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Daichi Mizuchi had the most mundane life that it was possible for someone to have after surviving a zombie apocalypse. He was a pilot employed by a compound in Japan. He usually worked with their research facility and generally got through life by keeping his head down. If you didn't bother other people, then other people didn't bother you. Those were the words that Daichi lived by.

It was easy enough for him to achieve this, because Daichi had been blessed with a very unremarkable appearance. He was short and stout with a round face, so people tended to like him even without Daichi having to try very hard. But otherwise Daichi got left alone. He was the sort of guy you'd get along with at work, but wouldn't think to invite out for a drink. You'd just assume that he probably wouldn't want to go out for a drink.

...Sometimes Daichi wished that someone would ask him out for a drink.

Regardless, he lived each day in a very unassuming manner, to the point that anything even slightly out of the ordinary happening was noteworthy. Which was why today had proven to be of mild interest.

He was in for a long flight, but not to pick up supplies or samples of zombies. No, today he was dropping people off. A new research facility had been set up in Tokyo, at the very heart of the outbreak's origin, and several researchers were setting out for it today. Their belongings had been loaded into the cargo hold earlier and now it was just a case of loading the researchers onto the helicopter along with them. Daichi watched as one of the guards did a head count. As the last of the researchers passed the guard, Daichi could tell from her expression that something was amiss even before she spoke up.

“Huh. Looks like one of 'em hasn't turned up,” she said, tapping the check sheet with her pen, “Got all of his stuff, but not him. I'd almost say leave without him, but his Ma's on the council, so that wouldn't go down well. Mizuchi, can you go look for him? His name's Whittle. That's Dr. Whittle.”

Even if Daichi hadn't already been familiar with Dr. Whittle, his title wouldn't have meant much, since every other person in the facility who wasn't either a guard or an external employee (like Daichi) was a doctor. But all the same, Daichi nodded.

“I'll have a look around,” he said.

“Thanks. Try not to take too long. We have a schedule to keep.”

With that in mind, Daichi headed off to seek out Dr. Whittle. Fortunately, that didn't take too long. It turned out that he was behind one of the storage sheds, talking to another researcher who Daichi didn't recognise. The two of them were tucked away like a couple of schoolboys who knew they were up to no good. Daichi almost felt bad for disturbing them, so he slowed his pace as he walked across.

“It's not too late, Hayato. You could still come with us,” Dr. Whittle said to the other researcher, who was apparently called Hayato, “We could have your stuff sent across later. This could be our big break, a chance to start up our own studies away from the eyes of the council. Wouldn't freedom like that be better for you than this?”

“Sorry Boney, as tempting as that is, I have to say no,” Hayato replied, “My family are here. If I make any progress with my research into zombies like Haru, then I want them to be close at hand. Tokyo's no good for me.”

Dr. Whittle went silent for a long moment. Then he shook his head.

“...I guess I can't force you. But if you change your mind, my door's always open. Especially for you...” He purred out that last part.

Then Dr. Whittle reached across to trail his hand down Hayato's face in a very familiar manner. But Hayato took a step back and shook his head. Daichi tensed up at seeing that. Because he knew that Dr. Whittle didn't appreciate being told no by anyone. Rumour had it that the whole reason there'd been a research facility set up in Tokyo was because he'd nagged at his mother until she gave in and made him one just to keep him quiet.

“Come on, Boney, it's not fair to keep acting like this now. It's been fun, but it's definitely over,” said Hayato, “In fact, it looks like your ride's come to pick you up.”

Hayato nodded across at Daichi, who instantly regretted becoming the centre of attention. The face that Dr. Whittle gave him when he turned around was venomous, although Daichi suspected that was as much directed towards Hayato shooting him down as it was towards Daichi. All the same Daichi saluted as a show of respect.

“The helicopter's ready when you are, Dr. Whittle,” he announced.

“Yes... very well,” Dr. Whittle sneered, “Run along, little man. I'll catch up in a moment.”

But while Daichi had acted as a distraction, it seemed that Hayato had taken the chance to step away. When Dr. Whittle turned back to him, Hayato was already several feet closer to the main building.

“Well, I'd better go get familiar with my office. First day at work and all that,” Hayato said, “Have a good trip, Boney. Make sure to call if you can.”

“Trust me, I will,” Dr. Whittle confirmed, “Just try not to bite off more than you can chew in there, Hayato. Not everyone will take kindly to your radical thinking.”

“Then it's my job to change a few minds.”

That was the last thing that Daichi heard from the strange new researcher for the day, but he had a feeling that he'd be seeing more of him if Hayato was going to be around the facility from now on. Hayato was... quite pretty, honestly. Tall and willowy, with wavy strawberry-blonde hair. The kind of person who'd look more at home in an enchanted forest than in a research facility, though there was a certain sharpness to his expression. Daichi couldn't blame Dr. Whittle for being interested, even if it seemed that Hayato's interest in Dr. Whittle had come to an end.

It was none of Daichi's business though. The only job Daichi had here was to fly a helicopter and make sure all of the researchers got safely to Tokyo. Which he would do without comment or complaint.

The trip there was a noisy one. The team of researchers, all hand-selected by Dr. Whittle, were mostly arrogant young men. It was like a scientific equivalent of a frat party. They all boasted about themselves the entire way there and paid no attention to Daichi, which was how Daichi preferred it. He had nothing to talk about with any of them.

Once the long flight to Tokyo was over, some guards were waiting on the other end to unload the cargo. Then Daichi's job was over. He was free to fly back to the compound. That was when his favourite part of being a pilot kicked in. As soon as he was up in the air by himself, Daichi turned on some music. The soothing sounds of a piano filled the helicopter as he flew across the disappearing city and then beautiful mountains below him.

There were times when Daichi would daydream about stealing a helicopter and flying across Japan like this for as long as he wanted. But he knew that was far more than his pay-grade was worth. So to make up for it, he basked in these longer flights. Away from the troubles of the compound, the zombies and anything else. Just Daichi and the sky. It felt right.

To Daichi, this was a good end to his day and more than made up for having to put up with those annoying researchers on the way in.

***

The next time Daichi saw Hayato – or Dr. Shigino, as he'd been told – was several days later. Hayato had made his presence known at the facility even after being there for only a short time and several of the other pilots had warned Daichi that he seemed to be a troublemaker. So Daichi wasn't all that surprised when he saw Hayato making a beeline for him across the yard. Daichi had just gotten back from a trip to gather more samples of zombies for research and he was ready to head home for the day. But he was intrigued enough by Hayato to stick around and see what he wanted.

“Hey, uh, pilot guy!” Hayato chimed, with a cheerfulness that sounded far too false.

“It's Mizuchi, Dr. Shigino,” Daichi corrected.

“Please, call me Hayato. This surname business is far too formal for me,” Hayato said, then he leaned forward to read Daichi's name badge, “And I'll call you Daichi, okay?”

Daichi shrugged; “I mean... I can't stop you.”

Hayato outranked Daichi considerably. Something they both knew.

“Cool. Glad to hear it,” hummed Hayato, “So I've heard about you from some of the others. They say you're a good guy and I want to get to know everyone, since I'm new here. Seems like a great job, being a pilot and all. I bet you get to go flying whenever you like.”

“I go where they tell me to and nothing more,” said Daichi.

“What, really? You never just take a helicopter and head out sometimes?” Hayato asked, “Sounds like you need to live a little, Daichi. Why don't the two of us find some time to sneak ou-”

“...I'm going to stop you right there,” Daichi interrupted, “You're asking me to take you for a joyride, right?” Hayato's face seemed to light up in a strange way upon hearing the term 'joyride', but Daichi chose to ignore it; “Look, Dr. Shigino, you're not the first and you won't be the last. The other researchers told you I'm the biggest drip in the facility, didn't they? Well, they're not wrong about that. But I'm a drip who values his job. So the answer is no. Jog on, Dr. Shigino.”

Hayato looked affronted. He was clearly no less used to being told no than Dr. Whittle was. These researchers were all the same. Where did the facility find them, anyway?

“Ah... I see,” Hayato mumbled, “Okay... yeah, fine. But if you change your mind...”

“I won't,” assured Daichi.

He turned away to get his logbook out of the helicopter. By the time he turned back, Hayato was already gone.

***

That wasn't the only time Hayato tried to get Daichi to give him a free ride. Far from it. But the next attempt he made was armed with more knowledge than the first one. There was a spring in Hayato's step as he approached Daichi. Clearly he thought he had something up his sleeve.

“A few of the others have told me you do agree to joyrides,” Hayato announced.

“Is that what they say?” Daichi replied, trying not to sound amused.

“Yeah, you liar. It's just that I was going about it all wrong before, but I know better now,” said Hayato.

Daichi smiled up at him; “Go on then, show me how much better you know.”

“Well, I know that no one does anything without payment,” said Hayato, “It was selfish of me to expect you to put your job at risk without getting anything in return. So here it is.”

With that, he reached into his pocket and took out a gold card that Daichi was all too familiar with. It was a rations card and it granted you everything that the council believed you needed while you lived in the compound.

