Chapter 1: inhale
The first time Katsura encounters an Amanto stun-shield, he literally doesn't know what hit him. One second he's bringing his sword down on a slimy-skinned amphibious alien who raises one scrawny arm in useless defense—the next second there's a glittering flash and a crackling snap, and Katsura is lying on his back on the ground, staring up at a blue sky, its cloudless reaches marred by gray gunships. How ugly, he thinks abstractly, as his body helplessly quivers and judders in agony. His sword has fallen beside him, but he can't pick it up; he can't lift his arm, or even close his trembling fingers into a fist.
The Amanto looms over him, his shadow blocking the sky. The creature's wide mouth gapes in a conqueror's grin uglier even than the ships, as he picks up Katsura's katana, raises the blade over Katsura's chest. Katsura can do nothing, not so much as voice a protest, with his teeth clamped rigidly shut and his pulse in his ears skipping and stuttering. His vision's going black, fading in and out with that uncertain heartbeat. The last thing he thinks he sees is a glimpse of white—a cloud drifting across the sky to blot out the ugliness of the ships; a storm cloud, stained red with blood and edged with sharpened steel, and its howling gale winds seem somehow to shape his name, "—Zura!"
That obnoxious excuse for a nickname is the next thing Katsura becomes aware of—"Zura, don't do this, come on, Zura, start breathing already, get your heart beating again, damn it, Zura—" and every repetition of the bastardized epithet is punctuated by a blow to his chest, hard enough to jar his bones, though not hard enough to hurt; everything's numb, and he thinks it might not be so bad to rest for a while in that comfortable oblivion.
Then the litany of curses cuts off as a warm mouth is sealed over his, and Katsura nearly chokes from the shock—chokes and coughs and catches his breath, a great deep gasp that draws life back into his body as air fills his lungs.
With life returns the pain, tingling and burning. It hurts like hell—but when Katsura blinks open his eyes to see Gintoki, rocked back on his heels with a relieved grin splitting his cheeks under the dirt and blood, somehow it's worth it.
For a while Katsura tells himself that it is no more than the camaraderie of the battleground. All of them now are closer than ever they were, marching and fighting and sleeping and surviving together. He and Gintoki, Takasugi and Sakamoto, four men only just past being raw boys, folded together like charcoal and iron ore forged into a blade, the ground steel edge of the last Joui revolutionaries.
With the troops, the lost samurai and peasant volunteers, they usually try to maintain some of the formal distance of authority, necessary when half the men they lead are older than any of them. Polite language, honorifics and titles. Gintoki sees the least merit in such efforts, calls it nonsense and doesn't bother; but he's set apart anyway, with his white clothes and white hair and the legend of the white demon, which grows more unbelievable with every day and every battle.
But he's only Shiroyasha when they're addressing the men; he's only ever Gintoki to the three of them. And from the troops Katsura is used to the respectful Katsura-san that he accepts instead of a rank, but Takasugi and Sakamoto both call him Zura, no matter how many times he corrects them. Katsura honestly can't remember any more if they got it from Gintoki, or if he got it from one of them.
If they've set a wedge of leadership between themselves and the rest of the militia, then that same wedge is serving to drive the four of them closer together, make them depend on one another.
Katsura wakes up in the latest cramped hovel they've taken shelter in with his leg numb from his thigh being used as a pillow, Sakamoto still flopped there snoring, and Katsura doesn't push him off, instead rests his hand on his friend's curly hair and allows him a few minutes' more sleep. He bathes in a freezing mountain stream with Takasugi, an accidental splashing turning into a naked wrestling match, both of them struggling to push one another's heads under and cursing in outraged shrieks when they break the surface, breathless and warmed by the exertion.
So they all are with each other now. And yet when Katsura sits shoulder to shoulder beside Gintoki before the stew pot, when they both reach for the same ladle and Gintoki's fingers accidentally fold over his, an electrifying charge surges through Katsura, absurd and astonishing, setting his nerves tingling as if he's run into another Amanto stun field.
Katsura stumbles as he runs over the deserted battlefield, blinded by the darkness of nightfall and the ashes stinging in his eyes. The latest Amanto weapon lit fire to the ground itself, charring the very earth under their feet; he makes his way by the orange glow of those still-smoldering embers.
"Shiroyasha!" the men behind him are shouting, and Katsura should stop them; it's dangerous to make such noise. The Amanto forces have retired for now (Katsura knows not to consider it a retreat; this reprieve is only because their alien foes don't consider them worth the effort to battle through the night) but they still might have scouts about. They shouldn't draw attention to themselves—but after searching for half an hour the men are starting to get desperate.
And Katsura cannot chastise them, because he feels the same desperation, clawing his way through corpses and ash, seeking blood-stained white. Finding nothing, he finally abandons caution to holler, "Gintoki!" echoing over the battlefield.
It proves worth the risk, because there's a noise behind him, a shuffling rustle and a faint, "...Yeah?" Katsura turns, seeking that hoarse voice. The slain Amanto giant to his left moves, and he draws his sword; but no, the monster's not resurrected—something underneath the corpse is pushing it up.
Katsura puts his shoulder to the massive body, heaves to roll it over. He slips in its rotting blood, falls over and lands nearly on top of a squirming supine figure, who coughs and asks, "That you, Zura?"
"No, not Zura, it's Katsura!" Katsura pushes himself to his hands and knees. " Are you all right?"
The Shiroyasha is more black than white now, clothes and skin smeared in alien blood, but he's conscious and whole, peering at Katsura through the dimness. "Better now that I'm not being smothered. This guy stinks."
The corpse's stench is indeed strong, the stomach-churning wrong reek of alien guts, but Katsura barely registers it, over the grit of ash in his throat and the pounding of his heart, the damp chill of Gintoki's skin when Katsura grabs his arm. "You idiot! Taking on the whole squadron of these giants yourself—are you mad? We couldn't see you in the fracas; we didn't know what had happened, if you'd even survived—"
"Eh, I'm okay," Gintoki says, blinking at him in that vaguely puzzled way Gintoki gets sometimes, when people express concern for him. Like he can't quite make sense of it, though Katsura knows it's less because he doesn't understand, more because he'd rather not. Usually Katsura just lets that willful ignorance pass as Gintoki being Gintoki, but tonight, kneeling here in this stinking ash and mud, it pisses him off.
"We were scared," Katsura tells him. When Gintoki tries to look away, making like he's trying to brush the black bloodstains off his clothes, Katsura grabs him by his jacket and hauls him close, so Gintoki has to meet his eyes. "I was scared," Katsura says. "How many men did we lose this time? I don't want to lose you, too."
Gintoki stares at him, eyes wide and slightly crossed from his proximity, their noses almost touching. "I—" he starts, then changes it to, "Sorry, Zura, that's—"
"It's Katsura!" Katsura insists, "even if you're an idiot, you can get that right—" and he tries to hold onto his anger, but he can feel Gintoki's breath fanning his cheeks—Gintoki, breathing and alive, strong enough to survive even his own colossal reckless idiocy, and Katsura is so grateful for that boon, that single blessing on this scorched battlefield, that he can hardly breathe himself.
He grabs Gintoki, yanks him into a tight embrace, cheek to cheek and chins on one another's shoulders. Gintoki shifts but doesn't pull away, and after a moment his arms come up to wrap around Katsura's waist, holding him back. As if he wants this, too; as if he needs to know Katsura's there and alive, as much as Katsura needs to know he is.
"Shiroyasha! Katsura-san!" Cries floating to their ears across the burning earth, and they break apart. Katsura turns his face as they do, so his lips brush Gintoki's cheek as they separate. Gintoki doesn't notice, calling, "Oi, over here!" as he waves.
In spite of the drafty night Katsura's face is flushed warm. He looks away, towards their comrades running to them, as Gintoki clasps his hands and they pull one another to their feet, leveraging up in an unsteady seesaw. Gintoki's not entirely fine after all; he's limping enough to lean on Katsura as they rejoin the others to make camp for the night.
Katsura ignores it, of course. Even if it weren't so patently ridiculous a thing—this is Gintoki, of all people. Gintoki who he's known since they were both snot-nosed brats; lazy foolish irresponsible Gintoki, with his messy hair and sleepy eyes and startling unexpected strength. But even if it were some lovely young maiden with long smooth hair and a pretty smile, such distraction is unwelcome, unwanted. Not now, not when they have so much else to fight for.
Katsura fights for his country, for the ideals their teacher impressed on them; in the Amanto's new world, if the only place for courage and honor and loyalty and dignity is on the battlefield, then Katsura has no choice to be on that battlefield. So, too, is Takasugi here, though for him it's more personal; not only about what the Amanto are taking from the samurai, but about what has been taken from him. Sakamoto fights because he loves freedom and hates unfairness, because he wants everyone to live their lives as he does, true to their own ambitions.
And Shiroyasha fights for the souls of Japan's samurai, so they tell the new recruits; he stands with the Joui army for love of their bravery and strength.
But Sakata Gintoki, Katsura knows, fights because they fight, because he can protect them with his sword, Takasugi and Sakamoto and Katsura himself, and all the others who join them. If they all walked off the battlefield, then Gintoki would walk with them, and never once look back.
Until they do, Gintoki will keep fighting with them. And more and more, Katsura finds himself grateful for that—not only because they need Shiroyasha's power, or because Gintoki's saved his life, but because it somehow strengthens Katsura just to know Gintoki's there, as ridiculous as that may be.
If Gintoki's noticed it, if Gintoki feels anything like it, he gives no sign. Not like Gintoki ever does; Katsura can read him best of all of them, and he's still at sea, more than not. The thoughts behind those rust-red eyes are as illegible as the messy characters he scratches in the sand when they sketch out battle plans—
"What is this," Katsura asks, "whose name kanji is that scribble meant to be?"
And Gintoki snaps back, "Well, excuse me, Zura, for studying swordplay while you were brushing up on your calligraphy!" and Katsura retorts, "It's Katsura, and I don't recall you ever studying anything," and the men gathered around are staring at them, distracted from the tension of the plans, shaken out of their rut of fear by the petty pointless bickering.
