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A Pound of Flesh

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In one world, Nagachika Hideyoshi waits and waits and waits for his best friend to tell the truth. Hide wants so desperately to be wrong, despite the mounting evidence before him, so he puts his hands over his eyes and waits. He knows the truth, has known it for ages, has known it even before he went to the CCG, but he dares not say it out loud. It's only real if Kaneki admits to it, so Hide doesn't dare push his best friend.

In another world, Hide still doesn't push Kaneki for the truth. Instead, he pushes Touka.

Kaneki has been missing for months. Officially, Hide has no idea where Kaneki went or what happened. Unofficially, the words “ghouls” and “Aogiri” fill Hide's head, and he knows something terrible has happened. Kaneki is alive, that much Hide is certain of, but anything more is...hazy. Hide has little information, and little means to get said information besides going to the CCG. Even there, working with humanity's greatest counter measure against ghouls, Hide is missing key puzzle pieces.

Hide sometimes still sees the missing posters for Kaneki. He placed them there himself, ages ago. It's probably a useless endeavor since Kaneki isn't so much lost as he is hiding. And that bothers Hide. If Kaneki was merely missing, it would be one thing, but instead he's running. The details are unclear for Hide, but it doesn't change the fact that Kaneki is gone, and Hide isn't the only one missing him.

One day, Hide sees Touka at Kamii.

The Touka he sees now is vastly different from the cute waitress he remembers from Anteiku months ago. It's not just the hair she let grow out. The Touka he remembers is calm, cool, with a hint of fierceness behind her polite smile. He knows she's got fire in her. He remembers the times when she would berate Kaneki (and later Nishio-sempai) over lack of skill at the job. A cool mask to hide a passionate inferno, that's how Hide remembers Touka.

The Touka Hide sees before him now still has that calm smile on her face, but there is a frailty to it instead of a fire. Her eyes betray a sense of sadness, desolate and wounded, as if someone has taken something from her heart and never gave it back. He knows that look. It stares at him from the mirror.

Suddenly, Hide is angry at Kaneki. The idiot has hurt more people than just Hide.

He buys her coffee. It's cheap stuff from Kamii's cafeteria, nothing close to what's served at Anteiku, but it's not like he can get her a smoothie.

Talking to Touka over coffee is a lot easier than Hide expected. He knows (even though he can't admit to it) that she and he live in different worlds. His has been blessed. Hers has not. And yet, they've been wounded in the same way by the same person. They're in a way reflections of one another, gazing at what they could have been and seeing what they already are. Hide has known Kaneki longer, but Touka knows what Kaneki is better.

Hide can't imagine it, the hunger for human flesh, to be able to look at a person (breathing, laughing, living) and see food. It's a horror he can barely understand. It just doesn't seem real. But it's been Touka's reality since she was born, and it's Kaneki's life now.

Hide doesn't really mean to, but they end up talking about Kaneki. Kaneki was an inevitable subject to turn to. Hide tells her about Kaneki's childhood and the bulling their friend endured. Hide mentions the play Kaneki once took the lead role in. Hide divulges to her about their friend's chin rubbing habit. It's a secret and very personal, but it seems right somehow to share these stories. Kaneki connects the two of them, human and ghoul.

For all that Hide and Touka are virtually strangers (coffee shop interactions aside, Hide can't really claim to know her) Touka is easy to talk to. It's as if they had been friends since childhood. Hide is reminded again that there was a reason that he had hit on her during his previous visits to Anteiku, beyond her cute looks. He had seen it then, her passion, her vulnerability, her humanity despite her species. And Kaneki had seen it too.

And Kaneki is such an idiot making both of them worry. Can't that dork see? Can't he see how much they care about him? Hide wants to scream at Kaneki not just for his own sake, but for Touka's too. Touka is more than just Kaneki's coworker, she's Kaneki's friend, the same as Hide. And if that idiot hadn't run off, Hide was willing to bet that they could have hung out all three of them together.

Or maybe not, since both Touka and Kaneki were trying to hide the giant man-eating secret in the closet.

