“While there have been a handful of cases ending in death, authorities assure us that the virus is not, in fact, a danger to us,” he declares with that little chuckle that got him a special hashtag on twitter. Yaku smiles widely, easily, grateful with each new word that he is not among the news broadcaster who are trying to push the panic in the country. “An antidote is in development and almost ready to hit the market. So let's keep it civil, shall we? It's not like the apocalypse is coming.”
“It's not?” Lev asks, with a small pout. Yaku’s eye twitches.
He counts to ten in his head slowly, like the lady from the ‘I Am Not My Anger – Keeping The Work Place Chill!’ seminar had pounded into his mind. Not that he would have needed something like that before Lev showed up.
His smile feels strained, but Yaku keeps it up for the rolling cameras. “That is no reason to pout,” he says, sweetly, through gritted teeth and with his hands in fists under the table. How immature can a person be. “Safety is a good thing, and I'm sure our audience agrees.”
Lev sighs and puts his cheek in his hand. “But isn't that boring? Wouldn't it be sorta cool? Like in the movies!”
There's something in Yaku's gaze that Nekomata must recognise despite this being the first time ever it has shown. He's calling for them to cut to ads a second before Yaku decides fuck counting. He whirls around, spits: “People are dying !” and jumps at Lev, fist swinging.
“It’s a good thing Nekomata reacted so quickly,” Kai muses, pushing a cup of black tea closer to him. Yaku exhales sharply, unable to count how many times he counted today. He’s so sick of counting. He’s so sick of his new co-worker.
“What the hell is happening to me?” Yaku asks, staring down at tea that seems as black as his future might become if he keeps this up. “I’m a professional. I’ve been running this show for five years without incident. There've been other topics which should've shaken me far worse than this stupid virus – but with Lev added I just ... snap.”
Kai chuckles. “Well, we saw that.”
Yaku lifts his gaze, sending him an unimpressed stare. Betrayed by his best friend.
“What!” Kai laughs, raising his hands in surrender. “Don't give me that look. For real, though – is it really just Lev?”
Yaku raises his head, brows furrowed in honest confusion. “What do you mean? Of course it's just that air-headed bastard.”
Kai shrugs. “Sorry, I guess I just – didn't that virus break out in the area you used to live in -”
Yaku fiddles with a pen, the Nekoma logo printed on it fading slightly. “It's not like I have any family left there. I haven't spoken to anyone in … ages.”
He tries not to think of him . Of course it doesn't work. But … Kuroo moved away long ago – why would be be in danger, then? Wherever he is … he's probably happy and safe and sound. Yaku twirls the pen around his finger until it flies off in a weird angle and drops to the floor.
Kai keeps looking at him, a heartbeat or two. When Yaku doesn't say anything more, his friend drops the topic. “Well, either way - you’ve got to get your temper under control. The studio won’t get rid of Lev - he’s an audience favourite already.”
Yaku groans and buries his head in his hands, grateful for the change of pace. Being mad at Lev is so much less complicated than everything else. “I don’t think I could get along with him even if a gun was pointed at my head.”
Yaku swings the baseball bat, narrowly misses Lev, and bashes in the rotten head with a sickening crunch and squish. Lev's green eyes stare at him, wide and far too innocent and young, it seems. Yaku huffs, lowering the bat. He doesn’t want Lev to get hurt in this mess, no matter how much he hates him.
He wants to protect these wide, immature eyes.
“Cover your fuckin’ face,” Yaku barks. “Don’t let any liquids get you or you’re the next I send back into their grave.”
With a whimper, Lev nods and scrambles off into the break room, where Inuoka and Nekomata are busy building a safe space and enhancing their weapons, which are, frankly, underwhelming so far.
“Don’t you think you’re a little harsh on him?” Kai asks. Yaku presses his lips together, spinning the baseball bat in his grip, trying to get a better feeling for it. Baseball would have been a better choice than volleyball in High School, he figures.
“You think they’ll send me to another chill seminar for this?”
