If it hadn't been for the damn kid, none of it would have happened.
Grayson doused his mutilated ankle with hydrogen peroxide, watching the hiss and fizz of it bubble over his wounds. Luckily for him, he hadn't broken any bones. Unluckily for him and his team, Dowager had broken pretty much everything and now they were one man down.
He shoved a towel into his mouth and bit down hard before pulling out the stones from his gashes. It burned like hell but he had to get every last piece of it out of him or the iridium would kill him. And then bring him back to life.
It took a good thirty minutes of picking and scrubbing before he was satisfied that his ankle was contaminate free--he could spot a fleck of dirt in a wound with a glance. It was a necessary skill. He'd lost too many people by missing any minuscule speck of soil. Wrapping the worst of his ankle in gauze, and the rest in an ACE bandage, him swung himself up onto his crutches and went to face the team in the community room.
They all lived in the top two floors of an apartment complex. It used to be that everyone crammed into the top floor--every family unit (real or pseudo) to a room, trying to stay close, afraid to be alone. But when the deaths started rolling in, people spread out, no one wanted to get too attached. So there was plenty of space--a luxury, if you could call it that.
The real gem of the place, though, was the garden on the roof: the soil hadn't gotten contaminated by iridium so they could live off of it for a lot of their diet. Eventually, the nutrients in the soil would leech out and they'd have to figure something else out, but for now nobody really talked about it.
There was no chatter when he got to the community room, there usually wasn't these days. They just stared at Grayson, waiting for him to say something. To give that speech he gave when another one of them kicked the can. He didn't have the energy to boost morale tonight so instead he said, "We need a team of five to watch for Dowager tonight. I imagine he'll probably be coming back here around 2 am."
The usual subjects volunteered. Lora and Chevy as snipers, Tyler and Jim at the doors, Grayson at the stairwell to the residential floors. "Everyone get some rest. It's been a rough day."
He stood by as they filed out. Peggy and her god damned kid were the last to leave. She set him on his feet and pushed him forward. "Say you're sorry, Hector." The kid looked up at Grayson, snot dried to his cheeks, chewing on his grubby little fingers. "Sawee."
Grayson just grunted, but he ruffled the kid's hair anyway. As much as he hated the risk Hector put them all in, they couldn't just get rid of him. As far as they knew, he was the youngest human in the country--there was no way to know how other communities were procreating elsewhere. It was another one of those things they'd have to worry about later.
He hobbled down the hall and up the stairs to his apartment, quietly shutting the door behind him. He dumped himself into the chair by the window and winced at the painful throb in his ankle. He knew all the others were looking out their windows, too. Looking to see if Dowager would come before nightfall, to see him one more time while he still looked like himself, maybe to say goodbye, if there was anyone left who was sentimental.
Grayson strained his eyes squinting into the sunset. He knew Dowager wouldn't be there, and there was no use being upset about it. Nothing really died, after all. Dowager would be back every night until they shot him enough to make his survival instincts trump his homing ones.
Reaching up for the cord, he yanked the blinds shut, and relaxed back into his chair. He needed to get some sleep if he was going to get through tonight.
Chevy knocked on his door at midnight, waking Grayson from his dreamless sleep. He let himself in reached for Grayson's crutches. "Ready, boss?"
With a machine gun strapped to his back, Chevy looked much older than he was, but his crooked grin said otherwise. He hauled Grayson up onto his feet and set his crutches lightly under his arms. Grayson tried not to be struck by the sweetness of it.
"You gonna be okay on your own?" Chevy asked, not quite losing contact with Grayson's arms.
"I'll be fine. He won't make it to the stairs." He tried to smile, like it was all sort of amusing how they'd gun down Dowager before he could even get to the building. His cheek muscles weren't cooperating.
Chevy noticed and ducked down to be level with Grayson's gaze. "You okay…otherwise?"
Grayson pulled the curtain of indifference over his features and chuckled. "Oh, the ankle? Yeah. I've been through worse—we both have."
"That's not what I meant."
Grayson opened his mouth and closed it. He was going to say I know. But instead he swung himself back on his crutches and said, hurriedly, "I don't want to talk about—" he softened his voice at Chevy's blush, "I mean—look, Dowager was a good guy, but let's not get weepy or anything. Could have easily been you or me. I'm glad it wasn't. End of story."
Chevy nodded and straightened up. "Okay."
It was probably because his ankle was throbbing so goddamn much that Grayson said softly, "Hey." And pulled Chevy back to his level so he could press his lips to the corner of Chevy's mouth. The younger man looped his arms around Grayson's waist and tilted his head into a proper kiss.
