No One Said It Would Be Easy

by Kikuchi Makoto (菊池 誠)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/143677.html)

I hate scavenging apartments–enclosed spaces in general make the back of my neck itch these days–but I’m low on dog food, and the nearest grocery store has zombies in its shattered front windows.

This particular block is in good condition, with most of the doors ajar or at least unlocked. Places like this tend to be zombie-free since their occupants fled before their delicious, meaty smell could attract the undead hordes. On the other hand, they also tend to attract humans, who can be a bit territorial.

Which explains the hunting knife now kissing my carotid artery.

Peripheral vision tells me that the wielder is a boy about my age, but not much else. I raise my hands and almost say that it’s all right, I’m not a zombie. But since he’s holding a knife to my neck in the first place, I doubt that information is necessary. I also suspect that talking will cause me to slit my own throat, one way or another.

Marco chooses that moment to pop her head out of my jacket pocket and possibly saves my life in the process. She doesn’t bark–I don’t think she can–but she pants enthusiastically, and her tiny whip of a tail beats against my chest nearly as fast as my heart.

The boy pulls his knife back just enough for me to breathe again. He raises an elegant eyebrow, and I try, with mixed success, not to melt.

“She’s my dog,” I say, forcing a smile. “I mean, she wasn’t before, well, everything, but I found her, and she seems to like me. At least, I’m pretty sure she’s a dog. She was all matted and half-starved when I found her, so at first I thought she might be a rat, except her tail was wrong, and she’s got that cute, doggy face.”

Marco wriggles halfway out of her pocket and makes abortive jumping motions with her head and shoulders, as if to gauge the survivability of a drop to the ground. The boy watches her. Then he lowers his knife, slips it into the sheath on his leg, and goes back to poking through drawers and cabinets.

“So, um, obviously you got here first. And you want first shot at anything useful, which is completely understandable. I was just–Is it okay if I look for some dog food? You don’t need dog food, do you?”

The boy picks up his gore-spattered backpack and disappears into the depths of the apartment.

“I mean, I can feed her people food if I have to,” I call as loudly as I dare. A rustle wafts in from the parking lot below, but I can’t tell whether it’s an empty bag caught in a breeze or the shuffle of mindless, hunger-driven feet. I take a cautious step inside. “It’s just, I worry that maybe she’s not getting balanced nutrition. Also I read somewhere that too much soft food is bad for a dog’s teeth. I don’t know whether jerky counts as soft. It’s not wet or anything, but it isn’t crunchy either.”

A few more steps bring me into the kitchen. He’s already been through here, so anything left behind isn’t something he needs, right? Anyway, the pair of tiny lavender bowls in the corner gives me hope.

Sure enough, the cupboard nearest the sink holds not only a small bag of kibble but also a few cans of “Human Grade Chicken and Vegetable Formula” and a bag of bacon-flavored rawhide treats.

I have to admit, I feel bad taking it all. I keep picturing a scrawny dog with permanent shakes making its lonely way back home only to starve to death in the abandoned kitchen. So I fill the water bowl, pour some kibble into the other one, and set one of the treats on top as an afterthought. Even if the bowls’ original owner never comes back, maybe they’ll help a stray.

Marco whines and makes a renewed effort to climb out. I push her head back down and scratch her ears.

“I’ll feed you in a little bit. I don’t think we should stay much longer.”

I creep out of the apartment, silently close the door behind me, and sneak down the stairs, my tire iron held at the ready.

Two minutes later, I’m back in the apartment, in the bedroom, where the other boy leans against the night table and tests the weight of a walking stick.

I know, I know. Bad idea. But the only other humans I’ve seen in a week were a crazed salaryman with a chainsaw and a college-age woman who whistled as she strolled down the street with a bloody “No U-turn” sign propped against her shoulder.

“So,” I say, going up on my toes and bobbing. “You’re an Akizakura student, right?” The private school’s charcoal gakuran is kind of a giveaway. “I go to Yanomori. Uh, but I guess you could tell that already. I’m Nakano, by the way. Nakano Shou.”

The other boy stands and replaces the walking stick in a corner of the room. “Endou,” he says.

I know it’s hard to tell from just that, but he has a great voice. Deeper than I expected, but mellower too.

“Endou. Okay. Good. Listen, Endou, how about we team up? I may not look it, but I’m pretty good at killing zombies.”

This is only a partial lie. Flight is my preferred course of action, but not a day goes by when I don’t have to cave in a few skulls.

Endou shrugs and swings his backpack up on his shoulder. It’s not a yes, but it’s not a no either, so I follow him out of the apartment and down the street.

I hoped another human would give me a better chance at actual conversation, but Endou proves as almost quiet as (and far less demonstrative than) Marco.

Well, at least I know he can understand me. Plus he can plan.

He wants to leave Yanomori for now and follow the railroad tracks into the city. It’s risky since the city is more densely populated, but we may get better access to news. The government might even have shelters and quarantines in place. And if it turns out to be worse than Yanomori, we can always come back.

I need to leave a note for my parents, though. If my insistence bothers Endou, he doesn’t show it. He just follows me to the south side of town with footsteps so muted I keep looking back to make sure he’s still there.

When we get to my house, it looks about the same as when I left–broken front windows, the clothesline ripped down and tangled in the bushes, blood-stained laundry and garbage scattered over the driveway. The Honda Stepwagon through the front door is new, though.

I prize open one of the unbroken windows, then do a quick circle around the house. Finally, I stick my head through the window and check the interior. All clear.

Until I turn my head to the left, and a zombie OL roars in my face. I fall back through the window, then try to scoot back, scramble to my feet, and raise my tire iron–all at the same time. I only succeed in tripping over a chunk of loose concrete as the OL surges through the window and makes her creepy, jerky way toward me. She has a messily severed arm in one hand, but the other one reaches, claw-like, for my leg. As a bonus, she vomits black ooze on my pants.

Just when I regain the presence of mind to wonder what the hell Endou is doing during all this, he sticks a snub-nosed shotgun in her face and blows her rotten brains out the back of her skull. With a blood-gargling shriek, she collapses over my legs and twitches. Endou shoots her in the back of the head for good measure, and she goes still.

“Thanks” would be the correct response here. All I can manage is, “Where did you get a gun?!”

Endou shrugs and slips in through the open window. I hear a few more throat-ripping screams, followed by a few more blasts and thuds. The next roar comes from behind me, from a half-rotted mailman whose head hangs to the left, with just his spine and a few stubborn tendons to hold it in place.

I find my feet in time to deliver a sound whack to his temple. To my surprise and gratification (and a touch of disgust), his head sails to smack against the gate with a meaty thunk. His body stumbles for a few more steps, then collapses beside the OL.

I give myself a shake and follow Endou inside.

The note doesn’t take long to write, and I take the opportunity to dash to my room and grab a fresh uniform. Casual clothes, while tempting, would take too much thought. More than that, I’d like to shower and change right away, but the gunfire is sure to draw more zombies. The sooner we go, the better.

In retrospect, I don’t know why I bothered to take another tie. Old habits, I guess.

And speaking of gunfire…

“No, seriously, where did you get a gun?” I ask again, as we jump a fence and cut across the park. “From a hunter, I guess. Did you saw it off yourself, or did you find it like that? No, you must have done it, since it’s illegal and all. Where are we headed, anyway? You want to leave a note for your family too?”

Endou says, “No.” He hops another fence, sets his backpack on the ground, and says, “Wait here.”

I suspect this has less to do with his lack of trust in me as a person and more with his lack of faith in me as an athlete. Obviously this is partly because we’re leaving Yanomori anyway, so there’s no reason for him to keep his stash a secret. But mostly it’s because he runs up a wall, turns and springs up to grab the roof of the nearest building, then runs over to jump to another, taller one.

“Hey,” Endou calls in a loud whisper.

I jog over just in time to catch a clanking messenger bag, which I have to drop to catch a smaller backpack, also decidedly clanky.

