Actions

Work Header

The One With the Zombies

Chapter Text

1

Of all the things to keep close during a zombie apocalypse, Ash wouldn’t have been in a hurry to save a camera.

But here was this Japanese boy clutching his to his chest as though it was a lifeline. As though it would be able to kill zombies – walkers – whatever you called them.

Bones and Kong had spotted him on a patrol. As he still had every appendage where it should be, the complexion of a human and no apparent desire for human flesh, they had invited him back to their hideout. Rather recklessly, Ash would add, but a the non-leader part of him had known they were right. Here was someone who needed help. If zombies were following, then they’d just have to deal with it.

So far, he hadn’t said a word. That worried Ash – as though the boy’s jaw would drop and that would be when the transformation happened. A long, low moan coming from him and then the frenzy for brains.

But his eyes were clear and dark.  Zombie’s eyes looked like eggs in their skull – white and fleshy and unseeing. This boy had wide, eyes the colour of melted chocolate that watched everything calmly. He looked at Ash. Maybe it was because they had colour, but he felt his lips twitch upwards at those eyes. He wanted to say it was just because he had seen two many egg-eyeballs and that was why he liked those eyes so much. Eyes like a Labrador retriever – trusting Ash and his merry band of street kids without a second thought.

The man they had found him with had been doing all of the talking, in halting English. Ash could feel a frown coming on as he listened to their explanation. He wished he could make it easier, but he didn’t speak a lick of Japanese. French, Italian, sure. Enough German to hold a conversation. But Japanese? No.

They had been in New York as journalists – that explained the camera. When the outbreak had started, they had switched to a hotel in New Jersey – far enough out of the city to sleep at night, but easy to get back to their article when it died down. They had thought it would die down. Everyone had.

Then of course, things got worse. Things had spread.

So they had fled New York, but they had no idea where they were going. They had tried heading through New York State, because survival had taken over having a long term plan.

“What were you writing about?” Bones asked. He was sat on a crate, swinging his legs so that his battered converses knocked against the wood. It was an annoying noise, but Ash found it hard to get angry about.

“It was about – about street gangs.” The man said. He tried for a smile, but he still looked tired and haggard. “I guess we found one.”

Ash nodded. He leant back against a crate. “We decided it was better to stay in one place – build up our defences. If we have a stronghold, we can last this out.”

“He says ‘we,’ but Ash decided it,” Kong said. He was next to Bones – everyone had gathered around with eager eyes. Everyone wanted a glimpse at these new people – new people who weren’t foaming at the mouth to kill them had been a rarity in the last two weeks.

But something had just clicked with Ash. A reporter – a reporter writing about street gangs in New York.

“Ash Lynx,” he said, holding a hand to his chest. He couldn’t help but smile when the man’s eyes widened in realisation. He had been expecting that – he didn’t expect him to burst into laughter. After a moment, he held out his hand to Ash.

“Shunichi Ibe,” he said. “And this is Eiji Okumura.”

Eiji Okumura. Ash had to wonder if that name meant anything in Japanese. He smirked, shaking Ibe’s hand.

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” he said. “What a coincidence, huh?”

“You can say that again.”

“You’re welcome to stay,” Ash said, leaning back against the crates. “For however long you need. This can’t last for much longer.”

Ibe nodded his thanks, colour returning to his cheeks. That made Ash feel like he was doing a huge favour. He couldn’t bring himself to think anything of it. Surely that’s what any decent person would do. Ash wanted to be decent. He wanted to come out of this looking decent. It was selfish – but if an apocalypse was what it took for him to become a decent person, then maybe it would be worth it.

Bones and Skipper started the clamouring – pestering Ibe about what he had already written – and that started the others off. They bombarded him with questions – because it was still bright daylight and the situation never felt quite as real in the day. It was easy to laugh and joke and pretend that a Japanese reporter was the most interesting thing that they had ever seen.

Ash slipped away. He stepped around them so that he was stood next to the Japanese boy. Eiji. He was watching everything with that same interested look in his eyes. Like it was all fascinating. Those dark eyes also had dark lashes. Ash supposed they were long, but maybe they weren’t. They were the right size, he supposed. His skin was dark, the colour of a latte, but it looked gold where the patches of sunlight were coming through the roof. And he had a bow-shaped mouth – Ash’s attention was only drawn towards it because it was parted ever so slightly.

The boy looked up at him suddenly and then away. That was what made Ash realise that he had been staring. He cleared his throat.

“It was Eiji, wasn’t it?” he asked. Because he wanted to hear this boy talk – and it wasn’t just to check that he still could.

Almost as if he knew, Eiji just nodded. Involuntarily, Ash sighed and he suddenly looked panicked.

“Sorry – I’m-“ there was that voice. “I’m not – my English is…not so good.”

“It sounds great,” Ash said. It had been on impulse, because he hadn’t expected that voice. He was nervous, clearly, but there was something in that voice that Ash couldn’t put his finger on. “I mean, you’re doing great.”

“I haven’t really spoken much yet.” Eiji was smiling – a shy, apologetic smile up at Ash. He was short – shorter than him by a couple of inches, at least.

“I can tell these things.”

Eiji gave a soft laugh. He looked so self-conscious that a part of Ash just wanted to shake him. What kind of a person worried about his English in the middle of an apocalypse. The world was ending, but this boy was wasting time being shy. It seemed completely backwards.

“Um,” Eiji said, too loudly and then looked down, embarrassed. “I don’t suppose – it’s silly – that’s real?”

He gestured towards the gun slung into Ash’s jeans. There was no point concealing it anymore – hiding it under a shirt cost him a precious half second.

“It is.” Ash said, his finger running over the top of it. His pistol.

“I never saw a real gun, before-“ Eiji waved a hand to the doorway. They had attached several more bolts to the warehouses doors to keep it reinforced. “Can I hold it?”

“Sure.” Ash wasn’t sure what it was – maybe it was the poor, accented English, or the genuine look of interest in those damn, dark eyes, but suddenly he was handing over his gun to this boy. His gun.

He stared at it for a moment, his fingers running over the barrel of the gun. As though it was something precious. Ash had expected him to point it at someone – to play at shooting zombies or something – but he just handed it back and said “thank you.”

"You don't want to keep it? For protection?"

Eiji shook his head. "I can't shoot."

Ash wasn't sure why that made him smile. That should mean that he was a liability. That he was weak. And yet, he found it oddly endearing.

“Well, I can’t shoot with yours,” he gestured to the camera hanging around Eiji’s neck.

He looked down, like he had forgotten that it was there at all. Then laughed, holding it carefully. After all, that was his chosen item to save in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.

Maybe that was why he shrugged and said "I'll teach you to shoot, sometime."

Sometime? Like this was a happy vacation and they wouldn't be discovered any day now. Like they weren't walking a tightrope between alive and dead, with undead a gaping possibility underneath. Like teaching a boy he had just met how to shoot a gun was normal. Maybe it was, when he was shooting people in the head daily. Maybe that could be his excuse, because suddenly some part of him didn’t want Eiji to know the truth. That guns were a daily occurrence before the living dead.

Maybe it wouldn’t matter. Ash wasn’t expecting to survive before the week was out, and he knew as soon as he went his team would fall apart too. If that happened, there was no way Eiji and Ibe would be able to hang on. It was a miracle they had made it this far.

That was a terrible thought. It made Ash feel vaguely sick. No, he didn’t want it to not matter. But he didn’t want to think about all of this.

Just why on earth had he promised a sometime?

*

Eiji hadn’t been able to sleep at all. The ‘hideout’ was an old warehouse and the wind rattled the walls all night.  The sleeping area was at the top of a very rusty ladder – the floor was metal with that pattern of raised lines that made it impossible to get comfortable on. Everyone just seemed to drop their sleeping bags and fall asleep in a pile like a litter of puppies, all pushing each other to get a spot on the air mattresses. The only one who seemed unrivalled for a place in the middle was the tiny, dark-skinned boy spread-eagled in the middle. He hadn’t been brave enough to throw himself into the bundle of bodies.

It was cold on the other side of the warehouse and every howl of the weather outside made Eiji’s heart pause. They were safe here – they had a changing guard all night and he’d been told at the first sign of a zombie they would hit the fire alarm – sending thick, metal doors down to seal them off from the world. If that didn’t work, they were all packing guns.

Everyone but Eiji.

He kept seeing the same face – a middle aged main with flaking, beige-green skin. A trail of dried blood running down from the corner of his mouth and those wide, white, unblinking eyes. Hardly the worst he had seen – there was no hanging eyeballs or broken, drooping jaws – but it had been the first. And it had been so almost normal that it had been even worse. Uncanny valley, his brain told him, even though he wasn’t entirely sure what the phrase entailed. It had been the moment that he had known something was very, very wrong. He had tugged on Ibe's sleeve without a word.

And then the man had turned.

Then the man had grinned.

Eiji opened his eyes, feeling panic bloom in his throat at just the memory. He sat up in the darkness - because it was pitch black up here.

Sniffles, snorts and snores came from the pile of teenage boys as he fumbled for his phone and flicked the torch on. He padded across the raised metal floor in his socks, then inched down the rusty ladder at the far end, his phone tucked into his chin.

There was a rectangle of moonlight coming from the huge doors that lead into the warehouse. It had been filled with squashy, smelly furniture that looked like a shadowy army in the dark. Ibe had been offered the battered armchair downstairs as a courtesy. He had asked Eiji if he was fine with it and Eiji had nodded, but there had been a ball in his throat as he had. Don't leave, he wanted to say. Don't leave me alone with all these loud American boys.

A figure was silhouetted in the doorway. They turned as they heard Eiji approach.

“No torches.”

Eiji flicked it off before thinking. He knew that voice. That was the blonde boy who had smiled and told Eiji his atrocious English was good.

“Sorry,” he said, stepping up to the doorway.

But the boy had already turned back to stare out over the forest. Ash Lynx – Eiji remembered – he couldn’t forget a name like that. It didn’t seem like the name a real person used.

“Everyone seems to think that they can see lights,” Ash said. He was leaning against the door, his hands in his jean pockets like this was completely normal. “I don’t know how much truth there is in it, but I’m not risking it.”

“Mmm,” Eiji leant against the other door, mainly to stop himself from shaking. He liked Ash – Ash had been the only one who hadn’t spoken to him slowly, as if he was a complete moron. But he still needed to take a moment to translate when he was speaking so fast.

 He chanced a glance at Ash. The light made his hair look silver and his skin ghostly. But his eyes were still that bright green and still had that sparkle in them. Eiji hadn’t been able to look at him for more than a moment earlier when those eyes were on him. He hadn’t been able to look at Ash for more than a moment anyway.

Eiji couldn't believe that this had happened. His first trip to the state and he had been caught in an apocalypse. A zombie apocalypse. The zombie apocalypse.  It seemed completely ridiculous. He had found the gang leader that he had come all this way for, but they were standing in the entrance of a warehouse, looking out for zombies because he hadn’t been able to sleep.

Ash didn’t say anything, but he didn’t chase Eiji off either. They just stood there – a slight breeze in the air, eyes searching the line of trees that sat on the horizon. They were stars, even though they were hardly out of the city, and Eiji wanted to know whether Ash would be able to point out the constellations. He couldn’t.

There was a lot of things he waned to say to Ash. There were so many things he wanted to ask. But the questions never managed to get to his mouth. He hated that he was scared to ask because the words came so easily in Japanese but what if the wrong English one came out? What if he skipped a word or said something too formal or informal or-

But Ash had smiled at him and said that his English had sounded great. That had sent a warm thrill through his chest.

He wasn’t sure how long they stood, staring across the woodchips into the forest before them, but eventually one of the other guys clapped Ash on the shoulder and told him to “get some rest.”

Ash had nodded and his eyes fixed on Eiji’s for just a moment more than was necessary.

“I’m going to crash on the sofa,” Ash said, mainly to the big guy – Kong, Eiji thought his name was – then he turned to Eiji. “If you don’t want to sleep like a meerkat, you can stay down here.”

“A meerkat?”

“You’re right, they’re not cute enough to be meerkats,” Ash paused, and he could hear Kong laughing at the doorway. “What about a litter of piglets?”

“Piglets are cute.”

“Mmm…I guess,” Ash fell over the arm of a sofa, landing on it face down. He raised a hand and waved at Eiji. “Don’t let me sleep in too long.”

In case he was late for school in the morning? Eiji wanted to ask. What did any of them have to wake up for?

But he wasn’t sure how to ask, and Ash’s breathing had evened out already. He couldn’t even remember falling asleep on one of the squashy sofas. They were lumpy and smelt of a dozen things Eiji couldn’t place.

But suddenly the sun was streaming through the warehouse door and there were voices all around him. The room was suddenly full of teenagers wearing ripped jeans and oversized hoodies. And most of them had guns sticking out of their jeans.

None quite looked like the one Ash had – like something from the nineteenth century. All polished wood and shining metal.

No one would have been able to guess that the world was ending outside. They were all laughing and joking with each other, kicking and tossing things and eating their supplies with abandon. It was the postcard image of ‘boys will be boys,’ the idea of boy’s in an American high school. Eiji had never been like that. He wasn’t sure how to join in now – if he even wanted to. It was all rough and tumble and they seemed so close.

The only other person that wasn’t joining in was Ash Lynx himself. He was sat to the side, watching with his chin on his fist.

"You're quiet," Ash leant towards him, the sun making a stamp of light on his skin.

Eiji shrugged. He wasn't sure what to say to that.

"Sorry."

"That's nothing to be sorry about."

Everyone was looking at them now. Because Ash had paid attention to him, the whole gang was privy to their conversation. One guy, with a haircut that even the 80s would fine questionable, spoke up.

"I watched this film once!" he paused as though that was all he had to say. "And the guy picked up a foreign language just by listening to the people talk around him - do you know that film?"

"Bones, that could be any film,” the small boy said, rolling his eyes.

"It had Puss in Boots in it?" Bones scrunched a pale face up as he thought about it.

Ash looked at Eiji, an eyebrow raised as if to say 'do you see what I have to deal with?' Eiji couldn't help giggling. He had missed laughing - it felt as though it had been forever since he had laughed.

"What are you talking about?" Ash asked, completely unimpressed.

"C'mon boss, we watched Shrek 2 altogether."

Kong nodded then, his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes closed. "Masterpiece of a movie. The best Shrek film."

"Yeah, and the cats not real."

"Not the cat, boss - the guy who voices him. He was in that movie!" Bones insisted. "Anyway, I bet that's what Eiji's doing - isn't it Eiji? You're trying to get better at English just by listening to us!"

"Well, I know English, kind of-"

"Eiji speaks English just fine." There was that snap of authority that had been in his voice the previous day. The snap that made everyone fall silent like scolded puppies. Ash stared at them all, then sighed and stood. "I'm going for a breath of fresh air."

He headed off, to where Ibe was standing by the door. He seemed to be the only one here who still owned a belt, Eiji noticed. And then realised he had been staring too long and dragged his gaze away. There was nothing to that, he said. It was just an observation.

"Don't forget a baseball bat!" Bones called cheerfully after him and Ash waved a hand in acknowledgement. A chuckle went through the group at the remark, but it made Eiji's skin crawl.

He hadn't killed a zombie yet. He hoped he wouldn't have to because he wasn't sure he'd be able to. He wasn't sure he'd be able to look into a human's face and shove a knife through their brain. It's brain. It.

The thought was too much, it overturned his stomach. He leant over to Bones and murmured "Going with him."

Bones nodded and opened his mouth to ask something but then someone had him in a headlock and he was digging his elbow into the soft flesh of their stomach and it was all much too rowdy for Eiji. He slipped away.

Ibe was standing guard, somehow managing to keep a weathered eye on the horizon despite the chaos unfolding in the warehouse. Eiji didn't even think he'd noticed him as he passed, until he had a hand on Eiji's elbow.

"If you're going out here, stay close to Ash, alright?"

It had only been a night, but Eiji was so relieved to hear Japanese again.

"Alright."

Ibe nodded and let him go, slowly. He looked a lot older than he had last week. Maybe it was the lack of shaving, but he looked much more weather beaten, more like the protagonist of a gritty western than the journalist Eiji had left Japan with.

He wondered if he looked any different. He had caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror, and the only difference was the dark crescent moons under his eyes. He didn't even really need to shave, there was only a dark shadow under his lip - nowhere near as impressive as some if the stubble the others were sporting.

But Ash didn't have much stubble either, he supposed, squinting in the sunlight. He still had peach fuzz on his cheeks and even the hair on his jaw was saw blonde it was hard to see.

He was watching Eiji, his eyes flickering from him to Ibe.

"What'd he say?" Ash asked. He was pulling a lighter from his jeans pocket. He flicked sparks from it.

"Stay close to you."

Ash smirked. "That's not good advice."

"Why?"

Sparks came from the lighter again. There was a long pause where Ash was staring at the floor. Eiji looked too. Ash was wearing a battered pair of converses, so dirty the white toes were a grey-brown colour. Eiji’s own didn’t look much better from the week he had spent on the run.

"Because I've done some things that I'm not proud of."

“Well.” Eiji rolled his tongue around his mouth. “Everyone has.”

Ash gave him a strange smile.

Then he pulled a box out of his pocket and tugged a cigarette out of it. Eiji watched him light it with some fascination. There was something about the way his eyelashes fanned over his face as he looked down and the way that he cupped his hand over it that Eiji couldn’t pull his gaze away from. He looked like he belonged in a different time – like he had been teleported over from the late seventies.

 "Fresh air?" Eiji asked.

"It's ironic.” A curl of smoke came from Ash’s mouth. He was still smirking and it was still making Eiji’s stomach do flips. His stomach had never done that before – he supposed it was the nerves that was making it happen now.

"I see. Very cool,” Eiji said. “Very macho."

Ash chucked, he took another drag of his cigarette. "There's nothing about me that's macho.”

"Sure. You're a Danny Zuko."

"More of a James Dean."

"Ah,” Eiji said, because he didn’t know what else to say to that.

There was another chuckle, another curl of smoke coming from Ash’s mouth, another flip of Eiji’s stomach.

"You have no idea who I mean, do you?" Ash asked.

"Sorry."

"Rebel Without a Cause,” he tapped the end of the cigarette and put it back in between his teeth. “If we come across a video store, I'll pick it up for you."

"A video store? Did zombies send us back to the nineties?"

"I think the polite term is ‘walkers’?"

"What - is the zombie going to kill me extra hard if I call him a zombie? Will I get given a lecture on hurting a zombie’s feelings?"

"You're mean." Ash was still smiling and for some reason that smile made Eiji feel so much less conscious about talking English.

"They're zombies!” he insisted. “Zombie is a word that you never get to use in real life. I'm using it."

“That’s adorable.”

He was still smiling – smirking really – at him, his eyes as green as the trees around them. Impossibly green.

Eiji’s stomach did more strange things that it hadn’t been doing before. He blinked at Ash, wondering if he had made a mistake. He must have gotten his English confused. This gang leader can’t have told him what he thought he had told him.

He didn’t seem to think so either – Ash’s eyes widened slightly and he turned away. He slipped a hand into the pocket of his ripped jeans and looked out over the clearing. It was just like last night. They lapsed into back into silence, but this time there was an air of awkwardness. Like they had said a little too much and they were trying to go back to how it was before.

Before – they hadn’t even known each other a day.

But the funny thing about living in an apocalypse was that it felt like he had known him a lot longer.

Or maybe he just wanted to.

Chapter Text

2

Ash hadn’t meant to say that. He had meant to keep that in his own head.

He definitely hadn’t meant to tell the shy Japanese boy that he was adorable. Especially not when it had made his eyes double their normal size and his cheeks turn bright pink.

But he had. And instead of explaining that he hadn’t meant to say that out loud, he had just taken a long drag and let that conversation die. Well he certainly wasn’t about to bring that back to life. The recent week had made him appreciate dead things staying dead.

Week and a half, he realised as he checked his watch. He seemed to be the only person who didn’t mind watch duty. He found it a good time to think. Well, it used to be a good time to think, until he had slipped up and said something stupid. Now all he could think of was Eiji’s surprised face.

Eiji telling him that he was Danny Zuko – as if he was incredibly cheesy but also cool and suave. His blank expression when Ash had said James Dean instead. He wasn’t sure how to explain that he felt that first scene of Rebel Without a Cause down to his core. That was him. Messy and yelling and angry.

Not that he wanted Eiji to know that was the real him – he didn’t want Eiji to know anything about him. No one here did – he had made sure of that. He was Ash Lynx and that was it.

A part of him thought there was more to it this time. Maybe because he hadn’t judged Ash for his gun – hadn’t judged Ash smoking – hadn’t judged him at all and Ash thought that the truth might be when he broke. He didn’t want him to break and judge him. Something told him it would hurt more to have this boy he barely knew judge him than anyone in the gang.

Maybe it was because he suspected the gang had begun to caught on. Or that they knew him so well that it wouldn’t matter to them.

He wasn’t sure and he was starting to get tired of thinking about it. The same thoughts kept circling round and round in his mind like a merry-go-round. Round and round and never going anywhere.

“Do you think if a zombie bit a dog it would become a dog zombie?”

That was Bones’ voice. He sounded just as tired as Ash and yawned loudly.

“I don’t know.”

And that was – Ash turned then, to find a bedheaded Bones with a bedheaded Eiji in tow.

“I’m just thinking – it could be a sleeper virus in other animals – like foot and mouth or something,2 Bones continued. “What do you think boss?”

“I don’t think it matters,” Ash said. Even he could hear the deadpan in his own voice that made Bones and Eiji chuckle. “What matters right now is staying alive. We can worry about zombie dogs when they happen.”

“So, you think they can happen!”

“Get on watch.” Ash turned to Eiji. He was hanging back, so that the moonlight didn’t quite reach him. It made those huge eyelashes of his cast dramatic shadows down his cheeks. “You should be in bed.”

“I thought – I thought you’d like some company,” Eiji said. He still sounded unsure of himself, but it was incredible how much better his English was. Ash wondered if it would be weird if he told him how proud he was of him.

Of course it would be weird.

“I’m going to bed,” Ash said as he stepped forward. He put a hand on Eiji’s shoulder and tilted his head towards him. He wasn’t sure why – the gremlin that lived in his brain wanted to see if he’d get a reaction. Another gremlin in his brain wanted to be closer to Eiji. He tried to silence them both – he had grown bored of thinking things through. “Unless you want to keep me company there?”

Eiji paused – that pink blooming back onto his cheeks in a way that made Ash grin at him.

But then he surprised him.

“Sure!”

His hand dropped like a stone – for a moment if felt like he had been slapped in the face.

“What?” he wasn’t even sure he said it out loud – but he seemed to be having trouble with that lately.

“I’m kidding,” Eiji said. His smile faded – replaced instead with furrowed brows. “I’m sorry.”

“No, no – you don’t have to be,” Ash forced himself to breathe, to smile like he always did. “Stop saying you’re sorry for everything.”

“Oh – s-“ the sound turned into a hiss on the air and Eiji grinned sheepishly.

Ash laughed – he couldn’t help it. He liked that his laugh made Eiji laugh – it was incredible, how easy it felt to talk to him. How easy this all was –

And how easy it would be to break it.

He realised that he didn’t want to go to sleep. Not just yet.

Because this was so fragile that he wanted to take advantage of it whilst he could. He wasn’t even sure what this was. A friend? It felt different to the others – to his other friends. But that was the only thing it could be – the only way he could think of it –

He wasn’t attracted to this boy. Not in the way that he thought attraction was meant to be. There was just this pull to him – this need to be near him. But he wasn’t thinking of romance or attraction or anything like that –

He didn’t think that he could.

More thinking – he slipped his hands into the pockets of his hoodie.

“Why don’t we take a walk?” he asked.

“Take a walk?” Eiji echoed. “Not bed?”

“I’ll show you how to shoot.”

“It’s dark?”

“There’s a full moon out. We’ll be able to see.” Because Eiji was still looking at him as if he was completely mad, he added. “What else are you going to do? Go back to staring at the ceiling in the dark.”

Maybe he had been a bit harsh. Eiji opened his mouth then closed it again. He smiled, looking self-conscious and tired.

“Sure.”

So Ash lead the way back outside. Bones nodded his head towards them, looking as though he was going to fall asleep standing. Ash knew that feeling – the feeling that he could sleep anywhere. Hell, he could sleep anywhere. Sleeping was like a switch for him – he couldn’t understand why Eiji was struggling so much with it.

They didn’t go too far from the warehouse. Just far enough that the shot wouldn’t wake the guys inside – they’d be able to hear it for certain, but it wouldn’t wake them.

Just before the trees. Ash handed his gun – his prized gun – to Eiji. There was a moment where they both just stared at it, before Eiji was hesitantly curling his hand around the handle. He held it as though it was about to burst into flame in his hand.

"So you just point and-" Eiji raised the gun aimlessly, both hands cradling it like it was an infant instead of a weapon.

"Nothing will happen unless you take the safety off," Ash said. He flicked it off, his fingers grazing over Eiji's. "And you'll dislocate your shoulder holding it like that."

"Oh, should I do it like this?" Eiji bent his elbow, turning the gun so that it was sideways. Like a gangster from a bad movie. He grinned, pretending to fire it.

A laugh escaped Ash before he even knew it. He bit his lip, to try to stop himself from grinning back. To look angry - to turn on the angry Ash Lynx look.

Maybe it was because everyone was so tightly wound now, but he couldn't.

"That's even worse - here, just-" he stepped forward so that he didn't have to think about how Eiji's face glowed in the dark when he smiled like that, and straightened Eiji's arms out. He took one of his hands to cradle the bottom of the gun, wrapping a hand over Eiji's to show how to hold the trigger. "Like this. Then shoot."

There was a moment of pause. Ash realised he had one hand on Eiji's back - his lower back, and wondered if it would be too obvious if he shifted it off now. Their faces were close - Eiji's hair smelt of vanilla.

"Shoot."

"Will it kick?"

"What?"

"Kick - the gun could kick, right?"

"Not this one."

"But-"

"I promise."

Eiji turned to him then, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

"And how do I know you keep promises, Ash Lynx?"

His chest felt tight and he knew he had to say something clever quickly.

"You'll just have to shoot the gun to find out, won't you?"

Eiji took in a breath, about to say something much cleverer, Ash thought -

But then it was as if the sound switched back on. There was a dry wind rattling through the trees. And on top of that, there was the sound of slow, shuffling footsteps. Clumsy feet over dry leaves.

Ash felt his muscles tense. Bones, he told himself - it's just Bones. Probably come to tell him to stop being so loud.

His eyes scanned the dark trees around them and his fingers curled on the back of Eiji's t-shirt. He pulled him closer, without really realising it. Just why had he thought it was a good idea to go  out here? In the dark, every other twig or branch look like a limb. Fifty arms were reaching out towards him.

He blinked. Forced himself to take a breath and to focus. Trees, all trees.

The step came again and he realised it wasn't from behind him. A shadow detached itself from one of the trees in front of them.

Another sloppy step over leaves as the shadow came towards them, a shoulder lurching downwards and the arm hanging like a broken limb on a doll.

A low moan came over to them on the wind. It sounded like it was in pain - Ash didn't know - it could have been. All he knew was that it was the kind of moan that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.

His breath caught in his throat. The moonlight was starting to light the figure now - a man that might have been handsome once. Large arms and a broad chest and strong jaw that was starting to fall away. Half of the flesh there was hanging off.

"Shoot." He whispered.

To his credit, Eiji did. He slammed his finger down on the trigger.

Even though he had been expecting it, the bang made Ash's heart stop for a moment, before it restarted triple time.

The only problem was, Eiji had been aiming to hit a human.

It knocked the dead man back, but Ash could see it had only left a red dot in his chest. Round like a penny and oozing rust-coloured blood.

"The head - here!" He wasn't thinking - his body was doing it for him, tugging the gun from Eiji and sliding round so that he was in front of him, one arm behind him to keep Eiji in place. He was lifting the gun on auto-pilot, his eyes finding the head and his finger squeezing out one - two shots.

The man dropped down to the floor, like a puppet that had been discarded.

His breath felt cold in his throat - almost painful, but he was used to the feeling. After a moment, he realised that Eiji was holding onto him, a hand on his shoulder and a hand on his elbow like he was a protective barrier. He looked across at him. The boy's face was pale, his eyes dark and wide and staring at the corpse on the floor.

"It's okay," Ash's voice sounded raspy. He swallowed. "He didn't even get anywhere near us."

There was another pause. Eiji relaxed his grip.

"I know," he said and he finally looked back at Ash. "I'm-"

"Don't you dare say you're sorry."

"I was going to say 'thank you.'"

"It's nothing. It's just a good thing he was-"

"Don't you say alone."

It was too late. Ash had already jinxed it. He could already hear more footsteps - drawn to the sound of the gunshot. Because gunshots meant the living and the living meant brains. That was Ash's reckoning - he couldn't tell how much they thought or if they just acted on impulse.

The groans came now, like bats trying to echolocate.

Eiji's grip redoubled on Ash's arm.

Ash was terrified. Completely terrified - but he also felt unbelievably, incredibly alive. This was what he was made for.

"It's fine. Just stay behind me," he said. "Start walking backwards. Slowly."

They did, creeping converses over the dead grass and dry leaves.

Then a figure lurched out in front of them. He heard Eiji cry out as he shot the gun again.

Then Tit was as if Ash’s eyes adjusted. He could see just how many of them there were and he decided that he didn’t like the odds.

A ripple went through the gaggle around them. They recoiled, then lurched forward so suddenly that Ash stumbled backwards.

He swore.

Eiji’s fingers were starting to hurt now and his arm felt heavy. He shot again, the gun pointing automatically at heads. He wasn’t even making a dent in the numbers.

“Stop walking backwards. Run. Run!”

He heard Eiji run, his shoes slipping over the dry leaves. Ash started jogging backwards, firing off more warning shots as if it would scare them away. It didn’t even faze them now.

After a moment, he turned and ran too. Eiji hadn’t even made it that far and without thinking he grabbed the Japanese boy’s elbow, pulling him along behind him.

“Bones!” he yelled – he saw the figure at the door jump in surprise.

“B-Boss!”

“Walkers!”

He could hear Eiji panting behind him, felt him stumble and jerked up back upright.

Even though Bones could be a dope, he could also move fast. He ducked back into the warehouse and smashed the glass on the fire alarm by the door. It trilled through the night – it sounded like a scream.

They skidded inside five seconds later, slipping on the too-smooth floor. Bones was already in and as soon as they were, he slammed the button to send the heavy door down.

It was moving too slowly. Too slowly, Ash thought. More slowly than the zombies heading towards them.

He glanced behind him, his arm going out to keep Eiji behind him. His face was red and he was looking over Ash’s shoulder.

Bones had his gun pointing out at the darkness in front of them and Ash joined him. His arms were shaking as they waited for the door to fold itself all the way down.

It was halfway and Ash could hear the moans. He tightened his grip on the gun, forcing himself to focus on the darkness – for his eyes to pick out shapes. His heart was pounding in his neck. There were fingers on the back of his t-shirt. Hesitant fingers wrapping around damp fabric.

“It’s okay,” he said. He normally wouldn’t. To any of the other guys he would get annoyed.

Almost there and he could see movement now. Jerking, lurching movements.

The door finally closed. There was a beep and the tiny light at the bottom of the door flicked from green to red. Ash and Bones found the sliding locks at the bottom of it and pushed them back into place.

“What now?” Eiji was only a shape in the darkness.

Ash reached out to him, but his hand stopped for some reason.

“Ibe told you to stay close, yeah?” he said instead. “So stay close.”

They knew the layout of the warehouse even in the dark, stepping around sofas on pure muscle memory. Ash kept reaching behind him, his hand checking that he could still feel Eiji’s shoulder behind him.

The ladder caused a problem – it was all fumbling hands and feet slipping off the rungs, but once they were upstairs it was easier. There were windows up here and the black-out blinds had been pulled up.

Already at the window was them – Ash’s boys. Boys who had all pulled out their guns and were resting them on the ledge, down at the rabble below. Ibe was behind them, but as soon as he saw Eiji’s head pop into the attic he ran over and held him tightly. Eiji turned into a fluff of dark hair.

He looked to Ash over the top of his head and Ash just nodded.

What followed where a tense two hours where the boys pointed their guns at the ground below them, jostling for spaces like a litter of puppies. Picking them off one by one. But it was dark and hard to aim straight down at the doors.

The sky turned amber. There was a huddle of grey-green corpses piled up against the doors. Thick blood oozed out of their skulls like jam. Ash’s stomach turned. Those were people. Those were all people. Shot like fish in a barrel.

None of them had slept. They were too wired up to sleep now.

At least the sun was shining. The world may be a horror story, but it was daytime again and that made things marginally better.

Ash found a spot on the wall and slid down. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. It was damp. He hadn’t even noticed he was sweating.

“Wait a couple of hours before burning them. Make sure they’re all dead.” He said. He didn’t think he’d be able to wait that long before his next cigarette. Instead, he took the opportunity to reload his gun. To count out how many bullets they had left.

Eiji came to sit beside him, his arms pulling his knees to his chest. He watched Ash in silence. Ash glanced up at him and his lips twitched, like he was trying to smile.

“You want to put them in?” he asked. “I’ll show you how.”

“Sure.” Eiji said.

Ash handed the bullets over and held the gun out, tapping the empty canister.

Eiji nodded, cupping the bullets in his hand as though they were something precious. He slid one in and that was when he noticed that his fingers were shaking.

“Whoah,” Ash’s hand steadied Eiji’s before he was even thinking about it. His hands were warm – they made Ash’s fingers feel frozen.

He pulled away a second later.

“I’m – fine.” Eiji said slowly. But his fingers curled around the bullets and he released the gun.

“Really?” Ash paused. Maybe it was because he was bone tired, but he felt safe. “I’m not.”

“You’re not?”

“Look-“ Ash held out his own hand. It trembled between them.

He was always shaking, he realised. So much of the time he barely noticed it – it was just residual.

Eiji’s hand closed around his, his fingers locking into his like this was natural. Like they were meant to fit into each other. They felt right, Ash realised. It wasn’t horrible.

“You did great.”

Ash didn’t reply, but his fingers squeezed Eiji’s. He didn’t mean to.

But Eiji wasn’t like the others – he wouldn’t find this weird of Ash. He thought it was normal – to be this freaked out.

They sat there, leaning against the wall with their hands clasped. They were alive. Alive and unbitten. They were going to be alive tomorrow. And maybe even the next day.

*

Eiji helped burn the bodies. Not a single part of him wanted to, but he felt like he should - that he needed to start pulling his weight.

The boys wore boxers tied around their faces, but after the fire got started, Eiji understood why. The smell was awful - burnt bacon and burn hair. The clothes just smoked, so that there was a thick, black column of the stuff all around them. The boxers were a poor man's gas mask.

He was watching the orange flames fight against the smothering smoke when Ash stopped beside him. For a moment, it looked as though he was going to light his cigarette off the bonfire, then decided against it.

Whilst he took his first drag he was silent, then he sighed and the smoke came out of his mouth in one puff.

"Going to do an inventory later," he said. "Need to start rationing."

"I thought that when I came." Eiji said. He wasn't sure if Ash could hear him for the cloth, but then the leader nodded.

"I didn't want to," he admitted. "Rationing means putting a date on things. It means that in a couple of months we'll have to move on - go somewhere else. I don't know where to go."

Eiji looked at him. He looked very young suddenly - a teenager who had no idea what he was doing

"Why tell me this?" he asked.

Ash looked at him, the corners of his mouth curling.

"Because you don’t expect anything from me."

“Oh, no, I do.” Eiji said – though he felt guilty for it when he saw something flash in Ash’s eyes. He continued. “You said you’d teach me how to shoot.”

“You did shoot. Last night. Got that guy right between the eyes.”

Eiji shook his head.

“That was you.”

“Who’s finger was on the trigger?”

“I didn’t shoot that gun.”

Ash raised his eyebrows and took another breath from the cigarette.

“It’s like shooting a camera,” he said. “You aim and shoot.”

“Like Fatal Frame?”

“What’s that?”

“Game. You kill ghosts with a camera.”

“You like horror games?”

Eiji shrugged. He looked back at the pile of bodies. “Not this one.”

Ash gave a sound that might have been a laugh.

“I can't say I love this, but I do like a good horror movie. They're never quite as scary as the real world, you know?"

He wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but he nodded. He supposed the world had been scary, before.

“And they’re awful, you know? Most of them are so bad.” Ash laughed – and Eiji did too. When he closed his eyes and laughed like this, he could kid himself that this was normal. That they were two normal teenagers sharing a joke.

He closed his eyes for just another moment, imagining if they met under normal circumstances. He saw him and Ash doing normal things – coffee or cinema – and it seemed incredible. To not be interrupted by zombies when they were enjoying each other’s company.

Ash was looking at him when he opened his eyes with a loaded gaze that Eiji couldn’t quite decipher. It was heavy that gaze, and he looked away.

“Ibe-san’s expecting you to keep me safe.” He said instead.

“I will.”

“You don’t – he’s just joking around.”

“I know.”

There was a moment. He could only stare at Ash. He didn’t feel pinned by that cat-like gaze – it was more like he was held by it. Those eyes were too green – the green of emeralds – but they had warmth in them.

Ash snuffed out the cigarette on the side of the warehouse. The fire was starting to go down now and now Eiji realised that there was silence. He looked around – everyone’s faces were pale and drawn. It made him remember last night. The white eyes in the darkness like tiny moons. Suddenly, he didn’t feel much like laughing.

“Bones!” Ash called, his voice sounding too loud in the silence. “Pick a film.”

Bones glanced up – then nodded.

It was a children’s film, because of course it was. That made it easier for everyone to focus on it – to pretend to be shocked at the twists and turns, because it was easier than focusing on what they had just done. What had happened outside.

Eiji had sat in front of the sofa next to Bones, like a child. The T.V was an older model and they could only watch DVDs on it. There was no internet or signal all the way out here – Eiji wondered if anything was even still broadcasting.

He didn’t remember falling asleep. He remembered closing his eyes just for a moment and feeling so relieved that the image on the screen was burnt into his mind. It was much better to see cartoon rats instead of gaping jaws and rolling eyes. The voices were easy to concentrate on and he could imagine the action playing out in his imagination.

But suddenly he was waking up, and his head was resting against someone’s leg. He frowned, unpeeling the side of his face from someone else’s jeans. Jeans that he recognised – which was ridiculous because they all wore jeans. But these jeans were grey and ripped and he remembered glancing behind him whilst he was running for his life and seeing those jeans.

 In the next moment he was sat bolt upright, peering behind him to see Ash laid out across the sofa. He stirred at the sudden movement, green eyes opening lazily, like a cat's on a sunny day.

"Sorry," Eiji said.

"Don't be," Ash replied. He stretched and his foot nudged Eiji's side. His knee settled back where it was. He nudged him gently and Eiji glanced up in time to see him check his watch. An expensive watch, he noticed, but he supposed being a gang leader paid well. "Do you want to take night watch?"

"Sure." Eiji didn't have to think about it. He wanted to help, so he pulled himself to his feet. His arm nudged Ash's leg. He wondered why that was important.

The blonde boy yawned as he pulled himself to his feet. It looked like he had only just woken up himself. He followed Eiji out, pushing his hair away from his face.

“You don’t have to…” Eiji trailed off as Ash fell into step with him.

“I’ll keep you company. It’s only fair.”

They passed Kong in the doorway and he actually nodded at Eiji. He looked ready to drop too.

Almost like clockwork, as soon as they were leaning against the doorframe, Ash pulled out a cigarette. Eiji was getting used to the smell, he realised. He was starting to associate that smell with being with Ash – and even though that had included zombies, that wasn’t a bad thing. He actually liked it – he liked being with Ash. He felt safe and he liked how easy it was to talk about him – how he didn’t say a thing about Eiji’s poor English.

He didn’t say anything now, just leant against the front of the warehouse and stared out into the darkness with weary eyes. Their arms were touching, Eiji realised, but he didn’t pull away. He liked the warmth. They didn’t have to say anything, he thought. There wasn’t a need. They could just stand here and enjoy each other’s company. Company that wasn’t undead.

And that was all he needed right now.

Chapter Text

3

Ash had ran out of cigarettes.

Eiji had thought this would mean a good time to curb the habit – to pack smoking in altogether. Bones had agreed with him. Ash hadn’t. He said that it wouldn’t be that hard to get to a convenience store and leave some cash on the side – if the owners were even still there.

So he had lead a small group of them out in the morning, guns slung over their shoulder and provisions shoved into their pockets. Bones started up some songs after a while – after their eyes were starting to water from staring at the horizon for so long. Eiji didn’t know the words or the tunes, but it did ease his nerves.

He glanced across at Ash. He looked tired – his hair hung in front of his face and he had dark circles under his eyes. But then everyone had dark circles now – Eiji didn’t think that he’d look any better. He felt as though he hadn’t slept since the zombie problem started.  His head felt light and fuzzy, like it was full of t.v static.

Ash noticed him looking and he glanced away, feeling his cheeks warm.

“You okay?”

“Mm.” Eiji said. “Tired.”

Ash patted his shoulder and just nodded.

They encountered a few strays on their way through the wilderness. They were dispatched quickly and for a moment Eiji thought that there might be some hope in this after all. Maybe they would be able to survive this apocalypse.

Kong had a compass with him, and he murmured to Ash whenever the red needle wavered. Ash would nod like he was a pirate captain charting a course. No one else seemed to know where they were going.

Eiji hadn’t realised that they’d walked this far out of the city. Once they were out of the woods though, he realised they were walking away from it. He had no idea what was out here.

It was boiling – an unbearable summer heat. Eiji wished he had something other than a button up shirt and jeans to wear because he was baking alive in them. There was a thin covering of sweat over him and he could see the others were suffering too. It was hard work – walking all this way in the heat for cigarettes.

It was mid-afternoon by the time they came to the gas station. It was, understandably deserted. A car was still plugged into one of the pumps, oil leaking like blood out of it’s side and onto the floor. Another car had deep scratches down the side of it and the bonnet was bent like an accordion. The front window was smashed and a sticky lump of flesh was still sat in the driver’s seat. Eiji stopped, staring at it – his eyes making out the shape of a skull against his will. An empty skull – picked clean.

Ash stepped in front of him.

“Come on,” he said, taking Eiji’s arm. “We have to move.” He led the away across the gas station, not looking around him. He leant closer to Eiji a moment later. “Don’t look at it. Look anywhere but that.”

He could hear the flies, he realised. He could hear the swarm of flies that we starting to gather and it turned his stomach. It was hot. Very hot and there would be a lot of flies very quickly if anything happened to any of them.

There was blood on the windows. Smears and streaks and here and there Eiji could make out finger or palm prints. Flies were gathering on them too, looking for anywhere to plant eggs.

The boys around him lifted their guns off of their backs, lifting them to their shoulders. Eiji grasped the pistol that he had been handed, holding it with two shaking hands.

Ash nudged the door open with his foot, poking the nose of his gun into the building. He stepped inside, squinting from the sudden darkness.

They waited behind. Eiji could pick out everyone’s individual breathing and his own was loud in his ears. A drop of sweat rolled down the back of his neck.

Eventually, they got a “clear.”

Eiji stepped inside and felt instant relief in the shade. The air was still humid and hard to take in, but the sun wasn’t pushing against his back.

“Don’t keep your guard down,” Ash said. “And take everything you can carry.”

He glanced at Eiji as he started towards the tobacco counter and Eiji realised that he completely understood the meaning. ‘Stay close.’

So he followed him, his eyes looking over the shelves for any sign of movement. He watched the shop whilst Ash slipped over the counter as nimbly as a cat over a fence. He rustled around in the back and muttered, “fuck.”

“Don’t they have any?”

“Only roll-ups.” Ash sighed. “It’s fine. I’ll take it.”

“They’re better for your health, I think.” Eiji said.

Ash was climbing back over the counter, and he rested on his hands to look up at Eiji, an amused smile on his face.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn about my health.” He said.

Eiji laughed under his breath, because his hands were still shaking. But the sun had caught Ash’s eyes and they had looked like a green field of grass in the Summer. They were glowing.

“We got a live one!” a voice called from the back of the store.

Ash was up and in front of Eiji in the next moment, his gun pointed at the voice. He was at attention, prickling with intensity.

