"According to correspondence between members of the Center for Disease Control, the symptoms of the virus first appeared without explanation late last night at a local hospital. Patients suffer from severely advanced flu symptoms, which progress at an alarming rate, leading to death, most often in less than an hour." Tenten's serious expression never wavered as she held the station's microphone and addressed the camera on Lee's shoulder, though her eyes flickered briefly behind her in caution. They were on the street for the moment, after attempting to tail a CDC member for investigative reporting, with hopes of a statement for the public. It was mid afternoon now, but the city streets were remarkably sparse of people, with only a few groups rushing to and fro as they tried to contact loved ones or find out what was happening. Lee held the camera steady with practice, and double checked with a brief glance that the equipment was in working order. This was an epidemic in the making, and it was their duty to report at ground zero.
"The most bizarre effect of the virus seems to be a prolonging of the body's movement after the heart has stopped beating. If you see somebody who is sick or injured, often sweaty or pale in complexion, and with accelerated respiration and fever, do not approach them. This person is most likely infected with the virus, and either near death or attempting to infect others after death has already occurred."
There was a sudden scream from up the block, catching Lee's attention and Tenten's. They nodded to each other, and Lee turned the camera to the other side of the street as they walked quickly to the spot. At the edge of the sidewalk a woman was kneeling, holding the limp figure of a man in her arms with horror. The man's eyes were glazed, his skin pale, glistening, and he wasn't moving. Lee stopped several feet away and kept the camera centered on the couple while Tenten stepped into the camera's field of view.
"Ma'am, is he dead? I know this hurts, but you need to step away from him." She put out her hands as if she wanted to help, but still stayed cautiously out of reach. "You need to come with us and step away from him right now."
The woman wasn't listening, rocking back and forth with her eyes squeezed tightly shut. She was in shock, or having some sort of meltdown. On the ground, the man's limp hand suddenly twitched, and his eyes widened eerily. Tenten called out in alarm, but could only scramble backward as the man's lifeless body rose to wrap around the woman. The dead man's teeth sank into the flesh of her neck, like a lover's kiss from hell, lurching on top of her and tearing at her throat until the screaming stopped. Lee was already running backwards, keeping the two in the camera shot for as long as possible before Tenten shouted at him, and they continued to run.
The iron clubhead swung in a beautiful arc against the flickering computer screens and smashed against the skull of Kazekage Industries' junior executive. Said executive gurgled as the left side of his face burst open in a shower of blood and his shredded legs finally collapsed under him. Tapping the golf club on the floor, Gaara stabbed the man's twitching body with the broken leg of a table with regret. He preferred the man undead than alive, and dying by your own golf club was a grisly end.
Beside him, the elevator's screen flashed two floors below him. He'd already missed the ride down, but there was hope in the heavy white emergency door pressing against his back.
Everywhere inside Kazekage Industries, he could hear the screams of men and women who hadn't been able to get out of the building in time when the outbreak hit. They were right smack in the middle of the city's commercial district, practically rubbing elbows with competitors, mega corporations and the companies that kept the city's tills full. But all the high-tech security hadn't been able to keep out the undead from breaking glass doors to get in, or for manifestations of the sickness to appear within the offices.
People were turning into zombies, flesheaters, the undead, walkers and revenants.
Gaara accepted this the moment he saw a man collapse in the middle of a meeting, only to lunge at his seatmate and bit off a chunk of her shoulder. With the Sabaku patriarch and chairman of Kazekage Industries out of the country, and no word from Gaara's siblings in the floors above him, the redhead was alone. He raised the club again and jabbed the handle against his father's secretary, causing her to stagger and roll her dull eyes as she knocked into another corpse behind her.
Finally gaining some space, he pressed hard against the emergency door's metal bar and managed to get out half-way before his previous officemate's groping hands found the edge of his sleeve. Tensing his arms to stop the trembling, he jabbed the golf head into the dead woman's mouth and pushed her back as he forced his body through the door.
Eyes wide and panting, Gaara gripped the club in his hand tightly as the emergency door clicked shut, leaving him in the stairwell. He could hear the echo of screams above and below, running footsteps, cars honking in the street outside, and the roar of technology bursting into flame. He'd always known that the apocalypse would come one day. But this was far from the exciting adventure he'd thought it would be.
Lee was panting hard and wincing from the stitch in his side, but he never faltered in his run. Tenten kept up easily next to him, darting around obstacles lying in the street with narrowed eyes. They were both in good shape, but this flight for life situation they were in was a lot more shock to the system than they'd bargained for. Lee was still carrying the heavy station camera under his arm, unwilling to abandon it under any circumstances. He leaped over a blue mail deposit box that had been tipped on its side, and weaved a wide arc around a car that had crashed into a storefront. There were people on the ground through the street, some wounded and some already turned. Dead hands reached for Tenten as she ran between two shambling monsters, but she was already past them before they could touch her.
"Lee!" she huffed loudly, sweat pouring down her temple as they rounded a corner to another street. They could hear moans and occasional screaming behind them, and knew they couldn't stop yet. "We need to get off the street now, I'm so exhausted! I don't know how much longer we can run."
Lee nodded and darted ahead of her, taking the lead with a determined hardness in his eyes. "This way!" Halfway down another street, Lee took a sharp turn and darted down an alley that seemed deserted.
His dash through the alleyway was cut short when a redhead with wild eyes leaped in front of him from a corner and brought a mean looking putter slashing down inches from Lee's feet.
