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And In The Darkness, I Found You

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Being reminded of how powerless he really is at the mercy of the CCG’s higher-ups is frustrating as hell.

But Hide can’t do a thing about it, and that only makes his exasperation worse.

The moment Director Washuu mentioned Haise’s name in the list of front line fighters, Hide’s brain shut out everything else. No. No, no, no. He can’t. He can’t do this, he can’t position Haise at the place where the risk is the highest. Haise might be strong, might be an SS-rated half-ghoul – but he’s still Haise and he might lose control and Hide might just have to-

Of course, Hide’s protests fell onto deaf ears, and mentioning anything more than the risk of Haise going berserk with his kagune will only further emphasize how personally he’s taking this. When the Director calmly reminded him that that’s exactly the reason why he, Hide, is there, Hide knew he’d lost. There’s nothing he’s able to do to convince them to reconsider. This isn’t even about Haise’s memories anymore – Hide’s certain nobody else has found out about it yet. They’re simply ready to sacrifice his best friend if that’s what it takes to finally eradicate the Clowns.

Haise took the news way better than Hide ever did, and the only thing good it does is that it justifies Hide’s crushing hopelessness because he’s feeling it for two. Then again, Kaneki has put himself in numerous life-threatening situations before – both as a half-ghoul and an investigator – so he probably has more confidence in his own abilities. Still, Hide has to admit he’d feel more at ease if he were to at least show at little more concern towards his own coming predicament. Hide’s probably thinking too much into it himself, but it now seems as if Haise’s resigned to let whatever happen, happen.

Though it’s not like he has much of a choice, really.

Ah, but maybe he’s just trying to keep calm for squad’s sake, too. The kids should be nervous about this as well; even they are aware of the level of danger this operation poses. If both their superiors start freaking out because of it, they’ll no doubt be affected also, and being overly shaken by the risks they have to face will only muddle their thoughts with fear and endanger them even more in the battlefield.

Which is why Hide can’t keep on going like this.

He eases out of his reverie, focusing back to the discussion happening around him. He lets his gaze settle on the faces of his teammates gathered around him one by one, taking in their individual expressions. Shirazu’s shifting uncomfortably in his seat, clearly not spared from the anxiety Hide’s sure that’s haunting everyone involved in the extermination. Mutsuki’s looks as pale as he did when he was informed about his role as decoy during the Auction, and Saiko seems positively nauseous. Only Urie doesn’t look particularly affected, and that too, bothers Hide because he knows just how overconfident and reckless the kid can get when it comes to racking up achievements. Of all four of the Quinx, Urie’s still the most likely to get himself in inauspicious situations, and in all honesty, Hide would like to avoid as much of those as possible.

“..already told you guys this before,” Haise’s in the middle of saying; his elbows rested on his knees, his hands clasped loosely together, “but if you happen to face an opponent you know you can’t defeat, retreat and regroup. Remember that you’re not fighting alone. Work together with the other squads when you have to.”

“And if things get really bad,” Hide finds himself adding when Haise stops for a breath, “don’t follow impossible orders and get yourselves killed. Think of your own lives first. It’s better to be called a coward than to be called a hero and not be there to live the name.” He pauses, smiling a halfhearted smile. “Don’t forget that Kaneki and I won’t be there to back you guys up this time. I’ll try my best to do what I can and keep all of you alive from command, but..” He trails off, unable to find a way to voice the rest of it.

“Hide won’t be able to watch over us constantly,” Haise takes over for him before the silence could grow too suffocating. “That’s why – Shirazu-kun?”

The  younger boy perks up at the mention of his name. “Yeah?”

“It’ll be up to you to make decisions when the time comes.” Haise holds his gaze. “I’m counting on you, Squad Leader.”

“I..” For a moment, Shirazu looks completely lost, his uncertainty showing across his features. Then his expression gradually hardens with resolve, and he nods firmly. “I’ll try my best.”

“Maman,” Saiko speaks up before Haise’s able to continue, not at all bothered to conceal her dismay. “Are you really going to be fighting at the front lines?”

