XIV – Rebirth

"It is, I believe, that imagination is stronger
than knowledge, myth is more potent than history,
dreams are more powerful than facts, hope always
triumphs over experience, laughter is the cure
for grieving, and love is stronger than death."

- Robert Fulgrum.

Sanchurakai Castle
0730 hours,
Z Day + 363

Almost one year ago, the world had ended.

Now, nearly twelve months later, the world was still being reborn. In the abandoned cities of steel and glass and concrete, the cities of the Old World, the walking dead were still prevalent predators. But across the globe, small pockets of humanity were continuing to thrive. And so we found the Sanchurakai Castle and its survivors.

A rooster's crowing signaled the beginning of another day.

Takashi Komuro was just starting to rouse when the bird began to cry, and stifled a groan as the dawn's light trickled in through closed shutters. Much as he preferred to sleep in, he was needed, so he reluctantly tugged on his jacket and worked the kinks out of his neck, ambling towards the doorway and slipping outside quietly, bracing himself against the cool morning air. It helped get his blood going, and that in turn would help wake him up quick. Despite it being early summer it was still a bit freezing in the mornings until the sun rose. He closed the door quickly to keep the cold air out of the building, not wanting to bother the others within.

His first destination was the main hall, where the majority of their foods and liquids were stored. Centrally located, it was easy to reach at any time during the day or night, and it made for a nice meeting place whenever they simply had to gather everyone together for something big, which was rare. Takashi grabbed up a half-stale loaf of bread to munch on as he made his rounds, making sure everything was settled and everyone was content, or at least reasonably so. Some were still having trouble adjusting to the new world, and he'd be lying if he'd said he wasn't one of them, but he'd taken it better than most. The young adapted quickly to circumstance, after all.

Not that he was a kid anymore, he mused idly as he reached the well in the middle of the courtyard and pulled up a fresh bucket to wash down the stale bread. At least, not that young of a kid. Idly, he glanced into the water as he set the bucket over a cooking fire to boil away its impurities. His own face reflected back up at him. He was well into the age of eighteen now, only a little taller and a lot more muscular, his hair was still unruly and he couldn't do a thing with it, and his eyes were still bright and piercing as a pair of golden coins. Dark stubble lined his chin despite his efforts to keep clean-shaven. Not an easy thing when most of the blades nearby were either too dull to cut flesh or designed to cleave through it. His hands were covered in calluses from hard work.

Yes, he'd changed. But overall, for the better.

As Takashi finished his drink, a rather plump white hen went strolling past, pausing only to give him a look before continuing on her way. He nodded his head respectfully.

"Morning, Integra," he said politely. "Seras. Pip. Walter. Alexander," he added, as her four tiny chicks scurried past after her. Their father was somewhere around too, he'd made the noise that had woken Takashi, but he wasn't anxious to meet the rooster this morning. They'd named him Alucard for a reason after all. None of the community really cared for the somewhat violent rooster, but they kept him around because they needed him. For more little chickens, eggs, and eventually Christmas dinner. Takashi endured every scratch and peck from the vicious little bird, knowing revenge would taste very sweet indeed when the time came.

As he left the well, he passed by the Wall on the way to the fields, and paused for a moment as he usually did, taking a moment to check out the names. Hisashi Igou, Asami Nakaoka, and many others besides. What had started out as a monument built in the center of the castle's courtyard, it was originally a block of wood with the names carved into it with a knife. But the elements had started to wear it down, and they'd belatedly realized wood hadn't been the best material to choose. So they'd moved the names to the southernmost wall of the castle, which was clear and unobstructed, and carved the names in there. It hadn't been easy, but they'd done it. Now the friends, family and loved ones lost during those troublesome times would be recorded. A lot of them Takashi didn't know personally, but that didn't make a difference. The Wall had been made for a reason, and if he ever forgot what it was, all he had to do was tilt his head up and read the largest word at the very top.


"We do," he told them, brushing a hand over the carved names for a moment before going back to his rounds.

He made his way towards the garden to see how things were going, suspecting some manner of work would be needed today. Saya had suggested a rotating work schedule, and for a while they'd tried it, but in the end, it fell apart. People wanted to work and people wanted to relax on their own time, and really, no one ever refused an offer to be of use. So the idea was scrapped. Most picked their own projects to work on and stuck to them at their own schedules.

Sometimes the labor did come to disputes. So many varied personalities and backgrounds at the castle meant inevitably people tended to argue a bit. Nothing too violent, of course, given all they'd gone through together. Practicality vs comfort, safety vs protection.

And that was where Takashi's main role was.

He still had absolutely no idea why everyone kept looking to him to settle disputes, but for some reason it worked. When they talked, he listened, and when he talked, they listened. And more often than not, things were sorted, feelings were soothed, feathers were unruffled, and the community got through another day intact and content.

Really, what more could you ask for these days?

"Morning Takashi!"

He lifted his head and smiled as he spotted Rei, already up and watering the vegetable patch.

Rei hadn't changed much over the past few months, except to grow more beautiful. She left her hair down these days, and wore a warm peach-colored kimono and a dark golden obi, both of which she'd acquired from the displays when they'd first claimed the castle. Both were a little darker and much more worn than usual due to frequent use and hard living, but she still wore them like a princess. Some practical shoes covered her feet so she wouldn't track dirt and mud everywhere from the garden.

When they'd started out here, it had taken a while to beat the environment and produce much of anything in their small field. But once they'd figured out how to do it, they'd had fresh produce growing right within arm's reach. Tomatoes had never tasted so sweet and succulent. This year they were expanding the field, adding carrots, cucumbers, wheat, and even corn. Saya was overseeing the efforts personally, though everyone was pitching in. They learned from every harvest, refining their technique in how to water, how to care for the soil, and when and how to harvest their food.

"Morning Rei-hime," said Takashi with a smile, surveying the field. "Looks good. Keep it up and at this rate and we'll be self-sufficient in another year. A salad in every home."

Rei nodded with a wry smile, even as Shizuka came by, sitting down on the fence surrounding the garden.

She'd changed only a little in the past few years, the brightness of her blonde locks faded, mostly brought about by the stress of her work, but she was still as vivacious and kindly as she'd been before Z-Day, and her smile was just as big and bright. She was wearing a tan coat, trimmed with faux fur, and a pair of tight khaki pants. As well as a red scarf knotted on her left arm.

Shizuka was already feeding a tiny little cherub, who was suckling at her massive breast. Nobody batted an eye at the bared flesh, they'd long since gotten very comfortable around one another. Nudity was no longer taboo or frowned upon, just perhaps a little unwelcome, given how cool it got. The tiny baby with the dark hair was Nia, the four-month-old daughter of Rika. She'd been named after a very old friend who'd served with her in the SAT and been a mentor to the officer, back when she'd been just starting in the organization. Rika was a wonderful mother, of course, though the primary duty of caretaker seemed to be shared between both of the older women. Little Nia didn't seem to care, she took comfort with both of them equally. She cried when just about anyone else tried to look after her, except for, surprisingly, Kohta.