There were several levels to how they worked. The average civilian would have a bronze rations card, which gave them access to supply drops within their zone, a canteen, a few basic facilities, a house for their family and free reign to travel within their zone, but nowhere else. The next step up was the silver rations card, which was what Daichi had. For all intents and purposes it was almost exactly the same as the bronze one, except that it let you travel between some zones as your employment required. Most guards, pilots and other workers had one. After that, of course, came the gold rations card, which was a bit of a luxury. It allowed you access to better food and supplies, free passage between all of the zones and certain other privileges. All of the researchers had one. Most of them had tempted Daichi with this same kind of card in the past and it wasn't surprising that they'd advise Hayato to do the same. After the gold card, it was rumoured that council members had some kind of platinum rations card, though Daichi had never seen that one.

But the one that mattered right now was the gold rations card being waved before him. If Hayato expected a bigger reaction to the reveal, then Daichi didn't give him one.

“So how long are you swapping this with my card for?” he checked.

“Swapping it...? No, you can just have this,” Hayato corrected, pushing the card closer to Daichi, “It isn't that important to me.”

Daichi's eyes did widen now.

“You really are new, aren't you, Dr. Shigino?” he gaped. Then he pushed the card back towards Hayato; “What would you do if you really gave away your card? You wouldn't be able to get around as freely as you do if you took my silver card for good. I'm sure that the rest of your family all have cards as well, but yours is the one that brings them the better food and supplies. Don't just give that up.”

“I see...” mumbled Hayato, looking down at the card as if he was seeing it properly for the first time, “So I guess I should just swap with you for a while? How long is considered normal...?”

This guy was something else.

“Tell you what, first go's on me,” said Daichi, “I can tell that this means a lot to you. Just find out all the information before you try to bribe me next time, okay?”

Hayato's face lit up. Seeing him look so genuinely cheerful made Daichi's stomach feel weird. That expression alone was almost worth agreeing to this.

“Great! So can we go right now?” Hayato asked.

“Sure, I'm done for the day,” said Daichi, “There's a lull around this time, so it's the easiest time to sneak out if you're going to try it.”

In truth, Daichi would still not prefer to put himself at risk too much. If they got caught, then Daichi would be the one who'd get reprimanded worse than Hayato. But having said that, he'd given out enough joyrides to know how to sneak around the system well enough. Some of the guards who monitored the exit didn't care as much as others, it was just a case of figuring out who worked what shifts. Besides, anyone who wanted a joyride generally just wanted to be flown around for a while so they could pretend to be free. Daichi had a route that he usually took those people on until they were satisfied and then he'd being them back.

“All right then. I have the address that I want to go to,” said Hayato.

“Address? You mean you actually have somewhere in mind?” asked Daichi. That was... unusual.

“Of course. I wouldn't be asking you to do this unless I had a reason,” Hayato replied, “I did an interview with one of the families who arrived recently. It sounded like before they were brought here, they lived with the kind of zombie I'm looking for. This is the first time I've heard another account like mine, so I want to fly out to where they came from to see if it's true.”

“They lived with a zombie...?” Daichi said.

“Yes,” confirmed Hayato.

“And you want to go to where they were and find this... zombie?”

“Absolutely.”

“Well... you're mad, but okay. I'll just make sure we have a land exploring uniform in your size on the helicopter,” said Daichi.

“There'll be no need for that. Those uniforms are useless anyway,” dismissed Hayato, “I don't know why they bother with such outdated gear. It's already been proven beyond doubt that the virus isn't airborne, so there's no need to cover up your face and body like that.”

“It isn't just to protect against the virus! It gives you some cover if a fucking zombie comes after you!” Daichi gasped, unable to believe he was having to explain that.

“The zombie we're going to see won't hurt us,” assured Hayato.

This was definitely more than Daichi's pay-grade was worth. He should've just taken the gold rations card from this naïve researcher and ran. If this trip ended with Daichi having to drag Hayato's dead body back to the compound then... then Daichi didn't even want to think about the consequences.

And yet... he was intrigued. He'd already agreed to the journey, so he wasn't going to back out now.

“Right, do whatever you want. But forgive me if I change into a protective suit before we get out to visit your zombie,” he said.

Then that was that. They were going out on Hayato's bizarre trip to find some kind of zombie that some family had apparently been living with before they'd been rescued. Those people must've been seriously determined and deluded to go to such effort... Daichi kind of understood, even if he couldn't connect to their logic himself. People caring that much about losing a loved one. But the only way to survive was to accept that once that person was infected, they weren't the person you once knew any more. Surely it'd only cause you more pain to have to see them every day and know that the person you once loved wasn't in there now. Not to mention that the zombie would actively be trying to kill you...

Was that what Dr. Whittle meant when he said that Hayato had radical thinking? Was Hayato here to study this kind of behaviour in people? A zombie was a zombie, at the end of the day. There couldn't be anything special about that. It had to be the people he was researching.

Yet whatever his intentions were, Daichi still flew them to the address that Hayato had given him. It was out in the country, where many of these late-coming survivors were found, and quite a distance from the compound. Enough so that Daichi did start to worry they'd get caught on the way back in.

Once they'd landed, Daichi got changed into the proper uniform. Hayato did not. Instead he headed out the door still dressed in his lab coat and other completely unprotected gear. Damn this guy. Daichi hurried to pull his own protective clothing on. He did want to head after Hayato before Hayato got himself killed, but it wasn't worth Daichi risking his own life through not being prepared.

By the time Daichi got out into the field, Hayato had disappeared into a farm house, though he'd left the door open behind him. A quick look around outside made it apparent that there were no zombies or raiders about. The fields were too exposed for there to be anywhere to hide other than the house itself, so Daichi had to hope it was empty. He still locked the helicopter though, because you could never be too safe.

After that he headed into the house and through to the living room, where he found Hayato, stood in front of a dead body with his head hanging low. All of the bright confidence from before seemed to have drained right out of him.

“Dr. Shigino...?” Daichi prompted.

“We're too late...” mumbled Hayato, gesturing down to the body, “Someone must've killed him after they left. How am I going to tell the family that?”

Now that Daichi could get a better look at the body, he saw that it had been a zombie. There was a large hole through it's head, one of the easiest ways to take a zombie out for good. Most people would feel relieved to see such a sight, but if that family had kept this zombie for so long, then they probably wouldn't be.

“I'm sorry,” Daichi tried, unsure of what else to say.

“He was just like Haru... The first one I'd heard about. The first chance I had to possibly study the condition and learn how to help,” Hayato said, “I could've helped this guy as well... I could've helped that family! But not now! Not... now...”

This was beyond Daichi's understanding, but it was affecting Hayato a lot. So Daichi stepped forward and put a hand on his shoulder, pointedly turning him away from the body.

“Let's get back. There's no point in staying here now,” Daichi said. If someone had shot this zombie, then there was still a chance they could come back and that wasn't worth the risk.

“It could be years before another one like this shows up... And maybe those families will be too scared to talk or won't come to the compound at all...” Hayato muttered, letting Daichi lead him back out of the house.

“Don't say that. You can't give up hope at the first hurdle,” tried Daichi, although he wasn't sure what Hayato was looking for needed to be found, “Maybe you just need to talk to other families already in the compound about their experiences?”

“Yeah... I'll try that. It seems like the only thing I can try,” said Hayato.

They got back into the helicopter without much conversation. Daichi changed out of his protective gear and then got into the pilot's seat, where he belonged. As the helicopter took to the sky once more, Hayato drew into himself in his seat, pulling his legs up to his chest and lowering his head to rest on his knees. It was the most pitiful sight Daichi had seen in a long time. Did that zombie seriously mean so much to him?

So Daichi tried something he'd never done before – he turned on his music while someone else was in the helicopter with him. Listening to music was usually a very private thing for Daichi, something he could only do while on the helicopter, but right now it felt like Hayato could do with it.

Slowly, Hayato uncurled from his ball. He looked down at the console, as if the gentle sounds were alien to him or more likely, that they had just been forgotten.

“That's... that's nice...” said Hayato, “I don't think I've heard music since before the outbreak. I'd kind of... forgotten about it.”

“This is one of the perks of the job,” Daichi replied, “It can't get radio, except for communication, but I picked up a couple of CDs from a salvage drop once and I keep them hidden on here. You're the first person I've played them for. Let's keep it our secret, okay?”

“Our secret... Sounds good me me,” Hayato agreed.

Somehow, those words sounded a lot more dangerous coming from Hayato's mouth than they did from Daichi's.

***

Despite Daichi's concern, the two of them made it back to the compound without incident. After that, it was at least a month until Hayato talked to Daichi directly again, though Daichi had seen him about the facility often enough. Everyone seemed to like Hayato. His eccentric ways were commented upon, but it seemed that he was a nice enough guy to get away with them. The cynical side of Daichi wondered how much of that niceness was an act, but then Hayato had seemed pretty naïve when he'd tried to bribe Daichi. It was hard to be sure exactly what the real Hayato was...

The next time Hayato approached Daichi, he was shamelessly waving the gold rations card around as he walked across the yard. Several of the guards saw this, but chose to ignore it in a fond kind of way, as if they'd already written Hayato off as harmless.

“Well, I took your advice and did some digging,” Hayato announced, “But it turns out your advice sucked and I didn't get any results from talking directly to civilians, though I did get some from asking around here. Turns out that one of the guards has an uncle who keeps records for the council and they've documented several examples of similar cases with zombies like the ones I'm looking for. Can you believe that?”

