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the Sleeping Sickness; the Dancing Dreams

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August 16th

Kei’s chest heaved as he ran, his feet catching on the debris that littered the forest ground. Summer sunlight filtered through the branches overhead, the wavering shadows making his vision undependable; making each step a hazard. If he tripped, if he fell, he would die. He could hear them behind him. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he could hear them right behind him—their clumsy movements and rasping breath and horrible groaning.

They were fast. They must’ve only turned recently.

I want to live...! I want to live, I want to live, I want to live...!

Kei drove himself faster, willing his legs to keep moving. His chest ached as he struggled to drag in air. He could feel the exhaustion starting to numb his feet; his ankles. He shoved through the foliage, branches catching at him like grasping hands, and at last he stumbled out into a clearing. He looked up, blearily surprised, at an achingly familiar tree.

My feet... carried me here... because... right...

A weight thudded into him; carried him forward with a breathless cry. His face smashed into leaf mold as he was pinned down, and he wrenched his head to the side in a desperate attempt to breathe. Kei smelled rotten flesh; tasted it on his tongue. He retched, then reached out across the ground as cold hands yanked down his shirt. Diseased teeth sunk into his left shoulder, and Kei screamed. They burned like a brand, and he scrabbled at the muddy earth; kicked out in a vein attempt to get free. Those gruesome teeth dig deeper into his flesh, and he knew it was far too late to get away.

Still, some stubborn, flagging survival instinct drove him forward, and he struggled. He screamed, although he expected no answer, “Help! Someone! Please!” as tears burned his eyes. It smelled like the grave, rotten human flesh and wet dirt smothering him. Bile rose in his throat, and he choked on a sob. The teeth gnawed on his shoulder.

Kei felt his strength ebbing; he twisted, gasping at the air above him. His eyes found the tree, standing like a bastion of childhood security, illuminated from above by the midday sun—a beautiful, shining illustration from a storybook. A memory flashed across his eyes of a summer afternoon filled with laughter and a sense of adventure, even as dark death closed in around him. He felt hot blood pulsing out from the wound on his shoulder.

“Kai...” Kei’s voice was weak, now, choked, and his chest convulsed. I’m sorry... I’m sorry... if I could just... see you... once more... “Kai... Kai... Kai...”

The weight on Kei’s back suddenly vanished, and he gave a startled, hoarse shriek as the teeth were torn from his shoulder. He flinched from the sound of a gunshot, hands coming up reflexively to clutch at his ears.

“Kei!”

Kei could scarcely hear the voice, but he felt the hands grabbing his right arm. They dragged him to his feet, then shoved at him frantically.

“Move! Run! Kei, you’ve gotta stay with me! Kei! Let’s go! Kei!”

Kei tried to obey the achingly familiar voice, though his vision was hazy. He stumbled, but tried his hardest to obey. Kai... it can’t... but...

“Shit!” the voice cried as Kei stumbled again. Kei was vaguely aware of being hoisted up onto a back, and he saw golden, spiked hair that tickled his face. He smelled cigarette smoke and evergreen trees.

“Kai...?”

“You with me, love?” Kai shouted. “Don’t worry, okay?! I’ve got you! I’ll run, okay? I’ll run for both of us, okay? Don’t you worry, just hang on! Don’t let go of me, okay, Kei, love? Don’t let go!”

“Kai... I...” Kei felt his shoulder burning. “Bitten... leave me...”

“No way!” Kai called back, his voice radiating confidence. Kei felt him lurch unsteadily, but he kept running. “Never!”

But I... I left you... Kei thought, and felt his head loll against Kai’s shoulder. It was a struggle to keep his eyes open. “Leave me...”

“No way!” Kai said again. “You just came back to me! No way am I letting you slip away again!”

I... right... Kei thought. Our tree... Have you been waiting this whole time... Kai...?

And with that question, hearing Kai’s panting breath, feeling the thud of Kai’s powerful stride, Kei lost consciousness.

... ... ...

The day that Kei Nagai left Kaito, the first Jikininki had appeared.

July 13th

The living dead—zombies. Wanting to avoid the term, the news had chosen a more traditional name: Jikininki, Hungry Ghosts. A research facility in Saitama claimed that they’d accidentally reanimated a corpse, but that it really wasn't anything worth concern. They’d assured the public that it was under control—that nothing but the single corpse had been infected, and that it was contained and would be studied at length with the utmost care.

Kei watched the report on the morning news, then snuck off into the forest and gave the whole business little more thought.

Kai was waiting, as he always did, at their tree—the tree where they’d spent their first summer afternoon together. They’d caught a magnificent beetle that day.

Kai sprang to his feet, eyes shining and smile achingly tender. Kei felt joy froth up in him, as it always did upon seeing that beautiful face, but that day the feeling was soured. He let Kai kiss him; breathed in that smoky, spiced scent that he adored.

“Kei... love... hey...” Kai breathed, and then kissed him deeper.

Kei didn’t speak, simply kissed back; wrapped his arms around Kai and pretended he’d never have to let go. But eventually Kai pulled away, unaware.

“What’s up? Everything okay?” Kai asked, his golden eyes limpid with sincerity. “You did great on your exams, I’m sure, right?”

Kei nodded, then closed his eyes. He breathed in Kai’s scent for another moment; gathered his nerve and lost it again just as quickly, kissing Kai to avoid speaking.

Kai reciprocated, but after a moment pushed Kei gently back. “What’s wrong, love?” he whispered, brushing gently at tears that Kei hadn’t even noticed.

“This has to end...” Kei said quietly, and felt something deep inside him break.

Kai didn’t look surprised. “Finally, hmm...?” he murmured sadly, and kissed Kei’s lips lightly. “I love you. But I know. I know.”

“I love you, too...” Kei whispered, then bent his head and sobbed into Kai’s shoulder. He didn’t see the tears flowing down Kai’s own face, and Kai didn’t make them known.

Their relationship had been a secret, and they’d both known that it would eventually become an impossible one to keep. Now, as Kei prepared to leave for college, he’d convinced himself that the time had come. The son of a criminal, after all, wasn’t the right kind of company for an aspiring doctor to keep. Kei had convinced himself of that, too. His mother had discouraged his friendship with Kai from the start—as far as she knew, they hadn’t even been in contact since before high school. Kei wished bitterly, then, that it was the truth. He wished that their first kiss, his back pressed against the tree's trunk, Kai's mouth hot against his, had never happened. He wished that those playful summer days hadn't turned into passionate, starlit nights spent cuddled between the tree's roots.

Kei left once he’d collected himself, though kissing Kai once more—slowly, with relish.

“I love you,” Kai said again, running his hands along Kei’s arms; kissing him once more. “I’ll be here if you need me. Always. For anything.”

Kei nodded, but he didn’t say anything in reply. He didn’t allow himself to linger, then, pulling away and turning. Kai let him go.

Kei didn’t come out of his room for the rest of the day. The research facility, some twenty miles to the east, didn't even exist to him.

The meaning of time became indistinct to Kei, but people would say things began to happen very quickly, then. Three days after the first Jikininki, the research facility had been quarantined. After five days, a state of emergency had been declared; it was recommended that anyone living in Saitama evacuate, and blockages were set up around the city to slow the spread of the epidemic. Kei’s mother made it clear that their family was going to heed the warnings—she wanted nothing to do with this business of the undead.

Eriko suggested that they go looking for Kaito, since he’d have no family to flee with. Her mother ignored the idea.

July 19th

Kai... Standing beside the family car, a backpack of his belongings in-hand, Kei gazed out toward the forest. There was smoke rising, inky squiggles against the blue sky, from another part of the city. I left you... because of my future... a future I saw so clearly... and now...

“Kei!” his mother called sharply. Eriko was already inside the car. “Are you coming?”

Kei shook his head slowly, remembering Kai’s taste; he ran his tongue over his lips. He’d objected when Kai had taken up smoking in their first year of high school, but he'd grown to love the leftover taste of cigarettes. More recently, Kai had made it clear that he would quit if Kei asked, and Kei hadn't yet had the heart to do so. Sometimes Kai tasted like alcohol, which was the closest Kei himself ever came to drinking. Other times he tasted faintly of blood, his jaw tender to the touch. Kai never tasted respectable.

“Kei,” his mother said again, a warning in her voice. “If you’re going to slow us down...”

“I will,” Kei murmured, and then turned; walked slowly back into the house. He heard the car start up; peered our the window as it left the driveway. He could see Eriko—animatedly upset, demanding answers—and his mother’s impassive face. They vanished down the street a moment later, and Kei let out a soft sigh.

Be safe, he thought, closing the shutters. He’d given up Kai for a future that, in all likelihood, was now impossible. His ordinary, peaceful life was gone. He knew his mother would be cursing his illogically behavior, but he also had faith in her to keep Eriko safe. They’d reach the edge of the quarantine zone; they’d survive. And I...

Kei went to the kitchen; put his backpack down on the table, then made himself tea and a peanut butter sandwich. He sat, gazing out the window at those tendrils of smoke still rising in the distance.

Kai... I’m so sorry.

The Jikininki lived up to a number of well-worn lore about the undead. They seemed to decay at a slightly slower rate than the average human corpse, and they had no pulse or vitals. They were mindless. The disease was transmitted by bite; it seemed scratches didn’t have the same effect. Newscasters reported on these types of things from helicopters, or from off-sight, and Kei watched from his house. A week after the outbreak had begun the number of Jikininki was estimated to be in the low hundreds, but it was impossible to know for certain.

Saitama was considered a lost cause. Any living people remaining there were advised to evacuate by any means necessary.

Kei ignored the warnings. He began to see the occasional walking corpse shambling down the street outside his house, so he knew they’d already spread that far, but it didn’t concern him. He’d stockpiled some food and water; the electricity was still on; the television gave him his news. He was free to sleep and to think about Kai, which was how he spent the majority of his time. Objectively he knew he’d sunk into some sort of depression, but couldn’t summon the will to do anything about it. It simply didn’t matter, and he was at peace with that in a strange, detached sort of way.

August 16th

Four weeks after his family had left, Kei sat at his kitchen table drinking tea. He watched the undead lurking in his yard, wondering if they could smell his living body inside the house.

He’d run out of food.

Kei sighed, rubbing his temples with his fingertips. “Didn’t think this far...” he muttered, annoyed. Do I die like this? It takes about forty days to starve... I don’t really want to suffer like that...

It occurred to Kei then that he didn’t particularly want to die. He scowled bitterly, resting his chin on the table.

“Damn...”

Kei waited until there weren’t any Jikininki visible through the window of his front door. He locked the door behind him, though he wasn’t sure how much good that would do. The smell of carrion was strong but not overpowering; Kei took a moment to steady himself, then trotted down the steps and out into the street.

Do I loot a house...? he wondered vaguely. I should look for a store... But will those have already been cleaned out? Ah, what a pain...

He didn’t sense the creature behind him until it was almost too late; he caught a particularly strong breath of death and ducked instinctively to the side. His foot caught and he cried out, stumbling and then toppling off the curb, thudding down into the street. The Jikininki lunged and he scrabbled away, crying out as the thing slammed against the concrete where he’d been a moment before.

“Shit... shit, shit, shit...!” Kei scrambled to his feet, stumbling away; two more Jikininki had appeared, and the first was picking itself up. One had been his next door neighbor not so long ago, but now her jaw hung, broken, gaping, and her flesh was a musty green. “Shit!”

Kei took off running down the otherwise deserted street, feeling his chest burn with the sudden burst of activity. He heard the Jikininki pursuing him, but they were slow; more concerning were the other undead attracted by the commotion, emerging and joining the chase.

Not like this...! Kei wasn’t quite sure where his apathy had disappeared to, but he missed it dearly. I’m not dying like this...!

His feet had carried him into the woods, to their tree.

Yet—he’d been bitten.

He’d cried out for Kai.

... ... ...

August 16th (cont.)

“Kei! Kei!”

Kei opened his eyes slowly, then cringed. His shoulder was burning.

“Kai...”

Kai gave a sigh of relief. “Kei. You still with me, love?”

Kei shook his head slowly. “Should’ve... left me... bitten...”

“I heard you.” Kai’s voice was full of joy—choked with it. “You called for me.”

Kei felt himself grow hot—he remembered. “I... I...”

“I’ll never leave you, Kei.” Kai took his hand. “I’ll stay. And if you bite me, then so be it.”

Kei shook his head frantically, struggling to sit up. Kai helped him. They were inside a tumble-down old hunting cabin; Kei vaguely remembered it from their exploring, as children. There was freshly-burnt wood in the stove, along with a backpack and a motorbike stowed in one corner.

“Is this...?” Kei asked, and Kai nodded. “Why didn’t you get out?! On your motorcycle, you could’ve—!”

“Why didn’t you leave?” Kai asked gently, and Kei bit his lip.

“... Mom and Eriko made it. They evacuated.”

Kai nodded slowly. “I figured. Your mom, she would’ve left you, if you dug in your heels.”

Kei nodded. “She made the right choice. I would’ve slowed them down.”

“And why would I leave?” Kai asked, with a gentle smile. “I have no family. And you...”

“I’m sorry...” Kei said softly. “I never should’ve... I’m sorry...”

“No,” Kai said gently. “It was the right decision, at the time. Don’t accept that your mom leaving you was the right decision then beat yourself up for leaving me. It was just self-preservation. Logic. I understand. I love you, so I understand how you think. That’s how you live.”

Kei shook his head again, but couldn’t manage to speak. So he hunched over, pressing his shoulder against Kai’s.

“I love you... Kai...”

Kai held him tenderly for a moment, then pushed him back. “How’s that wound feel?” he asked. “I’ll get a compress, if it feels hot.”

Kei nodded miserably, pulling his shirt down for a look at the bite. It was still seeping blood, now through a crude swath of bandages. Kai rose; fetched a wet cloth.

“Coffee?” he asked. Kei shook his head, and Kai returned with a mug and the improvised compress. He removed the bandages and laid the damp cloth over the bite; Kei hissed.

“It usually takes about an hour for someone to turn...” Kei said softly, and Kai blew on his steaming coffee. “How long was I out?”

“Maybe ten minutes?” Kai replied, and then gave a dazzling smile. “Maybe less. Maybe more. No way to know for sure.”

Kei smiled shakily. An exact countdown would be too much, wouldn’t it...? Yeah, of course... thank you... Kai...

They sat together, then. Kai sipped his coffee, offering occasion conversation—a memory, or an interesting bit of trivia. Kei appreciated the effort.

“Can I kiss you?” Kai asked, eventually.

Kei shook his head. “It’s transmitted through saliva, probably. That’s why only bites turn people.”

Kai looked disappointed, for a moment, but nodded. “Makes sense.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Kai still leaned in. Kei drew back, his heart skipping with fear, but Kai only kissed his cheek; his jaw; the crook of his neck. He drifted dangerously close to the festering bite wound, then shifted; pulled the top two buttons of Kei’s shirt open and kissed his breastbone. “I love you. I love you so much.”

“I love you... too...” Kei murmured, feeling his breath come quicker. He felt no flush of heat, though, and registered that as abnormal—nearly drew it to Kai’s attention, but decided against that. There was no need to make the thing worse than it already was.

“Thank you... for letting me stay with you.” Kai nuzzled into the crook of Kei’s neck.

Kei wrapped his arms around Kai; felt the solidness and warmth of his body. “Thanks for staying.”

They sat for some time, and then eventually drew back. Kei felt lightheaded, and he put one hand tentatively to his stomach; it was rolling with a flu-like nausea.

“How are you feeling?” Kai’s eyes were sharp, but he made no attempt to put distance between them. Kei could tell that it had to have been about an hour.

“A little strange...” he admitted. “Nauseous. Sort of... cold.”

Kai narrowed his eyes. “Still alert, though?”

Kei nodded. He’d seen folks turn—always from a distance or on the television, and only a couple of times, but he knew what it was generally like. The person became disoriented, lashing out at whatever was closest—other Jikininki, usually. Sometimes they convulsed. They stopped breathing. Their bodies died, then stiffened and soon began to rot, even as they continued to move.

Kei reached up to his neck and felt for his pulse. It was still there.

“Don’t worry too much.” Kai’s voice tried to be light; failed. “Just relax.”

Kei nodded, though it was easier said than done. Kai got up to refill his coffee mug.

They sat again, each lost in thought. Kei fought down mounting panic, if only for appearance’s sake. Eventually Kai stretched; laid back.

“Lay down with me.” He raised an arm; patted his chest.

“You... then you can’t...” Kei mumbled, and Kai shook his head.

“I’m not running away from you, Kei. I love you too much. I can’t leave, before or after you turn. I won’t.”

Kei felt his throat close up painfully; he swallowed. Part of him knew he should get up and leave—that he should protect Kai, even if Kai wouldn’t protect himself.

But... for me... he’s willing to risk his life...

Kei had already left once, and he lacked the strength to do it again. So he lowered himself slowly, then let his head rest against Kai’s chest. Kai felt warm.

“There... See?” Kai asked, a relaxed smile in his voice. He wrapped his arm around Kei’s rib-cage. Kei felt his fingers probe gently between ribs until he found the heartbeat beneath. “Let’s just stay like this. Maybe we’ll die like this, hmm? Both of us. That wouldn’t be so bad, hmm?”

“Kai...” Kei felt tears well up, then spill; drip onto Kai’s wrinkled shirt. He couldn’t think of anything else to say, so he whispered, “I love you...”

“Me too, love.” Kai kissed the top of his head; held him tighter. “I’m so happy I can hold you like this, even once more. Maybe forever.”

Chapter Text

Kei wasn’t sure how long it took for him to drift off. He was sure he wouldn’t wake up if he did, but eventually exhaustion overrode even the numbing fear. The feeling of Kai’s chest rising and falling lulled him, eventually, into sleep.

When he woke up, he was cold.

Kei took stock of his surroundings before he dared to move. Kai was still lying beneath him—asleep, now, apparently. The scent of pine sap and cigarettes had grown stronger, which seemed counter-intuitive—while he’d slept, he should have grown accustomed to the scent. Kai’s hand had relaxed against Kei’s chest, no longer monitoring his heartbeat. With shaky fingers, Kei reached for his own throat.

His pulse was steady and strong—a bit quick, fearful, but definitively present. Kei let out a shaky breath.

How long...? Much more than an hour, surely... Kei glanced towards the cabin’s window. The reddish light of sunset filtered in through the dusty glass pane. But... I...

Slowly, Kei sat up, careful not to disturb Kai. He glanced down; Kai hadn’t so much as twitched. He must be exhausted... Kei thought. He could almost see the blood pulsing beneath Kai’s wan skin—upon consideration, though, Kei decided it was less something to do with Kai’s health and more something strange about his own vision. He tried to count Kai’s eyelashes, and was mildly alarmed when he could do it. He could hear, faintly, Kai’s heartbeat. Beneath the near-overpowering smoke-and-evergreen scent, too, he could now detect human sweat and the a faint odor of roasted meat. The idea that his sense of smell was powerful enough to tell him what Kai’s last meal had been made Kei’s head spin a bit.

Kei stood up; took a moment to get his balance. His body felt strangely light, and again he became aware of how cold he was. He found a small mirror hanging in the cabin’s closet-sized washroom and peered at himself. He was fascinated by the way his pupils contracted and dilated on command, changing the room’s lighting like the brightness control of a phone screen. He could see every fleck of color in his seemingly-black pupils, and he realized they actually had a reddish hue to them. He wondered if that was new or if he’d simply failed to notice it with normal human senses.

Curious, Kei pressed the pad of his finger against a sharp edge of the mirror’s frame. There was a flare of pain—markedly less intense than he expected—and a few drops of scarlet blood welled at his fingertip. The iron-scent of it was instantly overwhelming, and Kei’s nostrils flared.

Well... I still bleed red, I suppose... Jikininkis’ necrotic blood tended to be dark maroon or black. Again Kei touched his throat, reassuring himself that his pulse was still there, and then mustered up the courage to pull down his shirt collar.

The wound was still there, and beyond any doubt was the bite of a Jikininki. It was an angry menagerie of purples and reds, the teeth-marks clearly visible. Kei could see, with the vision he was quickly growing accustomed to, that the edges were necrotic, but the decay didn’t seem to be spreading.

Shrugging his shirt back into place, Kei stuck his bleeding finger absently into his mouth. His eyes widened sharply, a shock like static electricity traveling across every inch of his skin; saliva welled around the digit and dripped down. Alarmed, he yanked the hand away, then stared at it as if it would offer some explanation.

Well... that’s not great... he thought, the throbbing in his shoulder joined by ravenous pain in his stomach. He applied pressure to the tip of his finger until it stopped bleeding.

When he returned to where Kai was sleeping, Kei considered walking out the unlocked door. You’d be better off... he thought, but then stopped. Kai hadn’t run—not only had he stayed with Kei, but even before that he hadn’t been trying to get out of the quarantine zone. By all indications, he’d hunkered down in this little cabin with no intentions of leaving. Some Jikininki will find you eventually... or the elements will kill you... even if I leave...

And so Kei returned to Kai’s side; crouched down.

“Kai. Hey.” He put a hand on Kai’s shoulder; shook him gently.

Kai’s eyes flashed open; he bolted upright, shaking his head, and looked over. “Kei...! Oh Kei, I...” he began, and then his eyes widened. “Kei... are you...?”

Kei shook his head. “I don’t know. But I still feel like me.” As effectively as he could, he explained the changes he’d observed. He appreciated how calmly Kai listened.

“It’s been...” Kai glanced at the window. The sun was nearly down. He looked back at Kei, his beautiful golden eyes gleaming. “Kei...!”

“It’s too soon to be that happy,” Kei grumbled, though he felt some phantom trace of warmth at Kai’s reaction. “Something’s happened, or is still happening, and we don’t know what.”

“But you’re still you...” Kai breathed, and embraced Kei. Any further arguments died on Kei’s tongue, and he returned the hug. “I love you...”

Kei sighed, but said, “I love you, too...” and wondered how many times Kai would manage to say that in a day. He’d keep each one and treasure it. “... Thanks.”

“What do you want to do now?” Kai asked, pulling back. Kei could see the unshead tears gathering in Kai's eyes; wondered if he’d have been able to with his old vision. “I’ll stay with you.”

Kei shook his head vaguely. “I... don’t know.”

“We should head for the edge of the quarantine zone,” Kai said, standing up. He grabbed a rickety chair, and Kei watched in confusion as he pulled it across the room. He stood on it and stretched up on his toes, though it swayed perilously, and fetched something down from on top of a rafter. Kei had never seen such an object in person, but he recognized it immediately.

“That’s...”

“Yeah.” Kai slipped the handgun into the waistband of his jeans. “My dad had a pretty nice collection. I swiped one when I was a kid. Didn’t know it’s come in handy like this, though.” He shot Kei a brilliant grin.

