There was a mask in Uta’s shop shaped like a rabbit.
It was elegantly sculpted, painted to the tiniest detail, and coated with a layer of real fur, soft to the touch. The stench of the epoxy Uta had used on it had lingered oppressively around the shop for weeks after he first hanged it on the wall for display.
Uta, who was an asshole at the best of times, didn’t even pretend to care that it bothered others. Of course a mask maker wouldn’t notice such a stench, but it would have been a nice gesture to let it air out first.
Even nearly three years after seeing it for the first time, a faint smell like plastic still emanated from it, making Touka’s nose wrinkle against the fumes. Any humans who lived with this thing as long as Uta had would’ve gotten cancer from it by now, probably. No wonder it had never sold.
There was a quiet hum from behind her, a near silent scrape of a scalpel over thin ceramic. Touka huffed a sigh and moved on.
The next mask on the wall was newer, a sleek, metal thing like a mirror, curved into a shield. She pulled a face and moved on before Uta could cough.
An elegant, generic gas mask. A white porcelain doll face. A kabuki mask. A wooden mask like the hull of a tipped ship. A shark.
“Why won’t you take the rabbit?” Uta murmured from around the brush in his mouth. No real question in it, just making her confront reality. Fuck, Touka hated mask makers. Uta was usually the only tolerable one. So insistent.
She huffed again because she didn’t feel like talking, and didn’t look at it. Didn’t have to. Could describe it in perfect detail in her sleep. The bright blue dyed leather mask in front of her seemed more worthy of inspection.
“Turn.” Uta instructed quietly from behind her.
Touka turned and held still while he pressed the half complete mask to her face. The clay was still only leather hard and it smelled like soil. Like the earth. Even under Uta’s hands, it felt cold.
“Nose bridge is too short.” She told him. He hummed again, tilting it in centimeters across her face until something there satisfied him. It had no eyeholes, so she had no clue what he was doing until he removed it. Without the mask, Touka couldn’t avoid looking directly into Uta’s wide eyes, since he had decided to be three inches from her.
Neither of them spoke.
Finally, he pulled away to stand at his full height, one of his tattooed hands brushing lightly against her cheek for a moment.
“You have lower cheekbones than Renji,” He said.
A Greek statue had lower cheekbones than Renji. So what. That didn’t make Touka special. Wasn’t worthy of comment. She didn't rise to the bait of speaking.
Touka stared into the dark corners of the wall far across from her while Uta puttered quietly around his work desk. He came back with a shallow pot, swirling a thick handle in it in perfect circles. Red powder clouded off the end when he tapped it.
It felt soft, but somehow heavy when he applied it to her cheeks, her lips. It smelled like clay. Tasted like clean soil. Like dust.
“Is this my mask?” She asked, just to be a bitch.
“Yes.” He answered serenely, sticking the brush back in the pot and wandering away again. “This is what you wear when you’re around humans, isn’t it?”
Touka sucked in a breath that filled her mouth with clay dust. Tried not to cough.
“I’ve made makeup masks before,” Uta mused, finally parking himself back in his chair where he would hopefully leave Touka to her brooding. “But I don’t think I’d ever wear one.”
When he turned to look at her, he had – of course Uta could apply a flawless eyeshadow and blush in fifteen seconds or less. Of course.
But he was right. It didn’t fit his face. The natural pinking looked good on the humans Touka had seen, and it probably looked okay on her because she looked like them, but Uta – his mask maker’s face wasn’t suited to lifelike colors. The bare hint of blood under skin seemed anathema to the bone white canvas of a ghoul’s face. It seemed especially garish around his eyes, totally crude against the perfect pitch of black and red. His usually invisible white lips looked bigger than she thought they were, but maybe he had painted them that way.
“Add some eyebrows,” She encouraged, feeling better not being the only ridiculous one in the room.
That got her one of his tiny smiles, larger than usual, limed in pink. The towel he rubbed it off with was already well stained with paint. Since he was fundamentally an ass, he didn’t toss it in Touka’s direction.
But she got the point. She had to choose a face.
The Rabbit, as it was, as she had been, was too close to home. Too well known. Involved with Antique, probably. Touka took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. The clay on her lips tasted like ashes.
