhaps there was another way.

 

Slowly Ash leaned his head forward, closing the last of the gap between them to leave a soft, chaste, kiss on Eiji’s lips. Ash’s brain, which it felt like it was moving through molasses, froze completely then seem to fast-forward, speeding up onto overdrive as he processed everything that was happening. He pulled away, eyes he had not even remembered closing fluttering open as he desperately sought Eiji’s. Eiji had frozen, eyes still closed, lips have parted, and panel as though all the blood drained from his face. Ash’s eyes widened in sudden horror. What had he done?

 

“Eiji? Eiji? I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!” Ash’s voice was frantic and his heart was pounding, although in a very different way than it had been a moment before. He was such an idiot, such a complete and utter idiot. What had Eiji ever said or done to make him think that Eiji’s feelings ran that particular way? And now you gone and hurt Eiji, destroying not only his fantasies about what Eiji might feel for him but also the reality of their friendship as well.

 

At the sound of Ash’s frantic voice Eiji’s eyes snapped open. It took him a second process the meaning of Ash’s words, what with the way that his entire body still felt as though it was being consumed by the feeling of Ash’s lips against his own, but when he finally registered the words he shook his head sadly.

 

“No,” he said. “I'm the one who should apologize. I'm so sorry Ash, so very sorry.” He could feel the tears forming in his eyes. “After everything you went through the last thing I wanted was to make you feel obligated by sharing my feelings.”

 

“Obligated?” Ash was trying to figure out what Eiji and meant by that word, there was something that had seemed off about it.

 

Eiji nodded. “Yes, I knew how it's always been for you, people always having expectations, a-and I swear it's not like that!” His voice was sounding more and more desperate as though he needed Ash to understand something terribly important but Ash still couldn't quite figure out what it could be.

 

“That's why didn't think I should tell you. I mean I knew you didn't feel the same way about me and, well, I was afraid that if I told you you'd feel obligated to…”

 

“To what?”

 

“Well that… Kiss me or something…” Eiji’s voice trailed away, his face turning bright red.

 

Obligated to kiss him? Why would Eiji telling Ash his feelings leave him feeling obligated to kiss him? Why… Unless… Suddenly all the pieces seem to fall into place as an impossible idea presented itself to him. Yes, it was impossible, absolutely so, but still, one way or the other he had to know. Ash realized suddenly that his hand, which he had used to brush the bangs from Eiji’s eyes was still pressed against the boy’s cheek, forgotten by both of them. Now Ash pressed its thumb against Eiji’s jaw, forcing the older boy to look up at him.

 

“Eiji.” He asked slowly, feeling out each word in the desperate hopes that he wouldn't screw this up, “do you, do you like me?”

 

Eiji’s breath hitched his throat but then he met Ash’s eyes and in a voice that was quiet yet filled with absolute certainty he said, “No.” Pain lanced through Ash so sharp it might as well have been physical and he began to pull his hand away.  “I love you.”

 

Everything inside Ash seems to freeze as Eiji’s blasted themselves through his brain, wiping away every other thought.

“I love you.” Eiji said again and again everything inside Ash seemed to tremble at those words, “but I understand if you don't feel the same way about me. You don't have to love me or like me or anything like that. I understand and I'm not saying it because they expect you to do anything! I’m not!”

 

Ash’s eyes widened as he really processed what Eiji was saying. Eiji had said he loved Ash. He said it twice, yet he was unsure, unsure not of his own feelings but of Ash’s and it was that what was causing him pain.

 

“I just… I just thought I should tell you and now I have so…”

 

Eiji’s pained rambling was suddenly extinguished as Ash buried the fingers of the hand still resting against Eiji’s face in the older boys hair, pulling him forward and slamming his own lips against Eiji’s. Where the last kiss had been chased and gentle, barely more than a brushing of lips against lips, this one was anything but as Ash tried to pour all of his feelings into that single kiss, to proved to Eiji beyond all doubt how much he was loved. He wrapped his free arm around Eiji’s waist, pulling the boy closer, as close as skin and cloths would allow. He felt Eiji’s hands search wildly for something to brace themselves against before wrapping around his back a as their own attempted to pull Ash even closer.

 

When they finally broke apart this time Ash stared down at Eiji’s closed eyelids, his heart fuller than it had ever been before and whispered “I love you too.”

 

Eiji blinked up at him. “Y-You do?”

 

Ash couldn't help but laugh. “Is that really such a surprise? Do you really think I would've kissed you like that if I didn't?”

 

Eiji shook his head bemusedly, a grin spreading across his face and illuminating all of his features with pure joy. “I guess not.”

 

                                                                        ***

Finally! Mari thought as she peered around the door of Eiji’s bedroom. It was evening and Ash was in the shower. He probably be out in just a minute so she didn't have long but she'd been trying to catch her brother alone since the moment Ash had appeared on their doorstep and at last she'd finally managed it and that meant it was time for answers!

 

“Eiji.” He looked up from his phone.

 

“Yeah? What is it Mari.” He was speaking English, something he'd been doing almost the entire time since Ash had put in an appearance and so she followed suit.

 

“Who is Ash?”

 

“Hu?” Eiji narrowed his eyes as the confused.

“Who is he?” She repeated impatiently.

 

“Ash is.. Ash is Ash…”

 

“Yes but who is he? He showed up on our front doorstep out of nowhere, he won't say anything specific about where he came from or how you two met or what your relationship is or what he does for a living and you glare at me and change the subject every time I try to ask him.”

 

“Mari,” Eiji seemed to tense suddenly, “what are you asking exactly?”

 

“Is he your boyfriend?”

 

Eiji froze, eyes widening and face turning bright red all at once. Mari was surprised by just how startled he seemed, clearly whatever he'd been expecting her to be talking about it wasn't that. Strange.

 

“Is he my what?” Eiji sounded truly flabbergasted.

 

“Your boyfriend. He is isn’t he? I've seen you two together so don't try to deny it!”

 

“I um…” Eiji looked at the floor.

 

“Yes, he is.”

 

Both siblings jumped at the sound of the calm voice which had spoken from directly behind Mari. She spun around to see Ash standing behind her in a T-shirt and sweatpants, his hair wet and a towel around his shoulders. When had he gotten out of the shower? She had been so focused on her brother that she hadn't even noticed.

 

“That is.” Ash looked over Mari’s head at Eiji. “As long as your brother wants me to be of course.”

 

Eiji smiled up at Ash and nodded. “Forever.” He said simply.

 

Ash nodded and smiled back. “Forever.”