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And In The Darkness, I Found You

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Haise lost all sense of time ever since the moment he descended underground.

He has no idea how long he’d been defending himself against his unseen enemy. Ui had eventually entrusted the task of handling this ghoul to him and another squad member while the rest of them move on, and as difficult as it will be for him, Haise can’t deny that that’s for the best. Their location is too enclosed to have an entire squad fighting against a single ghoul. However, the limited visibility still proves to be a huge disadvantage for them; Haise’s partner – another First Class Investigator he’d never met until that day – blundered some time into the fight because of it, and he was swiftly killed.

Haise’s now fighting alone, feeling so isolated that it’s almost overwhelming. The darkness seems to press down on him; stealing his breath, making his heart race. Making this fight a whole lot frightening than it already is.

And then there’s the laughter. The reverberating, near hysterical laughter. How many of them were actually there? How many more of them are there? Haise can’t even decide on an estimation.

Haise feels the ground under his feet shake, and he jumps back just in time to avoid being skewered by the appendage that erupts from where he stood. He’s a split-second away from landing when he feels someone grabbing a fistful of his shirt from behind, and before he even has the chance to register his surprise, he’s hauled into the murky water in a single rough yank.

The water should only be barely reaching up to his knees when he’s standing, but for a full thirty seconds, Haise’s completely seized by panic, the chill immediately seeping right through his clothes and into his very core. His heartbeat goes into a frenzy, and breathing is almost impossible even though his face isn’t submerged. He desperately tries to force himself to calm down as he casts his gaze around, successfully finding the slightest assurance in the fact that his light is still working and that he can still see to an extent. His brief moment of comfort, however, is short lived because he soon spots a figure hurling itself towards him from the corner of his eye. Too fast. There’s no time for him to look for his Quinque, and even if there is, something in Haise’s mind tells him that his position is too disadvantageous for him to defend himself properly.

He didn’t think twice. He focused, and with a familiar prick on his skin, his kagune bursts out of his lower back and intersects his opponent three feet before they clashed. With a grunt, he shoves them back against the wall hard enough to crack the concrete, keeping them pinned down. He finds his Yukimura on the ground by his feet and picks it up before struggling to stand, his soaked clothes weighing him down. He has to get out of the water, fast. Not only is it difficult to keep his balance, the freezing temperature is affecting his movements. Haise’s fingers and toes are already feeling numb and he can barely control his shivering. This is bad. He has to finish this fight fast and recover. There could be more of them ahead an-

Distracted, Haise nearly doesn’t notice the kagune aiming straight for his face until it’s too late. He moves to block with his Quinque, but he’d still reacted a second late. He’s pushed off balance one more, and his opponent takes advantage of his wavered focus to break away from his hold. Haise feels a hand gripping the side of his head firmly, and with the momentum of the ghoul’s leap towards him, he’s shoved into the water once more – only this time, he’s not allowed to resurface.

Haise trashes, the deprivation of oxygen making his head and chest hurt, his ears ringing uncontrollably. One part of his brain that wasn’t paralyzed with panic manages to command his kagune to move, aiming to pierce his enemy through by coming at them from two sides at once. He knows he’d missed when he feels the weight on his back disappear, but he couldn’t care less about that right then. He straightens, taking a large gasp of air just before he has to block yet another attack, though this time, he’d anticipated it. He has his first clear look of his opponent when he retaliates a second after, and the disturbing clown mask with a grin too wide that stares back at him nearly causes him to falter. He manages to strike the ghoul’s leg nonetheless, but rather than a cry of pain, all he receives is an amused whistle.

“Ehh, you’re not that bad after all,” the ghoul comments, deliberately avoiding Haise’s slashes by barely an inch as if completely unaffected by his injury. Haise hadn’t been sure at the start, but his enemy is apparently a guy, judging from his voice. “I thought you’d be stronger, to be kept as the CCG’s precious pet.”

He bounds back with a laugh when Haise kicks out, putting distance between them once more. Haise shifts his feet, feeling that he should be able to do better than this too – if it isn’t for the fact that he’s barely able to control his shivering. The ghoul’s merely toying with him –he knows that – and if he wants to take him down, now’s his chance. He has to finish this fight before it drags on and drains his energy. He takes a sharp breath, and pours more focus into his subsequent attacks, each strike carrying the very intention to kill.

As he fights, Haise visualizes the previous battles he’d been through at the back of his mind. How had he handled bikakus in the past? They generally have no exceptional strengths or weaknesses, but he knows they have weak spots like everyone else. It’s near impossible for him to look for a personal vulnerability with his limited time and ability to see, so he tries looking for a trend in those he’d faced before. Maybe they all share a flaw, with the way they tend to handle their kagune and-

Haise’s train of thought abruptly cuts off when his brain registers an opening and his instincts once again took over. He forces himself to wait until the very last minute before sidestepping from the appendage coming right at him, twisting to drive his Quinque right through the flesh and into the ground. He takes advantage of his opponent’s brief moment of  bafflement to distract him with a flick of water at his eyes before making a leap towards him, aiming for his vital spots so he could end the fight there and then.

Haise’s assault doesn’t reach, being interrupted halfway by the appendage erupting from the ground and piercing him through right above his kakuhou. He gasps, blood welling up in his mouth and the pain almost enough to make him black out. Or maybe he already is starting to black out; it’s difficult to tell in this meagre lighting. Every breath he tries to breathe seems to get shallower and shallower, and the limb impaled through him is preventing his regeneration from activating.