“When you say alive?” Ash pressed, starting to walk down the aisle towards the others. Bones and Kong were halfway down, in the sweets aisle, and had their guns rested over the top of the shelving. Eiji had never seen the two of them concentrate so hard. “Are we talking alive again? Or just plain alive?”

“Just plain alive,” the voice replied. “I think?”

“You think?”

Ash stopped. Eiji peered over his shoulder to see a man standing in the doorway of the restroom, his hands above his head and a bored expression on his face. He looked scruffy, with messy hair, stubble on his jaw and dark rings under his eyes. A crumbled shirt and torn trousers.

Then again, Eiji supposed none of them looked much better.

“I’m alive,” the man said. “And so thankful that Peter Pan and the Lost Boys have found me. I really am saved now.”

Ash lowered his gun almost immediately. The others followed suit, though much more hesitantly.

“We’ll leave you here if you’re ungrateful.” Ash said.

The man laughed, lowering his hands as the guns were put away.

“Don’t tell me you have a Neverland.”

“We have a hideout, yeah.” Ash said. “If you pull your significant weight, you can have in.”

“What happened to the living being aligned with the living?”

Ash shrugged. “You coming, or not?”

“Sure. Thanks for the offer.” The man was still sarcastic, but there was a hint of genuinity there. He held out a hand to Ash. “Max Lobo.”

Eiji jumped at the name. Without realising it, he had clutched Ash’s jacket.

“Max Lobo?” he echoed.

Ash looked back at him. He hadn’t shook the man’s hand.

“What’s wrong, Eiji?” he asked, with none of the playfulness that had been in his voice before. He could feel everybody’s eyes on him and suddenly felt shy. He focused on the glow of Ash’s eyes in the dark.

“I know that name. Ibe – we were meant to meet this man.”

“Ibe?” it was the man’s turn to echo names. “Shunichi Ibe?”

Eiji almost said ‘hai!’ He stopped himself – forced his brain to go back to English. “Yes – I came to England with him.”

The man’s face lit up. He grinned at them.

“Well then, take me to your leader.”

“I am their leader. Ash Lynx.” He turned away then, tapping his gun against his thigh. “Get ready to move back out, guys. It’s a long walk home.”

They did, all grabbing snacks and stuffing them into their pockets before they were shuffling into the door with heavier garments than before. Max stood by Eiji. He noticed his shaking gun and held out a hand.

“Do you want me to take that for you, kiddo?”

Eiji hesitated. Then nodded – he didn’t want to hold it anymore.

“Don’t.” Ash put a hand over his. He was looking at Max with a heavy gaze. Almost an angry gaze.

“It’s okay,” Eiji said. Ash didn’t look at him. “Mr Lobo can probably shoot better than me.”

“I’m not about to shoot you for a few cigarettes and a chocolate bar,” Max said. He was giving Ash a similar stare.

Very slowly, Ash pulled his fingers away from the gun and let Max take it. He examined it, then shoved it into his waistband and nodded at Ash. It was some significant exchange, but Eiji couldn’t follow it.

They started back. Walking back down the road and through the wilderness with the same quiet determination as before. Ash kept glancing at the sky, his hand never quite leaving his gun. He stayed at Eiji’s side as though he was glued there.

He supposed he should have felt vulnerable. He was the only one without a gun.

But he didn’t think Ash would let him get bitten. He trusted Ash.

He had saved him before, hadn’t he?

*

“If I make a Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome reference, will you understand it?” the man, Max said, after a while.

Ash glanced at him. “I probably wouldn’t. The others might.”

He didn’t want to talk to him. He didn’t trust him – not for any particular reason, he just generally lost trust in people the older they were. Ibe he could deal with – Ibe was very clearly like a parent to Eiji. A real parent.

This man had been in an abandoned gas station and there was something about him that sparked in Ash’s memory. He recognised this man, but he couldn’t think from where. He was sure that it wasn’t from behind a camera. It wasn’t from that mansion in New York.

So where?

It bothered him – the man bothered him because he seemed completely unfazed by it all. Because he had a tongue to match Ash’s.

The man who everyone else clearly trusted. They probed him with questions like he was the most interesting thing in the world. Ash supposed it had been a good week since Eiji arrived – they were getting angsty. Everyone was feeling cabin fever.

But he didn’t know what else to do. When you were lost as a child, the advice was to sit tight and wait for someone to find you. No one was going to find Ash, but staying put seemed like the best option. That was what everyone had planned if they were talking about this situation. Stay put and create a stronghold.

At least they had more food now – even though it was only junk food.

“So, how do you know Ibe?” Max asked.

There were no songs on the way home – the mood was wearier now that the sun was beginning to set. Ash could feel the ears listening to him, even if everyone was looking ahead.

“The boys found him and Eiji stumbling around the forest looking completely lost. We take pity on the lost.”

“Thanks.”

“We came to interview Ash.” Eiji said next to him. He gave him a sharp look and the Japanese boy shrugged, as if to say ‘well, Ibe would have told him.’

“How ironic,” Max smiled and Ash glowered at him. He supposed because he was too upbeat – too carefree about the whole thing. “Guess it really is a small world, huh?”

“You were all in New York. Anyone who stayed in New York is most likely dead by now.” Ash said.

He couldn’t help but wonder just how far the walkers had got. If they had reached Golzine’s place. If they had, Ash supposed he should feel relief. He should be glad that just one good thing had come out of this whole thing. He should feel some satisfaction in knowing that those men would have been torn apart limb by limb.

But it just made him angry. Angry that he wouldn’t have been able to be there himself. That he wouldn’t be able to put the last bullet in the body.

It made him feel empty. Not sad – but – empty.

The thought was a pointless exercise anyway. He didn’t know for sure – would hopefully never know for sure.

Knowing Golzine, he was sat at home with his home comforts whilst soldiers did all the hard work for him. That made him feel sick to his stomach, so he abandoned the line of thought and continued trudging through the fields.

Did they really walk this far? He’d really led them all this far away from the base just because he wanted some more cigarettes? What had he been thinking?

He hadn’t, really. He was just scared – scared about what would happen when he felt the craving arrive and there was nothing to wrap his fingers around. Because memories followed cravings and he had had enough of memories. So, they had to go, even if it meant they were still trudging back as it got dark.

They hadn’t brought flashlights – it was still the general agreement that walkers could still see and could still recognise that light meant living.

But the heat of the day had one upside. It had brought the flies out – huge, black, buzzing flies.

Which gave them plenty of warning when anything was coming. They had all froze before at the approaching sound, drawing guns into hands hesitantly. Ash’s eyes searched the shadows and he put out an arm to keep Eiji back.

He almost jumped out of his skin when Eiji actually held onto it. It was just a warm hand on his elbow, letting him know that Eiji was right behind him. The feeling wasn’t particularly unpleasant – in fact, it calmed his racing heart.

It eventually came into view. It arm had been torn to gory ribbons and Ash could hear some of them gulp. He didn’t stop to think about it, he raised his pistol-

And another shot rang threw the air.

From beside him, he realised a moment later.

Max Lobo was staring down the barrel of his gun at the collapsing walker. It landed in a heap, folding the wrong way like a piece of paper.

“What do you know,” Ash said. “You can actually shoot that thing.”

Max smirked at him. “This old man has a few tricks up his sleeve.”

He rolled his eyes, because there had been a ripple of excitement at the clean shot. Ash waved a hand to tell them they should all push on. Yes, he could shoot a gun, so could anyone else.

Anyone except Eiji.

It should have been annoying. It should have made him a liability. Instead, Ash found it refreshing. Here was a boy completely removed from his world. He was like a miracle.

They finally arrived back at the warehouse, by the time the stars were sparkling in the sky and their legs were weary from the days walk.

Ibe met them at the door. He looked incredibly relieved to see them all in one piece – and completely surprised to see Max with them. He burst out laughing and the two men embraced. It was only ten minutes later that Eiji was bringing them both tea he had made from the travel kettle.

It was back to normal now – to groups lounging on the sofas chatting and laughing before it was time to go to bed. Eiji sat down next to Ibe, so naturally Ash sat next to him. For all his scorn, he couldn’t help but be curious about this man.

Eiji smiled at him as he sat down, and Ash found himself smiling back.

"How long have you been back in New York?" Ibe was asking.

Ash stared out over the rest of the gang, just to make it look like he wasn't eavesdropping.

"Not long."

"Same business as usual?"

"It was." Max leant forward and Ash glanced across at him. His face looked drawn - darker. "But then it led me to something else. I think I found a child trafficking ring in the city." Ash's blood ran cold. He wasn't sure if he drew in a sharp breath or made a face or something - but Max's gaze flicked to him. He stared back with what he hoped was a neutral expression. Maybe he should have looked shocked – or scared, or angry – like Ibe and Eiji.

“That’s horrible!” Ibe said.

“I’m still finding out the details.”

"Ash, would you know anything about that?" Eiji asked.

"Why would I know anything about that?" He had spoken too quickly and too harshly and Eiji had actually recoiled, staring at Ash with wide eyes.

"I just thought - you might hear things,” he said, sounding so much like a lost puppy that it felt like he had wedged a knife into Ash’s stomach.

He took a breath – it did make sense. It hadn’t meant what he thought it would mean.

"Well yeah,” he said, pushing his hair out of his eyes and staring at the ground. This was thin ice and making eye contact with Max Lobo was going to make him fall through. “There are rumours.”

“Not enough rumours to act on?” Max raised an eyebrow at him.

That set his anger off. He was suddenly snarling at him.

“You've done the research. The men in charge are all influential business bigots - No one's going to listen to a bunch of kids!” he snapped. “And anyway, none of us are out of the clear. They like seventeen year olds as much as twelve year olds.”

He hated the way he was talking about it so casually and he knew he was saying too much.

“Seventeen? You're seventeen?”

It was Eiji and he was still giving Ash that wide eyed look.

“Why? Do I look older?” he smirked, because it was strangely easy to smirk with Eiji and see him smile back.

“Smoking ages you,” Max said.

“Speak for yourself, old man.” He barely glanced over. He was done talking about this and he was glad for the change of subject. “How old are you, Eiji?”

“Hm? Oh, I'm nineteen,” he smiled self-consciously.

"Oh." Ash wasn't sure why the information was such a surprise. He sat back, letting the conversation continue. Max and Ibe talked back and forth about locations and suspects and details - too many details.

He had to get out.

He tapped Eiji's elbow before he left- he normally wouldn't have done, he would normally just leave.

Maybe it was so that Eiji would follow him to the doors of the warehouse. It was completely dark now and he missed when that was a comfort - when the dark was completely and utterly comforting because it hid him.

"Its heavy stuff." Eiji's voice was quiet. He was leaning against the door, still half-standing in the doorway.

"Mm."

"You don't like Max."

Ash almost laughed.

"No. He pisses me off."

Eiji was the one who laughed then, a soft breathy chuckle.

"He reminds me of you."

"Eiji?"

"Yeah?"

"Never say that again."

Eiji laughed - and Ash laughed too and for once it didn't seem too loud or jarring.

They stood in silence - they always seemed to stand in silence - and listened to the sound of the T.V.

Skip came for the first watch.

“That guy said that I’m too young to be on watch,” he said.

“What’d you tell him?” Ash asked.

“That I could shoot his gun better than him any day.”

“Good boy.” Ash high-fived him, kicking off the front of the warehouse. He was only heading inside to show Max just how capable Skip was.

“You shouldn’t encourage him to be like you,” Eiji murmured. He was still at his side and Ash normally would have found it annoying. But with Eiji it was different – it was almost comforting.

“What’s wrong with being like me?” Ash smirked.

Eiji stopped and studied him. He was still smiling and his cheeks were pink like his cheeks were two roses.

“I don’t know,” he said.

And Ash felt his stomach flip. He told it to calm down – don’t get excited. That was when the guilt set in. ‘Don’t know.’ That was because Eiji didn’t know. He didn’t know the half of it. Ash hadn’t thought he ever would.

But with Max here, that seemed subject to change.

He came out of the warehouse when Ash was on duty that night. Eiji had actually fallen asleep on the sofa and Ash had slipped out from beside him. That was the only time that he seemed to sleep – when Ash sat by him. Funnily enough, he had been missing the company as he stood out in the darkness. It was easier to pass the time when Eiji was next to him, even if they weren’t saying a word.

Needless to say, Max’s appearance was nothing like Eiji’s. He studied Ash for a moment, and Ash pointedly didn’t look at him, taking a long drag from his cigarette as though he was drinking water in front of a dying man..

“You have a spare?” he asked.

Ash considered denying it. He wasn’t that mean. He handed over the one he had already rolled from behind his ear.

Ash considered denying it. He wasn’t that mean. He handed over the one he had already rolled from behind his ear and stared out into the darkness.

For a moment, he hoped that it would be something like what he had with Eiji. That they could just stare out across the woods and contemplate impending doom.

Of course it couldn't be that easy.

"So, I take it they don't know," Max said, smoke billowing from his mouth.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Ash said.

"Yes, you do."

Ash paused - wondering whether or not to lie. No, he wanted the truth on this one.

"Did you see the pictures?"

Max took another drag before he answered, tapping the ash off as he spoke.

"I didn't root them out."

"But you saw."

"I'm sorry."

"It's not like you're the only one," Ash said. He tried to say it casually but his stomach twisted in on itself. He realised that he had to answer Max's first question. "The boys know that I'm tied to him. They don't know how."

"What about Ibe and the kid?"
"Nothing."

"Are you going to tell them?" Max glanced sideways at him.

"Why would I do that?"

"Because you're not going to be able to hide it from him forever," Max said. There was something in his tone that Ash didn't like.

"We could all die tomorrow," Ash snapped.

Max shrugged. "It's your choice."

There was that tone again. That condescending, suggesting something tone.

"He's my friend, okay?" Ash said. "Nothing more."

"I didn't say he wasn't." He still spoke in that voice and it made Ash grind his teeth. He wanted to just leave it - to ignore him and pass of the watch to someone else.

"I'm not." He said instead. He wasnt sure why - maybe it was because Max knew anyway. He was the only person here who knew. "I don't - I don't even think that I - I'm-"

"Gay?"

Ash heard his breath - a short gasp that sounded like he was shocked. "Not anyone," he managed to get out. "I don't think I could have a relationship with anyone."

Max was quiet for a moment and Ash felt his gaze on him. He ignored him.

"You don't have to have sex to be in a relationship." He said it so gently - so pityingly that I made anger ride up in Ash. The same anger that he felt earlier and he hated this man - he really hated this man who thought he knew and understood everything. Who thought he knew and understood everything about Ash.

"Who the fuck do you think you are?" he snapped. "How dare you - how the fuck can you come in here and start talking to me about whether or not I'm - you aren't! You aren't shit! Just stay away from me!" He threw his half-used ciggie onto the floor, his face twisting up into a snarl. "Stay away from me and don't fuck up our rations!"

Just who did this man think he was? Ash ranted to himself about the idiocy and arrogance and sheer stupidity of the man. Like he knew anything. Like he knew an ounce of what Ash had gone through.

As if the zombies weren't bad enough, now Ash had to contend with Max fucking Lobo.

Chapter Text

4

"I-zu-mo," Eiji said, pointing to his mouth as if Ash would be able to read his lips if he did.

"Gizmo," Ash said, like it was the same. He blinked at Eiji.

He expected Eiji would be annoyed – that he’d get angry that this stupid, white boy was murdering his native language. But he was laughing instead. By some miracle, he was laughing.

Ash was laughing too. "What? What's the difference?"

"One is a Gremlin, one is my hometown."

"Actually, Gizmo is a Mogwai," Ash grinned at Eiji and he laughed. They were the only ones sat in the attic, either side of the wide window. Despite everything, it was still Summer, and the sun warmed them.

Eiji shook his head. "That's still not Izumo, though, is it?"

"Let's just agree to disagree," Ash said, because he could feel himself growing warm. Not to brag, but he was a genius - on paper at least. A genius but he couldn't even say one word of Japanese.

"Where do you come from?" Eiji asked. It was an innocent enough question. The question normal people asked all the time.

And yet it made the hairs on Ash's arms stand on end. He looked away from the tan skin and the dark eyes and stared at the grey sky instead.

"Originally, I came from a place called Cape Cod," he said. "It's in the state across from New York. Massachusetts."

"Ma-za-chu-setsu?" Eiji repeated - Ash thought it was only so that his butchering of Izumo didn't sound so awful.

"Massachusetts." He said again, but he was smiling.

Eiji shook ahead. “The American States are stupid.”

“They’re not.”

“Kansas,” Eiji said. “But not ark-Kansas.”

“No, it’s Arkansas.”

“Why?” Eiji threw his hands in the air and Ash found himself laughing – really laughing. Unable to catch a breath laughing. That laugh made Eiji laugh and suddenly they were both leaning on the window for support.

You really did laugh about the silliest things in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. In fact, in the middle of the zombie apocalypse, Ash was having the most fun of his life. He had never genuinely laughed this much for as long as he could remember.

That was, until Skip came running up with an urgent question for Eiji. A very urgent question.

“(!!)

Eiji blinked at him, clearly completely stunned. It was a mistake to ever hesitate around Skip – he began tugging Eiji away, babbling on about this and the other.

The Japanese boy looked back at Ash with a scared expression. Ash just laughed and gave him a thumbs up. He was the others to deal with now.

He sighed as he turned to look back out of the window. The sun was gold and the day was almost over. He could see movement in the woods. Birds flying away in a path. Something was out there this afternoon. They would have to be ready.

There were footsteps in the attic again. He knew they weren’t Eiji’s. Eiji moved soundlessly on the balls of his feet like a cat. These were heavier footsteps – unfamiliar footsteps. Which left two options. He didn’t care for either. He stayed staring out at the line where the trees met the sky. What would happen if they kept moving in that direction? They would never reach that line. They would never be truly safe.

“Can I have a word?” That was Max Lobo’s voice.

Ash turned his head, still pressed against the windowsill, looking at Max with half-lidded eyes. A cat on a lazy afternoon, he used to get told. “You can have two. Fuck off.”

It had been two days and he had spent the majority of his time hiding from the man. Avoiding him like the plague and using the others to make sure he wasn’t using up the food or cigarettes or bullets too much. In fact, he had a sneaking suspicion he had asked Eiji up here in the first place so that he could keep his distance.

“I deserved that.” Max was scratching his cheek with a clumsy thumb. He was mostly silhouette in the light. But then he sighed and stepped forward and sat on the windowsill, facing out towards the rest of the loft. His hair caught the sun and it looked almost auburn. “I’ve seen that kid on the videos before.”

Ash paused for a half a second. It was always hard to decipher meaning in conversations like this – it always took him a moment to analyse the words in front of him and find meaning. Then he said, “if this is meant to be some metaphor about seeing yourself in me, then spare me the sob story.”

“Would it kill you to stop the verbal onslaught for five seconds?”

“Yes.”

“Your brother showed me pictures of a boy who looked like you,” Max said – slightly fast, as though he was nervous. He paused, wetting his lips before his eyes flicked to Ash. “Griffin Callenreese.”

There was that half-second pause where his brain wasn’t working. He heard every word but he couldn’t connect them. Couldn’t believe them.

“Griffin’s in the army,” he said, eventually. Griffin. There was a name he’d all but forgotten. All but given up hope on.

“He came back to New York with me,” Max said. He crossed his hands. Fidgeting. He was fidgeting a lot. Maybe he really was nervous. “He - he's injured, Ash.  Very badly. But he was trying to find out what happened to you.”

“I don't think he would have liked to find me where I was.”

“You were everything to him.”

Max’s voice was soft. Unbearably soft and it made Ash’s lips snarl upwards of their own accord.

“Shut up,” he said. “What would you know? What the hell would you know?”

"He was searching for you."

"So you think because you know my brother - what? What does that even matter now?" He demanded, leaping to his feet.

Max was calm. He was still so ridiculously calm and Ash hated that. He hated him.

"He's in a wheelchair."

Max said it so matter-of-factly that it was like he had punched Ash in the stomach. He stood there, trying to remember how to breathe and just staring at Max.

"He got shot. He's paralyzed from the waist down. It made finding you harder, that's why I was doing the leg work - so to speak."

Ash swallowed but it didn't ease his burning throat.

"How? How did he-"

"How the fuck did you think it happened, kid?" Max leant forward, his elbows on his knees and his palms pressing into his eyes. "We were in combat. It was an ambush. We were taken off-guard. I dropped everything and just dived into the bushes. I ran. When I looped back, Griffin was still there. He'd been shot in the hip. I carried him back to camp."

"You left him," Ash said. "In the middle of an ambush, you left him."

"We all did."

“So – what – you think just because you knew my brother means you have to look after me?” he demanded. He stood, then turned on his heel before even taking two steps. “You don’t have to. I can take care of myself.”

“I know you can.” Max wasn’t looking at him. He still had his head in his hands.

“Then why did you tell me about him?” Ash wondered why it was hard to say his name.

Max finally brought his head up, dark eyes burning into Ash’s.

“Because I figured you would want to know.”

Ash waked away without a word, his footsteps echoing on the metal floor. He had, he realised. He had wanted to know. It felt as though he had completely given up on Griffin – he had come to accept the fact that he would never see him again. Griffin had been a lost cause.

But now he wasn’t.

And Ash wasn’t sure how he felt about that. Relieved, he guessed. Griffin was alive. He was alive and breathing and looking for Ash. Ash hadn’t been forgotten – he still had a member of his family who wanted to see him. Who wanted to see him – but didn’t know about Ash. Didn’t know what Ash had been through. Would he still look for Ash if he knew? Would he look at him the same way if he knew? No one did.

That would be the final straw. If Griffin looked at him the way other men did – the way his dad did – he didn’t think he would be able to take that. It would break him to see the disgust and the revulsion that would ultimately take over Griffin’s features when he found out. His little brother was a whore.

And that brought back all of the familiar feelings of self-loathing and hatred. His brother was alive and would probably hate him if he knew the truth.

He was angry, too. He was angry that Griffin had been looking for him and it had taken him this long.

No, he was angry at himself. He should have been able to find him. He should have been more aware of everything happening in New York. He knew everything else – gang movements and business figures. But he didn’t know that his brother had been in the city.

He sat down in his usual spot on the lumpy sofa – it had been saved for him. It was the usual pandemonium down here – Bones climbing over people who were yelling at him and boys drop-boxing random pictures to each other on their phones. A movie was playing away to itself. There was always a movie playing away to itself down here.

It was all white noise to Ash. He couldn’t focus on any of it. He stared there, feeling his jaw clench and unclench of its own accord.

“Are you okay?”

Eiji’s voice came to his side. He had squeezed himself into the gap on the sofa – between the outstretched legs of Kong as he leant backwards, proving that he could down a can of root beer upside down.

It seemed to take Ash’s eyes an age to focus on Eiji. When he did, he realised that he looked concerned. Eiji looked very concerned about him. Dark eyes searched his face like he could wipe away the dazed expression. How quickly would that concerned expression to disgust if he knew?

“Yeah,” he said. He couldn’t explain it. None of it was explainable without explaining about himself. “I’m fine.”

“Ash.” Eiji leant forward, still wide-eyed, but still concerned.

“I’m-” Ash took a breath. He didn’t want to lie to Eiji. He wasn’t sure why – there was something about that puppy-dog face that made him want to tell the truth. Maybe not all of it, he figured. If he kept it vague – “Max just told me that my brother is alive.”

“Oh – wow. Ash, are you – wow.”

“Yeah. I think he’s still in New York.”

“In the city?”

Ash nodded. His mouth was still completely dry.

“Didn’t,” Eiji frowned, like he was trying to find the word. “Everyone leave?”

Ash shrugged.

“Any way to find out?”

Ash started shaking his head, his hair falling into his face, but then he paused. People in the city. He knew people in the city. Still on that train of thought, he pulled out his phone and began typing.

It was with inhuman speed that he got a reply.

And when he got one he didn’t know what to do with that. Yes – yes Shorter was still in the city. The Chinese gang had been hiding out, taking whatever they want from wherever they want. He continued on, to say that he was completely and utterly exhausted. None of them were sleeping for more than two hours at a time. They were so many zombies in the city that it was rare to find a safe spot for longer than that. He didn’t want to leave the younger ones to fight by themselves, either. He wanted to keep them all safe.

Well, Ash related to that.

So, the living still were in New York. But it didn’t sound like they were having a good time. It didn’t sound like it would be easy. It also sounded like an unfair favour to ask of a guy in an apocalypse.

‘Ive got someone I need to find,’ he wrote into his phone. ‘Could you find out if hes in the city??’

Again, the response came through incredibly quickly for someone apparently so exhausted.

‘Cant you stalk him???’

‘Not on social media.’

‘Fucks sake.’

That was a yes in Shorter speak. He was incredibly aware that Eiji was watching him. That Eiji was waiting for him to explain what was happening. So, he glanced up and forced a smile on his face.

“Just asking a friend to find him.”

Eiji titled his head to the side, looking more puppy like than ever with all that fluffy hair on his flopping onto his forehead. “You have friends?”

For a moment Ash was shocked. That level of sass didn’t usually come from Eiji’s mouth. But then he laughed – and he was hooking an arm around Eiji’s neck, tugging him over to him.

“Where’s that polite Japanese boy gone?” he demanded.

Eiji was laughing, a hand on Ash’s arm to steady himself. He wasn’t trying to push him away. He would, Ash thought, if he knew. “You’ve been a bad influence on me, James Dean.”

Ash’s heart leapt at the nickname and he pulled Eiji even closer. His mouth was buried in dark hair. Hair that smelt like everyone else’s – of sweat and dirt and blood. But something was different, because this was Eiji’s hair.  He was kissing Eiji’s hair, technically, with his arm around Eiji’s shoulders and Eiji’s head against his chest.

He paused, sucking in a breath through his teeth, then pulled away. He couldn’t tell if it was slower than it should have been or too fast. Eiji didn’t seem to react. He barely even pulled away – he still had one hand on Ash’s leg. It was colder and heavier than it should have been.

“I hope you find your brother, Ash.”

What broke his heart was that Eiji had really meant it.

*

Eiji saw the message before Ash did.

He woke up every few hours now, like clockwork. It was in sync with the changing of the look out.  The moment he happened to open his eyes, he saw the screen light up in the darkness. It was a shining rectangle, a doorway to the world he’d left behind.

It wasn’t his intention to pry. His eyes were sliding over to the phone without meaning to. He’d received a text from a contact who was just emojis. EIji guessed Ash could read it.

‘Found him,” it said. ‘You want the good or bad news???’

For a moment, he wasn’t sure what to do. He wanted to wake Ash – he needed to know as fast as possible. But a part of him suspected that Ash didn’t really want to see his brother. There had been something odd about him when he had mentioned it. His face had been pale and his hands had been shaking. Eiji didn’t think that Ash knew that he’d noticed.

So he wasn’t sure if Ash really wanted to know about the message.

But he pulled himself off of the sofa anyway and padded over to where Ash was sleeping. He lay with an arm across his face, his mouth in a frown underneath it. His hair looked silver in the sliver of moonlight coming from the door.

Eiji knelt down.

“Ash,” he whispered. He reached out a hand and touched Ash’s elbow. He took a moment, before he gave it a little shake. “Ash!”

Ash woke with a start. He always woke with a start when someone else woke him – it was why the boys were so scared to do it. Sometimes his arm would swing out and he would be up and snarling, ready for a fight. 

As long as Eiji kept saying his name, his eyes would focus and he would relax. Literally, every muscle in his body relaxed, like a spring uncoiling. His eye was just a spark in the darkness, watching Eiji in silence and looking more like a lion than ever.

“You have a message. I think it’s about-“

Ash moved fast – faster than Eiji could see – his pale hand grabbing the phone and holding it in front of his face so that Eiji couldn’t read it. Like Eiji hadn’t seen already – that made him feel even worse. As he was typing, Ash fell into silence. It was just like he had been a few days ago, when he had first sent the messages. He was staring at the screen intently, like a predator watching prey and he didn’t keep Eiji in the loop as he replied to this mysterious person. This ‘friend.’

There was a whisper at the door. A sharp whisper came from the doorway. Eiji glanced across – Bones’ silhouette was against the empty doorway of the warehouse, looking in. But he couldn’t make out the words.

“How would you feel about going back to the city?” Ash whispered.

Eiji glanced back – he could see the reflection of the phone in his pupils – Ash was still typing, his face even paler than usual.

“Boss!” Bones hissed from the door.

“He found him?”

“At dawn we’ll go.”

“Boss, please!”

It was the please that made Ash look up. Ash looking up made Eiji turn back to the door.

“What, Bones?”

“We have – just come look. Please.” Bones’ voice was barely a whisper. Panic was etched in every one of the syllables.

Eiji went to get up, and was immediately pushed down by Ash’s hand on his shoulder. He watched him pass, feeling his heart begin to beat faster and faster. It was rising up his chest and sat in his mouth as Ash got to the doorway and looked out.

There was something about the way he froze. It made every hair on Eiji’s body stand on its tiptoes.

He rose – slowly – because he had to be there for Ash. He had to.

But Ash was already away from the door. He was slamming it shut and pulling the dead bolts across it.

“Flip the lights,” Ash was saying. Demanding. “You might as fucking well now.”

Bones did – Eiji knew because he was blinded by white lights for a moment. When he had recovered from the shock, he saw Bones, white as bone, his hand on the flip switch for the light. Everything else looked incredibly ordinary. The sofas and blankets all sat in their usual spots. It was just like it was daytime. As if this had all been a bad dream.

But Ash’s jaw was still clenched and he had a gleam in his eye that Eiji had never seen before. He looked at him as he walked past and paused in his step.

“Stay. Right. Here,” he said.

Eiji did. Ash might as well have glued him to the spot. He was practically flying up the ladder and into the attic, barking orders like an army officer.

They had known each other for two weeks. It was a bizarre thing for him to realise in that moment. But they had only known each other for two weeks. And he trusted Ash with his life. That wasn’t normal. But then, nothing was normal anymore.

Ash slid down the ladder instead of using the footholds. There were guns strapped across his  back. He tugged a small pistol from his waistband and pressed it into Eiji’s hand. He was moving so quickly that he had stopped centimetres away from Eiji. Their chests were almost pressed together and he could feel Ash’s breath on his cheeks.

“Point and shoot. It won’t kick.”

He nodded, wishing he could do more. Wishing he wasn’t just doing everything Ash said, like he was a liability who needed to be looked after. He wished he could deal with this situation better.

There were people around them now. Everyone else was swarming down the ladder with guns in their arms and determined looks on their faces.

 Ibe was hugging Eiji before he had even spotted him coming towards him.

“Thank God you’re safe.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Eiji replied. He turned and pressed himself against Ibe. His heart was hammering and he wanted it to stop – it felt like the only way that it would stop would be to hug Ibe. Ibe was an actual adult and he would be able to make it all go away. “Ibe-san, what’s happening?”

Ibe pulled away, held him by the shoulders so hard that he swayed on the spot. His eyes bore into Eiji’s, dark and heavy. “They’re outside.”

“What?”

Max was pushing through the crowd of teenagers with a gun over his shoulder. He pressed a hand against Ibe’s arm as he passed, looking over the heads as he called out, “where do you want us, kiddo?”

Ash turned, his hair glowing in the light. “Hang back. Don’t leave any of my men behind.”

He said it pointedly, his eyes narrowed. Something passed between them that Eiji didn’t understand.

“We can just wait until morning,” Max said. “This might be a fluke.”

“They’re not vampires – they’re not going to burst into flames in the sunlight.”

“It’s ridiculous to try an attack like this at three in the morning.”

“I can’t wait!” Ash snapped.

Everyone stopped moving like a school of fish to watch the exchange. Eiji could understand their hesitation. Ash was their leader, and he was incredible and intelligent and brave, but he was still a teenager. Max was an adult. Max was a veteran.

Ash was breathing heavily, his chest rising and falling rapidly. “They found Griffin.”

Max paused, then, as if Ash had punched him in the stomach.

“Where?”

“The city. We don’t have time!” Ash had the same strain to his voice that Bones had earlier. He wasn’t asking or demanding – this was a plead.

Max’s face hardened into an unreadable mask. He nodded.

“Let’s go.”

“What’s happening?” Eiji asked Ibe again as the crowd began moving. He caught Ibe’s sleeve and suddenly felt much younger.

“Stay with Ash,” was all Ibe said.

He was pushing back through the crowd – back to where Max was and suddenly there was a lump in Eiji’s throat.

“Ibe-san!”

Ibe turned back, but only for a second. He gave Eiji a nod, before Kong stepped forward, flicking the safety off of his gun.

So he turned too, looking at the pistol in his hands. When he looked up, Ash was right in front of him. He didn’t say a word, just held Eiji’s gaze and cocked his gun without looking at it.

People were moving again, people heading back upstairs to the wide window and others spreading to the sides of the warehouse. They were preparing for a battle, he knew that. They were outside, Ibe had said. He had an idea of who they were, and he hoped he was wrong.

Ash pressed himself to the wall next to door. Eiji found himself pressed against him and Bones, who had a hand on the lever to open it.

“Ready?” Bones asked.

“Ready?” Ash called.

He received nods and grunts of approval. Eiji wasn’t included. Just what was he supposed to be ready for? The door rattled and clanked as it came up. That’s when Eiji began to hear it. The moans and the yelling.

Ash moved like a wildcat, turning and shooting as if he was in an arcade game. The others were too and Eiji knew they would be shooting from upstairs. He took a rattling breath, feeling it fill his lungs, before he turned, holding the gun out in front of him with shaking hands.

They were in a semi-circle. Figures lit only from the front and above so that they were yellow highlights and black shadows. Yellow eyes and black mouths. They were falling, every second another one of them fell and was stumbled over by the ones behind it.

But there were so many of them.

Like every one of them in the area had gathered together. The thought made Eiji shiver – and as he did, a being with dark hair lurched towards him. He raised the gun without thinking, pulling the trigger desperately.

It was hit in the stomach and stumbled backwards.

Not dead and wouldn’t die. He tried again, lifting his arms higher, but by the time the shot fired, someone above him had already reached the zombie’s head.

“We can’t stay like this.” Ash stepped in front of Eiji, his gun raised to his shoulder. Bullets rain down his back like scales on a dragon and as they hit the light it was absurdly beautiful. “We’re going to be trapped.”

“Nowhere to go,” Eiji called back, his pistol still raised, his finger still ready on the trigger, as though just waving it around would make them back down. No, that only worked with people.

“Push through!” Ash raised his voice and it boomed through the warehouse. “Scatter!”

They did. They pushed out of the warehouse, guns in arms, stars flying from the ends of them as they rushed at the hoarde of nightmares awaiting them.

Skip was at Eiji’s side suddenly, tugging at the hem of his t-shirt.

“Just run straight through!” he yelled over the noise. “Keeping running, they won’t be able to keep their grip on you.”

Eiji nodded and took Skip’s hand without thinking. He lowered the gun, he wasn’t going to be able to use it anyway.

Ash was running, his hair a golden halo around him – so Eiji followed. He put his head down and closed his eyes as he ran at the crowd of zombies. Hands reached over him, fingers running through his hair limply and snagging on his clothes. His mouth and nose were filled with the stink of rotting flesh – of chicken past its use by date and burnt bacon and raw beef. It was nauseating and made him lightheaded. He couldn’t keep this up – he couldn’t –

Skip’s grip on his hand slipped for a moment.

He held on even tighter – he was yelling – they were surrounded, on all sides and someone had grabbed his arm. He kept running, his legs pumping. He imagined himself on the field – running the track up to the high jump stand. Running. That was something he could do. The grip went slack on his arm as he pushed past. He was approaching the stand now, he could feel it.

There was an all too familiar ball of nerves settling in his chest at the thought. He was approaching the stand –

But he couldn’t land the jump.

He was out in fresh air.

It took him a while to slow down. He only managed it because he realised he’d been all but dragging Skip along the ground. His feet had barely been hitting the floor. As soon as he stopped, he collapsed to his knees, breathing heavily. Breathing air that did not smell of the dead – it was the hot summer night air. He was alive.

He looked up through sweaty hair to see Ash holding Skip tightly, his head buried in Skip’s mass of curls.

“Were you bitten?” he hissed, his eyes like a cat’s in the night.

Skip shook his head, holding out his bare arms for Ash to see. Eiji did the same, clad in one of Ash’s huge baseball jackets. His heart stopped as he looked down at his own elbow.

A hand was gripping onto him.

A hand an a wrist that drooped like a stem on a picked flower, a string of muscle trailing off like a ribbon on a bike handle from the end of it.

Ash leant forward and picked it off without a word. He looked up at Eiji and there was the ghost of a smile on his face.

He stood, offered Eiji a hand up that he accepted, taking Skip in his other. Eiji wasn’t sure what had happened to the zombie hand. He hoped that it had been dropped on the floor.

They started backwards, their eyes still on the crowd. They could still see figures darting through the dark shapes like fish avoiding a net.

“Don’t shoot,” Ash whispered, to them and the people passing. “Just back away slowly and quickly. Only shoot if they start chasing.”

They made quick work, their feet sliding over dry grass in an effort not to make a sound. Eiji was sure that he could hear all three of their hearts beating. Bones and Kong caught up with them, sliding to a stop and then keeping an eye on their backs, their guns raised. Everything was dark around them, lit only the slither of silver that the moon had been reduced to.

Even the moon was being eaten, Eiji thought.

He could only see the dark shapes of the trees around him and his feet stumbled on knots and branches as he made his way blindly from the raging pack of zombies they had left behind.

“Boss, how will we know if everyone’s got out?” Bones whispered. It wasn’t even a whisper, he was mouthing the words, but somehow they could all hear it.

“I’ll send a text in the morning.”

“What if they – if the guys don’t-”

“There’s nothing I can do about that, Bones.”

Eiji felt tears sting the corners of his eyes. It was hard to breathe. All this time, it had all been so peaceful. They had been living with relative ease – it had been like camping. And now people were dying. People had always been dying, and Eiji had been oblivious to it.

Ash stopped moving suddenly. Eiji glanced at him, only able to make out the shape of his profile in the blackness. He was staring ahead with determination.

Through the trees, Eiji could make out two figures moving slowly towards them.

His knees trembled. His arms trembled.

But he still raised the gun.

 

Chapter Text

5

Eiji had never been glad that he hadn't been able to pull a trigger.

The two dark shapes had not been zombies. They were moving slowly, but they hadn't been dragging their limbs behind them. No, it had only been a very tired Ibe and Max.

There had been no time for a happy reunion. Ash had given them a sharp nod and they had nodded back.

They kept walking, though Eiji had wanted nothing more than to collapse into Ibe's arms and sob. He ha been scared - so scared - and he wanted someone bigger than him to tell him it was okay now, the danger had passed.

The danger hadn't passed.

They had walked until dawn. After an hour or so, Skip had gotten tired and Ash had given him a piggyback without saying a word. So they had continued walking – until they had been bathed in amber light and they could see a house in the distance.

Nothing was following them. Eiji glanced back every ten seconds until they had reached the building. Every moment that he wasn’t looking behind him, he was sure that there were hands reaching out towards him – fingers ready to grab at him. But no one had followed them. Which probably meant that the zombies had been occupied with other things.

It was a farmhouse. They climbed over the wooden fence and passed empty barns and stables until they came to a sprawling, wooden house. It was like something from a book – from Anne of Green Gables or the Wizard of Oz. Empty windows with checked curtains were visible from outside and there were two rocking chairs on the porch.

As good a place as any to stop had been the thought that Eiji was sure was going through everyones minds.

Max kicked the door open and had traced the room with the nose of his gun. With the light outside, the inside looked pitch black, the furniture just shadowy shapes that looked like crouching figures. It was empty.  So they had entered.

They had found Skip a room with a quilted blanket and a painting of sheep grazing outside pinned to the wall. He had fallen asleep before his head had even hit the pillow. Max and Ibe had taken the double bed in the backroom, with the gun resting on the bedside table. Bones and Kong collapsed in the attic room – twisted around each other on a twin bed.

Ash had volunteered for the first watch. Eiji had followed him. He had expected Ash to sink back on one of the rocking chairs with a ciggie and watch the dawn. Instead, he was leaning against the door, still looking taut.

“Get a few hours sleep.” Ash said. He hadn’t even needed to turn to know Eiji was there.

Eiji pushed past him – he had started to ignore Ash’s commands. Whenever he told him to go to sleep, he had always stubbornly stayed up, leaning against the door and standing with him. It didn’t matter if they didn’t say a word. Ash was lonely. Eiji wanted to make him less lonely. Everyone else had thought he was crazy when Ash would tell him to get him something and Eiji would say “no,” even if he was getting up to oblige. Ash’s bark was less than his bite. So Eiji settled himself into one of the rocking chairs, his back aching from relaxing after so long.

“I can’t,” he said, and it was the truth.

“Yes, you can. There’s not as many of us now, you have to take a turn sleeping so you can take a turn on guard. We can’t share it anymore.”

“I really can’t.”

Ash’s eyes softened. He was still holding his gun. Not fiddling with it; he was ready to shoot it. “You’re scared of what you might dream.”

Eiji nodded, his gaze not leaving Ash’s green eyes.

“From my experience, your brain stops giving you nightmares once life becomes one.”

“Experience?”

“Maybe I’ll tell you one day,” Ash said. “But the main thing is that you will be able to sleep. You need to sleep, Eiji. You’re exhausted.”

“So are you.”

“Two hours,” Ash said. “Sleep for two hours, okay? Sleep in the living room and I’ll wake you up if you have a nightmare.”

“You promise?”

Ash nodded. There was dark smudges under his eyes. “Two hours.”

“Can I sleep here?”

“Inside.”

Eiji pushed himself out of the rocking chair, feeling his knees give way as he stood. He caught himself on the door and passed Ash again. He felt a hand on the small of his back and turned to see Ash giving him a sleepy smile. The sun behind him made him glow.

Eiji opened his mouth slightly – then realised he didn’t know what he was going to say and closed it. Instead, he put a hand on Ash’s wrist; making sure that he was real. Real and warm and here. He could hold him.

It was strangely hard to pull himself away, but he eventually managed it. Managed to make the two steps over to the sofa and collapse onto it.

Ash had been right. Eiji drifted off almost immediately, and when he did, he hardly dreamt at all. Everything was dark. Not a scary kind of dark – a warm, comforting dark that was protecting him from everything. There were arms around him. He didn’t know whose arms, but they were warm and real and there.

So he slept.

*

Ash hadn’t meant to watch Eiji. He knew it was exceedingly creepy, so he only allowed himself a glance every five minutes or so. It was just simply less nerve wracking to glance inside than to look out over the day. He couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched; of being followed and he hadn’t wanted to stop at all. It had been for the others. They needed to rest. He didn’t.

So he allowed himself a single glance every five minutes. The door was half-open and golden sunlight brought out the browns and reds in Eiji’s dark hair, like the iridescence of a blackbird’s feather’s. His hair was thick – thick enough to cast a shadow on his espresso coloured skin. Espresso coloured, apart from rosy pink cheeks and rosy pink lips. It was only obvious because of the bright orange jacket.

Ash loved that jacket on Eiji. He liked it more than the sweaters and the button up shirts. It just suited him more – the boy who didn’t bat an eyelash at a gang leader. Who lit up the room with his smiles and glowed when he laughed. A boy like that should wear huge orange jackets. He needed to stand out.

Of course, Max Lobo couldn’t know that Ash was doing this – and as he appeared from one of the backrooms, Ash glanced away, back out the door.

“You decided whether to tell him or not?”

“We leave once everyone’s had a couple of hours sleep.” Ash said. He didn’t bother to keep quiet – Eiji hadn’t moved a muscle in almost two hours and was breathing deeply. He was far gone. “We can’t stop.”

“Are you going to sleep?”

“I don’t need to.”

“Right.” For once Max wasn’t patronising. He leant his elbows against the porch railing, looking out over the abandoned farm. Ash joined him, after a moment. He didn’t want to, but he suspected that it wasn’t the end of the conversation.

“We can’t stop,” he repeated.

“Is it about Griffin?”

Breath left Ash for a moment, so he nodded instead. He tapped his fingers on the wood in front of him and wished he had thought to roll a cigarette before. He hadn’t realised quite how much he wanted one until he remembered.

