Of all the things to keep close during a zombie apocalypse, Ash wouldn’t have been in a hurry to save a camera.
But here was this Japanese boy clutching his to his chest as though it was a lifeline. As though it would be able to kill zombies – walkers – whatever you called them.
Bones and Kong had spotted him on a patrol. As he still had every appendage where it should be, the complexion of a human and no apparent desire for human flesh, they had invited him back to their hideout. Rather recklessly, Ash would add, but a the non-leader part of him had known they were right. Here was someone who needed help. If zombies were following, then they’d just have to deal with it.
So far, he hadn’t said a word. That worried Ash – as though the boy’s jaw would drop and that would be when the transformation happened. A long, low moan coming from him and then the frenzy for brains.
But his eyes were clear and dark. Zombie’s eyes looked like eggs in their skull – white and fleshy and unseeing. This boy had wide, eyes the colour of melted chocolate that watched everything calmly. He looked at Ash. Maybe it was because they had colour, but he felt his lips twitch upwards at those eyes. He wanted to say it was just because he had seen two many egg-eyeballs and that was why he liked those eyes so much. Eyes like a Labrador retriever – trusting Ash and his merry band of street kids without a second thought.
The man they had found him with had been doing all of the talking, in halting English. Ash could feel a frown coming on as he listened to their explanation. He wished he could make it easier, but he didn’t speak a lick of Japanese. French, Italian, sure. Enough German to hold a conversation. But Japanese? No.
They had been in New York as journalists – that explained the camera. When the outbreak had started, they had switched to a hotel in New Jersey – far enough out of the city to sleep at night, but easy to get back to their article when it died down. They had thought it would die down. Everyone had.
Then of course, things got worse. Things had spread.
So they had fled New York, but they had no idea where they were going. They had tried heading through New York State, because survival had taken over having a long term plan.
“What were you writing about?” Bones asked. He was sat on a crate, swinging his legs so that his battered converses knocked against the wood. It was an annoying noise, but Ash found it hard to get angry about.
“It was about – about street gangs.” The man said. He tried for a smile, but he still looked tired and haggard. “I guess we found one.”
Ash nodded. He leant back against a crate. “We decided it was better to stay in one place – build up our defences. If we have a stronghold, we can last this out.”
“He says ‘we,’ but Ash decided it,” Kong said. He was next to Bones – everyone had gathered around with eager eyes. Everyone wanted a glimpse at these new people – new people who weren’t foaming at the mouth to kill them had been a rarity in the last two weeks.
But something had just clicked with Ash. A reporter – a reporter writing about street gangs in New York.
“Ash Lynx,” he said, holding a hand to his chest. He couldn’t help but smile when the man’s eyes widened in realisation. He had been expecting that – he didn’t expect him to burst into laughter. After a moment, he held out his hand to Ash.
“Shunichi Ibe,” he said. “And this is Eiji Okumura.”
Eiji Okumura. Ash had to wonder if that name meant anything in Japanese. He smirked, shaking Ibe’s hand.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” he said. “What a coincidence, huh?”
“You can say that again.”
“You’re welcome to stay,” Ash said, leaning back against the crates. “For however long you need. This can’t last for much longer.”
Ibe nodded his thanks, colour returning to his cheeks. That made Ash feel like he was doing a huge favour. He couldn’t bring himself to think anything of it. Surely that’s what any decent person would do. Ash wanted to be decent. He wanted to come out of this looking decent. It was selfish – but if an apocalypse was what it took for him to become a decent person, then maybe it would be worth it.
Bones and Skipper started the clamouring – pestering Ibe about what he had already written – and that started the others off. They bombarded him with questions – because it was still bright daylight and the situation never felt quite as real in the day. It was easy to laugh and joke and pretend that a Japanese reporter was the most interesting thing that they had ever seen.
