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Something To Talk About

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Eiji knew where to find Ash Lynx. Everyone knew where the teenager spent all his breaks, Eiji included, and all his friends could attest he wasn’t one to keep up with the gossips.

Eiji looked at the clock on the wall. He didn’t have much time to go meet Ash before the bell rang. He could have gone sooner, but he had hesitated for an embarrassing long time before making up his mind.

If Eiji knew Ash by name, like pretty much everyone at school, and was even sharing some of his classes with him, they had never talked before.

Not that Ash Lynx talked to anyone, really.

Eiji would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit he had been glad to have an excuse to go talk to the teenager. He had been intrigued by him for quite a long time already.

He wasn’t the only one. The whole school seemed to be intrigued with Ash Lynx.

If you lent an ear to the gossip, you could learn many things about Ash. Odds were that little of it was true. But it could at least begin to explain why such a handsome teenager was avoided by all in an environment that valued physical appearance so much.

Good looks weren’t enough to make people overlook the rumors, when the rumors said you were a murderer.

Eiji had heard everything and its opposite when it came to Ash Lynx. Some said he had gone to reform school because he killed someone, others said he was under police protection because he was the one threatened by murderers.

“I’ve heard Ash Lynx is tight with the mafia.”

“Did you know he killed at least five men, but nobody could ever prove it?”

“My father told me he ran away from his home when he was nine! You should trust me; my dad is a cop.”

“Marla told me he did children porn when he was younger. She has seen the pictures herself, her parents are journalists.”

“Ash Lynx? Yeah, I heard he slept with adults for money. I think he still does that, you can even ask him for a blowjob if you pay good money. I swear it’s true, Charles got one himself!”

All these assertions were punctured by the same conclusion, always enunciated with a grave voice, a not so secret warning: “You should stay away from him.”

Eiji was convinced all of these were bullshit. He knew how fast rumors could run, and how distorted they could become.

Still, he wasn’t an idiot. There was surely a reason why Ash Lynx was targeted by all this, he just didn’t know what it was.

The only thing everyone accorded over was that Ash had indeed run away from his home when he was a child, and had then faced some hardships before being rescued by the police. It was rumored that he lived all by himself now, which was pretty weird for someone as young as he was.

Eiji shook himself up. He didn’t want to think about the gossips. All he knew for sure was that Ash was a 17 years old boy, incredibly smart and delightfully impertinent with the professors. That was all he would think of when he would talk to him.

He took a deep breath before pushing open the door to the school’s library.

 

---

 

The library was pretty empty that day.

Since it was the beginning of the year, and it was the first break of the day, the average student didn’t have any business to do there.

Ash was an exception. It didn’t matter if the library was crowded or empty, if it was exams period or not, the library was the only place of the school he felt truly welcome in.

He spent nearly all his breaks there. The high school collection of books wasn’t bad, and he had access to the computers when he needed to read research papers.

This morning, his peace was broken when a student entered the library, looked around himself, his hands tight around his bag strap, and then walked straight to him.

Ash did his best to not look up from his book, thinking that maybe the intruder would be discouraged if he ignored him. He made a show of looking as busy as he could, even as the other student pulled a chair to sit at his table.

“Hum, excuse-me?”

Eiji Okumura was sitting across from him, a shy smile on his lips and an apologetic expression on his face.

Ash had no idea what on earth Eiji Okumura could possibly want from him.

The two of them had never even interacted.

Ash was known for his tendency to ignore his classmates, but even him had heard of Okumura. It was common knowledge that he had came from Japan when he was younger, and even more common knowledge that he was in the pole-vaulting club.

Eiji was pretty much a nobody before last year, when he had begun to make himself noticed at competitions. Ash had heard he had even participated in a filmed competition broadcasted on T.V. and that he had scored second there. Then, a photographer had noticed him and had come to the school to take pictures of him for his university project.

That’s when everyone had started to talk about Eiji. Suddenly, every high schooler seemed to have an opinion on him; from people who asked themselves why someone as plain as Okumura would be noticed by a photographer, to girls fanning themselves when he crossed their way, whispering about how cute and handsome he was; everyone had something to say about the athlete.

Some even said the photographer must surely be a pervert with a weird obsession with young Japanese boys. That last rumor was mostly said jokingly, but it had still made Ash’s stomach churn unpleasantly, as he was forcibly reminded of a less clement time for himself.

The picture used by the college student for his project ended up getting also used by the school, to promote the sport clubs, and had been placated everywhere.

The first time Ash had seen the poster, his breath was taken away. He understood then why everybody was talking about that boy.

The poster was quite simple in its composition. It was an enlarged picture of Eiji pole-vaulting, with a short text promoting how good doing sports was for students. Above Eiji’s head was a white text proclaiming “Fly Boy, in the Sky”. Ash had heard it was the title given by the photographer to the picture.

No, the poster wasn’t all that interesting. The expression on Eiji’s face however, as he flew above the bar, was simply breathtaking. He seemed so… free. The kind of freedom Ash had longed for all his life. The kind of freedom one could only achieve if he had wings.

Eiji Okumura looked like an angel. Out of this world, flying above the mass. He didn't have the type of beauty that would make perverts slip a hand in their pants at the sight of his photograph. No. Eiji was ethereal, untouched and untouchable. Unreachable.

Ash would like to say that it was all there was to tell about his experience with the poster, or with Eiji Okumura in general; that he continued with his life after seeing the picture and that was it. But it wasn’t the case.

After that, he had found himself looking for Eiji in every class. Listening when people were talking about him. He had even mulled over going to see him training but had never brought himself to do it. He already felt enough like a creep without adding stalking to the list of his accomplishments.

He was just… curious to know what kind of person the flying boy on the photograph could be.

“Sorry to bother you, but I wanted to ask you a question.”

Ash stared at Eiji. He seemed a little nervous, but not scared, like the majority of students were by him. His posture was strangely unguarded, like he had nothing to hide.

However, if he was there, and if he wanted to ask him a question, it could only be for one reason. Ash shouldn’t be surprised. Since the beginning of the rumor, he had already been asked the same question at least five times, by all kinds of students, with various degree of serious. He didn’t know who was at the origin of this specific rumor, but he would gladly kick their asses.

Ash couldn’t help but to be disappointed, that Eiji would turn out to be that kind of person.

“If you want a blowjob, you’ve been misguided, I’m not doing that kind of things.”

Eiji’s big eyes widened impossibly larger, surprise written all over his face. A pretty shade of pink colored his cheeks.

He was like an open book. It was like he wasn’t even trying to hide his emotions. For some reason, it made Ash relax.

“What? That’s- That’s not what I wanted to ask!” the Japanese protested with vehemence.

Ash was intrigued now. He closed his book and leaned over the table, closer to Eiji.

“Then what is it that you want from me, Okumura?”

Eiji frowned, seeming put off by Ash’s choice of words.

“I’ve heard you’re really smart. I was wondering if you would consider helping a friend of mine. He is searching for a tutor. It would’ve been paid, of course.”

Now, that was unexpected. From all the things Eiji had surely heard about him, he chose to retain that Ash was smart?

Ash narrowed his eyes, considering Eiji’s proposal. He had never thought about giving tutor classes to other students… He would probably be the worst teacher ever.

“Why me?” he asked, prudent.

Surely anyone else would be better suited for the job.

Eiji smiled, something mischievous shining in his eyes.

“I told you already, people say you are the smartest student in school. You want to hear me say it a third time or you’re done fishing for compliments?”

Ash stayed silent for a beat, too stunned by Eiji’s response to answer. This guy was clearly surprising, it took all of Ash’s strength to not just gape at him, torn between incredulity and a sudden urge to burst into a laugh.

His silence was certainly misinterpreted by Eiji, because the Japanese blushed and bit his lips, second guessing his bluntness.

“I mean… I just thought you would be suited for it… But I can find someone else, if you’re not interested.”

Ash smiled. It was probably the worst idea, but right now, he couldn’t find in himself the will to refuse anything to Eiji. And he didn’t exactly have much to do at school anyway, so even if it was a waste of time, it wouldn’t cost him too much.

“I will do it.”

Eiji raised his head, beaming at him, his previous embarrassment already forgotten.

“You will?”

Ash felt his smile widen again before Eiji’s shining eyes. His happy reaction was greatly exaggerated.

“Yes, I can always try, anyway.”

“Thank you! That’s great! My friend will be relieved!”

Ash perked up at that. “Hum, your friend. And why isn’t your friend the one to ask me for this?”

Eiji hesitated visibly. “Oh, he was… He was too intimidated…”

Ash raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t hard to guess what the true reason was.

“Too intimidated, or too scared?”

Ash could literally see Eiji hesitate to lie to him. How could someone be so open?

“Both.” he replied, tone uncertain.

“And you, aren’t you scared?”

This time, Eiji’s answer was blunt.

“No, I’m not. Why would I be?”

Ash leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. Eiji didn’t seem even warry of him, which was strange, because if he had heard rumors about Ash’s supposed intelligence, he must also have heard about all the other things murmured about him.

The bell rang, indicating the end of the break period.

Eiji started. “I have to go! My friend will contact you, alright? Thank you again!”

And just like that, he was rushing out of the library.

Ash felt a weird pinch of heart upon seeing him go. It would probably be their last conversation, and for a reason Ash couldn’t explain, the thought of it saddened him. Talking with Eiji, even for such a short time, had been weirdly pleasant.

Chapter Text

It turned out that the next class was one Ash shared with Eiji.

Of course, Ash came in late, when everyone was already sited. The teacher glared at him with annoyance but didn’t say a thing. Even if the year was just starting, he must know there was no way he could change Ash’s habit of not caring in the slightest about punctuality.

Ash sat in the back of the classroom. As the teacher started talking about the chemistry’s program for the semester, his eyes traveled to Eiji’s back, three rows before him.
Eiji was in deep conversation with his desk’s neighbor. Ash wondered what they were talking about, and then wondered if caring made him a creep. Talking to him had just reinforced his opinion that there was something interesting about Eiji, something that called to him.

Maybe it was because of how he had talked to him just now, like he wasn’t scared of the rumors circulating around Ash? But no, it wasn’t just that. Ash couldn’t help but to be intrigued by his deep brown eyes, his soft voice and gentle manners, which seemed to be hiding a strong will and an endearing boldness. He wanted to see more of that.

Ash shook himself off this train of thoughts. Yep, that definitely made him a creep. The best was to back off while he could, it wasn’t like Eiji would come to talk to him ever again, after all.

The teacher caught the attention of the classroom back when he started talking about assessing each of them a lab partner, with who they would work on the projects for the year.

A murmur of dissatisfaction rose from the class as he announced he would be the one to choose the partners.

Ash was listening from afar as he enunciated the paired names and the students began to stand up to reorganize the class by pairs.

His heart missed a beat when he heard his name associated with Eiji’s own.

What were the odds he would have the occasion to talk to Okumura twice in the same day?

Eiji turned around to stare at him, a beautiful smile quirking his lips, and Ash felt the weird urge to smile back at him. He tried his best to appear aloof as Eiji stood up to rejoin him at his desk.

“Hey, that’s a weird coincidence, no?” he asked, smile still in place.

“It is.”

Eiji fidgeted a little beside him, and Ash felt bad for him. Surely, he must be bumped out to be paired with him when literally anyone in the classroom would make a better partner than Ash.

“Don’t worry about the assignments, I can do them by myself and get us only A’s.”

Usually, that was what Ash did when paired up with someone on a project. Nobody ever found anything to say to that, as he could get his partners the best grades and spare them the trouble to have to talk to him.

Eiji frowned. “We’ve been assigned partners, so we have to work together. I don’t want you to do all the work by yourself.” Eiji marked a pause and adverted his gaze from Ash. “I will not slow you down if that’s what worry you.”

“Oh.”

Of course, Eiji would exceed his expectations, that’s all he was doing ever since he first talked to him.

Ash shrugged. “Then, alright, I guess.”

Eiji smiled before re-focusing his attention on the teacher, who was distributing papers for the students to read.

As there was only one document per pairs, Ash had to place the sheet of papers in the middle of their desk, for them to read together. There were only two pages, printed recto-verso. A quick read all in all.

Or so thought Ash.

Reading proved to be awfully difficult when he was constantly distracted by how close Eiji was sitting to him. Their shoulders were sometimes brushing, and Ash couldn’t understand why this never missed to make him lose track of the sentence he was reading.

As they were both leaning close to read, Ash could smell Eiji’s perfume. It wasn’t anything distinctive, probably just a reminiscence of his shampoo, but for some reason Ash caught himself breathe in more than he should be doing.

When he finally went to read the last sentence of the first sheet of paper and took the document to turn it around and read the other half, Eiji stopped him.

“I’m not done reading.”

“You’re not?”

Seriously, Ash had read slower than a five years old child would have, all because of Eiji, but the other hadn’t even finished?

Ash left him what felt like a couple of minutes to finish up, but was surely less than that, doing his best to swallow up his impatience.

Eiji asked for more time to read the second sheet of paper also.

“You’re finished, yet?”

“No, give me a little more time.”

“Gosh, you read so goddamn slowly.”

Maybe Ash shouldn’t be mean to the only person of the classroom who, for an unfathomable reason, didn’t seem to think he would be better off avoiding him, but he was starting to lose patience.

Eiji blushed, his mouth forming a tight line. “Yes, maybe I do read slowly, but so what? I would like to see you read Japanese.”

Ash gapped at him for an instant before letting out a short laugh.

“Alright, I guess you got a point.” he admitted, amused.

Eiji seemed pleased by his reaction and went to read the document even slower while Ash was trying not to be bored to death beside him.

He tried to distract himself by staring at Eiji reading. It wasn’t like he had anything better to do, right?

Eiji had long black eyelashes that flickered against his fair skin while he was reading, framing brown eyes that were slightly wider than normal. His hair was dark also, puffed but combed neatly to the side. It looked soft.

Ash had always been wary of the dark. He could easily retrace it to that time he had hidden in the night on Halloween to scare his brother Griffin and ended up scaring himself instead. He was five then, but his disliking of darkness had not faded away much in the following years.

So, it was strange he would find Eiji’s appearance so appealing, no? Even if clearly the dark of his eyes and hair wasn’t scary in the slightest. There was something comforting about him, something warm and soft.

Eiji raised his eyes from the papers, catching him blatantly staring.

He frowned, puckering his lips with offense. “You can glare at me all you want, I will not be done faster. I’m sure you can afford to wait a little more for me to finish.”
Eiji returned to his reading, leaving Ash quietly dumbfounded.

When he had finally finished reading, they worked on the questions written at the end of the document in silence. Once again, Ash was done with everything faster than Eiji. He saw him frown at the last question and take the document to read it again.

“The answer isn’t in the document.”

Eiji raised his head, a perplexed look on his face. “It’s not? Where is it then?”

Ash leaned back in his chair. “I don’t know. Maybe the teacher mentioned it earlier? I wasn’t listening.”

Eiji eyed Ash’s own responses. “Then, how did you figure it out?”

“I already know the topic well.”

“Oh.”

Usually, people didn’t like it when Ash was too smart. Be it teachers, other students or any kind of adult, Ash could recognize easily the look of irritation they got when he was showing off too much.

Eiji surprised him though. He didn’t seem irritated, just… admirative.

“Could you explain it to me, then?”

Ash spent the rest of the hour talking about chemistry. It wasn’t his strongest topic, but it was enough to impress Eiji apparently. And maybe he was enjoying himself too much, but who could blame him? It wasn’t everyday he had someone as focused as Eiji listening to him babble about his interests.

When the bell ran, it felt too soon to Ash. Which was unusual.

Eiji was staring at him with a knowing smile. “See, I was right. You make a great teacher. Thanks for explaining everything to me.”

Ash did his best not to blush as Eiji left the classroom. He was deep into troubles.

---

Eiji’s friend was absolutely not what Ash had expected. He was tall and wide, dark skinned, with an undercut. He seemed like the kind of guy your mom tell you to avoid. Or so pictured Ash. He had never had a mother to teach him that kind of things.

How the hell did Eiji became friend with someone like him?

But Ash knew better than to judge someone by the way they looked. And it turned out the guy was one of the nicest person Ash had ever encountered in school.

His name was Kong, and he had been dropping out of school for a while before this year, which explained why he needed help with classes.

Despite his big stature, it was Kong who spent the first lesson being slightly scared of Ash.

Ash was used to it, but it would be a pain in the ass if Kong continued to stare at him with these big scared eyes every time he didn’t understand something.

They agreed to meet up once a week, to go over the material from the previous week. Ash understood quickly that even if Kong insisted on paying him for his time, money was a difficult thing for him to obtain. Ash even wondered if the way Kong had found how to pay the first lessons wasn’t illegal.

Persuading Kong to forget about the money wouldn’t be easy, but Ash knew how to be persuasive. He was confident he would get Kong to renounce to the payment soon enough.

---

Someone placed their meal tray on the table where Ash was seated, eating. He didn’t have to raise his gaze from his plate to know it was Eiji, since Ash had followed him with his eyes the moment he had entered the cafeteria.

But he wouldn’t have thought the Japanese would come straight to his table.

“Hi, Ash. Can I sit here?”

Ash stared at him carefully, judging his expression. He took in his warm smile, his gentle eyes, his open face.

Two tables behind him, was seated the pole-vaulting team, as usual. The athletes were looking at them with wide eyes. Ash shared their disbelief. He couldn’t grasp why Eiji would have chosen to sit here and not with them or with literally anyone else. It wasn’t like Eiji was short on friends to sit with.

Their table wasn’t the only one to be shocked. All the tables around were eying Ash and Eiji with different degrees of stunned expressions.

It wasn’t a good idea for Eiji to come to sit here. He would only be caught in the bad rumors circulating around Ash. Nobody ever sat with the Whore, the Murderer.

Well, except for Shorter occasionally, but the teenager was liked by everyone and wasn’t fazed by the rumors. Plus, he was kind of a troublemaker himself.

Ash should say no. But Eiji’s expectant eyes and kind smile were making it awfully difficult.

He shrugged, defeated. “Sure, go ahead.”

As he expected, the cafeteria immediately bruised with murmurs, eyes still on them, as Eiji sat in front of him. Ash was already regretting agreeing.

It was impossible for Eiji not to be noticing it too, so why did he seem so unfazed by the attention? Ash was used to be a subject of discussion, but the unwanted eyes on him were still making his skin crawl unpleasantly.

“You aren’t sitting with your team? Isn’t the star of the pole-vaulting club supposed to sit with his fellow teammates?”

Eiji laughed. It was such a pleasant sound that Ash found himself relax despite the anxiety the gazes of the students on them gave him.

“They don’t need me to help them through their meal.”

Ash stared at the athletes’ table, behind Eiji, where the guys were still staring at them, mouth agape, too surprised to eat.

“I don’t know, some of them seem like they could need help even for a task as basic as that one.”

Eiji’s eyes widened, and his face steeled, something hard passing in his eyes. The change in his demeanor left Ash breathless.

“Oh. So, you’re one of the people who think athletes are too dumb to do anything other than sport by themselves?”

His voice stayed careful, as if he wished to be contradicted but didn’t expect much.

That wasn’t what Ash had meant to say, and technically he could justify himself easily to clear the misunderstanding.

But on the other hand, wouldn’t it be better if Eiji thought he was an asshole? He would stop dirtying his perfect reputation with Ash that way. And it would just hasten the inevitable, it wasn’t like someone like Eiji Okumura could become friend with someone like him.

“Well, let’s say none of them is helping to break the stereotype.”

It was an awful thing to say, and even worse to say it to Eiji. Ash was feeling sick with himself.

“I see. I guess I misjudged you, then.”

Eiji’s tone had gone cold, Ash was even surprised his sweet voice could take such harsh inflections.

“It’s alright,” Ash tried to appear light and unaffected. “It happens to me all the time.”

Eiji raised to his feet. “Well, I apologize if I lowered your IQ with my dumb athlete talk. I will leave you alone now.”

And he stormed to the athletes’ table without a last look for Ash.

Ash stood up too. He wasn’t hungry anymore.

It would have been fine if Eiji had just been angry at him, or even if he had despised him, but he had looked hurt by Ash’s words, and this was intolerable.

Ash had no idea athletes weren’t exempt of being touched by hurtful stereotypes.

He left the cafeteria with an empty stomach, his heart heavy in his chest. It’s for the best, he tried to tell himself. The further away Eiji stays from you, the better for him. Eiji would get over it eventually.

Ash couldn’t even understand why he had come to sit with him to begin with. Yes, they had talked pleasantly a couple of time in chemistry, but that didn’t mean they had to grow closer than that. Maybe Eiji only wanted to see how Ash’s tutoring of Kong was going? Whatever Eiji wanted didn’t matter. Ash wouldn’t be the one to bring Fly Boy down to his level.

---

“Hey, want to go to Chang Dai after school?”

Ash raised his eyes from his book to look at the Chinese sitting beside him. Well, sitting was maybe a too soft word to describe the way Shorter was slumped onto the bench, feet resting on the trash can nearby, as relaxed as if he was in his bed.

“Depends. Who’s cooking, you or Nadia?”

Shorter laughed, a joyful sound that shook his whole body.

“If you’re coming, Nadia, hopefully.”

“Then, count me in.”

Shorter probably knew Ash wouldn’t have refused his invitation even if it meant eating the crap his friend tried to pretend was cooked food. But Ash was grateful he didn’t call him out on it.

His attention was caught by someone walking pass them. Expect it wasn’t just someone, it was Eiji Okumura. And he casted Ash a hard look as he walked pass him, before adverting his gaze, frowning to himself.

Ash didn’t let anything show in his demeanor, but maybe this gave him a pinch of heart. Just a little pinch. How bad did you have to be to make someone as nice as Eiji look at you like this?

Shorter let out a long whistle. “Man, what did you do to Okumura?”

There was a reproach in his voice, one Ash deserved too well.

“You know him?”

Shorter rolled his eyes. “Ash, everyone knows who he is. And I know every Asian kid. I only talked to him a couple times, though. But he seems like such a nice dude, I always meant to try to know him better.”

Shorter straightened himself to stare at Ash. The blond couldn’t see his eyes through his glasses, but he knew his friend well enough to know he was glaring at him.

“Don’t think I didn’t notice you avoiding my question. What did you do to him?”

Ash adverted his gaze, mouth forming a thin line.

“Nothing.” he lied.

“Right. I know Eiji well enough to know he wouldn’t just hate someone out of the blue like that.”

“You think he hates me?”

That wasn’t what Ash had meant to say. The words had come out of his mouth without his approval, and his tone was more pathetic than what he allowed it to be in front of anyone.

Shorter raised an eyebrow, eyeing him with a new perplex expression.

“Hate is maybe too strong of a word, but I’ve never seen him glare at anyone like that, so…”

Ash pressed his mouth in a tighter line again.

“Why do you care?” asked Shorter. “Usually you-“

“I don’t care. I was simply asking.”

Shorter didn’t seem convinced by his bravado.

“You still haven’t told me what you did to him.”

“Aren’t you one stubborn bastard?”

“Well, I need to know if I have to kick your ass over this or not.”

Ash sighed, defeated. “Alright. The gist of it is… He came to me to ask if I could tutor one of his friends-“

“And you refused?”

Ash huffed. “No, I accepted. Let me finish. So, after that, we were paired to be lab partners-“

“And that’s where you were an asshole to him.”

“No! Fuck, Shorter, stop interrupting me! So, I was perfectly polite and agreeable and everything.”

Shorter made a face to show him just how much he believed him, but he stayed silent.

“I was surely too agreeable, because he came to sit at my table at the cafeteria the other day.”

“Damn, what a brave little guy.”

“Everyone was eying us and whispering and… That’s when I did something stupid.”

Shorter let him the time to gather his thoughts, but Ash could tell he was suspended at his lips.

“I thought that it would be bad for him to be associated with me. So, I thought that if I made him think I’m an asshole, he would leave me alone. But I may have been a little… too harsh. I kind of regret it.”

“Dammit, Ash! Why do you always have to make your life more complicated than it already is! You got a nice guy who want to know you better, and the first thing you do if making him run away!” Shorter shook his head, a disabused smile on his face. “You really are one of a kind.”

Ash crossed his arms and leaned back on the bench.

“What are you going to do, now?”

He looked up at Shorter, surprised. “Nothing. Why would I do anything?”

Shorter groaned. “Because you obviously feel bad about it! Go talk to him, I’m sure he will understand!”

“There’s no need for that. It’s better if he stays away from me.” Ash shrugged. “The only thing that’s too bad is that our chemistry classes will be hell from now on--”

“Better for who? For him? Or for you? Isn’t the real reason you’re pushing him away because you’re scared of being tight with people? Why do you think I’m like, your only friend? Because you’re a pain in the ass to approach and I’m a stubborn bastard, that’s why!”

Ash stood up abruptly. “I’m not scared.” he hissed. “I don’t care about him, why would I? He’s just another one of these nice guys, with their perfect little life, their loving family and bright future. I won’t mess up with that. We aren’t from the same world, and it will stay that way.”

Ash noticed he had yelled when he took in the people nearby staring at them, eyes wide. Great, just what he needed was to give them matter to spill new rumors.

He turned away and rushed to the building, without a stare back to Shorter.

“Hey, Ash wait! Don’t take it like that! And don’t forget about tonight!” the Chinese yelled in his back.

Ash didn’t reply. He was sure Shorter knew as well as he did that he wouldn’t take him up on his invitation tonight.

 

---

 

If you asked Eiji, Shorter Wong was the coolest guy of the whole school.

First, his look was on point, with his rebellious purple hair, his cool piercing, his sunglasses that he wore stubbornly in school despite it being against the rules, his big muscles… Not that Eiji was that much into muscles, really - as an athlete, he had some and had seen more than his content of it in change rooms. But on Shorter… Well, it just came to complete how cool he looked.

But what was better again than his look was Shorter’s kindness. When Eiji had first entered the school, the Chinese teenager had made sure to come to talk to him and teach him everything there was to know about being a person of color in an American school. It was well-known every Asian kid could count on him if they ever faced hardship with anything.

That was also through Shorter that Eiji had encountered Sing, who was surely Shorter’s first fanboy. Sing spent his time babbling about how amazing Shorter was at everything, and Eiji had always been curious to see how the younger Chinese acted when he was with Shorter, because it wasn’t likely he was able to hide his admiration. Although Sing and Shorter did seem pretty close, so either Eiji was giving Sing too little credit, either Shorter was used to Sing’s worship…

So, when Shorter Wong stopped by his locker this morning, Eiji had to retain himself from pinching his arm and verify this wasn’t a dream.

He couldn’t help the wide smile that refused to leave his face, though.

“Hey, Eiji. Can I talk to you for a second?”

“Of course, go ahead.” he replied, doing his best to play it cool.

Shorter fidgeted a little, passing a hand in his purple hair. Eiji was surprised by the nervous gesture. What could possibly affect someone like Shorter Wong?

“So, I don’t really know how to say that, but… Ash told me how he was an ass to you two days ago, at the cafeteria…”

“Oh…”

Eiji waited for Shorter to continue, a little lost on why Shorter would come to talk to him about it.

“I just want you to know… Ash wasn’t thinking what he told you then. I swear he isn’t like that.”

Eiji frowned. “Then why did he say it?” his voice sounded harsher that he had meant it to be, but there was no point in hiding he was upset by this whole story. He had been really put off by Ash’s hostility to him after he had thought they were getting along pretty well… He couldn’t pretend he hadn’t been hurt by it.

Shorter sighed. “Because he is dumb… He tends to react harshly when people try to get close to him…”

“Why are you even telling me this? Ash made a point of showing me he didn’t want to talk to me. You can tell him I won’t bother him ever again, if that’s what he wants.”

Shorter sighed. “Yeah, well that’s the whole point of me telling you all this. I’m convinced Ash doesn’t truly want you to get away from him…”

Eiji tried to shut down the hope he felt upon hearing these words.

“Well, he sure has a weird way of showing it, then.” he said, and even him could hear how bitter he sounded.

Shorter looked at him with an intensity that could have embarrassed him if his mind wasn’t so occupied with the whole Ash Lynx’s mystery.

“Eiji, can I ask you a question? Why did you go to his table, that day?”

Eiji hesitated. He felt like the truth was something that should stay between him and Ash. But at the same time… Shorter was Ash’s best friend, surely he could understand.

“Before that, I came to ask him to tutor a friend of mine. When I entered the library to talk to him… He was there, alone, and I was taken aback by how… lonely he seemed. And then, at the cafeteria, he was all by himself again and I just… I wanted to be there for him, so he wouldn’t be so alone. I guess it sound weird since I don’t even know him, but that’s how I felt.”

When he dared to look at Shorter again, the Chinese was grinning at him.

“I see! Sorry if my question seemed weird, it’s just…” A shadow passed on Shorter’s face. “…Usually, the people who come to Ash do it… for the wrong reasons.”

Eiji wanted to know more about it, but he stayed silent. It surely wasn’t Shorter’s place to reveal more to him.

Shorter’s face lighted up again, a wide smile stretching his lips.

“But you, well, you seem even cooler than I thought you would be! I’m glad you decided to lose your time with this specific dumb blond American!”

Eiji blushed hard. Did Shorter just call him cool? When he would tell Sing about it! …No, wait a minute, cool people didn’t go brag that other cool people had called them cool. He would keep that to himself… and maybe think about it two or twenty times a day.

Eiji was glad Shorter had come to talk to him, and he could see that Ash meant a lot to the Chinese… But it wasn’t like that effaced how rude Ash had been. If the blond didn’t want Eiji to talk to him, well fine, Eiji would keep his distances.

“Please Eiji, be patient with him. I know he can seem like an asshole… but he really isn’t. He’s worth your time, trust me.”

Eiji didn’t know what to respond to that. Fortunately, the bell rang before his silence could become weird, and they left for their respective classes.

---

Eiji didn’t saw Ash until their next chemistry class. Weirdly enough, the American was already sitting at their shared desk when Eiji entered the classroom. Ash was rarely in time for classes, usually.

Eiji took place beside him without a word. He hadn’t decided what to do with Ash. He had been pretty busy all week, with the beginning of the new year of school and his pole-vaulting training. And to say the truth, he had tried not to think too much about the whole affair. Or about Ash.

On one hand, it would be pretty hard to stay mad at his lab partner when they had to work together. And Eiji couldn’t help but wish Shorter was right, that Ash wasn’t as much of an asshole he had tried to make him believe.

On the other hand, Eiji wouldn’t make any effort to get along with Ash if the other stayed on his position.

He could feel Ash eying him silently. Eiji noticed then that he was making a face, mouth pressed into a tight line, brow furrowed. He tried to smooth his expression into something more neutral and turned to Ash. Since the teenager didn’t seem decided to make the first step, Eiji would have to be the adult in this conversation.

“Hi, Ash.”

The other boy started at him, eyes widening with surprise. He quickly composed himself back, though.

“Hi.”

The silence stretched between them awkwardly. Eiji would have to try more than that, apparently.

“Hum, Shorter went to talk to me.”

Ash grimaced, an expression Eiji could have found comical if he wasn’t still upset with him.

“And what did he say?”

“He said you didn’t mean what you said to me at the cafeteria.”

Ash sighed, long and slow.

“This bastard should mind his own business.” he muttered to himself.

Then, he stared at Eiji with a new resolve in his green eyes.

“Eiji, I’m sorry about what I said to you that day. I never meant it… It’s just, well, you kind of jumped to conclusions and I thought it would be easier if I didn’t contradict you. But I regret it, I think you should at least know that I don’t think a word of what I said.”

That was the longest Eiji had ever heard Ash talk to him. He smiled, relief flowing into him.

“It’s okay, let’s forget about it. I guess I kind of overreacted myself. I’m kind of sensitive when it comes to that kind of things...”

Ash relaxed too, and Eiji just noticed then how tense the teenager really was before his answer. It was nice to see Ash would care that much about Eiji’s forgiveness.
The American gave him a tentative smile.

“Would you mind if we started from zero again? I’m sorry I was such an asshole…”

“No, problem. We need to at least get along if we’re working together.”

Ash frowned, his expression gloomier suddenly. “Right.”

Eiji didn’t have much time to dwell on the change of attitude as the teacher began the class right then. They had both made a step closer to each other, so why did Ash still feel so far away from him?

Chapter Text

Ash didn’t know how he ended up here, sat with other teenagers, a beer in hand, in the house of some student from his year he never had talked to. Well, he did know he was dragged to the couch by Shorter, but that didn’t explain why he stayed when the teenager had gone to grab himself a drink.

It was Ash’s first high school’s party.

To be honest, it wasn’t the first time Shorter would try to drag him to a party, or to whatever other thing teenagers his age were enjoying doing away from the school.

But Ash didn’t like to mingle with others. He liked spending time with Shorter, he liked eating out at Chang Dai with Nadia, he enjoyed helping Michael with his homework or taking him out to a movie. Hell, he even liked being invited to eat dinner at Max and Jessica’s home, even if he would prefer to die than to admit it to Max.

But that was it. He had never felt the need to go out of his way to socialize with other teenagers.

And yet, Shorter had finally managed to take a yes out of him, after asking for the thousand time this week if Ash would please, please, pretty please, make a goddamn effort and go to this party with him.

