Silvery flakes drifted down, glittering in the bright light of the moon. Aside from the brown of the trees, the only other color was the vivid saffron staining around the base of each lamppost and tree. The park was covered in a thick blanket of white and Kankei pondered.
He should have never let Hide into the apartment. Or was it before that? Regret was a form of punishment itself. But introspection was one of his greatest assets, so he could not help but think.
Rize was the beginning, the genesis. He loved her curves of softness. The woman he saw at the table that day, sipping on her coffee, could have graced any billboard or magazine cover. She was beautiful in the classical way and if the gods were real, Kaneki told himself, then this woman was their masterpiece. Surely nothing so pretty could possibly harm you, right?
Rize taught him that day that love was not soft, like those poets said. Love had teeth, which bite and the wounds never closed.
But if Rize was the beginning, Hide was the catalyst.
It was a sunny day when they allowed him to leave the hospital and Hide was waiting for him in front of his apartment.
“Kaneki!” Hide greeted. It did not escape him that Hide was carrying a medium sized duffel bag, but as always, all his focus was on Hide. He wondered how Hide could do it sometimes. Hide’s smile was earnest and true, his eyes crinkled at the corners. As a person whom happiness did everything in its power to avoid, Hide could light up the room with his presence.
“Hide… What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to congratulate you on your discharge, of course.” Hide replied. Expectant eyes looked at him and all Kaneki could do is unlock the door and motion him in. “I present to you some of the finest leftovers to have graced my house, along with your favorite hamburgers.”
He had exactly one second to lament over the poor state of his apartment, before a plastic bag was placed in his hand. Kaneki peeked inside the bag and sure enough, everything was in there. What also stared up at him was a piece of paper with a drawn stick figure, waving at him with a smile.
“You shouldn’t have.” Kaneki said. In reality, it was everything he could say. There was this warm feeling flowing through him now and it was so strong that he judged it improper. All Hide had done was bring him food and draw him a stick figure.
“Nonsense.” Hide dismissed him and plopped on his bed. The gesture was so natural that that feeling only expanded in Kaneki’s chest. He set the bag on the counter, before taking out a hamburger. He wanted to sit close to Hide, but settled for dragging a chair, turning it around and sitting with his arms on the backrest.
“When you feel up for it, come to school again.” Hide said, as Kaneki took a bite from his hamburger. “Say Kaneki, do you want to have a sleepover, like when we were kids? You just got discharged, so I thought you might want some company-“
Kaneki bolted from his chair, almost tripping on his feet before he collapsed in front of the toilet. Dry heaves shook his frame, but the real war was with his own mind because that could not be, that could not be-
(Their tongues function in a way different from ours. Should they attempt to consume human food, they’d just be left with an incredibly awful after taste.)
-happening to him what will he do, why did everything always happened to him-
Kaneki felt a hand on his shoulder and sure enough there he was. Worry swam in Hide's eyes, but the grip he had on Kaneki’s shoulder was unyielding, a steady weight pulling him back. Kaneki felt his breathing even out. He let Hide guide him out of the bathroom and to the bed. He felt Hide’s hand on his forehead, brushing a few loose strands. Kaneki closed his eyes.
“Just stay there for a while,” Hide said, as Kaneki curled in on himself. Hide already sounded far away. “Must be food poisoning or something. I’ll be back with some meds.”
(Ghouls are only able to derive their nutrition from human organs.)
Kaneki closed his eyes.
It was dark inside his room and someone was holding him. Opening his eyes seemed monumentally difficult, but he knew this warmth, this steady heartbeat he knew them all.
God Kaneki loved to be touched by him – his face, his hands, the way Hide’s body fit with his own. Hide’s warmth would seep into his being and he comforted Kaneki without even opening his mouth. If this was happiness, Kankei wanted to hold on tight and never let go.
That was the danger. At the end of it all caring was what hurt most of all. And there was one person he absolutely refused to lose.
“Hello, welcome to Anteiku – Hide?!”
