In the beginning, there is nothing. There is no silence. There is no whiteness. There is not even a "there" in which to exist, or to be absent from.
Only nothing, and nothingness.
Akira is the first to visit him, on the day that the bandages come off.
He awakens atop a gurney in a cold, cold room. He is wearing a thin hospital robe that fails to keep any warmth in. He can feel the chill metal of the table he is lying on, seeping through a thin mattress pallet. He is not strapped down, yet.
A young woman, one of the medical or scientific assistants, helps him into a sitting position to cut the bandages away. Her movements are neither rough nor gentle, but he sees a moment when her control slips, and her fingers tremble. Gauze and cloth strips fall away easily, dry and unbloodied. He holds his hands up to his face, first covering the eye that had been injured, and then the eye that had not been. He sees no discernible difference. One of these days, Arima-san is actually going to destroy his vision. Or he may not.
The assistant steps away, purposeful but somewhat hurried. She hands him a straitjacket, but there are no curtains to pull around his makeshift hospital room. She fixes her gaze to a point in the distance, a light flush colouring her cheeks. She doesn't turn around. He tries not to think too hard on the irony of shackling himself as he strips quickly in the cool air and slips into the manacles. When he is dressed, she pulls the overlong sleeves around him snugly, and tightens the buckles.
She calls in another member of staff, who leads him to the interrogation room. He sits down across from Akira and tries not to stare.
Her appearance is as immaculate as ever. Sleek braids gleam under the fluorescent light, and her skirt suit is pressed and pristine. Her make-up is flawless, minimal and flattering. If her nose and the area under her eyes are particularly well-powdered, he makes no comment.
He knows that the question he asks is cruel. He can almost see the tiny blood vessels, just beneath the skin, that have ruptured because of stress or crying. But she is marble, and he is proud. Then she shouts at him for a while, true things, things he can't dispute.
Certainly, he was the one who killed Amon Koutarou. He remembers the blood that ran in rivulets over his hands, drying in the creases of his palms. He remembers the sickening sounds of tearing flesh and cracking bone. He remembers the guilt that drowned him, then and now. But, 'No,' he says, and her fierce flame eyes pin the blame to him. Hammering the nails in his coffin lid, like the nails on a crucifix. He nearly welcomes it. It is twisted affirmation of the worst kind, but he expects it. He needs it. Who is blaming who?
His eyes feel hollow. His bones are hollow. If he is not anchored, he will float away and dissipate into the stratosphere. Tied with his arms crossed over his torso, it is almost like he is hugging himself. But he doesn't have enough weight or strength to hold the pieces of himself together. He only wants to be held.
He remembers being huddled in the corner of a small and cramped space, with blood on the black-and-white tiles, and not enough room, not enough warmth, not enough feeling. Never enough of anything. (Except maybe pain, but there had never been enough of that to kill him, and that's the only thing that matters about pain.) His knees drawn up to his chin, arms around his knees. Shaking. It was all his fault and who would willingly put their hands on a mad dog, anyway. A ragged, mindless, bloody thing; flea-ridden and grotesque. He wouldn't. So he huddled into himself, and he rocked, and then he was nothing.
It was warm, and he was safe. Most nights his mother worked late, and the light from the living room seeped in through the cracks around his bedroom door. He knew she wanted him to get enough sleep, so he wouldn't be tired, and so he could pay attention in school, and maybe make something of himself. So he would burrow down under his futon, and fall asleep with the faint yellow light warm on his eyelids.
His cell is a white cube. It is perhaps three paces wide and four paces length-wise. There is one door, set to the side of the front wall with a narrow slot towards the top. It is filled with small bars. There are no windows.
There is a sleeping platform built against the wall, a solid slab of concrete with a somewhat threadbare futon thrown on top of it. There is a small sink opposite, similarly protruding from the wall. There is nothing to be culled from the minimal furniture, no danger of escape. He knows that some of the materials used to make quinque steel are mixed into the fixtures of the cell, reinforcing thick walls. He supposes that there is no danger of a ghoul attempting to hang themselves, either.
