When Ash gets home, he hears Max and Jessica talking in the kitchen. They’re not quite arguing, but the quiet, rushed voices make Ash’s chest constrict anyway.
He carefully sneaks up to the other side of the kitchen wall, where he can hear them. But—god. Fuck. If he had ever eavesdropped on Dino, he would have ...
Well, Ash might not have survived it, honestly.
Dino probably wouldn’t intentionally kill his toy, but there were a few times where Ash really thought he wouldn’t make it.
A few times where he hoped he was right.
“He’ll be home soon,” Jessica says. Does she mean Ash or Griffin?
Probably Griffin. This isn’t Ash’s home. Not really.
“I’ve missed him,” Max says. Yeah. Griffin.
“I know you have, but remember that he’s here more for Ash, okay? Ash needs that time with his brother.”
“I know. And he’s here for a week; there will be plenty of time for all of us to spend time with him.”
“Do you think this will help Ash?”
Max breathes out a sigh. “I don’t know,” he admits. “I don’t know what will help him at all anymore. There has to be—something, right? But I feel like we’ve tried everything. Maybe Griff will know. He’s better at this shit. He’s always been the sensitive one between the three of us.”
Jessica laughs, and the tension in Ash’s chest eases up a bit.
“That’s for sure. I’m not even dating him and he writes me a poem for every holiday. What did you get me for my birthday? One of those Bath & Body Works sets?”
Max laughs now, and Ash smiles. He hears the sound of them kissing, and slips around the corner into the kitchen.
When Max and Jessica pull away from each other, Jessica spots Ash and startles a little.
“Ash! How long have you been here?”
Ash shakes his head. Doesn’t want to answer, but doesn’t want to lie to them either. Doesn’t really want to talk at all.
“That’s okay, kiddo,” Max says, smiling. Ash smiles back. “Griff’s gonna be here soon. You ready to see your big bro?”
Smiling wider, Ash nods. Max and Jessica exchange a fond glance. Ash checks the clock on the microwave. It’s almost 10, which means there’s about an hour until Griffin should arrive.
“You hungry, sweetie?” Jessica asks. “I was about to make a late night snack.”
Ash shakes his head. He can’t—eating between meals is bad. Every time Dino caught him flirting with the cooks to try to get a bit more food, Ash wouldn’t be allowed to eat for a week.
Alongside other punishments.
He tries to suppress a shudder.
Jessica eyes him carefully, but in the end she just says, “Let me know if you change your mind,” and turns back to the counter.
Ash slips back out into the living room and hovers by the front door.
Max heads out into the living room too, but sits on the couch and turns the TV on. Ash wrings his hands together, trying not to pace around the entrance. After a few minutes, Max turns to look at him over the back of the couch.
“You want to sit and watch something with me?” he asks. “You can pick.”
“N-no, I’m okay,” Ash replies. He doesn’t want to—he can’t control what Max is doing like that. He can’t be even more controlling, take even more from them than he already is.
It’s another 30 minutes of Ash standing by the door before Max confronts him again.
“Hey kid, you’re not normally out here this much. It’s nice to see you, but I just want to check in on how you’re doing.”
Ash’s breathing stops for a moment. He should have known he can’t be out here like this. He just ... Griff ...
“I want to—be here,” Ash explains. “As soon as Griffin gets home.”
Max smiles. “I understand. You’re welcome to sit on the couch with me or grab something from the kitchen or whatever you need. It’s your house, too.”
Ash just nods, and paces in front of the door. Should he give up and go to his room? Max can’t possibly be comfortable watching Netflix with a fucking murderer pacing back and forth behind him.
Despite his hesitation, Ash decides to stay in the living room. He ends up sitting on the floor, a few feet away from the door. He feels Max looking at him every now and then, but keeps his back turned.
And eventually, Griff comes home.
Ash leaps to his feet when he hears the car, before Griffin even starts up the walkway. Griffin opens the door without knocking or ringing the doorbell, despite not having been home for months.
“Griff!” Ash cries as soon as the door opens, barely holding back from throwing himself into Griffin’s arms. Griffin’s not using his wheelchair, but he still might not be able to support Ash’s weight. “You’re home; you’re—you’re here.”
Griffin laughs. He opens his arms, so Ash steps forward and cautiously hugs him. “I am, buddy. I’m here. How are you doing?”
Ash shakes his head against Griffin’s neck, slowly hugging him tighter and all but gasping for air. “I missed you,” he admits.
“Missed you too, bud.”
Griffin shuffles into the living room and closes the door behind him, never once telling Ash to step away from him or pushing him off, even though it must be difficult to move with Ash clinging to him.
Moments later, Michael barrels into the room. Ash shoots an apologetic look at Max and Jessica, finally stepping back from Griffin. He must have woken Michael up, being too loud at Griffin’s arrival. But Jessica smiles, and Max just shrugs.
“Papa!” Michael yells, hugging Griffin’s legs.
Ash winces. He hasn’t told Griff that Dino went by Papa, and he doesn’t plan to.
No one will notice Ash’s reaction anyway.
But after holding Michael tight for a second, Griffin lets him go and takes a step toward Ash.
“Hey,” he says quietly. “You okay? You seemed—off, there, for a second.”
Ash blinks in surprise. “Um, yeah. I’m fine.” He glances at Michael. “I’ll tell you later.”
Griffin looks over at Michael, too. “Actually, I think this little one should be in bed.” He pokes at Michael’s side, and the kid squeals with laughter.
“No! I don’t wanna, Papa!”
Ash takes a step away from Griff.
“Sorry, kiddo, but I think it’s for the best.” He looks over at Ash. “How about we put Michael back to bed, then I say hi to Max and Jess for a bit, and then you and I can spend some time together, Ash?”