“I never said I only had one tail, you know,” the ghoul chuckles cheerfully, moving towards Haise in a relaxed saunter. This is bad, this is bad. Haise has to free himself somehow, or else he’ll die, he’ll die, he’ll die. “So. You’re Arima Kishou’s favourite little boy.” Haise fails to suppress a cry of pain when the ghoul brings him closer for a better look, the movement aggravating his wound. “For someone so many are making so much of a fuss about, you sure don’t look very special, Sasaki Hai – ah, or should I say,” he pauses for effect, and Haise could almost see him smirking under that mask, “Kaneki Ken-san?

They know. Haise doesn’t know how they would know, but they know who he used to be. Though truthfully, he has to admit the revelation doesn’t unsettle him as much as he would expect. Maybe his ability of think is muddled by pain and blood loss, Haise isn’t quite sure. His opponent seems to be disappointed with his lack of reaction as well, placing his hand on his hips and tilting his head while humming in question.

“Oh? You’re not going to start losing it?” Unfortunately, he’s only dispirited for a moment. “That’s too bad then. I thought I’d actually have the honours to break you a second time, but I guess that’s not happening.” He shrugs. He’s then hit by an idea, making a loud sound of revelation and snapping his fingers. “Though, I do wonder – how would the famous Reaper react to the death of his treasured kid?”

The question sounds so out of it that Haise actually finds the strength to laugh, successfully earning himself another confused stare from the ghoul. Oddly, he feels his mind clearing slightly in the process, and he starts forcing himself to think. That’s it. That’s his opening.

“Who knows? Maybe he’ll actually cry for a week,” Haise manages to choke out, twisting his lips into a smile of irony as he works to summon the strength he needs. At his answer, the Clown snorts without humour.

“Haha, very fu-“

He doesn’t have the chance to finish his sentence; Haise uses the single kagune he’s managed to reform to strike his head in a single blow before he has the chance to. The ghoul’s kagune dissipates while his beheaded corpse falls to the ground, and Haise drops to his hands and knees, desperately gasping for air. He clenches his fists, trying to use the sting on his palms to distract him from the pain besides stopping himself from losing consciousness. He’s trembling – from the cold? The fear of dying? His wound isn’t healing; why isn’t it healing? He has to recover and stand up and prepare for the next fight. He can’t just stay here and writhe around pathetically! He has to fight! He bites back a scream of frustration as he wills and wills his regeneration to begin.

Actually, Haise knows why his wound isn’t closing. The food CCG feeds him can sustain him, but it’s always just barely enough. Haise’s last proper feed was more than a month ago; he has to eat. He has to eat or else he won’t survive.

But what’s there to devour? His fallen comrade? The lifeless body before him?

Anything, a voice in his head screams, anything is fine.

“No,” Haise tells himself firmly, aloud. “I can’t, I can’t.”

You have to, you have to.

There must be another way.

Just one bite. One bite is enough.

Being healed with one bite alone sounds too good to be true, but Haise knows better. Cannibalism can never end well, as it didn’t for him. Haise doesn’t want to experience that insanity ever again; the actual feeling of having his thoughts so jumbled that nothing made sense and completely losing his mind. But does he have a choice in this if he wants to survive? His wound might not close up in time if he doesn’t eat, and he might die, he might die, he might die.

He can’t die.

Haise jolts violently when he hears a loud thud sound behind him, his nose picking up the sweet, sweet scent of human blood. To his horror, he feels his mouth watering against his will, his stomach twisting tighter and tighter. No, he has to control it – don’t succumb, don’t succumb, don’t succumb. He bites his lip and inhales sharply, struggling to get on his feet. It’s okay, it’s okay, he doesn’t need to eat. He’s already healing. He can recover in time-

He turns around, and the first thing he sees is a figure lunging straight towards him.

xXx

To be honest, Hide had naively expected the battle to begin progressively, with the level of chaos building up bit by bit.

Sadly, reality isn’t that indulging. Reports of investigators engaging and falling in battle flow in almost faster than his brain could process, voices rapidly filling the command vehicle as Hide’s colleagues begin taking charge of their assigned factions. It’s certain now – the Clowns have been anticipating their attack. Hide thought his anxiety would peak, but apparently the numbness has finally set in. He shuts out his emotions, focusing solely on handling the task at hand. He has to be rational. This isn’t completely unpredicted, they knew full well they’ll be facing powerful ghouls who were known to be ridiculously whimsical in their schemes. They can still deal with this.

Hide’s focus flickers from one monitor to another, his brain going on full autopilot mode. Team 6, advance to route E; Team 11, assist Team 10 in battle; Team 2, split up and circle around the approaching target. He wills himself not to cringe every time he sees investigators fall on screen from a brutal attack or hears a voice fizzle out in the middle of a frantic report, wary of losing focus. It can’t be helped, he tells himself firmly over and over. It can’t be helped, it can’t be helped, it can’t be helped.

He feels like throwing up.

Hide’s assigned area is just slightly away from the front lines, so he’s not exactly informed about whatever’s going there. Special Class Houji’s squad isn’t stationed under his watch as well, so he has no idea how the Quinx are holding up. Did they encounter one of the stronger Clowns, by any chance? Are they fighting already? Are they hurt? Or did they manage to avoid dragging battles with their improved teamwork? Hide doesn’t want to hope for too much. It’s fine as long as they’re alive.  As long as they’re still alive and struggling, it’s enough.

There’s an persistent tug in his gut that makes itself gradually apparent by the second. There’s something wrong. Hide makes a mental review of their situation thus far. Something’s odd. He isn’t sure if it’s just him, but despite everything that’s going on, the Clowns don’t seem to be.. aggressive enough? Sure, they’re not slowing down their pace in breaking through ranks and wrecking havoc among the investigators, but they also don’t seem to be actively killing every Dove they come across? Are they aiming for something else? What exactly are their intentions?

