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A Romcom Without A Coffee Shop

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Ash didn't believe in love at first sight. That was just some bullshit people made up to so they wouldn't seem so shallow as to only fall for someone’s looks. He had more than his fair share of strangers coming up to him, grasping his hand in theirs, professing their undying love for him. In the beginning, he gave a few of them a chance but then he realized all they were in love with was the idea of him. So love was a complete scam. But, sometimes he thought, it didn't seem like such a bad thing. Love. It seemed like such an odd thing, so far out of reach for him. He just wanted to maybe sometimes wake up to another person's warmth, maybe hold someone in his arms, and maybe not have to always be Ash Lynx, just Aslan.

He rolled his eyes, leaning back against the wall, hands behind his head, rolling his eyes. When did he become such a sap? Guess seeing most of his friends share small, soft smiles with their lovers was getting to him after all.  

Whatever, he thought dryly, dropping back onto his bed, the old frame creaking from the impact of his fall. All he really needed was good grades and some food. Not that he had to worry about the former. Most classes were simple for him, but food, yea, he needed to figure that one out. Lifting his arms up into the air, white sleeves falling back, he glanced over the small alarm clock, realizing he had some time before his shift. He might as well catch a nap and, he refused to admit this, maybe dream of a warm hug and arms that held him through the night. Maybe.

///

Ash’s eyes flitted open to his phone buzzing non-stop. He glared as he grabbed it, wondering who the hell was calling him. A huge grin and bright purple hair greeted him, a flower crown balancing on the top of his Mohawk. Shorter. Of course. As he looked at Shorter’s face, debating whether or not to pick up, he was reminded of the day they took that picture.

They were messing around in a Hot Topic, Ash, with his hood pulled up so no one could recognize him in that godforsaken store. Shorter had grabbed a flower crown, and pirouetted to face Ash.

“Don’t I look hot as hell?” he had asked with all seriousness, batting his eyes. Ash didn’t respond, just held up his phone and took a picture.

“Wow, I do look hot,” Shorter came to stand behind Ash, chin resting on his shoulder, staring as Ash added a caption to the snap. Ash could almost hear the light bulb that went off in Shorter’s head.

“Gimme your phone for just a sec.”

The next time Ash went to go text Shorter he was greeted by his thousand-watt smile.

 

That picture always reminded how his best friend was a dumbass but still managed to be loveable somehow. Except right now.

Ash picked up the call, after seeing Shorter had called 4 times before already and sent 20 texts.

“What?” Ash made sure his voice had extra venom, making that single word as harsh as he could. As always Shorter pretended not to notice or didn’t care.

"Oi, Ash! You busy?" Shorter's voice came, unnecessarily loud, through his phone. He held his phone away from his ear, praying his eardrum didn't get ruptured. He glared at some corner in his room, as if it was the room’s fault that his friend had called at such a bad time.

"Yes I am. What do you want?" He let out a loud yawn, making it more dramatic than it really was.

"Sleeping doesn't count Ash," and before Ash could argue, Shorter began to speak again. "Anyways, remember how Blanca wanted us to help out in that student exchange program?"

"Maybe?" Ash really couldn't remember anything about that and he doubted he would ever agree to do something so annoying. Ash rubbed at his eyes, wiping away the residue of sleep.

"C'mon Ash, remember? Blanca said he'd give us extra credit if we helped out? That he’d let you skip the pre-req for his business class?"

 

Shit. His hand paused. Ash did remember. The conversation happened when Ash realized he’d have to opt out of applying for an internship because he forgot to take one stupid class. He was ranting to Shorter, when Blanca happened to walk by. Well, more like he walked in his office that Ash and Shorter used as their usual study and lunch spot.

“So you made a mistake, just do the internship next term,” Blanca sat, looking through some papers while Ash turned to him and told him how much of an idiot he was.

“Well, see I told him the same thing but apparently there’s this one big shot company that he really wanted to work for and this is the first time they’re even offering an internship,” Shorter leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head, shrugging as if he didn’t see the issue.

“And who knows if they’ll ever offer it again. I can’t lose this chance.” Ash huffed, trying to figure out if there was anything he could do. Then it hit him.

“Wait! Blanca! You’re teaching that class next semester! The 213 one and the 307 right?” He turned to face Blanca, who had finally looked up, his eyes wary.

“Right…” Blanca raised his eyebrows, and looked towards Shorter trying to see if he had any idea of what was going on.

