The doorbell chimes two hours after sundown, which is two hours after Adam’s supposed to be up and around already instead of sprawled out on the couch in his bathrobe – but honestly? Fuck that. What’s even the point in doing things when moving at all takes so much effort. It feels like wading knee-deep through syrup. Like the air around him has compressed twice as dense and gravity increased by a factor of ten.
He can hardly blame the laws of nature themselves for rebelling against his wholly unnatural being. It’s a sign, probably. Of what, he's unsure. Eve would know. There’s nothing on earth she doesn’t know. But Adam, he can’t be bothered to find out. Doing anything is so goddamn tiring lately.
He’d stayed in bed for four nights straight two weeks ago, his ‘53 Epiphone nestled next to him. Blackout curtains drawn, sheets tangled around his limbs. Starving himself on purpose. It had been – not pleasant, exactly, but pleasantly anesthetizing. That’s the most he can ask for these days. A modicum of blessed nothingness to wallow in. He wants it badly, wants it for ever and ever.
But then the doorbell sounds again, and with a cracked groan Adam finally finds it in himself to sit up and glare blearily at the grainy blue-tinted monitor.
A familiar skinny silhouette flits on screen, an instrument case slung across his back and another two at his feet. From the doorstep, Ian shuffles back into the middle of the street with his habitual wave up at the window.
Well, Adam supposes, maybe this is worth getting up for.
He can’t be sure if he means Ian or the gifts he bears, and the blurred distinction between the two startles him a little. It is far, far more dangerous to derive an attachment to one of these things than the other. Lethal, even, for both parties involved.
Nonetheless. He buzzes Ian in.
He doesn’t have the motivation to go downstairs to greet Ian – not that he needs to be welcomed in – but Adam tracks the boy’s progress by listening to him shamble through the foyer, then down the first-floor hallway.
Adam scoffs. Ian’s so clumsy. All the zombies are, but Ian is a category all his own. Lanky and awkward. Always stumbling off walls and banging into tables, tripping over words and backing up over his own sentences. Ever self-rectifying.
Adam would feel irritation or amusement or pity toward the boy. He knows he ought to. But as it is, he hardly feels much of anything these days. On Wednesday he’d sat awake all night with the muzzle of the loaded gun pressed to his chest and an unfamiliar fluttering between his ribs. Like a moth battering against the long-extinguished light of his cold heart. He later realizes that he’d been scared. And the fact that he can still experience something like fear stirs in him a quiet relief, but the fact that death still scares him – well, that’s a grand disappointment.
And – goodness. The kid is certainly slow today. Adam listens to Ian laboriously plod up the stairs like each creaking step is a small mountain to ascend and it’s a concentrated effort just to put one foot in front of the other.
Well, sounds like he’s not the only one who’s had a bad week. Still, he can’t help but feel a prickle of annoyance. This wasn’t just any zombie, this was Ian, and Ian was supposed to be better than the rest of his shambling, dimwitted lot.
Adam is about to heave himself up and help the idiot do this one simple task when Ian finally clears the top of the stairs and shuffles into the living room turned recording studio turned hoarder’s den.
“Adam! What’s up, how are you, man?” Ian says, smiling and shaking his hair out of his face. “I’ve got some really awesome things for you today. I think you’re gonna love ‘em.”
Adam can only stare blankly at the kid standing before him.
“What the hell happened to you?” he finally manages.
Ian’s a mess, his face, his clothes. He walks favoring his left side, with his forearm curled up and tucked tight over his ribs. It looks like he’d very recently lost an fight, possibly an unfair one, possibly against more than one assailant.
“Oh, uh,” Ian says, self-consciously tugging at his muddied shirt to straighten it out, as if that’s what Adam is taking issue with. “It’s nothing, I’m alright. Don’t worry about it, man.”
He sets the instrument cases carefully down on the ground and winces gingerly as he reaches for the one across his back.
And Adam suddenly can’t stop looking at Ian. At his split lip and bruised knuckles and scratched-up arms. There’s a long, shallow cut across his cheek and over his jaw. The faintest smell of blood hangs in the air; petrichor before the rain.
The carnal hunger in him rears its ugly head with a vengeance, and he’s reminded he hasn’t yet fed today. And the need of it and the want of it washes over him all at once, searing, drowning, all-consuming. Fool he was to think he could be so apathetic about life when he would do anything in the world right now, anything – for just – just a drop of the good stuff, just the littlest taste –
This is bad.
He should kick Ian out of the house now. It would be the safest and the kindest thing to do, because he’s a bitter, jaded asshole, but he’s not a monster, or he is, but he doesn’t want to be. He doesn’t want Ian around when he’s like this, bored and suicidal and hungry as hell.
Very, very bad.