Hide nibbles on the tip of his thumb. It’s frustrating, not being able to even scarcely predict how this operation will play out. He takes a breath before leaning forward in his seat, requesting for a brief update on their situation as a whole from the guys in the main command centre. An unfamiliar voice answers him soon after, curtly informing him about how things are going in the other areas. Juuzou and Akira’s squad are currently in a standstill in their fight with one S rate and one SS rate ghoul. Arima’s squad has just finished eliminating a group of four, no surprise there. The Quinx are doing well holding their ground with Houji’s squad against an SS rate. Everything seems to be going fine for the stronger aboveground factions, but Hide wants to know more. How are those underground holding up? Have they encountered anyone?

Is Kaneki alright?

Hide stops breathing for a second when he’s told that the underground factions are all engaged in battle, the number of enemies still undetermined. But for now, it’s estimated that every team is facing at least two ghouls. At least. Hide frowns. It means there could be more of them ganging up on those in the sewers. Hide doesn’t like it. The ratio doesn’t seem to add up. It’s almost as if-

Hide’s train of thought doesn’t finish. There’s a sudden commotion in the background on the other side of the line, and although he fails to catch most of the words exchanged, he hears a single name.

Rank 1 Sasaki Haise.

“What happened to Rank 1 Sasaki?” The words are out his mouth faster than he could think, just short of a scream. The guy stops midsentence, hesitating for a moment before replying.

“I’m afraid it’s not-“

“Answer me!” Hide’s self control dissipates in a flash, replaced by a feeling of dread so intense that he can’t resume breathing. “What happened to Haise!?”

He’s barely able to hear past the thundering of his heart. No. No, no, no, no, no, don’t let this be what he thinks is happening, don’t let this be what he fears most. He could’ve misunderstood, right? That person could’ve just been giving a status report, informing the guys about Haise’s movements underground. It doesn’t necessarily mean that something terrible and irreversible has happened to him, right? Right!?

“Your orders, Director!” Someone yells urgently in the background, and somehow, Hide knows with utmost certainty. He wasn’t mistaken. Deep down in the sewers, somewhere below them right now, Haise is in danger.

Hide has to do something. He has to. He can’t possibly sit still when he knows something’s going on and he might lose his most precious person all over again! But would he be jeopardizing the entire operation if he forcefully asks to be sent to where Haise is now? As utterly selfish as he wants so badly to be, he reconsiders. Haise will never forgive him if many others are hurt in return for his own safety, Hide knows that. Then again, Hide’s required to prepare to be called out any moment to join the backup team and provide assistance where it’s needed, so he can’t exactly say his placement is completely rigid, either.  

Hide forces himself to take a deep breath. First things first, he needs to keep his calm. Freaking out won’t do him or Haise any good right now. He needs to handle this with the correct state of mind, or else he would only make things worse.  

“Link me to the Director.” The calmness in his own voice when he speaks surprises even himself. “Now,” he adds firmly when the person on the other side once again hesitates. In the few seconds he has to wait, he glances across the monitors before him one last time, making sure he has the opening to leave his post. Ironically, thing’s seem to have settled down for him at the moment; with battles still being fought and no clear progress being made yet.

Hide doesn’t realize he’s holding his breath until he hears his name being called in his earpiece.

“So you heard, Nagachika.”

It’s a statement, not a question. Hide figures he should be at least a little wary towards how Yoshitoki’s able to see through his intentions before he can even say a word, but he can’t exactly care at the moment.

“I’m ready to go any moment, sir,” Hide says, working to keep his voice as leveled as possible. He purses his lips and taps his fingers restlessly against the edge of the control panel, the pause before he receives a reply almost too long to bear.

“Not yet.”

Those words are like a punch in the face. “But sir-“

“We still need you in command, Nagachika,” Yoshitoki tells him, as a blatant fact rather than a compliment. “I’m sure you’ve noticed it too; how the Clowns seem to be moving strangely.”

“Then that’s all the more reason for us to go-“ Hide starts to argue, but he’s cut off with a firm call of his name from his superior.

“Sasaki-kun will have to hold up on his own a little longer somehow,” Yoshitoki says with the lack of emotion only acquired through many years of experience in his line of work. “Until we have an idea on what exactly the Clowns are planning, you are not allowed to leave your post.”

How the hell do you expect me to focus when my best friend might just die in the meantime!? Hide nearly screams, but miraculously, he manages to hold himself back. Instead, he bites out a strained “I understand” before being disconnected. He forces himself to take another deep breath, exhaling slowly through his mouth. Right. This is where he’s supposed to make the real decisions.

Hide can very well simply bolt out of the vehicle right then – he’d secretly slipped a tracking chip into Haise’s clothes earlier this morning; he knows where he is. But it’s back to the main question: would he be endangering the lives of hundreds of others for the sake of a single person? And if he is, would he be able to go through with it? Would Kaneki forgive him for it? Would he be able to forgive himself for it?

The other question is, why is he needed when he’s possibly the most inexperienced one of the command team and the others can probably figure something out even without him? What does the Director see in him that everyone else seem to lack? Hide has no idea.

But he’s determined to find out in the shortest time possible, whatever it takes.

xXx

Haise’s scared.

