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Somewhere outside the city limits, in an abandoned apartment that must have once belonged to a broke university student, Takemichi changes out of a midnight blue tuxedo jacket and into a faded graphic T-shirt.

“I’m sorry about the suit.” Mikey stands guard at the entrance. His own jacket was lost in the run over, torn to shreds and devoured by gnashing teeth moving on jerky limbs. “Mitsuya did a good job.”

Takemichi slips off the tattered remains of the sleeves hanging by the very same seams he watched his friend carefully pin and sew into place only a month before. The stiff fabric slides through his fingers and crumples on the floor. “He did.”

Then Mikey says, casual, as if he isn’t throwing around weighted words, “I didn’t want you to get married.”

Takemichi freezes, turns. Mikey is already looking at him, a bottomless black gaze that carries in it the topography of an entire universe he once dreamed about unraveling one thread at a time.

The world beyond them is at a standstill, a direct contrast to the storm of emotions brewing within him. “I—you can’t just say things like that, Mikey-kun.”

The other man hums in response, a sound that had preceded a whole multitude of things that defined Takemichi’s youth: a brilliant grin capable of charming brick walls, the sickening crunch of bone on concrete from where his leg hit the side of a rival’s head before they knew it, the sigh paired with his eyes drooping shut as he leaned against the nearest flat surface.

This time, it’s an ironic smile that twists one corner of his mouth. “Can’t I?” he muses. “It’s the truth.”

Much like the horde of literal zombies that crashed his fucking wedding ceremony, Mikey did always have the best timing.

A boy with dark eyes looms over him, a hand pressed to the back of his neck as he stares straight at him, right through him, calling him by the wrong name all the while, and yet—

“Takemitchy, starting today, you’re my friend, okay?”

And this is the moment where Takemichi’s world turns, not upside down, but suddenly and startlingly, right-side up.

After a few days, they come across a deserted train station. Inside the station, they’re ambushed by a group of the infected.

Watching Mikey fight, even after all this time, is to bear witness to a living legend. The only difference lies in the noises that arise from crushing skulls that aren’t completely there, the rush of air that accompanies the striking of the metal bar he was forced to wield when they realized fists and kicks weren’t enough to halt these strange mindless beings.

Years before, Mikey had condemned the usage of weapons. His vision for the greatest gang there ever stood to be had been founded solely on his unshakeable willpower, that sheer strength, their unbreakable bond. How things change.

On his end, Takemichi fends off a zombie in corporate attire. The adrenaline causes his blood to run hot then cold, quick then sluggish through his veins. The baseball bat in his grip shimmers under the fluorescent lights, spattered with brain matter and spilled guts. He glances down at the lifeless body of what was probably a salaryman trying to provide for his family. He can’t stop humanizing them in this way, even when they’re actively trying to turn him into one of them, soulless and barren and always hungry.

“Takemi—!”

He turns just in time to watch as Mikey’s outstretched arm disappears into a crowd of infected closing in on him, and then he’s bolting, sprinting towards where they’re gathered and pushing his way through the stench of decay. Pure desperation and terror propels him forward, allows him to knock out three in one blow in order to clear a path to Mikey, struggling to free himself from where one of them has managed to grab hold of his hair, blonde strands threaded through bloodied fingers.

Heart pounding away in his chest, Takemichi swings the bat down hard, slams it onto the creature’s wrist so that it withdraws its vice-like grip with a muffled roar of pain. Mikey immediately launches himself at it, and the thick soles of his boots collide with the zombie’s stomach. It flies back through the air, hits the unused train carriage with an impact strong enough to shatter glass.

And then they’re running.

Later, on the chilly cement floor of an empty warehouse, they sit in silence in front of the fire Takemichi had coaxed out of the last of their matches and a broken tin can.

“Your friend, Akkun,” Mikey starts, shattering the quiet of the last hour. “Did he ever become a hairdresser?”

Confused, Takemichi faces him. Mikey is staring intently at the flames, embers dancing across the pitch black like diamonds in a coal mine. “Y-yeah,” he replies slowly. He’d told Mikey that more than a decade ago. “He did Hina’s hair for the wedding and everything.” The brief mention of her name is a punch to the gut, and he’d always thought he was somewhat of an expert when it came to scrapes and bruised ribs, but there’s something more poignant about this brand of hurt, frigid and biting. “Tried to do mine, too, but those things are never right on me.”

“Hmm.” There’s that sound again, and Takemichi braces himself for what’s to follow. “I hope you learned something from him.” An object, sharp and metallic, glides through the space between them. Takemichi blinks at the pair of scissors unearthed from the depths of who-knows-where.

Mikey’s expression is far too neutral to be anything other than carefully cultivated, the bright halo of his hair standing out starkly against the gloom. Takemichi understands.

He shakes his head. “Mikey-kun.”

“Cut it,” Mikey says.

“I—”

“It’s a liability.”

“It was a fluke,” Takemichi protests. “It’s never happened before, has it?” He’s pleading now, but he doesn’t care. I just got you back, he doesn’t add. I can’t lose you again.

“I don’t want to find out.” Mikey looks at him then, those black holes burning straight through to Takemichi’s center. “Do it.” It’s an order this time, in a voice tinged with the kind of steel that would have commandeered the movement of mountains, the type that drew people into its orbit only to spit them back out, wrenched open and different.

His memories of Mikey are all ensnared in gold, the filmstrip of his life chopped and spliced into seemingly random frames: wispy, fluttering strands glinting in the sunlight and spilled out across whatever surface Mikey deemed worthy enough to rest his head on—a stone bench, dry grass, Takemichi’s lap; waking up to a mouthful of feathery locks as he clung to the edge of his bed while Mikey laid his claim on both the mattress and the blanket; unfiltered moonlight casting a sheen of yellow-white as Mikey walked along the shrine steps and into the dark without a backward glance.

The scissors are cool in Takemichi’s grip, the blades scratched and stained and harsh on the pads of his clumsy, inexperienced fingers. He lifts them up to the light, snips off a big, uneven chunk. Without warning, tears build in the corners of his eyes and spill down the sides of his cheeks in slow, steady streams.

The first time he has the nightmare, it goes like this:

It’s a scene that will forever live etched onto the recesses of his subconscious, one he’d be able to place anywhere. A cacophony of yells, cheers, and taunts that blur into a wall of white noise, the rust-like scent of blood that drips from his nose and the corner of a busted lip. Gravel rough under the skin of his elbows, his body shadowed by the form of Kiyomasa, stalking towards him with the intent to hurt. He calls for a bat to finish off the round and—

Nothing. Mikey doesn’t arrive. The air doesn’t still and a hush doesn’t spread over the once-raucous crowd. There’s no Draken, tall and imposing, leading the way for a commander who isn’t coming. Takemichi squints over Kiyomasa’s shoulder in one last futile attempt, and then the splintering pain of wood meeting flesh and bone is all he knows before the darkness comes.

Other times, the nightmare goes like this:

He’s twenty-six years old with zero to show for it, stuck in a series of dead-end jobs with no money, no friends, and no memories to break up the mind-numbing monotony of his mediocre existence. His life was never fueled by uncertainty, despair, and the worst kind of helplessness he’s ever felt, only to be tempered by a sensation of fierce loyalty, the sort of camaraderie most people would die for, and the tight, unspoken things that lived at the back of his mind for a boy who stood at the top of the stairs of a place of worship and led them into battle.

When he wakes from these dreams, it’s with a gasp and a shudder and a shower of sparks beneath his eyelids. And as he lets the disjointed thumping of his still-racing heart lull him to sleep, he tells himself that he’ll do anything, everything, whatever it takes, to protect what he has. Even if it kills him.

In the barn next to a dilapidated farmhouse, buried underneath a mound of dust and hay, Mikey uncovers a carton of eggs. Takemichi’s shout of victory echoes along the tranquil fields, a sense of unbridled enthusiasm he hasn’t felt since he was fourteen years old and was informed that the friend he had hauled on his back through the pouring rain would survive.

He gets a fire going with a thin bit of plywood pulled from the slightly damp walls, cracks an egg as carefully as he can over a flattened sheet of aluminium. Mikey crouches beside him and watches their dinner being made with the sort of intense focus Takemichi has only ever noticed on him in relation to procuring baked pastries and tracking an enemy gang’s movements.