Ash slipped away. He stepped around them so that he was stood next to the Japanese boy. Eiji. He was watching everything with that same interested look in his eyes. Like it was all fascinating. Those dark eyes also had dark lashes. Ash supposed they were long, but maybe they weren’t. They were the right size, he supposed. His skin was dark, the colour of a latte, but it looked gold where the patches of sunlight were coming through the roof. And he had a bow-shaped mouth – Ash’s attention was only drawn towards it because it was parted ever so slightly.
The boy looked up at him suddenly and then away. That was what made Ash realise that he had been staring. He cleared his throat.
“It was Eiji, wasn’t it?” he asked. Because he wanted to hear this boy talk – and it wasn’t just to check that he still could.
Almost as if he knew, Eiji just nodded. Involuntarily, Ash sighed and he suddenly looked panicked.
“Sorry – I’m-“ there was that voice. “I’m not – my English is…not so good.”
“It sounds great,” Ash said. It had been on impulse, because he hadn’t expected that voice. He was nervous, clearly, but there was something in that voice that Ash couldn’t put his finger on. “I mean, you’re doing great.”
“I haven’t really spoken much yet.” Eiji was smiling – a shy, apologetic smile up at Ash. He was short – shorter than him by a couple of inches, at least.
“I can tell these things.”
Eiji gave a soft laugh. He looked so self-conscious that a part of Ash just wanted to shake him. What kind of a person worried about his English in the middle of an apocalypse. The world was ending, but this boy was wasting time being shy. It seemed completely backwards.
“Um,” Eiji said, too loudly and then looked down, embarrassed. “I don’t suppose – it’s silly – that’s real?”
He gestured towards the gun slung into Ash’s jeans. There was no point concealing it anymore – hiding it under a shirt cost him a precious half second.
“It is.” Ash said, his finger running over the top of it. His pistol.
“I never saw a real gun, before-“ Eiji waved a hand to the doorway. They had attached several more bolts to the warehouses doors to keep it reinforced. “Can I hold it?”
“Sure.” Ash wasn’t sure what it was – maybe it was the poor, accented English, or the genuine look of interest in those damn, dark eyes, but suddenly he was handing over his gun to this boy. His gun.
He stared at it for a moment, his fingers running over the barrel of the gun. As though it was something precious. Ash had expected him to point it at someone – to play at shooting zombies or something – but he just handed it back and said “thank you.”
"You don't want to keep it? For protection?"
Eiji shook his head. "I can't shoot."
Ash wasn't sure why that made him smile. That should mean that he was a liability. That he was weak. And yet, he found it oddly endearing.
“Well, I can’t shoot with yours,” he gestured to the camera hanging around Eiji’s neck.
He looked down, like he had forgotten that it was there at all. Then laughed, holding it carefully. After all, that was his chosen item to save in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.
Maybe that was why he shrugged and said "I'll teach you to shoot, sometime."
Sometime? Like this was a happy vacation and they wouldn't be discovered any day now. Like they weren't walking a tightrope between alive and dead, with undead a gaping possibility underneath. Like teaching a boy he had just met how to shoot a gun was normal. Maybe it was, when he was shooting people in the head daily. Maybe that could be his excuse, because suddenly some part of him didn’t want Eiji to know the truth. That guns were a daily occurrence before the living dead.
Maybe it wouldn’t matter. Ash wasn’t expecting to survive before the week was out, and he knew as soon as he went his team would fall apart too. If that happened, there was no way Eiji and Ibe would be able to hang on. It was a miracle they had made it this far.
That was a terrible thought. It made Ash feel vaguely sick. No, he didn’t want it to not matter. But he didn’t want to think about all of this.
Just why on earth had he promised a sometime?
Eiji hadn’t been able to sleep at all. The ‘hideout’ was an old warehouse and the wind rattled the walls all night. The sleeping area was at the top of a very rusty ladder – the floor was metal with that pattern of raised lines that made it impossible to get comfortable on. Everyone just seemed to drop their sleeping bags and fall asleep in a pile like a litter of puppies, all pushing each other to get a spot on the air mattresses. The only one who seemed unrivalled for a place in the middle was the tiny, dark-skinned boy spread-eagled in the middle. He hadn’t been brave enough to throw himself into the bundle of bodies.