“So you can let me skip the pre-req!” Ash leaned forward, knowing he wasn’t being himself right now. He never got too worked up over anything but he couldn’t help it. He would do anything to get a chance to work with that company. He had to.

Blanca sighed, and ran a hand through his long locks. “Ash, you are one of the brightest students I know, but it would be hard for me to convince the department head to approve this. I know you could do this course in a week and ace it, but I can’t prove that.”

“How about you have Ash help you out?” Ash turned to look at Shorter, who was sitting backwards in his chair, head tilted making his mohawk look off kilter. “Like you wanted me to help with that exchange kid program right? So Ash can help a kid enrolled in the 213 class and take the exam too. I mean, c’mon Blanca you can do that.”

Ash and Blanca both blinked, looking at Shorter for a moment.

“That could actually work.” Blanca began to hum, looking outside his window, deep in thought.

“Wow Shorter, you sure you’re feeling alright? You actually said something useful,” Ash jumped as Shorter moved to punch him in his arm.

“Alright, Ash let’s do that. If you can help the international student in this class, I’ll let you write the exam. If you pass, then well, I’ll consider it as if you did the class yourself. There shouldn’t be an issue since you’ll have to make every class anyways.” Blanca turned back to the papers he had and began to leaf through them again.

“Hey Blanca?”

“Hmm?” Blanca looked up at Ash, wondering if there was anything else he needed.

“I’d kiss you right now if you weren’t my prof.” Ash blew a dramatic kiss towards his prof, as he gathered his stuff.

Blanca looked back down, a smile on his lips. “I’m glad I am then.”

 

"Ok, so? What's your point?" Ash didn't really see what the issue could be and, more importantly, care about this conversation anymore. All he wanted to do was go back to sleep.

"Well, Blanca emailed us our student assignments and I stalked the kid I'm paired up with and holy shit is he hot," Shorter let a low whistle and Ash really wanted to punch him.

"That's what you called me for? To thirst over some random dude? What you do every fucking day anyways?" Ash pulled the phone from his ear, ready to hang up.

"Wait!” Ash paused. “He’s like beyond normal levels of hot, he looks like a supermo-“

He pressed the end call button. Not even 2 seconds passed before his phone started buzzing again. He grunted in answer.

“Alright, alright I'm sorry but that wasn’t all I wanted to talk to you about. I asked Blanca about who you were paired up with and I looked around a bit but this dude doesn't exist. Like I found an Instagram with his name but he has zero pictures of himself."

"So?"

"So, that's weird as fuck man.” Shorter sighed as if he couldn’t believe that wasn’t obvious. “I don't know, just make sure he isn't some fucking weirdo and if he tries anything, tell me and I'll punch the shit out of him, I swear. It won’t be like last time." Ash could tell Shorter was done joking around, his voice had taken on a steel hard tone. He wondered if he should mention that he was the one who usually saved Shorter’s ass when he got into trouble.

Instead he smiled. "Yea, I will. Thanks Shorter," he paused, "but I still hate you for waking me up."

Shorter laughed and Ash felt, for a second, warm.

///

He figured now that he was wide-awake anyways, he might as well check this guy out. He pulled out his phone, leaning against his pillow, and opened his email, scanning till he saw what he was looking for. Eiji Okumura. It sounded soft. He tilted his back, trying different ways to pronounce it.

“Eye-jay Oh-koo-moo-ra? E-jay? Eh-gee?” he shook his head. Nothing sounded quite right. The name sounded misshapen in his clumsy tongue but he knew it must sound elegant. He wondered how he'd pronounce it.

Going back to the task at hand, namely stalking a guy, Ash pulled up Google, and typed in the name along with every social media platform he could think of. Nothing.

Ash sat up, his pillow falling to the ground, scratching his head. He was getting curious now. It really was, odd. Ash wasn't like Shorter, who'd share every bit of life online, so he got that maybe he wasn't active but there was nothing. Most people had some sort of online footprint. Even he did and he was paranoid as fuck. He scrolled through the search results, moving to the third page, when he remembered Shorter had mentioned something about an Instagram. God he must have been really tired if he couldn’t remember that.