Takashi shuddered as he remembered just how messy an affair the birthing had been. Panic had taken on a new meaning when they'd had virtually no idea what to do and less time to do it in. But in the end, everything had turned out well, both mother and daughter were fine, and they'd welcomed the newest member of their family into the world.

Nor was little Nia the only addition to their little community.

Takashi glanced up, but did not spot Saya. Unsurprisingly, she tended to stay home most days now, catching up on her reading while leaving others to care for the garden she'd invested so much in. She was well into her eighth month or so by now, they were all waiting for the other shoe to drop and things to go mad, as they had when Rika gave birth to little Nia. They even had some names picked out.

If it was a boy, as Kohta was hoping, he'd been named Jiseki. Not Jericho, after the handgun. Saya had put her foot down on that. If it was a girl, they'd name her Gail.

Neither Saeko or Rei had yet to show any signs of being pregnant, for which Takashi was just a little bit grateful. He wanted things to settle a bit more before he was ready for a full-fledged family life. Saya had felt the same, but had little choice left in the matter, and had resigned herself to such. Kohta, on the other hand, was taking swimmingly to the idea of being a father. He'd built the crib for Nia shortly after she'd been born, and had just finished preparing something for his own coming son or daughter. Then someone had mentioned it might be twins, and he'd gone off to build a second one.

Speaking of which...

"Well, I can see I'm not needed here. I'm going to find Kohta, I'll see you both around lunch," he said politely, pausing briefly to brush his lips against Rei's cheek, then ambling down towards the far end of the castle and Kohta's homestead. As he did, he passed by the training hall, now formally christened dojo. He caught sight of little Alice going through the motions with her bokken. Saeko had offered to instruct everybody on the use of the sword who wanted it, but in the end, only the little redhead and Takashi himself had joined in studying the art of Busujima Kendo. Saya had been forced to forego her usual practice these days because of her condition, and their usual instructor was... elsewhere... today.

"Having fun?" he asked, pausing mid-step to watch.

"Mhm!" Alice replied, swinging downwards again. "I can't wait for when Busujima-sensei gets back so I can show her how hard I've been working."

He smiled. "Neither can I," he replied, though he was sure the dark-haired woman would be less impressed with his own technique. He'd been slacking the last few days, busy with other projects and interests, to practice his kendo. "Have you seen Kohta?"

"He's at the gates, still working on the crib I think. Did you need him?"

Takashi shook his head. "Just checking on everyone. The others should be home before too much longer."

Alice skipped away to her practice as Takashi wandered around the edge of the castle wall, musing about the rest of their family. They still made regular trips into the nearby cities for supplies, doing their best to alter their destinations so they had no single source. Longer and longer trips had become necessary as the months passed because their former locales had been picked clean by other scavengers, but they had to be conservative with gas, so they only took a trip every few weeks or so. Right now, Rika, Saeko, and Saito were out on such a raid in the truck, heading northeast to a town they found on the map a while back. They weren't due back for another two days or so, but the rest of the community couldn't help but feel their absence.

He raised his eyes skywards at the clouds, idly wondering if it would rain. It did look dark, but not enough that it would mean bad weather and a delay of their return. He was grateful.

Takashi was lowering his gaze when he spotted a flash of color by the flagpole, and realized one of the flags was being raised. A blue flag was rising atop of the pole. Takashi raised an eyebrow at that. Blue meant incoming people. Living people. They'd set up the flag system as a means of warning everyone about trouble because it was quiet and wouldn't attract undo attention unless you were looking for it, and it was easy to spot anywhere inside of the walls. Blue flag meant living people, white flag meant undead, which was easiest to spot at night. They had a number of other colors that meant a variety of things. So far they'd rarely needed to use them, but they wanted to be ready just in case. This was the first time they'd raised the blue flag, however.

"That's new," he muttered, jogging over to the gate.

Kohta was already there, having just finished raising the flag, and was readying his rifle, making sure it was primed to go.

The bespeckled boy hadn't changed much over the passing months. Still widely regarded as the best shot in the community, he still sported his usual ensemble, dark jeans and jacket, glasses and headband. He'd worn the flak vest so often it seemed more odd to see him without it, and he still had on a pair of glasses to keep his vision sharp. Underneath, over one of his eyes, he had a custom sewn eye patch with a 'Jolly Rogers' print that he'd stolen from a cosplay store. His sideburns were ragged and bushy, but his chin remained stubbornly whisker-free. He was leaner and arguably meaner, but still beloved by the children of the community, and of course by his beautiful wife. Or at least, that's what he confided to Takashi. Few would have guessed as much from her publically berating him nearly every chance she got.

"No firing until I give the word," Takashi reminded him unnecessarily. He was unarmed, but hoped a quick look would tell him what he was up against before he felt the need to take up his club again.

Grabbing some binoculars he climbed up onto the platform alongside Kohta and peered through them in the distance. He could see the group easily enough, and they were definitely heading towards the Sankuchuari. A single covered wagon, drawn by horses. Mostly men, but he caught sight of longer hair that suggested at least one woman, and mostly armed. Mixed weapons, only a few with range. Some archaic, some modern, and more than a few looked improvised. All in all, typical of most survival groups. And marauders for that matter.

"What do you think?" asked Kohta, when Takashi lowered the binoculars, thinking.

A handful of people couldn't take the castle, not with defenders inside. True, they were short Rika and Saeko, but overall they still had many people who could fight and the advantage of high ground. That was if they wanted to cause trouble. But if they were lost and in need of a home, who were they to say no? Takashi needed more information before he could make a choice. One he hoped he wouldn't have to make at all.

"Crossbow," he declared, not taking his gaze off of the incoming group. "Fire a warning shot when they get too close. Then we'll... negotiate."

Kohta nodded, setting his rifle aside in case negotiations went sour, and prepped Rika's crossbow. Takashi grabbed up the improvised megaphone sitting on the platform.

Kohta took his time aiming, using the medieval weapons more modern sight, and with a twang sent the bolt flying. It struck the ground well in front of the horses, giving them a fright, but bringing the whole group to a halt.

"That's far enough!" Takashi shouted, holding up the makeshift megaphone to ensure he was heard. "If you approach any closer you will be considered enemies and shot down where you stand."

He gave them a moment to consider that, seeing how they would react. They seemed to confer for a moment, and he got a better idea of just how many there were, barely half a dozen or so. Including a small child. The others were harder to make out. After a moment, one of them stepped forward, a long-haired woman in a boonie cap and worn garments.

"Is this a safe haven for weary travelers?"

"Maybe! Identify yourself!"

"Call me Alex!" she replied, her voice carrying across the distance. "One of us is injured and we have no supplies left. We can't go on any further!"

"How did you find out about this place?" he shouted back.

"Dumb luck!"