But you put it well out of reach... Kei shivered. He recalled the bang he’d heard when the Jikininki had him pinned, and realized Kai must’ve shot it. But when we thought I was going to turn...

“We can’t get out of the quarantine zone," Kei said. "I won’t make it through the perimeter.” He motioned to his shoulder. “It takes about an hour for people to turn. I’m sure they have some way of checking for infected people who aren’t showing signs yet. The stakes are too high. If even one Jikininki—or someone who’ll become a Jikininki—gets through, then the quarantine zone itself will have been useless.”

“But you’re still human,” Kai said, without a trace of doubt. “They’ll let you through.”

“But they won’t!” Kei objected. “Because I’m not! I don’t know what I am, but it’s not completely human, for sure!”

“You are to me,” Kai said, and knelt. He took Kei’s hands—so chilled that the heat of Kai’s almost hurt—and pulled Kei gently to his feet. “And only I know you’ve been bitten. So if you’re human to me, you’re still human.”

Kei longed to argue—there was no logic to Kai’s words; Kai’s words were dangerous. But they were also so comforting that Kei couldn’t find it in himself to argue, and he let himself be pulled up.

Kai kissed his cheek. “We’ll make it, love. Don’t worry.” He turned, then, beginning to gather supplies. “Have you eaten in a while?” He sifted through a stock of canned foods in one of the cabinets. “We’ll take some of this along with us, but...”

Kei’s stomach flipped with nausea at the thought of trying to choke anything down; he remembered his body’s reaction when he’d tasted his own blood, but decided very quickly not to share that with Kai. “I don’t... feel real great,” he said, shaking his head.

Kai’s brow furrowed; Kei knew his lie—omission, rather—hadn’t been entirely successful. Kai kept digging through his stash until he found some crackers. He held them out, eyes quietly insistent, and Kei swallowed a bit of bile as he took them. They had even less flavor than he thought they should, dry on his tongue, and they didn't sit well.

“Drink a bit of water, too,” Kai said, moving to the little wood stove. He didn’t follow his own advice, finishing off the pot of coffee instead, but handed Kei a tin cup of water. Kei sipped at it and was relieved when it didn’t seem to upset his stomach further.

Kai packed two backpacks, the larger of which he handed to Kei and the smaller of which he shouldered. He crammed heavier items—canned food and water bottles, mostly, and a couple of blankets—into the tankbag on his bike.

“Ready?” Kai asked, motioning. Though he didn’t quite understand it, Kei was grateful for Kai’s decisiveness. He could smell the reek of fear and anxiety on Kai, but he wouldn’t have suspected it if not for the new sharpness of his senses. He climbed onto the motorcycle behind Kai, then accepted the helmet that Kai offered him. “Hang on tight to me now, okay?”

“I will,” Kei promised, and wrapped his arms around Kai’s middle. The scent of fear eased a bit.

Kai coaxed the bike to life; the engine gave an uncertain rattle, and Kai spoke to it in a low, cajoling voice. Kei felt a flare of concern—he’d always known Kai to take excellent care of his motorcycle.

The fear-smell had grown strong again, overlaid now by exhaust fumes.

“We’ll head south,” Kai said, and his voice belied his scent. “The Musashino Line has sections inside the quarantine zone, so the railway’s been mostly shut down. But if we can get inside the tunnels, we should be able to sneak out. There are some old passages used for smuggling—I know where they’re at.”

It occurred occurred to Kei, then, how little he really knew about Kaito’s family history. He knew enough, but he had never found out exactly who Kai’s father was. His gaze drifted down to the slight bulge just above the waistband of Kai’s jeans. A handgun... secret smuggler tunnels...

Kai hopped one foot alongside the bike as they started toward the door, then stretched to push it open. The outside air brought a torrent of new scents with it, and Kei raised his head.

“Jikininki.”

Kai looked back in surprise. “What?”

Kei’s nostrils flared. “I can... They’re close.”

Kai’s eyes narrowed, but he nodded. “Tell me which way to go.”

Kei stretched up; sniffed. He tried to adjust the exposure of his vision and was able to glimpse deep into the shadows of the forest. He saw movement.

“Go left! They’re approaching from the right.”

Kai nodded shortly; revved the bike and sped off down a leaf-strewn game-trail. He navigated the narrow path deftly; Kei tightened his grip around Kai’s waist.

“Let me know if I’m going to run into any walking corpses,” Kai said. “I’ve got my eyes on the ground.”

“Got it.” Kei didn’t need to be told—he was fascinated, in fact, by how his new senses functioned. He could focus or widen his range of vision and sight at will, though his sense of smell seemed to have a more set area. They’d left the first group of Jikininki far behind, with the cabin, but he caught glimpses of others fairly often. They were never close enough for alarm, and the bike moved far quicker than they were capable of.

For the time being, they traveled untroubled by the undead.

Chapter Text

The darkness of night deepened, but soon Kai swerved out onto a disused highway; most of the lights still functioned, lending a surreal feelings. They skirted the occasional abandoned or derelict car, but otherwise appeared to be alone.

Kei knew they were anything but alone. Pockets of Jikininki lurked all along the road, but none made a move on the bike. Kei spun several theories as to why, but decided the most likely was the speed at which he and Kai were moving along.

He didn’t relish the moment they would have to stop for one reason or another.

Kai’s scent soothed him; after a while, Kei decided his vision was sufficient for surveillance, so he breathed the smoke-and-pine scent deeply to mask the less pleasant odors that hung in the air. There were faint hints of citrus, too, like just a dash of zest in seasoning. Beneath that, there was the meaty, rich-blood scent that made Kei’s stomach squirm.

Kei jerked backwards, alarmed by the sudden shift in his thoughts, and Kai jumped. “What? Kei? What is it?”

Kei swallowed hard, feeling his heart pound. He swallowed more saliva. “Nothing. I just... I was drifting, a bit. Caught myself. Sorry.”

Kai didn’t seem convinced, but he didn’t question further. Eventually he refocused on the road; Kei let out a relieved breath.

I won’t... no matter what else happens, I won’t harm Kai. I can’t. Kei bit his lip—lightly, careful not to draw blood. Worst case scenario, I’ll have to kill someone else. If it comes to that. But that’s fine. I’ll manage. As long as I don’t hurt him.

“We might have to stop, soon,” Kai said. “Gas is running low. We might get lucky and be able to scavenge some from one of these cars—I know how to siphon it.”

Kei nodded absently. “Not here. Too many around here.”

Kai’s eyebrows rose, but he only nodded and continued on. Kei didn’t allow himself to lean in quite as close or breathe quite as deeply. He distracted himself by counting the Jikininki as they passed. ... 22... 24... 25... 28...

“Kei?”

“Hmm?”

“We’ll make it.”

Kei nodded, but didn’t say anything. He wanted to believe Kai—part of him did believe Kai. But his more practical side was full of doubt. Almost anything could go wrong.

Kei’s eyes caught movement ahead—he shouted a warning, but Kai, too, saw the humanoid shape rush out into the road. Kai swerved—hitting it likely would’ve flipped the bike, or at least crashed it. The Jikininki made a grab for them, but missed; Kei clung tighter to Kai as they careened off the road and into the forest. Almost immediately three more undead reared up in front of them, and this time Kai couldn’t avoid them entirely. His bike smashed into one, and he gave a startled shout as putrid blood sprayed everywhere; Kei retched.

Kai managed to keep the bike upright for a dozen or so yards, but then it crashed sideways. Kai scrambled to his feet, dragging Kei with him.

“Shit...!” Kai pulled out his gun, even as they began to run. Kei took the lead, letting his vision auto-adjust—it was a bit dizzying, but he could scan for hiding Jikininki and then immediately shift back to what was right in front of him. He heard Kai get a shot off; smelled the explosion of necrotic fluids, probably abdominal.

So soon... Kei thought grimly, and cursed. We didn’t even need to stop for things to go wrong... shit...

Another Jikininki reared up in Kei’s peripheral, and Kei threw himself in front of Kai. The clumsy corpse crashed into him instead, and Kei drew a sharp breath of disgust at the stench. He raised an arm, but it didn’t try to bite him—though it’s gaping jaw dripped vile saliva, it only shoved at and grasped around him.

It’s trying to get to Kai...! Kei felt he might vomit from the reek of death, and the wound on his shoulder had begun to burn. He shoved the Jikininki, feeling a give in its shoulder; the decaying ligaments snapped, and the limb hit the forest floor.

“Kei!”

“Don’t come closer!” Kei screamed, hearing Kai behind him. He kicked out—the Jikininki’s shin, brittle with age, snapped, and it went down. Kei staggered backwards, then turned and grabbed Kai’s hand.

“That was...” Kai began.

“It didn’t try to bite me.” Kei allowed himself to ponder the repercussions of that, though still scanning for other undead that might be lurking. Jikininki were known to turn on one another, in the lack of living prey, but this one had been too preoccupied with Kai to give Kei much attention at all. We can use this...

Two more Jikininki had appeared behind them, and so on they ran.

“We could find another bike...” Kai gasped out, and Kei could hear the strain in his voice. “But we could also loop back... don’t think... crash did... any permanent damage... and there are supplies...”

Kei’s breathing was still deep and even, though he knew that Kai was in far better physical shape. Whenever they’d climbed their tree, Kei had been left hopelessly out of breath by the top; Kai had always laughed and kissed him.

This won’t end well... Kei felt a sudden wave of pessimism; it nearly knocked him physically back. I’m not... and Kai is... and even now...

“Hey! Up here!”

Kei’s head snapped up; in scanning the forest floor, he’d lost track of the trees. A human boy was leaning perilously down from one wide branch, his hand held out.

“They don’t climb!” the boy shouted, motioning. “C’mon! I’ll help you up!”

“Kei?” Kai asked shortly, and Kei nodded.

“He’s human.” And you won't last, at this rate. “Let’s do it.”

Kai nodded, changing direction. Kei shoved him out ahead, forcing him to take the boy’s hand first despite his protest. The boy, with a grunt, heaved him up. Then Kei allowed his hand to be clasped by the stranger; Kai, too, leaned down and dragged him up as the first Jikininki crashed into the trunk of the tree.

“Whew!” the stranger exclaimed, shaking his head. “Close ca—aah!!” The branch—with him at its end, Kei and Kai huddled closer to the trunk—snapped, and he nearly plummeted to the ground. Kei and Kai both lunged, each catching one of his arms, and hauled him back up. “L-Let’s move a bit higher...!”

Once the three of them had resettled a few branches up—Kei and Kai on a separate branch, this time—the stranger extended his hand. “It’s been a long time since we’ve run into other survivors! I’m Kou, by the way!”

“Kai,” Kai replied, accepting the handshake. “This is Kei. And ‘we?’ You’re with others?”

Kou nodded. He had matted brown hair that would probably be plush given a few washings. He was undoubtedly human, though his scent was sugary and vaguely familiar—Kei couldn’t quite place it, but it was disconcerting. “I’m with a survivor group," Kou said. "There are about... fifteen of us? Yeah. Hey, but you guys should join! We’re headed for the edge of the quarantine zone. You’ll stand a better chance in a group.”

“Larger groups attract more Jikininki,” Kei said, a bit annoyed. He motioned to the two still circling the tree, though Kou had been right—they appeared unable to climb. “They smell you.”

“Smell?” Kou asked curiously, and Kei suddenly realized that that might not be public information. Then Kou murmured, “Izumi-san said something like that, once... but, I mean, more people can also keep better watch. And we can pool resources like food.”

Kei wanted to offer some retort, but glanced at Kai. I could get by on my own, but...

“At least come meet everybody,” Kou said, glancing down at the Jikininki. “Those two’ll loose interest eventually, or someone will coming looking for me.”

“Or...” Kai said, pulling the gun out of his waistband. Kou gave a low whistle. Kai aimed; fired. Kei covered his ears, groaning with how the clap made his head resonate agony. There was a second shot, and both Jikininki lay un-moving. “Thanks for the assist,” Kai said, to Kou. “Least I can do is get us out of this little fix.”

Kou’s eyes shone. “So cool...!” he exclaimed, and Kai granted him a warm smile.

Kei wrinkled his nose. He smells like dirt. Dirt and artificial sweetener. Bastard.

“Let’s go, then!” Kou exclaimed, leaping down. Kai glanced at Kei—Coast clear? his limpid gaze asked, and Kei nodded. Only then did Kai follow, Kei on his heels. “I think you’ll like everyone! Tosaki-san can be gruff, and Izumi-san is terrifying, but the others are really nice!”

“I take your word for it,” Kai said politely.

“We’ve got some decent food right now, too, just passed through a town a couple of days ago,” Kou carried on, and Kei decided quickly that his chatter was intolerably irritating. Kei stiffened, though, when Kou’s gaze switched to him—limpid brown, curious, and open. “Are you feeling okay? Your hands were freezing cold, when you guys saved my stupid ass from falling.”

Kei felt his heartbeat speed; he smelled fear, then realized it was his own. “I’m... I’m fine. I’ve always... run cold.”

“Lucky,” Kou commented, sighing. “It gets miserably hot some days... Summer, y'know?”

Kei nodded mutely; Kai caught his hand. When Kou turned forward again, Kai kissed the back of Kei’s hand.

“Can you hear this?” Kai breathed against his skin, much softer than any normal person could decipher. Kei nodded. “We’ll see what this group’s all about. If it comes to it, we’ll at least be able to make off with some supplies. But we’ll make it to the border, one way or another.”

But Kai... Kei nodded, but bit his lip; Kai saw his reservations and tilted his head.

“Talk to me later,” Kai breathed. “Tell me everything you’re thinking.” Then he let Kei’s hand drop, with one final kiss, and addressed Kou. “This group of yours. How did it come to be?”

“Oh, Tosaki-san—“ Kou began, but Kei slammed suddenly to a halt. Kai, too, stopped, and Kou looked back. “Huh?”

Kei’s heartbeat was uncomfortably defined in his chest, and he swallowed. His stomach tightened and gave a sharp pang. Humans... so many humans...!

A scuffling ahead made Kou glance up, and his face brightened. “Oh! Camp’s right ahead! Someone must be coming out to meet us.” He looked over at Kai; held out his hand. “Let me hang onto that gun. If Tosaki-san finds it, he’ll probably take it.”

“Finds it?” Kai asked, his voice strained. “How would he find it?”

“There’s just a quick search,” Kou replied, still relaxed. “Make sure neither of you are bitten.”

Oh hell no... Kei thought, his knees weakening. From Kou’s expression and scent, he’d meant no harm, but that didn’t stop Kei from hating him fiercely in that moment. Shit... shit, shit, shit...

“Kou, we’re not—!” Kai began, a note of panic in his voice. Then, before he could finish, a group of people emerged from the trees.

Kou shifted swiftly, hand out behind Kai’s back. “I’ll give it back, I swear! I still owe you guys.”

Kai ground his teeth, but still slid the gun out and put it in Kou’s palm. Kou tucked it into his jeans before trotting out to meet the group.

“Tosaki-san! Shimomura-chan!” he called, spreading his hands. “Look what I found! Survivors! How long has it been? Won’t it be good to—?”

“Shut up,” a white-haired man said shortly, and Kou snapped his mouth shut. The woman beside him—slight of build, with dark hair and bottomless eyes—glanced at Kou with open derision.

Kei edged behind Kai. The white-haired man reeked of peppermint, and strongly enough to somewhat obscure Kei’s sense of smell. He wrinkled his nose.

If I have to... Kei swallowed. The mint-scent was turning his stomach, and he held his breath. He saw Kou smiling encouragingly, oblivious, and thought, If I have to... they’re only humans.

I can kill them, if I have to.

Chapter Text

“We’d like to join your group, if possible!” Kai called. He shoved his sleeves up as far as they would go, then held out his hands. Kou, where he stood, gave a thumbs-up, and Kei edged slightly further behind Kai. “No bites, see? We’re human, through and through!”

The white-haired man grimaced, then jerked his head. “Shimomura. Check them.”

“Right.” The petite woman moved forward, stripping them both of their backpacks, first. She passed those to the white-haired man, then returned and shoved Kai’s shirt up over his stomach. She circled him, checking his back; pulling his shirt down over each shoulder, then undoing his belt and jerking his pants unceremoniously down. She nudged his boxers up as far as they’d go, one leg at a time, but didn’t remove them fully. She kicked one of his heels; said, “Shoes and socks, too.”

Kai obeyed, though twisting to watch as the girl began to circle Kei with the same critical look. Kei fidgeted, his expression warping with the beginnings of panic as she poked around under his shirt. She didn’t smell quite right—she lacked the fleshy, iron-rich undertones that roused Kei’s hunger, and her side had a faint necrotic odor. But she didn’t smell like a Jikininki, either; her scent was pleasant, wisteria and damp earth.

The woman gave a disdainful sniff, exposing and examining Kei’s right shoulder. Kai had stopped moving, poised to fight or to flee.

“Pants down!” the woman snapped, letting his shirt fall back into place. “Shoes, too!” She turned back to Kai. “Haven’t you got them off yet?!”

Kai fumbled with his sneakers, even as Kei shakily obeyed. The woman finished her inspection, then bade them re-dress.

“Both clean,” she reported, returning to the white-haired man’s side. He gave a nod, then approached. Kai hurried to fix his clothes, then straightened to meet him. There was a sizable gap in their heights.

“So you aren’t undead,” the man said, “but that doesn’t mean you’ll be useful. What will you bring to the group?”

Kai took a deep breath. “I can fight. I can handle most firearms, if you have any. I can hunt, and set up small-game traps. I can drive most vehicles, but I’m best on motorbikes. I’m great at keeping watch. I don’t need much to get by, either, so I won’t be a tax on your supplies.”

The white-haired man raised his chin. “And him?”

“Kei’s the smartest person I know,” Kai said. “Tactical planning is like a kid’s sandbox game to him. He’s way more valuable than I am, in the long run.”

“That’s not—!” Kei began to object, but realized it may not be the time to argue.

The white-haired man glanced at him. “So you do speak. I had my doubts.”

Kei glowered, but was shaking too hard to move. The bite on his left shoulder throbbed terribly, and he wondered what would happen if it started bleeding. His stomach turned at the thought. I’ll just have to... if it’s necessary, I can kill these... humans... He glanced at the woman, wondering again about her odd scent.

“The Jikininki’d almost caught them,” Kou piped up, from where he stood with a couple of other men. Kai shot him a grateful look. “I mean, anyone’d be shaken. Let’s give them a day or so, at least.”

“You think they’re worthwhile, then, Nakano?” the white-haired man asked, and Kou nodded. “If they’d almost been caught, you really think they’ll be useful?”

Kei was growing dramatically less fond of the man and his pungent mint-scent as the seconds passed. He wondered if flavor would’ve seeped into the meat and decided it probably had. He grimaced.

“I do!” Kou Nakano said, without hesitation. “Anyone can get into the sort of trouble they were in. It was luck. They probably would’ve managed, even if I hadn’t been along to help. I bet they would’ve gotten away.”

Kai’s tension eased, and the white-haired man nodded slowly. “Alright. A chance, then.” He turned back to Kei and Kai. “I’m Yu Tosaki. This,” he motioned to the woman, “is my assistant, Izumi Shimomura.”

“Tosaki-san, then, and Shimomura-san.” Kai bowed low. “I’m Kaito. Please call me Kai. This is Kei, Kei Nagai.”

“No last name, Kai-kun?” Tosaki asked.

“None that I’d claim,” Kaito replied.

Tosaki seemed to accept that and motioned. “You’ve already met Kou Nakano. I’ll put you in his care, for now.” He hefted the two backpacks. “I’ll be keeping these, for the group’s use. Nakano, make sure they’re cleaned up and given something to eat. Then show them where they can sleep. There are still a few hours left of the night. We’ll move out come morning.”

“Got it!” Kou called. “C’mon, then.”

Kai lingered until Kei had begun to walk, then kept close to Kei as they followed Kou deeper into the actual camp. Some people they passed seemed curious, but most were disinterested.

“They’re not too worried, since Izumi-san looked you both over,” Kou explained. “She’s better at detecting bites than anyone. We don’t know how she does it, but she can find the tiniest infected scratch.”

Kei and Kai exchanged a glance; it was Kei who asked, “And if she finds something?”

“Then you’re put down.” Kou didn’t sound entirely comfortable, but he said it matter-of-factly. “Nothing to do at that point, after all. We’ve even tried cutting off limbs seconds after a bite and it still doesn’t stop the transformation. Better for everyone to just end it.”

“Transformations usually take about an hour, right?” Kai asked.

“Yeah. I’ve seen one take two hours, and sometimes they take less. But generally, yeah, about an hour.”

Again Kei and Kai exchanged a glance.

“A lot of the time, folks try to put it off,” Kou continued. “They stay with a loved one, thinking they can spend that last hour together, at least. That’s how they end up getting bitten, too. Rational usually collapses before the transformation is complete, after all. New Jikininki are faster, too, since rigor mortis hasn’t really set in and decay hasn’t started. They’ll bite anyone within reach before the person realizes how far gone they are.”

Kei edged away from Kai, but Kai stayed stubbornly with him; looped his arm around Kei’s. Kei shot him a sore look, but didn’t risk causing a scene.

“You’ve dealt with them a lot,” Kei observed, and Kou shrugged.

“What you said was right—this many people are bound to attract ‘em. But we can all watch each other’s backs, too. Oh!” He pulled the handgun out; passed it to Kai and gave a faint chuckle. “I don’t like the idea of Tosaki-san with a gun. There’s one guy in our group who has one, Akiyama-san, but he’s trained. Policeman. Really great guy, too! We wouldn't have gotten this far without him. He's showed me how to shoot, a little!”

“Isn’t Tosaki-san your leader?” Kai asked, and Kei heard a curious note of something in Kai’s voice. He glanced over; saw Kai’s usually-soft eyes narrowed and keen. “Why wouldn’t you trust him with a gun?”

Kou looked uncomfortable. “He’s... I mean, yeah, he’s kind of the leader, but... I mean, he’s not a nice guy. And he and Izumi-san come from the facility where this all started, so I’m sure they’ve both seen more shit than the rest of us combined.”

Kei froze; Kai halted, too, still holding Kei’s arm. Kou turned with a curious tilt of his head.

“They’re from...” Kei began, then glanced at Kai.

“Yeah.” Kou shrugged. “I mean, I lived around there, too.“

“Nakano.” Kei took a step forward. “You said this group is trying to get to the edge of the quarantine zone, right?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“What if a Jikininki gets out?” Kei asked, and Kai shot him a horrified look. “Then it won’t matter, right? The quarantine zone won’t matter, then. Tosaki and Shimomura, if they were there when it started, should know that better than anyone.”

Kou grimaced. “I guess that’s... I mean, that’d be bad.”

“So it would be better to find the cause,” Kei said. “Whatever caused the outbreak, it must be here, inside the quarantine zone. Probably in that facility.”