It was cold on the other side of the warehouse and every howl of the weather outside made Eiji’s heart pause. They were safe here – they had a changing guard all night and he’d been told at the first sign of a zombie they would hit the fire alarm – sending thick, metal doors down to seal them off from the world. If that didn’t work, they were all packing guns.
Everyone but Eiji.
He kept seeing the same face – a middle aged main with flaking, beige-green skin. A trail of dried blood running down from the corner of his mouth and those wide, white, unblinking eyes. Hardly the worst he had seen – there was no hanging eyeballs or broken, drooping jaws – but it had been the first. And it had been so almost normal that it had been even worse. Uncanny valley, his brain told him, even though he wasn’t entirely sure what the phrase entailed. It had been the moment that he had known something was very, very wrong. He had tugged on Ibe's sleeve without a word.
And then the man had turned.
Then the man had grinned.
Eiji opened his eyes, feeling panic bloom in his throat at just the memory. He sat up in the darkness - because it was pitch black up here.
Sniffles, snorts and snores came from the pile of teenage boys as he fumbled for his phone and flicked the torch on. He padded across the raised metal floor in his socks, then inched down the rusty ladder at the far end, his phone tucked into his chin.
There was a rectangle of moonlight coming from the huge doors that lead into the warehouse. It had been filled with squashy, smelly furniture that looked like a shadowy army in the dark. Ibe had been offered the battered armchair downstairs as a courtesy. He had asked Eiji if he was fine with it and Eiji had nodded, but there had been a ball in his throat as he had. Don't leave, he wanted to say. Don't leave me alone with all these loud American boys.
A figure was silhouetted in the doorway. They turned as they heard Eiji approach.
Eiji flicked it off before thinking. He knew that voice. That was the blonde boy who had smiled and told Eiji his atrocious English was good.
“Sorry,” he said, stepping up to the doorway.
But the boy had already turned back to stare out over the forest. Ash Lynx – Eiji remembered – he couldn’t forget a name like that. It didn’t seem like the name a real person used.
“Everyone seems to think that they can see lights,” Ash said. He was leaning against the door, his hands in his jean pockets like this was completely normal. “I don’t know how much truth there is in it, but I’m not risking it.”
“Mmm,” Eiji leant against the other door, mainly to stop himself from shaking. He liked Ash – Ash had been the only one who hadn’t spoken to him slowly, as if he was a complete moron. But he still needed to take a moment to translate when he was speaking so fast.
He chanced a glance at Ash. The light made his hair look silver and his skin ghostly. But his eyes were still that bright green and still had that sparkle in them. Eiji hadn’t been able to look at him for more than a moment earlier when those eyes were on him. He hadn’t been able to look at Ash for more than a moment anyway.
Eiji couldn't believe that this had happened. His first trip to the state and he had been caught in an apocalypse. A zombie apocalypse. The zombie apocalypse. It seemed completely ridiculous. He had found the gang leader that he had come all this way for, but they were standing in the entrance of a warehouse, looking out for zombies because he hadn’t been able to sleep.
Ash didn’t say anything, but he didn’t chase Eiji off either. They just stood there – a slight breeze in the air, eyes searching the line of trees that sat on the horizon. They were stars, even though they were hardly out of the city, and Eiji wanted to know whether Ash would be able to point out the constellations. He couldn’t.
There was a lot of things he waned to say to Ash. There were so many things he wanted to ask. But the questions never managed to get to his mouth. He hated that he was scared to ask because the words came so easily in Japanese but what if the wrong English one came out? What if he skipped a word or said something too formal or informal or-
But Ash had smiled at him and said that his English had sounded great. That had sent a warm thrill through his chest.
He wasn’t sure how long they stood, staring across the woodchips into the forest before them, but eventually one of the other guys clapped Ash on the shoulder and told him to “get some rest.”