Gaara wasn't letting anything sneak up on him! Swinging the putt back, he lunged at the tall man again; his adrenaline too high for him to realize that his victim didn't have the ashen look of the undead. Blood splatters covered his disheveled polo and slacks with his work jacket lost to zombies on the way, and his hair was a mess with sweat melting his hair wax.
"Stop! We're not infected!" Tenten cried, coming to a stop and bending down to rest her hands on aching knees. Her chest heaved as she tried to grab hold of Gaara's arm.
Lee yelped loudly and leaped back, waving his free arm as he tried to stay on his feet. He grabbed Tenten's arm and yanked her back in case the stranger tried to swing again. He threw a frantic look over his shoulders, but the undead seemed to have been left in the dust for now. Lee's lungs heaved as he eyed the redhead's blood spattered clothes and his weapon. It was obvious that he was alive, judging by the expression on his face and the way he moved.
"We're not infected. Who are you?" Lee pulled Tenten behind him by the arm, not letting go even as she huffed at him in protest and tried to stand on her own. "Are you sick? Put the weapon away, no one needs to get hurt."
Eyes darting between the man and woman, Gaara's grip didn't waver on the putt while he took the time to breathe. "No." He grit his teeth and exhaled in a hiss upon realizing that they weren't attacking. Neither of them looked sick, or dangerous, and if they'd been looters, they'd have something else on their hands other than a bulky video camera. A moan rose up from behind him. Gaara didn't even think before he spun around and smashed his putt against the corpse's side, knocking it against the wall and kicking at it's stomach to pull back his makeshift weapon. He ignored the slight trembling of his lips from speaking. He hadn't spoken a word since he made it out of the office building, ignoring other survivors in trouble and hacking his way through the horde. Glancing back at the two, he pressed his lips tight. "There aren't any rescue centers nearby. The phone lines are all tied up, and most of the roads are blocked. You'd better find a weapon if you want to survive." He said, distracted for a moment as he listened to the distant screams of survivors in the direction the two had been running away from. So it wasn't safe that way either.
Eyes sliding back towards the two, he slid his putt back in the golf bag on his back and turned to head down another path in the alleys.
Tenten broke away from Lee's hold to snatch at the redhead's sleeve. "Wait! We have a better chance of surviving if we stick together." She ignored the heavy weight in her stomach at seeing someone callously kill another, no matter if the latter was already dead.
Lee swallowed thickly, struggling with a lump in his throat as his eyes darted between the dead man on the pavement and Tenten with the redhead. He couldn't help his flinch reflex and the recoiling in his gut when he'd seen the man smash the golf club against the moaning dead body. His hands were shaking, but he stepped up beside his friend and nodded at the stranger. "Please let us come with you. We can help each other, and it would be best for us to stay together in case rescue manages to find us. As soon as we are able to find some place safe, my friend and I are going to try contacting people outside the city and sending our footage."
Lee hesitated, then unzipped his hip pouch and reached inside. It was mostly full of camera batteries and maintenance, but what he pulled out was a small hand gun. He only carried it for protection when he and Tenten reported in dangerous places, but he knew how to use it. "I think this is a better weapon than a golf club, even if I don't have many bullets. We can help each other."
"A gun's useless if you can't shoot them in the head." Gaara said, frowning at the woman's hold on his sleeve. He knew he could leave the two here and make it out alive on his own, but a small group would also be much more effective in a crowd of the undead. The gun would also come in handy if the threat came from the living. Turning around, he tugged Tenten's hand away from his sleeve and nodded quickly. "Fine, but we need to move fast. I'm heading home first for supplies. There's a mall across the block and a hardware store on the same street."
"Okay. Thank you." Tenten said in relief, trembling slightly at the blood on her hand from Gaara's sleeve.
Lee put the gun back in his pouch and zipped it up quickly, then followed after the redhead as they worked their way down the alley. Lee put a hand on Tenten's shoulder, squeezing gently to reassure his friend. She jumped slightly and looked at him with wide eyes, but he knew that having each other for support during this outbreak helped. She took a deep breath and hurried her steps.
Lee and Tenten followed close after Gaara, trusting that he knew the way to his home. They passed several small crowds, most of whom were panicking or already dead. There was an incident when a woman stumbled across their path, clearly alive and trying to stay that way. Lee was about to pull her along with their improvised group, when he noticed the deep bite wounds across her forearms and knew it was too late.
"Are we close to the hardware store you mentioned?" It was hard for Lee to speak while he was panting so hard. He wiped the sweat from his temple, then gasped and kicked a zombie that surprised him by appearing from behind a parked car. His foot landed in its chest, kicking it onto its back. His eyes widened as it immediately rolled over and crawled back onto its stiff limbs. Lee ran after Tenten and the redhead with an increasingly familiar panic in his chest.
Taking the man's cue, Gaara turned around and simultaneously reached back for a club. There must be something about the corpse's moans that called to its kind, because he knew from recent experience that ignoring one coming after you, only drew more walkers. Moving opposite of the other man, he struck the zombie on the neck, breaking its spine and severing a chunk of its veins. Without the connection to its brain, the zombie fell over and twitched weakly on the ground. "Yes. So is home," he said, taking in a harsh breath.
The richest residential area in the city had the least amount of zombies on the streets, though Gaara could see the mass of walkers down the road near the intersection. The only reason they weren't shambling and shuffling towards them was the steep slope of the street, naturally leading them downhill.
While unassuming at first glance, the rows of low-level houses were well maintained and built with the best security offered on the market. They were the homes of well-off families that downsized out of preference rather than need; that preferred practicality and a low mortgage over a sprawling mansion.
