Mado sets the letter down. Across the table, Washuu Yoshitoki has his fingers steepled in front of his chest. Unusually, he is not looking over them. He is looking at the ceiling.
Arima clears his throat. "Is this a good thing?"
Washuu continues to study the ceiling. "We need the money," he says, very bluntly before adding, "Tsukiyama-sama is not known for making friends."
Mado does not have a comment on this. She isn't, and she doesn't think Arima is either, deeply privy to the inner social politics of the CCG's funding sources. They receive a modest budget from the Japanese government, but their recent expansions more than necessitate their private resources. While the reasons for the expansions in personnel and resources are things that can only benefit the CCG and society a large, Mado privately wonders a bit about how plausible it is to place so much upon the Quinx Programme. Is this really the best way forward? Perhaps Mado is already becoming old-fashioned.
Arima sets the copy of Macbeth on the desktop as well. "Tsukiyama-sama is the one I've never met."
Washuu looks to Arima, frowning slightly. "No, you did," he says, and Mado sneaks a look at Arima just because it's quite unusual for Arima to be wrong. "But it would have been when you were eighteen and he was ten. Do you remember the uniquely coloured boy at the New Years gala?"
The faint look of surprise on Arima's face is telling enough. "The loud one with purple hair?"
Washuu nods. "He's not loud now."
Mado has to agree with that assessment. The impression she had of Tsukiyama from the previous July was a sickly young man with dramatic mannerisms that disguised a mind like a steel trap. He appears to command an unusually loyal house in comparison to what Mado has seen of the Ichinose and Minamoto. He is able, most alarmingly, to play Washuu like a fiddle, especially when they talk about his mother.
Mado looked up Tsukiyama Sumire. There is quite a lot of information on her, even though she has been dead for eighteen years. Originally of the now defunct Tokugawa family, she was involved in the arts as both a talented pianist and a generous philanthropist. She died of ovarian cancer at twenty-seven. From what Mado can tell, her marriage wasn't particularly happy. It's telling that there are far more accessible pictures of her attending events and performances with other men, including Washuu Yoshitoki, than with her own husband.
She mentions this to Arima after the meeting is completed. They're in the elevator, Arima with the book and letter tucked under his arm to give Sasaki when they meet up for training. The light reflects off Arima's glasses, obscuring his eyes from view.
"It would be troublesome for Sasaki to fall in love," Arima says.
Mado agrees but not for the reason Arima probably thinks she does. Sasaki would love with all his being with the sort of passion that overpowers everything else. Tsukiyama, Mado knows, would use that to his full advantage. Tsukiyama, in her first impression of him, had such a sincere smile. He seemed sweet even, very unlike what she had been expecting. But Mado remembers the way he looked when he stopped smiling. It wasn't a door shutting. It was the drawing of a cloth, exposing something awful underneath. Those eviscerating eyes: that is what Tsukiyama really is.
"Yes," Mado says.
They need the Tsukiyama money. Mado isn't sure it's worth the cost.
This is not, of course, an unusual event. Shuu is very used to blood from all sorts of sources. He knows what it tastes like coming from every part of the body at any stage in life and death. He knows what his own tastes like and how it differs from others. Shuu, if he was still the sort of person to joke, would say that his blood can safely be classed as a delicacy.
Right now, though, the bleeding is inconvenient. He is sitting inside of the filled bathtub. He is bleeding from a cut just over his ankle. He made the cut with the shaver. It's an old-fashioned piece, made from quinque steel. In a lot of ways, this is an antique. It stings a little because the shaving cream got in it. If he was healthy, then he would have already healed. Because he is not and likely will never really be again, it is still bleeding, sluggishly, staining the shaving cream.
Two sharp knocks on the bathroom door.
"Shuu-sama," Kanae's voice filters through the wood, "why do I smell blood?"
Shuu sighs. He sets the shaver down on the edge of the bath. Leans back to rest his shoulders and head on the hard curve. He didn't used to be this incompetent.
"I cut myself shaving," he says to the ceiling. "It's fine."
The door opens. There is, Shuu thinks dully, a sort of grand indignity to the situation, but it's rather pointless to ruminate upon. Kanae picks up the shaving tools on the edge of the bath, looking at the cut that is now mostly healed. He inhales, an unconscious thing, before looking at Shuu, his eyebrows pinched and lips thin. Shuu wonders sometimes what Kanae even sees in him.
"It's fine," Shuu repeats.
Kanae inclines his head slightly before turning away. He clearly thinks otherwise. Shuu watches Kanae put away the supplies. He briefly debates telling Kanae that he can state his opinions. Kanae will be coming of age soon, and he needs to start asserting himself more overall. He's not a particularly articulate or politically astute person, but Kanae needs to figure out how to present himself as something more than a servant. The more Shuu thinks about it, the more he realises that he and Kanae have let Kanae's education slide.
He watches Kanae turn back, the way his hands fall to his sides. His fingers slide along the seems of his slacks, searching for tactile comfort.
"The water is getting cold," Kanae says.
Shuu breathes out. Sits up. He lets Kanae help him out. Towel and dry him off. Kanae holds open Shuu's dressing robe to be slipped over his arms, his shoulders. Tied neatly at his waist. Shuu used to be able to do these things for himself. He didn't have to do them, but he did. He took pride in it, in that demonstration of his independence. Now, Shuu is as financially and socially independent as he will ever be. He is not unaware of the irony.
Matsumae is in Shuu's bedroom when they emerge from the bath. She has two ledgers and the business calendar tucked in her arms. It's the ledgers for the arts and education donations and the food industry import interests. Shuu sits down at the vanity as Kanae passes over to the wardrobe to find something for him to wear.
"You have a conference call with Ichinose-sama and Soseki-san at two," Matsumae says as Shuu accepts the calendar and ledgers. "You had indicated that you would like to review our university donations, which is why I've provided that ledger. The other: there has been a disruption in brine shrimp shipments in Okinawa. I have updated the ledger to reflect that."
Shuu opens the calendar. It's April 1st. In France, it's called poisson d'avril. Fish of April. April Fish. He wonders if the koi need feeding.
Kanae opens a drawer. "Is the conference call video?"
"No," Matsumae says.
Shuu puts the calendar on the vanity. He opens the arts and education ledger, laying the heavy covers and large pages over his lap. Matsumae takes a few steps to his right to stand behind him. Her fingers catch at his wet hair, pulling it away from his face and back over his shoulders. It was in danger of dripping on the paper. Shuu has given up trying to think of these things.
"Handai does not need a two million donation."
Matsumae picks up a wide paddle brush. "Perhaps not."
Shuu smooths a slightly folded edge of the most recently used page. "We haven't had business in Osaka for a decade." Not since the Roswald family was massacred. "We can allocate that elsewhere if they don't react."
It's a university. Of course they'll react. Kanae steps into view, two sweaters in hand. One is purple with little silver accents. The other is white with bluebells. They're thin fabric and would have to be layered with at least one other shirt. Shuu feels like sighing.
"What happened to the plain white sweater?"
The look of pained disapproval on Kanae's face answers the question. "I'm sorry, Shuu-sama," Kanae says, although he doesn't look sorry at all, "but Hinami and I couldn't stand it."
Shuu sighs. "It was comfortable."
Kanae has gotten over the annoying habit he used to have of grinding his teeth, but his jaw still tenses momentarily. "It looked like a marshmallow."
If only, Shuu thinks, Kanae could be half this assertive about other subjects. He doesn't say this aloud, though, because it'll only upset Kanae. He does wish they had at least asked if he would like to keep the sweater for sleeping in. He would have promised not to wear it out of his room. Did it really bother them that much? Was it really that ugly? Shuu doesn't know. He has always lacked perception with this sort of thing.
Matsumae begins to braid his hair. Shuu looks away from Kanae, to the mirror. His mother, as it usually is these days, stares back at him. Both Kanae and Matsumae watch him watch himself. Kanae doesn't really understand these moments. Nor does Hinami. After all, they did not know Shuu's mother. Matsumae did. She knows what Shuu is looking at, knows the ghost that lives inside the looking-glass.
Shuu closes his eyes.
There is a letter for him to read by the pond.
Shuu sets the letter on his lap. He looks over the side of the bridge. The koi are bunched together beneath his shadow, swimming in lazy circles. They recognise him and are waiting to be fed.
"Later," he says.
Once, he would have laughed at himself. He's become like his mother, who used to speak to fish and animals as if they were equals. His mother, who smiled so prettily and twisted everyone she met around her little finger. His mother -
Shuu lifts up his hand, pressing his chest. He breathes in, very cautiously, feeling the way his lungs, muscles, ribs respond. It hurts a little bit but not enough to expect a cough. He breathes out carefully, experimentally. It doesn't snag, so he lets his hand return to his lap to pick up one of the clippings. A four panel review of men's colognes and another, probably from an adjacent page, of cuff link matches for shirt cuff types. It makes Shuu smile a little because Sasaki is apparently the type of man to be interested in such details. That is a difference from Kaneki. the thought makes Shuu want to laugh, but he doesn't dare. If he has a coughing fit right now, the letter might end up in the water.