And Gintoki tilts his head to wink at Katsura under his silver fringe of bangs, mission accomplished, and Katsura feels his undisciplined heart skip a beat in his chest.
They knew it was risky, but the opportunity was too great not to go for it—a chance to take down one of the Amanto war fleet's flagships while it was grounded; they had to try. There was little time to decide, even less to confer; Sakamoto and Gintoki were both off on other missions, but Katsura and Takasugi and the squad leaders were in agreement.
Not until they've snuck aboard the ship, not until Katsura has lead his small team of explosive experts almost to the engine room, do they realize that the chance was in fact a trap. Bait set out for them, and they dove for it like starving rats. He tries to turn the squad around, tries at least to send warning to those troops making a distraction outside, covering them.
He fails. From the ship's bay they see the laser canons—the laser canons their intel claimed were decommissioned for repairs—glow brilliant red. The beams they fire are invisible, save for scarlet glints where the smoke over the field catches the light—invisible until they hit, and then there's flame and blood and screaming cut sickeningly short, as three hundred men are chopped down as if by a single sweep of a giant crimson axe.
Katsura's throat is raw from the smoke, from his useless shouts of warning, too late to save any of the troops massacred outside. He knew the names of more than half of them, good brave men, all samurai in spirit if not always in family or education.
His squad is surrounded, the uniformed Amanto crew leering at them behind their fearsome weapons, closing in. "Katsura-san!" Yukito yells, the youngest of them, fearlessly throwing himself before Katsura with his katana raised, "go, you have to escape, we'll guard your—"
The blast from the Amanto rifle hits him in the eye, and he falls, silenced. Yukito whose hands were so clever with the making of bombs that he had to come on this operation, however dangerous it might have been. Yukito whose brother had died in this war before him, Yukito who Katsura had trained personally when he refused to leave the lines, for all his scrawny fourteen years—
"Run, Katsura-san!" the rest of the squad is crying, but Katsura is beyond hearing them. His sword in his hands is wet with Amanto blood, its metallic tang coating his throat, choking him with every breath, but it's not enough. He can never take from them all the lives that they've taken—but he can try.
It might be minutes later, or an hour, or a day, when the Kiheitai storm the ship. Katsura is the only one of his squad left standing; whether any of them still live he doesn't know. He doesn't even realize that the new figure before him isn't Amanto, only that it's not one of the men under him; he brings down his sword and is vaguely surprised when the blade is caught on another katana.
"Damn it, Zura, it's me!" Takasugi yells from behind his sword, words coming to him as if spoken underwater, distant and indistinct, meaningless mumbles. "We've got an opening, we've got to get out of here, put down the damn sword—" but Katsura can't by then. His right arm was broken; the only way he can maintain a grip on his katana is to keep his fists locked tight around the hilt. And there's more Amanto coming, fresh soldiers flooding into the bay, bringing more weapons, more murder, and Katsura spins round to charge them.
Takasugi's never had much patience. He balls up his fist and slams it into Katsura's jaw, knocking him over; his head slams hard into the deck when he collapses, and everything goes black.
Katsura doesn't really wake up; his eyes slide open, enough to make out blurry shapes moving around him, and voices drift through his ears, but nothing connects and he is connected to nothing. His legs don't move when he tries to stand, and his fingers don't open. He's vaguely aware that his body's being lifted, that hands are touching him, cleaning and bandaging his wounds, setting the fractured ulna. The click of bone being snapped into place ought to hurt, but it doesn't, as if it's happening to someone else.
He thinks that maybe he ought to feel lucky, but he doesn't; he doesn't feel anything.
"Katsura-san," some of the voices say, but he doesn't have a way to respond to them even if he wanted to, and he doesn't; he wants for nothing now. "Zura," someone else is saying, "come on, Zura," but that's not even his name.
It's like that for a while, and then it's quiet for a while, and then he hears, "Zura," again, which is still not his name, but for some reason he finds himself listening anyway—
"What do you mean, you broke Zura? Takasugi, you son of a bitch, what'd you—"
"I was trying to save the idiot's life! He just hit his stupid head—"
"Come on, Kintoki, Bakasugi, this isn't helping Zura—"
"How am I supposed to help him anyway, do I look like a doctor? What was the point in dragging me here if the guy's not even awake—"
"But if you're here, if he can hear you in his sleep, maybe..."
"Yeah, why him? You think Gintoki can annoy him into waking up?"
"Something like that...you can try, at least, right, Kintoki? Since we've already—"
"Yeah, of course I'll try, but I don't know what... " There was silence again, and then, "Zura? Yo, Zura, anybody home? ...Or not...look, you can wake up anytime now. It's safe. We're at a new place, hasn't been tracked yet. And Takasugi's gone outside to take out his mood on the new recruits, if you're worried about the bastard throwing another sucker punch...you want me to pop him one for you? Since you're not going to be able to use that arm for a while. I'd be happy to take care of it, just say the word...
"Okay, yeah, I know, no fighting in the ranks. Have to set a good example. Wake up and chew us out for it, will you?"
Katsura can't move his hand, but he's aware of the fingers which grasp his, squeezing, the warmth of that hand.
" Come on, Zura, wake up already. Don't got all night here, Gin-san needs his sleep, too. ...Seriously, Zura, weren't you the one who told me you were scared? You think you're the only one who feels that way? It's unfair of you to pull this shit on us, you hypocrite.
"...Come on, Zura, please," Gintoki says, and Katsura feels a warm pressure against his forehead, something tickling his skin.
He opens his eyes, blinks back pale strands of hair falling in his eyes. "Gintoki?" Katsura asks, his voice thready and rasping. He knows he's awake by the pounding of his head, the throbbing of his arm.
"Zura—?" Gintoki raises his head from where he's rested his forehead against Katsura's, blinks down at his face.
Katsura can't help himself, even with his body bruised and aching; he lifts up his head and presses his lips to Gintoki's, as if to prove his reasons for awakening, as if to make the pain mean something.
Gintoki is still blinking at him confusedly when Katsura lets his aching head fall back on the bedroll. "Um, Zura, you've mixed up the order of your fairy tales," he says at last. "The handsome prince is supposed to be the one kissing the princess. Before she wakes up."
"Not a princess, it's Katsura," Katsura informs him, closing his eyes, but not letting go of the hand still holding his.
Chapter 2: hold
It takes time to regroup. The failure at the battleship decimated their forces, and nearly as many men again desert when the stories spread of how easily the troops outside the ship were slaughtered. Katsura can't fight anyway, with his broken arm mending, but he hates the feeling that the Joui cause is held back because of him, is being further delayed by his weakness.
They're taking shelter at the family estate of a lord publically in favor with the Bakufu, secretly supporting the expulsionist efforts; they can bathe nightly and sleep on futons and tatami like civilized men. But when Katsura sleeps, he sees flashes of laser-red, smells burning flesh. He's had nightmares of war since before he first set foot on a battlefield, the curse of a vivid imagination; but these are different. The screams of the massacred men and Yukito's silent fall play over and over in his mind whenever his eyes close, ceaseless and unmerciful.
Gintoki and the others say nothing about it; even Takasugi neglects to press Katsura on the details of the failed mission. Whether the doctor or Gintoki or Sakamoto encouraged him to that compassion, Katsura doesn't know. He isn't even told that anyone else of his squad survived; he only finds out when he overhears the medic reporting that Suzuki finally passed. When he asks outright he learns that Tanaka made it as well, though he lost a leg; he's been sent back home, all the way to Kansai. Katsura hopes he makes it, doesn't try to find out if he does. Hope is better than knowledge, if you don't need the truth to plan.
Not talking about it doesn't help, doesn't stop him from thinking about it. Katsura tries to occupy himself with their plans and strategies. A broken arm doesn't stop him from arguing tactics with Takasugi and supply lines with Sakamoto, as late into the night as he can. If he were able to exercise properly, he could work himself into dreamless exhaustion, but the medic insists he not strain his body, not if he wants his arm to heal well enough to wield a sword again.
Instead, once the others have retired, Katsura paces the gardens. He keeps his head down, watching his feet on the gravel paths, rather than looking to the sky. He can't bear to see the far-away lights up there, blinking out of tune with the stars, the alien ships hanging in Japan's skies, out of the reach of their swords no matter how hard they stretch.
Gintoki comes and goes, departing for days on training runs—a recruitment drive, Takasugi calls it, disparagingly except he knows as well as any of them that it's not a joke. Shiroyasha is one of the most potent symbols they have, the unconquerable samurai, irrefutable proof that one can face down the Amanto and walk away.
("So what do we do if he doesn't make it back?" Sakamoto wondered, some months ago; Katsura only shook his head, while Takasugi smirked and said, "Buy some bleach and silver dye." Gintoki, snoozing by the fire, opened one eye and added, "Don't forget the hair curler.")
He makes it back this time, though; Katsura comes outside after his latest bandage change to find Gintoki lying on the stone bench beside the courtyard, basking in the sun while Takasugi drills the latest inductees. The Shiroyasha snoozes through the shouts and grunts of effort, but at Katsura's footsteps on the gravel he sits up, says, "There you are. How you doing?"
"All right," Katsura says. "Your mission went well?"
Gintoki shrugs. "All right. How's the arm healing?"
"Slowly. But my head's mostly stopped aching."
"I could still punch Takasugi out for you, if you wanted," Gintoki offers.
"No, that's all right."
"Yeah, you're right," Gintoki says. "Better to wait and do it yourself. If you hold out long enough the bastard won't even be expecting it." He gets up from the bench, stretching with a yawn. "You meet the new guys yet? Great group, a few really strong ones, a few bright ones, too. And this one guy from up north can cook like a gourmet chef, wait until you taste his barbecue..."
What does it matter, Katsura thinks; however strong or smart they are, they'll all die just as quickly when the Amanto open fire.
He nearly gasps when Gintoki suddenly steps in close, near enough that Katsura can feel his breath on his face. Gintoki puts a hand on Katsura's good shoulder, searching his face, rust-red eyes sharp under the drowsily heavy lids. "You better heal up quickly, Zura. We need you out there."
Of course they do, Katsura thinks. A realistic long wig would be expensive, after all. But he looks into Gintoki's eyes, and somehow finds there the strength to smile as he replies, "I'll try not to dawdle, then."