His eyes must be deceiving him. Surely it was a mirage; Kaneki had read once that a lack of sleep could even cause hallucinations. It all felt so very real though – the startled breath Kaneki took in his lungs felt real, other customers’ eyes on them was real and most importantly, Hide’s mad look was directed at him.
“Kaneki!” Hide yelled, shaking him by the arms. “How long are you gonna stay cooped up in your house?! You’re even skipping classes now? I messaged you so many times! Do you know how rough it is for me when you shut yourself in?!”
It really was unbelievable. Kaneki had gone to great lengths to ensure they would not meet. His latest plan was to drop out of college; their worlds were too different. If Hide would interpret his actions as cruel, then so be it. At least he would be safe.
“Hello, earth to Kaneki?” Brown eyes locked on his own. This time he found it impossible to look away.
“Hide I’m sorry.” Kaneki said, touching one of Hide’s hands. He allowed himself to take in Hide’s appearance and sure enough, there were faint dark circles under Hide’s eyes. He remembered the nausea pills from weeks ago, waiting for him on the nightstand. As promised, Hide had bought them for him. Had even written a note for him. His childhood may be something he would honestly rather forget, but he could not think of a moment when he was sad and Hide did not know about it.
And now he had troubled the person in his life that mattered most.
Kaneki wrapped an arm around Hide’s shoulders and pulled him close. This was the hug of gentle arms that still gave the space to breathe – this was Hide.
“What is this? What are we doing?’’
‘’It’s a hug. I’m hugging you. It’s what people do when they care about each other?’’
Perhaps it had all been a terrible idea. Kaneki was seconds away from pulling back, when he felt a gentle gush of air pass by his neck.
Hide laughed at me. He seriously laughed at me.
The arms around him tightened just the tiniest bit as Hide snuggled in. There was the hug of gentle arms that still gave the space to breathe; then there was the hug of arms that told everything that you are –body, brain and soul– that they were with you.
“Promise not to avoid me again?” Hide whispered in his ear.
The safest place for Hide was as far away from him as possible. But would it honestly be so bad if he had something for himself? Life was tough. People suffered. Would it be so bad if he allowed himself to take, just this once? He was not strong enough. With Hide tucked away in his arms, he simply could not do what was right.
“I have a better idea,” Kaneki said, as they parted. “We never had that sleepover. How about you drop by tonight? Maybe even spend the weekend. What do you say?”
“Kaneki yes!” Hide yelled, just as cheering erupted from all around them. Kaneki’s heart jumped in his throat and he looked around, only to find everyone in the cafe clapping at them. An old woman even had a handkerchief out, wiping away tears.
He could pick up broken pieces of conversation.
“Ah young love, there’s nothing like it wouldn’t you say?”
“Indeed, so beautiful. Sparks so much joy!”
“I concur, ladies. You ought to regret not seeing me when I was their age.”
“Shut the fuck up Becky, you always do this. This is why we can’t have nice things.”
Kaneki felt the heat growing in his cheeks. He was not sure he had the social skills to set the situation straight without causing lethal levels of embarrassment for everyone involved. Moreover, he became aware of how little Hide minded. He surveyed the crowd with a smile brighter than the sun, one hand loosely resting on Kaneki’s waist, so Kaneki allowed himself a small smile.
A small figure that he instantly recognized retreated for the back door. Kaneki did not have the time to see Touka’s expression.
Looking back, Kaneki could not pinpoint the exact moment Hide started living with him.
There was always an excuse for him not to go. The weather is bad, why don’t you spend the night? I found this old movie, why don’t we watch it together? You can’t leave today, we have not finished the video game yet. One day Kaneki offered to go with Hide to pick up some necessities and Hide smiled his brilliant smile and just said: “I thought you’d never ask.”
It was one of those nights, sleep eluded him no matter what he did, but that was alright. Kaneki watched Hide’s soft features and wondered how he got so lucky. He was just about to caress Hide’s cheek when his eyes flew open. They stared at each other, Kaneki’s hand still in the air before he unceremoniously lowered it.
