The bell above the door chimed as Hide pushed the door open and he took a deep breath of the warm air inside as he hurriedly closed it against the cold.
He stomped his feet and looked around, taking in the cluttered but homey look of the store and the inviting displays of some of the books that clearly were one of the worker's favorites.
He walked up to the counter and found it empty. Now that he thought about it, the whole store seemed deserted. It was big enough that he couldn't see all of it at once, but not big enough that he shouldn't be able to pick up on any movement if someone was there.
He slowly started walking down between two rows of bookshelves, deciding that he might be able to find the books he needed himself and that he would worry about the missing workers when he had to pay. They would probably have appeared by then. Hopefully.
He turned a corner and stopped dead when he finally spotted someone; a young man was sitting in an armchair beneath one of the few windows in the store. He had a book in hand and was distractedly turning a page with a small frown on his face, his hair was startlingly white in the faint sunshine and the quiet in the surrounding store made Hide feel like he was intruding on something private. The mysterious man also had a name tag on his breast pocket, stating that he was happy to help and that his name was Kaneki.
Hide cleared his throat and the young man looked up as if he had been slapped, wide grey eyes taking Hide in. Hide smiled and raised his hand in greeting, "Hello! Sorry to bother you!"
The man named Kaneki stared at him a second longer before he seemed to remember he worked there; he gave a small "oh," as he blushed, got to his feet, gently laid the book he had been reading on the small table beside the armchair, and gave a slightly awkward smile back to Hide. "Hello, welcome. I am sorry I did not hear you come in."
Kaneki's voice was calm and soft; a voice that made Hide feel at peace by just listening to it. Hide waved the man's concerns off with his smile still in place. "No problem! I just wanted to ask you for some help. I need to find a couple of books."
Kaneki's own smile turned more genuine and he took a small, seemingly unconscious step in Hide's direction. "I can help with that. I am fairly certain I know every book in this place."
The enthusiasm this person showed for books was adorable and Hide decided that before he walked out of the store he would make him smile that smile again. "That's great! I need to find some books about ghouls. Preferably about their biology, but I'm interested in social customs, history, or anything you got, really."
The smile on Kaneki's face seemed to freeze in place and Hide couldn't blame him, even if a small part of him did feel a bit disappointed in the other's apparent discomfort at the subject. A lot of people still had problems with ghouls, despite the fact that they had been an officially accepted part of society for many years. He hoped that Kaneki would still help him to pick out a book, which would be better than the last bookshop he had visited.
Kaneki broke the slight tension that had settled over them by nodding and gesturing for Hide to follow him. "Yes, we have some books about ghouls. Follow me."
They ended up at the very back of the shop, in a dark corner out of the way of the rest of the store. There was no surprise there; nobody who wanted to keep their business displayed goods pertaining to ghouls in a prime spot.
"Here they are. It's not a lot, but at least it's something," Kaneki said with a smile and a gesture towards the small collection of books on a shelf in the corner. Hide could almost have sworn that Kaneki was giving him a calculating look, but he wrote it off as the dim lighting playing tricks on him.
"Thank you! That's a great help."
Instead of simply walking off, like most employees would have done at this point, Kaneki stopped in front of the shelf with Hide and asked, "So what are you looking for?"
Hide felt a bit taken aback by the question, not that it was strange per say, it was just that he didn't really have a good explanation for his interest. People usually judged him before asking.
He settled for the simplest truth. "Ah, well, I just want to learn more about ghouls."
Kaneki looked slightly surprised at that, which in itself wasn't a surprise, not a lot of people willingly spent time learning about ghouls more than they had to at school. Hide felt the unexpected need to explain himself to this quiet and kind man. "I have reason to believe that what we learn in school and what they say in the media isn't the whole truth." Hide shrugged. "I just want to learn. There are a lot of ghouls living in Tokyo and I think it's important to understand them."
"To be able to avoid them?" Kaneki asked with a guarded look in Hide's direction.
Hide decided to throw caution to the wind and tell the truth. If Kaneki proved to be an asshole he would be out of the shop soon enough, so he allowed a big smile to take place on his face as he exclaimed with honest enthusiasm, "To be able to live with them!"