It's nearly a month before Katsura can convince the medic to take the cast off, and another week of hard practice after that before his sword's strong enough for him to return to the front line. He duels Takasugi to test it, because Takasugi doesn't trust Sakamoto not to go easy on him, and Gintoki would rather nap. Gintoki doesn't drill or exercise, not unless Katsura or Takasugi makes him show off to new recruits—conserving his strength, he insists.
But he watches Takasugi and Katsura's fight from the shade of the tree he's leaning against, and it's knowing those eyes are on him, as much as Takasugi's challenging blade, that impels Katsura to victory. It's a hard contest, but Takasugi yields in the end, grins at Katsura fiercely and says, "Okay, you're back."
Really they don't have a choice—he doesn't have a choice; this next battle will require all their prowess. There's an old temple to the city's north, abandoned and now mostly ignored; if they can drive the Amanto from its grounds, it'll give them the foothold they desperately need, if they're to hold any kind of line. Their attack plan is three-pronged, Sakamoto and his squad flanking while Takasugi leads his Kiheitai around through the canyon to take them by surprise from the rear; and Shiroyasha heads the main charge, engaging their enemy head-on. Katsura needs to be in that vanguard. Gintoki leads, but cannot command—in battle, Shiroyasha is always the first targeted, drawing the brunt of the attacks, and so he must keep his distance from the rest of the troops, to not pull them into the wake of his combat.
It's been weeks, but Katsura has not forgotten the smell of the battlefield, the stench of smoke and blood and sweat. The eve of the battle he can't sleep, no more than he's been able to for the past month, but tonight he's hardly alone, not the only soldier pacing the camp, watching the charcoal sky. No ship lights shine through the clouds; no vessels are scheduled to arrive for another couple of days.
They strike at dawn, charging with the rising sun—still behind the clouds, but they can see its light and feel its warmth all the same: Earth's star at their backs, urging her children on against the invaders.
At first the battle goes well; they've got the Amanto off-guard, and outnumbered, once Shiroyasha carves his first bloody swathe through their ranks. Half the men have never faced an alien in battle; they cheer wildly, heartened to witness that triumph, to know that however dreadfully powerful the invaders might be, they aren't invincible. The samurai raise their swords as one and follow the white demon's example.
The Amanto have fearsome weapons, but most can't be employed in close combat; if they're engaged quickly enough they have to fight back man-to-man. Caught between the bloodthirsty charge and Sakamoto's gunners, the alien army can only defend, reluctantly withdrawing, pressed back toward the canyon where Takasugi's Kiheitai will come.
But then the tides turn. Two ships arrive, not gunships but transport vessels, bringing twice again as many troops, the heavy legions, massive warrior races. Katsura shouts for formations, but the men—boys, more of them than not—don't hear him. They're panicked, facing monsters twice their height, horned and fanged, more terrifying than the demon they follow. They forget their training, swing their swords hysterically, uselessly, and are butchered like helpless cattle.
"To me!" Katsura hollers until his voice hoarse. He puts his back to the few troops still standing with him, raises his katana to defend them, but it's too little, too late; the battleground is drowned in chaos.
Sometimes he sees a flash of white across the field—Gintoki dashing here and there, everywhere he can be, his sword guarding as many as he can find. The explosions of Sakamoto's guns still sound, but fewer now—they'll be running low on ammunition, if they haven't all been taken. Of Takasugi there is no sign; captured perhaps, Katsura thinks.
Then he has no time left to think. The last man standing with him—Shizuharu? Shizuhiko? He can't remember anymore—falls, and there's no one left for Katsura to lead or defend; now he can only kill, striking down one alien soldier and the next and the next.
And still they keep coming. Until Katsura's pushed back to back with Gintoki, gasping for breath, surrounded on all sides as they kneel in the trampled and bloody dirt—not a battleground; a killing field. But they have a choice yet left to them; rather than be slaughtered like beasts, they could die like samurai, by their own swords. Martyr themselves. Takasugi could do something with that, Katsura thinks. Wig and bleach; he'll keep up the fight.
At least, he thinks, at least if we're to die, it will be a beautiful death, together...
Except that Gintoki refuses. Gintoki stands up, stands tall, and Katsura has to stand with him. Because it's only true, that the blood-stained demon might die beautifully; but living he's more beautiful still, and Katsura can't look away.
Then Takasugi finally arrives, leading his Kiheitai into the fray, and Sakamoto smashes his way over to them, and the Amanto forces are driven back—are retreating, fleeing, leaving them the temple, leaving them the victory.
It's been a long time since they've unequivocally won a battle. Long enough that Katsura doesn't quite remember what victory is supposed to feel like. Or maybe it's just that he's so exhausted it's hard to think at all. There's no time to celebrate anyway; the Amanto will be returning soon enough, and while the temple's secure for now, not everyone's safely inside its walls.
The battlefield is littered with bodies, and not all are dead; not all the men still breathing will be for much longer, but they rescue as many as they can, walking the fields, digging through corpses to find the living buried among the fallen.
Night descends quickly, the darkness bringing a bitter, killing wind. Eventually they have to stop; the lights of an Amanto ship are blinking in the southern sky, and they're not finding anyone more, not anyone living. The dead can wait until they have a surer foothold.
Gintoki's the last inside the walls, carrying a man on his back; he heads for the main hall where Takasugi's managing triage for the most grievously injured, while Sakamoto and Katsura close the gate and bar it. Then Sakamoto goes after Gintoki, while Katsura walks among the weary troops bedding down on the grounds behind the wall.
Most of the men didn't even bother to find bedrolls, simply fell down on the ground and started snoring where they lay, making a mattress of the rough trodden earth which used to be grass and gardens, before the Amanto came. By the light of the moon Katsura tallies the dark silhouettes lying on the ground, few enough men that he doesn't need to estimate a headcount. Their shadowed faces are unrecognizable; he can't see who is here and who is not. Too few, at any rate. If this is victory, then it was hard-earned.
Katsura is cleaning himself with a bucket of water drawn up from the well, hissing as he peels back clothing glued to his skin with dried blood, when he hears footsteps behind him. The white clothes of the man approaching are stained dark by now, but his pale head of hair distinguishes him before he can speak, almost glowing in the clouded moonlight. "Gintoki?"
"Zura?" Gintoki answers. He crouches beside Katsura before the bucket, splashes water on his face as he asks, "What are you doing out here? I thought by now you'd be sacked out like Tatsuma and all."
"No," Katsura says. He finishes his ablutions—most of the blood isn't his; he has no injuries serious enough to warrant attention—pulls his jacket back on and stands. "I'm taking this watch."
"Why?" Gintoki asks. "There're other guys handling that."
"Another pair of eyes won't hurt."
"Won't help, either, if they're closed—come on, Zura, you're practically asleep on your feet. You were up before me this morning; even you need to rest sometime—"
Gintoki huffs an exasperated sigh, getting up as well. "Don't be an idiot! Am I going to have to drag you to bed?"
It's ridiculous, that for all his bruises and exhaustion and the blood on his clothes and the smoke in his nose, Katsura feels his cheeks warm at that suggestion. "N-no," he stammers, trying to turn away, "aren't you the one being an idiot—"
"Zura?" When he wants to, Gintoki can move quietly and quick as thought; he's suddenly close, too close, staring into Katsura's face. Katsura's back is to the rough plaster wall; he can't retreat any further. In the shadows Gintoki's expression is sober, intent, like no look Katsura can remember seeing on him before, for all their years of acquaintance. Katsura can't look away, feeling like he can't breathe, like Gintoki is inhaling all the oxygen around them, leaving none for him.
Then Gintoki tilts his head and leans in, so swift and sure that Katsura doesn't realize what he's doing, not until their lips meet, startling and shocking and so sweet. As if Gintoki knew he was suffocating, is giving him breath again—but no, Katsura is conscious now, upright and awake; this isn't resuscitation but seduction.
He puts his arms around Gintoki, tries to pull him closer, but Gintoki resists, turning his head to whisper in Katsura's ear, "Come on, Zura, not out here—I know somewhere soft to lie down, where we won't be stepping on guys—"
It hurts as keenly as any sword wound to separate, to draw apart from the heat of Gintoki's body; Katsura's almost shaking from it. But Gintoki's hand finds his through the shadows, their fingers weaving together as he pulls Katsura along with him.
When the door of the stable shed closes behind them it's utterly dark, not even enough light to make out Gintoki's hair, but there's no need for Katsura to see what he already knows by heart, years of memories imprinted too deep in his heart to ever forget. Gintoki sets his hands on Katsura's shoulders and Katsura willingly sinks down. The shed is stacked with hay bales, and there's a rough wool blanket on the floor, spread over the straw, a makeshift pallet softer than the ground.
There haven't been living horses stabled here for some time, the Amanto preferring mechanical beasts of burden; the hay's old and musty, its sweet grass scent on the verge of souring. Katsura can barely smell it anyway, when he's embracing Gintoki, face buried in the crook of his neck, smooth unscarred skin sharp with the scent of sweat and blood. On himself Katsura can't bear such a stench, but somehow he can't get enough of this.
Gintoki crouches over him, one bent knee landing between Katsura's thighs, and Katsura has to stifle a groan at that contact, can't help himself from rocking up against it before Gintoki can shift away. "Zura," Gintoki mutters through the dark, a whisper too soft to carry through the door, "do you—"
"Yes," Katsura says. He's panting like they're on the battlefield again, as if they're brawling instead of this; for all the exhaustion weighing his body down his heart is pounding. "Yes, if you—if you want to—"
"If you want it," Gintoki says. One of Katsura's wandering hands finds his hair, fingers buried in that thick tangle to pull Gintoki's head down, to pull Gintoki's mouth against his, and Gintoki's lips willingly part as he pushes his knee up between the folds of Katsura's trousers.
The friction and pressure, the proof of Gintoki's sheer unmistakable presence, are too much; exhausted as he is, Katsura hardly lasts a minute, his last energy spent almost before they've begun. He lies there on the blanket, so depleted he can barely bring himself to breathe, but it's not the aching fatigue he's used to after a battle; he's gritty and sticky and stinking but he feels clean, drained like an infected wound, as if something rotten's been washed from him.