He considered that unlikely, but then again, he doubted he'd be here today if he hadn't had more than his own share of dumb luck from time to time. He shouted back into the megaphone his terms, "You'll have to surrender your weapons if you want to get in, and follow our rules. Or you can still depart peacefully, if that is your choice!"

"And if we decide to stay?" the woman called out again.

"We'll talk about that inside!" he called out.

The survivors huddled in close beside the wagon, obviously discussing the terms he'd laid out for them. Meanwhile, he leaned over to discuss things with Kohta.

"What do you think?" he asked softly.

"I'm game," he said. "If they're raiders they're putting on way too good of a show, bringing along a kid. I'd say they're speaking truthfully."

"I'd say about the same," Takashi replied. "Alright, we-"

"You got a deal!" interrupted the voice of their leader, speaking over the wall again.

Takashi's head popped up as he pondered what to do next. This was a new situation, after all, and he did have to be careful. "How many are there?" he shouted back over the wall.

"Six of us! I'm in charge!" she replied.

Six was a fair bit, and their food was already stretching close to its limit, but at half-rations they could last a while, especially with their raiding team due back from the cities soon. And particularly if some of them were fighters, which was almost invariably the case. They could help in the hunting and the scavenging on future raids.

Plus, he couldn't really turn away survivors. Not if there was a chance it could work out for the better.

"Approach the gates slowly!"

They complied, spurring the horses into movement, as Takashi relayed some instructions to Kohta to run and find Shizuka, since they had mentioned injuries. He hoped he was making the right decision here.

By the time the gates were being opened Rei had rejoined them, her naginata clean, rust-free, and well cared for. As well as dangerously sharp. She kept it carefully lowered as the survivors filed in through the gates, leaving their wagon outside for the time being at Takashi's request. They tied the horses to some posts in the largely empty stable beside Rika's bike as Takashi got his first good look at the survivors. Kohta went to find Shizuka while he sized them up.

Two girls close to his own age, a dark-skinned man in an arm-sling a few years older, a middle-aged man, an older man with a priest's collar, and a young girl even smaller than Alice. The taller girl, the one whom he'd spoken to earlier, looked like a mix between a military brat and a gangster, with camouflage pants and open shirt, and some bandages wrapped around her breasts to support them, and an ACU boonie hat atop of her head.

"Very grateful for you taking us in like this," she said with a slight American accent. "We didn't really mean to come this far, but then we spotted smoke in the distance, realized you were still alive, and thought we'd check it out."

Takashi winced at the mention of smoke. Saya had warned him that the cooking fires might well draw attention, but they'd had no means to really cover them or diffuse the smoke, and so he'd treated it as a necessary evil. Now it seemed they'd done all but announce themselves to the world. Or at least anyone who passed close enough by. That was something they'd have to fix, and probably soon.

For now, he focused on more immediate problems. Kohta came jogging back to join him. "We're happy to welcome you here," Takashi said, handing the rifle back to Kohta, who kept the muzzle aimed skyward. "If you could just set your things down here though..."

Alex nodded, and started them off. The tall girl was the most heavily armed in the group, and for a few seconds she did nothing but plunk down knife after gun after grenade of all things onto the ground. Even a chipped hatchet found its way into the pile as Kohta took an inventory of the weapons.

"...357 magnum Ruger Blackhawk... combat utility knife... two SIG P226's... M67 hand grenade... hatchet..."

How she fit all of it into her pockets was a mystery.

By contrast, the shorter woman next to her was more conservatively dressed, a pair of denim trousers and a warm coat, with a baseball cap. She handed over a curved kukri blade, still in its sheath.

The middle-aged man who went next was a kindly looking sort, dark hair starting to gray at the edges and dressed warmly in a leather coat. A belt hung from his waist with the tools of a mechanic, identifying his trade before Z-Day. He was unarmed, though he undid the belt and set his tools beside the other weapons, since some of them could have been construed as dangerous.

The injured man came next, struggling with his weapon since his broken arm seemed to be his favored one, though he managed. He was wearing dusty jeans, and also a green t-shirt with "Semper Fidelis" printed on the front in English. Over this and a makeshift sling holding up his arm he wore a leather jacket, as well as some heavy combat boots. Some dog tags dangled from his neck, though there seemed to be more than the two expected. He unholstered the gun strapped to his side, being very careful to move slowly and keep his finger clear of the trigger as he added it to the pile.

"Beretta M9A1," Kohta identified.

Finally they came to the elderly priest and the little girl. Takashi almost let them slip past, not suspecting either had anything dangerous, but the little girl stepped forward and added a pocketknife to the pile. He would've never even thought to check her.

The old man smiled. "Honesty is a virtue, after all," he said, patting the girl on the head. That they were related would not have surprised anyone present. They both had the same dark eyes and delicate features, though hers were untouched and smoothed, while his were wrinkled by age and experience. Where her hair was still dark, his had taken on a white-ish hue and was thinning in a number of places, and his gaze was ever so slightly unfocussed. Possibly he needed glasses or his vision was fading. Her eyes were lowered shyly, not wanting to meet the gaze of so many strangers. He wore a practical buttoned upon shirt with a white collar, and a pair of black slacks, all devoid of color. By contrast, she was wearing a yellow sundress that seemed to glow like the sun.

"Thank you," said Takashi, once everyone seemed to be finished. "We don't intend to keep you prisoner here but you'll understand if we want to take precautions. We've had our share of mishaps since the world ended."

"As have we," said the shorter woman with the baseball cap.

Takashi was about to begin explaining to them about life at the settlement, when another voice interrupted them.

"Uhm, excuse me please?"came Shizuka's soft voice, having finally arrived. "I need to check for injuries."

Takashi beckoned her over, as he did a quick check to ensure the travelers had indeed finished removing their weapons. The last thing he wanted was for one of them to attack their most qualified healer. But to a one, they had complied and were remarkably relaxed, though he though he overheard the wounded man make a remark about 'playing doctor' that made him want to roll his eyes.

Shizuka would also ensure no one here was bitten, not that Takashi considered it likely. Most of the walking dead didn't venture out into the countryside, and even with a fast vehicle, most people would've succumbed to the bite long before they reached the castle. Still, they hadn't survived this long by being reckless.

Meanwhile he figured it best to get started. "I know this isn't exactly a warm welcome but you'll forgive us if we have to be careful," he said. "We do welcome you, however, to the Sanchurakai castle. We'll do our best to shelter you for the foreseeable future, in case you feel you want to move on after a while. But, I'd have to request we keep your weapons for the time being until we're certain we can trust you."

"And my tools?" asked the mechanic.

Takashi shook his head. "You can have this back tomorrow. I think you're going to have a lot of need for them. In the meantime, I think introductions are in order. This is Shizuka Marikawa, formerly a nurse from Tokyo. I'm Takashi Komuro," he said, then pointed out the various other members of his family within view, giving their names. Finished, he turned back to the other group, awaiting their reply. Curiously, it was the shorter girl in the baseball cap who replied, taking off the headgear so she could bow politely, hands clasped before her.