Until now, the party was quite nice, actually. Ash was talking to two guys he remembered having seen around at school. It was even likely one of them was in some of his classes, he remembered seeing him a lot, but he couldn’t even recall his name. He hoped it wouldn’t come up in the conversation.

Eiji was sitting on the same couch as him. Maybe that was why Ash stayed.

Ash had tried all week not to think about Eiji… which was just another way to say he had thought about him daily.

It wasn’t Ash’s fault; how could he forget about him when Eiji’s damn face was placarded in the whole school?

To make things worse; Eiji looked unfairly good, that night. Although it wasn’t a surprise, Eiji always looked unfairly good. But tonight, he was wearing a black button up that was just a little too tight, molding his athlete’s body in ways that were just sinful. It didn’t help that he had rolled up his sleeves, revealing toned forearms and creamy skin.

God, I’m such a creep. What was it about Eiji that made him lose all control over his mind?

There was a girl sat on the couch between them, and Eiji was facing the opposite of Ash, in deep conversation with a guy from his pole-vaulting club who was perched on the armrest next to him. Ash tried to ignore how close the guy leaned to Eiji while talking, how easily he would put a hand on his shoulder and make him laugh. He wondered if that guy knew how lucky he was, to have that kind of easy friendship with Eiji.

Ash hadn’t talked to Eiji since that day they had decided to take a fresh start. He couldn’t help but wish that the girl sitting between them would suddenly leave, and that Eiji would turn to him and flash him that wonderful smile that Ash was absolutely not worthy of and -

Ash’s fantasy was stopped abruptly. A blond girl sitting in the opposite couch interrupted suddenly all the conversations of the small group by proposing to play truth or dare. Everyone groaned in harmony, but more girls got excited and Ash understood quickly that the blond girl would easily get what she asked for.

It was time for him to leave the group.

Just as he was beginning to get up, Shorter sat on the couch beside him.

“Where do you think you’re going? I said I wanted you to experience the fun of high school parties, this is one of the aspects! You have to stay!”

Ash huffed, but he stayed on the couch. “I don’t want to play that dumb game. I’ve been here long enough.”

Shorter quirked a brow. “Maybe you prefer to go dancing?”

Ash could hear the music blasting in other parts of the house, where teenagers were going wild on the dance floor. Shorter and him had quickly decided to retreat to the smaller living-room, where other students were talking in a quieter atmosphere.

Ash sighed. Wasn’t there anything else you could do at a party? How was it supposed to be fun? He crossed his arms over his torso and glared at Shorter, who was waiting for his answer expectantly.

“Alright, I’m staying.”

Shorter flashed him a blinding grin and patted him on the back. Strongly.

“Great!”

The girl who proposed the game rose up from the opposite couch. “Alright! I’ll go bring the cups and alcohol!”

“Alcohol?” whispered Ash, casting an interrogative glance to Shorter.

The Chinese laughed. “Yes, you have to take a shot every time you want to pass your turn. Don’t worry, though. It’s not the kind of game where you get plastered before the end of it.”

The game began, and Ash was bored quickly. Their group was composed of eight persons, and he knew nobody except for Shorter and Eiji. He wasn’t interested in any of the truths or dares that people thrown around. He didn’t understand how the others could be having fun. From what he could see, Eiji wasn’t paying much attention to the game either.

At one point, the girl sat between him and Eiji finally left the couch to go answer a call.

Ash tried not to seem too interested when it was Eiji’s turn to answer the truth or dare question.

“Dare.” Eiji replied, more animated now that it was his turn to play.

His friend from the pole-vaulting club snickered and dared him to go smell Shorter’s armpits.

Eiji scrunched his nose adorably and turned to Shorter.

The Chinese protested. “Hey, what the fuck with this dare? My armpits smell damn good, thank you very much. I inform you that I use deodorant!”

“Well, good thing for Eiji, then!” snarked the pole-vaulter.

Eiji’s only reaction was to roll his eyes at his friend. “Alright, I will do it. I have to say it is pretty lame, though.”

He got on his feet and stood in front of Shorter, who raised one arm to accommodate him.

“Smell for yourself.”

The Japanese leaned close to Shorter and inhaled deeply, exaggerating so everyone could hear him.

Then he straightened himself. “I can guarantee Shorter’s wearing deodorant.”

“Ha! Damn right I am!”

Eiji sat back beside Ash, apparently satisfied to get away with a dare as simple as this one.

It was Ash’s turn. The girl in charge to dare him couldn’t come up with anything. She seemed really flustered and Ash understood, he had no idea what he would dare any of these strangers around him either. He hoped for something quick and easy, like Eiji’s dare from before.

The girl whispered with the two teenagers sat around her until they finally seemed to have found a satisfying dare.

“Alright! It’s getting boring, so we’re raising the difficulty up! Ash Lynx, we dare you… to lick… Eiji’s face!” she said with triumph, pointing a finger in Eiji’s direction.
Ash couldn’t have heard correctly.

“What.”

Eiji echoed him. “What??”

“Ash, your dare is to lick Eiji’s face! Come on, it’s not even a hard dare!”

“Yeah, it could have been worse, it could have been Harry’s face!”

Ash had no idea who was this Harry, but all the teenagers around him snickered while a red-haired boy rose his middle finger at the person who had talked.

Shorter cast Ash an apologetic look, mouthing “sorry” to him and gesturing that he could take a shot instead.

He heard a girl whisper to the blond next to her. “If Ash chicken out, I will gladly take his place.”

The other chuckled. “I would prefer to take Eiji’s!”

Eiji’s pole-vaulter friend elbowed him. “It looks like Ash Lynx would prefer to take a shot rather than to lick your face.”

Ash didn’t really care about the game. Or about having to drink alcohol. He wasn’t even feeling especially pressured by the other teenagers. If he wanted to, he could just walk away.

The other teenagers were feeling really witty with their ridiculous dare, but the joke was on them because Ash had done so much worse in his life than to lick a face for a game. It wouldn’t be a bother for him. The only problem was whose face it was.

He turned to Eiji, dreading to see his expression.

Eiji was blushing hard. He stared at him with his deep doe-eyes and Ash felt himself lose all courage. It would have been fine if it was anyone else, but of course it had to be Eiji

He cleared his throat, which was awfully tight for some reason.

“Hum, would you… be fine with it?”

It was supposed to be Ash’s dare, but dammit if he wasn’t going to ask permission before licking someone else’s face.

Eiji’s blush deepened. “I mean… yeah?” He inhaled deeply and said with more confidence. “It’s fine, you can do it if you want.”

Ash kept his face carefully calm, but his heart was beating so hard in his chest, he feared Eiji might hear it.

He leaned closer to Eiji, and even that took everything out of him. As he did so, the scent of Eiji’s shampoo came to his nose, and strangely, the familiar perfume calmed him a little.

Eiji tilted his face, so Ash could have a better access of his cheek, and Ash stilled his resolve.

Ash ran his tongue across Eiji’s cheek. The skin was soft, and the sharp intake of breath that he heard from Eiji in response got straight to his guts.

Dammit, this was sure to keep him awake at night.

He leaned back as fast as he could without appearing to be fleeing away.

Everyone cheered for them, but Ash didn’t listen to the praises. His gaze was fixated on Eiji.

The Japanese smiled sheepishly at him, like he was sorry Ash got such a hassled dare. He raised his hand to his cheek to wipe the saliva off and adverted his gaze from Ash, too embarrassed to hold it any longer.

“Man, this was a good dare!” exclaimed someone.

Ash wanted to stop playing. He patiently waited to see Shorter being dared to step on his hands around the couch, then he waited for two more teenagers who told uninteresting truths about themselves, before raising to his feet and leaving the game.

His hands were trembling, and he didn’t know what to make of it.

He got to the buffet to freshen himself up. From there, he couldn’t help but listen to the game still playing. Shorter got up soon after Ash, but he was requisitioned by a teenager before reaching the buffet and was entailed to the garden.

At one point, one of the guys still playing was dared to kiss Eiji on the mouth.

Ash’s stomach seethed with nausea. He filled his cup of coke with whiskey.

However, this time, Eiji protested. “Why me again? That’s not fair!”

A girl chuckled. “But Eiji! It’s so cute when it’s you!”

Ash couldn’t see Eiji’s expression, but his voice sounded clearly annoyed.

“No, I have enough. Sorry but I’m a little bored with the game, I will leave you guys to it.”

His declaration was followed by a concert of disappointed exclamations.

“If you refuse, you have to take a shot. It’s the rules, Eiji.”

“I’m not even the one to be dared!”

Ash turned to look at the group, where a girl was already filling up a shooter for Eiji.

“Here!”

The Japanese shrugged and emptied the small cup in one go.

“There.” he said, slamming the shooter on the table a little too forcefully. “Now, I’m going.”

The group protested again, but Eiji still got up and left in the direction of the buffet.

Ash quickly adverted his gaze, so Eiji didn’t notice him staring.

From the corner of his eyes, he saw Eiji take a cup of water. He was right next to Ash, and it was surely weirder to pretend not to notice him than to engage conversation with him, but Ash couldn’t bring himself to. All he could think about was the taste of Eiji’s skin on his tongue.

He tried to swallow up the guilt these thoughts gave him with a swig of his own drink, but it wasn’t very effective. He was put off by how that dumb dare had thrown him off his feet. And he was more put off again by the fact that it hadn’t been displeasing in the slightest. Quite the opposite, in fact.

All his life until this point, he had known little to nothing of physical attraction. Well, except for being on the other end of it. There had been a girl when he was fourteen, but they were young, and it had ended up quickly and so very badly he tried not to think back of it.

Yet, there was no denying the fact he was attracted to Eiji. It was hard to accept. He didn’t even know Eiji more than that after all. Sure, he seemed nice, and he was funny, and easy to talk to, and interesting and honest, and…

Fuck. Ash needed to get off these thoughts, and he needed to do it quick. This was exactly what he had wanted to avoid by pushing Eiji away when they had first met. He should have left things at that.

Ash filled up his cup with another whiskey and drank nearly all of it in one go. The liquid burnt his throat and left a displeasing aftertaste on his tongue.

He was feeling sick, but he didn’t know if it was because of the alcohol or because he was disgusted with himself.

“Are you alright?”

Eiji was looking at him, concern evident in his sweet eyes.

His question took Ash off guard. “Hum, yes, I’m fine. Why do you ask?”

Eiji rolled his eyes, but the corner of his mouth quirked up in a crooked smile. “I don’t know, I just saw you swallow two cups of what I’m sure was alcohol, all alone in your corner. People who do that aren’t alright usually.”

Ash choose to tease his way out of it. “Oh, and I take you were concerned about me?” he smirked, tone playful and confident to contrast with the erratic beating of his heart in his chest.

Eiji’s lopsided smile widened in response. “Well, as your senior, I guess it’s my duty to make sure you don’t roll under the table by the end of the party. You’re clearly not used to all this.”

Ash’s eyebrows rose up, stupefaction taking over the retort he had on the tip of his tongue. “My senior? Are you… Are you older than me?”

Eiji was clearly vexed by the surprise in Ash’s voice. “Yes, I am. You’re seventeen, right? Well, I’m one year older.”

Ash wondered briefly how Eiji was aware of his age, but he was still too baffled by the revelation of Eiji being older to care. He had never known exactly how old the Japanese was, but he had assumed… Eiji just seemed so young!

“Sorry, I always thought you were way younger.” he admitted.

Eiji puffed his cheeks, clearly offended, which just managed to make him seem even younger.

“How are you older?” Ash continued, “You’ve repeated a year or…?”

Eiji’s expression darkened slightly, and he looked at Ash with prudence.

“Yes, I did retake a year. When I came from Japan, five years ago, my English wasn’t fluent. At all. It was very difficult to adapt to this new country, take classes where I could barely understand anything, and… I had other things going on at the time. So, I messed up really badly my first year in America, and the teachers thought it would be better for me to repeat it.”

Eiji was clearly reticent to talk about it, and Ash felt even guiltier thinking back on how he had implied athletes were all dumbasses. No wonder Eiji felt hurt by it, when he had surely struggled with being taken for an idiot because of his lacking knowledge of English, when he had first come to America. Ash was glad Shorter had forced him to apologize, at least.

“I didn’t know. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been, starting from scratch in a foreign country.”

Eiji shrugged. “Well, at least it’s all good now. I think I can safely say I adapted to this life.”

Ash was certain there was more to say about it, but Eiji didn’t seem eager to expand on the topic, so he kept his other questions to himself.

He tried to think about something else to say, something to take them to lighter subjects of conversation. He didn’t want to stop talking with Eiji so soon.

As he was mulling over talking about chemistry, since it was their only shared field, a long-haired Asian passed his arms around Eiji’s shoulders from behind and draped himself around him.

“Eiijii. There you are! I’ve looked for you everywhere.” he all but whined.

Eiji didn’t even flinch at the intrusion of his personal space.

“Sorry, Yut. I didn’t know you were looking for me.”

Yut-Lung. As he was a year younger than them, Ash had never interacted with him, but he knew him by reputation. Even without listening to the rumors, he only needed one look at the way the Chinese boy dressed at school every day to know he came from a really wealthy family. Tonight again, the crisp white shirt he was wearing with his grey slacks was certainly tailored.

The next thing he knew about Yut-Lung was that Shorter hated his guts, for a reason Ash had never bothered asking. The younger Chinese had always seemed plainly dislikable to Ash anyway.

However, Ash had never known Yut-Lung was friend with Eiji. They formed quite… an odd pair.

Ignoring Yut-Lung, Ash smiled to Eiji. “Clearly, I’m not the one you should have worried about.” he said, letting his eyes travel back on Yut-Lung to emphasize his point.

The Asian teenager was clearly drunk. Slumped onto Eiji for support, his face was slightly flushed.

Yut-Lung seemed suddenly to register Ash’s presence. Narrowing his eyes, he scowled at him from behind Eiji’s shoulder.

“Ash Lynx. What could you possibly be talking about with my dear Eiji?” His elocution was already far better, venom underlying each word.

My dear Eiji? Coupled with the way Yut-Lung leaned on Eiji, and how used to it Eiji seemed, Ash could easily infer that the two of them were close. But how close? Ash felt a displeasing feeling settle in his stomach, and this time, he knew it had nothing to do with the alcohol.

He shrugged, affecting detachment. “That’s none of your business.”

Yut-Lung turned to Eiji. “You shouldn’t mingle with that kind of people, Eiji. Nothing good will ever come from it.”

Yut-Lung wasn’t wrong, but his condescending tone lighted a flaming anger in Ash’s chest. The Chinese stared back at him with the same fire in his eyes, conveying to Ash a not so silent warning with the way he tightened his hold on Eiji.

Eiji frowned, the hostility of Yut-Lung’s tone of voice not lost on him. “Like Ash was saying, it’s none of your business, Yut-Lung.”

Ash felt instantly far lighter. Not only Eiji was taking his side, but also the look of displeasure on Yut-Lung’s face was priceless.

“I’m just looking out for you, bunny.” he groaned, resting his forehead into Eiji’s collar.

Eiji didn’t push him away, and Ash was beginning to feel sick again. How could someone as sweet as Eiji could be so close to someone like Yut-Lung?

Eiji sighed. With a light hand, he pushed away the hair that had fallen on Yut-Lung’s face.

“How can you already be so drunk, Yut-Lung? I left you only twenty minutes ago.”

“I missed you Eiji! What else did you want me to do when you abandoned me, leaving me all alone-“

It was evident Eiji wasn’t having it. “You weren’t alone, though.” he replied, tone flat, unimpressed by Yut-Lung’s dramatic outburst.

“It was as if! There is no one interesting at this party…”

“Nobody forced you to come.”

Yut-Lung wasn’t listening. “… and I bought this fine bottle of wine, but no one would have been able to enjoy it to its valor! I had to drink it myself!”

Eiji’s eyes widened. “Yut-Lung, tell me you haven’t drunk the entire bottle by yourself?”

“And what if I did?”

It was evident to Ash that the Chinese couldn’t have drank that much alcohol and was just trying to keep Eiji’s attention on him. But Eiji looked worried, and he casted an apologetic look to Ash.

“I better make sure Yut-Lung returns home safely.”

“Of course. It would be a shame if anything happened to him.”

It was probably obvious Ash absolutely did not care, because Eiji frowned at him with reprobation.

Yut-Lung leaned even more heavily onto Eiji’s shoulder. “Yes, let’s go, this party is so lame anyway! Why did we even come?”

Eiji’s disapproving glare shifted from Ash to Yut-Lung. “Because you made us come!”

Once again, Yut-Lung seemed to be barely listening to Eiji. “And did you see how small is this house?” he continued, his features full of disdain.

“It’s not that small. It’s bigger than mine.” replied Eiji.

“That’s what I’m saying! A true rabbit hole!”

Eiji rolled his eyes before turning to Ash a last time. “I should go before Yut-Lung become even more insufferable.”

“He can be worse than that?”

Eiji smiled. “So much worse. Trust me, I’m kind of saving your life by getting rid of him, you’ll owe me a big one.”

Ash felt his lips stretch in a smile. It just seemed impossible for him not to do so when Eiji was smiling at him. “Thank you, then.” he said with mock gratitude. “I’ll remember it.”

Yut-Lung groaned and pulled impatiently on Eiji’s sleeve.

Eiji sighed and took a step back. “Well, see you in chemistry, Ash.”

“Yes, see you.”

Eiji turned away, entailing Yut-Lung with him. The Chinese thrown Ash a smug look from behind his shoulder, but Ash ignored him.

See you, Eiji had say, like it was something to look forward. And Ash was surely looking forward to it. The next chemistry class couldn’t come quickly enough.

All in all, maybe he was glad to have come to this party.

---

Ash stayed a while in the bathroom with a girl who was emptying her stomach into the toilet. He was probably the less qualified person to help her, but the girl had taken his arm while he was outside and said with the most serious voice that she was going to throw up here and there, and he had no choice but to take her to the bathroom.

The girl finally stopped vomiting. She stood up with difficulty and Ash helped her wash her face. The smell was returning his stomach. He then accompanied her to an empty room where she collapsed on a bed. As he was leaving, she took his arm with much more strength he would have thought she could gather, given the state she was in.

“Stay,” she said, tears in her voice. “Until I sleep.”

Fortunately, it didn’t take long, and she was soon snoring peacefully. As he stared at her falling asleep, her face concealed by her thick curly hair, Ash noticed that he didn’t even know her name and had no idea if he should be knowing who she was.

When Ash left the room, he saw two guys give him a thumb up, shit-eating grins on their faces. Ash was surprised that they would be that supportive of someone helping a girl out.

He finally got back to the party and found Shorter, slumped over the couch. He sat next to him.

“I’m leaving.” Ash said. Even he could hear how tired he sounded.

Shorter sighed. “Did you forget I drove you there?”

“Shit.” Yes, he did forget. It was better, thought. He shouldn’t have drunk these two whiskeys.

Shorter laughed. “Don’t worry, you want to leave, we leave, it’s as simple as that. Plus, I’m tired too.”

“Thanks man.”

“Anytime.” Shorter paused, then stared at him with a side smile. “I would have thought you would stay until Eiji got home, though.”

Ash was too worn out to pick up Shorter’s teasing. “He’s already gone. He helped Yut-Lung going home.”

Shorter grimaced. “That snake. Still, I saw Eiji not even two minutes ago. Maybe he got back after escorting the bitch home?”

Ash perked up at that. “Really? Where was he?”

“Going to the garden. He was all alone, too.” Shorter said in a sing-song voice.

“Alone?” What could Eiji be doing, alone in the garden? He didn’t smoke, and the smokers were gathered to the terrace, anyway. It was weird, but Ash couldn’t help but worry.

Maybe Eiji was feeling ill? After all, Ash had occupied the only bathroom for a while, so the other boy would have had no choice but to go outside.

Ash jumped to his feet. “I will go check on him.”

Shorter laughed. “Right. Go check on him, you gallant knight.”

Ash didn’t bother to respond, already out of the room.

---

What Ash saw in the garden made his blood still in his veins.

Eiji wasn’t alone.

He was with a tall guy, who had cornered him, circling him with his arms. Ash couldn’t see Eiji’s face because the guy was in the way, but the situation was pretty clear.

Apparently, Eiji wasn’t in need of any help. That should have been a relief. Who cared if he was making out with someone? Not Ash. Definitively not Ash.

Although for some reason, the sight of Eiji in the arms of this guy was making his nausea worse again, the vision making his stomach churn more efficiently than the vomit’s smell from the bathroom earlier.

Ash was turning away, heading back to the party as fast as he could, when he heard Eiji’s voice.

“Let go of me! I said I’m not interested.”

Eiji sounded angry, and on the edge of panicking. Ash turned back to see him trying to squirm out of the other teenager’s reach.

But the other wasn’t having it. “Come on! We’re drunk! It means nothing!”

He took Eiji’s face in his hands, forcing him to face him.

“Come on, it’s just a kiss…”

“No! Let-“

Ash was there in a heartbeat. He grabbed the guy by the collar and snatched him off Eiji.

“He said no, didn’t you heard him?” he asked, anger barely concealed behind his chilling tone.

Ash wasn’t taller than the guy, and he was also less athletic, but he knew he could make up for it with the tone of his voice and the right murderous expression. He didn’t have to force himself into acting, he was very much holding himself back from giving the guy a taste of his own medicine.

The teenager palled, and his hands rose up in a submissive plea, like Ash had put a gun to his head and he was begging him not to fire.

“Okay okay, I got it! S-sorry, I didn’t… I was drunk, please, Lynx, I’m sorry don’t-“

“I don’t care about your apologies. Get off my sight or I won’t be so kind as to let you go without a couple of broken teeth. And I better never hear about you forcing yourself on anyone ever again, or I will personally take care of you. You got it?”

The teenager nodded with energy. He looked close to pee his pants. When Ash let go off his collar, he ran away without a look back.

Ash thought distantly that he was letting the guy go too easily, but he had more urgent things to do than to care about him. What mattered was to check on Eiji. That asshole’s punishment wasn’t worth it.

Eiji was still standing with his back to the wall, shivering slightly. Ash approached him tentatively.

“Are you alright?”

The question seemed to shake Eiji off his haze.

“Y-yes, I’m fine.” he paused, staring at Ash with intensity. “Thank you.” he added.

“It’s nothing.”

Eiji shook his head. “Well, it isn’t nothing to me. I don’t know if I could have…” he hesitated. “How do you do it?”

“Do what?”

“You’re smaller than him, less strong physically… How did you manage to be… Impressive like that?”

Ash shrugged. “I’ve learned how to live into a world where it’s to eat or be eaten. I guess it’s coming naturally to me, by now.”

Eiji enlaced himself with his arms. He looked in need of comfort, and Ash had the sudden crave to take him in his arms. He didn’t act on it, though. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t even know how to comfort someone, and he barely knew Eiji… Surely, a contact from him would be unwanted.

“You knew that guy?” he asked instead.

“Hardly. He’s in our high school, though. He was playing truth and dare with us, earlier, remember?”

Ash nodded. Now that Eiji talked about it, he remembered seeing him in school. It explained that the teenager knew his name, and certainly his reputation, which must be why he looked so easily scared by him.

“Why where you alone with him, then?”

“I was here to make a phone call, I wanted to make sure Yut-Lung made it home safely…”

“You didn’t drive him back?”

“No, he had a car send for him.”

So, this Yut-Lung really was the kind of rich bastards who had cars send to them?

Eiji continued. “After you left the truth of dare game, that guy from earlier was dared to kiss me. I refused, but that didn’t please him too much, apparently. He was very drunk, too.”

“That doesn’t excuse it.”

“No, of course, it doesn’t. I always knew he was kind of a jerk.”

There was a silence and Eiji shivered again. He was only wearing a shirt and the night was chilly.

Without thinking twice about it, Ash removed his own jean jacket and put it over Eiji’s shoulders.

The Japanese gasped softly, surprised, and his cheeks colored with a faint pink.

“Oh… Thanks.”

Ash’s jacket was too big for Eiji, which was weirdly endearing. The sight of Eiji in his clothe made Ash’s own cheeks warm up in response.

He tried very hard to be casual about it. “You’re welcome.” he said, in lack of a better response. “Let’s said I’m paying you back for getting us rid of Yut-Lung, earlier.” he added, in a tentative to lighten Eiji’s mood.

The Japanese smiled softly, surely not blind as to Ash’s goal of making him feel better. “I didn’t think you would pay me back so fast. You were supposed to stay in my debt.”

“Oh, so this was part of a whole plan to make me owe you one?”

“Maybe.”

They shared a short laugh, and Ash was relieved to see Eiji was not too affected by what happened earlier.

Eiji tightened the denim jacket around his shoulders. His fingers played mindlessly with the buttons while they headed inside the house.

“I’m… I’m going to head home.” said Eiji suddenly, voice unsure.

“Did you drove here? Alone?”

Eiji nodded. Ash didn’t like the idea of Eiji going back alone, without anyone to make sure he made it back safely. But he understood Eiji was eager to return to his home, where his family could surely give him the comfort Ash couldn’t.

He escorted Eiji to his car. He had nothing intelligent to say.

“Hum, be careful, alright?”

Eiji chuckled, but it felt forced. “I will. I live not far from here anyway. Plus, the only thing I drank was a small shot, hours ago.”

Eiji fumbled into his pocket to retrieve his car’s keys. He was driving an old familial car and Ash wondered if it was his own, or if it was the family’s only car.

It was weird to be worried when Eiji was just going to drive to his house, so it wasn’t like there was any danger… But Ash couldn’t help it. He knew he would be restless until he was sure Eiji was alright, but he would have no way of knowing…

The wait for the next school day would be long.

Ash was looking at Eiji’s car driving away into the night when an abrupt sneeze shook his entire body. He sniffed, noticing the cold for the first time.

Eiji had forgotten to give him his jacket back before getting into his car. A small smile found his way to Ash’s lips. He didn’t mind in the slightest.

Shorter got out of the house to join him, and started laughing his ass off when Ash admitted to him the reason he had lost his jacket. He then proceeded to tease him mercilessly about how he was going to freeze to death on the back of Shorter’s motorbike.

And still, Ash couldn’t bring himself to mind.

Chapter Text

Chemistry really was the best part of the week. Being paired with Eiji was a lot of fun. The Japanese was downright hilarious at times and Ash was feeling himself totally relaxed when he was by his side.

They were more fooling around than listening to the teacher by now. But it was alright, Ash would explain everything he made Eiji miss in far simpler terms than the teacher anyway. 

They hadn’t talked back of the party. Neither the dare nor the attempted assault was ever mentioned by them.

“Ash, were you listening?”

Ash busted out of his bubble upon hearing Eiji’s voice.

“I wasn’t. What did you say?”

Eiji chuckled. “I haven’t said anything, but the teacher gave us an assignment for next week. I was thinking we could work on it together, if you want?”

Ash felt his lips stretch into an easy smile. He would like to have chemistry assignments every day if it meant spend more time with Eiji.

“Sure, I don’t mind.” he replied, keeping his tone even.

“Great!” The Japanese smiled widely. “We could do it this weekend? Where do you want to meet?”

Ash thought of his options. He didn’t want to invite Eiji to his apartment. The Japanese would only need one glance around the place to see how empty Ash’s life was. He couldn’t invite him to Max and Jessica’s house either, or he would never hear the end of it.

“We could go to the public library? They have space for working.”

“Perfect! Is it okay if we meet there Saturday morning? I have training in the afternoon.”

“Works for me.”

Eiji nodded thoughtfully before adding. “I won’t have the time to go home and eat before going to training. Maybe we could eat something quick when we’re done with the assignment?”

Was Eiji casually proposing they ate together Saturday? Ash’s heart made a flip in his chest.

“Good idea. There’s a hot-dog’s truck in front of the library.”

“Great! It’s settled, then.” 

Ash pretended to focus back on taking notes to hide his grin from Eiji. Saturday couldn’t come fast enough.

---

Ash was walking to the school’s exit when a tall teenager suddenly passed an arm around his shoulders. Shorter was only able to act like this without giving Ash a heart attack because Ash always recognized his characteristic way of walking long before the Chinese could surprise him.

“Hey, Ash! Could you come to help me at Chang Dai this Saturday? We’re receiving a new grill and we will need help to install it.”

Ash hesitated slightly. “Is it okay if I come in the afternoon?”

“Yes, yes, it’s perfect! Thanks man!”

Ash smiled, relieved he didn’t have to cancel his working session with Eiji. “No problem.”

Shorter frowned suddenly. “Wait a minute… Are you busy Saturday morning?” he asked, tone circumspect.

“If you must know, yes, I am. I’m working with Eiji at the library on our chemistry assignment, and then we’re eating together.” He had tried to keep his tone light and detached, but it sounded a bit like he was bragging. And maybe he was. 

Shorter grinned and bumped his fist on Ash’s arm. “Wow! A date with Eiji? I never expected you to be this fast!”

 Ash couldn’t fight the blush rising on his cheeks. “Shhh, don’t talk so loudly! And it’s not a date, I told you we are working!” he hissed, shaking the tall Chinese off his shoulders.

Shorter only shrugged casually and put his hands in his pockets. “I know, I was only teasing! Damn, you’re a dumbass when it comes to Eiji, always so quick to react!”

Ash blushed some more. “Shut up, you’re not funny.”

“Well, even if it’s not a date, it’s still great! Where are you going to eat? Hey, why not coming to Chang Dai?”

Ash shook his head in negation. “It’s too far, Eiji needs to eat something quick, he has a thing in the afternoon. There’s a hot-dog’s stand near the library, I thought it could be a good place to eat.”

“Oh, alright, good.” Shorter said, not enthusiastic enough for Ash’s liking.

Was it really good? Ash started second guessing his choice. Eiji had said he didn’t have much time to eat, but hasn’t Ash been too quick to propose something as lame as hot-dogs? Yes, it was fast food, but wasn’t it too fast? What if Eiji had expected something better?

“I wonder if Eiji even likes hot-dog. Do you think I should take him to eat sushi or whatever instead?”

Before Shorter could open his mouth, a voice came from behind their backs and answered Ash’s question.

“He does like hot-dogs. Except when the mustard is too strong. Although he definitively prefers sushi over hot-dog any day.”

Ash turned back, and his eyes met… nothing. He had to lower his gaze to meet the eyes of the small Asian standing in front of him, a devious grin on his lips.

“Who are you?”

The little guy blushed slightly and put his hands on his hips, staring at him with a defiant look.

“I’m Sing Soo-Ling.” he said, loud and strong, like it was an evidence and Ash should already be knowing about him.

While Ash was looking down at Sing, trying to remember if he had already met him, Shorter let out a short laugh and stepped to Sing’s side, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“Ash, this is Sing. He’s a friend, and a really smart guy.”

Sing blushed harder, and he puffed his chest proudly, like he hoped to make up for the wide height difference between him and Shorter by standing as tall as possible.

Shorter then gestured to Ash. “And Sing, this is Ash. Also a friend and also a really smart guy.”

Ash nodded at him. He didn’t specially care about meeting this young Chinese, but he had caught his attention.

“And how do you know Eiji so well?” he asked, curious.

“He’s a friend of mine.” Sing replied, looking possibly even prouder with himself.

Eiji’s friends really came in all shapes and sizes.

“I see. Well, thanks for your input, I guess.” Ash said flatly.

Sing grinned. “Anytime!”

Then, the little Chinese paused, narrowing his eyes in thought. “Wait a minute… Were you talking about taking Eiji on a date?”

It was Ash’s turn to blush. “No. I wasn’t.” he deflected, a little too forcefully to be convincing. Damn, maybe Shorter was right, maybe Ash did lose his composure whenever Eiji was mentioned.

He glared at Shorter as the older Chinese burst into laughter, which just confirmed to Ash that he didn’t seem as put together as he tried to appear.

“Eiji is just… My lab’s partner. We are going out this weekend to work at the library, nothing more.”

There, this was better. Keeping his voice even, passionless. He could do it.

Sing looked relieved for a reason Ash couldn’t understand. The young Chinese smiled. “Taking Eiji eating hot-dogs would be a lame date, anyway.”

Ash quirked a brow. “Really? And what do you think would make a good date, since you seem to be such an Eiji expert?”

As expected, Sing was too pleased to be given the opportunity to boast about his knowledge of Eiji’s tastes to notice it was a weird question to ask for someone who wasn’t interested into taking Eiji on a date.

“Well, for starter, like I said, Eiji prefers Asian food over the crap you white people eat. And he’s an athlete, you see. McDonald and that sort of shit is out of the question, he favors healthy food. And I would take him somewhere nice, where he could take good pictures and…”

Sing stopped himself abruptly, his cheeks bright red.

Ash tried to contain his amusement. “Oh. I see you already have thought long and hard about it.”

He hadn’t thought Sing could blush anymore than he already was, but he exceeded his expectations.

“I- It’s not… I- Eiji is my friend! I know him well, it’s all!”

“Right.”

It was clear as day Sing had a crush on Eiji. It wasn’t unexpected, Ash wouldn’t be surprised if Eiji had many secret admirers.

Sing’s infatuation was mostly endearing. It wasn’t like Ash felt threatened by this small and energetic Asian.