“What’s in these?” I whisper back.

Endou makes his way back to the ground, with a fourth bag slung across his back. This isn’t any kind of school bag, though. It’s a long, rectangular shape, maybe 50 or 60cm tall, in a forest camouflage.

“Wait a second, do I want to know?”

Endou shrugs and unzips each bag, lines up the contents, and apparently runs through a mental checklist. I crouch across from him and watch the whole thing with grim fascination.

The first has boxes and boxes of all kinds of ammunition. The second holds a pair of police tonfa, three more knives, and a couple guns whose names I won’t learn until Endou tells me later: a sawed-off Miroku MK70 and a Nanbu M60. He used a Citori White Lightning 20 back at my house, and the scary-looking camouflaged bag houses his pride and joy, an Accuracy International L96A1 sniper rifle.

I suspect you didn’t hear me right the first time. A sniper rifle.

Like I said, I know very little about guns, and I knew even less pre-Endou, but that’s not something you hunt with. Well, not the usual kind of hunting, anyway.

“Where’d you get all this?” I ask as horror and admiration flood through me in roughly equal amounts.

Endou smirks and laughs through his nose, just a quiet puff of derisive air. Then he puts a fist to his chin and looks down at his assorted weaponry. He hands me two of the knives. Understandable. Then he holds out the MK70 and the M60.

I lean back so far and so fast that I fall over.

“I’ll pass,” I say, sitting back up and holding up my hands. “I can’t use those–I don’t have a license or training or anything!”

Endou raises an eyebrow.

I sigh and accept the guns. Licenses don’t mean much anymore. We don’t even know whether the people who issue them are still around. Besides, a gun would put a little more distance between me and the zombies.

“So, uh, do they aim like the ones in the arcade? They’re heavier than those, but they kind of look the same. How do you load them?”

“Not yet.”

With that, Endou packs and balances the bags, and I leave Yanomori for the first time in my life.

Like most kids our age, I was at school when the pandemic hit, and a couple of infected students shambled into my biology class. I’m not a zombie fanboy or anything, but I knew enough to be halfway to the window by the time one of them tore into Asahiya-sensei’s throat.

That wasn’t a huge improvement since the P.E. class got hit first and hardest, and they milled all over the school grounds. That is, until a live student or teacher got too close. Then they surged to blood-thirsty life. Undeath. Either way.

I sprinted all the way to the nearest fence–with plenty of false starts and desperate dives into the bushes–and the combination of momentum and adrenaline carried me over it with relative ease.

I had to duck around a few more zombies on my way home, but back then, it wasn’t all that bad yet. Mostly I had to be careful not to get hit by any of the cars or buses that spun off the road with disturbing regularity.

My family has this thing where, in any emergency, everyone’s supposed to go straight home and turn on the news. That way no one has to worry about finding anyone else–we’ll all end up at home eventually. Unless there’s an evacuation, in which case we’ll know to meet up at the shelter.

So I went home, watched the news, and waited. After the first day, there was no more news. After three days, a bunch of my neighbors … well, what used to be my neighbors … started breaking in through the windows. So I dashed off a note to my parents before I escaped through the back door.

“Eh, but what am I telling you all this for?” I say, smashing my tire iron over a zombie’s head and sending twin jets of blood out its ears. “It was probably about the same for you, right?”

“Pretty much.”

We don’t walk right along the railroad tracks. Those are clotted with wrecked trains, which are sure to hold more zombies than just the two of us can handle, guns or not. So we make our way through the woods beside the tracks and keep as low a profile as we can. But even the trees hide their share of zombies (who most likely got there chasing their fellow passengers) so we have something to pass the time.

Of course, “low profile” means no guns, but I’m happy to stick with my trusty tire iron, and Endou proves quite at home with his tonfa and knife. Every time a zombie goes down, even if its skull is staved in, he stabs a hunting knife into the base of its neck with an uncomfortably wet crunch.

“Separates the brain from the body,” he says as he wipes his knife on a corpse’s sleeve. “Just in case.”

Can’t fault that logic. The last thing I want is a half-killed zombie jumping me from behind and eating my pancreas. I follow his example.

We stumble into a serviceable clearing long after sunset. My arms and shoulders are exacting revenge for the abuse they received, and I have a bitter suspicion that I won’t get any sleep tonight. Even if I do, I’ll wake up feeling worse.

No tents, no sleeping bags, no blankets. No fire, even. I’ve been here five minutes, and I want Endou to teach me how to use a gun so I can shoot myself.

I get my wish, kind of. After a freeze-dried dinner and a dip in the nearby river, Endou shows me how to load both my guns, engage and disengage the safeties, remove spent cartridges, and line up shots.

Well, there’s not much to line up with the M60. It’s tiny and will only kill a zombie at point-blank. As you may have guessed, I’m happy to leave that as a last resort.

I don’t fire either one tonight–we’re too near a crashed train for that–but I at least get a feel for the balance and the weight of each gun. They stop freaking me out after a while.

The problem is Endou keeps helpfully adjusting my grip or stance, his steady, slender hands coming up to rest over mine, or sliding down to guide my hips. It’s… distracting, and I suspect that makes me seem like an extraordinarily bad student.

But Endou has a lot of weapons, and he’s very good at using them. I keep my problem to myself.

Once my progress satisfies Endou, he takes the first watch while I struggle with sore muscles, prickly weeds, and sharp, self-replicating stones. I get about half an hour of interrupted sleep before I give up.

I sit up to tell Endou that he can have his turn and find him flipping through pictures on his phone. He lingers on one in particular–him with a pretty girl at what looks like a theme park.

That part doesn’t surprise me. Endou is smart, badass, and good-looking. Of course he has a girlfriend. Or had one. The fact that he’s here with me, the fact that he’s left Yanomori without her, means she has to be dead. You can see it in his photographed face.

He’s smiling. Not that ironic half-smirk, either. It’s an honest, bone-deep smile that lights up his whole face. He could be his own happy-go-lucky twin brother.

The revelation leaves me with a jumble of unpleasant feelings in my gut, so naturally I poke my head over his shoulder and say, “Hey, not bad!”

Endou shoves his phone in his backpack, and as if on cue, Marco wriggles fretfully in my pocket. I set her on the ground so she can scamper around our knees and pounce on the shifting shadows.

“Of course, she’s not as cute as Hashimoto. That’s my girlfriend.” Actually, Hashimoto sits next to me in English. I’m pretty sure she’s in the shogi club. “She’s not just cute, though. She’s also ranked fifth in our year!” That part’s true. “And she’s got a wide range of interests–she’s good at both ikebana and kendo.” That, I may be making up.

Frowning, Endou looks up from his shoelaces and asks, “Should we go look for her?”

“Oh! Ah. No. No, I mean… Well, there’s not much left to look for, you know?”

I found out later that Hashimoto managed not only to escape from Yanomori but also to make it all the way west to Kotsuta Village before the zombies got a foothold there. She helped organize the villagers into a fighting force that passed the time between attacks by building up their defenses and converting their humble village into a mountain fortress. Now the JSDF uses it as a base and refugee camp, and they have a statue of Hashimoto right in the heart of it. She’s not there anymore, though. Last I heard, she was on the front lines in Shibuya.

Endou nods and rolls over on his side. Marco licks his hand, then catches his sleeve between her teeth and gives it a few growling tugs. When Endou fails to respond (he even sleeps well, how is that fair?) she gives up, curls into the crook of his arm with a tiny, pink-tongued yawn, and falls asleep.

I never have to wake Endou up in the morning. He does it on his own, bolting upright and reaching for the nearest weapon, which sends Marco tumbling off his chest. She disapproves and shows it by walking primly over to curl up in my lap, but she always gives him another chance the next night.

On the fourth day, I get up the courage to ask, “Aw, did Endou-tan wet the bed again?”

Endou punches me in the chest, but not as hard as he could, and he doesn’t have that haunted look in his eyes anymore.

