He’s not sure he’s ever had to realize it – it feels like something he’s always known.
He is sitting next to the river with Katsura (just Katsura), assembling boats out of leaves and twigs and sending them downstream.
“Where do you think they’ll end up, Takasugi?” the taller boy asks, eyes – as always – wide and focused on the elsewhere.
Takasugi snorts, spearing another green sail onto a small branch. “Stuck in the rocks by the goat path.”
Katsura frowns, giving a huff. “Mine aren’t. Mine are going to make it down the whole river.”
“They wouldn’t make it that far in a hundred years. That’s so dumb.”
“Tch. Yours can get stuck in the rocks.” With that, the boy stands, dusting his hakama off fastidiously. Soft brown eyes – girl’s eyes, really – look inward and beyond. “Mine are going out to sea.”
Not long after that dreaming afternoon, everything changes.
“I don’t like him,” he tells Kojima flatly, although the expulsion feels almost involuntary.
The other boy nods, scowling in the direction of the strange white-haired addition to the classroom. “Me either. What’s with that attitude of his, huh? Like he’s tougher’n the rest of us.”
“Yeah,” Takasugi responds, feeling the distant pricks of his nails inside his fists. He concentrates to unclench them.
“You think he stole it?”
This time he can’t seem to stop himself from boring holes into his palms. “No,” he grinds out. “Of course he didn’t steal it. Don’t be so stupid.”
It wasn’t even like they were best friends, before. Takasugi has always spent more time with other boys, with normal boys – Kojima, Yasuo, Shigekazu, the rest of the class. They are easy to talk to, easy to laugh with, easy to put in their place. Katsura is different. There is a chasm of distance to him, a lofty propriety that is too stuck-up for the rough and tumble race of boyhood, an intensity unfamiliar and bizarre.
He doesn’t talk like the other boys, or think like the other boys, or act like the other boys – really, he just doesn’t belong with the other boys. In Takasugi’s mind, Katsura’s place has always seemed to be in that same dreamy elsewhere his sight rests on.
Still, it is Katsura’s differences which set him apart, which make him interesting. Takasugi, on occasion, gets fed up with how stupidYasuo can be, or how girly Shigekazu can’t take a damn joke, and that is when he finds himself with Katsura.
When he’d feel pangs of guilt over leaving the taller boy out or joining in on a round of teasing, he remembered these times; it didn’t matter if Takasugi hadn’t spoken a word to him in two weeks. It didn’t matter if he’d laughed the hardest when Fumio put a clump of wriggling worms into Katsura’s hair, and the boy had been so spaced out he hadn’t noticed for ten whole minutes. When Takasugi came to Katsura, he was greeted with the same blank and curious stare as always, accepting and passive.
The comfort was found in that despite his aloneness, Katsura never seemed lonely.
It stops being a comfort when it is proven, with the feral boy’s arrival, that not being lonely also means not needing anyone to keep you company.
The taller boy is never cruel about it. It is always “Perhaps later, I am going to help Gintoki water the vegetables,” or “Ah, Gintoki doesn’t have anyone to work with, ask Hitoshi,” or even “Do you want to see the bird’s nest we found?” It is never anywhere near as hurtful as what he himself has actually said to Katsura in brushing him off for safe, easy normalcy.
Even so, in every dismissal, he hears only “I like him better, too.”
Thinking about Sensei and Gintoki together is too big, too painful. Thinking about Katsura and Gintoki together comes like breathing though a broken nose.
The dislike for Gintoki eventually goes dormant, like a seed in the winter ground. The days of the terakoya allay all of them; Gintoki stops being more creature than child, Takasugi’s bitter insecurities are smoothed, and Katsura thrives with their friendships.
For a time, for a long and blooming spring, they are inseparable.
Five days before Yoshida Shoyou’s head is put on a pike, they catch the biggest fish in all of Japan – or possibly the world. By a fault that is mostly Katsura’s, it ends up flopping back into the stream, and no one believes them.
Four days before Yoshida Shoyou’s head is put on a pike, Gintoki and he get hall-wiping duty for a fist fight during class. By now Takasugi does not remember the last time he passed a full week’s time without hall-wiping duty.
Three days before Yoshida Shoyou’s head is put on a pike, Takasugi gets a letter from home, and is so excited he promptly spills miso soup all over it. Luckily, no one sees this.
Two days before Yoshida Shoyou’s head is put on a pike, Gintoki has a nightmare. In the dark, Takasugi hears him shuffling onto Katsura’s futon, and indecipherable whispers.
One day before Yoshida Shoyou’s head is put on a pike, they make Katsura laugh so hard he gets the hiccups, and then spends the next two hours trying to be taken seriously and failing.
The day Yoshida Shoyou’s head is put on a pike they – everyone who survived the burning of the school, not just Gintoki and Katsura but Yasuo and Hitoshi and Kojima and Shigekazu and Matsuo and Kugimiya, and everyone else – take to the road.
Takasugi starts to sob in less than half a mile. They are not whining cries, but terrible, loud, gut wrenching sobs, and they continue sporadically for three days. His friends offer no solace. Raging, silent Gintoki does not speak to him, barely speaks to anyone, and blank, dry-eyed Katsura is lost within his own mind.
By the time they reach the rebels’ dojo, Takasugi’s eyes are cracked and red, and his throat is sore. He has no more tears to weep, will not weep again.
The rebels give him a sword, but it is not the one he wants.
They are too young to fight, so they return to learning how to be samurai; this time without philosophy or the strokes of a patient fude. The rebels are not teachers, and do not always treat them impartially, nor kindly.
Gintoki breaks Katsura’s wrist the second week, during sparring. Something in the taller boy splits as well, and he becomes even more fiercely belligerent, taking on all of Katsura’s duties as well as his own. While Takasugi understands this desperation to protect what little they have left, the men take to giving Gintoki a hard time (with the other’s foul attitude and Katsura looking the way he does – it was bound to happen). Takasugi ends up helping the white-haired boy beat the shit out of a man named Gorou, with Katsura himself breaking up the brawl.
After, when the short-haired boy tries to help Katsura sit up, Gintoki shoulders him out of the way, as single-minded and animal as his first day at the terakoya. With his heart still thundering from the fight, Takasugi cracks his knuckles across the back of Gintoki’s head, and the fight starts anew.
It becomes clear that they cannot rely on the uncomplicated bonds of childhood friendship, anymore.
They train brutally every day under the summer sun, and Takasugi revels in it. He surpasses all of the other teenagers in his ruthlessness, energy, and efficiency. He lives for the day he is finally allowed to walk onto the battlefield and bury his sword in some Amanto abomination’s throat. Although he is still rather short, his limbs feel stronger and more able with every passing day. His classmates are beginning to resemble soldiers, instead of hapless orphans and skinny kids in too-big kimono. Crooked or straight, they are all growing up.
It is during one of these training sessions that the very last inch of his childhood is burnt away.
The broken-down dojo reeks of sweat and anger, the exercises dragging on for hours without pause. They slash, they thrust, they block; they swing low, they jump high. The rebels cannot afford to waste time on bokuto, and with real steel, they cut one another more often than not. Takasugi considers these nicks as if they were grade marks– those with numerous of those thin lacerations bear public record of failure. These boys becoming men, he doesn’t have time for. Already, Takasugi refuses to entertain the company of failures and weaklings.
Katsura is one of the few who has no cuts. His fast footwork was unparalleled in the terakoya, and remains so among this rag-tag bunch of would-be revolutionaries. When Katsura spars, his skin is only slashed with tendrils of sweat and long, stupid hair, harsh bars of black slicing nape and shoulder blades into stark segments. Too often, Takasugi’s eyes are drawn to these pale fragments, distracting and irritating in every way.