“I mean, that makes sense...” Kou murmured, scratching his head. “But what the heck are we supposed to do? I mean, normal folks like us, it’s the most we can do to stay alive.”

“Those two are running from something,” Kei said, with conviction. “They should know. Idiots—running won’t solve anything. Even if we live, the Jikininki will make it out eventually.”

“Sure, but...” Kou trailed off, his brow creasing.

Kai made a soft shushing noise, and Kei fall reluctantly silent. I’ll have to talk to Kai later... about what I’m thinking... There’s a way out of this, I’m sure, we just have to...

“You guys hungry?” Kou asked, seeming relieved to change the subject. There were bags of supplies propped against a tumbled pile of rocks. “We keep most of our stuff in one place so we can all keep an eye out.” He crouched down, rustling through a backpack until he found some cans of kabayaki. He held them out, and Kai accepted them with a bow and murmured thanks.

Kei looked at the food in his hands. He’d liked the canned fish, in another lifetime, but now the thought of it turned his stomach. Slightly saddened, he held it back out to Kou. “You can have mine, if you want. I’m not feeling well.”

Even as Kou took it back with a delighted grin, Kai glared over at Kei. “You need to eat something.”

“I’ll manage...” Kei murmured, and thought, Don’t worry, Kai. I’ll figure something out.

“He is right,” Kou said, although he’d crammed half the can of fish into his mouth already. “I mean, yeah, food’s scarce, but you’ve gotta eat. Can’t run from Jikininki when you’re hungry.”

Kai gave Kei a sideways glare, but ate his own food without further comment. Kei wondered absently if he was physically capable of starving, now.

“You’re lucky!” Kou carried on, beginning again to walk. The fish hadn’t affected his faintly sweet scent, and Kei tried again to place the smell. It irritated him when he couldn’t. “We’re always moving, but yesterday we had a run-in with some Jikininki, so we hunkered down for today to recoup.”

“We’re very lucky,” Kai said. “Thank you again, Kou. May I call you Kou?”

“Of course! What’s the use of formality when the world’s about to end, right?” Kou laughed.

Kai laughed with him, but Kei heard the false edge to it. Kai was on-edge despite this strange boy’s apparent friendliness. I don’t think it’s Kou we have to worry about... he’s simple... he means well enough. It’s those two... Tosaki and the Shimomura girl...

“C’mon,” Kou said eventually, waving. “I’ll show you where you can get some sleep, tonight.”

“Can I help at all with the watch?” Kai asked, as they began to walk.

Kou shook his head. “I’m sure you will eventually, but I don’t think Tosaki-san would trust you enough so soon.”

Kai nodded. “I understand. But if you wanted me to, I’d be more than willing.”

“You’re a good guy!” Kou exclaimed, slapping Kai’s shoulder. “I’m glad I found you two, y'know? I have a feeling you’ll be great additions to the group!”

“Th-Thanks...” Kai said, smiling. “Looking forward to it.”

Once Kei and Kai were settled—Kou brought bedding—Kou left them. Kai lay stretched out on his back, staring up at the starlit canopy of branches.

“Safe...” he breathed, and sighed. “For now.”

Kei was curled on his side, hands folded under his head. “Kai...”

“Hmm?”

Kei scooted closer across the dusty ground. The noise of the other survivors in the group was beginning to fade as people began to sleep, but remained loud in Kei’s over-sensitive ears. Kei pressed his lips against Kai’s ear to whisper, “I’m scared...”

“Don’t worry,” Kai murmured, eyes still wide. “We’ll be fine. Both of us. I promise.”

“You can’t promise a thing like that,” Kei muttered.

“I can. And I mean it. We’ll be fine.”

“He’s right,” came a new voice—icy. “You can’t promise a thing like that.”

Both boys bolted up, and in a flash Izumi was on top of Kei, pressing him back against the ground, one hand to his throat.

She spared Kai a glance as he drew a breath to shout. “Cry out and the others will hear. They’ll find out, and this time I won't cover for you.” Then she turned back to Kei, sitting more squarely across his stomach to keep him pinned, knees compressing his ribcage. “I’m going to look at your bite.”

Kei didn’t have time to object before she pulled down his shirt over his left shoulder, revealing the angry mark. It was swollen and sticky, a gruesome purplish-red. Izumi lowered her head and sniffed at it, her nose wrinkling.

“This is almost a day old...” she breathed, and then licked the wound lightly. Kei squirmed frantically. “An older Jikininki did it, too.”

“Wh-What the hell?!” Kei demanded, although he kept his voice low.

There was a click, and Izumi glanced over. “Put it away,” she said softly, in response to the gun pressed to her temple. “I’m not going to hurt him.”

“What’s going on?” Kai asked, without obeying. His finger twitched against the trigger. “Who are you?”

“I’m like him,” Izumi replied, her eyes narrowing. “But if you shoot me, I’ll bleed red. The others will kill you, if you shoot me.”

“Kai, let’s hear her out,” Kei said, though his voice was slightly faint. “She’s not lying.”

Kai grimaced, but obeyed; lowered the gun. Izumi sat back, though still atop Kei, and asked, “How do you feel? Cold, right? And your appetite has changed.”

“Y-You already know all that...!” Kei said, trying to wriggle away.

Izumi didn’t move. “And your senses have heightened. Could you smell it on me?”

“Of course I could smell it on you!” Kei snapped. “I don’t know what ‘it’ was, though! How would I? It’s on your side, right?”

Izumi nodded slowly. She pulled up her shirt, revealing a semi-circular scar on the left side of her slim abdomen. The flesh surrounding it was stained a sickly grey. “Brute took a chunk out of my stomach. It healed within a couple of days, so I’m guessing yours will, too. Our healing seems to be greatly accelerated.” She kept her gaze fixed on Kei. “You’re the first I’ve met out here, though.”

“Could you maybe get off me?” Kei asked irritably, and Izumi climbed to the side. Kei sat up, Kai immediately moving to him.

“So you’re... How long has it been?” Kai asked.

Izumi shrugged. “Over a month, now. It happened within the first few days of the outbreak.”

“At the facility, right?” Kei asked. “Does Tosaki know, then?”

Izumi looked momentarily surprised, then let out an irritated sigh. “That damn Kou... doesn’t know when to shut up...” She shook her head. “No one knows, not even Tosaki-san. Especially not Tosaki-san.” She turned to Kai. “I’m surprised you stayed with him, knowing. It was a foolish choice.”

“Kei’s still human,” Kai said, resolute. “I’ll stay with him for as long as that’s true. Even when it’s not.”

“He’s not human, though,” Izumi said slowly, and then glanced at Kei. “I’m not, either. Not completely.”

“What do you mean?” Kei asked. “How are we not? Be more specific.”

“We’re aberrants,” Izumi said. “We’ve got every mutation typical of Jikininki, but we’re still alive. And we’ve somehow retained our human minds.”

“All the mutations typical of Jikininki...” Kei murmured, and then glanced at Kai. “Does that mean my bite is just as deadly?”

Izumi looked uncomfortable for a moment, then nodded. “Mine is, at least.”

Kai cringed at the inference, but Kei only thought for a moment; asked, calmly, “Can we die?”

Izumi shrugged. “I’ve never tested that. But Jikininki aren’t known to regenerate, so I can only assume that we’d live, just with whatever damage was done. I’ve had a few scrapes and bruises heal much faster than normal, and our pain tolerance is stupidly high, from what I’ve observed. Anything that’s fatal to a Jikininki, though—head injuries, mainly—would likely be fatal to us.”

Kei nodded slowly. He glanced at Kai, then returned his gaze to Izumi. “What’s your plan?”

Izumi looked surprised. “Plan? To get outside the quarantine zone, with Tosaki and the others. To get out undetected, and to go on with my life.”

“Why reveal yourself to me, then?” Kei demanded, a trace of anger in his voice. “Why even cover for me at all? Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep yourself hidden, to let me be killed? If you’d revealed this,” he motioned to the bite, “they would’ve killed me right then, and probably Kai, too!”

“I don’t know,” Izumi said. “I could tell your bite was old, so I knew you were probably like me. And if you were like me, then you would be able to smell my bite, too, so—“

“I didn’t know what I was smelling!” Kei said, exasperated. “That’s a stupid excuse! Even if I’d tried to call you out, no one would’ve believed me!”

“Maybe I was relieved, okay?!” Izumi snapped. “Maybe I was glad I wasn’t the only one!”

“That’s stupid!” Kei repeated furiously. “If you don’t trust your own friends, then why trust us? Why take that kind of risk?!”

“Wouldn’t you?!” Izumi demanded.

“No!” Kei threw up his hands. “No I wouldn’t! I wouldn’t endanger myself like that!”

“You have him!” Izumi hissed, with an angry motion towards Kai. “You don’t know what it’s like to be alone!”

“Oh don’t I?” Kei hissed, and at that Kai got gently between them.

“That’s enough...! Listen, we’re all just trying to stay alive, right?” He smiled at Izumi. “Thank you for revealing yourself to us. You’ve already been a huge help. We won’t compromise you, I swear it.”

Izumi’s anger faded a bit, but she still sounded cross when she said, “You should’ve killed him. That would’ve been the smarter thing to do. You could’ve very easily died if he hadn’t been an aberrant.”

“Kou said you’re the best at sniffing out bites,” Kei said softly, his eyes narrowing. Izumi flinched. “You say you’ve never met another aberrant, but you don’t give anyone the chance. You’d rather turn them over to be killed the second they get bitten.”

“I can’t endanger the group,” Izumi ground out between gritted teeth. She smelled faintly of salt beneath the floral wisteria. “Numbers don’t lie—thousands of people have been turned into Jikininki, and the two of us have turned out like this.”

“Two that you know of!” Kei argued, and Kai hushed him gently.

“We’re going to make it to the edge of the quarantine zone,” Izumi said softly; stubbornly. “That’s all there is to it. If you threaten that goal, I will make sure you’re found out.”

Kei gave a frustrated groan. “Why is everyone thinking so short term?” But eventually he gave his consent, and Izumi left them.

“What are you thinking, Kei?” Kai asked, when she was long gone. He took Kei’s hands, and Kei looked away. “Really? What’s your plan?”

Kei shifted uncomfortably, but then blurred out, “Its not going to work! Even if we do get out—even if another Jikininki doesn’t get out first—the quarantine won’t hold. If Izumi-san and I get through, it will have already failed. Who’s to say a bite is the only way to transmit this thing? It will spread, even if we’re careful.”

Kai looked saddened; didn’t agree. But he did ask, “Do you have another plan, then?”

Kei nodded. “Head back to the original research facility. Find out what caused this. If there’s a solution, it’s there. I get the impression that Izumi-san knows more than she’s saying, to start.”

Kai sighed softly. “I... see what you mean.” He scratched his head, and Kei caught himself surprised that Kai would hesitate. I count on his support... so much...

Kei caught a whiff of that pungent fear-scent, then realized it was coming from himself.

“Please help me, Kai.”

Kai nodded, this time resolute. “Of course. If that’s the plan, love.”

Kai lay down, then; motioned Kei down with him. Kei snuggled gratefully into his warm chest.

“I love you, Kai...”

“I love you, too.” There was a smile in Kai’s voice. “I said I’d stay with you, no matter what. That hasn’t changed.”

“Thank you...” Kei thought of what Izumi had said. You should’ve killed me... I should’ve killed myself, to protect you... if I wasn’t such... a coward...

“Sleep now, love. Plans can wait until tomorrow.”

And, though it took a while for him to obey, Kei managed to ease into a fitful sleep to the sound of Kai’s steady heartbeat.

Chapter Text

Kou woke them.

“We’re heading out within the next hour or so,” he said, presenting them with canned mackerel and a couple of water bottles. “Tosaki-san says he wants you up front, where Izumi-san can keep an eye on you.”

Kei and Kai exchanged a glance, then nodded. “We’ll be ready,” Kai said, then asked, “Does anyone in the group have a working phone I could use real quick?”

“I’ll ask around!” Kou said, and then waved.

Once Kou had trotted off—apparently making the rounds with breakfast—Kei pushed his share over to Kai. When Kai gave him a disapproving look, he shook his head firmly. “I can’t eat it. I’m sure I’d vomit if I tried.”

“You should work on that,” came Izumi’s voice from behind them, and Kai bristled. Though Kei had caught her scent, he hadn’t realized how close she was, and turned. Izumi held out a a rabbit—partially skinned and clearly half-eaten. “This’ll go down easier.”

Kei grimaced. “No thanks.”

“You won’t do well if you don’t eat anything at all,” Izumi said, thrusting out the carcass more insistently. The scent of blood made Kei’s stomach groan audibly, and Kai glanced over in concern. “Like I said, though, you should work on being able to keep normal food down, at least for a while. It’s suspicious to never been seen eating.”

Kei wavered, then held out his hand. Izumi had kindly left him the half of the rabbit with a face, and he had more trouble with that then he would’ve thought. Still, he picked at the sinewy flesh and swallowed bits, unable to bring himself to chew. It tasted good.

“It’s not as satisfying as human,” Izumi said, and Kei stiffened, “and it won’t make the desire to bite go away, but it’ll help. I don’t think we can starve, but not eating will weaken you, and it makes it harder not to bite.”

“Thanks for the advice...” Kei muttered, then curled his lip. “You can leave now.”

Izumi narrowed her eyes, but then swished off through the bushes. Kai watched, his eyes glowing with concern, and Kei turned awkwardly in an attempt to hide the tiny corpse in his hands.

“Don’t worry,” Kai said gently, although there was a hollow note to his voice. “I’m not bothered by it. I’m glad you’re eating something. And Izumi-san seems like she’s figured a lot of this out already.”

“Disgusting...” Kei muttered, although his body thought differently. The raw flesh tasted delicious and nutrient-rich on his tongue, and when he finally did bring himself to bite down, the juices were succulent. He hated how pleasant the experience was; wished Izumi hadn’t brought him the poor woodland creature’s remains. He doubted it would be so easy to deny his hunger, now that he knew there was something that would ease it.

“It’s not as satisfying as human.” Izumi’s words echoed unsettlingly, and Kei couldn’t help but wonder if he’d have the opportunity to see what she meant.

Before he knew it, the rabbit’s bones were all that remained.

Kai was still watching intently—making a point, Kei knew. Kei felt a stab of guilt for the lapse of self-control, and he tossed the bones into the bushes. It wouldn’t do to crack them open in search of a few drops of marrow, though his teeth ached with the desire to.

“Let’s go,” Kei muttered, standing. He drank some water, trying to wash the taste out of his mouth. “Kou will be wondering.”

Kai hastily gulped down his own breakfast, then followed Kei. The camp was alive with activity—people preparing to leave, distributing backpacks and the such. Kou soon came trotting up, Kai’s old bag in his hand.

“Got this back from Tosaki-san!” he said proudly. “He redistributed most of your stuff, but the ammo’s still there. I put in some food and water and other stuff. Oh, and here!” He produced a cell phone from one pocket. “It’s owner just wanted it back before we leave.”

Kai beamed. “Thank you, Kou.”

“How exactly do you guys fend off Jikininki?” Kei asked, glancing around. “You said there’s only one guy with a gun?”

Kou nodded. “Avoidance, mostly. Izumi-san is really good at alerting us to Jikininki. She patrols a lot, alone.”

Kei’s eyes narrowed. What you're actually saying... is that she kills or drives off most lone Jikininki, and steers the party away from larger groups. I see. She must be a better fighter than I took her for...

“Hey! Yeah, it’s me.” Kai had wandered off slightly, phone pressed to his ear. Kei padded after him, listening closely to catch the other end of the conversation, as well.

“Thought you’d be dead, by now,” came a disinterested voice through the receiver; Kei bristled.

“Well, no,” Kai said, with a faint laugh. “Not yet. How are you fairing?”

“I made it out, dumbass,” was the reply. “I’m guessing you’re still in there?”

“Yeah.” Kai wandered further from the others, and Kei trailed behind him. “I met up with Kei. He stayed, too.”

There was a moment of silence; a heavy sigh. Then: “I don’t get you, Kai.”

“I know.” Kai smiled. “I need to call in a favor.”

“A favor? Don’t be stupid. Now’s not a time for dumb kid things like ‘favors.’”

Kai softened. “Takeshi...”

“No, you stupid bastard!” Takeshi exclaimed. “I made it out! No way am I going back in.”

“I just need a lift. I mean, Kei and I, but I’m the one asking.” Kai's voice dropped. “We’re going back to the facility where it all started. We might have a way to stop this whole thing.”

“I’m not coming back,” Takeshi said. “I’m sorry. I know I owe you one or two, but this is way too much to ask. And I'm definitely not risking my skin for Kei.”

Kai sighed softly. “I know. I knew that when I called.” He smiled. “Thanks, Takeshi. Take care.”

“Yeah. You too. Hit me up if you make it out, okay?”

"Will do."

When Kai hung up, he turned to meet Kei’s gaze. “Well,” he said, “I expected that, but it stings a bit.”

“Who’s Takeshi?” Kei asked.

“An old friend. Did some work for my dad from time to time, but he’s a good guy. Flies helicopters, and some other things.”

Kei’s eyebrows rose. “Oh.”

“Yeah.” Kai sighed. “But... I mean, he got out. The most I could do was ask.”

Kai went off to return the cell phone, and Kei watched as the rest of the survivors readied themselves. If he concentrated, he found he could track Izumi lurking around the camp’s edge. He wondered why Kai had never mentioned someone he considered an “old friend,” and why Takeshi, conversely, seemed to know exactly who he was—furthermore, why Takeshi seemed to have such a poor opinion of him. Eventually Izumi returned, smelling strongly of blood, and Kei refocused on the present situation.

“We’re moving out!” came Tosaki’s voice, and Kou shooed Kei and Kai towards the front of the group. Izumi glanced at them, but didn’t pay them any particular attention. Tosaki’s gaze lingered on them, and Kei wrinkled his nose at the scent of peppermint.

“We’re about twenty miles from the edge of the quarantine zone,” a man said, a map spread wide between his hands. The holster at his side made Kei assume he was the Akiyama that Kou had mentioned. His heart quickened as he imagined the handgun pointed at him.

Tosaki nodded. “Thank you. We’ve got about two to three days left of travel, then, depending.”

An enthusiastic murmur ran through the group, and Kei thought that the scent of hope was a surprisingly cloying odor. This Tosaki... he knows something. Even if I have to sabotage this group, then...

“Kei?” Kai’s hand appeared on his shoulder. As before, he spoke far too low to be overheard. “You’re trembling.”

Kei shook his head slowly. “I’m... fine...” he breathed, and then gave himself a more forceful shake. “Let’s... go.”

Izumi stuck close to Tosaki as they walked; she would occasionally vanish into the underbrush ahead, but always returned in under a minute. Kou chatted with Akiyama for a bit, glowing with admiration when he looked at the older man. After a while, though, he dropped back to join Kei and Kai.

“What are you guys gonna do?” he asked, grinning. “When we make it out?”

Kei shrugged, but Kai said, “Live. Together, I hope,” and gave Kei’s hand a squeeze.

Despite his best efforts, Kei felt himself smile.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Kou said, though his eyes were fixed on Akiyama ahead of them. “Akiyama-san says he’d help me get enrolled in police or fireman work! Imagine that! I never thought I had something like that in me.”

“I’m sure you’d do great,” Kai said. “I mean, you didn't know us, but you jumped right in to help us. Not many people would've done that.”

“Yeah, but...” Kou ducked his head. “I’m real scared of heights, y’know? Heh...”

Kai laughed. “A lot of folks are. Wanna know what I’m afraid of?”

“What?”

“I’m claustrophobic. Small spaces make me crazy.”

Kou laughed. “Yeah, but that could make sense.”

“So does a fear of heights,” Kai said reasonably, and Kou’s smile softened.

Kei knew that Kai had spent long hours hiding from his father in closets and under beds, and struggled to keep the old pain off his face. He squeezed Kai's hand.

The scent of water grew steadily stronger, and Kei struggled to keep his senses sharp despite the interference; he saw Izumi’s head swinging from side to side, presumably in a similar attempt. They came upon a brook, clear-flowing and deep, lined by thick forest on both sides, and Tosaki led them along the bank. Kai had drifted a few steps ahead, letting Kou introduce him excitedly to Akiyama, but Kei hung back. He tried to make out anything beyond the mildew-and-fish scent of the river and the living people pressing in around him; couldn't, and felt fluttering anxiety at how quickly he'd come to depend on his new senses. Without them, every shadow among the trees was a Jikininki. One look at Izumi’s face told him she was having similar trouble, but he tried not to let that heighten his own anxiety. Tosaki’s mints didn’t help matters.

“We’re crossing here,” Tosaki announced, stopping beside a just-stable-enough-looking log that extended across the stream. He motioned. “Shimomura?”

The woman nodded willingly, stepping up onto the log. Kei watched as she placed each step with the utmost care, then glanced at Tosaki. Why send her first...? he wondered. Izumi thinks you don’t know about her, about what we are, but what if...

A scream rose from the back of the group; Kei’s nostrils flared as the smell of fresh blood cut through the scent of the stream. Akiyama drew his gun, shoving his way toward the scream, and Kou followed. Kei grabbed Kai’s wrist when he started in that direction, too.

Izumi had lost her balance; clung to the log, one leg in the water.

“Damn!” Tosaki cursed and leaped onto the bridge. He made a furious motion. “Shimomura! Move!”

She nodded, scrambling the rest of the way across. Kei could see the Jikininki, now, gnawing on a young woman’s throat near the back of the group. Akiyama got a shot off; Kei flinched at the gunshot, seeing the Jikininki hit the ground through narrowed eyes; watching another pair of them emerge from the bushes a moment later.

“Go!” Akiyama shouted, aiming; firing. The next two Jikininki went down, and Kei stumbled backwards. His ears throbbed; echoed with the gunfire. “Get across the water! They won’t follow!” Most of the group obeyed him, but Kou hung back; Akiyama gave him a shove, shouting something furiously.

Kei took Kai's arm with both of his hands, pulling him towards the bridge. “C’mon!” he grunted, feeling the resistance in Kai's body. “We can’t—!”

“I...” Kai mumbled, and his free hand found the handgun concealed in his waistband.

Another gunshot made Kei's heart skip, and he shouted, “Kai!” Kai jolted. “Please!”

Kai gave himself a shake; nodded, and turned away. “Right. Sorry, love.”

A Jikininki appeared from in front of them before they could reach the log; the rotting creature tackled the man who’d just climbed up onto the bridge, and he went down with a horrible scream. They fell, tussling, blocking access to the bridge. There were more—Kei could make out at least three scents, waiting to pounce, despite the interference of the stream. Behind them, Akiyama was still fighting, still firing, and Kei felt each shot like a physical blow; in front of him, the scent of fresh and necrotic blood was a tangible wall, blocking the way forward.

Kai's scent, so comforting beside him, was soured with adrenaline.