He thinks that the cell is surprisingly humane, considering that ghouls have no rights at all. If he hadn't been in Cochlea before, as an investigator instead of a prisoner, he would have expected to be thrown in some modern-day version of a dank, medieval dungeon. Deprived of light and fresh air, and starved to death for his crimes in a nest of dirty straw.
Not that he has any fresh air. The level he is on is underground, and the sterile stench of captivity has no place to circulate. He is not sure if he should be flattered that the CCG considers him to be this much of a threat.
Most days, he gets up, folds up the futon, and straightens his clothes. He washes his face and brushes his teeth. He doesn't bother finger-combing his hair because there is no mirror and no one to see him. Like a death-row prisoner, he doesn't get to leave his cell for exercise. Once or twice, he has a nightmare that jumbles his mind, and he wakes up in places he doesn't expect to be. He stitches the pieces back together as best as he can, and sweeps the mess under a white rug over a white floor. He is tired after the nightmares, but he remembers that that's usually the case. Fragments of his night terrors coalesce as memories of battle, the fight-or-flight instinct that characterises sleep-paralysis, and an image of Saiko with tears blurring her eyes. Saiko? Why would he dream specifically of Saiko?
Some days, he doesn't get up. He stares at the ceiling of the white cube, stray thoughts rattling around the empty, clean bowl of his mind. He thinks that Gregor Samsa's room was bigger than this, and that he had a couch to hide under too. On the hollow days, he doesn't need to even think of climbing the walls and ceiling for amusement; his mind scuttles around all over them for him. Ricocheting off the blank walls and shaking his cell door. Other days he does push-ups and crunches and other small exercises like he expects to be let out, some day. He is not sure why he bothers.
His sense of time is stilted from the lack of daylight and the fact that ghouls don't need or get three meals a day. A couple of sleeps after Akira visits, the warden comes to his cell to cuff him and tell him that he has "visitors." His tone is caught between disdain and a leer, and the quotation marks are audible. He lets himself be cuffed and goes quietly. He does not think of resistance.
He gets to the room before them, and sits there with the voices clamouring in his head. Anticipation and dread churn in his empty stomach, and he forces them back down under a veneer of calm. He is still alive, and he has not lost everything. There are still things that he needs to protect.
His squad troops in through the open door, minus one Urie Kuki. Of course. 'Mutsuki, Shirazu, Saiko. Hello.' Part of him supplies the names; part of him uses them impartially, dispassionately. There is a schism in his mind that the stitches can't hold together. Abruptly, he is flooded with tangible and disparate emotions.
They are so young it frightens him. They are painfully naive, occasionally troublesome, and unendingly, unbearably precious. He does not know what to do with them. He does not know how to respond to them. A part of him cowers, looking for a dark corner to hide in, away from the light and the people that dwell there. If he excludes himself before he is seen, he will not be rejected. Sunlight is a thing as merciless and revealing as it is comforting and life-giving. But it is better to be content knowing that a thing exists, than to approach it and be denied. To confront it and lose it forever.
So he smiles, and he locks down the voices and the tremors, and he makes small talk. He lowers his guard, a little.
But there are masks that he cannot - must not - discard. And there are masks that they hold too, like flimsy lace constructions on beribboned handles at a masquerade. They bob and bow around one another, hobbled by etiquette and courtesy. The masks are not permanent, not obtrusive. But nonetheless they are there, veiling harsh truths. Waved about, they are distracting, but that is all. They will not hide anything on close inspection.
But they are each of them protecting something precious to them, and no one is looking too closely at anyone else. In guarding their own secrets, they shield those around them. Whether they hide those secrets from themselves or not.
