Banana Fish

Ash X Eiji fanfic

"Reason to Live"

Alternate Ending…because Ash should have lived.

Part 1

It had been two weeks, maybe longer. It didn't matter much how long it had been, except when Ash found himself idly calculating the hours since he'd last set eyes on Eiji.

He stayed in the Manhattan apartment, not going out, sleeping on the couch or Eiji's bed. Bones or Alex brought him food, almost exclusively Japanese takeout, per his request. He watched TV, made investments, read the papers, read books, napped. The phone rarely rang and he seldom made calls. Late at night, when he was too restless to sleep, he'd go down to the building's gym and wear himself out as much as he could.

It was enough. It was all he could manage.

Ash had gone to ground.

Day-to-day life was taken care of, all handled by other people. Alex ran the gang, not that there was much to worry about now. Harlem and Chinatown were no longer threats, they were allies. Yut Lung had backed off. Blanca had gone, Golzine and Foxx were dead.

When he had the energy, which was rarely, Ash debated about what to do with the Union Corse. He was still Golzine's recognized heir, his 'son.' There were money and lives at stake, but he couldn't bring himself to care right now. After going through Golzine's files, he had sent a formal telegram, advising of Golzine's death, but he'd have to show his face, his fist, soon or get out altogether. The decision hung over him, like all the other black clouds that seemed to have settled for good on his boney shoulders.

He was thin. He'd lost weight since Eiji left. And he was tired, so tired. The apartment seemed cold, even though the thermostat read a comfortable 72° F.

Max had called to check in several times, to see how he was doing. Ash had almost asked for Eiji's contact information, but he closed his mouth on the question, smothering it. What was the point of all this if he broke his vow now?

He did ask once if Max had any of Ibe-san's photos, hoping for a picture of Eiji, but Max said no, that Ibe-san had taken them all with him. There was nothing left in Eiji's closet darkroom, either, as Ash discovered when he searched one night. Pity. He needed something to hold on to now, some talisman to keep him sane. He'd thought Eiji would have left him a photo at least. But Max's ex-wife had done Eiji's packing, so maybe that was why.

Ash considered more than once visiting the library and getting back to his research. Maybe even school. There were plenty of colleges he could get into with very little trouble. It would give him something to fill the empty days. It was hard, having nothing to do, no one to worry about, when he was used to living life at 180 mph, 24/7. But his raison d'tre had ended when Eiji left. He knew Eiji's plane had arrived safely – he'd tracked the flight, called the airport. Eiji was safe and sound, a world away.

A world away. Ash might as well be dead, if this dreary half-life was all that was left for him. Except that…..Eiji wanted him to live.

Nightmares haunted him. Shorter's dying eyes. Eiji's body jerking, as he took the bullet meant for Ash. Eiji lying still and pale in that hospital bed. Arthur and Golzine appeared to mock him with staring eyes that seemed to plead. Nameless faces of the ones he'd killed, his old girlfriend, Griff, even Foxx – they all came to visit him in the dark, bloody, accusing. His sleep was more a series of naps anyway, interrupted by uneasy dreams, the faint noise of traffic, and the far-off sub-sonic drone of airplanes.

He hated the sight and sound of airplanes now, although he watched them sometimes from his window; had thought even about getting on one.

No, he told himself repeatedly. It wasn't an option. He still had enemies. He couldn't take that to Japan. There were no guns there. How would he protect Eiji? And Eiji's family, his cute little sister, they were there. He couldn't expose them to danger. Eiji wouldn't forgive that. Ash wouldn't forgive himself for that.

But being awake was no better. He'd catch himself staring at his hands, looking for the blood that surely stained them. He was surrounded in solitude, even when the guys came by. The apartment was so very empty, it echoed. There were no familiar sounds of Eiji cooking or cleaning or babbling to himself in Japanese. No tea, no natto, no one to watch over. All his comfort had fled, carried away on a plane to Japan. There was only the very faint scent of Eiji on his old pillows, the slight lingering odor of darkroom chemicals and the taste of take-out miso and rice.

It crossed his mind that if Eiji was thinking about Ash as much as he thought about Eiji, then Eiji must be miserable now. Ash certainly was. This was far worse than he'd ever imagined in those days just before the end, lying there in the dark listening to Eji's breathing. It would be easier to die than feel this numbing loss hour after endless hour.

His door buzzer unexpectedly sounded one Wednesday evening. The noise startled him; he wasn't expecting anyone. He got up off the couch and peered through the spyhole, seeing Sing and behind him the taller form of Lao. What did they want? Ash didn't want to be bothered, although he'd be kind of glad to see Sing again. Lao was a different matter. The guy had a grudge against him, a stupid one.

Ash went and got his gun down from its hiding place, tucking it into the back of his jeans and pulling his shirt down to cover the butt. He probably wouldn't need it, since Sing was here, but instincts ruled. Some sixth sense had been telling him Lao was dangerous, ever since he'd been rescued from Yut Lung's clutches. Lao had looked at Ash with contempt, even hatred, after that. Ash had felt them prickling his back like the tip of a knife. He had hoped he wouldn't see Lao again when Sing had kicked him out of the gang, and he didn't want to see him now.

But Sing was there, waiting.

Part 2

After a minute, Ash opened the door, leaving it still on the chain.

"What do you want?" Ash asked Sing, his voice rusty from disuse. He hadn't talked to anyone in more than 24 hours and his own voice sounded strange to his ears. He wasn't like Eiji, who was always chatting away, even if it was only to himself.