This had been a new development.
It happened first on a Tuesday, when they had just gotten back from looting the convenience store on 23rd street.
The store had been a goldmine, and they all came back with sacks full of pills and syrups and bandages. They were still celebrating when Chevy and Grayson had taken sniper positions for the night. Grayson's eyes weren't that good, but every once in a while he'd volunteer so he could enjoy the fresh air on the roof at night. And since Chevy was such a good shot, Grayson was basically just there to keep him company.
Both of them had been drunk on the thrill of a successful mission—which were admittedly few and far between. Chevy started complaining of a toothache just so he could bring up the fact that he'd found a coveted tube of Orajel. He stuck his tongue between his teeth and lip, slurring his speech and groaning. Grayson lifted his hand, meaning to pat Chevy on the cheek in jest, but somehow his thumb caught and dragged along Chevy's lower lip.
His tongue darted out and sucked his lip between his teeth. "That tickled," he said quietly.
And then that lip had been in between Grayson's teeth, tongue lapping at it.
The thrill of the hunt, maybe. Grayson hadn't known what had made him do it.
But Chevy had kissed back. And apparently he planned on making that a habit since he didn't seem to be protesting this time either.
Chevy grinned with Grayson pulled away and Grayson couldn't help but grin back. It was all a little bit ridiculous.
"Don't get yourself killed tonight." Grayson muttered.
Grayson's grin broke into a full smile, "You either."
One more kiss and they snapped back into the zombie-killing selves they needed to be for the night. Grayson watched Chevy bound up the stairs two-at-a-time. He swung himself around and made the slow clomp-clomp-clomp down the stairs to his position at the hall window. He made sure his radio was on and turned up, and he settled in for a long night.
There was movement at 2 AM. Grayson strained his eyes though he knew he wouldn't be able to make out any of Dowager's features in this darkness.
He waited for a shot, for the figure to fall, for something. But nothing happened.
"Chevy. Lora. What's going on up there?" He radioed, slightly annoyed that they were dragging this out.
"Hold on, guys." Jim radioed back. "This isn't Dowager."
"Gray?" Chevy said carefully. "It's your call."
Adrenaline thrummed through Grayson's veins. They'd never had any strangers come around before. All of them had homing instincts and they weren't trouble unless the group needed something in their homes.
"Grayson?" Tyler radioed, "You gotta let us know. It's getting close, it's—" He cut out.
"Damn it." Grayson bit out. He shook himself out of his stupor. "Shoot." He radioed back.
"Too late for us, it's under the overhang." Lora radioed.
"Jim, Tyler, take it out." He radioed.
There was silence. Grayson hoisted his gun to his shoulder, moving to cover the stairs. Why the hell had he paused? He may have lost two men and there could be a zombie in the building.
There was a commotion above him and he risked a glance over his shoulder to see Chevy barreling down the stairs. Grayson cursed. "Get back up there."
Chevy shook his head and took a stand beside Grayson. "Lora's got it. I need to cover you."
"I don't need to be covered, god damn it!" But Chevy didn't move. And even though he'd never admit it, Grayson was glad he was there. No zombie had ever infiltrated the building before. "Do you think—do you think they're okay down there?" Grayson asked in a moment of weakness.
"They'll manage. And so will we." Chevy said quietly, body tensed for any sound from the stairs.
Grayson followed his lead. It was no use regretting anything now. He'd tell anyone else the same thing. It's just that he was supposed to be the leader.
Before the asteroid hit, he'd never been leader of anything in his life. He'd never wanted to—he'd never been good at it. But everything that hadn't mattered before, mattered now. Everything that was worth something before was worth shit now.
Grayson was short and shrimpy and he often had trouble keeping still. Before the hit, he'd been scolded and punished for the way his eyes never really focused and his fingers twitched too much to take coherent notes. Before the hit, people valued something sturdy. Big, beefy guys with a loud laugh and a steady gait. Grayson's brother had been like that. He was dead before that first week was out.
Dowager had been most like Grayson's brother—bigger than most, and un-regrettably friendly. Even though it had been a nice change of pace, it hardly mattered now.
Grayson shifted a little farther away from Chevy. There was no use for attachment here.
Their radios came in with static, and then, "We're bringing him up."
Chevy and Grayson shared a glance. "No," Grayson decided, "We'll come to you. Hold him there."
Chevy swung his gun onto his back and swooped in to plant a kiss on Grayson's cheek. "Be careful," he mumbled, and hurried ahead down the stairs.