“And they just gave you those records?” Daichi asked, wanting to get to the point.

“Well... I have them now,” said Hayato, raising his eyebrows in a way that brought his innocence into question, “Not for good, but for long enough that I've been able to make copies. A lot of these are older records, so they might lead to dead ends, but there has to be at least one that'll help me find something. Which is where you come in, of course.”

“Can't you bother some other pilot?” Daichi said. Though he was mostly just teasing. Hayato was weird, but he was weird enough to be interesting.

“I could, but you're my favourite,” replied Hayato.

Why did he have to say that? Hayato already made Daichi feel funny enough, but to say that Daichi was his favourite...? Ugh, damn this guy. Daichi glanced away, hoping that his embarrassment wasn't obvious, though he had been cursed with very red cheeks even when he wasn't blushing.

“If I'm your favourite, then how come you haven't spoken to me since our last trip?” Daichi checked.

“Don't be like that! You can see I've been busy doing all of this digging,” whined Hayato, “If I hadn't been so busy, then I definitely would've come to see you sooner. In fact, why don't we go out after this trip is over? Celebrate our first successful venture into reformed zombie research.”

Daichi had so many questions about what a 'reformed zombie' was and he didn't want the answers to any of them. He also wasn't so sure that Hayato would want to toast to their success if today's trip went like the last one, since Hayato was hardly in a good mood after he'd found his dead zombie.

But on the other hand... someone wanted to go out somewhere with Daichi. He'd been so desperate to be asked for so long that he just couldn't turn that down.

“Show me your rations card again and we have an agreement,” Daichi decided.

“I like the way you think,” said Hayato, “Here you go. We can swap for one week.”

“Only a week? You're stingy, Dr. Shigino,” Daichi tutted.

“I need to keep you wanting more if we're going to make several of these trips,” said Hayato, “No point in rewarding you too much too soon.”

“I, uh... I see...” mumbled Daichi.

He had to turn away at that. This guy knew exactly what he was doing, didn't he? But that wouldn't stop Daichi from maintaining a professional attitude for as long as he could. At least as much as he could call illegally smuggling someone out of the compound 'professional', anyway.

The two of them got ready to leave soon after that. Just like last time, Hayato basically wanted to jump into the helicopter and go, without making any preparations. Once they were inside, Hayato took a pile of papers out of his bag and flipped through to one of the pages.

“This is the most recent account,” he explained, “If we go here, we're more likely to find results, I hope.”

Once again, the address Hayato gave Daichi was a good distance away from the compound and in a cut-off area. As they drew closer to it, Daichi couldn't help but comment on that.

“So are all these zombies you're looking for out in the middle of nowhere?” he asked.

“Most of the accounts I've seen follow that pattern,” said Hayato, “It's too early for me to do more than just theorise, but from... my own experiences, this kind of zombie tends to revert back to their original urges when around other zombies. So it makes sense that they'd flourish away from populated areas, where there won't be as many other zombies.”

“By your own experiences you mean that Haru person, right?” Hayato checked.

Hayato clammed up for a moment. Clearly he hadn't expected Daichi to remember that much.

“...I'm pretty loose-lipped, aren't I?” Hayato said, once he'd recovered.

“You could do with being more careful if you don't want everyone to know your business, yeah,” Daichi confirmed, “Don't worry though. Haru means nothing more to me than just a name you've said. I'm guessing he's some kind of zombie who you cared about, but that's all I can guess.”

“I was very young when I last saw him, but I still remember...” said Hayato. Despite Daichi's warning about keeping quiet, Hayato openly explained his situation; “But he means so much to my family and my brother's friends. They were all very close... I made a promise that I'd do what I could to help them.”

“You seem willing to go to a lot of lengths to keep that promise,” Daichi said.

“Daichi, you have no idea...”

The tone of Hayato's voice was different from anything Daichi had heard from him before. It sounded dark and almost... resentful? Hearing that made Daichi unsure if he should get himself caught up in whatever this was. Perhaps it'd be better to leave Hayato to one of the other pilots and yet... Daichi was intrigued. His life was boring enough that one unusual researcher might be the only interesting thing that had ever happened to him since he started this job. Maybe it was worth sticking this out for just a bit longer.

Besides, they'd just about reached where they were going now. A rocky mountain face filled with several openings along its edge. A raider's paradise, by the looks of it. Though the people who lived here must've been lucky enough to be found by the compound before they'd been found by the raiders.

As they landed the helicopter, once again Hayato jumped out without changing into the protective gear and once again Daichi hurried to put his own protective gear on before going after him. Thankfully he managed to change quick enough that Hayato hadn't disappeared into one of the caves without him.

“Her husband's account says that they lived in the third cave from the edge, just above ground level. So that should be this one,” said Hayato, pointing towards one of the caves.

After a brief climb that Daichi knew he wasn't fit enough to handle (the compound should install a gym into the zone he lived in...), the two of them made their way inside. Their demeanour couldn't be more different – Hayato walked tall and proud, fearless of what they might come across, while Daichi walked nervously, with one hand resting upon the gun at his side. Despite this, Daichi made sure to walk in front of Hayato, so the clueless researcher wouldn't be at risk.

“Hello? Is anyone there?” Hayato called.

...Or at least not more at risk than he was determined to put himself in, anyway.

“...M-maaaccceelll...?”

Daichi almost jumped out of his skin. He drew his gun and aimed it dead ahead. Then he realised that facing an enemy blind wasn't a good idea, so he instead reached for his torch. While he was fumbling about with his utility belt, Hayato spoke.

“No, it's not Marcel,” he said, “But we come from the place that took him. We want to learn more about you, Blair, so hopefully the two of you can be reunited someday.”

“...Mar... maaar...ceeel...”

As Daichi turned on the torch and shone it ahead, the sight that greeted him had him scramble backwards into Hayato, who was still standing as firm as ever. Hayato gripped Daichi with surprising strength, but even that didn't calm Daichi's nerves. He was looking at... a zombie. Which in itself wasn't unusual. It looked like she was tied up by a rope, so she couldn't come any further than she already had done. But it was hearing her talk that scared Daichi to his core. Zombies didn't talk, it was impossible!

“Can you understand me?” Hayato asked.

“...M-marrr...cel...”

“You... you can't, can you?” he said, his resolve faltering.

Sure enough, the zombie did nothing more than hopelessly bleat out 'Marcel' over and over. Daichi didn't know what to do. He turned to look at Hayato, but as best he could make out through the dim torchlight, Hayato was shaking his head.

“Is she... not what you were looking for?” Daichi asked.

“Unfortunately... no,” Hayato sighed, “She might've been at one point. Maybe she could be again if we brought her husband back to her, but she's been alone for so long. She must've... started to give up. Th-thank goodness Haru isn't alone...”

Before now, Daichi had believed Hayato to be deluded. But it was hard not to see there was some truth to his words when the evidence was this talking zombie. A zombie with some basic understanding... That changed a lot of things. Could such a zombie still be regarded as a person?

“What should we do then?” Daichi checked.

“Sadly, there's nothing we can do. I'm appealing to get a ward setup in the facility, but I can't do that successfully without evidence and it isn't as if the two of us can bring her back. I'd been hoping she'd have more understanding, so she could talk to us and maybe come willingly, but it'd be too risky to take her like this,” Hayato said. Then he looked past Daichi, to address the zombie, “...Blair, if you can hear what I'm saying, then I'm sorry. We haven't given up on you, but you can't come with us today. I hope to reunite you with Marcel soon...”

“...Maaarceeeel...! ...M-marrrceelll...!”

Her cries grew more frantic now, but there was nothing they could do for her. The two of them backed out of the cave as Blair tugged on her rope, crying out the whole time. Her voice echoed throughout the cave and could still be heard when they were outside. No wonder raiders avoided this place.

Daichi and Hayato made their way back to the helicopter in silence. It was hard to tell if this trip had been a success or not, but Daichi turned on the music despite that. He needed something to calm his nerves.

They were at least ten minutes into the flight before Hayato spoke up. Some of his composure having returned to him, he looked at Daichi with an ill-fitting smile.

“So now do you believe me?” he asked.

“That was a talking zombie. I'll believe anything you say from now on,” promised Daichi.

“Glad to hear it. Although... I don't know what we'll be able to do if they're all like this,” said Hayato, seeming to have gone back into business-mode now, “From what I remember, Haru didn't talk when we left him, but most of the accounts I've read imply that he would've developed speech. The rate that happens seems to vary though. And now we know that their development can deteriorate...”

“You're using 'we' in that an awful lot,” Daichi pointed out.

“Come on, Daichi, don't tell me you're not at least a bit interested now,” said Hayato.

“Keep your half of the bargain about going out later and I'm as interested as you want me to be,” Daichi replied.

Hayato gave a chuckle to that; “...Wow, for a drip you certainly know how to assert yourself. But sure, let's head out when we get back. Got anywhere in mind?”

***

Daichi had somewhere in mind.

The zones in the compound were all slightly different to each other, as the compound itself developed at different rates. The council got away with this because most civilians had no contact between zones, so they didn't know if they were better or worse off than any other zone.

