Actions

Work Header

between sunspots, under night skies

Chapter Text

Things were looking dim for Ash Callenreese. To the average heir of affluent business organisations with underworld ties, futures were seldom anything other than bright, promising and fortunate. Spending afternoons putting on a sickeningly sweet front at charity functions and evenings tied to a bedpost, to Ash, calling himself an exception would be a gross understatement.

'Don't ever get your hopes up' was a rule that Ash made for himself, a self-imposed code of conduct, if you will. And for most of his life, it proved to be nothing but right. If nothing else, Ash believed himself pragmatic— he knew what he was allowed to want, and what was beyond this lifetime.

Don't hope for a birthday present this year, don't hope that your brother will come back
from war, don't hope that you'll get out of this hell hole, don't hope that you'll ever be happy.

Wishes that aren’t granted are better off not wished at all.

He didn't even think of hoping for a normal life.

Jim Callenreese was a deadbeat and a drunk, Griffin Callenreese was a tragic romantic. Life granted Ash no pardons by association. Once old habits and circumstance had whisked these men out of sight, to Ash whose bitter cynicism outweighed his object permanence, they were as good as gone.

Tossed in and out of foster care like a used tissue, he found that the pavement was more comfort than any mildew stained bed, and the streets more of a home than any house that was supposed to be his to live in. Roaming the piss-streaked sidewalk was freedom taken for granted, for when the bald man with an expensive suit and ring-gilded fingers came knocking, Ash had no idea it would become a foreign concept.

At age fourteen, Ash forfeited the identity of Aslan Jade Callenreese and the Golzine name was bestowed upon him. In other words, he was adopted by an old pervert who had every intention of grooming him into the perfect sex toy-cum-heir. At that point, any semblance of a light at the end of the tunnel gradually faded to leave him in pitch darkness.

Like a child fumbling around for the night light, when his grasping fingers never met more than empty handfuls of air, he stopped reaching out at all.

 

A year spent in Dino Golzine's mansion inched by excruciatingly slowly. If escape was at the top of a mountain, Ash lay inert at its base.

Dino was a keeper of indoor cats; his pets were not to leave the bounds of the mansion. No school, no friends, no part-time jobs. For Ash, company consisted of unsympathetic private tutors, ugly marble statues and Dino's hand-picked clientele.

If he tried to run away for good, Dino would always find him eventually, and the subsequent beating was just not worth the fruitless endeavour. Sneaking out through a gap in the disused garden fence created by a slight deformity in the metal pole, obscured by hedges on either side, granted Ash a few hours on the streets at most. Though he couldn't even bum a cigarette off a random street rat without Dino becoming suspicious of the smell once he snuck back in.

Said disused garden was left neglected and overgrown since the purchase of the mansion, as Dino much preferred his lavish personal greenhouse and the main back garden, filled with extravagant statues and fountains, and hedges trimmed into art.

But recently, foregin exchange had begun to pique Golzine’s interest, and he had decided that a Japanese pharmaceutical conglomerate would be the next check in his to do list. He was a man who dressed to impress.

And so the small plot to the side of the mansion was excavated for redecoration, stripped bare of its sprawling weeds and unmanicured bushes. It would become a secondary garden tucked neatly into the side of the main one; a garden built on obsequiousness.

Normally, this would mean nothing to Ash, as the aesthetic whims of the Golzine mansion were only ever slightly questionable or an eyesore. However, this time, the construction of the new garden would most definitely be disrupting Ash’s personal routine, as it not only meant the possibility that his only exit route could be blocked off, leaving him completely trapped inside the mansion, but it also felt like an invasion of what little privacy he had left. You see, the isolated area, hardly used by Dino or any of his servants or goons, had become a quiet escape of sorts, the patio a perfect lounging spot for Ash to pass his day by reading on warm days.

 

Today though, was fucking cold, but his disobedience from the previous day had earnt him a solid smack to the face from Dino and enough anger to send him stalking outside with a book under his armpit, in spite of the weather.

Dino blithely called out from the dining room, eyes not leaving the paper.

"Try not to disturb the Orientals working on the garden. They were the only ones in the area who met the job description."

Orientals, huh?’ Ash scoffed in his head at the anachronism. Dino really was a man trapped in the romantic nostalgia of the past, a man so enraptured by bygone times and freedoms that he looked like a fool, roleplaying nobility as if feudalism was a construct of the present. It was kind of laughable.

Dino liked to think of himself as a king sitting on his throne, when he was really nothing more than an old man that sat in his ornate armchair day after day, sipping aged wine and reading the newspaper as if time had not passed him by.

At least, Ash liked to think of him this way. It gave him less power in Ash’s mind, when in reality Dino was still a powerful man, a man who moved money, controlled the masses, owned people, owned Ash.
It was easy to think of Dino as dumb, disgusting and pretentious, but it did not change the fact that he was dangerous. That Ash could not escape him.

Ash slid open the door and planted his ass on the steps leading down from the patio into the garden, examining the Asian gardeners who'd begun their work, moving construction materials and tools through the back gate. The cold air was piercing and Ash wished he had a cigarette between his lips as he rested an arm on his left knee to stop his leg from jittering and thumping on the step below.

God, this place was torture. Surrounded by manicured gardens and white walls, Ash was choking on sterility. The baroque paintings that hung in the interior felt like a grandiloquent boasting of taste; the facade of culture, naked bodies to fill empty space. It was funny how bleak elegance could be, when products of passion and romanticism were admired by a man as twisted and corrupt as Dino. It was hard to believe in beauty when the supposed epitome of loveliness looked so ugly.

Everyday he was forcefully reminded of how lucky he was to be here, that being unappreciative of this captivity meant that he was essentially spitting on his brethren who were still stuck in the system or out there on the streets.

Perhaps Dino was right, many would be envious of his fortune.

But caviar and foie gras would not lessen the foul taste of wrinkly ball sack in his throat; the stinging of his right eye that was surely turning purple. Still, as Dino would remind him, he had a bed to sleep in and a roof over his head. If it weren't for Dino, his saviour, he would be facing the very same thing out there — just minus the caviar and foie gras.

Ash would argue bitterly that at least on the streets he would get compensation and independence. Dino would laugh and correct him— five dollars and the illusion of freedom.

A bone-chilling gust blew over and Ash shivered, stuffing his hands in his pockets and blowing out condensation like smoke in the cold air.

“Hey!” He called out to one of the gardeners. The older man looked up, startled, his mustache quivering, “You got a cigarette?”

The man stuttered and made strange hand gestures while shaking his head frantically. Ash rubbed his nose and shrugged in defeat. It was worth a try.

The other gardener turned around curiously, walking over to his partner and shaking his shoulder questioningly. Ash caught a glimpse of his face, and holy shit, that was a literal child.
Granted, Ash too was only fifteen, but this boy could not have been more than thirteen judging by his soft facial features and eyes that looked like they’d only ever seen warm hugs and children’s cartoons.

Ash cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled out to them again, “You Asians doing child labour around here?”

Both of them looked up at him in surprise. The older man winced and leaned in, whispering something to the kid, then the youngster looked up at Ash with annoyance crinkling his face.

The black-haired boy dropped his rake, letting it clatter on the ground, and stomped over to Ash clumsily in his too-big boots. The older man called out to him and tried holding him back, but the boy was going through his rebellious phase a bit early, it seemed.

He stopped and jabbed a finger in Ash's face, "I am seventeen, I am not a child!" Oh. Ash had made a mistake, apparently. "You know, in Japan, we have the rule, young people respect old people!"
Half trying to parse his foreign accent, half trying not to burst out laughing, Ash stared right into the boy's grumpy expression.

"Are you calling yourself an old person?" Ash snorted, "Okay, grandpa."

The other boy stared at him blankly for a few seconds, Ash could hear the ellipses popping in his head, before the kid (or not) seemed to realise, "Ah! No, I mean older! You are the child, I am older than you, so respect!"
He pointed to Ash, then to himself, then jerked his hands side by side like they formed an equal sign to some genius equation he’d thought up.

'Geez. This kid’s a funny one.' Ash smirked, amused at the boy's cheeks that were red and puffed in annoyance.

“How do you even know that I’m younger than you?” He snickered as the gardener turned to walk away.

The boy whipped around, this time with no hesitation, “I can see it! Your eyes, they are young!”

He tightened the belt of his work robe, picked up his rake, and marched back into the garden, leaving Ash gaping on the steps. Face feeling hot with second-hand embarrassment at the boy’s straightforwardness, Ash couldn’t help but bury his head between his knees and mutter to himself, “What a fuckin’ geezer…”.

***

Later that week, Dino had a pompous self-congratulatory event that dragged from noon to the early evening, and Ash’s ‘unsightly’ appearance was not allowed in his vicinity. Never mind the culprit behind the wretched black eye blossoming on his face. Not that Ash cared though, the further away he was from Dino, the better.

Just like the other day, Ash sat outside on the same step. The gardeners were toiling away under the overcast sky, assembling some kind of Japanese style landscape in the corner of Dino’s backyard. Ash wanted to laugh. Dino only liked to croon about exotic Eastern aesthetics and marvel at their apparent beauty when important guests arrived from overseas to do business. He had to pity these men when their hard work would surely be stripped down within a month or two, probably to make way for some scaled-down garden of Versailles replica, or yet another pretentious fountain with naked cherubs pissing into the water.

Suddenly noticing Ash, the baby-faced boy from earlier bounded up to him like a goddamn golden retriever, Ash almost scrambled backwards in surprise.

“What’s your name?”

Ash met his eyes with a hardened glare, seeing how long the nosey kid would wait. But the boy was unflinching, he blinked, one, twice, thrice and Ash gave in.

“Ash.” He grunted, “That’s my name.”

“I’m Eiji!” The boy replied in earnest, sticking out a gloved hand.

“Ay-gee?” Ash tried the foreign name on his tongue, the other boy nodded brightly. Ash gave him an up and down and scowled, “I didn’t fuckin’ ask.” He said, swatting away Eiji’s dirt encrusted hand.

Eiji simply rolled his eyes, “See? You are definitely younger than me. Going through puberty.”

"Yeah, like you would know, you clearly haven't gone through it yet."

Eiji stuck his tongue out and the wind blew over them both, tousling their hair and sending Eiji almost stumbling forward. He threw his head back with a laugh and pushed his unruly bangs back with the crook of his elbow.

The scent of peppermint washed over Ash.

He even smells like an old man,’ He scoffed in his head. The irony of the kid’s baby face was starting to kick in.

As if remembering something important, Eiji stuck an ungloved hand in his pocket, jostling around looking for something small hidden in the corner. For a moment, Ash actually thought he was going to pull out a peppermint candy, the kind that's covered in pocket lint and smells like mothballs and antiquity.

Instead, puffing slightly, he pulled out a tiny vial from his pocket.

“Healing oil!” He said, L’s rolling into R’s, “For your eye!” He made the purpose abundantly clear by nearly taking out Ash’s eyeball with his index finger.

The kid had just about shoved the vial in Ash’s face, so he took it gingerly in his hand.

“This some sort of weird Japanese voodoo shit?” Ash grimaced, twisting the bottle in his forefingers and inspecting it wearily.

In a complete non-answer, Eiji pursed his lips together and made a buzzer noise (“bbu-bbuu”), “What you should say, is 'thank you'!” He huffed indignantly, grabbing Ash’s other hand and clasping it together firmly with the one already holding the vial. His grip was surprisingly solid, and his hands unexpectedly rough and calloused.

“The fuck am I supposed to do with this?” Ash yelled out as the other boy started turning to face the garden again.

Eiji simply shrugged his shoulders, stuck his tongue out, and pranced away.

***

That night, as Ash locked the door to the bathroom and mindlessly completed his daily routine of scrubbing the filth and shame off his skin, he pulled out the little brown vial from the pocket of his jeans and held it up to the light. He looked in the mirror, poking at the grotesque purple crowding around his eye socket, and wondered if the boy, Eiji, had given him some mysterious Japanese herbal essence to magically spirit away his hurt. He unscrewed the cap and took a whiff.

It was just eucalyptus oil.

Ash laughed.

Perhaps he expected too much for Eiji to be an immortal toddler-sage with mystical healing powers.

Maybe he was just an idiot with an allowance and a penchant for not minding his own business.

Ash wondered if Dino would kick him out tomorrow as well.

***

The next time Ash walked out onto the patio, Eiji was occupying his spot on the stairs while his partner was leant against a nearby wall, scribbling some plans on a notepad.

Hearing Ash's footsteps, the black haired boy whipped around, still holding a water bottle to his lips.
"Ah!" The bottle made a puckering noise as he pulled it away from his mouth and let out a gasp of recognition. He immediately leapt to his feet and right into Ash's personal space. Ash instinctively thrust a palm to his chest, gently shoving him a few inches back.

"The fuck is up with you?"

He was so close Ash could see the water glistening on his lower lip and the loose eyelash on his cheek.

"Not much!" Eiji hummed good-naturedly, casually ignoring Ash’s scowl and instead inspecting his face with an intense stare, "Your eye, it's getting better, right?"

“Huh?” Ash gingerly thumbed his under eye, it still hurt to touch but the swelling had reduced considerably, “I guess so.” It was beyond him why this overbearing stranger was so interested in his physical wellbeing, didn’t he have better things to be doing? Like stroking leaves or chewing on grass?

Eiji crossed his arms triumphantly, “Looks like it worked!”

“What did?” Ash raised an eyebrow snarkily, “Your ‘healing oil’? Hate to break it to you but I didn’t even use it.”

The boy’s arms fell to his side, he looked rather crestfallen, “B-But, the lady said it would help!”

Ash had to suppress a bout of bemused laughter, turning to the side with a scoff and pressing his knuckles to his mouth. This kid had really gone to the drug store and asked the lady at the counter for a black eye remedy. Ash knew from experience that ice and time was the simplest and most effective solution, but the boy's naivety was strangely refreshing.

"Jeez, you just trust everything anyone tells you, huh? Maybe 'the lady at the counter' was just some hag tryna pawn off essential oils onto you, you ever consider that?"

Eiji made a face that looked like he hadn't.

Shaking his head in exasperation, Ash tucked his hands into his pockets and sauntered past Eiji towards his spot on the step. To his surprise though, the Asian boy followed suit, shuffling over silently, eyes pinned on Ash's profile.