"My name is Misa Kinoshita and my companion is Alexis Yukari Schweiger."

The taller woman gave a jaunty salute. "Nice ta meet ya'll."

"You can call me Tanaka," the middle-aged man said with a polite nod of his head.

"I'm David. Corporal David Peterson," added the young soldier, as Shizuka inspected his arm. "United States Marine Corp."

"I thought the Marines weren't allowed into Japan proper?" asked Kohta.

"Was on vacation with my fiancée when the Apocalypse came about," replied David. "Never could get in touch with my unit, they probably think I'm long dead by now."

"And your... fiancée?" asked Rei, giving a sidelong and meaningful glance at both Misa and Alexis. Both girls shook their heads.

"Dead," said David simply. "The Father here helped perform a burial for her though, that's how we met," he added, indicating the old priest, who stepped forward.

"I am Takeshiro Sato. This is my granddaughter, Komachi," he indicated the little girl clinging to his leg.

"Hi," she said shyly, clinging to the older man like a lifeline.


The old man shook his head solemnly. Another lost life, another broken family. Even as Takashi welcomed other survivors into the fold he became keenly aware of the fact that so many others had perished, lost to them forever. He felt he should say something, and indeed every eye was on him.

"I know you've endured much... but I'd like to think the worst of it is behind you. You'll be safe here. We should be able to find shelter for everybody. We're a bit low on food supplies at the moment but-"

"Got anything with twin beds?" asked Alex, interrupting.

"... I think so," replied Takashi uncertainly. They didn't actually have many spare beds but they did have the room for such.

Alex looped an arm around Misa. "We'll take a single," she deadpanned.

Rolling her eyes, the other girl stepped forward. "What my colleague is trying to say is, we don't mind bunking up," Misa explained.

Takashi blinked at the odd statement, then, reading Alex's challenging gaze, as well as her arm looped around the smaller girl, he realized she was making a statement about them. They were an item, it seemed, and Alex was pretty much asking, here and now, if that was going to be a problem.

He smiled faintly. "I'm sure we can find a place for you," he said, and relaxed when she smiled, evidently taking his double meaning. After surviving the end of the world, being petty over something like loving the same gender seemed downright stupid. They had bigger concerns. And speaking of those, "Now, as I was saying, our food supplies are low, we don't have a lot to offer at the moment, but we're expecting some of our own to return soon with new stuff. Anything you can add to that in the meantime would be welcome."

"We have a few things, but not a great deal," replied the elder Sato. "Mostly nuts and berries from the countryside. The last farm we found was empty of all save the horses."

"Come on to the main hall, we'll get you settled and talk some more. It's just up this way."

"I'd like to take a closer look at Peterson-san's arm," Shizuka said, guiding the Marine to a sitting position on a nearby fence. "We'll catch up to you shortly."

Kohta began the task of hiding the visitors weapons away while Takashi and Rei led them up the path through the castle to the main hall, where they could settle, get some food, and relax.

Rei went on ahead to brew some tea, and as a result had it ready and waiting by the time the others arrived. They left Komachi outside in the care of Alice, sensing that conversation might turn to ugly topics. Besides, the former had taken a shine to Zeke, having not seen a dog in many months, let alone one should could play with.

Taking on the role of hostess, Rei made sure everyone was comfortable while Saya waddled in, little Nia cradled protectively in her arms. The little infant was kicking up a fuss but was mercifully keeping quiet for the moment.

The Takagi Heiress hadn't changed much in the last year, saved in the most obvious fashion of carrying a child of her own. At eight months, the petite young woman was ballooning out in most spectacular fashion. But apart from that she was mostly the same. Still shorter than most women her age, with pink locks braided into a practical ponytail down her back. She wore a silver maternity dress over some comfortable pants, the only allowance she made to her wardrobe because of her condition, something she was most profoundly sensitive about. Her wakizashi rested by her knee, within easy reach.

Takashi began to make some gentle inquiries about their own story. He figured it would help put them more at ease instead of just giving them the strict rundown of how things worked at the castle. Once they started, however, he let Saya direct the questions while he just sat back and listened carefully.

"Obviously none of us saw it coming. It all happened so fast," said Misa. Again, she was talking while Alex, whom they all kept deferring to, kept quiet. Takashi made a mental note of that. "Myself and my companion Alexis were on a field trip to Kyoto when the crisis occurred. Same with David and Sakura."


"His fiancée," Alex explained.

"When things took a turn for a worse they took refuge in my store," added Tanaka. "I had some locks installed a little while prior to deal with some burglaries in the area. They served us well, and between the five of us we managed to survive alright for a while..."

"But ultimately we ran low on supplies and tried to make a trip north to Misawa as a possible safe haven. That didn't work out so well," explained Misa. "We did get a few things but mostly we had to hoof it down the road, through the wilderness back to civilization. Sakura got bit on the way. Don't even remember what the name of the city was, we just found this church on the outskirts."

"That would be where we came into the story," explained Father Takeshiro. "We too were completely unprepared for the... for the madness that followed in the wake of the initial attacks. I did not know what to think, or what to do. If not for little Komachi, we would not have made it at all. Our church had a bell tower, you see, and the only way up was from a pull cord. If you were up top and pulled up the cord with you, not a soul could reach it."

He paused uncomfortably, fiddling with his collar. "I... I wanted to take in others... but between myself, my son, his wife, and Komachi... we barely fit as it was. There was nothing we could do to save anyone else."

David and Shizuka chose that moment to re-appear, the former having caught the tail end of their conversation. "There was nothing you could do. You did what you had to in order to save your family. Nothing dishonorable about that," he said, sitting down beside the others in his group, a lit cigarette in his hands.

Rei made a face. "I think we'd prefer you did that outside, Peterson-san."

He blinked in surprise, spotted Saya glaring at him as she passed the baby back to Shizuka. David quickly extinguished his cigarette and tossed the end out of the doorway. "Sorry, didn't think about it. Force of habit I guess. I'm trying to quit."

Alex rolled her eyes at that. "You've been trying to quit for months now."

They all laughed at that, even the castle inhabitants. It seemed like a recurring joke with them.

"Anyway," said Misa. "After we laid Sakura to rest we stayed at the church for a while. Things calmed down after the first few weeks or so. It was somewhat secure, but we had more trouble dealing with the living threats than the dead, they broke in one night..."

The old priest gently interrupted. "My son tried to fight them off," he explained. "And my wife tried to save him. But they were hopelessly outmatched."

"I tried to help too," explained David. "But by that point those idiots had made too much noise, we were being over-run by dead heads. Escaping was the only option."

"So you ran away," accused Saya.

His expression didn't waver as he said softly, "Tactical retreat."

Takashi smirked at that.

"We use the tactic a lot," Alex explained, the tall girl shifting in her seat. "When things are looking bad we don't fight honorably to the last man. Or woman. We get out with our skin intact and dignity be damned. That's why we left the church when we had to and made our way into the countryside to get away from it all. Met some other survivors on the way, killed those that tried to kill us, made some friends with others but kept moving on our own."