Daichi had travelled between most of the zones during the rare periods when he'd gotten a gold card in return for some favour, but there wasn't much of interest to him in any of them. At least not to Daichi on his own. But with company... there were places they could go.

A few of the zones had pubs, because alcohol was good at surviving an apocalypse and many people wanted to drink to forget. From what Daichi had seen, only zones dedicated to gold card-holders had pubs though, because the people who lived there were more likely to have something they could trade for payment. Those with bronze cards had nothing, so they accepted what they were given through supply drops.

As much as Daichi didn't want to flex his privileges and generally stuck to supply drops himself (you could find some good items in them that would otherwise be thrown away), when he had a gold card and a friend for the night, he was going to go have a drink at one of the posh pubs, like he'd always dreamed of doing.

Yet it turned out that Hayato was even more out of his depths here than Daichi was. He had no idea what to order and ended up getting the same as Daichi, which was pretty ambitious for what was obviously his first time drinking.

“You've never been here before? I thought some of the other researchers would've taken you, seeing as you get along with everyone,” said Daichi, taking a sip of his pint.

“They've offered a few times, but I've always been too busy,” Hayato replied. He took a much bigger gulp of his beer, with Daichi knew was a mistake, even if Hayato didn't; “...I might not look like it, but I'm kind of married to my work.”

“No, you do come across that way. But then again... you come across a lot of different ways,” Daichi said.

“Then my... my plan is working,” hummed Hayato. He gave Daichi a wink and then downed the rest of his pint.

“You might want to pace yourself there,” warned Daichi.

“Nah, s'fine! This stuff's pretty good, yeah...? What's the worst that could happen?” replied Hayato, batting his hand at Daichi.

***

The next morning, Daichi woke up to find his face planted on his own living room carpet. He had no idea how he'd gotten there. The last thing he remembered as going to be pub with...

...Hayato!

What had happened to Hayato?

Daichi scrambled to sit up, but then he saw exactly where Hayato was and sighed with relief. It looked like they'd both made it back to Daichi's place last night and Daichi had managed to help Hayato onto the sofa, before falling asleep on the floor next to it. Both of them were fully dressed, so nothing more had happened than that, but Hayato was probably very cold lying on the sofa. These compound houses weren't the warmest of places.

Daichi got up, willed his head to stop spinning as best he could, and headed off to get the blanket from his room. He came back and tried to place it over Hayato as gently as possible, but Hayato rolled over and opened his eyes to look up at him.

“...Morning...” he croaked.

“Good morning,” said Daichi, covering Hayato over with the blanket anyway, despite him being awake, “Did you sleep well?”

“Yeah... but I feel like I got hit by a truck now... Is drinking always like that?” Hayato asked, shuffling to sit up on the sofa.

“Depends how well you take to it. If you pace yourself, like I told you, then maybe your headache wouldn't be so bad,” Daichi replied.

“You can talk...! You were the one who ended up crying into my lap after your fourth pint, saying you were going to die alone,” said Hayato, with a hoarse chuckle.

“I did?” Daichi said.

He genuinely couldn't remember that. But then he couldn't remember much of last night. It seemed like Hayato had him beat in that regard. Though Daichi was too embarrassed to admit it. He got to his feet, deciding that he should at least make them breakfast, since they were here. Thank goodness Daichi didn't have any shifts today.

“So this is your place, huh?” Hayato asked, looking around the walls curiously. Daichi could tell what Hayato was looking for, even before he asked his next question; “...It really is just you?”

There were no photos on the walls. No signs of any family, friends or other loved ones. The house was very clearly just Daichi.

“It really is just me,” Daichi confirmed, as he headed through to the kitchen. When Hayato got up and followed him, blanket wrapped around his shoulders in a way that looked far too adorable, Daichi continued, “I was living in a foster home in Tokyo when the infection broke out. Despite Tokyo being hit the worst, they were pretty efficient about evacuating places like that. So all of the kids from the home ended up coming to the compound. We were some of the first. It was easy to train us up for work, since we had no families or other obligations.”

Hayato nodded; “I'd heard about that. The council were keen to rescue homeless kids for that reason. But I don't see too many of them about.”

“Eh, well, they probably wouldn't tell you if they were, would they?” said Daichi, as he cracked some eggs into a pan, “You wouldn't even have known about me if I hadn't said so. But also... it didn't always work out as the council wanted. I was so scared as a kid that I just kept my head down and did what I was told, but a lot of the other kids I came in with were more rebellious. They didn't want to be used.”

“What happened to them?” Hayato asked.

“Mostly they live good lives in bronze card zones and don't know any better,” said Daichi, “Some of them found partners and made do together as best they could in a place like this. It's weird to think that you could find love in what was supposed to be a temporary evacuation zone, but... life goes on. People don't stop being people.”

But Daichi didn't stop being alone... He'd done everything that he'd been told to do and took on a career as a pilot when he'd showed promise in that field. It had gotten him a decent house and certain privileges that the more rebellious children from the same foster home as him hadn't gotten, yet it hadn't gotten him what he actually wanted. More often than not, it had just painted Daichi as someone who was easy to manipulate.

“I'd rather be you than them,” mused Hayato, sticking some bread into the toaster, even without Daichi telling him to, “I couldn't do with getting too bored.”

“Did you miss the part where my life is boring?” Daichi checked.

“You get to hang out with me now. Your life isn't boring.”

The smirk Hayato gave him was wolfish. Daichi instantly regretted not being able to remember more of last night.

***

It was about a week after their trip to the pub before Daichi saw Hayato again. Usually, even if Hayato didn't directly talk to him, Daichi would see him about the facility, but he seemed to have been absent this week. Either that or just too busy to be flitting about like he usually did.

But in true Hayato fashion, when he made his way across the yard towards Daichi, he was all smiles and cheer. The routine seemed to be that Hayato would approach Daichi with more positivity than anyone had any business having and then they'd fly off across Japan to have some strange run-in with a zombie. Daichi saw no reason why today would be any different. Except that this time Hayato was bothering him in the morning, before Daichi had set out on his first supply run. All the other times, Hayato had tried to catch him after work.

“There he is! My favourite pilot, ready to go off on a mission,” Hayato chimed.

“It's collecting chemical samples for that new stun guns they're working on. I'd hardly call that a mission,” Daichi replied.

“Nah, that was what you were going to do today. But consider your schedule wiped, because I have something much more interesting for the both of us,” Hayato dismissed.

“I'd need to run it by my supervisor if you want me to-”

“-Already done! Your supervisor and pretty much everyone in the facility knows that you're coming with me.”

So Hayato really had been off meddling while he was away over the last week.

“I can see that I'm not going to get out of this,” said Daichi, “So are you going to fill me in on your plans?”

“Sure, there's no harm in it now,” Hayato replied, “So when I got talking to some of my colleagues about what we found in the cave last week, it created quite a stir. The council wants to pretend they don't know about these kinds of zombies, but naturally scientific minds are interested in them. The only snag is that they'll need more proof than just my word if we're going to do anything about this, so I've been given clearance to head out and gather more evidence.”

“The council gave you clearance for that?” Daichi asked, sounding doubtful.

“Well... no. The council don't know about any of this. But the facility gave me clearance and my motto is that it's better to ask forgiveness than permission,” said Hayato.

“Yeah, that's definitely your motto,” Daichi agreed, “So you want to go back out to that... th-that cave with the talking zombie?”

Hayato was already climbing into the helicopter. Daichi had no choice but to follow him. As Hayato took to his usual seat next to Daichi, he carried on talking.

“We'll probably go back to Blair eventually, but I... don't feel ready to face her right now. It was pretty harrowing,” said Hayato, “Of course the other leads might end the same way or worse, but I want to at least follow all of them up, so we can have an idea of how many of these zombies we're dealing with. And don't worry, we're not bringing them back today, just recording footage of them.”

“You make it sound like bringing them back in future is a definite possibility,” said Daichi, buckling into his own seat.

“That's the idea,” Hayato said, “If I can convince the other researchers, then we could set up a block for them while the facility's being renovated and once the council finds out we have them here, they'll have no choice but to let me keep going with my research on them.”

Daichi started up the engine, taking the top address sheet from Hayato's bag so he knew where he was going. Hayato didn't object. It seemed like he didn't have a preference towards what order they did this in. Just... not the cave zombie first, which Daichi could agree on.

“You don't know the council as well as you think you do if you believe they won't stop you,” Daichi commented, “If they don't want your zombies here, they'll dispose of them.”

Hayato shrugged; “For a while we can pass them off as being the same as any other samples. But once we have more evidence, they automatically become a moral grey area. If the council harms them, there's the argument that it affects their human rights. The more we fight for them, the more people will see that they're still human and after that... well, maybe one day they'll be introduced into the zones just like any other civilian. That's the long term goal.”

As much as Daichi wasn't sure how he felt about walking the same streets as zombies (wasn't the whole idea behind coming to the compound to avoid that?), he knew that he wouldn't get far arguing that point with Hayato. So far Hayato had been right about the zombies he was looking for being different and Hayato obviously had some first-hand experience from knowing that Haru person, so Daichi just had to trust him.

He turned on the music and got ready for a long flight. If nothing else, Daichi did enjoy long flights.