According to what they tell him, Akira visited a week after the incident during the end of the Tsukiyama Extermination Operation. After they leave, and he has been boxed in again, he prods at this fact uneasily, looking for improbable gaps. The first time something like this had happened, he had spent months in convalescence. Somehow, he had healed in a mere week. He feels that it's something more than his fractured sense of time. The thought is too disturbing to hold onto, so he lets go of it.
Later, when oblivion recedes as foaming waves from a sandy shore, he gathers the wreckage of his thoughts.
There are two ways to think of "nothingness." One is simply the absence of something else. A hole in the wall exists because the wall does, and the absence of a brick where a brick should be is "nothing." The other is the idea that "nothingness" itself constitutes a substance. An existence of its own, independent of the existence of something else. A "nothing" which is material. A "nothing" which swallows up "somethings." A vacuum or a void.
That is what he is. Or perhaps, what he is being consumed by. He is both, or he is neither. In any case, he is nothing but an empty vessel for a thing which no longer exists. Is he Ken, or is he Haise? Perhaps he is both, and perhaps he is neither.
The day that Urie visits is a hollow day.
He faces a lone wolf cub, baring sharp, brittle puppy teeth at him from the other side of the glass. There is little inside him to respond; when he met with the other Quinx there was enough to fill a library full of books, only he had too much awareness to show it. Today there is neither a gallery of voices in his mind, nor enough consciousness to either smother them or relay the bleeding words that they speak. So he says the most inane things, but his mind is not elsewhere because he is not sure he currently has a mind at all.
He feels a very faint spark of what might be regret, but it smoulders too much. Regret is ash-like; it doesn't burn with any kind of warmth. He feels a vague and shifting unease, as if he has suddenly viewed a familiar concept from a totally different vantage point. He imagines it's not unlike the feeling of seeing a doppelgänger, of seeing your own face outside of a mirror. He does not know where it comes from.
He thinks he hears the distant sound of rain. It's strange because the room he is in, and the rooms he has been in have always been insulated completely from the outside world. It sounds like heavy rain, a relentless downpour, the kind that washes all traces of yesterday down street gutters.
When he says, 'You're a good investigator,' he thinks he means it.
He wants to say, 'I'm sorry,' but he is not sure what for, so he doesn't.
He remembers the first time he met Juuzou, and the other investigator had pressed a couple thousand-yen bills into his hand and thanked him cheerily. He had been so confused at the time. Now he laughs so hard that the warden bangs on his cell door, telling him to be quiet, but he can't stop.
He has never felt so much like monstrous vermin.
He remembers everything.
That night, the wind had tugged at his hair and clothes, while his mind stood still with shock.
He had defeated the Tsukiyama heir and was crouched looking down at him. A soft sweep of hair the colour of dusk shaded his deep-set eyes. The line of his nose was aquiline, the line of his cheekbones and jaw sharp and clean. The harmony of his features was not disrupted by the scrapes and bruises that the bearer had been dealt. He thought that he looked like a model. He remembered the pang of something between guilt and regret when he saw him slumped in a wheelchair, thin as bone and dry as a wilting flower. Ruined. Breakable as glass.
Yukimura 1/3 was an extension of himself, as much as his kagune was. It remained unwavering, the point poised at his opponent's long, white throat. It flexed with pain and choking gasps, and strained black humour that stabbed at him. But there was a splitting pain behind his eyes, backed by a shrieking cacophony of voices with no distinguishable source. The voice of the other him threaded through it with a desperate mantra: DON'T KILL HIM DON'T KILL HIM DON'T KILL HIM-
Pain. Confusion. He was surrounded. He had nowhere to run.
DON'T KILL HIM.
When he closed his eyes, blinking, he saw the imprint of a figure. It was so bright that his retinas retained the memory in gold tracery. The other him was present like he never had been before, following the outline with his mind's eye lovingly, carefully. A wide, beaming smile framed with careless spikes of bleached-blond hair.
The figure was the sun, and if he looked at him too long, he would surely lose his vision and remain stuck forever with just that fleeting impression. A lingering sensation of warmth, belonging, and acceptance; all the more powerful for that the memory was second-hand.
