"Come alone next time. Got it?"

Eiji left the jail in something of a daze but with renewed purpose as well. Ash wanted him to track down someone named Shorter and to retrieve something from a Dr. Meredith. It was a horribly vague request but for some reason that didn't bother him. There were a lot of things about the situation that should be bothering him a whole lot more than they actually were.

"Everything all right, Ei-chan? It's okay if you want to talk about it. He shouldn't have thrust that on you so suddenly." Ibe rubbed the back of his head awkwardly. For a moment, Eiji wondered if he knew about the message but that was impossible. "I think it's just something Americans do? Maybe like the French?"

"Maybe," Eiji replied. He knew that wasn't the case at all. He also knew Ibe knew that and was likely trying to make him feel better about having his first kiss with someone who was both a man and a gang leader and, as if that weren't enough, it had been in jail of all places.

Eiji didn't have the heart to tell him he didn't mind all that much and he definitely couldn't tell him the kiss had been to pass along a secret message.

He absolutely couldn't tell him that he planned on helping Ash out with something that was almost certainly life threatening.

In the back of his mind he knew it was insane. He barely knew Ash. He shouldn't be getting any more involved in all the gang violence than he already had. He was just a photographer! No, a photographer's assistant, which made it all the worse. Eiji sighed. What had gotten into him lately?

Because he already knew he wouldn't do the sensible thing; he was going to help Ash.

First, Eiji decided to simply become familiar with Chinatown. He made a quick excuse to Ibe when they got to the hotel and went immediately. He really didn't know what the layout of it was like and, frankly, he was a little nervous. It was a bustling place with bright colors. If he hadn't been sent on such strange business he might have enjoyed being there. As it was his heart was beating a mile a minute and he was torn between the exhilaration of doing something so dangerous and an intense desire to return home.

Come alone next time.

He paused in his walk down the main street of Chinatown. That one sentence had been going through his mind for the entirety of the day. Why couldn't he stop thinking about it? It didn't mean anything! Ash was just passing along the message.

Surely there are other ways of slipping a pill to someone other than … that, Eiji considered. Not that Eiji was an expert on underground communications. No, he certainly wasn't.

Frustrated, he finished looking around Chinatown for the day. If he were gone much longer Ibe would begin to wonder where he'd gone to and while Eiji had a lie prepared he'd rather not use it.

It occurred to him that he hadn't really been paying a lot of attention to his surroundings while he'd been there and that really wasn't acceptable. He was already putting himself in a great deal of danger; he couldn't afford to make it worse by losing his focus.

As he lay in bed that night he came to a decision. He'd visit Ash and he'd do it alone, just like he'd said. Maybe he could get some more information on Chinatown and what he was looking for while he was at it.

It was a flimsy excuse and he knew it. He just wanted to see Ash again. It wasn't just what Ash had said; it was all that he hadn't said. Eiji had no idea how he was faring, not really.

"Ahh, I'm an idiot!" Eiji mumbled to himself. He managed to fall into a restless sleep where he tossed and turned the entire night away. He was up especially early the next day much to Ibe's surprise but when he told Ibe that he was going to take in the sights for the day he agreed readily enough.

"Do you want me to come with, Ei-chan? New York is such a big place."

"No, no, I want to get the full experience! This way I can practice my English and see how well I can maneuver the place on my own. I have my cell phone if I really get into trouble."

Appeased, Ibe simply nodded and let him go. Eiji took a moment to feel guilty about the deception but it wasn't entirely false. He was going to be practicing his English; Ash didn't speak a word of Japanese after all.

The security guard let him in without any fuss once he got there and soon he was in front of Ash once more. As soon as he saw him all the other people in the room faded into the background. Eiji took a seat across from him and wondered what he expected to happen now that he was here. Ash raised an eyebrow when he walked in and allowed a small smirk to grace his face once Eiji was settled.

"Oh, you really did come alone! I have to admit, I wasn't expecting that."

"Honestly, I wasn't either," Eiji replied. Ash blinked at that before letting out a small laugh. There was warmth in his eyes that hadn't been there moments before.

"Really? Then, what are you doing here?"

Eiji was about to reply but he faltered. He didn't have any of the information that Ash was wanting. He should be in Chinatown right now, not visiting Ash in jail for no discernible reason. If anything, he was likely just annoying Ash.

"I—" May as well just admit the truth. "I wanted to see you," Eiji finished with more confidence than he felt. "We didn't really get to talk last time and I wanted to make sure you were doing okay."