Kei thrust out an arm, slamming it into Kai’s chest and forcing him to stagger back. “Stay behind me, no matter what!” he ordered, his own voice strangely hollow in the wake of the gunshots. He looked across the stream; saw Izumi helping Tosaki onto the other bank. They were the only two who’d made it across. Kei’s eyes met Izumi’s, and he felt anger rise up beneath his building panic. “Hey! Shimomura! Get your festering little ass back here!”

Izumi’s face went slack with horror, but Kei had no time to wait for her reply. A Jikininki lunged from the foliage and he moved to block it, grabbing its forearms and digging his feet into the water-softened ground.

“Hell no... not like this...!” he grunted, staring into its dead eyes. They were clouded, and he could see maggots squirming inside the sockets. “You don’t touch him!”

The Jikininki’s joints were weakened by decay, as before, and Kei managed to wrench its arms off at the elbows. He swept out a foot, sending it crashing to the ground, and stomped on its throat. He heard Kai fire off a shot and ducked, wincing from at the noise; wincing, too, at the thought that Kai had revealed the weapon. But it couldn’t be helped.

The Jikininki near the log-bridge had killed its victim, gnawing on the man’s throat and letting blood leak into the otherwise clear stream. Kai twisted around; ruptured its skull with a well-aimed bullet, then turned towards what was left of the group—precious little. Kei's hearing faded in a rush of blood, and he felt himself go to his knees, hands clutching his ears.

“Kou! Akiyama-san! Let’s go!” Kai shouted; Kei could scarcely make out the words through the roaring in his ears, and his chest tightened as he fought for air. He longed to call out, to beg Kai to turn away and leave them, to help him, and to leave them. His vision zoomed dizzyingly in on Kou's frantic, blood-spattered face, then widened to the Jikininki surrounding them. He closed his eyes, but then forced them open as slits. Kai... help...

Akiyama shoved Kou away from him; there were dozens of undead, now, drawn by the scent of fresh blood, and the rest of the party lay in tatters on the ground. Kei watched as Akiyama shouted at Kou; Kou snapped something in return, even as Akiyama backed slowly up beside him. Kei saw Akiyama still shooting, but couldn't hear it. Kai appeared beside Kou, grabbing his arm and trying to pull him back.

Kei saw a Jikininki lunge out from the forest, but he couldn't shout a warning; couldn't even move. Akiyama threw himself in front of Kou, the creature sinking its teeth into his broad chest. There was a spray of crimson, and Kou's scream sliced through the haze that had obscured Kei's senses. Kei's mind echoed with it, and he shut his eyes tightly.

Kei's hearing returned slowly, then, and he heard Kai shout Kou's name. He heard two sets of feet scuffling closer to him, and forced himself to stand; willed his eyes to open despite the stabbing pain in his skull. Kai was dragging Kou towards the bridge; the other Jikininki, though distracted by the feast strewn across the ground, were closing in.

Kou was still shrieking, and Kei wished he would shut up.

Akiyama shot the Jikininki hanging off him. It hit the ground, but so did he, his chest heaving. “Go on, Kou!” he shouted, and gave a thumbs-up. “Go! You’ve got your whole life! Go!"

“Akiyama-san!” Kou kicked out, and Kai staggered.

“Kei!” Kai shouted, and Kei started. “Help me!”

Swaying, though he could scarcely feel his legs in order to stay upright, Kei trotted over and grabbed Kou’s other arm. By the time they’d reached the bridge, Kou was moving along willingly, though sobbing brokenly between them.

Kei looked back; saw Akiyama, on his knees and staring down the approaching Jikininki, raise his gun to his own temple. Kei moved deliberately to block Kou’s view, then flinched at one final crack of a gunshot.

When they’d reached the other side of the stream, Kai and Kou collapsed—Kai hopelessly out of breath and Kou wailing uselessly into his hands. Kei stayed standing. Though his whole body was still shaking—ears rattling with echoes of the fight, senses clogged with blood and rank fear-scent—he stood straight. He glared at Tosaki and Izumi, the latter of whom ducked away from his gaze.

“You—!” Kei couldn’t find the words—he was furious, but unsure why. The attack could have happened at any time. Tosaki had no way of knowing that he’d sabotaged the aberrants’ senses by leading them along so close to the stream, and Izumi couldn’t have been expected to reveal herself over a thing like that. Yet Kei was furious. “You bastard!”

Tosaki sniffed. “Blaming me?” he asked, pulling out a tin of mints. Their pungent scent made Kei’s temper rise even further, and he smacked them out of Tosaki’s hand; they scattered across the musty ground. Tosaki’s eyes twitched, but he didn’t react; turned, and motioned. “Shimomura. We’re going. You three are welcome to come, or you can stay. We’re only a day or two away from the edge of the quarantine zone.”

“I’m not going there,” Kei said, squaring his shoulders. Izumi mouthed an irritated warning, but Kei ignored her. He felt steadier, now, and took a step forward. “Neither are you.”

“Oh?” Tosaki glanced over his shoulder. “And I suppose you’re going to stop me? How?”

“You know something,” Kei said. Izumi shook her head furiously, moving toward him, but again Kei didn't respond. “This is going to keep happening, over and over again, if we don’t do anything!”

“It doesn’t concern me,” Tosaki said quietly. “Not anymore.”

“Like hell!” Kei shouted, lunging. Izumi threw herself between them, raising an arm to catch Kei’s bite. Her blood spurted out, scarlet, around his teeth.

Izumi's face went ashen, then contorted. “You beast!” she shrieked, kicking his knees out from underneath him. Kei dragged her down with him, though, and they went rolling across the leaf-strew ground. Kei heard Kai’s voice raised in alarm, but couldn’t be bothered to heed it. “You fucking ass! You bit me!”

“How can you defend him?!” Kei demanded, rolling over once more to pin Izumi beneath him. Though she fought furiously, he managed to keep her down. “He knows something! We’re all going to die! Humanity won’t exist anymore, and then where does that leave us?!”

“You don’t understand anything!” Izumi spat.

Kei drew breath to argue, but a foot drilled into his rib-cage before he could. There was a crack of bone and he gasped, crashing to the side. A rush of smoke and evergreens enveloped him as Kai crouched beside him, and he glared up as Tosaki.

“You’re one of them aren’t you?” Tosaki asked, his voice flat and unforgiving. “Like her. I thought she was acting strange.”

Kei glanced at Izumi; she’d begun to pick herself up, but had frozen in a half-crouch, her eyes fixed on Tosaki.

“So you did know...” Kei muttered, then yelled, “So did you know the stream would obscure our senses?! We would’ve smelled these guys miles away if not for that musty river! This didn’t have to happen!”

Tosaki flushed, and for a moment looked earnestly horrified. He glanced at Izumi, then looked back to Kei. “It’s still got nothing to do with me,” he said, and then began to stalk off. He motioned. “Shimomura. Come on.”

Though Izumi seemed paralyzed against the ground, Kei lurched up. “You bastard! Get back here! At least tell me what you know before you run away!”

“And you’ll do what?” Tosaki spat, whipping around. “There’s nothing to be done. It’s ruined—it’s gone more terribly wrong than anyone could’ve imagined, and there’s nothing to do about it now.”

“I’ll go back to that facility!” Kei declared, and then glanced at Kai. Kai moved to stand beside him; nodded. “Kai and I will. We’ll find the truth. And we’ll stop this from spreading any further.”

“I don’t understand, completely, but I’m with them too,” came a strong voice worn rough with tears. Kei glanced over, surprised to see Kou Nakano standing on his other side; even more surprised by the determination blazing in those usually limpid brown eyes. He realized that Kou’s scent—that artificially sweet, nostalgic odor—reminded him of sugary breakfast cereal. It was a childish scent, now muddied with salty tears and blood and the musty soil of the stream-bank.

“Not my concern,” Tosaki spat. “Do what you want. You’ll just end up dead.” Then he turned expectantly. “Shimomura?”

The woman—slight, but strong and beautiful with those dark, bottomless eyes—had picked herself slowly up. “You... knew, Tosaki-san?”

“I knew,” he confirmed, sounding mildly irritated.

Izumi glanced at Kei, then took a backwards step away from Tosaki. “I’m... going back to the facility.”

Tosaki’s eyes widened. Kei caught a whiff of fear-scent; he saw Izumi’s nostrils flare and knew she smelled it, too.

“Don’t say foolish things like that,” he ground out, glancing at his spilled mints.

Izumi shook her head slowly. “You used me. You let me be afraid, and alone, and all the while you knew. So let’s see you make it just two more days without an aberrant as escort.”

“Shimomura...!” Tosaki raised his voice furiously, but Izumi edged closer to Kei’s group.

Kei looked over and nodded gratefully; Izumi scowled at him.

“You still bit me,” she muttered, and turned pointedly away.

Tosaki looked lost, for a moment, then appealed to Kai. “They’re dangerous company to keep—this proves it.”

“Only to traitors,” Kai replied. “And any company can turn dangerous in the face of betrayal.”

Tosaki scowled, and Kei turned; started off into the forest, away from the stream. Kai and Kou followed without hesitation; Izumi lingered, but then turned and didn’t look back.

Kei could smell Tosaki following at a distance; he knew Izumi could, as well, but neither of them acknowledged it.

Chapter Text

The group encountered no Jikininki that day—Kei and Izumi flanked them the entire time, steering the group one way or the other. They’d doubled back, heading towards the heart of Saitama.

Tosaki followed them at a distance—Kei wasn’t sure if the two humans had noticed, but Izumi certainly had. She didn’t acknowledge it, though, in even the slightest way.

When night fell, Kai started a fire; Izumi slipped off into the woods, and returned shortly with two hares. She handed one to Kai; he nodded and set to preparing it. He dressed the game with a practiced, deft hand. Kou alternated between watching him work, fascinated, and looking sharply away—such as when Kai twisted off the head. Once he’d finished the more gruesome parts of the task, Kai speared it with a stick, then set it to roasting; Kou began to drool.

“How do you hunt so well?” Kei asked, even as Izumi skinned the other rabbit with a pocket knife. She picked out a couple of the organs to eat, but discarded most of the guts.

“You think I’d tell you after you took such a rude fucking bite out of me?” Izumi asked, slicing off one of the rabbit’s haunches. She stuck it in her mouth, the foot still hanging out, and chewed at it.

Kou noticed what was happening, a deep look of confusion settling onto his face as he watched. Kai tried to distract him with small talk.

“Come on,” Kei said, irritated. “I was going for Tosaki and you know it.”

“You still got me!” Izumi mumbled, holding up her arm. The wound had already mostly healed, but that didn’t seem to make any difference to her. The rabbit bone snapped between her teeth. “It hurt!”

“You were defending Tosaki!”

“You know what? You’re not getting any of this,” Izumi said, lopping off the rabbit's head with a couple quick knife-strokes. She tossed it to him. “Here. You can have that.”

Kei caught the head, but gave an exasperated objection. “Come on. That’s just mean.”

“Learn to catch your own,” Izumi said, ripping a mouthful of meat off the ribs.

“I’m sorry I bit you...” Kei grumbled, then tried again more plaintively as Izumi took another chunk off the rabbit. “I’m sorry I bit you!”

Kou looked somewhat pained as he tried to decipher the interaction. Kai simply carved up their—fully cooked—meal and offered Kou his share.

“Cruel woman...” Kei groaned, even as Izumi swallowed the last of the meal. She licked her fingers, the delicacy of the gesture belying the blood smeared around her mouth. “I’m starving...”

“It’s not that difficult,” Izumi said. “Figure out how to catch your own.”

Raw meat aside, Kou wondered where the bones had gotten to. After a moment, he decided he didn’t want to know; returned ravenously to his own meal, instead.

“Sorry, Kei,” Kai mumbled, his mouth full. “This one’s good and cooked.”

“Aah... hell.” Kei hung his head. “I’m so hungry...”

Kai smiled to himself, privately pleased that Kei wasn’t hiding the fact anymore. He glanced at Izumi and made an appealing expression.

Izumi scowled, but then nudged Kei’s shoulder. “Use your nose, stupid. It’s not about speed—rabbits are much quicker than us. But if you find their burrows by scent, you can usually dig them out before they can run.”

Kei brightened, then vanished into the woods. Kai pressed his palms together and bowed in thanks; Izumi waved him off.

“So, um...” Kou mumbled, albeit through a mouthful of rabbit. “What the heck am I missing here?”

... ... ...

Kei stayed out for some time, and when he returned he crawled into Kai’s lap and fell asleep almost immediately. Izumi volunteered to take the first watch, and Kai thanked her.

Izumi sat alone, gazing out into the moonlit forest. She knew he would approach; she did nothing to welcome him, but also made no effort to deter him.

“Shimomura... san.”

Izumi nodded. He sat beside her; she didn’t move.

“What am I supposed to do?” he asked, an edge of anger to his voice. “You know I’ll die if I try to go a mile alone, let alone twenty.”

“I’m the only reason you haven’t died yet, Tosaki-san.”

“I know that!”

“You’ve always known. That’s the problem.”

Tosaki sighed bitterly. “I don’t want anything to do with this. I just want to leave it behind.”

“I’d like that, too. But you know Nagai is right. It won’t work.”

Tosaki sighed again—disgustedly, this time. “Kei Nagai...”

“He’s right,” Izumi repeated, and glanced over. “You know he is.”

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Tosaki said stubbornly, but didn’t make a move to leave.

“You were involved with the project more than anyone left alive,” Izumi said softly. “If anyone can help us, it’s you. We don’t have much chance to begin with, but if you come with us...”

“You’re not leaving me much choice, are you?” Tosaki asked bitterly.

Izumi gave a tired little smile. “You’ve never given me any choice, either.”

... ... ...

The next morning, Tosaki had officially joined the little camp. Kou was visibly displeased, but no one offered comment.

Kei brought rabbits for breakfast.

“We’re going to need a vehicle,” Kei said, while they ate. He scratched abstract designs in the dust with a stick as he spoke. “A standard car would obviously be best, since there are five of us. Otherwise this could easily become a multi-week ordeal. With proper transport, we can make it back to the facility within two days.”

“I can hot wire just about anything,” Kai offered.

Kei nodded. “I knew that, and I’ll be counting on it.”

“We just need to find a main road, then,” Izumi said. “There should be plenty of abandoned vehicles.”

“And also Jikininki lurking around looking for corpses,” Kei added. “You and I will have to cover Kai while he works. You’re okay with that?”

“Of course,” Izumi scoffed.

Kei nodded. “That’s the plan, then. Once we get to the facility in Saitama, though, we’ll have more Jikininki than we can handle with just the two of us and one gun. The city is overrun, or was, last news report I saw. So we’ll have to figure that out once we get there.”

“Sounds like suicide,” Tosaki said flatly, but was ignored.

“I don’t have unlimited ammo, either,” Kai put in, rustling in his backpack. “I’ve got... eight... nine rounds left, seven shots each.”

“Sixty-three bullets...” Kei murmured.

They snuffed the fire and set off, Izumi and Kei once again flanking the rest of the group. Kai traded quiet bits of conversation with Kou, but they were otherwise silent. Aside from a couple of brief encounters that the two aberrants dealt with, there were no incidents.

The highway was eerily still, although Izumi and Kei quickly verified a count of Jikininki lurking at the edges or around abandoned vehicles. Once they’d selected a car to target, Kai handed his backpack and the handgun to Kou.

“Akiyama-san showed you how to shoot, right?” he asked, and patted the back of Kou’s hand. “It’d be better if we didn’t have to waste ammo here, but if any of them get past Kei and Izumi, you’ll have to handle it.”

Kou sniffed, then nodded. “You can count on me!”

Tosaki wasn’t included in the planning. He made no effort to involve himself.

Kei and Izumi trotted out onto the road first, although their presence didn’t draw any undead out. They got situated on either side of the sedan, and then Kei motioned. Kai and Kou hurried forward, Tosaki with them. Kai slipped an arm in through a partially-open window to unlock the passenger-side door and then slid into the car, sprawled on his back across the two front seats.

“Two coming from your side,” Izumi called.

“I see them,” Kei replied shortly, watching as the two Jikininki skunk out of the bushes on the roadside. “They look real old.”

“Smell it, too,” Izumi confirmed. “I’ve got one over here.”

“Got it.” Kei shifted, debating whether he should move to meet the two. But if I let them draw me away from the car, then...

“I need about five minutes, Kei!” Kai called, from inside the car. “Maybe a lil’ less!”

Five minutes... Kei bounced on the balls of his feet, feeling energy surge through his legs. He watched the two lurching steadily closer. They’ll be easy... a well-aimed shot to the legs and they’ll be down. But if...

Tosaki had unlocked the back door and was sitting, legs crossed, on the edge of the backseat. Kei could smell the peppermints he was chewing.

“Kei!” Kou shouted, and motioned with the gun. There was a Jikininki loping across the pavement from the direction of the woods. Kei’s vision zoomed and then retracted, noting its speed—a bit higher than average—and the injury it bore on one leg that seemed to disrupt its stride.

“On it!” Kei shouted, and then—reconfirming that the other two hadn’t gotten within striking range yet—darted forward.

The Jikininki avoided Kei’s first move, but his second, an open-palmed strike, landed on its shoulder. The undead opened its mouth and gave a shrill cry that rang painfully in Kei’s ears. He let it get past him, but then slammed his foot into its lower back; heard the satisfying crack of its spine. As it sprawled, still trying to move forward, he brought his heel down on its skull.

“Kei!”

Kei’s head snapped up at Kou’s scream; the two older Jikininki had picked up an unexpected bit of speed, charging at the car. Kei could see Izumi wrestling with a fairly new corpse on the car’s other side; Kou had raised the gun.

“Don’t shoot!” Kei snarled, even as he bolted back and slammed into the first Jikininki with an audible smack. Necrotic fluids spattered his face, and he spat angrily when they got in his mouth. “You’ll get me, stupid!” In reality, he was frightened—if Kou got a shot off, he had no idea if it would trigger an episode like he’d had beside the stream. As it was, his head was light with the pungent scent of decay, and he panted as he forced the Jikininki backwards.

Kei felt a bone snap—a collar bone. The other Jikininki, though, was skirting the tussle, still making for the car. Kei lurched, getting his leg out just far enough to trip it. It fell, and Kei had the time to snap the neck of the one he was wrestling with before leaping onto the other.

“Got it!” came Kai’s jubilant shout, and the car sputtered to life. Tosaki crawled immediately inside, though he had the decency to leave the door open.

“Kou!” Kei shouted, motioning wildly. “Into the car!”

“I’m not sitting next to him!” Kou squawked.

“Not important, right now!” Kei scrabbled onto his feet, shoving Kou into the backseat despite his yelp of objection. He crowded in behind to keep Kou from struggling back out, then called, “Izumi!”

“Coming!” the woman yelled, smashing her opponent’s face into the pavement and then springing back. Kai had slid into the driver’s seat, so she scrambled into the passenger side and slammed the door; hastily rolled up the window. A Jikininki smacked into it a heartbeat later, and Izumi drew a startled gasp.

“Go!” Kei urged, leaning forward toward Kai.

“Already on it,” Kai replied, jerking the car into gear. Though the engine gave an uncertain rattle, they were off.

There was a moment of silence—the mechanical hum of the car was the only sound. Kou had practically climbed onto Kei’s lap to keep from touching Tosaki.

“Good job, team!” Kai said at last, and received a noncommittal grumble from the rest of the supposed team.

“You didn’t do anything,” Kou muttered, glaring over at Tosaki.

“And you expected me to what?” Tosaki asked calmly. “Fight barehanded like these two monsters? I’m here to contribute what I know about the project once we reach the facility. That’s all.”

“You—!” Kou began furiously, but Kei grabbed him.

“Here. Switch.” He grunted, half-dragging Kou over his lap and placing himself in the middle. He leaned up into the front seat, one arm across each seat-back. “How’re we on gas?”

“Could be worse,” Kai replied. “It’ll get us into the city.”

Kei nodded, then grunted as someone tried to reach over his back. “Kou, I swear to god...”

“He looks so smug!” Kou objected, and Tosaki clicked his tongue.

“How petty,” Tosaki said, and Kei heard the snap of a tin.

“I swear, don’t you start with those!” Kei snarled, sitting back. Tosaki raised an eyebrow as he popped two mints into his mouth.

“They are an offensively strong scent,” Izumi put in, from the front seat.

“You haven’t given me any choice as to our destination,” Tosaki said, tucking the tin into his pocket, “but I don’t recall being so striped of free will that you have any say in my choice of snacks.”

“Mints don’t count as a snack,” Kou muttered, sounding genuinely offended. “Chips, or—or a candy bar. Those are snacks. Melon bread! Onigiri... taiyaki...” He hung his head. “Man, I miss snacks...”

“Both of you, shut up...” Kei muttered, putting a hand over his nose as mint filled the car. “Kai, please open a window...”

Kai obligingly rolled his driver’s side window down, and they continued on toward the city.

... ... ...

Around midday, the group stopped at an abandoned gas station—not so much in the hopes of finding gas in the pumps, but in any other cars that might be lying about. There was also, for the humans, the chance of food to be scavenged from the remains of the convenience store.

“This’ll do...” Kai muttered, pacing from vehicle to vehicle. Kei sat atop the stolen car, keeping watch. Tosaki had wandered off, but the scent of his mints lingered—he couldn’t be far.

“So.” Izumi folded her arms on the car’s roof, though she stared straight ahead. “Why are you so set on this? On saving humanity?”

“I’m not,” Kei replied, slightly annoyed. “I’m set on saving my own skin. And Kai’s. If we left the quarantine zone—even assuming we made it, which I don’t think is realistic—it would be a temporary fix. If the world ends, where’ll that leave us?”

Izumi shrugged. “You could have a few more good years, at least, if you ran.”

“I want a good life,” Kei retorted. “What’s wrong with you that you’d be satisfied with a couple lousy years?”

“Guys!” Kou came trotting out of convenience store, arms full of snack food. Tosaki trailed behind him, though at a safe enough distance to avoid confrontation. “This was the best stop!”

“Stupid!” Kei called over, and Izumi snorted. “There’s no nutrition in that sort of junk.”

“Who cares?!” Kou retorted, then said, “Shotgun, this time!” and dumped his armful of snacks into the passenger seat.

“How are we coming, Kai?” Kei called.

Kai trotted over with a canister of gas. “We’re good to go! This’ll get us to the facility and then some.”

“Perfect.” Kei slid off the roof; glanced at Izumi. She gave a suffering sigh, but slid into the middle of the backseat beside Tosaki.

Though Kou and Kai kept up a friendly conversation in the front seat, sharing chips and sweetbreads, the backseat remained mostly silent. Kei stared out the window, planning, and Izumi made a deliberate effort to remain lost in her own thoughts.

Tosaki pulled out a brand new tin of mints and peeled off the crackling plastic seal.