Shuu looks up. He hadn't heard Hinami approach. She has a pale pink winter shawl in her arms. She smiles, worried.
"It's a bit chilly out," she says, even though it's unseasonably warm for late February. "Let me put this on you."
He's not, Shuu thinks even as he inclines his head to agree, so delicate that he can't stand a bit of cold. He's a ghoul, and ghouls don't really catch illnesses caused by viruses in the same way that humans do. Not that there is any reliable scientific research on this, but Shuu isn't familiar with any ghouls who catch colds and the flu. They might fake it for the sake of blending in, or they might have a bacterial infection. Those ghouls are just as likely to incur as humans, which makes immunisation a very annoying process.
Hinami looks up at him, eyebrows raised in a manner that shows she's unimpressed. "It's good to see you be contrary," she says, and it's fondly annoyed in a way that's all her.
Shuu tilts his head back slightly so she can adjust the knot on the shawl. "That's a contradiction."
Hinami shrugs. "It's better than not caring."
Shuu knows what she's getting at. He doesn't know how to explain that he never stopped caring. He has always cared. Shuu just lost the ability to say it. To show it. It got lost somewhere between the rooftop and kneeling with his head to the floor in front of his grandfather. Shuu doesn't know what happened to him. He suspects he could spend his life trying and failing to answer that question.
She pats his shoulders, a light, unconscious motion. Shuu blinks. He's been staring off again, a habit even he thinks is annoying. It's not something he used to do. At least, he doesn't think so. Shuu is becoming aware that he spent a lot of time alone when he was the Gourmet. He hadn't thought it mattered, but he'd realised a couple months ago that he is so rarely alone now that he has somewhat forgotten what it's like to go out for things like coffee by himself.
"What did Sasaki-san say?"
He offers her the letter, keeping the two clippings for himself. Hinami is very quiet as she reads the letter, turning it over onto the back for the end of the last paragraph and signature. She spends a very long time looking at the signature.
"He really is very different."
Shuu nods. She's noticed that Sasaki's penmanship has very little resemblance to Kaneki's. It slants forward whereas Kaneki's leaned back, and it has loops were Kaneki's was unadorned. The change was not as noticeable in his acceptance of Hinami's invitation to Sapporo. It reflected instead how carefully he'd formed each character, unused to writing with a calligraphy pen.
Hinami offers the letter back to Shuu, her expression calm and hard. "Ask him about his work in a way that he'll be able to respond."
The overhead light to the study goes on. Shuu blinks, looking up from his book. Matsumae has a cafetière and glass cup balanced on her left forearm. The aroma permeates. It's a Viennese roast that Shuu remembers he used to enjoy.
"You shouldn't read in the dark," Matsumae says as she crosses the room, setting the coffee on the serving table.
It's a nostalgic dialogue. When Shuu was younger, he used to sneak a torch under his blanket to continue reading long past his bedtime. He'd liked the summer back then because there was more natural light for reading by, and he'd liked it even more when he was very young because Mother would read with him if she had a free evening. Either that or they would play the piano together, those little duets designed for children to play with their parents.
Shuu places his bookmark. Sets his book on one of the few open surfaces of his desk. He waits for Matsumae to finish pouring the coffee. He accepts the cup, holding it from the handle and the bottom.
"A philosophical inquiry."
Matsumae doesn't smile, but Shuu can tell when she's amused. "Yes?"
"When Grandmother killed Father, was it because he was a philanderer and his scandals had finally outweighed the usefulness of his personal connections?" Shuu takes a sip of coffee; he imagines he can taste something warm and slightly sweet. "Or was it simply because he had finally moved up from a B to an A ranking due to eating that socialite?"
Matsumae shakes her head a little bit. "You are too obvious."
Shuu sips his coffee. It's only recently that he's started to pay attention to the family connections that his father generated. Most of them are not financially lucrative, which Shuu is able to deal with fairly rote. Motivations based on money tend to be obvious, and no one enjoys beating around the bush for too long. Shuu has always understood this. His father's connections are more based around favours that can translate politically, financially, socially, or all three. The people that his father did business with are very different from the people Shuu used to deal with as the Gourmet. Those people wanted to eat. Father curried favour just to curry favour. No one waits for the long game in an uncertain time.
A soft noise. It draws him back. Matsumae extends her hand to take his empty coffee cup. She sets it back on the tray, which she picks up to take for washing up. Shuu sits back. Twists his hair between his fingers.
"The atmosphere had changed too much."
Matsumae smiles. There are small wrinkles by her eyes. They aren't nearly as deep as some other women her age. Matsumae doesn't smile often. Their world is not one that allows for that.
She turns. Makes her way out the door. Shuu listens to her soft pace down the hallway. It is a steady, even sound. Shuu thinks it might be the first sound he consciously learned to recognise. Officially, she is recorded in the financial records as a tutor. In truth, she probably raised and cared for Shuu more than anyone else.
Shuu tilts his head back. He stares at the ceiling. Runs his fingers through his hair, twisting the ends around his fingers.
That was not a philosophical inquiry.
Mado stares at the letter. Next to her, Arima is looking at the recipe card. Like the letter, it's handwritten on off-white paper that feels notably more expensive than anything the CCG uses. The stationary is fairly plain, embossed smartly in the bottom right hand corner with the Tsukiyama family mon. Tsukiyama's handwriting is very small and impeccably neat. He uses a very fine-tipped black pen. Mado wonders if he's old-fashioned enough to draft these letters and then reprint them or if this is just his standard.
Arima looks up from the recipe to Washuu. "This is," he says, "bizarre."
Washuu's expression is faintly questioning. "Not really," he says, and if he was a different type of person, he would shrug. "Tsukiyama-sama has always had varied interests."
Arima looks back at the card. Mado doesn't think that's what he meant. The recipe card is just the recipe, reflecting exactly what Tsukiyama described in the letter. It's not easy for Mado and probably Arima to read as it, too, is written in English. Sasaki is likely to struggle with it, too. It indicates that either Tsukiyama was lying about his English ability in his previous letter or that he has a different standard to compare with. Mado suspects the latter. Tsukiyama is from the same social class as Washuu, who did not seem to have any issue with the recipe card. This is probably why Arima has not continued his point. She doesn't press him. She has a question of her own.
"What does he mean that he's afraid of ghosts?"
Washuu sighs. He sits back in his chair, hands on the curve of the arm rests. He looks tired.
"There's a lot that could refer to," he says, and he sighs again before continuing. "I think he's telling the truth that he's still afraid of ghosts. When he was younger, he made no secret that he wanted to live somewhere more modern. He is also likely referring to Macbeth again in an attempt to solicit Sasaki's opinion on the play."
Mado frowns. Whenever they discuss this situation, Washuu makes reference to a past and a present that aren't always entirely distinct from each other. Mado understands that Tsukiyama must have been quite different prior to his illness, but it's unsettling to see how little continuity there appears to be between who he once was and who he is now.
In the elevator, Arima turns to her. His eyebrows are drawn together.
"The recipe card," he says, nodding to it in her hand. "Let me know how Sasaki reacts to that."
Mado nods. She looks down at it. Small, neat handwriting stares back. If it was anyone else's, she would think it was cute.
It's not, she thinks, Sasaki they need to worry about.
Kanae and Hinami are playing chess.
Out of everyone in the family, Kanae is the best at chess. It's not that he's particularly talented. It's more that everyone else is not very good at it. Matsumae doesn't enjoy playing such games, preferring to watch. With Shuu, he used to be too hasty and got too easily frustrated when he figured out he wasn't winning. Nowadays, he over-thinks, second-guessing until the game is drawn out and unrewarding.
"Maybe we should try shogi," Kanae had suggested after they both recently became fed up with a three-hour cat's game that had long ago lost the interest of both Hinami and Matsumae.
"My mother played shogi," Shuu said.
Kanae looked down at their kings and queens, the only pieces left on the board. They are both stubborn people. There will be no winner to this game. Kanae's lips twisted.
"I never thought I'd say this," he'd said, a note of dry humour in the open sadness, "but I miss when you were a sore loser."
Shuu sips a glass of warm blood, trying his best to ignore the way his body questions sustenance. At the coffee table, Hinami frowns at Kanae's bishop, which has just put her king in check. Hinami isn't bad at the game. She simply lacks experience. Kanae and her have begun playing in the past two months since returning from Sapporo. She's caught on quickly, and they've stopped playing with handicaps. Her playing style is cautious but persistent once a weakness is found. It's a fascinating contrast against Kanae's swift and decisive style.