Hide's sick of it. He's sick of the hiding, of the secrets. He's sick of being kept in the dark, but even more so, he's sick of being the one doing the hiding. He wanted to come clean to Kaneki, to let his best friend know that Hide had been awake when Nishio-sempai attacked, and had been awake after. Damn it all to hell, but Hide just wants to tell Kaneki that he isn't scared of ghouls, just please come home!

But Kaneki isn't here. Touka is. She's right here in front of Hide. Their conversation eventually winds down, and as she stands to leave (back to her life away from humanity, but still within it) Hide finds himself grabbing her wrist. It's a spur of the moment decision, one that he can still choose not to make, because it's stupid, and he's going to get himself killed.

“What's wrong?” Touka asked, more curious than anything else. Her wrist is tiny in his grip, fragile like bird bones, but Hide knows better. He's been with the CCG long enough. He's taken the basic training. The bone and sinew he grasps at are far stronger than the ones under his own skin.

“I know,” he whispered, knowing that she could hear him even though his pitch is too low for a human to register. Her hand flexes slightly in his grip, but she doesn't pull away.

“Know what?” she asked, her voice still within normal range. But there's something a little cold in her tone, humanity peeled away just slightly to reveal a wary predator. Hide searched her face, and spotted it. Touka is giving him an out, a chance to brush his words off as a joke.

He doesn't take it.

“I know,” Hide repeated. He's still too afraid to say it out loud, so after a quick glance to make sure no one is around, he curves his free hand back and up, the classic hand sign for kagune.

Touka is frozen, her eyes narrowed and her skin pale. She looks caught between shock and rage, a cornered predator transformed into prey. He smiles shakily at her, letting go of her hand and allowing his arms drop to his sides. He feels not quite free, but rather untethered and lost. She can kill him at any time, and he knows she's thinking about it to protect her secret. It's written all over her face. Hide would be lying if he said he wasn't scared.

Touka would be lying if she said she wasn't scared. She lived most of her short life with the conviction to kill humans that found out about her secret. It's safer that way.

But Touka remembers a human woman sitting up from an altar, her eyes wide with wonder.

'How beautiful.'

Touka looks around her. The area is mostly deserted, and it wouldn't be hard to herd Hide into a more secluded alley, and rip out his throat. It would be easy. But Hide's not running. And she knows from what Kaneki has told her about his friend that Hide is scarily clever. He has to see that he's in a loosing situation. Why hasn't he tried to escape? What he's doing now is as good as a rabbit rolling over belly up for a wolf. He should have never said anything to her.

“You're just as much of a damn idiot as Kaneki is,” Touka blurted out, unable to help herself.

Hide grinned, sunshine bright, “Yeah.”

Touka paused, unsure. By now, she knows she can't kill him. It would be...wrong.

“What will you do now?” she murmured, her eyes cast down to the ground. Hide laughed, the bright sound startling her.

“Nothing, Touka-chan,” Hide replied, that sunny smile still firmly in place, “Just because I know about...about that, it doesn't mean anything has to change. You're still you.”

Hide paused for a moment, his smile dimming, becoming softer, more thoughtful.

“That's what I want to tell Kaneki,” Hide confessed sheepishly, “He's still him. And I don't care about all the rest. He's still my friend. And for the sake of that friendship, I'd like to be your friend too. If you let me.”

Touka stared at him, dumbfounded. Slowly, very slowly, she smiled.

“I'd like that.”

Hide is not really surprised with how little things change. He has school and a part time job. So does Touka. Kaneki is doing who the fuck knows. The difference is that now Hide and Touka can bitch together about Kaneki's absence. It's rather therapeutic.

Between their busy schedules, Hide and Touka find time to hang out. They talk about Kaneki, but not always. Usually, their conversation drifts to other things like rabbits, school, and their favorite movies. Hide and Touka have similar tastes in reading material which is not depressing horror novels. They trade manga back and forth, and watch anime together.

Having Touka as a friend is different from Kaneki. It's not lesser because of that difference, just something new. In some ways, Touka is easier to understand than Kaneki. She's more vocal where Kaneki was always quiet. It makes her easier to read. Her interests actually line up better with Hide's. They like action and adventure, comedy, and mystery—neither one of them enjoys tragedy.