“I am,” Haise answers, still sounding miles calmer than how Hide feels. “But I’ll be alright. I’ll be fighting alongside other strong investigators who have even more experience than me, and honestly,” he shrugs slightly, “I can only hope I won’t drag them down.”

He tries for an awkward laugh, but sadly, no one joins him. Even Hide can’t seem to summon any positivity at the moment, no matter how hard he tries. He knows he should do something – crack a lame joke, laugh, assure them they’ll live through this because they’re strong as hell, anything – just to lighten up the mood like he always does. Just to show that he’s handling this well enough.

But he can’t.

“Yeah, well, anyway,” Haise clears his throat, clapping his hands once in conclusion, “I guess that’s all for tonight. You guys should get some sleep while you still can. Believe me, we’ll be having a stressful week ahead.”

He doesn’t budge from his seat even after wishing everyone good night. Hide notices the way his upbeat facade gradually fades into a troubled look the moment the kids are out of sight, and slowly, he stands up and settles down next to him. Not saying a word, not touching him. And they stay like that for what felt like an hour until Haise finally breaks into a sigh, followed by an empty laugh.

“What should I do, Hide,” he breathes, reaching to tug at the ends of his hair on his nape. “I’m starting to feel nervous.”

“Frankly, I’d be even more worried if you’re not,” Hide admits with a mirthless chuckle of his own. “It’s okay to be scared, Kaneki. It’s only normal.”

“I know,” Haise sighs again, keeping his gaze trained on the floor, “I know, but..”

“You don’t want to be scared because you feel that you shouldn’t be,” Hide finishes for him, shrugging when Haise shoots him an inquisitive look. “I understand – I feel that way too. I don’t want to be scared because it makes nothing better yet I can’t help it and gosh it’s just so annoying.“

“It really is, isn’t it?” Haise agrees, letting out a small laugh before looking away once more and falling silent for a moment. When he speaks again, his voice is soft, serious. “Look, Hide, I just want you to know that even if something happens to any of us and there’s nothing you could’ve done, you don’t have to-“

“Blame myself? I probably still will,” Hide says, carefully pretending not to see the weak glare he promptly receives. “Though I guess the only way to prevent that is to make sure none of that happens, huh?”

Hide,” Haise says, firmer this time. And Hide finally meets his eyes. “Remember what you told me last time? That there are just some things beyond our control and that they just happen sometimes?”

“Still.” Hide exhales, moving to trace the back of his fingers across the outline of Haise’s face very gently. “I just don’t want what happened in the past to repeat itself. I don’t want to feel that helpless ever again, Kaneki. To only be able to sit there and watch while you risk your life fighting – just once is more than enough.”

“You won’t be doing us any favors if you blindly rush out into the warzone the moment we’re in danger, either,” Haise reasons, guiding Hide’s hand so his palm is pressed snug against his cheek. He pauses a split second to relish the warmth against his skin, then he continues; “It’s the same for me, Hide. If you die, I-“ his voice wavers, breaking with every subsequent word he says, “-I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“Hey, you’re forgetting about my body’s upgraded durability,” Hide tells him with a small chuckle, working to breathe past the sudden, painful sting in his chest. “I won’t leave you alone, Kaneki. I swear I won’t.” With effort, he tries for a smile. “Promise me you’ll do the same?”

“With all my power,” Haise replies, and impossibly, Hide feels his smile widening.

“That’s great to hear,” he says, slipping his hand from Haise’s grasp before moving to stand up. That’s right. They’ll live through this somehow. This isn’t the first life-or-death situation they’ve been thrown into. They can’t be separated now, not after everything. Hide refuses to accept that fate, and he’s sure Haise feels the same. They’ll all make it out of this. “Now let’s go catch some sleep ourselves. It’ll be another long meeting tomorrow.”

But even as Hide settles down for the night lying as close to his companion as he would allow, he can’t shake the feeling that something will go terribly wrong.

xXx

Truth to be told, Haise’s worries are based on absolutely selfish reasons.