Hinami moves her knight to block the path of the bishop. Shuu sets the cup down on the side table, reaching behind to pull the throw off the back of the couch. It's deep night outside the window. It occurs to Shuu, in the manner that these sorts of thoughts do, that he should draw the curtains. Instead, Shuu lies down. He curls in the blanket, using one of the decorative cushions as a pillow. The cushions have small, repetitive spirals and an unpleasant texture. Shuu doesn't like them.
They both look up from the board. Kanae looks at Shuu. Hinami looks at the cup. She frowns.
"Remind me to get rid of the cushions."
Kanae blinks. He looks at the matching cushion that Shuu isn't currently using as a pillow. Hinami stands up, crossing over to the side table to look into the cup. Kanae frowns at the cushions. Hinami frowns at the cup. They're going to get premature age lines. Shuu feels inordinately bad about this.
"They are ugly," Kanae agrees.
"You need to finish this," Hinami says.
Shuu looks at the chess board. He's missed a couple of plays, and Kanae has Hinami in check again with his rook. Shuu remembers that his mother and Washuu Yoshitoki used to play shogi together in the summer. They sat out under the willow tree that hangs over the pond, the board between them on the bench. Shuu had interrupted them unwittingly as he was prone to, earning that particular indulgent smile adults give precocious and annoying children. It was the same summer that Shuu fell with Matsuri into the pond. Matsuri didn't know how to swim.
Sometimes, knowing what Matsuri became, Shuu wishes he'd had the foresight to kill Matsuri then.
It's dark outside. Shuu shuts his eyes.
Shuu doesn't know why he's like this.
At the same time, he's not surprised. He can see where it came from in some ways. There were days, especially once he started university, when he knew he wasn't well. They didn't happen often, and he was a student with copious disposable income. He could write off a day or two a month where he slept most of the day away. The occasional periods of listlessness and difficulty concentrating were easy to chalk up to boredom. He didn't need to acknowledge how his body sometimes felt like lead; it was just subpar meat or coffee to fault.
It got worse after Kaneki entered his life. Eating himself, recovering, fighting Aogiri Tree: that was comparatively straightforward. But once Kaneki was back and so very changed, it wasn't. The days where he couldn't get out of bed started to occur more frequently, intruding on the rare downtime between information collecting, maintaining that household, graduating from university, and all the other ephemera of life. It was easy to caulk it up to exhaustion or ill-diet because the time he spent with Kaneki was special. It was exquisite. Precious in a way he didn't think to question until it was too late. His selfish desires made sure of that.
Hinami draws the curtains. Light streams in, bouncing off the vanity mirror. Hinami looks at him from the foot of the bed. She frowns, worried.
"You're really pale."
Shuu sits up. Hinami crosses around the right side of the bed, crawling up onto it to place her hand to his forehead. His cheek. The side of his neck. Her frown deepens.
"You're cold," she says, soft and disappointed and upset.
It's his fault. Shuu is a selfish person. He's never had any misconceptions about this part of himself. The fact that Hinami is here with him now, calling him the only nickname he's ever had, worrying over him: even that is a product of his selfishness.
Hinami's eyes flicker back and forth. "Okay," she murmurs, very soft. "I'm going to go get some blood. Don't go back to sleep."
She waits for a short moment. Shuu knows that he should respond, but the best he can manage is a short nod. His throat feels like it's clogged, lips sewn shut. He slept for maybe a hour in the night.
Hinami pulls back. Crawls off the bed. Shuu lies back down, rolling over onto this side to watch her go. She doesn't shut the door as she heads down the hall. The floorboards creak even with the tatami and rugs laid over them. He wonders, not for the first time, if he's trapped her here. If he's trapped everyone here. With him. To live, breathe, suffer, and eventually die in this old, dusty, unchanging place.
He must have fallen asleep because the next thing that Shuu is aware of outside of those thoughts is of Kanae shaking him awake. Kanae is biting his lip, eyes over-bright and upset.
"Shuu-sama," he says, and it's with the false cheer that Shuu is very used to hearing, "it's almost ten. We need to get you dressed."
It's like moving through molasses. Shuu lets Kanae get him up in bed. Drinks the blood that Kanae puts in his hands and guides to his mouth. It tastes like sludge even though Shuu knows logically that no one in the household would feed him anything subpar. Shuu swallows. Hinami passes in front of him and Kanae. The bed dips. Light, uncallused fingers begin to gather his hair.
"You have a paper due tomorrow on the European Court of Human Rights," Matsumae's voice filters in from near the window. "There is also a managerial issue for the Okinawa branch that you may wish to look at. I've placed the information on your desk along with several memos regarding stock options in Ajinomoto General Foods."
Kanae guides his hands down. Takes the cup. Was it finished? Shuu doesn't know. Hinami begins brushing his hair. She's begun at the small of his back, brushing in quick, careful strokes. There must be tangles from tossing and turning.
"I finished the paper," Shuu says.
It comes out rough and cracked. Shuu coughs once. Twice. It doesn't really help the tight, clogged feeling in his throat, so he stops. He wants to shut his eyes, but he might fall asleep again if he does.
"You don't have any meetings or scheduled calls," Matsumae says. "Kanae and I will be going out briefly in the mid-afternoon. We should be back before sunset."
Shuu makes himself nod. The sensation of his head moving up and down. The brush in his hair pauses. He'd forgotten it was being brushed. He stops. Hinami begins again, retracking a stroke over his right shoulder, over his kakuhou.
Matsumae's footsteps. Out the door. Down the hall. Shuu looks his lap. His hands. His nails are getting long. He used to be extremely fastidious about his nails. He had to be, especially when he was hunting a lot. Shuu wonders if he would be half of what he used to be. He probably isn't. He barely remembers what it felt like to be the Gourmet.
"Shuu-sama," Kanae's voice filters in, a couple paces in front of him. "Which do you prefer?"
He needs to look up. The sort of effort used to be enough for him to break into a window on the third story. Shuu attempts to focus on the two turtlenecks that Kanae holds. One is a French mauve. The other is Russian green. Shuu should have an opinion. He doesn't get to chose what he wears when he has to present himself outside of the family. He has to present himself to the greatest advantage, subtle power-plays in beautiful packaging. He used to eat the packaging. But this is his life now.
"The Russian green."
Kanae smiles. It's a little shaky at the edges, which means that Shuu probably took too long to respond. He responded, though, which is better than what Shuu was for quite a long time. They don't talk about it, but even Shuu is aware that he was barely cognisant for quite a while. He may no longer be the Gourmet nor the sword that was so well-honed, but at least Shuu is not that useless creature that inhabited his flesh for two and a half years.
Shuu breathes in. Reaches up to rub the sleep out of eyes. Hinami guides the hairbrush over the crown of his head. Shuu drops his hand back to his lap. Breathes out. Kanae leans over to set the French mauve shirt on the bed, shaking out the Russian green as he does so. It really is a nice colour.
Hinami sets the brush down. Her fingers touch lightly by Shuu's temples. She begins to braid his hair.
"Help me," Shuu says, "get dressed."
A letter from Sasaki comes with the afternoon mail. Matsumae sets it under a bank statement from the Swiss account and on top of an invitation from Ichinose Akira and Sara to their son's fifth birthday. Shuu files the paper statement, which contains no surprises. He opens the invitation. It smells faintly of a sweet perfume. Shuu puts it back into the inbox without withdrawing the response card. There are about ten pieces of other mailigs, but they do not require his immediate attention.
Sasaki's letter bears a postmark from the 1st Ward as did the ones before. It's just heavy enough to either be a very long letter or to contain attachments. Shuu has no doubt that it was read over by at least one of Sasaki's superiors. He wonders if they're telling Sasaki what to write. He wonders if Sasaki even wants to write to him. He wonders, as he cuts open the envelope, how much of a fool he is to continue this farce.
Shuu sets the letter down. He sits back in his chair. Put his hand over his mouth. He can feel himself shaking. He shuts his eyes. There is a high noise. That might be him.
This, he thinks, was a bad idea. A really, really bad idea. On the scale of bad ideas that Shuu has had in the past three years, ranging from taking Hinami into the family to allowing Asahi to fund the Quinx Programme, this probably is closer to the Asahi end of the scale. This hurts more than being pinned into the training room floor for a week in punishment for taking Hinami in. It hurts almost as much as the knowledge that Kaneki was alive but completely out of his reach forever.
"Flower man?" Hinami's voice filters in. "Shuu-niisan?"
Shuu bites down on his hand. It hurts but not nearly enough. He bites harder. Feels flesh give. Hinami makes a sharp, terrified noise. Shuu is vaguely aware of pressure at his wrist.
