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Black Teeth

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In the street, children held their parents’ hands.  High schoolers playfully nudged each other before they parted ways.  The working class sighed into their cell phones, tiredly telling their loved ones that they’d be a bit longer, and people who were maybe walking to a romantic date were colored by the mass of electronic screens above them on the Tokyo skyscrapers.

 

Kaneki Ken straightened his messenger bag and clutched it closer with his arms as he stood among a throng waiting for the crosswalk to change.  He wasn’t nervous so much as he was entirely exhausted. His trek from the last class of Monday to his part-time at a well-loved cafe was routine after months of making it, but still the college student struggled to muster enthusiasm this late in the day and this early in the week.  Kaneki liked his co-workers and loved his coffee, and even enjoyed night shifts (when he could lose himself in work), but an English course that ended at 5 p.m. was a good reason to be upset in spite of everything-- why was his professor so inept at explaining things?   And now he was a little behind on schedule today because the class went over time, again.  

 

By the time he approached the street, he had let his mind buzz into nothingness long enough to be ready to call back his awareness; he returned his thoughts to patient smiles and taking orders as he hurried his pace to the door of the cafe and breathed in the bitter scent he loved so well-- dark roast.   His entrance was greeted by another young student who was already in uniform and glanced madly at him as she passed by the entrance in a rush.

 

“Get dressed, they won’t stop coming in tonight,” she barked.  Touka was polite to a fault and Kaneki was sometimes on the margins; she usually forgot that she liked anyone in the world when they were slammed even if he was only just a little late .  Kaneki took it in stride and said nothing as he moved to the backroom to fetch his clothes and put away his bag.  When he returned to the storefront, Koma was there with his valiant grin and talking Nishiki’s ear off about some of the good ol’ days (probably) as he worked on  a white mocha. Irimi was clearing some of the dishes from the sink. Touka was back to flurrying among the crowd, promising all the customers with a lovely smile that she would be right over.

 

This was Anteiku.

 

Kaneki grabbed a notepad and pen.  He could just hear the annoyance on Nishiki’s face as he unenthusiastically held conversation with Koma.  Walking to a corner booth that Touka hadn’t taken yet, Kaneki readied his best smile and took a deep breath.

 

“Hello, sir!  How may I serve you today?” he asked politely.  The customer glanced up from the phone he was scrolling through and moved his ( brighter than his hair ) headphones to his neck.  He returned his own bright smile and requested an iced Americano.  Not commenting on the strange choice of an iced coffee in October, Kaneki wrote it down and bowed, promising that he’d bring it right over.

 

Behind the counter, Kaneki worked next to Touka as she prepared her own order.   Orders.  She looked quite harassed.

 

“Iced?” she wrinkled her nose when he started pouring the cold water.  “I don’t even know,” Kaneki muttered. “Let me finish this and I’ll try to take some of your tables.”  At this, Touka sighed through her nose softly, focusing on her current drink. Kaneki smiled gently without looking up.  The two co-workers knew by now how to suffer through long shifts together-- out of all of them, they seemed to work best as a team out on the floor.

 

Nishiki didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry as he stood down at the register.  At the very least, there didn’t seem to be many take-out orders yet. “Kaneki, stop coddling her.  Just because she’s younger doesn’t mean you have to make up for her shitty work ethic,” he sneered at the girl.  Touka visibly bristled, but said nothing and walked away with her now completed orders balanced precariously on a tray.  Nishiki smirked at her and scoffed at Kaneki, who rolled his eyes at him.

 

“There’s no need to antagonize her, Nishio-senpai.  You had class today, too, right? Let’s get along together,” he tried tiredly.  But Nishiki only squinted his eyes at the other. “You’re too complacent. This is why you’re stuck at Anteiku with her, man.  Grow up and get meaner,” he grunted, looking done-with-shit. He turned back to the register to glower at passing customers.

 

Kaneki didn’t respond, opting instead to carry the Americano back to his customer.  When he reached the booth, the man was ready to accept the coffee and smiled warmly again at his waiter.  “Thank you so much,” he exclaimed, nearly squinting his eyes with such a broad grin. Before he left, Kaneki asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you today?”

 

The man shook his head and reached over for the sweeteners and milk that were already on the table.  “Thank you for your business,” Kaneki bowed again. He made his way to another table, glancing back at the man as he tinkered with his drink.

 

That’s a lot of sugar.

 

Kaneki shook his head and shuddered at the customer’s strange taste as he picked up his pace.  Touka was looking more harassed by the minute.

 


 

By the time they began closing up, Nishiki had already gone home, citing “a better woman to be around than Touka” as his good excuse.  Touka sourly wiped down the tables as Kaneki swept the floor (how had it gotten so dusty?) and tried to console her.

 

“Touka-chan, don’t let him get to you.  You know he’s an ass, right?” he told her.  Touka only grumbled and pushed down harder on the tables like she meant to break them.  A few tense moments passed.

 

“He’s a very shitty ass,” he muttered and Touka finally let out the sigh she had been holding onto.  She breathed it at the ceiling and turned to Kaneki with her arms crossed, granting him the smallest smile she could handle.

   

“And why were you just ever so late today?” she glared (kindly).

 

“Time isn’t real.”

 

Touka snorted and shook her head.  Even if she often defaulted to anger, Kaneki had been around her long enough to filter through her fury.  She knew him well, too, and oddly enough appreciated his sass (however timid and muted it usually was in front of others) at times like this.  The two were friends at the end of it all, and Kaneki was glad for it. Touka was sweet as long as she had a good excuse.

 

“Really though, is that class of yours still keeping you behind?  I know you’re smart, kind of, so can’t you just come straight here?” she asked him.  Kaneki made a face.

 

“He is literally the worst teacher I’ve ever had.   And I was a good student.  I think he doesn’t even care about teaching because ‘college kids are old enough to pick up their own slack’.   Honestly.   It’s a whole language!  I don’t even care about English, it just works with my major,” he grumbled, heated.  “What does he mean ‘we can take our time today’?!   I am an adult.

 

Behind Touka’s blatant giggles at his pain, she sent him a commiserating look.  “I’m just so excited to go to university next year,” she said.  Kaneki looked her in the eyes seriously and told her, “Do not take English.  Learn from me, young one.”

 

She whipped her rag in his direction.  The two returned to their duties and managed to finish in only twenty more minutes.  The manager bid them goodnight with an easy smile as they left from the back door together.  

 

“Are you taking the bridge today?” Kaneki asked her when they neared the end of the street.  They lived in different directions, though they weren’t opposite of each other so the two would often accompany each other for a few blocks.

 

Touka nodded.  “We have a literature test tomorrow that is going to murder me so I’m gonna go the short way.  I could use some more cramming.” She nibbled at her bottom lip. Kaneki sent her a sympathetic glance.

 

“Don’t offer to help.  You’re too intense when I ask you to explain things like grammar and semanticals,” she cut him off.  Kaneki closed his mouth and they walked a bit further.

 

“Semantics.”  He grunted when she punched his shoulder too hard, Touka-chan.   “That hurt!”

 

“You hurt.”

 

“Is it too late to not be friends with you?” he muttered.  She chuckled at his grin.

 

They parted at the second crosswalk and wished each other goodnight.  After watching her move down the other side of the street, Kaneki made away from the light and walked to another corner.  At the very least, he liked walking in the dark where there were only so many still out. The twentieth ward was nice like that; there was hardly much rush so late in the day and everyone was already home with their loved ones.

 

Laughter caught his ears when he reached the alleyway just in front of the convenience store that was closest to his house.  It didn’t sound menacing, but Kaneki still didn’t want to deal with any weekday drunks or decrepits. He walked a little faster.

 

But then someone screamed.

 

Kaneki abruptly stopped.   There’s no reason to walk towards what is clearly trouble in the dead of night where no one knows you’re even gone.

 

A few seconds passed and he continued.   There is nothing he could do either way.  He should just go home.

 


 

Tuesday wasn’t very spread out in terms of his schedule, so when he finished Asian History near 2:30 p.m., Kaneki wandered over to the courtyard in the middle of the campus.  Grateful he brought his brand new favorite Takatsuki masterpiece, the student sat on the edge of a low wall where he could read in peace as the crowds made a pleasant kind of white noise.  Behind him, he distantly registered someone blaring music in what had to be an attempt to sabotage their own eardrums. Is that supposed to be English?  Gross.

 

When he came to, the clock tower was ringing four whole times.   But the chapter was close to the end, so Kaneki sped through the words before placing his bookmark and packing away the novel.  He stood up (a little drunkenly) and let the blood return to his legs before attempting to move again. He rotated on the spot with a grimace.

 

There was still music blaring but it sounded like some other language.  (Korean?) He could see who was blasting it now, though the guy wasn’t facing him and was bouncing his head in beat to the confusing words pounding in his ears.  His spiky-ish hair bobbed along with him like some kind of excited dog’s tail. Kaneki stared for a while before realizing that he was just staring at some guy so, properly blushing, he backed away and tried to remember the next part of the day.

 

Anteiku wouldn’t be until 5:30 p.m. so he had time to do things that weren’t reading.   But what?

 

What was Tsukiyama Shuu, who strutted over to him when he approached the cafeteria.  Ever so charming, the tall man smiled in a way that was probably menacing but everyone took to be handsome.

 

Kaneki-kun!   Mon cher, I was hoping to run into you today!”  Shuu began, but Kaneki was still walking past the building to a place he didn’t know yet.  It wasn’t that Shuu was a bad friend. He was an excited friend.

 

He was an undeterred friend.  “You know, Kanae came up with an interesting idea for a new--”

 

“Shuu.”

 

“Kaneki-kun.”

 

Kaneki sighed and sat down at a bench.  So, he was having a conversation with Tsukiyama Shuu.

 

“Can we please talk about something else?  Kanae isn’t fond of me and I don’t think he wants me involved with something he told you about.”

 

Shuu sat next to him and crossed his legs.  He relaxed against the bench with an air of importance, which was unnecessary because he was on a bench next to Kaneki.  “I hardly ever see you anymore! Vraiment, mon ami.   You spend too much time with that Kirishima at that little cafe.  I want to talk like we used to!”

 

“We used to talk about bad things, Shuu.  I think it’s best we try something different so we don’t revisit the dark days. ” Kaneki glanced at the other.  His face had pinched slightly, but the smile was still there.  “What have you read recently?” Kaneki offered, quirking his lips ever so much.

 

“I’m assuming you’ve picked up the new Takatsuki novel?  I thought her work this time was pas si bien.   Her others had more substance.  What did her biggest fan think?” he replied, tilting his head because he knew this trap would work.

 

It caught and Kaneki’s brow creased.  Sharply, he glared into his friend’s eyes and opened his mouth to defend the best Japanese author of their era, actually, but closed it abruptly and stared at something just beyond Shuu’s head.

 

“Investigators? What’s going on?” he murmured.  Shuu glanced easily over his shoulder and furrowed his brow.  A rather menacing looking old man was hobbling along the sidewalk, with who must have been his partner in tow.  The man looked far more studious, if not a bit too serious, and he was huge.

 

Someone would regret catching their attention.

 

“If it’s anything, I’m sure we will hear about it on the news, mon ami, ” Shuu dismissed with a wave.  Begrudged, Kaneki agreed. But it might have been time to start walking to work either way.

 

He rose.  “I think I’ll go on ahead, Shuu.  Tell Kanae I said hello, but not that I said it because he’ll only insult me even more behind my back.”  He turned and began the route to Anteiku, smirking fondly at the thought of Shuu’s servant fussing over his master who liked to associate with schund like him.  In spite of the man’s temper and passion, Kaneki didn’t hate him.  It wasn’t hard to understand the feeling of wanting to protect your loved ones.

 

His friend stood abruptly and called out, “ Adieu, mon cher ami!  I’ll bring you a better recommendation next time to replace that stale author you refuse to judge fairly!” and walked in the other direction, smug, probably.

 

Kaneki grumbled, almost more incensed this time, but quickly shook the sentiment from his head.  There was no reason to be late to today, so he really shouldn’t be.

 


 

After bidding Touka another goodnight, Kaneki started the same path he had taken yesterday.  It wasn’t until he neared the convenience store again that he jolted at the memory of the scream he had heard last night.  It probably wasn’t worth it stand distractedly in the street to think about it rather than move through the area as quickly as he could.

 

Instead of a scream, moans came from an alleyway that was the other side of the street, opposite the one from last night.  Unsure if it was sexual, Kaneki quickly moved past (not needing to try to look embarrassed) and even made to cross to the other side, but then someone groaned.

 

‘This isn’t supposed to be a bad ward,’ Kaneki thought absently.  He just wanted to go home and regret the choices he made at the beginning of the semester.

 

He wanted to walk in the street without interacting with strangers, but he heard a cough and gurgling?

 

In a rare show of more-stupid-than-needed, Kaneki tentatively stepped into the mouth of the groaning alleyway.  His phone was out in case an ambulance would be needed (hopefully not by him) and he held it close as he continued into what was probably some bad danger.  

 

A man stood over another, loosely swinging a kitchen knife in his left hand and gripping tightly a spoon in his right.  His hooded head swayed from side to side, every image of calm, and then he looked over his shoulder.

 

“Oh.”

 

A human.  Kaneki was looking at a human he had served an iced Americano the night before.  His kakugan bled forward and he stood straight. “Oh,” he uttered.

 

The man stared at Kaneki’s eyes.

 

                                                         Hide's Gaze I

 

“Pretty.”

 


 

“I’m gonna die.”

 

He moved the utensils to one hand and pulled out his phone, typing something quickly before putting it back in his hoodie pocket.

 

The man then looked up brightly, smoothing his brow.

 

“Yo!  Nagachika Hideyoshi.  Hide is fine,” he grinned, waving his hand at Kaneki.

 

Kaneki tensed his shoulders.  He could feel his lower back tightening, like it was ready to let loose without waiting to be asked.

 

“...and yes.  This is what it looks like,” the man smiled.  “Aren’t you wondering why I did this? You’re just glaring at me.”

 

Kaneki’s head worked furiously.  A human was in the twentieth ward killing… what had to be another human?   And he was smiling sweetly at the ghoul who walked in on his crime and his name was Nagachika Hideyoshi?!

 

“Um.  Please don’t tell me your name.  Why did you tell me your name?” Kaneki forced out.  It wasn’t that he wouldn’t kill a human. He had the means.  But this was the twentieth ward, a safe place he had a home and a job and school and friends in.  Anteiku was there to keep the peace, and almost every ghoul was quiet enough when they could just scavenge or use the cafe’s reserves.  If death could be avoided, Kaneki would get out of the way.

 

But someone was dead right in front of him.

 

Hide’s smile eased into something duller without losing the shape of his mouth.  He separated the utensils again and shifted his weight to the left, tilting his head casually.  “Well, we should probably know each other’s names if we’re going to make it out of this alive.”

 

Was this person even aware that he was caught in the middle of a murder?  CCG be damned, Kaneki had seen enough to know that this was not going to be pleasant.  “You’re awfully confident for a human facing a ghoul with a fresh corpse behind him. That knife is nothing to me and I don’t even want to ask about the spoon.

 

“Spoon?”  Hide looked down at his hand and burst out laughing like Kaneki had told him his favorite joke.  “Do you want to borrow it? You can’t have the face, but there’s still a whole body after that. It makes it easier, actually, if you want to take it off my hands.  Cleaning is the least fun part in all this.”

 

Kaneki blanched.   What did he mean he could have the dead guy?  He took a moment to look at the corpse and damn if he wasn’t young.  He could have been a first-year college student like Kaneki, if not a high schooler.  His hair was brightly dyed in pale red, nearly pink, and the knife must have gone through his windpipe from the side because blood was wetly streaked down his left shoulder before pooling onto the ground.  His eyes were open and more red coated his chin and around his lips.

 

He looked surprised that he had been stabbed.

 

Touka liked meat from this age-range, but even she wouldn’t be happy to walk into this.  Doves were going to look closer at all of them. They were already at Kamii, weren’t they?  What would the manager do?

 

He looked back to Hide.  The man was swaying his head back and forth as though music was playing (but Kaneki heard nothing) and his smile seemed to have morphed back into something resembling eagerness.

 

“...Um.  I heard moaning before.  Were you…?” Kaneki asked.  Look at every detail before sketching the face.  This man might be more dangerous than a knife and a spoon.  Ghouls had their standards too.

 

Hide’s eyes widened slightly and he made a face of disgust.  “Ew. No. I’m not an asshole. I just wanted the face is all.  His was kinda cool, so I wanted to see what it could look like if I went through the neck this time without him seeing me swing.”

 

He looked down at the body.  “I don’t think I like the way his mouth ended up, but the eyes are always a safe bet, especially when they’re caught by surprise.”  Hide returned his gaze to Kaneki. “At least his philtrum is cute, ya know? Not a total waste, then.”

 

The man yawned slightly and walked around the corpse to kneel down.  He looked down and back up. “Do you like organs or muscles better? I don’t get that stuff, but I’m curious what a ghoul might prefer when the whole body is in tact.”  He moved the spoon over the face, as though looking for a good place to start whatever he was about to do.

 

Kaneki had an idea of what he was about to do.

 

Okay, I guess we’re talking about it now, then.  Are you a cannibal?  Do you have other victims?  Why are you in our ward and will you please leave soon?   Will you please not carve out the eyes when I’m trying to decide if I should kill you or not? ” he fired off.   This guy was too casual.

 

“No and yes, and then I think we should grab some coffee to discuss everything else,” Hide said as he rolled an eyeball in his palm.  The iris was light brown with the slightest hint of hazel.

 

“We are not getting coffee.  I want to kill you.”

 

“You don’t want to though, because Anteiku will go up in flames,” Hide looked up again.

 

Kaneki was getting angry.  A human who definitely did not tell other humans where he was tonight couldn’t threaten a ghoul who had every opportunity to just take their head in a dark alley and no one would know.  

 

“I do know people and they are my CCG co-workers who like me well enough to investigate my disappearance.  My office laptop that every employee knows the password to is sitting on my kitchen table. My work email received a message a little while ago that a college-aged student acted suspiciously when I visited his place of work last night, a coffee shop called Anteiku, when he served me an iced coffee.  He made a disgusted face when I sweetened the drink.”

 

Hide pulled his eyebrows together like he wanted to feel sorry for Kaneki.

 

“Investigators are well aware of ghoulkind’s love of coffee.  It’s not hard to believe that a cafe might be a front in a ward that has very little ghoul activity.   What are the ghouls eating?”   He dipped his head to the side.  “...harvesting, maybe? I did just offer you my scraps.”

 

Anteiku could not be ruined.  His loved ones could not be taken out because of some narcissist who kills more than they ever did.   How did he even figure that out?  Kaneki soured his mouth. A growl escaped his throat.

 

A few seething moments passed.  “What the fuck do you want?”

 

“I just told you.  Coffee! Let’s be nice to each other.  I don’t like people but I must say I’m fascinated by the ones that have murder-tentacles embedded in their backs.  I don’t have any kakugans back home, either. I want a closer look.”

 

“They are evolutionary hunting appendages.”

 

Kaneki glared.  Hide chuckled good-naturedly and took his knife to the corpse’s lips.  “Do you ever play with them?”

 

He only laughed harder when Kaneki sputtered before blushing and growling again.

 

“Oh, wow.  That’s some nice color in your cheeks.  Works with your milky skin. Do you ever wear makeup?  Some on the bone structure might bring out even more of the natural pink,” Hide told him.

 

“Are you trying to flatter me or do you want to separate me from my face.”

 

Hide hummed.  “When works for you, though?  My classes end at 2 p.m. tomorrow.  Will you have the evening shift again?”

 

Kaneki went still.  He somehow already knew about Anteiku and left evidence that would incriminate them after his death.  So far, he wanted to sit down over coffee and talk about… murder, probably. At the least, if they got coffee at Anteiku he would have Yoshimura in the same space and this was really his area to deal with either way as the manager.  So, they were getting coffee.

 

“Aw.  You turned your eyes off.  I thought they looked nice.”

 


 

“You know, it really is a nice little shop.  It’s one of the better fronts I’ve seen for dubious ghoul activity.”

 

Hide sat across from Kaneki the next day, sipping a white mocha.   He still added too much extra sugar.   Only mildly panicking, Kaneki had spent all of his stupid English class half-hating his professor for taking far too long to do his damn job and half-blessing him for his patient attitude when Kaneki approached him after class to ask about grammar he already understood.  He really needed the help.

 

And even Touka wasn’t terribly fussy when he came into his evening shift a bit later than usual; their flurry of panic-texts last night were mostly Kaneki being nervous and Touka being angry and the both of them fretting over what the manager would say.  But Touka promised to tell the manager for him since Kaneki would be in his classes for most of the day and was also really bad at delivering bad news.  So when Kaneki stumbled through the door with a pale, sick-looking face, she grimaced back at him and continued to attack the mass of customers they were facing.

 

It wasn’t until they had closed the shop that Hide had walked in through the back door and Yoshimura had asked him what drink he might like.  After brewing him the coffee, Yoshimura sat between the two young men with a tired face. Kaneki felt better with the manager there, but he didn’t feel good.

 

Yoshimura bowed his head slightly at Hide’s comment.  “Thank you, young man. Although I’m not sure why you’d compliment us when you seem to be holding us all hostage.  I am not pleased with how you’ve threatened Kaneki-kun, here either.”

 

“Kaneki?!” Hide exclaimed.  He smiled at the pale ghoul.  “He never told me his name! I’m not sure why, because it’s really unique.  I’ve never even seen the name written down before,” he chuckled. Kaneki glared.

 

And I’ve never met a serial killer before.   The fuck do you have planned, psycho?” Kaneki growled.  Then he looked guiltily at the manager. “Sorry, Yoshimura-san.”

 

But Yoshimura didn’t appear particularly bothered by the coarse language.  He continued, “Hide-san, I realize that you’re aware of our natures as ghouls, but I don’t see why you wanted to talk with us.  Would it not be enough for the both of us to go our separate ways, so that neither of us are outed?” Hide looked blankly at the manager.  Then he smiled softly.

 

“Well, I thought about that.  But I thought some more and I realized that this is actually amazing.  Ghouls?! I’ve never had a conversation with one! It’s not like being an investigative assistant at the CCG lets me talk to any; all they want to do is murder any they see.   An interesting concept, isn’t it? ” Hide glinted his eyes.  “You know, the more people I meet in this world, the more I realize we all just want to kill each other.”

 

He paused.  “I can appreciate anyone gives in to their nature.  We all die anyway.  Why not have fun with it?

 

Silence.  Kaneki gritted his teeth.  “Ghouls aren’t just mindless psychopaths, psychopath.  You--”

 

“Sociopath.”

 

“Ah?”

 

Hide stared at Kaneki.  “I’m sociopathic, not psychopathic.”

 

Kaneki furrowed his brows again.  “What’s the difference? You’re a serial killer!”  Hide laughed quietly.

 

“It’s not like I grew up killing people.  Well, I was eight.” He paused again. “I don’t know if that counts though, it kinda wasn’t my fault.  But I did love my dad, didn’t I? I wasn’t born with a knife.”

 

“And that’s kinda why I wanted to talk, too,” Hide said with more volume.  He lowered his brow some. “I need help with the execution part. I know I’m not terribly careful.  I don’t want to get caught, like any of us. Alleyways only work for so long before someone catches on that there are stab wounds instead of bite marks.  Carving the wound out isn’t failsafe, either.”

 

Yoshimura’s expression had morphed into something like a morbid understanding.  Kaneki just seemed to become more queasy, but Hide looked between them with determination.

 

“Let’s work together!  Anonymous ghoul murders would work in our favors, if we move the locus further from the ward, and it takes pressure off of the both of us.”

 

And then Hide looked right at Kaneki with a blinding grin.  “Kaneki! Let’s be best friends!”

 

“Kaneki-san,” Kaneki deadpanned.

 

“Kaneki-kun!”

 

“Kaneki-san.

 

“Kaneko-chan.”

 

Kaneki looked at Yoshimura desperately.  “Sir.”

 

The manager looked down at his lap and back up.  He stared piercingly at Hide and then he looked sadly at Kaneki.

 

“What’s your given name, actually?” Hide asked the exasperated ghoul curiously.

 

Kaneki Ken sighed with the breath of a dying animal.

 

“Kaneki.”

 


 

“I saw doves the other day, actually,” Kaneki began, only to be cut off by Touka.

 

“You saw a serial killer the other day.”

 

Kaneki stared at Touka.  “How did your exam go?”

 

“Kaneki you have been coerced into helping a human serial killer get away with murder.”

 

Coerce!  Wow, you’re learning so much, young Tou--” her study guide hit him in the face.

 

Touka stood up from her couch and walked into the kitchen.  She angrily began a new pot of coffee and angrily got out two of her favorite bunny mugs and angrily picked up the book she was supposed to be writing a report on.  “This isn’t a thing where you’re secretly crushing on him and you’d go all yandere and kill children just so he never gets found out, right?”

 

Oh my god, Touka.  This guy is literally not cute.  I watched him roll an eyeball around on his hand before sealing it into a jar to go home and probably jack off to it,” Kaneki shuddered.  “I don’t want to think about what Uta would do with him. Although he might be more useful than me to this guy with the way he is.”

 

Touka glared at him, very unimpressed.  “...You’ll have to use more words than that to convince me this isn’t Trashiyama all over again.”

 

Kaneki blanched.  He turned his face to the window and muttered something about “not every scary hot person is that bad when they’re still sane enough to talk about books” and Touka banged her hand on the counter.  He jumped and shrank away from her angrier expression.

 

“Rize.”

 

“Well, what about her, Touka?  After the whole she-wanted-to-eat-me thing, she wasn’t that terrifying, kind of!  And we still talk about Takatsuki Sen sometimes!” Kaneki exclaimed. He looked off to the side again.  “And she actually has more sense than Shuu because she would never disgrace the magnificence of Takatsuki-sensei’s expert prose.”

 

Touka sighed and poured the finished brew into her mugs.  Soft pink bunny ears for herself and stupid-black-rabbit-misprinted-pattern for Kaneki.  “You clearly have some kind of kink for danger.  A gross one that blinds you with literature and preys on your masochistic fantasies,” she grunted.  “This is the Great Bisexual Crisis of middle school all over again.  You think everyone’s hot and then they’re actually serial killers.

 

“No!  And don’t kink-shame others, you prejudiced child.”

 

She walked back to the living area and shoved his mug into his clenched hands.  She took a swig of her coffee and opened her notebook before dropping her pencil and burying her face in her hands.

 

“I don’t know what I just read.”

 

Kaneki looked at her with clear pity and took the novel from her side to open it.  His eyes lit up when he recognized the author of Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka!  Though this was The Judgement, which surprised him.

 

“You know, I could try to help.  If you make me decaf, maybe I won’t talk as fast.   Maybe.  I’d do it for you, Touka,” he smiled warmly.  “Anything for a student stuck in the trials of high school.  I remember the pain like it was yesterday.”

 

“It was a year ago, dummy.  You are literally a year older than me.”

 

They spent a few more hours trying to survive Touka’s well-placed frustration and Kaneki’s poorly-timed snark before Kaneki started his way to his apartment.  After saying goodnight, he took out his phone to check the time and nearly groaned again when it told him that it was 11.

 

He walked without looking up for a bit, staring at his contact list. Nagachika, it said.

 

Chapter Text

“So, the CCG doesn’t care about prosecuting ghouls,” Hide began.  “And that’s why this guy is going to get passed off as yet another unfortunate ghoul dinner.”

 

Kaneki stared at the somewhat blurry photo of a college student in the second row of his English class.

 

“Okay.  Um. What do you know about this guy?” Kaneki tried, forcing down the annoyance of being used like he was some assassin for hire.  Hide took a bite of his burger, licking off the ketchup and cheese that oozed onto his fingertip from under the bun.