One day, he finds himself thinking how much less annoying – how much better it would be if that hair were drawn up, maybe into his fingers, if that skin was left flawless and uninterrupted, smooth and hot to the touch – to his touch.
The day he wonders this, he looks away, guilty and uncertain, and finds Gintoki’s sight, also, trained too intently on the lines of Katsura’s shattered, perfect back.
A numb second later, their eyes lock, both too knowing, and Takasugi realizes things have fucking changed again.
Feelings of disgust and hot loathing have bloomed in his gut, and they will not lay dormant a second time.
It is no longer easy to stomach Katsura’s favoritism, knowing what he knows about that bastard, that perm-headed demon (knowing what he knows about himself).
“A growth spurt,” spits Katsura, spraying rice in utter disgust (not exactly the trembling, raven-haired beauty Takasugi has begun to picture when – when he just needs to picture something). “What crap. You probably got Shigekazu to stretch your legs out at night, you utter fake.”
“Aaa, is that the whining of the jealous rabble I hear, down there?” croons Gintoki, making a great show of leaning down. Katsura, who always seemed to be steadily growing taller and more willowy like some kind of plant, has finally been eclipsed by the white-haired boy – just barely.
“How can you even call that a growth spurt?” demands the former tallest. “It’s a measly inch, at most. Isn’t it, Shinsuke?”
Takasugi grunts a bored reply, shifting his dumplings around his bowl. “It’s an inch of victory,” Gintoki decrees. “And what are you asking him for? He never had an inch of victory to crown his head.”
“Haa? At least I have something in mine, you festering asshole.”
“What did you call me? What sort of uncouth words have you picked up? You’re lucky I’m at least civilized, oi, or I’d shove these chopsticks up your – ”
The eventual scuffle is predictable, but the stare he gives Gintoki during it – you aren’t civilized, I’ve seen the way you look at him, I’ve heard you cursing into futons, I’ve thought the things you’ve thought – isn’t at all. They are growing into their skin and desire, and there’s nothing refined about it; only uncomfortable anger, short tempers, and overheated competition. Growth spurts didn’t happen without growing pains, after all (and Takasugi can’t help but find himself sharing his around).
For all Gintoki’s thick-headedness, he was found among beasts and bodies and bush, and one does not leave such a life without knowing what a warning looks like. After the several reincarnations of that same fight (trivial matters and unforgiving undertow), the boy he’d grown up with, the boy he’d loved Sensei with, begins again to give him a wider berth.
And for a few months, Katsura dangles between their two outposts like a lost traveler (disoriented, but all too ready to be welcomed in from the cold).
The fighting is both nothing and everything like he imagined.
Just as he’d thought, it’s a wonderful pleasure to drive home his blade into a wicked invader, to see a real living thing wither and rattle before his superior strength and will. The Amanto myths of unsurpassed power and unknown terror, passed like pox through razed villages and unworthy soldiers, are dispelled with each carving slice. He doesn’t fear, respect, nor pity them. The only consideration he has for them is that they can bleed, and they can die.
They bleed and die especially well around Takasugi.
Unlike his imaginings, however, he doesn’t, in the course of it all, think about how best to prove himself to his commanding officers. He doesn’t carefully prepare and strategize his attacks. He doesn’t think about the flames of the terakoya, or the flames of justice.
He doesn’t think about Katsura’s smile or Gintoki’s scowl.
He doesn’t think about Sensei’s head, and the blood as it dripped, and dripped, and dripped.
He doesn’t think about anything at all (and the bloody freedom the rebels crow for finally, finally makes sense).
The first sprigs of reconciliation sprout from the isolation of others.
“Is he still with that idiot?” grumbles Takasugi, dropping his sword unceremoniously on the flat, shabby futon he’ll be claiming. He doesn’t shrug out of the newly acquired military coat – sure, an inn was a luxury compared to a muddy ditch or an abandoned barn, but that didn’t mean for a moment it was a luxury in itself. As he kneels beside his sword, the holes in the roof above them shudder and sigh softly with the wind. “I don’t know why anyone is wasting their time on the new recruits. They’re all sons of farmers, no matter what we teach them, they’re going to keep hacking at things like they’re collecting harvest.”
“S’what I think, too,” responds the arc of Gintoki’s back. The other man is watching the candle in the window, and the flickering makes that weird, white hair of his reflect an eerie glow. “But Zura says he’s got promise, or whatever.”
This intrigues him, as Katsura is a reliable measurer of ability, but it does not convince him (as Katsura is an unreliable measurer of emotion, and an advocate of strays). “Him? Hah, I’d like to see him last the week. Tch, he’ll probably trip over his sandals into an axe.”
“Maa, much as I hate to,” the other drawls, rolling on his back, forearm shielding those weird eyes of his, “I gotta agree.”
“You do?” He’d arch his eyebrows, but tiredness is setting into his shoulders, making his eyes droop.
Gintoki’s voice comes as if from a distance. “Sure. Ain’t ever heard of somebody surviving a goddamn war by laughing.”
Even after that afro idiot has proven himself in battle, he doesn’t expect a fourth member to join their already (in his mind) broken band of brothers. With the way Katsura fawns over the moron like a doting mother, it comes as something of a grudging relief that he has eyes only, ravenously for women (Gintoki and he aren’t the only ones, by now, to have noticed Katsura).
The time in which Sakamoto is not fighting, he spends drinking and carousing (the first with high alcohol content, the second with very low success). He can’t seem to resist his impulses, constantly seems to be blurting the first thing that comes to his depraved, sake-fogged mind. These days, Takasugi has even less patience for weaklings and failures. Sakamoto Tatsuma, slave to his impulses and nigh on professional idiot, seems to be both.
Much to his chagrin, however, he finds himself with the loudmouth more and more, mostly due to Gintoki’s being a lightweight. To the amusement of all, Gintoki doesn’t hold his alcohol well, and Katsura remains an incurable mother hen. On the nights that they’ve all had a bit too much (alcohol, among other excesses of war) Gintoki invariably winds up wrapped around Zura’s shoulders, the two stumbling off into a copse for the permhead to deposit his stomach in.
It is on such a particular night of excess that Takasugi’s opinion of Sakamoto changes.
The chill of autumn is setting in as, from the creaky porch, he watches the silhouette of war brothers (friends is too generous for Gintoki, no longer fully appropriate for Zura) staggering in the underbrush. He’s taken up smoking recently – it’s a rough char to contrast the smoothness of drink, and he enjoys the ritual of it, the efficiency and simplicity in which one’s goal (to burn) is accomplished with ease and grace.
“Ahahaha,” comes the call of the wild idiot as the door slides open, and Takasugi frowns, spilling tobacco. “Oh, haha, it’s you, Takai! What are you doing out here? Shouldn’t you be inside, inside? Hahahaha!”
Referring, of course, to the woman currently gathering her clothes in his room. Excesses of war, indeed. “Haah? She wasn’t worth much more time, I’m afraid.” A loud swear comes from the pair of silhouettes. Takasugi’s eyes slant to them, and then back to the flame, like the sharp dislocation of a shoulder.
“Hahaha, hey, that’s pretty cold! A lot of guys would have given up a lot for a night with that beauty!” Meaning himself, of course.
“What colour were her eyes?” asks Takasugi stridently.
The taller man, setting down beside him, blinks. “Aa?”
“Her eyes,” he repeats, lighting his pipe successfully this time. “What colour were they? Blue? Black? Green? Brown?”
A pause, and then the other man laughs again. “Well, I guess I didn’t actually notice, but I’d love the chance to find out! Hahaha!”