It takes all of himself, but he forces his jaw to unclench. Open. Hinami yanks his hand away, grabbing his right so he can't repeat whatever damage he's done on his right. Without a barrier, that high noise escapes, ugly and warbling. It makes Shuu want to bite his own tongue off.
The world ripples. Rocks. Shakes. Hinami is shaking him.
"Shuu-niisan, don't! Don't. Don't make me do this -"
He's losing it. Kanae and Matsumae are out. Shuu killed everyone else. If he continues, Hinami will have to do something. Hurt him. Kanae prefers a swift blow to his head. Shuu thinks Matsumae usually drugs him. Hinami is a pacifist. Hinami -
He can't make Hinami do this. He can't make her be someone she fears. He can't be the person to break her. Shuu isn't that selfish.
"Sorry," he says, and it breaks, a voice his doesn't recognise. "Sorry. Sorry sorry sorry sorry -"
Hands. Soft. They touch his forehead. Cheeks. The sides of his neck. They rest on his shoulders, still for a moment before rubbing small, steady circles.
"It's okay," she says, and no one says that, not in this place; only her. "It's okay."
No, it's not. It's not okay. But Shuu doesn't need to tell her that. After all, out of everyone, Hinami probably understands whatever went wrong with him the best. Whatever broke, whatever unhinged itself and fell to its death on that rooftop:
Hinami knows it, too. That understanding: it helps Shuu lift his arms, lets him find enough within himself to pull Hinami close. He doesn't know if it's a hug. He's only read about those in books. He doesn't know what a hug feels like.
"Sorry," he says again because this is so inadequate. "I'm sorry."
Hinami helps him to bed. She doesn't attempt to change him out of his day clothes, and she doesn't attempt to make him eat or drink. Shuu doesn't have the presence of mind to help her get him undressed and redressed, and he's quite certain he would just end up sick if he tries to consume anything. She helps him get under the covers before climbing up onto the bed with him, sitting against his back as she read Sasaki's letter. She doesn't reprimand him, as Matsumae would, for clutching his pillow to his chest.
"Oh," she says, and Shuu doesn't need to ask why.
She folds the letter in half, leaning to set it on the left bedside table. She settles back against him. Breathes out a long sigh. She shifts until her head rests over his ribcage and curls her fingers in his hair.
"We do love and care about you," she says, very soft.
Shuu knows. He does. After all, he feels the same. Hinami, Kanae, and Matsumae: they stayed when no one else would. Chie and Bunko, too, although the circumstances with them are a little different. He employs Chie much as he did in the past, and Bunko is as close as he has to a social and intellectual equal. Perhaps Chie and Bunko are his friends insomuch as he can hope to have friends. Hinami, Kanae, and Matsumae are his family.
She shifts. Shuu forces his body to cooperate so that he lies on his back. Hinami looks down at him. She's pinned her bangs out of her face with little silver slides. They're unadorned.
"This is a bad idea."
She shakes her head. Reaches out to tuck his hair of his face. She smiles at him. There's a heavy sadness to her gaze that ages her. She always had it, even back when her smiles came fresh and easy. It's in this household that she learned calculation and how her sweet, lovely smile could buy anything with a price. It's only with him and Kanae that her smile comes easy and unadorned these days.
"Maybe," she says, very low, "but if you don't do this, you'll regret it."
She's right. Shuu reaches up. Catches her hand. It's smooth and warm but not soft. They're ghouls, and there's no room for true softness in their bodies. That Shuu looks at Sasaki Haise and still expects to see Kaneki Ken: it is a fatal flaw. Neither Kanae nor Matsumae approve of the letters, even though they see the political logic. It makes it appear that the Tsukiyama family still has a vested interest in the CCG, although not the same as it had been under Asahi and Kamiko. It serves as an extended feeler exercise, to see how well Washuu and those higher up the chain control Sasaki and the Quinx, the living examples of how the Tsukiyama family's money has been used. It also gives Washuu and others made privy a chance to observe Shuu and make judgements. It's surveillance, carefully controlled, that goes both ways.
Hinami twines their fingers together. The pads of her fingers are smooth. A pacifist's hand. Shuu, even after years without hunting, still has scars and calluses. A killer's hand.
She gazes at him. Sad, heavy, knowing. Shuu tightens his grip. They are family. They want the same thing.
A single shred of happiness.
"I'll write back tomorrow morning."
Sasaki rubs the pad of his thumb over the last letter of Tsukiyama's name. The ink has a slightly glossy feel even dry. High quality ink. Sasaki doesn't own anything like it.
Next to him, Mado clears her throat. Sasaki, despite himself, starts slightly. He looks over, knowing she can't have missed that. Mado's expression is unreadable as he holds out two VHS tapes. They're labelled on the side in what Sasaki recognises as Washuu Yoshitoki's handwriting. He always makes his downward strokes unnecessarily long, and his recreational handwriting is more in line with calligraphy than function.
"Washuu-san had copies of the performance that Tsukiyama-sama mentions," Mado says, and it's in the bland tone she uses for debriefing. "He suggested that you send these with your reply."
Sasaki sets down the letter and DVD to take the VHS. The slipcases are very clean, and the magnetic tape inside shines slightly. They must have been kept somewhere temperature-controlled and well out of the sun. They're over twenty-years-old.
"That's very kind of Washuu-san," Sasaki says to hide how odd he finds it that Washuu would have something like this but Tsukiyama wouldn't. "Are you sure that this would be alright going through the post?"
Mado shrugs. "Pack it well and state what it is on the mailing slip. It should be alright labelled fragile."
Sasaki nods. It isn't terribly hot yet, so there shouldn't be much danger of heat warping the tape. He sets the tapes on his desk next to the letter and DVD. Next to the letter and Tsukiyama's uniform, tiny handwriting, Washuu's flowing, stylised script looks like a rival school of art. Sasaki wonders if the contrast is generational or just individual aesthetic and personality.
Sasaki breathes in. "Should I," he asks, "accept the invitation?"
He doesn't look at Mado. If he does, she'll see how much he wants to. Sasaki is well-aware how illogical his feelings are. He doesn't know Tsukiyama well at all. Even after spending five days and four nights in Sapporo as a guest of the Tsukiyama family, all Sasaki can say is that they have beautiful and expensive exteriors that hide sad and oddly bereft interiors. It makes Sasaki selfishly glad that he's not from their world. It drives home how indebted he is to it. And yet -
"Yes," Mado says.
All Sasaki has been able to think about is Tsukiyama's smile.
There are koi in the pond that are older than Shuu.
Shuu recognises them. He remembers staring at them for ages, especially in the first year after his mother died. He'd sit for hours, legs dangling between the wooden bannisters. He was a very small child, and his feet hovered well above the water. The koi swam lazily beneath him, attracted to his shadow and the implied promise of food. His mother used to feed the koi.
Shuu breathes out. He sets the fish food tin to his left. Below him, the koi are in a frenzy, lips popping open wide to swallow as many pellets as possible. It reminds Shuu of the salivating crowd at the Ghoul Restaurant or, when he was younger, some of the parties held here or at other family's estates. He remembers gaping, gasping mouths, covetous eyes, ecstatic faces. He remembers how he slotted in so well to that world. And he remembers how, when he was very, very young, he would cling to his mother's hand until she pried his fingers off and passed him to Matsumae.
"Don't be so clingy, Shuu," she would always say. "Matsumae, make sure he doesn't get into trouble."
Don't cling. Don't get into trouble. Don't laugh. Don't cry. Don't react. Don't. Don't.
Shuu hits his head against the railing. Once. Twice. Not too hard. His heart hammers in his throat. His lungs twist, contract, threaten to rebel. Calmato. Calm down. His fingers twist in the fabric of his pants. He forces his mouth to open so he won't grind his teeth. Drags in one breath. Lets it out. Another.
He tries not to think about what he looks like. Despite all that has come to pass, Shuu is still who he once was in vanity. He's not blind to how wasted his physical condition is. Rather, Shuu is intimately aware of it. He uses it to his advantage if he wants to move a meeting into a location of his own choosing, and he is well-aware that his resemblance to his mother is a great tool when under the eyes of previous generations. With most of the other ghouls of his social class, Shuu can no longer be certain he'll be able to best them in combat. He needs all the tools at his disposal.
It's an effort, but Shuu turns his head towards Kanae. He's standing at the foot of the bridge. His hair is tucked up into a broad-brimmed hat, and he's carrying a box of gardening tools. It's not terribly sunny, but Kanae shares Shuu's vanity. His skin is naturally paler than Shuu's. It wouldn't do to develop freckles or other sunspots.
"Are you well?"
Shuu inclines his head. Something like a nod. Kanae purses his lips, clearly not believing him, but he doesn't press. He adjusts his hold on the box, shifting it to rest under his left arm.