"Head for the double doors." He snapped, running back towards his two companions and on towards the small apartment building.
Once they were in, Gaara locked the doors behind them and briskly did a sweep of his family's apartment. The first floor kitchen and living room didn't look like anyone had been inside, and a run up the stairs to his siblings' units confirmed that they weren't here either.
"Lee," Tenten murmured to her friend as she collapsed on the living room sofa. "How's the footage? Is it still intact?" She wiped the sweat from her face and took out her phone, sighing when there were only two bars left of its battery life. "We need to send that in and let our families know we're still alive."
"Yeah, I know." Lee knelt down on one knee in the middle of the living room, setting down the camera as he caught his breath. The stitch in his side felt like a knife digging between his ribs, but he knew that it had been right to run through the pain. Dawdling would have killed him. "I do not think the camera or the footage was damaged. I tried to be careful."
Settling onto his other knee, Lee rolled the camera carefully in his hands, inspecting it with concentration in his round eyes. He opened a panel on the side and sighed with relief when the small disk popped out undamaged. "It is okay." He looked up and frowned pensively. "What do we do now?"
"Change into something more comfortable." Gaara replied, walking down the stairs with a frown. His face was pale, haunted as he checked the first floor for any breaks. His family and the neighborhood they lived in had all been rich enough to value and keep their privacy, even from each other. The first floor had few windows, and none that faced the street. They'd have to board up the place tonight if they were staying.
"Tomorrow, we'll make a run to the hardware store for weapons and things to fortify the building. This is a safe place to stay until we know more about what's happening." He tested the faucet and sighed when clean water still spurted out. Slowly lowering the bag of clubs, he rolled his shoulders and stared blankly at the two. All the adrenaline he'd had from escaping from the office to making his way home was zapped from his body with the familiar surroundings.
Tenten looked worriedly at the redhead. Without a weapon in his hand, he looked younger than he'd first appeared. "We're really grateful that you let us come with you." She glanced at Lee before sitting up and mustering a smile. "I'm Tenten, a reporter for the Konoha Broadcast Network. This is my partner and cameraman, Lee."
"We are really grateful for your help." Lee got back to his feet, grunting slightly from the ache in his legs. He stepped up to the redhead and held out his hand for a shake. He tilted his head, noticing the redhead's youth in the same angle Tenten had. He looked pale and weak for someone who could beat zombies with a golf club until they reallydied. "If we had not met you, Tenten and I would probably still be out there. If you need anything, just ask and I will try to return the favor."
Gaara frowned at the outstretched hand before shaking his head minutely. This wasn't the time to space out. Spacing out would get him killed, even if he felt like heaving everything he'd eaten that day. "Gaara Sabaku." He said, clasping Lee's hand briefly and brushing past him. "We're not safe yet. Push everything you can find to block the windows. We need a barricade around the doors but one that won't keep them from opening or closing." He began to push the dining table against the window, piling nearby furniture on top.
Getting to her feet, Tenten winced at her aching calves but began to help with blocking the other windows. The horrors she'd seen that day kept rushing to choke her thoughts even when she tried to think of other things. "This feels like a bad joke." She said, gazing out the window. The streets were littered with abandoned cars and dead bodies sprawled on the pavement. Those that got back up joined the few moaning zombies that shambled down the slope. "All those movies, books and games about zombies...it's happening now. I can't even come up with another explanation. "
"Yeah..." Lee swallowed and stepped up beside his friend, looking over her shoulder out the window. His gut twisted and he had to swallow to keep his gag reflex under control. "I feel the same way. I am just glad that we survived together, you know? This is one of the greatest trials of our youth, and it is good that we combine our dedication and hard work for survival. When we finish the barricades, we can call our families and make sure they are alright."
Lee put an arm around Tenten's shoulders, gently pulling her side against his chest and squeezing. He rubbed her arm, then stepped back and began stacking furniture in front of the window. Lee threw a look over his shoulder at Gaara as he lifted a desk by himself and moved it along the wall. "Mr. Sabaku, what do you know about the outbreak so far?"
Gaara was just turning away from the sight of the two media practitioners. The support they had was precious in these circumstances, but he felt a shot of icy numbness when he thought of his own family and colleagues. They were all probably dead or fighting their way to safety, far away from here. The redhead glanced at the two again once the windows were blocked, numbness giving way to a stoic expression. "You get the flu, you die, and you come back." He said curtly, crossing his arms. "What makes you think I know what's going on more than you?"
He had his theories...but there hadn't been enough time to know what was happening by the time the infection reached his office. The paranormal had been a hobby of his, including the zombie genre, but everything was different when it became reality.
"It's not like that. We're just trying to piece together what's really happening." Tenten said, sensing the change in the redhead's demeanor and holding up her hands. They were all still in shock and she knew from experience that those traumatized by a crisis could lash out at each other. She moved to take the video camera from the couch and setting it on rewind. "We were assigned to cover a quarantine the Center for Disease Control issued for were already reports of people getting sick last night, but everyone thought it was another swine flu epidemic. At least, until those who died started to come back."
Gaara shook his head and began to pile a barricade around the entrance with the remaining furniture. They'd need to raid the other apartments tomorrow to fortify this one. "I was in a meeting when news of the virus was released. People inside my building were already sick before we knew what was really going on. Everyone who showed signs of a flu, died and turned even if they weren't bitten." He exhaled harshly and dusted his hands. "In zombie films, the virus is usually transmitted through a bite, but this must be airborne."