Ash pulled out his book, making a point of ignoring him. Though this did not seem to deter Eiji in the slightest, he just stared at Ash owlishly, almost unblinking.

"How old are you?" The older boy asked out of nowhere. His eye contact was unwavering, intensified by his impossibly large doe eyes, but Ash refused to back down, meeting his gaze steadfast.

"Oh, so mister 'I can see it in your eyes' only does rough estimates, huh?" He leaned back on his palms, eyeing the other boy tauntingly.

Eiji coughed, seeming somewhat embarrassed, and Ash felt a wave of vindication wash over him. This is what you get for saying weird things, asshole.

"I just meant that while you seem so...so hard and angry on the outside, I can see that your eyes are still gentle…you are still young." Eiji reasoned, with aggravating sincerity, even cupping his chin lightly with his index finger as if to emphasise that he had considered this thoroughly.

Nevermind, he was even more of an embarrassing weirdo than Ash had originally pegged him as. Ash flopped backwards and spread the book across his face, lifting a hand with his middle finger held upright, just to drive the message home.

He heard Eiji chuckle and that was the end of that interaction. The older Japanese man called out to Eiji and he was on his feet again, bubbling with endless enthusiasm as he bounced over to his partner and leaned over his shoulder to look at the plans the other man had been drawing out.

Ash lifted the book off his face and started to read. The rustling of leaves and snipping of branches proved to be good ambient noise as Ash found himself immersed in a world that was so fantastically not his within a matter of moments. It made it easier to pretend that he was alive.

 

Though time in reality moves on relentlessly, and of course, a cold nudge to his shoulder and the brusque clearing of the throat was all it took to drag him kicking and screaming out of his fantasy.

“Ash, Senator Kippard is here.” Dino’s voice rang out cold and clear from behind him, “We best not keep him waiting.”

Ash’s arms turned to lead resting against the concrete steps, he closed his eyes and squeezed tightly, trying to steal a few milliseconds of peace as if it would brace him for the torture to come. The impatient tap of Dino’s foot echoed through the air like violent cracks and Ash knew that his time was up. He lifted his metal legs and wooden body and trudged across the patio to where Dino enclosed him with a pudgy arm.

He took one reluctant look back into the open space to capture a breath of outside air, but he found himself meeting the gaze of the young Japanese boy. Eiji was standing in the centre of the garden, large, round eyes boring holes into Dino’s arm wrapped around Ash’s shoulder. Ash could only give him a weak smirk before turning away, but even as they walked back into the mansion, he could feel the boy's fiery stare burning spots in his back.

 

***

Senator Kippard was a sweaty bastard with a grotesque interest in teenage boys, and a close associate of Dino’s. He rolled around to the Golzine estate every so often with a morbid hunger stashed in his pants, and state secrets hidden in his neckfolds.

Dino had an end to achieve, and as usual, Ash was the means— kneeling on the hardwood floor on a Sunday afternoon. The birdsong from the other side of the window was quickly drowned out by a horrific jangling, the unbuckling of a belt, and Ash could only think about what a nice day it was today; how much he’d rather be outside right now.

The sky was really blue today, after all.

Caught up in a meagre fantasy, Ash made the mistake of opening his eyes, of looking up.

Kippard’s fat maw wobbled with every lardy word that tumbled out, he seemed to be saying something but Ash couldn’t parse a single syllable, it sounded like alien-speak played backwards in slow motion, and yet the derision was palpable.

Rage prickled at his spine as words steeped in condescension rolled over him, he was being talked down to by a gelatinous glob — by a politician — and he couldn’t stand it. He turned his head to the side to quell the intense burning of bile rising in his throat, but a meaty hand grabbed his hair roughly to stop him and something inside of Ash snapped.

Thrusting his head forward, out of Kippard’s grasp and slamming it into the man’s lower body, in a flurry of anger and fervence he found himself breathing heavily and looking down on the pathetic heap of a Republican Senator lying sprawled on the floor. He couldn’t remember how he got there, but the blotchy, red fear that had overcome the pig’s face felt like vindication embodied.

Ash wasn’t sure what came over him to rebel today in particular, but he wouldn’t deny that it felt good.

He hacked up a wad of phlegm from the back of his throat and spat. His aim was impeccable.

***

Ash could feel his brain in his ears and his skull in his teeth. He let out a strangled cough as wrinkly hands shoved him roughly against the bookcase and knocked the wind out of his lungs.

Kippard had retaliated in a coward’s fashion: running out of the room holding up his pants, red faced and humiliated, tattling to the bald boss man.

Needless to say, Dino was not happy. Every cell in Ash’s body screamed ‘fuck that old bastard’s happiness!’, yet his one remaining ounce of self-preservation was starting to think that socking Kippard was a mistake. (Though not enough to regret doing it.)

His ears were ringing, his bones knocked on the ridges of shelving pressing against his back. Dino’s expression betrayed nothing, but the vulture’s grip on Ash’s throat was telling of his anger.

“You’re getting cocky again, aren’t you?”

Dino’s hand tightened and Ash wheezed. What the fuck was he supposed to say to that?

“Just like a little lynx, wild and untamed,” His voice was low and guttural, it curdled Ash’s insides, “But I will be the one to domesticate you.”

The expression on Dino’s face warped into something both intensely terrifying and grotesquely depraved, a wave of nausea washed over Ash as stubby fingernails dug further into his neck.

“You will not betray me again.”

Lightheaded and gasping for air, Ash gritted his teeth and nodded in acquiescence. Dino released him, looking down at him with those monster eyes, half-lidded and beady. Ash wished he were dead.

The door clicked shut, signifying Dino's exit. A cloud floated past and sunlight poured into the room cruelly from the window to his left. Ash sagged wearily against the shelf, feeling the sun's warmth on his nose in stark dissonance to the stinging of his right cheek. He looked outside, blinked once, and couldn't find the energy to do it again.

Ah. The sky really was blue.

***

 

Ash's back ached as he moved sluggishly across the patio, sudden movements were his enemy, and with spotty bruises forming all over his body, he knew he would be subject to dull and sharp pains galore for the foreseeable future. He leaned over the railing, inhaling deeply to savour the first breath of fresh air he’d tasted in days.
The gardeners were making steady progress, as a mossy stone trail had begun to take shape at the base of the steps, creating a strange juxtaposition to the Victorian style balustrade lining the edge of the porch and leading down to the path.
The stylistic incongruity had Ash raising an eyebrow, but anything to please the foreign guests, he guessed. Even men like Dino had sycophantic tendencies when it came to men with more money than them.

Suddenly there was a rustle from below the railing and a mop of black hair with a white handkerchief tied over it popped out from the bushes.

"Oh, hi Ash!" Eiji peeked out from behind the tall plant he was carrying in his arms, smiling like he hadn't just startled the living fuck out of Ash.

"Jesus dude, the fuck were you doing down there?"

"I was just checking to see if this baby fit around here!"

Eiji gently placed the plant by the stairs and dusted himself off, digging around in his pockets as he plopped down beside Ash.

"Here!" He stuck out a hand with something tucked beneath his fingers on his palm, "I couldn't get cigarettes, but this is just the next best thing."

Ash eyed him questioningly and nudged his palm open tentatively with his index finger. Something plasticy crinkled at his touch.

Eiji opened his palm swiftly, revealing two brightly coloured Chupa Chups, before grabbing them dramatically and waving them around in Ash's face excitedly.

"Frankly, I think they are even better, smoking is for stinky old men, anyway!" He held one out to Ash and chuckled, sounding unnecessarily proud of himself.

"You're just bitter that even with an ID no one would sell you a pack of smokes, they'd probably chase you out of the store before you even get to the counter." Ash rolled his eyes but he took it anyway. Strawberry cream flavour.

"Not true, you are just ungrateful!" Eiji exclaimed, “They are bad for your health too!”

“Don’t worry, there are plenty of other things that’ll kill me before lung cancer, not that I would mind at this point.” Ash drawled wryly, unwrapping the lollipop and popping it lazily in his mouth.

The next few moments were silent, save for the sound of Eiji fumbling with his own lollipop wrapper. He turned and looked at Ash long and hard before he spoke.

"Is your– uh – father not coming out to get you today?" Eiji asked slowly, fingers fidgeting and eyes flitting uneasily to the door.

Ash scoffed, "Who, Dino? That fat fuck is not my father." He blew a stray strand of hair out of his eyes and leant an elbow on his knee, continuing nonchalantly, "Don’t worry though, my real old man was also a piece of shit– at least he wasn’t a goddamn kiddy fiddler though.”

Eiji furrowed his brows, “If he’s not your father, then why are you here?”

Ash waved a hand dismissively at Eiji's apparent concern, languidly swirling the lollipop with his tongue, “Technically, he has legal ownership over me, adoption and all that shit. I’m not his son though, just a fucking pet who helps him gain favours with important ‘friends’."

The words flowed casually out of his mouth, but truth be told, he had no idea why he was even telling Eiji all about this.

As if taking in the weight of Ash’s words, Eiji listened carefully, the crease in his brow deepening. He seemed to think for a bit, humming and nodding slightly. Ash figured he didn't really understand, not that he really expected an innocent looking pansy like Eiji to get it. How could he? He had brought Ash Chupa Chups instead of cigarettes, for god's sake.

The black-haired boy suddenly turned to him with that unnervingly strong eye contact, seemingly having come to a conclusion.

“Should we kill him?” Is what he said.

Ash waited for the other boy’s face to break out into a grin, for the ‘just kidding!’ with jazz hands. Eiji just stared at him, unflinching, and by all means, serious.

First of all, what? Second of all, We?

Ash let out an incredulous bark of laughter, lollipop almost falling right out of his mouth. While his presence was becoming a common recurrence in the garden, Eiji was by all means a stranger. Yet one that was willing to commit murder for him, apparently.

It was beyond ridiculous.

“I haven’t said this to your face before— but really are a weird one, you know that right?” Ash managed to choke out between guffaws, wiping a stray tear from his eye.

Eiji’s expression softened as he rested his head on his palm, slightly obscuring a toothy, boyish smile. He seemed to murmur something into his hand but Ash couldn’t even hear it through the sound of his own wheezing.

He seemed to consider something briefly, looking to the garden almost solemnly, before turning back to regard Ash.

"Ah, does that mean you gossip about me behind my back?” Eiji nudged him with playful indignance, pouting slightly, “Well, I guess that’s fair, since I talk about you to Ibe-san a lot! Whenever you go away I say to him, 'Did you know that blonde boy's name is Ash?', 'I wonder what Ash is doing today?', 'Ash is so skinny, did he eat lunch?'– things like that!”

God.

Though he was slightly relieved to drop the previous topic, everything Eiji said always seemed to fill Ash with shock and embarrassment. He had seen people sucking dick in alleyways and jerking it on the subway, yet somehow Eiji, who seemed to say whatever he thought with utmost sincerity, was the more shameless one.

"Who’s Ebay San?" Ash opted to ask, burrowing his chin further into his elbow.

"Oh silly me, I forgot to tell you! Ibe-san is that man over there!” Eiji pointed enthusiastically towards the older man with a mustache, squatting over a hole in the ground, “He's a super super good landscaper, and he is also a photographer!”

"Oh? You his son or something? His little gardener nephew?"

"He's not my dad or my uncle!” He grumbled, puffing out his cheek, “And I'm not a gardener! I'm a landscaping apprentice!"

"Sure you're not...” Ash hummed unconvinced, dragging out the vowels, "But as if you don't have forty named pot plants sitting on your window sill at home."

Eiji let out a squeak and his cheeks flushed red, "Ah...how did you know…"

So he did know shame after all.

"I didn't. Wild guess, seems like my instincts are just that good." Ash smirked, "And you did call that plant over there a 'baby' five minutes ago."

"Yes...I guess you got me, I really do like plants." Eiji scratched his head sheepishly, before suddenly perking up, "You know, my favourite flower would grow really well in this environment, and it's yellow and very pretty and very bright!"

He paused to look at Ash for a second, as if appraising him, "Kind of like you, Ash!"

At that point Ash had to cover his whole face with a hand and look the other way, but Eiji continued unfalteringly, "It is such a shame that it would not fit the theme of this garden, I wish they were everywhere!"

Ash took a deep breath, as if replenishing his tolerance for Eiji's unabashed manner of speech.
"And what's this flower?" He coughed into his palm.

Eiji lit up like a New Year's light show, "Sunspot sunflower!" He fumbled around in his pants pocket to pull out a notepad and pen with so much excitement Ash would've thought he was being told winning lotto numbers.

The Japanese boy flipped open to a blank page and started inking long ellipses for petals, before hatching in a dark centre and a stem with large leaves by its side.

Ash stared at the drawing flatly, "That literally just looks like any flower ever."

"Nooo!" Eiji waved a chastising finger in Ash's face, "Look at the size of the flower compared to the leaves and its short stem—” He tapped at the page vigorously with the back of his pen, “See, it's a dwarf sunflower! Much smaller and also easy to take care of, they will grow beautifully even if the soil isn’t that good. So strong and pretty! I think they are great company, I never feel lonely when I look at them."

He suddenly turned to Ash and grinned widely, the kind of smile that stretched his face and dimpled his cheeks, the kind that hid no other ulterior emotion other than unadulterated joy. With the wind momentarily knocked out of his lungs and his hands clenched by his sides, Ash felt his own lips curve traitorously upwards, almost involuntarily.

Eiji's eyes widened briefly, his cheeks flushed with rosy vitality, before flipping to a new page in his notepad in continuation of his floriculture spiel.

Listening to the Japanese boy ramble ad nauseum about his favourite flora was not exactly how Ash intended to spend one of his few afternoons of peace, yet he couldn't find it in him to complain.

Having read zero pages of his book and instead feeling stuffed with useless flower knowledge, a part of Ash felt light; weightless in spite of his leaden heart and aching bones. The airy feeling lingered in his chest, as if remnant shards of sunlight had wormed their way into his lungs. Even as Dino called him in for the night, and even as he lay wide awake in bed staring at the unmoving, matte ceiling— the feeling never left.