Grayson nearly snarled. If they made it out of this, he'd have to cut this thing off between them. People got stupid when they started kissing each other.
Jim and Tyler were on the second floor, blocking the man—no, zombie—from entry. It stood quietly on the stairs, arms hanging helplessly at his sides. He was as unassuming as they come. If they wouldn't have caught him out at night, Grayson might have mistaken him for a human.
Grayson swung himself forward on his crutches, Chevy close on his heels. He took a breath and a few more steps forward. "Who are you?"
The zombie grinned slightly, with a tip of its head. "Thank you for asking 'who,' and not 'what.'"
Grayson was startled, but tipped his head in recognition. He'd never met a zombie with manners before.
"My name is John, and I've come with news about someone you call Dowager."
"Someone?" Chevy said, "You mean he didn't change?"
Grayson winced as John's features stiffened. "Oh, he changed. We've got him contained so that you idiots don't obliterate him before he can heal."
"Excuse me?" Chevy snarled, making a point to readjust his gun on his shoulder.
John rolled his eyes. Grayson took a step between them so Chevy's shot would be blocked by his head. "What do you mean, before he can heal?" Grayson asked gently.
John's eyes snapped to his and Grayson was struck by how alive he looked. Undead or not, most zombies looked like they were on the verge of rotting to pieces. But John was pristine.
Grayson's armpits started to ache from the pressure of his crutches—he hadn't realized he'd been leaning on them so heavily.
Eyes still locked on his, John said, "How long have any of you waited before shooting one of us?"
"We don't wait. We don't give you a chance to kill us." Chevy spat out. John snarled.
Grayson held up a hand in an attempt to pacify them. "He's right. We've never waited—we've never needed to. After the hit, some of you guys were roaming around for months before we found ammo. None of them ever healed."
John waved his hand in a 'no-matter' fashion. "I didn't come here to lecture you. I came here because we found your guy before you—" he didn't disguise a pointed look at Chevy, whose anger rumbled in his chest, "could lay into him."
Grayson's ankle throbbed. It was times like these that made him wonder who'd put him in charge. How many of their own had they shot to pieces? How many could have healed? What did it even mean to be healed? Could zombies become human again?
John's eyes softened when he looked at Grayson. "Look, this is a bit much for you, I can see. Dowager will be fine in a few weeks, if that matters to anyone here."
Nobody said anything. Grayson stuttered a little, "Th-thanks."
"Dowager says not to give his room away. I promised him I'd tell you."
Grayson didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Chevy moved from behind Grayson. "He told you?"
"He has his coherent moments. Between the pain."
"What the fuck are you doing to him?" Chevy shouted.
Grayson reached out for him, stumbling a little as his crutch caught on the floor. "Chevy, it's fine—just—"
"We aren't doing anything to him. When's the last time you've had iridium in your system? It's ripping him apart, cell-for-cell, and then sewing everything back together in different ways."
Chevy didn't strike back, but Grayson knew that wasn't good news. "Leave," he said to John, "before I can't stop him from shooting you."
John fled down the stairs.
"Jim, follow him to the bottom and watch him 'til he leaves the area. Quickly." Grayson barked. "Tyler, go to the roof and fill Lora in. Don't breathe a word of this to the others and tell her the same."
As Tyler jogged up the stairs, Grayson rounded on Chevy. "You stupid child. Do you think about anything before you say it?"
Chevy's mouth dropped open, "What?"
"The first civil zombie we've come across and you try to rile him up?"
Chevy blinked. "Wait. Are you listening to yourself? Civil zombie? There's no such thing."
"What what the hell would you call that?" Grayson bellowed. He felt a stress headache creeping from the back of his neck over his skull.
Chevy kept quiet. Grayson could tell he was fuming. He didn't care.
He radioed Jim. "Is he gone yet?"
"Yeah, he took off pretty quick."
"Okay, everybody. Down to second floor, now. We need to talk about this."
Lora was the first to leap down the stairs. Her eyes gleamed excitedly. "What the hell was that?" Her smile stretched tight across her teeth.
"You mean, who the hell was that." Tyler said, sauntering down the stairs behind her.
They all waited for Jim, Lora chattering, Chevy pouting, and Grayson losing the battle against a migraine.
When Jim finally made it, Lora's voice had strained to an impossible volume and pitch. "Lora!" Chevy finally bellowed, "You want the whole group to hear you? Jesus."
Grayson met his eyes in thanks. Chevy turned away, but his mouth lifted a little at the edges.