Ash smiled deviously. “Well, thanks for the tips, Sing.” he said, turning hills to leave him at that.

In his back, he heard Sing call for him. “W-Wait! So, you were serious about taking Eiji on a date? Or are you joking? Ash!”

Shorter patted Sing’s shoulder sympathetically, and Ash heard him invite Sing to Chang Dai after school. Ash wondered distantly if inviting people to Chang Dai was Shorter’s way of providing emotional support.

---

Ash made a point of being in front of the library right on time. He was even a little early. Too bad Eiji was already there, waiting for him.

Eiji didn’t notice him approaching. He was busy pointing a camera in the other direction, a look of intense focus on his face.

Ash remembered Sing mentioning that he would take Eiji somewhere he could take pictures, if he was the one to take him on a date. Did it mean Eiji was into photography?

Ash was not even one foot away from Eiji, but still the Japanese was totally unaware of his presence. This kind of careless attitude was characteristic of people who never had to look behind their shoulder with dread and apprehension. Eiji surely didn’t know what kind of luck he had. Ash hopped it would forever stay that way for him.

He leaned over his shoulder until his mouth was near Eiji’s ear.

“Eiji?”

The Japanese jumped out of his skin and let out a surprised gasp.

“Ash??”

Ash tried to contain his laugh before Eiji’s bewildered expression.

“Did I scare you?” he asked, eyebrows arched in his most innocent expression.

Eiji frowned. “You surprised me. I didn’t hear you come at all.”

“You should be more careful of your surroundings. Anything could happen.”

Eiji arched a doubtful eyebrow. “Anything? Like what?”

“I don’t know. Anything.” Ash repeated.

Eiji didn’t seem convinced. “Right. Like a dumb American trying to surprise me?”

Ash rolled his eyes. There was no reasoning Eiji apparently. “I did not just try, I succeeded. Your words.”

Eiji puffed his cheeks, his mouth stretching into a little pout. Before the Japanese could come up with a retort, Ash changed the subject.

“I hope I didn’t ruin the picture you were taking.”

This was the right call apparently, because Eiji smiled, annoyance easily forgotten.

“No, I took it just before! I think I got it good. I was trying to catch this dove flying. You want to see?”

Eiji showed him the picture on his camera. Ash didn’t know anything about photography, but he still liked the cliché. Although he might be slightly biased with everything related to Eiji in general.

“It’s good. I didn’t know you were interested in photography.”

Eiji shrugged. “It’s quite a new interest, I’m only an amateur. You know how a photographer came to the school to take pictures of me?”

Ash acquiesced. “Your face is on all the walls of the school, it would be hard to ignore it.”

Not that Ash minded very much, of course.

Eiji’s cheeks colored with a faint pink. “Right. Hum, so, the photographer was a Japanese, like me. We stayed in contact and he introduced me to photography. We meet up from time to time.”

They entered the library while Eiji talked about how good of a photographer this Ibesan was, and how the man had been recently working as a photojournalist in the city.  

As they sat, Eiji looked around himself.

“Do you come here often?” he asked, opening his bag to take his notebook.

Ash nearly made a joke about how lame of a picking line that was. Nearly. Eiji was obviously not flirting with him, and to emphasize that fact was unnecessary.

“I do. I like it here, I come every weekend.”

Eiji stared at him silently and Ash wondered what he could possibly be thinking about.

Then, a wide smile split the Japanese’s face. “So, at school you spend your free time at the library, and on weekends you do the same? Isn’t it boring?”

Ash huffed. “How could acquiring knowledge be boring?” he replied, vexed.

Ash’s offended pout only made Eiji broke into a delighted laugh.

“Ah, you really are a nerd.” the Japanese managed to say while still laughing, wiping off his eye a little tear provoked by his hilarity.

Ash blinked, surprised. He had been called many names in his life, but never a nerd. His perplexed expression just made Eiji laugh some more, and Ash realized he would gladly let Eiji call him a nerd every day of his life if that made him happy.

They worked on the assignment first to be done with it. Since it was easier than they had thought it would be, they finished quickly. They then decided to work over their assignments for their other classes. They worked in companionable silence until it was 12 o’clock.

“Well, I’m done with everything, what about you?”

“Same. You want to go eat?”

They left the library and Ash hesitated slightly before turning to Eiji.

“Hum, do you like hot-dogs? There are other places we could go to eat if it’s not-“

“It’s fine, I like hot-dogs. I don’t have much time left anyway.”

Ash ignored the pang in his chest at the words. The morning had passed so fast, he would have liked more time with Eiji.

“Right.”

They purchased their food and came to sit on the library’s stairs. The weather was soft and sunny and being out was a nice change after they had spent their morning in the library.  

Ash couldn’t help but admire from the corner of his eyes the way the cloudless sky reflected in Eiji’s dark irises, his face gently bathed by the sun.

Talking with Eiji was so easy. The Japanese spoke with animation and his energy and humor transformed the most banal topic into a delightful conversation. He had this way of listening heartily when Ash talked, his eyes staring at him with this earnest interest that made Ash feel like he was someone important, someone who mattered.

“While I was waiting for you this morning, I thought that it was inconvenient that we haven’t exchanged our phone numbers, don’t you think?”

Ash nearly strangled on his hot-dog.

“You want us to exchange numbers?”

Eiji didn’t seem to notice his trouble. “Yes, if it’s alright with you. It will be easier when we will have to meet up again, or to talk about chemistry, that kind of things…”

Ash smiled. Even if it was just to work, Eiji was mentioning meeting up again, so he had surely enjoyed the morning enough.

Eiji’s number rejoined the very limited list of contacts in Ash’s phone, with Shorter’s, Nadia’s, Max’s, Jessica’s, Kong’s, and two policemen he had been in contact with when he was younger, Charlie and Jenkins. The phone was a gift from Max, and Ash mostly used it to call him, read newspaper’s articles and to text Shorter.

Eiji smiled at his own phone’s screen.

“Look Ash, you’re now the first on my contact’s list! It’s classed in alphabetic order.”

It was barely an accomplishment, but Ash had never been happier to have chosen an alias starting with the letter A, like his real name.

Eiji pocketed his phone.

“Well, thank you for this morning, Ash. It’s funnier to work with you than alone in my bedroom. And easier, too. I knew you would be a good tutor.”

Ash smiled, his heart threatening to leave his chest as it was beating so strongly. Eiji had say being with him was fun?

“Hum, I see you were quick to use my tutoring skills for free, weren’t you?”

Ash was joking, but Eiji’s eyes widened. “Oh. I didn’t mean... I mean-“

Ash raised a hand to stop him. “I was joking. I enjoyed working with you too.”

Eiji smiled at him, and it was the most beautiful smile Ash had ever witnessed.

“I still haven’t thanked you for helping Kong out like that. He said you’re a great teacher. In fact, he only told me compliments about you, you know.”

Ash did his best not to blush, mentally thanking Kong for praising him like that to Eiji.

“No problem. I like tutoring him, it’s not a bother.”

Eiji got on his feet. “Well, I’m glad, then. I really have to go now, see you on Monday, Ash!”

Ash waved after him, troubled. They weren’t having chemistry on Monday. What did Eiji meant by that?

---

It turned out Eiji had probably meant nothing by that, and Ash was a fool to have looked up all weekend for Monday.

He didn’t even cross ways with Eiji that day, didn’t even see him. At the end of the day, Ash’s mood was at his darkest.

Shorter was obviously trying very hard to distract him, by being his most annoying self, but it was just irritating him more.

Shorter gave up when they left the school side by side.

“Ash, I don’t like to leave you when you’re like that. What is it? Is it a Bad Ash Day or is it something else? Did something happen?”

Ash groaned. He was touched by Shorter’s concern, but the reason of his bad mood was so incredibly dumb, he really didn’t want to talk about it.

“It’s nothing.”

Shorter wasn’t convinced. “You were in such a good mood Saturday! It’s obvious something’s bothering you now.”

“I told you, it’s nothing important. Really, you don’t have to worry about me, I will get over it.”

“Alright… If you want to talk about it, I’m here okay?”

Ash sighed. “Gosh, you’re such a good friend. It’s so annoying.”

A large grin bloomed on Shorter’s face. “Aw Ash, I’m touched.”

“Shut up, I said it was annoying.”

Shorter stopped abruptly. “Hey, I know what could cheer you up! There’s a party at Cain’s next Friday, come with me!”

“I fail to see how this could cheer me up. I don’t even like parties.”

“That’s because you’ve only been to one! And it was a lame party! Cain’s are different, they’re great and rare, you can’t miss one!”

Ash raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t even know Cain hosted parties.”

Cain Blood was one of the rare person Ash respected at school. He didn’t seem like the kind to throw parties. Ash had only talked with him a couple of time, but it had left him a good impression.

“Oh, and I forgot the best part! Eiji will be there too…” Shorter said, wiggling his eyebrows at Ash with an irritating dumb smile on his face.

“And so what? I don’t care.”

Shorter gasped. “You’re kidding! Don’t think you can play it like that with me Ash! I know you too well for that.”

Ash rolled his eyes. “Am I even invited to this party?” he asked, eager to change the subject.

“In fact, yes, you are. I asked Cain. He even said you were a great guy, I didn’t know you guys knew each other.”

“I wouldn’t say we know each other…”

Shorter was still looking at Ash with expectant eyes. Ash sighed, defeated. “Alright, I will think about it.”

His answer seemed to please Shorter enough. “Great! See you tomorrow, Ash!”

 

On Tuesday, Ash finally saw Eiji. But Eiji didn’t notice him.  

In fact, Ash had kind of searched for him. Maybe Eiji wasn’t feeling well? Maybe he wasn’t even at school?

But no, Eiji was fine. Ash would have wanted to crush the feeling of relief that overwhelmed him at the sight.

Yes, Eiji was alright. But he didn’t search for Ash that day either.

Ash knew he was being unfair. Eiji had probably said “See you on Monday,” by mechanism, because it was the normal thing to say when you were students to the same school.

But it made Ash realize something he should already be knowing. There was no way him and Eiji could become close.

Yes, Eiji could invite Ash to work during the weekend. Yes, he could stare at him with his gentle eyes, with this smile that made Ash’s heart beat faster. Yes, they could exchange numbers.

But still, they were only lab’s partners.

Eiji had a ton of friends. His pole-vaulting team. That kid Sing something.  Kong, and these two guys he was always with; Bones and Alex. That bitch Yut-Lung. And surely many others.

Ash didn’t fit into any of that. And it was better for Eiji if he didn’t.

 

Wednesday was a day with chemistry.

Ash came in late. That shouldn’t have been out of the ordinary, since Ash was usually late to all his classes. But since the beginning of the year, he hadn’t been late to chemistry even once. He was always too eager to see Eiji.

This day though, the class had already begun when he entered. He took his place beside Eiji without a word, careful not to look at him.

“Hi Ash.” Eiji whispered. “How are you?”

Ash didn’t turn to him. “Fine.” he answered, tone colder than he had meant to.

Eiji said nothing more. They spent the course in silence. Ash could feel Eiji eyeing him, his incredibility only growing with each passing minute.

When the bell rang, Ash jumped to his feet.

“Wait, Ash!”

This time, Ash turned to Eiji. He didn’t like the alarm in his voice.

Eiji was staring at him with a concerned expression, hesitating what to say now that he had Ash’s attention on him.

“Ash… Are you alright?” he asked, and Ash’s heart tightened when he heard how genuinely Eiji seemed to care about his answer.

“I’m fine.” he repeated stubbornly.

Eiji furrowed his brow. “You’re obviously not fine. You don’t have to talk to me but-“

“You’re right. I don’t.”

And he turned away to walk out of the class.

But Eiji stopped him with a light hand on his arm.

“Ash! Are you…” realization downed on him, his mouth opening in a small o. “Are you upset with me?”

Ash opened his mouth to protest, but Eiji beat him to it.

“Did I do something? I don’t understand…”

Ash gritted his teeth. Eiji seemed truly pained, and it was his damn fault. Ash wasn’t upset with Eiji, not really. Eiji had done nothing wrong. No, he was angry with himself, for being a fool who expected too much of Eiji, who couldn’t contempt himself with the crumbs Eiji could only give him.

Ash had been… hurt, when he had realized Eiji didn’t care about him like Ash did and that he would never. He should have expected it. Eiji had always been too good for him, he knew it from the start. And still, he couldn’t help but hope…

But no, Eiji and him were just lab’s partners. Friendly acquaintance at best. And it was better for Eiji if it stayed that way, so why couldn’t Ash just let go?

“No, it doesn’t concern you. I’m just tired today, that’s all.”

It was obvious Eiji didn’t believe him one second.

“Are you sure? Because if it’s something I did, I don’t know what it could be but I’m sorry I-“

Why did Eiji even seem to care? What was he apologizing for? Why couldn’t he just ignore Ash and continue with his perfect life? It would be easier for them both! The last thing Ash wanted was for Eiji to feel guilty when he had done absolutely nothing wrong.

“Dammit, Eiji, I said it had nothing to do with you! So, stop pestering me, alright?”

The words burnt his mouth, bile raising up in his stomach in protest.

Eiji’s eyes widened and Ash’s heart broke at his expression. He didn’t want to hurt Eiji. But he needed to end things before it was too late for him. He couldn’t get attached with someone who didn’t care enough.

He took his arm back from Eiji’s grips and stormed out of the room, without a glance to the students eying them.

---

Eiji was left totally dumbfounded by Ash’s departure.

He was totally clueless about what could have triggered Ash’s sudden change of attitude.

Ash had never been so cold with him, even right at the beginning.

Eiji was forced to admit that Ash was still an enigma. On one hand, there was this cold, distant Ash that the whole school seemed to fear and avoid at all costs. But on the other hand… there was the Ash who laughed with him, the one who blushed and pouted when Eiji teased him.

Eiji had been convinced they were slowly becoming friends. Ash had accepted so easily seeing him on the weekend, and then even exchanging numbers… Eiji had thought he enjoyed his company as much as Eiji was…

“Gosh, what an asshole! Are you alright, Eiji?”

Eiji emerged from his stupor. Several students were looking at him with concern.

“I’m fine.” his words echoed Ash’s own from earlier in a twisted way.

Eiji was convinced Ash was far from fine.

He left the classroom and the worried students. He had no need of being comforted. Ash was the one in need of solace, Eiji just didn’t understand yet why.

Well, Eiji wasn’t one to be put down by some harsh words. It was obvious he was part of Ash’s trouble, and he wouldn’t let Ash avoid him that easily.

 

 Eiji found Shorter faster than he had thought he would. He didn’t care that Shorter was talking with a group of students, he came right to him.

“Shorter. Can I talk to you for a second?”

Shorter must have seen how serious he was, because he nodded and followed Eiji to a less crowded place.

“What is it, Eiji?”

Eiji took a deep breath. “Ash is upset. I think it’s my fault in a way, but he won’t talk to me.”

Shorter raised his eyebrows, surprised. “He refuses to talk to you?”

“Yes. I don’t know if I should leave him alone, like he kind of asked me to do, or go talk to him. He really seemed distressed, I’m worried about him.”

Shorter stayed silent a while. “You know what I think? Go talk to him. Ash can be too stubborn for his own good. If you care about him, you can’t let him push you away, or he will disappear out of your reach.”

Eiji nodded, decided. “Alright, thank you, Shorter!”

He was already rushing to the library. He knew Ash would be there.

 

Sure enough, Ash was in the library. At the same place Eiji had seen him that day he had come to ask him to tutor Kong.

Ash looked possibly even more lonely than that day. Bent over a book, he was reading with his eyebrows furrowed, mouth pressed in a tight line. His blond hair was disheveled, like it had been messed up by agitated hands. Eiji felt his heart tighten at the sight.

He made up his mind. From that day on, he wouldn’t let Ash be so alone anymore. If Ash let him, Eiji would be there for him.

Determined, Eiji walked to Ash’s table and went to sit across from him. Ash didn’t raise his gaze from his book, but Eiji could see him tense up slightly.

“You ignored me too, that day, when I first came here to talk to you.”

Ash’s head rose up, his green eyes shining fiercely.

“That still didn’t stop you, that day.”

Eiji smiled. “It won’t stop me today either.”

Ash huffed, adverting his gaze, cheeks hollowed. “Why do you even care? How much of an asshole do I have to be for you to leave me alone?”

“Do you want me to leave you alone?”

Ash didn’t respond, his lips stretching into a childish pout.

His absence of an answer encouraged Eiji. “Because personally, I don’t feel like leaving you alone. But every time I feel like we get closer, you run away from me. So, if you want me to leave you, tell it to me clearly, and I will.”

Ash stared at him silently, and Eii could feel his hesitation. He wondered what was holding Ash back.

“You shouldn’t get too close to me, Eiji. I will only bring you troubles.”

Eiji frowned. “I don’t care about that. I care about whether you want me to leave you alone… or not.”

Ash sighed, long and slow, his gaze glued on the book in front of him, and Eiji could see the tension leaving his body, his shoulder relaxing slightly.

“I guess it can’t be helped, then.” he murmured.

Then, he stared back at Eiji, a defiant smile stretching his lips. 

 “You’re weird, you know? You really shouldn’t be wanting to spend your time with me. Every other student understood it.”

Eiji smiled in response. “Well, maybe I’m not like every other student.”

Ash’s smile turned softer. “No, maybe you’re not.” he said, so low Eiji wondered if he hadn’t dreamed it.

“I want to get to know you better, Ash. I like spending time with you, and I thought you did too.”

“Of course, I do too.” Ash grumbled, his cheeks turning slightly red. “It’s just… There are many things you still don’t know about me… I thought maybe you had an idea of it, since the whole damn school seems to know but…”

“I don’t care about what people say.”

“You should. Not all of it is false, you know.” Ash looked at him with defiance, like he expected Eiji to turn hills at the admission.

Eiji held his gaze. “Well, I don’t care about what is true and what isn’t. It’s all in the past. I like spending time with the person you are now. And I will not take it into account until you are comfortable enough to tell me yourself.”

Ash frowned. “Then I will. I will tell you everything. You deserve to know who I really am before making up your mind about me.” Ash hesitated slightly before adding. “But not now. Not here.”

Eiji smiled. “Is it the moment you reveal me you are a vampire?”

Ash stared at him with wide eyes, his mouth agape. Then, he busted into laughter. Eiji joined him, and maybe they sounded a little hysterical, but he didn’t care. He was finally feeling like the last of Ash’s walls had fallen.

The librarian threw them out of the library, shouting that they were too loud and that she would banish them forever if they weren’t careful next time.

Eiji didn’t care much, but Ash turned pale and excused themselves sheepishly. Eiji had really troubles understanding what he could like so much about spending his time alone here, but the perspective of being banned from the library was clearly frightening him.

Eiji felt lighter. When they left the library side by side, the look Ash gave him was undeniably soft, and it made Eiji feel all dizzy inside. He didn’t know why his heart was beating so strongly in his chest, but he liked the sensation very much. 

Chapter Text

“Aw, this commercial is so cute.”

Eiji was supposed to be showing Ash a pole-vaulting video on his phone after Ash had admitted having no knowledge of Renaud Lavillenie, the current world record holder; but the Japanese had been distracted by the chocolate’s advertising playing before the video. Hence why they were still standing in the schoolyard instead of heading to the school’s exit.

“It’s a commercial, Eiji. Its only purpose is to make you want to buy their chocolates.”

Eiji smiled, not put off by Ash’s stern tone of voice. “Well, maybe it’s working.” he replied playfully.

Ash rolled his eyes with exasperation. “I can’t believe you.”

“What? It’s cute! Admit it!”

Ash gave Eiji a long look. You’re cute, he wanted to say. How could Eiji look so excited about a dumb ad? It was ridiculous, and yet, the Japanese was adorable with his shining eyes and pink cheeks.

Instead of making a fool of himself, Ash quirked a brow. “Right. I’m sure the publicists in charge to come up with an ad to appeal to your soft heart were very cute, too.”

Eiji huffed. “You know what? You’re a fun wrecker. And if I do buy chocolates, you will get none!”

“Fine by me.”

Ash shrugged casually, but he couldn’t help the smile that stretched his lips when Eiji glared at him, his plump lips forming a little pout.

“Ash Lynx?”

Ash turned back to answer the voice coming from behind him, smile still in place.

He wasn’t prepared for the punch in the face he received.

“Ash!”

Ash didn’t waste any time checking his cheek, where the fist had hit him violently. He faced the person who had thrown it, stepping up so he was fully in front of Eiji, shielding him from the unidentified aggressor.

In front of him was a teenager Ash recognized as one of the football players. His face was distorted by anger, his teeth uncovered in a snarl. But what caught Ash’s attention was that he was still into a fighting posture, his two fists tight in front of him, ready to hit again.

“That’s all you deserve, you whore!”

The footballer raised his right fist to hit again, but this time, Ash was ready. He avoided it easily and blocked his opponent’s arm. The man groaned, more in rage than pain, and pushed forward to make Ash lose his balance.

Fortunately, Ash was faster. He stepped aside and used his adversary’s own weight to throw him off his feet.

As the footballer fell on the concrete, Ash thought that it was over, but the other teenager stood up immediately. As he was charging Ash once more, someone interposed themselves between them.

“Dylan! That’s enough!”

The football player stopped himself, freezing. Eiji was now standing between the two of them, back to Ash, hands raised defensively.

Ash’s blood froze into his veins at the sight. Before he could do anything to snatch Eiji away, Dylan took a step back. However, his eyes stayed on Ash, burning fiercely.

“Step back Okumura. It doesn’t concern you.”

“Eiji, what are you doing? Step back!”

Ash and his opponent had talked nearly in concert. But Eiji stayed stubbornly still.

“What the fuck, Dylan?” he asked “Why are-“

Eiji was interrupted by the footballer. “It’s none of your business, Okumura. I don’t want no trouble with you, so step back and let me finish him.”

Ash very much agreed with Dylan that Eiji needed to step far away from this, but he knew the Japanese was obstinate. The footballer seemed to only want to fight Ash, but seeing the state of anger he was in, Ash feared he would lose it and hurt Eiji if the Japanese insisted again.

“I don’t even now what you want from me.” Ash said to the footballer, hoping he could distract him from Eiji, and maybe even reason him.

Unfortunately, Ash’s intervention made the athlete lose all the control he had on himself since Eiji had stepped in. Ash saw the look on his face and yanked Eiji away. Deaf to his protests, he placed himself once more between Dylan and the Japanese.

The footballer profited from Ash’s distraction to catch him by his shirt.

“Don’t pretend you don’t know!” he yelled, mouth too close to Ash’s face for his comfort. “The whole school knows!”

“And still, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” he replied, voice awfully calm.

Alerted by the noises, students had begun to assemble in circle around them. From the corner of his eyes, Ash saw several members from the pole vault team walk to them.

“What is going on here? Are you alright Eiji?” asked one of them as they stepped close to the Japanese.

“It’s Dylan,” he replied. “he became crazy and attacked us.”

As the pole vaulters were turning to Dylan with a bad look on their faces, the footballer let go of Ash’s shirt and took a step back.

“Fuck! It’s none of your business! I just want to give this asshole what he deserves!” he yelled again, pointing an angry finger at Ash.

An air of recognition passed on the pole vaulters’ faces when they looked at Ash.

“Oh. I get it, now.” whispered one of them.

Ash furrowed his brow. Dylan had said Ash should know the reason of his anger, because the whole school was aware of it. Apparently, the pole vaulters seemed to know what the footballer was referring to.

The tallest of the pole vaulters stood in front of Eiji while the others discreetly aligned by his side.

“Look,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest. “We don’t care about what you do to the Lynx. But lay a finger on Eiji here and consider yourself dead, we’re clear?”

Dylan nodded. “You know I only got a problem with Ash Lynx. I don’t want trouble with y’all. Okumura interposed himself, that’s all.”

Meanwhile, behind the wall of pole vaulters, Eiji made a strangled noise. “What do you mean you don’t care about Ash? I do!” he protested.

Ash’s mind was going fast. He needed to find a way out. He could have easily fought with Dylan and settled whatever the hell he reproached him, but Eiji’s presence was making everything more complicated. An open war between the pole vaulters and the footballers was better to avoid, and every person involved here knew it well, which explained Dylan hadn’t jumped back on Ash and the pole vaulters had only threatened verbally the footballer.

The worse that could happen would be for the football team to bring themselves there. The crowd around them was beginning to grow and words traveled fast around school.

Fortunately, the next persons to make their way to the center of the circle weren’t the footballers, but two teachers. Ash had never been so relieved to see them.

They asked for answers on what was going on here, and Dylan began to reply that no, there wasn’t any problem, they were all just talking nicely and everything and couldn’t be unjustly accused of anything.

But Ash needed to leave, as the mark on his face was the only thing betraying the earlier fight. Dylan wasn’t worth getting troubles over.

He sneaked to Eiji while everyone was busy lying to the teachers and gestured to him to follow him.

They left the crowd discreetly and entered the school building.

There, Ash could let out the breath he was holding. He turned to his friend.

“Eiji, are you alright?”

Eiji stared at him with incredibility before puffing his cheeks in annoyance.

“Of course, I’m alright! I should be the one asking you that!”

Ash only shrugged. “I’m fine. It’s nothing.”

Eiji glared at him, brow furrowed. Then, he took his arm and entailed Ash with him in the corridor.

“You’re not fine, and we’re going to the infirmary.” he said, in a voice that let Ash know he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Ash sighed, but he still followed Eiji. Now that the adrenaline of the fight had decreased, his wounded cheek was beginning to burn.

The infirmary was closed. Eiji took a key out of his bag and opened the door. Entering the empty room, he ordered Ash to sit down on the bed and turned away to open a cabinet. He seemed very used to the place, and Ash couldn’t help but to do exactly as Eiji said.

“What are you doing? Shouldn’t we wait for the nurse? How do you even have the keys to this place?”

Eiji shook his head. “The nurse has probably already finished her work day, we would wait for nothing. I’m in charge of taking care of the first aid kit for the pole vault club, so we don’t have to come all the way to the infirmary every time we scratch ourselves.”

Turning his head to face him, Eiji smiled faintly. “The nurse lent me a spare key once, and she never asked it back. I think she forgot about it.”

Ash darted a brow. “So, you just… kept it? I never would have thought you were a bad boy, Eiji Okumura.”

Eiji’s smile widened, but it was still not quite reaching his eyes. “Look who’s talking. I’m not the one with the cheek ablaze.”

Ash shrugged. “You got a point.”

He stayed silent as Eiji continued to search in the closet for what he needed.

“You shouldn’t have tried to interfere.”

Ash knew he was asking for troubles by saying that, but he couldn’t help himself.

Eiji closed the door of the cabinet, frowning. “And what did you want me to do? Leave you there get your ass handed?”

“Yes, exactly.”

Eiji groaned and turned back to face Ash. “As if I could do that!” he shouted, exasperated.

Ash studied him silently. Eiji’s eyebrows were knitted together and his voice was strained, but he seemed more worried than angry. The American adverted his gaze, his heart heavy in his chest.  

Eiji put some medical furniture on the table. “What did Dylan even want with you?” he continued as Ash wasn’t replying.  

Ash stared back at him. “Would you believe me if I said I have no idea?” he asked, and he sounded more defiant than he had intended to be.

Eiji softened visibly. “Of course.” he responded, his shoulders relaxing slightly.

“I don’t think I ever talked to the guy. I have no idea what he was talking about.”

Eiji nodded absently, taking a gauze pad out from its warping.

“See, I told you I would only bring you troubles.” Ash continued, looking down at his hands in his lap.

Eiji opened his mouth once, frowning, before closing it shut. He sighed, long and slow.

“You didn’t bring me troubles,” he protested. “You’re the one who got hurt. And it’s not even your fault! It’s Dylan who became crazy!”

Ash let out a depreciative laugh. “I don’t know why he did that, but he seemed to think I deserved it.”

“Ash! If you don’t even know why he was angry with you, it’s obviously him who is in the wrong! And whatever was his reason, his reaction was wrong anyway!”

Ash shrugged. There was no need to dwell more on it when he didn’t even know what the footballer reproached him.

“Maybe you’re right…” he said, more to put Eiji at ease than anything. But the Japanese’s frown deepened, he clearly wasn’t convinced by Ash’s easy agreement.

Eiji stepped closer to him. “Show me your cheek.” he commanded.

Ash smiled and tilted his head slightly to Eiji. The Japanese could be quite bossy when he was mad. A little like Ash imagined a mom would act, or maybe a big brother.

Ash’s heart tightened when he thought of his own brother, and on how he would tent his wounds after Ash had fallen on his knees or fought with a kid from the neighborhood, when he was a child.

Griffin had always been tender when treating him, so much that it gave Ash the impression of being made of paper. Ash remembered precisely the moment when Griffin had told him he was leaving for the army. He remembered having trouble picturing Griffin’s soft hands around the handle of a lethal weapon.

His thoughts were abruptly stopped when Eiji applied something cold on his cheek, making the skin burn.

Taken by surprise, Ash let out a groan. “Ouch!”

Eiji took his hand off Ash’s cheek. “Oops, sorry. Did that hurt?” he asked, surprised. “You were bleeding, I need to disinfect the wound. I use this product on myself, it’s not that bad.”

Did that hurt?” Ash repeated, annoyed. “Of course, it does! Look, maybe you athletes have though skin, but I am very sensitive, okay? When some klutz manhandles my wound, yes it hurts a lot!”

Eiji stared at him with mild annoyance, brows furrowed. Then, his face split in a grin.

“Oh, I’m sorry, maybe the sensitive American would prefer to treat his wound himself? Too bad the only person with the keys to the infirmary is a klutz, right?”

Eiji was probably expecting Ash to reply with a snarky comeback himself, but Ash wasn’t in the mood.

He pouted a little as Eiji inspected his cheek more closely.

Eiji applied the gauze back with more care than before, and Ash felt his expression soften.

“You know, my big brother used to be the one to treat my wounds, when I was a kid.” he heard himself say, his earlier thoughts still clouding his mind.

“You got a big brother? I didn’t know.”

Ash smiled, wistful. “I had one. He enrolled in the army when I was a kid, and he never came back. I don’t even know exactly how he died.”

Eiji froze, and Ash recognized right away the look on his face. The look Eiji got when he was sorry.

Ash didn’t know what prompted him to open up suddenly about his brother, but strangely, here alone with Eiji in the quiet infirmary, he felt compelled to talk.

Ash continued. “I don’t even know if my father is aware of my brother’s death. He probably doesn’t care much, anyway.”

“Your father?”

Ash looked back at Eiji. The genuine concern he could read in his brown eyes was like a balm to his wounded heart. Eiji was so transparent. Ash could see he cared genuinely about him, and it soothed his soul. He could count the people who cared like that for him on the fingers of one hand.

Maybe it was time to come clean to him. To share with Eiji who he really was.

“Did you ever heard this rumor about me, the one that said I run away from home when I was a kid after killing someone?”

Eiji hesitated but he acquiesced. It wasn’t a surprise that he knew, that rumor was one of the oldest about him, after all.

“Well, it’s true. Kind of.”

Eiji’s eyes widened, but he didn’t seem scared, or disgusted, which was the reaction Ash usually got, when he had to tell his story to policemen or counselors. No, he seemed sad, like he could already guess the story behind was even worse and was pained Ash had to live through it.

His reaction encouraged the teenager to continue. Eiji had just heard the confirmation Ash was a murdered, and still the gaze he laid upon Ash was gentle, caring.  

“I was only eight years old, when I became a murderer. I killed my baseball coach. He was raping me.”

His voice faltered, and suddenly it was hard to talk. Ash had thought he could recall the events without getting too affected, but he was wrong. Even so he had already been forced to tell his sordid story to countless therapists, counselors and police officers, he still couldn’t stay stern.

His gaze was fixated on his shaking hands, but his mind was far away. The talk had brought back images in his eyes, and it nearly felt like he was eight all over again. He could still feel the gun tight in his trembling hand, still smell the scent of blood and powder.

“The day I shot him with the gun I found, I cried. You know why?”

This time, Ash stared back at Eiji. It was the moment to reveal to him what kind of monster he was, and he couldn’t miss his reaction.

“Because I killed him, and I felt nothing. And even now, I still feel nothing, thinking back of it.”

Warm tears pooled in his eyes, obstructing his vision. He blinked, and they started falling down his cheeks.

He heard Eiji said something, but it barely reached him. As the tears refused to stop rolling, he hid his face in his hands.

“It’s not true you feel nothing, Ash. You are hurt, very hurt. I can see it, I understand.”

Eiji’s voice brought Ash back to reality, and he registered for the first time that the Japanese had passed an arm around his shoulders. His touch made him feel grounded. And his words found their way to is heart. He wanted so much for it to be true, and even if he wasn’t assured himself, hearing Eiji being so certain of it was comforting.

Ash tried to wipe his tears off. He couldn’t let himself break down before Eiji knew the total truth about him.

He thought back of that therapist who had taught him to think of a safe place whenever the memories would overwhelm him. It hasn’t been effective in the slightest, because Ash couldn’t think of a safe place for the life of him.