“Takemitchy,” Mikey says, urgent, as Takemichi slides a cooked egg onto another sheet. He stares at Mikey in alarm, which swiftly melts away when what follows is, “You know I like my fried eggs with the yolk side down.”

Takemichi gapes at him, caught in between the sudden desire to laugh and cry, because here’s Mikey, twelve years gone and still the same old brat. “Go ahead and starve, Mikey-kun,” he responds, all the while knowing he’s going to prepare an additional batch to suit his preferences, anyway, because he’s still the world’s biggest sucker, especially when it comes to his former commander. Maybe Mikey isn’t the only one who hasn’t changed after all.

The triumphant, borderline-smug satisfaction of a feline consuming a proverbial canary that radiates from the blonde when presented with his second serving is nearly enough to make Takemichi regret giving in so easily. And once they settle down to eat, barely five minutes pass before Mikey is scooting closer, drawn to the runny eggs still piled high on Takemichi’s makeshift plate. His own is picked clean.

“Don’t think about it.” Takemichi’s pitiful efforts to shield his meal from greedy hands and wandering eyes are promptly ignored. “Is this what living with you would have been like?”

Mikey raises an eyebrow, a hint of playfulness lurking in the gesture that causes a bout of nostalgia to rush through him. “What do you mean?” he asks airily. “We’ve lived together for years.”

“Eh?” is Takemichi’s very thoughtful and articulate reply. His arm drops to the side, and Mikey grabs the opportunity to swoop in like a hawk and shovel the last of Takemichi’s eggs into his expectant mouth.

“You’re always in the kitchen,” Mikey adds, as he continues to munch traitorously on the first decent form of sustenance they’ve had in weeks. “You can make all types of taiyaki. You want to sell them, but that’ll mean less for me. And you do the cleaning.”

“Sounds like a lot of fun for me,” Takemichi comments dryly, even as he pictures the petulant tilt to Mikey’s lips as he tries to convince the other that the entirety of the taiyaki on this planet belongs to him alone, the unapologetic grin on his features as he leaves Takemichi to fish his ridiculous hair out of the bath drain in the mornings.

“We used to rent an apartment, but then we decided to get out of the city.” Mikey describes this so matter-of-factly that it’s almost as if he’s reaching into the depths of his memories and unspooling a decade’s worth of shared history for Takemichi to bask in. “The first time you heard a bat, you jumped a mile in the air. You refuse to kill any of the spiders in our bathroom, so I do it. Kenchin and Emma”—the easy cadence to his storytelling fractures around the name and Takemichi’s chest clenches—“live nearby in a house Kenchin built himself. He won’t shut up about it, too. I invite myself over on the weekends, and you bring them bread you baked yourself to apologize. You promise we’ll stay for a while, but it never happens. Kenchin and I get so wrapped up talking and laughing about the good old days, and before we know it, it’s dark outside. They have a kid named after my brother.”

When Takemichi speaks, it’s with words culled from the snapshots that have taken root and begun to bloom in front of him like flowers sprouting in a garden. “Mitsuya-kun sends baby clothes and Chifuyu gives them a cat he calls Baji.”

“The baby is allergic, so you offer to keep it,” Mikey murmurs. The fire crackles and dances. In the distance, the flutter of evening birds’ wings. “You take care of it the way you care for everyone around you. It makes me a little jealous, seeing you love something that much. But I think the look in your eyes is worth it.”

It’s like the oxygen has been sucked from the room, compressing them, trapping them, in a space made for the two of them to fill. “Mikey-kun,” Takemichi starts. He’s standing on the precipice now, the tail end of a bridge that’s about to be crossed while Mikey waits at the bottom and invites him to dive into the abyss headfirst. The thing is, Takemichi would follow Mikey anywhere. He knows it, has known it—it doesn’t even matter. What matters is that he knows, that he believes it, willingly and despite a number of years apart.

All Mikey needs to do is ask.

Then Mikey clears his throat, sets his plate on the ground. “I’ll have to tell Kenchin about it when we meet up with them.”

And just like that, the bubble is pierced and reality sweeps in to stake its claim. Takemichi exhales lowly. “You seriously think—I mean, of course Chifuyu and the rest wouldn’t—not without a fight. But there were so many people there, I hope—”

He recalls the nightmares of his youth, how the sole means to combat and shake off the residual doubts and snippets of fear was to summon up the images of each of his friends to the forefront of his mind, a silent reassurance of their place in his life and vice versa. Lately, he’s dedicated the nights he musters up the courage to do so to repeating this same act: Draken, Hakkai, Smiley, Takuya…Hina.

But Mikey cuts him off with a scoff. “That was a hell of a guest list you had, Takemitchy. None of those guys would ever leave anyone behind.” He states this with the same quiet conviction he’d adopted during those bleak hours in the emergency ward, when he’d done his best to keep them together while the doctors worked to bring Draken back. “Don’t tell me you’re the one giving up.”

Mikey had put up a strong front then as well, and Takemichi wonders if he’s still doing it now. If the walks he sometimes goes on by himself are to shield his companion from his own budding terror and anguish. But what he doesn’t understand is that he doesn’t have to go at it alone, that as much as Takemichi thinks of those he may or may not have lost, there’s no greater relief than when he wakes up and realizes that it’s Mikey next to him.

Takemichi nods. “You’re right, Mikey-kun. We’ll catch up to others soon, and everybody will be really happy to see you again.”

In another universe, the sun will rise and paint the walls of the house they live in with streaks of red and copper. But for now, he has this, and he wouldn’t dare ask for anything else.

“I want to see that place one day,” Mikey tells him, wistful, as Takemichi’s Babu speeds through the streets, the rest of the world flying past them in a blur of color and sound.

Takemichi blinks away the remnants of the tale Mikey had spoke of with such reverence, that cloudy gray sky hanging low over a vast concrete structure fit for a king but housing only piles of rubble. “Yeah!” he exclaims before he can stop himself. “Let’s go.”

Mikey beams at him. “You’d go with me?”

And Takemichi doesn’t say, With you, anywhere.

“Did you think about us much while you were gone?” Takemichi directs his question at the sky, moonless and dark save for drops of star-spilled light. Did you think about me much while you were gone?

Mikey lies with his back on the packed dirt, hands behind his head and fighting a losing battle with the threads of drowsiness beginning to tug him in. “No,” he eventually says, and it comes out as a sigh.

“That’s harsh, Mikey-kun,” Takemichi attempts to joke. “Figured I would have at least made an appearance.”

Silence greets this sentiment, and when Takemichi turns on his side, Mikey is fast asleep.

“Mikey-kun, this is a pretty thoughtless thing to say right now, but today’s our big showdown with Tenjiku.”

Amidst the stillness of the hospital corridor, Mikey is nothing more than a man carved from stone, his blank, desolate stare fixed firmly on a point on the tiled floor. Looking, but not seeing. The purple shadows cast around the lines of his jaw highlight the bruises already starting to form.

Takemichi clenches his fists, awash in the all-too-familiar crush of desperation that’s lived with him ever since that fateful afternoon at the fighting ring. “It was Kisaki,” he adds with barely suppressed rage. “Mikey-kun, I’ll fight Tenjiku alone if I have to.”

Mikey doesn’t stir. Takemichi inhales through his nose and releases the air from his lungs, slumps heavily onto the hard plastic seat. “Sometimes,” he says, “I have this dream. Well, it’s more of a nightmare, really. I see myself in the future, what my life would have been like if I didn’t stand up to Kiyomasa. And it sucks, Mikey-kun. Honestly, if you met that version of me, you’d think I was even more pathetic than I am now. I’m this flaky, hopeless moron who spent his entire middle school years as a slave. I never met you or Draken-kun, I’m not happy or sad or anything at all because all I do is run from the things that have the potential to hurt me. And you know what the worst part is? I can totally see that happening. You told me once that I was strong, but the truth is, if you hadn’t shown up that day, I probably wouldn’t be here. That’s why I’m going to do whatever it takes to save your dream. I’m not going to let Toman end here. Just let me carry it for you until you’re ready, and it’ll be waiting for you when you get back.”

