Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at https://archiveofourown.org/works/1186432.

A Farewell to Arms

by

Summary

We all know what happened at the end of Banana Fish. But what if it could have happened differently? (Originally published in 2007)

Chapter 1

It was spring again. Ash was surprised to realize this as he skirted The Pond on his way home through Central Park. For weeks he’d been too busy to notice, then too weary to care. But the breeze on his cheeks was warm, promising. He looked up at the trees; even in the red of dusk, they were all tinged with the matching green of newborn leaves. In just two weeks it would be the anniversary of his and Eiji’s first meeting – two years before in that shit hole of a pool hall. Last year Eiji had reminded him of the date only after chasing everyone else out of the apartment and lighting two mismatched candles at dinner. He’d served Ash steak that night – real meat, for a change. This year they’d both be alone and on opposite sides of the earth.

And thinking about it wasn’t doing him a bit of good.

When he got to his building, Ash nodded at the doorman, who hurried to open the door. “Welcome home, Chris,” he said with a genuinely friendly smile. Chris Winston. It hardly felt like an alias anymore, he’d heard it so much. The elevator doors closed and Ash pushed the button for the seventh floor. He sighed, leaning his head against the upholstered wall. He felt like he could sleep for weeks. Even talking with Blanca that afternoon seemed like work.

He slid his key into the lock, comforted by the familiar click of the deadbolt sliding back. More than anyplace he’d ever lived, Ash thought of this apartment as home. It was where all his stuff was. More than that, it was where his best memories were.

The place was empty, of course. Ash forced himself not to look for him, not to listen in vain for the water running in the bathroom or the clatter of pots and pans in the kitchen. He paused in the doorway to pull off his shoes – Eiji always insisted on socks-only on the carpet – and let his coat drop onto the floor. He locked the door behind him, making sure to pull the chain lock into place. No one was coming over – there wasn’t much need for war councils now that the war was over, and without Eiji around to feed everyone, the gang went back to spending their evenings in dirty bars and concert halls.

The evening sunlight slanted golden through the park-view windows, making the pale walls and neutral furniture look fire-bright and warm. Ash didn’t like it. He lowered the blinds with a clatter and pulled the heavy drapes closed, shrouding the room in darkness. The place looked strange like that. Unfamiliar. Before, even when he was out until four or five in the morning, Eiji would leave a light on for him. Sometimes he even tried to wait up himself, and Ash would find him fast asleep on the couch, the nearly-silent television flickering blue-white light onto his peaceful face.

But not anymore. Exhausted, Ash went down the hallway to their bedroom – his bedroom now. Even Eiji’s stuff was gone. Ibé and Jessica came by the day before to gather it up, both of them dropping two-ton hints about his friend hoping to see him before he flew out. Ash thought that Ibé would’ve understood, even if no one else did. The Japanese man had always been wary of him, always concerned with his protégé’s attachment to such a dangerous person – you’d think he’d be relieved to know that he didn’t have to worry about that anymore.

Instead, he’d pulled Ash aside, putting his arm around his shoulders in an almost big-brotherly way. “You do not need to be strong for Eiji,” he’d said in his accented English. “He wants to see you. He has things to say. And you, you have things you need to tell him, too?”

Ash hadn’t answered. He didn’t know what to say when Ibé talked about needing and wanting. In two years he hadn’t said everything he needed to say to Eiji. Everything he wanted. He had a fleeting fantasy of going to the airport and stealing Eiji away – the two of them running away together the way they did that day they stole Charlie’s car and hid out with Shorter in Chinatown – but everything was different now. Eiji was hurt. Shorter was dead.

His fault, all of it.

Ash closed the bedroom drapes and took off his clothes. It was barely seven, but he had nothing to do but sleep. Eiji’s flight was at two o’clock tomorrow afternoon. Ash wanted to be asleep or busy or at least somewhere without clocks. He didn’t need to know the exact moment Eiji left New York.

He slid into Eiji’s bed instead of his own. It had been a long time since Eiji had slept there, but Ash breathed deeply, searching for traces of his scent on the sheets. There. It was only the barest hint of him, but it was there. Ash pressed his face into the pillowcase, inhaling even as his eyes filled with tears.

Never again.

He slept deeply, his arms wrapped around Eiji’s pillow, his bare legs tangled in Eiji’s sheets. His dreams were a mishmash of dark colors and accented English. When he woke he was reaching for someone, desperate to hold him even as he vanished.

It was the middle of the night. The bedside clock glowed a fierce 1:45 through the darkness. Ash rubbed his stinging eyes, feeling melancholy and lost and wondering why he woke up. Then he noticed it. There was a book on the bedside table next to the lamp. It was a thin volume, bound in white cloth. Ash picked it up, squinting through the darkness at its spine. The red glow from the digital clock bounced off of the gold-leaf letters: A Farewell to Arms.

Hemmingway. Blanca.

Ash jumped out of bed and hurried to the living room. The door was unlocked, the chain swinging gently against the wall. He pulled it open just in time to see the elevator doors close at the end of the hallway. “Fuck.” If only he’d slept with his clothes on – he could’ve followed Blanca, found out what he wanted.

He closed the door and locked it again, wondering how his teacher had managed to undo the chain. And what was he doing there, anyway? Wasn’t he supposed to be halfway to Puerto Rico by now? He trudged back to the bedroom and flicked on the bedside lamp.

The book was old – a discarded library copy, it seemed. A piece of expensive hotel stationery was tucked between the pages.

In case you haven’t read this one. The letter opened casually, with no greeting, no indication of its author other than Blanca’s slanted handwriting. The book wasn’t new to Ash – the summer Blanca left for the islands, he’d binged on Hemmingway’s collected works, seeking but never quite finding what his teacher found so fascinating there.

I’ve been thinking about our talk this afternoon, about what I should’ve said, things I should’ve clarified. You should know I don’t approve of you continuing on as you are. This life is yours by chance and misfortune, Ash, nothing more; I know I’ve told you otherwise before, but I was wrong. There is nothing compelling you to hold a gun, no hand of destiny keeping you in this role that we both know you despise.

You can start over.

Ash paused. Start over how? He didn’t know how to live any other way. He’d been conditioned – carefully trained – to be this dangerous machine and he didn’t know how to change that. He didn’t think it was possible.

You are always welcome to join me in the Caribbean; perhaps I made the offer selfishly, but it stands. My life in St. Lucia isn’t what you must imagine. I live quietly. No guns. No hint of the past. My neighbors think I’m an elusive and eccentric millionaire with nothing better to do than woo beautiful tourists and comb the beaches, collecting sea glass. In many ways – most ways – this is true. I put that aside and stepped into my old role just to see how you were doing. And now I’m going back. I don’t expect to hold a loaded gun ever again, Ash. It’s not hard to do, you know. You just walk away.

Other than going to Blanca in St. Lucia, whatever the hell part of the Caribbean that was, Ash had nowhere to walk away to. After what happened to Jennifer in Cape Cod, there was no way his father would welcome him back, and why should he? Ash had been followed once and it could happen again. It would happen again. He could walk away all he wanted, but it meant risking the life of whomever he went to.

I’m not saying that you should follow your friend to Japan. I understand your decision to keep away from him, and as long as you are a danger to him, it’s best you stay as far away as possible. But Ash, you should think about what you need. What you want. If Okumura Eiji holds the only key to your happiness, then I think you should find a way to be happy with him. Keep in mind that he is a headstrong, passionate young man. When he comes back to you – as we both know he will – will you be able to send him away again?

Perhaps it’s best to change your situation so that you won’t have to send him away.

He didn’t like Blanca giving him advice on how to handle things with Eiji. Just like Ibé, he talked about wants and needs. It made Ash uneasy. Everyone seemed to think they had such insight into his friendship with Eiji, but what could they know about it? Ash wasn’t even sure himself what he wanted or needed from his friend, other than the need to keep Eiji safe, even if safe meant as far away across the fucking world as he could get.

A dark corner of his mind whispered other things, things that hadn’t passed between them except in dreams. Ash refused to think of it. Just because his childhood had warped him into some kind of sicko, that didn’t mean that he would ever inflict that sort of thing on Eiji. But it seemed to be what everyone was hinting at, what everyone was assuming.

Ash shook his head; it wasn’t the right time to sort through those feelings. Eiji would come back – Blanca was right about that. Ash wrestled a surge of elation and reminded himself that that wasn’t a good thing.

Even with Monsieur Golzine gone, I’m sure you realize that you still have enemies.

Ash’s concentration tripped over Papa Dino’s name, and something confusingly similar to pain pulsed through. In the end, the old bastard rescued him. He had to know he was dying, so saving him from Foxx couldn’t have been for the sick pleasure of killing Ash himself. When Ash thought back on that moment when their eyes met, the instant before Dino stumbled deliberately toward the edge of the building, he felt sick. The old man’s eyes were hard, pained from his wounds and the sheer effort of what he was doing. But there was more. Ash shuddered at the memory. Pride. Sorrow. Love?

He’d spent his whole life believing – knowing – that everything Dino offered him was a dark, twisted lie. That his life with him was meaningless and false. All those years he’d wanted nothing but escape. Now he was free, and instead of being happy about it, Ash pitied the man. He hadn’t thought there was room for anything but hate; now he realized he was wrong, but he didn’t know what to do with the feeling.

Ignore it; keep reading.

You must consider Lee Yut Lung. The NYPD. And I’m sure there are members of Monsieur’s organization who would sooner see you dead than allow you to be in charge. You cannot be forever looking over your shoulders. No one deserves a life like that.

When I left the Soviet Union, I knew too much. I had information that would ruin careers and destroy lives. Defecting wasn’t enough, because there would always be someone who would think I too dangerous to let go. So I died. I got help from the right people and vanished, certain that the people who wanted to see me dead saw just that. The right people thought I was gone and suddenly I was free.

Ash immediately understood the purpose of Blanca’s story and drew the parallels to his own life. The idea had merit. He tried to imagine a life far away, where no one tried to take a shot at him or drag him into some dark alley. He was sad to realize that he had no point of reference for that kind of thing.

Except Eiji.

But he could never be like him. Even after two years by his side, Eiji was still untainted and beautiful. Eiji believed in things and made Ash want to believe too, but the last time Ash ever believed in anything he woke up with his tooth still beneath his pillow. If the fucking Tooth Fairy let him down, then how could he believe in the world enough to throw away his gun?

This is all just food for thought, Ash. I’m through telling you what to do. Most of what I taught you has been more harmful than helpful, I’m afraid. Though I’m glad that it kept you alive, I worry that it’s not been a life worth living.

You’ve made me proud; I never told you, and I regret that. I also regret that we didn’t meet as we should have – this time or the last. But I’d like to think we parted as friends. Be strong, Ash, but not at the sake of your soul.

There was no closing, just a florid “S” at the bottom of the page. Ash put the letter down, feeling optimistic and yet disappointed at the same time. He wished his teacher had stuck around a bit, so that he could follow the letter up with some good, practical advice. Not that Ash would ever bring himself to ask for it, but somehow Blanca usually knew what was fitting for any situation.

He leaned back against the headboard and closed his eyes. The letter fluttered from his fingers onto the floor. He was on his own now. This decision belonged only to him, and no one – not Blanca or Max or anyone – could help him sort through it. He longed for Eiji.

But that was just something he’d have to get used to.

Chapter 2

The tapping came from far away, and for a while Nadia’s mostly-sleeping mind thought she could ignore it. Charlie’s warm body was pressed close against her back, his arm like a pillow beneath her head. She didn’t want to move. Before – when Shorter was still…there – she would’ve jumped out of bed and ran downstairs at such a sound. But now the urgency was gone. Everyone she loved was safe in bed, warm against her. There was no one else to worry about in the middle of the night.

But the tapping continued. She woke a bit more with each insistent rap, and began to sift through a larger list of people she cared about. Friends. Neighbors. Cousins. She opened her eyes, peering at the clock on the nightstand. It was just past three in the morning. No one would come by if it weren’t very important.

Charlie shifted in his sleep, mumbling and gathering her closer. He would wake soon, and then the cop would take over. She could just imagine him answering the door with his gun drawn, frightening to death whichever poor neighbor needed her. She disentangled herself gently, sliding a pillow beneath his grasping arm. Nadia pulled a satin robe over her bare skin and slid her feet into a pair of plushy mules.

The hallway was cold, the stairs creaky. She ran a hand through her short hair and turned on the lamp by the door. “Who is it?” she asked in a voice just loud enough to be heard.

The answering voice was muffled, his words indistinguishable. But Nadia’s heart leapt in her chest. Something in that voice reminded her of long ago, of similar arrivals in the dead of night. “Ash?” she asked frantically, her shaking hands pulling the chain lock down. “Ash, is that you?”

Her heart was racing. Years ago he would arrive with her brother in tow, the latter usually stinking drunk and unable to walk unaided. She would scold and fuss and check for bleeding and then make him tea or soup while Shorter slept it off on the couch. Those nights seemed so difficult, back then, but looking back, Nadia was nostalgic. She remembered long conversations with Ash – who was always at least mostly sober – over steaming mugs while they waited for Shorter’s groggy, hung-over voice to finally call out from the living room.

Her hands fumbled at the dead bolt. She seriously doubted that Ash had come to reminisce. She imagined him on the other side of the door, bloody or terrified or starving to death. The idea of her other little brother – her little blond brother – disappearing the way Shorter did was horrifying. At first she couldn’t turn the knob, forgetting that she had one more lock. She shook the handle.

“It’s still locked.”

His voice was muffled through the heavy oak door, but clear enough to understand, as though his mouth were pressed against the cold wood. Nadia hastily turned the last lock and twisted the knob.

Ash stood in a puddle of light on the cracked stoop, his hands shoved into the pockets of his old leather bomber jacket. He put one finger over his lips, signaling silence. He was smirking, but she noticed immediately that it didn’t reach his eyes.

But there was no sign of blood, trauma, or dogged pursuit. Nadia sighed, relieved, and motioned him inside.

He crept over the threshold in one smooth movement, his eyes flitting to the stairs. “Charlie here?” he asked in a whisper.

Nadia nodded. She hadn’t thought of that yet, that she was entertaining a wanted criminal while one of New York’s Finest slept upstairs. They’d just have to make a point of not waking him. She motioned him into the kitchen. Ash switched off the lamp, and followed her through the darkness.

In the kitchen she turned on the overhead light and immediately set herself to heating up water for tea. She was afraid to ask Ash what brought him there in the middle of the night and so she went through the motions of a social visit. “Do you still drink your tea with honey?” she asked him.

Ash looked up at her, his face serious. “Do you have a beer?” he asked.

Nadia shook her head. The fridge was well stocked with beer, but it was bad enough that Ash was there – she didn’t need Charlie to walk in on her aiding to the delinquency of this particular wanted-for-murder minor.

Ash didn’t push. “Honey is good,” he agreed, reaching over her head to get it from the cabinet himself. Nadia looked up at him, amazed at how much he’d grown in just the past year – he’d tower over Shorter now, if her brother were still alive. “You look good, Nadia,” he said softly, handing her the little bear-shaped bottle.

She blushed in spite of herself. Even after all these years, he was still able to fluster her with compliments. “Things are okay,” she said. She thought about Charlie, and how he’d helped her deal with Shorter’s death. She thought about how peaceful life was now. “Things are good,” she admitted, feeling guilty.

Ash smiled. “I’m glad,” he told her softly, reaching out to squeeze her hand. “I’ve been worried about you.”

Nadia pulled her hand away and busied herself with preparing the tea. She poured it into big ceramic mugs and carried them to the table. “Not as much as I’ve worried about you,” she countered briskly. “You and Sing have gotten yourselves into a lot of trouble lately, if half of what I hear is true.”

Ash sat down, his long legs sprawling beneath the table. “That shit’s finished,” he said. His voice sounded resigned. Tired. “I’m sick of it, Nadia.”

She sat down across from him, studying his face in the blue-white glow of the spiral fluorescent bulb on the ceiling. He was beautiful – that was always the first thing anyone noticed about Ash Lynx – beautiful and cold. But looking past that, Nadia could see that he was worn out. His eyes were dull and the lines around his mouth suggested pain more than laughter. He was too young to look so weary.

“I need to get away. To do something else,” he continued. “I want to start over, but I sure as fuck won’t do it in prison.” He wrapped his hands around his mug, his fingers running nervously around the rim. “But that’s all I have, isn’t it? That’s the only possible future for someone like me.”

She wanted to deny it, but didn’t know how. She didn’t know how many times she’d warned Shorter about the inevitability of his path. Ash was probably around to hear some of those lectures. And with Charlie upstairs, who was she kidding?

“Not that I don’t deserve it,” he continued quietly. “I’ve done plenty of nasty shit – more than enough to justify being locked up forever. It’s just that, when I look back over my life, what choice did I have? I would’ve died, Nadia. And not by a bullet, either.” He looked at some distant point over her shoulder, and she wondered what he was seeing. She swallowed hard, wondering if she even wanted to know. “They would’ve killed me way before that – was I supposed to lie down and let them?”

He looked like he was going to cry. Nadia reached over the table and took his hand. It was cold and trembling. “How can I help you, Ash?” she asked carefully.

He took a deep breath and composed himself, blinking back any sign of tears. For a moment he hesitated, but whatever it was he was here to ask for, he’d already decided to go for it. Nadia knew him well enough to know that. He seemed to be searching for words.

“Does your grandfather still run that apothecary shop?” he asked eventually.

Nadia was surprised. Had it been so long? “Yeye died last winter,” she explained softly. A look of stricken dismay crossed Ash’s features, and Nadia didn’t know if it was because he was afraid of causing her pain or if he genuinely felt the loss of the old man who used to scold him and Shorter for loitering outside. Probably both. “Nainai took over the apothecary,” she continued. “She gets help from one of my cousins.”

Nadia’s grandmother was a feisty old woman trained in the ancient arts of Chinese herbs and medicines. She wouldn’t hear of closing shop when her husband passed. When Nadia was young, the old lady held classes above the shop, teaching Chinese children the almost lost art of understanding substances and how they mingled and changed one another. Nadia herself had spent many weeks with a pestle in her hand, grinding leaves and minerals together to create simple medicines and supplements. Her grandmother stopped teaching classes more than ten years before, instead focusing on one or two promising pupils who had the talent to potentially take over her position as Chinatown’s most respected herbalist. Her cousin Lian was one of those students, promoted to assistant after their grandfather died.

“I’m sorry about your grandfather,” Ash said softly, his brows knitting together. Nadia understood – there had been too much death lately. “But your grandmother is really who I need to see, actually.”

She couldn’t think of any reason why Ash would want to visit a cranky old woman he’d never met. “Why? What do you need?” A sense of alarm rose in the back of Nadia’s mind. She seriously doubted that Ash needed an aphrodisiac or a tea that promoted a long life. He was never one to dabble in substances at all, illegal or over-the-counter. She wondered if he was in some kind of trouble; more serious than his usual form of trouble, that is. “Are you over your head in something, Ash?”

He smiled grimly. “No more than usual,” he said. Nadia tried to feel comforted. “But like I said, I’m sick of this life. I finished what I set out to do – hell, I failed most of it, but at least it’s done. Now there’s nothing.”

Her alarm progressed to full-out panic. “Don’t say that!” she protested, wanting to reach across the table to hit him but too scared even to scold. “What about – Charlie told me about a boy. A Japanese boy. He said you two were close….” She didn’t know how to ask what she wanted. Charlie told her they were close, possibly intimate. She’d hoped Ash had finally found someone to love.

His mouth pressed into a hard line. “Eiji has nothing to do with me anymore,” he said, an edge creeping into his voice. “He’s going back to Japan tomorrow.”

Nadia’s heart sank. She thought that love would be his salvation. She looked at him helplessly, her heart heavy with love and pain. Helplessness was a familiar feeling for her where Ash Lynx was concerned. She spent years being worried and frustrated, unable to influence him or Shorter in the least as they made one bad choice after another.

“I have enemies. I’m tired of living like this, of always peeking around corners and sleeping with a gun in my hand. I need to start over. Your grandmother might have what I need to do that.” He leaned his forehead on one hand and closed his eyes. “I didn’t even take the time to research this – I came right over as soon as I thought of it.”

Nadia realized what he was talking about. “You want to fake your death,” she said wonderingly. “You want the Moonflower Cycle.” It was almost legendary, this cycle of three separate drugs that could take someone through death and back to life again.

Ash nodded, reaching over to grasp both of Nadia’s hands, steadying them. She hadn’t realized they were trembling. “Your grandmother is my only chance,” he said softly.

She shook her head. “But- But there’s no way. It’s dangerous. And so expensive.” She squeezed his fingers. “Yeye never carried that kind of thing at the store – it’s not legal in this country. It costs thousands of dollars for even an ounce.” Nadia had never heard of anyone actually using the toxins in the Moonflower Cycle – if the dosage and timing wasn’t exactly right, it was fatal.

Sticking his hand into his coat, Ash fished around in the inside pocket. “The money isn’t a problem,” he said, pulling out a thick bundle of cash. He put it on the table in front of her. Nadia’s eyes widened. They were all hundreds. The bank band wrapped around them read $10,000. “There’s more, if that’s not enough,” he said evenly. “Please, Nadia. I need this.”

She stared at it, horrified. She’d never seen that much money before. She probably never would again. It looked stark and obscene against the chipped and pitted wood of her mother’s old kitchen table. Almost against her will, her fingers stretched out to touch one crisp bill. She started shaking again, feeling a pain in the pit of her stomach. “My god, Ash,” she whispered unsteadily. “Where the hell did you get this?”

Those green eyes widened. “It’s mine,” he told her. “I swear, Nadia. I- I inherited it.”

Lord, she wanted to believe him. As far as she knew, Ash had never lied to her. But there was still so much she didn’t know. What had he and Sing been up to that night they used the tunnel beneath the Chang Dai? Why had the Lees been gunning for him? He'd never been tangled up in Chinatown politics before.

She needed to know everything. About the money. About Shorter. Everything. She was terrified of knowing any of it. Swallowing her fear, she faced him bravely. “It’s time for you to tell me what happened to my brother,” she said, looking him directly in the eyes.

Ash looked at the ceiling. He looked past her into the dark living room. He ran a hand through his hair. “I owe you that,” he said quietly, “but it’s not pretty.”

She never expected it to be a pretty death, but as Ash started talking, Nadia realized that she never had any idea just how vicious it could be. He talked of a drug that turned his brother into a vegetable, of the Corsican mafia and the man who forced him into the role of lover and heir. His voice faltered more than once, and Nadia held his hand as he described the scene in Golzine’s basement dungeon. They both cried when he spoke of grabbing the gun that Arthur left him, of taking the only choice offered.

He apologized over and over, picking at the cracked leather of his jacket sleeves and pulling tufts of wool from the cuffs. She saw the tears that dripped past his jaw and onto the table. Nadia didn’t know what to say; she wiped her own tears and threaded her damp fingers between his, clinging tightly. As much as she needed someone to comfort her, she needed to be a rock for this broken boy who had already lived and seen way too much.

She listened as he continued, explaining Dr. Mannerheim’s experiments and how he and Cain and Sing ended up facing off against Golzine and Colonel Foxx. She read between some of the lines, and when he finished, she understood the new lines on his face and the reason his smiles had become weary and shallow. The sun was coming up – the light outside was a shifting, pre-dawn grey.

She stood up and went to the fridge, pulling a couple of beers from the door. She handed one to Ash. They drank together, watching the sunrise.

Nadia would have to tell Charlie that Ash had been there. Too much had changed, and he would see the difference in her face. And besides, there was no way she could carry all of that by herself. Charlie was hers to lean on, to depend on. He’d made it clear that he intended to support her in anything. But first Ash had to be safely gone.

The bundle of money was still untouched on the table. Nadia picked it up. It was heavy. There was a lot depending on that money. Ash’s freedom. She wrapped the bundle in aluminum foil and tucked it into the back of the freezer. “It’ll be safe there,” she explained to Ash’s startled eyes.

“The Moonflower Cycle will probably kill you, you know,” she said softly, taking another sip of her beer. “Even Nainai has never prepared it – there’s no way to know if the dosage is correct.”

Ash nodded. “I’ll take my chances,” he said.

She looked at him sideways. “This isn’t for Eiji Okumura, is it? You’re doing this for yourself?”

“I told you, he has nothing to do with me anymore.” He looked desperately sad.

She heard Charlie stirring upstairs. Ash noticed it too, his eyes flicking to the ceiling. “Meet me at the apothecary at nine,” she told him, taking the near-empty beer can from his fingers. “I’ll see what I can do.”

She stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. She heard his soft exhale at the contact and wondered how long it had been since he’d received any kind of affection from anyone. Taking his arm, she guided him to the back door. “Take care,” she whispered, wanting to smooth his hair but keeping her hands at her sides.

He smiled softly. “Thanks, Nadia,” he murmured. A moment later he was over the fence and disappearing into the wilds of Chinatown.

She watched him go, fresh tears sliding down her cheeks. In a way it was his fault that Shorter had been tangled up in this at all, but she couldn’t find a way to blame him. In a lot of ways, he’d saved her brother. Nadia and her family owed him a debt.

Charlie found her there, staring out into the back lot. He slid his arms around her from behind. “Are you okay?” he asked, kissing behind her ear.

She leaned back against his chest. “I just woke up,” she explained, “from a very bad dream."

Chapter 3

“Hey Alex!” Ash called. He shoved aside the dirty blue curtain that had been nailed to the doorframe and glanced into the bedroom. His lieutenant was still sound asleep on the sagging bed. He wasn’t alone.

“Alex!” he barked in his boss-voice, this time rapping the doorframe with his knuckles.

The boy sat up like he’d been electrified. The girl sleeping next to him, too, her curly brown hair not quite long enough to cover her full, bare breasts. Ash watched her blink sleepily from the hallway, realizing it was rude and tacky but unable to look away. He hadn’t so much as thought of a girl in a long time – could it really have been over a year? Her breasts, her tapering waist, the hickeys on her neck and abdomen all made him think of sex in a way he’d successfully avoided for months.

The memory of Eiji in open pajamas, his hair wild with bed head slipped into his mind unbidden. It was an image Ash had always cherished, but he pushed it away now, unable to deal with it while his body was stirring with sexual longing.

“C-coming Boss!” Alex swung his naked legs from beneath the blanket, in one swift movement sliding them into a pair of jeans that had been crumpled on the floor.

The girl looked up at the doorway, for an instant startled to see someone there. She reached for the blanket and then stopped, a slow smile pulling at the edges of her mouth. She looked boldly into Ash’s eyes and flipped her hair back over her shoulders, baring her breasts completely, her dusky nipples tightening. Ash’s mouth went dry, but he kept his face slack, adopting the bored expression that used to infuriate Dino.

Her dark eyes narrowed and she said something that Ash couldn’t hear, a scowling pout on her not-so-pretty face. Alex answered her, shrugged, and turned away, wiggling the tight denim over his bare ass.

Ash turned away, embarrassed. He felt like a voyeur and a pervert, and her blatant come-on just made him feel worse. He knew the guys were human – they’d talk about sexual conquests all the damn time, if he let them – but this was too intimate to observe. It was one thing to know Alex fucked a lot of women, but another thing entirely to be aroused by the shadows of his love bites on pale skin. He closed his eyes.

“Hey Ash,” Alex said suddenly, hopping out the door on one foot while he tried to pull a sneaker on the other. He grinned, and once he was standing, ran a hand through his unruly hair. “Sorry ‘bout that. I didn’t know you were coming by this morning.”

Ash shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he insisted, motioning toward the curtain and the naked girl behind it. “I didn’t know your girlfriend was here.”

“She’s not my--” he cut off suddenly and flushed pink. “Don’t mind her,” he insisted. “She’s uh, going home soon anyway.”

“Not your girlfriend?” Ash asked, amusement edging out his arousal and embarrassment. He’d seen that look on Alex’s face before, that awkward mix of conquest and shame.

His lieutenant shook his head. “I been calling her Shelly,” he said in a low voice, “but now I’m thinkin’ maybe her name’s Kelly.”

Ash laughed. He hadn’t even realized he’d missed it, but it’d been forever since any of his conversations with Alex had been about anything other than war tactics and staying alive. Without discussing it, they walked to the stairs and up to the roof. Ash was glad to be out in the air again.

“I’m glad you showed up,” Alex was saying as he stepped out to the tarpaper and gravel rooftop. “Kong, Bones, an’ me wanna come with you to say goodbye to Eiji today.”

“You guys go without me,” Ash said as casually as he could muster. “I already said goodbye.” The breeze picked up, and the cold air made him shiver.

Alex stopped and stared. “You’re kiddin’ me, right? You gotta come. Eiji’s gonna be expectin’ you to see him off.”

Ash’s chest hurt. It was true – Eiji would look for him until the last minute before he had to get on that plane. It made Ash angry to think of Eiji so disappointed. Even worse to know that it was because of him. “I said I wasn’t coming,” he snarled. “Eiji already knows, so leave me the fuck alone about it.”

Backing up three steps, Alex put his hands up, making it clear that he wasn’t interested in picking a fight. Ash was almost sorry he wasn’t. Throwing a few punches – even at a good friend like Alex – might make him feel better.

He sighed. He had to get his emotions under control. What the hell kind of boss took his frustrations out on his crew? Taking a deep breath, he looked out over the buildings to the glimmer of morning sunlight on the harbor. He reminded himself that his fight was over; his lingering anger was unnecessary.

“Alex, I need you to help me with something,” he said seriously, switching to the reason he came in the first place. “But first I need you to swear that this conversation stays between you and me.”

His lieutenant grinned, obviously relieved that Ash didn’t stay mad. “Sure thing, Boss. You know I always got your back.”

It wasn’t enough. He needed Alex to understand how serious the situation was. “I’m not kidding,” he reiterated. “What you hear today, you take to the grave.”

Alex’s face changed; the easy lines of his grin slid into a determined grimace. “Absolutely.”

Ash already knew he could trust Alex. He’d thought a lot that morning about who he would take into confidence. He needed someone strong and resourceful – someone who would be there for Nadia in case the pressure was too much to handle. Also, he needed someone physically able to move his body.

The first person he’d thought of – and rejected – was Max. The old man was solid, trustworthy, and everything he needed in a partner, but unfortunately, he also was sentimental and prone to over-thinking. In other words, he couldn’t count on him not to cave the instant he faced Eiji’s wavering voice on the telephone. Besides, he had Jessica and Michael to think about – Max’s family had been dragged into Ash’s problems too much already.

Cain was another option, but Ash couldn’t imagine asking him. It felt too intimate, somehow, planning a death together. Even a false one. He could, however, see himself working that closely with Sing. But Sing’s responsibility to Chinatown was also a responsibility to the Lee family, and Ash didn’t know what kind of sway that sick bastard Yut Lung might actually have over the kid.

That left Alex. When Ash first considered him, he remembered why he’d made him his second in the first place. There was no one steadier than Alex. No one more loyal. He wasn’t always the fastest thinker in the group, but he had heart. And instincts. More than once, Alex’s seemingly groundless hunches had saved their asses. The more he thought about it that morning, the more appropriate it seemed to have Alex help him.

“I’m going away. Permanently. And I need your help.”

***

Twenty minutes later they were at Hamilton Fish Park, relaxing on a bench and eating breakfast. A pair of early risers were playing one-on-one before school, their backpacks and books heaped in a pile at the far edge of the court. Both wore the cheap blue oxford shirts and khaki pants of their school’s uniform, but one had already taken a nasty fall and torn a gash into the knee. Ash watched them play, cradling a steaming Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hands. Alex was taking deep swigs from a bottle of Pepsi and chomping on a submarine sandwich.

Ash had explained his plan, but so far, Alex wasn’t too enthusiastic. Confused was a better way to describe how the other boy had handled the news. Ash knew he had a lot of questions, but so far, he hadn’t asked a single one. Alex wasn’t one to question things, though – he usually took orders and left his speculations unvoiced.

Crumpling the brown-paper sandwich wrapper in his fist, Alex scratched his chin like an old man. “I suppose after all this, you’ll just fly over to Tokyo,” he said slowly, apparently deciding that, this time, it was worthwhile to seek answers.

“Izumo,” Ash corrected without thinking. Since he met Eiji, it bugged the hell out him that Americans thought everybody in Japan came from Tokyo.

“So you are leaving to be with Eiji, then?” Alex guessed. He pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket and offered one to Ash, who shook his head. Shrugging, the other boy fished out one for himself. He cupped his hands to block the wind as he lit it.

Every time he heard the name, it hurt. There was too much Ash hadn’t settled with himself yet. “No,” he insisted, shaking his head. “Believe it or not, this isn’t about him.”

Alex looked confused. “But – doesn’t he know about this?”

The hint of accusation in his friend’s voice shamed him. He took a long drink of his coffee and shook his head, unable to meet Alex’s gaze.

“So you’re just gonna let him think you’re dead?” Alex’s voice had an edge now, one he’d never used with his boss. “What do you think he’ll do when he hears the news, huh? You think he’ll be okay?”

Ash reminded himself it was better that way. It was the only way to guarantee that Eiji moved on. Sure, it would hurt at first – Ash would be in pain too. Hell, he was already in pain.

“I’m pretty damn sure that kind of news will destroy him,” Alex predicted, smashing the butt of his half-finished cigarette beneath his heel. His voice was hard, like he expected to do something about it.

Ash’s legs tensed, ready to pull him to his feet if he needed to fight this out. He set his coffee on the ground and thrust his clenched fists into the pockets of his trench coat. “And I’m pretty damn sure it’s not your concern how I deal with Eiji,” Ash defended. He hasn’t expected this, to feel backed into a corner by Alex of all people. “I’ve already made up my mind. I’m never gonna fucking see him again, and that’s that.”

His friend stared at him, his face a picture of shock and outrage. Clearly he wanted to say more; Ash silently willed him to keep his mouth shut. He didn’t need this. There wasn’t anything Alex could say that he hadn’t already thought himself, nothing he could blame him for that wasn’t already hanging over him like a death warrant.

“So why, then?” Alex asked finally, his voice hard. He was watching the kids playing ball, but his body was stiff and ready for a fight if that was what was coming. “If it’s not for Eiji, then why bother?”

“What do you mean?”

“’Cause this life used to be good enough!” the boy insisted. He swung around, smashing a fist against the back of the bench. “You never needed Golzine’s money or fancy clothes. You never wanted shit other than what you found out here on the street. What you found with us.” He looked at Ash, his face red and angry. “But since you met Eiji, nothin’ has been good enough for you!”

“Just a goddamn minute,” Ash interjected.

Alex jumped to his feet. “You wait! I ain’t finished!”

Ash’s jaw tightened, but he didn’t move. He wasn’t used to being talked to like that, but he kept his silence.

“I’m not saying it was Eiji’s fault,” Alex continued. “It wasn’t like he cared about the money or any of that shit. He was just as happy hanging with us here as at that goddamn apartment. You’re the only one who was unsatisfied. You’re the only one who thinks you deserve more, and I don’t fucking get it.

“So now you’re just done? Now you’re walking away from everything you done here and goin’ to live straight with Golzine’s cash and all that blood on your hands?” Alex was pacing now, rage an adrenaline forcing him to keep moving. “If it ain’t about bein’ with Eiji, then why the fuck leave at all?”

He stared hard at Ash, his eyes squinting in the sunlight as he continued. “I can get that you don’t wanna be boss no more, but I thought we was more than that. Friends.” His voice faltered and he looked embarrassed, but his gaze didn’t waver.

Ash looked into those clear blue eyes, taken aback by Alex’s honesty as much as his anger. Friends. He liked that.

“If it was about Eiji, I’d get it,” Alex went on in a quieter voice. The frustration was still there, was it was as if his anger had drained. “You guys got something going that no one else around here can touch. Walkin’ away from your set to protect that makes sense to me. Leaving for no reason? That don’t make sense to anyone.”

Ash waited, but Alex’s silence stretched for more than just a pause. “Are you finished?” he asked at last.

Alex dropped onto the bench next to him and crossed his arms. “Yeah,” he said. “I said what I wanted.” His blustering was over and now his posture was defensive. Even if Ash had wanted to yell, he couldn’t. It must’ve taken a lot for Alex to stand up to him like that, and this was clearly something he’d been thinking about, not just some out-of-the-blue attack. Ash wondered how long it’d been building.

“I’m not going to explain myself,” Ash said quietly, and was relieved to see his words didn’t trigger another outburst from Alex. “But there’s no way I could leave if I didn’t know that everyone would be safe in your hands. And I know you’ve got no respect for anything that originated with Golzine, but I want you to have the apartment, anyway,” he says, pulling the folded up deed from his pocket. “Max Lobo can help you sell it, after. Split the cash between the boys or keep it yourself and go to college or something.”

Alex took the paper automatically, shoving it into his pocket without looking at it. His face had lost all of its agitation. He watched Ash with a concerned, almost soft expression.

“I just want to be someone who’s good enough for him,” Ash added, looking past the basketball courts to the expanse of green behind them. “I want to live in a way that would make him proud.”

Alex didn’t need to ask who he was talking about. “Why does that matter if you’re ‘never gonna fucking see him again,’ huh?” His voice was friendly, almost chiding.

Ash smiled. “I don’t know,” he answered wistfully. “But somehow it does.”

He glanced at his watch. They’d spent a lot of time there, hashing it out. Nadia was expecting them at her grandmother’s shop in less than ten minutes. “We gotta go,” he said, standing up and tossing his coffee into a trashcan. “We have a date in Chinatown.”