"Airborne?" Lee repeated, frowning in alarm at the idea. It had occurred to him that biting wouldn't be likely to infect this many people this fast, but he hadn't had time to give it much more thought than that. "But, how can we protect ourselves from that? We can keep zombies out with barricades, but we cannot block the air!"
"Lee," Tenten stepped up quickly and put a hand on his arm, giving him a look he was all too familiar with. It was the look she gave him right before slugging him in the head for getting too worked up or excited. He winced and bowed his head. Tenten continued "We don't know that it can infect everyone yet. To be safe, we'll keep an eye on each other for flu symptoms and try to stay safe in the meantime."
It didn't take long before they'd fortified the lower level of the apartment complex. The barricade they'd set up was a simple one, but it would be enough to give a wall of defense if the doors broke down, as well as provide a good place for Lee to shoot with his gun. Gaara did a quick run outside to scout the area, killing zombies that loitered near the doors, and put up signs in case his family returned. In the meantime, Tenten had little success in contacting the station.
"...is down...contacting police but...all dead...evacu..."
With a frustrated sigh, Tenten shut off her phone and sank back against the couch. It was the only thing left in the middle of the room with even the bookcase and the television included in the barricades. "This is impossible! I need to get to a higher place. The signal's really bad." She said, hair falling freely down her shoulders. Of all the places she'd been assigned to, she didn't expect Suna to feel like war reporting in Oto Country. "At least we know there's still someone at the station, but I couldn't ask about the rest of the people back home."
"Internet's down. The electricity's holding up and we have a generator in the building, but we should find flashlights and emergency lights tomorrow." Gaara announced as he headed down the stairs. He'd showered and changed into more comfortable clothes, though he still kept a golf club slung behind his shoulders.
Pressing his lips together, he glanced at the two and leaned back against the handrails of the stairs. Lee's and Tenten's clothes weren't as blood-stained as his had been, but they were still rumpled and worn in. Tenten's pants leg was also torn in one side from their frantic run to safety. "You two can use my brother's and sister's rooms. Take what you need from their clothes, but leave everything else untouched."
"Thank you, Mr. Sabaku." Lee took a deep breath and rubbed his face wearily. "I promise not to disturb any of your family's belongings."
After failing to contact most all of the people he'd been worrying about, Lee's usually abundant spirit was starting to wear thin. Above the aching numbness of shock however, he was extremely appreciative of Gaara's lead at the moment. Lee had a strong body and could be deadly in a fight if he tried, but he didn't know if he could honestly try to kill a person, even someone who was already dead. He had his gun if the moment came, but he was uneasy about wasting bullets until he really needed to. The next time they went out, Lee planned on borrowing a golf club from Gaara or trying to find a weapon for himself to keep.
Upstairs, Tenten and Lee walked down a short hallway and found two bedrooms across from each other that they assumed belonged to Gaara's brother and sister. One clearly belonged to someone female, and the other had a closet full of things for someone taller than the redhead. Lee was digging for a shirt when Tenten returned to him from the sister's room in a pair of jeans and a tee shirt. The pants were a bit big, so she had to roll up the leg hem and use a belt, but and the shirt was loose and comfortable.
Lee had quickly discovered that Gaara's brother was a shorter man than himself, but had made due with a pair of stretchy sweatpants. He glanced up when he heard the door creak open and saw Tenten's face peeking inside. He was shirtless as he went through the drawers, but he knew Tenten wouldn't mind. "You can come in. How are you feeling, Tenten? Did you have trouble finding something to wear?"
"No, I found something to wear pretty quickly." She looked down at herself and brushed the length of her borrowed shirt thoughtlessly. Her hands were trembling slightly, but her expression was careful. "I'm feeling... fine. I'm fine. It's a little chilly in here, but I'm okay. Are you okay?"
Lee pulled out a black shirt with long sleeves and held it up, checking the neck tag for the size. He could probably make it fit, though his shoulders would be snug in the fabric. He pulled it on over his head and shrugged it into place as he turned to his friend. "I'm okay, too. You're cold, though?"
"It's probably just the shock." Tenten crossed her arms in front of herself and shivered, sighing and looking away. Her eyes were sad and haunted. "Do you think Gaara's siblings are alive? I want to thank them for the clothes."
"I... hope so." Lee put an arm around Tenten's shoulders and walked into the hall with her. They went back down the stairs and into the living room.
Their host was in the kitchen, cleaning his makeshift weapons at the sink where infected blood ran down the drain. The stiff set of Gaara's shoulders were trembling faintly as he studiously avoided looking at family photos tacked onto the fridge and the wooden ornaments that seemed out of place amidst a modern kitchen setup.
Green eyes flickered in Tenten and Lee's direction when they headed down the stairs. Gaara's stomach twisted at the sight of the two in his siblings' clothes, though he took it in silence. For a moment, he thought... Pressing down on the hope he felt, he carefully slid the clean golf club back in the bag and set it aside. "There's food in the cabinets and fridge if you're hungry." He said instead, sinking down on a chair facing the counter and sliding his fingers through his temples and forehead.
"I'll cook something for us." Tenten volunteered, rubbing her hands together. Working with her hands would take her mind off what they'd all gone through today. She tapped Lee's arm, tilting her head towards the redhead and mouthing a silent, 'Be friendly'. Washing her hands at the sink and swallowing at the smell of blood, she went on to rummage through the fridge for food.