She couldn’t have the Rabbit. Not now. Not anymore. Not after that. What had even been the point of the first mask? If she had exposed herself and been killed back when she’d been being an idiot, things would be different now. Definitely for her, but for everyone else? Probably better. What had the Rabbit done other than idiotic Dove hunting? What the fuck had the Rabbit ever done for her?
What had Touka done to deserve her mask?
She breathed in again, very slowly, tasting dust, tasting the earth. No salt.
“I want,” She began, “A mask that will not let me be the Rabbit.”
The clay stained the cracks in her lips.
The decision came earlier than she thought it would have to. Although they had new masks, new identities, doves were flocking around every corner, clogging up the streets and cutting them off from hunting. Either they left the Ward for their own protection, or they did something drastic to preserve their life here. What was left of their life here. What few lives were left here.
Touka and Yomo and Hinami, in a metal box. Alone. The echoes were stifling.
No one snarked, because Touka didn’t have a partner for banter. No one watched with amusement as they tried to make coffee from a broken carafe. No one bragged, because there was nothing to brag about. No one read quietly in the corner. No one watched over them, because they were hardly worth watching over.
It hurt. The lack. The silence.
It wasn't a shock when Hinami broke first.
She had stood tall through so much, but she was also growing taller by the day. Touka’s shirt that she had borrowed was a shirt now, not a dress.
They hadn’t been able to stop her when she left to join those fucking idiots when Kaneki hit his moody phase. They hadn’t been able to stop her when she left to chase her mother. They could not stop her now. Touka could only hope that she would prove as strong as Ayato in that place. That she would be able to live there. And live.
She’d never fought Yomo before. Not really. Training, but. That day, when she blocked his sharp glance at Hinami’s tiny packed bag and carefully not-clenched fists, they had skirted breathlessly close to all out war. But since it was Yomo, all he did was tense up painfully and close his eyes against them. Against Touka’s steady stare, Hinami’s determination. Hinami’s strength. Their tension seemed to reverberate off the metal of the cargo container that contained their lives.
Hinami went to Aogiri. Yomo didn’t come back for three days.
When he returned, Touka had the forms she’d printed from the library on the table, her headphones on as she filled them out in painstaking detail. He dropped a newspaper wrapped package of meat at her elbow and went about filling out the freezer.
Once she was finished eating, he returned to her. Stood at the opposite end of the table and watched her write.
“I need better papers,” She told him. “Otherwise I won’t be able to operate a business here.”
His hands tightened against the back of the chair, dwarfing the thin metal. Without a word, he turned away into the other room, stooping under the curtain. Touka wondered if he’d leave again. Continued staring at line 6, trying to figure out what a deductible was.
He returned five minutes later, a folder pale in his grip. Touka stared at him, lowering her headphones.
“Just in case,” He told her quietly.
She held the folder carefully for a few long seconds. When she opened it, the papers for one Kirishima Ayato were on top. The kanji was different. Touka breathed as best she could.
“Okay,” She managed finally. “Okay.”
Yomo could teach her the things she needed to survive, but he couldn't teach her how to be human.
He had never tried, so it was something that Touka had to teach herself slowly, testing the waters on actions and words and attitude with her classmates. With human patrons of Antique. With the occasion stranger.
Arata had tried very hard to be human, but Touka was pretty sure he'd missed the mark a bit, and her memories were clouded with a child's easy acceptance and misunderstanding, anyway.
She was proud of her starting from square one all over again and passing well by human standards.
Two weeks later, Yomo returned to their box with a stack of papers and a burner phone.
The phone spoke for itself. A computer was out of the question, and they couldn’t keep using the library’s public stuff forever, not when she needed to be a reliable contact for humans. It was cheap enough for now, and reliable enough for Touka’s purposes.
The plastic bag full of paper was a mystery, because Yomo never explained what he could dump on the counter and escape from.
They turned out to be pamphlets, probably grabbed from a community center or a student building somewhere. Course registries a couple semesters out of date, a few STEM field syllabus, pamphlets on finance and management courses, brochures about teenage pregnancy statistics, a flyer for on campus drama club shows. The logo was all Kamii.
