Tell-Tale Heart

Touka was itching to get off work early. The manager didn't fail to notice her hastiness; with a gentle smile and a nod, he allowed the young waitress to take her leave. Touka took off, flinging open the cafe's door with one hand and fumbling for her wallet in the other. Nishio hopped back and let out an angry, startled cry. She had nearly slammed the door into his face.

She ignored him and kept running. She had completely forgotten about Kaneki's birthday.

Though her father was long gone, the teachings he had instilled remained dear to her. Life wasn't just about receiving. She had to give. Touka had to admit that she had been warming up to Kaneki as of late. If she failed to give him a gift on his special day, she wouldn't be able to live it down. His gentle, meek nature reminded of Touka of her little brother Ayato, before he became twisted and vicious upon joining Aogiri.

Touka was grateful for Hinami keeping the half-ghoul occupied upstairs. There were always new kanji the girl was eager to learn. That'd buy Touka enough time to get something nice for Kaneki. Hopefully.

"Oh? Where are you off to in such a hurry?"

Touka shot a glare at Tsukiyama, who approached her from the opposite side of the street. She looked away and brushed off his inquiry. "None of your business, creep."

She heard a light chuckle from him and she ran on. Finally she found herself standing before the place she had been looking for: a thrift bookstore. She remembered hearing from Hinami that unlike most people who favored crisp, new books, Kaneki preferred keeping used copies. Apparently to him they felt treasured and antique, bestowed with a sense of timelessness. The yellowed pages, dog-eared flaps, and occasional scribbles on the margins...Kaneki minded none of those. To him, they served as a visceral reminder of those who had enjoyed the books before him.

Touka shook her head. She couldn't understand his idiosyncratic passion. Regardless, she was determined to please him.

The heavy musk of well-used books hit her nose as soon as she opened the door. Hardly anyone batted an eye upon her entrance; they were too busy poring over copies of books in their hands, or looking for titles stacked in rows upon rows of shelves.

Touka was no bookworm. She never felt the temptation to meander and aimlessly wander the store, wasting her time being distracted by a good title. She was set on getting the book she needed. But that was the problem. Which one? Where could she start? Touka frowned as she tried to remember. Didn't Kaneki say that his favorite author was Takatsuki? She quickly ruled that out of her options. He likely already owned and read all of her works. It'd be no use wasting money on an extra copy. Touka wanted to get him something new. He studied Japanese literature at the university...perhaps he wasn't well acquainted with other kinds of literature.

'Maybe I can try German or American...'

Touka wandered to the back of the store, to the aisle that housed the translations of foreign literature. It certainly felt foreign to her.

"Since when did you pick up an interest in this?"

Touka nearly jumped at the sudden voice from behind. She whirled around and scowled upon seeing Tsukiyama.

"That's unlike you, Touka," he remarked. "I was right to guess you were up to something unusual." His lips curled in amusement.

'Why the hell did he follow me here?' She had to make a quick mental note not to shout in a bookstore before she hissed back, "Shut up and leave me alone. I'm not here to get anything myself."

"So what are you in the bookstore for?" The ghoul infamously known as Gourmet answered his own question after pondering for a second. "Oh, I just remembered that it's Kaneki's birthday today. He told me that sometime ago. Given his biblophilia, you made a good choice coming here."

Touka said nothing in reply as she browsed the shelves with narrowed eyes.

Tsukiyama leaned in closer. "Perhaps I can offer a couple of recommendations? I daresay that Kaneki and I share a good taste in books."

"I can do this on my own, thank you very much," Touka huffed. "Besides, if you help me, then it wouldn't be my gift to Kaneki."

Tsukiyama shrugged. "Stubborn girl. Looking for non-Japanese books, hmm? I'll leave it at this, then. Try Edgar Allan Poe for starters." With that, he strode away and left her alone as she had wished.

Touka turned back to scan the shelves. Part of her wanted to ignore his advice. Then again, she was pressed for time and didn't have much of it. 'Poe...Edgar Allan Poe...' Her outstretched finger brushed over the worn spines. She never heard of this author before. She hoped that Tsukiyama hadn't pulled some trick or prank on her. If that were the case he'd get a taste of her wrath soon.

In half a minute she found the author's name. Touka pulled out a random book and peered at faded words on the spine: The Terrifying Tales by Edgar Allan Poe. She cracked open the book. Her eyebrows shot up. An old man with a bulging eye stared back at her. The first page she opened up to was a stark, haunting illustration depicting a part of "The Tell-Tale Heart." Something about the man's bulging electric-blue eye intrigued her. Even unsettled her a bit.

'So Poe's an American horror writer...'