 

He hummed and took the photo back.  He pointed to the guy’s eyes and then traced his brows on the surface of the paper.  “Kinda blue. Interesting eyelid shape and then his brow kinda makes a unique arch if he gets frustrated, like in the class he’s sitting in.”  Hide put the photograph back down in front of Kaneki and took a sip of his soda. The cup was filled nearly to the top with crushed ice in October and they were outside, but Kaneki looked at the picture again.

 

The guy looked like he might be mixed, but other than his lightly dyed pale blue hair, he was very average.  He wasn’t even that handsome, but if he looked at the eyes closely enough, Kaneki could see that the color was a little unusual in the middle of Japan.

 

He glanced up at Hide.  The man was humming something distantly and bobbing his head from side to side.  An image of nonchalance.

 

“How did you find this guy?”

 

“I’m in his class.”

 

“Which block are you in?”

 

“Mondays and Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m..”

 

Kaneki looked to the sky and then back down to Hide.

 

Nagachika, we are in the same class.  How have I never seen your headache-inducing ensemble of crayola vomit?”

 

Hide shrugged.  “ Kaneko-chan, I like to sit in the back where I can see everyone better.  Wanna know why?”

 

Kaneki huffed, “I can make a calculated guess, Hide.  To pick out your next victim.”

 

Hide blushed a bit and chuckled.  “No, silly! ‘Cause I saw you! I thought you were pretty cute, but I was suspicious of the way you only ever brought black coffee to sip at and your obvious nervousness to talk to anyone if you didn’t have to.”  He tilted his head at Kaneki. “I didn’t quite want to risk facing down a ghoul because I’ve never actually held a quinque. Better safe than sorry.”

 

He paused and smiled widely.  “You’re bad at math, aren’t you?”

 

Kaneki tried furiously to expel the pink he could definitely feel in his cheeks.  Cute? Had Hide thought of slicing into his face? Was he actually cute?

 

‘Don’t you ever think that last part ever again, Kaneki, you fool .’

 

“And then enough time had passed that I couldn’t really move my seat.  At any rate, your assumption is true now.  I saw this guy and I know he’s human, and his bone structure is even better than yours.”

 

Kaneki was not annoyed at that last part.

 

“But you know,” Hide drawled, leaning towards Kaneki’s not disappointed-looking face, “he’s best friends with a ghoul.  Just like me now!”

 

Kaneki was curious now.  About Hide’s apparently innate ability to suss out ghouls and why that was even relevant.  “So won’t his friend be a bit angry if their buddy suddenly gets his face carved up?”   Why faces, he didn’t ask.

 

“The ghoul friend will die too,” Hide said.  “Oh, but he’s a guy. Not his ghoulfriend.”

 

“I don’t like that you’re pretending we’re best friends.”

 

“It was punny and you can’t fool me,” Hide deadpanned, “and the point I’m trying to get across is that we’re framing the ghoul for the murder and the CCG won’t question it very much if they end up taking down a ghoul.  They are always happy to do that.”

 

Kaneki looked down.  Doves never did seem to care about the reasons ghouls were active; they just liked to kill them and put the cases to bed.   Easy closure.  

 

And two doves had been prowling on campus just earlier in the week.  Who were they looking for, or were they just trying to lure a ghoul out by making them nervous?  It would work on some.

 

His head shot back up.  “You’re at the CCG though, right?  Do you know about the doves that are in the ward right now?”

 

Hide nodded.  “Yeah, Mado and Amon.  They’re both justice-driven, although Mado seems to be a bit more obvious in his hate-fueled revenge.  He collects quinques as trophies. Old, goblin-esque man.” He looked to the side thoughtfully. “And Amon is the giant. Awkward but really self-righteous.  I think he also has a thing about revenge, but a lot of investigators do.”

 

Hide stood and went to throw his plate in the trash can on the side of the building.  No one else was around them. “Walk and talk with me, dude.”

 

Kaneki got up and tried to match Hide’s pace.  He was a surprisingly fast walker. ‘Don’t get outsped by a human.  Hurry it up,’ his mind yelled in a voice not unlike Touka’s.

 

He took a moment to come up with a way to phrase his question before Hide could say something again.  The guy talked a lot even if it was only a ruse.

 

“Hey, Nagach- Hide, ” Kaneki caught himself, “The whole psychopath and sociopath thing…” he stopped.   How best to ask his new partner in crime (eugh) if he could even feel anything?

 

“Do you have feelings?” Kaneki the fool said.

 

Hide laughed.  “Well,” he started before pausing, “I guess it’s working then.   No, but I try my best.  They’re pretty much gut reactions based on things I've observed.  Not natural, but I can fake it if I really, really want to.  Which is almost always so that I don’t have to answer unfortunate questions.”

 

Kaneki glanced at Hide.  His brows were slightly pinched and his mouth was turned down just ever so much.   ‘He could have said yes, then.’

 

“I mean, I did look it up after the incident.  But, well, Google.  Psychos…?”

 

“Psychopathy is actually a bit worse, probably.  Absolute narcissists. But they also know what they’re doing.”  The two stopped at a crosswalk to wait for the light to turn. The street was thankfully empty, even if it was a bit odd at this time of day.  “I’m trying to emulate one, in a sense. The calculating, clinical coldness part. Just enough that I can get away with it all. It’s pretty hard since I’m not wired to do that.  I’m not supposed to be able to, but here we stand, I guess.”

 

Kaneki took his gaze from the ticking light and directed it to Hide.  His face still looked concerned.  ‘He didn’t think I was cute cute, then.’

 

‘Kaneki, you don’t want him.  You want affection, dummy. Calm down.’  He took a deep breath for himself.

 

They started across the road.  The sun was nearly gone from the sky and the street was still mostly empty.

 

“So, about the doves, then,” Kaneki began, “is there a reason they’re snooping around?”

 

“Some dude in the pharmaceutical department.  I accidentally glanced at the file on purpose and it was some weird name.  ‘Nishio Nishiki’. Just a person of interest, but I’ve actually met him here and there on a couple occasions through the event committee and he’s more or less just scum.  Nothing to worry about if they’re focused on him instead of us.”

 


 

 

“Nishiki, pick up.  Pick up pick up pick up, you absolute ass.”

 

Kaneki stood at his kitchen counter dialing the man for the eleventh time that night.  Kimi would may kill Kaneki if he couldn’t warn them in time, and Kimi may be imprisoned anyway if anyone let slip that she and Nishiki were an item.   His teeth had been imprinted on her shoulder.

 

He bounced up and down slightly, pacing in his kitchen with worry.  The pot he had just stress-brewed was not helping his caffeine addiction and his caffeine addiction was not helping his stress problem.  All his problems, ever.

 

He glanced at the knives in the block sitting under his cabinet.

 

Hide said it so easily, and yeah, he didn’t have feelings apparently so the doom awaiting Nishiki was nothing to him, but Anteiku was everyone’s home.

 

Even Touka would miss the ornery asshole who insulted her daily because he was bitter and thought it was fun.   Anteiku could not lose anyone.

 

His phone stopped ringing.  Kaneki huffed out a huge breath and started, “Senpai, you have to-”

 

“It is midnight and you have woken not only me but my girlfriend and I don’t care if you’re an idiot pacifist I am going to kick your ass.”

 

“Doves.”

 

Silence.   “Where?”

 

“Campus.  I saw them a few days ago but that guy I met works at the CCG and told me that he saw your name in a file.  They’re looking for you.”

 

There was muffled motion on the other side of the call.  Nishiki said something and spoke again, “That serial killer?  The serial killer who is probably manipulative and smarter than you and knows how to get what he wants?  Why are you trusting him?”

 

Kaneki paused.   Why?  “Don’t second guess.  This wouldn’t be a good thing to take a chance on, Nishiki.  I’ve let the manager know too. He said to call and warn you.  There’s not much we can do, but he said you might be better off leaving as quietly as you ca-”

 

The phone buzzed against his ear.  He brought it down to see a text notification from Nagachika.

 

Subject: You rushed off without hearing my clever idea.

 

“Nishiki, hold on a minute.  I’ll call you right back, I just need to look at something.  Don’t panic or do anything rash. Right back, I promise.”

 

“Don’t panic?  Idiot you just sai-”

 

Subject: You rushed off without hearing my clever idea.

‘Dummy.  (*´-`*) You freaked out.  ⌒°(❛ᴗ❛)°⌒ You clearly didn’t like what I said, but you can’t panic everytime something rubs you the wrong way.  σ(≧ε≦o) I would know. You should know. / (⁎˃ᆺ˂)\ Meet with me again and I’ll take the worry away from your cute little head. (◍•ᴗ•◍)♡ ✧*。 ( ˘•ϖ•˘ )  ’

 

This bitch.

 

Kaneki texted back an address to a park that was a safe distance from his apartment and dialed Nishiki again.  “Just wait. I’m gonna check something out, but just wait. Don’t panic, just be on the lookout for briefcases.  One’s old and haggard and the other is huge.”

 

“You are going to die when I see you at wo-”

 

He put his shoes on and shoved his keys into his pocket before nearly slamming the door as he flew out into the hallway.  Forgoing the lock, Kaneki walk-ran until he was nearly at the park, only slightly huffing this time.

 

Hide was already sitting on the bench across from the blue whale.  He smiled at Kaneki’s vibrating form (coffee buzz and mild panic) and said, “Lock your doors, please.  You have to be better about these things, Mr. Ghoul-In-Hiding.”

 

“Don’t ever walk into my home, psycho, but explain.  If they get Nishiki we’d all be screwed, but his girlfriend will kill me if she finds out I let him die.   Fix it.

 

“Well, it’s all gonna work out, obviously.  Again, I’m a sociopath, dummy, and I had a plan before I even realized you knew Nishio.  Stop getting worked up. Be better.

 

Kaneki grit his teeth.  Hide’s facade apparently wasn’t worth keeping up in the dead of night.  “ What do we do.

 

“Okay, okay!” Hide grinned cheerfully.  “There’s a concert venue down the road next to the campus, right?  And there’s a forest next to that and it has animals and stuff and also there’s good chance we can use our enduring friendship to break up the target and his ghoul friend and then we get to scoop out his face!”

 

He let the expression fall away from his face.  “You can have the leftovers if you want. I don’t mind.”

 

Kaneki refused to tremble anymore tonight and he took a deep breath.  His heart had slowed down some and he looked at Hide. The bastard was serene.  

 


 

 

 

“I do not want to sniff this man, Hide.

 

The two best friends were sitting together in their stupid English class in the back row.  Kaneki was glancing down at two other best friends as subtly as he knew how.  One looked just like his photograph, bright hair and nice facial structure, apparently, and the other was duller by comparison.  Brown hair, brown eyes, hoodie and jeans. Every college student, ghoul or not.

 

“Well, get a whiff just for insurance.  I’m good, but I don’t have your nose. The plan changes if he’s not really what I think he is, so we better know now before we’re stuck in a tight spot,” Hide said quietly.  He glanced nonchalantly at the pair in front, looking bored. Kaneki made a face.

 

‘Do it for Nishiki.  And Kimi, who will kill you.’

 

“Are you a better actor than a liar, Kaneki?” Hide asked suddenly.  Kaneki looked at Hide. “Listen to me.”

 

Kaneki walked down the steps slowly, not at all nervous.  He made it to the pair and cleared his throat.  He cleared his throat.  He coughed and cleared his throat louder, damn you Nagachika’s victims.

 

The two looked up at Kaneki, looking a little surprised.  They gave each other a look and stared at him expectantly.   Expecting what?  Expecting what?

 

“Excuse me!  Um, my friend and I were wondering, are you guys free this Saturday?  Not that we’re asking you out. Um, we’re not asking you out do you want some extra tickets we have we don’t know anyone else and thought you might like to go or something, ” he finished with only the barest, tiniest crack in his voice.   ‘Good job, Kaneki.  Treat yourself to Shuu’s fancy imported beans later.’

 

The man with bright blue hair appeared to be holding back laughter, but his dull friend narrowed his eyes ever so slightly.  ‘Don’t panic, idiot.  Dumb, idiot, actual idiot.’  

 

Hide’s target finally spoke up, his silent laughter seeming to subside.  “Don’t worry about it, man. Hey, Natsuki, wanna go? I know I don’t have anything up on Saturday.  Free is free.”

 

Natsuki was quiet for a few long moments.  Kaneki was not making a weird face or anything.

 

He exhaled.  “Isn’t it that new band that just popped up?  ‘Bad Bat Shit’ or something stupid?”

 

“No one has ever called their band that, ever.  Nacchan, let’s go! You like music even more than I do.  I wanna see you in the element,” the human grinned. Human.  Kaneki could at least smell the target from where he was standing closer, his scent hitting his nose easily as something citrusy and flowery.  Nice, but that’s not what Kaneki was standing there for.

 

Natsuki shook his head, like he was tired.  “Only for you, Toshi. I don’t think I have work that day.”  he looked at the tickets Kaneki was grasping just a little tightly.  “Can you hand them over? I wanna see the seat numbers.”

 

Kaneki thrust his hand towards Natsuki, shaking the tickets out of his hand in his haste.  “Ah! I’m so sorry, let me get that!” he exclaimed, worried for many reasons. He leaned closer and bent down, sniffing the air with the breath he took to stand back up.  Blood.

 

Ghoul.

 

“Well, thanks for the tickets, dude!  We’ll put them to good use, right Nacchan?” Toshi looked at his ghoul friend hopefully.

 

The ghoul smiled and narrowed his eyes very carefully at Kaneki, who was stepping away hesitantly.  “Yeah. We’ll have a good time, Toshiyuki.”

 

Kaneki returned to the back row.

 

“Oh shit.  Maybe he is a ghoul friend.

 

“Yeah, he’s a ghoul for sure.”

 

“No, I think he has the hots for his friend who is a ghoul.  You can’t stop me from saying that pun, by the way.”

 

Hide gave Kaneki a once-over and snorted.  “Dude! You’re so bad at acting it was believable! Endearing, almost.  We might have to work on it for future endeavors, but it seems to be okay for now.  They bit the hook.”

 

Kaneki made a thoughtful noise, worrying his bottom lip.  He looked at Hide seriously. “Actually, I don’t know if this is good.  If I could smell him, he could smell me. And he kept narrowing his eyes at me, like he knew what I was up to.”

 

Hide waved him off.  “Listen, there’s always the contingency plan, but this isn’t really a problem.  Would it stop you from going? He’s a ghoul, so he shouldn’t be scared of you, who literally just panicked in his face because he had to talk to a stranger.  If anything, maybe he thinks you have a crush on him.”

 

Kaneki made a face.  “Ghouls aren’t always obvious about their intentions though, for obvious reasons.  He could also think that I’m trying to lure him because I made such a nervous fuss about the whole thing.”

 

He blanched.  “Wait.” Kaneki looked down at the two friends.  They were in their own conversation, pointing to something on Natsuki’s phone.

 

“...I don’t know how good his hearing is.  Fuck. What if he-”

 

Hide hummed.  He tapped his pinky finger four times on the desk.  “Don’t panic. I was watching. His face hasn’t twitched like he was listening to us.”  he looked at Kaneki. “Even if he was, trust in the contingency.”

 


 

 

 

When Kaneki walked into Anteiku that night like nothing was wrong with his life, he was mildly surprised to see that Nishiki was not behind the counter.   That’s rash , Nishiki.

 

Touka was wiping down a table and gave Kaneki a look when she noticed him.  She moved her eyes to the door behind the counter and back again.  She quickly finished her task and walked briskly to Irimi, muttering something and nodding before going to the door.

 

Kaneki followed with his shoulders squared because he had done nothing wrong this time.

 

“The fuck,” Touka began, “have you done with tha-”

 

“We’re moving quickly, Touka-chan.  Tomorrow, Saturday. We’re fixing it.”

 

She glared at the couch cushion.  Blowing a hard breath from her nose, she looked up and asked, “Is it far from here?”

 

Kaneki looked at the couch cushion.  It was patterned nicely in red and gold lace.  “Near Kamii, but this one is kind of an emergency, isn’t it?”  He returned his gaze to Touka. “Where is he, though? I thought I said not to panic.”

 

“You said not to panic after giving him every reason to panic, stupid.  He’s in his dorm not freaking out, claiming he has some ‘project for biology’ to work on.  Kimi is going about the day as normal.”

 

The cushion also had cinched corners.  At a second glance, it may have been a bit gaudy.  “It’s just another day. I haven’t seen those doves on campus again.”

 

“I wonder why they’re biding their time, then.”

 

It was even pretentious, the couch cushion.  “There’s no time to worry. Nagachika has a plan, he says.”

 

Touka sighed heavily and pushed him out of the breakroom, following behind.  “Let’s do our jobs and be conspicuous, too. If they’re suspicious at all, they might have even looked into his employment status.  Who tipped them off, anyhow? He’s an ass, but nothing in particular screams ghoul about him.”

 

Why were the doves suspicious?  “Kaneki, I know this sucks.  I want to be angrier at you but I know this kinda sucks worse for you.  You are an idiot, though.  Don’t walk into alleyways anymore or we might have to fight a revolution or something.”

 

Why were the- “I know, Touka-chan.  We can fix it.”

 


 

 

Hide, why are the doves suspicious?  Where did the tip come from?”

 

“It was obviously me, Kaneki.  It’s just the plan, don’t worry too much,” Hide said, shoving utensils wrapped in napkins into his hoodie pocket.  He handed off a canvas tote to Kaneki and filled it with some mason jars as the ghoul held it open.

 

Kaneki looked at the jars in the bag.  The glasses were colored pale blue.

 

“Oh.  Who’s playing the concert, do you know?”

 

“You don’t?”  Hide added some sealed clothes and towels to the tote.  He put a bottle of hydrogen peroxide into it as well and placed a canvas flap on top of it all.  It looked just like the bottom of the bag. “Bat Burritos. They’re pretty good, I think.”

 

“Oh.  Are you ready to go?”

 

Hide hummed and took the picture from his book bag on the floor, folding it neatly into fours.  His apartment was warm and lived-in, somehow. He grabbed a lighter from his desk and put both items in his jean pockets.  “Yeah. You?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

They left the apartment lights slightly dimmed and made it down the stairs.  Kaneki looked back at Hide’s home.

 

‘Does he use formaldehyde to preserve faces?’

Chapter Text

Kaneki stood with Hide at the back of the music hall, shifting his weight from side to side nervously.  The human scanned the rows of seats before them, searching for the targets. His face lit up when he noticed the two students walking from the side aisle to the near middle of the area.

 

“Kanekiiiiiiii~!  Found ‘em! Ready, buddy?” Hide asked enthusiastically.  The ghoul glanced at Hide quickly and then back to the two friends in front of them.   Laughing, nudging, joking.  They were just joking.

 

Kaneki nodded tightly and started in their direction.  He vaguely noticed Hide striding next to him, perfectly confident.  The man was even humming, damn him.  How horrid.

 

“Hide, are you sure about all this?  I know you have to kill, or whatever, for some reason I don’t really understand, but why these guys?  You can’t…” Kaneki paused, loathing his thoughts, “you can’t just take out, um, you know, the-the bad ones?  I mean, they… ” he trailed uncomfortably, not really knowing what they should deserve.

 

Hide nudged Kaneki with his elbow and smiled.  “Even you don’t like looking at those ‘unsavory’ types, Kaneki.  Their faces are already rotten. What am I supposed to take from them?  But these guys,” he threw his head toward their destination, “ they haven’t been ruined yet.  Fresh and easy pickings. A ghoul should understand that, right?”

 

He looked at the pair again.   Watching the stage.  Waiting for the music to play.

 

“We don’t pick them like peaches, Hide.  We just- we do what we have to and bury the guilt deep so we can worry about it later, when we’re dead,” Kaneki replied.   For Nishiki.  For Kimi, who will kill Kaneki.

 

“Either way, buddy, we’re in too deep.  You realize if we don’t do this exactly now, my threat won’t be the worst of it.  The doves will ruin you no matter what I say.”

 

They were just four rows away, now.  The human was inching closer to his friend, touching his shoulder.  The ghoul flinched a little, but leaned into the touch after a few uncertain moments.

 

Kaneki could hear the ghoul speaking.  “Hey, Toshi?”

 

“Hm?  What is it, Nacchan?” Toshiyuki replied.  He turned his head to look at his friend, suddenly finding his face closer and a little redder.  “I-”

 

“YO!  Hey, guys, you made it!” Hide grinned, startling his victims.  “My best friend here gave you those tickets, remember?” They all looked at Kaneki, who wasn’t already shriveling up like he was ready to die.

 

He smiled uncertainty, glancing at Natsuki.  Any suspicions the ghoul may have shoved down before had clearly skyrocketed back to the surface.   Looks can’t actually kill, because Kaneki was still standing there.

 

“Y-yeah!  Not a date, right?” he chuckled.   ‘Stop chuckling, Kaneki.’

 

Toshiyuki glanced to the side, away from all of them.  His cheeks were growing pinker by the second. The ghoul huffed a breath through his nose, squaring his jaw.  “Yes. Did you need something? I didn’t realize the tickets came with conversation?”

 

“Natsuki!” the human scolded.  “Rude, dude! We didn’t have to pay for anything, don’t be grisly.”  Kaneki looked at the man gratefully, avoiding the ghoul’s hard stare.  Hide hummed a bit before saying, “Well, I just wanted to say hi, but Kaneko-chan wanted to-” “Kaneki, not Kan-” “ask you a question.  Natsuki, right?”

 

The ghoul looked sharply at Hide, and then Kaneki.  He slowly stood up, stepping away and motioning for him to follow.  “Ah, Na-” Toshiyuki began. “ Whoa, where do you get your hair dyed?” Hide asked cheerfully.  He waved the two ghouls off as they stepped into the side aisle.

 

“So,” Natsuki growled, swiveling on his heel to bore his eyes into Kaneki’s face.  “Do I smell as good as you thought I would?”

 

“U-um, that’s not really-”

 

“I don’t know you, but I’ve seen you lurking in class like a loser with no one to talk to.  It’s happened before. Some ghoul catches a whiff he likes and suddenly he starts making conversation, getting all buddy-buddy with a human.  Stay the fuck away from my frie-”

 

“Hide likes him!” Kaneki rushed out.   Please.

 

Natsuki stopped just short of probably threatening Kaneki’s life.  He glared harder. “What?”

 

Kaneki took a shaky breath.  “It’s just, my friend, I-I-I mean he’s human, too, and he wanted me to get you to step away so he could ask him out,” he mumbled, attempting to speak louder but failing, “an-and he just knows a lot about music so he thought a-a music concert would be a good way to confess.”

 

The ghoul’s jaw dropped slightly.  He stilled, seeming to look for words, and trudged his way back over to where they had left the two humans.

 

“Ah! Please wait!” Kaneki called out, jogging to catch up to him.  The ghouls made it back to the seats and found Toshiyuki alone, standing up and grabbing his bag.

 

“Toshi?  What’s going on?” Natsuki asked worriedly.  The human shook his head with a slight, nervous smile.  He glanced at Kaneki and back to his friend, muttering a small “I’ll see you later tonight.”

 

The ghoul stared after his friend, dumbfounded.   “What did that asshole friend of yours say?!” he demanded of Kaneki.

 

“He didn’t tell me that much!” Kaneki cried, lightly brushing his chin with his wrist.  “He just said he wanted to ask him out, I don’t know!”

 

Natsuki took a deep breath.  He turned back to stare at the seat his friend had left.  “What did he mean I’ll see you later tonight?

 

“O-oh, maybe Hide, my friend, asked him to go somewhere tonight.  So he’ll meet back up with you here later?” Kaneki tried, just barely not gnawing through his bottom lip.  

 

The ghoul stared at him.  “He just left.

 

“I-I mean, I’d stay to hang out with you, but it’s not like we really know each other, so-”

 

“Then off you fucking go,” the ghoul grunted.

 

Kaneki restrained himself from attempting to sprint to the front doors and calmly left through the entrance.  Hide was just outside of the building, sitting on top of a low wall and bobbing his head as he tapped away at his phone.  He glanced up at the ghoul and waggled his eyebrows.

 

“I liked the expert way you stalled him.  Stumbling over really easy sentences is actually pretty endearing.  It’s a good way to pretend you’re incompetent, in most cases.”

 

Kaneki gulped and  attempted to regulate his breathing.  He stepped over to Hide, pulling out his own phone to check the time.

 

“So what about the doves?  How do we get them here?”

 

Hide shrugged.  “Like that.” He dipped his head to a point behind Kaneki, who did his absolute best to not scream.

 

“Behind me?” he hissed.   “What if they notice me first?”

 

The human hopped off of the wall and walked to the pathway leading out of the venue.  He grabbed Kaneki’s hand and pulled him forward gently, ignoring his scrambling protests.  

 

The doves were occupied with buying taiyaki from a vendor who had set up for the event.  This far out in the courtyard, Kaneki could see the sky beginning to dim, orange and pink sinking through the layers of the clouds.

 

“I’m gonna introduce you as my best friend, okay?” Hide whispered.  He let go of the ghoul’s hand and threw his arm around his shoulders, offering a wink.  Kaneki was not sweating.  There was no time to yell in anger or surprise or dread, because they were definitely in hearing distance of the two men.

 

The aged-goblin-esque one sniffed the air and turned around to grin at the two approaching students.  “Nagachika-kun! What ever are you doing here, I wonder?” he stretched out, tilting his head to the side.  The taller one swiveled quickly (rigidly) to look at Kaneki and Hide, who had reached them.

 

“Oh, Nagachika.  What a surprise.”

 

“Haha!  Come on, sirs, you know how much I love music!  Why would I pass up a concert right next to the university?” Hide exclaimed excitedly.  Kaneki focused his gaze steadily on the big guy, trying his best to smile sincerely.  ‘You’ve done this at Anteiku for years.  There’s no difference. Hide even has credibility here.’

 

The gobl-Mado was staring intently at Kaneki.  Amon, the giant, glanced at this, but then turned his eyes back to the two young men.  “Will you introduce us to your friend here?”

 

Hide shook Kaneki’s shoulders near-violently and grinned widely.  He laughed and let go, saying, “This is Kaneki! My best friend since forever!  He goes to Kamii with me.” Kaneki turned his head to Hide, eyes wide. “He knows I love this band, so he offered to pay for our tickets!  Isn’t he the best?” he ended.

 

Mado smiled at the two.  “My, my, Amon-kun. Isn’t that nice?  Nagachika-kun has a friend who would do such a thing.  It’s good to see young men getting along.” He focused in on Kaneki.  “Violence is such a problem nowadays, especially with all these fiends running amok.”

 

Fiends, sir?” Kaneki asked.  ‘ Well, us, clearly.’

 

“Ghouls!” Mado exclaimed, leaning closer to the ghoul.  Kaneki stood straight. “You haven’t heard of them, young man?   Disgusting monsters who prey on people.  There could even be some... right,” he stepped forward abruptly, letting a menacing grin spread across his face, “here !”

 

“Mado-san, there’s no need to terrify him like that,” Amon chided good-naturedly.  “Look, you’re just making him nervous.”

 

“Nah, Kaneki’s always scared!” Hide interjected, laughing loudly.   Naturally.  “Can hardly take him anywhere.  I was so surprised when he offered to take me here, so I’m really proud of him.”  He grinned at Kaneki, taking his alarmed face into his hands. “He’s just growing up so fast! ” he said almost tearfully, squishing the ghouls cheeks and swiveling his head like he had just graduated from kindergarten.

 

“H-i-de, st-o-ooo-o-p iiit.

 

Mado stared intently at the display, watching Kaneki sputter desperately as Hide harassed him.  Then he relaxed his gaunt face and smiled. “Of course, Nagachika-kun. We’ll let you two get back to having fun, now.  Amon-kun, did you already pay for the taiyaki?”

 

The doves nodded the young men off and turned back to the stand.  Kaneki was only just remembering how to breathe while walking when he heard his name.

 

“Oh, Kaneki-san, was it?” Mado called, “Keep an eye on Nagachika-kun, would you?  We’d hate for such a good assistant to find trouble out here. The twentieth ward is getting more dangerous by the day. ”  He smiled and turned back to his partner.

