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Love Don’t Lie

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Soon, Ash and Eiji are left alone in a smaller room without windows, Arthur betraying his vague promise of letting Eiji go by arguing he needs Eiji there to make sure Ash will behave until he is brought to Golzine. Still, Eiji doesn’t expect him to truly keep his words then, and he is sure Ash isn’t believing it either.

Arthur and his men really must have taken the whole building, considering they don’t seem to be in a hurry to move Ash and Eiji out of it. Ash stays mostly silent while their hands are tied behind their backs and Eiji and he are thrown in the empty room, even as Arthur continues to taunt him.

When they’re finally left alone, Eiji sees Ash’s shoulders drop, the unbothered mask he was wearing disappearing immediately.  

“I’m sorry,” he says, lowly. “I really screwed up this time.”

“None of that is your fault! We had no choice but to surrender, it was too late for anything else.”

“I’m not talking about that. Not really.” Ash sits on the floor, his back pressed against the wall facing the locked door. “I should never have let you come with me in the first place.”

Eiji bites on his lower lip. “I’m sorry I was a burden. I thought I could hold myself if needed but I could do nothing to help, I was—”

“That’s not—!” Ash interrupts him with strength, his blond head bobbing back up. “That’s not what I meant.” He adverts his gaze again, sighs tiredly. “You said it, there was nothing we could have done anyway. We were set up.”

Eiji slides against the wall to let himself fall on the floor by Ash’s side. “I thought Golzine had left the country to go explain himself with the higher ups. How can he still be able to pull off things like that?”

“He still has followers here; we knew what we did would surely not be enough for him to be completely let down by the syndicate.” Ash’s eyes flash. “But this is still our chance, because there’s no way he is coming back so soon, which give us plenty of time to think of a way out.” He turns his intense gaze toward Eiji. “I will get you out of here Eiji, I promise.”

Me? You mean us, right? I’m not getting out of here without—”

The door opens before Eiji can finish his sentence, and the newcomer who walks in looks nothing like Arthur and his men. He’s older, and heavier, with an ugly gleam in his little eyes, visible even behind his sunglasses. Eiji’s gaze immediately falls on the gun tapped into his belt —Ash’s gun, he recognizes easily.

The man barely gives Eiji a glance, but the gaze he lays on Ash is telling; his lips are quirked with obvious satisfaction, his pupils blown wide. “Hey Ash,” he says, grinning. “Seems like you’re finally coming back home with me. Papa Dino will be thrilled.”

“Marvin,” Eiji sees Ash makes a visible effort to seem nonchalant as he leans against the wall. “Still stuck being a taxi driver even when Dino’s not here?”

The man must be easy to anger, because his face flushes violently at that, and he clenches his hands into fists. “And you’re still acting big even though Blanca isn’t here to protect you anymore,” he snarls.

Ash smiles. “I don’t need Blanca’s help. I’m a big boy now.”

“Not too big of a boy to escape Papa Dino’s bed, I’m afraid.” Marvin replies, laughing at his own retort as if it was comedy gold. “You know you’re in for an unforgettable punishment, right? I’ve never seen the boss angrier than when he learned you’d turned traitor on us.”

“I’d bet he’s angry,” Ash concedes, tilting his head invitingly to the side and somehow managing to keep his smile on his lips. “But what about you, Marvin? Didn’t you always dream about punishing me? Isn’t it your chance now that the boss is away?”

Eiji shudders, suddenly understanding all too clearly what Ash is playing at. Once again, he is planning on offering his body in order to pull them out of this mess. Just like with Golzine, just like Yut-Lung, and just like in these situations, Eiji is going to be staying back, unable to do anything but wait.

Except it’s not going to be like this this time. Eiji won’t allow it.

Marvin pauses, his fingers hesitating on the gun at his belt as he seizes the threat in front of him and tries to judge the risks, but Ash dips his head seductively again, taunting words continuing to fall out of his mouth to keep Marvin’s attention there.

Eiji has nearly untied his own links by now. He didn’t even have to be discreet about it, as Marvin’s attention was on Ash and on Ash only the whole time.

He wasn’t considered as much of a threat as Ash, when his hands were tied. He saw it clearly, how Arthur’s men had made sure twice that Ash’s links were tight when they had barely given Eiji a glance over after having hastily tied up his wrists together. And, as ashamed as he is because of it, he gets it, really. Because, who would think the boy who can’t even aim a gun properly is dangerous, right?

There. His wrists are free. What now?

“We will have plenty of time to play while we wait for Papa Dino’s return.” Marvin is saying when Eiji focuses back on the conversation. “But for now, follow me without a fuss, we’re going back to the mansion.”

Ash lets out an exaggerated sigh. “It’s not easy standing up with my wrists in my back like this. A little help maybe?”

Marvin huffs, but he approaches and bends down to help Ash up. As he passes both hands under Ash’s elbows, Eiji decides to jump into action.

Not wasting any time, he reaches for the gun at Marvin’s belt, his hand closing on the handle. Simultaneously, Ash flies his knee hard into Marvin’s stomach, and Marvin falls on the floor with a cry.

Ash’s eyes jump to the gun in Eiji’s hand while Eiji points it toward Marvin’s head and threatens him, “Don’t move! And don’t call for help or I shoot!”

“Not bad,” Ash moves to Eiji’s side, an appreciative gleam in his eyes. “Now quick Eiji untie my hands, I’ll get us out of here.”

Turns out, untying Ash’s hands and holding Marvin in respect with the gun at the same time isn’t so easy. He’s only loosened the knot that Marvin seems to decide he has nothing left to lose, and jolts up again, unbothered by the gun aiming for his face.

“Help,” he yells. “They’re escaping!”

And the worst is that still Eiji can’t resolve himself to shoot him in the face. Instead, he lets Ash’s hands go for a second and slams the gun as hard as he can on Marvin’s head as the man is trying to stand up.

Marvin falls back on the floor, unconscious.

Ash has freed his hands in the meanwhile, and he is quick to go by Eiji’s side and to take the gun from his hands.

They run in the hallway and are able to get down the stairs when Arthur and some of his men catch up to them.

“Ash!” Arthur roars, fuming. Then he adds to his men, “Shoot him in the legs, we can’t let him escape!”

Ash continues to run, entailing Eiji with him, and they reach the bar, which is now completely empty except for two of Arthur’s guys that Ash greets with a bullet to the head.

“Run!” Ash yells to Eiji, pointing toward the bar’s entrance. “I will hold them back.”

“No!”

Like hell Eiji is going to run away without Ash.

“I can’t fight and protect you, you need to go, Eiji!”

Eiji hesitates, because that is not wrong but still—

Something softens in Ash expression when he sees Eiji shake his head negatively. “They’re not going to kill me, you know that.” he says, his voice quieter. “I will catch up to you later.”

He’s lying, gosh it’s so obvious that he is lying about that last part. Maybe not completely, maybe Ash does have some hope he will manage to evade later, but not right after Eiji; and there’s already so much resignation in his eyes that Eiji knows he is prepared for the worst eventuality.

Eiji saw how Ash was treated by Arthur and Marvin. Even if they do keep him alive for Golzine, that doesn’t mean Ash is safe from them.

The door flies open in Ash’s back and he topples a table to take shelter behind it, yelling again for Eiji to leave. Eiji does run in direction of the exit, then, but he changes his mind before attaining the door and ducks behind the bar’s counter.