He’s been randomly losing touch with his surroundings on and off for the past god-knows how long, and it honestly frightens him. Every time he comes to from his brief black-outs, something’s different. Something’s destroyed, someone’s hurt. Someone’s screaming, someone’s laughing. Him? A Clown? Two Clowns? All three of them? He doesn’t know. He’s using all he has just to fight for control, to stop that waking monster within him from surfacing and overwhelming what’s left of his humanity.

He’s hungry. He’s so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so hungry. The gnawing in his belly is unbearable. There’s a voice in his ear, spouting garbled words that he can’t make any sense of no matter how hard he tries. Ah, wait – what was he doing again? What is he supposed to do again? Fight? Eat? Protect?

Survive. He has to survive, to make out of this mission alive. The pain that sears his shoulder where his opponent slices him jars him back into a slightly clearer state of mind. He counters by slashing downwards in front of him, just barely missing the ghoul before the latter leaps back. His head feels like it’s being split apart, and it’s taking so much effort to keep his kagune under his will. The various levels of aching in a few hundred other parts of his body really aren’t helping in driving him any less crazy. Haise bites down onto his lip, reopening the freshly healed wounds there for the umpteenth time. He sucks at the little bit of blood that wells up from the patch broken skin, using the sharp taste of it keep both his mind and appetite in check.

As effective as it was when he first started, it’s gradually losing effect the more he does it.

Haise figures he must’ve unconsciously faltered at one point  because the next thing he knows, someone’s grabbing the back of his head by his hair, and he’s dunked into the freezing water once more. With all the extremities he’s forced to endure up until that moment, every little bit of rationale Haise had the first time it happened to him disappears in a flash, and with that moment of lost concentration, the beast that Haise’s been desperately holding back bursts its way forth.

Haise’s still somewhat aware of what’s happening when it happens; it’s always like that when he loses control. He starts out conscious of what he’s doing – only then he doesn’t care. He can’t find the urge to care. All he wants is to fight, kill, devour. To do what he wants and eliminate anyone, anything in his way.

And this ghoul is in his way now.

His kagune begin to feel like they’re tearing at his lower back, eating their way through his flesh, but that doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter. What matters is that he erases this obstacle before him and– and–

Everything’s blank after that; Haise has no recollection of what he did from that moment onwards. His body moves on its own, the starving ghoul within him completely taking over. All Haise knows is that he’s fighting; leaping, tearing, shredding. Piercing, stabbing. Killing. Destroying. All the while counting down from a familiar set of numbers under his breath. 993, 986, 979..

972..

930..

853-

“..neki!”

Haise stills for a second, abruptly registering the voice calling his name. Someone’s calling him, someone he knows. His hands grip the sides of his head, his nails digging into his scalp as he struggles to regain control. No, he has to stop. Who’s that calling his name? Who?

“Kaneki!” The voice sounds slightly clearer now. Haise turns towards where he thinks it came from, forcing his vision to focus. He still can’t see anything besides the increasingly irritating beam of light that’s shining at his eyes, making him cringe. He wants to make it stop, to make it go away because it hurts his eyes and it’s making the stabbing pain in his head worse and he wants it gone, he wants it gone, he wants it gone-

He’s moving before his train of thoughts could continue, pouncing right at the source of light and knocking the body it’s attached to to the ground. It doesn’t feel as sturdy and muscular as a ghoul’s body. It’s a human. This is a human.

Food.

“Gosh, I didn’t think you’d be so excited to see me, buddy,” the person under him says after a short hiss of pain, followed by a slightly strained laugh. “Ah, give me a sec – my light’s in your eyes.”

There’s a click, then utter darkness engulfs them. Haise’s heart races. Wait. It’s as though something finally connects in his brain, finally letting him form coherent thoughts once more. He recognizes that voice, and no, no, no, it’s like that time all over again. Everything’s exactly like before – he lost control, he’s starving, he’s pinning him down and he’s about to eat-

“Hi..de.” He hears himself gasp, the tremor returning to his hands and feet in an abrupt, violent wave. He can’t seem to move and he can’t let himself move because god knows what he might do if he does and no he can’t hurt Hide, not again, never again. He’s never doing that again, no matter how hungry he is, no matter how overwhelming the temptation gets.

But if he doesn’t eat, he’ll get eaten. He knows, he knows because he can just barely stop his kagune from going into another frenzy right then. There has to be another way. There has to, there has to.

“It’s just me, yeah,” Hide affirms from below him, his tone impossibly light despite the circumstances he’s in. Even though he can’t make out his features, Haise could hear the smile in his voice, which, is ridiculous because how can he smile in this situation? How can he always find that courage to have so much faith in him to not be afraid? “Listen, Kaneki,” Hide continues before Kaneki’s able to begin processing the turn of events beyond what he already has, “you’ve got to calm down; you’re falling deeper into the Clowns’ trap.”

“I..” Haise swallows drily, his throat raw with the desperately suppressed urge to sob. “It hurts, Hide. It hurts.”

No, this isn’t what he should be saying. This isn’t what he should be saying at all because he knows Hide and telling him this would only-

“It sure does, doesn’t it?” Haise feels him placing his hand against his cheek, his touch gentle and warm against his skin. Then, as casually as asking for a drink of water, he says, “Eat me, Kaneki.”

“I can’t,” the words are out his lips before he even needs to think them through. Even with his eyes unable to adjust to the dark due to the absolute lack of light, he could almost make out the frown on Hide’s face.

“You know you have to,” he tells him, worry tingeing his voice. “Come on, even just a bite is better than nothing. I’ll heal anyway, so it’ll be fine.”