“Is she hot?” Alex asked, a smirk pulling up the edges of his lips.

“Damn hot, but if you so much as think about it, I’ll break your kneecaps.”

Chapter 4

Ash was trying to read. He couldn’t concentrate on anything, though, beyond the tick-clicking of his watch. It was Dino’s watch, actually – the first thing he’d ever stolen from the man. Ash loved its platinum face and Italian leather band, and recently it’d gained significance as a kind of memento, to remind him of things he’d spent his whole life trying to forget.

That afternoon it was marking the time remaining before Eiji left him forever, and Ash found himself longing to record each last minute, as if the whole world was ending rather than this one small segment of his one small life. It felt a bit like holding his breath underwater – he had no choice but to do it, but the pain in his chest was getting more intense by the second. At first he thought it would be easier not to know the time, but after checking it six times in five minutes, he finally put the wristwatch on the table next to him.

He couldn’t remember what New York felt like before Eiji had come, so he didn’t know what to expect once he was gone. He didn’t know if two o’clock was going to be his salvation or his end.

Other than the watch, one other object occupied his attention. It was a small vial of golden liquid. More than once he pulled it out of his pocket to study it in the light. It looked like olive oil. It had cost almost half of the money he’d given Nadia.

The old lady at the apothecary had weighed him, ordering him to take his clothes off for accuracy and tut-tutting over the half of a bagel he’d eaten for breakfast. She then measured his arms, legs, and head, poking and prodding him with cold fingers and barking in Chinese at a weary-looking girl Nadia’s age who jotted whatever she said into a notebook. “Dosage must be perfect for body mass or you die,” she told him. It made him appreciate the necessity of being buck-naked in front of her and the girl.

He and Alex then waited while the old lady and her assistant locked themselves in the back room. Nadia manned the shop and the boys went outside to smoke while they waited. After almost two hours, Shorter’s sister came outside.

“I can’t get the rest for at least a week,” she’d said apologetically as she pressed the tiny bottle into his hand. “Probably longer. We wrote to Nainai’s cousin in China, to see if he could track the other two parts down for us. We also sent a telegram to my auntie in San Francisco; she has a much larger shop and might have something there.”

She’d given them a rundown of the Moonflower Sequence and its rules. The first dose, called ‘Dawn,’ effectively put a person into a dormant stage – like a frog or turtle in winter. It slowed the heartbeat to almost nothing and cooled the body, keeping only the most basic brain functions going. During that time, it would seem as though Ash were dead, as long as no one were given the chance to look too closely.

The second dose needed to be administered within twenty-four hours of the first. Without it, Ash’s systems would simply slow to a stop and he would die. It was called ‘Dusk,’ and it slowly woke the body over a four- or five-day period. “You’ll be very vulnerable during those days,” Nadia told him. “So you’ll need someone – Alex or me – to stay with you pretty much constantly.” It had ingredients that weren’t legal in the US, but strangely, wasn’t fatally toxic like the other two.

The third dose was a bit of a mystery to Nadia and her grandmother. “There’s not much written about it. All we can find is that the ‘Moonrise’ part of the cycle ‘restores free will to the victim,’ whatever that means.”

Alex looked worried. “Victim?” he asked uneasily. “Why does it use that word?”

Nadia shook her head. “It’s a translation,” she explained, looking more than a bit ill at ease herself. “No one seems to know very much about this,” she warned. “Different books say different things, and almost none of the authors seem to have firsthand experience.” She looked at Ash for a long moment, her eyes soft with worry. “There’s a very good chance that first dose will kill you,” she told him seriously.

“You sure you want to do this, Boss?” Alex asked, looking at Ash with wide eyes.

Ash tightened his jaw in determination. As far as he could tell, it was the only way. He nodded.

Nadia sighed. “Will you at least let me hold on to that until we have the rest?” she asked.

He slipped the vial into his pocket. “I’d rather keep it.”

Now he touched the cool glass. To be honest, the stuff terrified him. He didn’t even know what the hell was in it. The book in front of him said that the flesh of the puffer fish had similar properties, but the term “Moonflower Cycle” or any Chinese equivalent didn’t show up anywhere.

Ash took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. The watch read 12:17. One hour and forty-three minutes left.

***

Forty-two minutes and thirty-six seconds later, Ash still couldn’t concentrate. He’d found a book on Chinese medicine, but he couldn’t push himself to read past the basics of pressure points and acupuncture. The Moonflower Cycle hadn’t been listed in the index, but he thought he could find something useful if he could just focus. The words kept running together on the page and his mind wandered back to Eiji, wondering if he was really healed enough to travel, no matter what the doctors said.

To make matters worse, someone was watching him. Ash felt it like a cool breeze on the back of his neck. He looked up, sliding his glasses from his eyes.

Ash saw Sing right away. He looked even smaller, standing on tiptoe in the huge doorway of the reading room. His dark eyes scanned the bowed heads of the reading public before they met Ash’s. The boy set his jaw in a determined grimace and hurried a weaving path between the long tables.

Ash closed the book he’d been reading and laid his arm over the title. Sing was a sharp kid – one look at that book and he’d be asking all the right questions.

The Chinese boy’s expression got fiercer as he approached. “Ash!” he said in a normal voice as soon as he was close enough.

“Shh!” the blond hissed, glancing around. “Can’t you tell we’re in a goddamned library?” His voice was barely a whisper, but a few nearby people looked up, probably surprised that his polite façade slipped the moment he opened his mouth.

“I need to talk to you,” Sing insisted, trying to whisper but failing miserably. “Eiji says you haven’t been to see him and –”

Ash lifted a hand, silencing him. “Outside,” he ordered. He didn’t want to have this conversation, least of all with Sing Soo-Ling. He suspected the boy wouldn’t shut up until he said his piece, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to bother everyone else with it.

Sing swallowed the rest of his accusation, going slightly pale. Wordlessly, he followed Ash out the front doors. Ash passed through the arching doorways, his shoes clicking on the marble floor. He didn’t adjust his pace, not caring that Sing had to take two steps for each of his long strides. What right did he have to question him about this? He had nothing to do with him and Eiji.

When they were outside, between the marble lions and beneath the overcast white sky, Ash turned suddenly. He was more that a bit pleased that Sing took a startled step back. “You have my undivided attention,” he said in a voice harder than he intended. “So speak.”

Sing thrust a white envelope into his hands. Dear Ash, the outside read in a hand he didn’t recognize. His heart lurched. Eiji. He stared at it, trying to decipher whether or not the handwriting was shaky. He wondered again if it was okay for Eiji to fly.

“Why didn’t you go see him, Ash?” Sing was saying, his voice loud again. “He’s goin’ back to Japan! He’s leavin’ today!”

Ash closed his eyes for a long moment. Eiji wrote him a letter. Those pages – he squeezed the thick envelope – were Eiji’s thoughts. For him. “I know,” he told Sing, feeling miserable and ashamed of himself. He could’ve written to Eiji, too, if he’d thought of it.

Sing gaped at him. “You knew?” he asked in a soft, startled tone.

Ash didn’t answer. Why the hell was this so hard for people to understand?

“So how come?” Sing demanded, his hands balling into fists. “You guys’re tight! He’s your friend!” His voice was shaking with rage, and Ash wondered when he’d started to care so damned much.

“That’s exactly why!” he yelled, determined to shut the guy up. He didn’t need Sing to tell him what Eiji was to him. He didn’t need anyone. “I want him to go back to his world,” Ash explained through gritted teeth. His hands were shaking; he closed them into fists only to discover that it wasn’t just his hands. His whole body shook. “Mine’s full of guns and death and I don’t want him to have anything to do with that crap ever again!” He remembered how he looked, fragile and colorless on the floor of that goddamned crack house, his hot blood forming a dark pool around his shoulders. A wave of nausea made his stomach lurch. Never again, he promised himself.

Sing stared at him, his raging words apparently lost. Ash turned away. “Okay,” the younger boy said dumbly. “But he’s leaving today. Ain’t you got stuff you wanna tell him?”

Ash didn’t look at him. He couldn’t. He recognized the desperation in Sing’s voice. It was a hollow echo of his own feelings. So that’s how it was. All this time, it never occurred to him that someone else might care for Eiji.

“Ash!” Sing barked. He’d never talked to him in that tone. “You got nothing to say to Eiji?” It was a challenge.

Ash didn’t have any words. For Eiji or Sing or anybody. He closed his eyes, concentrating on breathing and not crying. The smooth texture of the envelope in his hand was the only thing grounding him. He felt like he was crumbling. If Sing pushed any harder, he’d cave.

Sing’s breath came hard, like he’d been running. Or fighting. “Jeez!” he screamed like a little kid. “You stubborn asshole! I’ve had it with you!”

Ash didn’t turn around, even when he heard the slap of sneakers on the marble stairs. He stared at the blue-white paper in his hands. He was afraid of what was in there. Eiji’s thoughts. His feelings. Whether it was a farewell or a plea, Ash wasn’t sure he could deal with it. His own emotions were simmering inside of him – adding Eiji’s might make them boil over. He collapsed onto a nearby bench and summoned his courage.

His fingers shook as he opened the envelope. A thick, dark blue paper slid out. Ash looked at it, his brain hardly registering what he was seeing. It was a plane ticket to Japan.

One way.

Ash stared. He understood what Eiji was saying. He remembered the request he’d made of Eiji that night a million years ago, imagining it in his friend’s soft accent: stay with me.

He slid the ticket back into the envelope, unsteadily fishing out the thin pages of stationery tucked inside. Eiji’s writing was clear and strong. He hardly misspelled anything. Ash read it slowly, absorbing every nuance of every word. He studied the way the ink flowed from the pen, the way the pen left soft ridges he could feel through the back of the paper. He read certain phrases over and over. I always wanted to protect you. You can change your fate. My soul is always with you.

The realization of what this meant hit Ash suddenly. How could he let Eiji leave? How could he live the rest of his life, pretending he never felt this way? Knowing Eiji felt the same and suffered for it?

It wasn’t possible.

He lurched to his feet. He had less than a half hour to get to the airport. He needed a taxi, and even that might not be fast enough. But even if he missed Eiji’s plane, that didn’t mean he couldn’t follow. Ash ran down the heavy marble steps, already planning out what to say to him.

Ash barely noticed the person passing on the street. A cab was headed toward him, and he was hurrying to the curb, already beginning to lift his arm to hail it. The person was no one – just a random passerby of no consequence.

His mind barely registered the bumping of shoulders, the familiar scent of the cologne popular among the guys in Sing’s set. His abdomen was on fire. He remembered this feeling, remembered Arthur’s knife connecting, slicing.

Eiji!

Ash grasped Lao’s shoulder – because it had to be Lao, no one else made sense – bracing himself as his knife dug deeper into the soft flesh of his belly. The pain. The pain was intense. Ash was instantly out of breath.

“Why?” Lao demanded in a shocked voice. “Why didn’t you see me coming?” He sounded angry, and Ash wondered if he maybe hadn’t planned on succeeding. “You ain’t never let your guard down before. What the hell happened to you?”

Gun. Ash reached painfully behind him, his fingers fumbling on the pistol tucked into the waistband of his jeans. He shoved it against Lao’s body and pulled the trigger before the Chinese boy had any chance to react.

Lao staggered back, pulling his blade with him. Blood gushed from Ash’s wound; he put a trembling hand up to staunch it. Sing’s brother looked terrible, like he hadn’t slept in a week or more. Blood blossomed on his shirt, turning the white cotton dark red.

“You missed all my vital organs, you idiot,” Ash ground out through clenched teeth. He’d gotten a major blood vessel, though. So instead of dying immediately, he’d have to suffer through a painful bleed-out first. He suddenly hated Lao with a passion he hadn’t considered possible. His future with Eiji was gone. The boy in front of him had stolen his most precious thing.

Lao leaned back against the library building. “So did you, asshole,” he gasped. “Good enough, though. Neither of us is gonna make it.”

He closed his eyes, taking a staggering breath. When he looked at Ash again, his face was calmer. “Sorry about this,” he said in a fading voice. “But I just…couldn’t let you…kill Sing.”

Ash couldn’t feel the gun in his hand. Sing? Hadn’t he settled things with Sing? He was confused. Getting light headed. He watched Lao slump, unconscious, against the wall.

The sound of blood splattering on paper made him look down. Eiji’s letter. It was sprawled obscenely on the ground, gathering droplets of blood from Ash’s dripping wound.

That letter was the only proof he had that anyone had ever loved him in his whole life.

He fell to his knees, desperate to save Eiji’s words. Eiji’s thoughts. He clutched at the pages with his bloody fingers. The wind picked up and the envelope and ticket skittered away. Ash strained, but it was out of reach. He couldn’t catch his breath. He looked at the pages clenched in his fist. Three. He had them all. The ticket was useless now, anyway.

Where was the gun? In his coat pocket. Ash climbed to his feet. He needed a hospital, but it was too late. They’d never get to him in time. The library, then. He climbed the steps with great effort, leaning against one of the lions as he caught his breath at the top.

He forced himself to think, to clear his mind and focus. Was there anything he could do? Any way to survive this?

The vial.

Ash fished it from his pocket, cursing the moments he wasted just trying to bend his arm the right way. The glass was slippery and he almost dropped it. He curled his damp fingers around it and went into the library.

Once inside, Ash struggled to walk upright, to not draw attention to himself. The pain was unbearable – his vision went dark twice before he found his favorite seat in his favorite reading room.

With fumbling hands, he unscrewed the cap and looked at the stuff. Dawn. For a moonflower, dawn meant death. He would definitely die without it, so the risk didn’t seem nearly so great. If it slowed his heartbeat enough, he might not bleed to death. The odds that Nadia would find him in time, that she’d even be able to get the next round, were astronomically slim. But a chance was a chance.

Ash hesitated just a moment before drinking. It looked vile. He found himself ridiculously hoping that it wouldn’t taste bad.

The solution was to down it like a shot of whiskey. It burned, but the taste was vaguely herbal. The vial slipped from his fingers and rolled beneath the table.

Not knowing how long it would take, Ash arranged Eiji’s pages in order on the table in front of him. He’d spoiled the perfect lines with his blood and sweat. His vision blurred, but he kept trying to read. You are not alone, Ash, Eiji said. I am with you. My soul is always with you.

He didn’t realize he was crying until tears splattered the words, mingling with the blood to form watery pink stains. Eiji had the most beautiful soul. Ash could almost feel it beside him. He didn’t feel lonely at all.

A plane roared overhead. Ash looked up through the window. It probably wasn’t Eiji’s. It seemed too soon. He read the rest of the letter, ignoring the way the letters swam before his eyes. You are my best friend, Ash.

When the darkness closed around him, Ash didn’t know if he was dying or just passing out. He didn’t know if the stuff Nadia had given him had worked. Or if it’d just managed to kill him before Lao’s knife could. Either way, the blackness was welcome. The darker the world became around him, the less pain he felt.

And Eiji was always with him. Ash smiled.

Chapter 5

Sing was numb. Even the sterile hospital smell and aggressive air conditioning did nothing stir him from his nearly comatose position in the stiff-backed waiting room chair. To say his day had gone downhill after seeing Eiji off at the airport would be the understatement of a lifetime.

Lao was dead.

The words repeated themselves over and over in his head, but Sing didn’t think he felt the way he ought to feel about losing his older brother. He didn’t feel anything. Their mother got the call from the police more than two hours before, and she was so agitated she needed to be sedated. Now he was waiting while she rested on a spare gurney, ready to take her home as soon as the nurse said it was okay.

A shopping bag next to his chair held all of Lao’s things. There wasn’t much – his wallet, his shoes. His t-shirt, stained red-brown and stiff. They hardly seemed to belong to anyone anymore, certainly not to Sing’s brother. He wondered what was wrong with him, that he felt absolutely nothing.

The coroner’s assistant told them it was a gunshot wound. Their mother collapsed then, lapsing into frantic Chinese as she insisted that Lao’s destiny was decided as soon as he took up with Shorter Wong and his gang of no-good punks. She had the presence of mind to shoot Sing a dirty look before the nurses led her away, letting him know that she blamed him, too, for the death of her first son.

But she didn’t understand Lao the way Sing did. She didn’t realize that without a set to follow, he was a loose cannon. Sure, he was gentle and sweet with her – with Sing too, normally – but he didn’t have the ambition to accomplish things on his own. He liked shortcuts. Without Shorter’s protection and influence, Lao would’ve ended up in prison or worse years before.

He hadn’t even begun to think about who might’ve done this. He wasn’t naïve enough to believe that it was random. Lao’s knife was found near him, covered in someone else’s blood. Sing didn’t know how many enemies his brother might’ve made. Maybe Lao had started the fight; maybe he hadn’t. Sing was going to find out.

He dropped his head into his hands. This wasn’t possible. How could Lao be dead? Sing had been on the verge of convincing him to do something better with his life, to finish high school and get a real job. Ash Lynx’s little war against Golzine interrupted that. Then there was the incident with John Lee and Shao Tai. And then Sing had kicked him out of the gang. But he’d meant to get back on track with Lao.

He’d planned to find him tomorrow, to talk things over while they were alone, while no one else’s feelings could get Lao worked up. But what did his plans mean now?

“McGinnis!” A uniformed cop came down the hall, calling out to the detective who had talked with Sing’s mother. Thinking he might get more information about Lao, Sing paid attention.

“We think we got the shooter,” the cop told McGinnis in a low voice. “Body found in the library, though he had no ID on him.”

“A John Doe?” the detective asked, frowning.

The cop shrugged. “They’re printing him right now,” he explained. “But I don’t know if we’ll get a match. This guy looks like some rich kid – not the type that’d be in the system at all.”

They started to walk away, and Sing had to strain to hear the rest.

“The kid bled to death from the stabbing. He had the gun on him. The captain figures it was a mugging that went bad. There’s no way Yuen-Tai would’a guessed the kid was packing.”

A rich kid found in the library? Sing’s heart was pounding. There was only one rich kid he could imagine his brother having beef with, and he knew for a fact that he’d been hanging around the public library that afternoon. Panic welled up in his throat. How the fuck could Lao even come close to Ash Lynx?

He had to know. If Ash was really dead, he had to see for himself. It wasn’t possible. Though he logically knew better, Sing always thought Ash was untouchable. And what of Eiji? The older boy’s face flitted through Sing’s mind for just an instant before he willfully shoved it away. He absolutely couldn’t think about Eiji yet.

Leaving his brother’s things next to the chair, Sing got up and followed the cops down the hall. While they waited for the elevator, he slipped through the door to the stairwell. Once it latched safely behind him, he darted down the steps, taking them two and sometimes three at a time. More than once he had to grab the handrail to keep from tumbling headfirst down the concrete stairs.

He took a deep breath before he opened the door to the basement level. He’d already been down there once that day, so he was pretty sure he could find the right place, and he knew he had to hurry if he expected to get there before the cops, but still he hesitated. He was scared. He didn’t want to believe that Ash was dead. Even more, he didn’t want to believe he was dead because of Lao.

The double doors leading to the morgue flew open just as Sing peeked out from the stairwell. The coroner and his assistant were discussing the upcoming Yankees’ season as they headed up the hall. Assuming no one else was working the morgue that night, it looked like the coast was clear.

He darted through the doors before they stopped swinging, coming to a skidding stop in the large grey-tiled room where they kept the bodies. The walls were lined with drawers – Sing wondered briefly which one was Lao’s. Only one of the stainless steel operating tables was being used, and Sing forced the thought of his brother from his mind as he approached. The room reeked of formaldehyde and generic sterile hospital smells, but it was the strange other scent that lingered beneath that disturbed Sing. His stomach lurched – being in that place twice in one day was way too much.

Beneath the bright florescent lights, the body on the table looked strange, but still heartbreakingly familiar. His face was pale and his shaggy blond hair looked stark and white. His eyes were closed and Sing noticed for the first time that his eyelashes were long and dark. It was Ash. There was no question. Sing stared at the way his lips were pulled up into a smile – who the hell smiled while they bled to death?

In spite of himself, he reached out a finger to trace the shiny line of a scar across Ash’s bicep. Alex told him he got that scar from scratching at an itchy sunburn. It was probably the only one he didn’t get while fighting. His skin was cool to the touch – not as cold as he expected, but definitely not warm, living flesh.

Shivering, Sing jammed his fists into his pockets, grasping the fabric inside to keep his hands from shaking. It didn’t seem real, even with the evidence lying before him. Sing closed his eyes and backed away.

He heard voices outside the doors. Darting into a shadowy corner, Sing crouched on the floor and pulled a tall metal trashcan in front of him. It was a pretty sad hiding place, but if they didn’t look around, he’d be fine.

The two police officers from before came in with the coroner and one other guy; he was wearing a suit, but he wore his badge on his belt – another cop. He stood close to where Sing was hiding, and the boy could read his name: Detective Louis Wilson. “The prints came back positive as Ash Lynx,” Wilson was saying.

The uniformed cop looked confused. “But Ash Lynx died last year,” he protested, shaking his head. “You remember, right? It was all over the news.”

McGinnis didn’t look as surprised. “We’ve suspected for a while that those reports were false,” he said, nodding at the cop who’d run the prints. He glanced at the body. “Ash Lynx, huh? Pretty extreme way to rob the city of a trial, don’t you think, son?”

They all got a chuckle out of that and Sing ignored the anger that surged in him at their disrespectful attitude. “Let’s see if we can get someone in here to give us a positive ID anyway,” the detective continued. “Is Dickinson around? He used to work pretty closely with this kid, if I remember.”

The uniformed officer left to find Charlie and the two detectives started talking quietly between themselves, the new arrival pulling out a small tablet for notes. The coroner focused his attention on Ash’s body. Sing prayed he wouldn’t start on the actual autopsy – the cutting part – until after he got out of there.

“So do we have a time of death yet?” McGinnis asked suddenly.

The coroner shook his head. “It’s the strangest thing. His body isn’t cooling at a normal rate. The blood stopped pumping hours ago, but there’s no sign of rigor mortis or skin color changes, other than the bluish lips.”

“So you can’t even give us an estimate?”

“It’s as though he died twenty minutes ago,” the older man said, baffled.

McGinnis furrowed his heavy brows. “When was the body discovered?”

“Just before six,” Wilson said, flipping a page in his notebook. “The library staff thought he was asleep until they tried to wake him at closing.” Sing wondered briefly how anyone could miss the puddle of blood that must’ve collected beneath him if Ash bled to death. Must’ve been a busy day.

The cop continued. “One of the girls said she noticed him when he first came in around eleven o’clock – said he returned a book and headed straight to the 600s. Technology, computers, medicine, stuff like that – I checked. Another girl said she saw him talking to a Chinese kid outside. This was around one o’clock. No one noticed him ‘sleeping’ until later – probably two-thirty or three in the afternoon.”

“Why didn’t they try to wake him immediately?” the detective asked sharply.

Wilson shrugged. “Girl said he looked peaceful, like he was having a good dream. She didn’t want to bother him. My guess is that a good-looking guy like that gets away with a lot more than the rest of us.”

McGinnis still wasn’t satisfied. “What’s your time of death on the Yuen Tai kid?” he asked the coroner.

Sing’s legs were falling asleep and starting to hurt. As interesting as all this was, he hoped they’d hurry. He was having trouble processing the whole thing – he still didn’t know how the hell Lao had gotten close to Ash.

The old man flipped through a file. “Looks like Lao Yuen Tai died at approximately two forty-five P.M. Gun shot wound, then hemorrhage leading to heart failure,” he read.

“Would it be prudent to estimate Lynx’s time of death based on this?” Wilson asked.

The coroner shrugged. “If Lao Yuen Tai’s knife was the object that cut him, then yes, I imagine he couldn’t have survived much longer.”

The detective jotted something into the notebook. “So what’s your official call?” he asked, not looking up.

The old man looked weary. “Approximately three o’clock P.M.,” he conceded.

Sing glanced at his watch. It was almost eight-thirty. Ash had been dead for over five hours and no one knew it. He felt sick to his stomach. He was going to have to be the one to tell Alex. And what about Eiji? Would he be the one to break that news, too? He didn’t even know how to reach Eiji in Japan.

At that moment, the double doors burst open and Charlie Dickinson rushed in. A step behind him was Max Lobo. Sing shifted slightly, trying to make himself even smaller in his corner. Max had sharp eyes and he knew his name.

“What the hell happened to him?” Max asked immediately, pushing past the coroner to stand near the table. He looked down at Ash’s face, his own expression a mask of disbelief. “Jesus Christ, Ash,” he murmured. “It’s really you, this time.”

Charlie glanced over in dismay and leaned close to McGinnis, speaking in a low voice. Wilson gave Max an abbreviated rundown of what they knew, using all the sensitive phrases they reserve for families of the deceased. Max asked questions, his face wearing the guise of the interested reporter, but even from a distance, Sing could see that his hands shook.

The uniformed cop from before strolled in with two cardboard carriers full of coffee. He passed them around – even to the bedraggled coroner – before pulling Max aside. “He was reading this when he died,” he said sympathetically, handing him a few folded-up pages.

Sing’s heart jumped. Eiji’s note. Suddenly he understood how Lao had gotten close enough to hurt Ash.

Max glanced at the pages, skimming their contents briefly and shaking his head. His reporter’s mask fell then, and a look of intense sadness replaced it. He fumbled twice before managing to thrust the pages into his back pocket.

“Hey guys,” the cop said softly to his associates. He gestured toward the door and looked meaningfully at Max. Sing was shocked to see such sensitivity from a member of the NYPD. He wondered if this guy was always so nice, or if he was just a friend of Max’s. The others shuffled from the room, leaving just Charlie and Max.

“Nadia’s going to be crushed,” Charlie said in a weak voice, coming to stand with Max in front of Ash’s still body. “She really loves that kid.”

Max nodded. “I should call Jessica,” he said hoarsely. But he didn’t move.

For a long time they stood in silence, both of them lost in their own thoughts. Sing wondered what they were thinking. He imagined they had vastly different impressions of who Ash was, just like he was sure they would never be able to understand what the tough gang leader had meant to him.

“Can I—” Max faltered, finally speaking. “Can I have a moment? Alone?”

A look of mortification and understanding flashed over Charlie’s features and he stepped back. “Of course. I’m sorry. Take your time.” He put one hand on Max’s shoulder and squeezed before hurrying out of the room.

Even before the door closed, Max’s hand moved to his eyes, his face crumpling with grief.

Sing looked away, pained. He thought about the past months working with Ash and his gang. He didn’t understand how it could be over. It’d been fun. Scary-fun, sure, but fun nonetheless. And now it was done. Nothing would ever be the same, and in a lot of ways it was his fault. He couldn’t imagine any other reason for Lao to come after Ash.

He wondered if anyone would even know to contact Blanca. He and Ash had pretended otherwise, but Sing knew there was a lot of feeling between those two. He wondered if anyone else had as much a right to know about this than the huge mercenary. Well, besides Eiji.

Sing’s heart ached for Eiji. He didn’t know what was in that letter, but he could guess. Eiji wore his heart on his sleeve, and it took only the barest glance to see that it belonged to Ash. If he ever saw the bloodstains and the crumpled paper, he’d put two and two together. He’d blame himself, Sing was sure of it. As it was, Eiji would probably never come back to New York. Sing tried to imagine never seeing him again, never knowing if he was okay, after news like that. Tears slid down his cheeks and he wiped them away, suddenly angry.

Sing glanced at Max again. The older man was still hunched over Ash’s body. He held the boy’s cold hand and was talking so softly that Sing couldn’t make out a single word. Those two must have a lot of history that he didn’t know about – Max evidently cared more than Sing guessed.

That made it kind of hard to do what he had to do. Sing stood up and stepped across the tile floor. His sneakers were soft and worn, making no sound against the smooth surface. He held his breath, praying that Max’s instincts had gotten soft, or at least that he’d be too distracted by his own feelings to notice him. Moving as quickly as he could, Sing snatched at the letter in Max’s pocket, grasping the pages with his fingertips.

It came free smoothly. Sing wanted to sigh with relief when the older man didn’t turn around; instead he backed slowly away, still holding his breath.

It wasn’t until he slipped out the door, relieved to see that all the cops were huddled together in the coroner’s office, that Sing allowed himself to relax. He slinked into the stairwell and collapsed on the steps, achy and worn out. He stretched his throbbing legs and took a moment just to breathe.

Even though it wasn’t any of his business what Eiji had to say to Ash, Sing didn’t even try to keep himself from reading the letter, now that he had it. Some of the words were blurred with tears and blood, some of them were masked completely, but Sing got the point. His chest hurt. Eiji would never get a reply – he’d never know whether or not Ash accepted his feelings.

Sing stared at Eiji’s signature, figuring he should destroy the letter or something so that it’d never accidentally find its way back into Eiji’s hands.

Before he could summon the nerve to actually tear it apart, though, Sing noticed something odd in the bloodstains. Near the bottom of the last page, after Eiji’s name, it looked like someone – Ash of course – had tried to write Chinese characters with blood. He held the page up in the weak light, hoping for a clearer look.

At first he didn’t recognize the characters. A few of the strokes were wrong, and it was shaky and sloppy to boot. He squinted, hoping for a general pattern if he ignored the details. It popped immediately. Nadia Wong.

Why the fuck would Ash write Nadia’s name at the bottom of this letter? Was it because Lao and Shorter had been so tight? But that didn’t make any sense – it’d be easier just to write “Lao” and be done with it. Besides, Ash didn’t seem like the type to finger his killer after death. It had to be something else.

Only Nadia would know.

There was a pay phone in the waiting room. Sing shoved the letter into his coat and dashed up the stairs, already fishing in his jeans pocket for a dime.

Chapter 6

Alex jumped from the taxi as soon as it pulled up to the curb. The drive was too long and he needed to be doing something. Or at least finding something out – anything but waiting and wondering. His whole body was humming with tension. There was no way it could be true.

He leaned on a street lamp and crossed his arms impatiently as Nadia paid the driver. “Hurry it up, will ya?” He know he looked like a dick, but he didn’t want to bring attention to the fact that he wasn’t whipping out his wallet to cover the fare himself. He hated when pretty girls knew he was flat broke. At least when he was a jerk, they only noticed that.

Besides, he was impatient. Who wouldn’t be? He was just settling down to a card game with the guys when the phone rang. He figured it was Ash – who else would call on poker night? – so he decided it’d be a bad idea to ignore it. The last thing he expected was to hear Nadia Wong on the other end, obviously crying as she explained that Ash was at Bellevue, that he’d been stabbed and was probably dead.

How the hell could that happen anyway? There wasn’t anyone alive – except that huge Russian guy, maybe – who could beat Ash Lynx. And yet Nadia said it was that asshole brother of Sing’s what got him. Alex was sure it had to be a mistake, but she was so upset, so sure that he had to come down there with her.

Nadia finally climbed out of the taxi, her footing unsteady as she stepped onto the curb. Alex was beside her in an instant, grabbing her arm and hauling her onto the sidewalk as the cab pulled away. “You okay?” he asked shortly.

She nodded. Her eyes were glassy with tears and her mouth was pulled into that firm trying-to-be-tough sort of grimace that girls get when they don’t want to cry. He hoped to hell she wouldn’t start crying again. He hated seeing a girl in tears, particularly when it was over something he couldn’t fix.

“Thanks,” she said, putting her hand on his shoulder to steady herself.

She looked wobbly; Alex didn’t let go of her arm. “We don’t got much time, do we?” he asked, steering her toward the door. She was convinced that Ash had been seriously wounded, and then drank the first portion of that crazy moonflower stuff so he wouldn’t bleed out. If that was the case, they had less than twenty-four hours to get him the next round. And Alex knew as well as anyone that it wasn’t happening.

But Ash would know that too, so he’d never be stupid enough to drink the stuff, right?

Sing was pacing near the front desk. When he saw them, he ran over, flinging himself into Nadia’s arms. Alex looked away, uncomfortable. Sing was someone he looked up to – it was strange to see him cry into a woman’s arms like a little kid. It looked like Nadia was about to start up again, too.

It was probably about Lao. He was the kid’s brother, after all. Nadia’s cousin, too. Alex didn’t see the need to waste tears on a guy like that – especially if it was true that he managed to almost kill Ash. If it was true, he was glad Ash managed to get a bullet into him for it.

Nadia met his eyes over Sing’s head. Be patient, she mouthed as she petted the boy’s hair.

Somehow her plea had the opposite effect. Urgency surged through him. “Where is he?” Alex found himself asking in a voice that was far crankier than he intended.

Sing yanked away from his cousin, not looking at Alex as he wiped his eyes on jacket sleeve. “The morgue,” he said, his voice weary.

A shiver of a panic crept up Alex’s spine. People didn’t end up in the morgue when they weren’t really dead. He looked at Nadia, but she was still fussing with Sing, trying to soothe him even as he tried to bounce back to his usual bristle.

“You don’t have to come with us,” she said in a low voice.

Good thinking. Alex was impressed. Sing wasn’t supposed to know that Ash could still be alive, after all. “Yeah – we got it from here,” he chimed in.

Sing shook his head. “I’m okay,” he insisted, his voice leaving no room for argument. Alex figured they’d just have to come up with a way to lose him later.

The boy led them to the elevator. “I think there are some cops still around,” he warned as the doors closed. “But I guess since Charlie’s here, you can talk to him and we won’t hafta sneak around.”

“No!” Alex and Nadia cried in unison. Sing gaped at them.

“I mean,” Nadia stammered. “We’d just like to see him with as little fuss as possible.” She sounded strangely casual for a girl with tearstains on her cheeks.

But Alex had no choice but to back her up. He nodded, shoving his hair out of his eyes. “Me and cops don’t do so good,” he explained.

Sing narrowed his eyes. The elevator settled on the basement level, but the young Chinese boy pushed the stop button, keeping them there. “Why’re you two here together, anyway?” he asked suspiciously. “And why would Ash write your name, Nadia? I mean, I know you two used to be close, but of all people, why you?”

Those kinds of questions were exactly what they needed to avoid. Alex glanced at Nadia, but she clearly had nothing. She had a flustered look on her face, and she looked about to stammer something – probably something random and unhelpful.

Which made it Alex’s cue to speak up. “You wonder why Ash didn’t leave with Eiji this morning?” he asked, the lie forming in his mind even as he spoke. “Let’s just say their feelings don’t exactly mesh. Seems Nadia here is the reason.”

Nadia blushed. “Alex,” she protested softly. He knew she was scolding him for using that particular lie, but she played right into his hands.

He put a protective arm around her shoulders. “Since I’m his second, it’s my job to watch over the boss’s woman,” he continued. “Particularly now.” He squeezed gently, hoping to look comforting. Mostly he was urging her not to blow his story.

Sing blinked, then stared hard into Nadia’s face. Alex could see the wheels turning in his head as he tried to sort it out – that kid was too damn sharp for his own good. To make matters worse, Nadia looked guiltily at the floor, unable to meet her cousin’s eyes.

The younger boy shook his head. “I’m not buyin’ it,” he said slowly. “I think you guys are up to something.” He crossed his arms, focusing his irritation on Alex. “But hey, if the shit we went through together wasn’t enough for you to trust me, that’s fine. I don’t hafta be everyone’s friend.”

There was a part of Alex that welcomed Sing’s hostility. It was his brother that hurt Ash, after all. This wasn’t the best time to be testing loyalties, and Sing was in the worst position to be trusted blindly. At the same time, Alex really liked the kid. They’d spent a lot of time together the past few months, and Sing had proven more than once to be above the petty shit that seemed to rule everyone else. He bit his lip, rushing to decide how to handle this.

“Sing,” Nadia cajoled, reaching out to the boy.

He looked up at her, a childish, hurt expression on his face, and jabbed a button on the elevator’s panel. “We’re here,” he said darkly. The doors slid open and he stalked out.

They followed him down the short corridor and through the double doors at the end of the hall. The morgue was a huge room, looking a lot the way Alex expected from television crime shows, and yet somehow different. Less real. Before he even had time to take in the details, his eyes were drawn forward to a table near the middle of the room. The feature presentation.

Alex’s mouth went dry. In two long strides he was there, up close and personal with the body that was supposed to be his boss. He looked strange. Pale and almost plastic like a store mannequin, but somehow he was still just as beautiful as ever. It almost looked like he was sleeping, except that Ash Lynx never smiled like that when he dreamed – more often he’d scowl or grimace or even bark incoherent orders to his wary gang. He was never this quiet. He looked peaceful. Dead.

The lights above the table were cold and bright, causing Alex’s eyes to prickle with tears. What happened to it all being a mistake? It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

“Boss?” he asked weakly, picking up Ash’s hand. There was nothing alive about that hand. He looked back at Nadia, who still hovered near the doorway, dismay on her lovely face. “He’s cold,” he said, panic rising in his voice. “Really cold. Is that supposed to happen?”

She darted a look at Sing. “Calm down, Alex,” she warned in a low voice.

If Ash was dead – for real, serious-dead – there was nothing to hide from Sing. “How do we tell?” he asked urgently. “There’s gotta be some way to find out right away!”

“Shh!” Nadia hissed, glancing at the door behind her. “This is no time to panic. Keep your voice down or we’ll attract attention for sure.” She glanced at Sing, who seemed to be taking it all in with wide eyes. Making up her mind, she stepped forward, unzipping her purse and plunging one hand into it.