“Santa.” was all Hide whispered, like they shared a crucial secret to humanity's success.
“… Santa?” Kaneki questioned, but the blanket was already off both of them.
“Hide!” Kaneki rushed after him, wondering just how in the world could Hide run that fast. It was indeed Christmas Day, but the clock on the nightstand informed him that it was also only 4:12 AM.
“Hide,” Kaneki started, entering the living room. “It’s four in the morning. Don’t you think it’s too early to open up Christmas gifts? At least let me make a cup of coffee first. We don’t even have kids-“
Hide sat near the Christmas Tree, holding the gift Kaneki carefully finished wrapping up for him only mere hours ago. He had trouble choosing; there had been two good ideas battling in his mind for months on end. The light of the Christmas Tree basked the whole room. At Hide’s request, the Tree was pure white –“I’ve never had a white Christmas Tree before, Kaneki.”– over-sized baubles of different colors hung from the branches. And he was the subject of Hide’s undivided attention.
“Kaneki, are you okay?” Hide said. “You’re staggering.”
And yet, there was a subtle but certain beauty in finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. It was four AM, the town was asleep and he was right where he was supposed to be.
“Well now, you’re quite handsome yourself.’’ Kaneki traversed the room and sat close to Hide. He could not contain his laughter when Hide’s eyebrows shot up and disappeared in his hair.
“You goof.” Hide laughed with him. Kaneki brought their lips together, felt Hide’s body loosen and arms touch his shoulders. A small, yet warm kiss. Kaneki rested their foreheads together.
Rize had taught him that love had teeth and the wounds never closed.
But love was tender, love was kind. Hide had made him aware of a hidden loneliness always lurking beneath his skin. How could he ever go back to how he was?
“For… always being by my side, ever since we were young. Thank you. I don’t think I’ve ever said it.”
“You don’t have to thank me for that.” Hide replied, but his hand squeezed a fraction tighter over Kaneki’s and it occurred to him he really did have to say it. Words had power. Words could light fires in the minds of men.
Hide seemed to know him better than he knew himself. Kaneki always had a sneaking suspicion, but after he unwrapped his present, he became certain.
“Death Wish Coffee,” Kaneki said, holding the black package. “The World's Strongest Coffee.”
“Pretty cool, huh?” Hide laughed. He had the new pair of headphones Kaneki gifted him around his neck already. Kaneki did not understand it, as they were indoors and it was also four AM, but he chucked it as one of universe’s many mysteries.
“The skull is a nice touch I admit.” Kaneki replied. Whoever was in charge of the design should be promoted, in Kaneki’s honest opinion.
“Well what are we waiting for?” Hide was already on his feet, way too excited about coffee with a skull on its surface. “Let’s try it!”
Kaneki had tried not to get his hopes up. He was after all working at Anteiku. Yoshimura already showed him how Good Coffee is supposed to taste like. But he took a sip from his cup and he was positively blown away.
“It balances acidity and bitterness! It doesn’t taste burnt, charred, or raw, it doesn’t taste bland either, it’s incredible!” Kaneki had expected it to taste like roadkill, but this coffee had the richest taste he had ever encountered.
“Oh nice! Give me a sip.”
“Hide, you know you usually drink lattes, correct?”
“Kaneki, are you saying I am too weak for your Death Wish Coffee, is this what you’re saying to me right now?”
He had to bite his lips. He would not smile. He could not. Hide looked like a man on a mission.
“No, no, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that your taste in coffee is already formed and-”
Hide grabbed the coffee cup from his hand and took a sip. The beginning was so promising; perhaps Kaneki was too quick to judge. But just as the sun rose in the East and banging your head against a wall burned 150 calories an hour, Hide’s eyebrows furrowed and his mouth scrunched up. He looked like he was seconds away from crying.
“Hide… are you okay?”
Kaneki saw something in Hide’s eyes shift.
“Am I okay? Am I okay?! No I’m not okay! Kaneki! It tastes like… death. There is death in my mouth Kaneki how will I ever be okay, why are you laughing?!”