Even more than being hurt, even more than dying, Haise’s afraid of being left alone. If, by some twisted chance that he loses both Hide and the kids in the upcoming battle – no, he can’t even imagine how it’ll feel like. He doesn’t want to. Envisioning something like that will only make things more difficult than they already are. Haise can’t afford to think of the worst case scenarios now of all times.

He catches himself just before he cracks his finger as he tries to focus on whatever’s being discussed in the conference he’s attending. There are a total of thirteen S~ rated ghouls confirmed to be among the Clowns, the others adding up to almost thirty members. The number is relatively small compared to huge organizations like Aogiri, but Haise doesn’t feel a bit assured. These data are only what the CCG has managed to discover. There might be more of them, all strong – the remaining seventeen of the thirty are mostly A-bordering-S rates. Even with the number of fighters the CCG is planning to send, Haise knows they can’t let their guard down.

CCG’s forces are to be divided into eight factions; with four in charge of fighting aboveground while the other four deal with all matters under. They need underground factions because there will be ghouls there as well, either awaiting them for an ambush or attempting to escape from the battle above. In fact, there’s a chance that there might even be more of them lurking underground compared to the openness above, since they do possess enhanced senses that will grant them an advantage down there. Director Washuu is clearly determined to make sure not even one Clown makes out of this war alive.

Haise scans through the list of names passed to him, noting how half the members of the underground factions are mainly former or current members of Squad Zero who have more experience working in this particular environment. There’s Special Class Ui’s squad, First Class Hirako’s,  First Class Fura’s and Associate Special Class Kijima’s. Arima himself, meanwhile, is assigned to fight at the heart of the battle aboveground.

Then as he reads further on, Haise’s focus lands on his own name, and his breath promptly catches in his throat.

There will be a change of plans to his placement, it seems – he’ll be part of the underground factions, under Special Class Ui’s charge.

Haise has got unpleasant experiences underground, to say the least, and being stationed there puts him in more unease than he wants to admit. At least the Quinx will be fighting aboveground where there’s more space to move around; they’ll be joining Special Class Houji’s division, it seems. That’s good. They’ll have a skilled leader to guide them if anything goes wrong. Haise also discovers that Akira will be working with Juuzou – which, is quite an unusual collaboration. The two of them had worked together on an investigation only once before when Haise was still under the Mado Squad, and contrary to his earlier expectations, that turned out better than expected. Akira even came to acknowledge Juuzou’s capabilities as a leader despite openly doubting him at the beginning. Their personalities might clash like anything, but Haise’s sure they’ll be able to get along fine when it comes to battling ghouls; just like how they did before.

Haise’s gaze flickers to the top of the page, going over a particular cluster of names. Director Washuu will be leading the entire operation, assisted by Special Class Marude – the usual combo. Haise searches for Hide’s name, and he shortly sees that the blond will be in charge of supervising the aboveground factions. Haise figures it must be extremely exasperating for Hide; he won’t be able to keep an eye on him even if he wants to. Though knowing him, he’d still insist on finding a way to do so anyway because he’s just that stubborn. Haise guesses he can’t judge him for that - he’d probably be the same if he was also put in a situation similar to his.

The basics of the plan are simple: cover every possible direction and make sure none of their targets are able to get away. The rest of it runs on compromise; meaning there will be lots of spontaneous decisions and adjustments they would have to make individually. They won’t be able to afford spacing out for even a second, and that’s one of the reasons why the operation’s so dangerous. Depending on how long it could be drawn out, their mental strain would only add to their general fatigue, and this will invite errors and mistakes.

And errors will cost lives.

Haise curls his fingers into a fist on his lap, forcing himself to take a deep breath and calm down. He’s just about sick and tired of his sudden waves of anxiety towards their coming predicament. He’ll be fine. He can fight, and so can the others. They’re all strong and smart enough to survive, he’s sure. This isn’t the first major operation they’ll be taking part in, and it definitely won’t be the last. They’ll live. They won’t die.