Kai laughs, the most amazing sound in the silence a crumbling world had left in the studio.
“I sure am glad you have no chill right about now,” he replies, and then: “Where do people in zombie movies get their machetes? Pretty sure those would come in handy.”
Yaku laughs in turn, but it feels hollow in the face of the apocalypse.
“I was such an idiot, wasn't I?” Lev asks, sniffling. He's been crying for so long, his face is snotty and tear-stained and his body won't stop trembling, no matter what Yaku tries. “Saying it'd be like in the movies. But it's just death and pain and hunger and -” He breaks back into sobs.
Yaku's heart breaks a million times over. He's so far out of his depth. All Yaku knows is that he needs Lev to stop crying, to keep his fighting spirit. The last shreds of his innocence, too.
He reaches out and flicks Lev's forehead, getting him to peek one swollen eye open.
“Of course it's not a movie. We don't even have a cool soundtrack.”
Lev barks a laugh, and then he won't stop hiccuping, and giggles again. It's a snotty, wet, gurgling sound. It's beautiful.
“You're right, Yaku-san.”
“Aren't I always?”
They've been driven to abandon the studio. Their home.
It hurts more than Yaku would have anticipated. Leaves them on edge, without orientation. Huddled close together, they stay silent, withdrawn in a make-shift camp that feels … wrong. Has left them feeling even more uncertain than before.
Shibayama is trembling. Lev has his legs drawn up, face buried in his knees.
Inuoka is picking on his nails and the skin around until Kai spies blood, curls his fingers over Inuoka's hands, making soothing little noises and shuffling a little closer.
Yaku isn't quite sure what he feels.
He just wants to sleep, and not wake up for a long while. Until this nightmare is over. Only it's not a nightmare, it's what life has become. This is reality.
Nekomata begins to sing. It catches all of them off guard. Music – when had they last heard music?
It's an old little nursery rhyme all of them know. Shibayama stops trembling, and Lev lifts his head. Inuoka stops any attempts of freeing his hands from Kai's grip – accepts the gesture as a comfort.
And Yaku doesn't know what to do with himself, the bittersweet melancholy welling up inside him. They all stare at Nekomata when he's finished, sending them a stern gaze in turn. “What? Y'all wanna tell me you don't know the words? I wanna hear some noise, boys!”
It's unexpected. Unabashed. Freeing.
They sing one song after the other, and they don't stop. Lev declares it karaoke, and goes around picking two people to form duos, and they're having the time of their life. Who isn't singing dances. Dancing! Yaku almost forgot what it felt like, to laugh freely.
Kai demands a dance with an idiotic curtsy and twirls him around until Yaku is dizzy, declaring it 'the dance of survivors'. “It's more dance of the drunk,” Yaku huffs, and Kai throws his head back and laughs.
Inuoka, Shibayama and Lev are holding hands and jumping in wild circles. One of them will probably smack into a wall soon, and it makes Yaku laugh even harder.
In the corner, Yaku sees Nekomata, watching them with a warm smile.
The dizziness, the sudden happiness, the giddy feeling of being alive. It's all thanks to him. Nekomata saved them, yet again.
Yaku isn't sure how he could ever the show the man his gratitude.
Every step of the way, he had saved their lives, time and time again.
“I can’t ask anyone else, they don’t have the guts.”
Yaku’s hands are trembling. He’s not crying, but he wishes he could. Like a little boy, in the face of terror and agony. He wishes he could cry, but he doesn’t.
He never cries for anything they lost.
“Nekomata-san - …” The weapon in his hands feels heavier than it ever has, those past weeks.
The ever unravelling frays of humanity Yaku keeps clinging to feel more fleeting, too.
“Boy. I am old and I am hurt. I’ll only hold you back.”
“You don’t - you wouldn’t -” His voice gets away from him, panic rising because he knows already what Nekomata is asking of him. But they can't – not now – they're doing so well, not a single crew member lost so far.