***

Their trip was a total success. Which wasn't to say it was easy. To the contrary, some of the encounters they'd had with the apparent reformed zombies shook Daichi to his core. In many cases, the older records led to dead ends, but in the end they'd found a whooping thirteen of those reformed zombies still existing across Japan.

The main problem was that they'd deteriorated after being left alone for so long. Or that was what Hayato believed. Blair had been the most recent one and all of the others were either in the same state or worse than her. But they could all still talk to some degree, even if it was only very basic. That was the important part. They now had video footage of thirteen zombies who could talk, even if they didn't seem to be able to hold a conversation with Hayato. They often responded to the names of their loved ones and Hayato told Daichi that meant there was the possibility that they could improve again.

Though when they got back to the yard, Daichi voiced one question that had been bothering him.

“You know, there's a way you can prove beyond doubt that you're right about them maintaining their human identity as long as they're around those they're close to,” Daichi said, “You said that your brother's friends are out there somewhere with Haru, right? You could always go to them and see how they're doing.”

Hayato hesitated. Then he shook his head.

“I don't want to go to them until I have definite results, otherwise I'd be letting them down,” he said.

“Is that really it?” asked Daichi.

“Heh... no, it isn't,” Hayato confessed, “I guess the main reason I don't want to go to them now is because... I'm scared that I might be wrong. After all of this work, I'm not ready to face the possibility that Haru might be the same as the others. Perhaps I'm too much of a coward to bring that kind of news back to Kisumi.”

In moments like these, Daichi could tell that Hayato was being sincere. He reached up to put a hand on his shoulder.

“Dr. Shigino, the lengths that you're willing to go for all of this prove that a coward isn't one of the many things you are,” he said.

“Thanks, Daichi... I appreciate that,” sighed Hayato, “And I've told you before, just call me Hayato. Ah, that reminds me though, can I have my gold card back now? I already promised it to one of the guards for leaving a couple of cells empty for my research.”

“Sounds like you owe a lot of people favours, Hayato,” said Daichi.

“You don't know the half of it,” Hayato laughed.

Daichi wasn't sure that he wanted to know. But all the same, he swapped his card back with Hayato. After their one night at the pub, Daichi hadn't used the gold card for any of its other privileges anyway, so it felt like a waste. At least he knew where he stood with his own silver card back.

Though it did make him wonder exactly how Hayato was bribing everyone. He only had one card, which was his only chip to manipulate guards, pilots and the like. As for Hayato's fellow researchers, they all had gold cards of their own. If not with rations cards, then how was Hayato bribing them?

It was probably best not to question his methods.

As Hayato gathered all of their footage to take into the facility, that was Daichi's cue to leave. The two of them were already getting back much later than the average work day ended and if Hayato truly had wiped Daichi's slate clean for today, then that meant that there was nothing else that Daichi needed to do right now. He could just go home and then come back to work as usual tomorrow, until Hayato summoned him again.

...Or he could wait.

Daichi wasn't sure what possessed him to do it, but he took a seat in the lobby at the front of the facility and waited until Hayato came back from his meeting. This part of the facility was one of the few areas open to the public (not that many people wanted to come here), so no one could actually stop Daichi from hanging around as long as the building was open, even if he did get a few odd looks.

When Hayato did finally come back, it was well into the early hours of the morning. Daichi had started to doze, but seeing Hayato's tall figure making its way down the corridor jerked him back awake. As he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, he saw Hayato stop and stare at him from a distance. Clearly Hayato hadn't expected anyone to wait on him.

Maybe Daichi had made a mistake my staying here, but that thought was soon cast out of his mind when Hayato hurried the rest of the distance between them and grabbed Daichi in a hug, squeezing him tighter than Daichi could remember ever being squeezed before. It was... kind of nice. Was he weird for thinking that...?

“Daichi! We did it! They accepted the evidence and now I can move on with my research,” Hayato said. He pulled back to smile down at Daichi; “...It's all thanks to you! I never would've been able to get this far if you hadn't taken me out all those times.”

Damn. Now Daichi's cheeks were definitely red.

“Oh, w-well... I'm sure you would've pestered another pilot into taking you, even without me,” Daichi teased.

“Yeah, probably,” Hayato admitted, which did make Daichi deflate a little, “...But you've been so great. I have to get home now to tell Kisumi and Noriko the news, but let's go out celebrate, sometime. Drinks on me, okay?”

“Okay!” Daichi squeaked, sounding more eager than he'd wanted to.

“It's a date,” said Hayato.

Wait... a date? Was it a date? Did Hayato mean that in the date-date sense or was he simply saying that it was a date when they'd be going out together? Should Daichi ask something like that or would it make it weird if Hayato hadn't meant it in that way and wasn't interested in Daichi at all? Help.

As all of those questions ran through Daichi's head, he said nothing. But it turned out that he didn't need to. Because when Hayato let go of him, he kissed Daichi on the forehead. Th-that... felt like answer enough.

Holy shit...

Daichi couldn't recall how he got home after that, but he reckoned that he must've floated all the way there on cloud nine.

***

In the weeks that followed, Hayato's research into his reformed zombies progressed as rapidly as Daichi's desire to help him did. Daichi could barely even remember why he'd been so reluctant at first. Whether Hayato's research turned out to be a success or not, he was clearly doing it all for the right reasons. Hayato's heart was in the right place. And Daichi's heart... um, liked to follow Hayato more and more.

It wasn't as if they were dating as such, because Daichi never worked up the nerve to clarify, but Hayato had certainly become a lot more intimate with him after Daichi had waited for him at the facility that night. He would hug Daichi almost freely, which no one had ever done before. Daichi had always felt self-conscious about his weight, but when Hayato wrapped his arms around him, it suddenly felt like he had nothing to worry about. Maybe Daichi wasn't much to look at, but Hayato seemed to like him and that was what mattered.

Daichi was so smitten that never again did he try to ask Hayato for his gold rations card or any other kind of payment or proof of permission when Hayato asked to go out on flights for his research. He just assumed that Hayato would have clearance and, even if he didn't, Daichi wanted to help Hayato anyway. It felt like Daichi would take on the council itself for Hayato.

One evening, when they were flying back towards the compound, they passed over a small fishing town and Hayato spoke up out of nowhere.

“Iwatobi...”

Daichi wasn't sure if Hayato had meant for him to hear that or not, but he followed it up anyway.

“That's one of the places they send you guys out to, right?” he asked.

“Yeah. It might not seem like it, but the studies there are supposed to be my actual job. You know the one for when I'm not running around doing all of this extra work with the reformed zombies,” Hayato said, “We're doing some kind of sound-based experiments there, but I'm not sure if they'll take off.”

“The facility is trying so many different ways to tackle zombies. Eventually something will stick,” said Daichi.

“I guess we'll see. But it's not just my job that makes Iwatobi important,” said Hayato, “I used to live near there, in Sano. Many of my brother's friends came from Iwatobi. It feels... almost like a punishment to have to go back. Guess that's why I avoid work so much.”

Daichi snorted; “I hardly call what you're doing 'avoiding work'. But I can tell something's on your mind with that place, so fill me in.”

“Sometimes when I'm there I see zombies, just wandering about. Nothing usual, in itself,” said Hayato, as he looked down at the little town that was now disappearing behind them, “But there are times when I see people who I think I might've known once, even if I was too young to remember them properly.”

“Anyone specific?” Daichi said.

“One time, this tall zombie came right up to the fence,” Hayato said, “He had such striking blue hair. I think he might've been on the same swim team as Haru and Makoto in high school. It was unsettling...” Although Daichi wasn't sure who Makoto was, he'd heard Hayato mention Haru enough times to know that Makoto was probably another one of his brother's friends. He stayed quiet as Hayato went on; “...But that wasn't the worst one. We were scouting the area one day and I came across these... th-these two kid zombies walking around together, like twins. They looked like they must've been maybe a bit older than I was when the infection broke out. But when the boy twin turned to look at me... he had a face that was so much like Makoto's... I knew they were his younger brother and sister. They just had to be. After that I had to head back to the research centre for a while... I just couldn't deal with it.”

“Seeing kid zombies is always the hardest...” Daichi agreed.

He didn't want to be insensitive, but he could only connect to Hayato's grief on a surface level. Daichi had never had any loved ones that he knew of before the infection, so he didn't feel the loss the same way that other people did. It was obvious that Hayato had a lot of grief inside of him, even for people he wasn't certain that he knew. Though it probably wasn't intentional, it was cruel of the facility to base Hayato's main studies in somewhere he was familiar with.

Before he knew what he was doing, Daichi reached across to rub Hayato's back for comfort. He was greeted by a curious, but distant glance. So Daichi gave Hayato the most reassuring smile he could manage.

“Sometimes I think you might be too sensitive for this job,” Daichi said.

Although Hayato returned the smile with his face, Daichi could tell that Hayato's heart wasn't in his smile at all.

“...No, I'm more insensitive than you might think.”

Daichi didn't chase him up on what he meant by that. He later regretted not doing so.

***

Hayato's name was always on many people's lips in the facility. He'd caused quite a stir with what Dr. Whittle had referred to as his 'radical thinking' and the fact that Hayato wouldn't stop until he got his own way was quickly becoming legendary.