Touka is also more difficult to understand than Kaneki. She's a girl and a ghoul, so that's to be expected. She likes sappy shoujo which makes Hide roll his eyes. She's a a literal man-eater—it's just weird that she'll spend ages cooing over sparkly drawings and sweet romances. But then again, it's not so weird, because Hide doesn't see the monster the CCG label her as. When she bends over her homework, determined to get into Kamii, she looks like any other high school girl, and a high school girl is hundreds of times more baffling than a ghoul.

And then, there's the ways in which Touka is the same as Kaneki. It's in her eyes. She's experienced too much loss.

Touka is a creature grounded in reality. She knows that horrible things happen each day and that there are no happy endings. At best, there are good moments, brief and fleeting, before they are cruelly ripped away. Happiness only exists to make the pain sharper and the sorrow more bitter. Loss is part of life, and if you want anything you have to take it. Touka is cold because she cannot be anything else if she wants to survive.

If Touka was a character in a fairy tale, she wouldn't be the brave heroine or the blushing princess. Touka is the dragon, a beast of hunger and cruelty, viscous and strong. There is no happy ending for her.

But for all that Touka is a monster, she is also a girl. She likes cute rabbits and fusses over her appearance. She can care and love. And she can be hurt.

Kaneki has wounded her. He did it easily, without realizing what it was that he had done. She barely understood it herself. But even if she doesn't really understand, it doesn't change the fact that there is a hole in her that she can't fill, not with coffee, nor work, nor human flesh. She's bleeding out, and it's all Kaneki's fault.

Kaneki's fault. All his fault. He left and she's hurting, and the idiot didn't even know what he has done. Touka learned harshness young. Happiness only exists to make the pain more unbearable.

Yet, despite all her experience, Touka still hopes. She wants to have some sliver of happiness, something that is hers. Hide helped that hope flourish. It wasn't the same as having Kaneki back, but Hide was someone to talk to without having to lie. She can see why Kaneki considered the blond special. Hide is light and laughter, but more importantly, Hide is acceptance. Hide makes Touka believe that there's such a thing as a happy ending. That everything could be alright.

Hide is like Yoriko, but different. They're both precious humans to Touka, but Hide knows. Touka doesn't have to hide a thing around him. She can take off her mask around him, both the literal and metaphysical ones. He's the first human she could ever let her guard down around. Even in the face of her inhumanity, he's friendly and easy to get along with. Hide's also scarily clever and scarily foolish in turns. She figured it was because he was a boy. Kaneki was like that too, intelligent and idiotic all at once.

Hide was a friend, like he promised.

Touka, the girl, hopes. She can imagine a world where Kaneki is back in Anteiku and the three of them (Hide, Touka, and Kaneki) are laughing together over coffee.

Touka, the ghoul, is waiting for the other shoe to drop.

In all honesty, Touka expected that the first person to get to confront Kaneki would be Hide. Between her and Hide, Hide was the understanding one, the nice one, and the one Kaneki has known the longest. And while Kaneki may or may not have cared about them in equal amounts, Hide was the safe one to unload problems onto. Touka was far too rash. Really, if Kaneki ever mustered up the courage to talk to anyone about the shit-storm that was his life, it should have been Hide.

But Kaneki never did gather his courage to go back to those he left behind. Instead, Touka is chasing him down trying to stop him before he disappears from her life again. She catches him, and for a moment she's stuck. She wants to greet him casually, as if nothing had changed. She wants to grab him in a fierce hug and cry.

She should have come to him as an innocent maiden or the fairytale princess. She tries to talk to him calmly, but then he touches his chin.

“As long as you're never alone,” Kaneki says, his dark nailed fingers curling gently under his face, his eyes closed, “then it's fine.”

Liar.

He's hiding something from her. It's not fine. He's not fine. He hasn't been fine for months. He's a fucking liar, and it fucking pisses her off. Furious, she rages at him like the dragon she is. He catches her first punch neatly, a move he would have never been able to pull off a few months ago. It only serves to piss her off more. (What happened to that soft bookworm?) She yells at him and attacks him viciously.