Eiji Okumura. The first profile that popped up was a photography page, full of shots of buildings and nature. Except for one. The page’s first ever picture was of a young boy, or was he a man? His body was built, as if he did some sort of sport, but his face pure and unclouded. The soft black hair seemed to be wind tousled and the boy was smiling, his eyes closed as if he had blinked before the flash went off, hand thrown up, in mid wave. The caption read, “thank you.” Ash was mesmerized by the picture. The boy wasn’t extremely handsome, nothing particularly striking about his features either. Sure he was cute, but there was something else about him that drew Ash in to him. He seemed so soft, yet strong. Ash wanted to see that smile in front of him. Wanted to hold his hand. Wanted to kis- Ash groaned, burying his face in his bed. He was probably Eiji’s boyfriend and Ash was thirsting after him. He didn’t even know the man in the picture. He didn’t even know Eiji.

This isn't healthy, Ash thought, looking through the comments for anything to give him a hint about the mystery man. He swiped back to what he was assumed was Eiji’s profile, after seeing all the comments were in Japanese, and looked through some more posts. Nothing else about his maybe boyfriend. He scrolled to the top, hesitated before clicking to translate Eiji’s bio. It was simple and told him nothing more about who he was supposed to be helping these next few months. A student who would love to share how I see the world.

He went back to the search bar, clicking on the other results that popped up but they all turned out to be old men or high school kids.

Clicking off his phone and throwing it lightly on the ground, he leaned back on his bed. Ash doubted he’d be a creep, and he wasn’t just basing it on the fact that Eiji had a cute boyfriend at some point. The guy also took nice pictures of some buildings. That had to count for something, right?

Ash covered his face with his hands. God, he was a fucking mess. So what if he was basing this guy’s entire personality on the fact that he had good taste in guys? If he did turn out to be a real creep, Ash would punch his balls out. He turned to his side, tucking his arm underneath his head. As he closed his eyes, an image of a smiling man, with messy hair ran on repeat in his mind.

///

Ash woke up for the second time that day with a start. He picked up his phone, squinting when the bright light blinded him. 11:30. He blinked a few times, letting his eyes adjust before opening up his phone and seeing if God had let someone else take his shitty shift at Target.

As he scrolled through his messages (and saw that all his coworkers saw his message but conveniently forgot to reply, the assholes) a notification popped up.

Eiji Okumura has requested to follow you. Ah. Ash ran a hand through his hair, noting, for a moment, how the light that drifted in caught on it and made the blonde look like a rainbow and wondered how it would look on messy black hair. He blinked twice, before sitting up and getting back to the matter at hand. So his Eiji was the same Eiji, who may or may not have an extremely cute boyfriend that Ash may or may not be slightly enamoured with.

He fell back on his bed, wondering since when did his life get so complicated? This was like one of those shitty teen dramas, that Shorter loved to watch and forced Ash and Sing to binge with him. The thought of Shorter made Ash swear under is breath. God, if Shorter heard about this, he would never let Ash hear the end of it. He would probably and go write fanfics about it and ask if he had a kink for being the other man. But Ash needed advice. He’d tell Shorter, just after he figured out what the hell to do. He sighed, picking up his phone and sending a text to someone who would also laugh at him, but at least hear him out before laughing.

Ash’s phone rung 5 minutes after he sent the text.

“Ash! Are you all right? What happened? Do you want to come over? Jessica is worried about you, you know.”

“I’m fine old man. I just need some advice, calm down.” Ash rolled his eyes, feeling a headache come on. He’d never admit it, but he did love his guardian. The only father figure he had in his life, Max was a good guy, but just like Shorter, his voice was louder than it had to be. He wondered for a moment how it was possible to have a voice so loud and not be rasping by the end of the day.

“If you’re asking for advice, I don’t think I can believe you’re fine.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be there for me and listen to me and help me out or some bullshit like that?”

“Ash, I’m always here to listen to you kiddo. Don’t ever think I’m not.” Max’s voice lost its teasing edge. He really was like Shorter. He’d joke around but when everything was said and done, he would tell Ash straight up what he felt. It was refreshing and real. Unlike you, the small voice in the back of his head whispered. He pointedly ignored it, shoving the thought away for later, when he'd have more time to overanalyze it and make himself feel like shit. 

“Yea, well are you free today? I have a shift at 12:30, but I’ll be done at 5. Can I swing by for a bit?”

“Stuck with the late shift again I see. You can come by whenever you’d like Ash. Jess is gonna be over the moon when she hears you’re gonna come. Are you planning on staying the night?” Max was humming lightly in the background, something he only did when he felt truly excited. It made Ash feel that same soft warmth he felt with Shorter sometimes.

“If you can drop me back at campus by 10 tomorrow, sure.”