"Hinami told me you've invited the Doves," he says, and there's steel to his tone. "I need to know: what are you planning?"
He's showing backbone. It makes Shuu smile. If this had been a year ago, Kanae wouldn't have asked anything near that. He would have bitten his lip and nails and kept his head down, accepting Shuu's choices as his own. That was the type of obedience that Kamiko and Asahi expected and beat into them. Never question. Never thinking. Never feeling. Of all qualities, obedience was prized.
Shuu hated it.
He lifts his hand. Gestures. Kanae steps onto the bridge. He sets the box of gardening tools down, sitting down next to Shuu. He tucks his knees up against his chest, a childish position, but his gaze maintains its intensity.
Shuu reaches out. He adjusts Kanae's hat so that the brim casts a shadow over the back of his neck. He hopes that Kanae is wearing a good sunscreen. He smells faintly, chemically sweet, but that could just be soap. Shuu's nose isn't what it once was. Kanae's gaze softens a little. Appreciative. Openly loving.
"What do you think of such experiments?"
Kanae sobers. He catches Shuu's hands as they draw back. Twines their fingers together. It is a simple hold with very little grip between them. Kanae's hands are very warm.
"I think it's dangerous," he says, and it's obvious he knows they're talking about more than one things. "It's playing a game with unknown variables. You're too cautious playing chess these days."
Shuu breathes out, feels his smile quirk. "I thought you wanted me to find a new game to play."
Kanae scowls, eyebrows drawing together. "I meant a board game," he says, surly, "not something where your feelings are playing pieces."
Against his will, Shuu laughs. It's an unhealthy noise.
"Every game utilises instincts."
Kanae stares at him. It's very quiet. He takes a deep breath.
"You can't trust your feelings, Shuu-sama."
He's right. Of course he is. Shuu rubs the pad of his thumb over the skin between Kanae's thumb and forefinger. It's the only part of Kanae's hand that's smooth and soft. Kanae looks down, watching the motion.
"I'm not going to lose," Shuu says. "I promise."
Kanae swallows. His eyes are wet. He swallows again.
"When I get married," Kanae says, very small and very afraid, "I'm not going to stop loving you. It doesn't work like that."
Shuu knows. Bunko knows, too. After all, they are both products of loveless, political marriages. They've seen those unhappy people's lives wax and wane. Bunko ended her parents' lives, perhaps a little hastily. Shuu waited it out until he could no longer. It's a vicious, brutal cycle. They both want to break it.
"I would never ask that of you."
A nod. Kanae knows, too. He's an outsider, even though he's more like this world than the one he came from. Kanae's world was vicious and brutal, too, but it wasn't cruel in the same way. Kanae's family was killed by outside forces. Kanae knows how to love something and not be responsible for destroying it. He is Bunko's best chance at breaking the cycle. For that chance alone, Bunko is more than happy to enter into a political marriage. It is not loveless. It is not the same as what came before.
Kanae looks up at him. He's fearful, but there's a backbone. Something all his own.
"If you're going to use Sasaki Haise to expose the CCG, he needs to choose you. It's not just a matter of checkmate. You need to be certain he won't expose you in turn, and you need to make sure no one suspects what we are."
Shuu hums. "A knight's tour."
Kanae hums, too, his eyes flickering. "You don't have to complete it. Just close it. We don't know all the variables yet."
Shuu nods. Kanae smiles, open and loving. It draws a smile back to Shuu's face.
Below them, the koi swim in their shadows. They make lazy circles.
Ichinose Shuichi, Minamoto Bunko, and Shuu are taking coffee in the library. It resembles hundreds of scenes from Shuu's memory, except it was Bunko's father and Shuu's grandfather sitting with Shuichi. Shuu has no fond memories in this set up. Bunko's smile, cruel and sharp, indicates she has no fondness for such memories either.
Shuichi hums, eyes closed as he swallows a sip of coffee. He sets the cup down on the saucer. It makes no sound. Bunko holds hers around the rim with her fingertips. Her wrist rocks slightly back and forth, swirling the liquid and causing steam to rise up between her fingers and around her palm. Shuu holds his cup from the handle, cupping the bottom with his other palm. His stomach is a rock, and he hasn't actually drunken any off his coffee. The sip he took was faked. Bunko would be able to tell. Shuichi hasn't looked at Shuu properly once.
Bunko sets her cup down, clinking it lightly and deliberately carelessly. "I have no intention to renew the donation to the CCG if they don't further stabilise the Quinx programme or produce a higher level of quinque."
Shuu sets his cup down, using the pad of his palm to make sure it makes no sound. "They haven't advanced very much regarding quinque in quite a while."
Shuichi chuckles. "At least not anything they're willing to tell us," he agrees, and there's that slightly condescending tone he always uses with them. "Tsuneyoshi has always been a hard one."
Tsuneyoshi is Shuichi's contemporary, and they've been at their generation's part in this game for over seventy years now. Since just after the Second World War. Quinque technology saw great use in the war. That has been conveniently forgotten. Shuu folds his hands in his lap. He looks out of the tall windows. The day is overcast, the sky completely grey. There's a storm forecast for tonight.
Shuu turns his attention back. Shuichi smiles at him. A benevolent expression. It doesn't match the insult of the address. It doesn't match the glitter in his eyes.
"How were those Quinx as guests?"
He says Quinx like a curse. Shuu lets his head tilt. Shuichi watches the motion, the exposed curve of neck. Shuu has long suspected that Shuichi desired his mother.
"They were very polite," Shuu says.
This makes Shuichi laugh. Bunko laughs, too, but it's not her real laugh. It occurs to Shuu that he is probably the only person now alive who knows what Bunko actually sounds like when she laughs. It sounds like her true singing voice: very low and somewhat harsh.
"Of course," Shuichi chuckles, wrinkles by his eyes deep and mired. "Little lambs must be desperate for approval."
If Shuichi was human, he would be exactly the type of person that Shuu would have liked to eat in high school. The irony that Shuichi is one of the handful of people in this world that Shuu cannot kill does not escape him. Shuu reaches up to brush his hair out of his face. He forces himself not to hold onto it. It would be taken as a sign of weakness.
"They aren't very good agent material," Bunko murmurs.
"No," Shuu agrees.
They're too fragile. Shuu didn't need to watch them for very long to figure that out. They're too much like their mentor, who has so many holes inside of him. The CCG is playing with fire in this. It's different from making quinques. A kagune and a quinque on their own cannot think. Quinx, on the other hand, are just as human and ghoul as their parts.
Shuichi smiles again, that stupid, benevolent look. "Well, if they all die, then that solves our problem," he says before picking up his coffee cup. "But if they could be used to harvest material for quinques -"
Shuu coughs. Both Shuichi and Bunko freeze. Shuu pulls his hand away from his mouth. There's spit and blood. No wonder they reacted. Shuu sighs. He stands up slowly, his dirty hand cupped upwards and his other politely covering it as he bows slightly. Even that slight inclination makes his head spin.
"Excuse me for a moment."
They both make polite murmurings. Shuu steps away, his vision only partial. He passes out of the library and down the hall to the half-bath. He turns on the hot water, pushes his furisode out of the way, and puts his dirty hand underneath with a long sigh. He hadn't actually meant to cough, but sometimes his body makes excuses for him. The turn of the conversation doesn't make him regret it, though.
When he steps back out into the hall, Matsumae is there. She looks at him, an eyebrow slightly raised. Shuu shakes his head minutely. She inclines her head and turns down the hall towards the kitchen. Probably to make a fresh pot of coffee. Shuu crosses back up the hall to the library. Bunko is sitting with her arms slung around the back of the chair. Shuichi has finished his coffee. They both smile at Shuu, sharp and fake.
"Yes," Shuu says as he retakes his seat, "and I do agree: it would be good for the CCG to have a renewable source of kagune for quinque production. After all," and he smiles, soft, small, and very, very sweet, "Cochlea has proven to be less secure than in the past."
Matsumae brings coffee and a package. Shuu recognises the handwriting as Sasaki's immediately. It makes Shuu raise his eyebrows. It's unusual that Matsumae will bring anything considered personal to a business meeting. She must think it will help in some way. Shuichi and Bunko both look at the package as Shuu accepts it with unbridled interest.
"Oh my," Shuichi says, lips pulled back into a toothy grin, "I thought you were single, Shuu-kun."
Gross, Shuu thinks, deep within himself. On the outside, he smiles, a little wistfully.
"I am," he says, lifting his hand and waving vaguely. "It isn't as if my health allows me out much."
"Ah, to be young again," Shuichi sighs.
I hate you, Shuu thinks dully. He pulls the tab on the package to expose more bubble wrap. He pulls it out. Sasaki's letter is taped to the mass of bubble wrap, which is further taped up with several layers of clear packaging tape. It's a good thing that it's all clear plastic. It would look like a bomb otherwise.