“The woman at the last inn,” Takasugi presses. “The one you somehow managed to bed. What colour were hers?”
A silence greets him – it’s not unexpected. “See?” he drawls. The smaller samurai exhales, burn steady and ash ready. “We’re all a little cold, aren’t we, Tatsuma?”
“Not all of us,” Sakamoto responds, and Takasugi’s eyes cut across honeysuckle and shadow, finding a spot of deep-sea darkness beside muted silver. In the tangle of copse and brambles, curses and steady shoulders, he doesn’t see any coldness.
His lip curls, but before he can respond, the other man claps a heavy hand on his shoulder. His pipe is pointed to. “Ahahaha, anyway, you should put that thing out. You won’t get warm that way.”
The night a fearsome legend is born, Takasugi is face down in the muck.
As the Amanto begin to import more advanced weapons to their troops, the samurai have turned more and more to guerilla fighting. It is pointless to assault them as a great, rioting force, as they once had done, overwhelming them with spirit and steel. They have gained tactical advantage, for now, but sacrificed the proud solidarity that holds any army together. They crawl in the dirt towards their enemies, like snakes in the grass. No cries for nation or glory drown the death rattle of their enemy once metal fangs have sunk deep.
This kind of fighting leaves much to be desired – for example, it is almost impossible to keep track of a force once an ambush has been sprung. After the fight has concluded, they return to camp one by one, with filth on their bellies (filth in their hearts). Picking himself up out of the mud, Takasugi distantly feels his head begin to pound as he tries to scout out a single member of his Kihetai. When he sees nothing but trees and hears nothing but the evening wind, he has a feeling he has been left for dead (has a feeling he might be dead walking, if the hot wetness sliding from temple to collarbone has anything to say about it).
He wipes blood out of his eyes, picks a direction, and slitherstumbles forward.
The camp he returns to is nothing like the one he’d left, full of dispirited soldiers and arguing captains. A celebration is taking place, fires stoked high, with men laughing and drinking around them.
“Why’s,” he slurs, but irritatingly finds himself too woozy to locate the rest of the sentence (honestly, headwounds). A younger recruit sees him, and dark eyes widen like saucers.
“It’s – it’s the Kihetai captain!” He turns around to yell back to older men by the fire, “Oi! Takasugi-san’s alive!” and it’s yelped in what is more shock than joy.
“Why the fuck wouldn’t I be?” he snaps. The fires, the noise, the recruit’s post-pubescent shrieking – it’s too bright, too loud, too alive. Speaking of – Takasugi doesn’t see any of his men. “Oi, where’s Kido?” His second in command. “Where are the Kihetai?”
“They came back a while ago. I think Kido-san went into town for the sake – “ Something must have changed in his expression, because the stupid little shit suddenly remembers himself, “—uh, sir, but he should be back by now. Sir!”
Takasugi turns from the slack-jawed idiot without a further word. A few men notice his return with surprise, but distraction and celebration reign. The mood doesn’t permeate his bones; quite the contrary, the orange light from proudly built campfires sends sick whirls of shadow across grinning faces. It makes his comrades distorted, ugly, demonic. He can’t focus on them without feeling sick.
It’s by his lieutenant’s laugh that Takasugi locates him.
“Kido,” he barks, and the man holding a bottle of Japan’s finest hasn’t even the decency to look abashed. His lack of decency was what got him his position, but now Takasugi is… reconsidering it.
“Captain!” He immediately bows low, and the sake sloshes across the grass. Dizzily, it puts him in mind of a proverb about men’s hearts. Will weeds grow there too, he wonders. “Fuminori reported seeing you go down – we thought you were dead!”
“Evidently,” he replies levelly, “you were very torn up about it. Sorry, Kikkun. You’ll have to wait a while yet for a promotion.”
The other man’s face goes paler. Kido is around his age, reckless, swaggering, with a big mouth and ego. He isn’t often fearful. It’s the first pleasing sight he’s seen since returning to camp. “Captain – ”
“Who did we lose? What are our remaining numbers?” he snaps. “If you need your fingers to count, I suggest putting the sake down.”
His lieutenant struggles to collect himself, but doesn’t get a chance for redemption.
“Your company is fine,” says a heavy hand on his shoulder. Takasugi wants to break every finger belonging to it, but realizes abruptly that his arms are completely numb. That the jovial voice belongs to Nitamura, his commanding officer, is of secondary consideration. “Two injuries, neither serious. Now that you’re back, everyone’s accounted for. Your men fought well, as they always do.”
“I only take the best,” he replies. He stares at Kido until the other man looks away.
Nitamura has looked him up and down, in the meanwhile. “I’d be happier to continue this conversation after you’ve had a visit to the medical tent. Have Kido take you – it might be tough to get through the crowd.”
To his blurring vision, the glow from the lanterns inside the medical tent gives it the appearance of a luminescent hive. Appropriate, then, that the hushed buzz of noise surrounding it sounds like insects.
“ – what do you know about it, shrimp? You weren’t even there – ”
“ – white – ”
“ – fifty-four Amanto, Jirochii said he was covered in their – ”
“ – with his teeth – ”
“ – Katsura-san gave orders, he isn’t to be disturbed – ”
“ – if he hadn’t held the valley, they would have gotten to the camp – ”
“ – red eyes, like a demon’s – ”
“ – went crazy, I’ve never seen anything so – ”
“ – brave – ”
“ – horrible – ”
“ – fucking bloody – ”
“ – I heard they had to break one of his fingers so he’d let go of his sword – ”
“ – sixty, maybe even seventy – ”
“ – ask Matsuo, he went to school with him – ”
“ – thank God he’s on our side – ”
“ – Shiroyasha – ”
Kido pulls back worn canvas, opening a portal away from this nonsensical world, and Takasugi ducks inside, leaving him. The frenzied buzz reduces to a hum, cicadas instead of wasps. With the cottoned sounds and flickering low light, time becomes syrup-slow. A thin medic leads him to a thinner futon, but not before the samurai spots a familiar figure.
Katsura’s long, sleek hair is the second darkest thing in the large tent. The first darkest things are, of course, the soaked bandages wrapped across Sakata Gintoki’s bared body.
“Zura,” he calls out weakly, his head feeling heavier by the moment. There’s no response – he’s not even sure he said it above a slur In the dim light, Takasugi can see Katsura’s mouth moving, his patient hands pressing stiff, re-used bandages to the contours of lividly bruised skin. Fingertips are lingering, hazel-bright eyes are low.
The medic is saying things, asking things as he wraps his head, but Takasugi is only hearing what he’s already heard tonight.
We thought you were dead, Kido had told him. Was Zura told? Did he, at least, look for him? Or was he already at that bastard’s side? What had happened on the western battlefield, while he and his men sweat and swore and struggled in the mud, like fucking worms?
“How is your vision?” asks the medic.
Gintoki’s arm moves, with great effort. A bandaged hand seizes a heavy lock of Katsura’s hair, tugs roughly. Katsura’s head tilts closer as his lips curve up, not just at the corners, but full and warm. Gintoki is looking at him with –
“Can you see? Takasugi-san?”
Red eyes, like a demon’s.
He doesn’t waste time wishing he couldn’t.
Takasugi passes the largest celebration fire on the way back to his tent, the medic left squawking behind him. For a brief moment, he considers shoving a foot into the flames, sending burning, heavy logs rolling amongst the men.
He considers the way the fire would take to the tents and then jump to the night sky, singeing the stars.
He considers the wet sheen the sake would take on, sloshed into the grass from dropped and broken cups.
He considers the laughter and relief becoming screams.