A few hours later, we find ourselves on a hill overlooking the city outskirts. Endou puts his bags down and kneels to assemble his sniper rifle.

“Good idea,” I say, and bring a hand up to shield my eyes so I can get a better look at city. Just like in Yanomori, cars and buses are piled in a havoc of broken glass, torn metal, and shredded rubber. The streets are empty, aside from the rubble and drifts of garbage, and black smoke rises from a handful of buildings. “The population’s, like, three times what it is back home, right? Think we’ll be okay here?”

Endou shrugs and attaches the bipod and scope.

“I guess we can fall back to the forest if we need to. Those other zombies had a harder time tracking us through the trees. The only problem is if they surround us. We should go slow at first, maybe try to…” I grimace and glance back at Endou. “You want me to go first.”

“It would help,” Endou says. He lines the scope up with the street and makes tiny adjustments.

“How far would I have to go?”

Endou waves me over, and I lie beside him. I try not to notice how nice he smells as I put my eye to the scope.

“The postbox first,” he says, “then the flipped police car, if you can.”

“I guess that’s not so–What?” It’s a lot farther when I sit up and look without the scope. “Can you really hit zombies from that far away?”

“Yeah.”

“All of them? Without getting me killed too?”

“Probably,” he says, loading the rifle and getting into position.

“Okay,” I say. I stand up, clench and unclench my fists, take a few deep breaths, start down the hill. Jog back up, shake my hands out as I jump up and down. Take another round of deep breaths. “I’m gonna stretch a little first.” Endou doesn’t respond, so I stretch and do a few jumping jacks, then head down the hill a second time. I come back and scoop Marco out of my pocket. “Here.”

Endou sits up and raises an eyebrow at me, but he takes Marco.

“Just, don’t let anything happen to her. And be careful–she’ll probably try to follow me.”

Marco whines, stretching her neck out and licking the air between us. I dig out a piece of dried squid to keep her busy. Endou lies back down with her curled in his left arm, and I run down the hill while Marco’s still distracted.

I do a quick check to make sure my shotgun is loaded, the safety is off, and I have enough shells in my pocket. Not that I really know what “enough” means. I give myself a shake and walk half-crouched to the postbox, then get my back against the nearest wall.

The building’s windows are all broken out, so I check there first. Empty. I creep down the street toward the overturned police car. Maybe I can find another handgun or two, and some ammo. If nothing else, any danger of explosion seems long past.

Halfway there, five zombies in school uniforms charge out of a burned-out warehouse across the street. I blast the first one in the chest without too much trouble, and my next shot brings down a second while catching a third on the arm. The zombie spins around and slows to a disoriented stagger.

The trouble comes when I eject the empty cartridges, and one pops up to hit me between the eyes. It doesn’t hurt much, but it’s enough to make me drop the shells I was about to load. I fumble in my pocket for more, but my hands shake so hard I can’t get a grip on even one. I don’t trust my legs to carry me safely backward either, as experience tells me I’ll get two steps before I fall over a courier bike or something.

The lead two zombies are maybe a meter away, and the one I clipped steadily closes the distance. I swing the shotgun and catch one on the side of its head, but the second one gets its hands around my neck and screams as it leans in to eat my face off.

A bullet tears through both zombies’ skulls. It splatters me with gore, but the hands around my throat go slack as the zombies collapse. The third zombie’s head explodes in a similar fashion, and two zombies I didn’t even see fall in a heap on the corner.

I hurriedly stoop to recover the shells I dropped, get them loaded, and fire on a second wave of zombies that streams out of a bank. After I kill half a dozen, I lower my shotgun and–gingerly watching my step–sprint to the first building to get my back against the wall.

This small measure of protection boosts my confidence, and I’m much steadier this time around. Which isn’t to say every one of my shots finds its target, but I don’t drop any more shells. And the whole time, seemingly random zombies spin and fall in fountains of blood as Endou’s magnums tear through them.

I don’t know how long this goes on, but my right arm is sore by the time the last of the second wave goes down. I slide to the ground, breathing hard, and wait to see if there’ll be a third.

A clanking sound catches my attention, and I jerk my head to the side to see Endou walking up. Marco dashes ahead of him, and I have to drop my shotgun to catch her as she leaps at me.

“Mind telling me what took you so long to get that first shot off?” It’s not easy to sound pissed with Marco licking the tip of my nose, but I like to think I pull it off.

“Had to line them up,” Endou says.

“Line them…” My mouth falls open. “You mean you risked my life so you could get in some multi-kills? You aiming for a high score? I mean, hey, don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the lure of bragging rights. Problem is, I only get one life!”

Endou looks hurt, though it takes me a while to interpret his expression.

“The magazine only holds ten rounds,” he says.

“Wha–What does that have to do with anything?”

“Reloading left you vulnerable.”

“I guess,” I grudgingly allow. “So how many times did you reload, anyway?”

“Once.”

I look back over the fallen zombies. I took care of–let’s see–eighteen. Which means Endou killed…

Thirty-three? You killed thirty-three zombies with twenty bullets?”

Endou shrugs and starts down the road, leaving two bags for me. I hastily shoulder them, stick Marco in my pocket, grab my shotgun, and chase after him. I catch up to him at the corner, where he’s stopped to do a zombie check.

“Listen, Endou, I’m sorry about–”

Endou touches my arm and nods. I follow his gaze across the street.

“Is that a…”

“Kid?” Endou finishes for me.

A little girl in a blood-stained uniform is crawling out of the base of a tall brick building. All the windows on the ground floor (and most of the rest of them) are either boarded up or barred, and the doors are double-chained.

“Hey,” I call softly. I give her a friendly smile and a wave as I start across the street.

The little girl yelps and vanishes.

“No, wait!” I say and break into a run. “We aren’t bad guys or anything! I just want to talk to you.”

I skid to a halt in front of a jagged, brick-toothed maw. I’d probably fit, though just barely. Of course, wriggling through on my belly won’t put me in the best defensive position.

I glance over at Endou. He raises his eyebrows and holds out his hand. After a moment’s deliberation, I hand him my shotgun, drop my bags, and shimmy through the hole.

Well, halfway through. It’s at that point that someone presses a barrel to my temple.

“You know,” I say, “I really wish people would stop doing that. I’m human. Human! I mean, do I look like a zombie?”

“Right,” says a deadpan voice. “Because humans never hurt each other.”

I turn my head to see a girl about my age kneeling beside me, holding a pistol in both hands. She wears square-rimmed glasses, a cream sweater, a navy tie and skirt, and the brightest striped stockings I have ever seen. The stockings are inexplicably spotless, though the rest of her is about how you’d expect. She has what appears to be a wooden sword strapped to her back.

I also see Endou sneaking up behind her with one shotgun raised.

The girl notices that something has caught my attention, but it’s too late. Endou adjusts his grip and says, “Let him up.”

When he held a knife to my throat, that unsettled me. Seeing him now terrifies me. There is nothing there–no anger, no concern, not even determination. He could be sitting in class, staring out the window. Possibly it was a mistake to team up with him.

“If you shoot me, he dies too.”

“You seem like a leader, though.”

The girl smiles wryly. “Well, there are people who would feel pretty lost without me.”

Seconds later, footsteps bounce down the narrow concrete corridor, and Endou raises the second shotgun behind him, training it on the three students who tear around the corner with various weapons in hand. The little girl we saw earlier peeks out from behind the tallest boy’s leg and whimpers, “Onee-chan.”

Everyone freezes. I can easily see myself getting sick all over my captor’s shoes, so I sigh and say, “Okay, great. We could all kill each other at any moment. Well, except for me, seeing as I’m unarmed and stuck in a hole. Can I at least come the rest of the way in before a zombie starts snacking on my ass?”

“Actually, they’d probably start with your leg,” says the girl. Then she decocks the gun and takes her finger away from the trigger, letting the pistol spin around her finger until the muzzle points harmlessly at the floor. “Go ahead.”