Though one thing that Daichi noticed was that even though Hayato was often talked about, Daichi wasn't. Not that Daichi wanted to be talked about as such, he was used to being ignored up until someone wanted a favour, but he figured that given what a hot topic Hayato was, the fact that Daichi was so close to Hayato would be mentioned as well.

Because surely people noticed how close Hayato and Daichi were. After all, even if Daichi didn't see Hayato around the facility much, Daichi was exclusively the pilot who took him out on his research trips to see the reformed zombies. And Hayato was hardly subtle in his affections towards Daichi these days. In f-fact, they'd gotten, um, very close more than a few times... You'd think something like that would create gossip, but it didn't seem that anyone noticed.

...And one day, Daichi found out why that was.

He was actually doing his normal job for a change, bringing fresh samples of zombies into the facility. It was a task that always unnerved Daichi, no matter how many times he did it. Maybe Hayato was seemingly fearless around zombies, but Daichi was all too conscious of the risk they possessed. He always made sure to be dressed in the protective gear whenever the zombies were being led into the building, even going as far as to put the mask on. Recently the facility had developed some kind of shot that would knock out an unruly zombie and Daichi made sure his gun containing that formula was never far from his reach. You never knew when you'd need it.

Once the zombies had been taken inside the facility, there was a slight ruckus from the guards. Apparently the holding cells they'd been moved into needed to be kept empty, because they were going to be used a different purpose after the facility had been renovated.

“Is it seriously that important?” one of the guards asked another, “It's weeks before the renovations start and those researchers go through zombies faster than you-know-who goes through ass.”

Daichi was glad he didn't know who they were referring to.

“If it was down to me, we'd just be shoving those zombies wherever. But that block's the one Dr. Shigino's going to be using to hold his talking zombies,” the other guard replied, “You know how fussy he can get about that.”

“Oh, Hayato?” Daichi chimed in, “Just let me talk to him then. I'm sure he'll understand that it was an honest mistake and we can find out whether he minds those sample zombies staying in the cells until the renovations.”

The two guards shared a look that implied they knew something Daichi didn't.

“I mean... if you want to go talk to him,” said the first guard, “I think Maeda's already got it covered though.”

“Please. I think I know Hayato better than Maeda does,” Daichi scoffed, his tone far more arrogant than it usually was when he spoke to guards.

“If you say so... knock yourself out,” said the second guard.

Brimming with confidence, Daichi headed into the facility to find Hayato. Behind him, he heard one of the guards mumble to the other 'Isn't it cruel to do that to him? Daichi's pretty soft...', but Daichi ignored them. What did being soft have to do with talking to a guy who was practically Daichi's boyfriend at this point? Maybe the others all did know about Daichi and Hayato's relationship, but they kept quiet because they were jealous. Suddenly that was seeming a lot more likely.

So Daichi didn't let any doubts deter him as he made his way up to the cell block where the zombies had been mistakenly put into. He still had his protective gear on, because you could never be too careful around zombies, so he looked like just any other worker, but for the moment, that didn't matter.

Before he even rounded the corner, he heard Hayato and Maeda talking. Maeda was a gruff and ignorant guard, so no doubt he'd be butchering trying to talk Hayato round. Daichi would just have to show him how it was don-

“...Come on, I thought we had an agreement.”

That was Hayato. His voice was... silky. A tone that Daichi had only otherwise heard when him and Hayato had gotten... quite intimate. Why was Hayato talking like that to Maeda?

“I-I know we did! But the guards brought them up here before I checked in with them. You can't expect me to have them moved now, surely!” Maeda stammered.

“Of course I can't make you do anything, but I am... disappointed,” said Hayato, with an exaggerated sigh, “And here I was going to reward you for all your hard work. But I guess I can't now. Pity...”

“Oh, well... in that case, I guess it wouldn't be too much trouble to have them moved,” Maeda corrected, “Since it was a mistake that they were put in those cells in the first place.”

“Thought you might see it that way.”

There was a pause and then Daichi heard the last sound that he wanted to hear. Lips pressing against each other. Even before Daichi looked around the corner, he knew what he was going to see and yet he looked anyway. Hayato was embracing Maeda, kissing him tenderly, using him to get what he wanted...

Maeda wasn't much to look at. It was horrible to say that, but it was true. He wasn't attractive and his personality saw to it that he didn't get any of the attention he wanted. And yet Hayato endured him, because Maeda was one more tool that could help him get what he wanted.

Daichi wasn't much to look at either... And yet Hayato had used Daichi in exactly the same way, hadn't he? Why did Daichi ever think that Hayato might've genuinely liked him? What an idiot Daichi was for believing that...!

Before the other two had broken their embrace, Daichi was gone. They never even knew he'd been there.

***

His anger didn't go away in the days that followed. Daichi hoped that he'd be able to face Hayato rationally by the next time he was approached by him, but as Hayato bounded over to him, Daichi already knew the conversation wouldn't end well. He stayed silent, but Hayato was annoyingly good at filling silence.

“Good news, Daichi, the facility gave us clearance to go pick up one of the reformed zombies today,” Hayato announced, “There was a slight hiccup with the cell block they'd reserved for me, but I've gotten it sorted now. I decided to go for one of the zombies who seemed further along in our communication attempts, since we need to make it as easy on ourselves as possible for this first time around. So let's go.”

Hayato made to climb into the helicopter. Daichi didn't follow. After a few seconds, Hayato realised this and came back out.

“Hey, aren't you coming?” Hayato said.

“No, Dr. Shigino, I'm not coming,” Daichi replied, “I have my orders today to do routine council-approved work and I have every intention of following them. So if you don't mind, please remove yourself from my helicopter.”

“But... you're my pilot,” Hayato mumbled.

Daichi stalked past him and climbed into the helicopter himself, nudging Hayato out of the door as he did. Then he turned around and glared at Hayato.

“Find some other pilot. You said all along that could.”

With that, he closed the door with a heavy slam. Their conversation was over. They were over. If they had even been anything to start with.

***

The worst part was, Hayato did find another pilot. Part of Daichi had hoped that Hayato would at least try to win Daichi's favour back, because then Daichi could delude himself into believing that there might've been a part of Hayato that cared about him to begin with. The fact that Hayato didn't confirmed in Daichi's head that all along Daichi meant nothing to him.

Perhaps it wouldn't have hurt so badly if Daichi hadn't genuinely liked Hayato, even before Hayato became more affectionate with him. He thought that they'd gotten along well, that Hayato opened up to him about matters he wouldn't have talked about so easily with others. But did Hayato just tell his feelings to everyone in the facility? It seemed ever more likely that the reason no one noticed how close Hayato was with Daichi was because Hayato acted the same way with every other person here.

So Daichi ignored him and almost instantly, his life went back to what it had been before Hayato came along. Sure, there was all that reformed zombie research going on in the background, being kept hidden from the council, but it had nothing to do with Daichi. All Daichi did was his actual job. He was left alone to do it. People were pleasant to him at work, as always, and then at the end of the day, Daichi went back to his lonely house.

He was back to square one and he felt worse for ever having stepped away from square one at all. At least if Hayato had never come into his life, Daichi wouldn't know what he was missing.

Actually no... what even was Daichi missing? Some moody researcher who openly tricked others and was probably going to get himself killed someday by prancing out into a field of zombies without any protective gear covering his ass? The same ass that got passed around this facility, apparently. Ugh.

How could Hayato keep his promise to his friends if he was dead? Like many things, Hayato seemed not to think about that. Maybe he was only pretending to care at all. Although even in his worst bouts of annoyance, Daichi knew that part wasn't true. If Hayato didn't care, then he wouldn't be putting himself to such lengths.

The only reason Hayato flaunted himself to Daichi, Maeda and possibly everyone else was because he wanted to keep his promise so badly. Did the person he'd made the promise to know how much they'd messed Hayato up?

Maybe Daichi wouldn't get the answer to that question, but one day, many weeks later, he got the answers to other questions about Hayato. Not that he wanted them now, but sometimes answers came, even when you didn't want them.

Daichi had two flights scheduled that day. He'd come back to the facility from the first one and had time for lunch before he was due to head out for the second. As he walked through the lobby, he saw someone who he'd never seen before, but instantly knew who they were.

The same tall figure as Hayato, except this guy looked like he'd been built stronger at one point, only to have become wispy later on. The same airy kind of nature, as if he'd gotten lost from a fairytale and ended up in reality by mistake. The same cheerful smile as he spoke to the receptionist. But there were differences too. This guy was clearly older and more tired, yet despite this, he seemed to have kept his hair dyed a pale-but-cheerful pink.

This was Hayato's brother, Kisumi.

Upon realising that, Daichi had every intention to ignore him and keep walking, but Kisumi saw Daichi before he had a chance to get away and headed over to him after finishing up talking to the receptionist. It'd be rude to ignore him, so Daichi stopped and waited for Kisumi.

“Excuse me, are you Daichi Mizuchi?” Kisumi asked.

“Yeah, that's me,” said Daichi.

“I thought so. Hi, I'm Kisumi – Hayato's brother. The receptionist said that you're friends with Hayato, so maybe you know where he is?” Kisumi checked.

“Sorry, I can't help you with that. I haven't seen much of him around recently,” Daichi replied. That wasn't a lie, even if he neglected to debunk the part about Hayato and him being friends; “Why? Has he not been coming home lately?”