"Had an interesting time with that too," David remarked.

Now it was Misa's turn to make a face. "That carnival was all your fault."

"Komachi said she wanted to try some cotton candy," he defended himself.

Alex snickered. "And you were fighting off three zombie clowns with a wooden mallet before we came to rescue your sorry-"

Takashi loudly cleared his throat.

"Well, anyway, you seem to have made it here now, more or less intact. I'm really glad for that, actually. It's comforting to know we're not the only ones who survived."

"Or turned into jerks," added Rei.

"Oh yeah, we've had trouble with marauders as well," said Misa. "Part of the reason we had to leave the church. What was it one of them hollered? I'd make good breeding stock?"

The death glare from Alex made more than a few of them shiver. "Something like that," she said in a cold voice.

"Nothing like that happens here," Takashi promised. "We're not... we're still trying to rebuild," he explained. "Trying to figure out what works and how to make it work, but we're not compromising our principles for the future. That sort of future isn't worth living for."

The new group seemed to agree with that. Takeshiro seemed to sum up their thoughts best. "I can see we made a good choice in coming here. We'll do our best to help you build a place for all of us here."

"Have you heard any news of the outside world?" asked Saya. "Last we heard was almost a year ago. Since then we've been almost completely cut off here."

"Probably for the best," said Alex. "It's a real mess out there."

"We've heard a few things," explained Misa. "Nothing is ever too substantial, you understand, but... well, let's see... the Yokota Air Force said that England was probably still good. Right as the Outbreak started they closed their borders, nobody was let in or out. But they might've fallen by now from the inside and we'd never even hear about it."

"Russia is a wasteland," added David. "I saw the maps, the place was nuked to Hell and back. Several times."

"No kill quite like overkill," muttered Saya darkly.

Father Takeshiro spoke up. "They say Italy had mass suicides before they fell too. The Vatican held out longer than most but by now they're probably gone too."

"And that one group we met confirmed that China was overrun by walking dead," said Misa.

"Not surprising given their large population," remarked Saya. "Anything about the rest of Japan?"

They shook their heads. "We hear rumors that the Chrysanthium Bloodline may still be in existence," said Misa. "But its influence is lost. The government has collapsed and most of the military is fractured into small groups trying to hold their bases. There's no more collective unity."

"It's even worse back home from what I've heard," added David. "The United States split hard over politics when the President died. Apparently the New Confederacy is doing fairly well to hold off zombies, but the northern states aren't managing nearly so good. Oh, and speaking of split borders, there was information coming in from Korea, just before the broadcasts stopped," added David. "Apparently the Kim family are all dead, the North fled into the South for protection so the reunified Korea could repel all comers from their mutual borders. They finally came together... all it took was the end of the world."

Takashi smirked, never thinking he'd see the day. Then again, things could have been very different.

"Sounds like Antarctica is the only continent truly untouched by this," remarked Shizuka thoughtfully.

"We're not flying south for the winter," Takashi declared, earning some chuckles from everyone. Then, more seriously, added, "There's no sense delving into what could have been. What is, is. And that includes you all making it here. Consider this your new home."

He got agreements of variable enthusiasm all around.

"We're not going to force you to work but any help you can give is welcome. Especially with the garden and the raids. We'll need to expand a bit outside the walls, and that's going to be toughest because it can't be defended very well."

"I'll take a look at things in the morning, if that's alright with you," said Tanaka. "But the foundations seem solid enough to work with."

"I barely know hammer from a hacksaw," replied Alex. "But if all you need is another strong back, you've got it."

"I'm not so good with that sort of thing. But maybe I can..." Misa said, then briefly paused, stifling a yawn with her hand politely. "... help too. Goodness, excuse me. I must be more worn out than I thought."

"It's also getting late," remarked Shizuka. Idly Takashi leaned back, looking out the window. It was starting to get dark. The setting sun wasn't quite completely gone, but it would be soon.

"We'll break up here for now then," said Takashi. "Let you all get some rest."

"We tend to sleep early and get up even earlier," Rei explained. "But you take whatever time you need to settle in tomorrow."

"Thank you. Thank you very much," said Misa, rising and bowing formally. She slipped out quietly, and Takeshiro followed soon afterwards to go find his granddaughter. Most of the others excused themselves after that, making their way to their individual homes to bed down before it got too dark out. Of them all, only Alex lingered by the fire.

"I think I'll stay up a bit, if you don't mind Komuro-san. Or is it, my lord?" she asked with a hint of good humor.

He smiled wearily. "I'm just plain ol' Takashi. Never wanted to be anything else. Good night, Schweiger-san."

"Call me Alex."

The night passed relatively peacefully.

The new group caused no trouble and gave even less sign this was their intent. But even so, a guard was set. Although Takashi wasn't keen on the idea, Saya insisted. Then promptly passed responsibility of this to Kohta, who spent the majority of the night freezing cold with his AR-10 in arm while his wife enjoyed the warmth and comfort of their home.

But it turned out their fears were baseless, or at the very least could be put off for the time being. Takashi awoke the next day to find that the newcomers were pitching in whole-heartedly with the new community. Alex and Tanaka were helping out in the garden, while he spotted Saya and Misa going over some new books. A weary Kohta was chatting with an animated David by the gates about setting up a more permanent kind of watch while Shizuka was telling Father Sato about their friends in the field. He even spotted Alice and Komachi playing fetch with Zeke. All in all, they'd settled in practically overnight. Then again, after the End had come, you tended to adapt quickly to circumstances. They had all been through Hell, and were welcoming a chance at rest.

"Good morning, Komuro-san."

He glanced up as he approached the garden, seeing the middle-aged man calling out his name in greeting. It took him only a moment for Takashi to remember his. Tanaka, the store owner and mechanic from Kyoto. As promised, Takashi was returning the man's tool belt, and it now rested around his waist.

"Good day Tanaka-san. I was hoping to find you. I understand you're a mechanic?"

"I worked on motorcycles back in the day, before I set up shop in Kyoto. These days I just prefer 'all-purpose tinkerer'," he explained, smiling brightly.

Takashi found himself warming up to the older man, he reminded him a lot of his uncle before he'd passed away. "Well we've a lot here that could use the hand of a good 'tinkerer' on it. Not least of which the truck, when it gets back. But before that, I was wondering if you'd take a look at something for me."

"Lead on, Takashi-san," he intoned respectfully.

Takashi led him around the northeastern side of the castle, to an isolated part of the structure that looked newly constructed. Obviously not a part of the castle's historical architecture, this was the more modern bathhouse. Since the castle was isolated in the countryside, its plumbing was self-contained, and continued to work reasonably well.

Getting clean water in the castle wasn't a problem with the well, the trick was running water. Preferably hot. All they had now was barely tepid at best, so they either had to endure stinky and grimy inhabitants or deal with cold showers in an already chilly environment. Though in recent months they'd managed to at least heat up some baths with an elevated barrel and some firewood, but more than a few were worried about how dangerous that could be.