***

 

Ash was ashamed of how quickly he got used to seeing Eiji’s face in the garden. On the occasion that private tuition had ended and Dino left to meet with important figures, Ash found himself wandering out onto the patio without a second thought.

Reading had somehow become an excuse to come out into the garden, and not the other way around. The list of things that Ash refused to admit to himself was steadily growing, and the way he was starting to see Eiji’s presence as a constant rather than a novelty, almost scared him.

Afternoons where Ash would come out to the garden, Eiji would notice him and bounce over with a broom or a rake or a potted plant in hand, filled to the brim with energy and meandering stories to spout into Ash's ear.

Ash surprised himself with how little annoyance he felt.

Eiji never felt the need to pry about Ash’s situation again, instead he opened his own heart, pulling it out like a chest of drawers and showing Ash all the little trinkets he kept stored away.

Eiji Okumura was seventeen years old, he'd moved here from Japan to attend high school, he watched a lot of American TV dramas, he lived with his family friend and mentor, Ibe, as did his little sister. He liked succulents and cartoon birds and was working on this garden as a part time job.

He was a pole vaulter.

Ash was never as much of a talker as he was a listener, though that didn’t mean he held any tolerance for listening to bullshit. Eiji on the other hand, never ran out of things to say. But it didn’t feel like self centred drabble, the way he talked with his hands gesturing wildly and his eyes glittering in the sun, mundane adventures sounded like exploration— he made daily life sound worth living.

Perhaps life in this prison was getting to Ash, piquing his curiosity towards the 'outside world' he hadn’t so much as touched in the past year, because Eiji's stories of his hometown and his life in a foreign country seemed like an entirely fantastical universe. Perhaps it was just the way that Eiji told them with pure and utter sincerity, but to Ash, it was absolutely riveting.

As generous with his gestures as he was with words, Eiji also didn't hesitate to give him trinkets and curios in the literal sense.

One lazy, sunny afternoon, clad in his navy gardening robe and white bandana, Eiji skipped up to Ash with both hands behind his back.

“Left or right?” He grinned cheekily.

“Right.” Ash said without a second thought, barely glancing up from his book.

Eiji let out a fake, theatrical cry of defeat, throwing his empty left hand dramatically to his forehand and sticking his right one in Ash’s face. “Ack! Looks like you won!”

He opened his palm finger by finger to reveal— a rock.

“Wow.” Ash said slowly and flatly, dog-earring his page and placing it on the step beside him.

Noticing Ash’s unimpressed expression and nose up-turned at the sight, Eiji laughed sheepishly and wiped the remnant flecks of dirt off the surface, giving it a finishing polish on the corner of his robe. It was really more of a smooth pebble.

He held it up to the sun, letting the light shine over it, revealing a streak of vibrant green, and tiny specks of gold running through the middle of it.

“What’s this supposed to mean? ‘s it symbolise somethin’? You got a mystical Japanese word to describe an abstract concept for me?” Ash poked the pebble with his nail, and lowered his voice to mockery of the stage whisper, “Is this what they call...wasabi?”

Eiji shook his head and chuckled brightly, it was bright and buoyant; it sounded like birds taking off in the early morning. Ash hated himself for thinking that.

“You mean wabi-sabi! And do not worry, it is not meant to be complicated. Even a silly American like you would understand.” He leaned in close, cupping a hand beside his mouth, and whispered, “I just thought it was pretty.”

He wiped the pebble on his sleeve one last time, held it up to Ash's eye, smiled and placed it in Ash’s hand.

Ash had always considered Eiji's looks to be positively unremarkable, but under the afternoon sun with his cheeks pulled back into a grin, he looked almost ethereal. Ash couldn’t stop himself from staring.

Perhaps Eiji's gross emotional forwardness was starting to become contagious, and Ash was catching a case of teenage sentimentality. He looked off to the side, clenching his fist tightly, and tried to ignore the creeping, intrusive idea that Eiji had given him a rock that exactly matched the colour of his eyes.

***

 

"Do you remember how I told you about pole vault before?"

The midday sun was blazing over the garden, Ash had his head leant against the railing, a combination of the heat and mental exhaustion rendering him immobile. Though it was pure stubbornness that prevented him from going back inside; he would much rather melt into the balustrade.

Eiji, ever resilient and filled with vitality, was sweeping away at the excess dirt and moss that crowded the stone path, sweat forming on his brow as he looked to Ash patiently for an answer.

Yes, I remember. I still find it hard to imagine, though I frankly find it quite amazing that you have the time and dedication to do it. I wonder what it feels like, it seems so beyond me.’ He thought, meeting Eiji’s wide eyed gaze.

“Mm.” Was what he said, accompanied by a languid nod.

Eiji lit up anyway.

"Well, so…" He fidgeted with his gloves, looking uncharacteristically shy, "There's this important track meet coming up and um...well I'll be jumping and I…" He seemed to trail off before clutching the glove tightly and snapping his head forward to face Ash.

"I'd really like for you to come!"

His eyes sparkled with energy, anticipation. Ash didn't know how to respond.

All the heat in the air seemed to dissipate, and Ash sat up rigidly, trying to look away from Eiji and escape the expectant look in his eyes. It was strange, how he barely even knew Eiji and yet his heart clenched with the thought of disappointing him. Ash wouldn’t be able to go, he just couldn’t; he was trapped and it was foolish to even think of leaving the mansion for something like a track meet.

Thankfully, Eiji saved him from having to awkwardly reject his offer outright, then and there, “You don’t have to answer me now, and I will not be mad if you can’t come.” He smiled understandingly, gently placing his broom on the ground and shuffling towards Ash, “Just know that I would be happy to see you there!”

He pulled out his trusty pen and notepad, scribbling a few lines before ripping out the page and handing it to Ash.

A date, a time, and an address. Written neatly in blue ink.

(A smiley face in the bottom right corner).

Ash didn’t say anything and Eiji simply picked up his broom again. They didn’t speak for the rest of the afternoon, while the hot sun watched from above, in all its languor and placidity.

But that night as he locked the door to the windowless bathroom, and soaked away the sweat on his skin in the tub, he thought about Eiji’s invitation and the crumpled note in his pocket; the hidden hole in the fence and the prospect of freedom, even if it was only for a day.

Bubbles of gilt rose in his stomach as he wondered if he should let himself hope to see Eiji fly. Hope was a bottle of champagne— golden effervescence; liquid madness.

Ash didn't dare to pull the cork.

Chapter Text

The days trickled past and Ash's encounters with Eiji became scarce, Ibe citing preparation for the upcoming track meet as reason for his absence.

On days without Eiji, he hated the feeling of emptiness that seemed to overwhelm the garden. On days with Eiji, he hated the involuntary guilt that roiled in his gut when he knew that he wouldn't be able to indulge Eiji's hard work. 

Although the black haired boy himself didn't seem to push on the question of Ash's attendance, in fact he didn't even bring it up at all, only mentioning pole vaulting in passing when commenting on the ache of his muscles as if it were a blessing and not a hindrance.

The summer heat rolled in tardily, making the change in season known far too late for comfort. Ash could have sworn he was shivering on the porch step just a few weeks ago when now he lay stretched out in the shade like a basking cat.

Even the ever-resilient Eiji himself ceded his loss to the sweltering sun, discarding the white undershirt that usually punctuated his outfit under the navy gardening robe. The neckline now dipped low enough to expose his tanned collarbones, his wide sleeves were also rolled up and bunched at the elbows, revealing the boy’s sturdy forearms. 

The word athlete wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when Ash thought of Eiji, but as the heat and toil did its toll on the other boy, a bead of sweat would drip down his face, or a particular muscle would flex as he carried his tools and Ash couldn’t help but feel curious.

There were indeed many parts of Eiji he had only ever heard whispered like a soft-spoken rumour, never witnessed in the flesh.

The weekend of the track meet edged closer like a worm inching along the pavement, Ash was all but ready to feign ignorance over the event entirely. Until the morning-of arrived, and Dino clambered into a sleek, black limousine, his goons in sunglasses following suit.

It was, very inconveniently so, a chance. 

The self-sabotaging corner of his brain transmitted plans back and forth, while the voice of self-preservation forced them back down.

Why did the universe have to taunt him with opportunity?

Ash shut the blinds and closed his eyes, trying to suppress the fire burning hot under his skin, yet his fingers trembled with anticipation. Hastily throwing on that tattered blue hoodie that Dino despised, book under his arm and hands in his pockets, he strolled out casually to the garden patio.

Due to the garden's state of disuse, there were only security cameras facing the exit gate to the outside, mainly to be wary of intruders and workers with kleptomaniac tendencies. The system wasn't exactly built to safeguard against a skinny teenage boy slinking out in the mid-afternoon, the tall iron fence and surrounding hedges were deemed sufficient for that. Ash hoped it stayed that way. With Eiji's note tucked deep in his pocket, something in him was ready to risk it— all he had to do was not get caught.

 

***

 

Taking shortcuts through back alleys and jumping over fences, the address of the piece of paper was surprisingly close by. His memory led him to the track behind the school Ash had sauntered past many times, knowing he would never be able to attend. 

On the other side of a car park, a chain link fence, and a grassy hill stood a modest stadium, complete with red running tracks and blue vault mats.

Digging his sneakers into the grass as he trudged down the hill, the tall vertical bar at the end of the track came into view and it suddenly hit him all at once.

He was here, he'd left the mansion, he was here to see Eiji, Eiji would be jumping over that bar.

It was all surreal, frightening, and inexplicably exhilarating. When he reached the point where other people were approaching proximity, Ash decided that where he stood was close enough spectating distance. He pulled tightly on the strings of his hoodie and sat down on the grass.

The track meet was already well underway, as the field athletes were called into their events one by one, muscly brutes tossing their javelins and jumping into sand pits. It looked kind of barbaric, to Ash. The act of wearing oneself out and enjoying it nonetheless was outright alien to him. As primal as it sounded, he would only keep himself fit enough to run, to fight, to survive. These people were throwing themselves around and exhausting themselves for no reason, Ash felt the fatigue creeping up his spine just looking at them.

He was starting to question whether it was the right decision for him to come in the first place, when he spotted a familiar black haired boy walking up the track, pole in hand. Ash supposed this was the moment he was waiting for, as he fixed his eyes on the red accented jersey that curved and dipped over the Japanese boy's back. It was strange seeing Eiji in a different element; out of that frumpy navy robe and in the open— uncaged by the steel garden walls.

Eiji's shoulders tensed, rising with his breath and he turned to face the bar. Ash caught a glimpse of his profile and found his own fist clenching on his jeans. The carefree expression that Eiji wore like a charm was nowhere to be found, his soft features were morphed and twisted in intense concentration. Ash doubted that if he yelled out or danced around naked on the track that Eiji's brow would even deign to twitch.

Eiji gripped the pole tightly and began to run. Long legs whipping along the track in powerful strides.

The pole tilted into the pit, Ash's breath hitched as Eiji rose with it. The bar seemed so impossibly high and Eiji so impossibly small and yet—

He flew.

It was hard to find words to describe Eiji in that moment, just like how it's difficult to encapsulate a feeling in time. In that one split millisecond wonder, in that one instantaneous point on an infinite curve— there was something both subdued and explosive about the emotion that tore it's way through Ash's chest.

Ash had seen other people jump before, he'd seen others use elastic energy and the strength of their muscles to propel themselves upwards; defy gravity. And yet, something about the way Eiji soared just wasn't the same. It wasn't about the height of the jump, or his form, his poise, his technique— 

It wasn't about the scientific possibilities that allowed him to soar over the bar, with Eiji it didn't feel like a technical feat, it felt like freedom, like nature taking its course.

Like weightlessness embodied. 

Ash was seeing it all in slow motion.

The deep groove in Eiji's brow was gone, as if smoothened by a gentle touch, as his body curved over the vertical bar with ease.

There was a certain buoyancy about the way he vaulted; like the way he'd tossed himself into the air hadn't been a forceful action, but as if the wind had taken him by the hand and guided him through the sky. 

By the time Eiji had landed on the mat, Ash, too, felt like he was floating. Maybe he had been leaning on his leg for too long, maybe it was just pins and needles, he reasoned. Though it was hard to steal his breath back when Eiji stood up and pumped his fist brightly, with a smile that rivaled the midday sun, as it reached the height of its trajectory in the background.

 

***

 

For someone who always stared and squinted at Ash as if he were a distant object and not someone sitting right in front of him, this time around Eiji spotted Ash frighteningly quickly. All sweaty and energetic, the black-haired boy bounded up the hill, gym bag in hand and remnants of adrenaline in his step. His gardening mentor, Ibe, trailed along behind him with a camera in his hand and a conflicted look on his face.

“You made it!” Eiji opened his arms wide as if to engulf Ash in a deep hug, before turning to notice the sweat on his skin and sheepishly opting to place a firm hand on Ash’s shoulder

Ash stared at the firm weight on his shoulder, “I surprise myself sometimes.” He said rather truthfully, before awkwardly shrugging Eiji’s hand off.

Unfazed and unbothered, Eiji smiled brightly and it was almost unnerving how he looked as if he wasn’t surprised at all.

"Ash, I'm so happy you came!”

Why? Ash tensed at Eiji's genuine sounding exclamation, though his words faded into the background as the grass rustled and Ash’s eyes flickered to the man approaching from behind Eiji. He instinctively took a step back.

"Eiji! How's our fly-boy doing!"

"Mr Glenreed!"

Eiji turned around to face the stocky, middle-aged man, clad in a polo shirt and khakis, with one hand raised to give a hearty slap on the back.

"I'm so glad you came to watch the meet today!"

"No worries, kiddo!" He chuckled boisterously, "What kind of yearbook club advisor would I be if I didn't check on our school's most promising athletes!"

'A normal one.' Ash grimaced internally. Eiji seemed abashed at the praise, leaning back and scratching his head.

"Also wouldn't pass up the chance to catch up with good ol' Shunichi over here!" Glenreed continued with a wide set grin, slapping Ibe on the back in kind and nearly sending the unsuspecting Japanese man stumbling with the force of it.

Eiji turned back to face Ash and gestured towards the broad man in front of him, "Ash! This is Mr Glenreed, he is our English teacher— " He looked back to his teacher, "This is my friend, Ash!"

His friend, huh?