"Hey, Ash." Sing was smiling, although it looked plastic to Ash. He appeared to be nervous, unusual for him. "Um, I need to talk to you about something, so we stopped by. Can we come in?"

Ash glared past Sing at Lao. He made no move to open the door.

"Him, too? What does he have to say to me?" he asked, barely politely. Lao, who didn't look happy anyway, froze at his tone. He opened his mouth to voice some angry protest, but Sing shushed him.

"Yut Lung told us what happened when--when Shorter died. About Banana Fish. Lao's here to apologize, Ash." Sing looked at him pleadingly. "So, let us in, ok? He just wants to say he's sorry."

"Yut Lung told you! That ass--!" Ash exclaimed. But Sing was watching him, a silent appeal in his eyes.

"Alright, come in." he grudgingly unchained the door, snicked the locks back. He didn't want to deal with this, but if Yut Lung had told them what happened, Sing wouldn't leave until he had all the details. Plus, he owed it to Sing, as Shorter's heir in the gang, and Banana Fish was no longer a threat. It could be talked about now, and he didn't have to worry that guys would die just for knowing about its existence. They were all safe now, though he found it hard to believe at times.

They followed Ash into the living room, perching on the couch while he stood, facing them, back to the wall, the gun within easy reach if he needed it. Sing had his hands clasped between his knees and he nervously twisted them together. Lao stared at the floor as though he had found something fascinating there. There was an awkward silence.

"So what did Yut Lung say?" Ash broke the artificial peace with his abrupt question.

Like a dam breast breaking, Sing rushed into the explanation: the betrayal by Yut Lung, the capture, Shorter's lethal injection and the terrifying suggestion that had been planted in his helpless brain. Sing had talked to Ibe-san, it seemed. And he had taken Lao to Max as well. He spoke of things that only Max and Ibe had seen: Ash's reaction to Arthur's threats, his plea to die for his friends, his desperate attempts to stop the horror that unfolded before him that day. Sing related Shorter's last conscious words, when he begged Ash to set him free, and the funeral pyre that Ash had made for his friend. Lao sat silent throughout, flushed, hands on his knees.

Ash eyed him carefully while Sing talked. Lao was different, subdued; the threat was gone. Ash relaxed a smidge. He wouldn't need the gun, he thought.

When Sing finally stumbled into silence, Ash sighed.

"What are you looking for, coming here? Forgiveness? You don't need it, you know. Not from me." Ash said wearily. "There's nothing to forgive. I killed him."

Sing's tale had brought the memories to the forefront of his mind again and Eiji wasn't here to reassure him. He wanted to be over this; he wanted to forget Eiji's frightened, confused face, the sadness in his eyes when his friend Shorter slashed at him with a knife. He didn't want to recall his own terror when he imagined what Arthur and Golzine would do to Eiji while he was helpless, enchained. He didn't want to hear Shorter's grunts of agony or see again the horrible thing they had done to him.

Most of all, he desperately wanted to avoid remembering how he had felt at the thought of losing Eiji to death, of watching the light in his eyes go out. He couldn't have borne that. Ash had done the only thing he could then and he knew he would bear that cross for the rest of his life. Eiji had understood. But Sing didn't need to know.

"So, Lao's here to tell you he's sorry, Ash. He was gonna kill you." Sing continued. "So am I. Sorry, I mean. I just couldn't believe you'd kill him; I didn't get why you would ever do that. And Lao thought you'd kill me too, y'know? He thought you were like Arthur. So I told him about Foxx and Papa Golzine; how you saved me from falling, what you said. And Yut Lung told him about Shorter, and I took him to see Max, too, so he knows it's true." Sing stopped. He swallowed hard, color high on his cheekbones.

"It's just... both you guys are my friends, man, and Lao's my brother – I don't want you to fight. I didn't want Lao to hate you like that," Sing finished in a rush. It made Ash realize again just how young Sing still was, like a child wanting his friends to get along.

Ash smiled. Okay, he could deal with that. If Sing wanted to say he was sorry, that was fine. Same for Lao. They were all sorry, anyway. Sorry that Shorter died, sorry that Ash had to be the one to free him. And if it would get Lao off his back, all the better. He didn't have to energy to deal with some punk trying to take him down. That was part of the reason he was keeping his head down now, avoiding people that came out of the woodwork like that. But mostly it was because his heart was in Japan, too damn far away, and he just didn't want to deal with anything anymore. Tucked deep in his mind was the conviction that it didn't matter if he lived or died now. But he owed it to Eiji to stop going up the mountain, so he was trying to make it through the days.

"Okay, so now you know. Sorry I didn't tell you sooner, if you were going to go to all that trouble. But it's over now, so you should just forget it." Ash sighed. Like he wanted to.

Lao finally spoke up.

"Look --I'm sorry, man. I got all worked up. I thought you did Shorter and you were gonna blow Sing. Yut Lung said—he kept at me--well, I had no idea…anyway, I'm sorry I blamed you." Lao said earnestly. He finally looked Ash full in the face and Ash saw that the red glint in his eye was gone. Lao had moved past it.

"'S'okay. Just forget it." He motioned to the door. "I'll see you guys out." Time they left. Past time. He was tired from remembering. He wanted Eiji there to hold his hand if he had to have it shoved in his face like this…and that wasn't going to happen ever again.