There's no futon to pull over themselves, but they curl around each other for warmth—as they've often done before, but it's different now, in this darkness shared by only the two of them.
Sleep has nearly pulled Katsura under its thick waters when he feels Gintoki's arms tighten around him, like a drowsing child clutching at a toy. He's murmuring, low and muffled, Katsura more feeling the words vibrating in Gintoki's chest than hearing them through the air. He can't tell for sure if Gintoki is speaking to him or to himself, whether he's awake or just mumbling in his dreams, "Don't do that again, better not do that again—no matter how many of the bastards there are, no matter how tired you are. Maybe harakiri's the samurai way, but it's not yours, better not be yours..."
If Katsura were able, he would've answered; but by the time he thinks to, he's already asleep, drowning in a blissfully dreamless peace.
It's still dark in the shed when Katsura awakes; he can make out just the dim outlines of his surroundings, enough for him to remember where he is, to recognize the warmth of the arm under him, the leg flopped over his. On the other side of the walls sound footsteps, waking voices. Katsura untangles himself from Gintoki, not bothering to be careful, well aware of how deeply Gintoki can sleep when he knows he's somewhere safe.
He opens the shed door cautiously, blinking as his eyes adjust to the light—only just dawn, the sky still rosy. No one observes him slip out of the shed, shutting the door behind him. He brushes off hay and straightens his clothes—bloodstains and mud stains; another won't be noticed amid that grungy mess—and it's not until he steps out of the shadow of the temple's main hall does anyone see him to say, "Good morning, Katsura-san!"
Half the men on the grounds are still asleep, and twice that many who will never awaken are lying outside the temple's walls—but within them, the mood is festive, triumphant, grown men laughing and shoving like schoolboys gathering in the yard before the morning bell. There's rice boiling for breakfast porridge—the temple has some stocks beyond the musty hay. Even Takasugi is smiling, taking a headcount to determine appropriate portions, while Katsura goes to the well to splash his face and hands before eating. His injuries ache, but his head is clear and his steps are easy; his body feels lighter than it has in weeks, even without the adrenaline of the battlefield.
Gintoki's one of the last to join the breakfast line, yawning sleepily, amiably agreeing when the men before him insist on ushering him forward to the front. On the battlefield Shiroyasha might be demon enough to frighten them, but here, with his clothes wrinkled and straw in his hair, he's no different from any of them. The other soldiers slap him on the back and elbow him casually as he passes, as if to reassure themselves of his presence, like touching a good-luck charm.
Katsura doesn't dare take such a liberty—not now, not in daylight, when his face might betray him. He steps back when Gintoki nears, offering him space to pass; Gintoki glances at him sidelong, but his lazy expression gives away nothing, no more than it ever does. For Katsura to step aside is not so different anyway, that he would avoid dirtying his cleaned hands—no real soldier can afford to be fastidious, but Katsura is known for liking things as neat as they possibly can be.
He sees no one watching, and believes no one has noticed, until Sakamoto comes up beside him, laughing as loud as he always does. "Ahahah, look at Kintoki, his head's more a haystack than ever!"
"Yes," Katsura agrees. Gintoki of course barely bothered to try shaking out the stray straw. "If haystacks came bleached, anyway..."
"Eh, who knows what Amanto hay looks like," Sakamoto says, then reaches out before Katsura can duck, to pluck a straw from Katsura's own hair. For a moment he holds the dry stalk up before his eyes, pinched between his fingers; then returns his gaze to Katsura as he tosses it aside. "So, you and Kintoki, huh?"
Katsura could deny it, but Sakamoto has an idiot's half-deaf ears; he only hears the truth, more often than not. So Katsura just says, "Apparently so," and Sakamoto smacks him on the shoulder hard enough to make him stagger. He's beaming at Katsura like they won another victory, a wide pointless idiot's grin that it takes every ounce of Katsura's willpower not to return.
Four days later, incredibly, they hold the temple against an Amanto assault, and another attack a week after that, the old walls standing firm against a gunship's barrage. In the weeks following, new men appear every day: boys scarcely old enough to have held a sword, aging warriors who thought they'd never hold one again—but all of them wanting to fight, wanting to protect their nation. Far more than just their base of operations, the temple's become a symbol of their revolution, an icon as powerful as the invincible Shiroyasha.
Katsura drills the new recruits on the grounds, leads them into battle, and feels every day his spirit rising, strengthened—by hope, and by another force as great.
Shouyou-sensei spoke to them about so many different loves: love of country, love of duty; a vassal's love for their lord and a lord's love for their vassals; and the love of family, both blood and brothers in arms. But Katsura doesn't remember him ever talking about this love, about the yearning and the satisfaction, the way your heart beats faster to know that single irreplaceable person is near, the almost terrifying ecstasy of touching and being touched by the one you desire.
Maybe it was because they'd been too young, not yet mature enough to understand. Or maybe it's because even Shouyou-sensei for all his gifts could not have put this feeling into words; there are no words with the power to contain it.
No words for the sunlight catching in the silver of Gintoki's hair as he naps in the grass, the way its tangled curls twist around Katsura's fingers when he combs them through it. No words for the private darkness of night and the warmth of Gintoki's hand over his mouth, gentle for all the rough callouses, muting Katsura's groans as Gintoki's other hand slips down under the blanket between Katsura's legs, as sure as grip as he has on his sword hilt, while the men around them sleep on, oblivious.
Life is no easier than it ever was. They're still at war; the battles are still brutal and wounds still hurt. And Katsura fights for the same causes he has always fought for, for freedom and honor, to save his people and his country from those who would see them crushed and defeated.
But to fight for honor does not mean one should hope to die for it. Katsura's sword is faster now than even the Amanto laser beams. He fights harder than he ever has, when he's fighting not only to win, but to live—as a samurai or not as a samurai, either way he wants to keep living, when every minute he lives is another minute he can love.
If Gintoki's sword is faster, then there's no one with the eyes to see it; he was already beyond any ordinary man's observation. Shiroyasha is as awesome in war as ever he was, and Gintoki, too, appears the same as ever most of the time, fighting with Katsura back-to-back on the battlefield and face-to-face at the encampments, stealing his food and getting his name wrong, and throwing himself and his sword into the thickest and deadliest frays without hesitation.
Even with Sakamoto and Takasugi, he's little different; he doesn't take Katsura's side any more than usual when they argue strategy, and he still avoids sparring if he can get away with it, will sneak off to nap and leave Katsura the burdens of training and organization and the rest, same as always.
It's only when they're alone together, stolen minutes when they're out on the front, a couple hours here or there when they're back at the temple, that it changes. There's none of the trappings of romance; Gintoki's never been one for music, and poems and flowers have little place in war. They don't whisper sweet vows to one another, or shower tender kisses on one another's brow. Their moments together are too brief for that kind of dallying, and they know each other too well. Instead of timid gentleness, they have matched strength, muscle and friction, heat and pressure, the forces to squeeze a shining diamond out of rough coal.
More often than not, Katsura loses himself in it, as he never allows himself to be lost in the adrenaline of combat or any other time; but with Gintoki he'll let himself be vanquished by sensation, and gladly. And occasionally Katsura will open his eyes, will look to Gintoki's face, and every time is overcome by what he sees, by the focus in those claret eyes, the firm press of his lips. Gintoki's never lazy in their moments together, never inattentive or careless; it's a look such that Gintoki has never given him before, that Katsura can recall, and it means more to him than any vows or poetry ever could.
Katsura doesn't know how Takasugi finds out, whether he overhears them some night, or whether Sakamoto fills him in, or whether he notices the change himself, knowing them as well as he does. And that Takasugi disapproves does not surprise Katsura; what does is that Takasugi doesn't confront him about it.
Instead, Katsura only finds out because he returns early from leading a patrol, and walking by a window of the main hall he hears Takasugi within snap, "—is a war camp, not a love hotel!"
"Ah, what's bothering you, Shinsuke-kun?" Gintoki replies, his easygoing drawl fine-tuned to irritate Takasugi, a pitch perfected over the years. "Are you jealous? If you find it so distracting, you could always ask Zura if he wouldn't mind sharing..."
"I don't need anything from either of you—you perverts—"
"Maa, that's a little harsh, Bakasugi," Sakamoto says. "And what's the problem with it anyway? When we're not fighting we've all got to unwind somehow, don't we..."
"Sneaking off for midnight trysts, making out under the covers—what kind of way is that for a leader of men to behave? For a warrior—if the troops find out, the impropriety—"
"Fuck impropriety," Gintoki says, his voice dropped lower, harder. "Any guy disapproves, he can challenge us, me or Zura—bring it on."
"Is that meant to challenge me?" and Katsura hears the faint clink of a sword hilt shifted in its scabbard.
"Takasugi! Gintoki!" Sakamoto barks, in the voice with which he calls out orders to his squad on the battlefield; it's all but unrecognizable indoors, with just them.
There's silence for a moment; then Gintoki says quietly, "Shinsuke—if Zura starts slipping, if he gets distracted and screws up because of me, or this, then I'll stop; you won't have to tell me. Otherwise, you're not our general or our lord or our teacher; it's none of your damn business."
"And as your friend?" Takasugi asks, as quietly. "Katsura's, and yours—is it my business then?"
If Gintoki answers, it's too softly for Katsura to make out, and he walks away before he hears Takasugi reply. That much eavesdropping already strains the bounds of honor. He doesn't ask Gintoki about it later, and Gintoki doesn't mention it. And Katsura expects Takasugi to bring it up with him sooner or later, with either condemnation or grudging acceptance, but somehow he doesn't.
Katsura never allows himself to think that their interludes together are too short, doesn't let himself wish for more than what he and Gintoki have. It would be pointless; he knows, even if his seditious heart does not, that what they share off the battlefield is as much a part of the war as the combat on it. If one of them were a woman they could tell each other stories of a wedding, of making a family, once the fighting's over; but they're both men, and besides the odds are against both of them being alive by the war's end.
But in occasional moments of weakness he wishes that they might have a little more time, now and again, a couple more minutes, another hour. There's never enough. Even those rare nights when Sakamoto covers and lets them sneak off alone, they're still soldiers; they still need rest, cannot risk sacrificing a whole night's sleep to pleasure.