"Nice to meet you kid, I'm not your teacher though, so you can call me Max." He stuck his hand out as if expecting a warm reciprocation.

But Ash gave him a passive up and down and kept his hands firmly in his pockets. He wasn't about to voluntarily let his hand be enclosed by a set of thick, sweaty fingers.

He knew from experience that once these men got a touch they often didn't want to let go.

Max furrowed his brows and began lowering his hand with a questioning expression before Eiji sidestepped closer to Ash and started rambling in that loud voice of his that overrode all of Ash's thoughts.

"You know, Mr. Glenreed has really helped me with my English since coming here! He also teaches my journalism elective and it's super fun because he has so many interesting stories, especially since he also has friends in the police! Right, Mr. Glenreed?"

His eyes flickered to Ash briefly with rather intense severity, before turning back to the older man with a smile.

The immensely inorganic nature of Eiji's segue in the conversation left Ash reeling. Either Eiji had some strange idolisation of the police force, or he was being extremely unsubtle. Was this his way of trying to help?

Ash narrowed his eyes at Eiji but the teacher himself seemed preoccupied with the praise. 

"Aw shucks, Eiji!" Glenreed clapped a hand to the back of his head, "Well I will say that my life has been a journey. It's not all fun and games though! Did I tell you about that time that I went to prison for punching a cop?"

He crossed his arms haughtily and seemed so proud of himself that Ash couldn't stop his internal eye roll from manifesting physically, and the loud snort that forced its way out of his nostrils.

"Thank you for your service." He drawled sardonically.

"Hey!" The older man harrumphed, huffing out of his nose in mock offense. "I may not look it, but I'll have you know that I actually served in Iraq."

Ash couldn't help but flinch. Biting his lip did nothing to stop the bitterness from flowing out.

"Oh yeah? And what good did that do you? Didn't do shit for my dead brother."

Eiji whipped his head around in shock, Ash looked at the ground.

An uncomfortable silence rolled off in waves with Ash at its epicentre. Glenreed looked at him searchingly with what seemed to be pity. 

Ash hated that look.

The older man opened his mouth to stutter out some kind of platitude before he was interrupted by someone yelling loudly in the background.

"Max! Shunichi!" A tall, blonde woman stamped over with a child in tow.

"Jessica!" Ibe turned, relief dripping from his voice as his rushed to return the woman's greeting hug.

“Hi Eiji!” The woman, apparently named Jessica, exclaimed warmly as she let go of Ibe. Her eyes flicked over to Ash briefly but she made no comment. “I’ll be stealing your guardian now! Are you sure you don’t want to come over for some tea? You know you’re always welcome at our place!”

Eiji smiled brightly at her offer, seemingly poised to accept, but instead he shuffled closer to Ash and said: “Thank you, Ms. Randy! But I’m going to walk my friend Ash home now, so please enjoy yourselves!”

Ash gaped at the Japanese boy, he definitely hadn’t heard about this. He turned to glare at him but Eiji was too preoccupied waving his teachers goodbye.

“Hey kid…” Ash whipped his head around to see Glenreed still standing in front of him, sheepishly scratching at the back of his neck. “I shouldn’t have been so...shouldn’t have spoken so lightly about... it all, my best friend actually went missing in action and—”

The tall man had shrunk by almost a head with his back hunched over humbly, Ash shifted awkwardly in his high-tops and kneaded at the grass under his feet. 

“Just letting you know… my wife— Jessica— she’s actually the school counsellor...and well, if you ever need any help or, or just someone to talk to—” 

Before Ash could cross his arms, back away, gag and scrunch his face in disdain, the older man gently slipped a piece of notepad paper between his fingers, expression on his face teetering on the borderline of understanding and constipation.

“Max! Let’s go already!” The wife in question yelled out from a couple metres away. Glenreed scampered over to her, giving Ash one last apologetic look.

The adults walked off into the carpark and Ash was left staring at the note his hands.

Max. Glenreed. Max Glenreed. 

In seeing that name on paper, something heartachingly familiar clamped down on his nervous system, the phone number between his fingers crumpling under the pressure.

Griff…

His brother’s cursive was branded into his mind, Ash could still see it searing hot behind his eyelids. The way his v’s would frenetically curve into u’s; the way the dots on his i's always missed their mark. Most of all, the way his best friend’s name was always written with utmost care. Ash couldn’t mistake it for any other in the world.

Ash held a firm distaste for coincidence; when life in all its cruelty tossed him a mangled bone, he could only stop and stare, he never knew when fortune could turn into poison. He tucked the note in his pocket, for another day.

“Ash,” Eiji was tugging on his sleeve, “Let’s go! You shouldn’t stay out too long, right?”

Ash swiped his arm away hastily, “You are not walking me home.” He seethed before briskly stalking off in the other direction.

Despite having just participated in a track meet, Eiji’s legs did not fail him with speed. He was back at Ash’s side within seconds.

“It’s only the polite thing to do!” He exclaimed, hurriedly adjusting the strap of the gym bag on his shoulder as he matched Ash’s pace, “Besides, I wanted to thank you for coming today!”

They turned the corner from the carpark into an alley, “No need.” Ash said through his teeth. ‘ I don’t even know why I came anyway.’ He barely managed to stop himself from saying.

A chain-link fence punctuated the end of the alleyway, Ash grabbed onto it without hesitation and hoisted himself over, hoping he would lose the persistent Japanese boy in the process. He looked down to see Eiji following suit.

What the fuck.

Ash’s shock had him lingering at the top of the fence for a second too long, and Eiji got the jump on him when they both landed.

“Ash!” He grabbed both of Ash’s hands and cornered him against the wall, panting as he tried to speak.

“I just wanted you to know,” The older boy looked down at their intertwined hands, “That...well, you don’t know how much this means to me! I didn’t want to pressure you to come, but actually, this was the last meet for the season and…and I think of you as my friend, and— ”

He looked up to meet Ash’s twitching gaze, “I really wanted to jump for you.”

Ash felt heat rising up his neck and struggled to look away from the glitter in Eiji’s eyes. What the fuck what the fuck— 

Eiji was too much, far too much.

Ash yanked his hands out of Eiji’s grasp, rubbing his thumb over the backs of his fingers as if burnt. He forced his eyes shut and began walking again, albeit slower. Something was broiling in his ribcage.

He couldn’t hear Eiji’s footsteps following. He paused.


"You've been saying that a lot but...do you seriously mean that?"

Why was his voice wavering? Why were his fists clenched?

Eiji shuffled closer from behind him.

"Mean what?" 

Ash groaned in frustration. He didn’t want to repeat himself. Before he could cough out a ‘nevermind’, Eiji sauntered to his side and flashed him a mischievous smile.

“You know what? It does not matter, I meant all of it!” He grinned, checking Ash with his shoulder. "I hope that one day you can think of me as a friend too!"

Ash grunted in response. Though it frightened him to realise how easily he could picture it happening.

"Don't you have a little posse to hang with at school? Maybe a few groupies for Mr. Fly-Boy?"

Eiji let out a non-committal hum and stared straight ahead.

"Who knows." Was all he said.

Somewhere along the line Ash had given up trying to make Eiji go away and let him walk back to the mansion in peace. The pace they settled into was far too slow for comfort, but something about the way Eiji kicked the little rocks on the pavement and swung his arms around wildly was strangely calming.

"I know you don't have a phone, but if you ever want to call Mr. Glenreed, you can borrow mine." He said all of a sudden, once they neared the narrow gap left between the garden fence and a cement wall.

Ash's knuckle brushed against the piece of paper burning a hole in his pocket.

"...Okay." He responded, voice low and crackly, before sliding into the skinny pathway towards Hell. He really didn't want to rely on Eiji, but discarding this coincidence of a lifetime also didn't seem to sit well with him.

"Ah...is this where you sneaked out today?" 

Ash turned to see Eiji shimmying alongside him.

"Why are you still here?!" He hissed.

"Well you didn't say 'goodbye' so it's not over!" Eiji whispered back, eyes blinking with sincerity. "Hey, isn't this kind of like 'The Secret Garden'!" He poked at the shrubbery surrounding the fence.

Ignoring Ash's concerns and tacking on his observations without a care in the world, Eiji was giving him a migraine.

Ash let out a sigh, "Have you even read that book?"

"Okay, looks like you got me, Mr. Smarty-pants!" He chuckled softly, children's vernacular flowing into his speech so naturally it left Ash almost winded. "Oh, but it is like a secret entrance! Does this mean I can come visit you anytime? We can have a sleepover!"

"No. Absolutely not. " Ash spluttered out, trying to force firmness into his voice without letting the horror he felt undercut it.

"Imagine how fun that would be, though!" Eiji nudged him playfully, 

"What are you?! An elementary schooler?" Ash couldn't help but heat up and smack him on the shoulder like a knee-jerk reaction. Eiji simply shook his head and laughed.

"Alright Ash, see you later." He lurched forward as if about to bring Ash into a hug, but upon realising that the narrow pathway left little to no room for his arms to spread, opted for a little wave.

Ash watched as he scurried off, and tried not to think about childish things; about what it would've been like if he'd actually met Eiji when they were young. Younger. Imagine how fun it would be, he had said. It wasn't hard to imagine, to dream about a different world where everything was slightly different and Eiji was undoubtedly, unquestionably his friend.

It was hard not to think about it all.

About sleepovers, and secret bases.

About treehouses and water fights.

About going to school and reading comic books in the park.

About throwing rocks at windows and sneaking out without his life being on the line.

As Ash slipped in between the bent metal bars, back into prison — his chest ached, harder than bruised ribs had ever felt.

 

***

 

Ash was lying flat on his back, feet hanging off the edge of the steps to the garden, when Dino arrived back at the mansion.

Ash could tell the weight of the old man's footfalls apart from the other inhabitants of the mansion. They way they thudded against hardwood floors, marble tiles, concrete terrace. Equally uneven, sloppy and terrifying.

Ash swallowed his fear and forced his foot to stop shaking, hastily propping himself up to meet Dino's hollow gaze.

He took one look at Ash and clicked his tongue in disgust. Ash's stomach lurched. Could he see the grass stains on his jeans? Or the lingering warmth in his cheeks? Could he sense freedom with that old, spotty nose, and would he seek to snuff it out immediately?

"How many times have I told you to stop wearing that foul jacket?"

Dino wore a look of pure revulsion, as if he wouldn't even deign to kick Ash with a polished dress shoe.

"Take it off and get it out of my sight before I throw you into the incinerator with it."

Ash scrambled to stand up and ducked his head in compliance.

"Yes, Papa."

Pulling the threadbare hoodie over his head as he dashed up to his room, heart hammering against his ribcage, utter disbelief filled his head.

It couldn't be this easy. It shouldn't be this easy.

The evening came and went, with Dino shutting the bedroom door as if it were enough to contain Ash, body, mind and soul; in his entirety. He thought that with the locking of a gate and handcuffs secured to the bedpost, everything of Ash's belonged to him.

Perhaps just a month ago, Ash, in his despair, would have agreed.

But today—

Today, the piece of paper scrunched tightly in that ugly hoodie of his, shoved in the back of a drawer, and the midday memory of Eiji soaring across the sky — they were all his and his alone.

 

***

 

In summer, the afternoon seemed to linger like a kiss goodbye. The sunlight staining the leaves with its warmth, and dappling the ground like little specks of stardust. Teetering on the precipice of the hour hand striking four— that was Ash's favourite time of the day.

A warm breeze would weave its way through his hair and settle between his collar bones, the sound of boots crunching on rounded pebbles would bring him out of his open-eyed reverie. He would look up through his eyelashes, and meet the blackberry-sweet gaze of the landscaper boy, holding up a reusable water bottle to his chapped lips as he took a well-earned break.

The dark-haired boy would join him on the step, passing him a candy, a paper crane, a flower petal, anything supremely inane yet somehow wonderful. He would tease and taunt, but he would pocket them anyway.

That's how Ash savoured every second of those late summer afternoons. 

The foundations of a traditional Japanese garden were starting to take shape in the backyard of the Corsican business mogul. Bamboo seedlings, the formation of a small creek, moss-capped stones and quaint wooden bridges. It was unlike anything Ash had seen before, perhaps only in history textbooks, or tacky travel pamphlets. Curiosity got the best of his pride, and Eiji was always happy to explain.

The sun-warmed steps were home to a population of two, aluminium water flask sitting forgotten on the side, Eiji would talk himself hoarse about the principles and philosophies that underlay the garden in front of them. Ash would bask in the late-day glory and simply listen as if it were a healing mantra — it felt like everything he’d ever wished for. He knew better than to hope for anything more.

“Many aspects of Japanese art are influenced by Zen Buddhism, in fact, our way of life has kind of absorbed Buddhist ideals to...uh, enhance? No that’s not the word...elevate! To elevate the mind. We take the idea of wabi-sabi — you remember, you called it ‘wasabi’ — and use it in many different art forms. Gardening is one of them!”

Eiji was squatting near an untouched patch of dirt one afternoon, Ash had sauntered over carefully from his usual spot after checking behind him for no signs of Dino. The black-haired boy was patting at a small mound, and began eagerly narrating once he heard Ash’s approach.

“‘Wabi’ is about looking into your heart and finding fulfillment even when life is lacking, sort of like, finding elegance in loneliness. ‘Sabi’ is like the beauty of experiencing deep and meaningful things from peace and tranquility. It acknowledges the fact that we have limited time on Earth, so we must appreciate the world for what it is, even when everything is fleeting. I think that is beautiful, because it means we can find light in the darkness, loveliness in what is considered ugly. When life comes to us in its most raw, and untainted form, we can learn to take it as it is. At least, that is how I like to think when I work in here. We can't exactly replicate a zen garden just like how it would be in Japan, but we can still think with the same principles in mind."

The breeze ran its fingers through Eiji's hair and doused the air with the smell of peppermint. It felt like a clandestine affair when Ash inhaled. He lowered himself to Eiji's level above the ground, and watched as he packed the dirt tightly with gentle fingers.

"I think that it is about belonging— the plants that are here are all planted because they thrive in this environment. We do not twist the garden to suit our tastes, we make something beautiful out of what is here."

He turned and smiled at Ash, expression full of passion and warmth and— oh god, Ash's heart was tender, touch it and it would bruise.