They can't lose the glue holding them together. The man who had been watching over them for so long – first as their boss, and then –
He's the one keeping them sane and in check. Nekomata is the source for all their hope and strength.
“Boy,” Nekomata repeats, and it makes Yaku feel young, feel lost. “I can’t keep walking. They’ll get me. You got enough mercy in your heart to let me die human, don’t you?”
The words are final.
Yaku knows he can not argue against them.
Deep down, he knows that Nekomata is right. He's never hated anything more, and a much stronger part of him is still childishly trying to argue.
“But, I - I don’t know how to – keep going…”
“Yes, you do,” Nekomata tells him, gently. His voice is rough like the bark of an old oak tree, but his presence has always been unwavering and strong. What is Yaku without him? What would he be?
What … will he be … ?
“I know you can do it, my boy. Keep ‘em safe, will you? Those airheads, they need a leader. Someone to watch over them.”
Yaku nods, even when it feels like fate had decided that taking his life and all he knew isn’t enough. No, it has to take the roots of his present from him, too. His guide and mentor.
He’s not ready for this. He’s not ready for what Nekomata is asking of him.
“I’m proud of you, Morisuke. Never forget that.”
Part of him wants Nekomata to shut up. How is he supposed to - ?! All this is only making it worse! So, so much worse.
“Even though you had to send me to so many seminars in the end?” he asks, trying to make some light of the situation, but his thin voice fails him.
Nekomata closes his eyes, answering with a grin that baffles Yaku in its peace. That kind of expression is incomprehensible to someone of his age, Yaku muses, reserved to someone who had seen far, far more than he had.
“Maybe even because of that. Your fighting spirit did bring us through the apocalypse, eh? And it will continue to.”
Nekomata sounds so certain.
“What am I going to tell the others?” Yaku asks, quietly. They won’t accept it. Kai, he will. Lev and Inuoka … Shibayama …
“The truth, what else? That I died human.”
The weapon feels heavier still. If Yaku wouldn't give it to Nekomata – would hide them all away from him, lift the old man on his shoulders, drag him along -
But he respects Nekomata too much to treat him like some child incapable of making his own decisions.
“I’m sorry to ask this of you,” Nekomata says, truly regretful. “I could not ask anyone else. No regrets, boy, you hear? If you do I’ll raise from the ashes to kick your ass!”
Yaku laughs, hollow, and it pushes the tip of a knife into his heart that has not yet managed to slice it in pieces, but will. So soon. Too soon.
The weapon is heavy in his hand, and he’s talking to a man who has led him through his life. Who is about to put an end to it. And Yaku will burn his body.
Return to his friends.
Tell them the news.
Yaku is tired.
He is so, so tired.
Later, when the heat of the flames burns his eyes, Yaku pretends it’s tears.
He’s not crying.
He only feels numb.
Shibayama falls asleep tightly curled into Inuoka’s side, both of their eyes red-rimmed.
Lev has not moved from his place at the furthest edge for over an hour. There’s a crack in the roof from which they can see the stars. He’s staring at the sky and Yaku wonders if that wide-eyed innocence has vanished yet.
He meant to protect it, was ready to fight tooth and nail for everything that makes Lev Lev, that used to get on his nerves so much, but it figures that Yaku failed that, too.
Kai reaches out to touch him in a comforting gesture, and Yaku flinches away from him because his hands are dirty still, too dirty to be touched, because it was him who just burned - who didn’t keep Nekomata from - who gave him the -
Who heard the gunshot and -
“I’m going on a supply run,” he mutters, pushing himself up.
“I won’t let you,” Kai interjects, reaching for his wrist and holding onto it, even when Yaku tries to yank himself free. “Not when you’re like this.”
“Please,” Yaku whispers, voice almost cracking. “I just need some space.”
Kai is silent for a long while, then drops his hand from Yaku’s wrist.
“Promise me you'll be careful,” he tells him. “I won’t lose you, too.”
He clutches his arm, the pain so blinding it crushes his optimism that maybe nothing’s broken.
There are too many to take out when he's alone and hurt.