He gets to his feet and departs without another word. But as he walks towards the exit, he swears he can feel the force of an equally as familiar black gaze propelling him forward.

This time, the nightmare goes like this:

A cloudy gray sky hangs low over a vast concrete structure fit for a king but housing only piles of rubble. He climbs through broken windows, down unfinished staircases. Dust and dirt rise from the ground as his shoes scuffle the once-uncovered corners of this hallowed place. Searching. He’s searching for someone. His blood is alight with the usual thrum of determination that fuels his movements.

A halo of weak light filters in through a gap in the ruins like a signal fire. He follows the direction this leads him to, and there, sitting at his rightful place atop a heap of debris that rises from the wreckage like a throne, is Mikey. He looks different, with short black hair and a dragon tattoo curling up the side of his neck. More like the older brother Takemichi has only ever been compared to but never met.

At the sight of him, Takemichi is filled with joy, the sheer relief of having finally, finally found his way back to the man in front of him. He’s been searching for far too long. But with that reassurance comes an inkling of dread. This is more than a simple reunion. Something towers over them and it is not quite right.

Then this Mikey turns to him with a piercing glare he doesn’t recognize and says, “Kill me.”

Takemichi jerks awake with a gasp and a shudder and a shower of sparks beneath his eyelids. Sweat beads along his brow and seeps into his hairline. The residue of the tears that had built up but have yet to fall linger on his lashes, threatening to spill over. And across from him, lying on a threadbare burlap sack surrounded by old apple crates, is the Mikey he had left behind only a few hours ago when he gave in to the unconsciousness. Still blonde, still short-haired by choice and in spite of Takemichi’s strenuous objections, and currently cracking open a sleep-dazed eye in concern.

“Hey.” The greeting is muffled from where his mouth is still half-concealed by the fabric. “What’s going on?”

“Just a nightmare,” Takemichi replies as the hammering in this ribcage dies down.

Mikey yawns. “The same one?” He drags himself into a sitting position, small tufts of hair sticking out from the side of his head. Like this, he’s young and open and vulnerable. Fifteen again. He casts a swift glance at Takemichi, and with that touch of deep-rooted intuition he’s always had, decides not to press the issue.

Takemichi deflates slightly. “Sorry,” he says. “Having nightmares at this age must be pretty lame, huh?”

“Takemitchy.” Mikey frowns at him. “The world is literally ending. You’re lame for a lot of reasons, but this isn’t one of them.” And before Takemichi can do more than make a noise of protest, he adds, “The first few months after Emma died, I didn’t sleep at all.”

“I don’t blame you, Mikey-kun,” Takemichi says, hushed and all too aware that Mikey is allowing him the briefest of glimpses through the window of his lost years.

“It was a long while before I could sleep like I used to.” Mikey’s gaze is distant and probing, glazed over with the relics of a past Takemichi can’t reach. “I thought I’d seen it all, been through the worst life could throw at me.” A scene flashes through Takemichi’s mind, brief as anything: Mikey, cradled in his arms in a pool of blood. My life was nothing but pain. “But no one predicted this.”

“No,” Takemichi echoes. “No one did.”

“Go back to sleep, Takemitchy,” Mikey orders. “You don’t need to worry, you’ve got me.” It harkens all the other instances Mikey had called upon his power as the sole pillar for their group of delinquents, those who would have marched into hellfire and back if he was at the helm.

And Takemichi almost laughs, because how a zombie apocalypse could provide any sort of comfort is beyond his scope of imagination, but then again, so rarely has anything been reasonable when it comes to Mikey. “Yeah, I do.”

Takemichi senses him before he sees him, the heat and ache and fear that drifts away in the wake of his sudden arrival. He has no room in his soul for anything as disfiguring as hatred, but Kisaki and Izana standing before him is more than enough to get him to put all his force into a punch he knows will just send him reeling back.

His fist stops midway on its journey and he can taste the palpable confusion in the air around him, mixed in with another emotion. A melancholy undercurrent to what can only be described as the worst kind of victory. Because at one end of the shipyard and moving towards him like a lighthouse in the midst of a raging storm, is—

“Mikey!” A series of cries reverberate in unison, the tones that range from awestruck to incredulous to disgruntled melding together into a single name that holds a multitude of meanings.

“Mikey-kun,” Takemichi repeats after them. “What are you—not that I’m not—but Emma-chan…” He trails off when Mikey sidesteps Kisaki and Izana without so much as a flicker of acknowledgement, crosses right into Takemichi’s space and threads his fingers through the blood-slick hair at his nape. Takemichi rests his his chin atop Mikey’s shoulder, breathes in the salty-sweet scent that conjures to mind colorful candy wrappers and motor oil.

“Thank you, Takemitchy,” is all Mikey says, but it still manages to get Takemichi’s eternally working tear ducts going, even when bruised and beaten to hell. “Thank you for saving my dream.”

And Takemichi does not say, You saved me first, because he truly doesn’t know where or what or who he’d be if not for the boy with his arm still around him, the pain of his sister’s loss swimming at the edges of his vision. Takemichi has never been to the ocean, but he’s more than familiar with the pull of the waves that crest over your head and threaten to drag you into the undertow.

Mikey releases his hold and returns to the fray. Takemichi watches him go, keenly aware of every bit of distance put between them.

On a billboard advertising a holiday inn three miles ahead, the phrase SURVIVOR CAMP is spray painted in black, the edges of each character lined in gold. An arrow drawn underneath directs them east. Takemichi traces the curves and ridges of each symbol as if they hold the answers to his unasked questions.

“Well,” he declares. “I think at this stage we’ve got nothing else to do.”

Mikey’s lips curl into an enigmatic smirk. “Let’s go.”

He walks on, but Takemichi hangs back, squints at the sign once more. He’s missing out on something, an inherently obvious clue hiding in plain sight.

“You coming or what?” Mikey’s question jolts him to the present. He sounds amused.

Takemichi shakes his head, hurries to join him. With you, anywhere.

As the still-confused and tearstained murmurs of the departing captains fade into the night, Mikey’s voice rings high and clear above the crowd. “Takemitchy,” he calls. “Stay.”

Takemichi remains frozen in place, has, in fact, been rooted to his spot since Mikey’s surprise announcement upended their lives as they know it. To his left, Draken halts at the edge of the trees, catches his confused look and shoots him one filled with an emotion he can’t fully describe.

“You know what this is about?” he asks, but the former vice-commander simply shrugs his shoulder in response.

“Better not keep him waiting, Takemitchy,” is all he replies, and if Takemichi had to spread out the lilts and nuances that comprised this statement, he’d say that it almost read like sorrow.

Everything around them is cold and subdued, as if the land itself has absorbed their shock and mourning. Takemichi jogs up the trail to the top of the stairs where Mikey waits for him. Despite his imposing stance, his expression is serene, unbothered.

“Sorry for keeping you,” he starts. “But there are a couple of things I want to say before it’s too late.”

Takemichi’s blinks, bemused. “Mikey-kun, what—”

Mikey tilts his head to the side, surveys the rustling leaves and stone paths that encompass his dominion below. “It’s funny,” he says. “The moment I first saw you, you were getting your ass absolutely handed to you.” Takemichi might have been offended had this not been gospel truth. “But it was impressive, you know? Because somehow that didn’t matter. After my brother…I never thought I’d meet anyone like that again.” He laughs to himself. “My brother found a sense of destiny in those twin engines. And that’s how I felt seeing you on the field that day. Your back was bigger than anyone’s, like you had a mission to complete and you weren’t going to let anything get in your way. And now I know why.” The clouds shift and moonlight bathes the shine in brightness. “Takemitchy, I thought I’d be creating a new era for delinquents. But you’ve helped me achieve what I’d have otherwise spent my entire life doing. Every man who stood in front of you today is the result of your—our—work. I couldn’t have done it without you. I’ll always remember that.”

Takemichi sniffs, wipes hastily at his cheeks. Mikey’s praise is warming him to the core, but beneath that lies a faint ringing in his ears that trill like alarm bells. The unease further grows when his now-former commander adds, “You’ve saved my dream probably more than I know. So I’m going to return the favor.”