What was safe? Home? Cape Cod was the opposite of safe. A fictional place, then? Ash had never managed to force himself to imagine a safe place. He knew he wasn’t safe anywhere.

But here, now, it was easier to remember that all of it was in the past. It has been years since, and if he knew he could never forget his past, he had at least accepted that it was over.

In the silent infirmary, with Eiji’s comforting presence, Ash wasn’t feeling endangered.

He took a deep breath and looked into Eiji’s eyes. The Japanese was staring at him with concern, but there was also something else. A silent determination.

Ash stilled himself. What was coming wasn’t any easier to say.

“After that, I ran away from home. I ended up in New York, where I was captured by a network who used children for prostitution. After some time, I was noticed by the head of the Corsican Mafia. He took me under his wing, and I became his attributed prostitute.”

Ash felt Eiji still against him. He knew Eiji was probably more or less aware of the first part of his story, but the other half was surely more difficult to believe for him. In school, people heard the words mafia and child prostitution, and their imagination ran wild, which explained the rumors they spread about Ash became more and more extravagant with the passing time.

“This is who I am, Eiji. A murderer, and a prostitute. People in school aren’t far away from the truth, as you can see—"

“Don’t say those things about yourself, Ash!”

Eiji looked revolted, but not by what Ash had revealed. No, he seemed sincerely revolted by Ash’s definition of himself.

“Why not? It’s true.”

“It’s not! You were forced to do these things, to survive!” he protested again.

Ash shrugged. “Maybe.” He wasn’t convinced himself, but hearing Eiji disagree was a relief. He surely didn’t deserve Eiji’s concern, but he couldn’t help but to be comforted by it.

Eiji pressed his lips into a tight line. Ash could tell he was hesitating to insist further on the topic.

“What happened, after?” he asked finally.

“I stayed with the mafia, but not long. When I got the news that my brother was dead, I tried to find more information, I tried to understand how. I couldn’t believe it, at first. Or rather, I could feel it was true, but I didn’t want to accept it until I had tangible proofs. With the crumbs of liberty I was given, I searched for people who had served with my brother in Afghanistan, and that’s how I met a policeman, Max Lobo. He was a friend of Griffin, and he told me everything he knew.”

“Then, he understood my life was a mess, and he put in his head to save me from it. I began to refuse his help, of course, I was convinced there was nothing he could do, and I was kept under severe guard… We finally worked together to help the police frame the Corsican Mafia’s boss, Dino Golzine. Maybe you’ve heard about it?”

Eiji shook his head negatively.

“It made some noises, when it happened. We met some hardship also, since the mafia was corrupting the NYPD since way back. But with the help of journalists, we exposed Golzine’s little prostitution market, and he was betrayed by high placed men who feared to go down with him. In the end, Golzine was killed mysteriously, certainly by one of these men, and I was free. I was just eleven, nearly twelve, when Golzine died.”

Of course, framing Golzine had been harder than what Ash made it sound, but Eiji didn’t need to know the sordid details.

Speaking of this part of his story was far easier. Just a succession of facts, empty of strong negative emotions, that Ash could recite like he had rehearsed them. And being able to pronounce the words “Golzine died” never failed to make his mood lighter.

“From there, I was pulled from foster homes to foster homes, met counselors and psychologists, tried to come back to school. The truth is, I would probably have run away again if it wasn’t for Max. I caused him all sorts of troubles, but he never gave up on me. I finally asked for emancipation when I was 16, with the help of a friend of Max, who is a lawyer.”

It hadn’t been so hard to obtain emancipation from his father, given the old man didn’t give a shit about keeping Ash under his guardianship.

“So, this is about it. Now that you know what I am, you can see for yourself if you still want to keep up with me or-“

“Ash! Of course, I still want to be your friend!”

Ash’s head snapped back to face Eiji, surprise making his eyebrows raise up.

“If you let me, I want to be by your side, I want to get to know you better!”

Ash’s heart was beating painfully hard in his chest. These were the words he had desperately hoped to hear Eiji’s pronounce, but still…

“You know how badly people talk about me, in school. If you began to hang out with me, it will make people talk. You will surely get dragged down too and-“

“I don’t care. I don’t care about what people say about you, or about me. It’s all wrong. I don’t care if the whole school talks about you, I will always be on your side!”

Ash’s throat was suddenly very tight, his mind reeling with Eiji’s words. Eiji accepted him. He knew what kind of troublemaker he was, and still, he wanted to be with him. Ash didn’t expect as much.

He let out a short laugh. “God, Eiji. How can you say such things with a straight face? You’re so cheesy.”

Eiji blushed slightly. “I’m just telling it how I think it.”

Ash smiled. “I know.” he said, and he was strangely relieved by how true it was. He loved that about Eiji, he loved how genuine he was, how his emotions and thoughts were always on display.

Eiji’s arm was still around his shoulders and it felt… nice. Comforting. Ash wasn’t one for touches usually, but he let himself lean against Eiji. He had already allowed himself to let his guard down anyway, he had nothing left to hide. It felt vulnerable, but at the same time, Ash was feeling strangely appeased now that everything was out of his system, and that still, Eiji was here, with him.

The door of the infirmary opened suddenly, making them startle, and Ash was forcefully reminded that they were still in school.

A woman between two ages passed her head into the room.

“What are you doing here, boys? School’s closing, it’s time to go.”

Eiji answered her but Ash barely registered what he said. He was still in a haze, mind reeling from too many memories and conflicting feelings.

He followed Eiji outside of the infirmary and his mind caught to him in the middle of the corridor, when he noticed that Eiji was holding his hand.

When they exited the school, Eiji let go of Ash’s hand to check the time on his phone and let out a long sigh.

“I missed my bus…” he said with a sorry voice.

“You didn’t come by car?”

“Not today, my mom needed it. But it’s alright, I have another one in less than one hour.”

Ash nodded distantly, registering that he was right to suspect that the Okumura all shared one car.

“I could take you home, if you want. I came on my bike.”

Eiji made an excited noise, a wide smile spreading on his face, eyes shining brightly.

“Really? You wouldn’t mind?”

Ash had to stare away to hide his embarrassment. Eiji looked too much like an excited puppy. He really got excited for the most random things, in Ash’s opinion.

“Yeah, if you want. It’s not a big deal for me.”

“I would love that! Thank you!”

They walked to Ash’s bike, parked not far from there. Eiji seemed impressed upon seeing his red motorbike, and Ash felt dumbly proud.

He unlocked the chain and took his helmet off the storage under the bike’s seat, before handing it to Eiji.

“Here, put that on.”

Eiji didn’t make a move to take it. “And you?”

“I only have one. But it’s fine, I don’t need it.”

Eiji frowned. “You’re driving, you need it more than I do.”

Ash let out an exasperated sigh. He raised the helmet and put it on Eiji’s head, deaf to his protests.

“My bike, my rules. You don’t like it, you stay here.”

Eiji grumbled something inaudible, muffled by the helmet. He adjusted it on his head but didn’t remove it.

The helmet had flattened his hair, that now fell into his eyes. Ash felt a smile stretch his lips. On an impulse, he opened the visor and brushed Eiji’s hair off to the side. Surprised, Eiji leveled his gaze to meet Ash’s, his cheeks heating up slightly.

Ash took the fastener under Eiji’s chin and clicked it on, doing his best not to let his fingers linger too much on Eiji’s jaw. Eiji gulped and Ash followed his Adam’s apple bobble with his eyes, his throat suddenly very dry. His task fulfilled, he turned away to his bike, mostly to hide his trouble from Eiji.

Ash settled on the bike first, taking a deep breath and forcing himself to regain his composure. He then looked over his shoulder, flashing a teasing smile to Eiji.

“You’re coming?”

Eiji nodded resolutely, his cheeks still faintly red. He climbed behind Ash but didn’t put his arms around the teenager.

“Hold on to me, alright?”

He didn’t have to say it twice. Right away, Eiji’s arms circled his torso, his hands coming to grip tightly the front of Ash’s shirt. Seeing the way Eiji held him close, Ash wondered if he was scared.

“Is it your first time riding a bike?”

“It is,” the Japanese admitted after a short hesitation.

Ash smiled. Eiji’s inexperience was endearing. And for some reason, he liked the idea of being the first to take Eiji on a ride.

“Don’t worry, I’m an excellent driver.”

Eiji chuckled, and Ash felt him relax against him. “I’m not worried. You’re excellent at everything you do, anyway.”

Ash shook his head, mimicking exasperation, but he laughed with Eiji. At this instant, he felt on the top of the world. Being so close to Eiji, feeling his laugh tickle his neck and his chest flat against his back… it was intoxicating.

Eiji locked his visor shut again while Ash started the engine, and the bike roared easily.

Usually, Ash drove a little recklessly. There was a reason Shorter refused to be given rides by Ash since forever. Ash liked to drive fast and had never cared about following the traffics laws too closely. And he would be lying if he said he didn’t enjoy seeing the otherwise collected Shorter get off his bike with his face pale yet green, pestering about it being the Last Time Ever he let Ash drive.

The Chinese should know better, though. Ash liked to tease, but he would never endanger his life. He was absolutely confident in his driving skills, trusted his instincts to read the traffic and react to everything with certainty.

But this time, when Eiji nervously tightened his grip on Ash as they got off to the road, Ash didn’t feel compelled to tease him by showing off his careless way of driving.

He drove smoothly into traffic, careful not to make the bike lean more than necessary when he took turns and slalomed between the cars.

Soon, he heard Eiji exhale in his neck, his body untensing slightly again. Ash smiled, happy to have won Eiji’s trust in his driving skills so easily.

As he could tell that Eiji was relaxed by now, Ash couldn’t help but to show off a little. When they drove on a straight road nearly empty from traffic, he accelerated more than necessary, and he heard Eiji yelp and press himself even closer to Ash. The Japanese let out a joyful laugh and Ash joined him, reveling in the feeling of being able to feel Eiji’s laugh in his body. It has been a while since he had so much fun simply riding a bike.

His grin stayed in place all the way to Eiji’s house. He had always enjoyed driving, but doing it with Eiji behind him was exhilarating. 

They arrived to the address Eiji had given him far too soon in Ash’s opinion. He parked on the sideway and lent a hand to Eiji to help him get off the bike.

When his feet hit the ground, the Japanese swayed a little and he put his hands on Ash’s chest to steady himself. Ash’s arms caught him reflexively by the waist to help him stay upright.

Eiji snapped his head up to meet Ash gaze, his cheeks bright pink. He seemed flustered for a second, but his face broke soon into a wide smile, his excitation winning over his embarrassment.

“It was so cool!” he exclaimed, still grinning brightly.

He hadn’t made a move to step off Ash’s embrace.

Ash felt his own cheeks heat up, but he was still riding high from their time on the bike, so he just laughed with Eiji, feeling far too happy with himself as Eiji was beaming at him.

Eiji withdrew his hands off Ash to remove his helmet, and Ash let go of his waist with reluctance. He took the helmet from Eiji’s hands, and suddenly, the Japanese started.

“Oh no.”

Eiji was looking at a point behind Ash’s shoulder, all color drained from his face. Ash turned back to see the source of his fear, ready to place himself between Eiji and the potential aggressor, and what he saw was…

… a small middle-aged woman.

“What?” he asked, put off.

Eiji was still pale. “That’s my mom,” he whispered rapidly, “and she saw me on your bike. She is going to kill me.”

Now that Ash looked more attentively, he could see that the woman who traversed the pathway was walking to them with a purpose, pace fast, brows furrowed.

When she reached them, Eiji audibly gulped.

“Kaa-chan! Hi! Did you go out for shopping? I thought you would be home!”

Eiji’s voice sounded definitively stressed and guilty. Even if his mom hadn’t seen him ride the bike, he would have outed himself anyway.

The woman went to stand in front of them. Silent, she stared at Eiji with strong disapproval, mouth pinched in a frown, before turning her gaze on Ash. Her eyes were very similar to Eiji’s but right now, they were piercing through him like a knife. She looked at him from head to toes, and her expression turned even more depreciating. Ash had the feeling he had just been judged and harshly rejected.

“Ei-chan. Could you explain to me why you were on a motorcycle, when you know you’re forbidden to even approach one?”

Her voice was even worse than her gaze; awfully calm, yet chilling to the bones. Her accent was thicker than Eiji’s, but her English was fluent.

Eiji flinched. “I know, I’m sorry okaa-san! But Ash just accompanied me home, I promise it wasn’t dangerous, and we wore helmets and—"

“Ash?”

The piercing gaze was back on him. Ash did his best not to shiver under the scrutiny of it.

He knew what kind of sight he offered, right now, and could understand Eiji’s mom would disapprove of him. He must look like a thug, with his wounded cheek, his hair disheveled by the ride, helmet in hand. The woman eyed his jeans critically and for the first time in his life, Ash felt self-conscious about the holes in the fabric.

Usually, Ash knew how to turn on his charm to talk to adults. He could easily pass for a well-mannered kid when he needed to get out of a situation. But at this instant, he couldn’t for the life of him put on a fake persona. He just stood there, feeling like a child being reprimanded.

“So, not only you disrespect my rules, but you do it with a stranger?” the woman continued, her attention back on her son.

“Ash isn’t a stranger!” Eiji protested. “He’s a friend, from school.”

The woman did not seem impressed. “I’ve never heard of him, which make him a stranger.” she hammered.

Eiji rolled his eyes. “I don’t talk to you about all my friends, you know.”

“No, it’s true, only the ones who matter. And the ones who matter would never endanger your life like this.”

Ash flinched. Even so he thought Eiji’s mom was greatly overreacting, her words found their way to his heart.

“Mom! You’re being over dramatic, I wasn’t in danger! It’s a bike, and Ash is an excellent driver.”

“I don’t care. Do you know how many young teenagers find death while riding a bike? Don’t you think they all thought they were good drivers? Let’s go home, we will talk later.”

With that, she left in the direction of the house, without a last glance for Ash.

Eiji sighed tiredly. “Shit… Sorry about that.”

Ash cleared his throat. He only noticed now that he had been unable to talk for the whole exchange.

Now that his mom was gone, Eiji’s cheeks had retrieved their color, and were even furiously red. He seemed genuinely embarrassed by having been shouted at by his mom in front of Ash.

“It’s okay… I’m the one who’s sorry. I didn’t mean to bring you troubles.” he replied.

Eiji bit his lips. “No, it’s my fault, I know my mom freak out easily, and I know I’m not allowed to ride a bike… I just hoped she wouldn’t know about it.”

Eiji took a deep breath. “Well, thank you for the ride home,” he continued. “I greatly appreciated it, even so now I have to prepare for my mom to kill me.”

Ash smiled. “Aren’t you exaggerating?”

“I wish. Well, see you tomorrow, unless I’m dead!"

Ash rolled his eyes, amused. “See you.”

---

Far later, alone in his apartment, Ash went to sit at the window and stared at the sky. The day had been long and eventful, and he felt worn out. His cheek was burning him.

And still, he wasn’t’ in a bad mood. Thinking back of Eiji’s sheepish face after his mother’s departure made him smile. He wondered if his friend was fine after undergoing his mother’s wrath.

Ash remembered he had now Eiji’s phone number. He could know right away, if he wanted.

He took his phone off his pocket and wrote a quick message. The first text he ever sent to Eiji.

 

To Eiji:

<<So, you’re still alive?

The response was quick.

From Eiji:

>>No, I’m definitively dead.

Ash chuckled. Eiji was being really dramatic, but at the same time, it was true that his mom seemed… formidable.

<<Oh, so I’m talking to a ghost?

>>you are

>>guess you can add medium to the list of your talents

>>how’s your cheek?

Ash smiled. Was it wrong of him to be happy his friend was concerned about him? If it was, he didn’t care.

<<It’s fine.

>>urgh, I can tell you’re lying. Put something cold on it if it’s burning.

<<Will do. Thank you for your wisdom, big bro

 

Ash pressed his cheek against the cold window. He felt his eyes close themselves, tiredness wining over him. He mulled over staying up longer. If Eiji was there, Ash was certain he would tell him that falling asleep against the window wasn’t the best way to rest. The Japanese wasn’t much older than Ash, but he seemed full of these advices that wouldn’t seem foreign into an old woman’s mouth.

When Ash fell asleep, his last thought was for Eiji. He wondered if his friend was thinking about him too, a few miles away. There was a slight chance he was, and Ash felt his lips stretch into a contented smile at the thought.

Chapter Text

Eiji was peacefully putting his books in his locker when he saw Yut-Lung and Sing rush across the corridor in his direction. To be more specific, it seemed like Yut-Lung was dragging Sing forcefully with him, his brows furrowed decidedly, his hands firm on Sing’s arm.

Eiji grimaced. He looked around for a way out, but Yut-Lung’s eyes locked with his and he knew he was done for. He closed his locker with a sigh as the pair joined him.

“Hi Yut—”

“Eiji. We need to have a talk.”

Yut-Lung planted himself in front of Eiji, letting Sing’s arm go to put his hands on his hips. Eiji retained a new sigh. He had the feeling he didn’t want to hear what was putting Yut-Lung in a tizzy.

Sing offered him an apologetic smile. “Just so we’re clear, I disagree with everything Yut-Lung will say. He forced me to come.”

Yut-Lung huffed. “Shut up, Sing. This isn’t about you.”

“Yeah, well, it’s none of your business either, Yut.” the younger Chinese protested. “You shouldn’t—”

But Yut-Lung overlooked Sing’s protests. Not even bothering to grace Sing with a reply, he put his hands on Eiji’s shoulders, staring into his eyes with intensity.

“Look, Eiji. I know you’re naïve to a fault, so much one could nearly say you’re stupid—”

Eiji groaned. “I already don’t like where this is going.”

“—But Sing and I are here to put some senses in your pretty little head.”

“Again, I don’t agree with you, Yut.” Sing muttered.

Raising his chin to look at Eiji from under his eyelashes, Yut-Lung continued. “It seems you began to hang out with Ash Lynx quite a lot, lately.”

There it was. Eiji should have expected it. He loved Yut-Lung immensely, but the Chinese had one fatal flaw: he was terribly jealous. This wasn’t the first time he would storm to Eiji to warn him about one of his new friends being the devil incarnate.

Usually, Eiji let it pass. He could tell Yut-Lung’s jealousy issues were profoundly rooted in his insecurities. Sing and Eiji were Yut-Lung’s only real friends after all; the Chinese being a real pain to approach for everyone else. Although he didn’t like it, Eiji could understand his reluctance to see his friends get along with other people.

But today, Eiji wasn’t inclined to entertain Yut-Lung’s dramatic antics.

“I do.” he replied calmly. “Ash is my friend.”

Yut-Lung’s haughty features shifted into a disgusted grimace, and something strange passed in his eyes. It was too fast for Eiji to make sense of it.

“That’s what I feared.” The Chinese said, tone somber. “You have to snap out of it, Eiji. You can’t be friend with Ash Lynx.”

“And why not?” Eiji was curious to hear what his friend would come up with to try to change his mind. It was always ridiculous.

But Yut-Lung withdrew his arms from Eiji’s shoulders, and when he talked, his voice was serious.

“If I just told you it’s best for you not too, would you trust me?”

The Chinese let his words hang in the air, and Eiji frowned, put off by how grave his expression had turned.

“I’m sorry Yut, but I think my friendship with Ash is none of your business. And nothing you could say will make me change my mind.”

Yut-Lung pressed his lips into a tight line, and anger burned in his eyes. But instead of flaring up, like Eiji feared he would, he put a hand on his face and sighed heavily into it. When he withdrew his hand, his expression was calmer, but it was worse in a sense.

“Listen, Eiji. I will be blunt. I have no idea why Ash Lynx would suddenly be interested in you. There’s something fishy about it.”

Eiji felt his cheeks heat up slightly. Was it that hard to comprehend Ash and him could be friends? Of course, Ash was far smarter than him, stronger, cooler, and devastatingly handsome, but still, friendship wasn’t about that kind of things. What mattered wasn’t how different they were, but how well they got along.

“I know it’s hard to believe, and it’s difficult for me to explain, but—”

“No no no. No but, Eiji. By all logic, there is no reason for Ash Lynx to have taken an interest with you. All these years, he was always by himself, impossible to approach, impossible to tame. There’s a reason everyone keeps their distances with him, Eiji!” 

“Not everyone.” Eiji grumbled under his breath. “Shorter is friend with him.”

“Shorter Wong is a dumbass and absolutely not an example you should follow.” hammered Yut-Lung.

“Hey!” Sing had stayed silent for most of the exchange, but he stepped in the conversation at the mention of Shorter. “Yut-Lung, I let you complain about a damn lot of things. But as we’ve already discussed times and times again: if it’s about Shorter, I will be forced to kick your ass!”

“Oh you, you’re not even allowed to talk, Sing. I know all about what you think of Shorter Wong, and I gracefully tolerate it; but clearly your opinion doesn’t matter on this.”

Sing ignored Yut-Lung to turn to Eiji. “Don’t listen to that jerk, Eiji. I think Ash looks like an okay dude. And I mean, he’s Shorter’s best friend, and Shorter is like family, so I trust his guts.”

“Family isn’t always what’s best for you.” Yut-Lung intervened shortly. Eiji could swear the smile he gave them was his fakest to date.

“What do you even mean by that?” asked Sing, incredulous.

“Nothing.” Yut-Lung’s dismissed the topic with a wave of his hand. “Now, to come back to Ash Lynx…”

“Cut the crap, Yut-Lung. We both know there is no real problem with Ash and Eiji being friends. The only problem here is your attitude.”

Yut-Lung’s face took a pale shade and he seemed close to say something but kept his mouth shut.

Now, Eiji was sure there was something off with the Chinese’s attitude. He seemed more serious than habitually.

He softened, his irritation overshadowed by concern. “What is it Yut-Lung? You’re not like usual. Is something else bothering you?”

But he understood immediately that he would better have kept his mouth shut. Yut-Lung frowned and got a hold on himself, his lofty attitude coming back as fast as it left; and he jumped back on the track without a missed beat.

“It’s nothing. Don’t you think it’s a little strange that the Lynx would be willing to be your friend all of a sudden?”

“It wasn’t that sudden.” Eiji replied, remembering the hardship he had faced while trying to get closer to Ash.

But Yut-Lung gave Eiji a long look, taking his chin his in hand, expression thoughtful.

“Nah, it doesn’t make any sense.” he murmured to himself.

The Chinese stayed silent a second, considering Eiji with a new critical eye, and Eiji got the gut feeling he was about to say something incredibly ridiculous.

“Listen,” he finally continued. “By high school’s logic, people go together by numbers. Everyone can be rated for their appearance on a scale from 1 to 10. Ash Lynx is obviously a ten. Maybe even an eleven. He got that kind of beauty you only see in movie stars and magazines. You, Eiji, are an eight. A nine at best, especially when you vault. And trust me, you should take it as a compliment, many in this school would kill to even become a seven in my book. But the fact is, Ash Lynx is in a totally different category.”

Eiji scoffed. “You’re ridiculous. What type of person go on and rate people in their head according to how beautiful they look?”

“Well, just about everyone, Eiji.”

The Japanese rolled his eyes. He could tell that Yut-Lung was just trying to change the subject and distance the conversation from himself. It was obvious Yut-Lung’s opposition to his friendship with Ash had nothing to do with his dumb beauty scale. But what could be bothering him to the point he would go to the trouble to try to convince Eiji that Ash wasn’t worth it?

“And, you, what is your number?” he asked, trying to make sense of the situation in his head while enabling Yut-Lung.

Yut-Lung let out a sharp breath. “That’s not the question here. We’re talking about you and—”

Sing laughed, eyes shining mischievously. “What, you want us to believe you didn’t attribute yourself a number? What is it, you’re scared to tell us it’s low and to show us your true vulnerability? Or you’re embarrassed to tell us you think of yourself as a twelve?”

Yut-Lung groaned. “Shut up, Sing. You’re like, a five or something.”

Sing just laughed some more. “Well, excuse me princess, but we don’t all have the time to brush our hair a hundred of time before sleeping.”

“No, but you could at least make a goddam effort!” the older Chinese countered. “Look at your lips! When was the last time you used lip balm?”

Sing stared at him with confusion. “Lip balm? Never?”

Yut-Lung made a strangled noise in the back of his throat. “Never? Fuck, Sing! You’re such a mess!”

Sing rolled his eyes. “Shut it, you’re the only mess here. Right Eiji?”

But Eiji just stared at Sing’s lips with concern. They did look a little chapped, now that he looked closely.

“In fact, I do use lip balm, Sing. How do you do when it’s cold and windy? Doesn’t it hurt?”

Sing blushed a little. “N-not that much. And I drink water to stay hydrated, isn’t that enough?”

Eiji nodded distantly, promising himself to bring some lip balm for Sing next time he would buy some for himself. It was terrifying, how little the young Chinese would take care of himself.

Yut-Lung gave Sing a last disgusted look, before sighing loudly, like this conversation was physically painful to him.

“You know, the thing is, if you two followed my lead, you boys could easily achieve 10 on my scale. It would be hard work, of course, but I think you could pull it off.”

Eiji smiled, relieved that Yut-Lung seemed to have let their conversation about Ash aside.

“Here what we will do.” The Chinese took an agenda out of his bag and continued. “You both come over this weekend and I initiate you to face masks. Of course, you both need a total makeover, with a new wardrobe, a fresh haircut… but I guess we could begin with—”

Sing sighed. “Hey, we didn’t even agree to it, Yut, so stop making plans. And why is it that every time you invite us over it sounds more like you order us to come?”

Yut-Lung smiled sharply. “Because it is an order. Just try not to come, you’ll see.”

Sing huffed. “I’m okay with coming but I will die before I let you put anything on my face.”

“Alright. Just stay ugly, I guess.”

Eiji was listening distantly, but suddenly, Yut-Lung and Sing’s little banter lost its interest. Because suddenly, Ash was walking down the corridor.

He seemed to be talking with Alex, while Bones and Kong followed them closely. Eiji stared, endeared, as Ash stopped by his own locker and began to take books out of it and put them in Bones’ hands. The smaller teenager had his eyes widening comically larger whenever Ash put a new book in his arms, and he began soon to waver under the weight of it.

Recently, Bones and Alex had joined Kong to his tutoring’s seances with Ash, and the three of them had clearly taken a liking with the blond teenager because Eiji had seen them follow him around a whole lot. It never missed to make Eiji smile, proud to be indirectly the one to have introduced Ash to new friends.

As Kong was helping Bones with the pile of books he had been tasked with, Ash turned his head in Eiji’s direction and noticed him from across the corridor. Closing his locker, he let the three teenagers behind to walk toward Eiji.

The Japanese felt his smile widen. Yut-Lung could say whatever he wanted, it was clear Ash liked to spend time with Eiji. The teenager was hard to read, but he wouldn’t be seeking Eiji’s company if he didn’t enjoy it. It didn’t matter if Eiji wasn’t nearly as beautiful as him. And anyway, if relationships really worked accordingly to Yut-Lung’s dumb scale, Ash would be really lonely at the top of it, because nobody in school came even close to him when it came to beauty.

When Ash reached them, a little smile directed at Eiji and at him only, he felt his cheeks color slightly.

Ash was wearing the jacket. The one he had lent to Eiji after the party, when Eiji was cold and very much in need of comfort. The one that made Ash’s shoulders seem so square, and Eiji’s heart flutter for an unknow reason.

Eiji hadn’t meant to keep the jacket, that night. When he had noticed he was still wearing it; he was already half-way to home.

And he hadn’t meant to sleep with it either. It was just that he was really tired and hadn’t bothered to change before crumbling in his bed.

It had nothing to do with the fact that Ash’s discreet scent was impregnating the jacket. It wasn’t either because wearing it made him feel protected, making him remember how Ash had stepped up to protect him from that jerk at the party.

No, it would have been weird, and Eiji wasn’t weird.

Hence why he had washed the jacket the next day, scared to have drooled a little on it in his sleep, and returned it to its possessor on Monday.

Ash had seemed a little disappointed when Eiji had pushed the jacket into his arms, stuttering that he was sorry for forgetting to return it to him that night, and that he had washed it for good measure. But Eiji didn’t dare to dwell too much on his expression because it was most likely just his imagination.

“Hi, Ash!” he greeted him, and he managed to sound very normal and not flustered at all.

Ash’s smile widened, and the pink on Eiji’s cheeks spread further. Being at the other end of Ash’s smile was always turning him into a mess.

“Hi, Eiji.” he replied simply, but he had a way to pronounce Eiji’s name that never missed to make his heart swoon. Gosh, why did Ash always seem so effortlessly cool?

Yut-Lung made a sound in the back of his throat, and Ash turned to face him and Sing, looking like he had only noticed them just now.

“Ash Lynx.” Yut-Lung deadpanned, crossing his arms over his chest and raising his chin with disdain.

Ash gave him a look that was equally contemptuous, but he didn’t reply. Instead, he turned to Sing.

“Hey, Sing. What’s up?”

Yut-Lung’s eyes widened impossibly larger, his falsely calm expression turning into a grimace, while Sing stared at Ash with his mouth agape, a dazed look on his face. 

“Oh, so it’s going to be like that. Very well.” Yut-Lung muttered, his hesitation between bewilderment and pure rage preventing him from exploding.

Ash finally turned his attention back to him. “Oh, I didn’t see you there. What’s your name again? I don’t think we’ve been acquainted.”  

Sing was now hovering with laughter behind the long-haired Chinese, delighted by Ash’s attitude.

Stuck in place, Yut-Lung threw him a dark glare before giving Eiji a I-told-you-he-was-awful look and turning heels. “I can’t stomach any more of this.” he growled between his gritted teeth.

Eiji was feeling a little helpless. He had the feeling he would have joined Sing’s hilarity another day, but he was a little worried about the Chinese’s hostility toward Ash, and the blond American wasn’t making things easier.

“Wait, Yut—"

Sing held him from following the Chinese with a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry Eiji, I got this. I will put some senses in his pretty little head.” he said, reusing Yut-Lung’s earlier words.

Eiji hesitated slightly, but he really didn’t want to hear Yut-Lung try to convince him further that Ash was the worst. Especially not now, when the Chinese could back up his words with Ash’s shitty attitude toward him.

“Thank you, Sing.” he said finally, grateful.

When the little Chinese left after Yut-Lung, Eiji turned to Ash with a disapproving glare.

“You were mean.” he said, and he didn’t care if he sounded ridiculous.

Ash laughed shortly. “And so what? He already hates my guts anyway, I don’t see why I should play nice.”

Eiji furrowed his brows. “Well, you don’t have to make it worse! I’m sure you two could get along if you both tried.”

Ash laughed some more. “Yeah right.”

Then he took notice of Eiji’s heated glare and his eyebrows darted up. “Wait, you’re serious?”

“Of course, I am! Yut-Lung is my friend! You shouldn’t be mean to him.”

Eiji did his best to hold Ash’s surprised gaze, silently conveying his annoyance. Ash opened his mouth, eyebrows knit together. Closed it. Before settling for rolling his eyes.

“Alright, I will try.” he said with reluctance. “There, you’re happy now?”

Eiji stayed silent a bit longer, counting two heartbeats, satisfied to see Ash hanging at his lips for his answer. Then, he let his lips raise up in a wide smile.

“That’s good enough.” he hummed, contentment perceptible in his voice.

Ash huffed, but his face cracked soon enough into a grin. “Ready to go to chemistry?” he asked.

“The bell hasn’t even rung yet.” Eiji countered, surprised that Ash seemed this cheerful at the perspective of having class right now.

Ash shrugged casually. “I know but it will ring soon.”

Eiji nodded distantly. Why was Ash always so eager to go to chemistry? It wasn’t like he was listening to the teacher when he was there. Eiji shrugged his wonder off and followed Ash, classing it in his list of Ash’s mysteries.

As they walked to their classroom, Eiji couldn’t help but to stare at Ash’s cheek. The wound given by Dylan was still ugly, leaving a large blueish bruise on Ash’s pale skin. Eiji had never been violent, but when he was looking at it, he was craving to punch the footballer’s face himself. He still had no idea why Dylan had acted like this the day before, but whatever was his reason, Eiji would never forgive him. Just thinking of his heinous face made him shiver.

Ash acted like nothing had happened, though. He didn’t talk back of the fight, nor did he mention their talk in the infirmary. Eiji decided to act the same himself, aware that Ash surely wouldn’t want him to change his attitude because he had learnt his past. They spent the chemistry’s class fooling around, like they always did, and Eiji tried to swallow back his concern for Ash.

 

---

 

Eiji had thought this day could end more peacefully than it had begun, but he was wrong. Maybe he should renounce altogether going to his locker between classes, because it was apparently the place Yut-Lung had chosen again to ambush him.

Eiji wasn’t one to avoid confrontation, but really, he didn’t want to deal once more with the Chinese’s negativity toward Ash. Nevertheless, before he could voice his opinion, Yut-Lung grabbed him by the arm, looking disheveled and so very mad, that Eiji’s protest stayed stuck in his throat.

“Eiji! Did I hear correctly?” the Chinese hissed, his eyes burning fiercely. “Have you gone into a fight for Ash’s sake yesterday?”

Eiji winced. “I didn’t go into a fight.” he replied bitterly, remembering how he had been able to do nothing to help Ash. “Some guy hit Ash, it wasn’t his fault at all.”  