Yomo couldn’t read. Either he’d braved detection by grabbing everything he saw, or he toughed out some questions to a guidance counselor or bored student desk help. Touka was surprised that she couldn’t honestly say which he would have done. These felt too targeted to young female human highschool student in a poor financial state to be random enough for a stash-and-run.
Yomo didn’t speak much, but the things he did for her, for them, told her the truth. She knew he meant well, that he meant her the best, and that he was trying. That she had his support in this.
She used her new papers to sign up for certification courses. Pulled out her entire meager savings from under the loose tiles in the kitchen and then filled out every scholarship form she could find.
She was a master at faking human expression and enjoyment of bureaucratic processes, so it all came together slowly but surely. Once she had the human stamp of approval on Food Preparation, Business Financial Management, and Normal Human Female Social Behavior, she got her license handed to her.
The kanji was all wrong, but the pride was real.
She read every book she could get her hands on about business management, then took out a loan for a building. It was small, but homey, all dark wood and enclosed spaces. The perfect creature comforts for ghouls. The concerned estate manager had tried to gently steer her toward more human options, but Touka knew what she was about. Knew who and what she wanted to prioritize.
:Re opened its doors on a Tuesday. There was a light rain under a bright, hot summer sun to reflect off the freshly washed windows. Nishiki, who had reappeared out of the woodwork one Saturday, was roped into helping her put up shelves until they ran out of wall space. Yomo put Uta’s blessing to their luck on one of the shelves. For a while, it was the only thing besides her books and the flowers they picked that the shop had to its name. It became an easy conversation stater, with humans who were fascinated by the ugly little mask, and by ghouls who were awed that this place was blessed by a mask maker.
They celebrated, in their own quiet way. No ghouls were comfortable gathering in shops again just yet, so it was a family affair. They had one another, still. Touka wasn’t alone in this.
It got easier over the months.
Money came in steadily, small, but more than either Touka or Yomo – who had his share of looting the corpses of drug dealers and yakuza – had ever seen.
After a year, they sold the shop. Touka only needed a smaller loan, this time. The second opening of :Re was in a larger building, with wider windows, but a dark enough interior to feel welcoming.
Yomo waited until they were done cleaning and setting up the furniture and shelving to appear, solemnly placing Uta’s first blessing above the door, then moving aside to allow Uta to present her with a second token. It looked like a rabbit.
This time, Touka was the one to place it on the shelf, with the strength of her own two hands.
Uta tried to order a coffee, but they didn’t have the machines set up yet. Nishiki passed him a half emptied can.
The second Welcome ceremony was more grand than the first. The ghouls who packed the building were all local, and about as recovered from the loss of Antique as Touka was. And they were glad to welcome this new cafe, this new, grander shelter. Touka was a 20th Ward ghoul born and raised, so there was something in the familiar blood rites that eased her nerves about the new shop and made her feel more welcome. More settled.
It made the darkness of the still unfamiliar corners into a welcome sight. Filled the cafe with the scent of life, a promise to guard and protect Touka’s cafe. Touka’s home.
Uta's blessings seemed to glow subtly when refreshed, deepening the shadows as the night wore on, as Touka and her small family and her patrons Welcomed a new safe house to the Ward.
It reminded her, with a distance that had crumbled the pain into nostalgia, of the shrine to the King that their father had kept in the back of their closet, where it was darkest. Her father had ventured into the 24th Ward when her parents were young, and had presented it to her mother as a courting gift. Hikari hadn’t been as religious as Arata, but she still must have appreciated the gesture because she’d always joined them to bloodlet on the new moon.
When things had gone wrong for their little family, her father had begun bringing the King drops of the blood from the doves he’d killed. One night, Touka had caught him, and he’d told her that it was a special rite, in honor of their mother. She’d believed him. She hadn’t known what it really was. She’d only been a kid. Hell, maybe it was even true. Not even Yomo knew what Ward he’d been from.
But then, he’d abandoned the King.
Even after everything that had happened to her and Ayato, she couldn’t bring herself to do the same. They’d lost their shrine to the Doves, so they’d followed the scent of the King and wound up in hell itself. The 24th Ward was decimated on a weekly basis, and full of starvation. Once Ayato had gotten hold of a piece, they had booked it. Never looked back. But it had changed something in them, changed them. Broke something irreparable in Ayato; turned Touka's grief to rage.