He’s sure nobody saw him because Arthur’s men are only targeting Ash from where he is kneeling behind the table he tumbled down. They don’t seem so resolute to keep him alive anymore, and their aims become more and more risky as Ash takes them down one after the other.

Dammit, what good did it make that Eiji decided to stay if there’s nothing he can do anyway? Why is he always coming back to the realization of his helplessness?

Soon, Arthur’s men stop entering the bar, and an unnerving silence falls on the scene.  

“You can keep sending your guys in, I will just kill them all.” Ash shouts in the quiet. “Or maybe you can come yourself and we fight it out, just the two of us. What do you say, Arthur? Don’t you want to settle it once and for all?”

Eiji can’t see Ash from his position behind the bar’s counter, but he wonders suddenly if Ash isn’t out of bullets. Ash uses a Smith and Wesson 375 magnum, with a shortened barrel and a chamber’s capacity of six bullets. This Eiji knows well because it was part of the file full of the data Yut-Lung and Sing assembled on Ash, and that he had to memorize before meeting Ash for the first time.

It is possible Ash still had several munitions strapped on himself, as they weren’t even searched by Arthur’s guys before. But he shot the gun so many times he must be coming to the end of it by now.

Maybe Arthur doesn’t stop to consider the eventuality that Ash could be asking for a duel with him because he is out of bullets. Perhaps he does consider it, but is still eager to go on the one on one Ash proposed. Either way, he is the next man to enter the room, a knife in each of his hands.

 “We will do it my way, right Ash?” he says, that unnerving smile of his playing on his lips. “You always preferred that we kept the game fair after all, and you know I can’t exactly use a gun, thanks to you.”

Ash exits from behind the table, his expression a serious mask.

“What will you tell Dino, if you win?” he asks, catching mid-air the knife Arthur sends his way.

Arthur’s smile widens. “Well, you know how it is. Accidents are so quick to happen when trying to catch a wild animal. I will just say you took a stray bullet or something.”

“This was your plan from the very beginning, right? You never planned on bringing me alive to Golzine.”

“Well, I did hope for an opportunity to get rid of you. Marvin meddling in was making it complicated to disobey Golzine too obviously, but you resolved my problem.”

Eiji is fuming behind the bar’s counter, jaw set and hands clenched into fists. He knew it. Ash knew Arthur had decided to have him killed, and he still told the opposite to Eiji?

Ash lets his gun fall on the floor, sending it slide across the room with his foot. “You killed him?” he asks, his tone so detached it would seem nearly conversational if it wasn’t for the cold anger in his voice whenever he addressed Arthur. “You killed Marvin?”

You did.” Arthur laughs shortly. “That’s what I will tell Papa Dino, anyway.” Arthur pauses and looks around the bar once. “Where’s your little friend? Did he leave you behind?”

“He’s long gone. It’s none of your concern anyway.”

“Right.” Arthur merely shrugs at that. “Let’s begin, then.”

They charge toward each other, dancing around the other in a deadly waltz. Eiji crawls out of his hiding place to recuperate Ash’s gun from where it had been discarded on the floor, before quickly hiding behind a table. When he checks the fight again, fresh cuts are running on Ash and Arthur’s arms, but none of them seem to have an advantage on the other for now.

Forcing himself to stay calm, Eiji checks the gun’s chamber, and sure enough it is empty. On his right, a few feet away, is the corpse of one of Arthur’s men, and his lifeless hand is holding another revolver. Maybe if Eiji could reach it…

What? Would he shoot Arthur with it? He can’t exactly hope to be able to aim properly enough as to hurt Arthur but not Ash, as they are fighting so close to each other.

Ash seems to be wining anyway. As Eiji stares back at the fight, he sees him disarm his adversary before sending him on the floor with a kick of his foot. But when Arthur falls on his behind, a terrible detonation reverberates through Eiji’s bones and he watches, breathless, as Ash is hit in the shoulder with a bullet.

“Ash!”

He couldn’t help but to yell, and now Ash is staring at him, his eyes widening in surprise. He holds his shoulder and blood seeps through his fingers, but he manages to stay on his feet despite the strength of the impact.

Leaving Eiji’s face, his gaze flies back toward Arthur, and then toward one of his men, who entered the bar without Eiji noticing him and was the one to shoot Ash. The man shivers when he sees that Ash has noticed him, and he aims at him again with trembling hands.

This time, Eiji is ready to fire back. He doesn’t need to hide anymore, so he rolls toward the gun he noticed earlier and extracts it from the dead man’s grip. Then, he shoots at the man until the barrel is empty, and even though none of his bullets reach him, it’s enough to make the guy stop firing at Ash in order to take shelter behind the bar’s counter.

Ash must have left his knife fall when he was shot, because when Eiji is done shooting in the air, he realizes that Arthur is back on his feet, holding Ash’s knife and slowly stepping closer to him. When he suddenly charges, Ash resists stoically, but he is soon overwhelmed by the pain in his shoulder and falls on the floor, disarmed.

Arthur steps on his chest in order to keep him down, his smile slowly spreading on his ugly mug. Eiji sees Ash glance around himself, searching for anything that could help him but returning empty handed.

Eiji’s hands are tightened around the two guns he has, but the weapons are useless, now that they have no bullets left, and he doesn’t know what to do with them.

Arthur raises his knife, and for a second Eiji isn’t able to do anything but look at Ash’s face, where a terrible acceptance has washed out the fear in his eyes.

Eiji needs to do something, anything. He can’t let that happen, he can’t—

He raises his right arm, still securely holding Ash’s gun in his hand. He doesn’t stop to think. He just gathers all the strength he still has and throws the gun in Arthur’s direction.

He doesn’t know who is the most surprised between them three when the gun slaps Arthur right in the face after having described a perfect arc in the air.

Of course, the impact isn’t enough to hurt Arthur in any way, but it redirects his attention on Eiji for a split second, as Arthur swears loudly and his head snaps toward where Eiji is hidden.

It’s all Ash needs to kick Arthur’s knife off his hand. For good measure, he throws him a fist in the stomach which makes Arthur wheeze in pain. While Arthur tries to find his breath again, Ash elbows him violently on the neck, and the man falls on his knees.

“Run!” Ash yells, already running toward Eiji, picking his gun off the floor as he passes near it.

Eiji doesn’t need to be told twice. He has reached the door when Ash joins him and takes his hand in his.

“Follow me!” he shouts again, even though it’s totally unnecessary to Eiji, who was already set on following Ash closely wherever they go.

Even when they reach the street in front of the club, they don’t slow down. They continue to run like two madmen in the night until they are breathless.

It’s only when Ash pulls them in a small alley that their course comes to a stop. Letting go of Eiji’s hand, Ash braces himself against the wall, breathing loudly.

“Holy fuck.” Ash rasps, struggling to recover his breath. “Holy fucking shit.” When he raises his head to stare at Eiji, the Japanese has the surprise to find his jade eyes gleaming, a wide smile on his lips. “Holy shit Eiji you’re crazy.” he manages to say, his body shaken by a hysterical laughter. “Arthur’s face when you—” Ash shakes his head. “You do know guns aren’t supposed to be used like that, right?”

His surprise passed, Eiji finds himself quickly sharing Ash’s hilarity, his mind still reeling because they had been so close to death and the absurdity of it is only now catching up to him.

“I can’t believe you’re better at throwing a gun than at aiming it.” Ash continues, still laughing, but more calmly, now. He keeps his back pressed to the wall, as if afraid he would fall without any support.