“You barely come home,” that word made Ash’s stomach flip, “so of course. I wouldn’t mind dropping you to your college normally, you know.” Max finished, sighing, expecting a retort. They had this argument a million times already. Ash already felt guilty that Max and Jessica were paying for most of his tuition and the fact that they had taken care of him for years now didn’t help make it any easier. He didn’t want to burden them anymore. And he knew if he told Max that, Max would tell him to not to be stupid. But he couldn’t help feeling that way.

“Thanks. I’ll see you tonight then.” He was too tired to run through this argument and besides, he didn’t want to.

“Sure thing. I’m picking you up from work though.”

Ash muttered something about overbearing old men, knowing he couldn’t argue his way through this. Not that he minded being taken care of sometimes. It made him feel normal. It made him feel as if he belonged.

“Ok, thanks Max.”

He ended the call, stretching his arms above his head, tilting left and right. He felt a bit lighter, knowing he had a game plan, sort of. At least he knew Max would maybe give him some decent advice. That or he’d laugh at Ash, but at least he’d get some good food out of it.

He picked up the bright red shirt, smelling to see if it was alright before shrugging it on. It didn’t matter really, his shift was only a few hours. Plus, if he smelled like shit, maybe no customers would approach him. He pulled on those disgusting khaki pants that he swore he’d burn as soon as he got a better job and pulled on his shoes. Grabbing his keys and bag, he turned to look back at his small apartment.

It was small, but for one person, it was consuming. The emptiness seemed to pour out of the corners, seemingly waiting to be filled with laughter. He hated living alone. He had roomed with Shorter in the beginning but when Shorter had to move back to live with his sister Nadia, he was left alone again.

 

“Why not just put an ad up for a roomie? I know being alone makes you get all anxious,” Ash looked up from his end of the sofa. Shorter had pointedly avoided the topic of a new roommate the entire the week he had spent gathering his things and moving them back to his old place. Ash thought that maybe he had some tact. Ash was clearly wrong.

“You think I’m that desperate that I’ll live with anybody?”

“You seemed pretty desperate when you asked me.” Shorted kept his eyes on the T.V, flipping through channels.

“Fuck off.” Ash looked back at his notes, trying to figure out what exactly he had written during his 8 AM lecture, sans coffee. He stayed quiet for a moment before he decided it wouldn’t kill him to be honest once in a while. “I don’t wanna live with someone I don’t know anything about. I’d rather stay alone.”

Shorter didn’t say anything, just hummed slightly, before leaning over and ruffling Ash’s hair. “Nadia invited you for dinner tonight.”

 

Ash shook his head. Yea, he hated living alone, but it was fine. He had to get used to it sooner or later. Sing was already living in a frat house, Cain with his girlfriend, and his old high school friends had all left the city or gone to other colleges. Yea, it was fine. He’d survive.

He closed the door and decided maybe he would spend the night at Max’s.

///

The store was dead, just how Ash liked it. There wasn’t much to do. He had already done some shelving, checked to make sure there was enough cash in the cash register, and was now walking around, picking up things customers had thrown on the ground. Did they not have any fucking decency? Would it kill them to put whatever they picked up on a shelf? He wasn’t asking for much. He bent down, picking up some t-shirts that were out of season and on sale. The sale section was always the worst, with clothes everywhere, customers haggling and lots of kids yelling. He folded up the first shirt, placing it back on the shelf.

As he reached for a bright green one (god who even wore bright green now?) a hand came forward, picking it up for him. Ash looked up and thought he must be dreaming. The man in front of him had wavy black hair, that looked messy but in an endearing manner. He had a sheepish smile, and his eyes were as wide as oceans, dark and never ending. Eiji’s boyfriend. Ash didn’t realize breathing took so much effort.

“Oh, I am so sorry. I wanted to help you, you looked tired,” the man offered up shyly, an accent tingeing his words. It was soft and polite and so unlike him. Ash wanted to hear that voice ring in his ears everyday. He swallowed harshly, smiling back at him. He wanted to laugh. His life was turning into a fucking romcom or something. Meeting the guy he was slightly crushing on at his part-time job? The only way it could get even more cliched was if he worked at a coffee shop or some fucking floral boutique.

“It’s alright, don’t worry about it. It is my job after all.” Like hell he cared about his job, but he remembered Nadia once saying how there was nothing more attractive than a man who took his job seriously and Ash had to work with what he had. “Do you like that shirt? I think green would look good on you.”

“Really? This green, it is not a very nice one,” the boy laughed, looked up at Ash, his eyes crinkled up. “But your eyes. They are a very pretty green. They are almost like a jade.”