It takes a moment for Haise to actually realize that the reason why he’s suddenly so nervous is also partly due to the atmosphere around him. Hide and him aren’t the only ones doubting their chances of survival, Haise realizes that just from one look at his colleagues around him. Everyone else has people and things they can’t leave behind too, but their circumstances aren’t exactly giving them much of a choice. It’s kill or be killed – nothing complicated. The weak fall and the strong survive. It’s always been like that. Which, is perhaps why there’s a sort of determination mixed in with the cloud of tension in the air as well.

And this, for some reason Haise can’t explain, gives him the slightest boost of courage. He’s not alone – he can’t keep forgetting that. They’re not fighting alone.

With that in mind, Haise manages to sit through the rest of the meeting biting back the minimal number of urges to randomly start screaming. He still fails to stop the sigh from escaping his lips when Director Washuu finally concluded the thing for the day, though; moving to align his documents before standing up. As he pushes his chair back under the table, Haise steals a glance towards the desks at the front, his gaze finding the familiar mop of blond hair. He’s just wondering if he should wait for Hide when he remembers that he’s no longer in their squad and that his schedule is mostly – if not entirely – different from theirs now. Even after all this while, it still feels kind of strange. Haise’s just so used to doing things together with him, and now that he can’t, his brain needs time to readjust. Right. He doesn’t have to wait for him now.

So he leaves, trying to ignore the unnecessary awkwardness as he makes his way back to his office to inform the Quinx about the latest details on their operation. His phone vibrates in his pocket just as he’s about to open the door to the room, and he stops, shifting to hold his papers in one arm as he reaches for the device with his free hand. He raises his eyebrows when he sees that it’s a message from Hide; he wasn’t expecting him to be able to use his phone at all with all the things he’s caught up with. Still, Haise could tell he was probably in a hurry – his message was short and lacked the usual emojis that came with them. Apparently Hide’s going to be home a little late, but he’s expecting to make it back before dinner so he’s asking for them to wait for him.

Haise replies with a simple “okay, take care” before slipping his phone back into his pocket, a small smile tugging at his lips when he’s suddenly reminded of the times in the past when Hide used to whine about his annoyingly brief replies to his texts. Despite having changed in so many ways, that one part of Hide remained the same, now that Haise thinks of it. Hide’s still has that childish, playful side to him at times, and Haise’s eternally grateful for that. He knows just how difficult it is to preserve a sense of humor in their line of work where every day, every case is a matter of life and death, a question to their morality.

Only then, the pressure of carrying the burden of so many lives in his hands might just be too much for even Hide to bear. Hide might just have to finally let that part of him go after this operation.

And even though he knows full well that it can’t be helped, Haise catches himself desperately hoping for that not to happen.

xXx

Hide sighs to himself as he walks on, absently listening to the shuffle of his shoes against the pavement.

The main reason why he's going home late isn't because he has work to do, contrary to what Haise believes and to what he wants him to believe. Hide needs the time alone to sort out his jumbled thoughts, and being in the chateau with Haise there as the living reminder of the worst that might happen just doesn't exactly help. So he ends up wandering around all over the place without any set destination, seeking solace from the mundane sounds around him to help take his mind off the things that refuse to cease haunting him, even if it’s only by a little.

Haise will be fighting underground. It's too similar. Everything's too similar to that time. Hide doesn’t like it at all. He knows he's being paranoid, but he can't help fearing history repeating itself. He doesn’t want to go through that again, doesn't want to find his best friend hurt and half-crazed in the dark of the sewers ever again. There are only so many heartbreaks he can bear, after all. He's already expecting so many to die because of him. He knows he won't be able to handle anything more than that.

Hide comes to an abrupt stop in his tracks, realization on where he'd taken himself dawning him. He's been there with Haise and the squad enough times to recognize the place even a street away. Just a little further, and Hide would be finding himself in front of :RE.