“Mikey-kun.” Takemichi stops, tries in vain to will away the tears that won’t stop coming. “You don’t have to—for you I’ll do it—” All over again. As many times as I can.

And then the axe falls.

“I’m leaving,” Mikey says. “And the reason I’m telling you all this is because we might not meet again.”

Takemichi pauses, allows that to twist and regroup into the space between them. “What?”

Mikey tips his chin defiantly at the sky, his eyes as fathomless as the constellations that lie scattered far beyond their reach. “I told you that real strength means not losing against yourself. And the truth is, I can feel myself turning into someone I can’t control. I don’t know who I’ll be in five, ten years. No one does. But if I don’t do something now, I’ll lose.”

The world has shifted off its axis and tossed Takemichi along with it, and he’s drifting, all at once defying gravity and unbearably, hopelessly tethered to the core of the earth. “You—you also told me that if you weren’t acting like yourself that I should scold you, bring you back. Mikey-kun, I would—”

There’s no light reflected in Mikey’s gaze when he turns to Takemichi with a small smile. “That’s precisely it. When I said that, I didn’t know—I didn’t think I could stand to have more taken from me.” An unbidden image invades Takemichi’s thoughts: Kisaki at the intersection. His unresolved last words. I’ll tell you why, I was there first. “But I did, and now this darkness is settling in. Maybe it already has. I can’t be sure, but I don’t want anyone, especially you, involved if it does.”

“You can’t—” Takemichi curls his fingers, grits his teeth. “You can’t just decide that. I’m not the only one who’d do anything to help you. Draken-kun—”

“You heard Kenchin earlier,” Mikey cuts in. His resolve has and forever will be his defining feature, a covenant coated in steel and shackled to the walls of his impenetrable, impossible mind. “He has no objections. Takemitchy, you’ve carried my dream for long enough. I want you to focus on your own.”

“How am I supposed to—” Let you go. Forget you. Pretend you never existed.

“This is my decision,” Mikey reiterates, and there’s no room for debate. “I—I don’t want to be weak. Maybe I don’t have to be. But that’s on me to figure out alone.” And then, hesitantly, he lifts a hand to the back of Takemichi’s neck and pushes their foreheads together. His face softens. “Takemitchy, there’s something I should say. I’ve always meant to say it and never have. But this isn’t the time. If we run into each other in the future, I’ll let you know then.”

Takemichi swallows the tightness lodged in this throat. “I’m going to hold you to that, Mikey-kun.”

Mikey stares at him. He stares back. Stars glitter overhead, and Takemichi’s shoulders are worn down by the weight of this empty conversation filled with unspoken words.

When Mikey goes, he does so without a second glance.

Salvation arrives in the form of the abandoned konbini they stumble upon when they cross into the next region. The shelves are mostly picked clean, a veritable inch of dust blankets the floor, and the windows bear stains of questionable origins, but after weeks of traipsing through a seemingly endless stretch of forest, Takemichi will gladly latch onto any tiny bit of civilization he can get.

The first mistake they make is separating. But like two sailors stuck at sea and starved for any hint of land, be it the actual thing or a memory of one, the siren song of this unexplored treasure trove proves too irresistible to ignore. Once inside, Mikey goes right. Takemichi sets his bat against an upended postcard rack near the entrance and goes left.

The previous afternoon, as they shoved aside branches and bristles and thorns, Mikey said, apropos of nothing, “I would kill a man for some taiyaki.”

“Understandable, Mikey-kun,” Takemichi wheezed, too winded to respond properly.

Then Mikey had added, with utter sincerity, “I would kill you for some taiyaki.”

“Less understandable, Mikey-kun.”

Call it self-interest, curiosity, or just plain old stupidity, but despite the general state of the place, Takemichi still veers to the aisle tucked away at the far end, where the snacks and sweet treats are usually housed. He ventures further in, winces when the tip of his shoe collides with the wheel of an old shopping cart with a tremendous squeak. As expected, the back area is as depressing as he assumed, nothing but dirtied paper cups and crumpled cartons and—wait.

The glint of transparent film peeks over the edge of a high shelf and alerts Takemichi to its presence, a forgotten piece lost in the pandemonium of the hundreds of patrons that had ransacked the store before them. He extends his arm, curses the genetics that had contributed to his less-than-average height, and succeeds in enclosing his hand around the mystery item.

A misshapen object lies in his grip, the wrapper so weathered by time and grime and who knows what that the covering has all but faded in color, the expiration date chipped off, and the carefully printed label scratched and scrubbed over. He runs his thumbs across the dips and ridges of the plastic, maps out the shape of what is undoubtedly a fish even with the tail part crumbled into powder and oozing hardened red bean paste. “Mikey-ku—”

It’s the smell that signals their proximity; a distinct one, the scent of rotting flesh and decay. From around the corner, two infected beings emerge, and their appearance causes a chill to run down his spine. Only the scraps of their orange uniform aprons remind him of their previous humanity. The rest of their features have been warped beyond belief, skin tinged gray and pupils crusted in milky white. Before Takemichi can reach automatically for the baseball bat that isn’t beside him, the one nearest him lunges.

He manages to lift an arm at the last second, and the creature braces itself against this unexpected barrier, jaws snapping. With a sharp twist of his torso, he elbows it in the nose and ducks, and the air is knocked from his lungs when the second zombie comes up behind him and hurls him to the ground. His back hits the cold tile as he grapples with the body on top of him, one hand curled protectively over the package held tight to his chest while he pushes back at the zombie with the other. This close, the whiff of disease is overpowering, pungent and gnarled and totally inhuman. Then the first infected descends on him again, mouth open wide and aimed at his jugular, when—

WHAM. A pressure is eased off him as the zombie astride him slumps over, and Takemichi is left blinking at the sudden view of the ceiling. Mikey swings the metal bar again, finishes them off with a swift blow the way he used to deliver roundhouse kicks capable of defeating twenty thousand men should he have desired it.

After, he silently offers a hand for Takemichi to grab and hauls him up. And it’s only when Takemichi is standing upright again does he notice that Mikey is scowling at him. “Takemitchy,” he begins slowly. “You’ve always been an idiot, but I didn’t realize you had an active death wish. Why the fuck didn’t you fight…” His tirade tapers off when Takemichi brandishes the taiyaki at him in a muted apology. “What is that?”

“It’s…taiyaki?” Takemichi offers meekly. Mikey doesn’t budge. “I found it there, and I know it’s probably old and gross and expired, but I couldn’t not give it to you, and—”

Mikey lowers the aluminium bar, his eyes flat. “You risked your life to bring me expired, store-bought taiyaki?”

Now it’s Takemichi’s turn to glare. “Sorry, but I think I missed the thanks you should be showering me with. Besides, you’re the one who threatened to kill over this! Sue me for trying to curb your murderous impulses, Mikey-kun.”

Then Mikey does the strangest thing. He grins, sharp and electric. “Takemitchy,” he says. “You’re my hero.” And before Takemichi is given the chance to untangle the complexities of that surprising declaration, Mikey leans forward, fists his hands into the smelly, ruined fabric of Takemichi’s T-shirt, and kisses him.

Mikey kisses the same way he lives: with a reckless abandon drenched in fire and glory and the sheer knowledge that the entire world is capable of falling at his feet. Takemichi has still never been to the ocean, but he thinks he might finally recognize why it is that people let the pull of waves crest over their heads and drag them into the deep. But beneath that is an even more profound sense of urgency with the force of twelve years behind it, a wordless order from his former commander: Kiss me or die.

And Takemichi, despite any and all evidence to the contrary, does have some self-preservation ingrained in him.

Drunk on the evening of his twentieth birthday party, Chifuyu saunters up to him and drapes a loose arm around his shoulders. Over the noise and the hoots and the cheers of their entire group, with a single notable exception, thoroughly enjoying themselves, his best friend says, “Sometimes, I think you and Mikey-kun were the greatest thing that should-have-fucking-been.”

His intoxicated contemplation quickly morphs into terrified bewilderment when Takemichi instantly bursts into tears.

It’s the last mention anyone makes of Mikey for the next six years.

This time, Mikey is waiting for him.