Mild surprise was written all over Ash's face. He seemed to hesitate a moment before he moved to sit next to Eiji, wrapping an arm about him just like last time. He pressed them close together and angled himself so that only Eiji would hear him.

"Hey, if what I asked was too dangerous—"

"No!" Eiji replied in a harsh whisper. "I went there. I'll be going back. I just…" He couldn't say a potent mix of his own curiosity about Ash and nervousness had prevented him from completing the task.

"I'm telling the truth," Eiji finished. It wasn't a lie, he was going back, he was just leaving out a few details.

Ash was silent for a long moment, weighing Eiji's words.

"So," he finally said. "You really just wanted to talk?" He lifted his arm slightly from where it was about his shoulder to tug at a lock of Eiji's hair gently. He was teasing but, while Eiji's English wasn't flawless, he knew Ash was implying something else as well. Are you asking me for something? He was still in Ash's embrace and he could feel his breath against his face and suddenly it was entirely overwhelming. Was he asking for something?

The kiss instantly came to mind but Eiji didn't want Ash to kiss him again. Not here, not really.

(Maybe someday.)

He supposed he did want something from Ash: his friendship. He'd had friends before, of course he had, but they'd all lacked depth in comparison to whatever was forming with Ash. It occurred to him that he was doomed. Oh, he couldn't bear to return to Japan at this rate.

"Yes, I just want to talk," Eiji said. It sounded so paltry compared to what he meant. It did nothing to express the magnitude of just how much he wanted to talk to Ash.

"Hmm, well, I can do that." Ash was looking at him strangely and Eiji wasn't sure what it meant.

"I'm sorry; I guess this isn't what you were hoping for…"

"No, but I think I like this, too." Ash leaned away from him and Eiji could finally breathe again.

"What do you want to know about?" The light from the window struck Ash just so and his eyes really were an incredible green when the light hit them in this way. He'd thought the same in the hospital and Eiji had missed the question entirely. There seemed to be a direct correlation between his ability to comprehend English and how intently Ash was looking at him.

"Eiji?" Now Ash was definitely laughing at him. His eyes were twinkling merrily and Eiji felt his face flush slightly. It was entirely unfair for one person to exercise this kind of power over him and suddenly Eiji felt massively annoyed. He wasn't sure if it was at himself or Ash but he wasn't a child with his first crush and, frankly, Ash wasn't as intimidating as everyone made him out to be. He could daydream or whatever it was he'd been doing later.

"Have they treated you well?" It was what he'd come here for. Amidst his desire to speak with Ash was a terrible worry of what he was going through. Eiji didn't know much about the American prison system but he'd heard some terrible things from Ibe in preparation for the job. But Ash didn't look as though he'd been suffering terribly, so maybe it wasn't as bad as people said.

"The guards have been fine," Ash said automatically. "They don't care what I'm doing so long as I don't cause too much trouble."

"And have you? Caused trouble that is?"

Ash smirked widely at him. "What do you think? Really, you're just like a kid, sometimes."

"Hey!" He punched Ash's arm but it was without any real force. Ash rolled his eyes but he wore an indulgent grin that somehow made Eiji even more annoyed than he'd been before.

"I've caused some, yes. I'd say the other inmates have caused me a great deal more though."

At that Eiji's annoyance fled and was replaced with the same gnawing concern from earlier. It occurred to him that he wasn't sure what Ash had done to get a pill in the first place.

"What do you mean?" he asked hesitantly.

Ash sighed and rested his chin in the palm of his hand, eyeing him carefully.

"You know my history, right? And you know I'm younger than everyone here? You must have heard something about the prison system here even in Japan."

Eiji was torn between irritation because the rest of the world didn't always feel a need to know everything about the U.S. and abject horror because yes, he did know something about prisons and he didn't want to think of Ash suffering in that way.

"Ash—"

"Don't," Ash cut him off. "I used it to my advantage. I'm not going to worry about it and neither should you."

As if that were even remotely possible. How can you talk about it like that? As if it isn't horrific?

There was so much resting on Eiji's ability to sort out Chinatown. If it had seemed difficult before it was overwhelming now. The amount of trust Ash had placed in him and the fact he hadn't said anything…

Eiji would just have to be successful.

"There's not much more to say about it," Ash continued. "The food has been okay. Max is a tolerable cellmate, I guess." There was a bite to his words there but Eiji decided not to comment. "And I get to see you. That part isn't too bad."