“I don’t want to hurt you again,” Haise insists, his fingers curling shakily into the front of Hide’s shirt. “Even if you can regenerate faster, I-“

“And I don’t want to lose you again, Kaneki.” Hide’s tone turns to a plea. “Please – it’s the only way. If you go on like this, you might cross the point of no return, and..” he hesitates. “And they might really issue the order to kill you this time.”

“Then kill me!” Haise bursts out, and something in him shatters when he hears Hide catch his breath. The lapse of silence that follows feels almost too long, too heavy. No, he shouldn’t have said that. He shouldn’t, he shouldn’t, he shouldn’t.

“Don’t ever say that again.” Hide’s hurt is evident in every syllable when he speaks. “You have to live, Kaneki,” he adds in a stern whisper, his voice breaking slightly when he says his name. “We still need to fight.”

“There has to be another way,” Haise insists, though he knows full well that there isn’t, not now. Not when his focus is just barely enough to keep him from succumbing to the welcoming embrace of insanity once more.

“There’s no time,” Hide states, then in a gentler manner; “You’re already at your limit, aren’t you?”

Haise wants to deny it. Every coherent fiber of his being is screaming at him to deny it. But he doesn’t, he can’t. Because it’s true. He wants them to end; the pain all over, the twisting knot in his stomach. He just wants it all to end.

“It’s okay, Kaneki,” Hide continues as he draws him closer towards himself, sounding so reassuring that despite it all, Haise dares to believe him. “We’ll be okay.”

And when his lips touch against skin, Haise opens his mouth, and bites down.

xXx

Hide would like to say that it didn’t hurt, at least not as much as the first time.

Unfortunately, it did hurt – every bit as much as the first time.

It all adds up; the dread in his heart towards what he might have to do, the sharp bolts of pain that shoot through the entire length of his arm right up to his neck whenever Haise’s teeth tears into his flesh. Hide endures it all, trying to focus on something else to distract himself. The rhythm of his breathing, the way Haise’s hands quake as he holds his arm to his mouth. Ah, Hide thinks as he carefully sits himself up, that kindness of his remains even in this state, huh? It must be hell for him to have to resort to this once more. Hide feels terrible for making him do this, but he’s convinced that it’s the quickest, most foolproof way to help him. There simply isn’t enough time.

Haise stops soon after Hide reaches to comb his fingers through his hair at the back of his head, threading them through the damp strands. Despite only being able to get a glimpse of him before he’s jumped at and pinned to the ground, Hide knows Haise’s all battered up from his previous battles. It must’ve been absolutely wild; to actually have pushed him to lose control. Then again, with the harsh injuries inflicted upon him and the fact that he hadn’t been eating properly for so long now, it probably wouldn’t have taken much.

If Hide could kick himself, he would. As hard as he can. Just because Haise has been relatively fine up until then doesn’t mean it’ll stay like that the rest of the time. Hide should’ve done something about it earlier before it all ended up like this. Surely, Director Washuu would’ve understood, would’ve allowed an exception this once to let Haise eat just a little more to keep him going throughout the entire operation. Surely, he would’ve seen the dangers of a ghoul investigator running rampage during a mission as important as this.

Unless it’s his intention to let Haise do that in the first place.

“I’m sorry, Hide.” Hide snaps out of his thoughts at the sound of Haise’s murmured apology, his heart promptly aching at the way his voice quavered. “I’m so sorry.”

“You don’t have to be,” Hide tells him tenderly, feeling for his hand and holding on when he finds it. His fingers are cold – unnaturally so. “I’m going to turn on my light now, so you might want to look away for a moment.”   

He senses Haise shifting, and assuming that he has turned away, Hide squeezes his own eyes shut, and reaches to trigger his torch. He parts his eyelids to mere slits, but after being used to the dark, even that’s enough to make his eyes hurt. He points the beam upwards, and waits until he’s adjusted to the lighting again before facing Haise once more, his breath catching in his throat against his will when he sees the look he’s wearing; a look showing so much self-loathing that it’s.. wrong. It’s plain wrong because eating to survive isn’t something he can help and should blame himself for. It never has been, never should be.

“Kaneki?” He leans a little forward to catch Haise’s eyes. “Please look at me.”

He waits. He waits until he complies before breaking into a grin and holding up his arm for him to see, the area where it’s eaten already fully healed. “It looks even better than how it started, huh?”

Haise doesn’t laugh, but Hide notices the slide fade in the furrow across his brow – which, is still a better reaction than nothing. Hide takes a breath, suddenly struggling to maintain his upbeat façade. He doesn’t want to do this; doesn’t want to ask Kaneki to keep fighting even when he’s already like this. He just wants to bring him home, give him a warm shower and tuck him into bed for the day after all he’s been through. But working for the CCG – being in this operation by itself does not allow them such luxury. To live is to fight. As long as they’re still capable of moving and the operation has not ended, they have to fight.

“Have you calmed down?” Hide asks softly, holding Haise’s gaze. Slowly, Haise nods in affirmation, and Hide continues, “Alright. I’m guessing you weren’t exactly paying attention earlier when the instructions were issued and time’s running short for us, so I’ll just tell you the shortest version of it, yeah?”

He inhales, then steeling his own resolution, Hide lowers his voice, and begins explaining about the newest plan he’d aided the Director in coming up with after finally seeing the Clown’s objectives. He wills himself not to falter even as he watches Haise’s expression gradually change to show his unvoiced protest, his scowl making it clear that he’s against the idea. It’s too risky. Too many people might die simply for a compromised goal.

But to stop even more from dying in the future, to possibly reduce the Clowns’ numbers to the point of crippling them enough to land the final blow, it’s their best shot.