Lao stood up rapidly, obviously more than ready to go. He'd said what he needed to; there was no reason stay. Sing got up a little more slowly, obviously reluctant to leave. Lao walked out into the little foyer, but Sing paused in the arched entryway, turning back to examine Ash with worried eyes.

"Ash? You don't look so good. You eating?' His face was creased into a concerned frown. He was fumbling in his denim jacket pocket for something and Ash was distracted by the crinkle of paper.

"Yeah, I'm eating. I'm fine, Sing. Don't worry about it," Ash tried to inject some energy into his voice, but didn't quite succeed. Oh, he was eating, but he didn't want to. The only thing that kept the food down was remembering what had happened at Golzine's. He didn't want Eiji to get that call. He didn't want Eiji to worry about him any more or feel sad when he did stupid things. So he ate.

Sing had pulled an envelope out of his pocket. It was crumpled and spotted with unnamable stains, the corners dog-eared.

"So, when are you going to go see Eiji?" he looked up inquiringly, a challenge in his eyes. Ash stared at him. Where had that come from? He shook his head slightly.

"I'm not." The answer was short.

"Why, what's stopping you? He'd be really happy if you went to see him. He was waiting for you to stop by the hospital," Sing smirked at Ash. Obviously he wasn't particularly abashed by his recent apology because he was right back to his normal, cheeky self. Ash caught Lao's impatient movement out of the corner of his eye. He didn't want to talk about this now.

"Anyway, I have something for you. From Eiji." Sing put his hand out, offering up the envelope. Ash took it, turning it over to see Eiji's handwriting. A letter? Eiji had written to him? But wait, there was something else inside. Maybe a picture of them, though it didn't feel like it was the right shape. He looked back up at Sing, who was apparently waiting for him to open it.

"You had this for how long?" Ash's stare speared Sing, who looked away, a sudden blush feathering his cheeks.

"Well, sh-stuff happened, Ash." He jerked his head in Lao's direction, obviously not wanting Lao to hear.

"Sing, I gotta go, man. I got school tomorrow," Lao called out from the foyer.

Ash was surprised. Lao had school? Since when? He stared at Sing, who shrugged.

"Yeah, later, Lao," Sing answered, walking out to the foyer to shut the door behind Lao. He resecured the chain and locked the door even though Ash still hoped he would leave with Lao. Ash wanted to read Eiji's letter alone, without an audience. When Sing came back into the living room, Ash quickly put the letter behind his back, tucking it next to the gun, half hoping Sing would forget about it if he didn't see it.

Yeah, right. No such luck.

"You gonna read that?" Sing planted his butt firmly on the couch, obviously not going anywhere. Ash sighed. Ok, time to redirect Sing's attention, plus he was curious.

"So, why's Lao going to school, Sing? Doesn't seem like the type." Ash glanced at the door, just to make sure, and then wandered over to the table. He pulled out a chair, turned it and sat down, crossing his arms over the chair back.

"Lao? Oh, Yut Lung's sending him. It's junior college, actually, but he wanted to go and Yut Lung said he'd take care of it. Lao's pretty smart, you know." Sing smiled proudly.

"Yut Lung did? Since when did he care about Lao?" Ash really was surprised now. Maybe Sing was having some softening effect on the little bastard.

"Ha! His Majesty came up with it" Sing grinned at Ash. "Look, Lao was really losing it, I guess. He really was gonna kill you, you know. Had it in his head that it was all your fault." Sing lost his grin. "I mean, I didn't know, I had no clue -- that Lao was thinking that way. It's not like him at all. But he hated you, Ash, really hated you," Sing said ruefully.

"Lucky for you I got to him first, Ash. Angels must be watchin' over you or something. He was right there at the Library, eyeing you up and down from behind one of those big pillars. I saw him right when I was coming in to give you that letter," Sing gestured vaguely toward Ash, "and he looked like shit. All freaky with his eyes wild, like a rabid dog or something. So I made him go with me to Yut Lung's 'cause he said Yut Lung told him to kill you or you'd kill me! It's like he didn't care what he did as long as I was safe. He wasn't right in the head, Ash." Sing scowled at the memory.

Ash thought back to his vigil in the Reading Room. He'd just been waiting, marking the minutes that he and Eiji were still in the same city, the same time zone, books spread on the table in a half-hearted pretense of research. Ash hadn't even sensed danger, hadn't known that Lao was there. He'd been totally distracted-- Lao could've knifed him and left him for dead and it would have been a blessed relief.

"Anyway, Yut Lung told him to stop trying to kill you. He said you saved Shorter. And he told us how Shorter died. First time I heard the whole thing, though Yut Lung had said some stuff, way back, that made me think. That was sick, what Golzine and Arthur did. Bastard Arthur! He can rot in hell, that piece of shit! Wish I'd been the one to kill that bastard!" Sing paused, swallowing his anger.

"So, anyway, Lao was crying and shit, all snotty, and saying how his life didn't mean nothin', and Yut Lung came up with this school thing and Lao lit up like a Christmas tree," Sing continued. " I mean, I don't think he ever wanted to be in the gang. He thinks too much. He acts tough but he gets scared about what might happen. But there was nowhere else for him to go – my family doesn't have that kinda money." Sing shook his head in momentary regret.

Ash wondered about that. Sing's family might not, but the Lees' sure did. Maybe Yut Lung had changed. He hoped so, for Sing's sake.