How dare he! How dare he make decisions for her! For them! Her and Hide! How dare he think that by leaving he was protecting them. As if running away and leaving them alone, they'd somehow still be alright. Even if she and Hide found each other, they still needed Kaneki. Kaneki was the bridge, the halfbreed between the human and the ghoul. And even beyond that, Kaneki was their precious person. He was loved, why couldn't the idiot see that?

Hide is the nice one, the understanding one—Hide wouldn't beat Kaneki the way she is now, even if the idiot half-ghoul needed it. Touka punches Kaneki for Hide. She punches Kaneki for herself. She punches Kaneki for Kaneki so that the idiot could see sense.

“Why?” she cried brokenly, memories of a smiling dark-haired waiter and Hide's stories of a shy bullied boy clamoring in her head, “Why did you have to change?”

She's so disgusted, so angry (and so very sad—she's crying, when did she start crying?) that she has to leave. She's wanted nothing more than to see Kaneki face to face for ages, but she has to leave him there. Maybe it'll teach the idiot how it feels to be the one left behind for once.

Once she's in her apartment by herself again, she lets her legs buckle beneath her.

“He definitely won't be coming back,” she whispered miserably to the empty room, and curses herself. Blindly, she reaches for her phone (the one that sports a certain chubby rabbit charm) and dials, her hands on automatic.

“Hey, Touka-chan!” Hide's cheery voice greeted her, “What's up?”

Touka bit her bottom lip before responding.

“I saw him,” she confided quietly, knowing that Hide would know exactly who she was talking about, “And I'm an idiot.”

Hide feels like an idiot, but he has no idea how to tell Touka that he works for the CCG. He figures it would be a good idea to come clean about it as quickly as possible. Telling her should be quick, if a bit painful. It shouldn't be so hard though.

It's ridiculously difficult, like climbing a mountain with chopsticks.

Every time he's about to tell her the words stick in his throat. Hide joined the CCG because he knew ghouls were responsible for Kaneki's disappearance, and the only way for a human to get any info on ghouls was through the CCG. She would understand, probably. But still, the CCG kills her kind, just as her kind kills his kind. But despite that, Hide thinks they can still be friends. They'll only be enemies if they let it happen.

(Maybe his mindset is warped from reading too many shonen manga, but he wants this friendship to work, for his sake, for her sake, and for Kaneki's too.)

But fate is conspiring against them, and the whole CCG is abuzz about the 20th Ward. Their old nemesis, the One-Eyed Owl, is there. Owl is hiding in the 20th Ward. Except there's murmurs about how there's two Owls, and things are complicated. There's too many questions and not enough answers, but it's enough to know that there is an Owl is hiding in the 20th ward, and even better they know exactly where.

Anteiku.

Hide calls Touka as soon as he can get to a secluded place.

“Touka, you need to warn everyone,” Hide blurted out quickly as soon as she answered the phone, not even waiting for the usual greetings.

“Hide?” her voice is tinny over the phone, “What's going on?”

“The CCG is going to raid Anteiku,” Hide explained quickly, his heart beating double time, “I don't think they know too many specifics, but they know Owl is there, and they're going to attack.”

Her voice is soft, but there is a layer of panic under it, “How do you know this?”

This is not how Hide wanted to tell her.

“I have a part-time job at the CCG,” Hide got out, distressed, “I'm sorry, I should have told you, but please, Touka, you have to believe me! I'm on your side, and you've got to run!”

The line goes dead.

“Damn it!” Hide cursed, resisting the urge to throw the phone against the wall.

He punches the wall instead. It doesn't make him feel any better.

Hide didn't know what he expected when the CCG rolled up to Anteiku. He was hoping that they would find an empty building, but that was just wishful thinking. Hide's an optimist, but he's also a realist. If the CCG walked in and found nothing, then that's just a sure-fire way to start up a witch hunt. The CCG will never rest until they got Owl, not when they've finally gotten so close.

Hide comes along with the CCG to the raid. He's supposed to just be Investigator Marude's assistant in the command center. Hide can hear all the commands flying around, and tries his best to keep track of who is going where. He has a great view of the whole battle, thanks to the screens that are displaying numerous angles. In fact, one of those screens is showing a clear view of Anteiku's storefront.

Hide expected it, but he still gets a sinking feeling in his stomach when he sees a crowd of masked ghouls standing on the shop's rooftop. He prays that Touka isn't one of them.