 

“O-oh, ye-”

 

“Kaneki, that was great!” Hide said as he pulled the ghoul along, making his way to the small woods a distance behind the building.  “I think they really like you!”

 

What.  Kaneki yanked his hand away from the man.  “I don't even understand why we had to talk to them at all.  We usually prefer not to stare our killers in the face until we have to.”

 

“Well, we have to now, don’t we?  Trust me, it's better that they’ve seen your face now rather than later.  If they know who you are and that you know me, you’re not some stranger with a dubious background so much as just ‘Nagachika-kun’s anxiety-ridden buddy’.  Checks out,” Hide smiled.

 

“Still-”

 

“And it would be even weirder if I didn’t greet my coworkers when they were standing right there.  Come on, get it together, Kaneko-chan.”

 

Kaneki grumbled at this and hurried on, clutching at the bag on his shoulder.  When they neared the edge of the forest the human slowed their pace just short of entering.  He turned to the ghoul.

 

The human smiled at him.  “Stay close to me, okay?” he offered sweetly.

 

Kaneki followed behind as Hide made his way past some trees, just barely in the thick of the flora.  They stood there for a few hushed minutes before Hide turned to the ghoul.

 

“Got anything?”

 

“Wha-”

 

“What do you smell?  Hear? Birds? Deer, rabbits, snakes?  Tell me, buddy.”

 

The ghoul stiffened and listened closely for something to crunch on the felled leaves.  “We can smell humans, not birds, stupid,” he mumbled.

 

“Hm?”

 

Kaneki’s head whipped to the left.  “Something’s there, I think,” he whispered.  “It doesn’t sound too big or lively.”

 

Hide crept over to the area Kaneki had pointed to and disappeared into the dark.  A few minutes passed silently until Kaneki heard a horrified screech and Hide returned to him, roughly grasping a rabbit by its ears.

 

“U-um,” Kaneki began.   The poor thing looked miserable.   “Okay, then.  So, do you have the rest on your own… hopefully?”

 

“Oh, sorry, are you uncomfortable?  My bad, Kaneki. I guess a bunny’s life would be more precious than a human’s to someone like you.”

 

Before Kaneki could respond, a voice sounded from a distance behind them.  Hide led them closer to the start of the forest and yanked Kaneki behind a wide tree.  The voice was just outside of the forest, it seemed.

 

“Nagachika-san?”   The human victim.  He was standing there, searching around himself.  “Um, are you there?”

 

Hide nudged Kaneki, smirking at him.  Then he took the knife from his pocket and sliced the middle of the rabbit’s back before tossing its squirming body towards the way they had come in.  He gasped and stared for a few shocked moments before tentatively jogging forward, worriedly glancing at the darkness surrounding him, but concerned for the squealing animal that was clearly nearing its death.

 

Hide shoved Kaneki roughly from behind the tree so that he tripped in view of the human.  Toshiyuki jumped, startled, and stared at the ghoul’s fallen form. Kaneki stared back. “Uh… did you hear that cry?” he said, righting himself. “W-What do you think happened?”

 

The human’s gaze flickered from the rabbit to Kaneki.  Unsure, he asked, “The-the rabbit just… wait, what are you even doing out here?”

 

The animal was barely twitching now, its hind legs jerking uselessly.  “Well, I thought I saw something moving, but I-I came to look and then I tripped a-and then you asked me-” Kaneki rushed out, flailing his hands around uselessly.  “Something’s out here?” Toshiyuki interrupted quickly, glancing into the fading silhouettes of trees behind the ghoul.

 

Kaneki’s eyes roamed quickly, searching.  He looked behind the human and saw Hide creeping towards them, eyes intent on the target.

 

“Hey, what were you, um, doing out here anyway?” he said, attempting to sound normal and failing a little miserably.

 

Toshiyuki looked severely befuddled as he turned to Kaneki.  “No, what were you- ” he said, suddenly cut off by Hide’s kitchen knife embedding into the side of his neck.  He choked, grabbing at anything before falling to his knees.  Blood burbled down his chin, painting his front in crimson. The human’s eyes bugged briefly as they locked onto Kaneki’s pale, unsurprised face before dimming entirely.  His throes ceased and left his body limply sprawled on the browned leaves he had crunched onto a minute prior.

 

The ghoul gaped at the scene, trying very hard to keep his posture upright.  Hide knelt down after staring at his kill for a few contemplative moments and wiped the knife’s blade on the corpse’s tarnished shirt, then waved it vaguely at Kaneki as he glanced back to him.  “That was pretty good for what I’m pretty sure is your first murder murder.  There might be hope after all,” he smiled at him.

 

“You are so sick,” Kaneki mouthed to himself, jerking his head away briefly to close his eyes and steel himself.  He turned back and barely stepped forward, glaring at Hide. “ Okay, now what? You didn’t explain very clearly how we’re going to leave here without making it obvious that someone was literally just stabbed to death in a fucking forest in the dark like we’re in a horror novel.

 

“Novel?  Most would say movie, Kaneki,” Hide laughed quietly.  He jerked his head at the tote bag that had almost slid off of his shoulder completely by the end of the commotion.  “Well, give me my jars first and then I’ll let you do the proper ghoul thing and then, my friend, we can get out of here.”

 

Kaneki fumbled at his side, made fully aware of how badly his arms seemed to be vibrating.  He gulped, flipping up the canvas cover to reach for the jars so he could hand them over and step back from the corpse.

 

“What do you mean proper ghoul thing?  I hope you realize I’m not a catfish.  I don’t just pick up other people’s scraps they can’t finish,” he mumbled shakily.  The human accepted the jars and set to work, carving into the poor victim’s head like it was a ham.   He drew a line with the blade from the outer end of an eyebrow into the middle, turning it around like he was circling an answer in a word search puzzle.  The flesh peeled off neatly, brow hairs and all, and Hide carefully lowered it into a glass, capping it tightly.

 

“Well, Kaneko-chan the cat fish ,” he drawled, pulling a fucking fork from his hoodie pocket, “I was gonna offer you a bite of this, but I guess if you’re okay with wasting a perfectly good dead person right in front of you, you can continue living your life like a picky toddler. ”  The murderer stretched out the hand holding the fork and waved it around, waiting for Kaneki to take it.  Kaneki did not.

 

Hide sighed, placing it back inside his hoodie and taking up another jar, unscrewing the lid to put it on the ground.  He reached back into his pocket and procured a spoon, hovering it between the body’s eyes. He hummed and looked up, asking, “Which one looks bluer to you?  I think the left one matches his hair better.”

 

The ghoul stared at the human and then down to his victim, darting back and forth from the blank stare in his both of the eyes.   They were both just blue.  Almost like Tou-

 

“I don’t care.   I don’t care, just do what you want and let’s get the fuck out of here,” Kaneki rushed, lifting his gaze to the dark canopy above him that was not the lifeless person laying there.

 

Hide smirked and returned to his task.  He wedged the knife’s blade into each corner of the sockets and dug into them, damaging the flesh to weaken their hold.  The spoon scooped them out easily from the ruined flesh and both eyeballs plopped wetly into the awaiting jar. The killer shut the lid of the jar tightly and put it aside.

 

“‘Kay, now,” he said, lifting the eyeless head into his hands to help it stare at the poor ghoul who had helped end its life, “nose or no nose?  Heh. No -se.”  Hide chuckled and rocked the head from side to side at Kaneki.  The ghoul shuddered, wondering not for the first time in the past few days why he ever walked into an alleyway at all.  Who would even do that except a serial killer ?

 

Fucking finish it, you absolute ass,” Kaneki spat.  He shrugged the tote off and strode away from the scene to sit down against a large tree, hugging his knees and laying his head to the side to glare at things that were not a murder scene.

 

Hide shrugged and continued his harvesting for a few minutes.  When he finished, he wiped the utensils on the body’s clothes again and stood up, stretching his arms and legs thoroughly.  He gathered the jars and gingerly hid them under the canvas flap in the tote and then walked over to where Kaneki was sulking.

 

“Okay," Hide started brightly, "the proper ghoul stuff.  I should probably say it in words, I guess.  You just need to fucking eviscerate the body and then we can do the next step, okay?  We’re almost done, promise. Maybe I’ll even treat you to a coffee,” he smiled sweetly.  Kaneki’s head jerked up, scandalized. He slowly stood and tugged at his sleeves timidly.

 

Eviscerate?  What do you even me-”

 

“Think of it as “ destroying the evidence”.  But we still get to use it in our favor,” Hide cut him off.  He turned around and gestured at the corpse. “Investigators don’t care about prosecuting ghouls, remember?  If they see what’s obviously a ghoul’s leftovers strewn about, there’s no murderer to look for.  There’s just some vicious monster that they want to cut down in blind revenge so that they can move on with their lives.”

 

Kaneki took a deep, rattling breath.  He was so, so tired, and a human was telling him to mar a corpse in the middle of the woods so they could get away with murder.   He was supposed to be done with all the ba-

 

He took a few tentative steps and without glancing over his shoulder, said, “Just go behind a tree or something.  I’m guessing you don’t want to mess up your nice clothes more than you already have.”

 

“Already on my way, man!   I’m kind of excited, honestly… ” the human's voice trailed off.  Kaneki stopped a few feet from the body and glared down at it, shivering slightly.

 

‘No eyes anymore.  Just a shell. It can’t even see you.  It’s an it, and there’s nothing you can do anymore, so get this over with, Kaneki.’

 

“Oh, make sure to really attack the head!” Hide called out from behind.  “Make it look like someone just ate his face or something, no clean cuts.”

 

Kaneki grit his teeth and with a crackling, sickening noise, four vibrantly pulsing rinkaku slid from his back and spread behind him, poised in a striking manner.  They twitched slightly, throwing their darkened fuchsia glow at the trees and shimmering dimly. He heard a low whistle in the distance and, rolling his eyes, the ghoul swung them around the air loosley and took a deep breath.  The first kagune pressed down firmly on the body’s head, smashing the skull like an egg.

 

His eyes widened a little as he shoved down his adrenaline, but Kaneki swallowed something tight in his throat and pulled his rinkaku back again, this time swinging at the abdomen and ripping into its encasing.  He dug out some of the organs tucked beneath and tossed a kidney aside haphazardly. A disgusting squelch sounded with every tear his rinkaku forged in the limbs and more flesh splattered away from its base.

 

Abruptly, the ghoul paused to examine the body.   When had he stopped seeing in front of him?  The corpse was already whittled down to something that resembled a pile of gore.

 

The ghoul could only make out the chest cavity to what was left of the mandible, now.  He swallowed again, ignoring the barest drip of drool from the corner of his mouth and flicked his kagune at the trees to shrug the blood away.

 

Kaneki slowly let them dissipate and shook his woozy head, catching himself as he stumbled backwards a bit.  He turned on his heel and hurried back to where Hide must have been hiding, calling out, “Come out. I hope that’s good enough for you.”

 

Hide peeked from behind the large tree Kaneki had sat against minutes before and gazed at Kaneki with something akin to… awe?

 

“Dude.   Dude, buddy.  How can they be so beautiful?!

 

Kaneki blanched, not expecting the human to actually compliment his murder-tentacles.   “Wh- what the fuck?  You do realize I just fucking-- fucking made someone into mush, right?” he replied brokenly, incredulous at the man’s enthusiasm.  He examined the flora confining them and felt his heart race even faster at the red and sickly veined viscera that coated much of it.

 

“I saw!” Hide exclaimed excitedly, “I saw them go to town like a wrathful octopus!”  He sighed breathily, deflating a little. “It’s almost a shame you guys have to hide them all the time.  Even the way they glowed was impressive.  It was so cool, man!”

 

Kaneki shook his head once more and examined himself.  Some of the mess had landed on him, but it wasn’t quite as bad as he had expected.   The trees must have taken the brunt of it.   When he finished glaring at his clothes, he turned his head the bag Hide was holding to his side.

 

Hide followed his gaze and clicked his tongue.  “You surprisingly weren’t hit by an awful lot of it, but we’ll definitely still need these,” Hide smiled as he reached into the tote and procured the towels and peroxide, as well as plastic-protected outfits.  They were nearly identical to the ones they had worn here.

 

The ghoul stared at the items in a daze and then lightly jolted in place.  He wiped his hands roughly on his soiled shirt so he could take what the human offered.  They doused the flecks of blood on their skin that they could see (checking each other for good measure, with Hide measuring Kaneki thoroughly ) and then wiped the bubbly residue off.  As they changed into the outfits, Kaneki faced away so that he could stubbornly ignore the eyes he could feel on him.

 

“‘Kay!  Good job, Kaneki!” Hide praised lightly.  He grabbed the tote hid everything back under the canvas before giving it to the ghoul.  “And now we need to show the right people what we’ve done.”

 

“You said before that I need to get help, right?” Kaneki asked.  ‘ It’s the doves,’ he realized tiredly.   ‘I’ve just met some ghoul-killers and now I’m going to ask them to look at someone I just helped murder.’

 

“Yup,” the human said, popping the end of the word.  He started walking back to the entrance, carefully avoiding the mess and they returned to the outside of the venue.  Street lights glared in the distance at Kaneki, their light knocking into his face as if they knew.

 

“So follow me from a distance while I go get my help and then find Mado and Amon.  Just make sure they come after we make it to the scene, but not too late.  I don’t think the ghoul friend will be all that calm when I show off our work,” Hide grinned viciously.  

 

Kaneki nodded, preparing himself to throw himself at investigators like a nervous mess.  The nervous part would come easily, at least.

 

Hide broke into a fast jog and went inside the concert hall.  Kaneki trailed behind, staying close to a crowd that was gathered by the entrance.  The erupting bass of the music shook the air even from back here, making the ghoul’s spinning head feel even worse.  He watched as Hide made a show of being vaguely panicked at everything around him and finally locked onto Natsuki, who was sitting alone and looking very miserable and disinterested in the band playing.

 

He went to him and ran his mouth off rapidly at the ghoul.  Natsuki stood abruptly and yelled something that must have been vicious at him, already taking off to the entrance.  Kaneki’s heart pounded as he turned and fled from the area, late in realizing that he should have already located the doves.  All manners of anxious, the ghoul roamed the venue’s courtyard with his eyes, his chest jolting when they finally landed on the two investigators who were thankfully still strolling near the vendors.  He began to sprint towards them, working himself up in his head.

 

‘Okay, you have this in your hands.  You know what to do. You’ve already met them and they know you know Hide, who they like for some impossible reason.  You’re a panicked college student who saw something fishy and you need to alert the authorities.’

 

‘You just need to be a person asking for help,’ he yelled at himself desperately.  The gob-Mado turned abruptly at Kaneki’s thudding footsteps and Amon swiveled on his heel when he noticed.  Kaneki bent over, huffing, acting, being human being convincing being normal and looked up at them.

 

“Kaneki-kun?   Whatever could have happened to hunch you over like you’re being chased by a murderer? ” Mado drawled, staring intently at the ghoul.  Amon furrowed his brow, concern visibly knitting in his expression.  “What’s wrong? Did something happen to Nagachika?” he questioned him, hard.

 

Kaneki gulped and gasped out, “W-we saw one of-one of our friends-” he paused for a more useful breath, “we heard some-some noise and then, then one of our friends he went in and he just s- screamed and we don’t know what-”

 

“Mado-san, let’s go look,” Amon cut him off.  Mado nodded thoughtfully and then looked seriously at Kaneki.  “ Lead the way, Kaneki-kun.  We’ll see what we can do,” he told him.

 

Kaneki breathed again, swaying slightly at the sensation of blood speeding back to his head, and straggled off running again, not really bothering to look behind to see if they were following him.

 

They finally made it to the forest’s edge and found Hide waiting by it, staring into the darkness of the trees.  He turned at their arrival and appeared completely terrified, the rotten liar, and pointed into the woods, calling out, “In there!  Someone else went in!”

 

The investigators rushed past Kaneki, who held back at a distance and watched them hurry to the forest.  Before they could go in, Natsuki stumbled out, entirely distraught. Tears streaming down his face, the ghoul huffed breathily a few times and noticed the doves.  His face impressively paled more.

 

Mado noticed.

 

Hide ran to Kaneki’s side and stood next to him.  Kaneki shuddered and glanced at the other ghoul’s face for a moment before realizing he was unable to stomach the guilt rearing in his chest.  “Young man! What seems to have happened? You look positively agitated! ” he said slowly, a small grin tugging at his mouth.  Natsuki faltered backwards two steps and steadied himself, gulping visibly.  Mado’s smile instantly turned predatory, and he shook his briefcase in front of him.  The ghoul’s eyes locked onto it and his tears began anew, scrunching his face in what appeared to be agony.

 

“I-I-” he stuttered.  He glanced wildly at the doves, seeming to steel himself as he took a deep breath.  He glared for a few seconds at Mado, and Amon who was readying himself with a defensive stance, and slammed his eyes shut, pushing out a harsh breath.

 

He opened them to flash his livid kakugan.   “Fuck all of you monsters.”

 

Kaneki watched as Natsuki let his kagune burst from under his shoulder blade and solidify into a blunted edge.  The distraught ghoul barreled toward the doves who had already released their quinques, clearly intending to rush them.

 

Even Kaneki knew that wouldn’t work.

 

Mado sliced a whip through the air and let it sting into the ghoul’s shoulder, eliciting a severe cry of pain.  He skirted to the side wildly, but quickly scrambled back up and attempted to step around the old dove to reach Amon.  The huge investigator readied his giant club in a defensive stance, waiting. He struck out when the ghoul desperately flung his koukaku in his direction, neatly countering it.

 

Natsuki fell down hard, hissing in pain.  He stood up again and viciously glared at the investigator.  His eyes shifted slightly and widened when he found Kaneki’s pale, sick face.

 

                                                             Natsuki's Betrayal

 

He opened his mouth as if to yell something before Mado’s quinque shot from behind into his skull, cutting his words off.  The ghoul was thrown to the ground a last time, his lower jaw hanging open and unable to speak its last words.

 

Amon lowered his heavy club and grunted, satisfied.  Mado smirked and cackled dully as he approached the fallen body.

 

“Amon-kun, why don’t you go see what this creature did in there?  Something tells me it wasn’t pretty.

 

The investigator nodded rigidly and hurried off into the forest.  Mado stood over the dead ghoul and shot his gaze up to the two college students standing a good distance away.  He zeroed in on Kaneki’s shocked and quivering form.

 

“Boys, I hate that you had to see something so disturbing.  Those monsters truly are vile to the core.”  He glanced over his shoulder to the forest and slunk his eyes back to them.  “Nagachika-kun, I’m sure you want to take your poor friend there somewhere he can calm down.  He seems to be ready to pass out.”

 

Kaneki jerked his gaping eyes to Hide, who appeared perfectly horrified.  The human nodded jerkily and met Kaneki’s stare with something that must have been meant as concern.  Grabbing his arm gently, Hide turned to Mado and said, “Thank… um, thank you so much, Mado-san. I’ll come into the office tomorrow, of course, but Kaneki,” he looked at the shaking ghoul again for good measure, “ really needs a break, I think.  We’ll be on our way.”

 

Mado gave him a small smile and crouched over the corpse beneath him to examine it more closely.  “ Ah~, this one must have been nasty.  Posing as a friend, huh?  Wretched fools.”

 

“A- ah, ” Kaneki faltered as Hide led him away in his grip.  The ghoul looked behind himself before they left to see Amon returning from the woods with a grim, disgusted look on his stern face.

 


 

 

Kaneki stared at his bedroom ceiling, seeing very little of its wooden grain.  He rolled over and laid there extensively until his side ached and he stood from his bed.  The ghoul managed to reach his kitchen where he forewent the chairs and leaned down under the counter, hugging his knees tightly to his chest.

 

His phone was on the counter above him, finally still after a fairly consistent string of buzzing earlier that must have been his friends wondering what the hell had happened.  Touka and Shuu. Nishiki, to whom he had only sent a cursory text assuring him that everything was finally okay.  Everyone was finally okay.   Maybe even Rize, who had probably heard enough of the situation from Shuu to ask Kaneki what he thought he was doing, this time.

 

Or Hide.

 

Kaneki shuddered and gripped his slacks tightly one more time before lifting himself from the floor and shuffling to grab the device.  Rubbing his head as though trying to get rid of something in his hair, he unlocked it and started sliding through the stream of messages, glancing briefly at many how are you and what the hell happened and are you okay and are you coming into work subjects until he stopped at one titled Let’s go out, Namazu-chan!!

 

‘Just let go of the catfish thing, you maniac.’

 

He decided to open it before any others and read it sluggishly.

 

Subject: Let’s go out, Namazu-chan!!

 

\(≧▽≦)/   Kaneki!!!!  We had a busy day yesterday, so I hope you got enough sleep X‿X

because NOW!!   ✧ ─=≡Σ((( つ•̀ω•́)つ  NOW we need to have fun!!  You pick this time!      (。>‿‿<。 ) Where do you want to go to relax???!   (^///^”)

 

Kaneki stared hard at his phone for a full minute and then shortly typed out the address to Helter Skelter.  Ignoring everything else, he carried the phone to his couch and tossed it down before flopping face-first and silently groaning his heart out.

Chapter Text

A rapid knock on his door roused Kaneki from his dead state on the couch and with a heavier head than normal, he forced himself up and padded over to the noise.  Touka stood in the hallway with a stern, incredulous face.

 

"Kaneki.  What are you doing?” she demanded sharply.  Even if her expression was tight, he could still pick out the clear worry in her eyes.  Her pretty, blue eyes.

 

Kaneki gaped at her for some moments before stepping aside so she could barge in and storm to the kitchen.  He turned around to watch her pick up his blinking phone and glare at it before near-slamming it down. The ghoul then furiously yanked open a cabinet to scrutinize the mugs inside and deem two of them to be adequate enough for the both of them to drink from.  Touka quickly located his grounds and set to work, fiddling with the moka pot on his counter.

 

Kaneki slowly stepped to where she fussed over the faucet and scrunched his face a little in contemplation.  “I don’t know, Touka-chan. I don’t know what I did. I don’t want to talk about it, sorry,” he said miserably.

 

She furrowed her brow and swiveled her head to examine him better.  He appeared calm, but still couldn’t stand to look at her eyes and moved away again to sit at his kitchen table.  Sinking his head down to his crossed arms, he offered a muffled, “I’m just so sorry.”

 

Touka was silent for some seconds before sighing through her nose and returning to work.  “Kaneki, you knew I was going to be worried, all things considered, but this just looks really bad.  I’m not angry at you, okay? I promise, I really promise.  Can you please look at me?  While the smell of coffee is keeping me calm?” she smiled gently at his slumped form.

 

The ghoul raised his head and let it fall back on his neck, blearily staring upside-down at the tiny upturn of her lips.  She had to encourage herself to be kind right now, he knew. There was no way she wasn’t forcing down a vast slew of questions and accusations that would only make him more agitated.

 

She was clearly wondering what had happened yesterday, but Kaneki was nowhere near ready to talk about what he had done.  He was only ready to tiredly haunt his own home and focus on things that weren’t related to his actual life.

 

Kaneki put his head back down and nodded sleepily into his arms.  “Can you talk first? And then not force me to talk now or ever again?

 

Touka wiped her hands on a dish towel and sent him a steady look.  “Listen, Kaneki. I’m guessing that no matter what happened, it’s made you feel really awful, right?  I can see it in front of me. You’re sinking again. I’ll be here no matter what, but I’d rather not see you stop functioning for weeks on end like you used to sometimes.  We’re all happy to help, even the shitty ass we work with.”

 

The exhausted ghoul made a tiny, vaguely noncommittal noise and shrugged his shoulders, trying to ignoring the memory of them being shaken roughly.  ‘If you don’t want to see, then don’t look and save us all the trouble,’ he heard himself not say.  ‘I don’t want to care either.’

 

“Ah-ah, Kaneki.  I see it right there.  You’re probably thinking that I shouldn’t even bother, right?  Well…” she paused, suddenly seeming unsure of her next words. ‘See.’   “No, no, don’t look like that, Kaneki!  You know that I’m not good at this part,” she grumbled.  Her brow pinched as she flailed for something that might help and she walked over to the table.

 

To-u-ka-chan.   It’s okay, seriously.  I don’t blame you for anything, least of all your really sad attempt to help your best friend in his time of need,” he smirked slightly as he hid his face on the table, guessing what her expression was now, “and I’d be glad just to drink some of your coffee while you moan all abou- ouch! ” he ended when Touka’s fist harshly (kindly) knocked his arm.  His head shot back up and he matched her glare this time until she cracked and laughed quietly at his reaction.

 

Kaneki gave the slightest of chuckles and slumped down, this time keeping his head above his shoulders.  “You know, I wonder what Nishiki thought of my ‘they won’t look for you anymore’ text. That’s pretty much the only thing I’ve said to anyone since I got home last night.”  He frowned. “Maybe Kimi calmed him down since he hasn’t come here himself to hit me for not telling him anything.”

 

He tilted his head to the side.  “I bet Kimi would have hit me herself if we hadn’t pulled it off, though,” he added dejectedly.  Touka sank down into the chair next to him. The brewing coffee grounds hummed lowly in the pot, filling the brief quiet.  She reached out to gently hold his hand and run her thumb over his knuckles. The skin was still soft and smooth, unlike a lot of ghouls their age.  

 

“I think you take Kimi too seriously some times.  She’d do anything for Nishiki, but she likes you too, you know.  It’s not just other ghouls you can rely on. She’s pretty okay, for a human, ” she responded with a tiny smile.  He bent his head toward her in gratitude, even if he didn’t believe her completely.  There wasn’t much reason to like him, especially after the past week.

 

Touka sighed again and stood back up to check on the coffee.  After pouring it into the mugs, she brought them over and placed them down.  “ Damn.   It looks like your phone blew up from more than just me.  Can I guess that more than a few are from Shuu-kun? ” she asked, clearly reluctant to consider him as someone who would want to help Kaneki.  

 

‘Ah,’ Kaneki thought.  ‘He might be worse than Touka, actually.’

 

He abruptly hurried to grab his phone and then returned to the table, already unlocking it to properly sift through the messages.

 

Subject: Kaneki-kun!  Are you okay??

 

Subject: Kaneki-kun!  Are you in trouble?  Let me know how I can help

 

Subject: Kaneki-kun.  Kanae is getting concerned, I promise

 

Subject: Kaneki-kun.

 

Subject: Kaneki-kun…

 

Subject: Kaneki-kun!!!!

 

Subject: Kaneki-kun please say something

 

Subject: Kaneki-kun, Rize-san wants to talk to you too

 

Subject: Kaneki-kun, open this message!  We want to help

 

Subject: I’ll even make you a proper dinner, I promise

 

Subject: Let’s go out!!  Rize-san even has a new bookstore to show us!

 

Kaneki sighed and put the phone down without turning the screen off.  He took a really, really long sip and picked it back up, typing out a small affirmative that he would call Shuu in a little bit, if he would just stop spamming his inbox.   Touka watched him with an unreadable expression as she tapped her fingers quietly on her lap.

 

“Did he threaten to sic his manservant on you if you didn’t respond to him?” she asked disdainfully, holding her head up as she leaned her elbow on the table.

 

The ghoul returned his mug to his lips and hid a tiny smile behind it.  “Almost, probably. I think he might just be using this as an excuse to get me to go out with him and Rize again.”  He looked at Touka, finding it a little easier to meet her eyes, finally. “Thanks, Touka-chan. I’ll try to survive his onslaught of ‘let’s help Kaneki-kun’ so I can live long enough to make it to work tomorrow.”

 

She grinned and reached for his hand again to pat it firmly (kindly).

 


 

Kaneki was only a few streets away from his apartment before his phone buzzed again.  He fished around in his pocket to unlock it and respond when the name Ami à l’andouille flashed, waiting for him to answer.  Kaneki slid his thumb on the call screen and placed it to his ear.

 

“Hel-”

 

“Kaneki-kun!  It’s so good to hear your voice again!  Are you doing well? Do you need me to come over?”  A brief pause. “Kanae-kun! Get the car ready! Kaneki-kun wants us to come over right away!”