"I'd rather us meet outside the prison." What else could he say? He liked seeing Ash but this was hardly ideal.

"So would I but you learn to take what you can get," Ash said, his eyes growing distant. "You're a good person, Eiji."

Eiji wondered at the unexpected compliment. He hadn't done much to deserve it. "Thank you?"

"Mm, you are. Do you often visit your friends in jail?"

"Just you, so far."

"Heh, let's keep it that way then. It's not a habit I want to see you cultivate."

"Okay…" Eiji was starting to feel a little lost. Ash seemed to pick up on it and offered an explanation.

"It means I want you to have better friends than me."

Eiji felt a smile growing on his face. "But we are friends, then?"

Ash was taken aback. "Considering what we've been through together already I'd say so. Although these people think we're something a bit more intimate than that." Ash indicated the other inmates in the room in deep discussion with lawyers or family members.

Eiji flushed. "That is your fault!"

Ash laughed out loud, garnering the attention of a few people before they turned away. "It is, isn't it? It wasn't that bad though, was it? I've been told I'm pretty good at that kind of thing."

Eiji didn't miss the allusion to Ash's distressing history but let it go for now. He thought back to that moment.

"It wasn't bad… Just unexpected."

"You see? So, nothing to be upset about." Ash's eyes flickered suddenly. "But you're right; it did come out of nowhere for you. Maybe I should be apologizing. It was your first, after all."

Eiji was awash with conflicting emotions over that statement. Where to even start? "Wh- how can you tell something like that?"

"I can tell." Ash's eyes were locked with his and suddenly Eiji's mouth was very dry. There was something almost … sad in the way he said it.

"It was fine," Eiji managed. "I'm not upset."

Ash continued to study him intently before accepting the statement. "Okay. Good. Well, I appreciate that you went with it."

"Of course." Eiji probably would have gone with it even if there hadn't been a secret message but he had a strong feeling that saying that wouldn't go over well with Ash right now. He seemed to be remembering something unpleasant and with what Eiji knew about him he was worried he had an idea of what it was.

"Ash, you know you didn't force anything on me, right…? You gave me plenty of time to back away."

Ash took a deep breath and returned to reality. "That's true." Ash seemed struck by a sudden thought. "You didn't back away though. That's why I said you're a good guy. You're trusting."

"You're the one trusting me right now, Ash."

"Huh, I guess that's right."

They talked about a few more idle things before Eiji saw the time. Ash followed his line of sight.

"Visiting hours are nearly over, huh?"

"It looks that way," Eiji said. "I'll … take care of it. Don't worry, Ash."

"I know you will," Ash replied steadily.

Eiji stood to leave and Ash followed suit. He grabbed Eiji's arm suddenly.

"What's wrong?"

Ash grinned devilishly. "Oh, I was just wondering if I should kiss you again. Keep the inmates talking, you know."

"What? No! Wait, unless…" Did Ash have another message for him? Surely that was impossible!

Ash snorted. "The look on your face… Honestly. Come here." Hesitantly, Eiji allowed Ash to close the distance between them but instead of lips meeting his own two arms wrapped him about his waist in a tight grip. Eiji carefully returned the gesture. Maybe Ibe had been somewhat correct; Americans must be unusually affectionate. Eiji decided he liked it. Ash ducked his head close to his ear.

"Thanks for coming, Eiji." He couldn't see his face but there was a vulnerability there that caught him off guard.

"Next time I'll have news for you," Eiji replied and gave him a tentative squeeze.

"I believe you. See you then."

The next time Eiji saw Ash he was being released from prison. He almost embraced him right then and there before remembering Ibe was there. Ibe was convinced that the kiss was some bizarre one-time thing and Eiji wasn't prepared to reveal just how close he felt to Ash. But more than that, the news he had for Ash wasn't good and holding him seemed like it would offer some kind of false hope.

Eiji wasn't surprised when he helped Ash get away. He had a feeling he'd be doing a lot of things like this for him in the near future. Somehow, he'd developed an almost blind faith in the man. Ibe was concerned, his parents would have been shocked, but Eiji felt more alive now than he had for years.

He drove the car away at top speed.


Notes: I had to adjust how things went in Chinatown to allow for this second meeting to take place but I hope it feels natural enough. I was just really curious about what might have happened if Eiji had visited him alone after all and I found it strange that they never did discuss the kiss. Let me know what you think!