As they got deeper into the city, the magnitude of the destruction became clear. Bodies—and parts of bodies—were common sights, and Jikininki were always visible, prowling or sometimes sitting on the edge of the road, their heads tilting unnaturally to track the car. None tried to attack, though—the vehicle was too fast-moving a target.

They still kept the windows rolled up, as a precaution.

At some point, Izumi leaned up into the front seat; started pointing out which roads to take. Tosaki began to fidget.

“Any idea what the inside of the facility will be like?” Kei asked, and Izumi shook her head. “It wasn’t sealed, right?”

“No...” Izumi sighed. “It’ll be crawling with undead, most likely.”

“There’s still time to turn around,” Tosaki said, although his tone was resigned. No one gave him a proper answer.

“We’ll want to secure the facility,” Kei said. “No telling how long we’ll need to be there.”

“There are four access points, counting two emergency exits,” Izumi said. “It shouldn’t be hard to seal them off.”

“Windows?” Kei asked.

“Minimal,” Izumi replied. “Some in private offices, of course. But we can block those rooms off from the inside. And the lobby is wall-to-wall windows, but again, there are solid doors separating it from the rest of the place.”

“Did a lot of people die there?” Kei asked. “If so, Jikininki might have gathered.”

Izumi shifted, looking as uncomfortable as Tosaki for a moment. “Well... I know there’s one—“

“There’s another aberration that might be there,” Tosaki cut her off. “He’s unstable, prone to violent outbursts. I’m not sure he retained all his human rational, even.”

“He was the first,” Izumi said quietly. “He’s the one who bit me.”

“The first?” Kei asked curiously. “You did this to him, then? On purpose?”

Izumi nodded. “This wasn’t the goal, of course... but yes, we killed him. And he came back, well... like this. I'm sure you've noticed the whole biting thing is more a reflex than anything, anyway. He was just trying to get away, but he’d bitten about half a dozen people before we could even subdue him. And that was the first time he got loose.”

“No wonder he turned violent!” Kei exclaimed. “He didn’t have a clue what was happening to him, did he? And I’ll bet you didn’t explain it real well, either.”

“He knew enough,” Tosaki said. “He volunteered for the study. A student. We were paying him far more than market value.”

The conversation in the front seat had fallen silent.

“Market... value?” Kou asked softly, his voice dark.

“He signed things!” Tosaki snapped. “If he didn’t read them, that’s his own fault.”

“Fool had no idea what he was agreeing to,” Izumi said. “You killed him.”

“He was still alive enough to bite you,” Tosaki retorted. “He was still alive enough to trigger an actual apocalypse out of some YA zombie novel.”

“If he’s still there, at the facility...” Kei murmured, but trailed off; brooded in silence.

The sudden hush was oppressive—the two aberrants could hear the breath and heartbeats of their human companions. Kou muttered darkly from time to time, a burnt anger-scent radiating from him.

“... I can’t imagine there are any human survivors, this deep in,” Kai said at last, as they passed a group of Jikininki clustered around a corpse. Even inside the car, Kei caught a whiff of human blood; Izumi, beside him, sat up a bit straighter. "The people around here had so little warning..."

“You said the facility’s lobby is entirely windows, right?” Kei asked Izumi, partially to cover the pitiful growling of his stomach.

Thankfully, she ignored it and replied, “Right. Then a receptionist’s desk and two doors—a general entrance and a staff entrance. The staff entrance will be easy—it’s a solid door with a passcode and a manual lock. The general entrance is swinging doors, but those can also be locked electrically.” She paused, then added, “If the electricity is down, that may be an issue.”

“We can drive the car straight in, then,” Kei said. “Minimal engagement. If we can get out close to the staff entrance, we can secure it first and then work our way through. The hallways are pretty narrow, right?”

“Standard enough,” Izumi confirmed.

“Then if you and I head to group,” Kei murmured, “and Kai watches the back, we should be able to get the facility cleared out, or mostly cleared.”

“The guards used SCK pistols, too,” Tosaki said suddenly, and everyone glanced at him in surprise. “You’ll likely be able to find more ammunition.”

“Good to know,” Kai replied. “More ammo and more guns, probably.”

“You don’t get one,” Kou said to Tosaki, who scoffed.

“I don’t think you have any say, boy.”

“Bastard old man!” Kou twisted as if to come into the backseat; Izumi gave an irritated shout.

A deafening crack split the air; Kei flinched, and the window beside Tosaki blossomed with thousands of tiny cracks. Tosaki ducked as another gunshot rang out; this one shattered the window, and Izumi screamed.

“Oh fuck no!” she shouted, and Kai swerved. Blood-scent filled the car and a third gunshot sounded. The car began to skid wildly.

“It got the front tire!” Kai shouted. “We’re gonna—!”

The car collided headlong with another derelict vehicle; Kei threw himself into the front seat, grabbing Kai and holding on. The impact slammed him into the steering wheel and he gasped as ribs snapped; his neck whipped back, skull smacking against something hard.

“Kei!”

“Oh shit...!” Kei spat out, but the pain was surprisingly mild. He tasted blood in his mouth—a bitten tongue, he assumed—and swallowed reflexively.

“Oh god, Kei!” Kai’s hands were everywhere, and Kei groaned in relief at the comforting scent of evergreen, discernible even through the haze of iron.

“I’m fine...” Kei grunted, pushing himself upright. He could hear five heartbeats—all racing, but all accounted for. He twisted; asked, “Kou?”

Kou had been thrown sideways into the dash, but the angle he was at—stretching into the backseat—had kept him from going through the windshield. Besides a couple of bruises, he seemed intact. Izumi, in the backseat, was grasping at a bullet wound on her lower back; Tosaki seemed dazed—he’d been bent over, sheltering from the gunfire, so his head had rammed into Kai’s seat—but lacked any visible injury.

“Some maniac...” Kou muttered.

“What were you saying about survivors?” Kei asked Kai, who laughed quietly.

“Love... love, don’t...” He kissed Kei’s forehead. “I’m supposed to protect you...”

“This blood...” Izumi gasped out, her own fingers stained red with the stuff. “It’ll attract every Jikininki in the area...”

“Out of the car,” came a gravely voice, audible through the shattered backseat window. Tosaki sank lower in his seat. “All of you.”

“Are you human?” Kai twisted around to ask, and Kei heard the stranger give a sharp intake of breath.

“What else would I be? I’m talking, aren’t I? I’m not trying to eat your insides.”

Kai opened the driver’s side door; stepped slowly out, his hands raised. Kei slithered out after him, quickly placing himself in front of Kai despite the twinges of pain in his ribs.

The young man—college-aged, it appeared—had cropped black hair and dirt-smeared skin; the coat draped around his shoulders was soaked in Jikininki blood, and Kei’s nose wrinkled. Beneath it, though, was the heavy scent of expensive cologne and Earl Grey tea, and beneath that—

“You arehuman!” Kei exclaimed, surprised. The man pointed his gun dead at Kei’s chest. “I didn’t think, ‘cause I couldn’t smell it on you right away! That coat is brilliant!”

The man blinked. “Smell it... on me...?” He seemed to give himself a shake, then jerked his head toward the backseat. Tosaki was glowering through the window, but had made no attempt to get out. “Get him out here. I could care less about the rest of you.”

“We’d love to,” Kei said, and Kai took a shuffling step back—Kei appreciated his yield. “Not one of us likes him much. But he’s important to our mission. He might be able to help us stop this.”

“He’d never try,” the stranger scoffed. “He’s a devil and a coward.”

“We haven’t given him any choice,” Kei said, his voice still level. “It’s true, he was trying to get out of the quarantine zone. But he can’t make it there alone, and we’re all headed back to the facility. If he wants to save his own life, he will help us.”

The stranger’s eyes flickered with interest. “The facility... I’ve been trying for weeks... for a lifetime to get there...”

“Why are you trying to get to the facility?” Kai asked gently, stepping around Kei again.

The stranger lowered his gun, holding Kai’s gaze. An understanding passed between them—something that was lost on Kei, logically, yet made his heart swell with affection and phantom warmth.

“The person I love is in that facility,” the stranger said. “I’ll do anything to save him.”

“Enough!” came Tosaki’s irritated voice. He climbed out of the car, carrying that choking peppermint scent with him, heedless when the stranger’s gun snapped back up. “Save him! Foolishness. If that’s what this is turning into, I’d rather you shot me now! Save me the sentimental drivel. Save him...”

“Tosaki!” Izumi shouted, following and trying to pull him back. He lashed out; shoved her roughly, and she hit the ground with a pained grunt.

“It doesn’t matter,” the stranger said, though his hand had begun to shake. “Even if it’s impossible, I’ll save him.”

“Some people can’t be saved!” Tosaki shouted, grabbing the barrel of the gun; he shoved it up into the hollow beneath his jaw. “Shoot me, if you want! I’m the one who killed your lover, so shoot me! But don’t drag me into some hopeless tragedy. I’ve had enough of that, this lifetime.”

“Tosaki!” Izumi struggled back to her feet. She forced herself between the stranger and Tosaki, shoving the stranger in the chest and then rounding on Tosaki. “You did this! Don’t mock him!”

“You have no idea what it’s like,” Tosaki spat. “To sell your soul. To watch kids die, over and over. And then to have it come to nothing!”

“Guys!” Kou leaned out the driver’s side; motioning wildly to some approaching Jikininki. “We’ve gotta go!”

“That car’s done,” Kai said. He turned to the stranger. “Are you with us? We’ll get into the facility. We’ll find your loved one, for sure.”

“Tosaki killed him... but he’s alive...” Kei said quietly.

The stranger nodded. “I don’t know exactly... but he’s alive. And he’s no mindless zombie. I’ve talked to him. I held him. His heart’s still beating.”

“Then he’s the same as me,” Kei said, then nodded to Izumi. “And her. He’s the other aberrant. The first one.”

“Shinya.” The stranger said. “His name is Shinya Nakamura.”

Chapter Text

June 21st

Shinya Nakamura ripped a piece of paper off the advertisement posted on his college’s bulletin board and stuffed it into his pocket. As clinical research trials went, this one sounded relatively non-invasive, and he could always use the extra money.

“Hey! Shinya!”

Shinya glanced up; raised a hand in greeting as Yusuke came trotting up beside him. “Hey. How was bio?”

“I don’t know how I’m going to pass it,” Yusuke groaned, falling into step beside Shinya. “The professor is actually trying to kill us with this workload.”

Shinya chuckled, grateful for the mundane conversation. Yusuke... soon... He let his hand drift out, his little finger catching Yusuke’s as they walked. Yusuke glanced over in surprise, but didn’t pull away; moved a bit closer, in fact, as though that would make it harder for anyone to see the casual physical contact.

Shinya Nakamura hadn’t been taking college classes for two semesters now, despite what his parents and Yusuke thought. Instead, he’d been squirreling away the money in a private account. Every time he had the opportunity, he’d been picking up odd jobs and doing things like research studies to further pad his savings. At the end of this semester, Yusuke would—despite his dismal talk regarding his biology class—graduate, likely with honors. By then, Shinya would have enough, he was sure.

After his last supposed class was finished, Shinya bid Yusuke a purely platonic farewell—too many witnesses around, despite the desperate craving for a kiss—and hurried off. He hopped onto his motorcycle, then checked the address on the slip he’d torn from the sign. The research facility was only a few miles away, and he kicked the bike to life.

The receptionist handed him a few forms—he was used to those, by now. Usually they’d tell him to expect a phone call, but this time he was told to wait. After an hour or so in the waiting room, he was delighted to be called back by a white-clad nurse.

“Nakamura-kun, was it?” she asked, motioning for him to take a seat. “I’m so pleased you’ve decided to inquire! I’d love to offer you a participation slot in the study.”

“That’d be great!” Shinya said, quietly congratulating himself. This, too, was a process he’d been through many times. “Do you mind me inquiring about the compensation?”

The woman nodded; asked, “You read all the disclosure forms thoroughly, then?”

Shinya nodded. He’d skimmed them, at least—all such contracts said essentially the same thing.

“Pay is 100,000 yen up front, as soon as you sign a couple more forms,” the woman said, and Shinya nearly choked. “The duration of the experiment is two months. There’ll be another 150,000 paid upon completion. Plus, we’ll compensate you for any lost wages, if you have a job.”

That’s a quarter-million yen! Shinya thought, feeling his hands begin to shake. He ran some quick calculations. With what I already have put away... that’s almost... and if they make up what I’ve been earning at the restaurant and the shop, too...

Shinya’s parents wanted great things for their son—their definition of great things. Since they’d sent him away to college, he’d been planning to disappear.

When he’d met Yusuke, things had changed.

Yusuke’s parents were involved in the college hierarchy; their son’s reputation was of the utmost importance. He kept his grades up and devoted himself to his studies. He was involved in the student government. He often volunteered to tutor incoming students. He suffered from no inconvenient maladies, physical or psychological. He was a fine son, with one glaring exception.

They’d met at the library—Shinya had been working yet another part time job, and Yusuke had been, naturally, studying. Yusuke mistook Shinya for a student, and they’d struck up a conversation—they’d agreed to meet again.

“I think I'm falling in love with you...” Yusuke had whispered it on their second clandestine date, his breath hot on Shinya’s neck, and Shinya hadn’t stood a chance. Yusuke was quiet, sometimes to the point of stoic, but kind and compassionate. His hands, though strong, were always gentle. Yusuke was protective, and Shinya craved the safety he felt in Yusuke’s company. He craved the warmth and intimacy of their physical contact. Neither had ever dated before—Yusuke due to his parents’ vocal homophobia, Shinya due to general disinterest—but they were soon inseparable.

Shinya had always planned to run away, but he’d never imagined that he would take someone with him.

“God, I wish I could just run away... Disappear...” Yusuke would often say, and then laugh as though it were impossible. He wanted so badly to strike out, away from his parents and the future they had defined for him, but he’d resigned himself to what he saw as inescapable circumstances.

Shinya had nearly slipped up several times, but he’d kept the secret—they would be able to run away. For two years Shinya had kept his parents sending him money with fake school reports and even falsified emails—that alone was a little over a million yen. They’d also been paying his living expenses, but he’d been skimping wherever he could to skim off the top of that, too; Yusuke often bought him fancy things and meals out, after all. He’d worked himself ragged with every job he could get, and he’d rented out his body for so many clinical studies that he’d lost count. And now, with graduation in sight, he’d have over 2.5 million yen in savings. With this one last trial, it would be closer to 3 million.

As he sat in the research facility, the last of the forms in his lap, Shinya felt giddy; was far too distracted to read through what he was signing.

... ... ...

July 6th

“Are you alright?” Yusuke asked, between light kisses. It was a stolen moment in the shadow of the biology building, and they held one another close.

“I’m fine...” Shinya breathed, tugging lightly at Yusuke’s coat. “I’m better than fine... I’m flying...”

In reality, Shinya felt faint and strangely cold. He’d been participating the the research study for two weeks, now, and he’d been feeling so poor that he’d had to quit his two other jobs. The facility had upped the pay to half a million, by way of compensation, so he couldn’t care less.

The rounds of shots weren’t anything he wasn’t used to, but they’d effected him far more noticeably than most. His appetite had all but vanished; the nausea when he did force a few bites of something down was miserable, and he'd grown thin. He was finding it harder and harder to get out of bed every morning. He was always chilled despite the warm summer air. The doctors assured him these were expected things, and that they’d pass in time. They’d added some intravenous nutrients to the treatment regimen, advised him to stay hydrated, and carried on.

On the other hand, the world had grown mysteriously, exponentially, more beautiful. Colors had more depth and vibrancy to them than Shinya had imagined they could—Yusuke’s chestnut eyes were flecked with glimmering green, and his dark hair, which Shinya had foolishly assumed was pure black, bore rich brown undertones. When they kissed, Shinya could taste the faint sweetness of maple on Yusuke’s lips, though Yusuke had eaten breakfast hours earlier. When their bodies were pressed against one another, he could feel Yusuke’s powerful heartbeat thrumming in every one of his own cells. Yusuke’s expensive cologne, always so mild, as he used it sparingly, was almost overpowering now, and Shinya felt like he might suffocate in the divine, musky scent.

When Shinya reported these effects to the team of researchers, they seemed thrilled. He was glad for them, but the success or failure of the project was secondary. He thought only of the future it would buy he and Yusuke. He nearly wept with how close to reality that future was, now.

“Are you sure?” Yusuke asked, holding Shinya back for a moment. He sounded so worried that Shinya’s heart nearly burst, mingled joy and sorrow like a Molotov cocktail.

“I’m fine,” he replied, and leaned up for another kiss. Yusuke didn’t seem convinced, but obliged. “I love you. Trust me. I’m fine.”

“You feel cold...” Yusuke murmured, rubbing Shinya’s upper arms as if to warm them.

“Just a chill,” Shinya said, and kissed him again. “It’ll pass.”

... ... ...

Things got worse.

Shinya could hear everything—he took to wearing earbuds on-campus just so the myriad of voices wouldn’t overwhelm him completely, but couldn't tolerate playing anything through them. Sounds rattled in his skull, and he wished he could crack the bone open to release them. When he tried to sleep, he could hear the activity of every person in his building—the conversations and fights and restless pacing and drunken card games and sex. He didn’t sleep.

Food had grown impossible to swallow, so he always felt shaky and weak. If he tried to eat, he vomited—the study forbade the use of any over-the-counter medications, so he was denied that option. He couldn’t hold onto a single thought long enough to complete it, and he always felt anxious; he picked and chewed at the skin around his fingernails until it bled, and his eyes wouldn't stay shut for longer than a few moments.

He sometimes screamed without knowing exactly why.

He hid these things from Yusuke, though that meant avoiding Yusuke as entirely as he could. He kept most communications to text, since he didn’t trust himself for phone or video call. His voice would sometimes fail without warning, and he’d choke violently.

Still, the researchers assured him this was all expected, and he believed them. I can bear this... Shinya thought, and he believed himself. I’ve dealt with worse... I can... I can...

While riding his bike to the facility one day, Shinya’s vision went black. Adrenaline flooded his system, making his freezing skin tingle. Relying solely on muscle-memory, he kept the motorcycle upright; kept it moving in a straight line. He heard a mad honking and swerved instinctively, hearing the screech of car tires on his right. There was a gust of exhaust-scented air as car narrowly missed him, and Shinya’s ears filled with the pounding of his own heart.

I’m going to die...!

“Shinya!” It was Yusuke’s voice—Yusuke’s frantic voice, to the left and a twenty-two yards ahead. Shinya slammed on his break; felt the bike tilt dangerously. Despite the fact that he was still blind, his reflexes and other senses were sharper than ever; he shifted his weight to control the direction of the motorbike, even as his nose and ears honed in on Yusuke’s exact location.

Beneath the familiar cologne, Yusuke smelled of bergamot and rich, living blood.

“Shinya!”

The bike slowed; Shinya tilted his body, allowing it to shift sideways. He laid it down when he didn’t feel capable of keeping it upright, but it had slowed to a manageable speed by then. He grunted as his left leg hit and skidded along the ground, and he felt his jeans rip. The blood that pulsed out through the torn skin wasn’t as hot as he thought it should be.

Then Yusuke’s scent enveloped him; though Shinya still couldn’t see, he felt Yusuke’s hands on his shoulders.

“Shinya! My god, Shinya... I’m calling an ambulance, okay? Hold on...”

“No...!” Shinya choked out, suddenly alarmed. It would be a breach of contract for him to go to a hospital, or to see any doctors—the facility had been very clear about that. “No, don’t do that! Yusuke, I can’t!”

“You can’t?” Yusuke’s voice, thankfully, wasn’t panicked; he was receptive, though taut with fear.

Shinya shook his head furiously. His vision was just beginning to return—it was dim, almost gray-scale, but sharp to the point of distortion. He grasped Yusuke’s shoulder, trying not to see Yusuke’s worried face, and attempted to pull himself up. Yusuke, after a moment, helped him to his feet.

Shinya could feel blood dripping down his leg, but felt surprisingly little pain.

“Come... come on, then...” Yusuke said, and he looped Shinya’s arm around his shoulders. Yusuke’s body felt hot—pleasantly but unnaturally so. Or maybe I’m just so cold... Shinya thought, and let Yusuke help him the several blocks back to his one-room, second floor apartment.

Shinya’s vision improved along the walk, and by the time they were inside it had returned to normal—what had become normal, at least. His sight had grown vastly better since the experiment had begun. He sat heavily on his bed, trying to catch his breath.

Yusuke sat beside him. “We should go to the hospital,” he said softly.

Shinya shook his head. “I can’t...”

“Why? What’s been going on, Shinya?” Yusuke took his hands, and Shinya squeezed his eyes shut. He was to tell no one of the experiment—that, too, they had made very clear. “Shinya. Darling.” Yusuke kissed the backs of his hands. “Please. You’re scaring me. You’re so cold...”

Shinya felt something crack, and he whispered, “Its a research study. They say this is normal. It’s fine. I was... I’m going to see them today. I’ll ask them why I blacked out. They’ll know.”

“A research study?” Yusuke asked, surprised. His grip tightened on Shinya’s hands. “Why would you...?”

Shinya’s chest swelled with joy despite the circumstances, and he choked out, “So we can run away together...!”

Yusuke blinked. “So we can... what?”

Shinya leaned forward and kissed Yusuke insistently; passionately. Yusuke felt solid, while Shinya's body shook with fatigue. But Shinya knew why he was doing such things. It didn’t matter what happened to him, not in the short-term. He had long-term plans, with Yusuke—they had long-term dreams.

“I love you...” Shinya breathed, as Yusuke held him gently back. “So we’ll run away together. Right? That’s what you want, right?”

“Don’t...” Yusuke’s face twisted. He gripped Shinya’s shoulders. “You’re bones... and you’re so cold... I don’t want... you can’t kill yourself, if we’re going to run away together!”

Shinya shook his head. “It’ll pass, they say...” He smiled. “And they pay. So well. We’ll have all the money we need. You’ll have your degree, and I can get a job... or I can just take care of the house. Whatever you want.”

Yusuke looked torn, for a moment, and then took Shinya’s face gently between his hands. “That sounds wonderful. But only if you’re there. You have to take care of yourself. I want you to withdraw from this study, okay? We’ll be just fine without the extra money. I want you to quit. Because I love you. And because we will run away together. And if you wreck your health, that might not be possible.”

Shinya, without thinking, nodded into Yusuke’s hands. He closed his eyes and breathed Yusuke’s scent deeply until he was dizzy with it. A tremor ran through him.

“Okay, Yusuke... I will.”

Yusuke kissed him lightly; said, “And then we’ll run away together.”

“We’ll run away together... I love you, Yusuke...”

... ... ...

During the third week of the trial, the day that he walked into the research facility with intent to withdraw from the study, Shinya Nakamura died.