“It’s easier.” Eiji protests. “I’ve thrown a lot of rocks into a lot of lakes, when I was a child. I was the very best out of my group of friends.”

Ash stares back at him, surprised. “You used to throw rocks into water? Why?”

“Well, for fun. Every kid has done that once in his life, no? You know, playing to see who can aim the farthest, that kind of things.”

“Ah.” Ash shrugs dismissively, before wincing because of the pain in his shoulder. “I wouldn’t know. I guess I wasn’t a normal child. Didn’t have a lot of friends.”

Eiji’s heart tightens when he remembers what he had read in the file Yut-Lung had given him, concerning Ash’s early life. He remembers the articles on the Blue Beard of Cape Cod and feels his stomach drop.

“I’ll teach you.” he says, dimly aware it will never be enough. “It’s never too late to learn how to throw a good rock.”

Ash smiles, something fond and gentle shining deeply in his gaze. “I guess I would like that. Who know, it could save my life one day. Exactly like you saved me today.”

Eiji grazes at his neck, embarrassed by Ash’s sudden solemn tone. “Well… I could only do that because you saved me first.”

Ash quirks a brow. “Is it a contest?” he asks playfully.

“Only if you let it be one.”

They share another quiet laugh, and Eiji wants to continue to hear Ash being so amused, so he adds, “Next time, I—”

“There won’t be a next time.”

Eiji startles and whips his head to stare at Ash, destabilized by the new serious of his tone.

“What? Why?”

Because. You don’t even know how to shoot a gun. If you can’t do that, you can’t come with me on that kind of missions. It’s too dangerous.”

“I can learn to be better.” Eiji affirms, decided. “I swear usually I—"

“Yes, of course you can learn. But you don’t need to. Knowing how to shoot immobile targets isn’t the same as killing people. I know how to do it, it’s enough.”

“But, if I don’t, next time—”

“Like I said, there won’t be a next time.” Ash shakes his head with exasperation, something frantic in his gaze. “Dammit Eiji, you could have been killed today, don’t you understand?”

Eiji presses his lips together, reduced to silence by Ash’s expression. His frowned brows indicate his anger at being contradicted, of course, but it’s not what makes Eiji’s breath catch in his throat. It’s the clear fear he can see in Ash’s eyes.

Adverting his gaze, Ash takes a phone out of his pocket and sends a quick text, certainly to have a car sent to them. Eiji distantly realizes the reason Arthur didn’t even have them searched was probably because he had never planned on taking them to Golzine alive in the first place.

“And if you want to know what I think,” Ash continues, still looking away. “I think you should back away from this whole affair while there’s still time. It won’t get any prettier.”

Eiji frowns. “I know it won’t. You know why I want to be a part of this.”

“I know.” Ash agrees. “But I guess what I’m trying to say is…” After a short hesitation, Ash plants himself in front of Eiji, his emerald eyes intensely set in his. “I can offer you a way out, Eiji. You don’t need to be there for the plan to work, I can promise you I will carry it to fulfillment.”

For a moment, Eiji is too surprised to process what Ash is saying. “What—"

“You can walk away from this mess right now. This is something I could never even dream of, but you can. I know you have a family, in Japan. You could retrieve them and start new. You could—”

“But I want to be here, Ash! I want to participate! I can’t— We need to stop Golzine from developing Banana Fish! I know I can’t do much, but you can’t seriously be expecting me to leave you, Yut-Lung and Sing to deal with it while I run away!”

Ash stares at Eiji with his brows furrowed, his piercing eyes never leaving Eiji’s own.

“You are not like the rest of us, Eiji. I wasn’t sure at first, but now I see it so clearly. You are not stuck here. You should never have been involved with this life in the first place, but it’s not too late for you, contrary to me or Yut-Lung, or even Sing I’m sure.”

Eiji shudders slightly, stung by Ash’s words. He is deeply aware he is the luckiest of the lot, the one who could always afford to be only a bystander, who never could do more than just be there. But now he gets to do something useful for his friends, and he won’t let go so easily.

Every day he is reminded that it’s too late for Shorter, but he can still stop Banana fish from doing more victims. He won’t let his friends alone at a time like this, and Ash has no right to waltz in and decide in his place.

“And why do you think you can choose whether I should be involved in this or not?” he asks, knowing his voice sounds a little accusatory but too shaken to care.

There’s a short silence after that, as if Ash had never expected his point to be considered under this angle. He frowns, and Eiji would swear he looks embarrassed.

“Because I… I just…” Ash is blushing lightly now, struggling with conveying an idea he clearly doesn’t want to voice. He lets out an exasperated sigh. “Remember, before I left to deal with Golzine, when you said you cared?” he asks. “Well, that’s why.”

Eiji is totally lost, now.

“So, it’s because I care about you?”

“Wha— No!” Ash protests strongly, and now his cheeks are fully red. “It’s because I do! I care about you and I don’t want you to be hurt!”

Eiji blinks, surprised. A smile spreads on his lips while he processes Ash’s words, and Ash only seems to become redder by the second.

“Oh,” he says, understanding dawning on him. “If that’s how you feel, why couldn’t you just come out and say so?” Eiji asks, delighted. “Was it so hard to get out?”

“Jeez,” Ash spins around, concealing his red face from Eiji. “You’re making it so much harder than it already is.” he grunts.

Eiji giggles, feeling warm all over. Ash cares about him also? And here he thought for the longest time Ash still resented him for the way Eiji had tricked him back when they had met… Especially after how he had acted before leaving for Golzine’s mansion, when he had made it clear he didn’t understand Eiji’s feelings in the slightest…

Well, no. He realizes he had already known it wasn’t totally the case. But hearing Ash outright says it feels better than anything.

“I’m not changing my mind, though.” Eiji states lightly, following Ash out of the alley and into the car that just arrived for them. “I’m still staying.”

He doesn’t admit that if anything, Ash’s admission has just cemented his decision. Because if his feelings are reciprocated then it means…

Ash huffs, still facing away from Eiji as the car begins to roll. “I should have known that.” he mutters to himself. “You’re really impossible.”

Eiji smiles. “I am impossible and you still care about me.” he says, because both are truths and he is still amazed with the second.

Ash is still facing away from him, but Eiji hears a small, “Yes.” falling off his lips, and it makes his heart flutter.

---

Fingers lazily combing through his hair, Yut-Lung observes Ash Lynx laugh at something Eiji just said. It’s a curious thing to witness, really, how easily the lynx’s cold eyes can soften, how rapidly his stern expression can crack, all because of a plain Japanese boy.

Well, it’s not like Yut-Lung is surprised by it. He was subjected to Eiji’s charm himself, and knows how heartwarming it is, to have his attention and favors. But Yut-Lung had the excuse of being a child, back when he gave in to Eiji’s insistent friendship. Ash is an adult, he is supposed to know better than to let this boy into his life when there is no place for him to fit there.

But loneliness does that to men. Yut-Lung is well placed to know all about it.

It’s dark inside the room, because the fading sunlight doesn’t quite reach it. But through the window, Yut-Lung can see the garden bathing in light, illuminating Ash and Eiji’s figures. It isn’t the garden Yut-Lung met Eiji in since Yut-Lung sold the mansion holding all these terrible memories as soon as he liberated himself from his brothers, but the vision of Eiji in such a place still makes him nostalgic.

Lately, he found himself reflecting more and more often on his life, and on the role Eiji played in it. That plain boy with his plain problems who patiently stayed at Yut-Lung’s side when no one else would. He knows such feelings of gratefulness are kind of pathetic and weak, but he can’t exactly do much about it.