Truthfully, Takasugi is only nineteen years old, and he wants to burn his heart out of his chest.
After that night, it doesn’t matter how many successful missions he plans. It doesn’t matter how many suicide missions he plans. It doesn’t matter how quickly his blade carves its way across the countryside, or how quickly his tongue traces up a whore’s ear. It doesn’t matter how many of his men die, and it definitely doesn’t matter how many of his men survive.
Shiroyasha, they mutter amongst themselves. Everyone has an opinion – some fear him, some respect him, some admire him. But one thing is consistent; every single one of those village bumpkins with beets for brains, every gawky little lord carrying a sword too well-made for his untried hands, every beautiful husband-less woman with rings under her eyes, every child with horse shit stuck to their bare feet, they all know his goddamn name.
They don’t remember the Kihetai, the bloodiest rebels of them all. They don’t remember Takasugi, their scarlet leader. The only color they can speak of is white, white, white.
“What do dead men walking have, besides their fame?” he snaps at Sakamoto. “What the fuck do they have to leave behind?”
Sakamoto isn’t smiling, for once, and has no answers for him.
The list of things Gintoki has taken from him grows longer and more tattered every day.
Their stomachs are dry with hunger, and their breaths echo hollowly within their chests like wind through bird cages. Even still, the need to survive through the oncoming winter brings desperate men together.
Game is growing scarce, but they are becoming used to lean portions. At least, some of them are.
“Nice shot, Zura!” crows Sakamoto, loudly enough to scare everything out of the clearing. Despite the unnecessary volume, it’s true; Zura is the best marksman of them. Sakamoto is actually no sloppy shot himself, but his talent for trap-making outshines the blunt simplicity of drawing a bowstring. Takasugi has come to understand Sakamoto, if not like him – and the taller man’s mind is drawn to complexity.
“It’s not Zura, it’s Katsura,” replies the dark-haired samurai tonelessly. Takasugi is coming to understand Zura better, too. Sakamoto’s mind is a trap, with hidden doors and finely tuned mechanics; Zura’s is a bow string, drawn to the simplicity of a distant mark, of a rabbit’s red, red throat.
Takasugi bends to pick the rabbit up, finds it nailed into the dirt with the force of the shot. Tch, he can’t help but commiserate. “How many is that, now?”
“Three rabbits, one stoat.” The bodies hang from Zura’s belt, broken. He looks good as a hunter, thinks Takasugi, and rips the arrow out of the ground. It doesn’t distract him from the sharp flare of want in his belly.
“Is that all? I’m not going back to camp without at least eight.”
“Ahahaha, don’t worry, Takai!” Sakamoto starts swaggering off into the brush, traps clacking at his hips. “I’m great at hunting rabbits! See, I understand how they work, you know? Because we share the same basic urge to constantly fu – ”
“Just find the warren, Tatsuma,” interjects Zura. Right as Takasugi hands the arrow back, he adds, “Hn, speaking of hare-brained...”
“Maybe he fell in a ditch,” Takasugi supplies blithely. “Maybe he got mauled by a bear. He does eat a lot of honey.”
Katsura snorts. “If anything, he is likely mauling the bear for its honey.”
“I told him the river would be too far away.” Suffice to say, Takasugi doesn’t feel particularly upset that Gintoki is crashing around pointlessly in the wilderness (what else is new). “Ch, I’m not looking for him.”
“I’m sure a search party won’t be necessary,” sighs Zura. There is some snapping of twigs up in the distance. Zura shades his eyes from the late autumn light filtering through the leaves. “Tatsuma? Are the traps set? If we need – ”
“You need to get the hell out of the way, oi!” Gintoki proceeds to barrel out of the woods, crash into Takasugi, and bring them both down on top of as many uncomfortable roots as possible.
“Hahhh!?” yowls Takasugi.
“Aa?” blinks Zura.
The enormous boar which thunders out of the undergrowth, foaming with rage, also makes a few sounds, but by then everyone is screaming too loudly to hear it.
Gintoki’s foot finds Takasugi’s fingers three times before either of them can even sort out their own limbs, and even though Katsura has his sword out, the boar doesn’t seem intimidated. Frankly, it doesn’t seem like it gives a single, solitary shit, charging wildly at the long-haired man repeatedly.
“Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit,” Zura is chanting, running in circles and swinging his sword without any measure of bushido to be found, “Holy shit, holy shit, you idiot, holy shit – ”
“Kill him, Zura!” yells Gintoki helpfully, his knee finding Takasugi’s fingers this time.
“Kill him, Shinsuke!”
“Gladly! Get the fuck off of my arm, Sakata you wide-load shit for brains!”
Zura trips on the uneven copse below, and it’s only through a quick jerk to the side that the oversized beast doesn’t gore his gut right open. He still gets a tusk in the arm for his trouble, and Zura yells in pain, losing grip on his sword, which goes clattering into a rock. Takasugi thinks madly, Fucking Zura’s going to fucking die because of a fucking pig, and I’m going to fucking die with fucking Sakata’s fucking perm up my fucking nose –
The huge log that comes crashing down onto the pig’s skull is the third most surprising thing that could have happened. The fact that Sakamoto, that idiot, was able to find his way back to them is the second most surprising thing. The most surprising thing of all, however, is –
“Ahahaha, so… I guess these will go good together, huh!”
– the gentle rain of delicious shiitake mushrooms over what is soon to be their pork dinner.
Takasugi is faintly surprised that the men don’t rip their spoils apart raw the second they get back to camp. Ringed around the fire, the smell of roasting meat brings color and cheer back to wan faces. For once, hungers are sated; the hope of surviving the oncoming winter brings desperate men together.
“Did you even find the river?” he asks Gintoki, mouth full of boar.
“If you’re talking about the piss down my leg,” Gintoki replies, “I sure as hell did.”
The camaraderie of blood-brothers has won the day; Zura’s arm isn’t even injured too badly. He jostles for a helping of the pig just as enthusiastically as any of them.
“Ahahaha, hey Zura! Don’t you think you owe me some of that? Hey? Considering that if it weren’t for me, ahaha, you’d have a pair tusks up your ass right next to that giant stick – ”
The way Zura pushes Sakamoto into a pile of horse shit is also a testament to his health.
That night, the men fall asleep like full-bellied children, dreaming of rice bowls and perfumed women. As the numbers by the fireside dwindle, Sakamoto pulls out the last of his sake to share. Despite the missing string, Takasugi’s shamisen still plays sweetly for him.
There is singing and even dancing, but soon Zura alone is left on his feet, swaying unevenly to the notes like the bow of a ship on choppy water. “Aa, I don’t know this one, but it’s good,” he mumbles, silhouetted by the flames.
The sake loosens his tongue, but the way Zura burns makes it truthful. “Naa, you’re always so much nicer to me when I play,” he mutters to the shadow before him.
Zura brings the gourd to his lips. Over it, he replies, “You don’t talk as much shit when you play,” and tips his head back. Takasugi snorts –even though he’s a condescending asshole, Zura has a point (as usual).
When Zura collapses beside him, his fingers still. “Why are you stopping? Don’t,” the other samurai says, orders, in that high-handed way of his that instantly drives Takasugi to irritation (that instantly drives Takasugi to distraction).
He snorts again. “Oho? Should I play all night, my lord? I’m here to fight, not strum pretty music for you.”
“Give up the sword.” He says it so lightly, so carelessly, as if such a thing could be done. (It would take another sword.)