Yut-Lung gritted his teeth. “This isn’t like you, Eiji! First, you go into fights and then you lie to my face? I—"

“I didn’t lie to you!” Eiji couldn’t believe his ears. “I just… Yeah, so maybe I didn’t tell you about it… But you already dislike Ash, and you are closed to conversation about him, telling you would have been…”

Yut-Lung passed a shaky hand in his hair. He seemed really agitated and Eiji had no idea how to defuse the tension between them.

“Look, I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you about it. I didn’t mean to hide it from you, but it only happened yesterday, and this morning you just barged in, saying all these wrong things about Ash…”

The Chinese crossed his arms over his chest, eying Eiji critically. “You don’t even know why this footballer hit your precious new friend, am I right?” he said finally, and Eiji didn’t like how cold his voice sounded.

“I don’t.” he admitted. “You know something about it?”

The Chinese’s dark eyes shinned archly, and he seemed far too pleased by Eiji’s answer for the Japanese’s liking.

“I will tell you, then. Maybe you will better understand why I warned you about him.”

Eiji furrowed his brows, annoyed by Yut-Lung satisfied tone. But he stayed silent, waiting for his friend to continue.

“In my opinion, that footballer had every right to be mad. Even a fool like him can-“

“Go to the point, Yut.”

“Alright.” Yut-Lung smiled, but it was a cold smile that sent a shiver down Eiji’s spine. “Apparently, your dear Ash Lynx has been seen sleeping around with the poor footballer’s girlfriend.”

Eiji’s frown deepened. “That’s ridiculous. Ash wouldn’t do something like that.”

Yut-Lung clicked his tongue, irritated. “What would you know? You don’t know him that well, after all. And I got the news from a very secure source.”

Eiji rolled his eyes. “You know how rumors are, Yut-Lung. It’s always a serious source, but it’s rarely true.”

“So, you think your friend Mike is a liar?”

 Eiji’s breath caught in his throat. Mike was a member of the pole vaulting team, and he was far from being the type to spill rumors.

“You heard it from him? What did he tell you exactly?”

Yut-Lung seemed very satisfied with himself. “Remember the last party we went? The very lame one? Apparently, Mike and some friends of his saw Ash go into a bedroom with the footballer’s girlfriend and they spent a looong time there, with the door closed. When he got out, he was… disheveled, if you see what I mean.”

Eiji grimaced at the innuendo. It still proved nothing, it wasn’t because Ash had gone into a room with a girl at a party that they had obligatory had sex together.

But he was forced to recognize that this was the easy interpretation.

He didn’t really know what to think about it. On one hand, he had troubles picturing Ash acting like this. Ash could appear aloof, but he wasn’t one to act carelessly. However, on the other hand… Well, Eiji knew people hooked up frequently at parties, and Ash wasn’t the type to stay updated on who dated who in the school. He could have been unaware that the girl had a boyfriend, which would explain he didn’t understand Dylan coming at him.

Nausea settled in his stomach at the thought. Which was dumb, Ash could do whatever he wanted, why would Eiji be upset about it? It didn’t make sense for him to feel that way for his friend…

The thing was, if Eiji had the feeling he knew Ash really well by now, there was a topic they had never discussed. Eiji had no idea if Ash was interested in dating, or even if he had already dated anyone. He was totally silent on the subject. And now that Eiji knew his past, he had thought that maybe it was because Ash was uncomfortable with the topic.

Before they became friends, Eiji had been under the impression that Ash was kind of… a playboy. Partly because he was so beautiful it was easy to picture, but mostly because it seemed like every week the school bruised with another rumor of his latest conquest, girls and boys alike.

But after all the time they had spent together, where Ash had never even mentioned being interested in anyone that way, Eiji had concluded it was just false rumors, like nearly everything about Ash that was murmured in the corridors.

And now… Eiji wasn’t too sure what to think.

Eiji shook himself up mentally. It was idiotic to dwell on it until he got confirmation that it was true. He preferred to put the thoughts aside and wait for an occasion to talk to Ash about it. The teenager was still probably unaware of Dylan’s reason to attack him.

Yut-Lung was still staring at him expectantly.

“I won’t believe it until Ash talk about it himself. And even if it was true, I’m sure it was the result of a misunderstanding.”

The Chinese frowned. “Why do you trust him so easily? You barely know him and—”

“That’s not true. I know him far better than you do, that’s why I trust him. But I have a question for you, Yut-Lung: why don’t you trust me? If I say Ash is a good person, you should take my words—”

“It isn’t the fucking problem here!” the Chinese shouted. “Of course I trust you, but you’re so naïve, so credulous! And I won’t stand there and watch you have your soft little heart shattered by a careless jerk!”

Eiji swallowed back his retort. Clearly, Yut-Lung was just worried about him, and it was useless to try to reason him. He took a deep breath, forcing himself to calm down.

“Yut-Lung, I… You know I care about you, and I can see you think you’re doing what’s best for me. But you have to let it go! You can’t stand between me and Ash, and truly, I think you’re being overdramatic anyway.”

Yut-Lung pressed his lips into a tight line. “There’s no way I can reason you. See, you’re naïve, but you’re also stubborn, and that’s like, the worst combination possible!” The Chinese shook his head before letting out a long sigh.

“Alright,” he continued after a short silence. “Do what you want. I will be there to pick up the pieces when the Lynx will be done playing with you.”

Before Eiji could reply anything, the Chinese turned hills, his long hair floating behind him. Eiji was left with his mouth hanging open, and his heart heavy in his chest.

 

---

 

Ash had a problem. And his problem was just becoming bigger and bigger every day, and he was scared it would be out of control soon.

Ash was in love with Eiji.

It wasn’t a big revelation or anything; as much as Ash had tried to push away the signs of his blooming love for Eiji, they were here far too early for him to overlook them. No, he knew for quite some time now, that this wasn’t just him liking Eiji as a friend.

But he had kept his feelings aside, because he was convinced he could hide them, and just be contempt being by Eiji’s side. However, this was proving to be harder than anticipated.

Retaining a sigh, Ash pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling the throb of a headache forming.

He hadn’t slept much, last night. As anticipated, sleeping at the window wasn’t comfortable, and he had woken up in the middle of the night with a terrible back pain and his cheek burning him relentlessly. But that wasn’t the worst. Once he had finally settled in his bed and found sleep nearly right away, he had only been greeted by nightmares.

Oh, he was used to them, of course. Nights exempt of bad dreams were rare enough to be noted. But he really could have used a night of good sleep after that long and eventful day. And waking up early for school after getting such little sleep had been nearly impossible.

“You got something on your mind.”

Ash turned to face Shorter, who was staring at him, sat on the floor.

They were hanging out in his room now that the school-day was over, but Ash, comfortably slumped on Shorter’s bed, had driven away in his thoughts when Shorter had adsorbed himself in a deep texting conversation with his sister.

Ash considered Shorter’s affirmation and let out a grunt. Shorter just knew him too well.

“Maybe, but I don’t want to talk about it.”

Sorter only shrugged. “Alright.” he replied, reclining his back to the bed.

The silence stretched between them until Ash couldn’t take it anymore.

“Urgh, fine. You win.”

Shorter chuckled with delight. “I win?” he said innocently. “I wasn’t playing anything, though.” For a big guy with purple hair, sunglasses and piercing, he was very good at looking blameless.

Ash rolled onto his back, staring at the ceiling. “I do have something on my mind, but I’m not sure you can help.”

“If it’s about your undying love for Eiji, I already know about it, don’t worry.”

Ash let out a strangled noise and sat up on the bed, mouth agape. He thought about denying, but it was probably too late, his bewildered reaction could not be interpreted as anything else than a confession.

“What?? You… You know? What do you mean you know?”

Shorter rolled his eyes with emphasis. “Please, Ash. You think I don’t see you making doe eyes to him every time he’s there? Blushing like a baby girl when he teases you? Looking at him like he hung the stars? Talking about him with this sweet ton—”

“Fuck, shut up!”

Ash knew he was surely as red as a tomato, which probably wasn’t helping his case. Was he really that obvious? If yes, did that meant…

“You think Eiji noticed too?”

Ash was mortified. He had always thought he was good at playing it cool, but if what Shorter said was true…

“Nah, I don’t think so. I think you’re both equally stupid. And, well, he doesn’t know you like I do. Maybe he thinks you’re like this with everyone, not just him.” Shorter snickered at the idea while Ash groaned again.

“So,” Shorter continued. “You’re going to do something about it?”

Ash hesitated. “…No. I don’t see what I could do anyway.”

“You don’t see what—” Shorter groaned, exasperated. “I will tell you what you could do! Go tell him! Confess! I’m sure he will reciprocate your feelings, you’ll marry, get a dog, and give me a ton of nephews and nieces!”

Ash let out a loud sigh. “It’s not funny, Shorter. And you’re not helping.”

“What? You need advices for asking him out or something? I’m telling you, however you decide to do it, he will be more than thrilled!”

Ash stayed silent a beat. “You don’t know that. And I don’t know if I want to… ask him out or whatever, anyway. I’m already thankful we can be friends…”

Shorter stared at him doubtfully. “Wow, you’re whipped.” he murmured. “I’ve never seen you being like this. It’s kind of scary, you know?”

“I’m not whipped.”

“Oh yes, you are. I’ve seen that high five you gave him yesterday. What kind of shit was this? Nobody high five his bro while intertwining fingers with him, you know?”

Ash blushed lightly, but he knew better than to try to defend himself there.

“You know what?” Shorter continued, a wide grin on his face. “I will help you out.”

Ash whipped his head at him. “What? How? I don’t need—”

Shorter didn’t reply. Instead, he got on his feet and took Ash’s phone from where he had let him to charge.

“Ah! Of course you would have Eiji’s number in this. I’m nearly surprised you didn’t put tons of little hearts next to his name.”

 “What are you doing?”

Shorter lifted his sunglasses off his eyes to wink at him. “Trust me, I’ll do nothing out of the line.”

His answer did nothing to appease Ash. Especially not when he saw Shorter press the call button.

“Fuck Shorter, what are you—”

“Eiji! Hi! It’s Shorter!”

Ash got on his feet. “What are you doing?” he hissed. “Give me back—”

Shorter danced far away from him. “Wait, I’ll put him on speakers. Eh, by the way, he replied right away, that’s a good sign!”

Ash tried to get his phone back, but Shorter avoided him easily, circling the bed to get out of Ash’s reach.

“Shorter?” Eiji’s voice came out of the phone and Ash knew it was too late now to just hope to hang up. “Why are you calling me on Ash’s phone? Is everything okay?”

“Yes, yes, everything’s okay, don’t worry! I just wanted to invite you to come eat at Chang Dai this Saturday! Will you be there?”

Ash stopped his tentative of grabbing the phone back. If it was all Shorter planned, it was pretty innocent, after all.

“Oh. Yes, cool! I will be there! I’m free Saturday!”

“Wonderful! Ash will be there too, obviously. I will treat you both well, you’ll see!”

Eiji laughed shortly. “Great! Thank you Shorter. Is Ash here with you?”

“He is! You’re on speakers! Here say hi to Eiji, Ash!”

Shorter extended the phone to Ash, but he kept it in his hand. Ash glared at the Chinese who just grinned widely.

“Hi, Eiji.” he said to the phone. “I hope we didn’t disrupt you or something.”

“Hi, Ash! No, not at all! In fact, I was thinking about you right then, funny right?”

Ash’s heart made a flip in his chest, his whole face turning red. He was glad Eiji couldn’t see him. However, Shorter could, and the Chinese laughed silently at him, mimicking kisses exuberantly while trying to make a heart shape with his hand that wasn’t holding the phone.

“O-oh. Hum, yeah, funny.” he replied, hoping his voice didn’t come across too wavering in the phone.

“Yeah, I’m helping my mom shopping, and we came across pumpkins in the vegetable’s aisle, so—”

Ash repressed a grunt as Shorter just laughed louder behind the phone. So, that was what made Eiji think about him? It had to be pumpkins out of everything? He should never have talked about his fear of pumpkins to his friend, it just made him too powerful.

Eiji’s laughter came out of the phone. “Ah, I wish I could see your face right now, Ash. How is it Shorter? Is he pouting?”

Shorter snapped the phone back before Ash could grab it. “He is! It’s hilarious!”

Ash circled the bed to reach Shorter, but the other teenager just hopped on it, still laughing his head off. “I will text you the details, Eiji! Bye!” he shouted in the phone, ending the call just before Ash could finally tackle him on the bed.

Ash took his phone back with a grunt. “You’re the worst.” he huffed at his friend, who was still chuckling under him.

“The worst?” he protested, panting a little because of all his laugh and his run out of Ash’s reach. “I just got you a date with the man of your dreams!”

“It’s not a date. You literally invited him and then you said I would be there. He probably thinks it will be the three of us.”

“Who cares? It will be fun! I’ll find an excuse not to stay, like I have to do the service or whatever.”

“Still, it’s not a date. It’s… friendly eating together.”

“Oh my gosh. You really are a piece of work. Fine, call it whatever you want, it will still be fun! And don’t mind if I put romantic candles on your friendly date’s table.”

Ash rolled on his back, laying beside his friend on the bed. It wouldn’t be a date in any way, but… Well, Shorter was right, it would probably be fun. Anything done with Eiji was fun. And they wanted to invite him to eat out at Chang Dai for a while, anyway.

“If you lay off the candles, I will reconsider calling you the worst.”

“We’ll see.” Shorter replied, smile audible in his voice. “I already know you think I’m the best, anyway.”

Ash didn’t reply, but he couldn’t help the smile that stretched his lips. They both knew it was true.

Chapter Text

Ash was repeating himself that no, it wasn’t weird for him to go check on Eiji’s pole-vaulting training.

After all, it was Eiji himself who had proposed he came to see what was pole-vaulting like. He had even said: “You should pass by to see training, someday. If you have some time.” while staring at Ash with his big hopeful eyes, like he was the one asking for a favor when it was very much the other way around for Ash.

So, no, it wasn’t weird, and Ash wasn’t being weird about it.

Plus, he had been unable to see Eiji all day, and a day without talking to Eiji was a day lost.

When he reached the pole-vaulting field, Ash quickly noticed Eiji in the middle of the other athletes. It wasn’t hard. Firstly, because Ash was confident he could find Eiji in a crowd in a heartbeat, and secondly, because Eiji was smaller than the other athletes by at least a head. The realization made him snicker mentally while he approached the field.

Ash had kind of expected to witness the vaulters aligned in front of the cross bar, pole in hand, taking turns to jump one after the other. But none of them was vaulting when Ash sat on the stairs near the field. In fact, none of them was even holding a pole.

Eiji and his teammates were doing various workout exercises. Push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, handstands… Ash had never known pole-vaulting required so many exercises to strengthen the core. But he supposed it made sense; when he looked at how high the cross bar was placed, he could imagine that one would need steel muscles to propel himself above it.

From where he was sitting, Ash was close enough to have a good view on the field and on the athletes. He tried to focus on the type of workout Eiji was doing but it was really hard to stay attentive.

Eiji’s sport uniform was too damn distracting.

Why did athletes have to wear a short and a top? Weren’t them cold? Yes, it was a warm day but still…

Ash had never seen Eiji with so little clothes on him, and he was surprised by how different he seemed in his workout’s attire. His eyes followed the curve of a muscular shoulder as Eiji stretched his arms above his head, back turned to him; fascinated by the way his skin was lighted by the bright sun above him. 

And it was surely entirely the sun’s fault, if Ash’s gaze was fixed on Eiji. It had nothing to do with how nicely toned his legs and arms were. As the Japanese bent down to touch his feet, his short raised up just a little and Ash had to advert his eyes, fully aware that the way he was feeling hot everywhere had nothing to do with the sun.

Goddammit. The last thing Ash needed was to become even more attracted to Eiji.

He tried to focus his attention on other pole-vaulters… But his eyes traveled back on Eiji after not even a couple of seconds.

It was a strange experience, to see Eiji – sweet and soft Eiji – working out. Intellectually, Ash had known that Eiji was an athlete, but witnessing for himself just how strong he seemed to be… was something else.

All Ash could do was watch intensely, as Eiji was now performing sit-ups. Lying on his back with another athlete holding his feet, Eiji passed his hands behind his head and lifted his upper body off the ground, twisting his right elbow toward his left knee. Returning to his original position, he repeated the action again and again; until Ash lost count.

When Eiji finally stopped, he began to stretch himself thoughtfully. While he was still sitting on the floor, the other athlete went behind him to push his back down to his legs, helping him stretch. It triggered something weird in Ash, something he wasn’t used to feel. It was only when Eiji bent down again, mouth open in a sigh and the other vaulter’s hands sliding low on his back, that he understood that he was feeling envious. He couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like, to be at this athlete’s place, to feel Eiji’s body when his muscles tensed up and—

Fuck. Fuck. Eiji had invited him to look at pole-vaulting, not to stare at him with unwanted lust like a goddamn creep!

Ash got some sort of a break when Eiji and the others began to run around the stadium. He breathed in deeply, trying to force himself to relax. He was feeling exhausted and energized at the same time, like he was the one to have been through the training workout. Except that if his own cheeks were red and his breath was short, it was for a very different reason.

He tried to focus on his phone while Eiji was running. Max had sent him the unedited version of his last article and asked Ash for feedback. Ash closed his mailbox with a long sigh. He would deal with that later, he wasn’t trusting his cognitive abilities right now.

When he raised his head up from his phone, the pole vaulters had stopped running. Not long after, Eiji was positioning himself on the field, facing the cross bar, a pole in his hand.

He stood up straight, an intense look of focus on his face, and Ash caught himself holding his breath. He had never seen Eiji looking this serious, eyebrows slightly furrowed and brown eyes fixed on the bar. Clearly, even for someone as trained as he was, vaulting above the bar wasn’t something he could take lightheartedly.

Then, Eiji began to run, and before Ash could be fully prepared, he stung his pole into the floor and Ash watched, mesmerized, as he literally pushed his body off the ground, his muscles tensing under the effort and—

He was flying.

There wasn’t another word for it. One moment, he was on the floor, and the other he was up in the sky, only propelled by his own strength.

He passed above the bar smoothly and time seemed to freeze. In Ash’s eyes, there was only Eiji’s silhouette against the blue sky, flying so high Ash had to crane his neck to look at him.

Eiji fell on the mattress with a thud and the world came back to life around him. Ash let out the breath he was holding and heard Eiji’s teammates cheer for him, felt his heart beat erratically in his chest. He noticed that his own body had tensed up, watching Eiji vault, and rolled his shoulders back, forcing himself to unwind.

Eiji sat up on the mat, a joyful smile on his lips. Ash got his breath taken away once more, because of the brightness that emanated from him. The Japanese just seemed so happy at this instant that Ash felt himself smile like a madman in response. He had to stop himself from breaking into applause.

Eiji looked around himself and when he stared in Ash’s direction, the teenager witnessed the exact moment his friend noticed him. The Japanese startled a little, surprised, and his smile widened impossibly larger. He waved to Ash, radiating happiness, his chest bumped up proudly.

And he could be proud, what he had just accomplished was out of this world.

Ash smiled brightly, happiness bubbling in his chest in response. He felt like the luckiest man ever, for having the privilege to be at the other end of that smile.

Ash got up and stepped closer to the field, nearly mechanically, like his body couldn’t resist the attraction pulling him to the boy sitting on the mat. Eiji stood up too and joined him, bright grin still in place on his face.

“Ash! You came! I’m so happy!”

With his hair disheveled, his cheeks flushed, his chest raising up and down in erratic breaths, Eiji looked amazing. But it was nothing compared to the bright shine of his eyes, the energy coming from his body, the smile that lit up his whole face.

Ash was grinning too. “Of course, I came. You invited me.”

“So, what did you think?” Eiji asked expectantly.

“You were amazing.” he replied earnestly. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”

Eiji’s cheeks colored with a darker shade of pink and Ash was happy to see how pleased the Japanese seemed to be with his answer.

“I’m glad you came.” he said, and there was a little shyness to it that made Ash’s heart flutter in his chest.

Another pole vaulter approached them and put a hand on Eiji’s shoulder, breaking the spell by reminding Ash that Eiji and him weren’t all alone in the universe.  

“Great job, Eiji! Continue like that and you will eat Mizuno whole!”

Eiji turned a little pale at the mention of the name. “I will do my best.” he said, but he seemed to be a bit stressed out suddenly. Ash could only guess that this Mizuno was a competitor.

The pole vaulter didn’t miss the tremor in Eiji’s voice either. He patted the Japanese on the back.

“Don’t worry, you’ve been improving much lately, you will do great!”

Eiji nodded, seeming a little reasserted. Another athlete lent him a water bottle, and Eiji flashed him a thankful smile, taking the bottle eagerly. Ash took a mental note to bring water next time he would come to see Eiji train.

The athletes made their way back to training, but not without giving Ash a long stare, as if they were surprised by his presence. Impervious to their attitude, Eiji stayed back and opened the bottle. He drank long eager sips, his head thrown back, his Adam’s apple bobbling up and down as he did so.

Ash’s mouth went dry as he took in the sight in front of him. Eiji was so damn attractive, with his training attire clinching to his body, little droplets of sweat rolling down his temple into his neck and—

When he let the bottle down, Eiji caught Ash blatantly staring. Tilting his head to the side, he proposed him the bottle.

“You’re thirsty?” he asked innocently.

Ash took the extended bottle by reflex and his mind court-circuited. He stared down at it, very conscious of the fact that Eiji’s plump lips had been all over the bottleneck not a second ago. His hand gripped the bottle tightly, making it shrink a little, as he recalled how enthusiastically the Japanese had gulped down the water of this very bottle.

It would be weird not to drink off it now that he had it in his hand, no?

Distantly, Eiji’s coach called for him, saving Ash from his dilemma.

“Okumura! Now is not the time to flirt, lover boy. Get your ass here and do me another jump.”

Eiji’s entire face became bright red.

“Y-yes coach! I’m coming!” he stammered as his teammates snickered from afar.

He turned to Ash, still very flushed. “I have to go. Practice will run for some time again and—”

“I will be waiting for you.”

Eiji took a sharp intake of breath, his eyes widening with surprise. For a second, his lips quirked up in a smile, but his expression turned soon apologetic.

“You don’t have to, I won’t be able to hang out with you, after I’m done. I have to head straight to home, so—"

Ash shook his head. “That’s okay. We can chat up on our way to the parking? I really don’t mind waiting.”

Eiji hesitated a second before acquiescing. “Alright, good. I have something I want to discuss with you, anyway.”

When Eiji headed back to his coach, Ash was left wondering what Eiji had meant by that. It surely wasn’t much serious, because Eiji hadn’t seemed off and the Japanese was unable to hide his feelings.

Ash managed to read and edit Max’s article while Eiji finished training. He hasn’t much to say about it, as it was a good article, but he liked how Max was seeking his insight so easily.

When Ash raised his head up from his phone, the field was empty. Eiji reappeared soon after. He had changed from his training attire into his day clothes; a blue hoodie and jeans. His hair was a little damp and he seemed fresh, so Ash deduced he must have taken a quick shower. He seemed so impossibly cute and soft that Ash had to fight the desire to pass an arm across his shoulders to hold him close.

Since Eiji had said he had little time to talk, Ash decided to get right away to the heart of the matter.

“So, what did you want to talk about?” he asked as they began to walk to the parking.

Eiji fidgeted with the string of his hoodie. “Ash…” he hesitated. “Did you find out why Dylan attacked you?”

Ash hadn’t thought back of Dylan at all since he had hit him. He hadn’t been bothered by him again, anyway. He would never have guessed Eiji wanted to talk about the footballer.

“I didn’t.”

Eiji nodded thoughtfully, and Ash could see he had something on his mind.

“You know something about it?”

Eiji startled, surprised to have been seen through. “I- I do, actually.” The Japanese bit his lips, seeming to be struggling with arranging what he would say next. “Dylan thinks you… he believes you’ve slept with his girlfriend.”

“What? That’s ridiculous.”

Eiji’s head snapped up. “That’s what I said!” he exclaimed, relieved.

Ash frowned to himself. It wasn’t that weird he would be targeted with that kind of rumor. Everyone thought he was a slut, after all.

“I don’t even know his girlfriend.” he began. “I don’t even know him. How…?”

“Remember the party at Charles’ house?”

Ash acquiesced. He didn’t know their host was called Charles, but he had been to only one party in his life, so he couldn’t be mistaking.

“Apparently, people saw you with his girlfriend Jenny, that night.”

As the name didn’t light any recognition into Ash’s eyes, Eiji continued.

“She was at the party. She has curly brown hair, really pretty. You recall her?”

Ash shook his head negatively.

“From what I heard, you’re supposed to have spent some time in a room alone with her.”

Oh. Oh. The girl he had helped out that night had curly brown hair! So, this was the reason he got punched in the face? Some idiots saw him go into a room with her and suddenly everyone thought she had cheated on her boyfriend with him?

“Fuck. I remember her now.” he breathed, shocked.

Eiji froze, his eyebrows knitting down.

“I mean, I didn’t sleep with her, obviously. But it’s true that I have been into a room alone with her, hence the source of the misunderstanding. She was very drunk, I only helped her find a quiet place to rest, and then she asked me to stay until she was asleep.”

Eiji stared at him blankly, before letting out a shaky laugh, his face softening.  

“I can’t believe… So, you were just there being a literal angel, and people assumed…? Ugh, people are the worst!”

Ash’s cheeks reddened. Hearing Eiji calling him an angel was… weird, because Ash definitively wasn’t one, but also… kind of nice?

“Well, this doesn’t surprise me. It isn’t even the worst thing people have ever said about me.”

Eiji’s pressed his lips into a tight line. “But it’s wrong!” he protested. “We have to tell the truth to everyone, and to Dylan, and—”

Ash shook his head. “Tell people? Like, how? You want to make a public announcement or something?”

Eiji didn’t seem amused by Ash’s joke.

“I don’t care about what people think of me.” Ash continued, shrugging casually. But as the words came out of his mouth, he stopped in his tracks. “… Do you care?” he asked. “You’ve seen how fast people make assumptions about me, and if you hang out with me, it’s only a matter of time before they begin to badmouth you too and—”

“I don’t care about that!” Eiji’s protest was earnest and quick, and it made Ash ease a little. “It’s just… I think it’s unfair, that people don’t know the real you.”

Ash smiled. “It’s okay, I don’t care about their opinion. And concerning Dylan, don’t you think his girlfriend already tried to tell him that this whole story was false? You think he will believe me better if I try to reason him?”

Eiji stared at his shoes, brows furrowed. “You’re right.” he murmured, but he didn’t seem fully convinced.

“And he didn’t come back to bother me, anyway.” Ash continued. “Let’s just forget about all this, okay? Like I said, I’m used to it.”

Eiji acquiesced again, but he still seemed preoccupied and stayed quiet a moment.

They had already reached Eiji’s car and Ash wasn’t satisfied with how that bastard footballer had managed to parasite the only conversation Ash had got with Eiji today.

Putting his hands in his pockets, he let out a long sigh. “It’s a shame you have to go back home so early.” he said, and he couldn’t help but to sound a bit whinny.

Eiji gave him a little smile. “Well, I did tell you it wasn’t worth waiting for me.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Ash grunted.

Eiji’s smile widened and Ash had to fight his blush. Shorter was right, maybe he was too transparent. That wasn’t good.

“I just wondered why you had to head home so soon.” he continued, doing his best to sound nonchalant. His lips quirked up in a teasing smirk. “Is your mom giving you a hard time again?”

Then, before Eiji could reply, a realization hit him like a truck. “Wait… Are you grounded?” he added, bewildered. “Is it because of the bike thing?”

The idea seemed ridiculous, but well, Ash never had that much experience with dealing with parents.

Eiji’s cheeks reddened with embarrassment. “No I wasn’t grounded. I mean, my mom was pissed off, but I’m too old to be grounded over things like that.” he protested.

“Then why?”

Eiji hesitated, and suddenly he seemed much more serious. “I need to go home, so I can take my mom on the way, before heading to the hospital.”

Ash stilled, surprised. “The hospital?”

“Yes. We’re visiting my father.”

Oh. Ash stared at Eiji, who was looking down at the floor with a frown. Ash had never been so at loss for words.

“Your father is hospitalized? Is it serious?” he inquired, even so he could tell from Eiji’s reaction that it surely was.

 Eiji looked up at him, and Ash could see him smooth his expression into something casual, and he didn’t like that one bit.

“It’s… kind of serious.” he replied. “My father got a liver’s disease, so he spends a lot of time hospitalized.”

“I’m sorry…” Ash replied, cursing himself for not knowing what to say in this situation. He was so… surprised. Eiji was clearly suffering from this situation, and Ash would never have guessed he had something like this on his mind. Maybe the Japanese was better at hiding his feelings than what Ash had thought.

“If there’s anything I can… I mean, I know I can’t do anything to help but… If you think of something, anything, I will be there for you, okay?”

It was not enough, but Ash had truly no idea of what to do. Yet, Eiji smiled at him, and it finally seemed genuine.

“Thank you. It already means a lot to me you would say that.”

“Of course. Whatever you need, whatever you ask, I will be there for you, alright?”

Eiji’s smile widened. “I know. Thank you, Ash.” He opened his car before turning to Ash a last time. “I really need to go now. See you tomorrow?”

Ash nodded, his throat awfully tight. “Yes, see you tomorrow.”

Ash walked to his motorbike with his heart heavy in his chest. He had rarely felt this useless in his life. He even had the feeling that Eiji had tried to make him feel better, by hiding his gloom, when it should have been the other way around. What could Ash do to make Eiji understand he didn’t need to put on a strong front for him?  

When Ash had burdened Eiji with the knowledge of his heavy past, Eiji had known how to act, what to say, to make Ash feel better; even so everything about what Ash had revealed was so fucked up and painful. And here, Eiji had barely showed Ash a glimpse of the sadness and concern he had for his ill father, and Ash had already felt overwhelmed. 

He had always pictured Eiji as a cheerful teenager living a regular, perfect life. He had thought Eiji had it all: a loving family, a normal childhood, a bright future… But if Eiji could conceal so easily something as heavy as his father’s declining health, then who know what else he could hide?

Ash vowed to himself that he would be there for Eiji. No matter what his friend was facing, no matter how bad Ash was at giving emotional support; the day Eiji would need him, he would be there.

 

---

 

His arms crossed over his chest, Eiji stared up at this damn book, which was just the book he had searched for ten whole minutes everywhere in the library aisles, but had the audacity to be stored on the highest shelf possible; which made it unreachable.

Eiji let out a groan. Not only he had lost a precious time searching for this book, but he was also sure he had passed in front of this specific shelf a total of three times, unable to even see the book because of how high it was placed.

And to make everything worse, he had kind of hoped finding Ash in the school’s library, as his friend seemed to love the place so much, only to be disappointed by his absence.

Standing on tip-toes, Eiji stretched his arm and tried to reach for the book. His fingers could only graze the shelf, but he didn’t let himself be discouraged. Steadying his stance by grasping the shelf with his other hand, he extended his arm further and was about to reach the book when—

He felt more than he heard someone coming behind his back, and surprised, he lost his balance.

He was saved from falling on his ass by a hand on his back that kept him on his feet, while the unidentified person used his free hand to grab the book in a smooth motion.

Eiji craned his neck to look up at the person, and his eyes met beautiful jade green.

Ash – because of course it was him – took a step back and removed his hand from Eiji as the Japanese turned around to face him; feeling half-embarrassed to be found in such a posture and half-pleased to see Ash.

Annoyance took over any other feelings, as Ash handed him the book, a cheeky grin on his lips and a playful glee in his eyes.

“I guess you really needed this book, uh?” he asked, amusement easily audible in his voice.

Eiji felt his cheeks flare up. “Thank you, but I was very fine until you came to disturb my balance.” he grumbled, reluctantly taking the book from Ash’s hands.

Ash quirked a brow. “Yeah, I could see that. You had everything under control.” he smirked.

The American looked down at the book’s cover as Eiji glared at him, failing to find a good comeback to shut Ash’s stupid mouth.

“The Catcher in the Rye?” he asked, surprised. “I didn’t know you liked Salinger.”

“I don’t.” Eiji replied, still too annoyed with Ash to reveal him he had never read any of Salinger’s book and therefore couldn’t have an opinion on the writer. “I need to read this for a class.”

He looked at Ash as the other nodded. There was a high probability Ash had already read the book, as he seemed to have read every book of the library.

“What do you think of it?” Eiji questioned. “You think I’ll like it?”

Ash stared at the book with a pensive look on his face. “I don’t know if you will necessarily like it. But at least… the style is peculiar but it’s not a difficult book to read.”

“You think I can’t read difficult books?” Eiji asked, vexed because even so it was kind of true he was relieved it wasn’t a hard obscure book to read, he didn’t want to admit it to such a book nerd like Ash.

Ash shook his head. “I never said that. But I know you dislike heavy literature books, so I thought you would be relieved.”

There was no trace of judgment in Ash’s voice, and Eiji felt his mood lighten.

Ash smiled. “Personally, I like this book. We can always talk about it, when you’re done reading.”