“Tell me,” he says as Takemichi jerks awake with a gasp and a shudder and a shower of sparks beneath his eyelids. “Was it the same one?”

“No,” Takemichi replies. He can still taste the tang of rust on his tongue from the blood that had streamed from the open wounds on his chest. “You shot me. Three in a row. And then you jumped.” The arm wrapped securely around Takemichi’s waist tightens a fraction. “But I grabbed you, anyway. Promised I’d save you no matter what.”

“Save me,” Mikey echoes, and there’s something lurking within this murmur. “From myself, you mean.”

“Sometimes,” Takemichi starts, “and this is going to sound like bullshit, Mikey-kun, but sometimes I think these aren’t nightmares. That they’re actually happening somewhere, in another reality where I didn’t try so hard. Like I have this power to change things. Which is, you know, pretty funny. A guy like me with powers, ha.” Mikey’s loaded silence speaks volumes. “In this one, though, everyone was happy.”

Mikey fills in the blanks. “Except me.”

“And me.” Takemichi shifts on his side when he feels Mikey staring at him. “It didn’t matter what I had or what I stood to lose. I would have found a way, for you.” Despair and anguish lingers in his windpipe, the memory of the tight grip on his hand slowly slipping from his grasp.

“Even if you gave up their happiness?” Mikey’s question is careful, controlled.

Takemichi reflects on their current situation. He ignores the uncertainty that resides at the back of his mind, a silent spectator that lies in wait for the next unsuspecting moment of weakness to draw him into the suffocating blanket of preemptive grief. A life with Mikey and only him. He thinks of the first six years he spent with Mikey’s absence as a visceral companion, and the six years after that where he could almost pretend he’d never thought of him at all. Until recently.

There’s nowhere to go from here but on.

“There’s a place where we’re all happy and together,” Takemichi responds with the same determination that had laced the statements preceding the most violent beatdowns he’d taken in the past. “And I don’t care what else is going on, but it’s definitely this one.”

Mikey sighs, long and slow and with the barest edge of a smile to it. “Hey, Takemitchy, remember when I told you there was something I’ve always wanted to say, and that I would tell you if we ran into each other again?”

All the air freezes in Takemichi’s lungs. “Yeah.”

“I think now is the right time to let you know that…” Mikey looks at him intently and Takemichi can’t breathe. “…you should have really gone back to your original hair color sooner.”

The breath that Takemichi had been holding rushes out of him like a popped balloon. “Eh?”

“Seriously, that dye job did you no—” The rest of Mikey’s admission is muffled by the nearest object Takemichi has to suffocate him with. Which happens to be his mouth, but it gets Mikey to shut up so he counts that as a win.

When he’s twenty-four, Tachibana Hinata walks into the store where he works. She’s an elementary school teacher, there to return a DVD she’d borrowed for one of her classes. Takemichi glances up from the cases he’d been stacking together and nearly sends the entire tower flying.

“Takemichi-kun,” she greets, voice a soft lilt and as lovely as ever.

“Hina-chan,” he says in awe. She’s a ghost, a spectre from what would have been the prologue to the novel of his adolescence. He had mostly admired her from afar, never quite believing despite Akkun’s teasing remarks and her own shy grins that someone like her could be interested in him. Then the second year of middle school rolled in, and with it, the courage to ask her out. And he would have, had he not been pulled, suddenly and startlingly, into an entity far greater than he dared imagine. A group of boys and the one who led them, tossing him into the depths of an experience so unforgettable and worthwhile that the borders around the rest of his days thereafter would always be unconsciously filled in by this defining movement.

But now, with that whole era laid to rest, maybe he’s being given the chance to start anew.

They go for coffee and then a walk along the pier, and with the twinkling lights of the city mirrored on the water below and in her gaze, Hina stops in her tracks and laughs, as if to herself. “You know,” she tells him. “I had a big crush on you in middle school.”

And for the first time in what could have been forever, the blurred outlines that had encircled the last decade of Takemichi’s life are shoved back into clear focus.

Two years later, he buys a ring.

After a week of travel, they arrive at the gates of the camp. The soles of Takemichi’s shoes have worn away to practically nothing, and each step he takes closer is like walking on a pile of marbles. “Hey!” he yells into the slivers of space between the wooden fence. “Uh. We’re survivors?” Mikey stifles a laugh.

There’s no response.

“Hey!” he calls again over the noise of his now-hammering fist, and the impatience fueling this action causes patches of paint to fall like snowflakes. “Hello? Actual human beings out here!”

Then, finally, a burst of static from within followed by a scratchy, crackling bellow filtered through the unmistakable blare of a megaphone. “Well, how do you know you aren’t messing with us?” There’s something vaguely familiar about the exact brand of blatant absurdity that accompanies this question, but Takemichi is tired and drained and so dead on his feet he might as well be a zombie. Beside him, Mikey stiffens in place.

“Because we’re having a conversation?” he demands. “Can any of those infected bastards even talk? What the fuck, Peh-yan?”

Then it hits him.

“Peh-yan,” he whispers. Mikey cracks a wide grin, all teeth and pure elation.

Another burst of static, the sound of a minor scuffle on the other side, and a different voice emerges. Low and disguised with a tinge of annoyance that belays the heavy relief embedded in it. “Oi, Mikey, what took you so long?”

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Kenchin,” Mikey says, and Takemichi’s head spins in a whirlwind of shock and disbelief and joy. The cocktail of heightened emotions hits him like the real thing, dizzying and overwhelming and like he could pass out at any second.

And then, par for the course, he actually does.

“Maybe you should give it a rest, partner,” Chifuyu cautions when Takemichi opens up his phone to check for another text that isn’t coming, the deadline for confirming attendance having passed with only ten days before the event. “Yuzuha’s not going to be happy if she has to rearrange your seating chart.”

Takemichi ignores him. I want you to come no matter what. Every other piece of correspondence he’d penned as part of his recent and futile efforts to reach Mikey had been marked as return to sender. All except for his wedding invitation.

His decision to try and find Mikey was both spur-of-the-moment and intrinsic, as if uncovering a desire that had merely been buried within a shallow grave for the past few years. Chifuyu choked on his beer when Takemichi initially brought it up, and the rest of their friends were equally as perplexed by his newfound determination. In the end, only Kazutora had volunteered to help, with nothing more than a shrug and an offhand comment about how everyone else had gotten to see Mikey before he’d disappeared except him as his reason for doing so.

Chifuyu is still talking. “You know how you spent the last six years pretending Mikey never existed, and all of us were pretty confused but went along with it? You might want to consider doing that again.”

Takemichi blinks at the still-blinking cursor inside the empty message box. There’s so much he wants to say, lodged in different sections where they lie restlessly in wait. In this throat; in his fingers, itching to tap out a litany of phrases he doesn’t dare attempt to articulate; in that clawing, beating organ beneath his ribcage.

Chifuyu is undeterred. “Besides,” he muses, “isn’t there a saying about how you shouldn’t invite an ex to your wedding?”

And this is what ultimately gets Takemichi to cough and sputter and look over his shoulder as if someone might overhear them in this packed bar. “That’s not why—Mikey-kun is not—”

“Yeah, you’re right,” his best friend concedes. “Exes is too direct a term for whatever the hell you two had going on.” He rubs his chin in thought, snaps his fingers. “What about Guy With Whom You Danced Endlessly Around Much to the Mutual Frustration of Literally Anyone Who Knew Either of You?”

“You’re hilarious,” Takemichi intones, even as blood rushes to his cheeks, his ears. “And that was very smooth delivery, I might add. How long have you been waiting to spring that on me?”

“I’ll never tell,” Chifuyu replies, then his expression grows solemn. “For real, though. There’s a reason people advise against it. Aren’t you worried those feelings might, I don’t know, come back?”

Takemichi ducks his head, stares right through the wall of white on his phone screen. He’s always been someone who felt too much, too fast and too keenly, down to his bones like a constant hum. But Mikey had been more than he bothered putting a definition to because he was afraid of what the answer might be.

“No,” he says, and it’s the truth. Because the thing about suppressed emotions is that they can’t return if they never really left.