 

Kaneki stopped briefly to make a silent, rude gesture at his phone and then put it back on his ear.  “Shuu. Just slow down some, okay? You don’t need to come over right now. Actually, don’t come over tonight.  I won’t be there.”

 

After a few beats of silence, Shuu spoke again.  “...Kaneki-kun.  Why won’t you be home tonight?  Are you still in the hands of cet meurtrier dépravé ?  Please tell me that fiend hasn’t asked you to do something else for ses désirs tordus ?”

 

The ghoul huffed through his nose and returned to walking, tiredly noting the groups of friends and acquaintances buzzing around him.  University students roamed the sidewalks, trying to make the most of the end of their weekend. The last part of their Sunday before they would return to the assault of their weekday classes.

 

“Shuu, please don’t worry, okay?  We’re just going out for a few drinks so tha-”

 

“Kaneki-kun!” Shuu interrupted in a clearly concerned tone, “Drinks?!  He is a human, non ?  Surely he doesn’t drink like we do-”

 

Kaneki rolled his eyes and cut off his friend’s babbling.  “Shuu, no. I, uh, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t drink blood or anything.  So far he’s been pretty clear that he’s just in it for the…” he sighed through his nose, “...the murder, I think.

 

More beats of silence.

 

“But I expect you are taking him to ce repaire de l’emmerdeuse, n’est-pas ce?  Don’t you remember what ce méchante femme did to you last time?  Even as I was there next to you.”  Shuu paused.  “Maybe I should come along after all.  It would be safer for you if there was someone to buffer the dirty tricks she’ll surely want to play.”

 

Kaneki stopped on the sidewalk again, this time staring in the distance at nothing.  His mind took a few moments to realize that he should probably address his friend’s concern.  “Um, Shuu, I really think it’ll be okay. I won’t even drink that much, I can handle it,” he laughed, his exhaustion seeping through his words.  The ghoul’s head slightly shook from side to side and his jaw awkwardly jerked towards his shoulder in a light brush, as though he were trying to tell someone no.

 

“And anyway, I meant to call you to say that we’ll have to see each other later.  I’m really trying to keep this psycho away from anyone else,” he added, frowning.  “The less he knows about all of us, the better.”

 

“Of course we should see each other, Kaneki-kun!” Shuu agreed brightly, determined.  “I’ll have Rize-san come over as well and we can go shopping and have a nice dinner and have a luxurious day, just like we used to!” he ended with a fond laugh.

 

Kaneki gave a small smile at this and nodded to himself.  “Yeah, I guess that would be nice. I’ll probably be busy until Friday, so can we plan for that?  Maybe I’ll even bring my new Takatsuki novel along. We can discuss how it deserves a way better audience than a picky, spoiled ghoul who once thought he could cook his food faster if he stirred the boiling pot with his own kagune.

 

“Good luck with that, Kaneki-kun.  Maybe Rize-san will agree with you.  Her taste in literature was always questionable at best, even back when we were-”

 

Kaneki ended the call and rudely gestured at his phone again, garnering a snort from someone who was approaching.  The ghoul looked up to find a rather amused Kimi next to a rather less-than-amused Nishiki.

 

He smiled rather uncertainly.  “Oh, hey, guys!   Hey, um, I was just on my way to see you, actually-”

 

“Kaneki, what the fucking fuck is wrong with you?

 

Kaneki grimaced and averted his gaze to the ground, noting the few browned leaves that had caught on the concrete’s teeth, shivering in the breeze.  He looked back up just in time to see Nishiki grunting in pain and Kimi taking her fist from his arm. She gave Kaneki an appraising glance and smiled softly.

 

“Kaneki-san, thank you for helping Nishiki out with all the trouble.  Even if Nishiki is being sour about it, he’s just stressed from all the frantic panicking he did when you called to warn us.”  She bowed in gratitude.

 

Nishiki twisted his face at his girlfriend and opened his mouth angrily to retort, but was cut off by Kaneki’s quick intervention.

 

“You’re really welcome, Nishino-san,” he offered shyly, not meeting her eyes.  “Um, I’m sorry, though, for not communicating with you better. I know it was probably difficult to not hear anything for that lo-”

 

“Damn straight, shithead, ” Nishiki growled.  “I wasn’t kidding when I said I would kick your ass when I see you at work.  You never think these things through, do you? And this is why you can’t get away from Anteiku.  You need to learn that you can’t just say things like that and people won’t worry like hell-

 

This time, the ghoul hacked when Kimi jabbed her elbow roughly into his stomach, fixing him with a severe expression to make him shut up.

 

Kaneki glanced at Kimi’s face and down to the ground again, suddenly unsure of how to respond.  His fingers fumbled with the hem of his shirt and he tried to find something in the vicinity he could focus on, but found nothing.

 

“Kaneki-san,” Kimi called out to him, appearing sad (concerned for him?) , “don’t pay him any mind.  You know how mean he gets when he’s worried about you.”

 

Kaneki attempted to meet her gaze again, having to look away when his stomach squirmed in protest.  Why would he have to be worried about him?

 

“Well, don’t worry, okay?  It’s-uh, it’s really nothing to be concerned over,” Kaneki laughed, trying to sound relieved.  “It should be over for now, I think. You… you don’t have to be afraid anymore.”

 

Nishiki grunted as he slowly uncurled his back and huffed out a frustrated breath.  He glared half-heartedly at Kimi and then focused on the nervous ghoul in front of him.  His eyes remained hard but the rest of his face slightly softened.

 

“Kaneki.  It’s not us, dumbass.  You’re the one who shouldn’t have to be afraid anymore.  And it doesn’t sound like this is over after he’s used you just once, ” he ground out.  “Didn’t you ask the manager what to do?  Why can’t he do anything about it?”

 

A gust blew past them suddenly, the concrete grabbing more debris.  “There’s not much to do, Nishiki-senpai. I just have to get through it,” Kaneki said quietly, watching the leaves wriggle on the sidewalk.

 

He glanced back up at the couple and found them offering him separate commiserating looks.

 

“Oh, Kaneki-san…” Kimi trailed off.  She turned to Nishiki, whose pissed off grimace had returned in full.  The ghoul huffed again and approached Kaneki more closely, reaching his hand out as if he meant to grab his shoulder, but stopping when he noticed Kaneki subtly curl in on himself even more.

 

Nishiki snatched his hand away and shoved it into his pocket, settling for jutting his chin out at the younger ghoul.  “Look, Kaneki. I don’t want to yell at you,” he began, ignoring Kimi’s scoff, “but you have to be careful around this guy.  You said his name was Nagachika, didn’t you? I’ve seen him around campus,” he growled. “And he seems too invested for his own good.”

 

He glanced back at Kimi, who slowly walked over to the two ghouls.  Only a few students persisted in the streets, clearing out as the sun began to inch out of the sky.  Nishiki turned to walk away from Kaneki and grabbed Kimi’s hand before she could come closer.

 

“Kaneki, I really will kick your ass if you pull this again.  Don’t be stupid. Watch out for yourself before you watch out for me or any of us.  It’s just more shit to deal with if we have to save your ass, too,” he grumbled, dragging his girlfriend away.

 

Kaneki stared after his leaving friends, not bidding them goodbye.  He lingered for a few seconds before turning around to start his way to the ward’s park.

 


 

Kaneki arrived at the park a delayed while later to meet his best friend before anything else.  Hide was waiting for him near the blue whale, bobbing his head to the music blasting in his ears.  As he approached, the ghoul could make out an overpowered bass and a rushed string of what was probably lyrics in what was probably a song.

 

Hide looked up and moved his headphones to his neck when the other stopped in front of him.  “Kaneki! I was hoping you could make it soon. Are you ready to start relaxing? ” he greeted, almost bouncing with enthusiasm.  Kaneki focused on his headphones long enough for him to add, “Oh, do you like it?  That was what we missed last night, by the way. Bat Burritos.   Pretty loud, but pretty exciting.”

 

Kaneki ignored him and started walking on the path that would take them back to the street.  Hide jogged to catch up to him easily and nudged him with his shoulder. “Kaneko-chan, I said we’re gonna relax, right?  You don’t have to mope so much. Isn’t it a bar you sent me the address of?” he drawled.

 

The ghoul refused to even glance in his direction and continued walking steadily with his jaw set square.  The human sighed lightly.

 

Upon making it to Helter Skelter, Hide ran ahead of Kaneki and rushed through the door, leaving the ghoul behind in mild shock.  He followed after and walked in to find Hide already sitting at the bar, asking about cocktails.

 

Kaneki shook his head and trudged up as well, shooting Itori a vaguely apologetic glance.  “ Kanekichi!   My, it’s certainly been a while!” she exclaimed amicably, a wide grin setting her face.

 

“Itori-san,” he greeted.  He settled onto a chair two whole seats away from the human and put his elbows on the counter.  The bar was luckily empty except for the three of them, though Kaneki absently wondered where Uta was.  He usually showed up when Kaneki came here, even if he had no way of knowing when it would be.

 

Hide smirked and muttered, “Kanekichi?”   Still refusing to look at him, Kaneki searched the shelves behind the counter and found what he had hoped would be there.  

 

The “vodka”.

 

Itori followed his gaze and laughed loudly.  Sobering, she said, “I think I know what Kanekichi wants!  I’ll have it for you in a minute, sweetie.” She turned to the human.  “And what might you be interested in, sir?

 

“Hit me with the same.”

 

At this Kaneki whipped around swiftly to stare at him only to find Hide looking right into his eyes, dastardly and triumphant.   Furious with himself, Kaneki turned to Itori who was staring at the human as well, but with intrigue.

 

‘Shit.’

 

“Coming right up, sir.  I think you’ll find your companion is quite the fun drinker,” she smirked at him.  The bartender proceeded to pour a shot for Kaneki and place it in front of his bothered grimace.  She produced another and served it to Hide, especially interested in observing the human’s reaction.  He nodded at her with a small smile and lifted the drink, ready to absolutely slam it, the psychopath.

 

“Hide, wait, what the fuck are you doing?” Kaneki yelled in slight panic, not at all wanting to watch a serial killer he had brought to a bar take a shot of intensely fermented blood.   The human glanced at him, appearing blankly confused.

 

“What’s wrong, Kaneki?  Are you uncomfortable sitting at a bar?  I know you probably don’t go out like this often, since you’re always readi-”

 

“I know you know that’s blood, human.”

 

Itori gasped dramatically and swung her head in Hide’s direction.  The man was just barely smirking, now. “What’s this? Kanekichi, you brought a human to meet me?  Oh my, how interesting!  I wasn’t sure you’d ever make a human friend that was brave enough to drink with ghouls! ” she exclaimed excitedly.  Kaneki frowned at her.

 

Hide let his face relax into a placid mask again and shrugged.  “ Itori-san, right?  I hope it's alright for me to be here.  Kaneki was gracious enough to invite me here after we pulled an all-nighter getting a vicious group project done.”  He motioned at the ghoul’s souring face. “And I think he’s still a little frustrated after all the moaning he did when we couldn’t contact our other two group members.

 

Kaneki huffed and grabbed his shot to down it without wasting time.  He gulped and glared petulantly as he turned to Hide.

 

“Don’t think I don’t hate you.   You can drink yourself to death if you want, murderer, ” he muttered darkly.  The ghoul looked pointedly at Itori’s entertained face and the bartender nodded easily as she poured another shot.

 

“Now, Kanekichi, don’t take it too fast this time.  I don’t want to have to call Renji to take you home again.  Your friends will worry too,” she admonished lightly, handing him another glass that he proceeded to immediately smash.  Hide watched the exchange without comment.

 

Kaneki grunted dismissively and accepted another glass, this time swirling it some and sliding it shortly on the counter as though entertained by the gentle swishing of liquid inside.  He threw it back again and scrunched his face in discomfort.

 

The human laughed faintly and turned to face Itori.  The bartender was watching Kaneki drink fondly, but turned as well and smiled at Hide.  “Was it Hide-chan? I actually think I might have something for humans around here if I look hard enough.”  She paused. “Do I need to?”

 

Hide hummed.  “I might take a little of whatever you have, then,” he smiled serenely at her.  Itori fumbled around the counter’s shelves a bit before standing back up and proudly presenting a slightly dusted bottle of cognac.  She smirked as she put in on the bar and dived back under to pull out two more bottles.  

 

Vermouth and brandy.   

 

Hide stared in interest as the ghoul prepared a glass and waited patiently for her to place it in front of him.  But she withheld it. “I wonder how much you might pay for this,” she giggled playfully, “Hide-chan.”

 

Kaneki squinted his eyes hard at the human’s small grin.“I wonder that, myself, Itori-san.  Do you have any requests?” Hide asked sweetly. Itori’s own knowing smirk widened and she hummed for a few moments before finally offering him the glass.  Hide took it up and swirled it some before sipping at it lightly, a cryptic expression on his face.

 

Kaneki shifted his scrunched gaze to the leftover shot of vodka Hide had slightly shoved to the side.  The human focused on Itori and murmured something Kaneki couldn’t make out, probably because he was considering what his next course of action should be.

 

The ghoul inched over slightly and very surreptitiously hopped to the next seat over, secretly making for the abandoned shot glass that no one had taken away.

 

He chuckled quietly and jerked it over his mouth, taking it down fast.

 

Mmm.   Swallow it, Kaneki, swallow it good, yeah, ” he muttered to himself with a tiny smile.

 

“Kanekichi!” he heard suddenly.  He swiveled his head around before realizing he must have overshot it and slowly spun it the other way, eyes wide when he met Hide’s intense gaze.  The human was sporting a vaguely satisfied air and that was kind of out of place so Kaneki looked down at his own lap worriedly, his breath coming to him a little shorter than before. 

 

‘Why is he looking at me like that?  Did I do something bad again?’

 

He turned to Itori for help, but she looked more interested than anything and Kaneki could only press his mouth in a thin line, nervously waiting for her to understand that he just needed another shot, please please please.

 

At the blessed clink! of glass coming into existence on his counter spot, his very own, the ghoul eagerly swiped it up and threw it back.  He could hear a faded laugh from somewhere in the room, but who would be laughing at him now?  Was he really doing something bad?

 

Itori glanced at the human and back to Kaneki, contemplating something.  She walked over to a small fridge at the edge of the bar and rummaged around, returning with a container that was dubiously opaque.

 

“Oh, Kanekichi, maybe you should slow down a bit, okay?  Why don’t you have some of these so you aren’t drinking on an empty stomach,” she said, her voice coated with what might have been concern.  Kaneki stared hard at Itori as she found a small basket behind the counter and emptied the container into it.

 

Several severed fingers.

 

“Oh, you have food, too?” Hide asked, his face twitching as though he was holding back a laugh.  He tipped back his own glass, sipping at it lightly with a hum. Itori gave him a small smile and nudged the basket closer to the intrigued ghoul, who stared at it harder and then pulled it over suddenly, almost spilling some of them.

 

Kaneki carefully picked one up and put it on his lips, letting it rest there for a moment before popping it into his mouth and crunching through the bone noisily.  His face evened out into something more relaxed, though his confusion returned when he glanced back over to the two people watching him for some weird reason.

 

The ghoul furrowed his brow at Itori once more, silently demanding another round.  The bartender twisted her mouth in contemplation and said something in a muddled blur of noise, her image flickering curiously.

 

“Kaneki.  Kanekiiiiii~!   You doing okay, buddy?”  It seemed Hide was asking him something, so Kaneki shot his eyes back to the vicinity of his voice and blurted something, anything to make sure no one could see how uncomfortable he suddenly realized he was. 

 

Hide-chan," he tried, "Hide-chan, why are you still drinking?  You gotta stop that’s not even blood that’s a that’s wait what is what is that you got?

 

“Looks like fun,” Itori whispered collusively, briefly catching Hide’s attention.  The human started saying something again, the fucker.

 

“Is he usually like this, then?” he asked the bartender with a severely dampened voice.

 

Before she could respond, Kaneki interrupted what was probably her muffled snark-infused assessment of his fucking woes.

 

“Hide.  Hide Hide Hide Hideeee, look, I - I’m don’t wanna be inflammatory right now or anything like that, okay but shut the fuck up, okay, you don’t even know where you are.  You fucking ass.

 

Hide laughed unabashedly at this for what must have been some evil reason Kaneki couldn’t even fathom at the moment, and the ghoul looked angrily at Itori, the snitch.   Her head was tilted to the side as she examined him with concern.  In what increasingly sounded like a light buzzing of air, she asked, “Oh, Kanekichi, are you sure you’re okay?  I can call Ren-chan if you wa-”

 

“I don’t need anyone, nope.  Hey, I-to-ri-ri- riri.   Hey, Riri, do you want me to pour you, um, another’s glasses?  I bet there’s more where that came from, hmmmmm? ” Kaneki sang, impressively smooth.  His eyes found the bottle of “vodka” again and he stared harshly at it until Itori graciously poured him out another shot The ghoul took it back and groaned as he let out a relieved sigh.

 

“Fuckin’ crisis averted, yesssssssss.”

 

The human hopped a seat over so that he and Kaneki were right beside each other.  He leaned his body weight into Kaneki, nearly pushing him over and springing back when the ghoul grunted, clearly displeased with the disorientation.  Hide smirked and nudged him with his elbow.

 

“Kaneko-chan, I didn’t realize you could be so much fun when you had a couple in you,” he smiled.  Kaneki swiveled to face Hide indignantly and haphazardly swung his arm onto the bar’s counter. He narrowed his eyes.

 

“I-I mean, but, Hide, why are we even here if, if we aren’t gonna drink it up, you bitch, ” he slurred out aggressively.  Hide gave a low chuckle and reached over to the basket of fingers.  Kaneki watched the action in wonder, surprised when Hide’s hand reappeared with his very own finger.

 

Kaneki gaped, horrified.  “Wha-wh- what, Hide, no, you gotta, you can’t, wha-, d- don’t eat a fucking finger in front of me, you fucking idiot! ” he stuttered out in a flurry.  Hide’s lips quirked up mischievously as he traced the rim of his cocktail with the severed finger.

 

“What?  Kaneki, I’m not sure I understand you.  Isn’t this what you brought us here for?  So we could hang out?” he teased.  “Besides,” he continued, “I would be a pretty poor customer if I just ignored the food I’m being offered.”

 

Kaneki gasped in horror.  He shook his head wildly, wondering when it had begun to feel so heavy.  “N-no, stupid, you- ” he near-yelled, “ you don’t get to say that!  Don’t fucking eat a fucking finger, okay?  Where did you even learn to eat, you little bitch What do you even eat, monster?!

 

Hide laughed over Kaneki’s loud rant.  He grinned widely, baring his teeth, and said, “ Me?  Where I learned to eat?  I learned like any of us, Ken.   You know, first at home-”

 

‘Shut the fuck up.’

 

Kaneki breathed harshly, his eyes darting back and forth from Hide to Itori.  Why were they staring at him again ?!  What was he doing wrong?   

 

His breath stuttered suddenly and he hacked out some violent coughs.  He looked back at the human and realized he wasn’t even bothering to hide his malicious grin.  Itori had narrowed her eyes at Kaneki as if she was appraising him and Kaneki did not like it.  He opened his mouth again to try and yell (had he already been yelling?) but was shaken by another fit of coughing.

 

“Hm, Kanekichi must be pretty upset this time.  He only gets this way when he can’t fathom how to face his problems,” Itori commented to Hide, conspicuously moving the bottle closer to her person so that Kaneki couldn’t drink from the sweet, sweet source like he just really needed to.  When his fingers crawled to it very discreetly Hide suddenly grabbed at his hand and shook it playfully.

 

“Ah, Kaneko-chan!  You don’t wanna go too fast, remember?  What if you need help getting ho-”

 

HI- DE-CHAN.   Stoppin’ stop it just don’t even talk to her stoooooop she’s too drunk to talk to you right now, y a know? ” Kaneki choked out, voice raspy.  His hand yanked back from the human’s as though it had been burned.  His eyes darted around him wildly as if searching for something to hug, and he was visibly disappointed when all he could find in reach was Hide.

 

“Listen, Kaneko-chan, I think you’re sta-”

 

The ghoul's heart clenched rapidly and he pulled his face into an offended grimace.  “ No, stop calling me that.  Stop calling me that, I’m not Ken.   I’m not I’m not please stop it.  You gotta stop it, stooooooop, ” he slurred out in agitation, causing Itori to stare with what might have been actual concern and Hide to place his full attention on him.

 

“Kanek-”

 

HIDE.   Let’s.  Talk. Shit, ” Kaneki said firmly, with a hint of sadness.  He took a shuddering breath and didn’t look up as he continued to mumble.

 

“I wannanana tell you what I’ve figured out about you.  You and your evil ass.

 

Hide’s eyebrows raised the slightest bit, his grin just barely broadening.

 

“I ju-just, what are you even doing with your life?!  You’re just getting upset and that’s not okay, okay, no, I gotta help you.  I gotta help you get okay, we gotta fix you, ya know?  But I kinda, just a little wish you would just die.  I gotta help you but you’re just so weird, what’s gonna even happening when you’re not with me?  You’re so utterly useless, ” he raised his voice, flustered in the moment.  He glared at the completely rotted person in front of him.

 

“Oh, but Ken-” Hide tried to interject, cut off by Kaneki’s dangerously contorted expression.

 

Shut the fuck up,” he spat viciously, “I’m not Ken, stop calling me Ken.  YOU AND ALL OF YOU just, like, just shut up, just stop talking, please, I don’t wanna talk anymore just leave me alone.”  The ghoul shuddered and expelled a lengthy breath before jerking back roughly to face the counter and throw his face in his arms, just as he had earlier that same day.

 

Oh, Kanekichi,” Itori sighed breathily, sounding a little put out.  She sighed and turned to the human in front of her, who’s eyes were stuck on Kaneki’s sulking form.  He slowly faced the bartender, dropping his smile and raising his eyebrows. “Uh. Do you think he’ll be okay?”

 

Itori hummed quietly again and then smiled slightly.  She leaned on the bartop with her elbows and closed her eyes briefly, opening them to scrutinize Hide with her kakugan.  “I wonder if this is what you had in mind, Hide-chan.   Perhaps you had a few ideas when you walked in here.”

 

She glanced to the side door of the bar and sniffed, saying, “Maybe you’ll have a few more later tonight.  I think my friends have decided to stop by .

 

The door flew open moments later and an obvious ghoul sauntered in with a placid smile on his face, followed by a far more stoic companion who looked unimpressed with his friend’s display.

 

“Oh, Kaneki-kun’s here!  Didn’t I tell you, Renji?” Uta exclaimed good-naturedly.  The other focused on the slumped over mess of Kaneki sitting away from Hide.

 

He grunted, stepping forward and looking as though he might say something when Kaneki’s head shot up and glared right at his face.

 

“Oh yeah, Ren-chan, you should probabl-”

 

“YO.  YO.  MO.   Yo Yomo, what did I just even say?  Yomo-san, Yomo-san, quick, help I don’t even know what to do anymore, anymore, oh, owwwwwwww ,” Kaneki yelled in a rush, promptly flinching backwards in the harsh light of the building.

 

Yomo’s clear expression faltered slightly and he glanced at Itori’s small, innocent smile.  He strode quickly from Uta, who hopped up on the bar next to Hide, and stopped at Kaneki’s side.  The ghoul was squinting up at him with wonder and what may have been apprehension and promptly started crying.

 

“Um.  Um. I’m sorry, I don’t, I didn’t wa- wanna… ” he gasped out, feeling his chest and throat constrict painfully.  “ No, I didn’t want any of it.  I-I don’t need it, I’m sor-sorry.  I’m so sorry.   I just wanna go away,” he finished with a rasping breath.  His shoulders shook and he hunched over again.

 

Yomo appeared to decide something and sat down at the next barstool.  He tentatively placed his hand on Kaneki’s crumpled pose and nearly jumped out of his skin when the weeping ghoul hugged him with severe need.

 

He stiffened considerably and his eyes shot to Itori.  She shrugged, offering only the slightest bit of guilt on her face and Uta just nodded his head twice.  “Renji, you’d better help him home again. The manager probably won’t call him into work tomorrow since someone, ” he glanced at Itori shortly before swiveling his head down to look pointedly at the calm human he was next to, “thought it would be fun to open him up.”

 

Hide tilted his head and watched Yomo grunt in annoyed agreeance before attempting to gently pry Kaneki’s sobbing face out of the crook of his neck.  The ghoul only hugged him tighter and nuzzled his dark hair into the warmth, trying to become one with his calm being, apparently.   Yomo sighed heavily and picked Kaneki up, slinging the poor man on his shoulder as he stood.

 

Yomo made his way back to the door he had entered through, tightly gripping Kaneki.  He sent Itori another unamused glare and finally looked at Hide, who was still watching the scene in front of him without concern.  The ghoul lowered his brow and set his mouth in a firm grimace, continuing out of the bar.

 

Kaneki looked up at the door just before it closed behind them to see Hide turn to Uta and grin.  He sighed dejectedly and sniffed. “Yomo, Yomo I fucked up, I’m s o sorry. ”  His teeth started chattering, as if the blatantly cold air on his red face was too much to bear.

 

The ghoul went rigid for a second and relaxed again, awkwardly readjusting Kaneki on his shoulder.  “Just don’t worry about it, Ken. I’ll tell the manag-”

 

No!  NO, NO NO NO NO, I’m not, don’t say m-my-!” Kaneki cried out, suddenly disturbed by the thought of Yoshimura actually knowing.  “You-you can’t, no, don’t let him know, don’t tell Mom, I said I’m sorry already, I’m so fucking sorry!  Don’t do it, please!”

 

Yomo stopped abruptly.  Kaneki started crying louder, his body shaking violently again.

 

“Y-you won’t- no, please, I don’t wanna, I don’t- I don’t I don’t I don’t!   You hav- you hav- ha- have to stop her, she’s gonna know, she won’t stop!   Just help her, someone, please, I don’t know what to do anymore... ” he hiccuped in despair, forcing out a rattling breath.  His throat felt even tighter than before and fresh tears ran hotly down his puffy cheeks.

 

It was agony, all of it.

 

Yomo began to walk again, more briskly.  Kaneki’s sobs grew heavier and more painful with each new step they took forward.

 

He didn’t know how much time had passed before his eyes finally drooped and he slipped away into the merciful dark.

 


 

Kaneki groaned, his voice somehow scratchy, when his eyes twitched open without his consent, struggling to break through the crud that kept them shut for the night.

 

He was still in darkness, but this time he was on a softer bed (was he on a bed last night?) and his head was cradled by a carefully fluffed pillow (did he lay on a pillow last night?) that had him briefly consider if it was worth it to ever get up again.

 

To make up for his sluggish body, Kaneki’s eyes shot open furiously.

 

“Yomo-san,” he uttered, his throat constricting painfully with an instinctive swallow.

 

The ghoul groaned in discomfort all over again and tried his best to steady himself on his elbows before swaying to push himself up and instinctively grabbing for his head.  It seemed to be beating fast, like his heart.

 

He opened his mouth and without even trying, choked on his own spit, prompting some very desperate coughs.  Someone suddenly stepped into the room and rushed over to check on Kaneki, who still hadn’t made it above his vaguely throbbing arm.

 

“Kaneki-kun.  How are you doing?” the person asked him, sounding more concerned than made sense to the ghoul.

 

Kaneki’s eyes throbbed even when he tried to focus on the person’s towering, blurry form.  They murmured something and stepped back out of the room, returning a few moments later with a new person in tow.

 

Kaneki heard a chair being hastily pulled over and before he could panic, he suddenly felt his arm lifting.  The ghoul made an effort to focus on the gentle grip and, slowly, his vision returned enough to make out a better impression of the doctor in front of him.

 

Determined to respond with actual words this time, Kaneki cleared his throat more productively and took a better breath.

 

“Doctor Fueguchi?” he forced out.  The exhausted-looking man gave a tiny smile and hummed.  The other occupant of the room stepped forward again and looked at Kaneki with a concerned grimace.