Eiji nodded, his lips quirking up in response to Ash’s smile. This perspective was a much better motivation than his professor’s assignment.

“So let’s say, in a couple months? That’s your reading pace, right?” the blond added, his gentle smile turning teasing again.

Eiji choose to ignore Ash’s snarky remark and made his way to the library counter to register his borrowing. He heard Ash follow him while chuckling to himself, apparently delighted by his own joke, or maybe by Eiji’s reaction. Ash was still wearing his self-satisfied smile when they left the library side by side.

They walked outside and sat on a bench, when Ash began to mercilessly tease Eiji again about his misadventure in the library.

“Why were you even in the library?” Eiji asked, annoyed. “I didn’t see you take any book there.”

Ash smiled. “Sing told me you were there.” he replied easily. “If I had known you were facing such hardships, I would have hurried up.” he added, tone teasing.

Eiji groaned. “You just can’t understand how annoying it is, that books are stored so high, because you are such a goddamn tree with no empathy. When I will tell Sing about it, he will relate.” 

Ash laughed at that. An angelic sound that echoed in Eiji’s ears, and his breath caught in his throat when he looked up at him, annoyance easily forgotten. Gently lit by the sunlight, Ash’s green eyes were shining, his face relaxed. He had never seemed so beautiful to Eiji.

Or no, maybe it wasn’t true. Ash was beautiful in everything he did. But when he smiled, and even more when he laughed, it never missed to make Eiji feel all sort of weird emotions. He wanted to keep that smile on that face. He wanted to hear this airy laugh every day, for the rest of his life. 

Oh. His heart missed a beat as the realization took over him. Oh. Am I in love with Ash?

Something warm and pleasing settled in his chest, making his body feel numb. “Of course you are, idiot.” a voice snarked in his head. “And that’s only now you notice it?” It felt so new, and at the same time it felt like Eiji had already loved Ash since forever. But more importantly, it felt right.

Ash caught him staring and raised an eyebrow, happiness still bright in his eyes.

“Why are you staring at me like that?” he asked, voice teasing.

Eiji opened his mouth, but his response stayed stuck in his throat. His feelings were all over the place right now, and he was too overwhelmed to think about anything to say that wasn’t dumb.

“Whatever you say, don’t say he’s beautiful,” the voice in his head implored. “don’t say it, don’t-“

“Hum,” he replied, forcing the words to exit his throat. “I just noticed that your eyelashes are blond too.”

Nice, Eiji.

As Ash opened his mouth to reply, his eyes glitching mischievously, the bell rang and Eiji hopped on his feet.

“Well, I guess we will see each other Saturday? At Chang Dai?” he said, aware that he seemed to be too much in a hurry to seem natural. “See you then, Ash!”

He walked away before Ash had even a chance to reply.

And Eiji wasn’t fleeing like a coward, no. He just needed time to think, time to accept. In such a short time, Ash had become Eiji’s most important person and Eiji hadn’t questioned it. But now that he realized the extent of his love for Ash, questions arisen in his mind. Questions he wasn’t sure to have answers for.

But one thing was sure. These feelings made Eiji’s the happiest he had ever been, and he wasn’t ready to give up on them.

Chapter Text

Eiji looked at his reflection in the mirror and grimaced when his gaze met tired eyes. He hadn’t had much sleep, last night.

Ash had texted him at two A.M, asking if he was up.

It was something he did sometimes. He would ask if Eiji was up at ungodly hours of the night, and then when Eiji would respond he was, he would get no answer.

He had talked to Shorter about it, and the other had been just as surprised, saying Ash had never acted like that with him. Then, he had hesitated before revealing to Eiji that Ash often woke up in the middle of the night after a terrible dream.

“Maybe he just needs to know you’re there, somewhere, awake?” Shorter had mused. “I don’t know. He dislikes asking for help, so he has a really peculiar way of doing so. But he never does anything without a reason, and I really don’t think he’s messing with you.”

After that conversation, Eiji had taken the habit of sending Ash pictures after his “Are you up?” texts. It could be pictures he had taken through the day; a dog, a cute cat, a sunrise or sometimes something artsier that he was proud of. Or if he was short of pictures, he would tell Ash something funny that had happened to him recently. It didn’t matter that Ash never replied and acted as if he had never texted him when they met the next day. Eiji didn’t dare to ask questions about it, afraid Ash would just stop altogether if Eiji voiced his curiosity.

Eiji made now sure to sleep with his phone next to him, the volume up. He didn’t want to miss that kind of text. He didn’t know why, but it seemed important.

Eiji retained a sigh, checking himself out a last time in the mirror before grabbing his keys. He wasn’t particularly dressed up, but well, it wasn’t like he needed to put on something fancier than what he wore at school since he was only going out to eat with Ash and Shorter.

Ash had called Eiji in the day to tell him he would take him to Chang Dai, as the place was apparently not that easy to find if you didn’t know where it was. However, recalling his mom’s reaction to his latest bike ride, Eiji had thought it would be safer if he was the one to take Ash on the way to the restaurant.

He hoped Ash wouldn’t catch on his reason to deny the ride because if he did, he would probably tease him relentlessly. Eiji didn’t want to look like a mommy’s boy to his friend but… he definitively didn’t want to risk his mother finding out he had transgressed again the No Bike Rule so soon.

---

Ash glanced at his reflection in the mirror of the room he occupied at Max’s house. He had decided to wear the kind of clothes he wore more or less every day, stubbornly decided to act like the dinner wasn’t a date because, despite what Shorter could say, it really wasn’t.

He looked at his phone to check the time. Eiji was probably on his way to get him. Ash put the phone in his jeans’ pocket with a smile. The Japanese had obviously denied the ride Ash had gallantly offered because he was following his mom’s bike ban and Ash had already a thousand teasing remarks on the tip of his tongue.

He wasn’t sure he would voice them to Eiji, though. It would entirely depend on Eiji’s attitude. If the boy engaged a verbal sparring with Ash, like he so often did, Ash had far enough material to assure himself an easy win.

For the time being, Ash focused on more urgent matters. Since Eiji was the one to give Ash a ride to Chang Dai, that let Ash with a problem. Because this meant Eiji had to take Ash at Max’s house, where he had spent the afternoon and planned to spend the weekend. And Ash simply didn’t trust Max and Jessica to not embarrass him in front of Eiji.

His plan to avoid that situation was simple: he had asked Eiji to text him after parking in front of the house, and he would rush out right away while yelling to Max that he was going out with a friend. Plus, Ash was lucky: Max’s friend and coworker Shunichi Ibe was at home this afternoon, which meant Max and Jessica would be busy with him, and less suspicious of Ash’s behavior.

Ash walked in circles in his room while waiting for Eiji’s text. The plan was simple, but maybe it was too simple. He had the feeling he couldn’t avoid Max and Jessica putting their noses everywhere.

When finally his phone’s screen lit up with a simple “I’m here” from Eiji, Ash grabbed his jacket and ran downstairs. He avoided Jessica and was nearly at the door when—

A large hand pressed his shoulder, forcing him to stop before he could reach the door. Ash barely retained a grimace. He was doomed.

“Where do you think you’re running like that, kid?” Max asked, tone tranquil. “You didn’t tell us you were going out tonight.” 

Ash huffed. “Yeah, yeah, I guess I forgot. My friend is waiting for me so—”

“A friend?” Jessica joined Max, making it impossible for Ash to hope to reach the door without further explanations. “Is it this new friend you’re always talking about?”

“I’m not talking about him that much.” Ash grumbled, because it was true, he had been prudent not to mention Eiji too much.

Max’s lips stretched into a shit-eating grin. “Yes, I’ll give you that. But for you to talk about a friend more than a couple of time, mean that this friend must be damn special.”

Jessica was already opening the front door, an excited smile on her red lips. “I can’t wait to see who he is, I’ll tell him to go inside.”

“Don’t—” Ash protested. “We’re in a hurry, we don’t have the time to—”

But Jessica was already outside. Shunichi had joined them in the hall, and he gave Ash a sympathetic smile.

Ash sighed, defeated. He couldn’t say he hadn’t expected things to go exactly like this.

Jessica reappeared soon after, Eiji behind her. Even in this situation, the sight of his friend made Ash’s heart beat faster, his lips quirking up without his consent. The Japanese gave Ash a shy smile, to which Ash replied by an apologetic grimace.

“Ei-chan??”

Startled by Shunichi’s exclamation, Eiji turned to face the older Japanese, his eyes widening comically larger.  

“Ibe-san??” he exclaimed, as surprised as the photographer.

It clicked in Ash’s mind. Eiji had say that the photographer who had taken his pole-vaulting picture was named Ibesan, but Ash hadn’t made the link between this name and Shunichi Ibe.

Max stared at Eiji and Ibe with his mouth wide open, before glancing at Ash and bursting into a loud laughter.

“I can’t believe—” he exclaimed, struggling to talk because of his hilarity. “Your new friend is Shunichi’s Ei-chan? Oh my god this is so funny.”

Eiji was fumbling with his bag’s strap, clearly embarrassed. Ash opened his mouth to say something, anything that would salvage the situation, but Max was faster.

He turned to Eiji and extended his hand to him. “I’m Max,” he said, giving him a wide smile. “I’m glad to be able to finally meet you, Ei-chan. Shunichi talks about you all the damn time.”

Eiji’s eyes widened again, his expression a mix of admiration and surprise. Ash remembered what he had told Eiji about Max and he did make the man seem like a damn hero saving him from Dino’s hell.

Which was kind of true, of course, but Ash knew Eiji’s admiration wouldn’t last long. He would suffice he drank a couple beers with the man to see he was more of a very annoying old man than a superhero.

“My name is Eiji.” he replied eagerly, shaking Max’s hand. “I’m glad to meet you too, Ash talked about you.”

Ash grimaced. Was Eiji forced to bring that up? Max’s ego didn’t need to be flattered.

Max smiled, pleased. “Oh, he did, eh? I trust he only said nice things.”

Jessica stepped up and her too, shacked Eiji’s hand. “I’m Jessica,” she said. “Max’s wife. Glad to meet at the same time Shunichi’s muse and Ash’s new friend.”

Eiji’s cheeks colored with a beautiful shade of pink.

“Oh, uh, I’m glad to meet you too.” he stammered.

“He’s so cute.” Jessica cooed, eyeing Eiji from head to toe with a wide grin. “Say boy, would you be interested in modeling for my mag? You already modeled for Shunichi so—”

Ash thought that he had endured enough of this hell. Walking behind Eiji, he put his hands on his shoulders and made him turn on himself, before entailing him to the door.

“Okay, we’re out now. Bye everyone!”

Behind him were a concert of grunts from Max and Jessica grumbling about how impolite and ungrateful he was, but he ignored them. Eiji turned his head to say goodbye to everyone, but Ash pushed him through the door, keeping his hands on his shoulders until they reached his car.

When they finally got in the car, safely away from Max and Jessica, he let out a long sigh.

“Sorry about that, I hoped I could avoid this.”

Eiji shook his head, smiling widely. “No no, I think they all seem very nice. I’m happy to have met them.” Eiji paused. “I’m surprised you know Ibe-san, but now that I think about it, he did talk to me about a friend called Max a couple of times. I just didn’t make the connection. I though your Max was a policeman.”

Ash shook his head. “He was. He is a journalist now.” He grazed his neck, embarrassed. “He was kind of fired because of me. I told you, the NYPD was corrupted by the mafia, so it wasn’t easy to investigate on them. Officially at least.”

As Eiji started the car, Ash rapidly changed the subject and they talked easily until they reached Chang Day. At least Eiji hadn’t ran away upon meeting Max and Jessica, so Ash could consider it a win.

---

When they entered the restaurant, the place was strangely calm. Shorter jumped to great them as soon as Ash pushed the wooden door, excitement written all over his face.  

“Ash, Eiji! Welcome! You’re right on time!”

Ash looked around himself, surprised to note that the restaurant was completely empty. He stared back at Shorter, who scratched at his nape.

“Yeah, we’re closed tonight… Nadia got a small fever and we decided to close so she can rest.”

Ash’s eyebrows rose up. “And you still— Shouldn’t you be with her? Is she okay?”

Shorter waved him off. “She’s alright, don’t worry. She’s snoring like a baby as we talk. She doesn’t need me to stay at the end of her bed. She can always call me if her state gets worse, but really, the doctor said she would be fine after a good night of sleep.”

Ash sighed, relief washing over him. “That’s good, then.”

Shorter’s lips quirked up in a crooked smile. “I’ll tell her you worried, though.” he teased. “She’ll be flattered.”

Ash grumbled under his breath, embarrassed, while Shorter leaded them to a table, still beaming like an idiot.

Two things caught Ash’s eyes, then.

1/ The table Shorter was gesturing to was dressed for two.

2/ Shorter had put candles on it.

Ash whipped his head at Shorter, throwing all his annoyance into a heated glare. Of course, Shorter’s only reaction was to snicker, pleased by Ash’s silent response.

Eiji was still in the hall, staring around him in awe.

“It’s really beautiful in here, Shorter.” he exclaimed, impressed. “I really like the atmosphere.”

Shorter preened under the compliment. “I know, right? I always knew you had good taste, Eiji.”

When Eiji reached the table, he stopped in his track, eying the romantic set up with surprise. Ash’s heart tightened in his chest, and he waited for his reaction with dread.

Ash didn’t like the turn of events. He really had thought it would just be eating out at Chang Dai with Eiji as friends, despite what Shorter had said. And he was happy with it. But now that they were at it, it felt too much like tricking Eiji into a forced date.

“Hum, you’re not eating with us, Shorter?” Eiji asked finally, tearing his gaze from the table to look at Shorter, his eyebrows up in question. 

At least he didn’t sound bothered or annoyed. Just perplex. It was really a blessing to Ash, to always be able to know what Eiji was feeling without having to worry if he was pretending or lying. Every emotion Eiji felt was on display on his face at every given moment.

“No no,” Shorter replied. “We’re closed, but it’s still a restaurant here, you know. I take my role as a chef very seriously, and a chef doesn’t eat with his clients.”

“Oh. That’s too bad.”

Ash tried to ignore the little pang at his heart at Eiji’s reaction. Of course Eiji would be a bit disappointed, he enjoyed Shorter’s company too and had thought they would all eat together.

In fact, Ash was even glad that Eiji already liked Shorter that much. The two of them had clicked right away, and it had made Ash happy. He loved hanging out with the two of them, after all, so he was lucky they became good friends so fast.

Ash took a quick decision.

“Eiji, you should sit down, I will go help Shorter bring the stuffs we need.”

Shorter chocked on air. “The stuffs??” he repeated, offended. “You mean, the entrée, right? The food prepared for you with care and love? The wonders of Chinese’s trad—”

“Yeah, yeah; sorry, I meant the food.” Ash cut him off, rolling his eyes. Then he paused, only now realizing something he should have understood right away.

“Wait… If Nadia’s not feeling well… Does it mean you cooked?”

Shorter bumped his chest up proudly. “I did. It will not disappoint, I promise.”

Ash held himself back from reacting. Why was Shorter always so eager to cook when his skills in a kitchen were so bad? The dinner promised to be… interesting, at the very least.

Ash pulled Shorter to the kitchen, leaving Eiji alone at the table.

“Dude,” he hissed, once safely away from Eiji’s ears. “Candles?

Shorter chuckled. “Before you kill me, I want to say that it was worth it. The face you made was so fucking delightful.”

Ash sighed heavily. “Shorter… I’m thankful for what you’re trying to do, really, but it’s so unnecessary. At least, come to eat the food with us. I promise I prefer it that way. It’s just too weird having you in the kitchen while we eat.”

Shorter stared at him with evident surprise. “You want me to eat with you? But it will ruin your date!”

“Shorter, for the last time, this is not a date! But this is fine too! It’ll be fun, come on.”

Shorter stayed silent a while, considering Ash’s words. Then, his lips quirked up in a smile.

“Alright.” he conceded. “I can see I kind of forced your hand, and I know you don’t like that, sorry.”

Ash opened his mouth to protest, but Shorter stopped him by holding out a hand. “I will eat the main dishes with you two, I kind of want to see Eiji’s reaction to them, anyway.”

Ash bit back his smile. “I’m sure his reaction will be priceless.”

Shorter frowned. “Oh, you shut up. Eiji is Asian, I’m sure he has a better palate than you.”

“Yeah, I’m sure the problem is only my palate.”

Shorter let out a frustrated groan. “Laugh all you want, white boy, but we’ll see.” He paused. “But I’m leaving you two alone for the dessert, and this is not negotiable.” he added with a wink.

Ash shrugged. “Alright, whatever you want.”

He let his gaze browse the kitchen. He had to hand it to Shorter, it wasn’t as much of a mess he feared it would be.

“So, what are we beginning with?”

“This!” Shorter gave him a plate filled with dumplings. “Bring that first, I’ll take the rest!”

Ash joined Eiji back at the table. Putting the plate on it, he took some chopsticks and a plate for Shorter to eat with them and added a chair before sitting across from the Japanese.

“Shorter’s eating with us finally.”

Eiji nodded, a small smile on his lips. Ash was still annoyed by the romantic way Shorter had arranged the table, but he had to admit that the light provided by the candles was really complementing Eiji’s eyes, the dark irises reflecting the fire warmly.

Shorter broke Ash’s contemplation when he joined them with more dishes that he uncovered in an extravagant wrist gesture.

“Tadam! I call this Shorter’s special dinner! I hope you’ll enjoy it!”

Ash held himself back from rolling his eyes. This was the most ridiculous name he had even heard and it suited Shorter’s cuisine perfectly.

Eiji lit up, staring at the food with wide eyes. “Oh, this looks delicious, Shorter! Thank you for inviting me, it made me really happy.”

“He he, thanks, but it’s nothing!” Shorter replied, a proud smile in his lips. “Don’t say anything before you tried it!”

Ash grimaced. Yeah, the dishes looked good, but he knew for a fact that Shorter’s food was rarely tasty.

And indeed, when Eiji took his first bite, Ash and Shorter’s gazes fixated on his pink lips for two very different reasons; his eyes widened with surprise, before his expression turned pensive. He chewed silently, apparently unaware that his friends were suspended at his lips.

“So?” Shorter asked, unable to wait any longer for Eiji’s reaction. “How is it?”

Eiji gulped his food down, a distant air of reflection on his face. “… I wonder…” he replied, meditative. “The skin dumpling is crispy and quite burned, so at first glance you could almost say that it is a harumaki…”

Ash bit down his laugh as Shorter’s face fell a little.

“Harumaki? What’s that?” he asked, hoping to distract Eiji from his harsh critic of Shorter’s dumplings.

“Japanese spring rolls… But, no, it doesn’t really taste like it. The inside is over-seasoned with soy sauce, so it’s definitively different from harumaki…” Eiji continued, still chewing pensively.

Ash took a dumpling himself. Yep, it was definitively as bad as Eiji said. Ash wouldn’t have been able to put his finger on what was wrong with it though, as opposed to Eiji. He didn’t know the Japanese knew so much about cooking.

Shorter ate his own food with a pout. “… Yeah, right. Maybe it is a little burned. And heavy on soy sauce. But so what? Soy sauce is so good!” He let out an exaggerated sigh. “Dumplings are so hard to get right. You’ll like the rest better, I promise!”

Eiji did not like the rest better. Every dish was met with a thoughtful critic. It was obvious Eiji wasn’t trying to be mean, no… He was just so honest. Habitually, Ash just commented that Shorter’s food was lousy, and left things at that. But Eiji commented on everything, tone casual but savagely blunt.

When Shorter left them to go grab water, Ash leaned over the table.

“Hey,” he whispered. “Could you lay down on the critics a bit?”

Eiji’s eyes widened. “Critics? I’m not criticizing! Shorter’s asking for my opinion on everything, I’m just saying what I think, it’s all.”

Ash chuckled. “I know, I know, but it’s a little harsh on Shorter’s ego, if you see what I mean.”

Eiji considered Ash’s words with a frown. “So, you want me to lie?” he asked with bewilderment.

Ash shook his head, amused. “No, not necessarily. Just… I don’t know, be less… brutal.”

“You think I’m being brutal?” Eiji bit his lips, the crease between his furrowed brows deepening. Then, he took a sharp intake of breath. “Oh, no... You’re right!” he realized, horrified. “I’ve been so ungrateful! Shorter worked really hard on all this and I—”

Shorter reappeared with new plates of dishes and Eji closed his mouth shut. He looked so genuinely guilty that Shorter quirked an eyebrow at Ash, silently questioning. Ash shook his head discreetly while Shorter served Eiji’s plate.

When Eiji took a bite on his Shumai, his eyebrows rose to his hair in surprise and his lips quirked up.

 “Amazing Shorter!” he exclaimed. “This Shumai tastes like it’s made from space!”

Ash couldn’t help but to broke into laughter at Eiji’s genuine outburst of surprise and at Shorter’s reaction to it. Was the Japanese really unable to lie about anything?

Shorter slumped back on his chair. “Alright…” he whined. “I’m defeated.”

Eiji’s head whipped up from his plate. “Oh, no I— I didn’t mean… The whole meal was really interesting Shorter, thank you for everything and—”

Interesting?” Shorter sighed, cutting Eiji’s tirade. “It’s okay Eiji, no need to try to sugarcoat it. It’s not like I’m surprised, the only person who seem to enjoy my cooking is Sing after all…”

Ash let out a short laugh. “I’m still convinced Sing is lying to your face.”

“He’s not!” Shorter protested strongly. “I can tell, he really likes it!”

Eiji put his chopsticks down. “How about next time we cook something together, Shorter?” he proposed, a gentle smile on his lips. “Cooking all that all by yourself must have been hard, I’m sure it would be better if you had help.”

“You know how to cook?”

Eiji smiled. “I don’t want to brag, but yes, I do.” he replied, and he did seem to boast about it, which made Ash smile, endeared. He wondered if Eiji really was a good cook or if he, like Shorter, simply lacked self-awareness.

Shorter lit up. “That’s good! Yeah, we could try that! Next time, you show me how it’s done, Japanese style!”

Eiji chuckled and the conversation derived to other subjects. The food was maybe not the best, but it truly didn’t matter much to the three teenagers, who rapidly put their chopsticks away to talk with animation.

It really was a fun evening. At one point, Shorter laughed so hard some rice grins came out of his nose, making Ash and Eiji cry with laughter.

After a while, Shorter stared at his phone and they all realized it was already quite late.

“I have to go, guys.” he sighed reluctantly. “I need to check on my sister. Eat the dessert without me, I will come back later to close the restaurant.”

Eiji and Ash helped Shorter clean the kitchen and wash the dishes, and it was a miracle they weren’t all soaked wet by the end of it given how much they fooled around. When Ash received a wet sponge in the face, unable to tell if Eiji or Shorter had thrown it, he couldn’t even pretend to get mad.

When the kitchen was finally clean, Shorter checked the time again.

“Ah, I really have to go, now. Just turn off the light when you leave, you two. You can put down your dishes in the dishwasher. Also, I didn’t have the time to cook a dessert so it’s just ice cream, sorry.”

Ash huffed with exasperation. “Are you kidding? No need to apologize, ice cream will do perfectly.”

“Yes, thank you so much for tonight, Shorter. I had so much fun!” Eiji added enthusiastically.

Shorter passed a hand in his purple hair, embarrassed. “Ah, no need to thank me, I had fun too, you know… We definitively have to do that again soon!”

Eiji acquiesced eagerly. The three of them took ice cream from the fridge and Ash and Eiji sat back at the table while Shorter left in direction of the door.

“Well, goodnight guys! See you at school!”

Ash waved after him. “Night Shorter. And say hello to Nadia for me, alright?”

Shorter smiled. “Will do! Bye!”

Ash’s eyes followed Shorter as the Chinese left the restaurant to take the stairs that would lead him to the apartment he shared with Nadia, on top of the building. When he stared back at Eiji, the Japanese was looking at him with a smile, his cheek resting in his hand.

“What?” he asked, suddenly embarrassed by Eiji’s attentive look.

“Nothing, it’s just…” Eiji straitened himself and his smile widened. “You really care for Shorter a lot.”

Ash felt his cheeks flare up. “W-what? Why do y—”

Eiji shook his head, chuckling softly. “Don’t be embarrassed. I think it’s really nice, that you and Shorter are such good friends. It’s obvious you two care a lot for the other.”

Ash huffed and tried to hide his red cheeks by turning his head away and taking a sip of his water.

“Yeah, we’re friend.” he grunted. “No need to babble uselessly about that.”

Eiji didn’t seem discouraged by Ash’s dismissal. “How did you two became friends?” he asked, his eyes alight with curiosity.

Ash put his glass down on the table and considered the question. “Well, when I entered the school, Shorter and I were in detention nearly every weekend. After a while we became friends. There’s not much to say about it.”

Eiji’s eyes widened. “Detention? You don’t get much in troubles at school, though?”

Ash smiled. “Not anymore. I understood quickly that everything would be so much easier if I pretended to lay down, you know? I was tired of wasting my time in detention.” His smile took a sharp edge. “Shorter’s an idiot, though. He still gets detention too often for his own good.”

Eiji chuckled. “I think Shorter is really amazing.” he said, a soft smile on his lips.

Ash grinned. “He is, I’ll give you that.” He took a bite of his ice cream. “Sometimes, I think… If he didn’t become my friend, I would have turned out very differently…”

Eiji perked up, frowning slightly. “What do you mean by that?”

Ash shook his head. He had said too much. He didn’t want to destroy the mood with his dark thoughts.

“Nothing.” he replied.

Eiji’s frown deepened, but he didn’t insist further. Ash tried to think of something else to say to change the subject of conversation without seeming too obvious, his fingers playing mindlessly with the chopsticks that were still on the table.

Eiji’s eyes followed his gesture, fixed on Ash’s long fingers.

“You know,” he said. “You’re really good with chopsticks. I thought about that when we were eating. You wouldn’t stand out in Japan.”

“Japan, uh?” Ash smiled, thinking he would stand out for a lot of other evident reasons. “When was the last time you went there?”

“Not so long ago, actually. We try to go back to Japan every summer. My mother visits her sister and mother, who still live there.”

Ash nodded and stared at Eiji, who had now a contemplative look on his face, his eyes far away.

“And… Maybe I will return to Japan for longer than just the summer, next year.” he added after a pause, like an afterthought.

“What do you mean?”

Eiji startled, and he seemed surprised to have spoken out loud. Maybe it would have made Ash laugh another day, but he had the feeling he knew what Eiji meant and it made his stomach churn with apprehension. 

Eiji hesitated shortly. “I’m thinking of studying abroad in Japan, when I’m done with high school.”

“You mean… You would go to college there? In Japan?”

“Yeah, a university offered me a scholarship for pole vaulting. I could continue being an athlete, and maybe even become pro.”

Ash swallowed the lump that had formed in the very back of his throat.

“So, starting next year, you’ll be living in Japan?”

He had never considered the possibility of Eiji leaving for Japan. He had never thought their time together could be running out. It felt as if everything crumbled around him. It was surely a great opportunity for Eiji, but Ash couldn’t force himself to smile.

Eiji shook his head. “I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet. Sometimes, I get sure that’s what I want to do with my life, but other times… I doubt.” Eiji hesitated and Ash stayed carefully silent, waiting for him to continue.

“I doubt a lot.” Eiji breathed, and it sounded like a difficult admission. “I don’t know if I’m good enough for pole vaulting. I like the sport, it brings me so much joy sometimes! But there’s also…” Eiji fumbled with his spoon. “I hate how it feels to lose. To feel like I’m not good enough. The expectations of everyone around me. Sometimes, all of this is crushing me. I don’t want to disappoint everyone, and it feels...”

Ash’s heart tightened in his chest. Eiji talked so rarely about his troubles that it was easy to think he faced none. But he could tell the Japanese put himself under a lot of pressure. If only there was something Ash could do to take some of that weight off his shoulders…

Eiji let out a long sigh. “Sorry…” he said, forcing his lips into a small smile. “I don’t want to bother you with all my dumb doubts… I have a competition coming soon so I guess I’m a little stressed out…”

“It’s not dumb!” Ash protested, voice so loud in contrast to Eiji’s whispered admission, it made them both startle.  

Eiji stared up at him with surprise.

“You can tell me these things, you know. I—” Ash hesitated, feeling his cheeks heat up slightly. “You’re there for me, I want to be there for you too…” he adverted his gaze, embarrassed. “… I mean, if you want to, I don’t know if I’m even making any sense, but I mean—”

“Ash.”

Ash whipped his head to look back at him. Eiji was smiling softly, and the Japanese reached over the table to put his hand on Ash’s own, carefully, like he wanted to let Ash the time to refuse the contact.

Ash didn’t dare to move, and Eiji’s hand touched his, light like a feather.

“Thank you.” Eiji said, his voice a soft whisper. “I know I can rely on you. These things I just told you, I… That’s the first time I tell them to someone other than Ibe-san... I’m not good at talking about myself. But it helps to know you’ll listen, so… thank you.”

Ash blushed further. “You don’t need to thank me,” he grumbled. “You’re there for me, and I’m there for you. That’s all.”

Ash cringed as the words came out of his mouth. It felt too damn vulnerable to expose to Eiji how much he meant to him. But Eiji’s fingers on the back of his hand were soft and the contact made him feel braver than usual.

“You… you said you were hesitating… What would you do if you don’t accept this scholarship in Japan?” he asked, eager to distance the conversation from himself.

“Well,” Eiji took back his hand and Ash tried not to let show how he already missed his contact. “I guess I could still pole-vault in America… There are Universities with interesting track and field’s programs… But also… I’m beginning to be really invested in photography. I would like to learn further about it. But I don’t know… I don’t know if it’s just a hobby, or even if I’m any good at it.”

Ash had a little smile. A photographer? He could see Eiji rock that, his love for photography was obvious.

“For what my opinion is worth…” he began hesitantly. “I really love your pictures.”

This was the first time Ash acknowledged he saw the pictures Eiji sent him when he texted him at night. The first time he acknowledged the texts he sent Eiji when it was so late. He waited for his reaction, his heart beating erratically in his chest.

Eiji’s lips quirked up in a pleased smile. “You like them? I’m glad, then. I’ll send you more.”

Ash’s heart was in his throat. Not only did Eiji not call him on his weird habit, but he didn’t even ask for explanations. He simply looked genuinely happy about Ash’s opinion on his pictures.

“I— I guess I own you an explanation. For those texts I send you at night…”

Eiji seemed surprised he brought the subject. “You don’t owe me anything. You’re not forced to tell me, if you don’t want to.”

Ash frowned. “But doesn’t it bother you? I send you weird texts in the middle of the night and I don’t even have the courtesy to respond afterwar!”

“It doesn’t bother me, really.”

Ash stayed silent a beat. Eiji was just too good for him. Ash had done nothing to deserve his friendship.

“Sometimes, I woke up and I… I have bad dreams. Like, really bad. When this happens… One night, I just wanted to know if you were awake, somewhere. I wanted to make sure… I know it’s dumb, and when you replied, I felt guilty and… I thought that if I didn’t reply, if I acted like nothing had happened, it would be alright. But then, I did it another time, and another… and I just feel so shitty to bother you like this and every time I think okay, this was the last time, and so I don’t respond to you and—”

“Ash.”

Ash stopped his words vomit to look at Eiji, realizing he had probably said more than he had meant to.

“Does it help you, to send me these texts?”

Ash hesitated. He could lie and say he wouldn’t do it again. Ask Eiji to forget about it. It would be easy.

“It… yeah, it really helps.”

Eiji smiled. “Then, I want you to continue doing it. And without feeling guilty about it! You don’t even have to reply to me, I really don’t mind. If it can help you to know I’m awake and thinking about you, then, I want to do it.”

Ash blushed. I’m thinking about you. How could Eiji always know what to say to make Ash feel better? Knowing Eiji was there somewhere, awake and alright and thinking about him? It was selfish, but it helped. It helped greatly.

“Thank you.” he managed to croak, his voice so tight it made it difficult to talk.

They stayed silent a bit. Ash tried to eat his ice cream, but his heart wasn’t really at it.

“You know…” Eiji started hesitantly. “With just the two of us in the restaurant, candles on the table… It would nearly seem like a date or something…”

Ash whipped his head up to stare at Eiji with wide eyes. The Japanese had his own head bent, his gaze fixed on the table, the tips of his ears bright red.

Ash could nearly hear Shorter scream in his head to encourage him to talk. “It’s the perfect occasion,” imaginary Shorter would say, “ask him if he wants to make it a date!

“Or so I imagine…” Eiji continued, chuckling with embarrassment. “I’ve never been to a date…”

“Never?”

Fuck, that wasn’t what Ash wanted to say, but it was so surprising to find out Eiji had never been on a date that he couldn’t help himself. Eiji was so perfect! And so popular at school! He deserved all the dates in the world! 

Eiji shook his head. “No, never.” he raised his head to look at Ash, a little pout on his lips. “What about you? I’m sure you must be really popular…”

Ash felt himself smile. Eiji seemed so sure about it.

“You know what? I’ve never been to a date either. However, it’s true that even given my reputation at school, I still get girls asking me out regularly.” he said, his lips up in a crooked smile. He couldn’t resist but to tease Eiji. He was just too darn adorable when he was pissed off, with his doe eyes glaring at him with unimpressive heat.