“There’s no time,” he managed to say. “He’s running out of time.”

Max was silent for a moment. Ash had barely been able to get the words out – hadn’t, really, been able to get them out – and he wondered if Max understood them.

“Are you sure there’s time?”

Ash didn’t reply. He watched a woodlouse crawl out of the woodwork and scuttle across the top on the bannister, the sun glistening on it’s back. Ash let it crawl across his cracked fingernails. Cracked and dirty, he realised, with a certain satisfaction. Worker’s hands. Man’s hands. He wasn’t impeccably clean anymore and there was a certain relish in that. It was easier to think about the state of his fingernails than the state of his brother.

“Ash, what happened back there,” Max said. He was still looking at the horizon. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“You see a lot of zombies?”

“A fair few coming out the city. They didn’t behave like that – that was –“

“Organised.”

“None of the others have organised themselves like that. It was like they were after something.”

“Someone,” Ash said. He tapped his fingers with more speed. “Some brains. That’s all they want. They must have – they must have figured out that there were a lot of us in there. All drawn to it because it’s the only place with anyone in it for miles.”

“They figured it out, did they?” Max repeated. He sighed. “Smart zombies.”

“Fuck off, Lobo. I know as much as you.”

“You’re – admitting that you don’t know something?” Max put a hand to his chest, rolling his eyes in mock surprise.

Ash could have knocked his teeth out. He hoped he conveyed that with a facial expression. If he did, Max had no reaction. He lowered his hand, and smiled slightly.

“Rest,” he said.

“No thanks, dad.”

He got a wince at that and remembered to file it away for future reference. ‘Dad’ got under Max’s skin.

“Then just sit. Your legs need to take a break.”

“Like I would do anything that you tell me to do.” But Ash’s body was betraying him. He was sinking into one of the rocking chairs and suddenly it hit him just how tired he was. Every muscle that he had suddenly relaxed, as though he had just stepped into a hot bath. He was sore. Every part of him was sore. He had been tense for so long and it felt good to relax.

Just for a minute, though. Just until everyone had rested. Then they had to get going again. He had to go to New York. He had to get to Griffin.

After all, he told himself as he stared at the silhouette of Max Lobo, Griffin had been abandoned too many times.

He hadn’t even realised that he had fallen asleep until he heard his name being called from somewhere high above him and he realised that he had to open his eyes. He did, peeling eyelids back that felt as though they had stuck in place.

It was hot. A hot day. One side of his face was boiling hot, sweat trickling down his temple in the humid heat. He was sweating – right through his shirt, he was sure. The air felt thick and he could hear bugs chirping in the distance.

Eiji was over the rocking chair, one hand on it to steady it. His brown eyes looked gold in the morning light and for a moment, Ash had forgotten everything. He smiled up at Eiji, because he was alive and there – because he looked absolutely wonderful in the daylight.

Then the previous night hit him like a freight train.

“What’s the time?” he demanded, all but jumping out of the chair. It creaked and groaned, rocking to itself as if it was consoling it’s loss.

“Midday,” Eiji said.

“We need to leave. Have you got your stuff together?”

“Max and Ibe left.”

“What?”

"They've gone to find more supplies," and at the look on Ash's face, he added. "You're out of bullets. Max is too. And the others."

"Fuck." Ash said. "Fuck – fuck that. As soon as we get to New York we'll get more bullets."

"I said you'd be angry." Eiji had stuck his hands in his pockets and the jacket made him look small. He looked up at Ash from below his fringe.

"What did Max say?"

"Something like 'oh well.'"

"Of course he fucking did."

"I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault," Ash said. He found himself smiling slightly. "You don't have to apologize for everything, you know."

Eiji shrugged.

"Did they take Skip with them?"

"Yeah."

"Fuck," he ran a hand through his hair, looking out over the porch. The sky was blue – midsummer blue – the kind of deep blue that you only saw in story books. "We could go – just us. I can send a message to Skip and ask them to wait here for a couple of days."

"Here doesn't seem safe," Eiji said, carefully. He hesitated, drawing the jacket closer around himself. He must have been boiling. "I don't think it's a good idea to go alone."

His English had gotten better – loads better, since he had arrived. But now he seemed to be struggling – hesitating to find the words.

"You don't trust me?" Ash found himself smirking.

"I do." Eiji's voice was strong. He made eye contact as he said it, then he wavered again. "I don't want Ibe-san to worry about me."

"You don't want to lead him." That was the answer behind the puzzle of Eiji's hesitation.

He nodded.

Ash sighed. A long, heavy sigh that he exaggerated just to make Eiji smile. He wanted Eiji to keep smiling. It was as important as keeping Skip smiling. He leant on the railing, feeling it wobble underneath him.

"This house is like the one back home," he said. Mostly to himself. Mostly because he was thinking of Griffin. Partly because he wanted to tell Eiji about himself, and that was the only thing he could say. "I used to wish for a cyclone to take me away to Oz."

When he was eight. When he was eight his class had watched The Wizard of Oz on a rainy day. Ash had still been sore. But when he had seen Oz, with it's too bright yellow roads and popppy fields and Emerlad Cities, he hadn't been thinking about it. He had been completely transported – the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion all rolled into one.

But then Dorothy had clicked her heels and said 'there's no place like home,' and Ash had crashed back down to the real world.

"I wish that could happen now," Eiji said, softly. He leant against the wood next to Ash, his face turned up to the sky. There was a mole under his jaw. Ash had never noticed it before. And he needed a shave – his jaw was covered in the thin, downy hair of a boy who hasn’t shaved enough to grow a proper beard.  Ash let a hand run over his own skin. Barely anything. He felt that he would be cursed with a baby face forever.

"You don't get cyclones here."

"Or in (!!)?"

Ash smiled then – a genuine smile that he couldn't stop from spreading across his face. "Not there, either."

Eiji paused. "You're not supposed to get zombies here, either. There's always hope."

"You're weird."

Eiji shrugged. He was still smiling as he looked up at the sky.

Ash should have hated this. He should have hated being trapped on a farm with no bullets when his brother needed him. It might be too late already – every voice in his head was screaming at him to leave – to run to New York if he had to. Maybe he was scared.

He was scared to see Griffin again.

So maybe staying on an abandoned farm with no bullets wasn't too bad.

"Well then," he said. "Come on, Dorothy. If we're stuck here, we might as well explore."

He wasn't sure how Eiji's hand found its way into his, but he wasn't going to point it out. It was warm and real and there and he didn't want to let it go as they padded back into the shade of the house.

It was humid inside too – the kind of heat that you could taste. The curtains had been closed and the relentless sun outside burst through them, casting everything in a rosy light.

The living room was cliché. Sofas with patchwork cushions and handstitched embroidery in wooden frames on the walls. But then there was a large t.v and a stack of blu-rays that felt hideously out of place. Skip's room was similar – a wii U set against The Jungle Book and Alice in Wonderland. A poster of Spiderman next to a cross stitch of a forest scene.

Max and Ibe’s room still had a rotary phone in. Ash played with the dial in silence, smirking slightly when it dinged back into place.

“It’s all empty,” Eiji said. Ash turned to him – he had been opening the chest of drawers. “Everything is empty.”

“They must have cleared off.” Ash said.

“I hope it was long before all this happened.” Eiji said quietly. He drew lines in the dust on the top of the chest of drawers. It looked like Japanese – Ash assumed it was Japanese. “Do you think they went on their honeymoon?”

“What makes you say that?”

Eiji pointed to a framed photograph. A young couple were all smiles – both women holding their hands up so that the light sparkled off of matching engagement rings. A snapshot of unspeakable happiness that was now gathering dust.

“Maybe,” Ash said. “Maybe this place is only rented out to honeymoon couples. Maybe I should have carried you over the threshold.”

Eiji looked at him, tilting his head to one side. “Ash.”

“I’m serious – come here.” He was wrapping his arms around Eiji’s waists before he could protest, lifting him from the floor. Eiji didn’t yelp – he gasped, his hands going to Ash’s as if to disentangle himself. Ash stumbled – laughing, but surprised. “Shit, I didn’t realise you were so heavy.”

“That’s not very polite.” Eiji landed on the floor with a thump. He turned to Ash with a pout on his face and shit – shit, he was close. But he didn’t seem to notice that he was almost pressed flush against him – no, he was smiling up at Ash with a mischievous look on his face. “It’s very rude to comment on someone’s weight.”

“So?” Ash tried to stay calm – to look as unfazed and teasing as he always did.

Eiji’s arms were around him in the next moment – strong, stronger than Ash thought he could be – and then Ash was light as a feather. He was looking down at Eiji, his hands on the Japanese boy’s shoulders to steady himself. Eiji was grinning at him – triumphant.

He felt helpless, in the air. He couldn’t figure out if he liked that feeling, because it was Eiji and Eiji wouldn’t hurt him – Eiji would never hurt him. And yet he felt completely helpless and it made his stomach squirm and writhe. But, he still had to be Ash Lynx. So he huffed, blowing hair away from his face and looking away from Eiji as though he couldn’t care less.

“Very clever of you.”

“Sorry.” Eiji was helping him back to the ground. And they were still close. Still very close and it didn’t seem to matter to Eiji that Ash stunk of sweat and mud.

“You’re strong.”

“I did high jump back home.”

“Did?”

Eiji looked down then, a small smile on his face. Ash knew that smile – it was a deflecting smile. So he went to take Eiji’s hand again. He couldn’t quite do it this time – not when he was thinking about it – he brushed his knuckles against Eiji’s instead.

“Let’s keep looking.”

All of the rooms were the same mix of modern and rustic. They couldn’t see any signs of life from the stables or barn and decided not to investigate in too much detail. The longer they looked the more Ash was aware that he was carrying around an empty gun. He wasn’t sure what he would do if they came across a zombie now.

There was a shed around the back. Although the wood was new, it wasn’t hard to break the lock on the door. Eiji’s eyes had sparkled with such excitement at the possibility of breaking in that Ash had counted them down and they had ran at it with their shoulders.

At first, the wood juddered from the frame but did not come away. They tried again. It buckled.

The shed seemed even darker than the house had been. There was nothing especially exciting in there – forks, shovels, empty buckets. Dead bluebottles and cans upon cans of paint. But there was a rather large chainsaw. With several spare blades.

Eiji ran his finger along the edge of one.

That was when Ash heard it. A thud. His first thought was that it was Max being the general lummox that he was, so he stuck his head out of the shed.

“Lobo?” he called. “We’re round the back.”

There was another thud and he heard a groan. He frowned stepping out of the shed and heading around the house. Were they hurt? It sounded as though someone had fallen. As he came around the side of the wooden building, he saw a figure on the porch step.

“Lobo?” he tried again. “Max?”

The figure twitched its head towards him, looking weary. Scared. It must have been someone like them. A survivor. The sun was blinding him and even when he shielded his eyes with his hand, he couldn’t make out any details.

“It’s okay. We’ve got supplies and we can help you.” He walked as he spoke and knocked a stone in the grass with his foot. The head followed the movement. That was when he first noticed how fluid the movement was, like the head was loose on the neck.

There was the groan again and as the figure pushed itself into an unsteady standing position Ash realised his mistake. He had let his guard down. His mind had been filled with emerald green grass and blue skies and espresso coloured skin. He had been away in Oz.

This was reality.

It wasn’t one of the women in the photo – but he had seen this man – this boy – in the photos in the house. He was tall, taller than Ash but even thinner. Broken glasses sat skewed on a face that was once pale and shy. Now there was a deep, ragged gash running from temple to chin, oozing dark blood that was crusting in a pool over him. Skin hung limply, as did his left forearm, from the elbow down. Ash could see bone poking through the flesh.

He wondered how the smell hadn’t hit him before. The smell of decay – an overpowering, vomit-inducing smell. Maybe he had gotten used to it.

No, as he stumbled back, he realised why. The barn was open. It had been punched at and the wood torn away until a hole was in the bottom of the door. That had let the smell out. A rat hung, dead, over the opening.

The boy had heard him, yellow eyes had focused on him like a sniper targeting it’s prey and he stumbled forward. Stumbled faster, picking up speed as Ash did, darkened lips curling over yellowing teeth in some resemblance of a smile.

Ash wasn’t looking where he was going. He was just walking backwards – running backwards – as quickly as he could. This was helpless. He didn’t have a gun that would work. He didn’t have any defence. He had been careless and he would pay the price.

Eiji would pay the price for his carelessness. He heard his voice, like he was underwater and it was coming from above the surface, “Ash!”

The boy’s head rolled to Eiji’s voice and Ash clapped. He didn’t know what he was doing – keeping it away from Eiji, he supposed. He was clapping and walking backwards and he didn’t have a plan. Ash Lynx didn’t have a plan. Ash was meant to have a plan. Ash always had a plan.

His back hit wood. It was such a shock that his legs gave way beneath him. Dead end. The boy was over him – close to him now – close enough that Ash could see maggots in the gash on his face, feeding hungrily at still moving flesh. Flies buzzed around yellow eyes – Ash could see every vein.

Not dead end.

Just another building.

Fucking move, Ash Lynx.

Don’t be helpless.

Never be helpless again.

His hands found the dirt, went to start dragging himself away from this monster as far as he could before his strength gave out completely.

A new sound appeared.

It sounded like a roar. A dinosaur roar.

Then his eyes adjusted. It was too mechanical to be a dinosaur roar. It was the whirr of a machine.

He stared up at the boy in confusion – just in time to see silver above his head. Then everything was red.

Red splattered out from the boy, the device still whirring away as it cast the world with crimson paint. The drops caught the sunlight as they flew. Red poppies. He covered an arm with his face to avoid the warm, wet feeling of the blood touching his skin.

When the whirring finally stopped, when he peeled his arm back to see the boy’s split body falling to one side – guts and organs spilling out like the insides of a cracker – he found a silhouette above him. He shielded his eyes with his hands and this time he saw clearly enough.

It was Eiji. Standing with a chainsaw hanging heavily from his arms, panting as he stared down at Ash. Eiji, covered in scarlet from head to toe. Eiji, who had just saved his life with a chainsaw of all things.

Ash stood – stumbled – using the wood behind him to support himself.

Eiji had just saved his life.

He was alive.

Eiji had –

He was stepping – bounding – over the body – moving without thinking.

Eiji had saved his life.

His hands were on Eiji’s cheeks, not taking a moment to look at him before he was slamming his mouth onto Eiji’s. He tasted of copper and sweat and nothing in the world had ever tasted better. He was alive. He was alive because of Eiji.

Fuck.

He was kissing Eiji.

He pulled away, stumbling back over legs that looked like they belonged to a broken puppet.

“Well,” he said. He didn’t want to acknowledge that. He wanted to keep moving. “That was-“ the word came to him – where he had seen a chainsaw before. “’Groovay.’”

Eiji shook his head – scattering poppy petals of blood onto the Emerald City of grass. “I had to help.”

“Thank you.” Ash said. He swallowed, got the courage to touch him again and put his hands on Eiji’s shoulders. “Thank you, Eiji.”

“You said that already.” Eiji said. At Ash’s confused frown, he pressed a hand to his own mouth. Smudged with blood still.

“Sorry – I’m – sorry, about that,” Ash said. “I didn’t believe I was alive.”

“You don’t have to apologize for everything, you know.” A ghost smile sat on Eiji’s lips.

There might have been a laugh, if there wasn’t a dead boy between them. Ash looked down at the body, flies still buzzing around it, readying themselves for a feast.

“We can’t stay here,” he said. “It’s not safe.”

“Max and Ibe-”

“We don’t know when they’ll be back. I don’t care about waiting for bullets – we can’t wait, Eiji.”

“They won’t be long, they said-”

“Eiji, no.” Ash’s voice was a snap. He forced himself to swallow, though his throat was too dry to manage it. All he could taste was blood. This was it, he told himself, he had to come out with some small truth. He had to let Eiji in on this one. “We have to go to New York. My brother’s been bitten.”

Chapter Text

6

Eiji had agreed to go. There was a painful twist in his stomach as they walked away from the wooden farmhouse. He was nervous – he was nervous about leaving Ibe. Leaving Ibe without a word was even worse. What would he imagine happened when he saw the unmoving zombie on the ground with no Ash or Eiji in sight? He’d probably be worried sick.

Ash had sent a text to Skip. He’d passed it on to Bones and Kong as well, so hopefully Ibe would get it. Hopefully he’d understand. Eiji had to go with Ash.

Ash. He was walking slightly in front of Eiji, not taking his eyes off of the road in front of them. Eiji could still feel his hands on his cheeks, his mouth on Eiji’s. The smell of blood and rotting meat in the air and yet Eiji’s heart had been racing. It had felt like jumping – the second where he swore that he could fly. The ghost of the kiss was still lingering on his skin. They hadn’t talked about it since. Ash had just been happy to be alive. That was all. Eiji kept repeating it to himself.

It didn’t mean anything.

In fact, it had helped kickstart his own heart. He hadn’t been able to believe that he had just done that. He had just seen the undead man approaching Ash. His hand had just pulled to activate the chain saw and he was running. His legs had pumped into action without a second thought.

And then there was blood everywhere. He had killed a zombie. Had killed someone. An undead someone.

Ash had kissed him.

Apparently they were moving on from that.

They had stumbled from the woods and onto the highway about an hour ago and had been following signs since then. Their ears were pricked for any approaching cars that they could hitchhike on. There hadn’t even been an engine in the distance.

“Ibe replied,” Ash said. “He said they’ll meet us in New York. I’ll send our location when we get there.”

“Okay,” Eiji said. “Thank you.”

“I couldn’t wait, Eiji.”

“I know. Is he okay?”

“They think.”

Eiji took a breath. “What are you going to do?”

Ash glanced across at him, green eyes dull. “I don’t know.”

“Do you want a cigarette?” It was the only thin he could think of to make things better.

“I’m dying for one. Didn’t have them on me.”

They hadn’t even gone back in the house afterwards. They had just left. Eiji was still splattered from head to toe in blood and Ash was the same. It had dried in his hair and made it look ginger in the afternoon sun.

“Are you okay if we keep walking through the night?”

Eiji was about to reply, when his eyes were drawn to a sparkle of silver at the edge of the road. He stared at it, trying to figure out what exactly it was. Then it clicked.

“Bicycle.”

“What?”

“There’s a bicycle.” Eiji pointed.

Ash turned. His facial expression did not change but he began to jog over to it. So Eiji jogged too. The bicycle was half-hidden in the underbrush. The spokes were rusted with dried blood, but the wheels still turned.

He was about to ask where the rider was, but then he spotted the trainers a few feet away from the bike. One looked empty, but the other still had a leg attached. It ended suddenly at the knee and Eiji couldn’t look further.

“Can you get onto the handlebars?” Ash asked as he tugged it free of tendrils of dry grass. There was blood splattered up his arms in the pattern of a firework.

Eiji nodded and perched himself on the front of the bicycle. It wobbled as Ash climbed on and there was a screech as the wheels began moving. As they started to pick up speed, Eiji became incredibly aware of Ash behind him, his chin bumping into Eiji’s shoulder every now and then as he kept an eye on where they were going.

Ash. Who had kissed him.

Ash, whose brother had been bitten by zombies.

The feeling of his hands and his mouth began to fade and Eiji couldn’t figure out if he was glad about that or disappointed. Whenever he thought of it, his stomach swooped and he wasn’t sure if he disliked the feeling. Actually, he quite liked it.

He quite liked Ash. He liked looking at Ash – at those cat’s eyes and cupid’s bow mouth. He was pretty – very pretty, in that 80s/90s movie kind of way. And he liked the way Ash looked at him. Like he was seeing someone much better than Eiji. Someone who was confident and funny and all of the things Eiji was not.

They were the things Eiji wasn’t in Japan. In America, he felt like that. No, when he was with Ash he felt like that. When they had been messing around in the farmhouse, he had forgotten about anything else. It had been the happiest he had felt for a very long time.

Did that mean that he wanted to kiss Ash again? He wasn’t sure. It wasn’t a thought that he could give time to –

Ash had only kissed him because he was glad to be alive.

The sun was setting as New York finally came into view. It was the same skyline – set against the fire of the sky. Just was breath-taking, if not more, than when Eiji had first seen it from the taxi. Ash whooped behind him as they started going downhill.

And it only took half a moment for Eiji to join in.

It was a short lived euphoria. The closer and closer the got into the city, the more devastation they saw. Shops had been pillaged and houses broke in to – the empty windows and doors gaping at them as they passed. There was blood as well – blood and body parts scattering the pavement.

The zombies started to appear as they got closer and closer to Manhattan. Ash handed Eiji his phone.

“Load up maps – it’s the last search.” He said, pedalling faster.

Eiji did, turning back to tell him the way to go. He didn’t want to think about how close he was to Ash’s cheek when he did.

But they went bothered by any of the stumbling figures. They glanced at them, started forward, but then seemed to see through them. Eiji wasn’t about to complain. It seemed like an age before they were turning into Chinatown and there was a voice calling, “Ash fucking Lynx!”

“Shorter!” Ash was slowing the bike down, already jumping off before it came to a stop. Eiji stumbled, letting it fall behind him as he jumped off too.

A group was running towards them, led by a tall boy sporting a bright purple mohawk. He met Ash as he ran and enveloped him in a bear hug so tight that Eiji could barely spot Ash.

“Shorter fucking Wong!”

They were like football players who had one at the last moment – all jumping and shaking hands and whooping. Eiji set the bicycle down on the pavement, glancing behind him to see if anyone – anything – had heard. That was when there was an arm around his neck, pulling him forward.

“Eiji, this is my best friend, Shorter,” Ash was saying. “Shorter – this is Eiji, he’s – he’s a friend. A stray we took in.”

“A pleasure.” The boy called Shorter held out a hand – a hand rather larger than Eiji’s, he realised, as he shook it. He could see himself mirrored in the sunglasses. He looked small and scared and covered in blood.

“Hello.” It seemed a ridiculous thing to say, given the circumstance.

The whole group was walking now – heading back to the buildings they had sprung from. Guns were out, trained on their surroundings, even though everyone looked too exhausted to aim.

“Where are you from?”

“Japan.” It was easier to stick to the basics.

Shorter gave a low whistle. “Well, Dorothy, I don’t think you’re in Kansas anymore.”

Eiji couldn’t help it, he glanced at Ash and received a smirk. He still had an arm around Eiji’s shoulders, as if he wanted to protect him. Or as if he needed him to stand upright.

“He came over as a journalist,” Ash said. He could speak English a lot quicker than Eiji. “To interview around gangs and stuff in New York. The boys found him looking sorry for himself near our base.”

“You left them there?”

“We had to scatter.”

Shorter pulled down his sunglasses then, seeming to read something in Ash’s face. They didn’t say anything more until they were bundled into a Chinese restaurant. The lights flickered slightly above them and the boys behind them put wooden bars across the doors. The windows had already been boarded up. There were guns everywhere and bullets scattered the place like bobby pins in a girl’s bathroom. But it was safe and that made Eiji relax.

“What happened?” Shorter wasted no time once they were inside, pulling a chair over to him and setting on it backward – so his could rest his elbows on the back of it.

Ash finally released Eiji, hopping onto one of the tables and using another as a footstool.

Eiji pulled a chair across and wondered if he was the only one here who could use one normally.

“It was like they were organised. They just crowded around – waiting – like they were flushing us out.”

“Like foxes around a rabbit hole.” Shorter ran a hand over his chin. It looked as though he hadn’t shaved in a long time.

“What the fuck do you know about hunting rabbits?”

“More than you, and I don’t have the last name of a big cat.” Shorter was grinning and Ash was grinning back and Eiji supposed that had to be a good sign. “You’re saying they were – what? Assembled there?”

“Organised – I said, organised.”

“Maybe someone led them to you,” Shorter suggested.

“No, no one had left in days.”

“Maybe they have a hive mentality,” someone else threw in.

“They would have found us a while ago, if they did,” Shorter said. He sighed, and leant back, resting his head in his arms, “You know the annoying thing about zombie movies?

“They're too realistic?” Ash asked. It earned a few snickers, and Eiji had to hide his smile behind his hand.

“They don't explain the origin of the zombies.”

“Cell does.” A boy who looked much too young to be filling the gun he was holding, said.

“You're right, Soo-Ling, Cell does,” Shorter said. “And because of that, we can deduce phones were not the cause. In fact, I was taking a call from my sister when it happened.”

“What does it matter how it started?” Ash was on the verge of snarling.

“Because then we might know if someone can control them. If there can be a cure.”

“How many movies are there where they succeed in making a cure?”

“In Shaun of the Dead, Shaun keeps his zombie buddy as a pet in the garage,” the young boy continued. He flicked his gun open and shut without looking at it. “It's not a solution, but the power of friendship might be a compromise.”

“Power of friendship, got it.”

“We have made some progress,” Shorter said. “We know that it started here, in the city. It wasn't brought from anywhere else.”

“And now its spreading.”

“And now its spreading, yeah.”

“We shut down the docks pretty quick.” The female voice was unexpected. A woman stepped through the crowds, tucking a strand of short hair behind her ear. “The whole country should be in shut down or evacuating. Then it’ll be contained.”

“And we’ll be trapped.”

“Until they decompose completely, yeah.” Shorter said.

Ash sighed, pushing his hair away from his face and scowling at the floor. He glanced up, after a moment. “Hi, Nadia.”

“Hello again, Ash.” She smiled then and it made her look so much younger and prettier. “No offence, but you look like crap.”

“I feel like crap.”

“Whose blood is it?” Shorter asked.

Ash glanced at Eiji then. He took a moment before he replied, “some zombie’s. Eiji killed it.”

“And here I thought you were being clever.”

“Come again?”

“The scent – it would have disguised you from them.”

"Yeah, that's what we were aiming for.” Ash winked at Eiji. He looked down. It made his heart stutter and his head feel light. What was wrong with him? It hadn’t meant anything.

It hadn’t meant anything.

“We still have running water upstairs.” That was the woman, Nadia. “Would you two like to wash up?"

"The waters still on?”

“For now,” Shorter said. “We don’t know how long it’s going to last. Consider it a treat before you have to make do with a shower a week. You know, as you smell like rotten meat.”

“You’re very kind.” Ash rolled his eyes. “Eiji, you go first. I have something to do – will you take me?” the last was directed to Shorter, who nodded, his expression turning solemn and serious.

Ash and Shorter were getting to their feet, so Eiji did too. He looked up at Ash, searching his face for – he didn’t know what, exactly. Ash’s face was a mask of indifference anyway.

“Be careful, Ash.”

“I always am.” Ash’s hand hovered above his cheek for a moment, before he took a breath and clenched his fist. “You stay safe too.”

Then he was pushing past Eiji and he was left standing with a group of strangers again.

Only this time he didn’t have Ash.

*

Ash couldn’t remember the last time he had been apart from Eiji. He didn’t like it. It made him feel like he was missing a limb.

Missing a limb. What if Griffin was missing a limb?

He had no idea what he was going to say – no idea what he was going to do. He was just following Shorter with a hand on his gun through the suburbs of New York.  These were the same streets that he knew like the back of his hand, and yet it was almost unrecognisable. This was the city that never slept and yet it was a ghost town. Lights were either off or flickering and it was really becoming dark. He’d never seen New York really dark.

“He’s up here,” Shorter said, as they came to another apartment block. “Third floor – the only closed door.”

“You left him here?”

Shorter leant closer, his voice dropping. “He’s infected, Ash. We couldn’t take him with us.”

Ash wanted to punch something. He wanted to punch the brickwork until his knuckles were bleeding. Then maybe punch Shorter too.

“I’ll go up,” he said, instead. His voice sounded strained. “Cover me?”

He didn’t stay to listen to the answer. Ash shoved the apartment door open with his shoulder and headed up the stairs. Something was leaking, he could hear it tapping through the walls. An electric light burst as he passed it, shattering stars over him.

As he walked down the hallway, he could feel his heart pounding in his chest. Nerves. He couldn’t remember feeling this nervous for a long time.

The only closed door was about halfway down and he paused outside the doorway. His ears strained to hear any sound from inside. No moans. No groans. No screams. Ash nudged it open with his foot, sliding his gun out of his waistband and holding it with both hands as he stepped inside.

It wasn’t trashed. It was just an apartment – bathroom door half open and magazines on the table. The windows intact and the pictures where they should be on the walls. Almost as if it was any other day. So, this was where Griffin had been living. It wasn’t great – barely even nice – but it was his own place. A proper apartment with lampshades instead of naked bulbs and wallpaper instead of cracking, mouldy paint. Griffin had a life. Ash didn’t, not like this. It should have been him with the bite.

Ash cracked the door to the bedroom open with his foot. He could hear ragged breathing and held his breath as he stepped into the room.

A gun was pointed at him. He had been planning to raise his own – just in case, but he lost his nerve. The pistol hung from his fingers as he stared at a man with pale, sweaty skin and lank hair.

“Get out,” the man said in a cracked voice.

Ash opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He just stood there.

“I said get out.”

“Griffin.” Ash’s voice was barely more than a whisper.

“What?”

“Are you – you –“ Ash forced himself to swallow. “Griffin Callenreese?”

“I was.”

“You are.”

The gun was lowered slightly. The man’s breathing was laboured as he stared at Ash. Ash, who was covered in blood. Ash, who was a teenager stood in front of a man. His brother was a man.

“You need to go,” the man said. He paused to give a hacking cough. “It’s not safe here.”

“I know.”

“Then leave.” Another long and painful coughing fit. Ash saw blood and his stomach turned.

“I can’t.”

The man – Griffin – looked at him for a long time. His eyes were blue – the same watery blue that Ash remembered.

“You too?” he croaked.

“What?” Ash blinked. Then understood. “No – no – this is – this is someone else’s. I’m not hurt.” The gun was wavering even lower and he stepped closer. “I had to come here.”

Griffin dropped the gun with a clatter, doubling over and spluttering with a cough. Ash darted forward, kneeling down and rubbing his back. It was then that he noticed the wheelchair. Max had warned him – but there was still something that scared him about it. This was someone Ash didn’t recognise. Someone with a completely different life.

Then again, he couldn’t speak about being unrecognisable.

“Griffin,” Ash said. “You had a brother, right?”

“Have a brother.” Griffin’s voice was even weaker. “He’s still out there. He’s in the city.”

“He is.”

Griffin looked up then. His eyes were red, but they were searching Ash’s. He was still there. Some of him.

“He’s here,” Ash whispered.

“Aslan.”

There was a hand on Ash’s cheek – a wavering hand and he steadied it against himself without even thinking. Aslan. That was a name that he hadn’t heard in a long time. It was a name that didn’t even feel like his anymore. But it was. That was him. He was Aslan.

Griffin’s hand moved on his cheek – just slightly. Just enough to wipe away the drop of water that had appeared from Ash’s eye. He hadn’t even realised his eyes were damp.

“Where have you been, Aslan?”

He couldn’t say. Not when Griffin already had a foot in the grave and seemed to be inching into it as they spoke. The truth had no place here. Instead he tried to make his mouth smile. “Yonder.”

That made Griffin chuckle. Ash wanted to believe it was a chuckle, but it sounded like the dry laugh of a skeleton.

"You shouldn't be here," Griffin repeated.

Ash shook his head. "I had to. I had to come."

"It's too late, Aslan."

He knew that. He knew it but that wasn't right. His heart was telling him that it wasn't right.

"It's not - it can't be - not after - not after everything." It wasn't fair. It really wasnt fair that they'd only just found each other and now - this. "We'll - we'll find a cure - there has to be a cure."

Griffin gave him a tired smile. He had such a gentle face - Ash couldn't imagine him as a soldier. He couldn't imagine him killing anyone. His other hand was searching Ash's matted hair with clumsy fingers, as if he was trying to feel as much of Ash as he could.

"I don't want to know what it's like," Griffin said. "To be like that. I don't want that."

"But - it can't be too late." Ash sounded like a child, but that was okay. He could be a child now that his big brother was here.

Griffin shook his head and the movement left him panting for air. "My heart is slowing. Here - feel."

He took Ash's hand, moving at the snail's pace of a man much older, until Ash's curled fingers were on Griffin's chest. He forced himself to move, to feel it with his palm. A small, childish part of him hoped that against everything, he would feel a strong heartbeat. A heartbeat getting stronger because he was here now and brotherly love would win out.

This wasn't a movie. He could barely feel anything. And as a result, he couldn't bring himself to meet Griffin's eyes.

"How did it happen?" he whispered in a cracking voice.

"Well I could hardly going anywhere, could I?" His voice was gentle. So gentle. "My friend was meant to be getting supplies. Searching for a safe house and coming back to get me. I have no idea how he would have gotten us out of the city, but Max is like that. A very brave man."

But he abandoned you, Ash wanted to say. He had left. If he had stayed this wouldn’t have happened. He kept his mouth shut. Nothing would make this moment worse than it was.

'They found me - could probably smell me. One was on me before I knew it and by the time I had got my safety off my gun and killed it - it got me. I thought it was easier to stay here, where I can't infect anyone else."

"I can help you," Ash whispered.

"You can," Griffin said. It wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He knew the drill now. "The thought of that moment - that moment of changing - has been haunting me for days," he wet his mouth with a greyish tongue and Ash wished that he wouldn't say it. Of all the crap that had happened to him, don't add this on too. "Will you be able to do it?"

"I don't know."

"Not wanting to isn't the same as not being able to. Here." Griffin was searching for Ash's arms and he let him. He let the gun in his hands be raised as if he was a doll. As if he was helpless. But Griffin was looking at him clearer than ever. "I'll help you. We'll do it together."

He was holding Ash's gun against his forehead, hands closed over Ash's. They were already stained with blood and they were smaller. Too small.

He shook his head because he couldn't speak. Could barely breathe for the pain in his chest and throat and could barely see for the tears in his eyes.

"Look at you, Aslan." There was that gentle voice again. The fingers tightened around his ever so slightly. Calloused, Ash realised. Experienced hands. "You're all grown up. Almost a man."

"You have grown up," Ash whispered. He felt a tear drip down his cheek and it felt like a raindrop.

"I wish you didn't have to." For a moment, it looked as if he was going to put the gun down. That he'd put the gun down and hug Ash. But then his face hardened into a resolution. "But it's time, tiger."

There was a sound in the back of Ash's throat. He hadn't realised how much he'd missed that nickname.

"I want to be your brother. Not anything else. Don't let me change."

"Okay." The word finally came out, even if it was against his will. He shifted his fingers under Griffin's, made sure that he would be able to pull the trigger. "I love you, Griffin."

Griffin tried for a smile again, but his face was stiff. His hands were weakening over Ash's and it would have to be this moment - it would have to be now.

"I love you too, tiger."

The bang reverberated through the apartment like the first firework of the fourth of July.

Ash let the gun drop into his lap. Let himself rest his arms and head on Griffin's knees. Gave himself ten seconds to let the wave of emotions wash through him.

Then he stood.

And he left.

Chapter Text

7

Eiji had read Peter Pan once. He distinctly remembered a part that mentioned whenever the Lost Boys were growing up, Peter would take them out to the forest and would return on his own. With a grim look on his face. As he looked at Ash he decided that was what it had meant. It was exactly the look he had on his face as he walked through the door.

They'd been given one of the backrooms, still mostly full of storage boxes containing ready-made sweet n' sour sauce and curries and easy cook rice. Ash Lynx was important, apparently. Eiji had found that out as he'd sat on the air mattress, freshly washed but still with blood stuck under his finger nails. One of the boys - one of the younger ones - the one Eiji had heard Shorter call Soo-Ling - had leant against the door and stared at him.

"Do you even know who he is?" he has asked.

"Who?"

"That's Ash Lynx you're tagging along with."

"I know." Eiji's voice sounded strange to him. Much too calm and soft for how he was feeling inside. Inside was a maelstrom.

"But do you? Really?"

"He's a gang leader."

"He's the reason the gangs stopped fighting. He was the reason Chinatown was doing so good. He is a legend," Soo-Ling was almost misty eyed as he said it. "So who are you?"

"Tired," Eiji replied. Soo-Ling looked surprised at that answer and Eiji felt his cheeks grow hot. He laughed and finished drying his hair with a towel that stunk of mildew. "Eiji Okumura. I was a journalist. Kind of."

"Kind of?"

"I was mainly just along for the ride."

Soo-Ling stared at him for a long time with dark eyes. "There must be more to you than that."

Eiji shrugged. "Sorry to disappoint you."

Soo-Ling kept staring, like he was waiting for a more satisfying response. When he didn't get one, he had sunk to the floor, pulling a D.S out of his hoodie pocket and playing it with earphones in. Eiji wasn't sure if that meant they were friends or not.

It seemed like an age before he was called away to go on watch, leaving Eiji alone again. That was when Ash returned. At first he had been relieved - incredibly relieved, because the blood had been scrubbed away and his hair had never looked so blonde.

Then he had seen the expression on Ash's face.

Neither of them said a word. Eiji wished he could - wished he did know what to say. But he knew there was nothing. Something had happened - something he could guess at and he knew that Ash wasn't going to talk about it.

Ash had lay on the air mattress without saying a word, his back to Eiji. Eiji was so exhausted that he followed suit, feeling aches pulse through his body from the bicycle ride.

He hadn't been sleeping when he heard it. The gasps of air of someone trying desperately to hide that they were crying. He half rolled over to see Ash's shoulders shaking.

It was always easier not to say a word. He shuffled around and slipped an arm around Ash, pulling him against him gently. Ash turned easily, folding himself under Eiji's chin and still trying to find air to gulp down.

Eiji just kept hold of him, their legs tangled in a mess and Ash's hair tickling his face. It smelt of the carbonic soap that had been in the bathroom.

He had laid there until dawn, drifting in and out of consciousness.

Eiji's fingers hovered over Ash's hair. He had the urge to brush it off of his face, but paused. He didn't know how Ash would take that.

Instead he crept out of the room. The main restaurant was full of people sitting around. Some were cleaning guns, others knives. Eiji wished he'd kept the chainsaw, though he had no idea how they would have carried it here.

Soo-Ling wasn't around, so he found Shorter. He was easy to spot - hunched over a takeaway box of noodles and slurping them into his mouth.

"Eiji, right?" he asked as Eiji jumped up onto the table next to him. His legs swung embarrassingly off the ground.

"Yes. Shorter, right?"

"That’s right."

"Is that your real name?"

Shorter smiled at him. "A Chinese kid can't be called Shorter naturally?"

Eiji blinked and it made Shorter laugh. There was a lot less laughter here than there had been with Ash's gang and it sounded harsh against the silence. Everyone was drooping. They glanced around at the slightest of sounds or movements and moved rarely but quickly, as if they were trying to preserve their energy. Shorter seemed to be the only one unaffected, but he still had dark smudges under his eyes.

"How's Ash?" Shorter asked, continuing to eat.

"Sleeping."

"It's not his real name, you know."

"What?"

"Ash," Shorter paused to slurp some more noodles. Eiji waited. "That's not his real name. He chose it. Ash Lynx. Lynxes can't be tamed."

Eiji wasn't sure what to say to that. It made sense - Ash Lynx hadn't sounded like a name anyone could have been born with. He wanted to ask why he chose that – why it was important to him that lynxes can’t be tamed. He wanted to ask what Ash’s real name was. But it wasn’t Shorter’s place to say – he wanted to hear it from Ash. To see Ash open up to him.

It would probably never happen.

"He saw his brother, didn't he?" he asked instead.

"Did he tell you what happened?" Shorter seemed like he knew the answer already from the look that he gave Eiji.

"Not a word."

"There was a gunshot." Shorter said it so simply. It was a matter of fact. It told Eiji all he needed to know – all he had suspected.

"Poor Ash," he said, mainly to himself.

"Poor Ash, what?" a sudden, loud voice said in his ear. There was an arm around his shoulders, Shorter's too, and in the next moment Ash's face appeared between them. His eyes were still puffy and it sounded like he had a blocked nose. Eiji decided to ignore that.

"Poor Ash hasn't had a cigarette for two days," he said. He glanced at Shorter, who smiled at him.

"Yeah, and I'm not sharing mine."

"Are you kidding me? After all I've done for you?"

"Get fucked, Lynx."

"Fuck you." Ash blew his fringe from his face. "I know I should have brought that hand with us. Traded it."

"I wouldn't have let you," Eiji said. He leant against Ash slightly - just so that he could feel him there.

"What hand?"

"Eiji got a zombie hand attached to him. Snapped clean off."

"That's fucking sick!" Shorter was grinning. "Was it moving?"

"Ew, no." Eiji grimaced at the thought.

"Shame. Would have been really interesting." He gave Ash a sideways glance from over his sunglasses. “Would have been worth a pack of tobacco. Maybe even a little weed.”

“Why am I even friends with you?”

“Because I needed someone to protect my pretty face in juvie.” Shorter laughed, taking hold of Ash’s chin and making him laugh too.

"Juvie?" Eiji echoed.

"Juvenile hall," Ash explained and had the decency to look embarrassed. At the confused stare Eiji gave him, he continued. "Prison for kids."

"We got in trouble a fair bit in our youth," Shorter said. He leant into Ash, pushing him further into Eiji and almost sending the three of them off the edge of the table.

“Because you’re so wise and worldly,” Ash elbowed Shorter back.

Eiji didn't know why he was surprised. Of course Ash had been to juvenile hall. Of course he'd been arrested. He was a gang leader. But he had never thought of Ash intentionally breaking the law. Of robbing or shooting actual people - people with jobs and lives. Living people. He'd Ash would have a past like that. That made him a criminal.

But Ash was good. Ash was a good person, Eiji knew that.

So did it matter that he had been to ‘juvie?’ What if he had been to actual prison? Did that change things? Eiji didn’t think it did. It should have. But it didn’t. This was the same boy that defended his English, taught him how to shot a gun and who picked him up in a farmhouse. The same Ash. What did his past matter?

“I bet Eiji’s been in more trouble than us,” Shorter said, and he had the condescending tone of someone who knew the answer.

“No.” Eiji wasn’t sure if he imagined Ash’s arm squeezing him tighter or not. “I’m just – ordinary.”

“Yeah, that’s him. Completely ordinary, right?” Soo-Ling appeared, headphones hanging around his neck. He stared at Eiji as though he was waiting for him to come out with a confession.

“Soo-Ling – how’s it going?” Shorter asked.

The boy shrugged. “Everyone’s still dead. Found a quarter by the door, though.”

“Eiji’s not ordinary,” Ash said. His chin was buried in Eiji’s hair. “He’s Okumura Eiji, walker-slayer.”

“Just call them zombies!” Eiji turned, pushing against Ash’s arm so that he had space.

“Mmm, I don’t want to be offensive.” Ash was smirking, tilting his head to the side in mock-consideration.

“You’re ridiculous.”

“You’re adorable.”

“We have a no kissing rule!” Soo-Ling said loudly.

That made Ash pull away suddenly – Eiji did too, fixing his gaze on the floor. He felt his face burning as Ash yelped, “what?!”

“The two of you were flirting.” Soo-Ling shrugged, taking a tray of Chinese food from a passing kid and tucking into it before they could object. They flipped the bird at him and he flipped one back. “I don’t want to see you making out.”

To his surprise, Ash laughed, slipping his arm back around Eiji’s shoulders.

“You know, one day, you might not mind it so much,” Ash said. His hand caught Eiji’s chin and suddenly he was staring into green eyes inches away from his face. He was sure that Ash would be able to hear his heartbeat. “Right, sweetie?”

Eiji froze. He couldn’t talk, swallow or blink. He could only stare at those eyes. Ash could smile with his eyes.

“Nope, still prefer a good chow mein,” Soo-Ling said, over Shorter’s loud laughter.

Ash paused, for a moment looking as though he was going to kiss Eiji’s forehead, but then he was turning away and pulling the cigarette from behind Shorter’s ear and slipping it into his mouth.

Shorter jumped up immediately, reaching for it. Ash managed to duck and weave away, still chuckling. The others started to cheer each of them on, shouting like they were watching an American Football game.

Eiji watched with a smile fixed on his face. He wanted to join in on the fun, but he felt strange. He hadn’t expected to talk things over with Ash about what had happened last night. But he also hadn’t expected the flirting. There were a lot of things he didn’t know about Ash, he realised. Then, there was a lot of things he wanted to know about Ash.

There was a lot of things he wanted to know about Ash, but he wasn’t sure if he could now that there had been the kiss. The kiss and the pet name that didn’t mean anything because it was all just teasing or adrenaline.