"Why shouldn't everyone know?" Lora pouted. "It's just as much their business as ours."
"It is, and we'll tell them. But first I'd like us all to be on the same page with what happened. We'll tell them everything, but we need to be sure what everything was." Grayson look a deep breath. "Now, Chevy, Lora. You two spotted him first. Where was he coming from?"
"Linden Street." Said Lora, "We didn't shoot right away because he wasn't coming up normally."
"What do you mean?"
"Well he was being smart about it—ducking from eve to eve. Humanlike." Lora was bouncing on her toes excitedly. Grayson caught Chevy rolling his eyes.
"He would have had to approach the door straight on, though. Why didn't you shoot him then?" Grayson asked.
Lora shifted uncomfortably. Chevy looked away. "We thought maybe…" she died off.
"You thought?" Grayson prodded.
"We thought maybe it was Dowager and he was alright." Chevy finished.
Grayson nodded. "Jim, Tyler, what about you? He was close enough to you that you'd know it wasn't Dowager."
"You didn't tell us to shoot." Tyler shrugged.
"You've never needed my permission before."
"Well he—" Jim began.
"He had his hands up. He looked…normal or something." Tyler said, embarrassed.
"And what did he say when he came into hearing range?" Grayson asked.
"Nothing, at first. Not until we asked him what he was here for. And he said he had news about Dowager, and he needed to talk to you, Grayson."
"And then you brought him up?"
"And then everybody but me got to talk to a zombie." Lora glowered.
"Was he even a zombie? What the hell was he?" Jim said.
"It is not a he." Chevy snapped.
"Shut up, Chevy. He had a name." Tyler scowled.
Grayson dropped his head back against the wall, cool drywall doing nothing to soothe his headache. "Well, regardless of who or what he is, he's different than anyone we've met before and I don't know if he's a threat or an ally."
"Neither. I say we forget about him—it—whatever." Jim said.
"We can't do that!" Lora nearly shouted. "He could be the best thing to ever happen for us. A zombie ally?! Come on!"
"We don't know if he's an ally, Lora. He could be baiting us in or something." Chevy said.
"How many zombies do you know smart enough to set a trap?" Lora countered.
"Exactly." Tyler said, "John is not a regular zombie."
"So we're on a first name basis now?" Chevy spat.
"But maybe he is a regular zombie." Grayson said quietly.
"Oh, and he's just faking being calm and intelligent." Said Lora.
"No. Maybe they're all like that. Maybe we've been wrong. Maybe—"
"No. No way." Chevy broke in. "Listen, my dad went zombie the day the asteroid hit, back when everybody waited it out. We locked him in the basement. He broke out and got my sister. Zombies are not like us."
Nobody said anything. All five of them had had similar experiences.
"So what the hell is he?" Jim asked.
"And what about Dowager?" said Tyler.
"Listen. I think it would be best if we slept on this—just for a few hours. Then, we'll tell everyone. Until then, no one says a word. Anyone asks--pretend it was a normal night. Dowager showed up, we shot him, morning came, and everything was fine. Got it?"
The other four murmured and nodded their approval. They made their way up the flights of stairs, Lora barreling ahead, Jim and Tyler in the middle, Grayson and Chevy taking the stairs one-at-a-time—crutch hop crutch hop.
"You don't have to wait for me." Grayson said, still angry at Chevy.
"I don't have to." Chevy agreed, and Grayson knew he was every bit as angry.
He stopped while the others went ahead; he and Chevy still two floors below the residential floors. And even though he hated himself for it, he half-collapsed, half-slammed into Chevy, his crutches falling to the floor. Chevy's hands replaced them, hoisting him up and pulling him closer. Their lips met and parted, both of them hungry for something—whether it was for each other or not, Grayson didn't know.
"You didn't have to keep calling me out like that" Chevy said between kisses.
Grayson didn't say anything in reply. He only kissed him harder, biting down on Chevy's lip.
He was exhausted, and the way his heart was pounding in his chest wasn't helping his headache, but he didn't want to stop, didn't want to think about anything but the tug of Chevy's fingers on the bottom on his shirt and the feel of Chevy's hair at the nape of his neck.
A/N: If you haven't already guessed, if there's a zombie canon out there, I'm not following it. I'm likely to accidentally steal ideas from the tons of sci-fi movies I've seen, and quite frankly, I'm much more committed to the romance element than the post-apocalypse one. That being said, I'm still trying to make a decent plotline. If any of you more nuanced zombie lovers have ideas, I'd love to hear them.