Kisumi rolled his eyes; “Even less so than usual! He tells me not to worry, but he's my baby brother. I can't do anything but worry when he overworks himself like this.”

“That's very kind of you, but in Hayato's defence, this is a busy time for him,” said Daichi, unsure why he was defending Hayato at all, “He's making so much progress with his reformed zombie research so quickly and from what I can tell, he seems to be the only one taking care of them. Looking after thirteen zombies on your own can't be easy.”

“You mean he... has the zombies here?” Kisumi asked.

Suddenly, Daichi realised that he might've dropped Hayato into trouble with his brother. Daichi wasn't as bothered about that as he could've been.

“He's had them for a while. Don't ask me what he's doing with them though,” Daichi confirmed.

Kisumi looked stunned; “But then why hasn't he brought Haru and the others here yet...?”

Part of Daichi wanted to cause Hayato further trouble by saying that he didn't know or implying that Hayato was dishonest in some way. Which Hayato was, just... not in this way. Daichi already knew the answer to why Hayato hadn't brought Haru here. It only felt right to tell Kisumi the truth, since it wasn't as if Kisumi had wronged Daichi.

“He's worried about failure,” said Daichi, “Hayato wants to make sure it all goes without a hitch before he brings Haru back to the facility. Everything he does is to keep that promise he made, you don't need to worry about that.”

“Oh, Hayato...” Kisumi sighed, shaking his head sadly, “It wasn't even really a promise. Sousuke just said that we'd see him again so Hayato wouldn't feel so bad about leaving the mountains... Hayato was just a little kid back then. But now he's turned rescuing Haru into this big thing and he thinks he's the only person that can do it. Maybe he is...”

So that was the full story behind Hayato's promise.

“I believe that your brother can do whatever he sets his mind to,” Daichi replied. Because despite himself, he did believe that.

“Maybe you're right, but that doesn't mean he doesn't push himself too far,” Kisumi replied. Then he shook his head; “...I'm sorry. Here I am bothering you with all of this and you're not even talking to Hayato right now.”

“Y-you know that I'm not? But you just said that you thought I was his friend,” Daichi gaped.

“I did think that when the receptionist told me who you were and also based on the amount of times Hayato talks about you at home. But from the way we've been talking, I can tell that Hayato's hurt you, hasn't he?” said Kisumi, “I've been around the block more than a few times myself, so I can recognise heartbreak when I see it.”

“Ahaha... this isn't heartbreak!” Daichi hastily assured, “Hayato and I weren't even involved, I just... thought that we were. But you're, um, right that we're not talking...”

He expected Kisumi to back Hayato up by saying that he knows Hayato wouldn't have meant to hurt Daichi, even though it was clear that Hayato kept as many secrets from his own brother as he did from anyone else. But instead, Kisumi shook his head, his face set in a determined frown.

“Well, I can't apologise for him, but if he's hurt you, then by all means don't let him get away with that,” said Kisumi, “I care about Hayato more than anyone, but he needs to understand that he can't treat people like he does sometimes. It'd serve him right if he lost you, Daichi. It might even teach him a lesson.”

“Why would it matter to him if it was me in particular? I'm not anything special compared to some of the others I've seen him with,” Daichi said.

“Because I didn't even know there were any others until you said so just now. But Hayato talks about you all the time,” Kisumi answered, giving him a wink.

Hayato talked about Daichi...? He went home to his family and talked about Daichi? What could Daichi even say to that? He was stunned into silence, which seemed to amuse Kisumi a bit. That guy truly did know what was going on when it came to matters of the heart, didn't he?

“I, uh...” Daichi stammered.

“Heh. Look, I'll let you go now,” Kisumi dismissed, sparing Daichi from further embarrassment, “But I mean it, Daichi. Just because Hayato likes you, that doesn't give him an excuse to push you around. Don't give in to him.”

That was easy for Kisumi to say. And yet... Daichi knew that he wouldn't. No matter what else had happened, Daichi had always managed to hold his ground with Hayato.

***

Perhaps Daichi was being foolish, but he headed out into the yard for his second flight with renewed determination after talking to Kisumi. By chance, he saw Hayato, face buried in his paperwork as he stood out in the yard. All the other times that Daichi had seen Hayato recently Daichi had tried to ignore him, but now he noticed that as he came outside, Hayato looked up from the papers at him, only to quickly look back down again when he saw that Daichi was watching. He really was worse than some schoolboy with a crush...

No doubt Hayato would be waiting for the new pilot he'd replaced Daichi with to take him halfway across Japan. But Daichi wasn't going to have that any more. Now that he thought about what Hayato subjected himself to in order to keep his promise, it made Daichi sick. If he could protect Hayato from having to exploit himself even only in regards to getting flights, then he would. So Daichi marched over to Hayato and glared up at him.

“You're coming with me,” Daichi announced.

Since Hayato had only been pretending to read his papers, he lowered them quickly. His face was a picture of surprise.

“I thought you weren't talking to me...?” Hayato checked.

“Don't get me wrong, I'm still pissed at you, but I'm not going to stand back and let you hurt yourself more than you need to,” said Daichi, “So get on the helicopter.”

This was perhaps the most forceful Daichi had ever been with anyone in his life. But oddly, Hayato seemed to appreciate it. He followed Daichi without hesitation and once they were both inside the helicopter, Hayato sat on his usual seat as if there hadn't been a long gap between now and the last time they'd headed out.

“Daichi... I'm not sure what's brought this on, but... thanks,” Hayato said, “If there's any way I can repay you, then jus-”

“-You can repay me by not trying to repay me,” Daichi interrupted, “I don't want your gold card or your affection or your body or anything else. Just let me do this for you, Hayato. I can't stop you from being an idiot with anyone else, but I can put my foot down when it comes to this.”

Hayato didn't know what to say to that. He leaned forward as if to hug Daichi, but then seemed to think better of it and pulled back. Which was probably for the best...

“So where do you want to go today?” Daichi asked. Might as well get down to business.

“Oh... well, uh, this is... kind of awkward, but I don't... need to fly out anywhere today,” Hayato admitted, “We already have all of the zombies I'm researching for the moment, so there's not much need for me to go to Japan except when I'm heading out to Iwatobi. I only hang around the yard at lunch just... just in case you wanted to talk, haha...”

This seriously was like being in school. Geez. All the same, Daichi was too far gone in his ambition to back pedal just because Hayato didn't actually need him at this moment in time. He started the engine.

“Then in that case, you're coming with me on my regular work. No arguments,” Daichi huffed.

“Oh wow, a kidnapping,” Hayato cheered, crossing his legs and looking far too comfortable, “I've never been kidnapped before. How exciting!”

Daichi's face was bright red. He hated this guy so much. Even now, Hayato ended up having the last word. But maybe... that was okay. Daichi was still giving Hayato the break that Hayato so desperately needed. It was Daichi's good deed for the day. He'd already put his foot down that Hayato didn't have to pay him back with forced affection, so this was purely because he wanted to be Hayato's friend.

All of this time, Daichi had moped around about being lonely because no one paid attention to him. But when it came down to it, perhaps part of the problem was that Daichi himself hadn't put the effort in with other people.

***

It was 2am when the knock at Daichi's door came. Not even a full day after he'd made up with Hayato and there Hayato was, standing on Daichi's doorstep, his eyes red and puffy from crying. Daichi's eyes were full of sleep, but he tried to rub them awake as Hayato started talking.

“I'm sorry to come here like this, but... but I just needed to be anywhere that wasn't my house or the facility,” Hayato sniffed, “Somehow my feet ended up taking me here...”

“You'd better come in,” said Daichi, ushering Hayato into the house and closing the door behind him, “So what happened?”

He'd never seen Hayato in such a state before. Had one of Hayato's attempts to pull favours from others badly backfired on him? Had the council found out about the reformed zombie research and shut him down? But as Hayato took a seat on the sofa and began to explain himself, it turned out to be neither of those things.

“They're just... so unreasonable!” Hayato snapped. Daichi could tell he was letting loose feelings that had been bottled up for some time; “They act like I'm purposely trying to pull the wool over their eyes, as if I have some ulterior motive when I'm doing all of this to help them!”

“Your family?” Daichi guessed, as he took a seat next to Hayato.

“Yes! Well... no, that's not fair...” Hayato sighed, “Kisumi never gets angry with me, but he had that look in his eyes where I can tell he's disappointed and somehow that's even worse than if he was angry. But Noriko was angry. I don't even know how they found out that all the zombies are in the facility, but what gives them the right to get in my face about it?” Daichi stayed quiet, since Kisumi finding that out was Daichi's fault. Hayato didn't need any prompting to carry on with his ranting regardless; “And Kisumi is all 'I know you'll do what's best, Hayato, even if it does take a while to bring them here', but Noriko, like, wants them here right now. She said that I'm stalling! Maybe... I am stalling...”

“You're scared of messing up. You want to know everything will go well when you to bring them to the facility,” Daichi soothed, “No one can blame you for that.”

“Yeah, but... will I be any wiser in one month than I already am now? What about a year? At what stage will I know enough about reformed zombies to feel safe to bring Haru here?” Hayato asked, “Maybe I'm just coming up with excuses to stay scared...”

“I can't answer those questions for you, Hayato,” said Daichi, “You're the only one who knows your research and your family well enough to decide that.”