"If only you could make something beautiful out of me," Ash wished he could say.

He didn’t need fingers that could spin straw into gold, a magic touch that turned branches and stones into glittering wealth. Eiji’s calloused hands that nurtured life and beauty from soil and seeds seemed infinitely more wondrous—  infinitely more worth something.

He wondered if those gentle finger tips could turn his hideous, twisted soul into something more than just wretched, something more than what it already was.

Eiji suddenly stood up and reached his hands to the sky, as if soaking in the solar grandeur and channeling its energy. Transcendent in aura and reverent in form, Eiji stole Ash’s breath away before he could even claim it as his own.

"Who are we to defy potential? Who are we to cut the stem of the flower before it reaches full height? You know, plants are the most delicate yet resilient forms of life, and to force them to grow where they don't belong, to try and cultivate them to meet our own whims, it's hard and it often does not work. But sometimes by miracle, they pull through! To that I say, good for you! Grow tall my friend! Bloom where you are!"

He lowered himself back down to the ground with a satisfied sigh.

"Who are you talking to?" Ash found laughter escaping him.

"To the little sunflower seedling I'm planting right now," He grinned cheekily, holding up a gloved finger to his lips, “They won't see it coming."

Like bamboo shoots rising out of the concrete, Ash's heart split right open.

Fuck.

It was hard to stick to principles when his flaccid heart was being pumped full with helium; it was hard not to get his hopes up when emotion was bubbling out of every orifice, out of every pore in his skin.

Everything about Eiji was so fucking easy. 

But falling in love with him, definitely was not.

 

***

 

Time passes whether or not the pendulum swings in its glass case, counting the relentlessly marching seconds; whether or not the grandfather clock topples over and the turning cogs fall out of place. Time passes whether Ash closes his eyes, or whether he keeps them wide open. 

Ash understood that.

Ash kind of understood it all, with the way the garden was built. It wasn't built to last, it would weather away like the rest of them and that's what made it worth looking at. The deciduous shrubbery would change with the seasons, a shift in hue markedly indicating the inexorable passing of time. In contrast with the evergreen denial of Dino's garden of Ozymandias, it felt as if change were possible, as if he wasn't trapped in a stagnant well of suffering.

“You know, there was a time when only one family in Japan had full control over the arts. Only people from this family knew the techniques and could pass them down. It seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? After all, we artists are not the gods, we are simply middle men, messengers who can bring out the potential of what the Earth has gifted us. Just how a carpenter will use his ability to bring out the inner beauty of the wood, we want this garden to prosper, and bloom how it was always supposed to. There is no such distinction between refined and unrefined art, only art with soul, and art without.” Eiji had said. 

There were men on Earth who believed themselves to be Gods, to have the divine right to rule over the rest. But they were just as mortal, just as dirty, blood-soaked and ugly. Just as weak and powerless to the End that awaited them all. Eiji had told Ash that there were over a thousand gods in Japan, but men like Dino could never be one of them. That thought, at the very least, settled something within his heart.

The sound of the bamboo rocker arm hitting the stone behind it interspersed the peaceful silence. Water trickled through the modest stream, carrying glints of sunlight like little gemstones. Ash thought that he would miss the barren grounds of the decrepit side yard, but somehow he found that he didn't mind this.

Especially when he walked down the steps, onto the stone paths and turned to see Eiji smiling at him, ever so brightly.

"Ash look! We installed a new bench today!” The Japanese boy was crouched by the armrest of a rustic looking wooden bench that was not there yesterday. At Ash’s approach he dusted off and sat himself down on the seat before patting the space next to him.

“Come sit! I figured your back would hurt from always sitting on those hard steps.”

Ash forced down a snarky remark about how the steps were the last of his problems, when it came to things hurting his back. Instead, he took a seat. 

The bench wasn't particularly comfortable or anything, but the warmth of the sun had evenly dispersed itself over the wooden surface, and seemed to flow into his body through his fingertips.

Peppermint and sunlight washed over him, it felt like peace.

Until— 

"Hey, if I come in at night, will you sit outside with me?" In all his doe-eyed innocence, Eiji dropped a bombshell with an expectant tilt of the head.

Ash’s fingertips tensed involuntarily at the notion, nails scraping against the splintered surface of the bench. Him sneaking out was one thing, but Eiji sneaking in?

‘No, you can’t. You can’t, please don’t.’ He didn't say.

In fact, he didn’t say anything at all. But something in his stupid, traitorous face must have lifted or curved, or so much as twitched, because the smile Eiji broke into was most definitely one of confirmation, of conviction. 

He looked like nothing in the world could stop him, and perhaps Ash wanted to believe it true.

What in the world had Eiji done to him.

Chapter Text

It started off slowly and subtly, as all dangerous things do.

Eiji and Ibe would finish up their work for the day, the wine-stained sky signifying the turn of the early evening, the sun's fingertips ghosting the horizon. Eiji would wave his goodbyes, his free hand toting equipment they would haul back to the van. Ash felt almost bashful in returning the gesture, only lifting a finger or two in acknowledgement, when he knew that this wasn't really the farewell of the day, and that he would be seeing Eiji much sooner than Ibe or the security cameras were led to believe.

As the vehicle parked outside the gate sputtered to life and drove off into the distance, Ash shifted slightly across the bench he had draped himself over, closer towards the soft rustling in the hedge next to the hidden hole.

A tuft of unruly black hair, little twigs and leaves comically caught in its curls, forced its way through the hedge. Ash whipped his head around behind him, warily scanning the porch for any sign of Dino, who he knew to be in a meeting, or any of the servants.

Safe , for now.

He turned his attention back to the older boy, whose head was now fully visible, radiant smile and all.

"Hi." He was grinning wildly, as if dizzy with excitement.

"Hi." Ash replied, dumbly. 

He offered his hand to the dark-haired boy as he struggled to wriggle his ankles out of the hedge. Eiji took it gratefully with that calloused grip of his, using his other hand to dust off the grass and dirt that had clung to his knees.

He seemed to have ditched the top part of his gardening robe — apparently called a samue — and was now sporting a simple white t-shirt with those same baggy, navy pants.

Flicking the last pesky twig off his shoulder, Eiji turned his attention back to Ash, lips inexplicably folding upwards as if he were trying to suppress a smile, obviously to no avail.

"Fancy seeing you here!" 

Ash rolled his eyes and tried to discreetly wipe the sweat off his palm that had just gripped Eiji's. Why was he letting this happen?

"Oh yeah!" Eiji seemed to suddenly remember the bulky messenger bag that was hanging off his shoulder unaddressed, "I brought my camera!"

"Why? You gonna take promo pics of the garden before it's even done?"

"No! I just have all my memories stored here, I'd like to share them with you, maybe make some new ones with you too." He lowered himself to the bench and tugged Ash down with him too.

Ah. Eiji was the sentimental type after all.

Ash relented to the pull on his sleeve and dropped down next to Eiji, leaning over just slightly, but not too close, to get a good view of the little screen on Eiji's DSLR.

It was kind of surreal, like looking through a three-inch window into another world; Eiji's hometown, the life he had before America. It was funny how in the span of just a little over a month, Ash felt like he knew Eiji better than anyone else he knew, and yet he still longed to know more.

Eiji tapped at the circular navigation button to the side, flicking through vibrant compositions and subdued landscapes. He stopped on an image of a young girl, short, black hair tied into tiny pigtails that curled under her ears, bushy eyebrows and big eyes. The resemblance was uncanny.

"This is my sister, she's in America right now too, living with me and Ibe-san."

"What's her name?" Ash asked, squinting at the picture.

"Her name is Misaki. She is so annoying! Still in middle school, so maybe even as annoying as you!" He said, elbowing Ash in the side. Ash snickered at the sentiment, "But she's aiming for...uh...you know that League, for smart people? The one with schools that everyone from Gossip Girl goes to?"

What the fuck is Gossip Girl? "Uh...you mean Ivy League?"

"Yeah that! I think she can do it, she studies very hard." He huffed. Despite the outward disdain, Eiji still appeared to be proud of his little sister. That’s what family was meant to be like, Ash supposed. Unconditional and unwavering.

The unrestrained part of Ash’s brain wandered into memories he had tried hard to suppress. He found himself wondering if Griff would be proud of him now, if he were doing well in school— that is, if they were in a different universe where Ash could actually go to school, and one where Griffin was actually fucking alive.

He swallowed the lump in his throat and waved away the trite hypotheticals, until the image of his brother’s benevolent smile that had superimposed itself over his thoughts quietly dissipated with his nostalgia.

Instead, he let out a whistle, "Colour me impressed. She obviously has the brains in the family."

Eiji tipped his head to the side, an airy laugh escaping his throat, and shoved Ash playfully on the shoulder.

"Hey! I am passing just fine, thank you very much!" He exclaimed in mock offence, no ire clouding his voice as he resumed pressing the button on his camera, rather shuffling closer to Ash as if there were any room left in between the two of them.

More pictures of Eiji's sister flicked across the screen, in the night time, illuminated by fireworks, or at the beach under the summer sun. Eiji was probably fonder of her than he'd even realised himself. He paused on an image of the girl in question wearing a colourful, traditional looking outfit, holding a candied apple up to her snaggle-toothed smile

Ash decided to take a jab.  

"She's cute."

Eiji instantly let out a dramatic gagging noise.

"No! She is not!" He turned to Ash, nostrils flaring, "She is ugly !"

"What do you mean? She looks just like you."

The words escaped from Ash's mouth before he had a chance to evaluate the implications. They were bad either way. He bit down on his lip and turned away from Eiji, mentally berating himself.

"Ah! Are you calling me ugly?!" Eiji shook him by the shoulder petulantly.

No. Obviously not. He thanked some vague deity for Eiji’s obtuseness in that moment.

"If you're gonna dish it, you gotta be able to cop it, big brother!" He threw the other boy a sidelong glance and a sly grin.

Eiji seemed to mull and grumble for a second, before something in his eyes lit up and suddenly he was pouncing on Ash without another second of hesitation.

Ash let out a yell of surprise as he was tackled flat onto the bench before the two of them tumbled onto the freshly cut grass, unable to keep their voices down as they cackled like madmen.

If someone had told Ash a year ago that he'd be wrestling with another boy in a backyard, laughing like crazy with bits of shrubbery getting stuck to their shirts, as opposed to tussling with some junkie in an alleyway for the five dollar note he'd dropped, he'd have scoffed and walked away.

He didn't even have time to be embarrassed. Or time to consider the consequences of laughing out loud, freely.

'Nobody really comes out here. It's fine. It's fine.'  

Ash was getting into the habit of making excuses for himself. It had been a long time since he last let himself indulge, let himself selfishly savour Eiji's warmth on his shoulder. Or perhaps it had been the first time.

The sun set all too soon.

Eiji lamented his imminent departure with a deep sigh and a reluctant wave of his hand. Ash did the same internally.

Long after the hedge had parted, and the crickets began to croon a soft lullaby, the weight of Eiji's head on Ash’s shoulder still lingered.

 

***

 

Like most things with Eiji, he didn't realise that this outlier of an occurrence would become almost routine.

On days where Ash was sure that the private tutors had long packed up their books, and that Dino was sat at a congressman's dining table, red wine swirling in his hand, as Eiji waved his goodbyes, Ash would respond with a subtle thumbs up and the other boy would beam in confirmation.

It seemed to go against the laws of nature, Eiji coming to visit him.

Just how masochistic, how thrill-seeking, was he to repeatedly risk being caught? And for someone like Ash, no less.

Ash couldn't understand it at all.

"Ash, say cheese!"

He looked up. Click.

The lens of Eiji's camera faced him instead of the screen, Ash stared bewildered at the boy behind the viewfinder.

"Why did you do that?" He spluttered, unsure of whether to cover his face with his hands, or wrestle the camera out of Eiji’s grip.

"It is a very nice day today, this was a memory I wanted to keep," Eiji shrugged, simply; easily, "And I just think you are beautiful."

Over the last year, Ash had heard plenty of compliments, usually from various old men as they helped themselves to him like a three-course meal. But it was something about the way Eiji had said it — and the fact that it was Eiji who had said it —  that made something warm swell inside of him. Something akin to pride, something akin to happiness. He wondered if this was how teenage girls felt when they finally received the compliment they were fishing for, shyly covering their faces as a rosy blush spread across their cheeks.

Eiji had said 'I think' , it made Ash's heart flush to know that Eiji thought of him at all, but Eiji hadn’t framed it as if it were a fact of life, it was simply Eiji’s opinion and that meant the world to Ash. It made something about Ash's existence seem all the more valuable, like his face was worth taking up Eiji's camera's storage space with, like he was in the same league as the other memories captured by his 35mm lenses.

Eiji was always giving him trinkets to add to his collection, Ash liked to think that parts of him, too, were being cut and pasted in the colorful collage of Eiji's life.

Faceless people passed him by in the streets, nameless figures that curled up in alleyways, slept above him in bunk beds. They were all achromatic and faded in the foggy expanse of Ash's memory, but they had been real and alive, and Ash was slowly realising that blood pumped from his chest and air filled his lungs, that he too was in fact living and breathing. A human, not a doll, and alive in both his own memory and someone else's. Vivid and vibrant like the people in Eiji's photos, and perhaps, warm-blooded like Eiji himself.

Though he soon realised that he couldn't hold a candle to the captivating force that Eiji held effortlessly. 

As Eiji scrolled further into his gallery, fingers pressing at the navigation button perhaps a little too deftly, the picture on display flickered all too fast from a quiet landscape photo to an image that washed Ash over with nostalgia-like recognition.

Eiji, body curved over a horizontal bar, flying, soaring.

The other boy let out a garbled, embarrassed noise, hastily flicking backwards in the gallery. 

"Ah— Ibe-san must have taken that photo ah...let's ignore that—"

As if Ash would let him, not when Eiji's cheeks were coloured with that rosy hue, not when his ears glowed incriminatingly red.

It felt like something akin to vengeance.

"Nuh-uh!" Ash drawled tauntingly, overlapping Eiji's hand with his own, ignoring the static electricity that sparked at their touch and the warmth Eiji's thumb had left on the camera. "We can't just let that go now, can we?"

Eiji tried to shoulder him off in between his laughter filled objections, but Ash clicked away at the camera, his chest all but resting on Eiji's back, his chin hovering over the other boy's shoulder.