Touka couldn't bring herself to close the book. She sat down, her legs crossed, back leaning against the shelf, and flipped to the first page. Despite herself, and much to her surprise, she began to read. Normally she hated anything to do with books, but she found herself blazing through the whole short story. Everything about it gripped her attention and piqued her interest. "The Tell-Tale Heart" told the story of a madman who killed his neighbor: a harmless old man who was guilty of nothing but having a "vulture eye." Apparently that drove the narrator insane. The old man was dismembered and buried, but the narrator's attempt to hide the murder was undone; he could no longer bear what he thought was the old man's heart beating from under the floorboards.

Touka finished the last sentence feeling shaken. Her own heart had pounded harder and quicker with every word, and by the end she was all but blown away.

'This stuff is great. I really think Kaneki will like this.'

Smiling to herself, she skimmed the rest of the book, getting a glimpse of each about burying someone alive...something about an obsession over teeth...another about a cursed manor...

She made up her mind. This collection by Poe was the perfect gift for Kaneki.

After buying the book, Touka rushed back to Anteiku Cafe so she could do the wrapping herself. For a moment she couldn't believe her enthusiasm. Why was she so keen on making sure he'd be happy with this gift? Friendship, or perhaps the stirrings of something more, was strange like that. What she wanted most was to put a smile on his face, to dispel the aching loneliness she sensed from him.

It seemed his time with Hinami was up; when Kaneki made his way down to the first floor, Touka quickly hid the bag out of sight. She could tell he glanced at her questioningly, but she tried to ignore it and head on upstairs. As Touka entered the lounge, Hinami turned from feeding Loser with a beaming smile.

"Did you get something for him?"

"Sure did. I hope he'll like it." She raised her finger to her lips. "Don't tell him right now; I want to hold this off until he's done."

Later that day, when Kaneki took a break from his shift, he was taken by surprise when Touka promptly marched up to him and thrust a wrapped box practically in his face.

"Happy birthday, Kaneki."

His face perked up. "Oh, you remembered. I was starting to think you forgot...not that I expected you to remember, but you know..." He awkwardly trailed off, and when Touka wouldn't lower her arm, he took the box from her. "May I open it now?"

"Yeah, go ahead." This was the moment she had been waiting for. Nervousness and anxiety mounted inside her as Taneki took his time carefully unwrapping his gift.

Touka did her best to hide her curiosity behind a mask of aloof indifference. She scrutinized his face as he turned the book over in his hands. He flipped through the pages with a careful sweep of his thumb. Worry nagged at her and a million thoughts swirled in her head. 'What if I ended up not getting something he liked? I got him the edition without pictures...he's in college, so I figured he wouldn't want something too kiddish...or maybe I should've gone with the first copy I picked up...Dammit...'

Finally she blurted, "Well? What do you think?"

"I've heard of Poe, but never got around to reading him. He's the kind of author I'd be really interested in, though." Kaneki met her eyes with a gaze filled with sincere gratitude. "Thanks so much for the gift, Touka. It's very thoughtful of you."

The look he gave her was so full of warmth and brightness that she felt she couldn't look at it for much longer. Her gaze darted off to the side, her fingers flitting to brush away her long bangs. "Read it tonight and tell me if you like it or not, okay?"

"I promise."

Oddly enough and once again, Touka felt her heartbeat quicken and throbbing in her chest. Blood rushed to her cheeks and the tip of her ears. She tried to recover from the rush of joy and satisfaction, but found she couldn't hold it back.

Kaneki peered at her curiously. "Touka, what's wrong? Your face is all red."

"It's nothing." She tugged at her collar. "It's uh...kind of hot in here, you know."

He frowned a little. "The cafe feels just fine to me." He could tell she looked both happy and embarrassed; he in turn felt quite happy that Touka went out her way to pick a gift just for him. He felt tempted to hug her, but didn't want to risk embarrassing her further and possibly get an involuntary physical backlash, so he refrained.

When he finished the book that night, as promised, he told her that his favorite story had been "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Touka cracked a grin. "Really? That was my favorite too." She could see why that would be his favorite. There was a connection. He and the old man in the story both had a single abnormal eye, after all. At least Kaneki had friends and his own strength he could rely on, so he wouldn't meet a grisly death as so many ghouls had. Touka looked sheepish as she admitted, "To be honest, I've only read that one so far."

Kaneki stretched out on the sofa beside her. "I don't mind reading the rest again. How about we read them together?"

The grin on her face softened into what he thought was the most beautiful smile he had ever seen on a girl like her. To Touka, the thought of reading stories together brought back bittersweet memories of her father and reminded her how much she had loved his storytelling. Past and present came together for her; perhaps that was the timelessness Kaneki always seemed to be going about when it came to books.

"I'd love that, Kaneki."