"Tomorrow, we need to check the other apartments and the hardware store down the road. If we wear padded winter coats, the bites shouldn't be as fatal." Gaara was murmuring, eyes shut and his hands rubbing at his temples.
Lee took the seat next to Gaara and sat down, leaning against the countertop as he watched the redhead's stressed expression. He cleared his throat briefly and tried to smile in a manner of friendly that Tenten would approve of. "We really are grateful for your help, Mr. Sabaku. Just out of curiosity, what do you do?"
Tilting his head forward, Lee tried not to let his unease for the redhead show. To be entirely honest, Lee wasn't comfortable with Gaara. The man had saved his life, given him a safe place to rest and hide, not to mention a change of clothes and food, but there was something about the way that Gaara was handling this epidemic so quickly and efficiently that put Lee on edge. It was beyond him how Gaara could kill the undead without reservations, especially so quick after the virus had hit.
"Executive administration." Gaara opened his eyes and stared hard at the counter in front of him. None of what he knew about work helped in this situation, besides the ability to delegate tasks to the best people for the job. He rubbed his temples slowly as he spoke, "My team made sure to keep company executives in line at all costs. We reported to the chairman himself. ...My father." Lee didn't need to know the darker aspects the job called for and why he was assigned that position instead of others.
He lowered his hands and turned to the other man, eyes narrowed and suddenly focused completely on Lee. There was a look on Lee's face that itched at him, the way his father sometimes did when he wanted a job done discreetly. It made his hackles rise. "I want to see your footage. There must be something that tells us more about this epidemic." He said instead, twisting on the stool to face Lee completely and hands twitching faintly on the knees of his pants.
"The camera's charging." Tenten told him while she heated up some oil in a pan. As long as the electricity still worked, they'd continue to have hot meals if she had any say in it.
It made sense that Gaara would be a chairman's son, or have a good job, based on the quality of the apartment. Lee averted his eyes from the intensity in Gaara's expression and fidgeted his hands on the counter.
"I tried to leave the camera on whenever I could while Tenten and I were running. Whenever we could afford to stop, I used the camera to get surveying footage of what was around us." Lee ran a finger along his arm bandages, just peeking out from the long sleeves of his borrowed shirt. He wondered if his Uncle Gai was worried about him, or had been hurt. "I want to look at the film, too, and see if I caught anything that would help us."
"Let's review it." Gaara agreed, slipping down from the stool. Lee's fiddling drew Gaara's eyes towards his arms, a note of alarm suddenly ringing in his head at the sight of the bandages. His hand darted forward and grabbed Lee's wrist, pulling it up until the sleeves fell down to reveal the wrappings. For someone of his height and build, he had a strong and steady grip. Eyes narrowing, he hissed, "What's this? Are you bitten?"
"Wha- no! No, of course not! I would have told you if I had been infected." Lee tried to pull his wrist away, but Gaara was surprisingly strong. Lee swallowed and glanced up with wide eyes when Tenten looked at him with alarm, then back at Gaara quickly to make sure the redhead was not reaching for a golf club. "Really, I wear these bandages all the time!"
Lee lifted his other arm and shook the sleeve down so that Gaara could see the wrappings there as well. "I have always done manual labor jobs, so these help prevent cuts and bruises, and they have some medicine in the fabric to help my old scars heal. I can unwrap them if you want to see for yourself, but I have not been bitten."
The suspicion on Gaara's face didn't waver but he let go of Lee's wrist. "Show me." He said, crossing his arms resolutely. They knew so little about the virus, that a single cut or wound could also lead to infection. It was all moot if the infection really spread through the air, but he wasn't risking anything. Not when Lee was staying in his house.
"Please calm down, Mr. Sabaku. Lee wouldn't lie about something like that. And we need to trust each other if we're going to survive." Tenten reasoned out. The smell of vegetable stir-fry filled the kitchen with sense of normalcy, but she felt that same creeping panic with the look in Gaara's eyes, as she did while on the run. A chill filled her bones with how easy it was for people to turn against each other with a constant threat just outside the door. "Just show him your bandages and let's all settle down and have dinner, okay? We're all in this together, okay?"
Gaara swallowed at Tenten's voice. He didn't like the panic he could hear in it, or the shared glance between her and Lee. "Okay." He said, looking at Lee expectantly.
Lee swallowed again, but did as he was told. He knew that they were each stressed enough already, he didn't want to make Tenten worry anymore. He unknotted the ends of the bandages that were tucked into his palms, and quickly unraveled the fabric, letting it fall into a heap on his lap. He pushed back his sleeves on his biceps and held out his arms for Gaara's inspection. There was a light dusting of white powder left on his skin from the medicine in the fabric, but no new injuries. Only the old and long healed injuries remained. "I completely understand your concern, but I promise I would have told you if I was bitten."
Catching sight of the old scars, Gaara's lips twitched slightly in a mixture of relief and unease. He didn't know anybody who had such knotted and mottled skin, and wasn't buying into Lee's reason about it being part of his job. The number of scars on his arms made it look like Lee was a bleeder. He'd have to watch the other man closely and hide any sharp objects if it turned out he did cut himself. His gaze lingered on the scars before sliding up to stare hard at the taller man. "Fine. We'll eat then look at your footage."
He turned around and began taking out plates for them. They'd all have to eat on the counters with the table serving as cover for one of the windows.
While he was laying out the utensils, Tenten continued to cook in silence with a frown on her usually animated features.