But he opened his eyes, kept them open, and the figure was still there. Material, not memory. The cacophony intensified before it subsided to a low rumble at the base of his skull. His cheekbones were sharper, all childish roundness pared away. His hair was long enough to tie into a short, bobbing ponytail, and his mind snagged on that detail for a ridiculously long time, thinking on how endearing it was. Hide was smiling. And then he was not.
Oh god, oh god, oh god.
The sweet taste of blood in the back of his mouth, coating his teeth and tongue. The fear, the self-censure, the muggy determination as he stumbled through deserted streets to the duty he felt he could not shake off. Hide's face was angular but not malnourished. He looked fine; he even looked happy to see him, hollow man that he was. Stuffed straw man that he was. But he knew with a sudden and sickening certainty that there would be warped and sunken scars on his arms, and his sides, and the juncture where his neck met his shoulder, where the beast had gouged his flesh out. Warm, tender flesh giving way to sharp rows of teeth, filling the emptiness inside. Hot blood running down his throat. There was the murmur of a soothing voice in the background, fingers sifting through wispy hair, petting him.
Someone was screaming. It was noisy enough inside his own head. He wished that they would stop.
What a way to remember that you were human.
One of the hooded figures pulled Hide back, and he thought he was grateful enough to cry. Maybe he was crying. Then he saw the face of the dead man inside the shadowed cowl, and he knew that he was the one who was screaming. No wonder Hide was terrified of him.
He wasn't human, he was a ghoul.
He fought, in an abstract fashion. It hurt, but that was fine. It was a relief when Death finally winged him away, to a place with neither sea nor sky, nor any place to stand. Nevertheless, he drowned, and it was peaceful.
Hunger is a thief; it steals from him in the dark of night, and it has boldly stolen from him in broad daylight.
Hunger has robbed him of his peace of mind, his sanity, his control, his confidence and his self-esteem, his humanity, his human connections. It is lean, but it is greedy. It tucks itself up tight in the hollow of his ribcage, in the concave of his being. Until it strips the lining from his stomach and the enamel from his teeth, bitter as broken trust.
Sometimes it is quiet, when it is sated. But it will never truly be full, never truly be satisfied. It is a bottomless thing.
Theft comprises all crime. Naturally, it follows that he is both victim and perpetrator.
Difficilis facilis iucundus acerbus es idem:
Nec possum tecum vivere nec sine te.
One morning, he wakes up and he is Haise, through and through. As if he had been born Sasaki Haise and lived as him all his life. The fragments of his memories linger at the edges of his consciousness, but at his core he is Haise. Whoever Haise is supposed to be.
Haise knows fear better than hunger. He does not know if this is a blessing or a curse. His identity is a thing formed around his relationship with fear. It is born of white walls and scratchy sheets, and the smell of disinfectant that is the trademark of all hospitals. His bare cell is as familiar to him as the interior of his own skull.
He feels pity for mad men in asylums. Is there anything more terrifying than being told that you are insane? That the reality you inhabit is one you inhabit alone, that the truths that define you are less substantial than the smoke from a burnt-out match? Haise is real because he feels that he is real. At least, that is what he tells himself.
Fueguchi Hinami, Yotsume, the girl that he had asked him to save – her quiet words had reinforced the flimsy paper walls that limited his individual awareness: 'You are not an empty vessel.'
We cannot coexist, Kaneki had told him.
Humans can't seem to coexist with ghouls either. Is his entire life an offshoot of the buried myth that is Kaneki Ken? That icon of madness and strength, and the bridge between ghouls and humans that never would be. Is he a counterfeit, a construction substituting for the amnesiac Centipede? How far must they run to be safe, from others, from each other?
He feels that they have been running for a long time. Sulkily, the other him snaps his book shut and tells him not to run, then.
As if in response to this, his door is unlocked from the outside, apparently tempting him to attempt escape. The warden tells him crisply, 'Special Class Arima is waiting for you,' and then man-handles him courteously to a new interrogation room.