Everything is working out too well lately. Yut-Lung managed to attach Blanca at his service, to convince the wild lynx to work with them, and all of this right under Golzine’s ugly nose. Sure, Ash took a bullet the day before, but he still managed to bring back the files he stole from Frog just as intended. If things continue like this, they will be done with this whole affair sooner than Yut-Lung had first thought.

It makes him feel strangely empty. He had thought the project would keep him occupied in the same way planning his brothers’ demise had, but until now it had proven to be barely satisfactory.

Even having Ash under his thumb is not as amusing as he had thought. Probably because it doesn’t feel at all like the man has subdued to him. Or perhaps it is because Yut-Lung can’t help but notice all the ways in which the two of them are similar, and it makes Ash’s presence painful more than anything else.

“It seems the young Okumura has taken a liking with Ash, doesn’t it?”

Yut-Lung doesn’t startle, but it’s only because years spent listening for footsteps have made him immune to anyone walking on him. He tears his gaze off the window to stare back at Blanca.

“So it seems, indeed.” he replies laconically.

“Aren’t you worried about it?”

Yut-Lung shrugs dismissively. It had worried him at first, to see how quickly Eiji was ready to give his trust to such a dangerous man as Ash Lynx. But seeing them interacting now, he wonders who will end up being a weakness for the other.

Blanca’s face is always hard to read, but for once it’s easy to see that he is the one being most worried about the situation.

Having Blanca at his service was thrilling, in the beginning. The only man who brought Ash Lynx real fear, the only one he couldn’t fight, ready to do anything Yut-Lung commanded. With the two of them by his side, fighting against Dino Golzine was supposed to be a piece of cake.

But he had quickly come to realize that he had been playing Blanca’s game all along, when he first thought it was the opposite. Yut-Lung had never convinced Blanca to work for him; Blanca had decided to do so himself and was now exactly where he wanted to be.

And all of that was because of Ash Lynx. It seemed everything revolved around him, ever since Yut-Lung had decided to involve him in his plot.

Knowing where Blanca’s true obedience goes only fills Yut-Lung with sourness.

“Why did you decide to betray Golzine, Blanca?” He wants to hear it with his own ears, wants to hear Blanca say anything that isn’t a display of falsity. “What was your reason?”

“I didn’t—”

“Oh, please.” Yut-Lung waves a dismissive hand. “You can drop the pretenses, Sergei.”

Blanca goes silent for a moment, apparently deep in thought. His gaze rests on the window once again.

“When I met Ash, he was a very young boy. He was begging for a job and I saw in his eyes, that he would be ready to do anything. It piqued my curiosity, I couldn’t help but wonder what such a young boy would look so desperate for. The reason revealed itself easily: Ash had an ill older brother and needed money for his hospital bills.”

Yut-Lung presses his lips together. “Yeah, I already know this story.”

“You see,” Blanca continued, imperturbable. “I was immediately convinced that despite Ash’s best efforts, his brother would be taken sooner or later by the illness that consumed his body. And I knew from experience, that a boy like Ash, a boy who was ready to throw himself away for his loved one, would not be able to survive the loss.” Blanca stared back at Yut-Lung. “Unless I helped him to become like me.”

“So, you thought that hardening his heart would be the only way to save him?” Yut-Lung quirks a glance by the window, where Ash is now blushing faintly while Eiji takes a leaf off his blond hair. “I don’t think it worked all that well.” he observes sardonically.

“You’re right.” Blanca has a short laugh, totally empty of any joy. “Ash never lost his capacity to love.”

“Is it such a bad thing?” Yut-Lung remarks thoughtfully. He thinks back of his child self, right after the loss of his mother. How filled with hate he was then, how incapable he was of feeling anything else.

Blanca might be right, losing a loved one was about the worst thing that could happen to anyone. Yet, his mother wasn’t the last person ever to give Yut-Lung love and affection in his life…

“I think…” Yut-Lung continued slowly. “That if I had not received any love in my life, I would have gone crazy a long time ago. One can love again, even after the cruelest of loss, don’t you agree? After all, you lost the love of your life, yet you are still able to feel affection for Ash.”

Blanca’s eyes drop to the floor, his expression turning contemplative. “Love is about the most dangerous thing, in our world. For people like us, living a life empty of any is the only way to stay safe.”

“Staying under Golzine was what you call safe?”

“It is. Have we stayed by monsieur Golzine, I would have been able to retire and then, who know? I had this crazy dream of taking some vacations away from anything I had ever known. It was the safest option for Ash too. It wouldn’t have been easy of course, but I know that eventually, Golzine would have given everything he possessed to him.”

“But Ash isn’t interested in any of that, isn’t he? I can see it now, how… lacking in ambition he is.”

“Yes. Staying at Golzine’s side was killing him. The end I had pictured would never have happened.”

“So, you decided to risk it all?”

“I’m not risking much.” Blanca smiles sadly. “I don’t have much left to lose. But what would you choose, master Yut-Lung, in the same position as Ash? Would you choose to love and be destroyed?”

“Better to be destroyed than to return to who I was before.” 

Blanca’s faint smile doesn’t falter, but his eyes are still impenetrable. Yut-Lung wants to return the question to him, but something in the man’s expression holds him back. When Blanca turns away from the window and makes to walk out of the room, Yut-Lung doesn’t stop him.

---

There’s light coming from Eiji’s room, seeping under the closed door, and Yut-Lung doesn’t hesitate before opening it and stepping inside.

He stops dead in his tracks when instead of finding Eiji like he had thought he would, he is left facing Ash Lynx, who startles violently and turns toward him, a hand at the gun he wears at his belt.

Yut-Lung frowns. Who the hell let Ash run free in the house with a gun? He thought he had given specific orders not to let that happen.

Not that he still thinks Ash represents a threat to them, but still…

Ash barely relaxes when he recognizes Yut-Lung. “You often enter rooms that are not your own without knocking first?” he asks, his brows furrowed in a frown.

“What are you doing in Eiji’s room at such a late hour?” Yut-Lung counters immediately.

“I…” Ash loses his scowl in a fraction of second, and Yut-Lung would swear he even looks slightly embarrassed by the question. “He told me to wait for him here. He’s just gone to search something to drink.”

“I see.”

Ash is standing in front of the bookshelves facing Eiji’s bed. A book lays at his feet, which Ash had probably dropped when Yut-Lung entered.

“If you’re trying to get a glance of Eiji’s tastes by browsing his bookshelves, you’re wasting your time. Those aren’t his. Eiji has much more plebeian tastes.”

“I wasn’t, I just…” Ash shrugs a shoulder. “I just like books.” he says, a bit stupidly in Yut-Lung’s opinion. He bends down to recuperate the book that had fallen and keeps it in hand, turning toward Yut-Lung again. “How are those not his? Isn’t it his room?”

“Eiji doesn’t live here, you know. We just decided it would be safer for him to stay here if he was to be involved with our plot. Especially after he played you. We knew you would be coming for him.”

Ash’s mouth thins discreetly. “If it had been a normal case… It wouldn’t have been enough to keep him safe from me. You played a dangerous game, and with your own friend’s life.”

There’s an accusatory edge to Ash’s voice that Yut-Lung judges to be completely misplaced. It’s not like he forced Eiji to put himself in danger.

“Eiji wanted to participate. He knew the risks, we all did. Why would it be different for him?”