Zura – Katsura, in this gentle form, maybe – sinks to the ground next to him, more sigh than man. His hair, dark water, flows near. Takasugi wants to touch it, to sink his hands into the murky unknown, but he’s been bidden to play. It’s typical; even when Zura is Katsura, even when he is peaceful and dulled, he will allow for nothing. Blood(ed) brothers, indeed. “Become a wandering musician,” comes the absent, dreamy voice. “Living off the kindnesses of others.”
He’s been mistaken. Zura might be a good shot, but he’s no hunter. He’s a beast, calmed and beguiled by honey cakes of note and measure. It doesn’t lessen the want turning need in his belly – if anything, it increases it. He wants to paint them as the same animal with the black ink of Katsura’s hair. “You’re always such a sentimental fool,” he murmurs in return. “It’s only your kindnesses I want.”
It is these memories that Takasugi sometimes suspects are a lie, nostalgic exaggeration. After all, memory isn’t like a vault behind a padlock, or a safe behind a painting.
It isn’t like that at all.
He loses his eye that October. It’s a gaping, messy wound that wraps around the side of his head, mangling his ear as well. He barely makes it through the operation, blacks out too often to recall a single thing about the next few days. Once he recovers from the shock, he finds his eye scooped out of his head, and his hearing to be fine despite the scarring.
“Isn’t that a relief? I couldn’t play your music if I was deaf as well as blind,” the drugs say.
Katsura, loudly and angrily in the officer’s tent, blames poor information. Sakamoto, somberly and only after several cups of sake at the inn, blames the war. Gintoki, having been a mere seven paces away when it happened, silently, always so fucking silently, blames himself.
Takasugi knows that it makes all of them uncomfortable that he blames no one.
The days in which he is too dizzy, too blood-lost (the cousin of blood-lust), he doesn’t trust anyone to touch it but Katsura. His eye – the hole where his eye used to be – throbs and aches unceasingly, and he can smell infection with every breath.
If it becomes too deeply infected, he will probably die. This fascinates him.
“Do you think I’ll go crazy first?” he mutters.
Katsura has had trouble, since his injury, speaking above a quiet murmur. Takasugi doesn’t mind – it makes his voice sound lacquered, like a well-cared for sheath. “Don’t talk morbid garbage.”
“S’not garbage, it’s strategy. Y’could tie swords to my arms and aim me at a hoard of them. Naa, that’s how I want to go out, Zura.”
“Katsura. Stop it, you’re annoying me.”
“Haa, it’s the medicine talking.”
Above him, a wearied sigh. Through the haze of drugs and dreams, the other man can picture a roof with holes. “We’re almost out of it.”
“Hnnn. That’s too bad. But maybe,” it’s not just the infection-fever, he realizes too sharply, it’s the terror of having had cold steel drag down the inside of his skull, splitting tissues so very close to his brain, “maybe, you could give me another kind of medicine,” he slurs.
Takasugi reaches out, a sweaty hand grabbing Katsura’s wrist hard, not letting go. Despite that bastard’s ridiculous face, his limbs are nothing like a woman’s, not fragile and thin. The taller man breaks the hold easily, demanding, “What’s gotten into you? What do you need?”
“To get into you,” he sneers, and laughs, because it’s awful, this is awful, he never meant for it to happen this way – he never meant for it to happen, period. Unlike Gintoki, he is civilized. Unlike Sakamoto, he can control his impulses. For all that others have noticed Katsura, Katsura doesn’t seem to notice anyone.
But Takasugi isn’t tired of not being noticed. He’s furious of it.
Despite the wave of nausea it causes, he sits up, grabbing a fistful of black hair. Katsura’s expression goes from troubled to pained, and the shorter man feels a sick thrill to have caused cool, remote Katsura to show such an emotion. “Would you – stop that! What the hell is wrong with you? Oi, Gintoki – ”
The thrill dissipates instantly. “Don’t call for him,” spits Takasugi, grabbing at the other’s obi and pulling mindlessly until he hears ties ripping. Katsura’s eyes go wide, still so fucking oblivious. “Don’t you fucking call for him – ”
“What’s going on in here?” rumbles a deep voice from the doorway. Moritomo is a mountain of a man, with a palm the size of Takasugi’s face. The hold Takasugi has on Katsura’s clothes loosens in surprise, and the slack fabric sags down the other’s arms. Katsura’s body isn’t flawless anymore, scars and stitches littering his pale skin, bruises colouring it.
“I think he’s having some kind of bad reaction,” says Katsura over the pounding of his blood. The long-haired man doesn’t know how wrong (how right) he is. Takasugi wants to run his hands over Katsura’s imperfect new topography, feel out the valleys of his skin with his tongue. He finds himself clawing at it, instead, fingers digging, bringing up new colour to that skin. As Katsura yanks his talons away, holds him by weakened arms, Moritomo shouts for a medic.
“Shit,” curses Moritomo. “I told those bastards we should have kept using local methods.”
Takasugi’s world slows down again, pulls out of the fever-fog for but a moment. If they hadn’t used local methods, that means…
“You put fucking Amanto shit in me?” he bursts, voice cutting unevenly, the saw of a rusted blade. He wants only to destroy that whole disgusting fucking race, and now he’s been effectively saved by them. The insult is staggering. The betrayal is even more so. “You fucking treated me with – ”
“You were going to die,” pleads Katsura, who is a liar, a roof with holes, a ruined canvas. “The infection was spreading. We didn’t have any other option, Shinsuke – ”
“You could have let me fucking die!” Even Moritomo and Katsura together can hardly hold him down (he knows, now, he will go crazy first).
They don’t talk about what happened. Katsura seems unaffected, likely chalking it up to all the wrong things, as usual.
For now, Takasugi doesn’t care to correct him.
The first snow gives a pause to the increasingly bloody war. Even alien tech can’t manage to get around in the blizzard that sweeps Japan, smothering it in frost and ice. Just like the weather, just like the enemy line, public opinion has started to turn against them – inns and lords turn them away at their door, drive them back into the snow.
They hole up in an abandoned barn, feeling lucky to have found shelter (feeling numb everywhere else).
A cold wind chills them as the barn door opens just wide enough to permit someone through. “Yo, Zura!” hails Sakamoto, pulling off the wide-brim hat. As he drops the firewood – which he took his damn sweet time getting – Takasugi notices that even the idiot’s face is starting to look drawn, clear blue eyes tired and troubled. Takasugi tries not to take any joy in it, but it doesn’t work (he’s sick of feeling like the only who’s had enough; a war was no goddamn place for laughter). “Is Kintoki down here?”
“Gintoki’s still sick, don’t bother him,” Zura calls over his shoulder, not pausing in brushing down the horses. They don’t need it, but it’s something to do that isn’t sleeping, playing cards, or listening to highly exaggerated and anatomically impossible brothel stories. Takasugi sits nearby, next to the fire, lighting his kiseru. “I told him he’d catch his death on that roof with you.”
“Ahaha, you didn’t say the same to me! I’d be heartbroken, but it must be that you wanted me to pass on and go to paradise, instead of this crappy place, ahahaha!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You have more natural insulation, Tatsuma. That ugly perm’s porous.”
A disgruntled pile of blankets in the loft hoarsely calls down, “Will the both of you shut the hell up? Can’t a man drown in his own goddamn snot in peace, aa? Aa? When do I get to go to paradise?”
“Since when do demons get to go to paradise,” mutters Takasugi, and he watches Zura’s shoulders tighten. He wonders what Zura thinks about Shiroyasha, has a feeling he’d be disappointed. He has a feeling that neither Sakamoto nor Zura realize that Shiroyasha and Gintoki have always, always been the same ghost.