Lee began re-wrapping his bandages while Gaara gathered plates and Tenten finished cooking. He hadn't appreciated the clinical, suspicious look on Gaara's face, though he wouldn't mention it. He knew the redhead was only trying to stay alive, which was best for all of them. He was just tying the last knot in his wrappings when Tenten began scooping the stir fry onto plates.
Lee made a fast dash across the street, following quickly behind Tenten, who was following Gaara's lead. The zombies in the area were sparse, but they knew that would change fast if they dawdled. Lee spotted the hardware store ahead that Gaara was aiming for, and sincerely hoped that the doors would be open, so they wouldn't have to waste time breaking in. The sun was almost centered in the sky above, signaling midday.
With every ground they covered on the way to the hardware store, they attracted more of the zombies loitering along the streets and nearby alleyways. The city was connected with dozens of sidestreets and many people must have died escaping into them, only to face cold grasping hands and teeth.
Gaara tried the knob of the hardware store, hyperaware of the shuffling around them as walkers drew near. He shouldered the door of the hardware store when it refused to budge, causing a groan as the lock rattled. The redhead knew from memory that the store used fiberglass windows while the door was just weighted synthetic wood. He wasted no time in stepping back and running his full weight against the door, breaking the metal latch.
Rushing in, he waited for both companions to get in before slamming the door after them. "Find something to block this with." He ordered, keeping his back to the door and holding the wood down.
Lee immediately turned his head about, spotting a vending machine against a nearby wall. He gestured to Tenten, and they both worked on pushing and shoving it along the wall toward the door. It was heavy, and there was a few tense seconds when it stopped scooting across the floor because the plug was caught on something behind them, but Lee untangled it and they managed to get the machine where they needed it. Lee called for Gaara to move quickly, then shoved the vending machine onto its side with a hefty crash, and shoved it tight against the door. Lee's skin shivered as he heard groaning and thumping on the other side of the wood.
"If we can push that, they might be able to, too," Lee said as he straightened and wiped the moisture from his forehead. "We should pile a few more things on that."
Tenten was already there, stacking big paint buckets from a nearby aisle on top of the vending machine.
Once the door was secure, Gaara rolled his shoulders back and cracked his neck with a sigh. He took the flashlight from his hip, thankful that the hardware store was locked. It lessened the chances of zombies being inside or anyone breaking in. Before he could even turn the light on, floodlights shone at them and a silhouette of a man stepped in front of the lights and aimed a shotgun at the three of them.
"Nobody move." The man said with a faint drawl. "Say who you are in five seconds or I'll blow your brains out for trespassing."
"Don't hurt them, Kiba!"
The man was joined by someone shorter and feminine, who clutched at the man's arm. "Get back, Hinata. We don't know if they're infected or not." Kiba whispered in a forced hush.
Lee immediately grabbed Tenten's arm and pulled her close, half hiding her behind him protectively as his pulse jumped in surprise. Tenten peered around him and tried to shake off his grip as she looked at the strangers with wide eyes.
"My name is Tenten, this is Lee, and this is Gaara," she said quickly, pointing to each of her companions as she spoke. "We're not infected! We came here looking for supplies. Are you alright? How many other survivors are with you?"
"Tenten," Lee warned in a quiet hush. He was eyeing the barrel of Kiba's gun, feeling his stomach churn with unease.
Tenten simply gripped the back of Lee's shirt in reply. The two people were conversing in hushed tones until the man finally lowered his gun and shouldered it, snorting and shutting off the overhead floodlights but leaving the middle lights on.
Shaking the spots from his eyes, Gaara stepped past Lee and Tenten towards the two. "We need supplies." He said curtly, mind reeling with the possibility of making a new ally or foe. "We have a safe house in one of the apartments uphill. Let us get what we need and we can help you get settled in one of the other apartments." He could hear the pounding at the front door and knew that a synthetic wooden door wouldn't hold that long against determined hits.
"Down to business already, huh?" Kiba smirked, the canines of his teeth showing uncannily as Gaara's eyes adjusted to the low light. The man wasn't that tall, but he was wearing a furred, padded coat and jeans. The woman beside him was similarly wearing a jacket but had tights and hiking boots on. "You're lucky Akamaru's guarding the back. Else you'd be dog chow by now." He commented, nodding towards the back of the hardware store. "Let's talk in the employee lounge. The smell of human keeps those things throwing themselves against the door."
Lee kept Tenten close as he followed Gaara and the new survivors through the hardware store, until she finally shook him off with a pat on the arm and a look in her eyes that threatened a smack across the back of his head. He felt like he couldn't help being protective of her though, since they really only had each other and Gaara, though he didn't know the redhead very well.
"Thank you very much for your help." Lee spoke up, clearing his throat as they passed the garden section of the store. The echoing of their footsteps on the linoleum sounded too loud in the quiet of the empty store, once the sounds of moaning and thumping had faded behind them. "Would you mind sharing your names, now that you know ours?"
There was a pause as they walked, before the girl up ahead spoke quietly over her shoulder to Lee. "My name is Hinata. Pleased to meet you."
"Kiba." The man said as he pulled open the employee lounge and ushered everyone in. The place was small but the adjoining warehouse was well-stocked. There was a desk in the lounge where a man wearing sunglasses and sporting an afro watched over a radio. Said man glanced up and held up a hand.
"Wait a moment." Kiba said, hooking his thumb in one pocket. "We've got some security scanners still working. A few people tried to break in here when the dead started walking, but you're the first ones who've made it through the horde outside." He cocked his head towards the two men in their party, shaking his head at the golf clubs on Gaara's back.