There isn't much that Hide can do, other than stand witness. He doesn't see the faces of any of the ghouls, but he can't help but envision the faces of Anteiku's staff. And when Owl (Non-Killing Owl, not One-Eye) steps onto the battlefield, Hide feels sick. He knows Anteiku's manager, and knows that the older ghoul is sacrificing himself so that others could flee.

But Hide's unease at seeing the manager is nothing compared to the horror he feels when he hears the shout go out.

“It's Centipede!”

Kaneki.

Touka is packing her things, per Yomo's demands, when her phone rings. The rabbit charm dances with the vibrations, and without thinking, she answers it.

“Hello?”

“Touka-chan, you have to help,” a gasping voice panted into the phone as if its owner was running.

“Hide,” Touka murmured, recognizing the voice. She's torn. On one hand, Hide is working for the CCG. On the other, he's the one who warned Anteiku so at least some of them could survive.

“Please,” Hide begged, “It's Kaneki. He's here.”

“What?” Touka hissed, startled, “He's supposed to be hiding with Hinami! What is he doing?”

“I don't know, but he's in trouble,” Hide growled into the phone, “Please, you're the only one I can turn to. Help me save him!”

Yomo is waiting for her at the doorway, but Touka has already knows what she's going to do. Nothing can change her mind.

“Hide? Where can I meet you?”

Kaneki's thoughts are a chaotic mess. He's known it for awhile that his mind was deteriorating, but he's never realized how bad it's become. He's hallucinating—Rize and Yamori are clawing at him, demanding his flesh and blood.

No, that's not quite right...

'Mine...mine mine mine!'

Cold hands grasped at him, like claws and hunger.

Kaneki yelled, and bashed his head against the wall, “Get away from me!”

Rize and Yamori. They're here and they want control.

“Get out, get out! It's MINE!

But that's impossible because they can't be here. (They're not real. Nothing is real...who is—who is Kaneki Ken?)

'You're going to fucking die like this!'

He's wounded, he isn't healing, and he's starving. He's never felt so out of control.

“Get out of my BODY!”

Kaneki's screaming and his kagune are bursting from his back like a mad flower in full bloom. It's like his mind is rotting from the inside, black tacky sludge laced with broken glass replacing his brain. As his own shrieks reverberate through his ears, a single coherent thought weaves its way into his shattered mind.

'I wasn't the one eating ghouls...The one being eaten was me.'

Kaneki has turned himself into a monster in a way Kanou's experiment never could.

“aaaAAAAAAAHHhhhh!”

And then, a voice.

“Yo, Kaneki! What's with the getup?”

Kaneki knows that voice, even as his mind rots and decays. He knows it, and it shouldn't be here!

“Hi...de?” the thing that used to be Kaneki Ken croaked as it turned a kakuja masked face towards the scent of home, comfort, and meat.

His vision was swimming, but his nose worked perfectly. There were two sources to that wonderful smell. Home, home, home...flesh, human and ghoul!

“Tou...ka.”

Hide had heard about the partial kakuja called Centipede. The rumors of the SS-rate ghoul spread like wildfire in the CCG office. The ghoul's strength was frightening, being able to not only damage the famous Arata armor, but to eat it. But it was the stories of Centipede's madness that were chilling. If Hide didn't have proof right before him, he wouldn't have been able to connect the crazed ghoul to his soft-spoken friend.

“All this time...you've had to suffer like this,” Hide muttered, his heart hurting, as he stepped forward. But before he could take a single step more, a strong slim hand was grabbing his elbow and pulling him backwards.

Touka.

“Don't touch him!” Touka yelled, pulling Hide back, “He can't control himself right now!”

Hide looked back at Kaneki. There was a melon sized hole in the half-ghoul's abdomen. If Kaneki had still been human, he would have already been dead.

Hide bit his lip, “But—”

“Idiot!” Touka snapped, worry stamped all over her face, “If he accidentally hurt you, do you think he would ever forgive himself? Do you think he would be able to survive that? Think, Hide!”

Hide sucked in a breath. Oh.