Alex watched in stunned awe as she pulled out an ornate powder compact. She flipped up the lid and approached the table. “This should do the trick,” she said quietly, almost to herself. She reached over Ash’s still form, holding the mirror end of the compact close to his bluish lips.

It was as though time stopped. Alex stared at the mirror, forgetting to breathe in his concentration. For a long time nothing happened. Two, maybe three heartbeats passed and he felt a sad, sinking feeling deep inside. A couple more and it seemed hopeless. Alex exhaled, dizzy with disappointment and something much more intense.

Then Nadia squeaked. Sing pushed past Alex and grabbed the mirror from her hand. He slid a finger over the glass, his eyes widening as it traced a faint pattern in damp condensation.

Ash was breathing.

“We gotta get him out of here,” Alex declared, relief mingling almost instantly with alarm. “They’re gonna cut him up soon,” he insisted. A table nearby was covered in horrifying tools, all of which would finish him off before the doctors even realized he wasn’t dead.

Nadia blanched. “And then what?” she asked shortly. “You know as well as me that there’s no way in the world we’ll get that next dose in time!”

“But it’s the only chance he’s got!”

“Hang on a second!” Sing cried, putting his hands up. He sounded confused and angry. He still clutched the compact, and Alex could see his fingers trembling. “Just what the hell is going on here?”

Nadia looked miserable. “We can’t tell you,” she hedged.

“Nothing,” Alex said at the same time.

Sing was livid. “I was here when the coroner decided a time of death,” he said with exaggerated patience. “And now you two show up and prove that he’s in fact not dead, and what’s more, you both expected him not to be.” He yanked a fistful of paper from his coat pocket, thrusting them toward Nadia. “Ash even wrote your name in his own goddamn blood!” he cried. “So don’t – don’t – tell me that you’re not going to let me in on this little secret!”

Alex was torn again between trusting Sing and wanting him as far away from Ash as possible. The kid had a point, though – he knew way too much just to walk away. And there wasn’t really any time for discussion; the doctors and cops could be back any minute. “We gotta tell him,” he said finally. “We don’t have time for this.”

After barely a moment’s consideration, Nadia nodded shortly. “But first we get him out of here,” she decided. Looking at her cousin, she softened her voice. “We’ll tell you as soon as we’re out of the hospital, Sing,” she told him. “I promise.”

Not even bothering to note Sing’s answer, Alex turned around, checking the place out. There had to be something they could use to get Ash out of there. There was a desk and chair in one corner – a lab coat draped over the chair. That’d be a good start.

He grabbed it, immediately sliding it up his arms but it came to a halt just before rounding his shoulders. It was tiny. He yanked it off, cursing.

“Maybe I should wear that,” Nadia suggested. She slipped it on and fished around in the pockets. A smile crept over her face as she pulled out a pair of dark-rimmed glasses. She put them on, looking at Sing and Alex. “What do you think?” she asked, ruffling her short hair with one hand. “Am I a doctor?”

Alex tried not to think the things he’d usually think when a sexy woman asked how she looked. He remembered Ash’s warning, and she was involved with a cop anyway – seriously bad news. “Yeah,” he answered, his voice thicker than he’d like. “But that don’t help me none.”

They opened drawers and lockers, searching for another coat, but none were to be found. “This must not be where they keep their stuff, usually,” Sing realized, closing the last locker.

Nadia was across the room, peering into a huge bin. “Hey! I think I have something!” she called. She reached in and pulled out a crumpled mass of blue-green cloth. “This must be their laundry.”

The three of them sorted through the sets of scrubs, disappointed to find that they all had splatters of blood and god only knew what else on them. Alex found a pair of pants that weren’t too bad, but the shirts were all disgusting.

“It’s not that I can’t wear ‘em,” Alex said, holding up yet another bloodstained garment. “I just think I’d be pretty damn conspicuous, walking around like I’d just come off the set of some slasher flick.” He didn’t even want to wear them, really, but he could swallow his revulsion in order to save Ash.

“What about them aprons we found in that drawer?” Sing asked. He looked excited. “It would hide most a’ the blood, and then all we’d need is a cap or something and you’d look like you just came from surgery.”

“Why would a surgeon tote a patient around?” Nadia asked practically.

Alex grinned. “He wouldn’t, but he might spend his time flirting with the hot doctor ladies who do.”

Once it was decided and Alex was also in costume, they glanced at Sing. “What about you?” Alex asked.

The boy blushed. “I’m too small to pass for any kind of doctor,” he said, shrugging. “I suppose I could scare up a wheelchair and some wheels to get us out of here.”

He disappeared out the door and came back a few minutes later with a wheelchair. In that time, Alex and Nadia worked out what to do with Ash. His clothes were gone, so Alex had no choice but to strip off his pants and t-shirt and donate them to the cause. He cringed as he pulled the filthy scrubs over his skin. He’d be taking a long hot shower when this was all over.

Nadia turned away while Alex changed, but was too focused and businesslike to offer the same courtesy to Ash. By the time Alex got the scrubs back on, his boss was already wearing his jeans and Nadia was wrestling with the shirt. Ugly black stitches held together what must’ve been the knife wound that did him in.

“You got experience dressing unconscious men?” he asked, teasing her to get the image of those stitches out of his head – it wouldn’t do them a bit of good if he got angry now.

Nadia grimaced. “Shorter used to drink himself sick, then pass out in the most disgusting clothes. I had to change him before he woke up, or else the smell would just make him sick again.”

Alex was surprised. He knew that Ash’s old friend was no saint, but he never figured Shorter for a drunk. “Really?” he asked before he could catch himself.

She sighed. “Our parents both died when he was sixteen,” she explained softly. “He didn’t handle that first year so well.”

Sing was back before Alex could respond, and they worked together to haul Ash from the table and onto the wheelchair. Alex closed his eyes and prayed his boss couldn’t feel any pain, because they weren’t able to be gentle and it would hurt like burning hell if he could feel it. As soon as he was propped up, Sing bolted again, this time promising to meet them out front with a car.

Alex watched Nadia tuck a blanket around Ash’s still body. Her hands were gentle, almost loving. “I’m sorry about your brother,” he found himself saying, his voice scratchy. “I know Ash was real tight with him and all – he wasn’t himself for a long time, after.”

She nodded, running a hand through Ash’s long hair. “I can’t believe I’m going to lose him, too,” she said weakly.

You won’t, Alex wanted to tell her. But he didn’t really even believe that himself. It looked pretty damn hopeless.

They didn’t talk as Nadia wheeled Ash to the elevator. Once inside, though, Alex remembered his role and started flirting shamelessly with her. A couple of people joined them, so he did his best to be convincing, even putting his hand on her lower back and guiding her out of the elevator when they reached the ground floor.

Sing was waiting at the curb in a dark green sedan. Feeling like he had to do something impressive to shake Nadia from the gloomy mood he helped cause, he lifted Ash himself and settled him into the back seat next to her.

“Let’s go,” he said, kicking the wheelchair away from the curb and climbing into the passenger seat. Sing didn’t need to be told twice. He squealed the tires pulling onto the street.

“Do you even have your license yet, Sing?” Nadia asked from the back seat. Sing made a face that only Alex could see, and he guessed the answer was no. “Where did you find this car anyway?” she asked.

Alex closed his eyes as they bickered about whether or not it was okay to steal a car, even under special circumstances. He was surprised they got out without incident, but seriously grateful for it.

Turning in his seat, he took a long look at Ash. He looked dead. Alex dreaded the next step in this. He didn’t even know what the fuck it was going to be, but he dreaded it just the same.

Chapter 7

Sing was losing his patience.

“Do you have it or not?” he demanded, clutching the telephone angrily. The sun was coming up and he was hungry and tired. Each word he had to say was another moment wasted. “I don’t have time for your goddamn games!”

There was a long silence on the other end and Sing felt a dropping sensation in his stomach. He’d crossed a line. He fucked up the one time it really mattered. “You still there?” he asked in a cautious voice.

“I’m here,” Yut Lung said, sighing. “And I do happen to have what you’re looking for. I’m not trying to play games with you, Sing,” he explained. “This concoction you’re asking me for costs thousands of dollars. Forgive me if I’d like to know who I’d be giving it to.”

Sing gritted his teeth. “You’d be giving it to me,” he insisted.

Yut Lung tsked. “You can do better than that,” he said smoothly. “Your urgency indicates that someone as already taken the first drug in the sequence, which is madness in itself. I’m not sure such a fool deserves to survive.”

“Please,” Sing urged, choking back his pride. “You know I wouldn’t come to you if it wasn’t a matter of life and death. I need this stuff. Someone I care about needs it, and you’re the only one I can turn to.” It made his chest hurt to beg, but if that was what it took, he’d do it. “I’ll give you anything you want for it, okay? Anything I have – it’s yours. Just please, Yut Lung. Please.”

“It’s not that easy,” the Lee heir said smoothly, his voice untroubled. “You’ve given me little enough reason to trust you in the past, and now I’m supposed to just hand over one of the most expensive and dangerous substances known to man just because you ask? As a favor?” He laughed. “Really, Sing, I thought you knew me better than that.”

Sing felt bile rise in his throat. Desperation tasted vile and he swallowed it down, his fingers gripping white on the phone’s receiver. “It’s Ash Lynx, damn it!” He cried. He hadn’t wanted to tell – he had no idea what Yut Lung would do with the information – but he couldn’t risk letting him refuse all together.

Yut Lung’s response was swift. “Where are you?” he asked, his voice suddenly bereft of its teasing lilt.

Sing shook his head, leaning against the glass wall of the phone booth. “I can’t say. I’ll come to you.” As it was, Nadia and Alex – and then Ash, when he found out – would never forgive him for seeking help from Yut Lung. To bring him to their hideout would be the worst kind of insult.

Yut Lung refused. “You clearly have no understanding of what you’re dealing with. Tell me where you are or he will die.”

Why did that jerk have to be so stubborn? Sing gritted his teeth. “It’s not my secret to tell,” he protested. “I wasn’t even supposed to know about this.”

“This substance must be administered very carefully,” Yut Lung explained in a low, serious voice. “Nothing complete or accurate has ever been written about it. I don’t know who the hell Ash trusted with this, or why, but I do know that mishandling this step will assure him as slow and painful a death as you can imagine.”

Sing closed his eyes. He could imagine a lot. Nadia and Alex were upstairs with Ash, pretty much resigned to letting him die because every call had been made and every avenue pursued. They had no more hope. But Sing had Lee Yut Lung, and even though it felt like signing a pact with the devil himself, he would do it for Ash. For Eiji.

“I don’t want Ash to die like that,” Yut Lung was saying in a soft, hoarse voice. “So I’ll ask you one more time, Sing: where are you?”

He took a deep breath and gave him the address. Shame flooded through him and he felt like a traitor, even though he knew he’d done the only thing possible. He hung up the phone and trudged up the stairs to the apartment – the rundown place that used to be Shorter’s favorite hideout. His feet felt heavy and molten. His chest hurt.

He hoped Yut Lung would hurry.

***

Twenty minutes passed and Sing still hadn’t mentioned to Alex and Nadia that Yut Lung was coming. He wanted to – it would save them all a lot of grief they had some notice before the Lee heir and his constant entourage of bodyguards came knocking on the door – but he couldn’t find the right words.

Ash was laid out on the sagging bed like a body at a wake. Nadia was on a chair next to him, her legs tucked up and her chin on her knees like a little girl. She hadn’t said anything in an hour or more – since the last time she’d come up from the payphone downstairs. She’d called every connection she had, trying to track down anything that would help Ash – if not the second dose of the moonflower-whatever then something that might stall off the need for it and buy them some time. After the ninth long-distance call, she was out of change and out of ideas. She slipped back into the room and shook her head, a haunted look in her eyes.

Alex was pacing. He wore only the scrub pants they’d stolen at the hospital, having long ago disposed of the nasty shirt. After every ten or so laps he’d pause and take a long look at his boss. Sing had to look away after the first couple of times; the look on Alex’s face was raw and furious. Whether it was directed at Ash or someone else – probably Lao – Sing couldn’t know, but he wanted to be far, far away when Ash’s lieutenant finally snapped.

He suspected he wouldn’t have that luxury, though. Yut Lung would be there any minute, and it didn’t take a two hundred point IQ to predict Alex’s reaction.

“Guys,” he said at last, steeling his nerve. “I got something to tell you.” His voice sounded really young, even to his own ears. “There’s a way to save him.”

Nadia looked up, her eyes wide. Alex paused mid-stride and turned, his attention suddenly glued to Sing’s face. “What is it?” he asked impatiently.

“I –” Sing opened his mouth but the words wouldn’t come. He was scared. He wasn’t afraid of Alex’s anger, of fighting him, but he feared their disappointment. Shame. Was running to Yut Lung the cowardly way out? Would it have been nobler to let Ash die rather than live at the mercy of his enemy?

A sharp rapping at the door made them all look up. It swung open and Lee Yut Lung strode in, flanked by two robust bodyguards.

Alex moved like lightning, darting between Nadia and the open door while slinging his switchblade open in one smooth motion. He narrowed his eyes at the intruder. “What the fuck are you doing here?” he demanded.

Yut Lung threw back his head and laughed. He looked at Sing, pushing aside the long locks of hair that slipped from his braid. “This is who Ash chose to see him through death?” he asked incredulously.

Alex bristled at the implication. “This ain’t your business,” he snarled, stepping closer to Nadia and the bed. The knife was nasty and sharp, but Yut Lung’s thugs already had guns drawn. “Get out of here!”

Sing swallowed hard. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. “He’s gonna help us, Alex,” he insisted. “He’s got the next part of the cycle and he’s gonna give it to Ash!” He wanted to calm his friend – assuming they were in fact still friends – to touch his shoulder the way Ash always did to soothe and ground him. He didn’t move, though, pretty sure that Alex was a bit too boiled down to be thinking rationally. He didn’t want to learn firsthand how sharp that blade was.

The blond barked out a bitter laugh. “I may be outnumbered by you Chinese,” he countered, sparing a glance in Sing’s direction but concentrating his fury on Yut Lung. “But I ain’t letting this bastard touch him. Not while I’m still breathing.”

Nadia uncurled herself from the chair. “You’re Yau Si, aren’t you?” she asked in a vaguely awed voice. “Your secretary said you were in San Francisco.”

Alex looked confused. “You called him?” he asked.

She nodded. “But I didn’t even leave a message,” she said, puzzled. “He’s a master of poisons and herbal medicine. I ran out of options.”

The blond’s eyes went wide. “Do you even know who he is? To Ash, I mean. This guy’s wanted him dead for as long as he’s known him!” He growled and gripped the ivory handle of his knife. “He’s the guy who put Eiji in the hospital.”

Nadia looked frightened and ashamed.

“He’s here because I called him,” Sing announced, not wanting his cousin to ever think she’d done anything wrong. “He has the second dose of that stuff. He’s here to save Ash, not kill him!” Of course, he didn’t really know that with perfect certainty, but Sing thought he knew Yut Lung well enough to guess. That guy might have some kind of twisted interest in Ash, but he’d bet good money that Ash had to be alive for whatever kink the delicate Chinese man had in mind.

“It’s as Sing says,” Yut Lung agreed, motioning for his guards to lower their weapons. “I have no interest in killing Ash Lynx, though it seems the three of you have done a bang-up job of it so far.” He opened a red satin box. It looked to Sing like a heroin-addict’s kit – complete with a rubber hose tourniquet and a long-needled syringe. A tiny bottle of bluish liquid was tucked into one compartment. “Please, let me save his life.”

Alex looked suspiciously into the box. He lowered his blade but didn’t close it. “This is the stuff?” he asked Nadia.

She shrugged weakly. “I’ve never seen it before,” she admitted. They looked at each other for a long moment, trying silently to decide whether or not to trust.

Yut Lung peered around them at Ash’s pale figure on the bed. “How long has it been?” he asked in a brisk voice.

Sing remembered the coroner’s uncertainty. “We don’t know,” he said. “I saw him at one o’clock. It might’ve been as late as one fifteen when I left. And Lao’s time of death was two forty-five, so it’s gotta be around there sometime.”

Yut Lung whirled around, his hair whipping the air. He looked at Sing, alarmed. “Lao? What does your brother have to do with this?”

“He fucking stabbed him,” Alex said through clenched teeth. “Ash only drank the damn stuff to keep from dying.”

“He’s wounded?” Yut Lung pushed fearlessly past Alex and yanked the sheet from over Ash’s body. Sing could see his hands shaking as they pulled on the t-shirt, exposing the rough black stitching across Ash’s abdomen. “I can’t bring him up yet,” he said to no one in particular. “He’d bleed to death.”

Sing hadn’t even thought of that. Sure, they’d stitched him up at the hospital, but that was only the outside. His blood vessels and whatnot were probably a wasted mess.

“It’s already seven fifty,” Yut Lung said in a rushed voice. “We don’t have much time.”

He barked an order in some old-fashioned Chinese that Sing didn’t understand and his two thugs came to life. One pulled a gun on Nadia and Alex while the other scooped Ash’s body up into his arms. The whole time Sing stood, unnoticed in the corner of the room. He wasn’t sure if he liked being considered harmless by Yut Lung and his men.

“I’m sorry there’s no time to explain,” Yut Lung said, snapping his little box closed. “Too many hours have been wasted already. I’ll have my people operate immediately, and when he’s able to handle it, I’ll give him the drug.”

Alex was livid. He snarled at Yut Lung, never taking his eyes off of the pistol aimed at his head. “You slimy bastard! How the fuck am I supposed to believe you?”

Yut Lung shook his head, his eyes narrowing at the insults. “Sing shall be our go-between. I’ll be in touch.” With a flourish of black satin, he followed his first guard out the door. The second guy followed, walking backward and keeping his gun trained on Alex until the door closed.

“Fuck!” Alex roared the instant the latch clicked. He flung his knife at the door; with a dull thud it stuck exactly where Yut Lung's head would have been. Then he whirled around to punch a wall. “Goddamn fucking bastard!” His knuckles went straight through the drywall and splintered the old wood framing beneath. Chunks of plaster cascaded to the floor and a puff of dust rose into the air.

Nadia started coughing. At least, it sounded like coughing to Sing. He felt frozen to the spot, ashamed and yet defiant, and unwilling to go anywhere near Alex and his rage. Until he noticed that his cousin’s coughs changed to sobs.

“Nadia?” He took a step in her direction but Alex got to her first. The guy crouched next to her chair and pulled her into his arms. She leaned her forehead against his chest, accepting his comfort as she cried.

“She’s handled too much lately,” Sing observed, wishing he could be the one to comfort her. It was strange to see her leaning on Alex. It was strange to see Alex in that kind of role.

“No shit,” Alex snarled. He looked at Sing over his shoulder, his face twisted with disgust. “No thanks to you and your goddamn brother.”

Sing couldn’t make excuses for Lao. He didn’t want to. In a lot of ways, he probably wasn’t ever going to be able to forgive his brother. But this was different. Sing was only trying to help. He had helped. Yut Lung was right about Ash’s wound – it had to be taken care of first. “We didn’t have no other choice,” he explained.

Alex looked like he wanted to explode again, but glanced at the girl in his arms and reconsidered. He took a deep breath. “There’s always choices,” he said in a weary voice. “And givin’ Ash over to him wasn’t one of ‘em.”

“But he woulda died!”

Alex shook his head. “Looks like Ash was right not to trust you in this,” he said coldly, his voice barely more than a whisper. “Just get the fuck out of here, Sing.”

He wanted to yell and scream and fight. He wanted to make Alex understand that he’d done the best thing – the only thing possible. He wanted Nadia to take his side. He stood trembling, fists clenched, waiting for his body to kick into action.

Alex looked down at Nadia, dismissing Sing and ignoring him. He murmured soft things to her and her crying gradually subsided.

Sing had never felt so useless before in his whole life. He decided just to go. He wanted no part in it anyway, if they refused to see that it was the only way to save Ash’s life. Wasn’t that the whole point of the stuff in the first place? To let Ash live?

He felt tears of frustration prick the corners of his eyes and he bolted. Down the stairs and out the door, he ran as fast as his old sneakers would carry him. He mentally cursed Alex and Yut Lung, angry enough even to think badly of Nadia.

But mostly he thought of someone else. Fuck you, Ash Lynx, his mind cried furiously, tears sliding from his eyes and back into his hair. It was his fault, after all. None of this would have happened if he’d just gone with Eiji in the first place. But he had to run away – away from Eiji and everyone.

Sing wasn’t sure he could forgive him for that.

Chapter 8

When the train slowed, nearing the familiar terminal of the Izumoshi Station, Eiji’s chest constricted with deep longing for home. It surprised him. He’d spent the whole trip passionately regretting leaving New York at all; this sudden and powerful homesickness was a welcome change, if only because it could soon be sated.

As he gazed through the dirty glass window, he thought of Ash. His friend had been a constant in his thoughts all day. Longer, even – since that day at the hospital when his tear-choked sayonara turned Eiji’s world upside down. Even though he should’ve known better, he’d expected to see him again: at the hospital, at the airport. He’d even half-expected him in Tokyo, lugging a bag over one shoulder and sheepishly waving the letter Eiji spent all that time writing. He shouldn’t be surprised, he reminded himself. That letter was heartfelt, but not totally honest. He’d pulled his punches, left things unsaid so that Ash could misunderstand, if he wanted. After all, hadn’t he always said they were no good together?

Eiji should have gone to him, bullied him into coming along. Even if Ash didn’t love him in the same way, Eiji knew he was important, and that once he was here, his friend would have a hard time leaving. It was manipulative, but Eiji should’ve done whatever it took. Whatever was necessary to keep Ash safe.

The train pulled into the station and Eiji leaned back in his seat. What a loser he was. He failed at everything – school, the high jump, keeping a hold of the person most dear to him. He glanced down at his sling and made a face. He even failed at bouncing back from a bullet wound; there was no way any of the guys in Ash’s gang would have to be sent home because he got himself shot. More than ever before, he felt like he didn’t really belong there, with Ash and his gang. Tears stung the corners of his eyes but he blinked them away. He’d cried enough, and no matter what kind of failure he might be, he wasn’t going to show a crying face to his family.

He grabbed his bag and trudged off the train. Ibé had gotten off one stop earlier, in his own hometown. He’d wanted to come all the way to Izumo, to make sure Eiji got there all right, but Eiji had insisted on coming home alone. He was tired. Not just physically worn out, but sick of Ibé’s constant mothering, of his always knowing what was best. He knew it wasn’t fair, but what really was fair, these days?

He descended to the platform and adjusted his bag over his shoulder on the good side. It hurt to carry it, another reason Ibé gave for wanting to come along. He took only four or five steps before he stopped and turned, his mind registering the familiarity of one of the faces in the small crowd.

“Otousan!” he cried.

The man smiled. He looked older than Eiji remembered him, somehow smaller. “Eiji-kun,” he said fondly, reaching out to grasp his son’s shoulders.

Without another thought, Eiji leaned in, wrapping his good arm around his father in a tight hug. “It’s so good to see you,” he said softly.

The man stiffened and Eiji pulled back, puzzled. His dad’s face was flushed red with embarrassment. This was Japan, Eiji reminded himself. Hugs were awkward and emotional and definitely not appropriate for train station platforms. His memory flashed back to Ash, and how easy it was to hold him in his arms. Ash didn’t mind hugs – if anything, he seemed to crave that kind of contact. Eiji sighed. Another thing to miss about New York.

“Your mother is dying to see you,” his father said gruffly, taking Eiji’s bag from him. “Let’s go.”

They walked the half-mile home in near silence. After asking about the flight home, his father didn’t say much, apparently letting Eiji save his storytelling for the whole family. Eiji didn’t mind. He barely knew what to say anyway. The fact that his father had come to the station meant a lot to him – the man was a high school teacher and must’ve left work early to be there.

Without conversation to attend to, Eiji was free to admire the tree-covered hills that he hadn’t even realized he’d missed. Ash had called himself a hayseed because he’d come from Cape Cod. Eiji wondered what he’d think of Izumo, with all its temples and trees and steep, dark hills. Compared to Ash’s town by the sea, it seemed to barely touch the twentieth century. By the time they turned onto his street on the outskirts of town, he was convinced that Ash would love it there. He’d love the quiet and the simplicity.

By the time they turned onto their street, Eiji was starting to drag. The wound in his side was itchy and sore, but general fatigue wore on him even more. He’d slept almost ten hours in the hotel the night before, but his body felt like he could easily handle ten more. His father walked slowly, aware of his son’s pain even if he didn’t mention it. Eiji was grateful.

They were still half a block away when Eiji realized that his sister was waiting at their gate. As they approached, Eiji took a long look at her. Her adolescent awkwardness had smoothed into elegant good looks and her pigtails had been chopped into a sleek, chin-length haircut. He did the math in his head and was shocked to realize that she must’ve started her first year of college that spring. “Oniisan!” she cried when she saw him, tearing down the sidewalk to cling to his arm. “I can’t believe you’re really back!”

Eiji smiled, ignoring the woozy way his vision blurred. She looked all grown up, but clearly some things never changed. He glanced fondly down at her, noting that the sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose was still there. “I’m happy to be home, Yukie-chan,” he told her. And it was true. He was happy to be there. He just hadn’t planned on returning alone.

His mother’s gentle ambush was next – within moments he was whisked inside and deposited on the couch while she fussed over his sling and shaggy hair. Before he could do much more than say hello there was a pillow tucked beneath his head and she bustled about, closing the blinds and shooing the family out of the room. “Our boy needs a nap,” she’d insisted after taking just one look at his face. If he looked at all how he felt, he understood.

Grateful, he closed his eyes, falling almost immediately into deep, dark sleep.

***

Two hours later he had tea and cake as his family, not to be put off another moment, crowded around. His mother asked a million questions, half of which she barely even let him answer. Yukie wanted to know all about New York – things he didn’t even know, about clothes and shows and celebrities who lived there. Eiji passed along Ibé’s fond salutations and tried to fit his entire American experience into a story that wouldn’t alarm anyone.

“Ibé said you were shot by a mugger,” his mother said in a wavering voice. “Does this happen often in New York? Why did you stay so long if it was so dangerous?”

Eiji took a long drink of his tea, remembering all the crazy, dangerous things he’d done with Ash. Some of them, like those terrible days at Dino’s mansion, felt like a lifetime ago. Other moments, like when they shared soup and coffee in the dank, filthy sewers, seemed as though they’d been only days before. But none of these particular memories could be shared with his family – that much was perfectly clear. “It isn’t that bad,” he assured his mother. “I had friends who took very good care of me. We stayed in a gorgeous apartment in one of the best parts of the city. In fact, I have pictures.”

He opened his bag – more than anything else, it was packed with slides, photographs, sheets of negatives and canisters of film he still had to process. He quickly found an envelope of prints from his first Christmas in New York – the only one he’d been able to spend with Ash. “This is where we lived,” he explained, showing them a few images of the apartment. In one, Kong and Alex were putting tinsel on the huge Christmas tree they’d dragged in while Ash was out. He’d huffed and complained about it, but Eiji found him gazing at it one night, his eyes bright with some kind of happy wistfulness.

“Ooh! Who’s this?” Yukie asked eagerly, holding a print close to the lamp to get a better look. It was a picture of Ash, half asleep and scowling beneath a red flannel blanket. Even tousled and miserable, he looked like a model. Yukie studied his face appreciatively.

“That’s my friend, Ash,” Eiji said fondly. “He hated waking up in the mornings.”

They all looked through his pictures, asking questions and commenting on how lovely some of them were. He was surprised at how many were of Ash – he didn’t remember taking more pictures of him than of anyone else, but somehow the camera was usually turned in his direction, catching a grin or smirk. “It’s like the camera loves him,” his mother commented after a while, admiring his golden hair.

“Or the cameraman,” Yukie snickered under her breath. Their parents didn’t catch it, but Eiji shot her a sharp look. She was quicker than he remembered.

He started gathering the photographs, insisting that there would be plenty of time to look at them all later. “I have souvenirs,” he announced, hoping to turn their attention. His sister’s acute observation hit a little too close to home – he hadn’t expected anyone to notice. As his family unwrapped and admired the gifts he’d chosen, Eiji felt a twinge of guilt. All of those presents had been purchased during the first week he’d arrived in New York. After that, he’d barely given his family a second thought.

His mother cradled her snow globe in her hands, tears in her eyes as she watched the fake snow swirl around the tiny Central Park scene. “It’s wonderful,” she breathed, dabbing her eyes with her apron. “It makes me feel like my boy was somewhere. All this time, it was as if you were just gone. I had no idea what kind of life you were living, what kind of people you had met.”

Eiji’s twinge of guilt turned into a full-fledged ache. He’d be lying to them forever, he realized. There was no way they could ever know the truth. If they knew everything he’d done in New York – that he’d stolen a car, shot at a man, held a shard of glass to another boy’s throat – they’d be too horrified to relax around him ever again. “I’m sorry I didn’t write, didn’t call more often,” he said in a hoarse voice.

His father shook his head. “Nonsense,” he said, dismissing Eiji’s apology. “You were a young man on an adventure. At your age it’s fitting for you to spread your wings a little. Staying too long at his mother’s apron strings will make a man soft.”

That seemed to end the conversation. Eiji’s mother stood up and summoned Yukie into the kitchen, suddenly reminded that she had prepared a grand dinner to celebrate her son’s return home. Just the mention of food prompted Eiji’s brain to register the delicious scents wafting from the kitchen. His mouth watered. Though he’d eaten plenty of Japanese food in New York, it was nothing like a home-cooked meal. Besides, he’d neglected to mention it to Ash, but he was a terrible cook.

Twenty minutes later they were seated around the table. Eiji was eagerly devouring everything his mother had prepared. She’d made sekihan; it’d been so long that he felt like he’d almost forgotten the taste. He was enjoying only his second or third mouthful when the telephone rang.

“It’s probably for you,” Yukie said slyly. She darted him a knowing look from across the table. “I told Suzuki-san that you were coming home today. She seemed awfully happy to hear it.”

Eiji felt his face flush as he stood up to answer the phone. Suzuki Kaori was a girl he’d gone to school with in both middle school and high school. Her parents ran a fruit shop nearby. Nothing had really happened between them – no love confessions, no kisses – but still, if ever there was a girl who could be considered Eiji’s girlfriend, it would’ve been her.

He hadn’t so much as thought of her in at least a year.

But instead of Kaori’s light voice on the line when he answered the phone, Eiji heard a familiar rasp that made his heart jump.

“Eiji? It’s Max.”

“Hi, Max!” Eiji felt himself grinning. It felt like it’d been weeks, not just days, since they’d last spoken. “What is up? Have you and Jessica decided on a wedding date? You will wait until I can come back, right?” He glanced at the clock on the wall and a fissure of unease went through him. “Um, what time is it there, anyway?” he asked.

Max hesitated. “It’s five in the morning,” he said at last. His voice was heavy. Tired.

“Oh.” Max was never up before seven. “Miss me so much, then?” he asked, laughing in spite of the terrible ideas that flashed through his head.

“It’s about Ash.”

The unease grew into alarm, but Eiji fought it. It was silly to think that something had gone wrong just because he’d left. New York City could run itself in his absence. So could Ash Lynx. “He has decided to come to Japan after all?” he asked hopefully. “I can meet him in Tokyo, if you know when he is to arrive.”

Max cleared his throat. “It’s not that, Eiji. I wish it were. But –”

His excitement deadened – he’d already known it wasn’t real anyway. His hands started to tremble. “But what?” he asked shortly. “What happened to Ash?”

“There was a fight,” Max began in tone that sounded appropriate for a much younger audience. “Ash was stabbed. It was bad, Eiji. Really bad.”

No. Images flickered through Eiji’s mind. Memories. He remembered Arthur’s knife disappearing into the folds of Ash’s t-shirt. He remembered him stumbling, falling, a look of shock and disbelief on his face. All that blood. “All of the fighting is done,” he protested faintly. The rich cake was suddenly sitting heavily in his stomach. “Golzine, Foxx – they are dead now. Sing told me. There is no one left for Ash to fight with.”

The line went silent, then he heard something muffled – a choke or cough. “He’s gone, Eiji,” Max told him at last, emotion making his voice raw. “It was a bad cut, and he didn’t make it.”

Eiji’s knees buckled and he slid to the floor. The blood pounding in his ears deafened him. It couldn’t be. He knelt on the hardwood, using both hands to hold the telephone steady. “You are wrong,” he accused, his mind awash with the denial. He couldn’t think anything else. “They said he was dead before and that was a lie. Same now. It is not possible.” Wasn’t it, though? Hadn’t he tried to save Ash from this very fate?

It sounded like Max was crying. The sound made Eiji’s heart surge with sympathy and the desire to comfort, but he couldn’t manage it. It was wrong. It wasn’t real. “I – I saw him with my own eyes. There’s no mistake. I’m sorry,” the older man whispered in a thick voice.

“No!” Eiji’s voice was strange and frantic, even to his own ears. “You were tricked! I will show you. I will come back to New York and find him. You will see.”

“No, Eiji,” Max scolded, his voice suddenly strong. “You’re hurt. Stay home and get better. Coming back now won’t change anything. You have to believe me!”

“I will come!” Eiji cried. His eyes burned with unshed tears but he blinked them back. It wasn’t true. There was no reason to cry. “I can’t believe you because it is not true! I –” He stumbled over his words. “I would know, Max! I would feel it if – if –”

“Oh god, Eiji,” Max whispered.

Eiji’s breathing was ragged. There was a stitch in his side like he’d just run twenty laps; his half-healed wound throbbed. “I would die, too,” he finished at last.

When Max finally spoke, his words were quiet, deep with pain and sorrow. “I know how you feel, son,” he said. “Sometimes it feels like the world should work that way, but it doesn’t. People just die and you can’t do anything about it; you don’t know when it happens. You can’t feel it.” His words were heavy, and Eiji realized he was speaking from experience. He’d fought a war, after all. He’d watched his friends die around him.

But it wasn’t the same as how Eiji felt about Ash. It wasn’t the same at all. “You are wrong,” he countered in a steely voice, ignoring the gasp of surprise from the other end of the line. He clenched the phone in his hand until he felt like it would crack. “Ash is not dead,” he insisted. “I will find him.”

“Eiji, please! You –”

He hung up before Max could say anything else, before he could try to placate or convince or bully him with his misguided ideas of what was real and what wasn’t. Ash was too smart to get himself killed. Too strong.

He sat there on the floor for a few long minutes, trying to sort out what had happened that made Max believe such a horrible thing. Ash had been stabbed. That much must be true. Eiji’s whole body shook and the room around him seemed to darken. He could hear Yukie laughing in the room down the hall – the light and brightness seemed far away and distant.

He imagined Ash lying in a bed somewhere, pale and weak and still trying to bark orders and directions to his gang. He wondered if he was back in the apartment, or somewhere else, somewhere that wasn’t clean or comfortable. What was he eating? Hot dogs and pizza? He’d never recover that way.

Eiji wondered if Blanca was still in New York. Sing said he’d taken care of Ash that last time. He’d feel better if he knew that someone like that was watching over his friend. As much as he loved the boys, he couldn’t imagine Bones or Kong or Alex having the first idea what to do if Ash was hurt.

There was nothing else to do but to go back, and soon. Right away. The wound in his side burned and his head throbbed with sudden pressure. His parents would be against it, but it didn’t matter. Ibé would understand. He would help.

Eiji breathed deeply stood on his unsteady legs. First he had to finish his mother’s dinner. He could tell them tomorrow – maybe even leave tomorrow evening – but there was no reason to disappoint his family right away. He rubbed his cheeks dry, surprised to see he’d been crying in spite of his determination not to.

“Eiji-kun?” His mother’s voice was soft and concerned from the doorway. She stood with a steaming dish in her hands – clearly a new course from the kitchen. “Is everything all right? Was that Kaori-chan?”

He shook his head and forced a smile. “It’s nothing,” he assured her. “Just a friend from America.”

He followed her into the other room and resumed his place at the table. The lights seemed too bright in there, and the delicious scents were strangely nauseating. He swallowed hard and grinned at his family. “Sorry about that,” he apologized. If he could just get through that one night as though nothing were wrong, he’d feel a lot better about leaving them the next day.

He refreshed his dish and took a huge bite. It was fantastic.

His stomach turned.

Jumping to his feet, Eiji darted to the bathroom. He barely made it in time, his socks skidding across the tile floor as he stumbled toward the toilet. A moment later, his stomach emptied itself into the basin.

Ash is dead. The thought resonated somewhere deep inside of him. He shoved it aside violently. It wasn’t true. Ash was hurt, certainly, but not dead. Never dead.

He threw up again and again until there was nothing left to expel. Even then, the heaves came along with sobs, racking his whole body until he was too exhausted to move. Laying his throbbing head on his arms, he slid onto the floor and cried. It hurt. His whole body hurt, his wound sore like he’d been punched over and over. He thought he might even be bleeding, but he didn’t move to check. He didn’t care.

Oniisan?” Yukie’s timid voice came from the hallway. “Eiji, are you okay?” She pushed open the door and stepped inside.

Eiji heard the whoosh of the toilet flushing and the sound of water running. A moment later a cool cloth dabbed at his face. Yukie positioned herself on the floor next to him, her warm hands combing his long hair from his eyes. She didn’t ask any questions; she just petted him, murmuring soothing bits of nonsense at him.

But he didn’t feel soothed. Her kindness somehow made him feel even more wretched. Wasn’t that exactly how he treated Ash? Had Ash felt so disagreeable, so irritated with his compassion? He sat up abruptly, ignoring the searing pain in his side. The cloth dropped heedlessly onto the floor.