Gintoki is generous in this, as he never is about food or training. Usually he waits for Katsura to have the opportunity to come to him—it's only logical; off the battlefield Gintoki never has as much to do as Katsura, who (as Gintoki is apt to point out) always needs to be doing everything he can and at least one more thing to be satisfied. But once they're alone Gintoki takes the lead, will be the one pushing Katsura onto the bedroll or against the door, the one wrapping his hand around Katsura through his trousers, or lowering himself to his knees and undoing his belt and taking him into his mouth, as Katsura gasps in helpless gratification.
More often that not Katsura will doze off in the blissed lassitude that follows that release, and will wake to find Gintoki gone, if they're out camping on the lines and he's needed to stand guard; or else snoring beside him.
Even when Katsura manages to stay awake, when he tries to return the favor, sits up over Gintoki or reaches for Gintoki's belt, Gintoki shrugs him off—"Forget it, just go to sleep," he'll say. "I'm fine, you don't have to."
"But I want to," Katsura tells him, usually too late; once Gintoki shuts his eyes he can drop off in seconds, like any practiced soldier, and without the emergency of an attack he's all but impossible to awaken.
It's unfair, after all their years before of squabbling over food and their teacher's attention and everything else, that Gintoki would be so unselfish in this, that he gives and gives and doesn't take. And though Katsura doesn't otherwise allow himself the indulgence of daydreaming about any kind of future, he lets himself have one wish, a fantasy of a single day, a day when neither of them are soldiers, beholden to no obligations; one day where he might devote himself entirely and only to the one he loves.
Watanabe Mitsuhiro was fifteen when the Amanto came, too young to go to war, and then his family snared him in webs of education and responsibility. Now twenty-five and independent, he comes to join the fight, to restore the nation and the pride of the samurai, for the sake of his newborn son. He's good with swords, but cocky; he's got a new father's driving need to prove himself, and he chafes at listening to Katsura or Takasugi's strategies, believing his age and advanced scholarship trumps their experience.
Takasugi thinks they should put him on the front lines, let his bravado take care of him; Sakamoto recommends sending him to some distant post where he can gather his own troops, lead his own rebellion. Katsura believes that the battlefield might give him the further education he needs, but it's risky, having a man in a squad who might willfully disobey. Watanabe's inciting unrest already, appealing to those from old samurai families, making much of his name.
In the end Gintoki takes care of it; he goes up to the man as he's talking to his circle, says, "You want to show off some of that fancy swordwork you learned?" It's not even a challenge, really, but Watanabe takes it as such, and he's bold enough to accept even while the man around him are shaking their heads in disbelief.
Everyone on the temple grounds comes to watch; it takes much longer for them to gather than the duel itself, which is over in barely a minute. And that's only because Gintoki's holding back, taking care not to wound. He's unused to anything but the occasional drill, or else outright battle, so for a few moments he parries Watanabe's forays, looking for a safe opening. Then he acts, disarming Watanabe with one motion, swinging his katana around to his neck with the next.
The man is smart enough to yield, and Gintoki lowers his blade instantly. Their audience gasps and whispers; it's not often that the men get to watch Shiroyasha in action with none of the distraction of fighting for their own lives. He moved too fast for most of them even to follow, if still slow to Katsura's eyes—Katsura's used to matching Gintoki's unbelievable speed. And Sakamoto laughs, "Ah, you're too lazy, Kintoki."
But Gintoki just tells Watanabe, "You're good, strong offense and you didn't panic when you were outmatched. We could do this again—but I'd rather have a guy like you guarding my back on the battlefield than crossing swords with me off it."
After that Watanabe willingly follows the Shiroyasha, as fervent a believer in the demon's legend as any man.
So when the Amanto ambush Gintoki, a team of assassins attacking the squad he's leading to meet a supply drop, Watanabe abandons the company to go after him, determined to guard his back as promised.
Katsura only hears about this after the fact, when the rest of the squad returns to the temple, as they'd been ordered—"Shiroyasha told us to run for it, said that he'd handle them—shouldn't be hard for him and Watanabe, those guys didn't look so tough. One of them wasn't even a monster, just a human guy—what a fool, to take on Shiroyasha with a stupid umbrella—"
"What did you say?" Katsura snaps, grabbing the man by the collar—he's new to the front, hasn't had time yet to learn all the rumors about the Amanto forces; he gapes in dumbfounded shock as Katsura demands, "How many? What clans were the others from? Why'd you leave him—"
"Zura," Sakamoto says, taking Katsura's arm, pulling him off the hapless rookie. "The faster we move, the better chance we have of getting there in time."
There's no time to organize a full assault force; Katsura orders the best of the squad to mount the few horses they have, and they set out. The men don't have to ask how serious it is; Sakamoto's not grinning, riding grimly behind Katsura with one pistol drawn, and that tells them all they need to know.
Autumn is getting on toward winter and the trees have lost most of their leaves, the frostbitten underbrush dying, but the trail's not hard to follow; the course of the battle flattened a path through the forest. The men blanch to see the felled trees, splintered trunks, not chopped or burned but snapped in half like giant twigs. Sakamoto says nothing, only raises his gun to gesture them all to be cautious. Katsura can't speak, heart in his throat, choking him.
There's no other sounds but for the horses' hooves; even as they go on, they hear no clash of swords or thump of fist on flesh. The battle's over, but the victor...
The first body they come across is Amanto, and Katsura finally is able to draw a breath, lets it go in a puff of white in the crisp air. They see three more corpses before they find the living—before they find Gintoki, kneeling among the wreckage of trees and dead leaves. His katana tossed aside on the ground beside him, he holds Watanabe, the older man sprawled over his lap in a gory pieta as Gintoki presses his hand to his chest, trying to staunch the blood gushing from a ragged hole not far above Watanabe's heart.
Katsura pulls his horse to a halt, dismounts before them. There's a fifth corpse here—more human in size and form than the others, but the tattered umbrella under the body gives lie to that appearance.
Gintoki must hear them, but he doesn't look up. Watanabe is gasping, choking on his own blood. Gintoki holds him still, half-cradling him as he mutters a pleading litany, "Come on, Mitsuhiro, stay awake, stay with me. You have a wife waiting for you, a son, remember. Kids need their fathers, even when their father is a crazy son of a bitch who takes on Yatou clansmen—but you won; you beat the bastard. That's a story you'll be able to boast about until you're old and gray. Come on, Mitsuhiro, hang on—"
Gintoki's voice is steady, as firm as his blood-coated hand over the wound; his expression as he looks down at Watanabe's agonized face is focused, eyes intense and lips pressed together, more serious than Gintoki ever is, except in battle. Shiroyasha's unshakable will, only his sword is at his side—but this is Shiroyasha all the same; this is Gintoki, fighting with all his strength to save whoever he can.
Katsura knows that look; in the last months he's seen it often, only somehow he didn't realize it then, so far removed from the battlefield. It's strange, that after so many battles fighting alongside Shiroyasha, Katsura would fail to recognize him until now; as if it were somehow a different thing when it's Gintoki looking at him, when it's himself that Gintoki is fighting to save.
Chapter 3: exhale
Watanabe survives the journey back to the temple, but not the night that follows. Gintoki sits beside his pallet, holding his hand, and Watanabe's last words are to the hero he died for. Katsura doesn't hear what they are, but he's waiting by the porch when Gintoki leaves the hall, follows him to the well and helps him haul up water. Gintoki was also injured, not badly, but enough that Katsura goes and fetches bandages, cleans and wraps his wounds while Gintoki sits, back straight rather than slouching like he usually does, staring into the empty darkness before the wall.
"That idiot," Gintoki says once, "if the damn idiot had just listened to me and run for it..." Then he falls silent again.
"Gintoki," Katsura finally says when he's done, resting his hand on Gintoki's shoulder.
Gintoki starts, almost shrugs off that touch but then stills, his back staying stiff and straight. He doesn't turn his head to look at Katsura. "Zura," he says, his voice as stiff, hoarse and hardly above a whisper, "sorry, but could we not, not now..." He shakes his head, exhales and adds, louder, "Maybe tomorrow...?"
Katsura blinks. "Of course," he says, "that wasn't my...of course."
You saved the rest of them, he could say, all the rest of the squad got away safely—and Watanabe might have, too, had he run with the others as commanded—but if he had... Even Gintoki would have been hard-pressed in that battle, against such power. Without someone fighting at his back—as guilty as Katsura might feel for it, he cannot help but be grateful that Watanabe disobeyed.
But that he knows better than to say. "If there's..." Katsura starts, then stops. If there's anything I can do—but he can't say that, either.
Gintoki doesn't ask, he simply does; and it's enough for Katsura, even if it shouldn't be. That Katsura can't return that relief now knots his stomach so tight he feels sick from it.
Giving Gintoki the privacy to grieve, that at least he can do. He takes his hand off Gintoki's shoulder, starts back for the main hall.
Walking with his head down, Katsura very nearly runs into Sakamoto, keeping watch before the temple steps. Sakamoto looks at him, then past him. "How's Kintoki?" he asks quietly.
Katsura sighs, shaking his head.
Sakamoto nods, not smiling for once. "Here," he says, extending a hand toward Katsura. "For him."
Katsura takes the offered gift, frowning at its silvery glitter in the lantern light. How Sakamoto got hold of such a thing, he can't fathom. Takasugi wouldn't approve of it, and Katsura wouldn't usually himself; even if it's not from the Amanto, it's still foreign, something that does not belong in their country.
But some things are more important than cold principles. Katsura goes back to Gintoki, still sitting unmoving by the well. He looks up at Zura's approach, but doesn't say anything; under his silver hair his face is in unreadable shadow.
"It's not much," Katsura tells him, "but you should eat something. Keep your strength up," and he passes over Sakamoto's gift.
Gintoki reaches out indifferently, then sits up as he takes it, cocking his head up at Katsura. "Is this—?"
"Don't ask me if there's more where that came from," Katsura says, "I have no idea, and there shouldn't be anyway. But—"
"Zura," Gintoki says, "thanks."