If his racing heart was anything to go by, at least.

*

Ash broke again that night. That was his own phrasing. It wasn’t like crying. It wasn’t mourning or grieving or sobbing. It was breaking cleanly in half like a geode and being completely naked. It was opening the floodgate of shit that he had done and being forced to think about it all until his brain decided to give up completely.

He had seen Griffin behind his eyelids all day. Griffin’s pale face and lank hair and defeated eyes. His smile as he said Ash was almost a man. It had almost been like he was proud. Proud. Of Ash. That didn’t make sense. And he knew he wouldn’t have been if Ash had told the truth. He wouldn’t have called Ash a man. Not in the slightest. He didn’t deserve that praise.

Eiji’s arms appeared again, pulling him close without a word. He was shaking slightly as he found a grip on Ash’s vest. But then he just lay there, holding Ash as if he would be able to catch all of the pieces breaking off of him. As if he would be able to put Ash back together with his bare hands.

If anyone could, it would be Eiji. Eiji, who had basically learnt English in two weeks. Eiji, who had stayed up with Ash every time he was on duty, just to keep him company. Eiji, who had a smile like a firework. He wasn’t jealous of that genuinely happy smile. He just wanted to watch the show.

And Eiji had been the one who looked terrified when Ash had put his arm around him. When he had turned on the charm partly to tease him – partly to see if he would go along with it. He wasn’t sure if he had wanted Eiji to go along with it. How quickly would his stomach turn? And he wasn’t sure how he felt about the blushing, staring face. He had looked almost scared.

Ash hadn’t wanted him to be scared. But it was probably better than going along with it without hesitation. Maybe it was worth it – just to see that blush. It had made Ash’s heart pound. He wasn’t sure what was up with that.

He gripped Eiji’s t-shirt in his hands to get his attention – just in case he had somehow fallen asleep.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Eiji was quiet for a moment. His hand moved up Ash’s back, as if he was expecting him to move back. He stayed frozen. There was a tiny blue light from a freezer at the back, but It wasn’t enough to see by. Just to help provide silhouettes.

“Ash?”

“I didn’t mean to,” Ash continued.

“It was what you had to do,” Eiji murmured.

That made Ash frown. It clicked in the next moment. “You’re talking about the other night.”

“You’re not?”

“I meant earlier.”

“Oh,” Eiji took a breath. “It was fine.” The breath meant that it wasn’t fine. Not really. “We don’t have to talk about it. You don’t have to talk about anything.”

“I don’t know what to talk about,” Ash whispered. He tightened his grip, pulling Eiji towards him as if he would be able to hide in his chest. “We weren’t close. Not anymore. When I was a kid. Before he left. Before I left.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault.”

Eiji’s thumb started to rub circles into the small of Ash’s back. “Let me be sorry anyway.”

His breath escaped him a burst that strained his skin like he was a balloon. Eiji pressed him closer without saying a word.

“I don’t know what I was thinking earlier.” He continued.

“Don’t worry about it.” Eiji said. He swallowed and his voice sounded thick when he continued. “Let’s just not talk about it.”

So Ash did. He kept quiet and thought about how warm Eiji’s arms were around him. About Eiji’s smell filling his senses. Carbolic soap. He could fall asleep like this. He felt safe and comfortable.

"Ash?" Eiji asked. He managed to make a small sound in response. "Have you heard from Ibe-san?"

"No." Ash could feel Eiji's heart sinking. "He probably has his phone off. To keep his battery."

"'Mm."

"You'll be safe here, with Shorter. Until they get here."

"Why are you using 'you?'"

"What do you mean?"

"You said I'll be safe here until Ibe-san comes. What about you?"

Ash took a breath. He raised a hand without meaning to and found his fingers in Eiji's thick hair.

"I don't think it's a good idea for you to stay with me."

He had been thinking it all day. Since yesterday. It was something that was much easier to say in the dark.

"I'm not leaving you," Eiji said, like it was obvious.

"Don't be stupid, Eiji." Ash sat up, scattering the old picnic blanket and hoodies they had been using as duvets. "You'll be perfectly fine with Max and Ibe. He's meant to be looking after you, right? I'm not-"

"You've done a better job of saving my life than Ibe-san did." Eiji sat too and the blue spark from the machine was reflected in his eyes. "You saved my life."

"I'm the reason your life was in danger."

"My life would have been in danger anyway."

"This isn't up for debate. I'm not - I'm not someone you should be around."

"There's no debate. I'm staying."

Ash huffed and wiped the leftover tears from his face with the palm of his hand. He stayed staring at the door with gritted teeth so that he wouldn't fall for those puppy dog eyes.

"No. You're not."

"I am." Eiji said, and when Ash glanced over he saw that Eiji had his arms crossed. " Of course I would want to be around you. You're my best friend."

"You've known me for two weeks."

"And I feel closer to you than any of my friends in Japan."

"Eiji-"

"What makes you someone I can't be around?"

There was a sudden knock on the door. It was so loud and abrupt that Ash almost jumped. Eiji did, jogging the air mattress.

"If you're not going to sleep, then could you go on watch?"

It was Shorter's voice and he sounded amused.

"Sure," Ash replied, without looking at Eiji. He pulled the door to the storeroom shut and had every intention of just leaving. But then he glanced back. Eiji was staring at him with a determined expression on his face.

He hadn't won the argument.

"What makes you someone he doesn't want to be around, Ash?" Shorter was smiling slightly as he kept pace with him over to the door.

“You can choose from a list of slurs. Whore is a popular one.”

“You honestly think he’ll care?”

“Of course, he fucking will.”

“Because I care so much, you know.” Shorter’s voice was dripping with sarcasm. He held out a rollie between his fingers, almost taunting Ash with it. Ash took it, flicking sparks from his lighter as he lit it. He held it in his mouth, but didn’t breathe in.

“You’re different.” Ash shoved his hands into his hoodie pockets, hunching his shoulders as he stared out onto the empty street. It was normally still full of taxis and tourists.

“I’m not pretty?” Shorter raised an eyebrow. He took a drag from his own cigarette and the smoke came out in puffs.

“Oh, you’re gorgeous. And you grew up with this life.” Ash finally took a drag, taking the cigarette from between his lips. Fuck, it felt good. He had known the craving was bad – enough to drive him insane. He hadn’t known how deep the relief would be.

"With zombies?"

Ash looked at him and simply rolled his eyes. Shorter just laughed.

"What did you think would happen? That you'd never meet someone normal and settle down?"

"Did you?"

"Of course.” Shorter leant against the doorframe. “Cute house, cute kids, cute wife.”

“Cute.”

“’Course, you might want to change the cute wife part.”

“Is this a roundabout way of asking me if I’m gay?”

Shorter shrugged.

“Fucking Max asked me the same thing.”

“Who the fuck is that?”

“Some dick my brother knew.” Ash paused. “You know, just because some pedo made me blow him doesn’t mean I’m gay.”

It was hard to say, as if he was talking through a hard lump in his throat. He heard his voice crack and gritted his teeth. Tobacco fell from the end of his cigarette and onto the floor. It curled there like tiny worms.

“That wasn’t what I was thinking.” Shorter said. His voice was soft and gentle. Like he was trying to tame a wild horse.

Ash blew his bangs away from his face and didn’t reply. There was a sick feeling settling himself in his stomach – fighting against the anger in his chest.

“I was thinking of the way that you look at him.” Shorter continued.

“Don’t know what you mean.”

“You let your guard down around him. I’ve never seen you do that before. With anyone,” Shorter said. “The fact that he’s a guy doesn’t matter.”

“Of course it fucking does.”

“Why?”

Ash didn’t look at him. He shrugged his shoulders and felt younger than ever. It did. It did matter. Of course it did, because Ash’s body had not been his own. His sexuality hadn’t been up for debate. It was finally his. He was finally free of what everyone had stuck on his back.

“It doesn’t matter what I am,” Ash said. “He’s not. Eiji’s not-“

Not like the others. Wouldn’t be like the others. But how would Ash know? Eiji had saved his life. He trusted him. Completely. Eiji was different.

“How do you know?”

Ash tossed the cigarette onto the floor and felt the heat through the thin sole of his trainer. It didn’t matter. It couldn’t matter. He wouldn’t let it matter. These weren’t things that he could think about.

They were things he didn’t want to think about. It meant acknowledging too much. Dealing with too many feelings that he’d set on fire long ago.

"I don't think past tomorrow,” he said.

"We'll survive this, Ash."

"And how are you so confident?" Ash rested his head on the doorframe, turning to look at Shorter. He could feel a smile on his face, despite his better judgement.

"Because I'm me." Shorter shrugged. "And when this is all over, you better not let that boy go."

He turned to leave, the slope of his shoulders showing how utterly exhausted he was.

"Who are you, his mother?"

"If that's what it takes to see you smile."

Ash gave a disbelieving huff, turning his attention back to the street.

He had been smiling, hadn't he? He smiled all the time. No, it wasn't a smile, it was a smirk. Ash smirked at people. But there had been times where that smirk had turned into something else. Those times were normally with Eiji. When Eiji was grinning up at him with the eyes of a puppy. As if Ash was his friend unconditionally.

And maybe he was. Maybe he would be.

But Ash couldn't take that chance. He couldn’t afford to take that chance. It was selfish, but he wanted to keep those puppy dog eyes for as long as he could. Before he had to say goodbye. There was a feeling in his gut that told him this wasn't going to last. It couldn't last.

A walker was stumbling towards him. Its arms jerked in front of it as if it wanted to find its way and yet realised how cliche it was.

Ash took the shotgun that was resting on the side of the door and checked the silencer was on it. He flicked the safety off and took aim. Probably, he could have left it to shuffle past, but he was pissed off now.

It turned to him. For a moment, he could see Griffin's features staring back at him. The same blank eyes.

But then he blinked and this was an entirely different man. A man with a beard and wrinkles around his eyes.

Ash took the shot. The men fell with a soft thump to the floor.

It was easy. Too easy. The kind of easy that made him think Shorter could be right - that there was an end to all this.

And yet he could see more shapes down the road. Could hear a building front being torn into.

They may have been safe for now, but it was still impossible to think past tomorrow.

 

Chapter Text

8

Tomorrow came. And the next day. Eiji had already been in America a month. He had known Ash for a little under that. Shorter and Soo-ling even less.

But they felt like family. Shorter was the kind of person who constantly teased everyone and yet it made you like him. Soo-Ling still followed Eiji around, his D.S never far from his hands. He seemed to have given up on finding out Eiji's secret, and instead leant against him like a cat without a word.

Ash acted as if the conversation in the dark had never happened. As if they had both agreed that Eiji would go with Ibe and Max when they arrived. Eiji wasn't about to bring it up again, but he had made his decision.

It was added to the growing list of things they didn't talk about. The kiss, the crying, the argument - Eiji waking up in the middle of the night hyperventilating because he could feel hands on him. Hands grabbing at his face and his clothes.

Eiji asking to sleep with the flashlight of his phone turned on. Ash letting him without an argument.

Ash wiping sweaty hair off of Eiji's forehead and forcing him to look at him. To realise he was real. He was Ash and he was real and he had green eyes.

They didn't talk about the moment Eiji had calmed down and had his hands over Ash's. Ash holding Eiji's cheeks and his eyes softening from panic to something else. Something gentle.

It had been a long moment before Ash had pulled his hands away and lay back down on the air mattress. It looked as if he was taking long breaths. Eiji had laid back down to, facing away from Ash so that he couldn't see the warmth on his face.

With so much to not talk about, Eiji was running out of meaningful conversations. He had discovered Ash hated small talk and casual conversations. There had to be a purpose and Eiji struggled to find one.

"Any news?"

Ash shook his head, he was eating - plain rice with sweet and sour sauce. Food was starting to run out. "I'll let you know."

"How have they been held up this long?" Eiji toyed with his own food. It was slightly undercooked and he was struggling to stomach it.

"Skip. He can't walk as far for as long." Ash's hand moved on the table, as if it was about to touch Eiji's. "They'll be fine."

Eiji nodded. He forced himself to take another mouthful.

"Teach me how to shoot?" he asked.

"Sure." Ash finished his rice in two mouthfuls and got up from the table.

Eiji pushed his to one side, then caught Soo-Ling's eye across the room and nodded towards it. Then he followed Ash, taking up a shotgun from by the door. He lifted it and clamped a hand around a random area of metal.

"No." Ash was chuckling and he stepped around Eiji. "Here."

His hands adjusted Eiji's, placing them on the gun. They were dry. He took one hand away from Eiji’s to point to a cracked windowpane opposite them.

“That’s your target. Can you aim it okay?”

“Point and shoot,” Eiji said and Ash chuckled in his ear. It made his jaw tense, but he tried to ignore the sound – the feeling of Ash’s breath on his cheek – as he aimed the gun.

He took a breath that he felt in every part of his body and squeezed the trigger down.

The gun kicked, but Ash's grip tightened over Eiji's to steady him. He heard a window shattering, and when his eyes searched for his target, he realised he'd hit it.

"Point and shoot," Ash murmured in his ear.

"If you can shoot that thing, you can come with us." Shorter appeared, a tattered backpack on his shoulders. "We need to find more food before I take a chunk out of someone."

"I don't think a diet would hurt," Ash said. But he stepped away from Eiji. "I'll go."

"Me too," Eiji said.

Ash ignored him. "Eiji can hold the fort."

"Ash, I'm coming." He stepped around Ash, then, fixing him with the hardest stare that he could. Ash returned it, but his chilling green stare had lost it's authority on Eiji. He glanced behind him, to Shorter instead.

"We need as many guys at possible," he said, placing a heavy hand on Eiji's shoulder.

Ash was still staring at Shorter, but someone yelled that they needed to get going. There was a crowd of people at the door, all jostling to get out, because they were teenage boys and they couldn't sit still, let alone be holed up in a restaurant for more than a day.

So Eiji stepped outside before Ash could stop him, keeping pace with Shorter as the group started off.

"Right," Shorter was shouting over his shoulder. It was easier to get the courage to shout in the day. "Groups of four, people. Hit up convenience stores - take the water and the cans first. Then the non-perishables. If you still have room left, then take bread and milk and stuff. After that, hit up anywhere that sells guns. Take all the bullets. Understood?"

There was a cheer from the group. It was almost as if this was a game.

"You two okay to come with us?" Shorter turned to Ash and Eiji, but he was already starting down a side street before they could reply with Soo-Ling in tow.

So Eiji didn't answer either.

Ash took his elbow and forced him to slow his pace.

"I want to be helpful," Eiji said, turning to Ash.

"And I don't want you to die."

"I don't want you to die, either."

"It wouldn't matter if I died."

"It would to me."

"Not if you knew." Ash glanced around them, as if he was checking for zombies. Eiji knew he was avoiding his gaze.

"Knew what?"

"If you were a normal person." Ash dropped his arm and walked faster. "You would realise that I'm a gang leader street rat."

"I think you're a diamond in the rough." Eiji matched his pace and smiled, mainly because he knew it threw Ash off-guard when he did. There was a moment when Ash's eyes flicked away from Eiji's, the slightest colour on his face, before he smirked at him, one eyebrow raised.

"Like I said, if you were a normal person."

"I'm glad I'm not normal."

Ash paused, actually stopped in the road to stare at him.

"Eiji, you're-"

"Adorable? I know."

"Getting too cocky for your own good," Ash said, his arm going to hook around Eiji's head. It didn't quite get all the way. Instead, his knuckles muzzled into Eiji's hair.

He laughed.

"What did I say about the flirting?" Soo-Ling's voice interrupted them.

"I just can't keep my hands off of him," Ash said, following them to the shop they had stopped outside of. He turned back to smirk at Eiji. "Right, sweetie?"

It was Eiji's turn to be caught off-guard. He felt his face growing warm, but he was determined not to be outdone. He stepped forward, letting his fingers rest on Ash's elbow as he smiled and said, "then I'm sure you'll keep me from coming to any harm."

Shorter laughed and Soo-Ling groaned as he pulled apart the automatic doors to the shop. It looked as though it had already been ransacked, with products tossed from the shelves and trambled on lying over the linoleum flooring. The lights had been shattered and glass dusted the place, catching the sun so they looked like stars.

There was a familiar smell in the air. Eiji glanced around, but he couldn't see any bodies.

It was the smell that made them go quiet as they tracked up and down the aisles. Soo-Ling handed them cans and packets of crisps without a word, as Shorter led the front of the party, his gun pointed in front of them.

It was quiet, Eiji realised. There was no sound of the traffic outside. No engines running, no horns beeping, no sirens blaring. Nothing. No chatter either, and no music playing through the speakers.

Which was why he jumped out of his skin when there was a sudden knocking. Not knocking, slapping. Something heavy slapping against glass.

Shorter ran to the end of the aisle and skidded across the floor as he came to a halt, his finger on the trigger.

"Staff room," was all he said.

The other three made their way to stand behind him. Ash drew out his own gun, flicking the safety off and keeping it by his side. Eiji had his arms full of pasta, but Soo-Ling looked ready to toss his cans of beans across the room.

Blood was smeared over the frosted glass of the staff room door. They watched it, as if they had imagined it, until the sound came again. A figure was behind it.

A figure that burst through and was very nearly shot in the head until a very human scream came from him. He threw himself across the floor, smearing blood over the white surface. Blood covered him - he was bleeding heavily from the side of his head, and his neck.

"Were you bitten?" Shorter demanded.

The man looked up at him with wide, rolling eyes and jerked an arm up to point at the Staff room door.

Then fell.

He didn't look dead. His eyes were still mad and staring. But his rattling, gasping breathing had stopped.

A shot rang through the air.

Eiji looked up in time to see another figure fall. These eyes were dull and yellow.

"They worked together," Soo-Ling said quietly. " They're wearing the same shirt."

Before they had time to process this, sounds echoed along the hallway. More figures were emerging, stumbling into each other as they blindly walked toward the living.

Soo-Ling threw a can and it bounced off of a skull with an almost comical 'thonk.' One of the figures retreated back. Four of them, Eiji managed to distinguish.

Three as Ash took another shot. They were walking backwards, bumping into aisles as they backed away.

"Behind." Eiji could barely get the word out, because he had glanced at the door to find a small girl with the side of her face caked with blood, clutching at the door and watching them with wide eyes.

He could see more figures starting to stumble towards the shop.

Shorter swore, taking another shot. He missed, hitting one of the zombie's chests instead. It kept moving forward. Soo-Ling threw another can and it knocked a few teeth out of one of them. It stumbled on it as it moved forward, but kept coming. Eiji's chest felt tight. He was still holding the stupid bag of pasta.

"Scatter." Shorter's voice was calm. The word a command.

Eiji didn't think. He grabbed one of the cans from Soo-Ling's arms and tossed it at the little girl. It smacked her square in the forehead, knocking her head back and leaving her dazed and confused. He ran forward, feeling rather than seeing Ash at his side.

Soo-Ling and Shorter was pressing through, running to the staff room.

The other figures where at the door now, and he threw the bag of pasta into the nearest ones face before backing away quickly. In time for Ash to aim another shot.

Then they were running. Their sneakers pounding on pavement so hot that Eiji wondered if they would melt. The sun was too bright and it was baring down his neck, making every inch of his skin damp with perspiration. Even his breath felt like it was burning his lungs as he gasped for air.

Ash tugged his elbow down a side street and he stumbled after him. The shade was impossibly cool after the unrelenting heat and they slowed to a stop, doubling over to breathe. A strange noise filled the air, like a rattling breath. It took Eiji a moment to realise it was Ash.

Ash laughing.

"Eiji Okumura," he said between breaths. His face was flushed red. "Slaying walkers with bags of pasta."

"I didn't kill it." But he was laughing too.

"You're incredible."

"I'm not the one with a gun," Eiji said.

That was when they heard the moans again. They were becoming familiar, less heartstopping. More of a nuisance.

Ash pressed a finger to his lips and started down the side street, sticking close to the shadows of from the fire escapes. The sun shining through cast light like tiger stripes on his skin.

It didn't take long to realise that they'd ran straight into a dead end. The way ahead was blocked with crates and old furniture and junk that stretched high above their heads.

"Fuck," Eiji whispered.

"Hey - don't say that."

"You say it."

"Yeah, because I'm an immature teenager, I'm allowed to say it." Ash hissed. He was smiling though, and his fingers ruffled Eiji's hair.

He pushed it away from his face, smiling back. "And I'm older than you. That makes me an adult and allowed to say it."

Ash opened his mouth to reply, but his eyes caught on movement behind Eiji. He turned to find that the group of zombies that had been moving past the mouth of the alley stumble around the corner, as though they were drawn to their voices.

Ash raised his gun and let out one shot after the other, felling some of the crowd. But there were more and more behind them. Eiji glanced around for a weapon and found a large pole.

"Fuck." There was a click from Ash's gun, but no bullet.

There was too many of them to run through, and too many to fight against.

Eiji looked down at the pole in his hands. He looked at the barricade of junk.

"Do what I do," he said to Ash, running  a few steps forward, before turning on his heel. The pole was heavy and cold from being sat on the shade. He adjusted his grip.

Then began to run.

He was too close, he knew it as he picked up speed. Too close and not enough room to be fast.

But he only had to get over. He only had to get over and it didn't matter how he landed. This wasn't a competition. This was life and death.

"Eiji!" He heard Ash's voice as he dug the pole into the ground, but he didn't have the skills to respond. He was jumping, using the pole to make himself fly and leaving it behind.

For a moment, he was launched through the air, the summer air cradling him as if he would really take flight. He didn't have the time to enjoy it, he was making sure his body was in the right position. Making sure he would land correctly.

He had miscalculated.

It had been so long since he had done a jump and he had been panicking and he had left too early. Like a deflated balloon, he fell.

Eiji's breath caught in his throat just a moment before he crashed down on the other side of the barricade. He fell through rotting wood and bounced against metal as he fought to regain control.

Then there was a spear of pain against the side of his head.

He saw sparks.

Then nothing.

*

Ash had heard the crash. The crash made him swear again, more vehemently and more panicked this time.

Eiji hadn't landed. Eiji was on the otherwise of a barricade and Ash was standing here with no bullets.

The pole had flattered to the floor. Ash grabbed it and knew he wouldn't be able to do that. He couldn't fly.

Instead, he threw it so that so that it bounced against the line of zombies, pushing them back for a moment as he turned. Ran at the barricade and jumped at the lowest hanging ridge of wood that he could. He pulled himself up and began to climb.

Climbing was what he needed to focus on, but all he could see was Eiji's face. Eiji's determined face as he had begun to run. Now he had fallen.

His foot slipped and Ash struggled for a group on one of the crates.

A hand grabbed his ankle.

He kicked out, his foot connecting with flesh that caved in at the impact. He contiued, barely looking at where he was going until he was grabbed again. Pulled.

He cried out and kicked with both feet. His shoe came off and he took the opportunity to keep going. He hopped down the other side, skidding down old tables and jumping off of crates until he was back on the pavement.

Eiji was in a heap on the ground.

Ash ran and pulled him over his shoulders in a fireman’s lift without inspecting him, barging against the nearest building to cave in the door and get inside.

He collapsed against the wall, breathing fire into his lungs and pulling Eiji off of him to inspect him. The side of his hair was wet and matted. Ash could feel a gash. Eiji wasn't moving. Was breathing, but his eyes were closed and he was limp against Ash’s shoulder.

“Eiji,” he hissed, shaking the Japanese boy’s shoulder. “Eiji!”

His heart was pounding so loudly that he was sure they would be discovered. He listened to the sound of shuffling footsteps outside the building and Eiji’s quiet breaths. One hand was pressed against the gash, but it just seemed to be getting damper and damper. He was bleeding badly. Badly bleeding from his head.

Ash rang Shorter. It wouldn’t go through. He tried Soo-Ling instead.

“Where are you?” they both asked at the same time.

Soo-Ling was breathing heavily on the other end. “Central park. Shorter’s with me.”

“Eiji’s hurt.”

“How bad?”

“He won’t wake up.”

“Aight, look – we tried going back to Chinatown. It’s overrun. We’re trying to get everyone together at –“

The phone started to cut out.

“Soo-Ling!” Ash was glad that his voice went sharp instead of cracking.

"Just outside the city." He managed to catch.

There was more crackling before the phone cut out entirely. It beeped at Ash to show the lost connection and he just stared at it. Where outside the city? Finding them in the city was like finding a needle in a haystack. Finding them somewhere outside - when he didn't even know how far out they were going? Impossible.

And Eiji didn't have the time for that. Eiji was hurt and unresponsive and Ash knew that you shouldn't sleep if you might have a concussion but he didn't know how to wake him up without breaking someone else. He shouldn't have even moved him in he first place.

He tried Max. And Ibe. And Skip. Nothing would go through. Not for more than a second anyway. At least he heard breathing instead of static before it cut out.

"Eiji?" he asked again. "Eiji, I don't know where to go." The realisation was terrifying. It was like getting lost as a child. Ash was completely in charge. "I don't know what to do. I don't - I don't know!"

His voice started cracking then and he pulled Eiji closer to him.

He did know.

There was somewhere. A tiny voice in his ear muttered. Somewhere that he had never wanted to go back to - had planned never to go back to.

It might not even be there. Might have been taken over.

Probably not. Ash wouldn't be so lucky.

Even if it was, there'd be warm beds. There'd be cars. It would be quicker to check the perimeters of the city with a car.

And he didn't know where else to go.

He fumbled with Eiji again, shifting him so that he was giving him a piggyback. Heavy. He was still surprisingly heavy.

Ash left the building, moving as fast as he dared and listening close to any sounds they weren't alone. He knew the way too well - of course he did, he had figured out where everything in the city was from there.

It made him feel sick - every step he took he felt worse, as if his stomach was trying to warn him away. The cement under his bare foot burned.

This wasn't about him. This was about Eiji. Eiji needed help and this was the only place he could think of to go.

Even though the sun was setting by the time he arrived, he had made it too soon.

There were soldiers everywhere. Men with snipers trained on him as soon as they spotted him. The red dots scattered his hoodie like fireflies. He slowed standing as straight as he could so that they could see he was living.

"Stay back!" a voice called as he got close. He could see it, just beyond the trees and it made his stomach lurch. His head was spinning and he didn't know if he would be able to take another step.

"I'm not a fucking zombie!" he yelled.

Zombie. Not walker. He liked the sound of zombie more.

"Hold on!"

Another voice. A voice Ash recognised. He held his breath in the back of his throat, shifting Eiji again. He was getting heavier by the second, he couldn't carry him much longer.

Marvin Crossby appeared from the watch hut. He propped his sunglasses onto his forehead as he stared at Ash. He gritted his teeth.

"Hey, Marvin."

"Well, look what the cat dragged in."

"The cat's dragging in a friend that needs help. I need to talk to Papa Dino." Ash's hands tightened on Eiji. He wanted to run. Everything in him was telling him to run.

Marvin smiled. He held his hands to the side, as if he was shrugging, looking every part the cat that got the cream.

"Then strip, kid."

"What?" He couldn't hide the disgust on his face.

It only made Marvin's smile wider.

"It's the rules - anyone in or out, strips. Only way to make sure no one’s hiding a bite.”

“And I bet you love it.”

“Those are the rules. Still wanna see Papa?”

“You want me to strip here?”

Marvin stared at him for a moment. Ash stared back, trying to school his expression into an uncaring expression. Then he jerked his head back to the guard house and walked back without a word.

Ash felt like throwing up, right there on the pavement. But his stomach and grown stronger than that. He followed. Reminding himself this was for Eiji. It was to make sure Eiji was okay. To get Eiji help.

Then he'd have to come up with an escape plan. He hadn't thought that far ahead.

There was a chair inside that he managed to slump Eiji over, increasingly worried about the way his head was lolling forward. At least the wound had stopped bleeding, instead leaving a lump of concealed blood matted into his dark hair.

He concentrated on that rather than that his clothes were on the floor and it had been a long time since he had been so exposed. That even though the world had been ending, he'd been so hoping this would never happen again.

And definitely not because there was nowhere else to turn.

 "Satisfied?" Ash asked as he pulled his trousers back on, though he could see the answer on Marvin's face. He kept his glare strong. It was easy to be strong on the outside. Brittle things always managed it.

"What about him?" was what Marvin asked, turning his eyes onto Eiji. A shark waiting for another fish to fall into his lap.

It made Ash bristle.

"He's clean," he said - snapped, because there was no way he was going to do that to Eiji. No way Eiji would be like him in any way.

"He's wounded."

"He hit his head on a fucking pole. The worst he has is tetnus." Ash was becoming agitated. "Take my word for it."

"Your word?" Marvin stepped forward, a hand darting out like a cobra ready to strike.

Ash caught his wrist before he could. "You don't touch him." His heart was racing as fast as a mouse's. He tried to be softer. He knew Marvin, he thought, and he knew how to get his way. "You don't trust me?"

"Your word means shit to me. Kid."

I'm almost eighteen, Ash wanted to say. Then I won't be a kid no longer.

But that wasn't going to get him anywhere. Instead he took a breath - a breath to help him swallow down the bile in his throat. Eiji. Eiji needed help and this was the only way that he could think of to get It.

"Take my word for it and I'll owe you a favour."

"How big a favour?" He had Marvin's interest now.

"Any favour."

He couldn't let his gaze drop, no matter how terrified and disgusted and full of hatred he really was.

Brittle.

"Go on through, kid." He finally peeled himself away from Eiji, smiling like a hyena.

Ash pulled his shirt back on. There was a large rip in the sleeve.

"Papa would probably like it better if you kept those off."

"He can go fuck himself." He was picking up Eiji again, making sure that his head was supported on Ash's shoulder before he started walking. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, a voice full of mirth said into his ear.

"With you around, he won't need to."

He kicked the door to the hut closed with enough force to make the whole building shake.

He didn't look up at the building as he walked. He was watching people. Eiji needed help and he had to pick the right person for it.

There was a young man inside. Young and baffled and blushing at Ash's appearance, but wearing a white coat. That was enough.

"He needs help."

The man blinked, but he must have read something in Ash's expression because he nodded and said, "this way."

He followed the man into an empty room. There was a bed to place Eiji on and he sunk onto a chair. It was oddly solid. He couldn't remember the last time he had sat on a solid chair. It was comfortable. He was tempted to sit back and fall asleep.

"You a doctor?"

"Yes." The man was peeling back Eiji's hair to look at the wound. "I was just here on a check up appointment when it all kicked off.  Papa Dino said it was better to have me stay."

"How pleasant for you," Ash said dryly.

The man gave him an unreadable look. But then he pulled out his tools from his briefcase, dabbing at the gash on the side of Eiji's head.

"It looks like it's just a surface wound."

"But he won't wake up."

"Most likely a mild concussion. He'll have a very sore head for a few days, but he'll be fine. I promise."

Ash leant backwards, blowing his hair up and away from his face. Thank fuck. Thank fucks.

Only a few days. He could do this for a few days. He had a few days to think of how he was going to run. It would be fine.

He thought it would be fine until the door opened and the doctor stood aside to let someone in. A figure that turned his stomach. Papa Dino.

He'd obviously seen Ash on the cameras. Now, as the door swung closed behind the young man, he was looking at Ash with something akin to triumph on his face.

Ash opened his mouth. Words didn't appear. His chest felt tight and it was hard to breathe. He didn't want to say it - couldn't say it - that he didn't know where else to go, that he needed help - could he stay for a couple of days?

Instead he swallowed and said, "Just for a few days."

"What are you doing here?" There was just enough disdain in his voice to let Ash know that he was in the dog house. He winced.

"I just need somewhere to stay for a few days," he bit his tongue so hard that he tasted blood. "Please."

"Everyone needs somewhere to stay." He could hear the smile in Papa Dino's voice as the figure stood over him. His hands shook. He balled them into fists. "Its a dangerous time, Ash Lynx."

"You know I'll earn my keep." For Eiji. It was for Eiji. So Eiji could get better.

"This is the safest place in New York."

Ash was surprised it took Papa Dino this long to touch him. His fingers caught in Ash's hair in a horribly familiar way.

"I have watchmen set up at all hours, everywhere. Not a person, living or dead, approaches without me knowledge. You'd be safe here, for as long as you want."

The offer should have been tempting.

"And at what cost?" Ash started to look up, realised that meant he was leaning into the touch, and stopped. He looked up with eyes he hoped were liquid venom. "Just for a few days."

 “You’ll need to shave.” His thumb caught Ash’s jaw, pulled his chin up slightly. “And get cleaned up, and-“

“Do everything you say?”

“I can see how grateful you are.”

“Yet you haven’t shot me in my sleep yet.”

Papa Dino finally moved his hand away, stepped back as if he was going to leave. Ash tried to push him out of the room with his eyes. It didn’t work. It never worked. 

"And what about the little Japanese cat you've got there?"

Ash’s stomach lurched. It was all he could do not to stand and throw a punch. But that wouldn’t help Eiji. Instead, he smirked and leant back.

"Who needs a cat when you have a lynx?"

"Cats do what they're told."

"No they don't," Ash scoffed, because the metaphor was suddenly ridiculous. No one told a cat what to do. Cats did what they wanted. And that was Eiji to a T. Stubborn, determined Eiji.

He stood, keeping eye contact even though it felt like it turned his insides into leeches. "I will, okay? I'll be perfect. For as long as I'm perfect you don't lay a finger on him. Not one."

That got another smile.  Another hand on his cheek. Another lurch of his stomach. But he didn’t think about that. He didn’t think about anything that was going to happen over the next few days.

Well, only one thing.

Eiji waking up and looking at him with starry eyes.

That was the one thing that mattered.

 

Chapter Text

9

It felt like there was a clamp on Eiji’s head. Like he had been swaddled in cotton wool tight enough to make him a mummy. He heard a groan from somewhere around him and it took him a moment to realise that it was from himself.

After a moment, he cracked his eyes open. It was bright – too bright.

Everything around him felt soft. Much softer than a pile of junk on the street. Much softer than an air mattress on a concrete floor.

He blinked, squinting to try to focus his eyes.

“Ash?” The name was out of his mouth before anything else and it felt right. The only thing that was certain. His arms felt heavy when he tried to prop himself up – because he didn’t know where Ash was – Ash wasn’t by his side and for some reason that made his chest feel tight. It made it hard to breathe and he had to know where Ash was – he had to.

Hands appeared on his shoulders, pushing him back down. That was when Ash’s face blocked out the light. Ash’s face with the same green eyes and cupid’s bow. But Ash with the same clean-shaven face that he had one Eiji first met him – that made him look so much younger and so much more like James Dean. Like a movie star who would live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse.

But Ash with his hair gelled back on one side and Ash wearing a suit so that he looked like Leonardo Decaprio on the titanic.

“You need to lie down.”

“Ash.”

“The doctor said that you’re on bed rest for the day.”

“Ash!” Eiji frowned. He tried to lift his hand, but Ash pressed his wrist back down. “When did you get your ear pierced?”

“You need to rest.”

“Ash, your ear.” Eiji was coming to his senses now. Ash was sat on the edge of his bed, his hands still firmly on Eiji’s shoulders.

“I know.” A jade stud was sat in his ear lobe, the skin around it pink and tender. He looked like a poster boy for the nineties.

“It looks sore.” Eiji tried to raise his hand again. Ash pressed his wrist down again. He didn’t look annoyed – his face was soft. Soft like he had to break bad news to a child.

“It is.”

“Why do it?”

“I didn’t.”

Eiji blinked at Ash. He could barely string together two words of English and now he was starting to wonder if he was saying the right thing. If he could even understand English anymore.

Ash sighed, his fingers trailing from Eiji’s shoulder to his chest. From his wrist to his hand, but not quite twisting their digits together. Eiji twitched his thumb.

“Do you remember what happened?”

Eiji nodded. It made his head swim and he had to squeeze his eyes closed for a moment to let the wave of nausea pass. He knew what had happened. But he couldn’t think of the word. Couldn’t think of the word in English, at least. So he wetted his lips and said, “I flew.”

He opened his eyes again to see Ash’s emerald eyes sparkling down at him. At Ash smiling at him and nodding. “You flew. You hit your head on the way down. So I took you somewhere safe.”

“Is Shorter here?”

Ash paused, his smile growing sad. His thumb twitched on Eiji’s, almost rubbed in a circle.

“No, Shorter’s not here, sweetie.”

The pet name made Eiji’s stomach leap. But his heart was still hammering and his head was still pounding.

“So where are we?”

The smile stayed on Ash’s face, but something changed in his eyes.

“We’re safe, Eiji. We’re safe until you get better.”

“You’re not telling me something.” He said.

Ash smiled, and this time his thumb made circles on Eiji’s hand.

“Could you stop being so clever for five minutes?”

“No.”

“Please, Eiji.” Ash found his hand and squeezed it. “Just trust me when I say somewhere safe, okay?”

He didn’t want to. He really didn’t want to because there was something off about this. About the look on Ash’s face and the smell of the room was strange. But Ash needed him. Ash needed him to nod and smile and say that he would make it through this. That he was a trooper and he could deal with this. There was no explanation why – and he wouldn’t get one out of Ash unless Ash wanted to give one. That was the way he was.

So he nodded, even though it made his brain pound angrily against his skull.

“Okay.”

And it was worth it for the look of total and utter relief of Ash’s face.

Even if this Ash wasn’t the Ash that Eiji had known for the last month.

*

He slept for most of the day.

Woke up and managed to turn his head to the side to see Ash sprawled over a bed next to him. Still dressed, bowtie undone and spread out on the white duvet like a snake.

Fell asleep again. Woke up to the sun streaming in through the curtains. Felt well enough to prop himself up onto two pillows and gulp down a glass of water sat on his bedside table. To swallow two paracetamols and stare ahead of him, wondering where Ash was. Wondering why not knowing where Ash was made his heart pound and made him feel panicky.

Something was wrong with this room. It smelt musty. Old. Like leather bound books in a charity store. Everything was expensive – shiny tiles on the floor that made some abstract mosaic. Thick, patterned wallpaper that looked gold leaf. Velvet curtains with rope tie backs.

This was not anywhere Shorter or the boys would stake out. This was not anywhere Ash belonged.

And yet he walked through the door half an hour later. Still in a suit, but with the blazer unbuttoned and his tie crooked. With his hair falling out of the gel.

"Eiji."

"Good morning." Eiji tried for a smile, but his head was still swimming and it came out as more of a grimace.

"It's evening." Ash smiled.

Eiji shrugged.

"It's good you're up," he continued, and stepped forward to collapse into the other bed. He was facing away from Eiji, kicking his shoes off. "You must be getting better."

"You're limping." Eiji had noticed in Ash's step. He didn't mention that it looked as if he was carrying the sky on his shoulders. Like atlas.

Ash sighed, and it shook his whole frame.

"Eiji," he said. The tone of voice that said, 'don't push it,' as if he still scared Eiji.

"I'm just worried about you."

Ash turned, kicked his legs up and around so that he was swinging to sit on the other side of the bed. So that he was on the right side to step up to Eiji and take his face in his hands.

"It's you who deserves to be worried about."

"I'm fine, " Eiji said.

"Really?"

"Are you?"

"No," Ash said, but he was smirking. "No, I had to lug your heavy ass all the way over here and you won't even rest and get better."

Eiji didn't smile back.

"When are you going to tell me what's happening?" he asked. Hoped he was using the same tone of voice that Ash had when he was giving orders.

"I was just stopping in. Said I was going to the toilet, I can't stay." Ash was stepping back around the beds, disappearing as suddenly as he came. He paused, his back to Eiji and a tightness in his voice. "Get better. As soon as you get better, we leave."

*

He felt hairless. A hairless cat. Ash couldn't say that he'd been particularly attached to his facial hair, but it was his. It was his. And it had been a sign that he was the man Griffin had thought he was.

Ash supposed he should have felt dirty. Used. Instead he felt numb. Completely numb. He sat up, waited for the world to stop spinning around him.

"Can I smoke in here?" he was already lighting one. He had put a cigarette behind his ear earlier, left the lighter on the side.

"Smoking is for common whores."

He smiled - no, not smiled, smirked. He didn't smile here.

"So can I?"

"You're not a common whore."

He could feel the mattress moving. He ignored it. His job was done. That's all it was. A job. And he wasn't going to let him forget it.

"Fine." He twisted the cigarette. The end glowed at him like a watching eye. "Can an uncommon whore smoke in here?"

He didn't wait for the answer. He took the first drag and it was glorious. It felt as though the smoke was swirling through every one of his muscles.

“Why didn't you come back here?” A hand on his back. He closed his eyes and took another long drag to numb the feeling. Papa Dino actually had the gall to sound hurt. “When it all started?”

“Do you want anything else or can I go now?”

Back to Eiji.

“No smoking.”

“Last one.” Ash stubbed it on the bedside table, leaving a round burn like a penny on the mahogany. He left the cigarette there. Pulled on his clothes. Left.

The thought of Eiji waiting in their room gave his feet the strength to pull themselves across the carpet. Eiji was getting restless and that meant he would be up and wandering around before Ash could stop him.

He was sat up when Ash pushed the door open with his shoulder. The bandage was in a small pile next to him, dark red standing out against the white. Eiji’s fingers were buried in his hair, his eyebrows furrowed as he tentatively felt the gash on the side of his head.

“Don’t pull the stitches out,” Ash said. He collapsed onto his own bed, staring up at the ceiling fan. It turned lazily.

They still had electricity. That was strange. How did Papa Dino still have electricity?

The mattress bumped underneath him. Eiji didn’t say a word as he lay next to him, resting his fingers across his stomach. Eiji, who’d been cooped up in this room for a day and a half and had his meals brought on a tray. Who hadn’t been told anything. Not a single word.

But still wasn’t angry at Ash. Was still lying next to him.

“Eiji.”

“Mm?” Dark eyes glanced across at him.

“The man who owns this place – Papa –“ Ash hated the word in his mouth. “Pa – Golz – Dino – Dino Golzine. He….runs – runs a child trafficking ring. You – do you-?”

“I know what that means.” Eiji was still looking at him. Ash didn’t look back – kept his gaze on the ceiling and tried to find the words. There were so many – had been so many over the years – but now he could hardly get one out.

“I was – I –“ he took a breath. Closed his eyes and felt it fill his lungs. “I ran away from home when I was eight. That was when I came to New York and that was – that was where I – where he –“ he felt a rattling breath come from himself. He hated the sound of it. “And I – and then – since then, I was – I was here. I was – here – with – him. Last year – last year I felt and I didn’t ever want to come back.” His words sped out of him now, like there was no tomorrow and he couldn’t stop it. Maybe he would run out of breath – this would be his death bed confession. “I wasn’t ever going to come back because I was dying here, I was dying from the inside out and I couldn’t take it any longer. But then, then you hit your head and you wouldn’t wake up so I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know and I couldn’t find Shorter so here was the only place I could think of. The only place where – you – would be – where you would be okay. So I told him I’d – work – for – for him. And then – once you were okay, we could leave. We could go.”

"Ash," Eiji whispered.

"Max knew." He couldn't stop it now. "Max knew he found the - he found the onto a from when - from when I first got to New York." It was easier to say New York than Cape Cod. "And he said I should tell you but it didn't. I was scared - I was terrified that you'd - last time I saw dad  - last time I saw my dad he called me a whore. I didn't want you to say that too."

"Ash, you're not a whore." Eiji touched tentative fingers to the side of Ash's face. Made his head flop sideways so that he was looking into eyes like melted chocolate. "You're a victim. And a survivor."

And a masochist, apparently, to become a victim again.

"You're incredible."

Ash didn't meant to say it out loud. He never meant to say it out loud. But there was some things he was learning he didn't want to hide from Eiji.

Eiji needed to know just how important he was.

'Because I'm Eiji Okumura, walker slayer." He smiled at Ash looking as though he was glowing from the inside out. His voice was soft - still soft and low. Not repulsed. Not angry. Just quiet.

"Zombie slayer," Ash corrected.

"And I'm armed. With pasta."

"Fuck, I'd better watch out."

"I thought fuck was a bad word."

He was getting Ash to smile. Not smirk. Smile, like everything was fine.

"It is when you say it," Ash said.

"That's not fair."