 

“Kaneki-kun.  Do you know where you are?” the manager asked.  He was holding what appeared to be a steaming cup in his hands, and the scent was intoxicating.   Kaneki found his breaths to come even easier and he gave his own tentative smile to Yoshimura.

 

“I-I’d guess Yomo-san carried me to Anteiku.  Where… where is he, sir?” the ghoul responded, his vague sense of anxiety mounting again.  Yoshimura’s lips quirked sadly and he sighed as he placed the steaming cup on the bedside table.

 

“He returned to his home a few hours ago.  After he brought you here, he fetched Asaki-san and agreed to cover your shift for today,” he said.  Kaneki’s brain whirred as it tried to process the manager’s words and he scrunched his face in contemplation.

 

He felt his saliva threatening to asphyxiate him again when it finally hit that his shift for today would have been in the evening after his last class on Monday.

 

His important, frustratingly-led English class.

 

“Ah, Kaneki, try to relax.  It’s probably time for us to take this out of your arm,” Doctor Fueguchi chided gently.  Kaneki glanced at his elbow and back to the doctor’s face again after realizing that the discomfort in his arm was an IV line tugging on his vein.

 

The ghoul nodded and looked anywhere but the doctor’s hands as he felt the needle slip from his skin easily, albeit it unnervingly.  “Now, Kaneki,” Asaki began, “you remember what I told you last time about drinking, don’t you?  About reactions?”

 

Kaneki continued to avoid Asaki’s eyes and nodded brusquely.  The doctor sighed and took his wrist in his hand, turning it over.

 

“Yoshimura-san let me know about your current predicament, and, ah, the stress you’ve been experiencing lately because of it,” he proceeded, “but I think we’re all aware that Helter Skelter’s concoctions of blood and ethanol are not the best pairing with your kind of medication.  Such a severe depressant is nearing serious danger.”

 

Kaneki nodded again, his guilt rearing up for another bout.  It was a common feeling for him, lately.  Yoshimura offered him a gentle smile, however, and asked Asaki to leave them for a moment.  The doctor stood and turned back to them before passing through the threshold.

 

“I’d like for you to stay in bed for a few more days, Kaneki.  You should take it easy now so you’ll be able to heal more quickly.  Not to mention, a break from your normal stressors can’t hurt,” Asaki instructed.  His smiled softened, and he added, “Also, Kaneki, Hina-chan mentioned the other day that she had a bit of trouble understanding that novel you lent her.  Wasn’t it Monochrome Rainbow ?  And she can’t wait to come by again to ask you about it.”

 

The doctor left and closed the door behind him.  Kaneki stared after him and finally managed to sit up properly, exhaling a heavy breath and making for the black coffee still beckoning to him at his side.  The manager lowered himself into the chair and crossed his legs, waiting for Kaneki to begin.

 

Kaneki didn’t want to begin.

 

“Um, sir,” he tried anyway, “I’m sorry for missing my shift and taking up the bed, but I really don’t kno-”

 

“Kaneki-kun,” the manager interrupted, looking all manners of tired and sympathetic.  “I’d like to assume that your rather severe lapse in judgement won’t happen again,” he said, letting his voice become noticeably sterner, “but Yomo told me a few things that I think we should talk about.”

 

‘A few things?’

 

“Things, sir?” Kaneki echoed, unsuccessfully racking his memory for what Yomo could have to say other than explaining that he had gotten drunk enough to pass out and that he cried about--

 

“Sir, I’m not sure-” he scrambled, panic striking him in his ribs more concretely this time.  He inhaled sharply. Blinking his eyes into a steadier gaze, he met Yoshimura’s piercing eyes and focused on looking better than he felt.  “I’m okay. You don’t have to worry over something like that.”

 

But the manager stared hard at him and let loose a huff from his nose.  His brow lowered and he shook his head, daring Kaneki to close off again.

 

“Kaneki-kun, please hear me.  I know that since you’ve been with Anteiku, the past has been difficult to bring up.  But I also realize that the current situation with this Nagachika person,” he said the name with clear distaste, “is unfair and more taxing on your heart than you deserve.”

 

‘Deserve?’

 

Kaneki continued to meet the manager’s gaze, refusing to look away from him.  

 

The manager’s mouth set in a stiff line and he shook his head again, like he was in pain.  “I’ve discussed this with Yomo and we’ve considered the possibility of him taking over some of your shifts, so that you’ll have more time to focus on getting better.”

 

‘Getting… better, sir?’

 

“You are always welcome here, of course, and we would never replace you.  You can even take this room if you like. And you’ll still have some shifts, of course.  This isn’t at all you being fired and tossed away, Kaneki-kun,” he smiled, pained, “but we don’t want to see you stop-”

 

‘See me stop?’ Kaneki questioned himself.

 

Kaneki didn’t hear the manager’s voice anymore, so he looked up to see Yoshimura looking sadly at him again, like he was sorry for some reason he had to be.  He must have missed last part of his sentence.

 

“I understand, sir… no one wants to see me go through this,” he said simply.  “I should focus on getting better, I know. But…” Kaneki trailed off, thinking hard, “I think it would be in my best interest if nothing else in my life changed right now.  I don’t want to lose the good parts I have left. And Touka-chan would have a hard time without me, too, right?” he ended, laughing uncomfortably.

 

Yoshimura finally turned away from his charge’s eyes to stare at the coffee cup Kaneki gripped securely in his hands.  A few beats later, the old man stood up, grunting quietly from the effort.

 

“Kaneki-kun.  We’re all here to help you.  Please don’t forget that,” he smiled at him.  He stood in place and appeared deep in thought before placing the chair back where it came from and continuing, “If it can help you, I won’t take your shifts away.”  Here he paused again.

 

“But if it becomes clear that working here as often as you do hurts you more than helps you, we’ll have to talk about this again.”

 

Kaneki stared after Yoshimura’s retreating figure as he twisted the warm cup in his hands.  He glanced down at his muddied reflection in the dark liquid.

 

What had he even expected to see?

 


 

Mademoiselle Kirishima!   Might you show us to Kanek-

 

Shuu’s loud, dulcet voice was abruptly cut off by a dull smack, followed by a honeyed laugh and a rather fussed grumble.

 

Kaneki eyes fluttered open and, this time, he sat up easily before a long string of thudding steps ended outside his door.  Just a brisk knock later, Touka burst through the door and glared (kindly) at Kaneki.

 

“Are they-”

 

They are.  I don’t suppose you might take them off my hands, Kaneki -kun? ” she deadpanned, swiveling on her heel only to find herself in Shuu’s animated face.  She swore loudly and shoved past him, adding a vaguely annoyed grunt when she seemed to encounter someone else in the hallway.

 

Shuu strode excitedly up to Kaneki, who was now fully awake.  He gave Shuu a small smile. “Shuu, you didn’t have to-”

 

Non , Kaneki-kun!  We came t-”

 

“Oh, Kaneki-kun.  What happened to you this time, hm? ” Rize’s lilting voice interrupted the rambling ghoul, who faced her in irritation.  

 

Kaneki rolled his eyes at her and focused on Shuu, who had already pulled out his phone and was tapping away madly on it.  “Shuu, I still don’t mind to wait until Friday, you know. I may need to take it easy for a few more days, but if you can give me a bit more rest I bet I’d be able to enjoy whatever you have planned more.”

 

The ghoul shook his head at Kaneki, sighing airily.  “Oh, Kaneki-kun.  Mon pauvre.  I should have gone with you instead of ce meurtrier dégueulasse.”  His face drooped in slight concern.  “Actually, Rize-san and I were discussing how we might treat you today, and I believe we came up with something merveilleux that will sûrement cheer you up and then we can-”

 

“We’re going to buy your happiness back today, Kaneki-kun,” Rize interjected with a sweet smile.  Kaneki tilted his head in question at her. She chuckled, continuing, “Shuu-san mentioned that you’ve already finished Takatsuki’s new novel, and I agreed that it would be fun to talk about it without his stupid delusions interrupting us.”  Rize smirked at Shuu’s indignant tsk.

 

Kaneki laughed quietly and looked down to his fists sitting in his lap.  The ghoul’s smile stretched when he considered that forgoing bedrest for a little while might be better than being left to sulk in a room for a few days.  He looked back up to accept the offer, mouth twitching as he watched Rize laugh earnestly at Shuu’s rapid strand of muttered, foreign insults.

 

“Okay, then.  Lead the way, I guess,” he said with a bashful smile.

 


 

“Did you see that new translation of Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game ?  It came across better than the old one I had to read in high school,” Kaneki asked, curious to hear their judgements.

 

Rize scoffed and twirled halfway to face him.  The trio continued on the sidewalk, Kaneki trying his best to keep up with Rize’s pace and Shuu striding smugly at their side.  People rushed by them, caught up in the swing of the busy Wednesday afternoon. Shuu cut Rize off before she could offer some sarcastic quip and chuckled knowingly.

 

In der Tat, Kaneki-kun.  It was rather dramaticsch if I’m being honest, but I suppose it’s an improvement from the geblieben version we alrea-”

 

“Oh, Shuu -sama , has that German manservant of yours been teaching you his favorite swears?  Or was that your hilarious attempt to impress Kaneki-kun?” Rize cut him off, smiling knowingly at Kaneki.  He returned his own sheepish smile and glanced at Shuu, who seemed to be trying very hard to not use his own favorite, real foreign swears.

 

He cleared his throat, eyebrows twitching and grimaced at her.  Kaneki returned his attention to the crowded street, sharply swerving closer to his friends when a group of lively teenagers nearly crashed into him.  “Well, Rize-san, some of us endeavoured to diversify our intellects as young adults rather than waste our youths snacking away at müll we just found on the streets.”

 

“Wait, Shuu, that’s not quite fair,” Kaneki replied with a tiny grin, “do you really think I taste that bad?  Enough to insult me in another language?”  Shuu blanched and instantly began to apologize but Rize laughed openly at his face and nudged Kaneki’s side, clearly amused.

 

Hm, Kaneki-kun.  Maybe you were that bad.  I don’t think our fancy friend here would lie about his tastes in food, would he?  The way he always goes on about his stupid dishes and, oh…” she giggled, “ ...affectations?

 

“Yeah, Rize-chan.  He can’t even appreciate good literature anymore.  Did you know he doesn’t even like the new Takatsuki novel?”

 

The woman gasped theatrically.  “He’s that stupid?  I hadn’t thought it was that bad yet.  I mean, he was always a little picky when it came to his interests-”

 

“I don’t want to hear that from you, pauvre gloutonne!”

 

“-but I thought he would know better than that!   Don’t tell me, did he also try to convince you that Kanae wanted to talk with you?  The German serf who hates your guts because his master loves them?”

 

“Oh, but I guess he doesn’t after all!  I’m just trash to him, apparently…” Kaneki trailed off, barely holding back his amused grin.  His cheeks nearly hurt from the stretch. “And anyway, Rize-chan, what do you thi- ah!”

 

Kaneki gasped, stumbling when a stranger knocked him to the side without pausing to apologize.  He slowly tried to straighten himself, his head suddenly throbbing like it had a few days before.  His vision returned and he blinked back into awareness, blankly noting that Rize was holding onto his arm, a pensive expression transposing her face.  Shuu had stopped completely, worriedly coming closer to look the ghoul over.

 

His hands ghosted over Kaneki’s slumped posture as the ghoul tried to edge away the dizziness that had coiled in his skull.  The world stopped spinning after a few seconds and Kaneki examined his friends’ concerned faces. He took his arm back from Rize and walked a short distance away to a bench that was thankfully sitting in a less congested area.

 

He expelled a shaky breath as he dropped onto it, lamenting that he had accepted his friends’ invitation.  He didn’t feel like explaining that part just yet.

 

Shuu reached him first, clearing his throat and crossing his legs as he joined the man’s side.  Rize trailed behind and sat on the arm of the bench rather than the open spot on Kaneki’s other side.  “Um, Kaneki-kun, are you okay?” the ghoul asked, closely observing him. Inside of his much needed space.

 

Passersby still hurried around, completely detached from their presence as they went about their days.  Kaneki barely glanced at them and flicked his eyes to Rize’s expectant gaze before locking onto Shuu’s more intense drilling.

 

“No, Shuu, it’s okay.  Really, guys. I mean, you do realize that I more or less blacked out for a day after slamming back, uh...” Kaneki paused and laughed sheepishly, “...more or less, you know, death, so, like-”

 

“Oh, Kaneki-kun,” Rize sighed airily, “we’ve all seen you slam back death already.  But just now, you nearly toppled over from some human nudging you.  Is this to do with that vulture you’ve been playing with or is there something you haven’t told your dear friends, yet?”

 

Kaneki rolled his eyes.  “No, Rize-chan. There’s nothing to tell.  Nothing ever happens to me, I’m just dizzy from the, uh, poisoning.”

 

Nothing?!   Kaneki-kun, even if you don’t like to fight, you’ve never been stopped like this before!” Shuu cried suddenly, seeming on the verge of outrage.  “ Non , what else is there?  Has that human been getting you into other trouble?  Are you committing even-” his voice dropped to a whisper, “- worse crimes than-”

 

“Shuu-san,” Rize glared, suddenly sounding hostile, “ don’t be stupid.   Kaneki-kun isn’t stupid, either.  He wouldn’t just go out and partake in criminal activity, unlike someone who’s right here-”

 

“You’re hardly better, pauvre salope bâclé -”

 

“Oh, and yet I don’t waste what I hunt and I don’t hoard it at my estate-

 

“You putain de succube -

 

“I also don’t pick apart my meals just for the pretty parts like some-”

 

“Please shut the fuck up, or as Shuu would say, ta gueule , ” Kaneki interjected sharply.  He fixed the both of them with scathing glares, adding under his breath, “That’s probably right, I think.”  His head was no longer pounding but his ears were and his friends needed to be quiet.   

 

He glared at the two of them and returned to his feet.  They followed him as he strode back into the stream of strangers, Rize taking back her place at his side easily and Shuu resignedly falling into step closer to Kaneki than before.  The ghoul sighed through his nose and vaguely shook his head.

 

“I’m okay.   I just don’t wanna talk about it yet, especially now that my head hurts from all your stupid arguing,” he muttered.  Rize stared at him and turned to Shuu, then back to Kaneki and patted his shoulder.

 

“Does this have something to do with that doctor?  How did he treat you?” she asked, brows slightly pinched on her blank face.

 

Kaneki rolled his eyes again.  “Doctor Fueguchi gave me fluids and warned me to be more careful, that’s all.”

 

“Did he use any medicine?”

 

“Kaneki-kun…” Shuu said slowly, “...had he already given you medicine?”

 

Kaneki sped his pace in spite of the way it made the world spin again.  “Yes, okay, fine.   He gave me some stuff to take the edge off and maybe I didn’t really care about it so much when I was forced to go drinking with a serial killer.   I just won’t let it happen again.  That’s all there is.”

 

Silence followed the three ghouls until they finally made it to the bookstore.  Kaneki immediately found his way to the romance section and his friends followed behind.

 

“I think I heard about this new novel that just came out about a woman who finds love in the underworld, in spite of her being an oiran .  And she’s even looking for her missing brother or something like that.  It had pretty good reviews. I wonder where it is…” Kaneki trailed off. Rize huffed and stalked off to the horror section, Shuu lingering a moment as he seemed to deliberate what he should say.  He settled for patting the ghoul’s shoulder and offering a weak, bothered smile.

 

Mon cher , we’ll be on the other side of the store.  It’s my treat today, so pick as many as you like.”

 

Shuu walked away, leaving Kaneki to stare at shelves of books he had never bothered to read before.

 


 

Kaneki handed his jacket and bag to Kanae, who sniffed disdainfully at him and turned to take Rize’s.  He just barely restrained his snarl when the woman smirked at him and daintily draped her sweater over his outstretched arm with a flirtatious giggle.  The servant took it with his face twitching in indignation.

 

Shuu chuckled and folded his suit jacket carefully before handing it to Kanae, patting the man’s arm.  “Thank you, Kanae-kun. We’ll be in my room for now. Please tell Matsumae we have returned.” Kanae bowed and stalked off after throwing his master’s friends some looks of diluted contempt.  Shuu turned to Kaneki and Rize. “Well, mon cher , ” he addressed Kaneki, “let’s go up and relax for a bit.”  Rize tsked at his slight of her presence and strode ahead of the two men as they began to climb the grand staircase of the manor.

 

Kaneki glanced around him as they ascended, noting the way the marble underscored their footsteps in the acoustic echoes of the vast room.  The eminent ceiling capped the carefully crafted walls and filtered the sun’s light through its many colorful glass apertures. Rize hummed a soft tune and vaguely swayed with each of her steps.  Shuu himself seemed to pay no mind to the intricacies around them and paced calmly up the stairs.

 

They reached the top and Shuu led them down a far-reaching hallway.  Servants bustled through the doors and through the hall, offering their master and his guests brief and polite smiles before turning back to their tasks.  Rize barely paid them any mind, but Kaneki couldn’t help the nervous cringe (awkward smile) he returned to each of them.

 

“Shuu-san, I’m surprised every time we come here that you have so many people willing to do your dirty work.  I wonder why you even bother to hunt for yourself with all these nannies you keep around,” Rize teased, throwing a smirk over her shoulder at the ghoul’s darkening expression.

 

He scoffed and turned to Kaneki instead.  Slowing to fall into his friend’s step, he tilted his head at him and smiled encouragingly.  “So, Kaneki-kun, did you find anything good at the store? I didn’t quite recognize any of the titles you brought to the counter earlier.  They were from the romance section, non? ” he asked brightly.  “I’d never taken you as a type romantique.  Actually, I’ve never seen you glance at a romance section in any kind of store.”

 

Kaneki gulped with a pinched smile and shook his head.  “Ah, well, I thought it might be a nice change of pace to, um, broaden my horizons, I guess you could say?” he said, sounding a little confused, himself.  “And I wondered if maybe taking a short break from horror and tragedy could… break up some of the monotony I’ve been feeling lately,” he paused thoughtfully, “not to mention that when I get around to the more literature-focused courses in my degree, some diversity now might prepare me better for what I would study later in those classes.”

 

“Aha!  I suspected it might be something so planifié!”  Shuu exclaimed.  “Then, would you be open to some of my own recommendations?  Have you read any of Shakespeare? Recently, I reread his The Comedy of Errors.  One of the female leads was written de façon intéressante and even explores the dynamics of mariage avec amour from her position, which I found to be rather surprendre for the era it belongs to.  Perhaps you could read that for a different point de vue?

 

Kaneki stared ahead, contemplative.  He slowly turned to Shuu and repressed an smirk that held amusement and annoyance in one and said, “I only understood half of what you just said.  Do you know of any that were written in a language I know how to speak?

 

Rize laughed and twirled to the men.  “Shuu-san, you’ll have to do better than that to woo Kaneki-kun.  All your random languages are useless when it comes to a guy like him,” she smirked before pivoting back.  Kaneki rolled his eyes yet again and tried to ignore the barest blush that was breaking out on his cheeks.  Shuu sputtered and strode forward to walk beside her, rambling off a few of his choice words right in her face.

 

‘A guy like me?’

 

“Rize-chan, do you m-”

 

“Oh, Kaneki-kun,” she giggled, “don’t worry.  I don’t mean to say that you’re unreceptive to romance!  Only that this guy’s attempts at it are pathetic and he should give up.”  The woman grinned at him, seeming pleased that she hit the mark.  

 

Kaneki’s sudden flush only deepened at her remark and he drew in on himself a little.  “I don’t know if I like hearing that from you, Rize-chan,” he muttered, just loud enough for his friends to hear him.  She smiled again and the trio finally made it to Shuu’s door, where the man allowed Kaneki to enter first with a slight bow and then blocked Rize off by quickly following after.

 

The room was overtly extravagant in the basest sense and it was clear that its owner took pride in the obvious affluence it exuded.  The three ghouls approached the large bed and Rize sat down carelessly on its edge, crossing her legs and posing as if to match the room’s elegance.  Kaneki took the space next to her with more reserve and Shuu hummed happily as he took his desk chair and spun it to face the bed before taking its seat.

 

“Now, Kaneki-kun,” the ghoul began with a tiny grin, “I was actually wondering if you might want to listen to something new that Kanae helped me compose.  I thought it turned out to be assez bien belle chanson and I even persuaded him to accompany me!  It’s been a while since you’ve sat down to listen,” he ended fondly.

 

Rize tilted her head at Kaneki without comment.  The ghoul’s expression drooped into something close to forlorn before brightening considerably with the ghost of a smile on his lips.  “Yeah, I guess it has been a while, hasn’t it? I bet you’ve been itching to show off, too,” he chuckled with mirth, finally feeling some semblance of excitement that day.  Shuu had a better way with music than he did with subtlety in conversation.

 

Parfait!  I tried to mention this to you the other day, but you cut me off before I could finish,” he explained as he stood up, prompting the other two to do the same.  “And I wondered if you would even want to hear it if Kanae-kun would be playing as well, but then we saw those doves and you had to leave for your job at that petit café and-”

 

Kaneki zoned out at the mention of doves and stared without seeing much.  He dimly noted that Shuu was still rambling as his body trailed after his friends in a daze, distantly aware that Rize had spoken again and snagged the other’s irritation.

 

Just before Kaneki crossed the threshold, a frantic smattering  on the glass of the window startled the ghoul from his trance. Through the window it appeared that the sky had grown heavy and dense with a blanket of storm clouds. The treetops bristled in what had to be the muffled screeching of the wind, their leaves shaking as furious ripples from the height the ghoul could see them at.  

 

Kaneki gaped in perplexity for a few seconds at the spectacle before shuddering slightly and returning his attention to his friends’ banter.  He tried his best to purge the sound assaulting rain in his ears.

 

Why had it felt so sinister?

 

“So then, I presume you plan on courting Kaneki even more after this with a romantic dinner?” Rize lightly snarked as she confidently matched Shuu’s pace, “May I be invited to your see your tasteless amalgam of food?”

 

Shuu sighed, seeming to regret that he bothered to invite her along even if it was supposed to be for Kaneki.  “ Oui, vous la pauvre fille , you are allowed to dine with moi et Kaneki-kun if you can wash your hands before touching my silverware.  This is for mon ami , not l’ami de mon ami .”

 

“Shuu, she did have a point about the language thing.  I just barely got the last of that sentence,” Kaneki said quietly.  The music room was only down the hall from Shuu’s room. He took a moment when he entered and examined the calm, stagnant space.  There were no windows here and the rain’s pattering was reduced to a muffled hum. Various plants decorated the corners and more shortly draped over their pedestals, putting Kaneki more at ease as he took in their still, living forms.  It was as though he could vicariously adapt their tranquility to his tenuous emotions in the moment.

 

His pocket buzzed and he dug out his phone to see Touka’s name lighting up the screen.  He unlocked it and checked her message, feeling his mouth curve into a fond smile.

 

Subject: You better tell the epicren ass and the pig’s ass that they need to stop coming to Anteiku whenever they want to take you out on a date

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank them for upsetting some of the regulars with Shittyama’s annoying, LOUD gestures.  And just tell Rize to fuck off. She glared at me like a shark when they asked me where you were.  (◣_◢) Also, the manager wanted me to tell you that he wants you to make sure you make it back to the shop before it gets too late.  Someone spotted a few briefcases earlier around here. 

 

 

Kaneki laughed at the subject line and quickly sent a reply.

 

「 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At least you got the pig insult right, Touka-chan.  What an epic embarrassment.  (/≧ω\);;   

 

 

 

Her response came through after a few beats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     (/≧ω\)\ —̳͟͞͞o*  (✘□✘’:’┃     

      also, (  ・`ー・´ )┌∩

 

 

‘She must have taken a second to say fuck,’ Kaneki thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And don’t worry, I won’t be too much longer.  Probably. It sounded like Shuu was going to make us dinner and then I’ll head right back.

 

 

“Kaneki-kun!  The poser is waiting for your undivided attention!” sounded from across the room.  Rize smirked at Shuu’s indignation and bowed in mock-apology. “Oh, sorry. Com poser, Shuu-san.  My mistake,” she giggled, her eyes catching Kanae’s movement as he unpacked his instrument.

 

The woman’s mouth twisted in amusement.  “ Wow!   What a lovely viola you have, Kanae,” Rize drawled, clearly struggling to restrain her mirth.  “I wonder if-”

 

Her words died down when Kaneki flashed her a warning glare that conveyed more concern than anger.  Kanae continued to vigorously work on his instrument. The broken-off argument seemed to string more tension into the room than into Kanae’s bow.

 

The ghoul jumped slightly upon realizing that there was only silence and looked up to see that Shuu was sitting at the piano and observing him with almost palpable anticipation.  His servant was poised next to him with his violin and seemed torn between glaring at Kaneki and Rize and aggressively applying more rosin to his bow.

 

Kaneki quickly moved to Rize and joined her on the sofa sitting next to the piano.  Kanae cleared his throat and swung his bow up a little too dramatically as he glanced at his master to wait for him to start.  Shuu smiled and gracefully bowed his head as he struck the first note.

 

The two ghouls eased into a fluid dialogue of chords, intersecting the melodies into a lush harmony.  With every traded phrase, Shuu’s shoulders appeared as though they were pulled by the undulating accompaniment. Even though Kanae’s face maintained its composure, any trace of stillness had been erased and his expression twitched with each subtle change in articulation.

 

Kaneki let his eyes absorb their powerful presence until they dropped to the piano’s keys.  They stepped over each note as Shuu’s fingers hammered them down in a mercurial flurry, his determined flutters slowly easing into a pleasantly visual pattern.  Even as the marks of ebony and ivory remained rigid, Kaneki felt as though he could really see the contrast of values in their agile blurs.  

 

Notes full of heavy, mellow weight rang out from the piano’s body, merging alongside the violin’s diverse resonance in its humming strings.  The separate streams of music managed to fold over each other pleasantly and seamlessly. 

 

All of it held him in some hazy sense of direction, both familiar like a dream he should remember and foreign like a fog he had yet to wade through.  The sound of music in his ears and anticipation kept him in place and suddenly the moment didn’t feel as real to him as it did peaceful.   The two musicians swept themselves away in their own efforts to bare the beautiful sounds they could hear.  To let others hear how beautiful that something was.

 

He lifted his head without realizing that he had bowed it and took a moment to focus on the sound of his breathing.  It had become like a metronome, a reference in the liminal space where the future and present became one. 

 

By the time the two ghouls had finished, Kaneki realized that his body had calmed to a state even more content than he had been before his Sunday night.  It was as if the piece had punctuated a feeling of belonging in his bones, gripping him tightly and binding him to reality. Shuu had always been able to speak with music when he failed with his confusing words and it was a relief that the ghoul could still be soothed by it, even after they had stopped being children.

 

Rize beside him had gone silent as well, her face smooth and cryptically blank.  Kaneki looked up at Shuu, meeting his proud, hopeful gaze. The ghoul grinned at his expression.

 

“Merci mille fois.”

 


 

Kanae escorted the two down the staircase and through another hall.  They approached doors that somehow seemed even more immaculate than the rest of the estate and waiting just on the other side of the threshold was Shuu who was sporting an almost cocky beam.

 

Ignoring the man, Rize confidently stalked over to a servant who was waiting with a chair pulled out and let herself be seated.  She sat properly and attentively for all of two seconds before smiling and relaxing to the point of a slump as she settled her elbows on the table, cocking her head at Shuu.

 

Kaneki opted to let himself be strung along by another servant to his own seat, where he sat down properly for more than two seconds.   Shuu peeked at him gratefully and returned to the dish he had covered in front of him.  Kanae placed himself at his side, looking satisfied with himself.

 

Mes bien chers ami !” Shuu exclaimed joyfully, staring right at Kaneki.  He then turned to Rize with a furtive look. “As well as, ah, mon cochon fidèle This evening, I am pleased to present you with a delightful foie gras parfait served with a fine brew of caffè lungo!”  He reached down to the platter in front of him and removed its lid, revealing three elegant dishes adorned with precisely sliced slabs of meat topped with a light drizzle of blood.  Cascara skins traced the plates’ edges in designed contours.

