Ginshi dreams of cold flesh, the stink of urine and the creaking of a rope, all enveloped in darkness. He wonders what Sassan dreams of.
Are the dreams more vibrant, more vivid, in a place so stark as Cochlea? Or are they muffled and overcome by the dreamer's surroundings; does the mind become the same white slate as the walls, the floors, the ceilings, the sheets, the doctors in their lab coats?
Colour has vanished. There are fine lines and shadows, like tiny fissures heralding a splitting chasm, framing Sassan's usually lively eyes. He looks fine. He looks terrible.
What does Ginshi say to him, knowing what has been done to him?
Uriko said to them in a voice like cut paper, 'I'm not going.' His tone was bland, and each word was precise but flimsy in meaning; sharp. There was more that he did not say, which was shrouded in what he did say. Paper is only transparent when held up to the light.
Ginshi could have punched him again. He could have kicked him over the sofa. It could have degenerated into a wrestling match, with Tooru looking on and waving his hands helplessly at them to stop. Saiko would have cheered for him, probably. But it didn't. Part of Ginshi was disgusted that Urie could feel nothing for the mentor who had trained them, given them advice, risked his life for them, and generally looked after them like a foster parent for, what, more than a year? Part of Ginshi was furious that Urie's refusal might be to do with Sassan being half ghoul. Part of Ginshi could not care less about what was going in Urie's head, that he could feel or not feel whatever he wanted to and it would be none of Ginshi's business. Yet part of him also understood what it felt like to have the rug pulled out from under you by someone that you trusted.
But in the end, Ginshi didn't know what any of that looked like on Uriko's side. And somewhere along the way, he had learned that using your fists didn't earn you that much anyway, except maybe a bit of catharsis. So he ground his teeth and stalked away.
In the morning, they left without him; Ginshi, Saiko and Tooru. They took public transport to get to the 23rd Ward, because there was no one to drive them and they had become suspicious of taxis. There was no one, now, who was ready to run after them and save them if they ran into trouble. Except maybe Urie, who wouldn't bother anyway.
At Cochlea, they forged through layers of security, brandishing their badges with Tooru at the front to say, 'Rank 1 Investigator Mutsuki!' It helped that he looked young and fresh as he did it; that he also looked innocent and untried, not so much. The leather eyepatch Sassan had given him added an edge of hardness, a hint of mystery. The guards waved them on like they were biting, flying insects interrupting their mid-morning breaks. Mutters of 'Quinx' and 'ghouls' trailed after them, but that was nothing new.
At the front desk of the main structure, a surly-faced attendant informed them that there was no such thing as "visiting hours." However, if they were investigators (this was followed by a disdainful up-down glance that Ginshi did not miss), then they were allowed to interrogate any prisoners for information pertaining to an investigation. Ginshi made something up about an extremely dangerous, A-rated ghoul who was as of yet unnamed, and who needed to be caught as soon as possible. When the attendant pulled up Sassan's details on his computer, he rolled his eyes. Ginshi was pretty sure he had made some sort of connection, but the attendant just gave them Sassan's cell number and said they could check in on him and chat through the bars or something. He snickered as they walked through the gates unlocked for them, without a guide.
They made Tooru take point again because he had done this sort of thing before. Any guards inside the spiralling gallery of prison cells only gave them a brief once-over, assuming that anyone who had made it in that far had permission to be there. Or maybe, the Quinx Squad had become a little more famous than they thought. Nevertheless, Tooru still gripped his badge tightly, ready to wave it like a flaming torch before a pack of wolves. In his other hand was a bag with a short stack of Sassan's favourite books, and a couple of personal effects that they thought he might need or want.
They found the cell a few levels down, and peeped before they knocked. Only, they didn't knock, because Sassan wasn't in there. Saiko accused Tooru and Ginshi of having bad eyesight as well as dull hearing and dead noses. She made Ginshi boost her up for way too long to ascertain that the cell was, indeed, unoccupied. As squad leader, Ginshi proposed that they all split up to look for him. Tooru seemed nervous enough to reject the idea, but worry for their mentor overcame it. Saiko was just nervous. They chose a direction each and agreed to meet up in front of Sassan's cell again in half an hour with any findings.
Ginshi chose to go deeper. As he went, he began to question his own thinking processes. Alone in a nest of captured ghouls? In unfamiliar territory? These were probably bitter predators-become-prey, who would not begrudge an easy kill to satisfy their own crushed egos. They probably thought cannibalism was cool.
Stuck in the sludge of his own thoughts, quickly dissolving into, What was I thinking, I'm such an idiot, I'm not good enough to be squad leader - Ginshi wandered into a side corridor. He snapped back to the present scene when he heard, unmistakably, the sound of laughter.
The stuttering screech of metal on metal rang against the walls, followed by a heavy smack and a thick, slick tearing sound. It reminded him of the auction raid, when ghouls threw opponents into walls like rolls of flesh bagged in skin. The tearing was not unlike the typical noise that a typical kagune made, piercing through a human body. Sickness rose in the back Ginshi's throat. Was it his imagination, or could he hear blood spattering? He saw a delicate face smeared with blood and other fluids, flesh pulsing and convulsing around the blade of his Tsunagi. A voice; broken, whispering.
He rounded the corner to face reality and end the vision. What he saw made him jump right back. Sweat slicked his spine. Sassan was crouched in the middle of a tumultuous whirlwind, flurries of white cloth and shards of gleaming steel dancing around him. When he peered back around the corner, the shapes resolved themselves into panicked scientists and their assistants, some of them holding half-finished, experimental quinques and light firearms loaded with Q bullets. Metal working tables had been overturned, leaving grey rents on the already stained and scuffed floor.