"Yeah, so that's about it. Yut Lung got him all cleaned up and then he enrolled him and Lao's in junior college now. He's gonna be an accountant." Sing looked at Ash. "You gonna open that letter now?"

Goddamn pit bull, Ash thought. He wanted to open it alone. He didn't know what Eiji had needed to say so badly that he had sent a letter, but he was damn sure he didn't want someone watching him when he cried. And he would cry.

"Gotta beer?" Sing asked, brows raised quizzically. Ash shrugged, then pointed toward the kitchen. He was pretty sure that Eiji had left some.

Sing got up and sauntered out to the small kitchen. Ash could hear him rummaging in the fridge and out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of black hair and trim, jeans-clad legs. If he squinted and kept his head turned just so, he could almost see Eiji there.

Ash winced at his stupid fancy and looked away, staring out the window instead. The envelope crackled against his back with his jerky movement. No avoiding it now. He reached back and pulled it out, staring at the neat handwriting, afraid. But he'd better read it now, while Sing was out of the room.

He gathered his courage and unstuck the flap carefully. A pasteboard square tumbled out of the envelope and fluttered to the floor. He ignored it --Eiji's words grabbed him and he was immediately absorbed, completely unaware that Sing had come silently to the kitchen entrance to watch him reading.

It was quiet in the room, disturbed only by the faint rustle of paper in Ash's shaking fingers. Sing watched his unguarded face change, revealing the sea of emotions that Eiji's words cast him into, from tenderness to stark pain to confusion and concern. Then slowly a smile dawned, and Ash's face lit up as Sing had never seen it. Ash looked up at him and Sing marveled at that radiant smile.

"He says I'm not a leopard, Sing. He says I can change my future," Ash said reverently. Ash's eyes lit on the pasteboard lying by his feet. He swooped it up, studied it intently and then brought it to his lips.

"He doesn't want to say 'good-bye.' He's going to come back if I don't go there…" Ash murmured, his eyes shut tightly, smiling, seeing some vision before him that Sing could only wonder about. A peaceful silence settled on the room. Sing wondered idly about the leopard and why Ash wasn't one.

"Screw it! Enough already! I'm going to Japan, Sing!" Ash got up abruptly and absentmindedly put his gun on the table, still staring at the letter and ticket in his hands.

Sing hadn't even known he'd been packing the gun. He looked at Ash – his expression was fierce but there was a tremor in his hands still and his downcast eyes looked suspiciously moist. Damn! Sing had known that Ash cared for Eiji, but he'd never guessed how much Eiji really meant to Ash.

"Crap, I gotta a lot to do! Sing!" Ash turned to face him, "I'm gonna need your help. Max, too…and the guys-- --hell, I have to deal with Papa's mess before I leave." Ash was pacing now back and forth now, lost in thought, his face serene and beautiful. He still held the letter and the ticket, pressed against his heart. Sing smiled – maybe that leopard thing made sense after all.

"No problem. 'Bout time you figured it out, Ash." Sing came forward to offer Ash the other beer he'd found and then clapped him teasingly on the back just when Ash opened it, causing the foam to spew over the side and drip on Ash's hand. Ash grinned right back and whacked Sing one on the shoulder in return. Sing staggered and then figured he'd be better off sitting down, out of Ash's way. He smiled to himself again. Eiji was gonna be one happy puppy.

Part 3

The next week was a whirlwind of activity for Ash. He put his mind to dealing with the Union Corse and had decided to set up a puppet, one he could control from afar if need arose. After that, he play 'em off against the Chinese, keep them all guessing, until they played themselves out.

Ash had a few rules he wanted in place before he stepped down, though. The child prostitution had to go and all the media scrutiny would help shut that down. The drugs would be clean and uncut – no accidental repeats of Banana Fish were ever going to happen on his watch. Gambling and stuff like that could stay, but he wasn't going to traffic in human lives. Eiji would hate it if he did that. It would be a kinder, gentler Mafioso after Ash was done with them, whether they liked it or not. Ash smiled at the thought of Golzine's reaction to that and started making calls, saving Blanca for last.

A few days later he met with the few remaining dons that still had power in the mid-Atlantic, there in the conference room of Golzine's old mansion, the one Ash now owned under a different name. A major power struggle had been going on while Ash wasn't paying attention, and the ranks were decimated. Good, he thought. That would make it easier. All the media attention on Club Cod and D.C.'s involvement would help as well. The few that were left with power had fear as a constant companion and Ash would certainly be using it against them.

Ash attended the meeting via speakerphone and concealed cameras, with Blanca there in person providing the fear factor. He'd handpicked a second-rank lieutenant from the Organization to take over, after carefully reviewing profiles of the ones that were still viable. The one he chose had small children, had married someone outside the Family, and – most importantly -- knew nothing about Banana Fish. The other dons gave him respect – he had a reputation for getting the job at hand done. The man preferred to make money, not spill blood, and Ash liked that about him. With pressure in just the right places the candidate could be expected to go by Ash's rules. The remaining Bosses were given an hour to assess their limited choices while Blanca smiled tigerishly at them from Golzine's leather chair. They didn't even need that long. They'd seen—or heard of—Ash and Blanca in action and knew damned well that it was better to capitulate, better to be able to leave the room alive.

That settled, Ash moved on to more important things, like his passport and visa and his new identity. He'd already converted his identity back in part to 'Aslan Callenreese,' as 'Ash Lynx' was officially dead. Golzine's private file on Aslan Callenreese was wiped clean.