Reality hits him in gradual waves that ripple through the stillness. Heat from the high noon sun. Soft, tended soil and dry grass under his palms. Above him, the babble of indistinct murmurs build into a crescendo that carries these voices to the clouds in a windswept swirl of words. Slowly, pictures blossom in his mind’s eye, names and memories attached to each one.

“…still missing. Hakkai?” Mikey’s question, steeped in concern.

“They’ll make it.” A proclamation uttered with easy confidence. His heart seizes. Chifuyu. “We never raid the same area twice. Everywhere we go, we’ve been leaving signs.”

A wry chuckle follows. “Knowing Yuzuha, she’s probably dragging Hakkai here by the neck as we speak.” Mitsuya.

“Bet you Inupi was inspired by Mikey’s Cinderella entrance.” A laugh that escapes from a permanent grin. Smiley. “Wouldn’t be surprised if he’s busy tracking down Koko.”

“Oh!” A gruff, braying yell from further away. “Last I heard he was working for the national bank. Wonder if he’d be able to withdraw from my trust fund while they’re at it.”

An exasperated sigh. “I keep telling you, money’s useless now, Pah. Your shit’s just as worthless as the rest of ours.” Peh-yan.

“Say that to my ski lodge in Sapporo, asshole.”

“I’m sure a very nice zombie family is enjoying the fruits of your hard-earned nepotism.” A smirk colors the tail end of Kazutora’s response.

“Screw you, I work hard! Peh, tell them how hard I work.”

“You’re getting your wife to fight your battles for you now?”

“Shut up!”

“All of you shut up. You want every infected within a two-mile radius climbing over those walls again?”

“Oh, so I see that’s how well you’ve been running this place, Kenchin.”

“At least I’ve done something useful. Only thing you managed to drag with you was Takemi—ow! The fuck was that for?”

“Don’t say that about Takemitchy.”

“Hah?”

“Oh, crap.”

“Don’t tell me…”

“This is—”

“Not unexpected.”

“—complicated. This is going to get very complicated.”

“Oi! What are you guys whispering about over there?”

“Your receding hairline.”

“Eat shit, Mitsuya!”

“Hey,” Takemichi croaks. He sits up. “Ever heard of giving an unconscious man some peace and quiet?” He runs a hand over his face, and his surroundings swim into focus. Sunlight seeps in through the gaps in his fingers. Waves and shapes dance along the edges of his vision and solidify into the forms of his friends.

“Takemichi,” Mitsuya says, striking gray eyes set against the backdrop of a bright blue sky. “Quite the dramatic entrance as usual.”

“You guys…” Takemichi takes them all in in a slow-motion circuit. Mitsuya. Draken. Kazutora. In the distance, the telltale combined forces of the Kawata twins’ hair. Pah-chin with his arm around a petite brunette. Peh-yan slouched against an old flagpole. And there, lurking in the background, is another familiar figure. “Akkun!” he exclaims. “Is it just…?”

Akkun shakes his head. “Makoto is with me.” A slight strain lingers by the ends of his mouth. “The rest… Well, I’m sure Takuya is at his wits’ end trying to keep Yamagishi in line.”

And then Chifuyu barrels into his space, beams at him with open and unadulterated relief. “About time you got here, partner.”

“Chifuyu.” It is, quite frankly, an honest-to-God miracle he’d managed to hold out on the crying for this long. But now here it comes, clouding his just-cleared sight. “How did you—”

“That can wait.” His best friend squints at something over his shoulder. “You might want to stand for this. We’re not the only ones who’ve been waiting for you to show up.”

Draken raises a skeptical brow. “Should he? Last thing we need is him fainting again.”

Chifuyu snorts. “Fair enough.” All the same, he helps Takemichi to his feet.

“What are you—” He turns around and his breath catches. Because Mikey is looking at him like he’s trying to commit each of Takemichi’s features to memory, black eyes tracing a path from the curve of his arm to the dip where his neck meets his shoulder, the line of his jaw to the tips of his lashes. “Mikey-kun.” He’s awkward and unsure under the insurmountable weight of this scrutiny, of being examined from every angle under the twin points of an inscrutable gaze. “Why—”

That’s when he hears it. A sound, spun from the purest section of his soul and bathed in celestial brightness. Reminiscent of warmth and home, of safe havens and the lightest of touches.

“Takemichi-kun!”

Everyone parts like the Red Sea as a great, terrifying certainty grips at his chest. He cries out, loud and indistinct. And then he’s running, colliding with the body that crashes into his arms. Some kind of tension in his head snaps, a sensation of loss that is eased from him at the feel of the face pressed into the crook of his neck. Her eyes shine, her bottom lip trembles, but she keeps it together while Takemichi, in typical fashion, dissolves into a mess of tears.

“Hina.”

“What do you think?” Yuzuha pulls aside the heavy drapes of the makeshift fitting room, and the rest of the world is reduced to background noise when Takemichi gets a glimpse of layers upon layers of lace and tulle, the intricate beading interwoven from the high neckline down to the floor-length skirt.

Chifuyu lets out a low whistle. “You are one lucky bastard, Takemichi.” A chorus of agreement from the others follow suit.

Hina twirls in front of the mirror, meets his glance in the reflection with a gentle smile. And for a minute, he’s not in the middle of Mitsuya’s studio, well-lit and airy despite its size. Instead, he’s sitting astride a CB250T with an engine that hums beneath him like the flutter of wings. He’s standing in an empty park while snow falls in drifts around him. He’s climbing the steps to the top of a shrine. And at his side through it all is another person for whom he’d defined his life around, offering him this same soft gesture.

He doesn’t notice he’s crying until Hina turns to him, brow wrinkled in concern. “Huh. What’s wrong, Takemichi-kun?”

“Nothing,” he says. He swipes at his eyelids. “It’s nothing.”

Mikey is avoiding him.

It’s a reasonable enough conclusion to reach, when, seventy-two hours after their arrival, he’s already grown used to tracking every bit of distance the other man puts between them. When he catches Draken and Chifuyu trade bland, neutral stares that simmer with exasperation. When he overhears Peh-yan ask Mitsuya outright: “Why are those two acting like they just broke up?”

It would be so easy, he knows. Easy enough to never let go of Hina’s hand, to sleep curled against her on a lumpy mattress and breathe in her very essence, to put himself through the motions of a relationship built over two years. Easy enough to chalk up everything that happened in those strange, surreal weeks to the adrenaline, the doubt, the anxiety. An interlude to reality powered by nothing more than nostalgia.

But what he’s sure of is this: that he’s been praised all his life for never backing down in the face of danger when he’s spent the last twelve years denying what could have been. That he loves Hina, cares about her, but she deserves so much more than the likes of a man with only fragments of himself to give because the sum of his parts was claimed long before by a force so formidable, it had to be called Invincible. That as grateful as he is to be reunited with those he thought he’d lost, there’s still a piece of him that has to swallow down disappointment when he wakes up and realizes it’s not Mikey next to him.

He could run. He could choose the coward’s path and run. Run from the potential hurt and pain this would cause. Run towards the best possible outcome for him and him alone, that would allow him to keep what he lost and found without giving up what he has now.

But he’s gotten a glimpse of himself on the run, been punched and kicked and bruised and scraped, been confronted with the worst that could have happened to everyone he’s ever cared about and still stood strong and defiant and determined. He’s no coward.

So on the fourth night, he turns to her. “Hina,” he starts, slow and stilted. “On the way here, Mikey and I—” He chokes, breaks off. And then throws all caution to the wind as a torrent of words spill unfound from his lips before he can think to stop them. “It was you, okay? When we were together, it was just you. But before you, it was Mikey. And he—it was always so much bigger than the two of us, but I didn’t—we never—Toman wasn’t exactly the best place to—but I guess a zombie apocalypse is? That’s not important. I love you, but it’s not fair when you deserve more than this, and…and…why are you looking at me like that?”

Because Hina is watching him fumble and stutter with the same patient understanding that had made her a fantastic teacher, empathetic and kind and able to see right through to the root of an issue without further explanation. “Takemichi-kun,” she replies. “It’s okay. I already know.”

“You…” Muted ringing echoes in his mind. “…couldn’t have said that earlier?” he asks weakly.

“And interrupted that spectacular confession?” She shakes her head, brows raised. “No.” Then she smiles, small and secret and maybe a little bit sad. “The look in your eyes, when you see him. It’s the same. As that day.”