"Bingo." The display finally settled on the image he only had a split second to preview beforehand.

It left him almost as breathless as the real thing. He could hear the shackles of gravity falling apart, a satisfying clang that embodied freedom, he could see it all in Eiji's face.

"You were right, Ibe really is a good photographer." He chuckled lowly, leaning away and releasing Eiji's camera from his grasp, feeling conflicted over the instant loss of warmth from his chest. 

He looked up at the endless sky and wondered what it would be like to feel the wind in his hair, to see ground so far away, so insignificant beneath him

Words rose out of him, swelling like a flock of birds taking off into the azure.

"I envy you, you can fly."

He couldn't even curse at the genuinity that leaked into his voice. But when he turned back to face the other boy, there was something in his smile that was quietly sombre.

"Do you mind if I tell you a secret?"

His voice was gentle yet sullen in its cadence, Ash could only nod with caution. Some of the sprite-like playfulness returned to the other boy's eyes, if only for a split second. He leaned his head backwards to rest on the back of the bench.

"Sometimes, I find that I do not even know what I'm vaulting for. It used to be so easy, when I was in the air, my mind would go blank, a feeling of pure peace. Almost like satori, like a...like a momentary Nirvana. I cannot achieve enlightenment, but at the top of my jump, I always felt this...clarity. It was kind of addictive, and it seems like I have been chasing that high."

He paused to fiddle with the hem of his t-shirt, he glanced at Ash briefly, as if to check if he was still listening. When he saw that Ash's gaze had not left his face, he flushed and continued.

"But after that last track meet a few weeks ago, where I broke my personal best, I've been reminded of what I came here for. You see, my parents sent me and my sister here to get better opportunities, to reach our full potential here in the land of the free. They do not want us to be trapped, working in canned food factories like my mother, or stressed and sick like my father. At first, America did feel like freedom, away from the countryside where everything is the same, whether it be the city or the suburbs, it feels like a jungle that I can explore and find myself in. But somehow I think the pressure is catching up to me. Call me weak if you want, but these days, when I think of home, I don't think about my childhood friends, or the beach where I collected shells with my sister, or the shrines where I went for hatsumode . I can only think about personal bests, and about what failure means."

He inhaled deeply and blinked at the clouds that floated past, as if searching for something, for an answer, to no avail.

"Now when I jump, my head is never clear, it's so...so full, like my brain is filled with rocks. When I run, they are rattling around in my skull. It is getting too loud and it is weighing me down. When I am in the air, I feel like I am being dragged to the ground, I no longer feel at peace, and to be honest I...I don't know if I can be the boy in that photo any more."

His lower lip wobbled slightly as he exhaled. Ash shifted in his seat and the black-haired boy's eyes widened suddenly, biting down on his lip and he turned to face Ash.

"Ah— sorry I talked too much, didn't I? Sorry Ash, I—" 

"You Japanese apologise too much, you know that?" He sighed, cutting Eiji off. He mulled over his response for a moment, before turning to face the clouds once more.

"You know...that track meet I came to watch. I didn't even realise that you'd broken some record, or your personal best or whatever. What I do know though, is that there was just one specific moment that made me think 'Wow, I'm glad I came today', that was when I saw you jump. That image was stuck in my head for the whole day, maybe it still is now. Even if you had touched the bar, or fallen on it, I don't think it would've mattered. Even now, if your pole snaps or if you don't break some fancy world record, I still have that memory, that part of you will still exist, and you'd still be you."

He felt Eiji's gaze, hot on the side of his face. He forced himself to turn and meet it.

Eiji's jaw was slack from shock, eyes glassy and round, mouth hanging wide open. Ash bristled slightly, what was so shocking?! But Eiji suddenly bit down on the corner of his bottom lip, the edges of his eyes scrunching up as if to stop tears from brimming in his eyes.

"Thank you, Ash. Thank you for seeing me."

He brought his hands to his chest, as if unsure of what to do with them.

"Can I hug you?"

The glistening in his eyes was so sincere, Ash couldn't help the way his heart ached at the sight of it. He could only nod in response.

The way Eiji's face lit up was worth a thousand heartaches, and brighter than a thousand suns. He gently slotted his arms around Ash's back, and buried his face into his shoulder.

Peppermint and menthol. Eiji's presence was cool and soothing like the summer breeze. Ash's eyes prickled at the corners, stinging from the smell of mint in Eiji's hair.

Or at least, that was the excuse he chose to believe that one clear-skied afternoon.

 

***

 

The sound of cutlery clinking on porcelain plates, wine glasses dully thudding against the table cloth. Back perfectly straight and hair combed back, Ash sat stiffly at the dining table across from Dino. The food tasted bland in his mouth and felt heavy in his stomach, the atmosphere was always palpably tense before Dino opened his mouth to speak. It weighed Ash’s lungs down like a thick smog in the air, still, he would take this excruciating silence over Dino's asinine conversations anyday. 

And yet, the old man never failed to open his goddamn mouth.

"I see you've taken a liking to the new garden?"

Ash tried not to let his hands freeze in place as his blood ran cold, tried not to let his fingers tremble traitorously as he placed his cutlery down, picking up the napkin off his lap to wipe superfluously at his mouth.

“Not particularly.” He steadied his voice, attempting to abate the alarm bells ringing incessantly in his head. He doesn’t know. There’s no way he could know. Calm down, calm the fuck down. 

“It's always been my reading spot, the only thing that’s really keeping me out there is force of habit.” He airily breathed out lies through his teeth, picking up the wine glass in his hand, giving it a swirl and bringing it casually to his lips.

“Is that so?” Golzine let out a nauseatingly haughty chuckle, “Well I can’t fault you for taking an interest in literature, we can’t have you growing uncultured now, can we?”

He paused to take a sip of his own wine, and Ash tried to convince himself that the acrid taste in his throat was from the alcohol.

“Although, wouldn’t you prefer a nicer place to read? We can always renovate an empty study for you, kitten.” He cast Ash a sidelong glance through slitted eyes, voice rolling deep into a purr. 

Ash swallowed down the bile rising rapidly in his oesophagus. His fists clenched down tightly on his dress pants, feeling his nails dig into the skin above his knee. No. Fuck no.  

He didn’t want to spend any second longer in this god forsaken mansion than he had to. 

“That...it, uh...wouldn’t be right to hassle you, Papa.” Ash tried to weave meekness, subservience in his voice. Humiliation trickled down his spine like frozen water droplets, “It’s fine this way, I prefer reading in the sun anyway, and they installed a bench in the garden.”

Dino regarded him over the rim of his glass. Shadows pooled into the creases of his skin with a scrutinising tilt of the head. Held in inertia by his cold gaze, Ash found himself afraid to blink, as if a Lovecraftian monster would emerge from in between the wrinkles of the old man’s skin once he opened his eyes again. 

But Dino’s face stayed perfectly intact; no toothy, tentacled monster split apart his terse features; no gaping chasm formed from his open maw.

No, he simply placed the wine glass down and dabbed at his mouth wordlessly with the linen napkin. But the passive look he threw Ash was so deliberate, so knowing that a terrifying numbness spread from the top of Ash’s head down the back of his neck.

With that one silent look, Dino was giving him a warning. Tendrils of anxiety gripped at Ash’s vertebrae like crawling vines, and he suddenly wished that he were sitting at the table with a slimy, tentacled creature. He would feel less violated by its countless, filmy eyes than Dino’s two soulless pupils. The monsters in his pulpy horror stories were that much less terrifying, only because they were that much less real. 

Ash warily picked up his fork, poking at the unfinished lobster on his plate. He knew he was playing with fire. He was standing in a room drenched in gasoline, a lit match dangling from his fingertips.

He needed to get a grip.

 

***



And yet here he was, delaying the inevitable. 

Eiji was getting bold with his visits, and Ash was growing complacent in his indulgence. 

On days where he and Ibe came in to work, Eiji would stay behind unbeknownst to Ibe more often than not. Ash pretended that he was powerless to stop him

"Where is Mister Golzine these days? I haven't seen him for a while." Eiji asked, little spade in hand, quizzically peering over Ash's shoulder into the mansion behind him.

It was the early afternoon, Eiji was planting native foliage to decorate an empty strip of dirt. Ibe stood further back in the garden, arranging rounded stones in a winding pattern.

Ash swallowed.

“He’s actually been on a business trip for the last few days.”

It was true. Dino had flown overseas to Japan, with the intention of securing a deal with the pharmaceutical company. If successful in his wooing, the company bigwigs would be heading back to the mansion themselves, to take a look at the product of brown-nosing Ash was currently sitting in and perhaps sign a contract or two.

Eiji’s eyebrows shot up like the lightswitch in his head had been flicked on, and Ash regretted telling him almost instantly.

Eiji was the type to wear his heart on his sleeve, the type where you could take one look at his face and see which direction the cogs in his brain turned. Ash knew from a look that he was up to no good, he could smell the boy's scheming in the air, and he would turn a blind eye.

"When is he coming back?" He peered at Ash, an excited grin growing on his face.

"In a few days time…" Ash replied warily.

"Then I have a plan! One night, I will tell Ibe-san that I am staying late at a friend's house, and I will come here with a blanket, and we can watch the stars!"

Eiji clasped his hands together delighted, beaming with that unfounded confidence of his, he made the flimsiest of ideas sound concrete, as if carved into stone and unweathered by the wind and the waves.

"I don't get it…" Ash could only whisper. Eiji cocked his head at him questioningly as he joined Ash on the bench. "I just don't get it, why do you keep coming here?"

"You are asking that now? After we...we have ‘hung out’ so many times?” Eiji didn’t look mad or disappointed in any capacity, his face only slightly crinkled in concern, although Ash wasn’t sure if that was directed towards Ash’s question, or if it was really about the correctness of his own English usage, “I just want to spend time with you, is that so wrong?"

Yes. "That's not what I mean…it's just— surely you have actual friends, y'know at school and whatever, or hoards of fans who will follow your every whim." He tried not to let the shame and insecurity leak into his voice, though the truth of it all was far too obvious. It defied all logic for someone like Eiji to devote so much time and energy into some caged and abused animal, into someone like Ash. Ash was filthy and Eiji had no business in dirtying his hands, he had a normal life, a real one.

“That’s not true, it really isn’t.” Eiji’s voice was soft and gentle, he didn’t sound humble or ashamed, Ash was a boy plagued by paranoia, yet something within him could always trust Eiji to be genuine. He took Ash’s hand as if comforting him, Ash resisted the instinct to pull away, he felt like a child whining, performing his drama for attention.

“I can’t seem to imagine that.” He said almost perfunctorily, his voice came out hoarse, as if his vocal chords sought to expose him for all his weakness and fragility.

“Well, I always try to make friends, but no one really...really reciprocates? Is that the word?” He ran a thumb over Ash’s knuckles as if to smooth out any tension, when really it was Eiji who now wore the strained expression, “I am sort of a...a stranger to everyone, like when I reach out they sort of nod politely and back away. I always feel this distance between me and everyone else, and I guess it can't be helped, I am a foreigner, after all. It’s different with you though, I think you are the first to reach back.”

‘Because you're the only one who's held out your hand to me’ He didn’t say. 

“But you’re so...so…” He tried to start instead. It was hard to find the words to describe Eiji, nobody was perfect, Eiji was no exception. But there was something about the way he toted the sincerity that came with imperfection like a badge of honour. Crooked teeth, unsymmetrically dimpled cheeks, bushy eyebrows, untamed hair. The unadulterated image of youth; of being human. 

There was no way for him to express Eiji’s lambent and all-encompassing appeal in words, so he gave up trying to speak, instead he let the warmth of Eiji’s hand seep through his palm, let his electricity conduct all throughout Ash, as if melding together to become one hand, one arm.

Eiji squeezed tightly.

“You are important to me Ash. I wonder when you will believe me.”

He wanted to believe in it so badly, that the fantasy Eiji projected was anything close to a world that Ash could live in. But Ash had been taught differently, he wasn’t raised with fairytales, it was the grim and dark reality that knocked him out cold every night.

"Whenever you leave, it's almost as if you never existed.” His voice cracked with the raw confession, unable to rise above a whisper, “When I'm all alone, I can't help but feel like you're a figment of my imagination, like I conjured you up to keep myself company in the late afternoons and that once you duck out of that hedge you disappear altogether."

Ash couldn't trust people not to leave. Everyone who should have been permanent in his life had been temporary. People who should not have been in his life overstayed their welcome.

His almost infantile sense of object permanence screamed that Eiji was the same, that one day the parting in the hedge would close and would never open again.

Eiji opened his mouth as if to say something, before promptly closing it and pulling a knife out of his pocket.

“What the fuck?!” Ash squawked, trying to suppress the shock in his voice to no avail. Eiji held up a finger to Ash’s lips and let out a boyish chuckle.

“Shh. Don’t want Ibe-san to notice.” He flicked open the pocket knife rather clumsily, calming Ash’s anxiety by no means whatsoever, and leaned across Ash to inspect the armrest of the bench.

He rolled onto his back over Ash's lap, eyes facing the underside of the wooden slab, picking away any splinters and smoothing it out with a gloved hand. Satisfied, he raised the knife to the plank and scraped away at it haphazardly, catching the falling wood chips before they landed on his face.

Once he was finished, he sat up briskly, a firm weight on Ash's thighs, and grinned at him sunnily. He leaped up and rounded the bench to the other side of the armrest, patting it gently as if urging Ash to admire his handiwork.

Ash turned his head and peered at it curiously. He sucked in sharply as realised what it was.

A + E , carved in scraggly, unkempt block letters. Ash's heart was a supernova, he could see the linings of his chest bursting into flames, he was alight.

Eiji ran his fingers across the grooves one more time.

"Proof." He smiled, a private one just for Ash, "That I was here. That we were here."

 

***



When Eiji ducked out for the night, he left a piece of heartwarming vandalism on the outdoor furniture, and the culprit knife in Ash’s hand, as well as the promise to be back another night with a blanket big enough for the two of them.