Katsura nods and turns away, leaving Gintoki once more alone, but his heart is lightened a little, hearing behind him the crinkle of foil as Gintoki tears into the chocolate bar.
They bury Watanabe the next day, planting his sword in the grave with all the others. That evening Gintoki is as he always is, eating around the fire with all the men. After supper a bottle gets passed around for the informal wake, as they make light of the most ridiculous of the Amanto, the ones with heads like big-eared mice, the ones whose voices sound like chickens clucking. Gintoki can impersonate the latter aptly enough to set everyone roaring with laughter. If there's incongruity in the Shiroyasha entertaining them with the voices of the very same monsters whom his blade protects them from, then it's an irony the men have become inured to.
Later, when the fire's been stamped out and the rest of the men have retired to sleep or the night watch, Gintoki pushes Katsura against the rough wall in the shadows behind the gatehouse, seals his mouth over Katsura's in a breathtaking kiss. Gintoki's mouth tastes of the sake they were drinking, but he's far from drunk; he's steady on his feet, his hands certain. It's Katsura who's dizzy, though he had only a token sip; but his head is spinning with the intoxication of Gintoki's nearness.
Gintoki's touch is always sure, but not always this urgent—no, not urgency; there's nothing rushed in how he strokes and caresses Katsura, as thorough as he ever is, almost painstaking in how immediately he responds to every twitch and breathless gasp his touch evokes. But there's a new intensity to it, an insistency that Katsura can't make out the meaning of.
Even when he thrusts back, presses himself against Gintoki, he's too dazed to realize immediately what's wrong, what's absent—that the only hardness digging into his hip is from Gintoki's literal katana, as always at his waist. Before he can do more than register that lack, Gintoki shoves him back against the wall, roughly enough to jar, and pushes up his knee between Katsura's thighs, arching his back to keep their lips joined. He knows Katsura's body so well by now, knows the perfect pressure and grip as exactly as he knows the weaknesses of the Amanto clans they fight.
And Katsura is as defenseless against him as the Amanto Shiroyasha slays; he holds out as long as he can, but that's not long, before he lets go his last helpless breath and comes, clutching onto Gintoki like a man drowning as the waves of his climax break over him.
They sit on the wall's tile roof afterwards, supposedly keeping watch, but Katsura's drowsing head is drooping on Gintoki's shoulder when Gintoki suddenly says, "Tatsuma's leaving."
"Eh?" Katsura blinks, jerks up. "What do you mean—"
"He's going," Gintoki says. "Going up there," and he nods up at the starry sky overhead. "We've talked about it before."
They had; Sakamoto loves the stars, and the ships that fly between them, freedom beyond any bird's wings. Their freedom, he insists; the Amanto might be out there, too, but that doesn't mean that humans don't have as much right to the vastness of space as any aliens.
If anyone could find their way through the stars, it would be Sakamoto, who's never had both feet on the ground anyway. All the same—"But we need him here, his strength—"
"He's not the only guy who knows how to pull a trigger," Gintoki says. "And aren't you tired of that idiot's idiotic grin? Besides, he can do more out there than he ever could here. We need supplies—he can get us stuff. Smuggle in anything, once he figures out how to navigate the star-lanes. Get me more of that chocolate—"
Katsura elbows him. "We can't give up one of our best for the sake of your sweet-tooth."
"It's not our choice," Gintoki says. "Or Takasugi's. Tatsuma's decided; he's going."
Not his choice, but Katsura wonders if perhaps Gintoki encouraged him. Knows that Gintoki wants him to go. Not because of the chocolate, and not because he's sick of Sakamoto's face, either. But as dangerous as outer space may be, it's safer than here. Gintoki will never bury Tatsuma in the temple's crowded graveyard, not if he leaves now.
"He asked me to go with him," Gintoki says, and Katsura tenses, because of course, of course he would. They're both suited to it. Sakamoto's head is always in the clouds; Gintoki—Gintoki's too big for this world, too great a force to fit comfortably in one small country, one small planet. Together they'd be unbeatable; they could go toe-to-toe with the Amanto on their own turf, and maybe even win.
"What are you going to do?" Katsura asks, keeping his voice calm, not revealing any bias that might sway him. This is Gintoki's choice, as it's Sakamoto's. "Will you go with him?"
"No," Gintoki says, leaning back on the tiles. He sounds almost surprised, as if he wouldn't have expected Katsura to have to ask. "No...it would be interesting out there, kicking up a ruckus. But it's just as interesting here—there's enough on Earth for me; don't need all the stars, too."
Sakamoto departs the next morning. Gintoki sees him off; Katsura says his farewells and then returns to planning strategy with Takasugi. Their next foray needs to be rethought, without Sakamoto's support. Takasugi's angry about it, angry enough to refuse to wish Sakamoto luck, even if he resentfully concurs that they could use new supply lines. "Sakamoto doesn't need any luck wished on him anyway," Takasugi says, "that bastard can make his own," and Katsura nods, hearing the trust behind the ire.
Three days after Sakamoto sets out, the Amanto unexpectedly attack, with ships and as large an army as ever they've sent. The Joui forces lose the battle, lose the temple, and Takasugi loses his eye.
For a time it looks like they're going to lose Takasugi, too. Only a scant few dozen of them make it out of the battle; even so grievously wounded, Takasugi is still able to carry a man with a broken leg. But making rough camps in the woods, freezing in the winter's frosty nights, takes its toll. They don't dare seek shelter in any town, can't risk bringing the Amanto's wrath down on civilians. But with few supplies and their medics gone, dead or lost, they can't properly care for the wounded.
Infection sets in; Takasugi succumbs to fever, delirious and in agony. Some of the other casualties they bring to shrines or hospices, stripped of their armor so as not to betray their resistance allegiances. But Takasugi would be recognized, even unarmed.
Katsura and Gintoki take turns tending to him, Katsura more than Gintoki; Gintoki can't bear to sit with him for long, can't bring himself to look at Takasugi's bandaged face. As if he holds himself responsible, as if he might as well have been swinging the Amanto sword that wounded his friend.
Takasugi doesn't help; he's far too sick to be able to offer forgiveness, instead lashes out like a wounded animal in cornered, delirious desperation. Sometimes it's Sakamoto he curses; sometimes it's Katsura or Gintoki. Sometimes it's even the Amanto bastards, the only ones who deserve his rage, but that doesn't make the rest of it easier to take, even knowing it's nonsensical. Gintoki at least is used to it; he and Takasugi have always quarreled. Though he doesn't fight back now, just takes whatever venom Takasugi spits, as if it's some kind of penance.
Katsura can endure Takasugi calling him a moron and a fool, a dreaming mistaken idealist and a burden on rationality and whatever else Takasugi's pain and fever-wracked mind can come up with. It's harder to listen to him heaping such abuse on Gintoki, not when Gintoki doesn't protest any of it. As if Gintoki cannot deny that he's a quitter and a deadbeat, a traitor to the cause and an Amanto sympathizer, a demonic white-haired freak who has no place on Earth among regular human beings—
"Be quiet, Takasugi," Katsura says, goaded beyond reason—even if Gintoki's maybe able to endure that slur better than any, a child's insult, a callback to their schoolyard days. It never much bothered Gintoki then, either; you couldn't really rile Gintoki up just by picking on his hair.
But it angers Katsura all the same, for all that Gintoki's expression hasn't changed; he's replacing the cooling cloth on Takasugi's clammy forehead as calmly as ever. That Takasugi would so turn on a friend, knowing as well as any of them what Gintoki has always done, for all of them...
Takasugi rolls his remaining eye up towards Katsura, his gaze hectically bright and glittering. "Isn't it sweet," he says, laughing in fits of gasps and coughs, twisting his head until he throws off the cloth, "how you defend your—your—what is he, Zura; what do you call him? Fuck-buddy, boyfriend, lover—lover, hah, that's a good one, as if he ever could—"
"Stop it," Katsura says, as Gintoki gets up and goes over to retrieve the fallen rag. "You have no right—"
Takasugi sits himself up halfway, his sweat-soaked kimono slipping off his shoulders. The fever's burned his flesh down to angular bones; he clasps at Katsura's sleeve with long gaunt fingers, stares at him with his single gleaming eye. "He doesn't love you, you know, Zura," he says, grinning like a death's-head, no joy, only pain. "This demon, he doesn't love anyone—he doesn't even mourn for Shouyou-sensei; if he couldn't love Shouyou-sensei, how could he love you? What he does with you, how he touches you—it's only out of pity, because you're so damn weak you need it to live, need to suck on him like you'd suckle on your mother's breast. And he puts up with it, to make sure you're strong enough to watch his back on the battlefield—"
"Shut up, you son of a bitch," Gintoki growls, his hands twisting the rag until it shreds, "shut the fuck up—"
"Go ahead, tell him, Gintoki—tell him you like it. Lie to him about how you love his dirty cock as much as he loves yours—"
Gintoki's gone as white as his hair, and he moves with Shiroyasha's speed, but Katsura steps before him, blocking his way as he says over his shoulder, "Enough, Shinsuke."
Takasugi slumps back on the blankets. His face is wan, as pale as Gintoki's but for the scarlet flush spotting his cheeks, and his eye is glazed, not seeing them anymore.
Katsura shoves Gintoki forward, out of the tent; Gintoki goes, not resisting. He's breathing silently but hard enough that Katsura can feel his shoulder rising and falling under his hand, and his jaw is clenched.
"He's delirious," Katsura says calmly. "The infection's out of control."
Gintoki won't meet his eyes. "Zura—"
"Not Zura," Katsura says, "it's Katsura."
"It's not—" Gintoki tries to say, "that's not—it isn't—"
"Yes, it's definitely Katsura," Katsura tells him. "It always has been; I'm quite sure of that."
He wonders, if he asked outright, would Gintoki lie or tell him the truth. He wonders if he would be able to tell, either way, or if he would only hear what he wanted to hear. As he has for how long now.
He doesn't ask. Instead he goes back inside the tent, to try to lower Takasugi's fever, enough that he might survive the night.
For some reason Katsura thinks at first that Gintoki will come to him. Takasugi's fever finally breaks, the infection subsiding; now that he's on the mend and they no longer have to spend their nights watching over him, Katsura finds himself expecting Gintoki to seek him out.