July 13th

A sudden lightheadedness overcame him, much more severe than he had experienced before, and he collapsed. His vision went black, as it had on his motorcycle the day before, but again he could still hear—could hear the frantic voices of doctors and the pounding of his own heart. He tasted blood.

Yusuke... this is... I’m... I can’t... not now... Yusuke...!

He tried to cry out, but couldn’t take in enough breath to manage it. Within moments, he was unconscious.

When he woke up, he was freezing cold.

“You’re alive?”

Shinya turned his head; he was on a bed, and a man sat in a chair at its side. The man had glasses and pure white hair, and he smelled of peppermint; he held a clipboard, although he wasn’t a member of the clinical staff that Shinya had ever seen before.

“I...” Shinya cleared his throat; coughed. His chest hurt, and his teeth ached. He was hungry for the first time in weeks, and starving at that.

“You’re the first one who’s survived,” the white-haired man said, and Shinya detected a strange note of hope in his voice. He could hear the man’s heartbeat, and it sounded light. “The others haven’t made it. I think we’ve finally found the right combination.”

“Survived...?” Shinya asked faintly. A sharp pang of hunger almost made him cry out. He wondered if this man had eaten recently, because he smelled delicious, like lightly seared steak, tender and bloody when you bite into it. Yusuke had taken him to expensive restaurants where they served such things.

“Survived,” the man confirmed. He stood; popped some pungent mints in his mouth. He must’ve just come back from lunch at some nearby steakhouse, Shinya though, because he smelled like the finest piece of rare meat—dripping juices and perfectly seasoned. Shinya groaned softly. “You died a few hours ago. And yet you live.”

Shinya’s eyes widened; his fingers twitched against the sheets. “I... What do you mean, I died?”

“Your heart stopped,” the man said. Shinya tried to stop thinking about his hunger, to focus on what the man was saying, and failed. “You were declared dead. And yet you live. How do you feel?”

“... Cold,” Shinya admitted. “Freezing. And really hungry.”

The man’s eyebrow rose. “Hungry?”

Shinya wasn’t aware of his body moving; he only felt himself slam into the white-haired man, knocking him down. He heard the man shouting something, but it wasn’t audible over the succulent rush of blood through the man’s veins. The sound of his frantic heartbeat was as mouthwatering as the crackle of fat in a frying pan, and Shinya saw drool from his own mouth pooling on the man’s pale neck.

What... is happening...?

Shinya froze, feeling the heat coming off the man’s living body in waves. He groaned, longing, in that moment, for the comforting warmth of Yusuke’s embrace. Yusuke would know what to do. Yusuke would be able to understand, and then to explain in simple, patient terms, what had happened. Yusuke would hold him while he cried and screamed, and Yusuke would be there for him no matter what. Yusuke wouldn’t care if he was dead, like this delicious-smelling man claimed. Yusuke—

Shinya was grabbed from the side; wrenched violently off the white-haired man. He twisted, shrieking, and bit down without thinking. His teeth sunk into flesh, blood bursting out around them and flooding his mouth. His whole body came alive, then, desperate and blind, deaf to the screaming that had started up. He tore into the human flesh, clawing madly and biting off great chunks of the person’s arm, swallowing almost without chewing.

A gunshot rang out; he felt the impact of a bullet in the side of his abdomen, but felt no pain. He was only aware of the taste—the rich blood and heavy meat, the way it felt in his mouth and in his stomach.

The second and third bullets were no more effective; when the fourth hit him, however, he felt his body falter.

The man had stopped screaming. The fifth bullet sent Shinya spiraling back into unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

When Shinya woke again, he was restrained, flat on his back. He groaned softly, trying to make some sense of his situation.

He was hungry, but not ravenous. He felt he could think clearly.

The white-haired man was visible through a pane of glass, arguing animatedly with someone. A small woman stood at his side, silent. Shinya watched them for a moment, then pulled experimentally at the restraints on his wrists. They were tight, but he felt them give slightly when he persisted.

Shinya closed his eyes; tried to will himself to wake up again, this time in his own bed. It had to be a convoluted nightmare. How did this happen...?! I didn’t... I can’t...!

Yusuke, help me...! Please...!

The sound of an opening door made Shinya look over; the white-haired man had entered. The door clicked shut behind him.

“Shinya Nakamura...” the man began, and Shinya saw a purple bruise on his neck; it seemed to extend down his shoulder. Shinya recalled slamming him to the ground; he remembered stalling, and he remembered turning on whatever poor fellow had dragged him off of the white-haired man. He swallowed, aware of the bits of flesh still caught in his teeth.

At least his hunger had quieted.

“You are... such a disappointment,” the man spat, his eyes dark.

If Shinya had cared about the experiment, he thought, the words might’ve stung. But he’d never been interested in that. “What did you do to me?”

The white-haired man grimaced. “We killed you. We hoped you would come back just fine. You’re the first one to make it back at all. But you came back wrong.”

Shinya could smell the anxiety coming off the man in waves—anxiety and pungent peppermint.

“Worse,” the man continued, disgusted, “whatever’s happened to you seems to be contagious. That man you attacked died, but he’s still moving. He’s raving mad, far worse than you. He’s mindless. And his body is actively decaying. You, at least you still seem alive. You have a pulse. His body appears to have actually died, but he’s still moving. He’s undead.”

Shinya’s stomach twisted. “Undead?”

“Undead.” The man nodded, then sighed. “I don’t know how to categorize you. You’re alive, but you’re not... right. You’re abnormal, probably something to do with the treatments we subjected you to. But your bite... it kills.”

Shinya shivered. Yusuke... “Well...” he said, and heard his voice shaking, “what now?”

“Now?” the white-haired man asked. “Now we learn what we can from this failure, we terminate you and the man you infected, and then we try again. The project won’t end here. I won’t let it.”

Shinya felt himself begin to shake. “Terminate?”

“We’ve already killed you, so saying we’ll ‘kill you’ isn’t quite right,” the white-haired man said. “But there are ways. Those bullets didn’t do much of anything—you’ve been out for three days, but the damage wasn’t permanent. We think a severe enough head injury will do the job, though. You’ll be anesthetized, so don’t worry too much about it.”

“No...” Shinya breathed, and felt tears well in his eyes. He thought of Yusuke—of how terribly he wanted to feel Yusuke’s arms around him. “We were going to... run away...”

“What?” the white-haired man asked irritably, but Shinya had almost forgotten he was there.

Yusuke... Yusuke...! He’d worked so hard. They’d been so close. They would’ve been able to disappear. Beneath the metallic tang of blood, Shinya could taste the happiness that they would’ve felt. “No!”

“Shut up,” the white-haired man scoffed, then turned as the door opened. “What?”

The women stood there, her chest heaving. “There’s a young man in the lobby. He’s looking for Shinya Nakamura.”

“He’s what?!” The white-haired man rounded on Shinya. “You were to tell no one. That was one of the things you agreed to.”

Shinya narrowed his eyes, though his heart had begun to pound frantically. “And you killed me—I don't think that was part of our agreement, either!”

The white-haired man sniffed, but didn’t reply. Instead he called to the woman, “Bring him in. If he knows that Nakamura is here, he may be a threat to us. We’ll just have to make sure he never gets the chance to cause us trouble.”

Shinya’s heart leaped, and he pulled against his restraints. The white-haired man glanced over at him, even as the woman hurried off to obey.

“You won’t... not Yusuke... Whatever you do to me...”

“Yusuke?” the man asked, his tone almost bored. “Is that his name? Would you like to be allowed a goodbye, then? Would that soften your opinion of me?”

The restraint on Shinya’s right wrist tore abruptly, and the white-haired man leaped back with a shout—too late, as Shinya grabbed his coat.

“You won’t touch Yusuke!” he snarled, tears overflowing. He wrenched his other hand loose; sat up on the stretcher and pulled the white-haired man to him.

The man glared at him, but didn’t speak; didn’t struggle. The scent of peppermint burned Shinya’s nose.

The door burst open, guards rushing forward. Shinya thrust the white-haired man away in favor of clawing at the restraints on his feet; he got loose a second before the gunfire began, and he flung himself to the ground.

As long as my head doesn’t get hit...! Shinya scrabbled wildly against the ground, feeling an unfamiliar power in the muscles of his legs. He leaped; flew across the room in a single movement. He bowled past the guards, nearly careening into the wall of the hallway, and then took off.

“Stop him!” came the white-haired man’s furious shout. “We’ll be shut down if this gets out!”

Shinya felt his body respond as he urged it faster, tearing down the hallway. Though he’d been in the facility dozens of times, he’d never been in this area, and navigation was by random chance alone. It was much larger than he'd assumed.

I have to find him... Yusuke...! Yusuke, you shouldn’t have come looking for me...!

A guard appeared from a doorway ahead of him, gun raised. Shinya ducked as he got a shot off, then plowed into the man’s legs, carrying him to the ground; the gun went clattering away. Before Shinya realized it, he’d sunk his teeth into the man’s leg. At first he only tasted cloth and laundry detergent, but then blood seeped out and into his mouth. He jerked violently back, scrambling away as the guard screamed and clutched at the wound.

What’s happening...?! I didn’t... mean to...!

Fleeing, Shinya continued on; darted down hallway after hallway, dodging anyone he encountered. The building seemed without end; no matter how fast he ran, there was always another tunnel of linoleum floors and fluorescent lights. Though he’d never been able to run distances, he didn’t feel short of breath; his heart-rate remained steady.

Shinya paused at the end of one unremarkable hallway, looking around. There weren’t even any windows to judge his positioning by. Panic swelling thick in his chest, he tried to smell which direction he should go. If I can catch even a hint of fresh air, then—

Shinya’s thought was cut off by the clap of a gunshot; his body jerked as a bullet hit his shoulder, and he wondered if they’d been aiming for his head. He spun, fist swinging sideways, and the man’s head snapped sideways with a sick crack of his neck. He dropped. Shinya leaped over the body and carried on, head swinging as he searched for the way out.

“What exactly do you think you’ll do?”

Shinya looked up at the voice—the white-haired man had appeared at the end of one hallway. Shinya’s nostrils flared at the stench of mints and fear.

“You aren’t human anymore,” the man called, approaching slowly with his arms spread. “You’ve killed people, now. That’s what you are—a killer.”

“You’re wrong!” Shinya shrieked, although he could still taste blood—his body was singing with the desire to leap at this man, to bite him, to tear into his throat, to—

A bullet hit between Shinya’s shoulder blades, and he gasped, his body pitched forward. He let himself fall; listened to the rush of footsteps around him. He wondered why, when his future with Yusuke had been so close. He wondered what kind of future awaited him now.

Yusuke... I’m not... I’ve done... a horrible thing...

He wondered: Would Yusuke, too, smell like food?

“Shinya!”

There was an eruption of shouts and the scuffling of feet; Shinya though his mind must be telling him terrible lies.

But then, the scent—that achingly familiar, musky cologne, and beneath it anger and fear. Beneath it, Yusuke.

Shinya forced himself up onto his elbows; gasped, his first breath since the bullet had hit, and looked over. Yusuke was struggling, held between two guards, his eyes locked on Shinya—their gazes met, and Yusuke’s face split in a relieved, panic-stricken smile.

“Shinya! You’re alive! Get up, Shinya, please! I’ll get us out of here, I swear it!”

I’m... alive... Shinya though hazily, and pushed himself up. A bullet slammed into his shoulder, drilling him back down, and he gasped.

“A headshot?” a third guard, the one who’d fired, asked, and Shinya saw the the white-haired man shake his head.

“We may still be able to salvage some data. This one, though...” he motioned to Yusuke, “dispose of him.”

Shinya’s weary body came alive then, and he lunged forward; shrieked, “No!”

Yusuke’s eyes widened as a gun was pressed to his temple, and he thrashed, though his gaze never left Shinya.

Shinya felt himself hit the guard; heard the shot go off and screamed. He smelled blood, and his teeth tore instinctively into the guard’s throat as he carried the man to the ground. He tore out a great chunk of flesh, but spat it out; leaped back as the second guard shot at him and missed wildly. He scrambled, feet somehow finding purchase on the smooth flooring, and flung himself at the second guard. A bullet tore through his stomach, but it didn’t stop him; his hands tightened around the man’s throat, twisting it, snapping fragile vertebrae, and he bit down into soft flesh. His teeth crunched through a collar bone.

The guard hit the ground with a thud that jarred Shinya, and he jerked back. Saliva welled around the succulent flesh in his mouth, but he forced himself to spit it out. Then he twisted, his heart pounding painfully against his ribs.

“Yusuke...!”

Yusuke was on his knees, his whole body shaking, blood dripping from a gash on his temple. But Shinya’s razor vision told him that the bullet had only grazed Yusuke, and he drew a deep, relieved breath.

Yusuke turned toward him, eyes flicking between the guard’s corpse and the blood dripping down Shinya’s face. Shinya felt shame, bitter like bile, rise in his throat. “Yusuke, I...!”

“Shinya... you’re alive...” Yusuke murmured, and stood. He swayed, then staggered to where Shinya knelt. He collapsed, his arms folding around Shinya. Shinya choked, tears spilling down his soiled face. “Thank goodness... Shinya... you’re alive...”

Shinya’s face twisted, a desperate sob forcing its way out. “But I’m not...!” He still felt cold—freezing. Yusuke’s body was searing against his.

“Doesn’t matter...” Yusuke murmured, tightening his grip as Shinya sobbed. “You’re alive... I love you... you’re still... I love you, Shinya.”

“How touching.”

Peppermint—Shinya’s head snapped up and he threw Yusuke aside; took the gunshot to his chest. Yusuke gave a shout of alarm, but Shinya shook his head; he stood, keeping his eyes fixed on the white-haired man.

“It’s okay. I’m okay. They won’t kill me. Stay behind me, Yusuke.”

“Oh won’t we?” the white-haired man asked, tilting his gun up to aim directly at Shinya’s forehead. Shinya began to shake, tears still streaming down his face.

“Shinya—!” Yusuke began, staggering up. Shinya shoved him backwards again.

“I can’t—!” Shinya was cut short by a gunshot. The impact to his chest sent him flying backwards, crashing into Yusuke, who caught him automatically. His vision flashed white and he wheezed, fighting to breathe despite the sudden pressure; he was sure the shot had taken out a lung. He felt Yusuke’s strong hands gripping his arms; felt the heat rolling off Yusuke, and drew a dizzying breath of cologne and bergamot.

“I can’t...” he breathed, and struggled to stand on his own. “I can’t... lose you... not after... all this...”

The white-haired man’s expression flickered, and he raised the gun a fraction more. “Surrender. Or you both die. If you submit, let us handle this—“

“Fuck! You!” Shinya shrieked. Like the pins-and-needles sensation of returning blood-flow, strength flooded up through him. He took a step forward, but two shapes rushed past him before he could charge. The white-haired man’s face warped with alarm as the two dead guards charged at him; he got off a shot, dropping one, but had to leap aside to avoid the second. Shinya staggered back, grabbing desperately at Yusuke’s arm and tugging him down the hallways. He heard the white-haired man shouting for him to stop, but he didn’t turn back.

He could breathe normally; the pressure in his chest was gone.

“Shinya, what’s happening?” Yusuke’s voice was calm, if a bit breathy. “This is the research facility, right? What have they done?”

“They—!” They killed me...! The words caught in Shinya’s throat, and he blinked against the tears that threatened to obscure his vision. He tightened his grip on Yusuke’s hand; felt the heat and the steady pulse of Yusuke’s heart.

Yusuke didn’t question him further.

“I came this way!” Yusuke swerved, taking the lead down a hallway. Shinya followed, grateful. He could see Yusuke gasping for breath, though he still felt no fatigue or strain. They burst through a small, unmarked door and into the lobby of the clinic; it was empty.

Shinya’s eyes burned with the natural light streaming in through the glass doors. He hesitated, though Yusuke pulled at his hand.

“Shinya, come on!”

Shinya shook his head slowly, suddenly aware of the blood soaking his clothes; of the human flesh still caught between his teeth; of his suspicious lack of body heat. He clutched at Yusuke’s arm.

“I—! I’m not—! I can’t—!”

“Shinya!” Yusuke’s voice was stern, his eyes boring into Shinya’s own. He grabbed both of Shinya’s hands and clutched them; kissed their knuckles. “We’re going to run away together, right? It doesn’t matter. You’re alive. I love you. We’ll run away, okay?”

Shinya felt his heart rise with hope, and he smiled. When Yusuke pulled him, again, toward the door, Shinya went willingly.

A resounding pop sounded behind them; Shinya felt something sharp burrow between his shoulder blades, and he drew a quick breath. A wave of numbing weariness flooded him, dulling nerve-endings and making his vision blur. He heard Yusuke give a startled shout.

Shinya's legs couldn't support him; he slumped, knees thudding against the hard floor. A... tranquilizer... he realized slowly, even as Yusuke crouched beside him. It must... be...

“So close...” It was the white-haired man—Shinya knew his voice, and smelled his caustic mints. Yusuke's face was stricken with panic as he grabbed Shinya's arm and tried to haul him up.

“Go...!” Shinya gasped out. His body wouldn't respond to him; he couldn't stand, let alone flee. He shoved his own rising panic down—if Yusuke realized how terrified he was, there was no way he would leave. “I’ll catch up... Yusuke, please... run!”

“Shinya, I—!” Yusuke began, but Shinya shook his head as furiously as he could manage. He shoved weakly at Yusuke with one hand.

“You have to! If you die, I’ll—I’ll—!” Shinya felt tears spill down his face, and he gasped out, “I love you! You have to survive, Yusuke! Run... I’ll catch up, I swear! If I know you’re out there, waiting, I’ll stay alive, no matter what!”

Yusuke hesitated for another beat, then nodded; kissed Shinya quickly, said, “I’ll be waiting!” and sprinted out the open door. Shinya closed his eyes; let himself crumple, face pressed to the cool tile. He heard the white-haired man shouting for the guards to follow, but he could also hear Yusuke’s receding footsteps. He knew Yusuke wouldn’t be caught. He became faintly aware of hands dragging him backwards.

The white-haired man grumbled sorely, then said, “Shimomura, see to this beast." Shinya heard him stalk off down the hallway, but only opened his eyes as slits when someone else crouched down beside him. His limbs tingled, fingers and toes buzzing as the numbness faded far quicker than it was meant to.

“Poor thing...” said a woman’s voice. “You almost got away.” Shinya felt a needle slide into his forearm. “Go to sleep, now. Rest.”

The woman smelled salty, like tears.

Shinya felt himself lifted onto a stretcher. Though his senses had dimmed, presumably due to the shot, he remained conscious. He didn’t give any indication of that, though, keeping his eyes softly closed; his breaths slow and even. When the stretcher came to a stop, he heard the woman dismiss the guards; the scent of the white-haired man had faded, so he must not have accompanied them. The woman's hands were small but calloused as she held his wrist, taking his pulse. Beneath the salty scent, she smelled of wisteria blossoms and wet earth.

“You said you’d run away...” the woman murmured. “With him. But then...”

Shinya moved—grabbed her, slid one hand upward, revealing her delicate midsection, and bit down. The flesh was thin—his teeth tore through it, gnashing out a chunk of skin and muscle and viscera. The woman drew a sharp breath, but didn’t cry out; staggered as Shinya swallowed.

“You...” she breathed, and fell to her knees. Shinya tried to get up and failed; the sedative loosened joints and weakened muscles, and he collapsed beside the woman. Her breath was ragged. Consciousness deserted Shinya at last, then, and he welcomed the darkness; welcomed the momentary rest.

Chapter Text

The stranger introduced himself as Yusuke.

The group closed ranks around Kai; he got an old minivan running in record time. Then the whole group piled in, Kai driving, Yusuke in the passenger seat, Kei and Kou directly behind them, and Izumi beside Tosaki in the far back.

Dead eyes watched them, but the Jikininki didn’t chase them as they sped off.

Kei twisted around to Izumi, his eyes wider than could be considered natural. “Something smells so good in here...”

She nodded pensively, rooting around in the backseat. After a moment she made a small, triumphant sound and pulled out a human forearm. It looked palatable fresh, probably only a day or so detached from its rightful owner.

Kei swallowed hard.

“I’ll split it with you,” Izumi offered, and pulled out her pocket knife. Tosaki had turned pointedly to look out the window. “Not like it’s any good to whatever poor bastard lost it.”

Kei nodded, then accepted the strips she sliced off and passed up to him. He placed a piece onto his tongue—it was succulent; indulgent. He swallowed it whole in his haste, but chewed the next one slowly, savoring it.

“So much better than rabbit...” he mumbled, and Izumi nodded her agreement.

Kou had gone deathly pale; kept his eyes fixed on the back of Yusuke’s seat.

“... So we were planning to ram the car straight into the lobby,” Kai said, finishing his explanation to Yusuke.

Yusuke, who’d listened patiently, nodded. “There are more Jikininki around that facility than anywhere else in the city. I’ve gotten within a few hundred feet before, but it almost killed me. They forced me steadily back, after that.”

“‘Forced you back?’” Izumi asked, her voice muffled. “Do you mean that? Like, there was a method or organization to their actions?”

Yusuke hesitated, then said, “It seemed that way. In the facility, I saw two bitten guards respond to Shinya’s scream. I’ve been thinking a lot, and I think he might actively be keeping people away. Maybe he’s not doing it consciously, even. But I know Shinya, and he’d want to be left alone, after all this. He probably thinks I’ve fled, and he wouldn’t want anyone else bothering him in the state he’s in.”

“Once Shinya sees its you, do you think he’ll calm down? Call them off?” Kai asked.

Yusuke shrugged. “I’m not... I’m not sure. Shinya’s emotional. More than I am. I don’t know what kind of state he’ll be in, after this long.”

“It’s hard,” Izumi said. “Thinking you’re alone.” She bit down on the slim radius, snapping it, and Tosaki cringed. She held the ulna out to Kei. “They’re too tough to be edible like rabbit bones, but the marrow is good.”

Kei, though busy licking the blood off his hands, nodded; took the bone and cracked it between his molars. The marrow tasted rich and buttery, and he scraped it eagerly out with fingers and tongue.

“So we’ll go ahead with the plan,” Kai said, and swiveled. “Right, Kei?”

Kei jumped; swallowed hastily and said, “Yeah,” before clearing his throat. Kai smiled reassuringly, and Kei’s tension eased. “Yeah, seems like nothing major’s changed. If this Shinya is like Izumi and I, we’ll have no trouble communicating. And he shouldn’t have any reason to fight us.”

“I’m sure he won’t,” Yusuke said. “Not consciously, anyhow. It’s the unconscious I’m a little worried about. He panics easily.”

“Probably better he not see Tosaki or I, then,” Izumi said. “At least not at first.”

Yusuke nodded, sparing Tosaki a sore glance. He stared at Kei for a moment, seeing someone else entirely, and then turned back toward the windshield.