Ash nods. That ... Time with Griffin doesn’t sound too bad. He really has missed him.
Ash retreats to his room, running ahead of Griffin and Michael. He waits anxiously on his bed, like he always—
It’s only about 20 minutes before Griffin comes into Ash’s room, in a wheelchair now. “Hey, bud,” he says as he enters. “How are you doing?”
Ash shakes his head. “Don’t you want more time with Max first?” he asks. “You haven’t seen him in so long.”
Griffin smiles. “I haven’t seen you in so long, either. And I’m here for a week. There’s plenty of time for me to see everyone.”
Max and Jessica said about the same, back in the kitchen. And ... they also said that Griffin is here for Ash.
Ash grimaces. He’s taking away from Max, by making Griffin spend time with him.
“What was with that reaction earlier, huh?” Griffin asks, positioning his chair in front of Ash.
Shaking his head, Ash says, “No, it—it’s not important. Sorry.”
“If something bothered you, it’s important. You can tell me, okay? I won’t ... there’s no judgement here, or anything like that. You know that, right?”
Ash nods, but stays silent. He grips his knees with his hands, digging his fingernails into the denim of his jeans and then releasing it, then repeating the motion.
“You don’t want to tell me? I won’t force you to.”
Hesitating, Ash bites at his lip. “It ... it’s just ...” He takes a breath: in, hold, out for longer. Like Dr. Meredith taught him. “Dino ... Golzine, I mean, he had me call him, uh—” Ash shakes his head again.
Griffin just tilts his head, waiting.
“I was supposed to call him Papa Dino,” Ash confesses. “So hearing Michael always call you Papa, it just—I mean—Sorry, I know he’s just a kid and it doesn’t really matter or anything—”
Griffin frowns. “It matters, bud. Again, if it bothers you, it matters. I can talk to Michael if you want?”
“N-no! I don’t want him to ... just for me ...” After all, it won’t be worth him going through all the effort to change for Ash when Ash is about to die anyway.
Shit, wait. He’s—fuck. He doesn’t even know anymore.
Griffin tilts his head back and forth for a moment. “Well, it’s up to you. But the option is there, if you want or need it.”
“Thanks,” Ash whispers.
It’s silent for a moment, but it’s not a bad thing. It feels okay, being in silence with Griff. Like it was when they would read separate books together when Ash was a kid.
After a while, though, Griffin speaks again.
“So Max told me a bit about Eiji. Sorry if that was out of line, but I had to ask, after what you told me. About him ... trying that.”
Attempting suicide. Yeah.
Ash tries the deep breathing trick again, and it works a little.
“What did he tell you?” Ash asks.
Griffin laughs. “Not a lot. That he’s probably the reason you asked me about being in love. That he came over almost every day for a while. That you really care about him, and that they’re hoping he can help you a little, in ways that we might not be able to.”
Ash nods slowly. “It’s not his responsibility, though. Or yours. To help me.”
“That’s true,” Griffin agrees, “but I think a lot of people want to help you. Whether you realize that or not.”
“Griffin, I—I really do think I love him.”
Griffin smiles. “I’m happy for you.”
“No, that—it’s not a good thing!”
“Love is always a good thing, isn’t it?”
But—no. Not the kind of love that Ash deserves. And not this kind of love, either, when Ash doesn’t deserve it. It’s bad, for him to request this caring that he never should feel.
“I wish I never met him,” Ash mumbles.
“Ash,” Griffin scolds. “I don’t think that’s true. You two help each other, don’t you?”
And that’s exactly the problem—that Eiji helps Ash. If not for Eiji, Ash would likely be dead by now. Like he should be. And Eiji ... Eiji would probably be better.
But Ash can’t say that. Can’t say that he’s better off dead. Can’t get hospitalized again, or have Griffin try to stop him. So instead, he says something else that’s true.
“I can’t—I mean, I’m not good enough for anyone. Least of all him.”
“You are good enough, Ash. Good enough for whatever you want to have. And if you want to be around Eiji, and Eiji wants to be around you, I don’t see why you can’t be.”
Ash laughs, a little bitter. “No. I’m honored to even breathe the air in the same atmosphere as him. And I ... it hurts, loving him.”
Griffin’s eyes flash. “He hurts you?”
“No,” Ash says quickly, shaking his head. “Not like ... that. Not like anything. He just ... it hurts in a different way. Because he ... doesn’t hurt me. That’s what hurts.”
Hesitating, Griffin taps a finger against his left handrim. “Does it hurt when I love you? And Max, Jess, and Michael?”
Ash nods curtly.
“I’m sorry, bud. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Ash breathes. “You’re doing your best.”
Griffin sighs. “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to help you.”
“It’s not your job to help me,” Ash says again. “You don’t have to.”
“I want to. I love you.”
“Don’t,” Ash says, voice hard and brittle and ready to snap. “I ... I hate love. I hate it!”
Griff moves even closer to Ash, right in front of him. “Come here, bud.”
“No!” Ash protests. “I’m not a kid anymore! I haven’t been since ...” He trails off. “You can’t just expect me to ...”
But Griffin just extends his arms, and after a moment, Ash lets his head fall forward onto Griff’s lap. He sobs softly, and Griffin wraps his arms around him, letting one hand stroke up and down Ash’s back.
“I hate love,” Ash repeats. “It hurts ... it hurts too much.”
“It won’t,” Griffin promises. “With time. Give it a chance, and it won’t. Not this kind of love. Not this.”
But it’ll always hurt Ash. Always, always. As long as he doesn’t deserve it, to be around these people, this love, it’ll hurt.