In daylight they talk as they always have—more, often enough; they're the only two left to lead, and Gintoki when forced to it is as capable of strategy as Takasugi or Sakamoto. Though the strategy now is more waiting than fighting; their numbers are too small for anything more than minor raids. With Takasugi getting well enough to travel, they make plans to head northward, to join the last remaining bastion of the resistance.
And when they make camp, Katsura makes sure to spread his bedroll in the shadows of trees and between scrub brush, so that Gintoki might join him mostly unseen, as they used to.
But Gintoki stays by the fire with the other men, or else keeps watch—he stands guard more nights than not, sometimes from sunset until dawn, standing with his back to the fire's embers, eyes on the dark woods around them. It's not that he mistrusts any of the others; it's that he distrusts himself, distrusts Shiroyasha's skill to keep them safe, even if they still believe in him.
Katsura knows he's being a fool. Why would he expect Gintoki to come to him, when he never has before? Yet he can't help but hope that maybe Gintoki misses the heat of his body as keenly as he misses Gintoki's, that maybe Gintoki's sleepless nights are in part from want and longing.
He wishes Sakamoto were here—not only for strategy and protection, but Sakamoto might have been able to tell Katsura plainly, in his blunt idiot's way, what he seems unable to tell himself.
Back at the temple, sometimes the men would talk of what they'd do after the war. They'd talk about going home, about seeing their families again, their mothers and fathers, their wives and children. The younger men would long for their sweethearts and fiancées, faithfully writing letters and dreaming of their return; or else they'd boast about the women who'd fawn on them for their bravery in battle, the courtesans who'd attend them with the spoils they might win from the Amanto. Flocks and droves of beautiful women—beautiful men, too, some of them would say, especially after the sake had been passed around.
And Gintoki would join them sometimes, talking about the sweets he'd eat and the liquor he'd drink, about sleeping through lazy mornings and afternoons all the way until dusk, about stewing his brain watching that odd tele-video-whatever entertainment the Amanto introduced.
But never about a girl, not someone waiting for him, not the whorehouses—he never has, that Katsura can recall. Even before the war, when they were just schoolmates, he doesn't recall Gintoki ever showing particular interest in any pretty girl or boy, or looking at one longer than any of them did.
When Katsura thinks about it, he can't remember ever feeling Gintoki's eyes fall on him with the same heat that stirs in him when he looks at Gintoki. That still stirs in him, watching Gintoki across the fire, the flames gilding his hair white-gold—but Gintoki doesn't look back, not noticing Katsura's regard as he continues talking with the men beside him.
Finally Katsura turns, walks away into the darkness of the forest - not so far that he can't see the firelight through the trees, but enough that the smoke doesn't obscure the patches of stars visible through the bare branches overhead. The night is crisply cold, the sky clear. There's no moon, only the glittering stars—no alien lights either; they've made it far enough to be off the shipping lanes, but not so far north to see warships.
A branch behind him cracks, snapping underfoot. Katsura knows before he turns that it's Gintoki; only he could walk so silently and then make such a foolish error. Even in the shadowed starlight his hair shows palely against the forest's dark.
How strange is it, that Katsura didn't once notice Gintoki glancing at him across the fire; yet it took scarcely a minute for Gintoki to follow him, once he departed. It's not his presence that Gintoki's aware of, but his absence. Would that that meant the same thing—but Katsura knows better.
"Zura?" Gintoki asks.
Katsura takes a step toward Gintoki, reaches out to draw him closer. Gintoki willingly slides in to wrap his arms around Katsura, as willingly as he opened his mouth to Katsura when he first kissed him.
But willing is not the same as wanting, either. Katsura steps back out of the circle of Gintoki's arms, into the shadows behind the trees, so his face is hidden. "How do you do it?" he asks quietly. "Do you imagine I'm a woman?"
"Do I what?" Gintoki's confused frown matches his tone. "Who the hell would mistake you for a woman? Even with that hair and face, it's not like you've got any part of a girl's body—"
"Then how do you put up with it? Put up with me—with my—with my filthy desires—"
It's only because he's watching Gintoki, eyes fixed on him through the darkness, that he sees Gintoki freeze, a telling second of shock before Gintoki relaxes, says in his usual lackadaisical, lazy, impossibly erotic drawl, "Ohoh, so you've actually got some unclean desires in that too-pure heart of yours? You've been holding out on me, Zura, care to share?"
He extends his hand toward Katsura, and Katsura takes it—grabs hard enough that Gintoki has no chance to free himself when Katsura suddenly yanks him forward and flips him over his shoulder, into the frost-rimed forest floor.
Gintoki might be the Shiroyasha, but Katsura's pitted himself against that demon for more than half his life. In a duel to the death Gintoki's blade might be just that much faster, but wrestling barehanded their strength is nearly equal, and he's got the determination now that Gintoki in his confusion doesn't. Katsura soon manages to pin him, forcing his shoulders back on the ground.
"Okay, I give up," Gintoki pants, frowning up at Katsura, still baffled.
Even furious, Katsura's yet stimulated by that exertion, by Gintoki moving under him—but when he grinds down, he can feel just as well that Gintoki's not, and his anger drains away with his arousal. He sits back, taking his weight off Gintoki and allowing him to sit up. "No," he says. "No, I don't want to share with someone who has no desires himself to share."
Gintoki draws up his legs, sets elbows on his knees, hands dangling down. For a long moment he only looks at Katsura, kneeling on the ground beside him. Finally he says, "Sorry."
Katsura closes his eyes, shaking his head. "So it was just pity, after all."
"What? No—damn it, Zura—" Gintoki's hand closes around his arm, shaking him roughly, forcing him to look over. "It wasn't—that crap Takasugi said, he's wrong. It wasn't because I thought you were weak, not anything stupid like that. It wasn't that I don't trust you—hell, Zura, how many times over would I be dead, if you hadn't been at my back? Way before any of this—this stuff."
Gintoki lets go of his arm. "Because I'm the one who's weak," he says. "Because you're brave enough to go get yourself killed, to sacrifice yourself for honor or this country or the samurai or your other crazy ideals; but I'm not brave enough to stand back and let you. And when I figured out there was something else, something else you wanted, off the battlefield—if I could give you that—"
"But it wasn't what you wanted," Katsura says. "I said—the first time, I said, if you wanted it—"
"If you wanted it, then it was okay by me. It's not like it's that bad, not like it's harder than taking up a sword and going to battle. That's filthy work, and maybe none of us are ever going to be able to clean all of it off. This, what we do, it isn't anything like that."
"You wouldn't choose it, though. Not on your own."
"Eh, I don't really think about it," Gintoki says. "I know the other guys do—and you, too—but for me it's never been...I just don't care. About men or women or Amanto or whatever. Maybe if we were elsewhere, somewhere we weren't fighting all the time; or maybe when I'm older, or if it was less work, and not so sticky..."
Maybe if you were someone else, Katsura hears, even if Gintoki's not saying it aloud; maybe if I were someone else... Shouyou-sensei always taught them to be honest, that falsehoods wound a friendship, but he was wrong; there's no lie that could hurt as much as this truth.
Gintoki folds his arms across his chest, shivers. "We should go back, warm up by the fire. ...Or else we could keep each other warm out here, if you want—"
Katsura shuts his eyes again; he can't keep looking at Gintoki's face, his eyes wide in the starlight, open and sincere as Gintoki almost never is, he's so anxious to right this. "If I were Sakamoto," Katsura asks, "or if you could've saved Takasugi's eye; if you could've saved Watanabe's life, or any of the others—you would have done the same thing with them?"
"Yeah, of course," Gintoki says. "Wouldn't you? For them?"
"Well, yes," Katsura admits, "—but I'd rather be with you. You, more than anyone else, here or anywhere in the world."
"...Shit," Gintoki says after a moment. "Zura, I didn't—I never meant to—"
"I know," Katsura says, and that should make it hurt less, but it doesn't. "If you're cold, go back to the fire," he tells Gintoki. "I'm fine here."
He opens his eyes but doesn't look over. It takes a while, before Gintoki finally gets up and returns to the fire, to Katsura's vague relief. It's midwinter and the forest is freezing, but sharing the night with Gintoki now would be colder than sleeping alone.
When it's daylight they march, heading north up through Aomori until they reach the sea, where they'll cross over to Hokkaido. The last of the resistance is based there, trying to establish a true samurai nation free of the Amanto, from which they might be able to reclaim the rest of Japan.
Takasugi is back on his feet—his eye is still bandaged, but he walks instead of riding a pack horse, leading by example, showing the men an endurance none of them can deny. What few men are left—their forces are down to a mere two dozen, most of them boys no older than themselves, or younger.
Katsura takes point, usually. Not only because Gintoki usually guards their rear, ambling as slow as he can manage without Takasugi calling him on it; in the lead, Katsura can also busy himself with breaking their path. They're staying off the main roads, traveling through the woods to elude Amanto hunting parties, and Katsura dulls his sword and tires his arms, slashing through the barren thickets of the forest's undergrowth. Come nightfall he's exhausted enough to immediately fall asleep, even cold and hungry.
He doesn't think about where they're going, about the battles they'll be joining. Crazy ideals, Gintoki said, but Katsura can barely remember any of them, can barely understand anymore why he ever was fighting. Except that fighting, moving, doing anything, is better than feeling, when all he can feel is loss—a loss that isn't really a loss at all, when all that was taken from him was something he never had to begin with.
Sometimes he feels Gintoki's eyes on his back—can't help but feel them, can't help the way his skin prickles from that awareness. Gintoki is watching him now as he never used to. Katsura doesn't look back, doesn't think about it. He schools his face, makes sure his expression shows nothing. He doesn't want Gintoki's pity now, even if that wasn't what it was before.
If Takasugi notices the tension between them, he doesn't say anything about it. He doesn't say much of anything now, marching grimly silent and glaring at the ground before him with his good eye, as if he'd curse the earth itself. He curtly refuses any offers to help him change his bandaged face, managing in his tent alone with only the assistance of a looking glass. When Katsura asks, Takasugi tells him there's no infection, and that's all he'll say.