"I've hard a shit life, I'm allowed to be unfair." And he actually laughed. A small chuckle that seemed to lift his stomach out of knots, because Eiji was giggling too. It was short lived. There was more - more sat on his mind to add to the pile that he had to let go off. "He told me today- after - after...he wants me to be his heir. Pose as his kid and inherit all his shit."

Eiji was quiet for a long time. Then, in a voice just as soft as before, he asked, "So?"

"Huh?"

"Why don't you do it?"

"Are you kidding?" Ash propped himself up on his elbow, looking down at Eiji in horror. His stomach was twisting again. He knew this was a mistake - that Eiji couldn't have understood the English-

"Then you could murder him and take all of his money," Eiji spoke so matter of factly, his eyes closed and his fingers laced behind his head.

Ash blinked. "What?"

"And when they look into his murder, you can come down wearing a black veil and swoon when they tell you the news-"

"I'm not a wealthy widow in some twenties movie!"

And yet he was laughing and Eiji was giggling under him. He wasn't even aware of Eiji's hand until it tucked a strand of hair behind his ear. Suddenly Eiji's finger was against his ear, tracing a line down to his jaw. He was still smiling, but there was a distant look in his eyes. Ash wasn't sure what to do - he had completely frozen. That was a soft touch - barely even a touch - and a soft look. A sad look.

Eiji gave a sharp breath and dropped his hand.

Ash caught it. Without really meaning to, but he was twisting his fingers into Eiji's and forcing something like a smile back onto his face. He fell back down onto the bed, still holding Eiji's hand. It was uncomfortable, but neither of them moved.

There was a ball in Ash's throat and it was threatening to make him cry. It was terrifying that his first instinct had been to lean down and kiss Eiji. Terrifying that he had wanted to. That he wanted to feel Eiji's lips when they both weren't drenched in blood.

But he hadn't, because he was tired - right down to his bones. There was an all too familiar feeling of his body deciding to just shut down. He was aching and in pain and it was a wonder how he could even be close to Eiji without being sick right now.

Bile sat in the back of his throat and he swallowed it down with little success. He closed his eyes, focusing on breathing and the feeling of Eiji's hand in his.

"How are you not angry?"

"Oh, I was. I was so angry that I was going to yell at you when you came in. I had planned to grab you by the shoulders and demand an explanation out of you. I've been sat here fuming all day."

"Then why didn't you?"

"Because I was more relieved to see you than anything else." Eiji gave a breathless chuckle. "For some reason, I can't stay mad at you, Ash Lynx."

"Aslan. My name before. Was Aslan Jade Callenreese."

"That's a pretty name," Eiji said. "Ash Lynx does sound cool, though."

Ash laughed at that.

"But I can't be mad at you, now," Eiji continued, his eyes half lidded. His eyelashes fluttered. "Because you were doing all this to help me. I'm so sorry, Ash."

"Don't be."

"I am anyway."

"When will you ever do what I tell you to?"

Eiji looked sideways at him. He was smiling. "Never. I think you like it."

"I think you do."

"So if we both like it why are you complaining."

"I'm not."

There was something else in the air. Something else Eiji was saying.

Ash couldn't entertain that thought. He yawned instead, and managed to make it sound like he was grumbling. "Now ssshh so I can sleep."

"But I don't do anything you tell me."

"Eiji!"

But he was giggling. Ash Lynx, actually giggling into Eiji's shoulder. It was like sleeping - escaping and forgetting everything. The rest of the world was far away.

And his head was on Eiji's shoulder. And Eiji's fingers grazed his hair.

He wanted to stop. To say it was dangerous.

But he couldn't quite bring himself to.

*

"What is your relationship to the Japanese boy?"

A hand in his hair. Holding it hard enough that it would ache for hours.

"He's my friend."

Words were hard to find. Ash had found the knack of turning off his thoughts. They were a difficult thing to turn back on.

"So you haven't kissed him?"

Pulling away. Space. Ash had the cigarette from behind his ear inbetween his teeth within seconds. The taste had to go. Tobacco tasted better.

"No," he said. But he couldn't look. Turned his head away to get rid of the smoke. "I wouldn't want to. You can relax, you have me all to yourself.

"Put out the cigarette."

There was anger in his voice.

That got the rise out of Ash. It made him able to turn and meet stony eyes and take another drag.

"Don't test me, Ash. I may not touch the boy. Others might get the key to your room."

An ash tray had been placed on the bedside table. Ash used it. It was suddenly hard to control his hand and the cigarette lurched sideways.

"Look at that. You can be tamed."

"I won't touch him." Ash whispered. "No one else will."

His head on Eiji's shoulder. Eiji's hand in his hair and his breath by his ear. He had loved that.

But someone knew. Someone had found out or guessed.

So it couldn't happen again.

*

Eiji told Ash that he was feeling much better. That they could leave.

He wasn't. His head was swimming and he couldn't focus on anything for too long without pounding starting up in his head. But Ash was pale. Ash was pale and limping and his ear was sore around the new piercing.

So Eiji wanted to leave.

Ash saw through him. Asked him to get up and walk in a straight line and caught Eiji when he stumbled. Just gave him a knowing smirk and helped him to the bathroom. Stayed outside whilst Eiji shaved and showered and knocked every five minutes to make sure Eiji was alive.

He hadn't come near him today. Had sat on his bed and stared out of the window. A starving tiger in a cage. His colours dulled and his spirit defeated.

Eiji swallowed and picked at a stray thread in the comforter.

"Should I..." he began, but didn't even know how to phrase it.

Ash could guess anyway. Green eyes snapped to Eiji. Still bright and alive. "No."

"But it's not fair on you." Though he was relieved. He was relieved that it wasn't him and he hated that because it meant it was Ash.

"Not you." Ash repeated. His voice went quiet. "It's better this way. I know - I know how to...there's a reason I'm his favourite."

So Eiji couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t get them to leave, he couldn’t help Ash out, he could only sit in the room and watch the ceiling fan. He missed Ash sleeping by his side. The sound of Ash breathing next to him and just feeling him by his side. He missed that. He missed the whispered Japanese lessons and the clearly exaggerated gang stories.

He missed Ash.

They went to sleep early – Eiji was always falling asleep now, no matter what the time. There was nothing else to do. So they went to sleep early. And struggled to stay asleep.

The gasp woke Eiji.

It sounded silly – only a gasp – but it was a horrible, dry rattling gasp that seemed to last forever. It was worse than a scream. It was a sound that reminded Eiji of yellow eyes and gaping maws. It was the sound of someone who could not breathe – who could not think – who was struggling just to get his heart to continue beating.

A gasp that made Eiji sit bolt upright and half-fall out of his bed. Ash was sat up, a hand on his throat and he was gagging. Almost like he was going to make himself sick.

“It’s okay – Ash – it’s okay.” He had said those words so often over the last month – every time either of them woke up they got those words. “I’m here – just breathe.”

He was on Ash’s bed, pulling Ash’s hands away from him and trying to get Ash to look at him. Ash’s fingers found his shirt and Eiji pulled him closer. That was when Ash cried out. A sharp, short bark like a dog.

“Don’t touch me!”

Ash took a breath. “Don’t. You can’t touch me!”

“Ash?” Eiji had dropped his hands. Had shuffled away from him on the bed. He didn’t seem to be heard – didn’t seem to be seen.

“If you touch me, he'll...I told him that we weren’t – that we weren’t-“

“Okay. I won't touch you.”

“Lay back down so they don't even know we're talking.”

Eiji did. Retreating to his own bed and sitting on it as though it would burn him. He lay down tentatively, because every muscle in his  body told him not to .That Ash needed him there. Ash needed him to be there for him. To have human contact that wasn’t vile.

“How would they?” he asked instead.

“There might be cameras. I'm not - I can't risk it.”

Ash was still breathing heavily. His breath came in loud, short bursts, like a tire being pumped up.

Eiji closed his eyes. He wished he could sleep through it. He wished he was strong enough to sleep through it. It hurt – it hurt too much to lie there and just listen to it.

“Do you know what I’d do if I could touch you?” he asked.

“No,” Ash gasped.

"I'd run my hands through your hair." Eiji's voice came out of him as though he was completely calm. It was a miracle. "That's what oka-san used to do when I had a nightmare. I'd rest your head on my chest so that you could hear my heartbeat and is run my fingers through your hair and tell you everything was okay. Everything is okay. You're here and I'm here and we'll be fine-"

He didn't know if he simply heard Ash breathe or if he could just sense that he was going to open his mouth to interrupt.

"And when you'd argue with me, I'd shush you and kiss your forehead and tell you that over and over again until you fell back asleep in my arms.”

Ash was quiet for a minute. In fact, so long that Eiji started to wonder if he had fallen asleep after all. His breath had quietened – lengthened so that it didn’t sound as though he was drowning any longer.

“I’d like that,” Ash finally whispered. “I’d love that.”

“I’d love that too.” Eiji had the feeling that they were talking about something else. He hoped they were talking about something else. Especially because it was easy to close his eyes in the dark and smell the blood in the air. He could feel Ash’s mouth against his and his hands on his cheeks and how it made his heart soar. He took a breath. “I’d love to see you sleep through the night.”

“I’d love to see you sleep through the night.”

“I’m here, okay? I’m here, sweetie.”

And Eiji repeated it until he was sure that Ash was asleep. Until he was half asleep himself, mumbling to himself with heavy eyelids and still half imaging Ash close to him. The smell of cigarettes. Ash didn’t smell of cigarettes anymore. He smelt of aftershave and soap.

It didn’t suit him.

That was the only thought Eiji could think off as he slipped away in the dark, feeling closer than ever to Ash even though they were on opposite sides of the room.

He woke when the sun was pummelling through the curtains. It made him roll over, cover his head with the pillow and try to get himself back into that dream. They had been back in the warehouse, back in the dark and Ash had been laughing. He could remember that – almost hear it, and he wanted to hear it again because this Ash wasn’t laughing, and he didn’t know how to make it better.

He didn’t know how to make it better.

“Do you know what I would do if I could touch you?”

The voice came from above him and it made him push the pillow away for a moment. He stared out at the room, his heart pounding. He wasn’t sure he expected Ash to remember what he had said last night.

“No,” Eiji said.

“I’d ruffle that adorable bedhead of yours before I dragged you out of bed.” Ash was doing a tie up, smiling down at him.

“You think my bedhead’s adorable?” Eiji couldn't help smiling. It made his stomach flip when Ash said it.

“Do you want me to say it again?” Ash teased. “I’d definitely start tickling you for that.”

He did. He did want Ash to say it again. He wanted to hear him say it on repeat.

“Maybe I’m not ticklish," he said instead.

Ash made a ‘hmph’ sound and Eiji finally peeled back the pillow, grinning up at him. He was met with a smile. But it was a sad smile that made Ash’s eyes sparkle, as if he was near tears.

It sobered Eiji. He clambered up, pushing hair out of his eyes. "Ash-"

He didn't even need to finish.

"It's not. Not always," Ash never said the word, but it was easily filled in. "I told you, he still wants me to inherit this. It's mostly business meetings."

"Business meetings?"

"The rest of the world is fine, Eiji. The out break - it's only confined to New York so far. They've tightened up the security around the borders of the state and he has friends in the military. They're all reporting back to him."

"So, he's helping to contain the outbreak?" It didn’t fit. The image of this ghoulish figure with helping the society.

"Papa Dino doesn't do anything charitable. He likes power. This gives him power.” Ash paused. “I know there’s more to this.”

"You'll be careful, won't you?"

Ash gave a crooked smile. "When am I not?"

He reached out, as if to really ruffle Eiji's hair, then he pulled away.

“Two days,” Ash said. “Survive for two more days, okay?”

And left.

*

Ash knew how to get him to sleep. Knew that two glasses of port and old jazz songs on a record player sent him off to sleep sat in the armchair by the window, looking over the city. His city.

The needle kept spinning on the player. Ash hated it. Hated that thing. When millenials had a record player it was cool and retro. When an old man had it, it was gross. He needed to move on.

But he had to keep letting it spin. It was like a music box in a video game, as long as it was playing, the old man would sleep. At least, the thought made Ash's heart stutter a little less.

He pulled out an apple mac. There was always one nearby and he was the kind of man who backed everything up. So it was easy for Ash to get in - easy to search through emails and find just how far his reach spread.

And it spread far. There were dozens of emails from all over the country praising him for his bravery. Of staying in the city and trying to deal with the outbreak - trying to get to the bottom of it all. It made Ash's lip curl. This wasn't brave. This was hiring men to put their lives up for you. This was hiding away surrounded by luxury whilst there were boys on the streets sleeping in hour shifts, guns under their pillows and always ready for the next fight.

Brave was throwing a bag of pasta at a zombie and then flying.

He still had internet. Still had mobile signal. Buying protection for the things he needed.

Ash continued digging. He was only glancing at things, discarding what was drivel sucking up to Dino and what was important in less than a moment.

There was a map of mobile signals. All across the states. New York was entirely off the grid, apart from the tiny flashing light Ash sat at now.

He pulled the time back, watched lights blinking back on as if society was waking back up.

There. He found the one closest to the warehouse. Slowly tracked time forward again, until it disappeared.

Ash stared at the date in the corner. How long ago had it been? Since there was a swarm of the undead and the running and leaving everyone behind? Two weeks ago? Almost?

He hadn't paid attention to the date at the time, but staring at it now made him uneasy. No. He was being stupid. Paranoid. Not everything in his life was Papa Dino's fault.

Not everything.

The idea was almost ridiculous. That power was being lost across the state as Ash made his way across it. He wasn’t that important. Besides, he reminded himself, they hadn’t moved because the phone signal was patchy. They had ran because of the zombies. A swarm of zombies, as though they were hornets and someone had rattled their nest.

New York had gotten complicated because they had gone out for food. That had been their own choice. Ash had agreed to go with them. And yet, the plan had always been to head back to the Chinese. Why hadn’t Soo-Ling and Shorter gone back to the Chinese? Why had they wanted to meet outside the city?

It was harder to tell in the city, when it was so much busier, but it had felt similar. Trapped and running from a swarm.

Which was ridiculous, Ash told himself again. Even the inkling of the idea was silly. He wasn’t that important. He wasn’t that important, but there were a million things going on here. A million plans to save New York, a million businesses pitching promises, a dozen government officials using this as a point of contact. Believing that they were going to be saved by this man. In a million things, Ash wasn’t important.

And yet he couldn’t shake the feeling of being a puppet on a string.

Chapter Text

10

It was when Ash was facing away from him that he said it. He was staring out the window, his eyebrows pinched together.

"Do you know what I’d do if I could touch you?" Ash asked.

"Mm?" Eiji was fiddling with the TV remote. None of the channels worked, but he considered setting it to static and just staring at that. It was something to do.

"I'd kiss you," Ash said. Just like that, Ejji could feel his heart racing in every one of his muscles. "I'd sweep you down like they do in movies and kiss you. One hand on your back and the other buried in your beautiful hair."

Eiji paused. He wetted his lips because his throat was dry. Kissing Ash. Kissing Ash when they weren't covered in blood and because Ash wanted to kiss him. When had he wanted that? Had he fallen in love with Ash Lynx?

"I'd put my arms around your neck and kiss you back," Eiji said. His eyes lowered as he imagined it. Ash holding him.

"It'd be this big, mushy, slow kiss at first but then I wouldn't be able to control myself and I would kiss you until your mouth was black and blue."

"Mm!" His face was hot.

"And then I'd kiss your cheeks until they were bright pink." Ash's eyes glanced across at Eiji's, his mouth curving upwards as he spotted Eiji's red cheeks.

"Well," Eiji drew the word out because he needed to say something cheeky and clever that would make Ash grin. "I would have to kiss your nose until it went red."

That made him laugh. The first genuine laugh Eiji had heard in a long time. When it faded, he was still looking at Eiji. Green eyes searching his face.

Eiji was staring back, more words on his lips never quite making it to the air. There was something that had happened. This wasn't a friendly game anymore. Ash wasn't looking at him as if he was just a friend – just the Japanese boy that his gang found wandering around with a camera. He was looking at him as though he was shining. And Eiji didn't mind that. It did make him feel bashful - but it also made his chest warm, and he somehow knew that he was looking at Ash the same way.

Somehow, without even knowing it, Eiji Okumura had fallen for Ash Lynx.

*

There was a boy sat on the bed. A boy who looked even more like a girl than Ash did. A boy with long, dark hair and darker eyes. Skin the same colour as Eiji's.

He had looked up when Ash had kicked open the door and was now smirking slightly, as if he expected Ash to get angry. Ash didn't. He leant against the doorframe and crossed his arms.

He wasn't angry, but it did make him uneasy. If he didn't know where Papa Dino was and didn't have eyes on Eiji, he felt nervous.

"Yut Lung," the boy said. He looked even younger than Ash.

"Ash Lynx."

"So you're the favourite." It was said strangely, as if it was something important. Something to be covered.

"How'd you get here?" he asked. It had only been a few days, but he had forgotten the outside world existed.

"My brothers sold me for protection," the boy - Yut Lung, said it casually, but Ash recognised the tone of voice. It had hiding cracks underneath. He glanced up at Ash. Calculating his expression. "Charming, isn't it?

It did make Ash's skin crawl. A lot here did. But he was sensing that this boy wanted a rise out of him. He couldn't figure out why, but he felt like a circus lion being poked with a stick.

"Mm." Was the non-committal noise he chose.

"So do you think he'll do us both or just watch the two of us fuck?" Yut Lung was still talking lightly, but there was a fragility there. Brittle, Ash thought. This boy was terrified but he didn't want Ash to know it. "No offence but you're not really my type."

"Full offence, you're not mine either," Ash said. He shifted his weight, leaning against the other side of the doorframe. "Look, you can save the bitchy looks, I'm not here to play French mistresses with you."

"You say that now," Yut Lung paused, looking down. More and more fear was seeping into his voice. "What about when you're kicked out onto the street?"

"I'd welcome it."

"Really?"

"Zombies aren't the worst thing in the world." Ash only sounded slightly bitter when he said it.

Yut Lung looked at him again. He spoke slowly. "...You're something of a name in Chinatown, you know." He said. "Have you seen much of Shorter lately?"

"In passing," Ash said. "There's internet here. And electricity. How did that happen?"

"Because he's rich. He's a rich white old man and no apocolypse will change that." Yut Lung picked at a stray thread on the duvet. It made him look even younger. Ash was reminded of Soo-Ling - how his confidence faded whenever he was actually placed in charge. The same with Bones and Kong. "So now my brothers are trying to cash in on that."

"Round the clock protection from zombies?"

"I think the official term is walkers."

For all the cocky smiles that he had given Ash, Yut Lung sounded miserable.

"Zombies is better." Ash shrugged. He thought of standing outside of a warehouse a month ago and looking at a stammering Japanese boy tell him that zombies was too cool of a word not to use. It brought a twitch of a smile to his face.

And maybe it was because it was what Eiji would do. Maybe it was because he was missing his gang. Maybe the apocalypse had made him gone soft.

But he was stepping  forward and ducking his head down so that his voice was muffled slightly.

"Two days. We meet Shorter in two days."

Dark eyes glanced up at him. Calculating again.

"Why are you telling me this?" Yut Lung asked.

"Because I'm offering you to come with."

"And leave a lovely air conditioned mansion?" A thin dark eyebrow raised at him.

"Air conditioning isn't worth staying for." Ash said.

That was when he heard footsteps up the corridor and leant back, tucking his hands into his pockets. They waited, and Ash's heart was pounding. No. No he had been to careful that they couldn't have found out now.

He put a cigarette between his teeth. Then at least if Papa Dino had heard he would be too ticked off by that to remember it.

But it wasn't Papa Dino.

Marvin was the one leering at Ash today and it almost made him bite the cigarette in half. He thought he had this under control. He thought he could do this - could ignore the shakes and the nausea and push down all the memories with the rest.

But Marvin was here. Undoubtedly to call in the favour. It had been for Eiji, Ash reminded himself. It had been for Eiji and no price was too steep for him.

He tucked the cigarette back behind his ear. He would need it later.

*

It had almost stopped Eiji's heart.

When the door had opened he had been expecting Ash. It was always Ash. So when it wasn't he hadn't known what to do.

This was just a man.

Eiji didn't know what he was expecting. A shadow figure or demon from a horror movie. The bogeyman. But this was just an ordinary old man - overweight and balding. Maybe if he smiled there would be a grandfather-esque twinkle in his eye. That was a disturbing thought. The thought that this man had a life and a family.

And had completely and utterly ruined so many others.

"Where's Ash?" The question came out of Eiji's mouth before he could stop it. It scared him - that Ash wasn't here but this man was. Dino Golzine. The man profiting off of the end of the world.

He looked at Eiji. Not in a particularly threatening way - not like a tiger stalking prey. Just looked, then eased himself into the chair in the corner. Leaning on a cane. He wasn't some immortal, evil creature. Just a mortal, evil man.

"He's helping out one of my men." Came the reponse. An ordinary voice. Not the voice of an eldritch monster, but it still sent chills down Eiji's spine. "Did you know he promised one of them a favour so that you wouldn't have to be checked over?"

Eiji hadn't known. He didn't know what to do with that information. Didn't want that information because it made him feel useless and ashamed. It made him feel guilty that Ash had to - that he had even thought about it for a moment. And he felt like Ash knew that. That Ash hadn't told him bot because he was ashamed, but because he knew it would send Eiji apologising again.

So he did what Ash did, and stayed silent. He still had a hand in the book Ash had found for him. The English was difficult to understand and it took him ten minutes just to read a single page, but what else was there to do but wait?

"Are you scared of me?" the man - Eiji refused to use his name because that would make him even more human than he was already becoming - sounded amused.
"No," Eiji said, and was glad that his voice sounded as strong as it did. "No, I hate you. I hate you for what you've done to Ash."

Drained him of all colour and made him wake in the middle of the night retching.

"No," Eiji said, and was glad that his voice sounded as strong as it did. "No, I hate you. I hate you for what you've done to Ash."

Drained him of all colour and made him wake in the middle of the night retching.

There was a long pause. When he spoke, his voice was slow and quiet.

"...He's planning to leave, isn't he?"

Two days. Ash had said two days.

"No."

"You're not as good at lying as he is." He leant backwards, a faint smile on his face. "Where is he going?"

"I don't know," Eiji said. He fumbled, wondering whether to be honest or keep lying. "He wouldn't say - he wasn't - he wasn't serious."

"You're not as good at lying as he is." He leant backwards, a faint smile on his face. "Where is he going?"

"I don't know," Eiji said. He fumbled, wondering whether to be honest or keep lying. "He wouldn't say - he wasn't - he wasn't serious."

"He does not say things he doesn't mean." How could someone like this know anything about Ash? "He's kissed you, hasn't he?"

"No." Yet Eiji's lips tingled.

"You know if you keep lying to me, I can make things very uncomfortable for Ash."

"It didn't mean anything!" Eiji was getting frustrated now. He felt like a mouse being toyed with by a cat, and yet he was still lying. He knew that now. It might not have meant anything then, but it did mean something now. "It didn't - he was just happy to be alive - he wasn't seeing me - he wasn't-"

"But he is planning to leave."

"I said I don't know," Eiji repeated. "I don't know anything."

He must have been a better liar than this man originally thought. There was a pause, then a smile, then a long moment where he stood.

"It's no wonder Ash has been hiding you away," he said. Eiji just stared, though his heart was pounding. "It was nice to meet you, Mr Okumura."

He didn't vanish into thin air, or dissolve into the shadows. He just walked from the room. Like a normal human.

But Eiji couldn't deny that it felt as though a weight had been lifted. Like the air had been cleansed and he could finally breathe.

Ash did tell him things. Ash told him that Soo-Ling had been right, in a way. It was like Cell - whatever that meant. Ash had explained that waves - he wasn't sure if it was radio waves or mobile waves - but he was sure that had something to do with the outbreak of the undead.

He was sure that they had been lead back like rats in a trap.

"But why?" Eiji had asked. Flicking from static channel to foreign news to static.

"Because he doesn't like to lose. Not money, not merchandise, not anything that's his. And I'm all three."

"Ash." Eiji couldn't help smiling. "Are you really telling me that the whole zombie apocalypse was because of you?"

"Am I not worth an apocalypse?" Ash was smiling back. But it only lasted a moment. " I'm just a little plan on the side. Probably a test, to see if it works. There's more to this. Control the apocalypse and you control the world."

"He wants to take over the world?" It sounded like a joke, and Eiji was still smiling. Only because for all its absurdity, it was scary. That wasn't the kind of thing real people did. Not the kind of thing real people should be able to do. That made it scary.

"Who knows?" Ash had sighed and flopped back down on his bed. "Who knows what straight cis white old men want?"

*

The final day passed. They had everything under their beds - bags full of necessities that they would hitch over their shoulders. Then it was a matter of thing the bedsheets together and climbing out the window.

Ash had made it sound easy. It should have been. The right after dinner drink would allow him to disable the cameras they needed, make it look like a blip in the system. They would have the time they needed to cross the estate and be in the city by the early hours of the morning.

And everything had gone to plan so far. Everything had gone to plan until Papa Dino's fork was resting on his desert plate.

Ash's was untouched. He was struggling to keep food down lately.

"I want to show you something I've been working on."

Ash wasn't sure what to say. He hadn't really believed the part about grooming him to take over. Not deep down. Deep down he had never believed he would live till eighteen, much less outlive Dino. And he couldn't say he didn't want to see it now - not when everything was balancing on a razor edge. One wrong word to get him suspicious and they were through.

So he stood. And followed.

He was going to be late. He was going to be late back to their room and Eiji would be worried. He was going to be late to meet Shorter. But there was nothing to be done.

Maybe alarm bells should have rung when they went down the stairs. All the way down. But Ash had never been scared of basements. The bedrooms had always set him on edge.

There was a lab down here. It should have surprised Ash. Maybe he was running on too much adrenaline to think properly. Too much adrenaline because if he stopped to think about any of this he wouldn't be able to move.

So he stepped inside.

"Is this where the fountain of youth is created?" He asked. There was something in him that wanted to be snarky - some kind of superhero gene that meant he just had to have a quip for every occasion. He wished that was the truth. Really, he knew he had to say it because he was nervous. He didn't like this situation and couldn't put his finger on why.

"Maybe one day."

There was a heavy smell of chemicals in the air - something similar to a swimming pool. Everything was white and shiny, bleached within an inch of its life. A few scientists were down here, standing in the corner and making notes on their clipboards as they compared results with each other.

And of course there were the men who had stuck of Papa Dino's side. They had guns. Within an arms reach of Ash was a gun. His finger was itching for that trigger almost as badly as he needed a cigarette.

Ash tried to read everything he could in the second he was given to look around. Two words stood out everywhere.

"Banana fish." There was something about saying it out loud. Two words that seemed ridiculous together and yet incredibly familiar. As if Ash knew the phrase from long before.

"It was meant to be a drug." Papa Dino was walking through the lap, so Ash took careful steps behind him. He had the feeling of being a lamb led to slaughter. It was fine, he told himself. He was needed. They wouldn't get rid of him. "Something akin to mind control."

"You're kidding me, right? That stuff only exists in bad sci-fi movies."

"It was meant to be a drug." Papa Dino was walking through the lap, so Ash took careful steps behind him. He had the feeling of being a lamb led to slaughter. It was fine, he told himself. He was needed. They wouldn't get rid of him. "Something akin to mind control."

"You're kidding me, right? That stuff only exists in bad sci-fi movies."

"I said something akin to mind control. It was supposed to create a heightened state of paranoia. The test subjects could be persuaded to attack anyone."

“Charming.” Ash’s heart was pounding. Things were starting to piece together, and he didn’t like the sound of them. "But it didn't work, did it?"

"It became uncontrollable, yes. Not so much paranoia, rather a complete frenzy. It stops the heart, after a while. But a miracle of nature means that the brain is still active. Just enough to keep the person moving."

"A miracle?" Ash felt sick. It was like his bravado was being peeled back.

"The living dead," Papa Dino was still walking. Scientists still looking at them like they were a nature documentary. “Isn’t that a miracle?”

“I guess it depends on whether you’re in or out of the mansion.”

That got a smile that he couldn’t return. “But you’re in the mansion now, aren’t you?” A hand on  his shoulder and Ash was looking away, pretending to read a nearby computer screen. “And you wouldn’t go back to the dante’s inferno that is New York City, would you?”

He knew. He knew, he knew, he knew.

So, Ash dropped any lingering indifference – any lingering acting – leant back on one of the nearest desks and crossed his arms. Dinner jackets made it hard to move. If they were going to run, he would have to ditch it or rip it.

“So, my choices are dante’s inferno or just regular hell?”

“It’s true then?”

“Why else am I down here?” Ash asked. His heart was hammering but he could drown it out. It became background noise when you were used to gunfights. “So, you invented a real zombie virus. Is this when you inject me with it?”

A hand on his cheek that he could barely feel. Adrenaline did that. Made him pure energy.

“Never. Not you.” It was almost fatherly. To people who didn’t know the whole truth, it might have been touching. Maybe there was a spark of warmth in those cold eyes, but Ash didn’t care to look. “This is for your own good.”

The tension was starting to bother him. “What have you done?”

 “Invited a friend for dinner.”

Ash had seen Silence of the Lambs, but the way Papa Dino said that gave him more chills than when Hannibal Lecter did. It felt as though it had chilled him down to the marrow. For a moment, he knew his expression had slipped – he could tell from the smile appearing on Dino’s face.

“Where is he?”

“Only in the next room.”

Ash stumbled as he stepped forward, the scientists parting like a wave before him. The door behind them pushed open and he didn’t even see the room beyond them. He just saw a pair of dark eyes. Dark eyes. Not fleshy like egg whites. Eyes like a golden retriever.

His arms went around Eiji, with enough force that made Eiji stumble backwards. But his hands found Ash’s jacket – his fingers clutching the material for dear like. It had been such a sudden movement that Ash heard a rip. And, fuck, he had missed Eiji. He had forgotten how much nicer it was to touch Eiji. To feel the warmth of his body and his breath hitching in Ash’s ear. To choose to be close to someone. To feel the flutter of Eiji's heart in his chest like the wings of a trapped bird.

"Are you okay?" Ash demanded.

"I'm fine - I'm fine. But Ash-"

"I'm not so much."

It was another voice. A voice that made him freeze completely. Eiji's head was nestled on his shoulder, but he wasn't shaking. He was holding Ash firmly as he looked up.

Shorter was pulling himself to his feet. His skin was clammy and his legs shook as he did so. And yet he still smiled slightly as he pulled the sleeve of his jacket up. There was a tiny pinprick on his arm. "A virus. It's always the cheesiest movies that start with a virus."

"Shorter, no." They were the only two words he could think of. His fingers tightened into fists against Eiji's back and he felt Eiji press himself closer against him, like the way a dog would comfort someone.

"It's unthinkable. To let you go back to the chaos of the city. Especially now." Papa Dino's voice sounded far away. Like it was coming from above Ash and not behind him.

"I'm sorry, bud." Shorter was still smiling. Somehow, despite the world being jerked off balance, he was smiling. "I fought back as best as I could. I didn't have the heart to try and bite anyone on the way through."

"Let me guess." Ash's voice sounded rough. But he wasn't going to give in now. They had come too far for him to show that he was shattering into pieces. Brittle. He was brittle. "An extra strong dosage? Immediate effect?"

"What were you going to do? Try and find me a cure in a few days or so?" Shorter shook his head. Even his mohawk was drooping. "There's never a cure, Ash. And Maggie's just a depressing movie."

"So what's the lesson?" Ash turned, enough so that Papa Dino could see the white hot fury on his face, but not so that he could make out any features. "You'll infect someone every time I try to leave?"

"I told you, I can't let you leave. I'll even tolerate you your little friend, if it will make you happy."

Friend? Eiji wasn't a friend. Which was bizarre, because Ash hardly knew him. All he knew was that Eiji came from a small town in Japan whose name sounded like the name of a Gremlin. That he used to do high jump.

And yet he felt closer to him than anyone else he had ever known. He knew that he had to have Eiji by his side because otherwise he felt as though he was thrown into a choppy ocean without a liferaft. That was the surprising part about his life now. Not the zombies, but the fact that Ash Lynx had fallen in love. He had never expected to know what that really felt like, but now he did. He loved Eiji Okumura.

"Here." Shorter pulled out a revolver from his waistband. His hand was shaking as he held it out to Ash. "You need to take this. Its fully loaded."

No. The word didn't quite make it out of Ash's mouth. But no. He couldn't. He couldn't do this again.

And yet he recognised the look on Shorter's face. He recognised the waxy skin and dull eyes. Eyes that would be like runny eggs in no time, he knew. He knew he couldn't leave Shorter like this. But-

A hand took the gun. A hand with coffee coloured skin.

Eiji flicked the safety off.

"Its fully loaded," Shorter said. He was watching Eiji with a strange expression on his face. He was almost proud. "You know how to shoot it, kid?"

"Well enough." There was a determined look on Eiji's face. That was what kicked Ash's gut into action. He took the gun.

And in a split second all of his options raced through his head. He didn't have to shoot Shorter. He could turn around and shoot Papa Dino. Kill him now and take over his work. Find a cure for Shorter - keep him safe until then.

He could shoot himself. The ultimate act of defiance. Ruin perhaps the only thing that he was sure Papa Dino loved.

No he couldn't. He couldn't leave Eiji here. Eiji was the only thing he hadn't considered shooting.

Both of them. Go out like Romeo and Juliet.

No. There was only one real option. He aimed the gun at Shorter. His smile had started to droop at one side, as if he were about to have a stroke.

"I'm sorry," Ash said.

"What for? That you'll never know what it feels like to turn into a zombie?" His speech was starting to slur. "Just tell me about the shed, Ash. The video games and the rabbits and all that."

And despite everything, Ash found himself smiling.

"You're shit at video games, Shorter."

"Fuck you." Shorter had closed his eyes, but now he opened them. There was an almost lazy look to him. "Don't feel guilty about this, Ash. You're my best friend. I need you to-"

The shot rang out. The word ‘remember’ was underneath it like an echo.

Shorter fell forward. The world collapsed in as if it was made of paper.

Ash felt his fingers slip on the gun. What had he done?

What had he done?

Hands closed around his. Steadied the gun. Coffee coloured skin on ivory.

His eyes flicked sideways. Towards Eiji. His face was pale, but set. It set the fire off in his chest. No. No, they were getting out of this.

They weren't getting away with this.

Ash spun on his heel, firing the gun again. And again. And again. For a split moment, he wasn’t sure if he would ever be able to stop. He had hit Papa Dino. Just the shoulder but enough to send a spray of blood like paint from a spray can. And he had hit a doctor. One of the bodyguards before he could pull out his own gun.

The other one had his pistol pointed at Ash and for a moment he didn’t care if he was shot. He’d go out in a blaze of glory. Fuck it.

But then Eiji was pushing him to the side. Then a bullet was buzzing so close to Eiji’s ear that it ruffled his hair. He had his hand on Ash’s chest, holding him out of view of the door. Ash couldn’t die. Not here.

He backed along the wall, taking another shot. The bodyguard fell back. The scientists were crouching – avoiding the gunshots and trying to get to Papa Dino. So he ran.

And he was halfway down the corridor before he realised that he was holding Eiji’s hand. He slowed his pace and tried to loosen his grip. The beating of his heart was making it hard to hear anything else.

But he forced himself to breathe, to keep his ears pricked for the men that he knew would be coming after them.

They wouldn't be able to climb out the window. Not now. It would be ridiculous to try. And he had no idea where they would be going back to now that Shorter-

Now that Shorter was-

They'd need to get away quickly. They'd need wheels. And he knew where to get them.

"The garage," he said.

Eiji's hand tightened on his own. They started off again, pausing at every corner so that they could make sure the way was clear. It made Ash's skin itch. It was wasting time. They needed to move and move quickly.

"I'm sorry," Eiji said. "I think its my fault."

"Its not."

"You don't understand. He came to the room - he knew - he knew that we were leaving. He said he'd- if I didn't lie, then he wouldn't-"

"And what did you say?"

"That I didn't know. I didn't know anything."

"So you didn't tell him anything," Ash said. "So it's not your fault."

"So - so, then, how..."

"There was another boy. His name was Yut Lung. I told him we were meeting Shorter - I even said where. He was the only one who knew. It was him."

That was when they heard them. Shuffling footsteps. Of fucking course. They kept moving without saying a word to each other.

There wasn't a lot of other people around. The men who were running down the corridors were more focused on the "outbreak of test subjects" rather than Ash and Eiji. That suited Ash just fine. There was already too much blood on his hands. He had no desire to kill anyone else that evening.

It was in the garage that things looked messy. The labs had been down here and it was the labs that were overrun with zombies

They saw them through glass doors and on security monitors as they passed. They were close - closer than Ash felt comfortable with - but they hadn't made it to the garage yet. In front of the door they stopped. Eiji met Ash's eye and he wondered how they were able to tell what the other was thinking without saying a single word. He raised the gun, Eiji pressed the button to open the door, both of them tense and ready for a fight.

It was empty.

And there, only a few feet away was the gleaming red surface of their escape vehicle. Ash had never been particularly fond of it. At the time he had thought it was ridiculous and tacky. At the time he had known he would never use it - it was just a larger toy car for a larger boy. Now he had never seen a car so gorgeous.

The keys were on the rack. It opened easily and Ash slid into the leather front seat. It still had new car smell, it had been used so little. He grinned, the exhaust purring to life as he turned the keys.

And Eiji was in the passenger seat. Not smiling, but not shaking or frozen. He wasn't the boy from three weeks ago that had broken down at the sight of a zombie. He was Ash's partner in crime now.

They were silent as they pulled out of the garage, the door opening automatically. There was the street. The sky. The night sky stretching above them, stars sparkling like a stock photo. Stars didn't used to look like that. They didn't used to be so bright. So perfect. But this was the outside. They had done it. They were free.

"You have a car?" Eiji eventually asked. He was pulling his seatbelt across and sounded calm - way too calm.

Ash changed gear. His heart was racing with exhilaration - he felt like he was flying. "Sixteenth birthday present." He paused, feeling brave. Feeling untouchable and not wanting to waste this moment. "Do you know what I'd do if I wasn't driving?"

"What?"

"Kiss you."

"Ash, pull over." There was an urgency in Eiji's voice that made his gut drop. He obeyed, pulling to the side of the road and glancing behind him. He could see figures in the open garage door.

"What's wrong?" He asked.

"You're not driving anymore."

Ash glanced across at him. Eiji was smiling at him, ever so slightly. His eyes caught their headlights and shone. He was shining silver like a coy angel. So Ash leant over, not even hesitating as he pressed his lips against Eiji's. His mouth was open and his breath was hot. The kind of sexy kiss that action movies always had.

He could feel Eiji melting as he kissed Ash back. Eiji kissed Ash back and it sent tingles through him. They were kissing each other and it felt like lighting. Ash could get used to this – could get used to kissing Eiji, he thought, as he took Eiji’s bottom lip between his teeth. He toyed with it like he was savouring a sweet. There was a small sound from the back of Eiji’s throat and it made his heart pound. This. This made everything go numb. It was only him and Eiji and the rest of the world was blacked out.

"Ash?" Eiji’s voice was soft. His fingers grazed Ash’s shoulder.

"Mm?”

"Sweetie, there are zombies behind us.”

There was a small grumble in the back of Ash's throat as he pulled away, revving the engine back up.  The shadows were closer in the rear view mirror now, but he was finding it hard to care. How could he care about anything other than kissing Eiji? It made everything else feel far away and insignificant. Helped chase away the thoughts that were plaguing him – that would come back as soon as he stopped for breath.

"That's shit," Ash muttered.  He was basically flooring it. The roads were empty enough for it.

"Tell me about it, stud."

Eiji placed a hand on Ash's thigh and watched the smile grow on Ash's face. His fingers squeezed and Ash found himself grinning, because Eiji was being playful and completely calm about being chased by zombies.

"Does this mean you'll wear leather trousers?" Ash asked. It was better than any other thoughts that were going through his head.

"If you sew me into them."

I think that could be arranged.” Ash was still smiling. He wanted to keep smiling, but whatever spell had come over him had broken. Eiji’s fingers twitched and it made his stomach turn. It suddenly felt too hot and too heavy. "I can't- hold my hand instead?"

Eiji twisted his fingers into Ash’s outstretched hand instead. “Sure.”

“Eiji, I –“ Ash broke off. He was slowing down, now. Reality was coming back too quickly. “I don't know what to do. I don't know where to go now that – that –“

That Shorter was-

“Don't,” Eiji said and squeezed Ash’s fingers. “Don't think about it. Just - let's just focus on our next step. Do you know where Soo-Ling is?

“He was meant to be with Shorter.”

“What about Max?”

Ash dropped Eiji’s hand to pull the flip phone out of his breast pocket, handing it to Eiji and not hesitating to take his hand again. "Call him.”

Eiji’s hand was warm in his. Warm and solid and real and it felt like the only thing that was keeping Ash grounded.

“...you have another phone?” Eiji asked. He was flipping it open and going through the contacts.

“Yeah,” Ash said. He was concentrating on the streets – finding his way out of the city. He’d never seen it so empty and it was chilling. “They found my real one and a burner when I came through the door. They wouldn't think of finding another one.”

“That’s how you managed to talk to Shorter?”

“Yeah. It wasn’t easy. But the phone signal – it’s still operating from within the mansion. There are some others that he turned off remotely. I flicked them back on whilst he was asleep to send it.”

Eiji smiled at him. “Aren’t you smart?”

And Ash couldn’t answer that. Partly because he couldn’t find the words to respond to this Eiji, but partly because it wasn’t true. If he was smart he could have found another way around this. He wouldn’t have gone there in the first place. He wouldn’t have made shitty deals. He wouldn’t have shot his best friend.

The phone was at Eiji’s ear. He lowered it slowly. “It’s not going through.”

“What?”

“There's no signal,” Eiji said, checking it.

“Fucking bastard. Must have turned it off when I wasn’t looking.”

“It might have been the zombies.”

Ash took a breath. They were back on the main road from the city. Going back up the hill that they had rolled down on a bicycle. Ash had been whooping then. He had been overjoyed and a part of him was now.

“They'll be at the farmhouse,” Ash said. He wasn’t sure why he knew that.

“Are you sure?”

“No.” Ash sighed, his hand tightening on the steering wheel. “I'm not sure of anything. Don't even think I know how to get back there.”

“It’s somewhere safe,” Eiji said. “Let’s go. I trust you.”

“You shouldn’t.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Eiji whispered, “okay, sweetie.”

That made Ash’s heart flutter and relax like a dying moth. He could breathe, just, and his fingers tightened around Eiji’s. Eiji dropped their hands onto his lap, leaning back in his seat and taking a deep breath out.

The streetlights weren’t working, and Ash still wasn’t sure he’d be able to find the farmhouse. But their headlights cast a silver moon on the tarmac in front of them. It was oddly comforting – to not have to worry about what was beyond that light. They were safe, they were travelling away from danger, and now they were heading to safety.

And that was more than enough for now.

Chapter Text

11

It was impossible. They weren't going to find the farmhouse in the dark. Eventually, Ash pulled the car over and flicked off the lights. He was still holding Eiji's hand.

"You should get some sleep."

They had said it at the same time. Eiji could see Ash's teeth flashing in the darkness as he grinned.

"There's no way I can convince you, huh?" Ash asked.

"I'm not leaving you alone tonight."

Ash's fingers squeezed his own tighter. He hadn't believed it was possible, but he squeezed back. He heard Ash sigh, then opened the door.

"Come on. We might as well get comfortable."

He was sliding into the back, so Eiji followed by clambering over the seats. He didn't want to go outside. Outside was full of danger and darkness. It was full of hands grabbing at him.

The car chirped as Ash locked it again. His hands searched in the darkness like pale moths and without thinking Eiji cupped them in his own. He felt rather than saw Ash's relief at the touch. Neither of them said a word as Ash's hands made their way upwards, to Eiji's face. His fingers traced over Eiji's cheeks. He found his eyes closing and his lips parting slightly, his hands tracing down Ash's arms.

Somewhere along the way, Ash had lost his suit jacket. That was fine. He could feel the warmth of Ash's skin through his shirt. And he was strong, he had muscles like an action hero.

Ash's thumb traced Eiji's lower lip with a light touch. It still tingled from Ash's teeth from earlier and he leaned into the touch, pressing his lips against the pad of Ash's thumb.