“Please go,” he asked her, his voice shaking.

She shook her head. “You’re not well,” she protested.

“Leave me alone,” he growled, getting to his feet. He stumbled to the sink and rinsed his mouth – it tasted sour and metallic. He noticed his face in the mirror; he looked sallow and mean. “I’m sorry, Yukie-chan,” he conceded through gritted teeth. “But I need to be alone right now.”

Without waiting for a reply, he trudged from the bathroom and down the dim hallway to his bedroom. His bags were piled there – most of them mailed ahead by Ibé while he was still in the hospital. He fell onto the bed and pulled a pillow over his face. Elsewhere in the house, the phone rang, but he ignored it. If it wasn’t Ash, he didn’t want to talk.

Yukie crept into the bedroom after him. She didn’t say anything, and Eiji pretended he didn’t know she was there. For a long time the only sound in the house seemed to be their breathing – his short, ragged breaths and her slow, easy ones. “Oniisan,” she began once, but falteringly fell silent.

His parents crept in later, his mother putting a cool hand on his head. “Ibé-san just called,” she explained softly. “We heard about your friend, dear.”

Something inside of Eiji broke. He rolled over, sobbing softly into his pillow. “It’s not true,” he protested despite his tears. “They were tricked. Someone lied to them again.”

She shushed him gently.

“No!” he cried, sitting up violently and flinging her hand away. He pushed away from his mother, almost shoving her from the bed. “I know what I’m saying! He’s not dead!”

His father’s stern voice cut in “Eiji,” he began, reaching out to collect his startled wife.

“Shut up!” Eiji yelled, slipping into English. “Get out and leave me alone!” His sorrow seemed to dry up into furious rage. “All of you,” he snarled, netting his sister in his glare. “Get out!”

He turned his back on them and curled into a ball on his bed. He remembered Ash when he was that prickly. He remembered reaching for him, terrified of being pushed away and shocked when the younger boy allowed him to come close. He remembered Ash leaning into his arms, nestling against him as he cried, his rough voice hiccupping with childlike sobs.

Eiji wrapped his arms around his pillow, closed his eyes and pretended.

Hours later he reached for the telephone, mechanically dialing the number even while he wasn’t sure he remembered it. After just one ring, a tired voice answered.

“Ibé-san?” he said in a voice he barely recognized as his own. “How soon can we leave for New York?”

Chapter 9

He put Ash in his best room. It was lush and opulent, the bedding laden with satin coverlets and silk sheets. The floor-to-ceiling windows looked over the gardens, and a marble fireplace was there to warm any chilly evenings. Remembering what Blanca had told him about Ash’s voracious appetite for reading, he’d moved almost a third of the library into the room – all the books he had that were written in English. He even had a servant assigned to him: a young man to assist him night and day with anything – anything – he desired.

So far, he hadn’t had a chance to enjoy any of it.

Yut Lung looked down at the boy he’d been thinking of as his new pet. His hair was clean and shiny, his pajamas pressed and perfect. Long lashes dusted his cheeks as he breathed gently, his soft lips parted just enough to show the gleam of teeth. He was quite obviously alive – the operation and administration of the drug had been an overwhelming success – but had slept steadily through the past three days.

He supposed it was normal enough, given the circumstances. Even before meeting up with Lao Yuen-Tai, his body was almost certainly exhausted. For such a genius, Ash Lynx never seemed to figure out the negative effects of sleep deprivation on the body. He was a wreck. When he’d come out of the stupor caused by the Moonflower Cycle’s first dose, he didn’t even open his eyes. Instead he fell directly into a deep sleep that lasted more hours than Yut Lung thought a person could sleep in a single bout.

He was starting to get impatient.

He reached out a hand to touch that golden hair, combing it away from Ash’s forehead. He didn’t look dangerous. Asleep, he was just another beautiful toy for the rich and powerful. “Wake up, damn it,” he urged, his fingers twisting and yanking that hair until his head lifted up from the bed. Ash didn’t move; not even an eyelash quivered. Disgusted, Yut Lung let go, flinging him back onto the down pillows.

It was too soon anyway, he realized. Even if Ash did wake up, the only senses he’d have were scent and taste. It would be another day before his brain registered touch, even longer before he’d be able to hear or see. That was one of the trickier elements of the Moonflower Sequence; if Ash didn’t have someone to care for him during this period, he’d almost certainly die.

He left the room, a bit cranky that it was taking so long. He didn’t even know what he wanted to do with him, now that he had him, but there was no way he’d let an opportunity like this slip past him. At the very least, Ash would be indebted to him. Possibly even grateful. Yut Lung imagined his teeth-on-edge thank you, the war of loathing and gratitude in his eyes; his anticipation swelled. It was only a sliver of power to hold over his head, but he would take what he could get when it came to Ash Lynx.

He’d been keeping his end of the bargain – when Ash came through the operation he had his man call Nadia Wong to keep her up on his progress. He was irritated that Sing was nowhere to be found, but inquiries into his gang and even at his family’s home offered no information; apparently he’d found someplace to hide and lick whatever wounds he imagined had been inflicted upon him.

Yut Lung had been surprised to see that Shorter Wong’s sister was involved at all. She was trained in herbs and poisons about as a much Girl Scout was trained in outdoor survival – definitely not enough to stay alive when all she had was damp wood and the wolves were closing in. Her grandmother had some talent, though. Yut Lung had trained with her after his brothers brought him to New York, but he’d surpassed his teacher by the time he was nine years old, then moved on to study in California and then China, where all the real masters were. He was craving to know why Ash had wanted the Moonflower Sequence at all – certainly there were less dangerous ways to make people believe he’d died.

That was why he wanted to speak with Sing. He wanted to know why Ash hadn’t followed his precious little Eiji overseas. His curiosity was intense, so he sent some men out to scour the city. Sing would have to turn up somewhere, he reasoned – Yut Lung just had to make sure his men were around when it happened.

***

“Master Yut Lung,” his assistant began, bowing slightly as he edged his way into the bedroom. “We have located Sing Soo-Ling.”

The young man had spent the evening and much of the afternoon sipping wine, so that by then he was on the dark side of tipsy and in no mood for games. He set his glass unsteadily on the night table and narrowed his eyes. “Where is he?” he asked sharply.

At that moment, a scuffle was heard outside. There was a shout and then the sound of someone being overtaken – possibly shoved to the ground. The servant smiled. “At the moment he is being escorted from the car, I believe.”

“Send him to me at once,” Yut Lung instructed.

Though it was unheard of for the young master to entertain guests in his private bedchamber, the man apparently knew better than to protest. “Shall I give you a moment to change?” he asked, motioning toward the boy’s dressing gown and pajamas.

Yut Lung made a face. It was only Sing; who the hell cared if he saw him in his bedclothes? “No need,” he insisted, his words slurring slightly. “Just bring him in. Now.”

The man disappeared and Yut Lung slid from his bed. His head spun a bit at the sudden movement, but after a moment leaning on the night table, he felt steadier. Pinching his fingers around the delicate crystal stem of his glass, he looked at the pale chardonnay. The bottle it came from – the bottle he’d steadily worked through over the past hour – cost hundreds of dollars and was almost as old as he was. No reason to waste it, just because he had work to do. He tipped it back and swallowed the remainder in one swift gulp.

He was straightening his dressing gown when they brought Sing in.

“Get yer hands off of me, damn it!” the boy swore, writhing in the grip of one of Yut Lung’s strongest bodyguards. “I told ya I would come up quietly!”

Yut Lung raised a hand, flicking a finger toward the door. The men obeyed in an instant, releasing Sing so quickly that he had to stagger forward to stay on his feet. The door closed while he was still trying to compose himself.

He looked terrible. His face was smudged with dirt and his jeans were stained and filthy. It looked like he was wearing the same clothes he had on when Yut Lung took Ash from that hovel two days before. He studied the boy through narrowed eyes, disgusted by his appearance. “Where have you been?” he demanded. “According to my sources you’ve been neither at home with your family nor hanging out with your gang for days.”

Sing rolled his eyes. “Pushy much?” he asked, adjusting his jacket cuffs. “It ain’t your business where I go,” he said, crossing his arms across his chest.

“Your business is always my business,” the young aristocrat insisted, stumbling slightly over his words. “You are a part of Chinatown, and anything that happens here is Lee business.” He’d heard the speech himself so often that he was almost convinced, himself. Almost. Even drunk, he didn’t totally believe that he could control this particular part of his empire.

“I ain’t been in Chinatown,” Sing sneered. “Your stupid brute squad should’ve told you that. Now will you tell me what the hell you want so I can go back to bed?”

Yut Lung didn’t even want to think about where he could have been sleeping. “I need to know about Ash,” he said, padding across the plush carpet to sit on the sofa. The room was sloshing about a bit too much for him to stay standing. “Why did he take the Moonflower Sequence? What was he trying to do?”

Sing crossed leaned on the wall by the door, refusing to come further into the room. “I don’t know,” he said, looking almost satisfied that he had nothing to share. “I told you before that I wasn’t supposed to know nothing about this. Ash said he wasn’t gonna see Eiji anymore, but he didn’t say a word about fakin’ his death.”

Yut Lung perked up like a cat watching a bird in a cage. “He said he wasn’t going to see Eiji anymore?” he echoed, very interested. “After all these months, he’s just sending the boy home and that’s that?”

Not meeting his eyes, Sing shrugged. “That’s what he said,” he mumbled.

It didn’t make sense. If there was anything in the world that was dear to Ash Lynx, it was Eiji Okumura. Yut Lung had been sure that, when all of Dino’s grand plans fell apart, Ash would be on the first 747 to go live happily ever after with that simpering idiot. Was the Moonflower Sequence and his words to Sing just a cover – a way to leave the country and be sure he wouldn’t be followed? Why go to such lengths? Did he really think anyone would chase him across the world for some petty revenge?

I would, a voice in the back of his head reminded him. And Ash must’ve known that anything he told Sing would eventually fall upon his ears. Did this mean that the whole charade was for his benefit? Yut Lung was strangely flattered at the thought – being Ash Lynx’s primary nemesis had its appeal.

He carefully filed away his questions. There was no point lingering over them right then. He’d find no answers until he could ask Ash himself; even then, he might get only half-truths and refusals. He renewed his attention to Sing. “Why haven’t you been home?” he asked instead.

Sing scowled and said nothing.

“Your brother,” Yut Lung guessed. “Lao’s fight with Ash was because of you.”

Sing’s eyes widened briefly and then narrowed. Yut Lung knew then that he’d gotten it right. He crossed the room and opened a cabinet. Inside there was a wine rack and a half-dozen crystal goblets. He uncorked a merlot and breathed in its heady bouquet. “A drink?” he offered, pouring the rich red liquid into a glass. He felt almost bad for the kid.

The younger boy shook his head, making a face. He watched Yut Lung as he shrugged and drank down the wine himself. It was delicious, but somehow seemed to lack the potency of the first bottle – apparently going from a little bit drunk to a little bit drunker wasn’t as interesting as from sober to drunk.

“You’ve had enough already,” Sing observed in a hard voice. He finally crossed the room and pulled the nearly empty stemware from the young heir’s shaky fingers.

Yut Lung was startled – so much so that he didn’t protest as Sing deposited the glass and the bottle back in the cabinet. It closed with a decided bang and the boy stepped in front of it. “Take me to him,” he ordered.

For a second he was going to refuse. What right did Sing have to make demands, after all? But behind the fierce look on the boy’s face was a kind of sad desperation. It was probably the wine making him feel sentimental, but he couldn’t muster the will to say no. He sighed. “Follow me.”

He led Sing through a door to the adjoining room. His companion’s eyes widened as he took in the rich décor. When his eyes lit on Ash on the king-sized bed, he gaped in surprise.

“What did you expect? Did you think I’d keep him in a dungeon?”

Sing’s face answered for him. He composed himself quickly. “He’s okay?” he asked, hurrying to the bedside. “That stuff worked?”

“Of course it did,” Yut Lung bragged. “Didn’t I say I would save him?”

For a long time, Sing stared at Ash. Yut Lung watched. The boy’s feelings were written on his face – joy, relief, awe, and something a bit more troublesome. Darker. It was as though something inside him had changed, like some little bit of faith in the world had broken off and wedged himself in the dark corners of his soul. Yut Lung knew the feeling well enough to know he didn’t like seeing it in Sing.

He wondered why. He didn’t like the way Sing looked at Ash, either. It was admiring – almost worshipful, like a little kid looking at Superman. It pissed him off. They weren’t so very different, he and Ash Lynx. So why did Sing think Ash was so terrific even while he treated Yut Lung with haughty disdain?

“He’ll be asleep for hours yet,” he told him. He realized that he was trying to make Ash look soft. “And then weak as a kitten after that. Maybe for days.” Why? Why did it matter to him that Sing considered Ash a friend? It wasn’t like Yut Lung valued such pedestrian bonds.

Sing nodded absently and then they didn’t speak. Yut Lung was troubled. He wanted another drink. He wanted to send Sing away so that he could be alone – so that Sing would stop looking at Ash and thinking whatever it was he was thinking.

“My mother kicked me out.” The boy’s voice was soft, and Yut Lung wasn’t sure if he was speaking to him or to Ash’s sleeping form. “She said that I killed Lao, even if it wasn’t my gun that did it.”

Yut Lung looked at him, mute. The boy’s shoulders were trembling but he’d never learned how to be comforting.

“How did she know?” Sing continued, turning to look at him. His eyes were dry, but bright.

Yut Lung shook his head. This was new territory. No one had ever confided in him before. “Where are you staying?” he asked after too long a pause.

“Here and there,” the boy said, his voice steady. “Wherever.”

It felt wrong, knowing that Sing was sleeping on the street. It felt wrong to care. “Go stay with your cousin,” he urged. He knew there was no way Sing would stay with him, but he might go to Nadia Wong.

An irritated expression crossed the boy’s features. “You want me to spy on her? To find out what she and Alex were up to?” He shook his head. “She’s my family, you rat. There’s no way.”

A jolt of surprise coursed through Yut Lung. He hadn’t even thought of it. But it was a good idea, really. He shrugged, trying for nonchalance. “It would make things easier,” he said, pretending it was his plan from the start. “But I guess I’ll have to take certain . . . measures . . . to get the information from Ash.”

Sing’s dark eyes widened. He shoved his hands in his pockets and looked back at Ash, seeming to seek answers in his peaceful face. It doesn’t work, Yut Lung wanted to tell him. He’d stared for hours and all he’d gotten were more questions.

“Fine,” Sing said at last. “I needed a place to stay anyway.” He looked at Yut Lung, his face vivid with loathing and disgust. “But now you can’t hurt him, got it?”

Yut Lung smiled. Even if it was just the wine that had mellowed him, he knew he’d sleep better knowing that Sing had a roof over his head. “Go,” he directed. “Tell her Ash is okay, that you saw him with your own eyes, but be careful.”

Sing nodded. “Charlie Dickinson,” he said, businesslike. “I won’t breathe a word while he’s in the house.” The prospect of a mission – even one given to him under such dubious terms – seemed to lift some of his gloom.

They agreed to meet over the next few days and Sing was gone. Yut Lung watched him dart out the door, wondering if he should’ve forced him to have a shower and change clothes first. But maybe the filthy street rat look would be a plus – Nadia Wong did seem to have a soft spot for wayward children.

Once Yut Lung was alone with Ash, he approached the bed. The static of drink was still heavy between his ears and his sentimentality was at an all time high. He climbed beneath the sheets, curling his body around Ash’s still form.

“They all adore you,” he whispered into the blond’s unhearing ear. “No one cares for me that way. Not even Sing, and he was raised to worship me. It’s in his blood.” He touched Ash’s face, letting his fingers trail down his throat and across the open collar of his pajamas. He’d already memorized his body – the smooth line of his jaw and his tapering wrists. When he closed his eyes he could see Ash’s skin burned into the darkness behind his eyelids.

Yut Lung pushed up to his knees and brushed his mouth across Ash’s parted lips. For a moment he thought he felt movement, the slightest flutter of a returned kiss – it brought his whole body to blazing life. It was impossible, of course. Ash was sound asleep, and probably his brain couldn’t register touch yet, anyway. If his lips had moved, it had been by subconscious instinct.

It suddenly seemed very sad to Yut Lung that Ash’s body was so accustomed to kisses that he could return them without even being aware of it. He wondered how many times he’d been accosted in his sleep just like that. How many others had taken what wasn’t offered? And now wasn’t he just another of that vile number?

It made him ill.

He rolled over and laid his head on the other pillow, far enough from Ash that his body heat was just an illusion. His whole body was sloshy and drunk. It made him tired. Not caring that the light was still on or that he was bound to be discovered the next morning, Yut Lung let his eyes fall closed. It was comfortable there, close to Ash Lynx.

Maybe that’s why everyone adored him.

Chapter 10

Ash didn’t understand what was happening. He seemed to wake from dreams – colorful, loud, incongruent, confusing – only to find himself sort of drifting in an absence of anything. It was dark and still. Silent. He tried to move his arms and legs, to touch his face, to speak, but it was as though he had no body to move.

It was too confusing even for panic, and he started to wonder if the dreams were in fact the reality and that calm and rational emptiness the dream. But it was impossible: his dreams were full of Eiji Okumura and circus clowns and cats big enough to ride on – it was only in the dark silence that he remembered letting Eiji leave, getting stabbed by Lao, drinking that stuff Nadia gave him.

He considered the possibility that he could be dead, but didn’t want to linger over it. Logic insisted that the nothingness was reality, so for a long time he slept as much as he could, preferring fantasy to emptiness.

***

The rhythmic thump and whoosh of his heart circulating blood seemed almost loud enough to wake the dead. Except that it wasn’t a sound at all, but rather an awareness of what was going on inside his body. His stomach was hollow – the pain of hunger viciously sharp.

So he wasn’t dead, then.

It was a relief. He drifted back to sleep.

***

Ash noticed that his mouth tasted sour. That didn’t mean anything to him at first, he just longed for gum or a drink of water to wash the taste away. Then he realized that he was tasting. He ran his tongue over his teeth. Or at least, he thought he did; there was no feeling in his tongue to verify that his movement was real. He opened his mouth, trying to taste something else. A familiar bitterness. Silk. He’d been gagged with enough silk ties to know the taste. He breathed in, remembering that taste and smell were related. He smelled shampoo. Incense. Flowers.

He must be at Nadia’s. Clearly she’d been able to secure the second drug in the Moonflower Sequence. He worked through his situation carefully. The last time he was awake, he was sure he couldn’t smell or taste anything, but now he could. Did that mean that his senses were gradually returning?

He wondered about the stab wound in his belly. Had he been in the hospital? He took a deep breath, searching the air for the sharp bite of antiseptic. It didn’t seem to be there. Instead, he smelled soap and wine and the barest trace of cooked food. Nadia and Alex must’ve kept him out of the hospital, which must’ve kept him out of jail. He wondered which of them had stitched him up, and how many days had passed.

Ash thought of Eiji. He wanted to go to him. He pictured the disappointment in his eyes when he realized that Ash wasn’t coming to see him off. He imagined the resigned sadness Eiji would feel when he didn’t show up in Japan, the plane ticket wasted. I tried, Eiji! he thought, irrationally trying to send the message across the world to his friend. Wait for me.

***

He didn’t have a way to keep track of time, so it felt like days or even weeks after rediscovering taste and smell that he noticed that his sense of touch had returned. At first it was the tiniest itch on the arch of his left foot. Without thinking, he curled his right foot over and scratched with his toes. Ah, so good. . .

With a rush of awareness, he realized that he was feeling. It was even more exciting than that first shocking taste. It meant that he’d figured right. If he was patient – and what other choice did he have? – he’d eventually be able to see and hear.

For now he was content to revel in what he had. Ash pressed into the soft give of what felt like goose down beneath him, savored the restrictive tangle of the slick fabric wound around his legs. The air was cool against his skin – he breathed it in, savoring the taste and scent of it as it passed through his mouth and nose.

With touch came a sense of space. Hands glided over fabric and wood, reaching down to the floor to feel plush carpet. He pulled himself to his knees, wincing at the sharp stab of pain in his abdomen – it wasn’t healed yet, not by a long shot. Ash quickly calculated an estimate of how long he’d been under, all the while reaching and feeling the boundaries of his new universe. Textured wallpaper. Carved four-poster bed. Silk-brocade bedding.

Where was he? He figured it’d been only three or four days since that day at the library – certainly not enough time for the apartment to sell, and that was the only way he could imagine that Nadia and Alex could’ve gotten the money for such a luxurious room.

He was still pondering it when he felt something in his hair. The brush of a hand across his forehead. Something nudged against his lips and he opened them. Food. It was a grape, juicy and sweet. Ash devoured it, immediately reaching out for more, starved. His fingers closed around a delicate wrist. He pulled it toward him, opening his mouth for another bite.

It didn’t occur to him to be alarmed. His desperation for food and an end to his solitude shoved his natural wariness aside and he found himself hoping this person – whoever he or she was – would stay a bit.

The next grape was somehow even better. Ash couldn’t remember having tasted anything so wonderful: the smooth skin tart and yielding beneath his teeth, the juicy inside exploding with damp flavor. Ash’s fingers tightened around the wrist of his caregiver – it was small and smooth, and he could feel the pulse of blood just beneath paper-thin skin. Tapering fingers brushed across his lips. Another plump grape was pushed past his teeth. The sensation sent a shiver of pleasure through his whole body. It was as though his senses were super-charged. Every touch and taste was magnified, intense.

The meal was brief, and Ash was left unsatisfied.

He understood well enough that it wasn’t really the food he craved. He wanted contact. His whole body was alive and thrumming with the need to touch and be touched. Even the minute friction of his pajamas across his legs felt like a seduction. He hoped it hadn’t been Nadia feeding him – he wasn’t prepared to think of her the way he thought of that wrist, those fingers. He didn’t want to imagine Nadia doing the things he’d been almost hoping those hands might do.

It shocked and humiliated him to realize what he wanted, to admit to himself that despite – or because of – his jaded past he was craving sexual contact with a faceless stranger. Hadn’t there already been enough of that in his life? But no, his body had a mind of its own and it wanted. Desperately.

It reacted in the usual way – tightening, stiffening until it was as though all of his nerves were focused there. He groaned. Not now. He didn’t need that, or the tangle of thoughts that inevitably came with it. Eiji. Eiji, his lips parted, soft, pleading sounds coming from him. Ash imagined pushing into him, feeling the taut heat of his skin around him.

The images were vivid, and Ash was shocked to find they came so readily, so easily. For months he’d been so careful, so balanced. Eiji deserved more respect than that. He felt dirty. He felt weak.

Ash realized he wasn’t going to fight it off this time.

Is anyone there? He tried to speak, believed he was speaking, but had no proof. He couldn’t hear. He put his fingers against his throat and tried again. Vibration. “Did you leave, then?” he asked.

After long moments with no response, Ash sighed. Was it safe, then? He crept his hand downward, his fingers sliding across front of his pajamas. Even through the fabric, they felt hot and alien. He fumbled with the buttons, letting his nails drag across each new inch of exposed skin. Not being able to see or hear was interesting. Exciting. It meant no distractions.

His hand moved lower, slipping beneath the elastic waistband of his pants. He was hot and hard, and he gasped out loud as his fingers brushed across the sensitive tip. He curled around himself, imagining a different hand. He moaned against his pillow, imagining a different voice. How long had it been since he’d allowed his mind to drift in that direction? A year? Longer?

And then he thought he heard something. Not heard, exactly, but sensed. He suddenly wasn’t so sure he was alone. “Hello?” His hand slid slowly away and he rolled over, wrapping his arms around the pillow. The feeling of being watched disappeared as suddenly as it came, and he scowled. He just couldn’t tell.

Frustrated, Ash spent what seemed like hours alone before finally drifting into sleep. His dreams were made of sighs and lingering touches that spiraled into ardent, vigorous sex. He woke often, dazed and ungratified, images lingering in his mind: Eiji’s eyes, Eiji’s face, his lean, muscled shoulders and back.

Even the shame that always flooded him when he gave in to such fantasies seemed dim when contrasted with the overwhelming yearning that throbbed within his body. He’d never felt this way, and wondered how much of it had to do with the rediscovery of his senses. Or maybe it had something to do with the Moonflower Sequence. He wondered if there wasn’t something in that second concoction that worked as an aphrodisiac.

Snarling, he punched his pillow. He didn’t even know where the fuck he was. If he couldn’t figure out that much, then the more complicated questions were pointless. It didn’t matter why he felt the way he did – what mattered was that he didn’t give into it. As it was, he’d never know when he was alone. And even when he knew he wasn’t, he sure as hell didn’t know who was in the room with him. It wasn’t the kind of situation where he could let his guard down, no matter how good it felt.

***

Sometime later Ash woke to soft caresses. He opened his eyes groggily, still surprised that there was only the faintest hint of light to mark the change. Rivulets of cool liquid slid down his chest, and he realized that the caress was a damp sponge. His pajama top was gone, and someone was gently washing his skin with soapy water.

“Who are you?” he asked, still unhearing. He reached for the hand. It froze beneath his touch, and he realized it was the same delicate wrist and thin fingers from before. “Do I know you?”

The hand pulled back, but Ash tightened his grip. He wasn’t going to let this person move away and virtually disappear from his world without giving him some answers. “No,” he snarled, even as he groaned inwardly at the sensation of the foamy water sliding over his hand and down his forearm. “Answer me.”

The person hesitated for a long moment and Ash wondered what would happen. They’d have to wrench pretty hard to get out of his grip, but he wasn’t in any position to fight if they did. To his surprise, his caretaker leaned close.

Ash smelled jasmine and soap, felt the damp pulse of breath near his ear. A cascade of long hair fell onto his damp, bare chest, strands clinging in the soapy water. A woman, then. She seemed to whisper in his ear, unaware or uncaring that he couldn’t hear a word of it.

A woman. Ash breathed in the scent of her, stretching his fingers around her wrist to touch more of her smooth skin. Ash liked women. They were safe.

He let go. The hand pulled abruptly away and he was afraid he’d frightened her. She must be one of Nadia’s friends. It made sense. She obviously couldn’t keep him at her place – Charlie practically lived there, after all – and, to put it mildly, Alex didn’t really have the aptitude for nursing. A charitable third party was the only option. He tried to remember everything he’d said in the past few days. Eiji always told him that his tone was mean and demanding when he was tired and not paying attention to how he sounded. Now Ash wondered if he’d been barking at this poor girl the whole time. Probably.

In another moment the bath resumed. She slid the sponge over his chest and shoulders, squeezing so that lukewarm water cascaded over his skin. Ash felt himself arching into her touch, his breath quickening as the hand moved lower, across his abdomen, his belly. He was hard and alert and there was nothing he could do about it. He clenched his eyes shut and hoped she wouldn’t be offended.

Then she touched him. It was the barest brush – accidental – but Ash had to bite his lip to prevent the groan from escaping. She washed his thighs, the tepid water sliding between them when her hands – trembling? – squeezed too hard on the sponge.

Ash didn’t even know what sounds he made, just that he made them. The girl dropped the sponge, and for a dreadful moment he thought she was gone, that she’d run away to tell Nadia what a horrible pervert he was. But then, barely an instant later, her hands were back.

They were slick soapy, sliding over his thighs in place of the sponge. Ash sighed raggedly, clenching his fists to keep from grabbing her wrists and guiding her upward. He didn’t know what she had in mind, touching him like that, but he was smart enough not to spoil it if he didn’t have to.

The blunt crescents of her fingernails scraped gently against his flesh; her smooth palms soaped circles on his skin, each rotation taking her closer. Closer. There was no way she couldn’t know, hadn’t seen. It was as though she were ignoring an elephant in the room. Ash almost wished she would leave. He didn’t care anymore if it was her hand or his that did the job, as long as it was done.

Then her fingertips grazed against him. Ash held his breath, wondering if it had been another accident or if this was some new and terrible way to tease him. “Please,” he whispered, ashamed and yet too weak to resist.

As though the word were magic, Ash had his wish granted. The girl slid both hands up his thighs, hesitating only an instant before wrapping one slick hand around him. Ash cried out, clenching his hands into the towels beneath him. He didn’t know why she was doing this, but details like who or why didn’t seem to matter so much.

Long locks of her hair fell over him and Ash reached for them, eager to touch her. Her hair was smooth and thick – impossibly straight, like Eiji’s. He thrust his hands into the mass of it, grasping and scraping his fingernails against her scalp. She leaned into his hands, her breath coming hot against his chest in time with the movement of her hand.

Ash was already close to coming. He sucked in his breath, willing his body to calm. It didn’t seem right to end it so quickly. He grabbed her hand, yanking it away mid-stroke, and the bereft feeling of disappointment was almost too much to bear. “Wait,” he gasped, out of breath without any exertion. “Let me touch you.”

She was still. Waiting.

His fingers moved over her narrow wrists and up the taper of her forearms. They were small and narrow; Ash felt her muscles bunch in tension as he brushed against her smooth skin. The sleeves of her brocade blouse were short, exposing the soft curve of her biceps. He traced upward over the fabric-covered shoulder until his hand found skin again over the high collar. She moaned or spoke – Ash felt the low vibration of her voice through his hand.

Then her mouth was on his, hotly plundering and devouring the taste and feel of him. Ash was so startled that he almost pulled away. But then he was caught up in it, realizing how long it’d been since he’d been kissed. Not counting Dino’s repulsive displays of power, the last had been Eiji, that long-ago day at the prison. Had it really been two years? He moved his mouth beneath this girl’s, his tongue tangling with hers, and wondered why he’d never gotten up the nerve to kiss Eiji again in all those months they were together.

His fingers reached again for the skin of her neck, and for a moment Ash let himself believe it was another neck – lean and strong and beautiful. He traced his fingers lightly over the smooth skin, imagining that boyish jaw and narrow chin. His skin buzzed with the light friction as he traced up Eiji’s throat and over the gentle curve of his Adam’s apple. He loved the way Eiji’s body was formed; it was undeniably masculine, but still somehow delicate and small, making Ash feel protective.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, alarms were going off. Ash pulled himself from his imaginary lover, breaking his kiss with the stranger on the bed with him. The girl was breathless – Ash felt the heat of her short gasps as he pulled back – and she reached for his shoulders, pulling him close again.

Ash put his hand up. “Wait,” he commanded, confused. Something was definitely wrong. His heart was thrumming with alarm rather than passion, even though he wasn’t sure what there was to be alarmed by. He thought back. Was it something to do with Eiji?

And then he realized. Eiji’s Adam’s apple. It had been real – he’d touched it himself and only pretended he’d been touching his friend. A man then. He reached out, gathering the stranger close as if to continue. An unquestionably flat chest pressed against his.

Ash’s alarm pitched up a notch. He could think of only one man with long hair and such delicate bone structure. “Yut Lung?” he asked deafly. The man in his arms stiffened and pulled back. He seemed to speak.

Ash twisted violently, knocking him off the bed. It hurt like hell, and he hoped that his wound was healed enough not to break open again. “Get the fuck away from me,” he snarled, grabbing for some kind of cover. His fingers found a plush towel and he carelessly threw it over his lap.

Apparently the other boy understood that he meant business. Ash felt the vibrations of the door slamming even as he shook with fury and shame.

It all clicked – the opulent setting, the strangers caring for him. He’d been starting to wonder why Nadia and Alex hadn’t been in to see him yet. He deduced almost immediately that Yut Lung was somehow the only person who had been able to produce the second vial of Moonflower stuff.

But why had Alex contacted him at all? He knew that Yut Lung was one of the enemies he was trying to elude. It made no sense.

Ash yanked the damp towels from beneath him, feeling around for something to wear. He climbed off the bed and explored his surroundings, finding a pair of pajamas folded up on a nearby chair. He slipped into them, feeling a tiny bit better – if you must be in your enemy’s lair, it was best to have clothes on, after all. Beyond that he was helpless. Being unable to hear was manageable. Blind, too, could be done. But both together? It’d be suicide to try to escape. He clearly had to bide his time until his senses returned. He just hoped that Yut Lung would steer clear of him until then.

Later, when he’d kicked away all the damp bedding and resituated himself in the bed, Ash felt a brooding sense of unease that had nothing to do with being a prisoner in Yut Lung’s mansion. What the hell had gotten into him back there? Never in his life had he ever treated anyone like that – making a sex object of a total stranger. It disgusted him. He’d certainly been attracted to people before, but he knew how awful it was to be seen as nothing more than a body and a face. He never believed he could do it to someone else.

Ash slumped against the pillows, remembering his fantasy. He was almost relieved that Eiji was on the other side of the world. He’d been working so hard to quell the perverted longings he had for his friend, but clearly it hadn’t worked. He had no problem with the emotional stuff – he’d known he loved Eiji since that day he’d swiped Charlie’s car and ditched Ibé just to help him out – but he knew that sex was trickier. Ugly. He didn’t want Eiji to see that side of him, ever.

Ash thought of the letter and immediately felt the familiar swell of feeling. He wondered how he was going to manage it, spending his life with Eiji and hiding such a powerful longing. He clenched his teeth. It didn't matter how - he'd just do it.

Chapter 11

It was nearly dusk when Sing slipped through the front door. He shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over the arm of the couch. The scent of dinner filled the house, and his stomach growled. He’d gotten used to Nadia’s regular mealtimes, and even though she didn’t require him to be home for dinner, her fantastic cooking ensured he was never late.

“Nadia!” he called, striding across the living room. He had news for his cousin – good news. He was looking forward to her smile when she heard it; the crease of worry between her brows had become more pronounced every day, and he figured that it was because of Ash Lynx.

“I never once said you had anything to do with it!”

Raised voices from the kitchen made Sing stop in his tracks.

“No, but you’ve implied it how many times?” Nadia’s voice was scathing.

There was a loud crack, like someone slamming a cabinet or banging a coffee mug onto the table. “I only asked why you were out all night with him!” Charlie roared. “Imagine how I felt, worrying all damn night only to have you strolling home at nine in the morning with that punk! The fact that you’ve never given me a straight answer about it just makes it worse!”

Sing was embarrassed to have stumbled into a lovers’ spat, but that didn’t keep him from listening in. He knew that Charlie was in charge of investigating Ash’s disappearance – apparently letting the body vanish under his watch had earned him a lot of trouble with his bosses. It bothered Sing that he hit on the truth of it right away, except that, since Ash wasn’t dead, there was really no crime to investigate. Charlie didn’t know that, though, and there was no way either of them was going to tell him.

“I’ve told you,” she retorted in a low voice. “My cousin died that night. I was with my family.”

Charlie muttered something that Sing didn’t catch and Nadia exploded. “I can’t believe you’re so suspicious about that! We ran into each other on the street! He walked me home! Jesus, Charlie, you were here when I got here – you could see with your own eyes that nothing happened between us.”

“I never thought that!” Charlie protested. “It just doesn’t look good that you were with Alexander Trommler – Ash Lynx’s right hand man – on the very night his body disappeared. Furthermore – ”

“Damn it, Charlie,” Nadia interjected. “You don’t even have any evidence that Alex had anything to do with it! You’re always jumping to conclusions when – ”

Sing decided he’d heard enough. It was starting to get personal now, and there wasn’t anything else he wanted to know about his cousin’s faltering love life. He turned and headed upstairs as quietly as possible – the last thing he wanted was for them to realize he was home and act like everything was okay for his sake.

He was in his room less than a minute when the front door slammed, shaking the walls and floor. Guess that meant Charlie wasn’t sticking around for dinner. Sing wanted to wait another ten minutes or so before heading back down, but then he realized that Nadia was probably crying, and he didn’t like the idea of her doing that at all, much less all alone in the kitchen. He crept down the stairs, wary.

“Hey, Sing,” Nadia greeted him wearily from the table. “Hungry?” There was no sign of tears, but she looked worn out – the stress lines on her face made her look older than her twenty-eight years.

“Starved,” Sing replied in what he hoped was a normal voice. He opened the fridge and grabbed a can of Coke. “What’d you make today?”

She stood and went to the stove. “Nothing exciting,” she said apologetically. “Just spaghetti.” She served up steaming plates, ladling the steaming meat sauce on top. “But I forgot to make the garlic bread.”

“’S okay,” Sing grinned, taking his place at the table. He guessed he should mention Charlie – this was the first night he hadn’t eaten with them since Sing moved in. “Charlie working tonight?” he asked brightly.

Nadia set the plate in front of him with a sigh. “There’s no point in pretending you don’t know,” she scolded softly. “I heard you come in.”

“Oh.” So much for tact. He would’ve been better off avoiding the subject all together, it seemed. He decided that food was better than conversation anyway, and he dived into his dinner. It felt like it’d been years since lunchtime.

Nadia slid back into her seat and picked up her fork. “We just need a break from each other, that’s all,” she reasoned out loud. Sing didn’t reply, because she didn’t seem to be talking to him. “As long as I have to protect Ash, things are going to be strained, so it’s better we don’t see each other for now.” She wasn’t eating at all – just twisting the pasta onto her fork and letting it slide off, over and over.

Sing guessed it was time for his good news. “Yut Lung is gonna give Ash the last drug tomorrow,” he told her. “He says after that, he’ll be all set to go home.”

His cousin brightened visibly. “Really?” she asked eagerly. “He’s going to be all right?”