The journey's long and hard, and all they have to look forward when they reach their destination is more battles. So it's not surprising that one morning they awaken to find two of the men gone, run off during the night. Their trail isn't hard to follow, but it leads to a town—a community large enough to have a government outpost, with a radio to alert the Amanto, and they can't risk charging in after them.
Takasugi demands that Katsura go in anyway, as the least recognizable of them, but Gintoki argues back that they don't have the time to waste, that they're better off without cowards anyway. Eventually they decide to continue on, twenty-two irrelevant fragments of a broken army, toiling north.
Only three nights later, someone else tries to repeat the trick—Okawa Hideyoshi, the youngest of their number at barely fifteen. He's anxious and afraid, too starving and scared to wait for the darkness of the next new moon; he's caught before he makes his escape.
Voices awaken Katsura; he emerges from his tent to see the men crowded around Hideyoshi kneeling on the ground, and Takasugi standing before him with his katana unsheathed, raised so it reflects the moonlight.
"What the hell—!" Before Takasugi's blade falls, Gintoki lunges forward, setting himself between Takasugi and the trembling boy, sword drawn and crossed with Takasugi's. A flick of his wrist sends Takasugi's katana spinning out of his hands to clatter against a tree trunk. "Takasugi, what are you—"
"We can't afford to lose more soldiers!" Takasugi cries. "We need all the swords we have, even the cowards'! You know it, Shiroyasha—if we lose more men, we lose—"
"Then we lose!" Gintoki yells back. He grabs the loose folds of Takasugi's kimono in his fist, yanks him close to shout in his face, "I'd rather lose the war than lose our goddamn souls—was your left eye the only one that could see anything important?!"
"You're worse than that deserter Sakamoto," Takasugi spits back. "He was too big an idiot to ever understand, but you do—and you know what's at stake, you know what we're fighting for—"
"No, I don't," Gintoki says, letting go of Takasugi, stepping back. "I don't have any damn idea—I'm not fighting for anything that's worth killing an innocent kid over." He looks down at Hideyoshi. "Stick around for now—we'll be reaching a village tomorrow. You can stop there."
The watching men are silent, thin and pale as specters in the moonlight. Hideyoshi stares at him and at Takasugi; then, inevitably, he looks to Katsura.
Katsura pauses—because there is truth to what Takasugi says, as terrible as it is; and war is always terrible. But there's more right in what Gintoki says; what have they been fighting for, if not for the lives of all the kids who should grow up to be samurai? So Katsura nods, coming forward to stand beside Gintoki. "Yes," he tells the boy, taking his hand, helping him stand. "We'll see that you're sent safely on your way."
"Fools," Takasugi says, panting for breath, hunched over as if in pain. "Cowards and weaklings and fools—and you're the best of us, the best this rotting country has anymore. We've lost, haven't we. We've lost—"
"No," Katsura denies, and recalls the truth of what he's saying as he says it. "We can't lose. Not completely—even if the war is over, there'll always be ways to fight. There'll always be something worth fighting for." This is still the land of the samurai; the Amanto are only invaders, bacteria bringing the rot, but it could yet be expunged. Someday, somehow, if they do not all lose hope, if at least one samurai has the strength to keep fighting.
Katsura doesn't know if he's strong enough, not by himself—but every day he lives he grows a little stronger, and maybe someday it will be enough.
Maybe Takasugi doesn't realize what's coming, too sunken in his own bitterness. But Katsura notices it when some of the boys drop back as they walk, to whisper together in private. Gintoki at the rear might be able to overhear them, but Katsura doesn't ask him; he doesn't know if Gintoki would tell him the truth about that, either.
The Amanto track them down the day they reach the sea. They've only just spotted its freezing gray reaches through the trees when Gintoki shouts warning; the next second, branches crack under alien boots and they find themselves surrounded by an Amanto squad.
It's been weeks since they've been openly engaged; the men are slow to draw their swords, terrified all over again by the monsters they'd put from their minds as they journeyed. The forest's cover is their only saving grace, the dense evergreens offering life-saving concealment.
The forests, and Shiroyasha, because Gintoki hasn't been slowed by the long days of walking; he's as swift to draw his sword as ever he was, as quick to throw himself between the men and their enemies, and the valor of his charge gives the rest courage. Katsura hesitates not a second to charge in with him, while Takasugi directs the men to retreat, gives them cover while Katsura and Gintoki lead the Amanto away.
Fighting alongside Gintoki is like it always is; on the battlefield he and Katsura want the same things: to win, and to protect as many as they can, however they can. By the time the last of their men make their escape, they've taken down half the Amanto troops—at the expense of two of their own, two boys carried away from the battle only to die within the hour.
The ground's too frozen to bury the bodies; they gather stones instead, build cairns in the shelter of the trees, keeping watch all the while for more attackers. Late into the night and through till dawn, Gintoki remains standing over the graves.
Come sunrise, Katsura watches that still white figure in the pale bands of sunlight streaming through the trees. Sakamoto always called Gintoki unreadable, but his drawn face is clear to Katsura now, the suffering written across it—not exhaustion but the weight of loss, a void heavier than any load. These might as well be the first comrades he's ever buried, these two graves hurting him as deeply as all of the hundreds before.
They can smell the sea in the cold air. Over the water is Hokkaido, and the newly founded nation in Hakodate. Above the waves hover gray ships, Amanto vessels. They're less than a day's walk from a port; they'll have to take disguises for the crossing, sneak beneath the ships under the cover of fishermen, perhaps.
"No," Gintoki says.
"It may be ignoble, but we've little choice," Katsura begins to say.
"No," Gintoki repeats. "We're not going; we're heading back down south."
"Hakodate's the last of the resistance that has any chance," Takasugi says. "The war might as well be over, down there."
"Exactly," Gintoki says. "Which is why we're going back." The men standing behind him nod, pale but resolved—twelve of them, more than half their meager force.
Katsura looks at them. "You'd come all this way, this far, just to turn around?"
"Better than coming all this way just to die."
"You think it'll be that easy?" Takasugi demands. "You think the Amanto will politely let you through, if you surrender? You think the Bakufu will offer you any mercy? Yesterday's attack was just one squadron—they've drawn the lines across the country, now that they rule. They'll slaughter you, set your heads out by the river as a lesson—"
"They can try," Gintoki says, and the way he rests his hand on his katana's hilt says, You can try, too. "I don't care; I'm taking them back. Every man here, I'm going to make sure they get safely home," and if anyone else said it, it would be a worthless promise, a vain defiance of fate; but Shiroyasha says it without defiance or determination, instead a flat matter-of-factness that's almost weary.
And they believe him, all the men who will walk with him; they've followed Shiroyasha long enough to trust him.
Takasugi is enraged, hissing, "You coward, you traitor, you worthless weak fool—you're the worst of anything in this world, the most rotten, that you've fallen so far—" and he looks for a moment like he might strike Gintoki. But Gintoki just stands there, looking at him, not reaching for his blade, and Takasugi finally turns his back on him and strides away without another word.
"Go, then," Katsura says, bowing his head. They won't have enough men to fend off another attack, but it doesn't matter anyway.
This war is all but lost, with them or without them; their battle will continue on another field. And he would that Gintoki would stand with them, with Shiroyasha's strength—but if he will not, then Katsura's yet strong enough to fight without him.
He expected this, maybe has been expecting it for a long time now. Perhaps he's always known their war would end like this, not in blood and fire and final acts of desperate courage, but on a frozen hillside, where it's too quiet to hear anything but the truth. He's always known what Gintoki fought for, after all.
And knowing that, he's not surprised when Gintoki pulls him between the trees, out of sight or hearing of Takasugi and the other men, whispers to him, "Come with us, Zura."
"You're strong enough; you don't need me," Katsura tells him.
"But if you came, all the other guys would, too—we could even convince Takasugi. And then we could find our own way home," Gintoki says, and the wind off the sea is chill but his hand on Katsura's arm is warm, his breath warm in Katsura's ear. "We could make a home. Like you want it, Zura, with me—whatever you want, to fuck me, or be fucked by me, everything, anything—"
Takasugi was wrong, Katsura thinks, completely wrong; it's like he never knew Gintoki at all.
"Don't," Katsura says, not angrily, as he pulls away. "Don't be cruel."
"I know you aren't trying to be," Katsura tells him. "But you shouldn't say things you don't understand."
"I understand," Gintoki says, "I know what you want—"
"No," Katsura cuts him off, "you don't, or you wouldn't pretend you can give it to me—but it's all right, Gintoki. I'll be all right," and he takes Gintoki's face in his hands, gazes directly into those rust-red eyes so Gintoki can see the honesty in Katsura's own. "Go. I promise—with or without you, I've got too much to fight for to die now."
"Zura," Gintoki says, low and unnaturally, painfully serious, "I never—I'm—"
"It's all right, Gintoki," Katsura says, "I forgive you," and he gently draws Gintoki's head down to press a kiss to his forehead, a chaste brush of his lips over the tangled silver bangs. "There's just one thing..."
"What?" Gintoki asks, moving closer, ignorant and ready for anything.
Takasugi was so wrong—it's not at all that Gintoki can't love, but that he loves too much; he cares too deeply for all of those close to him to give himself to only one. Even if he'd try, for the sake of one he loved—but it's not in Katsura to be that selfish, even if he might wish it were.
"It's not Zura," Katsura tells him, "it's Katsura—remember that, will you?" and he pushes Gintoki out of the glade, toward the men waiting for the Shiroyasha to bring them home.
"You're the true samurai," Takasugi tells the half dozen men who stayed with them, "you're this decaying nation's last hope," and they cheer in ragged defiance as they march after him.
But Katsura doesn't follow, looking back behind them at the shrinking figures of the dozen men making their way down the seaside trail. He stands there with the surf crashing in his ears like the ocean's breath, watching Gintoki's back, wondering if he'll ever see that silver hair again. Wondering if all of them will make it back; wondering if any of them still have homes to return to. Wondering where Gintoki will go, when he has none.
Unable to look away, even though Gintoki never looks back, until they're out of sight.
Then at last Katsura turns away, inhales a lungful of the chill sea air and strides forward into his own future.