The tall boy says, “Sayaka…”

The girl shakes her head. “It’s fine,” she says, and the other students reluctantly lower their weapons too.

Endou holds the shotguns steady until I’m inside and on my feet. Then he lowers the guns and moves to my side, all in one fluid motion. He hands my shotgun back and keeps a wary eye on the students.

“So what do you think?” asks the tall boy.

“It’s probably fine for them to join us, if they want,” the girl says, standing up. She slips her handgun into the holster under her sweater, then smirks and nods at Endou. “The one in the gakuran seems like he could be useful, at least.”

“Hey!” I say. “It’s not like I’m useless. You just can’t carry a gun in through a hole like that. Well, I can’t, anyway. I guess you probably could. Anyway, you shouldn’t make snap judgments about–”

“Kawabe-sempai, it’s terrible!”

Yet another student crawls in through the hole, so fast she nearly collides with the opposite wall. She staggers to her feet and says, “Okui-sempai… Okui-sempai is–”

The girl with glasses–Kawabe Sayaka, I gather–seizes the other girl’s shoulders and says, “What happened to Anri?” The dry humor has vanished without a trace, leaving nothing but fearful intensity in its place.

“At the hospital,” the younger girl says, wiping a torn sleeve over her eyes. “We got surrounded. Okui-sempai told me to run, but she stayed behind to hold them off.”

Kawabe is already crouched–sword in hand, ready to crawl out–before the girl finishes talking. The tall boy rushes forward to block Kawabe’s exit.

“You’re not going alone,” he says. “I’ll come with you.”

“No, we can’t afford to lose all three of us. You have to stay here and keep an eye on everything.”

“It’s your rule, Sayaka–no one goes alone. And none of the others is up to a rescue mission like this. I should–”

“I’ll go,” I say. They all shoot me incredulous looks, including Endou. Jerk. “I’m good at sneaking around, and I can hold my own in a fight.” I reach past Kawabe for my bags and pull my tire iron out of my backpack, along with some more shells. “Anyway, it’s better than going alone.”

“What makes you think I trust you?” Kawabe asks. “I’m still not sure I even want you to join us.”

“I’ve got nothing to gain by turning on you, right? Let me prove I won’t be just a burden.”

Kawabe hesitates. Then she closes her eyes and sighs. “Fine, you can come.” She swings the wooden sword up to point at me. “But remember: I know this city inside and out. If you do anything…” She sighs again and shakes her head. Then her expression softens, and she leans up to kiss the tall boy. “I’m counting on you,” she murmurs, then slips outside.

I follow, and Kawabe and I make our way through a maze of alleys and burned-out buildings, taking out the occasional zombie along the way–me with my tire iron, and Kawabe with her wooden sword.

Most of the time, she holds it down at her side, then swings it up to crack open a skull before she returns the sword to its original position. It’s kind of like a samurai film, only with zombies. Actually, I think I did see a movie like that once.

The back doors of the hospital hang half-open, and a trail of bloody footprints lead down the stairs, away from them. Kawabe pushes up her glasses and points her sword at the building.

“I’ll take the top two floors,” she says. “You check the ground floor and the basement. If you find Anri, or if half an hour passes, come back here and meet up with me. Good?”

“Yeah,” I say, nodding and staring up at the hospital’s empty windows. “I mean, no. I don’t have a watch.”

“So use your phone.”

“My phone sort of got crushed. See, there was this trash compactor, and you know how zombies are attracted to loud noises, so I set the alarm on my phone, put it in the trash compactor, and when a couple of zombies went in to–”

Kawabe rubs her forehead. “I get it.”

“I didn’t think to replace it because, well, I wasn’t getting a signal anymore anyway.”

“Fine,” Kawabe says. She dashes into the hospital and quietly calls, “Just estimate it!” back over her shoulder.

I figure the basement is the best place to start. The walls should be more solid, and the zombies can only come from one direction. As I head for the stairs, though, I hear something fall to the floor in a nearby room.

Shouldering my tire iron, I creep up to the door, turn the knob, and push it just enough that it’s free of the door frame. I take a deep breath, then kick the door the rest of the way open.

A hand shoots out from my right and grabs my tire iron before I can swing. Endou is crouched on a table beside the door.

“What the hell?” I say, just barely remembering to keep my voice down.

“When you sneak up on someone, it’s your own responsibility not to get killed.”

I blink at him. “You know, that may be the longest sentence you’ve ever said to me.”

“Hm.” Endou jumps down from the table, pulls his shotgun down from his back, and brushes past me into the hallway.

I tell him we’re supposed to check the basement, and we head for the door at the end of the hall. The basement comes complete with dim, flickering lights, an unsettling drip-drip-drip from some indeterminate distance, pools of blood and black ooze that cover most of the floor that I can see, and several piles of dead zombies.

Endou starts to turn a corner, but I catch him by the elbow and point toward the inky darkness that swallows the end of the hall we’re already in. Endou gives me a quizzical look. I can understand why he’d want to avoid a dead-end like that.

“If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s making a zombie shelter,” I say with a grin. “Otherwise I’d never have gotten any sleep before I hooked up with you.”

Endou shrugs and gestures for me to lead the way, so I step into the darkness of the hall. Unfortunately that step is right in the middle of something that’s squishy and slightly pointy at the same time. I figure out it’s the shattered remains of a zombie’s chest and immediately wish I hadn’t.

We feel our way to the end of the hall, and sure enough, I find a pile of desks and boxes, blocking a door. Endou helps me take the barricade down, but I pause with my hand on the door.

“We should probably announce ourselves,” I say. “You know, to keep Okui from mistaking us for zombies and shooting us or something. But… this door feels metal, so I’d have to shout pretty loudly, which could attract actual zombies.”

I feel Endou reach over my shoulder for my shotgun, then hear him load both of them as he moves back down the hall. So that’s that. I turn and bang on the door, shouting, “We’re not zombies! We’re here to help.” After a moment’s thought, I add, “We’re here with Kawabe Sayaka!”

I ease the door open to find a girl sitting against the far wall, behind a second makeshift barricade. A handgun lies on the floor beside her, next to a stack of boxes, but the lead pipe in her hands tells me she’s probably out of bullets.

I raise my hands and say, “It’s okay. We’re here to help you. Kawabe’s checking the upper floors right now.”

Okui–at least I assume it’s Okui–just tightens her grip on the pipe. I slowly take down the second barricade, talking soothingly the whole time, but just as I’m about to step over the last of it, Endou blocks me with a gun across my chest. I nearly jump back out the door.

“What the–Stop doing that! Make a little noise when you walk!”

Endou points the gun at Okui’s leg–not to shoot, but to show the clumsy bandage that’s wrapped around it. She was probably taking care of it when we showed up.

Okui seems to read our thoughts because she cries out, “I wasn’t bitten! I caught myself on a piece of metal while I was running down here.”

Endou passes my shotgun back and takes a step toward Okui.

She shifts her grip on the pipe. “I’m not lying!” she says. “Why would I? You think I want to put my friends in danger?”

The zombie virus acts like the unholy spawn of rabies and Glyptapanteles wasp toxin, swelling its victims’ brains and altering their behavior to spread the infection further. I don’t know whether that altered behavior can include lying. Every zombie I’ve seen has already been reduced to grunts and screams.

Endou stops and sets his gun on the ground before he comes any closer. Okui bites her lip, but she lowers her arms very slightly. Moving deliberately, Endou kneels in front of her and peels the bandage back. I take a deep breath and get ready to shoot if I have to.

“She’s fine,” Endou says, rewrapping the bandage.

“How do you know?”

“Zombie bites get green and purple rings.”

“How long does that take?”

Endou lends Okui a shoulder and helps her to her feet as he picks his shotgun back up. “Couple minutes.”

“Wait,” Okui says, “we need to take these supplies back with us, or there won’t be any point in coming here.”