Sing had kept Nadia up on all of Ash’s progress, but she wasn’t the type to believe it wholeheartedly unless she saw with her own eyes. Yut Lung had refused her and Alex’s attempts to see him from the beginning, so they had only Sing’s word that Ash was alive at all. “You’ll be able to see for yourself tomorrow afternoon,” he assured her, happy to see a smile on her face.

It made him feel better, too, knowing that Ash was going to be back to his normal self soon. Since that first time, Yut Lung hadn’t let Sing past the downstairs parlor, always claiming that Ash was resting or otherwise indisposed whenever he stopped in for an update. He insisted that his guest was recovering at a remarkable pace, and that all was well, but in the past couple of days, Yut Lung seemed reluctant to meet Sing’s eyes when he said these things. On top of that, the young heir seemed overstressed and tired lately – something was clearly weighing on his mind, but Sing was too afraid of being shut out completely to pry into it.

Nadia wondered out loud if Ash would be willing to come and stay with her until he made up his mind where to go. “Alex said they already started the process of selling his apartment,” she mused. “So maybe he’ll need a place to stay.”

A little unsure about the idea of sleeping under the same roof with Ash Lynx, Sing said nothing. He slurped up his pasta, only half-listening while his cousin planned and fussed. It wasn’t that he had any specific issue with Ash, but he knew there was something that was bugging him about the guy. Part of it was definitely Lao. Living with the guy who killed his brother – even if Lao attacked first and therefore almost certainly deserved it – would make for uncomfortable quarters. The rest of it was something he couldn’t really pinpoint, but it was from way before. As much as he admired Ash, Sing just couldn’t relax around him.

“Won’t Charlie be coming back?” he asked, interrupting as she was explaining that Ash could sleep in Shorter’s old room.

Nadia looked surprised. The corners of her mouth twitched down. “Probably not for a while,” she said softly, glancing down at her spaghetti. She poked at it in silence, seeming to forget Sing’s good news.

Sing felt lousy. “Sorry,” he mumbled after a while.

She looked up, blinking at him as though she’d forgotten he was there at all. “It’s not your fault, Sing,” she said briskly, standing up and taking her uneaten dinner to the trashcan. She turned to the sink, filling it with water for the dishes.

The boy watched her sadly. It was probably worth it, saving Ash’s life at the expense of her relationship, but Sing still felt the sting of guilt. If his stupid brother hadn’t gone after him in the first place, none of this would’ve happened at all. He took another bite of his dinner and realized that he’d lost his appetite. Of course, he reasoned, if Ash had just gone to Japan like everyone expected him to, Lao would’ve never gotten the chance.

Eiji had undoubtedly heard the news by then. Sing wondered how he was holding up. He thought of the letter he was carrying in his wallet. Had Eiji’s feelings gotten through to Ash, or was he just going to disappear to parts unknown?

***

It was one-thirty in the afternoon when Sing, Nadia, and Alex arrived at the Lee mansion. Nadia was twitchy and concerned, seeming to barely notice the rich décor. Alex was the opposite. He stared at everything from the marble tile to the gilt work on the crown molding. Sing almost snickered at his wide blue eyes and awed expression, but he remembered that he’d been no different when he first started coming there.

Yut Lung didn’t make them wait, which was unusual for him. A servant was guiding them into the reception room when the boy hurried into the foyer. “It’s about time you got here,” he said sharply, his long braid swinging behind him.

“You said ‘afternoon,’” Sing reminded him. If the Lee heir wanted to be a jerk, he was up to the challenge, but he didn’t want Nadia or Alex to have to deal with him.

Yut Lung frowned. “And it’s almost two hours into it,” he complained. “The way you’ve all been harping on it, I expected to you and the entourage to be pounding on my door as soon as the clock struck twelve-oh-one.”

“Let’s just do this,” Alex growled. As soon as the Lee heir showed up, he put away the tourist face and went back to being the second-toughest guy on the Lower East Side. He stepped up, forcing Yut Lung to address him instead of Sing. Since the moment he showed up on Nadia’s doorstep, he’d been making it crystal clear to Sing that he was in charge. It seemed their old camaraderie was lost; in its place was nothing but a sour refusal to acknowledge that Sing had done the right thing when he called Yut Lung all those days ago.

The Chinese prince shrugged. He turned on his heel and wordlessly led them upstairs.

The room was exactly the same as Sing remembered it, with the exception of the rumpled bedding and Ash’s hostile scowl. It deepened as they walked in. “I told you not to bother me any more,” he spat venomously, staring straight ahead. “And don’t try to pretend it’s not you – can’t miss that faggoty perfume you insist on dousing your head with.”

“Ash…” Nadia gazed at him, her expression an acute mixture of trepidation, longing, and joy. Sing blinked, startled at the obvious love in her face.

Ash moved at the sound of her voice. “Nadia,” he breathed, his scowl melting into a beatific smile. “My god, Nadia. I’ve been wondering –”

“I’m here, too, Boss,” Alex chimed in gruffly, the edges of his frown twitching up.

Somehow, Ash’s grin got wider. “Alex!” he yelped delightedly. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and met them both in a three-way hug. It looked cozy.

Sing held back. He guessed that his presence wouldn’t be so well received; Ash hadn’t trusted him with his big secret, after all.

“Yes, yes, the gang’s all here,” Yut Lung said crossly. “Alex, Sing, and Nadia came today to witness you getting your last dose of the Moonflower Sequence, after which they will, without a doubt, want to whisk you out of my evil clutches.”

“Sing?” Ash asked suddenly.

“Why can’t he see?” Nadia demanded of Yut Lung at the same time.

“Sorry, Boss,” Alex said, striding closer to the bed to answer Ash’s question. “He got caught up in it at the hospital, and we didn’t know how –”

“Hospital?” Ash sat up, his face falling into sterner lines. “How the hell did I end up in a hospital? Do the cops know I’m here?”

Meanwhile, Yut Lung was condescendingly explaining the properties of the Moonflower Sequence to Nadia. “Don’t you even know the history of it?” he asked, surprised. “It’s truly amazing you didn’t poison him with your incompetent –”

As Sing stared, the two conversations got louder. It was starting to piss him off. Ash’s irritation, Alex’s apologies, Yut Lung’s superiority – it was all aggravating. Then Nadia bit her lip, apparently buying into Yut Lung’s shit and feeling guilty about it; at that point, Sing had enough. “Will you all just shut the hell up?” he barked.

Four pairs of eyes turned toward Sing – or rather three did and one made a close approximation. “Let’s just all agree that things didn’t go exactly as planned and get this fiasco over with, okay? Jeez.”

Ash’s lips twisted into the ghost of a smile. “Sounds good to me,” he said. Like a little kid, Sing was suddenly happy because of that little smile.

“Fine,” Yut Lung agreed curtly, gracefully stepping toward the dressing table. He lifted the lid of a small box there and pulled out a hypodermic needle. “Because of the volatile nature of this particular combination of drugs, part three must be administered intravenously – the stomach would immediately repel such a concoction.” He loaded the syringe and tapped it twice.

He reached for Ash’s arm. His fingertips had barely touched his skin when the blond yanked violently away. “Not you,” he snarled, his breath short, like he’d been badly startled. “I want Nadia to do it.”

Sing’s cousin shook her dark head. “I can’t,” she said in a small voice. “I’ve never done anything –”

“I don’t care,” Ash grumbled, cutting her off. “It has to be you. I don’t want this bastard touching me.”

“I’ll mess it up,” she protested. “I’ll hurt you.”

“I can do it,” Alex said softly, putting his hand on Nadia’s shoulder. “Boss, you want me to do it?”

Ash looked concerned. “You sure?” he asked softly.

Alex nodded. Realizing that his boss couldn’t see him, he spoke. “Easy as pie,” he assured. He didn’t even need the tourniquet. He picked up Ash’s arm and smacked it hard just above the wrist. Apparently satisfied that the subsequent welt contained a vein, he thrust the needle in without a second look, his thumb pressed smoothly down on the plunger. Sing was startled – he looked like a seasoned pro.

“Good work,” Ash murmured. He didn’t look happy about it. Alex took a step back and let the syringe drop with a clatter onto the night table. His face was red and he looked vaguely ashamed.

But Sing didn’t observe Alex for long. He turned back to Ash and watched eagerly for a reaction, barely daring to breathe.

Ash blinked. He squinted, looked around, and blinked again. “That was fast,” he muttered under his breath, an involuntary smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“You can see?” Nadia asked, her wide eyes damp.

He nodded. “Sort of,” he said, turning to look at her. “It’s still really fuzzy, though. Sorta dim.”

“And so it will be, for the next twenty four hours or so,” Yut Lung explained. “But by this time tomorrow your vision will be clear. And that other problem you were having?” he added in a tone heavy with meaning. “That won’t be an issue any more, either.”

Ash cleared his throat and looked uncomfortable. “Good,” he said gruffly, not looking at Yut Lung.

The Lee heir looked equally uncomfortable. “So that’s that,” he said stiffly. “You’re free to go.”

After that, things moved much more quickly. Ash got ready to leave as quickly as he could – going into the adjoining bathroom to change into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt that Yut Lung must’ve had purchased for him. He came out looking strangely sharp, his shirt lose and his jeans too blue.

No one mentioned the uneasy truce that seemed to be in effect between Ash and Yut Lung – since his initial outburst, the blond had been downright civilized to his host. Sing wondered for the millionth time what his plans were, now that the world thought he was dead but Lee Yut Lung knew the truth. Would he trust the Chinese boss to leave him alone and keep his mouth shut, or would Yut Lung turn up dead in a few days, too well informed to be allowed to live?

And if Ash really did kill Yut Lung, where would that leave him and Sing? How far did Sing’s loyalties lie in either direction? He didn’t know and wasn’t too eager to test it.

Everyone was in the foyer, ready to leave when Yut Lung called Ash back. The tone of his voice was soft and unthreatening; he hovered in the doorway of his library, beckoning Ash with an expression just short of shy.

Ash stiffened. “What do you want?” he growled like a bristling cat.

The Chinese boy looked almost cowed. “There are things that must be said between us,” he said seriously.

“I don’t have anything to say to you,” Ash retorted. But Sing noticed that his confidence seemed to falter. His firm voice wavered.

Yut Lung nodded. “I understand,” he said, nodding. “But I have things I would tell you.” He looked at the floor for a long moment and then back up at Ash. “Please.”

Looking irritated and wary, Ash shrugged. He tossed a warning look at Alex before following Yut Lung into the other room. He closed the door behind them.

For a long time there was dead silence. Sing could hear Nadia’s breathing, and Alex shuffled his feet from time to time, but otherwise it was still. All three of them stared at the closed door, their faces probably wearing the same look of confused expectation. Then the voices in the other room got louder. Not yelling, exactly, but heated, explosive talking. Sing couldn’t make out a single word, but guessed from the tones that they were arguing.

“Let’s go.” Ash burst from the room suddenly, his jaw set in a hard line. Sing saw Yut Lung behind him, a strange look on his face as he watched Ash walk away. He met Sing’s eyes for a long moment before the younger boy pulled away, following Ash and the others out the door.

“Think about what I said!” the young heir called out.

Ash waved him off, his brows knitting together in a troubled frown. Sing glanced from one to the other. There was something different about those two. Maybe it was because Eiji Okumura was far away. Maybe it was the debt of a life saved. Sing didn’t know, but he didn’t like it.

Chapter 12

Ash twisted the heavy knob, lifting his face into the last spray of hot water before it tapered off into a trickle and then a drip. The shower smelled thickly of soap and hard water. The yellow non-slip flowers on the bottom of the tub were rough against his feet. Ash closed his eyes. He was clean. Alive. It felt good.

His fingers probed the aching area on his abdomen. It hurt, but it was the itchy, healing pain of a wound without infection. The stitches were ugly, coarse and black against his pale skin. He peered at them through the shield of his makeshift bandage – a piece of a plastic bread bag affixed to his skin with waterproof tape. Blanca would not approve, but Ash was done with sponge baths for a while, preferably a long while. It did the trick – there was no water to pucker and soften the skin pulled tight by his stitches.

He pushed the curtain aside, blinking in the hazy half-light of the steam filled bathroom. Cooler air from the cracked window brushed against his wet skin. It felt good, but in a good, familiar way. The air, the breeze, the water that streamed in heavy rivulets from his hair and down his neck did not arouse him. That fact alone made him grateful.

It was the best part of that dose. More than being free of Yut Lung, even more than being able to see again, he was relieved that every touch and every sensation was no longer an erotic experience. It had clearly been an effect of the previous serum – made to bring back life with conditions, it seemed. Heightened sexual longing and immobility due to a lack of eyesight: it was the perfect combination for a willing slave. Add to that the illusion of death, and the Moonflower Sequence was an ideal way to gather a harem without raising suspicious about the victims’ whereabouts.

Victim. For most of his life, that’s exactly what Ash had been; just thinking the word left a foul taste in his mouth. He was sick of that helpless feeling. That revolting experience with Foxx had been the last – he’d sworn it a dozen times. Never again.

And yet he’d just spent the better part of a week at Lee Yut Lung’s house, under the influence of some kind of mega date-rape drug. He’d behaved in ways that didn’t make sense to him, but somehow, even though he knew he ought to feel like he’d been taken advantage of, he didn’t. This time around it was his own behavior that disgusted him.

He wrapped a towel around his waist and used his hand to clear a wide patch in the steam condensation on the mirror. He looked at himself critically. Other than a few lost pounds and the ugly gash in his abdomen, he looked exactly the same. He searched his eyes for traces of the cold-edged greed that he saw so often in men like Foxx and Golzine, but found nothing there but the same open gaze he’d always seen. It made him wonder if maybe Yut Lung was right.

When he’d beckoned Ash into the library, the last thing the blond wanted to do was to confess all the crap he’d been feeling since their unfortunate encounter a few days before. He only went in at all to prevent a scene – he didn’t trust Yut Lung not to speak in front of everyone, and Ash couldn’t let that happen. But as soon as he’d closed the door behind them, as soon as Yut Lung opened his mouth to say whatever it was he felt was so urgent, Ash found himself speaking.

“I’m sorry I took advantage of you,” he’d blurted out without thinking. “I wasn’t myself.”

Yut Lung gaped at him. “You were under the control of a powerful aphrodisiac,” he insisted. “I don’t think any of it is your fault.”

Ash laughed harshly. “Give me a break. I know what it’s like to be seen only as a sexual object. A fucking blow up doll. It’s not pleasant.” He looked at his feet. It was damned uncomfortable, saying those things to Yut Lung of all people. “Even you don’t deserve that.”

The Chinese boy looked past him, his eyes narrowing and cheeks coloring. “You forget that I was a willing participant,” he mumbled.

Ash’s heart hurt. He’d been willing once or twice, but it never took away the sting of humiliation when he was forced to see the truth. Those bastards didn’t care if he wanted it or not – going in without a fight just made him that much more of a sucker. “That doesn’t matter.”

Yut Lung looked at him, his eyes suddenly dawning with understanding. “You don’t know much about sex, do you?” he asked out of nowhere. His voice was strange to Ash’s ears – for the first time not threatening or filled with silky deception.

Now it was Ash’s turn to flush. “How do you get that?” he asked. He knew all about sex. He was a goddamn expert on the subject. He could make men cum without even touching them; Dino Golzine had made sure of that. He scowled, irrationally irritated that Yut Lung belittled his skills, no matter that he’d spent his whole life being ashamed of them.

Yut Lung shook his head. “It’s not always about using people,” he said, looking at Ash through incredulous eyes. “All the time, people do it for the sake of just feeling good. It’s not about love or anything, but it’s not the same as what you know, either.”

The idea wasn’t new to Ash. After all, wasn’t Alex always sleeping with girls he never loved? Girls he barely knew? The girls didn’t seem to mind the attention, and Ash had never thought of Alex as the predatory sort. But this was different. He didn’t quite know why, but it was definitely different.

“Forget it,” Ash mumbled, embarrassed to be talking about sex at all with Yut Lung – much less discussing what was and wasn’t consensual between them. The fact that there was even anything to discuss was way beyond wrong.

For a moment Yut Lung looked uncomfortable, as though he wanted to say more but didn’t know how. Ash crossed his arms and looked down at him, wondering how such a powerful guy could look so weak. “So what did you want?” he asked brusquely.

“I’m not going to consider you my enemy anymore.” The words were said in a rush, the way a middle-schooler would ask a girl to a dance. The prince looked miserable. He took a deep, composing breath. “I mean it. I’m done. I’m sick of this.”

Ash studied him, wondering what he was up to now. He was very good at the innocent act – those weeks in California proved that – but last time Ash was able to see through the cracks. This time there didn’t seem to be any. “Why?” he asked at last.

In the bathroom, Ash grabbed another towel and rubbed it over his hair. Yut Lung had refused to explain. He’d already made up his mind not to over think it – he had no intention of staying in New York anyway. All he had to do is hide his tracks; if Yut Lung was tricky, Ash was trickier.

Right now there were more pressing issues. Like his hair. He dropped the towel onto the counter and combed through his damp hair with his fingers. It was so long. It had gotten downright shaggy in the past months – at first he was too busy for a haircut, and then, once Eiji was in the hospital, he couldn’t bring himself to care. Eiji had been the one cutting it for him anyway; it was too much bother to find someone else to keep up with it.

Now that it was time to get rid of it all, he was feeling sentimental and attached. But even soaking wet, it was vividly blond, not at all practical for someone who didn’t want to be noticed. It had to go.

He made sure the towel around his hips was securely knotted and took one last, long look into the mirror. “Goodbye, Ash Lynx,” he said softly. In spite of the fact that it was Dino who gave it to him, Ash regretted losing the name. Even with everything that had happened, he liked what he’d made of Ash Lynx.

Nadia waited in the kitchen with a pair of scissors and electric shears. “Ready?” she asked with a smile. It’d been two days since he’d come to stay with her, and even though she always greeted him smiling, the fact that no one said anything about Charlie Dickinson in all that time made Ash uneasy. The shadow of sadness that always seemed to linger around her seemed a bit more substantial lately. Ash suspected it was because of him, and he didn’t like it one bit.

But the time was never right to talk about things like that. There was too much to do, and too little time to work with. “As ready as I’ll ever be,” he assured her, returning her grin. He perched on a stool. “Cut it off,” he ordered.

She answered with a mock salute and grabbed a handful of his hair. “Last chance,” she warned. “We could always dye it.”

“Nope.” Ash shook his head as much as her hold would allow. “Gotta get rid of it.”

She took at deep breath and Ash heard the smooth sound of sharp scissors cutting hair. Nadia squeaked, giggling as she held the thatch of hair where he could see it. “We’ve passed the point of no return,” she said, pressing damp locks into his hand.

After that, it took no time at all. At his insistence, she cut it short – military short. The clippers buzzed around his ears and neck as she sheared away the evidence of his years as a pretty boy. “I’m leaving it a bit longer on top,” she told him in a voice that refused argument. “Not much longer – just enough to lie flat.”

When she was done, she handed him a mirror and he gazed at his new look as she brushed hairs from his shoulders and neck. “What do you think?” she asked.

It was awful. Not the haircut, Nadia had done a fantastic job, but rather the awkward looks of the boy reflected back at him. It was all still there – the eyes, the mouth, the bone structure – but somehow it didn’t come together the same way without the softening effect of his hair. His jaw was too sharp, his nose too small. He was still good looking, but not memorably so. “It’s perfect,” he told her. And it was. The young man in the mirror would hardly warrant a second glance.

Nadia laughed. “Your reaction is a hundred times better than Shorter’s. I cut his hair once – he’d gotten chunks of it yanked out in a fight, and he looked pretty silly. So I shaved it all off.” She smiled into the distance, clearly remembering her little brother’s reaction. “I thought he was going to cry.”

“Hey! I remember that!” When they first met in reform school, Shorter’s head was as smooth and white as a cue ball. “I gave him all kinds of hell for that haircut!” Ash told her about that time, about meeting Shorter at school and thinking he was some kind of creepy Asian skinhead.

It was as if some wall crumbled inside him. For the first time since that unspeakable night at Golzine’s, thinking about his friend didn’t claw at his insides. He and Nadia talked until they were both crying – this time with laughter rather than sorrow. They swapped stories and reminisced, and Ash recognized a kind of buoyancy in her movements that hadn’t been there for a very long time.

Nadia was telling him about the fiasco of Shorter’s first middle school dance, clinging to his bare shoulder for support as she laughed, when Sing came in. Ash noticed him first, frozen in the doorway, his eyes wide as he stared at the pair in the kitchen. “Hey, Sing,” he beckoned, motioning for him to come into the room.

The boy shook his head. Looking a little wild-eyed, he dropped the three Burger King bags he was carrying onto the counter and darted away. The door swung in the empty doorway an instant later.

“He’s been weird,” Ash commented dryly.

Nadia shook he head. “Since even before we brought you here,” she agreed. She took a deep breath and grabbed a broom. “Now scoot. Lunch is here, and I’ve gotta clean up this mess. Go get dressed.”

Ash obeyed. Back in the bathroom, he hopped back into the shower for a quick rinse. His hair felt strange under his hands, but it was a good feeling. Bristly and new. After a quick towel-off, he slipped into a pair of jeans.

Sing’s reaction bugged him. Sing had always been sort of an emotional, twitchy kid, but he thought they were cool. Especially after that last bit with Foxx.

But Ash had a lot to think about and plan. He had to create a new identity and get a passport and papers to enter Japan. He had to make sure no one, even Nadia and Alex, could guess where he was going. He had to lie to everyone. Ash just didn’t have time to analyze Sing’s strange behavior.

Back in the kitchen, Nadia already had the burgers and fries spread out on the table. Sing was still nowhere to be seen, but Alex had shown up in the meantime. When Ash walked in, he was wolfing down a Whopper, a bottle of Pepsi by his elbow. “Hey, Boss,” he greeted with his mouth full. “Nice hair; makes you look like a jarhead.”

Ash grinned. “Too skinny,” he countered, grabbing a handful of fries. “So what do you have for me?”

Alex pulled a tiny notebook from the inside pocket of his dirty jeans jacket. Ash was surprised – he’d never seen his friend that organized before.

“The apartment’s been cleaned out and is officially for sale as of yesterday. Lady thinks she can sell in within the week.” Alex paused to rip another bite from his burger. “My cousin says he can get you a new ID by tomorrow. You just gotta go down for your picture. Today we went through dead guys to find you a social. I chose this one specially for you.” He tore a page from the notebook and slid it across the table.

Ash glanced at it. White male, born May 15th, 1968. Close enough. The social security number was a pattern of mostly fours and sevens, easy enough to memorize. The name: Brian Jeremiah Ashford. Ash grimaced. “Brian?” he asked incredulously. “You’re telling me that from here out my name will be Brian?”

Alex grinned. “Kinda,” he admitted, taking a swig of his drink. “But check out the last name, Boss. With that you can still go by Ash and no one will think nothing of it.” He glanced at Nadia for approval, his face a mask of smug happiness.

Ash considered the point. It wasn’t bad. Last time, giving up Aslan wasn’t too hard. There wasn’t anyone left who used that name, and he’d been called things like Blondie and Kid on the street for so long that it was nice to get any name at all. But he liked being Ash. He couldn’t imagine Eiji calling him anything else.

“Thanks,” he said at last. It wasn’t like kids got to pick their names anyway. There had been just as good a chance of being saddled with a name like Brian as any other, he supposed. “What time do you want to head out tomorrow?”

They planned and ate. At some point Sing slunk in, slipping into the empty chair and reaching for a burger. “Welcome back,” Ash said with a grin.

Sing flushed. “Hungry,” he mumbled, flipping open the box and eyeing the whopper. He pulled off the onions and tomato before taking a huge bite. “I talked to that guy at the post office for you,” he said at last. “He says he can arrange something, but you gotta bring your own picture.”

“How soon can he do it?” Ash asked, glad that his friend had apparently shaken off whatever it was that was bugging him earlier. He nodded as Sing rattled off the information.

Nadia sat with them and listened, her eyes widening now and then at the details. “You’re spending that much just on a passport?” she asked, aghast when she heard how much he was paying for an under-the-table rush job done by a government-licensed agent.

“Gotta make it official,” Ash said, grinning. He let them believe that he was rushing so that no one would look too closely at his documents and past. That was part of it, but in reality, this was more about Eiji.

Eiji thought he was dead.

Too much time had been wasted already. Ash didn’t want to think about the days and nights Eiji had already endured. He needed to get to Japan and fix things, to bring a smile back to that face. As soon as he had his new ID, he was going to risk using a few of Papa Dino’s old connections to get the entry paperwork expedited. He just hoped there was no one there who might recognize him.

“So,” Alex began slyly. “You’ll be heading out in just a few days, huh?”

Ash nodded, reaching for some more fries. “Day after tomorrow, if all goes well.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve changed your mind about going to Japan, have you?” his friend asked quickly. “The guys have been worried ’bout Eiji and – ”

So it had come to this again. Ash sighed. “Okay, everyone listen up, ’cause I’m not gonna say this again.” The sounds of chewing and fidgeting stilled. “I don’t have any intention of going to Japan, now or ever. Eiji and I said goodbye weeks ago and that’s it. It’s over. I’m okay with that, he’s okay with that, so now you guys have to be okay with it, too.”

Each lie hurt a bit in his gut, but it had to be that way. It was bad enough that these guys knew he was alive – if he told them where he was going, he’d be putting them in real danger. Dino’s old cronies weren’t the type to just accept a police report as fact, after all. He was sure that someone was going to follow up, to make sure he was really dead. “He’s safer and better off thinking I’m dead. I’m sure he’s upset, but he’ll get over it. Eiji has a whole life in Japan that we don’t know anything about – so don’t think he’s over there moping around because he misses New York.”

Ash glanced around to make sure they all understood. His eyes met Sing’s; he was shocked by the intensity he saw there. The boy’s face was dark with fury; unshed tears shone in his eyes. Taken aback, Ash let his gaze linger there. Sing didn’t flinch, but after a moment he clenched his fists and darted out of the room.

Chapter 13

The airport was crowded and loud, but Ash liked it that way. He ran a hand over his stubbly hair and tugged on the snug collar of his drab green Army t-shirt. He blended in. It might’ve been the first time in his life that he didn’t attract the notice of strangers. He slung his plain black backpack over one shoulder and headed toward the northeast wing of the terminal. His flight wasn’t for another hour, but he was too excited to relax. He wanted to check in as soon as possible.

Ash had never been overseas. The passport in his pocket was shiny and brand new – he figured he could play the part of hick first-timer more easily than seasoned traveler, after all. He was excited about the trip, excited about the flight. Mostly, though, he was excited by what would lay at the end.

He imagined Eiji’s face. At first his friend wouldn’t believe it – he’d think he was hallucinating or dreaming – but Ash would convince him. They would hug and talk and Ash could make sure Eiji’s wound was healing up right. And then it would be back to normal. Two boys being best friends in Izumo instead of New York.

He didn’t let himself linger over the more complicated aspects. Memories of touch, jasmine incense, the smooth satin of Yut Lung’s guest room sheets, all of it came back to him when he thought of Eiji. That plundering kiss.

Ash shook his head. Clearly he was confused. That mixed up night with Yut Lung had nothing to do with Eiji. It had been a mistake, a regrettable, unalterable mistake that he needed to forget about as soon as possible.

“Boss!”

Ash looked up before realizing that he shouldn’t answer to that anymore.

Alex half-ran across the tile floor, waving his hand like an idiot. “Bo-” he began again before Ash’s glower stopped the sound in his throat. “Er. Brian,” he amended lamely.

Scanning the crowd for possible tails, Ash grabbed his lieutenant by the arm and hauled him into the partial shelter of a cluster of potted palms. “What are you doing here?” he growled, still watching over Alex’s shoulder. It was common knowledge that the blond was Charlie’s prime suspect; if he’d been followed, his new life would be over before it had a chance to begin.

Alex grinned weakly. “Couldn’t let you disappear forever without saying ’bye,” he explained. “I stopped at Nadia’s this afternoon, since you said you weren't flying out 'til seven, but she said you left early. That wasn’t fair.”

A pang went through him. “Sorry,” he mumbled. Ash wasn’t good at saying goodbye, and he’d been hoping to avoid the matter all together by disappearing early.

His reaction seemed to quiet his friend. Alex looked sad and uncomfortable for a moment. “It’s kind of the end of an era,” he said softly, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his finger. “I just wanted to make sure you knew,” he stammered. “I’m gonna be the best boss the east side ever saw. After you, I mean.”

Ash fought the impulse to yank the boy into a hug. He’d had a lot of people in his life since leaving Cape Cod. Most of them came and went in the span of an illicit night, but there were some – like Alex and Nadia and Max Lobo – who became so much more than that. He didn’t have a real family, but he had these people. He was going to miss them, probably more than he’d considered. A lump rose in his throat when he imagined never seeing this face again.

But he’d already decided. His life was with Eiji. It was too late to go back; he didn’t want to.

“I know you will,” Ash said gruffly.

Alex reached out to grab his hand, and for a muddled moment Ash thought that he wanted to shake. But then he slid something small and hard into his palm. Ash studied it. It was some kind of coin or medallion. On one side was the face of a gaunt old man; the other was a strange sort of cross.

“It’s a St. Nicholas icon,” his friend explained.

“Like Santa Claus?” Ash asked skeptically.

Alex made a face. “Yeah, same guy, but my sister’s Eastern Orthodox – remember, she married that Russian guy? They’re more serious about this sort of thing.” He looked hard at Ash, as though trying to will his friend into being serious about it, too. “He’s like the patron saint of the lost.”

For an instant Ash felt like he was falling. His heart lurched and his eyes widened. He gazed at the flat disk of pewter in his palm, his hands starting to tremble.

“I know you don’t believe in that sort of thing,” Alex continued, not noticing Ash’s distress. “But I just wanted you to have it. You know,” his blue eyes flicked away from his friend’s face as his cheeks flushed a vague pink. “So you don’t forget that you can always come back.”

Ash curled his fingers around his gift. He didn’t know what to say to Alex. Didn’t know if any words were enough. Going with the strongest impulse, he pulled the boy close in a tight embrace. “Thank you,” he whispered against Alex’s shoulder.

His friend didn’t hesitate. He wrapped his arms around Ash and returned the hug. “Any time, Boss,” he said softly.

When the time came for Ash to leave, he walked away from his friend without looking back. He waved over his head, knowing that Alex was there, waiting until he disappeared into the crowd. A wolf whistle was his answer. Ash blinked back the tears in his eyes. He wasn’t going to be able to see Blanca or Max again, but he was glad that Alex had come to say goodbye. He squeezed the medallion in his fist and felt a lot less alone.

***

Five hours into the seventeen-hour flight it was nearing midnight, by New York time, but Ash wasn't even vaguely sleepy yet. He'd read one of his books and was starting a second. He had almost nothing else in his backpack – two changes of clothes and eight books. It was all he owned, really, besides the wads of cash he’d hidden in pockets and shoes and sewn into the cuffs of his jacket. The cash was just the tip of the iceberg. The bulk of his money was safely in a numbered account in Switzerland – conveniently, the same bank it had been in when it belonged to Golzine.

“Can I get you something to drink?” asked a voice at his elbow.

Ash looked up. An almost-pretty stewardess watched him from beneath lashes laden with a bit too much mascara. She smiled. “Coke? Sprite?” she asked cheerfully.

He shook his head. “No thanks.”

“Then do you mind if I sit here for a sec?” She barely waited for his nod before dropping into the seat beside him. “I’m going on nineteen hours here,” she said, sighing. “I have five days once we land in Tokyo, but way before that, I need a break.”

Ash was surprised that he didn’t mind the company. He waved an okay when she silently asked if she could smoke. “Sounds rough,” he commented.

She laughed. She had a nice laugh. “I’ll live,” she said, sighing. “The name’s Brandi, by the way.” She twisted in her seat to offer her hand.

Ash shook it. “Brian,” he said, managing not to fumble it. Her hands were soft, and the nails were carefully manicured with delicate pink polish. She wore an engagement ring on her left hand, but otherwise her fingers were bare.

“So, Brian,” she began as she lit her cigarette. She was flirtatious enough to be flattering, but Ash could tell right away that it wasn’t the serious sort of come on he’d gotten from the girls back home. He liked her. “You in the Army?”

At first he was baffled by the question, but before he blundered too much, he remembered his shirt and haircut. “Not yet,” he told her. “But I’m a fan. My dad wanted me to go to college first, to see the world a bit before I make that kind of commitment. But someday, yeah, I could see myself joining up.”

She took a long drag on her cigarette, and Ash noticed fine lines around her mouth and eyes. He’d guessed she was in her early twenties, but now he wondered if she wasn’t older. “So Japan?” she asked. “Is this part of your dad’s agenda?”

He snickered. It was hard to imagine his dad knew where Japan was. “Absolutely not. I’m going for personal reasons. I’m meeting a friend.”

Her brows lifted. “A friend? You’re not getting one of those mail-order brides or something, are you?” A comically cross expression settled on her face.

Ash laughed – if only she knew how far off the mark she’d hit. My god, how long had it been since he’d laughed? “No,” he assured her. “Definitely not. This is someone I already know.”

“Good,” she said, smiling again. “Because I think that kind of thing is just awful. Barely a step up from slavery, if you ask me.” She twisted the ring on her finger. “Your friend – has it been a long time since you’ve seen them?”

He shook his head. “Not really,” he said. That day at the hospital was less than a month ago, though it seemed like longer. So much longer “It’s just – I recently realized that even a few days apart is too long.” His honesty surprised him. Maybe it was because he’d spent so much time lying to everyone. And before that he’d been lying to himself. But as soon as the words were said, he realized how true they were. Every day that passed away from Eiji felt wrong.

Brandi was immediately taken with the idea. “It’s a girl, then?” she asked, smiling like she knew a juicy secret.

Ash nodded. It was easier than explaining. Besides, wasn’t he supposed to be flying under radar? An unabashed gay man was way more memorable than a guy longing for his girl. He quickly decided not to examine the significance of gay and ploughed ahead. “She stayed with me in New York for a couple of years, but then had to go home.”

“A couple of years?” The redhead looked incredulous. “Why on earth did you let her go?”

He shook his head. “It’s complicated. But basically, we were just friends all that time. I mean, not just friends, but we –” He glanced into her eager face and looked away, embarrassed. “We never did anything, you know?”

“But you love her?”

The question was as direct as it could be. Ash considered it. Of course he loved Eiji. That was the whole point, right? Back when he was fighting Arthur, he tried to send Eiji away because he thought it was the best thing, but how long did it take before he realized what a mistake that was? Ash wasn’t home for ten minutes before he knew that Eiji’s place was by his side, wherever that was. If that wasn’t love – the right kind of love – then what was? “Yeah,” he replied softly. “More than she knows, I think.”

Brandi gave him a long look, flicking her ashes into a tiny ashtray she produced from a pocket. “And she loves you?”

He thought of Eiji’s letter. My soul is always with you. Every time he cooked breakfast, every time he bandaged a wound, in everything he did those months they were together, Eiji was showing his love. “Yes,” he told her. “I really think so.”

She grinned. “Then that’s easy,” she announced. “Show up on her doorstep, sweep her off her feet, and take her to bed, for god’s sake. She’ll thank you, I promise.” She extinguished her cigarette and stood up. “Now it’s back to work for me.”

She smiled down at him. “Well, Brian,” she said, reaching out to rub her hand over the bristly softness of his hair. “It was good talking with you.”

“You too,” Ash said, sincere.

She adjusted her striped ascot and straightened her narrow skirt. “Be good to that love of yours,” she urged gently.

“I will,” he promised, smiling. “Thanks.” She disappeared up the aisle.

Ash was overwhelmed. She made it sound so easy; sweep him off his feet. Take him to bed. Could it be that simple? You don’t know much about sex, do you? Yut Lung’s words echoed in his head. Maybe it was true. Now, when it was important, he didn’t know what to do.

Would Eiji even want to go to bed with him?

The question kept him from concentrating on his reading for the next four hours.

***

Ash had a new respect for Eiji and Ibé. Even though he’d done some research and already knew that Izumo wasn’t that close to Tokyo, he hadn’t expected to endure a five-hour train ride so soon after the seventeen-hour flight. The Japanese must be very dedicated travelers. Ash preferred American road trips with breaks for interesting diners and roadside rest stops.

He’d arrived in Tokyo just after two in the morning, Japan time. By then he was too tired and confused to even guess what time it was at home. At first he didn’t know how to go about finding a place to sleep, since no one seemed to speak any English, but luckily Brandi and some of her friends discovered him in the terminal and guided him to a nearby hotel. She paid his bill and showed him where to exchange his money in the morning. “No credit cards?” she’d asked, aghast. “You can’t live that way!”

So he spent his first night in Japan in a hotel that looked exactly like a Holiday Inn. It was comfortable, but he didn’t get much sleep. In the morning he traded his dollars for yen and found a cart that sold anipan on the way to the train station. He used his tiny English/Japanese phrasebook to negotiate a ticket, and before noon, he was on his way to Izumo.

It was exhausting. He napped in short bursts on the train, unable to stay asleep for any period because of the irrational fear of missing his stop. Mostly he watched the landscape fly by. It was steeper than he expected – even through the flatlands, the shadows of hills and mountains darkened distant horizon.