 

Some servants made for the dishes to distribute them while Kaneki glanced at Rize and her shit-eating grin.

 

“Oh! Parfait , huh?  Are you trying to be funny, Shuu-san?  That was a rather laughable attempt.”

 

“Oh! Are you continuing to whine like a child at the dinner table?  I insist that you settle down and enjoy this meal, my honored guest.

 

Ignoring his friends’ hard, warring stares at each other, Kaneki examined the dish in front of him.  The blood on the foie gras had seeped into its smooth texture but the part of its trail that lay on the ceramic was still wet and shiny, its fading edge leaving a dark shadow of tint underneath.  The ghoul felt himself starting to salivate and forced down the amused smirk that was creeping onto his mouth.

 

“Hey, Shuu… it looks… good, but isn’t parfait meant to be, um, a dessert?”

 

Kanae suddenly stomped his foot and swore furiously.

 

Drecksäuen!  Be grateful for what Shuu-sama has been gracious enough to offer you. Mein gott, diese Idioten

 

Kaneki decided to laugh softly at his outburst, which caused the man to grimace.  His master sent him a chiding peer and cleared his throat, prompting Rize to sigh a little more gracefully.  The ghouls lifted their utensils and turned to Shuu.

 

“Now, my friends... meshiagare!

 

“Oh wow, he finally decided to speak Japanese.”  Kaneki lightly kicked at Rize’s leg.

 


 

Kaneki took his time through the park, his pace relaxed and a bit heavy from his dinner and the lingering illness.

 

He smiled sadly as he thought of his friends’ concern for his adamancy in his desire to walk alone.  The day had been nice enough, but his patience for facing anyone had worn thin by the time he knew he should start his way back.

 

The sky hadn’t yet moved into darkness, the clouds still swirling in soft pinks and reds.  The sun’s orange glow only seeped through the high foliage along the walkways of the park. The ghoul came upon the blue whale and noted its warm impression from the setting sun’s glow.

 

Its hues sunk into the plastic like a dull coat of paint.  It was too late for any children to be out, so Kaneki was wary when a quiet rustling of leaves filled the air.  He hadn’t seen any doves around the area, but that wasn’t a good enough reason to let his guard down.

 

A rabbit was seated on a manicured section of grass and bushes, its cheeks wobbling as it chewed on some kind of food.  After remaining still for a few long moments, it turned its head from the ghoul and crawled around, nosing at the grass in search of more to feast on.  The rabbit’s black eyes had the smallest glint to them, accenting their solid depth.

                                                         

                                                            Sunset Rabbit

 

Kaneki gulped down the mounting pressure in his throat and realized that he could taste a wet drop of salt on his bottom lip.

Chapter Text

Uta returned Hide’s leer and hopped off of the bar to take the seat next to him.  Itori hummed at him with a small, knowing grin and procured another glass for the ghoul.  She dug around for another drink, exclaiming, “Ah!” when she found what she was looking for.  This time, she clinked a tall, skinny wine bottle onto the counter next to the liquor she had brought out for the human.

 

This beverage was decidedly redder and thicker than the others, its opaque liquid clouding the bottle’s otherwise clear glass.

 

Itori got to work filling Uta’s glass with it and then made her way back to the fridge to rummage around once more.  Hide chuckled and spun around slightly to face his seat neighbor better.

 

“So,” he grinned, “That kinda just worked out, huh?”  Uta tilted his head at him, clearly suppressing his amusement, and responded with his own small laugh.

 

“Something tells me you aren’t exactly Kaneki-kun’s friend,” he said with an ambiguous air, “and that you aren’t especially concerned with his well-being.  Did you learn anything fun before we got here?” He turned to Itori. “And did you happen to learn anything fun?”

 

Hide made a vague noise of surprise and faced Itori as well.  The woman had returned from the refrigerator and plopped down a large mason jar of a variety of colorful eyeballs.

 

“Blue, please!” Uta requested with a bit of excitement.  Itori reached to her side for a small container of cocktail sticks and skewered his request onto it.  Smiling at the finished drink, she slid it over to her friend and returned to holding her head in her hands with her elbows on the bartop.

 

“Oh?  What’s that look for, Hide-chan?” Itori smirked, catching the human’s incredibly smug expression.

 

Laughter bubbled out of Hide’s contorted mouth and he moved his face away to catch himself.  Taking a deep, sobering breath, he met the ghouls’ stares and his face broke out into a lopsided simper.  “I kind of wish Ken had lasted longer so he could have seen this jar. It would have been really funny,” he snickered.  “So far he seems really weak to subliminal cues. He’s a really easy guy.  Actually, I’m pretty sure I saw one of his precious café friends with the same eye color.  Everything’s been smooth-going, honestly,” he ended, laughing jovially again.

 

The ghouls turned to each other with indecipherable looks and appeared to come to some understanding.  Uta faced Hide, asking, “Ken, huh?  Do you want to be close with him?  Because that’s one way to make him upset.”

 

“You probably mean Touka-chan, by the way,” Itori added lightly.  

 

“Oh, I know.  I think I understand what you mean, too.  Calling him names was fun, but calling him Ken seemed to really, really fuck him up.  You could say I like that in a guy,” the human gloated, malicious intent barely seeping through his voice.  He picked up the finger from before and dropped it into the palm of his hand. “In that guy, especially.”

 

He looked up at the ghouls, expression flattening out into something far more barren.

 

“I’d guess you two aren’t exactly his allies, are you?” he intoned, sincerely curious.  His gaze fell to the appendage he held. The basket sat to his side and he dragged it closer, picking through the morbid selection until he found exactly what he wanted.

 

Hide carefully laced the fingers in his own as though he held someone’s hand.  He tightened his grip on them like a vice, twisting them through their cold stiffness and splaying them into different directions.

 

“I wonder how long these have been dead,” he said quietly.

 

The human turned back to his cocktail and raised it to his lips, peeking one eye at his companions.  A malicious grin corrupted his empty visage.

 

“I want to see him cut his own hand off.”

 

Uta’s brow slightly furrowed at this.  Itori hummed out a brief giggle, catching her friend’s eye again and then smiled at the human.  “Well, Hide-chan, I’ll admit that we’ve never met a human quite as, ah, determined as you to play this kind of game.” She smirked at the glass he nursed.  “Do I even have to tell you what that’s called?”

 

Hide sipped it again slowly.  He lowered it onto the bar and contemplated it for a few silent moments.  His mouth broke into another small smile.

 

“Do you wanna tell me?” he chuckled darkly, meeting her stare with dominance. 

 

The bartender cackled.  Even Uta let loose his own tiny snort of amusement.  Hide waited patiently for her fit of laughter to settle down and raised his eyebrow slightly, still daring her to respond.

 

“Yeah, okay, sweetie,” Itori gasped out, some giggles still breaking through, “I just wanted to make you a little pick-me-up.  I thought someone needed it.” She sighed tiredly, the last of her laughter dead. “Or, maybe you could give it to Kanekichi.  I’d bet he’d be interested in a Corpse Reviver more than you are.”

 

Au, contraire, Itori-san! ” Hide grinned.  “Don’t think that I’m averse to mixing up my methods.  It would probably work better if I keep things interesting, so that I don’t bore my little find.”  The human hopped down from his stool and sat down instead at a chair from the table nearest to the bar.  He crossed his legs and heaved out an almost sullen breath.

 

“At any rate, it seems that he was already a little unhinged before I even got to him.  Care to share anything?”  He looked up, smiling sweetly.

 

Uta finally reached for his drink and fished out the pick.  He popped the eye into his mouth, an audibly wet squish sounding just after.  

 

Do we care to share anything, Uta-chan?” Itori asked him seriously.  He rolled his eyes at her.  Swallowing, he bobbed his head to the side in contemplation.  A few moments later, he lightly traced the tattoo on his neck and bored his eyes into Hide’s.

 

Without meeting them, Hide followed his fingers.  Nec possum tecum vivere, nec sine te.

 

“A mensa et thoro,” he murmured softly.

 

The ghoul grinned once more and took a generous sip of his drink.  “Maybe we do care, Itori.”

 

Hide huffed out a pleased breath and made to stand up from his chair.  He brushed his hands over his thighs as though patting away dust and stretched his arms.  “I’ll try to come back here in a little while to, well,” he giggled and affected a mocking voice, “gossip with the gals, but for now I have a bit of shopping to do before I get home.  The markets are better when it's this late.”

 

He halted his steps toward the door at Itori’s theatrically excited gasp.  “Oh, a gal?” The woman’s eyes suddenly took on a fearsome light.  Her mouth spread into a mischievous sneer and she faced her companion.  Hide tilted his head in question.

 

Uta nodded.  “I’m curious if we need to bother.”  His gaze fixed on Itori. “Should we, Itori?  Do you think this guy can handle it on his own?”

 

Then he stared directly into Hide’s eyes.  “Do you?

 

Hide scoffed, affronted.  “I wouldn’t be here if I couldn’t handle it on my own.  However...” he lilted quietly, closing his eyes.

 

The human’s lips quirked.  “...Ken might do well with a bit of exposure.”

 

 


 

 

The light of the sky was just shifting into a solid blue by the time Touka looked out of the cafe’s windows.  The human monster was casually strolling alongside the adjoining sidewalk and bobbing his head to what was probably music.

 

Her hackles raised and she instantly glanced over her shoulder at the employee’s only door, gauging the odds she could alert the manager before the human reached the café.  Any hope of this was shattered when she heard the familiar jingle of the entrance being opened.

 

Damn her that she had just unlocked it.

 

Oh?!  Is that Touka-chan?!” Nagachika exclaimed, his expression all sunshine.  The ghoul stared murder right back at him and gnashed her teeth as she considered the best way to navigate what was sure to be a pitfall of deception.

 

“Oh, it’s the special of the day.  I was wondering when you’d get here,” she decided to start with, feeling her grimace twist her face.  Nagachika’s smile swept into a leer.

 

The human snickered.  “You don’t have to be so hostile with me, Touka-chan!” he drawled.  He started toward a booth in the corner, situating himself in it and glancing out of the window at the sky.  He turned his gaze back to Touka. “You don’t have to pretend, either. Are you scared I’m going to take your best friend away?”

 

Touka bristled.  She stomped over to the human and slammed her fist onto the tabletop, shaking it with excessive force.  Nagachika made a vaguely impressed noise as he took his elbows away from the sudden shockwave.

 

“I am Kirishima-san.  You are a monster and you have no business with Anteiku or with Kaneki or with anyone, and you need to stay the fuck away from him or so help me I-”

 

“Who’s anyone?” Nagachika interrupted her swiftly.  His eyes needled into her small expression of shock and confusion.  She schooled herself back into rage and cracked the knuckles of her fists.

 

“You need to stop hurting people.  Even ghouls aren’t that cruel.  Kaneki didn’t tell me everything, but it’s not hard to see that what you’re doing is bigger bullshit than a little emotional blackmail,” she ground out.  She subtly turned her head back towards the door and cursed to herself when Nagachika clearly followed the movement.

 

He huffed, unimpressed.  “Ghouls aren’t that cruel, hm?” he asked her quietly.  A malicious smile bloomed on his face again. “Ken didn’t really have that much trouble from me, you know.  All I did was nudge him and he got to work all on his own. It was fun to watch,” Nagachika said, clearly amused.

 

Touka’s eyes bulged and she snarled.  “Yo-you-” her words tangled in fury, “who the fuck do you think you’re talking about?  Kaneki is not a doll and you are not some kid who can just play wi-”

 

“I already did, though.  Actually, he just-” his mouth twisted in suppressed amusement, “-he just let me, Touka-chan.  Did he happen to mention that?”  More mocking laughter spilled out and he rested his head on his hand, pointedly meeting her seething glare.  A few moments passed and he sighed as though he were satisfied with what he saw.

 

“Has he looked at your eyes?”

 

Touka blanched, a shiver trekking down her spine.  “What does that even mean?

 

“I guess it doesn't mean anything, then,” Hide smiled at her, a placid mask in place.  He sniffed at the air. “This place opened about five minutes ago and unless you want things to be awkward in front of your real customers, I suggest you go ahead and serve me, Kirishima-san,” he suggested, dripping sweetness.

 

The waitress stared hard at him and struggled to restrain her fists.  She finally swiveled on her heel, grumbling, “I hope one of the early ghoul regulars puts you out of your misery.”

 

Nagachika hummed to himself as he watched her go behind the counter to fix something without taking an order.  Touka heard the backroom entrance open and glanced up at the manager’s scowl.

 

But what could he even do?

 

Touka shot him a half-pleading, half-frustrated glare and the old man’s grimace deepened, wrinkling his face further.  Even if the manager couldn’t do much, he would still do his best to keep Anteiku a safe space, just like it had always been.  Touka had to believe in him.

 

“Touka-chan,” he addressed her, “I’m sorry I didn’t come down sooner.  Has he told you what he came here for?”

 

Touka stopped her fiddling with the coffee beans and realized that she didn’t know anything.  Why was the murderer here without Kaneki?

 

“He… hasn’t, sir,” she admitted quietly, glancing at the humming human across the cafe from the corner of her eye.  He looked supremely unconcerned. She felt a small twinge around her eyes and willed them not to turn. “So far I think he’s just been gloating.  He really is an arrogant asshole.” The young ghoul paused, suddenly chagrined. “Sorry, sir,” she mumbled apologetically.

 

Yoshimura grunted in disappointment, yet Touka was sure that he hadn’t minded her language.  He looked pissed too.

 

He sighed.  “Well, the best we can do right now is appease him without letting him know too much,” he cautioned, “and focus on helping Kaneki-kun deal with all of this.  I’m concerned with how quickly the strain seems to be getting to him.” The old man’s face fell into a disturbed kind of regret.

 

Touka contemplated the situation and let loose a sigh of her own, deciding that the manager had to be right, mostly.  And that Kaneki needed all the help they could give him.

 

Coming into Anteiku for her shift and finding her best friend passed out with an IV in his arm hadn’t felt great.  Realizing that his smile from earlier that day had placated her scared her too.

 

“Okay, sir,” she said, “I’ll try to get him out of here as quickly as I can.  Hopefully before the real customers come in.”  Yoshimura nodded at her and shot Nagachika a wary, vaguely defensive glare before returning to the back of the shop.  Touka sighed once more and focused on completing the coffees she had started.

 

From their secret menu.

 

The ghoul set her face into a steady front and braced herself as she returned to the human’s booth.  He took his gaze from the window and his face lit up at her arrival.

 

“Touka-chan!  Thanks, cuti-”

 

His words cut off when Touka set down her tray and slid into the seat opposite him.  Nagachika squinted at her, his mouth creeping back into an amused, superior leer. His chest shook like he was holding back a laugh and he made to grab his coffee.

 

Touka followed suit and took a long sip as she bore her eyes into his.  She let herself smirk at him.

 

He smirked right back.  “Oh? Care to enlighten me?  I get the feeling you’ve been taking notes from my success,” he said lightly, his smile growing even more unsettling at her obvious confusion (and annoyance).

 

“I don’t do what you do, murderer.  I may be a ghoul, but my kills,” she shot back, a dangerous glint in her eyes, “my kills aren’t for fun.  I don’t get off to ruining people’s lives.”

 

“No, not that, Touka-chan!” Nagachika chuckled, “The drinks!  All I meant was that I have a suspicion you’re doing to me what I’m doing to Ken.”  He said the name with disturbing relish.

 

The ghouls fist clenched on top of the table and she gaped at the human.  What did that even mean?

 

“I-” she started, scrambling to make sense of his implications.  She struggled for a few more moments before huffing and glaring murder at Nagachika.  “Just spit out what you’re doing to Kaneki. And he’s not Ken.

 

“Sure thing.  Always glad to discuss manipulation with a fellow blackmailer,” he answered.  Touka held back her snarl and waited for him to continue. The bastard was waiting for her to explode, clearly.

 

“So, see, when we went drinking the other night,” he began lightly, “Ken ended up having a few too many.  But,” he paused, a sudden seriousness stilling his face, “I didn’t tell him to take those shots. I didn’t tell him to do anything at all.  What I did do, Touka-chan, was allow him to do it.

 

“And it’s fine, you know, because I’m just some guy, aren’t I?  I’m not his best friend failing to keep him in line.  In fact, he’s a really fun find precisely because I’ve barely even started,” he went on, arrogance twisting his smile, “and there’s more than enough foundation to work from.  He’s clearly been fucked up before, and I have to wonder who exactly let him get that way?

 

He stared her down.  “Or who made him that way?”

 

Touka’s snarl really did escape her this time and she felt the distinct pinpricks behind her eyes.  Steeling herself with the knowledge that they had to be more threatening than anything she could say, she started to rise from her seat in anger.  She stopped abruptly at the human’s expression.

 

He didn’t look intimidated.  He looked enthralled.

 

“Yours are pretty,” Nagachika said quietly, “but I saw him first.”

 

Touka growled and lowered herself again.  “It doesn’t matter what you think because I am still here for Kaneki,” she ground out with conviction, “and I refuse to give up on him.”  Her kakugan darted to the cup nestled in the human’s hands.  “And that, you absolute shitbag, is my promise to you that hurting my friend will ruin your eyes.

 

Nagachika guffawed and placed his cup on the table, examining it closer and swishing the liquid around carefully.  He smirked up at her. “So I’m drinking a dead eye right now?  Smooth, Touka-chan,” he grinned, “and can I guess that you’ve made yourself a red eye?  Because you, you know, have red eyes?”

 

The ghoul huffed, at least glad he understood her point.  Her stomach dropped in the next moment at the bloodthirst breaking on his face.

 

“It’s cute,” he drawled menacingly, eyebrows glibly creeping up his forehead, “but this is what I was talking about before.  Emotional blackmail. Telling me things without saying them.  Waiting for me to understand on my own.  Leaving the communication up to me and my own feelings,” he continued, “but you’ve picked a bad target because this face in front of you?”

 

His expression flattened into nothingness.

 

“This is not a face you can make.”

 

The ghoul gulped quietly and willed her heart to calm.  Her kakugan still blazed and yet she struggled to train it on the vacuum of his cold eyes.  Her gaze darted to her own drink and, finding no comfort in its still surface or even its black scent, she chose to settle on looking at the fists curled in her lap.

 

What was happening to her?

 

“I want you to get out of this shop,” Touka said, begging her voice to solidify.  She couldn’t back down. Not if she could help it.   “And I want you to be kinder to my friend, and I want you to get bored of your sick game and I want you to stay the fuck away from us forever.”

 

She finally stood, albeit with a slight wobble damn her legs, and mustered every drop of rage in her veins to scathe the human with a devastating glower.

 

“And maybe kill yourself while you’re at it.”

 

Nagachika giggled mirthlessly.  “I only ever try my best, Touka-chan.”  He made quick work of his coffee and set it down, appearing satisfied.  “This really was tasty.  I’m so glad we could enjoy it together.  It would have been such a waste otherwise,” the human added, a more natural smile layering over his sinister mask.

 

Touka stiffly strode away from the booth, just barely not stumbling at the whisper he left her with as he made for the café’s entrance.

 

“I wonder who else you’ve tried to love.”

 

The door’s bell jingled and Anteiku fell silent again, save for Touka’s thumping heartbeat.  It felt as though her head and fingers were pounding even faster than her chest.  Had Kaneki felt this too?

 

Yoshimura returned from the back of the store a few minutes later.  Touka was numbly wiping down the booth she had sat at with a rag.

 

“Touka-chan?  Are you alright?” the manager inquired, fresh worry in his voice.

 

The young ghoul loosened her grip on the rag wound in her hand and let it fall on the table.  She turned around to move back to behind the counter and crossed her elbows next to the register, exhaustion dominating her face.

 

The door chimed again and the two ghouls looked over to find the first regulars of the day talking amongst themselves in what sounded like lighthearted gossip.  She picked out the words “doves” and “forest”.

 

“We need to get to work, sir,” Touka addressed the manager, eyes following their customers to the table they chose.  Her head lolled on her neck to look at Yoshimura directly.

 

“When did Kaneki say he’d take another shift?” she asked, forcing the liveliness back into her throat.

 

 


 

 

Sirens blared from somewhere in the distance as Kaneki trudged his usual path from Kamii to Anteiku.  The ghoul took care to be aware of any strangers who looked like they weren’t afraid to shove and came to a stop at one of the last crosswalks between the school and the café.  His pocket buzzed and he fished out his cell to check the screen.

 

‘Shuu again?’

 

Subject: The little lady wants to hug her big brother ♡( •ॢ◡-ॢ)✧˖° ♡

 

 

 

I went to visit Hinami-chan today and she told me she really, really, really wants to give you a hug!!   :3  I told her I would accompany her to the little café later this evening and she wants to bring along her books to chat with you about.  Ask Mademoiselle Kirishima to see us to the back room so we can all have fun!!!!   ヾ(・v・。)シ

 

 

Kaneki smiled warmly at the thought of Hinami visiting the café with Shuu in tow.  Touka would be delighted to see her as well and she would… probably tolerate Shuu if Hinami was in the room.  

 

The ghoul had to wonder if Asaki had prompted Shuu to escort her so soon.  Her parents seemed to appreciate how Kaneki and Touka would tutor her and would often let her visit Anteiku to help her get out of their house.  Her father probably thought it would do the both of them good to catch up.

 

The light turned and Kaneki moved with the mass of people to the other side of the road.  He continued on until he finally reached Anteiku’s street and schooled himself into looking great!

 

Upon crossing the threshold, Kaneki was met with a whirling Touka and was swept away to the door behind the counter.  His surprised eyes met Nishiki’s amused, irritated glower and the older ghoul smirked before Kaneki was pushed from the front of the shop.

 

“Wh-Touka-chan! ” Kaneki gasped, his head not as dizzy as it was earlier in the week yet agitated all the same, “What are you doing?!”  She grunted without answering him and continued to shove him until they made it to the kitchen.  Touka stood him in front of the sink and stepped back, hands splayed on her hips and her tired eyes looking him up and down.

 

Why did she look more exhausted than he felt?

 

“Don’t- you- dare,” she growled (kindly, he hoped).  Kaneki gulped, unsure of how he had already upset her or why she was even acting this confrontational.  They hadn’t even texted since he had returned to his apartment the night before.

 

“O-okay, but,” Kaneki replied, “uh, what was I daring to um, do, exactly…?”  At this, Touka rolled her eyes and opened her mouth before clamping it shut and staring hard at his eyes.

 

‘Is she stressed out from school or something?’ Kaneki wondered in confusion.  ‘Wait, shit,’ he blanched, ‘did she fail the book report I helped her with?!”

 

Suddenly sweating, Kaneki scrambled to defend himself from her impending wrath.  “Okay, Touka-chan, look, we all make mistakes sometimes, and it’s definitely okay to take a hit here and there, and there’s always other book reports and I’ll help you study even harder for those and I’ll even make the coffee this time, okay, so just-”

 

“You fucking fool!” Touka interrupted, looking even more pissed than she had a few moments before.  Her breath became heavier and her eyes bugged slightly, resembling those of a tiger more than those of an angry ghoul.  More panic settled in Kaneki’s head and he wondered what the chances were that he could bolt around her and take cover behind Nishiki.

 

But he couldn’t really sprint and Nishiki probably wouldn’t lift a finger for him.

 

Before he could make a bad move, Touka groaned with obvious distress.  Why did she sound more devastated than furious?  Kaneki hadn’t seen her be this brand of angry since her brother left Anteiku.  Had something happened between them recently?

 

“O-okay-” Kaneki yelped suddenly when Touka grabbed at his shoulders hard and pulled him into a hug without warning.  He hadn’t seen her be this brand of affectionate for years, either.

 

“I’m always here for you, Kaneki,” she mumbled into his chest, “and I’ll never let you forget that.”  The ghoul felt his face and neck heat up in embarrassment, still not understanding what was going on, and Touka released him.  She stiffly turned away from him and readied her notepad in her hand. Striding to the door, she stopped to add, “And you are taking it easy back here today or so help me you will not have work tomorrow.

 

The ghoul gulped again, confused by what she was implying (and what she would do if he didn’t listen).  He studied the kitchen for a few more baffled moments and turned to the sink. Dishes were piled up (suspiciously higher than usual) and the sponge and soap looked mostly untouched.

 

Kaneki sighed, suddenly tired all over again, and hugged his bag tighter to his side as he made for the changing room.

 

‘At least let me change into my uniform, Touka-chan.’

 

 



 

A few tedious hours later, Kaneki decided it was time for some kind of break from his break and moved to sit down in the back room.  Minutes of tired silence passed on the couch and the ghoul startled slightly when a soft knock echoed from the door.  His face slightly fell when he looked over to find Yoshimura instead of Hinami and Shuu.

 

“Sir,” he said, attempting to sound more normal than he felt.  Facing the old man after his recent... debacle... had almost reminded the ghoul of his first day with Anteiku.

 

Kaneki wasn’t keen on feeling like that again.

 

“Ah, Kaneki-kun,” the manager smiled warmly at him.  Taking a bit of confidence from this, Kaneki felt himself relax slightly and his own expression lifted.  Yoshimura walked further into the room and looked at the other. “Would you mind if I sat here awhile?”

 

“Ah, of course, sir!” Kaneki said quickly.  He shook his head a little to clear it and nodded to the chair at his side.  Yoshimura chuckled and went to sit in it, crossing his legs and groaning lightly as he settled.

 

The old man hummed and turned to Kaneki.  “How have you been doing today, Kaneki-kun?” he inquired, kindness evident in his voice.  Kaneki’s lips quirked a little.

 

“Well, class went better than I expected.  I also went by the offices and talked to my professors about the days I was sick and they were able to give me the homework I missed.  I’ll just have to spend this weekend reading through the powerpoints,” he ended with a small laugh, his voice vaguely stressed by the reminder of how long his weekend would have to be.

 

The manager chuckled good-naturedly and nodded.  “I’d bet. It’s good that they can accommodate you.  Touka-chan has been rearing up for her upcoming entrance exams and she confessed to me that you might be her only hope for the language section.  Her human friend from school has been coming around here more often, too, for studying,” he smiled.

 

‘Her only hope?’ Kaneki pondered, ‘Isn't she upset with me?’

 

“Oh, is that so?” the ghoul said, fidgeting his fingers nervously in his shirt, “I had the impression she was frustrated with me over some schoolwork I helped her with not too long ago.  But it’s good that Yoriko-chan is coming to see her. And maybe not as good for her stomach,” he finished with a grin.

 

The manager’s smile faltered a little and Kaneki felt himself stiffen, unsure of what he might have said wrong.  But the emotion faded almost instantly and Kaneki relaxed again. “ So, I really didn’t mean to take too long of a break, and I should probably get back to the kitchen…” he trailed off, dusting his lap off absentmindedly and making to stand.  Yoshimura appeared surprised by this and cleared his throat.

 

“Kaneki-kun, you know you don’t have to stay in the kitchen all night, don’t you?  I’m sure Touka-chan is just trying to ease your burden, but it’s not terribly busy up front and I think it would be fine for you to go there for a bit,” he said, kindness evident in his voice.

 

Kaneki froze where he stood and turned to face the manager, his expression uncharacteristically cryptic.  Yoshimura’s brow furrowed and Kaneki crossed his arms on his chest.

 

“Sir, what exactly are all of you trying to do?” he said quietly, tension ready to spring from his words.  He took a step forward as if to yell, but thought better of it and backed off, instead taking a few steps back.

 

The manager tilted his head in question and Kaneki tried to steady his breath.  Nothing was really wrong, but....

 

He felt so bad.

 

“I don’t know wh-”

 

“I just-I just don’t know why everyone is insisting that I take it easy,” Kaneki muttered, loud enough for Yoshimura to hear.  “I said I wanted things to stay normal, right? I said that it would help me.  And yeah, I know I had a really rough weekend, but I’ve never liked it when everyone treats me like I’m glass and-and-I j-just-

 

Yoshimura quickly stood and Kaneki took another step back in surprise.  When had his eyes started stinging?