After some discussion, Okui carries half the medical supplies, I carry the rest while supporting her, and Endou walks ahead of us as an escort. At the foot of the stairs Okui’s arm tenses around my shoulders and brings me to a halt.

“They’re here!” she whispers, and the door bursts open as a horde of zombies pitches through. “We should go back to the room where you found me. At least that way they can’t surround us.”

“Good idea,” I say, turning awkwardly around. “If nothing else, we can block ourselves in until Kawabe figures out what happened.”

Endou fires on the knot of half-rotted limbs and heads. “Keep going,” he says as he reloads.

At that moment, a couple of leaky cans roll into the mass of zombies, and Kawabe’s voice rings down from above: “Get clear!”

“We’ve got to move!” Okui says, surging forward despite the darkness and her injured leg. “Your friend needs to get out of there too.”

“Endou!” I call over my shoulder, and after a moment’s hesitation, he sprints after us.

About halfway down the hall, Okui shouts, “All clear, Sacchan!”

A Molotov cocktail soars into the clot of zombies and sends up a fountain of flame as it shatters. The leaky cans ignite in a small but powerful explosion that reduces the zombies to a smoldering heap almost instantly.

White foam blasts in from beyond the door and puts out the remaining flames. They’ve mostly died out already, though, like the dead zombies are fire extinguishers themselves. Kawabe steps through the mess and comes down the stairs. Okui drops the supplies and stumbles forward, throwing her arms around Kawabe’s neck with a joyful cry of “Sacchan!”

Kawabe hugs her back. “What happened, Anri?”

Okui fills Kawabe in but leaves out the bit where we considered killing her, which is nice of her.

“Hm.” Kawabe frowns as she watches us emerge from the hallway, supplies in hand, but she smiles at the same time. “Thanks. I guess this means we have to take both of you after all.”

We leave the hospital and follow Kawabe through a different route. I almost ask why–zombies aren’t exactly known for their subtlety–but then I realize, Kawabe must have a reason to distrust other people nearly as much as zombies.

So instead, I say, “That was pretty amazing back there, Kawabe. I had no idea zombies burned that well–they went up like a pile of leaves!”

Kawabe pauses at a rusty metal door and gives me a surprised look. “You mean it never occurred to you to try fire?”

“No, I mean, it did, but it also occurred to me that it might not work, in which case I’d have to deal with fiery zombies, which really just gives them another way to kill me.”

“That’s why you need to work in a group,” Okui says with a bright smile. “That way, one person can set them on fire, and everyone else can take them down if it doesn’t work.”

I scratch my cheek. “I didn’t have that option until recently. Yanomori was pretty much devastated in just a few days.”

“Yeah,” Okui says, nodding and touching a finger to her bottom lip. “To be honest, most of our group wouldn’t be here if not for Sacchan and Shimozawa-kun. Me included.” She laughs and sticks her tongue out. “Anyway, Sacchan always experiments with new zombie-killing techniques.”

“That’s the obvious course, isn’t it?” Kawabe says. She pulls a broken fence aside to let us through and adds, “We can either run from place to place, fighting off zombies as they come, or we can figure out how to wipe out big groups all at once and take the fight to them. Oh, hell.”

Kawabe has rounded a corner and come to a dead stop. I peek to see a school bus wrapped around a nearby streetlight and understand immediately. Even when they’re bleeding out their eyes, vomiting black ooze, and snarling with mindless rage and ravenous hunger, it’s still hard to kill a little kid.

Dozens of elementary school zombies in bright yellow hats swarm out of the precious gem museum across the street. A pair of shotgun blasts tear through the air, and four of the zombies collapse in a bloody spray. Kawabe, Okui, and I all look back to see Endou calmly lining up his next shot.

“This whole thing has really messed you up, hasn’t it?” Kawabe says. She swings her wooden sword at a zombie and slams its skull into the wall. “I mean, it probably sounds like I’m judging you, but I’m not. I’m actually kind of impressed.”

We retreat a little way and tuck ourselves behind a row of planters.

“Can you shoot?” Endou asks Kawabe, and at her nod, he passes over a shotgun and a couple boxes of shells.

“We’ll hold them off,” Kawabe says as she brings up her gun.

“No! Saccan, I–”

“We need those supplies. You can find your way back from here, can’t you?”

“I can, but…” Okui bites her lip, seeming to turn something over in her head. Then she whispers, “Here, help me into the store behind us.”

I don’t know what she has in mind, but it sounds like she’s as reluctant to run as I am. Don’t get me wrong–under normal circumstances, I’d be gone already, but leaving someone behind is different.

We quietly set the supplies down behind Kawabe and Endou, then slink into the department store. I can’t imagine what’s in here that can help against zombies, but Okui seems to know what she wants. She directs me first to the spray-on stockings, then the lighters.

A grin spreads across my face.

The ignited stocking spray swells in a plume that reduces any zombie in our path to a charred and smoking corpse. We advance on the stream of zombies–including the teacher, the bus driver, and a bunch of others who were drawn by the commotion–while Kawabe and Endou cover our flanks.

As the last zombie falls, I glance around the corpse-strewn street. It looks kind of like the cover of a metal album, which is cool. The smell, on the other hand, is less so. Kawabe and Endou scoop up the supplies, and we move on.

Back at the base, we do introductions all around. Sort of. Most of the others are on the upper floors–turns out this is an old dormitory, abandoned long before the pandemic hit–and Kawabe wants to finalize her plans for tonight before Endou and I settle in.

But we learn that the tall boy is Kawabe’s boyfriend, Shimozawa Keita. The two younger students who came with him to help Kawabe are Motoki and Hana, a brother and sister from the nearest junior high. Emi was Okui’s partner for the hospital run, and the little girl we spotted leaving the dorms is Yuna–Kawabe found her in a supply closet at the elementary school down the street. I’m glad she wasn’t with us for the last fight.

Shimozawa, on the other hand, is glad to see the supplies we brought back with us, and even gladder to see both Kawabe and Okui back safe and mostly sound. He leads us down the hallways into a makeshift clinic while Motoki and Hana stay behind to guard the door. We set the boxes on the counter to sort out later, and Shimozawa grabs a can of antiseptic and a fresh roll of bandages while Okui hops up on a cot. He winces as he peels the bandage away from the gash on her leg.

“Is it bad?” Okui asks in a small voice. Kawabe frowns and reaches for her hand.

“No, sorry, sorry,” Shimozawa says, laughing sheepishly. “It just looks like it hurts. You don’t need stitches or anything like that, though I think you should have a tetanus shot just to be safe. I can give you some painkillers too.”

“Shimozawa-kun’s dad is a doctor,” Okui explains, trying to keep her voice steady as Shimozawa sprays on the antiseptic. “He learned all kinds of things since he was supposed to inherit their clinic.”

“To be honest, I hated it,” Shimozawa says with a rueful smile. “Now I wish I could thank him for forcing all those lessons on me.”

“Maybe you can,” says Kawabe. “We don’t know anything yet. In fact, everyone probably thinks we’re dead.” She looks around the room at all of us. “That’s why we need to take this city back. If we clear out enough zombies, people might start coming back home.”

“Sounds like you have a plan,” I say.

She does. A few blocks over, their group has another building set up just like their base–all chained, barred, and boarded up. Except instead of one entrance, there are four, each leading to a cone-shaped tunnel made of chicken wire. After a bit of flailing and scuffling, the zombies manage to crawl through, but none ever makes it back out.

“Basically, it’s like a giant eel trap,” Okui says as Shimozawa wraps up her leg. “Only for zombies.”

“What do you use for bait?” I ask.

“We keep all the lights blazing,” says Kawabe, “and we put at least one speaker system on each floor. All that light and noise draws in zombies from all over the city. Tonight, we’ll torch the whole building, get rid of them all at once. We have three main problems, though.”

“The blaze will attract even more zombies,” I say, holding up a finger, “so unless you have remote detonators, some people could end up surrounded.”