"Matsumae, could -" She's holding out scissors. "Ah. Thank you."
He cuts the letter off first and puts it on his lap for safekeeping. He won't read it here unless it's absolutely necessary, and he certainly won't share it's contents with Shuichi or Bunko. If Shuichi asks about it in the future, Shuu will come up with some way to make it seem less personal. If Bunko asks, there's no point in lying, and she will ask.
Shuu cuts away one end of the bubble wrap package. He feels his eyebrows raise. A dual case of VHS. He has no clue why Sasaki would be in possession of VHS. He sets the scissors down and pulls out the case, turning it so that he can read the side labels. Washuu Yoshitoki's handwriting blinks up at him, spelling out Macbeth (Verdi) - Sumire on pianoforte.
There is a roaring in his ears. He is probably quite pale. He wishes, absurdly, that this was just a bomb. It would be easier piecing himself back together.
"What is it?"
Bunko. Shuu needs to react. He should say something. Say something. Say something
"Something," he says, and it sounds very faraway for all the effort he makes to force himself to form the word, "I requested."
He holds out the tapes to her. Bunko takes them. She looks at the labels. She laughs, a bright, terrible, dishonest sound. She passes it to Shuichi. His eyebrows go up. He stares longer than the writing takes to read.
"How wonderful!" Shuichi exclaims, and it's tremulous and honest. "There's too few recordings of your mother. Yoshitoki-kun must have a soft spot for you."
"Yes," Shuu says; it makes he want to scream. "If you don't mind, I would like to read this letter."
"Of course, of course," Shuichi says, smiling indulgently.
Shuu doesn't dare look at Bunko. She knows the truth, but she's always had a much better poker face than Shuu. She won't be able to help him. Only Shuu can help himself. He accepts a letter opener from Matsumae.
The urge to scream is stronger than before. Shuu cannot. He refolds the letter. Puts it back in the envelope. He hands the envelope to Matsumae, who is already holding the tapes. She has no light in her eyes. She suspects she's miscalculated. Shuu can't let her blame herself. It is not her fault that Shuu plays these kinds of games.
He turns back to Bunko and Shuichi. Bunko is drinking her coffee. Shuichi sits back, gazing at Shuu with a slick sort of curiosity. It reminds Shuu of the sort of looks his father would throw women at parties. Shuu picks up his coffee. It's just below boiling. He takes a deep sip, smiling very small. Like he has a secret.
"Ah," Shuichi chuckles, eyes glittering darkly, "to be young again."
Sasaki swallows. He's lying in bed. He's just woken up. The letter was on the metal side table, next to a paper cup slightly soggy with water. He is in the Ghoul Detention Centre for the night, since he lost control so badly today. Lost Torso. Lost Serpent. Nearly lost himself. Everything aches.
He rereads the letter again. He traces the pad of his forefinger over the s. Then the a. Then the f. The e.
There is a camera facing the bed. Whoever is on watch can see him doing this. The SS-Rank Ghoul Haise, tracing a word on a letter. The Rank One Investigator Sasaki Haise, treating a letter like it's from a lover. Sasaki swallows. Traces the uniform curve of the capital S in the signature.
Sasaki lays the letter down. Over his chest. He tucks his arms over it. Rolls onto his side. He curls until his thighs are pressed against his arms. It crinkles the paper. Sasaki presses his forehead against his knees.
Who are you?
"I am... Sasaki Haise..."
Both Hinami and Kanae are tense. Shuu doesn't blame them. The last time they were in Tokyo, it was when they were living in that dreary apartment in the 5th Ward. No one was happy there. It's why Shuu moved them back to the estate. It might not be a pleasant place, but at least it isn't a black hole.
Matsumae clears her throat. Shuu glances over at her from the front passenger seat. She's the only one dressed in business casual and her hair is unadorned in her usual style. It makes her appear very plain next to the rest of them, dressed in spring formal. Shuu is wearing a winter coat and scarf that's already somewhat unseasonable. The dark green of the coat and the cream cashmere of the scarf are very in fashion, but there's a fine line between fashion statements and concessions to health. Shuu wonders if he'll be wearing winter coats in the summer again this year.
"I will be finished with business by one this afternoon," she says. "It would be optimal to avoid evening rush hour."
Shuu inclines his head. They're already in morning traffic. They had, of course, planned ahead for this, so it is not an issue of being late. Rather, it's simply the dull mundanity of traffic congestion. The car is quiet. Shuu looks out the window, the other cars chugging slowly along. Occasionally a motorcyclist drives between lanes. As a child, he had used to want a motorcycle.
Hinami is sitting directly behind him. Shuu has to twist around slightly to look at her. Kanae did her hair, pinning her bangs back with little pink clips. It would look childish if it wasn't for Hinami's bearing. There's nothing childish about the way she holds herself, straight and contained and proper.
"Could Kanae and I go shopping while we're in Shinjuku?"
Kanae looks away from his window. He is attempting to be reserved, but he's clearly eager on the idea. Shuu can see what she's doing. She's giving him the opportunity to be alone with Sasaki, if they're able to work out a way to separate Sasaki from whoever is attending with him. It is, however, the 4th Ward. Hinami and Kanae aren't going to go looking for trouble, but it's an unstable place. It always has been. It's why Shuu spent a lot of time going in and out of it when he was still the Gourmet. It's where Kanae probably went hunting while they were living in the 5th Ward.
"Be careful," Shuu says.
It's the right answer. Hinami smiles, bright and sunny. Kanae's expression is more contained, but he's clearly thrilled, too. It's rare that they get to do anything outside of the confines of the constrained world. Shuu wishes, more than anything else, he could give them more.
"We will," Hinami says. "Promise."
Shinjuku Gyoen is crowded even just a few minutes after opening. There's tourist groups, couple, families, and groups of friends of all ages out to view the Kanzan sakura. Still, Shuu, Hinami, Kanae, and Matsumae are allowed a fairly large berth. It's probably not because anyone recognises them. It's more likely due to the company joining them. It's Sasaki, Mado, Mutsuki, and Shirazu. They're all in CCG dress uniforms and carrying cased quinque. Even if the general public don't recognise the quinque cases, such formal uniforms are enough to make most people a little wary.
Mado and Sasaki seem to have cottoned on to the slight oddity of the group's appearance by the time they step off the path to join where Shuu, Hinami, and Kanae are seated. Mado and Sasaki's expressions are both apologetic, while Mutsuki and Shirazu look varying shades of confused and uncomfortable. It would be amusing if all four of them didn't show evidence of strain.
Shuu stands up, bowing slightly in greeting. "Mado-san. Sasaki-san. Mutsuki-san. Shirazu-san. I'm very pleased that you could join us."
They bow back, much lower. Shuu can see a few onlookers watching closer now. That's the problem with public places, especially in Tokyo. It's always a showcase. Shuu straightens up, motioning for them all to sit down on the broad blanket. It's a light blue and has very small crane designs evenly spaced throughout the fabric. Shuu is not completely sure, but this might be the same blanket that was used the single time he came here with his parents and grandparents back when he was five.
"Thank you for having us," Mado says, smiling warmly.
Sasaki nods as do Mutsuki and Shirazu, although the latter two don't look any less strained. It is only with years of engrained politeness that Shuu manages to smile a bit more, just as warmly and certainly sweeter.
"Please, it is my pleasure."
"We've brought coffee," Kanae says, and he actually manages to sound and look fairly pleasant as he moves the picnic basket into the middle of the blanket. "It should still warm even after getting stuck in traffic."
"Thank you very much," Sasaki says.
Kanae sets about taking out the large hot water dispenser, coffee pot, grounds, saucers, and cups. Cups to saucers, grounds to pot, hot water over the grounds: it's completely fluid. In this, Kanae is in his element, the years as a servant of the Tsukiyama household clearly on display. It catches all of the Doves' interest, possibly despite themselves. Kanae doesn't flinch. In fact, he smiles, a slightly shy, sunny thing. He takes great pride in what he knows he does well.
"Please allow five minutes for brewing."
Polite murmurs. Shuu glances at Hinami. She's smiling, small and real. It eases the open wound that lives inside of Shuu's chest. If nothing else, this trip is worth it just to see them happy.
When he looks back to the Doves, Sasaki is looking at him. Intense. Shuu doesn't pull the smile from his face. There's no point now that it's already been seen. He's intimately aware of the unpleasant stench of the quinque that are placed behind each of the Doves. He cannot forget what he's dealing with.
"Perhaps," Shuu says, allowing his tone to be as careful as he feels, "I am overstepping, but are you well? You all look very tired."