“Ahaha, there he is! I’m comin’ up, Kintoki!” Sakamoto heads for the ladder, but a sandal pegs him right in the face. The hit would be impressive, if Sakamoto’s fluffy head didn’t make for such a huge and inviting target. “Ahaha, I get it, you’re not feeling too great! But I really have to go up, yeah?”
Something about his tone makes Takasugi pause. He thinks, what could possibly be so important that Sakamoto would risk getting pushed off a ladder? He thinks, just why did it take so long for him to get the firewood? He thinks, since when did Gintoki and Sakamoto talk in such low tones?
Zura doesn’t notice him slipping from the fire, leaving his pipe smoking beside it. Even if he had, he’d probably think nothing of it; Zura is weary, and Zura is trusting (and Takasugi knows it’ll be the second that damns him).
Their voices are quiet, yes, but like a true invasive species, he hears every word through the termite-holes.
“ – know why you’re telling me this.”
“Ahaha, who else am I gonna tell, Kojima? Ahaha, if we could win a war by masturbation alone – ”
“I’m trying to get well here, oi. I don’t want to hear sick things.”
“Ahaha, sorry. It’s just – you know, it’s getting pretty serious.”
“I don’t have time for Takasugi’s shit.” Oho. It appears he’s the secret of the hour. He could blush. “Why aren’t you talking to Zura about this?”
“Ahah. You know why I can’t talk to Zura. Besides that, he’s got enough on his shoulders.”
“Haah? Besides what? I been listenin’ to Ibaraki go on about all the hundreds of beautiful women he had last weekend, I’m at my limit for nonsensical bullshit, here.”
“Ahaha, you know, for a smart guy, you can be really dense sometimes, Kintoki.” He hears a shifting of feet, someone moving. Sakamoto’s voice lowers even more. “I can’t do anything to help him. Zura can’t do anything to help him, either.”
A heavy snort comes from Gintoki. Luckily, it covers his own. “And you think I can?”
“Someone’s gonna have to. It’s not gonna get easier.” It’s unlike Sakamoto to be serious for so long. He hears nothing for another few moments, wonders if this ridiculous clandestine meeting is really just about his bad attitude. The smell of rotted wood and sweat is just beginning to overcome his curiosity when Sakamoto suddenly prompts, “Are you sure you don’t want to come with me?”
A respected captain, a fellow drinker, a worthy opponent, a friend to anyone with a bar tab, a war brother? No – a fucking deserting piece of shit.
“Haah? You’re going tonight? That was fast.” And, what’s this, the traitorous conspirer who helped him slip out. Takasugi has to dig his fingernails into his palms to keep still. If losing his eye taught him anything, it was patience (it was the need for control).
“Ahaha, it must be because I don’t want to lose my nerve. Tomorrow morning.”
“Shit. You’re really serious about this.”
“Aa. I need to fight in my own way.”
“Did you tell Zura?”
The next pause can only be identified as guilty. “Ahaha, not exactly.”
“Ahuh. I wouldn’t worry about hurting his feelings.”
“Ahaha, it’s really just that I’m worried he’ll convince me to stay. Our Zura’s pretty persuasive when he gets worked up about something!”
“Well, he’s going to get worked up about this.” A put-upon sigh echoes through abandoned cavities. “…And yeah, I’m sure. It’s not that I wanna – keep – you know, it’s just – Zura, and – ”
“Ahaha, I get it, I get it. Don’t strain anything, you’re an invalid, you know.” The wood creaks beneath shifting feet. “Take care of him for me, yeah?”
An edge creeps into the perm’s voice. “Hn? What’s this about? Are you making last requests?”
“Ahaha! You make it sound like I’m not coming back!”
“Ch. You won’t last a day.”
“We’ll see, we’ll see, ahahaha!”
“And you won’t last any longer here if you keep bothering me while I’m trying to sleep, oi!”
“Alright, alright! Ahahaha. Get some beauty sleep! Ahaha, you of all people need it!” As Sakamoto starts climbing down, another sandal hits him in the hand. He falls the rest of the way down, landing like a sack full of crap onto the packed earth. “Ahaha, shit, ow, ahaha, I hope your dick freezes and falls off, you asshole!”
He hears Zura rushing over, cursing and fussing, spits quietly at his fucking ignorance (the second would be his downfall; he’s always said it). Ah, amid all this conspiring, he’s left his pipe burning without company for too long.
But a sudden low voice has him freezing.
“If I cared what you heard, I would have knocked him down sooner.” Takasugi looks up, and red eyes bore right through termite holes. For the briefest moment, in the dark, he has to remind himself that the Shiroyasha – that Gintoki – is not so much bigger than him. “Aa, but if you say a word to Zura, we’re gonna have a problem.”
A sneer comes quickly to his lips at the notion. “He’s going to find out his cherished friend is a coward soon enough.”
“You’re way off base if you think I care about that,” comes the low drawl. “But what else is new, aa, Shortsuke?”
Sakamoto doesn’t look surprised to see him, the next morning. It puts him in a bad mood to start with – he has never liked being predictable.
“Out for a brisk stroll in the blizzard?” he quips. “Hoh, very enterprising. Do you want some company?”
“Ahaha, it’s not like you to offer company,” grins Sakamoto. Neither of them are idiots; the other man wears everything he has, a single bag of belongings slung over his back. He looks pathetic; but then, he has been a disappointment and a waste of time. Understanding, in the long run, has bred only contempt.
“You never had as many scars as us,” he responds idly. “Now we know the reason.”
“Ahaha, the honorable man doesn’t count scars, does he?”
“The cowardly man does not wear them.” He is growing tired of this more quickly than he’d thought. “Naa, what makes you think I won’t chase you down?”
“You’ll wait to see what Zura does,” shrugs the other. His easy stance is infuriating. “Ahaha, even with that ridiculous face of his, we all kind of follow his lead.”
“I don’t see you following anything, Tatsuma.” The name is a curse; he never uses it.
Another shrug, another smile. “I guess that’s what makes it my way, not yours, huh?” Sakamoto lifts the brim of his wide hat, suddenly serious again. “Hey, if you make it out of here alive, ahaha, come find me, okay?”
“I’ll kill you.” He is pleasantly surprised that he means it.
“Maybe, maybe. It could be that I end up killing you, ahaha! Things change. People change.” Before Takasugi can respond with another sneer, another snarl, the other man goes on, “It’s probably going to get pretty exciting the coming years. So keep in touch – I’d like to see an exciting guy like you around.”
“Deserters, from this point forward,” Zura tells the men, voice even, “will be tracked down, captured, and beheaded.” He sits so neat, so straight, his feet squarely underneath his body. “There will be no trials. There will be no exceptions.” The lines of his jaw, his neck, his kimono, make perfectly complimentary angles. “No mercy will be shown to traitors. Desertion means death.”
With ash from his pipe staining the tatami, Takasugi takes no joy in watching Zura’s heart harden, in watching him reposition his shoulders under a burden that is already too heavy.
But he does take joy in watching him grow more alone.
The dead of winter closes its jaws on them, crunches their bones in teeth of ice. There are no inns; there are no rations; there are no horses. The Amanto encampment they’ve spent weeks chiseling away at in the freezing slush gets reinforcements from off planet, doubling their number. The samurai, on the other hand, get news of towns overrun, of food stocks burned and people gone missing. The Shogun has been making alarming noises lately.
The government is scared, the people are furious. The samurai class is steadily growing, if you only count the numbers of the deceased.
He breaks down just once, after another battle they could not afford to fight. He kneels among the dead, back curved into a perfect half-circle with agonyhungerdespair, his hakimachi smashed into the mud.