Touka had been the only one at Antique aside from Irimi who worshiped the King, after Ayato left. Nishiki was as skeptical as life itself, and Yoshimura was more spiritual than religious, as a person. It had just been her and Irimi, in the room with the windows blocked from all light, setting single drops of blood on the King, watching the light slowly build. Kouma would meet them outside the door, after, with mugs of hot coffee.
Touka had spilled more blood than she should have, as things got worse and she had nothing left to run to. Combined with always eating human food, she had been left weak. Idiot. Things would have gone differently, had she been clear headed. She should have listened to Irimi, to Yoshimura. To Kaneki. To the King.
She’d sobbed and pleaded with the King after Antique fell. Begged for strength. Went back to proper worship, a drop in the darkness. Stopped eating human food. Stopped trying to be so human when she wasn’t.
It had paid off. When she was back on the proper path, the King’s shadow guided her steps. And now, she was here.
This was where she was meant to be – in a well founded home, folded into the shadows of a human neighborhood, surrounded by ghouls who would she would surround in return. Peace had been restored to the 20th Ward. Everything still ached, but everything was being set right.
Everything would be okay, some day.
The walls were less bare than :Re the first had been, and now Touka could fill them out even further.
She was a little hesitant, at first, about bringing out her taxidermy. It was a weird hobby, even for a human. But it was something she got into during her coursework when Yomo accidentally included a taxidermist’s community meeting flyer in with the usual detritus he continued bringing her. It had been expired, but when she ended up passing the same building on one of her runs, she found the new meeting date. It had been an impulse, but the mostly older humans there had become regular sources of income in the shop and would be good community vouchers if she ever fucked up.
Her collection had grown substantially over the years, and she was honestly pretty proud of her later work. And it added to the aura of the shop – humans punks became a pretty steady customer, and other ghouls found the small statues to death quaint. Animals were fairly important to surface Ward ghouls: after all, they were both the hunters and prey to humans just the same. Masks were modeled after them for a reason.
Although Touka still had personal problems with birds and avoided them almost entirely, she knew Yomo was fond of them – although, that could also just have been Loser – and gifted him a vulture, which he had placed above the bar. Touka hadn’t enjoyed working on it as much, but it had been worth the discomfort to see that kind of light in Yomo’s usually dull eyes. She’d overheard him explaining about it to Uta in painstaking detail when he was drunk, trying very hard to get the process exactly right. He’d almost done it, too.
Yomo occasionally brought in a strange piece of something or other he scavenged from somewhere as a gift. Touka had found weird things on the shelves that smelled like Nishiki but came with no explanation. He must have had cash stashed somewhere because only thrift malls could produce the oddities he found, and not even he was stupid enough to get in it with humans over stealing. But it was mostly her taxidermy and Yomo's odds and ends that filled the shop.
Another odd piece that turned up in the Yomo Files were business cards. Touka knew he knew what those were. He watched too much TV in the back to be ignorant about the biggest crime drama reveal trope. But that must have given him ideas about the general usefulness of business cards, because he often picked them up wherever he got his papers.
Thing was, he might have been right.
There was one card that kept appearing. A solid gray cardstock, a black logo like the wheel of a ship, no words, no titles, no names, but addresses. Addresses in fancy fonts, in changing sizes and styles and colors. Every week they were different. Touka had about seven of them in a drawer, some repeats of the same addresses, but most of them unique.
The taxidermy thing had turned out well, but this was a whole different ward. Touka wondered, but made no moves.
Until the day she caught Yomo in the room when she had picked another one out of the usual bag.
“That’s down the street.” He said. A warning to be careful, maybe. A tired complaint about territory invasion, maybe. An admission that he had somehow learned to read, had read the address, and then found the place, what the fuck Yomo -
“It’s the same,” He said with a shrug, looking awkward about being called out.
The same. Touka turned the card over in her hands, watching the wheel turn. The address was just like the others; font and size and shape all weird, like it was taken from a photo of the address on the building.
It was the same as the address on the building, she realized dumbly, this is for people who can’t read.
This was meant to be found by ghouls.