Their foreheads bumped against each other's. Ash's hair tickled Eiji's temples. He moved closer, so that he could wrap his arms around Ash's neck and could feel their chests press against each other.

That was when Ash's lips pressed against his own. There was no pressure behind it and Ash's lips slipped away to Eiji's cheek a moment after. His heart was pounding, but in a good way. It wasn't racing erratically like a rabbit caught in a share like it had been earlier. It was pounding steadily, sending a wave of warmth through everyone of Eiji's muscles. He had to be closer to Ash - the warmth was coming from Ash and he felt greedy because he had to have more of it.

Eiji sighed as Ash rubbed tiny circles against the small of Eiji's back. Ash's mouth was tracing similar patterns on his cheek, as if he was exploring Eiji's face for the first time.

"Is this okay?" he whispered into the darkness. His stomach jolted when he realised his mouth was against the smell of Ash's ear.

Ash's hands tightened on his shirt. "Why wouldn't it be okay?"

"I didnt know if - if-" Eiji couldn't find the words. He had never needed to. "It would be hard for you-"

"Eiji, sweetheart, it's fine," Ash murmured. He pulled away to kiss Eiji's lips. "I need to feel something right now. And you're the only thing that can make me feel anything."

"Is that the only reason?" He was almost scared to ask. Last time it had been because of fear and adrenaline that they had kissed. He didn't know if he could take it if that was what happened again, because he wanted it to be so much more. It had to mean so much more now.

"No. It's mainly because I haven't been able to kiss you when I wanted to." Ash kissed him again - painstakingly slowly. It was almost as if time was being slowed down. "I'm making up for lost time."

He kissed Ash back, his fingers finding the fine hairs at the make of Ash's neck. He hummed against Eiji's mouth, his lips trailing down Eiji's jaw. It was as if he was blind, exploring every inch of Eiji's face with his mouth or fingertips. And Eiji did the same, letting his hands run through Ash's hair, across his cheekbones. Hesitantly pressed his cheek flush against Ash's, his heart pounding steadily as he found the courage to kiss Ash's temple.

It was like that until dawn. Eiji wasn't sure what 'it' was. Just a string of tender touches that made his skin tingle as if it was fizzing. Sent flushes through his chest and reminded him that he was alive. He was alive and so was Ash.

By the time the sun was rising, cast them in a harsh orange flow, he was practically curled up in Ash's lap. His head was on the gang leader's shoulder, his arms tight around him. Ash had a hand in his hair, combing through it with his fingers as if he was petting a cat and it made Eiji want to purr. Ash's mouth was on the top of his head, his lips moving every now and then as if he was talking to himself.

Maybe he had fallen asleep. He couldn't tell. The night had gone by in a series of sensations and it all felt like a crazy dream in the light of day. Maybe he would wake up on a plane arriving in New York and it would all be a dream.

No. Ash hummed underneath him and Eiji felt the vibration through his body.

"We could head out now," Ash said. "I could probably find the farmhouse in the day."

Eiji took that as a cue to move. He clambered up, off of Ash with his hands trying to find somewhere - anywhere - that wasn't the other boy's body.

Ash stopped him by cupping his face in his hands. Eiji blinked back at him.

"You know you're beautiful, right?" Ash whispered. His thumb found Eiji's bottom lip again, the nail nudging his teeth.

"Look who's talking."

Ash gave a breathy laugh. His eyes half-lidded as he regarded Eiji, then his head titled to the side. He kissed him again, lingering before he pulled away. It made his breath hitch in his throat because this was - this was making the world turn gold. This was more than making Eiji feel like he was flying. it was more than cliches.

He put his hands over Ash's, running his mouth over his palm.

"I love you," Eiji whispered. It felt like shouting in the quiet. "Back there - in that room, I thought I'd never see you again and I thought - that you'd be dead or worse. Then when I saw you - and when you hugged me - I realised. I love you, Ash."

It was the moment after he said it that he regretted it. It felt as though he had jumped off of a cliff without a parachute.

"Eiji," Ash murmured, and his hand nudged Eiji's face back around to face him. Green eyes fought to take in every detail of his face as if it was the last time they would see each other. And yet the corners of Ash's mouth were curving upwards in a smile. "I love you too."

He wanted to cry. Or laugh. Or both. In the end, He could only smile. Smile at Ash and try to project every bit of the warmth he was feeling at him.

Ash's fingers stroked through his hair once more, before he was detangling himself and opening the car door.

"We need to get moving."

Eiji followed, climbing out of Ash's side in the hopes of getting just one more kiss. One more could never be enough.

"We could stay here."

"On the side of the road? In the middle of nowhere?"

Eiji shrugged.

"Come on, trouble." Ash opened the driver’s side, leaning against it and smiling at Eiji like a cat who had got the cream. "Get in."

So Eiji did, climbing over the seat and the gear stick and settling himself into the passenger’s side. He leant against Ash as he started the car back up. He was warm and alive and the only thing left in the world.

They kept driving without saying much. They had barely said anything since they had stopped the previous night. That was fine. It felt like they understood each other perfectly anyway.

They were able to find the farmhouse. If only because there was half a head on a fence post at the side of the road. A half head that they both recognised.

Ash grinned at Eiji and turned down the road. They had found it. Within ten minutes, they were pulling up outside of the farmhouse. It looked exactly the same. Just as they had left it.

The engine died down. And a figure ran out of  the house. A tiny figure with dark skin who Ash recognised immediately. He was out of the door in seconds and Eiji was only a moment behind him.

"Skip!" Ash half-fell into his knees, his arms wide open as Skip fell into them. He pulled the smaller boy to him, his eyes closed tight. Eiji saw him swallow heavily.

This was it. He thought. It was going to be the moment that Ash broke down completely.

"Skip! You don't know who they-" Max was at the door, but he had frozen with one hand on doorframe. His eyes widened as Ash stood. He was all bravado again, hands in his pockets and a smirk on his face.

Eiji closed the car door, looking over at Ash. He winked back at Eiji.

Then was suddenly buried in Max's chest. He froze completely, his arms still at his sides. It was only for a moment, because suddenly he was being hugged too. It took him a moment to realise - a moment to recognise Ibe. Then he was hugging him back just as hard - as if he was a lifeline, because suddenly Eiji felt small. He felt young and small and scared - oh God, he was so scared. He had been so scared for the last week and hadn't even realised it.

Ibe released him a moment later, still gripping his shoulders tightly. He looked over Eiji's face as if he was searching for changes. But Ibe looked the same. Maybe a little bit more weathered, maybe a little scruffier. But the same.

"You're back," Ibe said.

"Well," Eiji replied. "There's no place like home.”

He glanced over at Ash as he said it. He smiled back, one hand buried in Skip’s curls.

“So, where’ve you two been? It looks like you’ve been taking Eiji out for dinner.”

Ash rolled his eyes. He gave a light punch to Max’s shoulder and said, “I could ask you the same. What happened to meet us in New York?”

Max grimaced. “We have a lot to catch up on.”

*

There had been a hoarde coming out of New York. They had stayed in the farmhouse, waiting for it to pass. It had taken days for them all to pass and they had been trapped inside the whole time, moving around in silence with the curtains closed. When it had finally passed, they thought that Ash and Eiji had met up with Shorter and would be in touch soon. Or on their way back. That was why they had sent Bones and Kong.

“Phone signals are down,” Ash said. He was sat with his hand around Eiji’s shoulders and Eiji was leaning into him. No one had said anything about it. “If they weren’t before, they are now.”

“And we’ll have to destroy ours now. Just in case Golzine can figure out our position.” Max scratched stubble.

“I wouldn’t put it past him.”

That was when Eiji’s head dropped forward off of his shoulder. Ash barely caught him before he fell all the way into his lap.

“The two of you do look dead on your feet,” Max said. “Not in the – you don’t look like dead dead. When’s the last time you slept?”

“Is that a trick question?” Ash couldn’t actually remember. He tried to lift Eiji, to pry him off of him, but arms tightened around his waist. Eiji moaned slightly when he tried, so he settled for letting the bundle of black hair rest in his lap.

“You need to rest, Ash.”

“Later.”

There was tension in the air. Ash knew that everyone around them could feel it, especially because Skip jumped up and said that he was going to finish clearing out the shed. He was running out of the room before Ibe was on his feet. And the two were gone, leaving a few shouts echoing in the air behind them.

Ash wasn’t looking at Max. He stayed staring at the floor in front of him, fingers curled in Eiji’s hair. He could feel Max’s eyes still on him. And, logically, he knew that Max was looking at him with concern. No men in the last week had looked at him with concern. It made him doubt it now. Made him not want to look over.

“Do you think you’ll have bad dreams?” Max’s voice was soft.

Ash clenched his jaw. “Did you get the virus whilst we were gone?”

“What?”

“Are you brain dead, Lobo? What the hell kind of dreams do you think I’m going to have?”

“Your brain’s probably too tired to even dream.”

“What would you know?”

“Are you brain dead, Lobo? What the hell kind of dreams do you think I’m going to have?”

“Your brain’s probably too tired to even dream.”

“What would you know?”

"You're right." It actually surprised him, the anger in Max's voice. "I don't know a lot. But you know what I do know, Ash Lynx? I know that I could have travelled south and got on a plane by now. I know I could have gotten Ibe and Skip out of the country. Do you know why I didn't?"

He felt like a school child being scolded. "No."

"Because I made a promise to your brother."

That made Ash just as angry. It was a fight to keep his volume in check, because Eiji was sleeping. Eiji was finally asleep an he couldn't risk waking him.

"Do you know where my brother is now?" He was practically growling. "H's dead. He's dead because I shot him right between the eyes."

"Better dead than living dead."

"It wouldn't matter. There'd be a chance. The old man must have a cure bottled up somewhere."

"There's not a cure, Ash." Max had the gall to sound gentle again. To look concerned - Ash managed to meet dark eyes.

"There could be. One day."

"They're dead. Their hearts stopped beating. Its not a virus, it's a plague." Max sighed heavily, running his hands across his face. He looked at Ash between his fingers. "You know, sometimes I forget you're still a kid."

"I'm not." He brushed hair away from the shell of Eiji's ear. It made Eiji twitch in his sleep. "I'm almost eighteen, that's hardly a kid."

"You won't talk like that once you get to my age."

"Who says I'll live long enough to?"

Max paused. He rose slowly, as if his joints ached.

"Get some sleep."

"I'm not leaving him."

"Then sleep on the sofa with him, dummy." Max reached out a hand - probably just to ruffle Ash's hair, like any kind father figure would. But it made Ash flinch. He couldn't help it. There was a moment where he knew his eyes had flashed and he had pulled away.

He closed his eyes. Tried to at least look apologetic when he looked back up at Max.

He got a sad smile, before the older man left the living room. He could still his shadow, stood out on the porch.

That was when it clicked. He was safe.  Ash was safe. They were safe and someone was watching over them.

It made his eyelids droop. It would be okay, he reasoned, just for a few minutes, to lie next to Eiji and rest his eyes. He was tired - he hadn't realised how tired until now, but every one of his muscles felt as if they were made of lead.

So he snuggled down next to Eiji, holding him against his chest with a hand over Eiji's heart. Just to feel his heart beating against his palm.

When he opened his eyes it was dark. He had barely even noticed drifting off. It had been dreams full of half-filled faces and hands grabbing at him. Unpleasant but not enough to wake him up.

There were hands grabbing at him in reality. Eiji had fistfulls of Ash's shirt and had tucked himself under Ash's chin. Their legs were tangled on the sofa but that was nice. It was as if they were trying to be as close as they possibly could.

And it still felt too far.

Ash buried his nose in Eiji's hair, pressing a kiss to the top of his head. He needed to show - needed to show Eiji just how much he meant to Ash. That was the only way he knew how and it was replacing all of those other sensations. He wanted as many new sensations as possible, to make those olds ones forgotten.

Eiji murmured under him, tilting his head up so that Ash could see two huge eyes.

"You're still here," he murmured.

"Did you think I wouldn't be?"

"I thought I might have dreamt it. Dreamt you." He was smiling. "But you're here. With me. And you love me."

"Do I?" Ash was smirking, brushing the fringe off of Eiji's face.

Eiji nodded, a finger tracing it's way up Ash's cheekbone. "You said you did."

"I don't remember."

"Ash." That got a pout and he suddenly had to kiss Eiji. He had to kiss that pout away.

"Of course I love you," he whispered, his mouth still open against Eiji's. "I never thought..."

He trailed off, because Eiji's lips were moving against his own and he revelled in that feeling.

"...I guess it worked," Eiji murmured.

"What?"

"My sister gave me a charm before I left home. She said it would find me love. I thought it was bullshit."

"That's a naughty word, Eiji Okumura."

"Oh yeah?" Eiji was smiling up at him. Playful again, his fingers curled into Ash's collar. "You can't stop me swearing."

"I can. I can tickle you."

Eiji gasped. "You wouldn't."

"Try me."

Eiji pulled himself even closer then, so that their noses bumped into each other.

"Bullshit," he whispered.

So Ash pounced. Mercilessly attacking Eiji's stomach so that he squirmed and pulled away. He was laughing breathlessly, half-heartedly trying to push Ash's hands away. That only made him redouble his efforts, hooking a leg over Eiji's lap to better angle himself.

"Ash - stop!" Eiji squirmed underneath him - and slipped straight off the side of the sofa.

Ash landed half on the sofa and half on top of Eiji. He was laughing too. He hadn't even noticed, but he was genuinely laughing.

But then Eiji's arms went around Ash's neck and he was still shaking. It took Ash a moment to realise the laughter had stopped.

"I didn't hurt you, did I?" His hands hovered over Eiji's back, unsure whether he could even touch him.

"It – it just hit me – I only just realised Shorter – Shorter’s dead.”

Eiji’s cheek was damp against Ash’s and his body was shaking. Ash held him against him, struggling to breathe. He stared down at the hardwood floor, because he had been ignoring it. He had been ignoring the burning feeling in his chest. He had been pushing away all of those thoughts so that there was no way he could think about them anymore.

Shorter. Shorter was dead.

Ash had killed him.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“You had to.” Eiji’s words came in breathy gasps.

“I’m still sorry.”

There was a gasp in his ear and Eiji’s fingers clenched on his shirt. With another shaky breath, Eiji pulled away slightly, so that he was resting on the floor. His hair fanned out around him like an inky pool. There were still tears in his eyes, and one streaked down the side of his cheek, catching the moonlight outside and looking like a star for a moment.

“Do Americans apologize for everything?”

Ash found the tiniest smile on his face.

Eiji's eyes were soft, dark pools, as if he was melting just looking at Ash. "You don't have to. Just be sad. Be sad with me, Ash."

So he did. He lay on the floor next to Eiji with their hands entwined and stared up at the cracked, white ceiling. Ash was crying. He could feel tears pooling out of his eyes and sliding down his cheeks. He could hardly breathe for the pain in his chest.

But Eiji was there, his hand tightly clenched in Ash's. And when he turned his head to look at him, he could feel the edge taken off that ache. Not alone. Ash was not alone and Eiji was beautiful. His dark eyelashes fanned out and cast shadows on his pink cheeks. The tears in his eyes made it look like he was holding the whole milky way in them.

Well, he was Ash's universe now.

"I don't deserve you," Ash whispered.

Eiji turned to him and shook his head. "Ash, after what we've been through, we deserve the world."

We. Eiji too. As if they shared all of Ash's bullshit. And yet, Ash liked the sound of that.

'We,' was the prettiest word in the English language.

*

Ash had been staring in the mirror when it happened. He had been trying to decide whether he had liked the stubble or not.

No, that wasn't it. He was wondering whether Eiji had liked the stubble or not.

That had been when Eiji had wrapped his arms around Ash's waist from behind. It made Max's shirt look even bigger and baggier than it was, bunching it up like a parachute.

"Morning," Eiji mumbled, pressing a kiss against the side of Ash's neck. His hair stuck up like a baby chicks and Ash had to touch it.

It had scared him. For a moment, he had wanted to reach for a gun, or to throw Eiji off. But he forced himself to relax. This was it. This was how it should be.

"Just got off look out?" Ash asked.

"Mm. Your turn."

"Ten more minutes?"

Eiji laughed, kissing his cheek. His arms were tight and solid and warm. Ash's reflection was smiling, watching Eiji's nose nuzzle his ear lobe.

"Does it hurt?" He was referring to the earring. It still sat there, like a tag on a bull.

"No," Ash lied. It tingled. He felt the need to add. "It's jade."

Eiji paused at that, glancing at it in the mirror.

"Did he know?"

"About my name? Maybe." Ash pulled a face. "That just makes it more tacky"

"Tacky?" Eiji was smiling.

"Yeah. Could have at least been an emerald. Or a diamond. A green diamond," he turned so that his mouth was buried in Eiji's hair. "What do you think? Would that bring out my eyes more?"

Somehow they had ended up face to face, his hands on Eiji's shoulders and his heart melting as dark brown eyes smiled up at him.

"You don't need anything to bring out your eyes," Eiji said.

"Look who's talking." Ash leant forward so that his mouth brushed against Eiji's. His hands found his hips and when Eiji leant closer, he kissed him. He didn't think he could ever get enough of the electric that tingled through him when he did it.

"Are you going to keep it?" Eiji murmured, his eyes still half-closed and his mouth still half against Ash's.

"Like fuck. No. But I haven't thought of something significantly petty to do with it."

Eiji paused, leaning into Ash with all of his weight, his hands playing with the too-long strands of hair at the back of Ash's neck.

"We could chop of a zombie ear, pretend its yours and mail it back to him?" he suggested, a playful smile on his face.

Ash laughed. A bark of a laugh, but still a laugh. "You're such a little minx."

"And yet you love me."

"I do. I love you, Eiji."

"I love you too." Eiji's hand moved to cup Ash's face and he leant against the touch. All of this was so soft and simple. It wa surprisingly easy.

"Yeah, we all love each other, now would you boys stop hogging the bathroom?" A grumpy Max stood in the hallway, but he was at least smiling slightly.

Eiji just laughed. He seemed to be glowing now he was away from Papa Dino's and kissing Ash whenever he wanted.

"Good night, sweetie," he said, placing another kiss against Ash's mouth. Then he was practically floating down the hallway to their room. Probably just as excited about having the single bed all to himself.

Ash stepped out too, just so he could watch Eiji walk away. Just so he could check that Eiji got there safely. He wasn't used to them being apart. Being away from him made Ash nervous. He had barely slept last night just in case something happened - because he couldn't remember the last time that Eiji hadn't been sleeping next to him. It scared him, just how scared he was alone.

"Not even gay, huh?" Max mumbled as he walked into the bathroom.

"No." Ash twisted his mouth. "It's - complicated. I don't think - I think it's just him."

"How sweet. Now get on guard duty." Max's voice was equal parts sarcasm, equal parts genuine.

"Get fucked, Lobo."

"Chance would be a fine thing." Max sighed, his head against the doorframe. "Unfortunately, my wife - ex-wife got out of the country, last I heard. First place Europe."

Ash paused. "I'm sorry."

"No, it's good. She's safe, my boy is safe. They wouldn't want me there anyway."

"A lot of things have changed," Ash murmured.

"Are you trying to make me feel better?" There was a slight smirk on Max's tired face. It made Ash scowl.

"I said get fucked."

"And I said get your ass on look out before I beat you into next week."

"You wouldn't dare," Ash said. Mainly just to have the last word before he stalked away, feeling like a disgruntled cat with its tail in the air. Trying to be much bigger than he actually felt.

He stood and looked out over the porch. It was quiet here. Ridiculously quiet. Nothing around and no zombies in sight. Almost like before. Before before - Cape Cod quiet. Even quieter because there was nothing, not even phone single. It was like being two hundred years ago.

If he concentrated, he could conjure up the feeling of Eiji's arms around him. Of Eiji's head on his shoulder and his lips on his cheek.

Two hundred years ago and Ash felt as though it would have been easier. Much less painful and confusing than this mess.

He would have liked to have been there, two hundred years ago, with Eiji.

Two hundred years with Eiji, what a lovely thought. He smiled to himself as he considered it.

Then Skip came bolting out of the house, asking Ash a million different questions and brandishing a gun as if it was a toy.

So Ash did what anyone would do.

He taught the kid how to use the gun.

Chapter Text

World War Z

Ash had hoped that the sense of safety would last more than a day. But going back to look-outs put him back on edge. Made his skin prickle at the slightest of sound and brought back that itchy trigger finger. He ended up shooting a deer. That was okay. They ate that for dinner - cooking it over a fire and eating it in chunks. The gas wasn't working anymore, so they had to cook it outside, guns at their hips in case of any unwanted visitors.

"It's just like camp," Eiji had said, smiling up at Ash. He had kissed his forehead then, to soothe some of the panic in his stomach. It had only been a deer, but if it had been a person - a person in need of help, they would be dead. Ash would have another body haunting his dreams.

He saw Shorter whenever he dropped off. He thought that would be fine, because Eiji would be there to remind him that he was still warm and alive. It was still worth being alive.

But he had woken up to an empty room. An empty room and a knock on the door. Then the door was opening and Max's voice was coming to him.

"You were screaming."

It took him a moment. Sat up, hair in his face and his hands buried in the mattress. " I'll try to keep it down next time."

"That's not what I meant."

"Where's Eiji?" He was proud of himself. It had taken him a whole ten seconds before he had asked.

"Look out. I'm afraid you're stuck with me."

That actually brought a sound out of Ash. Not a laugh - not quite - but maybe a slither of one.

"I'd rather face a zombie."

Max sat at the end of the bed. The curtains were drawn, but the evening light still shone in. Normally it would be too bright to sleep in, but they were exhausted. It was becoming easier to sleep when they could see.

"I've never been very good at the dad thing," Max admitted.

"Don't start now."

"Can I chase away any nightmares?"

"Griffin's dead. I killed him. Shorter's dead. I killed him. How do you chase that away?"

Brown eyes pierced his own. Not gentle. Not the kind dad that Max tried to be too often. This was a sober, serious look.

"Do you think they'd want you to be upset over it?"

They had both asked. They had both chosen that. It was easy to be the one to choose, harder to be the one who did it.

Which meant Ash's nerves were running high. He was nervous - nervous about those telephone poles and nervous about how else they might be found. They would be found, he knew, if they stayed here. They had to keep moving.

So he called everyone together. They stood on the porch, making sure they were always protected. Skip sat on the side, loading and reloading Ash's gun.

"We have to go somewhere safer than this," he said. He had an arm around Eiji's waist, a finger curled into his belt loop. He felt Eiji's hand on his hip. It felt right. This felt right. This felt like sliding the last piece of a puzzle into place. It was selfish – it was incredibly selfish to want Eiji by his side just to complete his puzzle, but in the apocalypse you had to be selfish. Everyone else was being selfish. Ash deserved this. And he wasn’t seeing Eiji complaining.

"We know where the virus is now. We have to go back- we have to stop it," he said. His eyes were so full of determination that Ash felt his heart cracking.

"We can't- we can't stop it, Eiji." His throat was dry.

"Or - tell people-"

"Who?" Max's tone was soft. He was back to the gentle dad thing and Ash found that it wasn't annoying him as much anymore. "News stations in the state are down. And no one's about to listen to me."

"Well, we can't just do nothing," Eiji said.

"What can we do?" Ash said. "Three kids and two reporters. We’re hardly even that."

"We can't just run." Eiji looked between them all with a hard, determined gaze.

Run. That was what Ash did. He was good at running. At running and hiding and not turning back. But that wasn't bad. He was starting to learn that. It wasn't just running.

"We're not running. We're surviving." he said. "We're going to survive."

Ash was a survivor. Eiji had said that. So if he was a survivor, he was going to continue to survive.

"So you have a plan?" Ibe asked.

Now everyone was looking at him. It didn't break his resolve, but it made him falter. He stared back and eventually shrugged.

 "Shorter was the zombie nerd. Shorter would know what to do."

"The cold," Eiji said. His eyes were focusing on something in the distance.

"Hm?"

"Isn't it- in one of the films - the zombies freeze? We could go north. Where it's colder." His eyes flicked back to Ash, then.

"So...Canada?" Ibe suggested.

Max shook his head. "We'd never get through the border. It's on complete shutdown."

"Bold of you to assume I even have a passport," Ash said. "Who says we need to go through legally?"

"No." Max's voice was firm. "You're basing this on a movie."

"There's not a lot of other things to base it on," Ash said. "We can't stay here. We can't stay in the country. Where else do we go? Mexico?"

“Better weather,” Ibe mumbled.

“That’s true. I know a little Spanish.” Max was rubbing his chin, looking up at the sky.

“It’s too far. It’s a wonder he-“ he wasn’t going to give the name power by saying it. “Hasn’t caught up to us already. It’s too far and maybe Eiji’s right. Maybe the zombies will freeze.”

There was silence for a long time. They stared at each other, willing for anyone to come up with a better idea. There must have been a better plan out there.

Finally, Max broke the quiet. "Fine. We'll go north. We'll take the car as far as it can go."

"Fine by me. I hate that thing."

Eiji turned his head then, to murmur into Ash's ear. "It's tacky."

He smiled, and kissed Eiji's temple. He wanted to melt. To melt into Eiji and let himself be taken care of. To spend the day laughing or sobbing in a rollercoaster of emotions. It didn’t matter if he was haunted by Shorter as long as he had someone to take care of him. As long as he could be vulnerable that was okay.

It was better than being brittle.

But he was still a gang leader. He couldn’t change that just yet. Not whilst there was still a job to be done. He heard the change in his voice, knew he’d hardened back up to stone as he said, "let’s pack up what we can."

Whilst Eiji and Ash had been cycling to New York, Max and Ibe had been raiding gas stations for supplies. The result was an impressive collection of 'I Love New York' tees, most of them a ridiculously large size. As well as shorts and trainers. They were new and they were clothes and that was good enough. And Max had given Ash his cigarettes back. Had slipped them onto the bedside table without a word. Ash had nodded at him. Max had nodded back. It was the closest to a genuine conversation without any sarcasm that they had. And it wasn’t awful.

Of course, there was an argument about the car. About who was going to drive. They stood around it with backpacks thrown into the boot haphazardly, everything but the kitchen sink packed.

"Have you even got a license?" Max was asking, one hand on the handle. "How old are you? Fourteen?"

"Eighteen. And it's my car. Of course I know how to drive it."

"You're not eighteen," Eiji said.

"I turned eighteen last week."

"Ash!"

"What?"

"You didn't tell me!"

"You didn't need to know."

So, it ended up being Eiji's fault that Max slipped into the driver's seat without them noticing. It was Eiji's fault they ended up in the back either side of Skip. Ash loved the kid. He had always loved the kid, but when he was the only thing separating him from Eiji, it was torture. So close and yet so far. It was like Skip knew as well. Usually, he acted twice his age, but when he knew he could be annoying, he reverted back to the kid he should have been. It made guilt and jealousy swirl around in Ash because he knew Skip should have had a normal childhood. He should be in school and with his parents and yet the gang had taken care of him. Did a good job of protecting him.

And he was jealous because he couldn’t remember the last time that he had let himself act his age. Maybe he never had. Maybe it was time to start. Ash did the mature thing. He kicked the back of Max's seat for as long as he could stay moody when Eiji was patiently teaching Skip Japanese.

"And sayonara is goodbye."

"I don't need that one," Ash said.

Eiji smiled. His chocolate eyes were melting when he looked at Ash and it was tempting to melt too.

"So, what's car?" Skip pestered. Like he was a cheeky fairy breaking a spell.

"Kuruma," Eiji said.

"Ku-ru-ma?"

"Mm."

"Skip, give Eiji a break," Ash said. He leant his elbow on the window.

"I'm just learning. It's good to be learned and cultured, Ash." Skip looked up at him with a smile that was anything but innocent. "You just want Eiji all to yourself so you can snog him."

Eiji laughed, but his cheeks were pink. Ash had to look away - not because of Skips words - definitely not - because Eiji was just too much.

"That's not-"

"Eiji, how do you say 'I love you,' in Japanese?"

Ash was surprised to find his pulse racing. He pushed stray hair away from his face, risking a glance over at Eiji. He was meeting his eyes, a smile that was innocent and genuine but also coy and teasing on his lips.

"Aishiteru."

As if that didn’t threaten to make his heart stop completely.

"Ugh," Max groaned from the front. "Can't you kids play a game that doesn’t make me feel like I’m stuck in a rom-com? I was promised a horror at the apocalypse. Or at least an action movie."

"Fine. I spy with my little eye something beginning with 'g'." Ash said.

"Grass?"

"Garden?"

"Gate?"

Eiji and Skip took turns guessing, but Ash shook his head at all of the suggestions.

"Grumpy old git."

To his surprise, it was Ibe who burst out laughing.

"Ash! You're not meant to tell us," Eiji said. He was trying to frown at him. It wasn’t working.

"No, no, the kid is right," Max said. "But I spy with my little eye something beginning with 'L.’"

His eyes met Ash's in the rear view mirror and Ash did his best to narrow his eyes.

"Oh, I know that one." Skip was grinning. "Lovestruck fools."

"Exactly."

"How much longer till we get to Canada?" Ash asked.

"I hate to tell you this, but your boy racer car isn't going to hold out all the way to Canada." Was Max's reply.

They drove past a gaggle of zombies. Too fast for Ash to make out any details, but enough to make the whole car quiet. They hadn't seen any in a while. It had been easy to believe that Papa Dino was the only thing they were running from.

After that, they drove on in relative silence. They tried to turn the radio on at one point - just to see what would happen - and predictably got static back. A few words or sounds came out every so often, like a spirit box. It was better than listening to nothing.

Skip fell asleep an hour in. And Ash was tempted to join him. Cars were safe. They were all here and whilst they weren't driving they could rest.

Eiji's hand found his over Skip's lap. He took Ash's hand, easing his fingers open and running the pads of his fingers over every nerve he could find. It was like electricity. In fact, he could badly stand how it made every part of him feel so alive. How he wanted Eiji to use his magic hands and erase every other touch on him.

He was sure that he fell asleep with that thought running through his head.

*

They stopped at dusk. Max had pulled into a gas station, just in case by some miracle they could use it.

Eiji had been half asleep himself. Stating over at Ash slumped against the window, his hand still tangled in Eiji's and Skip pressed against his side. In that huge t-shirt, he looked younger than ever. Less Leonardo DiCaprio and more teenager on vacation with his dad. His hair had gone fluffy from the impromptu water pump showers.

Ash snapped awake the moment he heard the door slam, as Max got out to check the pumps. His fingers tightened on Eiji, for a moment tight enough to hurt. For a moment, he looked like a wildcat.

Then the moment passed. He rolled down the window with his free hand.

"Where'd we stop?" he called to Max.

"Somewhere of the I-81. Near Scranton. About halfway there, I reck-" Max broke off, swearing as a few drips came from the pump and nothing else. He moved on to the next one. "We probably have enough gas for another twenty miles or so."

Then they were on their own. Eiji shivered at the thought. The car had been warm and cosy. It had felt safe, just like any normal road trip. But it wasn't - of course it wasn't. The plan was to drive up to Buffalo and try and get through customs at the Peace Bridge. Eiji wasn’t sure how they were going to do that. He’d had a visa, but the last place he might have had it was the warehouse. It might not have even got out of the city.

They waited for the gas. There was a lot of swallowing and staring anywhere but the pump, as if the gas would come out only if they didn’t look at it. Ibe climbed into the driver's side to bring the car forward to the next pump. They managed to get a quarter of a tank from it.

Max and Ash stared at each other, seeming to have a conversation with just their eyes. Then Ash opened the door, lifting Skip onto his back.

"We'll camp out in the station. Take whatever food we can and go."

They chanced a fire. Using a drop of petrol to help it get going and boiling pot noodles in a pot over the top of it. They weren't great, but they were food.

And as Ibe and Max offered to take the first watch, Ash and Eiji had the staff room to themselves. We'll, them and Skip, who had woken for dinner before falling asleep again. Eiji often forgot he was only eight or so. Of this was exhausting for him, it went three fold for Skip.

They sat on a sofa that was more duct tape than leather, their legs tangled together. Eiji was almost in Ash's lap, he realised, and wondered whether he should move closer. They hadn't talked about Ash's past - how it was likely to affect their entire relationship. And Eiji wasn't sure how to approach it other than, "is this okay?"

"This is great." Ash was nuzzled into his neck, his mouth on the short hairs at Eiji's hairline.

"I don't want to make you uncomfortable."

Ash paused. His arms looped around Eiji's waist, pulling him closer and knocking him off balance so they fell into the sofa.

"I'm used to it," Ash whispered. "And I'm with you, so it's worth it."

"No. It's not. Nothing's worth that."

Ash's mouth traced Eiji's jaw. "I guess you're nothing, then."

"Ash." He made sure to put a warning in his voice. It made him pull away, press his forehead to Eiji's.

"I'm fine," he repeated. "You're fine. It's different with you."

"You'll let me know if you're not fine?"

"Mm. You want a safe word or something?"

"Sure." Eiji rubbed his thumb in circles on the back of Ash's hand. He kissed him, letting his lips move slowly.

"Banana fish." Ash almost said the words into Eiji's mouth, he barely pulled away.

"What?"

"That's it. The safe word. Banana fish."

For some incomprehensible reason, Eiji found himself chuckling at that. Something about it felt incredibly familiar. Incredibly right. He’d never heard those two words together and yet they slid together as if they always belonged that way.

He kissed Ash again, just because he could. "Banana fish it is then."

They were torn between staring at each other whilst it was still light enough to see and by pressing as close together as possible. Eiji's body couldn't figure out a balance between looking at Ash and smothering him with affection.

"I survived my trip to NYC, huh?" Ash tugged out Eiji's t-shirt to read it.

He smiled. "Well, I did, didn't I?"

"We're not out of the state yet." It was only for a moment that Ash's tone darkened. He pecked Eiji's lips again. "When we get to Canada, I'll buy you a leather jacket."

"Oh yeah?" Eiji got brave. He sent a leg over Ash's lap, settling himself so that his hands were on Ash's shoulders.

"Yeah it'll complete your bad boy image." Ash's hands shifts Eiji backwards slightly, so that he was sat on the sofa, between Ash's legs instead of on them. He didn't comment.

"With the leather pants too?"

"Of course." Ash's hand brushed dark curls away from Eiji's face. "I'll sell that tacky earring for it."

"What about your bad boy image?"

"I don't need it anymore."

"Ash Lynx going straight." Eiji shook his head, leaning into Ash's touch. He was smiling. It was so easy to smile around Ash. "Soo-Ling will be disappointed."

That made Ash freeze. "I hope the kids okay."

"He will be. He's tough. Tougher than us."

"Tougher than me?" Ash looked up at Eiji from under his fringe, a signature wolf-like smirk on his face.

"Oh, definitely. One month with some Japanese kid and you're already hanging it all up."

Ash frowned. "A month?"

"About that. It's been hard to keep track of."

"It feels like I've known you forever." Ash leant forward, capturing Eiji's mouth again. His lips moved slowly, almost teasingly, his teeth catching against Eiji's mouth. It tingled, like electricity was sparking between them.

“I want to be with you forever.” He was hardly aware of the words coming out of him. Only really aware that the tips of Ash’s fingers were travelling from the side of his hips to his ribcage and he loved that feeling. He felt himself arching his back to accommodate, his own hands drifting down Ash’s chest. “Is that crazy? I barely know you – it’s an accident that we even met, but I – I’m scared to be without you.”

Ash pulled away, then. Looked him dead in the eyes with a gaze that could never hope to live up to that stupid piece of jade. “I know.”

Shivers went through Eiji. For a moment, he didn’t know if they were good or bad. Scary. It was kind of scary. And yet – and yet, yes – that was how it felt. That was how it felt but he didn’t want to dwell on that.

“Your birthday. Why didn’t you mention your birthday?”

“It’s really not a big deal.” Ash tugged Eiji’s shirt sleeves, pulling him closer. Tugging at his mouth as if he was trying to distract him. And damn, if he wasn’t good at that.

“It really is. You’re eighteen.”

“Mm. Not as old as you, though.”

“You’ll catch up one day.”

And Ash giggled. Or damn near made a sound like he was giggling. That made Eiji’s resolve crumble too. He fell forward, almost flush against Ash, trying to find air to breathe and failing miserably.

They hadn’t realised how dark it got until a torch shone on them. They squinted through the yellow light to see two silhouettes in the doorway. Heard Max say, “your turn,” even though Eiji was hurriedly trying to get off of Ash. To try and disguise their flushed cheeks. Not like there was a point – they hadn’t been subtle about their relationship. But Ibe was still Ibe and it was awkward.

Ash didn’t seem to care. His fingers laced in Eiji’s with ease as he passed the older men. They stood in the doorway of the gas station. The security light still worked – the battery was going, so it flickered on occasionally, casting everything in a yellow glow for just a moment. It felt like a beacon, waving at anything nearby that there were people here.

The mood had changed. This wasn’t the safety of the indoors. Of knowing that there were people who would warn them. This was look out duty and it was tense. It was shadows driving Eiji insane nd squinting into the darkness to see something – anything – and not knowing whether to be relieved that there was nothing there.

Only there was something there. A shape in the darkness. A shuffling shape that, when the light fell on it, was all black gaping mouth and peeling grey skin.

“Ash,” Eiji whispered.

“I see it.” Ash was already pulling the rifle that had been placed round the side of the door out, checking the silencer was screwed on.

“Let me do it.” He wasn’t sure where the determination in his voice came from, but it was there.

A pause. “What?”

“Please.”

“No, Eiji.” Ash was already aiming. Waiting for the light to spark on again so he could take the shot.

“You don’t want me to get blood on my hands.” It had always come down to that. Ash had never liked Eiji shooting, and he hadn’t been able to figure out why until Shorter. Until he had seen the look in Ash’s eye and hadn’t been allowed to touch a gun afterwards. “It’s not that simple.” He paused, watching Ash’s expression. It was fixed. Eyes narrowed. Finger poised. Waiting. Waiting, but not shooting. “Together. We’ve done everything together. Let’s do this together too. You don’t have to take all of the blood.”

There was a long moment. Eiji could hear the shuffling footsteps now and a familiar tightness was in his throat. A familiar racing heartbeat.

Then Ash moved. Quickly, almost knocking Eiji over as he swung an arm around him. He was pressed tightly against Ash’s back, hands over his guiding him into already familiar positions on the gun. He was holding a gun. He was going to take the shot. Going to take some of that weight from Ash’s shoulders.

It was heavy. The gun. He fought to line it up, so that the crosshairs caught two tiny, beady eyes.

Eiji didn’t hesitate. He slammed the trigger as soon as he knew it would hit. Felt the impact of the bullet leave it’s metal home, even if he didn’t hear it. Felt the gun rear back like a wild horse – ever so slightly. The shadow fell to the floor with a damp thud. It was anticlimactic.

Ash’s finger was pressing down over his. So tightly that it hurt.

It had been at the same time. Eiji hadn’t hesitated, so he hadn’t noticed, but they had slammed the trigger at the same time.

At the end of the day, they may have both held the gun, but it was really Ash who pulled the trigger.

Chapter Text

13

Ash hadn’t given the car a backward glance.

Eiji did. He knew it was because they had different relationships with it. Eiji had his first kiss in the back of that car. Had said ‘I love you,’ for the first time in the back of that car. That meant he was sad to abandon it on the side of the interstate.

But they were out of gas. The next station wasn’t for miles and the last three they had passed had been bled dry. They were clearly on a popular route out of the country. Most people had already been and gone.

So now they were walking the rest, their backpacks full of water bottles and dry biscuits.

It was quite boring. To walk up the side of the interstate. There weren't any cars passing - nothing even in sight. Trees occasionally lined the edges of the road, but it was fields as far as the eye could see.

"I don't suppose anyone was a boy scout?" Max asked after a while.

"You're not going to start singing, are you?" Ash replied. His hand was in Eiji's. It was always in Eiji's. There was something missing when he wasn’t tangled up in that boy.

"Well, it would be embarrassing if you didn't join in. I'm just trying to pass the time."

"We could play 'I spy' again," Skip said.

That was met with groans. They ended up walking in silence for all of ten seconds. Max started humming, and eventually he was teaching Skip old chants and songs. It was cheesey and Ash rolled his eyes so hard he was sure they were going to go straight to the back of his skull.

But Eiji was smiling as he watched them and that was enough to keep Ash’s mouth shut. He was tired. There were dark circles under Eiji’s eyes. His hair was in a permanent bedhead and he had lost some of his glow. So it was nice to see him happy, because they had spent the last day and a half cooped up in a car, or standing on look out.

In Eiji’s case, holding a gun. Ash still had that moment imprinted in his mind. Eiji stood at his side asking – begging – to take some of the weight off of his shoulders. There was something inside him that wanted to give in. He was tired of the guilt and the nightmares and he honestly wasn’t sure how much longer he could carry it. Brittle. He was still brittle. But how could he share that? How could he let the maggots of guilt to carry over to Eiji as well?

Ash was trying to protect him – that was what he was telling himself. A smaller part of him knew that was stupid.

They stopped every few hours. Sitting on the side of the interstate and ate dry biscuits. They watched a group of zombies in the distance, stumbling across the fields like a group of sheep. It was easy to keep walking and lose sight of them, but it was harder to forget.

It was pitch black by the time they sat for the night, which meant it was the early hours of the morning. It was still summer and the bugs still screamed in the sweaty night. Eiji leant against Ash, or maybe Ash leant against Eiji. It was hard to tell. One of them was meant to stay awake and keep an eye out, but Ash felt himself drifting in and out of consciousness. It still felt as though he was walking, he could feel the ground moving under his feet even though they were sat still.

Peace Bridge came into sight the next day. Skip cheered and started running. Ash followed. He didn't have the energy to whoop with delight, but he could run. They were close. They were close to safety and even if they couldn't get through, there would be people. Humans.

Eiji ran too. This was freedom.

A voice through a megaphone stopped them in their tracks. An angry voice telling them not to come any closer.

They slowed to a halt, gravel skittering away from burning soles.

Max and Ibe were behind them. Jogging and coming to a stop next to them. Max's hand rested on Ash's shoulder, heavy and not and sweaty. But Max was old and out of shape, so Ash let it slide.

They watched and waited as a vehicle drove out towards them. There were armed men hanging out the windows, and as they got closer Ash saw the guns in their hands. He stepped in front of Eiji, a hand on Skip’s shoulder.

An armed guard got out, slamming the door as he did. “What’s your business?"

Max stood in front of them. His stance was set and he didn't even need to look back at Ash to get him to close his mouth.

"We'd like to cross. Get into Canada."

"Bit late on that, aren't you?"

"I didn't realise there was a time limit." There was a prickle in Max's voice. Ash wondered why he took the lead when he had just as much attitude.

"We're trying to keep the disease contained. We have no idea if you're carriers of it."

"Wouldn't we be a bit more, you know?" Max rolled his eyes upwards, sticking out his arms in a classic zombie impression.

"That's offensive," Ash said. "My best friend was a zombie."

"We need to get through the border." Max ignored him. "You can keep us in quarantine, whatever, but we need to get through."

"Everyone needs to get through."

"Look." It was Ibe who stepped forward. "We've had to walk all the way here from the city. We didn't even get out of there before we were pulled out of the car and mugged. We were mugged again on the road. We can't go on like this, we have to get to safety."

Max glanced at Ibe. He was quick to pick up the charade, putting his hand on Ibe's shoulder.

"That's right. All we wanted was a happy family vacation and now everything's gone wrong." He turned back to Ash with such an earnestly distressed face that Ash was too shocked to laugh. "I'm sorry, son. I know how much you were looking forward to this trip."

The guard sighed. "Lets get you up to customs. We'll check everything through there."

They had to walk. The vehicle crawling along beside them as if they were criminals. At least the air felt cooler, the Summer was starting to disappear and Ash was glad to see it go. A few more months and it would be winter. Maybe it would be cold enough to freeze those zombies then.

If that was even going to work. They were staking everything on myths now.

But if they got through to Canada - they could get somewhere else. Keep running as far as they could.

That was when he realised they had to get through. They absolutely had to. Ash had to leave the country, and he was even willing to pretend Max Lobo was his dad to get it.