He spends a moment to reconsider. Haise has told him about his visit to the café the other day, and he’s apparently told the guys there about his identity and intentions. Even though Hide personally thought it was quite a risky move, he hadn’t said a thing about it. They are Haise’s friends, and if he trusts them enough to let them know, then Hide should have no complaints. At any rate, Hide’s not quite sure if he should go there at the moment; Touka’s already seen through his act once before. What if she takes one look at his face and knows something’s going on again? He can’t just stroll in there and casually tell her ‘oh, by the way, I know Kaneki just came back and all but we’re about to wage war against a bunch of strong ghouls and he’ll be one of the main fighters underground’ and not expect her to worry about it. Worse comes to worse, she might even want to arrange something just in case Kaneki really does end up in a tight situation. Hide doesn’t want that. Kaneki would never forgive him if he’s the reason outsiders are dragged into a battle they shouldn’t be involved in.

On the other hand, Hide's already come this far and some great coffee doesn't sound like a bad idea at all. He could use some caffeine to help him wade his way out of his dump and hey – it’s not like he’s a stranger to keeping secrets now. He’ll just reply her questions with his usual nonsense if it comes to that. Yeah. That’s settled.

Hide bites back a groan when he enters the place and discovers that business was slow that day. That’s one bit of bad luck already. Hide shifts his weight from foot to foot as he waits to be seated, working not to look too discomforted by the lack of people around him. He’s staring at the floor when a pair of feet enters his field of vision, wearing sneakers too large to be a girl’s. Ah. Hide’s gaze flickers up, and he’s greeted by a very unimpressed Nishiki.

“Huh. You’re alone today, Shittychika?” he asks, and Hide can’t help but snort at his painful lack of hospitality.

“How do you guys even get customers with that mouth of yours, Nishio-senpai?” he inquires, chuckling when he earns himself an irritated tsk in response before he’s led to an empty table. His crooked grin remains plastered on his face even when Nishiki practically glares at him while waiting for him to make his order. He still remembers how indifferently the older boy had reacted the first time they saw each other in the place, and truth to be told, Hide was a little miffed at how little he bothered. Then again, he guesses he can’t exactly blame him. It’s not Nishiki’s nature to openly show concern towards most people most of the time anyway.

“So? What do you want?” the older boy demands after waiting for around five seconds. Hide proceeds to shoot him a look.

“I’m complaining to your boss if you keep that up, senpai,” he says with the straightest face he can manage.

“Yeah, and if you keep that up I’m kicking your sorry butt out of this place,” Nishiki returns flatly, reaching to adjust his glasses. “Now make up your mind before I’m forced to waste all my daily patience on you alone, Christ.”

“Ehh, I guess I’ll just have one of your special black coffee, then.” Hide returns Nishiki’s glower with a bright grin. He only lets it fade after the latter turns around and leaves, leaning forward to rest his arms on the table before balancing his chin on one hand. He watches the people around him with idle interest, his ears focusing randomly on hushed conversations, the clinking of glass, the faint hum of the radiators. He feels a sigh leaving his lips as his eyelids flutter close. It’s a little surprising; the amount of comfort he’s able to find from these little things alone.

“Um, Nagachika-san?”

Hide opens his eyes, once again pulling on a smile the moment his gaze meets his companion’s. “Oh, hey, Touka-chan.”

“It’s rare to see you here by yourself,” Touka points out, placing a cup of steaming beverage before him with practiced fluidity. “Are the others busy with something?”

“Yeahh, well,” Hide sits back and reaches to scratch the back of his head, “I kinda got reassigned to another squad the other day, and our schedules don’t exactly overlap most of the time now so..”

“I see.” Touka raises her eyebrows slightly. “No wonder you seem extra tired today.”

Hide blanches. “Is it that obvious?”

“You’re usually barely able to sit still,” Touka says with a one-shouldered shrug. Hide’s only able to let out a sheepish laugh in response.

“I.. just have a bunch of stuff to think about these days,” he admits, then inwardly kicking himself because what the heck is he doing? He’s not supposed to be indicating any of his troubles to her! He can’t let her even remotely know about the dangers he and Haise would be put through in less than a week. He can’t let her worry.