Kaneki simply stared at him with his mouth slightly open and Hide barged on, "I'm always scared that I'll accidentally hurt or affront someone since I don't know much about them. Or maybe they are exactly like you and me and I don't have to worry! But then I want to know that. And I know they have some different needs from a strictly biological standpoint and I refuse to look at that with nothing but fear. I want to understand."
Kaneki blinked once and then surprised Hide by breaking out into laughter.
Hide was used to people treating him like he was strange for wanting to learn about and for being fascinated by ghouls, but getting laughed at was a new low. No matter how nice Kaneki's laughter was to listen to. Hide huffed and crossed his arms over his chest. "Well, I'm so glad I could entertain you."
Kaneki stopped laughing, but he was still smiling as he shook his head, "No, no, I'm sorry. I was not really laughing at you. I was just surprised, is all. Not a lot of people look at ghouls witch such a positive attitude. I am happy to hear it since I'm also…" Kaneki paused and seemed to consider his words for a second before continuing, "Interested in ghouls."
Hide allowed his crossed arms to fall to his sides and breathed out. The fact that the man in front of him shared one of his interests made him disproportionately happy and Hide didn't fight it as his smile spread across his face again.
Kaneki turned towards the shelf. "If you are just starting out, then I would recommend this." He reached out and delicately plucked a book from the shelf, carefully handing it over to Hide.
Hide accepted it and looked down to see that it was a book on basic ghoul biology. He raised an eyebrow in question as he glanced up at Kaneki. "Didn't we read something similar in school?"
Kaneki made a so-so gesture with his hand. "It covers some of the same areas, but the one they use in school is heavily censored as to not… risk upsetting people."
Hide nodded, that was exactly the reason that had made him decide against doing his research in the library—even if they were getting better at it, most of their limited collection of books about ghouls were still censored. The government had been very clear about their preferences on the subject. "That makes sense. I'll give it a try."
"You can look through it at home and then come back later if you decide that it's not useful to you? I'll make sure that you can exchange it for another if that is the case."
Hide wondered if he had imagined the slight blush that crept up Kaneki's cheeks, but he was fairly certain that the expression on the Kaneki's face was something akin to hopeful. He guessed that they didn't get a lot of customers here.
"That is really helpful of you. Are you sure it's okay?" Hide felt touched by the nice offer, but the last thing he wanted was to get Kaneki into any kind of trouble.
Kaneki shrugged. "I like to make sure that the books we sell ends up in homes that want them. That way, people are more likely to take care of them."
"Well, I will do my best not to disappoint!" Hide said with a laugh and relaxed as Kaneki joined in. Emboldened, Hide held out his right hand towards Kaneki. "I'm Hide, by the way." It was only fair that Kaneki got to know his name as well, right?
Kaneki smiled and shook the hand. "My name is Kaneki. It was nice to meet you."
Hide decided not to mention the name tag that Kaneki had clearly forgotten about and instead focused on Kaneki's surprisingly strong grip. He guessed even cute and soft bookworms could be working out. "Well then, Kaneki. Thank you for the help!"
"No problem," Kaneki answered with a soft smile and Hide had to swallow hard and pull his hand free of Kaneki's grip quickly as he fought down a sudden and unexplained blush creeping up his neck.
They went over to the register and Hide paid for his book, and all of a sudden there was no more reason for him to stay.
"Well, thank you for all the help!"
Kaneki smiled. "It was no trouble. You are welcome to come back if you need any more of it. Or if you want to talk." This time Hide was sure that he wasn't imagining Kaneki's cheeks turning a light pink. "About your research that is."
Hide nodded as he smiled back, trying to convince himself that it was simply Kaneki's way of trying to get him to come back and buy more books. His voice came out embarrassingly shrill as he repeated a simple, "Thank you!" Before his brain decided to stop working and he finally managed to talk himself into exiting the shop—mostly to escape his own embarrassment.
The cold outside felt even more biting than before and Hide decided that the store must have been warmer than he had thought.
It had been a rather nice store, and they did have some more books about ghouls that he could check out when he was done with this one… Maybe he would have to come back later.
He gripped the bag with his new book hard as he started walking home, intent on reading through the whole thing as fast as he could.