“Must you go?” Eiji asks, his voice a harsh slice in the thick atmosphere filling the dimly lit room. His fingers, stained with the black ink he is so fond of, strangle the fabric of Ash’s uniform. His eyes stare into Ash’s, and he realizes that he might never see the bright green crystals screaming strength and life ever again after this night. He needs more time to memorize them, to capture them in a way that cannot be done in writing, in drawing, or in any form of art. He needs a lifetime to carve them into his mind, needs an eternity to sketch them into his heart. He cannot leave now! “We can run away! No one will know… Let’s escape! We can hide again if we move back to—”
“Eiji,” Ash’s voice was as soft and still as the candle on Eiji’s writing desk. Like the silent flame, Ash is strong and insistent, standing tall and undisturbed. His hands are a comforting presence on Eiji’s shoulders, sturdy and grounding. Ash has always protected him, ever since they were wistful teens. He has always been by his side, always bickering, always caring, always there . Eiji needs to be there for him too, to save him from his old demons, to embrace him when he gets too cold and too frightened. Don’t they need each other?
“Ash,” he responds dumbly, his head clouded and empty of anything and everything except Ash. He hopes that at least his desperate tone portrays how much he urgently and despairingly wishes for Ash to reconsider his decisions. Why must he hold a weapon again?
“Do you remember my older brother?” Ash asks then, and Eiji nods, the motion slow and confused. Why bring his late sibling now, of all times? Puzzled, Eiji watches as Ash moves his hands to grasp Eiji’s and lowers them to the space in between them (which wasn’t large to begin with). Eyes a solemn jade are trained on their connection, yet Eiji finds that he can’t look anywhere else but Ash’s face, studying him with concern.
“I decided to never forgive him when he left my father and I,” he admitted, and it’s the first Eiji’s heard of it. Ash has only ever spoke of his brother in an overwhelmingly positive light. “I loved him so much, yet I couldn’t believe he would dare leave us behind for a war we couldn’t win.”
Eiji opens his mouth to speak, but closes it when Ash suddenly lifts his gaze. Jaw set, eyes brighter, he tells Eiji, “But I understand now. I've understood it, but I did not want to believe it. He didn’t leave us to abandon us, he did it to protect us. He fought for us, and died doing so. He died a hero, my hero.”
Eiji blinks, eyebrows scrunched together. “I don’t—Ash, what are you trying to say?” Ash captures his gasp in a light, quick kiss. Eiji chases his lips and urges them into a dance dedicated and reserved for only them—a sequence and a sway that only they could accomplish after a year or so of practice. Eiji trembles after a minute passes, and Ash’s strong arms envelop him into a tight, suffocating embrace. Eiji cannot breathe, but the feeling is so welcome and so needed that he cannot bring himself to care.
Ash pulls away first, and Eiji sees tears in the corner of his eyes. A calloused hand caresses his cheeks, and Eiji isn’t surprised by the fact that he isn’t faring any better emotionally. Ash always collects his tears as if they were precious shells on a sparkling shore, each one beautiful and unique and a treasure to be cherished. Each one holding some sort of secret to be kept, a story to be shared. That is how Eiji sees Ash’s tears, after all… and he’s seen them many, many times.
Ash always does this… make him feel special, needed, wanted. Eiji wants Ash to know that he is all those things as well, and so much more. Is Eiji even doing a good job at expressing that? “Ash, I—”
“I’m going to protect you,” Ash promises Eiji, and as shocked as he was at the sudden claim, Eiji can detect no lie in his words, in his voice, in his expression, and it frightens him. “You’ll be safe here, because I will fight to protect you, to protect your dream.”
“Ash, what—” Eiji starts, but is not given the chance to finish. Ash grasps his face in his palms, and Eiji is so overwhelmed by the sensation and the heat and the Ash is leaving me, why are you leaving, please don’t go that he cannot form any more words. Ash fills the silence with his own pleas.
“Eiji, wait for me. I will return to you, I promise.” The contact is forceful, the words are heavy, but Eiji takes the burden and holds it close to himself. It makes it seem more genuine, more tangible. His hands seek Ash’s shoulders, and he takes a moment in order to present his own daring promise as well.
“I promise that I’ll wait for your return,” Eiji says, allowing himself a tentative, pensive smile. “Promise me that you will return, Ash. Promise me that you will write to me when you can. Let me know how you’re doing, tell me what’s going on. Let me know how Shorter, Sing, and the rest are faring. Promise me, Ash. Promise that you will come back to me, safe and sound.” He’s rambling at this point, and his accent is more prominent when he does, so Ash might not have caught his message, but the meaning is still there. The intent is still there.