All this he explained to Tanaka as the older man begin tinkering with the pipes, rapping his wrench against a few to get an idea of how it was set up.

"Well, its old, how long has it been broken?" asked Tanaka.

"Running water is no problem but we can't seem to get anything hot anymore. Been like that for almost a month now."

"Probably boiler fed," he muttered. "Heated by electricity then fed here, you just ran out. Is this place fed by generators?"

"We found those shortly after we got here," Takashi confirmed. "Everything was designed to be self-contained because we're out in the middle of nowhere. They'd broken down but I thought we'd gotten everything working again."

"I'll need to look around back and see what I can do."

"Anything you can do would be welcome," Takashi replied. "Obviously we can keep clean and drinking is no problem with the well, but hot water would be kinda nice too, right?"

"Tell me about it," said Tanaka with a smile. "Can't remember the last time I had a warm bath. Not my area of expertise but I'll take a look."

"Thank you."

He left the tinkerer to his work as Takashi stepped back into the castle and made his way down to the courtyard, interested in seeing if the others were doing as well settling in. Plus he was hoping for a word with the elder Sato. He'd been thinking about this particular topic a lot recently and he hoped the wisdom of an older generation would help guide him. Plus, the man was a priest. Not Shinto, it seemed, but Takashi was hardly in a position to be picky...

His thoughts trailed off as his eyes grazed the skyline, now free of dark clouds and relatively brighter, if still somewhat overcast. Another flag had been raised by the watchtower.

It was white.

Takashi's eyes widened, and he took off towards the gates as fast as he could.

Kohta was already there, and David as well, the latter of whom was keeping watch through his binoculars while Kohta was priming his rifle. Saya came jogging awkwardly right behind him a few moments later.

"This is turning out to be quite an eventful week," he muttered. "How far away is it? Will it be here soon?"

David took another look through the binoculars. "It's not very fast, say... an hour it'll reach the gate."

The one-eyed marksman nodded. "I can take it down from here," he added, reaching for his rifle. Saya tugged it out of his reach, shaking her head.

"Don't waste the bullet," added Takashi, sensing her meaning. "We'll let it get closer then bash its brain in."

It had been a while since they'd last seen a zombie make it this far out into the countryside, and the entire castle was in an uproar as preparations were made. Takashi jogged past the Sato's temporary quarters to find Rei and Alice, the former of whom was trying to convince the latter to remain behind, let her bigger siblings deal with it.

"Where-?" he started to ask, but Rei already beat him to it, naginata tucked under her arm as she offered him his kanbo. He snatched it up, pivoting on his heel. She followed close behind. They didn't get far before Alice called out to him.

"I'm coming too," proclaimed the little girl, bokken in hand.

"No way," he replied, not even looking back. "Way too dangerous, I don't want you getting hurt."

"I can help," protested Alice, clinging to her wooden sword tightly.

He stopped, shaking his head his head. "Stay here," he said firmly. Then, as an afterthought, added, "Father, can you watch over them?" to the elder Sato, who was standing nearby with his granddaughter.

The old priest nodded.

Takashi turned back to the little redheaded girl, who still looked rebellious. "He'll watch over you," he explained. "But I need you to watch over them. They're non-combatants. Alright?"

That seemed to work. Alice took the idea of being a protector much better than being pushed aside like a little kid. She gave a firm nod and moved closer to the Satos to protect them. Takashi jogged back to the gate, iron club in hand. By now Alex and Misa had joined them, the former protesting that they should be allowed their weapons back if they were coming under attack, and the latter reminding her they were perfectly safe here and should leave things to Takashi and his group. The shorter girl seemed to be winning their argument, however. Grateful not to have to address a mutiny during a crisis, however small, Takashi plucked the binoculars from David's hands and gave a look out for their enemy, wondering if they'd grown in number since the last time he looked.

He steeled himself and took another look through the binoculars, first with a wide sweep to ensure the undead monstrosity was alone, then focusing in on their sole attacker. As it came closer, Takashi could see just how badly rotted it was, parts of its skull were clearly visible along the sides of its head, and its limbs were withered and thin, as if from starvation. Evidently it hadn't eaten in a long while.

"Alex-san, Misa-san," he said softly, not wanting to unduly draw attention to himself. "Can I have the two of you open the gate for me when it gets closer?"

They nodded, taking up positions on either side, as Takashi hopped off the platform and gave a swing of his club, limbering up. It was getting close to the gate, Kohta gave the signal for Takashi to get ready. The marksman had just given the signal when suddenly he stopped. "Wait... something's wrong."

That was an understatement, Takashi thought as he climbed back up to get a view over the wall.

Still shuffling towards the gate, the undead creature did a most curious jerk, stumbled, and fell to one knee. It looked about ready to climb back up again but, seemingly struggling with its own weight, collapsed at an awkward angle on the ground. Then it just sort of... flopped about helplessly.

David and Kohta exchanged a wordless glance.

Alex, on the other hand, could not contain herself. "The fuck happened?"

"Decay must've set in," remarked Saya, peering down over the wall at the corpse. As she watched with morbid interest, its movements became more and more slow. "Its muscles have literally rotted away to nothing, it can't even support its own weight."

"So it's harmless now, right?" asked Misa, still standing by the gate.

"Better make sure it's dead anyway," said Takashi. "Crack its head, then drag it-... no, on second thought, see if you can get some rope, we'll drag it with the horses then crush its head. No sense making a mess here, after all."

"Good call," remarked Saya. "I'll guide it somewhere it can decay safely."

"Misa-san, can you let the others know it's safe?" asked Takashi. She nodded, taking off to tell the others while Saya caught Alex.

"Do you know how to ride?" Saya asked.

"Do I?" she exclaimed with a grin. They moved to get the horses ready. The remaining survivors peered over the wall at the corpse.

"Well that was fantastically lame," remarked Kohta.

"I think I prefer 'em that way," added David, tugging his pack of cigarettes out of his front pocket. He offered one to the marksman. "Smoke?"

Clean-up and disposal of the decaying corpse was unpleasant but ultimately easier than the majority of zombie killings they'd had to go through over the past year, for either team. They dragged the corpse away, crushed its head and left it to rot in peace far away from the community, where it wouldn't draw scavengers or disease.

The rest of the day passed in relative peace, and it was only when the sun was starting to dip on the horizon, painting the skyline a warm reddish hue, that there came a honking horn from the parking lot, and another flag went up. Fortunately, the green flag was a welcome sight. It meant the return of their people, safe and sound. As well as a signal to them that everything was well and good inside of the castle.

The past day or so had been quiet in the castle as everyone settled in, taking stock of their situations. The newcomers learned what they had to live with now, and the older inhabitants of the castle were learning more about them. Now that the truck was back, everyone's attention was gathered round to see what treasures had been plundered. Maybe not gold, jewels and fine clothes, but food, blankets and fresh water were far more valuable in this day and age.