But then he looks at Ian, sitting cross-legged on the ground at his feet like some wild-haired puppy. And then he meets Ian’s eyes, shining with excitement. Hears the ragged edge of his breathing that belies the pain he must be in, notes the arm still folded across his stomach.
Something shivers through Adam, fury tempered by something softer that he can’t easily name for how long it’s been since he’s felt this way, and it’s so real and also terrifying that he grits his teeth and physically forces himself not to think about it, directing his attention instead to the instruments laid out on the floor.
“What’s that, then?” he says.
Oh, but what would Eve say to this – that this is a terrible, foolhardy idea, undoubtedly, for many reasons. Because Eve is infinitely wise and self-disciplined and emotionally well-balanced where Adam is steadfastly none of these things. Well. Too late for all that now.
“Okay, so this is the Eastwood ‘59,” Ian says, handing over the first of the lot, a shimmering mint green electric guitar. Adam skims his hands over the body, considering. It feels like gentle applause like light rain on glass, the coffee-and-wood smell of an East Village café, the rustle of a chord chart placed askew on a wire stand. It’s calming just to hold, but not ready for playing, not just yet.
“Very nice. An odd one, she is.”
“And this is an Electromuse lap guitar,” Ian says, handing over the object in question. “I think it’s a ‘38? I’m not sure.”
“Hm, close, it’s a ‘37,” Adam says, placing the short, narrow instrument across his thighs and plucking idly at the strings. Eve had been in love with Hong Kong for all of the nineteenth century, so he’d missed the entirety of America’s frontier era, but he imagines this is exactly what it’d felt like. Empty skies and dark meadows, miles and miles to the horizon.
“Nothing better to play the twelve-bar blues on,” Adam says. And he’s pleased, he really is. Both were exactly what he’d asked for, and on such short notice, too – but there’s still a third case unopened on the ground, and Ian’s practically squirming with anticipation. “So, should I ask what that is, or – ”
“I have a surprise for you,” Ian blurts out, completely ruining the surprise, and Adam can’t help but snort as Ian fumblingly unlatches the case and wordlessly gives over the object within, and –
Adam draws a slight breath, monumentally stunned in spite of himself.
“It’s a ‘67 Gibson acoustic bass,” Ian declares proudly.
The guitar is colored the deep saturated red of arterial blood, glowing richly under the halflight of the house, in the dull shadows of the blackout curtains. It’s fitting in a sickeningly ironic kind of way, but Adam has to admit that there’s no color in the world he finds more beautiful. He runs probing fingers down the frets, checks the action, the bridge and saddle, the warp of the neck, the tuning pegs. Skims over the wood of the body, worn soft and slick as butter.
He loops the strap around himself and takes a breath and dances his fingers over the strings, picking out half-remembered melodies from long-forgotten years.
The deep canorous tones ring out, dark and quivering in the still dead air of the house. Adam feels the sound resonate in his hands, travelling like electricity up his skin and through his bones, winding through his veins, finally settling somewhere behind his sternum where a prickling warmth blossoms.
What is it, he doesn’t dare say. Contentment. Excitement. Maybe even, could it be, joy.
For the slightest half-second it’s like the world tilts on its axis, and the relentless weight of existence lifts from him, purging the sticky ennui from his being, even blanking out that insistent and ever-present hunger seething in him. And everything is right around him and within him.
Spooky action at a distance. He hopes with all his immortal soul that Eve is feeling what he’s feeling too, because it’s entrancing and magical and it’s perfect.
And then he stops and opens his eyes and it all comes crashing down, the apathy of existence, the cold bite of gunmetal pressed against his chest, the ecstasy of music and the howling animal bloodlust all mixing together in a rush of light and noise around Adam, the center point of some cosmic supernova –
“Christ,” Adam swears.
“I knew it’d be good, but – man, the way you play it – ” Ian says, looking at Adam wide-eyed and awed. Nearly reverent. “I saw it and I was like, I have to get this, you know? I’m a hundred percent sure the guy ripped me off ‘cause he could tell how much I wanted it, but whatever – ”
“Ian – ”
“– maybe just consider it a gift or something. I mean, you pay me so much that it’s technically still your money, but – "
“Ian,” Adam says, sinking steel into his voice, and Ian shuts up like he’s been slapped. “Does this have anything to do with – ” and he gestures at all of the bloodied-up mess sitting before him.
There’s a telling silence. Ian hunches down a little, guilt writ in every line of his body. Adam fervently hopes the boy isn’t stupid enough to lie to him. It would be so disappointing, considering Ian possesses not even the slightest capacity for dishonesty. Not like the most of the other zombies he’s known.