Hide has had the very same doubts, and that was the conclusion he’d arrived at. To stop the Clowns from doing any more harm, they have to do what they have to do.

Even if it means throwing their morality away, even if it means having to give up their own lives.

“We’ve got exactly eight minutes to join the nearest squad before the next stage of the mission begins,” Hide sums up with a quick glance at his watch. He shifts to stand, pausing midway when he sees the concern written all over Haise’s face.

“Hide-“ Haise starts, but stops when Hide flashes him a reassuring smile – or at least he hopes that’s what it ends up being.

“Whatever you think I might do, I’m not doing it,” Hide promises, straightening up and holding out his hand to help Haise to his feet. Not if I can help it, he doesn’t add audibly, instead willing his confident front to remain as he digs his pocket for the extra torchlight he brought with him to replace Haise’s broken one. While Haise fastens the gadget to its mount on his earpiece, Hide makes a quick report to command to inform them that they’ll be proceeding to their position shortly. He receives an update about the squad they’ll be joining; they’re to navigate towards the east to rendezvous with First Class Hirako’s squad. It’s quite far off even with the shortcuts Hide remembers they can take, but they can make it if they’re quick. Even if they get intercepted by ghouls on the way, they don’t need to fight.  They can face them later, after they regroup.

“Hide.” Hide turns towards his companion at the call of his name, his fingers posed above his ear to readjust the direction of his light. Haise’s expression is a jumble of feelings; dread, exhaustion, a slightest bit of determination. The one that Hide found stood out most was concern, though. “I don’t know what might happen from this point on but–“ his averts his gaze for a split second before meeting his eyes once more, “- please don’t do anything stupid.”

“I could say the same to you, buddy,” Hide chuckles, but even he hears the tense undertone in his laugh. Whatever. “Now let’s go – we have to hurry.”

xXx

The basis of the plan isn’t too complicated.

Based on the pattern of the Clowns’ movement in the sewers, Marude had managed to make a deduction about their actual objective of gathering and trapping the Doves underground. The difficult part was figuring out how they were going to do it; the routes they’re planning to seal to prevent escape without collapsing the entire underground structure in the process, the routes they themselves are planning to use to escape. Marude had proposed the idea that perhaps the ghouls intend to bring them down with them, but apparently it’s Hide who understood their antics better after all those nights spent trying to analyze them. The Clowns are a group of ghouls who value life – they wouldn’t plot anything that would pointlessly kill their own numbers.

And it’s according to Hide’s judgment towards them that they were able to further narrow down the possibilities. The underground factions are originally assigned to surround a particular area – the Clowns will be taking advantage of that to close them in instead. To do this, they’ll need decoys to draw the CCG’s investigators deeper into the sewers while someone else seals off the necessary tunnels. It’ll ensure that even if the decoys are defeated, the Doves will not be able to make it out, either.

Director Washuu’s counter plan revolves around the idea of falling into the Clowns’ trap, but instead they’ll be using the chance to draw them towards a larger, more open area underground not unlike that of V14. This limits the ghouls’ choices to exactly five exits once the one’s which they predict they’d destroy are taken care of  – all which will have the aboveground teams waiting to engage them on the other side. It’s not a fully effective plan since they’re betting on the chance that the Clowns will not be sealing the tunnels manually and there’s still a possibility that Hide might be wrong about their mentality and they will bring them down with them if it comes to it – but the Director is willing to make the gamble. He’s even willing to destroy the tunnels himself to enclose them all in order to force them to abide to his schemes.

“You guys are crazy.”

Hide can’t tell if Kuramoto’s comment was referring to the plan or the fact that they actually managed to figure out what they’ve figured out. Or maybe he’s referring to how Hide and Haise had literally leaped in to save his butt from being handed to him without as much as a second thought. Maybe it’s all three. Things can get a bit overwhelming with all these stuff going on.

Rude.” Hide can’t help grinning even as he parries the kagune coming at his chest, the one aiming for his head slashed off at the tip by Kuramoto’s Quinque. It’s easier to focus on the appendages, Hide learnt, than to look at those disturbing jester masks that are probably going to give him bad dreams for a while. “Is that how you show your appreciation towards your saviors, Kuramossan?”

“Oh, please,” Kuramoto says as they let their opponents gradually push them back. “Takeomi and I were doing fine even before you guys arrived. Isn’t that right, Bujin?”

What he gets as a response is a quiet “I suppose” somewhere from Hide’s left. And despite being resigned to the fact that he could’ve lost so many friends and acquaintances in this operation, Hide’s glad that these two are still alive and fighting. He does enjoy their companionship every now and then. Plus, you don’t find upbeat investigators like them everywhere these days.  

They continue the rest of the fight without further conversation, careful to keep their intentions subtle as they lead the band of ghouls they’re facing towards the designated location. It’s not too difficult to pretend that they’re sluggish from fatigue and that they’re losing ground – with the exception of Hide himself, everyone else have been practically engaged in constant battle for the almost last hour. Really, Hide’s amazed they can still go on even after all this while.

He steals a glance at Haise through the corner of his eye as he takes another step back, making sure he’s doing alright. He look slightly better now after eating; his movements solid, his gaze steady, his focus unwavering. Hide can’t imagine what could’ve happened to him if he’d outright refused to satiate his hunger. Hide had suspected that provoking Haise to use his kakuja had been part of Clowns’ intentions to let him destroy that path of the sewers, and it was with this hunch that he’s finally allowed to leave his post to look for him.