Eiji let out a short laugh but Ash could see he was annoyed, which made it impossible to hide his own smile. Ash didn’t understand how Eiji could be jealous of his success with girls when he was so popular himself. Was he really that blind?

“But you know… All these girls weight nothing. I can’t think of anyone I would prefer to be with right now.” Ash continued mindlessly.

He didn’t have the time to worry about saying too much, because Eiji’s smile widened, his eyes shining with blatant happiness. Ash was struck once again by his beauty. How simply happy it made him to be by his side.

“It’s the same for me.” Eiji replied earnestly. “I’m glad to be here with you.”

Ash’s heart was beating so strongly in his chest he feared Eiji could hear it all the way across the table. He knew he didn’t deserve Eiji’s friendship, but he couldn’t help but to be damn grateful about it. This was something he would cherish forever.

“That’s enough.” he thought, an easy smile settling on his lips. “I can’t ask for more. It’s already far more than what I deserve.”

---

The drive back was silent. The evening had been so pleasant, but as soon as they had hopped in Eiji’s car, a new tension had taken over them. Which Eiji had troubles explaining, because usually, it was so easy to be with Ash. It was the first time it felt… awkward.

For the Japanese, part of his silence was because he didn’t want the night to end. It was surely idiotic since they had spent the whole evening together, but waiting for Monday to see Ash again was…

Eiji gave himself a mental slap. Gosh, I really have it bad, he thought, annoyed with his own attitude.

And suddenly, an even worse thought crossed his mind and made him so flustered he feared Ash would need a glance into his eyes to know what he was thinking about.

Because in every romantic movies Eiji had watched with his sister, the moment the car slowed down in front of the other person house was the moment the two protagonists stared at each other for an uncomfortable amount of time before kissing with passion and—

Fuck, Eiji could feel his cheeks heat up violently. He hoped against all hope Ash wouldn’t catch on it in the obscurity of the night.

When Eiji finally gathered the courage to spare a glance in Ash’s direction, he saw that the other teenager was silent because he was… on his phone. Feeling Eiji’s eyes on him, Ash quickly finished his apparently very important text and Eiji tried to eat back his annoyance. It wasn’t like he expected Ash to be in the same sort of silence as he was… but still. He hoped for something else.

Ash smiled at him and Eiji’s annoyance eased down a bit because Ash’s smile was always so soft and nice that it seemed to be the cure to everything and—

… And again, this thought was ridiculously cheesy. Yut-Lung liked to say that Eiji had a disgustingly soft heart – to which Eiji would always protest loudly – but if his friend could hear what silly thoughts crossed Eiji’s mind when he was with Ash, he would probably make a scene. And for once he would be right; even Eiji could admit he was being too damn much.

Fortunately, Ash had also a very effective way to shut up Eiji’s romantic thoughts.

“Do you always drive like a fricking grandma?” the blond teenager snickered after Eiji mindlessly used his turn signal even so the road was desert.

Eiji let out a groan. “If you’re unhappy with how I drive, you can go home by foot.”

Ash gave him his most innocent look. “You would abandon me on the streets, alone in the dark?” he asked, his voice falsely vulnerable.

Eiji wasn’t fooled. “I wouldn’t have to think twice about it.” he deadpanned.

Ash chuckled and propped his feet on the glove compartment. “Maybe I would be home faster that way.” he observed, amusement loud in his voice.

Eiji pursed his lips. He had nothing to retort to that, because he had noticed that he did drive slower than habitually. He blamed it on his deep thinking from earlier.

When Eiji stopped the car in front of Max and Jessica’s house, Ash opened the door right away.

“Well, thanks for the drive home, old man. Be careful on your way back, I wouldn’t want you to be caught for driving too slowly. You do know they can give you a fine for that, right?”

Eiji huffed. “I hope you enjoyed the drive, because it was the last time I made the effort.”

Ash just laughed, already out of the car. “Don’t be mad, Eiji. Just drive fast enough to go home before morning. It would be a shame if you missed your scheduled morning yoga in the park, with the other old folks.”

Eiji leaned forward to close the car’s door in Ash’s grinning face, because he was once again short of a good comeback. Ash’s wit was as charming as it was infuriating.  

Eiji was driving back home – as fast as the law allowed it so you take that Ash – when he noticed that their goodbye looked nothing like the scenes depicted in his sister’s movies. Not that the evening had been a date anyway, but it had nearly felt like one by some aspects…  

His relationship with Ash was clearly different from the friendships Eiji had with other people. Firstly, because Eiji never had the urge to kiss or touch other friends when they were out together to eat dinner; but also because he felt like what he had with Ash was more intimate than anything he had with anyone before.

And still… Eiji was afraid he could screw everything up if he admitted to Ash that the feelings he felt for him were definitively different from simple friendship. Eiji valued too much what they had now to risk losing it. He couldn’t bear losing Ash for good.

---

“Are you… Are you fucking kidding me, Ash??”

Ash let out a groan. Shorter had texted him relentlessly while he was in Eiji’s car and had called him right when Ash had closed his bedroom’s door, asking for a step by step retelling of everything he had missed. Needless to say he had been disappointed when Ash had nothing juicy to share.

“Let me get things straight: you spent a whole hour in an empty restaurant with the guy you love, and nothing happened??”

“I wouldn’t say nothing happened.” Ash protested. The evening had been more than what Ash could ever dream of. “Plus, at some point Eiji…”

“What?”

“…he put his hand on top of mine.”

Shorter’s incredulity was so loud Ash had to put the phone away from his ear.

“For fuck’s sake, Ash!” The Chinese shouted, his voice a strange mix of exasperation and hilarity. “You are so ridiculous! What are you, a nineteenth century woman in a Jane Austen’s novel?”

You’ve read Pride and Prejudice?” Ash asked, eager to change the subject.

He heard Shorter groan in the phone. “Of course not. Nadia made me watch the movie at some point.”

“Right.” Ash snorted. “Nadia did.”

“Oh, shut up! This isn’t about me! This is about you being a total loser.”

Ash rolled his eyes. “I’m not being a loser. In fact, I consider this evening to have gone perfectly.”

“Yeah, of course you’ll think that. Maybe next time, you could invite Eiji to see a movie? Who knows, he might show you his ankles if you behave.”

“Alright I’m hanging up.”

“Don’t you dare!”

“You have five seconds to convince me not to.”

“I’m just saying… If you never tell him how you feel, he will never know! You’re fine now, but what if he thinks you just want to be friends and he begins to date someone else?”

Ash’s heart tightened in his chest.

“I would be happy for him.”

There was a silence on the other end of the phone, and Ash wondered if Shorter was giving up on him.

“You know, I really am fine with things going slowly.” Ash began, not sure if Shorter was still listening. “You know these… things are not easy for me. With Eiji I feel… I don’t feel any pressure and I’m thankful for that.”

There was a new silence.

“Shorter?”

“Yeah, I’m listening.” Ash heard his friend sigh loudly. “Sorry, I was thinking… I keep pestering you because I see how you are with Eiji and I don’t want you to miss something out just because you’re… well, hard on yourself. But I guess I… I’ve kind of forgotten that you have to go at your own pace… even if said pace is so goddamn slow, so I’m sorr—”

“Don’t apologize.” Ash slumped on his bed, suddenly feeling drained. “I need to be pushed sometimes, you’re right. And… I didn’t really thank you for the dinner tonight and—”

“Jeez, now you don’t need to thank me. I had fun, it was great.”

“Good.” Ash retained a yawn. “I really need to hang up now, or I’ll just fall asleep on you.”

“That would be rude. Well, see you at school, then.”

“Yes, see you.”

Ash hung up and closed his eyes, a slight smile across his lips. Smile which turned into a grimace when he thought of tomorrow morning, and of how Max and Jessica would probably hold him hostage at breakfast to interrogate him about Eiji. Odds were they would be even worse than Shorter.

The smile came back on his lips as he fell asleep, because clearly, there were worst things in life than having people around him who cared too much.

Chapter Text

When Ash made a detour to pass by the pole-vaulting field that Monday, he knew it was purely out of self-indulgence, but he was too far gone to try to make up excuses for his need to see Eiji at least once a day anymore.

He approached the field and saw Eiji facing the cross-bar, a pole in his hands. He was probably near the end of his training session, because he seemed tired. His posture was less straight than it was the last time Ash saw him jump, his expression less acute, and his chest was raising up and down in erratic breaths.

Eiji rolled his shoulders back and took a deep inspiration, before launching himself forward in a sprint. But as he reached the point where he habitually stuck his pole in the floor to jump above the bar, his left ankle gave up under him and he fell on the ground, dropping the pole in the process.

All air was taken away from Ash’s lungs as he watched, frozen in place, Eiji’s body hit the floor violently. Then, his senses came back to him and he ran to the field, Eiji’s name on his lips and his heart in his throat.

He reached Eiji before anyone else could react and let himself fall on his knees by his side.

“Eiji? Are you alright?” he asked, his voice coming out breathless.

Eiji was still on the floor, curled up on himself, holding his ankle in his hands. He raised up his head upon hearing Ash’s voice and his brown eyes widened in surprise.

“Ash? What—”

He tried to shift his position to face Ash, but the movement made him whimper in pain and he couldn’t finish his sentence. He screwed his eyes shut, his expression morphing into a grimace of suffering. Reflexively, Ash raised his hands to touch him, his pulse pounding a quivering rhythm in his ears.

But before Ash could say or do anything else, the other athletes reached Eiji and Ash was rudely pushed to the side by the coach.

“Okumura?” the man called, alarmed. “You’re alright? What is it?”

Eiji straightened himself and managed to sit up, the movement triggering a new grimace of pain.

“I’m alright.” he replied, but his voice sounded strained. “My ankle gave up on me.”

Crouching at his side, the coach examined Eiji’s ankle with sure hands, and Ash saw Eiji bit his lips to retain a new moan of pain. He was scratched on the side where his body had hit the floor, but apart from his ankle, he didn’t seem to have other injuries.

“You better go to the infirmary.” the coach said finally, letting go of Eiji’s ankle before turning to another vaulter. “Jackson, you’ll escort him there and—”

“I will do it.”

Ash managed to make his way back to Eiji’s side. “I will bring him to the infirmary.” he repeated, as the vaulters stared at him with bewilderment.

The coach frowned. “You? And who the hell are you?”

“It’s alright.” Eiji intervened. “Ash is a friend, he can accompany me to the infirmary, there’s no need to interrupt training for me.”

The coach opened his mouth to reply, looking like he had every intention of refusing, but Ash was already kneeling at Eiji’s side. He gathered him in his arms, passing an arm under his knees and the other supporting his back. Then he rose to his feet, holding Eiji secured against him, as the Japanese gasped in surprise.

“A-Ash! I can walk, you don’t need to carry me!” he protested rapidly, his cheeks bright red.

Ash was already walking to the other end of the field, ignoring the stupefied gazes of the athletes on him, giving a short nod to the coach who was staring at him with astonishment.

“You want me to put you down?” he asked curtly, without stopping walking or even slowing down.

Of course, he could put Eiji down and have him limp beside him to the infirmary, he knew Eiji wasn’t that hurt. But the weight of Eiji in his arms, the sensation of doing something useful for him, was comforting.

Eiji hesitated for a second, but he finally settled for putting his arms around Ash’s neck to steady himself, the blush on his cheeks extending to his ears.

“Hum, it’s fine.” he grumbled, adverting his gaze from Ash’s. “We’re nearly there anyway.”

Ash bit down his smile at the easy victory. He shouldn’t be enjoying himself in this situation, but Eiji seemed far better already, all traces of pain gone from his features. And it was strangely nice, to hold him like that in his arms. He tried to commit the sensation to his memory.

When they reached the infirmary, Eiji was the one to knock on the door, since Ash’s arms were occupied. No one replied to them, but the door was open and they could enter the room.

“Are there periods where the nurse is even in there?” Ash muttered when they discovered that the room was empty, remembering it was already the case the last time they went there.

“I’m sure the nurse will return soon.” Eiji replied. “Look, she still has her stuffs here.”                                

Ash put Eiji back on his feet, and the Japanese carefully checked his hurt ankle, testing its resistance. He took two steps in the room and seemed satisfied with the results.

“Are you alright?” Ash asked again, staring at Eiji doing his body’s experiments with a frown.

“I’m fine, my ankle hurt a little but I’m sure it’s not sprained. I guess I just twisted it.”

Ash nodded, relieved. “You should sit down while we wait for the nurse’s opinion on it.”

Eiji turned to face him, a snotty look on his face. “I’m fine.” he repeated stubbornly. “You didn’t need to carry me there, you can be truly over the top sometimes.”

Ash wanted to reply that it was rich coming for someone who was friend with Yut-Lung, the most overdramatic person Ash had ever met, but he stayed silent. He had promised to have a better attitude regarding the annoying Chinese and was decided to at least try to hold his words.

Eiji still followed Ash’s suggestion and sat on the bed. There, he shuddered and took himself in his arms, trying to warm himself up. The short and top he wore for training weren’t enough to keep him warm now that he wasn’t exercising.

“I should have taken a jacket before heading here.” he grumbled as a new shudder shook his whole body. “Maybe I would have thought of it if you didn’t throw me over your shoulder to bring me there before I could think properly.”

Ash refused to feel guilty about that. If he had let Eiji walk, they would surely still be in the field. Plus, Eiji could have hurt himself further if he had tried to hobble along on his bad ankle.

Instead of engaging in a debate with Eiji over his totally sensible choice, Ash shrugged his shoulders casually and took off the flannel shirt he was wearing tied at his waist.

“Here, you can take this, I’m not wearing it.”

Eiji wrinkled his nose. “I’m all sweaty from training,” he protested. “I’ll make it smelly.”

Ash rolled his eyes. “I don’t mind. It’s not like I’m planning to wear it after you did anyway.”

Convinced, Eiji took the shirt with a grateful smile and put it on. Of course, it was too big on him, so he had to roll up the sleeves a little, but Ash decided to be nice for once and to not comment on it.

“Thank you.” Eiji muttered, suddenly looking embarrassed. “And I guess… thanks for carrying me there. Even so it was unnecessary.”

“No problem.” Ash smiled. “You’re heavier than I thought you would be.” he teased, feeling far lighter now that Eiji’s cheeks had retrieved a little of their color.

Eiji’s lips darted up in a crooked smile. “Of course I am. I’m an athlete after all. All of that is muscles.” he bragged, gesturing to his whole body with an air of faked importance.

Ash chuckled. “Oh, really?”

“Yes! Here, touch!”

Eiji showed off his arm to Ash, banding the muscles of his biceps. Ash swallowed the lump in his throat with difficulty. Come on, Ash, don’t make it weird, he’s just joking, play along.

He put a hand on Eiji’s biceps, and the Japanese smiled to him. As expected, it wasn’t difficult to guess the hard muscles behind the sleeve of his shirt. He hoped the blush on his cheeks wasn’t too obvious.

“See?”

“Yes, you made your point.” Ash retired his hand with reluctance while Eiji smiled at him, looking very satisfied with himself.

The nurse entered the infirmary at that moment, making them startle.

“Oh.” she began, advising Eiji on the bed. “It’s been a while since I last saw you, Okumura.”

Eiji’s smile turned sheepish. “Sorry, I hurt my ankle while training…”

The nurse shook her head, affecting disapprobation. She had a wide and easy smile and a motherlike vibe coming off her, and Ash noticed he had never met her before that day. He wasn’t used to go to the infirmary when he faced hardships.

“Alright, let’s see what—”

She interrupted herself suddenly, eying Ash with surprise.

“Are you hurt too, boy?”

Ash blinked. “Hum, no, I was only accompanying Eiji.”

The woman frowned. “Then don’t stay here, I’ll take care of your friend.”

“Oh, right. Hum… I will wait for you outside, Eiji.”

Eiji smiled. “You don’t have to.” he said quietly, shaking his head negatively.

Right. Like hell Ash was leaving before he was sure Eiji was alright.

He simply shrugged, trying to seem casual. “I prefer to wait for you. I’ll be outside.”

Eiji’s smile widened, and the look he gave Ash was so undeniably soft, it made his heart tremble, something warm settling in his chest.   

“Alright, then.” he agreed. “It won’t be long anyway.”

Ash hummed in assessment and stepped out of the infirmary. He would wait for Eiji all day if he had to.

 

The wait felt longer than he had thought, though. He couldn’t help but to walk in circles in front of the door, too restless to sit in the waiting room.

He knew Eiji wasn’t hurt badly, but the memory of his fall was still replaying before his eyes, making him shudder despite the warm atmosphere of the small waiting room.

Finally, the door opened on Eiji. The Japanese seemed surprised to find Ash still waiting for him.

“So, are you alright?”

Eiji smiled, but he looked tired, and the smile forced. “Yes, I’m fine. The nurse just said I was pushing my body too much. But I should be able to resume training in a few days.”

Ash didn’t care about training. The bit about pushing his body too much was worrying much more. And Eiji had said it with such a casual tone, Ash was beginning to think it wasn’t a first for him.

“Is it… Is it normal to push your body so much that you fall from exhaustion?”

Eiji shrugged. “It’s the only way to get any good.”

Ash definitively didn’t like it. He realized his fists had clenched, and he relaxed them with effort, forcing a breath out of his constricted throat.

“What did the nurse say about it?”

Eiji didn’t respond right away. The silence made Ash’s heart twist in his chest.

“…Nothing that matter.” he finally replied, dipping his head down.

“Eiji—“

The Japanese raised his head, a forced smile stretching his lips. “I’m alright, Ash. It’s nothing, I just need to rest for a few days.”

“Yeah, and then you will resume to push your body to its limits, until you have to go back to the infirmary, am I right?”

For a moment, Ash thought that Eiji would get mad. That he would tell him that it wasn’t any of his business, that he was old enough to make his own choices, particularly when it concerned his body.

But a light of recognition passed in Eiji’s eyes, and the smile on his lips felt genuine, this time.

“Aw, Ash. Are you worried about me?” he asked, a playful glee in his eyes.

His tone was teasing, but Ash knew he had been seen through. His cheeks warmed up, and he had to turn his head in hope Eiji wouldn’t catch on it.

“Well, someone has to,” he grumbled. “As you seem so careless.”

Eiji stared at him with such a tender look, it made Ash’s throat feel really tight. However, it made nothing to calm the throbbing of his heart in his chest.

“I’m alright, Ash.” Eiji repeated. “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.”

 

---

 

Ash was really beginning to love their chemistry teacher. The man wasn’t a good pedagogue per se, but all the assignments he gave the class were to do with the partner he had attributed them at the beginning of the year, which meant Ash was always securely paired with Eiji.

This was the reason Ash found himself in Eiji’s bedroom this Saturday, working with him on their new chemistry assignment and trying to pretend being forced to do so was as annoying to him as it was to Eiji, when he was in fact secretly enjoying himself.

To make things even better, Eiji’s mother wasn’t home and Ash had been glad to avoid a new confrontation with her.

Their work on the assignment was a bit too slow for Ash’s liking, because Eiji insisted he had to read everything rather than just let Ash do the work (which Ash really wouldn’t have minded) but it wasn’t that bad because it meant Ash could just stare at Eiji for all his contempt without the other one noticing.

Eiji was adorable when he was focusing, a crease between his furrowed brows, his gaze intense and decided, his lips pursed in annoyance when he was struggling to understand something…

And anyway, Ash would have spent his whole life in Eiji’s bedroom if it was up to him, so he wasn’t that much in a hurry to be done with the assignment. The thought made him smile. Did being in love made him dramatic? Maybe it did… but as long as nobody heard his thoughts, it was fine.

Eiji’s bedroom was nice. Ash wondered if it was always this proper or if his friend had cleaned up before he arrived. It was spacious enough for the desk where they were working on, a library full of books and comics, and a bed pushed to the side.

There were many pictures on the desk. Some were pictures of landscapes that Eiji had probably taken himself, others featured him and his pole-vaulting team or some other friends. But the picture which caught Ash’s gaze was a picture of Eiji’s family, where the Japanese didn’t seem to be older than nine years old – although Ash knew it was likely he was slightly older, given Eiji’s tendency to look younger than he really was.

It was oddly comforting, to see Eiji at this age looking like such a normal boy, a wide grin on his cute face, his eyes alight with happiness and his parents holding him in an embrace. Ash knew Eiji had lived a normal childhood, of course, but it was nice to see it with his own eyes.

The only pictures that got taken of Ash at that age were… well, he preferred not to think about it.

A big noise of rolling thunder made Eiji startle, pulling Ash from his thoughts. He hadn’t noticed before, but the night had already fallen and outside, the rain was pouring strongly.

Another thunder lighted the sky, making Eiji grimace.

“Shit, I didn’t notice it was already so late…” he observed, his gaze set on the window.

Ash shrugged. “It’s alright, we’re nearly finished anyway.”

“I know but… You came here on your bike… You won’t be able to go back home with this rain…”

Ash hesitated. The weather was clearly too bad to ride a bike safely. Maybe he could call someone who could come to get him with their car? He knew Max and Jessica were gone on a “romantic weekend”, but he couldn’t remember if Shorter had plans for tonight.

“It’s fine. I will manage something out.”

Eiji shook his head. “I won’t let you go back on your bike. I would escort you home with my car, but my mom got it… Plus I think even driving is dangerous with that weather.”

Ash stared at the violent rain outside. He was inclined to agree, but he feared waiting for the rain to stop would be meaningless. It seemed the weather would stay shitty all night.

Clearly coming to the same conclusion as him, Eiji spoke again.

“What if you stayed here tonight?” he asked, his tone carefully hopeful. “I’m sure the weather will be nicer tomorrow morning.”

Ash passed a hand in his hair, agitated. What Eiji proposed seemed too good to be true.

“You wouldn’t mind?” he asked, needing to make sure. “And your mother?”

“Of course not!” Eiji replied eagerly, waving Ash off like the idea was ridiculous. “And my mother won’t mind either, it’s not the first time a friend spends the night here. I’ll just send her a text to tell her.”

A new roll of thunder helped Ash decide.

“Then… If you’re sure it’s okay with you…”

A wide smile lit up Eiji’s face. “Of course it is! It will be fun! Here look, I’m already texting my mother.” he replied, taking his phone on the desk and sending a quick text.

They returned to their assignment, but Ash wasn’t entirely focused anymore. Was he really going to spend the night at Eiji’s? Was it really okay? If the rain suddenly stopped, he didn’t know how he could handle the disappointment…

Once they were finally done with their work, the rain was still pouring and Eiji entailed Ash to the kitchen. He made them tofu sandwiches that weren’t exactly tasty but did the job of filling up Ash’s stomach.

When they got back in Eiji’s bedroom, the Japanese searched in his closet for a pajama he could lend to Ash, despite the other protesting he could simply sleep in his underwear.

“You always end up lending me clothes, this time it’s my turn.” the Japanese decided stubbornly, deaf to Ash’s protests.

Eiji held various pajamas and jog pants in front of himself, silently checking their size. It was obvious he didn’t have anything that would fit Ash, but the American decided not to comment. Finally, Eiji handed him grey track pants and a soft sweater that must be oversized on him, and told him to go change in the bathroom.

The sweater fitted Ash just fine, but the pants were too short. When Ash came back to Eiji’s bedroom, the Japanese stared at his denuded ankles with a frown.

Ash gave him a toothy grin. “I guess it would have fitted me better one year ago.” he commented, showing off his ankles and how short the pants were on him.

Eiji wasn’t amused. He pursed his lips in annoyance and muttered something about Ash being an ungrateful brat that Ash pretended not to hear.

His friend was wearing a light blue pajama ensemble, which made him look softer than ever. It felt intimate to witness Eiji in such a relaxed attire, but at the same time Ash couldn’t help but snort mentally because of course Eiji would wear a pajama ensemble to sleep, like the freacking grandpa he sometimes acted like.

Sensing Ash’s gaze on him, Eiji fidgeted a little. “Hum, it’s still early,” he said, checking the time on the wall clock. “Do you want to see a movie before we sleep?”

Ash acquiesced. He didn’t feel like he would be tired anytime soon. He was too energized by the fact that he had been invited into Eiji’s home, was wearing Eiji’s clothes and would spend the night with his friend and wake up beside him in the morning and—

Eiji interrupted his thoughts by kneeling in front of his library, waving his hand to convey to Ash that he wanted him to bend down beside him and look up the movies he got.

None of the names on the DVD were familiar. Ash had watched plenty of dumb action movies with Shorter, and a good number of animated movies with Michael, but otherwise, he wasn’t up to date with that kind of things. He preferred to read rather than watch tv and was bored easily by most movies.  

“So? What do you want to watch?” Eiji asked as Ash stayed silent.

Ash shrugged one shoulder. “No idea. I think I haven’t seen any of these movies, so anything is fine.”

Eiji stared back at him with stupefaction. “You haven’t seen any of them? Not even…” he looked at his collection with a frown. “Not even Star Wars?”

Ash shook his head and Eiji’s eyes widened impossibly larger.  

“Really? But everyone has seen these movies!”

As Ash stayed silent, Eiji sighed. “Well, you’re missing out, that’s what we’ll watch tonight!” he decided with conviction.

“Alright. Like I said, I don’t really care.”

Eiji rolled his eyes and proceeded to explain to Ash why these movies were basically part of the American culture and it was a shame Ash had to learn about it from a non-American, while setting up the movie on his computer. He turned off the light and told Ash to sit on his bed.

Ash’s breath stayed stuck in his throat when Eiji sneaked up beside him on the bed, so close they were touching, and casually put a blanket above them both, before pressing play.  

The movie… well, Ash supposed it wasn’t bad. A chance the story wasn’t hard to follow, because he wasn’t entirely focused on it. How could he be, when Eiji was pressed at his side, their two bodies linked by their shoulders and knees. The movie didn’t weight much, compared to the feeling of being with Eiji, the discreet scent of his friend impregnating the whole room, his warmth flowing into Ash’s body, so comforting and soft.

Ash laughed easily with Eiji, when the Japanese chuckled at parts of the story he had probably seen a thousand time, but it was more because he was happy to be here, because he was happy to hear Eiji be happy, rather than because the movie was truly funny.

After a while, Eiji began to show the first signs of tiredness. His reactions to the movie were tamer, his eyes fluttered closed, his body leaned more heavily on Ash… until at one point, the teenager rested his head fully on Ash’s shoulder, his eyes shut, letting out a contented sigh as he settled comfortably against his friend.

Ash froze as emotion crashed into him in a violent wave. He felt nearly overwhelmed by how good it felt, to be there with Eiji sleeping at his side. His friend seemed so at ease, so trusting, that it made Ash feel all warm inside.

Ash forced himself to unwind, and soon he was calmer. He was paying even less attention to the movie now, more focused on Eiji’s steady breath, on the way his hair tickled pleasantly the skin on his neck, the warmth of his body. From the corner of his eyes, Ash watched Eiji’s plush lips open in a silent breath, his dark eyelashes resting on his fair skin, his features relaxed and calm.

Ash had never thought feeling another body’s contact on him could feel this good. But he wasn’t surprised. It was Eiji, after all. Ash had long accepted that Eiji was special to him.

He didn’t know how long they stayed like this, but he began to drive into sleep soon after Eiji. Carefully, Ash rested his cheek on top of Eiji’s head, inhaling slowly into his soft locks, and let sleep win him over.

 

They were both startled awake by the sound of the end credits roaring in the bedroom. Ash nearly jumped out of his skin before he remembered where he was. Exhaling a shaky breath, he recoiled against the pillows and let out a groan. Did the credits really need to be accompanied by a music so damn loud?

Eiji yawned and scrapped at his eyes, trying to wake himself up fully, and all Ash could do was stare and ask himself how his friend could manage to make the simplest gesture seem so adorable.

“So, what did you think of the movie?” Eiji asked, his voice full of sleep “Did you like it?”

Oh. This question was awfully hard to answer when Ash had been so unfocused on what happened on screen for the majority of the movie and had slept throughout the end of it.

“It was good. I liked it.”

It wasn’t totally a lie, Ash had liked watching the movie with Eiji, after all.

Eiji smiled. “That’s good, because there are two more movies, and then another trilogy, and then the new recent trilogy which has already two movies out and the third one will be in theaters next year… So if you liked this one, you have plenty of movies to look forward to.”

Ash blinked, surprised. That was an awful lot of movies.

“Well, I guess you will have to invite me more often, to watch all of that.” he said, teasing.

He wasn’t serious, but Eiji lit up. “Yes, you’re right! You would like that? Watch more movies with me?”

Ash’s heart fluttered in his chest. If he would like that? Couldn’t Eiji see that he would love that?

“Yes, of course.” he replied, and he was pleased by his own ability to keep his voice even. “You could come over to my place next time, if you bring the movie.”

Eiji nodded enthusiastically and Ash grinned at him. Thank god for these movies being so numerous. This could make a lot of excuses for them to meet. If becoming a Star Wars’ fan was the price to pay to spend time with Eiji, Ash would gladly learn the three trilogies by heart.

---

Ash woke up in the morning to Eiji rudely shaking his shoulder.

He had slept on a futon put beside Eiji’s bed, after managing to convince his friend that no he wouldn’t take his bed from him and was very fine sleeping on the floor.

Falling asleep at Eiji’s side had been so pleasant Ash still couldn’t believe his luck. The Japanese had been the first to drift off and watching him sleep had been weirdly relaxing. Eiji seemed so peaceful when he was asleep. When Ash looked at him, it seemed that nothing else mattered any more than the calm raising of his chest and the soft sound of his breathing.

“Ash! Ash, it’s time to wake up!”

Eiji’s impervious voice came to his ears as the hands on his shoulder shacked him again, with even less gentleness this time.

Ash grumbled and hid himself further under the covers, feeling not awake enough to deal with anything.

Of course, Eiji didn’t give up. “Ash!” he shouted in his friend’s ears. “I let you sleep long enough, wake up now!”

Ash let out a frustrated groan. Wasn’t Eiji supposed to be soft? This wasn’t soft at all, this was rude and annoying. He noted that if falling asleep beside Eiji was heavenly, being woken up by him was a lesser experience.

He emerged from the covers and opened his eyes, the bright light of the day making him blink.

Eiji was kneeling beside him, his hands on Ash’s shoulder, and Ash wasn’t prepared for how close his face was to his. The Japanese smiled when their eyes met, and Ash was blinded by how bright and so very awake he already was. Bright and beautiful, of course. Maybe opening his eyes and seeing Eiji’s face first thing in the morning wasn’t that bad, finally.

Eiji got on his feet. “Breakfast is ready downstairs. My mom made it Japanese style! I hope you’ll like it!”

Ash sat down, still hazy from sleep. He wasn’t feeling ready to face Eiji’s mother so soon.

Eiji chuckled, and when Ash looked up to see what was so funny, Eiji was looking at him, apparently delighted by Ash’s foggy state. Ash passed a hand in his blond locks, aware it must surely be a mess right now.

“I’ll be downstairs, join me when you’re ready” Eiji said with enthusiasm before closing the door behind him.

Ash put his clothes back as fast as he could before he tried to tame his wild hair. He stared at himself in the mirror. The day before, he had chosen specifically clothes that would meet Mrs. Okumura’s approval, the burn of her eyes on his ripped jeans fresh on his mind.

This time, he was decided to make a good impression.

Chapter Text

When Ash walked to the kitchen, Eiji’s mother was nowhere to be seen, but his friend was sitting at the table, conversing with a girl. Smaller than him, she had dark hair very similar to Eiji’s and talked with animation.

Surprised because he didn’t know Eiji’s sister would be returned home so soon, Ash couldn’t help but to mark a pause before entering the kitchen. The siblings had their backs turned to him and were clearly unaware of Ash’s presence.

Ash had always been curious about Eiji’s sister. His friend had only mentioned her once, so he knew nothing about her, but he had always imagined her as a cute girl looking just like Eiji.  

“…I don’t understand why you’re always trying to set me up with people.” Eiji was saying, in a tone Ash labeled as clearly annoyed. “Shouldn’t you be looking for someone for yourself?”

The girl snickered. “Don’t be stupid,” she replied. “I don’t need to search, I’m cute enough to get anyone I want.”

“Oh, but I’m not, that’s what you’re saying?”

“That’s right. You’re too ugly, you need my help. Just agree to at least meet Aaron, I promise that he’s your type.”

Ash decided it was bad to listen to their conversation without making himself noticed. Especially if it was a conversation mentioning Eiji and dating. And who the fuck was this Aaron?

He stepped in the kitchen and two very similar pairs of brown eyes peered into him.

“Ash! Finally, you took your time!” Eiji exclaimed, a bright smile blooming easily on his lips.

The girl stared at Ash with wide eyes, her mouth agape, before turning to Eiji in disbelief.

This is Ash?” she muttered to herself, with so much incredulity it made Ash’s lips quirk up. Apparently, Eiji’s sister would be easier to impress than his mother.

Beside her, Eiji was positively glowing with pride, relishing his sister’s reaction with absolutely no subtlety.

“Ash, this is my sister, Hana.” he announced, gesturing to the girl. “Hana, this is Ash.”