“Well, kind of, but it’s nothing, just a deal gone bad,” he says. “You know, the contact was a new guy and the handoff was a back alley thing, and, you know. I mean, it’s still Detroit, right – shit happens. I just didn’t have time to clean myself up before I came, and I hope that’s alright, but I couldn’t wait to show this to you – ”
He looks up at Adam, licking nervously at his split lip, and drags the back of his hand across his mouth, streaking a long, dark, shining smear across his skin. Adam closes his eyes and exhales.
“Come here, Ian,” he says, and sets the Gibson aside. Ian hesitates a beat, then unfurls himself painfully from his spot on the ground and settles himself in the space on the couch beside Adam.
“So, uh, do you like it?” Ian asks, and Adam could almost grab him and shake him, couldn’t you tell, couldn’t you feel what just happened?
“Yes. I do, very much,” he says instead. “Thank you, Ian. I mean it.”
It’s an inadequate expression for exactly how important and necessary this particular instrument is to him at this particular time and an even weaker expression of the depth of his gratitude, but Ian seems to get it. He smiles, bright and heartbreakingly earnest, baring slightly bloody teeth.
“But,” Adam says, leaning into Ian’s personal space and breathing in the sweet, tantalizing scent of blood hanging around him, mixed in with bar soap and weed and cheap beer. Ian’s eyes widen, but he doesn’t back away and he doesn’t blink. “Don’t you ever pull a stunt like this again. Understand me?”
“Okay. Yeah, totally, I get it. I’m sorry, Adam, I should’ve watched my back,” Ian says, voice barely above a whisper. “I, uh – I didn’t mean to worry you or anything, man.”
That gives him pause.
Adam hasn’t worried about anyone for centuries. Not Eve, force of nature that she was, she’s never needed any of that. And certainly not Ava, that out-of-control hellion bitch. Least of all himself. He could give a fuck what happened to his tired, miserable self. But this – this zombie?
And he closes the final few centimeters between them to kiss Ian. There’s a moment of shocked stillness, then Ian opens for him with a trembling gasp – and forget death by apathy and forget pointing a loaded gun straight at his heart, this is the reckless path to self-destruction. And fuck it, this is a fantastic idea.
Adam licks into Ian’s mouth, chasing the faint traces of blood coating his teeth. And this isn’t safe, Ian’s sure as hell not clean, contaminated as he is with alcohol and marijuana and God knows whatever other shit he puts into himself. But just that slight taste of him is near-intoxicating.
“Adam,” Ian says, pulling back, looking slightly panicked. “Don’t you, ah – have a girlfriend, or a wife, or whatever – ”
And it’s such a zombie thing to say that Adam almost laughs. If Eve could see him now, she’d probably smile in her Mona Lisa way and give him her eternal blessing. She’s probably doing that right now from halfway across the world, because he knows Eve can feel this singing through her body.
“Trust me, she won’t mind,” Adam says, and trusts that Ian will understand the whole convoluted subtext without him needing to explain. It’s another one of those things on a shockingly long list of things that makes Ian more tolerable than the rest of his ilk. He catches Ian by the wrist, feels bone and tendon shift under his paper-thin skin as Ian nervously flexes his fingers. “Is this okay with you?”
He holds Ian’s transfixed stare as he brings Ian’s trembling hand up and licks the smear of blood off the back, then runs his tongue over the boy’s split knuckles, savoring the thick, heady taste he’s been denied for so long. It’d been torture, ever since Ian had stepped into the room.
“Yeah, yes – oh God, Adam," Ian breathes. Like the two names are somehow interchangeable in his mind. How faithless, Adam thinks, and pushes Ian down supine onto the couch and straddles his legs.
He pushes Ian’s ratty Army surplus jacket from his shoulders and deftly unbuttons his shirt, revealing the contusions marring his skin, all up his left side and curving around to his back. He’s already hard against Adam’s thigh.
Adam lays his palms on Ian’s skin, skates his fingers across his ribs, prodding and pressing experimentally in places like the boy’s just another instrument he’s learning to play. Ian responds in kind, whimpering and moaning brokenly, half in pain and half in arousal. From what Adam can hear with his preternatural senses, there’s no grind of bone on bone – nothing’s broken, at least. Something in him untwists a little at that.
Adam noses under the curve of Ian’s jaw, presses his lips against the pulse point of his neck, drags his teeth lightly against Ian’s collarbone where the bruising starts like the faint edges of some grotesque watercolor painting. All that blood so close to the skin. It’s driving him insane. He knows the strength of his self-control, has spent centuries teaching himself to walk that razorwire edge – but this is pushing it. This is the most alive and clearheaded he’s felt in an eternity.
Ian hesitantly slides his fingers under the hem of Adam’s robe at the collar, pushing the heavy embroidered fabric back and down to puddle on the ground beside the couch. Adam’s half-naked underneath. Ian brings his hands up to Adam’s back, tracing feather-light down the jut of his shoulder blades, the dips of his vertebrae. His fingers are shaking.