Ash’s mouth went dry. He always got compliments on his eyes but none so soft and genuine. None that seemed to truly look at them and him. Fuck. He had to say something. Anything, but his mouth just wouldn’t work.

After a moment of silence, the boy furrowed his brow and began to stammer. “Ah, I am very sorry. I did not mean to offend. My English is not the best so-“

“Wait, why are you apologizing?” Ash caught the boy off, his mouth finally connecting to his brain, and raised one eyebrow up.

“Ah, that is because I thought I had said something that had caused you offense. I am sorry if that’s the case,” the boy dipped his head in apology, eyes glued to the floor.

“No, no. I was just kinda surprised that’s all. Most people just say they think my eyes are nice. You’re the first to name the color and that was just kinda sweet. Thank you,” Ash smiled softly as the boy raised his head, a smile appearing on his face as well.

“I am glad then.” The boy held his smile for a moment more and Ash basked in the warmth of it. God he was a mess, getting whipped for a man who he only knew through a picture and a 5 minute conversation. He wished he could care.

The moment was interrupted when a long haired boy came around to Eiji’s boyfriend, looping their arms together, leaning on him.

“God, there’s nothing decent here. Why’d we even come here?” The longer haired boy pouted at Eiji’s boyfriend, and Eiji’s boyfriend rolled his eyes affectionately.

It took a moment for Ash to grasp the situation. A man had just come up to Eiji’s boyfriend, casually grabbed his arm, complaining to him and Eiji’s boyfriend looked completely comfortable. Eiji’s boyfriend was acting like he was dating this random guy, which meant he had to be Eiji. Ash hated his luck, but he smiled his best ‘I fucking hate you but I’ll pretend to be civil’ smile. He began to mechanically fold more clothes, placing them in their proper spots.

“It is because they have good, fast printing. Very inexpensive as well,” Eiji’s boyfriend tried to explain and Eiji just seemed to not care. What a fucking asshole. This guy could do so much better. In fact, Ash was sure his middle name was Better. He should definitely do him.

“I’m guessing this is your boyfriend?” Ash casually stepped into the conversation, picking up the green abomination from Mr. Boyfriend’s hands, folding it deftly.

“Ah, wait! No, no! He is just friend. A very good friend!” he began to blush, leaning slightly away from Eiji. Eiji let go, shrugging and before moving to the rack beside them, and began to look through the shirts. He made a show of opening up each shirt and then folding it back in the worst possible way. He looked up innocently at Ash, shrugging his shoulders slightly.

Oops. Ash could almost hear his voice. So he was that kind of customer. Dipshit. He turned his attention back to Eiji’s boyfriend, smiling at the nervous man.

“Hey, don’t worry about it. I don’t really care,” he cared too much, “I mean more power to you. By the way, I never did catch your name.”

“My name? It is –“

“Sweetie, you really shouldn’t be giving out your name to random strangers, especially ones that look like that,” Eiji interrupted his boyfriend, not looking up at Ash. He was holding up a collared shirt to the light, checking it for god knows what.

“Oh, umm…” his boyfriend looked away now, hand coming to scratch the back of his neck, a slight blush coloring his ears.

Ash hated Eiji but really was he wrong? He would have said the same thing if he had been in his place, if his boyfriend was so trusting and kind. But still, he wanted to punch him. Instead he smiled, first at Eiji who had finally looked up at him and shot daggers at him, then at his boyfriend.

“Hey, your boyfriend’s right. You don’t have to tell me anything. But I’m Ash.” He smiled softly at him, before pretending to check his watch. “Well, I gotta go but, it was nice to meet you,” not you, Eiji, he thought glaring at him for a second. “Maybe I’ll see you around?”

The boy nodded, smiling again. “Yes, maybe. Thank you for helping me again,” he winked, pointing towards the neon green shirt, making Ash chuckle.

“Anytime.”

///

“Ash you smell like crap.”

“Hello to you too, old man,” Ash rolled his eyes as he plopped down in the passenger seat, putting his legs up on the dashboard. He closed his eyes but opened them up again when the car hadn’t moved an inch. Max looked pointedly at his seatbelt and Ash sighed, buckling it.

“You know I won’t let you get a car till you fix that habit of yours.” Max turned on the car, switching on the indicator to back out of the narrow parking space.

“Who says I want a car?”

“Well, according to Michael you told him that as soon as you’d get one, you’d take him out for ice cream. And we both know you love to spoil Michael.”