“He isn’t like us. If he hadn’t been involved with you in the first place—”

“What, he would have led a normal life? I’ve never forced him to stay by my side, he always chose to do so.”

Ash shakes his head silently, and neither of them adds anything for a moment. Yut-Lung wishes Eiji would come back already, and save them from the embarrassment of having to be cordial with each other. His eyes fall on the book still in Ash’s hand, and he recognizes the title.

What happens to people that love each other?” he says pensively, his thoughts still agitated by his earlier talk with Blanca; and he wonders if Ash will recognize the quote.

I suppose they have whatever they have, and they are more fortunate than others. Then, one of them gets the emptiness forever.” Ash continues automatically.

“Islands in the Stream.” Yut-Lung says, nodding at the book in Ash’s hand. “And you can actually quote it, I’m impressed.”

Ash shrugs. “Blanca recommended it to me a long time ago.”

“You don’t say.”

Ash puts the book back on its shelf and the silence falls between them again. However this time, Ash is the one to break it.

“I’ve been wondering for a while,” he says, pressing his back against the bookshelves. “You were the one behind your brothers’ sudden… disappearances, were you not?”

“That’s right.” Yut-Lung goes and sits on Eiji’s bed, understanding this discussion can’t be kept short. “It had always been my lifegoal, and the whole thing with Banana Fish and Golzine made it easy for me.”

“How so?”

“When my brothers first learned that Golzine had something to do with the abductions of the youngsters of Chinatown, their first reaction wasn’t a pleased one. See, they needed support from the streets. These kids were people that served them, bought from them, sought their protection. Even when you stand on top of the pyramid, you need the acceptance of the masses, and the masses weren’t so happy to see their sons and brothers disappear.”

“Golzine must have smelled that there was a risk of war with my brothers, because he was quick to offer an advantageous deal. That betrayal didn’t please the Chinatown’s street gangs so much, and the same could be said about most of the streets gang reigning over New York at the time. Convincing them to give me a hand in exchange for the assurance I wouldn’t do them so dirty if I was the only remaining Lee in charge was easy.”

“I see.” Ash silently mulled over Yut-Lung’s revelations for a bit. “Did Eiji… Eiji didn’t take part in any of that, right?”

“He didn’t.” Yut-Lung acquiesced. “That period wasn’t the easiest for him. His father contracted a liver disease, and since he was the one who brought most of the money home, Eiji had to fill in in his place. I helped him as much as I could, but my brothers never gave me much liberty and I had to be discreet about my connection with Eiji, so they couldn’t suspect we were close.”

Yut-lung lets out a sigh. “I also must admit, I pushed Eiji away on purpose on this one. He spent years trying to have me renounce my plan of exterminating my brothers, and run away instead, I knew what he would think if he saw too much… Not that he doesn’t know what I did but… It was easier for us not to dwell too much on it.”

“He did manage to convince me not to kill my brothers’ families, though.” Yut-Lung grimaces. “Which made me lose a ton of money and power in the process, as you can imagine, since the Lee’s heritage was divided between us all. But, well… I could convince some gangs to help me assassinate my brothers, but I guess I couldn’t have had them killing women and children even if I did ask.”

Yut-Lung stares at Ash again, and sees him frowning, eyes far away. He wonders what can possibly be going through his mind right now. As much as he tries, it seems he can’t come close to understand Ash Lynx in the slightest.

“Like I said, Eiji wasn’t involved in any of that, but…” Yut-Lung adds after a beat, when it becomes clear Ash won’t offer more of a reaction. “Still, Eiji is not the weak baby boy he appears to be at first glance. He isn’t afraid in the face of darkness. Not that he enjoys it of course but… He doesn’t advert his eyes.”

Ash stays quiet again, and Yut-Lung is growing frustrated. “I don’t know what to think of you, Ash Lynx.” he says, hoping to finally get some raise out of the man.

Ash does raise his gaze to stare at him in the eyes, then.

“I could say the same about you.”

They stare at each other with a certain mistrust, until the door finally cracks open.

“Oh.” Eiji pauses when he sees them, and gosh is Yut-Lung relieved to see him. Eiji is holding two cans of beer in his arms, and Yut-Lung wonders distantly where he even could find those in the house. “Yue, I didn’t know you would be here… Do you want something to drink?” Eiji asks, following Yut-Lung’s gaze to the cans he is holding.

“Beer?” Yut-Lung wrinkles his nose in disgust. “Since when do you drink beer, Eiji?”

“Since a long time ago!” Eiji protests with energy. “Only, not with you, of course. I know what you think of any drink that isn’t fancy vine.”

“Precisely. You literally have access to the most delicately flavored beverages in this house, yet you would go out of your way to fish those cans of piss?” Yut-Lung gives Ash a disgusted glance. “I’m guessing it’s because you like it?”

Ash smiles sharply. “I hate vine.” he says, with such emphasis it must have a secret meaning that is lost on Yut-Lung.

Yut-Lung huffs. “No wonder you are getting along with Eiji. I could only imagine what it would be like to be so tasteless as to be proud of it too.”

Eiji steps closer to Ash in order to hand him one of the cans. As he does so, his hand brushes slightly along Ash’s own, and they both acknowledge it with an awkward little smile, flush painting their cheeks alike.

Yut-Lung finds himself scooting closer to the exit.

“Hum, Yue?” Eiji turns in his direction again, and Yut-Lung realizes he has already a hand on the door’s handle, ready to flee from the uncomfortable feeling that swelled in his stomach upon witnessing the scene. “You wanted to see me?”

Well, Yut-Lung did come in hope of talking to Eiji, but now he just wants to be anywhere else.

“No, it was nothing.” he says. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He opens the door and takes a step back. “Goodnight Eiji.” He nods in Ash’s direction. “Ash.”

“Oh, hum, goodnight then! See you tomorrow.”

Yut-Lung closes the door in his back before storming away, but he doesn’t head for his own room. He feels incomprehensibly restless and he needs to vent to someone immediately.

---

Sing is in the shower when Yut-Lung barges into his room, and he yells at him to wait for a bit through the door separating the bathroom from the rest of his suite.

Yut-Lung absolutely abhors waiting, so he storms out again, demanding Sing joins him in his favorite lounge as soon as he’s done, slamming the door as he exits the room to show the extent of his displeasure.

He’s halfway through a first bottle of wine when Sing finally joins him, hair still drenched from his shower, a towel hastily passed around his neck.

Sing pauses upon entering the lounge, and he gives Yut-Lung an unimpressed look, which is quite annoying given Yut-Lung made sure to be dramatically sprawled over the couch as if he was the star actress of a silent film, expecting to stir up at least some sort of reaction out of his friend.

But Sing only sighs, crossing the room to sit in the sofa facing Yut-Lung.

“There you are. Somehow I knew I would find you sulking.” Sing stares purposely at the bottle of wine on the coffee table, frowning when seeing how much of its content is already gone. “I hoped you wouldn’t be drinking, though.”

Yut-Lung half-shrugs gracefully, the silk robe he passed while waiting for Sing sliding lower on his shoulder.

“A drink a day is good for the health. Even doctors say so.”

“You’re smart enough to know that’s a lie old as humanity.” 

Yut-Lung sits up, reluctantly setting his empty glass on the coffee table. Sing doesn’t get to be annoyed; Yut-Lung is the one who should be, at Sing who dared to make him wait, at Eiji for being so taken with Ash fucking Lynx, at Ash fucking Lynx for existing—

“What is it?” Sing asks, smile spreading on his lips as he tilts his head to the side. “Let me guess, you tried to see Eiji only to find Ash glued at his hip?” Yut-Lung confirms with a small grunt and Sing nods understandingly. “These two are inseparable nowadays, you just can’t find one without the other. So, now I take jealously is making your tummy hurt, eh? I knew this would happen eventually.”