One ripped Yaku's pants, rotten teeth only narrowly missing his skin.
At the end of this, Yaku will not even be granted the mercy to stay dead.
Part of him understands better now. Why Nekomata had made his decision, gone through with it. When death was inevitable, its infinity was the only comfort left in a world such as theirs.
Yaku thinks of how his rotten body will wreak havoc on this earth - try to attack his own friends. Who would have to be the one to end the rampage? His best friend? Lev, with the last light vanishing from his eyes? Inuoka, who was already forgetting how to laugh?
Yaku misses the sound of it.
The sound of the songs they used to sing, when Nekomata was still around.
He misses the sound of life, every waking minute.
Is this how it will end? He’s seen too many acquaintances with chunks of rotting flesh peeling down their faces as their milky white eyes trained on him like a juicy piece of meat. In the end, he’s nothing more to them than … food. And a future accomplice in their war against life.
It’s not death Yaku fears as the noises fill his ears.
It’s what happens after.
He can’t believe this is how it ends.
“Are you okay? Yaku, jesus, talk to me.”
Maybe he is dead.
But the hands fleeting across his body are big, they're warm, and he knows that voice.
“Yaku, c’mon - c’mon, not a single scratch on you - still as human as they come - don’t die on me now -”
“I won’t die that easily,” he chokes out despite his fuzzy mind and tongue. There’s a choked up noise, caught between a sigh of relief and a bark of laughter, and someone pulls him a little closer, and that hair tickling his neck is unmistakable.
“I can’t believe you’re here.”
Kuroo grins, and something about him still feels like the teenage boy Yaku used to know. A remnant the world and life he had lost. Kuroo is a memory, but now he is here, and maybe – maybe he is the future.
And Kenma is hovering behind him. Yaku can not believe that he found the two of them – that they found him – in the middle of the god damn apocalypse that cost so many lives, dragged so many people apart.
Kenma's fingers only stop twitching when he gets to patch Yaku up, and Kuroo won't stop looking at Yaku while his friend works on a proper bandage for the broken arm. He allows Yaku to squeeze his hand to get through the pain, and his eyes are bright as if he can't believe it – just like Yaku can't believe that they're runited.
As soon as Yaku can speak through the pain, he tells them – about the studio, about the people with him, the little camp they build up and abandon every few days, how they are travelling, surviving.
Part of him hopes that Kuroo and Kenma will stay with them so desperately, it feels like he won't be able to carry on if they will leave again now. So he doesn't even dare to ask.
“If we stay together, we may just make it,” Kuroo whispers, the first night, when both Yaku and him are still lying awake in the dark.
And Yaku pretends his relief isn't so heavy, it almost chokes him. He wants to shuffle over, curl into Kuroo, taste a hint of safety and protection.
But he stays perfectly still and silent where he is, closes his eyes against the onslaught of emotion. Way too intense.
Way, way too intense.
Kenma is always cold, and Lev is warm, and he sleeps curled around him like a lion around a kitten.
Yaku’s heart feels a little lighter.
Kuroo brings fresh wind and dumb jokes. He fires everyone up, knows the best places for supplies and brings raw fighting power and determination their team so badly needs, can never get enough of. He works Lev hard so the airhead will be able to protect himself soon. After training sessions, Lev's eyes are alight.
Kenma is their brain – thanks to him, they reduce their fights by half – dodge most of them, tip-toe around the edges of territories. He knows this area inside and out. And Kenma patches all of them up, endures Lev's attentions and Yaku to smother him in affection.
Inuoka laughs again. Shibayama smiles along.
Kuroo is the only one who draws more than a small little smile a day from Yaku. And he's warm.
It’s good to have the two of them here.
“I’m awake the longest, I run the farthest, I fight the hardest, and you dare accuse me of - !” His throat hurts from his screams, but Yaku can’t stop it. Not even when everyone can hear him. When he can feel the eyes of his friends - (by now it feels more fitting to call them his family) - bear into him.