He flinches involuntarily when he feels the walls around them shake, a loud boom sounding in the distance. All big talk aside, Hide is honestly terrified of having the entire network of underground sewers collapse on top of him and somehow causing the entire city to cave in on itself. It should be unlikely given how human error during the construction of the tunnels could’ve caused any part of the place to fall apart without the need of external interference in the first place, and surely precautions have been taken to ensure the rest of the network remains even if that happens, but Hide still can’t help feeling the fear. Dying buried in a mountain of boulders and debris isn’t exactly the way he wants to go.

Then again, who’s he to decide on that, really.

Hide forces himself not to think about any of that, instead pouring all his concentration into the task at hand. He works to keep the image of the sewer map projected at the back of his mind, trying hard to keep track of their location. Too long. They’re taking too long and there’s still some way to go before they reach where they need to be. They’ll either need to make a run for it, or they should finish their fight right here and now. The latter seems to be a better choice, now that Hide thinks it over. They won’t want to risk being vastly outnumbered later – not if they want to preserve the chances of them walking out of this mission alive.

“Guys, you think-“ Hide hasn’t even completed his question when someone suddenly charges forward, taking on his opponent with so much surprise that he actually manages to kill them even before Hide’s stupor could pass. Takeomi doesn’t glance over his shoulder for confirmation as he continues fighting and wow Hide didn’t think he’d be so easy to read. It seems to quickly dawn the others what he’s about to say as well, and soon all four of them are fighting in earnest, keen to finish what they have to do there in order to go on with the mission.

The following minutes are a blur, with them bolting towards their destination the moment the last ghoul fell and stopped moving. Thank goodness Haise has an excellent memory too because Hide almost made a few wrong turns in the heat of the excitement. That would’ve been really bad if it happened. Getting lost underground isn’t exactly the best thing to do, especially under these circumstances.

If their rendezvous point had been any smaller, the first word coming into Hide’s mind upon reaching the place would be ‘pandemonium’. Under the dim lights, battles raged everywhere; fallen bodies kicked and stepped over on the ground as though they were nothing but obstacles – which, they technically are in this case. However, since the place was about three times the size of a school gym, everyone’s spread out, and the only difficult thing to decipher is who’s winning.

For a second, Hide’s seized by a sudden, overwhelming sense of panic. What if their plan’s failing? What if the Clowns have plotted something else entirely and they’ve danced perfectly into their trap? What if he’d really wasted precious lives for a plan that’s futile the moment it began?

There’s no going back, not after coming this far. He knows, he knows. But- but-

He feels someone’s fingers brush across his arm, and truly, Hide’s surprised he didn’t jolt away. When he turns, he sees Haise staring straight ahead at the chaos in front of them, every bit of fear and doubt Hide feels visible in his eyes. Ah, that’s right. Hide takes a breath, forcing his heartbeat to return to a steadier pace. How could he keep forgetting? He’s not in this battle alone. There are still other options, other ways they can come up with in order to fight back. They’ll manage, somehow.

Somehow.

“Hey, Kaneki?” Hide breathes, waiting until Haise faces him before continuing, “I don’t care what happens when all this is over, but when it is,” he breaks into a grin that came with surprising ease, “let’s go straight home, yeah?“

Kaneki’s smile that responds to his is probably the brightest thing in the entire underground. “Of course.”  

And without another word, they step out to join the war.

xXx

It’s unnerving, how quickly Haise’s mind cleared the moment he’d allowed himself to relieve his hunger.

He can’t tell if that’s a good or bad thing, though. While coming to his senses did allow him to stop before he could do any more harm to Hide, it also made the reality of harming Hide much harsher. He’d done it again, the one thing he’s always, always feared he’d do. There are no excuses for his actions even now; not his desperation, not his hunger-driven craze. He’s hurt the person precious to him, and that’s that.

But Hide hadn’t even given him the time to mull over what he’d done – and perhaps that’s indeed for the best. They’re fighting a battle for their lives; they can’t afford to be distracted. Especially not when it’s a war of mind-games between the Clowns and the CCG. The first ones to break will be the losers.

Haise was probably the very first loser, then.

As he fights, Haise catches himself inherently holding his breath from time to time. He tries hard to ignore how at any moment, an explosive could be set off and the ceiling above them would collapse and everyone in the place, human or ghoul, would be buried alive and left to die. He can’t let his own doubt show because these are the Clowns they’re facing, after all. They would be able to manipulate even the slightest hesitation to their own advantage, and Haise can’t risk that.

So he pushes every unnecessary thought and emotion to the very back of his mind, letting his body move by itself to fight, to keep surviving for the next second, minute.

He grits his teeth as he blocks against his opponent’s strike with his Quinque, straining to push against the weight of the blow. The first few Clowns he’d fought earlier had been strong, but somehow he could tell that those they’re facing here are almost on an entirely different level. There aren’t many of them when Haise surveyed the battlefield earlier before joining in – around ten Clowns, maybe even less – yet the investigators seem to be struggling. The underground factions consists of roughly sixty men including those sent to provide backup, most of them ranked First Class and above except for a few exceptions like Haise himself. Haise tries not to lose courage from the fact that barely half of them currently remain. Even though they’re all drained and injured, none of them looked disheartened. They’re still hanging on, believing in their slimmest chance of success.

The Clowns still seem to be merely toying with them, Haise can’t help but notice. But he also reminds himself that it’s a contest of mental strength. It’s alright. All he has to do is fight. Even if he goes down, at least he’d fall after giving everything he has. Director Washuu would still have something up his sleeve. Even if the CCG ends up at the losing side underground, he’s still make sure that every death, every bit of effort everyone has put into the extermination would not go to waste.