He cannot speak to him, even though the concept that the investigator had helped to create currently dominates his consciousness. He has become as brittle as thin ice, and if he moves he will crack.
The quiet words that Arima-san speaks make little sense to him. How is it possible to become immune to RC suppressants? He remembers thrashing against straps fastened too tight, and laughing hysterically because they kept breaking their silly little scalpels against the armour that was his skin. But of course, they were able to reach a high enough dose, eventually. Needles in his eyes. Hastily, he pushes the hazy memory down.
Arima-san stalls for longer than he expects him to. The fluorescent light reflects off his glasses from time to time, hiding his eyes and making it difficult for Haise to read his expression. He is not entirely sure what Arima-san is even trying to say.
His injuries had healed in a week. His diet then was probably better than his diet now. At least, he thinks his body would have been more resilient. There is only one real explanation, and so Haise asks the obvious question.
Naturally, Arima-san doesn't reply to it.
When you define a thing, you limit it. It was the question he had to ask, but it was a question which was nearly impossible to answer, no matter who asked it and who was expected to respond. From what Arima-san says next, though, he thinks he can understand.
(This is as far as we can go. This is the last and only choice that I can give you.)
It's enough, from the only father he has ever known.
'You are yourself,' she had told him. She put her arms around him. He was taller than her, but she managed to cradle his head against hers, her hand comforting on the back of his neck. No one could see the tears from this angle. For a while, it was safe, and it was warm. It wasn't okay, but he felt somehow that maybe it could be, eventually.
She asserted to him quietly, 'Names are just names,' and he cried himself empty to the unconditional love in her voice.
Classical Greek tragedies typically concern the destruction of the main character, especially through death. Primarily, there are two ways that this is achieved; internally, or externally.
A protagonist can be brought down by something or someone - or some other situation - outside of themselves. The protagonist remains pure and pristine. The tragedy is in the destruction of such a one; the robbing of the world of a golden figure, the sullying of an innocent soul.
A protagonist can be brought down by an inherent flaw. Hubris, for one. Adultery, for another. Is the tragedy of such a one the tragedy of self-destruction? It has been said that the concept of fate dampens the effect of tragedy. Fate adds meaning and inevitability to calamity; to remove fate is to suggest an event could have been avoided. If an event could have been avoided, the tragedy deepens. If a person is brought down by their own shortcomings, is that more or less fateful than a person who is destroyed by forces outside of themselves, beyond their own control?
More importantly, if he is the protagonist of a tragedy (hypothetically, of course, for argument's sake), then which is the cause of his destruction? How has he fallen, and has he fallen at all? Which would he even prefer?
Does he need to die for this tragedy to end?
(Let me sleep, and dream a happy dream.)
Difficult or easy, pleasant or bitter, you are the same you:
I am able to live neither with you nor without you.
He wakes for what he thinks is the last time.
Footsteps outside his door, ringing in the echoing cold that persists in Cochlea regardless of the turning of the seasons. The click of the lock mechanism turning, opening. The metallic jangle of steel cuffs. His mind is painfully clear, and every sound is a stone skipped across a still lake, reverberating in his skull. Feigning sleepiness and disorientation, he looks inside of himself as the warden performs the routine cuffing and restraining of a volatile prisoner.
The two years that Haise has lived remain in his memories as a record of his most recent past. Haise's thoughts and feelings are his. To an extent, he is still Haise. That part of him is enveloped by a more solid mental presence, one that has had twenty years to define itself. (This despite the madness that had shredded it in the last year he called himself Kaneki Ken.) He had believed that such an established identity would displace the much younger and much more fragile psyche given the name of Haise. But Akira had been right. He no longer sees any point in disentangling Haise's thoughts from Ken's. It is difficult to categorise them, let alone separate them. They are not the same, but they are not as different as they believed, either.