Kawabe nods. “We tested a bunch of ways to kick off the fire from a distance, but none of them proved reliable. Besides, I need to monitor the fire as it burns.”

“Because dead zombies act like fire extinguishers,” I say, putting up a second finger.

“Also to keep the fire from spreading to any other buildings, which is the third problem. It’ll help that we’re doing it on a calm night, but we still have to strike a balance between keeping the fire strong enough to kill all the zombies without making it so strong that it won’t go out when we’re done. I’ve practiced on smaller groups in some of the other buildings, but this will be the first time I try a major burn.”

Marco’s been nipping peevishly at my fingers whenever I try to settle her down, so I take her out of my pocket and glance at Shimozawa to make sure it’s all right before I set her on the floor. She makes fast friends with Yuna, and soon the two of them are crawling around our ankles and under cots.

“Since you’re telling us all this, I assume you have something for Endou and me to do.”

“I want you two up on the roof next to the zombie trap, along with Emi, Anri, and Keita–”

Shimozawa starts to say, “I told you, I don’t want–” but Kawabe shakes her head.

“We’ve been over this,” she says. “You’re no good at sneaking around, and that’s exactly what I’ll be doing. You’ll help a lot more if you keep my escape route clear. Which is what you two will help us with,” she says, turning her gaze on Endou and me. “Clear out any zombies that are attracted by the explosion. Make sure you bring plenty of ammo–we’ve been scavenging any we could find, so take what you need.”

“Don’t worry,” Okui chirps. “Despite appearances, Shimozawa-kun and I are pretty good shots. And Emi-chan may be a little clumsy, but she’s reliable.”

“Wait, you have guns?” I can only remember two tiny handguns–the one Okui had with her at the hospital, and the one Kawabe keeps under her sweater. “I mean, guns that can shoot from a distance?”

Kawabe pushes her glasses up and smirks. “We prefer to save our hunting rifles for important operations. So. Are you in?”

I exchange glances with Endou. I can tell from the look in his eyes that he’s fired up.

He shrugs. “Sure.”

“Full house!” Okui crows, flipping her cards over. “Take it off, Nakano-kun!”

Trust me, I’m well aware of how weird it is to be playing strip poker on the roof of an abandoned library in the middle of the night while zombies rampage impotently in the building next door. But we were all kind of bored waiting for Kawabe’s signal, and Okui suggested it, so here we are.

I just don’t see why I’m the only one losing clothes–I started with my tie, jacket, shoes, socks, then dress shirt, and now I reluctantly peel off my undershirt.

“Are you sure you’re not cheating, Okui-san?”

She is, as I later discovered. It’s this rite of passage she has for male recruits of a certain age.

But Okui wags a finger at me and says, “No one likes a sore loser. Ah! Endou-kun! Are you going to join us?”

I glance over in time to see Endou turn his gaze back on the darkened city. He’s leaning against the railing, shotgun in hand and rifle packed on his back.

“Pass,” he says.

“Aw.” Okui pouts at his back. “It’s no fun with just four people.”

Emi says, “Five people wouldn’t be such a big difference, sempai.”

“And it’s kind of chilly,” Shimozawa says, giving me a sympathetic look. “Maybe we should just wait till we get back to the dorms.”

“Oh, fine.” Okui gathers the cards and shuffles. “It would’ve been fun to get Endou naked, though.”

“Eh?” I say, and freeze in the middle of reaching for my jacket. Marco slips out of her pocket before I can stop her, but I don’t see any harm. Emi hops up to join her.

“You know,” Okui says. “He’s got that kind of–how should I put it?–air of mystery around him. Also you just get the sense that he’s in really good shape, even when he’s got all his clothes on. Something about the way he moves, I guess.”

I pull on my jacket and say, “Well, I don’t know about that,” and immediately regret it.

“Ohhh,” Okui says, leaning forward with narrowed eyes and a devilish smile. “You’re jealous.”

“Wha–what the hell?” I squawk. I can feel my face heat up and really, really wish it would stop. “Where would you get a stupid idea like that? Of course I’m not jeal–”

Okui laughs and taps my nose. “It’s okay–I think you’re cute too, especially when you blush like that. And you’re tall! That’s always a plus, right?”

“R–right!” I say. “I also have a great personality and sense of humor, and I was the one who rescued you. I mean, Endou helped a little, I guess, but I was the one who figured out where you’d be. Besides…” I glance over my shoulder and lower my voice. “I think Endou has–had–a girlfriend. He might, you know, need some time.”

“Oh.” Okui sobers just like that. “Thanks for telling me. I wouldn’t want to…”

“Yeah… So!” I add in a louder voice, “obviously I’m the better choice here.”

The smile returns. “Just because Endou’s out of the running doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing for you. You’ve still got plenty of competition back at the dorms.” Okui stretches her arms over her head, then stands with one hand on her hip. “I don’t mean to brag, but I’m actually pretty popular.”

“You can’t blame a guy for trying. You’re fun and know how to think of your feet, and you’re pretty but not stuck up about it.” Which is all true, whatever my intentions.

Okui gives me a shove. “Stop that! It’s embarrassing.” She looks over at Marco and Emi, who take turns pouncing at each other. Marco is very good at earning me trust by proxy. “Oh, and you’re good with animals. That’s another plus.”

“Yeah.” I can’t help a fond smile as I watch Marco go tumbling head over tail, then leap back up to bite playfully at Emi’s collar. “It sounds weird, but I think Marco’s kept me sane this whole time. Just having something small and helpless to look out for made it easier to forget all the stuff I had to deal with.”

“I think I know what you mean,” Okui says with a soft smile. “I’m pretty much Sacchan’s Marco. Or at least I was.” She turns away and looks over at the bright windows of the zombie trap. “It’s been that way ever since we were little–I was easy to pick on back then, so Saccan always had to stand up for me. When the pandemic hit, I guess we fell back into that old pattern. I’d like to think that helped her too, somehow.”

“It did,” Shimozawa says. “It helped keep her human, knowing she could at least save you, even if the rest of the world fell apart.”

Okui whirls around and clasps her hands behind her back. “I’m glad. But now I want to do more than that. I want to become the kind of person who can support Saccan too.”

“You’re getting there,” Shimozawa says. He stands and dusts off his pants. “I don’t know what we’d do if–”

An explosion shakes the zombie trap. It’s not the signal. It’s probably a test, or else an attempt to draw in a few more zombies before things go down. But I don’t care about any of that.

The blast startled Marco, and I feel the bottom drop out of my stomach as I watch her fall over the edge of the roof. I’ll never reach her in time.

The moment stretches into eternity, and I feel a rush of air go past me.

It’s Endou. He blurs across the roof, then drops down to slide under the railing. Flipping over, he hooks a leg around the bottom rib and reaches a hand out as far as he can.

Okui and the others run to help him. I somehow follow despite the shakiness of my legs.

Endou climbs back onto the roof, and he has a terrified but unharmed Marco cradled against his chest. He hands her back to me, and she whines and buries her tiny nose in my hand.

I swallow hard, then laugh because otherwise I’ll sob. “You just can’t stop showing off, can you?” I say. “Where’d you learn to do that, anyway?”

Endou shrugs and says, “Bruce Lee,” before he walks back to his railing.

“I’m sorry!” Emi says, tears in her eyes. “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have let her get so close to the edge.”

“No, don’t worry about it,” I say, tucking Marco into my pocket. “I’m just glad she’s safe.” As I absently scratch my dumb little dog between her ears, I find myself thinking aloud. “I wonder if my parents are.”

“Me too,” says Okui.

Her house was thrashed by the time she got home, and even though it was too dangerous to check everywhere, she’s pretty sure they weren’t there. Shimozawa only had his dad, who most likely got recruited to help with disaster relief. If he left a note, though, Shimozawa never found it. Emi was living in the dorms when everything happened.

“My parents are back west, in Kotsuta Village,” she says. “I think they’re probably okay since there are hardly any people there. I just need to find some way to contact them.”