He thought about Eiji. It would be strange, being the foreigner who didn’t know any of the customs and didn’t speak the language. He wondered if being in Japan would change the dynamic between them. Would he seem like the innocent kid next to Eiji’s confidence? It was easy to imagine his friend being cocky and self-assured – it was the way he always behaved in the apartment, when no one was around. Ash had always imagined that was his own personal version of Eiji that no one else got to see. Was he like that for everyone here?

By the time the train stopped in Izumo, Ash had tied himself into knots. His legs felt weak as he hopped down to the platform; his bag felt too heavy on his back.

He had to ask several different people before he found someone who had heard of the Okumuras. A young woman at a nearby produce store said she knew them well. She smiled a lot as she traced out the route on the map he’d picked up at the station. “Less than one mile,” she said slowly, pointing in the proper direction.

Ash thanked her profusely and bought a small bag of yellow apples. He was hungry and it was best not to show up empty-handed, anyway. The road was steep and winding, but the weather was good. Ash munched on an apple and studied the town. It was strange and different, but beautiful. The hills were almost spooky – they loomed at the edges of the town’s valley like dark guardians. Ash had never seen so many trees in one place before.

He almost missed the turn onto Eiji’s street because it wasn’t marked the way he expected. The houses out there were larger, but old. Almost every lot was surrounded by a low wall or fence. He came to one matching the girl’s description and compared the characters on the nameplate to the ones she’d scrawled on the edge of his map. They were the same.

He took a deep breath. His heart was going a mile a minute in his chest – it almost hurt. This was so much bigger than just seeing Eiji again. He’d come across the whole world for him – the implications were obvious. And true. He wasn’t afraid of being rejected, but he was afraid just the same. Just beneath that, he was happier than he could remember being in his whole life.

This was Eiji’s home, the place where he’d grown up. Ash wanted to know it intimately.

The gate area lacked an actual gate – it was more of an entryway, so Ash figured he was supposed to go straight up to the door. There was a pair of craggy trees in the front yard, one on either side of the cement walk. They had finished flowering and now tiny fruits grew, but Ash couldn’t tell what kind – maybe tiny crab apples? He got to the door and almost chickened out.

He forced his hand to knock.

A moment later the heavy wood door opened. A girl looked at him expectantly, greeting him in Japanese he couldn’t understand. Eiji’s little sister.

She was pretty. She looked like Eiji, he realized, only softer. Her short hair was pinned back with yellow barrettes, and her dark eyes looked exactly like her brother’s. “Uh, hello,” Ash said awkwardly.

“Hello,” she returned in heavily accented English. “How can I help you?” Her cheeks flushed – probably under the pressure of having to converse in an unfamiliar language.

“Eiji,” he said suddenly. “I’m here to see Eiji.”

Her eyes widened with shock and something like recognition. Ash wondered if she’d seen his pictures. She opened the door and motioned for him to come in.

The entry was done in slate tile and dark wood. It was wonderful. Ash slid his feet from his shoes and put on the house slippers the girl indicated. He wished Eiji had mentioned her name – it was strange thinking of her as “Eiji’s little sister.”

She led him into the next room, shaking her head in what seemed to be disbelief. He felt self-conscious. Sure, he’d come a long way to see her brother, but it didn’t seem too terribly shocking. They sat on the couch and she immediately started rifling through a stack of photographs on the table.

When she found the one she wanted, she turned to him. “You are Ash Lynx,” she said slowly, holding a picture out to him. It was a snapshot of him and Eiji together. Ash remembered that day – they went to the aquarium and had some old man take a picture of them in front of the sharks.

It wasn’t a question, but he answered anyway. “Yes,” he said, pointing to his image. “Yes, that’s me.”

She shook her head. “It is not possible,” she said. Her English seemed to be improving as the conversation continued. “Ash Lynx is dead.”

Of course. In his eagerness to see Eiji, that particular complicated detail had slipped his mind. “It was a mistake,” he explained. How did you explain a faked death in easy words? “It is obviously not true. I’m here now.”

She nodded. “Mistake,” she said, biting her lip and thinking. “That is what Eiji said.”

“Eiji!” Ash was happy to hear his name. “Please. Where is Eiji? I need to see Eiji!” The fact that Eiji apparently disbelieved the story of his death was encouraging. If he didn’t believe it, he wouldn’t have suffered over it. Ash ached to wrap his arms around him and put any lingering doubts to rest.

She looked into his eager face, her expression tragic. “I am sorry,” she said in a fumbling voice. “He is not here. My brother went to America two days ago.”

Chapter 14

Eiji looks thin. That was the first thing that popped into Max’s mind as he watched his two friends coming off the plane. He was glad to see them, though he was sure that everyone would agree that it was too soon. Eiji wasn’t wearing the sling, but his gait was the sluggish walk of someone who was obviously in pain.

“Shunichi! Eiji!” he called, raising his hands in the air. Both men looked up, but the smiles they gave weren’t anything like the beaming grins he’d seen the previous week. Eiji looked strained and nervous; Shunichi was just plain tired.

“I’ll bet you two are worn out,” Max said, taking Eiji’s shoulder bag from him. “Do you have any luggage to pick up?”

Shunichi shook his head, his fingers reaching to touch the leather strap of his own carry-on bag. “We won’t be staying so long this time,” he said softly.

Eiji set his jaw and said nothing, his gaze skipping away from them and onto the wall of windows behind them.

Max was surprised; he’d never seen Eiji and Shunichi so out of synch with each other. “Okay then.” He suddenly desperately wished that Jessica were there to help him out. “Let’s go back to my place.”

In the taxi, the three of them made polite conversation. Eiji asked about Jessica and Michael. “They’re in California,” Max explained. “Michael has only a month to go in school, so we decided to let him finish second grade there. They’ll be moving back to New York this summer.” He couldn’t hide the eagerness in his voice. He was happy to note that Eiji responded with a genuine smile. “She says she’s really sorry she can’t be here to see you.”

Apparently relieved to have a safe topic to discuss, both of his guests brightened, asking about the impending wedding and how Max was dealing with not being single any more. By the time the cab pulled up outside his building, they were all laughing. Max could tell – anyone who looked could tell – that it was only on the surface, but it still felt better than nothing.

***

A few hours later they were well fed and winding down in front of the television. So far, no one had mentioned Ash’s name. It was starting to feel awkward, dancing around the subject the way they were. Max was tempted to bring it up himself, but he chickened out every time he tried. The idea of talking about Ash with these two – with Eiji especially – was somehow much more difficult than dealing with it himself. He glanced at Shunichi, hoping he’d get the ball rolling.

His Japanese friend dropped his gaze. Biting his lip, he shook his head. I don’t know what to do with him, he’d said over the phone. I’m exhausted from trying.

Eiji was curled up at one corner of the couch, an empty coffee mug cradled in his hands. He had his arms wrapped around his knees and for the past ten minutes his eyes had been locked on Wheel of Fortune as though it held the cure for cancer. Max was startled, then, when he spoke.

“He is not buried yet?” Eiji asked in a low voice.

“Eh?” It took Max a moment to realize what he was asking.

“Ash.” Eiji turned his straightforward gaze toward Max. “If he is not buried yet, you will show me, right?”

Shunichi stopped drinking his coffee mid-sip, his mug still hovering near his lips.

Max had been dreading that moment since that final click of Eiji hanging up on him all those days ago. He’d hoped that he’d be reasonable, that all those hours since then would wear down his resistance so that he could accept the truth. Shunichi had warned him to be prepared for anything from Eiji, but somehow it wasn’t enough. Nothing could have prepared him for this quiet, direct, almost cold version of Eiji Okumura.

He licked his lips, suddenly longing for a glass of water. Better yet, a cold beer. “There’s a bit of a problem with that,” he hedged.

Eiji wasn’t put off. “Is he in Cape Cod, then?” he asked, clearly having already sorted out the possibilities. “Did his father want to bury him there?” His voice was slightly mocking, and Max understood. Jim Callenreese was never father enough to Ash to have that right. “We can go,” he explained. “I have brought money to travel.”

Max shook his head. He wished it were that simple. “It’s not that, Eiji,” he said, looking to Shunichi for support. His friend only shrugged and offered a helpless expression. “His body – it’s gone. It disappeared from the morgue the night he was killed.”

It took a moment for the information to sink in. Shunichi’s eyes widened. Eiji blinked. He looked like he was about to speak, but stopped. Max’s heart thudded in his chest. It was hard for him to talk about Ash at all; trying to convince Eiji of a fact that they all wished was untrue seemed beyond him. “I told you not to come,” he mumbled.

“Ei-chan,” Shunichi began in a voice raspy with feeling. “Let’s go to bed. Let’s go home tomorrow and start dealing with –”

“No!” Eiji’s voice was sharp. “Do you not understand what this means? A dead body can’t walk away. Don’t you see?”

Max shook his head. “Charlie believes that Alex or another of Ash’s gang stole the body. Maybe they wanted a private burial or something – we don’t know. There are a lot of explanations.” For the briefest instant, Max had almost believed the same thing, but reality set in hard. He’d seen Ash’s body; he knew that boy too well to be mistaken. And he knew dead. “There’s no way,” he said softly.

Eiji shook his head violently. “Why can’t you understand?” he cried. “Why can no one understand? This is something I know. Ash is alive.”

“Eiji.” Shunichi stood up, his voice a warning.

“And he is waiting for me to find him,” Eiji continued as though Ibé hadn’t spoken. His voice cracked with desperation. “What kind of friend would I be if I give up on him now?”

It hurt. Almost as much as losing Ash, it hurt to see Eiji like this. His voice was filled with passion and conviction, but his body language told a different story. He was still curled up against himself; the ceramic mug in his hands shook with the force of his trembling. Tears threatened to spill from his eyes, and Max wondered if the boy had cried at all yet. It was as though his body had accepted what his mind refused.

Unable to do say anything else, Max slid across the couch. Eiji’s thin, shaking body reminded him of Michael after a nightmare, and his instincts kicked in. With a swoop, he gathered Eiji up against his chest and held him there. “It’s gonna be okay, Eiji,” he said soft enough to be mumbling only to himself. “It feels like your life won’t go on without him, but I know for a fact that it’s not true. You can miss him. You can cry. Ash won’t blame you for accepting the truth.”

For a moment Eiji sagged against him. His breath was shallow and gasping as he fought against tears. Max hoped he’d lose that battle. He’d learned the hard way, years ago, that crying was the first step to dealing with that kind of loss.

Beyond Eiji’s shoulder, Shunichi had tears sliding down his cheeks.

But Eiji was stubborn. Just when Max thought he was finally giving in to his grief, he snapped back. He struggled in Max’s arms, somehow breaking free despite the older man’s superior size and strength. “You are wrong!” He insisted.

Before either of them could react, Eiji dashed into the guest bedroom and slammed the door. The whole place shook.

“I guess that means I get the couch,” Shunichi said blandly.

Max didn’t expect, it, but a chuckle rose in his throat. “I’m sorry,” he said, horrified with himself.

Shunichi shook his head. “It’s fine,” he said, smiling a little. He glanced at his watch. “Any minute now, he will be asleep. Maybe tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep, he will be more willing to be reasonable. We can go to Ash’s gang, get them to talk with him.”

“Asleep?” Sure, Eiji had dark circles beneath his eyes, but Max didn’t imagine that sleep would come quickly after such a display. “He’s a bit high strung for that, isn’t he?”

Shunichi picked up Eiji’s abandoned coffee mug. “I put sleeping pills in his coffee,” he explained, a guilty grin on his face. “He needed to relax.”

Max nodded. It was a good idea. He guessed that Eiji hadn’t slept well since hearing the news. Exhaustion threw your perspective completely out of whack. Tomorrow, well rested, he might be willing to listen when Alex and the others explained it to him. Hell, the gang might be able to produce a body – or at least a burial site. Couldn’t get more convincing than that.

It would be good for Max, too, to know where Ash was laid to rest. Or to know that he’d been cremated, his ashes scattered to the New York wind.

Because he wondered, sometimes.

He’d never admit it, but part of him wanted to disbelieve, just like Eiji. Part of him really wanted to think that Ash was outsmarting him. Outsmarting the whole damn world. But all he had to do was look at Eiji’s pale, shaken face and realize it couldn’t be true. Even if Ash decided to lie to the entire world, he’d make damn sure that Eiji was by his side when he did it.

“So how are you holding up?” Shunichi asked suddenly, his face serious.

Max shook his head. “Not so great,” he admitted, sighing. “I feel like I lost my own kid. It’s not natural for a kid like that to –” He couldn’t finish. He wanted a cigarette, and he hadn’t smoked for months. He settled for a drink, getting up and pouring a generous shot of Southern Comfort.

Shunichi nodded, taking a long drink of his coffee. “Except that it is. The way he lived, it’s amazing it didn’t happen sooner.”

Staring blankly out the dark window, Max considered his friend’s words. They were true, but somehow not. Ash Lynx, no matter how dangerously he lived, was not supposed to die. There was something untouchable about the kid. Something strong. The universe felt wrong without him. It made his head hurt. It made his whole damn body hurt. “Fuck,” he whispered, dropping his head into one hand. “If I feel like this, I can’t imagine how poor Eiji can take it.”

Shunichi was up a moment later, clumsily pouring the bourbon whiskey into a tumbler. “I don’t even want to think about it,” he said tiredly. He studied the amber liquid for a moment, then lifted his glass. “To Ash Lynx,” he offered.

At first Max was choked by his own emotions. He nodded, trying to speak. “Yeah,” he managed at last. “To Ash.”

They both drank.

***

Max was tipsy. Maybe just short of seriously drunk. He still didn’t feel good, but the encroaching numbness was better than what came before. It was getting really late, and they had a lot to do the next day.

In the kitchen, Shunichi was prophetically laying out the ingredients for his sure-fire hangover remedy. “I’m not sure we’ll manage to get it all together in the morning,” he explained, setting the can opener on top of the can of tomato juice.

It was a good remedy. Max had the opportunity to try it on several occasions in the past, and while it didn’t exactly cure a hangover, it sure took the edge off. He was already looking forward to sipping it alongside his dry English muffin the next morning. “Sorry the couch doesn’t fold out,” he apologized, unsteadily spreading a sheet over the sofa. There was a blanket and a pillow, too – not great accommodations, but clean.

His friend shrugged it off. “I’m gonna check on Eiji,” he said, heading down the dark hallway.

He was gone for only a few seconds when Max heard a long string of loud Japanese coming from the guest room. He’d been around Shunichi enough to know that those weren’t the nice words. Fear flickered through him, and he hurried to help.

The room was empty. More accurately, it still held a bed, a dresser, a nightstand with a lamp and a box of tissues, but what it didn’t have was Eiji. The window was open – the curtains billowing with the too-cool night breeze. Shunichi was on the bed, his head in his hands like he was going to cry. “What the hell?” Max asked incredulously. He didn’t expect an answer, of course, but he hadn’t expected this, either. He looked out the window and down the rusted fire escape, as though looking for clues. But Eiji was long gone.

“He left a note,” Shunichi said, holding up Eiji’s return-trip plane ticket. On the back, the boy had scrawled a short missive: Looking for Ash. Don’t bother following. Eiji. In tiny print he’d added: Your drugged coffee is in the ficus.

Max didn’t know what to say; he didn’t know what to think. His brain wasn’t working well because of the alcohol. “Should we go look for him?” he asked.

Shunichi shook his head. “I’m done, Max,” he said softly.

Incredulous, Max just stared at him.

“I’m serious,” the Japanese man continued in a voice thickened by weariness and whiskey. “He’s impossible. I know he’s hurting, but this is too much. I can’t handle him anymore.” He stared at airline ticket. “I don’t want to deal with this.”

“Shunichi,” Max soothed, sitting on the bed next to his friend. “You don’t mean that. You’re tired; you’re sad; you’ve had too much to drink. You don’t really want to give up on Eiji. Not really.” Shunichi was dedicated to his young friend – Max knew that. He loved him like a little brother or the son he never had. He wouldn’t just walk away from him.

The other man sighed. “A week ago I would’ve agreed with you,” he confessed. “But even then, it was hard. Two years, Max! Two whole years of my life were spent indulging him – mostly wondering if he was okay and if there was any point in my staying in this country at all.” He took a deep breath. Max noticed that his hands were shaking. In the darkness, he couldn’t tell, but he wondered if his friend was crying. “He loved Ash. I get it. God help me, I understand. But there has to be a limit. There has to be an end to this madness.”

Silence. Max didn’t know what to say. He suspected that he’d have trouble with it even without the effects of the alcohol. Shunichi wasn’t the type of guy who spoke from the heart very often. It felt too intimate to hear him now. “So you’re leaving him?” he asked after a while, understanding but not quite accepting.

The other man only nodded.

Max closed his eyes. This was a disaster. He wished for the thousandth time that Ash was still alive. He longed to see that blond head and hear that sarcastic voice. What’chya cryin’ about, Pops?

“I’ll watch out for Eiji, then,” he said resolutely. “I’m sure he’ll come back here when he gives up.”

Shunichi looked up at him, his eyes dry but rimmed with color. “Thanks,” he whispered.

Shrugging, Max forced a weak smile. “Get some sleep,” he urged, indicating toward the bed that was suddenly free. “We’ll change your flight in the morning.”

Max closed the door and went to his own lonely bedroom. He missed Jessica. He longed for Michael. He went to the window. Out there, somewhere in the dark night, Eiji was wandering alone, searching for a ghost.

It was enough to make Max want another drink.

Instead he dropped onto the bed and tugged the comforter over himself. It took him a long time to get to sleep, but once he did, he dreamed of driving to California with three rowdy boys in the back of his truck. Oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’ Clementine! He woke in the middle of the night, the heaviness in his chest magnified. Tears rolled down his cheeks as, inexplicably, he finally remembered the next line of the song. You are lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry, Clementine.

Chapter 15

Charlie came back the day after Ash left. Sing was trying to make dinner – a gift for Nadia, who had clearly worn herself out on her houseguests – when he showed up. He tried not to listen, but the walls were thin. As he peeled potatoes, snippets of dialogue filtered through from the living room.

… an alibi … Sing’s father… that you and Sing were at his house that night.

… verified his story … a bar on the south side …

… can’t believe you thought that Alex and I …

… young, good looking, edgy …

But you know I love you, Charlie!

I was an ass, Nadia. Forgive me.

After a while the voices became softer, then tapered off altogether. Sing wasn’t sure if it was safe to go out there or not, so he opted to stay put. It made sense to peel a few more potatoes anyway.

He considered what he’d heard. Apparently his father had offered up an alibi. Sing was surprised. His father was sort of an upstanding citizen. Poor as dirt, but honest as the day was long. The fact that he’d lie – even for kin – was startlingly out of character. He wondered why he did it.

The answer came as quickly as the question. Yut Lung. He ruled Chinatown, after all. Sing wondered what kind of leverage it took to force an honest man to lie. Nothing much, he imagined. His family never had much to begin with; that would make it easy for Yut Lung to take it all away if things didn’t go the way he wished.

Sing’s fingers closed around another potato. He’d have to make a point to thank his friend. His methods weren’t the best, but it seemed that, this time at least, his heart was in the right place.

In the meantime, he was glad Charlie was back. He missed Nadia’s real smile – the half-truths of her expressions lately were depressing. Especially since Ash left. Whenever she faked happiness for him, he was reminded of that morning when he walked in on them laughing.

It had startled him. He’d never heard Nadia laugh like that and he’d never heard Ash laugh at all. The way she clung to him, her hands clutching bare skin. Apparently she wasn’t uncomfortable with the fact that Ash wasn’t wearing anything but a towel around his waist. And then there was the way his hand rested on the small of her back – maybe a little too low – it seemed way too intimate for them. It was definitely too intimate for Sing. Ash Lynx was one of those hands off, untouchable people. Eiji Okumura had always been Ash’s only exception. He was supposed to be the only one.

Alex’s words came back to him: it’s my job to watch over the boss’s woman. At the time he’d dismissed it as a particularly desperate lie, and when he learned about the Moonflower Sequence and Nadia’s role in it, it only verified Sing’s impression. Now he wasn’t so sure, and it was eating at him.

If Ash was with Nadia, what did that mean about her? Was she just using him for a good time? Or was it Charlie she was using – for the kind of security a guy like Ash could never give her? The questions tied his stomach in knots, but he found he couldn’t not think about it. Mostly though, he thought about Eiji and what everyone – including Eiji, he’d wager – believed about Ash’s feelings for him.

In the long run, it didn’t even matter. Ash was gone. Neither one of them would ever see him again. But the fact that Eiji thought he was dead – that he was probably dying inside because Ash didn’t want to bother with him anymore – made Sing furious. He tore the peeler through the potatoes’ skins, not caring when chunks came off along with the thin brown layers.

Lately he’d felt like that a lot – fierce anger surging from seemingly nowhere, no matter what his mood was initially. Usually it was associated with Ash, but he was starting to realize that the trigger might really be Eiji. It wasn’t fair. Eiji was such a good guy – innocent really – it was unforgivable that he should suffer because of Ash’s selfishness.

Sing made up his mind right then. He was going to tell Eiji. It might hurt at first, to learn of Ash’s betrayal, but in the long run it would be better, right? At least he’d have anger to rely on; that was so much easier to deal with than grief.

He tossed the potato peeler into the sink and grabbed a knife from Nadia’s cutlery block. Then, with more energy than was probably necessary, he started chopping up the newly peeled potatoes. When they were chopped, he tossed them into a pot of water. He’d been planning to fry them, but suddenly he wanted them mashed.

***

It was too easy. He wrapped his jacket around his fist and plunged it through the glass. Strips of duct tape kept the pane from shattering noisily as it cracked. It took less than a second to reach in and flick the lock, and then he was in. It wasn’t his first breaking and entering, but it was the first he’d attempted against guards and cameras. Piece of cake.

The room was dark and quiet. Sing crouched between the mantle and a potted plant, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Even with the glow of the patio lights through the French doors, it was dim.

He wasn’t even sure why he’d decided to break into the Lee mansion that night. It was just an impulse – one he was acting on before he’d taken the time to think it through. He was sure had something to do with wanting to see what Yut Lung was really like, before his goons announced visitors and gave the guy time to put on the right face. Ash called him a viper. Blanca said he was just a spoiled child. The only personality Sing ever got to see was the lofty raja. He wanted to get a glimpse the real Lee Yut Lung.

Sing didn’t have long to wait. He wasn’t hiding more than five minutes before the raja came to bed. He didn’t flick on the lights – instead he lit a candle on the mantle and set a tray on the nightstand. In the flickering glow that shined off the mirror, Yut Lung undressed.

Sing hadn’t planned for that. His mouth went dry. He meant to look away, to give the man his privacy, but found he was transfixed. Yut Lung took his clothes off slowly, almost as though he knew he had an audience. From behind – he didn’t turn around, thank god – he looked like a girl. A narrow ribcage tapered toward an even smaller waist, and his long shiny hair slid luxuriously over smooth skin. Even his ass looked like a girl’s – small and round with just the right amount of plumpness. Sing closed his eyes, his breath hard to find.

He didn’t know what he was getting so worked up about. It was just another guy. It was Yut Lung for god’s sake. He figured it was because he’d never seen a girl naked before. Overactive adolescent hormones, that was all. He watched as Yut Lung slid a pair of loose, thin pajama pants over his legs. He blinked as his friend’s thin fingers tightened the cord around his hips and reached onto the bed for the shirt. The breath he didn’t even know he was holding exhaled loudly.

The next sound Sing heard was the quiet thunk of a dagger imbedding itself in the wall next to his ear. He turned his head just enough to see the candlelight reflecting off the exposed half of the blade. “What the hell?” he cried, indignant. “You coulda killed me!” His heart felt like a wind-up motor.

Recognition flashed over Yut Lung’s face like lightning. “Sing!” he exclaimed, just as startled.

Sing yanked the dagger from the wall. “Where the fuck did you learn how to do this?” he demanded, crossing the room in a few great strides. He slammed the knife onto the bedside table. “That was way too close!”

The young heir clutched his shirt closed, letting his eyes linger on the sharp blade of the dagger. He met Sing’s gaze, his eyes going wide. His hands started to shake and Sing realized that he hadn’t meant to miss at all.

“Blanca taught me,” Yut Lung said at last. “There are a lot of people who would happily see me dead,” he informed Sing, regaining his composure, and with it, his arrogant attitude.

Sing rolled his eyes. “Yeah, and whose fault’s that?”

Yut Lung huffed, fastening the buttons up his chest. “My brothers’, mostly. The drug business doesn’t win you any friends – especially not the way they ran things.”

Sing’s heart rate was slowly going back down to normal; he didn’t feel the rush of adrenaline anymore. It was exhausting. He dropped onto a sofa. “So why bother with it?” he asked. “Why not just leave, like Ash did?” Sure, the youngest Lee was sort of a spoiled rich kid, but he was tougher than he looked. Tougher even than he realized, Sing would guess. A guy like that could survive anywhere.

He narrowed his eyes as Yut Lung reached for the bottle of wine he’d put on the nightstand when he came in. “I have only one glass,” Yut Lung said reluctantly, in a voice gentler than Sing had ever heard him use. “But you can use it if you want. I can just drink from the bottle.”

Sing wasn’t much into drinking. Beer tasted like swill and anything harder made his head spin. He’d never tasted champagne, but figured it’d be gross. Still, he found himself walking across the room, collecting the delicate crystal flute half-filled with pale alcohol. He was going to have to get his friend to stop drinking one of these days. Being an alcoholic before his twentieth birthday was just plain pathetic.

For now, though, he tried the wine. Bittersweet. Sing tried not to make a face as the strange dryness seemed to spread throughout his mouth. Clearly, Yut Lung didn’t drink this stuff because he was thirsty. The second sip was better. A warm tingle spread down Sing’s throat and into his belly.

Yut Lung was taking slow swigs from the bottle. He’d climbed up on the bed and sat cross-legged against the ridiculous abundance of pillows. “Unlike Ash,” he said from seemingly nowhere. “I don’t have anyplace to go.”

The couch seemed too far away to sit, and the floor was way to low, so Sing hopped onto the bed, too. He leaned against the footboard, dangling his feet off the side to keep his shoes away from the bedding. “I don’t think he’s headed anywhere special,” he said, shaking his head. “He made it sound like going anywhere, just being away from here, was enough.” It was depressing to think about Ash, depressing to realize that, to him, he was just someone to leave behind without a second thought. He remembered what Lao had said, that Ash didn’t care about anyone in the world except for Eiji. Sing had to admit his brother was right – except that he didn’t even care about Eiji that much, when it came down to it.

“You’re wrong,” Yut Lung insisted. He took another deep drink, his eyes closing. When they opened, they looked haunted. “Ash Lynx is thinking of nothing but being with Eiji Okumura right now. Right now they’re probably having some sickeningly happy reunion in whatever backwards little farm town Eiji comes from.”

Sing tried to imagine it. It was easy enough to picture – Eiji’s shocked and delighted expression, the harsh lines of Ash’s face melting into that beatific smile that Sing had only seen once when Ash thought only Eiji was nearby. But then he remembered Ash’s fingers curling into the fabric of Nadia’s shirt, his cheek nuzzling against her hair when they said goodbye, the way their bodies fit with no space between them. “It’s not the way you think it is,” he said sadly.

Yut Lung’s laugh sounded bitter. “I know more than you think,” he told Sing, his fingers tightening on the neck of the bottle. “And I know for a fact that Ash lives and breathes for that boy. No one else will do.” He shook his head, his eyes losing focus as though he were seeing something else altogether. “Even then, no one else would do.”

The words were vague and cryptic, and Sing had no idea what Yut Lung was thinking about, but one thing was suddenly very clear. “You’re in love with him,” he accused softly. “That’s what this is about.” He lifted his champagne glass and studied it with new eyes. Drinking yourself to oblivion over a broken heart made a little bit of sense – he’d watched Lao do it half a dozen times.

“Blanca thought so, too,” Yut Lung admitted in a quiet voice. “I honestly don’t know.”

The straightforward admission surprised Sing. He gulped down the rest of his champagne and held his glass out for more. His friend poured unsteadily, sloshing a bit over Sing’s wrist. Sing sucked it from his skin, still in shock. So this was the real Yut Lung? Just a boy with crazy feelings, just like everyone else? “So how do you feel, then?”

He shrugged, his mouth pulling into a tiny grimace. “I think about him. I think about how to make him like me.”

How could that be? Sing was incredulous. “He hates you!” he blurted out before he could stop himself. He instantly regretted it – the pain that flickered across Yut Lung’s face was enough to shame him. “I mean,” he backtracked, “you were always so awful to him.”

Yut Lung’s hurt look changed to irritation. “I never said I was good at it,” he said crossly. “Besides, I’m not really sure he hates me anymore. Things became a little … strange between us.” A distant look crossed his face, and again, Sing had the feeling that he was seeing – remembering – a different scene in his mind.

So what had happened between them? Sing couldn’t imagine the two of them having a civil conversation, not after everything Yut Lung did to Eiji. In fact, he’d been almost glad that Ash was totally incapacitated while he was staying there – otherwise he would’ve had to worry for Yut Lung’s life.

He watched as his friend’s hands curled and uncurled nervously around the glass bottle. Whatever it was, it had Yut Lung really worked up. He remembered the boy’s open, almost desperate face as he called out to Ash when they were leaving. And Ash’s response – it was almost as though his anger was covering a deeper agitation. He hadn’t liked it then and now he found himself disliking it even more.

Ash Lynx belonged to Eiji. All these complicated ties to other people just seemed to water down that fact.

After a silence that stretched too long, Yut Lung shook his head fiercely, as though to clear it of distracting images. “It doesn’t matter now, anyway,” he said in a deliberately careless voice. “Unless he told you where he was heading, there’s not much chance of either of us ever seeing him again.”

Sing couldn’t argue with that. He finished his second glass of champagne and reached down to set it on the floor. His head wasn’t spinning, exactly, but it didn’t feel right, either. To make matters worse, the mood was just too cozy. It was time to put an end to the slumber party vibe – before too much longer, they’d be trying on makeup and braiding each other’s hair.

“So now what?” he asked, deliberately changing the subject to something less intimate. “Your brothers are dead, banana fish is gone, Eiji Okumura’s not around for you to torture – what’s next for the Lee dynasty?”

Yut Lung looked thoughtful. “I’m thinking of going into the drug trade.”

“And that’s different how?”

The other boy smiled. “The legal drug business, this time. Pharmaceuticals.” He pulled his knees up under his chin and looked eagerly at Sing. “There’s a lot of money to be made there – a whole lot of the Chinese pharmaceutical companies won’t do business with Americans as a matter of policy, but I think I have the proper enticements to get them to work with me.” He went on, explaining to Sing about his family’s connections in Hong Kong and how his father’s illegal drug smuggling business had already laid the groundwork for starting a legitimate company.

Sing was awed. This was another new side of Lee Yut Lung – one he hadn’t expected at all. He almost sounded like Ash, the way he’d thought it out and worked through the obvious obstacles. “Of course, I can’t just stop doing business the way we’re doing it now,” the young man was saying. “It’s going to take ten or twelve years to wean off of the revenue from our opium trade, and we don’t want to make enemies out of any of our current contacts. But I think I can make the transition a smooth one.”

He smiled sadly, looking down at his fingers. “Someday, I want him to pick up an issue of Business Week or Time and read about what I’ve done. I want him to see that I’ve accomplished things he’d approve of.”

Sing didn’t have to ask who ‘he’ was. They’d both spend a lot of time the next few years thinking of him. He was the kind of person who charged into your life and changed things – changed who you were and who you wanted to be.

“And you?” Yut Lung asked. “What’s in your future?”

He shrugged. His own future seemed hazy these days. He’d been spending all his time looking backwards – at Ash, at Eiji. At Lao. His future seemed bleak and formless. “I got no clue,” he admitted. “After working so hard just to stay alive, the rest of it seems pretty dull.”

“Maybe school?” Yut Lung asked.

Sing laughed bitterly. “Yeah right. With what money?” His parents were getting older – already he could see that he’d need to get a job to support them soon. School was a luxury for the rich, or at least the not flat broke. “I guess I’ll be going back home, though,” he conceded.

Charlie was moving in with Nadia. She’d told him that evening. Their reconciliation included a proposal, it seemed. They weren’t getting married right away, but he was moving his things over as soon as possible and a ring was destined to follow in a matter of weeks. Sing was happy for her – she’d been positively radiant with joy, after all. He was still confused about her and Ash, but more than that, he was happy that she wasn’t going to be alone anymore.

Yut Lung didn’t seem surprised by Sing’s announcement. It was enough to verify what he’d been almost sure of. “Thank you,” he said. “That’s why I came here tonight, you know. I wanted to say thanks for what you did.”

“What I did?” He played dumb.

“My father,” Sing reminded him patiently. “You’re the only person in New York who could’ve gotten him to lie for me. For Nadia too. And he called and asked me to come home. Thanks.”

His lips stilled mid-sip on the champagne bottle’s mouth. “It wasn’t right,” he mumbled. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Sing closed his eyes and tried to believe his friend’s words. “Lao made his own choices,” he said, voicing what he’d been repeating to himself for over a week.

“No.” Yut Lung’s expression hardened. “I messed with his head for weeks before that. It was my fault.”

Maybe it was. Nothing Sing could say would be both honest and kind, so he kept his mouth shut. He didn’t want to shatter this feeling – whatever it was – between them. The past was past. Ash was gone. Lao was dead. No amount of accusations or fighting would change those two facts.

“I’m not ready to go home yet,” he said instead. “I’m still pretty pissed at them for kicking me out.”

His friend’s face relaxed into a boyish smile. “Are you angling for an invitation to stay here?” he asked.

Sing stuck out his tongue. “Like I’d live with you!” he joked. “Your bodyguards are just plain creepy.” It was difficult, pretending to be lively, pretending that important things hadn’t been said between them. But that’s what it took to be friends with Lee Yut Lung, he figured. And that was worth it. He’d finally decided – friendship wasn’t something to be earned, like respect or trust. Sometimes it was spontaneous and strange, but still real.

The young heir giggled – clearly a symptom of having had too much to drink. “They are, aren’t they?” he agreed. “But that’s just another reason for you to stick around. I need someone else to talk to.”

It would help, having someone to talk to. There were still things Sing didn’t understand, things he needed to sort out. And he suspected that Yut Lung needed his help, too. “Under one condition,” Sing returned severely, grabbing the nearly-empty bottle from his friend’s hands. “I catch you so much as touching this stuff again and I’ll break your fingers.”

They both laughed, but Sing really meant it. They needed to work hard for each other from now on, and he was willing to try.

Chapter 16

Eiji’s was sore and cold. He cracked his eyes open, irritated by the red-gold glow of sunlight that immediately bombarded his pupils. He pulled his sweatshirt more snugly around his shoulders and rolled over, wondering where his blankets were and why his bed was so hard and uncomfortable.

Then he remembered – the coffee, the fight, the fire escape. He closed his eyes and silently apologized to Ibé and Max for the new trouble he was almost certainly causing them. It hadn’t exactly been a picnic for him either, but he didn’t regret it. Max and Ibé weren’t cut out for the night he had.

He’d spent hours wandering through familiar neighborhoods that, without Ash by his side, had somehow become terrifying. The looming tenements and empty lots that had once been comfortable parts of the geography seemed ominous and dangerous. Twice he’d almost interrupted shady deals in the deep shadows of alley entrances, once tripping over a homeless man in his desperation to get away. He remembered the swelling feeling of terror when he saw the figure on the ground – he thought it was a dead body – and how the fear only increased when the body pulled itself up to its knees, cutting the silence with a string of filthy curses.

He’d run then – down two blocks until his side was on fire and just breathing felt like metal stabbing through his lungs. Then, as he clutched a streetlamp and tried to catch his breath, he noticed a pair of women watching him from the shadow of a pawn shop doorstep. They murmured things to each other and giggled lewdly. Eiji started to walk way, but one grabbed him, her long orange fingernails bright against his black sweatshirt. “Where’re you goin’, love?” she asked, her words slurred by whatever made her eyes bloodshot and unfocused.

Her friend loomed tall and androgynous behind her and Eiji panicked. He shoved her away – harder than he meant to and she fell against her companion with a squeak. Before either could recover their footing, Eiji darted around the corner. His unhealed wound throbbed, dragging him to a stop by a dark, abandoned building. He listened for the sound of high heels in pursuit but heard nothing but the painful pounding of his pulse in his ears.

After that it got easier. He learned how to avoid people. Eiji wandered down so many East Side streets that he lost count. He wondered instead if any of those dark corners were where Ash had gotten hurt, imagining him in various states of pain and agony until tears streamed down his face. He’d finally come to Central Park for its vast open spaces and its solitude, to gather his thoughts and develop a systematic plan for searching all of Manhattan. Instead, he’d fallen asleep on a park bench.

Now he sat up, wincing as his joints protested the movement. He’d never hurt so much in his life. It had been a cold night. It was mid-May, which made for pleasant days in New York, but the nights were still painfully chilly – particularly without a room or bed or blanket for comfort.

As he looked around, he realized that the landscape was familiar. The night before he’d been lost, unable to orient himself within the park’s vast boundaries, but with the light of dawn he knew where he was. He turned and looked behind him. He couldn’t see it because of the clusters of bright green leaves on all the trees, but if it were winter he would be able to see the apartment from that bench.

Two months ago they’d been happy there. It had become such a perfect, homey haven for them – a place to come back to no matter what. A home. He longed for that home more than he’d ever longed for his parents’ house in Izumo. He realized he’d been happier there – even on those long miserable nights when the Ash didn’t come home until nearly dawn. That rush of excitement and relief when the door finally opened and Ash’s tired eyes met Eiji’s: that was the feeling that his whole world revolved around.