Sasaki's face falls, his gaze dropping to his lap. Mutsuki looks down, too, but noticeably away from Sasaki. Shirazu looks back and forth between the two of them, his body language screaming his discomfort. Mado's smile is strained.
"It's been very hectic the past couple of weeks with the Torso investigation," she says.
Shuu inclines his head. "Ah," he says, and he smiles apologetically. "I'm sorry that I asked. I hope that today will be a nice break from it?"
Sasaki is still looking at his lap. Mutsuki is looking away. Shirazu looks vaguely desperate. Mado own smile is apologetic. Something obviously went wrong, and it was Sasaki. Shuu remembers very clearly that moment on the floor of the ryokan in Sapporo. He has a fairly solid guess as to what the elephant in the room is.
"Sasaki-san has the full day off," Mado reassures him. "Unfortunately, I, Mutsuki-san, and Shirazu-san are going to be following up on a lead in about an hour. I'm very sorry. We should have called ahead."
"I'm sorry for the inconvenience," Sasaki says, finally looking up from his lap; his expression is very wobbly and strained. "I hope that I'm not too boring."
Shuu shakes his head. "Of course not," he says. "I do not mind Sasaki-san's company in the least. Perhaps we will take a walk in the area. I used to come here a lot when I was in high school and university."
Kanae picks up the coffee pot to begin pouring everyone coffee. Hinami says something regarding the hanami, which gains a very energetic response from Shirazu. It's enough to distract everyone except for Sasaki. Shuu accepts a cup of coffee. Sasaki does the same, but his gaze is on Shuu and Shuu alone.
Shuu sips his coffee and smiles.
They are being followed. It's a ghoul.
Shuu noticed before they left Shinjuku Gyoen, but Sasaki doesn't appear to be aware. In fact, Sasaki doesn't appear to be aware of very much aside from Shuu. He's been stealing glances up at Shuu, even when they aren't conversing.
"You used to come here often?"
Shuu nods, choosing to concentrate on Sasaki, to keep Sasaki's attention. It is a strangely easy thing to do. The ghoul that is following them smells rancid, like it's either extremely hungry or infected. It's keeping its distance, though, although Shuu isn't sure if it's because it recognises either or both of them or if it's because of Sasaki's uniform.
"When I was in high school and at university," Shuu says as they pass by a very crowded coffee shop that smells extraordinarily sweet.
Sasaki eyes him, openly this time. Shuu can't help but smile a little, even knowing that it'll quirk somewhat. They are walking in a fairly straight-forward path towards Ni-chome. It makes Sasaki's eyebrows raise. Shuu doesn't drop the smile.
"I lived alone in those years," he says as they come to stop at a crosswalk. "When you're young and on your own, it's normal to do interesting things."
Sasaki is still watching him. The ghoul following them is lingering just far enough back to be at the edge of Shuu's senses, especially in this crowded place. The light changes. They begin to cross the street.
"I can imagine," Sasaki says as they step onto the opposite sidewalk.
Shuu tilts his head. It's more to try and sense if the ghoul is still following them, since it doesn't appear to have crossed the street yet. It makes his hair fall into his face briefly. He reaches up, using the side of his fingernails to brush it away. The intense, sour scent is still tangible.
"Well," Shuu says, because he's starting to suspect that the ghoul following them is not merely hungry, "I was quite different then. I was healthy, athletic, and attractive. You can imagine that it took me places."
For some reason, this makes Sasaki frown. Shuu tucks his hair behind his ear. Sasaki watches the motion, although his frown doesn't lighten. He looks, Shuu thinks traitorously, so strange. Kaneki never looked like that.
"You're still," Sasaki says, very honest, "attractive."
Shuu stops. He doesn't mean to, but he does. He stops so abruptly that his left heel squeaks on the pavement. His right hand, which apparently was playing with the ends of his hair, closes around the lock it was worrying. Sasaki has stopped, too. He turns to face Shuu, standing close enough that he has to look up.
Shuu stares at Sasaki. Sasaki stares back. His full attention is on Shuu and Shuu alone. Once this was all Shuu wanted. Now, it takes everything he has not to look away.
Sasaki's frown deepens. "You are," he says again, and his eyebrows draw together. "You know I don't do flattery or play games. When I say that, I mean it."
The ghoul that has been following them is getting closer. They're standing in the lip of an alleyway. The izakaya down it aren't open yet, so it's dim and empty. It's a bad place to be, if the ghoul is looking for a fight. Shuu should say something. He should do something. But he's frozen here, at the pernicious hour.
Sasaki's eyes flicker back and forth, searching his face. "I -"
There is a laugh, high, unhinged, and horrible. Sasaki whips around towards the sound. It tears something open inside of Shuu. Something new.
"Get behind me, Tsukiyama-sama."
For the first time in a very long time, Shuu knows what he wants.
He is not afraid.
The ghoul is clearly unhinged. It sways even though it is standing in one place, the scent of hunger and murderous intent rolling off of it so strong that Sasaki's nose burns. That it snuck up without Sasaki noticing: it's either exceptionally good at stalking or Sasaki has been distracted. He knows which option is the truth.
The ghoul laughs. Sasaki clenches his hands. His knuckles pop.
"Get behind me, Tsukiyama-sama."
Tsukiyama glances at him. He is very calm. There's a quiet about him, the hardiness that Sasaki has learned to both respect and dread. Tsukiyama is not afraid at all.
"Don't worry," he says before turning his attention back to the ghoul leering and drooling at them. "I don't think she wants to eat us."
The ghoul laughs, swaying violently. "I thought that was you," she slurs, spittle running down her chin, "Tsukiyama-san."
Sasaki feels something inside of himself freeze over. Tsukiyama blinks slowly. He smiles, placid and empty.
"Jiro-san," he says, bland in the manner he uses when talking business. "Where are your brothers?"
The ghoul convulses, cackling. It makes Sasaki's hair stand on end. Tsukiyama doesn't react. If Sasaki had to term what Tsukiyama looks like, he would say he was bored.
"Like you would care!" Jiro crows, and she leans so far forward with an open-mouthed leer that she should rightly fall. "You were going to kill us, you snake."
Tsukiyama sighs. "It was a petty joke," he says, faintly regretful before he smiles again, very pleasantly. "Where's Banjou-san?"
What can... Banjou-san hope to do on his own...?
Jiro screams. It's loud and high-pitched. It makes Sasaki's ears ring. Tsukiyama does not react to this either. He simply stands there, pleasant smile and empty eyes. The silver that Hinami playfully braided into his hair before she and Kanae left to go shopping shines in the dim light. Sasaki has never been afraid of Tsukiyama. He is afraid now.
"You!" Jiro shrieks, but she doesn't approach, rocking back and crouching in on her heels instead. "Of everyone, for you to ask -"
Tsukiyama takes a step forward. Another. He crouches down until he is in kiza within reaching distance of Jiro. His head tilts to the left, hand resting on his knees. It exposes the curve of his neck. Jiro stares up at him, open-mouthed and pop-eyed. Tsukiyama's pleasant smile has not changed at all.
"I will repeat," Tsukiyama says, and it is the tone of someone very benevolent. "Where is Banjou-san?"
Jiro's mouth opens hugely wide. Sasaki tenses. He left his quinque with Mado because they'd both felt it wouldn't be necessary. They'd been wrong. This is the 4th Ward. It's a rookie mistake. Sasaki's only option -
If he's alone, then he'll die.
Tsukiyama does not move.
"Dead," Jiro rasps. "They're all dead."
Sasaki, for the second time, freezes. Tsukiyama hums softly. Jiro makes a high, mourning sound. She folds into herself, hands coming up over her head. The scent of her hunger swells, but she doesn't attack. She curls up, defensive.
"I'm sorry," she wails into the ground. "I'm sorry. I'm so hungry. I'm sorry -"
Tsukiyama watches this display for a long moment. He looks like he did when he contemplated the coffee just about an hour ago: curious but not deeply invested. He looks up. To Sasaki. His expression remains placid and pleasant. He motions for Sasaki to come forward.
"Sasaki-san," he says, and his eyes are chasms, "you are able to regenerate like a ghoul?"
Sasaki swallows. Steps forward.
The SS-Rank Ghoul Haise -
"And you are also human," Tsukiyama says, so very reasonable. "It is a lot to ask, but perhaps we can offer Jiro-san a solution?"
Sasaki hesitates. It is a very logical request. It is also a very horrible thing to ask. Tsukiyama smiles, soft, sweet, and very, very sad. The hardness remains, but that sweetness tempers it so. Somehow, as always, he understands. That's what matters. Jiro stares at Sasaki, wild and wide-eyed. Sasaki swallows.
"Yeah," he says. "Okay."
He unbuttons his cuffs and rolls up his left sleeve. He kneels down next to Tsukiyama and extends his hand. Jiro stares at him, drooling messily. She looks at Sasaki like he is some sort of deity. He doesn't lunge.