“Guys.” Kou spoke suddenly, leaning against the window. “Look.”

Kei turned; stiffened. Izumi whispered, “What in hell...?”

Jikininki had appeared to line the streets, some moving along in the same direction as the van. Their movements were purposeful; at times, they would look over at the van and stare, their eyes dead and blank and yet deliberately trained on the passing vehicle.

“Well, we are within sight,” Tosaki said flatly, and Izumi’s head snapped up.

“There it is...” she murmured, pointing.

Kei looked; saw the sterile-looking building at the crest of the road. It was two stories, and spread out over perhaps half an acre. A once-manicured lawn surrounded it, separating it from neighboring structures. Windows, indeed, were sparse, and Kei focused on each one individually. No one stood watching them approach, and yet the Jikininki continued to flank them. Around the facility itself, a hoard of them seethed as if gathering to feed.

“Oh hell...” Kai mumbled. “We’re not gonna be able to plow through that. Not in this kind of vehicle.”

“Switch,” Kei ordered, and then crawled into the front seat. Kai glanced at him in surprise. “If one comes through the windshield, you can’t be the one driving.”

Kai nodded reluctantly; slid aside so that Kei could take the wheel. Kai grabbed Yusuke’s arm, too, taking his fellow human further back into the car with him.

“Listen closely,” Kei called back, his body humming with adrenaline. His chilled fingers flexed around the steering wheel. He’d never driven—Kai knew that, and Kei appreciated that he hadn’t questioned it. I can manage... a straight shot... “I’ll get us as deep as I can. Yusuke, Kai, I want you two shooting the whole way to thin their numbers.” He pressed experimentally down on the accelerator; felt the vehicle pick up speed. “When the van’s done for, I’ll be out first. Izumi, stay back with Tosaki—we need to delay the moment that Shinya Nakamura sees you two for as long as we possibly can. Kai, Yusuke, you two flank us. Don’t stop shooting, and no matter what happens, do not stop moving. Once we’re inside we’ll worry about regrouping.”

“I doubt Shinya would want the actual building filled with Jikininki,” Yusuke put in. “He probably just wants to be left alone, really.”

“Can’t count on it, but that’ll be great news if it’s true,” Kai said, and pushed the accelerator the rest of the way to the floor. The van flew over the road, and Kei’s heart picked up speed to match. It still felt unnaturally slow. “Everyone ready?”

He received a muttering of assent, and Kai and Yusuke lowered the windows beside them; Kou slid reluctantly into the backseat to give them room.

Kai leaned up around the driver’s seat; kissed Kei’s cheek. “Love you. Follow you anywhere, love.”

“Thanks...” Kei breathed, and felt Kai withdraw. He instantly missed the warmth.

Kei winced as the gunshots began; his eyes narrowed, but he didn't allow them to close. The facility reared up in front of them, and Kei imagined it was the gateway to the world as it had been—the entrance of the path to reclaim normal life.

Never mind the wall of animate corpses blocking the way.

The van plowed through the first few Jikininki with a cacophony of crunching and squelch. Kei leaned forward as if he could urge the vehicle on, even as it began to slow. Wheels clogged with flesh and grill stopped by the sheer mass of bodies, the van ground to a halt ten meters from the faculty’s door.

Jikininki descended, their groans and growls audible even above the two guns; the air thick with their rotting-flesh stench.

“Move!” Kei shouted, and then sprang from the car. His legs felt oddly immaterial, and he staggered; the gunfire rattled his very bones. He kept Kai in his peripheral vision, although Kai’s deft handling of the handgun kept any Jikininki from overtaking him. Yusuke, too, could protect himself, which left... Kei narrowed his eyes, forcing his vision into focus. “Kou! Stick close!”

“No shit!” Kou edged along between Yusuke and Kai. “I’m good! We’re fine!”

Tosaki, too, kept careful track of where he stood; never stepped out of the protected little circle.

Izumi fended off any Jikininki approaching from the rear. In such a way, they edged closer to the facility’s doors; though the sliding doors hung open, derelict, there were few Jikininki visible in the lobby. Kei, though concentrating only on each forward step, dared to hope that Yusuke was right—that Shinya himself was discouraging the undead, somehow, from entering.

Two more yards... Kei snapped a brittle neck; stumbled as he stepped over the Jikininki’s unmoving form. The gunfire taxed his nerves terribly, and he tried to focus on Kai’s heartbeat instead—it was scarcely audible. One more yard... ten steps, that’s all, just—

Izumi gave a startled shout, and Kei’s head snapped around. A huge man—clothes tattered, bloody mouth stretched wide—had thrown her to the turf; had her pinned.

“Izumi-san!” Kai raised his gun, even as the Jikininki paused, inexplicably, poised above her.

“Don’t shoot!” Izumi shrieked. “He’s—!”

A Jikininki slammed into Kai’s shoulder in his lapse of attention, nearly carrying him to the ground. Kei moved instinctively, seeing the diseased teeth moving toward Kai’s warm, living flesh. Kei bit deep into the Jikininki’s putrid throat, tearing its head off before it could bite. Then he grabbed Kai, pulling him toward the facility despite Kai’s own objections.

Tosaki, too, hurried forward, pushing Yusuke and Kou ahead of him.

Kei felt the change from blood-soaked turf to hard-wood; stumbled into the lobby of the facility and carried Kai with him. All-but-blind, ears still ringing from the gunfire, he bundled Kai through a door; he pushed Kou in, too, gasping in the sugary-sweet scent, and then nearly gagged on peppermint as Tosaki rushed past him. Yusuke was last, and Kei slammed his whole body against the door, shutting it with a terrible click.

... ... ...

The Jikininki towered over her; Izumi saw him coming, but was powerless to defend or evade. She shrieked as he threw her to the ground, his jaws stretched wide above her and his reeking breath bathing her face.

She heard his heartbeat, racing with stimulation and fear. His eyes, though bloodshot and deeply shadowed, weren’t clouded. His pupils contracted sharply.

“Don’t shoot!” Izumi shouted, seeing Kai take aim out of her peripheral. “He’s—!”

A Jikininki was upon Kai, then, and everything happened very quickly. The man remained frozen, though, and Izumi was trapped beneath him as the rest of the group fled into the facility. She cursed bitterly, knowing they’d made the right decision and yet feeling terribly abandoned.

Besides that, the man pinning her down smelled like a Jikininki, and he had yet to speak or respond in any meaningful way. For all they knew, there could be different levels of aberrants. This one could be just as dumb as a common Jikininki. It could be about to eat her alive despite its hesitation and confused, darting eyes.

With the humans gone, the Jikininki around them began to calm.

After a moment—a slammed door, and the fading of her comrades’ scents—Izumi managed a harsh, “Well? Are you going to let me up?”

The man stalled, but then leaned back; crawled off Izumi and sat heavily, cross-legged, in front of her. Izumi considered leaping up and following the others, but only sat up and stared at the man.

“Can you talk?” she asked. The Jikininki—those that weren’t scratching at whatever door Kei and the others had vanished through—had resumed a listless wandering about. They really aren’t interested in aberrants, I suppose... At least that bullet wound’s stopped bleeding.

“I...” the man began, and Izumi jumped. His voice was hopelessly hoarse, and he cleared his throat. “I can... yeah...”

“What the hell are you doing?” Izumi asked. “Why’d you attack me? Why are you just... hanging out with these stupid beasts?”

The man looked lost. “What else...?”

Izumi was struck, suddenly, by how wretched he looked. His cheeks were hollow, his hair matted with blood and decaying things. His hands, folded in his lap, shook. Even as she watched, tears started to drip down his face.

He didn’t smell human. He smelled rotten. He smelled like death.

“My god, you’ve been living with them, haven’t you?”

The man looked away. “What else...?” he asked again, and Izumi felt a sharp stab of pity.

I’ve accused Kei of not knowing what it was like to be alone... She bit her lip. Kei Nagai had posed the question several times: “If the world ends, where does that leave us?” Izumi knew that she was looking at the kind of future that awaited any aberrant, if humanity perished. Living among them... “What else?” he asks... living like the world had already ended...

“What’s your name?”

He didn’t reply for a long moment. Izumi wondered if his mind was gone after all, or if he’d possibly forgotten his own name. She shuddered at the thought.

“Tanaka,” he said at last, his voice a bit stronger. “Koji Tanaka.”

“Koji. I’m Izumi.”

“Izumi... san.” Tanaka buried his face in his hands. “I thought... I was the only one like this...!”

Izumi sat silently, watching as he sobbed. The Jikininki paid them no mind.

“How long has it been?”

Tanaka looked up; wiped his face crossly. “Dunno...” he muttered. “Can’t keep track. Got bitten first time a few days after the outbreak? I guess...”

Izumi winced. Over a month, then... She and Tosaki had fled around that time. “Alright. Well, we’re here to try to end this whole thing. One of the scientists who started it is with us. We think we can come up with an anti-virus.”

“Will it fix us?”

Izumi thought about that for a moment. She hadn’t considered the possibility—it didn’t particularly matter to her. She wasn’t deeply disturbed by what she was and, while she had every interest in stopping the would-be-apocalypse, the personal repercussions hadn’t occurred to her.

Faced with Koji Tanaka, though, she said, “I believe so. I hope so.”

Chapter Text

Kei’s arms tightened around Kai; he did not let go.

In the narrow hallway, the rasping of breath and the pounding of heartbeats was deafening—behind them, the white noise of the gunshots’ echos undermined any attempts Kei made at coherent thought. His ears ached with it, and his chest hurt with the frantic pace of his own heart.

Kai was alive. Kei breathed deeply, loosing himself in the evergreen and smoke. There was no sign of blood or the necrotic scent of a bite.

He was warm.

“Kai...”

“Wait!” Kou’s voice sounded faint and distant; Kei couldn’t be bothered. “Izumi! Where is she?! Where’s Izumi?!”

“Fool,” Tosaki muttered.

“She’ll die out there!” Kou shouted. “She’ll get bitten and—! Shit! Guys! Guys we have to...! We have to!”

Yusuke’s voice appeared, then, soothing. Kou gave another wordless shout, and there was a thump as he kicked either the wall or the door.

Kei kept his eyes tightly shut. Kai stroked his hair, murmuring calming, wordless things.

I... Again Kei tightened his grip on Kai. Kai was... I almost... But he’d also assigned Izumi to the back of the group. He’d thought that would afford them all the best chance of making it into the facility. And now...

“Izumi can take care of herself,” came Tosaki’s irritated voice, and the scent of mints grew suddenly stronger. One crunched audibly between his teeth. “Are we going to do what we came here to do? Or is this how all of us die?”

At last Kei looked up, his lip curling as he met Tosaki’s cold gaze. Feeling the warmth of Kai’s body pressed against his, Kei thought that Tosaki must have no body heat of his own.

Kou’s face twisted, his hands still pressed to the door. He made no attempt to open it, though, and eventually slammed his forehead against it. “Damn... Damn!”

“Let’s go,” Kei said, though his voice wasn’t quite as strong as he’d like. He drew back, though he kept hold of Kai’s hand; Kai meshed their fingers. “Shinya must know we’re here. And if his senses are anything like mine, he’ll be able to smell those fucking mints.”

Yusuke jumped; shrugged off his blood-soaked coat. Kei appreciated his quick understanding.

“He can probably hear us, too,” Kei said, and Yusuke’s eyes widened. “I can’t locate him, but it’s a big place, and he’s probably not going out of his way to make himself known.”

“Shinya!” Yusuke shouted, cupping his hands to his mouth. He took a couple of unsteady steps forward. “Shinya, it’s me! It’s Yusuke! I made it back! Finally!” He began to trot deeper into the facility, Kei and the others trailing behind. “Shinya!”

“You better make this worth it,” Kou growled, falling into step beside Tosaki. Though Tosaki glared, he also took a nervous sideways-step away. “You better be able to stop this thing.”

“No promises,” Tosaki muttered, pulling out his tin of mints.

“Shinya!” Yusuke called again, and suddenly Kei reached forward; grabbed Yusuke’s shoulder and brought him to a halt.

“Footsteps. Someone’s coming. Running. Let’s wait.”

Yusuke’s eyes lit up; he shook off Kei’s hand, then hurrying down the hallway despite Kei’s shout of objection. “It has to be! Shinya!”

“Stupid...!” Kei cursed, but Kai tightened his grip on Kei’s hand. Kei glanced over, surprised.

“Let him go,” Kai said, and then smiled. “I wouldn’t be able to wait, either.”

The footsteps grew nearer; Kei heard them stumble in their haste. Then a young man came skidding around the corner, his pale orange hair tousled. He slammed into Yusuke, wrapping his arms tightly around him; Yusuke held him close in return.

“You came back...” Shinya breathed, then drew back. His eyes gleamed, but no tears brimmed over. “Why did you come back? Yusuke, you...!”

“I told you I would,” Yusuke said. “I love you. I love you so much. We’re going to run away together, remember? That’s what I’m still living for.”

“But...” Shinya mumbled, and then buried his face in Yusuke’s chest.

Kai squeezed Kei’s hand.

“We’re going to fix it,” Yusuke said, kissing the top of Shinya’s head. “I love you. I love you. We’re going to fix it, now.”

Shinya nodded, then withdrew. He glared past the others, directly at Tosaki. “What’s he doing here?”

“He knows the most about the project that did this,” Kei said, walking forward. He released Kai’s hand, then held his out in greeting. “I’m Kei Nagai.”

Shinya regraded his hand warily. “You smell... like me.”

Kei nodded. “I am. Aberrants—that’s what we’re called.”

Shinya nodded slowly, then took Kei’s hand. “Did Peppermints do it to you, too?”

Kei shook his head. “Apparently it happens naturally to a very few people. There’s one other that we know of.”

Shinya looked surprised. “Really?”

“You were probably predisposed to this, somehow,” Tosaki said bitterly. “That’s why it didn’t work. That’s why you came back like this, not because of the treatments.”

“... That makes sense,” Kei said thoughtfully, then turned to Shinya. “Have you looked into it, at all? While you’ve been here?”

Shinya nodded. “I’ve read all of my own files, and most of the ones...” he swallowed, “... the ones before me.”

Kei nodded. “Good. Show me.” He jerked his head towards Tosaki. “You too. C’mon.”

Tosaki muttered bitterly, but he complied.

... ... ...

Some of the Jikininki tilted their heads as Tanaka and Izumi passed, circling the facility, but none made a move toward them.

“They mostly don’t care,” Tanaka said. He had a perpetual slouch, Izumi noted—an effort, conscious or unconscious, to go unnoticed. “I mean, sometimes if something stirs them up, they’ll start attacking whatever’s closest to them.”

“We do still bleed red,” Izumi said.

Tanaka looked uncomfortable. “Yeah. That sets them off.”

Izumi looked up at the facility. “The people who were with me should have gotten in alright. I don’t think any of them got bitten.”

Tanaka shook his head. “I didn’t smell any blood.”

“I’m a bit surprised no one came back for me,” Izumi said, with a wry smirk. “Kou seemed upset.”

“Are there others, too? Like us?”

“Two that I know of,” Izumi said. “A Kei Nagai, who’s with my group, and Shinya Nakamura.” She explained what they knew of Shinya and the origins of Jikininki, even pulling up her shirt to display the bite that Shinya had given her.

Tanaka held up his arm. “This was mine.”

Izumi saw at least three bite-scars of varying ages, but the one Tanaka pointed to was clearly the oldest. It was a perfect semi-circle on the side of his forearm, as though he’d raised the limb to ward off an attack.

“They chew on you from time to time, eh?”

Tanaka shrugged. “Like you said, we do bleed red.”

Izumi nodded, then climbed up onto a flower planter outside the facility. She peered in through a window. “I want to scare them.”

“What?”

Izumi dropped back down. “They ditched me. Kou doesn’t deserve it, but I’ll bet I can give my asshole boss a good scare. You can help, if you want.”

Tanaka stared at her for a moment, then looked down. “I’m... I’ve scared enough people.”

Izumi shrugged. “Suit yourself. But you can come with us, regardless.”

“I can what?”

“You can’t stay here with these horrible things,” Izumi said, climbing up onto the building again. This time when she pressed on the window pane there was a bit of give. She grunted, shoving with her shoulder. “Like I said, we’re trying to stop this thing. If we figure out how to reverse whatever’s happened to us, you have every right to that, too.”

Tanaka got up beside her, pushing against the window. Together, they got it to open with a quiet creak.

So close, Izumi still couldn’t smell anything remotely human about Koji Tanaka. His scent was the rotten corpse-smell of a Jikininki. She could tell from his breath that he’d eaten recently.

Izumi hopped into the office inside the window, then motioned Tanaka in after her. He crawled—a bit clumsily, his legs far longer than hers—across a desk and then stepped down beside her. She held a finger to her lips and listened.

Kei was speaking rapidly, a floor above them and several rooms over; a voice she didn’t recognize replied. They must’ve found Nakamura, then... She could smell mints.

Motioning to Tanaka, she crept into the hallway. It was blessedly free of Jikininki, so there must’ve been something to the theory that Nakamura could keep them away. Kei might be able to smell me... I hope...

“Give me your jacket,” she breathed, and Tanaka jumped.

“What?”

“My scent!” she hissed, and Tanaka fumbled with his tattered jacket. Izumi draped it over her shoulders, though her nose wrinkled at the stale odor of carnage and filth. She guessed it had once been red and white, but had grown dingy and gore-encrusted. It did the trick, though—she could hardly make out her own scent beneath it.

Izumi slunk forward, Tanaka keeping close behind her. The unintelligible conversation continued as they climbed the stairs, but then fell abruptly silent. She heard Kou’s voice rise, for a moment, and Kei quickly shushed him.

There we go... you’ve smelled us, then...

The mint scent grew markedly stronger; Tosaki must be nervous. He always started to chew them, as opposed to letting them dissolve, when he was anxious.

Izumi made out the stranger’s voice as she slunk closer. “... They’ve never come in, before. Not past the lobby, anyhow...”

“You, keep that pointed at the door.” Tosaki’s voice was cold.

Izumi motioned for Tanaka to wait a few feet back; she was confident she could dodge a bullet or two, but his reflexes were likely shot by fatigue and nerves. Shifting on the balls of her feet, she reached for the doorknob. As an afterthought, she took off her shoe and hefted it experimentally.

She could tell that Kei had backed up as far as the room allowed.

Wrenching the door open, she shouted, “Boo!” even as Kou got a shot off. She ducked, then heard the satisfying clonk as her shoe hit Tosaki dead in the face.

“Izumi?!” Kou bobbled the gun; shot again into the ceiling, accidentally, and then yelped at the resulting shower of plaster bits. He dropped the gun.

Izumi smirked, watching as Tosaki wiped grime off his face. “Miss me?”

Shinya Nakamura had clasped one hand over his mouth; Yusuke held his shoulders, whispering concerned questions.

“You’re okay!” Kou exclaimed, and Izumi stiffened when he nearly tackled her to the ground. He paid no attention to the reeking jacket she’d borrowed. “Are you okay? Did you get bitten?!”

“Did I what?” Izumi asked in surprise, then glanced up as Kei approached.

“I had a feeling it was you,” he said. “Jikininki don’t generally creep.”

“Thanks for not giving me away,” she said.

“Who’s with you?” Kei asked.

Izumi turned; Tanaka wasn’t visible. She could tell he was lurking just out of sight, though, and she called, “Koji. Come meet everyone.”

Tanaka came into the doorway, his shoulders hunched, and Kou gasped in alarm. Kei wrinkled his nose, muttering, “You stink.”

Izumi shot him a warning look. “He’s an aberrant. Like us. Don’t be a dick.”

“Aberrant?” Kou asked, but introductions took priority, and his question went unanswered.

Once perfunctory acquaintances had been made, Kei returned to the desk where Shinya and Yusuke stood, picking up a folder. He motioned Izumi over. “How much do you know about the project?”

Izumi shrugged. “I was Tosaki’s assistant. I know the basics. I read a few things out of curiosity, but I never dug too deep. I didn’t want to know, really.”

Shinya blinked at her, his gaze keen, but she didn’t acknowledge him.

Kei nodded. “Well, we’re halfway to an antidote already—they were working on one just in case. Shinya’s been studying the files, too. Between he and I and Peppermints, we can probably whip up a couple of trial doses within two or three days.”

“Wow.” Izumi glanced over at Tosaki; wondered who’d started calling him ‘Peppermints’ and vowed to call him nothing else from that moment on. “It was that easy, hmm?”

“No idea if it’ll work, of course,” Tosaki muttered. “You think we didn’t try it when this all went to hell?”

“I was there,” Izumi snapped. “I saw the minimal effort put in to combat it.”

“This place was overrun within days,” Tosaki retorted, and jerked his head towards Shinya. “He kept escaping and lurking around and attacking people, too!”

“I was supposed to what? Sit back and let you keep experimenting on me? After all that?” Shinya demanded.

“We could’ve used you to develop an antidote,” Tosaki replied.

“Liar,” Izumi spat. “You and everyone else were more concerned about the cover-up, at that point.”

“You don’t know what you’re taking about,” Tosaki retorted.

“Hey,” Kai cut in, bodily placing himself in the middle of the confrontation. “That’s in the past. We’re here now, and we can maybe fix this. We shouldn’t waste time picking at each other.”

Izumi raised her head, sniffing, and then turned on her heel. “Come on, Koji,” she said, his jacket still fluttering around her shoulders. He looked genuinely confused as she took his arm. “We’ll get you cleaned up a bit.”

Once Izumi had left, Tosaki let out a shuddering breath; sat down heavily in the desk chair and started sifting through papers. Kei watched him, for a moment, then turned toward Shinya.

“Are there supplies? Food, water, medical? We could use some extra guns, too, for security.”

Shinya nodded. “There’re some dry goods and a bunch of bottled water stored in the basement. I...” He cleared his throat; glanced at Yusuke, then continued, “I ask the Jikininki to bring me food, when it’s too much. They do. It’s weird. Can you guys do that?”

Kei shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“That might be the treatments,” Tosaki spoke up unexpectedly, and both aberrants glanced at him. “They might’ve given you extra abilities. Or something to do with the fact that you’re the progenitor. That’s probably it, come to think of it. Every single one of them came from you, so of course they obey you.”

Kou’s eyes widened, even as Shinya’s hands clenched. “This isn’t my fault! You’re the one who—“

“What kind of idiot doesn’t read the things he signs?” Tosaki scoffed. “You didn’t even wonder why the pay was so high.”

“I doubt you said anything about this kind of thing in some stupid medical forms!” Shinya snapped.

“Not this particular scenario,” Tosaki admitted, “but we did mention you might die, or come back wrong. You’ve read the previous subjects’ files. We disclosed those possibilities.”

Shinya’s face twisted, but he had no reply. Yusuke wrapped his arms around him, murmuring soothing things and kissing his neck.