Ash had nodded and his eyes fixed on Eiji’s for just a moment more than was necessary.
“I’m going to crash on the sofa,” Ash said, mainly to the big guy – Kong, Eiji thought his name was – then he turned to Eiji. “If you don’t want to sleep like a meerkat, you can stay down here.”
“You’re right, they’re not cute enough to be meerkats,” Ash paused, and he could hear Kong laughing at the doorway. “What about a litter of piglets?”
“Piglets are cute.”
“Mmm…I guess,” Ash fell over the arm of a sofa, landing on it face down. He raised a hand and waved at Eiji. “Don’t let me sleep in too long.”
In case he was late for school in the morning? Eiji wanted to ask. What did any of them have to wake up for?
But he wasn’t sure how to ask, and Ash’s breathing had evened out already. He couldn’t even remember falling asleep on one of the squashy sofas. They were lumpy and smelt of a dozen things Eiji couldn’t place.
But suddenly the sun was streaming through the warehouse door and there were voices all around him. The room was suddenly full of teenagers wearing ripped jeans and oversized hoodies. And most of them had guns sticking out of their jeans.
None quite looked like the one Ash had – like something from the nineteenth century. All polished wood and shining metal.
No one would have been able to guess that the world was ending outside. They were all laughing and joking with each other, kicking and tossing things and eating their supplies with abandon. It was the postcard image of ‘boys will be boys,’ the idea of boy’s in an American high school. Eiji had never been like that. He wasn’t sure how to join in now – if he even wanted to. It was all rough and tumble and they seemed so close.
The only other person that wasn’t joining in was Ash Lynx himself. He was sat to the side, watching with his chin on his fist.
"You're quiet," Ash leant towards him, the sun making a stamp of light on his skin.
Eiji shrugged. He wasn't sure what to say to that.
"That's nothing to be sorry about."
Everyone was looking at them now. Because Ash had paid attention to him, the whole gang was privy to their conversation. One guy, with a haircut that even the 80s would fine questionable, spoke up.
"I watched this film once!" he paused as though that was all he had to say. "And the guy picked up a foreign language just by listening to the people talk around him - do you know that film?"
"Bones, that could be any film,” the small boy said, rolling his eyes.
"It had Puss in Boots in it?" Bones scrunched a pale face up as he thought about it.
Ash looked at Eiji, an eyebrow raised as if to say 'do you see what I have to deal with?' Eiji couldn't help giggling. He had missed laughing - it felt as though it had been forever since he had laughed.
"What are you talking about?" Ash asked, completely unimpressed.
"C'mon boss, we watched Shrek 2 altogether."
Kong nodded then, his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes closed. "Masterpiece of a movie. The best Shrek film."
"Yeah, and the cats not real."
"Not the cat, boss - the guy who voices him. He was in that movie!" Bones insisted. "Anyway, I bet that's what Eiji's doing - isn't it Eiji? You're trying to get better at English just by listening to us!"
"Well, I know English, kind of-"
"Eiji speaks English just fine." There was that snap of authority that had been in his voice the previous day. The snap that made everyone fall silent like scolded puppies. Ash stared at them all, then sighed and stood. "I'm going for a breath of fresh air."
He headed off, to where Ibe was standing by the door. He seemed to be the only one here who still owned a belt, Eiji noticed. And then realised he had been staring too long and dragged his gaze away. There was nothing to that, he said. It was just an observation.
"Don't forget a baseball bat!" Bones called cheerfully after him and Ash waved a hand in acknowledgement. A chuckle went through the group at the remark, but it made Eiji's skin crawl.
He hadn't killed a zombie yet. He hoped he wouldn't have to because he wasn't sure he'd be able to. He wasn't sure he'd be able to look into a human's face and shove a knife through their brain. It's brain. It.
The thought was too much, it overturned his stomach. He leant over to Bones and murmured "Going with him."
Bones nodded and opened his mouth to ask something but then someone had him in a headlock and he was digging his elbow into the soft flesh of their stomach and it was all much too rowdy for Eiji. He slipped away.