Kai is trembling. “I’m not saying - that’s exactly what - you work yourself like a machine, you’re the best of all of us, you’re our leader but - !” Kai took a shuddering breath. “You never, ever talk to me. All you can do is rattle off facts, things that need to be done, or shout!”
“That’s not all I do!” Yaku shouts back. He opens his mouth again, the truth crashing down on him. Crashing down on the shell he’s built around himself from the first time a baseball bat hit the head of a zombie with a sickening crack, which had hardened when he had lit that fire, and with every day a little more.
There are so many skills he has been forced to learn to survive, to protect his family, and he has learned all of them.
“Please,” Kai tells him, almost begging. “Let me help you. Let us help you.”
Yaku gulps for breath and he can’t stay here, not around them, not with the eyes of people on him he promised to protect. They can't watch him crumble. He's here to keep his family safe.
What kind of person would he be if he wouldn’t value his last promise to Nekomata?
Yaku turns on his heel and he runs.
This night, he breaks all his rules.
Don’t go out alone.
Don’t go out triggered by your emotions.
Don’t move aimlessly.
It does not matter, none of it. Yaku needs some air, or else he’ll go insane. Even more insane than he is already.
Even in the face of the apocalypse and people’s lives depending on his ability to function the best he can, underneath the crushing weight of the past two years, he can not stop his feet from moving and carrying him away, farther and farther.
Kai is right and you know it , some part of him whispers. But if Yaku allows himself to open up - what will happen when he - ?
It’s happening already. His strength is unravelling fast and faster.
I owe my family. I owe him to keep them safe.
He has to be strong. He needs to be strong.
The steps behind him are unmistakably human, he should have known, would have if he wasn’t that on edge.
If those footsteps had been those of a zombie, Yaku would have been dead by now.
“Look, Kai -”
Yaku almost flinches, his protective posture only tightening. “Kuroo,” he whispers, weakly, defeated.
“It’s dangerous out here alone. I’m sorry. I can - keep an eye on you from afar, if you need the space.”
Yaku closes his eyes.
That’s what I need. Space. To calm down. To build my shields back up.
He’s nothing without his shields.
He’s just a scared kid.
Like all of them.
At the end of the day, he’s just …
“I’m just me,” he rasps. Kuroo stays quiet behind him. The city around them – rubble and dust built on the death of so many – lies eerily quiet, as always these days. It’s almost normal by now. The past seems like a colourful dream Yaku woke up from too long ago.
“I can't offer them anything but facts and shouting, you know?” It hurts to say all this out loud. A truth he tries not to admit to himself. “If I - let myself waver, I’ll -” He bites down on his lips and the breath is punched from his lungs. It’s so hard to breathe. “I’m scared, Kuroo. I’m more scared than all of you.”
His knees feel so weak, and he simply … gives in to it.
He lets his body go limp so he can simply kneel down on the ground, surrendering to the weight on his shoulders. He brings his hands up to his face, presses it into his palms, and his face twists with a sob stuck in his throat, tears that won’t reach his eyes.
Footsteps echo behind him. Yaku wonders what Kuroo thinks of him now, what he’s going to do, if he’ll leave, walk past him - and then strong arms wrap around him from behind. Yaku gasps, his knees lifted from the grovel digging into his skin, pulled into Kuroo’s lap, against his chest.
His friend holds him close, chin on his shoulder, arms wrapped around him. Yaku’s hands come up to cling to those arms – arms that know how to stitch a wound and use a weapon and cook food and pat shoulders, ruffle hair.
Yaku thinks he wants to pull Kuroo off, push him away, but then he only clings to him.
“That’s what makes you so strong,” Kuroo mumbles into his neck, and it sounds as choked up as Yaku feels. “You keep going anyways. We’re all scared, Yaku. Every single one of us.”
“But I can’t be,” he whispers back, voice flat. He’s so tired. He’s so tired. “I promised -”
“To take care of everyone. And we haven’t lost even one of them. Yaku, I - I know what it’s like to lose … the people you want to protect the most.”