"Really?" he asks, and there's such a tremulous, grateful note there.
Sasaki swallows. There is a light touch to his right hand. He looks over. Tsukiyama has taken his hand in his own, folding Sasaki's right hand up in his. The same smile is there, and his eyes are warm. Gentle. Understanding. To Tsukiyama, Sasaki is a human.
It is very quiet down this little side street.
"Yeah," Sasaki says, gazing deep into that warm gaze. "It'll grow back."
He feels Jiro take his hand. Sasaki breathes in deep. Closes his eyes. If this goes wrong, it won't matter.
Let's escape together.
Jiro bites off Sasaki's thumb.
Sasaki kisses Tsukiyama.
Jiro takes that opening to run away.
Mado arrives with Mutsuki and Shirazu ten minutes later. The look on Sasaki's face clearly communicates that he expects to be reprimanded for letting Jiro get away. Mado barely spares Sasaki an assessing looking before she looks to Shuu. Shuu has remained seated. He is not sure he can trust himself to stand.
"Tsukiyama-sama," she says, and Shuu can tell her pride is dying because of this, "I'm sorry that we were so delayed."
Shuu smiles, although he knows that it likely looks a bit cracked. Shattered, perhaps. Sasaki won't look at him. Sasaki -
"Do not worry," Shuu says, and it comes out a little lethargic, but that can't be helped. "As you can see, Sasaki-san handled the situation admirably."
Everyone looks at Sasaki, who turns to stare at Shuu. His eyes are huge and pupils blown, and he looks like that frightened, black-haired Kaneki from so long ago. It's such a nostalgic thought that Shuu cannot help but take strength from it. He presses his hands to the ground, pushing himself up. He feels the world sway dangerously, and his vision tunnels into darkness, but he's able to keep his footing.
Shuu is fairly sure he manages to make a placating gesture that stops anyone from attempting to touch him. He is able to hear himself hum. C Major. Perhaps he is in a bit of shock himself. Shuu has learned to function on a lot less. He just needs to buy enough time for some of his vision to come back.
"Just low blood pressure," he says, and it's always easier to tell the truth; his voice sounds oddly muffled to his own ears, but he's done this enough that he's quite sure it comes out audible, if a little breathy. "I am well otherwise. Sasaki-san, your hand -"
"It's fine," Sasaki says, very quickly, and Shuu feels himself smile, hopefully in Sasaki's general direction. "That was a stroke of genius -"
Shuu laughs. It's a mistake. He feels the moment the bark of sound snags against that thing in his chest, and he claps his hand over his mouth before the cough can splatter spit or, worse, blood onto what is actually a crime scene. Stupid, he thinks bitterly. He can't have them accidentally picking up his bodily fluids. It seems that Shuu is destined to make poor decisions based on hubris.
His knees hurt. He must have fallen. He's gotten used to falling. Blood roars in his ears, stealing his ability to hear. The palm of his right hand is wet but not enough to drip. Are any of their noses good enough to tell his blood isn't human? He'll find out if he gets a quinque through his back. If none come, then he is still safe. The irony of his illness is that, because his RC cell count is so low, he probably smells less than anyone here.
Shuu counts in French, forming the numbers in his mind's eye. He thinks of a conductor's wand, moving in lazy arcs. Un, deux, trois, quatre. Cut time. He thinks of his mother, shaking hands with a conductor of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. She smelled of him that evening in the hotel room. His mother, who fooled humans and ghouls alike. His mother -
"Tsukiyama-sama," Sasaki's voice filters through, a soft touch to his shoulder, "are you alright?"
He can hear himself breathing. Wheezing.
"Yes," he says into his palm. "This is not new."
How long exactly did he spend pinned down into the floor of the training room? Asahi had said it would teach him discipline, the patience he needed to take care of the family when they took in Hinami. Shuu doesn't think it was actually supposed to cripple him. Shuu didn't think a lot back then.
"If you give me," he murmurs, "a few minutes."
A careful squeeze of the hand on his shoulder before it pulls away. Voices. Likely discussing what happened. Shuu knows that he should listen, but he has ghosts sitting in his head. His mother, who he feels like he's becoming. His grandfather, the ghost pain in his chest. It's healed. He's healthy. They're all dead. Shuu should take strength from that. It just makes him want to cry.
But he can't. He is not a child. He is not the Gourmet. He is not the stupid boy who watched his mother carve her own gut out to prevent the stain of an illegitimate child that didn't exist. He is not the blind imbecile who lay down and cried on a rooftop. He's the head of the Tsukiyama house, and he has people that he needs to protect. Hinami, Kanae, and Matsumae depend on him for their legal and financial identities. They are not legally real people if they cannot be his, and he cannot lose anyone else.
He opens his eyes. Sasaki and Mado are discussing what happened. Mutsuki notices that he's come back, opening his mouth before freezing. He sees the blood. Shuu shuffles slightly with his coat, pulling out a handkerchief to wipe his hands and mouth. Mutsuki swallows, pale and queasy. Afraid. Shuu folds the cloth, slipping it back inside of his coat. Mutsuki drops his gaze, colour working its way furiously over his cheeks. Embarrassed. He must be afraid of blood in and of itself. How odd, Shuu can't help but think.
Mado is addressing him. Shuu forces his body to obey him enough to look up at her. Her lips are pursed, eyebrows drawn together. The wrinkles it makes in forehead are deep enough that they're starting to become permanent beneath the foundation and concealer she uses.
"Mado-san," Shuu says, and he does attempt to stand up. "I apologise -"
She shakes her head. She doesn't seem to realise it's an interruption. His diction must be exceptionally slow. Shuu has such a hard time gauging that after a fit.
"It's alright," she says, although it's really not; she's not good at lying. "Sasaki explained to me what happened. How did you know the ghoul?"
Shuu feels his lips twist. They're likely pale, maybe even edging on blue, and it probably looks hideous. He starts to laugh, but it comes out as a short cough through his teeth. Very impolite, that.
"I used to see her and his brothers around when I attended university," he says, and he knows his face does something really complicated, very pained. "Before I was like this."
Mado frowns, although there's a slightly uncomfortable look to her eyes. Shuu wonders what she's seeing. He doesn't dare glance at Sasaki.
"Was she a university student?"
Shuu feels his lungs protest. He presses the flat of his palm against his ribcage, over his heart. His heart rate is only slightly elevated, but his lungs don't want to take in enough air to speak properly. He wonders, with more than a little absurdity, if this is what asthma is like. He doesn't have asthma.
"No," he says, and it comes out really ugly on a wheeze. "I did... stupid things... back then."
He hasn't changed so much. He's still the same selfish creature, grasping at things he never should have tried to have. He probably looks bitter about it. Maybe even angry. Mado stares at him openly. There are no mirrors here, but that doesn't matter. Shuu might as well be a vampire for how well he reflects in them.
"Was that," and it's Sasaki, always and forever, "when you met the person you told me about? In Sapporo?"
Something that Shuu didn't think he had left dies. He turns his head to look to Sasaki. He doesn't have to look up. Sasaki is on his knees next to him. His expression is pained, hurt, but compassionate. What was it that Shuu had said then? Star-crossed lovers kill themselves at the end.
Shuu wants to cry, but he is no longer that person.
"Oh happy dagger," he says instead.
What little colour there was drains out of Sasaki's face. Shuu wants to watch, but he looks away instead. He shifts his hands to his right coat pocket. Pulls out his cellphone. He thumbs through the lock screen, over the little green button for the phone. He smiles. Feels how it snags. It's just like his mother before she died.
He ate himself once. A serpent eating its tail.
Shuu is not his mother. He is the last Tsukiyama, and he does not have the luxury to die.
"Sorry," he says, "but I need to call my family."
The letter was posted from the 12th Ward without being handed to Arima or Mado. It was not seen by any of Sasaki's superiors nor by his team. It's written on a coffee house napkin and posted in a post office-provided envelope. Sasaki must have paid for the stamp with coins in his pocket.
It arrives three days later at the Tsukiyama estate. Shuu reads it in bed. He's been bedridden since getting back. Earlier that morning, he took a video conference call with Washuu Yoshitoki and Mado Akira about the progress in the investigation. They watched him, Washuu like he was seeing a ghost and Mado without her old caution. It has transformed into wariness, a knowing when he asked after Sasaki. Sasaki has not managed to hide his feelings, even if he managed to get this letter out. Mado suspects a love affair.
Shuu sets the letter down on his lap atop of the covers. He puts his face in his hands. He shuts his eyes.
Shuu laughs, a fractured, triumphant, horrendous sound. He feels Kanae reach out and touch his shoulder. It makes him draw in a breath. It feels like his lungs are tearing themselves apart.