The schism remains. If he had time, time would have smoothed over the dissonance in his mind. A formerly harsh break would have faded into an old scar. (But he doesn't have any more time.) It would have been something he had to live with, like the hunger, and the fear, and the vestigial voices of Kamishiro Rize and Yamori. But he can't see the future. He cannot say if one day, he would have been able to sit down with a book and find that there was only himself in his own head, perusing the pages. What should he call himself now?
He banishes the useless musing to a dusty corner, along with the memories of torture, old and new, that he has yet to sift through and come to terms with. That's another thing that needs time.
The warden takes him to the research laboratory, and leaves him alone with a single lab assistant. He is puzzled. He hasn't given Arima-san his choice yet, and the lab workers have figured out the hard way that it is better to outnumber him than not. The assistant is wearing nondescript casual clothes underneath a white coat, and a mask. Not one of Uta's fantastical creations, but a medical mask to protect the wearer from common viruses or air pollution. Glasses with thick, black frames hide the rest of the assistant's face. It's a pretty blatant disguise if he's ever seen one. Because of the loose clothes that the assistant is wearing, he is uncertain of their gender.
The stranger pulls their mask down, briefly, so that he can see them smile. If it's meant to reassure him, it backfires. Impatiently, the lab worker hustles him to a seat on a cold bench, but without words. They undo a few buckles on his eternal straitjacket, so that he can free his hands. Apparently, they aren't worried about him going berserk and attacking them. And they act without fear of any security cameras which might expose them as going against the Ghoul Countermeasures Law, as an accomplice to a ghoul in whatever superficial capacity. Then they move off, to fuss with labels and vials and syringes. That is, after they've stuffed a folded note into his partially freed hands. He's not experienced with scientific experiments, but he's pretty sure that the stranger has no idea what they're doing.
He unfolds the note. It's almost cryptic enough to be incomprehensible, which annoys him more than it probably should. Hope is a more devastating thing than despair, in his experience.
The phony lab worker approaches him when it's clear he has read the note. They're holding a syringe. He sighs, but accedes with a nod.
'Let's rest a bit,' he had said, as he led himself by the hand.
The light that passes over his eyelids is intermittent and fickle, like street lights over the windshield of a moving car. There, then not. Then there again. His awareness trickles slowly back into his body. He is lying in the back seat of a car with his head in someone's lap. His neck and shoulders ache a little from being in the same position for too long, and his legs from being crooked against the far door. Otherwise there is no pain. The interior is warm, and there is the low murmur of conversation going on over his head. If this is purgatory, it's rather beyond his expectations. He shifts restlessly, still waiting for the pain to flare up red and vivid, then looks up.
'Oh,' he says, as Hide drips salty tears onto his face. 'It worked.'
It's nearly dawn when Yomo-san and Nishiki-senpai help him out from the car, each of them taking an arm over their shoulders. They probably switched vehicles a number of times, taking long meandering detours over unpaved roads and between garages of safehouses. He is still somewhat muddled from the drug that affected his body's death for him. He thinks that someone in the CCG must have been complicit with the plan, that he was packed into a plain coffin and shipped out so easily. Arima-san had all but promised him that if he chose, he could be 'disposed of' without any further experimentation. Did his involvement go deeper than that?
All of that disappears when they enter the back door of :re. The aroma of freshly-ground coffee beans is heady in his senses. He can't remember the last time he had a decent cup of coffee. Pale morning light gilds the spines of well-loved books, and the trinkets crowded on haphazard, custom-made shelves. It lines the counter of warm, mahogany wood with gold filigree. Somewhere in the front of the café is an arrangement of flowers, touching the air with a delicate and cultured fragrance. Like spring clouds and new beginnings. And the light puts stars in the violet-blue strands of a certain waitress' hair, in the gem-like tears that fall from her eyes.
'Welcome back,' Touka-chan says softly, when she could have said so much more. He expects a punch later, when the moment is over.
For now, though, he smiles from the bottom of his stitched-up heart.
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