Yut-Lung huffs. Damned Sing and his damned perspicacity.

“I’m not jealous. Why would I be? I simply have better things to do than to make friend with Ash Lynx, in contrary to Eiji and you. I am plotting to overtake New York’s most powerful syndicate, while the lot of you is getting hypnotized by dazzling green eyes.”

“Hey, don’t lump me together with Eiji! I am not smitten with this white boy!”

“Yes you are. Ever since he let you assist him in piecing together the evidences we have collected so far, you’ve been begging for his attention like an abandoned puppy.”

Sing blushes discreetly. “I’m not! It’s just… Jeez, did you read what he wrote based on the shreds of evidences we got so far on Banana Fish? He let me access to his computer and damn, this guy’s been writing essays on literature, pharmacology, political sciences… Mostly to spend the time or just write down his thoughts! I hate to admit it because it kinda pisses me off, but Ash is a genius, there’s no other word for it!”

Yut-Lung crosses his arms over his chest. “You sure changed your mind quickly about him.”

“I mean…” Sing grazes at his nape. “Clearly there’s no risk of him attempting to kill Eiji anymore, which was my only concern. I’m sure you saw the two of them interact by now...”

“I did.” Yut-Lung replies somberly. “It’s quite sickening.”

Sing snorts. “Why, because they are happy and you’re not part of it?”

No. I’m not this petty, who do you even take me for?” Sing barely raises a brow, smile still in place, which is once again nothing but infuriating. “It’s simply that I worked very hard to be where I am today, and toward my friendship with Eiji, or even with you. And this guy just waltzes in and suddenly everyone loves him and everything revolves around him? It’s just… It’s just unfair, that’s all.”

 Sing rolls his eyes, shit-eating grin still plastered across his face. “You didn’t work for shit to gain mine or Eiji’s friendship. We tolerated you despite you making no effort whatsoever to be likable.”

Yut-Lung groans, recoiling in the couch. He hates how everything loses its dramatic when Sing is involved. How does he manage to make Yut-Lung sound so dumb every time he opens his damn mouth?

“I’m tired, Sing.” he says, mostly to change the subject. “I thought this whole affair would be more thrilling than it is.”

Sing seems supremely annoyed by his words. “Thrilling? We’re risking our lives out there, all of us. I know the stakes are not as high for you as they are for me, but—”

“That’s not it. I’m interested in the outcome of this, we’ve been at it for years and it’s only now giving results… It’s just… I don’t know, I guess I thought Ash Lynx would offer me a better game.”

“Oh.” Sing slumps back in the couch, his hands crossed behind his neck. “You’re disappointed to discover Ash is a normal dude, and the god of war or whatever you imagined him to be, uh?”

Yut-Lung groans, dramatically pushing a hand to his face. He would like to deny, but there’s a part of truth in Sing’s words, more so than he is willing to admit.

“I just thought…” Yut-Lung sighs. “We’ve all heard a lot about Ash Lynx in the field, about how every mission the Corsicans tasked him with was a success, about how he was basically an angel of death… And it did intrigue me. Somehow, even just catching glances of this man, I thought he was similar to me, and now I realize…”

Yut-Lung decides not to finish his thought out loud, but as always, Sing takes it as an invitation to open his annoying mouth.

“You realize you’re similar in ways you dislike.”

Yut-Lung keeps himself from acquiescing, but he knows Sing reads into him anyway. 

They stay quiet for a moment, and Yut-Lung is surprised when Sing interrupts the silence, leaning closer with excitement bright in his eyes. “You know what we should do, after everything’s done with?” he asks, fingers tapping an erratic rhythm on his tight as if he couldn’t contain himself. “We should go on a vacation, somewhere far away.”

Yut-Lung stares back, taken aback by the sudden change in subject. “Vacations? What would that even solve?”

“Nothing,” Sing shrugs, “but it would be fun.”

“You sound like Eiji. Running away is his solution to everything.”

Sing grimaces at that. “Jeez, don’t be so harsh on him. I think he’s open minded, he doesn’t let himself be imprisoned in our little world, he always sees the biggest picture.” Sing straightens himself, and suddenly his gaze seems far away. “Anyway, this has nothing to do with Eiji. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. I’ve never even left New York, you know? I always thought my life was there, I never questioned it… And maybe it is meant to be here, I mean, we’re doing a good job in Chinatown and there’s all my buddies counting on me… And still, sometimes I wish I could just quit and see the world, even just for a while.”

Yut-Lung watches Sing’s shoulders slump a little as he talks, and something strange pricks at his heart. Sing was so young when he took Shorter’s place and became a gang boss, too young to be burdened with such responsibilities. They’re alike in that regard, two souls that had to grow up too fast.

But unlike Yut-Lung, Sing had a predominant sense of duty toward the persons he considered like family. His gang, his buddies, like he called them… They were a bunch of stupid, uncivilized nobodies to Yut-Lung, but Sing cared about them, and that love tied him to New York more efficiently than chains. 

It was only natural Sing would long for an escape, all things considered.

Yut-Lung reaches for his glass of wine again, pouring himself another one. “What is it with everyone dreaming on quitting on me?” he contemplates somberly. “First Blanca, and now you… And Eiji probably won’t stay long either, now that Ash Lynx is in the picture...” 

“I’m not quitting on you!” Sing exclaims, looking affronted. “I literally told you we should take vacations, as in together! But of course, you always hear only what fits your sad little narrative.”

“Hum.” Yut-Lung finishes his wine, a strange mix of annoyance and fondness messing with his thoughts. He looks back at Sing, at his frank face and gleaming eyes. “You must know my presence would spoil any hope you have of your vacations being fun in any way.”

Sing’s smile widens on his lips. “Then we will be miserable together. But like, somewhere on a beach. I’m sure it would do you some good, to go away from this city for a while.”

Ah, there it is again, that little prick of affection in his guts. Yes, Sing is someone who looks out for his family, that Yut-Lung has always known, even if he found it hard to understand at times.

He just had never considered before that he could be included in said family in any way.

Yut-Lung lets out a low chuckle, feeling the last crumbs of annoyance melt away, leaving place for a faint warmness spreading in his chest. Sing’s vacations idea seems ridiculous and not very achievable, given all the work they have to accomplish every day to keep things at bay in Chinatown, Sing on the streets and Yut-Lung running the businesses. Who would even take their place if they left?

Still, whether they end up doing it or not, he finds out that it’s a pleasant idea to entertain.

---

“I can’t believe Griffin is literally somewhere under this very roof, and yet you refuse to let me see him.”

Ash barely lifts his eyes from his computer’s screen, and Eiji feels it’s not the first time Max brings the subject up.

“When you agreed to be involved in our plot against the Corsicans, you lost your right to see my brother.” he says distantly. “He doesn’t know what we are doing, and I don’t want him involved with any more shady people. It’s not like we have any time to waste for things so trivial, anyway.”

“What, so you forbid me to see him ever? Do I have to remind you who is the elder here?”

Again, Max barely gets a rise out of Ash. “It’s just until the affair is done with. If we succeed and the calm returns in your life… I’ll let you do as you please.”