“Does it have something to do with Kaneki again?” This time, it’s Touka’s turn to deadpan. Hide stares at her with what he’s pretty sure is a weird look even in his standards.

“Do you seriously assume that all my problems are mainly related to him?” he demands with more irony in his voice than he’s happy to admit. Touka returns his gaze with a face possibly even straighter than the one he’d pulled off just now.

“Well, aren’t they?” she asks, cocking her head slightly to the side. And on second thought, Hide supposes she has a point. His concerns do mainly revolve around Kaneki some way or another most of the time. He can't deny that even now.

"Guilty.” Hide lets out another sheepish chuckle. “Ah, but there’s more to it this time – though I’m sure you have better things to do than to listen to my laments, don’t you, Touka-chan?”

He holds the girl’s gaze as he waits for her response, silently willing and willing her not to ask further because he doesn’t want to say anything more than this. He can’t. There are risks he simply can’t and shouldn’t take.

It’s only when Touka heaves a huge, labored sigh that he realizes he’s been holding his breath.

“The two of you are so similar in some ways that it’s almost scary,” she mutters, so softly that it’s just enough for Hide to barely catch her words properly. She then adds in a louder voice; “Whatever it is, just do me a favor and remember one thing before you do anything stupid, will you?”

Hide raises his eyebrows, belatedly noticing the seriousness in her tone. “Sure.”

“Kaneki’s strong,” Touka tells him, her faith in him fully evident in her words. “He won’t let himself be killed so easily.”

And with that, she walks away to serve another customer, leaving Hide to stare after her dumbfounded with his mouth slightly agape. When he finally overcomes his stupor, Hide could only puff out a breath, the corner of his lips lifting into a mirthless smile as  he combs his fingers through his hair.

“I know,” he whispers to no one in particular, resisting the sudden urge to laugh bubbling up his chest, “Gosh, I know.”

He just wonders why doesn’t it make things any better.

xXx

Before they realized it, the day of the operation is upon them.

Nothing felt different the night before. They had dinner just like they always did and sat around occupied with their own devices after that. Then they eventually went to bed one by one when it was time, exchanging nothing more than the usual ‘good night’s and ‘sweet dream’s. And even when Haise was alone with Hide in his room later on, there were no more promises, no more vows to survive and come back. No words exchanged between them in general. Just their arms wrapped around each other, their scents and breaths mingling, their hearts beating as one.

Even though Haise knows Hide couldn’t have slept much as well, they stayed like that for the rest of the night.

Hide has to leave a little earlier to finalize some things with the command team that morning, so Haise isn’t too surprised when he feels him unwinding his arms around him even before his alarm clock goes off.  Haise doesn’t bother pretending to be asleep; stopping him with a soft call of his name before he can even try easing away from his embrace. He moves to cup his cheeks with both hands and holds his gaze when he looks up at him, not saying another word. Just staring at him and memorizing the features he can’t guarantee he’ll be able to see again the next morning; no matter how firmly he tries to assure himself otherwise. His soft brown eyes, slightly thick eyebrows. The slight upturn of his nose, his dry, usually humorous lips. The shape of his jaw and the tiny, faded scar on his left temple.

Without really thinking about it, Haise draws Hide closer, and brushing back his bangs, he presses a kiss on his forehead.

“Good morning, Hide,” he whispers, promptly earning himself a crooked smile from his companion.

“Mornin’, buddy,” Hide replies, and for the briefest moment, Haise’s able to convince himself that nothing’s wrong, that this is just another morning and they’re just about to get up to start another day. That it’s all fine and that he wouldn’t probably be fighting for his life in a few hours. “It’s the big day, huh?”’

“Mmhmm.” Haise sighs, then breaking into a smile of his own as he marvels at how Hide actually manages to make it sound as though they’re just about to go on a job interview or something. He releases his face and squirms towards him, snuggling against the comforting warmth Hide’s body always readily offers. Hide chuckles lightly the moment he realizes what he’s doing, snaking one arm under him and the other around his waist before bringing them even closer, entangling their legs into a mess.