He set up more holding companies for Golzine's investments, making Max, Sing and Alex officers and finally securing his assets offshore completely. In these last few months Ash had added nearly 20% percent to his capital in Switzerland and now it was time to make some larger investments.

He bought the apartment building he lived in and also a warehouse for Sing's new business venture, an import/export company that 'Aslan' would ostensibly be interning for while on summer break before entering some Ivy League institution. Sing laughed his ass off at first when Ash presented the idea and then got serious. He could get into running a company and it would mean legitimate jobs for the boys. Sing's admiration for Ash went up another notch.

'Ash Lynx' was erased judiciously from the records, court and media, till the only trace that officially remained was of some small-time punk who had died after a knife fight. The Callenreese family history was creatively rewritten. 'Aslan,' orphaned young and raised by his mother's old school friend, had attended expensive private schools in Switzerland for most of his young life. His record was exemplary, the perfect model of an up-and-coming young college student from an old respected Cape Cod family.

Endless flows of money made it all possible, along with the pressure Ash exerted here and there through his rafts of lawyers, but his old "dad" Max helped him out too. 'Mr. Winston' had decided to be 'Aslan's' step-dad to explain the difference in names and he vowed to make damned sure that his 'son' got the best background money could buy.

Near the end of the week Ash called Ibe-san and told him that he was coming to Japan. Oddly, it seemed Ibe was happy to hear it. Eiji had been too quiet, he said, too sad. He wasn't mending well. Ash coming to Japan would be the best thing for both of them, he assured Ash, and they went on to settle the details of Ash's arrival. Eiji hadn't returned to college yet; he was still at home, recuperating. Ibe-san would meet Ash at Tokyo airport and escort him to Eiji's home. They'd decide where Ash would stay after he got there. Ibe-san promised not to tell Eiji just yet – Ash was too afraid to jinx it.

That left one thing – his striking appearance. He still had blonde hair and green eyes and he was tall. He was going to a world of shorter, dark-haired, dark-eyed people, and he would stand out no matter what he did. It was better all around to attract as little attention as possible. He debated dyeing his mane and getting contacts, but decided against it. He would look stupid and some vain part of his heart resisted looking stupid in front of Eiji.

Blanca had stuck around, happily curious about Ash's future plans, and now he enthusiastically showed Ash how to choose both clothes and attitude like a professional assassin. Ash learned the fine art and science of blending into any situation, just as Blanca did, even as a 'stranger in a strange land.' The physical changes were slight, but within a day or two, Ash could stroll through Harlem, mid-town and Chinatown and be completely ignored.

He was glad Blanca was around – and Max. Ash was nervous.

Eiji had written that he wanted to protect Ash; that Ash was always his best friend, his soul mate. The letter had dealt the killing blow to Ash's resolve. He would have stayed his course if it had been only his own pain, but the letter practically screamed that Eiji was suffering too, that he wanted Ash with him. Eiji had truly meant that 'forever,' and it seemed that only Ash's stubbornness was getting in the way now.

There had always been ways to be together; Ash had known even before Eiji left that he could make it work, but he had allowed the surface fear of endangering Eiji and his family to stop him. He knew his excuses were pure sophistry, but he used them hide behind. Underneath, in the blackest depths of his mind, lived a monster--Ash's ingrained conviction that he was soiled and dirty, too unclean to be with the one he loved.

He had been a prostitute, he had killed –countless times. He didn't deserve that Eiji should care about him, much less love him. He had ruined his chances of a normal life long ago and he couldn't ask Eiji to redeem him. Especially when Ash wanted far more than simple redemption. He wanted Eji to love him, need him the way he needed Eiji. He wanted all of Eiji and if Eji had stayed in New York, Ash would one day give in to that desire. Better to let Eiji go, keep him pure and untainted. Better not to ruin the most loving relationship he'd ever had.

Eiji, it seemed, thought differently. He wasn't giving up, he wasn't backing down. The letter was very clear on that. Ash was his friend, his soul mate, and he would come back to be with Ash if Ash didn't come to him. To be valued like that, above everyone – that was something Ash hadn't expected. He couldn't argue with Eiji's feelings, couldn't pretend that they didn't exist or that Eiji would forget or get over them. And so Eiji won that silent battle of wills. Ash could no longer turn away or deny himself. Even if going to Japan only meant that he would be near Eiji as a friend, it would still be better than what he had been enduring. And Eiji would be happy, which was the most important thing.

This trip would be his first foray into the normal world, Eiji's world. He was scared shitless even as he walked on air with new-found happiness. He would come to Eiji clean, all the dangerous loose ends tied up. Then, if Eiji truly was happy to have him there, if Ash could find a way to function in Eiji's world, he would find a way to stay in Japan.

Ash had it all figured out. He could learn Japanese in no time with Eiji's help. He'd always been facile with languages, which had made it so easy to talk to the Hispanics in his gang. Ash could find something useful to do, and money was not an issue -- plus he'd already gotten used to the food. If it all worked out, he would be with Eiji. It was the best dream he'd ever had, that one, and now there was a real possibility it might come true. In the last few days before the flight constant excitement sizzled through his veins, keeping him awake for hours in the dead of every night that passed. Fear, doubt, joy, longing – they cycled and surged through him, leaving him breathless and disquieted. Ash was suddenly at a loss with how to deal with his rampant emotions, an unnerving sight to those that knew him well. Sing spent hours distracting him with the mechanics of his new business, Max fussed in his gruff way, Kong, Bones and Alex hovered, and Blanca smiled and smiled. Somehow, Ash got through it.