Takemichi is certain he must be gaping like a fish out of water, gasping airless under the weight of her understanding. “I’m sorry.”

She lifts a hand and cups his cheek, brushes away the tears that have begun to track down them with the pad of her thumb. “I love you, Takemichi,” she says. “But you’re not mine.”

“Hina.” He utters her name like an apology, a promise, the beginning of the end. “You’re too good for me.”

“Oh, trust me,” she jokes. “I know.”

But she leans in closer, rests her head against his shoulder and threads their fingers together. Their soft, even breaths intermingle in the breeze, a melancholy undercurrent that tastes like a bittersweet goodbye. And he thinks, maybe happy endings always hurt. But all the same, it feels like redemption.

He stands awash in the sea of pride that emanates from his friends and family in the crowd. The music builds, the audience rises, and light spills into the room as the double doors open. Hina steps out, her brother, Naoto, on her arm, and Takemichi is a man transfixed. It was even through a bit of sharp thinking on Chifuyu’s end that he’d gotten Hakkai’s beauty team to skip the groom makeup with the argument that Takemichi would have cried if off before Hina had even made it down the aisle. He’s quickly proven right.

They reach the front and Naoto leads his sister to Takemichi’s side, shakes his hand and leaves behind only the lingering press of warm skin against his palm. Hina faces him, the minister gestures for the ceremony to begin, emotion swells heavy and cloying and immense in his throat. And then it’s the two of them and no one else, and Takemichi—

Senses him before he sees him. Detects the same shift in the air that accompanies a lifetime of watching and waiting and wishing and hoping, as if the very space they’re in has no choice but to stretch and adjust to accommodate his presence. And in the lull between those three heartbeats, Mikey emerges, an apparition from the past and a vision of the future. Static roars in Takemichi’s ears, his brain short circuits as it struggles to fill in the blanks of all the ways the other man has changed and stayed the same.

Time stops. Their eyes meet, and the world shifts off its axis and tosses him along with it, and he’s drifting, all at once defying gravity and unbearably, hopelessly tethered to the core of the earth. His pulse races like the contents of a bottle slowly sinking to the depths of the ocean floor, helpless against the pressure of this fathomless, endless pull. He wonders what expression he’s wearing. He’s not sure he wants to know.

It almost comes as a relief when a horrified, drawn-out scream shatters the stillness and violent pandemonium erupts in tandem with the swarm of infected hotel staff that crashes through the walls.

Draken finds him brooding atop a sack of rice by the wooden shed that in its previous iteration had been used to store varsity equipment, but currently houses their carefully segregated rations. “I lost a bet with the others,” he says by way of greeting. “So, what’s wrong?”

“Mikey-kun is ignoring me,” Takemichi replies, a hint of a whine creeping into his response. He hates that he’s essentially been reduced to his teenage self, but old habits die hard.

A prolonged, extremely deep sigh filled to the brim with all the long-suffering a non-verbal gesture can convey escapes from the taller man. “You ran into your fiancée’s arms the minute you got here. What else did you expect?”

Takemichi can’t help but wince at the cold, hard truth to that. “That’s—we’re not…anymore. I still love her, but it’s done.”

Draken heaves another gusty exhale, then folds his body in half and drops down next to Takemichi. “You chose Mikey,” he states, words parsed and carefully blank.

In an effort to spare his friend, Takemichi bites back the urge to spout some corny line about how it was never really a choice. “Yeah, well.” He twists his fingers together. “Guess you can say I’ve technically been doing that my entire life.”

From the pinched, somewhat awkward grimace that follows, Takemichi has a feeling that one wasn’t any better. But Draken also seems pleased, like he can’t quite believe they’ve gotten this far. “Takemichi,” he says. “I tried to stop him from coming to your wedding.”

Takemichi jerks his head at him in surprise. “Eh?”

“He showed up at the shop the day before, and I told him not to come. Said you were happy and deserved the future you were heading towards.” A hint of mirth plays about the creases around his eyes, his mouth. “Thought it was gonna be a fight then and there.” Takemichi spares a moment of sympathy for the D&D bike shop, wonders if wrenches and screws and spare parts would have been hurled across the room still. “Seeing him again, it was like seeing a ghost.”

Takemichi remembers the repressed regret and grief that had shadowed Draken the night Mikey bid them goodbye. “Did you think you would run into him again?”

“No,” Draken admits without hesitation, and there’s a lingering touch of the resignation that must have been the product of twelve years of steeling this resolve. “Or that if I did, it would only be as somebody that I used to know. But over the years, I realized that when he left, it was hard on all of us. But it must have been hardest for him the most. He did what he thought was right, to keep from falling off the edge.” He smirks. “Guess it works out for both of us that he’s a stubborn bastard who refuses to listen to anyone. Even himself.” And with that, he rises, dusts himself off. “He’s probably behind the outhouse. No one ever thinks to go back there.” Fair enough, neither did Takemichi. “For the sake of everyone in here, get yourselves together already.”

Mikey is sitting on a stack of crates, feet planted firmly on the soil and forearms braced on top of his knees, gaze fixed on some point in the distance, when Takemichi finds him. He barges unceremoniously into his hideout the way he once tumbled into a warehouse, frantic and uninvited, on the day of the fight with Moebius, only to be received by Mikey’s cool detachment.

There’s something strangely reminiscent of that afternoon when Mikey gives him a barely-there nod of acknowledgement. “Takemitchy.”

“Stop avoiding me,” Takemichi says, getting straight to it.

Mikey directs a dull, slack-jawed stare at him. “Shouldn’t you be with your wife?”

A muscle twitches in Takemichi’s temple. “Yeah, funny thing about that, we never actually got to finish our vows.”

“Are you asking for permission to have your wedding here?” Mikey starts, already turning away from him in what Takemichi knows is his tried and tested tactic for putting an end to conversations he doesn’t want to have. Tough shit. “Because you should take that up with Kenchin.”

“Oh, real mature, Mikey-kun,” Takemichi snaps. “And so expected of you.” Mikey doesn’t move, and Takemichi’s frustration builds into an inferno, one that ignites a flame of rage he hasn’t seen the likes of since he watched his childhood mementos get tossed to hell and back while trying to end a fight between the two strongest people he’s ever known. “Oi, Manjirou, we’re talking about this. Because you’re the one who left first, remember? With some kind of half-assed explanation on why we’d never meet again, like you could just be who you are to me and expect me to live with that. Then you crash my wedding—”

“Technically, you invited me.”

“—after ignoring all of my attempts to find you. Do you know what I would have done for you? No, because you never asked. You never do. But I would have stayed with you, Mikey-kun, I would have, but then you were gone, and I...” As quickly as it had flared, the fire inside him is snuffed out, leaving room for the residue of those years of loss to surface. “Why did you even come back?”

Mikey is silent for another minute, and before Takemichi can throw his hands up in irritation, clamp them on his stupidly broad shoulders, and shake him into compliance, he says, “You did, by the way.”

“What?” Takemichi pauses in mid-air, his arms already outstretched. “What did I do?”

“Save me,” Mikey replies, and Takemichi is stunned, dazed, caught in the headlights of this quiet confession while Mikey directs the rest of it at the sky. “When I left, I thought the darkness would get to me. To be honest, I was fully prepared to let it. But then, you.” A half-smile unfurls along one side of his cheek. “I heard your voice in my head all the while. Yelling at me, telling me what to do.” He snorts. “It was the single most annoying thing to live with, but it kept me sane. Brought me back every time.” He casts a sideways glance at Takemichi. “So, congratulations. Maybe you do have a power over things. Or over me, at the very least.”

Takemichi will not cry, now, and reduce this entire exchange to the climax of one of the romantic dramas Hina would force on him and which he’d have to expressly pretend not to be invested in. “Mikey-kun…”

“When you asked me if I thought about everyone while I was gone,” Mikey continues in the same peaceful tone, as if he’s speaking from some great height, like he’s not baring his soul to the sun and these phrases hold no weight or value. “I said no because I didn’t have to. Everywhere I went, you were all with me. Like my brother, Emma, Baji. So maybe you think I left you, but you never left me, not really.”