“What is it?”
“Nothing! Nothing,” he says, dropping his hands by his side and curling his fingers into the cushions instead. “It’s just – you’re you.”
“I’m me,” Adam says flatly, and though Ian can’t possibly know and doesn’t mean it that way, Adam does his best to suppress the bitter and hysterical laugh threatening to escape. He’s him. A bored and miserable temperamental old monster in a dull and meaningless world. A sudden prickle of self-hatred, dark and nasty, trembles through him. He growls and presses the heel of his hand down hard against Ian’s ribs, just below his heart, where his injuries are the worst. Ian lets out a choked yelp and bucks his hips up hard against Adam’s leg.
“Jesus Christ! – sorry, sorry,” Ian pants, eyes closed and mouth parted in an expression of agony that looks like euphoria, or maybe the other way around, some kind of sacrificial martyr at the altar. And Adam then and there decides that yes, he is what he is and he does what he does, but this zombie boy will never bear the brunt of that reality. It’s a decision he deliberately does not question. Instinct will not betray you, Eve would say.
“Don’t be,” Adam says, and reaches between them and takes Ian in hand, strokes him until Ian is gasping and keening desperately beneath him, trembling hard with the extraordinary effort of holding himself still, like he’s unwilling to do anything without Adam's explicit permission.
Ian is always so eager to please. So guileless and trusting. Adam is sure that trait will one day be the death of him – the mess that he is is proof enough of his hamartia – but such is the fate of all zombies. Adam could almost envy him.
“It’s alright,” Adam murmurs. “Relax.”
So Ian obeys, gives in and gives himself over and with a long shuddering breath finishes all over Adam’s hand and his own stomach and chest. Adam slowly sits up and out of Ian’s personal space, leaning against the backrest of the couch. And it’s barely one-two-three heartbeats before Ian, still covered in come against the purple and red bruising on his body, returns the favor. Rolls over and drops to his knees on the old floorboards and blows Adam right where he sits before Adam can protest that he shouldn’t. The dead still air of the house now smells like sex and blood and sweat and pain. It’s sweet and intoxicating. Dangerous beyond imagining.
It doesn’t take long before Adam comes too. When he does, Ian looks up, his eyes startled wide, but the grin scrawled across his face has a lazy, self-satisfied edge Adam’s never seen on him before. A strange near-predatory possessiveness rises in Adam’s chest, and he just as quickly pushes it down. He doesn’t want it, but he does. Fear of death is so passé, but fear of this – it’s a good feeling. An exciting one. It’s been so long.
Ian slowly levers himself back on the couch and tips his head back, baring the long pale line of his neck. Lucky for him that Adam’s bloodlust has been provisionally tempered by the hazy high of orgasm. He gets up, slowly ambles over to the kitchen, and finds a damp cloth that he tosses over to Ian to clean himself with.
“Man, that was awesome. Totally worth getting jumped,” Ian says, disarmingly off-kilter as always. “Kidding, kidding,” he hastily rectifies off Adam’s look. “But honestly. Thank you.”
“No, thank you,” Adam says, and Ian looks a little confused but his mouth quirks up anyway, before he carefully smooths out his expression.
“And um, this doesn’t have to be anything, because I know your – well, I know the drill. I guess I'll just get out now,” he says, shifting to collect his shirt and jacket.
“Hold on a second,” Adam says. “I’ll be right back.”
He retreats to the bedroom and video-calls Eve.
“Ah. You look so much better,” she says, beaming, as soon as her grainy image appears on screen. Of course she already knows. Eve knows everything. “What have I been telling you? It’s good for you, having something to take care of besides your guitars.”
“Why couldn’t it be a cat, or a dog, or something,” Adam complains.
“Because cats and dogs don’t like you very much, remember?” she says, and Adam groans in defeat.
“And zombies do? What the hell am I supposed to do with him now? Should I – ”
“Don’t you dare,” Eve says. “By all means, pay this boy for the things you want from him, but not for what you need. That would be dishonest.”
“So what then?”
“You’ll know what to do,” she says in her inscrutable way, and offers nothing more.
What use is omniscience matched with reticence? Adam thinks. Fine then, he thinks, and hangs up.
Adam stalks back into the living room only to find Ian flat asleep, still shirtless, curled tightly into himself. He’ll have to wake the boy up and evict him sometime before dawn, but for now - the house gets cold at night. He picks his robe up off the ground and drops it over the wiry wild-haired form on the sofa.
Then he stares. Stares and stares and stares and finally sits down beside Ian, picks up the ’67 Gibson, and gets to work. Tinkers with all the major-minor chords and four-bar basslines and the half-melodies scratching away at the inside of his skull. Waits for the light of dawn to consume the ink-blackness of the night.