I grin and clap her on the back. “That’s the spirit! We have to trust that our families are doing everything they can to stay alive, same as we are. Right, Endou?” I call over my shoulder.

“Mm.” Endou doesn’t turn around. He just keeps staring out over the city.

After an awkward silence, Okui and the others decide to check over our equipment one more time and get the ammunition lined up. I walk over to Endou and lean against the railing beside him. A long time passes before I get up the courage to bump my shoulder against his and murmur, “Sorry. I mean, if I… I didn’t mean to … you know.”

Endou shakes his head.

“I just think we should try to stay positive, you know? We have to hold on to hope because otherwise–”

Endou speaks so softly I almost don’t hear. Maybe I don’t want to hear. He says, “My parents were home.”

I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the throat. It’s stupid and selfish, but I can’t help it.

“They had already attacked my younger twin sister,” Endou says. He pulls out his phone and flips around before passing it to me. I take it, but I already know what I’ll see. That pretty girl at the theme park, and Endou smiling like he doesn’t have a care in the world. “She stayed home sick that day. After I had… After my parents were dead, I thought that was it. But Miyuu could feel herself changing, felt herself wanting to attack me. She asked me … she asked me to stop it … while she was still human.”

I swallow hard as Endou scrubs a sleeve over his face. I reach out an arm, hesitate, then wrap it around his shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I just–I don’t know what to say. Which is weird because I know usually I talk too much, but…”

“No,” Endou says. He leans very slightly into me, and that shouldn’t make my heart skip. “Not too much.”

We stand like that for a long time, and I can tell by how quiet it’s gotten that the others are watching us. I don’t care, though. All that seems to matter is that Endou is hurting, and I can’t do anything about it.

A flare goes up behind us, and we all spring into action. Emi guards the roof access while the rest of us keep an eye on the zombie trap as a massive orange fireball blows out the windows. It sends tongues of flame and showers of embers swirling into the dark sky.

Seconds later, zombies flood in from every street, only to fall under our hail of bullets. The hunting rifle I borrowed has a lot more kick than my shotgun, but it also has more range, and I’m taking out zombies almost as soon as they appear. It’s like a video game, except Kawabe’s life depends on us winning.

Emi cries out. I drop the rifle and pull my shotgun down from my back as I run to join her. A huge mass of zombies is swarming up the stairs to the roof access–way more than we expected. Once there are enough dead bodies in the doorway to slow their advance, I sling my gun and reach for a Molotov and a lighter.

Sensing my intention, Emi pulls three spray cans from her backpack–it’s a good thing Okui and I thought to bring back extra–and pierces them with her pocketknife. Then she tosses them down the stairwell.

“Kawabe-sempai always says to cut them off at the source,” she explains.

I nod and grab a second Molotov, just to be sure, then light them both and run as close to the door as I dare. I throw the Molotovs down the stairwell and run back, grabbing Emi’s arm on the way.

“The stairwell’s about to blow!” I shout.

Endou and the others move down along the railing, still shooting as they put some distance between themselves and the roof access. Emi and I fire on the doorway, taking out any zombies missed by the initial burst of flames. Half a minute later, a fireball erupts in the stairwell and sends up a searing blast of hot air and the acrid stench of burnt zombie.

“We need to get off the roof before they trap us up here,” Okui says as she squeezes off a final shot. “Besides, we’re almost out of ammo.”

“Looks like we’ve got two options, and neither one’s great,” I say. “There’s the fire escape, but zombies will probably swarm us as soon as we start down it. Or we can through the building, but then we have to fight in an enclosed space, and there’s also a fire and smoke hazard. The blast could have weakened the stairs too.”

Endou says, “How about a third?” and nods toward the next building over, opposite the zombie trap.

“It’s kind of a big jump,” Okui says.

Shimozawa nods. “Especially on that leg of yours.”

“And the railing makes it so there’s no room for a running start,” I say, glancing back at Endou to add, “unless you’re a free running martial arts freak.”

Endou shakes his head. “I meant, I’ll guard the fire escape,” he says. Without waiting for an answer, he runs for the opposite side of the roof, jumps up onto the railing and springs off to the other building. Then he digs out his sniper rifle and assembles, loads, and sights it like he’s being timed. In a way, I guess he is.

“Ready to go?” I ask. I pull out my tire iron and shoulder my backpack.

The others nod and ready their short-range weapons. Shimozawa has to help Okui down the fire escape, Emi trips twice, and the zombies find us before we get halfway down. Then Endou’s magnums roar through the night air, and it’s the most reassuring sound I’ve ever heard. That, and the sound of dead zombies hitting the pavement.

I count shots as I climb down, calling a halt every time he reloads. Something twisted off the bottom of the fire escape, leaving only a few jagged metal teeth, but by the time we reach it, the pile of zombies is big enough to break our fall. It sounds gross–and it is–but it’s better than a sprained ankle.

I get to my feet and see a horde of zombies stumble into Endou’s building. My heart stops. He’s so focused on keeping us safe that he hasn’t even noticed them coming after him.

“So go help,” Shimozawa says, giving my back a shove before he runs off to deal with the zombies around the trap. Okui and Emi follow close behind him.

The building is dark and close and packed with zombies. I take a few deep breaths and dive in, tire iron raised. Blood and fragments of bone fly everywhere as I charge through the building like I’m on fire, guided by the light that filters in through the cracked and dirty windows. It’s reckless and possibly suicidal, but Endou’s all alone.

No. He’s not. That’s the whole point.

A zombie dives at me out of nowhere, and I barely have time to get a hand around its neck. One-handed, I can’t swing hard enough to kill it, so I drop my tire iron and fumble inside my jacket for the M60. I stick the barrel in the zombie’s eye and fire. A face full of blood rewards my efforts, but at least I’m still alive.

Grabbing my tire iron, I tear up the stairs and whip around a corner just in time to see Endou raise his shotgun at me. Without thinking, I bend over double and wrap my arms around his waist. I don’t mean to knock him over, but I misjudge my momentum and flatten us both against the stairs.

Endou grunts softly but keeps his shotgun steady as he fires on a couple of zombies that followed me up the stairs. Then he lowers his gun and raises an eyebrow.

“Uhhh… Well, you said it, didn’t you?” I scramble off of Endou and help him up. “I snuck up on you, sort of, so it was my job not to get killed.”

With a smirk, Endou brushes past me down the stairs as he slings his shotgun and draws his pair of tonfa. We fight our way out of the building and back onto the street, where we meet up with Okui and the others. They still haven’t seen Kawabe yet, and Shimozawa wants to check the other side of the trap, in case she needed to take an alternative escape route like we did.

We find Kawabe beside the fire escape, her head down, shoulders hunched, and fists clenched. Shimozawa runs up and puts a hand on her shoulder.

“Sayaka?” he says. “Are you all right?”

Kawabe starts to shake. Then she straightens with a whoop, her hands reaching up toward the night sky.

“Did you see that explosion?! That was AWESOME!”

Back at the dorms, I sigh and hang my jacket and tie on a hook in the ground-floor bathroom. Marco pops her head out, and then–apparently satisfied that I’m fine–curls back into the bottom of her pocket.

I walk over to the sink, splash some water on my face, and grimace at my reflection. I want a shower and a bed more than anything, but Kawabe needs us to help reinforce the windows and doors. The zombies are still pretty active after our daring operation, and she wants to make sure none of them break in. Still, I figure I have time to wash the worst of the gore off, at least.

Every day. It’s like this every single day. I wonder if it will be from now on.

I’m pulling off my undershirt when I hear the bathroom door open. Endou comes in and heads for the supply closet. I shake my head, hold up my shirt, and force my expression into a sheepish grin.

“Just once, I’d love it if I could get through the day without ending up covered in blood.” I pull a washcloth down from the rack and hold it under the water. “Don’t get me wrong, I like an adventure as much as the next guy, but this is one part I could definitely do without. There’s just no glamour in–”

Endou has drifted over to stand behind me. Normally that wouldn’t cause my throat to clamp shut, but he’s close enough that his chest touches my back every time he breathes, and I’m only half-dressed, and he’s really hot. Well, that last one isn’t a variable, but still.