When Ash boarded the plane, he was totally exhausted. Those sleepless nights and unsatisfying catnaps had taken a toll on his already tired body. He fell into a deep, dreamless sleep as soon as the plane lifted off, waking only when the stewardess tapped him on the shoulder, making him startle and reach for the gun he didn't have. She flirted heavily, offering dinner and other things, but Ash diverted her, smiling with all his great charm.

Seven hours to go. Then he'd be in Japan, all that much closer to Eiji. And within a day after that, he'd actually see him, god willing.

Time crawled, time flew. It was dark when Ibe-san met him at the airport, exclaiming over his lack of luggage. They caught a bullet train and Ash enjoyed the rush. So different from the clunky subways of New York! They stayed the remainder of the night at a rustic little inn and Ash woke late to the singing of crickets, the warm sun of summer caressing his face and, in the distance, the muted voices of the innkeeper and her family. Crickets were good fortune, he remembered sleepily, and he would see Eiji today. He sat up abruptly, wrapping his arms around his knees and burying his face on them.

Please! Please, all you millions of gods of Japan, Eiji's gods, please make him happy to see me! Ash begged whoever might be listening.

Make it so I can stay here….please…just let me have that and I swear, I won't touch him. I won't do anything that'll make him send me away. I'll be good, I promise. Just let him be happy I came. Please, God. Please, gods….

Ibe-san's voice interrupted Ash's impromptu prayers. It was time for breakfast, and then the last leg of their journey in a rented car. In a few short hours, they were at Eiji's home, and Ash found himself waiting tensely behind Ibe-san at the entryway, straining to catch Eiji's voice. But a man came to welcome them instead, Eiji's father, Ask guessed, judging from the resemblance. Okumura-san was shorter than Ash by a head, dignified in his bearing, his still-glossy black hair streaked with silver. He was handsome, about fifty, Ash thought.

Now he knew what Eiji would look like when he older! Ash smiled, hugging the thought to himself. Okumura's solemn face cracked into a boyish grin when he spied Ibe-san waiting. Ash saw immediately that his eyes were kind and gentle, reminiscent of his son's. Here was Eiji's dad. He hoped desperately that he looked alright, that everything dark was safely tucked away and hidden inside him.

Okumura-san turned to him finally and smiled and Ash knew instinctively that he wanted very much for Okumura-san to accept him. The older man bowed and said something more in his rapid Japanese, gesturing the two of them inside. Ash followed, bemused. He shuffled off his sneakers, tried futilely to shrink down to fit into the low-ceilinged room and then was swept further into Eiji's home, into what was obviously the room where the family ate, as they were all kneeling around a very low table covered with dishes. Ash's gaze went without hesitation to Eiji where he knelt at the far end, next to an attractive older woman who was obviously his mother.

"Eiji!" Ash exclaimed involuntarily. Eiji looked up immediately and Ash could see he was pale and listless. Pain twisted Ash's stomach. Eiji looked like that because of him, he knew, and the bitter taste of regret filled his mouth.

"Ash!"

Eiji scrambled up, smiling now, his eyes alight. He made a beeline for Ash, swerving around his seated sister, slipping nimbly past the startled Ibe-san and his still smiling father to fling his arms around Ash's startled form and bury his face in Ash's chest. Ash thought his already fragile heart would be shaken apart by its own gyration. His arms closed automatically around Eiji, holding him tight, and his eyes closed as he brought his chin down on Eiji's soft hair. This was heaven-- he had died and this was heaven, although God knew he didn't deserve to be here.

Ibe-san and Okumura-san examined the embracing pair, who were totally oblivious to the rest of the room's occupants. The two older men exchanged a long, meaningful look. Ibe-san cleared his throat, loudly enough to startle them, and they pulled apart, Ash glancing wildly around, Eiji smiling seraphicly at his family.

Introductions started, Ibe-san translating, and Ash was ushered next to Eiji at the low table and served a mountain of food by Eiji's very pretty little sister and his gentle-looking mother. Slowly, the tension in his muscles began to uncoil. He hadn't been kicked out yet. Nobody had yelled at him for endangering Eiji's life. They were smiling, curious but discreet in their questions to Ibe-san. He picked up a few more words of Japanese, just listening.

Next to him was Eiji's warmth and Ash discovered that now he was unable to stop smiling. The food was the best he'd ever eaten, trumping Golzine's lobster and caviar hands down, and he had his appetite back. The air was sweet with some lingering floral scent from the garden and everyone's voices blended melodiously together. Life was very, very good.

On the other side of the table, Okumura and Ibe discussed events with animation, Eiji's mother and sister chiming in with questions and comments. Eiji himself said very little. He had whispered "You are okay?" anxiously to Ash when they sat down, but now he seemed to have turned shy. He was smiling too, which Ash interpreted as a good sign. The two of them needed privacy to talk and Ash had the feeling they wouldn't get that for quite a while.

He was absolutely right. It was late evening by the time the impromptu party had mellowed to dull roar. Neighbors keep stopping by, curious about the Okumura's blonde giant of a visitor, happy to see Ibe-san again. Sake and beer were poured and downed endlessly, more food was offered and eaten, and Ash learned over the course of the evening that he had gained a heroic reputation.