“Just two more minutes, yeah?” he says, his voice laced with a sudden tinge of sobriety. Haise nods in silence, letting his head rest comfortably against the crook of Hide’s neck. Hide’s heartbeat is erratic, and there’s a slight tremor in his arms. Haise holds him just a tad bit tighter, subconsciously hoping to stop his shaking that way. It’s okay, they’re okay, the words are left unsaid. They’re going to be okay.

They have to be okay.

Hide’s sharp inhale is all that’s needed for Haise know that it’s time for him to go. Fighting back his reluctance, he unwinds his arms around his companion and shifts away, watching as he slowly pushes himself upright into a sitting position. Haise can’t help wondering once again, how much would Hide change after this. Would he be an entirely different person? Or would he simply lose a part of him that makes up who he is now? Haise doesn’t want to know. Hell, it shouldn’t even matter. Hide has accepted all the changes he had gone through, and there’s no reason why Haise can’t do the same for him. It doesn’t matter what state he’ll return in later as long as he does – Hide will still be Hide, will still be his most precious person.

“Kaneki?”

At the sound of Hide’s voice, Haise snaps out of his reverie. When he focuses his gaze on his companion once more, the first thing Haise notices is the tiny smile that doesn’t quite reach Hide’s eyes, the slight knit of his eyebrows betraying his anxiety.

“Hey, I know you’ve just woken up but,” Hide pauses, scratching his cheek sheepishly, “you think you can make me some breakfast before I go?”

Hide really wants to enter the numb stage already.

He can’t keep low-key freaking out like this. It messes with his thoughts and his performance will end up suffering. He can’t afford to screw up, not this time. People are already going to die; he has to do everything he can to make sure to keep that number as low as possible. He can’t let his own jumpy nerves be the downfall of possibly hundreds of people.

Hide takes a deep breath, holds it, and exhales it bit by bit, trying to force his heart back to its normal pace. He then looks up, letting his gaze dart from the panel of controls before him to the screens displaying the battlefield from a number of angles. The streets are empty – almost eerily so. The evacuation notice has been issued two days ago, and fortunately, they had the complete cooperation of every citizen in the area. It’s the first time Hide has ever seen a part of the city so deserted in the middle of the day, and unsettling as it should be, it’s also a relief. At least they’ll have one less thing to worry about like this.  

“Nagachika.”

Hide turns on his chair at the sound of the voice, his gaze meeting that of his superior’s. Special Class Marude stalks into the vehicle, mindful towards the low ceiling above (though it’s not like his head will reach it even if he stands straight – shhh). His expression is sour as always, and if Hide didn’t know that better he’d think he’s about to get an earful about something. Then again, no one said he wouldn’t, either, so..

“Anything I can help you with, Marude-san?” he greets, putting as much enthusiasm as he can into his voice. He supposes he shouldn’t let it seem so obvious that he’s anxious about the entire thing. Marude stares back at him, the look on his face unchanging.

You’re the one who would be needing help,” he tells him after a short pause, moving to take a seat on the empty chair next to him. He doesn’t show any significant reaction even when Hide makes no  attempt to deny him. “Look, Nagachika, I’m sure you’re doubting yourself about all this-“

“What gave it away?” Hide cuts in with a shaky, embarrassed laugh, rubbing the back of his neck. The older man stops just long enough to shoot him a look before going on.

“-but Yoshitoki-san trusts your abilities enough to assign you with a task as important as this,” he continues, “and for what it’s worth, so do I.”

“Aww, I didn’t think you’d be such a nice guy, Marude-san,” Hide jokes, though he’s honestly touched by how much Marude seems to care for him; to the extent of personally coming over to give him some pep talk. He’d always suspected him having a soft spot for him, but he’s never been straightforward about it so it was always difficult to tell.