He reaches around me and takes the washcloth from my hand, then slowly, gently he wipes the blood from my neck and arms. “You don’t always have to smile,” he murmurs. Still reaching around me, he rinses the cloth in the sink and starts on my collarbone. Pauses. Catches my eyes in the mirror.

It’s like having a butterfly land on my hand. I hardly dare to breathe.

Endou continues down over my chest, to my stomach, until he reaches my waistband. He lets the cloth drop to the counter and ghosts his fingertips over my damp skin. My stomach clenches, but in a good, expectant kind of way, and every hair on my body rises in the wake of that light touch. Then Endou cups the front of my pants, and it takes everything I have not to fall into him.

A moan claws its way out of my throat, and Endou pulls away immediately. I catch his wrist and lick my lips nervously before I guide his hand back. You probably think I’m lying–what with the hordes of the undead flooding the country and all–but that is the scariest thing I have ever done. If Endou changed his mind…

What the hell is he doing here, anyway? He’s Endou. He could have anyone he wants. Why me?

“You–” My voice cracks, and I lick my lips again, letting go of his wrist. “You don’t have to … to do anything, if you… I mean, if you just feel sorry for me or something…”

Endou’s reflection gives me a sardonic look, then leans in to bite my shoulder. My cock jumps against his palm, and he kneads me through my pants, softly at first, then harder as I writhe against him.

My breath sounds ridiculously loud as it bounces off the tiles and back to my ears. I have a horrifying flash of it somehow traveling through the pipes to the rest of the dorm. But Endou’s mouth is on my neck–hot and wet and perfect, with just enough teeth to let me know that, yeah, this is Endou–and his hand is stroking my cock, and I can feel him getting hard against my ass.

It’s even better than I imagined it would be. Well, except for one thing.

“Wait, ah, w–wait,” I gasp, and Endou pulls away, though not as quickly as before. I turn around and back him against the wall, then lean in to brush my lips over his ear as I whisper, “It is okay? Like this, I mean?” I kiss along his jaw in a way I hope is persuasive. His skin tastes like sweat and cordite, and I want more.

His answer is to grip my waist and pull me closer, and I grind my hips down hard, my mouth seeking his. His tongue slips in to caress mine, then pulls back so his teeth can catch my bottom lip.

I feel him slide a thigh (damn every bit of him is hard as a rock, isn’t it?) between my legs, and I grab his belt loops for leverage and thrust against his hip.

“Nn, Endou, I–I want… I want to…” It should be easy to say. I mean, it’s just weird going shy with a guy when you’re already pretty intimate with his hipbone. But somehow the words catch in my throat, and I bury my face in Endou’s hair.

“Tell me,” he says, his smooth voice gone low and husky as he slides a hand up my back. “Tell me, Shou.”

Maybe it’s hearing my name. Maybe it’s just hearing him talk. The knot undoes itself, and I say, “I want to touch your cock.” The words send a shiver up my spine to meet Endou’s slender fingers, now stroking between my shoulder blades. I finger the button of his fly and gasp, “Can I? Please say I can. I want to–ah!–to touch you so bad.” I’m just babbling now–obviously I’m touching him kind of a lot already–but I can’t help myself.

Endou’s head falls back against the wall, and he groans and cants his hips in a very clear gesture.

Yes.” I suck on his exposed throat as I unzip him with shaky hands. “You–oh–you feel so good. I want to make you feel good too.” I pull him out and feel him jerk against me. And realize that I don’t have anything to use.

Just as I begin to contemplate the practicality of sweaty palms, Endou grabs my wrist and brings my hand up to his mouth. He runs his tongue over my palm, then up and down each of my fingers, holding my gaze the entire time. Oh, do I want the smooth, strong glide of that tongue on my cock, but I have more pressing matters at hand. So to speak.

I wrap slick fingers around Endou’s cock, and he watches me–flushed, heavy-lidded, and panting, all for me, and there is nothing hotter in the world.

“Here,” Endou breathes, reaching for my fly.

Okay. Almost nothing.

Accordingly, I come all over his hand the moment he gets me out.

Which would be humiliating except it makes Endou shudder and hiss. His messy hand curls around me, tight and possessive, like he’ll never let go. Then he wipes his hand on his own cock and says, “Try that.” His darkened eyes hold mine like a challenge.

So I jerk Endou off with my own come, and my brain gives up on defining the superlative of hotness. Endou wraps his arms around my neck, tilts his head up to offer his mouth for another kiss. I’m only too happy to oblige. I push my tongue deep into his hungry mouth, keeping rhythm as he thrusts into my fist, memorizing the taste and the feel of him.

“I’ve wanted you so bad,” I say when we part. “You have no idea.”

“Yeah, I do,” he says. His fingers twist in the hair at my nape as his breath stutters.

I laugh, just a touch giddy. “I’m that obvious, huh?”

“I, ah, I didn’t mean it that way.”

He doesn’t say how he did mean it. He doesn’t need to, I guess, but it would be nice to hear. That wouldn’t really be Endou, though.

His fingers tighten in my hair, and his whole body goes rigid as he comes on my stomach. He’s as quiet as I expected. He doesn’t even gasp, just buries his face in my neck and rocks silently through the last of it. I hold him for as long as I dare, and then I sneak one last kiss before walking back to the sink.

I pick up the washcloth, frown at it, and reach for a fresh one. While I clean up for a second time, I notice Endou sitting in the corner. He looks afraid, embarrassed, and more than a little pissed off.

So I walk over, kneel in front of him, reach for his hands. Cautious, like I’m approaching a strange dog.

He pulls away, takes a shuddering breath. Says, “Listen…”

I know that if I let Endou back away from me now, he’ll never stop. I lean in for a kiss, and he flinches, pulls in tight like the hammer of a gun. So I lean in closer, catch his lips, feel him freeze. Then he gradually relaxes and starts to kiss back, hesitant but there.

You listen,” I say, touching my forehead to his and closing my eyes. “I like you. A lot, actually. So do me a favor and don’t break my heart or anything, okay? It’d be pretty crappy of you at this point, to be honest.”

I feel Endou take another breath, hold it, and then let it out slowly. “You mean that?”

“I do.”

Endou tips his head to one side, and I feel a tentative touch of lips to mine that warms and deepens. I don’t know whether it’s leftover adrenaline from the night’s zombie hunt, or just because I’m such a stud, but as Endou wraps his arms around my waist, I feel my body getting ready for another round.

Of course, at that moment, the bathroom door slams open, and Kawabe says, “How the hell long does it take to get–Oh.”

I jump back a full meter and have to windmill to keep from falling over. “Uh. This. It’s, uh, it’s not–”

Not what it looks like? Really? Like Kawabe would buy something like that. Like it could be anything but what it looks like.

Kawabe adjusts her glasses and holds up a hand. “No, it’s fine. It explains a lot, actually.” She crosses her arms and grins, showing more teeth than is strictly necessary. “Anyway. Sorry to interrupt, but we really could use some help out there. Besides, you should save that kind of thing for your room–people around here aren’t big on knocking.”

Then she turns on her heel and leaves me blinking after her. Once my brain kicks back into gear, I run over and tear the door back open, demanding, “Just what the hell does this ‘explain’? Hey!”

Kawabe just laughs and keeps walking. I feel Endou brush past me into the hall. Then he turns, walking backward, and smirks as he tosses my shirts to me.

This would be the perfect moment for some big, romantic scene, like telling me his full name or something. But that wouldn’t be Endou either.

So I punch him in the chest and run back to grab my jacket and tie. As I pull on my undershirt and follow him down the hall, I realize belatedly that I’m smiling. I jog to catch up and bump my shoulder against his. I’ll get it out of him sooner or later.

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