What the hell had Eiji been saying about him? Yes, it was true he'd protected Eiji, but he was the damned fool who put him in danger in the first place! Eiji had been shot because of Ash, for chrissake! But nobody seemed to realize that and Ash was feted for his bravery, Eiji happily adding fuel to the misbegotten flame with whatever he was saying in Japanese. After a while Ash gave up worrying and simply smiled back at his admirers. If Ibe-san was allowing it, then he guessed he shouldn't make a fuss. He wanted Eiji's parents to accept him, didn't he? But it rankled a bit and he wished that he could that he could deny the unearned praise. He was far from hero.

A little after midnight, the last of the guests were gently guided out the door. Ash figured he and Ibe-san were staying with Okumuras; it was a little late to toss him out now.

"Ash, I'll make up a place for you to sleep in my room. I'll just go get the spare futon," Eiji said, smiling up at him. Ash nodded.

"Let me help--?" he started to say, but Ibe-san was tugging on his elbow and Eiji was already off down the short hallway.

Preforce, he entered a little study, the furniture silvered in moonlight and one wall open to the wooden porch that wrapped around Eiji's parent's graceful little home. The scent of the garden drifted in with the moonlight. Okumura-san smiled again, gesturing, and Ash knelt down on the floor with him and Ibe, attempting to fold his long legs like they did. A moment later, he was handed a tiny shallow dish full of liquid. Ibe and Okumura sipped theirs and Ash did the same, almost choking on the liquor that immediately clouded his vision and burned his nose and throat. Gingerly, he set the dish down on the mat before him and warily looked up at Okumura.

This was it, then, the moment where Okumura-san would tell him that he wasn't really welcome, that he was a danger, that he should stay away from Eiji. But Ibe-san was here, so maybe he could stay for a day or two under his aegis, or at least till tomorrow. Please god, please…a little longer. I need a just a little longer.

Okumura-san said something; a question, Ash thought. Ibe-san raised his brows, smiling oddly, and translated:

"You have feelings for my son?"

Part 4

Ash's jaw dropped. This was the last thing he ever expected to hear from Eiji's dad. Oh, shit! How the hell had Okumura figured that out? Ash was careful, always careful, not to touch, not to look for too long. He had perfected the art over those long months he and Eiji had stayed in close proximity. He only ever lost it in extremes: Shorter's death, Foxx's rape. Even Eiji had no clear idea of how Ash felt—he had called it 'friendship,' hadn't he? In the letter? So how the hell had Eiji's father known? And what should Ash say? He couldn't deny it now. He'd come so far for this and he couldn't lie to this man whose respect he so desired. And he meant no harm to Eiji or his family. It was just that he couldn't let Eiji ever think he didn't care. Ash swallowed hard and decided to answer truthfully, staring Okumura-san straight in the eyes.

"Yes. Yes…I have feelings. I love Eiji, but I won't…touch him. I just wanted to see him, make sure he was alright." Dimly he heard Ibe-san's soft voice in the background, translating his words into Japanese, but he kept on talking, staring into those eyes that eerily reminded him of Eiji. Some corner of his mind was laughing hysterically at this bizarre 'ghost' confession of love. At least he could say it out loud now, he thought. It wasn't too long ago he'd been convinced he'd go to his grave with the words still unsaid.

"You don't have to worry, Okumura-san," Ash continued. "Eiji doesn't know how I feel. I won't tell him, so you don't have to worry. I'm his friend; that's why he was glad to see me—that's why he hugged me. He doesn't—he didn't mean anything by it. There's nothing going on."

Ash looked down now, mumbling in contrition, "I needed to see him, that's all I wanted. I needed to see him very badly. And he was worried about…me. I didn't want him to worry." He managed to meet Okumura's eyes again as Ibe-san finished translating, and met forgiveness in Okumura-san's gaze instead of blame. He felt an involuntary wetness slide down his cheek when he realized what he was seeing. He should have known; this was Eiji's father, after all.

"My son Eiji, I think that he has missed you greatly. More than I expected. He has been very sad, very lost, since he returned. I would like to see him smile again like he did tonight, so you are welcome to stay, as long as you wish."

Ibe-san paused, then continued as Okumura nodded decisively and said, "It is Eiji's choice, the one he loves. He does not have to answer to me for that. We will all support him." Another pause, a long one. "And you as well, if he chooses you. Go now and sleep. You are very tired, I can see."

Okumura was nodding to the door as he spoke and Ash furiously scrubbed the wetness from his face. Still on his knees, he bowed down low to Eiji's father, almost tipping the pottery dish over, desperately trying to convey his gratitude, his sheer relief, his happiness at having a chance, after all. And then he got up, bowing instinctively as well to Ibe-san who had made it all even possible and backed from the room, to stand wearily in the hallway, unsure what to do next.

Eiji appeared a moment later from a door a few yards down the hallway. His expression was hard to read in the dim hall light, but Ash was suddenly so tired he had a difficult time focusing. Eiji waved him into the room he'd come out of and Ash gratefully sank down on the futon spread upon the mat next to Eiji's Western-style bed. He craved sleep. All the emotions of the day had exhausted him, drained him dry. And Eiji was here, next to him, so he could sleep. He had tomorrow and some more time after that—a reprieve of sorts. He and Eiji could talk when he woke up.