 

“Kaneki-kun, hold on,” the old man said gently, his hands tentatively reaching out like he meant to touch him.  Kaneki watched his movement and flinched when they almost brushed his shoulder.

 

Both ghouls froze.  The manager retracted his hands without comment and Kaneki turned away, his heart pounding in panic.

 

‘Why was this happening to him all over again?’

 

When had the terror come back?

 

“U-uh-” Kaneki stammered, “sir, I’m sorry, I don’t know why I... I swear I’m okay, I just-just need things to calm down, okay, and,” he took in a shaky breath, “you’ve told me before to voice the things that I know can help me, and,” he swallowed, “I just need things to stop for a bit.  I just don’t think I want to be touched right now.

 

He could feel Yoshimura’s eyes on the back of his head and lowered it slightly, shame mounting in his chest.  “I’m really sorry, sir,” he mumbled miserably.

 

“Kaneki-ku-” the manager began, his worry swiftly cut off by excited cheering.

 

“KANEKI-KUN!” Shuu’s voice sounded through the closed door and a moment later the man himself burst through it in a flamboyant sweep.  Hinami flew in after him and grinned, her face alight with affection and elation. She hugged a striking assortment of colorful flowers to her chest and giggled at Shuu’s antics.

 

“Onii-chan!  We brought you-” she stopped suddenly.  Kaneki did his best to erase the traces of distress in his face and offered her what he hoped was a lively smile.

 

“What do you have there, Hina-chan?” he tried to laugh softly.  The girl’s face picked back up and she nodded emphatically, lifting the flowers for him to take.  Kaneki accepted them with a smile and Shuu hummed as he stepped forward.

 

“The little lady wanted to brighten your day so we stopped on the way here to find you some magnifique fleurs!  Hinami-chan, go ahead,” the ghoul said excitedly.  He pushed Hinami forward gently and the girl straightened herself, her face animated with anticipation.

 

“Onii-chan!  For you!” She thrust the bouquet into Kaneki’s arms and he took them, a more natural smile gracing his features.  The girl then tackled him into a tight hug and the ghoul could only chuckle and pick her up slightly, swinging her from side to side.  Hinami giggled and he noticed that Shuu seemed to be fidgeting in place.

 

Kaneki sighed as if he was tired and put upon, and then smiled at the other with a tiny nod.  The ghoul gasped, clearly touched, and darted forward to hug Kaneki and Hinami close to himself with his own affection.

 

Kaneki tried not to squirm, but Hinami could never make him truly uncomfortable.

 

His heart stuttered when he remembered that Yoshimura was standing behind them.  The old man chuckled quietly and stepped around the three ghouls to the door. “I’ll leave you all to catch up.  Hinami-chan, it’s good to see you come around again. Tell your parents they should drop you off more often. Kaneki-kun and Touka-chan are always going on about how they miss you.”

 

He left and seconds later Touka burst through the threshold, looking manic.  Her gaze found Kaneki and Hinami first and her face melted into warmth for all of a second before she noticed Shuu hanging off of the both of them.

 

“You,” she half-growled at the tall man.  “Stop touching Hinami.”

 

Shuu scoffed, affronted.  “Qui, moi?  Mademoiselle Kirishima, I hardly think after all this time you need to be so offended by my presence.  Kaneki-kun trusts me, non?  I merely wish to share the finer tastes of life with my dear friends-”

 

“You need to stop being such a creep around Hinami!”

 

“I’ve only ever been kind to la petite dame-

 

“Why are you always so-!”

 

Kaneki took Hinami a step back from the others and gestured to the flowers in his hand.  “So, what are they?”

 

Hinami nodded seriously and pointed to the deeply crimson blooms interspersed around the lining of plastic. “These ones are zinnias. I thought the color looked a little like yours and Rize-san’s kagune, though I guess yours is kinda more like a purpley red.”  She moved her finger to the blooms with gradients of warm colors pillowing from the pistils. “These are dahlias. I think their name is… uh… c-col… coller… uh…?”

 

Collarette Dahlia!” Shuu interjected heatedly from his arguing with Touka.  Hinami jumped a little and the man returned to face Touka’s heated glare.

 

Kaneki chuckled.  “Ah, I see. And did you happen to bring any of your books with you?  Shuu mentioned earlier that you had some you wanted to talk about.”

 

Hinami’s eyes lit up and she turned to the exasperated (losing) man beside them.  “Flower Man! Stop playing around and come here!” Shuu stopped his exuberant gesturing at Touka and turned to them with a far more pleased look.

 

Bien sûr, ma petite dame.   Kirishima-san, let’s continue this another time.  We came here to bond with Kaneki-kun, after all,” he told the fuming woman with his gentlemanly smile.  Touka growled and rolled her eyes at him, but conceded.

 

Hinami reached into her little satchel and procured a well-worn novel.  The pages were weathered down into softer edges and the cover was slightly scuffed, but it was clear that the book was treasured.

 

She offered it to Kaneki.  “Can… can you help me with some of the kanji for a bit, Onii-chan?” she asked him, swaying from side to side with a shy grin.  Kaneki’s heart had already melted and she had been here for mere minutes.   The ghoul matched her grin with excitement and took Monochrome Rainbow from her.

 

“Of course, Hina-chan!  You know I love talking to you about Takatsuki-sensei!  Especially because someone who may or may not be in this room really just can’t understand how great her works are.”

 

He shot Shuu a rather pointed look.

 

But the ghoul laughed, appearing unperturbed.  “Ah, but Kaneki-kun, you must admit that her novels are more flair than plot, non?  We should let young Hinami-chan figure that out for herself instead of spoon-feeding her such biased-oof!” he grunted.  Touka grinned at his pain, satisfied, and retracted her hand from his shoulder.

 

“Don’t take Hinami’s education lightly, idiot.  Kaneki is way better at literature than you anyway and no one is asking you to corrupt her,” she told him.  Shuu grimaced. Kaneki and Hinami laughed at him and Touka shook her head, moving to sit down.

 

“It’s not like I want to listen to it either, but this guy is always in the way,” she grumbled.  Kaneki took his place next to her and turned to Hinami with an fond look.

 

“Hina-chan, your hair is getting kinda long again.  Won’t your mom let you cut it?” Kaneki asked her.

 

At this, the girl grinned shyly.  “Well, I…” she began to mumble, “I kinda like the way you do it best.  Mom and Dad agree that it looks good when you cut it for me.” Kaneki stared, taken aback.  Touka smirked and nudged him with her elbow.

 

“Hah, maybe you should try working at a salon, Kaneki.  You could put those dainty fingers of yours to use,” she ribbed.  Kaneki laughed in embarrassment, turning away.

 

“I mean, I’d offer to take you under my wing, Touka, but the last time you cut Hinami-chan’s hair, Ryouko almost cri-”

 

He cried out in pain at Touka’s fist slamming into his shoulder and Shuu chuckled in amusement.  “Ah, Mademoiselle, he has you there.  Even for a ghoul you are quite indélicate-

 

The ghoul was cut off by a couch pillow nailing his face.  Kaneki laughed until Touka shot him another (kind) glare and turned to Hinami, who looked reluctant to comment.

 

“W-well, I guess we should get some coffee, or something…” Kaneki mumbled, “...if that’s okay with everyone?  Or, Hina-chan, was there something special you wanted?”

 

At this Hinami’s eyes lit up and her face split into an excited grin.  “Would you make me some of your coffee, Onii-chan? Please?” she asked sweetly.  Kaneki nodded at her and made his way to the door, leaving Touka and Shuu to figure out how they could manage to sit in the same room together.

 

“What, you don’t want any of mine, Hinami?  You know I’m always happy to make you some-”

 

“May I have some, Kirishima-”

 

Kaneki flinched at Shuu’s sudden unmanly squeak and shook his head as he returned to the front of the shop.  Nishiki leaned lazily over the register and Koma stood to the side, wiping the counter.  There weren’t many customers left.

 

Kaneki hummed to himself contentedly as he brewed some extra-strong espresso and carefully poured out four cups.  Tray in hand, he made for the backroom and stopped when Nishiki suddenly cleared his throat and began to call for him.

 

“Oi, Kaneki, come back for a sec-”

 

Kaneki jumped at the sound of thudding to the floor from the backroom and began to walk again.  “Sorry, Nishio-senpai, I’ll be right back! I need to see what they broke…” he grumbled in exasperation, ignoring Nishiki’s increasingly loud throat clearings.

 

The ghoul returned to his friends to find a bookshelf toppled over and Touka threatening Shuu’s life with one of the thicker fallen novels.  Hinami sat on the far edge of the couch, looking torn between doing something and enjoying everything.

 

Kaneki sighed and quickly snatched the book from Touka’s waving fist.  “Wha- hey! ” she cried out in anger.  Shuu chuckled victoriously and positioned himself behind Kaneki.

 

Nice, Kaneki-kun!  I knew you’d have my back on this!”

 

“But why are you guys being idiots in front of sweet, little Hinami-chan?” the ghoul said sourly.  Hinami made a noise of protest and finally spoke up.

 

Hey!  I’m not that little anymore!” she exclaimed, cheeks puffed out adorably.  Kaneki’s heart clenched in adoration of how absolutely cute and small she was and he shook his head at her in apology before a familiar laugh rang out from the doorway.

 

“Oh, is this your little sister, Kaneki?  I didn’t know you still had any family!  Or did I just hear you wrong at Helter Skelter?” Hide said, a warm smile etched on his face.

 

Kaneki spun around and paled profusely.  Touka immediately made to stand in front of Hinami, but the human waved at her in dismissal.

 

“Nah, don’t worry about it, Touka-chan.  I didn’t come here to play this time, I promise.  But I don’t want to stop you if that’s what you guys were trying to do!” Hide laughed good-naturedly.  He turned and gave Shuu a quick look up and down and sniffed, appearing unimpressed.

 

Mon dieu, you’re that-”

 

“I’m that, yeah!  That guy that’s always hanging around Kaneki nowadays.  Man, we’ve been making some great memories lately, haven’t we, dude?” he laughed.  He stepped forward and slung his arm over Kaneki’s shoulders, spinning them both around to face the others.  Kaneki did his best to look pissed instead of terrified.

 

“Your big brother and I even went drinking the other night.  He’s such a fun buddy to go with, ya know? Although, I guess you’d be a bit young for that kind of stuff... Hinami-chan?

 

Touka snarled and Kaneki jerked out of Hide’s grab to reach for Hinami.  The poor girl looked more confused than she did scared, but too much had already been said.

 

He gently shoved Hinami over to Shuu and Touka huffed as though in agreement.  Shuu looked slightly bewildered but accepted the small girl and smiled nervously down at her.  

 

“Little Lady, why don’t we go for now?  We can come back later when there’s more time to see everyone,” he said, glancing at the standoff in front of them.  Hide stood casually in the face of the two ghouls’ menacing glare.

 

“But, Onii-chan sai-”

 

“Hinami-chan, I’ll see you later, okay?” Kaneki smiled at her.  The girl frowned and nodded dejectedly, walking with Shuu to the door.  She shot him a look of concern just before she left and Touka growled once more.

 

“The fuck are you trying to do by coming back here?  Who even let you back here?  What the fuck is Nishiki doing up there?!

 

Hide laughed, his voice much chillier than it had been moments before.  “Ah, well, I let myself back here. I guess you could say he watched me do it.”  His smirk widened when she sputtered.  Kaneki glanced at her worriedly before turning back to the human.

 

“Ignoring how unrealistic it sounds that Nishio of all people would just let you waltz in, what are you trying to do?  You could have just texted me if you had something to say. That’s what you did before,” he said. Hide’s face morphed into sympathy.

 

“Yeah, I guess I haven’t been texting you lately, have I?  That’s my bad, man. I thought you might do well with a bit of rest.”  The human’s look of pity cracked into a sneer. “I also think that there’s no rest for the wicked and you need to get ready to go again.  We can’t just sit around here forever, you know.  And I’m sure you have as much to say to me as I have to say to you.”

 

Kaneki gulped and turned his head in confusion.  Next to him, Touka was silently glaring death at Hide without making any move toward him.

 

‘Why does she look more scared than I am?’

 

Hide sighed as though tired and shook his head.  He glanced over his shoulder at the door and then back to the two ghouls.  

 

“I guess we could do this at your place, Kaneko-chan.  We’d have all we need there anyway,” Hide addressed him.  “But,” he added, looking straight at Touka, “I wanted to let my associate know that there are still investigators lurking in the area.  You know, because we’re taking care of each other.” He smiled at her furious glower.

 

“Wh-what do you mean?  You said that the-the last time would get them to stop looking around us!” Kaneki cried.  

 

Why wouldn’t Hide follow through?  Had he done something wro-

 

Kaneki sighed heavily and relaxed his posture to something decidedly more defeated.  Hide hummed at him and shook his head as though disappointed.

 

“Well, there’s only so much I can do, obviously.  I’m not some god. Even I have trouble holding myself back, ya know?” he said, glum.   Then he smiled at the ghoul and jerked his head over his shoulder.

 

“So we should probably get going again, right?  All you can do is your best, after all.  We’re in this together, or something like that,” Hide laughed.  Kaneki turned to Touka, who appeared to be struggling with her breathing.

 

‘Why is Touka-chan so bothered?’ the ghoul thought miserably.  If his friend was scared as well as angered, there had to be something really wrong.

 

Kaneki nodded at the human quickly and made to accompany him to the front door.  Hide smiled at him and didn’t spare Touka another glance as the two left the room.

 

“Actually, before we go to your place, can we go somewhere else, first?” Hide asked.  Kaneki’s brain whirred furiously but didn’t have a chance to respond when they reached the counter.

 

Nishiki was livid.  “Kaneki.   Did your friend make it back there okay? ” he uttered, his voice dripping with threat.  He focused his glare onto Hide, who had yet to show any concern about his location in a den of ghouls.  The café was fuller and a low chatter filled the air in stark contrast to the uncomfortable confrontation taking place at the counter.

 

“Yeah, uh,” Kaneki sighed, “I guess he did.  We were just on our way... out.”

 

Hide nodded enthusiastically and suddenly cheered, “Yeah, we have things to do and places to see!  Let’s go, Kaneki!” He grabbed at the startled ghoul and dragged him to the entrance.

 

He pushed Kaneki out of it and threw a furtive glance over his shoulder at Nishiki.

 

 


 

 

Hide led Kaneki through the streets for a long while before the ghoul realized the direction they were headed.

 

“Hey, Nagachika, where exactly did you want to take me?  The trains are over that way-”

 

“Nah, I was gonna take you to meet your friends,” Hide said shortly, not bothering to assess Kaneki’s sudden look of horror.

 

His shoulders began to shake.  He wasn’t sure if he was terrified or outraged.  “You just saw-wha-what do you mean my friends?! ” he whispered loudly at the human.  Hide rolled his eyes and grabbed Kaneki’s hand, intertwining their fingers.

 

He chuckled at Kaneki’s gasp of surprise and refused to let go of his tense hand.  “No, no, trust me,” he said, swinging their arms like they were children, “they’re gonna be happy to see you.  You’ve gotta start getting out with them more, anyway.  None of that shy-nerd-I’m-nobody bullshit anymore.”

 

They were approaching Kaneki’s own apartment and the ghoul’s eyes shot from the human to the building in confusion.  He forcefully yanked his hand from the human’s and Hide turned to him with a pleasant smile.

 

He chuckled and continued walking without explanation.  Kaneki jogged to keep up and was led up the steps to his very own door.  Hide stopped for a second in silent thought and reached under the mat for Kaneki’s key.

 

Kaneki willfully ignored his accusatory look and allowed Hide to enter his home before himself, somehow.  The human rushed excitedly through Kaneki’s living room as though he lived there and stopped at the uncovered window.  He turned around and bounced up and down slightly as he waited for Kaneki to catch up to him.

 

The ghoul approached and glanced out of the glass in confusion.  “I don’t understand what is fucking going on.

 

Hide laughed.  He pointed to the balcony across Kaneki’s own and the ghoul followed the motion.  His eyes fell on his two neighbors relaxing on the couch in their living room and laughing at something on television.


“Your neighbors are good people, right?

Chapter Text

Kaneki wanted to ask himself why he was staring at his neighbors locking their door behind them from his balcony window, but there was no need.  He knew perfectly well why he was watching them leave their home without locking their own balcony window.

 

“‘Kay, got it, Kaneki?  I know you’re a bit… challenged by physical activities like this but I have every bit of confidence you’ll do well.  Just remember why you’re there and I’ll be waiting for you to come back with the evidence,” Hide smiled at him. Kaneki looked at him for a few seconds and sighed, rolling up his sleeves as though he already knew exactly how to break-and-enter into someone’s home like a goddamn criminal.

 

“Just fucking bite me.”   He tried his best to bore into the human’s eyes.  “And this time you better get those doves away from us.”

 

Hide laughed, an amused grin lighting up his face.  “Of course, buddy! Even if I don’t have morals, per say, I know how much you care about your own.  I’ll only ever try my best, promise,” he assured. “I think my associates will be ready to move on soon anyway.  This time we’ll make sure to lead them closer to the edge of the ward. That way they’ll assume the hostility isn’t really coming from the twentieth.”

 

Kaneki nodded stiffly and turned back to his balcony.  He stepped out onto it and glanced over his shoulder. Hide was shooting him double finger guns.

 

Choosing to ignore whatever that could possibly mean, the ghoul gently shut the glass door behind him and took a deep breath.  If he stretched his arms far enough, he could grab onto the railing with his fingers but the distance between his face and the concrete wasn’t doing much to stop his stomach from coiling.

 

He decided to drag the heavy chair he kept outside over to the side and prop it up safely by hooking it under the railing.  After prodding the arrangement with his foot, Kaneki hoisted himself up and focused on catching his balance. He took a moment to reflect on the fact that he was already breathing hard.

 

Was it excitement or anticipation?

 

Bracing himself, Kaneki cast a furtive glance at the sad, wimpy, half-bare flower box he had planted out here months ago.  The plants sagged in the glare of the sun, even as their flowers tilted in its direction.

 

He tentatively stretched his leg over the railing and managed to touch the other side with his toes.  Emboldened, Kaneki took an even deeper breath before teetering the rest of his body over the huge expanse of air between him and the ground holy shit.

 

Heart really pounding now, the ghoul glanced around and realized that he had fucking done it right.   He was on his neighbors’ balcony!

 

He was trespassing on his neighbors’ property.

 

“Fucking what am I even doing right now,” Kaneki muttered to himself, taking in how much more utilized and decorated this balcony was in comparison to his own.  He found himself burying a quick glimmer of rather petty annoyance, Kaneki.  Curious what his own apartment looked like from this angle, he turned around and stared at the spot Hide was supposed to be standing on but very obviously was not.

 

Fucking fuck.

 

Growling quietly, Kaneki realized he shouldn’t be wasting time worrying about whatever Hide was or was not doing.  He slowly approached the window door and tested the handle, which wiggled freely at his grip. A small breeze blew past him and the sudden, gentle ringing sound made him nearly jump from his skin.

 

He whipped his head around wildly until he found small, elegant wind chimes dangling from the bottom of the rails.  Cursing at himself, Kaneki shook his head and opened the door roughly, just barely not squeaking at the loud thwack it created when it slid way too easily to the side.

 

‘You’re doing perfectly, Kaneki.  No one’s even called the cops, yet,’ he told himself firmly.   He stood at the threshold for a few contemplative seconds and decided that he should carefully walk to the front door and remove his shoes out of respect.

 

Nodding at himself, the ghoul studied the basic layout of the apartment.  It was largely similar to his own, but his was slightly more cramped and how did they swing getting one of the ones with a fireplace?   He made his way over to it and noticed that it wasn’t even gas.

 

Above the fresh-looking bricks, a mantle spread elegantly across the top and held a row of personalized photo frames.  In the middle were two brothers with the same face, easily distinguished by their brightly dyed hair. Teal and peach.

 

Kaneki picked the photo up and examined it more closely, trying to find what Hide had found so special about their faces, especially because it was the same one.  Their smiles almost looked goofy and they stood right next to each other, clearly comfortable in the same space.  

 

On a hunch (and under the influence of too many mystery novels) , Kaneki carefully took the back of the frame off and found some messy writing scrawled on the photograph, topped with a light coffee stain that roused an odd nostalgia in his heart.  

 

 

                                                      Sana's Love

 

My beloved brothers, Sora and Yuki ♡♡ !

 

 

‘Did their sister take the photo?’

 

He committed the names to memory and put the frame back together, inching it as close as he could to its original position on the mantle.  The ghoul wandered around the room a bit more, searching for anything that looked especially personal or suggestive, as Hide had requested, but coming up short.  His steps stopped in front of what was probably a bedroom.

 

Kaneki recalled that the level they lived on only had one-bedroom apartments.  Hoping for the best, or worst, he gulped in anticipation and slowly pushed the door open.

 

The room was really lived-in.  Two beds edged along opposite walls, like a generously sized dorm room.  All the furniture in between was nearly symmetrical, although the clothes that were indiscriminately strewn across the whole expanse made for a messier look.  The left side was decorated with shelves of sports trophies and even a neat collection of nicely maintained basketballs. The right side was far more familiar to Kaneki.  

 

Books among books.

 

Unable to resist rushing over to the collection that somehow rivaled his own, the ghoul quickly scanned the filled bookshelves and realized that they were organized by... reading levels?

 

‘Are they... having trouble learning to read?’

 

But the lower shelves contained whole series that Kaneki recognized and his breath caught in his throat when he saw the entire collection of Takatsuki Sen’s works.

 

In the next instant he choked on a silent screech when his phone rang way too loudly what the fuck in his pocket.  He fumbled wildly for it and, after it slipped from his sweating hands twice he managed to check the caller I.D..

 

Why the hell was Hide calling him right now?

 

Thinking fast, Kaneki realized he’d rather be caught while typing on his phone instead of talking into it.  He swiped to decline the call, heart thudding all over again.

 

There was no time to dwell on the impressive shelves, so Kaneki shoved his phone back into his pocket and returned to searching the room.  Everything looked so normal. How was he supposed to find something to frame them with?

 

He left the bedroom and looked down the hall for another room.  Brain whirring, he realized that he hadn’t found the bathroom yet.  Kaneki moved to find it and stopped rigidly when he heard the sound of a lock turning.

 

‘Fucking fucking FUCK, FUCK, he screamed silently.  The ghoul sprinted back to the balcony’s door and shut it behind him, forgetting in his haste how easily it slid and wincing at the audible thud.  He hoped the loud chatter he heard from the front door covered it up well enough.

 

Really?!   Are you guys sure?” Hide’s cheery voice rang out.  Kaneki had never wanted to eat anyone so badly, he was sure.

 

In a fit of the sincerest panic he had ever felt, the ghoul forewent caution and forced himself to leap over the railing.  He landed on the other side like a cat, but was unable to praise himself because his balcony door was no longer unlocked.

 

He whipped around himself to see Hide and his neighbors walking into their living room and felt his heart seize.  The killer was pointing to something and both targets walked out of sight. He glanced over his shoulder at Kaneki and looked down at his feet?

 

His feet that currently lacked any shoes.

 

Hide had already looked away and his chest shook like he was laughing.  The targets came back into Kaneki’s view and gestured to their couch. The brothers sat down, their hips a few inches apart, and Hide made for the armchair that was angled at the balcony.  The killer began to speak and crossed his legs comfortably, as though he lived there himself.

 

The ghoul carefully crept to the right side of his balcony, hoping no one could see him from the more extreme angle, and let his mind whirl in silence for a few long seconds.  ‘I’m going to jail.  I’m going to jail and they’ll know I’m a ghoul and they’ll kill me and Hide will get his way no matter what I do,’ he thought, desperation tinging his own voice.  He stared at the balcony door across from him and fuck because it was really quiet when it opened.

 

Heart pounding once more, Kaneki inched his way around the railing to find a spot that looked safe enough to grab.  Without his chair, the distance felt far more drastic.  He stretched his arms over the gap and grasped the other side tightly, willing all of his natural strength to pool in his arms.  Painstakingly, his torso dragged over the railing and pressed uncomfortably into his stomach when he stopped to take a breath.

 

‘Touka would laugh at you right now.  And then she’d grab your legs and shove you the rest of the way until you fell on the other side.’

 

Kaneki steeled himself and imagined that Touka was hugging his legs in a chokehold.  ‘She wouldn’t even apologize.  She would just grunt and throw you the fuck over.  She’d get it over with.

 

Grimacing at the stupid wording in his head, Kaneki stopped thinking and hoisted himself up until the lower half of his body dipped down into the open air.  There was nothing keeping him away from the concrete besides his arms.

 

Groaning as quietly as he could, the ghoul pulled up with all of his might and got his stomach to catch on his neighbors’ railing at last.   Exhaling a winded breath, Kaneki dipped carefully the rest of the way over and collapsed into a heap.

 

‘Bite me, gravity.’

 

The ghoul scrambled to his feet and carefully edged around the wall until he reached the handle of the glass door.  He peeked through it and saw that Hide was standing behind the couch now, the targets’ heads turned to watch his wild gesturing.

 

Kaneki pursed his lips and pushed the door away from him until the gap looked big enough for him to slip through.  Without wasting time, he crawled around the corner and slowly slid the door closed behind him. He had done it.  Again.

 

“You know, this place is a lot nicer than Kaneki’s.  His apartment doesn’t even have a fireplace! How’d you guys swing that?” Hide asked.  The human grinned and didn’t take his eyes away from the targets.

 

The brother with teal hair smirked.  “Ah, well, I guess you could say we got lucky.  We’ve known the landlady for a few years and it doesn’t hurt that we combine our incomes.  Rent isn’t so much of an issue,” he said. His brother nudged his side.

 

“Nah, Yuki, come on.  Don’t make it seem like we’re rich.  We’re teachers.   The last time we went out to eat you used up all the yen in your wallet.  We had to find an ATM just to get more notes so we could afford to get on the train home,” he laughed.  Hide made a curious noise and tilted his head.

 

“Oh, where do you guys teach?  Kaneki was telling me that he was thinking of using his degree to start teaching.  Maybe he could go talk to the administration and learn something?”

 

Kaneki slowly crept along the wall, his sight darting back and forth from his path and the humans.  Not even Hide had turned in his direction so far.

 

“Is that so?” Sora replied.  He dipped his head at Yuki. “Didn’t you say he was studying Literature?  We’re actually at the preschool near here. Our class might not be ready to read that much kanji,” he chuckled.  “They’re a pretty sweet bunch, though,” Yuki added, a fondness in his tone. “Our classrooms are right next to each other and we usually just put the kids together when we have activities.  The other day a little boy told me that he likes how colorful our hair is because it makes us look like anime characters!” he finished with a boisterous laugh. He ran his fingers through his brightly dyed bangs.

 

Hide matched the enthusiasm with a grin.  “That’s so cool! Kaneki actually likes kids!  He has a little sister that he loves helping with her reading homework.  They’re always reading books together.” He calmed his face and leaned forward conspiratorially.  “And don’t tell him I said this, but,” he grinned, “I think he’s reeeeally good at that stuff.  He reads all those tragic novels but, deep down, he’s just a softie who never grew out of storytime.”

 

The brothers laughed and Kaneki clenched his fist as he crawled forward.  The front door was almost within reach.   His shoes sat neatly to the side just as he had placed them, dull and unimpressive just as Shuu had always described.

 

“Then do you think he would like reading to preschoolers?  How old is his sister?” Yuki asked. Hide hummed and moved to the side, closer to where Kaneki was stretching his arm out.   The brothers rotated their heads without stopping, their eyes too high to notice the ghoul’s totally stilled, crouched form next to their entryway.

 

“I guess she’s a bit older than preschool, but she’s had trouble with reading so he picks easy books for her to read.  I betcha he’d love to do storytime with a preschool class.” Hide gasped suddenly. “Oh, wait!   Could he maybe sit in for your class and do that, to see how he likes it?  Or at least meet your principal to set something up? He’s super good at reading, promise.”