Something whirred before the other man beckoned for them to come in.
"Kiba, we're getting a better signal from the group at the mall." The man said, pushing up his sunglasses. "They must have found a better transistor or moved to the roof. They're calling for help in turning the place into a fortress."
"That won't work." Gaara spoke up, moving to the man's side even with Kiba reaching for his gun in warning. "The mall has too many glass windows on the first floor. What's the situation there? How many survivors? Are there zombies inside?"
The man raised his brows and glanced at Kiba and Hinata in question, leaning away from the barrage of questions this stranger presented him.
"Um, this is Gaara. He and his friends broke down the front door," Hinata explained in a soft voice, gesturing to the three newcomers without really looking at them directly. She seemed to be thinking deeply as she fidgeted with her fingers.
"I had not thought that there would be many survivors aside from ourselves," Lee wondered out loud to Tenten in a murmur. A thought occurred to him, and he turned to Kiba. "You said that others tried to break into this store before us. Did you let them in? Are there many people like us who are uninfected by the virus?"
"It would have been too risky to open the doors." Kiba made a small gesture with his hand, as if throwing away the danger of morals at a time like this.
"What should we reply, Shino?" Hinata spoke up, glancing at Lee briefly from the corner of her eye.
"We can't," Shino said in monotone. "I haven't been able to fix our com link yet. If they knew what frequency to tune in to, we might be able to send out bits and pieces by tapping into radio frequencies, but they seem to be listening only to emergency channels." He turned to Gaara and slid his chair back until he was facing the desk again. "As for survivors, there's only a handful of them left inside according to what they've been saying."
That was bad. Gaara expected there to be more people who survived. They couldn't all have been bitten by zombies! Watching that footage Lee took showed that not everyone was infected upon contact with the virus even when people around them started getting sick. There were families where the father or sister looked healthy while they helped their sick relatives along. There were people evacuating with the tell-tale sign of redness around their eyes and a cold sweat on their faces. If the virus was airborne, it certainly didn't affect people at the same rate or impact. But one thing was sure- those who were bitten either died because they were eaten to death, or somehow got infected even when they weren't before.
Gaara exhaled heavily and crossed his arms impatiently while Kiba sank down on a bean bag.
Tenten placed a hand on Hinata's shoulder and smiled, trying to get the shy girl to look her in the eyes. "How long have you been here? We only just found refuge a few days ago so we're still trying to find out what's happening around us."
Hinata startled slightly, and glanced up at the other woman. Her hands wrung each other as she spoke quietly. "We've, um, been here about that long. Shino worked here before the, um, virus, so he had a key. Um, we tried to just borrow a few things and then leave, but there were too many zombies on the streets and we couldn't get through. S-so we've been waiting it out here, instead."
"There were a lot out there. We had a couple close calls just coming from a couple blocks away." Lee thought back with regret on the number of dull, sunken faces that had chased after them in a jerky shamble. He'd had to rely on Gaara to kill at least two, while Lee could only keep them at bay until there were too many.
"We're going to have to move, soon," Hinata murmured, her quiet voice uneasy. "Our food supply is running low, and Kiba's bad at rationing."
"What are you thinking, Gaara?" Lee stepped up and touched the redhead's arm, used to looking at him for leadership by now.
Gaara's arm stiffened at the touch, but he nodded in acknowledgment of Lee's question. No one in his family had been very fond of touching except his sister, to a degree. It was a brutal reminder that all he had to rely on right now were these strangers and his own survival skills. "The offer I gave still stands. If you allow us to take what we need from the store and warehouse, we'll help you get settled in at the apartments. We take what food supplies we can from here and raid the nearby houses. Once we have a better idea of the situation within the next few blocks, we'll make our way to the mall." He said.
"That's a tempting offer, but we're also safe where we are now. Why should we give you our food and equipment just to move to another dead-end home?" Kiba tapped the foot of his boot on the ground. "We let you in here because you broke down the doors. We need a better offer if we're letting you out of here with our junk."
Eyes narrowing, Gaara gazed from Kiba to his other two companions. "...What better offer is there in this situation?"
"Wait, we can offer hot water, warm beds, and cooked food. Gaara here also has a better grasp on things, so finding more about this infection is also on the table." Tenten interrupted, snorting at the power play the two were trying to do. "Besides, those people at the mall need help. The sooner we can get to them, the better."
"Hot water, huh? That's a damn trump card you've got. Fine, we accept." Kiba snorted, holding out his hand for Gaara to shake.
Lee sighed in relief. It would be best for survivors to stick together in this situation, not to get into power struggles or fight over supplies. They would only make it through this with cooperation. "We will do our best to make you comfortable in the apartments. With more people looking out for each other, we are sure to be safer as well!"
Hinata looked at Kiba and smiled, and finally stopped wringing her hands to hold them behind her back instead. Tenten kept a steady gaze on Gaara and Kiba, though she put a hand on Lee's shoulder and squeezed.
"This is the mall. Shino's scouting trips showed a number of routes blocked by hordes or cars. There's a traffic jam over here, so there'll be a lot of zoms around the cars." Kiba explained as he, Gaara and Tenten pored over the city map. They'd reinforced the blockades around the apartment with steel shutters from the hardware store, and had a good number of tools and improvised weapons. It turned out that the three new additions to their group had planned on taking a hiking trip to the mountains, postponing it indefinitely for the apocalypse. Akamaru, Kiba's large dog, stood guard near the entrance in a deceptive sleeping pose.