Dammit. Ash loved Michael but the kid had to tell Max everything, didn't he. “Whatever.”

“Are you seeing your therapist still?” Max kept his eyes on the road, his tone light but Ash could tell he was trying to get answers. He debated if he should be an ass about it or just be honest. He decided on honesty. The man deserved to know, he was paying for it after all.

“No.”

Max nodded, not too surprised. “Wanna tell me why?”

“He just didn’t get it. He was always talking about how the past makes us able to live and how I should move on and-“ Ash stopped, taking a deep breath, controlling himself before he had another panic attack. When his breathing felt normal he continued. “He just made me feel like shit.”

Max reached over, ruffling Ash’s hair. “Well, Jessica has this one friend who may be somewhat helpful.”

“Yea?”

“Yea. The guy’s name is Charlie, used to be a cop before realizing the system was rigged. He does mostly pro-bono work, choosing his clients. He wants to meet you, if you’re ok with it.”

“I’ll think about it.” Ash looked out the window, tired of thinking. He saw Max’s reflection nodding and he was grateful the old man didn’t attempt to ask further.

The rest of the car ride was in a comforting silence that lulled Ash into a state of daydream. He dreamed of wide, open plains, set against the deep blue sky, time at a standstill. He felt Max’s hand on his head, rubbing it softly reminding him of his older brother, Griffin.

The memory of his older brother made his eyes itch, his nose burn and his head hurt. His brother who had essentially raised him till he couldn’t. Ash had snippets of memories that float back but that one that had indented itself into Ash’s conscious was the memory of Griffin’s body that refused to move, his hand beginning cool. He had looked up at Ash and smiled, lifted his hand to his head. Had said something that Ash could never remember. All he could remember was his screams, his begging. He wished that he had stayed silent, had heard his last words. He closed his eyes.

Max didn’t mention the soft shakes of Ash’s body, just continued to softly pat him. Ash felt like he was seven. But instead of the police telling him it was his fault and his dad telling him to make the man pay up next time, it was Max, just listening to him.

///

As they pulled into the driveway, Max cleared his throat before turning to Ash. Ash raised an eyebrow, noting how Max was pulling at his collar.

“Just so you know, I did tell Jessica that you weren’t planning on staying but you know how she is, headstrong and all,” Max rolled eyes, but his voice held an affectionate tone for his wife. He probably didn’t mind that there was someone else who would argue with Ash and possibly convince him to stay, either.

Ash pretended to gag in response, making Max lean over and smack his head.

“Ash!” Ash didn’t take one step out of the car before he heard his name being called. He stumbled back as he was greeted by a small boy, jumping up at him. Ash smiled, bending down, picking up the child. He ruffled the soft brown hair, eliciting a giggle that reached the little boy’s big blue eyes.

“Hey Michael, how are you kiddo?” he asked setting down the boy gently, as they walked inside the house. Ash paused at the front door to wipe his shoes before walking in.

Michael grinned up at him before launching into a story about what had happened at school in the past few weeks. As he dragged Ash up to his room, Ash saw Jessica wave to him, smiling softly. He also noticed that she was tapping her fingers, a sure sign he was about to get a lecture for something he didn’t even know he did. He groaned inwardly, before focusing on Michael’s chatter and asking silly questions.

Dinner was a loud affair, with lots of questions about what Ash had been up to and with Michael jumping in any chance he got to show Ash whatever he had learned at school. Ash got up to help clear the table but was waved away by Jessica.

“If you like to come over like a guest, then you have to act like one too,” she deftly picked up all the plates, rinsing them off. “Besides, I had today off so it’s no hassle.”

Ash didn’t mention how he noticed that Jessica had made all his favorite foods or how she’d steered the conversation into comfortable grounds, letting him talk. She’d never admit it even if he did bring it up, so he tucked it away in the corner of his mind, thanking her silently.

He moved to the living room where Michael sat cross-legged at the coffee table, brow furrowed in concentration, head over a sheet of paper. Ash strained his neck catching glimpses of numbers. Math. Growing up, Ash had hated math. His teachers never taught him the way numbers had power and could be written out like a song. The way Michael was glaring at his page, Ash figured schooling had stayed more or less the same since he'd left.

“Hey Michael, what are you up to?” Ash lowered himself, joining the boy on the ground.

“It’s my homework.” He looked away, pulling his paper into his body.

“Really? It looks pretty tough, way harder than what I learned in grade 3.”

Michael looked up, eyes shy, before releasing the grip he had on his paper. “Yea, our teacher doesn’t explain things well and it’s really hard because then I can’t do my homework.”