With Dino away, Ash could loiter in the garden as he pleased. The back gate was fitted with an instantaneous security alarm, set to go off if forced opened from the inside or outside by an unauthorised entity. It was more symbolic than it was a threat, to Ash. It did not truly prevent him from leaving the mansion, nor did it stop things or people he wanted to see from entering, but it was the only true exit point from the garden, and it was a reminder that all ventures beyond the mansion’s walls were fleeting as they were rebellious.

‘It's okay, I don't have anywhere else to go’ was a miserable thing to admit, but it was a truth Ash had to swallow. He refused to call this mansion home, but it was just as lonesome to realise that there was nowhere outside that fit the bill either.

The cool night air blew over him, tickling his skin. He leant his head back on the bench, looking up into the cosmos, thinking that perhaps if he stared long enough, he could pretend that he was endless, like the darkening sky.

If he left his eyes open long enough, he could feel himself expanding, vast and wide like the universe itself. And so he would grow, bigger and brighter, larger than life, greater than anything that held him down. He would be everything, everything.

And nothing at all.

He blinked.

The feeling within him dissipated with the breath from his lungs, imagination floating away like dandelion tassels, waiting to sprout somewhere else, sometime later. Suddenly the sky was far too boundless in its expanse; it had no edges to cling on to, so Ash closed his eyes and let his fingers drift to the armrest at his side. He let his fingertips run across the grooves in the splintered wood, memorising their shape and the way it pricked at his skin. 

He let himself remember Eiji, who had been here today, and would return another day. He let himself expect that, want it.

That grounded feeling the wooden markings gave him was the only thing that kept him company over the solitary summer nights.

A couple of days passed before Eiji found the right chance to enact his ‘sleepover’ plan. In Ash's head, it was nothing more than a weightless promise. There was nothing definite about 'I'll come back later', but Ash should have known by now, this was Eiji they were talking about.

The only warning given was an ebullient thumbs up, and soon enough as the night fell, the hedge jerked and shook as if alive.

Ash's breath caught like fishnets on a hook.

Eiji’s head peeked through the hidden hole in the hedge, face illuminated by the soft glow of moonlight on a warm summer’s evening. It was an image beyond fantasy, beyond romance.

It felt like a teen summer movie mixed with a fairy tale; Ash was simultaneously a love struck teenage girl, shyly opening the window as rocks were tossed against it, and the forlorn Rapunzel leaning out of her tower, trying to steal a glance at her Prince Charming. Eiji was neither a teenage heart throb nor a knight on his noble steed, yet Ash's chest thumped with excitement all the same.

Fleece blanket bundled in his arms, leaves tangled in his hair, Eiji was perhaps more surreal than any concept conjured by Ash's imagination. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, he held more resemblance to the Stygian night sky than any haloed, winged saviour, but nevertheless Ash felt a miracle bubbling under his skin.

The dark-haired boy looked up at Ash with a wordless question, ‘Is the coast clear?’ . Ash looked over his shoulder before nodding in confirmation, the mansion staff were used to his prolonged nightly stays in the garden at this point.

Soon enough the two boys, blanket draped over them and encompassed by warmth, leaned back to gaze reverently at the stars gleaming from above.

The very same sky he had found himself lost in every night, ever so dark and unending, seemed to be painted in different hues. How impossible was it, that he was seeing colour in the absence of light?

The human experience was variable; subject to interpretation, Ash found himself thinking. After all, the stars looked different with Eiji, in the same way that he could find faces in marble tiles, pictures as personal as they were ephemeral; the portrait of a gallant knight, or the Venus de Milo, fashioned out of grey and white shapes, and lose them all by the time he looked away.

“This doesn’t feel real.” A susurrated admittance. 

Eiji turned to face him, eyes wide and gentle like galaxies, “How so?” How can I make it feel real? Was the unuttered question.

“This feels like...everything I could have hoped for.” Ash couldn’t meet the other boy’s gaze, in fear that he would turn to see an empty seat, and realise that there was no one else beside him all along, “But I know I’m not supposed to hope for things. It never works out, that’s just how the world is.” 

“There is no such thing as a rule of the world, Ash. You are allowed to wish for things, and sometimes they will come true.” He felt Eiji shift under the blanket next to him as he spoke, “Start from something small, I’ll grant it just for you.”

Ash turned then, and Eiji was there. He was there. He was there.

“I wish you would hold my hand.” His voice drew the whisper out of him before he could truly consider the request. And perhaps it was the rawest, most unadulterated expression of his desire at that very moment, because he didn’t scramble to laugh it off, take it back or wince at his forwardness. He simply waited with bated breath, and hoped it would come true.

“Your wish is my command.” Was Eiji's answer, simple and sweet.

Ash couldn't even tease him about the cheesiness, call him a genie and rub at the air like a lamp. Not when Eiji's hand was now tightly grasping his, not when his wish had already been granted.

"It's a good thing you asked," Eiji smiled crookedly, "You looked like you were about to float away into space, I need to hold you down here, I'd miss you too much otherwise."

Ash felt like his heart was in his hand, squeezed so tight he was bloodless, breathless. Perhaps Eiji was right, he felt so light that he could float away at any moment, lose touch with gravity and become unanchored from the Earth.

But Eiji was smiling though, and that was more than enough reason not to get sucked into the cosmos.

And so they gazed, the stars being the main feature, if not a guise for looking at one another. A warm and comfortable silence enveloped the two of them, only punctuated by Eiji's realisation that Ash had ' so much hair in your face! How can you see anything ?' and consequently pulling out an array of bobby pins and hair clips with cartoon rabbit heads attached at the ends, painstakingly slotting them into Ash's loose strands.

It hurt that it felt so familiar. It hurt that every touch Eiji laid on him was gentle. It hurt that Eiji would whisper to him with sanguine intrigue, things like “Did you know that even stars die as well?”, and that Ash would indulge him every time.

“Bit morbid, Eiji.” Ash had snarked, tugging at the gaudy hair clips that had counterproductively begun to obscure his vision with their weight, and pocketing them once Eiji had said they were his to keep.

"Yes, but I still think it is kind of beautiful. How things so impossibly large and far away, big masses of energy that the poets have raved about all through history, in the end they are finite, just like us." The black-haired boy stretched up a hand to the sky, barely visible in the soft moonlight, "So that means there's something unique about the sky we are seeing tonight, it's a special sight just for us! Just for Ash and Eiji."

Just for them. A + E

In that moment, it felt like nothing else mattered. Not the technical correctness of Eiji's ponderings. Not the existential dread that loomed under the surface. Not the fact that this night would eventually come to an end.

Nothing but the warmth in Ash's hand, nothing but the starlight in Eiji's eyes.

Eiji was an escapist fantasy. 

When Eiji was around, Ash had the power to create and destroy universes, he could pluck stars from the sky, waltz with time, bathe in the clouds. 

When Eiji was around, Ash could find himself in ways he didn't know he existed in, he could be everyone he wanted to be, and no one at all.

When Eiji was around, Ash was the master of his own universe.

At least, that was how Ash felt in that momentary ecstasy. Because that is what love, and being loved, did to someone like Ash. It made him greedy, indulgent, susceptible.

In the end, the only thing that had been true that night, was Ash's naivety. 

The truth of it was, that Ash had been stupid to believe that bliss was anything but short lived, that hope had given him anything other than despair— that it would take anything less than a second for the silhouette of a bald monster with a shotgun to appear in the doorway, and for everything to come crashing down.

Chapter Text

The circumstances of Dino Golzine's business trip were as follows:

There were several days of meetings, negotiations, extravagant dinners in private rooms with security guards at the door and ulterior motives up every sleeve. Countless bottles of sake, expensive liquor and authentic champagne were popped and poured one after the other. 

Dino was after distribution rights, supply, exclusivity, signatures on the dotted line.

But perhaps that was not enough, not enough to impress, nor to convince of a productive, symbiotic relationship. Perhaps when they squinted and read the fine print, the terms and conditions, or looked behind Golzine's beady-eyed mask, they saw nothing lucrative about this opportunity.

In other words, the deal had been unsuccessful.

Thus, unwilling to dish out another day's worth of travel expenditure, Dino's business trip had come to a bitter and untimely end, and he had arrived back at the mansion late at night, tempestuous and seething. 

None of this, of course, was information that Ash was privy to.

So there he sat petrified, cold sweat running down his spine, fight or flight response screaming at his nervous system, as a demon in a cashmere robe, shotgun in hand, made his way down the terrace.

Ash's brain froze, searing like dry ice beneath his scalp. His throat dried like all the saliva had retreated from his mouth, unable to move, unable to speak.

A strangled gasp rang out from next to him and Ash suddenly remembered he wasn't alone, his senses sparked red hot as if hot-wired. This wasn't a punishment he could take onto just himself, something he could just close his eyes and brace himself for. A new, undiscovered terror drenched him in unrelenting waves, fear unlike anything he had ever felt before.

He jerked alive, scrambling to stand up as he pulled Eiji to his feet, frantically pushing the other boy towards the exit.

"Run, Eiji!"

Hot terror pulsed up through his neck, into his ears; burning needles stabbing at his scalp. His arms were shaking, his feet were paralysed. At the very least Eiji had to get out, Eiji had to make it, he was running already, Eiji would make it, Eiji had to— 

A gunshot rang out.

A sharp cry of pain.

Ash screamed. His hoarse cry erupted into the night, tearing through his throat and reverberating in his head.

Eiji, Eiji! EIJI!

What have I done what have I done what have I done— 

His ears were ringing, tinny sound waves sending his head into a buffeting frenzy. He could barely make out Eiji's limping figure in the dim moonlight ambience, so he prayed frantically, desperately that Golzine couldn't either.

Dino took a heavy step forward, triggering the porch light sensor and dowsing the terrace in theatrically over-saturated brightness. With the cruel spotlight dragging out long shadows on his face, the old bastard was an image of painted horror before Ash. He was cold in his stark whiteness, and terrifying in the unseeing blackness, dark caverns in the place of the eye sockets, but locked onto Ash nevertheless. The shotgun was raised in his hands; poised to fire another round over Ash's shoulder.

Ash wouldn't let him, he wouldn't, he wouldn't even if it was the last thing he did. Staggering from the bottom step, he launched himself up at Dino, hands outstretched to wrestle the gun out of his meaty hands, or at least skew his aim away from Eiji. The blinding luminosity of the porch light hit him all at once, scalding tears pricked at his eyes and clouded his vision.

Trying to see through the searing whiteness, he clumsily twisted the gun in his hands, yanking at the barrel until it was parallel to the porch handrail— but Dino would not yield. The old bastard pulled back with enough force to send Ash lurching forward. As soon as Ash stumbled, it was all fucking over. Before he could even raise his head, the gun’s midsection was thrust straight into Ash's throat, knocking the breath out of his windpipe and the back of his head against the porch railing with a resounding thwack .

Eiji— Ash managed to think, before everything went dark at once.

 

***

 

It was a nightmare. It was all a fucking nightmare and Ash couldn't wake up. In the span of one night, everything was flipped on its head like an upturned garbage can, spilling shit all over the street, leaving a mess in its wake.

Everything that mattered to Ash was gone.

Dino was furious, riding on the humiliation of an unsuccessful business negotiation, Ash's so-called betrayal had sent him over the edge. The old man had never shied away from violence and sadism, but anger was an emotion that loosened all reins; it had him diving into old habits head first, leaving Ash at his mercy.

"Remember that you belong to me."

Oh but how could he forget? How could he not be reminded at every waking moment of the gaping hole in his chest where his autonomy should have been.

Ash would spare himself from remembering the details of the aftermath of Dino's rage, but there was no escaping recollection when the bruises would not heal for weeks, nor did some scars ever really fade.

The door to Ash's room was now permanently locked, opened only to slide a meagre meal across the floor. He was no longer allowed to carouse throughout the mansion, nevermind the garden.

It was just as well. Ash couldn't bear to look at it anyway, even though it was visible from his second-floor bedroom window.

Without even seeing it, Ash could tell.

That the garden would no longer be characterised by its warm liveliness, its sense of incomplete beauty, the misshapen hole in the fence. Only the tall hedges cut prim and perfect; the iron pole standing menacingly straight; the carvings on the empty chair; Eiji's blood on the grass.

The deal was void and the garden no longer served any purpose, other than becoming a complete eyesore that evoked feelings of bitterness and disgust in Dino every time he looked at it. It was only a matter of time before it was demolished, reduced to rubble; coming full circle back to the barren plot of dirt that took up more space than it was worth to maintain.

Ash couldn’t bear the thought of his only safe haven, his only place of solace being returned to its original, empty state. It would be as if the garden had never existed, as if Eiji, and whatever lost emotion he had managed to stir up from the dregs of Ash’s heart when they were together, was completely null and void. As if none of it were real at all. 

The very thought of that chilled Ash to his core, the very idea of his life being an endless cycle of fleeting dreams, cut off abruptly and leaving him to awaken back into a nightmare. He would never wish for romanticism ever again, if it meant that he would never have to experience that cold, feverish sensation of sitting up and feeling an oasis being pried out of his sweaty, clutching hands ever again. 

Issai-kaiku. Now that was a Buddhist idiom that made sense, told it to him straight. All existence is suffering.

Life being described as having the quality of ‘dream-like transience’ sounded far too flowery and lyrical, like a fucking Emily Dickinson poem. If hope was the thing with feathers, then the yellow canary trapped behind his ribcage had long since sung its final tune and perished.

It was truly a nightmare.

 

The worst part of it all was that he had no idea if Eiji was okay or not. He had no way of finding out either and that complete and utter helplessness was so thick in his lungs that every waking moment felt like asphyxiation.

The nights were no better though.

The events of that midnight terror haunted his every thought, replaying eerily in his head like a broken record. Every frame of Eiji's petrified face, his twisted form dragging itself away, filled Ash's mind when he closed his eyes. Every blink contorted the scene with more horror, more gore, until it was no longer just Eiji's wild and pleading eyes, but his whole face dripping with blood, twisted into a sneer.

You did this to me.

He would wake up with tears in his eyes and pleas of forgiveness on his lips. Ash had no business in the realms of religion or spirituality, but when everything from his agency to his pride had been stripped bare, he could only clasp his hands together in a silent prayer.

I can take anything you give me, so please God, don't let him be hurt. Please, hurt me instead.