“Y-you're right...” Hayato mumbled.

“But I do know you well enough to know that you'll let the guilt eat you alive if you keep putting this off,” Daichi went on, “And I don't want that to happen to you.”

He reached across and put his hand on top of Hayato's. For a while they just sat together like that. But after being alone with his thoughts, Hayato reached a decision. When he spoke again, Daichi could sense his conviction.

“Dai, if I was to go out and get them... would you fly me there?” Hayato asked, “It wouldn't just be us, because they insist I have a load of guards when I'm bringing a zombie in, but I'd feel more comfortable knowing you were there.”

Daichi smiled. Hayato had made the right choice.

“Of course I'll fly you there, we already agreed before that I'm not letting the other pilots take you away,” Daichi assured, “So if you've got guards with you, does that mean the council found out in the end?”

“After I brought a few of the zombies in, they caught me,” Hayato admitted, “But somehow it's ended up being a moral grey area. Who'd have guess that?”

“You're a smug bastard,” said Daichi.

“Don't you know it!” Hayato laughed. He actually laughed, even though he'd been worked up so badly just minutes ago.

Maybe sometimes that was what you needed during the hard times. Maybe it was just part of the mania. But whatever it was, Daichi knew that he'd do whatever he could to help Hayato. He was in far too deep to back out now.

***

When they flew out to pick up the rest of Hayato's family, Hayato sat next to Daichi as always. Only this time, Hayato looked so nervous that Daichi was surprised he didn't throw up. Hayato kept fidgeting, but as they got closer to the mountains, he somehow managed to pull himself together. He changed from a nervous wreck into the confident Hayato that he wanted other people to see, all full of swagger and arrogance.

Hayato got up to pace back and forth along the helicopter a few times, his confidence growing with each length. The guards also watched him more and more as he walked, so Daichi had to bite back his jealousy. He had no right to feel jealous really. Still, they would be there in a few minutes and then everyone's attention would be elsewhere.

“I can see smoke rising above the trees. Is that them?” Daichi called back.

Hayato rushed to the front again; “That's them! That's the cottage I used to live in! Holy shit... I wonder what they all look like now.”

“Guess you're going to find out,” said Daichi.

Once they'd landed, it didn't take Hayato long to get off the helicopter. Despite Hayato's practised walk, Daichi could tell how nervous he was. Daichi didn't go with him this time, because with all of the guards there they had to do everything by the book, but he watched out the window the whole time.

There were three people in the cottage. The zombie who had to be Haru and two men, who Hayato had told Daichi were called Sousuke and Makoto. Both of them were pretty attractive, for older guys. Well-built, too. Guess living out in the mountains did that to you.

When Hayato brought the three of them back onto the helicopter, he was busy talking away to them, but he still had time to smirk over in Daichi's direction. Daichi quickly glanced away. Hayato knew that Daichi couldn't get a retort in right now, so it wasn't fair.

Even though Daichi's focus stayed on flying them back to the compound, he could tell that the closer they got, the more Hayato's confident facade broke down. It seemed that Hayato had told them that they wouldn't be able to stay with Haru once they got there, but he'd probably been light on the details. When they landed in the facility and more armed guards were waiting to take Haru inside, Daichi could see how distressed the other two were. He felt bad for them.

“We'll be able to see Haru soon though, won't we?” the guy called Makoto asked.

“As soon as I get the visitor's booth set up,” Hayato promised, “It shouldn't be too long...”

“But you can't give us an exact date?” Sousuke checked.

“I'm doing what I can,” said Hayato.

“Why did you bring us here at all if you weren't ready?” Sousuke demanded.

“I'm doing what I can,” Hayato repeated, the nerves in his voice more evident the second time he said it.

“Sousuke, don't be like that...” said Makoto, putting a hand on Sousuke's shoulder, “We... we have to say goodbye to Haru for now.” With that, he looked across to where the guards were already eager to escort Haru away; “We'll see you soon, okay, Haru? Just stay strong for a little while.”

“...Al-waaays do...” Haru croaked, in what was the most coherent reply Daichi had ever heard from a zombie, “...J-jussst saaay... h-hii to Kissumii... a-and N-n-noriiikoo foor me...”

“Don't worry, we'll tell them everything,” assured Sousuke. Hayato flinched to that; “And if I don't see you again within a week, then I'm breaking into this place myself.”

“Please don't do that...” Hayato mumbled.

After that, Haru was taken inside of the building and Hayato led the other two away. As Daichi watched Hayato's back retreat, he wanted to go with him for moral support. But he knew it wasn't his place. Daichi didn't even know Hayato's family, save for the brief time that he'd met Kisumi, and he had no right to intrude on these serious matters that they needed to talk about amongst each other. All he could do was quietly wish Hayato the best.

***

Everything that had happened that day was still on Daichi's mind when he finished his shift. Hayato had returned to the facility to talk to Haru after taking Makoto and Sousuke home. But since Hayato was understandably busy right now, Daichi hadn't been able to catch him. Hopefully tomorrow, since he had a feeling Hayato would need someone to talk to now more than ever.

As he walked home, Daichi couldn't stop himself from thinking about Hayato. Up until he unlocked his door and saw that something was waiting for him that hadn't been there when he'd left. Sitting upon the sofa in the living room was... no, could it be...?

...It was! A stereo!

They should've been more common than they were, but they rarely turned up in salvage drops, because the council deemed them worthless now that their radio functions didn't work. But to Daichi, the stereo was far from worthless. As he hurried over to inspect it, he saw that the CD player seemed to be in working order, which to him was the most important part. There was even a stack of CDs next to it. None of them were Daichi's usual taste, but music was music.

He plugged the stereo into a socket and then shakily put a CD inside. Sure enough, the track number flashed across the screen and music began to play. He had music! Not just in the helicopter to sneakily listen to when he was alone, but right here in his own house! Yet... how?

Now that Daichi was looking at it more closely, he saw that there was a tag hanging down from the back. He picked it up and read what it said.

'Thanks for everything – Hayato'

...That guy. Honestly, Daichi had no idea what to do with him. He was so caught up in gratitude that (at least for the moment) it didn't even bother him that Hayato had somehow gotten into Daichi's locked house to leave this here.

He kept the music playing in the background for the rest of the evening, humming along, even to the songs that he wasn't familiar with. Soon enough he'd know them all. Hopefully he'd even find some more CDs in the salvage drops sometime.

Just as he was about to settle down for the night, there came a knock on the door. Daichi knew who it was, even before he opened it to find Hayato standing there, looking sheepish.

“Hey, so... my entire family is kind of pissed off with me and I'm not ready to face them yet. So I was wondering if I could come in for a while?” Hayato asked.

“The stereo got you in my good books, so sure, come in,” Daichi said, stepping aside to let Hayato through, “Where did you find it, anyway? It's in pretty good condition.”

“Gold rations card,” reminded Hayato, “I know you said that you didn't want me to pay you back any more, but this is a present, okay?”

“All right, I'll let you have that one,” Daichi chuckled. Then as Hayato closed the door behind him, Daichi held out his hand to him; “Would you... care to dance...?”

He felt almost daft asking something like that. The nerves were bubbling up inside of him and Hayato giggling in response did nothing to help with that. But then Hayato took his hand and nodded.

“By all means. If you show me the ropes,” Hayato purred.

The two of them swayed together around the living room for a while, probably looking ridiculous together. Hayato was just that bit too tall and Daichi was just that bit too short, but even so, Daichi had never felt this right with anyone else. Hayato was the first person who Daichi had ever even felt strongly about, despite not being certain that the feeling was fully returned.

As they moved together, Hayato looked thoughtful and Daichi wondered what was on his mind. At least this time, Hayato didn't make him wait long before giving him that answer.

“Do you ever... think about what you could be doing if the outbreak had never happened?” Hayato asked, “What your life could be like?”

“I don't think I have,” admitted Daichi, as he turned Hayato in time to the music, “I like being a pilot, so maybe I'd still do that.”

“Even if you had the choice of anything?” said Hayato.

“Hmm... well, I always remember seeing all of the trains and shops and houses from when I was a kid,” Daichi replied, “It's a faint memory, but it's still there. If I could, then I'd like to have made models of those things, just so I could keep them in case anything took them away. That probably sounds ridiculous. What about you? What would you have done?”

Hayato spun Daichi around and then caught him with surprising strength and grace. Then Hayato smirked down at him, while Daichi blushed helplessly.

“Maybe I'd have been a dancer. That probably sounds just as ridiculous, doesn't it?” he asked.

“With your brains and corruption, my money would've been on a politician, but you've never done what people expect of you,” said Daichi.

“I try my best,” Hayato agreed, “But just for now... perhaps we could pretend? Tomorrow everything will be as messed up as always, but for tonight let's just be a dancer and a pilot who makes model trains, okay?”

“That... sounds good to me,” Daichi answered.

As much as he knew it was a mistake to get too caught up in this after being hurt by Hayato before, Daichi couldn't help himself. He's fallen for Hayato. As the song they were listening to warned about players only loving you while they're playing, both Daichi and Hayato allowed themselves to pretend for one night. Not just about being a dancer or making model trains, but about them. They could pretend that they could be something more together.

For now, that was enough.