Surprising for everyone involved, Zura is there for him, in his strange and simple way. When the other man touches him, easing the clench out of his limbs and smoothing the guts out of his face, he comes back to his body. It isn’t a blessing; everything aches, everything is soaked through, they’re covered in viscous. One or both of them is bleeding; he can’t tell who it is. It is this that comforts him, makes his breath stop hitching horribly in the back of his throat. The smell of Katsura’s wasted blood on his hands and face is his to possess (haunting is not his tendency, more suited to those with long hair and hopeful mouths, but he dabbles as he wishes).
It’s not how Sensei would have been there for him. His words do not make him feel strong, or secure, or capable of seeing this long and painful journey to the end. They do not bring up out of the mud; they do not change his angry, charred heart. Katsura’s voice isn’t sturdy, and the arms that wrap around his shoulders are lacerated and trembling with fatigue.
“Everything comes to an end,” is all that Zura promises him. It’s enough, just barely.
That moment becomes a promise he keeps in his breast. At least they will all die together, he thinks, and for the coming weeks is twice as fearsome as he has ever been.
This memory, Takasugi sometimes wishes were a lie, a nostalgic exaggeration. But wishes and longing are nothing but more tinder in this ruined world, where suicide pacts come far too few (and you can’t help but remember your first, they say). He does not forgive as a general rule, but this is where even he acknowledges Katsura has left his most deeply scored mark.
(No mercy will be shown to traitors. Desertion means death.)
Maybe it would have been different, if it’d been after a battle. It happens all the time, and from what he can tell, it’s worth more than boring lyrical poetry about soft-footed women back home. It’s not exactly erotic – hearing some pair of tired soldiers panting in the dark, the clumsy shifting of hands and hips, the hiss and curse of agitated wounds. But it’s cheaper than whores, and women kept safe in pretty cages do not know what it’s like to challenge the unknown.
So they trade feminine curves for understanding and sweat together in unattended corners, in ruined fields and empty houses. They attend roughly to one another after a battle when they should be attended to carefully by a medic, and they do everything but sleep in the wee hours of the morning when they should be resting their drained bodies.
(Even in the face of a mass burial, a body wants to live.)
It’s different when he finds them, during a lull, tangled like fucking lovers against a low open window sill, Zura’s hands braced on the shoulders of a demon. Their breathing isn’t the harsh, adrenaline high of we almost we almost we almost just; Katsura’s exhales are as slow and concentrated as his movements in Gintoki’s lap. Gintoki’s hands don’t grip to bruise, but to guide, and Takasugi can smell the sweat of a pleasure that has been hours in the making. He notes, with some detachment, that Zura’s pale back isn’t perfect anymore, not like it was an age ago; alongside the dark rivers of hair are the scars of hasty stitch-jobs and vibrant puddles of color bruising the skin. (His desire runs darker now; the imperfection is no deterrent.)
Katsura raises a hand to support himself against the wooden pane, murmuring something no doubt honest, no doubt warm. And those gentle kindnesses are wasted, washing over the careless ears beneath silver hair. In the arc of Katsura’s shivering body, red eyes catch green at the doorway.
If he had been in Gintoki’s position, he would have wanted to slay any intruder (isn’t that what they were supposed to be doing, hoh?). He would have wrapped Zura up in his arms, selfish and furious, and hidden his broken perfection away from prying eyes. He would have cursed and threatened, jealously protected the only thing left for him to rely on (the only thing connecting him to the boy Yoshida Shouyou knew). He would have fucking cared.
But the demon only looks away again, drawing Katsura down (as he always has done, as the wretched fool in his lap will always beg him to).
It was never just love. It was never just hate. It was never just fuck you and never just will you let me. It was never just rivalry and never just friendship. It was not simple spite, and it was not simple obsession. It was always cruel, and it was always tender. It was never pure, but it was never anything but.
Whatever it was, whatever it wasn’t, it was never going to be returned.
The last battle leaves them in shreds if they’re lucky, in graves if they’re not. They can’t evacuate the men fast enough, with the first spring rain turning roads to rivers and escape routes to clay burials.
The gun ships and the beam cannons force more than their surrender; they force the last vestige of old Japan, the samurai class, to its knees. The new age will not be a kind one (but then, he’s known this since they were children).
He doesn’t see what becomes of the tainted, worthless, fool of a man he’d wanted to die beside. He doesn’t see what becomes of Shiroyasha, whose immortality should be running up.
What Takasugi does see is a yawning mouth of hopelessness and hatred, a twisted and broken world that took everything from him on a whim.
No one is there to see exactly what becomes of him.
Weeks later, the wind whispers things to him.
The Shiroyasha fled, it tells him in a hush. He stepped on his dying comrades abandoning the battlefield.
Katsura is missing, it hisses. He was last seen at a temple in the countryside, badly wounded.
The stories overlap and conflict as they are wont; sometimes, Katsura is dead. Gintoki carried Katsura from the field. Katsura killed Gintoki. Gintoki was beheaded by the Shogun himself. Katsura is planning a revolution. Gintoki and Katsura are in hiding. Gintoki gave Katsura to the authorities. Gintoki was captured. Katsura was exiled.
He whispers his intentions back to the wind, knowing they will carry.
It is by coincidence that he finds Katsura, although the stubborn man never believes it. A tiresome truth to be told; he has grown weary of aching after Katsura some time ago.
“We found him lying in the side-street,” his man informs him. They are not war-brothers, and he can smell the wormlike desire for approval, the rot of fear. He is not a scavenger, and it turns his stomach. “The blade at his side – ”
“Indicates he is a thief,” he responds pleasantly. “Do you honestly think this man could be a samurai? Look how limply he hangs, no resistance in his limbs. Come now – don’t be foolish.”
“Ah… my apologies, Takasugi-san!” Takasugi watches him contemplate a mistake in the making. “At very least, his sword is very fine – ”
He spits, “It’s worthless,” and the thug visibly moves back. Good. “The warrior who cannot keep his own blade is inferior, and his tools are imbued with that failure.” Burning red eyes flash in his mind. Sensei’s sword, rammed blade-first into the earth, reduced by a fickle, brutish creature to a staggering inferiority. He’d left it buried, like Sensei hadn’t been.
Katsura’s fever doesn’t break that day, or the next. He gets impatient; who could blame him?
“Haah,” moans Katsura sharply, eyes fluttering rapidly open. Takasugi lifts the knife away the trail it has been making in his guest’s palm.
“Hoh, you’re awake!” he rehearses. “Not a moment too soon. I was starting to tire of your company.”
“Shinsuke?” The quiet slur causes his mouth to tighten. He is shaping himself as a man no longer for familiarities; barely a breath out of him, and Katsura already both gives and expects too much. It is already hard to think of this man as Zura, anymore. “Where am I?”
“That’s your first question? Don’t be so predictable.” He realizes he is crowding his patient, but does not lean back. Katsura is sweating through his sheets below him, and despite everything, it is making him feel – impertinent. “Kyoto.”
Exhaustion etches across the other man’s brow. His bangs are too long, matted to either side of his face. “Shit.”
“Were you going somewhere? Don’t let me detain you.”
“Edo,” he croaks. That’s more than 300 kilometers away by foot, and he knows now that this fever was brought on by exhaustion. Without anyone to stop him, Katsura doesn’t stop. It’s a quality both attractive and pathetic. “There… are men there.”
“Oho, have you switched professions already? If you’re looking for clients – ”
“Gathering, for the resistance,” he finishes pointedly, and only Katsura could manage such a tone half delirious and drenched in his own fluids.
“There are men gathering for the resistance here, as well,” he returns. His face is complacent, but his pulse is racing. For once, Katsura has not disappointed him. “Namely, myself.”