"No!" Eiji whispered fiercely. "Get up, you--you ! Don't go to sleep yet! Over here— Sit with me." It was a command. Eiji waved imperatively to the porch and then went to sit down on the edge, where the screen had been pulled partly back and silvered light poured through the opening. Ash sighed and struggled up, making his slow way to sit down next to Eiji, shoulders nudging in the tight space. They rested their feet on the porch floor, a steep step down from the floor and the edge of the screen, and looked out at the garden. Eiji sighed after a moment, turning to stare fondly at Ash's half-closed eyes and tired face.

Eiji's expression softened even more and Ash felt the familiar wave of happiness wash through him. This was really heaven, he thought, examining Eiji in turn in the moonlight. He'd never thought he see that face again when he sat bereft and abandoned in the Library. It was so good to see it now. Lost in tired reverie, he nearly fell over when Eiji kissed him the first time, a sudden tentative brush of the lips.

"You look funny, Ash! What did you do to yourself?" Eiji asked nonchalantly a moment after that kamikaze kiss. Ash stared back, eyes wild, unbelieving. He had to be more than just half-asleep, he thought to himself, but he felt suddenly very wide awake.

When Eiji leaned in the second time, lips parted, eyes half-closed in silent invitation, Ash reacted, hauling him in and covering that sweet mouth with his starving one. A long moment later he pulled back, aghast at what he had done, amazed that Eiji had initiated it.

"You said the words, Ash. Finally, you said them. I heard you, when you were with my father and Ibe-san." Eiji was grinning at him, eyes sparkling.

"Said?"

"That you loved me…I was in the garden and it was very clear. No mistake." Eiji appeared to be very satisfied with himself.

"What! You heard all that?" Ash wasn't sure what to say next. A denial? No, he wouldn't get away with it.

"I did. Are you going to confess to me this time?" Very self-satisfied, Ash thought. The little twerp. He was actually flirting.

"Or can I just answer?" Eiji tilted his head up to peek into Ash's face, his eyes warm and sultry. Ash nodded because he couldn't have done anything else and Eiji leaned forward to hug him again as he had done when Ash first arrived, snuggling into Ash's shirt.

"I like you—love you, Ash. I don't want to be without you. I am so glad you came to see me." Ash could see that Eiji was blushing—this was very brazen for him, and Ash found that it was indeed possible to fall deeper. "I wanted to say this to you before in New York but you didn't come to see me at the hospital or the airport and it was hard to write it…I could only say 'friend' instead of 'lover.'"

Eiji buried his face against Ash's taut shoulder.

"You will stay now? In Japan?" Eiji questioned.

Ash rushed to reassure him, kissing his hair, the tips of his ears, anything he could reach.

"Of course I'll stay! I wanted to anyway, even if I could only see you sometimes. I have no intention of ever going back to that hellhole again and I don't have to, Eiji. I can live anywhere I want. I can stay for as long as you want me around."

"Ahh! You are sure, Ash? You are not needed there?"

"Yup. Took care of that already. You and me --we can even live together if you want…whatever makes you happy, Eiji." He kissed Eiji's cheekbone and smiled. It would take a while for this to sink in—he might be dreaming even now. If so, it was a good dream and he'd resist waking for as long as he could.

"Then you'll be staying for a long time, Ash. Be prepared!" Eiji chuckled into Ash's wrinkled T-shirt and Ash laughed back in delight. But the laughter trailed off into silence as Ash leaned in to kiss Eiji again. Eiji's lips met his with same intensity—they could talk more later, make plans, decide details—but right now all they wanted was contact. Ash felt his loins stir and the blood rushed to his head. The taste of Eiji was addictive.

Without thinking, his hand slid down to Eiji's waist and he deftly slipped Eiji's zipper down, fingers fumbling gently around inside Eiji's briefs to grasp and stroke him. Eiji gasped and pulled back from Ash's caress.

"Ash!" There was an edge in his voice that brought Ash sharply to his senses.

Ash's hand froze. He let go, pulling his hand back and patting down Eiji's shirt tails over his still gaping jeans.

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry, Eiji…I didn't mean to scare you! I won't do it again, I swear." Ash was deeply shamed. Even if he wanted Eiji so badly he could cum just from touching, he knew for a fact Eiji didn't know the first thing about sex between guys. He'd probably frightened him. This wasn't how he wanted to begin, damn it!.

"No. It's not that, Ash." Eiji leaned close again, his low voice murmuring in Ash's ear.

"My father is not far away. He will hear us, Ash. And Ibe-san, too. I don't think it's a good idea—"

"Ohh! I get it. Sorry, Eiji. Don't worry, I won't do anything to piss him off. I can wait."

"But we can still kiss, hmm?" And Eiji nibbled Ash's throat. Ash's eyes went wide with the realization that Eiji wasn't afraid at all. This was good, he thought happily. Now, all he needed was one of those Japanese love hotels and it would be even better. He'd ask Eiji later about that, the thought went muzzily through his brain. Right now, though….

"Ash. Ash, wake up! Ash!" Eiji shook him a little but Ash's dead weight was more than he could handle, even if Ash looked thinner. "How am I supposed to move you?"

"Tch! What am I going to do with you?" The question was rhetorical. Eiji supposed he could just move the futon to Ash if he couldn't get Ash to the futon. But something in Eiji's tone must have triggered Ash's faded consciousness because his eyes opened a crack and he seemed to want to say something. Eiji leaned his head down to catch it.

"Love me—you can love me, Eiji," Ash whispered in Eiji's lap.

Eiji smiled down at his nearly unconscious lover.

"I do, Ash, I do, very much. But I am going to feed you natto in the morning!"

End. For now…