 

***

 

"Should we kill him?" Eiji had once said, so plainly; unembellished by passion or theatrics. He'd made it sound so simple, easy even. Ash had laughed it off at the time, but now as he lay there, claustrophobic in that sterile room, the fantasy, or the possibility of it, even, plagued him like a thick miasma that hovered around him, solid and suffocating.

The pocket knife was tucked away, along with the other trinkets Eiji had given him, discreetly under the mattress. Ash could feel the presence of it burning a hole into his back as he lay on the bed.

Ash had never killed anyone before, but it wasn't hard to imagine. Flicking the knife open, a swift slice to the jugular. No wasted movements. The ease of it frightened him.

The unsettling thoughts clung to him like leeches on his skin as he fell into fitful sleep.

Blood sprayed everywhere like a fire hydrant knocked loose, it was red, it was all so fucking red. Ash felt the cold steel of a handgun, its weight in his hands. Its barrel was trained on the monstrous figure in front of him. He pulled the trigger. The gun barely vibrated, but the bullets ripped through Dino's body with a grotesque crack, tossing his crumpled form left and right with the impact of each shot.

 A beat of complete, dead silence. 

Then the old man's face lurched forward, twisting into a grotesquely contorted mass, like a Chinese dragon head, simultaneously gaunt and burgeoning. Ash clamped down on the trigger again and again. Bullet holes opened up like chasms in Dino's face, deep like abysses, endless like the night. But his eyes, stretched wide and bloodshot, were unblinking, fixed on Ash, consuming him whole. Ash was being swallowed alive. 

He screamed until his throat felt bloody and raw, but no sound came out, viscous gloop filled his oesophagus, choking him from the inside, filling every open crevice in his body. There was no escape, no— 

He shot up in cold sweat, still feeling the thick liquid in his lungs as he retched into the waste basket beside his bed. Nothing came out. He was empty, sucked dry.

He was left with nothing, but the overwhelmingly absolute fact that Dino Golzine was a demon that would chase him through hell and back.

From the window, the stars seemed to glower at him when he looked out at the sky. An inexplicable morose horror gnawed at his throat; something snarling and ruthless was devouring him from the inside. His face was hot with tears that wouldn’t spill, it burnt like acid in his eye sockets, like he would be nothing but bones in the morning. It was just as well. His chest cavity had been hollowed out anyway, he had been gutted and washed out long ago.

In the end, Ash was a coward. There was no one else he wanted to kill, murder in cold blood, more than Dino Golzine, and yet his hands trembled with unmistakable fear .

How was he so broken that he'd lost the innate drive to fight for his life? No— it wasn't just that. If he couldn't even do it for Eiji, couldn't kill the monster who hurt his only friend , it suddenly seemed like there was no force in the world that could shake the terror from his bones. Was he really that beyond salvation? Was he even allowed to miss Eiji?

The questions were all futile. There were no answers to be found in the whitewash, no truths hidden under the window sill.

With the doors locked and the windows bolted shut, the soulless walls felt emptier by the second. Solitude had etched its way into Ash’s bones, lonesomeness was ink in his skin. It was as if he was living in negative space, in the gaps of tangibility, in the difference between what is and what is-not. 

Ash knew what he had lost before it was even gone. In a sense, he had been waiting for this day from the beginning. Not that it made any difference. Just because he knew it would happen one day didn’t make it hurt any less.

Abuse feeds mistrust, but loneliness still fuels loneliness.

Ash had read once, that men only get one great, good true thing in their lives. Ash had been given a taste of it, and now he had to let it go.



***



It was almost a week before Ash was allowed to leave his room. What seemed like a benevolent gift from Dino, was really the conditional freedom of stepping outside his solitary confinement cell to dine with the old bastard and resume his private tutoring sessions. Outside of those two reasons, Ash was left staring at the blank wall of his personal hell for the remaining hours of the day.

The sliding door to the Japanese garden was left tauntingly open in his path from the bedroom to the study. It relieved him slightly to know that the garden was still intact, and that Dino was still too fixated on his restriction of Ash and scavenging for another supplier to look for the gap in the fence, or destroy the garden altogether, but the very sight of the now soulless plot wrenched at his heart.

He couldn't decide on whether to drink in the very image of it while could, to commit it to memory while it lasted, or to close his eyes while he walked past, in hopes of quelling the dull ache in the space behind his ribcage.

One fateful afternoon, though, one glimpse at the scene in the dining room left him wide-eyed and staring. It was a familiar face — Ibe, sat across from Golzine, facing the doorway with a pen in his hand and an anxious expression scrawled all over his face. 

The final tutor of the day had his hand on Ash’s back, pushing him on the path from the study, up the stairs that led to his bedroom. Ash craned his neck over the railing, trying to turn and catch Ibe’s eye-line as quickly and inconspicuously as possible.

As if spurred by Ash’s pure, frantic energy alone, Ibe lifted his head just slightly, meeting Ash’s sharp gaze for a split-second. Ash could map the way the recognition, confusion, panic flickered across Ibe’s face in that single glance, but he knew that his own eyes conveyed a single, unmistakable message that his own mind had not yet come to acknowledge.

I need to see Eiji.

The other man immediately dipped his back down before Golzine could notice his wandering gaze. The vice grip on Ash’s back guided him back to his room, pushed him in as a farewell, and locked the door.

I need to see Eiji .

Visceral; almost instinctual, the thought, the desire had dug its way to the surface after days upon days of unconscious burying and flattening. It clawed at Ash’s throat like fingernails on a locked door. Up until that very moment, he had associated the thought of seeing Eiji with shame, futility, helplessness.

But Ash had never been able to stop himself from thinking, never been able to quell the animalistic pulse of his heart, or arrest the neurotic seamstress that threaded and weaved frenetic, winding tapestries inside his mind.

His head, body and heart all moved out of accord, but a rare moment of unity sent thunder thrumming all throughout his nerves, inside his bones, as he stared at the hole in his mattress.

Ash had never been able to stop himself from making a plan. 

Ibe was most likely downstairs to terminate the contract with Dino, leaving the garden perpetually unfinished. In other words, this was Ash’s last chance.

He wasted no time in propping up the mattress with one arm and shoving his hand into the ragged hole he had ripped in the underside. His fingers stumbled over the miscellaneous trinkets Eiji had left him with, shiny rocks, paper cranes, lollipops; the cool, smooth handle of the pocket knife. His fingernails nicked on a finicky, metallic wire.

Bobby pins.

He cast his mind back to the hour hand of the wall clock in the hallway, it was around four when he had walked by. Approximately five minutes had passed since then. From what he remembered, Dino was scheduled to visit Kippard this afternoon, and potentially dine with him at night. Ash would have a few hours at most.

It had to be today.

He picked up one of the pins, wincing as he bent it out of shape. He apologised internally to the cartoon bunny as he yanked it off the end. Looks like Eiji's sister would never be getting her clips back in one piece. He repeated the process with another one and stuck the back of the pin into the lock in his door, bending it downwards and warping its shape. 

Ibe would be leaving soon, he had to hurry.

He stuck in the thin end of the other pin and jerked it up and down, his fingers uncannily steady, feeling for a click.

C'mon, c'mon, c'mon!

Surely there was no way the lock to a fucking bedroom would be more complicated that the other locks Ash had picked in the past, it hadn't been that long for him to get rusty.

He heard the sound of a car door slamming shut outside his window. He prayed that it was Dino and not Ibe.

In one last act of desperation, he wrenched the pick upwards, hard.

Click.

The final pin, freed.

Ash sucked in sharply at the success. He shoved the deformed clips into his back pocket before grabbing his tattered hoodie and tucking it under his arm. He cautiously turned the door handle, pushing it open painstakingly slowly so as to not let out a sound.

He peeked through the meagre gap, eyes darting back and forth across the hallway, before warily sticking his head out further to peer down the stairs.

The tutor was long gone, the staff were likely preparing meals and readying for Dino's departure. His escape path would be empty, for now.

Ash slinked out of the gap in the door, turning the handle as he slowly pulled it shut without making a noise. He kept his footsteps feather-light as he crept down the staircase, arching his back low to avoid being seen from over the railing. The dining room was now empty, he prayed that Ibe was still in his van.

He scampered across the wooden floors, through the open sliding door and into the garden. The fresh air hit him like the fizz of a carbonated drink. He had forgotten how good it tasted.

He took one step off the patio and froze.

His legs begged him to move but his eyes zeroed in on the scene in front of him. He had yet to see the garden properly in the daylight.

In spite of the golden-red hues of the afternoon sun, casting it's languor onto the shrubbery; the hand-picked vegetation, the garden that Ash had come to know and love was irrevocably dull in front of him.

It was all washed with monochrome, void of the vitality that Ibe and Eiji had painstakingly sewn into the fabric of its existence. All except one spot in the grass, stained dark, angry, rust-coloured.

He tried to swallow his guts before they spilled out onto the grass.

The guilt that had been momentarily abated by adrenaline suddenly shot up his throat like mercury in glass. The shadowy silhouette of Eiji's limping figure ghosted the scene; a phantom pain that lingered in the garden, following the trail of blood that coloured the grass.

Ash's fault. 

What was he trying to achieve? How many layers of delusion had he cycled through to believe that he truly deserved to see Eiji again. Because it had been Ash's selfishness that led to his injury, Ash's stupid fucking indulgence.

All Ash's fault.

His field of vision shook like an unsteady camera lens, head teetering dizzyingly as he eyes tracked the dark spots that dyed the bright green grass red. Until his nauseatingly unstable gaze landed on an unfamiliar growth. 

Yellow and radiant, it was the sunflower Eiji had planted.

The sunspot sunflower. The dwarf sunflower he had lovingly sketched out onto notepad paper. The flower that had been tucked into the soil as a cheeky little secret.

It was in full bloom.

The single vibrant flower stood out in stark contrast to the muted greens and browns of the rest of the garden. Growing tall and unwavering like a beautiful beacon, just like Eiji had wished, it had pulled through.

"Who are we to defy potential?"

The air Ash was already having trouble catching escaped from his lungs completely. Instead, its place in his chest was replaced with an incandescent warmth, glowing hot like a candle night light, illuminating the rest of the garden that had lost all its saturation.

That's right. Eiji had given him so much. Careless fun, momentary flight, a taste of freedom.

Eiji had given him colour.

And who was he to give nothing back? Who was he to not visit, to not even say goodbye?

He owed Eiji this much.

"Bloom where you are, they won't see it coming." Eiji's words filtered through his head like sunlight through the trees.

Even with his roots planted firmly in unfamiliar soil, he would still turn to face the sun.

That was just nature.

He ripped his feet from where they stood, tore apart the roots, the shackles that bound him to lifeless dirt, and hurtled towards the hole in the hedge.

As he knelt down to crawl through the gap, his shoulder scraped against a hard surface. He looked over to face a stone lantern that seemed to guard the hidden exit.

He remembered the way Eiji had lugged the heavy things around the garden, placing them in a nonsensical pattern; one up by the gate, another beside the bridge, another next to the wooden bench, and finally, one in front of the hedge. Ibe had scolded him for the lack of aesthetic consideration, but had not moved them from their positions. Ash had wondered if it was still considered satisfactory or if it was because the geezer didn't want to throw out his back.

Eiji had told him one time, as he affectionately prodded at the moss forming on the sloping roofs of the shrine-shaped stone structure, "This is oki-dourou , when it's light up, it will shine a path to your home."

Ash had squinted at him, "Then why'd you just chuck 'em all over the place?"

Eiji had tutted smugly, "Yes, yes, normally I would put them leading up back into the house. But that's not the path I want to light up for you, Ash."

That's not home .

The lanterns had yet to be lit, but as Ash peeked at the miniature temple, he imagined warm flickering light emanating through the little stone cut windows, and his heart was set ablaze.

The sound of Ibe's engine sputtering from the other side of the hedge knocked him out of his stupor.

It was now or never.

He took one last look at the garden. Perhaps one day this would all be a memory, of sunny smiles, trickling streams, carved wood; of summer heat, fleece blankets, bamboo shoots. Of sunspots, of night skies. 

But not Eiji. No, he wouldn't let Eiji become a faded photocopy of a photocopy, framed tenuously in the blurred expanse of his mind. Not just yet. He had so much more to say, so many apologies to make, so many smiles to drink in. The photo album of Ash's life was still far too thin, he selfishly wanted to fill it up with pictures, ones that were vibrant like the Izumo beaches, the summer night fireworks, glossy with crooked-tooth smiles and candied apples. 

He would start small though, he would only wish for one last photo.

He took in a deep breath and ducked out, swiftly sliding through the narrow gap between the wall on the other side and the fence until he rounded the corner and Ibe's van came into view. He crouched down low, sticking to the fence until he was wedged between it and the driver's seat door of the rickety vehicle.

He peered in through the window— Ibe had already turned the key in the ignition. Ash rapped his knuckles against the window as quietly but furiously as he could possibly manage.

The older man almost leaped right out of the driver's seat. Ash thanked his lucky stars that the hand brake was still in place, and that the jumpy man hadn't accidentally slammed the accelerator and crushed every single one of Ash's toes in the process.

Ibe, looking like he'd lost half a life, warily rolled down the window.

"Please, take me to where Eiji is." Ash blurted out pleadingly before the other man could even question him.

Ibe let out a sigh and aged ten years in the process. He glanced hastily at the rearview mirror, turning over his shoulder left and right with jittery paranoia before turning to face Ash and reply with a hushed whisper.

"Look, Mister Ash, right? I really am sorry about your situation but it's just too dangerous I— "

"I get it. I really do, no one knows the dangers more than I do but I promise, I won't let anything happen to him again. I don't care if this is the last time I ever see him, I just need to...I have to…" Desperation stole his eloquence, he could barely choke out his pleas as the overwhelming fear of Ibe’s rejection rose in his throat.

The other man seemed to waver, the pain in Ash’s chest reflected in the twist of his face. He cut Ash off from his spluttering imploration.

"I guess I owe it to Eiji…" He ran a hand over his face wearily, and unlocked the van door.

"Alright, get in."

Legs shaking and voice whispering words of gratitude, Ash pulled the hoodie over his head and bundled into the backseat.

The engine rumbled as Ibe hit the gas and sped off down the street, leaving the cold, imposing mansion as a faint silhouette on the horizon.