And maybe everyone’s driven by the same thoughts, pushing themselves to the limit and holding their ground even when every breath they took hurt and every motion they made took twice as much effort as they should have. Even when they’re bruised, broken and bleeding. Even when they’re taunted with promises of quick painless deaths, with assurances that they’ve been ordered into a suicide mission and are abandoned now that nothing is going according to plan.

“God, would you just shut up!” Haise eventually hears someone yell even above the chaos, and he recognizes the voice despite its faintness. Seems like some ghoul has managed to piss Special Class Ui off, and the effect of his annoyed exclamation ripples across the warzone. Somehow reenergized by his complaint, investigators begin intensifying their efforts with renewed spirit. Haise figures it’s because he’d just summed up how everyone’s feeling in one sentence, and actually telling a ghoul to shut up in this situation is certainly something unusual and strangely motivating.

Haise doesn’t think he should be feeling so amused by something so insignificant, but he is. In fact, it must’ve shown on his face because Hide points it out to him when they end up back to back a little later.

“Well someone’s having fun,” he comments breathlessly, a smile playing across his own lips. Haise doesn’t get the chance to answer him before he goes on the offensive on impulse again, his body moving the moment he spots the opening to make a retaliation.

The sudden spike in enthusiasm from the CCG’s side must’ve thrown the Clowns off balance – or at least it seem to have with the one Haise’s handling with two other investigators. The ghoul’s attacks turn reckless as she struggles to defend against their increased aggression, letting Haise easily read her moves and compose a counterattack with his colleagues. He lunges forward the moment a path is cleared for him, disabling the last appendage with his Quinque and plunging his kagune right through her heart in one swift blow.

Haise takes a step back and stumbles, but someone catches his arm and holds him up before he could fall butt first onto the ground. He glances up wearily to see Hide by his side, subconsciously marveling at how he’s able to maintain that grin despite the tremor of fatigue in his grip.

“It’s working,” Hide mutters as he helps Haise regain his footing, his voice slightly raw with obvious relief. Haise only understands what he means when he registers his surroundings once more. As if someone had flipped a switch of some sort, the chaos around them has receded almost completely. Apart from those who had been successfully exterminated, there are no Clowns in sight – they’ve all retreated back into the sewers, hopefully in a rush enough to go right for the first exit they see and walk right into whatever’s prepared for them on the other side.

Because if they take their chances and return.. Haise’s not sure if they would be able to put up a fierce clash a second time. Everyone’s utterly drained from what he can see, and they are to stay where they are until they receive the green light to leave the underground. Haise knows he can’t afford to relax yet, but for a second, a minute, he allows himself to catch his breath. The operation has only lasted for about two hours so far, but it feels like they’ve been fighting for days.

But that’s alright. If all goes well, it’ll be over soon.

He really wants it to be over soon.  

Haise tries to gauge the minutes passed since the battle died down around them. How long has it been? Will they be coming back? It could’ve just been him, but Haise guesses he isn’t the only one who feels like they’ve waited long enough to deem the situation safe by the time he’s internally finished counting to a thousand. From all around, he spots investigators lowering their weapons, leaning back against walls, breathing huge sighs, and generally allowing themselves to take a break.

Haise turns when he hears a long exhale, yelping involuntarily when Hide slouches against him, arms immediately circling around him to support them both. Dread immediately washes over him like a huge wave. Does Hide have a wound that he’d overlooked? Did he get hurt to such a degree that even his regeneration can’t heal?

“Hide-“ he starts to say, but he trails off when Hide lets out a small chuckle, his voice laced with embarrassment.

“Ah, man – sorry, sorry,” Hide apologizes, not moving from his position. Something in Haise demands that they shouldn’t let their guard down just yet, but a bigger part of him insists that they can afford it; just for a short while. His adrenaline is starting to fade – he’s simply too worn out to argue with himself about that.

“You okay?” Haise asks despite knowing full well of the answer he’ll receive. He lets out a breathless laugh when Hide replies with a silent nod. He might not have fought as long as the others, but Hide’s mental drain possibly far exceeds the rest of them. All those effort needed to figure out whatever’s going on, to help devise on a countermeasure; all that anxiety towards the effectiveness of a plan that barely had a fifty-fifty chance of success rate and towards having to face the worst case scenario of burying everyone, including himself, underground – it’s understandable that Hide’s exhausted as well.

Haise tenses when a voice buzzes into his earpiece, his heartbeat speeding up in a strange mixture of apprehension and tentative anticipation. Judging by the way Hide stiffens and fixes his posture at the exact same moment, he must be receiving the message, too. Haise holds his breath as he listens on, bracing himself for whatever he’s going to hear.

The aboveground factions have reported to be currently engaged in battles with four ghouls who’d exited from the openings that they’ve been led to use, and the CCG is at the advantage. Haise doesn’t dare exhale just yet. There were five of them who escaped. One has not yet emerged, therefore those underground should still be on standby in the case of-

It happens in the span of roughly three seconds. Haise hears an urgent call of his name before he’s shoved roughly aside. Droplets of blood splatters across his cheek when he twists to look, his thoughts completely blank. The first thing he registers is the alarm written all over Hide’s face. Something’s wrong, something’s very, very wrong. Haise gulps, and forces his sight lower.

Protruding right in the middle of Hide’s chest, looking extremely out of place as it should be, is a the tip of a blood red kagune.

Haise’s numb. He’s numb even when someone else shouts something at him and Hide’s flung aside like he’s merely a speck of dust on someone’s hand. He’s numb even when more shouts fill the air; stunned exclamations mingled with orders barked over the chaos.

And then he only hears his own voice.

And he doesn’t remember anything else.