Ash offered the girl a smile that made her entire face reddish violently.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” he said, his grin widening when her blush extended to her ears and neck.  

“I— uh, same.” she replied lamely, earning an amused chuckle from her brother.

Eiji’s mocking laugh helped the girl retrieve her composure. She glared at her brother with a frown and said something to him in Japanese. It just made Eiji giggle further before he replied smoothly in the same language.

Of course, Ash couldn’t understand a word coming out of his mouth, but he still listened intently. Eiji’s voice seemed slightly different when he talked Japanese, rounder and lower. The sound of it was making Ash feel funny things in his stomach, and he decided that it was very unfair that Eiji could find so effortlessly new ways to charm him all over again every day.

Hana stepped up and left the kitchen without stopping her angry back and forth in Japanese with her brother.

Ash glanced at her retreating back and went to sit down at the table, across from Eiji.

“Your sister is cute.” he said matter-of-factly.

It made Eiji’s frown, his mouth pursing in annoyance.

“No she isn’t!” he replied with energy. “She’s ugly!”

Ash blinked once, surprised. Couldn’t the two siblings see how alike they looked? Given Eiji’s reaction, the answer seemed to be negative, and the realization made Ash chuckle lowly.

“No, I have to insist, she is really cute.” he teased, leaning back in his chair with nonchalance.

Eiji looked supremely annoyed by Ash’s insistence; more so than Ash had thought he would be.

“Yeah, well too bad for you, she’s not available.” he countered, raising from his chair to grab milk on the kitchen counter, his back turned to Ash but his tone clearly disgruntled.

Ash darted a brow, surprised to have been so clearly misunderstood by Eiji. But his reaction was endearing, was he jealous or was it the normal reaction of a protective big brother? He decided to nip at him a little further to see which it was.

“Oh, really? Does she have a boyfriend?” he asked, quirking his eyebrows up in fake innocence.

Eiji turned around so he was facing him again, and this time for sure, Ash could see he was irked.

“No she doesn’t.” he grumbled with reluctance. “But that doesn’t mean…” he paused, and his eyebrows knitted down. “What, you really are into her? …My sister?”

Hum, maybe Ash had miscalculated. He didn’t think Eiji would be so quick to assume Ash was interested like that with his sister. All things considered, it surely wasn’t that much of a smart move to imply you were interested into dating the sister of the person you love to make him jealous. He needed to pedal backward.

“Nah, of course not.” he replied casually, a serene smile on his lips. “I was just fucking with you.”

Eiji’s eyebrows flew to his hairline and Ash thought he would get mad, but his answer seemed to calm him, his shoulders dropping slightly in relief.

“Oh.” he said, turning back to the counter before Ash could see his expression. “Hum, good. That wasn’t funny, though.”

Ash repressed a smile. Eiji affected nonchalance, but Ash could see that the tips of his ears were bright red.

“You’re so gullible. What, you think I’m interested into dating a literal child?” he snorted, wondering how Eiji could have so easily thought Ash’s act was believable.

“I— I’m not a child!”

Ash startled at the voice behind his back. Eiji’s sister was back in the kitchen, her eyes wide and her cheeks ablaze.

“I’m… I’m fifteen!” she protested loudly.

Ash didn’t try to hide his surprise. He had thought she was closer to thirteen. Was Eiji’s whole family cursed with a baby face?

“Sorry, I thought you were far younger.” he explained.

He could see how his answer rubbed her entirely the wrong way. She opened her mouth to reply but seemed to think better of it, and before Ash could add anything else, she was already leaving the kitchen.

Eiji let out an exaggerated sigh. “Do you really have to be an ass to everyone you meet?” he asked, visibly trying to conceal an amused smile.

Ash felt suddenly self-conscious. Why was talking with people so hard to him? If he managed to upset every person in Eiji’s family whenever he opened his damn mouth, maybe it would be better to shut it.

“I didn’t mean to…” he tried without much conviction.

Eiji smiled indulgently. “I know. I’m relieved you weren’t just like that to me, actually.”

“Oh. Of course not, I am an ass, you said it yourself. Multiple times. That’s kind of my thing.” Ash joked, leaning over the table to dart his tongue at Eiji. “That, and being way taller than you.”

An adorable pout stretched Eiji’s lips when he replied. “Since I already know you’re an asshole, you don’t need to prove your point further, you know.” he grunted.

Ash had the sudden crave to lean closer to Eiji and kiss his puffed cheeks until they returned to normal. He did nothing of the sort, obviously, and settled for a laugh.

The annoyance on Eiji’s face eased down as quickly as it had appeared, and the gaze he laid on Ash turned pensive.

“Speaking of that…” he began, his fingers playing mindlessly with an empty glass on the table. “You remember when we started to talk to each other? After you were an ass to me at the cafeteria?”

Ash’s heart clenched up. Of course he remembered. But it nearly felt like the Ash from back then was a whole different person. He remembered his reasons, all he wanted was to keep Eiji safely away from him after all, but it didn’t change the fact that he had been odious to him, and he still regretted it.

“I do…” he replied carefully, not sure why Eiji would bring that up. “You know I didn’t think a word of what I said to you back then...”  

Eiji shook his head. “Yes, I know, that’s not what I wanted to talk about. It’s just… I suddenly remembered…” he hesitated, adverting his gaze from Ash. “No, never mind, forget it.”

“What?” Ash frowned. “You can’t just decide not to tell me now, just speak your mind.”

Eiji pursed his lips, his eyes back on Ash. “It’s nothing but… When Shorter went to talk to me after that, he told me something weird… I was just remembering it.”

“And…?” Ash tried to be patient, but it was hard to hold back his curiosity. “What was it?” he prompted.

“He asked me why I had come to sit with you at the cafeteria that day, and he said… That the people who habitually came close to you did it… for the wrong reasons, that’s what he said. What did he mean by that?”

“Oh.” Ash slopped back in his chair, considering Eiji’s words. “I guess he was talking about the people who come to me for a fuck.” he said casually, half-shrugging his shoulders. Still, he watched intently for Eiji’s reaction from underneath his eyelashes.

His friend’s eyes widened, his mouth opening slightly as he processed Ash’s response.

“W-what?” he stuttered, taken aback.

Ash smiled sharply. Eiji’s naivety was always endearing.

He crossed his arms over his chest, affecting confidence. “Yeah, the people who come to talk to me at school are always expecting something from me. You know, they think I’m easy, with all these rumors about me. When you came to me and didn’t ask for sex, I was actually surprised.”

Eiji’s cheeks burned fiercely. “That’s— That’s why you thought I wanted to ask you for… when we met at the library…” he realized, mortified.

Ash snorted. Eiji couldn’t even bring himself to say it. The first time they had talked at the library seemed so far away, now.

“Shorter is a big softy.” he continued, smiling to himself. “I guess he wanted to make sure you didn’t have bad intention toward me.” Ash retained a chuckle. The idea sounded so ridiculous to him.

Eiji bit his lips. “I see.” he said, his cheeks still ablaze. “I understand better why he said that now…”

Ash was hesitating between teasing Eiji a little further to see if he could blush any more than that and deciding to be lenient and let the subject drop; when Mrs. Okumura entered the kitchen.

Despite her short height, she had left Ash the memory of a formidable woman, and he remembered vividly how he had been reduced to silence by her severe frown. This morning though, she seemed relaxed, and as a result, far less impressive. She even looked… strangely plain.

The woman stopped at the doorway and her eyes widened slightly in surprise when her gaze landed on Ash; but as he stilled himself in wait of the confrontation, a gentle smile stretched her lips.

“Good morning, hum, Ash is it?” she greeted him, walking into the kitchen to put on the table the mails she got in her hands.

Ash nodded gracefully, forcing a charming smile on his face. Now was the moment to put on his Special Adult Charm full power, he would never have a better occasion to win the woman’s approval.

“Good morning Mrs. Okumura. Thank you for having me home, I’m sorry to be a bother.” he said meekly, lowering his gaze in a vulnerable act that he knew had adults on their knees.

The woman didn’t seem seduced, though, and nor even the sightless impressed. Instead, she nodded with indulgence.

“It’s not a bother,” she protested politely. “Don’t worry about it.”

Ash stayed silent, his fake smile frozen on his face. His charm wasn’t working one bit with the woman, but at least she didn’t seem hostile to him, as opposed to the last time he met her.

 “…Although,” she added, her expression turning coldly contemplative. “You wouldn’t have needed to sleep here if you didn’t come riding again one of these death engines…” The new smile she gave him had a sharper edge to it.

Ash had a sarcastic quirk on the tip of his tongue, but Eiji saved him from worsening his case.

Kaa-chan!” he protested, clearly exasperated. He gave his mother a purposely stretched look which made Ash suspect he had talked with her about him and had asked her to behave. Apparently, she was struggling with his request.

Deciding it would be better not to reply to Mrs. Okumura bikes’ hate, Ash stayed silent. He was feeling a little lost on what stance adopting, since his charming attempt had fell flat and Eiji’s mom clearly still held a grudge against him.

The woman sat at the table and began to open the mail, ignoring Eiji’s annoyed glare with ease.

“Did you two had breakfast yet?” she asked conversationally, without tearing her gaze from the mails.

Eiji lit up. “Ah, no! Not yet.” he realized. He stood up eagerly and Ash had barely the time to blink twice that suddenly, the table was covered in dishes.

It would have been nice if only any of it looked suitable for breakfast.

Eiji sat back across from Ash, a bright grin on his face, looking very proud with himself. Ash stared at the various plates with a frown, his incredibility only growing as he took in the dubious food and the strong smell of it.

“Hum… What is this?” he asked prudently.  

Eiji’s smile widened. “This is tofu dip.” he said with enthusiasm, pointing a first plate to Ash. “You can spread it on a bagel. It’s very good with salad too!”

Tofu again? Eiji had mentioned last evening that he liked tofu because it was healthy, but wasn’t eating it again so soon a little bit exaggerated? At least that seemed safe, Ash did like tofu, even so he would never have thought one could have it for breakfast.

“And that is aji no hiraki: dry fish.” Eiji continued, exhibiting a plate of stinky fish. “There is also miso soup, Japanese spinach salad and… this is natto!” he concluded enthusiastically.

Ash took first the bowl Eiji had designated as natto, as it was the smelliest thing on the table, even worse than the fish. Surely, this couldn’t be edible…

“I think this has got bad…” he informed Eiji. “It stinks.”

Eiji giggled. “This is normal, it’s how natto smells! Look, this is how you eat it.” Eiji took his own plate of natto in hands. “You add soy sauce, mustard and green onions, then you mix it up!” he demonstrated it while talking, and Ash followed his instructions closely.

“Yes, like that!” Eiji encouraged him. “Keep mixing up until it’s very sticky! Then, you dump it on rice, and you can eat it!”

Eiji began to eat off his own natto plate, seeming delighted with the dish. “It’s delicious!” he insisted to Ash.

Maybe in another situation, Ash would have been charmed by his beautiful grin and joyful energy, but right now, he was too weirded out by the strange natto dish to enjoy Eiji’s expression. He hopped the taste would be better than the look of it…

…It wasn’t.

When Ash took his first bite of natto, he knew it was by far the worst thing he had ever eaten. Close to throw up, he stared at Eiji with bewilderment as the Japanese ate his own plate of natto with a clear appreciation.

“So, you like it?” he asked with confidence. “It’s good, right?”

Ash was going to be sick. He opened his mouth to make his friend know all about what he thought of that nightmare dish he called natto, but as he raised his head from his plate, he saw Mrs. Okumura stare at him attentively and his words stayed stuck in his throat.

Surely, implying that the food she made for him was the worst thing he had ever eaten wouldn’t be polite. He wasn’t supposed to give the woman more reasons to dislike him.

“Y-yes.” he lied with difficulty, forcing the food down his throat. “It’s… interesting. I’m not used to the taste, though.”

Eiji chuckled. “I’m glad you like it!” he exclaimed happily.

Ash tried to throw him a meaningful glare while his mom wasn’t looking, but Eiji didn’t catch it, too busy enjoying his natto. Ash gave up his tentative to make his friend realize he wasn’t being totally honest and retained a sigh. He would make sure to give him a piece of his mind the second Mrs. Okumura would leave them alone.

Despite all his efforts, Ash couldn’t eat any more of his plate of natto. He excused himself saying he wasn’t too hungry and Eiji finished it in his place, while Ash stared at him with stupefaction. He was seriously beginning to ask himself if there wasn’t something very wrong with his friend’s taste buds.

The rest of the food was far better, thankfully. Everything tasted heavenly compared to the natto anyway, even the stinky fish. Ash wondered if Japanese only ate smelly food, but he thought better than to comment, as Mrs. Okumura’s gaze was on him whenever he was close to spill his real thoughts to Eiji.

When Eiji had to suddenly leave the kitchen to respond to his sister who had called for his help, Ash was left alone with Mrs. Okumura. Eiji said he wouldn’t be long, but Ash was already dreading the awkward silence he would have to endure until his friend came back.

To his surprise, Eiji’s mother engaged the conversation with him as soon as Eiji’s vanished upstairs. She asked him a couple of polite questions about his life, but Ash could say she was less interested into being civil rather than into trying to understand what kind of person her son had brought home. Yet, he didn’t mind her curiosity. It was normal she would want to be sure her son’s new friend was reliable. The only problem was that Ash’s life was in such a shamble he had troubles answering even the most mundane questions.

When she asked about his parents, Ash hesitated to lie.

“Hum, I don’t really… I don’t live with my parents.” he replied finally. He didn’t know how much Eiji had told his mom about him and didn’t want to be caught lying.

If the woman was surprised, she didn’t show it, which gave Ash no indications on what she truly knew about him.

“Really?” she asked. “Why?”

Ash decided to give her the shortest answer possible. “I never knew my mother. And my dad is… Not… It’s better if I’m not with him.”

“Oh.” Mrs. Okumura’s eyes widened slightly. “So you are living alone?”

Ash nodded reluctantly. He hoped she wouldn’t decide a marginal living on his own at seventeen was improper for her son. Maybe he should have lied, finally. He could have said Max and Jessica were his parents, he was sure Max would have been willing to play his father if needed.

He looked back at her with apprehension, and was surprised to find no trace of judgement in her expression. Her eyes on him were sad, and she looked suddenly apologetic. And also… exhausted.

How could he not notice before, the bags under her eyes, the tension in her shoulders? Ash could only imagine how she must feel, with her husband dying in a hospital, left alone caring for her two children and working to support the family… No wonder a woman like her would be overprotective with the persons she loved.

She let out a long breath. “Sorry if my questions were… displaced. Eiji refused to tell me anything about your family or even about your life out of school so I thought…” She shook her head. “I shouldn’t have insisted, I’m sorry.”

Ash passed a hand in his hair, uncomfortable. Was apologizing about nothing a Japanese trait or was it an Okumura thing?

“It’s okay, I don’t mind.” he replied, even so he hoped she wouldn’t take that as an invitation to ask more questions.

Thankfully, she didn’t.

“I haven’t been the best host to you.” she continued. “But know that you are welcome in this house.”

Ash acquiesced silently. He was a bit surprised by Mrs. Okumura quick change of attitude toward him, but he could tell she was genuine and it made his throat feel incomprehensibly tight.

“It’s not your fault your parents never taught you it was dangerous to ride a motorcycle, maybe you don’t know about—”

Kaa-chan!” Eiji was back into the kitchen, and he looked highly pissed. “Could you stop with this, we talked about it!”

He entered the room and went to sit back at the table, and Ash felt instantly better.

His mother frowned, and she looked close to protest, but she finally settled for silence. She stood up, but before leaving the kitchen, she rounded the table and ruffled affectionately Eiji’s hair while the teenager flushed red with embarrassment and tried to wave her off. The sheepish look he gave Ash after that was so adorable, Ash forgave him the natto right on the spot.

When she left, Eiji exhaled loudly, his cheek still dusted pink.

“Gosh, this is so embarrassing…”

Ash chuckled. “I think it’s cute.”

Eiji whipped his head up. “What?”

“What?” Ash echoed dumbly. Oh fuck. “I mean… Not you, obviously… I meant your mother…”

“You think my mother is cute?” Eiji asked, his eyes wide open in mock shock.

“What? No!”

“Oh, so she’s ugly?” he teased.

Ash sipped his milk in silence, but not without glaring at Eiji, who seemed very satisfied to have successfully managed to have the last word for once. Ash decided to change the subject before Eiji could dwell on what exactly Ash was referring to as cute.

“So, what did your sister want?” he asked finally, at loss for a better diversion.

“She couldn’t reach something in the living room.”

Ash opened his mouth, bewildered. “And she called you for help?”

Eiji frowned, a familiar moue crossing his features.

“Don’t make fun of me,” he grumbled. “I’m the tallest here, you know.”

Ash openly snickered at that, reveling in how his reaction only made Eiji scowl further. It was pretty ironic to realize that indeed, Eiji being the tallest of the household, it was normal he would be the one tasked with reaching high shelves.

---

When Ash went upstairs to grab his bag, Hana was in the corridor, leaning on the door to Eiji’s bedroom with her arms crossed over her chest, looking like she had been waiting for him.

“Hum…” Ash didn’t know what to say to her. He wasn’t really feeling like apologizing as he had said nothing wrong or false earlier. It wasn’t his fault the Okumura family was so sensitive about being small and young-looking. “I… need to take my things from Eiji’s bedroom.” he said finally, as she was making no sign to move away from the door.

She stepped away, and Ash couldn’t quite read the smile on her lips as she followed him into the room.

“You’re nothing like I imagined you to look like.” she said suddenly.

“Oh?” Ash paused, passing his bag’s strap around a shoulder. “Did Eiji talk about me?”

A new curious smile bloomed on her lips. “You would like to know, don’t you?”

Ash held back the earnest yes that nearly escaped his throat in response. He was suddenly dying to know what Eiji could possibly have said to his sister about him.

But the girl didn’t answer Ash’s curiosity. “So, did you enjoy the natto?” she asked instead.

The face Ash made in response must have been telling, because Hana laughed freely.

“Oh, that bad, huh?” She let out an undignified snort. “Sorry about that, our mom can be spiteful sometimes.”

“What do you mean?”

Hana smiled mischievously. “Eiji likes it too much to notice, but our mother and I know that natto isn’t to everyone taste. She only cooks it for Eiji’s friends she doesn’t approve of.” she explained. “Once, the whole pole vault team went here to celebrate their good results at a competition, and she forced them all to eat natto. They never came back.”

Ash found himself laughing when he imagined the scene. “So, she doesn’t approve of the whole pole vault team?” he mused. “Isn’t she a bit picky?”

It was a relief to know he wasn’t the only one to have displeased Eiji’s mother.

Hana’s smile widened. “Maybe.” She rolled her eyes. “She thinks nobody’s good enough for her son.”

Well, finally something we can agree on, Ash thought, amused.

“To be fair, they were slightly loud and enthusiastic, but well, they just came back from a competition so of course they would be! They fell at the bottom of our mom’s esteem when they entered the house without taking off their shoes, though.”

Ash smiled to himself, noting mentally to never let himself do the same mistake.

“And I mean, Eiji loves natto, so anyone wanting to be close to him has to be aware of that flaw.” Hana continued, shrugging with fatality.

Ash smirked. “And what a flaw it is...” he agreed, nodding along with gravity.

“But don’t worry, our mom is stubborn but I’m sure you’ll manage to win her over. As long as you keep Eiji away from your motorbike.” she continued, stressing her statement with a wink.

Ash grimaced. “She told you about the bike?”

“You’re kidding?” the girl giggled. “She told the whole neighborhood about how she came home to witness a dangerous thug holding her precious son in his arms just beside a dangerous bike. When I saw you today, I didn’t make the link between you and the hooligan from her story, you’re really different from what I expected.”

Ash sighed. If he had known he would get into so much trouble just because he had let Eiji on his bike… Well, he would still have done it, but it wasn’t the question.

“Hey,” the girl grinned. “Don’t be down, our mom’s opinion on that kind of things doesn’t matter to Eiji anyway. And I mean, he clearly likes you, so the rest is unimportant…”

Ash’s heart made a loop in his chest. Eiji clearly liked him, uh. What he would give to know exactly what he had told his sister…

Ash didn’t know what expression he was wearing, but it made Hana snort again.

“I’ll be secretly rooting for you.” she said as she left the room. “But you have tough competition, so I wish you luck! You’ll need it!”

Ash was left quietly bewildered by her words. Eiji’s sister wasn’t the adorable girly version of Eiji he had pictured, but she seemed pretty cool. He hoped he would get opportunities to get to know her better.

 

---

 

On Sunday, Ash was walking home after spending the afternoon with Shorter, when a long and expensive car stopped in front of him. An Asian man wearing a black suit exited it and opened the back door. Inside the car, Yut-Lung was waiting for him, a displeased frown on his face and fire in his eyes.

Everything in this situation yelled at Ash not to get in the car; from the gorilla handyman to the fancy car and the absence of choice given, everything reminded him of his life at Golzine’s.

Still, stupidly, he took a seat beside the Chinese, letting Yut-Lung’s man close the car’s door behind him without a word.

“What do you want?” he asked right away, not bothering to lock his belt as the car started rolling down the street.

Yut-Lung was straight to the point himself.

“I want you to stay away from Eiji.”

Ash frowned. He should have been expecting this kind of confrontation from the Chinese. But it was coming a little late, in his opinion.

“I fail to see how any of this is your business.” he replied calmly. 

Yut-Lung gritted his teeth. “Don’t play dumb with me, Ash, it’s a waste of time for us both. What are you planning, by hanging out with him? When will you be done playing?”

Ash narrowed his eyes. “I’m not planning anything, and I’m not playing either. Eiji is my friend, that’s all. I’m not expecting you to understand.”

“You’re right, I don’t understand.” Yut-Lung gritted. “How could someone like you be even interested in someone like him? What do you want from him?”

Ash hissed. “I don’t want anything from him. It’s because you consider relationships like that that you’re a creep.”

Ash had expected anger from Yut-Lung, but when the Chinese replied, his voice was serene, self-assured. A little smile stretched his lips as he recoiled in his seat, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Now, Ash.” he said. “You don’t need to hide your true self, with me. I know what you’ve been through, and I know how irremediably it has changed you. I understand because I know someone who is the same as you.”

Ash’s breath hitched in his throat. “How much do you know?” he heard himself asking. “How did you—”

Yut-Lung smirked, clearly delighted by Ash’s bewilderment and by how easily he had made him lose his composure.

“It isn’t hard, to find information about your past.” he purred, voice laced with contentment. “From the tale of the Bluebeard of Cape Cod to the fall of the Mafia Don Dino Golzine, all you want to know is in old newspapers archives or on the net.”

Ash clenched his fists, so hard his nails grazed his skin. He considered opening the car’s door and jumping out of the vehicle. Yut-Lung knew more than what he feared, and he refused to sit there and hear him taunt him with his past.

Yut-Lung glanced at Ash’s knuckles, made white by how tightly they were clenched, and his face softened.

“Calm down,” he said, making a visible effort to sound placating. “I don’t care about what you did in the past and I won’t tell anyone.” He paused, and his expression hardened again. “But don’t think for one second that I will buy the ridiculous act you’re putting on with Eiji. I know exactly what you are, Ash.”

“You don’t.” Ash growled, unable to keep a hold on his anger. “You don’t know me at all.”

Yut-Lung stayed silent a bit, his eyes searching Ash’s face for a sign of deception. When his eyes met Ash’s owns, he held his gaze.

“I see you won’t drop the act.” the younger teen observed, eyebrows knit down together. “Very well. But keep in mind that I will not let you hurt Eiji. And I dispose of ways you have no idea of...”

“I have no intention of hurting him. Never.”

Ash hated how vulnerable his voice sounded. How he couldn’t promise he would never hurt Eiji unintentionally, because he didn’t have that kind of faith in himself. After all, his father had always said Ash was a troublemaker, and Ash had proven him right until then. He couldn’t be certain he would never cause harm to Eiji, because it was all he could bring into people’s lives.  

From the sour look on Yut-Lung’s face, he hated Ash’s vibrant honesty as much as Ash did.

“I too, know who you are, Yut-Lung. You’re not the only one who can do a basic research. I know about the Lee family.”

Yut-Lung quirked a brow. “You think you know, Ash, but you’re probably far from the truth. Maybe you want to hear this story. I guess it’s only fair since I know all about yours.”

Ash didn’t respond, but Yut-Lung probably took it as a silent assessment, because he continued.

“I was six when my brothers raped and killed my mother in front of me. The years I lived after that were hell, the only thing keeping me alive was my vow to take revenge on them all. Except someone else took that revenge from me.”

Yut-Lung stared in the distance, his voice strangely detached from his speech. “When I was 10, my brothers began to die one after the other. It was sudden and terrifying, I was convinced I would die with them, but that’s not what made the situation scary. Staying alive after they all died would have been pointless, as their demise was everything to me. No, my only fear was to die before the last of them had left this world.”

“But after the last of my brothers had died, what came for me wasn’t death. My mother was alive, and she had spent all these years working to free me from their hold. Can you imagine how delightful it was, to see my brothers, the powerful Lee, killed by the very woman they had despised, the women they had abused and left for dead?”

Ash said nothing, but he could relate. How many nights had he spent dreaming that his mother would come back from wherever she was and save him from the nightmare that was his life? Except his mother had never cared about him like Yut-Lung’s own surely did.

“I know you understand. You’re not so different from my mother. You too, have been the sexual slave of a powerful, shady, old man. You know what it’s like, to be at the very end of the food’s chain. To be a whore. These experiences have turned my mother into a ruthless monster.” Yut-Lung’s lips quirked up in a joyless smile. “Oh, of course, she still loves me, with all her heart. But in her own way. That’s not something a normal person could understand, but you’re not a normal person either, are you Ash?”

“Does Eiji know about all that?”

Eiji was close to the Chinese, for an unfathomable reason. Was he aware of his friend’s heavy past? Ash couldn’t help but wonder how the Japanese managed to attract the most broken people to himself.

Yut-Lung huffed, a harsh and contemptuous sound. “Ah! Of course, he doesn’t. Eiji isn’t from our world, Ash. He isn’t cut for it. He wouldn’t understand. I’m telling you all this because you and I are the same.”

“We’re not the same.” Ash protested, refusing to acknowledge the similarities between him and the Chinese. “And I think you’re giving Eiji too little credit. That’s not because he can’t relate that he can’t… care.”

Yut-Lung stared at him silently, eyes narrowed into slits.

“How much have you told him about your past?”

“Everything. I told him everything there is to know.”

Yut-Lung’s eyes widened, surprise taking his breath away for a second.

“Y-you did?”

“I know you’re scared that he will look at you differently if he knows too much. I feared the same. But you should know better than that. Or rather, even if you fear it, that’s the very reason you should tell him. How can you pretend to be his friend and hide from him everything that makes you the person you are? I would never want Eiji to care for me while thinking I’m a whole different person. That’s why I told him.”

Yut-Lung flinched, and Ash thought that he might have been a little too harsh on him. He wasn’t sure he could ever appreciate the Chinese, but he could relate to his story. It was obvious that Yut-Lung suffered in his own way, and Ash knew all too well how lonely their kind could feel.

“I can assure you Eiji never looked at me differently, and he knows things that should have disgusted him to no end. I’m not saying you should tell him, I don’t care and it’s none of my business. I’m just saying… Maybe you don’t know Eiji as much as you like to think you do.”

To his surprise, this was what made the cold anger Ash had seen in Yut-Lung’s eyes explode to the surface.

“I don’t know him as well as you do, that’s what you’re saying?” he spat furiously. “You seem to be forgetting that he’s my friend since far before you arrived. I know him better than you do! I was there for him far before you. Where were you when he first came to America? Were you the one to support him throughout the first year he spent here? When he was bullied? When his—”

“Wait, hold on— When he was… what?”

Yut-Lung stopped his tirade to stare at him with surprise, his mouth hanging open.

“You mean… You mean you don’t even know about that?”

From the outside, Ash was a frozen statue, but inside, he was boiling, his mind rushing to comprehend what Yut-Lung had revealed. Yut-Lung talked about bullying? He couldn’t wrap his mind around what it had to do with Eiji.

The Chinese snorted, a chilling joy sparkling in his eyes.

“Of course, he wouldn’t have told you about it!” he jubilated. “See, that’s exactly what I meant, I—”

“Stop fucking around and explain yourself.”

Yut-Lung frowned, and Ash feared he was going to stay silent just to torment him, but suddenly, the Chinese seemed to fall on himself a little, a new weight resting on his shoulders, and when he frowned, his discontentment seemed to be directed at himself, this time.

“I guess it would be better if I told you. I don’t think Eiji ever will, he’s too proud for that. Maybe it’s better if you understand… I don’t know why I even…”

Yut-Lung let out a long sigh. “Alright.” he decided, staring back at Ash. “I’m sure it must be hard to picture it for you, since Eiji is so popular at school now, but when he first came to America, it wasn’t the case at all.”

“Imagine, a new student transferred into the year, with an English so broken it’s barely intelligible, who looks like he understands nothing that is going on around him… And not to mention he was on the smaller side, frail looking, a bit gloomy because he had to leave his life behind all of a sudden to live in another country…. He was the perfect prototype of the bullied kid.”

Ash’s stomach dropped out, his mind reeling with the new information. He remembered Eiji mentioning his first year in America had been tough, but he had never thought about questioning him further. The picture Yut-Lung was painting was darker than what he had imagined when Eiji had said adapting to this new life had been hard for him.

“Eiji and I went to the same middle school. He was two years ahead of me, but he seemed so much weaker… Every time I saw him, he was alone. There were two jocks who were always pestering him, mocking his accent and just giving him a hard time whenever he had the bad luck to cross their way. But he did nothing against them. He stayed so… passive. I— I have to say that when I first noticed Eiji, I couldn’t help but to despise him.”

Yut-Lung seemed remorseful for an instant, but he continued his story with the same distant voice, lost in the memory.

“Except one day… these two assholes went to bother me. And that’s when… That’s the only time I ever seen Eiji get so angry. I would love to say he kicked their asses, but the truth is he isn’t a fighter and he was the one to get his ass handed to him. But even so… Well, this sure changed my opinion on him.”

A small smile bloomed on the Chinese’s lips, and Ash was struck by how different he looked when he wasn’t scowling.

“After that, he began to stick with me at school.” he continued. “Like I was the one who needed protection. And before I could make sense of what happened, I had for the first time in my life a friend I wanted to hold onto. He became everything to me, and he never left me behind, even when he no longer needed me...”

Yut-Lung snickered somberly. “Because it’s Eiji we’re talking about.” he sighed. “I thought at first that he was a weak soft-mannered baby, but when he was forced to retake that year, he managed to fit much better with others. His English was better and the two jerks that bullied him were gone to high school and, well, you’ve seen Eiji, you know he is lovable. He quickly managed to make friends. But even then, and even after, when he entered high school one year before me and began to grow more and more popular, he never made me feel like I wasn’t needed anymore. He always cared about me, even so I know I can be kind of…”

The Chinese didn’t finish his sentence. Suddenly, he stared back at Ash, and anger was back in his eyes, burning and swelling and shouting at him.

“But then, you came out of nowhere, acting like you could fit into Eiji’s life, and you have the audacity to pretend to my face that you know him better than I do?”

Ash retained a frustrated groan. He was worn out and all he wanted to do was to exit the car and talk to Eiji.

“That’s not what I meant to say…” he began. “I…”

“I don’t care about what you meant, or what you have to say.” Yut-Lung cut him off. “Maybe you truly don’t have bad intentions toward Eiji… But I still don’t trust you. I will keep you in sight.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Yut-Lung didn’t bother to answer him. Instead, he asked the driver to stop the car, and his request was met with a silent agreement.

When Ash left the car, the Chinese didn’t give him as much as a glance back. Staring into the distance, he was silently worrying his bottom lips between his teeth. All his efforts to scare Ash away by letting him witness the power he possessed were in vain, because the last image Ash retained of him was one of a lonely teenager, too young for the act he put on, and he caught himself pitying him.

As Ash stared at the car vanishing into the night, he had the sudden crave to talk to Eiji, about anything, just to hear the sound of his voice and feel close to him. He felt dizzy, the new information clenching around his heart like a vice. Maybe Yut-Lung wasn’t totally wrong, maybe Ash didn’t know Eiji as well as he thought he did.

He knew close to nothing about the Eiji from before their meeting, after all. And so little about the Eiji who feared for his father’s health, or the Eiji who exhausted himself at training, with in sight a goal Ash wasn’t sure to comprehend. Eiji kept so much to himself. Was Ash so untrustworthy that he felt like he couldn’t share his troubles with him?

No, Ash knew it wasn’t the reason Eiji kept to himself so much. They had grown so close, and he knew he had at least Eiji’s trust, his friend had made that clear. Maybe Ash didn’t know all about him, but he knew enough to be sure of his affection. If Eiji’s way to deal with his own troubles was to ignore them and stay silent, Ash had to respect that. But he also had to be sure his friend knew Ash would be there to listen, no matter what troubled him.

Rain began to pour, but Ash kept his walking pace even. He had so much to think about, and the rain had always helped him clear his mind.