He let his gaze linger in that direction for a long time, aching to go back, to find Ash there, waiting for him. Of course, Ash wasn’t there now – he’d abandoned it after Blanca showed up. It was ridiculous even to check.

Eiji made up his mind to find something to eat and then track down Alex. If anyone knew where Ash was, it would be him.

***

He didn’t find Alex until after three that afternoon. He retraced the steps he and Ash had taken a hundred times or more over the past two years. He checked the usual places: the pool hall where they first met, the bars, even the laundromat on East 11th Street where Bones tended to hang out when he was depressed. A few times Eiji thought he saw a familiar face, but it was never anyone he was sure of – so many guys ran with Ash’s gang, after all – so he never spoke up.

Every place he visited inspired a different kind of loneliness. So much of his living had been packed into those twenty-six months in New York. The idea that it might be over – that Ash was really gone – was too awful to imagine. He felt his pulse spike and the sweat of panic. No. He shook the thought away and continued his search.

Even though it was obvious that Alex wasn’t going to be there, Eiji ended up spending hours at the library. He imagined Ash there, his face in a book and his glasses sliding down his nose. Unlike most of the city, there library was peaceful – there weren’t any bad memories there. He spent three hours checking every reading room on every floor, even wandering up and down the stacks because he never could predict what Ash might want to read on any given day.

He paused in front of Hemmingway’s titles because Ash had spent so many hours poring over his books after Blanca came to town. Eiji pulled one from the shelf: a threadbare hardcover edition of To Have and Have Not. It looked like the same copy Ash had checked out; Eiji looked at the card in the back but it was full of stamped numbers, not names. He closed his eyes, remembering Ash’s thin hands holding the pale green volume, his tapering fingers as they turned the pages. Eiji thumbed through, irrationally wanting to touch where he had touched, to stay connected by whatever means possible.

After the library he walked past a couple of old tenements where Ash sometimes met his crew for secret meetings. He didn’t have the nerve to go in, even in the daylight, and wandered through the East Village instead, hoping to catch a glimpse of an old friend. At the very least, he hoped that one of Ash’s scouts would recognize him. That way, Ash would know he was out there, looking for him.

He found Alex by chance. Eiji was at a traffic light, waiting to cross when he noticed the familiar blond coming from a carryout. He was laden down with a case of Budweiser and a gallon of milk, somehow managing to light a cigarette with his hands full.

“Alex!” Eiji cried. His pulse suddenly picked up and joy and relief mingled within him. The light changed and he darted across the street, suddenly aware of how tense and frightened he’d been. But now he’d found a friend. Alex would straighten out everything.

The blond didn’t see him and continued his ambling pace down the sidewalk.

Eiji ran. “Alex!” he called again. The boy turned and Eiji waved wildly. “Alex, wait!”

Seeing him, Alex’s eyes widened. He stopped in his tracks. “Eiji!” he cried, delight unmasked in his voice. “Man, what are you doin’ here?”

By the time Eiji got to him, he was breathless from his half-block run. He was amazed at how much his injury had changed his body – it used to be that he could run three times that distance without a thought. Now he was sore and slow and he didn’t like it one bit.

“You okay?” Alex set down the beer and put his hand on Eiji’s back. “You’re not healed enough to run like that yet, are you?”

Eiji shook his head. “Not really,” he admitted, pausing immediately to gasp for air. “But I had to catch you.”

Alex’s eyebrows dipped with worry. “You shouldn’t have come back, man. Ain’t no way your doctor said you were good to travel.”

Eiji waved away his fears. “I had to,” he insisted. “I heard things. Terrible things. I know they are not true.” He shifted his bag on his shoulder and looked Alex directly in the eyes. “I need you to take me to wherever Ash is.”

The concern on Alex’s face changed immediately into distress. He took a long drag of his cigarette, and as he exhaled the smoke, Eiji noticed that his fingers were shaking. “What’d you hear?” he asked in a low voice.

Swallowing hard, Eiji gathered his courage. What if Alex said it was true? What would he do then? His stomach felt like it was on fire. “Max Lobo told me,” he began slowly. “He told me that Ash was killed. That someone stabbed him and he didn’t make it.” He watched Alex’s face carefully, looking for shock or disbelief, or anything that might reassure him that he’d heard wrong. “This cannot be. I came back to find him, to know with my own eyes and own hands that he is okay.”

Alex looked away. He took a deep breath, and flicked the butt of his cigarette onto the sidewalk. It lay there, smoldering and abandoned, as he bent to pick up the case of beer. “Let’s walk,” he said strangely, nodding in the direction he’d been heading. “The guys will give me hell if I don’t bring you to see them.”

“We are going to your boss, then?” Eiji asked, jumping to follow the boy who was already moving away from him down the sidewalk. “You will take me to Ash?”

Alex took a deep breath. His brow was beaded with sweat, even on that cool morning. “I’m sorry,” he said in an unsteady voice. “I’m the new boss of the east side crew. What you heard is the truth.”

***

It had been the worst visit Eiji had ever endured. The guys were happy to see him, but they didn’t have even a fraction of the energy they once did. They looked older and sadder, like war veterans. A lot of them wouldn’t meet his eyes, apparently assuming that his loss was somehow deeper and more intimate than their own. Even Bones stayed quiet – he looked at Eiji helplessly and kept his conversation to the safe topics of international travel and the weather.

No one said Ash’s name.

In the end, he’d only been able to stay a short time. He was suffocating. Surrounded by those familiar voices and faces made the lack of Ash stand out in sharp contrast. He was supposed to be there. Eiji was shocked by the physical agony of it.

He answered superfluous questions about Japan, about his trip there and back. The whole time he thought he might be sick.

Even though no one mentioned him, Eiji could see the loss of Ash reflected on every face. Whenever the topic strayed close to their old boss, an uneasy silence fell over the crew. Eiji understood; everyone was lost without him.

No one more than him, though.

The tears he’d been holding back fought their way to the surface as he stepped out the door. Eiji blinked them back, feeling his face flush with the effort. His lower lip and chin trembled, but he breathed deeply and held it in. There was no way he could walk down the street crying, and he knew that once he started, it would be a long, long time before he finished.

Alex followed him out, carrying his duffel bag and fidgeting with something to say. When he caught a glimpse of Eiji’s face, his own crumpled with alarm and guilt and panic. “Eiji?” he asked, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Are you all right?”

“No,” Eiji shook his head, not looking up. “I am sorry. I must be alone now.”

The blond ran a hand through his shaggy hair, then reached for his cigarettes with shaking hands. “Damn it, Eiji,” he said, his voice a husky whisper. “I’m so fucking sorry.”

Eiji shook his head again. A million things passed through his mind, not the least of them the ungrateful feeling that I’m sorry could never be enough. “It is not your fault,” he said instead, his voice fighting to stay steady. “You did not kill him.”

Alex looked away, muttering a string of unintelligible curses under his breath.

“I must go.” Eiji hurried down the steps. He had to get away from Alex and his grief. He didn’t have it in him to care that anyone else was hurting too. “Goodbye,” he said out loud, thinking instead the more final sayonara. He wouldn’t be back. It was too painful.

Alex called out to him, halfheartedly pursuing him down the steps and around the corner. Eiji knew it was halfhearted because he didn’t catch him. It was just as well, Eiji reasoned. Unlike him, Alex and his gang had things to do, lives to put in order and live out. Eiji didn’t think he could stand it.

He was four blocks away when he realized that he’d left his bag, but he didn’t care enough to go back for it. It was just stuff, anyway. Some clothes. A camera. Money. His passport. Nothing he needed.

Ash was gone. The scuffing of his footsteps seemed to say it over and over: Ash is gone. Ash is gone. The thudding of his heartbeat sounded way too loud in his ears. He wanted to run, to push his body until all he could focus on was the pain of breathing and the agony of muscles, but he couldn’t. Even if it weren’t for his wound, he couldn’t summon the energy to run. All he could do was feel, and feeling made him long for the numb silence of denial.

He wandered aimlessly through the city, unable to decide what to do or where to go. Going back to Max and Ibé was unthinkable. They would expect him to cry and grieve and get over it; they didn’t understand that this wasn’t something he’d ever get over. His family would be worse – they’d never even met Ash, so they’d be confused and then irritated with his apparent refusal to move on. No one else could understand how he felt, that this wasn’t something he would ever get past.

This hollow, tortured, nothingness was his only reality now.

In the end, he found himself back at the library. When he realized where he was, he dropped, exhausted, onto a park bench. From there he stared at the closer stone lion, trying to remember if it was the one Ash had climbed on that day. He had a picture, but it was in Japan.

He couldn’t imagine going home, looking for the photo. He discovered that he couldn’t imagine much of anything, including getting up and walking away from that bench. Ash had sat there with him once – they’d eaten hot dogs and talked about nothing important. This was the closest he would ever come to being with him again.

Eiji stayed there a long time. The sun was going down when Sing found him. He’d been running.

“There you are!” he cried, breathless, leaning his hands on his thighs and gasping for air. “I’ve been looking all over, but I should’ve guessed you’d be here. This is where it happened, after all.”

Eiji hardly had the energy to greet his friend. He looked up, horrified at Sing’s words. “Where it happened?” he asked in a faltering voice.

Sing’s eyes darted to the side and he sat down. “Yeah. Didn’t anyone tell you? Ash was here when Lao…” He broke off, his gaze faltering and falling to the ground.

Eiji’s breath caught in his throat. “It was Lao?” he asked.

The boy fidgeted on the bench next to him. He didn’t speak, but Eiji caught his slight nod.

“Why?” he asked softly. “Lao isn’t – ” he faltered, then tried again. “He isn’t a bad guy. So why?”

For a long time, Sing didn’t answer. But Eiji waited. His whole body thrummed with the need to run away, to get as far away from there as possible. Instead of offering the comforting sanctuary that he’d found there with Ash, it was horrible, repulsive, and abhorrent. It hurt just to be there, near where Ash died.

But he needed to hear what Sing could tell him. He needed to know everything.

“It was my fault,” Sing said at last. In halting tones and stammering phrases he explained about what happened after Eiji was rushed to the hospital before – the challenge and then the way Ash refused it, later. He described what must’ve happened that last day – the knife and the gun and the bloody carpet in the library.

Eiji thought he might throw up. He’d thought he wanted to know everything, but this was too much. The peaceful scene around him seemed tinged with murder. He imagined it the way Sing told it – Ash shooting Lao and then making his way to his favorite reading room, bleeding profusely the whole time. The physical pain must’ve been intense, but Eiji imagined the loneliness was worse. How terrible would it be to take your last breaths in anonymous solitude? The idea of Ash feeling like that made Eiji physically sick.

“I never told Lao that it was settled,” Sing said, his voice cracking with emotion. “I’m sure he only came after Ash because he thought I was gonna be killed.”

The pain and love in his voice was too much to take. It was only natural – Lao was his older brother after all – but Eiji couldn’t let Sing try to justify what he did. “I can’t listen to this,” he said abruptly, cutting off his friend mid-sentence. He stood up. “I am sorry, Sing, but I have to get away from here. I want to be alone now.”

Panic gave him energy, and he hurried down the marble steps. He didn’t have anywhere to go, but at that moment, anywhere else in the world would’ve been better.

“Eiji wait!” Sing cried. He followed, and unlike Alex, he meant business.

Eiji heard the scuff of his tennis shoes getting closer. Eiji pushed himself, ignoring the pain and the exhaustion. He needed to be as far away from the library and Sing Soo-Ling as he could get. “Do not follow me,” Eiji demanded breathlessly over his shoulder. He’d reached the sidewalk and ran down the street, hoping that, like Alex, Sing would give up before his body gave out.

“Damn it, Eiji!” Sing lunged and caught the hood of Eiji’s sweatshirt, yanking him backward and almost off his feet. Eiji’s hands flew to his collar, fingers grasping at the thick fabric, trying to keep it from choking him. “Ash is alive!”

Eiji was coughing. It felt like he’d been punched in the throat, and he couldn’t catch his breath. “H-h-how is this,” he gasped, “possible?”

They were right outside the gates of Bryant Park. Sing didn’t speak as he guided his friend beneath the leafy sanctuary and away from the rush of the traffic on 42nd Street. “I’ll explain everything,” he said at last, depositing Eiji onto the closest bench. “Just let me get you some water first.”

He disappeared in the direction of the café, and Eiji numbly watched people stroll past, listening to his heartbeat calm and his breathing become more regular. He and Ash had come there a lot – so many times he’d spent all day at the park while Ash investigated some subject or other in the library. The music from the carousel tinkled faintly in the distance. It seemed unreal to be there now, without him.

He was confused. Alex said Ash was dead, but Sing said he was not. It didn’t make sense. He wanted desperately to believe Sing, to hold on to the elation that was starting to swell inside of him. But if Ash was alive, where was he?

Sing came back with a cup of ice water, which Eiji sipped gratefully. “Now tell me,” he demanded in a low voice. “Tell me the truth.”

The story was long and complicated, sounding at times more like the plot of a Hong Kong drama than real life. But Eiji listened quietly. He was shocked at the violence of the Moonflower Sequence that robbed Ash of his senses even while it saved his life. He was confused by Yut Lung’s participation – hadn’t he sworn to be Ash’s enemy, always? Mostly, though, he was hopeful. Sing’s story was too farfetched to be anything but the truth, he hoped.

“So he is here?” he asked at last, his voice eager. “He is at Nadia’s? In Chinatown?” It wasn’t that far – maybe too far to walk, now that he’d exhausted himself by running away, but even without his bag, he had enough money for a taxi. He stood up, already deliberating whether or not it’d be easier to catch a cab on 42nd Street or Fifth Avenue.

Sing grabbed his wrist, holding him back. He shook his head. “He left the country,” he said in a small voice. “A couple of days ago.”

Eiji’s eyes widened. “He went to Japan?” he asked incredulously.

His friend looked pained. He shook his head. “I don’t know where he went,” he said in a rush. “But it definitely wasn’t Japan.”

“Not Japan? Where else would he go?”

Sing closed his eyes. He took a deep breath and let it out in a staggering sigh. Eiji was confused, and now a ribbon of unease wound itself around that feeling. “He wouldn’t say,” Sing explained at last. “But he made it very clear where he wasn’t going.”

For a long time Eiji didn’t answer. He couldn’t. He didn’t understand; Ash had gone to a lot of trouble to become free, but now that he was free, he was just going to disappear? He was going to pretend to be dead and vanish as though the past two years had never happened?

“You heard wrong,” Eiji insisted, but his words lacked any the conviction he’d had before. “Ash would not do that.” He wasn’t sure anymore. Ash hadn’t come to the airport. He said sayonara to him that night at the hospital. Maybe that’s all there was to it. Maybe Ash was finished with him.

“He would,” Sing said, his voice hardening. “He did.” He looked at Eiji, his eyes flashing with sudden anger. “He was really cozy with Nadia, too. Alex even said it – he called her ‘the boss’s woman’ that night at the hospital.”

Eiji dropped back onto the bench, his knees giving out. Everything was a muddle. Ash was gone; Alex had lied to him. How could he even know whether or not what Sing said now was true?

Because I want to believe he’s alive. Eiji realized that it boiled down to that fact. Even if it meant that the rest of it was also true, that Ash had been with Nadia and had no intention of finding him, Eiji wanted him to be alive.

Tears pooled in the corners of his eyes and he wasn’t sure if they were tears of joy or anguish. He felt both. Immensely.

“Shit,” Sing muttered, sliding across the bench and yanking Eiji into a hug. The cup of water fell from Eiji’s fingers, splashing, almost unnoticed, on the sidewalk. Sing’s arms were stronger than they looked, his shoulder firmer. Eiji was tempted to stay there, to wrap his arms around his friend’s narrow back and let himself be comforted. The warmth of another human being, the rise and fall of his chest breathing – there was a lot of solace there.

“I didn’t want to tell you,” Sing was saying. “But it wasn’t fair. You have a right to know.”

Eiji wondered about his rights, wondered what part of his friendship with Ash gave him any rights at all. For a long time it had seemed like he had them: the right to make demands, the right to worry, to scold, the right to care. But now it was hazy and unclear. Just because Ash gave in to him in the past, it didn’t obligate him to keep doing it.

He pulled away from Sing’s warm body. The streetlamps were on and the sunlight was fading. Experience had taught him that New York nights were the loneliest kind. That night would be no exception. “I have to go,” he said softly, sniffing back his tears.

“No!” It was a little too fierce and Sing immediately looked embarrassed. “I mean, where will you stay?”

Eiji tried to smile. “I have a place,” he assured his friend, hoping it was true.

Sing made a noise of protest but let him go. “I’ll look for you in the morning!” he called.

Eiji wanted to glance back but didn’t – he could already imagine him, looking small and uncertain alone on the bench. It was a lonely image, and Eiji certainly didn’t need to add to his own loneliness. He glanced up at the marble lions as he passed the library, wondering again which one Ash had climbed on.

If Sing was right, maybe someday he’d get the chance to ask him.

Chapter 17

“Aren’t you supposed to be in school or something?” It had been bothering Ash since early that afternoon, when Eiji’s little sister – whose name was Yukie, he’d discovered – announced that she was going to take him to Izumo Taisha that day while he waited for the next train to Tokyo. He’d missed the first one by being impossible to wake, evidently. The jet lag had kept him up all night, but he crashed about an hour before dawn.

She laughed. “I am college student,” she explained dismissively. “I can skip classes with no trouble.” They had come by bus and were now walking from the stop to some kind of shrine that supposedly put Izumo on the map. She pointed out the giant pi-shaped gate that loomed over the city street. “That is where we go,” she explained with a smile. “Gate is called O-torii. It is huge, yes?”

Ash nodded. The gate loomed over the city’s rooflines and telephone poles. It was probably the largest thing he’d seen since leaving Tokyo. Yukie stopped at a corner convenience store, asking him what kind of drink he liked. “Coffee’s good,” he said, hesitant to try any of the vast array of colorful bottles in the cooler. One even had the word “sweat” in bright letters down the side. God only knew what it tasted like.

As she paid for the drinks at the counter, he studied her critically. He wasn’t really all that surprised that he’d misjudged her age; Eiji looked years younger than he was, too. Her hair was held back with a wide headband and she wore a jumper-type dress like the girls used to wear in Ash’s elementary school. If he had to guess an age for her, he’d probably come up with something around thirteen or fourteen – certainly not old enough to have graduated high school. But now that he knew, he recognized a certain adult aura about her – she seemed too smart for a kid, at least.

She had been really nice to him so far – genuinely nice, not the fake-sympathetic, scheming sort of kindness he used to get from the girls in New York. He wasn’t used to that, and he found himself treating her like an extension of Eiji: someone to be careful with, to protect. Around her, he thought before he spoke, he remembered to say please and thank you, he tried to smile.

My brother went to America two days ago. Those words had hit Ash like a cannonball. Disappointment was crushing, and he was surprised by the fissure of fear that came with it – what was Eiji thinking and feeling? What if he didn’t get back home in time, and he missed him again?

His face must’ve given away his emotions, because Yukie sprang into action. Within five minutes he had a steaming mug of tea in his hands and a plate of cookies at his elbow. “He will stay until he finds you,” she’d assured him. “Last time he was gone two years. You think this time he will come back after few days?”

Ash tried to imagine him in New York. Shunichi and Max would try to make him give up, but Eiji was stubborn; he would insist on seeing Alex first. But Alex would lie, Ash realized, his stomach twisting painfully. Alex would tell Eiji he was dead. Sing, then. Ash didn’t think Sing knew how to lie – particularly to Eiji. Ash closed his eyes and wished hard. Find Sing, he urged his friend silently.

“You are sleepy?” He opened his eyes to find Yukie peering at him, her eyes soft with concern. “Jet lag, yes?” She stood up and motioned for him to follow. “Come.”

She’d led him down a narrow hallway and opened a door. “It is messy,” she apologized. “Eiji did not unpack.”

Eiji’s room. Ash stepped inside, his heart swelling with wonder. This was where he’d lived and slept, his sanctuary since he was a child. “I can sleep here?” he asked.

She smiled. “Please do,” she replied politely. “I will wake you for dinner. My parents will be home then. They will want to meet Eiji’s friend.” Bowing her head in almost embarrassed formality, she stepped out and closed the door, leaving him alone in Eiji’s bedroom.

The room was small and, other than a stack of boxes and a half-unpacked suitcase in one corner, neat. A dresser, a bookshelf, a narrow desk, a bed. Ash’s gaze lingered on the last, the blankets still rumpled and one pillowcase peeling from its pillow. Two days ago, Eiji lay there. It was closer than Ash had been to him in weeks. It felt heady, giddy, like he was close to his goal after far too long seeking.

The bookshelf had a few books, the titles in characters that Ash had no guesses for. The topmost shelves were filled with strange, brightly colored robots. He reached for one – it was lightweight plastic, clumsily glued. Some of the decals were crooked. He wondered if Eiji had made it, imagining him a little boy, his jaw set in fierce determination as he stuck the parts together. On the desk was a framed picture of a group of boys – Ash picked it up.

They were all dressed in matching black uniforms and had similar haircuts, but it took him no time at all to pick Eiji out of the crowd. He was near the middle of the group, grinning at the camera while a classmate playfully jostled against him. He looked delighted. Ash had seen him happy before, but this seemed like a different emotion. Lighter. More gleeful. Ash thought about the injury that Eiji had hinted at but never described, about everything that happened in New York, and he wondered if maybe that grinning boy just didn’t exist anymore. The idea made him sad.

Ash carried the picture to the bed and set it next to the pillow. He needed sleep, especially if he was going to meet Eiji’s parents. Anxiety twitched in his stomach as the thought crossed through his mind. For all his fantasies about living happily ever after with Eiji, meeting parents had never crossed his mind.

He curled up on the bed, pulling the thin woven blanket up over his shoulders. It smelled like Eiji. Ash breathed deeply, almost unwilling to sleep because he didn’t want to lose the feeling of being cocooned in his friend’s arms. But he wasn’t able to hold out for long; he fell asleep after just a few minutes, his fingers outstretched to touch Eiji’s photograph.

“Ash Lynx?” Yukie’s voice pulled him out of his reverie. He looked down at her, blinking. “We must go this way,” she explained, tugging on his sleeve.

Ash glanced the direction she pointed. Down a hill, nestled in a hollow between tree-covered hills, was the shrine. It was as though the city had dropped away behind them, leaving them in a wooded country lane. The compound was made up of several buildings, ranging in size from huge to downright tiny. It was the foremost that caught Ash’s attention first. It was made entirely of wood – giant round pillars that looked like perfectly stripped trees supported the gracefully curved wooden roof. The roofline was ornamented in gold – not enough to be tacky or ostentatious, but just to bring attention to the ornate carving near the peak and eaves. It looked earthy and natural and yet somehow still awe-inspiring.

Ash’s heart thudded in his chest. “It’s beautiful,” he said, surprised by the power of his reaction. Nothing in his experience had prepared him for his own innate reverence for age and beauty. “How old is it?”

“Oracle Hall is only two-hundred fifty years old, rebuilt from fire,” she explained. “But there are shrines at Izumo for more than a thousand years.” Ash tried to imagine it – a local history that went back so far. It was hard to imagine.

They followed the stone path down to the shrine. It was nearly deserted – Ash noticed only two caretakers as they swept the paths free of dust. “No one’s here,” he commented.

“People have to work. They have school. Shrines are fullest on holidays.”

She led him through the compound, pausing every few feet to explain something to him – translating plaques and describing customs. Ash was fascinated. They took advantage of the quiet day to take their time, walking slowly as Yukie pointed out the various parts of the shrine and informing him of their importance in Shinto worship. Everything represented something important, from the smooth stones in the yard to the paper streamers tied around trees and the thick straw-rope decoration at the entryway.

At one small booth, a young girl in red and white sold Yukie two wooden tablets. Keeping one for herself, Yukie handed the other to Ash. He studied it – on one side was a painting of a white horse; the other side was blank. “They are called ema. They are for prayers,” Eiji’s sister explained. “Wishes. You write wish and hang it there.” She pointed at a small structure that was built around a tall pine tree. “If you are lucky, the gods will make it true.”

Ash looked at the tablet. He had plenty of wishes. “Does it matter if it’s in English?” he asked.

She cocked her head to one side, looking enough like Eiji that his heart thudded in his chest. “I do not think kami-sama will mind.” She handed him a felt-tipped pen and immediately got to work on hers. Clearly, she was a girl who knew what she wanted. Ash had to mull it over – he knew what he needed, but wasn’t sure how to word it.

Let us be happy. The words looked stark and bold in plain English on the tablet. There was an obvious loophole in that kind of wish, so he added another line. Let us live happily together for a very long time.

He and Yukie hung their prayer requests on the rack. A breeze picked up, rattling the wooden tablets together like a wind chime. Next to all the elegantly curved lines of the Japanese written language, his letters looked coarse and ugly. The English words made his stand out in stark contrast. “What did you wish?” he asked her, not sure if it was okay to ask, but curious.

Smiling gently, she looked at her ema. “Let Eiji be with the person he loves,” she translated for him. She looked at him then, her gaze unwavering. “You are his lover, yes?”

Ash flushed. Were his feelings really that obvious? “Not – not exactly,” he stammered. “We aren’t – ” He didn’t know how to explain it in a way that didn’t sound crude. “What did Eiji tell you?” he asked at last, figuring that he could go from there. The idea that Eiji might’ve described them as lovers made his palms sweat. He rubbed them against his jeans, hoping she wouldn’t see how nervous he was.

“My brother does not talk to me,” she explained. “To him, I am just baby – to tease, but never to confide.” She looked wistful. “But I watch him. My whole life, I watch, and I have never seen him like he is about you.”

It took a moment for her words to sink in. He already knew that, he realized. He already knew that what they had was special for both of them. He knew that Eiji would want to spend the rest of his life next to him – he’d promised to, even. But did that entail everything that Ash hoped it would? “Has Eiji ever been in love with another boy before?” he asked, immediately mortified for asking but needing to know the answer.

Yukie blushed. “No,” she said quickly. “No. But I do not think my brother has been in love with anyone before,” she told him. “Not until I see pictures he took of you.”

Pictures? Her ideas of Eiji’s feelings were based on photography? Ash felt his heart plummet in his chest. “Pictures,” he repeated, wondering what could be so special about snapshots.

She nodded. “They were very beautiful.” She blushed again. “I mean, you are very good looking, so any picture would be, but he took great care in them. And he has so many. Even in two years, to have so many meant that he was always watching you. Before going to America, my brother has taken many, many pictures, but none like these.”

Ash didn’t understand, but it was clear that Yukie believed what she was saying. He looked up at the pine tree next to them, pretending to admire its extreme height and girth while he pulled his emotions together. “And because of that, you think we’re lovers?” he asked slowly.

She walked a few steps ahead and stopped. Looking coy, she turned back to him. “No,” she explained simply. “I think you are lovers because you both travel around the world to be together again.”

***

An hour later they were almost ready to go. Thankfully, Yukie didn’t push the subject of her brother and his relationship with Ash. After that last insightful observation, she changed the topic back to the shrine and its history. They’d walked through all the public areas of the compound, through the gardens and the museum. Ash admired the artifacts as Yukie explained the mythology of Okuninushi and why he was the primary god of their region and second only to the sun goddess Amaterasu in all of Shinto Japan.

“We have one last thing to do before we go,” she told him as they approached a large stone basin full of water. “We must pay our respects to the gods and pray.”

Ash was uneasy. His life had never been touched by anything divine, and he wondered if maybe he shouldn’t just keep away from Eiji’s gods as well. He wasn’t sure he believed in that sort of thing, anyway.

Yukie saw his hesitation. “Do not worry,” she soothed, putting her hand on his arm. “Okuninushi-kami is not a frightful god. He will look kindly on you.” She slid her hand down until it grasped him around the wrist. “Come.”

She led him to a large stone basin – a cement spout poured a constant flow of fresh water into it. Explaining as she went, Yukie showed him how to rinse his hands in the water. “First left,” she said, sliding her hand beneath the tiny cascade of water. “Then right.” Ash mimicked her movements, shocked at the icy chill. “Then we rinse mouth.” Small dippers rested on bamboo crossbeams – Yukie took one in her left hand and scooped up the water, bringing it to her lips. She seemed to swish the water for just a second before spitting it out onto the rocks near their feet. Ash followed suit.

“Now that we are purified,” she whispered as they made their way to a nearby building, “we are able to approach the god. Do what I do.”

Ash watched as she walked slowly – almost reverently – toward the shrine. He followed, trying to feel as humble as possible. She reached out and shook a thick rope. The low jingle of bells surprised him; he hadn’t noticed the large metal spheres affixed to the higher reaches of rope. Before he had a chance to ring them himself, Yukie bowed twice, clapped her hands four times, bowed once more, then threw a handful of coins from her pocket into the slatted openings of the shrine’s box. She closed her eyes and he guessed she prayed. For an instant her face looked hopeful, almost pleading, and then it was over. She sighed and stepped back, a peaceful smile curving her lips.

“Your turn, Ash Lynx,” she said, motioning toward the bells.

He took a deep breath and reached for the bell rope, hoping he remembered all the steps. Bow. Bow. Clap, clap. Clap, clap. Bow. He almost felt silly, but curbed the feeling when he realized that this was a sacred religious rite. He wouldn’t mock it, even in his head. He plunged his hand into his pocket, not really knowing what kinds of coins he’d find there. Only three – a five-yen coin, an American quarter, and the St. Nicholas medal that Alex had given him.

He stared at the money for a long time. Five yen didn’t seem to be enough for a prayer, even with the quarter thrown in for good measure. He looked at the icon. The patron saint of the lost. Eiji was lost. Maybe not permanently, but Ash didn’t know where he was, or what he was feeling. It made him feel desperate, sick. He’d give anything to find him again, and soon.

Before he could reconsider, he tossed all three bits of metal into the shrine. He hoped Alex would understand. Realizing it was time to pray, he closed his eyes. Hi there, Okuninushi, he thought ridiculously. You don’t have to listen to me, since I’m not Japanese and completely not worthy of your attention, but Eiji is, so I thought I’d ask. Please, would you let me find him soon? I’m worried about him. And I’m worried about me without him. We need each other, so please, let me find him quickly.

He was almost embarrassed as he opened his eyes and stepped away from the shrine. He felt like he’d spoken out loud like everyone around – only Yukie, he realized – heard his thoughts and were judging him. But clearly she wasn’t. He noticed her watching him from the shade of a ginkgo tree, a quiet, fond smile on her lips. “Ready to go?” she asked, and Ash realized that he really was.

***

It took forever to get back to New York. His flight arrived in Queens at three in the morning, and though he managed to sleep quite a lot on his trip back, he wanted nothing more than to get home and into bed as soon as they landed. A few seconds passed before he realized that he didn’t have a home anymore – the apartment was sold and Dino’s place was severely off-limits. He paused at an airport payphone, weighing his options. He could call Alex, but that sort of made their whole goodbye-forever thing kind of silly. Nadia was not an option in case Charlie Dickinson was back, and Sing was with her, so he was out, too. Max? Just the thought of opening that can of worms made his head ache.

Ash headed out, grateful that he was home where a guy could get a taxi at any time of night or day. He slid into one of the half-dozen idling outside the airport. “Chinatown,” he told the driver. He was too worn out to search aimlessly, but the thought of just getting a hotel and postponing his reunion with his friend was ridiculous. He didn’t particularly like the option he’d decided on, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.

The cab dropped him off at the front gate of the Lee mansion. Ash didn’t have to worry about finding a way in – he was apprehended by Yut Lung’s bodyguards as soon as the taxi drove away.

“Take me to your boss,” he told them, too tired to take any of their shit.

“Master Lee is asleep. He has a very important meeting in the morning and cannot be disturbed,” the guy holding his right arm told him. They were taking him inside nonetheless – probably to some less-than-comfortable facility where he would wait for hours until the little prince deigned to see him.

“I don’t care if he’s seeing the fucking President tomorrow – I need to talk to him right away. Wake him up. Tell him Brian Ashford is here to see him.” He knew Sing well enough to know that he’d probably told Yut Lung his new name; it would be enough to get the guy out of bed, Ash was sure.

The guy glowered, but did as he was told. Ash was surprised. He thought his power had been in his name – everyone knew Ash Lynx and knew better than to cross him. He’d never expected his snarl to work all on its own.

He was more than a bit uneasy about seeing Yut Lung. He wasn’t angry anymore, and with Ash, that changed things quite a bit. He could admit that he was nervous about his body’s reaction – just being there brought the memories of touch and taste to the surface.

“Ash?” Yut Lung came into the room alone, knotting the brocade belt of his housecoat. A messy braid hung over one shoulder and he blinked sleep from his eyes. “What are you doing here?”

“Eiji’s in New York,” Ash said shortly, though he was counting on the fact that Yut Lung already knew. “I need to know where he is.”

The Chinese boy rubbed his eyes. “What happened to your hair?” he asked tragically.

“Forget my hair – it doesn’t matter.” He hadn’t expected Yut Lung to be this sleepy. “You said you weren’t going to be my enemy. If that’s true, then tell me where Eiji is. That’s the least I expect from a friend, if that’s what you want to be.”

Yut Lung jolted awake, his eyes going wide. The word friend seemed to have a powerful effect on him. “I don’t know where he is,” he said slowly.

Ash scowled.

“I’m not lying,” the boy insisted. “I know he flew in with Shunichi Ibé, that Max Lobo picked them up at the airport, and that he was prowling around the city for a day or so. After that, nothing.” He shrugged helplessly. “He fell off my radar. Contrary to popular belief, my people don’t see everything that happens in this city.”

Ash paced across the marble entryway. “And I’m supposed to believe that you knew he was here and left him alone?” He had the disconcerting feeling that Yut Lung was telling the truth.

“You were gone!” His eyes flashed and he looked a bit more like himself. “That mewling little brat doesn’t mean anything to me without you!” He fell abruptly silent, as though he had revealed too much. Ash hadn’t learned anything new with that admission, but even so, the room felt different. Maybe it was because they weren’t supposed to be enemies anymore. Maybe it was because, for the briefest of moments, they’d been much more.

“So you really don’t know?” Ash asked at last, unable to address whatever it was that stood between them. He dropped onto the bench by the door, leaning his head in his hands. Even after so many days, his hair felt strange beneath his fingers. It was starting to feel like it was all for nothing. What was the point of faking his death if his primary enemy knew all about it? Especially now that it seemed he was going to have to scour the city – risking being recognized by literally every one of his old acquaintances – just to find the person he’d done all of it for.

Yut Lung shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. It sounded like he meant it.

“I know where Eiji is.”

They both turned to the hallway, where Sing stood in shorts and a t-shirt. His hair stood every which way, as though he’d been sleeping. Ash was shocked to see him; wasn’t he supposed to be staying at Nadia’s? “What the hell? Sing?”

Sing was staring at Ash, his expression serious. “Why do you want to know?” he asked evenly.

Yut Lung openly gaped at him, but Ash thought he understood what the boy was getting at. “I won’t hurt him,” he promised. “I’m not going to leave him.”

Sing scowled. “You already did.”

Before Ash could defend himself, Yut Lung stepped forward. “Just tell him,” he insisted. “He just came from Japan.” He glanced at Ash for confirmation. “You’ve been looking for him all this time, right?”

It was embarrassing. Yut Lung’s voice was strangely layered with eagerness and disappointment. For the first time in so long, Ash realized where things stood with him – why he hated Eiji and why he’d been so hard to understand from the beginning. That kiss flashed through his mind; Yut Lung’s eager mouth and plundering tongue. And yet now he defended him. About Eiji. Ash’s heart ached with the unfamiliar combination of gratitude and shame.

“I’m here, aren’t I?” he asked Sing, unable to look at Yut Lung. “You think I would risk blowing my cover on a whim?” His voice was losing its steadiness, and he was losing his patience. He could grab Sing and pound the information out of him, but he didn’t want to have to do that.

Sing’s eyes dropped to the tile floor. “I talked to him two days ago. He was at the library.” Ash closed his eyes as a wave of pain washed over him – what was Eiji thinking about, hanging around there? "I told him the truth - all of it. But -" He bit his lip, looking confused. "But now I'm not sure I said the right things."

Ash's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"

"I told him that you were running away from him, like you said you were," he said accusingly. "I told him you didn't care enough to let him know you were okay. How was I supposed to know you lied?"

Ash felt sick. Damage control was going to be worse than he'd guessed. Would Eiji even believe him? He tried to imagine what his friend might be feeling, but found he couldn't. "What then?" he asked, his voice sounding hard.

“He said he had a place to go, but I didn’t believe him, so I followed him.”

Sing told them where Eiji had gone, and Ash’s heart ached more. Of course. It was gutsy and stupid, but so very obvious. “Thanks,” he said shortly, nodding at Sing with a tight throat. He met Yut Lung’s eyes as he turned to go. They stared, unspeaking, at one another for a long moment; they were strangely connected now. Ash nodded once, giving the boy the tiniest hint of a smile.

Not wanting to read the reaction in the other boy’s eyes, he darted out the door. He had someplace he needed to be. Three blocks away he was finally able to hail a cab back toward Midtown.