“H-Hide? To-Touka...” Kaneki mumbled, barely coherent as his kagune twisted wildly in the air, “L...Leave me.”

“As if we would do that either!” Touka snarled as she marched over to the fallen half-ghoul, shoving Hide securely behind her, “Hide, go back topside. See if you can find a corpse. Even a chopped off limb will do. Just don't get caught.”

“R-Right!” Hide saluted before scrambling off. In the meantime, Touka knelt down next to Kaneki, studying his kakuja mask.

“Hey,” Touka whispered in a gentle voice as she reached out to Kaneki. He flinched back, just as her fingertips grazed the edge of the hard black mask.

“D-don't you—hate me?” Kaneki asked brokenly, “A-and why is H-Hide—You're not real. You can't—can't be here!”

He whimpered, the sound distorted—damaged just like the rest of him.

“Stupid Kaneki,” Touka murmured, grasping the sides of Kaneki's neck and pulling him into a hug. He struggled weakly as she pressed his mouth against her shoulder. Kaneki was too injured and too needy to fight for long. He lay panting against her, struggling against the maddening hunger.

“Eat,” Touka ordered gently as she ran her fingers through matted white hair, “Hide will be back soon with more.”

With a soft sob, Kaneki bit down.

Sometime later, Kaneki blinked open tired eyes, his ears filled with the soft banter of his friends.

“—could have done it, you know!” came Hide's voice.

“You squishy humans can't heal worth a damn,” Touka's voice retorted tartly, “I can. I'll be fine in a few days, without permanent damage.”

“You should have waited. We can't really afford to have both of you wounded,” Hide sighed resignedly.

Kaneki groaned and carefully sat up to face his two friends. Both of them were wearing the dark combat suits the CCG investigators had been sporting, along with a few stray pieces of the body armor. Touka was clutching at a bleeding shoulder, her face pale and grimacing. Despite her injury, both she and Hide smiled when they noticed Kaneki was awake.

“Hey, man, feel better?” Hide greeted. Kaneki didn't answer, and instead stared at Touka's wound, his body shaking.

“Did I do that?” Kaneki whispered, his face ashen. The others traded silent looks.

“It's fine,” Touka scoffed, brushing off Kaneki's concern with a cocky smirk, “I'm a ghoul. It'll heal.”

“But—!”

“It's payback for when I bit you at that church,” Touka interrupted before Kaneki could protest more, “Sorry that I don't taste very good. We got you some human meat to cover the taste.”

He could tell. The gentle sweetness of human blood lingered in his mouth, just hiding the overripe flavor of ghoul in the back of his throat. That taste...that was Touka.

Kaneki looked up at his two friends, his expression tortured and full of self-loathing.

“Oi, Kaneki,” Hide butted in, his arms crossed, “Don't you dare feel guilty. We're here to save you, so don't complain. The only thing you're allowed to do is cry 'Save me! Save me!' while we carry you out of here.”

That startled the half-ghoul out of his self-pity.

Kaneki snorted, faintly offended, “As if I would—”

“You heard him!” Touka snapped as she threw a bundle of dark cloth at him, “Put this on and be our damsel, shitty Kaneki, or I'll kill you.”

Kaneki gaped at her while Hide snickered in the background.

Touka glared when she noticed he wasn't moving, “Did I stutter? Get dressed!”

Too bewildered to deny her, Kaneki did as he was told. The clothes turned out to be a CCG uniform, same as what Hide and Touka were wearing.

“I don't understand,” Kaneki whispered as he tried to pull together his scattered thoughts into some semblance of order.

Hide gave Kaneki a funny look, and Touka snorted.

“Don't worry about that right now,” Touka ordered curtly, “We've got to get moving."

“Right now the plan is to pretend to be injured investigators,” Hide explained as Kaneki finished zipping up the CCG outfit, “Investigator Marude has sealed off all the exits. The CCG is aiming for a complete extermination, and the only way out is through CCG lines.”

“What about Irimi-san and Koma-san?” Kaneki asked as he jammed on a helmet to cover his distinctive hair, “They and the others were headed to V14. Maybe we can go that way too.”

Hide turned pale, “V14? No—that's the worst place to be!”

Kaneki turned wide gray eyes to meet horrified brown ones, “But they're already down there!”