“Well, math wasn’t my best subject either you know.”

“Really? But daddy said you study math in college,” his eyes held disbelief, even some mistrust.

“Actuarial science and yea I study that now, but before I was terrible at math. Until I learned a few tricks,” Ash leaned forward, dropping his voice to a whisper. “Want me to show you?”

Michael nodded, and Ash felt himself catching the young boy’s excitement.

It was around 9, when Michael began to rub his eyes, yawning loudly. Ash exchanged a look with Max.

“Hey Michael, mind taking me upstairs to show me your animal collection again?” Ash held Michael’s hand, leading the boy to his room.

By the time they reached there, Ash was carrying the child, humming softly to him. He placed him down on his bed, turning off the lights before sitting down for a moment beside him. He looked peaceful. Ash sat there and prayed in that moment. He prayed that Michael would forever stay like this, happy and at ease. Prayed he would never go through what Ash had gone through. Then he made a selfish prayer. He prayed he would find peace soon.

As Ash descended the stairs, he heard Jessica’s and Max’s hushed voices die out completely. He raised an eyebrow. So he was the hot topic tonight, huh.

“Hey old man, if you and your wife are gonna gossip about me, mind doing it in front of me?” Ash leaned on the railing, glaring at Max who looked like he had been caught with his hand in a cookie jar.  

“Is Michael asleep?” Jessica sat ignoring his question, checking under her nails for some invisible speck of dirt. Ash directed his glare towards her, not moving from where she looked. She looked up coolly at him, waiting for a reply, after a beat of silence.

“Yea, he passed out as soon as I took him up.” Ash gave in, falling back onto the couch, throwing his feet up on the coffee table. “So what were you two talking about?”

“Max was telling me you had to talk to him about something important and I think I should hear it.”

Ash immediately sat up, the sudden motion causing Max to jump up in his seat and Jessica to raise one perfectly groomed eyebrow. “What, no! I mean, it doesn’t involve you.” Ash knew that if he told Jessica, she would ask him a million questions and then tell Ash to grow a pair and tell the boy he liked him. She was so much like Nadia in that sense, becoming a mother for him even when he pushed her away. 

“So it’s something you needed advice on and it’s something so urgent that you finally decided to visit but it’s not something that involves me,” Jessica’s voice was deadpan and unimpressed.

“Good job old lady, glad to see you aren’t going senile yet.”

“Just because of that comment, I’m staying,” she leaned back in the couch, pulling her legs up and making herself comfortable.

Ash shot a look at Max, who shrugged, as if he couldn’t do anything. Not that he could but still, it wouldn’t hurt for him to try.

“Fine, whatever.”

“So, Ash what was it you wanted to talk about?” Max finally spoke up, leaning forward, his eyes soft urging Ash to speak.

Ash took a deep breath.

 

When Ash finally stopped talking, he looked up. Jessica’s smirk had disappeared and had been replaced with a look of wonderment. Max, on the other hand, was shaking face hidden so Ash couldn’t see his laughter.

“Hey Jess, tell your husband to shut up,” he turned his face, hoping his blush wasn’t visible in the dim light.

“Alright, sorry Ash, it’s just you finally talk to us about a crush and it’s already more dramatic than most people’s love lives ever turn out to be.” The older man shook his head, a smile dancing on the corners of his mouth. “Well what do you want us to say?”

“Well what the fu- hell should I do?” he bit back the curse word that threatened to slip out. If there was one thing that would piss Jessica off for sure, it was swearing where Michael might overhear.

“What do you want to do? That’s the real question Ash,” he stopped for a moment, thinking about the question she had posed. What did he want to do?

“Well for starters, not look like an idiot in front of him.,” he drummed his fingers against his chin thoughtfully. “I guess I wanna get to know him. I mean if he’s happy with his asshole boyfriend then I really shouldn’t be the other man right?”

“It’s tough to say. If he does choose you over his boyfriend, then that doesn’t make you the other man. You know better than to help someone cheat on their partner so I doubt that’ll be an issue.” Max hummed, looking to Jessica to elaborate.

“Max is right. As long as you know he’s single then it’s ok for you to flirt all you like. It’s also fine if you guys just stay friends. Who knows Ash, you might find out you don’t like the guy once you actually start to talk to him. You might be worlds apart.”