In the midst of it all, Takashi was looking for a single person, and finally spotted Saeko emerging from the back, lightly jumping down to meet with him.

The swordswoman was in a dark blue t-shirt, black miniskirt, and a pair of high-heel boots. A pair of heavy gray stockings kept her legs warm, and over the rest was thrown a heavy black trench coat to ward off the chill, and more importantly, conceal her weapons from sight. Her raven tresses were still cropped short in a pixie style to ensure attackers could not grasp it for use against her. And as always, she had her Muramata Katana within easy reach. She never let it get very far from her side. The only reason she did not take it with her to sleep with her any longer was because she shared her mattress with Takashi and Rei.

One glance at her eyes told Takashi all he needed to know. Shinigami was evidently 'sleeping,' it was Saeko behind the sapphire orbs he loved so much. Over the years, he'd learned to read them easily enough to know which one was which and when they were dominant.

"It's good to see you back, Saeko," he said softly as she drew closer.

"Indeed. I have missed you," she intoned respectfully, dipping her head to him in a gesture of respect. Takashi smiled, leaning forward and kissing her cheek, causing her to blush and murmur something about inappropriate public displays. But he knew she secretly enjoyed them.

Alex and Misa had come down to help unpack the truck, and Tanaka was coming with them, evidently to see about the mechanics problem Takashi had mentioned. Saeko's gaze flicked up over the newcomers, memorizing faces and studying their postures. She could tell almost at a glance which ones were fighters and which ones weren't. The better to know which ones to engage if they would turn on the community.

"They're good," Takashi said, vouching for the newcomers. "They've had a rough time of it, I'll tell you the details later."

She nodded, relaxing a little.

"Any trouble out there?" he asked, even as Saeko and he side-stepped little Saito, carrying some plastic cartons past.

Saeko, or more precisely, her Shinigami self, was restless if she stayed too long in the relative peace of the Sankuchuari Community. So she often led expeditions to and from the cities surrounding the mountain to get supplies. Never the same one twice, however, and rarely the same route. They did not want anyone, living or dead, to follow them back to the castle. So far it had worked out well. The few times they'd encountered marauders or zombies, Saeko and those in her team had cut them down, added their possessions to their own, and returned to the castle. Close calls like that always made Takashi worry.

She shook her head at his question, filling him with relief.

"None. We did not even see many of Them. A quick and routine trip to several stores to get what we needed, and then a roundabout trip back. We only delayed thanks to a tire blowout. We had a spare of course but we will need to look for another when we venture out again."

He smiled, that certainly explained her delay. "If that's the worst of it then I'm content," he replied. "In fact, one of the newcomers is a mechanic, maybe he can help."

"A mechanic?" she blinked in surprise. "Do tell." She listened very attentively as he described the arrival yesterday of the survivors from Kyoto. He then in turn listened as she gave her report on their encounters at a library and a pharmacy, running into no one living the entire time.

"Just when I think there may be more out there...," he lamented. "And the dead?"

"Still dead," she replied with a ghost of a smile on her lips. "They are decaying, but slowly. It is making them weaker and slower. But they are still hungry. And still very dangerous."

He nodded solemnly at that. "We saw one of those ourselves. It's almost encouraging, really. Anyway you go on and rest, I'll take care of things here."

"I think I'll go meet the newcomers," she intoned softly, making her way towards the main dwelling. Smiling, Takashi resisted the urge to follow, knowing he had to help Saito and the others unpack. Rika would've helped too, but he waved her off, letting her get back to her baby girl. Forming a bond with her mother was much more important.

They'd unloaded a lot of foodstuffs already, mostly canned, as well as plenty of warm clothes to go around, and lots of books as well. Looks like the library raid had been successful. Takashi idly pulled out the topmost book of one of the boxes, turning it over to read the cover.

"Sun Tzu's The Art of War," he read. He made a face. "Saya'll like this, but I think I'll stick to classic reading," he said, placing it back in the box and grabbing up one of the manga selections, setting it aside for his own personal reading later. He was just picking up the box when Saito went running past, nearly knocking him over.

"Hey, where're you going?" he asked, shuffling the box in his arms to make it easier to hold.

Saito just pointed into the castle, to where the dojo was set up. "Alice," he said simply.

Not very descriptive, but Takashi didn't seem too surprised. He glanced back at the truck, but it was largely empty. Things were already going more smoothly with more hands to help out. He was carrying one of the last of their newfound possessions.

He sighed. "Oh alright, go on," he said. "Watch out for the new people though. No sense scaring them," he added with a smirk.

Saito laughed, the sound heartwarming. Especially since he hadn't used to laugh. But little by little, slowly but surely, they were making strides in his ability to speak. Three months ago he'd even said a word. Clear as day he'd said "Alice." So far that was all he could manage, though he also took to humming songs on occasion. For now, it was enough, and no one pushed him. He'd heal in his own time at his own rate.

After finishing the unpacking, sorting things where they needed to go in the castle, having Mr. Tanaka inspect the truck, and overseeing various other things, Takashi found the day had already come to an end. Amazing how time tended to fly when you were busy.

So he washed off, turned in, and spent the night in the arms of his two special ladies.

And so another day of peaceful, if difficult labor, passed. Takashi even got a chance to work on his sword forms with Saeko and Alice for the first time in a while. But before too long the day was winding down and everyone had gathered at the main hall for the evening meal. They tended to take breakfast on the go and lunch whenever they pleased, but the evening meal saw everyone in the community gathering together in one place. It went so perfectly Takashi could not have planned it better himself.

Having again brewed the tea, Rei was making sure everyone was served as Alice and Saito set the places at the low table, and Kohta tended the fireplace. They'd long since finished cooking, but left the fire burning to provide warmth and illumination. Idly Takashi tuned out the various conversations around him, letting it fade to a pleasant background hum as he enjoyed his meal.

"Oh look."

Takashi glanced up as Shizuka pointed to the calendar leaning against the wall. They'd swiped its predecessor from the Firewater Springs, then replaced it with a whiteboard and markers a while back so they could update it. And today was...

One Year Ago... exactly.

"Is that the day?" asked Rei.

"Huh, feels like longer..." said David, scratching his head. "A lot longer."

"Goodness... I almost forget what I was doing back then," said Shizuka.

"Working a nine to five job as a school nurse?" teased Rika, cradling little Nia in her arms.

"School?" asked Takeshiro, using some chopsticks to eat his rice.

"Oh yes, I was working at Fujimi High when They started to show up," replied Shizuka. "That's where I met everyone here. Uhm, except Saito-kun of course."

The little boy ducked his head at being mentioned.

"We were just high school kids," added Takashi, sipping his tea, dipping his head to Rei as she served the others. "Hell, sometimes I still wonder how we made it when so many others didn't."

"I took you as... a bit older than that," said Takeshiro. "More like Misa and Alexis."

"Aren't they in high school?"