'Hurry, get more RC suppressants!' one woman shouted.
'It won't work, we've already used so much-'
When Ginshi finally gathered the courage to look again, he saw Sassan's eyes as gaping caverns. They were narrowed in concentration so intense, they appeared blank and empty of thought. It was as if his entire world had been reduced to physical movements within a five-metre radius; action and reaction, immediate threats with which to be dealt. Did Ginshi witness cornered prey, lashing out instinctively, or a predator going for the kill? His mentor's kagune morphed fluidly from shape to shape, surrounding him in a cage that was both defensive and offensive; red rope and ribbon became claws and swords at will.
Ginshi was rooted where he stood. If he showed himself, he had only two plausible options. One: take Sassan's side, help fight off the lab workers, fight their way back up and out of Cochlea, hopefully regroup with Saiko and Tooru, and run. Run where, he didn't know.
Two: take the lab workers' side, and help to restrain Sassan.
The first was as terrifying as a trapdoor opening beneath a gallows. They would effectively be making themselves enemies of the CCG, assuming they made it out of Cochlea at all. They would probably have to live in hiding for the rest of their lives. But the second option was repulsive to Ginshi, not to mention that the mere idea of taking on Sassan as a real opponent made his stomach flip over and run away from him.
What to do?
In the middle of another endless loop of useless, useless, useless, Tooru appeared at the end of the side corridor. He paused, bent over with his hands on his knees, to catch his breath. He took one look at Ginshi's frozen expression and straightened up without speaking. He sidled over to Ginshi as quietly as possible.
'What is it,' he asked him, in a voice pitched low, with none of the sibilant sounds that made a whisper carry. It wouldn't have mattered anyway; it was aural pandemonium beyond their safe shadow behind the wall. Sassan's infrequent bursts of laughter were raucous and echoing, blanketing them with his madness, chilling them. His voice temporarily covered the twining sounds of clashing weaponry and the alarmed, thready cries of untrained combatants. It was only a matter of time until they called back-up. In fact, it may have already happened. Sassan was probably fighting another losing battle.
Ginshi said to Tooru, 'Is it possible to become immune to RC suppressants?'
Tooru started, confusion clouding his visible eye. 'I don't think so. I've never heard of such a thing.'
Ginshi stared at the floor. He was so anxious he felt like he could bite all the nails off his fingers, and the perspiration was beginning to run down his face. He heard an aborted shout beyond their hiding place, a sudden crash louder than the rest. Clattering, tinkling sounds, like breaking glass, or surgical instruments tumbled from a tray. The sudden thundering of a dozen pairs of booted footsteps.
Tooru and Ginshi shared a stricken look. The same thought seemed to run through their minds. There must have been another entryway that they hadn't accounted for, one through which trained back-up had flooded into the room. They heard a furious scream which might have been Sassan's, the air-rending shriek of a thwarted demon, or the lamentation of an avenging angel. They couldn't believe Sassan hadn't finished them all off and escaped. But then, time ran strangely when it counted the most. Ginshi felt like he had been standing there forever, dithering and deliberating, uselessly. Tooru's fingers had found Ginshi's sleeve at some point, and now they tightened into a shaking fist.
Helpless. They were so helpless.
Tooru must have known it too, that to fight on Sassan's side now meant taking on the entirety of the CCG. Ginshi nearly broke and ran inside, but Tooru kept his death grip on his sleeve, transferring it to his arm to make it good and solid. He shook his head at him. The bitterness of regret, and the resolve born only from rationality, tightened his lips to whiteness.
If they didn't reveal themselves, they had one more plausible option, and that was to find Saiko and run. Pretend that they had never seen anything.
Ginshi wasn't sure if that option was the most repulsive to him of all.
The sounds beyond the hall had begun to die down. Muted voices were coloured with irritation, mingled with relief, and there was the cloth-muffled clanging of metal. Ginshi's stomach roiled when he thought he picked out a short strand of conversation:
'Is that enough?'
'I don't know, let me check.'
And then a stifled yelp, as if from behind a gag. A gurgling sound like harsh, triumphant mirth. And then the click of an implement on a hard surface.
When Tooru gained the strength to drag him away, he didn't resist.
Ginshi didn't know about Tooru, but he walked with automaton limbs back to the entrance. Ten minutes or so later, Saiko appeared to berate them for not meeting her where they said they would meet. Ginshi wasn't sure how long she had waited, and how she had decided to come to the entrance instead. She said something too long-winded on a subject of comparatively little importance. The only thing Ginshi caught was something along the lines of going back into the frozen hellhole they had just left. That set his back teeth to chattering, and the sickness to well again. Tooru said something back to her, something about an appointment, which seemed sort of familiar, but otherwise floated right past Ginshi's perception. It was only when they were on a bus back to the main office that Ginshi surfaced a little from his daze, and noticed that Saiko was gone.
When Ginshi looked at Tooru to ask where she was, he saw in his eyes the same cold terror which had carved itself deeply, suppressed, into the marrow of his bones.
If Ginshi looks at Saiko hard enough, will the icy tendrils of that same fear show itself? What has she seen; what does she know?
What does Sassan know?
When they had come in for their second visit, Tooru demanded that they be allotted a proper interrogation room. The attendant had just smiled. Ginshi looks through the impenetrable glass at his mentor's unreadable expression, and the fragile masks that they all wear.
Who is the betrayer, and who is the betrayed?