Yaku is still not sure who Kuroo lost exactly, only that he was important, really important. There’s just as much Yaku doesn’t know about Kuroo as the other way around. He wants to live, to keep going. He wants to get to know these things about Kuroo.
“So I … admire you for what you did, what you do,” Kuroo says, voice rough. “But … you’re not alone. Every single one of us is there to protect you just the same. We’re all in this hell hole of a world together, and we’ll be the ones standing last.”
“Even when we’re old and grey?” Yaku asks, tired, trying to joke. His thoughts go back to Nekomata, and he winces, and he regrets his words.
There’s so much he regrets.
“What is it?”
“Do you ever think of the … possibilities?”
Kuroo is quiet for a long, long while. He squeezes Yaku a little more tightly, and Yaku can feel Kuroo's heart beat steadily where his back is pressed against the other man's chest. “All the time,” Kuroo exhales against Yaku's skin. “Even though I shouldn’t.”
The words feel like Kuroo snatched them from the corner of Yaku’s soul he never shows to anyone. Part of him wishes Kuroo would never let go of him - that they could stay like this, tangled together in the dark, hearts beating and the melancholy for their lost world hanging between them without breaking them utterly.
“Me too,” Yaku replies, voice rough.
“But …” Kuroo begins, and then stops himself.
“But?” There’s something in his voice - something that makes Yaku’s heart beat a little lighter. Curiosity, something like hope.
As long as I feel like this, I am still human.
“Sometimes it still feels like there’s … possibilities. Just different ones. I live day by day, from the next meal and fight and safe space to the other. But … when I look at you … it feels like there’s a future ahead, too.”
Yaku can’t breathe. Again, he can’t breathe. His head aches. So does his heart.
“Me, too,” Yaku whispers back, the words feeling too loud even just between them. “You make me … hope. As long as we hope, we’re still human, aren’t we?”
“Would you look at me?” Kuroo loosens the embrace, and Yaku almost mourns the lack of contact, of … safety it had granted him. And turning around – showing his unguarded expression - seems terrifying. More terrifying than the howls of zombies nearby, or the threat of winter. “Please?” Kuroo asks, quietly, and so Yaku does. Slowly, carefully, he turns around, kneeling in front of Kuroo. It’s only the full moon in the sky granting them any light, but Kuroo’s eyes are glinting. He's painfully beautiful. The scars on his face could never change that.
This world could never – would never take the beauty that is Kuroo Tetsurou.
Yaku thinks of Lev and Kenma and Shibayama and Inuoka. He thinks of Kai. He thinks of Nekomata. And he reaches up, cupping the side of Kuroo’s face with his hand, because the fact that even a world as cruel as theirs could hold beauty like this is a comfort in itself.
Kuroo’s hand comes up, to cover his.
“You’re human, Yaku,” Kuroo breathes. “And you keep me human.”
And he leans in, and he kisses him.
Soft and quiet, under the dark sky with only a scatter of stars across it.
It’s a lot like this life, Yaku thinks, his eyes closed and Kuroo’s lips on his, his warm palms on his shoulder blades. Darkness with some specks of light.
But tonight, the moon is bright.
Kuroo holds his hand on the way back. Yaku's heart skips a beat, but there's still an aftermath waiting for him, so his head stays bowed.
He’s gone through so many excuses and explanations in his mind, still no smarter what the right thing to say is. He just knows the only way to move forward is to own up to his mistakes and … try to work on them. Be better. Become what his family truly needs.
He braces himself for their rightful anger.
But when he steps back into the hideout, Lev is the first to barrel into him, followed by Kai and Shibayama and Inuoka crowding him, Kenma a little behind, and Yaku is pulled from one hug into the next, and Lev is crying and hysterical, and when it's Kai's turn, he holds onto Yaku quietly for a long, long time.
And maybe, Yaku thinks, the stars in his sky will keep the night bright - just enough to see the silver lining of morning.
Just enough to get by another night.
And maybe the one after that.