Ash doesn’t reply immediately, and Eiji doesn’t expect him to. However, he becomes increasingly concerned when seconds pass and Ash’s expression turns grim, his mouth a thin, unsure line. Eiji’s frown deepens—can he not keep his end of the promise? No, he must, please Ash —
“I promise,” Ash says, the hands on Eiji’s face hardening, shaking. “I promise you, Eiji. Have faith in me.”
Eiji’s smile widens, lifting his hands now to place over Ash’s, and instantly, they relax. He can breathe again. “I’ve always had faith in you, Ash. I trust you.” I love you, but there was never a time, now or then, that felt appropriate to say it.
Ash’s entire frame hunches, and his expression and body tell Eiji that he is relieved. For a single moment, Eiji feels peaceful, despite the knowledge of what’s to come, of where Ash is going, of the dangers he is going to face. All that registers in his head right now is how close Ash is, how real he is, how beautiful he is, how talented he is, how amazing he is…
How much I love him.
Many months pass, most moving on silently and slowly with the infrequent letter from Ash. Eiji always replies quickly, always so relieved to receive word from him, reassuring him that Ash has been thinking of him, has been taking the time to let Eiji know how he is doing in short, straightforward prose that still somehow contain so much feeling as that of a meticulously crafted poem. He keeps all of Ash’s letters in a secure cabinet in his quarters, where no one, not even Ibe or Nadia, can access without Eiji knowing about it. There, the letters are protected, safe, and his. Ash is still connected to him, still keeping his side of the promise, so Eiji will keep his as well.
One letter arrives after nearly three and a half years, and written crudely but prettily in a way that only Ash can procure, it reads, “Expect us during the spring of the new year. We will secure a victory then. I will return to you.” Succinct, but overflowing with Ash’s emotions, of his promise. It’s all Eiji could ask and hope for. It keeps him optimistic, motivated, alive.
Spring arrives, and the first to contact Eiji is Sing. Eiji meets him at the entrance of the theater when he had received his summons, smiling cheerfully the entire journey there. He had rushed immediately from where he stood behind the stage upon hearing the news, so thrilled to talk to Sing, to embrace Shorter, to let Ash know about his debut play, the new watch he had bought for Ash, how much I love you and you must finally know. “Sing! Oh, I’m so glad to see you have returned—”
Sing’s entire body flinches at Eiji’s touch, silencing the older like a slap to his face. Eiji startles, becoming fidgety, then tiptoes to peer behind the budding adult as if he was looking for someone. He is. “Wh-where’s Ash? Were you not in the same unit? He wrote that you all should be coming back at around this time… I assumed you would all arrive together, with Shorter and Alex…” His voice unknowingly lowers into a fading whisper.
Sing says nothing, instead handing Eiji a wrinkled, torn piece of paper. Eiji takes it, his heart a booming rhythm. Upon unfolding it, he sees the patches of blood, the smeared ink, the sloppy writing that is solid in some areas and nearly illegible in others. The message is difficult to understand, overlapping letters and messy symbols, but the meaning is still there. The intent is still there.
The air around Eiji turns icy, filled with smoke, difficult to inhale and exhale.
It’s an apology. It’s a farewell. It’s everything Eiji dreaded and more, yet he read every single word, sinking deeper and deeper into a dark, endless winter.
There is no hope for spring, no hope for Ash’s return. No hope for them.
An agonizing chill buries him in the snow, clouding his vision and making him tremble deep from his bones outward. He feels so, so cold.
His last words. “Forgive me, I loved you.”
Forgive me… I loved you.
Ash’s voice whispers in his ear, and Eiji swears he can see him smiling, sees his blonde hair flowing, sees his eyelids slipping, sees his hands stop moving as they struggle to write coherent sentences from incoherent thoughts, sees his breathing stop, sees his heart stop, sees him—
“I’m sorry, he couldn’t make it. Neither could the rest of them. For months, for years , the battle was against our favor, one-sided. Our victory was thanks to Ash’s final set of strategies…” He hears Sing say, but it sounds like the scrape of a table, the grating of a silver fork, the scratch of a quill’s pointed tip—painful, meaningless, consuming. It makes him tremble terribly, and his legs crumple uselessly underneath him. “However, his plan came with many sacrifices.”
Eiji closes his fingers around the letter, crumpling the delicate material further, his sobs ringing unpleasantly in his ears and his heart pounding painfully in his chest—a constant reminder that this is real.