“Let’s just get this done,” Kei murmured, tapping the desk. “Kou. Could you go take a look at those supplies? Shinya?”

Shinya nodded, still glaring at Tosaki. “C’mon, then,” he said, waving to Kou. Yusuke went automatically with them, leaving only Kei, Kai, and Tosaki.

For a moment, no one attempted conversation. Then Kai eased himself against the desk. “Why did you do this? Really?”

Tosaki glared at him. “When has man ever needed a reason to play god?”

“‘A Modern-Day Prometheus...’” Kei murmured.

Kai shook his head. “I know a bit about the black market,” he said, and Kei looked up in genuine surprise. Tosaki winced as Kai tapped a document. “And I know this company doesn’t really exist. It’s a cover for illegal organ sale.”

How in the hell do you know that?! Kei wanted to ask, but decided he’d choose another moment to—very belatedly—pry into Kai’s background.

“I only know they funded us,” Tosaki said. “I didn’t know a thing about them. That wasn’t part of my job.”

Again Kai shook his head. “My dad always complained about a supplier, this ‘albino pussy bastard—‘ his words, not mine—who quit smoking and started chewing mints all the time. He hated the smell of those mints.”

Kei’s eyes widened. “Kai... you...”

“This company,” Kai tapped the paper again, “usually set the market price for kidneys and livers. They were always in weirdly perfect condition, too, so dad figured they were lab-grown. He didn’t really care, but he thought if that type of thing was possible, it might eliminate the organ market, or at least drive prices way down. He ranted about it a lot, while he was drunk.”

“So what? Why bring all this up?” Tosaki ground out between his teeth.

“You funded this research personally,” Kai said. “You might’ve had help, backers, but you were the center of the operation the whole time—running this dummy company, funding your own research here. The organs were probably your technology, too—that kind of thing certainly isn’t widely-known, or legal. What I can’t figure out is why. You don’t seem to have had any intention of creating a product or marketing any of the results, so why go to such ends? Why involve yourself with people like my no-good dad just to pay for experiments that consisted of killing and then trying to resurrect unsuspecting college kids? And why have you seemingly lost all interest in it, now?”

“Because some people can’t be saved...” Kei breathed, and Tosaki exploded from his chair.

“Shut your rotting mouth.”

“Because some people can’t be saved!” Kei said again, louder, facing Tosaki. “That was what you were shouting at Yusuke! You were trying to resurrect someone!”

“She wasn’t dead, yet!” Tosaki shouted. “There was still time!”

There was a beat of silence, and then Kai leaned forward; said, “She wasn’t dead yet.”

Tosaki whipped around to glare at him. “She wasn’t. And we weren’t trying to kill anyone. We were trying to induce the same type of coma and then bring someone out of it. They kept dying, though. And then the Nakamura boy.”

“I’ll bet you thought he’d be the answer,” Kei said. “That you’d gotten it right, finally.”

Tosaki didn’t reply, but lowered himself back down into the chair; stared bitterly at the documents strewn in front of him. “It was too late, anyway...

“It was too late.”

Chapter Text

Yoko Tainaka had plans. She had finally managed to run away, and she wasn’t going back, no matter what it took.

“Izumi. Izumi Shimomura,” she said, when the man asked her name. “I have an appointment.”

The man regarded her skeptically; she guessed not many of her gender and stature came seeking work with this company. But she needed to disappear, she needed work, and she needed—

“Ah. Miss Shimomura.” A second man appeared in a doorway, then—a man with white hair and glasses. He looked weary, and Izumi felt a deep sense of empathy. Her own body felt strangely ephemeral, her strength worn away by lack of sleep and persistent hunger. Her strength worn away by the want of—

“Yes.” Izumi bowed, then offered her hand. “And you are...?”

“Yu Tosaki.” He clasped her hand. “We spoke.”

Izumi’s eyes widened. “Ah. I didn’t expect...”

Tosaki held her hand for a moment longer, feeling its frailty, and then released it. He turned. “Come. We’ll speak in my office.”

Izumi padded after him. Yu Tosaki smelled faintly of mints, and the scent grew stronger when she entered his office. He bade her sit, then took his own seat.

“I’ll be blunt, Miss Shimomura,” Tosaki began. “I’m not sure what you have to offer us. And you’re asking quite a lot in return.”

“Then why agree to meet with me?” Izumi asked, her heart quickening. She folded her hands in her lap to hide their trembling. If this doesn’t... then...

Tosaki considered that. “Because you sounded... desperate,” he said at last, his tone almost unkind. He snapped open a tin of mints; offered her one. She declined. “Desperate people are sometimes the strongest. They have to be.”

“I have to be,” Izumi said quietly. “As for what I can offer, I’ll do anything you need me to. Anything. If I’m not capable of it, I’ll become capable of it.”

Tosaki raised an eyebrow. He observed, “You’re only a woman.”

Izumi cringed internally, but didn’t allow it to show. She glanced up at Tosaki, and then shrugged her jacket off.

“If you wish me to be nothing more than a woman...” she said, and unbuttoned her shirt, “than I’m more than prepared for that, too.”

Tosaki stood; slammed his hand down, startling her. “Stop that!”

The ferocity in his voice made Izumi fumble with the third button, and then she redid it. When he gaze didn’t waver, she hastily closed the top two, confused and mildly distressed.

Tosaki sat heavily back down, his hand still flat on the table. “I don’t want that,” he growled, brow twitching with what might have been annoyance. “God damn woman.”

“You said—!” Izumi began to object, and Tosaki cut in.

“I said you’re only a woman. There wasn’t any subtext.” He gave a suffering sigh, leaning back and kneading at his forehead. “Listen. I’ll take you on as a secretary. We’ll see how useful you can make yourself, alright?”

Izumi nodded faintly, relief filling her tight chest. But she still asked, “And my conditions?”

“For a secretary?” Tosaki scoffed. “That’s an expensive drug.”

Izumi swallowed, but didn’t plead. She waited, sensing—hoping—that Tosaki would say more.

He did. “We’re going to have to get you clean, that’s all there is to it. Expensive shit... And you won’t make a very useful secretary when your mind is drug-addled, after all.”

... ... ...

Though the research facility didn’t, for understandable reasons, have a real bath, the laboratories had emergency showers.

Izumi found a cache of scrubs in one cabinet, rooting around until she found a gray and black set in what appeared to be the right size. When she returned to the lab, there was still the sound of running water from within—she couldn’t blame him for taking his time.

“Found some new clothes,” she called through the door. “I’m going to slid them in, okay?”

Receiving mumbled agreement, she opened the door a crack and shoved the bundle of fabric inside. Then she sat, patient, in the hallway; listened to the rushing water and almost dozed off. At some point, Koji Tanaka took up a mumbled melody under his breath.

The water stopped. Several more minutes passed and then the door opened; Izumi stood to meet him. Tanaka still smelled strongly of dead things, but a more human scent was beginning to leak through. Izumi leaned forward to get a better sense of it, and Tanaka froze as she sniffed.

Vanilla... sandalwood... It was a pleasant scent, beneath the lingering necrosis. A little bit of cinnamon...

Dropping back, turning to walk away, she said, “You don’t smell quite so dead.”

... ... ...

“It works like a virus, right?” Kei asked, examining a chart that belonged to one Shinya Nakamura.

“The infection goes after the heart and the brain, in all except aberrants,” Tosaki said. “It stops the heart and outright destroys brain matter. But it invades other cells and, instead of destroying them, it keeps body functions—muscle movement and olfactory processes, mainly, and certain digestive processes—going. But without a functioning heart, there's no blood flow. Tissues die—the virus draws any nutrients it needs from the host tissue. Decay occurs. So you get a Jikininki. If left long enough, the body would fail entirely due to the decay.”

“No idea what causes it to happen differently in aberrants?” Kai asked.

“None that they were able to find,” Shinya said. “And none that I’ve found, going over their research.”

“If we come up with something that kills the virus...” Yusuke said, and he and Kai exchanged a glance.

It was Kei who replied. “There’s no guarantee how aberrants would react. There’s no indication that the virus is in any way keeping us alive, which is the good news. But we don’t know that for sure. And the virus might fight back against whatever treatment we develop, besides. Healthy tissues can be damaged when that happens. Even with normal illnesses, you sometimes get cell-death on problematic levels.”

Shinya looked down; Yusuke took his hand.

“For now, we just have to focus on killing Jikininki cells,” Kei said, shuffling through papers. “If we can stop the Jikininki, that’ll be enough. Any application for us is secondary, at least for now.”

“That’s true,” Tosaki said. “That’s what you’ve always said the goal is—to stop the world from ending.”

“It is our primary goal,” Kei said, decisive. He stood. “Show me where we can fix some samples.” Tosaki nodded, then stood; gathered up files. “Shinya, you come, too.”

“Do you want me to come, love?” Kai asked. “Or wait here?”

Kei felt a stab of regret, but he appreciated Kai’s consideration. “Wait here.”

Kai nodded. “I’ll wait, then.”

Once the three of them had gone, Kai glanced over at Yusuke; Yusuke had his eyes hidden behind one hand, head lowered. Kai reached over and scratched lightly between his shoulder blades.

“Even if we can’t get them back to normal, it’ll be fine.” He smiled, though Yusuke hadn’t looked up. “We’re with them, right?”

Yusuke shook his head slowly, then raised his head; stared at the door that Tosaki and the two aberrants had vanished through. His eyes were ringed red. “He did this... so we could be together. And it turned out like this.”

“I’m a bit jealous, honestly.”

Yusuke glanced over. “What?”

Kai stared back, eyes half-lidded and mouth set in a serious line. “Shinya risked everything. Even though it turned out this way, that’s a beautiful thing.”

“I’ve seen how Kei acts around you,” Yusuke said. “I’m sure he’d do the same.”

Kai shrugged. “He’s left me before. And he might do it again. I’m fine with that. But I love him, so that’s what I live with.”

Yusuke’s eyes widened, but he didn’t offer any comment.

“You’ll be together,” Kai said, with certainty. “You and Shinya. For sure. And I’ll be there for Kei, too, no matter what.”

... ... ...

“I hate this...” Shinya muttered, sitting on the edge of an exam table. He had sensors stuck to his chest, drawing memories of his time as a part of the clinical trial sharply into his mind.

“I’m up next,” Kei said, scratching down some notes. He glanced up at the monitors. “Peppermints. This normal?”

“Depends on your definition of normal,” Tosaki replied. “Heart-rate is 30 beats per minute. Temp is 70.4 degrees. Normal for an aberrant.”

“That’s dismal,” Kei muttered. He touched the base of his own jaw, feeling the sluggish beat there. 

“Blood pressure is on the low end of normal...” Tosaki reported, “and his lungs sound clear—good news.”

If we can just... “Good. We’ll take some blood and tissue samples, then it’s my turn.”

After that was done, Tosaki said, “I’ll go find Shimomura, too. We should get her baseline.” He set his clipboard down, even as Kei and Shinya moved to switch places.

“Do you really think this’ll work?” Shinya asked, as Kei settled in on the table.

“It has to,” Kei replied.

“Why?”

“Why did you let them do this to you?” Kei asked; when Shinya drew an indignant breath, he continued: “Because it needed to work. Because you had something worth risking your health, your life for.”

Shinya let out his breath; paused, and thought. Then he said, “I don’t get it.”

“You and Yusuke are going to run away, right?” Kei asked. “You were willing to go this far for that. I’m going to live with Kai—for as long as we’re both alive. It has to work, because I’ll do whatever I have to to secure that future. He stayed with me, so I'll make sure I'm able to stay with him.”

Shinya blinked slowly, then said, “I... It’ll work, then.”

Kei nodded. “It has to work.”

... ... ...

“Shimomura.”

Izumi glanced over her shoulder, then leaned farther forward on the railing. The second-floor balcony had been the best place to take a smoke-break, when the facility had been operational; Tosaki had seen Izumi standing in that exact spot many times before, and he drew a deep breath before approaching.

The air smelled of cigarettes, and Izumi let out a long breath laden with smoke.

“Come down to the lab for a bit. We’re running some basic tests on you aberrations.”

Izumi drew a deep breath, then exhaled the smoke through her nose. “Why should I? Haven’t you got Nakamura and Nagai as lab rats?”

“The wider range of data we have—“

“I’m done doing you favors, Tosaki.”

Tosaki took a deep breath. “I know. But this isn’t—“

“Tell me about her. About Ai.”

Tosaki stiffened; spat, “What?”

Izumi took a long drag, then held out her cigarette. “Want some?”

Tosaki drew back as though struck, and Izumi chuckled—without humor.

“At least I can’t smell your damn mints through it,” she muttered, and replaced the cigarette in her mouth.

“I promised,” Tosaki ground out. “I told her I’d quit.”

“I know. But now she’s dead.”

“I won’t break my promise.”

“Because that’s the closest you got to wedding vows?”

Tosaki’s teeth grit. “You don’t know a damn thing about us.”

“So tell me. Sway me.”

Tosaki’s jaw worked angrily, but he resisted the urge to reach for his mint tin. “Ai... She was my world.”

“Don’t be a fucking cliche,” Izumi scoffed.

“It’s true!” Tosaki retorted. “She was what I lived for. And when she got sick...”

“Sick?”

“No one could tell us what it was.” Tosaki let out a shuttering breath. The scent of Izumi’s cigarette made his fingers twitch. “She went into a coma.”

“So you were trying to reproduce the illness?” Izumi asked. “With these kids, like Nakamura?”

“We couldn’t... There was no treatment, because it wasn’t anything any doctor had seen before.” Tosaki hung his head. “I needed...”

“What do you think she would think?”

Tosaki scoffed. “She’d be horrified. But I was prepared for that. If she would only wake up, I was prepared to pay any price.”

“But she died.”

“She did. The night that Nakamura came back.”

Izumi was silent for a moment; took one last deep drag of her cigarette, then snuffed it out. “And so you ran away.”

“There was nothing left. Everything was ruined.”

“Didn’t you want to die?”

Tosaki flinched. “I...”

“You did this. To Nakamura. To me. And to everyone who’s dead, now.” Izumi turned; leaned against the railing and tilted her head back. “And then you think you can just run away?”

“I don’t know,” Tosaki spat. “I didn’t... I wasn’t thinking ahead...”

“Of course you weren’t,” Izumi said. “You weren’t letting yourself grieve, either. You were just trying to move forward however you could.”

“Don’t try to analyze me...” Tosaki muttered.

Izumi’s eyebrows rose. “I’m trying to find you some justification. You should be grateful.”

“And what about you?” Tosaki demanded. “I saved you.”

“I am grateful,” Izumi said, toying with butt of the cigarette on the railing. “I won’t say you saved me, though. I would’ve survived.”

“You were hooked. I’ve seen it before,” Tosaki said. “You would’ve dragged yourself back to your supplier eventually, if someone hadn’t stepped in.”

Izumi recalled her stepfather—saw again his gleaming grin. She saw, too, her mother’s body, twitching there on the carpet as she overdosed. She saw her mother’s body, contorted and discolored in death, putrid vomit smeared in her hair.

I might have... gone back... She had been desperate. But Tosaki had taken her on. Tosaki, although always using self-interest as justification, had gotten her clean.

Izumi’s fingertips were smeared with ash. “What you did for me doesn’t absolve you of other things. And it doesn’t mean I owe you shit, either.”

Tosaki started to object, then grit his teeth. He pulled out his mints; ground a couple between his teeth and shivered at the chalky scrape of them. The taste wasn’t strong enough.

“I’m sorry.”

Izumi scoffed. “That goes without saying, asshole.”

... ... ...

When the day faded into early evening, Yusuke repurposed a small laboratory to serve as a kitchen. He used Bunsen burners to heat water for cup noodles; opened cans of fish and vegetables to serve with the instant ramen.

For the aberrants, Shinya had a Jikininki drag a comparably fresh corpse into the lobby. Izumi carved it up with her knife before bringing chunks into the laboratory-turned-dining-room. Tosaki made a show of grimacing, but Kai and Yusuke were unfazed; though Kou spared a few nervous glances, his own appetite seemed unhindered by the presence of raw meat at the table.

Tanaka chose not to eat.

Once the meal had been finished, Kei and Tosaki returned to work; Yusuke and Shinya retired together, hands tangled and heads close together. After a few minutes, Tanaka slunk off, as well, and Izumi trailed after him.

Kai finished cleaning up, then sat down and stared at the door Kei had vanished through. He sighed; rested his chin on one palm.

Kou plunked down across from him. “Want company?”

Kai glanced over at him. “Thanks. That’d be nice.”

They sat in silence for some time; Kou fidgeted, but didn’t pry. Kai kept his gaze trained on the door, but eventually turned back towards the table. He pulled his backpack out from beneath it, the same one he’d had since he and Kei had first encountered Kou in the woods.

“Do you drink, Kou?”

“Drink?” Kou blinked in surprise, and his jaw fell when Kai produced a bottle of whiskey. “When—?! Where did you—?!”

“Not important. It’s not good to drink alone, though. That can start you down a bad path.” Kai flashed a brilliant smile, pulling over two beakers to serve as glasses. “So, do you drink? No judgment if you don’t.”

“I-I do!” Kou said, and Kai’s smile softened.

“What about cards?” He cracked the seal on the bottle; filled both beakers before fishing a deck of cards from the backpack. It looked well-worn.

Kou laughed. “I’m not too good at cards. Can’t bluff worth shit.”

Kai laughed, shuffling the deck with deft movements. “Makes sense.”

“Hey.” Kou hesitated, but Kai tilted his head; waited patiently until he asked, “Why Kei? He’s kind of... I mean, he seems dependable and all, but he’s kind of a dick.”

Kai chuckled. “You’re right—but you’re wrong. He’s not dependable at all.”

Kou’s eyebrows rose. “Wait, but—I mean, you’re with him, aren’t you?”

Kai nodded. “I am. Until he decides otherwise.” He took a long drink of whisky, expression unchanging as he did so.

“I don’t get it...” Kou muttered; he sipped his own drink, though his nose twitched at the taste.

Kai shuffled the cards; kept his gaze on the ceiling. “What’ll you do, Kou? When we’re done here?”

Kou brightened. “I think I’ll do what Akiyama-san said. I think I can. I’ll give it a try!”

Kai smiled. “You’ll do fine.” The cards clattered as he leafed the deck, then shifted it back together. “Do you know ERS? Or war?”

Kou brightened. “Sure!”

So they drank and played at war, their laughter and shouts growing louder as the night wore on.

Kei occasionally lost focus on his work, much to Tosaki’s irritation, listening to them from several rooms over.

... ... ...

“You reek like alcohol and Nakano. Should I be jealous?”

Kai laughed. It was well into the morning hours, and he couldn’t see Kei in the dark hallway. He could tell from his voice, though, that Kei wasn’t smiling.

“You seemed awfully eager to spend the evening with Tosaki instead of with me. Should be jealous?”

Kei scoffed, then coughed. “That’s disgusting. Why would you—ick. His stinking peppermints almost suffocated me. I’m suffering for the cause.”

Kai laughed softly. “Poor sweetheart. Poor, suffering love.” He started forward, a hand on the wall to keep himself oriented, following the sound of Kei’s voice.

“Don’t mock me.” There was a hint of playfulness to Kei’s words, and Kai nearly laughed aloud—it had been a long time since he’d heard that tone.

“I would never!” Kai exclaimed, and then pounced. He heard the scruff of feet as Kei dodged.

“Liar.” Now there was a smirk in Kei’s voice.

“Come here, love...” Kai appealed, and Kei chuckled.

“Come catch me.”

“You’ve got an unfair advantage,” Kai said, trying to sound pouty. He knew Kei would still be able to hear the smile in his voice. He made another grab; heard Kei shuffle back. “Come here...”

“You’re adorable, thinking I’ll let you catch me. And after you spent the whole night with Nakano. You stink.”

“Right. I forgot you prefer peppermint, now.”

“You...!” Kei sounded genuinely offended. Kai leaped, but again Kei dodged him. “Now I’m definitely not letting you catch me.”

“You say that like I can’t manage it on my own,” Kai said, and Kei scoffed.

“Try.”

Kai took off running; Kei fled down with dark hallway, keeping just a few feet away but never pulling farther ahead. Kai’s fingertips skimmed along the wall, his whole arm humming with the light friction.

Kai laughed breathlessly. “I’ll make it worth your while, if you let me catch you.”

“Oh?”

“I’ll spoil you. I’ll worship you until the sun comes up.”

Kei scoffed. “You’re shameless.”

But Kei had slowed, either swayed by Kai’s appeals or tired of the game. Kai caught his hand; twisted their bodies so that Kei’s back was pressed against the wall.

Kei smelled of dead things—decay and mildewed paper. But he also smelled like sweet vanilla and ink. Kai kissed his neck, breathing deeply.

“Kai...” Kei lifted his head, even though his hands applied a gentle pressure to Kai’s shoulders. “Careful...”

“I will be...” Kai whispered, and indeed he did steer clear of the bite. But he kissed his way down Kei’s right shoulder, feeling Kei’s breath quicken as he did so. “Love you... so much...”

“Love you... too...” Kei mumbled, then groaned lightly as Kai sucked a spot just below his collar bone. “Kai...!”

Clumsily, they bundled into a small office. Kai knocked the abandoned tools—pencil cup, stapler, three-hole punch—to the ground, clearing the way for Kei to lie back across it.

“I love you...” Kai said again, undoing buttons one at a time; trailing kisses across Kei’s chest and down his stomach. He was cold to the touch, and Kai felt his own body heat drawn out by their proximity, leaving him chilled.

Still, Kei was panting—his body responded as a human; mortal, living. Kai climbed up onto the desk over him, kissing him deeply. Kei tangled his hands in the front of Kai’s shirt, pulling him closer.

“I love you...” Kai breathed.

“How many times are you going to say that, you sap?” Kei muttered, kissing harder. He opened his mouth, letting Kai’s tongue in. He moaned softly.

Kei’s mouth was as cold as the rest of him.

Kei tensed suddenly; shoved Kai back. “Oh shit! Saliva...”

“I’m sure it’s fine...” Kai soothed, running a hand through Kei’s hair. He kissed him again, despite Kei’s nervous growl and momentary unresponsiveness. “As long as you don’t nick me... I haven’t... got any open wounds... in my mouth...”

Kei resisted for a moment, but then relented; kissed back, though more gently. He kept his fingers curled in, though, for fear of accidentally scratching Kai’s back. 

"I can't... if I hurt you..." Kei breathed. 

Kai laughed softly, his body seeming to hum with the sound. "Don't worry about that. It's a nice thing to hear, though." 

"I mean it...!" Kei objected, pushing Kai away again—more lightly this time. Kai allowed it; stilled, for a moment, lusty passions easing into a tender smile. Then he dipped his head and kissed Kei once again; didn't speak. Kei resisted for a moment, but then melted up into the affection with a soft moan. 

Kai was warm.