It’s currently a losing battle against the ever-present tear ducts, ready to go at the first instance of any sort of strong reaction. “You didn’t answer my question, though. Why’d you come back now?”

“Because you wanted me to,” Mikey says, like he’s surprised Takemichi has to ask, like it’s a fact, one so unquestionable his intent should have been obvious from the start.

“I—” Takemichi wipes his eyes. Damn this. “You can’t just say things like that, Mikey-kun.”

The other man hums, a sound that had preceded a whole multitude of things that defined Takemichi’s youth, every single one of those fleeting moments injected with yearning and unsaid meaning.

This time, it’s a wicked grin that flashes, quick as a wink, across his features, the sliver of teeth bared sharp and playful in the manner he’s always adopted before delivering a winning blow. “Can’t I?” he teases. “It’s the truth.”

Takemichi is full-on crying at this point, the type that should be accompanied by rose petals and a string quartet and a fade-to-black ending montage of all their greatest hits. “Sorry,” he manages with a shaky laugh. “I don’t know why I’m—” He sniffs. “This is embarrassing.”

Then Mikey finally puts a definition to everything that has been building between them for their whole lives, whether together or apart. What Takemichi, when he dared to imagine, hoped is what Mikey really meant to tell him on that cold night in March twelve years ago. “This is love.”

He’s standing on the precipice now, the tail end of a bridge that’s about to be crossed while Mikey waits at the bottom and invites him to dive into the abyss headfirst. Two hundred feet off the ground and feeling all the while like he’s falling regardless because Mikey is looking at him like—

Well, to be honest, like he always has.

So Takemichi—

Jumps.

“Okay.” His voice, when it arises, is thick, choked out through a smile of his own that appears in between a certifiable waterfall of cascading tears. “Wait, you’re sure, right?”

“What, you’re not?” And then Mikey is up and crowding into his space, the man he fought for and with and his way back to. “Are you going to tell me it’s too late?”

“Don’t be a jerk, Mikey-kun.” The rebuke is undercut by the fact that he’s already gravitating closer to the warmth promised by the blonde’s skin. “If anything, you deserve to be kept waiting.” Then another thought occurs to him and he grows smug. “So, you liked me even then, huh? The dye job did work for—”

Mikey is laughing when he kisses him.

It ends up being a good thing no one goes behind the outhouse.

The world around him descends into chaos like a shattered mirror, fragmented and spliced, and in the shards of the reflections that surround him as humanity falls apart, he watches the carnage unfold as if through a series of brief, terrifying flashes.

Flash: the snarling body of the friendly receptionist at the front desk lunges at the minister, sinks its teeth into his shoulder.

Flash: he and Hina spring apart like rubber bands. She’s immediately caught up in the mob on the right. He’s forced into the crush of people on the left.

Flash: Draken jumps in front of Yuzuha and knees an infected bellhop in the stomach.

Flash: Pah-chin, fists flying, while his wife comes at a group of zombies with the gilded chair she’d been sitting on minutes before.

Flash: the twins, their backs to each other, deliver as many blows as they can in order to clear a path to the exit.

He cries out, loud and indistinct, but it’s easily lost amidst the other screams and shouts. He pushes uselessly through the wall of bodies that enclose him, struggles in vain against the current as he’s swept away by the tide of panicked guests attempting to flee to safety.

Somehow, he finds himself alone in the service hallway at the back of the building, along with the lifeless corpse of the man who was about to marry him to his wife-to-be. And before Takemichi can so much as blink, the minister’s prone form twitches, his limbs seize and jerk and contort, and his eyes reopen, in them this time a primordial thirst for blood. The newly-turned zombie launches itself at him with inhuman speed, has him pinned to the wall by the neck as Takemichi wheezes and kicks and fights against the black that has begun to creep into his vision. Then, just as suddenly, he’s dropped to the ground in an ungraceful heap.

Mikey stands over him as air expands his lungs and his windpipe burns while tears that have nothing to do with his crybaby tendencies sprout under his lids. The other man’s knuckles are clenched and covered in brain matter and dried blood, the lines around his eyes and mouth tight with their own thirst for vengeance against those with the intent to hurt. Takemichi’s heart is beating so fast that for a second he wonders if he’s dying. But he doesn’t feel like he’s dying, he feels like he’s been waiting, waiting for—

“Mikey-kun.” He forms the word with his lips, lets it rest against his tongue, utters his name the way he has in all variations across the full spectrum of human emotion. “Hina and the others, they’re still in there—”

“We’ll find them,” Mikey says. “Stay close to me.”

That’s what Takemichi has always done best.

“So,” Chifuyu says from their spot by the watch posts. “It only took the apocalypse, huh?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Takemichi replies, blatantly refusing to meet the outright amusement in his friend’s eyes. His own cheeks are still stained red from the blush he’s convinced is going to be a permanent fixture on his face after the kiss Mikey had hauled him in for before departing. One which, according to Chifuyu, was as if the Earth possessed a limited supply of oxygen and the sole method of survival was to suck the air out of each other’s lungs. Mitsuya had to cough at least four times before Mikey finally released him from his hold.

Within weeks, Takemichi had slowly been reintroduced to life as a vital cog in the well-oiled machine that was the camp, an entity that only grew smoother with Mikey back in charge. Their group, accustomed to following his orders, had settled into their new roles as if they’d been working as a unit for years. There were other occupants as well, survivors from around Tokyo and beyond that had drifted in during Takemichi’s absence. All were welcome. All for one, one for all.

Three days before, it was unanimously decided that another supply run was needed. Especially after Yuzuha and Hakkai showed up that same afternoon, and Hakkai’s gleeful cry at being reunited with his beloved Taka-chan had nearly sent Draken into an early grave. The former commander and vice-commander were the obvious picks, along with volunteers Peh-yan and Smiley, both of whom had never quite lost the urge to engage in a good old-fashioned fight. It was made doubly more attractive to them now that their enemies could be killed without the guilt of having gone too far.

“And Takemitchy is coming, too, of course,” Mikey had declared without bothering to gesture in his direction.

A short silence followed. “Uh, Mikey-kun,” Chifuyu ventured. “We kind of need Takemichi in here to help with the distribution line.” Takemichi’s natural fairness paired with his stint as the manager of a DVD store meant that he had a knack for being able to sort and prepare the camp rations in such a way that everyone was guaranteed equal shares. There had been a ninety percent decrease in allocation-related arguments ever since he stepped up to the task.

Mikey directed a flat, almost droll glance at Chifuyu in return. “I don’t care. Takemitchy is”—he turned and looked at Takemichi with such an unexpected flare of heat that Takemichi half-expected him to finish that statement with something like, Mine, and he swiftly ignored the traitorous portion of his brain that actually wanted to hear it—“staying with me no matter what.”

“Mikey,” Draken interjected loudly. “This isn’t just about you. There are other people to consider here and you know it.”

Mikey tipped his chin up. Draken met his challenging glare straight-on. Takemichi zeroed in on the heavy weapons within the vicinity of their reach, the shotgun strapped to Draken’s back.

He didn’t bother trying to risk it. “He’s right, Mikey-kun. My place is here. This is where I’m needed.”

“Then I’m staying,” Mikey said, stubborn as always. “You aren’t getting rid of me yet.”

“Never,” Takemichi replied, and Chifuyu made a gagging noise in the background. “But they’re going to need the Invincible Mikey out there. So go and come back, okay? I’ll be here.”

And Mikey had huffed under his breath and crossed his arms and for an instant they were fourteen and fifteen again, with Takemichi wishing he could have said all this the night Mikey told him goodbye. “You know I will,” he eventually relented, and that had settled it.

“I just want to make it clear,” Chifuyu says now as Hina and Yuzuha walk past them and wave. “You did not deserve someone as understanding as Hina-chan.”

“You asking for permission, Matsuno?” A strangled, choking sound erupts in response, and Takemichi makes use of Chifuyu’s temporary loss of the capacity for speech to fix his gaze on the men getting ready to leave in the distance. The slight blonde figure throws his head back and laughs, and from this far away, Takemichi knows he’ll only see fire in those black eyes, that weighty and determined stare.

Mikey will come back to him. He always does.