Ibe was standing guard, somehow managing to keep a weathered eye on the horizon despite the chaos unfolding in the warehouse. Eiji didn't even think he'd noticed him as he passed, until he had a hand on Eiji's elbow.
"If you're going out here, stay close to Ash, alright?"
It had only been a night, but Eiji was so relieved to hear Japanese again.
Ibe nodded and let him go, slowly. He looked a lot older than he had last week. Maybe it was the lack of shaving, but he looked much more weather beaten, more like the protagonist of a gritty western than the journalist Eiji had left Japan with.
He wondered if he looked any different. He had caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror, and the only difference was the dark crescent moons under his eyes. He didn't even really need to shave, there was only a dark shadow under his lip - nowhere near as impressive as some if the stubble the others were sporting.
But Ash didn't have much stubble either, he supposed, squinting in the sunlight. He still had peach fuzz on his cheeks and even the hair on his jaw was saw blonde it was hard to see.
He was watching Eiji, his eyes flickering from him to Ibe.
"What'd he say?" Ash asked. He was pulling a lighter from his jeans pocket. He flicked sparks from it.
"Stay close to you."
Ash smirked. "That's not good advice."
Sparks came from the lighter again. There was a long pause where Ash was staring at the floor. Eiji looked too. Ash was wearing a battered pair of converses, so dirty the white toes were a grey-brown colour. Eiji’s own didn’t look much better from the week he had spent on the run.
"Because I've done some things that I'm not proud of."
“Well.” Eiji rolled his tongue around his mouth. “Everyone has.”
Ash gave him a strange smile.
Then he pulled a box out of his pocket and tugged a cigarette out of it. Eiji watched him light it with some fascination. There was something about the way his eyelashes fanned over his face as he looked down and the way that he cupped his hand over it that Eiji couldn’t pull his gaze away from. He looked like he belonged in a different time – like he had been teleported over from the late seventies.
"Fresh air?" Eiji asked.
"It's ironic.” A curl of smoke came from Ash’s mouth. He was still smirking and it was still making Eiji’s stomach do flips. His stomach had never done that before – he supposed it was the nerves that was making it happen now.
"I see. Very cool,” Eiji said. “Very macho."
Ash chucked, he took another drag of his cigarette. "There's nothing about me that's macho.”
"Sure. You're a Danny Zuko."
"More of a James Dean."
"Ah,” Eiji said, because he didn’t know what else to say to that.
There was another chuckle, another curl of smoke coming from Ash’s mouth, another flip of Eiji’s stomach.
"You have no idea who I mean, do you?" Ash asked.
"Rebel Without a Cause,” he tapped the end of the cigarette and put it back in between his teeth. “If we come across a video store, I'll pick it up for you."
"A video store? Did zombies send us back to the nineties?"
"I think the polite term is ‘walkers’?"
"What - is the zombie going to kill me extra hard if I call him a zombie? Will I get given a lecture on hurting a zombie’s feelings?"
"You're mean." Ash was still smiling and for some reason that smile made Eiji feel so much less conscious about talking English.
"They're zombies!” he insisted. “Zombie is a word that you never get to use in real life. I'm using it."
He was still smiling – smirking really – at him, his eyes as green as the trees around them. Impossibly green.
Eiji’s stomach did more strange things that it hadn’t been doing before. He blinked at Ash, wondering if he had made a mistake. He must have gotten his English confused. This gang leader can’t have told him what he thought he had told him.
He didn’t seem to think so either – Ash’s eyes widened slightly and he turned away. He slipped a hand into the pocket of his ripped jeans and looked out over the clearing. It was just like last night. They lapsed into back into silence, but this time there was an air of awkwardness. Like they had said a little too much and they were trying to go back to how it was before.
Before – they hadn’t even known each other a day.
But the funny thing about living in an apocalypse was that it felt like he had known him a lot longer.
Or maybe he just wanted to.