"We're getting a lot of activity in the intersection. The horde you mentioned forming is bigger now." Shino reported over the radio. The man was now at the roof of the apartment complex, along with his equipment and a heavy duty nail gun in case something sneaked up on him from the nearby roofs.
Tenten brushed her hair back and pointed to a route away from the main streets. "This is where we met days ago. I don't remember there being a lot of zombies here, so it might be safer to take a longer route behind all the houses than to push through with your plan."
"If we take down a number of zombies on the way, it will be better in the long run." Gaara insisted, frustrated that the others wouldn't agree to his plan. While there was danger in encountering newly turned zombies if they took the main street and fought their way to the mall, the point was to thin the horde and hopefully prevent any problems later on when the streets were too crowded.
Lee was in the kitchen with Hinata while the others crowded around the dining table. He was filling buckets and empty containers with water from the sink, just in case something happened that would cut off their clean water supply. He was listening to the others' plans, his mind processing the options. Hinata was stacking buckets against the far wall, also silent in a way that suggested she was thinking. The shy, quiet girl had surprised Lee with her resilience since they'd left the hardware store, and she'd proved to be quite smart.
"Mr. Sabaku, I agree that your plan might be helpful in the long run for if we have to move again, but it would be incredibly dangerous." He hefted a full bucket down from the counter and handed it to Hinata. "And I do not think the rest of us are quite as... talented at killing zombies as you are. I have not even taken down one, so how would we be able to get through a whole horde? Someone could get hurt, or infected."
"Then learn to kill them." Gaara replied with little change in his expression. "It's either you or they die." He glanced down at the map again, thinking of what he knew about zombies and surviving a living plague like this. Society always tried to play nice and protected the weak, but in a situation like this, there was no reasoning with the undead. Lee's morals were starting to nag at him. "The mall is the closest thing we have to a big, defensible location with a lot of resources and other survivors inside. If we get in, we have a chance to survive until help or an antivirus is made." After all, there had to be scientists out there who still had access to labs. Humanity couldn't be completely doomed.
"We all agree on going to the mall, but Tenten's idea makes more sense." Kiba shrugged, lips tugging up slightly at Tenten's direction. "We can't expect everyone to kill their way to the mall. Let's do this- you and I take out zombs from the roof and from the ground. I have my shotgun and you can protect the group while they make a run for the mall. I'll be following you on the roofs here, and here, then I'll join you at the end of this block." He tapped specific points on the map.
Tenten rubbed her eyes tiredly. Even with the safe apartment they were in, she hadn't been getting enough sleep with the things lurking outside. "Whatever the plan is, can we stay in for a day and just...just rest? I just need to get my bearings and maybe learn how to handle a weapon too."
"Um, I think that's a good idea." Hinata walked to the table and put a tentative hand on Tenten's arm, glancing at the others in the room. "We don't have to leave right away. It would be best for all of us to rest and get, um, prepared before we make a move."
"Thanks, Hinata." Tenten put a hand over the other girl's and gave her a grimacing smile.
Lee was still standing in the kitchen, leaning against the counter while a bucket was slowly filling with water in the sink. He nodded at Hinata's words and had concern in the set of his brows for Tenten, but he was still thinking about their plan. He had a nagging, sick feeling in his gut when he tried to think about when they would be on the street again, running and surrounded by the undead. A small, nimble group of two or three at most was one thing, but there were six of them now. He was convinced that something was going to go wrong, and someone would get hurt or separated. Even if allof them could defend themselves, it could be mayhem. At the same time however, he wanted to help the group at the mall and join forces with them.
"Do you know how to use a gun, Mr. Sabaku?" Lee turned off the water and walked to the table while the girls talked quietly to each other and moved upstairs to the bedrooms. Lee was feeling hyperaware of the weight of the gun that he still carried in the pouch on his hip. He put a hand over it, but the pouch was zipped shut.
Gaara looked up from the map and tilted his head at Lee, surprised that he would ask that. Lee had been such a pacifist that he hadn't even used his gun on a zombie once. "Only the basics of point and shoot. I never had to clean or assemble one before." The fact that that wasn't completely the truth wouldn't matter now. He did learn how to target shoot with his brother years ago. Pausing for a moment, he crossed his arms in thought. "Why do you have a gun with you if you don't plan on using it?"
"So that I do not have to use it, or for when I have no other choice." Lee glanced at Kiba, who seemed to be listening while he picked at some lint on his shirt. Lee flexed the fingers that hovered over his hip pouch. "Sometimes letting someone know I have it is enough to escape a fight, and I would use it if someone else's life was in danger. I do not think I would hesitate if you or Tenten were backed into a corner."
The tightness in Gaara's lips and brows ebbed away as he stared at Lee. Was this man really telling him he'd protect him? The hard look in his eyes eased into a quiet, focused assessment of the other man. "...Zombies won't be afraid of your gun. They smell the life in you and they can't be reasoned with or stopped by intimidation." He exhaled slowly then walked past Lee towards the stairs, speaking in a low voice as he passed. "If that happened and there's no chance of saving me, you should run with Tenten. I can take care of myself."
Kiba craned his neck, watching Gaara make his way up the stairs. He rolled back his shoulders and chuckled slightly. "He's so weird. I'm heading up to check in on Shino. Want to come?"
"Alright," Lee answered, frowning after Gaara and lifting his hand on the gun to scratch the back of his head. Sometimes Gaara seemed so... intense. It was hard not to be during an epidemic like this, but with Gaara he acted like every moment would be the last. Lee shook his head and followed Kiba from the dining room table.