Alex shook her head. "Graduated a while back, but I couldn't quite get the grades I needed for a good university, so I was studying as a ronin."

"The same," added Misa. "Through no fault of my own. That's where we met, I was tutoring Alexis in mathematics."

Takashi took a meaningful look around. "How things have changed, eh?"

"For the better," Kohta spoke up. An arm looped around Saya, sitting at his side, and for once, the pink-haired woman did not protest the personal contact. She just leaned into him lightly.

"Mmm, I guess they could have been worse," said Saya, thanking Rei as she poured tea into her cup. She added in some herbs that Shizuka had recommended to her to settle her stomach, which was still rebelling against her. "I might've ended up in some stupid political marriage. Or worse, to some complete idiot."

"Wait... so you're not married?" asked David, a little confused. He spent a fair deal of his days with Kohta, who talked the talk better than most full-time Marines he'd known back in the day. He'd assumed, based on how his new friend was acting all the time around the pink-haired pregnant lady, that they were a married couple. Certainly there was ample physical evidence they were... intimate.

"Uhm... not... not so much," said Kohta, still holding onto his beau. "But I love Saya. She's not only beautiful, but she's intelligent, and passionate about everything she does. And she's never afraid to call me a baka when she thinks I could be doing better. She's... she's my angel."

"Awwww," said Alex, holding onto Misa, both girls smiling.

"That's the sweetest thing you've ever said," Saya cooed, her lips curling up into a smile. Then faded moments later. "... and I'm not quite certain if that's endearing or sad."

"I'm... hoping endearing," he replied tentatively.

"... hope is a good thing to have," she said, in such a tone that it was impossible to tell if she serious or not. "Baka," she added a moment later. In an oddly affectionate tone.

"I suppose staying alive takes precedence over such things," Takeshiro remarked. "Especially when you're so young. But I've no right to judge I married young as well. To an older woman, no less. But we had many happy years together, and I wouldn't trade it for anything."

"Technically, none of us are married," said Saeko, glancing sidelong at Takashi.

"Oooh, I get it now," said Alex mischievously, her face twisting into something cat-like and mischievous. "So that's why you agreed to shelter us. You were hoping Father Takeshiro here could perform a ceremony."

Even the elder Sato had to laugh at that, nearly spilling his tea, and Komachi was doing much the same. Everyone quickly joined in at the expense of Takashi and his two wives.

"Ah, no, no of course not! I mean that'd be just silly."

"Completely silly."

"Very silly."

"Not that we'd object to getting married."

"No of course not."

"Do it in a heartbeat."

"If not faster!"

All three of them looked at one another, and blinked.


Struck with a sudden impulse and not content to let himself think it through, Takashi took Rei's hand in his, and then Saeko's in his other.

"Father, we would like you to marry us," he said, making sure the older man could see he held onto both Rei and Saeko when he said this. "These two have been my salvation through... impossibly dark times. I don't know what I'd do without them. Please."

Takeshiro Sato may have been advanced in years but his mind was still quick, it did not take a genius to see what had been going on here. Nor was he so old-fashioned and stubborn to deny genuine affection when he saw it. When Alex and Misa had become a couple, to their own surprise as well as the majority of the groups, he'd given his blessing in lieu of their own parents, wanting them simply to be happy. If it had been simply sexual proclivity, he might've been more reluctant, but it did not take a genius to see the two cared for each other. Just as much as the two women here obviously loved their leader.

They had enough problems in the world that they did not need them added to by either his judgment or that of his patron deity. In the short time he'd come to know the others, he'd seen they had great strength, but also a strong sense of humanity. Something truly treasured in such an age as these.

How could he possibly say no to that?

"I'd be honored," he said at last, smiling kindly.

The night before the world ended, I stayed up late, he mused. Tonight, exactly one year later, I'm doing the same thing all over again.

It seemed almost fitting, a year later, he sat in the shade of a sakura tree in the renovated garden, watching the petals fall from the sky as the full moon shone down over him. Most of the castle was asleep now, including the newcomers, but Takashi felt restless. He wasn't entirely sure why, but in truth, he didn't really care.

They were still here. Still surviving. Still alive.

As he'd finished a round of the castle to check on everybody, his footsteps had guided him back to the garden, and eased him into a comfortable seat on the hillside. The moon was full and bright tonight, making the whole area shine like the middle of the day, albeit a soft bluish hue instead of a warm red. The sakura blossoms were breathtaking, floating through the gentle breeze like a thousand dancing birds. It was beautiful.

He did not need to turn his head to sense Rei sitting down beside him, easing into the position slowly. Saeko joined them a moment later, resting her hand lightly on his shoulder. As if he needed a reminder she was beside him. Her other hand came to rest on Rei's shoulder, providing her welcome support.

Both of his fiancées with him now. Soon to be his wives. The wedding had been delayed for a while, they wanted to get some things on another raid beforehand, not the least of which new dresses. They loved him and he loved them, that had been obvious for ages now, but somehow it felt... more real somehow.

The world had ended in thirty-one days after the Outbreak. Or Z-Day, as some called it. Militaries had crumbled, governments had disbanded, civilizations had collapsed. But from the ashes of the old world, a new one was rising. In tiny communities scattered across the entire Earth, but more importantly to him, in just this one little castle at the base of Mount Fukui. And whatever new kingdoms were rising and falling out there, Takashi and the others intended to do right by the world this time here. Humanity had been given the very rare chance to start over.

They weren't going to screw it up this time.

Authors Notes:
Obviously, the chickens names are from the Hellsing series, which I figured Kohta Hirano would be a fan of.

Nia's name means 'radiance' in Gaelic, and seemed appropriate for a child of the new age. Most common names following a Zombie Apocalypse would probably be named Hope, Faith, or Charity.

It was pointed out to me that Shizuka technically might not be able to provide milk since she wasn't the actual mother of Nia, but I double-checked my on-line research, it is possible for women to lactate based on physical and psychological stimulation, by drugs, or by a combination of those methods. So if for some reason you don't believe it would occur naturally, assume Shizuka was taking pills for it.

Naturally, the family name of the two survivors, Sato, is in loving tribute to Daisuke and Shoji Sato, the creators of Highschool of the Dead manga. I welcome and even encourage the use of my own Original Characters in other people's stories, though I'd like to be made aware of such if you're interested. On that note, credit where credit is due, some of the OCs here are not mine.

Alex and Misa are the property of MarshalZhukov and her 'Simple Kind of Dead' stories, while Mr. Tanaka comes from 'Living with the Dead' by Draco38. All three have been heavily modified to fit into alternate continuity of my story, with permission from their creators.

I definitely think I'm done this time, I've done as much as I can with the characters with what I have to work with. And with the manga and anime seemingly at a standstill (still!) I have to remember the good times and move on.

Special thanks again to James, my beta and sounding board, as well as to Tim and Shannon, my fellow Horsemen of the Dead. They've done a great deal to help shape my work, and aren't too bad themselves with their own stories.