"So, where are you folks from?" the man didn't ask as if it was a friendly conversation. It felt like a test.

"Ohio." Max didn't miss a beat.

"You don't sound like you're from Ohio."

"I lived in the city for a long time."

"What about your kid?" The man glanced over at Ash.

"Must have picked it up from him," Ash said. "Along with crap DIY skills."

"And horrendous fashion sense," Max said.

Ash glared. Eiji laughed. Which made it hard to keep glaring, because he wanted nothing more than to kiss Eiji until he was breathless.

But they had reached the customs office at last. They were lead through to a desk, a clerk sat behind a pane of glass on the other side.

That was when Ash recognised the rooms other occupant. He looked different - smaller and younger than ever. His hair was a mess and there were dark circles under his eyes. But it was still Yut Lung.

"Yut Lung," Ash said out loud. Kind of just to check, kind of because he couldn't believe it.

It caught Eiji's attention. Ash could practically see his hackles raise.

"You?" He snapped. "You're the one who-"

He was halfway through the room before Ash caught hold of his elbow. Even though part of him was ready to see Eiji throw a punch, this wasn't the place for it.

"Eiji," Ash hissed, because the guard was looking at them and the woman behind the counter seemed shocked.

They had certainly got Yut Lung's attention. He stared at them with dark eyes.

"Ash Lynx," he said. "No offence, you look like shit."

"Speak for yourself." Ash was still holding Eiji back. He knew his face was neutral. Stony. Part of him wanted to let that drop. Sixteen, he remembered. This kid is sixteen.

"You sold us out! You're the reason Shorter - you're the reason Shorter's dead!"

Yut Lung didn't look fazed. "You can take me outside and shoot me if you want."

The guard's head whipped around then. "Excuse me!"

"Relax," Ash said. He still had a tight grip on Eiji's shoulder. "No one's shooting anyone."

"How are you okay with this?" Eiji turned to Ash, his brow furrowed. He could practically see the tears forming in his eyes.

"Because," Ash said, his eyes meeting Yut Lung's. Because he understood. He understood perfectly. But that was something that was hard to explain to Eiji. He loved him to pieces, but Eiji had never had to struggle to survive. "He did what he had to to survive. Right?"

"And look where it got me." The boy looked away from them, long dark hair falling in front of his face. "I should have gone with you."

"You didn't know if we'd even make it past the gate."

"I should have gone."

"Come on." Ash stepped past Eiji, sitting down next to Yut Lung. It suddenly struck him how much effort that was - how tired he was. Every single muscle ached. The muscles in his legs were actually shaking from the strain. "We're pretty, but we're not stupid. It was a good deal."

"Not without you." Yut Lung's head was on his chest, but his eyes sought out Ash's from beneath dark strands. "You're the only thing he really cares about, you know."

So that was why. Ash had guessed sabotage. Had guessed it was the usual backhand to climb the way to the top. But now it made more sense. Ash couldn't leave. The top couldn't leave because then the whole thing would crumble.

Regret wasn't the right word. But pity - just for Yut Lung and the other boy's, that was the right one.

"He’s not here?" Ash’s world suddenly tightened around him. Closed in so it was just the three of them and he felt trapped. He had to leave. Get out. Just find some fresh air. He was aware of Max and Ibe at the desk, both talking and arguing over each other. Trying to get their story straight without having any IDs or passports. Trying to explain that Eiji had come over from Japan to visit Ash and that was why he didn’t sound American – that their papers had been stolen.

“Is he fuck.” Yut Lung shook his head. “He got bored. I figured I’d try getting away from it all, but –“

“You’re under eighteen.” Ash had considered it in the past. Running. But he’d need a relative to get him anywhere, and that had never been an option.

Yut Lung smiled. A cow resigned to the slaughterhouse. “My brother is going to pick me up.”

“And then?”

He leant forward slightly, that smile still on his face. “What do you think? Ash Lynx?”

Ash hadn’t thought anything of the movement. On some level, he’d recognised it as performative – testing his reaction and everyone else’s in the office, because it might lead to survival. No one else was paying them any attention – no one except –

“Ash.” Eiji’s face was stony. His jaw and brow were set and there was a fire in his eyes Ash had never seen before. Despite himself – despite everything, his stomach leapt. “You can’t forgive him. Not after Shorter.”

It was something he’d never be able to understand, Ash realised, opening his mouth to try to explain to Eiji anyway. He could have done the same. It wouldn’t have taken much for him to have sold someone else to keep his own skin safe.

But it was that moment that Max lost his temper. He smacked on the glass of the counter, the sound echoing through the room under his shout.

“For fuck’s sake – it’s the fucking apocalypse! Have a little fucking compassion!”

Ash realised a few things at the same time. The first was there was no way they were getting through to Canada. The second was that this scene would attract attention – would be reported to the wrong people – New York wouldn’t be safe. The third was that Yut Lung wasn’t getting through either. Yut Lung was going back, and Ash knew that was worse than any apocalypse.

“This is your second chance,” he said to Yut Lung, before standing and grabbing Eiji’s arm. Too tight, he knew, he saw the wince of surprise cross Eiji’s face. “Plan B, sweetie.”

The nickname softened Eiji. The anger gave way to determination and he nodded at Ash, ready to follow him. That boy would follow him anywhere and he loved him for that. With every part of him, he loved that. And yet it terrified him.

When Ash had met Eiji, he’d been holding a camera. He had been timid and quiet, but sweet and funny and polite. A normal, well-mannered boy thrown in over his depth.

It was hard to believe that this was the same boy pulling a pistol from his waistband and yelling for everyone to “freeze!”

He did it in the same moment that Ash darted forward, catching the armed guard in the stomach with his elbow and swinging his leg around just a moment later. The man fell heavily – he’d barely had a moment to respond, and Ash had the man’s own gun trained on him in the next moment.

Max and Ibe were staring at them in surprise. Skip was smiling at Ash, like a proud grandfather at his grandchild’s ballet performance. Watching Ash do what he was born to do. He caught Max’s eye – saw the man’s expression go from complete bafflement to a wide grin.

“Here’s the thing,” Ash snapped. “You’re not going to press that panic alarm. We’re going to get through to Canada. Then we can all continue with our lives.”

“You really think I’m going to let you through because of brute force?” the woman behind the desk had her hands in the air, at least, even if she had a face thunder.

“Eiji, shoot the glass.”

A tiny hole appeared in it, about two feet to the left of the woman’s head, but enough to send cracks running across it like a ship splintering after hitting an ice burg. Ash’s own gun was trained on the guard, his eyes daring the man to fight him. And whilst he was glaring back at Ash, he had made no move to get off of the floor. They had the element of surprise here – no one expected five weary, tired people to be armed. They hadn’t expected a fight.

“We’re going through,” Ash repeated. Max was opening up the doors through to the bridge and he could feel the wind rustle his hair. It was enough to mention Golzine’s company. To say that they would be very upset if they knew that Ash and Yut Lung were gone from the country.

When the woman asked why, it was enough for Ash to smirk and ask “do you really want to find out?”

And then they were gone, slamming the door behind them and walking on the pedestrian part of Peace Bridge. An ironic name, considering Ash and Eiji still had their fingers on the trigger.

“So our leader still is in there, after all,” Skip said. He looked sideways and Ash with that smug smile on his face.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Ash asked.

“Only that lately the lynx had been turned into more of a tame pussycat.”

Ash had him in a headlock in the next moment. “How’s this for a tame pussycat?”

Skip paused, his tiny hands on Ash’s arm and one eye closed as Ash rubbed his knuckles through Skip’s curly hair. “You used to scare me a lot more.”

“Uh, kids? Can we save the rough and tumble for when we’re safe?” Max asked.

Ash found himself laughing as he released Skip, his other hand back on his weapon. There was a high after the hold up and he knew it was dangerous. They were nowhere near out of the woods yet, but he was still running on pure adrenaline from it all.

Yut Lung was with them. Had chosen to follow Ash this time, though was being kept a few steps behind by Eiji’s glares. They kept walking, glancing over their shoulders for cars or soldiers or guns. It seemed the warning had been enough.

“You did great.” Ash nudged his hip against Eiji’s. “I knew there was a bad boy in you all along.”

Eiji’s mouth flickered upwards. “You weren’t so bad yourself.” But he was frowning again in the next moment. “I can’t believe you’re taking him with us.”

“Eiji, if it was reversed – could you imagine looking me in the eyes and letting me go back to that kind of life?”

“If it was reversed, you never would have sold anyone else out.” Eiji said.

"You think I'm a lot more honourable than I actually am."

"Or maybe you think you're a lot more dishonourable than you actually are."

"You really think I haven't thrown someone under the bus to get what I want?" Ash looked at him sideways. Let his fringe fall forward.

"At the cost of someone's life?" Eiji asked.

"He didn't know that would happen to Shorter."

"At the cost of someone's life, Ash?"

"Sometimes, yeah." He stopped, just for a moment. Stood close to Eiji - no closer than he normally wanted to be but this time it was different. This time he was using that inch or two he had over Eiji, was straightening his shoulder like a bear standing on his hind legs. It was that same level, he recognised that this was performative too. Just to see if Eiji's eyes would widen. If he would pale and never speak to Ash again. "That was my world, Eiji. I had a gang and I did what I had to."

Eiji didn't move. He stood his ground, met Ash's eyes in the same stubborn way he always did. Just stared at him with his mouth set.

He spoke quietly. Almost in the same tone Ash used when he was trying to be intimidating. "Look me in the eye and tell me you wouldn't have gone with us.”

Maybe Ash would have done. Ash probably would have done. But he hasn't let himself think of that because he knew what Eiji would have expected him to do. And that terrified him because there was still a chance that he wouldn't have done it.

"I wouldn't have," Ash whispered. "If I hadn't met you."

If Eiji had asked Ash to throw himself off of the bridge he would have done it without a second thought - it would have been worth it just to have seen Eiji's face in that moment. That was the moment that he knew he was gone. That he loved this boy violently. In the violent delights have violent ends kind of way.

But Ash was Ash, and it wasn't like he was the most mentally stable person to begin with.

Apparently all it took was a pair of dark eyes and he was ready to drink poison.

*

They got through the other side of customs by sheer luck. Eiji thought it had been anyway. All it had taken was Max explaining that they didn't have any papers, but that the other side had said it was fine. Had said to tell them up here that it was fine and "hadn't they received the message? Oh, all phones must be down in New York state."

Of course, that didn't mean it was easy on the other side. They were still separated, put through to different rooms and every bruise checked for teeth marks. Their eyes, ears, minds checked to be in sound and working order.

Eiji had visited Ellis island before the outbreak. This felt similar.

Only he itched. He itched to be back with Ash because how the he'll was he holding up under this? Because his eyes had been full of Greek fire on that bridge and Eiji had felt as if he would burst. He'd been tempted to tear their clothes off there, because he had to feel every inch of Ash's warm skin with his fingertips and absolutely had to have Ash hold him. To have Ash knew Eiji just as well as he knew himself.

Just thinking about it made him glow crimson.

And then there was the check in. For refugees. Refugees. They were refugees now. And Ash was putting his name down as Aslan Lobo, through it made him wince. They waited to be given a motel, somewhere to stay until they could start getting themselves back on their feet.

So they were sat on the other side of customs, in the corner on the floor and waited. They’d been given blankets. Some dry biscuits and water. Ash had tucked his blanket around Eiji’s without a word. They were sat a little away from Max and Ibe – Skip was sat in between them, teaching them how to load the pistol that Ash had been keeping in his jeans. They’d thrown the other two over the bridge before reaching the Canadian customs. Both men looked equal parts impressed and equal parts concerned. Yut Lung was sat further away from them. He hadn’t said a word since they had come through. That was fine with Eiji. He’d honestly been trying to ignore Yut Lung. Been trying to forget about his first fight with Ash.

But his eyes kept straying back. He knew he was glaring, pressing himself into Ash’s side like a cat.

“You really don’t like him, huh?” Ash murmured. His lips were in Eiji’s hair but Eiji didn’t move. He was daring Yut Lung to look over. Daring him to see.

“I don’t get why you’re so buddy-buddy with him,” Eiji replied. His head rested on his knees.

“I’m not. But I couldn’t leave him.” Ash said. His mouth found Eiji’s temple.

“Did you see the way he was acting with you?”

Ash paused. Froze, really, and Eiji could hear the smile in his voice as he asked, “Eiji Okumura, are you jealous?”

It was Eiji’s turn to stiffen. He leant back slightly, and could feel the pout on his face as he looked away from Ash. Couldn’t look at Ash.

“He looked like he was about to kiss you,” Eiji mumbled, his fingers playing with the edge of the blanket. It wasn’t what he wanted to say. It was a lot cuter and a lot more jealous than what he was going to say. He knew that – he knew Ash thought he was cute and it wouldn’t hurt to play up to that just once, because he didn’t want the alternative. The alternative would darken the mood, would make Ash frown and swallow and struggle to find the answer.

The alternative was: did you have sex with him?

And it was an asshole question. Eiji knew that. If they had, it would have been complicated. It would have been out of their hands and would have been generally unpleasant for both of them. He knew it was the kind of question that Ash would say ‘I don’t want you to know that,’ in response to. He knew he didn’t really want to know the response either. Not really.

But he didn’t know if they’d ever get to that. That was fine – Eiji understood, understood completely, or was at least trying to understand. And now Yut Lung was here. Smiling at Ash like that.

And maybe Eiji was jealous. Maybe this was jealousy. He couldn’t remember feeling jealous before. He wanted to think it was something else though – or something alongside it. It was difficult to explain and it wasn’t the sort of thing he wanted to bring up now.

Now that they were safe. Almost. So close to having a bed underneath them and a new start.

And whilst Ash was chuckling like that, and peppering Eiji’s cheeks in kisses until he couldn’t help but smile back, it didn’t matter. He would make sure it didn’t matter.

“Well, I’m only interested in kissing one person,” Ash said. He pressed his forehead against Eiji’s, pulling them even closer in the blanket. “Because I love them.”

It didn’t matter, but that didn’t mean that Eiji wasn’t going to be a little shit about it. He turned away, still trying to be aloof, even though his heart was racing. Even though there were still images flashing in his mind that he wanted to erase.

“Why don’t you go sit with him, then?”

“Eiiiijiiii,” Ash drew his name out, kissing the side of Eiji’s face until he was laughing again, half-heartedly pushing Ash away from him.

“What? Ash?”

“You know I love you.”

“Do I know that?”

Ash caught his chin then, with deft fingers. Turned Eiji around so that he had no choice but to look into those cat’s eyes. His heart was pounding. This. This was the Ash Lynx who left him completely breathless.

“I love you, Eiji Okumura.”

Eiji found himself smiling – found himself melting, under that gaze. “I’ll never get tired of hearing you say it.”

Maybe that was how he knew. That this wasn’t normal love. It was something more.

“I love Eiji Okumura.”

“I love Ash Lynx.”

“Mmm.” It sounded like Ash was purring. He kissed Eiji, the same kind of painfully slow kiss as the first one. The same kind that had their teeth pulling at their lips and even with their mouths open, even with their faces pressed against each other, they still weren’t close enough.

No, it wasn’t a normal love. Eiji had never got that kind of undying love.

But he had never thought zombies would be a thing either.

Chapter Text

14

They got a few motel rooms nearby. Eiji had pressed his forehead against the window on the way there, his hand - no, his whole arm tangled in Ash's. He was fighting sleep off, his head lolling against Eiji's shoulder for a few minutes before he twitched awake again. Eiji's heart had been racing. This was it. They'd done it. They'd got through.

This was safety. They were safe.

And the streets were fascinating because of it. Full of people - full of lights and fully stocked shops and electricity. Lights. Working lights. People not looking over their shoulders every five minutes. It was a different world.

There was a T.V in their room and it was magical. Only a small thing that picked up a handful of channels, but a T.V. When Ash flicked it on they stared at it as if it was their first time seeing one. Cavemen thrown into the modern world.

The news looked bad. The crisis was spreading across America. Reports showed people throwing themselves off of docks in a mad attempt to get to ships. People crawling over each other in a fight to get on boats, or running across the airport to sneak onto planes. People smashing cars and throwing the owners outside of it, driving off as fast as they could.

It was when the name came running along the banner at the edge of the screen that they switched it over. It still seemed to be there, over a kid’s cartoon. Unforgettable. Dino Golzine.

"Arrows against the lightning," Ash murmured.

"What?" Eiji sat next to him, their backs against the headboard of the hotel bed, grubby socks nudging each other.

"H.G Wells. The aliens invade and it's like fighting with arrows against the lightning."

"This isn't aliens. Its people."

The cheery cartoon didn't seem to fit. It was playing away to someone else.

Ash paused. "Would you prefer aliens?"

Eiji shrugged. "If they were the hairy ones from Star Wars, that wouldn't be so bad."

Ash laughed then. His knuckles brushed Eiji's jaw, turning him to face him. He had a serious face back. Well, Ash trying to be serious. But there was a glint in his eye and the tiniest smirk threatening to escape that told Eiji otherwise.

"Are you feeling better now?"

No. Not by a long shot. It was only just hitting him how much Ash went through for him. How much Ash had endured without saying a word. That didn't make him feel better. He just felt worse. And felt worse for feeling worse.

And the hotel room felt safe.

"Did you and Yut Lung - I mean, did you - together-"

It wasn't coming out of his mouth right, but Ash had always been able to understand him.

"Mm." Ash turned away, brushing his hair away from his face. "So that was it, huh?"

"I'm sorry, I know-"

"It didn't mean anything. It didn't mean anything to him. But...that's...acting like that, that's how that kid has always survived." Ash glanced sideways at Eiji. "I know you're ancient and mature now, but don't you remember being sixteen and stupid?"

"Shut up." Eiji pushed Ash's shoulder, but by some unknown miracle he was smiling. "I'm a year younger than you."

Ash caught his hand then, with lightning fast reflexes. Pulled so that Eiji fell against him, a bundle on Ash's lap and pressed against the boy's chest. Ash's fingers slid from his, so that Eiji's arm hung over Ash's shoulders. He could feel the hand resettle on his back.

He was trapped. This was what it was like to be at Ash Lynx's mercy. And it made Eiji's heart race.

"Do you want to?" Ash's breath was hot on Eiji's cheeks and he shivered. "With me?"

Eiji swallowed. His heart was going to run straight out of his chest at the way it was going. "Not if you'd-"

"Say that I wouldn't. Say that I'd be fine. We could do it right here."

"Max and Ibe are in the next room."

"So we'd be loud."

"Ash!" But Eiji was giggling, falling against Ash's chest to hide his bright red face. To hide his expression and to listen to the pounding of Ash's heart. He pressed his head there. It was faster than average - something about that pleased him. "I don't know. I don't know if I - I didn't even know I was - until you."

"I know." Ash's voice was soft, his fingers combing through Eiji's hair. "But if there was anyone, it'd be you, Eiji. I love you."

"I love you too."

There was a pause, a long pause, where the magic of those words settled around them. A desperate desire to relive the moment and save it forever at the same time. Safe. This was safe. Safe and loved and it meant a lot more here than it had ever done in Japan.

"You know, Max and Ibe are in the next room."

"What do you mean?"

"Let's make them uncomfortable." Ash caught Eiji"s shoulders, pulling him away so that they were face to face. "We'll just pretend, it'll be a laugh."

Absolutely not. Not in front of Ibe. No.

But also Eiji was smiling. Ash was grinning at him and maybe. Maybe it would be worse for them.

"Maybe I just want to hear you say my name," Ash said. He tucked a strand o hair behind Eiji's ear, smiling at him. "Sometimes you slip up and add a 'shu' to the end of it. And other times you don't quite catch the 'L.' So I'm Ashu Rinks."

Eiji felt the pout on his face and ducked his head. "Don't. You have a hard name to say."

Ash kissed his nose. Tilted his chin back up and kissed him on the mouth. "Its cute. You're cute."

"Look who's talking."

"Go on, Eiji, say my name."

"Ash." He heard it that time. The added syllable. And he felt his face glowing. The consolation was that Ash's face was pink too.

"Louder."

"Ash!" It was a warning, even though he had said it louder.

"Eiji!"

"Ash!" It came out in shock at the intensity that Ash called his name. The volume and the look on his face. He went to push him away, but Ash caught his hands. Held him firm.

"Eiji - thats good Eiji, just like that!"

There was a knock on the wall and Eiji couldn't help it. He burst into a fit of giggles under Ash And felt Ash laughing against him.

"Harder, Ash!" He could barely believe he was telling it, but it was so easy to get caught up in Ash's plans.

"Harder!" Ash moaned against Eiji's ear and he had to bite his lips to stop himself from laughing out loud. And yet he felt warm - just hearing Ash pretend to mewl was enough. They started to overlap each other, calling each other's names like mating street cats and yelling 'faster.' Until Eiji could scarcely breathe. He couldn’t tell if he was laughing or caught up in the pretend of it all. It was over the top and silly - a caricature of what they both thought rough sex was meant to sound like.

They jumped out their skin when the phone on the bedside table burst to life. Ash slipped sideways and took Eiji down with him so that they landed in a heap on the hotel bed, still in fits of laughter.

Ash pressed a hand against Eiji's mouth, ssshing him as he leant over to pick up the phone.

"Good afternoon," he said in the most polite tone.

They were close enough that Eiji could hear the voice buzz on the other side. He could make out "noise complaint" and "Max Lobo."

He had to hold Ash's hand against his mouth to stifle the laughter.

"You can tell Mr Lobo that it's the end of the fucking world and he should lighten up and bone," Ash said it so casually, dropping the phone on the bed between them.

Ash!” Eiji could barely tell him off. His stomach hurt. There were tears in his eyes because of the uncontrollable laughter coming out of him. Vaguely, he could feel himself pressed against Ash’s chest – could feel Ash shaking with laughter as he held him.

It felt like forever before they could breathe normally, gasping against each other and grinning with flushed faces.

“Fuck,” Ash whispered. “I just spoke on a phone. We’re back to the modern world.”

Eiji smiled at him. Their noses bumped against each others.

“We’re safe Ash.”

They were safe. They’d got through to Canada. Another country. One where the apocalypse was a far off incident seen on the news. Safety. It had been so long and Eiji had taken it for granted.

He remembered thinking that, over and over again as he and Ash lay on the bed, pressing against each other so that they could feel their chests rising and falling in tandem.

He didn't remember falling asleep.

*

What now?

That was the question. They'd been in Canada a few days and no one had made any mention of the plan now. They hadn't even asked how long they could stay at the hotel, or if they were expected to find their own accommodation.

Max had pulled a credit card out of somewhere, dipping into his overdraft to provide decent clothes and meals.

"How've you been hiding that the whole time?" Ash had asked when Max had come back with bags of shopping and Skip on his shoulders.

He received a dark look and a "you don't want to know, kid."

And now they were sat across from each other, devouring full English breakfasts whilst the hotel still allowed them to eat for free. Eiji had still been fast asleep when Ash had woken, ravenous, and he hadn't had the heart to wake him. To brush dark hair off of his face and kiss his forehead, yes, but not to wake him.

Ash's foot tapped under the table. What now?

Part of him new. He'd been thinking about it on the walk up here, how it would go.

"You want to expose him," Ash said.

Max took his time over a mouthful of bacon, looking out of the window instead of at Ash. When he finally looked back, he looked puzzled.

"Hm?"

"You heard me."

"I heard you, but I have no idea what you meant."

"Cut the bullshit, Max."

That got a blink of genuine surprise. "So you do know my first name."

"You want to expose him. Everything he did. Is still doing," Ash repeated.

"It's the right thing to do," Max said.

"You can use my pictures." It was impulse. Something he said on impulse. If it stopped  - If it stopped

"I can't."

"You can."

Max shook his head.  There was almost a smile on his face. “They’re gone. I burnt them.”

Ash couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t so much like being punched in the gut or slapped in the face. It felt like being frozen – being stuck in time with the smell of bacon heavy in the air and Max’s oh-so-kind eyes looking at him from across the table.

The question could hardly come out. Just a gasp of air. “When?”

“When you and Eiji came back from the city.” Max’s fork scraped against the plate. He was toying with the food now. “When I saw the look on your face – I burnt it. Used up all my lighter fluid on it.”

Breathing felt like there were shards of ice in his throat. “You shouldn’t have.”

“There’s other evidence, Ash. I’m not using you.”

“But you’ll use someone else?”

The fork finally stopped moving and the silence was deafening.

“I was thinking of using a dead person. I was wondering if you’d be able to help.”

Ash wasn’t sure his heart had beaten once in the last minute. “How do you – how do you still have them?”

It seemed to appear in between Max’s fingers like magic. “Memory stick. It’s not all on there – nowhere near, but enough is. I’ve had it on me ever since it all kicked off.”

Ash took a moment. A few moments – way too many moments, just to breathe and try to kick his heart back into action. It was hot – too hot – in the hotel and his mind was spinning. He couldn’t even look back down at the plate – instead he stared out of the window and waited for his body to reset itself. Max waited. He was still waiting when Ash finally had enough of himself back to ask, “And you’re just going to walk up to the news channels with all of this?”

Colour appeared on Max’s cheeks. “Well, yes. But only because I know a gal over here. I have connections – she’ll make sure it’s sent to the right people.”

“So, Papa’s exposed and we all live happily ever after?”

“Well, you did find your Prince Charming, Cinderella.”

Ash made a gesture that only received a laugh. Max leant back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest and looking at him with some kind of warmth. It made him squirm slightly. It was too close – way too close to the way that a father looked at a son. It sent his mind back to Cape Cod – back to wondering just how much was left of it. Made him wonder just how long it would take for Max to walk away.

And yet Max knew everything. He knew everything and he had chosen to take Ash across the border to Canada. Was choosing to still help him. And it was probably very similar to what a good father would do. That only piled on the guilt and resentment and selfish relief onto Ash more.

“Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about any of it. That’s for me to deal with.”

Ash bit his lip. “And what am I supposed to do?”

He was used to working. Always working on something – always having fifty things at the back of his mind to sift through to distract him. Ash did not relax – could not relax, even if he wanted to.

“Start a new life. Find a job.”

“And what am I supposed to put on my resume? ‘Good team leadership – used to run a gang in New York City?’”

He received a laugh and a roll of dark eyes. “Ash. You lie.”

“So much for a new life, then.”

“Everyone lies on their resumes.” Max shrugged.

“You know, you’re a bad influence on me.”

“It’s a good thing you have Eiji, then, isn’t it?”

Ash rolled his eyes and leant against the window. People were going to work, walking past in suits and worrying about whether there was time for a coffee before they arrived. Everything was so normal out there. Ash wasn’t sure he could do normal. Normal had never been a part of his life.

“Yeah,” he murmured. “It’s a good thing.”

That was when he spotted him. Standing underneath the awning of the hotel opposite, shoulders hunched and glaring out at everyone with a look Ash knew only too well. A look that said ‘fight me, I dare you.’

Ash was up and out of the room before Max could even call out to him. His foot slipped on the lacquer of the entrance way, and a gaggle of old ladies told him to slow down. He only skidded to a stop on the pavement outside, the soles of his shoes threatening to fall apart at the motion.

“Sing Soo-Ling!”

The eyes seeked him out through traffic – spotted him just as a van came past. By the time it was gone that look was transformed into a wide grin with glittering eyes. The way a fifteen year old should look.

“Ash fucking Lynx!” Soo-Ling started across the road just as a car pulled out from the stop lights. He ended up skittering across the road in a mixture of hops and skips like a startled rabbit. Until he was stood right in front of Ash, smiling up at him. Even in a few weeks, the kid had grown. “The boys said they saw you lurking around outside the hotel. I didn’t think it could be-“

“You didn’t think I’d survive?” Ash folded his arms, smirking. It made him feel old, looking at Soo-Ling.

“I knew you would! I just – I didn’t think you’d come here. I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.” Soo-Ling bit his lip. “We found – we found out, about Shorter.”

“Sing, I’m –“ Ash had gone to say ‘sorry,’ out of reflex. But he was. It hit him just how sorry he was – how he could barely get the word out because it hurt. It hurt his chest and stomach and throat and he wasn’t sure how to look this kid in the eye and tell him he was sorry for shooting his boss in the head. This kid who was only two years younger than Ash, when it really felt like ten. “So – sorry.”

“He was trying to save you.” Soo-Ling’s fists were clenched at his sides. “And you’re okay. So he didn’t die in vain.”

It felt as though a truck had driven into Ash’s ribs.

He was stuck. In that basement. In that moment. His hands around the gun – his fingers feeling the cold metal. He could see Shorter in front of him.

Didn’t die in vain.

Which made Ash suspect that maybe Soo-Ling didn’t know the whole story after all.

“Soo-Ling! So this is where you and your troublemakers have been hiding!”

A hand placed itself on Ash’s shoulder. F                or a moment, he felt the urge to swing back his arm, sweep his leg, come in with his other arm for a right hook.

But then he recognised Eiji’s voice. Forced himself to relax.

“Eiji Okumura, zombie slayer!” Soo-Ling bounced back to being all smiles, stepping forward and attaching himself to Eiji like a limpet. It made Eiji laugh and awkwardly put his arms around Soo-Ling’s back.

The urge for a right hook still tingled a little.

“I didn’t know you were up.” Ash managed to say. As if he hadn’t just been choking two seconds ago.

“I woke up as you got up.” Eiji gave him a bashful grin. “I guess I’m too used to having you next to me.”

“Well, we can fix that.” Soo-Ling pulled away, grinning crookedly up at Eiji. “I’ll come and stay with you instead of Ash.”

“Hold on there, jail-bait,” Ash said.

“What’s jail-bait about that?” Soo-Ling blinked up at Ash with innocent eyes, even though there was still a smirk on his face. “We’re just two bros, sharing a bed.” Eiji was laughing and it only egged Soo-Ling on. “Why else would anyone share a bed?”

Ash just glared. There was something in him that wanted to push Eiji behind him, as if Soo-Ling was a zombie and Ash needed to pull out a gun.

“So, Soo-Ling, how did you get here?”

“Snuck in, didn’t we?” Soo-Ling grinned up at Eiji – the kid was practically glowing. “Border control should really be tighter in the middle of an apocalypse. We tried to stay in the city for as long as we could, but then we found out about Shorter and – well, we had no idea where you guys were and, phones were down and – we had to get out.”

“Sing, I’m – I’m so sorry, about Shorter.” Eiji’s face was pale.

Soo-Ling was quiet for a moment, looking up at Eiji with brown puppy-dog eyes. Then he snapped back into mini-boss leader mode. He turned to Ash with serious eyes.

“Two of your guys found us. Bones and Kong? Sound familiar?”

“So, that’s where they had got to.” Ash’s heart was hammering, regardless of the casual tone.

“Bones and Kong are here too? Can we see them?”

“Sure. Eiji.” Even something about the way Soo-Ling said the name set Ash’s teeth on edge. “Can I call you Eiji?”

A month ago, there would have been a moments hesitation. That was gone. Eiji’s brown eyes still held stars, but there was no indecision there. Instead, he smiled.

“Sure.”

So they were off, Soo-Ling walking so close to Eiji that their hands threatened to touch as they walked. Ash gripped Eiji’s other hand tightly – possessively, he knew and hated himself for it – glaring at anyone who gave the two of them a disproving look.

There was chatter all around him. Ordinary people chattering about ordinary things that seemed to ridiculous to worry about after staring death in the face so many times. The chatter of Eiji and Soo-Ling, speaking over each other as they tried to catch the other up on all that had happened to them.

It was loud. Overpowering. It was all nonsense – all chatter and white noise and Ash couldn’t stand it. His mind was still buzzing with Max’s conversation.

Max was going to take on Dino Golzine in a legal battle. Max was going to expose him.

And there was no way that he could do it alone.

*

“You were quiet today,” Eiji rested his head on top of Ash’s, draping his arms over Ash’s chest as he sat at the chair in the window of their room. They could see the river from here – a huge, stony grey mass. Just like a road. It was incredible to think that it was always moving – always churning, when up here it looked so lifeless.

“Soo-Ling seemed happy to see you.” Ash said. He was leaning back against Eiji, making the already wobbly legs of the wooden chair threaten to give way completely. It was a change of subject, Eiji noted, and made a note to circle back around to it.

“Is that why you kept looking at him like a lion stalking prey?” he still couldn’t resist smiling. Ash’s fingers found his, curled themselves into him as if they couldn’t be apart for even a moment.

“I believe my last name is ‘lynx,’ not lion.”

“And you laughed at me for being jealous.”

“I’m not jealous.” Ash’s tone was light. He leant further back, so that Eiji could see bright green eyes. “I’m just marking my territory.”

It was incredible that Ash could still steal Eiji’s breath so easily. Could still make his stomach feel like it was on fire and his face burn.

“Oh?” he managed to get out, and hoped it was still light and teasing.

“Mm.” Ash was up and on his feet in moments, nudging the chair away with his legs and wrapping his arms around Eiji’s waist, his face buried in his neck like a vampire. “Like this.”

He toyed with it. Breathing hot and damp on the side of Eiji’s neck before pressing a damper kiss against his skin. That was when he opened his mouth, just enough so that Eiji could feel the edge of Ash’s teeth. He shivered, hands clutching the back of Ash’s shirt because his heart was racing, because suddenly he felt like prey.

Ash bit and sucked and bit, creating a bruise that Eiji knew would be impossible to hide for days. But he couldn’t bring himself to mind because Ash kissed the sore spot he created ever so tenderly to make it better. Because a part of him wanted to peel off his t-shirt and let Ash have at him – all of him, completely.

And he found himself wanting to laugh, but instead turning his face into Ash’s hair and murmuring, oh-so softly. “He’s a kid. Is he really that much of a threat? Mr Lynx?”

He felt Ash breath in sharply against his neck and smiled. He wanted to laugh because this – this was how it could be from now on. The two of them and flirting and living and –

Safe.

“I’m not – I don’t want to be jealous. I don’t want to say you belong to – say you’re mine. I don’t want to-“ be like him. Eiji could finish that sentence. He clung tighter to Ash, his eyes half closed. Ash paused. His jaw rested on Eiji’s shoulder. “I did it because I want to – want you.”

The sentences weren’t meant to go together, and yet they fit like the pieces of a jigsaw. I want to want you. But it was Ash and Eiji didn’t know if Ash even knew what wanting Ash. Ash probably wondered if he knew what wanting was. And it was confusing, it was complicated.

“You have me,” Eiji whispered. If he concentrated he could smell Ash – the real Ash, underneath the free shampoo and soap. The Ash that smelt of sweat who had taught him how to shoot. The Ash who cut himself shaving fine blonde hairs that weren’t even worth taking a razor to.

Ash pulled away – just enough to jam lips against Eiji’s, practically missing his mouth. There was something behind the kiss. Some desperation. Desperation to know that this was want. That he wanted this.

“Max is organising a case.” Ash barely pulled away to speak and it was difficult to discern the words. “He’s going to expose him. Expose everything.”

“That’s –“ Good? No. It made Eiji’s stomach squirm in a different way. “Dangerous.”

“I’m going to work with him.” Ash’s fingers tightened around Eiji’s belt loops, and when he tried to pull away, to look up at Ash, he avoided Eiji’s gaze. “I know – I know everything. If it matches the proof Max has, then they’ll at least feel the need to check, if they don’t believe it already. I’m – I’m probably the most important witness he can have, besides Yut Lung.”

“Will you be okay?” He surprised himself, because he could hardly follow what was coming out of Ash’s mouth. It felt as though he was running faster than his brain could keep up with. It was just like shooting a gun.

“I think.” Ash swallowed. Eiji watched his Adam’s apple bob up and down. “I think I need to. Need to end it. I need to stop running.”

“I’m here.” Eiji gave way to instinct. Let whatever wanted to fall out of his mouth fall out, and his hands place themselves over Ash’s. “I’m here, Ash.”

“That’s how I know I’ll be okay.”

Chapter Text

15

It didn’t suit Ash. The cheap suit that was too wide everywhere and made him look like he was borrowing Max’s. Which of course, he was, but no one was supposed to know that.

Ash had leant against the doorframe to the bathroom, fastening the tie and fixing Eiji a smirk that, despite the black nylon, made him duck his head to hide his smile. 

Max and Ibe had scraped enough money to move them out of a hotel and into a cramped apartment. They’d played on the refugee part, and continued to act the part of their parents. They were a refugee family – and a gay refugee family, at that.

It wasn’t great, but it was something. It was home.

“Do you think I could get a license to kill like this?” Ash asked, pushing his hair off of his face, even though he was meant to leave it down and fluffy. The goal was to look as young as possible. The younger the boy, the more sympathy they’d gain. It didn’t stop Ash from winking at Eiji.

“Do you want to know what I think?” Eiji was still smiling, his face still burning because – damn, he loved that boy. He loved looking at that boy and seeing him wink and feeling butterflies still fluttering up a tornado in his stomach.

“Yeah.”

Eiji put on his best American accent, “I think if I had one day when I didn’t have to be all confused and I didn’t have to feel that I was ashamed of everything. If I felt that I belonged someplace. You know?”

Ash tried to scowl at him. It didn’t quite work. He was grinning too much to really look angry.

“You’re a real yo-yo.” He said.

“I love you too.”

Ash had laughed and closed the bathroom door to change again. Later, Eiji wondered if he should have stood, left his book on the bed and taken Ash’s tie in his hand. If he should have been the one to change Ash out of that suit.

If Ash would even let him.

But it was the end of the suits. They gave way to pastel button ups and woollen pullovers that made Ash look like Eiji did when he was first in the city. Or, that he should go to a private boarding school. That he spent the weekends playing golf and laughing at a country club, rather than organising a gang and shooting up zombies. They made him look like Max’s son.

There was an argument about that.

“You came into the country as Aslan Lobo. What will they say if they knew we were lying?” Max had been pacing, his tie undone in his collar and only one shoe off in their hotel room. They were planning to try to sell the story, that afternoon, Eiji knew.

“We also pulled a gun on them. I don’t think the lying part will be the problem,” Ash snapped. He sat, one leg up on the bed and his arms hooking around Eiji so that he fell against him. He felt like a human shield, with Ash’s chin on the top of his head.

“It makes a better narrative – that I’ve been trying to find you all these years and now we finally know-“

“You were trying to find me because you let my brother get bitten by a zombie!” Ash was spitting like a wildcat. Eiji leant back, wrapping himself tighter in Ash as if that would appease him. There was something unspoken in that statement. A desperation for the guilt to shift. “You found us by sheer luck.”

“It’s my story!”

Eiji felt Ash stiffen around him. Or maybe he was the one that froze. They all had. It took a moment for Max to run a hand over his mouth and chin. Dark eyes flickered  to Ash.

“I didn’t mean that,” Max said, quickly.

“It’s fine.” Ash was just as quick.

“No – Ash, I’m sorry.”

“Max.” His arms were too tight around Eiji. It hurt but he hardly dared breathe. “You’re right. This is the scoop you’ve been waiting for. I’ll follow you.”

Max gave him another glance. Then breathed heavily through his nose and stared out of the window.

“Go by whatever you want.”

For a moment, Eiji wondered if Ash had planned the whole thing that way.

“I want him to know it’s me. Without a doubt that I’m the one bringing him down.”

“Hey.” There was a gleam in Max’s eye. “I said I’d let you choose your name, not take all the glory.”

And Ash’s arms relaxed. He almost laughed – Eiji could feel it in the chest behind him – a bubble trying to escape but not quite rising enough.

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll let you do all the talking.”

“As if you could keep your mouth shut long enough.” Max was grinning, as if the whole argument hadn’t happened. The two always seemed to switch back and forth so fast that it gave Eiji whiplash. And suddenly Ash was standing – they were leaving, because an office slightly uptown was going to hear Max’s story and that gave Eiji butterflies in his stomach. Over the last few days, Ash had been completely absorbed, rechecking facts and figures and going over law books late into the night. Sometimes he was still reading when Eiji woke up in the morning from the sunlight streaming in through their window. It was starting to come through later now, the pounding sun starting to bow down to wind as September started. Ash was obsessed with this case. Obsessed with making it sting as much as he could.

So if they got there and they were turned away…

Eiji didn’t think he could deal with the fallout.

Ash kissed the top of his head, and as he looked up, his lips too. “Will you be okay here on your own, sweetie?”

“Who said I would be here? Or alone?” Eiji smiled, and the fact that he had clearly caught Ash out made him smile wider. “Maybe I’m going out with Soo-Ling.”

Ash blinked. “Are you? Out with Soo-Ling?”

“No.” Eiji was still smiling, as he kissed Ash. “I’m going to the library – I want to Skype my family. Make sure they know I’m alright.”

“And are you going to tell them about your boyfriend?” Ash was curling his fingers in the hair around Eiji’s ear, one knee still on the bed so that he was above him.

“My boyfriend?” It was easier to tease Ash than to hesitate. To think about how he had no idea how he was going to tell his parents. There was a zombie apocalypse. And he was gay. And dating a gang leader. These things may all be linked, he wasn’t sure.

“Your boyfriend.” Ash’s fingers curled tight in his hair, and he leant forward, tilting his head in the way he did when he was going to give Eiji one of those heart-melting kisses.

But he was abruptly pulled away by the scruff of his collar.

“Come on, Romeo. We’re going to be late.”

“I prefer to think of myself as Mercutio.” Ash still had hold of Eiji’s hand, and he brought it to his lips. Eiji supposed he was giggling and blushing like a fair maid in some romantic poem. “Ah, then, I see, Queen Mab, hath been with you-“

“I thought we agreed no romantic crap in front of me.”

“The Queen Mab speech is not romantic.”

“I meant the kissing and stuff.”

“You’re just cranky because your wife divorced you!”

Eiji could hear them bickering all the way down the hallway and found himself smiling. His chest felt fuzzy – like when he was home. Sitting together in the living room or celebrating a birthday. This felt like his family.

So it was weird to sit and see his mother’s face peering into the camera. (Too close. She was sat too close.) And his sister pushing her out of the way and grinning at him. Grinning and crying. Grinning and sobbing tears of relief and joy because –

“You’re okay – you’re really okay! I can’t believe – you’re okay!”

“I’m okay.” Eiji could only smile. Smile and think that she looked young. Very young. “I’m alive.”

There was a babble of Japanese coming out of the computer screen at him and it took his ear a moment to tune into it. That made his stomach flicker with nerves. But it was just a moment, before it was back and he could try to speak over his sister, who was speaking over his mother, who was speaking over his father.

“You don’t look any different!” They were saying – was the gist of it. That surprised him.

When they had first arrived at the hotel he had caught sight of his reflection in the mirror and almost hadn’t recognised himself. He’d lost weight – lots of it – it wasn’t just that the t-shirts were baggy. His hips jutted out alarmingly and he could see his ribs. His hair was a mess – curling around itself like it was trying to turn itself into a thorn bush – and he had needed a good shave.

But it was the eyes that scared him. There was something feral in them. A glint of a wild boy. A boy who had killed zombies time and time again because he had to survive. The kind of boy that pulled a gun on customs officers.

He didn’t look the same.

And they wanted to know everything of course. Wanted to know everything that had happened to him. He hesitated over his story, over the many parts of it that he didn’t want them to know. He didn’t want them to know he had chain sawed a zombie in half and quoted an eighties movie. He didn’t want them to know what he’d let his best friend do to keep him safe. He didn’t want them to know hardly any of it. He didn’t know how to tell them he was gay.

Why was that the scariest bit?

Just be glad I’m alive. Just be glad I’m alive, he wanted to say.

“So this Ash Lynx must be your best friend, no, huh?” his sister asked after an increasingly sanitised version of events.

Ashu Rinks. He could hear the way she said it.

He found himself smiling, trying to find the way to say it. To make the words on his tongue materialise into the air.

But his mom was interrupting him. Asking him a million questions about where he was staying, and was Ibe alright and what was the plan now?

What was the plan now?

He woke up when Ash wasn’t sleeping next to him. That was the only thing he could focus on.  The plan was to stick to Ash. No matter what. He wasn’t sure how to say that to him. Instead, he focused on the court stuff. Said that Ibe was heavily involved in bringing someone who had killed their friend down and that he wanted to stay there until it was over.

Eiji said he’d keep them updated, because he wasn’t sure how to say he didn’t plan to come back home.