“My point is,” Marude stresses every word, his tone taking a weary turn as he runs his hand across his face, “just don’t be stupid.”

“You know what, I take back the thing I said about you being a nice guy.” Hide pouts, feeling thoroughly amused by the eye-roll he promptly receives. Even so, he’s quick to turn serious again, leaning back against his chair before offering his companion a grateful smile. “Thanks, Marude-san.”

He tries to decipher the look Marude gives him following that, but the latter stands up to leave before he’s able to, giving him a firm pat on the shoulder as he moves away. It’s only after he’s disappeared outside that Hide thinks he gets it; what that expression and gesture meant. He rakes his fingers through his hair, a weary sigh escaping his lips. He must really have looked freaked out of his wits, huh? He inhales sharply and slaps his palms against his cheeks a couple of times, steeling himself. That can’t do. He has to do his part right.

And as he slips on his headset, he can only hope that his confidence and focus will last.

xXx

It takes a while for Haise to get used to the stench of the sewers.

It’s tricky, trying not to let those memories seize his thoughts and throw his mind into disarray. It had been somewhere down here, far away in another location. The wound on his side that refused to heal, the imaginary voices that taunted his mind; voices that threatened to consume him and take over and turn him into a mindless, starving monster. Hide appearing out of the gloom, greeting him as if nothing’s changed, smiling as if nothing’s wrong when every single thing was. The taste of Hide’s flesh in his mouth, his promise, his battle with Arima.  All of those had happened down here in the 24th Ward.

Haise grips the hilt of his Quinque a little tighter, directing his attention back to the situation at hand. He’s careful to keep his footsteps light as he moves through the network of tunnels with his team, wary of alerting enemies within their proximity of their presence. He strains to listen for any unusual sounds past the constant trickle of water and the thundering beat of his heart, his skin practically tingling with his heightened senses towards the first signs of danger. Where would they come from? Who would they try to take down first?

Are the kids alright? Has the battle started aboveground?

Have the deaths started?

Haise reels his thoughts back into order just in time to register the sudden spike of unease in the air. The squad has stopped moving at Special Class Ui’s command, every member glancing around guardedly. Haise squints into the darkness surrounding them, the meager lighting provided by the flashlights fastened to his earpiece doing little to illuminate anything further than a couple of feet away. That’s another thing about being assigned to the underground factions: they’ll be fighting in minimum visibility. Not even Haise has any enhanced senses that would help him in a fight. They’ll all have to rely solely on experience and instincts against a group of ghouls, and the odds don’t seem to be in their favor already.

Haise shifts his weight, feeling a single droplet of sweat roll down the side of his face. The tension is so thick in the air that he catches himself holding his breath in anticipation. Two minutes pass, five. Nothing happens, and that doesn’t make him feel a bit better. Haise’s reluctant to let his guard down even when Ui deems the situation safe to proceed, and he’s sure it’s the same for everyone else. There was definitely something that triggered their caution – or, more accurately, someone. Someone lurking in the dark, probably enjoying toying with them this very moment.

Haise bites back the urge to yell at them for being an ass and for them to just come out and fight already because they’re not making things any easier for them like this. He casts his gaze around one last time before letting himself relax by a fraction of a degree and resuming his way deeper into the sewers along with his squad despite being still painfully aware of the disquietedness hanging around them like a fog. He braces himself for something to jump out at them any second now-

Haise has taken about ten steps when he feels a rush of wind towards his face, his body reacting faster than his brain ever could. He raises his Quinque just as something slams into him, carrying so much force and momentum that Haise nearly loses his footing as he’s shoved backwards. Noises immediately fill the air; the thud of bodies against concrete, the splash of water, alarmed exclamations, hurried reports to command center about engaging in battle, hisses of pain and strained assurances that they’re alright. Haise’s light shines upon a blood-red appendage stretching out from the darkness beyond, but before his mind could process anything other than the thoughts of it’s begun, it’s begun, it’s begun, the weight pressing against him retracts as abruptly as it’d come.

And what followed are echoes of laughter around them.