Chapter 18

Eiji sat up on the bed – his own, he hadn’t been able to bring himself to touch Ash’s – and rubbed his aching eyes. He felt like he’d been kicked around, left for dead. The sun had gone down hours ago and it was completely quiet. Lonely. He’d been alone in that room more nights than he could count, but this time it was different. This time there was no point in watching the door.

His brain was disorganized and confused. Ash was gone. I’m the new boss of the east side crew. Alex said he was dead. Sing said he was alive; he just didn’t care. Both ideas were too terrible to believe, and Eiji had spent the entire night trying not to believe either until he was sick with it.

Somehow, though, against his will, he found himself believing Sing. And it hurt. So many thoughts had been going through his jumbled head the past few hours, not the least of them the selfish realization that he’d rather have Ash dead and in love with him than alive and not. It wasn’t true – not really – and he was sure that when he had some sleep and some perspective, he’d regret that the thought even crossed his mind.

But for now it lingered, along with the guilt it inspired.

Eiji’s stomach growled – it felt hollow and empty. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten. With Max and Ibé? That was over twenty-four hours ago, and he’d only picked at his salad. He didn’t want to eat, afraid he’d just make himself sick. Still, he crept through the dark apartment toward the kitchen.

When he flipped the switch, even the cool glow of the fluorescent light burned his eyes. He squinted. The kitchen was spotless – even cleaner than he’d managed to get it, and he’d spent hours scrubbing that floor sometimes. He remembered something Alex said about the place being up for sale. They must’ve sent in a professional to get it ready.

He opened the refrigerator, disappointed but not surprised to find only a pitcher of water and a box of baking soda. Shrugging, he grabbed the water. There were still glasses in the cupboard, so he poured himself a tall drink. As he sipped, he opened the rest of the cabinets – all the dishes were there: the pots and pans, the silverware. One of the perks of buying a furnished house, he figured. He tried the pantry. Empty.

He was about to give up when he remembered Ash’s ‘secret’ hiding place. He got on his hands and knees and pulled the glass mixing bowls out of a low cabinet. The back wall was false – a gentle pressure released a latch and it swung open for him. Jackpot. Eiji pulled out the contraband – a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels, a pack of Salems with only three cigarettes left, an unopened box of Lucky Charms, and a packet of green Sno-balls, left over from St. Patrick’s Day.

Had it really been only March when they were last there together? It seemed like years had gone by.

This little cubby was where Ash hid the things that Eiji openly disapproved of. His friend thought he didn’t know, but Eiji found it within two weeks of moving in. He lined up the bottle, the cigarettes, the snack cakes, and the cereal on the counter. It made him sad to look at them – those things that caused them to bicker were bittersweet memories to him now.

But he was hungry and Lucky Charms was, arguably, food. There was no milk, but Eiji never liked the American way of eating cold cereal steeped in milk, anyway. Instead he carried the box into the living room, turning off the light as he went.

Eiji opened the window in the living room. In the past he’d spent hours perched on the sill, watching the city move and breathe around him. Now he stared out over the park. It was still dark and quiet, though the sky looked faintly blue in the east. He leaned against the window frame, letting the cool air lap against him. It crossed his mind that he could fall. He wouldn’t even have to jump – just leaning off balance was all it would take to silence his unquiet brain for good.

But he didn’t. He wouldn’t. Even now, he wasn’t the suicidal type. He looked down at the cars on 59th Street and wished he were.

For a while the only sound in the room was his teeth crunching the Lucky Charms. It was disgusting stuff, really – too sugary with almost no nutritional value – and after a few bites he gave up entirely. His stomach wasn’t rumbling anymore, so it was enough.

He’d been thinking for hours, but he never seemed to reach the end of things to think about. Now with perfect hindsight, he was able to admit that he and Ash had problems from the very beginning. At first it was because Eiji wasn’t able to relate – he wasn’t cut out for Ash’s lifestyle, something Ash recognized immediately and told him over and over. Time and experience changed that. Eiji adapted to running and hiding and being shot at. He got used to having to think on his feet. But then, sometime while they were occupied with trying to stay alive, something else happened.

A long time ago, Ash had said that Eiji was the first person who didn’t want anything from him that he wasn’t willing to give. He’d meant sex. At the time Eiji was happy to have Ash’s friendship. His love. He didn’t want anything more.

But it got complicated. The closer he and Ash became, the more he caught himself watching him, longing for some unidentifiable something more that he barely understood. Usually he was too busy to waste time with such thoughts, but during still moments – at night or in the early morning, or sometimes when they paused to catch their breath – Eiji’s heart would throb and his mind would slip in to fantasy.

What if Ash leaned over and kissed me right now? How would his callused hands feel against my skin? If I reached out and touched his hand, would he pull away?

He knew better. Dino Golzine, Colonel Foxx, and countless other men wanted – and took – the same thing. Because of that, for Ash, sex had nothing to do with love. It was about power and control. It was repulsive.

Eiji was repulsive.

He dropped the cereal box onto the carpet and pulled his knees up to his chest. He’d promised himself that he wouldn’t cry anymore, but his body had other plans. Hot, traitorous tears rolled down his cheeks. His letter must’ve been clearer than he thought; seeing what Eiji really wanted, Ash just left.

He slipped from the windowsill and onto the floor. The carpet was deep and soft – he clenched his fists in its smooth fibers, clutching as he cried. He stayed like that, doubled up and sobbing until it hurt. Each breath burned as though all the air had been sucked out of the room and places deep in his body ached like he’d contracted the flu. It hurt so much. Eiji couldn’t believe anything could feel like this, this heartache that felt like a vise tightening around all of his vital organs. He couldn’t think, didn’t have enough energy to move, and after a long time, surrendered into exhausted sleep.

***

He’d slept only a few hours, spending the rest of the day curled up on the couch, doing nothing and trying to keep his mind blank. He discovered by accidentally stepping on the remote control that the television was still wired with cable, probably as a luxury to the new owner – ready for use the instant he or she wanted it. Eiji didn’t want to think about someone new living there. It was his home. His and Ash’s.

So he watched TV for hours – first gardening shows and then soap operas. Later the programming switched to after-school cartoons and he still hadn’t moved from his spot – not to eat or drink or even stretch his legs. He realized he was a mess, and not just emotionally.

There was soap and a brand new bottle of shampoo in the bathroom, and his half-used bottle of laundry detergent was still tucked away in a cabinet in his laundry-room-turned-darkroom that had been changed back into a laundry room. Eiji used them without worrying about what the new owners might think – as far as he was concerned, such people didn’t exist.

His clothes had been left with Alex, so he stripped free of what he was wearing and stuffed it all into the washer. Once the machine was running, he stepped into the shower. He’d forgotten the luxury of it – the water pressure, the constant heat, the sheer size of the shower stall. It was hard to imagine he’d once been so pampered that he used such a shower without a second thought.

Steam quickly coated the glass walls and Eiji took his time about getting clean. He found himself pretending that nothing had changed – that Ash was asleep in the next room. That they’d be having breakfast together in just a few hours. It was an easy fantasy to slip into, but twenty minutes later he stepped into a vacant room and the illusion dissolved into pitiful reality.

He wrapped a towel around his waist and put his tiny load of laundry into the dryer. Accompanied by the music of buttons and zippers clanking against the metal barrel, he went back into the bathroom. The steamy mirror was wiped clean to reveal a face that looked only something like Eiji Okumura. He was thinner, sadder, and five months without a haircut made him look like the street punk he’d only pretended to be all that time. The scratch of Blanca’s bullet was a tidy scar on his arm now – a patch of smooth white that he’d considered his one connection to the world map of scars that decorated Ash’s body. Now there was another: in the skin beneath his ribs, a ragged-edged fissure stood out, angry and pink. It was hardly a scar yet, more like a half-healed welt held perilously together by pale new skin.

That bullet had been meant for Ash, or so it seemed at the time. Sing told him otherwise in the hospital, that he was the target all along, but it was hard to believe. He wasn’t important enough to kill. It was easy to recall the horror of that moment, to remember the panic that made him push his friend aside. That moment of realization when it seemed he would lose Ash made him act without thinking.

But if he were given another chance and a lifetime to ponder the choice, Eiji was sure he’d make the same decision.

The clock in the living room chimed eight times. Eiji was somewhat mystified that another day had passed, all on its own. It didn’t seem right that the minutes and hours and days when he didn’t see Ash were compounding so easily. He wondered how long it would take before he stopped counting the days.

I don’t know how to give up. Eiji realized he didn’t even know the first steps to getting over Ash. He didn’t know how to stop wanting, how to stop hoping every time he heard footsteps in the hallway outside.

More than that, he wasn’t sure he wanted to. The constant ache in his chest, the hollow feeling in his gut had become his only company. They let him know he was still alive; that what he’d felt and lived the last two years was real.

He occasionally thought of Ibé and Max. He knew he should call, but every time he picked up the telephone, he didn’t know what to say. His selfishness was cruel, but there didn’t seem to be a way to say both I’m sorry and I can’t come back. In case Ash changed his mind, Eiji had to be somewhere close by, waiting to be found.

The dryer buzzed while Eiji was idly flipping through channels. He took his clothes from the dryer, pulling his still-warm shorts up over his legs and discarding the towel. He fumbled for his shirt, and was surprised to pick up something he hadn’t washed that day. It was Ash’s – a pale green button-down shirt that Eiji loved because it always made his eyes shine. It must’ve been left in the dryer when he moved out. Eiji’s heart throbbed at the serendipity. He slid the shirt over his arms.

It was too big. Eiji cuffed the sleeves and wrapped his arms around himself, hugging the fabric close against his skin. It smelled like detergent and fabric softener and the dry heat that came from the dryer. It smelled almost like Ash.

Desperate for more, he went to the bedroom, flopped himself onto Ash’s bed. He breathed deeply. Cotton. The traces of chemical dyes; nothing else. Of course the sheets had been changed out for brand-new ones.

Eiji lay back against the pillow, for the first time looking at the room from the perspective of Ash’s bed. It was slightly different, tilted almost. He closed his eyes and imagined Ash there, next to him. They’d been so close once, but the beds were barriers never crossed. In all that time, they’d slept together in the same space only once – the night that Ash cried and asked him to stay near him. And even then, it was never mentioned; the promise was referred to, and the bad dreams, but the physical closeness wasn’t discussed.

For many nights afterward, however, Eiji remembered how good it had felt to fall asleep with Ash in his arms. He’d watch him sleep from his own bed, for a long time wanting only to hold him but eventually longing for much, much more. His friend’s lean body and parted lips captivated Eiji, and often his body would come alive – aching and throbbing while Ash lay just meters away.

And now, all alone in Ash’s bed, the same thing happened. His mind flooded with memories of Ash: his low, throaty laugh, the casual way he’d fling his arm around Eiji’s shoulders. He remembered him in the morning, coming from the shower in nothing but his underwear, his hair damp and tousled. That memory segued to fantasy.

Eiji touched himself. He closed his eyes and imagined he was with Ash. He saw blond hair and glimpses of green eyes from beneath heavy lashes. Long, golden limbs tangled with his own. He imagined touch and taste and even smell: his lips on Ash’s damp skin, the bite of teeth against his shoulder as he pushed into Ash’s tight body. He almost heard Ash saying his name – at first softly but building to a pleading cry.

His finish was shuddering and complete, but broken by the sound of his own sobs. From the moment of his climax he loathed every aspect of himself. Was he so depraved that he couldn’t resist fantasizing about the very thing that drove Ash away from him? Jerking off to someone who didn’t want him – it was pathetic and depressing, not to mention disgustingly disrespectful. How was he any different from the others?

Eiji had felt the quaking terror that coursed through Ash’s body after Foxx touched him. Of all people, he should understand what was off limits and why. And yet there he was, sticky with his own cum, gratified at Ash’s expense. He hated his weakness, hated his longing. Eiji hated himself.

He used Kleenex to clean up and hurried out of the room. He didn’t want to lie on Ash’s bed anymore; he didn’t want to see it. He washed up and put on his jeans, realizing that he couldn’t stay much longer. He didn’t want to remember like that again, to twist it into something sick. Besides, it was someone else’s home now.

But instead of leaving, Eiji found himself in front of the bookshelves, gazing at Ash’s books. They weren’t really his – they’d come with the apartment and were therefore left it – but Ash had read almost all of them. Eiji had never read a book in English. He’d never been one for reading, even in Japan, so he’d never bothered to try. But he didn’t want to leave – not really – and maybe reading what Ash had read would make him feel closer to him. Closer in a non-violating way.

He pulled out the thinnest volume and read the dust flap. It looked like a romantic story, so he put it back. Trial and error found him a slightly larger book – over three hundred pages – but with larger print and about a boy and his dog. Curling up on the couch, he tried to read.

It was harder than he expected. Just like with the newspaper, there were many unfamiliar words, and he fought to understand the complicated double and triple meanings of some of them that he’d thought he knew. But he struggled on, not because he was enjoying the process – quite the opposite, really – but because he remembered when Ash read that particular book. He’d moped around the house all afternoon because he’d never had a puppy, and what kind of kid grows up in America without a dog?

He fell asleep less than sixty pages in. He tried to stay awake – sitting up straighter in the chair and shaking his head violently – but he was still exhausted from weeks of insomnia. Now that he knew that Ash was alive and out of danger, it was okay to sleep now, right? He noticed the book sliding out of his hands and onto the floor, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it. His head drooped onto the back of the chair and he was out.

***

Eiji woke to a scratching noise at the door. He rubbed his eyes, squinting at the clock. It was just past five in the morning. The reading light was still on, and the crick in his neck told him he’d been in that chair for a long time. In the muddle of half-sleep, he couldn’t remember what he’d been doing the night before, but clearly the evening had ended in another of his long waits for Ash to come home.

The door opened – light from the hallway pouring around Ash’s shadowy figure. But it didn’t matter if he couldn’t see his face: Eiji recognized him from the lean angles of his shape, the smooth movements of his body. No one else in the world moved like Ash Lynx. Eiji wondered what he’d been doing – more nighttime raids and plans to defeat Arthur, no doubt. It didn’t really matter what he’d been doing; he was home now. “Welcome home,” he said as he always did, his voice still weak from sleep.

Ash froze in the doorway. The pizza box he carried seemed to waver in his hands as he stared. “Eiji?” he asked hoarsely.

Chapter 19

The elevator doors closed and Ash let out a sigh of relief. He hadn’t been sure he could get past Jacob. The doorman knew him – Chris Winston, that is – pretty well, and was a pretty attentive guy. Ash had spent the whole ride from Chinatown coming up with ways to slip by him, and with that in mind, he wound up spending fifteen precious minutes outside a 24-hour pizza delivery place. Ash ended up paying a delivery boy a hundred bucks just for his hat and jacket, and fourteen ninety-five more for the pizza. Moments like that made him almost wish for his gun – his Smith & Wesson helped speed up negotiations even more than cash.

But what mattered is that it got him past Jacob. The doorman behind the desk looked up briefly and Ash looked down, pretending to consult the receipt taped to the box. “Pizza for Steven Phillips,” he said, knowing that Mr. Phillips often kept odd hours and had food delivered in the past.

“You got the address?” Jacob asked.

Ash nodded, keeping his head down. “Sixth floor,” he said.

Jacob waved him on, going back to his crossword puzzle. Ash hurried to the elevator.

The sixty-second trip up to his old apartment seemed endless. I told him you were running away from him. Sing’s words haunted him. You didn't care enough to let him know you were okay. He needed to see Eiji, to tell him how wrong Sing was.

He needed to tell Eiji a lot of things.

By the time the elevator came to a stop, his heart was throbbing painfully in his chest. He was afraid of what he’d find in the apartment. Sing said he hadn’t left in a couple of days, that even the lights came on only once in a while. Ash knew Eiji would be upset – and the guy already had a history of dark, silent days. He was afraid that this time might’ve been too much, that his trust in Ash was broken and irreparable. Or worse.

It wasn’t until he was at the door that he realized that he no longer had a key. He didn’t want to knock, not wanting to scare Eiji awake – it was five in the morning, after all. He figured it was time to test that upscale security they’d sold him. He used his ID card to jimmy the lock, relieved – but disapproving – to see that Eiji had neglected to turn the dead bolt.

When it was sprung, he picked up the pizza box and took a deep breath. A trickle of cold sweat eased down his spine. He was somehow both eager and terrified. Ash opened the door.

The room was dark. The weak light that streamed through the windows seemed to do nothing, and he couldn’t see anything at all beyond the chunk of light from the hallway that fell around him on the tile entryway. He instantly got a rush of that this is where you belong feeling: his heartbeat slowed and his breathing came more easily.

“Welcome home.” Eiji’s voice came to him weakly from the shadows of the living room.

Ash’s heart skipped painfully. He squinted, trying to make him out among the dark shapes of the furniture. “Eiji?” he asked. His voice was hoarse and sore with disbelief. It was the same as it’d always been. How had Eiji known to wait up for him?

Eiji’s voice cracked as he tried to speak again. No words came out – just an anguished squeak.

The sound made Ash’s hands quake. He tossed the pizza onto the nearby console table and kicked the door shut. Without the glaring light from the hallway, his eyes adjusted quickly in the darkness. Lumps of shadow became a couch and chairs. One shadow moved, silhouetting itself against the deep blue glow of the windows. Eiji.

Eiji stood stock-still, staring at him. After a moment, Ash could make out his face – beautiful and confused, his eyes dark and troubled. Ash wondered if it was because he wasn’t sure if the moment was real. Or maybe he was making up his mind about how to feel about this. Ash stepped forward, determined to rush the decision, but as one foot landed on the plushy carpet, he yanked it back. Eiji hated it when he wore his shoes inside.

Ash reached down and fumbled with his laces. “Eiji,” he said again, his voice heavy with desperation and impatience. He needed Eiji to say something – anything – that revealed his state of mind. He yanked at his shoes, his eyes never leaving his friend’s face.

Just as Ash’s first shoe fell with a dull thunk on the marble tile, Eiji moved. He was across the room in an instant. Ash stumbled to meet him halfway, kicking off his remaining shoe as he went. Eiji’s arms went around his shoulders, pulling him roughly against his chest. The heat of him, the scent of soap and clothes and just Eiji overwhelmed him. Ash’s knees felt weak.

He slid his own arms around Eiji’s middle, careful to avoid the gash he’d glimpsed from beneath his open shirt. I love you. He wanted to cling, to squeeze, to somehow melt Eiji into himself. I love you. He couldn’t imagine what he’d been thinking, that day he’d decided never to see him again.

For a long moment they stood together in the middle of the dim living room, arms wrapped tightly around each other. Ash closed his eyes and enjoyed the comforting warmth of having Eiji close. The last time they’d held each other was after he’d gotten away from Foxx – it felt like a lifetime ago. Eiji’s arms were just as strong, just as warm, and this time there wasn’t any lingering terror. Instead there was just the relief of having what he’d been craving. In Eiji’s arms he felt like he’d finally come home.

Eiji pulled back and studied him, his eyes dark and concerned. He looked bone weary and thin, and Ash worried.

“You are here,” Eiji breathed. His hands gripped his shoulders, the blunt edges of his nails digging into his skin through his t-shirt. “I was so afraid.”

“I’m sorry.” Ash never meant to scare him. He never wanted to. “Never again.”

Eiji shook his head, his eyes dropping to space between them. “I’ve never been so scared of anything before.”

“Me too,” Ash told him. He paused, waiting until Eiji looked back up at him. Ash stared him deep in the eyes. “Everything about this – about the way I feel about you – scares the shit out of me.” His confession was soft and urgent. It was time to be honest, after all.

Eiji’s eyes widened, a myriad of emotions flickering across his face in the space of a heartbeat. “How –” he began and faltered. He bit his lip and tried again. “What do –” After a moment it seemed he gave up. He leaned his face against Ash’s shoulder, pressing close and silent for a long moment. “They told me you were dead,” he said at last, his voice broken. “Max and Ibé-san and Alex – they all told me you were dead.”

Pain wrenched through Ash’s chest. He couldn’t imagine what Eiji had gone through, believing that. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.

“And then Sing said you faked it. That you were running away from everyone. Even me.” Eiji’s shoulders shook and Ash guessed that he was trying not to cry.

He moved a hand to Eiji’s head, smoothing his hair. He didn’t know how to soothe him. “Sing was wrong,” he explained in a low, urgent voice. “It was my fault – I gave him the wrong idea on purpose. I didn’t want anyone to know where I was going. I didn’t think,” he paused, stealing a moment to brush his lips across Eiji’s hair. “I didn’t think he would talk to you.”

Eiji pulled away again, this time taking a whole step back and separating himself from Ash completely. He was still trembling, but his eyes were dry and angry. Ash realized that it hadn’t been tears he’d been holding back, but rage. He reached for him; Eiji flinched away. “Where were you?” he asked, his voice quiet with fury. “I hear such terrible things – things I cannot bear – of course I come to you. But you are not here. Why didn’t you wait for me?” The words were hard and heavy with accusation – accusation that Ash knew he deserved.

He’d been careless; never once did he stop to think about what Eiji might be doing at the same time.

“I just came back from Japan,” Ash said helplessly, pulling his passport out of his back pocket as proof. “I was trying to find you.”

Eiji blinked with surprise and disbelief. He plucked the tiny leather booklet from Ash’s fingers and flipped to the page with its bold red Nippon stamp. “Japan? When did you – How?”

Any other time, Ash would’ve grinned at his dumbfounded expression, but he felt too desperate even to smile. “I went to Izumo,” he said, half panicked. “But you weren’t there.”

Eiji’s face went soft, and Ash could see that the idea of him going all the way to his hometown had an emotional affect on his friend. He wanted to reach out to him, to touch him again, but Eiji turned abruptly and walked to the couch. His spine stiff, he sat down at the far end.

“But you did not contact me,” he said darkly. “So many days passed and I wondered if you were hurt. If you were alive! It is not the dark ages! We have mail. Telephones. Sing even has my family’s phone number! Why didn’t you tell me you were okay?”

Ash didn’t have an answer. There were a hundred reasons, and none of them good.

Eiji’s words became softer, his gaze fixing on the windows. “Instead you let me think terrible things. How could I not believe Sing when he said you didn’t care?” He swallowed hard, his voice unsteady. “How can I not believe it even now?”

It was like being slammed in the gut. Ash stared at Eiji in the half-light. “I didn’t know he would say that,” Ash said softly, aware that it was a worthless contribution, but not knowing what else to say. He was ashamed. He’d never even thought of it from Eiji’s point of view. “I’m so sorry, Eiji.”

He waited for his friend to respond with something – anything – but the room was silent.

“I’ve been thinking of you,” Ash said at last, sitting tentatively next to Eiji on the sofa. “All the time.”

His confession was rewarded by a tiny intake of breath. Eiji didn’t speak, but at least Ash knew he was listening. It was just as well; he had a million things to say. “I want –”

“You were going to leave me,” Eiji interrupted. His voice was soft and accusing. He pulled his knees up to his chest and Ash felt him withdrawing.

He wanted to lie. He wanted to say that he’d never considered such a thing, that it was ridiculous to even contemplate. But Eiji deserved the truth. Ash never wanted to keep secrets from him again. He sighed, running a hand through his hair and was momentarily startled by the reminder that he’d cut it all off. “I thought I had to give you up to keep you safe,” he explained slowly. “But then I realized it wasn’t possible.” He looked at the ceiling, feeling helpless. He never thought it’d be like this, that these words would be a negotiation. “As soon as I was away from you, I felt like I’d torn away a huge hunk of myself.”

Eiji wasn’t convinced. “But if I wasn’t here tonight…”

“I would have found you.” The declaration was hard and earnest. Ash could no longer imagine a world where he could stay separated from Eiji for long. Hadn’t they been through too much just to get to this point? “I would cross the world and back as many times as it takes until I caught up with you.”

Eiji didn’t respond. He leaned his forehead on his knees, and Ash longed to see his face. Didn’t he believe it? After everything, had his trust finally been broken?

He had nothing to lose then. “I made a mistake – a big one – and I’m sorry, Eiji. All I wanted was to find a way for us to be together. I didn’t want my enemies to find us, to have us hiding out and skulking around corners our whole lives. I didn’t want you to always have to watch your back. You don’t deserve that kind of life. I was stupid. I should’ve called you the instant I could.” He twisted his fingers together, trying to figure out how to say what he’d been needing to say all that time.

He was done with games, with skittering around the issues. He tried for the direct approach. “I’m in love with you, you know,” he confessed, surprised that it came so easily. “I think I’ve always been. I’ve been afraid of it, though.”

“Why?” Even though Eiji was right next to him, his voice was weak and far away.

Ash closed his eyes. His heart swelled at the word – it meant that Eiji was still listening to him, that he was interested in what Ash had to say. “Because it means I want things. Things I shouldn’t be wanting. From you.” He thought of his fantasies, of Yut Lung’s deft fingers, of Brandi-the-stewardess. Take him to bed, for god’s sake.

Eiji touched him. The shock of it – of fingertips on his knee, hot through his jeans – sent a jolt of electricity through Ash’s body. Otherwise Eiji didn’t move; he stayed bowed over his knees, his face hidden. “Wanting is natural,” he said carefully.

Ash shook his head, silently praying that Eiji wouldn’t move his hand away. “Not like this,” he said bitterly.

Fingers curled into denim. There was the swish of fabric moving against fabric and suddenly Eiji was close beside him. He ducked his head against Ash’s shoulder. “Then we are both unnatural,” he mumbled, and Ash felt his breath hot and damp against his collarbone.

Heat flooded Ash’s face. His heart throbbed in his chest. “Eiji?” he asked weakly. Could it be that he really did feel the same way? After so long wondering, it hardly seemed possible.

Eiji lifted his head. He turned to face Ash, his free hand reaching to touch his jaw. Fingers explored the bristle of days without shaving, their callused tips moving over his lips to the other side. His eyes locked with Ash’s, his expression haunted with trust and need. Ash’s whole body tingled. He leaned closer.

Their kiss was sweetly tentative, but sparked with electric fire. Eiji’s lips, dry and soft beneath his, moved with inexpert grace, guiding Ash’s mouth open. His tongue cautiously flicked forward, tasting Ash’s lips with careful motions. Ash stifled a groan and hauled Eiji up against him. Even in their awkward positions on the couch, he wanted to feel his friend’s lean body with his own.

Eiji’s hand clutched his knee, his fingers involuntarily jumping and grasping when Ash deepened the kiss. Nails scrabbled for hold through denim, scratching across his thigh a bit higher than Ash expected. It was as though his nerves were being unraveled. Heat pooled low inside him and a low sound escaped his throat.

Eiji pulled back, gazing with breathless concern at his friend. “You are okay?” he asked, his lips damp from the kiss. “I did not hurt you?”

“You can’t hurt me,” Ash told him, reaching his hand around Eiji’s head to tug him back into the kiss.

Stiffening, Eiji resisted. “But I can,” he said softly. “In the past you were hurt very badly. I don’t want to remind you. I don’t want to hurt you in any way.” His face was troubled and doubtful.

Of course. Ash took a deep breath and sighed slowly. “I meant what I said,” he insisted. “You can’t hurt me. I want to be here with you. I want to be doing this.” Eiji looked unconvinced, so Ash pressed on. “I’ve dreamed about doing this. For so long.”

He slid one hand beneath Eiji’s open shirt. He recognized it as his own now, and the idea of Eiji in his clothes sent a wave of possessive arousal through him. He lay his palm flat against Eiji’s lower back, not surprised when the boy shuddered against him. “This is what you’re doing to me,” he whispered, lowering his lips to Eiji’s throat. Eiji groaned softly. “This is what you’re making me feel.”

He wanted Eiji to writhe beneath him, to want until his whole body ached with it. He pushed his friend gently until he was lying across the sofa, then covered his body with his own as his mouth sought its mate once more. Eiji’s arms closed around him, his fingers grasping and shoving fabric until they found skin beneath his t-shirt. Ash pressed close, easing his tight, aching hips down until Eiji gasped. He bucked beneath him, his fingertips pressing bruising circles into the skin of Ash’s back.

It was almost too much. Ash panted against Eiji’s mouth, his whole body alive and fevered with desire. He was surprised when his friend moved beneath him, shifting so that his knee came up to press firmly between his legs. The pressure of Eiji’s thigh against him made his head spin.

Eiji’s fingers started to tug on the hem of his shirt, yanking it steadily upward until Ash had to break his kiss to let him pull it off over his head. “Are you sure about this?” he asked brokenly, his mouth moving toward the soft lure of Eiji’s earlobe.

Eiji put his hands on Ash’s chest, tracing scars and brushing against his nipples. Ash sucked in his breath. “I have wanted – and I have loved you – for a very long time,” the Japanese boy confessed unsteadily. He let his hands slide down Ash’s chest and firm abdomen, unsteadily grasping the waistband of his jeans. They clumsily worked the button and zipper; Ash bit his lip as his knuckles brushed against the hard length of his erection. “If you are sure, I am sure.”

Ash had thought he could stop if he needed to, but Eiji’s words and touch sent another wave of urgency crashing over him. Somehow hands and mouths took over, stroking and kissing and removing clothing until both boys were naked, their breath coming in damp pants as they looked at each other. Ash had never been so aroused by another body in his life. Everything about Eiji – his golden skin, his lean, long muscles – was perfect.

Ash leaned back against the couch, pulling his friend on top of him. Eiji’s eyes widened. “If I do it, I’ll hurt you,” Ash explained in a hoarse voice. He felt his cheeks flush hot. “Right now I – I don’t think I can go slowly.”

Eiji pushed back until he was on his knees, straddling Ash. He looked nervous. “I don’t know how . . .” he said softly.

Ash smiled. “I’ll show you,” he promised, then sat up to kiss him.

It seemed Eiji still wasn’t convinced. “Then I’ll hurt you,” he protested.

Ash shook his head. There wasn’t much chance of that. He knew just how to relax, how to make pain into pleasure. Growing up the way he did, it was the only way to survive, but he didn’t want to explain such ugly things. “I’ll be fine,” he assured instead, already reaching.

As soon as his hand closed around Eiji’s ready cock, all protests ended. Ash watched as Eiji squeezed his eyes shut, his mouth parting in a silent gasp. He learned its hard lines and curves, memorizing it with his fingers even as he put his lips to work at the hollow of Eiji’s throat. He pressed his tongue against smooth salty skin as he slid his mouth down his chest and abdomen.

Eiji’s noises of protest melted into sighs of pleasure. When Ash reached his destination, he took Eiji into his mouth in one swift move, dampening the whole length of his shaft with his lips and tongue. Eiji cried out, his hands clutching in vain at the baby-fine moss of blond hair on Ash’s head. Ash worked his magic, using tongue and hands and murmuring to bring Eiji just to the threshold without crossing over it. “Please, please,” his friend whimpered, and Ash decided it was time.

Whispering urgently, Ash guided Eiji into position. “Use your fingers first,” he explained, holding Eiji’s wrist and dampening his finger in his mouth. Eiji hesitated only a moment before pushing into him, and Ash clenched his eyes shut against the waves of tight, aching pleasure.

“Are you okay?” Eiji asked, his voice alarmed.

Ash couldn’t speak, so he just nodded. Eiji started to move, pumping his fingers in and out slowly. Ash nodded again. “Good,” he gasped, reaching up to press a kiss onto Eiji’s mouth. Then he lay back and enjoyed it, one hand moving to his own straining, neglected cock.

After a few minutes Ash needed more. “I want you,” he panted, scratching the skin on Eiji’s shoulder in his urgency. “Please, Eiji. Now.”

Eiji filled him slowly, the whole time biting his lip at the unexpected pleasure of it. Before Ash could speak, he moved, pulling out almost altogether before plunging in again, his earlier gentleness dampened by his own need. Ash clung to him.

He’d never felt like that before. The sex was familiar – he’d been in the same position a thousand times, usually with men who knew much more and never hesitated to demonstrate. But Eiji’s face, the immense care and concentration there, moved him more than any physical pleasure could ever hope to. Swells of love met swells of passion, and Eiji kissed Ash as he came, the urgency of his mouth smothering his cries. Eiji came in the next instant, his eyes going wide with shock at the force and speed of it.

They lay tangled together, both sweaty and struggling to catch breath long gone. Ash glanced ruefully at the spots of damp that marked the sofa – it wasn’t even their couch anymore, and look what they’d done to it. He found he couldn’t care for more than a few seconds, though, because Eiji’s teeth were quietly nibbling his ear.

“What now?” Ash asked. He almost didn’t want to know – it wasn’t as though they’d settled anything between them by having sex. Was it time to acknowledge that they cared but then move on? His heart thudded in his chest.

Eiji had been watching him from behind a lazy smile, but it faded as he considered. “I don’t want to be away from you,” he said plainly, putting his hand over Ash’s chest. “Don’t ever leave me again.”

Ash shook his head. “I don’t think that will be a problem.” He felt a smile creeping across his own face – apparently he’d been forgiven.

“Then I will follow where you go,” Eiji decided. “If we must spend our lives hiding, I will hide with you.”

Ash couldn’t imagine it any other way. “We will have to leave right away,” he said seriously. “This place isn’t ours anymore.”

Eiji looked around the apartment. It was bathed in bright morning light, suggesting to Ash that their love scene had taken longer than it seemed. Eiji sighed. “I will miss it,” he said wistfully. “But anywhere Ash lives is my home now.”

They dressed slowly, and Ash let Eiji use the shower first. He was sweaty and sticky, but he wanted to take some time to savor it, to exist with Eiji’s musky scent on his skin, in his mouth.

He took the pizza to the kitchen, and was startled to see his secret stash of goods spread out on the counter. He picked up the cigarettes and shoved them into his pocket, then decided that the shelf-life of a pack of Sno-Balls would easily be more than just a couple of months, and he tore into the green goodies. If he didn’t eat them now, Eiji was sure to take them from him, he reasoned, and nothing beat the taste of manufactured coconut and marshmallow.

***

“We have to go back to Izumo,” Ash told him that evening. Despite the threat of the new owner arriving at any time, they’d lingered in the apartment all day, enjoying each other’s bodies and company and getting caught up on all the time they’d spent apart. Now they watched the setting sun turn the park into a blaze of golden red as they ate delivered sushi on the floor by the windows.

Eiji didn’t protest. “My family must be frustrated with me,” he said.

“They miss you.”

Eiji told him about leaving his return ticket at Max’s and his bag – including his money and passport – at Alex’s. “I guess I will have to go back for them.”

Ash felt a sharp stab of guilt when Eiji mentioned Max’s name. If they were going to Japan, Shunichi would undoubtedly hear of his miraculous resurrection. If Shunichi heard, Max would hear, and Ash wondered if he didn’t owe the old man a personal explanation. He promised himself he’d stop by before they left town.

“You’ll definitely need your passport, but don’t worry about the ticket,” Ash said dismissively, dipping his sashimi into the tiny dish of wasabi. “We’re gonna fly first class from here on out. And tonight we’re staying at the Plaza – I booked us a suite.”

Ash grinned at Eiji’s dumbfounded expression. “I happen to have a lot of money stashed away,” he said. “Stick with me and you’ll never want for anything.” He took a sip of water. “Tomorrow we’re leaving for Tokyo. I figure we can take your family on a trip or something before heading off to – wherever we’re going.” They hadn’t decided yet.

His friend continued to gape and Ash couldn’t resist the urge to tease him. “You lied to me, Eiji,” he said seriously.

“What do you mean?” Eiji demanded, looking indignant.

Ash tried to keep from smiling. “Yukie – your sister. She’s not ugly at all.”

A blush bloomed over Eiji’s cheeks and he laughed guiltily. “I only said that so that you wouldn’t get funny ideas,” he said.

“A protective big brother,” Ash observed, grinning.

Eiji’s eyes darted away. “Something like that,” he mumbled, his face coloring more.

“Speaking of Yukie,” Ash said, remembering the charm she’d given him. “She gave me this to give to you.” He pulled the little card from his pocket and handed it to Eiji, relieved that the braided cord tassel hadn’t come unraveled. “What’s it say?” he asked, curious.

Eiji took one look at it before laughing out loud. “That brat!” he cried, somehow looking all at once irritated, embarrassed, and pleased. “It is just like the last one. It says: good marriage.”

Ash remembered the knowing look she’d given him when she explained why she thought they were lovers. It was like she’d seen right through him and understood him completely. “I like your sister,” he mused. It was nice to know he had at least one ally in Eiji’s family.

“You wouldn’t if she was your sister,” he grumbled good-naturedly.

They ate in happy silence, and Ash mused over the many possible futures in store for them. He thought about going to school – he’d have to put together a fake transcript, but that would be easy enough to manage. “I don’t have any idea what to do with the rest of my life,” he realized out loud.

Eiji brightened, his face as lively as it used to be when he fed Ash food that was good for him. “Anything you want,” he suggested. “Or nothing. You are a very rich man, after all.”

Ash grinned wickedly. “I see,” he said, scratching his chin. “You just want me for my money, eh?”

Making a face, Eiji shrugged. “I used to want you for your good looks,” he countered, “but you’ve ruined them.” He reached up to touch Ash’s shorn hair, letting it bristle against his palm. His hand slid down, lingering on Ash’s cheek while his fingertips toyed with the short hairs at his temple.

Ash’s breath caught in his throat. When he spoke, his voice was weak. “As long as you want me at all…” he trailed off, lifting his own hand to cover Eiji’s.

Eiji’s nod was almost imperceptible. He swallowed hard. “I do,” he whispered. “Very much.”

THE END

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