 

The brothers looked at each other and then back to Hide.  “You’re going really far for your friend, aren’t you, Nagachika-san?  He seems nice enough, but once I saw him in the laundry room and he just seemed… really… shy?   He doesn’t seem like the type to open up easily.”

 

“And he usually keeps his curtains closed.  Not that we’d try to look into his place, or anything,” Yuki said hastily, “but he’s never waved, let alone spoken to us even though we go out on our balcony a lot.  Won’t it be pretty weird to introduce ourselves to a guy like that out of nowhere and ask him to visit our preschool?”

 

“He also once bumped into me and squeaked like a mouse before scrambling to get out of the lobby door.  Is his name Kaneki, you said? Not that it matters, but it’s a pretty weird family name, wouldn’t you agree?”

 

“And he’s younger, I think.  Until you told us, I thought he was a highschooler.”

 

‘And I don’t recall you two ever mentioning that you were experts at being judgemental asses, but here we are, you human table scraps.

 

Hide shrugged their words off and put his hands on his hips.  “Ah, that guy only acts that way to ward off all the scary strangers.  His mother always told him to watch out for people who seem like they’re too friendly, so that’s probably why he’s never reached out.  Don’t hold it against him, though!” he laughed, “He’s getting better and I promised him I’d help him make more friends. Something like this is just what he needs to open up a little more.”

 

Kaneki’s hand flew over his laces as he tied them and he bit his lip in adrenaline-fueled anxiety.  His cohort slowly walked to the entryway and the ghoul silently cursed at him as he scrambled to get out of the way.  The twins stood and approached the door with Hide, not seeming to suspect anything.

 

Kaneki rushed back to the balcony as swiftly as he could.  Reminding himself to open the door slowly, he snuck outside and closed it behind him.  When the cool air brushed his face he released the heaviest huff he had ever produced.

 

In the time between his sigh and the next breath, his heart collapsed in on itself when a knock sounded from behind him.  Kaneki didn’t stop to think and attempted to leap over both railings. His foot caught on the edge and he began to fall. Before he could yell in terror, his kagune instinctively wrapped around the bottom of his balcony’s rails and he curled in on himself, not daring to let go.

 

The door slid open and Hide stepped outside, glancing down and offering the barest hint of the shit-eating grin the ghoul was becoming intimately familiar with.  He ignored Kaneki’s indignant, seething glare and turned around.

 

“Yeah, I guess his place does look pretty dreary from over here.  If he lived on a higher floor, he’d be like Juliet but too shy to ask you where you are!”

 

‘She didn’t ask where, she asked why, Nagachika.’

 

The brothers laughed and Hide walked back into their apartment, leaving Kaneki to ask himself why alleyways were even used when there were so many sidewalks that had street lamps.

 


 

Kaneki lay still on his couch with a pillow smothering his face.  He heard the lock on his door click and Hide’s footsteps nearing until he could sense the man looming over him.  The pillow was tugged away from his face and Hide smiled softly.

 

“You didn’t do as badly as you think.  Actually, I’m glad you got to meet them before they offer to take you to their school.  Everything’s okay, Kaneki. Trust me, ‘kay?” he told him, making to sit down on the coffee table like a cat instead of a human adult.

 

The ghoul stared into his eyes for a few moments.  Slowly, he sat up and clenched his fist into the couch’s fabric.

 

Hide raised his eyebrow in question.

 

“Are you a psychopath?” Kaneki asked, his voice quiet.

 

Hide stared back without responding.  Then, he crossed his legs and propped his elbow on his knee, his face smoothing into blankness.

 

“Am I really that good?  I told you, I’ve done my best to really imitate one of them.  It’s good that it’s working, but something tells me you don’t really believe me right now,” he said.  Kaneki watched his expression for any twitches or movement and found nothing.

 

He looked to the side to compose his thoughts and turned back, his skin tingling when he was met with a wicked smile that screamed depravity.  His hackles raised and the space behind his eyes twitched painfully, the beginnings of veins creeping away from the sockets.

 

Somehow, Kaneki couldn’t recall being scared in this way before.  He knew what terror was like. This was the entire scope of hopelessness.  Severe and unending dread.  As if the world was ending, but never ended.

 

Like a constant state of dying without the promise of death, from this human’s leer.

 

“Would you like more of my words?  Or would some proof help you understand what I’m saying?”

 

Kaneki reeled back, unsure of how to respond.  Implications and fears roared in his head, but before he could utter something to try and stop whatever was happening, Hide relaxed his face.  The bloodlust was replaced with emptiness.

 

“Sometimes, you have to give an answer no matter how scared you really are, Kaneki.  I don’t feel much but I know what I want to do right now. So, I’m asking you, making peace with you, honestly,” he paused, his voice emptier than the contours of his face, “Would you like words ?  Or actions ?  Please don’t keep me waiting on the edge of my seat.  So far, you haven’t appreciated many of my surprises.”

 

The ghoul opened his mouth to at least stutter , but his voice refused to come.  He didn’t doubt Hide’s threat, but he had to say something to-

 

“Gah, too late, Kaneko-chan!  My choice now!” the human suddenly laughed, appearing pleased with something.  He stood up and paced over to the door, leaving Kaneki to stare dumbfounded at his back.  Hide swiveled around and saluted with two of his fingers, smiling as cheerfully as he had in the apartment across the gap.

 

Kaneki tried to say something again but Hide cut him off.  “Anyways, I might need to go out of town soon to visit my dad’s grave, but I have a few plants that need to be watered, so can you meet me after English to come back to my place?  Thanks, dude!”

 

The man walked out of the apartment and even clicked the lock shut behind him.  Kaneki shuddered and reluctantly turned his head to look out of his window. The targets were sitting at a kotatsu, cutting shapes out of construction paper and sorting them into neat piles.

 


 

 

Monday brought Kaneki back to his English class and he sat next to Hide at the top row, just as he had before the concert happened.  The human waved at him when he sat down and opened up his notebook to shove it over.

 

“Kaneki, look here!  Have you seen this? I think it’s pronounced…” he scrunched his face in concentration, “Ane...anenoooo-anemone?  Are these letters even right? It’s kinda like Japanese but the ‘n-e’ sounds more like ‘ni’ .  What are those Westerners doing over there?” he laughed.

 

Kaneki looked down at the page.  ‘Anemone’ was neatly written in what seemed to be cursive and circled inside of a heart that had an arrow cutting through it.  A multitude of poorly drawn clownfish were scattered around it and Hide had written ‘sea this anemone?  i heard the symbioses are just planktonic ヾ(≧∇≦*)ゝ in English.

 

“Weren’t we working on, like, common phrases and greetings last time?  None of the homework I did involved ocean animals,” he deadpanned. Oddly, Kaneki felt less tense than he had expected to be after their last encounter.  Something about the brightly lit room and mass of other students made him feel safer, and he reasoned with himself that nothing too terrible could happen in such a normal setting.  He looked at the front where the professor was typing away on his laptop before class started, probably making the lecture longer than it needed to be.

 

Hide groaned in exasperation.  “Come on, man! I worked all night on that!  You didn’t even mention the cute faces I put on all the clownfish!  If there’s one thing I know, it’s happy smiles,” he grinned, making Kaneki stiffen.  The human sighed and took his notebook back. “Should I have done a flower pun instead?  You like those better, after all.”

 

Kaneki grimaced and busied himself with setting up his own notes.  He flipped to the next blank page and printed the date, adding a short arrow next to it and plenty of space to write in.

 

“Oh?  Why’d you do that?” Hide asked, leaning over all the way inside his personal bubble, asshole.  The ghoul grunted and put his pencil down, straightening his notebook into a neat position.  “I’ll put the subject next to it when he starts the lecture. It’s easier to keep track of what order things were said and separate the actual content of each class.  I mean, don’t you date yours? This is just how I like to write it,” he grumbled.

 

Hide hummed and sat back in his seat like a normal person, finally.  He pouted, of all things, and muttered, “No, I’ve never dated my notes.  You don’t have to rub it in, stupid,” in impressively fluid English.  After a few beats of silence, he added in Japanese, “Is that a ghoul thing?  You guys date notebooks instead of best friends?”

 

Kaneki’s stomach turned and he swallowed, not daring to meet Hide’s eyes, which he felt boring into the side of his head.  Unable to stop himself, his gaze traveled down to the row where they had sat.  

 

The human beside him chuckled.  “Yeah, I guess I’m not talking about us.”

 

Their professor stood up suddenly and the chatter of the room gradually winded down.  At his podium, the man fumbled for a pointer from his sweater pocket and clicked it like he meant to check that it worked.  The red beam of light flashed right next to Kaneki’s eye and he flinched, unable to stop a curse from leaving his lips. The man had the decency to look sorry and called out an apology, causing a few students to glance back at their row for a brief moment.

 

How odd that no one was glancing at the two empty seats.

 

“You were gone for a whole week, you know,” Hide muttered.  Kaneki chanced a look and met the human’s knowing gaze. His face slowly morphed into something that looked sad and dropped in the next moment for something that was amused.   Kaneki turned forward again in silence.

 

‘What the hell is he trying to pull?’

 

The class crept by at a frustrating pace.  With twenty minutes left, Hide nudged Kaneki until the ghoul couldn’t ignore him any longer.  The guy was staring at him without any expression and Kaneki froze, reminded of the last time he had seen that face.   But a moment later, he giggled and discreetly lifted his notebook.

 

An entire page was littered with hearts and smiley faces, the center taken up by an unskilled drawing of… a balcony, kind of.

 

And a stick figure with black hair was dangling from the bottom of it, appearing to be crying.

 

Kaneki looked back at the human’s face, which had smoothed back into apathy.  Hide shrugged and placed his notes back on the table, turning to the lecture as if nothing had happened.

 

“The fuck is happening right now?!”

 

Feeling his annoyance shift into anger, the ghoul ground his teeth and glared at the professor in an attempt to focus on the class.  Something about the proper way to write the ending of a formal business letter and why the shitting fuck was Hide poking the side of his head?

 

Kaneki whipped around fast enough that it hurt and the human smirked before flashing his empty face again.  Just about to demand what he was doing, the other spoke up and batted his eyes in an almost flirtatious manner.

 

“Let’s get out of here.  I have a surprise that I think you’ll really like this time.  You ready?” he asked, a coquettish lilt to his words. Kaneki raised his brow in confusion but Hide was already putting his things away, even reaching over to do the same for him when the ghoul didn’t move.

 

He stood quietly and grabbed Kaneki’s arm to pull him up.  A few classmates looked back at them before returning their attention to the lecture, where the professor was still droning on about common western formalities or whatever.

 

Unable to protest without making a scene, Kaneki let himself be led by Hide’s firm grip outside of the classroom.  The human walked them to the end of the hallway and down the stairs until they reached the building’s front doors. He stopped and grinned at Kaneki gulped.

 

“I thought so.  I bet they’ll let you come into your shift later with everything going on but I also bet you don’t want to be held up for too long.  Come on, buddy. Let me show you how to water my plants.”

 


 

 

Hide’s home was impressively large, considering that the man wasn’t even twenty years old.  It was further from the university than expected, almost nearing the border of the fourteenth ward.  

 

‘Exactly how well does the CCG pay their investigative assistants?’ Kaneki wondered, admiring the chimney that split the middle of the facade.  A worn brick pathway led to the large front door, which was decorated with an elegant wreath and intricately carved at the edges.  The front lawn was manicured and even bordered by rose bushes. It looked rather… western.

 

And far more costly than Kaneki’s apartment complex.

 

“Pretty nice, right?” Hide grinned when the ghoul managed to stop gaping at the impressive display.  “I’ve actually always favored the western style. It’s a nice change from the usual stuff you find around Tokyo.”  Kaneki dumbly followed after him.

 

The inside was nicer.  The television was large and a whole corner of the living room was taken up by a rather fancy-looking surround sound system.  Racks of CDs lined the wall and a few precious record albums were displayed above an actual record player.   A door mirrored the set up and through it Kaneki caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a grand piano that looked similar to Shuu’s.

 

What.

 

The human laughed and put his keys on the table by the foyer and nodded at the wall behind them.  “If you like, you can take your shoes off right there. I’m not that picky, to be honest. But I’ll have to ask you to put them back on before you leave.”  Kaneki growled to himself and removed his shoes in the interest of being polite.

 

“So, Hide.  Um,” the ghoul began, fumbling for words, “do you… are you, like, rich, or something?”  Hide glanced in his direction offhandedly and turned to walk to his kitchen that had an open wall and a fucking island counter.

 

He procured two mugs from the pantry and grabbed a bag of potato chips.  “What can I say? I’m pretty successful at what I do. My fans follow me and I end up making a decent revenue from all the traffic.  I guess there’s also a bit of my inheritance, but that’s not nearly as big as my other sources.”

 

Kaneki accepted the offered mug and moved to the table, digesting the words.  Hide brought over a bag of instant coffee and plopped it down in front of him.

 

‘He has fans?  Of... murder?

 

“Sorry about the coffee.  If you can believe it, I am not successful at making the real stuff.  But I have a kettle and I guess you don’t… need… milk or anything like that.  Have at it,” the man told him, walking away to the fridge where he pulled out a bottle covered in English lettering and featuring a cartoon zombie?

 

“Oh, this is Zombie Brain Juice.   Fruity,” Hide winked at him when Kaneki furrowed his brow at the reddish coloring.  Opting to worry about making himself some shitty coffee later (he’d never tried this brand but even through the packaging it smelled bad ) , Kaneki stood and made for the fridge and opened it up.

 

Instead of food, there were plant misters filled with… cream?

 

‘I’m not sure if this is better than human body parts,’ Kaneki thought, ‘but I really, really don’t like that it’s white.’

 

Chilled by the sound of laughter from just over his shoulder, Kaneki jolted forward and nearly lost his balance.  Hide crouched next to him and picked up a jar, rotating it in his hands.

 

“You want some?  It’s a hyperfluid emulsion made with natural moisturizing factors and I even got my hands on some ceramides so I decided to make the lipid phase biomimetic.  I made this batch a few days ago so it’s fresh,” he chuckled, holding the bottle up to Kaneki’s wide eyes. The label was printed in neat, stylized katakana and said Sultry Cactus Skin Care : a new look!’.

 

“I... don’t understand what’s going on, but if by natural moisturizing factors you’re talking about…” Kaneki blushed, “s- semen, I really have to protes-”

 

“I told you I’m not an asshole the first time, man!” the human interrupted, a sour twist on his pursed lips.  “I kill people. I don’t jack off to them, what is it with you ghouls and making all these masturbation references?”

 

The ghoul’s mouth dropped and he stuttered uselessly, embarrassed and honestly affronted that the other seemed to think ghoulkind was obsessed with masturbating.  ‘ But what gave him that impression in the first place?’ he asked himself curiously.

 

Hide shoved the jar into his hands and stood back up to put his drink on the kitchen island.  He grabbed the bag of chips and pulled the top open, its loud squeaks grating on Kaneki’s ears.  The man threw a handful into his mouth and crunched them mercilessly, the noise more annoying than the bag.

 

“Look, it’s just the most perfect three to one to one to one ratio of cholesterol and sphingophospholipids that makes up one hell of a defense against trans epidermal water loss.  It has a lot of uses but people usually buy it for part of their skincare regimen and sometimes as a general lotion. I put a lot of work into making it excellent, so you should thank me for offering you a free sample,” he grinned.  “And you should become familiar with it anyway so you know what to do when I’m gone.”

 

“Gone?  You mean… out of town, to visit your father’s grave?” Kaneki asked.  ‘Why would a serial killer make homemade lotion?’   He gulped.

 

‘And why do I feel like I’ve heard of something like this before?’

 

“No, don’t give me that look.  I’m not a fucking creep, like I keep having to say for some reason.  I’m not gonna force you to ‘put the lotion in the basket’ , give me some credit!” the human exclaimed, huffing as he turned away.  Kaneki stifled a morbid laugh in spite of himself and shook his head as he stood up as well.

 

“So, you said that you had, uh, plants I need to water?  I’ll be honest, this seems a little weird since we have that whole premeditated murder thing to do according to you,” he confessed, “but I suppose you don’t want anyone else to come see your… normal house?”

 

Hide’s expression turned menacing and playful .

 

“Follow me this way, Kaneko-chan.”  He walked back into the living area and Kaneki trailed behind him, apprehension striking in his chest all over again.  “For the record, this is some information you might want to hold on to so that later when I need you to take initiative you won’t have any problem getting your hands dirty.  Or… really smooth.”

 

‘What.’

 

“O-okay?  What are you-” Kaneki shut up when the human pulled the floor length curtains covering the space between his television and sound system to reveal a small courtyard.  Hide strode outside and looked back at his companion, dipping his head in the direction of a massive potted plant in the center and gesturing with his hands that Kaneki should come closer.

 

He approached warily, noting the numerous exotic plants and even a few cacti rooted in sandy parts of the garden, all of them healthy and colorful.  It didn’t look as though they needed much water with the way they filled out the edges of the walls as though they had been established for a long time.

 

Kaneki gazed up at the blue sky, squinting in the glint of the sun that was just beginning to lower itself from its crest.  “I don’t think these need that much water, do they? Cacti just kinda… sit there. And there’s no roof out here so nature should take care of it, anyway,” he said, his confusion intensifying when Hide put his foot on the side of the pot and lightly pushed on it.

 

“Just trust me, I keep telling you.  Now come here and use your little ghoul muscles to shove this guy out of your way.  I wanna watch you do it so I know for sure you’re prepared for future endeavors.”

 

Kaneki took a closer look at the plant.  Its long leaves climbed into the air, motionless and stiff.  The teeth on the plant’s edges hardly looked sharp enough to hurt anyone unless they tried to hug it.  

 

 

                                                                  Century Plant I

 

 

He mimicked Hide and put his foot on the pot to shove it, causing the plant to dangerously tip over and spill dry, brittle chunks of soil onto the ground.

 

“Uh, wait,” Kaneki started, only slightly concerned.  Hide huffed and moved to grab the other side of the pot.  He looked at the ghoul pointedly, waiting.  

 

Kaneki finished pushing the plant away to reveal a trapdoor.

 

“Wait,” Kaneki said, a little more concerned than usual.  “Nagachika, this better not be a sex dungeon or I swear-

 

I don’t have a fucking sex dungeon! ” Hide exclaimed, annoyance creasing his brow.  “Why the fuck do you and your friends think I’m some perverted criminal?!   All I do is kill people, which is as much as you do, and I’ve never assaulted anyone beyond capturing their faces in the throes of death so I can admire them later!  Just fuck me, right?!”

 

“Oh my god,” Kaneki blanched, “wait… wait,” he continued, unable to decide on a response.  Though he appeared nearly seething, Hide bent down in a fluid motion to open the door and then grabbed Kaneki’s hand to drag him down it.  “And for the record, Kaneki,” he grumbled, “if you happen to be a ghoul you can just use your arms to move it.  Please don’t kill my lovely century plant when I’m not around.”

 

By the time the two descended, the light from the courtyard had been replaced with a warm fluorescent glow.  Kaneki’s jaw dropped slightly at the sight before him as he tried to reason that such a nice room couldn’t be as devious as a sex dungeon.

 

But it was probably worse because neat pedestals lined the walls, topped by amalgams of human faces.

 


 

The first thing Kaneki hoped to say was something like ‘How could anyone in this world be so utterly cruel?’ or even ‘ Why the hell are they on mannequins? ’, but from the opposite wall, two eyes met his gaze without seeing.  Their striking shade of blue sent the ghoul’s chest into a fit of uneven compressions.  

 

And yet the carefully carved brow above them arched as if it was surprised.

 

 

                                                                Toshiyuki, Fin

 

 

A stretch of smooth skin connected the features by neat stitches.  Lids even draped over the eyeballs to match the expression in the brow and the pallor of flesh appeared fresh, as though it had been… harvested recently.  Or very, very maintained.  For the ghoul, his vision dimmed and his heart pounded, anxiety prodded into overdrive all over again.

 

A hand clapped his shoulder and Kaneki startled, forgetting that he wasn’t alone in this awful room.  Hide chuckled and walked to the display across. He softly stroked the chin of the… face and turned to smile at the ghoul.

 

“Hah, do you like this guy?  I’ll admit, I rushed a little to get him together in time before I brought you here.”  He examined the mannequin again. “And the eyes turned out beautifully, just like I thought, but I’m thinking the overall… emotion was more of a challenge to capture this time.  He was pretty surprised when I stabbed him.  But maybe not this brand of surprised?  Hm,” he hummed. The human placed his fingers on the eyelids and gently teased the degree they lay at.

 

Hide nodded when he finished adjusting the eyes.  To Kaneki, they looked terrorized.

 

“Yup,” Hide said, “that’s much better.  Now he’s even more at peace.”

 

Kaneki felt sick.  Shaking as he stepped forward, he choked out, “At peace?!   What the fuck do you think this is, you monster?!   That’s not a person anymore, it’s just body parts you stole to play with like… like!  Like some demon from hell!  You’re so awful!”

 

Hide’s eyes lit up.  “Really? Thanks, buddy!  That might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.  I think we’re making progress. Now,” he said, pacing around the large room, “I’ll show you how to keep everyone happy in here.  

 

“What the fu-”

 

They don’t need to be watered so much as, well, moisturized, so that’s where my brand comes in, and you should probably also hang out with them a bit so they don’t get lonely.  Or so you can get used to them. I mean, the rest of the room is nice too!”

 

He gestured to the mini-fridge and the pool table sitting by the dining table and next to the plush couch in front of the large flat screen T.V.“So when you take care of them make sure you take some time to sit down and relax.  That’s really all you need to do, man,” he grinned.

 

Kaneki ignored the horrors around him and strode to the human.  “You said I would be watering plants.

 

“Yes, these are my face plants.”

 

A long stretch of silence filled the space between them until Hide smirked and walked to the mini-fridge.  “And I can stock some special snacks for you in here if you like. I bet it’s not that hard to sneak some away from the prisons.  Or if you want to share your own stash, that’d be fine. I wouldn’t know which tastes better but I’m guessing the stuff the CCG makes is more drugged than not drugged.”

 

He opened the fridge’s door to reveal shelves of plant misters, unlabeled but partitioned by a small wall.  “The left is for my faces and the right is for… my face, you could say. Just make sure you read the directions over here so you don’t take more of the bottle than you need.  I don’t like losing profit.” The human then pointed to a chart on the wall just next to them.

 

 

                                                     Sultry Cactus Skin Care Formula Chart

 

 

“If you’re curious, this is how I can afford all these nice things.  I’d say it’s a perk but, honestly, it’s the only way I can afford to keep doing what I love in this troubled economy.  My fans are so sweet,” he said, pretending to wipe a tear from his cheek. “Oh, it feels so good to give back to the community.  You know what I’m talking about!

 

He then walked to a bookshelf and removed a wide binder tucked between books with untitled spines.  He held it up for Kaneki.  

 

Sultry Cactus Skin Care!  (A look into getting that look)’ .

 

 You probably won’t need to look through this much, but you can check it out later if you want.  The other books here are just placeholders so if you decide you like hanging out here, you can replace them with your own!  You might be the only person I’ve ever wanted to share this room with before,” Hide laughed.

 

Kaneki was revolted.

 

“Oh, and… if anyone comes knocking on the front door,” he added, his voice adopting a harder edge, “well, obviously don’t let them anywhere near here.  No one should really bother you about it, but if you see a man with sleek black hair and a mole under his right eye, try extra hard to shoo him away. He might call himself Souta, or even Furuta…” here he paused, “or PG?  I’m not entirely sure what the last one’s about, but be careful with him.”

 

Kaneki stared at the unimpressive bookshelf and then turned to Hide.  He opened his mouth to ask who the hell had three names and was interested in a murderer’s playroom but the human stopped him by hurrying back to the mini-fridge.

 

“Okay, I should really show you exactly what to do so you don’t mess anyone up.  You just take a mister,” he picked up a bottle that looked as if it had been used already, “and you better do this in the right order, by the way,” he continued, suddenly glaring at Kaneki, who was stricken by the dead seriousness in his eyes, “because if you over-saturate any of these guys, you might just learn something else about this room that keeps everyone looking like they just died.

 

Hide moved to the first mannequin lining the wall to their right.  He raised the mister and lightly squeezed the handle. “Be careful with how much you use because over-saturating the skin makes for a slimy texture, and nobody wants that.”

 

He lifted his hands to the mannequin’s cheeks.  “So now, you just,” he said as his thumbs smoothed over the contours of the compounded face, “kinda make sure you ease into every nook and cranny.  It’s a little cold, but you get used to it. And make sure you get into the creases, like around the nose and over the eyelids. Every part needs equal care.  But be gentle.

 

The mannequin’s mouth was frozen in… euphoria?  As if he was in the middle of a good time when he died.

 

“Uh,” Kaneki started, torn between hearing the human’s words and focusing on the perverse expression of the mannequin’s face.  Hide glanced to the ghoul and back, his own smile shifting into place.

 

“Ooh, you wanna know how he died?  I did end up getting him to do it himself!  He was fun. Yup, classic autoerotic asphyxiation.

 

The human paused, his face blank.  “But I was not involved in the actual sex part.  All I did was carve him up after the fact.” He moved to put the bottle on a side table.  

 

“And he didn’t even cum that much before he passed out.  That was a weird day for everyone involved,” he mumbled.

 

Hide nodded for Kaneki to follow him to the stairs.  The ghoul did so, extremities numbed as if he had touched the cold face himself.

 

The human climbed up and lifted the trapdoor.  In a sudden rush, he ushered Kaneki through and lowered the door so that he was only peeking through it.   Kaneki gaped back at him, utterly nonplussed by whatever the hell just happened.

 

“I think you’re a little late for work  and I should really finish taking care of everything down here.  Why don’t you go on and I’ll catch up later to explain more? Just wait for my text.”  He waved at Kaneki, lowering the door before quickly adding, “Oh, say hey to Touka-chan for me!  You don’t have to bother with the tall creep, though.”

 

The door finally clicked shut and the lock audibly turned.  Kaneki stood still for a few long moments, staring at the heavy plant that had been dragged away from its original spot.

 

He moved behind it and put his foot on its side, lightly pushing it as he contemplated sealing Hide inside to just let him rot.  The thing really didn’t budge.  

 

The ghoul tried his arms and realized that it still wasn’t budging.  Huffing, Kaneki made for the exit, a shiver fluttering through him as a muffled echo of laughter drifted from the center of the courtyard.

 


 

At his apartment, Kaneki opted to lock his door and pull the curtains over his windows, especially on his balcony.  He busied himself with brushing his teeth, taking longer than usual, and changed into loose sweatpants. Plopping down on his bed, the ghoul took his phone from the side table and checked its messages.

 

There was just a single text from Rize, titled The Gourmet told me about your unwelcome guest at Anteiku .

 

His smile fond, he opened her message.

 

Subject: The Gourmet mentioned your unwelcome guest at Anteiku

 

 

You know I don’t mind eating scraps.  Let me know if he gets too close for comfort.  Shuu-san can have the scraps of the scraps and I’ll let you have any part you want. Think of it as an early birthday gift.   ৴(०૩へ)৴~~♡  

 

 

Kaneki stared for a few moments before shooting off a quick thank you for the kind words, my scary, scary friend and then tried to explain why eating Hide might not be wise right now.

 

“Wait…” Kaneki whispered, mind buzzing with some feeling he couldn’t place.

 

“...don’t I know where he lives?

 

‘Where he keeps his laptop.  Where he sleeps at night, all alone.’

 

His phone jarred him from the sudden, frantic thoughts that glinted hope in his eyes.  Rize.

 

 

We could always lure him away to take him out in silence.  I know you know I’m not beneath that. ໒(○・`ᆺ ´・○)७ ゚.*・。゚⊹  hahahaha

 

...besides, you always liked full circles, didn’t you? 

 

pfft  <3

 

Kaneki suppressed an awkward smile and sat up in a surge of anticipation.