Heaviness followed those words as Ash realized they might truer than Jessica thought. Eiji’s boyfriend had such clear eyes. Eyes that hadn’t seen what he had. Ash was stained with red, impure, dirty. They really were far too different. But…

“This is the first time I’ve felt this way. I don’t wanna think it’s a mistake. Even if we’re different I want to try to bridge the gap between us. Even if we just become friends.” He whispered the last word, almost like the prayer he had chanted in Michael’s room. Except this time, he knew it would take more than just praying to some God for it to come true.

Max sat down beside him, Jessica following suit. They reached out, each grabbing one of his hands. “And that’s your answer.”

Ash didn’t reply, just let them hug him and sit in silence. He had his answer. He just hoped it was the right one.

///

He was not looking forward today. Eiji had been the exact opposite of what he was expecting and now Ash was stuck with him for the next 4 months. God, what he would give to be with Eiji’s unnamed boyfriend instead. He would show him how he deserved to be treated and that he could do way better. And if he fell for Ash in the process then well, what could he say? He had been told he was quite charming, after all.

He got out of bed, after looking at Shorter’s texts, which were 10 texts that could really just be one. They were all about how much hotter his partner was in real life and how he had a shy kid beside him, who was kinda cute, but dear God was he mess right now. He rolled his eyes, sending a middle finger emoji. He was happy for Shorter but he was also pissed. It was if everyone had some shot at a relationship except him.

He knew he was going to be late and he couldn’t give a fuck. Let that asshole wait for him. He deserved it. Ash figured, though, if he was going to be late he might as well dress decently. He didn't forget what Eiji had said to him last time and he really didn't need him to be commenting on his shitty appearance on the first day.

He changed leisurely, his phone buzzing every five minutes, and headed out, stopping at the coffee shop by his apartment.

“Yo, Sing.” He waved over the freshman. He couldn’t believe there was once a time Sing had been shorter than him. Now he stood 6 feet tall, his hair short and slicked back, eyes that made girls and boys swoon for him. It helped that Sing was kind and soft hearted too.

“Hey Ash, what’s up? You’re late today, thought you were gonna skip,” he led Ash behind the counter, pointing to a stool.

“Yea, well I just had a late night. How about you?”

“I’m good. Have class in a bit though.” He poured out cream and added in flavoring, tossing it in the blender. “ But seriously, you’re never more than 15 minutes late, you might as well skip.”

At Sing’s words, Ash felt a twinge of guilt. Yea, Eiji had been an asshole to him, but leaving him alone on his first day? C’mon that was a dick move. He bit his lip. He couldn’t exactly go back in time and change the fact he was late but maybe…

“Hey Sing, mind making me two of those?”

He raised an eyebrow but nodded. “Sure.”

///

Ash ran as fast as he could with two drinks in his hand to class. Prying open the door with his foot, he slowed to a walk, looking around for Shorter.

Shorter had texted Ash that he would sit with his partner and buy him some time. Ash thanked god that Shorter was so obvious, after finding his bright hair after only a few seconds of searching the lecture theatre.

He walked down the stairs, careful not to make too much noise and slid into the empty seat.

“Hey.”

“Is that for me?”

“No, it’s for my buddy thing person. Speaking of, where is he?” Ash looked around, trying to find the boy with long hair.

“Eloquent aren't you? But the bathroom, he went with my buddy thing person. Guess they’re friends from before or something.” Ash glared at Shorter, who just yawned. 

He quickly updated Ash on what he had missed which wasn’t much. There had been a few ice breakers and now they were supposed to be making a study schedule with their partners.

“But you know, your partner seemed pretty upset that you were so late. It was a smart idea of you to bring something.” Ash winced again, the guilt hitting him. He opened his mouth to say something when Shorter looked up. “Oh look there they are.”

Walking to where they sat was Eiji and Eiji’s boyfriend. His head began to spin. Were Shorter and him crushing on the same guy? It had to be impossible. Shorter liked the dramatic type and Ash, well he didn't have a type really.

“Oh, so kind of you to finally come.” Eiji looked at him, shuffling past him to sit down.

“C’mon Yue, he was late cause he had a late shift at work.” Ash blinked at Shorter’s words. He called Eiji, Yue. Yue. He turned over to who he thought was Eiji’s boyfriend, feeling the pieces click into place.

“Hello again! I am glad to see you are okay! I was thinking you were not wanting to come because of yesterday,” he laughed nervously, scratching behind his head. “But I’m glad I can introduce myself finally.” He looked up, smiling that soft smile, extending out his hand.

“My name is Eiji.”

Ash was a dumbass.