Kaneki wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. He looked at Hide. He finally felt at home.
Snow danced in the light, a choreographed ballet conducted by the wind. It was like the park had been put to bed, hushed under a silence that Kaneki himself did not dare to break. Breath pale against the numbing air, he gazed at the snow in front of him.
Perhaps his mistake was unrelated to letting Hide into the apartment that day. Perhaps his mistake was becoming accustomed to falling asleep while being held and waking up to a fresh cup of coffee in the morning. Or maybe it was expecting Hide’s touches, like a hand at the small of his back when Hide walked past him. Perhaps his mistake was his ability to recognize Hide by the sound of his footsteps alone. Or maybe his mistake was wanting it to last forever. Or wanting at all.
He had maybe a couple of hours left before the CCG commenced their attack. He also knew that a lack of commitment for one’s current course of action resulted in their defeat. All Kaneki’s life he had believed the world was a stage. He was getting tired of acting.
Kaneki flinched and turned around. “What are you doing here?” danced at the tip of his tongue before he remembered where he was. Kaneki lost count of how many times they played together in the park and looked at the stars. The park was his favorite place to gather his thoughts, but the park was also Hide’s.
Hide rested on the bench beside him, welcoming the snow as if it were a feather cushion, soft and warm. He seemed content with the silence – Hide always was. Unless he felt inclined to speak, Hide never prodded him. Kaneki balled his hands into fists.
“Hide you should go home. It’s cold tonight.”
Kaneki could not help but grimace at the word. Home was a place of sanctity and warmth. Safety. And in the morning hell would be unleashed upon their territory.
“I need you to leave town for a couple of days. Maybe even more.”
“I will.” Hide looked at him. “Just tell me why.”
Kaneki saw nothing but the same open honesty he came to expect from Hide. That gaze told him that he would wait as long as Kaneki needed, yet the words would not come. Could he really curse Hide with the knowledge of what ghouls were? Could he rob him of his life as Hide knew it?
Hide let out a sigh.
“Kaneki, I know.”
“You…” Kaneki took a small breath. Thinking something did not mean it was true. He willed himself to relax and try again. “What do you know?”
“That you’re a ghoul of course, what else?” Hide said, not missing a beat. “I mean, come on, I know ghoul senses are much keener than a human’s, but did you really think I wouldn’t notice that you never eat at home, but you always have a reason why? Or what about that time you came home with a cut deep enough it needed stitches and the next day it wasn’t even there anymore? Or that time I cut myself while cooking and you bolted out of the room?”
And all this time he had thought he was being clever.
“You knew…” Kaneki whispered, getting a small hum of acknowledgement for his efforts. The fact that Hide seemed to be waiting for him to catch up struck him funny, so he couldn't help but laugh.
Hide grinned at him.
The world did not come crushing down around them. They still stood side by side, Hide was the same as always and Kaneki felt lighter than he felt in months.
“If you knew, why didn’t you say anything sooner?”
“I figured you would tell me if you wanted me to know.”
He wondered why he even asked. Kaneki felt his heart swell in his chest. He clutched at Hide's hand. Hide’s hand was freezing and he still had a decision to make.
“Nothing lasts forever, right?”
Silence surrounded them.
“Well Kaneki,” Hide said, leaning against the bench, “I guess it’s true what they say: it’s too good to last forever, but man, I’ll tell you,” he shook his head, “I really, really want to give it a shot. What do you say?”
All Kaneki’s life he had believed the world was a stage. Now he wondered what lay out there, beyond the footlights. They stood up.
Hide headed for the apartment.
Kaneki walked towards Anteiku.
In that frozen second between stand off and action, she saw her opponent’s eyes flicker from him to her. His face was unreadable, no fear, no invitation to movement.
Touka knew they were not coming back. They all knew. Nobody could change that now and nobody wanted to. Kaneki was never part of their world. They had Yoshimura and together they would all protect Anteiku.
She had the upper ground. She charged.