Eiji listens to the exchange quietly, his hands tight around his cup of coffee. He doesn’t even like coffee that much, but lately he feels obligated to try and match Max and Ash’s heavy consumption, if only to have something to do with his hands.

Ash and Max can spend hours bend over their computers, looking at the evidences they have managed to obtain and trying to piece more together. On the pictures they have obtained from Frog, they already recognized two senators, a judge, a chief from the NYPD and more…

Now, blackmailing these people into backstabbing Golzine and reveal in the press the mafia don’s shady involvements would certainly be enough to have Golzine on trial and stop all of his activities at the same time.

Yet, neither Ash nor anyone in their little group is eager to settle an agreement with any of the people photographed in Cape Club, so they are trying to find a better way to proceed from here.

Eiji knows that what Ash fears the most is how they are lacking time. As anticipated, Golzine had been forced to fly to Europe to explain himself with the Corsican Syndicate after Ash had made the money disappear from his bank account. While they had hoped this would freeze Golzine’s actions for some time, Arthur’s involvement had proven that it had been less efficient than planned.  

As Eiji stares at the computer’s light reflected in Ash’s thin-rimmed glasses, all he sees are the dark circles under the sharp green eyes. He can’t help but wish Ash would slow down and take a deserved break. “Just a few more days,” Ash says through greeted teeth any time someone suggested he rests. “Just a few more days, and this will be over, in one way or another.”

“What we lack are proofs on the drug.” Ash is saying now, stroking the edges of his nose with lassitude. “What you guys recuperated from the institute back when you burned it to the ground is good and all, but it’s beginning to date. I don’t know if it will be enough to expose Banana Fish, it will be hard to make people believe in such a crazy story, we need to have hard and recent truths to present.”

Max hums in agreement, thoughtful. “His mental institute might be destroyed, but Golzine must have continued experimenting on the drug, given the recent wave of suicides that we believe were orchestrated by the mafia. He must have a secret place his scientists still use for research, another institute or a lab or…”

“I think monsieur Golzine has a laboratory under his main residence.”

Ash’s eyes jerk from his computer to Blanca, who just entered the room. “Under the mansion? I’ve never heard of it.”

“He only ever alluded to it in front of me, I have no way of being sure myself. But I think it might be the case, and I think I could lead someone there if we were to try and infiltrate it.”

Ash grimaces. “Try to infiltrate the mansion? Have you finally gone senile? It’s probably the most guarded place in New York.”

“I could do it!” Sing exclaims, making Ash startle. Ever since Ash had settled in the room with his computer, Sing had tucked himself at his side, apparently fascinated with whatever Ash typed on the laptop all day long. Ash had let him stay with an apparent detachment, not easily fazed by Sing’s gleaming eyes and the thousand questions he had on his tongue whenever Ash took a short break.

Ash scowls at him now, mouth pinched in a grimace. “You? Did you not hear what I just said?”

“I think it could work.” Blanca intervenes before Sing can reply. “Of course it would be dangerous, but not impossible. We would just have to redirect Golzine’s attention elsewhere… on you, for example.”

Eiji feels anxiety tighten his stomach, already hating this plan. “So you would use Ash as bait while Sing infiltrates the mansion?”

“It could work.” Ash agrees, a discreet tug at his lips as he contemplates the plan Blanca is painting. “I already know how to keep the old geezer’s attention on me. If I make it seems like I’m on the verge of exposing him to the press, he will spare no means to get to me.” He turns toward Sing. “But it would still be dangerous for the team infiltrating the mansion. You think you’re up to the task?”

“Of course I am, who do you think you’re talking to! I just need a bit of time to scout the place and make a plan, then me and my buddies can go there, no problem.”

Ash nods. “Well, you have until Golzine comes back from Europe. As soon as you bring back new tangible evidences, we publish what we have.”

“I’ll go with Sing.” Blanca adds. “I’m the one who knows the place the best.”

Ash darts a brow. “You would actually help us? Did you finally decide to drop the pretenses and chose a side?”

Blanca lets out a sigh. “Not betraying an employer, even a former employer, has always been a rule of mine. But every time I think about betraying my own code, I hear a bratty voice remind me that there is no honor in killing people to begin with, so why bother with a code? You see what I mean?”

“My voice is not bratty.” Ash complains, but his lips stretch in a discreet grin that stays in place even when Max makes a face and declares that he definitely agrees with Blanca on that.

The group shares a laugh, clearly feeling more heart lighted now that they have the beginning of a plan, but Eiji has troubles sharing their relief.

The next step of the plan is already putting two of his friends in terrible danger, and clearly, Eiji will have no part to play in it.

---

“Gosh this is good.” Ash comments, enthusiastically munching on the salad Eiji brought him. “You are a good cook Eiji.”

He offers him a wide smile and Eiji is amused to realize that even Ash Lynx looks silly when he has salad stuck in his teeth.

“It’s a pretty basic dish, I can do much better.” Eiji replies with a shrug, trying to hide a smile.

“I guess I have pretty basic tastes.” Ash lowers his gaze on his plate, and Eiji notices that the tips of his ears are pinkish. “I only mentioned once how I liked my salad. I can’t believe you remembered and made it for me unprompted.” He looks back at Eiji again, flush dusting his cheeks red. “I really appreciate it. Thank you.”

Sing is usually Eiji’s most enthusiastic customer, but even he has never made such a show of expressing his appreciation of Eiji’s cooking, and Eiji feels himself grow red.

“It’s nothing, really. I wish I could do more.”

Ash’s eyes flash at that, and is expression tightens. “You’re doing more than your part.” he says, final. “You already know my thoughts on this.”

Yeah, you think I shouldn’t be involved at all. Eiji remembers sourly. As if I could just go my way and leave all the people I care about behind.

Ash continues to eat his meal with eagerness, and it’s only once he’s cleaned his plate completely clean that Eiji realizes something.

“Is it your first meal of the day?”

The sun is setting already, painting Ash’s hair in golds and oranges, and Eiji remembers having had to coerce him out of the study earlier when he was glued to his computer.

“No,” Ash protests immediately. Then he pauses, his eyebrows furrowing together. “Wait. It might be. Unless coffee counts as a meal?”

Eiji exhales through his nose. “When was the last time you stopped and ate something?”

“Not that long ago. Griffin forced me to eat something yesterday at some point.” Ash shrugs casually. “I don’t remember when though.”

Eiji forces himself to stay calm, sensing that the moment would be badly chosen to lecture Ash. He wonders how it is that someone as intelligent as Ash is literally incapable of taking care of himself, but figures he wouldn’t like to think too closely about the answer to that question.

“Hey,” Ash reaches a hand across the table, the press hesitant on Eiji’s arm, but still there, grounding. It’s new, these casual touches they allow between them; it’s tentative and fragile. Eiji was the one to take the first few steps, but already Ash catches up to him, reaching out in his own way, the meeting of their skin not so accidental anymore. “You will get wrinkles twenty years too early if you keep frowning like that.”

Eiji shakes his head, a little laugh building in his chest. “Wouldn’t be so bad. People would stop frowning at my ID as if it were a fake whenever I order a drink.”

But you would lose your free museum privileges.” Ash counters with a smile. “I don’t think it’s worth it.”

Eiji wonders if Ash realizes he leaned so close Eiji can feel his breath on his face when he talks, can see the detail of his pale lashes, the slight furrow in his brow even as they try to joke around in an attempt to forget their dire situation.