*

Eiji started working part time in a café. He said it was because he was bored – that he was putting the money away to save for an apartment in the city – or maybe out of the city – somewhere. Somewhere with Ash. That future made his stomach flip and tumble like a salmon leaping upstream.

But for now, Eiji worked in a café, and came home smelling of coffee. And Ash relished in coming in and burying his nose into Eiji’s hair just to catch a whiff of it. Coffee and sweat from running around in the heat. That made him think of the early days of the Summer. Of the warehouse and standing outside in silence because neither of them knew what to say to each other – only that they needed to be next to each other.  For some reason it made Ash nostalgic. He missed those days. There was something simple about it – he was just a gang leader. A gang leader trapped by his past and with a bloody future ahead of him. But also a happy future. And maybe that was worth the blood.

“You smell like cigarettes.” Eiji mumbled. He wrapped his arms up and around Ash’s neck. Tired. Ash had the same aches – in the small of his back and his legs. They were so tired now.

“They published the story.” It was all he had to say for Eiji to bolt upright, to turn and take Ash’s hands in his. His eyes were glinting. “There was immediate backlash.”

“He’s going to court.” It wasn’t even a question.

“Tomorrow. Tomorrow it starts.”

“Oh, sweetie.”

Ash kissed Eiji then. Kissed him just to feel something because his face had been numb and tingling since the news, and Eiji was warm. Eiji tasted like coffee and he needed more of that, his arms wrapping around him and pulling him as close as he could. Eiji was relenting, letting him take as much as he needed. It worked both ways. In the middle of the night when Eiji would wake up in a cold sweat Ash would let him close. Would let him run his fingers over as much of Ash as he needed to, even if it made his heart panic in the dark. It was so easy for Eiji’s fingers to turn into someone else’s.

“I don’t know.” Ash said. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

“I can go with you.” Eiji’s fingers trailed down Ash’s jumper and he loved that. He loved being touched as if he was worth something.

“You won’t be able to get it off work.”

Eiji repeated. “I can go with you.”

And Ash opened his mouth to say ‘yes, of course – please.’ His eyes were closed and his mouth was over Eiji’s. He wanted to say please – please, he couldn’t do this alone. And yet, when he closed his eyes all he could see was that face across the courtroom. Ice cold blue eyes. It was disturbing, how clearly he could see every line and twitch of him.

And how clearly he could see Eiji’s face when he had found out about it all. It had been almost worse than if he had been disgusted by Ash. There had just been so much sadness there – such deep and utter heartbreak.

Ash couldn’t make Eiji sit through it. Not for himself. He wasn’t worth it.

“No,” he said. “I’ll be fine.”

“Really?” Eiji’s lips traced his jaw, and Ash could feel a whine forming in the back of his throat. Like a dog – a trained dog, Golzine would say. And Eiji hadn’t even meant it to be teasing – he was just too lazy to pull away and that was where his mouth had been.

His stomach clenched. He had thought it was pressed down – all pressed down so far that there was no way of him ever getting those memories back again. Ash had thought, after a month with Eiji – just Eiji being Eiji – that he’d be fine.

He made a sound in the back of his throat that sounded like assent. But his hands were hovering over Eiji’s waist and he knew he had gone stiff. Was holding his breath and barely breathing.

And of course, it didn’t go unnoticed.

“Are you alright?”

Ash made another sound, catching the back of Eiji’s head with one hand and burying his nose and mouth into it. Breathe – he needed to breathe – to smell the coffee.

“Ash?” Eiji pressed, chasing creases along Ash’s jumper with his fingers.

“I don’t –“ he knew he was probably holding Eiji’s head too tightly. But it was a lifeline, it was a way on proving to himself that this was all real. This was his life. His life was good now and he needed to move on. “I don’t know how to talk about it.”

“Do you think-“ Eiji’s fingers spread the jumper back out again. “Do you think – would it be best to talk to a –“

Ash could guess what was coming, and he felt himself stiffen. “Therapist?”

“I just…” Eiji trailed off. He eased himself out of Ash’s grip, so that he could look him in the eye.  “I don’t know how to make this better.”

“It’s fine.” His stomach was clenched so tightly that it made him feel sick. “You’re fine, just being here and being you-“

“I was going to go,” Eiji said. He didn’t look Ash in the eye. Instead, he hooked his fingers through Ash’s belt loops absentmindedly. Ash put his hands over the top, peeing Eiji’s touch away like he was a clingy toddler. “We’ve been through – it’s been – scary.”

“I can go with you.”

“You can,” Eiji smiled, glancing up at him from under his lashes. “But you’ll have to wait outside.”

“Huh?”

“Maybe I’m going to talk about things I don’t want you knowing.”

“Like how much you love me?” Ash asked. He tucked a strand of hair behind Eiji’s ear and Eiji leant into the touch. He was trying to make his body go back to normal – to go back to being soft, instead of feeling stiff. It felt like he was a puppet on a string. The feeling was too similar to turning up at Golzine’s mansion with Eiji on his back.

“No,” Eiji said, softly. “I’d always tell you that.”

Ash kissed him then, because if he didn’t kiss him, he would cry. Because Eiji was too sweet, too genuine and too good to ever be with Ash. It felt like he’d dragged this boy down into blood with him.

He’d dragged Eiji down as far as him wanting to go to therapy.

“Will you think about it?” Eiji asked. His eyes were barely open and he was smiling lazily. He was gorgeous.

“Yeah. I’ll think about it.” There was no way. No way he was letting anyone pick around inside his brain and figure out just how messed up he was. No way he was going to become the case of a lifetime for some random grown up who’d gone to school way too long.

No way was Ash Lynx going to therapy.

*

Max thought it was a good idea.

Ash had grumbled it to him in the back of the uber they were taking to the courtroom. It had been easier to talk about something – anything, than sit in silence.

“Probably sensible. We can’t all act like characters on the Walking Dead.”

The suit was itchy and a size too big. He’d rolled up the sleeves like a child and now he unfolded them again, scowling.

“The zombie apocalypse was a walk in the park.”

“Not for most people.” Max leant back. He was flipping through his notebook and his hands were shaking slightly. It might have been nerves, but it was more likely to be the five coffees he’d had this morning having a side effect. “Eiji’s just worried about you. He doesn’t know the best way to help you recover.”

Ash sighed. He caught sight of the clock on the car dashboard. An hour and a half. An hour and a half before he would be sat down in the courtroom. Expected to give evidence and testify and try to bring down a Godzilla of capitalism.

And to top it all off, Max was right. He knew what Blanca would have said if he was here. That Eiji couldn’t fix him and he should stop expecting that of him. Should stop expecting Eiji to know how to deal with his menagerie of issues.

“None of this has been fair on him,” he muttered. His palms were damp. He was too hot – travel sick – needed to get out of this damn car and run –

And keep running.

“So, do it for Eiji.” Max said. He was fiddling with his cigarette pack, thumbing the lid on and off. The driver gave him a warning look.

“Fuck you, Lobo.”

“What was that?” Max cupped a hand to his ear, but he had a smirk on his face. “Thank you, Max? Thank you for always giving me good advice, even if I don’t listen and take you for granted.”

“Fuck. You.”

But Max was smiling at him. A smile that made his brown eyes twinkle and the lines around them deepen. Like a dad. It made something in Ash twinge mournfully.

“It’s good to see your nerves haven’t gotten to your attitude,” Max said.

“I’m never nervous.”

“Good.”

They were stopping, even though they were nowhere near the courthouse. A look outside the window showed a crowd of people. Citizens and journalists and photographers. Their cameras were already flashing and Ash had to turn his face away. A sea – a sea of people all clamouring about them and the case and pictures – flash – flash – flash –

He was holding his breath without meaning to. Forced himself to swallow air and meet Max’s heavy gaze.

“Good.” Max repeated. “Because I’m just about shitting myself.”

*

Pictures. There were pictures of Ash on the front of every newspaper, and most of them were bad. They were mostly glimpses of him, from behind Max. His head ducked, or the hood of his coat up, sunglasses covering his face.

Not the face. Ash had said that, when the others had gotten hold of Eiji’s camera and were mucking around with the remaining battery. He hadn’t known enough English to ask them to stop, but he also hadn’t minded that much. What was he going to take pictures of anyway? Zombies didn’t pose.

They had turned the lens to Ash and he had scowled, sticking his palm out to block out the image.

“Not the face.”

It was only when Ash had explained – had told Eiji the whole story that he understood. There was a reason Ash hated having his photo taken.  So, this must have been torture. Even more torture than it already was.

But at least they weren’t allowed to film in the courthouse. A small blessing, even if almost every word was in one newspaper or the other.

Ash had taken to leaving early – way earlier than he needed to be at the courthouse, to avoid most of the reporters. So that he could slip in the back entrance with Max. He’d sneak away the moment he could – before the cameras were ready, so that he had a few seconds head start.

He’d come back late – though it got dark so early now that night seemed to last a day in itself, and fill Eiji in. As though he hadn’t been checking the news on his phone at work for any kind of update. The case was at a stand-still. Golzine’s money was starting to trickle through the cracks, slowing down any progress and verdict. It was Ash and Max that were pushing – and pushing hard. There were campaigns online for justice, but it didn’t seem to be having any effect.

The virus had spread down to Mexico and was seeping into South America. The Northern borders were contained and the official line was to wait. All transport in or out had ceased, as had any movement between the borders. Wait, was the official line. Wait for the bodies to decompose. Most in the south had already stopped becoming a threat, the zombies had gone without food in such a dry climate for so long that they had decomposed entirely. It could take four more months for the rest to do the same. No one knew what they would do afterwards – if the soil would be forever tainted by the living dead or not.

And Eiji had started going to a support group, on the recommendation of the evaluation a therapist gave him. He didn’t require intense treatment, the therapist had said – Eiji suspected it was more his empty wallet that led him there.

But it was helping. He was having less recurring memories of decaying faces and yellow eyes. He was picking up techniques to calm himself down when the images and sounds started to replay in his head. And because of that, he was able to help Ash better.

His nightmares had gotten worse. He’d wake up soaked in sweat, shivering, but too hot – much too hot. His eyes wouldn’t even focus on Eiji when he switched on the light and told Ash that it was “okay. They were here, in Toronto. Eiji was here. It was okay.”

It was too much, Eiji knew. This was too much of a strain on him, but Goddammit if Ash wasn’t going to win this case.

Ash was the one who made use of the therapist. Though that wasn’t simple, either. There was a leak in the building – the reporters knew where Ash was staying and where he was going to therapy. He left the apartment by the fire escape, looking like an undercover celebrity – in huge hoodies and shades with his blonde hair hidden. They all wanted his story, his thoughts on how the case was going and what he wanted to do – why he wanted to do it. Ash hadn’t said a word to any of them and told Eiji not to, either.

“They’re not going to want to talk to me.” Eiji had said, leaning back against Ash as he read. They had to keep the curtains closed all the time now.

But he had been wrong. He had stepped out in his barista uniform to go to work and had found lights flashing at him like fireworks, blinding him so he could hardly see straight.

“What’s your relationship with Ash Lynx?”

“How long have you known Ash Lynx?”

“Were you involved with Golzine’s sex trafficking?”

He would have stayed there, blinking at them like a stunned rabbit in the middle of the road, if Soo-Ling hadn’t been roller skating by. Within an instant, he was at Eiji’s side, and tugging him down the street.

“Hey, lay off, would ya? Go find a real story instead of bothering people!” he had snapped, and made a few rude gestures.

The questions turned to him, asking who he was and who Eiji was and honestly it seemed like they were all a hivemind. A bunch of brainwashed zombies themselves, after any scrap of exclusive material for their magazines.

“I’m the kid that’ll punch your lenses out – and I’m not fussy about which ones.” Soo-Ling stuck his tongue out at them, and kept skating alongside Eiji, keeping a hand on his elbow to keep him walking fast.

It was after that, Soo-Ling’s gang would lurk around the apartment and chase off as many reporters as they could. As soon as Yut Lung got wind of it all, his guys joined in. The apartment quickly became a hive for gang members to lounge about in, some of them creating fake leads for the reporters to follow.

Of course, Eiji’s photo had appeared in the paper – of him staring wide eyed at the cameras alongside a long piece about exactly if he and Ash were together or not. Ash had thought the photo was cute. Eiji had wrestled it out of Ash’s hands, so Ash had leapt on Eiji, fingers reaching for the newspaper clipping.

They had wrestled on the bed over it, elbows and knees jabbing at each other. Ash took advantage of how ticklish Eiji was and eventually got the upper hand, pinning him to the duvet. Eiji had been laughing, the paper crumpled up in one hand, until he noticed the way Ash was looking at him. He’d caught that look before. As if Eiji was made of light. As if he was something delicate that couldn’t be handled too roughly. A look of pure adoration that made Eiji feel as though he was full of hot, bubbly cider.

“I love you,” he said.

“I love you too.” Ash’s voice was a murmur.

It was a collective realisation that Ash was straddling Eiji’s lap. That his hands were pinning Eiji’s wrists to the messy duvet and that there was something crackling in the air. It was like a storm was brewing in the room and Eiji needed Ash to move – he had to get off because it was too much. Ash’s hair flopping down like that, and the smell of cigarettes on his skin – and that look was just too much.

“Let’s have…” Ash held the word in his mouth for way too long, letting the electricity continue to spark in the air and Eiji’s stomach hurt. “Sex. Let’s do it soon.”

He might as well have punched Eiji in the gut. But he managed to nod. To swallow and nod.

“Now?” he whispered.

Ash didn’t reply. His fingers trailed down Eiji’s arms, ghost, tracing their way down his sides and onto his hips. Slow – so slow, and Eiji was holding his breath when Ash finally reached the waistband of his jeans.

He was watching Eiji with cat’s eyes. More interested than anything else. Eiji just hoped that he didn’t look as warm as he felt. That he wasn’t literally falling apart in front of Ash just because the word ‘sex’ had been said.

Ash popped open the button of his jeans. Slid the zip down, and paused. He swallowed. Closed his eyes for a couple of seconds and took a shaky breath.

Eiji put his hands over Ash’s.

“Maybe not now,” he muttered, because he could barely think straight but he had to be there – had to be there for Ash.

“No, I can –“

“Ash.” Eiji took a breath that rattled his frame. He felt Ash’s fingers twitch underneath his. He’d never felt like quite like this. Not with Ash. Not such a need. “You think I can’t see how uncomfortable you are?”

“You think I can’t see how turned on you are?” Ash replied. His fingers curled underneath Eiji’s waistband. They froze again.

“Stop.” Everything in Eiji was telling him not to say those words. To be a little selfish and get what he wanted. But that was how everyone else in Ash’s life had been, and, fuck, he wasn’t going to add to it. “Sweetie, stop.”

Eiji hauled himself onto his elbows. He was still holding the scrap of newspaper, he realised.

“Not today,” he whispered.

Ash nodded, and swung off of him, sitting on the edge of the bed and running his hands through his hair.

“It’s okay,” Eiji said, and tried to smile. “It’s okay. We’ll get there.”

Ash nodded. But then his back started shaking and he half turned to Eiji, a grin on his face.

“Do you think I should mention this in therapy?” he asked, a Cheshire cat grin on his face.

“No! Ash!”

And Eiji threw a pillow as hard as he could.

But he was laughing too.

 

Chapter Text

16

Give up. Give up, let it go. Let it go, give up.

That’s what everyone was saying. To give the whole thing up and leave it alone. The world was a shamble, so why try to win this court battle? Move on, settle down after life with the zombies. Settle down with his boyfriend.

“We’re not backing down on this,” Max kept saying, a hand on Ash’s shoulder. That was the line.  Ash stayed silent, because his head was still reeling. Boyfriend. Eiji was his boyfriend. It felt like too juvenile a word to describe their relationship. Boyfriends were for teenagers.

“You are a teenager, Ash,” Eiji had said, when Ash had relayed the information that evening when they were sprawling on their bed.

“Eighteen is hardly a teenager,” Ash said.

“Oh, Ash.” Eiji smiled at him. He reached up, brushing Ash’s fringe away from his eyes. His eyes softened. “Sure. Eighteen is all grown up.”

A hand on his arm. Gripping it too tight. His mouth so close that Ash could feel his lips against the shell of his ear. Smell the mint on his breath. Look at you. You’re all grown up. Security had stepped in. Boom mics had been shoved in Ash’s face. He had walked past them.

Eiji didn’t know it was a poor choice of words.

“I wish we could be teenagers,” Ash said. “Drink so much that we need our stomachs pumped every other night-“

“How do Americans even live until they’re adults?” Eiji shook his head, but he was grinning.

“The best ones don’t. Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse.” Ash rolled over, planting one arm in the soft duvet by Eiji’s head so that he could hover above him and kiss him. He ran his tongue over Eiji’s bottom lip, taking it in his mouth just as Eiji murmured, “don’t.”

“Hm?” he pulled away.

“Don’t die young.”  His fingers tightened in Ash’s shirt. “Stay with me.”

“I will.” Ash said, automatically. “I – Eiji, you’re-“  He kissed him again, because he couldn’t put it into words. And Eiji let him, kissing him back appreciatively. He let Ash peel off his t-shirt – and that was where they always got stuck. Eiji was trying his hardest to be completely non-biased – to follow Ash’s lead. Not because he didn’t want to. They both knew he did. He did want to; Ash could tell by the lingering hands and the way he looked at him when he thought Ash couldn’t see – and other things Ash was too familiar with.

But he didn’t want Ash to feel pressured. Didn’t want him to feel like he was forcing himself to do it for Eiji’s sake. And whenever he said that, with big earnest eyes and a small smile, Ash felt like bursting into tears.

He kissed Eiji’s neck. Trying to work up the courage to take off his own shirt.

"Can I go?" Eiji asked. Ash pulled away confused, his stomach wrenching for a moment. He thought of stubbing out a cigarette on the nightstand. "Go to court, I mean, with you."

Ash sat up. Swung his legs around so that he was sitting on the edge of the bed. He tugged at his tie and it tightened into a knot halfway down, refusing to budge.

"The reporters," he said. He tugged at it again. "I thought you hated the reporters."

"Well, I wouldn't be going for them. I'd be going to support you." Eiji's voice was still gentle. Still soft.

"So, all of the newspapers can see us holding hands?" Ash snapped. When Eiji blinked at him, like he'd just slapped him, he sighed, pushing his hair out of his eyes. It was long - way too long. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d cut it. "Sorry, I didn't mean it like that."

"You don't want him to see," Eiji said, because he was so damn good like that. He could just tell things.

"Of course, I damn well don't want him to fucking see!" Ash stood, tugging at the tie again. It was in a firm, hard knot and stayed that way. He tugged it over his head and tossed it away from him. "Of course, I don't want him to see that we're fucking together,  Eiji!" The words hung in the air, and he was sure that Eiji was thinking the same thing he was. That only half of that was true. They were together, but - "I don't want his sick, twisted mind thinking about you - us - you should've heard-"

But he shouldn't have. Because Ash would rather die than let Eiji hear.

"And what am I supposed to do?" Eiji asked, standing from the bed. "Sit here and just - do nothing all day? No - not do anything. Just worry about you and wait for you to get back! The whole world doesn’t revolve around Ash fucking Lynx!"

Ash recoiled. Those words hurt - and only because they were coming from Eiji. He had never seen Eiji this angry - this frustrated at him. That was what hurt more. But he wasn't going to back down. He couldn't now.

"I'm trying to protect you!" He snapped.

"I don't need protecting! I've saved your life just as many times as you've saved mine!"

"So, let me save you now!"

Eiji was breathless. He gave a sharp sigh, exasperated. "From what?"

"From knowing everything that I don't want you to know because you'll look at me with those big, sad eyes and treat me like I'm a broken, lost puppy dog. Because you'll be oh-so-sorry for me-"

"I don't do that,” Eiji said.

"Yes, you do."

There was that exasperated sigh again. "What do you want me to do?"

"Treat me like a normal fucking person!" Ash could feel a hard lump forming in his throat. He hated that sigh.

"I'm trying! I'm trying Ash, but I'm not your therapist!"

"Oh, so that's why you insisted on it?"

"I don't know the right answers!” Eiji said. He seemed near tears. Ash couldn’t bring himself to care. “I don't know what to do!"

"Well what you can do right now is get out!" Ash grabbed the abandoned t-shirt on the bed in his fist and flung it. It hit Eiji in the chest and flopped to the floor like a dead fish. "Get out, Eiji!"

Eiji stared at him, looking at him as if he was completely mad for a moment. Then he picked up his t-shirt by the hem and looked Ash in the eye.

"Fine." He said, completely calmly and evenly.

Then he slammed the door behind him.

Ash wanted to scream. He wanted to kick at the door and pound it with his fists and just scream. But that was something a small child would do, and Ash had never had a childhood.

He sank down onto the bed instead.

He listened to his heart racing until it went back to normal, but he still felt anger coursing through him.

*

Ash could smell dinner cooking by the time there was a knock on the door. The knocker came in without asking and Ash lifted his arms off of his face to see Max standing there. Ash had been lying on the bed, generally feeling miserable. His stomach felt like it was chewing itself up, the argument playing over and over in his head. He could have said fifty different things, and it all would have ended the same way. He hated that. Hated this. Hated that he had no idea how to fix this.

"Eiji has been curled up on the corner of the sofa for the last hour and a half sulking and snapping at everyone," Max said.

"Good for fucking him," Ash muttered, it made him feel a pang of satisfaction. At least Eiji was as depressed as him.

"So, what happened?" The bed dipped downwards as Max sat on the end.

Ash groaned, loudly.

"You're playing the dad role now?"

"Considering that I can't see my kid - that my wife - ex-wife - only just let me know that they're both alive, yeah. I need to get my dad emotions out, and I have two moody teenagers to comfort."

"Fuck off." But Ash's arm flopped off of his face. "She's okay?"

"They both are. Got the email this morning." And Max was still shaking, phone in his hand. He was pale, but he tried to smile at Ash. "They went down - down to Mexico and got a plan to England. They've been stuck in border patrol for months, making sure they don't have the virus."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. They're still alive." He put the phone down on the bed and started tapping his hand against his knee instead.

Ash paused. He stared at Max and wasn’t sure how to describe the feeling in his chest. After a moment, he let his head flop to the side and sighed. "Eiji wants to go to the courthouse."

"That's not a good idea,” Max said, immediately.

"That's what I told him."

"But it's not just your decision.” Now Max sounded cautious, like saying the wrong word would make Ash explode.

"But the newspapers-"

"Back entrance."

Air stuck in Ash’s throat. He struggled to breathe out, tried to say the name but nothing came out. Ash mouthed it instead. Max was quiet for so long that Ash wondered if he’d even got the message – if he’d have to actually say it this time. He flopped his head backwards to see Max frowning at him, scratching his ear absentmindedly.

"Would you feel better with Eiji there?" Max asked, quietly.

"I'd feel more self-conscious. I don't want him - he doesn't need to know all of those things," Ash said.

"Maybe he does."

"I don't want him to."

Max took a long breath out, but his face softened. "He stuck around this long. There's not much that would make him leave."

"I'm not scared of him leaving.” Ash bristled.

He hated that look – Max’s understanding Dad look. The soft tone of voice he used to ask, "what are you scared of?"

Hands. Hands that didn't care. Mouths that weren't fussy. Mouths and tongues and teeth and hands and no eyes - nothing that saw him.

Ash stayed quiet. He let his head flop back to the side, staring at the pattern on the blind.

"Just - make it up between the two of you,” Max said. Ash glanced at him – he was pinching the bridge of his nose. “This skulking around is worse than when you're all lovey dovey."

The last thing Ash wanted to do was sound like a child, and yet he had to ask, "why do I have to be the one to apologize?"

"Because Eiji has done the best he possibly could over the last year," Max said, softly. And it was true, Ash supposed. A year - a year of living through the apocalypse and it being the best year that Ash had ever had. And in that year, they had only had one fight.

He gave a heavy, dramatic sigh and pulled himself up. Max smiled wryly at him as he crossed the room.

"I'm proud of you," Max said.

"Get fucked, Lobo."

He could still hear Max chuckling as he came through to the living room and he couldn't help smiling at that.

The smile fell when he saw Eiji on the sofa. He looked up at Ash with those large, dark eyes. It was only now that Ash was noticing how puffy they were, how they had dark rings underneath them. Eiji looked pale and drained.  Was that Ash's fault? Had Ash done that?

His ribs seemed to creak as he took a breath.

"I'm sorry," Eiji said, though his gaze was on the sofa and he was picking at a stray thread on one of the cushions. "I shouldn't have pushed to-"

"That's - no, you've been - you've been fantastic." Ash crossed the room, half-missed sitting on the sofa and instead found himself on the floor, kneeling in front of Eiji. He fished for Eiji's hands, twisting them in his own. "You've been - so so good and tolerant and - and I should be the one apologising." He should be. But he had never been very good at saying sorry. He squeezed Eiji's fingers instead, and hope the message came across in that way. "I love you. I love you and if you really want to come-"

"I don't have to-"

"It's up to you." Ash felt his shoulders slump in defeat.

"Ash-" Eiji started, stopped and just stared at him. He brought their joined hands to his mouth and closed his eyes. He had such thick, black eyelashes and they cast spider shadows over his cheeks. Glowing - Eiji just glowed. "I love you too."

And that was it. Eiji dressed tentatively in a shirt and smart jeans the next day, and of course he had no idea how to tie a tie. Ash had a suspicion he was faking his inadequacy, but he wasn't going to complain. He loved stepping up to Eiji and adjusting the length, his fingers just grazing Eiji's collar. He loved the way Eiji's  chin tilted upwards to allow him access. The gentle tilt down he did as Ash tightened it into place. And he wanted to love that look in Eiji's eyes, the small smile at the corner of his lips. That was an 'I'm so in love with you, ravish me completely,' look.

He let his hands drop from the tie and fall to his side, not even realising they were shaking until Eiji took hold of them.

"It'll be okay," he said, with such a sweet smile.

"I know," Ash said. Their noses bumped against each other as he kissed him.

Part of him wanted to stay there. To actually do it this time. But Max was knocking on the door and groaning about lovestruck teenagers, so he pulled away and rolled his eyes. Eiji laughed.

And kept hold of one of Ash's hands all the way to the front door.

*

Ash had looked stunned when the verdict had happened. He had just stared, completely frozen. Like a deer in the headlights. Just - staring. Eiji hadn't even been sure that he was breathing. Every muscle in him screamed to hop out of the stands and run across the courtroom to him. He needed to hold Ash - Ash needed to hold him. It was just basic instinct.

There was clapping all around them and it sounded like gunshots to Eiji. Too loud. It was all too loud and Ash wasn't moving. Max was clapping him on the back and saying something, but Ash wasn't reacting. He was just staring at Dino Golzine.

And Golzine was staring right back at him. Eiji couldn't see his facial expression, but he would see on T.V that the man had been smiling. A cold heartless smile.

The banner underneath the video on the T.V would run through all of the sentences that Golzine had rocked up.

But now that one word was ringing in Eiji's ears. Guilty. Guilty, guilty, guilty.

Eiji had been the first one to move from the stands, to rush down to the door at the side and start fumbling with the lock. It seemed like an age before he could get it open, and even then, a security guard held up a hand to stop him.

"Please, I'm Ash's-" he was saying, not even listening to what the man was telling him.

People were clamouring around him, all ready to head home for the day. A few lingered, like Eiji, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the action.

Then Max was there, his head bent low against the security guards’ ear. The man listened, nodded and grabbed Eiji's shoulder. He pulled him out of the crowds and Ash was there - still looking completely shell shocked

"Ash," Eiji said, but he could barely hear himself and for a moment he wondered if Ash had even heard him.

Ash blinked at him. Then he pulled Eiji forward, out of the security guard's grip and into his arms. He held him tight - so tightly it hurt. Really hurt, but in the best way possible.

"It's because of you," Ash murmured in Eiji's ear. "It's because you're here. Because you're my lucky charm."

Eiji hugged him back, pressing himself against Ash so firmly that he could barely see. He night have been crying, he couldn't tell.

"Bullshit," Eiji whispered back.

He felt Ash grin against him. And he was grinning.

And they stayed like that until the courtroom was empty.

Though they stuck around the courthouse for a long time afterwards, waiting for the press to give up and go home. Eiji sat next to Ash in a backroom on the ugliest armchairs he had ever seen. They were holding hands. They hadn't let go of each other yet.

Max and Ibe were opposite them, ties loose and scrolling through their phones - reading articles out to each other triumphantly.

Ash was quiet. He kept staring ahead of him for minutes at a time, barely blinking. Every so often Eiji would squeeze his hand and Ash would squeeze back.

It was Soo-Ling that chased the reporters away - him and a group of boys on BMX’s circling them and beeping their horns until they almost got arrested. But the threat of the police showing up had scattered the remaining reporters. They were given the all clear by security to leave.

There was still a figure standing there when they left, lit by the streetlights.

Ash paused, his nails digging into Eiji's hands like the claws of a scared cat.

"I wanted to..." the figure's voice trailed off and that was when Eiji recognised it. Recognised him. Yut Lung stood there; his skin ghostly white. "I don't know. I guess congratulate you."

"Thanks," Ash said. He sounded distant.

It was awkward - there was a silence where they stared at each other.

"How are you doing? Good?" Yut Lung asked. He had his hands in his coat pockets.

"Yeah." Ash nodded.

"And you, Eiji?"

He hadn't expected Yut Lung to remember his name.

Eiji nodded. "And you?"

"Yeah. Well, as good as someone like us can be."

"You know," Ash said. He went his lips and it was so cold that his breath appeared as white puffs. "Someone recommended me therapy. I can give you the number."

"I'll think about it," Yut Lung said. He stepped aside, giving them a final nod. They headed towards the waiting taxi, but as they passed, Yut Lung placed a hand on Eiji's shoulder.

"Take care of him," he murmured.

"I will," Eiji said.

Just before they got into the taxi, he noticed a figure waiting for Yut Lung under a streetlight. A figure on a BMX. He smiled.

And texted Soo Ling to take care of Yut Lung.

*

They were too geared up to go to bed. Eiji sat on the end, refreshing and refreshing Facebook. It was all the same. Fifty different news reports on the same thing. His friends back in Japan smiling for the camera, seemingly oblivious to the rest of the world ending. Dozens of messages from his family asking how it went, how it was, how Ash was - why everywhere was labelling them boyfriends. He hadn't replied - had no idea how to.

What now? He supposed they just had to get on with their lives. Peacefully. That was a scary idea. A part of him wanted to go back and start it all again. Go back to arriving in New York and not knowing that he was going to meet the love of his life in a zombie apocalypse.

"We should do it," Ash said, suddenly. He was sat the other side of the bed, elbows on his knees.

"Do what?" Eiji asked.

"Have sex." Ash turned, green eyes burning bright. "Let's have sex."

"Now?"

"Yeah. Why not?"

"Because I'm worried about you," Eiji said. He put his phone down and twisted around to face Ash. "Ever since the verdict, you've been-"

"Yeah, it gave me a shock," Ash said, and gave a shaky laugh. "I didn't- I never thought he'd ever - no one ever could find him guilty. But he was. Is. And now he's gone - forever - and that's never the way I thought it would end. Never. And that’s when it hit me. The end. That was the end, and what the hell do I do now?"

"Whatever you want," Eiji said.

Ash grinned. "I want to have sex."

"Ash."

"Wouldn't it be just the biggest 'fuck you,' to him. If I moved on the night, he got arrested."

Eiji paused. A pang of hurt had gone through him, though he knew that Ash hadn't meant it.

"So, it doesn't matter that it's with me - it's just to say, 'fuck you?'" Eiji asked slowly.

"Of course, it matters, because I love you, and that's the biggest fuck you of all."

"I love you too."

Ash smiled - genuinely smiled. So many of Ash's smiles were smirks but this one was genuine and gentle.

“I know it’s the right time. Tonight, is the right time.” He leant forward and kissed Eiji, open mouthed. He kissed back automatically. He was nervous - nervous Ash wouldn't be able to do it tonight. Nervous he wouldn't be able to do it. Nervous about the whole concept of doing it.

Ash's hand cupped Eiji's jaw, angling his face better and pressing his tongue into Eiji's mouth. They were still stretched as far away as they could be on the bed. Ash shifted, so Eiji shifted, closing the gap and resting a hand on Ash's arm.

The kiss went on an Eiji wasn't sure when this had become so natural - figuring out how to breath whilst barely pulling away from each other. They stayed entangled. They stayed entangled. Eiji could feel his heart beating all the way through to his fingertips. His hand rested tentatively on Ash's chest. His heart was racing too.

Ash pulled away sharply. His eyes were slightly unfocused, and he blinked rapidly.

"Okay - okay," Ash took a deep breath, pushing his hair out of his eyes. He rested his elbows on his knees as if he was going to be sick. "If we're going to - I need you to do some things."

"Some things?" Eiji turned away, so that Ash couldn't see the look of panic cross his face. Some things. What were 'some things?'

"Mm," Ash nodded. "I need to see you, Eiji-"

"Can that - can it work like that?" He looked back, glancing up at Ash from under his fringe.

Ash had a pitying look on his face, though he was smiling. It seemed like he was trying very hard not to. "Sweetie - this is exactly why-"

"No, no - it's fine," Eiji said, quickly. "You'll see me."

"And I need you to talk to me," Ash said.

"Talk to you?"

"Mm," he nodded.

"What - what do I say?" Eiji asked.

"Anything. My name is good enough. No one called me by my name." Ash said, tangling their fingers again.

Eiji let him pull his hands towards Ash. "What did they call you?"

"They didn't."

"Oh." He didn't release he was pulling away, until Ash squeezed his fingers and pulled them back towards him.

"No - no, sweetie - don't give me that look," he said.

"I'm not giving you any look." Eiji lied, glancing away. He knew that his eyes had gone wide and sad - that he had looked shocked.

"That look-" Ash caught Eiji's chin, turning him back towards him in a way that made Eiji's stomach leap. "There."

"What look should I give you?" Eiji asked.

"A sexy look."

"A sexy look?" he repeated, smiling. Ash hadn't moved his hand.

"Here," Ash narrowed his eyes and tilted his head downwards so that he was looking up at Eiji - green eyes glittering. His mouth curved upwards into a flirty smile but turned back down wards quickly. "See, now you look like a rabbit in the headlights."

"Because you're looking at me like that." Eiji ducked his head out of Ash's grip, feeling his face growing hot.

"How should I look at you?" Ash asked, softly.

"Like you did a minute ago. Like you and not a wolf ready to eat me."

Ash laughed and smirked. "I mean, I am about to-"

"Oh God - stop, Ash." Eiji's hands went to Ash's face, cupping it. "Just - just kiss me."

The smirk softened into a smile and Ash leant into Eiji's grasp.

"Is that how people usually build up to sex?" he asked.

And it hit Eiji that they were really both as clueless as each other. Despite everything, Ash was clueless about how this was meant to be.

"In the American shows I watch, they seem to just kiss a bit and then rip each other’s clothes off," Eiji said.

"But that's T.V," Ash said. "American T.V."

"It's Friends - it's not like it's bad-"

"You're adorable." Ash turned his face, pressing his lips against Eiji's palm.

"Look who's talking." Eiji rested their foreheads together, then kissed Ash again. It was easier like this – when they were giddy and smiling. It took the pressure away and Ash dissolved into kissing down Eiji’s neck, unbuttoning his shirt to press feather-light kisses against his collarbone.

He looked up at Eiji, grinning and trying to undo the remaining buttons with his mouth. It just made Eiji laugh, tugging off the tie and tangling his fingers in Ash’s hair.

Ash caught them, guided Eiji’s fingers to his own shirt, undoing his own tie with ease. He’d ended up with one leg over Ash’s lap, half sat up, half supported by one of Ash’s arms around his back. His hands were warm – his skin was warm as Eiji undid the shirt, peeling it off of Ash.

They stared at each other.

“You’re beautiful,” Eiji said. “You know that, right?”

His fingers hovered over Ash’s chest, as though asking permission. It was well defined, and his abs were noticeable, could easily be built back up into a six pack if Ash worked out again. He’d told Eiji that his body hair was blonde as well. It was a lie. It was tawnier, Eiji thought, pointer finger hovering over the line of downy hair that disappeared beneath Ash’s trousers.

Ash caught his fingers, placed them back over his chest so that Eiji could feel the racing heart underneath, like there was a butterfly trapped under Ash’s skin trying desperately to get out.

“Not really,” Ash admitted.

“You’re. Beautiful.” Eiji said.

Ash smiled. “Look who’s talking.”

His hands went back to Eiji, tracing down muscles like he was seeing them for the first time. He used to be well-built – used to train all the time and be in good shape. The last year had changed that. Ash’s fingers stopped at Eiji’s waistline, half on fabric, half on skin.

“Ready?” Ash asked.

Eiji nodded. Ash tugged.

And tugged. Eiji had gone for black skinny jeans – he had nothing else that was formal – and it took a while to wiggle them off, both of them peeling at the fabric. Eiji dissolved into laughter, trying to kick the denim off. He ended up entirely on Ash’s lap, before he freed himself.

“You really know how to set the mood,” Ash murmured in his ear, but he was shaking with laughter too. Eiji kissed him apologetically, letting his mouth wander down the side of Ash’s neck and onto his chest.

Ash’s arms wrapped around him and he lowered them backwards onto the bed, his mouth buried against the top of Eiji’s head. He kicked off his own pants – suit pants that came away much more easily.

This hadn’t happened before. Eiji didn’t want to stop and acknowledge it, but it hadn’t. Something had changed – lightened something in Ash. This was new – they were touching each other as if they had never done it before. Exploring.

“Eiji,” Ash murmured, and for a stomach-lurching moment, he thought he was going to say ‘stop.’ He usually did, then rolled over and tried to catch his breath. Eiji pulled away, looking at Ash underneath him, his blonde hair fanned out around him on the pillow. His hands traced Eiji’s sides – a finger hooked into his underwear. “Can I?”

“You’re sure?” It scared him and it excited him. He was loving this – this was setting every one of his nerves tingling and he just loved Ash so much that he felt like he was going to explode.

“I want to see all of you,” Ash said.

Eiji put his hands over Ash’s, guiding the movement. After everything, he shouldn’t have felt so shy, but he was. He hadn’t done this before – hadn’t been naked in front of someone for as far as he could remember. His heart was raced so fast it seemed like it was going to take flight.

Ash was quiet, his fingertips tracing down the outside of Eiji’s thighs. He shivered at the light touch, and Ash cupped his hips. His hands felt like a perfect fit.

“I love you,” Ash whispered. He looked mesmerised as he stared up at Eiji, brushing dark hair away from Eiji’s forehead. He knew he was bright red. It was just Eiji and yet Ash was staring at him like that.

“I love you too, sweetie,” Eiji said.

Ash’s expression changed. Suddenly he was playful, smirking at Eiji and gripping his arms.

“Then move.”

“What?” Eiji barely had time to ask. He cried out as Ash flipped him over, rolling on top of Eiji and attacking him with kisses – anywhere his mouth could get to. Eiji was breathless from the impact, breathless with laughing, legs gripping Ash’s sides.

It had been a distraction. Ash had used it as a distraction to slip off his own boxers, hands shaking slightly as they held Eiji’s hips. He steadied them with his own.

“Ready?” Ash asked, resting his chin on Eiji’s naval and looking up at him.

“I guess,” Eiji replied.

“You don’t have to-“ Ash went to pull away – Eiji gripped his hands tighter.

“I want to,” Eiji said. He smiled sheepishly. “I just – don’t know what to expect.”

“The best sex you’ll ever have.” Ash raised an eyebrow at him and Eiji burst out laughing. It seemed absurd – both lying here naked. Ash smiled, but still tried to keep a serious face. “I’m serious, Eiji, I’ve never had a complaint.”

“You’re a dork,” Eiji said, and without even thinking, tickled Ash’s stomach. He creased up, finally breaking into a laugh and attacking Eiji back. They both collapsed – swatting feebly at each other with flushed faces until their laughter subsided.

Ash kissed Eiji again, and he felt him reach into the bedside drawer. He watched Ash squeeze the bottle, feeling his heart still racing. It turned out a naked tickle fight did half the job for them – if Eiji hadn’t been aroused by Ash’s gentle touches, he was now.

Ash noticed his intrigued stare, and pinched Eiji’s cheek.

“You’re so cute.”

“Shut up.” But Eiji was smiling. He hooked his legs over Ash’s lap on instinct.

Ash’s hand traced down his thigh and down further. He paused, looking at Eiji.

“This is where I need you to-“

Eiji got his meaning. “Ash. It’s okay. I-”

He slipped a finger in and Eiji’s breath caught. Ash was still staring at him. He cupped Ash’s cheeks in his hands.

“Ash,” he said, and wasn’t sure what else to say. “Ash – love you.”

Ash’s other hand cupped Eiji’s hip, guiding it in a rocking motion with his slow movements. He slipped another finger in, looking as though he was concentrating hard. Eiji focused on his face, because it was embarrassing, really, how quickly his body was progressing.

“Really – love you,” he said, catching on to the rhythm. “Ash.”

Ash nodded, his eyes never leaving Eiji’s. He was breathing heavily, his face flushed. Another finger and Eiji heard himself moan. It sounded far away – like a cat mewling. Heat burst up through him.

“Love you,” he managed to say, hands dropping to Ash’s shoulders. He wondered how tight his grip was – it felt like it couldn’t be tight enough.

“You okay?” Ash asked.

Eiji nodded, though it felt like there was a fire in him. He was hot all over but that wasn’t a bad thing.

“Okay.” Ash was panting, pulling out his fingers.

“Best sex I’ll ever – have?” Eiji asked.

There was a shaky, breathless half-laugh that crossed the air in front of them, before Ash slide forward. It happened easily, Eiji’s hips rearing naturally to receive him. Strange – it felt strange, but not bad strange. He gripped Ash’s shoulders and Ash kept guiding his hips as he started the rhythm up again.

“Eiji.” There was panic in his eyes for a moment and he moved slowly. Eiji was letting him take the lead, but the fire in him made him impatient.

“It’s okay – I’m here – Ash.”

He started to increase the speed, hips pressing into Eiji at every thrust, a sound emerging from the back of his throat as he did so. Eiji’s voice joined his.

"You're doing good,” Eiji gasped. “You're - doing so good-"

"Not that." Ash shook his head, his hair sticking to his sweaty cheeks.

Beautiful, Eiji thought, and it made him forget what he had even said. "Uh?"

"Don't – say – that,” Ash repeated. He went faster. The fire was really burning now.

"Right.” The word was half-lost. Eiji couldn’t think straight. He was so focused on the rhythm and the fire and he couldn’t think of anything to say. Couldn’t think of his own name, only, “I love you. I – love you – I – love – you - I - love you – aishiteru! Ai-shiteru – Aishiteru!” He said it to the rhythm, barely releasing he’d gone back to Japanese. It was the only thing on his mind until the climax. He cried out in relief.

Ash followed only a few beats later with a sharp outbreath. He withdrew from Eiji. Everything was still warm. Ash was still looking at him, his eyes half-lidded.

His hand cupped Eiji’s cheek, still slightly sticky.

“Was I telling the truth?” he said.

Eiji needed to take a few more breaths. To remember how to think and say words that made sense. But then he was able to smile.

“I don’t have anything to compare it to.”

Ash laughed. It was too loud and too long and too joyful for what Eiji said, but it was laugh that sounded free and happy.

“Don’t worry. You will.”

*

Ash showered, and Eiji changed the duvet and turned off the lights, but they didn’t bother with pyjamas. They slid back into the bed, wrapping themselves around each other, warm body pressed against warm body.

“So, what does that mean? Aishiteru?” Ash whispered. His fingers toyed with Eiji’s hair lazily.

“Mm?” Eiji was exhausted. It was already and effort to stay awake. “It means I love you.”

“I love you too. So much.” Ash sounded half-asleep; his mouth pressed against Eiji’s forehead. “Eiji?”

“Mm?”

“For me – that was – that was the best time.”

Eiji smiled and tilted his head up. He could just see Ash’s eyes glinting at him.

“That’s because I’m Eiji Okumura,” he whispered, emboldened by the darkness. “Zombie slayer.”

Ash hugged him even tighter and whispered back, “fuck yeah, you are.”

And Eiji was so glad that he’d happened to be in New York just as the zombie apocalypse had started.