Katsura’s laugh is more like a death rattle. “I had meant – good men.”
Where is your good man now? His oaths were false? Your care misplaced? Say it is not so.
“Beggars cannot be choosers …Kotarou.”
Being fugitives is different than being war brothers, but they make a more than passable team. Katsura is able to reach the angry, broken men he is not, with his calm, lacquered voice and trusting eyes. (He’s always been a bleeding heart, and sharks invariably swarm blood, no matter how tired.) They keep the brims of their hats low, their swords close, and their feet ever in motion. Samurai are not wanted anywhere, by anyone, but they become adept at the logistics of hidden spaces.
A following comes naturally to them. To some, they are legends and heroes, and these men pledge their lives and swords instantly (swearing that they were just about to start the uprising themselves). To most, they are criminals and liabilities. Even Katsura’s good looks and his own silver tongue cannot ascertain them dry bedding or a cup of rice to share; but they sleep in shifts and eat day old porridge (and it is almost like war-sweet-war). Their games of hide and seek have grown up along with their long limbs, and the authorities never count down quite fast enough.
Sometimes, Takasugi still plays sweet music for his never-beloved, plucking lightly at his shamisen as he never has at the other’s kimono. But Katsura has grown mournful since the war, and his drink does not leave him burning brightly and swaying in the wind.
“Keep playing,” he still orders, but he does not fall asleep easily at Takasugi’s side.
Months pass, and they do not talk about Gintoki, not once.
Inevitably, they deteriorate. It isn’t surprising; they have been forced together out of necessity, like animals in a cage, and Takasugi has never wanted Katsura at his side for their compatibility. They are not oil and water, but fire and water, and Katsura brings the tide crashing in with every self-righteous step. (Of the elements, fire is the most honest.) The breaking point comes again and again, and Takasugi begins to take it for granted that Zura, who defines himself by the roles he plays for others, will not leave him.
Another night, another disagreement; he finds himself wondering how Gintoki could have possibly faked enough compassion to keep in favor with Zura’s sea-storm heart.
“We are not murderers,” he snaps. “We are samurai.”
“Ronin, actually,” Takasugi corrects. “Or have you taken up with another man? Zuraa.”
“This is no time for joking!”
“Then why do you constantly say such absurd things?” His voice turns sharp, and he leans across the kotatsu. Katsura doesn’t back away. They are just dumb animals, rams locking horns. One of them is bound to get pushed off a cliff sooner or later. “Have you forgotten how glutted with blood your blade became, in the war? Did you think we could have a bloodless revolution? Even you can’t be that naïve.”
“This is not a question of ideals! It is different in a war, with men who have chosen to fight. You gave me faulty information, expecting me to raze a residential area in hopes of one group’s death!”
“Information is not faulty just because you do not understand the utterly basic ramifications of staging a revolt – ”
“There were civilians caught in the blast yesterday – innocent people – ”
“Hah! This is why I say you are naïve. No one is innocent.”
Katsura barks a bitter laugh. “The babe in his mother’s arms is sullied?”
“Who would be despicable enough to bring life to such a decadent world?” He should have tended to his kiseru; he wants to feel ash and heat on his fingertips. “He is sullied by the sins of his fathers. It’s a life better off unlived.”
“Every day you sound more like a madman. You deem nothing worth saving. I’ve had enough of this.” When Katsura starts to get up, Takasugi lashes across the table, hand choking the other’s wrist.
“What would you have us do differently? Naa, you’re sounding awfully moderate again, Zura.”
Cold fury flashes across Zura’s face. He’s not sure if it’s his words or his touch. “I’m not the only one disturbed by what happened yesterday, Takasugi.”
“Hohh? Mutinous as well? And I assume that you and these other disturbed ones, aha, you have all been talking very quietly together.”
“I can’t do this anymore.” The sudden pronoun is curious. Zura, with his uselessly formal tongue, favors it’s and one’s and we’s as if he is afraid of personal desire (maybe he is – once burned, twice as flammable, they say).
A heavy pause follows, and then Katsura’s stance forcibly softens. “You’re not well, Shinsuke,” he tells him, and oh, Katsura is never crueler than when he thinks he is being kind. (It’s taken him so long, too long, but he knows better now; he knows better than to think Katsura would ever give him his kindness.)
“You have forfeited your right to speak such words to me,” he snarls back. He feels like laughing, spitting in his face. He feels like wrapping a fist in his hair and fucking that lean body until it breaks. He feels like running him through. He will feel heat, he will feel ash. “You’re a hypocrite. You’re worse than Tatsuma – you’re worse than fucking Sakata, at least they had the balls to choose a fucking side – ”
The uppercut is unexpected. Katsura is not a man given to sudden violence; he supposes he has a habit of bringing out the best in people. “I’ve chosen a side,” comes the declaration off of bloodied knuckles. “It’s just not yours.”
And the waves crash upon the shore.
Life, sullied as it is, goes on.
“Not to sound cliché,” he tells him, sake cup poised before his fangs, “but I’m very impressed with your work. You come highly recommended!”
The man in the sunglasses cocks his head very subtly. His expression has not faltered once throughout their meeting; not when Takasugi showed up forty-five minutes late, not when he abused Bansai’s tab, and not when he slammed his sword onto the bar top.
“Is this so?” That stuffy speech should be grating, but Takasugi finds it amusing (for now). “Assuredly, I am surprised. Whom was it, that directed you to me?”
“The non-survivors.” He pats himself down for a match, finds himself lacking. A spark lights in Bansai's hands, is held out dutifully. Yes, he has a good feeling about this one. “You’ve left quite a lot of loud messes around town, Bansai. I’ll admit – I’m eager to have you.”
Bansai turns out to be a sound investment. He’s more than just a blood-lusting thug (this is not to discredit the rest of his assembled team, of course – the Kihetai are dead, long live the Kihetai).
He’s different; he possesses a quick, analytical mind, adaptable to every situation. He can keep up with Takasugi’s – aha, unpredictable temperaments – and his professional drive and passion for his work commend him. He’s neither a devotee nor a war brother, somewhere aloof and indefinable, beyond reach of taint and influence. He burns slow, but he burns all the same; most important of all, he will never fall to sorrow before a grave, and he will play sweet music for him, whenever requested.
Basically, he’s everything Zura should have been.
Edo is not safe for much longer. He’s happily become more beast than man, followed Katsura’s scent (gunpowder, sea salt, and metal). And what other stench should he find lingering, within his fellow revolutionary’s den?
He’s traded in steel for wood, calls himself an ‘Odd Jobs’ man now. Takasugi doesn’t know which is funnier, but he does know that no matter the color you paint it, a demon will always need to feast.
While everything is burning, he thinks back to boats made of leaves and twigs. He thinks of wartime suicide missions and the price of inglorious revolution. He knew it then, as a child with green-stained fingers, and he knows it even keener now, all charred black around the edges.
The two of them cut down some of the Harusume’s most terrible fighters without pausing for breath. He hadn’t truly thought the worthless pirates stood a chance; heads were simply an easy and universal bargaining tool.
Their second death pact is too little too late, but he’ll welcome and encourage their animosity all the same. Zura, the liar and the hypocrite, will need to be, like a tedious chore, broken more – maybe he’ll finally elicit the hate he wants, when he forces Zura’s calloused hands to shovel Gintoki’s graveyard soil. (On that day, he’ll play the shamisen sweetly for him, one last time.)
He understands himself but little these days, caring more for the beast inside than the man that twisted life and hateful love has all but etched away. Perhaps he has always been waiting for this moment, when Katsura’s distant ship finally made it to the ocean.
And so, let him go; Takasugi has always been destined for the rocks.