It would be so easy to press a little closer and kiss his lips. At times, Eiji is burning to do so, the memory of the kisses they had shared back when they’d met still so fresh in his mind that thinking of it rends him restless. And it’s not like he thinks Ash would reject him, but… Somehow, it feels wrong to have these urges for a romantic involvement when everyone is so focused on their goal.

But Eiji can’t help but to dream of an after. He didn’t discuss it with Ash yet, afraid it would be too much too soon. In the most secret part of his mind, he holds dear the hope of a life with Ash, away from the violence they had known until now.

For now, Ash smiles brighter when Eiji laces his fingers through his, light flush adorning his cheeks, and that’s enough. Soon he will bite again, throw some witty jab Eiji’s way that will defuse the sensual tension, and Eiji will follow suit with a comeback of his own. It doesn’t matter, Eiji likes both of these Ash; the sharp edged one that pretend to be on top of things as much as the soft soul he can discern behind.

“Ash,” Maybe Eiji is too lost in the moment, but when Ash looks at him this way, with eyes that are so, oh so tender, it’s easy to forget about everything else. “What will you do when this is all over?”

The warmth fades away from Ash’s eyes at that, and he withdraws a little, a new frown baring his forehead.

“Don’t know. I prefer not to think about it.” he answers somewhat flatly. Eiji probably makes a face at that, because Ash’s expression is quick to soften again. “Does it really matter? We got so much on our plate already, why worry about what comes after?”

“Don’t you look forward to being done with everything?” Eiji questions him, perplexed by Ash’s lack of enthusiasm toward the future. “Once you’re finally free from the mafia, you’ll be able to do anything you want!”

Ash looks away, and the smile playing on his lips is bitter. “Anything I want...” he muses to himself. “And what would that be, I wonder.”

“You don’t have any idea? Isn’t there anything that you wish you could do if you were free?”

Ash shrugs. “I’ve been killing people for the mafia since such a young age, Eiji. You really think I ever got time to entertain dreams of my own while I was at it? You think I even know how to do anything else?” Ash reclines in his seat, crossing his arms against his chest. “Don’t misunderstand, of course I do want to be free from all that. But I just… Getting rid of Golzine won’t magically grant me my craziest wishes.”    

“So you do have wishes.” Eiji points out, relieved.

“Perhaps. But perhaps these are things I shouldn’t be wishing for.”

Eiji is puzzled once more, by Ash’s cryptid answer as much than by the sudden sadness of his expression.

“What do you mean?”

Ash stays silent for a moment, the crease between his frowned brows only deepening. When he looks back at Eiji, it’s somewhat timidly.

“Would it be selfish…” he begins carefully. “Than to say that even so our situation is so dire, even so we are constantly risking our lives… I am happy, because it allowed me to meet you?”

Eiji feels something warm uncurls withing his chest, and he smiles when he gazes into Ash’s earnest eyes, reaching again so they are touching once more, connected.

“How can it be selfish, when I feel the same?” he answers in a breath, and feels his smile grow wide on his lips when Ash’s lips finally curl upward, when his frown vanishes.

But it passes too quickly. Already, Ash is turning away again, expression so terribly sad as the smile trembles on his lips.

“See, this is why I’m not looking forward to the end of this all that much. It will be hard to say goodbye.”

“Then don’t!” Eiji leans closer, and he beams because he understands now, he understands the way Ash is looking at the problem. “This is what I wanted to ask you, Ash. After all is done with, would you like to stay together with me?”

Ash blinks at him, and Eiji wonders how he can look so surprised, as if Eiji hadn’t been clear enough in his affection for him, as if he hadn’t even considered Eiji wouldn’t want to leave his side.

Eiji waits for Ash to recover from his surprise, and again he forgets about everything else, because all that matters is the faint flush painting Ash’s pale cheeks red, the bewildered ‘o’ of his mouth as he whispers, “…you would want that?”  

But “everything else” never forgets about them. And when Eiji’s response is lost forever, cut short by the violent sound of a gun shot in the distance, tearing apart their apparent tranquility, Eiji is reminded of it all too brusquely.

Bang

“What was that?” he asks, his heart in his throat as adrenaline kicks in. “It was— It was close by!”

Ash is already on his feet, all senses in alert, a hand on the gun at his belt. He presses a finger to his lips, silently intimating Eiji to be quiet.

Bang

---

Now that Ash is listening closely, it’s easier to tell for sure the provenance of the shooter. Somewhere on the first floor, probably right at the entry. The weapon was fired twice, but there was no---

Bang, Bang, Bang

A prompt response from Yut-lung’s guards, Ash can guess. But the commotion doesn’t stop, so even if Ash can’t tell how many attackers invaded the house, it’s likely more than one.

But who could attack them so recklessly? Golzine? It’s not his way of doing things. Bursting like that in the main residence of the head of the Chinese mafia, even with all of his men, is a public suicide.

But if not him, who—

No. Now is not the time to wonder about that. Ash needs to act, to protect. He turns toward Eiji, and his heart tightens when he meets his wide, worried eyes.

“You need to go upstairs.” Already Ash grabs for his hand, and entails Eiji in the hallway, rapidly walking toward the staircase. “Blanca and Yut-Lung are up there, you three can escape using the chopper.”

Eiji stares at him, eyes wide and mouth trembling slightly.

“But... and you?”

“My brother is downstairs. You go without us, we will catch up to you later.”

Before Eiji can say anything (and probably outright refuse, if Ash can guess from the furrow of his brows) they hear gunshots coming from the second aisle, followed by a short scream.

“Eiji, go!” Ash practically shoves Eiji toward the staircase, but Eiji resists stubbornly. “You have to escape before they can reach this floor!”

“No, I’m not leaving you behind! If I had last time, you would have— you would have died!” he shakes his head, curls his hands into fists as if to gather courage. “I’m not taking the risk.”

“Eiji.” Ash’s pulse is thumping against his ears. “There’s no time to argue, I need to go and find Griff. And I won’t—” Ash clenches his jaw, adverts his eyes. “I won’t be able to protect both of you. I’m sorry, but you would only be a hindrance.”

He sees the way his words hit Eiji, and as much as it hurts him, he knows he made the right choice. Arguing that he only wants the safest for Eiji wouldn’t have made the Japanese move from his position, but implying he could be a burden... aiming for Eiji’s insecurities is low and Ash feels sick with himself, but he doesn’t have a choice but to hold on.

“Now go!” Ash commands, already turning away to avoid being flexed by Eiji’s imploring eyes. “I’ll come find you later.”

But Eiji hesitates again, so Ash turns toward him one last time, reaching for his hand.

“Please Eiji, just go. I can’t… I can’t do anything if I’m not sure you are safe, and I need to focus if I want to save Griff out of this mess.”

Eiji blinks, brown eyes a little humid.

“Okay.” he breathes out, clearly reluctantly. “Okay, I’ll go. But please Ash, promise me to be safe. I can’t lose you, I just—” Eiji shakes his head once, voice breaking on the words. “I just can’t.”

Ash doesn’t respond, because his throat is too tight to let a word out. A part of him wants to reach for Eiji, to hold him tight against his chest and promise everything will be alright…

But that would be a lie, and by now Ash has come to understand Eiji can see right through that.

He already sacrificed precious seconds to make sure Eiji would change his mind, so Ash turns around reluctantly after a quick nod directed to Eiji. He runs down the stairs and is relieved to hear in his back that Eiji is rushing in the opposite direction.

Now that Eiji’s safety is assured, Ash can concentrate on what he has to do. As he runs toward the commotion downstairs, he prepares his heart for what is to come.