Hide's face turned grim, “Then they're dead. Arima was assigned V14. We can warn others not to go down there, but V14 is a death trap! We're not going there.”

“I agree,” Touka sighed, though she didn't look happy about it, “We can't do anything to help the ones that are already down there. We're too injured to go against the Reaper. I'll make some calls. Hopefully, someone has their phone, and we can spread the word.”

“Meanwhile, we're going to double back into CCG lines,” Hide explained, “We're too weak to fight our way through, but things are chaotic, and we should be able to slip by wearing these outfits. Just keep your helmets on and your heads low, and we can escape. We can't do anything for anyone if we're dead.”

As they got ready to leave, Kaneki grabbed Hide's arm, stopping the human momentarily.

“Hide?” Kaneki began in a weak voice, “I need to know. H-how did you you find out?”

Hide's face froze in surprise before morphing into a brilliant smile. For a moment, Kaneki was stunned, as if he had looked into the cornea of the sun. Hide's free hand came up to squeeze Kaneki's shoulder reassuringly.

“I knew the whole time!” Hide replied that bright grin in full display, “I don't care about that. Let's just go home.”

“Home...” Kaneki echoed, looking between his two friends, the ones he thought he had to leave, the ones he thought he didn't deserve. It's surreal seeing both of them here together. A human and a ghoul, their hands outstretched to him...This is what he had lost. It had been here the whole time. His eyes burned faintly, and he blinked back wetness. What a fool he had been.

Touka and Hide shared a quick knowing look. Wordlessly, they each took one of Kaneki's hands, one on each side. Kaneki smiled at them. It wasn't quite the same smile from his past, but it was warm and real.

“Yeah,” Kaneki agreed, “Let's go home.”

The three of them had made it out of the sewers. There had been a few close calls, but the chaos of the battle and Touka's obviously ghoul inflicted wound had allowed them to slip past CCG barricades. Now, in the aftermath of the harrowing adventure where they still lost too much, the three youths were sprawled out in Hide's apartment, exhausted.

“So what now?” Kaneki asked in a tired voice.

“Go into hiding, like Yomo wanted, I guess,” Touka sighed from her position on the couch. The boys were lying on the floor, but both Hide and Kaneki had insisted that Touka take a more comfortable perch. If she hadn't been too tired to argue, she would have protested. Both her wound and Kaneki's had been cleaned and dressed, but overall all three of them were filthy from their time in the sewers. At least the meal had healed up the worst of the damage done to Kaneki's body. Sludge and blood were already streaking Hide's furniture, staining surfaces beyond repair.

“You two are probably going to have to change your looks,” Hide suggested as he stared up at the ceiling thoughtfully, “Kaneki especially. The CCG has your photo and name. They don't have Touka's name, so she won't have to change it, but Kaneki—”

“I'll figure something out,” the half-ghoul mumbled, “What about you Hide? Will you go back to the CCG?”

“That might be a good idea,” Hide mused, “The CCG will be on the lookout for you guys. I could help you hide. Maybe I can trick the system into thinking you're dead.”

“I might know someone who can help you,” Kaneki mumbled, his eyes half closed, “Tsukiyama's friend, Chie-san, has hacked the CCG before. If you coordinate with her, you could pull it off.”

“Going back to the CCG is dangerous, Hide,” Touka frowned, “If you get caught—”

“It won't be as nearly as bad if I get caught than if you and Kaneki get caught,” Hide pointed out, “I just face imprisonment. You guys get executed, or worse.”

“Still dangerous.”

Hide grinned, “I'll be careful. Just as you guys will be careful.”

“Yeah,” Touka smiled softly, “Yomo will be with us too, so it won't be so bad. But I worry about you.”

“Well, you'll still call, right? Maybe visit?” Hide checked, and then grinned with they nodded, “Besides, you guys don't need to be bouncing around forever. Once you establish your cover, come back. We'll rent a place together, the three of us.”

“Is that wise?” Kaneki questioned warily, but he wasn't able to hide his interest in the idea.

“It's brilliant, actually,” Hide bragged, “I'll be a ghoul investigator. What sort of investigator lives with ghouls?”